Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Farewell Michael...

The end of the year causes most of us to sit back and take account of the events of our lives, our communities, and the world over the past year. Most of us take the good with the bad, and we consider a year to be good if we come out slightly ahead.

For Chicago, my home town, it's been a year of losses. It was a particularly bad year for architectural preservation as we lost the beautiful and historic St. James Church in Bronzeville. We also lost the battle to save Bertrand Goldberg's Prentice Women's Hospital which is being demolished as I write this. Perhaps worse than the loss of the building itself was the devastating precedent of the ruling by the city's Landmark's Commission, which declared the building worthy of landmark status then in the next breath, determined that economic considerations trumped that status, clearing the way for the building's destruction. After that disastrous ruling, no building in this city is safe from the wrecking ball.

More mundane to be sure but also worth noting was the loss of the enormous baseball that proudly announced the presence of the former Thillen's Stadium at Devon and Kedzie on Chicago's far north side.

Chicago lost a long time institution this year as all of the Dominick's grocery stores closed their doors for good this past Saturday, leaving thousands of workers unemployed during the holidays. Some of the locations have been purchased by other businesses but the vast majority of them will remain shuttered for the foreseeable future. As many of these stores anchored shopping centers, the businesses that shared those centers no doubt will suffer as a result. And a city already well known for its "food deserts" will have one fewer source of fresh food at reasonable prices in neighborhoods that can't afford to be without them.

There is one more loss to the city that I'd like to note. Today was the last day on the job for a wonderful man who for 36 years was the operator of CTA trains, mostly along the Red Line which runs almost the entire length of Chicago from 95th Street on the south all the way up to its northern boundary at Howard Street. His name is Michael Powell. I first met Michael about ten years ago as I was taking my young son to his grandmother's apartment downtown. As I did as a child, my boy liked to sit up front to watch the operator drive the train. Most of the operators I think appreciated the attention but for the most part kept quiet as the company rules prohibit them from talking to passengers while the train is in motion. Given that by now he's finished his last run, I can safely say that Michael had little regard for that rule. My boy and I learned Michael's life story that day, especially his love of trains. He never wore the standard issue uniform, as you can see in the picture he preferred the more traditional striped engineer's uniform and cap, his "Choo Choo Charlie outfit" as he liked to call it. If anyone was born for a particular job, it was Michael. I was shocked when he told me earlier this month that he was about to retire.

Michael Powell on his penultimate run
Another policy that Michael had little regard for was the application of the recorded voice of the CTA that calls out stops and lets the passengers know, as if they didn't know it already, that there was a delay. On Michael's runs, you seldom heard that smooth but impersonal voice. Instead you heard Michael's friendly, high-pitched voice commenting on the events of the day, or just informally shooting the breeze in a stream of conscious manner. As Michael delivered his train into the Loop during rush hour, he would typically bid adieu to his passengers with: "May the Force be with you" or other popular aphorisms. Sometimes he would simply say: "goodbye and have nice day." Never would anyone of Michael's regular riders think for a moment that he didn't mean that from the bottom of his heart.

Michael's humor could be cornball but every once in a while he hit the nail right on the head. My favorite experience of riding aboard one of his runs was the day we had a blizzard that dumped about three feet of snow on the city. The storm was so bad that most businesses discharged their employees even before the first snowflake fell. Since we were in the middle of a project, my colleagues and I chose to stay at work and by the time we left, about a foot of snow was already on the ground. Needless to say, the train platform was crammed with cold and frustrated passengers who had no idea how long the journey home would take. After what seemed like an eternity, a train pulled into the station. As luck would have it, it was Michael's train. Although the train was packed like sardines, Michael told everyone to keep calm, that we were all in this together, and that by cooperating, we'd all get home in due time. His charming sense of humor calmed everybody down and soon he had the passengers eating out of his hand. I'd say the blizzard reached it's apex right around the time our train got to the Sheridan station, just north of Wrigley Field. The unfortunate people who got off at that station were hit by a tremendous gust of wind and snow; frankly it was a bit comical as the poor folks looked as if they didn't know what hit them. "Don't laugh..." Michael told the rest of us over the loudspeaker, "...pretty soon, that will be you."

Luck was with me again today as I left home unusually late this being New Year's Eve. It just so happened that I boarded Michael's train for one last time. I heard that familiar voice and remembered him telling me a few weeks ago of his imminent retirement. Something was strange however. That canned CTA voice kept popping up on the loudspeaker, much more often than it ever did during Michael's runs. Just every once in a while, Michael broke in to say "all aboard, thanks for riding." When our train dipped into the subway after Fullerton, that familiar voice broke in again saying, "My name is Michael and I'm about to retire after 36 years. It's been my pleasure to serve you." There was a collective groan from the passengers. Someone aboard our car informed us that in the first car people were signing cards for Michael. Just about everybody got off and headed there to sign his card and wish him well.

