Cape memories

My wife and younger daughter are on Cape Cod this week, and it’s been quiet around the house in their absence. But I wanted to share some old pictures before they left, because time moves so fast, and one day’s little kids become another day’s adolescents/teenagers. Enjoying this process–as I’ve always tried to do–is the best we can hope for.

Shut down Volkswagen

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My parents had a light blue Volkswagen Beetle like the one pictured above when I was a kid, and I called it a “Vopiad” because I couldn’t say “Volkswagen.” It’s a happy memory for me.

But those warm fuzzys have been abolished forever by the way Volkswagen has behaved since 2009. They installed software that was specifically designed to beat emissions testing into many of their models, but which then shut off when the car was not being tested. Their cars thus spit many times the allowable limits of pollutants into the air, which I and everyone else on the planet had to breathe.

Volkswagen is paying for their deception, as they should. But the settlement funding seems to be directed to the people who bought these cars in the first place. Those of us who breathed in foul air over these past few years apparently won’t see a dime in damages.

I frankly don’t want any money from Volkswagen, but I do want them to pay. And the only fitting penalty I can imagine is to have them shut down for good, permanently unable to soil our environment with their products ever again.

This won’t happen, of course, but it should. There’s nothing Volkswagen can do, and no check they could ever write, that will undo the environmental damage they’ve caused through their subterfuge. May the people who dreamed this scheme up–and who knew and did nothing about it through the years–be criminally punished for what they have done. And may the name “Volkswagen” forever be synonymous with irreversible environmental damage. They’ve certainly earned it.

Birthday wishes to my kids’ Uncle John

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Iles Park, Springfield, IL, circa 1975

My sister, my older younger brother, and I were all born in June. My brother’s birthday comes first on the calendar, so the family birthday season kicks off today.

We had a lot of fun together through the years, and even if I’m not happy with how I look in this old photo, I’m glad to have a reminder of us being kids together.

I hope he has a great day, and a great year following after that.

MMM, Donuts

For International Donut Day, I wanted to see if it was possible to go five years of writing a blog and NOT mention donuts along the way. Turns out it isn’t, at least not for me.

The Dunkin’ Donuts ad pic was taken on a visit to Fenway Park shortly before I began this blog journey back in 2011, but I apparently never wrote anything about it. Until now, anyway.

The glazed donut pic was added to a piece that I wrote remembering Halloweens gone by, from my youth in Jerome, Illinois.

And as a bonus sweet treat, here’s the story of the 16 year-old who is credited with inventing the donut hole. Wherever you are today, Hanson Crockett Gregory, we are all in your debt.

 

Shakedown, 1979

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I was never a very big fan of Smashing Pumpkins, but I do like their song 1979. The nostalgic video for the song conjures up some images from being a kid at around that time. 1979 was either at or near the end of my childhood, but whatever lay ahead in life was still off in the distance. I hardly knew what would come at me next.

When I started writing this blog five years ago (minus about a month or so), it was a story that set everything in motion. I went to a garage sale and found the sort of thing that the eleven-year-old I once was would have thought was pretty cool. I wrote about it from an adult’s perspective, but I was really–now that I’ve had a few years to think about it–trying to tell the story of the man I’ve become in the years and decades since 1979.

My nickname as a kid was “Robbie.” I don’t think I’ve ever brought that up before, and it wasn’t too long after 1979 that I realized “Robbie” was a child’s name, and started calling myself “Rob” instead. Over the course of time, Rob has gone by “Robert” in official, formal settings and “R. Lincoln” as a nom de plume, to separate myself from all the other Rob/Roberts out there with my last name. But I’ve made it a practice to avoid calling or thinking of myself as “Robbie.”

The Smashing Pumpkins song on the radio this afternoon brought memories of Robbie flooding back to me. Robbie liked the disco that was on the radio that summer, but then he heard rock and roll from the Eagles and other artists, and disco became a thing of the past. Robbie grew–a lot–in the years ahead, and became a clumsy, awkward kid. He never did lose the glasses, and the terrible haircut he once had didn’t get much better, either.

Robbie was afraid of everything in 1979. He couldn’t take swimming classes because he was afraid of drowning. He was afraid of dying, because he didn’t yet understand that everything dies, someday.

