The Bicycle-Eating Potholes of Chicago

Of all the dangers a bicyclist faces in Chicago, potholes are probably the greatest. No part of this city is immune, and there are even streets in way upscale Hyde Park that look like they’ve been hit by cluster bombs and artillery submunitions. They can make motoring unpleasant. They can make cycling lethal — try steering around some of these in heavy traffic…

Here are a few of the nastiest potholes I’ve come across. Most of these are on the West Side.


Fill this one with water and you could fish from it. I want to say this is on Lake Street, but I don’t remember exactly where it is. It could possibly be visible from space.

This is on Lake Street, about five blocks or so west of Larramie. This has since been covered up with a steel plate which sits at a funny angle and is not quite flat, thus making a nice “clang!” every time someone drives over it. This one was a couple of feet deep, and I think the weed was actually growing in there. (There’s a larger pothole on Lake in Oak Park that has swallowed a city trash can…)

I don’t quite remember where this was either.


This yonical pothole was maybe a meter deep — it might have its own mineral rights or lead to the kind of lost world Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote about. This was somewhere just west of the West Loop area.

Advertisements

God, Hating and Loving

As I pondered my previous blog post about Cain and Abel, I recalled these words from Malachi:

“I have loved you,” says the Lord. But you say, “How have you loved us?” “Is not Esau Jacob’s brother?” declares the Lord. “Yet I have loved Jacob but Esau I have hated. I have laid waste his hill country and left his heritage to jackals of the desert.” If Edom says, “We are shattered but we will rebuild the ruins,” the Lord of hosts says, “They may build, but I will tear down, and they will be called ‘the wicked country,’ and ‘the people with whom the Lord is angry forever.’ ” Your own eyes shall see this, and you shall say, “Great is the Lord beyond the borders of Israel.” (Malachi 1:2-5, English Standard Version — I’m using the ESV today because I don’t have my Tanakh handy.)

(Paul echoes these words in Romans 9:13 when he speaks of God’s choosing God’s people.)

Our ideas about God are only partly derived from scripture — the Church owes a great deal intellectually to Greek philosophy and reasoning (as does Islam, even as that reasoning articulates itself very differently among Muslims), perhaps more to Greek thought when it comes to ethics and theology than it does scripture. Scripture is harnessed to support and even recast the ideas put forward by the Greeks, but for much of Christendom, the Greeks come first. This may or may not be intellectually defensible — the followers of Jesus did not witness to his death and resurrection, did not create his church, in an intellectual or cultural vacuum.

But many of the ideas are troublesome, especially when we are forced to fit them in scripture. The God of the “omnis” — omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent — as well as an “all good” God provides a serious problem for scripture. (Even in the Qur’an, which is a much better fit for the “omni-God” than is the Bible.)

The problem I have with theology is that it makes God an object, an idea, to be manipulated by human beings. We cannot help doing this. But the God of scripture is not an object or an idea. That God is encountered, viscerally and intensely, and scripture is the witness to that encounter. God is the subject as we, God’s people, are the objects. Much happens in scripture that makes little or no moral sense, and we are foolish to try and make those things make sense.

“Yet I have loved Jacob, but Esau I have hated.” The ESV online study notes to these three verses speak of the distinction between “the Good and the Arrogantly Wicked.” But was Esau wicked? Does Esau suffer for wickedness? No to both. He was merely cheated out of his inheritence — his blessing — by a far more obnoxious brother, Jacob, who then lives in fear of Esau. The two have a reconciliation of sorts in Genesis 33, and they bury their father Isaac together. In Malachi, God clearly has it in for Esau’s descendants Edom, but Malachi speaks a great many more words of rebuke toward the priests of Israel.

Our idea of an all-knowing, all-powerful and all-good God makes Malachi’s words — makes God’s rejection of Cain — make no sense. God couldn’t reject them, not the God of the Omnis, not our idea of God. So it was Cain’s fault that God rejected his sacrifice, and Esau’s fault that God hated him, that God spoke those words through Malachi the prophet. If only they had worked harder.

But again, the God of the Omnis doesn’t exist in scripture. The subjective experience of God is a God who chooses, capriciously, in a way that makes no sense. Esau did nothing except not be his brother Jacob, just as Cain did nothing except farm. Israel’s experience was of a profound and lasting encounter with God, a God who chose them and no one else as God’s people. A God who made that choice for no reason apparent to God’s people, whose choice was not a matter of privilege, power and glory, but for the salvation of the world.