So did I.

I got off at my stop, shook his hand and said good bye. He told me that he'd miss me. I said that I'd miss him too.

All choked up, I never got the chance to thank him. It was always a pleasure to ride with him.

Happy New Year Michael, and may the force be with you.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

An honest to goodness winter

They say the only two things you can depend upon in life are death and taxes. Once upon a time here at the 42nd Parallel in North America at least, you could add two more things: cold and snow in winter. All that has changed in the past thirty years or so as winters have been getting milder, and white Christmases are are the exception rather than the rule.

Most folks I know are pretty OK with that. While this time of year as they eagerly put on tunes that extoll the virtues of dashing through the snow, jingling sleigh bells, and Jack Frost nipping at one's nose, most people it seems when push comes to shove, are content to leave cold and snow to the reminiscences of Johnny Mathis, Nat Cole, and Bing Crosby.

Photograph by Beth Iska
Not me. Despite noticing that my body is slightly little less tolerant to cold weather than it used to be, I've welcomed our recent arctic blast with much joy. Two weeks ago, my son and a friend were only slightly disappointed when their plan to play hockey was ruined because of the six inches of newly fallen snow on their outdoor ice rink. Instead, they grabbed their sleds and despite being improperly dressed, spent two hours on the good sized sledding hill at our local park. The rest of us joined them later and spent a good time ourselves on the frigid highest point in our neighborhood. For some reason, my six year old daughter never before had the desire to go sledding, so this was her first experience of it. After getting bored with going down the puny slopes for the little kids, she eventually overcame her apprehensions and took to the big hill like a seasoned professional. From the photograph taken by her mother, you can see the look of pure joy on her face. 

My son did get to play hockey this past weekend and when I dropped him off (I didn't play myself because I still had Christmas errands to run), the sound of the skates, sticks and pucks of the few kids who had already taken to the ice, took me back to my childhood and my love of the game. As it had gotten considerably warmer by that day, a fog of condensation hovered over the rink and despite being in the middle of the city, I could best describe that scene as something right out of a Currier & Ives print.

Yes I'm one of those people who truly appreciates the change of season. Despite its hassles, I love winter. I love the sight and smell of the freshly fallen snow that covers everything in its path like a soft blanket. I love the sounds of winter, the ones mentioned above as well as the squeaky sound of footsteps on the snow. I love the howl of the wind on a cold winter night. In a slightly perverted way I even like the sound of snow shovels and the whine of automobile tires (when they're not mine) as they futilely spin on the ice and snow.

My most memorable Christmas was the one of 1968. We recently moved into our new house and as luck would  have it, on a cold December 25th morning, our furnace went out. We spent the entire day huddled in the kitchen heated by our oven as the rest of our house became uninhabitable. That was the day the crew of Apollo 8 became the first human beings to circle the moon. As they came out from behind the moon's shadow and regained radio contact with the earth (thus becoming the first people to experience earthrise), the crew on that Christmas Day were moved to recite the passages from Genesis describing the creation of Earth, our beautiful planet seen for the first time as a lonely island floating in a desolate sea of emptiness. My Christmas present, the Mattel Matt Mason Space Station received the evening before had to wait as the real, live spacemen, even if seen only on a small black and white TV in the kitchen, were just so much more impressive. Despite the inconvenience, I will remember that as one of my best Christmases for as long as I live.

My worst Christmas came fourteen years later. My uncle had just died suddenly as well as our family's long time next door neighbor. On Christmas Day that year we visited my grandmother, (who due to her fragile condition was not informed of her son's death). Playing on a TV at the nursing home where she lived was a movie that had been very special to me as a child. Seeing glimpses of that movie, as well as my grandmother who didn't recognize me, only made the grief I was already experiencing all the more painful. Topping it all off, it was about 65 degrees outside that day. From that moment on, mild weather on Christmas has reminded me of a world thrown off kilter, just as it was on that day so long ago.

Well I'm happy to report that today, December 25, 2013, we have snow on the ground in Chicago. True, it's only a small dusting of the white stuff, but it's still a white Christmas.

Just the way it should be.

Merry Christmas everyone!

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Don't Mess with Mr. In-between

One e-mail message line on my inbox screamed this:
Obama's illegal alien uncle to appear at new immigration hearing.
And another:
Oklahoma City will not cancel pornographic play mocking the Bible.

