Love and Loss

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Love hurts. That’s such a truism it has become cliche. And yet it’s something that human beings seek. Indeed, we need love as much as we need food and water. Studies have shown that infants who are given basic sustenance but no human touch will fail to thrive.

Still, love can be a bitter pill to swallow. Just ask anyone who’s suffered from a bad breakup. No amount of Ben & Jerry’s can numb the pain. And what’s worse, after we finally get over the heartbreak, we do it all over again with a new mate. Are people incurable romantics? I don’t think so. But our drive to love and be loved is powerful.

Ask any parent, and they will admit that having children is simultaneously the most beautiful and terrifying experience they have ever had. I have never known a love like the kind I felt when each of my children was born – or in the case of the fourth child, adopted. My kids are my everything. They are also a constant source of worry. Whether they come down with a virus, fly to Italy, or hang out with friends on a Friday night, I am frightened of what might happen to them.

My son plays football. Last Friday night, two of his teammates left the field on stretchers. One was down so long I was certain he had been paralyzed. The fear I felt in those moments was intense. I can only imagine what it must have been for his mother, who stood helplessly by while medical professionals assessed the situation.

We imagine the unimaginable. But sometimes the unimaginable actually happens. This morning I went to the funeral of a 15-year-old girl. My heart broke to see her devastated mother, father, and sister struggle with their grief. I am sure they have asked why. Why did their child succumb to cancer? Why, having lost their oldest daughter, did they have to bury another? Yet I doubt they ever asked, why did we have children? Why did we risk such heartache?

Why do we love against all odds? We are wired for it. We are God’s children, and God is love. In the words of Alfred, Lord Tennyson, “‘Tis better to have loved and lost/Than never to have loved at all.”

Love is painful, messy, and unpredictable. It is also warm, joyful, and blessed. May we share the blessings of love all of our lives.

Wait ‘Til Next Year

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A recent retrospective article on the 1969 Chicago Cubs in the Chicago Tribune has me waxing nostalgic. I so clearly remember the pennant fever of that magical season that ended in tragedy.

Too melodramatic, you say? Then you’ve never been a Cubs fan. I imbibed Cubs fandom with mother’s milk. It was woven into the very fabric of our daily lives. The sound of my father and uncles arguing and cursing while watching a baseball game formed the background noise of my childhood.

In the summer of 1969, Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon. But that event paled in comparison to the excitement in our house that surrounded the Cubs’ successes. For most of the ’69 season, the Cubs held onto first place. The heroes of that season – among them Ron Santo, Fergie Jenkins, and Mr. Cub himself, Ernie Banks – became the stuff of legend and wound up in the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

My siblings and I memorized the Cubs lineup and fervently collected baseball cards. My sister even made a scrapbook of highlights from the dramatic season, which included an exciting no-hitter pitched by Ken Holtzman.

One of our favorite Sunday afternoon activities was going to O’Hare Airport to greet the team on their return from away games. Once my father, who was always dressed in a suit on Sundays, was asked for his autograph, and we realized that the fan thought he was part of the Cubs organization.

My dad chuckled and said to us later, “I should have signed it ‘Ernie Banks’.”

The Cubs fell out of first place in September, and our hopes were deflated. To this day I hold hatred in my heart for the New York Mets, who, in our words, “stole the pennant” from the Cubs. But as is usually the case with the sluggers of Wrigley Field, the Cubs lost that pennant all by themselves.

I no longer watch baseball. I am not much of a sports fan in general, and baseball in particular moves way too slowly for my taste. Yet I still claim allegiance to that North Side team that captured our hearts years ago.

And as the 2014 season winds down with the Cubs in last place, I echo the sentiment of many a loyal fan: “Wait until next year!”

When Art and Life Collide

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How far should an artist be willing to go for his art?

That is the question at the heart of the novel My Name Is Asher Lev by Chaim Potok. Just yesterday I saw a stage version of this semi-autobiographical story done by the excellent Chicago-based Timeline Theatre Company.

The play disturbed me, not only for its display of raw emotion, but because it spoke directly to me about my work as a writer.

Asher Lev is a young Hasidic Jew growing up in Brooklyn, New York. His pious parents love him but don’t know what to make of his obsession with drawing and painting. As Asher Lev grows up and starts to learn what it means to be a true artist, his depictions come into direct conflict with his parents’ feelings and his religious upbringing.

