Saturday, September 20, 2014

Cardinal George wasn't loved, but brought a certain grim purpose to his job

 I've written some critical things about Cardinal George, particularly when it came to his cruel, immoral view of gays. But when the paper called last night and asked me to put together something on his 16 year (!) tenure leading Chicago's Catholics, a gentler tone seemed in order. 

    When the Rev. Francis George, archbishop of Portland, Oregon, learned that Pope John Paul II had named him as the successor to Chicago’s much-beloved Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, the unassuming priest asked in surprise, “Are you sure the Holy Father has considered all the options?”
     He had.
     The former Northwest Sider became Cardinal Francis George, the city’s sixth cardinal and the first priest born within the Chicago Archdiocese to be called upon to lead it, which he has done with seriousness and a firm hand. On Saturday, Pope Francis namedBishop Blase Cupich, of Spokane, Washington, as George’s successor, according to the Associated Press.
     Considered conservative at the time of his appointment — he was named head of the Chicago Archdiocese in April 1997 and elevated to cardinal in January 1998 — George tried to set an accepting tone for the archdiocese’s 2.3 million Catholics.
      “The bishop is to be the source of unity in any archdiocese,” he said the day he was introduced to the city. “The faith isn’t liberal or conservative.”
George, 77, has been struggling with cancer for the past eight years after being diagnosed with bladder and prostate cancer in 2006. It returned for a third time in the spring, and in August he began using experimental treatments to combat the disease.

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Saturday Fun Activity: Where IS this?

     Do you have to be a writer to hate books as decoration? Purely decoration, I mean. My house is decorated with books, but actual books I either have read, am reading or will read.
     It's bad enough when real books are trotted out for show, when you go to a department store and start to look at the Readers Digest condensed books and old law texts and such they buy by the pound and scatter on their shelves.  
     Or the homes of rich swells with linear feet of those leather Franklin Mint editions, with the gold stamping and the fat ribbon, that you can tell have never been opened. That's bad, but at least someone had the idea: books look nice. Let's get some books. Even those Restoration Hardware stacks of books, with their covers ripped off, bound in twine, had a certain post-Apocalyptic, at-least-it-was-a-book-once air of authenticity. 
      Look at the above. Faux books. What's with that? As if real books weren't available. Which I suppose at some point in the future they won't be, but this has the air of a premature surrender. This tableau was no doubt supposed to look cool, but I found it chilling.  Or maybe I'm reading too much into it. 
    This is in a public place of accommodation in downtown Chicago—not a store, not a restaurant, but a lobby somewhere. Do you know where? Did you also notice these white sentinels of illiteracy?
       The prize this week is something suitably bookish. When I wrote "Don't Give Up the Ship" in 2002 I took the title from Admiral Oliver Hazard Perry's battle flag, flown durning the Battle of Lake Erie in 1813, a banner he took to heart in spirit if not to the word, when he abandoned his disabled flagship, the Lawrence, and rowed over to the Niagara and press the battle afresh, and win. 
      I thought it represented a certain essential spirit of persistence in the face of setback—quite useful in professional journalism— and bought a gross or so of the little flags, with round plastic stands stands, as promotional gifts for the book. They didn't quite work, and I ended up with a lot of them, which are popping up in odd places. It's a bracing message—sort of the American version of the Brit's "Keep Calm and Carry On." If you win—post your guesses below, please—I'll toss in this orange square of the sail material that Cristo used for his Gates installation in New York's Central Park in February 2005—my column was running in the New York Daily News then, and I went to report on the project, and city workers were handing out these little squares, I assume to keep resourceful Manhattanites from going at it with shears. Good luck.

