Monthly Archives: September 2010

To Chicago, to Honor a Righteous Man

Downtown Chicago, the Loop

On Sunday the 12th, something rare happened: I love to travel, but that day I took a trip that I would have preferred not to, winging north at mid-morning to Chicago, to attend the funeral of longtime friend Charlie Kubert, who died of cancer at age 48. I met Charlie in Minnesota in 1986, and though we were not close friends – after we moved to Texas, I saw him fewer than ten times – we kept in touch by e-mail, and he was a faithful reader of my quarterly updates and blogposts. I was so glad that I saw him one last time, in July, when he was in the hospital.

We approached O’Hare from the east, swooping out over the Loop, and heading west on a brilliantly clear early fall day. Charlie was an ardent environmentalist, and I think he would have been happy that I eschewed a rental car for the CTA Blue Line and bus #80 across Irving Park Road. I got off at Lake Michigan, right across the street from what was once Immaculata High School, where my mother graduated. The 1925 building, an official city landmark, was designed by a protégé of Frank Lloyd Wright. The nuns no longer run it – it’s split between the American Islamic College and the Lycee Francais de Chicago. E pluribus unum.

I ambled down Lake Shore Drive, then west on Sheridan Road, a leafy thoroughfare. Had a tuna sub and a milk at Subway. That day, for obvious reasons, I kept thinking about the great quote from Nigerian author and musician Babatunde Olatunji (which I first read on a wall outside the British Library ten months earlier): “Today is a gift. That’s why they call it the present.”

I walked a block south to the Anshe Emet Temple and entered. One of the funeral-home staff suggested I don a yarmulke, “if you’re comfortable with that.” I said sure, but since I was a Lutheran I might need him to get it into position. He gladly complied. During the entire service, though, I was sure that it was going to sail off my increasingly smooth head; though he was inside a rather solid box 50 feet from me, Charlie was surely hip to my worry.

By two the large sanctuary was almost completely full. It was the first Jewish funeral I had ever attended, so I didn’t know what to expect. The temple’s senior rabbi, Michael Siegel, presided. There were opening prayers and solo hymns from a cantor. After some opening remarks, and the congregation reciting Psalm 23, the eulogies began, first from Charlie’s father-in-law, then his brother and sister, then touching remarks from Charlie’s daughters Jessica, 12 and Abigail, 9, who I met in July.

The best was last, a truly remarkable memorial from the family’s longtime rabbi, Herbert Bronstein, now semi-retired from North Shore Congregation Israel. Rabbi B. knew Charlie well (although he remarked, to laughter, that he would have preferred to see Charlie at services more often). Early on, the rabbi described Charlie as “a great mensch,” and “highly principled.” The teacher was right on when he said our friend had “an additional endowment of soul . . . he affirmed other people.” Charlie loved nature, and I so appreciated the rabbi’s description of snow on evergreens, whitecaps on Lake Michigan, and vegetables from an urban garden as “part of the signature of God.” He ended by reminding us that the fullness of life has nothing to do with length of time. Amen, amen.

After the service, I needed to find a ride to the burial, ten miles north at a cemetery in suburban Skokie (I had already tracked down the bus line back to O’Hare, PACE route #250, which stopped a mile or so south of the cemetery). It took some girding, but I finally worked up the gumption to supplicate. It took three asks, but I found a ride with Robert and his wife Heidi, family friends, and Stan and Richard, father and son. We had a good yak about Charlie and his family, their careers, a bit about me. I was a little worried about making it to the bus stop on Dempster Street by 5:33, and began to think about a plan B if needed.

It took awhile for the all in the procession to arrive. The graveside service began with the cantor, then words from Rabbi Siegel, then Charlie’s casket was lowered into the Illinois earth, sealed in the Jewish way with a masonry cover. Then something unexpected: people taking turns shoveling dirt into the grave, beginning with Charlie’s mom, then wife Karen and the girls. The finality was sad.

Glancing at my watch, it was time to amble, so I quietly took leave. Striding south on Kildare, briskly, I might have been mistaken for a political candidate: who else is in coat and tie on a lovely Sunday afternoon seven weeks before elections? I pray that Charlie got a chuckle from that scene, and again when I tried to figure out a sign in a shop window on Dempster that read “Order your Lulav and Etrog now for Sukkot.” (When I got home, I Googled, and learned that a lulav is a small palm branch held together with willow branches, an etrog a fragrant citrus fruit akin to a lemon, the two waved ritually during the fall holiday of Sukkot; another Judaic lesson that day!)

