Sunday, December 31, 2017

Photographs of the Month

School children and their chaperones assembled for performance of The Nutcracker, Auditorium Theater, December 14

State Street, December 14

Rogers Park, December 18

Wabash Avenue, December 22

Saturday, December 30, 2017

The Nutcracker

One of the greatest experiences of my first trip to St. Petersburg in the 1990s was attending a ballet performance at the Mariinsky Theater, Russia's preeminent hall for the presentation of the performing arts. As I admitted in a post of a few years ago, ballet has never been something that particularly touched my fancy. Yet I couldn't help being impressed attending a performance in the very theater where many of the greatest dancers, choreographers and set designers of the last century and a half plied their art. Even in my ignorant bliss, the names Pavlova, Nijinski, Balanchine, Nureyev, and Baryshinikov  meant a great deal to me and observing young dancers performing the same roles on the same stage as those estimable folks of an earlier era, moved me to tears.

Opera on the other hand is something I have greatly appreciated my entire adult life and the Mariinsky has hosted the world premiers of some of the most important operas written by a who's who of Russian composers, including Glinka, Mussorgsky and Tchaikovsky. But the theater is best known as a mecca for dance, perhaps second in the world only to Moscow's Bolshoi, and it has premiered far more than its share of the most familiar works of classical ballet ever created, including exactly 125 years ago this past December 18, Tchaikovsky's The Nutcracker. That performance, the second half of a double bill which also featured the premier of of the same composer's last opera, Iolantha, was anything but a success. Critics chided everything from the abrupt transition from the real to the fantasy world at the close of the first act, to the "corpulence" of the original Sugar Plum Fairy. Who knows, perhaps everyone was just tired after a long evening.

The ballet was essentially moth-balled for the subsequent half century or so before it was revived in Europe in the thirties and in the United States in the forties. A 1944 production in San Francisco proved so popular that the annual tradition of performing the work every winter season took hold.  By the 1960s the ballet became as much a part of Christmas in the USA as Santa and carols played after Labor Day, as one can find at least one Yuletide production of the classic, performed in virtually every sizable American city.

Somehow I managed to be left out of Nutcrackermania for a good chunk of my life. True, I was intimately familiar with the music, as the suite of selected tunes from the ballet, arranged in not quite in the same order that they appear in the original work, is played incessantly at Christmastime. My first experience of the ballet in person, was when I was a chaperone for my son's kindergarten class at a performance put on by a local company for school children. This year I was reminded of that by my son's kindergarten teacher who just happened to show up at a performance of the ballet put on by my daughter's ballet school.

This is the third time my daughter has performed in the ballet. Her first role was as the littlest angel, who shows up at the beginning of the second act. She skipped a couple  of years and returned as a senior angel. This year she had two roles, junior snow and junior flower, dancing to perhaps the most familiar tune of the ballet, The Waltz of the Flowers. This particular dance studio allows children to participate through high school so my little girl has potentially seven more years to participate in their production of the Nutcracker and other programs. It's truly a joy to see her, as well as the other children grow into new and more complicated roles every year. The star of the show is the Sugar Plum Ferry who is on stage for much of the second act. In the role this year was a high school junior, a girl who was a former classmate of my son. I've known her since they played pee wee soccer together ten years ago. Now she is a beautiful young woman who will soon head out into the world to pursue her dreams, wherever they may lead.

A bittersweet moment takes place every year as at the end of each performance, the director of the dance school singles out the seniors who will be moving on. There's not a dry eye in the house as she introduces each dancer, and yes, sadly, most of them are girls, and presents them with a bouquet of roses as she publicly wishes them well for the future.

This year thanks to the dance studio, my daughter and I received a very special perk, tickets to the Joffrey Ballet's performance of the Nutcracker, again put on for school children. Granted it was not the full ballet, just act one. The performers danced to recorded music, not to a live orchestra as the paying crowd gets to see, but it was a magnificent, inspiring couple of hours just the same.

