Five mythic poems

Rodin photo for 5 mythic poems





Up Lake Shore Drive, I ride on my charger, black as a deep cave.
You don’t see me, commuter, too dull with science.

Onto Hollywood Avenue, then Ridge Avenue, then onto Clark Street.

Children see me. Ignore me. They know.

If you are a dancer, a painter, a singer,
don’t look my way. You have eyes,
but I will lash them with my whip of human spine.

Onto Granville, then to Paulina.
Up the street.

I arrive. You die.

Note: The Dullahan is a sort of Irish version of the Headless Horseman. I wondered how he’d do in present-day Chicago. Quite well, I discovered.

Continue reading

Thanks for things that go wrong — then right

During a softball game in the summer of 1981, a lively and otherwise intelligent redhead slid into first base and broke her leg. (Don’t ask.)

Meanwhile, a tall and slightly older newspaper editor, after years of ignoring his health, began to have problems that led him to quit cigarettes, stop drinking coffee and lose 40 pounds.

It was not a very delightful time for either of them. Yet, their temporary infirmities led them to the same religious retreat where they met.

And Cathy and I have been together ever since.

When it comes to Thanksgiving, the focus is usually on the blessings of life, the good things that we have and that we have experienced.

Think of the table set for the holiday meal, with its savory turkey and all the luscious side dishes and diet-be-damned desserts. It’s a reminder that Thanksgiving is about a bountiful harvest.

Think of the grace that’s said at the table. It’s about how good it is for family and friends to gather together in this way. It’s about the goodness of having a decent home, rewarding jobs and strong schools.


Things that go wrong

But I’m here today to tell you that, when I think of Thanksgiving, I also think of the things that go wrong — and then right.

The health problems that my future wife and I suffered more than three decades ago were no fun to endure. But they slowed us both down enough so that, when we met, we actually saw each other. We didn’t whiz past in a hurry to get something done or get somewhere else. Instead, we were moving at a more deliberate pace, and were able to take each other in.

And fall in love.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting that I go looking for pain and suffering. Life brings enough of that for me without my going out in search of it.

Continue reading

Pickwick Lane and my mistakes

Ten years ago, I wrote a story in the Chicago Tribune about one of the oddest wrinkles in the Chicago cityscape — Pickwick Lane.

It is a short, nine-foot-wide private alley, hidden in the heart of the Loop, and it dead-ends in a three-story building at 22 E. Jackson Blvd. With its cobblestone paving — at least, that’s the paving it had a decade ago — the byway looked more like Harry Potter’s Diagon Alley than anything one would expect to find in present-day Chicago.

Pickwick Lane (Dennis McClendon)

Pickwick Lane (Dennis McClendon)

In recent months, that three-story building, often vacant over the past half century, has been in the news, opening as an Asado Coffee Co. location.

And, now, well, it’s time for me to set the record straight. In the years since I wrote my tiny 325-word story, I have come to realize that I made several errors. The main one is that the present building is NOT the original stable, and it is NOT a survivor of the Great Chicago Fire of 1871.


The right story, as far as I can tell

Here’s what’s I’ve come to find out through further research, and, as far as I know at the moment, this is accurate: Continue reading

Book review: “Lust” by Simon Blackburn

blackburn.lustMost of us find it uncomfortable to speak about lust. Philosopher Simon Blackburn is no exception, even though he lectured on the subject at the New York Public Library and expanded his remarks into a short, spritely book Lust, published in 2004 by Oxford University Press.

In fact, Blackburn spends five of his book’s 133 pages, explaining why he shouldn’t have to take up the task, including his age (about 60 at the time), his being a male (in an era when women dominate gender discussions) and his British nationality.

We English are renowned for our cold blood and temperate natures, and our stiff upper lips….Other nationalities are amazed that we English reproduce at all. One cannot imagine an Englishman lecturing on lust in France.

Those sentences capture Blackburn’s witty, playful tone in Lust, and so does his discussion of the Cynics of ancient Greece who “thought too much song and dance was made about the whole thing.” Diogenes, one of the leading Cynics, argued that there was no good reason why shame should be attached to sex.

Rising to the challenge, Diogenes’ pupil Crates and his wife Hipparchia are credibly reported to have copulated first on the steps of the temple as they got married, and thereafter repeatedly and happily in public.

Yes, well. One wonders if such copulations should be classified as lust. My guess is that, philosophers being philosophers, any making-whoopee between Mr. and Mrs. Crates on the temple steps had more to do with the Mr.’s reason and desire to make an intellectual point than with desire plain and simple. Continue reading

Book review: “The Night in Question” by Tobias Wolff

A friend of mine is very big on stories having a beginning, a middle and an end.

The 15 stories in The Night in Question by Tobias Wolff don’t fit that at all.

Some have stutter-step endings that seem to go one way and then another and maybe a third, such as in “Casualty.” An American soldier in Vietnam is fatally wounded. A comrade grieves, or thinks he does. A nurse on a C141 med evac has trouble coping when she realizes the soldier she has been caring for is dead.

During a lull later on she stopped and leaned her forehead against a porthole [in the airplane]. The sun was just above the horizon. The sky was clear, no clouds between her and the sea below, whole name she loved to hear the pilots say — the East China Sea. Through the crazed Plexiglas she could make out some small islands and the white glint of a ship in the apex of its wake. Someday she was going to take passage on one of those ships, by herself or maybe with some friends…When she closed her eyes she could see the whole thing, perfectly

Many have endings that don’t really end, but open a new door through which the reader can get a glimpse of what is coming next. Continue reading

Book review: “Women of the Way: Discovering 2500 Years of Buddhist Wisdom” by Sallie Tisdale

A confession: I read Women of the Way: Discovering 2500 Years of Buddhist Wisdom because it was written by Sallie Tisdale. I know very little about Buddhism.

I have been an admirer of Tisdale’s writing for more than a quarter of a century, ever since I wrote a review of her book Lot’s Wife: Salt and the Human Condition for the Chicago Tribune.

That book, like most of her work, was, in essence, a book-long essay — in that case, about a common, everyday object that we don’t usually give much thought to. Others include The Best Thing I Ever Tasted: The Secret of Food (2000) and Talk Dirty to Me: An Intimate Philosophy of Sex (1994).

