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…..

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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

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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.

A day with my mom

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I’m getting to a place in life where many of the people I know have lost one or both of their parents. I have to admit to an embarrassment of riches on this front, because both of my parents are still with us, and still physically and mentally vibrant. I don’t usually think in terms of blessings, but it’s impossible to see this as being anything else.

My mom came to Chicago this weekend, to see both of my daughters perform onstage. The weather was abnormally spring-like for late February, and I was glad because it allowed us to get out and enjoy the city. The planet’s still in trouble from all the things we’ve been doing to it, but at least it gave me the chance to enjoy a day with my mom. Everything’s relative, isn’t it? And yes, I did intend that pun to get through.

My mom has given me and my siblings everything she had, and feels bad that she couldn’t do more. I feel that way about my own kids, and every parent has the same feelings, I suspect. But if we’re really lucky, we’ll get the chance to spend a day with them and tell them how much it is appreciated. That’s what love is made of.

 

Some are born to sing the blues

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I can’t sing a lick, as I’m told quite often. But my daughter has a gift with her voice. She’s going to school to train her voice, and it’s not easy to get in a full day of schooling and still do that, as well. But we have to play the hand we’re dealt in life, and play to our strengths whenever possible. I’m so proud of her.

Scars that can’t be seen

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For the 30th anniversary of the Space Shuttle disaster in 1986, I offered up my memories of that terrible day on my Facebook page, and then shared the senior year photo that I had taken when I was 17 and thought that the future would go on forever.

Looking at it again today, I was struck by the absence of the ever-present scar under my right eye. When I had the picture taken, I requested that the photographer airbrush it out, because vanity wouldn’t allow me to share it with everyone else in the senior yearbook pages. I couldn’t get them to fix my chipped front tooth, but removing the scar made me feel good even though, as I type this out, it’s still there on my face, as it has been since I was about 9 or 10 years old.

As I looked at the picture today, for the first time in decades, I thought back to the day it happened, when I got the scar that will follow me to my grave. It’s strange that I never really thought about it before today. Like my belly button and my fingers and toes, I just considered it to be a natural, immutable part of me. It may well be immutable, but it sure wasn’t natural.

Back in the summer of either 1978 or 1979, my siblings and I kept ourselves occupied in the summertime at what we called “the playground thing” run by the local recreation department at the elementary school I attended. Had it been anyplace else I wouldn’t have gone, but I was familiar with how to get there, and it was fun to play sports and shoot carroms and do things that kids used to do before video games captured everyone’s imagination, mine included. Once the Atari set in around 1980 or 1981, I wouldn’t have done anything like this. But in hindsight, it was a lot of fun.

At the end of the summer, there was a wrap-up event at Iles Park in Springfield, which was a block away from where my grandma and grandpa lived. Again, if I wasn’t familiar with the park already I wouldn’t have gone, because I wouldn’t hav been able to convince my mom to take me someplace I knew. Such was life for the 10-year-old that I was back then.

So we played games and ate food and had fun with lots of kids we didn’t know from all around the city. I was having a great time, when a kickball game was arranged on a baseball diamond. I had only played kickball on the asphalt playground at my school, so playing it on a dirt infield was a new treat. What a day I was having!

I don’t think I knew anybody who was on my team that day, and that made it even more fun. Since I played first base sometimes on my Khoury League baseball team, I gravitated over to that position when we took the field for the kickball game. And when some kid on the other team lifted the ball into the air to my right–toward second base–I knew I could catch it. I focused on the ball, took a few steps to my right, and then–nothing.

Well, not exactly nothing. Nothing that I can remember is a better way to put it. The next thing I knew I was in the hospital, with stitches being applied to my face. 13 stitches in all. I had collided with an older, bigger kid who was playing second base and was convinced that he could have caught the same ball that I was chasing after. I never saw him coming, and the force of the impact drove my plastic glasses frames into my cheekbone. One of my front teeth had also sustained a chip that wasn’t fixed for many years after that. While dentistry could mask one of the effects of that day, surgery to hide the scar was never really an option. My glasses had created the scar, but they can hide it pretty well, too. It isn’t until people see me without glasses on that they even notice it’s there. And that’s fine with me.

