October 8, 2018

Essay: In praise of the backup catcher

  Throughout this major league baseball season, I’ve been cheering on one particular player — Austin Romine. Never heard of him?  Not surprising.  He’s the backup catcher of the New York Yankees and rarely gets featured in a television highlight or in a print or online headline.  Nonetheless, after each Yankee game, I’ve looked at the box score with burning questions:  Had Romine gotten a hit, perhaps a homer?  Had he gone 0 for 4?  Had he even played?   Smart and tough Like many major league catchers, Romine is both tough and smart.  He runs the bases with a stiff back reminiscent of catcher Carlton Fisk’s baserunning during his Chicago White Sox days.  Romine had a bumpy time finding a place on the Yankee roster and, at one point, was offered on waivers to every other team.  No one wanted him. I’ve watched his career partially because — to the mystification of my friends and family — I, despite being a lifelong Chicagoan, am a Yankee fan.  (Let’s leave that story for another time.)  If I were a White Sox fan, I’d probably be cheering for backup catcher Kevan Smith. In the last couple seasons, Romine has found himself […]
October 3, 2018

Essay: Why write?

  Since the age of 12 when I had my first byline on a Father’s Day essay in the neighborhood newspaper, I’ve been addicted to writing. Over the years, I’ve loved seeing my byline on literally thousands of Chicago Tribune stories, and on countless freelance pieces, and on the covers of my eight books. But that’s not what I’m hooked on.  I’m addicted to the challenge of taking some aspect of the chaos of our existence and making sense of it by putting a bunch of words down on a page, whether physical or digital, in a manner that is clear and maybe playful, pleasing and informative. I enjoy the idea that stuff I write helps readers better understand the world in which we all live.  That’s an important reason I write, but, even more, I write to help myself better understand the world, better understand life.   Hard work and delight Norman Mailer once said something to the effect that he didn’t know what he thought about anything until he wrote about it.  That’s the experience I have.  I get to know myself, and to define myself, in the act of writing. Writing is hard work.  It’s a strain […]
August 27, 2018

Essay: Pope Francis teaches how to love those we see as sinners

  The death penalty is wrong in all cases.  That’s what Pope Francis proclaimed in early August, and that’s what the Church’s Catechism will be revised to say. It’s an important statement about faith and human rights.  And its impact extends beyond those convicted of serious crimes and threatened with execution. The Pope’s order, culminating of an evolution in church teaching that goes back to St. John Paul II, is a lesson to you and me about how to treat those we see as sinners. Under the revision, the Catechism will say, “The Church teaches, in the light of the Gospel, that ‘the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person,’ and she works with determination for its abolition worldwide.” In 1992, John Paul II began to take strong stands against the death penalty.  There was one exception as he saw it — “cases of absolute necessity” when the death penalty was needed to protect other lives. The announcement from Pope Francis closes that “last remaining loophole” in Church’s stand against executions, writes Sister Helen Prejean, a longtime opponent of the death penalty.   “The dignity of the person” The Church […]
August 20, 2018

Essay: The death penalty and the evolution of faith

    The Church’s understanding of what it means to live a Christian life has been evolving for 2,000 years and will continue to do so. For instance, the early Church accepted slavery as a permissible aspect of human society but later came to see bondage as immoral. Earlier this month, another step in the evolution of the Church’s teaching took place when Pope Francis announced that the death penalty is wrong in all cases.   “Inadmissible” At the Pope’s order, the Catechism will be revised to say: “The Church teaches, in the light of the Gospel, that ‘the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person,’ and she works with determination for its abolition worldwide.” This shift in doctrine began in 1992 with St. John Paul II who took strong stands against the death penalty “except in cases of absolute necessity” to protect other lives. The announcement from Pope Francis closes “the last remaining loophole” in Church’s stand against executions, writes Sister Helen Prejean, a longtime opponent of the death penalty.   “The dignity of the person” While the new step has many ramifications, the important lesson for most of […]
August 1, 2018

Essay: “My soul magnifies the Lord”

For 2000 years, Mary the mother of Jesus has been a major figure in Christian theology, liturgy and art and a major inspiration to believers working to live their faith in daily life. Yet, in the Gospels, Mary doesn’t have many lines. In fact, she only speaks on four occasions: when Gabriel appears to her, when she visits her cousin Elizabeth, when the 12-year-old Jesus stays behind in the Temple and when she’s at the wedding feast of Cana with her son. The Feast of the Visitation, celebrated at the end of May, commemorates the event when, for me, Mary shines the brightest, singing the Magnificat, perhaps the greatest song in the Bible. It starts: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior…” Many modern translations begin, “My soul proclaims…” or “My soul praises…” But I like the earlier word “magnifies” because it’s kind of odd and mysterious. What Mary is saying is that she is like a magnifying glass. By looking at her — by looking through her — other people see God better. Isn’t this what we’re called to do as Christians? To be a magnifying glass — to help others see, through our actions, […]
April 2, 2018

