A vote of confidence


Saturday morning, Chicago

I was out walking my dog this morning when I had to find a dumpster. The dog had completed his task for the morning, and I had dutifully–an ironic term there, I suppose–picked it up in a plastic bag. Disposing of it in a dumpster was a necessary prerequisite for returning home and giving him his treat. Every dog owner knows this routine.

After disposing of the dog’s business, I spied a penny on the ground in the alley. More than half the time I see a penny on the ground, I pick it up and look at the date stamped on it. It’s given me food for thought on several instances, such as with 1995 and 1968 and 1986. There are a few others, but I don’t want to take away from today’s find more than I have to. Because 1983–the year stamped on today’s penny–was a pretty significant year for me.

In the fall of 1983, I tried out for the school play. I was a sophomore in high school, and wanted to try my hand at acting. It’s not clear to me today why I did it, because I was an awkward and shy kid at that stage in my life. What made me want to get on stage and recite some lines is something I still don’t fully understand.

I got a small part, a General of some sort, who had maybe two or three scenes in the show, which was M*A*S*H. The final episode of the TV show inspired by the play had aired earlier in the year, and the juxtaposition of these two was probably not a coincidence. “Suicide is Painless,” the haunting theme song for the show, was played as we came onstage to take our curtain calls at the performances. I’ll always have fond memories of being in that show, and regret that I never seriously thought of acting again after this show. But the things you didn’t do in life cause more regrets than the things you did do, and I understand that now. Not so much when I was fifteen, though.

The big moment of this play, and the reason I’m typing this out today, is because of the director of the play, Brother Vince. He was a rather heavy-set guy who was something of a priest-in-training. He spent one year at my high school, and was my religion teacher. He also decided to direct a play, so at least I knew who the director was. I doubt I would have tried out for the show, otherwise.

I wasn’t a football player–which is what everyone wanted to be at my school–and my parent-imposed exclusion from the jock culture left me to explore other options, instead. I started writing for the school newspaper, which I enjoyed a lot, but I wanted something else to go along with it. And the school play seemed to be a good outlet for it. Three decades later, both of my daughters are in every play they can find, and I think of this as carrying on whatever it was that I once did, but to a degree I never thought possible. And I’m so proud of them for doing this.

But back to M*A*S*H for a moment. I attended an all-boys high school, but the girls from the all-girls school up the street also auditioned for the play. I wanted to be around the girls, as any hormonal teenager would, so being in the play gave me a chance to admire them from afar. No way did I have the confidence needed to actually speak to any of them. But being in their presence was enough for me, at that stage of my life.

I had learned my lines for the part I had, and one day the director, Bother Vince, offered me the role of Trapper John. It was one of the meatiest roles in the play, and the guy who was originally given the role–a junior who also played on the school soccer team–either quit the play or was made to decide between the team and the play. The latter option had never occurred to me before today, and what the true story is I’ll likely never know.

I knew that this role offered more stage time, which I wanted, but would entail having to learn a lot more lines than I already had. I didn’t want to let my director down, but I was hesitant to take on the added responsibility. I finally agreed to take the part, because I reasoned that the offer would not have been made unless he thought I could handle it. I took it as a vote of confidence, and I accepted the challenge that came with it.

I learned the part, and found myself tremendously emboldened by the experience. The soccer team’s season ended a week or two before opening night, and the guy who had the Trapper John role may have wanted to reclaim his old part. It was never asked of me to relinquish the part, and I don’t know what I would have done if this had happened. In my mind, it was my part, because I had put in the time to make it so. And so it was, when the curtain went up on a weekend in early October of 1983.

Acting gave me a sense of self-confidence, which is something I had never had before. When I was on the stage, everyone in the audience was looking at me, and hearing my voice. For a kid who had spent his life seeking out the shadows at every opportunity, this was an elixir of a kind I had never yet known.

A great thing happened to me, some 32 years ago. I found a sense of confidence that needed some discovery and some nurturing to fully reveal itself. Whatever happened to Brother Vince after that year, I have no idea. But his decision to stage a play, and to offer me a bigger role than the one I originally had, and then stick with me through to the end, is something that I’ll always be grateful for.

My older stage diva needs a ride to her college class, so I better wrap this up. But I’ll see her on stage again before too long, and I’ll be sure to think of Brother Vince when I do.

I was once a Cardinals fan

Can't go there anymore, April 14

Forty years ago, I was a fan of the St. Louis Cardinals. My dad took me to my first baseball game–a doubleheader against the Mets at the old Busch Stadium in St. Louis–in late July of 1975. It was the most exciting thing I had yet experienced in life, and the result was a love for baseball that continues to this day.

