Roger and Me

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As a college student in the late 1980s, riding the el was an entirely new experience for me. I secretly envied those who hailed from New York, or Chicago, or any place large enough to have a train service in operation. There were a few bus lines in Springfield, Illinois, where I grew up, but nothing remotely similar to the CTA.

The CTA was different in many ways back then. You could pay the conductor in cash when you got on the train. You could request a paper transfer, if you had an extra quarter for it. You could smoke at the el stops while you were killing time, waiting for the train to arrive. And that automated voice telling you what the next stop would be? That was announced by a real live person. In other words, the CTA was far removed from what it is today.

But one of the things that still remains is advertising on the el platforms. And one of the signs that I remember seeing in the 1980s has made a return visit to my memory, in the aftermath of Roger Ebert’s passing. It was a large photo of Ebert sitting at a typewriter, looking into the camera, with the words “Trust Ebert” superimposed. And that seemed like an entirely reasonable thing to do.

When I encountered this “Trust Ebert” ad on the CTA, I was writing for Northwestern’s A&O Film Board. We would show movies someplace on campus, either in the Norris Student Center or the Tech Auditorium, and charge a few dollars to cover the price of renting the film reels from the distributors. It was a way to recreate the movie-going experience, without the expense of going to Evanston’s lone theater on Central Street. I greatly enjoyed the process of selling the tickets and running the projector and, most of all, describing the films that were being shown.

The A&O Film Guide was a quarterly publication, which described all of the films that would be shown during a quarter. All of this would be made available online today, but it was a different world in the late 1980s. Each film had a short blurb, which provided the essentials about who was in the film, when it was released, how long it ran, and a short paragraph describing the plot.

Writing blurbs for the Film Guide was extraordinarily fun for me, because I took each one as a chance to mimic Roger Ebert’s writing style. Describing a movie like Midnight Run as if I were talking to an old friend was the way that I approached writing these blurbs.

In a small way, this process allowed me to be like Roger Ebert, and I enjoyed that immensely. When I became the Film Guide’s editor in 1989, my responsibilities included reading over other people’s blubs and–when necessary–writing blurbs for films that I had never heard of before. I always approached this task in the same way, by treating the reader as an intelligent, experienced person who wanted to know something about whatever film we were showing on any given night. That’s the way Ebert’s reviews always felt to me.

I was very proud of the film guides that were produced in this way, and my days of Trusting Ebert–by writing in a style that I had patterned after his–remain as one of the best college memories I have.

After the Internet came along in the 1990s, and began transforming the newspaper landscape, Ebert stayed at the forefront of these changes. He continued writing reviews—he never stopped doing that—but he also became a blogger, well before many people knew what that meant. A blog post that he wrote in 2009 inspired me to give up drinking. Upon reading Ebert’s description of his experiences with alcohol, I saw a lot of myself in his words. If he could give up drinking and still do well, I reasoned that I could do likewise. Again, I was Trusting Ebert.

After cutting alcohol out of my life I began to write, and have found this to be a form of intellectual liberation. On April 4, 2013, a story that I wrote for the website ChicagoSideSports.com was published in Roger Ebert’s newspaper, The Chicago Sun-Times. A picture of him appeared on the cover of that day’s edition, with the headline “Ebert’s not going anywhere.” I read the piece and hoped this would be the truth. But in the late afternoon of that day, the word came out that Ebert had indeed passed away.

In my sadness at the news, it occurred to me that I had filled a considerable chunk of Roger Ebert’s paper on the day that he passed away. Although I never met him, it feels as if I owe him a lot. I once tried to mimic his writing style, and the reason that I write today is because I read a courageous piece that he wrote about his own life.

Having any sort of a connection with him–no matter how tangental–is something that I’ll always feel good about. With the benefits of hindsight, I can confidently say that Trusting Ebert is one of the best things I have done.

Changing college sports as we know them

NCAA Football: Illinois at Northwestern

Today–March 26, 2014– is the 35th anniversary of the Magic Johnson/Larry Bird title game in the NCAA tournament. I remember watching that game as a ten year-old kid in Springfield, Illinois. It was broadcast on NBC, instead of on CBS. There was no three point stripe, no shot clock, and no possession arrow. The NCAA logo was some silly interlocking letters arranged inside a circle. The game followed a third-place game, where the two teams that lost in the Final Four still had one last chance to salvage something. In short, there were still five men on a side and the team that scored the most points won the game, but otherwise the modern sports fan would hardly recognize it.

And on the anniversary of that game, which arguably changed basketball itself for the next decade, the NLRB handed down a ruling that Northwestern’s football players can vote to form a union. There are many writers and fans bemoaning the ruling, saying that it will “change college sports as we know them.” To which I reply, change happens all the time in life. The NCAA championship game from 1979 (which is within my living memory) is all the proof anyone needs that change is inevitable, in sports and in life itself.

