Another early farewell

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I’ve written about death many times on this blog. It’s usually the death of a celebrity or an athlete or somebody that I never knew that gets me started down the “life is short so we must enjoy it while we can” path. Death is a part of life, to be sure, but it’s easier to expound on it when the person involved exists only in newspapers and on television shows or movie screens.

The only post that I’ve written before this one about the death of someone I knew came in November of 2012, and it concerned one of my former students in the Chicago Public Schools. That hit me hard because he was no longer the teenager that I had taught, but he was still young enough that his best years were, or should have been, ahead of him. To lose him at such a young age felt like a waste. And a year and a half later, here we are again.

Adonis Jones is an interesting name. Adonis was the Greek god of beauty and desire, and Jones is about as plain American as you can get. And the young man who had this name was about as unique as his name suggests. He was a student in my division, number 001, at Future Commons High School on the south side of Chicago. I watched him and his classmates transition from teenagers to young adults in the four years I was at FCHS, and on the day that they all graduated, I knew I could not go back to that school again. I simply didn’t have an emotional attachment to the classes that followed behind his.

I had not seen Adonis since the day that he walked across the stage at graduation in 2000. In truth, I haven’t seen any of his classmates since then, either. I have become friends with some of them on Facebook, and when a ten-year reunion was planned a few years ago, I couldn’t make it because of family commitments. Whenever the next reunion is planned, I’ll be sure to make more of an effort to go. I’m not sure if I would have said much to Adonis beyond “Hello,” but even that is something I won’t have the chance to do now. And I regret that.

I learned of Adonis’ passing on Facebook two days ago, and I dealt with this loss the best way I know how, through writing. I wrote a piece that juxtaposes the Cubs’ loss in their centennial celebration at Wrigley Field with the news of Adonis’ passing. I was angry at the Cubs, but then I got the most severe wake-up call imaginable. As much as I enjoy baseball, it’s not life and death. And I made this point in the most heartfelt way that I knew how. The piece will run in the next edition of Zisk Magazine, which will be published in the fall of 2014.

My teaching days sometimes feel like they happened in another lifetime. Rather than moving to another school, I decided to enter the field of educational assessments and publishing, and I’ve been there for well over a decade now. But instead of shutting those days out, I realize that the students I once taught have remained with me, as hopefully I have remained with them in some way. The loss of one of them hurts, and I hope it does not happen again anytime soon.

Rest in Peace Adonis Jones (1982-2014)

For the love of books

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If anything ever made me as happy as reading books makes my younger daughter, I would be very fortunate, indeed. School book fairs are a commercial endeavor, to be sure, but they also help reinforce a child’s love of books. And that’s a very good thing.

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..