This Joffrey production, the second year it has been presented, is an untraditional take on the story, as it is set in Chicago in 1893, just before the opening of the World's Columbian Exposition. Instead of opening in the living room of an elaborate home, this production opens inside the studio of a woman sculptor, working on a maquette of what would become the most famous feature of the Fair, The Republic,  the 65 foot high sculpture by Daniel Chester French, which was the centerpiece of the Court of Honor, at the heart of the Fair.

In the background you can see the Fair under construction, highlighted by the half complete Ferris Wheel, the first of its kind in the world. As the reality of the sculptor's studio gives way to the magical land of fairies and nutcracker princes at the end of the act, the Fair becomes complete, in all of its glory.

Needless to say, this is a compelling production for anyone who like me, has a passion for Chicago history. It is especially poignant as the current home for Joffrey performances, Louis Sullivan's magnificent Auditorium Theater, (seen at the masthead of this blog), was built just before the fair. Just up the street, the Allerton Building of the Art Institute was built for the fair and served as the setting of one of the event's most memorable events, Swami Vivekananda's address to the World's Parliament of Religions, calling for worldwide tolerance of different faiths.

In a few years the Joffrey plans to leave the Auditorium and move to the West Loop, to the Civic Opera House, taking advantage of that venue's more elaborate backstage facilities. Perhaps when that happens, yet another production will be required setting the ballet during the Century of Progress Exposition which took place around the time the COH was built. 

As I write this, 2:00PM today, December 30, will be the last production this year of Joffrey's Nutcracker at the magnificent Auditorium. I have little doubt that it will return next year to the great hall in all its splendor. If you love classical dance with a slightly different twist, Christmas, tradition, architecture, or Chicago history, by all means make plans to see it.

In the meantime, happy 2018!

Thursday, December 28, 2017

St. Boniface, the Saga Continues...

I first wrote about the sorry saga of the former St. Boniface Roman Catholic Church back in 2009, right as the ninety day waiting period expired after a demolition permit had been issued, clearing the way for the church building to be turned to dust. More than eight years later and several plans to re-purpose the building falling through, the still beautiful structure remains, standing across from the northwest corner of Eckhart Park at the intersection of Noble and Chestnut Streets on Chicago's near north side.

And now a new plan has arisen. In the cheeky words of this Chicago Architecture blog article, the church is about to be "transubstantiated into condos." as part of a square block development.

Again, we'll wait and see if this new plan has any legs. The church, the work of Chicago's pre-eminent ecclesiastical architect Henry Schlacks, has been closed for 27 years, what's another few months?

Monday, December 25, 2017

The Reason for the Season

Last night as is my Christmas Eve custom, while waiting for our children, still with visions of sugar plums, video games and other goodies dancing in their heads, to fall asleep so I could set out their presents under the Christmas tree, I settled in front of the TV to watch the delayed broadcast of Midnight Mass from the Vatican. The familiar strains of the ancient Christmas liturgy were all there along with the pomp and circumstance, the haunting choral music, the fancy people in the front rows, the panoply of languages including Latin, all the smells and bells, and the endless procession of Cardinals embellished in their lavish vestments, preceding the Holy Father, Pope Francis I, as he made his way up the nave of the enormous St. Peter's Basilca. This would be the current pope's fifth Christmas Eve mass at St. Peter's, which took place shortly after his 81st birthday.

To some, the over-the-top pageantry of the Roman Catholic Church in all its glory, in its premier venue on its premier occasion, belies the simple story it is commemorating, that of a poor man and his pregnant wife, forced to leave home and travel a grueling journey at the decree of a far off emperor. When it came time for the mother to give birth, no one would open their doors to these strangers, so the couple was forced to find refuge in a barn, placing into service the animals' feeding trough as the bed for their newborn. Of course theirs was no ordinary child, and the good news of the birth of Jesus, the eternal sign of God's being one with His people, was not delivered first to the fancy people, the leaders of the community, the property owners, the righteous, self or otherwise, those in good social standing with comfortable lives, but to the poor and dispossessed, the outcasts, those at the lowest levels society, namely the shepherds out watching their flocks in the middle of the night. Their sheer terror of coming face to face with an angel of the Lord must have been only slightly allayed when he proclaimed to them:
Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.
Now whether you believe that Jesus is the Son of God, or believe in God at all, you have to admit that this is one hell of a story that not only gives many of us some degree of hope in a troubled world, but also provides a valuable insight into the human experience as a lesson in humility. Imagine if you will, the King of Kings, Wonder Counselor, Everlasting Father and Prince of Peace coming into this world born in a stable, watched over by the untouchables of polite society. Some might argue that it's such an unlikely story, only God could have come up with it.

