In the Hills – Excerpt 1

1958Verily, verily, I say unto thee, except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God. Nicodemus saith unto him, How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter the second time into his mother’s womb, and be born?

Like you I had the privilege of being present for my own birth. I was right there with my mother but my dad was relegated to pacing in the waiting room. Relegated to the role that no Dad has been trained for and no Dad worth the name accepts easily. He got to pace, back and forth, back and forth and wait; left to worry about paying the bills, wondering what he’d done, how mom was doing and how long he was going to wait – pacing, pacing, pacing. Mom and dad had already waited almost four more weeks than they should have since I was officially 27 days late. Doctors just let you go until you popped-out back in 1956 – no pitocin drip to stimulate contractions, not even old wives tales about drinking castor oil (which only gave you a bowel purging anyway) or having sex to induce labor (which was a little of the hair of the dog that bit you so to speak). Instead they just waited.

Mom just waited in her gravid state for forty weeks plus four. She never let me forget that especially when exasperated with me, ‘I carried you for 44 weeks to have you act like this?! Oh, no, I don’t think so…’. Sitting around the dinner table with all of us waited-for children years later she told us how she was in labor for 26 hours with my younger sister Cathleen and just 9 hours with baby Johnny (and with my 18 hours that equaled 53 hours of contractions – 2 days and 5 hours of labor, of pain, of unexplainable and excruciating discomfort). The math got us started. ‘Okay, okay, so how long were you pregnant with me?’ Cathleen asked. ‘Well just about 40 weeks, not like the 44 weeks with Danny, but Johnny was only 38 weeks.’ ‘That means you were pregnant for…, for…, well…, let’s see….’ I tried to calculate these overwhelming numbers in my head when Cathleen quickly answered, correctly, ‘That means you were pregnant for 122 weeks mom.’ That’s more than 28 months, two and a third years, and that’s 845 days, to be exact. After hearing the math mom never forgot it and never let us forget especially when we were annoying her. But I always thought I was worth it. At least that’s what I imagine.

I’m also pretty sure I was a normal and attractive baby – clean and without blemishes. In labor I may have mildly discomforted my saintly mother who perspired mildly but was a-glow with a hint of make-up and hair quaffed appropriately, covered modestly in a fresh gown and centered in a homey but antiseptic room softly lit with ambience and even pleasantly fragrant. Dozens of medical professionals buzzed about excitedly anticipating my birth. Nurses who were plainly attractive but not one as pretty as my mother were helpfully attending at her head and side, dabbing mom’s brow with a cool cloth and whispering maternal encouragements – secrets shared and understandable only to the uterine gender. The doctor – the only male in the room, before me that is – smiling, directing attention to my imminent appearance but averting his eyes from the vaginal portal whence I emerged lubricated through elastic drapes of privilege allowing only a glimpse of the reproductive secrecy of the origins of my life.

I’ll admit dad was a vague participant in my origins, but only in the masculinity of his grip and biceps and that strength he explained as ‘elbow grease’ and I took to be the determination and commitment and supervision he exerted in our world which was for most of my young life also just the world. Dad was paternal and masculine and sturdy and stalwart. He needed no time to collect his emotions in a time of crisis. He acted sacrificially and bravely without a moment’s notice. He was reliable and a provider of food, shelter, comfort and treats like ice cream on Sunday afternoons and a sip of his beer after a summer Saturday’s gardening. His odor communicated faithfulness – a sameness in his aftershave mixed with the sweat of toil and exertion. And besides the times he was pacing in a waiting room for his children to come into the world I didn’t imagine him waiting for anything.

Calling B.S., Gun Violence and Blameworthy Voyeurism

Two tragic events played out in front of our eyes this week – overwhelming old and new media alike with the most profound depth of pain and pathos, both with chilling effect.

In a scuffle with a fleeing suspect, a Chicago police commander, Paul Bauer, was killed – shot six times as he wrestled to detain the man.

Pallbearers place Chicago Police Cmdr. Paul Bauer’s casket into the hearse after the funeral at Nativity of Our Lord Catholic Church, Saturday, Feb. 17, 2018. Cmdr. Bauer was shot to death Tuesday outside the Thompson Center, where he had confronted a man who was fleeing other officers. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Bauer just happened to be nearby when he heard a call for officers to aid in a pursuit. He wasn’t a beat cop, he just happened to be nearby. And when Bauer encountered the suspect, his life was ended in a hail of gunfire – six shots in a shadowy stairwell.

Then came the wave of anecdotes and story, one on another, demanding sadness, eliciting sympathy and encouraging pride and indignation. He was beloved, a cops’ cop, a 31-year veteran of the force, devoted man of faith, father to an adoring teen daughter, and just 53 years old. He had a version of movie star looks in the photo shared by all media. If anyone was worthy, it was Commander Bauer.

And days later it seemed like the whole city mourned as first-responders of all stripes lined city streets, in uniform, saluting a fallen comrade. The pageantry was televised, the governor and mayor spoke, and the older you were the more involved you were in the story.

Onlookers chimed-in with sentiments like, “There are not many things which unite this city, but a good man like Bauer might just do that.” It seemed that the city’s sentiment was an obvious reason to televise Commander Bauer’s funeral for several hours – we need something to save us and we can’t let this good man die in vain.

Cook County Jail inmates applaud the appearance of Commander Bauer’s alleged killer

In stark contrast to this display, a video surfaced of the Bauer’s suspected killer arriving at Cook County Jail being greeted with a smattering of applause from several inmates. They were quickly singled-out and swiftly transported to a downstate facility, and promises were made by prosecutors this video would used at sentencing to demonstrate the wanton disregard for the law and human life – especially those who dared to mock the killing of Commander Bauer.

