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 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.

I’m just moving along


My teenager enjoys posting TBT (Throwback Thursday) pictures on Twitter. The idea that a fourteen year-old is nostalgic for the past amuses me, actually. And because my blog is drenched in nostalgia for the past, at least sometimes, I decided to go along. I posted this picture to Facebook today, and it will hit Twitter and the other social media platforms I’m on once this post is put together.

This picture was taken in the summer of 1986, after I had graduated from high school and turned 18. The guy sitting in this car wanted to do only two things. One of them wasn’t yet legal for me to do, but that rarely stopped me. And the other was to get out of Springfield, Illinois as quickly as I could. I had to wait for the fall for that to happen, so I was stuck in one final holding pattern.

If the guy sitting in the car above had to pick just one album (I didn’t yet know what a CD was) to listen to, it would probably have been Boston’s debut album. And the best track on it, in my mind, was the last song on side one, Foreplay/Long Time. I had even quoted from it in my farewell to the rest of the students in my school newspaper: “It’s been such a long time, I think I should be going.” And it wasn’t only the four years I had spent in high school, either. It was my entire life to that point.

I couldn’t wait to leave, but I still had to wait for one final summer. It was a paradox, and one that hearing that song on the radio–as I did a few minutes ago–always brings to my mind. My teenager probably feels the same way that I once did. The circle of life keeps on spinning.

Now that I’ve achieved whatever it is that the 18 year-old me once wanted, it’s funny to me in some way. I wanted to go out and live, but the anticipation of doing so kept me from appreciating the life that I had.

Chasing dreams–even if they aren’t yet well-defined–is essential, but it can also get in the way of looking around and enjoying what’s in front of you already. As Boston sang in the song, it’s just outside of your front door.

Blowin’ your mind like we knew we would


Super Bowl Sunday, 1986 was certainly the high point of my senior year in high school. I knew that graduation was four months away, and going off to college would happen a few months after that, and then life would all be different. And that’s exactly what I wanted, to be honest about it. But the Bears made sure that the Springfield chapter of my life finished on a high note.

My family always went somewhere to watch the Super Bowl, and in 1986 we went, for the only time I can remember, to my Aunt Francie’s house. The Bears were the team that I had followed since Walter Payton first came to the NFL in the mid-1970s. He was known as “Sweetness” but he never had a team around him in those days. But in the early 1980s, the team started to rise under Mike Ditka. I was too young to know him as a player, but he looked the part of a football coach to me.

The 1985 Bears will always be the standard by which football teams will be measured. They made football fun, in a way that it had not been before and has not been since. Alongside Walter Payton, there was Jim McMahon, Willie Gault, Dan Hampton, Richard Dent, Mike Singletary, Gary Fencik and, the biggest attraction of all, the Fridge, William Perry. Someone had put a refrigerator outside of their house in my Aunt’s neighborhood, and painted the number 72–the Fridge’s number–on the front. All these years later, and I can still remember it like it happened earlier today.

The Super Bowl Shuffle video made them all household names. They lost one game down in Miami on Monday night, but then they never lost again. And maybe the best part of the game was that the Bears overcame an early 3-0 deficit with a stellar performance the rest of the way. Sometimes things go badly at first, and it puts you in a hole that you can’t get out of. But this team shook off the slow start and proceeded to put on a football clinic. It proved that how you start off is much less important than how you finish up.

The Bears probably should have won more than just that one Super Bowl, but it didn’t work out that way. It’s now more than a quarter of a century later, and the Bears are still looking for a companion piece to that year’s title. Who knows when we’ll see another one, but for now we can look back at what a special time–and team–that actually was.

I now live in Chicago, and I’d love to see what it would be like in this city if the Bears ever rise to that level again. Life has changed since then, as I knew it would, but that special few months in late 1985 and early 1986 are something that will always remain in my memory.

So let’s Rock and Roll all nite


It was a no-brainer for KISS to be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. And yet, somehow, they weren’t, at least not until today

Congratulations to the first live act that I ever saw, all those years ago back in Springfield Illinois, and then once again a few years ago in Chicago.

I played once Ace Frehley for a philanthropy competition called Rock-Alike back in college. I couldn’t play a lick of guitar, but I had fun wearing the makeup and being up on stage, anyway.

The only paid writing I did for some online costume seller was for KISS-themed attire a few years back. I’ll add a link if I can ever find it online. It’s out there somewhere, though.