Likewise, in its infancy, Christianity was itself an outcast, its members persecuted as heretics, tortured mercilessly before being killed mercifully for daring to proclaim their faith in this radical, revolutionary new religion. Needless to say, more than two thousand years after the birth of Christ, Christianity remains the most dominant of the establishment religions of the world, unrecognizable from its humble origins. And Christians, 1,637 years since their faith became the officially sanctioned religion of the Roman Empire, have done more than their share of persecuting.

No, you won't find much humility at Christmas Mass in St. Peter's in the Vatican, nor for that matter, here in Chicago at Holy Name Cathedral. My family learned that lesson exactly eleven years ago yesterday when we attended Christmas Eve Mass in the cathedral, my mother's parish church. By the time we arrived for mass, about fifteen minutes early, the seats in the pews were all taken save for two, way up at the front of the church. We asked the people seated there if my wife, then eight and one half months pregnant with our daughter, and my septuagenarian mother could sit in the available spots. No, the people sitting in the pew told us, they were saving those spots for their late-coming friends. My wife and mother ended up standing with my son and me for the entire mass. To this day I wonder if the irony of that situation ever registered in the minds of those people who turned my elderly mother and very pregnant wife away.

Today in Pope Francis, we have a pontiff who is doing his utmost to move the Catholic Church away from its climate of self-righteousness and privilege, and closer to its humble beginnings emphasizing the fundamental core values of love, forgiveness, compassion and charity. More than his predecessors, Francis has made a point of advocating for the outcasts of society, namely the sick, the poor, the incarcerated, and most recently, the refugee. In a world whose direction seems pointed in the opposite direction with the recent election of populist demagogues who feed off anger and fear of the stranger, Francis's message is a simple one, be not afraid. When Francis speaks at Midnight Mass in St. Peter's of the plight of the Holy Family as strangers in a strange place turned away by the townsfolk, it should come as no surprise that he would make a connection between the Christmas story and the plight of people living today. Sure enough, early this morning Pope Francis told the world:
The faith we proclaim tonight makes us see God present in all those situations where we think he is absent. He is present in the unwelcomed visitor, often unrecognizable, who walks through our cities and our neighbourhoods, who travels on our buses and knocks on our doors.
This same faith impels us to make space for a new social imagination, and not to be afraid of experiencing new forms of relationship, in which none have to feel that there is no room for them on this earth. Christmas is a time for turning the power of fear into the power of charity, into power for a new imagination of charity. The charity that does not grow accustomed to injustice, as if it were something natural, but that has the courage, amid tensions and conflicts, to make itself a “house of bread”, a land of hospitality.
In his Christmas Eve homily, Pope Francis, who has never hidden his disdain for the current lot of populist leaders including our own president, minced no words this morning when he compared them to one of the most notorious of New Testament villains:
So many other footsteps are hidden in the footsteps of Joseph and Mary. We see the tracks of entire families forced to set out in our own day. We see the tracks of millions of persons who do not choose to go away but, driven from their land, leave behind their dear ones. In many cases this departure is filled with hope, hope for the future; yet for many others this departure can only have one name: survival. Surviving the Herods of today, who, to impose their power and increase their wealth, see no problem in shedding innocent blood.
Them's truly fightin' words, the pope equating contemporary world leaders with the man whom Christians believe ordered the slaughter of all male infants in Judea, out of jealousy of the newborn King, whose birth he was informed of by the gift-bearing visitors from the East.

For his part, the Christmas Eve message from the President of the United States was a self-congratulatory tweet proclaiming that he won the "war on Christmas" as evidenced by the number of Americans who were once again using the term "Merry Christmas."

