Posted: November 22, 2012
By: Clay Cerny

On Sundays, I write a “Sabbath” post that takes its title from the similarly named poems of Wendell Berry.  These poems are not preachy or philosophic.  Like much of Berry’s writing, they are simple reflections on how we do live and how we should live.

In that spirit, I want to ask:  How insane have we gotten that people have to do their “Black Friday” shopping on the evening of Thanksgiving?  How selfish have we gotten that we will deny a day of rest to others so we can get a discount?

Our lives have become a mess of schedules and deadlines.  Few people work 40 hour weeks.  Our time off is a matter of running from place to place.  Even the lives of children have become organized nightmares of leagues and structured activities.  We seem to have lost the ability to sit quietly and enjoy a peaceful moment.  The business lie of productivity where no minute can be waste has seeped into our personal lives.  “Are you making the best use of your time?”

Americans should remember the lesson of the Sabbaths our grandparents enjoyed.  We need time off to rest and clear our heads.  We need that time to reflect on what is really important and what we should be most thankful for.  In Berry’s words:


What stood, whole in every piecemeal

Thing that stood, will stand though all

Fall – field and woods and all in them

Rejoin the primal Sabbath’s hymn.


What is that hymn?  Peace, which is what I wish all on this Thanksgiving day:  Peace.

Posted: April 1, 2012
By: Clay Cerny

[“Sabbath” is this blog’s Sunday feature on life and work.]

The Joy of Doing Nothing

I’ve spent the past few days in Las Vegas, visiting friends and doing almost nothing.  We’ve toured local sites and spent some time (not a lot) in casinos.  As I’ve written in the past, what I like most about this city has nothing to do with gambling.  It’s really a beautiful area with mountains and desert, nothing that has anything to do with the gambling economy that has made this a boom town (which is still growing despite a local unemployment rate of more than 12%.).

I came out to see friends who have moved here from Chicago.  I also came to give myself a little breather, time to refresh.  The message on my office answering machine says that I will be back on Wednesday.  Other than returning a few emails, I’m not doing anything that can be called work, which is a good thing.

A couple of days ago, we took a drive along a highway where the military practices fighter pilot and drone bombing missions.  Then, after stopping at a local winery and sampling the fare (and buying a bottle of smoky syrah), we drove up Mount Charleston for lunch.  I highly recommend the view.  It beats a smoky casino any day of the week.

Later today, we’ll drive out to Zion National Park in Utah.  I’m really looking forward to that trip.  I’ve only discovered deserts in the past few years and find them to be very cool.  The rock formations remind us of nature’s power and beauty.  The vegetation often makes me say, “What the hell is that?”  Flatlanders of the Midwest are not accustomed to seeing cactus and other desert plants.

I’m lucky to be able to take this trip and relax.  Many of my friends and clients have jobs that won’t let them get away.  Or, worse in my opinion, some have to take their work with them while they are allegedly on vacation.  Worst of all, too many are still looking for working.  I’m lucky to be able to leave behind – for a few days.

Anyway, since I’m not working, I’ll cut this post short and edit it with photos sometime next week. 

P.S.  This post is number 1,000 for this blog, and I’ve enjoyed writing almost everyone.

Posted: February 5, 2012
By: Clay Cerny

[On Sundays, this blog explores life and work in Sabbath.]

The Big Game and a Bigger Game

Over the last week, tension has built day by day as the Big Game – the Super Bowl – approaches.  Now it’s the day of the Big Game, and in a week most people will not remember the score or which team was the winner.

Hype makes people pay attention in America.  Let me offer proof in one word: Kardashian.  Education?  It’s more important than a football game or a celebrity, but it doesn’t get the hype.  It’s just a policy issue, one that most politicians only discuss in sound bites.

I recently read a book that takes the subject very seriously, Diane Ravitch’s The Death and Life of the Great American School SystemRavitch was an advisor to the first President Bush and President Clinton.  She was an early champion of charter schools and testing as a way to measure performance.  A few years ago she did something we almost never see in contemporary America:  Ravitch said the ideas she championed were wrong. 

