Neil Tesser: Out of Season

ComiskeyWith everything on hold this year, including baseball, I’m re-reading Neil Tesser’s piece “Out of Season” with greater than average nostalgia.  David Starkey and I put this piece in our 1999 book Smokestacks and Skyscrapers: An Anthology of Chicago Writing.  The Chicago White Sox’s old Comiskey Park, says Tesser, “…seems out of place with the dry snap of the frozen air…A ballpark has no place in winter.”  This year’s “off season” will probably extend into mid-summer at the very least, so that this year we’ll be saying that an empty ballpark seems out of place in summer.

NTesserWhat Tesser describes in “Out of Season” are the people behind the scenes, people for whom the winter off season is one of the busiest times of the year.  Take Roger Bossard, for instance, who joined the White Sox in 1967 working as an assistant to his father, Gene Bossard, and becoming the official head groundskeeper when his father retired in 1983. He’s famously known as the Sod Father.  Tesser describes the tricks Bossard uses to get the grass growing and greening for opening day.  “But perhaps the important step,” Tesser writes, “is the one Bossard doesn’t take, back when the old ball yard seems packed up and sealed for the fall. ‘The conventional wisdom is to cut the grass for the last time in mid-November,’ he explains. ‘But I don’t cut it then; I leave it a little longer. You see, during the winter, when the grass goes dormant, the top three-quarters of the plant goes brown. But because I’ve left it a little longer, when I then cut it in the spring, the green part is a little higher and consequently more visible.  It goes against the book on agronomy—but then the book on agronomy doesn’t need green on April 4th.’”

Snow3“Out of Season” begins and ends with Brossard but in between there’s Tim Buzard (VP for Finance), Don Esposito (Purchasing), Paul Reis (Community Relations), Dan Fabian (Broadcast Coordinator), Chuck Bizzell (Minor League Administrator)—each with their own trials to work through.  “You can’t save a cent on baseballs,” Tesser says of one of Esposito’s major buying responsibilities.  “They’re available only from Rawlings, they’re all manufactured in Haiti, and they cost $38.50 per dozen…This is a shame, since the White Sox buy eighteen hundred dozen baseballs each year.”

“Out of Season” is a wonderful piece describing this rush towards Opening Day, a rush now perhaps slowed to a simpler brisk walk.

____________________

I need to end this baseball nostalgia with more about what Neil Tesser is most known for: being a jazz writer, who in 2015 received the Lifetime Achievement Award in Jazz Journalism from the Jazz Journalists Association. Though the Playboy Guide to Jazz (1998) was his first book, he had by then written and done broadcast commentaries on jazz for nearly 30 years.  His articles have appeared in the Chicago Daily News, USA Today, the New York Times Book Review, the Los Angeles Times, Rolling Stone, and Coltrane-ABImore.  He’s done radio shows for several Chicago stations and NPR, as well as scripts for NPR’s award-winning Jazz from Lincoln Center.  Perhaps most of all, though, he’s written the liner notes to over 350 jazz albums.  His liner notes for the five-disc Stan Getz-The Girl From Ipanema-The Bossa Nova Years was nominated for a Grammy in 1985, and he won the Grammy in 2014 for his liner notes to Concord’s remastered and expanded reissue of John Coltrane’s Afro-Blue Impressions, originally released as a double LP in 1977, though it was recorded live during a European tour in 1963. The music finds Coltrane in a period of transition.  Tesser writes that his music is “free of harmonic constraints, often thrilling in its harmonic sweep and its incantatory power, and refusing to conform to the clock. (The performance of a single tune could run 25 to 30 minutes.)…These tracks brim with the wonder and the power of discovery.”  During his acceptance speech Tesser said, “So many of us learned so much of what we first learned about music from well-written liner notes… and everybody who’s over the age of 35, there’s a couple of key phrases that they’ll never forget that they read on their first Duke Ellington album, their first Miles Davis album, that stuck in their mind forever. So when I say those hallowed words, ‘I’d like to thank the academy,’ it’s not just for this award. It’s for keeping this category in the Grammys all this time. So thank you for that.”

  Go to my history of jazz: Voices and Freedoms, and to a list of Chicago Writers on this site.

Posted in Chicago Writing | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Baccalaureate Sermon: It’s Not What You Know, It’s Who You Know

Father Guido Sarducci (Dom Novello) explains his "5-Minute University."

Father Guido Sarducci (Don Novello) explains his “5-Minute University.”

