as soon as his breath propelled those words across his lips and out into the snow-flecked january cold, i inscribed them on my heart. i hadn’t quite framed it that way, in those four words, so profoundly, so poetically, so imploringly.
and then, as if that wasn’t enough, the wise old soul whose very fiber has been forged in the white-hot furnace of grief compounded by grief, he all but unbuttoned his coat, pulled back his ribs and showed us what burns in that cavity: “my whole soul is in it,” he said, as if speaking to each and every one of us, as if elbows were plopped on our very kitchen tables, eyeballs gazing at eyeballs, mugs of coffee just off to the side, instead of there in the sunlight and shadow of the nation’s capital. then he all but whispered it again: “my whole soul is in it.” and that’s when i whispered, “mine too.”
having just witnessed — from the edges of our seats — how close this fragile experiment in democracy came to crashing into splintered bits, having lived under a poisonous cloud of daily assaults on decency, straining to stay steady, to keep from being sucked under in the shifting quicksands of moral decay, of a nation under the false premise that license had been given to spew venom from the checkout line to the capitol steps, i am more certain than ever that this is not a one-person parade. if we stand a chance of shoving this moment in time toward the light we claim, toward the peaceable kingdom we believe is possible, well then every last one of us needs to get to work, to chip in, to put one foot before the other in a slow walk toward mercy and justice for all.
my inaugural promise is this:
i will cloak myself each and every day in humility and gentle spirit, the surest vestment for the hard and holy work ahead. for months now i’ve tiptoed in the darkness to my kitchen table where i’ve lit a candle and whispered the words of confession. “most merciful God…” i begin. “…we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. we are truly sorry and we humbly repent.”
i will not reflexively shut my ears, close my heart, turn my cheek the wrong way. i will hear them out, whoever it is. i will try, oh i will try, not to leap in with my insistent retort. not to interrupt. not to wield the sharp sword of assumed superiority, not think that my way is the right way, and all else is wrong. i will try, i will try, to step into the other guy’s shoes. to imagine the hurt, or the fear. to look for a gentle way in, to open just a little bit wider the doorway to some common ground. even if only fraction by fraction.
i will actively step into kindness. into imagining the unexpected waft of goodness that might just turn the tide of someone else’s dark day. i will model the thousands of kindnesses that have come my way — the sacks of apples left on my stoop, the tray brought to my hospital bedside, the steaming hot chicken pot pie once delivered on an arctic cold night, to name just a few.
i will carve out time even amid the whirlingest of days for whoever taps me on the shoulder, looks me in the eye, and whispers, do you have a minute?
i will — in some way, shape, or form — seek out foreign terrain, the realm of those who might be quick to dismiss me: too white, too old, too left-leaning. and begin with the light-seeking questions: what keeps you awake at night? what do you dream? what brings you joy? what makes you cry? where does it hurt? who do you consider to be the most heroic human you’ve ever known? and how so? what’s one act of kindness you’ve never forgotten?
because i realize my impotence for change-making at the structural level, i will pinpoint one not-for-profit effectively working toward solution — be it reuniting children separated from parents at the border, or ferreting out all vestiges of racism and bigotry from the nooks and crannies of america, or protecting wetlands from the ravages of greedy exploitation — and i will commit to shaving off a dollar here, a dollar there from my weekly spending and send off occasional bundles from my consciously set-aside sum.
but even more than dollar bills, the currency i commit to this campaign is the craft i ply each and every day: mine is a calling to words, words as instruments of peace, words as the silken thread that weaves together uncommon hearts, words that open doorways into long-locked corridors. as the beautiful and blessed national youth poet laureate amanda gorman so perfectly put it in the wake of her inaugural poem: “words matter. we’ve seen over the past few years the ways in which the power of words has been violated and misappropriated.” she sought, and i seek with her, to “reclaim poetry as that site in which we can repurify, resanctify the power of words. and to invest that in the highest office of the land.” to invest that in every office of the land, elected and otherwise. from the humblest foot soldier to the commander in chief. and to that, i say amen, amen.
we must end this uncivil war. and my whole soul is in it.