My time as a Cardinals fan was brief, however. I found the Cubs and Wrigley Field on a TV broadcast in late September of 1975, and they have been my choice team ever since. I couldn’t watch the Cardinals on TV in those days, and that was enough to shift my loyalties to the team from the north.

Had I remained a Cardinals fan, which there are more of than Cubs fans in the city I grew up in, life would be different, I’m sure. The Cardinals are accustomed to winning, and their success makes them the red yang to the Cubs’ blue yin.

This season could offer more of the same, as the Cardinals have the best record in the game, and the Cubs are trying to chase them down over the last six weeks of the season and into the playoffs. However it turns out, I’ll always look back at that short two-month period in 1975 as an example of how life can bring about changes.

And with that in mind, go Cubs!

On a bench by the river


Today I had a job interview in downtown Chicago. The meeting went very well, and I got the job I was there for, along with a compliment on the way I write, which is always a good thing to hear. Lincoln said that everybody likes a compliment, and he wasn’t kidding about that.

After the meeting was over, I picked up my 12 year-old daughter for a train ride back home. She still has a couple of weeks left in her summer vacation, and the two of us boarded a train in the Loop together. The morning rush hour was over, and we were able to find seats together in one of the cars.

I asked her about her morning, and we made small talk with each other as the train crossed over the Chicago River and headed toward the Merchandise Mart. And then I saw an image that brought the past flooding back to me in enormous waves. But I can’t fully explain it without stepping into the wayback machine for a moment.

In the Spring of 1990, I was first embarking on the great journey of Life. I was supposed to be finishing up my final quarter at Northwestern (because they don’t use the semester system like most colleges do), but a path that I had first charted back in high school intervened, instead.

I had taken three Advanced Placement tests in high school, earning enough credits to forego my final term as an undergraduate. I had to plan my schedule out in advance and make sure that the fulfillments of both majors were met, but once they were, there was no reason to stick around and write one last round of tuition checks. So I found myself a job, instead.

On-campus interviewing in the fall and winter of my senior year hadn’t resulted in the type of high-income job that I was hoping to have at graduation. I had a shoebox full of rejection letters, and not much in the way of job prospects, but I somehow managed to charm my way into a $6 an hour job in a downtown law firm. Everybody has to start out somewhere, and that’s where I did.

Riding the train into Chicago every day felt like a grand adventure to me. I wasn’t doing anything with the expensive college degree that I had earned but not yet received, and when all a person has to offer is an education, with zero practical experience in doing anything professionally, you take whatever you can find.

It was the first time in my life that I was wholly and completely on my own, financially. Student loans–and I had a lot of them–weren’t yet coming due, so I could get by on the little bit of money I was paid from the job. I was just biding my time until I went to law school anyway, or so I thought at the time.

Each day, I made myself a sandwich and had some fruit or carrots or something, because I couldn’t afford to eat lunch downtown. In fact, I was lucky to be able to afford riding the CTA to work and back each day. So when lunchtime came each day, I would walk the four or five blocks north on LaSalle Street to Wacker Drive, where I would cross the street, descend a staircase, and eat my lunch while watching the boats on the river go by.

I didn’t want to hang around in the office, because there was no lunchroom and I didn’t want to advertise my humble meal each day. So I found a place to hide every day, and kill the time before going back to work in the afternoon. I was literally at the bottom of the professional food chain, or so it felt to me. It was best to be by myself in the process.

Today, 25 years later, I have lots and lots of job experience. Depending on how you measure it, I’ve had three different careers by now, and that sort of news would have blown my mind back in those days. But I saw the construction work being done in the area I used to sit, and noticed that the benches I had once sat on were removed, to make way for something else to take their place.

I tried to pull out my cellphone–something I had no idea would ever exist back in 1990–and get a picture of the scene, but by the time it was out the train had pulled behind another building and the view was gone. I was sad to have missed the picture, but as I looked at my beautiful 12 year-old daughter, I couldn’t be upset with the direction my life has taken since the days I went to those benches to eat my lunch in solitude.

I now own a house and a car and an old minivan. I have two children I would give my life for, if it ever came to that. And when I looked at the site where the benches once were, I felt as though I could see a much younger, much thinner version of myself sitting there, eating a sandwich and wondering how life was going to turn out. On the whole, I’d say it’s been a very good ride.

Twenty-five years from now–should I live that long–I’ll be in my early seventies. Perhaps there will be some moment of recognition, similar to the one that I had today, when I’ll look back at the direction that life has taken since I was in my late forties. I hope so. But for today, I’ll think back to those benches and be grateful for everything that has come along since then, and that I got to see the area one last time before whatever comes next takes its place.

