Friday, September 25, 2009

Let's Change the World . . . and Then Have Lunch

Two days ago the President of the United States of America gave an important address to the United Nations General Assembly. Before the speech he met with the Prime Minister of Japan at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York City. After the address he joined the leaders of nations contributing peace-keeping troops, followed shortly thereafter by a wreath-laying ceremony for fallen United Nations staff members. By 1:15 he was at lunch with world leaders.

After lunch he headed straightaway to a sit-down with President Medvedev of Russia. And then he and the Head of the Family, Mrs. President Obama, hosted a reception for Heads of State at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

I ride a bike ten miles from our apartment to the Loop and back, and I have to rest for a day or two. This guy is fleet of foot. The Secret Service advance team must be running cable 24 hours a day.

Anyway, he started his speech to the princes of peace at the United Nations by announcing that there was a new sheriff in town, and the U. S. of A. would be taking the moral high ground henceforth.

On my first day in office, I prohibited – without exception or equivocation – the use of torture by the United States of America (Applause. Applause. Applause) I ordered the prison at Guantanamo Bay closed, and we are doing the hard work of forging a framework to combat extremism within the rule of law.

Within the rule of law . . . that phrase must have sent shivers down Mr. Cheney’s stint. Right there at the top of the speech, like it was REALLY important.

And it must have been a tough one to listen to for the hoarders who have been running the Walmarts out of .45 and .38 caliber ammunition for the past nine months in anticipation of the horrors the administration will wreak on their Second Amendment rights.

Thomas Jefferson had something to do with that Amendment, the guy with the ponytail who said, “Conquest is not in our principles. It is inconsistent with our government.”

Jefferson probably would have nodded in agreement when the President said, “Every nation must know: America will live its values, and we will lead by example.”

Then came the “Four Pillars,” the heart of the speech, which the President defined as (1) stopping the spread of nuclear weapons; (2) the pursuit of peace; (3) the preservation of the planet; and (4) a global economy that advances opportunity for all people.

So I’m wondering where the noble opposition goes with this one. To disagree with the country’s elected leader one would have to: (1) be for the spread of nuclear weapons; (2) be against the pursuit of world peace; (3) be for the continued destruction of a livable planet; and (4) be against the concept that all men should be guaranteed the pursuit of happiness.

That last phrase – that pursuit of happiness thing – I’ve read that somewhere before.

In an increasingly hostile world another United States President appeared before Congress almost 60 years ago and listed that same principle as part of what he called the “four essential human freedoms.” Franklin D. Roosevelt in his 1941 State of the Union Speech defined those freedoms in this way . . .

The first was freedom of speech and expression – everywhere in the world.

Next was the freedom of every person to worship God in his own way – everywhere in the world.

Thirdly, came a freedom that would secure to every nation a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants – everywhere in the world.

Finally, Roosevelt spoke of a freedom from fear, a world-wide reduction of armaments to such a point and in such a thorough fashion that no nation would be in a apposition to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbor – anywhere in the world.

On that distant January night Roosevelt ended his speech with these words:

This nation has placed its destiny in the hands and heads and hearts of its millions of free men and women, and its faith in freedom under the guidance of God. Freedom means the supremacy of human rights everywhere. Our support goes to those who struggle to gain those rights and keep them. Our strength is our unity of purpose.

It is interesting to note that for Roosevelt the nation’s greatest strength was a unity of purpose. We may well disagree on the ways in which the President Obama’s four pillars are lifted into place. That’s the beauty of living in a free country. It was what led John F. Kennedy to observe that the unity of freedom has never relied on uniformity of opinion. But we citizens of this great nation should not disagree on the overriding importance of the basic doctrine that is the unity of freedom for all people.

What we need is for the wrong-side-of-the-aislers underneath the Big Dome to cinch their neckties up a little tighter and choke the nay-saying for awhile. We get it. You lost. You’re unhappy. But the greatest test of a man’s nobility is that he puts aside his own personal unhappiness and works to make the lives of those around him better.

That’s what a representative democracy is supposed to be about.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Prohibition is better than no liquor at all (Will Rogers)

I’m thirsty tonight, but I’m just going to have a Diet Coke and save the beer calories for a time when it’s really important. Instead I’ll pour a page or so of words about one of the oldest beer sellers in Chicago.

