Turkey Turns. . . .

The Republic of Turkey is a democratic, constitutionial republic which broke from the Ottoman Empire after World War I and declared itself independent.   The nation was born in October 1923 with Mustafa Kemal named as the first President.  Because of Kemal’s immense popularity (due mainly to his efforts to transform this Muslim country into a secular state), Turkey’s Parliament in 1934 bestowed upon Kemal the honorific name “Ataturk” (which means “father of Turks”).

The current Prime Minister of Turkey – Recep Erdogan – has been in power since 2003.   While Erdogan has been praised for his accomplishments and steady hand during the last decade, he has recently been moving in directions which have caused unease.  Turkey is 99% Muslim (Hanafite Sunni) and Erdogan (a member of the Islamist Party) has begun to accept direction from some of the more fundamental members of Turkey’s religious right.   

A few weeks ago, the government decided to demolish Gezi Park — a small green space in the sea of concrete that is Istanbul.  The object?  Build a shopping center.   It was this move to ravage the park that caused the eruption of thousands of demonstrators on the very night we arrived in Istanbul — May 31st.  But it is the Islamic leanings of Mr. Erdogan which has sustained the ongoing demonstrations.  Criticism of Mr. Erdogan has increased given his stifling of criticism, personal liberty and freedom of the press.  And given his capitulation to Islamic fundamentalists on a variety of religious issues, this secular state seems to be threatened.  In the protests, thousands have been detained, hundreds injured and four killed.  Given Turkey’s desire to enter into the European Union, with the EU’s insistence on human liberties among its members, one wonders which fork in the road the country and its leader will take.      

Taksim Square

We arrived in Istanbul and drove in the direction of our hotel — the Crystal (No. 7, Taksim) a little after 9:00 pm on Friday night, May 31st.   The activity going on around us was disconcerting.  Hundreds of people on the streets wearing masks and balaclavas and carrying signs and banners.   All heading to the thousands already gathered in Taksim Square.  Our bus could not make it up the narrow street to Taksim No. 7 so we had to get off the bus and carry or pull our luggage the last block and a half.   The street had barricades a la Le Mis.   It was about halfway up the street that the tear gas hit us.  At first, I thought there was something wrong with my eyes and I began blinking.  Rapidly.  Then squinting.  And I realized — tear gas.   I squinted as hard as I could keeping just enough vision to sherpa my way up the street.  I looked around.  Donna followed in my wake.  Head down.  “Let’s go” I said (quite unnecessarily).   

We mercifully got to the hotel.  One of our number was in distress and being attended.  The lobby was jammed.  People.  Luggage.  The faint whiff of tear gas.  And sweat (the day had been warm).   Our hotel was at near-capacity filled with Libyans (some with medical conditions from the revolution).  And Iranians.  After what seemed an age, we got our room keys and went up to our room.    In our first room, the toilet was flooding.  And the flush mechanism fell into the toilet.   I went down to the lobby.  Got another room and I went up to check it out.  I went in.  And quickly went out.  The room was full of tear gas thanks to wide open windows.  Brilliant. . . .  We got a third room.  Seemed to work.  No tear gas or toilet leaks.  We drank some water and looked at each other.  Welcome to Istanbul.  And we went to bed. 

The next few days were perfection.  We were able to travel around unhindered.   The Blue Mosque.   Hagia Sophia.  Topkapi Palace.  Mass in one of the old Christian churches.  Wow!  But the evenings that weekend made the stay interesting as the crowds gathered in protest. . . .

The Footsteps of St. Paul

Donna and I recently returned from a trip to Greece and Turkey with the Catholic Theological Union (“CTU”) at the University of Chicago.  There were 35 of us making a pilgrimage — following in the footsteps of St. Paul.    

Saul of Tarsus was born in Tarsus in the Roman province of Cilicia in about 5 A.D.  Saul was a Roman citizen but he was also a Jew and a Pharisee.   And as a young man, he zealously persecuted the followers of Jesus of Nazareth and vigorously attacked the early Christian church — and its members.   He played an active role in the stoning of the St. Stephen.  And he was involved in the rounding up and silencing of Christians.  However in or about 35 A.D. while walking on a road to Damascus, Saul of Tarsus was struck down by a bright light and the voice of the Lord (Acts 9; Acts 22).   Saul was blind for three days and upon opening his eyes, he literally saw the light.  He underwent a dramatic conversion and began preaching the Christian gospel to all who would listen.  And he was henceforth known as St. Paul.  St. Paul went on to preach the Gospel of Christianity to Jews, Christians and Gentiles until his death at the hands of the Romans in 67 A.D.    

