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.

The left and the right of it all

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Being left-handed is no small thing in this right-handed world of ours. It’s not leprosy or anything, but it does consign those of us who live with it to a never-ending status of Otherhood.

I tell my right-handed friends that my mind literally works differently from theirs. It isn’t anything that we get to choose, but it’s felt much more acutely by southpaws like me than for righties like (I’m assuming here) you.

Why can I assume the person reading this is right-handed? A lifetime of looking around classrooms and meeting rooms–which is about the only time a person’s hand preference manifests itself–tells me this. Maybe there’s another lefty in a given room, but more than one would be a shocker.

Although I wouldn’t trade my unique perspective on the world for anything, sometimes I feel the urge to describe what it’s like, for the benefit of those who never have to think about such things.

And now back to my right-handed world. Thanks for reading.

An easy way to help

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This evening, I had the nightly internal conversation about what to make for dinner. Since we already had some tortilla chips, some lettuce, and a few small tomatoes in the house, my thoughts turned to taco salad. But a few ingredients were also missing, so I pulled on my low cut Chuck Taylor’s and headed to the market a block away from my house.

After picking up a jalapeño pepper, a lime, some cilantro, and a bunch of green onions, I went over to the real purpose of my trip: the avocados.

I usually expect to pay a dollar or so for a large avocado, but today I was greeted with a sign offering two avocados for 5 dollars, or $2.50 apiece. I couldn’t justify spending that much, so I purchased the other items and walked home. The whole trip took about five minutes to complete.

Being able to walk out the door and find the produce I want within walking distance is a luxury I take for granted. The concept of a “food desert” is a hard one to wrap my mind around. There are places, even within the city I live, where avocados are not overpriced, because there’s no one willing to sell them, at any price.

This morning, I saw a sponsored tweet from @nakedjuice in my Twitter feed. For every person who takes a selfie with fresh fruits or vegetables, and adds the hashtag #drinkgooddogood before posting it to social media, the company will donate ten pounds of fresh fruits and vegetables to fight against food deserts.

It only took a second to go into the kitchen, pick up a Pluot (still not entirely sure what it is, but it’s definitely a fruit) and take a picture of me taking a bite of it. I looked like Marcellus Wallace in Pulp Fiction with a ball gag in my mouth, and I typed an explanation of what was in my mouth before adding the requisite hashtag and posting the shot to social media.

I hope that the donation made by Naked Juice includes some avocados, and if so I’m laying claim to them right here. I love the idea that a free and painless act like putting a selfie on social media can also used to fight against something as regrettable as food deserts. I encourage everyone who reads this to grab a fruit and join in.

A better world where food deserts don’t exist isn’t here quite yet, so if a company that sells juices and drinks made from fresh fruits and vegetables wants to give something back, while raising their brand profile at the same time, I’m happy to lend a hand in this effort.

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.

Trying to understand

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The picture above dates to 1998, and it shows a much younger, much thinner version of me during my teaching days on the south side of Chicago.

This was taken in the days before cameraphones, or even before digital photography, with an old school camera. They were fun because you wound up with a print that you could actually hold in your hands. It seems like forever ago, sometimes.

When I saw the video on Facebook of the death of Philando Castile, I thought about the kids I used to teach, two decades ago. They’re teenagers in this picture, but every one of them was already living with the possibility of ending up in a deadly encounter with a police officer. Not a day has gone by where they aren’t considered a suspect, in a way I never was and never will be.

I enjoyed teaching and coaching, but I also reached a point where I was ready to leave. For four years I tried to make a difference, in whatever small way I could. I watched as a group of freshmen–some of whom are shown in the picture–grew into seniors and got their diplomas. And then I left, disillusioned with what I was doing and the way I was doing it. I was a visitor into their world, and my skin tone gave me exit options that they never had.

I’ve since connected with some of my old ballplayers on social media, and I’m glad to see them at the stage of life where they aren’t teenagers anymore. But many of them I couldn’t name today, either. I hope they’re all happy with their lives, but I don’t have any way of knowing whether that’s the case.

