Sunday, April 21, 2019

Our Lady of Paris

"The Virgin of Paris" Early 14th Century,
a masterpiece of late Gothic art,
in the transcept of Notre-Dame de Paris
Ever since the day I first walked from Manhattan to Brooklyn across its pedestrian walkway in 1979, I've had a love affair with the Brooklyn Bridge. A work of tremendous beauty, that magnificent 19th century structure is the perfect blending of structural engineering, architecture, and history, especially the heartrending  story of the contibutions of the thousands of individuals who built it, not a few of whom who gave their lives (including its chief designer John Roebling), during its construction. That, combined with ts loaction in the heart of New York City makes the walk across it over the East River between the two boroughs in my opinion, the single greatest example of the urban experience.

One day about twenty five years ago, I found myself on the Brooklyn side of the bridge. It was a difficult time in my life, filled with loss and the confusion that follows. As I gazed upon that magnificent creation, I took comfort in the thought that despite the painful loss I was going through at the time, the Brooklyn Bridge, and all it had meant to me over the years, would always be there.

Some years later, the unthinkable happened. Two hijacked commercial jets, one coming from the north, the other from the south, deliberately slammed into the two towers of the World Trade Center, just a stone's throw from the Manhattan side of the Brooklyn Bridge. Back in Chicago, 780 miles away, I watched on TV in horror with my wife and infant son as the South Tower then the North Tower collapsed taking with them the lives of nearly 3,000 innocent people.

Weeks after the initial shock and mourning for the lives lost that day, for their families and for the City of New York, I recalled that moment at the bridge and realized how foolish I had been. Perhaps it was because I had lived a sheltered life in a world that for a good part of my existance had been relatively peaceful, at least on my side of the globe. Violence and destruction of that magnitude in a place I loved and was intimately connected to was inconceivable. If the mighty Twin Towers could flatten like pancakes thanks to the diabolical efforts of a handful of men, nothing, not even that beloved bridge was safe. After 9/11, my new mantra became, "take nothing for granted."

The cathedral as seen from the Left Bank in January, 2005.
This week's fire destroyed the entire roofline and
the 19th Century spire at the transcept.
Here at the outset,  I must I point out there is absolutely no parallel between the September 11 attacks and what happened last week in Paris. The fire that destroyed much of the Cathedral of Notre Dame in that city was an accident, of that I am certain. Not one life was lost (at least as far as we know at this moment) and there were few serious injuries, none of them life threatening. For that we should be eternally grateful. 

The comparison is a personal and purely superficial one. Once again I was caught off-guard. You see, if there is any work of human hands in the world that means as much to me as the Brooklyn Bridge, it would be the Cathedral of Paris. Long before I set foot inside, an obsession with Medieval Gothic architecture drove me to study Notre-Dame de Paris inside and out from front to back, every nook and crannie of it. For many years to me it was without question the greatest building on earth, the perfect combination of heart breaking beauty, magnificent craftsmanship, brilliant structural engineerng, the moving story of the fierce devotion of the community of believers who built it, its role as the symbolic heart and soul of the nation of France and its people, and of course by any standard, a great work of art. Words cannot describe how I felt as I learned the news on Monday that the cathedral was in flames. In denial, I assumed when I saw the early images of the fire on my computer at work, just as I did when I first saw smoke coming out of the hole in the World Trade Center punctured by a plane, that the emergency responders on the scene would soon have everything under control.

Then I saw a photograph of the great 19th Century spire above the transcept consumed in flames. At that moment a colleague at work, himself from France and well aware of the situation, came back from lunch and told me the spire had already collapsed into the church. I was broken hearted. Something I dearly loved, a place that gave me great joy during my formative years, a sense of peace in troubled times, (I visited it for the first time the same year as my Brooklyn Bridge epiphany), and a place I visited so often that it became a dear friend, would soon be no more...

The West facade of  of Notre-Dame  de Paris

...or so I thought.

The fire worked its way to the north tower (the one on the left in the photograph above) where firefighters worked valiently to halt its spread. Had they failed and the tower's structure become sufficiently weakened, the massive bells in the tower's bellfry would have broken free and collapsed to the ground. With them, all hope for saving the building would have been lost.

Catastrophic as the damge to the building was, thanks to the quick thinking and hard work of the firefighters, the tower and its bells remained intact.. Expecting the worst when I woke up Tuesday morning, the news was encouraging. Allthough the spire and timber roof where the fire began were destroyed, the stone vaulting directly underneath the roof survived nearly intact. Early morning photographs showed the interior covered with debris, a little worse for the wear, but still intact. The most remakable news of all was that most of the stained glass including the two magnificent rose windows pictured below, one on either side of the transcept also survived.

The North Transept Rose Window
The South Transept Rose Window

The fire brought out the most remarkable display in people, a veritable rainbow of hues, luminances, and saturations of human nature, in all its glory and well, not so much. The night of the fire, thousands of Parisians lined the quais on the Left Bank of the Seine to watch in disbelief as their cathedral burned, mournfully singing hymns as the flames illuminated the towers of the church and the surrounding neighborhood in an eerily beautiful light. 