Essay: In praise of yet more biographies of Lincoln

The other day, in passing, a friend of mine asked me, “Why would someone write yet another biography of Abraham Lincoln? Aren’t there enough already?” I was dumbfounded and mumbled some half-answer. It seemed akin to asking me why people breathe. Throughout my life, I’ve read dozens of biographies of Lincoln and scores of books about the Civil War and his role in the conflict. I’ve reviewed Lincoln books and written essays on the 16th U.S. President, and, for several years, I served on the advisory board of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield For me, the study of Lincoln is fascinating and never-ending. Yet, my friend, a well-read guy, was really confused.   One life story? At the root of his question was the thought that each of us has one life story. So, once it’s told, there’s no need for it to be told again, right? I suspect he’s not alone in such thinking. He’s right, sort of, if the life story is in the form of a resume. The bullet points about schooling and jobs that were on my resume in 1981 were still true a few years ago when I put together a […]
March 26, 2018

Essay: “This is the night”

Hosannas ring on Palm Sunday, and then comes the Passion. We look closely this week at the sufferings, torture and death of Jesus. And, then, his resurrection. On Holy Saturday, after the lighting of the pascal candle, this joyful news is told in a beautiful, solemn, mystical song called the Exsultet, or the Proclamation of Easter. It begins: Exult, let them exult, the hosts of heaven, exult, let Angel ministers of God exult, let the trumpet of salvation/sound aloud our mighty King’s triumph! Be glad, let earth be glad, as glory floods her, ablaze with light from her eternal King, let all corners of the earth be glad, knowing an end to gloom and darkness. “O happy fault” This song, usually sung alone by a cantor, goes back at least 1,500 years. It is filled with wonder and awe, repeating the phrase “This is the night,” including the lines: This is the night of which it is written: The night shall be as bright as day, dazzling is the night for me, and full of gladness. It is a song that confronts the pain of life, our own weakness and the might of God — and God’s impossible-to-fully-understand willingness to […]
March 12, 2018

Essay: Forget the bucket list, and embrace the mystery of a new year

That transition from the end of one year to the start of the next always reminds me why I dislike the whole notion of having a bucket list. I hear people all the time saying, “Now that I’ve been to Disney World, I can check it off my bucket list,” or “Now that I have a grandchild…,” or “Now that I’ve eaten whale…” The idea is that a person is supposed to develop a list of things to accomplish, achieve or experience before death, i.e., kicking the bucket — and then do those things. This seems, to me, to be a weird way of viewing life — as if being alive means taking on the job of checking things off of some list. It presupposes that, at any given time in my life, I know exactly what I want, exactly what will make me feel happy and satisfied. What sort of list might I have made at the age of 28? It certainly would have been different from the list I’d have made at 48, right? And that would be different from the one I’d make now at 68.   Keeping an open mind and remaining nimble But I’m not […]
February 21, 2018

Essay: Fast Food Community

A couple years ago, I met my friend Thomas at the McDonald’s on Broadway, near Loyola University’s lakefront campus on the Far North Side. As we sat down, Thomas said it was just like being in the McDonald’s back home in Iowa. That’s the impression a lot of people have — that all McDonald’s restaurants are the same. Same menus, same lighting, same trays, napkins, etc. All that is true, but what I’ve found is that the uniformity of a McDonald’s — or any major fast food chain, for that matter — is like the setting of a fine jewel. The sameness of the décor and the food means that what I notice when I’m eating at a McDonald’s are the people.   A community of people And here’s the thing: At each McDonald’s, there is a unique community of people. Some, like me, go there for the anonymity. It’s a good place to read and write without having to concern myself with a server who wants to tell me his name is Christopher. (Full disclosure: My daughter-in-law just started working for an ad agency whose only client is McDonald’s. But that’s not why I eat there.) Other people go […]
February 12, 2018

Essay: Ben the barber’s light touch of love

We live in a corrosive age, characterized by bitterness, rancor and fury. Loud voices of rage drown out the quiet virtues of calm and broad-mindedness. My friend Ben wasn’t rageful, and he wasn’t bitter. If anyone had the right to be angry, it was Ben. But he took life as it came, with equanimity and a kind of joy. Ben was my barber for more than 30 years. He cut the hair of my son David from when he was a toddler to when he went off to college. His barbershop on California Avenue, just north of Touhy Avenue, was a frequent Saturday stop for me and David and his younger sister Sarah. They grew knowing Ben as a kind grandfatherly presence in their lives. And they grew up knowing the blue numbers tattooed on his arm.   Surviving Auschwitz as a barber Ben, as he told me and the kids, had spent two years in the Nazi death camp at Auschwitz. He and his brother survived because they could cut hair. They were assigned to cut the hair of fellow Jews and other people who were put to killing labor or sent directly to the crematoria. All other members […]
February 2, 2018