To those who would bemoan the loss of something in college athletics, I would invite them to consider that the athletes on the floor in the basketball tournament, and on the field during the bowl games and in the regular season, are generating millions of dollars for their schools, yet they aren’t allowed to share in any of it. The schools do award scholarships and provide room and board, but they keep the money and in turn make their professional coaches into wealthy men. They give the chattering heads of CBS, ESPN, and a thousand other places something to talk about and write about and take pictures of. They allow the advertisers to reach a captive audience and sell more product. And what do these athletes get in return? Not what they should, if you ask me.

There will never come a time when the NCAA, in its benevolence, decides to share the wealth with the players who do the work and assume the risks. There will never come a time when a school pays for the long-term medical bills of a player who gets hurt playing a game, while wearing their school’s colors. And there will never come a time when a player who can’t keep up with his academics and his team responsibilities is told that academics are why they are in school. Football comes first, or basketball comes first, and everyone understands this. But it’s wrong and it needs to stop.

It’s ironic that the very first Final Four, or the first time that NCAA schools competed on the same floor for a basketball championship, happened on Northwestern’s campus, all the way back in 1939. I know that that was basketball and today’s ruling applies to football, but that’s not the point I’m making here.

Northwestern–my alma mater–showed the NCAA the possibilities that a championship tournament offered. And 75 years later the Final Four, and the tournament leading up to it, is a money-making juggernaut. But what Northwestern giveth in basketball, it taketh away in football and–soon enough–in basketball, too.

If making money from the toil of players who don’t get to fully share in the pie they create seems fair, I will respectfully disagree with that premise. Million-dollar coaches don’t play the games; the players do. And the false hope of a professional payday–which the overwhelming majority of college athletes will never get to see–is shameful. It’s gone on for too long, and the sooner it comes to an end, the better.

Kudos to Kain Colter and the Northwestern football team, for sowing the seeds that will one day bring about some much-needed and long-overdue changes in college sports.

My Mann Horace

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The library at Carl Schurz high school in Chicago is truly magnificent. It has so many pieces of art that I doubt I could ever describe them all. But the portraits of great writers, artists, and thinkers through the ages is something worth sharing here.

When I saw a portrait of Horace Mann on the wall, I was transported back to the baseball team that I played in as a young kid. We were the Horace Mann educators, and I didn’t know who in the world Horace Mann was. I assumed he was a baseball fan, though.

As time went on, I learned more about Horace Mann. He probably never saw a baseball game either, based in when he lived. But he changed education in many ways, beginning with the idea that everyone should be educated in the first place.

Once upon a time, somebody like me didn’t receive an education. The need to teach me how to read and write and work with numbers just wasn’t there. But Mann argued that teachers needed training, schools needed textbooks, and  society would be better off if these things were made available to all children, paid for with taxpayer funds.

I’m very glad that Horace Mann fought for these things and brought them to fruition. I wouldn’t be writing this otherwise.

That old musty cheese

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Over the past few months, I’ve found great insights in the writings of Thoreau. I pick up an old copy of Walden when I can, and after a few paragraphs I’ve usually found something worth reflecting upon. And so it was today, when I found this pearl buried in Chapter 5:

Society is commonly too cheap. We meet at very short intervals, not having had time to acquire any new value for each other. We meet at meals three times a day, and give each other a new taste of that old musty cheese that we are. We have had to agree on a certain set of rules, called etiquette and politeness, to make this frequent meeting tolerable and that we need not come to open war.

For some reason, the concept of people as “old musty cheese” stuck with me. Thoreau died when he was just forty-four, and nobody would really consider that to be old. But the idea is that we are what we are, and there isn’t much that we can do about it. But still we insist on meeting with each other, anyway.

Some people thrive on the company of others, but Thoreau relished being by himself. And he left lots of great writings for us to consider, too. It might even be said that his solitude has paid off for anyone who reads and appreciates his work. Not a bad legacy to leave behind, really.

Finding beauty in all things

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I’m currently doing some research at work, learning about some of the great writers over the years. And the story of John Keats has to be one of the most humbling ones that I’ve yet come across. He once had to decide between being a surgeon or a poet, and being a poet was–and still would be–the less “sensible” option.

Surgeons save lives, and they generally make a good living at it. Poets, on the other hand, don’t always know where their next meal is coming from. And so it was with Keats, who was forever in debt and never made any money at doing what he did. To make matters worse, his health was bad; so much so that he passed away at the age of 25. I can scarcely imagine what two and a half decades–and no more–would be like.