The Berghoff story begins with Herman Joseph Berghoff, who left Dortmund, Germany, at age 17 and landed penniless in Brooklyn in 1870. During his initial travels in America, he worked on a sugar plantation in the South, as a pastry cook on a freighter and a seaman on a cruise ship. He also spent time with the Buffalo Bill Wild West Show and a year working on the railroad out West (Chicago Architecture Foundation).

Settling finally in Fort Wayne, Indiana, he represented a Cincinnati brewery until he opened his own brewery in 1887. With eyes on the expansion of his business, Berghoff set up shop in Chicago at the World’s Colombian Exposition of 1893, an event unlike any the world had ever seen. In the six months that the fair ran, over 27 million thirsty folks came to Chicago.

Taking the popularity of his beer at the fair as a sign, Herman opened the Berghoff Cafe in 1898 to showcase his Dortmunder-style beer. Originally located at the corner of State and Adams Streets, one door down from its present location, the bar sold beer for a nickel and offered sandwiches for free.

The bar prospered even during Prohibition (1918-1933) when it served near beer and Bergo Soda Pop. Clearly, a bar without alcohol could not last long, so the business expanded into a full-service restaurant, which gained wide popularity by the end of Prohibition. In 1933, when Prohibition ended, Herman Berghoff was first in line at City Hall to receive Liquor License Number One. On that one day the establishment served 50 barrels of beer.

Long after most restaurants ended the practice, the Berghoff maintained a separate men's only bar. The segregation ended in 1969, when seven members of the National Organization for Women sat at the bar and demanded service. One particular female lifted her stein and her camera to record the occasion. A "gentleman" took exception, and attempted to end the photo session. The photographer was not about to give the camera up without a fight and bit a chunk from the man's hand. The emergency room doctor told the man that it was dangerous to be bitten by a human. "I don't think the bite was from this world," the man responded (Chicago Architecture Foundation). One is reminded of W. C. Field's line, "A woman drove me to drink, and I hadn't even the courtesy to thank her."

The Huber Brewing Company of Monroe, Wisconsin began supplying beer to Berghoff’s under contract in 1960. It remains one of Huber’s flagship beers (The Best Breweries and Brewpubs of Illinois). The popular restaurant ended operations on February 28, 2006. The building now contains a bar and a cafe that is open during weekday lunch hours, along with a large banquet and catering facility.

Of particular note in the three-building complex that comprises the Berghoff property is the west structure, designed by Charles M. Palmer and completed in 1872. The facade is of cast iron, which was ordered from the foundry and bolted to the exterior of the building. Looking carefully, one can see the bolts that secure the facade to the building.

Cast-iron storefronts began to appear in Chicago as early as 1857. For example, between 1857 and 1858 John Mills Van Osdel built approximately 1,100 feet of cast-iron frontage. During this same period many iron foundries were established in the city, many of which produced cast-iron storefronts. Such facades found favor with builders as an alternative to elaborate masonry construction (Chicago Architecture Foundation), foundry work being cheaper and quicker than the work of an individual sculptor or stone mason.

Although cast iron facades gave designers the chance to beautify the exteriors of their buildings, lending the structures a substantial and sophisticated appearance, the material had one serious flaw. Its melting temperature of 1150 to 1200 °C is about 300 °C lower than the melting point of pure iron and about 200 °C lower than the average melting temperature of steel. When the great fire of October 8th and 9th of 1871 swept through the business district, largely located in and along Lake Street, cast iron facades became molten, pulling down the masonry walls on which they were hung.

The Page Brothers Building at 177 North State Street, directly across the el tracks from the new Wit Hotel, is the only other building in Chicago’s Loop to have such a cast iron fa├žade. One can see it from Lake Street, around the corner from the Chicago Theatre. It was the work of early Chicago architect John M. Van Osdel, who designed the first Palmer House and the Illinois Executive Mansion in Springfield. Purchased from the City of Chicago in March of 2007 for 1.625 million dollars (City of Chicago Department of Community Development), the Page Brothers Building is another early Loop building that has stood the test of time.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Maybe if we think and wish and hope and pray . . .

I was cruising down the bike path along the lake last week, headed toward the Loop with the ear buds inserted, just tooling along with the breeze at my back, pretending to be a kid again. And somewhere around where Potter Palmer used to hang his hat, about halfway between North Avenue and the Oak Street curve, Wouldn’t It Be Nice went into rotation.