As I write my memoirs, I struggle with the need to be honest and true yet at the same time not hurt the people I love. The tension is between my need to love and be loved and the need to be heard and really seen. Is art that compromises really art at all?

I also feel tension between my Catholic religious tradition and my passionate beliefs about freedom and women’s rights. Sometimes I consider myself a coward and a hypocrite if I don’t come out strongly against Catholic Church teaching in these areas. In Asher Lev, the artist paints nudes and crucifixions, two things his Hasidic parents find morally reprehensible. Yet he is driven by a need to express himself through these images.

At one point Asher tells his father, “I respect you, Papa. But I can’t respect your aesthetic blindness.”

His father replies, “What about moral blindness, Asher?”

Therein lies the dilemma for the artist – how to stay true to one’s vision without doing harm. It is a question that I will continue to ask myself as I pursue my writing career.

You Always Hurt the One You Love

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Whenever my siblings would fight, my mother would sing the old Forties standard, “You Always Hurt the One You Love.” While our daily squabbles amused my mom, there is nothing funny about how apropos those lyrics seem today.

Every day in the news, it seems, I read about a new allegation involving an NFL football player and domestic violence. Last week I wrote about the plight of Janay Rice, whose husband knocked her out cold with a vicious punch in the face. This week the spotlight is on Vikings running back Adrian Peterson, who has been accused of child abuse in the whipping of his 4-year-old son that resulted in lacerations needing medical attention. Just today, another allegation surfaced that Peterson also hit a different child while the child was in a car seat, once again causing injury.

These are just the two most prominent cases of domestic violence confronting the NFL at the present time. And the NFL cases are the tip of the iceberg when it comes to incidents of spouse and child abuse. According to the National Domestic Violence Hotline, “More than 1 in 3 women (35.6%) and more than 1 in 4 men (28.5%) in the United States have experienced rape, physical violence and/or stalking by an intimate partner in their lifetime.[vi]” (http://www.thehotline.org/resources/statistics/)

The statistics on child abuse are equally troubling. “More than four children die every day as a result of child abuse,” according to ChildHelp.org. (Statistic comes from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.) Furthermore, also according to government sources, having been abused as a child increases the chances of being incarcerated, developing drug or alcohol dependency, and becoming an abuser later in life.  Clearly, the problems of family violence are much bigger than the issues confronting the NFL today.

Yet the NFL could lead the way by refusing to allow abusers to play in the league, providing resources for the families of NFL players, and offering counseling and education to prevent family violence. The reach of professional sports is vast. Football is arguably the most popular American sport these days. If NFL officials had the courage of their convictions and made domestic violence anathema in America, maybe ordinary men and women would be inspired to seek the help they need to have happy, healthy families.

Tipping Points

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A recent story in the Chicago Tribune discussed the merits and drawbacks of our tipping culture. The article focused on tipping in restaurants, but it got me to thinking about all the services for which tips are expected.

Do you tip the Starbucks barista? How about the doorman at a hotel? If you tip your hair stylist, do you need to give the assistant who shampoos your hair a separate tip? And don’t even get me started on how much to tip. Should you give 10%, 15%, or 20%? Does it vary according to the service? There is so much disparity and confusion about tipping that I propose an end to all of it.

One of the reasons for tipping is that the service personnel attending to our needs are often underpaid. Restaurant workers, for example, make well under the minimum wage, which is allowed because – you guessed it – they make extra money in tips. But why not just pay the servers, bussers, and bartenders a living wage and charge the prices needed to make the establishment profitable?

The advantages to this system seem obvious to me. First of all, restaurant workers will make a more steady income. Whether business is busy or slow at a particular time, workers will make the same wage. Secondly, all patrons will contribute to the livelihood of the workers instead of the more generous ones making up for the cheapskates. The same system could apply to hotel employees, taxi drivers, and the like. No longer would customers need to keep a supply of fives and ones in their pockets to dole out to these various service providers. I know I would feel more relaxed.

Naysayers will argue that doing away with tipping will remove the incentive to provide excellent customer service. I find that ridiculous. There are plenty of businesses that don’t rely on tipping. Their incentive to provide good service is simple. They want customers to come back. In fact, a restaurant near where I live does not allow tipping, yet their servers are some of the friendliest and most attentive I have met.

