Monday, September 23, 2013

Pope Francis calls for a new balance

     Pope Francis' interview with an Italian Jesuit magazine, publicized last Thursday, did not itself change anything. But for many faithful waiting for a sign that the church is finally perceiving modern morality, a little, and with a secular community tired of having religious dogma given a veneer of faux rationality and forced upon non-believers through the laws of their countries, it was a welcome sign indeed. Change is tardy, and slow, but also possible.

     There was a time when I worried that Judaism was becoming a death cult. That the Holocaust had permanently deformed the religion and too much attention was being spent on the horrors inflicted upon the Jewish people during World War II, to the detriment of those alive now.
     Part of that might have been transference — persecuted people tend to adopt diluted versions of the views of their tormenters. And just as blacks can be prejudiced based on the shade of each other’s skin, so a bit of the hand-flipping dismissal anti-Semites direct toward the Holocaust might have leached into me.
Inside the Basilique-Cathedrale Notre-Dame de Quebec 
     But some of that feeling was legitimate. Remembrance is one thing, obsession another. There is only so much atrocity you can stomach, and I wasn’t comfortable with a faith that alternated between keening past horrors and moonlighting as the de facto tourist board for the State of Israel.
     It was a question of balance. That’s why I was glad when our family joined a reconstructionist synagogue — Shir Hadash, which means “a new song”— that approached the religion as if it were actually something joyous and alive, with less frequent forays into the abattoir of the past.
     Each religion has a lot of stuff in it, and so the faithful of any stripe must pick and choose. You can’t emphasize everything. That’s how I interpreted Pope Francis’ surprising remarks, made public Thursday, about abortion, gay marriage and contraception. No interpretation was necessary, actually; that’s what he said, clearly and precisely.
     “It is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time,” he told an Italian Jesuit magazine. “We have to find a new balance.”
     The entire interview is worth reading. The pope wasn’t signaling any sea change in church doctrine on these hot-button issues (in fact, he felt the need to denounce abortion the next day, as symptomatic of a “throw-away culture”) but rather a shift in focus. He was only saying what is manifestly true — that the leadership of the church, aided by knots of revanchists, has gotten out of step with the faithful, never mind the mainstream culture, and if the church doesn’t want to eventually “fall like a house of cards,” it has to return to what the pope called the “freshness and fragrance of the Gospel” and strive for something “more simple, profound, radiant.”
      In short, it was a message of love, the agape love of God that is supposedly behind every religion.
      This of course is at odds, intentionally so, with those who wake up in the morning to shout that the children of gay marriages do not really belong to families, that women who have abortions are murderers and those who practice contraception are sticking their thumbs in God’s eye. They had been calling for Francis to comment on these matters, and now he has. Be careful what you wish for.
      Chicago’s Cardinal George yielded the field on this one, issuing a statement Friday that lauded the pontiff’s “beautiful reflection” while letting its substance go by.
      The cardinal’s tact gives rise to hope that those who view their Catholic faith as a bludgeon might be given pause. A bit of hope. Papal infallibility only goes so far, and it will be easy for some to shrug off the current pontiff as an aberration and wait for the next guy, hoping for another Benedict XVI-style “my way or the highway” papacy.
     They will not see this interview for what it is — a baby step away from the dead end the church has long been marching down, a chance to wrest the faith from “those who today always look for disciplinarian solutions . . . those who stubbornly try to recover a past that no longer exists.”
     Those folks will have their say. The word they use for my views on the subject is invariably “bashing,” and no amount of praise for the parts of the church that aren’t trying to use the government to impose doctrine on unbelievers will matter. I like to point out, though, on general principle, that the church does and always has done wonderful things, including keeping the flame of knowledge alive when the world went dark. Anybody who reads ancient philosophy has 500 years’ worth of Catholic monks to thank that these texts didn’t turn to dust in 1354.
     That’s because for centuries the church chose to respect doctrine that was inimical to what it believed, a balance that the pope obviously wants back (asked who he was, Francis said, “I am a sinner.”)
     Like Francis, I would hate to see the church reduced to the things it is against. His words are a challenge to those who want to close the gates, draw up the drawbridges and toss the troublesome over the wall.
     “We must not reduce the bosom of the universal church to a nest protecting our mediocrity,” he said. And let us say, “Amen.”

