August 17, 2017

Essay: A Time to Die

It may seem odd today, but, at one point, a half century ago, the top-selling popular song in America was made up of lyrics from the Bible — specifically, from the third chapter of the Book of Ecclesiastes. The song, written in the late 1950s by the great folk-singer Pete Seeger, was “Turn, Turn, Turn.” It wasn’t his version that reached number-one on the Billboard Hot 100 chart on December 4, 1965. It was the rock version by the Byrds, and it began: To everything (turn, turn, turn) there is a season (turn, turn, turn), and a time to every purpose under the heaven, a time to be born, a time to die, a time to plant, a time to reap…. You might think that all the teenagers like me who were grooving to the song back then would have taken in the import of those words, particularly “A time to be born, a time to die.” But we were young and felt immortal.   A finality that slapped us I think back on that song today, a year and a half after my brother David, suffering great pain and fearing to lose control of his life, killed himself during a […]
August 9, 2017

Lives of Great Religious Books: Princeton University Press

For outsiders, religions are often mysterious. Yet, down the centuries, the great books of faith have played major roles in shaping the world of believers and non-believers alike, influencing politics, art, philosophy, literature, language and culture. It’s with that in mind that, since 2011, Princeton University Press has been publishing a series of lively and energetic “biographies” of these important works, titled Lives of Great Religious Books. “The series may strike some people as odd, but I find it tremendously fun to publish,” says executive editor Fred Appel who came up with the idea during a conversation with an Israeli philosopher.   Light touch by experts What makes these “biographies,” each about 250 pages long, so readable is that they’re written with a light touch by experts who are excited about the stories they have to tell and who understand that they are writing for non-experts. Many of them, says Appel, also teach college courses “where they have to make great books interesting to 19-year-olds who may not know anything about them. Consider some examples:   From “The Koran” in English: A Biography by Bruce B. Lawrence: “To move from Latin to Arabic is to move from a language with […]
June 7, 2017

Like politics, all faith is local

There is a common phrase in American democracy asserting that “All politics is local.” It’s most often attributed to Thomas “Tip” O’Neill, the masterful Massachusetts Democratic Congressman who, from 1977 to 1987, was Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives. Those four words are a cautionary tale to any politician who, caught up in high-flown ideals or the high status of office, forgets to take care of his or her constituents. In 1979, Chicago Mayor Michael Bilandic learned this to his chagrin. After a January blizzard dumped 35 inches of snow in a two-day period, he failed to clear the city’s streets and keep the elevated trains operating in all neighborhoods. The result: Bilandic was voted out of office a month later.   All faith The same is true for belief: “All faith is local.” As with politics, the believer has to have ideals. That means working — on a citywide and statewide and national and international level — for moral policies and programs that benefit everyone, particularly those on the margins of society. It’s important to be an activist for peace and justice by voting in a sober, thoughtful way and by taking part in the political dialogue by […]
January 2, 2017

Meditation: Snow in Jerusalem

It snows in Jerusalem. Somebody told me that, so I looked it up. In 1950, there were storms that dumped a couple feet of snow on the city and even more elsewhere in Israel. So Jesus wasn’t unfamiliar with snow. As a boy, maybe he had to shovel it. Or maybe his parents told him just to wait for it to melt. It’s warmer in Nazareth than here in Chicago. Maybe, as a boy, Jesus was like my son David who, on more than a few winter mornings, awoke, looked out the window and ran through the house, shouting, “Hooray! It snowed!” I’ve always found it fascinating to see how completely the world is changed by an overnight snowfall. You wake up, and all of the dead leaves and trash along the curb and mud and yellow grass, all of the streets and alleys, all of the cars and houses and garages are covered in beauty. I think Jesus was alive to beauty. He was alive to life in such a vivid way. He looked at life with open eyes and saw — really saw — the world, especially the people in the world. The woman who washed his feet […]
November 1, 2016