Essay: Van Gogh’s “Self-Portrait” (1887) at the Art Institute of Chicago

It was one of those joyous moments in life when, at my home computer with its large, wide screen, I was able to look at a photo that I had taken on Tuesday of Van Gogh’s 1887 “Self-Portrait” at the Art Institute of Chicago.     According to the museum, this oil painting is just a little over 16 inches high and just under 12 inches wide.  So I was able to get close and still get the whole image in a photo.  Then, I got a bit closer and got a center section of the painting in another photo.     What took my breath away was how detailed my photo was — and, even more, how I could see each of Van Gogh’s individual brushstrokes. And my amazement and delight grew, the closer I looked.   And, again, when I focused solely on the eye.   First, look at the colors Van Gogh uses that, as a non-painter, I wouldn’t expect to see in a portrait.  Look at all that dark green.  And those three little yellow lines. And then there are the reds.  That dark red outlining the top of the eye lid.  And then a more […]
November 21, 2017

Essay: My brother’s suicide and my “heart’s howl”

Back in 1960, my brother David was about nine-years-old when he left the Marbro Theatre near Madison Street and Pulaski Road in the middle of whatever movie we were watching and walked home. He didn’t tell the group of us siblings he was leaving. He just went out the door and walked the two miles west to our home on Leamington. A couple years later, he was goofing around downtown with his friends, and they ditched him, as boys will do. He wasn’t worried and got on an el to return to the West Side. But he soon realized he was on the wrong train, so he got off and, having no more money, walked back downtown, and then headed west on Lake Street. It was a walk of at least seven miles. Two years ago, on November 21, 2015, a few days before Thanksgiving, David took a last journey on his own. He walked out the back door of his Oak Lawn home at 3 a.m. into a frigid snow-rain and took his life.   My own journey David was born in 1951, fourteen months after me. Following him were twelve other children, two boys and ten girls. As […]
November 13, 2017

Meditation: Stay awake!

Most Christians know well the story of the ten virgins that Jesus told: Ten young women wait outside for the bridegroom to show up and the wedding party to start. He’s late. It’s getting dark. The women doze off. Finally, at midnight, here he is, but only five of the women have oil for their lamps to lead him to the feast. The other five had to run to get some, and, by the time they return, the door to the feast is locked. The punchline is the final sentence in which Jesus tells his disciples: “Stay awake, for you know neither the day nor the hour.”   Keeping our eyes open Don’t sleep away your life. Our job as human beings is to keep our eyes open to life and to other people. Our task is to show up, to be alert, to take in the world and the reality of existence in all its fullness — in all its pain and joy — and to be present to those around us. To see those around us, really see them. To listen to them with our full attention, to really hear them. And to share with them our own […]
September 20, 2017

Essay: An understanding heart

Solomon was a kid, but he was already wise. In the first book of Kings, God appears to the boy-king, saying, “Ask something of me, and I will give it to you.” Solomon doesn’t ask for money or revenge or a long life. What he wants is “an understanding heart.” I like that. If I have an understanding heart, I open myself to those around me. I’m able to see them — really see them — and hear them. And I’m able to let them see and hear me. I’m present to them, one human to another. It’s easy to be irritated by other people. If I’m in the Loop and hurrying to a meeting, the wandering, lollygagging tourists who block the sidewalk can be annoying. But, come on, I do the same thing when I’m strolling around Manhattan on vacation. Irritation is a natural human feeling, but an understanding heart doesn’t get stuck in that bile. An understanding heart sees the world in context — sees people in context. An understanding heart expects good from people rather than bad, opts for hope rather than cynicism. And how do I rise above spitefulness and venom? I don’t do it alone. I […]
August 25, 2017

Twenty-two noir or otherwise very odd covers of great works of literature

The book covers of mass market paperbacks are often strange and, many times, wildly inaccurate in terms of illustrating the book inside the covers. There should probably be a scholarly study about what they say about Western civilization — and, now that I think of it, there have probably been several. The strangeness gets really wacky when noir art is used to sell, say, Voltaire’s “Candide” or Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road.” Here are 22 very odd covers of very good, often great, novels. (Thanks to Melanie Villines for help in finding these.)  Not all of the covers are noir. Those that aren’t noir as strange enough, I’d say.                                   8.25.17        
August 23, 2017

Essay: A Mighty Act of God

Picture this: You and your friends, fearful and confused, are gathered in a room, overlooking a garden perhaps, and a great noise comes from the sky like the strongest wind, like the gale of a storm, and fills the entire house, from top to bottom, from side to side. And over your heads are tongues of flame, and you are filled with the Holy Spirit, and you go out of the house and proclaim the Word of God, and everyone who hears you understands what you are saying, no matter their language — 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, Cretans and Arabs. You find yourself taking part in a mighty act of God. This Pentecost moment seems to come right out of one of the epic Hollywood films of today, heavy on special effects and Dolby stereo. Few of us are likely to ever be caught up in such an awe-filled scene. Yet, each day, each of us takes part in the mighty acts of God. Each day, we tap into the ever-flowing river of grace […]
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 […]