The bus rolled up more or less on time. I knew the line well, because it runs between the big airport and Evanston, home of Northwestern University. The 45-minute ride was a good opportunity to process all that I had seen that afternoon – and to think, with a sense of good fortune and thanks, that this was the first funeral of a friend since we said goodbye to Jack Sheppard in St. Paul, Minnesota, on an icy December day 17 years ago. Like Jack, Charlie was too young to die, but as the rabbi reminded us, it’s about fullness, not the number of years.

Waiting at gate K-10 for the flight home, I Googled “Rabbi Bronstein, Chicago,” and was not surprised to read from several websites of his long and full life of preaching and service, and his wisdom. Here a fitting thought from a righteous person:

When any of us remember at least from time to time to count the days, to take notice of their infinite value, to greet each day and live each day with the attitude of praise, to make each day a vessel of offering and praise to God, of our own growth, the growth of our soul, and above all, to make them count for good to others, we no longer have to worry about the passing of our own days.

Barber’s contemplative “Adagio for Strings” and a movement from Elgar’s “Enigma Variations” were good tunes to cue when I took my seat on flight 2353. But after we reached cruise altitude, and the cold beer was in front of me, I cued my Grateful Dead playlist, for the Dead were among Charlie’s favorites.

Among memories of my departed friend, I lift up three. One, from first meeting. It was fall 1986, and Northwest Airlines had just gobbled up our beloved little Republic. The general belief among the ex-Republic folk was that NWA’s marketing group were populated by some pretty dim folks. But there were exceptions. My pal Rick Dow, described in these pages, was one. And Charlie was another. Who, we thought, was the guy sitting on a Scandinavian posture chair, wearing the Birkenstocks, and pecking at the (way rare in those days) IBM PC? Well, that was “C. Q. Bear,” as we decided to call him, a name that fit all the better after we learned that he loved canoeing in the Boundary Waters wilderness in northern Minnesota.

Second memory: a hot evening in the summer of 1990 or 1991 at Greenwood Hills Pool in Richardson, Texas, Charlie and I bobbing in the water with Jack and Robin. Charlie took a special shine to our kids, and they to him. It was just another part of the people-affirming that Rabbi Bronstein lauded. And a third, described above, from not eight weeks past, the last time I saw Charlie, in his room at Northwestern University Hospital. Three magpies (together with his brother-in-law Richard) yapping animatedly about events of the day. I was then and just now as I type this reminded that Charlie was a citizen in the highest and best sense of that word. He so wanted the world to be a better place, and he devoted much of his life to that end. May he rest in peace.


I don’t think Charlie would object to a few other photos from that day:

Main entrance, the former Immaculata High School, from which my mother graduated in 1939

Immaculata is now two schools, a French language lycee, and the American Islamic College; the signs advertised a picnic for the French students and a forthcoming conference on Muslims in America.

Detail, movie-theater marquee, Des Plaines, Illinois (just north of O'Hare Airport)

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To Brady, Texas, the 20th Year in a Row

Jack and a Fellow Judge, 37th World Championship Barbeque Goat Cook-off

On September 3, Jack and I hopped in my trusty Toyota and headed west and southwest to the 37th World Championship Barbeque Goat Cook-off in Brady, Texas. It was my 20th consecutive appearance as a judge, and Jack’s 3rd time. We were both pumped, not just for the event, but for the opportunity to spend some quality time together, yakking on a variety of topics. First stop was to see barber Rick, then across to Fort Worth for lunch at the Paris Coffee Shop, a venerable old-time Texas place. Anticipating plenty of animal protein and carbs the next day, we both tucked into vegetable plates and passed on the homemade pies and puddings for which the place is famous. Pedal to the metal west on Interstate 30, Jack cranked up his iPod into the Camry’s speakers, a nice mix of country and rock and other stuff – the lad has 12,000 songs on his iPod, so it’s not hard to find some agreeable music.