My visit to the Rock Hall was a lot of fun, and I won’t be going again specifically to see KISS. But if I find myself there again sometime in the future, I’ll be sure to stop in and say hello. In the meantime, here’s a little Black Diamond–one of my favorite KISS tunes, to play us out.

A story I was glad to tell


The reason that I write anything on the internet, whether it’s on this blog or anywhere else, is because I love to tell stories. I also like sharing ideas that pop into my head on occasion, but it’s the storytelling that really sustains me. And over the past couple of days, I’ve been able to put one together that I really enjoyed telling.

The piece appeared on ChicagoSideSports today. The tragedy that happened in Washington and other places around the state of Illinois last Sunday left me wondering what I could do to help. If I can write something that puts some meat on the bones of what is already a great story of generosity and compassion, I’ll gladly do it. And if I can appeal to the readers of the story to make a donation and help these people out in some way, I’ll gladly do that too.

As I wrote this story, a combination of nostalgia and sleep deprivation served to bring my old school back to life, if only for a moment and only within the recesses of my memory. I couldn’t go back and walk the halls of Griffin High, even if I wanted to. But writing this story took me back there in a metaphorical sense. And that’s fine, because now it only exists in my memories and those of my schoolmates, anyway. The building still exists, but it wouldn’t be–and couldn’t be–the same as it was back in the 1980s.

I’m rooting for Sacred Heart-Griffin to win this weekend, and not because I graduated from one of its predecessor schools. And it’s not because I want to deny Washington anything, either. No, this is all about being kind and generous. People don’t do that enough, and I wish I saw more of it in this world. So when it does happen, I want to celebrate it as much as possible, in the hopes that I’ll see more of it in the future. That would sure be an improvement over what we have today, wouldn’t it?

Go Cyclones!

A poignant reminder


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

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

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

Driving in to Sangamon County


Last October, one of my brothers got married in my hometown of Springfield, Illinois. I spent the first 18 years of my life there, only rarely getting to see anything outside of it. So when the time to go away to college came, I left and never looked back. I suppose that’s human nature, in some sense.

I go back to Springfield once or twice a year to visit my parents, who still live there. And both of my brothers live there too, so my tie with Springfield will always be with me. And it’s not a bad place, either. That’s not why I left it, all those years ago. It’s just that I couldn’t stay there anymore. Call it wanderlust or whatever else you want to.

Driving down Interstate 55 toward Springfield on a Friday afternoon last fall was something like a homecoming for me. I was only going to be there for one night, but it would be a look into where I came from. My children were in school that day, and my wife was at work, so it was just me, returning to what is, for better or for worse, my hometown.

And to pick up on the Springsteen vibe, I had a CD of Born in the USA with me. That was the music I listened to, more than any other, in the last full year I lived in Springfield. I didn’t have an adult understanding to the lyrics back then, as I like to think that I do now, but man, did I love those songs. They were anthemic and loud and everything that the 17-year-old me wanted. And they remind the 45-year-old me of who I once was, too.

So as I was listening to the music from my teenage days, while driving back to the world as I knew it in 1985 and 1986, I felt like I was returning to the womb, in some sense. And when the time came to pass over the Sangamon county line–where Springfield itself is located– I put on Bruce’s “Darlington County” and improvised the first line of the song: Driving into Sangamon County… and I also took the picture shown above. I wanted to get the green-and-white “Sangamon County” sign, but I missed and got corn silos instead. That’s how life works, sometimes.

As I said, I wasn’t there for very long. The marriage ceremony and the reception afterward were nice, and I enjoyed Springfield, even if most of the things I remember about it are long gone. I can’t complain that the town I turned away from in the 1980s was not just as I remembered it in 2013. Time marches on, and things change along the way.

I drove back to Chicago the next day, through a raging storm, with the realization that life is not static. The changes that inevitably occur can be good ones, or bad ones, but that’s how it will always be. It’s a ride that we should all enjoy, for as long as we’re lucky enough to be on it.  Sha la la, sha la la la la….

I worked here, too


No, I never worked for the Board of Elections in Illinois. But I did spend several years working in this building, which was once a National supermarket on MacArthur Boulevard in Springfield, Illinois.

Once I turned 16–just after school had let out in my sophomore year of high school–I was old enough to get a “real” job. I had been delivering newspapers since I was ten, but getting a job with a boss and a schedule and a uniform and a name tag seemed thrilling to me. It made me feel grown up, in a way that I had not known before.

The first Saturday that I worked at this job turned out to be the day of the “Sandberg game,” when Ryne Sandberg hit two home runs off of Bruce Sutter and made himself into a legend in the process. My brother, who is three years younger than I was, told me all about it when he and my mom picked me up after work. I wished I had seen it, but I was a workin’ man now, and these things were just going to happen.

