Rock Cut State Park on Mother’s Day Eve Day

Most Illinoisans drive to Wisconsin for lakes and woods but Rock Cut State Park just north of Rockford provides a fine experience of both without even leaving the Prairie State.

My family – from both sides of the state line – celebrated an early Mother’s Day at the park today with a picnic, hiking, games, an unauthorized swim, and lots of nature sightings including a pair of loons, bald eagles, and a very large frog.

Both the lake and the surrounding woods and prairie are large enough to give a good sense of getting away without having to go very far. I highly recommend this park.

To “Merry Christmas” or Not to “Merry Christmas”?

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An image I found somewhere on Twitter; apologies to the creator of it for the lack of proper attribution.

I’ve taken my holiday greeting cue from my friendly next-door neighbor, who happens to be Jewish and who never fails to greet my family and me with a warm “Merry Christmas!” and “Happy Easter!” on these special days.

When it comes to greetings it’s best to be fluid, flexible, and cast a wide net.

In my beloved Wisconsin hometown, which happens to be almost universally Christian, the “happy holidays” crowd tends to be viewed with suspicion (at best). If almost all of us believe in (or at least pay lip-service to) the religious dimensions of Christmas anyway why not just say it: “Merry Christmas!”

I’m not judging myself or my people; much of this comes from an admirable desire to stand up for what we believe in, to embrace our tradition and make it mean something. It’s also a very healthy reaction to the rampant commercialism of Christmas.

My sons have grown up in a very different world. They have been blessed with classmates in school who are from Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, Sikh, and a variety of Christian backgrounds – not to mention those families that are intentionally non-religious. For them, a homogenous community is something almost foreign.

My views on holiday greetings also developed further after I met my wife Manju. She grew up in India as a Christian, part of a religious minority of less than 3%. Her home city of Pune has a relatively high level of tolerance for religious diversity but the subtle and sometimes not so subtle biases and prejudices against Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, and others were definitely part of her life.

Growing up in this environment, she developed a great appreciation for the religious traditions of her friends, classmates, and neighbors. She knows which friends are celebrating Diwali, Eid, or Vaisakhi. She knows what they’re celebrating and how to talk to them about it. Her own Christian faith is not diminished in the process.

My wife also has made me realize why a secular government and society are so important. They are key when you’re one of the 2.7% of Christians in a country that is 80% Hindu.

Perspective is everything. So the cashier at Walgreen’s greets me with a “Happy Holidays!” on December 24? That’s really a very small price to pay for true religious freedom.

May the true spirit of Christmas transform all of us!

Best Read of 2016: Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

coatesThe best book I read in 2016, by a mile, is Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between The World and Me. It is moving, eloquent, and deeply disturbing. Coates wrote this as a letter to his 15-year-old son, describing his own childhood on the rough streets of West Baltimore, his education at Howard University (a place he loves so much he calls it “the Mecca” throughout the book), his early struggles as a writer, and then the success he finds in New York and at The Atlantic.

The book is basically a love offering to his son but it is also a very sober reflection on and an exposure of the history of racism and Americans’ perceptions of race and how it tragically affects him, his family, and his friends. Coates is an amazing writer. He’s transcendent. His style is straight-forward, simple and clear and yet it’s poetic and sometimes so beautiful I often had to stop and catch my breath I was so moved by his words. He’s honest about his fear and anger.

Several scenes in the book I found particularly memorable and moving [mild spoiler alert]: his terrifying moment of getting pulled over by a suburban-D.C. police officer for basically driving-while-black; the shock and rage after the shooting of Prince Jones; and the humbling lessons he learned years later interviewing Prince Jones’s mother.

I do much of my reading on public transportation and there were many times I stopped reading, glanced around at the faces of my fellow bus and train passengers, looked out the window at the south and west sides of Chicago, and felt like never before the question: why do we do this each other? Coates is not a problem solver. He doesn’t see easy solutions or pin his hopes on false symbols. He is not Dr. King or Malcolm X or anyone else I’ve read. But he has a gift for seeing clearly and putting into the most compelling of words what has happened in human history.

I happened to be reading this book in the last days of the presidential campaign, on election day, and during its immediate aftermath. In some ways it made the shock of the election even stronger. But in another way it didn’t – the post-election rhetoric really confirmed everything Coates is saying.

I’m grateful to my oldest son for introducing me to this author. Last winter he suggested to me that I read Coates’s now famous article in The Atlantic, “The Case for Reparations.” Wisely and tactfully, anticipating my resistance, he said something like, “You don’t have to agree with his case at the end. Just read it.” I would say the same about this book.

A Closer Look at La Catrina

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My coworker Alfredo stands with a few of the many Catrinas he created this year for a Day of the Dead exhibit earlier this month.

Alfredo is a coworker of mine who appears to be an unassuming maintenance man but also happens to be an extraordinarily talented artist.

In early November he put together an exhibit of Catrina figures that he had created. La Catrina is the elegantly-dressed skeleton-figure that we associate with Mexican Day of the Dead artwork. She is basically a made-up skeleton combined with the frilly dress and accessories of 18th-century colonial aristocracy. She is a legendary figure in Mexican culture.

As the Spanish version of Catherine, “Catrina” somehow became a derisive shorthand term for the upper-class ladies of colonial Mexico. The name was applied to this figure of death to poke fun at the emptiness of wealth and all its expressions. La Catrina reflects the realization that death is the great equalizer; she’s the ultimate you-can’t-take-it-with-you statement.

On November 4 my coworker Alfredo  put his Catrina creations on display and invited the community to visit. He kindly agreed to let me take photos, which I present here.


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8 November 2016: A Tale of Two Days

ashlandOn Tuesday morning I was walking the last block to my office and reflecting on how it was both election day and the anniversary of Dorothy Day’s birth – and trying to find some connection between the two – when I saw this guy lying in the middle of Ashland Avenue, a major four-lane, north-south street that traverses the entire length of the west side of Chicago.

I recognized the guy immediately and realized that he wasn’t an accident victim – he was there on purpose. I may have audibly groaned.

My first gut reaction, I’m ashamed to say, was to walk away. A driver had stopped to help him. I’m sure someone else has called the police. They don’t need me.

But I shut off my brain and dragged my feet out into the middle of the street. I had seen this guy before doing this same thing. I was later reminded that his name is Antwan. He lies down in the street and asks for money. He says he won’t leave until someone gives it to him. That morning he was asking for “$20 so I can go to Joliet.” He repeated the request over and over and over.

The driver and I asked Antwan to get up, he was going to get hurt or killed. He repeated his request for money. I told him I wasn’t going to give him money but I could suggest some places where he could get other kinds of help. He refused to budge. Meanwhile cars and vans and semis were speeding around us, furious at the traffic tie-up during morning rush hour.

Antwan is a young man, not even thirty. He has the face of a child. His eyes have a look of fear and innocence and confusion. Finally I told him I was calling 911 because his safety and the safety of others were at risk. I grimaced, remembering Dorothy Day’s birthday and realizing that the last thing she would have done was call the authorities to “fix” this “problem.”

But the police did arrive and I finally did walk away. Fortunately, the officer was patient and kind and helpful. He convinced Antwan to get up and offered him a ride somewhere to get help. Antwan refused and walked away.