Little does this man seem to understand that the real war on Christmas lies in our selfishness, our indifference, our lack of compassion and understanding for our brothers and sisters, certainly not in our reluctance to use the word Christmas in deference to our friends who do not celebrate the holiday.

The pope closed his message with a prayer to God to wake us from the slumber of that indifference:
Moved by the joy of the gift, little Child of Bethlehem, we ask that your crying may shake us from our indifference and open our eyes to those who are suffering. May your tenderness awaken our sensitivity and recognize our call to see you in all those who arrive in our cities, in our histories, in our lives. May your revolutionary tenderness persuade us to feel our call to be agents of the hope and tenderness of our people.
It is that fire of the revolutionary spirit of the early church that Pope Francis hopes to ignite in the hearts, minds and bellies of all of us, believers and non-believers alike.

When this pope speaks these words the chorus of angels proclaimed to the shepherds outside of Bethlehem so long ago:
Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, and good will toward men...
...he is not uttering a trite slogan found on greeting cards once a year, but proclaiming a call to action for us, this day and every day. It is a message of self-reflection and hope for people the world over of good will, whether they believe or not.

In other words, it is truly meaningless to say the words merry Christmas without living them.

May all of us learn to live those words in the coming new year.

And a very Merry Christmas to all!

Post script:

Pope Francis's 2017 Christmas Eve homily can be found in its entirety here.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Alternate Universes: A Tale of Two Networks

My weekend plans were re-arranged after an unexpected trip to the hospital for my mother. She's fine now, thanks. My mom has a little dog and my most important job last weekend was to stay at her place to take care of the pooch. Crashing at her downtown apartment is a little like staying in a nice hotel, complete with cable TV, which we don't have (for good reason) at home.

My tradition of entering a hotel room for the first time is to plop down on the bed and check out what stations the TV has to offer. It works pretty much the same at my mom's. I'm not a huge TV watcher at home so maybe that's why I'm always eager to take advantage of the tube when I'm away.

It just so happened that my mother checked into the hospital on huge news day. Last Friday three major stories vied for our nation's attention, the Senate vote on the Republican income tax overhaul,  Robert Mueller's indictment of former Trump national security advisor, Michael Flynn, and the acquittal of Jose Garcia Zarate in the murder charges in the death of  Kathryn Steinle.

MSNBC, the only TV news my mother watches, devoted this past Friday to the Flynn case, with only a brief mention here and there about the impending Senate vote. In the time I sat in her hospital room, I must have seen the tape of Flynn leaving his car and entering Federal Court in Washington D.C. with his lawyer by his side, at least two thousand times. Not a single angle of the story was left uncovered while the network's reporters and commentators, especially Rachel Maddow, could not conceal their glee at the prospect that this move of Robert Mueller to go after a one time high ranking member of the administration, nailing him with only the mildest of charges in exchange for his cooperation with the investigation, could set into motion the downfall of this president. While I didn't shed too many tears for the commander-in-chief, I didn't jump for joy either. My skepticism runs high these days as it seems like we've heard it all before. Trump, the teflon president, and before that, the teflon candidate, has gotten where he is despite countless violations of ethics, decorum, common decency, and even the law, wrongdoings that would have doomed anybody else. He could very well survive Michael Flynn an Robert Mueller as well.

But if you listened to MSNBC this past weekend, you'd have thought Donald Trump was all but impeached and headed for jail. I needed a different perspective, one that could be found just one click away on my mom's remote control.

It shouldn't come as much of a surprise that the unofficial voice of Donald Trump, Fox News had an alternate take on the Flynn indictment. Commentator Tucker Carlson who hosts an evening program on the network, had a puzzled look on his face, a trademark of Fox talking heads when speaking about the opposition, as he wondered aloud what all the fuss was about.  After all the time and money spent on the investigation into Russian meddling into our election and Trump's possible connection to it, Carlson suggested, if the indictment of Flynn lying to the FBI was all the investigation could come up with, then Mueller and his whole team owe this country a huge apology. There was no mention of the possibility that Mueller might possibly have bigger fish to fry than Michael Flynn.

