Category Archives: Christopher Cudworth

On the precociousness of November flowers

FlowersThis morning during my dog walk it was a bit surprising to find two yellow flowers blooming in the already pruned bed of a Master Gardener that lives nearby. She’s not one to pluck much of anything during the summer months. She prefers to leave her flowers out where everyone can admire them. But come autumn her garden beds get a full house-cleaning.

Yet up popped these two flowers.

Their species is not so much important as their precociousness. So I will not go on about their life cycles or why they might be giving it a second go this late in the season. All of nature perks and plays with warm fall days. Migrating warblers sing quiet versions of their springtime songs. Sparrows and robins too, and all birds in passage from north to south. It’s not so much about singing for territory as it is about communication of existence these days.

I’ve even heard chorus frogs singing from inside the prairie in mid-November. The temperature and humidity of a 55 degree fall day clearly resembles those dank March or April days when breeding begins for frogs. So the frogs sing.

Occasionally I will find the stiff remains of a snapping turtle that died during a frosty night while making its way from the uplands to the lake below. Mother turtles lay their eggs in holes dug into the dirt. Many of of these holes and eggs are proceedingly raided and eaten by marauding raccoons. The next morning all the leathery eggs lay strewn about the hole. If lucky, just one or two holes with their clutch of turtle eggs may survive. That’s how life’s competition works.

Nature depends on this precociousness to advance its cause. It is a long and random process in which we are all engaged. As human beings, call survival a “battle” when in fact it is often something far more subtle that takes us down. A set of mutant cells. A virus. Old age.

Having been through many such human “battles” in recent years with family and friends that have now gone before me, I am absolutely sensitive to the precociousness of life. When my father recently passed away, it was only after thirteen full years of existence following his massive stroke in 2002. At the time, no one really thought he’d live a year past that event. Yet he survived the death of my mother ten years ago, grieved and kept on going. A precocious man.

My father-in-law survived an apparent heart attack and lived another uneasy year in its wake. His persistence was evidence of his character, for the damage to his heart and body were profound. We all credited his hardscrabble Nebraska upbringing for his perseverance.

When my late wife passed away in 2013 after eight years of cancer treatment, it was not because she had given up hope. Quite the contrary. The woman put up with more pain and discomfort than anyone could bear during those years of treatment. Yet she precociously wanted to live. So she did, and saw her children through graduation from high school and attending college. I know they miss her deeply. But I also know we all admire her strength, humor and appreciation for all of life.

I know those flowers down the block will not last forever into the winter But their presence is a reminder that all of us are precocious beings. We all feel the warmth of the sun even when it deceives us a bit, bringing us out to turn our faces toward the sky and breathe in. We precociously feel alive in the face of all that might defeat us otherwise.

Let’s face it. The news is almost never good out there in the world. Even our religions reek with the stink of death, and always have. Only faith survives precociously like two small flowers in the November dirt.

In politics, our hopes of peace lie like road kill along the information superhighway. Twitter throws 140 characters of crap in our faces and Facebook ridicules sincere and liberal concerns for humankind while videos of cats startled by cucumbers at least make us laugh.

Yet is it is the face of two small flowers in November that remind us the precociousness of life is worth appreciating. And protecting.

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Weeding our way through the world

Other seed fell among the thorns, and the thorns came up and choked it, and it yielded no crop. 8“Other seeds fell into the good soil, and as they grew up and increased, they yielded a crop and produced thirty, sixty, and a hundredfold.”9And He was saying, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”  –Mark 4:8

The inner dialogue of a person engaged in weeding a garden can go in a number of directions. There is the associative focus of separating good plants from bad, and yanking the weeds by the roots. There is also the dissociative tendency to let your mind wander and weigh your life along with everything in it.

A little of both is likely required to do a good job weeding. One must pay attention to identify weeds amongst the plants we choose for ornament and beauty. But sometimes weeds are so thick it does not take much thought to do the job. You stick your hands in there and yank for all you’re worth. Little thought is required, only muscle.

Pile of WeedsOver the years, one learns the best way to weed through practice. There is no other substitute for experience. One learns which plants are easy to pull up by the roots and which break off in your hands four to six inches from the soil. That makes for bigger problems. A trowel needs to come into play. There is not enough leverage left on the slimy stem of the weed to get a grip and yank up the roots.