Robbie had barely ever been outside of Illinois in 1979. He had never flown on a plane, or spent the night in a hotel, or ever had occasion to tell anyone a story about anything. He really didn’t have anything to say, let alone a way of capturing his thoughts for anyone to consider.

But it’s now more than three decades later, and Rob has done things that Robbie never dreamed of. In some way, the 1,500 posts and 500,000 words that Rob has created in this space over the past five years are a record of his life. Robbie can’t read those stories, because he got left behind back in the late 70s or early 80s, but he would greatly enjoy learning about how his life has turned out.

 

My Dancing Queens

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When you have two lovely, artistic-minded kids and a few thousand pictures saved on a hard drive, as I do, putting something like this together when you learn about #InternationalDanceDay isn’t very difficult. Call it a labor of love.

May everyone do a little dance today.

Saying thanks to The New Yorker

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Many years ago (almost 34 years, to be exact) I wrote a letter to the editor of a wrestling magazine. The young teenager that I was at the time watched a lot of professional wrestling on TV, and they were to me what Batman and Superman were for those who read comic books. Dusty Rhodes, Ric Flair, Dick the Bruiser and, most of all, Roddy Piper were living, breathing examples of escapism and super powers. I would practice wrestling moves on the bed at home, or with my two younger brothers. It was a fun time in my life, and I miss it in some ways.

I felt sufficiently moved by my admiration for Roddy Piper to write a letter and put it in the mail slot of the hospital where I went to visit my dying grandmother. I never really thought they would publish it, though. Just saying it, or writing the words down, was enough for me at that time. But they published my letter in the fall of 1982, and the excitement I got from seeing my words and my name in print is something I haven’t since forgotten. My name has occasionally made its way into print, but literally millions of my words have been submitted  for public review since then. It’s tremendously gratifying to know that many of my ideas and words are floating around, somewhere.

Two days ago, in the aftermath of Prince’s sudden and shocking death last week, I was again moved to send out a letter to the editor of a magazine, this time The New Yorker. I was barely aware of who Prince was back in 1982 when I wrote my first letter to the editor, but I learned not too long after that. And just as the Internet has come along and brought great change to the way news and ideas are shared with the public, I didn’t actually write out a letter this time, but I did compose the following as an email:

It’s April 25, and the news of Prince’s sudden passing still feels shocking and raw. We’ve all had a weekend to mourn and reflect on what his music meant for those of us who grew up in the 80s, as well as those who either discovered his music after that, or those who followed his newer music right up until the end. It’s a hard time for all of us, no matter which category we may fall into.

Your April 25 cover is a fascinating glimpse into this present day. There’s just no way that anyone connected with your magazine could have known that, by the date appearing on the cover itself, we would lose a man who was an absolute wizard on the electric guitar. Nor could you realize that the man whose music broke down every barrier–racial, gender, and generational, to name just a few–would leave us within days of this cover’s appearance. And yet, there it is on your cover, in red and blue (and the fact the two colors combine to make purple is another inexplicable coincidence).

We can see people of all concert-going ages, backgrounds, and stations in life joined together in a room, enjoying themselves in a way that would not be possible in any other public setting. The guitar’s fretboard we can see on the cover, but the guitarist’s identity in this idyllic scene remains unknown. My interpretation is that the guitarist most likely to make such a gathering possible is the one who is being commemorated in purple in your next issue.

I’m already thinking of these as the most accidental–and yet most appropriate–covers pairing that we’ll ever see. Many thanks for such an unintentional gift.

Whether the New Yorker does anything with this note is besides the point. I had something to say, and I said it. And the internet and this blog allow me share this message with whatever part of the online world wants to read it, too. Just having an outlet for the idea is enough. And when the Prince tribute cover arrived in the mailbox today, I had to put the covers side by side and share them here. They are the beautiful ones, indeed.

The sky was all purple

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Springfield, Illinois–the town where I grew up–doesn’t have very many suburbs, but I lived in one of them. And for this suburban child of the 80s, the electric guitar reigned supreme. Led Zeppelin was my favorite, of course, but any record would either rise or fall in my estimation of it, based solely upon the level of guitar work it held forth.

Eddie Van Halen was in the pantheon of guitar gods, and others sometimes entered into his dominion. Sammy Hagar played some mean guitar, and those two joining forces in the 80s made me absolutely giddy with joy. Judas Priest had two dueling guitarists, which also raised their stature, at least for me. In a nutshell, to paraphrase Gordon Gekko, guitar was good.

