Saturday, October 21, 2017

Baha'i celebrates a bicentennial: "People can just walk in."


Chicago is a center of so many things—the blues, candy, pinball—it's easy to lose track of some of the quieter manifestations, such as the Baha'i faith, which isn't as fond of violence and repression as most religions are, and so tends to be overlooked, with the exception of its one magnificent exception, the splendid Baha'i Temple in Wilmette.
     Today, Chicago Baha'is are celebrating the bicentenary of the birth of Mirza Husain-ali Nuri, or Bahá’u’lláh as he came to be known, "Glory of God." in Iran in 1817. He was the messenger of the other totem of Baha'i, the "Bab," whose bicentennial is in 1819.
     If you feel like partying, you can go to the South Shore Cultural Center tonight—here are the details—for the rest, I thought it an apt moment to unearth my look at the Baha'i faith and Temple at the building's centennial five years ago.

     Ask most Chicagoans what they know about the Baha'i faith, and they might mention the House of Worship, a magnificent domed edifice of delicately latticed concrete on the lakefront in Wilmette.
     The temple is hard to miss—at 191 feet high, you could easily tuck the Jefferson Memorial inside.
     "It's on people's radar that this landmark, this unusual building is there," said Glen Fullmer, a spokesman for the faith. "But they're largely unaware of what it stands for or where it came from."
     The Baha'is have just completed a 10-year, $20 million restoration of the building, the oldest and, in their view, holiest of seven Baha'i temples scattered around the globe. The work is completed just in time for a celebration at the end of April to mark the 100th anniversary of the dedication of the building's cornerstone.
     "It does not act as a church with a congregation," said Fullmer. "All the Baha'is don't go there for their weekly worship. That building is considered a continental house of worship, a symbolic building. Most worship is happening in people's homes and little community centers."
     That might come as a surprise. Press Chicagoans for details of Baha'iism, and you'll most likely draw a blank, which is too bad, because in many ways the faith is unique among global religions.
     In a world of controversial priests and fiery imams, there is no Baha'i clergy whatsoever. Anybody can conduct a service. Administration of the religion is handled by elected boards without spiritual authority. They have no rituals. Services tend to be readings from the holy books of other faiths—the Bible, the Torah, the Quran—as well as singing.
     They don't proselytize vigorously—Baha'i missionaries will never come to your house and try to convert you. "It's very much a do-it-yourself religion," said Fullmer.
     Nor will they ask for money—they only accept funds from other Baha'is.
     The religion's central belief is that the earth is one country and humanity its citizens, that all religions reflect the will of a single God and all are equally valid. They stress education, equality and an elimination of prejudice.
     The faith started in Persia—in what is now Iran—in 1844.
     Its central figure was a man named Mirza Husain-ali Nuri, who took the name Baha'u'llah, whose teaching and writings form the foundation of the faith.
     The Baha'i consider him on par with Abraham, Moses, Jesus and Buddha, who all share equal status as divine prophets.
     About 5 million people follow the faith worldwide, with about 170,000 in the United States, with 2,000 of those around Chicago, where in 1894 an insurance salesman named Thornton Chase became the first Westerner to adopt the religion.
     Within five years, there were several hundred Baha'is in and around Chicago. They quickly decided to build a temple to house the growing religion. Representatives from Chicago went to what was then Palestine to meet with Abdu'l-Baha, the son of Baha'u'llah, who had taken over as leader following his father's death in 1892. He encouraged them to build a temple, and the dedication was something of a carrot to get him to come to Chicago, which he did.
      Several years were spent scouting a location. Jackson Park was considered, but Wilmette was settled on for its rural setting and inexpensive lakefront land.
     Despite his presence, the May 1, 1912, dedication was something of a bust, as far as cornerstone ceremonies go. First, the guest of honor was two hours late. Second, the ceremonial trowel would not pierce the thick springtime grass and somebody had to run and borrow a shovel from a nearby road crew.
      And third, there wasn't actually a cornerstone, but only a chunk of limestone scrap that a woman had begged from construction workers and taken to the site on a horse-drawn streetcar.
     Money still had to be raised. Construction did not begin until 1920, and the temple was not completed until 1953.
   Still, the crude cornerstone remains as a symbol of the do-it-yourself quality of the faith, to this day surrounded by a triangle of velvet ropes in the ground floor visitor's center at the temple.
     Above, the temple seats 1,200, and is accessed by nine doors—the number nine is highly significant in Baha'i, representing unity.
     Work on the nine gardens around the temple is just now being completed, the final stage of the rehabilitation project.
     "We repaired the entire temple itself, cleaned it and got it ready for its next 100 years," said Scott Conrad, a California architect who has been project manager on the refurbishing.
     About 25 percent of the surface area of the building was rebuilt, including the steps, which were completely replaced.
     To clean the intricate concrete work, skilled mountaineers were hired from Alaska and Colorado to rappel down the building, cleaning the facade with brushes.
     "It is considered the world's most exquisite concrete building," said Conrad, standing among a mass of purple flowers being planted in advance of the centennial. He said the gardens were never before quite up to what the founder's son had hoped for when the temple was first planned.
     "These gardens are completely new," he said. "In the Baha'i community, the gardens are part of the temple, and these gardens are a fulfillment of Abdu'l-Baha's wish."
     Now, what they would like is for Chicagoans to visit.
     "There is a misconception, 'Oh, this must be secret,' " said Fullmer. "The temple is open every day. People can just walk in, sit and enjoy the spirit and serenity of it, regardless of their faith. It's a sacred place they can go. That's really the hope of the Baha'is, the main purpose of it."
           —Originally published in the Chicago Sun-Times, April 22, 2012