The other coach, on the left side of the picture, was the cafeteria manger at my school, as Philando Castile was in St. Paul. I’m certain that there are lots of kids at that school who aren’t yet able to understand why it happened. They’ll learn in time, or possibly this event will force understandings on them that they weren’t ready to deal with. There’s pain in that school community, and it will be magnified once classes start up again in the fall.

Black lives matter. That should not be a controversial statement, but somehow it is. The ongoing shooting deaths of Trayvon Martin and Tamir Rice and Walter Scott and Philando Castile and countless others reinforces the fact that this country, writ large, views black men as suspects.  Woe unto us as a nation, if we see these shootings occur and don’t think that something must change.

I write this blog to sort through my thoughts, and then share the results with some tiny piece of the online world. Facebook posts and tweets aren’t sufficient for saying anything of importance, and this subject is about as important as it gets. The killings have to stop, and the only way of making this happen is to demand action.

Police have got to held accountable when they fail to live up to their oaths, and social media must be used whenever and however it can be to preserve events as they happen.The memory of what happened to Philando Castile demands nothing less.

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.

Five years and counting

Five years ago today, I announced on my blog that I was giving up drinking for good. I had only started this blog a few weeks before, and had written just ten posts beforehand. Once I typed out my intention to give up alcohol I knew that this blog–or at least some part of it–would be a testament to this decision. And that’s pretty much what it’s turned out to be. I don’t write about it all the time, but it’s enough of who I am to mention it on occasion. I can now appreciate just how devastating this clip from The Onion is, too.

Our society glorifies drinking, and probably always will. And most people can probably handle alcohol in a responsible manner. But I was not like these people, for twenty-seven years of my life. I didn’t need to drink every day, and told myself over and over that I was most definitely not an alcoholic. Once I started drinking, though, I never wanted to stop. So it has to be cold turkey or nothing for me, and for five years that’s how it has been.

It will still be a few more years before my number of non-drinking years equals the number of my drinking years. Perhaps I’ll get there, and perhaps I won’t. I hope to, but life is a big unknown for all of us, so we’ll see how it winds up in time. I will say that I’m happy I’ve made it this far, and my vital organs probably are, too. Here’s to more posts like this one in the future.

No More Guns Over People

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I’ve never held a gun, owned a gun, fired a gun, or had the first thing to do with a gun. They aren’t my thing, but they are many people’s thing. That’s fine. I’m not here to pass judgment on anybody for that. But the Columbine shooting happened just a few days after my older daughter was born, and how many mass shootings have happened since then? Sandy Hook hit me hard, and Orlando did too, but there are probably a hundred others where I shook my head and moved along until it happened again. That can’t happen anymore.
 
I’m quite comfortable with the 2016 elections being a binary propositions about guns in this country. Either we do nothing at all to limit people’s access to guns–the NRA model–or we do something in the hope that it saves even one life somewhere. If your home is on fire, you don’t passively watch it burn. But that’s what our Congress is doing, and will continue to do. The NRA owns them, and their inaction on this matter is entirely by design.
 
So vote guns this fall, or don’t. It really is just that simple. Mark Kirk, my senator in Illinois, broke ranks with his party (the GunsOverPeople crowd) but it won’t be enough to get him re-elected, not when his war hero opponent was on the House floor during yesterday’s sit in. Desperate times call for desperate measures, and these are indeed desperate times. Grieving families from coast to coast will attest to that.

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.

 

One Proud Nation

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I’m heartbroken over the attack on the Pulse nightclub in Orlando. It’s a guns problem, for certain, because not a single person deserves the right to take 49 lives in an instant. Banning assault weapons makes perfect sense to me. Keep some guns if you want to, but don’t put that kind of firepower in the hands of someone who doesn’t know how to control themselves.

It’s also a hatred problem, too. The shooter targeted people whose lifestyle he didn’t agree with. If there is a hell, hopefully he’s in it. But either way, dozens are dead, and millions are crushed and angry at the same time. And moments of silence must not become a token gesture, or a cover for a Congress that won’t change a damn thing, no matter how many lives are lost.