Otherwise the weeds come back. Well, they come back no matter the method of removal. They’re weeds. That’s what they do. There’s always a supply of new weeds to fill in for the old ones.

One learns this lesson in your own yard and garden easy enough. Weeding is a required activity if you attempt to grow anything at all.

Of course, weeds are also at times a matter of perspective. Gardeners grow some varieties of plants that can escape and propagate places where they are not welcome. Purple loosestrife is one such beautiful pest. In a garden they are quite beautiful. But unleashed in a wetland they can take over an entire ecosystem. At that point, they must be yanked or otherwise killed off.

There are entire woodlands that need to be managed for the influx of plant colonies such as garlic mustard and buckthorn. Natural area restoration crews descend on these colonies and yank, burn and poison them to death. But the weeds almost always come back. It’s what they do.

Chemistry

That makes it all the more triumphant when the results of weeding actually do work. Perhaps there is no more profound example than that of a managed prairie. It can take years of propagation and burning to kill off the weed colonies and invasive species. But when prairie plants are given a chance, their competition strategies are smart and strong. The roots grow deep and the soul of the plant lies below the surface. That means burning takes off the dried up stems but does not affect the rich underground root system that also taps deep into the soil to gain moisture. Hot summer days do not kill these plants.

So nature invented weeding, on its own. But humans love to create environments with the appearance of natural balance that are, in fact, a stripped down version of nature that can be hard to sustain. Golf courses are one such example, and for years their strategy was to bathe the fairways and greens in dangerous chemicals as weed control. The monoculture necessary to allow the game of golf to be played requires intensive weed strategies that for decades contributed to ground pollution and other problems.

Our lawns at home often depend on such chemicals. Some are relatively benign and go away quickly. Others persist, and it would be much better for the world if these strategies were weeded out of our eco-strategies.

Answered prayers

One of my neighbors does not believe in lawn chemicals. That meant her yard become overgrown several summers in a row. She could not tell the weeds from her plantings. Finally I offered to help weed her lawn. She is a good Christian woman and had been praying about what to do for her lawn. Money was tight for her at the time and a full-on landscaping company was out of the question.

So I offered to weed. My late wife was glad that I did this. The Creeping Charlie from her yard had grown all the way through her lawn to reach the edge of our garden. When I dug into the mats of Creeping Charlie it could be hauled up like sheets of laundry. That work revealed an entire system of hostas and small groundcover plants that thrived once the weeds were removed. There were giant, towering thistles as well, and old, dried-up cedar trees in need of removal.

The process took several days, and my wife grew impatient with my dedication to the task. I quietly told her it was a duty that somehow called me. Nothing else. There was no husband or helper available to our neighbor at the time. So I lent my services in that department. I knew how to weed.

Since that time a man has come into her life, and a bit of money too. First he tore into the landscaping and removed many of the weeds, mulched the gardens and tore up funky trees. Then a landscape service began to show up and a beautiful new fence was installed. I love her new fence. It’s a wonderful backdrop for my own garden.

The property of life

Recently a family I know also needed some weeding around their yard. The husband has been dealing with the progressive effects of ALS for years now. His devoted wife keeps up with everything the best she can, but the duties and commitments of things like yard upkeep are not possible, yet are relentless. The family now also has grandchildren to enjoy. This is the property of life, which is so often counterbalanced by the weeds of existence. It takes a strategy of caregiving to manage these priorities.

Weeding water bottleSo it was with some joy that we organized a small community of workers from our church to do some weeding around their yard. The resultant piles of thick weeds piled five feet high. Along the north side of their property the landscaping was obscured by groundcover gone out of control. In fact some of it had died for lack of light. The daylilies competed with thistles and mulberry trees shot up through the arms of the spruce trees. All the weeds and overgrowth had to be inspected, sorted and removed. The tall mulberries were sawed up and heaped on the curb. The weeds were stubborn and thick, but the loose mulch gave up the roots easily enough. It was hot, and it was thirsty work. But it was worth it.

Organizing thoughts

All the time I was out weeding I thought of my friend Steve inside the house. This was his garden, and his love. It exhibited his character. I could see the organization of the plants and the landscaping at every turn. His wife told me how much he loved to garden. There were beautiful plants; butterfly weed (how ironic?) and many more.