I looked at that retouched photo today and thought–for the first time–about the kid who ran into me that day. I heard that he had got on his bike and rode away after it happened. Maybe he didn’t want to hang around and see if I was OK. And in the big picture, I turned out fine, the chipped tooth and the scar notwithstanding. I wondered where he is now, and what happened with his life. I wondered if he remembers a kickball game on a baseball diamond in Iles Park a very long time ago. But then again, he didn’t end up with the souvenirs that I did, so why would he remember it like I do?

Questions like this are ones you can never get the answers to, and it’s better that way. What happened on that day was as much my fault as it was his. And since he was bigger than I was at the time, I got the worst of our collision. That’s life. Some days you get the bear, and some days the bear gets you.  So to the unknown kid, whoever and wherever you are, please know that life went on for me after that day. And it only took 35 years before I gave you another thought. That’s pretty good, right?

 

You Just Never Know, Part 2

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I’ve written about the Beastie Boys several times, including here and here. The death of Adam Yauch in 2012 (a/k/a MCA) came as a shock, since he is the same age that I am now. In fact, I’m about the same age as he was when the cancer that did him in was diagnosed. And if that doesn’t grab my attention, not much will.

When the Beastie Boys released Licensed to Ill back in 1986, it offered lots of silly, goofy rhymes. No subject was too off-kilter, so long as it made for a rhyme with another, equally off-kilter topic. The very first song on the record had a rhyme that went “If I played guitar I’d be Jimmy Page/ The girlies I like are underage.” Having read Hammer of the Gods not too long before that, and knowing that Page had in fact engaged in such behavior, their words seemed brilliant and provocative at the same time. And there were many more where that came from.

The death of Abe Vigoda yesterday, at the age of 94, can linked to the Beastie Boys, if only in the most crazy, backhanded way. He was nearly 70 years old when MCA, at the age of 22, rapped “I got a girl in the castle and one in the pagoda/ You know I got rhymes like Abe Vigoda.” I suppose admitting that Abe Vigoda has rhymes like yours wouldn’t help your rap career very much, would it?

So who would you expect to live longer back in 1986, the almost 70 year-old Abe Vigoda, or the still-in-his-early 20s Adam Yauch/MCA? You wouldn’t pick Vigoda, would you? And yet that’s what happened.

Llife can be painfully short, or surprisingly long. There’s no way of knowing just how much of a shelf life any of us will have. But if life is being enjoyed, that’s what matters the most. Everything else works itself out, eventually.

NOTE: This is a retread of a piece I wrote about Phyllis Diller when she died in 2012. The only differences are in bold italics for Abe Vigoda. Is this recycling? Of course it is. But the wheel of life–and death–keeps on turning, all the same.

Governor Snyder, you can’t fix this

When I think about what’s going on in Flint, Michigan, I get really angry. Whoever thought that giving poisoned water to the public–in order to save money over clean water taken from another source–needed to be reined in by the person who had the authority to do so, and in this case it was the governor of Michigan, Rick Snyder.

But Snyder let the deed go down, and the people of Flint have paid the price. A legionnaire’s disease outbreak has already killed 10 people, and everyone who drank or used that water–which had been tested at elevated levels of carcinogens–did damage to themselves that we won’t see for a long time to come.

We need water to live, and as citizens we have a right to expect our water to be safe to use. If government is to have any purpose at all, that’s one of them. And when the water is unsafe, those who approved of giving it to the people cannot be trusted to clean up the mess themselves.

Rick Snyder and anyone else who knew that Flint was receiving poisoned water–but did nothing to warn the people about its dangers–needs to be removed from office and prosecuted for a criminal act. Terrorists would love to poison a city’s drinking water, so why do the people who actually succeeded at doing so get a chance to “fix” their mistake? It won’t bring back those who have died, nor will it remove the nasty chemicals inside the people who drank or bathed in this toxic stuff.

The solutions to this situation are very pricey, and for a city and a state (and a nation, if we’re being honest about it) that doesn’t have the money to spare, things can look pretty dire. But as long as the governor who allowed this to happen remains in charge, nothing will truly get solved. Step one is to remove the present governor, and let someone else try to fix the damage from there.

May we never see anything like this ever again in an American city.

