Some are born to sing the blues

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I can’t sing a lick, as I’m told quite often. But my daughter has a gift with her voice. She’s going to school to train her voice, and it’s not easy to get in a full day of schooling and still do that, as well. But we have to play the hand we’re dealt in life, and play to our strengths whenever possible. I’m so proud of her.

He never had a chance

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This undated autopsy diagram provided by the Cook County Medical Examiner’s office shows the location of wounds on the body of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald who was shot by a Chicago Police officer 16 times in 2014. A judge on Thursday, Nov. 19, 2015 ordered the city to release squad car dashcam video of the shooting. The officer has been stripped of his police powers, but remains at work on desk duty. (Cook County Medical Examiner via AP)

Today I’m going to the football game between Northwestern and the University of Illinois at Soldier Field. I’m wondering if there will be any crowd control issues, given all that has happened in the wake of the Laquan McDonald video release. I certainly hope not, but my mind goes back to Camden yards in Baltimore after the Freddie Gray case. They played a game in an empty stadium, rather than serve as a target for what was going on in the streets at the time. That’s not going to happen today, so we’ll all have to wait and see what plays out.

I’m taking my cellphone to the game. If anybody wants to sign up for periscope, a twitter app that allows for videos to be broadcast live, and follow me @Rlincolnharris, I’ll put anything interesting online. I hope I don’t get that chance, but I’ll probably show something at some point, regardless.

But my larger point, which I may come back and revisit after this is all over, is that a kid like Laquan McDonald never had any chance of making it onto campus at either school. None whatsoever. He likely attended a school in the Chicago Public Schools, or CPS. I taught in CPS myself, many moons ago, and I left as quickly as I could find something else to do. And after years of being under-educated or merely just looked after, Laquan McDonald probably did the same thing.

At 17 when he was killed, it’s possible that he was still in school when he was killed, but I think I would have heard something about that by now if he was. My guess is that his crappy school, whatever name it was known as, had nothing to offer him, and so he left. No diploma, no opportunity to get a job (because those were shipped overseas a long time ago, or they never existed to begin with), no chance at anything but a life on the streets. It is preferable to death on the streets, but in time he would have found that, too. The officer who is being charged with Laquan’s murder just got there first. And the murder charge is all a show, too. It won’t stick, and when the case is dismissed or the jury refuses to convict, we’ll be right back here all over again.

I hope they play the football game today. And I hope something somehow changes so that a kid like Laquan McDonald can aspire to go to either school someday. The first could happen, but the deck is very highly stacked–overwhelmingly so–against the second.

Remembering what to be thankful for

patI learned today that Pat Elchlepp, a high school classmate of mine, passed away last night at the age of 47. He was a couple of months younger than I was, so the Grim Reaper has my full attention as I type this out, trying to come to grips with how very, very short life can be.

I write about death a lot, in this space and elsewhere. I drive through cemeteries and go to estate sales to remind myself that everyone’s number–mine included–will come up someday. But when someone that I was acquainted with three decades ago moves on to whatever comes next, it hits hard. We can’t begin to know how many more days and months and years it will be until our time is up, but we must keep on living them all, with an appreciation that our lives are meant to be savored for as long as they should happen to last.

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving, and there is much to be thankful for. But the biggest blessing of all–and the one I will not lose sight of–is that I’m still here to get stuck in traffic, and taste a cup of coffee early in the morning, and sing along with an old song on the radio. They’re simple things, but my classmate Pat isn’t able to enjoy them anymore. I hope he’s in a good place today, and I thank him for reminding me to be grateful for today, tomorrow, and every day afterward.

R.I.P. Patrick Elchlepp

Griffin High School, Class of 1986

August 13, 1968 – November 24, 2015

A vote of confidence

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Saturday morning, Chicago

I was out walking my dog this morning when I had to find a dumpster. The dog had completed his task for the morning, and I had dutifully–an ironic term there, I suppose–picked it up in a plastic bag. Disposing of it in a dumpster was a necessary prerequisite for returning home and giving him his treat. Every dog owner knows this routine.

After disposing of the dog’s business, I spied a penny on the ground in the alley. More than half the time I see a penny on the ground, I pick it up and look at the date stamped on it. It’s given me food for thought on several instances, such as with 1995 and 1968 and 1986. There are a few others, but I don’t want to take away from today’s find more than I have to. Because 1983–the year stamped on today’s penny–was a pretty significant year for me.

In the fall of 1983, I tried out for the school play. I was a sophomore in high school, and wanted to try my hand at acting. It’s not clear to me today why I did it, because I was an awkward and shy kid at that stage in my life. What made me want to get on stage and recite some lines is something I still don’t fully understand.