As the shape of the garden emerged again I thought of how Steve and I first met. Our children were in high school music and drama together and something between us clicked after we met. He’d join me for lunch over at the Country House restaurant where they served nice fat burgers and cold beer. There were several meetings where he talked me through issues of depression related to some of life’s changes and work issues. Then my wife had cancer and Steve was there for that too.

Meanwhile his own health issues began to emerge. It became difficult for him to open the huge wooden door at Country House. There was a growing weakness in his system that could not be identified. It progressed and was finally diagnosed as ALS.

He has never let it stop him from living life, thinking through his writing and enjoying the company of all those who love him and his family. And there are many.

Steve and I helped each other weed through those depressive instincts years ago. We weeded out the negative thoughts to make room for positivity and hope to grow. That is a garden worth tending every day. Every year. Every life.

Christopher Cudworth is author of the book The Right Kind of Pride. It is available in print form on Amazon.com. 

Grasping the glory of the Beach Boys

I was there in the 1990s when lead Beach Boy Brian Wilson made his return to live performance at the Norris Performing Arts Centre in St. Charles, Illinois. Wilson chose the venue because he had purchased a home and built a studio in St. Charles. His producer lived in the area and Brian had begun making great music again.

People did not know what to expect when Wilson came on stage. He had not sung in public for years. The Beach Boys were not joining him on stage. At least not all of them.

Brian fared well in a nervous debut. His voice was thinning and his speech somewhat slurred, but the performance came off wonderfully. It was rather like watching a dream come to life.

The experience made me think back to a concert that friends and I attended in the 1970s. We tripped on down to Chicago Stadium to see the group Chicago perform with the Beach Boys in attendance. The two groups had recorded a song titled “Wishing You Were Here” that climbed the charts and for good reason. It was one of the most lush and wonderful pop music ballad productions ever recorded.

The Beach Boys were, after all, one of the finest harmonically tuned instruments of all time. Perhaps it was the brotherly connection of those voices. But they also worked hard at what they did.

Heading into the concert I tried to explain to my friends that what we would likely hear were the hits they Beach Boys had recorded. “But they won’t play their best music,” I insisted. As expected, the concert was dominated by songs about girls and cars and surfing. Missing were the amazing pieces from Smiley Smile and Wild Honey albums, to name just a few.

But my brothers and I had long listened to Beach Boys albums that were full of more nuanced and complex music. The Beach Boys had, through combination of shifts in 70s musical tastes and their own internal changes wrought by Brian’s struggles with emotional stability, gone through the music industry wringer.

Yet those who knew the musical quality of the band, and that included mega-groups such as Chicago and the Beatles, all knew the Beach Boys were master talents beyond their surf music.

My friends laughed at me standing up for their supposedly “lesser” music. “Why can’t you just enjoy their hits and leave it alone?” they teased.

And I thought to myself, because that’s not their best stuff!

Now there’s a movie coming out about the life of Brian Wilson. It’s titled Love and Mercy. It stars John Cusack, and in recent radio interviews Cusack has advanced the belief that Wilson is one of the most talented musical composers of our time. Combined with his ethereal voice, his music cuts into line along with songwriters such Paul McCartney, Paul Simon and Stevie Wonder.

For those of us that have stuck by the Beach Boys and especially Brian Wilson through thick and thin (and there have been some thin moments in their history) it is perhaps gratifying to see recognition coming from new angles.

It is hard to describe the feelings one gets from the singing of God Only Knows. The song is so perfectly crafted and the voices are transcendent. Just enjoy.

God

Something in human nature craves the idea there is always something more than what we see on the surface of existence. We choose God as that focus.

Yet it is most often pride of ownership that obscures the known and unknown channels to God.

For God is the Great Contrarian.

We call God a Creator. Yet everything created by God is always, and ultimately, destroyed.

We call God the Author of Life. Yet we know that 99% of all living things that once lived on the earth are now extinct.

We call God a King and celebrate God’s Kingdom. Yet the true authors of that kingdom often painfully pass into death. They are symbols for the challenge all of us face.