From a site devoted to the leanings of the other side comes this:
Libertarian Writings that Read like Comic Books. 
And this: 
Truth, No Strings Attached. 
And again: 
Some Filthy Facts About the Rich.

I've been on the mailing lists of these and similar web sites for some time now. If strangers were to casually glance at my inbox, they would draw the conclusion that my political views are schizophrenic to say the least. Other than their wildly divergent points of view however, there is very little difference between the sites. I never asked to subscribe to them, the organizations responsible for the publications are spamming me, they got my address from other sites that I do subscribe to. I could simply unsubscribe but frankly I'm entertained by headlines such as these, much like those of the tabloids at the checkout line. The difference between these messages and the ones at the supermarket is that the e-mail headlines are lead-ins to articles that are meant to be taken seriously.

I also don't unsubscribe to these sites because unlike most Americans it seems, I'm interested in what people who don't necessarily share my point of view have to say. Good heavens, I might even learn something.

More than anything, what these web sites have in common is the tone of their discourse. There is seldom an attempt to lend any credence to the other side of the argument as if to say people who don't believe as they do are simply a bunch of irritating, misguided fools. On both sides of the ideological divide, the websites, periodicals, and TV networks devoted exclusively to one point of view or another are essentially saying this: "We're right, and everybody else is wrong."

Small wonder why our current government is so dysfunctional, the rhetoric of these internet articles, and the comments that follow them, seem to be a beacon for our politicians as well.

There is a war going on in this country and the weapon of choice by the combatants is hyperbole.

I distinctly remember a time during the late sixties and early seventies when this country was bitterly divided over the war in Vietnam. While we have our own serious problems today, I can't see an issue in our time, no not even Obamacare, that comes close to the divisiveness that Vietnam produced. Yet today I'd say we as a nation are as divided if not more so, than during that difficult time.

What accounts for the lack of tolerance, subtlety, and common sense in our current political discourse is anybody's guess. Perhaps it's because we don't have a common enemy bringing us together as we did during the Great Depression, World War II and the days after September 11, 2001. Maybe it's the proliferation of cable TV outlets, the internet, and social media which provides a platform for every political ideology no matter how extreme or goofy, and promotes the segregation of those with like minds. Or maybe its just the old ennui, I have no idea.

What worries me is that the voices that scream the loudest on both sides are the ones that get the attention, leaving the subtle, unbiased, and measured views behind.

No ideological group holds the monopoly on overblown rhetoric and hyperbole; both sides spew it as freely as a drunken sailor spends money on a twelve hour shore leave. But if I had to crown a king of bluster, a crown prince of bombast, and a champion of the art of summing up all the world's problems into one sentence, usually wrapped around an infantile temper tantrum, that title would have to go to Rush Limbaugh.

Limbaugh's political views are well documented, as they say he's a little to the right of Attila the Hun. That alone for me is not a problem, far from it. In fact sometimes, rarely, but sometimes I agree with him. It's not his message I find objectionable, but the way he delivers it. Limbaugh is as subtle as a twenty pound sledge hammer, blasting his targets, that is to say anyone who doesn't subscribe to his world view, with insults and diatribes that would not be out of place in a professional wrestling ring. He seems to reserve the bulk of his wrath for women supporting women's issues. Recently Limbaugh labeled a women who publicly supported medical insurance paying for birth control pills a "slut." Of course it's all an act, no one in their right mind should take Limbaugh any more seriously than the circus known as the Jerry Springer Show.

But unfortunately, many people do.

Limbaugh's latest target has been none other than the Pope. When Cardinal Bergoglio of Buenos Aires stepped into the shoes of St. Peter in the Vatican this past March becoming Pope Francis, it quickly became clear that he would be a quite different pontiff than his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI. Benedict, now officially Pope Emeritus, is a brilliant theologian who was instrumental in the creation and implementation of the reforms of Vatican II which brought radical change to the Catholic Church. But the former Cardinal Ratzinger would later change some of his views on the sweeping changes that took place since the Second Vatican Council met in the early sixties and became very well known, even before his pontificate, as a strong voice for conservatism in the church.

Unlike Benedict, Francis, the first pope from Latin America, has rejected many of the trappings of the royal Vatican lifestyle, going out of his way to show that his pontificate will be devoted to the basics, that is to say, ministering to the poor and the helpless, and concentrating on the most fundamental tenets of Christianity, namely the gospel of love and forgiveness.

In recent months Pope Francis has made strong statements about some of the failings of capitalism, specifically the culture of greed that unrestricted capitalism left unchecked, can create.