But what struck me, in the Wikipedia entry that taught me more about Keats than all of the formal schooling I ever had, was his near obsession with beauty. “A thing of beauty is a joy forever” may be the most well-known words that he wrote, followed by “Beauty is truth, and truth beauty. That is all you know on this earth, and all ye need to know.”

But it was a letter that Keats wrote to his friend Fanny Brawne, a year before he died, that really caught my eye. He seemed to be remorseful that he hadn’t done more with his life–and who doesn’t feel like that?–when he wrote the following words:

“I have left no immortal work behind me – nothing to make my friends proud of my memory – but I have lov’d the principle of beauty in all things, and if I had had time I would have made myself remember’d.”

Had Keats chosen a surgeon’s life for himself, I never would have heard his name, and I sure wouldn’t be writing about him right now. But since he went with what his heart wanted to do, he produced poetry that will live on for as long as anyone reads English verse. Nearly two centuries later, it’s safe to say that he did, in fact, leave behind some immortal work. Any of us should be so fortunate.

A reason to admire Lincoln

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I write about Lincoln all the time here, and there’s a reason for that. He righted this nation’s greatest wrong, and he lifted the scourge that undercut everything America claimed to stand for. He made the nation that calls itself “the land of the free” into a closer approximation of that. And if we don’t realize that, we should.

The Gettysburg Address may be the most startling evidence of Lincoln’s brilliance, but there are so many others, as well. Read one of his speeches and you’ll understand.

Working in publishing has its perks

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I suppose that I was born to work in the publishing business, as  I love reading, writing, and creating new materials. I love telling stories, essentially. I enjoy it so much that I spend much of my free time doing it for kicks, either here on this blog or some of the other websites that I write for.

One of the primary qualities that someone in publishing should have is a love of books. Yes, the industry is following society’s lead and trying to migrate into an online environment. It’s the dreaded “paperless society” that will be talked about for decades to come, but never fully realized. Books are who we are as humans, and all of the ereaders on the planet can’t rub that out.

Today I was called into a room full of books that I had not seen before. It was filled with titles of books, some of which I had heard of before, but many I had not. I was told that I could pick out some of the titles, in return for some of the work that I had been doing around the office. Some people would prefer money or a formal recognition for their efforts, but turning me loose in a roomful of free books is about the best expression of gratitude there is.

I chose a few books that interested me, or that I knew someone else would enjoy. But the best one of all was Russell Friedman’s Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass: The Story Behind an American Friendship. It’s an hour or so to read it through, and it comes with a marvelous array of visual images, many of which I had not seen before.

I’m very glad to be a part of the organization that brought this book to market, and I am grateful for the knowledge that I gained through reading it. And whatever time and effort I put in around the office has been richly rewarded. Every day should go so well..

Lincoln would have loved this

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Today was the first time that I had ever been inside Carl Schurz High School on the northwest side of Chicago. It’s over a hundred years old, which gives it a historical cache that many schools just don’t have.

I found my way to the library,  which has a scale to it that I’ve never seen before. There are many beautiful murals adorning the walls and ceiling, and I felt very happy to have discovered such a hidden jewel. But what inspired me to write, as usual, was Abraham Lincoln.

The building itself was constructed in 1910, and when the walls were painted I can’t say. But a number of portraits of scientists, writers, and the like had been painted onto the walls, and the position of Lincoln’s was most interesting.

As seen in the picture above, Lincoln and William Shakespeare are located alongside each other. To the other side of Lincoln was George Washington, and he would have appreciated that, as well. But I have to believe that Lincoln’s fondness for Shakespeare’s work would have made this placement most appealing to him.

Shakespeare was a brilliant writer, and Lincoln was gifted in his own right. So to see these two linguistic champions in the same place is quite a sight, and I offer my congratulations to the long-ago artist who made this happen.

If you don’t do your math…

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This morning I took my little one to her bus stop on my way to work. As I turned the car on, the final guitar solo for Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall Part II” was playing. The end of the song includes the crazed schoolmaster saying “If you don’t eat your meat, you can’t have any pudding! How can you have any pudding if you don’t eat your meat?” I’ve written about this song before here, by the way.

My little one indicated she didn’t understand what that meant, but it must have been important because I sang along to it with such gusto. I explained that it’s a way of saying you have to do the bad things, like eating meat, before you can get to the good things, like having pudding. She understood this well, and wanted to apply it to her own life.

She decided, with my full approval, that doing math is the scholastic equivalent of eating meat, and having good grades is the equivalent of having pudding. So the modern update to this concept, according to a fifth grader, is as follows:

If you don’t do your math, you can’t have any good grades! How can you have any good grades if you don’t do your math?

Glad we were able to clear that up for anyone who was wondering.