Some speak of the End Times as if there were a beginning and an end. But that is the wrong kind of human pride at work again. We’re told we cannot know that time, when in fact we cannot know time at all. It is forever behind and ahead of us. All we can truly know is this vibrant present. It too is destroyed.

That does not mean we are helpless in time. God is clear that love is an operative that brings life into full focus. We are encouraged through love to look beyond the self. Thus the world expands in our presence. And God’s presence is brought to us.

This selfless love can however be abused. It can face injustice. Even unto death.

That is exactly what God the Contrarian asks us all to embrace. Love is no sin. And sin is no love.

To understand our role in this world we must begin by knowing love even at risk of losing it. Only then can we begin to appreciate what life really is about.

That does not mean we are meant to squander that which is precious or meaningful. We know God as well through all that exists around us. Our great scriptures call up images of God through natural symbols. These help us understand spiritual principles. Mustard seeds. Yeast in the dough.

Grow love.

The Right Kind of Pride does not force these symbols into a role they were never intended to play. Seven days. Snakes in the Garden. These help us understand the advent of Creation, human nature and sin. But they are not the Final Word.

In fact The Final Word is love. That is what God wants us to know. For love exists outside the realm of all we call tangible, literal and temporal. It is both rational and irrational. And love is real.

That is why God is real. For God is love.

All our understanding must pass through this test if we hope to appreciate the motives of God. We may find ourselves contradicting the habits of society and commerce. We may find ourselves speaking alone against a crowd of voices fixed with fury and political fervor, shouting us down. Telling us that we just don’t “get it,” and that tradition says we’re wrong.

But are we out of touch with reality? Really? When we act the Contrarian in good conscience, advocating for protection of the poor out of love and mercy, we are not out of touch. We are in touch with God. And when we side with causes of mercy and social justice despite the inconvenience it represents to commerce and human society, we are in touch with God’s wishes for humankind.

These are not simple principles by which to abide. If they were, everyone would do them. Instead they require a vigilance for which so few have an appetite. Comforts distract. So does access to power and human selfishness.

But God the Contrarian sees all that and knows the hearts of human beings. That is where God connects with all of us. Even those who do not profess belief in God have a heart of their own. Neither are they ignored. Grace extends to all. Knows all faiths. And the lack of it.

For love abounds. It only disappears when we attempt to confine it to our selfish purposes or turn it into a weapon or a tool for control. We see it every day. The force of love can kill if it is wielded with sufficient anger and fear. God the Contrarian knows that too.

God has loved the world to death before. It is woven into the nature of all existence, the expression of all destruction. To come and go with wisdom, we must know this simple truth, and remember it well. God is love, and the force of love can save, or kill.

Our better natures are like God the model of contrition. God call us to this example. All of nature and a world of love awaits our answer.

The Right Kind of Pride is a book by Christopher Cudworth about the importance of character, caregiving and community in this world. It is available on Amazon.com.
This blog is a reflection on the principles found in the book The Right Kind of Pride by Christopher Cudworth, about the importance of character, caregiving and community in this world. It is available on Amazon.com.

On the gains of dealing positively with loss

IMG_8031This coming Wednesday, March 4th I am speaking about the subject of loss for Lenten Services at Bethlehem Lutheran Church. I have already met with the Pastor to orient the discussion, which will center on how our family dealt with the loss of my wife due to cancer. So the topic is fully on my mind.

Last night I woke up at 2:00 with thoughts rolling through my head. I grabbed my iPhone and entered them into the Notes app. If you don’t write these thoughts down somewhere it’s so easy to forget what they are.

This was stream of consciousness stuff, so it’s not grammatically correct. Not even complete sentences. In some respects it’s better that way.

Sometimes your gain is your loss (hiding cancer) and your loss is your gain (blessings from caregiving and community). Blessed to be a blessing to others. Loss of activity. Loss of identity. Careful to recognize loss of hope. Blessings are miracles in real time versus miracles out of time.

Here’s what it all this means.

I have a friend whose husband had cancer and chose to hide it from everyone for two years. She was imprisoned in this world where he suffered through treatments and she could not talk about it to anyone. His concerns over his own vulnerability were what motivated him. He did not want to be seen as a cancer patient. This approach was actually part of a larger pattern of controlling behavior stemming from his unwillingness to accept the very real fact of his underlying depression. His “gain” in protecting himself from outside scrutiny was actually a loss in terms of letting others truly help him and their family. That made it all the tougher for my friend to endure.