Essay: Job 1 is voting

Voting is my job. Voting is your job. It’s Job One for us as Americans. When we go to the polling place, enter the voting booth and cast our ballot, we are doing Important work.  Essential work. As electors, we are directly involved in determining who will serve us — all of us — in public office and indirectly in determining the policies that will guide the actions of government and the decisions on who will be helped and how. As citizens and as human beings, you and I have a responsibility to work to make the world a better place, and voting is the way we do that by carrying our part of the burden of government. If we fail to vote, we fall down on the job. If we vote carelessly and thoughtlessly, we pervert our sacred task.   Our vocation as citizens Our vocation as citizens is to study the candidates and their policies, to weigh their characters and past actions and to evaluate them in the context of the needs and aspirations of the people.  And then — only then — to enter the booth and mark our ballot. We live in the real world, and […]
October 21, 2016

Essay: Chicago’s deadly streets in the late 19th and early 20th century

On the evening of March 9, 1903, Maria Stanton wanted to cross Clark Street at Goethe Street, on the edge of Chicago’s Gold Coast neighborhood, the enclave of many of the city’s richest families. A household servant in her early thirties, she was plainly dressed in a heavy brown blouse and skirt of rough material and a dark blue jacket. Her only jewelry were a pair of plain gold crescent earrings. In her pocketbook, she carried $1.50, the equivalent of about $25 today. Stepping off the western curb, she started across the pavement, only to look up and see a crowded cable train bearing down on her.  The Chicago Tribune reported: Bystanders said the victim started to cross Clark street toward the east, immediately behind a south bound train. As she stepped on the other tracks she found herself a few feet from a north bound Lincoln avenue train. She paused, looked back, and saw another car approaching from the north, shutting off retreat. The gripman rang the gongs and the passengers shouted, but the dazed woman still stood motionless on the tracks while the north bound Lincoln avenue train struck her and knocked her down. She fell forward and […]
October 12, 2016

The ten best books about Chicago: a list

There are many very good and even great books about Chicago, and here are the 10 that I think are the best: Nature’s Metropolis by William Cronon Chicago: Growth of a Metropolis by Harold M. Mayer and Richard C. Wade Plan of Chicago by Daniel H. Burnham and Edward H. Bennett Chicago: City on the Make by Nelson Algren The Jungle by Upton Sinclair Boss by Mike Royko Black Metropolis: A Study of Negro Life in a Northern City by St. Clair Drake and Horace R. Cayton The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros Chicago: The Second City by A. J. Liebling Forever Open, Clear, and Free: The Struggle for Chicago’s Lakefront by Lois Wille Certainly, at another time, I might come up with others. After all, this list doesn’t include Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March or Richard Wright’s Native Son. Maybe it should. The best books about Chicago, whether fiction or non-fiction, examine a city that is the fabric of the interwoven lives of its citizens. The great books about the city know that its streets are escape routes and borders. They know that its weather batters and caresses. They know that its rust is beautiful. […]
October 11, 2016

Essay: Chicago’s Trail of Tears

In London during the summer of 1835, demonstration trains began giving free rides along a newly completed section of the London and Greenwich Railway, the first railway of any sort in the city as well as the very first elevated railroad in the world. In addition to testing the track and viaduct, these trial runs were aimed at boosting public awareness of the new technology and were so successful that taking a trip on the trains became the fashionable thing to do. “For a few weeks in the summer,” writes R. H. G. Thomas in London’s First Railway: The London & Greenwich, “ladies made up parties to ride in the [train] carriages….Groups of foreign visitors, members of the Society of Friends and parties of Cambridge scientists all found their way there, as did several MPs [Members of Parliament], the Swedish ambassador and the Prince of Orange [the future King William II of the Netherlands] and suite.” London was an old city, originally settled around 50 A.D. As the capital of the expanding British Empire, it had grown by this time to some 1.7 million residents and had pushed past Beijing to become the most populous city on the planet. It […]
September 15, 2016

