Posted: February 9, 2014
By: Clay Cerny

Common Dreams has published several great posts that link the late Pete Seeger to progressive politics and workers’ rights.  Today, it posted a remembrance by David Lindorff, a journalist who talks about Seeger’s impact on his life.  While this essay touches on politics, it is more about how an artist can touch us and change our lives.  All great art, like politics, is personal.

Posted: January 5, 2014
By: Clay Cerny

[On Sundays, this blog explore topics outside the career world in “Sabbath.”]

Cold Weather and Climate Change

Aljazeera America has posted a great feature on cold weather and misunderstandings about climate change.  Cold weather or hot weather in any one place does not mean that climate change is a myth or as some like to put it “just a theory.”  Scientists study patterns over time.  They also look at patterns across the world, especially at the North and South Poles.  That evidence has been conclusive:  the climate is changing and, year over year, the planet is growing warmer.

My biggest problem with climate change deniers is that they base their claims on limited evidence.  They are not just denying climate change, but science and knowledge.  There are similar debates about evolution.  Science has established that life on earth evolved.  Some people see this as a challenge to their faith and deny evidence produced by scientists who have studied the question for over 150 years.

Everyone has a write to hold an opinion.  When that opinion is countered by facts, however, it should be taken as hollow thinking.  The odd thing is that many Americans are more on the side of opinion than science, which does not bode well for the future.

A final point:  To those who point to the cold weather in the U.S. as evidence against climate change, check out the weather in Australia, which Aljazeera calls “an unprecedented heat wave.”

Posted: December 22, 2013
By: Clay Cerny

[On Sundays, this blog explores issues beyond the realm of career and jobs.]

A Christmas Joy

I’m a big fan of Raven Theatre in Chicago’s Edgewater neighborhood.  Last night I attended a performance of Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Christmas Goose.  It was a short play – only an hour – but a total joy.  Michael Mendendian and John Weagly adapted a story by Arthur Conan Doyle, keeping the detective story and adding large measures of joy and holiday cheer.

The performance began with a rousing musical number that moved from jazz to Christmas carols.  The musical director, George Goetschel, played multiple instruments and led an ensemble that was energetic and clearly having a good time.  During the Holmes story, members of the ensemble performed sound effects on the stage, reminding the audience that this was fun, not a life and death detective story.

The Sherlock Holmes part of the story was also fun, but somewhat predictable, even “elementary.”  Holmes investigates how a rare gem came to be found inside of a Christmas goose.  He and Doctor Watson reason out details of the crime, which culminates in an interview with the thief.  Using his powers of reason and deduction, Holmes quickly leads the thief into a humiliating confession.  Then, in the spirit of the season, he lets the thief escape, pitying him as more of a mope than criminal and knowing that a man falsely accused of the crime would be released.

During the play and at the end, the ensemble again joined in Christmas carols.  The adapters wrote two jokes into the script that referenced Charles Dickens’ Christmas Carol, which was a great comic touch, if a little anachronistic since the play is set in 1890.  These elements charmed the crowd and really fit the holiday spirit.  Three cheers for the Raven Theatre and its talented performers. Hopefully they will make Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Christmas Goose an annual holiday production.

Posted: December 8, 2013
By: Clay Cerny

[On Sundays, this blog explores topics beyond the world of careers and jobs.]

A Story of Hope

I recently saw my favorite movie of the year, Nebraska.  This film by director Alexander Payne has it all:  a great story, compelling characters, and unforgettable scenery.  In some ways it’s a very simple story: An old man named Woody Grant thinks he has won a million dollars through a magazine promotion.  He and his son David travel to Nebraska to claim the winnings.  David understands that his father has not won the money, but he wants him to have the dignity that comes with belief and freedom.

Nebraska is a very funny movie with serious implications.  No character in this movie leads a happy life.  Woody’s sons have dead end jobs in Billings, Montana.  Their cousins have no opportunity in rural Nebraska.  The older characters repeatedly ponder lost opportunities and lost loves.  Woody, a man of few words, embodies all of these character in his dreams of winning a million dollars.  Beyond a few minor purchases, he doesn’t have any real use for the money.  He wants it because there is nothing else in his life.

On the emotional level, Payne contrasts love of people and love of money.  Where Woody and his family care for each other and view their history in Nebraska as one of human connections, many of the people in the small town of Hawthorne, Nebraska, only see Woody as a potential ATM machine.  His former business partner (brilliantly played by Stacy Keach) demands $10,000 as a repayment for loans made decades before.  Other relatives ask for their share, only to be driven off by Woody’s wife who reminds them that her husband did far more for them than they did for him. His bumbling nephews steal his prize notification certificate, only to learn that their uncle’s dream is a joke.