If you’re much under fifty, it doesn’t mean a whole lot. But if you grew up with the song, and it’s summer, and you’re trying like heck to feel youthful again, it’s a great tune.

Wouldn’t it be nice if we were older
Then we wouldn’t have to wait so long
And wouldn’t it be nice to live together
In the kind of world where we belong

Funny . . . in 1966 when the song was released, I couldn’t wait to grow up and get started on the life thing – get a job, get married, have kids, buy a house in the suburbs. Now, almost 45 years later, I’m listening to the song and wondering what all the hurry was about.

But on a sky blue day in a hot town summer city, remembering those days was enough to make me feel thankful for the days I have now.

Labor Day, and a holiday mood is in the air, laughter on the breeze and every third family in Chicago at the zoo. A well-deserved day off.

I’m lucky, I suppose. I don’t need to work anymore. I spent the better part of four decades trying to figure out the teaching gig, and this is the third school year that has begun without my coming down with a back-to-school cold.

I was looking back at some stuff I wrote a number of years ago, words that talked about how I wanted to approach the job of teaching as I neared the end of my career. I was fortunate . . . I loved teaching or whatever it was that I did. I recognize that not everyone is as lucky.

I also know that it’s offensively over-simplistic to say that if you’re in a job you don’t like, you should quit and find another one. These days, more than at any other time in my life, people have to pay the bills in any way they can.

Still, when I wrote these thoughts seven years ago, I wrote them as an employee, someone who griped about the bosses, grumbled about not getting enough respect, and left the building exhausted at the end of the day. Maybe what I said back then has some meaning to someone other than my older self.

I said that I wanted to live happily and well and spend my time demonstrating a concern for other folks. One thing I have found over the years – on the job and outside of it – is that if you work at compassion and understanding, the paycheck is a handsome one. We all struggle with something – even the prettiest gal and the guy with the BMW Z4.

Okay, maybe not the guy with the Z4. He creates problems for the rest of us.

The point is, though, that if we find a way to break away from our own problems and help others deal with theirs, life becomes a tad better.

I said that I didn’t want to talk in a loud voice in order to attract attention. I followed through on that one . . . after living most of my life with a hearing deficit, I finally got a deaf aid and realized how loud I had always been.

What I meant, of course, was that the people we admire the most are the people who crow about what they do the least. When I was working the people who attracted the largest number of snickers were the people who never heard “the curses, not loud, but deep” because they were too busy talking about themselves.

Along with that, I said that I wanted to let my actions speak louder than my words. Maybe I never thought my life was particularly interesting . . . maybe I just like listening to people tell their stories. Whatever – do what you do. If it’s good, the chances are a lot of people won’t recognize its goodness. But you will. And a few people who matter will. And they are the ones you want to take care of.

And I said that I wanted people to hear my name and smile. I always felt that my job had two parts. There were all those kids, hundreds and hundreds of them. I hear from one or two of them at a time, almost every day. I like to think I met them at an important time in their lives and helped them to think about some things that made the coming years a little more meaningful for them.

There was another part to the job, though, and that was the responsibility I felt toward the people with whom I worked. I felt that I owed them something, too. I helped those that I could, I listened to those who needed to talk, and I always tried to lead the group in laughter. It’s tough to sell huge chunks of your life for money if the work and the money is choking you so hard that you can’t laugh.

There’s more to working than just the job that you do. There are all those other folks around you, all of them trying to make it through the day. If it was one thing that disturbed me toward the end, it was the way all of the new folks focused on their classes, on their grades, on their schedules, arriving in the morning and slipping into a chair in front of a computer monitor without saying a word to anyone.

All of it comes down to the three most important subjects that I taught. Not the essay or interpreting literature. Not even All the King’s Men or Macbeth or anyone lived in a pretty how town.

Kindness, patience and faith. The latter gives a person strength to practice the first two. You can’t work without them. Moreover, you can’t live without them. Once again, we don’t earn anything extra by bringing them with us to the workplace, at least not if we’re measuring the importance of things in dollars and cents.

The kindness and patience that comes from a deep faith guarantees a life that there will be of greater worth.

I’m a long, long way from 1966 and Wouldn’t It Be Nice. I worked my job, and then one day, unbelievably, I was done. The other day on the bike path, though, it all came zipping back.