Examining data and results, she found that all charter schools do not perform better than public schools.  Charter schools have produced mixed outcomes:  Some achieved better results than the average public school, some are worse – most show no real difference in outcomes.  At the same time, they often achieve success by cherry-picking students and leaving students with learning or behavior disabilities to be educated in the public system.  Ravitch’s evaluation of testing was even more disturbing.  As programs like No Child Left Behind judge schools by test scores, principals and teachers began to teach to the test, ignoring the broader curriculum that fosters a real education.  Some schools have even cheated to raise their test scores.

Ravitch criticizes the political and philosophical positions that support “education reform.”  She notes that both political parties have embraced charter schools as a solution.  One of the reason they have done so is that billionaires and foundations have poured millions of dollars into programs to support charter schools.  Those schools, however, must follow the philosophy of the funder.  If that philosophy doesn’t work – as in Bill Gates’ support of “small schools” – the model schools are no better than the public model they have replaced.  Who loses?  The students who were the subject of experimentation. 

Who is at fault for failing schools?  Teachers.  We hear that claim made again and again.  Ravitch examines it and demonstrates how it is flawed.  She clearly states that bad teachers need to be replaced (just like bad CEOs).  However, many of the people who say the teachers are the problem are often motivated by a desire to bust teachers unions, not improve learning.  They point the finger at teachers, ignoring administrators, parents, and social factors, including poverty. 

Earlier, I compared education to a game, and in a sense it has become just that.  Different reform groups “compete” to see who has the best model.  President Obama rewards funding to schools that rank highly in his “Race to the Top” program.  Reformers and politicians – including the alleged liberal Obama – want to replace pay based on seniority with merit-based pay, a form of competition.  Ravitch criticizes all of these measures as an attempt to bring a business mentality to teaching.  She shows why these logical-sounding ideas fail miserably as a way to measure learning.

Education in America is a multi-billion dollar game that will shape the future of this country and its individual citizens.  Most people don’t take the time to think about the ideas that are reshaping our schools and the people who are spending tax dollars that are meant to educate children.  Diane Ravitch doesn’t offer a simple answer.  She does shine the light on some very bad ideas, which is the first step to building a school system that will be a winner.

Posted: November 27, 2011
By: Clay Cerny

[On Sunday, this blog ponders work and life in “Sabbath.”]

Making Things

Today’s Chicago Sun-Times features a depressing article on the decline of manufacturing in the U.S. and more locally in Cook County.  Looking more deeply into the numbers, the problem is deeper and long term than the last decade.  The U.S. has been losing manufacturing jobs since 1980.  Between 2000 and 2010, however, the loss was staggering with the number of factory jobs shrinking from 17,321,000 to 11,580,000.

Part of the problem is cheap labor that is available in the developing world.  An equally important factor has to be considered: greed.  Operations that were profitable in the U.S.become even more profitable when companies can cut payroll and not adhere to regulations.  Some people, including presidential candidate Michelle Bachmann, want to respond to this problem by making the U.S. more like China.  That’s a mistake.  In the most recent edition of the Atlantic, Orville Schell reports on the growth of sustainable manufacturing in China.  What shocked me about this article was the American company leading the change: Wal-Mart.

There is a small bit of good news in the Sun-Times article.  Manufacturing jobs ticked up a little from 2010 to 2011.  More importantly, while the American economy has been down over the past few years, we are not facing what the country did during the Great Depression of the 1930s.  We are still making things, and some of them reflect an interest in a better quality of life.

I met a friend yesterday for a few beers at Hopleaf, a bar in Chicago that specializes in beers from all over the world (However, it does not sell Budweiser or Miller.).  We both drank beers that were brewed by local companies Metropolitan and Half Acre.  The craft brewing movement is just one aspect of a growing economic trend in which products are made locally.  While I write this post, I’m drinking Metropolis Coffee, which is roasted in an old warehouse located two blocks south of my office in Andersonville.

It’s easy to blame cheap labor and greedy CEOs for the loss of manufacturing jobs in America.  However, we as consumers need to take some responsibility for this problem.  Americans want cheap products.  Manufacturers answer that they can only deliver what the customer wants if they can exploit cheap labor abroad.  There is an alternative.  Consumers can pay more and buy American, especially by buying local whenever possible.  Many companies still manufacture in the U.S., and their products are available. 

Will America ever be the world’s manufacturing leader again?  Probably not.  Both China and India have populations nearly five times as large as the U.S.  Those countries will need factories to provide goods to their own people.  Hopefully, rising standards of living in those countries will push wages up, which will make manufacturing in the U.S. more profitable.  What can we do in the meantime?  We can remember that there are still people making things in America.  Buy American.  Buy local.