Sunday, September 22, 2013

"May it please the court..."

     It is easy, correct and perhaps even useful to take a sneering view of the law. Lawyers can be venal and incompetent, prosecutors ruthless and misguided, judges, biased and inept. Particularly in Cook County, where judges who are literally insane have been returned to the bench by voters who, to be blunt, don't know and don't care.
     That said, there is also a grandeur to the law, even a beauty. Sometimes justice is done, despite everything. And we should not let its flaws overwhelm our view of the system. Justice is always flawed, always a struggle. "Judging from the main portions of the history of the world," Walt Whitman wrote in 1870. "Justice is always in jeopardy."
     That might be a grand intro to a column about minor mechanics of the law. But the Illinois Supreme Court is meeting in Chicago while its Springfield home is refurbished, and I stopped by last week to watch the proceedings. They looked better than you might expect.

     If you find yourself arguing in front of the Illinois Supreme Court during its sojourn in Chicago this year, the first time the high court has ever met for a full term here, watch out for the microphone. It’s easy to slam into its gooseneck just as you are about to open “May it please the court . . . ,” the way Keith Rhine, a Waukegan attorney, did on Wednesday.
     “The microphone gets everyone,” quipped Chief Justice Thomas Kilbride, sending a ripple of laughter through the filled-to-capacity room on the 18th floor of the Bilandic Building, 160 N. LaSalle.
      Restoration of the Supreme Court’s usual home in Springfield, built in 1908, sent the court packing, the first time it left town since 1897. Its seven members began hearing oral arguments Sept. 10 — for a check-forgery case — and wrapped up Wednesday, but will hear more cases in November, January, March and May.
     The public is welcome, though anyone expecting TV fireworks will be disappointed. The attorneys give measured, statute-laden arguments, interrupted by polite questions from the bench. But there is a certain fine-tooth combing of legal issues that is satisfying to those of us who value living a society based on law. The first case of the day, American Access Casualty Company v. Ana Reyes et al., stems from a traffic accident on Oct. 30, 2007, where Reyes drove to Elgin and struck two pedestrians, killing one. She had insurance, but the insurance specifically excluded her from driving. The law requires cars to be insured, so sometimes people who are not themselves eligible to drive buy it so their family or friends can use their vehicle.
     The issue revolved around whether these exclusions are good public policy. Keely Hillison, of Parrillo, Weiss & O'Halloran, began the morning, representing American Access Casualty, which issued the policy but denied coverage to Reyes because she was excluded from getting behind the wheel.
     "I want to suggest this is allowed," she said. "It is clear the statute intended and common law allows the exclusion of drivers by name." This is the second time Hillison has argued before the high court. She was happy about the shift in venue; her law offices are a short stroll away at 77 W. Wacker.
     "It makes it easier for me," she said, later. "I don't have to travel to Springfield." Though she did stipulate that the current courtroom, a modern, dignified chambers of dark wood usually used for judicial disciplinary hearings, lacks the grandeur of the Supreme Court Building in Springfield.
     The next case, Venture-Newberg Perini Stone and Webster v. Illinois Workers' Compensation et al, had that spare simplicity that makes some legal cases sound almost like Bible stories. A workman heading to a plant was hurt. Is he exempt from compensation because of the "coming and going" exclusion that keeps workers from being covered if hurt on their commutes? Or did the job of Ronald Daugherty require him to be near the plant? Did his job begin when he got there?
     "The employer didn't send him, he was not hired until he had gone through the screening at the plant," argued Michael Resis. "He was not on call that day and there was no emergency . . . he chose to travel to pursue a job opportunity."
     Jonathan Nessler represented the compensation commission. "Ronald Daugherty testified he was to be within a half hour of the plant for emergencies," Nessler said, deploying a gesture I immediately dubbed in my mind "the spider"- his right hand open, as if holding a ball from above, tapping his fingertips on one spot on the table, then another. The hopping spider then became a bouncing cup. Tap, tap, then swish to drive his point home.
     The question boiled down to what a boss tells you to do versus what a worker is tacitly expected to do. Questions most people never think about but can suddenly become important under law. The court's decision in this case - and the others - is months away.
     The court is convening here all year though, as anyone who has done renovations knows, all rehab dates are tentative. With $12.6 million in work to do, whispers are the court may be here next year too.
     In a room outside the courtroom, overflow visitors watch the proceedings on closed-circuit TV and lawyers wait. Arguments for the workman's case wound up.
     "Showtime," said Joel Ostrow, rising to his feet. He is the attorney for Jennifer Schultz, suing to recover child-support payments that her ex-husband's employer may - or may not - have been obligated to withhold from her ex-husband's pay. In February the Appellate Court upheld her case's dismissal, but she's hoping for relief from the highest court in the state, now sitting in judgment in Chicago.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Audi Alteram Partem