Yesterday I had my last online video class with students who were studying “The Long 18th Century” with me this term.  Online because of the world pandemic, because of which there won’t be any traditional graduation ceremonies, or much else traditional for many weeks or months yet.  So I thought it appropriate to publish this sermon I gave at North Central College’s Baccalaureate, the afternoon before its 2007 Commencement.  I gave the basics of this address several times, though I asked people to request it of me only every four years, so everyone who might have heard it would have graduated.  Every time it was a little different, and this time especially, as I gave it only six months after I had lost my youngest son, Bryan Emmanuel Guzman. 

 

Thank you, Jordan.*  Earlier today I had the pleasure of introducing Jordan DeRenzo at the College Scholars luncheon.  Her senior thesis, a collection of original poems and photographs inspired by the liturgical hours is beautiful, something we’re very proud of.  I’ve carried it around all day today, and will do so tomorrow as well, so come up and let me show you a few pages of it.  I also got to introduce the luncheon’s main speaker, Jeremy Gudauskas, whose thesis I directed eight years ago.  It consisted not only of an essay, but also of two films on homelessness.  He was a very good film maker back then, and is better today.  He’s stayed close to my family, helping to commemorate with his films, some of the happiest times and also the saddest time in our family’s history.

This term I also worked with a masters student, Greg Thrower, whose thesis is called “Transformational Foolery in 20th Century America.”  He’s developing a wonderfully skewed idea that certain comedians actually play a crucial role in clearing a cultural path so that real social change can happen.  He’s paired Will Rodgers with Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal era.  He’s paired Moms Mabley with Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Civil Rights era.  But I want to come to the main idea of my remarks this evening by focusing on the way he’s paired the comedian Don Novello with some of the significant changes in the Catholic Church.  If you know him at all, you know Don Novello as Father Guido Sarducci, the supposed gossip columnist of Il Salvatore Romano, the supposed gossip newspaper of Vatican City.  Working with Greg Thrower, I got to see again, via  YouTube, one of my favorite comedy routines: Guido Sarducci’s “Five-Minute University.”  All graduates ponder many things at times like these, and one of these may be how much debt you’ve piled up going to college.  Statistics shows that it’ll be well worth it in the long run, but in the short run it’s probably a little overwhelming.  So here’s Father Guido Sarducci, who’s going to charge you just $25 to attend his Five-Minute University.  His idea is that it will take about five minutes to teach you everything you’ll actually remember about college five years after you graduate.

So he boils foreign language down to: “Como esta?” And you answer “Muy bien.” Economics boils down to “Supply and demand.”  For business all you have to remember is, “You buy something, then you sell it for more.”  For philosophy it’s, “If a tree falls in the forest and nobody’s there, does it make a sound?” You answer, “Yes—but it all depends….” And so on, but only for about four minutes, because the Five-Minute University also includes a one-minute graduation ceremony, picture snap, and refreshment time.  (Watch it at the link in the caption above.)

Struggling to get that first job everybody sooner or later thinks about the phrase, “It’s not what you know, but who you know.”  Of course, while the Five-Minute University is one of my favorite comedy pieces, I think what you learn in college is crucial and does pay off.  Still, I want us to think seriously for a moment about that phrase.

In a few hours, as you leave this college, you’ll take a lot of what you learned with you, and you’ll have your books and notes to remind you, but you’ll be leaving behind many, or all, of your friends—perhaps never to see them again.  And those friendships, the persons you’ve known have enriched you as much as what you’ve learned.  Probably more.

I hope you’ll look kindly on your professors, too, and hope you’re richer not only for what we’ve tried to teach you, but for knowing us as persons.  We’ll certainly miss you as persons we’ve gotten to know, not just as students we had to teach.  The most challenging part of teaching isn’t conveying what we know.  It’s embodying what we know, so that persons emerge from behind the knowledge coming out of our mouths.  You often catch parents saying, “Do what I say, don’t do what I do,” because it’s always easier to say words than to live up to them.  That’s something we all fall short of doing.  And over and over I’ve had the experience of struggling to convey facts and ideas, only to have my students remember something else: my enthusiasm or lack of it, something funny I said, something that moved me so deeply I could barely get the words out.  It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.  That holds true for the friends you’ve made here, and the professors you’ve known.

And it holds true for your relationship with God, though I need to qualify that a lot before I go on.

