A message to my younger self

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When I found this picture in a box of old photos a few days ago, I knew right away it was going on my blog. I’m 22 years old in this moment, fresh out of college and ready for whatever Life throws at me.

The much older man who is sharing this image from the past is here to tell him: Everything’s gonna be all right.

The scary parts about marriage and kids and owning a house one day, all of that is going to happen. But they aren’t as scary as you think.

You’ll see some parts of the world you’ve only read about, before this picture was taken.

You’ll work in a variety of jobs in a range of different fields, but they’ll mostly be engaging and provide you with some sense of fulfillment.

And maybe the best part is you’ve already accomplished your one goal in life. So everything from this point on is all just gravy, anyway.

Are you going to conquer the world? No, but you aren’t really interested in that anyway. And believe it or not, someone who does conquer the world is a person you won’t think too highly of. It sounds crazy, but you’ll see.

You have no idea what an SUV or a minivan is, but in time you’ll own one of each. And a hybrid car is something your 1990s mind won’t be able to understand, but you’ll own a couple of those, too.

And the internet? Where to begin with that? It will be a few more years before you hear anything about it, but it will forever upend the world you’re living in. In some ways that will be good, and in other ways not so much. But it will give you an opprtunity to share some old pictures like this one, and do some musing on life and family and the state of the world in general. And you’ll enjoy doing that—whenever you can find some time to do it—so that’s something to look forward to in the future.

Yes, young man, life will be an interesting ride in the years ahead. But you’ll find all that out for yourself. Just keep on smiling, and make sure to enjoy it at all times.

Working through the grief

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“Dogs’ lives are too short.  Their only fault, really.”  – Agnes Sligh Turnbull

One of the things I’ve been doing during the COVID-19 lockdown is finding interesting quotes from people, about all manner of things. I send an email every morning to sign in for work, and I’ve become very fond of hunting for quotes to share with them, whether in an old copy of Barltlett’s Familiar Quotations, a volume of poetry that may be laying around the house, or even an Internet search for whatever topic strikes my fancy on that day.

There are some usual sources that can always be turned to in a pinch. Not surprisingly, Lincoln is always good for a timely or an interesting quote. The same goes for Emerson, Thoreau, and even Carl Sandburg. But sometimes I have found really deep pearls of wisdom from sources I never though possible, or even from someone I have never heard of before. Such is the case with the writer quoted above. She wrote something for publication in seven different decades, from the 1920s all the way up to the 1980s, when she was in her 90s. So there’s no doubt that she could string a few words together in a compelling fashion. And her words about dogs are very comforting to me right now.

My dog Dooney left us just over two weeks ago, and I’m still struggling with this loss. Many people are suffering from losses these days,  and their losses are compounded by the reality that grieving—at least in a traditional sense—is not permitted right now. So on one level I feel selfish for trying to put a dog on the same level as anyone’s father, brother, friend, or neighbor.

But in a larger sense, as Lincoln said in his Gettysburg Address, writing is one form of grief that doesn’t run afoul of social distancing guidelines. I can express my grief, and throw these thoughts out to the whole wide world, and perhaps someone will read the words and understand. A treasured companion of mine for over ten years is gone, and a container of his ashes is all that I have left of him. I can’t change that, so I’ll just have to do what I can to get along without him.

Even losses that have nothing at all to do with COVID-19 are being treated the same way in these times. “Death doesn’t discriminate” as a line from the musical Hamilton goes. (See, I really can’t help it with quotations sometimes.) That has to be beyond frustrating for someone like my friend George, who recently lost his mother. We’ve all been to funerals before, and we know that wakes and funeral processions and words of condolence uttered at the graveside can be a powerful reminder of how much the now-departed person was loved and appreciated. And few, if any, such services are carried out for a dog or a cat or any other type of companion animal. I know the limitations of what I’m trying to say here. But there are many, many people who would show up and offer support, if only they were allowed to do so. And that, too, is a feeling of sadness for untold numbers of people.

The coronavirus has cut a vicious swath through our world, whether we have loved ones who were taken away by the virus or not. I’m very sorry for their losses, and I hope that they can somehow find a way to work through them.

Going back to Lincoln, at least in some sense, here is a poem that he committed to memory, and recited for his friends on several occasions. It’s called “Mortality” by William Knox, a Scottish poet who, ironically enough, died at the very young age of 36.

The Irony of Abraham Lincoln's Favorite Poem – The Log Cabin Sage

These words comforted Lincoln—who knew something about personal loss—and my hope is that they can provide comfort for others, too. Whatever it takes is exactly what all of us need right now.

Farewell, my sweet boy

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In these COVID-19 days, there’s so much loss and disruption going on that it feels overwhelming. Much of this comes from the virus, of course, but the things that happened before the virus took hold continue happening, too. Such was the case today when I said goodbye to my beloved schnoodle, Dooney.