The following day, President Emmanuel Marcon declared the church would be completely restored, practically good as new in five years, presumably in time for 2024 when Paris is to host the Summer Olympic Games. Even before the French president opened his mouth, tens of millions of Euros were already pledged by weathly individuals and corporations to rebuild Notre-Dame. By Thursday morning, two days after the fire was officially declared extinguished, over one billion Euros had been pledged, yes indeedy some of it believe it or not, coming with strings attached, mostly in the form of demands for extreme tax breaks in return for the contributions. 

St. Joan of Arc, 19th Century sculpture
by Charles Desvergnes
That display of spontaneous philanthropy turned heads and triggered significant consternation from all corners, ranging from historical preservation groups who questioned the irony of why raising funds for the necessary restoration of the cathedral before the building was nearly lost was almost as difficult as trying to draw blood from a stone, to advocates for practically every charity on the face of the earth who threw up their hands in disgust at the record amount of money raised in the blink of an eye for an effort they deemed so much less worthy than their own. 

It didn't take long for conspiracy theorists to come up with the idea that the cathedral was torched, conceiving of plots to destroy the church carried out by folks whom those theorists do not like, more often than not, Muslim extermists. And people of faith got into the act by proclaiming it was nothing less than an act of God which spared the church  from total destruction. Unfortuantely for those fine theories, facts, physics and common logic explain how the fire started unintentionally, and how despite the serious nature of the blaze, most of the church managed to survive intact, even without the direct intervention of the almighty.   

Portal of the Virgin, West Front of the Cathedral.
Originally installed between 1210 and 1220,
many of these stone figures were behaded during the
French Revolution and retored during the mid-19th Century.  
All evidence points to the source of the fire as being the result of restoration work carried out in the transcept of the cathedral. Ironic as they are, devastating fires such as these, resulting from the heat producing tools necessary for restoration work, in close proximity to the highly inflammable materials the buildings are constructed of, are painfully common. Off the top of my head, I can think of at least three such fires here in Chicago in recent years, two of which left only the walls of historic churches standing, and the third in our own Roman Catholic cathedral which was saved only through a little luck (that the fire was caught in time), and the remarkable efforts of firefighters.

That Notre-Dame didn't suffer more damage is due to the fact that the firefighters there managed to contain the blaze to the wooden roof which can be considered a separate structure from the main body of the building. Beneath that roof as I mentioned earlier, is the stone vaulting which one sees from inside the church, the majority of which withstood the flames and the heat of the fire. The great weight of that vault is transferred to the enormous flying buttresses, one of the building's most distinct features, which flank the outside of the cathedral. Had the vault been severely compromised, the delicate balance between the downward force of the vault counterbalancing the lateral force of the flying buttresses might have dramatically shifted, causing the buttresses to crush the outer walls of the cathedral. That this did not happen is a testament to the brilliance of the Medieval builders of Notre-Dame, and to the wise approach that was taken to combat the fire.

However there is one thing about this event than cannot be explained away so easily: its timing. The April 15, 2019 Notre-Dame de Paris fire took place during the midst of the biggest existential crisis in the history of the Roman Catholic Church, in one of that institution's most recognizable symbols (perhaps second only to St. Peter's Bascilica in Rome), AND during Holy Week no less, the single most important week of the year in the calendar of the Church.

The nave of the Cathedral
In this photograph you can see part of the
stone vaulting and the magnificent organ
which itself dates from the 19th Century
but contains components which date
back much earler.
A non-believer can easily dismiss all this as pure coincidence. But to someone who takes his or her faith seriously, especially a Catholic for whom symbols mean a great deal, the timing of this devastating fire certainly has to give one pause to think.

As a Catholic myself, it pains me to say that the institution I love is rotten to the core, at least the administration of it. If there is a God who takes a personal interest in the goings on of this planet, He, She (or They if you prefer), must be supremely pissed at the Church who claims to be His, Her, or Their representative on earth. For even naive Catholics who once assumed that the sexual abuse of children at the hands of priests, dreadful as it is, was only a rare and isolated occurrance, it has now become terribly obvious that the scourge is pandemic in the Church. Much as I like and respect the current Pope Francis, he has done very little to instill the faith in his flock that the Church will unequivocally do everything in its power to end that unspeakable and despicable crime, as well as many other abuses of power in the Church. Culpability, knowledge and most damning, the failure to act upon this cancer in the Church goes all the way to the top to the point where it is impossible to give anyone in any position of power in the Roman Catholic Church a pass.

Clearly the Church needs a radical reboot in order to survive and what better time for this message to come to us than the week before Easter?

The Gospels describe an event that took place in Jerusalem the week before Jesus's crucifixion, where he turned over the tables of the profaners of the Temple, evicting them from the sacred place and telling the perplexed authorities: "destroy this Temple and I will raise it again three days." Can anyone honestly say that at this point in its history, the Roman Catholic Church doesn't need God to come down and do the same thing?  You might think I'm crazy to say this (and I'd be the first to agree with you), but maybe, just maybe that is exactly what happened last Monday.

