It’s her moment now

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Photo credit: TheAtlantic.com

As Hillary Clinton gets ready to accept her party’s nomination for the presidency tonight, I think back to the Spring of 1987 and a moment that opened my eyes to gender matters like nothing else ever has.

Freshmen students at Northwestern–I don’t remember now whether it was only the Arts and Sciences students or everyone in the class–had to take two Freshman seminars. In the spring, I registered for a course that had something to do with gender and science. Perhaps it fit into my schedule, or perhaps I thought there would be a lot of girls in the course. Either or both reasons sound legitimate to me.

On the first day of class, which was held in a conference room in the library, I walked in and grabbed a chair. The room filled up, and the hour for starting the class came and went.

One of the cherished rules at Northwestern was the “ten minute rule,” which stated that if a professor had not arrived within ten minutes of the class’s scheduled start time, everyone could leave. So we all started watching the clock, hoping that 2:10, or whatever the magic moment was, would arrive soon.

At eight or nine minutes past the hour, the teacher spoke up. She had been seated around the table with the rest of us, and we didn’t know she was in our midst. She pointed out, to the 15 or so students seated around the table, that the seats at the ends of the table were being occupied by the only two male students in the class, because we had been raised to assume that we were entitled to have them.

I shot a frantic look at the guy at the other end of the table, as if to say “What have we gotten ourselves into?” For the rest of the course, I was convinced that everything I turned in started at a “C” and became either a C+ or a C-, depending on whether it made any sense or not. It was a long course, and not a particularly enjoyable one, but I remember it more clearly than any other college course I ever took.

I remember it because it made me realize the effects of gender-specific language. For someone who grew up in a less-than-progressive time (the 1980s) and a less-than-progressive place (Springfield, Illinois), the idea that calling a doctor “he” and a nurse “she” helped to perpetuate gender norms was a revelation to me.

It’s now three decades later,  and I rarely see much of this anymore. Ironically enough, it happens a lot in education, where teachers are routinely referred to as “she.” As a male who taught in the classroom many years ago, this rankled me a bit. Even though teaching is, and probably always will be, a field with many more females than males in it, I realized that sending a message that an unnamed teacher would likely be a woman isn’t good. Men can be teachers too, and the language used to describe teachers should reflect this fact.

Scientists were once overwhelmingly thought of as “he,” but the course taught us of the contributions of Barbara McClintock.  We read a biography about her, and I remember coming away with the idea that telling young girls that scientists were supposed to be men was not helpful to them, or to science itself. Even though I found the class uniquely discomforting as a male, as a person I walked away with an understanding that I didn’t have before.

I say all this because the text of the U.S. Constitution, and specifically Article II, refers to the president as “he” on several occasions. For example, Article II, Section 1 states “He shall hold his Office during the Term of four Years,” I’m sure that the Founders, as enlightened and as forward-thinking as they may have been at the time, were still a product of their 18th century upbringing, which wasn’t so dissimilar to my late 20th century upbringing. Boys got to sit at the head of the table, and girls didn’t.

I’m not thrilled with Hillary Clinton as a candidate, and I toyed with the idea of not voting for anyone in this presidential election. I would never vote for Trump, nor would I vote for a third-party candidate if it helped Trump to win. But even with these misgivings, I’m very glad that Hillary Clinton is being nominated for president tonight.

Girls should see themselves as entitled to those seats at the head of the table, just as much as boys already do. And if tonight’s events, and the election that is coming up in November, helps to move that needle then I’m all for it, in the name of my two daughters, my wife, my sister, my mother, and every female classmate and colleague I’ve ever had or ever will have. New possibilities have been opened up, and we’re all better for it.

Birthday wishes to my kids’ Uncle John

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Iles Park, Springfield, IL, circa 1975

My sister, my older younger brother, and I were all born in June. My brother’s birthday comes first on the calendar, so the family birthday season kicks off today.

We had a lot of fun together through the years, and even if I’m not happy with how I look in this old photo, I’m glad to have a reminder of us being kids together.

I hope he has a great day, and a great year following after that.

MMM, Donuts

For International Donut Day, I wanted to see if it was possible to go five years of writing a blog and NOT mention donuts along the way. Turns out it isn’t, at least not for me.

The Dunkin’ Donuts ad pic was taken on a visit to Fenway Park shortly before I began this blog journey back in 2011, but I apparently never wrote anything about it. Until now, anyway.

The glazed donut pic was added to a piece that I wrote remembering Halloweens gone by, from my youth in Jerome, Illinois.

