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.

Thoughts at a fire

Yesterday morning I wrote a post in this space bemoaning the lack of good news stories this year. I had a realization later in the evening, though, as I was watching the fire in my fireplace burn. And it’s worth sharing it here, before it crawls back into the recesses of my mind. This is why I started this blog, after all.

If I start a fire in my fireplace and it burns all night and it goes out, there’s nothing “newsworthy” in that. But if my house were to somehow catch fire, then not only would the fire trucks come, but the news vans, as well. And the bigger the fire, the bigger the story would be.

So I realized, as my fire burned without incident in my fireplace, that “the news” wasn’t good for a reason. As Don Hendley once sang, it’s interesting when people die. And apparently, that’s the only time.

So I’m not waiting for the news to be good anymore. There’s good things all around us every day, and there’s nobody looking to tell us what it is. That’s apparently our job to determine what it is.

And my fire went out, and it was a happy time, indeed. I’m glad that nobody else got to hear anything about it.


A tough way to begin the year


My first post about 2015 comes five days into the new year, and it’s a sad tale. Stuart Scott passed away over the weekend, and I felt like I had to say a few words about his legacy, both on TV and in the way he battled cancer for as long as he did. The story appears on FiveWideSports, and I’m grateful to them, as always, for running with my ideas.

As the father of two daughters–like Stuart Scott–I love the way he professed his love for them so freely. I’ve done that myself, and I make no apologies for doing so. My girls will live on when I’m gone, just as his daughters will for him.

There’s no greater feeling than love, and when you have it for someone, there’s just one thing to do: hold it up for the world to see. His speech at the ESPYs last summer–his final bow, in some ways–did exactly that. And if I didn’t already love and respect him for the words he said on television–and I surely did that–I would give him all the credit in the world for saying the things he did.

Thanks for showing us how it’s done, Stuart, both on camera and off. We should all do our best to follow your example in the days and years to come.

Rethinking the Arts


When I was a kid, only one thing qualified as “art.” Paintings, done by men who were already long dead, were art. My mom used to come to my school and teach “Art appreciation” to give the kids a break from the daily reading, math, and history grind. And thus, art was a painfully narrow term in my world.

I never considered writing or producing music as being “art.” Likewise, dancing was not art, nor was singing, writing, acting, designing, or any other form of creative expression. Television was the dominant artform of my youth, but if you told me that Sheriff Lobo was an actor and therefore an artist, I would not have believed it.

Last night, one of my daughters performed in her school play, while the other one skated in an ice show. Both of them are, and have alway been, artists in this sense. I love watching them perform, whether it’s onstage, on ice, or just singing songs around the house. They love the arts, and I’m enormously grateful for this. And I hope that–unlike me when I was their age–they appreciate what the full range of the arts are. Artists aren’t just dead guys who could paint.

It’s the thought that counts


My next door neighbors are good people. I think of them every time I hear some people on TV railing about “illegal immigration.” It seem like a bigoted, racist term directed at people that the speaker doesn’t know the first thing about. “If they speak Spanish and have brown skin, get them outta here.” It’s antithetical to what America is, at least in my mind.

One day earlier this summer, as I was grilling up some dinner, my neighbor offered me a beer. I’ve drank more Corona in my life than I want to know about, but gave it up three years ago. But still, it was a thoughtful gesture, and one I didn’t refuse.

I took the cap off and made a pretend show of drinking the beer. I knew that taking a sip was a bad idea, because I’ve harmed my body in ways I’ll never realize by drinking so much through the years. But still, I wanted my neighbor to know I appreciated his offer. I wanted him to see that not every Anglo-speaking person wants him and his family to leave the country. And I wanted him to see that sharing a beer–as old of an American tradition as there is–is something that neighbors do with each other. In many ways, it was the best beer I never had.

Long may it wave


I saw a clip online today that made me angry. On the eve of celebrating the birth of this great country, there was Laura Ingraham and Bill O’Reilly, chattering on about illegal immigration. Terms like “anchor baby” were used, and the right wing fantasy that people can–and should–leave the country en masse reared its ugly and ignorant head.