Essay: Chicago’s hangmen reformers

Donald Trump’s loose talk in early August about the Second Amendment got  a lot of people worrying that he was not so subtly calling for armed violence,or even assassination. More than a century ago, Chicago reformers weren’t so delicate. In what might be called “good government terrorism,” they actively talked about a mob stringing up a businessman widely hated for his power and corruption — the streetcar-elevated line magnate Charles Tyson Yerkes. As the nineteenth century neared its end, Yerkes was attempting to vastly improve the value of his streetcar lines by obtaining franchise agreements extending for 50 or, even better, 99 years. However, while he’d been able to win most such battles in the past, he found himself this time up against an increasingly organized coalition of reformers who, to their own surprise, were working hand-in-glove with some of the same corrupt politicians formerly in the financier’s pocket. Indeed, in 1897-98, Yerkes was the target of an unprecedented campaign in which he was routinely and publicly threatened with violence. “Decorating a lamp post” Consider these statements: • Ald. John Harlan, a reformer, speaking before a crowd of 3,500, issued a warning to “that proud and haughty bandit, that great highwayman…arrogant […]
August 31, 2016

Essay: Love and giving thanks

It all comes back to love. Gratitude does, like everything else that is good in the world. Thomas Merton writes that gratitude “takes nothing for granted, is never unresponsive, is constantly awakening to new wonder….” His subject is the relationship that human beings share with God, but he could just as well be talking about the relationship that two people share when they love each other. Indeed, he’s talking about love of all sorts.   Wonder — and gratitude Young lovers can’t get enough of each other. They want to be together all the time, share every experience, know everything there is to know about the beloved. They are intensely aware of the goodness and richness in the loved one — the humor, the compassion, the beauty, the intelligence, the sweetness. They can’t help but feel wonder — and gratitude. And the imperfections of the loved one? These are recognized, of course. He may be moody or lazy or, well, a little overweight. She may be a couch potato or high-strung or spend too much on clothes. Knowing each other so well and learning more and more each day, the lovers can’t ignore these imperfections. They can’t pretend they don’t […]
August 17, 2016

Essay: Us and God

There is no Us and Them. There’s only Us and God. That’s one of the lessons of the Bible. Another is that God shows us the way to live, and it’s up to us to follow that way. It’s our job as human beings and our calling. “I come to gather nations of every language,” the Lord says (Isaiah 66:18). The writer of the Letter to the Hebrews (12:7) says, “God treats you as sons [and daughters].” Part of the role of a parent is to instruct and train children, and the writer of Hebrews describes this as “discipline,” something that is painful in the moment but later “brings the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who are trained by it.” (12:11)   Deep yearnings Another way to think of this is to realize that Christianity is not an easy faith. We are not called to self-satisfaction. We are called to recognize that we fail, we sin, we are imperfect. In multitudinous ways — through the beauty of the world and the example of good people and the whisperings of our conscience — the Lord shows us how we need to live better and what we need to do to […]
August 8, 2016

Essay: The serendipity of a used bookstore

What do Virginia Woolf, Robert Heinlein, C. S. Lewis and Douglas Coupland have in common? For me, it’s a used bookstore in Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin, where I stopped during a recent weeklong vacation in Door County — Jefferson Street Books. In our modern world, the used bookstore is an endangered species. Locally, we’ve lost many over the years, including two very good ones recently, Shake, Rattle and Read—The Book Box in Uptown and the Book Den in Evanston. Jefferson Street Books is also a very good one. It’s packed with thousands of books in well-organized and well-presented categories, not only in the small house that fronts on Jefferson Street just north of downtown Sturgeon Bay, but also in an annex in a building in the back called the book barn. It’s a year-old, and you can still smell the fresh wood of the shelves.   A particular kind of experience Buying a book at a used bookstore is a particular kind of experience. When you buy at a store featuring new books, you are basically restricted to what’s popular at this moment in time. There may be some “classics” here and there to be found, but, even in the largest […]
July 20, 2016

Meditation: Haggling with God

In the gospels of Luke and Matthew, Jesus teaches the disciples how to pray the Our Father. In Genesis, Abraham shows us how to haggle with God. It’s about Sodom and Gomorrah, and, as the story is told, God is planning to wipe the place off the face of the earth because “their sin [is] so grave.” But Abraham appeals to God that the innocent might be swept away with the guilty. And then, in a routine that could have come right out of vaudeville, he asks: What if there are 50 innocent people there? Shouldn’t you protect them? Well, OK, God answers, if there are 50, “I will spare the whole place.” But what if there are only 45 innocents there? OK, “I will not destroy it, if I find forty-five there.” But what if there are only 40…only 30…only 20…only 10? Each time, God says, OK, “I will not destroy it.” The point is that God is a soft touch. God wants us to do the right thing. God wants us to live full lives, to enjoy the riches of creation. In his preaching, Jesus didn’t talk about leveling cities for their wickedness. He told us to love one […]
July 5, 2016

