One goal, accomplished


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.

A vote of confidence


Saturday morning, Chicago

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was a good day for omens


Saturday morning, Evanston, Illinois

My daughters are both ice skaters, which makes practice ice a reality for me, several times a week. On Saturday morning, as the rest of the world is sleeping in, my older one gets to the rink at 5:30 AM. It seems like a cruel joke to play on the old man, but I go along with it by driving her to the rink.

I dropped her off this morning, and went to get some gas in the tank of my minivan. It’s not a terribly long way to South Bend, Indiana, but it’s better to gas up now before I head out later this morning.

As I’m filling up the tank, I noticed that the Starbucks in that neck of the woods wasn’t open yet. You know you’re early when Starbucks hasn’t yet come to life.

Since coffee needed to be procured, I considered my options. There was a Burger King I knew of a half-mile away, and while I’m not a fan of their coffee, it would be better than having a steaming cup of nada in my hand. So Burger King it was.

As I drove north toward the BK, something wonderful presented itself. A former KFC restaurant, which had been converted to a Starbucks, grabbed my attention instead. It was as if the mermaid or whatever it is on the Starbucks logo winked at me. It was a call that I couldn’t ignore.

I pulled into the parking lot, curious why this location was open as the other one remained closed. It was almost 6 AM by now, and my guess is the other one would be opening at that time, anyway. But fate had brought me to this location, instead.

I went inside and ordered my usual, a venti drip coffee. I’ve never gone for lattes or any of their pricier drinks; just plain old coffee works for me. The woman behind the counter was as friendly as could be, and she provided my morning cup of stimulation. Now it was time to add a splash of half-and-half and head back to the rink.

On the creamer station, I spied a single penny. I always make it a practice to pick up a penny and look at the year stamped on it. I’ve written about that penny, and the year associated with it, several times on this blog. And for every story I’ve told, there are several more that I haven’t had the time or the inclination to tell. But today’s was a story that had to be told.

The year stamped on the penny was 1995. I saw the date and blurted out “No fucking way!” without even thinking about it. The expletive had to be a part of what I said, too, because the irony was just too much to consider, especially so early in the morning.

1995 was the last time that Northwestern and Notre Dame have played each other in football. So much has changed in the 19 years since then: the internet, smartphones, social media, the cloud, so much of the things that we think have always been there but really have not. My two children were far off in the future back in 1995. I was still renting an apartment in those days. I weighed significantly less than I do today. And I never, ever said no to having a beer. In short, my life today in 2014 resembles 1995 in very few ways.

Northwestern won that football game back in 1995. For 19 years, I’ve been able to say that Northwestern had bragging rights when it came to Notre Dame. The Domers have the tradition and the aura about their program, but they haven’t had a chance to avenge their 17-15 loss to the school with perhaps the least college football tradition of all.

Notre Dame has a good football team this year, and Northwestern does not. The Fighting Irish lost by a wide margin in Arizona last week, and they may be wanting to take that frustration out on the Wildcats at home, in front of their fans. There’s still a matter of keeping themselves around for bowl consideration, after all.

There won’t be any bowl games for Northwestern this year. All that’s left to play for is pride, and that may not be enough to prevail. But the defensive captain of the 1995 team, Pat Fitzgerald, is the Wildcats’ head coach now, and will be for years–if not decades–to come. He understands what Notre Dame means, as an opponent. Nobody will be any better at getting his team ready for a game like this.

I believe in omens. Perhaps I’ve read too many books, and seen too many movies where a minor thing portends something more important down the line. That’s the essence of storytelling, after all. What seems unimportant at the time can turn out to be something greater. You never know in this world.

So if Northwestern can go into South Bend and pull off an upset–as they did back in 1995–a penny in a Starbucks won’t be the reason why. But it sure will be interesting if it turns out that way. I suppose we’ll find out in a few hours.

UPDATE: The Wildcats did indeed pull off the upset, winning the game 43-40 in overtime. I hope to put the game into words soon, but for now I’ll say that it was a roller coaster ride from start to finish, and Northwestern somehow prevailed. Go Cats!

Made it through


I wouldn’t relive 1982 for all the money in the world. I was a gangly, awkward kid, and I hated myself for it. But when I happened upon a 1982 penny in a Starbucks this morning, I realized that my memories of years gone by–or at least the ones I have shared in this space–have tended to the warm and happy side of things. We remember what we choose to remember, I suppose.