My family brought Dooney home from a rescue shelter in the summer of 2009. For the entire decade of the 2010s (or whatever we’re going to call them) we all lived together, under the same roof and at one address. I don’t doubt that it will be the happiest uninterrupted stretch that I’ll ever know in my lifetime. And Dooney was the oil that made our family unit run the way it did. Whatever disagreements or hardships we encountered, all of us agreed that our dog was what we called “the best boy in Illinois.”

One of the reasons I have enjoyed writing a blog so much is that it allows me to capture moments and feelings that are otherwise terribly fleeting. I recently came upon a passage written by Nathaniel Hawthorne about the “transitoriness of all things.” It’s a bit of a clunky phrase, but it’s also unalterably true.

As much as we might like to, none of us can stop time and freeze things just as they are. The worst situations in life, along with the very best ones, will eventually give way to something else. The planet keeps on spinning, either way.

I went through my media files as I began writing this post, knowing very well that images of my dog Dooney lay hidden away inside. And I’m sharing the ones I found here, to appreciate and remember the years we shared together.

I recommend that anyone who has never read “Eulogy of the Dog” before click on the link, to see if their own experiences line up with what George Vest once told a Missouri jury. It captures my thoughts in this moment perfectly.

Goodbye and thanks for everything, boy. I won’t ever forget all the happiness you brought to me and the ones I love.

The New York Groove

 

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To get through this Coronavirus shutdown, I’ve pulled out a box of old pictures, and am pulling out a few of them to post on Instagram and tell the story about the shot. An exercise in narcissim, to be sure, but we must do what we can in these unprecedented times. And writing is maybe the only thing I would say I can reliably do. Writing well may be another story, of course, but as long as I’m having fun I’ll just keep on doing it.

The first picture I posted was of my two girls on a ferris wheel inside of the Toys R Us store in New York City. It, like all other Toys R Us stores, is gone now, but that experience, and the trip that surrounded it, was among my favorites. Neither of my daughters was a teenager, and neither had a smartphone yet. I had no idea at the time how good of a time that really was.

Most of the pictures from that trip were digital, and the trip came just days after I began writing this blog. Some of the shots may have been used in other posts, but my photos file in WordPress has many images I’ve uploaded but never got around to writing about. So here’s about two dozen images, as a memory from a moment in time in a world that now seems very far in the past.

Here’s hoping that NYC weathers the current storm without too much further damage, and returns to its vibrant self in short order. The USA, and the world itself, needs the Big Apple more than it might realize under normal conditions. And these are the times, as Thomas Paine once wrote, that try men’s souls. Nobody knows this better than New York right now.

New York is the one city that Chicago has always had a thing about (that whole Second City syndrome and all), and there’s certainly something to that. Times Square alone is on a grand scale that few–if any–can match. It’s a great place to visit, and I’m happy to report my family made a return visit there on a brutally hot weekend in 2019. But I don’t know if living there is something I could do, and fortunately I’ve never had to find out.

But New York is in my heart right now, as I think about the images of a deserted Times Square I saw online earlier today. The city is taking a hard punch right now, and anyone there (or anywhere else in this nation) will always remember the events of March, 2020.

So I’m posting these here to remind myself, and anyone else who stumbles upon this post, of what New York City was, and will be again some day soon. It’s up to you, New York, and we’re all pulling for you to make it through.

FU Coronavirus (Part 1)

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My blog was birthed in a bolt of inspiration at a garage sale back in 2011. Or maybe it was a yard sale. Here’s the first post I ever wrote, and it turns out it was a garage sale. But the point was I went out of my way, spent a little money, and wanted to tell the world about it. And over the next seven years, I came back to it whenever I had a thought in my head and a few moments of time to push it out.

In the early days of doing this, I wrote that I wanted to put one million words into cyberspace via this blog. I even had a spreadsheet with the date of a post, its title, and the word count, both of the individual post and the running total for the blog itself. I made it to at least a half million words before that idea went the way of so many other ideas I’ve had in life. So perhaps if I get back to doing this, and one day make an attempt to total up all the words I have written, the million number will have already been achieved. As Nelson Mandela once said, and Bernie Sanders later requoted, it only seems impossible until it’s done.

The forced quarantined that’s about to happen in my home state due to COVID-19 seems like an opportunity to start writing once again. I really did enjoy doing it, as it was an extension of something I’ve been doing all my life.

I tell people that sometimes I’ve had “Writer”—or some variation thereof—in my job title, but I’ve never had a job anywhere that I didn’t do a fair amount of writing, in one form or another. Well, there was a time I literally worked at the Gates of Hell (no lie) scaring people at Halloween, but other than that I’ve always been writing something. And the blog lets me throw ideas out into digital perpetuity on the internet, so why not do it?

The virus is going to do what it does, and there will be a terrible price paid as a result. I heard a story on the radio this morning as I was driving into work about a man who was about my age (whatever that number may be) and also a father who just died from “the rona” (as I’ve taken to calling it). A family member told a story about how he always enjoyed having cafe con leche.

