Farewell, Harris


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


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


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.

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 King no more



It was thirty years ago that I had my first beer. And now, all these years later, I wish that it hadn’t happened. While I never really needed it, there was a time in my life that I wanted it, and spent whatever I had to in order to acquire it.

It’s now been more than three years since I last drank a beer, or anything else alcoholic. A quarter of a century of enthusiastic boozing relieved me of more money than I care to think about, and harmed my liver and my health in ways that I will probably never appreciate. But there was another cost, too.

I spent decades under the delusion that alcohol made good times better, and also made bad times better, and even made uneventful times into something pleasant. It was a win-win situation, so long as you owned a brewery or a place that sold their products.

Our society favors drinking at every turn. Big money is spent on promoting the stuff, and in turn the money flows in like a beer running from a tap. As I was once fond of saying, you can’t buy beer, but you can rent it. And I rented quite a lot of it through the years.

The decision to ban alcohol in this country failed miserably, as it should have. People will drink, and trying to break this up was a fool’s errand. But the realization of what alcohol really costs–both in money and in other, less tangible terms–took decades for me, and probably never comes at all for many people.

I would never begrudge anyone the right to have a beer or two or 20. Freedom’s a great thing, after all. But whoever crumpled up the Budweiser can and threw it on the curb–just as I once did–is paying a higher price for their decision than they might realize. They might even discover some day that they can get along fine without it.

Rock and roll band



Last night, on a soggy beach in Chicago, I saw Boston play live for the first time in my life. I’ve written about Boston many times in this space, and hearing their music in the company of thousands more who also appreciate their unique sound meant a lot to me.

I was once a dissatisfied teenager living in Springfield, Illinois, and Boston’s music spoke to me. It offered visions of going someplace else, about–as they called it–chasing a dream. I wanted that so much when I was in high school, and now I’ve accomplished it. I don’t live there anymore, and I’m more than happy to visit it on occasion, but Chicago’s my home now.

I initially had some reservations about hearing the band play without Brad Delp, the singer on their studio albums. But last night I realized that the songs were written by Boston’s guitarist, Tom Scholtz, and music that can bring so much joy to people–myself included–deserves to be heard, by whoever wants to sing it. The crowd always sings along, anyway, so whoever is onstage with the microphone already has all the help they need. Last night I finally realized that, and it made a great night even better. Those changes can open your eyes.

All we can do is enjoy it


It embarrasses me to admit this, but the first time I ever flew in an airplane happened when I was 21 years old. I was a senior in college, and my girlfriend wanted me to come visit her in New Mexico over the holidays.

The first time I flew was out of the Capital airport in Springfield, Illinois. As the plane took off and climbed into the sky, I was struck by all of the cornfields that ringed the airport. My decision to leave Springfield and begin my life somewhere else–anywhere else, really–had already been made by then, but the cornfield with an airport in the middle of it served to confirm the choice. I doubt that I’ll ever fly into or out of that airport again.

When that plane landed at O’Hare in Chicago, I made my connecting flight and buckled in at my window seat. As the plane took off, I focused my attention on the engine that was attached to the wing. For a split second, I wondered what I would do if the engine somehow fell off of the wing. The plane continued its ascent, as I looked around for an exit that would allow me to break free if I needed to. But the feeling didn’t last more than a few seconds.

My fatalistic streak immediately took over, and reminded my worried inner self that if that happened, there wouldn’t be a thing I could do about it. It would be my time to die–or maybe to live if I got real lucky–but it was out of my hands, entirely. I sat back, ashamed that I had allowed myself to worry about something so outlandish, and enjoyed the rest of the flight. I’ve flown many, many times since then, and never once have I worried about a plane crash.

I say all this because everybody on this earth has an end date, a final act, a last go-round. I have one, you have one, and the next person that you will speak to does, too. We’re all mortal, and the end can come forty years from now, or it can come before the sun rises tomorrow morning. The sudden death of Richard Durrett, a sportswriter in Dallas, makes this point better than I ever could. Durrett’s death yesterday of a brain aneurysm–his cause of death is missing from many of the announcements I’ve read–is shocking because it happened when he was just 38 years old.