The essence of faith — in Hebrew, Arabic and Greek — is trust. Not assent to a set of ideas or principles, but trust in God. That a promise made by God, a promise that will never be seen by the one to whom the promise is made (Abraham and his many descendants), is as good as kept. Assent to a set of propositions — the Lutheran confessions, for example — is an intellectual exercise. One confesses, but does not have faith in the confessions themselves, as they are not promises.

To trust God is to trust in something we may not be able to see or understand. God loves God’s people, but that does not stop God from visiting destruction upon God’s people. It is to encounter and experience God and often times have no idea what to make of that encounter. It can be aided by reason and by the intellect, by ideas and concepts and theories and notions, but at its core, that experience is not itself an idea, not something that humans grasp, but it is about being grasped by God and God not letting go.

We can only struggle to make sense of that encounter. Which is why “Yet I have loved Jacob, but Esau I have hated” doesn’t bother me.

In The Land of Wandering & Exile

For some reason, I found myself pondering Genesis 4 — the story of Cain and Abel — yesterday. Not sure why, maybe my current circumstances, but I think a lot about exile, and what that means. The world has never felt much like my home to begin with, not a place where I’ve been much wanted. Rather, it’s felt like a wilderness, a place of exile, a largely inhospitable place I’m just traveling through on the way to someplace else. Not sure where that is. I only know I don’t much belong here.

Enough of that. Genesis 4:1-16 tells the story of the first murder, the first time one human being in anger and jealously, took the life of another. There is much to be made of the story (including the alleged “mark”), but I’m interested in who and what Cain and Abel are. Abel is a “keeper of sheep” (4:2, JPS Tanakh — again, this little Asus Eee PC doesn’t let me do Hebrew), a pastoral nomad who wanders from pasture to pasture (scrubland in the Middle East), tending his flocks, while Cain is a “tiller of the soil,” a settled farmer who doesn’t wander, who is tied to land and place. Abel’s life is one of tents, of open skies, of moving from place to place to follow the rains. His home is wandering, it’s on his back and the backs of the animals he keeps. Cain’s home is one of brick and mud and fences and furrows. He worries about the rains, but he cannot follow them — he must remake the world around him to get the water for his crops, to build the tools to work the land.

The story continues:

In the course of time, Cain brought an offering to the Lord from the fruit of the soil; and Abel, for his part, brought the choicest of the firstlings from his flock. The Lord paid heed to Abel and his offering, but to Cain and his offering He paid no heed. Cain was much distressed and his face fell. (Gen. 4:3-5, JPS Tanakh)

Some might say that Cain’s offering was inferior — not firstfruits. Maybe. But it may also be that God was partial to Abel’s “choicest of the firstlings” as opposed to whatever grain and fruit Cain offered. There is, I think, a subtext in Jewish scripture that laments Israel’s slow evolution from pastoral nomads to a settled people, a concern reflected in the use of the pastoral metaphor (all the way through the gospels and the epistles, which use this metaphor extensively as well) to describe, in particular, David, and to condemn the kings of Israel (Ezekiel 34 is the example that comes to mind) for their failures. For a settled people there is wealth and power, but there is also intense inequality and exploitation — the weakest suffer the most. The surplus wealth created by sedentary activities (farming and resource extraction, like mining and timber before silviculture) almost never goes to those who extract or create that wealth.

But this is not the matter up for discussion today. Cain, the first-born older brother, murders Abel. (In the Qur’an, he also buries him in an effort to hide what he has done.) Abel’s blood cries out to God from the very soil (adamah) that Cain tilled. God then tells Cain: “If you till the soil, it shall no longer yield its strength to you. You shall become a ceaseless wanderer (yanad) on earth (ba’aretz).” (Gen. 4:12)

Cain is made a wander, and he goes to live in “the land of Nod” — eretz nod — the land of wandering/exile, “banished from the soil” (Cain’s own words, 4:14) and away from the “presence of the Lord.” What kind of wandering can a farmer do? What kind of exile is this, being yanked away from who and what he was? Did Cain love the land? Did he love tilling it? It’s hard work, and perhaps he felt that God did not reward his work well enough. But maybe the sense of rejection he felt when God favored the firstling of Abel’s flock was intolerable. Tilling the land wasn’t just what he did, it was who he was, and clearly he saw that who he was simply was not good enough for God.