Some servers in tip-based industries object that they might make less money with a simple wage per hour system than they do now. This is possible, particularly in high-end establishments. But I’ve often thought it unfair that a waiter in an expensive steak house makes more in tips than a waitress at a local diner simply because the food is more expensive. In fact, a server at a diner possibly works harder in terms of the amount of attention given to each table. (Can you say, “More coffee”?)

The Tribune article cited the experiences of diners in Europe as an argument in favor of tipping. In Europe, a service charge is automatically added to the bill, no matter the size. Some travelers complained that, as a result, the service at European establishments was poor to indifferent. I think this is just the European way. I mean, really. I challenge anyone to find a waiter in Paris who greets them with enthusiasm.

I will continue to be a generous tipper as long as the system exists because I don’t want to see servers underpaid. But it’s time the system changed. You might say it’s “the tipping point” for change.

What About Janay?

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“At core, men are afraid women will laugh at them, while at core, women are afraid men will kill them.” – Gavin de Becker

In all of the media attention to the conduct of Ravens running back Ray Rice and of the NFL in response to an episode of domestic violence, one important element is missing – the victim. No one seems concerned that a woman who was knocked out cold by a punch to the face would marry the perpetrator of such violence a month later.

It’s no surprise to me that Janay Rice would defend her husband and ask that their family be left alone. Abused women often go to great lengths to protect their abusers – especially when there are children involved. And I am disturbed that she publicly apologized for the part she played in the so-called altercation. Unless she had been beating Rice with a blunt instrument or holding a gun on him, there was no justification for such a brutal attack.

I hope that this was an isolated incident in their relationship. I hope that whatever counseling and anger management techniques the couple has received are effective. Most of all, I pray that their young daughter is raised in a loving, nonviolent atmosphere. It is said that “the sins of the father will be visited upon the son.” The perpetuation of domestic violence into the next generation is one of the most insidious aspects of this widespread problem.

Time will tell for the Rice family. Maybe the media attention and Rice’s suspension from the NFL will give abused persons the courage to come forward and break the cycle of violence. The dignity of the human person demands that all people, male and female, children and adults, be able to live in an atmosphere free from violence at the hands of those they love.

 

 

 

 

 

Carpe Diem

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Today is the 15th anniversary of my father’s death. He had lived a good, long and full life. A hard life, to be sure. But I think he would have said his life was good. Despite living through the Depression and World War II, losing a wife and a child, and battling health problems, my dad refused to indulge in self-pity. He lived each day in the best way he knew how – supporting his family, working in his garden, and watching the Cubs (mostly) lose. He liked his cocktail before dinner and his cup of tea afterwards. He read and watched television and took us on outings in the family station wagon.

It is so easy in modern life to slip into discontent. We wonder what we are doing with our life. We grow bored and restless. We dwell on the could haves and should haves of our lives instead of living in the present moment. Last night I watched the season finale of an HBO show called “The Leftovers.” Based upon a novel by Tom Perotta, “The Leftovers” shows a world in which people have randomly disappeared, leaving holes in the lives of their families and friends. The show details the various ways people cope – or don’t cope – with the seemingly meaningless loss. Some find refuge in their faith. Some seek meaning in false messiahs. Others force the people to remember relentlessly that horrible day. The main character wrestles with himself and the terrible choices he has made in his life. The story is bleak. Yet in the final episode of the season, (Don’t worry – no spoilers!) there is a glimmer of hope.

There is a popular adage to live each day as if it were your last. I don’t find this particularly helpful or realistic. If it were truly my last day, I would just sit around and eat sweets, drink wine and play games or watch TV with my family. I certainly wouldn’t do laundry, cook or take care of any of the chores necessary for daily life. To me, the meaning of that popular Latin sentence, “Carpe diem,” is not to take for granted any of the big and little events in one’s life.

As I write this, a teenage girl with cancer lies in her bed. It’s unlikely that she will ever get to experience such things as driving a car, getting married, or holding her infant in her arms. Realizing that life is fleeting, I intend to spend this day with joy and purpose – to reach out to others, to be truly present with my loved ones, and to hold the conviction that it truly is a wonderful life.