I love the song “What A Friend We Have in Jesus,” but there’s obvious flaws in thinking of God too much as your personal friend.  There’s obvious flaws in thinking about God at all because we think with words and concepts and God is beyond any word, any concept whatever—beyond the dualities of existence or non-existence, beyond any concept of magnitude, even infinity.  Yet we’re stuck using these tools, hopefully with care, to try to understand the ultimate things of our lives.  I tend to treat with varying degrees of suspicion anyone who says God spoke to them, telling them to do this or that—though I’m sure this occasionally happens.  Our “friendship” with God, this situation of being able to know who God is in a personal way needs to be approached with the greatest care and humility and never with pride.  It is the greatest mystery of human existence, and we will never be able to comprehend it.

The great Indian writer Raja Rao used to criticize the West, saying, “To know God the West must make God more and more human.”  Rao used the traditional Hindi term “The Absolute” to refer to God, but knew God to be beyond this concept too.  He also accepted that there was somehow a mystical connection between the Absolute and the human and proposed the term “Abhuman”—a combination of “Absolute” and “human”—to signify that.  I’ve often thought “abhuman” was as clumsy a term as any other, and not fitting for the poetic writer Raja Rao was.  My favorite way he phrased our relationship with God is this:  In one of his novels, a character says, “Sometimes the longing for God is so great that you weep, and that weeping has no name.”  The poet of Psalm 8 phrases it this way:

Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth.  You have set your glory above the heavens…When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and stars, which you have set in place, what are mere mortals that you are mindful of them, human beings that you care for them.

The popular astronomer Carl Sagan devised what he called the “Cosmic Calendar” to give us a more tangible feel for our place in the universe.  What if, he imagined, the entire time of the universe could be reduced to a calendar year beginning at midnight January 1st and ending midnight December 31st?  On what date, at what time do human beings make their appearance?  As it turns out, humans make their appearance in the universe on December 31st, 30 seconds before midnight.  That’s how small we are in relationship to the universe and certainly to what is beyond it.

What we know as the personhood of God may be only an infinitesimally small part of the nature of God, but it’s through this small portal that we feel connected to the vast, impersonal universe, that we can say it’s not just what we know about God that matters, it’s who we know of God’s person.  I believe this mystery is eventually at, or near, the heart of all religious traditions, each in its unique way.  This is a controversial statement which would take at least a whole class, and probably more like another four years of classes, just to begin to understand.

I believe that much of the trouble in today’s world comes from people acting more on what they know about God, or think they know, rather than on who they could know God to be.

Ultimately, to know who God is is to know God as love, as ahimsa, as metta, as karuna.  “Love is the key,” said Martin Luther King, Jr., “that unlocks the door to ultimate reality.”   God can also be known as the God of peace, of shanti, both personal and social peace.

In the interest of time, I know you will allow me to dodge a closer scrutiny of this mystery of personal knowledge of God for now, and let me end on the most personal of notes.

As many of you know I recently lost my youngest son, Bryan, who died in an accident just days after his 21st birthday.  Tomorrow it will be just six months since his death, and my sadness has deepened with each passing day.  A couple of days after his death, my oldest son, Rick, and his wife, Desiree, came up with the idea of Bryan House, a transitional housing program for refugee families torn apart by war and politics.  It will be a living memorial to him.  On behalf of our family, let me thank you for your personal and emotional support during this—the hardest time of my life—and for supporting this living memorial to Bryan.  I will take a contemporary shortcut to explaining Bryan House further by asking you to find out details by visiting the website bryanhouse.org.**  I can tell you now, however, that a possible sight for Bryan House has already been found, and your response has been so great that there’s a thought of opening two houses, not just one, in the near future.  Let me also invite you to a great day of fun on June 23rd, from 9:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m., as Community Christian Church holds its first annual Promise Fair.  There’ll be music, food, a big vendor’s market, an even bigger yard sale, and a great silent auction with all proceeds going to Bryan House.  Again, check out details on the website.  It’s gotten so big we could use some volunteers to help set up the fair.  Contact me if you can help or know some who can.  In just a little while, Bryan House will begin to help transform the lives of dozens of refugee families and hundreds of people.

I know you will understand when I say that, as his father, my sadness is so great, my mourning of him still so incomplete, that I myself would trade all this good to have Bryan back.  I also know, however, that social change often comes as a consequence of death.  We’re inspired to strive for a better world not just by what we know, but who we know.  Bryan was so beautiful, as a person and as a spirit.  Now his beauty will lead to the beauty of a better life for many, many others—though it still breaks my heart to see his face on the Bryan House logo that has become so familiar to so many people.