Laying 1989 to rest

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I was saddened to learn of the death of Francis Peay, the head football coach at Northwestern when I went there back in the late 1980s. He was 69 years old, meaning he was about as old as I am now back when he was coaching the Wildcats. And so it goes.

Northwestern was at the end of an awful run of football teams in the late 80s. In 1989, when I was a senior, the team lost all 11 games they played. After one of the losses at the end of the year, after the team had apparently quit on their coach, a sportswriter for our student paper, the Daily Northwestern, wrote a column that said as follows:

Rules of courtesy say that if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all. Fine.” And what followed was the entire column length in white space. It looked strange, but it made the point about how frustrating it was to be the laughingstock of the Big Ten (back when it really had ten teams).

But I’m sure that he was trying his best, even if the results weren’t what we wanted. Coach Peay (pronounced “PAY”) was replaced by Gary Barnett in 1992, and things have improved markedly since then. They had to, really, because it had fallen so far by then.

That sportswriter couldn’t say anything nice about the football team back in 1989, but I’ll say something nice about Francis Peay. Coaching a football team–even a bad one–can’t be an easy thing, and the fact that he had a chance to do it in the first place is quite a feather in his cap.

Time marches on, and the marshmallow fights that we had in the student section during those games, in order to divert our attention from the bad things happening on the field, are now a thing of the past. But they are moments in time, all the same, and Coach Peay deserves credit for doing a difficult job in a difficult place. May he rest in peace.

The world has turned

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Mine wasn’t the first undergraduate class to experience a winless football season at Northwestern, when they went 0-11 during my senior year of 1989. The team was also winless in 1978, 1980, and 1981, and just missed it in 1977 and 1979, as well. The late 1970s and early 1980s seem to be the true dark ages for Northwestern football.

In fact, the very first game I went to as a freshman, in the fall of 1986, was a victory over Army. This won’t be so bad, I thought to myself. But eventually, it did become that bad. The last game that I witnessed on campus was a 63-14 loss to Illinois in 1989, which put the finishing touches on the type of season that Northwestern will hopefully never see again.

So when the team starts out this year at 2-0, and has a ranking in the 16-17 range of the weekly polls, it feels pretty good. I always have been, and always will be, proud of my alma mater for reasons that have nothing to do with football. But having been on the other end of the spectrum before, I intend to enjoy this season–and all the other seasons that Pat Fitzgerald is around–as thoroughly as I can.

Go Cats!

The time has flown by

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I remember this picture well. It was taken in late December of 1999, as we had traveled to Sanibel Island, Florida, to celebrate the coming of the new millenium. Fears of Y2K were in the air. Remember that? It seems silly now, all these years later, but the idea that computers would get all wiggy when the year switched to 00 had great currency, at least in some quarters.

But I had other concerns at that point in my life. My first daughter was born in April, which would have made her almost nine months old when this picture was taken. We hadn’t yet gone over to digital photography–that was still a few years away–and so this picture had to be taken in to be developed. There are now boxes and boxes of these prints, gathering dust in the basement of the house, bearing silent witness to one of the many changes that have come about during her lifetime.

She looks so happy in this picture. Sitting up was probably a new thing at this point, and I think it was the first time she had ever experienced sand, too. But the little grin on her face tells me a lot. She was having fun, and as a parent that’s the best you can ever hope to see.

The little girl playing in the sand starts high school tomorrow, and the relentless march of time will only get quicker over these next four years. She’s brought me more joy than I ever would have imagined, and I hope that it’s been as much fun for her as it has been for me.

The separation process that inevitably happens between a parent and a child will  become more pronounced, now that she’s around older kids and finds it harder and harder to live under her parents’ roof. I know that feeling because I remember it myself.

For now, I’ll smile and hope that she gets off to a good start in her new school. I hope she gravitates toward those who will build her up and make her better, rather than those who will tear her down. There are both kinds of people in the world, and learning to tell the difference between them is never an easy thing. But I’ll hope for the best, and be there to help her out in any way that I can. That’s in a parent’s job description, isn’t it?

Come to think of it, that’s the entire job description.

In memory of the 54th Massachusetts

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Back in the days when I was still teaching, which was more than a decade ago now, I always made it a point to show the movie Glory to my students. But I never went the route of just putting the tape into the VCR (it wasn’t quite DVDs back then) and pressing play. That wasn’t how I rolled in the classroom.

Each day (and I think it took almost a week to get through the whole movie) I would give my students sheets filled with questions I had typed up in advance. And then, at many points throughout the movie, I would hit pause and make some point or another about what was going on in the story. Students who wanted to put their heads down and zone out were disappointed, but it also kept all of us engaged in the story. It was one of my favorite experiences of the school year, because it allowed us all learn about a story that is all too easily overlooked in the history books.

