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More than politics

5 Nov

This week, Chicago–the quintessential “political” town–was a good place to be if you needed to be reminded that life is more than politics. I’m talking about Chicago Cubs, of course, and their triumph in the World Series last Wednesday. Chicago went berserk–5 million people at the parade and rally on Friday, reported by the Chicago Tribune to be the “seventh largest crowd of human beings in the history of the world.” (Disclaimer: the Tribune is part-owner of the team). It was a shout out to Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton: “Move over, give us a break. We love the Cubbies more than either of you!” Here at Montgomery Place, music events were cancelled for the games. Believe me, that is a very big deal here.

A much-appreciated reminder that as important politics is, it’s not the end-all and be-all. But there’s more–I’m a White Sox fan. I empathize with the woman quoted in John Kass’s Tribune column: “If this becomes a thing with the Cubs and it happens every year for the next three years, then I’m leaving town,” said Sox fan Wendy. “I won’t be able to take it.”

My wife, Neva, is a Cubs fan. I’m reminded that you can be on the wrong side of history and still love the “misguided” people on the other side. So the Cubs had 5 million people at their parade. We had 2 million at ours in 2005, and that ain’t hay, as they say. Chicago is a Cubs town, to be sure, and a Bears and a Bulls and a Blackhawks town–never a Sox town, but 2 million of of us redefine the concept of “outsiders.”

There was more than baseball this week that put politics into perspectives. Good news: a granddaughter selected for the Association of Choir Directors of America National Choir, to perform in the Minneapolis Symphony Hall on March 11. A friend has emergency surgery to deal with a heart rate issue; a pacemaker solves the problem, and she goes home the next day.

Bad news: my sister’s cancer has returned, and she faces drastic surgery. An old friend who fell and broke her shoulder in four places now undergoes fusion of her cervical vertebrae.

Politics is important and even decisive in some respects, an essential dimension of our world. But it’s not the whole. We’ll be rooting for the Cubs–or not–no matter who is elected president or senator, or local dog-catcher. The Inauguration will pass, and sister and my friend will be living with the results of their surgeries and rehabbing themselves back to recovery. The world we live in has many dimensions–not parts that we can separate from one another, but interweaving dimensions that in fact permeate each other.

Personal life has been in tension with politics for millennia. In Sophocles’ play, Antigone, (written 2,500 years ago), tragedy results when Antigone clings to family values. She buries her brother, against the wishes of the king, who executed the brother for treason. President Obama (reputed to be a Sox fan) went a different route when he called John Madden, the Cubs’ manager, to invite the team to the White House, before Obama leaves office.

On the other hand, no one cares who the surgeons and nurses vote for–we just want them to do their personal and professional best. And we pray.

Only three days until the election. Between now and then, my TV will be tuned to Masterpiece Theater and re-runs of “Murder, She Wrote,” “Gunsmoke,” and “NCIS.”

Sorry, pundits. Sorry, Donald. Sorry Hillary. But you see, there’s a murder every day in Cabot Cove, and Angela Lansbury is a charming sleuth.

(c) Phil Hefner 11/5/2016

Jacob wrestles in the shopping center

24 Aug

Sometimes deep contrasts–even direct opposites–show themselves at the same time, in the same place. Take the Hyde Park Shopping Center as an example. It’s a delightful urban oasis–for me especially because the Bon Jour French cafe graces its central courtyard. I’ve spent many pleasant hours there.

Children laugh and play as they run and skip around the court yard fountain. Watchful mothers chat over coffee under the shade trees. At the tables are those who read their daily paper. Earnest students read and write for their projects, while still others are writing letters or engrossed in a novel. Jazz musicians come in the summer, filling the courtyard with their music. Annual crafts fairs and garden shows dot the calendar, as well. Most, like me, simply enjoy the ambience on a summer day, the coffee and the bakery’s output of tasty goods.

But if those of us who enjoy the delights of this space look carefully at our surroundings, we see a small sculpted figure perched above the fountain in the center of the courtyard (see photo above). Entitled “Jacob and the Angel,” it refers to the story found in the Bible, Genesis 32:22-31. In this story, Jacob wrestles through the night with a strange man. Although the man refuses to reveal his name, Jacob believes he has been wrestling with God. This encounter changed Jacob–he received a new name and a permanent limp.

The sculpted figure of Jacob is caught up in intense struggle. All his weight is balanced on a single toe; his other foot seems to be cloven, like a hoofed animal. The sculptor, Paul Granlund (1925-2003), suggests that the struggle is also interior–Jacob is wrestling with himself. Granlund himself observed, “I’m always trying to say two things at once.”

