It was a good day for omens


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


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


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


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.

He loved Big Brother


George Orwell’s 1984 is one of the few books I’ve read multiple times. I first read it back in high school–and it might actually have been in 1984–because a teacher assigned it to me. In fact, I still have the paperback copy that I acquired in the bookstore of a high school that no longer exists. It followed me to college, and has remained in my book collection ever since. It’s not the longest-standing book I have, but it’s certainly one of them.

I read the book again in the mid-1990s, because I was tutoring a high school student who was also reading it at the time. The book had more meaning to me in my 20s than it did in high school. I found that it was still an engaging read.

Yesterday I finished reading the book for a third time, in preparation for a book club discussion at work. I think of this as a perk of working in the publishing industry. The bound version that I have also includes Animal Farm, and I intend to read that shortly, as well. But 1984 was the title at hand, and I re-re-read it, with twenty years of life experience that I didn’t have the last time around.

The funny thing is that I relate to the book’s principal character, Winston Smith, in a way that I never could before. He seemed like a broken-down old man the first times that I read it, and now I’m closer to being him myself. And I found myself frightened of the world Orwell describes, in a way I had never been before.

A world where love and independent thought and departure from social norms aren’t allowed to exist–and the impulses for these things are stomped out through physical torture–is completely abhorrent to me. And yet, as I was reading the book, I found that human apathy and passiveness are the conditions which would allow such a state to take hold. And there’s plenty of those to go around.

Things like science and literature were anathema to the world of Ingsoc, and the ruling Party that Winston upholds before straying from it. The Thought Police was the mechanism that was used to rule society, by any and all means necessary. Winston and his girlfriend Julia hated the Party, and they hated Big Brother, but the Party could not allow them to stray from the societal herd. It’s a vision of society which every single dystopian novel, from The Giver to Divergent, owes an enormous debt.

The book is divided into three parts, and I devoured the final part over the course of a few hours yesterday. I hurtled through the last few chapters, reading of the extreme cruelty inflicted upon Winston in the Ministry of Love. And the final few pages, when the story comes to its heartbreaking conclusion, were read amid the tumult of intermission at a high school talent performance. The bedlam of teenagers greeting the friends and family who had come to watch them perform was exactly the sonic background needed to bring such a compelling read to its conclusion.

At one point in the book, before things go bad for Winston, he states that “Truisms are true, hold onto that!” The book uses the example of “2+2=4” over and over again to impress it’s point on the reader. If the Party says that 2+2=5, loyalty demands that this point be believed. 2+2 could also equal 3, if that’s what the Party decides. And nobody is allowed to think any differently, lest they be tortured as Winston was.

The book broke my heart, particularly when Winston and his former love Julia meet near the end of the book. The Party did a number on both of them, and the result is the type of a numbed existence that no one would ever want to experience for themselves.

Truisms are true, and independent thought–even if it means deviating from what the rest of society believes–is essential. A dying George Orwell posited this many decades ago, and we would do well to keep his words close to our hearts today.


Another early farewell


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


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


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 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.