Time marches on, like it always has and always will.

On Dreams We Will Depend


Nothing says “summer” to me musically like Van Halen’s 5150 album. I turned 18 in the summer of 1986, and was determined to enjoy one last summer before going away to college. I bagged groceries by day, drank whatever I could get my hands on by night, and listened to the fusion of Sammy Hagar and Van Halen whenever I could. Life was as good as I had ever known it to be.

Many years have gone by since then, but hearing the songs on that album–my copy at the time was a tape I had recorded from the radio station that played it all the way through on air–takes me back to that time in my life. So when I received an iTunes gift card for my birthday this summer, I first used it to address a hole in my digital music collection by downloading a copy of 5150.

The technology that now allows for cars and phones to sync with each other is far beyond what was available back in 1986. So I discovered, while driving a rental car around on Cape Cod this summer, that I could put on “Summer Nights” or “Good Enough” or any other track from the album on whenever I wanted to. Driving around the Cape is fun enough to begin with, but also being able to time warp back to the summer when life was stretching out before me was an added treat.

On June 26–the day the Supreme Court ruled that everyone had a right to get married to the person they love, regardless of their gender–I was working on a laptop computer in Wellfleet, Massachusetts. I received a text indicating that my family had made their way to a beach in nearby Truro, and inviting me to come and join them. It was nearing lunchtime, so I hopped in the car, headed toward Route 6, and turned on my music of choice. The first song to come on was “Dreams,” which happens to be my favorite song on the album.

As I drove along the highway on that beautiful summer’s day, I thought of all the dreams that had been granted on that day. For far too long, people had been wrongly denied the right to enter into a legal and (if you want) religious agreement with the person they love the most. Is it any of our business what gender that person happens to be? I don’t think so, and neither did a majority of the Supreme Court.

Growing up in the 80s as I did, many of my associations with the songs of that era are from the videos that were made for MTV. The “Dreams” video I linked to above makes it all but impossible for me to hear the song and not think of the Blue Angels. But on a sunny Friday afternoon, driving down the highway from Wellfleet to Truro with this song on the car radio and a new and improved America on the horizon, I think I may have found a competing image for this song.

That’s what love is made of……

NOTE: This is the second in my series of attempts to clear out my WordPress Drafts folder. I started this post in late June of 2015, and am completing it on August 16, roughly seven weeks later. I still have a backlog of fifty or so unfinished thoughts in the Drafts folder, and will bring as many of them as I can to fruition in the days and weeks ahead.

Withstanding an urge

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When I started writing this blog a little more than four years ago, I had no idea what it would become. And looking back at well over 1,000 posts that I’ve written, I’m pretty happy with it. It’s essentially a clearinghouse for some of the words and ideas and images that otherwise would have died inside my brain, unable to escape that dark place in between my ears. So I’m grateful on that front.

One of the earliest posts that I wrote announced to myself–and anyone who may have stumbled upon it–that I was giving up drinking for good. I had made that vow to myself dozens of times before, usually while I was in the throes of a nasty hangover of some sort. But putting it into words that could then be sent out for the world to read made it official. It made it into a type of electronic oath that I dare not violate. And my blog has, over the years, reflected my commitment to sobriety.

But about a week ago, that commitment was severely tested. For the first time since I made the decision to stop drinking, I was gripped by an urge to have a drink. The circumstances behind it don’t really matter, and I’ll suffice it to say that my old habits wanted to get the better of me. There were some nasty old beers that have been sitting in my downstairs fridge for a long time, and they would have done the trick.

There’s a mostly-finished bottle of Jack Daniels in the basement, which I’ve written about before in this space and would have welcomed me back into the fold. It was a fold that I lived in happily for 27 years, in what sometimes feels like another life. It is the fold that most of our society inhabits, in one form or another. It is where we are led to believe, through advertising dollars and a generally unspoken societal norm, that we should be.

Whenever there’s good news, we pop some champagne corks, or buy a round of drinks for our friends, or generally go out and live it up, with alcohol in some form or fashion. And on the flip side, when things don’t go so well, we drown our sorrows and drink until the pain doesn’t seem so bad anymore. I was laid off, with dozens of my colleagues, from a publishing company several years ago and off to the bar some of us went, drinking shots until the uncertain future looked hazy, and so did the uncomfortable present. All that for $20 or so. A bargain, if you want to see it that way.

Giving up drinking wasn’t hard for me. I decided that I didn’t need it anymore, and that was it. It showed me that I never really needed it in the first place, but still I went along with it. But the urge that gripped me for about a half an hour a week ago was the first time in my life that I ever felt a physical pang for something.