Prince’s Purple Rain provided the first glimpse to me of how gifted he was on the guitar. The solo at the end of “Let’s Go Crazy” was ferocious, and the only thing I knew that was any better turned out to be that album’s title track. Prince sings the final lyric to that song, lets out a note that would make Les Paul proud, and then punctuates a beautiful song with some positively searing guitar work. None of the spandex-clad dudes from the Sunset Strip could touch that.

Maybe that’s why I loved Prince’s halftime show at the Super Bowl so much. He asks the crowd “Can I play this guitar?” and then proves to everyone that yes, he can play it, and better than any other guitarist could.

Nobody ever puts Prince high enough on the list of “greatest guitar players of all time.” Names like Hendrix and Clapton and Jeff Beck invariably appear, and they’re all great artists. I would not want to disparage any of them. But when Prince chose to turn it loose on the guitar, nobody did it like him.

I’m watching the sunrise this morning in Wilmette, Illinois (although I don’t actually live here). The suburban kids who live here, and in a million other places, might not treasure the electric guitar in the same way that I once did. But those who do would be well-advised to savor the guitar work Prince laid down through the years. Then they might understand how a little bit of greatness can go a very long way.

A siblings day remembrance

 

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I was very fortunate to have some fun people to grow up with. Peg is my only sister, John is my older little brother, and Mickey is my younger little brother. I could tell stories about them all (and I have to my own kids, at various times), but I’ll let the pictures do the talking here.

Thanks for all the memories and laughs!

Now it’s Mom’s turn

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Last month, on the occasion of my Dad’s birthday, I shared a picture of him and a few words in this space. His clothes and his hair had changed over the 40 years since the picture was taken, but he’s still around and I’m very glad about that. He didn’t pull a David Bowie and die two days after his birthday (and yes, my dad is at the same age Bowie was when time caught up with him).

So today, a mere six weeks later, it’s my Mom’s turn. She too is in her 1970s finery, in this case a brown sweater that you can look at and almost hear the opening bars to Hotel California or Don’t Stop playing in the background somewhere. I grew up in the ’70s and the ’80s, and while I love the music of the 80s, the fashions of the 70s were so much more interesting.

My mom gave everything she had to me and my siblings, as we were growing up so many years ago. The only way to repay that is to recognize it (which simply can’t be done as you’re growing up yourself) and then, if the time comes, to do the same for your own kids. The circle is then reinstated, and the world keeps spinning on.

I know that my Mom reads my blog (she’s one of the few, I would imagine) so I’m happy to share a few words (and a groovy picture) in the hopes that we’ll get to do this all over again every March 24, into the foreseeable future.

Cheers to you, Mom. And thanks very much.

The coolest card so far

Baseball cards are a cheap buzz for me. It goes back to when I was six or seven years old, when my dad gave me some change and told me I could go into the store by myself and buy a pack of baseball cards. It was the first thing I had ever purchased on my own, and it had an effect on me that I still remember all these years later. Needless to say, baseball has been important to me all through my life.

There’s a thing I do, sometimes, when I find myself in a Dollar Tree store. Up by the registers, they offer a variety of trading cards and stickers for sale. Sorting through them takes some time, but there’s a company that packages 30 cards together, of all years and brands, for the grand sum of one dollar. Somebody once got the idea that these things had some intrinsic monetary value, and as a result there are now billions of them, sitting on the shelves in Dollar Tree stores everywhere, waiting for someone like me to help relieve the oversupply.

The collective value of 30 old baseball cards isn’t even 30 cents, so it’s not a financial proposition for me. These things cost a penny apiece when I was a kid, because that’s all the value they have. Anyone who thinks otherwise is a fool.

But each pack of these things is a chance to find something interesting. The cards are old enough that the “promising rookies” who petered out and never got a whiff of the major leagues can be identified. Every player is a story that’s as easily discovered as a trip to google or baseball-reference.com. 30 potential stories for a dollar? It’s hard to beat that.

So yesterday I found myself in a Dollar Tree store, and I picked up a pack of old baseball cards. The cheap buzz comes in from tearing open the plastic, looking at the cards inside, and enjoying the rush of potential discovery. It’s probably what heroin feels like for some people, but without the side effects like addiction and the risk of an OD. It’s the lowest grade rush that I’m willing to look for.