Once Woody’s fantasy is revealed for what it is, the people who wanted his money begin to mock him.  They have nothing in their lives, which makes their venom even more poisonous.  In some way, this aspect of the film reflects a country that has given up on work and saving to put all of its hope into fantasies of risk and luck.  Woody briefly became their hope, a winning lottery ticket.  When that dream died, they attack with scorn built through years of hopelessness.  Payne reflects this mood in scenes of a landscape that is both empty and hauntingly beautiful.  He portrays the town of Hawthorne as if it were frozen in the 1970s.

Despite these dark moments and motifs, Nebraska is also a great reflection on love and hope.  David is rock steady in supporting his father.  He takes him on the journey to Nebraska despite the protests of his mother and older brother, two characters who are first portrayed as sour know-it-alls who want to put Woody in a home.  However, as they encounter the people of Hawthorne, mother and son come to support Woody, which gives the film a richer emotional depth.  I won’t describe the ending, but it fits in being both touching and plausible.  While many critics have singled out Bruce Dern’s performance as Woody, which is fantastic, all of the actors capture their characters in a way that grips the audience, letting us share their dreams and nightmares.  Nebraska takes us on a journey.  At the end, we feel rewarded – as if we’d won the prize.

Posted: November 10, 2013
By: Clay Cerny

[On Sundays, this blog looks beyond jobs and careers in “Sabbath.”]

The Man Inside the Hero

I just finished rereading David Herbert Donald’s biography of Abraham Lincoln.  I read the book some years ago and found it even more impressive on a second reading.  Donald states early in the book that his goal was to follow Lincoln’s voice and words, which he does to a great degree.  Every historian has to select examples and design a narrative.  Donald’s Lincoln is a struggling human, not a superman.  He wrestles with political as well as moral questions.  Most importantly, for most of his presidency, his peers see him as indecisive and a failure.

Many of Lincoln’s critics did not understand how his mind worked.  They were serious people who thought they had all the answers.  Lincoln was humble and often tortured by self-doubt.  At the same time, he was a leader who knew when to make a decision and take responsibility for his action.  Donald depicts Lincoln as often being too involved in decisions related to military strategy. Frustrated by his generals’ lack of success or aggressiveness, Lincoln would devise his own battle plans.  That all changed when he named U.S. Grant to lead the Union Army.  Lincoln put his faith in Grant, and, despite early setbacks in 1864, his final choice of generals proved to be wise.

As a politician, Lincoln had to balance a Republican Party that was divided on the question of Emancipation.  Many in the party agreed with Northern Democrats who want peace with the South even if it meant leaving slavery in place.  Lincoln himself wavered on this question.  He sought various compromises that included compensating former slave holders and colonizing the former slaves.  In the end, influenced by anti-slavery advocates like Frederick Douglass and inspired by the sacrifice of African American soldiers, Lincoln became a strident champion to end slavery.  Again, he adapted with the conditions of his time.

Lincoln’s genius was not so much his intellect or even his words as it was his lack of ego.  Where other leaders could only see one path, Lincoln kept an open mind and accepted the fact that he could be wrong.  When reporters pressed him to explain his policy, he answered, “My policy is to have no policy.”  Throughout the war, Lincoln changed his mind and tried different approaches.  Some, such as suspension of habeas corpus and shutting down opposition newspapers, were condemned as dictatorial.  However, as Donald outlines in his biography, Lincoln faced such opposition that he had to bend the law to save the Union.  Long before William James or John Dewey, Lincoln was a pragmatist who judged actions on results rather than ideals.

History never repeats itself.  It is useless to speculate about how Lincoln would address contemporary issues, such as health care, civil liberties, or political division.  The one lesson I think we can take from his life and political career is the need to balance principled belief with an openness to change.  Maintaining the Union was Lincoln's primary mission as President.  That never changed.  How he achieved that end in the face of so many challenges was the magic.

Posted: October 27, 2013
By: Clay Cerny

[On Sundays, this blog looks beyond jobs, resumes, and interviews in “Sabbath.”]

Let’s Play Two

Ernie Banks loved baseball so much that he’d say, “Let’s play two.”  This week I had the pleasure of enjoying two plays at Edgewater’s Raven Theatre.  Last night I saw Horton Foote’s A Trip to Bountiful and, earlier in the week, I attended Our America, a program that Raven put on with students from Senn High School.

I knew nothing about A Trip to Bountiful before yesterday’s performance.  I knew Horton Foote was a playwright, but had never seen any of his plays.  After yesterday, I will make it a point to learn more about this talented artist and attended productions of his plays.  The play is set in 1950s Texas, and, on the surface, it is a story of family dynamics.  Deeper it is a story about the change in American culture as people moved from the country to the city.  Mrs. Watts is the center of the play.  She lives with her son and combative daughter-in-law in a cramped apartment located in Houston.

