On a bench by the river

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Today I had a job interview in downtown Chicago. The meeting went very well, and I got the job I was there for, along with a compliment on the way I write, which is always a good thing to hear. Lincoln said that everybody likes a compliment, and he wasn’t kidding about that.

After the meeting was over, I picked up my 12 year-old daughter for a train ride back home. She still has a couple of weeks left in her summer vacation, and the two of us boarded a train in the Loop together. The morning rush hour was over, and we were able to find seats together in one of the cars.

I asked her about her morning, and we made small talk with each other as the train crossed over the Chicago River and headed toward the Merchandise Mart. And then I saw an image that brought the past flooding back to me in enormous waves. But I can’t fully explain it without stepping into the wayback machine for a moment.

In the Spring of 1990, I was first embarking on the great journey of Life. I was supposed to be finishing up my final quarter at Northwestern (because they don’t use the semester system like most colleges do), but a path that I had first charted back in high school intervened, instead.

I had taken three Advanced Placement tests in high school, earning enough credits to forego my final term as an undergraduate. I had to plan my schedule out in advance and make sure that the fulfillments of both majors were met, but once they were, there was no reason to stick around and write one last round of tuition checks. So I found myself a job, instead.

On-campus interviewing in the fall and winter of my senior year hadn’t resulted in the type of high-income job that I was hoping to have at graduation. I had a shoebox full of rejection letters, and not much in the way of job prospects, but I somehow managed to charm my way into a $6 an hour job in a downtown law firm. Everybody has to start out somewhere, and that’s where I did.

Riding the train into Chicago every day felt like a grand adventure to me. I wasn’t doing anything with the expensive college degree that I had earned but not yet received, and when all a person has to offer is an education, with zero practical experience in doing anything professionally, you take whatever you can find.

It was the first time in my life that I was wholly and completely on my own, financially. Student loans–and I had a lot of them–weren’t yet coming due, so I could get by on the little bit of money I was paid from the job. I was just biding my time until I went to law school anyway, or so I thought at the time.

Each day, I made myself a sandwich and had some fruit or carrots or something, because I couldn’t afford to eat lunch downtown. In fact, I was lucky to be able to afford riding the CTA to work and back each day. So when lunchtime came each day, I would walk the four or five blocks north on LaSalle Street to Wacker Drive, where I would cross the street, descend a staircase, and eat my lunch while watching the boats on the river go by.

I didn’t want to hang around in the office, because there was no lunchroom and I didn’t want to advertise my humble meal each day. So I found a place to hide every day, and kill the time before going back to work in the afternoon. I was literally at the bottom of the professional food chain, or so it felt to me. It was best to be by myself in the process.

Today, 25 years later, I have lots and lots of job experience. Depending on how you measure it, I’ve had three different careers by now, and that sort of news would have blown my mind back in those days. But I saw the construction work being done in the area I used to sit, and noticed that the benches I had once sat on were removed, to make way for something else to take their place.

I tried to pull out my cellphone–something I had no idea would ever exist back in 1990–and get a picture of the scene, but by the time it was out the train had pulled behind another building and the view was gone. I was sad to have missed the picture, but as I looked at my beautiful 12 year-old daughter, I couldn’t be upset with the direction my life has taken since the days I went to those benches to eat my lunch in solitude.

I now own a house and a car and an old minivan. I have two children I would give my life for, if it ever came to that. And when I looked at the site where the benches once were, I felt as though I could see a much younger, much thinner version of myself sitting there, eating a sandwich and wondering how life was going to turn out. On the whole, I’d say it’s been a very good ride.

Twenty-five years from now–should I live that long–I’ll be in my early seventies. Perhaps there will be some moment of recognition, similar to the one that I had today, when I’ll look back at the direction that life has taken since I was in my late forties. I hope so. But for today, I’ll think back to those benches and be grateful for everything that has come along since then, and that I got to see the area one last time before whatever comes next takes its place.

Time marches on, like it always has and always will.

Well I’m takin’ my time

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This morning Boston’s Foreplay/Long Time came on the radio, and I listened to it for the I’ll-never-know-how-manyth-time.