     A few years back, my oldest son brought home an armload of Latin books from the library. He was going to teach himself Latin. I glanced through the books—heavy sledding. 
      "You know," I told him, "the biggest Latin publisher in the United States, Bolchazy-Carducci, is in Wauconda. I bet they have some kind of self-taught course we could use."
     And so they did. Three hundred dollars later, we had the Artes Latinae CD-rom disc, plus a workbook and study guide. And so we began Our Latin Summer, sitting side by side at my computer, drilling pronunciation, taking quizzes. Okay, it wasn't throwing the old pepper around in the front yard, but it would have to do. We pressed forward religiously, an hour a day, for weeks, months, longer than any sane people with no particular need to learn an ancient language would. 
     Eventually we lost steam. In Latin, they trill their Rs like Puerto Ricans. I'd never have attempted the language had I known—that's what eventually drove me away from speaking Russian, in part. My mouth just doesn't want to do it -- the best I could attempt was a kind of D dragged backwards across my pallet. It was work, though after we stopped, I missed it.
      I had liked learning the timeless idioms. Vestis virum reddit -- "clothes make the man." Manus manum lavat  -- "one hand washes the other," which ended up being the title of the first chapter in my Chicago book. Everything sounds better in Latin.
     Such as the sentence above, AUDI ALTERAM PARTEM, emblazoned in big letters across the back of the judicial chambers on the 18th floor of the Michael Bilandic Building on LaSalle Street.
     It doesn't mean anything particularly poetic. 
     "'Hear the other side,'" explained Patrick Cronin, manager of security for the court. It reminds the judges to hear the other side. It's also on the wall in the courtroom down in Springfield." He had opened the downtown courtroom so I could take some pictures -- my column in the Sun-Times Sunday is about sitting in on some of the oral arguments before the Illinois Supreme Court, which is convening in Chicago for its entire term for the first time, well, ever, while their building is being remodeled in Springfield
     I don't want to wax poetic about our justice system. It is heavily skewed by money, by race. But still, the theory, the concept is there. Our courts fall short, time and time again. We still have those insane mandatory minimum sentences largely in place. But at least the goal is there to fall short of.  There is something beautiful about seeing that slogan, in big metal letters, directly across from the bench where the seven high justices sit. At least the sign at the back of the courtroom doesn't say PECUNIAE OBEDIUNT OMNIA -- "All things obey money." Not yet anyway. 

