Beauty with a side of thought

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Last night, I was watching my older daughter’s play at an outdoor venue in the suburbs. The previous two shows had been cancelled because of rain (such are the perils of outdoor performance), and it looked questionable whether last night’s show would meet with the same fate. But the huge puffy clouds in the sky held no rain, and the show went off without a hitch.

At one point during the first act, I noticed that the sunset had started to change the colors of the towering clouds that remained in the sky. I wandered closer to the water, since we were not very far from Lake Michigan, and enjoyed a spectacular sunset, as shown above. The camera didn’t do the scene justice, as it never can in such a beautiful scene. But it was all I could do to capture the moment.

I wanted to be post this picture with a nod to what Henry David Thoreau called “the Great Artist.” Most people consider it to be God (or G-d to those who don’t want to spell out the full name), but I prefer the concept of “The Almighty” which appears in some of Abraham Lincoln’s speeches.

I’m not religious in a traditional sense. I like the way Thomas Paine put it in The Age of Reason: My own mind is my own church. Nobody needs to tell me of creeds and prophets and holy books, because I’ll dismiss all of them. Organized religion has always felt like some way for people to claim a kinship with a deity that can never be fully understood. And giving money is always, always, at the root of this kinship.

Tithing and other forms of religious giving might make someone feel closer to their concept of a supreme being, but for me that money goes to put nice suits on the backs of those who profess their kinship most fervently. I have no quarrel with those who do this, but it’s not something I’m comfortable with doing myself.

Am I cynical to believe this? That could be a fair accusation. But organized religion has no place in my world, and never will. I can recognize the hand of some great power in the beautiful sunset I saw last night, but I don’t relate that recognition with the need to sit in a church, listen to a sermon, and drop some money into a basket.

To repeat what Paine said, my own mind is my own church, and my own church exists wherever I can find a nice sunset. No admission fees are required for that.

A day to honor Lincoln

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image150 years ago today, Abraham Lincoln’s body lay in state in Chicago. For those who waited in long lines, there was a chance to move past the president’s body and make the tragedy seem real. I’m sure nobody who made this wait ever regretted doing it.

I hoped there would be some kind of acknowledgement of this fact today, but if there was, I completely missed it. Instead, everything was about the NFL draft, which brings tourism and attention to this city. I understand this, but feel as though a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity was missed. Lincoln deserved better than to be ignored.

I’ll write up everything I did someday, but for now here’s a sample image. I call it “two Lincolns” and there are others where this came from. I even cobbled together a few readings and posted it to my Facebook page. My Lincoln tribute was something I’ll always remember, in part because it came from my own actions. Since nobody seemed to be interested in commemorating Lincoln, I stepped up and did it myself. We cannot do enough to honor his memory.

I may be freakin’ or peakin’

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I’ll be the first to admit that I didn’t get Paul’s Boutique right away. I loved Licensed to Ill, the first Beastie Boys album, when it dropped in 1986. A couple of years later, I was expecting the follow-up to be Licensed to Ill, Part 2. And I was frankly disappointed when that didn’t happen.

The band went in a whole different direction, instead. The sampling was off the charts, and the lyrical references came so fast and furious that it was impossible to keep up, at first. The record needs multiple listens before it makes any sense, and I didn’t give it that. The vibe was different, and different wasn’t what I wanted. Most people didn’t want different, either, and the record tanked, at least when compared to the first record, saleswise.

If it wasn’t for the internet, I doubt I would have ever come around to getting Paul’s Boutique. But YouTube videos pulled me into Hey Ladies, they only thing resembling a single on the album, and also got me into Shake Your Rump. The rest of the album came to me over time, and I realize today that it’s groundbreaking, and funky as all hell, too. Whether intentionally or not, they followed an old quotation from Abraham Lincoln: “Towering genius disdains a beaten path. It seeks out regions hitherto unexplored.” They did exactly that with Paul’s Boutique, and I, for one, am glad that I eventually caught up to them.

Complicated and off-kilter

 

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I’m a big Abraham Lincoln fan, and I’ve written about statues of him, and busts, and artworks, and really anything else I could find. But Lincoln Avenue has somehow escaped my attention, until now.

Last night I found myself driving down Lincoln Avenue in Chicago, and I realized a couple of things. There are two distinct parts to it, one that begins in a neighborhood appropriately called Lincoln Park, and another that begins in a different neighborhood called Lincoln Square. And in between, it disappears into Western Avenue for a few blocks. It’s not a street that you can stay on for as long as you want to. You need to know the way go if you want to stay on it. So it’s certainly a complicated road to follow.

