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.

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.

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.

 

 

 

 

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.

 

2015 is slipping away

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Now that Christmas is behind us, there’s just a few days left in 2015. It’s been quite a year, as I suppose is true of every year on the crazy blue marble we call home.

Our losses this year included Ernie Banks, Minnie Minoso, Stuart Scott, Dusty Rhodes, Roddy Piper, and lots of people who weren’t ballplayers or sportscasters or pro wrestlers.

We lost many people– just as we have every year–but we also gained some people, too. People who will change the world someday, as they grow and learn and figure out what it is the world needs, and how they can go about providing it. That day will come, even if many of us won’t be around to see it. As long as the world is spinning on its axis, people will be finding new ways to make life better.

But we also got a few things back in 2015 that I thought were gone forever. “Bloom County” was my favorite comic strip back in the 1980s, and its creator Berkeley Breathed has recently revived it for the 21st century. I genuinely look forward to seeing Opus and Milo and Steve Dallas and the rest on Facebook every day.

But even more than that, 2015 was the year that Star Wars came back. I never really followed the first three movies in the series as they were coming out over the past decade or so. I had resigned myself to thinking that the series came to an end–at least for me–around the time we first saw the Ewoks in Return of the Jedi. But Disney has rejuvenated the franchise, and reminded me of how much I had enjoyed the characters and the story when they first came into my life back in the late 1970s.

It’s been an interesting year, and given the rate I’m posting in this space lately, this could very well be the last time I’ll post anything here in 2015. With that said, let’s hope that 2016 will bring us more surprises worth writing about.

 

Spending an afternoon with my mom

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There’s a scene from Good Will Hunting that has stayed with me, more so than the remainder of the movie. In the scene, the Minnie Driver character says that she would trade all of the money she has to spend another day with her dead father. And the reason she would is because once somebody is gone, there’s no way of bringing them back. So enjoy your loved ones while you still can.

My mom was 21 years old when I was born. At an age when I was still finishing up college and enjoying the carefree (as in, child-free) days of my early 20s, my mom didn’t have that. She had me and my sister and two brothers to contend with. Not that it was an actual competition, but she had demands on her time and resources that I can’t imagine. And she did a great job of raising us, I have to say.

I’m very pleased to report that she’s still with us today. I get to enjoy spending time with her while she’s still young enough to get around without a wheelchair or a walker. And we did exactly that a week ago, for the funeral reenactment of Abraham Lincoln. It was six hours in the car to spend four or five hours with the woman who did so much for me back when I was unable–and sometimes unwilling–to appreciate what that meant. It was a trade that I was glad to make.

I know that my mom reads my blog. So in a sense, I’m writing to her knowing that she will see it and probably get emotional. I’m getting emotional writing it, myself. But on the off chance that anybody else ever finds this online, here’s a picture and a story about my mom. She, like all mothers, loved her children and didn’t get nearly enough in return for her emotional and financial investments through the years. This is a humble attempt to repay a debt that can never be fully squared. And I’m very pleased to still have the opportunity to make payments on this account.

In Technicolor

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Today I was futzing around with an app called Photo Booth on the laptop, and found that smiling for pictures just looked dumb. They were forced smiles, after all. But when I glared at the camera, the images seemed to turn out better. Funny how that works.

Having recently seen The Birdcage in the aftermath of Robin Williams’ death, I recalled a scene where Nathan Lane’s character was dressed in a suit, but when he crossed his legs it revealed the bright pink socks that he was wearing. His response was perfect: “One does want a hint of color.”

So to take the edge off of my glaring visage, I added an effect called “Pop art.” The result, in my mind, is the Technicolor Badass shown above. And now that it’s online, it can live forever. The internet is an amazing thing, indeed.

Radio Raheem for a new generation

Twenty-five years is a long time. I have many memories of the Summer of 1989, and one of them was going to see a movie that shook me up, Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing.” And apparently, the current president and his then-girlfriend saw the movie too that summer, as evidenced by the film clip above.

The event that sets off the riot that marks the high point of the movie was the strangulation death of a character named Radio Raheem. I was appalled as the police placed his character in a choke hold and ended his life. It touched off a riot where Sal’s Pizza gets destroyed, and Mookie–Spike Lee’s character–leads the way by throwing a garbage can through his boss’ window. I walked out of the movie examining American society, and that was clearly what everyone in the theater was supposed to be doing.