This book isn’t like those.

tisdale --- women of the way

This book is a sort of Buddhist version of the Lives of the Saints books that, as a Catholic, I’m very familiar with. It contains the thumbnail biographies of 60 or so important women in the history of Buddhism.

Tisdale, who was training for the Buddhist priesthood when her book was published in 2006, writes that she has studied as much of the historical record as she could in order to write these profiles, but, often, much was missing. Women teachers and nuns have been given short shrift by the Buddhist establishment — which is to say, men — for much of the history of the religion. So Tisdale filled in the gaps as best she could.

This is not a work of scholarship itself, but a narrative history, using known facts in historical context to tell the story of a life — of many lives. I have used what facts I can find to place the life of each woman in a proper context of time and culture, using her words and her teachers’ words, the events of their time, wherever it is known. But I have had to use my imagination to find the lives of these women. For the imagining, I don’t apologize.

sallie tisdaleIn her introduction, Tisdale focuses on the many ways that male Buddhists have treated and continue to treat female believers as second-class citizens of the faith. That’s all very familiar to someone like me whose Catholic religion, as defined by its male leaders, does the same thing.

One Buddhist tale, for instance, asserts that women prevent others from achieving rebirth and, thus, are “the source of hell…The dead snake and dog are detestable, but women are even more detestable than they are.”

And there’s the Buddhist saying: “The best thing about Buddhist heaven is that it has no women.”

So, there really hasn’t been a book like Women of the Way before. It’s an attempt to recover lives and stories that have been ignored, forgotten, lost.

As I said above, I don’t understand Buddhism. I have only vague impressions of the faith’s core beliefs. So, to adherents of the religion, I offer my apologies for any erroneous statements I make in this review.

To give a sense of Women of the Way, I have focused on Tisdale’s tales of six of the 60-plus women. Each section involves a longish quote from the book. I don’t know how representative these quotes are of Buddhism, but they resonate with me.

In part, that’s because they portray women who are, at times, fierce and tranquil and searching and finding. And also because their sense of the transcendent echoes, in some way, mine. And also because Tisdale’s writing is so luminous.

Here they are: Continue reading

Book review: “Building Lives: Constructing Rites and Passages” by Neil Harris

Humans name their babies and their pets and their battleships. And their buildings.

I’ve lived in Chicago buildings by the names of 135 N. Leamington Ave. and 7943 S. California Ave. and 1129 W. Wellington Ave. Addresses, after all, are simply another kind of name. We need to be able to tell one from another.

Large buildings, though, are often given fancier names in addition to their street addresses, notes cultural historian Neil Harris in his delightfully eye-opening 1999 book Building Lives: Constructing Rites and Passages.

In the case of office buildings, the name can testify to the size, wealth, and prestige of a major corporation. Speculative structures frequently entice major tenants by the promise of naming the new building after them. As a major space-user, the renting corporation reaps the additional publicity.

The same principle is at work when the naming rights for a publicly financed sports stadium are sold. U.S. Cellular Field where the Chicago White Sox play baseball is an advertisement for a wireless telecommunications network — a corporation that was willing to pay $68 million to turn the baseball park into a kind of billboard for 20 years.

The name given to a baby usually doesn’t have this monetary aspect to it although parents do consider how the name will influence the way wider world views the child.. (“Nathaniel Hawthorne” has a nice ring to it, but Marion Morrison — later changed to John Wayne — isn’t quite as euphonious.)

More commonly, the name given to a baby is a way to remember and honor a relative (e.g., I’m named for one of my grandfathers, and my son is named for one of his) or a public figure (e.g., former football player Roosevelt Grier). And the same, Harris writes, holds true for a goodly number of buildings.

In many cities office buildings bear the titles that previous structures on the same site once bore, or memorialize the owners of houses and homesteads that once stood there. New York’s Everett Building, or 200 Park South, memorializes the Everett House, one of the city’s major hotels, erected fifty years earlier. In Cleveland, a series of Williamson Buildings were opened on the Public Square, on the site of the Williamson family homestead.

In Chicago, the first McCormick Place was named for Robert R. McCormick, the Chicago Tribune publisher who spearheaded efforts for its erection. When it burned down, the structure that replaced it was given the same name.

The original McCormick Place (left) and its replacement

The original McCormick Place (left) and its replacement

And, as with humans, there are names, and there are nicknames. “In Chicago,” Harris writes, “what is now the Amoco Building, once the Standard Oil Building [and now the Aon Building], is familiarly called Big Stan, in distinction from Big John, the John Hancock, a few blocks to its north.”


Perhaps the best example of this is the iconic Flatiron Building in New York. Its builders wanted to call it the Fuller Building but were overruled by the public. Indeed — Harris doesn’t mention this — the “Fuller” name never had a chance. People began calling it the Flatiron Building while it was under construction because of its similarity to that household appliance.

The flatiron Building in New York was christened by the public while it was being built even though its owners wanted it to be called the Fuller Building.

The flatiron Building in New York was christened by the public while it was being built even though its owners wanted it to be called the Fuller Building.


“Sets of events”

Names are only one way that buildings are like people. Like me or you, a building is created, exists and then disappears. That’s the metaphor at the heart of Building Lives.

This isn’t the usual way we look at buildings, “the largest, most expensive, and most permanent products of human labor.” The tendency has been to view them through an architectural lens, as works of craft or art, or a commercial lens, as profit-making or –losing machines.

Yet, Harris argues that there is great benefit in studying them as “entities with life stories that can be as revealing as individual biographies.”

Further, he writes that “examining buildings through their life stages and modes of representation encourages us to conceive of them not simply as places but as sets of events, affixing a temporal dimension to their existence that is not simply an add-on but fundamental to their nature.”

That idea — that a building is a set of events — is attractive. Continue reading

Book review: “Harold Washington and the Civil Rights Legacy” by Christopher Chandler

chandler.washingtonChristopher Chandler, a former journalist at the Chicago Sun-Times and WBBM-TV (Channel 2), was an important press aide for Harold Washington.

He organized news conferences, planned media strategy and dealt directly with reporters and editors during Washington’s 1983 campaign to become Chicago’s first black mayor and then during the initial two years of his tenure on the fifth floor of City Hall.

Yet, in his memoir Harold Washington and the Civil Rights Legacy, Chandler writes, “I only had one serious conversation about politics with Harold Washington.