Trumpy McTrumpface by Thomas Pace and Patrick T. Reardon — Parts 1 and 2

PART ONE You’ve probably heard about how, in the United Kingdom, a joke got out of hand. The very prim and proper British Natural Environment Research Council came up with a stunt to get people interested in science, asking them to suggest names for a new, $288 million, state-of-the-art polar research vessel and then to vote on those names. It worked, and people started talking about names, including BBC radio personality James Hand who quipped that the vessel should be called “Boaty McBoatface.” Cue the laugh track. Except that the joke caught on, and the name was the top vote-getter. That’s the way it is with jokes. Sometimes, they get out of hand.   Egregious and embarrassing Like now, here, in the United States. You’ve heard the one, I’m sure, about the reality television star who becomes the Republican candidate for President of the United States? And they say conservatives don’t have a sense of humor. When Trumpy McTrumpface first suggested himself as a presidential nominee, the joke was obvious. In his inaugural campaign speech, McTrumpface made a number of comments that would automatically disqualify any serious presidential candidate. He has since made this his core strategy — spouting racist […]
June 27, 2016

Essay: Hope and joy in this age of Trump

In this age of Trump, I find that, more and more, I’m thinking of my friends Neil, Ben and Jean. In this time of hate and fear-mongering, I want to tap into their hope and faith and joy for living. I’ve played basketball with Neil at the school gym at St. Gertrude parish on the Far North Side most Sundays for the last ten years, and, every once in a while, I feel the need to ask him his age. “Seventy-seven and a half.” That’s how he answered me recently after a couple hours on the court. We call our weekly Sunday afternoon pickup games “Geri-ball,” as in geriatrics. It’s for guys 35 and older although a number of fathers bring their teenage sons (and daughters) as well. (They’re great for handling fast breaks.) Many of us now are in our 50s or 60s, and we all want to be Neil when we grow up. Neil, who runs a lot of 5K races, is the oldest among us. He’s up and down the court with the rest of us and has a wicked outside shot. Sure, he’s slowed down a bit over the years. All of us have. But, when […]
May 14, 2016

Meditation: The Poem of Pentecost

Picture this: Pentecost, the descent of the Holy Spirit, tongues of fire and the followers of Jesus going out into the world to proclaim the good news. A large crowd gathers, but the people are confused because they’re not confused. Everyone can understand what’s being said, and they respond with a kind of poem of wonder: We are Parthians, Medes, and Elamites, inhabitants of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the districts of Libya near Cyrene, as well as travelers from Rome, both Jews and converts to Judaism, Cretans and Arabs, yet we hear them speaking in our own tongues of the mighty acts of God. The good news transcends the barriers of language. It rises above the blockades of fear. And, today, we are the preachers and we are the listeners: We are Chileans, Iraqis, and Poles, inhabitants of Canada, Ghana and France, Laos and Russia, Norway and Nigeria, Israel and the districts of Argentina near Buenos Aires, as well as travelers from Ireland, both Christians and converts to Christianity, Lebanese and Americans, yet we hear them speaking in our own tongues of the mighty acts of God. With faith, we are all […]
March 21, 2016

Meditation: Jesus as a celebrity?