When I grew up in the 1970s and 1980s, gay people were hidden deep in the closet. They were a curiosity, a punchline, and something to be afraid of, because of course they wanted to make everybody else gay, too. But then I went to college in the late 1980s, as the AIDS epidemic was raging. I began to realize that even though being gay wasn’t my thing, it didn’t pose any threats to me, either.

I moved into Chicago in the early 1990s, and found the Gay Pride Parade, as it was known back then, to be the highlight of the summer. People came from far and wide to line Broadway, soak up the sunshine, and have a good time together. For as long as I lived in Lakeview and what later became known as Boystown, it was the summer event I looked forward to all year long.

It’s amazing that society–at least the part I want to be a part of–has moved to gay rights acceptance so quickly. But on the other hand, maybe it’s a shame that it didn’t happen sooner than it did. But it has happened, and people can live their lives openly and marry the person they love, regardless of what gender they are.

And that bothers some people, clearly. But those people are being pushed to the fringes, on their way–hopefully–to ultimate extinction. The person I got into a shouting match with across Diversey Avenue more than a decade ago, about whether bringing my young children to the Pride Parade (as it was known by then) was a sin, has hopefully moderated his position since then. But if not, he’s quickly becoming outnumbered in society, as he deserves to be.

I haven’t been to the Pride parade in many years, because I don’t live in the neighborhood anymore, and because fighting the crowds–routinely estimated at over a million people each year–seems like a hassle. But this year, in light of the Orlando shooting, I feel as if I have to go.

Pride started out as something organic within the gay community, but it’s since grown far beyond that. And the millions who will line Broadway Avenue again in ten days’ time will serve as a beautiful testament to our capacity for celebrating ourselves and having a good time in the process.

About the guy in the gold top hat above: I’m not sure why I took his picture a long time ago, but my daughters and I have affectionately referred to him over the years as “Captain Buttcheeks.” I couldn’t quite bring myself to devote an entire post to him, but I definitely wanted to share him with the world. Wherever he is today, I hope he’s still rocking the boots with the top hat, and waving at everyone he meets.

Five Years and Counting

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I wanted to start a blog for a long time–probably for at least a year–before I actually did it. But I put off doing it, because I thought there was some special quality I was lacking. Others who “blogged” (the word was still new and unusual back then) had it, whatever it was, and I simply did not.

That type of self-doubt has always held me back in life. Others are better than me, and I’m not good enough, so why bother? Why take a risk, if it’s just going to end up revealing all of my flaws?

So for all of 2010 and a good part of 2011 I kept things to myself, just as I had been doing all my life. Until one day I couldn’t do it anymore. I had a story to tell, so I typed it out–that part has always come easy to me–and I wondered what to do with it. And that was the point when I remembered something Jimi Hendrix once said: “My own thing is in my head. I hear sounds, and if I don’t get them together, nobody else will.”  So I took the leap and stated writing a blog, five years ago today.

I once thought, if I kept up with the same frenetic writing pace that I had for the first two years I did this, that I’d be upwards of a million words on this blog after five years. A million is a nice big number, and I’d like to say I wrote a million words for free online. But as it so often happens in life, that old crazy dream kinda came and went.

For one thing, I started sending my writings to other websites. I always enjoy seeing my words in print or online, so sending out hundreds of pieces to someone else seemed like the natural thing to do. And I also found that sleep is nice, too. I went from 700-1000 words per post down to 200-300 words.  So a million words, at least on this blog, feels like a long shot anymore. I stopped counting how many words are here some time ago, anyway.

But I continue having fun with this. I consider this blog as a digital legacy, for people I love and for people I’ll never meet, in equal measure. If my relatives going back a few generations had something like this available to them, I’d be happy if they put some of their thoughts and fears, their hopes and memories down where I could learn more about them. But this blogging thing is still too new for anything like that.  I can write these things down, and so I do. And bravo and good day to anyone who happens upon them, too.

Five years of sharing my thoughts and ideas with the world feels like a lot. But at the same time, it’s now been so long I don’t know why I didn’t start earlier. When it comes to writing a blog–like so many other things–there ain’t nothing to it, but to do it.