And in the funeral mass for Bauer, a homily argued his life wasn’t given, it was taken – taken by a four-time convicted felon, taken by someone who should not have possessed a firearm, taken by someone who should not have been allowed to be free. A good reverend even compared Bauer’s killer to a leper in a vain attempt to approach the ‘what would Jesus say’ type of rhetoric: “[This killer is like a leper in Jesus’ day,] he should have been segregated from society long  before the shooting. Jesus had compassion for lepers, but they were still kept from the public during biblical times.”

And about the Commander, “He encountered the leprosy of our society: one who did spend time away from the camp … in prison … in isolation because of a violent past. One who should have never have been out in society, but who was due to a broken system, a system that Paul [Bauer] himself very publicly and loudly spoke out against.”

A lot of should not’s and ought not’s – the thoughts and prayers of our hand-wringing culture on full display.

As this was unfolding in Chicago, teens – survivors of the Parkland, Florida high school shooting and killing of 17 – were voicing their own tragic stories and adding their own indignation at the indolence of national politicians. Chicago endured homilies and eulogies from politicians who have failed to stem the tide of gun violence, as students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High took their turns at the microphone as the nation watched and listened and prayed for children to lead us.

“This isn’t about the GOP. This isn’t about Democrats. This is about us creating a badge of shame for any politicians who are accepting money from the NRA and using us as collateral.” But since the great majority of recipients of NRA money are Republicans this doesn’t ring true, does it? It IS about the GOP when talking federal regulations and the 2nd Amendment and the NRA – even if we’re told by a sincere teen grieving the loss of classmates it is not. And it isn’t about the lack of NRA money in Chicago somehow alleviating our problem with gun violence. NRA supporters elsewhere mock Chicago at times like this – so many gun laws… so many gun deaths… (they can taste the irony).

“We are going to be the last mass shooting,” another teen asserted, and added proof this impossible assertion is possible with “I found out today there’s a website….”

Yes, the teen spoke of what they’d learned that morning as they searched online for ‘school shootings’ and ‘mass shootings’ and ‘gun laws’ and everyone born before Google secretly mocked their newfound knowledge and the wisdom accumulated an hour or two ago – online. That’s another breach in our collective angst over so-called senseless violence – newfound knowledge that’s tweetable is more virulent, more compelling, and more provoking than the accumulated wisdom serving as a mask for inaction. But there is a sense to this senseless violence – we’d just prefer to watch.

And another student’s “We call B.S.” is now a rallying-cry for indignation at the indolence of parents and politicians who promise something and deliver nothing. For a generation of world-changers, their parents’ and politicians’ hollow words should be an embarrassment – as hollow as the phrase ‘it is what it is.’

But ‘It is what it is’ is the new religion of passive-aggressiveness or acceptance or Niebuhr’s serenity prayer of wisdom to accept the things I can’t change, or the ‘all politics is local’ of areas where NRA membership is a civic duty. ‘It is what it is’ has become the watchword of generational compliance – in Chicago in particular where the best fashion is hand-wringing and angst-fueled political rhetoric that keeps electing an irredeemable political class and appointing those who warn of economic bankruptcy of police-shooting settlements in the name of cultural bankruptcy, and single-party politics with no accountability and majority-minority unemployment, and no lack of churches and community centers who are doing much more than offering their thoughts and prayers like the rest of us watching funerals and protests on a Saturday.

In Chicago we’re told gun violence is a cultural problem with a racist hint hiding politely under the skin of these recriminations. Criminal justice reform and gun control laws are given little voice, while the brazen ‘it is what it is’ is met with sympathetic political slogans of ‘we’re doing the best we can’ and even ‘this must stop’ assertions and thoughts and prayers.

‘This must stop’ is as hollow as the teen’s last mass shooting avowal. It won’t stop. This won’t be the last mass shooting. And as ‘it is what it is’ voyeurs offer their thoughts and prayers, our city will continue to die – one thought and prayer at a time.

This is a very public fight of ‘it is what is’ versus ‘enough is enough’ – and which will prevail depends on more than sloganeering.

CHICAGO, IL – Police investigate the scene of a quadruple homicide on the city’s Southside on December 17, 2016 in Chicago, Illinois. Three people were found shot to death inside a home in the Fernwood neighborhood, another 2 were found shot outside the home, one of those deceased. Chicago has had more than 750 homicides in 2016. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Our culture of death is alive and well in the poorest, most under-served neighborhoods of Chicago and likened to a contagion – as predictable as an infectious disease spreading among those with compromised immune systems, and just as deadly. Blighted and ignored by those elected to lead and provide – those entrusted with the power to zone and TIF creatively not just in Uptown and on Michigan Avenue but in Englewood and Austin and Lawndale as well. If you want to do business in Wrigleyville, maybe you should do business in Austin too?!

My apparent complaint is that Chicago’s hundreds of annual gun deaths and thousands of shootings don’t rise to the same level of anger and anxiety as a single mass shooting in a Florida high school. And those students found it safe (and the national media as well) to vent and protest in Parkland. They wouldn’t feel that safety (or receive that attention) to vent and protest in Chicago. Who will have the nerve to tell us righteous indignation doesn’t save lives?

While others focus on assigning blame, I’ll add to that the multiplier of blameworthy voyeurism. It’s all we can do if ‘it is what it is’ is our new national religion of thoughts and prayers.

Two tragedies – two pageants, and too much equivocation – that’s the lesson of Saturday’s eulogies. And we are all just voyeurs.

Sunday, February 18, 2018 – looking out my window at the Austin neighborhood of Chicago.