I kept this job from the summer of 1984 until I went way to college in the fall of 1986. I went through a lot of changes over those two years, and leaving that job was one of the last links that I severed before I left. My manager, an older guy named Jack, called me “Bob” and I never found it in me to tell him I didn’t go by that. Bob is my dad’s name, but old Jack could get away with calling me that. I wouldn’t have allowed anyone else to do that, though.

I had heard that the National’s shut down long ago, and the building had sat empty for some time. At some point over the past few years, the State of Illinois had moved in, and when I found myself in the old neighborhood recently, I did a double take at the sight of the old building.

I stared at the building and thought about all the times I had to go out and clear the lot of shopping carts. In the rain, or the snow, or the heat of summer, I would be out there. It surprised me to learn how much of it I remembered, too.

National’s is no more, and the one-time National’s where I worked has now morphed into something else. But as long as I’m alive, it will be the place where I was called Bob, and Ryne Sandberg had a great game that I missed, and I was a high school kid with nothing more than a burning desire to leave Springfield behind.

I did that, all right, and the State Board of Elections office was a validation of that which I had once wanted to do. I should have felt happy and yet, somehow, I didn’t.

I wouldn’t re-live my high school years for all the money in the world. But nor would I mind being called Bob again, just one time.

Towering over Lincoln


Last weekend, I was at the Sangamon County courthouse in Springfield, Illinois. I was originally directed to the sixth floor, and when I got off the elevator I was greeted by a large bust of Abraham Lincoln, who never practiced in that courthouse, but who was a pretty successful Springfield lawyer.

I posed for a picture next to the Lincoln bust, and leaving aside the cartoonish look on my face, what strikes me is the way that I seem to tower over Lincoln. When Lincoln walked the earth, he towered over practically everyone, being that he was six feet, four inches tall. He would have towered over me, too, or at least had a couple of inches on me.

But whenever we see Lincoln statues today, or the Lincoln monument in DC of the face on Mount Rushmore, we aren’t able to tower over Lincoln. He towers over us, in both a physical and a metaphorical sense. And that’s as it should be, really.

So when I sidled up to the Lincoln bust in the courthouse the other day, I had a chance to tower over Lincoln instead. I wish I looked a little bit more dignified, and less like I was on the happy pills, but that’s how it is. I still like the picture, because it reminds me of how prevalent Lincoln is in our society. I can’t imagine that any other president merits a bust in a courthouse, anywhere.

As a society, we revere Lincoln, and deservedly so. He ended our greatest national wrong, and by remembering him as we do we perpetually honor his act, and commemorate the price that he paid for doing so. You can’t tell from this picture, but I’m proud to associate myself with Lincoln, in any way, shape, or form that I can.

I get around


Over the past few days, following a 36-hour nostalgia bender in my hometown, I’ve written pieces that appeared on FiveWideSports, ThroughTheFenceBaseball, and ChicagoSideSports. And in this space, of course.

Translating the thoughts inside my head into words is something that I’ve always enjoyed. That’s a good thing, because anything stronger than caffeine has now been eliminated from my life.

It’s good to be back home, as always, but the weekend kicked up some new ideas inside my head. A few of them may even make it here, eventually. Who knows what the future holds?

A new look at an old building


For the first 18 years of my life, I lived near Springfield, Illinois. And the tallest building in town, then and now, is the one pictured above. Together with the dome of the Illinois capitol building, it makes up the Springfield skyline, such as it is.

There are 15 states that don’t have a building of at least 30 stories, and two more that have 30 story buildings as the tallest one in the state. Of course, it gets lost in the shuffle in the state where the skyscraper was invented, but it’s still nothing to sneeze at.

When I was a kid, it was known as the Forum 30, and today it’s called the Springfield Hilton. I looked at the building hundreds of times as a kid, but over the weekend I saw it from a vantage point inside the Sangamon County courthouse. And I saw it in a way that I never had before.

I was struck by the phallic nature of the building, particularly from where I was standing. I snapped a picture and showed it to my brother. He responded that the building is known informally as “The penis of the prairie” and we both had a good laugh at that moniker.

It turns out that the Nebraska state capitol building is known in a similar way, but I like this one better. Just don’t ask me to explain why that is. Perhaps it’s a hometown pride thing. Yeah, that’s probably it.