Here’s to keeping at this for as long as I’m able…..

Forever the Greatest

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The news that Muhammad Ali is on life support today is incredibly sad. His Parkinson’s disease has kept him out of the public eye for so long, but I always took comfort from knowing that the man who deserves to be called “The Greatest” was breathing, somewhere on this planet.

Seeing a larger than life Leroi Neiman painting of Ali at his center in Louisville, Kentucky a few years ago gave me chills. Learning his life story was an inspiration to me, too. And watching his fights against Joe Frazier inspired a piece I use as a writing sample, when the situation presents itself.

I know that he’s now 74 and this could be the final count of his career. If that’s the case, I’m glad to say that I remember seeing him fight against Leon Spinks when I was a kid. Not everyone is old enough to say that, either.

Sign O’ the times, mess with your mind

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Learning that Prince died from an overdose of fentanyl makes his death harder to deal with than ever. I’ve forgotten by now what the original cause of death was reported to be, but people swore up and down that his religion and/or his healthy lifestyle meant that drugs could not have played a role. But that lie has now been exposed for what it is.

When I was in graduate school a quarter of a century ago, I was given an assignment to find artifacts from different periods of history. The artifacts I used were a metallic bell that purported to be made from the USS Maine as a relic from the 1890s, the iconic image of Rosie the Riveter as a relic of the 1940s, and Prince’s song “Sign O’ the Times” as a relic of the 1980s. We were hardly even out of the 1980s at that point, and it already felt like Prince had encapsulated that decade as well as anybody could.

The lyrics to the song addressed everything from AIDS (“a big disease with a little name”) to crime (“being ‘ in a gang called the Disciples high on crack, totin’ a machine gun”) to the space shuttle disaster (“when the rocket ship explodes”). It was a snapshot of, well, the times we were living in back in the 1980s. I knew it then, and am even more aware of it now, all these years later.

But a line from it foreshadows Prince’s own death. Anyone familiar with the song knows what it is, but since many aren’t familiar with it, I’ll spell it out here as a public service. Think of it as my good deed for the day. Prince sings the following line:

In September my cousin tried reefer for the very first time

Now he’s doin’ Horse, it’s June

“Horse” was a reference to heroin, and the idea Prince was getting at was marijuana was thought of as a gateway to harder, more serious drugs like heroin. It’s beyond ironic, then, that a man who sang about heroin addiction could one day become a victim of it, himself. But what’s even more telling is that a gateway to heroin does exist, but it’s not marijuana at all.

The gateway that led Prince to heroin and fentanyl was opioids, and Percocet in particular. It needs to be pointed out that these drugs are legal when prescribed by a doctor. They aren’t illegal street drugs, the way that marijuana and LSD are. They are what’s known as Schedule II drugs, meaning they are entrusted to the medical community for the purposes of treating and managing pain. But once they leave the medical community, havoc ensues. And the path from there to heroin–a Schedule I drug which is cheaper and easier to obtain than the prescription drugs–is all too well-traveled.

If Prince– with all of his fame and notoriety–could not escape the clutches of these drugs, it highlights the challenges the rest of us face. We’re all just an injury or a surgical recovery away from having these things given to us. And it’s all legal, right there before us, with a doctor’s approval and an insurance company co-pay to soften the financial blow.

Congress and the individual states have at last grasped the seriousness of the heroin and opioid epidemic. May prevention and treatment be the leaders of the pack in this regard, instead of a “tough on crime” approach that our legal system isn’t ready to support. That was tried once already, and it simply hasn’t worked.

Maybe the best thing to come from Prince’s death, if anything positive is to be found, is a realization that “horse” and the drugs leading up to it are not a joke, and that those of us who have been lucky enough to escape their clutches must not judge those who are in their grip. We should instead help them in whatever way we can, which will help our society rise above the damage these drugs have wrought. If this should happen, we’ll all be much better off.

To close with another Prince lyric, in the outro part of “Sign o’ the Times” he sings

Sign o’ the times, mess with your mind, hurry before it’s too late.

