May Day Monday Morning in Olive Park, Chicago

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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.

Remembering My Grandparents on Their Wedding Anniversary

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My paternal grandparents on 12 October 1927, the day they married.

Eighty-nine years ago today – also a Wednesday, at 8:00 am – Olivia Anna Kaiser married John Joseph Schwister in St. Peter’s church in Beaver Dam, Wisconsin.

She was 25-years-old, from a close-knit German family, and worked in the shoe factory just north of downtown. He was 33, from a farm near Black Creek, a veteran of WWI in France, and beginning in February 1925 the proprietor of a small grocery store with his brother Bill on Vermont Street in Beaver Dam.

According to family lore, Olivia and John caught one another’s eye when she would happen to pass by the Vermont Street store on her way to and from work – even though the store was several blocks off the most direct route she would have taken!

After they married they moved into a house built by her father, a carpenter, across the street from where she grew up and there they remained surrounded by extended family up and down the block (most of them living in houses also built by her father) for the next 25 years. They raised four wonderful children, including my dad.

In 1952 they took over a store in Lodi, Wisconsin and Olivia ended 50 years of living on the same block to set up a home in a new town. There they finished raising their children and eventually welcomed nine grandchildren, with the ninth being born a few years after John died.

They both passed away in their mid-70s, seven years apart. Here they are on October 12, 1927, looking like the picture of “Roaring 20’s” youth and optimism. Their love and generosity were a blessing for which I’ll always be grateful.

Busse Woods: A Natural Oasis in Chicago’s Northwest Suburbs

Between an enormous airport and shopping center – O’Hare International and Woodfield Mall, respectively – sits an equally enormous oasis of green and blue in Chicago’s northwest suburbs.

Ned Brown Preserve, known as Busse Woods or Busse Lake to locals, is a several-thousand acre forest preserve with woods, meadows, lakes, streams, even a herd of elk. Several types of water craft are available for rental as are picnic shelters for large groups.

Although hundreds of people visit the preserve on even a slow day and the place is surrounded by the airport, mall, and several major expressways, it is so large that it does offer the feeling of getting away from it all.

I visited the lake with my kayak one evening this week and was surprised again at how much wildlife can be seen. The preserve is worth a visit – but expect a crowd if you go at peak times on weekend afternoons.

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Ned Brown Preserve includes several thousand acres of land, a 486-acre lake, and an abundance of wetlands.

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An egret wades the weedy shallows in search of fish.

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A lightning-fast thrust of the bill and a fish is caught.

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One of the largest frogs I’ve ever seen in the wild watched me warily.

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A Great Blue Heron pauses from fishing while I pass…

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… then decides to get away from me and my kayak.

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Boats, canoes, and kayaks are available for rent – if you can get past the egret.

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In the evening the egrets head to the trees for a night’s roost.

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A beaver resented the proximity of my kayak…

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… gave the water a whack with the tail…

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… and dove to safety.