Following a news conference on the Southeast Side, as the two men waited for their ride back downtown, Washington asked Chandler who his favorite politician was.

“Bobby Kennedy.”

Washington was surprised. “I never understood the Kennedys,” he said.

As for his own favorite politician, Washington named Paul Robeson, the athlete, singer, actor and political activist who, as it happened, was one of the heroes of Chandler’s mother.



Christopher Cahndler in 2011

Christopher Cahndler in 2011

Chandler, a white man, came from the sort of mid-20th century American family that described itself as progressive. His father, a clergyman, and the rest of his relatives were committed to the cause of civil rights.

So committed, in fact, that, in April, 1968, his parents and other family members were living on Fifth Avenue in the middle of the West Side ghetto. “They were part of a project by the nearby Ecumenical Institute to plant ‘stakes’ in the neighborhood to help bring about revitalization,” writes Chandler.

When riots broke out following the assassination of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., his family had some scary moments, including threats by six black men, one of whom carried a gun. Terrorized, the family members eventually found a way out to safety.

Later, his father was among a group of clergy who asked Mayor Richard J. Daley to rescind his infamous order to “shoot to kill” arsonists. “Daley never forgave dad for preaching to him,” Chandler writes. “He referred to my father afterward as ‘that rioter’ and succeeded in forcing him out of town within a few months.”

It’s a bit frustrating that Chandler doesn’t explain how that happened. It’s one of many such incidents in his book that Chandler mentions but fails to elaborate on. As a self-published book, available at, Harold Washington and the Civil Rights Legacy is somewhat rough around the edges at times.



Yet, the book is valuable in providing insight into the experiences of the members of Washington’s coalition whom Chandler describes as progressive whites, black nationalists and political radicals. True-believers, in other words. Continue reading

Book review: “Tried by War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief” by James McPherson

In July, 1864, Gen. Jubal Early and his 15,000 Confederate troops were again raiding the North and threatening the federal capital of Washington, D.C.

It was a maneuver aimed at forcing Gen. U.S. Grant to weaken his siege of the Southern capital of Richmond by rushing soldiers north. Grant sent some surplus troops, enough to block Early but only that.

Abraham Lincoln asked him for more — not just to better protect Washington but even more to attempt to trap and “destroy the enemy’s force.” Grant complied.

As the new units arrived, they immediately began skirmishing with Early’s men near Fort Stevens, north of the city, and Lincoln went to watch.

The six-foot-four-inch president wearing his top hat made a large target as he peered over the parapet at enemy sharpshooters. As John Hay recorded the incident, “A soldier roughly ordered him to get down or he would have his head knocked off.”

Tradition has it that the soldier was Capt. Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., a future U.S. Supreme Court Justice. And what he said was: “Get down, you fool!”

The cover of "Tried by War" includes a photograph of McClellan (far left) and Lincoln at the Antietam battlefiel.d

The cover of “Tried by War” includes a photograph of McClellan (far left) and Lincoln at the Antietam battlefiel.d

In Tried by War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief, James McPherson, one of the premier Civil War historians of this age, notes that there’s no proof one way or the other that Holmes said what he’s supposed to have said. But there’s no question that someone yelled at Lincoln, and no question that he was in danger.

The next day, as the Sixth Corps was preparing to drive Early away, Lincoln returned to Fort Stevens. A Union officer was shot while standing close to the president. This time General Wright himself ordered Lincoln to take cover (more politely than Holmes).


“The slows”

The story says a lot. Continue reading

Voting for wonder

I vote for wonder.

Amid the mudslinging of political campaigns, despite the reports of all that is going wrong across the world, I vote for joy and amazement at the richness of life.

Photo by Remi  Lanvin

Photo by Remi Lanvin

Many days, I see the sunshine strike the red bricks of the apartment building across the street, and it fills my day with beauty.  I am astonished at how green the grass is in my back yard after a rain.

And I am touched by people.  Like the woman who, today, reached out to help an elderly man with a walker get off a bus.  Or the cop — I saw the TV report, and you probably did, too — who gave brand new boots to a homeless man.

Yes, I know there is much hardship in the world.  I know there are people whose lives are disrupted by wars and epidemics and terror.  I know there are people who live with very little to eat.  I know there are fears of drought and violence, dread of oppression and plague.

I don’t ignore these realities.  I recognize the need to face them and solve them to whatever extent is possible.

But I will not let the evils of life frame my experience.  I shun cynicism.


Kept keeping on

I vote for wonder and joy and amazement and compassion.  And here’s why: Continue reading

Book review: “Anne Frank: The Book, The Life, The Afterlife” by Francine Prose

In Amsterdam, on the sunny and otherwise quiet morning of Friday, August 4, 1944, a car pulled up in front of the Opekta warehouse at 263 Prinsengracht.

That is all one needs to write, and already the reader knows who was hiding in the attic and the fate about to befall them.

These might easily have been the opening lines of American novelist Francine Prose’s complex, ferociously affectionate and tough-minded 2009 book Anne Frank: The Book, The Life, The Afterlife.

prose - anne frank

This non-fiction book is a work of reportage, literary analysis, cultural criticism and biography. It is a work in which Prose details her profound respect for Anne Frank’s brilliance as a writer and delves deeply into the troubled and often troubling history of her diary.

But these lines don’t come until page 63, and, by this point, Prose has already written about Anne Frank’s birth in Frankfort and her Jewish family’s flight to the Netherlands to escape the rise of the Nazis in Germany.

She has written about the decision of Anne’s family and four other Jews to go into hiding in the attic of the warehouse on Prinsengracht. And about how Anne’s diary recorded their daily life in the attic over a period of two years and a month, described their personalities and quirks and pondered her growing sexuality and her attempts to make sense of a world of violence, faith, love, hate, humor and ideals.

And she has written about the fate of the family after being betrayed. And about Anne’s death at the age of 15 from typhus at the concentration camp of Bergen-Belsen in early March, 1945, a few weeks before the camp was liberated by British soldiers.


The story of the book

Now, on page 63, Prose is going back to tell the story of the book that Anne Frank wrote, the book that became known to the world as The Diary of a Young Girl.

As Prose explains, there are actually three books. Continue reading

Book review: “Rocka Million: A Manifesto for the Gutsy Micropreneur” by Sue Reardon

When I was laid off by the Chicago Tribune five and a half years ago, I lost my desk and my byline, but also the community of smart, curious and generally wacky people who had surrounded me in one way or another for more than three decades.