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Now flash forward a quarter century, to the tragic case of Eric Garner. Whatever it was he may or may not have been doing on the streets of New York on a Thursday afternoon, he met with the same fate that Radio Raheem did in Spike Lee’s movie, all those years ago.

But Eric Garner had a family, unlike the fictional creation that Radio Raheem was. Still, it seems hard to believe that our current president, who apparently remembers the movie very well, doesn’t have something to say about how life–and death– has imitated art.

Leadership involves, well, doing the right thing. And when an unarmed black man is choked to death on the streets of New York, or any other city, it’s something we should reflect upon.

Yes, we have an African American president, which twenty-five years ago did not seem possible. And yes, he has other issues to deal with, from Gaza to the border issue. But an unarmed black man died at the hands of police in our largest and most visible city. I’d very much like to hear what our president has to say about it. Even if he channels that young man who took his girlfriend on a date to see a movie 25 years ago, it would be worth listening to.

As fresh as a Foghat concert

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I was on my way to work yesterday when, for reasons I’ll likely never understand, one of the greatest movie insults I have heard came to me. It happened in the movie Kingpin, where Woody Harrelson’s character is told that his act is “about as fresh as a Foghat concert.” The implication is that Foghat, a band from the 1970s, had long passed its shelf life by the time this movie appeared in 1996.

Of course, something from 1996 is now almost as stale as Foghat was in the 1990s. But that’s beside the point. It was a funny line then, and it’s still funny now.

I turned on the radio to hear some music and lo and belold, Foghat was playing. Since my car flashes the name of the artist and songs–at least it does once in a while–I snapped a picture to record the moment for posterity. Maybe I subconsciously knew Foghat was playing on the radio before I turned it on. It’s the only explanation that makes any sense.

Whatever it was, the world didn’t really need a Foghat story on the internet, but it has one now. Isn’t technology great?

 

The best film ever made

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Sometimes my daughters ask me questions about what my favorite things are. When they ask about my favorite song, or my favorite book, or my favorite food, I usually give some sort of dodgy, non-committal answer because I like many songs, and many books, and too many types of food, but none really stands out above the rest. When it comes to movies, though, it’s another story altogether.

My favorite movie is–and shall probably always remain–Field of Dreams. Twenty-five years ago, I described it in the Northwestern Film Guide as “magical,” and I stand by that description today. It’s a concoction of love and family and baseball and, above all else, belief in dreams. Not everyone buys into these things, and that’s just fine. But I do, and I always will, and I’m happy that there are others who do, as well.

Yesterday, I was “having a catch”–as Ray Kinsella called it in the movie’s last scene–with my ten year-old daughter in my small backyard in Chicago. We were using a purple softball from a trip to New Orleans many years ago, and since I didn’t have a glove I was catching her throws barehanded. But none of this mattered to me.

What mattered was that this funny, smart, and lovely little girl, who I’ve watched grow from the time she was born during the All-Star game ten and a half years ago, was sharing a moment with me. I was doing a thing that I love, with a person that I love. Not a single thing was wrong with the world in that moment. I’ll do my best to keep that memory for as long as I walk this earth.

No other movie has ever moved me like Field of Dreams did. And when life imitated this art, as it did for me yesterday, the cosmic tumblers all clicked into place.

Roger and Me

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As a college student in the late 1980s, riding the el was an entirely new experience for me. I secretly envied those who hailed from New York, or Chicago, or any place large enough to have a train service in operation. There were a few bus lines in Springfield, Illinois, where I grew up, but nothing remotely similar to the CTA.

The CTA was different in many ways back then. You could pay the conductor in cash when you got on the train. You could request a paper transfer, if you had an extra quarter for it. You could smoke at the el stops while you were killing time, waiting for the train to arrive. And that automated voice telling you what the next stop would be? That was announced by a real live person. In other words, the CTA was far removed from what it is today.

But one of the things that still remains is advertising on the el platforms. And one of the signs that I remember seeing in the 1980s has made a return visit to my memory, in the aftermath of Roger Ebert’s passing. It was a large photo of Ebert sitting at a typewriter, looking into the camera, with the words “Trust Ebert” superimposed. And that seemed like an entirely reasonable thing to do.

When I encountered this “Trust Ebert” ad on the CTA, I was writing for Northwestern’s A&O Film Board. We would show movies someplace on campus, either in the Norris Student Center or the Tech Auditorium, and charge a few dollars to cover the price of renting the film reels from the distributors. It was a way to recreate the movie-going experience, without the expense of going to Evanston’s lone theater on Central Street. I greatly enjoyed the process of selling the tickets and running the projector and, most of all, describing the films that were being shown.