I would like to know how Jacob ever got to the Hyde Park Shopping Center. Curious, too, that the sculptor–son of a Lutheran pastor who spent his entire career in Minnesota, much of it at Gustavus Adolphus college in St. Peter–should place his Jacob in a self-styled secular setting.

His presence at the French cafe does stand in a venerable tradition. As early as the 1700s, the coffee houses of Vienna and London were places of both light hearted joy and serious thinking by artists, philosophers, and musicians. Les Deux Magots and Café de Flore–the two legendary cafes on the Left Bank in Paris– became famous for their glittering array of deep-thinking patrons over the decades, including Picasso, Simone de Beauvoir, Ernest Hemingway, Julia Child, and James Baldwin. You might say that it’s the rule, not the exception for cafes to be venues of seriousness, along with their pastries and coffee.

Popular philosophy might think that we build pleasant places as safe spaces where we can be free from wrestling with angels, ourselves included. In reality, the wrestling takes place anywhere, perhaps especially in the pleasant spaces, when our antagonist is least expected.

You might call this a serious everyday spirituality. Are the denizens of the cafe so self-aware?

(c). Phil Hefner. August 23, 2016

For more on the sculptor, see:

Walking on water with Christo

8 Jul

Christo’s art is “wrapping” things–buildings, coast lines, monuments, and more. In 1969, he wrapped the two-story Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago and its lower-level gallery. My wife and I and our three daughters (ages 8, 6, 2) accepted the invitation to lie on the floor wrapped in canvas and roll around on it. We connected with this work of art. We’ve followed him ever since. You can see this at:

On June 18, almost fifty years later, people walked on Christo’s monumental installation on Iseo Lake, 60 miles from Milan, Italy. Some 200,000 floating cubes create a runway nearly two miles long, connecting the village of Sulzano to the small island of Monte Isola on the lake, for a 16-day outdoor installation–entitled “Floating Piers.” See the photo above.

For me, the brilliance of the Christo and Jeanne-Claude (the art is a collaboration until her death in 2009) is the way they bring earthiness and transcendence together. What’s earthier than rolling around on a canvas covered floor? You feel the floor. You “see” the work of art with your whole body. The artists deny any deeper meaning to their work. They simply create for joy and beauty and offer new ways of seeing. But at the Museum, it wasn’t just a floor–it was a work of art. Artists invited us to roll on their creation! Ever after, I realized that a museum is not just a place where we view art; the museum can itself be a work of art. The total experience transcends the act of viewing a canvas-covered floor, but the transcendence requires the rolling, the participation. And the 2 year-old participated as much as 40 year-old adults.

Art critic David Bourdon says that Christo’s wrappings are “revelation through concealment.” We have to discover what things really are–first encounters are not enough. Scientists know this very well. Meticulous, time-consuming experiments and observations pry open natural phenomena. Poets and novelists say the same thing: that they have to twist and squeeze words to discover their possibilities. Ursula Le Guin speaks of words as stones that the poet must chip away at in order to crack open their meaning.

When was the last time that you examined a building by physically rolling on its basement floor? Christo talks about the people walking on his floating piers–they will experience the actual surface of the lake, walking on the cubes as they float with the movements of the water. They are discovering the water.

Just as the canvas reveals the museum floor, though it appears to cover it up, the floating piers do not cover the water so much as reveal the water in ways quite different than it is revealed in swimming or by walking over it on a pier or a bridge.

Christo speaks of the art as a journey. “The journey is the work of art. And the most beautiful part of the floating pier is to see that the entire project is about the people walking nowhere. About the feeling of the surface of the land or the water. And your feet actually–many people walk barefoot. And they walk, they walk. It’s not like going to shop, not going to see your friends. It’s going really nowhere.”

In that nowhere the revelation takes place. Religion often works in this same way. When you get right down to it, there is no “nowhere” for Christo. Artistic experience can be everywhere–even on basement floors. Religions know as well that there is no fundamental “nowhere.” Martin Luther, who stands tall in my tradition, taught that God is both hidden (“absconditus” in Latin, the absconded God) and revealed. But God only seems to be “hidden”–God is actually present everywhere, but in ways we do not see at first–we must discover the presence of God.

Discovery is tactile, hands-on. We are familiar with the mental aspects of experiencing the world, the “thinking.” Art is material–pigments put on a canvas, metal shaped in a forge, meaning and beauty painstakingly pried from words. Religion is the same. Deeds, interactions with other people, our own inner emotional life, goodness and evil, faithfulness and betrayal, the lust for power, self-sacrifice and selfishness–these are the concrete materials of everyday life, and also the stuff of religion.