Our bodies and spirits are entwined in strong, complex ways that don’t come apart easily.  On the morning of December 9th, when I entered the room at Northwestern Memorial Hospital where his body lay, it took me just a few minutes to realize that though his body was lifeless, Bryan’s spirit was still with us.  I kept inviting those who came to see him to come closer, to talk to him and touch him, because, I said, “It’s still Bryan.  He won’t be this way for long.”  And I myself kissed him over and over and over.  After a long time, the hospital staff asked people to leave but allowed me to stay with him until they came to take him away.  Those staff members who were going to take him away got delayed, so I was with him alone for a long, long time.  Only my wife remained in another room ready to drive me to pick up the car he had driven to the lake front that morning.   I understood well the physics, the chemistry, the biology, the what of death before me, but I also still felt Bryan’s person, I still knew him and felt he knew me, and I still treasure every second of that time alone with him.  But more than he and I, I also felt the presence—the person—of God there, caring for us two mere mortals, keeping us—despite the cold fact of death—connected to the universe as persons.  Bryan and I felt loved.

It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.  I say this to you today not to engage you in some academic thinking exercise, but as a personal witness to this mystery, hoping we all experience this knowledge in our own lives everyday with our friends, our colleagues, and with our God.

*  Jordan DeRenzo’s introduction has became incorporated into the short bio I have used for years.  She’s now Jordan Finzel.

**  Bryan House became Emmanuel House, which, when it merged with long-time partner The Joseph Corporation, became The Neighbor Project.  All these organizations are dedicated to building economic and community stability through home ownership.  Bryan House started by serving 5 families, Emmanuel House 25, The Neighbor Project over 100—all a great living memorial to Bryan Emmanuel Guzman.  In 2016 Emmanuel House was named one of the “Top 100 Most Innovative” social change organizations in the world.

  OTHER SERMONS (most with VIDEO):  “Pentecost Means No ‘Supremacies,’” “Sacred Doing,” “Elijah: The Growth of a Prophet,” “Searching for Prophets.”  “Who Do You Stand With…,” “Three Things to Stop Saying.”

Posted in Faith | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Unpacking Racism: Practical Steps to Fight Racism

RaceConvo3

 

This article is part of a series of posts based on the 2020 Laity Convocation of the Northern Illinois Conference of the United Methodist Church.  Go to the Lead Post in this series for a complete list of articles.  Below is an answer to one of the audience’s questions: What steps can individuals and churches take now?

 

 

 

There’s nothing new or special about this list of practical steps to fight racism.  The suggestions fall into four categories, all of them important.  I’ve often heard people say we must get beyond learning about food and customs, my third category, but it also has an  important part to play, often providing a starting point more people are willing to try. What’s crucial is starting somewhere, eventually engaging all four kinds of steps, and, most important and difficult, sustaining those steps over years.  One-off actions certainly don’t cut deeply enough, but neither do actions lasting just a year or two.

At the Laity Convocation I said that in 40 to 100 years, IF we’re diligent, we might start to lessen racism in the U.S.  One panelist thought I was being too optimistic.  I was.

But hopeful things are afoot in the United Methodist Church.  It’s had a Commission on Religion and Race for years, but within the last year a Taskforce on Racism has formed, and a larger Anti-Racism Champion Team attached to that Taskforce, to more pointedly begin to help dismantle racism in churches and society. It will do much to help us study and train and put that new knowledge into action. Wish us luck, but even more, wisdom and sustaining grit.  AS A FIRST STEP, you could look for assessment tools to come from the Taskforce shortly and consider using them at your church.

A word on tone.  Racism has hurt more people than it’s possible to count, and this includes—though not as directly and viciously—those who have perpetrated racism on others, consciously or not.  Yet I’ve kept the tone here relatively light. The mountain we have to climb is so big I figured it would be better not to start by weighing us down.  There’s much deep, soul searching work to be done, and the next 40 years may be presenting us with a window of opportunity as big as the Civil Rights Movement did from the early 50’s to the early 80’s.  More about this later.  Hopefully, this list of steps may lead to the deeper issues we’ll need to face.

Finally, each category has its own area it seeks to increase—that is, respectively: knowledge, social change, cultural competence, and personal relationships—but each category should also be seen as contributing to a greater ability to talk about race.  One reason we’d rather talk about anything but race is simply that we don’t know how to talk about it very well.  Race sparks more feelings of anger, defensiveness, guilt, shame, helplessness and hopelessness than just about anything; and such feelings make it hard to  talk honestly and think constructively. Approach each category below with a view both to confront these feelings and get past them.