That’s a hard pain to live with, that sense and perception that who and what he is, what he has to offer God, is simply not good enough for God. Perhaps this is how he understood what happened, and he took his despair and rage out on his brother who was clearly much more acceptable to God. How to imagine the despair and rage that comes from knowing that God has favored someone else over you, accepted them and rejected you? When one is rejected by God, what possible acceptance anywhere or by anyone can make up for that?

And yet it is Cain who separates himself from God. He tells God, “I must avoid Your presence.” It is Cain who fears being killed, not God who threatens Cain with death. God, in an act of odd grace, “marks” Cain, and promises vengeance upon anyone who kills him. It is Cain who walks away from God. The greatest punishment he inflicts is upon himself. He compounds his alienation from the land, from what he does and who he is, with a self-imposed alienation from God. God condemned him to wander, but said nothing about avoiding the divine presence.

Cain did that. All on his own. Maybe that says something about us, as human beings, as we wander, as we pass through and try to live in eretz nod – the land of wandering and exile.

Secession, Patriotism and The Right

The kerfluffle about Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s recent comments about the possibility of secession from the United States reminded me of something John Ashcroft said in his Senate confirmation hearings back in January, 2001.

I was covering Capitol Hill at the time, and my professional interest was Bush Jong Il’s appointment of Anne Veneman as USDA secretary, and not the nomination of Ashcroft as attorney general. But I remember there was a bit of a dustup over Ashcroft’s comments to some so-called “Southern Heritage” magazine, speaking approvingly of the sacrifices, honor and commitment to their cause on the part of those who fought for the Confederacy in the War of 1861-65 (I really have no idea of what to call that war; it wasn’t a proper civil war, since the two sides were not fighting to control the government in Washington). Most criticism of Ashcroft’s comments focuses on race, of course, since we are Americans and race is something we simply cannot stop talking about (counter to AG Holder’s idiotic assertions some weeks ago). We just cannot speak about it intelligently, but that is another matter for another day.

What I found is interesting is that no one bothered asking Ashcroft what was honorable in fighting to secede from the United States? How would he view secessionists today (the day he was interviewed)? How is secession, for whatever the reason, not an attack on the national state, defiance of the federal government?

Now, I’m no nationalist. I’m all for carving up the United States into dozens if not scores of small statelets (I will then go live in the Grand Duchy of San Francisco, because post-USA America needs a few monarchies, and world is painfully short of ruling grand dukes and prince-bishops). Okay, not carving up — that reeks of planning and design — but rather allowing such a thing to happen.

But the Right’s talk of secession is not principled talk. If the state of Vermont were to leave the Union (while under GOP management) to become a socialist statelet (gay marriage, single-payer health care, whatever else it is progressives supposedly want), I’m certain the 10th Mountain Division would move quickly from Ft. Drum to Montpelier and subdue any attempt to resurrect the Green Mountain Boys. In fact, I bet Fox News would call for arrests and treason trials at the mere mention of such a thing. (And can you imagine the response if a Democratic state governor, in the wake of September 11, 2001, had called upon his/her state to leave the US because doing so would make the state’s resident — “Hey, we’re not Americans anymore!” — less vulnerable to attack?)

Indeed, there is much hyperventillating about the Obama regime on the Right, as if all those powers the Right religiously entrusted to Bush Jong Il suddenly became evil powers in the hands of the Mahatma. They forget an essential rule of “democratic” governance — unless you are prepared to hold power at all costs from all comers, never give any power to anyone you don’t eventually want used against you. Or: do you really want a Hillary Clinton Justice Department to have the tools of the Patriot Act at its disposal? Or: never make a weapon that may someday be turned on you.

Part of this shows just how wedded to executive power the Right is. There will be no end of their whining (jack-booted thugs again!) as long as a Democrat is in the “Presidential Palace.” Of course, Obama will use presidential power (and NPR will refer to presidential “decrees” as if he is the leader of a junta or chairman of some politburo) to the maximum extent possible. But the problem lies not in the wielder of power, but the power itself. As long as it exists, it will be cultivated, used and expanded. It is a club that will be used to beat and to kill. There is no avoiding that.