Taking one drink–any drink at all–would set off a blaze that I wouldn’t be able to control. Most people have an internal mechanism for “knowing when to say when.” Some beer company genius thought that one up, I’m sure, to reinforce the idea that one or two drinks is all that a person needs. Ten bucks in a bar, depending on where you are and what you’re having. Hand the bartender or the waitress a little bit of cash, or a credit card, and you’re on your way. No worries, mate.

But I’m missing that mechanism. One drink can turn into two, and then five, and then forget about it. I never kept track, because I didn’t care to know. And after four years of living without it, I have no faith that I could somehow find the mechanism that I’ve never had before. The only way to live with booze, at least for me, is to live without it.

So I resisted that urge, and I felt good about it. The scoreboard still reads 27 years to 4, in favor of the liquor manufacturers and distributors and bartenders of the world, but it’s still trending the way I want it to. I doubt that I’ll live the 23 years I still need to even up the score, but life is a big question mark and we’ll just have to see how everything turns out. But I received a test, and I didn’t fail. I feel very good about that.

4 more years?


I wanted to have a blog for a long time before I started this one, four years ago today. What held me back? I have no idea. But now that I’ve spent four years–and who knows how many hours sitting in front of a keyboard–throwing my thoughts and images out into the world, I can hardly remember what the delay was.

I often say that if Hemingway had a blog, it would make for quite an amazing read. But since he couldn’t have one, the rest of us have a chance to pick up the slack. I’m not Hemingway and never will be, but I do have opportunities that he and thousands of other writers over the centuries never did. And I don’t intend to let that go to waste.

4 years can be a long time–when you want to get on with your life–or they can be the bat of an eye, when you’re in a good place and hoping it can last and last. I’ve been in both places, sometimes within the very same day. But the world keeps on spinning, and I’ll be along for the ride over an as-yet-undetermined length of time. I may as well keep rollin’ along in this space, too.



Twenty-nine years ago this weekend, I graduated from high school. At that point in my life everything called for a drink, and the culmination of high school was cause for something huge. And that something was going to be a party at some very remote cabin.

Since I had been to the cabin once before, a month before graduation, I agreed to drive several of my classmates to the party. My old Dodge Dart was packed to the limit, with probably four or five guys besides myself.

But I didn’t know my way around out in the boondocks nearly as well as I thought. As night fell, I became more frantic in my search for classmates and whatever substances they would have at their disposal. And make no mistake, the substances were the point.

At the end of the night, all of the guys in the car were pissed off that they had missed out on what was sure to be an epic bash. I didn’t blame them, either, because I felt like I had earned it, and by God I was going to enjoy myself, and make it possible for them to do the same.

But with the benefit of many, many years of hindsight, I don’t see it that way anymore. I now recognize that my failure to locate a high school graduation party that night was a good thing. It seems counterintuitive to think that, but everything happens for a reason.

Had I found that cabin way out in the woods somewhere, things would have spiraled out of control. That was the reason my classmates and I wanted to be there, after all. And then it would have come time to go home.

I never was one for being a designated driver, at an age when I had no business doing otherwise. And I wouldn’t have backed away from the challenge of navigating back home, with as many inebriated classmates as I could fit into my car. It was a recipe for disaster, and I was too young and stupid to realize that.

Someone would have ended up dead or paralyzed that night, and if I was lucky enough to escape either the morgue or the hospital, I likely would have found myself in prison with a lifetime worth of regrets. So whatever cosmic being out there is controlling what happens here on earth took us out of that situation, instead.

None of the guys who were in the car with me that night are in my life anymore. I’ve forgotten who they ever were, and I’m glad of it. The memory of what happened on that night back in 1986 is now lost, except for one critical detail. Someone or something was looking out for me–and the rest of us–that evening. And I’m so very happy they were.

Well I’m takin’ my time


This morning Boston’s Foreplay/Long Time came on the radio, and I listened to it for the I’ll-never-know-how-manyth-time.

Twenty-nine years ago, I used the opening lyric (It’s been such a long time, I think I should be going) as my parting words to my graduating high school class of 1986. Griffin High, the school I graduated from, went kaput a few years later, but I still keep in touch with some of my classmates, mostly on Facebook.

Four years in the same place does seem like a long time, when you’re 17 and itching to get out and see the world. Now, almost three decades later, I realize that four years can pass in the blink of an eye. It’s all about perspective, I suppose.

Another line from the song that I like is “There’s a long road I’ve gotta stay in time with.” That long road has led me out of Springfield Illinois to Chicago, with assorted side trips along the way. Where it leads from here, I have no idea. But I’ll be sure to stay in time with it, all the same.