The coolest place I can think of


As a certified baseball junkie, and an Abraham Lincoln fan to boot, I can’t think of a better place to visit than where I am right now.

When Lincoln was riding the legal circuit in Central Illinois, before anyone knew his name, he came to Postville park in a town that would one day bear his name: Lincoln, Illinois. Here, he and some of his friends played a game called Townball, which later was known as baseball.

The park today is a far cry from what it was back then. But to imagine what it must have been like is still pretty cool. It’s the stuff that history is made of, really.

OK now back to my regularly scheduled trip.

A special gift

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Only in Springfield


Last weekend, my Chicago family (wife and two daughters) and I drove to Springfield to visit my family there (parents, two brothers, sister, and two nephews). It was a great day, and I couldn’t have been any happier with how everything went. And I even stumbled upon a Lincoln story, entirely by accident. But those make for the best stories, don’t they?

My parents decided, correctly, that everyone could go for some pizza. They called up the nearest pizza chain restaurant on North Grand Avenue, and I volunteered to go and pick it up. So with my youngest brother and my older daughter in tow, I headed out to gather up the food.

The pizza place was just a few minutes away, and I was able to take a shortcut through Oak Ridge cemetery, which is best known for being the site of Lincoln’s Tomb. I drove past the tomb and explained to my daughter the custom of rubbing Lincoln’s nose for good luck. I wanted to go and do it for myself, but parking was a bit too scarce, and I knew better than to dally for too long. And I was a bit hungry, too, so it will have to wait for another day.

We left the cemetery, and the pizza place was literally at the end of the block. We pulled in a few minutes earlier than the agreed-upon time, and the pizzas were still in the oven. It was at this point that I noticed a random Lincoln quote displayed on the other side of the street. My brother agreed to continue the pizza vigil, as I crossed the street for a better look at the quote.

It was a fragment of a sentence from Lincoln’s “House Divided” speech, which he delivered in Springfield in 1858. With the benefit of hindsight, his words proved to be nothing less than prophetic, as the states did indeed become all one thing, when slavery was abolished. It took years of warfare, and thousands upon thousands upon thousands of deaths, but it did play out just as Lincoln said it would.

I took a picture of the quote and ducked back across the street, just in time to help my brother get the pizzas out to the car. On the return trip, I asked myself what Lincoln would have thought of pizza, since he never tasted it for himself. I then wondered if he would have taken any satisfaction from knowing that his words were proven true in the end. As I drove past the tomb, on my way back to my parents’ house, I decided that some things would just have to remain a mystery.

The little shanty next door


My parents live in a different house than the one that my siblings and I grew up in. Which is fine, because it just proves how everything in life changes in time.

Next door to their house is a little shed, of sorts. It’s pretty nondescript, actually, but it greatly interests me all the same. I think it’s picturesque, especially with all of the green that surrounds it.

Some day the shed will be gone, or my parents will move someplace else and this little shed will no longer be within my field of view.

To recognize this as one more instance of the transient nature of all things, I’m sharing this picture here.

Behold the most interesting shanty I’ve ever seen!

Together with them again

1986 001

Yesterday was a remarkable day in several respects. The weather is first, as it was sunny and warm but not at all humid or hot. In August, it’s very likely to be 100 degrees or at least feel like it is. But there was none of that yesterday. It was all the summer that you want, and none of the summer that you don’t. I could not have ordered a better day if I controlled the weather.

But the day got even better from there. My sister moved to Colorado recently, and the distance between her family and mine makes it harder to see her than before. But she came to my parents house this week, and we drove the 200 miles plus in order to see them.  My two brothers, who live closer than Colorado, were there too, so it was a rare opportunity to have my parents–both of whom are still with us–and my siblings and I together in one place. And our collective children were all there too, meaning that everyone I’m directly related to by blood was there at my parents’ house. That would have been special enough on a miserable summer day, but the weather pushed it over into the  realm of something memorable. Days like yesterday are what can sustain us when the weather turns bad and you’re not with all of your family. So I’ll certainly take it.

I realized, after we pulled out of their driveway to begin the long drive back to Chicago, that for the first 18 years of my life, the people in the picture above (and my dad, who took the picture) were an everyday part of my life. I lived with them, I ate with them, I laughed with them, I put up with them, and everything else that I could do with them, I did.

And then in the late 1980s, after I graduated from high school and had the chance to go away, I did that. I was the first one out of the nest, and the others all followed in time. I never really thought of it as breaking up the band, so to speak, but as I drove back home yesterday that seemed like exactly what it was. My all-consuming need to get away and find something new at age 18 was the first breach in the family dam. Somebody had to go first, and as the oldest child it made sense that I was the one.