The stuff of the world–whether it’s color, bronze, or emotions–does not bend easily to our dreams. There’s a give-and-take required. Christo and Jeanne-Claude engage the world of buildings and bridges, as well as rivers, coastlines, lakes and canyons. Those who come to the art are part of the give-and take–they’re rolling on floors and walking on water.

If you’re very lucky, you can check out a Christo near you–sometime. In the meantime, travel by Google:

Christo and Jeanne Claude: Prints and Objects. Edited by Joerg Schellmann. New York: The Outlook Press.

(c) Phil Hefner. 7/8/2016

Re-invention: The Wisdom of Sally Field

18 Mar

“My 70th birthday is coming up soon–I’m an old woman,” Sally Field recently told an interviewer.

“No you’re not,” comes the response. “You’re not old.”

“It’s okay to be old–it’s natural,” Field insists. “And I’ve earned my years–there’s a value in those years that wasn’t there when I was younger.”

She follows up with thoughtful reflection on her situation, delivered with a deceptively light touch–this is not Gidget or the Flying Nun talking. The Sally Field who is turning 70 later this year may have done a turn as Gidget when she was just 19, but she went on to win leading actress Oscars in “Norma Rae” (1979) and “Places in the Heart” (1984), and play roles in several other major films. This month she opens in the film, “Hello, My Name is Doris,” as an older woman who romances a younger man.

She is unusual among Hollywood actresses in that she has secured roles through her 60s–in an industry that is known for its discrimination against aging women. She has sixty-three films and television programs to her credit, as well a screenplay and several stints as director and producer. She is sharply critical of the Hollywood system–including the fact that women who dissent receive the worst treatment and are frequently shoved aside. Her mantra: “I kept my head down and found the work wherever it was.”

What attracted me in the interview is Sally Field’s vision of her own life. As we live our lives, we move through stages–childhood, adolescence, young adulthood, maturing, old age. This is familiar territory, set forth by developmental psychologists for many years. I would add, for parents, the empty nest phase and, for many others, the phase in which one occupation disappears and another must be invented.

Field believes that in every stage we must re-invent ourselves–the adolescent into an adult, the mature adult into an aging person moving toward death. Rather than viewing this endless challenge with dismay, she chooses to highlight the excitement of re-invention.

Field closes the interview on a very high note. The interviewer (who, I think, never really got the point) asks, “So, what’s next?”

“This is my challenge. There is something there that I can’t see yet, and I won’t be able to see it unless I am willing to let go of what I have been and move into the future.” This is re-invention.

These words are inspiring, at whatever stage of re-invention we find ourselves. For me, moving into a retirement community is a direct confrontation with the challenges of a new stage of life. There is a strong urge to regret that we cannot resuscitate the bygone phase. Admitting that re-invention is necessary comes hard. What are the guidelines? What resources do I have? Most of us introduce ourselves to others in terms of that bygone phase, and people may respond to us accordingly.

What if I introduce myself, henceforth, in terms of what I have not yet become–a person in the process of re-invention? A person I cannot yet see?

Are you in the midst of re-invention? Or do you have a few years yet before you face that challenge?

If we compiled the stories of our re-inventions, it would make for inspirational reading. What is your story? Share it here. I include portions of a poem in which I pondered my own re-invention.

A Parable

I will turn my mind to a parable. Psalm 49

I asked my self to reveal myself to me:
“Disclose your depths, tell me what you see.”

Whether in the mirror or the eye of my mind,
I see but little; there must be more that I do not find.

Perhaps I am not my self at all
not a self
that could be found.

I may be a parable–
all the pieces of my life
a story to be sung.

Phil Hefner 17 March 2016

Three cheers for Mrs. Hay-zen–in a time of troubles

5 Dec


There are many tumultuous and disturbing topics to reflect on these days. For the past month, each day has brought more bad news. But in this installment, I choose to focus on Marcella Hazan. To those who do not know this name, she is to Italian cooking what Julia Childs is to the French. Neva gave me a copy of Hazan’s, The Classic Italian Cook Book, on my fifty-first birthday, 1983. For the next twenty-eight years, until we moved into a retirement community, that book was next to the Bible as the most important book in my life, and Marcella Hazan was in the top five of my favorite people. I was the chief cook in our house in those days, and this book opened up a wonderful world for me. She was “Mrs. HAY-zen” to me for most of those years; I did encounter a few put-downs by those who corrected me–it’s Mrs. “Ha-ZON,” they said.