Rockers are mortal, after all

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It wasn’t always this way for me, but within the past couple of years the deaths of people I don’t know have taken on a whole new dimension. Whether I knew the person or not–and particularly if they were somebody famous for one reason or another– the first thing I want to know is how old the person was when they passed on.

Age is only a number, in death as in life, but it can serve as a measuring stick against our own mortality.  The wide majority of deaths in the news are still thankfully older than my age, as was the case with Glenn Frey’s passing today at 67. I’m still literally decades away from that number, so I can’t feel too bad for somebody who lived that long. And, to put a different spin on it, living one day as Glenn Frey must have been better than anything I could imagine, so spending a few decades in his shoes must have been out of this world.

But Frey’s death comes on the heels of David Bowie’s passing just a few days after his 69th birthday. Having been inspired by an article written by Neil McCormick about the inevitable passing of rock’s gods in the days and years to come, I looked at three groups of rock musicians:

  • Those who were born in the 1940s and were older than Bowie was when he passed away,
  • Those who were younger than Bowie but older than Frey when he passed away, and
  • Those who were younger than Frey but were still born in the 1940s, and are thus at least 65 years of age.

The findings were quite interesting. I’ve never inserted an excel spreadsheet into a post before, and I hope it works out. I’m going to insert the link to my findings after every paragraph, to make it easy for anyone who wants to see the full listing of musicians and their birthdays. The source of all birthdays is The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock, Third Edition, published in 2005. The list is not intended to be exhaustive, and in the event that I left out someone who belongs on the list, well, that’s what google is for. Birthdays before 1940 and after 1949 were not considered for this piece, so Tina Turner (born in 1939) and Peter Gabriel (born in 1950) are excluded.

First, the group that was older than Bowie has to be hearing the footsteps of Father Time, if they weren’t already. Living the life of a rock star probably has some multiplying effect that is impossible to quantify, but I can’t imagine that a year in the life of music legend is anywhere near the equivalent of 12 months for anyone else. It might seem to have a shortening effect on a someone’s life span, but Keith Richards is still going strong, so who knows what the story really is? And Mick Jagger’s onstage dancing have probably added years onto his life in exercise value, alone.

Rock Birthdays

But everyone who was 69 years or older when David Bowie passed away last week had to wonder how much longer they have left. For instance, Jimmy Buffet just turned 69 last Christmas, making him a couple of weeks older than David Bowie. The same can be said for Robby Krieger of the Doors, Bill Kreutzmann of the Grateful Dead, and John Paul Jones of Led Zeppelin, all of whom reached age 69 in December of last year. David Bowie’s death has no direct bearing on any of their mortality, but I’m certain that each of these soon-to-be septuagenarians sat up and took notice, anyway.

Rock Birthdays

Others in the rock world who have reached 70 already include Bob Dylan (who will turn 75 in May), Paul McCartney (who will be 64 plus another ten years in June), Jagger and Richards (who are both 72), and Rod Stewart, Eric Clapton, Bob Seger, Pete Townshend, and John Fogerty. The rock pantheon is aging at the same pace as the rest of us, but their numbers will inevitably thin out over the coming few years.

Rock Birthdays

But those who are approaching age 69 later this year must have been thinking of their own mortality when Bowie’s death was announced. And now, the realization that Glenn Frey was even younger than they were must feel like a 1-2 punch. Many of them knew Bowie and/or Frey already, but they’ve now entered into what I call the Bowie-Frey Zone, which as of ten days ago didn’t even exist. They’re approaching their 69th birthdays–which is all the time that David Bowie got on this earth–with the realization that they’ve already outlived Glenn Frey by as much as a year and ten months.

Rock Birthdays

The names on the list of these rock stars is quite impressive:  Elton John, Queen’s Brian May, no less than three members of the Eagles (Don Henley, Don Felder, and Joe Walsh), Lindsey Buckingham, Mick Fleetwood, Stevie Nicks, Brian Johnson of AC/DC, Sammy Hagar, Meatloaf, Steven Tyler of Aerosmith, Robert Plant, and Jackson Browne. If David Bowie’s death didn’t rattle them–from a sheer numerical standpoint–it’s likely that Glenn Frey’s did.