I got a small part, a General of some sort, who had maybe two or three scenes in the show, which was M*A*S*H. The final episode of the TV show inspired by the play had aired earlier in the year, and the juxtaposition of these two was probably not a coincidence. “Suicide is Painless,” the haunting theme song for the show, was played as we came onstage to take our curtain calls at the performances. I’ll always have fond memories of being in that show, and regret that I never seriously thought of acting again after this show. But the things you didn’t do in life cause more regrets than the things you did do, and I understand that now. Not so much when I was fifteen, though.

The big moment of this play, and the reason I’m typing this out today, is because of the director of the play, Brother Vince. He was a rather heavy-set guy who was something of a priest-in-training. He spent one year at my high school, and was my religion teacher. He also decided to direct a play, so at least I knew who the director was. I doubt I would have tried out for the show, otherwise.

I wasn’t a football player–which is what everyone wanted to be at my school–and my parent-imposed exclusion from the jock culture left me to explore other options, instead. I started writing for the school newspaper, which I enjoyed a lot, but I wanted something else to go along with it. And the school play seemed to be a good outlet for it. Three decades later, both of my daughters are in every play they can find, and I think of this as carrying on whatever it was that I once did, but to a degree I never thought possible. And I’m so proud of them for doing this.

But back to M*A*S*H for a moment. I attended an all-boys high school, but the girls from the all-girls school up the street also auditioned for the play. I wanted to be around the girls, as any hormonal teenager would, so being in the play gave me a chance to admire them from afar. No way did I have the confidence needed to actually speak to any of them. But being in their presence was enough for me, at that stage of my life.

I had learned my lines for the part I had, and one day the director, Bother Vince, offered me the role of Trapper John. It was one of the meatiest roles in the play, and the guy who was originally given the role–a junior who also played on the school soccer team–either quit the play or was made to decide between the team and the play. The latter option had never occurred to me before today, and what the true story is I’ll likely never know.

I knew that this role offered more stage time, which I wanted, but would entail having to learn a lot more lines than I already had. I didn’t want to let my director down, but I was hesitant to take on the added responsibility. I finally agreed to take the part, because I reasoned that the offer would not have been made unless he thought I could handle it. I took it as a vote of confidence, and I accepted the challenge that came with it.

I learned the part, and found myself tremendously emboldened by the experience. The soccer team’s season ended a week or two before opening night, and the guy who had the Trapper John role may have wanted to reclaim his old part. It was never asked of me to relinquish the part, and I don’t know what I would have done if this had happened. In my mind, it was my part, because I had put in the time to make it so. And so it was, when the curtain went up on a weekend in early October of 1983.

Acting gave me a sense of self-confidence, which is something I had never had before. When I was on the stage, everyone in the audience was looking at me, and hearing my voice. For a kid who had spent his life seeking out the shadows at every opportunity, this was an elixir of a kind I had never yet known.

A great thing happened to me, some 32 years ago. I found a sense of confidence that needed some discovery and some nurturing to fully reveal itself. Whatever happened to Brother Vince after that year, I have no idea. But his decision to stage a play, and to offer me a bigger role than the one I originally had, and then stick with me through to the end, is something that I’ll always be grateful for.

My older stage diva needs a ride to her college class, so I better wrap this up. But I’ll see her on stage again before too long, and I’ll be sure to think of Brother Vince when I do.

Calling out the biggest gun of all

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My younger daughter’s school finds itself without a principal, at the beginning of a new school year. This is a recipe for disaster at any school, but when a school has thousands of students, the stakes are raised immeasurably. In such a situation, a leader is needed to provide a firm hand.

I know of no greater ally, in important matters like this, than Abraham Lincoln. The historian David Donald called this process “Getting Right with Lincoln,” and it’s something that every politician seeks to do. Nobody can say what Lincoln would have said or done in any given situation, of course, but getting him on your side anyway is an advantage worth seeking.

To that end, I sent the following email to the head of the Chicago Public Schools today:

It is quite unacceptable that one of the largest high schools in the state, and one of the most prominent schools in all of CPS, has not been able to identify a principal, due to a stalemated LSC selection process.

The Civil War would not have ended as it did without the firm, decisive leadership of Abraham Lincoln. Walt Whitman’s O Captain! My Captain! speaks to the ability a leader has to shape the events around him or her. Leaving my daughter’s school without a leader in command would be an irresponsible act, and I implore you to not let this happen.
Thank you for your consideration of this matter.
I have redacted the name of my daughter and the school, as well as the leader I am supporting in this process. I don’t think direct advocacy serves any purpose here. But the invocation of Lincoln, as filtered through the creative genius of Walt Whitman, is the most compelling reason I can think of for taking action at a time like this.
The education of children–mine, yours, and everyone’s–is too important to sit one one’s hands, or shut your eyes and hope for the best.
Here’s hoping for a resolution of this matter, and soon.

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.