Friday, September 19, 2014

The hidden link between Rail Safety Week, Lord Byron

     Metra tries not to kill its customers.
The actual fine, $250, is half the posted fine. 
     It really does. Say what you will about our commuter rail service: its jaw-dropping top-level mismanagement, creaky equipment and seasonal surprise at finding itself once again in a cold climate. But when it comes to sparing the hectic, harried, charmless lives of the commuters who travel its length, Metra is outstanding.
      If a train is in the station, say going north, and another is going south, the northbound train will linger in the station, deliberately, to the puzzlement of passengers, until the southbound train arrives in the station.
     Why? Because the engineers know, if they were to pull out of the station when another train was about to arrive, passengers who disembarked would surge across the tracks and be killed by the incoming train.
     Considerate of Metra to spare them, I’ve always felt, even though they are not helping me, personally, since I am the one person, alone it seems, among the 150,000 who take Metra every day, who does not wait between the lowered gate and the train, in a runner’s crouch, eyes fixed on the moving last train, timing my lunge forward so that I am out of the blocks when the train has not quite passed, accelerating as the stainless steel wall clears the space in front of me.
     Usually, invariably they’re fine....

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Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Old Stuff I Love #3: Steiff Lobster

     See the lobster? With the bright orange, red and golden yellow claws? Little beady black eyes? Half cute, half realistic, you don't know whether to hug him or draw some butter.
     He's 52 years old. Ancient for a toy, particularly one that looks so good. The only wear he has shown is, he used to have long red stringy whiskers, like a real lobster. But those got chewed off over the years.
      All told, in surprising condition.
     Well, maybe not so surprising. He's a Steiff.
      If you know something about toys, you know that Steiffs are German mohair animals—well, they make regular soft stuffed animals too, but classic Steiff's are hard, dense toys like this lobster -- he feels packed with sawdust. The company was founded in 1880, and still makes old-fashioned toys. The bear's arms and legs and neck move. That's really their claim to fame, along with the brass button in their ears displaying a serial number, and the fact that the company invented the Teddy Bear in 1902 (with a crucial assist from the United States, where Theodore Roosevelt, in the same year, refused to shoot a black bear that had been tethered to a tree by his over-zealous hosts. The incident became a Washington Post cartoon, a Brooklyn toymaker got the ball rolling and then Steiff invaded these shores in 1906, setting off a veritable Teddy Bear mania. The song, "Teddy Bear's Picnic," for instance, dates to 1907). 
      None of which has anything to do with why I love them. My father was a nuclear scientist and, as such, traveled the world, giving papers and attending conferences. In 1962, he travelled to Germany, where he noticed these colorful, realistic, lovely toy animals. He had two kids at home: me, then 2, and my sister, 5. The dollar was strong then, and he bought back Steiff toys—a turtle and an elephant, this lobster and giraffe ... and a lion, a camel, various birds, including a penguin, and ... a squirrel, a big ladybug, a goat—so many that he bought a small case to carry them home.
     The part of the story that I cherish is when he gets home, after his long overseas trip, happily opens the case, with its stuffed treasure, and tells my sister to take what she wants, and her toddling brother can have the rest. My sister surveys the bestiary and bursts into tears: "Didn't they have any dollies?" she wails. She wanted baby dolls, not a lobster, which went to me. He's been a boon companion, lo these many years.
      Maybe that story isn't much, as far as family traditions go. But it was what I had, so I hung my hat on it. When Sam's daughter Rina was born, I showed up at the hospital, Steiff in hand. Ditto for Ryan, and Sam reciprocated for my kids.
       The day Ross was born, when Edie beeped me to tell me to get home now and whisk her to the hospital, I was in FAO Schwarz on Michigan Avenue, looking at a little Steiff German Shepherd that ended up in his crib. The cat was a gift for Kent from his Uncle Sam.
      And the Teddy Bear ... was a gift from me to Kent.  Ross later demanding the exact same bear, and when FAO Schwarz let me down, I plugged the serial number into this new Internet machine—this was about 1998—and found a toy store in Coon Rapids, Minnesota that sold it to me, via mail, for $30 less than what I had spent on Kent's. A miracle. 
     What I remember most about Kent's bear was when I bought him, 17 years ago, my frugal wife looked in the shopping bag and was aghast, horrified at the cost—$160—and gave me one of those are-you-mad? keel-haulings that wives are so good at. "A hundred and sixty dollars?! For a Teddy Bear?!?!  Are you out of your MIND? Spending THAT on some TOY? Why do you always do this to me...?"
     As fate would have it, the perfect retort came to me, and I smoothly sidestepped the crisis with a matador's grace. 
     "When you see it in your grandchild's crib," I parried. "It'll seem like a bargain."
     She, like my sister, started to cry. Game, set, match.
     The bears, to be honest, were never favorite toys of either boy; I think they somehow knew they were special and treated them gingerly. They spent a lot of time on shelves, observing. Or maybe they just weren't cuddly, they were hard, and got shunted to the side. I let the lobster be part of their scrum—I dug him out of the toy chest for his portrait—not seeing the point of holding him back, particularly since nothing could hurt him short of a machete. He's still good to go for the next generation. The bears too. That doesn't come for a while, but if Steiff is here, and if I'm here, and have a few dollars to scrape together, Steinbergs unborn be outfitted with beautiful mohair toys, good the rough and tumble long haul of a life well-lived.