Denzel Washington won an Academy Award, and helped to launch his successful career in the movies. Morgan Freeman also got a significant career boost and, as hard as I tried not to see Ferris Bueller in period costuming, every time Matthew Broderick opened his mouth that’s exactly what I saw. Fortunately, many of my students didn’t have that same baggage.

When you visit Boston, as I did last summer, the Revolution seems to confront you at every turn. But a notable exception to this is the monument to the 54th Massachusetts, shown above in all its glory (sorry! couldn’t resist it!). If you get up real close, you can see the look of determination in the soldiers’ faces. It’s a great piece of art, and a fitting tribute to those who anted up and kicked in 150 years ago today. This post is written to thank them for their bravery and their sacrifice.

Chasing that dream

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As I was out running errands yesterday, I heard Boston’s “Foreplay/Long Time” on the radio. It’s always been a song I can listen to, and yesterday was no exception. Upon hearing the late Brad Delp’s vocals, I was reminded of how, at the end of my high school days, I quoted the line “It’s been such a long time/I think I should be going” as a farewell note to my high school.

In truth, four years isn’t really such a long time. When you’re 17, though, it seems like forever. The 17 year-old who quoted that line was ready to move on to something else in his life. And now, more than a quarter-century later, I’m at that place. I’ve chased the dream that I had when I was a teenager, and I wound up here. And that suits me just fine.

From an early age, I knew that I had to leave my hometown in order to have the kind of life that I wanted. Where I would go to was an open question, but standing still was never an option. I suppose that’s called wanderlust, and I had it bad when I was in high school. But the irony is that whatever I had back then now seems to have gone away, entirely. I like where I am now, and have no desire to leave anytime soon.

The large part of that is wanting to have a sense of stability for my two daughters. As they get older, they will probably come to feel–as I once did–that the only thing that matters is going anywhere else. But the forces arrayed against them now are so much more powerful than what I was up against. College costs are soaring, and opportunities for people with a degree–but not much else–seem to be drastically reduced. The numbers that I’ve heard for college graduates moving back in with their parents (85 percent is the number I’ve seen) are just stunning. I literally would have gone berserk if I had to do that when I graduated from college, so many years ago.

It seems silly to be giving this matter too much thought now, when my oldest daughter (shown in the picture above) is graduating from 8th grade, and not high school or college. But my hope for her–and for her younger sister–is that when they get the wanderlust themselves, they will be able to beat the odds and successfully chase their own dreams, whatever those might be.

A trip through the past

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Every few months, an issue of the Northwestern Alumni magazine arrives in my mailbox. Some issues I scrutinize more than others, but I always try to look through it at least a little bit. I appreciate all of the effort that goes into putting it together, after all.

Specifically, I check to see the notices about marriages, births (both of which are rare for my class anymore) and death notices. Typically it’s a professor that I had in one of my classes, but I always check for the general student listings, too. I’d hate to see anyone I knew very well listed there, and so far I haven’t. But today’s issue did have someone from my class listed, and this caught my attention.

This was someone who left her home at the same time I did, who walked the campus when I did, who got her degree the same day that I did, and now, as of last September 10, she is no longer with us on this earth. I didn’t recognize the name, but I felt compelled to find out more about her.

I went to the Freshman Facebook (and yes, we did call it that) that Northwestern compiled for all of its incoming freshmen. In these days of social media, I’m sure that it’s no longer necessary to do this, but I hope the school still makes an effort of some type. All of those scared and anxious 18 year-olds–who are going to have their lives changed over the course of  their years on campus–need something to get the ball rolling in the way of introductions.

I got out my old facebook, looked up my recently deceased classmate, and realized that I had never met her at all. Perhaps we were in a class together at some point, or our paths had crossed in some other way, but I had no idea who she was. I learned that she was from Vermont, though, and this intrigued me on some level.

Northwestern, like all the other top schools, prides itself on its diversity. And diversity is exactly what I–and a lot of the others in my class–desperately needed to have. Over the first 18 years of my life, I knew my little slice of Springfield, Illinois quite well, but I knew nothing beyond it. I had never met a New Yorker before, or a Texan, or anyone from Cleveland, or Minneapolis, or Chicago. And I got to meet all of these people and more in the time I was on campus.

I once wondered a great deal about the world beyond my hometown, and four years as an undergraduate at Northwestern exposed me to people and ideas I had never encountered before. And it sounds trite, but it made me a better person. I’ll be forever grateful to have had the experiences I did while on the Evanston campus.

The Vermont thing made me curious as to how many of my classmates (there were over 1,000 in all) came from Vermont. So I started with the As, and began paging through, looking for anyone who came from Vermont. Along the way I encountered old roommates, and people who lived in my dorm, and girls I had crushes on and could never talk to, and people I would know from classes or activities on campus. It felt as though I had time-warped back to 1986 for an hour or so.