Rock Birthdays

And the final group of musicians I looked at can take some comfort from the fact that Glenn Frey was older than them: Ozzy Osbourne, Billy Joel, Bruce Springsteen, Gene Simmons, Paul Rodgers, and both Hall and Oates. A majority of ZZ Top is on this list, as well.

Rock Birthdays

So what does all this mean? I’m not sure, exactly, but I can give one short story that seems a bit relevant here. Last summer, I was having some work done on my teeth, and as I was laying there with my mouth wide open, and nothing else to do, my mind started wandering to death and rock stars. I began with the Rolling Stones, and the death of Bobby Keys at the age of 70. He wasn’t officially in the band, but he played on some of their most well-known songs, and that’s a pretty significant thing.

I then started to mentally go through different bands, as bits of my tooth were flying through the air, thinking of who had passed on from each of them. I came to the realization that most bands have experienced death in one way or another, and that rock and roll does appear to extract a toll from those who live the life, whether onstage or out in the audience.

Neil Young once sang that it’s better to burn out than fade away, and after seeing him tear up the stage at Farm Aid 30 last summer, I can confidently state that he’s not fading away anytime soon. So maybe age is just a number, in some sense. It’s true that rock and roll can never die, but its principal practitioners aren’t getting any younger, either. I’m afraid that none of us are.

 

Life imitating Art

The death of David Bowie has continued to resonate with me this week. And an example of this came from an everyday incident that turned into a haunting encounter with his music in a Chicago cemetery.

I was driving south on Western Avenue yesterday, on my way to pick up my older daughter from play rehearsal. I had a bottle of sparkling water from our garage with me, to drink it along the way. As I pulled up to a red light, I twisted the cap on the bottle and things went dramatically wrong.

The bottle’s contents were in a semi-frozen state from being stored in the garage, and the act of releasing the pressure caused a spray all over the car’s interior. In an instant, I had drenched myself without intending to.

Fortunately, the light I was stopped at on Western Avenue  is the street that leads into Rosehill cemetery, which I’ve written about many times in this space. I decided to pull into the cemetery, get a blanket from the trunk to dry myself off, and use some wipes to clear off the car’s control panel. When the light turned green I signaled for a turn, just as David Bowie’s “Lazarus” came on my iPhone shuffle playlist.

Driving into the cemetery, the initial bars of the music spoke to me. The music is haunting and beautiful, and the wail of the horns reminded me that, like David Bowie, every one of the people who are buried here have already crossed over to the next world, whatever it is.

I remembered why I was there, but only just barely. I parked the car, and got out to witness a 360-degree panorama of death, in some ways similar to the one I had experienced on Halloween just a few month ago. But this time I had a musical accompaniment, and it made things that much more affecting.

Scanning the horizon, I saw graves with inscriptions for people I’ll never know. And I reminded myself, yet again, that my stay on this planet won’t be any more permanent than theirs were. Whether I will get 69 years and two days on Earth like David Bowie did still remains to be seen. But the time will come when I will have to return to the wardrobe, as Bowie does at the end of the Lazarus video.

Do yourself a favor and watch this, if you haven’t already. With 22 million views and counting on You Tube, it’s having quite an impact.

After the song was ended, I cleaned up the mess in the car and on myself that had led me to the cemetery in the first place. I then drove away with a new appreciation for the fleeting nature of life, and the astounding work of art that David Bowie created in his final days. And an understanding of gas trapped inside frozen bottles, as well.

Art, Religion, and David Bowie

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 This is a tale about art and religion, with some David Bowie added in for good measure.

The story begins in a Catholic grammar school during the 1970s and early 1980s. The pastor of my parish was an elderly man who called every boy “Butch” and every girl “Sissy.” The priest’s name will not be used here since–as with most of my recollections–it’s not really germane to anything. But he was the leader of my church, and a figure that everyone in the parish was familiar with.

I never embraced Catholicism very much, and by the time I started high school in the early 1980s, I was going through the motions of going to mass every Sunday morning. I’d routinely find ways to get out of it, usually by claiming to go to Saturday mass instead and then driving around for an hour. My parents always went to mass on Sunday, and we (my brothers and my sister) went with them more often than not.