Friday, October 20, 2017

'Don Quixote,' ripped from the headlines

Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, by Honore Damier

     "Self-praise is self-debasement."
     "Craziness has more companions than wisdom."
     "If a man cannot govern himself how can he govern others?"

     Now seemed a perfect time to flee into "Don Quixote" by Miguel de Cervantes, to get lost in the vast 400-year-old Spanish novel of a deranged knight and his trusty mule-borne sidekick, Sancho Panza.
     You can run but, alas, you cannot hide, and a vexing present will sneak up where least expected. I don't want to suggest that "Don Quixote" is suddenly a political novel, ripped from the headlines of 2017.
     Let's just say the tale of a delusional old man who blunders about, claiming to help people while actually attacking innocent passersby and then interpreting the resulting fiascoes as embellishing his legend of unmatched glory, well, there was a certain unexpected relevance.
     Or as the Knight of the Sorrowful Face says: "The woman they call Fortune is fickle, and blind and drunken and doesn't know who she raises up or sets down."
     Tell it, brother.
     I do have to give technology a nod. Our brave new digital world gets a bad rap for mooting books, and rightly so. But the sword cuts both ways, to offer a proverb in the spirit of Sancho Panza, that endless font of aphorisms. Technology can also be literature's friend.

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Thursday, October 19, 2017

If I don't see it, it's not there

     I wanted to share this reaction to last week's Mike Ditka column with you. No further comment is necessary. 

Hello Mr. Steinberg

     I disagree with your assessment of so-called racism and this social injustice that the Left/Progressive seemed so fond of throwing around around so much.
     Individuals you mentioned like Mohamed Ali and another one from that time frame did not suffer from Racism or social injustice.They rose to the top of their respective professions and made millions from their efforts. Jesse Owens was a classic figure in his own right and showed what a Black man could do during the 1936 Olympics held in Berlin, Germany when Adolf Hitler and the Nazis held power.
     Yes in a small degree racism does exist yet you need to include some from ALL race's not just some Caucasians. This social injustice doe's not exist since people from all race's made millions and are successful in their respective fields and professions.
     There was no need to put down Mr. Ditka of his statement by saying he is not a man for saying what he did. Is not the left for dialog or his it for dialog under their own terms Mr. Steinberg ???
     Mr. Ditka right in his assessment of what was and is happening now and then.
     Hope to read your next article soon.