Posted: November 25, 2011
By: Clay Cerny

Writing in Huffington Post, Danielle Tumminio, author of God and Harry Potter at Yale, explores a theme that I have visited in this blog:  Sabbath rest.  My inspiration has been the thinking and writing of Wendell Berry.  Tumminio is inspired by something much larger and frightening: hordes of Black Friday shoppers.

She notes the irony of a country that prides itself on Judeo-Christian values ignoring one of the first lessons of the Bible – on the seventh day, God rested.  We are almost crazed in our activities related to Thanksgiving: traveling, shopping, cleaning.  Worse still, we now have the crowded, grabbing insanity of Black Friday.  Tuminnio reminds us that some time on the couch (with the TV off) would be a good thing.

All I can say to this fine post is: Amen.

Posted: November 20, 2011
By: Clay Cerny

[On Sundays, this blog explores intersections of work and life in “Sabbath.”]

College Sports and American Values

I normally agree with Chicago Sun-Times sports columnist Rick Telander.  Often Telander will cast things in a light that makes readers challenge their beliefs.  In his column in today's paper, however, he takes on an easy target, Joe Paterno, and the worship given to top college coaches.  When it comes to the crimes committed against children, I agree with Telander 100%.  I also agree that coaches are treated with more respect than professors and teachers.  However, we need to keep a balance between what disgusts us today and what we should remember about how we treated sports in the past and what has changed over the past few decades. 

I’ve frequently written about the great basketball coach John Wooden.  Coach Wooden built one of the greatest dynasties of all time while following a strict code of values.  In his nineties, Wooden wrote several books that outline his beliefs.  Other coaches taught their players similar lessons and helped them finish their educations.  By all accounts, Joe Paterno ran a clean football program and graduated his players.  His failure was to report a crime, an act that has cost him his reputation and could cost him even more in the future.

What has changed in college sports since the times of John Wooden and Ray Meyer of DePaul?  Money.  College football and basketball generate millions of dollars for universities.  They also help schools build a “brand” that helps increase admissions and contributions from alumni.  TV contributes to the problem.  We’ve gone from a game or two being televised each week to having entire networks developed to college sports, college conferences, and even individual schools.  Schools (not players) even draw income from video games that are based on college sports.  All of these factors help create a culture where sports overwhelms all other activities on campus. 

Telander notes that no school builds statues to English, history, or math professors.  That point is true.  But is that problem driven by universities and coaches, or by a culture that worships sports and disdains learning and study?  America focuses more and more on entertainment and fun, often sitting in front of a screen of whirling images.  We’ve lost the ability to think critically that comes with reading and the discipline needed to learn subjects like math and scinece.  Telander’s criticism is accurate on the surface, but we need to look deeper to see the real problem.  We need to look in the mirror and accept our responsibility.  Do our values fit our words?  Clearly, college sports is just one symptom of a culture that has lost its way.  We all need to change.

Posted: November 13, 2011
By: Clay Cerny

[On Sundays this blog examine intersections of work and life in “Sabbath.”]

People Who Help and Save

Last week, like people across the country, I was sickened by the news coming out of Penn State.  This wasn’t a sports story even though it dealt with a top football program.  It was about a man who hurt children and the many people who looked the other way to protect their careers – and income.  The events at Penn State also made me think about some people I know who have spent their careers and a lot of time off the clock helping children. 

Tom Schneider has been a Juvenile Parole Officer in Cook County for over 20 years.  He works hard to put kids on the right path.  Some of his clients are beyond his or anyone’s help.  They have experienced lives no one would want and are themselves warped for life.  Tom has been able to help many young people who made mistakes.  Some people really do make the most of a second chance.

Before she retired a few years ago, Demetra Soter was a doctor at Cook County Hospital.  She specialized in case of child abuse which involved physical (non-sexual) violence.  Beyond her duties as a doctor, Demetra was often an advocate for her patients working with prosecutors to protect those who were at risk.  It wasn’t unusual to see Demetra take a call during a social event or party.  Her service to children was 24/7.