Over the course of the play, we learn that Mrs. Watts has suffered greatly throughout her life.  Still, she remains a woman of integrity and values.  Her goal in life is simple: To return to the rural city where she was raised, a swampy patch of dirt called Bountiful.  The only thing better than Foote’s writing is the way Raven’s actors bring the play to life. As always at Raven, the stage and the way it changes throughout the play complement the acting.  This play runs through November 17, and I highly recommend it.

Earlier in the week, I attended Our America: Ghetto Life 101 & Remorse: the 14 Stories of Eric Morse.   This performance was based on two NPR radio documentaries in 1993 and 1994.  In the first act, two young teen age boys, LeAlan Jones and Lloyd Newman, chronicle what it was like growing up in the Ida B. Wells housing project.  An energetic, diverse group of 12 students from Senn High School interpreted the boys' experience.  While showing the horror and fear of living in a world where people literally get their face shot off, the student actors conveyed the humanity of people who are intelligent and loving despite the challenges of urban poverty.

In the second act, Jones and Newman interviewed neighbors to investigate the death of Eric Morse, a five year old boy who was pushed out a 14th floor window after refusing to steal candy.  He was pushed out of the window by two boys age 10 and 11.  What was even more shocking in this section of the performance was the breadth of sympathy that Jones, Newman, and the Senn student actor bring to life.  I simply remembered this case as a savage murder.  Remorse challenges the audience to consider all aspects of the situation, including the punishment given to the killers.  The stories told by neighbors and relatives show that morality is not simple and punishment can outweigh the crime.  Three cheers to the students of Senn High School and Raven Theater for bringing this story to the stage.  The only downside is that the production was only staged for two days.  Later in the year, before Christmas, Raven will join with local schools to put on Seedfolks, a play about urban gardening and its significance to the local communities.

Raven Theater is a great example of how local theater can bring life to a community.  Since the 1990s, Raven has produced classic and contemporary plays by American playwrights.  It also shares its space with smaller theater companies and community groups.  It offers programs for children and teens.  Community theater helps build a community and keep it strong.  Edgewater is very lucky to have Raven Theater.

Posted: October 13, 2013
By: Clay Cerny

[“Sabbath” is this blog’s Sunday feature that looks beyond jobs and careers.]

The Week Ahead

This very well could be the week the U.S. government defaults on its debt.  If that happens, experts say the world economy will be harmed.  So why don’t Republicans in the Congress do what their predecessors have done, which is to increase the debt limit?  Politics.  The GOP and its Tea Party wing have become so desperate in their hatred of President Obama that they are willing to do anything to ensure that his presidency is a failure.  I am not being partisan in saying this.  Why did the same members of Congress – Boehner, Cantor, Ryan – raise the debt ceiling under President Bush and allow two wars and the new Medicare program to be put off the books if they cared so much about the debt and spending?  The simple answer is that Republican leaders in the House only care about politics, and they see default as a path to power.  They believe the public will come to blame the President for the consequences of a default, which could include an instant jump in interest rates and a quick trip back into recession.

I’m not a great fan of President Obama.  He’s been too soft in all of his dealings with the Republicans.  He negotiates by starting with the compromise and then giving away even more.  In some way, the GOP’s action could be based on this behavior:  They’re sure he will give in again.  So far, the president has been steadfast in refusing to compromise, asking to be treated as other presidents have been in the past.  The problem is that the current group of Republicans is unlike any politicians we have seen in their ability to invent a reality to fit their rhetoric.  They are also very flexible in shifting from demand to demand, moving from healthcare to spending and now a mix of spending and social issues.  Many Democrats are gloating that this is the end of the GOP.  I’m not so sanguine.  If their action drives a weak economy into a tailspin, neither party will benefit, at least initially.  Then when the problem isn’t solved fast enough to fit a media news cycle, all blame will be shifted to Obama and the Democrats.  Even if the GOP caused the problem, the Democrats didn’t fix it.  This seems to be a very high stakes game of chicken.  I fear there will be a very ugly crash, and it will begin later this week.

Posted: September 29, 2013
By: Clay Cerny

[On Sundays, this blog looks beyond jobs and careers in “Sabbath.”]

The Art of the Impossible

The government will probably shut down next week.  Compromises that were once taken for granted in Washington are now impossible. The corporate media tries to blame “both sides,” but the problem lies with the most conservative aspects of the Republican party.  This group thinks compromise is getting 100% of what it wants – then it asks for more.

Let’s consider “Obamacare,” the Affordable Care Act.  This plan should make Republicans happy.  It’s based on a model from the Heritage Foundation, and it later became the model for Republican Governor Mitt Romney’s health care plan in Massachusetts.  When President Obama and the Democrats proposed a similar plan, Republicans began to cry “socialism” and “death panels.”  Now, rather than try to make changes in the plan, they demand repeal or defunding.  No compromise.