The pilgrimage with CTU took us to most of the places where St. Paul wrote his iconic letters and to those places where he spent time:  Thessaloniki (I and II Thessalonians); Philippi (Philippians); Corinth (I and II Corinthians); Ephesus (Ephesians); Antakya; Athens; Kavala; and other places.  And we visited Tarsus.  Where it all began.   All I can say is “Wow!”  And. . . St. Paul sure got around.  And we did too.  The trip was a bit arduous on occasion but immensely fulfilling.    The only time of mild concern when we arrived in Istanbul on the evening of Friday, May 31st.  Just after 9:00 p.m.  To our hotel off Taksim Square. . . . .         

The Default Kitchen

During the day, while I’m at work, I will often talk to Donna.  Since my stomach begins growling shortly after lunch, the big late afternoon question is “what’s for dinner?” I’m always hoping against hope to hear something like “we’re having spaghetti carbonara, turkey sausage, avocado salad and some nice cabernet.” Usually, I hear a comeback like “grilled chicken, asparagus and sweet potatoes – with cherry juice.” Lately, however, when I pose that question, I have occasionally detected a 4 second delay in Donna’s response . . . .

Now I am not as dumb as I look.   So when I hear (or detect) that 4 second delay, I normally jump in with “do you want to go out for dinner?” To which I receive the tell-tale counter “do you?”

When we “go out” for dinner during the week, it’s normally to one of two places: Walker Brothers Pancake House or The Noodle. Most often it’s The Noodle – a small 15 or so table restaurant in Wilmette.  There I can get my pasta fix, some wonderful gazpacho and a glass or two of Liberty School cab.  The food is always good, the wine is tops and the people are terrific. 

On those days when things are hectic at home, we will order carry out from the Noodle.  The Noodle has become something of a “default kitchen.”  It’s nice to know it’s there if we need it. 

The Reusable Birthday Card

My wife’s bridge group has a great idea. They reuse birthday cards. All of them find the funniest birthday cards for each other — then they fill out all the information. On a Post-it note. The person’s name is on the envelope — on a Post-it. The sender’s name and inscription is inside the card — on a Post-it. And then they give the cards to the birthday girl at the bridge table or over lunch.  And they laugh and guffaw and yuk it up.   Then the recipient gets to reuse the birthday card — without spending the $4.95 or whatever they cost — for some other lucky recipient.  The card thus brings double and sometimes triple the joy and laughter, saves a few bucks and probably saves a few trees in the process.  Maybe one of these days they’ll have birthday cards where you can fill in the details on a mini Etch-A-Sketch.   

As for Donna — the lucky woman gets an original hand-drawn birthday card for all major celebrations compliments of The Renaissance Hombre. . . .

Sand Lot Baseball

When I was a kid, I played sand lot baseball. We would get 15 to 20 guys on any given Saturday morning in the park by Sunset School.  Two of the older boys (age 12 or 13) would pick the teams. “Meyer” “Shutt” “Kaspari” “Wilkes” “Knox” “Barsi” “Hudson” and so on. “Petersen” was usually one of the last picked.  But no hard feelings. And the game would begin.  Boys ran the game. There were no adult coaches or overseers. When a kid slid into second base and the tag was close, 10 year old boys would decide “safe” or “out.” Sometimes there would be an argument. A shove. Then it was back to baseball. It worked like a charm. . . . Regulations were not needed.  We made the rules as we went along. . . . . and they were fair.    

Government, however, is different.  We are the most regulated country in the world (not to mention the most heavily-taxed).  And it’s getting worse.  Layers and layers and more layers of laws, ordinances, regulations, policies and such.   And there is a tax on everything.   Government grows incrementally.  Counties.  Cities.  Districts.  Municipalities.  Townships.  Each with its own rules.  And regulations.   Whereas it used to be that (not long ago) 1 out of 15 of those employed in America were government workers, today it is 1 out of 4.6 (Bureau of Labor Statistics).   And most earn more than they would in the private sector.  The government does not trust its citizens to play sand lot baseball.  The government trusts no one to make decisions for themselves.   No.  The government wants to regulate every aspect of your life and make decisions for you.   It grows.  With more employees.  More taxes.  And lately with monitoring of your every phone call or email.  Sound cynical?  If you disagree, call me – I have a bridge I’d like to sell you in Brooklyn. . . . .