Her name nevertheless remains HAY-zen to me. But then, I still refer to the Saint as AW-gus-STEEN, as I learned it in college, rather than the recently more “correct” Aw-GUS-tin. Some things remain so deeply engrained that correction never takes hold.

Marcella’s name came to the fore recently in conversation (over dinner) with a new resident, for whom The Classic Italian Cook Book was equally significant. Who would have imagined!

Since Marcella explained everything in meticulous detail, she was a perfect mentor to this neophyte cook. Take her recipe for risi e bisi (rice and peas), which is a favorite of mine. She realized that there are three possibilities for the peas–fresh, canned, and frozen–so she included recipe variations for each. Doing homemade pasta was made less daunting by her detailed instructions (which were translated into English by husband Victor) and line drawings (by George Kazumi). She rejected the “chef” title–a chef is a manager, she wrote, while the “cook” actually prepares food lovingly for the family.

Her philosophical–or we might say “theological”–commentary on cooking won my heart from the beginning. A few excerpts:

Italy’s food “is the product of two arts, the art of cooking and the art of eating. The art of cooking produces the dishes, but it is the art of eating that transforms them into a meal.” (xv)

“An Italian meal is a story told from nature, taking its rhythms, its humors, its bounty and turning them into episodes for the senses. As nature is not a one-act play, so an Italian meal cannot rest on a single dish. It is instead a lively sequence of events, alternating the crisp with soft and yielding, the pungent with the bland, the variable with the staple, the elaborate with the simple.” (7-8)

“What we find in the cooking of Italy is a long-established intimacy between the human and the natural orders. The Italian comes to his table with the same open heart with which a child falls into his mother’s arms, with the same easy feeling of being in the right place.” (459)

How can you resist this woman? That thought occurred to me last evening at dinner. During the meal, someone decided to hold a fire drill, with buzzers and an announcement over the PA system that we should not let the interminable noises interrupt our meal. The art of cooking might have produced a tasty meal, but the art of eating was rendered impossible. Surely Marcella Hazan was frowning. The child in its mother’s arms needed ear plugs.

Hazan made vegetables irresistible to both children and adults. She taught me to place both sweet (lettuce, cabbage, spinach) and bitter (collard and mustard, kale) greens in the steamer, remove them to be sautéed lightly with olive oil and garlic, form them into rolls, if you like–and enjoy.

And then there’s risotto. Arborio rice with Parmigiano Reggiano cheese and whatever other ingredient you wish–perhaps bacon, chopped escarole, asparagus, or shellfish. Need I say more?

If you don’t know the book, The Classic Italian Cook Book, or one of its successors, I advise you to spend a pleasant hour leafing through it. Or, if you are also a Hazan fan, respond with your favorite recipes.

Is it appropriate to indulge in the hedonism of Italian cooking when the news is filled with the killings in San Bernardino and Paris, and the corrupt tricks being played out by the moment in Chicago, where I’m writing this blog?

Food is a key part of our lives in good times and bad. Of the arts, cooking and eating are the most everyday, the most down-to-earth, crossing borders of race, gender, nationality, and social class. Italian cooking is an especially earthy and accessible art. It’s food of the people, in contrast to the French and Chinese, who have raised their cuisine to high culture–haute cuisine. High culture cooking is best served in restaurants, while Italian food flourishes in the home or in a neighborhood trattoria.

The social class differences between the elaborate meals in a fine Chinese restaurant and the diners bent over their bowls in a noodle parlor are striking, as are the contrasts between the neighborhood French bistro and the richly starred Michelin restaurant. The excellence of haute cuisine seems be measured by how many bizarre manipulations the chef can impose on nature’s bounty. I fear that the United States is on the slippery slide toward haute cuisine.

But, as Marcella exemplifies, Italian cooking puts to the fore our relation to the good things of nature. It puts food over cuisine and cooks over chefs.
These values of Italian cooking and eating are life-affirming in good times and in bad. I hereby elevate Mrs. HAY-zen to my personal calendar of saints.
(c) Phil Hefner 12/4/2015

What comes after humility?

4 Nov
    In his recent book, The Road to Character (Random House 2015), David Brooks has made a contribution to my thinking and vocabulary–his contrast between eulogy virtues and resume virtues. Brooks thinks that prior to the 1940s-50s, we honored eulogy virtues, marked by humility. But after 16 years of deprivation–Great Depression and World War II, the existing moral ecology was too restrictive, especially for women and marginalized groups. There was a legitimate reason for many people to move from an attitude of Little Me to Big Me. Resume virtues made their appearance, gradually replacing eulogy virtues. This change was wholesome in itself, but it went too far.