And as a bonus sweet treat, here’s the story of the 16 year-old who is credited with inventing the donut hole. Wherever you are today, Hanson Crockett Gregory, we are all in your debt.

 

Being somebody

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MASH

Last night I saw my daughter perform onstage with the rest of her classmates. They performed “In the Heights” and it was a one-shot performance at the end of the school year. She goes to an arts school because she grew up loving Disney musicals and Glee and Wicked and High School Musical. She’s performed in over a dozen shows, and watching her on stage never gets old.

When I was fifteen, and in high school myself, I was a mess. I was an awkward kid who said and did as little as possible, desperately hoping to remain in the background whenever I could.

The one thing I wanted to do when I started high school was play football. I thought that was the way to stand out and be recognized for something. I was willing to endure the workouts and hit the weight room  if it meant becoming somebody different than who I was.

My parents, however, said no. They didn’t want me getting hurt, so they told me I couldn’t do the thing I most wanted to do. I hated them for it, too, because I didn’t know how else I was going to make my mark in school. But fate can work in some funny ways sometimes.

I went out for a part in the school play, which was M*A*S*H. The finale of the TV series had recently aired, and I watched the show for the first time  as it was going off the air. I got a small part as the clueless commander, who was in the first scene and maybe one more in the second act. It was a bit part, but I was a bit player so I didn’t mind it too much. It was what I wanted, even, at that point in my life.

But a bigger role was presented two me two or three weeks before the show. Someone had left the cast, and I could have the role if I learned all the lines in the time that we had left. It was a challenge, but I accepted it and did what was asked of me.

We only performed two shows, one Friday night and one Saturday night, back in the fall of 1983, but they were a revelation for me. I realized that when I was onstage, people looked at me and listened to words that came out of my mouth, which otherwise didn’t happen for me. I found the thrill of that feeling overwhelming. The shy and awkward kid had found a place where he wasn’t shy and awkward, and it was an experience I’ll never forget.

In one of the scenes I was required to put on a football jersey and pants, and carry a helmet with me onstage. I knew that it was the closest I was going to get to playing football, but by that point I didn’t mind it at all. And now, thirty years after the fact, I’m glad that the everyday aches and pains that I sometimes feel don’t have anything to do with football. And the awareness of head trauma and dangers of CTE are something I’ve been spared, too.

In retrospect, I’m glad I never played football, and that I got a chance to experience what being on stage felt like, instead. I tried out for, and had a part in, the musical South Pacific the following spring, but my budding theater career came crashing to a halt when I opened my mouth to sing onstage. And my school never again put on any non-musical plays, so M*A*S*H stands alone in my memory. To borrow a phrase from the Rolling Stones, I didn’t get what I wanted (football), but I did try, and I found something that I needed instead (validation and attention through performing onstage).

My daughter, fortunately, is blessed with a lovely singing voice, and where it comes from I don’t exactly know.But I know how she feels being onstage. You feel like you’re somebody, because you are. You’re what everyone in the audience looks to for the entertainment and the escape–however brief it may be–from the realities of everyday life. I couldn’t be happier she enjoys it as much as she does. And I’m proud to support it in every way I can.

One goal, accomplished

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

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

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

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

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

Shakedown, 1979

1979

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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.

The sky was all purple

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Springfield, Illinois–the town where I grew up–doesn’t have very many suburbs, but I lived in one of them. And for this suburban child of the 80s, the electric guitar reigned supreme. Led Zeppelin was my favorite, of course, but any record would either rise or fall in my estimation of it, based solely upon the level of guitar work it held forth.

Eddie Van Halen was in the pantheon of guitar gods, and others sometimes entered into his dominion. Sammy Hagar played some mean guitar, and those two joining forces in the 80s made me absolutely giddy with joy. Judas Priest had two dueling guitarists, which also raised their stature, at least for me. In a nutshell, to paraphrase Gordon Gekko, guitar was good.

Prince’s Purple Rain provided the first glimpse to me of how gifted he was on the guitar. The solo at the end of “Let’s Go Crazy” was ferocious, and the only thing I knew that was any better turned out to be that album’s title track. Prince sings the final lyric to that song, lets out a note that would make Les Paul proud, and then punctuates a beautiful song with some positively searing guitar work. None of the spandex-clad dudes from the Sunset Strip could touch that.