Twenty-nine years ago, I used the opening lyric (It’s been such a long time, I think I should be going) as my parting words to my graduating high school class of 1986. Griffin High, the school I graduated from, went kaput a few years later, but I still keep in touch with some of my classmates, mostly on Facebook.

Four years in the same place does seem like a long time, when you’re 17 and itching to get out and see the world. Now, almost three decades later, I realize that four years can pass in the blink of an eye. It’s all about perspective, I suppose.

Another line from the song that I like is “There’s a long road I’ve gotta stay in time with.” That long road has led me out of Springfield Illinois to Chicago, with assorted side trips along the way. Where it leads from here, I have no idea. But I’ll be sure to stay in time with it, all the same.

A day to honor Lincoln

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image150 years ago today, Abraham Lincoln’s body lay in state in Chicago. For those who waited in long lines, there was a chance to move past the president’s body and make the tragedy seem real. I’m sure nobody who made this wait ever regretted doing it.

I hoped there would be some kind of acknowledgement of this fact today, but if there was, I completely missed it. Instead, everything was about the NFL draft, which brings tourism and attention to this city. I understand this, but feel as though a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity was missed. Lincoln deserved better than to be ignored.

I’ll write up everything I did someday, but for now here’s a sample image. I call it “two Lincolns” and there are others where this came from. I even cobbled together a few readings and posted it to my Facebook page. My Lincoln tribute was something I’ll always remember, in part because it came from my own actions. Since nobody seemed to be interested in commemorating Lincoln, I stepped up and did it myself. We cannot do enough to honor his memory.

If you’re an idiot and you know it

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Social media has taught the SAE fraternity, and all the rest of us who are paying attention, an important lesson: Don’t be an asshole, even for a few seconds. And when you sing racist songs, you are an asshole.

What I haven’t yet heard anyone say is that the racist tune that was sung on the bus was set to the tune of “If you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands.” A simple child’s tune about happiness, which any three-year old knows how to sing, should never be used as some sort of racial manifesto.

How many others have sung this song, within the SAE organization? We won’t ever know, but the ones who sang it on the bus learned it from somewhere. Anyone with a speck of common sense knows that much.

There are times when I wish the Internet and social media existed when I was in college, back in the late 1980s. But then I reconsider this idea, for while I never sang racist songs, I did do some stupid things which I would not want to end up going viral. After all, the college days might fly past, but the Internet is forever.

A lesson about life and sports

I like sports a lot. The fact that everything I’ve written for publication relates to sports attests to this fact. But sports are just sports, when it comes down to it. They are not–or at least they should not be–a matter of life and death.

When one of my former students at Future Commons High School in Chicago died suddenly earlier this year, I was genuinely saddened by the news. So I dealt with it the way I usually do, by sitting in front of a keyboard and letting my thoughts come out. In about 45 minutes, I was able to make some sense out of what had happened, at least from my perspective. I sent the piece off to Zisk magazine, and they graciously agreed to publish it in their Fall issue.

I am glad they did so for two reasons. The first is I wanted to have a written version of my thoughts out there somewhere. The Internet is a great thing, but print has its own usefulness, too. The paperboy that I once was will always understand the value of holding something in your hands and reading it.

The second reason I am grateful is that Zisk sends me copies of the piece when it comes out. I wanted to have something to share with those who are mourning his loss, in a way that I never will. This won’t bring him back, of course, but it will validate the idea that his ongoing absence is noticed and remembered. That’s really all I can do, and I’m honored to do it.

I sent off the extra copies I received, and I trust that they’ll end up in the hands of people who will appreciate them. But one final act remained to be taken: how to reach those who won’t get a copy. There isn’t a hyperlink that I know of, at least not yet, so I set out to record myself reading the piece, and then posting the results onto the Internet. This proved to be the hardest step of all for me.

The truth is I don’t like how I look. Time and too little self-control have added many years and many pounds to my face. I would not be surprised if my former students–who are the target audience I am speaking to on the video–have a hard time recognizing the younger man who they once knew as their teacher. Seeing and hearing myself in this context was enough to make me cringe.

But the sudden nature of his death hit a nerve with me. He died at the same age that I was when he walked across the stage at his graduation. The fourteen years I’ve had since then are ones he won’t get to experience. Life is short and fragile, and if I were to put this off until I felt comfortable with doing it, it’s very likely it would never get done at all. It’s now or never, and I’m choosing to do it now. I can get past my appearance issues, knowing that this is now out there forever.