Somewhere around Weatherford, we had a good chat about the importance of place. Geographers like me understand the concept implicitly, and I am happy and proud that our son does, too – from a combination of my comments through the years (especially when we traveled together), his own organic discovery (partly through music, to be sure), and growing up in our great State of Texas, which has long had enormous sense of place. Jack and I agreed, as we headed south toward Stephenville, through the rolling terrain called the Cross Timbers region, that knowing where we come from – and feeling proud of that – is an important aspect of identity.

Atop the light pole, Dublin, Texas

We stopped in Dublin, Texas (part of being Texan is adding the state name; even though I am a spare writer, strongly believing that context lends clarity, I rather like the practice, because it reinforces the points above), for a glass of Dr. Pepper from the oldest DP bottling company in the world. There, they still make it with pure cane sugar. We were to Brady and checked into the Best Western by four. Jack forgot jeans, so motored a couple of blocks to the Walmart for some Wranglers. We chilled for an hour or so, then headed to the Hard 8 for some great barbeque – to get in practice for the cook-off. Turkey, sides, nice.

A front had moved through and it was pleasantly cool, perfect temperature for Friday Night Lights, our next stop. Overseas – and perhaps a few U.S. – readers may not know Friday Night Lights means high-school football, virtually a religion in the Lone Star State. Yessir, it is a big deal. We drove a mile west to the stadium to see the local Brady Bulldogs take on the Eagles from Grape Creek, about 90 miles west (it’s a big state!). The pre-game hoopla is pretty much the same whether you’re at a huge suburban game or a small-town match: bands, folks visiting in the stands, young kids scurrying about, the national anthem, pre-game announcements urging respectful conduct. We stayed through the first half, Brady ahead by two touchdowns.

The past fades: store sign, Brady, Texas

It was delightfully cool Saturday morning. Jack and I motored around town a bit, snapping pictures, then headed to the Judges’ brunch at La Familia, a Mexican eatery in downtown Brady. Soon we were with old friends, and it felt so good to be there. My 20 years of seniority gave me a little cred, but not much. We shook hands with Eddie Sandoval and Kim King and Joe Don Baird and a couple of dozen other Good Old Boys, ate a good meal, and headed out to Richards Park. Jack peeled off with three young judges to decide who won the Best Cooking Rig competition, and I hung out with Weezie and Tessa, mother and daughter cook-off volunteers from Mason, 25 miles south. It was great fun visiting with a couple of older gals; before I arrived, they decided that eleven was a good time for a cold beer, so I joined ‘em. At noon I ambled around the park a bit, admiring rigs and camps and hoopla.

Cook-off volunteers, and mother and daughter, Weezie and Tessa

The judging business started about 1:30. Several years earlier, organizers – egged on, I reckon, by the Texas Department of Agriculture – decided that in addition to goat there should be a “mystery meat” competition, and I was drafted to judge about 50 samples of pork butt. Then it was time for the main event. Two decades of service put me as captain (ahem!) of table five. It was, as ever, demanding work. As in previous cook-offs, the quality of the cooking varied dramatically. We knew good goat when we tasted it. And we were done by four.

Veteran Judge Jerry Don Baird

We hung around for awhile, then said our goodbyes and headed home, stopping by tradition at the Dairy Queen in Comanche, Texas, for treats. We were home by nine. What a blast, and a great way to feel rooted to the Texas soil.


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To the Minnesota State Fair and “Up North”

On August 26, I got up seriously early, and was in my native Minnsota by 9:10. Hopped on train to downtown Minneapolis, riding it to Target Field, the new home of the baseball Twins (we saw a game two months earlier).

The former Butler Brothers warehouse (1908), Minneapolis, a wonderful example of then-modern commercial architecture

Farmers\’ Market, Nicollet Mall, downtown Minneapolis

Ambled around downtown a bit more, then zipped back to the airport to pick up a rental car, zooming south to lunch with pal and accountant Mark Miller, one of the funniest people we know. He did not disappoint that day, riffing on fireworks and explosives. As we munched, he told some hilarious stories about attending his mother’s family reunions as a child (alcohol and dynamite are a bad combination), and a more recent tale about helping an older friend use up a couple of grenades from the Korean War. My stomach hurt from the laughter.