Should any similarly awkward teenagers out there ever see this, I offer this consolation: One day you’ll have Starbucks, or something like it that hasn’t been invented yet, and you’ll be glad you hung around long enough to experience it.


The year it all began for me


I’ve done this thing a few times that I call “Pennyfind.” I even have a category for it here. It happens when I come across a penny on a sidewalk or in the street or some unusual place. Being a superstitious sort, I usually pick it up and take a look at the year stamped on the penny. If it gives me an idea about something, I’ll put it into a blog post, because that’s where my random thoughts find their way into the world.

Toady’s penny, which I found waiting for me in the street this afternoon after parking my car, had the most important year of all stamped on it: 1968. Many times I’ve referenced 1968 in this blog, because I was born just about in the middle of it, on a Friday in June.If I ever have a gravestone, or I’m important enough to have the years of my birth and death printed in parentheses after my name someplace, 1968 will forever be the first half of this pairing. So I better well have something to say about it here.

In 1968, Martin Luther King was killed in April, and Bobby Kennedy was killed in June. There were riots in Chicago and many other cities. I’ve seen pictures of cops swinging batons, and National Guard units patrolling the streets, and it looks like another world  because, in lots of ways, it was another world.

The world didn’t know about personal computers, the internet, emails, cell phones, and all kinds of other things that we take for granted today. Cars were big and bulky, running on gasoline that had lead in it. You could buy Unleaded gas, but it cost more so most people just used “Regular” gas instead.

The factories that are now shut down and sitting empty were all operating back in 1968. Things were actually made in this country, from the shirts on our backs to the shoes on our feet to the baseballs that are used on the playing field. When I was a teacher, nearly 20 years ago, I confidently offered straight As for the entire year to any student who was wearing American-made shoes, an American-made shirt, and an American-made backpack. I never had to pay out on this though, because none of my students ever had so much as one of these American-made items.

In 1968, there were precious few career paths available to women. I’ve spoken with some of them, who told me the options for working women were teaching or nursing, and nothing more than that. As shocking as that was, I’m happy that my daughters will have career choices that my mother simply didn’t have when I was born.

In 1968, race was a defining feature in American society. It still is, and it probably always will be, but the idea of an African American in the White House would have been farcical on the day I was born. And yet here we are. Racism and discrimination still exist, but the color of a man’s skin is no longer a bar to the highest office in this nation.

So many other changes have come in the course of my lifetime: Pay phones (of the rotary dial variety) once were everywhere, and now it’s almost impossible to find one, especially when you need to make a phone call. Laws against smoking indoors, even in hospitals, were unheard of. The Stonewall riots in New York were still a year in the future. Douglas Englebart invented the computer mouse, and Start Silver discovered the weak adhesive that, many years later, would be turned into Post-it notes. And Starbucks, possibly my favorite brand name of all, was still three years away from opening its first shop in Seattle. It’s amazing how much change has come during my lifetime.

The second of my two incomplete years–the one that will complete my lifespan inside the parentheses following my name–hopefully hasn’t been stamped onto a penny just yet. I likely won’t write very much, if anything, about that year. So I’ll just make up it by writing about 1968, instead. Peace to all those who began their life’s journey in such an important year.

Those were the days


Some people are of the opinion that a penny on the sidewalk can only be picked up when it’s facing heads up. I, however, will take them any way I can find them.

This morning I found a heads-down penny in a parking lot. I nearly passed it by, but then I stopped, picked it up, and turned it over. And I found the year 1985, which was an interesting year in my life for many reasons. But I don’t want to write about any of that here. For some reason, I want to write about Rambo, instead.

Well, maybe not actually Rambo, per se. In 1985, Stallone had brought Rambo back, in the sequel to First Blood, and sent him back into Vietnam. Rambo: First Blood Part II was a big, shoot-the-bad-guys type of film that defined movies in the 1980s for me like nothing else did. And it led to something that I remember to this day.

A friend of mine from the earliest days I can remember wrote a “Best of 1985” piece for our high school paper. We were both editors of the paper, applying the brand of smart-ass sarcasm that David Letterman seemed to embody in those days. We even created a column that turned the traditional “Senior Spotlight” on its head by roasting students in whatever terrible ways we could think of. It wasn’t any of our finest moments, but there it was, anyway.

