Clear Blue Skies

Clear Blue Skies

I remember the clear blue sky. I was hiking along the Highline Trail at Glacier National Park.  Mountain goats and sheep dotted the rugged landscape. The day before I had hiked on the other side of the mountain, the other side of the Continental Divide, climbing almost straight up, it seemed to me, along waterfalls past several glacial lakes to the lower edge of Grinnell Glacier.  Looking up I could see an arête, a narrow sharp ridge, far above, with wisps of clouds seeming to surround it.

But this day I was on the other side of the mountain. To the left were sheer cliffs at times, but this was a much gentler climb. This trail slowly rose from the valley floor to the heights. On the right the mountains bent slowly, and in the curves mount goats grazed peacefully on the sparse grass. After an hour or so I came to a marker pointing to the right. “To Continental Divide – 0.6 mi.” was all it said. The short but steep trail led to a sharp edge of rock standing straight up out of the fairly gentle surroundings – a sheer wall separating one side of the mountain from the other.  I had to get up there and look over the other side. The trail was all rock and made the vertical rise the day before seem child’s play. The bright sun highlighted the tan, almost copper, stone against a brilliant blue sky.

I am a hiker not a climber so all I could do was scramble quickly, loose rock, echoing down as I approached the top, perhaps I would get there before I thought about it and got scared. And then I reached the arête. I swung one leg over the top and straddled the slender ridge.  I looked over and realized that I was looking down at the hike I had done the day before. Starting at a much greater elevation for this hike, I hadn’t realized how high I was. There far below me were the seven milky-green glacial lakes I had passed the day before, and the waterfalls. And Grinnell Glacier.  Down below me were wisps of clouds.

But here the skies were clear. As I looked back the way I had come, I saw only a clear blue sky. A brilliant, blinding blue. It seemed as though I could see forever. There was a brisk wind blowing. My perch was precarious, I was literally sitting on the Continental Divide.

I had never felt more alive, more free. I wanted to stay there. There was a tremendous sense of exhilaration.  I felt as though I could do anything.

 I heard a voice calling. Get down from there. You will kill yourself. But I didn’t want to let go of that amazing sense of immortality and power. Unable to move except with great caution, still I felt totally liberated.  Completely invulnerable.

With a certain sadness, I carefully lifted my leg back over the ledge and set it back down on the safer side of the mountain.  It was impossible to walk slowly. The loose rock slid under my feet as I practically slid back to the Highline Trail. Gravity taking me back with greater force than I could have imagined.

Clear blue skies bring back other memories. Mornings when it seemed the world was safe, peaceful lunches in a garden café. Moments which could be shattered in an instant.

And so on this date I remember another day with clear blue skies. A day when the peace was shattered and our national sense of invulnerability was destroyed, and as a nation we chose forever it seems to live in fear  – to yield to darker, more timid voices, that would entangle us in war and homeland insecurity.

But I prefer when I hear of clear blue skies to think of that moment of exhilaration, that feeling of possibility – a time when all choices are still before us.

Leonard Grossman- September 11, 2012


A Few More Minutes

“Would you like a few more minutes?” How many times have you heard those words when a waitperson notices what he or she thinks is indecision in your face when she has finished rattling off the specials? I have been asked that question in tony restaurants in River North and in greasy spoons on the west side. “Would you like a few more minutes?”
Often the server is right and if the menu is complex or I am more than usually overwhelmed (or underwhelmed) by the choices, I accept and she leaves the table, often for far longer than is necessary. But sometimes the server is misreading something else in my expression and I am ready to order.
If I am in a particularly mischievous mood the question may elicit a quite different response. “Would you like a few more minutes?” “Yes! Not right now, but there may come a time when I could really use a few more minutes. Can I save them for then?”
Now I suppose when I first played this game, which usually confuses the waitress, I may have almost subconsciously thought of the ultimate end – the time when may I need an angel to sit on the edge of the bed and grant me time to compose myself for the ultimate deadline. But after many years, the response has lost its ability to stir deeper thoughts and theological implications, at least most of the time.