Not just surrounded me. But supported me, encouraged me. Gave me answers to knotty questions that came up. Opened doors for me to new avenues of thought, new perspectives on the world. Told me stories, listened to my stories.

And gave me the feeling that, no matter what I was doing for Mother Tribune, I wasn’t alone.

That’s the message at the core of Sue Reardon’s Rocka Million: A Manifesto for the Gutsy Micropreneur.

Reardon --- rocka...smallerAs you might guess from Sue’s last name, she’s a relative, my sister-in-law. But, regardless of family ties, hers is a book with great advice for anyone who is freelancing, consulting and/or attempting to get a one-person business off the ground.

I wish it had been written five and a half years ago. I certainly would have  looked into finding the sort of coworking space — and coworking community — that Sue writes about. Continue reading

Book review: “Neverhome” by Laird Hunt

It was maybe an hour after I finished reading Laird Hunt’s new novel Neverhome that the gears of my mind suddenly shifted and fell into place..

Up until that point, I had been alternately impressed by the novel’s quietly dazzling language and irritated by much else, with irritation predominating. There was so much about the book that didn’t seem to fit together.

hunt - neverhomeNeverhome is the story of a young woman who calls herself Ash Thompson and goes off masquerading as a man to fight for the Union Army in the Civil War. But it’s not a historical novel — too much happens to Ash, she meets too many outlandish characters (even a trio of one-armed jugglers), her story takes too many sharp turns (as if it were a retelling of “The Perils of Pauline”). It’s clear that Hunt isn’t striving for realism.

And it isn’t chick lit, even though Ash and her husband Bartholomew can seem to be 21st century people stuck back in the Victorian era. After all, Ash is making her way with success in a man’s world while her stay-at-home husband, described by one character as a “little fellow,” keeps the home fires burning. Ash is stronger and a better shot than Bartholomew, but he is a better cook and a better dancer. He sews, writes like a poet, and sprinkles some French cologne on each morning before going out to work in the fields.

Despite that, Neverhome isn’t about the trials and tribulations of being a woman (or of being a modern-ish man). It turns out it’s about being a human being — although I didn’t understand that until later. Continue reading

Book review: “Man’s Search for Meaning: An Introduction to Logotherapy” by Viktor E. Frankl

Sigmund Freud once said that, if you take a widely diverse set of people and starve them, soon all their differences will fall away to be replaced by “the uniform expression of the one unstilled urge” for food.

That didn’t happen “in the filth of Auschwitz,” writes psychiatrist Viktor E. Frankl in Man’s Search for Meaning: An Introduction to Logotherapy.

There, the “individual differences” did not “blur” but, on the contrary, people became more different: people unmasked themselves, both the swine and the saints.”

Frankl’s short, powerful book, rooted in his three years in Auschwitz and other German concentration camps, is an argument against the view that human life is simply biological responses to stimuli.

In some ways, the Holocaust can be seen as the epitome of this mechanistic view. Prisoners were stripped of identity and became, as Frankl notes, simply numbers in a system of slave labor and mass murder.

This genocide was carried out by the nation of Beethoven and Goethe, of Freud and Einstein. And it has been seen as proof that great science, great art and great thinking are insubstantial and unimportant in the face of power.

Could life have any meaning for any person living in a world that produced the Holocaust?

Even more, could life have any meaning for someone, like Frankl, who found himself in a concentration camp?

The answer, Frankl asserts, is “yes.”

frankl --- man's search for meaning

The meaning of life, he writes, isn’t as an object or a thing or an idea out in the world, a system or pattern that a person fits into. Rather, it is something that each person chooses. Far from being determined by outside forces, each person has the freedom — and the responsibility — to determine the meaning of his or her life.

A human being is not one thing among others; things determine each other, but man is ultimately self-determining. What he becomes — within the limits of endowment and environment — he has made out of himself. In the concentration camps, for example, in this living laboratory and on this testing ground, we watched and witnessed some of our comrades behave like swine while others behaved like saints. Man has both potentialities within himself; which one is actualized depends on decisions but not on conditions.

Continue reading

Poem: “Rose Red”


I answer the door. The bear is there. He says, “Fear not.”
He is cold and wants a fire to sit by.
In he comes.

Snow White raises her eyebrow as we brush the snow off his fur.
We play with him. We tickle him. We cover his eyes with our small hands.

He leaves in the morning.

And comes back each night during that long winter.
Mother likes him.

“I must go away,” he says in summer. “A wicked dwarf is trying to steal my treasure.”

Some days later, my sister and I find the dwarf caught in a tree by his beard.
We cut the beard and free him. “My beautiful beard!” he yells.

All summer, we find the dwarf in one danger or another in the forest and save him.
He is always angry with us.

Now, he tells us the bear is going to kill him.

The bear appears.
The dwarf says,
“Eat the girls!”

The bear kills the dwarf with a single swipe of his claw.

Snow White raises her eyebrow as the bear turns

Patrick T. Reardon

Poem: “The Birth of the Buddha — 11.22.1949″


New born,
I shine as gold.
My blue eyes glow.

Seven steps I take,
a lotus in each footprint.

Pointing to the sky, I say:
“I am born for the welfare of the entire world.”



The shock again.
The pain, weight, edge of body.

Trek again.
Find again the balance.
Find again the rhythm.
Find again.

Chuckle at the impossibility.
Chuckle at the simplicity.



Let go.

Patrick T. Reardon

NOTE: I’m Catholic, not Buddhist. Nonetheless, I found Little Buddha to be one of the most spiritual movies I’ve ever seen. It contains a charming and transcendent scene of the birth of Siddhartha, who became the Buddha. That story is repeated in a book I happen to be reading right now, Women of the Way: Discovering 2500 Years of Buddhist Wisdom by the wonderful writer Sallie Tisdale. These are descriptions of what those present saw. But what was it like for the baby himself? And how was his experience like mine, like everyone’s? (I was born on 11.22.1949.) I also find endearing the many descriptions of Buddha laughing and smiling.

The birth scene from "Little Buddha" and the cover of "Women of the Way"

The birth scene from “Little Buddha” and the cover of “Women of the Way”

Book review: “1776” by David McCullough

Give David McCullough credit.

