September 9, 2019

Essay: Tweet at me, Mr. President

I don’t know about anyone else, but I’m feeling sort of left out. This past weekend, President Donald Trump tweeted about how much he dislikes singer and activist John Legend and his wife Chrissy Teigen, throwing schoolyard insults at them. But, so far, at least, that little rant pales in comparison to his tweet storm a month or so ago against a whole lot of people, including five members of Congress — Reps. Elijah Cummings (Maryland), Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (New York), Rashida Tlaib (Michigan), Ilhan Omar (Minnesota) and Ayanna Pressley (Massachusetts). Also targeted was Rev. Al Sharpton, a private citizen and public activist. So, I thought, Well, why not me? True, I haven’t been elected to Congress. Neither am I like four of those U.S. Representatives a woman, nor am I a person of color like the six people targeted in these tweets. Nor am I as accomplished artisticly as Legend and Teigen, also people of color. But, like them, I am an American citizen.  If President Trump is going to spend a lot of time trying to bully these people, I’m OK with him trying to bully me.  It’s gotten to be a kind of badge of honor, in a […]
September 2, 2019

Essay: Let’s celebrate working when we’re working

On the occasion of this 126th Labor Day as a national holiday, I’d like to make a modest proposal: Let’s have a second one — Labor Day 2 — that’s not a day off. I know that might sound like heresy.  A day off has been intertwined with the idea of Labor Day since the late 19th century when it was a holiday in some states but not yet nationally. But the deeper aim of Labor Day is to honor workers — all those millions of women and men (and, at times in our national history, children) who have struggled throughout the past 243 years to keep body and soul together and help this nation accomplish, grow and prosper.  To honor them with a day, the way we honor George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, and Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and the nation’s armed forces veterans. A day off is a fine way to bestow that honor, and, let me say, I’ve got nothing against a day off.  When I was working for a boss, I was just as glad as the next person to have paid time away from work.  Saying, “Thank you,” on Labor Day 2 But here’s […]
July 22, 2019

Essay: Soul Seeing: “The holiness of beauty is a glimpse into the heart of God”

The other day, I was at the First Communion of my great niece Maeve, and I was again struck, as I often am, by the holiness of beauty. Maeve is a beautiful eight-year-old — of course, aren’t all eight-year-olds beautiful? and holy? — and she was one of nearly sixty kids who were receiving the sacrament of the Eucharist in her parish church, St. Mary of the Woods, in Chicago. It’s a low-slung worship space, built in the 1950s when Catholic church-building in the newly settled suburbs and on the edges of the city eschewed traditional architecture.  In an effort to keep costs down and experiment with new ways of raising the human spirit to God and toward community, the designers of St. Mary of the Woods put the altar along one very long western wall, facing some two dozen rows of pews under a ceiling that was only 20-25 feet above the floor.  It is a space that would have flirted with the sterility of a conference center meeting room except for one thing. Along the western and northern walls are eighteen floor-to-ceiling stained-glass windows filled with abstract colors in and around myriad leaf shapes — the “woods” of […]
April 1, 2019

Essay: My lay-off and the golden age of journalism

By Patrick T. Reardon This essay was originally posted on the 5th anniversary of my lay-off, April 23, 2014. Aside from adjusting the first sentence, I haven't changed it. Ten years ago this month, I was laid off by the Chicago Tribune.  I had company. More than 50 other editorial employees were let go the same week I was shown the door.  And another 70 or so had been sent packing during the previous nine months. For me, the lay-off didn’t come as a shock.  Earlier in the week, I’d had lunch with a colleague who’d asked me if I was worried about the announcement about staff cuts that we knew was imminent. “Anyone who doesn’t realize that he’s walking around with a big target on his back isn’t paying attention,” I said.  The next day — my day off — I was proved right. As if shattered by a laser beam I spent the rest of that day and most of the next in the office, packing up my files and books and tying up loose ends.  And it was then that I realized one jarring result of the cutback — a kind of atomization of those of us […]
March 27, 2019

Essay: Soul Seeing — At 69, I still find grace and God on the basketball court

The video of me playing basketball didn’t exactly go viral, but it did cause a bit of a stir among my Facebook friends.  And, later, it got me wondering about basketball and spirituality. It was during our usual Sunday afternoon pick-up game at St. Gertrude Catholic Church on Chicago’s Far North Side.  This game that’s been going on in one form or another since, at least, 1995, is for guys 40 and older although, on any given Sunday, one or more of the men will bring a son or daughter.  We like to see the kids because they run the fast break for us. Often, I’m the oldest guy on the court, and it was the week of my 69th birthday when my son took the video. In it, this tall old, overweight guy — me — takes a pass from the corner, turns to his right, dribbles under the basket and, without looking, flips the ball up over his shoulder, past the outstretched arms of another tall guy, to bounce off the backboard and into the basket.  Then, the old guy lumbers — and, I mean, lumbers — up the court to play defense. It’s a shot I’ve taken […]
March 20, 2019