The British Museum


Friday, September 20, 2013

The Winged Toolmaker

      If man is, in Hannah Arendt's phrase, homo faber—Latin for "man the (tool) maker"—then herons could be referred to as avis faber, "bird the toolmaker," since they are one of the few birds that actually craft objects for their use.
     Avid fishermen (or, I suppose, fisherbirds), herons will break off bits of twig with their sharp beaks and toss them into the water as lures, then snap up the fish who come to investigate.  Their long necks can coil and strike, just like a snake, and they devour not just fish, but frogs, turtles, large insects, small mammals such as voles, and even other birds. Just about anything that comes their way.
     Herons, such as this Great Blue Heron spied last week at Beck Lake, in the Cook County Forest Preserve between Glenview and Des Plaines, are known as solitary birds, as opposed to geese that are seen in honking abundance this time of year and best avoided (I tried to get a picture with some low-flying geese flapping by in the background of the Great Blue but, being geese, they refused to cooperate).
Great Blue Heron, Beck Lake, 9/14/13
     While Great Blue Herons often go about their business alone, they return at night to loose colonies known, rather delightfully, as "heronies." So no need to try to befriend them—they have their pals, hidden away. Great Blue Herons are actually a variety of white heron, and the largest heron in North America.
      I spied this fellow in the shallows. Impossible to tell if it's a male or female—Great Blue Herons are "monomorphic," meaning the male and female have the same color plumage, and they also share duties rearing the next generation.
     A very modern habit, though they are considered ancient birds, birds that "look like prehistoric ghosts," to use Diana Wells' lovely phrase. She quotes a 9th century writer, who believed the high-flying herons reach altitudes where they "behold forever, the countenance of God."
     Whatever they are looking at, they are not only pleasant to behold themselves, but good omens, too. Herons, being predators, are considered signs of ecological health. Score one for the Cook County Forest Preserve.
      The Great Blue Heron's actual scientific name, by the way, is nowhere near the one I imagined: ardea herodias. Ardea being, sensibly enough, Latin for "heron." And Herodias -- the surprise in the whole story -- being Greek, the name of a notorious Queen of Galilee. It was Herodias who asked for John the Baptist's head on a platter, supposedly, and encouraged her daughter Salome to dance with the bloody souvenir. How this dread figure's name got assigned to so beautiful and benign a bird, well, I'm working on that. My hunch is: blame the heron's omnivorous appetite. If you are willing to eat almost  anything, people notice, and say unkind things about you.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Three dimes

Hotel Pattee; Perry, Iowa 

     Walking south on LaSalle Street Wednesday, I reach into my pocket, feel something, pull out a dime. Must have got in there when I scooped some change off the night table.
      "Mr. Hart, here is a dime. Call your mother. Tell her there is serious doubt about your becoming a lawyer."
     I can hear the words as clearly as if Professor Kingsfield had spoken them in my ear, though it is just memory, echoing off the coin. John Houseman's mellifluous voice in "The Paper Chase."
    A popular movie, to people of my generation—released 40 years ago next month, incredibly. About the struggles of first year law students at Harvard Law School, it made a big impression on me. I remember the first time I saw it, in the fall of 1978, at Northwestern's A&O Film series. I remember who I saw it with, Leah Moskowitz, a fellow Northwestern freshman. I was affected, not for the legal aspect, but for the ambition. The students, so hungry to learn, to strive, to achieve. That was me. My date, however, shrugged it off, at least in my recollection. I remember gazing at her, dumbfounded, almost offended. You didn't like it? You're kidding me. We never went out again.
      "Mr. Hart, here is a dime..." How could that sentence slumber in my mind for so long? True, it was a dramatic high point—Kingsfield is throwing the hero, played by Timothy Bottoms, out of class. But I saw the movie, what, maybe three times? Once in 1978. Again in the late 1980s when VCR tapes took hold, and one more time, showing it to my boys in the 2000s—who like Leah Moskowitz, were indifferent.
      And why should it bubble up now?* I've handled many dimes over the decades. Why this moment? The more I look at the dime, the more comes back. My grandmother's voice, over the telephone mounted on the wall in our kitchen in Berea, a few months after I saw "The Paper Chase." I was home for winter break.
    "A lady I play poker with," she said, in her thin, reedy voice. "Has a granddaughter at Northwestern. You two should meet."
     I was always ready to meet anybody willing to meet me. The grandmother angle was worrisome, true, but I could work with it.
      "Sure," I said. "What's her name?"
     "Leah," she said. "Leah Moskowitz."
     "Shit grandma," I said, before I could stop myself. That wasn't going to happen.

    Those images, hiding amidst the trillions of neural connections. I put the dime away, these thoughts rattling around, blocking out LaSalle Street. Worried. Memory is the prison old people build for themselves then live in, squatting in the smoldering ruined palace of their lives, rooting around in the ash. The images kept wafting up, unbidden, like wisps of smoke. I could see Leah Moskowitz, 18, porcelain skin, very white, probably 85 pounds. It made me almost want to track her down, call her. "You know, in my memory you're still 18." Flattering? No, creepy. Note to self: don't be creepy.
    You have to be careful unspooling the past. The assumption is that other people care, and usually they do not care. A common affliction of men my age is to view the present as a mere pretext to dig up these non-sequitur memories. To be interested not in what is but in what was. "Funny you should mention Belgium, I spent a month in Belgium once..." And off they go. They're bores. Note to self: try not to become a bore.