After a hugely successful career as a historian, he set out, in his late 60s, to write a book that was a far cry from his earlier bestsellers.

McCullough had made a name for himself by writing big books that told big stories —- stories about monumental projects, such as the Panama Canal and the Brooklyn Bridge, and about major historical figures, such as John Adams, Theodore Roosevelt and Harry Truman. These averaged about 700 pages each although his book on Truman was more than 1,100 pages long.

With 1776, though, he was attempting something that, for him, was new. First of all, he didn’t try to tell the story of the entire Revolutionary War, just a single year, the first full year of the eight-year conflict. Then, he narrowed his focus even more to look only at the ragtag army under George Washington.

Finally — and this is the greatest difference — he rooted his book in the words of a multitude of eyewitnesses on both sides of the battles. Rather than provide a sweeping saga, McCullough produced an intimate look at the experiences of the soldiers and others who lived through that year.

mccullough --- 1776

The resulting book, published in 2005, has just under 300 pages of text, or about half as many as most of his earlier works.

With so many voices, 1776 doesn’t have the breadth and momentum of McCullough’s larger works. Yet, through those voices, the reader gains a penetrating and often visceral understanding of life in the midst of a rebellion that was far from assured of success.



Here is a quick look at the war through some of those voices: Continue reading

An open letter to Chicago’s archbishop-elect Blase Cupich

Cupich_2Dear Archbishop-elect Cupich:

Eat at Burger King. By yourself. In street clothes.

If you want to get to know Chicago and those of us who live here, go to the Burger King on Lawrence Avenue, just west of Western Avenue. And, as you’re eating your Whopper, watch the Mexican-American family that is likely to be eating there.

The father is just off work, and you can see the weariness drip off of him. He’s got some menial job — in a factory, or as a bus boy, or perhaps in the kitchen at another Burger King. Those are jobs without much dignity in our American culture, but, with his family, he holds his head high, and his kids chatter with him with great love and respect.

Listen to the two gray-haired, gray-bearded Serbian guys. Unless you’re a polyglot, you’re not going to be able to guess what they’re saying, but you can tell they’ve got strong opinions.

Look at the elderly man in a tie, white shirt and dark suit. He always sits alone at one of those small tables along a wall and does a crossword puzzle.

If you glance around, you’re likely to see some Asian-Americans, a homeless guy snoozing in front of a cold half-empty cup of coffee, African-Americans, at least one well-dressed person with a laptop and a cellphone using a booth as an office, young dudes with a lot of tattoos, women with unusual hair styles, and maybe some yuppies.

The voice of all believers

Archbishop-elect, 32 years ago, my friend Tim Unsworth wrote an open letter of advice to one of your predecessors, Joseph Bernardin, which was published in National Catholic Reporter. In writing to you, I’m following in his footsteps.

Tim, who died in 2008, started off his letter to Bernardin by urging him to eat at a local deli as the Episcopal bishop of Chicago was wont to do.

In my experience, though, Chicago is much more of a Burger King town than a deli town. For one thing, you’ll see a wide range of economic classes and a kaleidoscope of ethnicities and nationalities at Burger King. For another, there are just a lot more fast food places in Chicago and the suburbs than delis.

Some of the people you see at Burger King may be Catholic. Others, not. But that shouldn’t matter.

Coming to Chicago, you need to understand that, as the Catholic archbishop (and later as cardinal), you will be the single most visible religious leader in one of the great metropolitan regions of the world.

To be sure, when you speak, you will be speaking as a Catholic. Your words and ideas will come out of the Catholic tradition and the Catholic set of beliefs.

Still, in a real way, you will be the voice of all believers in the Chicago region. Continue reading

Book review: “Treasures of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library,” edited by Glenna R. Schroeder-Lein

The bust of Abraham Lincoln II

The bust of Abraham Lincoln II

My suspicion is that you don’t know that there was an Abraham Lincoln II.

I hadn’t until I read Treasures of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library, edited by Glenna R. Schroeder-Lein, a spirited and beautifully illustrated book about some of the cool stuff in the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield.

Turns out that Abraham Lincoln II, called “Jack” by family and friends, was the only son of Robert Todd Lincoln, the only one of the 16th President’s four sons to reach adulthood. An important figure in Chicago and in national government during the late 19th century, Robert was the American ambassador to Great Britain in 1889. Jack was in boarding school there when a cut on his arm grew infected, and, within a few months, he was dead at the age of 16.

His grieving parents had a death mask made (just as a death mask had been made of his assassinated grandfather), and, from that, Theophilius Fisk Mills created a mournful 25-inch-tall porcelain bust of the boy that is now one of the Library’s treasures.

Another teeenager

Photograph of Abraham Lincoln in his coffin in the White House.

Photograph of Abraham Lincoln in his coffin in the White House.

Another treasure has to do with another teenager, an alert 14-year-old named Ronald D. Rietveld who, in 1952, was at the beginning of a lifelong fascination with Lincoln.

Rietveld was the sort of go-getter teen who would write letters to Carl Sandburg, and he had made friends with Dr. Harry E. Pratt, the Illinois state historian. One day, Pratt took the boy to the Illinois State Historical Library, then located in the Centennial Building in Springfield. (The institution was renamed the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum when the present two buildings were opened in 2004.)

Given a random manila file at from the archives of Lincoln’s two secretaries to look at, Rietveld paged through the materials and opened a letter from 1887 and, inside, found a photograph of Lincoln’s body in his coffin in the White House flanked by an Army general and a Navy admiral. The discovery of this previously unknown last photograph of the President quickly became front page news across the nation. Continue reading

Book review: “The Book of Bebb” by Frederick Buechner

Buechner --- bebb.....Miriam is dying.

Her twin brother Antonio has brought to her hospital room her two young sons 12-year-old Chris and 10-year-old Tony.

Her ex-husband Charlie, whose idea of a good time is getting a lot of sleep, opts out of the visit, just as later he will opt out of having much of a funeral for Miriam.

Charlie Blaine didn’t want to make any fuss about death any more than he wanted to make any fuss about life. His idea was to get through with both as quietly and painlessly as possible, with plenty of long naps along the way.

The two boys, awkward and clueless, don’t know what to say, and neither do Miriam and her brother. The visit fritters along with its only bright point a sudden and excited recapitulation by Tony of the Abbott and Costello movie he’d seen on TV the night before.