Amid the haunting tremors of this national moment, and the bone-chilling worry that something awful could erupt, the dreadful sense that we are teetering at the precipice of something precious being lost, I interrupt the breathlessness, the imploring for peace, mercy, justice and truth, to turn ever so briefly to one of the countless personal narratives that unfurls against this shadowed backdrop. Someone with whom I’ve carved a life is turning the page on one of his most consequential chapters, and, as the family historian and archivist, it must be duly marked.
This is a love story.
It begins long, long ago, inside a vaulted cacophonous chamber inside a gray stone Gothic tower, one that hugs a river’s edge as it courses toward one great lake, in the crosshairs of the American metropolis that rose defiantly from the endless prairie.
A tall bespectacled gentleman, cloaked in appropriately puddle-splashed and newsprint-stained London Fog trench coat and holey-bottomed penny loafers, strides with his signature mix of certainty + humility down the newsroom’s center aisle, past desk after factory-assembled desk, each one equipped with typewriter, ancient desktop computer, and, chances are, one of the big-city news hustlers straight out of central casting (half-drained whiskey bottles hide in file drawers, stashed behind the extra pair of brogans down where dustballs grow; ashtrays brim with stubbed-out cigarettes; expletives punctuate the rumble, a slurry mix of ringing phones, clackety-clacking teletype machines, and the endless bark of irascible editors and the copy kids who dart and dodge at every bark before it turns to bite).
Our protagonist, the bespectacled one, is noticed by a young Irish-American nurse-turned-scribe, one whose presence in that very newsroom is as unlikely as anything in her curiously-scripted life. She especially perks her ears when newsroom talk spreads word that this new fellow — this 6-foot-3 Ivy Leaguer who’s arrived by way of Des Moines, and is reputed to write “like nothing you’ve never seen” — boldly exits the newsroom on Friday evenings at six o’clock sharp (akin to walking out of surgery just before the scalpels dig deep into flesh, as Friday night is when the big bulging Sunday paper is “put to bed,” and all hands usually on deck). Word is that the reason for his unnewsroomly departure is to sprint to synagogue for Friday night service. This unorthodox (for a newsroom) orthodoxy is a.) impossible to miss, and b.) highly impressive to the religiously-intrigued Irish-Catholic ecumenical one.
(Turns out, don’t you know, he was dashing out to the door not only to bow his head and pray, but also to keep a sideways glance on any nice Jewish girl who might wander into the synagogue’s so-named Singles Shabbat, a mix-and-mingle for the 20-something minyan set. Our unreliable narrator here obviously mistook urge to mate — or at least to J-date — for religious fealty.)
It’s not long into this newsroom tale till she — our narrator — falls for him. It is longer, markedly longer, till he returns the favor. But this is not that love story.
This is her ode to his third-of-a-century dedication, devotion, middle-of-the-night perseverations to the journalistic craft, to his unswerving eye toward excellence, toward equity and justice for all in the urban grid, from the greenswards to the cloud-poking steel-and-glass arisings.
Back in the beginning of this Chicago story, he worked the city desk, just like the legions of fresh-faced cub reporters who started out eager and naive to the wily ways of Second City aldermen and crooks (sometimes one in the same), ears trained to the police scanner, ready to leap with hat, coat, and scribbler pad to the scene of the nearest atrocity, disaster, or ambulance chase.
First time the Irish-Catholic and the new-to-the-newsroom Shabbat devotee found themselves dispatched to the same breaking news was the night ol’ Eddie Vrdolyak, an aldermanic stalwart of Chicago’s famed Democratic Machine, broke loose and turned Republican, stunning his Southeast Side constituents who filed into the Serbian Orthodox church hall with their bundt cakes and their murmured words of world-is-upside-down consternation and congratulations. She soaked up color, ambiance, mood; he stuck with the facts. (A telling distinction, one that in some ways would never really fade.)
From there, the hard core of the city desk, the one who’d studied hard the intricacies of balustrades and board-and-batten, casement windows and Corinthian columns, who’d versed himself in architectural volumes from primitivism to Postmodernism, dutifully bid his time pounding Chicago pavement, but he never took his eye off that glittering ever-shifting skyline.
In the fall of 1992, a mere five years after slipping on his Chicago Tribune ID badge, he was crowned the title he had long, long yearned for: architecture critic of America’s First City of built masterpieces and no little plans. (Note: For all my wanting to, and with all my years cobbling sentences and spinning yarns, I cannot do justice to his 28 years “on the beat,” as newsroom parlance would put it. Oh, but I shall try.)