Respectfully yours

Joe P.*

* He signed his full name, but I'm abbreviating it, as a kindness.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Making English muffins won't add a second to the Trump administration


     Maybe we're doing this whole Trump thing wrong.
     Maybe liberals—horrified, rapt, gazing fixedly at each new jaw-dropper through latticed fingers, only tearing our chalky faces away from the endless slow motion train wreck to grab each other hard by the shoulders and screech, "Can you believe this?"—have fallen into a rut.
     Shock gets old. On Monday Trump lied that Barack Obama never called families of fallen soldiers. On Tuesday, trying to wriggle out of that lie—or sincere delusion, what does it matter?—Trump asked whether Obama called Gen. John Kelly after Kelly's son was killed in Afghanistan in 2010, using his chief of staff's personal heartbreak as a tissue to blot the mendacious froth from his own lips. By the time you read this Wednesday, Trump will have sailed off into new territory with some unimaginable false tweet, callous remark or cruel policy.
     Must we flinch at each one?
     Maybe we need to step back, breathe, take a break, consider the big picture. Yes, this is an ordeal. We've also sailed off someplace strange and have to live there for the foreseeable future. Exiles in Crazyland. Everything this president says is still important, but not in the traditional, reflect-reality sense of importance. It's important in the yet-more-evidence-of-unfitness sense. But who really needs more evidence? At this point, either you get it or you don't. I certainly get it, and bet you do too. If you don't, well, instead of writing to me in all caps shouting how much you don't get it, consider this: just because you don't perceive something doesn't mean it's not there. Can you get that?
     For those who grasp what's happening, a ball peen hammer on our skulls, a thought: this nightmare is also an opportunity, a chance to be better people, ourselves.
     What should we do? Nurture your own non-Trump reality. Because otherwise, he can poison your whole life and you go mad, and there's too much of that already.
     Work at making your non-Trump existence richer. I did something recently that I've never done in my entire life and, I would bet, none of you have never done either, or even contemplated doing.
I made English muffins....

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Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Have a nice day!

     The smiley face, a graphic low-point of the 1970s, if not of all time, has had its iconography thoroughly documented already, by Smithsonian magazine among others. So I won't bother rolling it out here, except to note that for some reason the smiley face is less objectionable when  shrunken to an emoji at the end of a sentence. 

     Why? Perhaps because it is so very small. Or, more likely, because the internet is a cold medium, nuance is often lost, and if there weren't a way to telegraph that we are speaking in jest, well, we would all be forced to slit our wrists in a warm bath. 😊
     Or maybe we just got used to it, our standards of communication worn down like a rock under a waterfall. OMG.
     Then again, "Have a nice day!" the one-size-fits-all blow-off vale we tossed at each other for decades, wasn't exactly the Sermon on the Mount either. Let's not blame technology for reflecting our flaws.
     On Sunday, in Evanston, before we slipped by the offices of for the Society of Professional Obituary Writers breakfast, my wife and I killed time by stopping in that mecca of all things baked, Bennison's, where we picked up a laudable baguette for dinner. I noticed that their creative bakers had augmented smiley faces with, for want of a better word, frowny faces.
     "Which sell better?" I asked the clerk, who indulgently pulled their tray out of a case at my request so I could photograph them properly. She said that the smile faces are more popular—I guess all is not darkness quite yet, or else people are trying to cheer themselves up however they can, allaying this Trumpian gloom with simpering sweets. 

     Although some people, she continued, will specify the frowns. "They'll order four at a time," said the clerk, who reluctantly agreed to be included in the shot, and I didn't want to push my luck by asking her name. You can't be too careful in this world. No wonder we're so glum. I didn't have the presence of mind to buy a cookie, so I can't say whether I went smiley or frowny—the latter, definitely. Besides, they are a better value: you get extra chocolate icing, in the form of of those vexed eyebrows. Next time.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Christine Goerke: "You can't do this if you're not healthy and strong"

Christine Goerke, right, rehearsing with Swedish soprano Elisabet Strid.