Later, though, when it is time to go, Tony seems wilted, giving an enormous yawn and knuckling his eyes. Perhaps it is because this action reminds Miriam of her ex-husband or of her own approaching death, but she reacts sharply, directly.

“Now you stay awake, Tony,” she says. “You just keep your eyes open and stay awake.”

Wrestling with God

Frederick Buechner’s The Book of Bebb is about staying awake.

Which is another way of saying that it’s about being alive. About living life with a fullness that accepts everything about human existence — its joy and its strife, its confusion and its insights, its loneliness and its community and its messiness and its deep, essential mystery.

The Book of Bebb, published in 1979, is composed of four short novels: Lion Country (1971), Open Heart (1972), Love Feast (1974) and Treasure Hunt (1977).

Buechner --- bebb......combo

It’s a comic tale that grapples with the issues of life, death, pain and belief. Picture wisecracking Robin Williams as Jacob in the Genesis story, wrestling all night with God. Continue reading

Poem: How to throw bricks

brick pile.detail

Pavement cave-in around manhole.
Excavated on the fallen side of the brick chimney to the deep sewer.
A small pit, earth here, damaged brick tower there.
Mason climbs down with mortar bucket.

Summer laborer,
son of friend of legislator,
throws bricks.


Not like that.

Two bricks pressed together with laborer’s two hands,
pressed together with hands, firm and soft.
Swung down in languid, forward movement.
The press-together holds.
Mason catches them with his two hands,
pressing them still together,
soft and firm.

Stacks them.

Patrick T. Reardon

Books that remain in my heart and head

On Facebook, Andy Bourgeois posted a list of books that had stayed with him, and suggested that several people, including me, do the same. Andy is a real-world friend of mine. We played basketball every week for about five or six years, and we’d often talk about books.

I love trying to come up with a list like this. On the one hand, it’s impossible. What about the books that just don’t come to mind immediately? How do I draw the line between number 10 and number 11?

But the sheer impossibility of it makes it fun because whatever I come up with is not the final word, not by a longshot. If I try to come up with a list tomorrow or a month from now or a year from now, other books will elbow their way into the top 10 and some on this list will fall off.

10 top comboHere’s my annotated list:

The Violated” by Vance Bourjaily — I love all of Bourjaily’s novels. In this one, his opening pages describe a play that is being put on by several children. It gets interrupted, and I’ve been waiting ever since for it to resume. Also, this novel includes a character who calls God “the Big Crud” and another who watches his death come upon him in slow motion.

How We Die” by Sherwin B. Nuland — This may be the most life-affirming book I have ever read. At its heart, Nuland says: The only good death is a good life. Death is coming so live, really live, each day.

Daybreak: 2250 A.D.” by Andre Norton — Not great literature, but this science-fiction novel about a mutant teenager finding his way in the remains of a nuclear war was a beautiful story for me to read when I was a teen and, like all teens, thought of myself as a mutant.

The Power Broker” by Robert Caro — Simply the best book ever written about a city.

A Canticle for Leibowitz” by Walter M. Miller Jr. — This wonderful science-fiction story contemplates the meaning of history, religion, science and humanity in another post-nuclear world.

The Face of Battle” by John Keegan — In this book, Keegan was the first to look at war from the ground level. It was eye-opening, and the first of many great books by him about war.

How the Other Half Lives” by Jacob Riis — This is the best book I’ve ever read by a journalist.

Let Us Now Praise Famous Men” by James Agee and Walker Evans — Reportage as high poetry. Unique and utterly beautiful.

The Warden” by Anthony Trollope — Trollope tells a great story, and he knows so much about what makes people tick.

Nature’s Metropolis” by William Cronon — Simply the best book ever written about Chicago.

This list could be somewhat different on any given day although some, such as “The Power Broker” and “Daybreak: 2250 A.D.” would always be on there. Others that I wanted to put on the list include “Portrait of a Marriage” by Nigel Nicolson, “The Greenlanders” by Jane Smiley, “Infinite Jest” by David Foster Wallace, “An Armful of Warm Girl” by W. M. Spackman, and something by Muriel Spark, Norman Mailer, Edith Wharton and dozens of others.

Even as I finish this, I’m thinking of books that could have or should have been on this list. There’s Dorothy Day’s biography of St. Therese of Lisieux, and Grant’s Memoirs, and “The Jungle” by Upton Sinclair, and…..and…..and….

3 top ten combo

Patrick T. Reardon

Meditation: The job of living

The prophet Jeremiah got exasperated with God:

“You duped me, O Lord, and I let myself be duped; you were too strong for me, and you triumphed. All the day I am an object of laughter; everyone mocks me.”

On this Labor Day weekend, it’s important to remember that work isn’t simply what we do for money. It’s also the task of living our lives in a right and just manner, in a way that is good for all people.


It’s risky, of course, to live an ethical life rather than doing what’s convenient or comfortable or profitable. In doing so, you often bump heads with people who have other priorities — your business partner who wants to make an extra buck by cutting corners, your friends who think you’re ridiculous for being willing to pay higher taxes to provide assistance to the needy, your co-worker who tells racist jokes.

If I am in one of those situations, I have to either cave in to peer pressure, or stand on my own two feet — and take a chance on becoming “an object of laughter.”

If I have ethics and have beliefs that shape the way I live my life, I will be known as a stand-up person. Someone who can be trusted. A person of integrity. That’s a great reputation to win. But I have to earn it. And it’s much easier for me to do that if I surround myself with people with a strong sense of justice and an ethical backbone.

That’s what the St. Gertrude parish is for me. It’s a community of like-minded people who are committed to doing the right and just thing. We are examples to each other. And we are supports for each other.

And, if we’re going to be “objects of laughter”…well, we’re in it together.

Patrick T. Reardon

Book clubs aren’t about books. They’re about life.

book clubThis essay initially appeared
in the Chicago Tribune on 7.27.14.

When I was a young man, I reveled in my physical strength and intellectual acuity. Today, I’m very aware of my fragility.

When I was younger, I was hungry for new mountains to climb, new monsters to slay, and I was certain I could achieve any goal.

Today, at the age of 64, I’m very aware that I may not accomplish what I have set out to do, either because I just don’t have the talents or commitment or energy — or because I run out of time.