I zipped across town to friend Chuck Wiser’s townhouse, connecting for an hour of work with a client, then motoring south a mile at five to meet Bud and Ginny Jensen, a couple of my favorite teachers (I like, and deeply respect, almost every one I’ve ever met). Bud, as you may recall, was my 12th grade English teacher, and we’ve been friends for more than four decades. We had a lovely visit, with Grain Belt Beer and crostini – Ginny taught Latin all her life, and knows something about Italian food. The yak covered a lot of ground, including a great exchange of book titles. It was a perfect afternoon, cool, dry, and breezy, and it was a joy to be on their patio.

I was worn out. Chuck had dinner plans, and the big lunch with Mark was still rumbling around my stomach (also down there were laughs about blowing things up!), so I drove a mile to the Dairy Queen for an enormous chocolate malt. Chuck got home just before dark, and we got caught up; I had spoken with a few months earlier, but had not seen him for two years. I was plumb wore out, and was asleep by 9:30.

I did not sleep well, I think because of State Fair excitement, so I rose at 5, and was on the fairgrounds a minute after the gates opened, at 6:01. At that hour, the happening places were the animal barns, and I spent a happy two hours wandering past cattle, pigs, sheep, goats, and birds. Calves suckled contentedly, 4-H kids trimmed their animals with clippers, draft horses clip-clopped on Judson Street. Around the corner I saw the “cow wash,” at least 20 stalls were kids were hosing down and soaping cattle. I had a short T-t-S moment with a 4-H mom from Pipestone in southwestern Minnesota.

Cow Wash, Minnesota State Fair

Each year when I visit with the critters, I give thanks to God for the gift of domestication. This year, stroking the chin of a Columbia ewe, I added a prayer of supplication for better treatment of them. It’s not enough to point the finger at farmers and processors. We who consume them also share responsibility. I’d like them to be given more space and more fresh air. Will food cost more? Yes. Would that mean people might have to eat less of it? Yes, and about one-third of us would be healthier with less.

The recently painted Horticulture Building

I walked a mile northeast, pausing to admire these words on a plaque affixed to the 4-H dormitory building, built by Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration in 1939: “A permanent structure created by otherwise idle hands . . .” At 8:40, I landed on a bench in front of the Fine Arts Building, 20 minutes before the art show opened. Struck up a conversation with Marsha, a retired special-ed teacher, thanking her for her service. We visited across a number of topics, and at nine stepped into the show. As happens each year, my mission was to buy a piece of work. The iPhone captured three images and sent them speedily to Linda. We agreed on a watercolor, “At the Lake,” by Mary Holmberg from Annandale, Minnesota. Done.

I ambled south, following the long-established route through the Creative Activities building, pausing to admire quilts, pickles, and other crafts and avocations, then (pausing for a very early beer) to the Horticulture Building to take a quick look at blue-ribbon vegetables, flowers, and such. It was just after eleven, but I had checked off my must-sees, and “Up North” beckoned.

As I did in 2008, I pointed the rental car north, toward to cabin of longtime pal Tim McGlynn, on Big Trout Lake in Crow Wing County (the very place names pull us poleward!). Getting on the road before mid-afternoon also meant less traffic – lots of people head Up North for the weekend. I had time, so I took a slower route, up U.S. Highway 169. Stopped at Milaca for a second giant Dairy Queen chocolate malt, and a fish sandwich. Twenty miles north, comes into view the huge Lake Mille Lacs, second largest in a state filled with big lakes. I smiled as I looked at the blue expanse, recalling my Dad’s fondness for Mille Lacs, which then and now offers good fishing close (about 100 miles) to the Twin Cities. Back in the 1950s, there was no enormous Indian-owned casino on its shore, and as much as I dislike gaming I do like the money that flows to the Anishinabe (Ojibwe) people, whose land and ways were taken with little or no compensation and no respect.

I turned west and north on state and county roads, and by 2:30 was hugging Tim and his partner Sue Cullen. Tim and I had a good yak for a couple of hours. He has long been a bright and probing person, exceedingly well informed and, like me, full of opinion. And what a place to pontificate: on a screened porch overlooking Big Trout Lake, gazing through tall pines. It was so good to be there.