In 1909 Jane Addams wrote these words right here in Chicago, “We may either smother the divine fire of youth or we may feed it. We may either stand stupidly staring as it sinks into a murky fire of crime and flares into the intermittent blaze of folly or we may tend it into a lambent flame with power to make clean and bright our dingy city streets.”

A century later, on this Labor Day of 2009, that’s our job . . . all of you are still working and all of us who are out there volunteering . . . to make clean and bright the dingy streets that we find.

Wouldn’t that be nice?

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

To Do Life's Labor

Up at 5:30 this morning, hoping that the unseasonably cool weather would give way to a good day. It didn’t take long for that hope to become reality for, as I read something that our daughter, Kristen, had written the night before, I was filled with the sense that something fine was waiting for the sunrise.

The largest portion of what she wrote described her experiences as a first-year teacher at Urbana High School, but she ended the piece with a description of Maria Shriver’s interview on Sunday’s Meet the Press show. Shriver talked about her Uncle Teddy and how he always made sure that everyone was “welcomed, loved and thanked.”

That image moved Kristen to write these words . . . So send those thank you notes. Post a message on Facebook. Write a letter. Tell someone something every day. Stay in touch. Even if it is just a single sentence it will mean the world to that person . . . Wake up tomorrow and be the change you want to see in the world. What a great reason to get out of bed!

I had just gotten out of bed moments before and here were the words in my daughter’s voice... Wake up tomorrow and be the change you want to see in the world.

Not a bad way to begin the day.

Just a couple days ago I was listening to some news program’s coverage of the current debate over the proposed health care legislation. One participant in the debate had said something like this, “This is America. We don’t take from me to give to you.”

Really? Whose America was this guy talking about? What other way is there of becoming the change we want to see in the world than by giving to others, especially those others who need the help we might have?

I was thinking of these things as I poured the second cup of coffee and skimmed the story on page one of what is left of The Chicago Tribune, a piece about the former student, now a Pastor, who coaxed his stroke-ridden old teacher back into life by reading him the poems that had been part of their teacher-student experience so many years before.

“This was one of those teachers that changed your life because they opened worlds you hadn’t imagined,” Pastor Blackwell said of his former teacher, George Ariffe.

It got me to thinking . . . if I was cast in that play as the old teacher, what poems would I want my former student to read to me if they were trying to be the change they wanted to see in the world? My guess is that most of former students would know a few.

There’s my favorite poem – e. e. cumming’s anyone lived in a pretty how town with its nearly inscrutable direction to trust the divine whisper and take the risk of loving and being loved.

all by all and deep by deep
and more by more they dream their sleep
noone and anyone earth by april
wish by spirit and if by yes.

And Mending Wall, the Robert Frost poem I first read when I was a junior in high school and decided for good that I wanted to be a high school English teacher.

Before I built a wall I'd ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offense.
Something there is that doesn't love a wall,
That wants it down.

Wordsworth’s Ode on Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood has always reminded me to treasure the natural world as a gift from God, the surest sign that he watches over us, protects us, and claims us as His greatest work.

Thanks to the human heart by which we live,
Thanks to its tenderness, its joys, and fears,
To me the meanest flower that blows can give
Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.

A poem I learned about from the custodian who cleaned my classroom, Rupert Brooke’s The Great Lover, a plea to live and love and appreciate.

I HAVE been so great a lover: filled my days
So proudly with the splendour of Love's praise,
The pain, the calm, and the astonishment,
Desire illimitable, and still content,
And all dear names men use, to cheat despair,
For the perplexed and viewless streams that bear
Our hearts at random down the dark of life.

The last poem I taught each year, the last poem I taught as a teacher, John Donne’s A Valediction Forbidding Mourning.

Our two souls therefore, which are one,
Though I must go, endure not yet
A breach, but an expansion,
Like gold to airy thinness beat.

Anything by Shakespeare. Or Whitman. Or Dickinson. I could listen to most of Dickinson’s stuff two or three times . . . that would be fine with me.

Therefore—we do life's labor—
Though life's Reward—be done—
With scrupulous exactness—
To hold our Senses—on—

Life’s labor? I think my daughter had it exactly right. Our reward really is to be the change we want in the world by tending to the little matters of that world in ways that will make things better.