In my state of Illinois, the problem isn’t at all Republicans.  It’s dysfunctional Democrats.  The governor and both houses of the legislature are controlled by the Democrats, and they cannot reach an agreement on how to resolve a huge pension deficit.  The governor tried to block the legislators’ pay as an incentive to push them to act.  A court said this move was illegal.  So, in Illinois, Democrats cannot not even compromise with other Democrats.

Both the Democrats in Illinois and the Tea Party faction in the U.S. House are playing the same game:  politics.  They want their core voters to feel they are being strong.  In the process, they don’t care if the nation or the state suffers.  They can only think about the next election.  As long as the voters agree to play this game, nothing will change.  At the deepest level, we don’t only need better politicians, we need better citizens.

P.S.  According to today's Chicago Sun-Times (9-30-2013), the story in Illinois is not as simple as I made it out to be.  While there has been infighting among Democrats, they have apparently reached a deal to adjust pensions by $140 billion.  Republicans are demanding $10 billion more in cuts that the paper calls unnecessary and insignificant.   This is the only mention I have seen of GOP involvement in this problem.  Add to the list above -- better journalism.


Posted: September 22, 2013
By: Clay Cerny

[“Sabbath” is this blog’s Sunday feature on topics beyond the world of jobs and careers.]


Reality Hits Home

Today I’m going to my last baseball game of this season.  The Cubs will host the Atlanta Braves at Wrigley Field.  It’s been a great year for the Braves, who are one of the best teams in either league.  The Cubs, however, are a different story.  They’re rebuilding, which means they’ve traded off experienced players in the hope of developing through youth.  We’ll see about that strategy.

I love baseball.  It’s the spring and summer game.  Baseball is the sport that has spawned the greatest mythologies and most memorable statistics.  However, as the season comes to an end, we realize that cold and darkness are coming.  The World Series is called the Fall Classic, but many of its games are often played on 40 degree days with rain and sleet, another sign of winter’s arrival.

The end of a season also brings reflection on the season that has been.  After the Cubs traded several experienced players, the team’s fans started to focus on those players that should be future stars.  Two of them, Starlin Castro and Anthony Rizzo, had miserable years, both after signing long term contracts.  Castro has had two good years previous to this one.  He even led the league in most hits.  Rizzo had a great second half last year, showing both power and the ability to hit for average.  This year both players underperformed.  Similarly, the projected staff ace Jeff Samardzija was erratic.  Some starts were very good, but in others he seemed to be throwing batting practice.

These are reasons for concern, maybe even despair.  The great thing about baseball is that spring training starts in the dead of winter.  While it’s cold and dark during February in Chicago, the Cubs will head to Arizona to start the 2014 season, a new slate.  However this year ended, we fans will look for signs of a better future.  And that’s the magic of baseball.  Every season begins with hope.

Posted: September 15, 2013
By: Clay Cerny

[“Sabbath” is this blog’s Sunday feature that explore a wide range of topics beyond the worlds of work and career.]

Craft and Craftiness

A couple of weeks ago I saw a commercial for a new beer called Third Shift.  Everything about the commercial’s production screamed “mass produced,” but the content of the commercial would make one think Third Shift was a craft beer.  It’s really made by Coors.  A few days ago, while watching a Cubs game, I saw a new commercial from Blue Moon, which described the product as “crafted.”  In both cases, I would use the wordy crafty.  If the big boys (Miller-Coors, Bud) are moving this way in advertising, we know that craft beer (and craft products in general) are winning a strong place in the market.

Some of us consumers are willing to pay more for locally brewed beer and roasted coffee.  We ignore the loss leader sales at the supermarket to buy from local farmers and small bakeries. We enjoy talking with the farmer that raises the hog or picks the apples.  It’s comforting to know that the coffee roaster donates to a local school’s fundraiser.  A large corporation can provide a better price and more selection, but – however it markets itself – it can never be a neighbor.

If you live in the Chicago area, craft work – including local brews – will be celebrated at City Made Fest in Andersonville (Clark Street between Argyle and Carmen).  The festival will take place on Saturday September 21 and Sunday, September 22 from Noon- 9 p.m.  Among the brewers featured will be two of my favorites, Revolution Brewing and Metropolitan Brewery.  I’m also looking forward to trying new brewers and exploring the work of local artists and food vendors.

Festivals like City Made, local farmers markets, and stores that sell craft products give us a chance to support local business and enjoy food and drink that are more flavorful and often healthier.  When we buy local, we make our communities stronger and remind large corporations that they are not the only game in town.  In the end, care and quality win out.  True craft beats crafty.