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)

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.

My Mann Horace


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


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


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


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


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


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…


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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.