Back when I was a Chicago Tribune reporter, I had a five-minute telephone interview with Donald Trump about his new Chicago hotel, and he made a point to mention twice that he was “the biggest celebrity in the world.” After reading the Palm Sunday gospel, I’m wondering if Jesus would have thought of himself as a celebrity. Look at the argument the apostles have at the Last Supper over which of them is the greatest. Like a frustrated parent, Jesus tells them they’re barking up the wrong tree: “Let the greatest among you be as the youngest, and the leader as the servant.” It’s at the Last Supper, of course, where Jesus gets down on his knees to wash the feet of those vainglorious apostles. In Luke’s Gospel, he says, “I am among you as one who serves.” As human beings we’re often running after empty ambitions, and, like Peter, we are frail in our resolve to do the right thing. Peter boasts: “Lord, I am prepared to go to prison and to die with you.” But Jesus tells him that, over the course of the next few hours, he will say three times that he doesn’t even know his […]
February 16, 2016

Meditation: Living life

In the eighth chapter of the Book of Nehemiah in the Bible, the Jewish people are celebrating a feast in which they are re-accepting God’s law and covenant. It is, they are told by Nehemiah and Ezra, a sacred day but not a somber one: Today is holy to the LORD your God. Do not be sad, and do not weep. Go, eat rich foods and drink sweet drinks, and allot portions to those who had nothing prepared; for today is holy to our LORD. This all happened about 2,600 years ago, yet the message still reverberates today.   A covenant As God’s people, we have a covenant. And it requires us to keep each day holy which means to “Go, eat rich foods…” Which means to savor the abundance that God has provided us. In other words, to live life richly and vibrantly. But not selfishly. We are called to “allot portions” — to share our abundance with those in need. We don’t live life alone. We live it together.   Being holy This is what it means to be holy — to be as fully alive as possible: To smell the fragrances, aromas and, yes, odors of the world that […]
February 8, 2016

The last day and the first day

This essay originally appeared in the Chicago Tribune on December 31, 2015 My brother David Michael died suddenly a few days before Thanksgiving, and I’m thinking a lot about him as this year comes to an end. The last day, December 31, is shaping up for me as a Day of the Dead, a day for looking back and remembering David and others I have lost over the past 365 days and before. Maybe a lot of people do this on this last day. Maybe it’s a human need to look back and ponder loss amid the pain of grief. David and I had known each other longer than anyone else alive. I’d known him all his life. I was 14 months old in January, 1951, when he was born. The two of us were followed by two brothers and ten sisters. Our parents, David and Audrey, raised the 14 of us as a tight, affectionate, inter-connected family. Both are gone now. Mom died in 1995, and Dad in 2003.   A family Christmas party We remain extremely close, probably closer now that we have to rely on each other than we were before. All of us live in the […]
January 14, 2016

Memo to the GOP: Dump Trump

Enough is enough. It is time — right now — for the Republican Party to expel Donald Trump. If the GOP acts now, it will not only do the right and moral thing, but also it will take the offensive against a man who has bullied and hate-mongered his way into the heart of American politics. If Republican leaders don’t move swiftly and decisively, Trump will continue to poison the party of Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan — and poison this year’s presidential campaign. He will continue to call the shots, and the Republican Party will continue to dance to his tune. Trump’s unfitness for the presidency has become painfully clear by his words and actions. He’s a bigot, calling for a ban on Muslims coming into the United States, and a liar, continuing to assert the discredited claim of Muslims in New Jersey celebrating the September 11 attacks. He has made fun of disabled people. He has belittled his opponents. He has denigrated women. He has demonized illegal Mexican immigrants as criminals and drug dealers.   Drummed out of the party Trump needs to be drummed out of the Republican Party. Right now. Karl Rove will know […]
January 13, 2016

R. H. Mottram, looking back to Trollope and forward to Bellow

A young William Faulkner admired R. H. (Ralph Hale) Mottram, comparing the literary achievement of the British writer’s trilogy of novels about World War I with Stephen Crane’s insights into the reality of the American Civil War in The Red Badge of Courage. Yet, Mottram — a highly praised writer not just of war but also of life in a small English city; a poet and essayist; and a protégé and biographer of novelist John Galsworthy — is virtually unknown in literary circles today. I came across him in a roundabout way a decade ago, and have found his books richly satisfying, books that look back to Anthony Trollope and forward to Saul Bellow. According to scholar Max Putzel, Faulkner used Mottram’s writings on the war as a model for his own early work: Mottram had given Faulkner an example for dealing with war by indirection, understating or disguising the powerful emotions Crane had boldly undertaken to summon up…. Mottram’s three novels — The Spanish Farm, Sixty-four, Ninety-four! and The Crime of Vanderlynden’s — were set in Flanders, mostly behind the lines, and were based on Mottram’s own military experiences. They were published individually in the late 1920s and later issued […]
November 29, 2015