Maybe that’s why I loved Prince’s halftime show at the Super Bowl so much. He asks the crowd “Can I play this guitar?” and then proves to everyone that yes, he can play it, and better than any other guitarist could.

Nobody ever puts Prince high enough on the list of “greatest guitar players of all time.” Names like Hendrix and Clapton and Jeff Beck invariably appear, and they’re all great artists. I would not want to disparage any of them. But when Prince chose to turn it loose on the guitar, nobody did it like him.

I’m watching the sunrise this morning in Wilmette, Illinois (although I don’t actually live here). The suburban kids who live here, and in a million other places, might not treasure the electric guitar in the same way that I once did. But those who do would be well-advised to savor the guitar work Prince laid down through the years. Then they might understand how a little bit of greatness can go a very long way.

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!

Now it’s Mom’s turn

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Last month, on the occasion of my Dad’s birthday, I shared a picture of him and a few words in this space. His clothes and his hair had changed over the 40 years since the picture was taken, but he’s still around and I’m very glad about that. He didn’t pull a David Bowie and die two days after his birthday (and yes, my dad is at the same age Bowie was when time caught up with him).

So today, a mere six weeks later, it’s my Mom’s turn. She too is in her 1970s finery, in this case a brown sweater that you can look at and almost hear the opening bars to Hotel California or Don’t Stop playing in the background somewhere. I grew up in the ’70s and the ’80s, and while I love the music of the 80s, the fashions of the 70s were so much more interesting.

My mom gave everything she had to me and my siblings, as we were growing up so many years ago. The only way to repay that is to recognize it (which simply can’t be done as you’re growing up yourself) and then, if the time comes, to do the same for your own kids. The circle is then reinstated, and the world keeps spinning on.

I know that my Mom reads my blog (she’s one of the few, I would imagine) so I’m happy to share a few words (and a groovy picture) in the hopes that we’ll get to do this all over again every March 24, into the foreseeable future.

Cheers to you, Mom. And thanks very much.

My hipster dad

Dad

About five years ago, or perhaps even longer than that, my parents gave me a box filled with old memories like report cards, event programs, birthday cards and, most importantly, pictures. The photos from my youth have certainly been fodder for many interesting #TBT posts on Facebook and other social media outlets.

Once a photo makes it onto the Internet, it can live forever in the online world. And so it is with this beauty, taken in the Summer of 1976. My dad, who was not yet 30 years old, is holding my baby brother, who is turning 40 years old himself this summer. I love the colors, the glasses, the hair, and the way this photo preserves a moment in time that can never be brought back again.

Today’s my dad’s birthday, and I wish him the very happiest of days. And, as a bonus, I offer this image of his bad self, so that 40 years from now someone else can appreciate that 70s style.

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.

 

Remembering what to be thankful for

patI learned today that Pat Elchlepp, a high school classmate of mine, passed away last night at the age of 47. He was a couple of months younger than I was, so the Grim Reaper has my full attention as I type this out, trying to come to grips with how very, very short life can be.

I write about death a lot, in this space and elsewhere. I drive through cemeteries and go to estate sales to remind myself that everyone’s number–mine included–will come up someday. But when someone that I was acquainted with three decades ago moves on to whatever comes next, it hits hard. We can’t begin to know how many more days and months and years it will be until our time is up, but we must keep on living them all, with an appreciation that our lives are meant to be savored for as long as they should happen to last.

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving, and there is much to be thankful for. But the biggest blessing of all–and the one I will not lose sight of–is that I’m still here to get stuck in traffic, and taste a cup of coffee early in the morning, and sing along with an old song on the radio. They’re simple things, but my classmate Pat isn’t able to enjoy them anymore. I hope he’s in a good place today, and I thank him for reminding me to be grateful for today, tomorrow, and every day afterward.

R.I.P. Patrick Elchlepp

Griffin High School, Class of 1986

August 13, 1968 – November 24, 2015

If you’re gonna be a bear, be a grizzly

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Seeing a copy of Def Leppard’s Pyromania album on vinyl this evening made me happy. It took me back to when I was a teenager living in my parents’ house in Jerome, Illinois.

I don’t have too many memories of that time in my life, other than wanting to move away and live somewhere else. Anywhere else. And I knew that starting college was the only chance I was going to have for making that happen.

So I did what I could to bide my time. I kept my grades up, but I would be a liar if I said I worked very hard at it. And I found escape in the music of the day. Def Leppard came along at the end of my freshman year of high school, and from then on it was a procession of Motley Crue, AC/DC, and what are known today as “hair metal” bands. There was some Springsteen thrown in for good measure, and some Led Zeppelin–lots of Led Zeppelin, really–and others like Night Ranger and Loverboy and even some Ratt. I owned at least two Ratt albums on vinyl, back in the days of my high school angst.