Let’s appreciate the life that we have, because it will be taken away from us all in due course. Rest in Peace, Adonis Jones. You will be remembered.

It was a good day for omens

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Saturday morning, Evanston, Illinois

My daughters are both ice skaters, which makes practice ice a reality for me, several times a week. On Saturday morning, as the rest of the world is sleeping in, my older one gets to the rink at 5:30 AM. It seems like a cruel joke to play on the old man, but I go along with it by driving her to the rink.

I dropped her off this morning, and went to get some gas in the tank of my minivan. It’s not a terribly long way to South Bend, Indiana, but it’s better to gas up now before I head out later this morning.

As I’m filling up the tank, I noticed that the Starbucks in that neck of the woods wasn’t open yet. You know you’re early when Starbucks hasn’t yet come to life.

Since coffee needed to be procured, I considered my options. There was a Burger King I knew of a half-mile away, and while I’m not a fan of their coffee, it would be better than having a steaming cup of nada in my hand. So Burger King it was.

As I drove north toward the BK, something wonderful presented itself. A former KFC restaurant, which had been converted to a Starbucks, grabbed my attention instead. It was as if the mermaid or whatever it is on the Starbucks logo winked at me. It was a call that I couldn’t ignore.

I pulled into the parking lot, curious why this location was open as the other one remained closed. It was almost 6 AM by now, and my guess is the other one would be opening at that time, anyway. But fate had brought me to this location, instead.

I went inside and ordered my usual, a venti drip coffee. I’ve never gone for lattes or any of their pricier drinks; just plain old coffee works for me. The woman behind the counter was as friendly as could be, and she provided my morning cup of stimulation. Now it was time to add a splash of half-and-half and head back to the rink.

On the creamer station, I spied a single penny. I always make it a practice to pick up a penny and look at the year stamped on it. I’ve written about that penny, and the year associated with it, several times on this blog. And for every story I’ve told, there are several more that I haven’t had the time or the inclination to tell. But today’s was a story that had to be told.

The year stamped on the penny was 1995. I saw the date and blurted out “No fucking way!” without even thinking about it. The expletive had to be a part of what I said, too, because the irony was just too much to consider, especially so early in the morning.

1995 was the last time that Northwestern and Notre Dame have played each other in football. So much has changed in the 19 years since then: the internet, smartphones, social media, the cloud, so much of the things that we think have always been there but really have not. My two children were far off in the future back in 1995. I was still renting an apartment in those days. I weighed significantly less than I do today. And I never, ever said no to having a beer. In short, my life today in 2014 resembles 1995 in very few ways.

Northwestern won that football game back in 1995. For 19 years, I’ve been able to say that Northwestern had bragging rights when it came to Notre Dame. The Domers have the tradition and the aura about their program, but they haven’t had a chance to avenge their 17-15 loss to the school with perhaps the least college football tradition of all.

Notre Dame has a good football team this year, and Northwestern does not. The Fighting Irish lost by a wide margin in Arizona last week, and they may be wanting to take that frustration out on the Wildcats at home, in front of their fans. There’s still a matter of keeping themselves around for bowl consideration, after all.

There won’t be any bowl games for Northwestern this year. All that’s left to play for is pride, and that may not be enough to prevail. But the defensive captain of the 1995 team, Pat Fitzgerald, is the Wildcats’ head coach now, and will be for years–if not decades–to come. He understands what Notre Dame means, as an opponent. Nobody will be any better at getting his team ready for a game like this.

I believe in omens. Perhaps I’ve read too many books, and seen too many movies where a minor thing portends something more important down the line. That’s the essence of storytelling, after all. What seems unimportant at the time can turn out to be something greater. You never know in this world.

So if Northwestern can go into South Bend and pull off an upset–as they did back in 1995–a penny in a Starbucks won’t be the reason why. But it sure will be interesting if it turns out that way. I suppose we’ll find out in a few hours.

UPDATE: The Wildcats did indeed pull off the upset, winning the game 43-40 in overtime. I hope to put the game into words soon, but for now I’ll say that it was a roller coaster ride from start to finish, and Northwestern somehow prevailed. Go Cats!