But even more important is the direction that it takes. More than 90% of this city’s streets run north/south or east/west. In fact, the city’s grid system depends on streets like this. In the picture above, for example, Southport Avenue runs north and south. But Lincoln Avenue, like the man it is named for, doesn’t follow a tidy, straightforward path. It runs diagonally its entire length, turning many traditional intersections into six-way adventures. It’s as if the street takes on the character of the man who really has no parallel in the scope of American history.

I write about Lincoln statues and the like because they exist to commemorate the railsplitter who became president. But a road is a bit harder to conceptualize as a tribute. It serves a different purpose, that’s for sure. But thinking about this road, and how and where it cuts its route through the city I call home, I realize what a fitting tribute to him it really is.

An unexpected payoff

Wrigley

Being a Cubs fan is never an easy thing. After spending almost forty years in that fold, I can make such a statement with complete confidence. The good years–as measured by when the team makes it to the playoffs– can be counted on one hand, or two hands at the very most. And every one of them has also supplied a moment of defeat and disappointment, whether it’s Leon Durham letting a ground ball go through his legs in 1984, or Greg Maddux serving up a grand slam to Will Clark in 1989, or Moises Alou throwing a fit when he didn’t catch a foul ball in 2003. Even the best years haven’t ended well for Cubs fans like me.

But every once in a while, there’s a moment of validation. The Rolling Stones got it right: you do, once in awhile, get what you need. And what I needed is a sense that decades of following a baseball team has put me in league with some good people who share my interest. Our team never has won the big prize in any of our lifetimes, but so what? That doesn’t mean we can’t follow them, all the same.

I very publicly threw up my hands on the present version of the Cubs, as constructed under the front office of Theo Epstein and others. I’m convinced that they aren’t worth following at this point, because they aren’t doing anything to make the team on the field any better this year. But even if that’s the case, decades of following the Cubs are still with me, and purging all of that from my memory just isn’t possible. I’d sooner cut off one of my hands than deny all of the memories I have acquired through the years, and have put so much time and effort into trying to describe them in this space.

And so tonight, I had an opportunity to put all of these memories to use. The Chicago Public Library sponsored a Wrigley Field centennial celebration, centered around Wrigley Field: The Long Life and Contentious Times of the Friendly Confines by Stuart Shea. The format of the evening was a trivia game, where members of the audience were randomly chosen to compete for prizes. I would have had fun watching others compete, but fate was smiling on me as I had a chance to put my Cubs experiences to work.

I answered some of the questions correctly, and missed some other questions, and had a great time in the company of others who cared about the Cubs as passionately as I do. I even walked away with a copy of the book, which is great because books are the best thing that anyone can give me. Abraham Lincoln once said that his best friend was the man who could get him a book he hasn’t read, and I agree wholeheartedly, particularly when that book is about the Cubs and Wrigley Field.

Knowing that there are others like me who enjoy the Cubs, despite all of the disappointment that they will inevitably bring in October (if not earlier), is something like finding old treasures in an attic, or finding money in the pocket of your jeans. It makes this year’s team (which was shut out for the second game in a row today, and will have the worst record in the majors until further notice) tolerable, not for the feelings of victory which EVERY OTHER TEAM in this city has experienced in my lifetime. No, it makes it tolerable because even though the team on the field has been defeated time and time again, the part of this city who loves the team has not allowed themselves to be defeated.

On the day that Maya Angelou passed away, many of her inspirational writings have been making the rounds on the internet. One of my favorites is “You may encounter many defeats, but you must not be defeated.” And tonight, I put those words into action at the public library in Chicago. Ms. Angelou’s words were undoubtedly meant in a larger context than following a particular baseball team, but the spirit of her remarks can be applied to any circumstance at all.

We all fail in life, and it’s not fun when it happens. We suffer defeats, and our expectations do not always meet the realities that we encounter. Certainly that’s been the case for the Cubs this year, and last year, and every year before that, as well. But those setbacks must never serve to crush our spirit. And following a team like the Cubs reinforces this lesson on a regular basis.

Eddie Vedder sang that someday we’ll go all the way, and there are untold numbers of people waiting for that day to arrive. In the meantime, at least there’s a new book about it to read. I think I’ll get started right now.

The Gladness of Nature

KeyWestWhenever a person starts naming poets, there aren’t too many who would put William Cullen Bryant on their list. He lived in the 19th Century, and he became a lawyer because poetry didn’t pay the bills. He was also a political supporter of another poet named Abraham Lincoln, and he introduced Lincoln at his speech at Cooper Union in New York in 1860. It just shows how people can go about their daily lives and still find time for writing and reading poetry.

This is my third Poem In Your Pocket day, and my previous selections are here and here. I find myself relating to poetry more than I did when I was younger, and it’s comforting to know that centuries of poets are still out there for me to discover.