It’s not too late to address the issue of heroin and its related drugs, but we do need to have some urgency as the death toll continues to rise.

Time….

 

Being somebody

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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.

One goal, accomplished

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I seem to always find pennies in the parking lot of a 7-Eleven. Most of the time, I pick them up because I think it’s good luck. And once in a while, I find a date stamped on the penny worth writing about. And so it was this evening, when I picked up a penny reading 1987.

My high school reunion is coming up this summer, and I don’t have any idea if I’m going or not. Since a couple of my classmates have passed away in recent months, it does add a sense of importance to see everyone again and appreciate how far we’ve come since the late 1980s. But high school wasn’t a great time in my life, either, so I suppose we’ll have to see what happens.

On the day when I walked across the stage to receive my high school diploma, three decades ago, I had exactly one goal in life: to leave Springfield and never live there again. My parents and both of my brothers still live there, so it’s not any animosity toward the town itself that drove my goal. It was the little pond, in my view, and I decided that a bigger pond would be more to my liking.

After three months of living with my parents in the summer of 1986, and three more months in the summer of 1987, I accomplished my goal. I’ve done some other things, as well, and a more ambitious person would not set the bar of accomplishment so low as to simply not live someplace. But for me, that’s the only thing I really wanted in life. The other thing I wanted–a Cubs World Series–is hopefully on the way, too.

So my reunion, if I should attend it this summer, will be mostly people who were the opposite of me. Whether by accident or by design, they stayed in Springfield and continued to make it their home. And that’s great, because everyone should be in a place that makes them happy, no matter where it is. But for the past 29 years, I’ve done what I most wanted to do when I was 17. I can’t be too upset about that.

Shakedown, 1979

1979

I was never a very big fan of Smashing Pumpkins, but I do like their song 1979. The nostalgic video for the song conjures up some images from being a kid at around that time. 1979 was either at or near the end of my childhood, but whatever lay ahead in life was still off in the distance. I hardly knew what would come at me next.

When I started writing this blog five years ago (minus about a month or so), it was a story that set everything in motion. I went to a garage sale and found the sort of thing that the eleven-year-old I once was would have thought was pretty cool. I wrote about it from an adult’s perspective, but I was really–now that I’ve had a few years to think about it–trying to tell the story of the man I’ve become in the years and decades since 1979.

My nickname as a kid was “Robbie.” I don’t think I’ve ever brought that up before, and it wasn’t too long after 1979 that I realized “Robbie” was a child’s name, and started calling myself “Rob” instead. Over the course of time, Rob has gone by “Robert” in official, formal settings and “R. Lincoln” as a nom de plume, to separate myself from all the other Rob/Roberts out there with my last name. But I’ve made it a practice to avoid calling or thinking of myself as “Robbie.”

The Smashing Pumpkins song on the radio this afternoon brought memories of Robbie flooding back to me. Robbie liked the disco that was on the radio that summer, but then he heard rock and roll from the Eagles and other artists, and disco became a thing of the past. Robbie grew–a lot–in the years ahead, and became a clumsy, awkward kid. He never did lose the glasses, and the terrible haircut he once had didn’t get much better, either.

Robbie was afraid of everything in 1979. He couldn’t take swimming classes because he was afraid of drowning. He was afraid of dying, because he didn’t yet understand that everything dies, someday.

Robbie had barely ever been outside of Illinois in 1979. He had never flown on a plane, or spent the night in a hotel, or ever had occasion to tell anyone a story about anything. He really didn’t have anything to say, let alone a way of capturing his thoughts for anyone to consider.

But it’s now more than three decades later, and Rob has done things that Robbie never dreamed of. In some way, the 1,500 posts and 500,000 words that Rob has created in this space over the past five years are a record of his life. Robbie can’t read those stories, because he got left behind back in the late 70s or early 80s, but he would greatly enjoy learning about how his life has turned out.