The A&O Film Guide was a quarterly publication, which described all of the films that would be shown during a quarter. All of this would be made available online today, but it was a different world in the late 1980s. Each film had a short blurb, which provided the essentials about who was in the film, when it was released, how long it ran, and a short paragraph describing the plot.

Writing blurbs for the Film Guide was extraordinarily fun for me, because I took each one as a chance to mimic Roger Ebert’s writing style. Describing a movie like Midnight Run as if I were talking to an old friend was the way that I approached writing these blurbs.

In a small way, this process allowed me to be like Roger Ebert, and I enjoyed that immensely. When I became the Film Guide’s editor in 1989, my responsibilities included reading over other people’s blubs and–when necessary–writing blurbs for films that I had never heard of before. I always approached this task in the same way, by treating the reader as an intelligent, experienced person who wanted to know something about whatever film we were showing on any given night. That’s the way Ebert’s reviews always felt to me.

I was very proud of the film guides that were produced in this way, and my days of Trusting Ebert–by writing in a style that I had patterned after his–remain as one of the best college memories I have.

After the Internet came along in the 1990s, and began transforming the newspaper landscape, Ebert stayed at the forefront of these changes. He continued writing reviews—he never stopped doing that—but he also became a blogger, well before many people knew what that meant. A blog post that he wrote in 2009 inspired me to give up drinking. Upon reading Ebert’s description of his experiences with alcohol, I saw a lot of myself in his words. If he could give up drinking and still do well, I reasoned that I could do likewise. Again, I was Trusting Ebert.

After cutting alcohol out of my life I began to write, and have found this to be a form of intellectual liberation. On April 4, 2013, a story that I wrote for the website ChicagoSideSports.com was published in Roger Ebert’s newspaper, The Chicago Sun-Times. A picture of him appeared on the cover of that day’s edition, with the headline “Ebert’s not going anywhere.” I read the piece and hoped this would be the truth. But in the late afternoon of that day, the word came out that Ebert had indeed passed away.

In my sadness at the news, it occurred to me that I had filled a considerable chunk of Roger Ebert’s paper on the day that he passed away. Although I never met him, it feels as if I owe him a lot. I once tried to mimic his writing style, and the reason that I write today is because I read a courageous piece that he wrote about his own life.

Having any sort of a connection with him–no matter how tangental–is something that I’ll always feel good about. With the benefits of hindsight, I can confidently say that Trusting Ebert is one of the best things I have done.

Irreverent to the end

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What made Harold Ramis and his collaboration with Bill Murray so special was the irreverence that was infused into their films. Whether it was the country club in Caddyshack, the military in Stripes, or the Greek system in Animal House, there was a gulf between those who played by society’s rules, and the heroes of his movies. The wider the gap between them, the funnier things were onscreen.

Tonight’s Oscar awards treated us to one last act of irreverence. When Bill Murray was introduced and walked out onto the stage with Amy Adams on his arm, my first thought was that maybe he would mention his friend and collaborator. I knew–and I’m sure that he did, too–that Ramis was going to be included in the “In Memoriam” clip that gets put together each year, to commemorate the actors and other film people who died over the previous year. We would get to see his face and a few seconds of his work, but we wouldn’t hear his name. And this just wouldn’t do, for a career as accomplished as his was.

So Bill Murray took matters into his own hands. Once the nominees for Best Cinematography had been read, Murray stepped in and added Ramis’ name for his work on Caddyshack, Ghostbusters, and Groundhog Day. The audience applauded, and whoever actually won the award didn’t seem to matter very much at that moment. Murray had slipped in Ramis’ name, and that was something special for us, and I’m sure that it was for Murray, too.

It had been reported that Murray and Ramis had been estranged from each other for many years, until Murray recently visited his old pal on what turned out to be his deathbed. What they talked about may never be known, but Murray had to know that an appearance on the Oscars was upcoming for him. Did he tell Ramis about his plan to mention his name on the show? Or did he only hatch out the plan after Ramis had passed away? I’d love to know what the answer is, but either way, it took some guts for Murray to depart from the script like that.

Whether tonight was the final collaboration between Bill Murray and Harold Ramis or not, movies won’t ever be the same again. I’m grateful for the movies that they left behind, and hope that Bill Murray gives us some more laughs before his time comes, whenever that may be.

