All we can do is enjoy it

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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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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

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

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

Driving in to Sangamon County

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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….