Yesterday’s pack contained the most unusual and unexpected card I’ve ever run across. The pictures of the front and shown above, but basically the Score company, in 1991, put an American flag on the front of a card, and a prayer for the safety of soldiers in the first Iraq war (and for world peace in general) on the back. There was no has-been (or never-was) baseball player shown, but a reminder that baseball is the American game, and some things are far more important than being able to hit a curveball (or to throw one, for the pitchers of the world).

I thought of my friends who went to Iraq, and those who have served our country in uniform. Having never done so myself, I am grateful for those who do. I don’t like wars, and I’m critical of politicians who send soldiers into battle for reasons that later turn out to be false and misleading.  But that doesn’t mean the bravery and sacrifice of those in uniform is lost on me. Far from it.

This piece is written to honor those who serve, and to recognize that the 30 chances to tell a story in each pack of outdated old baseball cards can sometimes lead to something much more interesting than I ever thought possible.

A day with my mom

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I’m getting to a place in life where many of the people I know have lost one or both of their parents. I have to admit to an embarrassment of riches on this front, because both of my parents are still with us, and still physically and mentally vibrant. I don’t usually think in terms of blessings, but it’s impossible to see this as being anything else.

My mom came to Chicago this weekend, to see both of my daughters perform onstage. The weather was abnormally spring-like for late February, and I was glad because it allowed us to get out and enjoy the city. The planet’s still in trouble from all the things we’ve been doing to it, but at least it gave me the chance to enjoy a day with my mom. Everything’s relative, isn’t it? And yes, I did intend that pun to get through.

My mom has given me and my siblings everything she had, and feels bad that she couldn’t do more. I feel that way about my own kids, and every parent has the same feelings, I suspect. But if we’re really lucky, we’ll get the chance to spend a day with them and tell them how much it is appreciated. That’s what love is made of.

 

My hipster dad

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About five years ago, or perhaps even longer than that, my parents gave me a box filled with old memories like report cards, event programs, birthday cards and, most importantly, pictures. The photos from my youth have certainly been fodder for many interesting #TBT posts on Facebook and other social media outlets.

Once a photo makes it onto the Internet, it can live forever in the online world. And so it is with this beauty, taken in the Summer of 1976. My dad, who was not yet 30 years old, is holding my baby brother, who is turning 40 years old himself this summer. I love the colors, the glasses, the hair, and the way this photo preserves a moment in time that can never be brought back again.

Today’s my dad’s birthday, and I wish him the very happiest of days. And, as a bonus, I offer this image of his bad self, so that 40 years from now someone else can appreciate that 70s style.

Scars that can’t be seen

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For the 30th anniversary of the Space Shuttle disaster in 1986, I offered up my memories of that terrible day on my Facebook page, and then shared the senior year photo that I had taken when I was 17 and thought that the future would go on forever.

Looking at it again today, I was struck by the absence of the ever-present scar under my right eye. When I had the picture taken, I requested that the photographer airbrush it out, because vanity wouldn’t allow me to share it with everyone else in the senior yearbook pages. I couldn’t get them to fix my chipped front tooth, but removing the scar made me feel good even though, as I type this out, it’s still there on my face, as it has been since I was about 9 or 10 years old.

As I looked at the picture today, for the first time in decades, I thought back to the day it happened, when I got the scar that will follow me to my grave. It’s strange that I never really thought about it before today. Like my belly button and my fingers and toes, I just considered it to be a natural, immutable part of me. It may well be immutable, but it sure wasn’t natural.

Back in the summer of either 1978 or 1979, my siblings and I kept ourselves occupied in the summertime at what we called “the playground thing” run by the local recreation department at the elementary school I attended. Had it been anyplace else I wouldn’t have gone, but I was familiar with how to get there, and it was fun to play sports and shoot carroms and do things that kids used to do before video games captured everyone’s imagination, mine included. Once the Atari set in around 1980 or 1981, I wouldn’t have done anything like this. But in hindsight, it was a lot of fun.

At the end of the summer, there was a wrap-up event at Iles Park in Springfield, which was a block away from where my grandma and grandpa lived. Again, if I wasn’t familiar with the park already I wouldn’t have gone, because I wouldn’t hav been able to convince my mom to take me someplace I knew. Such was life for the 10-year-old that I was back then.