When I say “my family” today in 2013, I realize that it’s not what “my family” would have meant back in 1985. And being with “my family” from the 1970s and 1980s, if only for one afternoon, reminds me of how much I love them all, then and now. It also reminds me that one day, parts of my 2013 family will depart, just as I once did. And I have no doubt that letting go will be a whole lot harder than breaking away once was. But that will be a struggle for another day.

Yesterday proved that, when a family branches off and goes their separate ways, the bonds between them can never be torn apart, so as long as everyone is still walking the earth. Whatever small dose of family time can be squeezed out is more than worth the effort it takes to realize it.

As I drove down the highway, kicking these thoughts around inside my head, John Mellencamp’s “Cherry Bomb” came on the radio. I appreciated the song’s sentimentality, and its recognition that life does indeed move on. I didn’t live on the outskirts of town–come to think of it, I actually did that–and I didn’t grow up in an 8-room farmhouse, but 17 has indeed turned 35–and then some–for me. And all of the people who mattered the most to me at both of those stages in life were with me yesterday. It was even more perfect than the weather.

Illinois catches up, a little bit


Illinois is the only state that I’ve ever lived in, and I can trace my family’s history in the state back for not quite 200 years. Yesterday, the state that I call home became the 20th state to allow for the use of medical marijuana. I’m glad that help can now be legally obtained by many people who need it, and were probably already using it, anyway.

I don’t have a problem with adults who want to light up, medicinally or otherwise. I’m not convinced that it will lead directly to heroin and other drugs, as some opponents claim it does. And alcohol already takes such a terrible toll on our society that marijuana can’t possibly be any worse. Alcohol seems to fuel our society in some sense, and nobody ever seems to question this. But for anyone who goes out and gets blitzed, or who abuses prescription drugs, to then oppose someone else who wants to cultivate a different type of buzz seems hypocritical to me. To each his own, and if rolling up a fat joint happens to be your own, then more power to you.

Two states have already legalized marijuana for recreational use, and I don’t know whether Illinois will do so in my lifetime. Would I think about smoking it if they did? Probably, but the truth is that just because it’s legal doesn’t mean it must be indulged in. Alcohol is legal, but my two-plus years of sobriety are among the best ones that I’ve ever had. I feel great, and I’m setting an example for my kids not to use it, either. And so can it be with pot, too.

Marijuana has been used for decades–even centuries–to help people cope with various pains and medical issues. There’s no reason to criminalize this, and I’m glad that a less-progressive-than-I-would-hope-for Illinois has finally recognized the value of doing so.

With every paper I’d deliver


I had a paper route from the time I was old enough to get one (you had to be 12 back in the day) until I left it to take a “real” job bagging groceries at age 16. That’s four years of delivering newspapers, every single day. If that won’t drill a work ethic into you, nothing will.

So newspapers  have always been important to me. And on days like today, when a story I wrote appears in a newspaper like the Chicago Sun-Times, it’s practically overwhelming. Newspapers have changed a lot in my lifetime, but they’re still around and hopefully always will be.

The young kid who once lugged 46 newspapers around every morning now stands in awe of what the middle-aged version of himself has been able to accomplish. It certainly is a good feeling to have.

Chasing that dream


As I was out running errands yesterday, I heard Boston’s “Foreplay/Long Time” on the radio. It’s always been a song I can listen to, and yesterday was no exception. Upon hearing the late Brad Delp’s vocals, I was reminded of how, at the end of my high school days, I quoted the line “It’s been such a long time/I think I should be going” as a farewell note to my high school.

In truth, four years isn’t really such a long time. When you’re 17, though, it seems like forever. The 17 year-old who quoted that line was ready to move on to something else in his life. And now, more than a quarter-century later, I’m at that place. I’ve chased the dream that I had when I was a teenager, and I wound up here. And that suits me just fine.

From an early age, I knew that I had to leave my hometown in order to have the kind of life that I wanted. Where I would go to was an open question, but standing still was never an option. I suppose that’s called wanderlust, and I had it bad when I was in high school. But the irony is that whatever I had back then now seems to have gone away, entirely. I like where I am now, and have no desire to leave anytime soon.

The large part of that is wanting to have a sense of stability for my two daughters. As they get older, they will probably come to feel–as I once did–that the only thing that matters is going anywhere else. But the forces arrayed against them now are so much more powerful than what I was up against. College costs are soaring, and opportunities for people with a degree–but not much else–seem to be drastically reduced. The numbers that I’ve heard for college graduates moving back in with their parents (85 percent is the number I’ve seen) are just stunning. I literally would have gone berserk if I had to do that when I graduated from college, so many years ago.