As I moved through the alphabet, page by page, I knew that I was going to get to my own entry, in about the middle of the book. I even gave some thought to giving up, rather than come face to face with the guy I used to be. But I was committed to seeing my research through, and I stopped long enough to consider what got me to the point that I was in the facebook to begin with.

At that moment, I realized that I never applied myself to studying as much as I should have, and yet I did fairly well, and I uncorked an admissions essay that must have made an impression on someone who read it. I like to think I wrote my way into a top-notch university, and then wrote well enough to hang around until I graduated four years later. And nobody can ever take that away from me, either.

I finished up with the book, after much contemplation and reflection about the fleeting nature of the college years. It was an important time when I transitioned to adulthood and went out to face the world, and all of my classmates did the same thing. And I felt exceedingly fortunate to be the one looking for a deceased classmate, instead of having someone else looking for me.

I hope that she (and I’m refraining from using her name, to respect her privacy) had a good life, filled with things that made her happy. I wished that for everyone I encountered in the book, whether I knew them or not. I’m sure there are some others who are no longer with us, and that our ranks will only get thinner as the years go by. As Kurt Vonnegut wrote in “Slaughterhouse-Five,” and so it goes.

And to answer the question that drew me in to begin with, there were two of my classmates who hailed from Vermont. On the other end of the spectrum, I’m sure there were homerooms at New Trier that had more representation in my class than the state of Vermont did. But Northwestern could say, truthfully, that Vermont was indeed represented in its Freshman class that year. How well-represented is another story. But they had more Vermonters (if that’s the right term) than any other school I would have gone to, and that made the exercise seem worthwhile for me.

Another form of Capitalism

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Photo from GPhilly

I was a classroom teacher a long time ago. I left that field, convinced that the stress of teaching was going to kill me someday. I’m glad that I tried my hand at teaching, but even more glad that I went to do something else.

I was a history teacher, and history has always been one of my favorite things. But there was one thing that bugged me about it. Historians as a group always wanted to capitalize things in print: The Great Depression, The New Deal, The Civil Rights Movement, and so on. I realize the intent was to make these things seem important, but it’s possible to overdo it, too. The Watergate Era or The War on Terror look OK when they’re the title of a book, but as just a few words on a page the capitalizing seems silly to me. I called the belief in using unnecessary capital letters Capitalism, at least in a historical sense.

Capitalizing something in the hopes of giving it Importance is not a new idea. And it’s an old trick that perhaps my least favorite politician, Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, has tried out with a recent speech he gave to the American Enterprise Institute, a right wing think tank filled with people I would want nothing to do with. In accepting an award of some kind recently, Ryan referred, again and again, to the American Idea. And it was capitalized each and every time in his prepared remarks. That term will be coming soon to a presidential campaign, I’m sure.

It’s not that there isn’t an American idea of some kind. I’m certain that there is, actually. But to capitalize the term, in the hope of turning it into a buzzword of some kind, is about as arrogant a move as I’ve ever seen. And anyone who falls for it deserves what they get from this guy. He’s clearly up to no good, when it comes to dismantling the social safety net in this country.

I haven’t been political since the last presidential election here, but there’s going to be a mad rush to be chosen as the Republican who will get crushed by Hillary Clinton in 2016. And since Ryan’s in the mix of that group, I think we’ll see that term come back again down the road. And when it does, I’ll be back with some more thoughts about it. But for now, it’s enough to know that it’s out there.

Books on a shelf

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I find myself in a hotel in Kentucky for the first night of Spring break. In the lobby, along with several horse-related art works, some nicely-appointed leather chairs, and the obligatory bar/meeting space, are several shelves filled with books. It made for a nice visual, and I snapped a picture of a few shelves before inspecting some of the titles.

I happened upon one title from the publisher that I work for, dated from fifty years ago, and I considered all of the changes in the publishing industry since then. The rise of ereaders and the decline of the traditional bookstore are but two of the challenges that didn’t exist a half-century ago. The idea of putting words onto a page was taken for granted in 1963, but not anymore. Words on a screen have since come along, and things are changing as a result.

I spent a few moments paging through some of the titles, and appreciating the tactile sensation that a book can provide. Ereaders are wonderful things, but they’ll never be able to recreate that. Likewise, no electronic gadget could match the visual appeal of bound volumes sitting side-by-side on a shelf.

I’m no Luddite. I can see that the reading experience is evolving, but I’m also confident that books themselves will continue to be meaningful. To be honest, I can’t envision a world without them.