So my friend’s 1985 piece appeared in early 1986, and I took exception with his choices in the next issue that came out. In hindsight, I wish that I had come up with the year-in-review idea myself, and I was really trying to cover that up with a “well here’s what I think rebuttal.” I responded to a swipe he had taken at Bruce Springsteen , since I was into Born in the U.S.A. at the time, even though Springsteen’s more meaningful earlier works were still a mystery to me.

But the main focus of my uncalled-for rebuttal had to do with the fact that the year’s ten best movies didn’t include Rambo. Only in the narrow mind of the 17 year-old that I was back then could Rambo have been on a best movies of the year type of a list. But I made that case, anyway.

For the rest of 1986, until we graduated and went our separate ways in life, my old friend and I traded shots at each other in the high school paper. He returned his fire on me, and I returned my fire on his reply to my reply to his original list, and so it went. I thought that people somehow wanted to buy the paper to read my reply to his reply and so on, but in reality we were just marking the time of our final high school days. I remember, in my final words on the matter, extending the hope that if we went to college together, we could drag everything out for another four years. Of course, it didn’t happen that way, and that’s for the best.

I saw my old friend in New York a couple of years ago, and we got together to relive the old days at a bar. I can’t remember whether we brought this particular exchange up or not, but it was clear to me that both us had traveled far in life since those days. Whatever things were written back then were born out of youth and the stupidity that attends to it. And writing this now, with the benefits of all the living that has happened since then, I realize that.

So if this piece had a Sam Elliott moment, this would be it. Sam would say something about how we learn life’s lessons best when we learn them the hard way, and hopefully these lessons reveal themselves to us and make us into better people. Or something like that. I’ll catch everyone on down the trail.

The watershed year


I was sweeping out the house today, trying to get the last remnants of the holiday season out of the house. As I was bringing a pile of dust and other stuff toward the dustpan, I heard a clink that indicated a coin was inside. I pulled it out and found a penny with the date of 1986 on it.

I doubt that any other year has gotten as much mention on this site as 1986 has. It truly was a pivotal year in my life, because I began the year living in my parents’ house in Springfield, Illinois. High school graduation was still a few months away, and then my 18th birthday would be a few weeks later and then, in the fall, it would hopefully be off to college somewhere. That was the plan, at least.

Looking back on it, more than a quarter-century later, that’s exactly the way that it turned out. Graduation came, after I survived a very severe bout of what we called senoritis. And then it was off to college in September, just as I had wanted. Timewise, I was only five hours away, but it felt like I had left for another planet. And that suited me just fine.

I still went home to spend holiday breaks with my parents, and spent the summer of 1987 living under their roof, for one last time. But my life changed forever in 1986, and finding a tangible reminder of that year was an unexpected surprise. It’s certainly fodder for something to put in this space.

A year that stood out

On my way home from work today, I filled up the tank of my Prius at a gas station out in the suburbs. The Prius is one way to cope with the gas prices, since a fill-up runs about $25 at the most. With the minivan, it’s usually a lot more than that. A bigger tank is the culprit there. But saving an extra 10 cents a gallon by filling up in the suburbs, as opposed to doing it the city, is a smaller way to cope with high gas prices. Buying gas in Chicago is an extravagance that I usually avoid at all costs (no pun intended).

The gas station was empty when I pulled in, and there were 10 pumps available to meet my petroleum needs. I chose one of the pumps in the middle (number 6, I think it was), put the car in park, and stepped outside to get it over with. Laying on the ground was a penny, and I picked it up and looked at the date. 1995 was the date on the coin, and even though I’ve written about that year before, another memory came back to me and I wanted to get it out into this space. That way, I can comfort myself with knowing that I shared a story with whatever part of the internet might care to hear it.

In 1995, Northwestern’s football team suddenly became competitive. The 1970s and 1980s were not kind on the football field, and the winless season that coincided with my last year on campus was undoubtedly a low point. But the 1995 season started with a win over Notre Dame, followed by an inexplicable choke against Miami of Ohio which could have–and would have, in any previous year–set the death spiral in motion. But 1995 was different.

Gary Barnett’s team came back and won every game they played that year. They won all of their Big Ten games, and, as was the tradition in those days, they advanced to the Rose Bowl on New Year’s Day. Ah, the good old days before the BCS came along and mucked everything up.