So we played games and ate food and had fun with lots of kids we didn’t know from all around the city. I was having a great time, when a kickball game was arranged on a baseball diamond. I had only played kickball on the asphalt playground at my school, so playing it on a dirt infield was a new treat. What a day I was having!

I don’t think I knew anybody who was on my team that day, and that made it even more fun. Since I played first base sometimes on my Khoury League baseball team, I gravitated over to that position when we took the field for the kickball game. And when some kid on the other team lifted the ball into the air to my right–toward second base–I knew I could catch it. I focused on the ball, took a few steps to my right, and then–nothing.

Well, not exactly nothing. Nothing that I can remember is a better way to put it. The next thing I knew I was in the hospital, with stitches being applied to my face. 13 stitches in all. I had collided with an older, bigger kid who was playing second base and was convinced that he could have caught the same ball that I was chasing after. I never saw him coming, and the force of the impact drove my plastic glasses frames into my cheekbone. One of my front teeth had also sustained a chip that wasn’t fixed for many years after that. While dentistry could mask one of the effects of that day, surgery to hide the scar was never really an option. My glasses had created the scar, but they can hide it pretty well, too. It isn’t until people see me without glasses on that they even notice it’s there. And that’s fine with me.

I looked at that retouched photo today and thought–for the first time–about the kid who ran into me that day. I heard that he had got on his bike and rode away after it happened. Maybe he didn’t want to hang around and see if I was OK. And in the big picture, I turned out fine, the chipped tooth and the scar notwithstanding. I wondered where he is now, and what happened with his life. I wondered if he remembers a kickball game on a baseball diamond in Iles Park a very long time ago. But then again, he didn’t end up with the souvenirs that I did, so why would he remember it like I do?

Questions like this are ones you can never get the answers to, and it’s better that way. What happened on that day was as much my fault as it was his. And since he was bigger than I was at the time, I got the worst of our collision. That’s life. Some days you get the bear, and some days the bear gets you.  So to the unknown kid, whoever and wherever you are, please know that life went on for me after that day. And it only took 35 years before I gave you another thought. That’s pretty good, right?

 

I was once a Cardinals fan

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Forty years ago, I was a fan of the St. Louis Cardinals. My dad took me to my first baseball game–a doubleheader against the Mets at the old Busch Stadium in St. Louis–in late July of 1975. It was the most exciting thing I had yet experienced in life, and the result was a love for baseball that continues to this day.

My time as a Cardinals fan was brief, however. I found the Cubs and Wrigley Field on a TV broadcast in late September of 1975, and they have been my choice team ever since. I couldn’t watch the Cardinals on TV in those days, and that was enough to shift my loyalties to the team from the north.

Had I remained a Cardinals fan, which there are more of than Cubs fans in the city I grew up in, life would be different, I’m sure. The Cardinals are accustomed to winning, and their success makes them the red yang to the Cubs’ blue yin.

This season could offer more of the same, as the Cardinals have the best record in the game, and the Cubs are trying to chase them down over the last six weeks of the season and into the playoffs. However it turns out, I’ll always look back at that short two-month period in 1975 as an example of how life can bring about changes.

And with that in mind, go Cubs!

Running away from me

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My little one was in a hurry to get back to the ranger station and get a plastic junior ranger badge. It wasn’t anything more meaningful than that.

Even so, it felt like a metaphor of some kind. Like her youth is getting further and further away. And when that happens –as I know it must–it makes me very sad.

I first came to the Smoky Mountains when I was about her age. And I hope she comes back someday, with her own kids. But for now, I’ll just enjoy my time with her as much as I can. That’s all there is to do.

UPDATE: This was first written in the fall of 2014, and not recovered again in my Drafts folder until the summer of 2015. I lost the image I wanted to use for this when I switched cellphones in late 2014. The picture above is from an April, 2015 trip to California (Monterey, if anyone really wants to know). But perhaps not surprisingly, the feelings that inspired this draft ten months ago in the Smoky Mountains are still just as strong today, and perhaps even a bit stronger than before. I suppose that feeling isn’t going to go away.