He’s sized up the likes of Frank Gehry, Philip Johnson, Santiago Calatrava, Robert A.M. Stern, Jeanne Gang, and the iconoclastic-in-every-way Stanley Tigerman, among the many, many.
He’s marched into architectural battle with no less than Mayor Richie Daley (e.g., the infamous Meigs Field midnight raid, bulldozing Xs through the runway, among his many go-arounds with Da Mare), Mike McCaskey and the Chicago Bears (Soldier Field brouhaha, or in our critic’s inimitable description, “Starship Enterprise crash-landed on the Parthenon”), the Chicago Cubs (Wrigley Field, and specifically the Toyota sign planted in the bleachers, a “wart on the face of baseball’s grande dame”), Star Wars director and Hollywood legend George Lucas (a “cartoonish mountain” of a proposed lakefront museum the critic likened the “giant lump” to a “bloated Jabba”), and, of course, the Developer in Chief, Donald John Trump, who first courted then skewered our friend the critic.
Our critic’s story began long before the summer of 1987 when he loped into the Tribune Tower. He’d grown up in a newsroom, starting out at 13 on the night shift — writing obits by night, body surfing on the Jersey Shore by day — in his father’s newsroom, a classic PK, or publisher’s kid, in Red Bank, NJ. He’d interned in newsrooms in Newark, Pittsburgh, Miami, and Houston. And paused long enough for a masters in environmental design at Yale. This curious chemistry of take-no-guff news hound + aesthete and well-trained critic’s eye proved a formidable match for the rough-and-tumble of Chicago, where not even the arts are shielded from shenanigans and shysters.
This explosive combo, well, exploded. Often. In shouting matches with City Hall, delivered at full throttle and no words minced. The leitmotif (toned down for tender eyes or ears) went something like this: “Don’t give me that [baloney]! Tell me the truth!” It is reported that as these shouting matches unfurled for quarter-hour chunks of time, the heads of young reporters would pop up from behind their screens around the newsroom, “like gophers from their gopher holes,” to ogle the sight and sound of a scribe at top bellow.
Truth, most often, won out. Which might explain how, along the way, the critic’s sharp eye and voluminous and tireless reporting on the inequities of the city’s bejeweled lakefront — well-appointed and abundant on the North Side, decrepit and inaccessible from poor Black neighborhoods on the South Side — would in time reshape the city map. Bulldozers literally shoved parkland to where before there had been none. And millions once unjustly cut off from the great Lake Michigan shoreline now romp on beach and trail, “forever open, clear and free,” in accord with the 1909 edict of the Illinois Supreme Court that has become the rallying cry for decades of lakefront protection. Hands down, the opening up of the entire swath of lakefront is the critic’s proudest moment. That redrawing of the lakefront came in the wake of his 1998 series, “Reinventing the Lakefront,” six parts in all, that won him what a young friend of ours once and indelibly declared, “the Polish Surprise” (sound it out swiftly, and you’ll know what I mean, especially to the tender ears of a 5-year-old child).
Together, after all those decades in the same newsroom, the Irish scribe and the tireless critic (one of the rare perpetual newsroom bondings, wed in 1991) paired their names on only three double-bylines. One, named Will (now 27, and a brand-new lawyer — just yesterday sworn in virtually to the Illinois Bar from a Portland, OR, courthouse), and another, Teddy (19, and trudging through college). And yet a third: The mother of those double-bylines was asked by the critic to tag along when the new Prentice Women’s Hospital was opened and ready for architectural critique, since after all, the critic pointed out, she was the one who’d pushed out the double-bylined babies in the original hallowed Prentice hospital.
And now, for some undetermined chunk of time, the indefatigable and as-yet-unnamed-here critic (long ago, I made a vow that I would not write of him or our marriage, except for occasional sidekick insertions, as he was something of a public figure who deserved full control over his private life), is hanging up his London Fog, and kicking off those holey loafers. He announced his leave-taking on Twitter the other night (see tweets down below). And with lump in my throat, and tears not only in my eyes but running down my cheeks, I partake of the great newsroom tradition of clapping him out as he exits the building and the beat.