Sharing burdens

How different (and difficult) that approach was compared to choosing to share your burdens with others. The very first week my wife was diagnosed with ovarian cancer one of her friends (actually her boss) reached out to our family. We were so grateful to have that support. To her enormous credit this woman guided us through multiple rounds of treatment and needs over the next eight years. That was a gift that can never be repaid.

At times the blessings of that care were so great we felt compelled to share our blessings with others. That opened up channels of communication for people who confided in us. Some of these needs were simple. People actually apologized for expressing concerns about their situation. “I know my troubles are nothing compared to what you’re going through,” they’d often begin. “But I’m worried…”

Worry is almost always over losing something in our lives. We worry that we might lose our jobs with an illness or other difficulty. We worry about losing money. We worry about losing friends or relationships. We worry about losing the respect, trust or love of our friends and family members. The feeling of loss in our lives is almost constant. We’re always losing something, aren’t we? And we worry about it.

Recovering from loss

There’s a great passage in the Bible where a woman loses a coin and tears her house apart trying to find it. When she does recover the coin she calls her friends together to celebrate. That’s a metaphor for how God feels about lost souls. There is a universal tie that binds us when it comes to loss of spirit. We even speak of “losing our way” in life. That feeling of being lost and knowing loss is most difficult to transcend. Some people never pull free. They live with the feeling they are losing the battle. God doesn’t want us to live that way.

Maple leaf in rainBut even if you are not religious, there is sustaining hope in the very fact of life. You are here. You exist. You are the miraculous product of billions of years of evolution. You have free will. The choices you make do matter. You can choose to live in accord with all of human life and all of nature.

I choose to draw strength from both those scenarios. For me, the defining unity between God and material reality is love. It’s a very real thing, you know. It exists. It does great things. It sustains hope and heals wounds both physical and material. And as far as I can tell, God is love.

It is what it is

In our case we objectified our losses to gain some grasp of where the blessings still abided. Our phrase was “It is what it is,” That meant the cancer. The treatments. The loss of activities and joy in life. All that constituted loss

Cancer even caused us to lose insurance. Lose jobs.

But we never lost hope. That was the one thing we refused to lose.

Identifying with hope

Ultimately my wife lost her life to cancer. But she never lost her identity in the journey toward that moment. She retained her character. Refined it, in fact. At times it was something to witness. At other times it was something to support, encourage and even cajole. It was not always easy.

When she lay in bed after dying I touched her lips and told her that I was very proud of her. Hence the title of this blog and my book about our survivorship journey. The Right Kind of Pride.

Miracles happen

We’d seen miracles in our lives together. These were not miracles that necessarily broke the laws of nature. But they were miracles of love and beneficial consequence. Favors of love and care that transcended expectations. Money that arrived through gifts when we desperately needed it. All sorts of things transpired that left us in grateful, happy tears.

So you can see why that stream of consciousness at 2:00 in the morning feels rather profound. It may seem jumbled in the cold light of day. In fact it is clear that loss is real, but you can thrive in the face of it. We all must do that, for loss is everywhere. From small objects to entire dreams, hope and loss stand in delicate balance. Choose not to lose hope and loss becomes something you can handle.

Sometimes life does not seem fair. We still need to take responsibility and pride in our hope when facing difficult circumstances. Then loss does not possess us.

The Right Kind of Pride is available on Amazon.com.

RightKindofPridecover

On contentions and being content in what you know

purple_hills_by_beth25491white-d3c42a6In college our dorm room was on the 7th floor of a tower overlooking the Oneota Valley in Decorah, Iowa. Our windows faced west and winter sunsets over the valley were often quite dramatic. When the sun went down and twilight was complete, the hills lining the Upper Iowa River a mile away turned purple in the evening light.

Or so it appeared one late afternoon to the eyes of all those sitting together in our dorm room as the sun went down. “Look how purple the hills are…” I pointed out the window.

“No they’re not. They’re black,” one person responded. We all looked at him.

“Are you color blind?” someone asked.

“No. I can see colors,” he insisted. “But those hills are black.”

The hills clearly appeared purple. But everything this fellow knew about the world was telling him the hills looked black.