Every person we lose to this virus will have a cafe con leche of their own, and family members who are left with the sadness of knowing that cafe con leche, or whatever else that thing they once enjoyed was, will never again have the same meaning it did when that person was still alive. The numbers of coronavirus cases and deaths will undoubtedly be large and regrettable, but it’s the specific and individualized losses that are already giving me pause.

I always put an image with the posts I write, and here I’m using a cafe con leche  image that I took in the Little Havana section of Miami a numbr of years ago. Here’s to all the victims of coronavirus, and all the little pleasures that will disappear when they do. I won’t personally know any of them (I HOPE!!!!!), but I will mourn their departure, all the same.

To one million words….and beyond!

 

American Hash

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I’ve never written about this before, but I was in a fraternity when I was in college. Drinking and hazing and general stupidity have given fraternities (I don’t like using the term “frats”) a bad name, and I wouldn’t disagree with much of the criticism of them. But one element of the fraternity life seems relevant in these times, and that’s the experience of fraternity rush.

Rush in my time, back in the 1980s, was soaked in alcohol. There was talk of moving to “dry” rush, and that might be a better way to do it, because nobody’s really at their best when they’re drunk. I’m certainly no exception to that, either. But the reason rush exists is to find new members, to keep your house growing for the future. It’s recruiting under a different name, really. And it needs to be done, for the long-term survival of the House.

But just showing up at a party wasn’t enough to gain acceptance. A prospective member needed to show that he could offer something to the existing members, to the point where a bid, or an invitation to join, would be offered. The members of the house would meet people, take their measure in whatever social setting was going on, and decide what to do about offering a bid. That’s where the hash came in.

After a rush party was over, the existing members (you can use the term “brothers” if you want, but I never cared for the term too much) met to discuss the various people who came to the festivities. We called it “hash” because we hashed out our differences about particular people. Some prospective members were generally liked, some people were not, and most fell somewhere in between.  Speeches were made in support of some prospective members, and in the end votes were taken.

In my house, at least, the strongest gesture in support of a prospective member was “jumping the couch,” and if someone I respected in the house jumped the couch for someone else, that was enough to get me to vote in their favor. People who warranted a couch jumping generally received a bid.

At the other end of this spectrum was a “blackball” which I now realize has loaded racial meanings, but the effect of a blackball was that a member would put their opposition to someone in the strongest terms possible. Blackballed persons didn’t get bids, because doing so would be disrespectful to whoever offered it.

The people known as “Dreamers” are essentially prospective members of the American fraternity. They didn’t come to our rush party by themselves, but were brought here by their parents as children. They aren’t “illegal immigrants” as the blackballers among us prefer to call them. They grew up here, and think of the United States as their home. 700,000 of them, give or take whatever the actual number is, are now waiting for our national hash to play itself out.

Extending a bid to these Dreamers will shape the future, without a doubt.  Sending all these people away—or worse, forcing them to live in fear of deportation in the land they call home, as most of them would surely do before leaving on their own terms—would be an act that goes against what America is all about. They’re here now, waiting for the chance to raise their families in the only land they know.

With that in mind, I’m ready to jump the couch on their behalf. Let’s ensure America’s continued survival by giving the Dreamers a path to citizenship, and welcoming them to the American fraternity. It’s the smart and compassionate thing to do, so let’s do it.

Why I’m taking a knee today

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If you wanted to be somebody at my high school (which no longer exists, by the way) you had to be on the football team. There were other sports teams and activities, but the attention that was given to the football team made many of my classmates put in the time and effort that were needed to suit up and play a game on Friday nights in the fall.

American society has put football–and particularly the NFL–on an exceedingly high platform. The athletes who play the game at this level have made enormous sacrifices to be where they are, including the newly-understood risks to their mental health and well-being. The players live lives the rest of us can hardly imagine, and when their time on the field is over, many of them painfully wither away. All the fame and adulation given to them today won’t  restore what’s being lost underneath their helmets.

So if a player at that level of the game wants to use their notoriety to bring attention to causes or issues they believe in, who among us is qualified to say they can’t? The act of taking a knee during the National Anthem–which many players are poised to do–is only disrespect to those who want to see it as such.

When Donald Trump went to a rally in Alabama and called players taking a knee in this manner “disrespectful” and labelled them as “sons of bitches,” he scored some cheap, racially-motivated points. But he also set off a firestorm that America doesn’t need, especially not now. Houston needs rebuilding, the Florida Keys need rebuilding, and Puerto Rico needs basically everything: Power, water, you name it. But rather than address those issues, Trump decided to ride the racist wave one more time. It’s not surprising, and it’s not leadership, either.

Last night, I went out to dinner with my wife and youngest daughter to a Thai and Chinese restaurant in Chicago. At the end of the meal, there were three fortune cookies brought out, and the one I opened up read as follows: “People are waiting to take cues from you. Lead them well.” If only Donald Trump could have such wisdom and insight as my fortune cookie did last night.