Christians recognize the Friday before Easter as the holy day when we commemorate the day Jesus died, yet we call it "Good Friday", Those who are perplexeed by that name, forget the fact that without Jesus's death, there could be no Resurrection hence, without Good Friday, there would be no Easter, the central tenet of the faith.

Shrine devoted to Our Lade of Guadalupe from 1949,
the only such shirne in Eurpoe 
Believers or not. I think we can all agree that good things have come out of the horrible fire at Notre-Dame de Paris last week. Because of it, people have come out of their slumber about our sites of cultural heritage, those places around the world that define who we are as a people and as a civilization. The point has been hit home that once they're gone, they can never be replaced. Perhaps we'll all learn not to take any of them for granted.

For an ever so brief a moment, in fact it's probably over by now, the fire brought much of the world together, Catholic or not, in universal sorrow for the potential loss of such a treasure. Not that I ever want to test this out, but one could only hope that were such a catastrophe to befall a cultural heritage site that is not a Christian church, for example the mosque known as the The Dome on the Rock in Jeruslaem, the Hindu/Budhist Temple Angkor Wat in Cambodia, or the Taj Mahal in India, that we of the Christian faith will respond in kind.

Perhaps the most appropriate and heart warming thing that happened last week was that three modest but historic African American churches in Louisiana that were torched by a white supremacist young man in the past month, all reported significant spikes in contributions to their own re-building programs, presumably in response to the fire in Paris.

Clearly, the fire at Notre-Dame de Paris was catastrophic, but it was in no sense at all tragic. All the good that has and will certainly come as a result of it without the loss of a single life is truly a miracle. Despite President Macron's overly optimistic timeline, the cathedral will be restored, that is for certain. As far as I'm concerrned,  I may never set foot inside my old friend again, and that is perfectly OK with me. As long as my children and God-willing their children, and theirs and hopefully the dozens of generations of children to follow will have the opportunity to set foot inside the magnificent cathedral that truly belongs to the enitre world, something which at this moment looks very likely, wherever I am, I will be pleased.

Our Lady of Paris is very much alive.
Joyeuses Pâques, Happy Easter!

POST SCRIPT: I'm very happy to report that unless otherwise noted, everything shown in the photographs in this post has survived the fire.

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

In the Footsteps of Kings

Author's Note: Several years ago a  friend asked me to write this for a project that never took off and it has never seen the light of day until now, which is as good a time as any I suppose.

On a recent trip to Melbourne, the first thing I did after checking into the hotel was something that has become a ritual upon arriving in a new city, I went for a long walk. There's no better way to get one's bearing in a new place then losing oneself in it on foot, letting impulse be the guide.

Skyscrapers beckoned me to the heart of Melbourne officially known as the Central Business District. The CBD of Australia's second city is best known for its system of passageways and arcades, the grandest of which, The Block, dating from the 1890s was inspired by the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II in Milan. In recent years, new passageways were created from old alleys into whose graffiti covered walls were carved coffee houses, galleries and shops, some chic, some anything but. Stylistically, the new passageways could not be more different from the grand old arcades, yet they flow together effortlessly. The mixture of the tony and the tawdry gives Melbourne's CBD its distinct charm and vitality.

I had a revelation of sorts ten years ago while walking down Grand Avenue in Downtown Los Angeles. Finishing touches to Frank Gehry's Walt Disney Concert Hall were being made while steps away, the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, the work of Spanish architect Rafael Moneo had just opened. Down the block was the Museum of Contemporary Art designed by Arata Izosaki. All were impressive, designed by significant architects. Even so I couldn't help but think how those structures sitting there like ducks in a row, reminded me of paintings hung on the wall of a museum rather than buildings woven into the fabric of a city. It dawned on me what I find frustrating with much of contemporary architecture. Buildings today are first and foremost built to be works of art. Form no longer follows function, it's now the other way around.

Being in the camp of urbanologist Jane Jacobs, to me the essence of a great city is a vibrant street life. It's not surprising why much of contemporary Los Angeles lacks that asset as hardly anyone there walks anymore. The buildings mentioned above reflect that fact; there is little attempt to interact with the surroundings, even the simple act of gaining access is confusing as most folks enter underground, through subterranean parking lots. These buildings exist on a higher plain, removed from life on the street as if they were preserved in amber.

Just blocks away along Broadway, built before the automobile revolution is the heart of old Downtown LA. Despite, or perhaps because of being long past its heyday, that neighborhood still ebbs and flows with life in marked contrast to its more upscale cousin. Small wonder, it's one of the few places in town where one does not feel out of place on foot.

There is a famous walking tour in Prague known as the Royal Route. It follows the traditional path Czech monarchs took to their coronation, from the old city gates to the Cathedral of St. Vitus. Along the route, one walks through not only a glorious city, but eleven centuries worth of history and architecture. Like Melbourne, Prague's architecture is an unapologetic clash of styles. Certainly Prague is one of the most enchanting places imaginable with its fairy tale vistas featuring Medieval towers and bridges spanning the Vltava, the river that plays such an important role in Czech culture. Yet its physical beauty barely scratches the surface of the experience. Prague is the perfect walking city, as each few steps lead to a new discovery. You walk not only in the footsteps of kings, but also the likes of Kepler, Mozart, and Kafka. That's not to say its history is set in stone; like any vibrant place, its story is written daily by the people who walk its streets, from saints to sinners, and everyone in between.

