About Bob Koehler

Friday, October 8th, 2010

Bob KoehlerAchievements and awards are the stuff of bios, but what seems more important to me is the fact that my great-nephew, Joey, then 5 years old, tore across the entire length of his parents’ kitchen with a look of wild glee in his eyes to say goodbye to me; I waited for him in a crouch, caught him full on, barely kept my balance. “Bye, Uncle Bob! I love you!” Wow, I think he meant it. All of which is to say, life itself is infinitely more precious than the masks we don or the monuments we build.

I’m at a point in my life where the resumé I’ve spent a lifetime carving feels like such a damn mask I just don’t want to wear it anymore.

What have I done that is equal to a child’s love? This question humbles me, and the only honest answer is that . . . I have tried to love beyond the edge of my own ego. I held my wife’s hand as she died. I hung in there with my teenage daughter after Barbara’s death, and — with the help of aunts, uncles, cousins, Grandma, countless friends — parented her toward her own luminous adulthood.

In the midst of all that, I managed to scribble down a few million words, a small percentage of which found their way into public view and generated enough positive response to make me think they contributed something of worth to our collective struggle for understanding. I call myself a writer.

I’m also a career journalist: reporter, editor, columnist. I started out working for the late, great Lerner Newspapers, a chain of weekly papers that covered the North Side of Chicago and part of the north and northwest suburbs. I loved that job and stayed at Lerner for a dozen years. I hadn’t expected to, but the job wound up connecting me in vital ways to a pulsating, complex community through which pretty much the whole world was passing; it pulled me out of a naïve self-importance and into my destiny, which has been: to listen to people, to hear their humanity, to find the right words to convey it.

I’ve written a weekly column for a third of my life. For ten years I turned one out at Lerner. Since 1999, I’ve written a column that has been nationally syndicated by Tribune Media Services, which is part of the Chicago Tribune. That column was initially called by the name this website still bears, Common Wonders. It started out more personal than political, then, post-9/11, as the Bush administration unleashed its war on terror, I became increasingly focused on current events. I referred to the column as “part political brawl, part secular prayer.”

I’ve won awards for my writing: from the National Newspaper Association, Suburban Newspapers of America, the Chicago Headline Club and other organizations that bestow blessings on journalists. I’ve been called a hero of democracy and, oh yeah, been wished an inoperable brain tumor. I’ve trespassed, as a journo aiming at a mainstream audience, upon the sacred consensus that America is a dumbed down, spectator nation, yet somehow special, God’s Chosen Superpower, the greatest nation on Earth. Let’s get beyond our limited allegiances, I say, and celebrate our wholeness as a species and a planet.

I’ve been called blatantly relevant.

And I have proclaimed myself, ever since coming across the term at Transcend Media Service, a peace journalist.

“Peace journalism is when editors and reporters make choices — about what to report, and how to report it — that create opportunities for society at large to consider and to value nonviolent responses to conflict.” — Jake Lynch

This idea is so deceptively simple, but unbelievably rare in the 24/7 mediastream that flushes through our lives, peddling horror and fear as though they were . . . sex. News and “entertainment” have lost much of their reflective component and become almost purely reactive. This is intensely troubling to me; the long-term social consequences can’t be good. For this reason, I embraced the concept of peace journalism kind of the way Joey slammed into his great uncle: breathlessly, with full-tilt enthusiasm. It became the lodestar of my maturity as a journalist, and so it remains.

“Nonviolent response to conflict” is, simply put, the foundation of civilization, is it not? Conflict — between and among people, between species, with our planet and universe — is inevitable. Violent response belittles the conflict, shatters the complexity, perpetuates the problem, endangers the innocent and often blows up in our faces. But violence is an industry, shrouded in mythology and consensus. We’re stuck with it, apparently. To my mind, working to undo the mythology of violence is the most responsible act a writer can commit.

Former Washington Post columnist Colman McCarthy once asked: “Why are we violent, but not illiterate?” This question instantly demythologizes violence, consigning it to the same category as all other ignorance. We can strike out at threat or frustration in blind instinct and accomplish nothing, or we can learn to face what frightens or bedevils us calmly and look for solutions. Indeed, we only grow, as individuals and as a society, by trying to solve, rather than obliterate, our conflicts. What is the level of human nonviolent “literacy”? I have no doubt it’s far higher than contemporary culture acknowledges. Jesus and Buddha are still ahead of their times.

Beyond McCarthy’s astute question, which implies a great body of knowledge we are neglecting to teach our children, I believe the search for nonviolent conflict resolution opens a door on the future — on all we do not yet imagine — as well as on our devalued human past. How do we get along? How do we heal our wounds? How do we tell the truth to one another? These are the questions that drive me through each day of my life.

Because we live in a society that is geared to weeding one another out, we skew our resumés toward achievements and accolades. What about deep truth, the core pieces of the puzzle of our personhood? What matters in a “who am I?” sense are my mother’s nervous breakdown when I was 2, my father’s stroke when I was 10, my Lutheran upbringing and my break from it at age 16 — but more than that, simply my incubation in a loving family.

What also matters, I think, is that my thought process was permanently altered one afternoon as I walked home from school at age 11. My knuckles were bruised, I may have had a rip in my trousers, gravel burn on my knee, big wet tears in my eyes. I’d just been in a playground fight. I was a boy. I got into fights. Sometimes, where I grew up, the kids who gathered to watch a fight would break into a little chant: “A fight, a fight,” they’d cry. “Between a nigger and a white.” Then somehow a consensus would manifest in the crowd, they’d choose the kid they wanted to win and heap irony on the designated loser by calling out his name. “Come on, Bobby, beat that white.”

Bobby became the . . .

Get it?

This was not orchestrated. This was not discussed. It just happened: A fight over marbles, let us say, on a playground in Dearborn, Michigan, a proudly all-white (in the 1950s) suburb of Detroit, could summon the entire force field of American racism, could channel the prevailing energy of hatred and bestow it as an anti-blessing on the combatants. The politics of war — I am convinced — unites a nation with the same dark energy.

On this afternoon when I was 11, as I walked home from a fight, with bruised knuckles and a bloody knee, I was overwhelmed by the illogic of what had just occurred, the absolute and utter futility of pounding on another kid and surrendering to a state of fury. I vowed I would never fight again. It was more than a vow; it was a personal paradigm shift, preverbal, life-shaking, non-negotiable.

I’ve spent the half century since that afternoon dealing with the implications.