America is predicated upon people coming here from all parts of the world. They think they can better their lives here, and usually they are correct. To turn our backs on this is to deny American history, and sell this great nation short. It’s nothing less than unAmerican to do that. You might just as well take down the flag and cut it into pretty ribbons, because it won’t be the same flag that once attracted our ancestors to these shores.

Let’s all honor our country–and our immigrant ancestors, wherever they may be–by remembering what this country is, and by slapping down those who would make it into anything less. Happy 4th of July to everyone.

Let it go, let it go


Over the past couple of years, I’ve simplified my life in some ways. I gave up drinking in 2011, television in 2013, and McDonald’s in 2014. I’ve tried giving up coffee, too, but I’ve succeeded at keeping my consumption down. Baby steps, I suppose.

I’m not really on a self-deprivation kick, although it might seem that way. Giving up some of my favorite things–ones that had been a part of my life for decades–seems like a fool’s mission. But there’s not much I have that I can’t live without. People often say “I’d die without (insert item here)” but that’s really not so. The things that we need and the things that we think we need are two different groups.

I’m so much better off without the things I’ve given up. I now wonder how life would have been different without them. But that’s something I’ll never know for certain.

Last night I took this to drastic, and almost unthinkable degree: I renounced the Chicago Cubs. I’ve always been off the deep end, to varying degrees, when it comes to the Cubs. They were my window into Chicago, and thus the wider world, to me back in the 70s and 80s. They were my destination of choice in the dark days of the 1990s. They were a source of optimism and ultimate disappointment in the first decade of this century. But in this decade they’ve been…nothing. Nothing but frustration and anger and, ultimately, indifference. I wait around for months for the baseball season to return, and then I’m hopeful for a month to six weeks, and finally I’m wondering why I do this to myself, over and over again.

The Cubs have never won in my lifetime, but up until a couple of years ago, they were always worth a watch. But they aren’t anymore. I think of a campfire as an apt metaphor for this: The fire will burn hot and then die down, but it has to be tended occasionally or else it will go out. Throwing a small log or a few twigs onto the coals every so often is all that it takes. But if you don’t do it, the consequences speak for themselves.

The Cubs have not been tending the fire, at least at the major league level. They’ve started playing a game with trading older players for younger prospects, and demanding complete control over a player’s career. Signing free agents to big-dollar contracts has been anathema to this club, and the talent level (or lack thereof) is painfully obvious. They are, and are apparently aiming to be, the worst team in the major leagues.

Tanking the season has benefits when it comes to high draft positions, and some Cubs fans have embraced this as the path to getting better in the long run. It worked for the Chicago Blackhawks, at least. But it’s a bridge too far, for me.

Last night I did as Hemingway once instructed; I sat in front of a keyboard and bled. I opened up about what’s wrong with this team, and how I can’t abide their losing ways anymore. So I quit. I dclared my independence. I walked away from something that has mattered to me for almost 40 years. It was hard, but today I feel free.

How did the Cubs do today? For the first time I can remember, I don’t care. They win and they’re still bad, or they lose and it just reinforces what I’ve been saying. If ever they win, I’ll see what happens then. But I’m no longer vested in this team, emotionally. To paraphrase Axl Rose, nothing last forever, even my interest in the Cubs.

Words of wisdom from Ralph Waldo Emerson


Over the past year or so, I’ve been picking up a volume of Emerson’s writings when I can, looking for pearls of wisdom. And I think I found one today, when I came across the following words:

To the extent that a man thinks, he is free

I don’t see much independent thought in our society. People are often hired to spout out a company line about something–especially on television–and we are expected to nod our heads in approval, or at least keep quiet if we don’t agree.

It feels like those who speak their minds are not valued as much as they ought to be. A two-party political system will lead to binary thinking, I suppose. But suppressing other ideas and new ways of thinking isn’t healthy. It leads to tunnel vision, and an inability to change pre-conceived ideas, particularly when they weren’t organic to someone’s own thinking to begin with.

Thanks to you, Ralph Waldo, for pointing out that thinking equals freedom, and farming that job out to somebody else is a dangerous thing. He didn’t say it in quite that way, of course, but I brought my own freedom to his idea. See how easy that is?

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.