Love yourself

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I found an old camcorder the other day, as I was going through some old things in the basement. I decided to see what was on the tape, and after a few minutes of figuring out how to operate it again, I came to a recording of the graduation of Future Commons High School, where I taught many years ago. For a few minutes, I was able to go back in time.

I found the part of the program where I called the names of the students in my advisory. I appreciate now, in a way that I did not back then, what a great privilege that was. This was a huge moment for them, and they had to listen to my annoying voice. They deserved something more majestic than that.

I found the moment where I called the name of Adonis Jones, and watched as he walked across the stage and received congratulations from the school’s administrators. His advice to his classmates was “Love yourself.” Wise words that we should all do well to follow, even if he is no longer with us to do it himself.

May we all heed the advice he gave to his classmates that day and love ourselves. It’s not always an easy thing to do, but we’ll be better off for doing it.

An old Stairway story

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This morning I was driving my daughter to a skating lesson, as I usually do on a Saturday morning. I complain about the early hours sometimes, but I know that I’ll miss these days when they’re over and my services are no longer needed. Such is life.

We got into our minivan, the little one and I, and I turned the radio on. I told her she could pick the music, and then the opening notes of “Stairway to Heaven” came on. And the offer to my daughter was immediately rescinded.

As the song played, and the music built toward its climax, I told my little one a story about the song. I’ve told several of them before in this space, but this one I had held onto for awhile.

Back in the late 1990s, I taught at a public high school in Chicago. My daily commute involved driving down Lake Shore Drive, and getting off at an exit named Oakenwald. And once I did this, the daily ritual began.

Cars still had tape decks in those days, and my Mazda 626 was so equipped. I pulled out a Led Zeppelin tape, put it into the player, and off I went.

The tape was always cued up to the final notes before Jimmy Page’s guitar solo began. Luckily, the roads between the exit and the school were sparsely traveled, and so as the solo unfolded, I was able to drive pretty fast, and let the soaring parts of the solo help to get me ready for the day ahead. I considered it to be an essential part of my day, and I never considered using another song for this purpose. No other song would do, really.

The final lyrics that Robert Plant sings, beginning with “and as we wind on down the road” were sung, or more accurately howled, by me as the school came into view. And the final lyric, coming after the last musical crescendo, was the part that brought it all home and got me ready to go out and be Mr. Harris for the day.

As that line played out on the radio this morning, I realized how long ago, and how far away, those days now seem. But the song lives on, and this allows me to share the story of its meaning with a ten year-old who wasn’t alive back then. And then she got to put on the music that she wanted, instead. Life goes on, just as it always has.

Where the house once stood

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I don’t talk about it much, and I haven’t yet written about it here, but I was in a fraternity in my college days. It wasn’t a great experience, because I haven’t seen or spoken to any of the guys I knew there in ten years or more. More than anything else, it gave me a place to drink without feeling like a loser. Not exactly a ringing endorsement of the Greek system, is it?

Today I had my little one with me and we were in the neighborhood of my campus, so I offered to show her the places I lived when I was in college. She’s not yet old enough to be too cool for that sort of thing, so she agreed to go.

The freshman and sophomore year dorms are still around, so I pointed those out to her. But the fraternity house I lived in junior year, and the summers before it and after it, has been knocked down. For a place I don’t have a strong attachment to–or at least that’s what I thought–it was jarring to see an empty field where what we all knew as “the House” once stood.

I took a picture and then stood in the place for a few minutes, trying to soak up the college days through osmosis. This was the place where I met my future wife, after all. And now it was nothing more than a patch of dirt and wood chips.

Nothing stays the same in life. The fraternity house, and the four others that made up a row along the northern edge of campus, was torn down to make room for something larger and newer than fraternity houses. There’s a building boom going on at the moment, and much of it has left the campus barely recognizable to me, a quarter century after I graduated. And perhaps the one physical link I thought would always be there isn’t anymore.

I reminded myself, as I got back into the car to resume the impromptu tour of the campus, that permanence is an illusion. What’s here today wasn’t here once, and someday it will be torn down and replaced with something else. I’ll remember to enjoy things as I find then, and not get drawn into thinking that things can’t change. There’s a dirt patch in Evanston that proves otherwise.