As he wrote in his own last column in the Tribune, which ran practically hidden in the inside pages of the Business section on Thursday:
When I became the Tribune’s architecture critic in the fall of 1992, there was no Millennium Park, no Museum Campus, no downtown Riverwalk, no Trump International Hotel & Tower Chicago and no St. Regis Chicago. There were no planter boxes in the middle of Michigan Avenue and few bike paths other than those on the lakefront trail.
Hulking public housing high-rises still stood at Cabrini-Green, the Robert Taylor Homes and Stateway Gardens. State Street was an ugly transit mall. Little planes still landed at Meigs Field. Sears Tower was still Sears Tower and the tallest building in the world.
I am chest-burstingly proud of the brilliant work he’s written under his byline, of the countless midnights when he slunk out of bed to fix a sentence or deepen some particular thought. His devotion must rank among the rarest in the business. His love for his city and his readers kept him writing long after counterforce made quitting the easier option. We’ve seen him trailed by TSA agents at O’Hare who wanted to keep up some architectural conversation, straight to the boarding gate; stood by as he was tapped on the shoulder as far away as London or DC by a reader who recognized him and didn’t want to miss a chance to say thank you, ask an architectural question. It’s that devotion — and infinite unsung kindnesses extended to readers and would-be someday critics — that is perhaps his shiningest prize, the one that comes with no crystal paperweight, and no plaque to hang in a back corner of his book-lined office.
He’s our beloved Blair Kamin, of whom we are soo soo proud. And who has left an indelible and breathtaking mark on the city he loved, the newspaper for which he wrote for 33 rollercoaster years, and who has written his best and most lasting lines in the narrative that is our blessed little double-bylined family.
But that’s the not end of this love story. Only this latest chapter.
Here’s how he broke the news on Twitter last Friday night:
After 33 years at Chicago Tribune, 28 as architecture critic, I’m taking a buyout + leaving the newspaper. It’s been an honor to cover + critique designs in the first city of American architecture + to continue the tradition begun by Paul Gapp, my Pulitzer-winning predecessor.
During these 28 years, I have chronicled an astonishing time of change, both in Chicago and around the world. From the horrors of 9/11 to the joy of Millennium Park, and from Frank Gehry to Jeanne Gang, I have never lacked for gripping subject matter.
Whether or not you agreed with what I wrote was never the point. My aim was to open your eyes to, and raise your expectations for, the inescapable art of architecture, which does more than any other art to shape how we live.
So I treated buildings not simply as architectural objects or technological marvels, but also as vessels of human possibility. Above all, my role was to serve as a watchdog, unafraid to bark and, if necessary, bite, before developers and architects wreaked havoc on the city.
I am deeply grateful to my newspaper, which has never asked me to pull punches. I have been incredibly fortunate to work with talented editors, reporters, photographers and graphic designers. They have been a huge help. Journalism, like architecture, is a team enterprise.
What will I do next? I have no idea. After decades of stressful deadlines and rewriting paragraphs in my head at midnight, I’m ready for an extended break — and many long bike rides along Chicago’s lakefront.
It’s essential that a new critic, with a fresh set of ideas, take up where Paul Gapp and I left off. Imagine Chicago without a full-time architecture critic. Schlock developers and hack architects would welcome the lack of scrutiny. -30-
you’ll note i put aside for this one time my disinclination to hit the shift key and write with capital letters (writing here in lower case is for me something akin to kicking off my shoes and shuffling around in slippers), but for the upstanding critic, i decided to pull out my big-girl keys and give him ups and downs on the keyboard scale. i’ll return to slippers, no doubt, though i do note it makes for easier reading when you can spy the peaks and valleys in each and any sentence.
in the tweets above, you might notice mention of Jon Stewart, the late-night genius, who once saw fit to enter the Chicago architectural fray, a little back-and-forth, you might say, between our hero here, the critic, and the comb-over developer who would go on to rule the Oval Office…watch here the clip of Signfeud, from the Daily Show…
i have now overflowed this space with a kitchen sink of Kamin esoterica and folderol. it is with all the love in the world, and bursting giant heart, that i thank the Chicago Tribune (where, combined, we toiled for 63 years) for bringing me the other half of our double byline. it’s been some rocket ride, and i’ll hold on tight for wherever this takes us next.