Fox News didn't even lead with the Flynn indictment Friday night. It led with the Kate Steinle story. Turns out the staunchly anti-liberal/Democrat network is obsessed with the death of the young woman. If you're like me and hadn't heard of Kathryn Steinle, it's probably because you don't watch Fox News. The Fox version of her story goes something like this:

Kate Steinle, a 34 year old San Francisco woman was walking along the Embarcadero with her father on July 1, 2015, when a bullet struck her in the back and punctured her aorta. She died two hours later in a hospital. The bullet came from a gun that was fired by Jose Zarate, a Mexican national and a convicted felon, here in the United States illegally. In fact Zarate had been deported from the United States five times but always managed to make his way back in. When he finished a jail term on drug charges in San Francisco, despite frequent requests from immigration officials that Zarate be turned over to them for deportation, the local authorities let him go free, enabling him to kill Ms. Steinle.

Zarate went on trial for the murder of Kathryn Steinle this October. Despite there being no question that Zarate fired the shot that killed Steinle, last Thursday he was acquitted on all murder charges, and convicted only on a weapons charge. As California law allows convicted felons credit for time served in jail awaiting trial, Zarate stands to serve only a short amount of time. Never fear, the Trump administration has taken a particular interest in this case and its Justice Department has plans for Zarate once he gets sprung from the California hoosegow.

The shooting of Ms. Steinle has become a cause celebre for alt-right groups for whom illegal immigration is a hot button topic. And why not, you would be hard pressed to find a more compelling story than a young woman dying in her father's arms, tragically gunned down by an undocumented felon who was set free by local law enforcement officials in a so called sanctuary city. Jose Zarate has become a poster child for the dangers of illegal aliens, such a big part of Donald Trump's campaign rhetoric, who in his words, cross our borders to rape and murder decent Americans. In fact Zarate was very likely the inspiration for Trump's controversial description of illegal Mexicans in this country. Kate Steinle's name was mentioned by Trump in his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, and the Republicans have introduced "Kate's law" which would "enhance penalties for deported felons who would return to the United States." By far the biggest target for the alt-right Trumpkins is the city of San Francisco and all sanctuary cities whom they feel put the rights of criminal illegal aliens over the safety of law abiding citizens.

Something obviously went terribly wrong here. Even I had to ask myself, how could this happen?

Well as I said, this is the Fox version of the story, and from everything I can tell from other sources, there is nothing out of line about their version, except for the not so small problem that it leaves out a number significant details.

First of all, there are felons, and then there are felons. From the Fox description of Zarate, he could have easily been a member of a notorious drug cartel or a relentless gang banger bent specifically on murder and mayhem. Zarate was none of those. He was a wobegone drifter, homeless and drowsy from the sleeping pills he took after picking them out of the garbage, at the time of Kate Steinle's shooting. The crimes he was charged with were drug related offenses and re-entering the United States after being deported. None of his convictions were for committing violent crimes. As criminal illegal aliens go, Zarate was the smallest of small potatoes and it's easy to see how he fell between the cracks of the system.

The gun he fired was stolen from a California Bureau of Land Management officer, that Zarate claimed he found underneath a park bench wrapped in a tee shirt. A surveillance video seemed to corroborate Zarate's story as it showed two men (neither of them Zarate), discarding a bundle under that bench that could very well have been the gun, hours before the tragedy. Zarate testified that the gun accidentally discharged as he was picking it up from the ground. The police who interrogated him testified at the trial that they lied to Zarate about what they knew about the evidence in order to convince him to come up with a more damning confession. Ballistics showed the bullet that struck Ms. Steinle ricocheted off the pavement before hitting her, indicating that even had Zarate intentionally fired the gun, he was not aiming at the victim. After reading all the details of what happened, the only logical conclusion one can come up with is that Kate Steinle's death was a tragic accident, at the very worst, gross negligence on the part of Zarate, but hardly first degree murder, which was the charge the prosecutor originally sought against him.

Unfortunately logic doesn't seem to play a big part of Fox's agenda. On a day that featured two far reaching stories that will play a significant role in this nation's history, Fox devoted a half hour of a one hour prime time news program to the story of that tragic accident.