Spending an afternoon with my mom

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There’s a scene from Good Will Hunting that has stayed with me, more so than the remainder of the movie. In the scene, the Minnie Driver character says that she would trade all of the money she has to spend another day with her dead father. And the reason she would is because once somebody is gone, there’s no way of bringing them back. So enjoy your loved ones while you still can.

My mom was 21 years old when I was born. At an age when I was still finishing up college and enjoying the carefree (as in, child-free) days of my early 20s, my mom didn’t have that. She had me and my sister and two brothers to contend with. Not that it was an actual competition, but she had demands on her time and resources that I can’t imagine. And she did a great job of raising us, I have to say.

I’m very pleased to report that she’s still with us today. I get to enjoy spending time with her while she’s still young enough to get around without a wheelchair or a walker. And we did exactly that a week ago, for the funeral reenactment of Abraham Lincoln. It was six hours in the car to spend four or five hours with the woman who did so much for me back when I was unable–and sometimes unwilling–to appreciate what that meant. It was a trade that I was glad to make.

I know that my mom reads my blog. So in a sense, I’m writing to her knowing that she will see it and probably get emotional. I’m getting emotional writing it, myself. But on the off chance that anybody else ever finds this online, here’s a picture and a story about my mom. She, like all mothers, loved her children and didn’t get nearly enough in return for her emotional and financial investments through the years. This is a humble attempt to repay a debt that can never be fully squared. And I’m very pleased to still have the opportunity to make payments on this account.

Playing a new game

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A few days before my family and I left for a vacation in California, my little one told me that she had been reading my blog, and it made her sad. It’s certainly not something that I wanted to hear, so I decided to ask her why.

“You tell stories about the run and jump and other things we don’t do anymore, and I miss them” she told me.

I told her that I wrote stories here so that she and I could have a record of them, and if we outgrew them one day–and we’re bound to do with most things–we can look back at them fondly. And if some stranger we’ve never met before wants to read the stories, that’s OK too. Better to have the stories than to rely on our memories, which are wonderful things but are not always as reliable as they could be.

My reply seemed to satisfy her, and I was reminded of our conversation a few days later, when we were on a beach near Pacific Grove, California. We were on the 17 Mile Drive, which I had never heard of before and now I’ll hardly ever forget it. But there’s a story to tell that I hope she finds some day.

The waves came crashing in, as they always have done before, and the two of us decided to turn this experience into a race. We would walk out toward the water as the wave was coming in, and after it crashed and the water came ashore, we’d begin to backpedal, all the while saying “back…back…back” as if this would keep the water away from us.

A successful round was going all the way back before the water reached your toes or–in my case–your shoes. It was fun because even if you misjudged the wave’s size or speed, the worst that would happen is some surprisingly cold water would touch your feet. With all of the hardships in the world, a few moments of trying to outrun an ocean wave felt like a rare treat.

We called our game “Back…Back…Back” and I’d be surprised if we ever had an occasion to play the game again. But it marked our time on the beach that day, and proved to me that while some games might be outgrown or cast aside, our love and our ingenuity never will.

Farewell, Harris

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When I played youth baseball in the Khoury League many years ago, there was one kid on my team I really hated. And hate isn’t a feeling I come by very easily, either. But I had my reasons, and they came flooding back to me this evening. The best thing about writing a blog is having some outlet for the thoughts and stories that swirl around inside my head, so here goes with this one:

Harris is my last name, but I never thought of referring to anyone by using their last name. Tom Jones would have been Tom to me, not Jones. But this teammate of mine delighted in calling me “Harris.” Even though he had the same first name that I did, he never once referred to me by my first name. I found it strange and more than a bit disrespectful, and if I was a different sort of kid I would have let him know about it. But I was a tall, awkward kid who wasn’t prone to violence, so I let it go. There were other things worth getting upset about, I suppose.

The way that “Harris” was pronounced made it even worse. It was a drawn-out nasally sneer, like “Haaaaaris,” and it was irritating enough to hear it in the first place. But to then realize that not only was I being mocked, but so were my parents, my siblings, and essentially my entire family, it made it really hard to hold that inside. So I internalized it, instead.

As far back as I can remember, I think of myself as “Harris” whenever I’m trying to get something across to myself. “We need to get this project done, Harris, before it’s due next week.” Things like that. As much as I didn’t like it when someone else called me Harris, I have routinely allowed myself to do it. It’s a coping mechanism, you might say.