A fortuitous stain

soccer ball-by annette crimmins

My kids have always enjoyed hearing bedtime stories about when I was a kid. I’ve now mined my childhood for events, both large and small, that will amuse them and help them get to sleep faster. Both are very noble goals, and part of what I consider to be my job as a parent.

Last night, the teenager wanted to hear a story, and I was able to warp back in time to a sunny day circa 1980. I don’t recall if it was 6th grade or 7th grade, but I’m certain it was one or the other. The date is less important than the concept, anyway.

The nuns who ran the school had decided that a soccer game between the two classes that made up the 6th or 7th grade was a good idea. I had never played organized soccer before, and I’m sure that most, if not all, of my classmates were in a similar situation. Soccer was not the sport of choice for school kids like me in those days, the way it is now. My kids each have several years worth of soccer under their belts, but the admission that I only played in one soccer game my entire life was something of a revelation to my daughter. The story had already accomplished something, before I even started telling it.

The thing I remembered about the game was the painter’s pants. There was a fad that year in school, where everyone wore Osh Kosh painter’s pants. Or at least, almost everyone did. I unfortunately was not able to tell my parents what all the kids were wearing, and expect that these items would be provided to me. I had a pair of white painter’s pants that I wore sometimes, but they weren’t Osh Kosh and so they didn’t seem to count. It’s not such a big deal thirty plus years after the fact, but back then it was a mark of embarrassment for me. And I’m sure that, in 2013, the items and the brands are different, but the concept remains the same. Either you wear what the crowd wears, or you feel bad that you don’t. It’s human nature in all its glory.

Anyway, I was wearing my not-quite Osh Kosh pants to school on the day of the soccer game. Nobody had given us any advance warning about the game, either. We showed up at school one day, to find that soccer goals had somehow appeared in the night. And changing into shorts, or even putting on shin guards or cleats to help play the game better, was simply not an option. Playing soccer–much less at school–was uncharted territory for all of us.

I remember playing in the game, and I’m trying very hard to remember if it was both boys and girls who played the game, or if it was boys only. I might put this on Facebook in order to crowdsource this memory, and see if anyone I went to grade school with remembers it better than I do. I hope that it was the boys and the girls playing on that day, but I suspect that in the very early 1980s, the prevailing mindset didn’t allow for co-rec soccer games.

The way I remember the game was that I scored a goal, but my class/team still lost. Maybe the score was 4-3, or 2-1, but it was a pretty evenly-matched affair. And I hope that it was fun for everyone, although it would have been better if my team had won. After all, “The burgers taste better when you win.”

But the way I scored my goal is where the story gets interesting. I recall seeing the ball just out of my reach (maybe it was an actual soccer ball, but I’m not clear on that), but still near enough that I could do something with it. I slid and kicked the ball in the same motion, and the ball somehow found its way into the net. I was happy to have helped my team, of course, but I had also learned–the hard way–about what a grass stain is, and how well it can show up on a pair of painter’s pants.

If I had been a different kind of kid, I would have been more celebratory in the wake of scoring a goal. I think of how professional players act when they score a goal, and how it usually becomes a mob scene around the scorer, if only for a brief instant. But I had a different reaction. My thought was “Oh no, look at these pants! Mom’s going to be so upset with me.” What should have been a happy moment turned into fear and despair, instead. It was my childhood writ large, now that I think about it.

But the story actually did have a happy ending. My knockoff painter’s pants were never worn again, because the stain on them was too deeply green to ever be removed from the fabric. And whatever I took to wearing instead of those pants didn’t cause me the same level of embarrassment that the painter’s pants did, so it turned out well enough in the end. And by writing this story–before it goes back into the darkest recesses of my memories again–I’m actually celebrating a more successful soccer career than I ever knew that I had. It seems that telling bedtime stories has a benefit for me, after all.

Such folderol as this

Porter

Unless I miss my guess, few people know about William Sidney Porter. He was a guy who loved to write, and he did it over and over again in the course of his lifetime. Wrote lots of interesting things, too. He coined a widely-used term, and wrote a story that just about everyone knows about. But I’ll get to those in a second.

One of the stories that Porter wrote is called Sixes and Sevens and in it, humanity is divided into three groups: Barons, Workers, and Troubadours. Porter then went on to identify anyone reading his story–which he termed “folderol“–as a Troubadour, since Barons had no inclination to read such things, and Workers had no time to do so. Anyone with the time and inclination to spend on reading had to be a Troubadour. And a Troubadour, to Porter, is a person who sings, acts, dances, writes, lectures, or paints. And I’m guilty of the writing part, at least.

So if you already know about Sixes and Sevens, you know that William Sidney Porter is better known by the pen name O. Henry. Porter went to prison for embezzlement, and yet he still continued to write and send his stories to a friend for publication. The writer’s urge was just that strong in him. I’m glad that I learned of his own story, and I hope to read more of what he wrote in the weeks and months ahead. There’s certainly a lot available, and I’m grateful for that.