When the Rose Bowl came around, Northwestern stood at 10-1 and was #3 in the national rankings. They were ahead in the fourth quarter of that game, too, and I had visions, if not of a national championship, then at least of a #2 finish in the polls. But it was not to be, since USC beat the Wildcats and they fell back in the final polls as a result. What a ride it was, though.

The leader of that team, Pat Fitzgerald, missed playing the Rose Bowl because he broke his leg in an earlier game. But he’s now the head coach of the football team at his alma mater and mine. I’ve often wondered if he’s thought about replicating that season as a coach. I suppose it would only be a surprise if he hadn’t thought about it.

The football team stands at 5-1 for the 2012 season, with some big games coming up in the weeks ahead. Hopefully they’ll finish well, and maybe even win a bowl game because the 1995 team, as good as it was, started a rather long bowl losing streak. Going to a bowl game doesn’t get old, but losing in the bowl game is getting a bit tiring.

Everything started to change in college football seventeen years ago, and the memory of that year still brings a smile to my face. May it be replaced by an even bigger smile in the years to come.

It was a big year for me

School has been on my mind a lot lately. It’s the last week of the school year for my two daughters, and the structure that has shaped our lives since last fall is about to take a hiatus. A long summer break is in store, and the new posts on this blog will slow to a trickle, if they don’t grind to a complete halt. But I’ll come back to this one day in the future.

I was on my way out of a year-end dance recital recently when I spotted a penny in the parking lot. As is my custom, I picked it up and looked at the date. It was 1973, which I remember bits and pieces of, at best. But my life changed for the better in that year, and school was the reason why. I started kindergarten that year, and life was never again the same for me.

Before I turned five, life consisted of me, my brother, my sister, my mom and dad, and my grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins. In other words, nobody that I wasn’t related to by blood or marriage. But the day that I started morning kindergarten, I learned there were other kids out there, and they were fun to be around, too. I had never heard the word “socialization” before, but that’s what was going on. And I enjoyed it quite a bit.

I stumbled upon a picture of myself from 1973 a  few years ago, and the arrival of Facebook has afforded me an opportunity to share this image with whoever wants to see it. I have this sort of mischievous look in my eyes, like I think I’m getting away with something. And every pair of ugly plaid pants that I wore back then probably had at least one knee patched up. And the shoes? The less I say about them, the better.

A lot changed for me in the year that the recently-found penny was shiny and new. And as my children make their own way through school, I hope they’ll look back on this time as fondly as I do on my own youth.

Once far away, and now long ago

Usually when I find a penny on a street on a sidewalk, it has a dullish brown color and a date many years in the past. When I look at the date, I make a connection to something that feels like a long time ago. I’ve written about such pennyfinds  several times in this space (and I just made that word up, too. I love the English language). But today’s find wasn’t like all the others.

For starters, this was a shiny penny. Everyone knows the gleaming look these coins have, when they’re new and filled with potential. New quarters, dimes and nickels don’t have this, but new pennies do.

I almost didn’t pick it up for just this reason, thinking to myself that it was probably from this year or last year, and what would be the point in trying to write about that? But a custom has to be applied across the board, and so I reached down and picked it up. The date on it read “2009,” which is more distant than I would have thought for such a shiny penny. And it’s also a year I have something to say about.

2009 was the last time that George W. Bush was president. I had a magnetic bumper sticker on my car which read “1.20.09 Bush’s Last Day.” I had purchased it in the summer of 2006, when early 2009 seemed like it would never come. I put the magnet on my car, and began the official waiting game. And even though I live in a  Democratic enclave, I never once had anyone make a comment about it. If W was popular, and I’m sure he must have been somewhere, I never heard anything about it.

In an almost weirdly ironic twist, I took my car in for a wash on January 19, 2009, literally the day before the wait was finally over. The men who washed my car removed the magnet to wash underneath it, and never put it back on. Its service had been completed by that point, anyway. But I was denied the chance to retire it or somehow commemorate the fact that it wasn’t needed anymore. Like Moses and the promised land, and Lincoln and the Civil War, my 1.20.09 magnet didn’t make it to the promised land of a post-Bush world.

Even though the penny was still shiny, 2009 now seems like it was long ago. Much has changed since then, and will continue to change as the world does what it’s always done. And just because the year on the penny wasn’t 1980, or some other long-ago year, doesn’t mean that it isn’t worth remembering, either.