We all argued the point for a few minutes and then someone changed the subject. We were getting nowhere in our efforts to help him understand the principles of shadow, light and the color spectrum.

Other than reality

His contention that the hills could not be anything but black once the sun went down were based on something other than a reality perceived by everyone else in the room. Perhaps he truly could not see the color purple and did not know that he was color blind in that way. None of us had any way of proving that to him at the moment. So from his perspective, he won the argument.

That tendency to argue something cannot be a fact unless you can immediately prove a contention wrong is quite common in this world. It helps explain why so many people have trouble grasping basic scientific principles as part of their worldview. Over time, people tend to build up a brand of pride in affirming their own worldview, no matter how wrong or shortsighted it may be. If they find enough people that share their narrow perspective, it becomes even more powerful a way to think.

Content in what they think they know

vfiles24241In other words, people tend to be content in what they feel they already know. Many feel like they’ve worked hard to assemble their worldview. They don’t really want to hear contentions to the contrary. They grow proud of their ability to defend this worldview to the death. One thinks of well-known creationist Ken Ham, whose arguments about biblical truth through literalism are popular with all who find solace and contentment in a simplified view of the world where God created the universe and nothing has changed or evolved since the beginning of time.

That’s very much like contending that the hills are black rather than purple at sunset. Or that they were green during the day, so how could they be purple at night? Nor could they be orange at dawn. Perceptions confined to simple rules quite easily rule out so many possibilities on grounds that cannot be argued away. They are matters of faith in how something is meant to be perceived. It’s a confining way to think, but some people like it that way. They’re proud of their surety, firm in their convictions, and nothing can make them change.

Not even the purple hills of sunset 

Yet we also know from the Bible that not even God is depicted as changeless. The deity that appears in a cloud in one book and a burning bush in another takes apparent pride in shifting and playing with the perceptions of all those who would fix the Creator in one place, one form or one time.

God transcends all of that. So does nature. It is very clear that our perceptions of both are organically intertwined. It is also acceptance of one does not automatically cancel out the other.

New understandings

PaversWe all proceed at times with theories that ultimately get proven wrong. It happens in faith as well as science. Among Christians the old religion gave way to a new understanding with the advent of Christ. Then Martin Luther came along to shake up the Catholic order and traditions. Now there’s a new wave of Progressive Christians tugging at the sleeves of believers to reform around an organic view of the Bible that allows scholarship into the mix to determine a better understanding of what scripture really means, and what it doesn’t.

The trick to a establishing a better understanding in life is to never be content in what you know. That’s what’s taking place every day in science. Some people point to that fact as the source of an idea that science cannot be trusted. But that’s a mistake in perception too. We depend on science for all kinds of trustworthy activities. From medicine to industry, biology to economics, our sciences deliver dependable if not changeless information about how we view and interact in this world. Without this source of humanistic culture, we are in essence reduced to tribal beings caught in a blind play in which we have no control at all over our destiny. And shockingly, some people still think God wants that for us too.

We need our moral traditions to be equally open to change. One could say that God expects that of us. The right kind of pride is having the humility to be awakened to new ways of thinking. God has never liked stiff-necked believers.

Proverbs 21: 9–– “Whoever remains stiff-necked after many rebukes will suddenly be destroyed–without remedy.”

Understanding the character of a city is about understanding yourself

Chicago Sun Times
The Sun Times building seems aptly named. Since this photo was taken a new building is under construction next to this one.

My first recollected trip to the City of Chicago was as a thirteen year old child. We drove from the tiny town of Elburn, Illinois (Pop. 1500 at the time) to visit the Museum of Science and Industry. That’s a trip of about 50 miles all told. At the time, it might has well have been a trip around the world.

Kids who grow up in the city know how it works. They take buses and a few even ride in cabs. The buildings do not intimidate them, nor the urbanity and pigeons and graffiti coloring them.

With so little knowledge to build upon, that trip to the museum was like boring into the core of something so foreign to me that it overwhelmed my thought processes. Back home in Elburn life seemed to make more sense. I went birdwatching in the fields and played baseball under a hot sun next to a cornfield.

The lines from the title song of an album I owned, that would be “Honky Chateau” by Elton John, seemed to mock my naivete.