I never owned Def Leppard on vinyl, though. I had a copy of Pyromania on cassette, and even a copy of their first album On Through the Night on cassette. And I was in college by the time Hysteria came out, so I never owned that one at all. Loved the music, but never got around to buying it.

I took the copy of Pyromania out of its inner sleeve and looked at the grooves of the vinyl. I was reminded of what a tactile experience it was to hold an LP in your hands, so you could put it on the turntable and drop the needle onto it. CDs are smaller, and the feeling is less pronounced. And a cassette hardly felt that way at all. Maybe it was the plastic involved, or the portability of a tape that allowed it to be carried around in a car. Vinyl LPs never had any of that. You kept them in your room, or wherever the turntable happened to be.

As I was looking at the grooves of the record, my eyes wandered into the middle, where the needle would have gone to after the last song of a side was through playing. There were always a series of little scribbles or numbers in there, but nothing worth looking at too much. But Pyromania–at least the UK pressing of it that I was holding in my hands–contained a special little treat that I, as a cassette owner of the album, knew nothing about.

On side 1, in small but still legible capital letters, the words “IF YOU’RE GONNA BE A BEAR” appeared. I got a good laugh when I saw it, because it seemed like a weird thing to have on a record album. But then I started thinking about it: If your’re gonna be a bear, then what? The obvious thing to do was flip it over and see if there was anything else. And it turns out, there was. “BE A GRIZZLY” appeared in a similar place on side two.

The quote appeared in the movie Cannonball Run, which came out before Def Leppard’s album did, and so it’s possible–although not terribly likely–that someone was making a reference to that movie. The quote was originally attributed to Mahatma Gandhi, so perhaps whoever did this had that as their source of inspiration. But whatever it was, it felt like an old secret was revealed to me tonight, and I’m happy to spend a few moments writing about it here.

Unta Glieben Glauten Glomen….

A Lincoln gallery

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One hundred and fifty-three years ago today, Abraham Lincoln began the process of righting America’s greatest wrong. Slavery had existed for centuries, sanctioned by law and practiced by many of the men who spoke of human liberty when they applied it to white folks, but were more than willing to deny it to those who did not look like them. Hypocrisy at it worst, it appears to me.

But Lincoln upset that apple cart. He said that slavery is not wrong, then nothing is wrong. He was elected president, and the slaveholding states (most of them, anyway) decided to leave the Union before they accepted him as their leader.

Lincoln held firm to his position that secession was not allowed for in the Constitution, and was therefore not a legitimate course of action. Alabama, Mississippi, Texas and the rest did not leave the Union, because they could not leave the Union.

The first year-and-a-half of the Civil War was a fight about preserving the Union. But in the fall of 1862, Lincoln gave the abolitionists what they wanted. It’s true that not one slave was freed as a result of this action. It’s also true that slaves in Missouri and the other border states were not affected by Lincoln’s action. But the die had been cast, all the same. Slavery became the war’s defining issue, from that moment forward.

We can never do enough to honor what Abraham Lincoln did. I have tried many times to explain what Lincoln means in this space, and here’s a sampling of them on this day.

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I’ve said many times that Lincoln is with us still, so long as we want to see and acknowledge him and the new America that he brought about. May we never lose sight of this.

A vote of confidence

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Saturday morning, Chicago

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I was once a Cardinals fan

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

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

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

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

And with that in mind, go Cubs!

Return of the Red Rocker

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Probably the best concert I ever saw in my life–and this varies with whatever mood I happen to be in– was Sammy Hagar at the Prairie Capital Convention Center, way back in October of 1984. Any concert when you’re 16, and newly able to get around without needing a ride from somebody’s parent, is a good thing. But at that point in life, Sammy Hagar was the Man.

I was a big fan of his work as a solo artist, and as the lead singer for Montrose. When he joined up with Van Halen a year or so later, I was about the happiest I could be at that point in my life. But all that was still in the future back in 1984.

Music videos had exploded as the artform of choice for teenagers like me, and Sammy’s “I Can’t Drive 55” was one of the more amusing ones at the time. It’s worth pointing out that 55 was the speed limit on the interstates back then, and it wasn’t raised to 65 (or even higher, depending on where you are) until 1995. But that’s just an example of how much has changed since those days.