Could the bad news about women be good?

     When Sally Armstrong's book "Uprising: A New Age is Dawning for Every Mother's Daughter" first crossed my desk, I looked at that subtitle—"A New Age?" Really?—and tossed it on the free pile. But a friend raved about it, and her, so I got another copy, actually opened the cover this time and started to read, and found the book impressive and provocative.

     Hundreds of girls in Nigeria are kidnapped by insurgents. In Eastern Europe, women are raped as a strategy of war. An NFL star slugs his wife in a jarring video.
     Women worldwide fight for basic rights — to drive, to go to school. Meanwhile, 130 million young women in 28 countries have been sexually mutilated in crude religious rituals, with 6,000 added every day. Taken together, you might easily think that the rights of women are ebbing.
     You’d be wrong, according to Canadian journalist Sally Armstrong, who travels the world reporting on women’s issues and sees this pervasive bad news about women in a different light: as good, in that it represents events historically left in the shadows now being dragged out into the light to wither.
     “None of this stuff came to light before,” Armstrong said.
     Those kidnapped girls? Note that troops including U.S. advisers are looking for them.
     “No military has ever gone anywhere to rescue girls, ever in history,” she said. “Obama checked off a box never checked off before. Message: Girls count.”
     Armstrong and I had lunch recently to talk about her new book, “Uprising: A New Age is Dawning for Every Mother’s Daughter.” The book begins in dramatic fashion:
     “The earth is shifting. A new age is dawning. From Kabul and Cairo to Cape Town and New York, women are claiming their space at home, at work, and in the public square. They are propelling changes so immense, they’re likely to affect intractable issues such as poverty, interstate conflict, culture, and religion, and the power brokers are finally listening.”
Bold words. But Armstrong backs them up, pointing out that the very elements that would seem to undermine women, such as AIDS or the rise of radical Islam, instead are mobilizing them, with a key assist from pervasive social media.....

To continue reading, click here.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Old stuff I love #2: Haitian drapeaux

     If you were to visit our house — please don't — you would notice that much of the artwork — no, really, don't, I mean it. I'm sure you're a perfectly fine person, but it would be unsettling to have random readers blithely bursting into my home and ...
      Sorry, I'll start again. 

      If you were to visit our house, you would find it cluttered with Haitian art—oil paintings of historical figures, rag dolls, a sequined bottle, painted metal or paper mache animals—tigers, fish, cats—a box adorned with a leopard, and four drapeaux—sequined flags that were meant to decorate the peristyles of voodoo priests.