Great cities are about life, past, present and future. Any city that invites people to explore by walking around its streets and alleys, discovering secrets hidden in its underbelly, is a treasure to behold. After all, the art of the city resides not in its buildings, monuments or civic plans, but in the way people interact with them. Take people away from the equation, and all that's left is a beautiful architectural rendering, or a dead city.

Monday, April 8, 2019

Hey Hey, Holy Cow

Another opening day in Chicago, today it's the Cubs' turn in their spiffed up 115 year old ballpark that has managed to retain if not its original name, Weeghman Field, the name that it's been known for all but five of those years, Wrigley Field. My favorite Chicago pro baseball team the White Sox on the other side of town, held their home opener last week. You'll excuse me for my lack of opening day enthusiasm this year as my love of the game is tied to my son whose own baseball career if not his enthusiasm for the game has been sputtering in the last two years where he has failed to make the varsity team at school. It was truly a bitter pill to swallow, especially this year, his last in high school.

That said, he still has an outside chance of becoming a walk-on player in college. Over the weekend we met the baseball coach at a prospective school who could not have been nicer or more supportive, quite rare for his peers. But the odds are still against my boy and I can't lie, it breaks my heart. Not that I ever had any real expectation that one day he'd become a big league ballplayer, in fact I never wanted that life for him. Yet it was his dream, still is in fact, and for that I mourn. Perhaps I did him a disservice years ago by not breaking the news of what an improbable dream it was. I thought I'd leave that to the coaches who either sat him on the bench or didn't pick him for their team to begin with.

As I wrote in this space before, every dream of playing big league ball has to come to an end someday and it's only for a very small handful of people that the ending comes by their own choosing. For everyone else, the end comes when you realize that no one wants you to play for them anymore. In fact, the longer it takes for that dream to die, the harder it must be. Personally I wouldn't know as my own baseball dream was merely a fantasy, unlike my boy, who put his into action.

At least he's excited for the beginning of baseball this year. He'll be playing with his buds in a park district league this summer, their last before heading off for college. It will truly be a bitter sweet summer for the both of us as baseball has been the thing that has brought us together more than anything else.

In a Facebook post, a friend posed the following question: "Which baseball team will you be rooting for this summer?" It didn't take any thought on my part to respond: "any team my son plays for."

And it is for him that I end this post as I have for the past ten years with these gleeful, optimistic words:

Play ball!

Sunday, April 7, 2019

The Midas Touch, In Reverse

I've had a love-hate relationship with the game of golf for most of my adult life. Like many, I'd been influenced by the stereotype of the game as being the domain of the upper class, in common parlance, a blatant symbol of white privilege. But it needn't be that way. Granted, between buying all the swag that goes along with the game, finding someone to teach you how to play, and making your way onto a course to play a round, anyway you look at it, golf is an expensive hobby.

However like everything in life, where there's a will there's a way. You might be lucky like me and have had a friend who bought a new set of clubs and was willing to give you his old set. With those clubs you can take that friend to the driving range where he can teach you the ins and outs of a proper swing. Then with that new found swing, the two of you, for roughly the price of dinner and a movie, can go to a local public course and play a round of nine or even eighteen holes.

If you are truly lucky, you might be terrible and lose interest after that first round. Or if you're like me, you might have a modicum of athletic ability and by hook or crook manage to make one or two decent shots during that round which will give you the idea that you could actually become proficient at the game. Thus begins a lifetime of frustration, interspersed with the fleeting triumph of those one or two memorable shots per round that keep you coming back for more misery.

Yes folks, playing golf is an endless cycle of agony mixed with occasional ecstasy. That is, unless you either have a natural gift for the game, or are willing to put in the considerable time and money it takes to become an average golfer.

That said, misery loves company and in my experience, golfers are for the most part a patient and accommodating bunch who've all made their share of bad shots and can feel your pain. The trait above all that defines most of the golfers I have known, is their love and respect for the game. The best part of golf I think for the majority of people who play it, is not the game itself, but rather its social aspects. Most serious golfers it seems, at least in my limited experience, see their role in part to be ambassadors for the game. As such, it is incumbent upon them to make the experience as pleasurable for their partners as it is for themselves. I have found that no matter your skill level, as long as you show respect for the game, for its arcane etiquette, and especially for your fellow players, that respect will be repaid in kind.

As the game is self-policed, proper etiquette is essential to ensure things run smoothly. Two examples: players must tidy up after themselves such as remembering to replace those divots, and should move their way along the course in a reasonably prompt and orderly fashion, including not taking an unreasonable amount of time in search of a lost ball.

But that etiquitte also encourages civility, respect and commaraderie amongst players. Partners in a foursome who may be perfect strangers at the first tee, are expected to cooperate with one other during their time together on the course. That means paying attention to your partners' shots and helping spot where each ball lands, not as easy as it sounds. It also means complimenting your partner on good shots and consoling him or her for bad ones, wherever possible, gently pointing out technical details that could be of help. Golf etiquitte dictates that players in a foursome stick together at each tee until the last player has made his shot, then progress together along the fairway toward the hole, congregating around each ball that is encountered along the way, rather than splitting up in four different directions in search of one’s own ball. There is a whole set of etiquette that determines the correct order of who gets to shoot once the all balls land upon the green. Following that, the winner of that hole takes the first shot on the subsequent one.