 

Enough is enough

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Opioids are taking a terrible toll on this country, and yet they’re perfectly legal. The Pharma companies that manufacture them are profiting from addiction and death. I’m grateful I don’t know anyone who has had an addiction to these things, but not everyone has been so fortunate.

Can we now have an honest discussion of legalizing marijuana everywhere for medical use, at the very least? I’d rather have Prince–or anybody else–walking around with a bong in his hand, treating his pain in a way that wouldn’t get him addicted to anything.

I’m in favor of legalizing it for recreational use, too, because people are going to smoke whether it’s legal or not. Alcohol takes an enormous social toll, but experience has shown that regulating people’s vices is a fool’s errand.

Sacrificing our brothers, sisters, friends, family members and music idols to the opioid makers doesn’t make sense anymore, if it ever did in the first place.

Note: This is cross-posted from something I wrote on Facebook this morning, commenting on a Washington Post story about Prince’s scheduled meeting with an opioid specialist the day after he was found dead. 

UPDATE: Apparently this approach worked for Jim McMahon. Why not allow others to self-medicate like this? I can’t think of a good reason not to.

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.

I spent the 80s in purple

Prince died today, at the age of 57. Coming on the heels of the deaths of David Bowie and Glenn Frey already this year, I didn’t think there would be any more meaningful musical deaths for some time. Apparently I was wrong in that belief. This one really left me stunned.

The high school I attended had purple and gold as its school colors, and when “Purple Rain” came out in 1984, not only was the music undeniably great but it also felt a bit like hitting the lottery. The title wasn’t “Auburn Rain” or “Sapphire Rain” or any of the other colors available on the visible spectrum, but it was “Purple Rain.” My high school, like a thousand others I’m sure, used “Purple Reign” as their homecoming theme that fall, because our purple-clad school was supposed to rule, you know? Totally. (It didn’t happen like everyone thought it would that year, but it was a kickass idea, all the same).

When I graduated from high school in 1986, my college choices came down to the orange and blue of the University of Illinois, or the purple and white of Northwestern. School colors played zero part in making my decision, but once I threw my lot in with the purple and white, I made sure to put a window sticker in the back of my old Dodge Dart. The purple looked great, and I still have a purple and white sweatshirt to announce to the world where I went to school once upon a time. And if people want to see purple and think of Prince, that’s fine. I do the same thing myself.

Musicians enter into our hearts in ways that actors and writers and other artists never do, particularly when we’re young. Prince kept on making music until the end of his life, but Purple Rain and a few other albums he released in the 80s have, and always will, cement his status as a cultural touchstone for me and millions of others who came of age decades ago.

The identification of Prince with the color purple will be seen over and over in the coming days and weeks. Simply put, purple is his color, but I’m happy to say that it’s mine, as well.

A Freudian Slip

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It’s fitting, in some way, that the trial I served as a juror for ended on Tax Day. I realize that taxes aren’t due until the 18th of April this year, but everyone knows April 15 is the day that we’re supposed to settle up with the IRS by filing our tax returns. Money changes hands on that day, generally in the form of a tax refund that people use for whatever they need some extra money for.

That didn’t happen for me this year. Instead of a healthy refund, I owed something to Uncle Sam, and not a trivial amount, either. But I paid that amount because, well, that’s just what you do. It keeps the National parks open, and pays for social programs and military defense and all the other places our tax dollars go to. Living in America is a privilege that I can’t fully appreciate because I haven’t lived anyplace else. But that privilege comes with a price, and the IRS is there to extract part of it from us all, whether we want to pay it or not.

Another price of citizenship in this country is jury service. In my many years of living, I had never served on a jury, of any kind, until this past week. The right to a trial by jury is an enormous gift, and that entails giving up your time when called by the courts to do so.

The trial I served as a juror on wrapped up yesterday, and I made a point to ask the judge if I was allowed to write about the case online. Writing is a form of free, self-induced therapy for me, and I needed to put a few things out into cyberspace, before the experience fades away into memory. I expect jury service to be a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and after this trial, I very much hope that’s the case.