When I look back
Boy, I must have been green
Boppin’ in the country
Fishin’ in a stream
Lookin’ for an answer
Tryin’ to find a sign
Until I saw your city lights
Honey, I was blind
They said, get back, Honky Cat
Better get back to the woods
Well, I quit those days and my redneck ways
And oh, oh, oh, oh, the change is gonna do me good
Truly, I did not know how to “quit those days and my redneck ways.” Even when I landed a job in the city at the age of 21 I stuffed my wallet down my pants on the first walk to work because I was not sure whether I’d be robbed or not.
Sun Streak
A sun line streaks across the face of a building in downtown Chicago. Such adaptations of natural elements are vitally important to the beauty of architecture.

You can laugh, but I bet I’m not alone in that delayed (retarded…as in delayed) response to appreciation of the city. Once I worked downtown it all fell into place. The restaurants and the architecture. The plays and the bars. Finally my redneck ways receded from my eyes.

Then I got transferred to Philadelphia for work and had the experience to soak in a whole city on entirely new terms. Philly was different from Chicago. It was low-slung for one thing. At the time no building was taller than the William Penn statue in the center of downtown. How odd, I thought, that people should agree on such a thing. How many architects longing to make their statement on the Philly skyline had to bite the bullet and build another grumpy testimony to anachronistic style?
While working in Philly it was once my job to cart 140lbs of AV equipment up to the Chemical Bank building in New York city and return the same day. All of this was done by train, then cab, then back to the train. It ranks as one of the most exhausting 12 hour periods of my life. Those four hours in downtown New York were little more than strange. Looking down from the upper floors of the skyscraper there was nothing but a river of yellow cabs grunting along the street below.
I would not get back to New York City until 32 years later. That was to visit my son at his home on Delancey Street in Manhattan. We wandered around under his guidance visiting some sites like the 9/11 Memorial. Then we rented Citibikes and rolled around the riverfront from 5th Avenue across the Williamsport bridge and more.
And it struck me. This is a big place. But it’s just a place. All the familiar landmarks are there just like in the movies. Someone built them and someone uses them. Yes, some of the biggest financial decisions in the world are made on Wall Street. But even that district was forced to stick protective barriers up in front of the buildings so that no one can ram them with cars or explosives. I had to laugh: Who are the rednecks now?
That’s been my experience over the years in visiting all sorts of cities. They are built on assumptions that urbanity is the ultimate expression of human development. Yet they also expose the weaknesses of all those who depend upon them. Some people can’t even bear the idea of functioning outside their given city. And it strikes me as odd that when they arrive in the country and look around them, they seem to think there’s nothing of interest there.
Trump Tower
The TRUMP name is visible on the lower face of the Trump Tower in Chicago.

I wonder most of all how that most urban and urbane of characters, Donald Trump likes to think about the world. Walking through Chicago yesterday on the way to a business appointment, I saw his name slapped on the building he chartered on the Chicago River. It is reported that sign pissed off the mayor a bit. Such personal branding seems out of place in a city where architecture prides itself differentiations of shape and style, not the five letters of a last name.

But in case anyone has refused to notice, Donald Trump is all about bluster and artifice in life. Even his reality shows focused on firing people as a sign of sophisticated management.
What do we really owe such people? Typically is is them that owes us. Public financing of giant buildings and especially sports stadiums are often highly leveraged deals. It’s quite rare that someone’s personal worth actually swings the hammer. I have a friend whose relative is a major builder of hotels. On paper he’s worth millions but in reality he owes millions. “They really can’t come after me because I owe so much it wouldn’t pay to take me down,” he admitted.
Our entire economy turns out to be just such a game. We’ve seen the cost when the chips come in. The City of Detroit has suffered as the financial house of cards caves in. Urban decay is much the same as backwoods, redneck existence in the country. It’s no coincidence that guns are so highly valued in both extremes.
Fear drives it all. Fear (or the lack of it) drives the market up and down. Survival in the big city is all about having the wits to grasp the real circumstance of life and not let the perception of urbanity be confused with the establishment of real character.
Despite what people like Donald Trump with his pile of vainly coiffed hair might have us think, there really is nothing magic in the supposed sophistication of the city. Certainly it’s a place to appreciate culture and conduct business. But that just proves that the real magic of the place comes from within yourself.