The biggest difference between golf and most other games, is that you are in reality competing against the course and your own limitations rather than competing against other players. Yes golfers usually keep score and compare them after each round declaring the winner as the player who has made the fewest cumulative shots necessary to hit the ball from tee to cup in each of the holes of the course. But in no way should one player's actions adversely affect the performance of another player as they do in other games. That is the probably the most sacrosanct rule of the game. It is also probably why golf is the game of choice for people doing business as the competition is usually friendly and the gamesmanship that exists in other sports is kept to a minimum by design.

That is unless you are Donald Trump. Sportswriter Rick Reilly who has written a book about the current president and his fixation with golf, contends that absolutely none of the above matters to Trump. The only thing that Trump cares about in golf according to Reilly can be summed up in one word, winning.

Now I'm sure that upon hearing this, his supporters will be reminded as I was of Michael Jordan, the former superstar of the Chicago Bulls whose single-minded obsession with winning at everything he does is almost as legendary as his phenomenal basketball skills. However the comparison ends there. Jordan fulfills that obsession by relentlessly pushing himself to become better at the things he chooses to do, than other people. In stark contrast, Trump's modus operandi can best be described by the title of Reilly's book: Commander in Cheat: How Golf Explains Trump.

Short of reading the book, you can learn about the many ways Trump cheats at golf by reading this article in Rolling Stone, and this one in The Atlantic, penned by Rick Reilly himself.

Cheating in golf is a little like the proverbial taking candy from a baby; it's easy because the honor system of the game dictates that no one is likely to stop you. Taking that simile one step further, cheating at golf is like taking candy from a baby in full view of a room filled with people. Just because no one will stop you from cheating does not mean that people won't notice. It's anybody's guess why the president openly cheats with such impunity, but not at all surprising given his history.

Given that very public history of misbehavior at a very high level for a very long time, why should anybody care if Donald Trump cheats at something as insignificant as golf? After all, Trump cheated on his current wife while she was pregnant with their son, with a porn star no less. That alone places Trump on a very high, (or should I say low) pedestal of scum-bagginess. Unfortunately lots of people, many of them presidents, have cheated on their spouses. Bad as that character flaw may be, most spouse cheaters have other redeeming qualities. But with Trump it seems the deeper you dig into his life to find a mere shred of integrity, the more you come up empty.

Ah you say, fake news. This story was written by a guy, probably a Democrat with an axe to grind against this president, he made it all up. Fair enough, you want proof, OK here it is. One of the very few strictly enforced rules on a golf course is that you never, and I mean never drive your golf cart on the green, the portion of grass that surrounds the hole which is carefully tended by the groundskeepers to insure a predictable track of the ball. If you check out the Rolling Stone article I posted above, there is a video of Trump doing just that. Now if you know anything about the game of golf, that one clip speaks volumes about our president. From my experience, I’ve always felt you can learn a lot about someone by playing a round of golf with him. 

Well you say, that golf course probably belongs to Trump, so he’s entitled drive his cart wherever he pleases. Using that logic I guess it makes perfect sense to believe now that he’s president, he’s entitled to do whatever he wants as the laws don't apply to him. 

It turns out that Rick Reilly does have a serious axe to grind against Donald Trump, but it's not about politics. It’s about his lack of respect for the game of golf and the negative image of golf he's presenting to the general public.

At the top of this post I noted how influenced I once was by golf stereotypes. However my own experience of the game could not have been more different. About twenty five years ago at the peak of my brief golf career, I typically played at a public course in a predominantly African American neighborhood. The course, on the grounds of what is still referred to by old timers as the South Shore Country Club was once a private, exclusive, and restricted club. Today as it was back when I played there, the complexion of the folks who play golf at South Shore is as diverse as that of the City of Chicago. I remember one day seeing flyers there advertising an exhibition round featuring an up and coming teenage prodigy named Tiger Woods. Understandably there was great interest in seeing the young phenom everyone heard so much about in that particular neighborhood. 

Woods was not by a long shot the first black professional golfer, but was hands down the first black golf superstar, ranked up there in the valhalla of golf greats among names like Ben Hogan, Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus. Until his own fall from grace a few years ago, Tiger Woods was THE public face of golf. Thanks to him, folks no longer thought of golfers as being exclusively rich, out of shape white guys.

Unfortunately for Rick Reilly and just about anybody else who cares, Donald Trump and all he represents has replaced Tiger Woods as the new public face of golf. Reilly points to Trump's comment that golf is something one should aspire to. He doesn't elaborate but one can assume he means that one day you will be rich enough to buy yourself into a fancy country club and be able to hob nob with other rich people like him. Maybe if you're really lucky you might even get to be like Donald Trump himself and be able to bullshit your way into convincing people that you're good at the game, not only that, but a champion to boot.