After I went away to college in the late 1980s, I found that even the pretense of attending mass was no longer necessary, so I stopped going altogether. My break with Catholicism was several years in the making, but by 1987 it was finally done. I became the “recovering Catholic” that I have been ever since.

In the summer of 1988, I attended a screening of Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ at the Biograph theater in Chicago. It played in very few cities, and on a very few screens, because of the controversial nature of the book that it was based on. In a nutshell, the movie plays out the story of Jesus’ life, and then adds a twist as he is nailed to the cross. He is offered a chance to live as others do, with a wife and children. And Jesus is shown with Mary Magdalene and a family. And that was more than some were ready to handle, including my old parish priest.

A week after seeing the movie, I went home to visit with my family before classes began again in the fall. And, as per family custom, we all went to mass on Sunday. I hadn’t gone in a long time, but I didn’t want to create a scene by refusing to go, and so I joined in.

The mass was the same old same old until the time came for the priest’s homily, and that’s when it got interesting. It turns out that he had an opinion about the movie, and he wasn’t afraid to share it, either. The very idea that the movie showed Jesus “fantasizing on sex” (an odd phrasing, but one that he kept repeating over and over throughout the sermon) was just too much. It was a reprehensible movie, in his view, and no one in our parish should go and see it.

After years of mass attendance, and hundreds of services, I had finally heard too much. It was obvious to me that the pastor had not seen the movie at all, and had only read or heard about it from someplace else. The very limited release of the film meant that anyone in his parish could not see the movie for themselves, absent a 400-mile round trip to Chicago. And nobody should ever go to those lengths to see a movie.

The movie didn’t show Jesus in the way that the priest was claiming. People might fantasize about something of their own volition, but temptation–as I understand it–comes from an external source. The devil in the movie holds out the possibility of a different life to Jesus, with the hope that he will find this way preferable to dying on the cross. But Jesus rejected Satan’s offer, and at the end of the movie he dies on the cross, instead.

The only difference between Jesus in the movie, and Jesus the way I learned the story in Catholic school, was that the fictional Jesus was tempted, unsuccessfully. The devil’s failure to persuade Jesus to give up his divinity for a domestic life instead was intended to challenge–but ultimately reaffirm–the traditional ideas about Jesus. Roger Ebert understood this, but it was somehow lost on my parish priest. Perhaps this is because Ebert had actually seen the movie in question.

I began writing this piece in the summer of 2013, to coincide with the 25th anniversary of the film’s very limited–and very controversial–release in theaters. Something came up on that day, and I saved a draft of what I had written, with the  intention of finishing it off and getting it onto my blog. It wasn’t until the death of David Bowie earlier in the week that I even realized this was still here, languishing in my Drafts folder. And at this point I’d like to pivot to Bowie’s involvement in the movie, in one scene as Pontius Pilate.

Bowie was certainly no stranger to the silver screen, and his list of film roles underlines what a screen presence he really was. I don’t like like writing about him in past tense, either, but that’s the way it has to be now.

So the film’s second-worst character (after the big serpent, of course) was filled by one of the biggest musical stars of the decade. If there was any sense that this could have been a hazardous or toxic role for Bowie’s career as an artist, it didn’t prevent him from brushing them aside and taking the role, anyway. And he nailed the part, playing a Roman official with a gravitas that made you forget about his Ziggy Stardust days and his jumping around with Mick Jagger in the Dancing in the Street video.

Art, such as the Last Temptation novel and the film it was later turned into, has the ability to challenge us, and make us question who we are and what we’re all about. It has the power to change us, if we want to be changed, and the power to reinforce things that we may already know. But art’s ability to do either of these things is limited to our willingness to expose ourselves to it in the first place.

I wouldn’t have allowed a priest to tell me I can’t see a movie, not in 1988 and certainly not today. And if I hadn’t already seen the movie when I heard that ill-informed homily back then, I would have missed an interesting film and a very credible performance from an artist who’s no longer with us. And that would have been very unfortunate, indeed.

David Bowie could do it all: sing, play guitar, write music, act, and look the part of a Roman with a style that nobody else had. Dusting off an old, half-finished idea from long ago and posting it online is a humble tribute to him, but one that I’m still very glad to offer here.

Art has always been made, and will always be made, and Bowie’s role in this process is worth remembering and emulating, whenever possible.