Over the past few weeks, as I discovered that an actor named Harris Wittels had a recurring role on the show “Parks and Recreation,” I thought about how cool that was. Somebody was actually given Harris as their first name, and everyone who came into contact with him called him that, and not in an insulting manner. Even better, the character he played on the show was also named Harris. It’s annoying that Tony Danza always played characters named Tony on screen, but when Harris Wittels became Harris onscreen, it was nothing short of awesome, at least for me.

When I learned today that Harris died at the age of 30 from a drug overdose, I was shocked and a little bit saddened. I know that “Parks and Recreation” is finishing up its run soon, but Harris Wittels still had lots of time to do other things. Maybe he would have gone and been Harris again somewhere else, or perhaps written other books to go along with Humblebrag. The entertainment industry was his oyster, and now he’ll be mentioned in the same breath as Chris Farley and Freddie Prinze. It’s a shame, really.

I’m now at an age where whenever somebody dies–whether I knew them or not–the first thing I want to know is how old they were. Somebody who dies at 52, like Jerome Kersey just did, reminds me that the end can come at a relatively young age. Although I have zero in common with Jerome Kersey, he got to walk the earth for 52 years, so hopefully I’ll get at least that much time myself.

But 30 is another story altogether. Harris Wittels found that drugs were to his liking, and his success afforded him both the money and the opportunity to indulge this habit. I never had either of these things when I was 30, and looking at what happened to him, I’m glad of it. Something is going to get me one day, but it won’t be drugs, I hope.

So from a Harris who lives a life of anonymity, to a Harris who appeared to have the world by the tail, thanks for wearing the name like a badge of honor. I wish you had allowed yourself more time to do it.

Rethinking the Arts

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When I was a kid, only one thing qualified as “art.” Paintings, done by men who were already long dead, were art. My mom used to come to my school and teach “Art appreciation” to give the kids a break from the daily reading, math, and history grind. And thus, art was a painfully narrow term in my world.

I never considered writing or producing music as being “art.” Likewise, dancing was not art, nor was singing, writing, acting, designing, or any other form of creative expression. Television was the dominant artform of my youth, but if you told me that Sheriff Lobo was an actor and therefore an artist, I would not have believed it.

Last night, one of my daughters performed in her school play, while the other one skated in an ice show. Both of them are, and have alway been, artists in this sense. I love watching them perform, whether it’s onstage, on ice, or just singing songs around the house. They love the arts, and I’m enormously grateful for this. And I hope that–unlike me when I was their age–they appreciate what the full range of the arts are. Artists aren’t just dead guys who could paint.

Like a trip through the past

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If I could go back and see myself as an adolescent, I would probably find him in an arcade.

Aladdin’s Castle at White Oaks Mall is where I first caught video gaming fever, and if I had to put a date on it it would be around 1980. I eventually moved my video gaming to the Wabash Amusement Center, which was located at a bend where MacArthur turned into Wabash Avenue. I would ride my bike there several times a week, and shovel away my paper route earnings one quarter at a time.

Last night, with my wife and younger daughter away at a skating competition, and my teenager sleeping at a friend’s house, I found myself alone on a Saturday night. So I did exactly what I would have done as a 12 or 13 year-old, and I went to an arcade. And it was a lot of fun, too.

I played games that I had forgot even existed. I played Space Invaders and Defender, Zaxxon and Asteroids, Pac Man and Joust. I even played a game of pinball, although that was never really my thing. But finding the Donkey Kong machine was the peak of the experience.

Donkey Kong was always the first machine I sought out at the WAC, and the other games were what I played when someone else was on it. My high score back in those days was 204,000 and I had no illusions I would be playing at that level in 2014. In fact, the 13 year-old me would have disgusted with my play last night, but then again I’m not happy with the choices that the 13 year-old me made with our money, either. So I guess it all works out in the end.

After the last token was inserted into the coin slot, and the adolescent nostalgia bug had been thoroughly scratched, I went back to my car and drove home. Aladdin’s Castle and the Wabash Amusement Center went away a long time ago, but the kid who once frequented them still walks the earth, periodically indulging his prior obsession with a mixture of fondness and regret. But as always, he’s glad for the experience he had, and the memories they can still provide.

In with the new

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Yesterday I took my little one to the Chicago park where the playground equipment was removed earlier this year. Life moves on, and in a matter of a few years this will be the only equipment anybody can remember.