None of this should be surprising, Donald Trump has what might be considered the Midas Touch in reverse, that is to say, everything he touches turns into garbage. The most tragic example of this is the office which he currently occupies. People used to say that in the United States of America, anyone if they worked hard enough, could be whatever they wanted, even president. Trump has turned that idea upside down. He has proven that yes, anyone can become POTUS, as long as he is willing to stoop low enough. Donald Trump has set the bar for President of the United States so low, you need an excavator to reach it.

Trump according to Reilly is turning the clock of progress in golf back at least one hundred years years. In that sense, golf is indeed a metaphor for Trump's America. He's making America great again just like he's making golf "great again."

If your idea of this country is one where the haves, namely wealthy, entitled, old, lazy white guys rule by virtue of their whim and self-interest over everybody else, then Trump is your guy.

Frankly, that's not my cup of tea, I don't like Trump's vision of America any more than I like his game of golf.

POST SCRIPT: On Sunday April 14, 2019, exactly one week after this post was written, after an eleven year drought of winning a major tournament, Tiger Woods won the most prestigious one of all, the Masters in Augusta, Georgia. Perhaps if Rick Reilly and golf fans the world over are lucky, a bona fide athlete and someone who is actually good at golf will once again become the public face of the game.

Sunday, March 31, 2019

Curtain Call

It would be nice to report that every public school provides its students with the same opportunities to participate in artistic and other endeavors that go beyond your basic, nuts and bolts education. Unfortunately, politics, priorities and funds dictate otherwise, so it’s up to resourceful parents combined with visionary faculty and local school administrations to fill in the gap. That said, the penultimate word of the week goes to the Godmother of Stone and the hardest working person in CPS, Virginia Falkner:
I joined Friends of Stone Academy in 2010, a year after my daughter started at the school. We choose Stone because of their dedication to the arts within the school and FOSA was working hard to raise funds to continue arts programming at the school. When we started, there was arts programming in several of the grades but not all (Theater Arts in 2nd grade, Blues in the School in 4th grade, Spanish dance in 3rd grade, ballroom dancing in 5th grade). Over the years we have been able to raise more and more money and now fund an arts experience in each grade at Stone Academy. We are also very lucky to still have a full time Art and full time Music teacher and to be able to perform a Spring Musical each year since we have been at the school. It is a great experience for the younger students to be able to enjoy musicals in the school setting and even more influential for those students in 5th-8th grade who choose to perform in the musical and go through the full process of musical theater. We have had several fun productions in the past few years, Shrek Jr and Peter Pan Jr, which have been great for the younger audiences but this year’s cast pulled off a more serious musical with Fiddler on the Roof and did a fabulous job. FOSA is thrilled to be able to also help fund the musical to provide costumes and sets that help the students present spectacular productions. The arts are definitely still alive at Stone Academy.

My heart thanks to Jamie Perry, Caleb Naimy, Virginia Falkner and especially to the wonderful cast and crew of Stone Academy’s “Fiddler on the Roof” for creating something magnificent and beautiful which will live on in the hearts of all of us who were there to witness it for a very long time. A special shout out goes to principal Jay Brandon for his great support.

Now it’s only fair to save the last word of the week for the students of Stone who have some reflections to share:
Musical theater at Stone has taught be to believe in myself. I’m able to express myself, and do what I love most. My favorite part of this year’s production was getting my dream role. It made me feel like all my hard work over the past four years had paid off. I can leave Stone remembering all the good times I had in their productions, and that no matter what I decide to do in life, musical theater gave me the confidence to do it.
Sadie K. eighth grade

Musicals at Stone never disappoint. The hard work and adherence offered by the teachers and students ensure performances that the audience and performers will never forget. It is an honor to be a part of the cast and is an experience that I will cherish forever. Additionally, being part of a theatre group builds confidence and public speaking skills valued in all careers. Everyone involved deserves an enormous thank you for making this possible.
Ella W. eighth grade 

My experience during “Fiddler on the Roof” was something extraordinary. It was like having a whole family night at school, and being able to do a show was something I felt privileged to do. This family even made me and others cry during/before the last performance.
 Anya T. sixth grade

Saturday, March 30, 2019


As I mentioned in a previous post, as soon as the curtain went up, the work of the three adults involved in “Fiddler on the Roof” was finished. Come performance time, the students handled all the technical aspects of the production including lighting, sound, effects, set changes, costume changes and stage direction, while the adults sat in the audience, perhaps just a little more nervous than most. During the third and final public performance, I was granted the special privilege of observing the play from the wings. It was from there I saw individuals whom I’ve known for years, mostly as little kids on the playground, take on the responsibility of working together without supervision to make a production come alive. There was a sense of purpose. It was all for one, one for all; in all my years of coaching youth sports, I never saw such devotion to the team. Despite the brief moments of levity depicted in the photograph above which took place during a rare moment of calm as the action took place before a closed curtain, everyone performed their job with dead seriousness. It was a joy to watch.

As the music teacher and one of the theatre directors, it is so exciting for me to have such a thriving arts community here at Stone Academy. Thanks to our Friends of Stone Academy parent Organization, we are able to produce fully staged musicals each year with full costumes, sets, microphones and lighting. There many CPS schools who don’t have the resources to accomplish such a task, and without our FOSA organization we would be in the same boat. FOSA sponsored events have resulted in large donations over the last few years to upgrade our sound system and lights, and each year sponsors the musical expenses like costumes, sets, and rights/royalties.