David Michael Reardon (1951-2015)

Oh, David. You’ve gone, and we have been left behind. I feel sadness and anger and guilt and pain and so many other emotions. This is why so much great art is about tragedy. We live our lives. Our bodies fall apart. We die. A couple of images have stuck with me over the past week. One is this: I see God opening his arms for you and giving you a deep hug as he welcomes you to heaven. But I know that you didn’t believe in such stuff. And I don’t want you to come back as a ghost to haunt me. So I’ll go to the other image. Our family, down the generations, is an intricately woven fabric. With your death, there is a rip in that fabric. It’s a rip that, over time, will be repaired. But there will always be a scar there. We are not the same now as we were earlier this month.   ***   You’re gone. But here’s the thing: You’re not gone. You are still with us in the fabric of our experiences, in the fabric of our existence. You have touched each of us in unique ways. You have helped […]
October 12, 2015

Essay: Believing in Movies

Through much of the 20th century, American movies acted as if sex didn’t exist. Oh, they’d hint at it, but film-makers feared being slapped down by those custodians of mainstream cultural mores, the censors. Today, there are no censors, and sex and nudity are all over the screen. Now it’s God and religious faith that are missing in action. Consider three excellent movies of the past year: Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken, Darren Aronofsky’s Noah and Tommy Lee Jones’s The Homesman. Each tells a compelling story with great skill and artistry, but each has a failure of nerve when it comes to confronting the reality of religious faith. Unbroken, based on Laura Hillenbrand’s book, is the story of Louie Zamperini, an Olympian athlete who survives a plane crash and 47 days on a raft in the ocean only to land in a series of Japanese prisoner of war camps. He is shown praying to God on the raft, but a key element of the book is absent from the film — Zamperini’s post-war conversion by a young Billy Graham and his work with Graham in the evangelist’s crusades. What’s omitted from Noah is God. Here, Noah (Russell Crowe) could be just another […]
September 21, 2015

The secret life of cemeteries

We’re entering the season of cemeteries, autumn when the leaves turn brown and fall from the trees like so many souls giving up the ghost. With Halloween, we’ll see a lot of comic graves on napkins, balloons and other party frills as well as in the spooky holiday decorations on homes. For more than 1,000 years, Halloween has been part of a three-day set of Christian holy days along with All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day. (Hallow is an archaic word for Saint.) While All Saints’ Day was a time to honor those who had lived righteous lives, All Souls’ Day was a time to remember all who had died, particularly relatives and friends. As such it was a day when many families would go to cemeteries to visit the graves of loved ones. Veterans Day (November 11) has also been a popular time to bring flowers and say prayers at the burial places of men and women who had served in the military.   Cemetery picnics A century ago, people felt fairly comfortable in graveyards, comfortable enough to bring a blanket and a food basket to have a bit of a picnic. Now, though, on most days, you […]
September 8, 2015

A writing life

Richard M. Daley, the mayor of Chicago and the son of a Chicago mayor, is chatting in his private office on the 5th floor of City Hall with Robert Caro and me. I should be asking myself: What am I doing here? I’m just a reporter with the Chicago Tribune, and here at the head of the conference table is Daley, one of the most powerful mayors in the nation. Seated at his right hand is Caro, the author of the best book ever written about an American city (The Power Broker, about Robert Moses and New York City) and of the monumental multi-volume examination of the life and times of Lyndon Johnson. Yet, I’m the one who arranged the meeting.   A sheet of mayoral stationery It was May of 2002, and Caro had come to Chicago to promote the third volume of his LBJ biography (Master of the Senate). As part of my interview with him, I thought that it might be fun to see him and Daley together so I called the mayor’s press aide. And — voila! — now, while colorful fish flitter random paths in the large aquarium along one wall, Daley and Caro are […]