LessenRacism1) Study.  Lots of books to read, videos to watch, articles to examine, training sessions to attend. Today it’s become popular to be trained about our implicit biases, for example, and Peggy McIntosh’s classic “Invisible Knapsack” essay shows how racism pervades our everyday life, even in ways we think are simple and harmless.  Speaking for myself, I’d say the deepest place to start is the work of James Baldwin, who wrote and spoke about race more deeply and passionately than anyone I know.  I’d start with Notes of A Native Son, but lots of great material from many others has come to us at an increasing pace for decades.  More details in a later post.

2) Social Change.  Support an organization fighting racism and its effects, and, if possible, be involved beyond just contributing money.  The chances for that would be greater if the organization were local, though the national ones sometimes offer opportunities for local involvement as well.  For example, readers of this site know about Emmanuel House, founded by my oldest son, Rick, and his wife Desiree as a living memorial to his youngest brother Bryan Emmanuel Guzman.  In 2016 it was named one of “The Top 100 Most Innovative” social change organizations in the world, and in 2018 merged with long-time partner The Joseph Corporation to become The Neighbor Project.  The focus of these organizations is to build financial and community stability through home ownership.  The short video “The Racial Wealth Gap” (the very first episode in the Netflix series Explained) spends significant time on how racism was sustained through restricting who and where people could own homes, and how home ownership contributes significantly to reducing poverty and the racial wealth gap.  Get involved in organizations like Emmanuel House, or start a program at your church, like workshops for those working towards American citizenship, or—since voting matters—voting registration drives.  It follows that making voting fair and truly representative is a next step. There are systemic problems with this, including disenfranchising people of color and drawing unfair voting districts to assure that people in power stay in power.  And it hardly needs saying, as I’m adding to this post just days after George Floyd’s murder, that becoming involved in police reform is of crucial importance.  The list of social, political, and mental systems keeping racism alive is long, and rooting them out takes years, decades, of persistent work.

3) Cultural Events. Intentionally go to events, restaurants, music venues, places of worship, and more, which put you in environments different from yours.  My church had a program called Cultural Crossings, which we’ve talked about reviving.  It did all-church programs on Cooking Ethnic, on different Christmas Traditions, and, the one I remember most, on Coming to America, where members from Ghana, the Philippines, Sweden, and more, shared their (or their ancestors’) journeys to this country and their reactions upon getting here.  Attendance was always good, but especially packed for this program.  Hearing stories is tremendously important, and maybe even more so for the next category.

4) Friendship Get to be as close a friend as possible with someone of a different race or ethnicity. Deborah Plummer’s Racing Across the Lines: Changing Race Relations Through Friendship would be a good guide and another book to study deeply.  (Read my review at the link here, and note her response to it.  It contains two important lists—one for whites, one for people of color—which, she says, could lead to the “interracial marriage of Americans.”)  Even at my church, one of the most multicultural in America, we could do a much better job getting to know each other better across racial and ethnic lines.  I’ve spoken with our pastor and another church leader about maybe starting a program of “Diversity Dinners,” where our members could simply get to know each other better.  Plummer says lack of cross-racial friendships is one of the biggest things keeping racism in place.  But creating these naturally is difficult.  You can’t force real friendship, but if you happen to know of one across racial lines, it would be good to “study” it. Ask those friends how it happened, then try to replicate, as naturally as possible, similar circumstances where inter-racial friendships can happen.

You can do these actions by yourself or organize a group, and, indeed, each action would go further if it were done in groups.  So (1) Study could be done as a class, or book club, or even a conference hosted by your church.  One thing could grow out of another, too.  For example, we know of a family who signed up to help a refugee family who just happened to be living at Bryan House, Emmanuel House’s very first house.  Their social change action ended in a deep friendship.  Go HERE for a video and article that tell this inspiring story.

I’ve spoken a few times about race and ethnicity.  “Ethnicity” often applies mostly to whites, but for years I’ve thought the new frontier in race studies needs to be about white ethnicities.  Another reason racism remains so alive is that whites have largely lost contact with their ethnic heritage, and thus with the struggles their ancestors had to go through to become “white.”  For “whiteness” doesn’t just refer to skin color: it refers even more to power.  The title of Noel Ignatiev’s important book says it all: How the Irish Became White. Yet another book to study deeply.

  Go to the Teaching Diversity main page.

Posted in Social Change | Tagged , , | Leave a comment