Another amazing thing about the Arts programs at Stone Academy is the diversity. Every year, we are able to tie in our students’ culture to the script. Our school population is so diverse and rich in culture, we are always able to find real life experiences to inform our performances. In Fiddler on The Roof, we were able to work with a large group of Jewish students to talk about their customs and make sure we were being culturally appropriate with costumes and gestures. When we produced Peter Pan, we were able to have a discussion with a family who had Native American ties, to make sure we were culturally sensitive to the “Brave Indians” in the script. In The Lion King, we were able to work with students from Nigeria and Ethiopia to incorporate traditional African movement into the choreography. Celebrating our cultural diversity through the arts is my favorite part of Stone Academy, and I hope the readers and viewers of CPS Lives can see that through these photographs. 
-Caleb Naimy

Friday, March 29, 2019

Act II

Our daughter came home one evening in September and told us her teachers selected this year’s musical, but wouldn’t let on what it was. The only thing they offered was that it was “old school.” Her mother and I thought for a second and came up with two possibilities, “West Side Story” and “Fiddler on the Roof.” Then I said” no, both of those are too sad.” It turned out I greatly underestimated the will of the teachers. 

The story of Fiddler on the Roof is about a particular group of people living in a specific time and place, a shtetl in Tzarist Russia. Yet themes such as family, love, loss, and the question of what is expected of us in a radically changing world are universal. Unfortunately its darker themes, intolerance, hatred and oppression, still hit close to home today. Heady stuff indeed for a middle school play. Even more poignant is the fact that the cast and crew of the play reflect the tremendous diversity at Stone, its members representing at least five of the seven continents, and all the major religions. It's very likely that they also speak nearly a dozen languages at home. In the following, teacher Jamie Perry reflects on bringing such a disparate cast together to tell a simple but powerful story about nothing less than what it means to be a human being. 

We worked very hard to teach the students to be respectful of costume pieces, and we did adjust some things to respect the cultures of our students. I didn’t want anything mistreated that would disrespect the Jewish culture. So, we constantly reminded students they had to be careful to respect the tallit or tzitzit, and they should always be worn correctly, hung up correctly, and treated with respect. Our rabbi was a Muslim student, and at first he would come out on stage with his costume worn incorrectly. I frequently tried to make religious comparisons to the significance or symbolism of certain garments in his religion, so he would understand the importance of his costume. One student could not pretend to drink alcohol in “To Life.” When we wanted to cast him I asked if being in the scene would be an issue. He assured me it would not, but I asked him to discuss it with his parents. I kept checking in with him and he insisted it was fine. But around week three he came to me and told me he definitely could not pretend to drink. So, we added the line “Mordcha, bring me a glass of water and a bottle of your finest for Tevye.” During one dress rehearsal he forgot to say that line and didn’t realize it, so I reminded him a lot that last week. It also helped to have four Jewish students in the show. They were our experts and often spoke to the cast about their culture, or explained things like the Sabbath, Challah, etc. They also helped cast members with pronunciations, like ‘L’Chaim’. Educating our students about the time period, pogroms, the Jewish culture and traditions, the costume pieces, etc., was extremely important to us as directors. It was also very rewarding, to see the students begin to truly understand the historical significance of the production.

Thursday, March 28, 2019

Act One

There were over fifty cast members In Stone Academy’s production of “Fiddler on the Roof”, some of whom played two or three different roles, each requiring a separate costume. As if that Herculean task wasn’t enough, Stone parent Virginia Falkner had to wear many hats in her role as costume designer. First and foremost it was of the utmost importance to pay close attention to detail, respecting the Jewish culture represented in the play. She also had to play the role of engineer/magician, helping design the apparatus that went along with the costume for the nine foot Fruma-Sarah. Even more terrifying than the scene which features the ghostly apparition, was witnessing the trial run of her costume. I’m happy to report that the costume and the three student-actors it took to inhabit it survived the play unscathed. It goes without saying that much of the credit for the look of the show belongs to Virginia. Here, she shares the joys and a few of the struggles that are part of one of her very many roles at Stone. 
My first year of costume design at Stone was for “Once on this Island” where the costumes consisted of sarongs all tied in different manners, a very simple solution but effective for the tropical setting. But my job was just cutting large rectangles of fabric. Over the years our costume budget increased as the plays got more complicated; lions, mermaids, pirates and fairy tale characters to name a few. Each year there would be a costume that would be hard to get just right; mermaids in “Peter Pan” and Humpty Dumpty in “Shrek”. Often those become my favorite costumes in the end. The poor student who played Humpty Dumpty was so anxious to get his costume. Unfortunately it was the very last to be completed after three failed efforts but I think we both loved it in the end. Sometimes there are costume fails like the poor student whose pants ripped with the complicated choreography (luckily it was in dress rehearsal and we got them re-enforced for the show) and the bottle dancers whose bottles didn’t stay on their heads until the very last dress rehearsal. We then went through 3 shows without a fail! It’s been fun to work with the students on their costumes. In many cases the kids will be skeptical about a complicated costume but then see the effect and really bring the character to life. It is interesting how the costume can really help the kids feel more like the character and bring on the personality. The costumes for “Fiddler on the Roof” seem simple since they were regular clothes, but it was important to find things that didn’t look modern, but fit the time and culture. When you put all the students together, costumes can be so powerful. Seeing them in pictures always makes me happy since in the moment I sometimes only see the tiniest little issue!
- Virginia Falkner