A guy in his late 30s expects to live a few more decades, at least. If anything, the dreaded 40 is looming off in the distance, and makes its presence known with a great big thud on the 39th birthday. Nobody looks forward to turning 40 because everyone–on either side of that age–gets to razz you about the fact that you’re getting old.

Jimmy Buffett’s song “A Pirate looks at Forty” is well-named because, even though the number 40 does not appear in the song’s lyrics, it’s a number just big enough to get us thinking about where we’ve been in life, and to wonder about what the future still holds. Richard Durrett was denied even this little bit of introspection, because 40 is not promised to any of us. Many of us live to see it, but that doesn’t mean everyone will.

It seems, from all of the tweets I’ve been reading, that Richard Durrett was a great guy. I’m sure that his passing leaves family, friends, colleagues, and people who never knew of him before wondering what the hell happened. And there really isn’t a good explanation to be offered, other than that life is a fleeting and unknowable gift. We take the good, and we ride out the bad, for as long as we’re able to do so. And then–in a time and place that we never get to know about in advance–it’s all over. Just like that. It’s harsh and terrible, but it’s the one real certainty that life offers.

I think about the Father’s day that just happened over the past weekend. I’m quite certain that Richard Durrett and his family had no expectation that it would be his last one. But that engine can fall off the airplane at any time, and when it does (because there is no if about it) it’s best if we remembered to enjoy as much as we could along the way.

Roger and Me


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.

Changing college sports as we know them

NCAA Football: Illinois at Northwestern

Today–March 26, 2014– is the 35th anniversary of the Magic Johnson/Larry Bird title game in the NCAA tournament. I remember watching that game as a ten year-old kid in Springfield, Illinois. It was broadcast on NBC, instead of on CBS. There was no three point stripe, no shot clock, and no possession arrow. The NCAA logo was some silly interlocking letters arranged inside a circle. The game followed a third-place game, where the two teams that lost in the Final Four still had one last chance to salvage something. In short, there were still five men on a side and the team that scored the most points won the game, but otherwise the modern sports fan would hardly recognize it.

And on the anniversary of that game, which arguably changed basketball itself for the next decade, the NLRB handed down a ruling that Northwestern’s football players can vote to form a union. There are many writers and fans bemoaning the ruling, saying that it will “change college sports as we know them.” To which I reply, change happens all the time in life. The NCAA championship game from 1979 (which is within my living memory) is all the proof anyone needs that change is inevitable, in sports and in life itself.

To those who would bemoan the loss of something in college athletics, I would invite them to consider that the athletes on the floor in the basketball tournament, and on the field during the bowl games and in the regular season, are generating millions of dollars for their schools, yet they aren’t allowed to share in any of it. The schools do award scholarships and provide room and board, but they keep the money and in turn make their professional coaches into wealthy men. They give the chattering heads of CBS, ESPN, and a thousand other places something to talk about and write about and take pictures of. They allow the advertisers to reach a captive audience and sell more product. And what do these athletes get in return? Not what they should, if you ask me.

There will never come a time when the NCAA, in its benevolence, decides to share the wealth with the players who do the work and assume the risks. There will never come a time when a school pays for the long-term medical bills of a player who gets hurt playing a game, while wearing their school’s colors. And there will never come a time when a player who can’t keep up with his academics and his team responsibilities is told that academics are why they are in school. Football comes first, or basketball comes first, and everyone understands this. But it’s wrong and it needs to stop.

It’s ironic that the very first Final Four, or the first time that NCAA schools competed on the same floor for a basketball championship, happened on Northwestern’s campus, all the way back in 1939. I know that that was basketball and today’s ruling applies to football, but that’s not the point I’m making here.

Northwestern–my alma mater–showed the NCAA the possibilities that a championship tournament offered. And 75 years later the Final Four, and the tournament leading up to it, is a money-making juggernaut. But what Northwestern giveth in basketball, it taketh away in football and–soon enough–in basketball, too.

If making money from the toil of players who don’t get to fully share in the pie they create seems fair, I will respectfully disagree with that premise. Million-dollar coaches don’t play the games; the players do. And the false hope of a professional payday–which the overwhelming majority of college athletes will never get to see–is shameful. It’s gone on for too long, and the sooner it comes to an end, the better.

Kudos to Kain Colter and the Northwestern football team, for sowing the seeds that will one day bring about some much-needed and long-overdue changes in college sports.