Let’s do what we can to help Americans in need, and not let a dictator wannabe set the tone on what patriotism looks like.

In defiance of Donald Trump–who took multiple draft deferments to fight in Vietnam and has wrongly impugned the actions and character of his predecessor, Barack Obama– I’m reviving my blog today in order to take a knee. I love this country, and even though I was never a football player, I did play one onstage once. I was 15 at the time, and the man I am today is grateful that whatever physical concerns I may have, potentially having CTE is not among them.

Whatever is said or written about the actions of these players today will be a distraction from the profound needs of many Americans right now. Donald Trump can’t see that, but I’m hopeful that others will. Think of this blog post as my attempt to live up to what a fortune cookie told me to do last night.

 

An indefensible act

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By removing the United States from the Paris Agreement–which every other nation in the world save for Syria and Nicaragua has signed onto–Donald Trump has declared war on the planet that all of us inhabit. He clearly doesn’t care about my children, shown above on the rim of the Grand Canyon and in the waters of the Pacific Ocean. They don’t matter to him, nor do millions of other children around the world, who rightly consider this world of ours as their birthright.

This planet is my home, and I won’t keep silent as Trump attempts to ruin it by his actions. Laughing at Trump–which once seemed like it would have been enough–isn’t the answer. Scoffing at Trump hasn’t worked either, not as long as he has a sycophantic army of supporters who seem oblivious to the harm he is doing. But we all must speak out, to raise our voices in protest of this diabolical act.

A blast from the past

10515319_10202980211960774_5874144911201774641_oAs what may be my family’s last spring break rolls on, here’s my favorite image from the first one, back in 2005. My older daughter–who just turned 18 a few days ago–was in kindergarten at the time, and we spent a week in Arizona.

Near the end of the week, we went to a chuck wagon supper at a place I’ve since forgotten about. One of the attractions ions we could do was pose for an old time where photo in period dress. My kindergartener saw the blue dress and decided she had to wear it. So we all got dressed up, and the photographer captured a literal snapshot in time for us.

To remember that moment, and marvel at how quickly time passes, that snapshot is presented here. Many thanks to my two girls– who will always be “little” in my mind, no matter how old they get– for allowing me to take them to places I otherwise would not have gone. Thanks also to my wife, who picked out a number of interesting places to go over the years.

Yesterday we were at the Japanese garden in Portland, Oregon when a family with three cute little girls caught my attention. I understood, in a way that I couldn’t have back in Arizona, that we are lucky to be where we are at any given moment, and that having children is like a concert or a play that’s over before you want it to be. All we can do is enjoy it while it unfolds, as much as we possibly can. And in the end, we’ll wish we had done more. But the memories of what we did do will just have to be enough.

 

Always in my heart

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On the occasion of my daughter’s 18th birthday, I have boxes of pictures and just as many stories to share about her. My life hasn’t been what it was before she was born on April 4, 1999, and I don’t mind that one little bit.

Being a parent once scared me to death. Nothing quite compares to holding a little one in your hands, figuratively and literally. I put it off for all of my twenties, and by the time I hit 30 it couldn’t be deferred much longer.

I’m sharing one picture here, and one story as well. The picture was taken when she was in kindergarten, and it shows the happy but shy girl that she was in those days. Looking at it reminds me of how kindergarten once seemed far away, and yet one day it arrived. And now she’ll be going away to college in a few months. I’ve always made a point of enjoying it while it lasted, because it sure didn’t last for very long.

My favorite story about the lovely girl who forever changed my life took place a few days before she was born. My wife and I had tickets to see a musical at the Oriental Theater in Chicago. During one rousing musical number–I think it was in the second act–my wife grabbed by hand and pressed it against her side. I was amazed to feel my unborn daughter kicking along with the music. She’s always been a theater kid, and studying musical theater in high school is as natural for her as a fish swimming in water. But I truly believe it started for her on that night.

She’s grown so much in the 18 years she’s been with us, and it’s been such a joy to watch it all happen. The law says she’s an adult now, and she can do many more things today than she could yesterday. I’ve lost whatever legal rights and responsibilities I ever had for her, but my job as a parent isn’t done, nor is it ever likely to be. So we’ll keep on travelling down that path toward whatever she’s going  to be in life.

This is an important day in her life and in mine, and I’m writing this to recognize how far the two of us have come together. It’s been quite a ride so far, and I can’t wait to see where it goes from here.

The battle is joined

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Yesterday I wrote that I wasn’t too happy to call myself an American. Today I take it all back.

250,000 people in Chicago–my wife and younger daughter among them–participated in a march that grew so large that there was no marching to be done. Cities around the country, and even around the world, also joined in, and the total is easily in the millions. Not a single person of those millions was happy about the ascension of Donald Trump to the presidency, either.

Trump sent out his press secretary to lecture the press about inauguration crowd size estimates, and basically try to shame the press into reporting the things that Trump and his people approve of. Oh, and deflect attention away from the marches that were going on at the very same time. It was an awful performance, but if it serves to get the people more fired up and ready to go than they already were, it will be a great thing, indeed.