Israel and “Property Rights”

There meme current among many conservative (and probably some liberal) American Christians regarding Jews and the State of Israel is that God “gave” that land to the Jews, and thus the giving is effectively a deed — Jews have a “property right” to the “land of Israel,” an thus, an entitlement to possess it. Based on what I’ve read online, this also constitutes a majority opinion of conservative religious Jews as well.

So, I never tire of coming across scriptural citations that say otherwise. First, there is the entire history itself. If, as Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook wrote in mid-1967 (after the Six-Day War, when there much to NOT surrender), that scripture forbids God’s people Israel from giving up any of the “land of Israel,” then why does the Deuteronomic history (Deuteronomy through 2 Kings) end with the twin kingdoms of Israel and Judah conquered (by Assyria and Babylon respectively) and the last King of Judah, Jehoiachin, in comfortable exile in Babylon? Why does the other official history, Chronicles, end with Cyrus the King of Persia issuing a decree to rebuild the temple (allowing for restored temple worship) but NOT the restoration of Israel’s monarchy? The sovereignty Judah possesses at the end of Chronicles (and in Ezra and Nehemiah) is a very limited sovereignty, as part of the Persian Empire, not as an independent polity. The Tanakh, as well as the Protestant Bible, ends its canon of scripture with these books, and thus the influence of Hellenism (the conquest of Persia by Greece and the switch of tolerant Persian imperial rule for intolerant Greek rule) on the canon is sporadic (parts of Daniel and Zechariah come to mind) at best.

So, I was very pleasantly surprised when I came across this in Ezekiel 33 (vv 21-26, citation from the JPS Tanakh):

In the twelfth year of our exile, on the fifth day of the tenth month, a fugitive came to me from Jerusalem and reported, “the city has fallen.” Now the hand of the Lord had come upon me the evening before the fugitive arrived, and He opened my mouth before he came to me in the morning; thus my mouth was opened and I was no longer speechless.

The word of the Lord came to me: O mortal [son of Adam בֶן–אָדָם, rendered elsewhere as “Son of Man”], those who live in these ruins in the land of Israel argue, “Abraham was but one man, yet he was granted possession of the land. We are many; surely, the land has been given as a possession to us.” Therefore say to them: Thus said the Lord God: You eat with the blood, you raise your eyes to your fetishes, and you shed blood — yet you expect to possess the land! You have relied on your sword, you have committed abominations, you have defiled other men’s wives — yet you expect to possess the land!

Now, these words come after a lengthy warning from God to Ezekiel about the nature of God’s warnings and accountability for human sinfulness, about Ezekiel’s job as a warner to those living in exile in Babylon. And they are followed, in chapter 33 with a warning to those living in the midst of the rubble that they “shall fall by the sword” and be “food to the beasts.” (v.27) Indeed, God is then fairly emphatic that Ezekiel’s countrymen will not listen to him.

And the general narrative of Ezekiel continues with a condemnation of the “shepherds of Israel” and promise from God that Israel will be regathered and a new shepherd — “My servant David” (34:23) — appointed to tend and care for God’s people. This promise is generally used by the church (and by that, I mean the church “catholic and apostolic,” and not the non-denominational nincompoops that call themselves church but worship the United States and Israel) to refer to the regathering and restoring of God’s covenant with God’s people through Jesus Christ.

(There’s more to Ezekiel which I won’t deal with at this point.)

While these words of God in vv23-26 are given specifically to the Israelites who remain in land following the conquest, what’s interesting about what God says to Israel just as easily applies to what is said — “Abraham was but one man, but we are many. If the land was given to Abraham, surely it has been given to us.” What is condemned here is a sense of entitlement, that just because the land was given to one man — Abraham — then is most certainly have been given those who lay claim to it as their patrimony through and from Abraham. God’s condemnation of that sense of entitlement could easily apply to anyone who makes that claim, and not just the remnant of survivors in the ruins.