I held onto the ticket stub because that was one of the ways to remember a show. There was also the tour T-Shirt, of course, and here’s me wearing mine, probably in the summer of 1986.998073_10202078525579178_1108930424_nThe shirt’s long gone by now, but the little scrap of purple paper they gave me got buried in a box and somehow came back to me, all these years later.

Ticketmaster fees? No way, at least in those days. These were physical tickets, and the only way to get them was to go to the box office, preferably on the day they want on sale. I didn’t get these tickets, and I’m not exactly sure which of my friends did, but to get anything in the second row took some waiting in line. That’s how it was back then.

Section AA was in front of one very large pile of amplifiers, and Section CC was in front of another large pile. Section BB was in the middle, and perhaps those people were spared some of the sonic assault that I endured for two hours and more. But sonic assault was exactly what I was there for. My ears rang for three days after the concert, and I loved it. And any hearing loss hasn’t caught up to me yet, either.

When the lights when down and the music started up, the stage was flooded with homemade banners proclaiming “Sammy’s the best, Fuck the rest.” There were literally dozens of them, and they were displayed for the approval of those in attendance. Great minds all think alike, apparently.

At the end of the show, after taking several requests from the audience, Sammy promised the crowd that he was going to come back to Springfield again. And so far as I know that hasn’t happened, an least until this upcoming weekend. Hagar will be playing with his band at the Illinois State Fair, and it should be a Rock and Roll Weekend for those who can make it. Sadly, though, that won’t include me.

Part of me realizes that concerts are a commitment of both time and resources, and part of me doesn’t want to disrupt the memories of the VOA tour back in 1984. To mix old rocker metaphors for a moment, Eddie Money once put it pretty well:

I wanna go back, and do it all over

but I can’t go back, I know

I wanna go back, cause I’m feeling so much older 

But I can’t go back, I know

So I’ll just heed Eddie’s advice and take a pass on seeing Sammy this weekend. Reminiscing about it here is good enough for me.

Providence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Well I’m takin’ my time

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

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

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

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

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.

Farewell, Harris

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When I played youth baseball in the Khoury League many years ago, there was one kid on my team I really hated. And hate isn’t a feeling I come by very easily, either. But I had my reasons, and they came flooding back to me this evening. The best thing about writing a blog is having some outlet for the thoughts and stories that swirl around inside my head, so here goes with this one:

Harris is my last name, but I never thought of referring to anyone by using their last name. Tom Jones would have been Tom to me, not Jones. But this teammate of mine delighted in calling me “Harris.” Even though he had the same first name that I did, he never once referred to me by my first name. I found it strange and more than a bit disrespectful, and if I was a different sort of kid I would have let him know about it. But I was a tall, awkward kid who wasn’t prone to violence, so I let it go. There were other things worth getting upset about, I suppose.

The way that “Harris” was pronounced made it even worse. It was a drawn-out nasally sneer, like “Haaaaaris,” and it was irritating enough to hear it in the first place. But to then realize that not only was I being mocked, but so were my parents, my siblings, and essentially my entire family, it made it really hard to hold that inside. So I internalized it, instead.

As far back as I can remember, I think of myself as “Harris” whenever I’m trying to get something across to myself. “We need to get this project done, Harris, before it’s due next week.” Things like that. As much as I didn’t like it when someone else called me Harris, I have routinely allowed myself to do it. It’s a coping mechanism, you might say.

Over the past few weeks, as I discovered that an actor named Harris Wittels had a recurring role on the show “Parks and Recreation,” I thought about how cool that was. Somebody was actually given Harris as their first name, and everyone who came into contact with him called him that, and not in an insulting manner. Even better, the character he played on the show was also named Harris. It’s annoying that Tony Danza always played characters named Tony on screen, but when Harris Wittels became Harris onscreen, it was nothing short of awesome, at least for me.

When I learned today that Harris died at the age of 30 from a drug overdose, I was shocked and a little bit saddened. I know that “Parks and Recreation” is finishing up its run soon, but Harris Wittels still had lots of time to do other things. Maybe he would have gone and been Harris again somewhere else, or perhaps written other books to go along with Humblebrag. The entertainment industry was his oyster, and now he’ll be mentioned in the same breath as Chris Farley and Freddie Prinze. It’s a shame, really.