Adjusting to changes is something we all do. Some changes we can control, and others take us by surprise. But whatever their genesis is, we have to take them as they come.

My little one is now too old to appreciate the new equipment as she once did. The changes in her are more significant than the playground equipment could ever be.

I was able to coax her onto the swings for a little bit, and the sight of her swinging to and fro made me smile. Perhaps one day she’ll even feel as I do, but that probably won’t happen until she has children of her own. That’s something to look forward to, I suppose.

Here’s to Baseball and Sand Castles

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My kids don’t know from Peanuts, the comic strip that was a big part of my life as I was growing up. They’ve seen the Charlie Brown holiday specials and can name Snoopy, Woodstock, Lucy and all the others, and that’s something, I suppose. But when I was their age, back in the 1970s and 1980s, each day brought a new strip in the local newspaper. I took it for granted back then but things change, just as they always have.

Newspapers aren’t what they used to be, and new Peanuts strips haven’t been published since early 2000, when Charles Schultz retired and passed away at essentially the same time. And into that void my own children have grown up.I feel like they’ve missed out on something, in a way.

To honor the 64th anniversary of the first Peanuts strip in 1950, I’m presenting some of my favorites, which introduced Franklin on a beach encounter with Charlie Brown in July of 1968. The assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in April of that year led to a suggestion that perhaps an African American character could be introduced to the strip. Like much of America in the year of my birth, the comic strips were segregated, too, which is to say that white cartoonists didn’t draw African American characters. And so far as I know, there were no African American cartoonists at the time.

Schultz initially resisted the idea, saying that he didn’t want to be seen as patronizing. But the proponent of the idea–a school teacher in Los Angeles named Harriet Glickman–persisted, and Schultz eventually added Franklin to the strip.

It may have looked and felt strange for a previously all-white comic strip to introduce a new African American character in the summer of 1968. But by the time I began reading Peanuts in the early to mid-1970s, it seemed–at least to me–that Franklin had been there all along. And we can count that as progress, right? That’s what it seems like to me.

The year I started working

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For some people, the penny is a waste of effort. It costs more to make them than they’re actually worth, so why bother with them in the first place? I can understand this line of thinking, but I respectfully disagree with it. For me, a penny is a relic from the past, and a chance to be transported back in time, if only for a moment. And so it was today, when I bent over to pick up a 1978 penny in a 7-Eleven parking lot here in Chicago.

1978 was an interesting and important year for me. That may be true of any given year, as I’m sure I made that point about other years in the past in this space. But 1978 was the year I got my first job, delivering a local paper called the Springfield Shopper to houses in my neighborhood at a penny apiece. The Shopper was a new paper, the 1970s equivalent of a start-up. Perhaps this was a reason they signed up a ten year-old to help get the word out. You do what you have to do, especially when you’re new.

I was glad to discover that the Shopper still exists. It’s still loaded with ads, trying to help people find places to spend their money. In the internet age, I’m sure that the business climate they operate in today is far different from what it was in the late 1970s. They probably don’t deliver to people’s homes anymore, either. That’s progress, isn’t it? And if nothing else, The Simpsons have borrowed their name many times through the years. That alone is something to be happy about.

My teenager recently auditioned for a musical based on Studs Terkel’s Working. The irony is that besides a few babysitting gigs, she hasn’t ever worked for anyone in her life. Her studies come first, of course, but the experience of making money through working for someone has been lost on her.

My Shopper experience lasted until I turned twelve, and then I started delivering the local newspaper instead. It was a job that I held until I turned sixteen, and got my first “real” job as a grocery bagger. I’ve done lots of things–for lots of people–in the years since then, and I’ve spent the past 36 years as a working man. And I’ll likely be working for someone until the day I die.

My two children will likely start working at some point in the future, and in the American tradition this work will probably define who they are to the rest of the world. When somebody asks “So what do you do?” they aren’t wanting to hear about the places that you travel to or the hours you spend parenting your kids or doing anything else you find interesting.

I’ve had some great jobs in my life–and some lousy ones, too–but doing something for someone else has been a constant in my life since 1978. Things really changed for me that year, in ways that I did not fully appreciate until now. That’s a lot of self-realization to be gleaned from a discarded penny.