But on another level I realize “a few more minutes” is what I want or need most often in life – even when I am not procrastinating.
So often, every day, even several times a day, I have a plan, a schedule, things to be done, places to go. But unless I am very early and schedule large amounts of time in between events I usually run out of time. One thing runs over into another.
I have a pretty regular routine. I get up, shower, check my email and websites and then head out to the synagogue for the morning minyan. The service is at 7:30 or 7:45 every morning, depending on the day of the week. I get up just before 6:00 and the Temple is just six minutes from the house. But on so many mornings I find myself at the keyboard answering just one more email or checking one more blog or… or…. And then I arrive just moments after the opening prayer. It has gotten to the point that the people at the minyan look up and smile in mock amazement if I arrive a few minutes before the service begins. In response, I sometimes say that I am just really late for the previous day.
It is not that I lose track of time, but that it goes so quickly and I keep thinking there is time for just one more thing. And then I look at the clock and think, “If only I could have a few more minutes.” Just once I would like to arrive at OLLI a few minutes before my first class and not out of breath.
But if my wish were to be granted it would have to be something I could not build into my plans. It would have to be there after the fact, in the moment, when I have already committed to finishing one thing and should already be on to the next. It is then that I need time to open up and free the space and world around me. If it were earlier, the “few more minutes” would find me in the same quandary. No. The extra time can only come when I am already late.
I should really proof read this one more time, but . . . Where is that waitress when I really need her?
Leonard Grossman May 17, 2011

A simple watch.

Clean design, white face with burgundy dots for numbers.
But as the hour hand touched each dot I noticed a small stick figure
pop-up on the face.
At each hour more figures appeared, corresponding to the number of the hour.
Stick figures, but lithe and athletic.
By three o’clock they began tossing a ball around.
At four, another.
They played as if their lives depended on it.
But they were tiny figures on a watch. What if the ball got away?
Then I looked closer:
A fine filament connected one to the other.
As one tossed a ball, it traveled along a thread to another, keeping it in bounds.
As the hours passed, more figures and more balls.
By six o’clock, the filaments entangled all.
At nine the players valiantly continued play
Though they were entangled in the mesh they were creating.
All connected each to each, each hour their numbers increased.
With each throw they became more tightly bound.
As the hour approached midnight a new fear.
When the clock struck would the face become blank again?
Would life be wiped out? or start all over? or would…?
Tic, tic, tic, tic, tic, tic, tic…..

Trudel’s Truth – A post for Mother’s Day

In 1933, my mother wrote in her diary, “There is no future for Jewish youth in Germany. I think I shall go to Palestine.” “Why would you leave?” her family and friends asked? Today we know she was right. She didn’t go to Palestine, however. Instead, when family in Chicago sent her papers, she came here.

Trudel Adler

Trudel Sails for New York

Instead of keeping a diary, she wrote frequent letters home describing her adventure. Years later she translated the letters into English Tomorrow I will begin a blog in her name with excerpts from her letters. Each post will be posted exactly 77 years to the day from the date on which it was written. These letters will be accompanied by snapshots and memorabilia she kept in an album I have recently recovered.

She wrote her first letter on May 9, 1934 and the blog Trudel’s Truth was begun on May 8, 2011. The first couple of posts are already up. Visit the site at

Creative Plagiary*

I took a creative writing class once. Long ago when I was an English Major at a windswept Midwestern university. The professor was Lucky Strike…Really. Well, that’s what we called Lucien Stryk, behind his back at least. He has gone on to become a well known writer of more than two dozen volumes of poetry, collections, and translations of Chinese and Japanese Zen poetry. In fact there is even an award for the translation of Asian or Buddhist poetry named after him that is given annually by the American Literary Translators Association.

Translation brings me to an interesting subject. What is it that translators do? They take someone else’s work and bring it over into their own words. Isn’t it a kind of authorized plagiarism?