I’m now at an age where whenever somebody dies–whether I knew them or not–the first thing I want to know is how old they were. Somebody who dies at 52, like Jerome Kersey just did, reminds me that the end can come at a relatively young age. Although I have zero in common with Jerome Kersey, he got to walk the earth for 52 years, so hopefully I’ll get at least that much time myself.

But 30 is another story altogether. Harris Wittels found that drugs were to his liking, and his success afforded him both the money and the opportunity to indulge this habit. I never had either of these things when I was 30, and looking at what happened to him, I’m glad of it. Something is going to get me one day, but it won’t be drugs, I hope.

So from a Harris who lives a life of anonymity, to a Harris who appeared to have the world by the tail, thanks for wearing the name like a badge of honor. I wish you had allowed yourself more time to do it.

Like a trip through the past

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If I could go back and see myself as an adolescent, I would probably find him in an arcade.

Aladdin’s Castle at White Oaks Mall is where I first caught video gaming fever, and if I had to put a date on it it would be around 1980. I eventually moved my video gaming to the Wabash Amusement Center, which was located at a bend where MacArthur turned into Wabash Avenue. I would ride my bike there several times a week, and shovel away my paper route earnings one quarter at a time.

Last night, with my wife and younger daughter away at a skating competition, and my teenager sleeping at a friend’s house, I found myself alone on a Saturday night. So I did exactly what I would have done as a 12 or 13 year-old, and I went to an arcade. And it was a lot of fun, too.

I played games that I had forgot even existed. I played Space Invaders and Defender, Zaxxon and Asteroids, Pac Man and Joust. I even played a game of pinball, although that was never really my thing. But finding the Donkey Kong machine was the peak of the experience.

Donkey Kong was always the first machine I sought out at the WAC, and the other games were what I played when someone else was on it. My high score back in those days was 204,000 and I had no illusions I would be playing at that level in 2014. In fact, the 13 year-old me would have disgusted with my play last night, but then again I’m not happy with the choices that the 13 year-old me made with our money, either. So I guess it all works out in the end.

After the last token was inserted into the coin slot, and the adolescent nostalgia bug had been thoroughly scratched, I went back to my car and drove home. Aladdin’s Castle and the Wabash Amusement Center went away a long time ago, but the kid who once frequented them still walks the earth, periodically indulging his prior obsession with a mixture of fondness and regret. But as always, he’s glad for the experience he had, and the memories they can still provide.

The year I started working

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For some people, the penny is a waste of effort. It costs more to make them than they’re actually worth, so why bother with them in the first place? I can understand this line of thinking, but I respectfully disagree with it. For me, a penny is a relic from the past, and a chance to be transported back in time, if only for a moment. And so it was today, when I bent over to pick up a 1978 penny in a 7-Eleven parking lot here in Chicago.

1978 was an interesting and important year for me. That may be true of any given year, as I’m sure I made that point about other years in the past in this space. But 1978 was the year I got my first job, delivering a local paper called the Springfield Shopper to houses in my neighborhood at a penny apiece. The Shopper was a new paper, the 1970s equivalent of a start-up. Perhaps this was a reason they signed up a ten year-old to help get the word out. You do what you have to do, especially when you’re new.

I was glad to discover that the Shopper still exists. It’s still loaded with ads, trying to help people find places to spend their money. In the internet age, I’m sure that the business climate they operate in today is far different from what it was in the late 1970s. They probably don’t deliver to people’s homes anymore, either. That’s progress, isn’t it? And if nothing else, The Simpsons have borrowed their name many times through the years. That alone is something to be happy about.

My teenager recently auditioned for a musical based on Studs Terkel’s Working. The irony is that besides a few babysitting gigs, she hasn’t ever worked for anyone in her life. Her studies come first, of course, but the experience of making money through working for someone has been lost on her.

My Shopper experience lasted until I turned twelve, and then I started delivering the local newspaper instead. It was a job that I held until I turned sixteen, and got my first “real” job as a grocery bagger. I’ve done lots of things–for lots of people–in the years since then, and I’ve spent the past 36 years as a working man. And I’ll likely be working for someone until the day I die.

My two children will likely start working at some point in the future, and in the American tradition this work will probably define who they are to the rest of the world. When somebody asks “So what do you do?” they aren’t wanting to hear about the places that you travel to or the hours you spend parenting your kids or doing anything else you find interesting.

I’ve had some great jobs in my life–and some lousy ones, too–but doing something for someone else has been a constant in my life since 1978. Things really changed for me that year, in ways that I did not fully appreciate until now. That’s a lot of self-realization to be gleaned from a discarded penny.