 My friends from Kiwanis John Stephan and Oscar Roman also run the Boys and Girls Club in Logan Square.  They offer neighborhood kids services that often go beyond sports and recreation.  John has been very involved in school safety programs and gang intervention.  I saw Oscar’s commitment first hand during a Kiwanis meeting that took place at the Boys and Girls Club.  There was a noise outside that sounded like a gun shot.  Everyone froze – except Oscar.  He ran outside to see if anyone was hurt.  When he came back, he said it was probably a car backfiring.  Still, he had the courage to move toward the problem and try to solve it, the kind of courage that was lacking at Penn State.

For every example of the abuser and those who cover the crime up, there are hundreds, maybe thousands, of good people who are working to help children and protect.  It’s easy to feel outrage at people and institutions who do nothing.  We should be angry.  However, it’s equally important to remember the people who are committing themselves to keeping children safe.  Their work deserves our highest respect.

Posted: October 23, 2011
By: Clay Cerny

[“Sabbath” is this blog’s Sunday feature on intersections of work and life.]

Living Memory

I’ve always loved history, the stories of great leaders, political movements, wars, science, and invention.  Living in Chicago, the city where the skyscraper was born and so many great architects practiced (and still practice) their craft, I’ve gained an appreciation for a different way of understanding the past.  Last weekend The Chicago Architecture Foundation held an “open house” in different city neighborhoods.  I went with a group of friends to explore Rogers Park and West Ridge.

We started at the Emil Bach House, which was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright and built in 1915.  Wright’s designs meld the practical and beautiful.  This house, which is currently being restored, was always a stopping point when I took walks in the neighborhood.  It’s striking exterior is matched by an living space that calls us to another way of thinking about how to live

Interior of the Bach House






Bach House from its back yard

Next door to the Bach House is a home that was built four years later in 1919.  For most of its history, it was a large single family home.  Two years ago, it was rehabbed and reopened as Cat’s Cradle Bed and Breakfast.  The new owners have added several bed and bath rooms while retaining the building’s historic feel. 

Cat's Cradle in Rogers Park







We headed west to a large condominium building called Casa Bonita, which was built in the 1920s.  There are many courtyard buildings in Rogers Park and West Ridge, but few  have the lavish features of this building.  We were led on the tour by a resident who has lived in the building for more than 20 years.  She told us about several changes in the building and efforts that have been made to maintain its original appearance.

The Courtyard at Casa Bonita







Further west, near Indian Boundary Park, we visited the Park Castle, a condo building which was also built in the late 1920s.  It has a pool for residents that is decorated with ornate tile and a fountain.

The Pool at Park Castle






The Fountain at Park Castle's Pool







We ended our tour at two theaters:  Lifeline and Mayne Stage.  Lifeline Theatre is now 30 years old, and it is located in an old electrical power station.  During the tour, we were shown how different areas have been remade into rehearsal space and a craft shop where sets are built.  Mayne Stage is located in a building which was opened as the Morse Theater in 1912.  From the 1960s through the 1990s, the space was transformed several times, serving, among other things, as a synagogue and a shoe repair shop.  Now it is a state of the art theater and restaurant (Act One). 

I love to learn about the history of buildings, how they change function and take on new lives.  They are a testament to skill of the architects and designers who make our world a better and more interesting place to live.  Open House Chicago was enlightening and great fun.  I hope the Chicago Architecture Foundation repeats and expands this brilliant concept in coming years.

Posted: October 16, 2011
By: Clay Cerny

[Sabbath is a Sunday feature that examines intersections of life and work.]

13 Ways of Looking at Occupation

On Thom Hartmann’s Big Picture, the author Naomi Klein talked about the power she felt being among the protesters camped near Wall Street.  She described one man who was carrying a sign with these words:  “I lost my job and found an occupation.”  The play on words is significant in more ways than one.  Pundits, including former President Clinton, keep asking what this group wants, what it stands for.  What the wise ones can’t understand is that some actions speak a language that belies simplicity.

The word occupy is not easily defined.  In one sense, it holds the definition of taking something, best seen in a military occupation.  In another, the occupant lives in a place – to occupy is to be at home.  The definition I find most interesting, however, is occupation as engagement:  What occupies you thoughts?  The protesters in New York, and their supporters across the U.S. and several other countries, are engaging a culture that is stuck in a rut.  Rather than try to provide a simple answer (think 9-9-9 or “Drill, baby, drill” or “Change”), they are opening a space where questions are possible.  What’s next?  Who knows?