The poem that I chose, and shared with my colleagues from work since I won’t be in the office today, is Bryant’s “The Gladness of Nature” which reads as follows:

The Gladness of Nature

by William Cullen Bryant

Is this a time to be cloudy and sad,
When our mother Nature laughs around;
When even the deep blue heavens look glad,
And gladness breathes from the blossoming ground?

There are notes of joy from the hang-bird and wren,
And the gossip of swallows through all the sky;
The ground-squirrel gaily chirps by his den,
And the wilding bee hums merrily by.

The clouds are at play in the azure space,
And their shadows at play on the bright green vale,
And here they stretch to the frolic chase,
And there they roll on the easy gale.

There’s a dance of leaves in that aspen bower,
There’s a titter of winds in that beechen tree,
There’s a smile on the fruit, and a smile on the flower,
And a laugh from the brook that runs to the sea.

And look at the broad-faced sun, how he smiles
On the dewy earth that smiles in his ray,
On the leaping waters and gay young isles;
Ay, look, and he’ll smile thy gloom away.

I like this poem for several reasons. Since Earth Day just passed, I wanted something with a nature theme. I also wanted something not too overly long, and relatively easy to follow. And I wanted something to remind me of the time that I just spent on Spring Break in the Florida keys. There are no palm trees or beaches in this poem, but the idea that sunshine and nature can cheer a person up is enough for me.

Please feel free to share poems in the Comments below. And happy Poetry month to everyone reading this.

The Gladness of Nature

by William Cullen Bryant

Is this a time to be cloudy and sad,
When our mother Nature laughs around;
When even the deep blue heavens look glad,
And gladness breathes from the blossoming ground?

There are notes of joy from the hang-bird and wren,
And the gossip of swallows through all the sky;
The ground-squirrel gaily chirps by his den,
And the wilding bee hums merrily by.

The clouds are at play in the azure space
And their shadows at play on the bright-green vale,
And here they stretch to the frolic chase,
And there they roll on the easy gale.

There's a dance of leaves in that aspen bower,
There's a titter of winds in that beechen tree,
There's a smile on the fruit, and a smile on the flower,
And a laugh from the brook that runs to the sea.

And look at the broad-faced sun, how he smiles
On the dewy earth that smiles in his ray,
On the leaping waters and gay young isles;
Ay, look, and he'll smile thy gloom away.

– See more at: http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/20299#sthash.RUUpypT4.dpuf

The Gladness of Nature

by William Cullen Bryant

Is this a time to be cloudy and sad,
When our mother Nature laughs around;
When even the deep blue heavens look glad,
And gladness breathes from the blossoming ground?

There are notes of joy from the hang-bird and wren,
And the gossip of swallows through all the sky;
The ground-squirrel gaily chirps by his den,
And the wilding bee hums merrily by.

The clouds are at play in the azure space
And their shadows at play on the bright-green vale,
And here they stretch to the frolic chase,
And there they roll on the easy gale.

There's a dance of leaves in that aspen bower,
There's a titter of winds in that beechen tree,
There's a smile on the fruit, and a smile on the flower,
And a laugh from the brook that runs to the sea.

And look at the broad-faced sun, how he smiles
On the dewy earth that smiles in his ray,
On the leaping waters and gay young isles;
Ay, look, and he'll smile thy gloom away.

– See more at: http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/20299#sthash.RUUpypT4.dp

Jon Stewart nails it

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I admire Abraham Lincoln like no one else. I think he is the reason that slavery came to an end in this nation, and he took a stand that ultimately cost him his own life in order to see to it that slavery disappeared. And suggestions to the contrary never have–and never will–make any sense to me.

So when someone comes along to suggest that Lincoln did something wrong by fighting the Civil War to end slavery, that person needs to be called out. That person needs to understand things that they either didn’t learn or have chosen to deny, for whatever reason. And Jon Stewart, with some help from three History professors, did exactly that. It’s a joy to watch.

All things Gettysburg

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I started writing this blog two and a half years ago, and I’ve mentioned the Gettysburg Address thirteen times before today. Here’s a link to all of the previous references.

I love Abraham Lincoln, and I love the Gettysburg Address. I’m not apologetic about it, either. Slavery is the worst thing that ever happened in this country that I call home, and it took all of Lincoln’s genius to bring it to an end.

We should all revere Lincoln for what he did, and to the extent that present-oriented American culture ever looks towards its past, I think we do. I honor us all for not consigning Lincoln to the scrap heap of history, where you can find every president who followed him up until Teddy Roosevelt.

Today I plan to visit at least one of the various Lincoln statues in Chicago (there are six that I know of) and record myself reciting the Gettysburg Address for learntheaddress.org. When that happens, I’ll be sure to share it here, as well.