It seems silly to be giving this matter too much thought now, when my oldest daughter (shown in the picture above) is graduating from 8th grade, and not high school or college. But my hope for her–and for her younger sister–is that when they get the wanderlust themselves, they will be able to beat the odds and successfully chase their own dreams, whatever those might be.

A trip through the past


Every few months, an issue of the Northwestern Alumni magazine arrives in my mailbox. Some issues I scrutinize more than others, but I always try to look through it at least a little bit. I appreciate all of the effort that goes into putting it together, after all.

Specifically, I check to see the notices about marriages, births (both of which are rare for my class anymore) and death notices. Typically it’s a professor that I had in one of my classes, but I always check for the general student listings, too. I’d hate to see anyone I knew very well listed there, and so far I haven’t. But today’s issue did have someone from my class listed, and this caught my attention.

This was someone who left her home at the same time I did, who walked the campus when I did, who got her degree the same day that I did, and now, as of last September 10, she is no longer with us on this earth. I didn’t recognize the name, but I felt compelled to find out more about her.

I went to the Freshman Facebook (and yes, we did call it that) that Northwestern compiled for all of its incoming freshmen. In these days of social media, I’m sure that it’s no longer necessary to do this, but I hope the school still makes an effort of some type. All of those scared and anxious 18 year-olds–who are going to have their lives changed over the course of  their years on campus–need something to get the ball rolling in the way of introductions.

I got out my old facebook, looked up my recently deceased classmate, and realized that I had never met her at all. Perhaps we were in a class together at some point, or our paths had crossed in some other way, but I had no idea who she was. I learned that she was from Vermont, though, and this intrigued me on some level.

Northwestern, like all the other top schools, prides itself on its diversity. And diversity is exactly what I–and a lot of the others in my class–desperately needed to have. Over the first 18 years of my life, I knew my little slice of Springfield, Illinois quite well, but I knew nothing beyond it. I had never met a New Yorker before, or a Texan, or anyone from Cleveland, or Minneapolis, or Chicago. And I got to meet all of these people and more in the time I was on campus.

I once wondered a great deal about the world beyond my hometown, and four years as an undergraduate at Northwestern exposed me to people and ideas I had never encountered before. And it sounds trite, but it made me a better person. I’ll be forever grateful to have had the experiences I did while on the Evanston campus.

The Vermont thing made me curious as to how many of my classmates (there were over 1,000 in all) came from Vermont. So I started with the As, and began paging through, looking for anyone who came from Vermont. Along the way I encountered old roommates, and people who lived in my dorm, and girls I had crushes on and could never talk to, and people I would know from classes or activities on campus. It felt as though I had time-warped back to 1986 for an hour or so.

As I moved through the alphabet, page by page, I knew that I was going to get to my own entry, in about the middle of the book. I even gave some thought to giving up, rather than come face to face with the guy I used to be. But I was committed to seeing my research through, and I stopped long enough to consider what got me to the point that I was in the facebook to begin with.

At that moment, I realized that I never applied myself to studying as much as I should have, and yet I did fairly well, and I uncorked an admissions essay that must have made an impression on someone who read it. I like to think I wrote my way into a top-notch university, and then wrote well enough to hang around until I graduated four years later. And nobody can ever take that away from me, either.

I finished up with the book, after much contemplation and reflection about the fleeting nature of the college years. It was an important time when I transitioned to adulthood and went out to face the world, and all of my classmates did the same thing. And I felt exceedingly fortunate to be the one looking for a deceased classmate, instead of having someone else looking for me.

I hope that she (and I’m refraining from using her name, to respect her privacy) had a good life, filled with things that made her happy. I wished that for everyone I encountered in the book, whether I knew them or not. I’m sure there are some others who are no longer with us, and that our ranks will only get thinner as the years go by. As Kurt Vonnegut wrote in “Slaughterhouse-Five,” and so it goes.

And to answer the question that drew me in to begin with, there were two of my classmates who hailed from Vermont. On the other end of the spectrum, I’m sure there were homerooms at New Trier that had more representation in my class than the state of Vermont did. But Northwestern could say, truthfully, that Vermont was indeed represented in its Freshman class that year. How well-represented is another story. But they had more Vermonters (if that’s the right term) than any other school I would have gone to, and that made the exercise seem worthwhile for me.