Writing in the October 17 edition of the New Yorker, Hendrik Hertzberg captures this movement of open questions:  “Occupy Wall Street is a political project, but it is equally a cri de couer, an exercise in constructive group dynamics, a release from isolation, resignation, and futility.  The process, not the platform, is the point.”

Yesterday, the process spread to cities in other countries.  There was a riot in Rome, which the corporate-owned media took great pleasure in reporting.  But, as this post in the Daily Kos indicates, the crowds that marched in Time Square, America’s blaring shrine to the media, indicate that this movement – whatever it is – is growing.  People want to engage in the process.  They want to occupy the space our leaders have abandoned in their weakness, greed, and small-mindedness.

My lens for understanding this phenomenon is Wallace Stevens’ poem Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.  When I first read this poem as an undergraduate, it struck me as nonsense.  But, as I wrestled with it – and with Stevens – it became clear that sometimes it’s about not being clear.  We constantly experience complex, beautiful phenomena.  But our practical world, our Ben Franklin common sense, makes us segregate and simplify. 

Stevens ponders:

"A man and a woman

Are one.

A man and a woman and a blackbird

Are one."

Reality is all about how we look at something.  The media wants a simple story that can be told in a few seconds (leaving more time for commercials).  Occupy Wall Street hasn’t given in to such simplicity.  Neither did the people who occupied Tahrir Square in Egypt and those who camped in the streets of  Tel Aviv, the protestors who have marched in Greece, Britain, and the brave souls in Syria who remain strong in the face of bullets. 

What do we see?  How do we see?

"When the blackbird flew out of sight,

It marked the edge

Of one of many circles."

We don’t see the full of reality, just the “edge of one of many circles.”  We try to make sense of a reality that is moving around us like a black bird flying in the snow.  The protest movements crisscrossing the world are about a different way of seeing.  Will they change the way we live? 

We’ll see.

Sunday Extras:

Naomi Klein and John Nichols speculate on the meaning of Occupy Wall Street.

Posted: October 2, 2011
By: Clay Cerny

[“Sabbath is this blog’s Sunday feature that looks at intersections of work and life.]

More than Sports

I sometimes tell myself that I’m done with newspapers.  They deal in stale news, often slanted in a way that goes against my values.  I tell myself to stop wasting money, and then it happens:  An investigation of a corrupt politician or members of his family.  A profile of someone doing good in the community.  An editorial that makes me think about things a different way.  The Chicago Sun-Times still offers information and opinion that is relevant, often vital.  Roger Ebert consistently delivers such writing in his movie reviews, editorials, and blog posts.  So does Rick Telander.

Telander is more than a sports columnist.  He thinks about issues and challenges his readers to engage hard subjects.  Last year he wrote a series on football and brain injuries that was fascinating and painful at the same.  Now he is back with a new series, a study of Murray Park in Chicago’s Englewood community, the part of the city where basketball star Derrick Rose grew up.  Telander visited the area frequently last summer.  He found the land that Michael Harrington called the “Other America,” a real place most of us choose not to see. 

Reading about gang shootings, it’s often easy to forget that people live in areas like Englewood.  Telander introduces us to those people: teachers, park superintendents, police officers, and postal workers.  In today’s installment, he confesses that he quickly adapted to a community where people were shot and killed.  Only the most unusual murders get noticed.  Shooting is part of everyday life. 

Kids escape through basketball, dreaming of being the next Derrick Rose, the kid who was able to leave the neighborhood.  Telander profiles some of Rose’s friends who have chosen not to leave the community because they want to make it better.  At the end of today’s installment, one of Rose’s childhood friends is trying to calm a group of young people.  A car rides by and shot are fired.  The peace maker was shot seven times (His story will be continued in tomorrow’s paper). 

To his credit, Telander reports without judgment.  Often, he lets people in the community tell the story in their own words.  In the 1970s Telander wrote a great book called Heaven Is a PlaygroundHis profile of Murray Park describes young people on playgrounds, but no one would call it heaven.  At the same time, it’s too simple to call it hell.  Some, like Derrick Rose, have left the neighborhood and live better, safer lives.  Others choose to stay and fight to change it.  Telander introduces us to the range of humanity in Murray Park, and we are richer for the experience.  Without newspapers, we wouldn’t have such stories.  Our lives would be simpler – in the worst sense of that word.