     If you are daunted at the prospect of sitting through five hours of Wagner, imagine performing it on stage.
     Picture leaping from rock to rock, dressed in armor, crying "Ho-yo-to-ho," then singing, in German, in tune, and loud enough to be heard over a 93-piece orchestra all the way in the back row of the Civic Opera house 212 feet away.
     Contemplate doing what soprano Christine Goerke does night after night in "Die Walküre," which opens Nov. 1 at Lyric Opera of Chicago.
     "It's very much like running a marathon," said Goerke, relaxing after a recent rehearsal for the second part of Richard Wagner's epic "Ring Cycle" that Lyric began last year. "I will be on stage about three hours. It's very physical."
     Described by one top critic as "now arguably the finest Wagnerian soprano in the world," Goerke in person is whatever the opposite of a diva is: warm, easy-going, quick to laugh, a reminder that when she isn't traveling the world singing opera, she is a New Jersey mother of two girls, married to a construction superintendent.
     "They are the love of my life," she said.
     Goerke sings Brünnhilde, the most recognized character in opera. When Bugs Bunny dons a winged helmet with braids, he is parodying Brünnhilde.
     "The huge lady with the braids," as Goerke describes her. "A stereotype we are fighting right and left."
     It's a stereotype that, like Bugs, is 75 years old, harkening back to the "park and bark" days when enormous sopranos stood on one spot and belted out arias. While Wagnerian singers can still be large — Goerke is 6 foot and generously proportioned — they also must be fit. Goerke bristled only once in our conversation, when I suggested that her character evokes the adage, "The opera ain't over until the fat lady sings."
     "No. Absolutely not," she said. "I am busting my ass to try to be healthy."

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Sunday, October 15, 2017

Encounter with an owl

     If human eyes were as big as owl eyes, relative to our heads, they would be the size of oranges. Then maybe we, too, would be able to swivel our necks 270 degrees, the way owls can—out of necessity, since their eyes are not mobile eyeballs, like ours, but tube-shaped, like a pair of binoculars, ideal for hunting small animals from the air at night. 
     This is an Eastern Screech-Owl—the hyphen looks odd, but if it's good enough for Sibley's, it's good enough for me— encountered Friday on the south bank of the Chicago River, just west of Orleans. 
     I was hurrying to catch the 5:12, noticed a group of city dwellers along the riverbank, fishing—the Friends of the Chicago River, having an event—and then saw this fellow perched on the leather gauntlet of Natalie F., who works for the Brookfield Zoo. I detoured down the stairs to the river bank to take a closer look.
     Eastern Screech-Owls range across the entire United States east of the Rockies. Screech-Owls west of the Rockies are Western Screech-Owls, aptly enough, and almost identical, except they have no red varieties. Their loss, as the red is quite pretty.
      This owl, I was told, is named "Weasley," obviously a nod to the red-haired Weasley clan in J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series, whose use of owls as messengers has to count as one of the more creative uses of owls in fiction.
     Though not the only one. The best magic-based kids book series before Harry Potter also prominently features owls. In fact, chapter four of C.S. Lewis' "The Silver Chair," the fourth book of his Chronicles of Narnia, is called "A Parliament of Owls," his description of a gathering of owls to discuss their business of the day (and itself a pun on Chaucer's allegorical poem, "The Parliament of Fowls"). The term stuck as a collective noun to denote groupings of the bird.
     When our boys were growing up, my wife and I read them "Owl Babies," an excellent picture book by Martin Waddell, illustrated by Patrick Benson. It has a very simple plot. Three owlet—the term for young owls— siblings, delightfully named Sarah, Percy and Bill, wake to find their mother gone, and the entire plot is their fearful wait for her. (Though I'm not an expert, mom looks like a Spotted Owl to me).
"Malle Babbe" by Frans Hall
     Publisher's Weekly called the book "hauntingly lovely," and years ago, when I went over for tea and chocolate cake at Ann Lander's East Lake Shore Drive condo, I brought her a copy of "Owl Babies" as a present, knowing she collects owl figurines and images. She was pleased with it.
      I'm tempted to sail off into owls in art, where they represent everything from the devil and madness, such as in Frans Hals "Malle Babbe," a 1630s painting of a drunken madwomen, to wisdom and calm. In ancient times Athena, the goddess of wisdom was often depicted with an owl mascot. 
    Well, maybe just a little side trip. The most famous ancient Greek coin, the tretradrachm, featured Athena on one side, and an owl on the other, starting the tradition of putting animals on the backs of coins, and in ancient times the coins were referred to as Owls. 
     Coveting the thing and wondering how available they are, I went on eBay, and was surprised to see specimens of the 2500-year-old silver coin for as little as $400. Then again, the owl tetradrachma is perhaps the most forged coin of all time, so buyer beware.
    I think I'll do without. Besides, there is no need to spend big bucks and reach back into antiquity to find what may or may not be an authentic  Greek owl coin. Greece struck a number of modern versions, including 1 and 2 drachma coins, issued by the military junta in 1973, a nice example of which can be had on eBay for $4.