And I’ve come to the realization that, fragile and inadequate as I am, I can better face my remaining years as part of a group — as part of many groups, actually.

I’m sure this is a big reason why I’ve gotten even closer to my 13 siblings.

And why I play basketball every Sunday and Monday with different groups of guys. And why I’m in two all-male faith-sharing groups. And why I’m in a writers group.

And why I’m in two book clubs.

The truth about book clubs

My experience in both groups — and an observation often made by other members — is that some of the best discussions are rooted in books that, according to some or many of the group, weren’t very good.

The truth about book clubs, often overlooked, is that they’re not about books. They’re about life.

Not just talking about life. But living life. Continue reading

Book review: “Summer of the Dead” by Julia Keller

Near the very end of Julia Keller’s new mystery Summer of the Dead (Minotaur, $25.99), I turned the page and shouted, “Holy shit!”

Out of the blue, suddenly, stunningly, a nurse brought word that a character — one whom I had come to admire and identify with — was dead.

I had to re-read the short paragraph two, three, maybe four times, looking for a loophole. Couldn’t find one.

It was the second sharp double-take I’d experienced within the space of ten pages because of a jarringly unforeseen twist in Keller’s story. And there were more to come. Indeed, if there’s such a thing a reader’s whiplash, I have it.

In other words, Summer of the Dead — like the two previous installments in Keller’s wonderfully written series of mysteries centered on Bell Elkins, the District Attorney of Raythune County, West Virginia — is filled with suspense and shock and awe. For those who love crime novels, it’s a great read.

The jaggedness of life

But, for this review, I don’t want to focus on Keller’s skills as a mystery writer.

keller --- summer

I want to look at her bona fides as writer, pure and simple. As a creator of literature. As an artist who looks at the human condition. Continue reading

Book Review: “Fierce Patriot” by Robert L. O’Connell

This review initially appeared in the Chicago Tribune on July 20, 2014.

o'connell --- shermanThe American nation would be much different if Union Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman had never lived. Sherman was one of the four men (the others being Abraham Lincoln, Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant) who determined the outcome of the Civil War. His scorched-earth March to the Sea and its extended destruction up through the Carolinas broke the South psychologically and was a vital factor in bringing the conflict to a clean and final end in April 1865.

Like those other three and, indeed, like any major historical figure, the red-haired, temperamental Sherman was a complex personality. And, in telling his story in Fierce Patriot: The Tangled Lives of William Tecumseh Sherman, Robert L. O’Connell employs a highly complicated structure, literally offering three biographies, one following the other.

“I became convinced,” O’Connell writes, “that any attempt to confine Sherman to a single chronological track was bound to create confusion. Instead, it seemed to me that three separate story lines, each deserving independent development, emerged out of the man’s life.”

It’s an exciting idea, a sort of nonfiction version of three interrelated novellas looking at a character from three perspectives, a historiographical version of cubism.

Adds confusion

Alas, it doesn’t work. Crippled, in part, by a breezy style overly salted with modern-day jargon, O’Connell’s approach adds confusion rather than relieves it. Continue reading

Book review: “Martin Luther” by Martin Marty

There are times, often, in his 2004 biography Martin Luther when Martin Marty seems more than a bit exasperated with his subject.

Luther, he writes, was a man of paradoxes, a man of ambiguities. And, over and over, Marty apologies — or, maybe, it’s that he grumbles — that he is constantly writing “at the same time.”

For instance, Luther, the former monk, did more than anyone to break the stranglehold of a single religious system (the Catholic Church) and make it possible for people to think in terms of making their own spiritual choices based on their own consciences.

And, yet, at the same time, he so hated chaos that he stressed obedience to authority and urged princes to crack down on the Peasants Revolt.

marty --- martin luther

He contended that all of the followers of Jesus should be members of “one, holy, Christian, and apostolic church” as a single flock.

And, yet, at the same time, he was the catalyst for the Big Bang of religion in the Christian West, the fragmentation of the flocks into myriad sects, denominations, cults, confessions, churches and factions. Continue reading

How smart is Derek Jeter? He can do the math.

(Photographer: Keith Allison)

(Photographer: Keith Allison)

The world of Major League Baseball was taken aback in February when New York Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter announced that he would retire at the end of this season.

Part of the shock was that he chose to tell the world his news via his Facebook page. (Yet, when you think about it, what a great method for bypassing the media hysteria that would have resulted at the scheduling of a news conference.)

Even more, though, the surprise was rooted in Jeter’s competitiveness. He was coming back after more than a year of frustrating rehabilitation from the broken ankle he suffered in the 2012 American League Championship Series. No one knew if Jeter still had it in him to be successful on the diamond, but what if he could still play at a high level? How could he walk away from the game? After all, at the age of 38, he had hit .316 in the 2102 season and led the league in runs scored.

But walk away is what Jeter said back in February that he would do. And, although other players in recent years, such as Ryne Sandberg and Jeter’s longtime teammate Andy Pettitte, have retired only to return later to the field, that seems unlikely for the Yankee captain. Especially after the round of celebrations and gifts and ovations at every park he’s visited this year.

Jeter turned 40 on June 26 and is having a very solid season, hitting .275 going into Friday’s game, the 5th best batting average among American League shortstops. And his OPS was .329, second best among his colleagues at that position. He’s playing tantalizingly well, but, even if the Yankees don’t make the play-offs this season or don’t go far in the play-offs, don’t look for him to change his mind.

Don’t tempt fate

Life after 40 is not kind to major league ballplayers, even Hall of Famers. Looking around and looking back over baseball’s past, Jeter knows this.

In the last four decades, 41 position players have been elected to the Hall by the Baseball Writers Association of America. (This doesn’t include those voted in by the Veterans Committee who were from earlier eras.) Of those 41 position players, 25 didn’t play past the age of 40, and many left at a younger age.

So there’s one lesson: Three out of every five of these Hall of Famers didn’t tempt fate by playing into their “old age.”

Hitting like a backup catcher

The other lesson is starker: As a group, the 16 who played at least one season beyond the age of 40 had a lifetime batting average of .289. If they’d stopped playing after their age-40 season, it would have been .291 for the group.

jeter chart as image

A drop of two points in a batting average may not seem like much. But think of these proud and driven players and consider that, as a group, their batting average from their years of playing after 40 was a brutal .254. Or about at the level of a backup catcher. Continue reading

Book review: “Pete Rose: An American Dilemma” by Kostya Kennedy

kennedy --- pete roseKostya Kennedy paints a compelling portrait of one of baseball’s greatest — and most scandal-laden — players in Pete Rose: An American Dilemma. The “dilemma” part, though, is more problematic.