This is where old Rush, huffing and puffing as usual, comes in. Though not a Catholic himself, he tells us he very much admires the institution. Specifically, Rush strongly approves of the Church's stand against abortion and gay marriage. He brags about being wined and dined aboard a yacht by the former Cardinal O'Connor of New York during a "Pro-Life" cruise. He claims to have visited the Vatican on numerous occasions and correctly points out there would not be a Vatican, and all its treasures, were it not for the vast amount of money that capitalism provides. And he writes admiringly about Pope John Paul II's strong opposition to communism and the late pope's claim that Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan (two of Limbaugh's personal heroes) were important figures in the downfall of Communism in central and eastern Europe. Rush is right about that too.

But in the Gospel according to Rush:
...juxtaposed against the actions of Pope John Paul II this pope (Francis) and the things that he released yesterday or recently are really striking. 
There has been a long-standing tension between the Catholic Church and communism. It's been around for quite a while. That's what makes this, to me, really remarkable...
...I'm not Catholic, but I know enough to know that this would have been unthinkable for a pope to believe or say just a few years ago. But this passage, "The culture of prosperity deadens us. We are thrilled if the market offers us something new to buy. In the meantime, all those lives stunted for lack of opportunity seem a mere spectacle." I have to tell you, folks, I am totally bewildered by this. 
Here Rush shows that he's way out of his league. Fair enough, the non-Catholic Limbaugh couldn't possibly (or could he?) know that both Popes Benedict XVI and John Paul II, while being harsh critics of communism, also had stern warnings about "unfettered capitalism." According to Rush's great hero J.P.II in 1987:
The tension between East and West is an opposition... between two concepts of the development of individuals and peoples, both concepts being imperfect and in need of radical correction... This is one of the reasons why the Church’s social doctrine adopts a critical attitude towards both liberal (unfettered) capitalism and Marxist collectivism.
Then in 1991 after the fall of communism in Europe, in the encyclical letter Centesimus Annus, John Paul II wrote this:
...can it perhaps be said that, after the failure of Communism, capitalism is the victorious social system and that capitalism should be the goal of the countries now making efforts to rebuild their economy and society? Is this the model which ought to be proposed to the countries of the Third World which are searching for the path to true economic and civil progress?
The answer is obviously complex. If by ‘capitalism’ is meant an economic system which recognizes the fundamental and positive role of business, the market, private property and the resulting responsibility for the means of production, as well as free human creativity in the economic sector, then the answer is certainly in the affirmative... But if by "capitalism" is meant a system in which freedom in the economic sector is not circumscribed within a strong juridical framework which places it at the service of human freedom in its totality (in other words, unfettered capitalism), and which sees it as a particular aspect of that freedom, the core of which is ethical and religious, then the reply is certainly negative. (Emphasis and comments are mine)
Pope Benedict XVI would later go on to write much the same on the subject. In that vein, Pope Francis
has added little or nothing to the Church's doctrine on capitalism. What he has done, which has come as a breath of fresh air to many, and a thorn in the side to folks like Limbaugh, is place less emphasis on hot button topics, social issues such as abortion and gay marriage, in favor of living and preaching the Gospel. In other words, the focus of his ministry as stated above, is directed toward the hungry, the poor, the dispossessed, the sinners, (groups Limbaugh doesn't have much time for), as well as the so called righteous. As a result, Pope Francis has brought the Vatican in step with what goes on daily in the lives of Catholic parishes around the world. Contrary to the general (non-Catholic) public's perception, as any practicing Catholic can tell you, the Church's heart resides within the hearts and souls of its people, not within the mysterious halls of the Vatican.

Judging from his words, Rush Limbaugh clearly knows little about Catholicism or the Catholic Church. What he knows or understands about Christianity is also somewhat suspect. If Limbaugh were looking for some truly radical theology he could chomp is pointy incisors into, he should read this:
For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’
“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’
That said, it is important to point out that despite Pope Francis's ingratiating words for those on the Left to believers and non-believers alike, the Church's doctrine regarding the controversial issues of our time is not about to change. Don't expect to see the Pope coming out in favor of abortion, or gay weddings inside St. Peter's any time soon. This is as it should be I believe. It's one thing for individuals, government and statutory law to be swayed by changing times, public opinion, and ideology, but I believe that the Church is the one institution in our lives that must remain steadfastly true to its mission, namely the Gospel.

Popes come and go, some of them such as Francis and John XXIII are claimed by the Left, while others like John Paul II and Benedict XVI are claimed by the Right. However I suspect that none of those pontiffs would have appreciated being labeled as a poster child for any particular ideology.

The nutty political discourse we're now experiencing maybe OK for the secular, temporal world in which we live. However when all is said and done, we will all be judged (by a greater power if you believe in such things, and most certainly by those who survive us), by the way we treated others. The fundamental message of Christianity and other religions is so simple and profound that we lose sight of it among the all the busy details of our lives. That message is this:

Love and forgive one another.