      They are relics from two trips there; first a two-week adventure on my own, to visit my college buddy Didier, who was working with Catholic Relief in Port-au-Prince, and then a second weeklong visit, a year later, with my wife-to-be, Edie. It was on that second visit that we really loaded up on artworks. We put up everything when we got home, have moved twice since then and never thought to not put them back on display. I can't tell if they're beautiful or I'm just very familiar with them.
    My favorite is this plump red heart, representing the loa, or goddess, Erzulie Dantor. "The goddess of love and luxury"—at least in the version I was told; there are a number of various explanations when it comes to voodoo symbolism, some of them contradictory. I was researching voodoo on my first trip — I had convinced The Atlantic magazine to consider a story on the subject. Erzulie Dantor, I was told, "gives a lot, but she expects a lot." Sounds like love and luxury as I understand it. To the left, the candle, to the right, the bottle of rum, with a kitchen knife poised at the center.
     Voodoo is sort of a funky folk Catholicism, and though it is the stuff of horror movies here, there it is taken very seriously. On the first trip, I was in the office of an American professor at the ethnographic institute‚an Ira something-or-other,  married to a Haitian woman, if I recall. A lot of Americans are blase about their faiths, I said --they belong, and go through the motions, but don't necessarily believe, in their hearts. How real is voodoo? Its pantheon of gods and goddesses like Erzulie Dantor, and Baron Samedi—how real are they to Haitians?
     "As real as if I were to walk around this desk and punch you in the mouth," he answered, one of the more memorable replies I've ever received to a question. That was the same trip where Max Beauvoir, the head houngon of Haiti, summoned his maid by clapping his hands together, twice.
Waiting for the drapeau to be finished in Haiti.
       Anyway, this hanging is a quarter century old.  I never thought sequins could fade, but they're fading, a little, at least the pink ones are. Edie and I found it on a street in Port-au-Prince, at a residence where they were being made. It wasn't quite finished, but we waited while it was completed. I snapped these two photos of Edie while we were waiting. I suppose the romance of the trip, the situation where we got the drapeau, as much as the image itself, is why it's still up, as soon as you walk in our house. Our trip was quite the adventure.
    That first night we landed in Haiti, we ended up in a small outdoor bar -- think a wooden platform, no ceiling, a couple curtains for walls, and strings of red lights overhead, very dim, a bottle of Jane Barbancourt on the table. Edie and I got up to dance, slow, slowly, with the darkness and the hot Caribbean night stretching all around our little island of soft light and music. We still are, I suppose.

Monday, September 15, 2014

University of Illinois dodges a bullet, is hit by a thousands more

     The media can have terrible tunnel vision, such as when it focused on the question of whether the University of Illinois was right in retracting its job off to Steve Salaita, who used the Anti-Semitism Empowerment Act, aka the Gaza War, to ladle contempt on Israelis and, by proxy, Jews. (Spoiler alert: they were correct).
      I resisted the impulse to jump in. Academic squabbles are so bitter, the saying goes, because the stakes are so small. But the more I thought of it, the more I realized that the problem isn't this guy. Oh that it were. The problem is he represents the standard lazy, evil-du-jour activism always popular on college campuses, with a healthy dose of good old-fashioned ivory tower anti-Semitism thrown in. As readers know, I hate playing the anti-Semite card: God knows there are reasons aplenty to criticize Israel and its frequent missteps. But Salaita plunged over the line into hate speech, as so frequently happens, which is not guaranteed speech, but shouting "Fire" in a crowded theater. We've seen this before. The far right tries to put a fig leaf over their hatred by claiming religious freedom. The left, no better, cites academic privilege as a shield for their noxious bigotry. Too bad for Salaita that he didn't wait three months to spout his hate; then he could have just blended into the crowd. 

     Kudos to the University of Illinois Board of Trustees for yanking back its invitation to would-be professor Steven Salaita, whose Twitter rants during the Gaza war said, in essence, that all Israelis living in the West Bank — different place, but close enough — should die, and that Israel’s existence justifies anti-Semitism.
     To be frank, I thought the board would wave him in to avoid a lawsuit and mollify the restive students, many of whom support Salaita, in the rampant ignorance that only half-educated young adults can muster.
     A tiny victory. Does anyone believe keeping Salaita off campus is going to squash the blindered myopia and easy hatred he represents? Jeez. Condemning Israel is a classic American college phenomenon, like binge drinking and date rape, and the U of I’s vote Thursday will have about as much effect as administrative acts against those problems.
     And no, I’m not saying it’s anti-Semitic to criticize Israel. I can criticize Israel all day long, and do, right here in print, so strongly that the consul in Chicago gives me the cold shoulder because I don’t echo their own simplistic friend-or-foe thinking. Israel is in the grip of right-wing hawks, its religious fanatics exert far too much influence (just like ours!)      They were too long viewing the occupied territories as spare land and too slow to see them as the poison pill human-rights disaster they without question are....

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