 

He made the movies funny

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Everyone in my generation who likes to laugh owes an enormous debt to Harold Ramis. The challenge of putting that debt into words is very daunting, but I’m going to take it on, anyway.

When Ramis’s classic work was produced in the late 1970s and early 1980s, I was too young to see them in the theaters. The R rating that Caddyshack, Animal House, Stripes, and Vacation carried made them into the forbidden fruit, but cable TV and VCRs eventually saved the day.

The subversive nature of these movies was an invitation to find some way around that restriction, anyway. “So you aren’t 17, big deal,” these movies seemed to say. Watching them anyway felt like thumbing a nose at that repressive barrier. It was the equivalent of smoking a joint after school or drinking beer at a keg party in the woods. Experiencing his movies was a rite of passage, whether any of us realized it or not.

But they never really felt like Harold Ramis movies, even when he was actually on screen. Belushi owned Animal House, but Ramis was the one who wrote the script. Ramis had some of the funniest lines in Stripes because he also wrote that script, but he played it straight while Bill Murray stole the show. Without Harold Ramis, though, those movies would have never come to be. And don’t get me started about Caddyshack, either. A more significant movie hasn’t yet been made, at least in my eyes.

I love the movies that Harold Ramis had a hand in bringing to life. To the extent that life is funny to me, it’s due to his influence. His death today makes me grateful for all of the laughter he brought into the world. And I’ll be sure to remember him anytime one of his films is shown on TV, beginning with this evening’s showing of Stripes, once my daughters have gone to bed. It’s a generational thing, I’m sure.

From one Chicago guy to another, thanks. Thanks a lot.

A eulogy for Brandt

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As a member of the Dudeist clergy–the only such group I would ever belong to–I feel a need to say a few words on behalf of Philip Seymour Hoffman, who so brilliantly played the part of Lebowski’s manservant, Brandt.

I have been fortunate enough to never get mixed up with heroin. And even though Hoffman had been clean for decades, something set him back down the path that eventually killed him. It’s a real shame that someone with all of his talent couldn’t rise above his addiction.

One of my favorite Springsteen lyrics seems appropriate here. In Tunnel of Love, Bruce sings that “you gotta learn to live with what you can’t rise above.” And for all those years, that’s exactly what Hoffman did. He rose above heroin, and he had major success as a result. But then he couldn’t rise above it anymore and as a result, he couldn’t live with heroin in his life.

There’s a saying that tomorrow is not promised to anyone, and Hoffman’s tragic end just reinforces this statement. Let’s all rise above things that might harm us, in the hope that there will be more tomorrows coming our way.

A poignant reminder

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The movie theater above is the closest one to my house. Cineplex Odeon, the chain that ran it last, hasn’t existed for many years. I could google it to know for sure, but it wouldn’t matter. It’s a relic from another time now.

As I stood in the parking lot of this desolate place yesterday, taking pictures of the theater where my daughter saw her first movie, I felt a sense of sadness. There are no movie theaters left from when I was a child in Springfield, Illinois. The movie business turns itself over pretty often, and older theaters are discarded along the way.

One day, maybe, this theater will be torn down to make way for something else. But until then, I’ll have a perpetual reminder of taking a wide-eyed little girl to see Shrek once upon a time. She can’t remember it, but I always will.

Don’t you forget about me

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There’s a Chicago radio station that I don’t much listen to, but they’re having an 80s-themed weekend. I’ve written about 80s music before, because music mattered to me more in that decade than it ever had before, and more than it ever has since. And I doubt I’m the only one who’s like that, either.

When the 80s began, I was in the final years of elementary school. Life outside of my parents’ house had never even crossed my mind. And when the 80s ended, I was a senior in college, and life under my parents’ roof was the last thing that I wanted.

The 80s were the transitional decade for me, and the music from those years makes me remember. They take me back, in the way that nothing else can. And in the center of that decade was The Breakfast Club. I wasn’t out on my own yet when the movie came out in 1985, but I sure was thinking about it. And just a couple of years later, I left my parents home and never went back.

I was mindful of all this as I watched the movie tonight with my 14 year-old daughter. The teen years of this decade will be for her what the 80s once were for me. Whatever the future holds is not yet determined, but she’ll go through all the things that I did once upon a time.And I won’t ever forget about her, that’s for sure.

A special gift

I recently contributed a piece to a baseball blogger who undertook a blogathon to honor a friend who had passed away. He asked for pieces about our best baseball memories, and for me it was an easy decision as to what that was. The piece appears here, and it literally poured right out of me. It was a joy to write.