I bring up the question for a reason. It is not exactly guilt, I don’t think. But perhaps learning about the career of Professor Stryk as a translator has eased a burden. He took other people’s writing and put it into his own words.

Stryk had given an assignment. It was due the next day. I went back to the room I was sharing off campus with three other guys. But I couldn’t think of a thing to write. So I did what I often do when I don’t know what to do. I took a nap.

Suddenly, I woke up in a sweat. A story had come to me in a dream. I yelled to one of my roommates: “Quick! A pen!! Paper!!”

I wrote it down feverishly. I could barely keep up with the ideas. I turned in the story and waited for the teacher to comment. A week went by. He called me into his office. He looked troubled.

“I would never have figgered you to be a plagiarist,” he said.

I was stunned. “The story you wrote,” he said. “It bears a remarkable resemblance to a chapter in Richard Wright’s novel, Native Son.

“It can’t be,” I protested. “I have never read the book.” And I thought I was telling the truth.

He reached up to his shelf and handed me a worn paperback copy of Wright’s great book. I read in amazement.
Oh, I had missed many of the details and there were significant differences. My story was about white kids in a neighborhood of tenements in Chicago, like one I had lived in on the north side when I was in elementary school. Not black kids on the south side many years earlier.

And my story didn’t have anything to do with race. It focused on the frustration these inner city kids had growing up within view of the city’s affluent high rises.

They daydream and fantasize being wealthy businessmen — even the president. But there is an underlying resentment at the world they feel trapped in. One has a possible job offer. But it feels servile and beneath his dignity. Somehow they come up with the idea of robbing a local store. It will feel good and they will have some cash in their pockets. But the main character has second thoughts and comes up with a way of forcing the whole thing off without admitting his fears even though it causes a permanent break with the other guys. He commits an act of bravado and walks out of the store alone, very much alone, but with a strange sensation of relief. “He started to laugh,” I had written. “He felt something warm run down his cheek. ‘Jesus,’ he said to himself. ‘I laughed so hard I cried.'”

I looked at Stryk’s worn copy of Native Son.

There on the page in black and white were the almost the exact same words: “‘Jesus,'” he breathed. ‘I laughed so hard I cried.'”

I was stunned. I protested and explained how the story had come to me. That I had never heard of Richard Wright. I didn’t even know enough to be ashamed of that. Somehow I must have been believed because I wasn’t punished. But, for over thirty years I puzzled about that.

Then a few years ago I came across a copy of a collection of short stories and essays called This is Chicago .** It was a book my father had been given when he was in the hospital in the early 50s. Right about the time we lived in that horrible place.

I turned the pages, remembering stories I had read so long ago. And in among the stories I remembered was one I had completely forgotten: “South Side Boy” by Richard Wright. I looked closer – at a footnote to the title. The story was a chapter from Native Son, copyright credit right there on the page. I laughed quietly to myself as my eyes moistened.


*My wife chuckled and challenged the use of the word “plagiary” in the title. But I found the wonderful website and decided to keep it.
** An essay I wrote a dozen years ago relates how I found the book and includes a very short version of this story. See How the Web Brought Back my Childhood, Explained a Mystery, and Made an Honest Man of My Cousin Can one plagiarize from one’s own work?

It is not the wind

It is not the wind.

The house shudders. A cold front is moving across the Midwest. Tiny snow crystals blown by high winds have returned. I hear a wail as it comes down the street, the cold drafts seeping through the walls.

But it is not the wind that I hear and it is not the cold that chills me and frightens me.

It is not the wind that woke me. What I hear is the wail of a thousand children, a thousand thousand children and their parents for whom the safety net has just been removed, from whom hope has just been stolen

I am up in the middle of the night, shaking and in tears at what I fear is the end of the most promising presidency since my childhood. How sad that it seems that it was only our projection on the blank slate of Barack Obama – large shadows of finger puppets projected by a flashlight on a back yard sheet

The President has written himself into a straight jacket from which, I fear he will not be able to get free. His is not Houdini. How can he start a desperately needed jobs program and cut domestic spending? How can he pass the most needed health care reform without initial increases in costs even if they might ultimately result in savings? How can the economy be restored without stimulating small business and entrepreneurs? How can families survive without extensions of unemployment insurance, and food stamps and job training and . . . and . . .