But there’s also the nature of that condemnation — eating with blood/defiling other men’s wives, raising eyes to fetishes/committing abominations, shedding blood/relying on “your sword.” God’s people have failed to keep their end of the covenant made at Sinai, they have not adhered to God’s teachings. They have also followed after other gods, sacrificed to them. The history and the other prophets are quite clear on both these matters, and God tells Israel in both Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28 that failing to keep the covenant will result in suffering, conquest and death. “The Lord will send you back to Egypt in galleys, by a route which I told you you would not see again. There you shall offer yourselves for sale to your enemies as male and female slaves, but none will buy” (Deut. 29:68)

The shedding of blood and reliance on “your” sword (Israel’s sword) is not as clear as the other two condemnations, but I’m fairly certain it means that part of Israel’s sin is its failure to rely on God for defense and protection, failure to trust in God and instead trust in itself, its own capabilities, to protect itself. Scripture isn’t so insistent on this matter, since the Hebrew Bible is full of war, but the main motif given to Israel by God from the miracle of the Exodus is that God is Israel’s defender, that God will act in history to defende God’s people. That God’s people must first and only look to their God to protect them, to fight and win their battles. Even in Ezekiel 38 and 39, when God gives the vision of war with Gog the prince of Magog, it is God who leads Gog to war, and it is God who defeats Gog and his armies. (Whether this is a “prophesy” of the fall of Babylon at the hands of Persia, or general prophetic metaphor that God will defeat Israel’s enemies and fight Israel’s battles from the time that Israel is regathered, the bones brought back to life, I do not know and won’t guess. I will firmly state this is very likely not a prophesy of a war yet to come.)

What is clear is thart grant of land is not a property right and the Bible is a not a metes-and-bounds title deed (or any other kind of deed), though there are claims made. Scripture does not speak the language of rights, that’s Enlightenment talk and it does not belong to antiquity. Israel’s possession of the land is entirely conditioned on Israel’s good behavior. This is made clear in scripture from the beginning. The prophets add component of (I hate the term) “social justice” to the matter, criticizing the unjust use of power and wealth among Israelites for division of the kingdom, civil war, conquest and exile. Much of scripture is an attempt to figure out what God’s promises to Abraham, and God’s deliverance of Israel at Sinai, with what followed.

Indeed, a case could be made that semi-exile — living in the moment between exile and God’s promise of reconciliation, deliverance and victory — is the condition of God’s people, Israel and the church, on earth right now.

Invisible People

When I was working as a wire service reporter in Washington, I considered writing a book about a group of white supremacists who insert themselves patiently into D.C. — one of whom was a wire service reporter covering (cough cough) the Department of Agriculture — in order to eventually kill the president. I never got any farther than thinking about how they’d go about doing it, and I talked about the idea with Amatzia Baram, who at the time was a professor of mine at Georgetown (and sometime mentor). His addition to the plot was to have the would-be assasins tied, somehow, to Saddam Hussein. I didn’t like the idea, and eventually discarded the project as not worth the effort.

I never put anything on paper because (1) I wanted them to be successful and get away, but I could not make that work and (2) I didn’t want THAT kind of trouble. The kind of trouble one gets from being a wire service reporter at a government agency writing about a wire service reporter at a government agency who is part of a complex plot to assassinate the president of the United States. The idea of the book was a thought experiment — a tight and patient cell of people (say, five) willing to work quietly and silently, could do something like that. It was only a thought experiment unwilling to become a shabby thriller.

One of the ideas running through my mind was to have two or three members of the cell go to work for the phone company as technicians. Phone company trucks were ubiquitous, even on Capitol Hill, and guys (they were guys, mostly) with gear checking the status of twisted pair and T1 lines were as close to invisible as possible. At the time, before September 11, 2001, they could go just about anywhere with boxes and toolbags and whatnot. So it was interesting when I came across this in an article in the UK Independent on urban survival training in the age of economic collapse:

He dropped us off in an alley in Bricktown where I’d cached a bag of disguises the night before. In a lecture on urban camouflage, Reeve and Alwood had taught us there was a certain category of people in cities called invisible men. If the city is a network of veins, invisible men are the white blood cells: they work to keep it clean. They’re the janitors with bundles of keys on their belt loops, the alarm servicemen with clipboards and work orders, the UPS men hidden behind piles of boxes, and the construction workers with hard hats, safety vests, and tool belts.

In these disguises, Reeve and Alwood said, we could walk unnoticed into almost any event.

Interesting someone else noticed this.