I found the piece online today, and I posted a link to it on Facebook. I sometimes think I overdo it with baseball writing, but this came from my heart, and that set it apart from most of the stuff I do. So onto Facebook it went.

The piece was read and complimented by an old teammate of mine. For several years back in the late 1970s and early 1980s, we played Khoury League baseball, first for Horace Mann, and then for First National Bank of Springfield, Illinois. Other than family relations, I can’t think of a more important bond with someone than that.

The piece that I wrote had to do with my father taking me to see a doubleheader in St. Louis back in 1975. If my dad had taken me to a basketball game instead, perhaps that would be the sport I write about all the time. But my dad doesn’t care about basketball, and neither do I. Basball is his game, and that makes it mine, too.

My old teammate, who I haven’t seen or physically talked to for 30 years, recently lost his father. Not only does Facebook allow us to reconnect with people who had previously vanished into the mists of time, it allows us to keep up with what’s going on in their lives. And that’s something we probably haven’t had before, either.

I remember my old teammate’s dad. He was one of the coaches on our baseball team, a guy who was about as old then as I am now, helping to pass the game on to his son and those who played on his team. The game means something–no, it means everything–when it comes to us that way.

My old teammate thanked me for the piece, and told me that I have a gift. To someone who tries to walk a line between self-confidence and utter humility, those words meant a lot to me. And the gift, as I saw it, was hearing that something I wrote had meant something to him. Never before had I been so glad that I put something on Facebook.

Link to a post on ThroughTheFenceBaseball

Farina

Last night I sat down to reflect on the passing of Dennis Farina. I liked his work in the movies and on television, of course, but the fact that he was a life-long Cubs fan is what hit me the most. So I tied his passing to the recent sing-along with Eddie Vedder and Ernie Banks at Wrigley Field. I’m actually quite proud of how it turned out.

Someday we’ll go all the way is a pretty good earworm to have, too. There’s a lot of hope in that message. When that’s all you have, you’d better hold onto it as tight as you can.

In memory of the 54th Massachusetts

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Back in the days when I was still teaching, which was more than a decade ago now, I always made it a point to show the movie Glory to my students. But I never went the route of just putting the tape into the VCR (it wasn’t quite DVDs back then) and pressing play. That wasn’t how I rolled in the classroom.

Each day (and I think it took almost a week to get through the whole movie) I would give my students sheets filled with questions I had typed up in advance. And then, at many points throughout the movie, I would hit pause and make some point or another about what was going on in the story. Students who wanted to put their heads down and zone out were disappointed, but it also kept all of us engaged in the story. It was one of my favorite experiences of the school year, because it allowed us all learn about a story that is all too easily overlooked in the history books.

Denzel Washington won an Academy Award, and helped to launch his successful career in the movies. Morgan Freeman also got a significant career boost and, as hard as I tried not to see Ferris Bueller in period costuming, every time Matthew Broderick opened his mouth that’s exactly what I saw. Fortunately, many of my students didn’t have that same baggage.

When you visit Boston, as I did last summer, the Revolution seems to confront you at every turn. But a notable exception to this is the monument to the 54th Massachusetts, shown above in all its glory (sorry! couldn’t resist it!). If you get up real close, you can see the look of determination in the soldiers’ faces. It’s a great piece of art, and a fitting tribute to those who anted up and kicked in 150 years ago today. This post is written to thank them for their bravery and their sacrifice.

Operation Goose: An Introduction

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Ten years is long enough.

Ten years can sometimes feel like an eternity. And yet, for an event that took place almost a decade ago, the 2003 NLCS still feels close at hand. That’s because we have collectively frozen the moment in time, as if to preserve it somehow. It’s a natural response to something that seems like it should have never happened, but unfortunately it did.

The best parallel for this from a movie is Top Gun. The death of Anthony Edwards’ Goose character, as a result of a plane election gone wrong, has a profound effect on Tom Cruise’s Maverick. To mourn the loss of his friend, Mav carries around Goose’s military dog tags, and they comfort him on some level.

But they also serve as a distraction, in a flight scene where Maverick disengages from a combat exercise. Maverick’s head was not in the game, because he was thinking about Goose instead. And that put everyone at risk.