Part of me wants to get into the specific facts of the case, but that’s not really going to help anything. Painting in broad strokes about what happened is probably good enough, at least for my purposes. I could write a long treatise about the case I was charged with deciding, but the end result wouldn’t change, not even the tiniest bit.

The case had to do with a fraud, pure and simple. The federal government rooted out the defendant’s misdeeds, which were filing tax returns in the name of people who had no idea they were having returns filed on their behalf. Their names and social security numbers, and access to online tax filing software, are apparently all it took to set these wheels into motion.

So prisoner A (We learned his real name and saw him testify in court, but his first name began with A so I’ll call him that here) is doing time. I learned what it was for, but it really didn’t matter that much. He’s serving time, and not receiving any Social Security benefits from the government. But a tax return was sent to the IRS, indicating that not only was he receiving these benefits, but he had a portion of those benefits withheld by the IRS, and he wanted the withheld portion back. It’s a classic case of turning nothing (as in the Social security benefits which were never paid in the first place) into something (as in a few hundred dollars that wound up in the tax preparer’s pocket.

This happened for hundreds of prisoners, and the IRS paid off like a slot machine by depositing the money in waves. There were hundreds of prisoners, and thousands upon thousands of dollars being shoveled out for this scam. The legal term is “scheme,” which sounds a hair more respectable than a “scam,” but this was the scammiest thing I’ve ever seen in my life. And it makes a mockery out of those who pay taxes and wouldn’t think to  run a fraud like this.

At the close of the trial, on Thursday afternoon, the jury received instructions from the judge about what the relevant law is. We were told to follow those instructions, whether we agreed with them or not. One juror failed to do so, and that vote was enough to result in a hung jury. Our romantic notions of “Twelve Angry Men” and the noble juror who spares a defendant from being wrongly convicted by standing up to, and ultimately persuading, his fellow jurors didn’t apply in this case. Life didn’t imitate art, at least not in this instance.

But the two sides had to give closing arguments before we could begin deliberating, and the otherwise masterful defense attorney nearly gave away the game with one small, practically imperceptible slip. I may have been the only one that noticed it, but it was very telling. It didn’t make a difference, in the end, but I wanted to preserve it here, anyway.

A Freudian slip, also called a parapraxis, is when someone gives away their inner feelings by accident. As the defense attorney was summing up the defects in the government’s case–since they have the burden of proof, his job was to point out the ways they haven’t done so, regardless of whether any such defects actually existed–he said “They have fooled–failed–to show….”

The “fooling” that the defense attorney referred to, in his moment of unintended candor, wasn’t the government’s doing, but his own. He was there to fool the jury into believing that his client had been wrongly accused of defrauding the government–and by extension the taxpayers on the jury and all over the United States–out of withholding proceeds from prisoners who had not receive any Social Security benefits while they were behind bars. All he had to do was fool one juror, and the week’s worth of trial would have gone for naught. And that’s exactly how it played out, too.

I put a picture of Frederick Douglass in this post, because the holdout juror bears a strong resemblance to him. I even thought of him as Fred, though his real name was something else. Frederick Douglass became friends with Abraham Lincoln, and their unlikely rise from the circumstances they were each born into has always inspired me. I will always admire Frederick Douglass, but I’ll probably see pictures of him now and think about the juror who wouldn’t agree with the rest of us on the jury. Life takes some strange twists sometimes.

On my way home from the courthouse, after the verdict had been read and my fellow jurors and I were excused with the thanks of the court, I took a train to a bus in order to get home. The transfer point from train to bus led me to a statue of Abraham Lincoln, which I’ve written about before in this space. I looked up at Lincoln, who is depicted not as the bearded president we all know, but as a clean-shaven Illinois attorney, which he was for many years before he was elected president.

As I looked up at Lincoln’s representation, I tried putting my frustrations with the case into some type of order. And I realized that our legal system, for all of its imperfections, is still something to be proud of. The defendant wasn’t set free by my jury, and he still has to face the prospect of perhaps another trial in the weeks and months ahead. We as jury did what we had been charged with doing. I didn’t like the final result, but it was far from the first time where something I was involved with didn’t end up the way I wanted it to. Those are the breaks, whether in the courthouse or anyplace else in life.