Porter wrote the story of The Gift of the Magi, which is about as well-known a Christmas story as there is. And he also coined the term “Banana Republic,” which not only describes a political dictatorship, but also a very popular clothing brand, as well. If only the people wearing that label knew more about the man who coined the term.

From one Troubadour to another, thanks for reading this.

Start ’em young

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I was navigating my way through a neighborhood on the North side of Chicago this afternoon, when I saw this flagpole outside of an elementary school. No White Sox fans allowed at this school, apparently.

It took a bunch of shots to get one that worked–because photographing a flag in the breeze isn’t easy–but it was an effort I was willing to make. Opening Day is just one month away!

The neighborhood school

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The school above is less than three blocks away from where I live. It takes less than ten minutes to walk to, and every day my kids both go there in the morning. But they don’t actually take any classes there.

Chalk this up to the vagaries of the public school system here in Chicago. There are magnet schools, and classical schools, and regional gifted schools, and academic centers, and a host of avenues available for parents and their children to explore. But neighborhood schools, such as this one, are generally not considered to be too much of an option in most parts of the city

A neighborhood school can serve as an anchor for a community. That’s the general idea, at least. But with so many parents looking to go anywhere but the neighborhood school, they don’t really reach that potential.

That isn’t to say that nothing of value goes on in these schools. I have no doubt that there are fine teachers, administrators, and students at this school and a hundred others around the city. It’s just that I’m content to think that from afar, without really having to find out for myself.

The extent of my children’s time at their neighborhood school is waiting for a bus there in the morning, to take them to the schools that they attend instead of the neighborhood school. If you live more than a mile and a half from a magnet school, but less than six miles away, the bus comes to pick the kids up and take them to their non-neighborhood school. And then, when the day is over, they get on the bus to take them back to what would–in a different world–be their own neighborhood school.

While I’ve been involved with this system for many years, I’ve never given it too much thought before. There’s something to this system that feels like a game, and my family and I will be playing it for another ten years or so. But barring something unforeseen, the one place that it won’t play out is at the school closest to my house. Welcome to life in Chicago.

Purple Pride, win or lose

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Image from Flickriver.com

Last night I went to see my daughter in Romeo and Juliet. She’s an amazingly talented kid, and I marveled at her and the others in the cast. In just a few weeks, they’ve come together from all different places and brought this story to life. We give teenagers a bad rap sometimes, but knowing there are kids like this out there, who are willing to put their time and their energies into pulling this off–and without being paid to do it–leaves me very hopeful for the future.

As I was getting ready to attend opening night last night, I pulled on a purple Northwestern sweatshirt. I’ve always been proud of my alma mater, because it’s one of the best universities on the entire planet. Everybody says that about their own school, of course, but there’s evidence to support this, too. When people hear about colleges and universities, they usually associate the schools with their football team. Or maybe their basketball team. But the assumption–unless you’re MIT or an IVY League school–is that you’re only as good as your football team. Or maybe the school only exists to provide another college football team to the world. Neither of these is the truth, of course.

I didn’t put on my Northwestern sweatshirt to represent the football team, either. I’m genuinely proud of where I went to school, as everyone should be proud of the school they attended, wherever and whatever it is. Education is a sign of achievement, and if you’ve reached a level where a school grants you a degree or a diploma, go ahead and tell the world about it.

The football team was miserable when I was on campus in the late 1980s. When I was a senior, in the fall of 1989, they didn’t win a single game. So to see them resurrect the football program, under the masterful leadership of Pat Fitzgerald, has been gratifying to see. They’ve finally won a bowl game, even, and this fall should be one like I never thought I’d see.

I can’t wait to see what happens on October 5, when the B1G (or the Big Ten, for an old-timer like me) sees its game of the year played in Evanston when Ohio State comes calling. But win or lose, I’ll still wear the purple proudly. I’d much rather win, of course, but nobody wins all the time in life. Thank goodness nobody loses all the time, either.

The Cats and the Cubs

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I’ve been a Cubs fan since the mid 1970s, and graduated from Northwestern at the dawn of the 1990s. I  would go so far as to say that my interest in sports begins and ends with those two teams. So today’s announcement that Northwestern athletics will play some of their home games in football, baseball, lacrosse, and who knows what else in Wrigley Field during the coming few years is great news for me.

The Cubs and Northwestern are both breaking new ground here, with a partnership that hasn’t been tried by anyone else before. They’re each blazing a trail, and if it succeeds–make that when it succeeds–others will be looking to do the same thing. It’s an exciting time to have allegiances on both sides of this arrangement. May it lead to bigger and better things all the way around.