The emotional catharsis comes later in the movie, when Mav throws Goose’s dog tags into the sea. It was a very difficult, but also very necessary, act of letting his friend go. Since his friend was not coming back, Maverick chooses to release his friend’s memory, thus freeing himself up to shoot down some bogies and cover Iceman’s ass. And yes, I know all about the movie’s gay subtext, too.

I hope that all Cubs fans who still carry Goose’s dog tags, in a metaphorical sense, get to the point where they can finally cast them into the sea. As crushing a loss as 2003 was emotionally, we need to put it aside, and realize that we’ll never move forward until that burden is lifted.

The first step in this process is to go back and revisit the entire series. For many people—particularly those who aren’t even Cubs fans—the NLCS was a single, winner-take-all affair that happened in Wrigley Field on Tuesday, October 14, 2003, Mark Prior started that decisive game, and pitched with great skill until the eighth inning rolled around. And then an unfortunate play happened in the left field corner, and the one-game series was irretrievably lost. It’s as if the Cubs didn’t even bat in the bottom of the eighth inning that night, and the ninth inning never happened, either.

But there was a full baseball game played that night, just as there had been five full games before it. There was even another game played the following night, and that one actually was the winner-take-all game that Game Six is often presumed to be. And in the course of each game, there were several moments where things could have gone the other way on the field.

Over the next few months, I’ll identify those moments, ponder what they mean for the series as a whole, and demonstrate that the professionals—both on the field and in the dugout—decided what actually happened back in 2003. The fans in the stands–every last one of them–had nothing to do with anything, in the big picture that I’ll be laying out.

I’m aiming for the whole series to be nothing less than cathartic, so that fellow Cubs fans can make their peace with it and then move on. But for now, just think about Mav and Goose.

Just keep truckin’ on

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With May now behind us, and June coming into view, there are a couple of significant dates ahead this month. The 11th will be the two-year anniversary of this blog, and the 14th will be my birthday. I’m sure that the proximity between the two is accidental, but I like it, anyway.

I never expected to be doing this for nearly two years. I’ve written about world issues and extremely local issues, and everything in between. The ability to move thoughts and ideas from that space between my ears, and out into the brave new digital world, is an amazing thing. Not everyone realizes it, and not everyone is inclined to take advantage of it either. But everyone who does is giving a piece of themselves to a world that didn’t ask for it, but can’t give it back, either.

I set a goal for myself, not long after I started doing this, to write a million words in this space. I don’t count all of the other online writing that I’ve done toward this goal, and the number wouldn’t seem quite so far away if I did. But at the same time, I’m still pushing toward that specific goal.

I’ve come a long way–roughly 400,000 words with this post–and time will tell if I can reach this goal or not. But I’m enjoying the process, and posts like this remind me that having a goal is essential. It keeps things moving in a defined manner, and without it there’s really no purpose to keep doing this as much as I do.

I’ve been thinking about the number 400 as this word milestone became closer. The level of carbon in the atmosphere has recently passed 400 parts per million for the first time in recorded history. That’s a terrible thought, and Carbon in the air affects everyone, no matter who they are or where they live. Is this the sign of a global tipping point? I have no idea, but I’m definitely not encouraged.by it.

400 is also a magic number in baseball, as no player has had a batting average that high for a single season in my lifetime. Whenever somebody gets close, as Rod Carew and George Brett and Tony Gwynn have in the past, it becomes a big story, but in the end it doesn’t happen that way. It’s a number that has few equals in determining an outstanding season.

There is also a 400 movie theater on the North Side of Chicago, which I would attend sometimes when I was in college. One of the movies I saw there was Who Framed Roger Rabbit? which, all these years later, I watched with my teenager tonight for the first (and probably the only) time. I find myself appreciating this linkage to the past more and more each day, and I hope everyone has a chance to do something similar one day. It’s indeed a special feeling.

But the 400 image that I wanted to present to the world was taken at my barbecue grill this evening. 400 degrees on the thermometer wouldn’t come right away, but had to be achieved by a steady climb from about 200 degrees when the lid was lifted. Letting it reach 400 was enough time to assess how the cooking was progressing, without leaving it to burn. So I snapped a picture, put it up on the Internet, along with a few words, and now I’m a bit closer to my final goal. It’s not the worst thing I could be doing on a Friday night.

A movie worth looking forward to

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When I was teaching many years ago, I would go on and on about Jackie Robinson. One of my favorite quotes is his: “A life is only important for the impact that it has on other people.” And in a few days, we’ll get to see his story told on screen.

Last year was Abraham Lincoln, and this year is Jackie Robinson. I wonder who will be next?