    A block later my hand goes back in my pocket.  Two dimes. Twenty cents, sitting on my open palm. That's what comic books cost when I was a kid. "Captain America." God, I loved those. He was my favorite, and I carefully gathered an unbroken run of issues. Why Captain American though, and not another?
     Pondering,  I plunge my hand back in my pocket, bring it out. Three dimes. Thirty cents.  A candy bar....
      The key is knowing when to stop. Though it's difficult. Leah Moskowitz ...  she looked like a china doll. Never saw her again, at least not so it stuck. But with a little online digging, I find she changed her name—that's why I decided it's okay to use her maiden name here; any embarrassment for having seen a movie with me 35 years ago most likely won't get back to vex her. And oh, look at this. After Northwestern, she graduated from Harvard Law School, and spent her career as a lawyer. Maybe she liked that movie more than she let on.

*The above was written, and posted, and I was in the midst of tweeting the "Here is a dime" quote when it struck me: hmmm, I had just left the morning session of the Illinois Supreme Court, having spent 90 minutes listening to legal proceedings. Maybe that had something to do with it. 

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

"That's not tellable, mother."

     She kept the news until after dinner. An admirable restraint; I would have blabbed it immediately. But I am a blabber in a family that can maintain their silences.
     I was sipping my tea and polishing off a piece of plum banana bread Tuesday night. The older boy was digging into some chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream. The younger had absented himself to the television.
     "So I went to walk the dog with Mrs. M...." my wife began, mentioning the name of the mother of one of the friends of our high school senior. "We talked about homecoming." 
     He continued eating. I sorted through my dusty high school memories. Homecoming? When is homecoming? In the spring? Is it spring now? No, it's September. The leaves are just beginning to change.
     "A group is going out for homecoming...." 
     Still nothing from him. Me, slow on the uptake, thought she was inquiring whether he might want to think about going to homecoming too, perhaps even latching onto his friend's group. He should be a good sport and go with them. I was about to jump in and say something encouraging: "Life is to be lived, son." Or words to that effect. 
      "...and that group is coming here, apparently, at some point afterward, for a bonfire," she said. I had a flash: unfair! Why would his friends come here for a bonfire if he weren't part of the group? That's mean! And then, as she continued, it dawned on me. Ohhh. He did know. The group already included him. And his friend's mother obviously knew. And my wife learned earlier in the day, by accident. And now I was finding out, because I happened to be in the room. 
     "I'd like to be informed of these things," she said. "I'll set out dessert." 
     "Dessert won't be necessary," he informed her, with asperity. "We're going out to eat."
     "Maybe s'mores...." 
     That gave him pause.
     "S'mores..." he allowed.  "S'mores might be nice." 
     "And something about a football game...."  she continued, pointing out that his friend is obviously comfortable telling his mom much more than our son seems able to tell us.
     A brief silence. I sipped my tea. These conversations go on around me as if I'm not there, and by the time I think of something to add, they're usually over. While I was mulling, the stone spoke. 
     "That's not tellable, mother," he snapped. "Some vague plans in the far future."
      Those were his exact words, verbatim. 
     "It's Sunday," she said. "Or a week from Sunday." 
     I want to tuck his phrase away, in an electronic bottle, for future reference. Twenty years from now, after my wife and I spend an awkward 10 minutes in front of the giant WallSkype, trying to pry a bit of information out of him about when he might take a break from the Shanghai Co-Prosperity International Improvement Zone and visit his old parents in the Illinois Agricultural Province ("I'd speculate on an estimated visit window, mother, but we have an accelerated production schedule for expanding the plasma field. You know that....") The wall will go dark, for a moment, then revert to some generic natural scene—wind blowing through fields of wheat. An elderly couple sitting on a worn, lumpy sofa gazing at a glowing wall.  
    "That's not tellable, mother," I'll mutter, still staring straight ahead, emitting a kind of wheezing half chuckle. "Some vague plans in the far future," my wife will add, shaking her head, smiling slightly. 
     Until then, I'm glad my wife had the conversation with Mrs. M. Otherwise, he might have just disappeared for a few hours a week from Sunday, and we'd have learned of the plans when I looked through the kitchen window and saw flames in the back yard.