And how much time did MSNBC devote to the story of Kate Steinle last weekend? Exactly two minutes and fifteen seconds. I know that because Fox published an article falsely claiming that MSNBC gave zero coverage to the story this past weekend, then corrected their mistake via a tweet that enumerated the minutes and seconds of their coverage.

In the original article now removed from the internet, Fox indignantly claimed their liberal counterpart MSNBC did not bother to cover the story of the shooting simply because "it didn't fit into their narrative." Perhaps there is some truth to that. On the other hand, the Steinle story, minus all those nasty details, fits into Fox's anti-immigrant narrative like a glove.

If you can bear it, watch what "Judge" Jeanine Pirro, by far Fox's most snarky, bellicose and obnoxious commentator had to say the other day about the Steinle case.

Pirro wears her contempt for anyone who disagrees with her, particularly liberal Democrats, like a mink coat. She is so snarly and vindictive, she makes Fox's biggest name commentator, Sean Hannity, no shrinking violet he, look like the avuncular actor/singer Burl Ives. In the commentary where she refers to Zarate at least twice as a "dirtbag", Pirro, like Trump and other members of the far right, claims that the trial was a miscarriage of justice. "That's why we call it criminal justice, not victim justice." Pirro said.

It's surprising to hear someone with supposed legal experience, express such shock over the procedures and the outcome of a real life trial. No, the jury was not made aware of Zarate's immigration status as Pirro claims, but such is the case in similar cases. Yes she's right, the judge denied the jury from seeing and handling the gun that killed Ms. Steinle to determine how easily it could misfire, again, common procedure. Pirro conveniently didn't mention the police admission of lying to the suspect or the prosecutors' choice to go after the big enchilada, murder one, rather than the much more realistic charge of manslaughter. She also didn't mention the chief prosecutor's far-fetched closing argument which stated that Zarete was "playing his own secret version of Russian roulette" with Ms. Steinle, or the culpability of the BLM ranger who carelessly allowed his gun to be stolen in the first place. Real life law and order doesn't work like it does on TV where justice is always served for young, attractive victims  (as Ms. Steinle was constantly referred to by Fox). To hear Pirro talk about the trial, you would think that because it was held in that heaven forbid, liberal bastion of San Francisco, all the cards were stacked in favor of that dirtbag Zarate and against the attractive Steinle. Pirro even bemoaned the unfairness of the fact that the decedent, Ms. Steinle wasn't present at the trial to represent herself while the defendant, Mr. Zarate was. I could be wrong but it's my impression that murder victims are not customarily present at the trials of their accused killers.

The wisest, most even-handed words I've read about this case, come from Robert Tracinski, Senior Writer for the conservative website "The Federalist." The gist of his article comparing this trial to the George Zimmerman trial in Florida, can be summed up by its sub heading: 
The Kate Steinle verdict is the Right's turn to be outraged after an acquittal because they were never warned about the weaknesses of the actual case.
Tracinski cautions against using crimes and personal tragedies as narratives for promoting agendas or ideology, no matter what side it comes from by saying this:
individuals are not symbols and…every shooting has its own irreducibly concrete facts and context…. Every case of the use of force is a discrete incident with its own unique facts. It is not an abstract morality tale about racism or poverty or heavy-handed policing. Nor is it a parable about illegal immigration and sanctuary cities
The tragedy that befell Kate Steinle and her family, can never be minimized. But she and her family have been exploited by the Right (just as Trayvon Martin and his family were by the Left) as standard bearers for a cause they never asked to be a part of. Jeannine Pirro suggests that justice for Kathryn Steinle would not come until more draconian immigration laws are implemented, a wall is built along the Mexican border, and zero government funding is granted to sanctuary cities. My guess is that the Steinle family would beg to differ. From what I've read about them, while they're disappointed with the verdict, they want no tributes or laws in their daughter's name, just a chance to be left alone to grieve properly.

My guess is that as long as the Steinle family tragedy can be used to promote the alt-right's anti-immigrant, anti-sanctuary city agenda, as long as it can be used as an easy distraction from all the problems and missteps of the Trump administration, Kate Steinle will not rest in peace anytime soon.

And that's the real injustice.