Essay: Complaining about just about everything

I want to complain about complaining. Wait, let me rephrase that.  I’d like to make some observations about the tendency of modern Americans to find fault with just about anything. First things first, I’m not lobbying for a Pollyanna-ish approach to life. Lord knows that there is enough pain, corruption, wrong-headedness, wickedness, oppression, lying and sheer stupidity in the world.  We all have to take up our cudgels against such evils with righteous anger and complaint — and action. Knee-jerk moaning What I’m looking at, however, is the epidemic of grumbling in American life, the way we’ve gotten into the knee-jerk habit of moaning and denouncing and criticizing.  I do it.  You do it.  We all do it. Many on the right contend that liberals are always getting offended and stamping around in high dungeon, but I’d suggest conservatives are very good at that as well.  Besides, this isn’t something restricted to politics. Think about it:  You’re standing in line at the grocery behind a family with two shopping carts full of stuff.  If the guy behind you strikes up a conversation, how likely is it that he’s going to comment on how pretty the song now playing on the […]
January 14, 2019

Essay: The home we own that doesn’t belong to us

    My wife Cathy and I have been in our two-flat on Paulina Street since 1984, and, even though the bank has always had its portion, we think of ourselves as the owners of this 108-year-old home. Yet, more and more, I’ve come to realize that this handsome, red-brick building with its large side yard and large backyard, with its beautiful summer garden, planted and tended by Cathy, and with its front, side and back sidewalks, shoveled by me in winter — this spot on earth that we think of as ours — doesn’t belong to us. Not really. A long time ago, I looked up the history of our property which is in the Edgewater neighborhood on Chicago’s Far North Side.  From the best I can remember, the house was built around 1910 and was the home of a German family for a long time.  By the time we bought it, it was on its third owner and was filled with three branches of an extended Japanese family. Each of these owners, each child who grew up in the house, each person who looked out mornings through its windows had his or her own experience of the place.  […]
January 1, 2019

Essay: The twelve best books of 2018

    Here are the twelve best books that I read in 2018: “Advice for Future Corpses (And Those Who Love Them): A Practical Perspective on Death and Dying” by Sallie Tisdale “Barchester Towers” by Anthony Trollope “David Copperfield“ by Charles Dickens “Golden Hill” by Francis Spufford “Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words That Remade America” by Garry Wills “Native Son” by Richard Wright “The Art of Biblical Narrative” by Robert Alter “The Art of the Wasted Day” by Patricia Hampl “The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography” by Alan Jacobs “The Christ of the Miracle Stories: Portrait through Encounter” by Wendy Cotter CSJ “The Path to Power” by Robert A. Caro “The Power and the Glory” by Graham Greene These aren’t the best books published in 2018.  In fact, only two of the books hit bookshelves during the year.  The rest are older, in some cases, a lot older. I find it interesting that two of the book titles have to do with “The Art of…”  Two, with power, from different yet, perhaps, complementary perspectives.  Five are novels.  Two are book-long meditations on subjects that are far from run-of-the-mill.  Five have to do with religion in some way.  There’s a […]
December 17, 2018

Six Feminist Books

    When I use the term “feminist book” here, I’m referring to strong, muscular books written by strong, muscular writers who happen to be women.  To me, these books are part of what feminism is all about — the creation of great art. I greatly admire the six writers in this list.  The book I highlight for each writer is an example of her skill and insight.  I would recommend reading any of the works by these six.  Of course, there are many other women writers whom I could have included in this list. Here’s the list: All Passion Spent by Vita Sackville-West If you’re not familiar with Vita Sackville-West and her writing, you’re missing out on a lot [I wrote in the Chicago Tribune in an essay, “Deriving pleasure from books read, and unread,” published December 9, 2007]. Born into British aristocracy — she grew up in a stately 15th Century mansion that had been a gift to her family from Queen Elizabeth I — Sackville-West was deeply in love with her husband, Sir Harold Nicolson, a prominent British politician. Which might not sound like much, except that, throughout her life, she took a series of lesbian lovers, […]
December 5, 2018

Essay: God Is the Ocean in Which We All Swim

  I have gotten to a point that I can’t go along any more with Michelangelo’s God on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.  Great art, but, gee, God as an old guy with a long gray beard?  No thanks. For a long time, my wife Cathy has had her own spin on this.  At Mass, when the celebrants starts, “Our Father…,” Cathy adds in a loud voice, “…and Mother.” That makes more sense to me — God as a Father and as a Mother — but it still doesn’t do the job for me.  I am able to think of God as, like a parent, loving me and wanting what’s best for me and providing me with what I need to live a full life and, again like a good parent, giving me the space I need to fail and learn from my failures.   What doesn’t work for me What doesn’t work for me is the idea that, if something good happens, it’s God up in heaven pulling the strings. Say I’m running to the airport, late for a flight, and, against all odds, I get on the flight.  I can’t think that God made that happen.  And […]
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