At five, some more weekend visitors arrived, and we soon hopped onto Tim’s swell boat, zooming a couple of miles south to Bill and Sally Terry’s cabin, where a party was in full swing. Tons of fun, dinner, and a chance to listen to some new music – one of the revelers, Randy Ficke from Northern Kentucky was about our age, but totally current on rock and roll, country, and other genres. We headed down to the dock, stepped into Tim’s boat, and spent 90 minutes rocking out. I especially admired Grace Potter and the Nocturnals, and when I got home I bought a couple of her tunes and downloaded them to my PC and iPhone. Head hit pillow late – for me at least. That night, the pillow was on the comfy bed in Tim’s large motorhome, which is his dwelling for many nights in the winter, when he roams the West as a “snomad.” I had the rolling house to myself, and I slept hard.

What better alarm clock than the call of the loon? None came to mind that morning. I ambled down the stairs from the driveway to the cabin, and zipped into Tim’s outdoor shower, one of the very coolest bathing places I know – as I soaped up, I could see water skiers zipping across Big Trout. Wowie. Tim, Sue, and I had coffee on the porch, yakked a bit, and I set to work sweeping the outdoor steps and decks. I’m good with a broom. At about ten, we fired up Tim’s recent buy, a red 1946 Willys Jeep, and went for a short drive. At 11:30, I rode Tim’s comfy mountain bike to Faith Lutheran Church, ten miles there and back.

Grabbed a short nap, and at two we headed by boat to the main event of the weekend, a concert by The Elements, six old but great musicians, one of whom, Scott Ianozzi, was staying at the cabin. On the way, Tim cut the engines and we jumped in the lake. I can’t remember the last time I swam in a Minnesota lake, and it was a chilly but joyful experience. Just wonderful. The band was playing at The Moonlite, a bar and restaurant right on the water. We docked and in no time were tapping our feet. Hell, I even got out on the dance floor, rocking hard. It was such fun. We boated back, washed our faces and changed clothes, and took cars back to the Terrys’ cabin for additional fun and laughs. This was more partying than your scribe had done in at least two decades. Minnesotans do like their fun. But by ten, with a great barbecue meal in my tummy, I took leave, and was snoring minutes later. Some time later, the revelers returned, and decided it would be fun to wake me up. I was bewildered, but laughed with them.

Was up at 6:30 on Sunday morning, another clear day. Showered, packed up, and said goodbye to the lake, the woods, and the loon, whose call is such a marker of Up North. Drove south 30 miles to Brainerd, stopping for a large tub of coffee and an apple fritter, then south on Minnesota Highway 25, which runs through pleasant flatland settled by Germans, Czechs, and Poles (at one farmstead, the red and white flag of Poland fluttered next to Old Glory). I had a bit of time before my 1:45 flight, and thought hard about what to do. Got off the freeway and drove through old downtown Hopkins, a suburb north and west of where I grew up.

Down Shady Oak road, I saw the former farmstead where Mark Miller’s brother John lived in 1973-74. Suburban affluence replaced the old clapboard dwelling two decades ago. I smiled, thinking back to a warm Saturday afternoon in May of 1973, a week or so after I met Linda; she showed up at a barbecue and beer blast, which made me happy then and now. I continued on to Edina, passing the site of the childhood house that exploded earlier in the year (described in a May update); it was good to see the framed beginnings of a replacement house.

After fueling the car, on a whim I rang the doorbell at the home of Phil Ford and Debra Moline, friends from college (Deb and Phil were the very first friends to get married, in September 1972). Phil opened the door, and we began a fast yak. Deb had to go to a brunch, but chatted for 20 minutes. Since moving to Texas, I had only seen them once or twice, and did not know that she earned a Psy.D. in the 1990s, and was now a counseling psychologist with an interest in substance abuse; naturally, I mentioned Jack’s return to school and his great progress with life. Before leaving, she sat down at the Steinway in the living room, and played several lines of a piano work by Gabriel Fauré. It was lovely. She came from a musical family, and it was so good to hear her play. Phil and I visited for another 40 minutes before I had to return the rental car. I was so glad I stopped.

Airport food can be oxymoronic, but I was hungry, and found a place that sold huge rice-and-bean burritos. After getting my meal, I returned to the counter and asked Misrak, a young Somali woman (Minneapolis has a huge Somali community), for a fork. She seemed surprised when I thanked her with my voice and a smile, so when I left, I complimented the food and thanked her again. What if, I mused, we more regularly engaged people who serve us, even if briefly – especially people like fast-food employees. To so many of us, they are invisible.

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