That's all.

In the words of the great Rabbi Hillel, spoken 2000 years ago:
 the rest (of scripture) is commentary.
We may claim the Almighty for ourselves but God is neither liberal nor conservative, Democrat nor Republican. He is neither a Communist nor a Capitalist. His message doesn't belong exclusively to the Right or to the Left, to the Jew or the Gentile, or to you or me. It belongs to all of us.

In the end, that message is the only one that matters.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Ornithology- From the Morning Commute...

A huge Red-tailed Hawk, (Buteo jamaicensis) almost the size of my six year old, (OK even she didn't buy that one), seen perching itself on a tree limb in Chicago at Birchwood just west of Clark Street, 8:00AM, Thursday December 12. Below was a small rodent of the species Rattus norvegicus scampering about, seemingly unaware of the avian threat fifteen above. I watched for a minute to see a potential drama unfolding but alas the big bird seemed disinterested and the rat got to live another day.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Coyote in the median

Through the din coming over the radio this morning, those words caught my attention. It turned out that traffic was stopped somewhere because there was a coyote camped out in the traffic median on the northwest side of the city. I'm always impressed when a wild animal can bring a part of the city to its knees; it's as if Mother Nature in her infinite wisdom is letting us know who's in charge.

Large numbers of coyotes and other predators are a fairly recent phenomenon in cities as suburban sprawl continues to wipe out those species' natural habitat. By contrast, as large tracts of land are opening up in big cities because of disappearing industries, businesses, and homes, nature quickly reasserts itself. The overgrown, unkempt vacant lots, so unattractive to human beings, are a godsend to our four legged (and two legged winged) friends, and are becoming unintended nature preserves.

A few years ago as I was documenting the demolition of the last of the notorious south State Street housing projects, I witnessed two wildlife dramas that could have merited a feature on a TV nature documentary. One day I spied upon a magnificent Red tailed hawk on a telephone pole as she (guessing she was a she from her size), was intently gazing down on some undergrowth directly below. The raptor did not move a muscle for at least ten minutes. Then without warning, it sprung from its perch and dove straight down in to the growth below and in one motion, came up with a small bird in its talons. I watched intently as the hawk devoured its unfortunate victim.

On another day in the same place, as bulldozers worked over a patch of ground where new housing was to be built, I heard the unmistakable whistle of a pair of Killdeers, birds that are related to seabirds, but for some reason, prefer to live on open land, as this neighborhood was becoming. These two poor birds were nesting right in the bulldozer's path and there was nothing I could do for them because the area being worked upon was fenced off. I went about my work with the sad notion that this little bird family would be wiped out before it even got a chance to begin. Much to my surprise and joy, when I returned the following week, not only did I see mama and papa Killdeer proudly prancing about the open field, but five other Killdeers. The brood nearly as big as their parents, not only survived the bulldozer, but was thriving. It turned out the ruts made by the bulldozer provided the perfect structure for their nest.

And so it goes, life and death in the big city, just as in the wilderness.

To me there is something wonderfully profound about the Wild Kingdom transplanted into the heart of the big city. A little while ago I wrote about a pair of Bald eagles who were nesting along the Calumet River on the south east side of Chicago. Even our taciturn mayor couldn't help be a little giddy about a pair of endangered (well, once endangered) animals who also happen to be our national symbol, raising a family in our fair city. I imagine that fewer people are thrilled about the coyotes, a much disparaged species of animal. Yet in the big picture, they have as much a right to be here as the eagles, or us for that matter.

Coyotes pose very little threat to humans, unless they're cornered when they'll protect themselves. The same cannot be said about the threat to pets who are allowed to wander about freely. It's also not a good idea to try to feed coyotes as a three year old boy who was bitten by one discovered in Columbus Park last month. In general however, coyotes go out of their way to avoid us which is why you rarely see them. Rest assured however, they're everywhere, there's probably one within a few hundred yards of you right now. It's usually bad news for the animal when it does get entangled with humans; the coyote who bit the boy was captured and destroyed along with its family to test them for rabies. The coyote mentioned in the traffic report this morning was captured and presumably relocated. This would seem to be the humane thing to do but coyotes are very territorial and being moved into another coyote's territory will severely compromise the animal's safety.

Despite the minor inconveniences, coyotes benefit us as they help control the populations of rodents and avian pests such as the Canada goose, by stealing their eggs. They also remind us that we're not alone on this little planet, and their presence in our cities tells us as much about ourselves as it does about them.

Long may they survive.