much love, BK. i am — in the great Tribune tradition of “clapping out” your final exit from the newsroom — standing and applauding. xoxox
and here’s a final twist for this week’s chair: how bout this, you ask the question this week, and i will try to answer….the annals of the newsroom are now open for the curious…..
maybe the reason i lurch myself out from under the layers of flannel and cotton, and sometimes wool, in the inky hour before the light comes suffusing through the trees off to the east, is so i can tiptoe out under heaven’s dome in the dark, so i can train my eye on the spot where the sky first hints at what’s coming. the spot where we get to the part of the story where it all begins again, where the sun rises and the light creeps up and through the sky, like a wine spill to a white linen napkin.
it’s that first crack of light that always thrills me; the moment right before, when you wonder if really it will come again. and then–so far, anyway–it does. and you can check that worry off the list for the day.
maybe that’s why papa cardinal is always out there too. maybe papa is keeping watch on the sun, making sure it does its job, does what’s expected. maybe papa’s the sentinel of dawn, the one charged with letting us know if there’s ever a day when the sun sleeps in. so far, hasn’t happened. but always good to have someone in the lifeguard chair.
so this business of keeping watch for the light to creep in, it’s a skill that comes in mighty handy. i’d call it essential for the human spirit in dark epochs. which this sure seems to be. if you keep watch on the headlines, anyway. if all you count is the sweeping arc of the narrative, the parts where the death toll mounts day after day, where the holy relics of the “citadel of liberty” were shattered and smashed and carried straight out the door and down the capitol steps, steps that have given me goosebumps every time i’ve so much as pressed the sole of my shoe to their age-worn edges. the part where the soundtrack is so hateful you wonder if you’ve woken up in rome just before the collapse, or vietnam in the middle of an ugly war. or germany. or the boston harbor before the tea went in the drink.
so pretty much the only thing worth doing right now is looking–hard as you can–for the teeniest sliver of light coming in through the cracks in the door.
because i happen to keep close watch on the doings of our nation’s capital, because i sometimes see it as a laboratory of human character–who’s got a spine, who’s got a heart–it tends to be one of the places where i gather my evidence for how much hope might be worth counting on. i promise you i look broadly, across party lines. if i spy decency in human form, if i hear a tale of heroic-level goodness, if i see someone rise amid a sea of protest to say, “i’ve scoured my conscience, and here is the truth, guided by timeless moral code,” i listen up. pay close attention. get ready to take a deep breath and start all over again. rather than collapsing in a moment of utter moral depravity and defeat.
so happens, it was there just yesterday that a little bit of hope came trickling in. well, more than a little. and it wasn’t actually in washington where i spied it. it was off in what’s now become the staging area of a presidency to come. over in delaware, where, on a stage all bedecked in blue, i saw a man who shook himself from his grieving a couple years back because he felt a call to restore the soul of america. and i saw him explaining to a nation (quietly, in not-fancy words) why justice for all matters so much, so deeply fine-grainly much. and then i heard him say who he trusted more than anyone to press his shoulder against the long arc of justice to try to muscle it toward where martin luther king jr. and saint john lewis and barack obama promised us it would bend. and i watched merrick garland, a man who might have spent the last five years with a really bitter taste in his mouth, i watched him quietly, humbly, step to the podium and consent to the task. i watched him agree to step into the arena where the blood stains of injustice are soaked deep into the floorboards, where the pile-up of truths need hours and hours of sorting through, and i saw something like light out of the far corner of my eye.
and that’s not the only place where i look.
i look right here in the nooks and crannies of my little life and i find slivers of light coming in from the oddest angles. i find light where i hear the things my college kid remembers to add to his litany of prayers right before dinner. i find light when a brother i love leaps out of his own sack of worries to bedeck my birthday with nothing short of an explosion of joy. i find light in the pages of old, old books on my shelves. and, sometimes, not so old ones.
these are the lines i’ve recently tucked in my “words and lines worth keeping” file (it’s the third of three such files, because i tend to find many many words worth keeping):
“God does not want to be believed in, to be debated and defended by us, but simply to be realized through us.” Martin Buber
“‘When the evening of this life comes,’ says St John of the Cross, ‘you will be judged on love.’ The only question asked about the soul….‘Have you loved well?’”