Wednesday, March 27, 2019


With three full dress rehearsals under their belts, Stone Scholastic Academy’s production of “Fiddler on the Roof” is now a well oiled machine. Lines are delivered, timing is spot on, high notes are nailed, emotions are properly expressed and the technical glitches are smoothed out. All that’s left for the three adults is to make sure everything is in place and take the cast and crew through a final warm up exercise in the gym as the audience files into the auditorium. From here on it’s all in the kids’ hands.
The theater program at Stone Academy was founded in 2007 by Jamie Perry, and former music teacher Bill Marsland. Ms. Perry recalls: “I studied theater as an undergrad and had done a lot of directing before moving into education and coming to Stone in 2006. So, when Bill was hired we discussed trying to direct a musical. The first year was a total experiment. We didn’t have an elaborate set or costumes; we had a very limited budget, and we just did the best we could with limited resources. Every year we’ve added things, and tried to tackle more and more complex shows. Fiddler is my fourth collaboration with Caleb (Falle). His unbelievable talent and incredible work ethic is the reason the shows have continued to grow and evolve into the high level of productions we now produce. “

Tuesday, March 26, 2019

Dress Rehearsal

My first encounter with Stone Academy’s production of “Fiddler on the Roof” was during the controlled chaos of the first dress rehearsal. I must admit having some doubts as cues were missed, lines were flubbed or forgotten, upper register notes were non-existent, and at one point the show had to be stopped as the school principal came in to lecture the kids about some long forgotten breach of protocol. In other words, it was a typical middle school experience. My favorite stage direction came during the second half of the play when an exasperated director yelled to the star of the show: “it’s your daughter, she’s leaving home, you’ll never see her again, you need to look sad!” There were also a handful of technical difficulties as the last picture in this group illustrates. But participating in the process reminded me of my several experiences documenting construction projects: a week before opening, never in your wildest dreams do you believe they’ll get the thing put together. But as if by magic, they always do.

About sixty students including cast and crew participated in the play. A grand total of three adults, all pictured in this sequence, also participated. Director Jamie Perry’s day job is Stone’s fifth through eighth grade Spanish teacher. Her co-director is Stone’s music teacher Caleb Falle. Rounding out the trio was costume designer Virginia Falkner whose many additional contributions to Stone are as parent, Treasurer, and past President of FOSA. We’ll hear from all three of them over the course of this week. In tomorrw's post I’ll share some thoughts from Ms. Perry whom it should be noted, has been an integral part of the theater program at Stone since its inception.

Monday, March 25, 2019

The School Play

I took a brief hiatus from my work at Senn High School to work at another school, Stone Academy, a K-8 magnet school in the neighborhood of Edgewater, on the far north side of Chicago. When I first signed on with CPS Lives, I had three requirements for the school in which I would work. First, it had to have an interesting story. Second, as I have other things going on in my life, it had to be reasonably close to home. Most important, for my children’s sake it could not be a school that either of them attended. Stone fit the first two requirements. I threw caution to the wind after one of my daughter’s teachers, a co-director of the annual school play asked me to make production photographs. It was hard to resist the request for many reasons, not the least of which, it gave me the opportunity to give a little back to the school our family has been a part of for the past twelve years. In our time at Stone, our children have had more than their share of outstanding teachers under the direction of three excellent principals. Yet a public school’s success depends upon more than a staff of highly motivated professionals. It takes a strong commitment from parents, especially in this day of ever dwindling support for public education, to enable a school to provide children with more than a rudimentary education.

Stone Academy is blessed with a support group led by parents who with the help of faculty, administration, the Local School Council and the PTA, make events such as the school play a reality, an event that schools in more affluent districts take for granted. Incorporated in 2008, Friends of Stone Academy (FOSA) has raised funds to cover the costs of a variety of supplemental academic, athletic and arts programs, with the expressed goal of providing these opportunities at no cost to students and their families. From FOSA’s mission statement: “These programs promote literacy, cultural awareness, and contribute to the educational, physical, and emotional development of our children.”

The photographs I’ll be posting this week of Stone Academy’s production of “Fiddler on the Roof“ and some of the preparation leading up to it, are testimony to the hard work, commitment and dedication of the students, faculty, administration and our fellow parents of Stone, and to the tireless efforts of the members of FOSA, past present and future. Without them and like-minded organizations, opportunities such as these for our children would be little more than a pipe dream.

Thursday, February 28, 2019

Ten Years

Who woulda thunk it, as of today I've been writing this blog for ten years.
Happy anniversary to me!

Photographs of the Month

State Street Subway, February 11

Illinois Institute of Technology, February