I wasn’t able to attend the march today, but I did pass by it at one point. I noticed a sign saying “History has its eyes on us,” which is an obvious reference to Hamilton. The pro-Trump crowd will desperately search for something else–anything else–to put their eyes on at the end of this terrible day for them. But the message has been delivered, and Trump and his people would be terribly unwise to ignore it.

The hand of fate

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Watching my daughter as she goes through her senior year of high school reminds me of when I was 17, itching to leave my parents’ house and see what else the world had to offer. I wanted my escape route to be the University of Illinois at Champaign Urbana, and came about as close as could be to going there. But at the last second, fate intervened and I never set foot on the campus.

Flash forward thirty years. My daughter has spent the last three years at a performing arts high school, and the college selection process is now underway. On Saturday, I drove her to the U of I campus to get a look at the theater facilities, and audition for a place in the BFA program in theater. And I wandered around the campus for a while, wondering how things might have gone if I had enrolled there.

But there aren’t any do-overs in life. Had I gone to the U of I, I would almost certainly not have met my future wife, nor would I have the beautiful girl who has given my life so much meaning over the past 17 years. So it turned out to be an excellent trade on my part, all those years ago. I passed on the U of I, but still left home as I wanted to do, and I got this lovely girl (and her younger sister too)  as a  result. How could I ever be unhappy about that?

Josh Wilker says it all for me

 

I remember watching Yaz’s last regular-season at-bat. The Red Sox were bad that year, most of the superstars from my childhood gone. There weren’t going to be any postseason at-bats. I watched the game alone in a TV room at a boarding school that I’d be expelled from the following year. I’d started attending the […]

via David Ortiz — Cardboard Gods

I came to write a few words about the Cubs, and I expect to do that next, but Josh’s words of remembrance and parenting really got to me.

For me–and evidently for him too–baseball fills a place that nothing else can. It’s a connection to our past, and a reminder that life is always moving forward. Passing the game on to the next generation is the best thing we can do, for them as well as for us.

The best shot was the one I didn’t see coming

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On Sunday morning, I got up early and drove my younger daughter to her synchronized skating practice. Upon dropping her off, I realized that the sun would be coming up shortly, and I decided to greet it as it did.

The sunrise was a dazzling display of clouds and light and water and sky. The shades were incredible, and I took a few pictures, knowing that they could never capture the scene sufficiently. Pictures don’t do many things justice, particularly in the natural world. But it makes us feel better to record something, just the same.

I came away from the scene with about two dozen pictures and a video, all stored in my cameraphone’s memory. One is really all I needed, but for some reason I had to take more. I enjoyed the scene with my own two eyes as well–as I was supposed to do–but the surplus of picture-taking resulted in my favorite shot of all, and the one I’ll share with posterity in this space.

A bicyclist out on a morning ride zoomed past me as I was taking one of the shots. I don’t know–and suppose I never will–if it was a man or a woman, how old the person is, or anything else about him or her. The person was wearing a hat and a backpack, and riding a bike along the lakefront in Chicago. But that person’s timing, and mine, created an interesting piece of imagery: The eternal sun and the temporary person, on a seeming collision course with each other. The sun has come up every day for millions of years, and those of us here to see it are shifting every single day.

I couldn’t have posed this picture any better if I wanted to, and that’s the point. Random, unexpected, and perhaps even unwanted things can sometimes turn out better than anything we could plan for. I’m grateful that I took more pictures of a sunrise than I needed to, and I’m glad that a biker I’ll never meet came out of nowhere and crashed into one of them. It makes for a nice image, and a reminder to take whatever comes and be excited about it.

An electrifying tribute to Prince

I write my blog for many reasons, but at the bottom of it all I like having a place to go with a story like this one. It will be gone in the morning unless I capture it now, so here goes.

Chicago, very early Sunday Morning

I had picked up my teenager from a visit to a friend’s house, and while she stayed awake long enough to marvel at Chicago’s skyline lit up for the evening, she soon conked out. At least I would be able to pick the music I wanted to listen to for the rest of the ride home.

Changing the stations on the satellite radio wasn’t easy, with her leaning against my right arm and the steering wheel in my left hand, but I found a way. When I turned to the Bruce Springsteen channel, and his tribute to Prince from earlier this year, I knew I had found my place to be.

I wrote about Prince’s death a few times here, because it was a sad an unexpected moment for anyone who loved his music. I never considered Prince as being mortal, as crazy as that sounds. Bruce is like that, too, and perhaps a few others also fit this description. They make music, and we expect that they’ll always be there to make more of it. And then we get a reminder that musicians are mortal like the rest of us.

When the song came to the Nils Lofgren guitar solo, it found a level that I hadn’t known about before. The combination of the song and what it has meant to me through the only parts of my life that I care to remember, and the haunting way that Nils was playing the notes, and the fact that although I had watched the video a dozen times online but had never heard it on the radio before, and the realization that my daughter would be getting into it as much as I was if she had only stayed awake, and the understanding that Prince wasn’t around to play the song himself anymore, hit me in a way that I wasn’t ready for.