The Lincoln statute reminded me that our legal system is worth preserving and supporting, even if it isn’t perfect. It won’t ever be perfect, but it will always seek to do justice. The truth is  that I’d rather live in such a place than anywhere else.

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.

A siblings day remembrance

 

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I was very fortunate to have some fun people to grow up with. Peg is my only sister, John is my older little brother, and Mickey is my younger little brother. I could tell stories about them all (and I have to my own kids, at various times), but I’ll let the pictures do the talking here.

Thanks for all the memories and laughs!

Everybody wants to rule the World

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A song by Tears for Fears encapsulates the 80s for me like few others do. And the irony now, all these years laters, is that it was probably in the air when a high school teacher and coach named Hastert was doing some terrible things to trusting young kids.

He went from Yorkville High to third in line to the presidency. He literally did help to rule the world, at least in theory, and made millions in the process. Some of those millions would later be funneled to those who he abused when nobody knew his name. That’s punishment enough for what he did, right? If only if were that simple.

I never knew any of the people involved in this tale, so perhaps it’s not my place to say anything about this. But the good teachers and coaches who want the best for the kids they work with will bear the brunt of Hastert’s actions, far more than he ever will. And that is beyond unfortunate.

High school sucked for me, and I’m not the only one who felt that way. When adults in position of authority and trust use the circumstances of this difficult age of transition for their own benefit, in order to sexually prey on those who are still trying to figure out their own place in the world, all of us suffer, in ways that we may never realize. I’m grateful that nothing like this ever happened to me, but I can easily understand why others were not so fortunate.

After a long and financially rewarding stretch in the halls of power, Coach Hastert’s past finally caught up with him. He paid off his prey, but money alone can’t make everything OK, either for those he molested or the rest of us, as well. He’s old and going to die soon, so perhaps he’ll get what’s coming to him when that happens. But here on earth, his request for probation is an affront to anyone who’s paying attention.

His “family values” and likely unstated opposition to the very behaviors he engaged in as a wrestling coach makes him an outsized hypocrite. Sending him to prison won’t make him any different, but the idea that he can do this and slink off with nothing more than his own shame and humiliation seems wrong, on some level.

I have no doubt he feels bad about what he did, but this is only because it came up again. The abuser can forget his actions however he wants to, but the abused cannot. And to protect those who need it, neither should the rest of us.

All your strength, all your power, all your love

The Rocky series is my favorite film franchise of all, with Star Wars a distant second. I’m hoping Stallone wins an Oscar tonight for CREED, and that he gives Ryan Coogler some props for revitalizing the franchise in his acceptance speech. We’ll know soon if that’s what comes to pass, but that’s my happy ending.

Rocky IV came out when I was a senior in high school, and it was the ultimate movie at that stage in my life. I hated when Apollo died, but other than that it was as good as movies got for me back then. And the character of Duke was the unsung hero of it all. Telling Rocky to keep Apollo’s spirit alive was as powerfully emotional as I wanted my movies to be at that point in my life.

The actor who played Duke was named Tony Burton, and he passed away yesterday at the age of 78. But he’ll always be the guy who jumped over the top rope when Rocky knocked out Clubber Lang, and who exhorted Rocky to keep Apollo’s spirit alive (and throw the damn towel!) in Rocky IV. Some very good stuff, indeed.

As Rocky said, Thanks Duke.  And by extension, thanks Mr. Burton.

 

 

 

 

Something Old, Something New

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It’s been a quiet February on the blog front. The enthusiasm I once had for doing this has ebbed, and I like sleeping at night, too. But I recently had my annual Cubs preview posted on Cardsconclave.com (has it really been five years of doing that? Time flies!) and I had a piece that I reconstructed from a post in this space published on HistoryBuff.com  It looks like the kind of website I’ve been wanting for a long time. May other stories make their way onto that site soon.

There’s a few things I want to say about life, and hopefully I’ll have time for it soon enough. But for now I just wanted to plug my writing a little bit, and remind myself that I still enjoy doing it.