As it is with many baseball fans, I know Pete Rose from watching him play, and later from watching him being banned from baseball, from watching him deny and then, finally, admit that he bet on baseball games, including those of the Cincinnati Reds when he was the team’s manager.

Here in Chicago, we loved to hate him. I suspect that’s how it was for all other fans, except those rooting for Rose’s team. His hustle of running to first base on a walk was, as Kennedy notes, “a piece of showmanship, a splash of needless panache.” We saw it as a piece of hot-dogging.

But his hustle in fielding and in running the bases, his hustle in out-thinking his opponents as a hitter and as a manager, his hustle in supporting, promoting, mentoring and cheerleading his teammates — those were game-changers. And we hated him even more for that.

Even as we respected him and his accomplishments which, ultimately, included reaching and passing Ty Cobb to become the all-time Hits King with 4,256.

About Rose’s hustle, Kennedy writes:

Rose’s approach to the game elevated not only his career, of course, but also the careers of many players around him, Hall of Famers as well as legions of less accomplished players…there was nothing superfluous in the way he went after it when the all was live. “If playing with Pete Rose did not inspire you to play the right way I don’t know what did,” says Dough Flynn, who was a part-time infielder for the Reds in the mid-1970s. “He ran out everything. I mean everything. Comebacker to the pitcher in the ninth inning of a lopsided game, Pete is busting down the line.”


In baseball, Pete Rose is one of a kind. His hard-nose, blue-collar, take-no-prisoners approach to the game was unparalleled in his era and remains so today. There were players in the early decades of the game who had some of his qualities — Cobb, of course — but they fit their times. Rose was someone, not just out of the past but out of another dimension. Continue reading

Book review: “Crazy Horse” by Larry McMurtry

A novelist writes history like a novelist, not like an historian. In Crazy Horse, Larry McMurtry tells the story of the Sioux warrior who was an Indian leader on the Great Plains during the 1860s and 1870s and took part in many battles including Little Bighorn where vainglorious, foolhardy Gen. George Custer and his troops were wiped out.

He was assassinated by whites and Indians acting together and has been a symbol of the Native American spirit ever since.

The center of the painting of Crazy Horse by Stephen Johnson that is on the cover the Larry McMurtry's Cracy Horse

The center of the painting of Crazy Horse by Stephen Johnson that is on the cover the Larry McMurtry’s Cracy Horse

Even when alive, Crazy Horse was a mystery man, a loner who preferred his own company. He was never photographed. McMurtry emphasizes throughout this 147-page biography that any attempt to tell the warrior’s story is “an exercise in assumption, conjecture and surmise.” Indeed, he points out that we know more facts about Alexander the Great who died more than 2,000 years ago than we do about Crazy Horse.

For more than a century since the Sioux warrior died, historians and writers have produced thick books looking at him, his accomplishments and his legacy. McMurtry, the author of Lonesome Dove, is unlikely to have been interested in the sort of proofs, arguments and theories that are the meat and potatoes of such books — even if more facts about Crazy Horse had been available.

Instead, his writing is more impressionistic. He seeks the essence of Crazy Horse, rooting his effort not so much in data but in his sense of the kind of man that Crazy Horse was and the way the world in which he lived was rapidly and drastically changing.

There is so much simple, sensible and profound insight to this 1999 book that, as a reviewer, I’m going to step aside and let McMurtry sum up his book — and Crazy Horse — in his own words.
Continue reading

Book review: “The Long Mars” by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter

pratchett---long mars -- comboThe Long Mars is the third installment so far in a series of novels by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter — the earlier ones being The Long Earth and The Long War.

They’re rooted in a discovery in 2015 that the Earth on which humans evolved is only one of uncounted numbers of alternate-universe Earths. Each Earth resulted from a single random event that occurred in a way different from what happened on humanity’s home Earth, the Datum Earth, and different from what happened on all the other Earths.

It is possible to go from one Earth to the one next door by “stepping.” Some people have the innate skill to do this on their own. Most need a piece of technology, called a stepper box. Quickly, humans develop dirigible-like machines, called twains (as in Mark Twain), to step through many worlds very quickly.

In The Long Mars, two souped-up twains, the equivalent of battleships 120 years ago, take a trip westward through the Long Earth through 250 million Earths, showing the flag, as it were. Meanwhile, three wildcat explorers who find a way to Mars — it’s too complicated to explain here — take a couple of flimsy gliders through three million versions of Mars.

Delight and irritation

Each of the three novels, in its way, has delighted and irritated me. Continue reading

Book review: “Bright Lights of the Second City: 50 Prominent Chicagoans on Living with Passion and Purpose” by Betsy Storm

When world-renowned violinist Rachel Barton Pine was three, she attended a service at Saint Pauls United Church of Christ in Lincoln Park and saw some pre-teen girls in long dresses up on the altar playing the violin. She stood up, pointed to the girls and announced, “I want to do that!”

A year later, she played her first Bach solo at the church.

There was a stained-glass window of J.S. Bach in the sanctuary, and, when I was very young, I thought Bach ranked right up there with the guys from the Bible — God, Jesus, and Bach — and not necessarily in that order. I grew up understanding that the purpose of music was to lift the human spirit and bring it closer to God.

This is a story that Barton tells in the newly published Bright Lights of the Second City: 50 Prominent Chicagoans on Living with Passion and Purpose by Betsy Storm.

“Midnight-oil burners”

As the subtitle indicates, Storm’s aim in this book is “to identify the motivations that enliven these movers and shakers, these midnight-oil burners” — highly successful people from law and sports, philanthropy and non-profits, art and journalism, and a host of other fields and disciplines.

The core of Bright Lights are in-depth interviews that she conducted with each person. Some readers will look to this book for hints from these high-achievers about finding profit and prosperity, happiness and fulfillment. And they’ll discover useful insights to ponder.

storm -- bright lights

I see Storm’s book as a valuable collection of oral histories of a certain segment of Chicago society in the second decade of the 21st century. Continue reading