All the hairs on my left arm were standing straight up as the solo came to a conclusion. Music is the only thing that ever has (and probably ever could) give me goose bumps like that, and the music of one great musician, played as a loving and respectful tribute by another great musician, is the kind of moment that doesn’t come along often enough in life. When a moment like that happens it must be savored and–if possible–remembered or described in some way.

For anyone who loves Prince’s music and hasn’t yet seen the tribute, check out the link above and prepare to experience some goosebumps of your own.

It’s her moment now

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Photo credit: TheAtlantic.com

As Hillary Clinton gets ready to accept her party’s nomination for the presidency tonight, I think back to the Spring of 1987 and a moment that opened my eyes to gender matters like nothing else ever has.

Freshmen students at Northwestern–I don’t remember now whether it was only the Arts and Sciences students or everyone in the class–had to take two Freshman seminars. In the spring, I registered for a course that had something to do with gender and science. Perhaps it fit into my schedule, or perhaps I thought there would be a lot of girls in the course. Either or both reasons sound legitimate to me.

On the first day of class, which was held in a conference room in the library, I walked in and grabbed a chair. The room filled up, and the hour for starting the class came and went.

One of the cherished rules at Northwestern was the “ten minute rule,” which stated that if a professor had not arrived within ten minutes of the class’s scheduled start time, everyone could leave. So we all started watching the clock, hoping that 2:10, or whatever the magic moment was, would arrive soon.

At eight or nine minutes past the hour, the teacher spoke up. She had been seated around the table with the rest of us, and we didn’t know she was in our midst. She pointed out, to the 15 or so students seated around the table, that the seats at the ends of the table were being occupied by the only two male students in the class, because we had been raised to assume that we were entitled to have them.

I shot a frantic look at the guy at the other end of the table, as if to say “What have we gotten ourselves into?” For the rest of the course, I was convinced that everything I turned in started at a “C” and became either a C+ or a C-, depending on whether it made any sense or not. It was a long course, and not a particularly enjoyable one, but I remember it more clearly than any other college course I ever took.

I remember it because it made me realize the effects of gender-specific language. For someone who grew up in a less-than-progressive time (the 1980s) and a less-than-progressive place (Springfield, Illinois), the idea that calling a doctor “he” and a nurse “she” helped to perpetuate gender norms was a revelation to me.

It’s now three decades later,  and I rarely see much of this anymore. Ironically enough, it happens a lot in education, where teachers are routinely referred to as “she.” As a male who taught in the classroom many years ago, this rankled me a bit. Even though teaching is, and probably always will be, a field with many more females than males in it, I realized that sending a message that an unnamed teacher would likely be a woman isn’t good. Men can be teachers too, and the language used to describe teachers should reflect this fact.

Scientists were once overwhelmingly thought of as “he,” but the course taught us of the contributions of Barbara McClintock.  We read a biography about her, and I remember coming away with the idea that telling young girls that scientists were supposed to be men was not helpful to them, or to science itself. Even though I found the class uniquely discomforting as a male, as a person I walked away with an understanding that I didn’t have before.

I say all this because the text of the U.S. Constitution, and specifically Article II, refers to the president as “he” on several occasions. For example, Article II, Section 1 states “He shall hold his Office during the Term of four Years,” I’m sure that the Founders, as enlightened and as forward-thinking as they may have been at the time, were still a product of their 18th century upbringing, which wasn’t so dissimilar to my late 20th century upbringing. Boys got to sit at the head of the table, and girls didn’t.

I’m not thrilled with Hillary Clinton as a candidate, and I toyed with the idea of not voting for anyone in this presidential election. I would never vote for Trump, nor would I vote for a third-party candidate if it helped Trump to win. But even with these misgivings, I’m very glad that Hillary Clinton is being nominated for president tonight.

Girls should see themselves as entitled to those seats at the head of the table, just as much as boys already do. And if tonight’s events, and the election that is coming up in November, helps to move that needle then I’m all for it, in the name of my two daughters, my wife, my sister, my mother, and every female classmate and colleague I’ve ever had or ever will have. New possibilities have been opened up, and we’re all better for it.

Cape memories

My wife and younger daughter are on Cape Cod this week, and it’s been quiet around the house in their absence. But I wanted to share some old pictures before they left, because time moves so fast, and one day’s little kids become another day’s adolescents/teenagers. Enjoying this process–as I’ve always tried to do–is the best we can hope for.

Saturday in the Park

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I’ve just passed my actual birthday, and I’m in between two very important dates to me. So at sunset on a beautiful day in the park nearest my home, it’s time for some reflection.

For five years, I’ve filled this blog with stories, ideas, pictures, limericks, and whatever else has come into my head at any given moment. I truly enjoy the creative outlet that this provides to me. It’s never been anything but a diversion for me, but I can’t imagine a time where I haven’t got anything I want to say.