Photo above: White wall, Middlebury College campus, Middlebury, Vermont. August, 2013

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

When do you play?

A girl plays tether ball at Union Station, August 26, 2013, part of the Active Union Station experiment set up with the Metropolitan Planning Council to try to better use space in the Great Hall.

     Children play.  Adults play at something. I'd never say, "I'm going to go play." That would be weird, and would beg for elaboration. Going to go play what? Grown up play has to have an object, a point—Scrabble, racquetball, cards. Or with something. I go play with the dog. I used to play with the boys. No more. 
      Adult play needs a reason, an excuse. Children just play, period. They play because they have the time, and the energy, and they're supposed to. Adults have finite stores of both time and energy, though I'm wondering if we may still have an infinite need to play, unsatisfied and slumbering, buried within us.  Maybe we're supposed to play but just don't know it.
     Maybe we need to play far more than we do. 
     In what way? First from a purely physical point of view. Play is active.  The dictionary definition of "play" surprised me. I expected something about fun, or distraction, or relaxation, but the New Shorter Oxford definition begins, "Active bodily exercise; brisk or vigorous action of the body or limbs, as in fencing, dancing, leaping, etc." I guess that fits into the standard way we use the word — "We were playing badminton." 
     Perhaps trying to fill the gap caused from our missing play, adults exercise. This often makes for grim business. All that solitary jogging. All those intense young people on their treadmills, all facing the same direction, isolated together in their private agonies. If you turned them loose in a gym, they wouldn't know what to do. They wouldn't be bold enough to chase each other, or cook up games, the way kids would. They would just stand there and stare at each other, or start gawping at their phones, if they had them.
     What is lacking is permission. That's what sports give us. Adults wouldn't go to the park and run around. But we'd play softball with our pals. As if the bat and ball matters, which they obviously do, to us. When somebody says they are playing a sport, no one replies, "Why?" The reason is implicit. Sports are important, though really they are just play layered with a veneer of organization and meaning. 
     Later in the Oxford definition -- which goes on for the better part of two-densely packed pages—comes that kind of play: "A particular diversion or amusement, a game." Adults lose our ability to frolic, but we can still compete, and a desire to win replaces a desire to just move. I can't say it's an improvement.
     So the secret to play, for adults, is to get permission (ironic. Kids, who have no authority over themselves, generally, can still play without permission. Adults, who are supposedly autonomous, need somebody to say it's okay for them to play. You'd think it would be the other way around). That's why adults who don't ordinarily start playing games in public will play games on their phones, because the games are there, ergo it's okay. A kind of permission. If I pulled out a handful of jacks and a ball and started playing on the train, people would look at me strangely because it would be something I had come up with on my own. A transgression. But some balloon game on my phone is okay because the makers of the phone put the game there.
      I used to have a friend at work. Every week or two, we'd go to lunch, then swing by the ESPN Zone to play a game we both loved—Hydro Thunder, a boat racing arcade game. I'm certain neither of us would do that on our own. It would seem odd, solitary, almost sad. But together it was epic, a contest, allowable. Plus the restaurant encouraged it.  
      The boys were good for a dozen years of permitted play, of throwing balls and wrestling and Super Soaker fights. Now I'm lucky to get a game of "Settlers of Catan" in once every three months. Thank God I have a dog who, among her many unexpected benefits, is always ready to play. We tug-o-war over lengths of rope, over a stuffed bear she is fond of. Not only is play a possibility, it is an obligation. I have to play with her, to be a good owner. She almost demands it. On our morning walk, she'll do her business, then, heading back home, I will look at her, and she will look at me, and then we'll both break into a mad dash toward the house. For some unknown canine reason she snaps at the leash until she grabs it in her teeth, then we stop, and face off. She goes "grrr" and pulls and I go "grrr" and pull back; for a moment it's nip and tuck, then I let her have her victory, dragging me forward a foot or two. Then we stop, our play over, the game complete, and go inside the house together for breakfast.