“Each of us is the midwife of God, each of us.” St. John of the Cross from Daniel Ladinsky. Love Poems from God.
‘You’ve got to jump off cliffs all the time and build your wings on the way down.” (Annie Dillard)
and, because i am feeling a wee bit queazy here this morning, i’d best sign off, and ask where do you find the light creeping in?
before the light on this new year falls, i am bent at the old maple table, prayer unfurling. the incense simmers on the stove, an extra fat star anise tossed amid the tumble in my spice-stocked pot. i am straining to fill the air with those few pure things, those hopes, those determinations that this year — this nother round of possibility — might bring, other than the cinders we’re shooshing out the door.
i’m no fool, been knocked around enough to know that there’s no prestidigitation in all the world that will suddenly wipe clean the slate, cast all sin, open wide the barn doors for all those gentle kind and tender things we espouse.
but i’ve not lost hope, not every shred. and in finding the words of dear alfred lord tennyson on my doorstep here this morning, i am reminded that in the archeologies of time, strife is the stuff of human existence. it’s always been a battle of forces — of evil versus noble, of stingy versus bountiful, of cruel versus the world those gathered here do believe in.
tennyson, deep in grief at the ringing in of the new year after the death of his dearest friend in 1833, wrote these words in his great elegy, In Memoriam (in sum, tennyson’s masterwork is 133 poems — or cantos — in one), beginning canto CVI, or 106, “ring out, wild bells, to the wild sky…” and he went on to implore a rinsing, an ablution that rings eerily in echo of the now:
Ring out the grief that saps the mind
For those that here we see no more;
Ring out the feud of rich and poor,
Ring in redress to all mankind.
Ring out a slowly dying cause,
And ancient forms of party strife;
Ring in the nobler modes of life,
With sweeter manners, purer laws.
Ring out the want, the care, the sin,
The faithless coldness of the times;
and in the last lines of this canto, tennyson implores:
Ring in the valiant man and free,
The larger heart, the kindlier hand;
Ring out the darkness of the land…
i sign on with tennyson. and believing in simple math — that the smallest increment adds to the aureole of goodness spilling across the undulations of our lives — i commit to baby steps.
sometimes, that’s the hardest truest place to begin. it gets us in the craw of who we are, and muscles up against who it is we aim to be.
so, in part, here goes:
i commit to shrugging off the unkind tone, the odd stumble in a conversation, not garnishing it as ammunition for a cockamamie theory that that someone never liked me in the first place, and thus it’s fair for me to assume defensive posture next time round. i commit to taking a deep-down cleansing breath and resolutely ringing the doorbell of the neighbor who seems to flinch from human contact, delivering without need for words a tin-wrapped loaf of kindness, or whatever seems the wisest gentlest peace-bridging offering. i commit to looking the lost, the hurt, the invisible, in the eye. i commit to picking up the phone, even when i’m dishrag tired. i commit to listening. and i commit to going first when i’m sorry are the words so needed.
if we want a world unlike the one hellbent on taking over, we need be the ones in the trenches. the ones who won’t retreat, relent, surrender.
i’m not talking sweeping social change, or abrupt reverse of course in the global policy department. i’m not so equipped. not steeped in all the necessary tomes for such bold move. i have figured out my place in the chessboard of this life, and i am all the more determined that it’s the fractional advance, the barely perceptible softening of the heart, the extension of the hand, the saying, i see you, i see your pain and i am here for you to lean on, i am here to embolden you, to put courage to your conviction. i am here to sit beside you, for however long it takes.
the daylight is up now, casting faintest shadow on the snow. it’s taken me that long to scroll the annals of my heart, to fix my spot on the map of the new year now upon us. more than anything, as the news pings roll in, as i hold my breath for the days ahead, as i pray the world begins to tilt in the favor of goodness, truth, and, yes, the deepest mercy, i turn to the heavens, i fall to my knees and i echo the good lord tennyson, ring in the larger heart, the kindlier hand, dear holy blessed Adonai, ring out the darkness of the land.
light is what we beg for. light is what we need.
let us be the wicks you spark this day. and the next and the next….
what might be the baby steps to which you commit? no need to write them here, but in your hearts, perhaps?