The other anniversary, coming up in about a week’s time, is five years since I gave up drinking, once and for all. All but a very few posts on this blog have been created by me in this new and (I have to believe) better state I’ve chosen for myself.

Are the two related in some way? I’ve thought about this, but I don’t know what the answer is. I’m not chronicling my sobriety, at least not intentionally. But it’s bizarre to me that after a quarter century, I was able to just set it aside so quickly and so completely. I never needed it as much as I thought I did, apparently.

But I need to do this, instead. Flannery O’Connor once said she wrote in order to find out what she thinks, and I completely understand this. The thoughts that escape my brain and make their way onto the blog achieve a type of immortality (no pun intended). So now, for as long as the Internet and WordPress survives, the thoughts in my head will live on. The park setting, the sunset, the Shakespeare play being performed on the lawn (It’s 12th Night, for the record), my kids having snacks with their friends, the bells of the palateria in the distance, the shouts of the children at play, all of it will now live on, at least in some small manner. And the man that I am–who is inevitably going to change in the months and years that I hopefully still have left–is hereby leaving a marker for anyone who might care to find it someday.

YOU MUST AMEND YOUR DRUNKENESS!” an actor on the makeshift stage just bellowed, as if he and the Bard knew about my ruminations on having done exactly that. It was a change that was long overdue, but the words “better late than never” never seemed quite so appropriate. I hope to never go back to that place again.

Time to go and watch the rest of the play. Happy Summer to all.

 

Birthday wishes to my kids’ Uncle John

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Iles Park, Springfield, IL, circa 1975

My sister, my older younger brother, and I were all born in June. My brother’s birthday comes first on the calendar, so the family birthday season kicks off today.

We had a lot of fun together through the years, and even if I’m not happy with how I look in this old photo, I’m glad to have a reminder of us being kids together.

I hope he has a great day, and a great year following after that.

Being somebody

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MASH

Last night I saw my daughter perform onstage with the rest of her classmates. They performed “In the Heights” and it was a one-shot performance at the end of the school year. She goes to an arts school because she grew up loving Disney musicals and Glee and Wicked and High School Musical. She’s performed in over a dozen shows, and watching her on stage never gets old.

When I was fifteen, and in high school myself, I was a mess. I was an awkward kid who said and did as little as possible, desperately hoping to remain in the background whenever I could.

The one thing I wanted to do when I started high school was play football. I thought that was the way to stand out and be recognized for something. I was willing to endure the workouts and hit the weight room  if it meant becoming somebody different than who I was.

My parents, however, said no. They didn’t want me getting hurt, so they told me I couldn’t do the thing I most wanted to do. I hated them for it, too, because I didn’t know how else I was going to make my mark in school. But fate can work in some funny ways sometimes.

I went out for a part in the school play, which was M*A*S*H. The finale of the TV series had recently aired, and I watched the show for the first time  as it was going off the air. I got a small part as the clueless commander, who was in the first scene and maybe one more in the second act. It was a bit part, but I was a bit player so I didn’t mind it too much. It was what I wanted, even, at that point in my life.

But a bigger role was presented two me two or three weeks before the show. Someone had left the cast, and I could have the role if I learned all the lines in the time that we had left. It was a challenge, but I accepted it and did what was asked of me.

We only performed two shows, one Friday night and one Saturday night, back in the fall of 1983, but they were a revelation for me. I realized that when I was onstage, people looked at me and listened to words that came out of my mouth, which otherwise didn’t happen for me. I found the thrill of that feeling overwhelming. The shy and awkward kid had found a place where he wasn’t shy and awkward, and it was an experience I’ll never forget.

In one of the scenes I was required to put on a football jersey and pants, and carry a helmet with me onstage. I knew that it was the closest I was going to get to playing football, but by that point I didn’t mind it at all. And now, thirty years after the fact, I’m glad that the everyday aches and pains that I sometimes feel don’t have anything to do with football. And the awareness of head trauma and dangers of CTE are something I’ve been spared, too.

In retrospect, I’m glad I never played football, and that I got a chance to experience what being on stage felt like, instead. I tried out for, and had a part in, the musical South Pacific the following spring, but my budding theater career came crashing to a halt when I opened my mouth to sing onstage. And my school never again put on any non-musical plays, so M*A*S*H stands alone in my memory. To borrow a phrase from the Rolling Stones, I didn’t get what I wanted (football), but I did try, and I found something that I needed instead (validation and attention through performing onstage).

My daughter, fortunately, is blessed with a lovely singing voice, and where it comes from I don’t exactly know.But I know how she feels being onstage. You feel like you’re somebody, because you are. You’re what everyone in the audience looks to for the entertainment and the escape–however brief it may be–from the realities of everyday life. I couldn’t be happier she enjoys it as much as she does. And I’m proud to support it in every way I can.