We have waited a year for bold action. We should have known better. Bold action is more than rhetoric.

When I saw the headline in my email Monday night, “President Obama Rather Be Really Good One Term President – ABC News,” I knew another shoe would drop. It reminded me of all the Presidents who have boasted of doing the hard thing when it would have been easier to do what was popular – In each case they were doing what they thought would be popular instead of the right thing.

I pray that I am wrong, that it was only a nightmare and in the morning I will find I imagined it all or that somehow I am missing something and that Wednesday night he will make sense of it all and soar again.

But I fear it is not just the wind that keeps me awake tonight.

Closing the Circle

On New Years Eve, I will retire from the Labor Department after nearly 31 years in the Office of the Solicitor. My interest in workers’ rights began in my childhood as I heard stories of workers compensation cases my father litigated in the 1930s and 40s. He told stories of meat packers with frozen fingers and other such tales but the most legendary was the Case of the Living Dead Women, the story of the radium dial painters of Ottawa, Illinois. The dramatic story (which has now been turned into a wonderful play, These Shining Lives) is captured in a website I have created from hundreds of original newspaper reports on this groundbreaking litigation, establishing the right of workers to seek relief years after the onset of illnesses of which they were not aware. The website is at There is also a new novel, Radium Halos, by Shelley Stout which explores the plight of the radium girls and goes beyond it.

It was a winding trail from my father’s death when I was an adolescent, through ten years of teaching in Chicago’s inner city and a few months with an insurance defense law firm, but then a few months before my daughter was born in 1979, I was hired by the Chicago Office of the Solicitor in the waning months of the Carter administration. (An especially timely reminder this week is that the FEHB did not consider my wife’s pregnancy a pre-existing condition and in effect, as I have often joked, I joined Labor in time to pay for the labor.)

It has been my privilege to work in a field that has allowed me to follow in my father’s footsteps, not only as a lawyer but in the field of workers rights. There have been a few dramatic moments and many contrasts, such as the day I picked up a check for more than six million dollars, resolving an early ERISA case involving mob related healthcare and pension plans. On the same day I found in the mail a $300 check resolving a MSPA case (or perhaps it was still FLCRA).

Every lawyer, if he or she is lucky enough, may have the opportunity to place one brick in the wall of justice. For me it was the Lauritzen case in the mid 80s, establishing that migrant workers were employees, not independent contractors. I am especially grateful to the latitude given me by my office to work not only with Wage and Hour in both Wisconsin and Texas, but also Legal Action of Wisconsin and Texas Rural Legal Aid, in litigating this Fair Labor Standards Act, which also included Child Labor issues. I also must thank Paula Coleman, now retired from the FLS division, for being willing to work so closely with a young staff attorney from Chicago on the appeal to the Seventh Circuit.

Over the years I have been able to work in almost every area litigated by the SOL, from MSPA to MSHA, from OFCCP to OSHA. I am especially proud of some of the work with regard to union democracy under the LMRDA. In the right hands, enforcing the right of union members to fair elections is, I strongly believe, a pro-union activity.

I have been privileged to work with wonderful investigators and management from so many agencies, Wage and Hour, EBSA, OSHA, OFCCP. I have come to recognize the dedication and sometimes zeal on the front lines and the role lawyers can take in harnessing that energy in ways that lead to effective enforcement.

When I came to this office it was still under the leadership of one of the pioneers in our field, Herman Grant, who was Regional Attorney before there were regional solicitors. Carin Clauss was the Solicitor of Labor. She continued the fight in amicus briefs filed when administrations changed and began to reverse positions carefully developed by the pioneers in this Department. The values they instilled informed my view of the role of this Agency. The lawyers of the Chicago Office continue in that tradition.