    Resume virtues, however, may nurture pride in achievement, but they are not the seed bed for character–so goes Brooks’ argument. Humility is the prerequisite.
    He believes character is best taught by examples; the book is comprised of eight biographical chapters: Frances Perkins, Dwight Eisenhower, A. Philip Randolph, Bayard Rustin, George Eliot (Mary Anne Evans), Dr. Johnson, St. Augustine, Dorothy Day, and George C. Marshall. These persons were not at all alike–some introspective, others not at all; some grew up poor, others in wealth. All of them acknowledged that they were “crooked timber,” deeply flawed for the life-purposes they pursued. Each experienced suffering that was rooted in the flaws.

    To look at two of her exemplars: Saint Augustine (who lived in the early 5th century) was introspective–ceaselessly exploring the depths of self and tearing himself away from the high position and fame that he had attained. Dorothy Day (1898-1980) was extraordinarily sensitive to the situation of the poor in New York in the 1920s. She wanted to help them, but she also believed that working with the poor was the pathway of holiness. Her quest for holiness compelled her to live and suffer with the people she was helping.

    The early lives of both Augustine and Day were both distinguished and dissolute; he was a leading rhetorician, she, a published novelist, both were sexually promiscuous. Both converted to Catholicism in their early 30s. In the years after his conversion, Augustine was baptized, ordained a priest and still later became bishop of what is now Annaba, Tunisia (Hippo in his time). He wrote hundreds of volumes of sermons, Biblical studies, and theological works. At age 35, in 1933, Dorothy Day founded The Catholic Worker–not only a newspaper circulated to 500 parishes, but a movement with food kitchens, homeless shelters, and farms–centered in her New York City home and then expanded to other cities. She founded it “to mobilize the proletariat and apply Catholic social teaching toward the goal of creating a society in which it is easier for people to be good.” (Brooks 89-90)

    Augustine’s suffering lay in redirecting his loves. His loves were tearing him apart–“I poured myself out, was made to flow away in all directions and boiled off.” (191) He was torn between his sense of transcendence on the one hand, and his base desires, on the other hand. Augustine came to see that God accepted him as he was, and that faith released enormous amount energies to please God and serve his fellow human beings.

    Dorothy Day doubted and criticized her own life and faith in a constant struggle to become purer and holier in her activism. She identified with the poor and sacrificed for them. She believed that it was not enough simply to serve the poor; one had to live with them and love them personally. She spent hours every day just being with the poor people who came to her shelter and her food kitchen. Many of them were alcoholic, mentally disabled, rude, smelly, foul-mouthed, but she respected them and listened to them. She was hard on herself, because she was not satisfied with doing good, she wanted to be good.

    This book’s accomplishment–throwing light on what makes for character–is appealing and impressive. But the question is: can a humility-centered model, forged in the 1930s and 40s, work for shaping character today? Is humility so deeply rooted in an older moral ecology that it cannot grow deep roots today? Talking to one friend about the book, I was struck by her comment, “What can a straight, neocon, middle-aged white man teach me about character?” When I led a discussion of the book, one participant came with Valerie Saiving’s classic article from the 1960s arguing that while pride is a male sin, which may indeed benefit from a dose of humility, women’s sin is self-abnegation, for which curtailing their selves is destructive, while pride may well be a relevant virtue. (See Saiving’s article–

    Since the 60s, our thinking has developed, giving more detail to Saiving’s argument. Too often, it is the dominators–men, whites, the economic “one-per centers”–who demand humility (and frequently obedience) from those they dominate–women, people of color, and the lower income groups. The context for shaping character is not what it used to be. Humility is a very hard sell, and its value is not transparently clear.

    Perhaps humility need not take the leading role on the road to character. Even in Brooks’ discussion, other considerations are just as important: (1) the route charted by the resume is a moral drama; (2) the goal of the journey is holiness–not only to do good, but to be a good person; (3) we are crooked timber, as well as splendidly endowed; (4) humility enters in our awareness that we cannot straighten our crooked timber by ourselves–we need help; (5) our struggle is not only with the world outside us, but with ourselves–a struggle that never goes away, it is a major source of the suffering that marks the road to character.

    Does this work for us as we walk the road to character?

    What does your road look like?
    Phil Hefner 11/4/2015