Saying thanks to The New Yorker

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Many years ago (almost 34 years, to be exact) I wrote a letter to the editor of a wrestling magazine. The young teenager that I was at the time watched a lot of professional wrestling on TV, and they were to me what Batman and Superman were for those who read comic books. Dusty Rhodes, Ric Flair, Dick the Bruiser and, most of all, Roddy Piper were living, breathing examples of escapism and super powers. I would practice wrestling moves on the bed at home, or with my two younger brothers. It was a fun time in my life, and I miss it in some ways.

I felt sufficiently moved by my admiration for Roddy Piper to write a letter and put it in the mail slot of the hospital where I went to visit my dying grandmother. I never really thought they would publish it, though. Just saying it, or writing the words down, was enough for me at that time. But they published my letter in the fall of 1982, and the excitement I got from seeing my words and my name in print is something I haven’t since forgotten. My name has occasionally made its way into print, but literally millions of my words have been submitted  for public review since then. It’s tremendously gratifying to know that many of my ideas and words are floating around, somewhere.

Two days ago, in the aftermath of Prince’s sudden and shocking death last week, I was again moved to send out a letter to the editor of a magazine, this time The New Yorker. I was barely aware of who Prince was back in 1982 when I wrote my first letter to the editor, but I learned not too long after that. And just as the Internet has come along and brought great change to the way news and ideas are shared with the public, I didn’t actually write out a letter this time, but I did compose the following as an email:

It’s April 25, and the news of Prince’s sudden passing still feels shocking and raw. We’ve all had a weekend to mourn and reflect on what his music meant for those of us who grew up in the 80s, as well as those who either discovered his music after that, or those who followed his newer music right up until the end. It’s a hard time for all of us, no matter which category we may fall into.

Your April 25 cover is a fascinating glimpse into this present day. There’s just no way that anyone connected with your magazine could have known that, by the date appearing on the cover itself, we would lose a man who was an absolute wizard on the electric guitar. Nor could you realize that the man whose music broke down every barrier–racial, gender, and generational, to name just a few–would leave us within days of this cover’s appearance. And yet, there it is on your cover, in red and blue (and the fact the two colors combine to make purple is another inexplicable coincidence).

We can see people of all concert-going ages, backgrounds, and stations in life joined together in a room, enjoying themselves in a way that would not be possible in any other public setting. The guitar’s fretboard we can see on the cover, but the guitarist’s identity in this idyllic scene remains unknown. My interpretation is that the guitarist most likely to make such a gathering possible is the one who is being commemorated in purple in your next issue.

I’m already thinking of these as the most accidental–and yet most appropriate–covers pairing that we’ll ever see. Many thanks for such an unintentional gift.

Whether the New Yorker does anything with this note is besides the point. I had something to say, and I said it. And the internet and this blog allow me share this message with whatever part of the online world wants to read it, too. Just having an outlet for the idea is enough. And when the Prince tribute cover arrived in the mailbox today, I had to put the covers side by side and share them here. They are the beautiful ones, indeed.

Back to the bench

A a quarter of a century ago, I was fresh out of college, and finally on my own. There were bills to pay, of course, but life as I had imagined it to be was underway.

I moved into an apartment in Chicago, lured by a free month’s rent. And each day, I rode the bus downtown to the job I had, as a legal go-fer for a solo practioner attorney in the Loop. It was an exciting time in life.

This week, after a good chunk of my lifetime has passed by, I am back in the Loop again, serving on a jury trial. I walked through the lobby of the old building I once worked in. It was just as stately and marbled as I remembered it being.

I also sat on a marble bench, but that may not be the right word for it because it has no back, outside of the post office  a block away. I would sometimes eat my lunch there, watching the people going by as I tried to imagine what my place in the world was going to be someday.

Sitting on that same bench yesterday morning reminded me of how the world has turned upside down since then. I got married, had two very lovely daughters come into my life, and now have a house and a mortgage and two cars and a few other things. The ride of life has been very good over those years, and I have many fine memories that have shown up in this space over the years.

But the ride still  continues, as it will until I finally come to the edge of my mortality. When and how that happens remains a mystery, but I’m leaving this behind as a remnant of my life for after it happens.

I moved away from the building and the bench, as I imagined I would, and was happy for the having the chance to sit on it once again and remember those days.

Ferris Bueller said that life moves pretty fast, and if you don’t look around, you could miss it. I’m writing this to affirm that it does, and that I haven’t.

Now it’s Mom’s turn

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My mom gave everything she had to me and my siblings, as we were growing up so many years ago. The only way to repay that is to recognize it (which simply can’t be done as you’re growing up yourself) and then, if the time comes, to do the same for your own kids. The circle is then reinstated, and the world keeps spinning on.

I know that my Mom reads my blog (she’s one of the few, I would imagine) so I’m happy to share a few words (and a groovy picture) in the hopes that we’ll get to do this all over again every March 24, into the foreseeable future.

Cheers to you, Mom. And thanks very much.