In the #HamZone

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The Tony Awards are tonight, and I plan pay attention to them this year because of the Hamilton phenomenon. I’m surprised I haven’t written about it here, because I’ve been listening to the soundtrack for months on end. If Prince hadn’t died in April, it would now be month three of solid Hamilton listening for me.

The music tells a fantastic story, and has succeeded in bringing history into the mainstream and–more importantly–making it relevant to schoolkids. That’s something of a miracle, in its own right. I taught history for several years in the Chicago Public Schools, and always tried to make the past interesting. But music has charms that I never possessed, either.

So I’m figuratively in the Hamilton zone, for sure. I think this will last through the end of the year, at least, because the first Hamilton run outside of New York opens in Chicago this fall. Hamilton will open in other cities after that, and the diffusion of this show will bring new excitement along the way. How lucky we are to be alive to see it.

But I’m literally in a Hamilton zone of a different sort. I’ve written before about outliving people–usually writers–and musing about the random nature of life and how much of it each of us is allowed to have. Whenever someone dies now, the first question I ask is how old they were when they passed. For instance, I am younger than Muhammad Ali, and older than Christina Grimmie, when their days came to an end.

Ali himself said “Don’t count the days, Make the days count”  so age isn’t a measure of very much. But in terms of sunrises and sunsets, I’ve had more than Henry David Thoreau, George Orwell, Albert Camus, and many others. And I’ll keep having them until further notice, however long that may be.

But whether I’ve passed Hamilton or not is an open question. Everyone knows Hamilton died in a duel with Aaron Burr in the summer of 1804, but when he was born isn’t so clear cut. He considered his birthday to be 1757, and gave that as his birth year when he immigrated to America in 1772. By this count, he would have died at the age of about 47 and a half.

But the official documents from the island of Nevis tell another story. They indicate he was born in 1755, making him two years older than he told the world he was. We would all, at a certain point in life, like to be two years younger than we really are, and Hamilton lived his life this way.

So the birthday I have coming up in two days is the first of two in what I’m calling the #HamZone (Hamilton has devised all sorts of interesting hashtags of this variety, so I’m running with it here, as well). I’m already older than Hamilton told the world he was at the time of his death, but still younger than what he may actually have been. And in a year when Hamilton’s life has become relevant through Lin-Manuel Miranda’s amazing show, it’s a pretty cool place to be, I must admit.

 

 

Five Years and Counting

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I wanted to start a blog for a long time–probably for at least a year–before I actually did it. But I put off doing it, because I thought there was some special quality I was lacking. Others who “blogged” (the word was still new and unusual back then) had it, whatever it was, and I simply did not.

That type of self-doubt has always held me back in life. Others are better than me, and I’m not good enough, so why bother? Why take a risk, if it’s just going to end up revealing all of my flaws?

So for all of 2010 and a good part of 2011 I kept things to myself, just as I had been doing all my life. Until one day I couldn’t do it anymore. I had a story to tell, so I typed it out–that part has always come easy to me–and I wondered what to do with it. And that was the point when I remembered something Jimi Hendrix once said: “My own thing is in my head. I hear sounds, and if I don’t get them together, nobody else will.”  So I took the leap and stated writing a blog, five years ago today.

I once thought, if I kept up with the same frenetic writing pace that I had for the first two years I did this, that I’d be upwards of a million words on this blog after five years. A million is a nice big number, and I’d like to say I wrote a million words for free online. But as it so often happens in life, that old crazy dream kinda came and went.

For one thing, I started sending my writings to other websites. I always enjoy seeing my words in print or online, so sending out hundreds of pieces to someone else seemed like the natural thing to do. And I also found that sleep is nice, too. I went from 700-1000 words per post down to 200-300 words.  So a million words, at least on this blog, feels like a long shot anymore. I stopped counting how many words are here some time ago, anyway.

But I continue having fun with this. I consider this blog as a digital legacy, for people I love and for people I’ll never meet, in equal measure. If my relatives going back a few generations had something like this available to them, I’d be happy if they put some of their thoughts and fears, their hopes and memories down where I could learn more about them. But this blogging thing is still too new for anything like that.  I can write these things down, and so I do. And bravo and good day to anyone who happens upon them, too.

Five years of sharing my thoughts and ideas with the world feels like a lot. But at the same time, it’s now been so long I don’t know why I didn’t start earlier. When it comes to writing a blog–like so many other things–there ain’t nothing to it, but to do it.

Here’s to keeping at this for as long as I’m able…..

Birthday wishes to my kids’ Uncle John

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Iles Park, Springfield, IL, circa 1975

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

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

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

Forever the Greatest

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The news that Muhammad Ali is on life support today is incredibly sad. His Parkinson’s disease has kept him out of the public eye for so long, but I always took comfort from knowing that the man who deserves to be called “The Greatest” was breathing, somewhere on this planet.

Seeing a larger than life Leroi Neiman painting of Ali at his center in Louisville, Kentucky a few years ago gave me chills. Learning his life story was an inspiration to me, too. And watching his fights against Joe Frazier inspired a piece I use as a writing sample, when the situation presents itself.

I know that he’s now 74 and this could be the final count of his career. If that’s the case, I’m glad to say that I remember seeing him fight against Leon Spinks when I was a kid. Not everyone is old enough to say that, either.

MMM, Donuts

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

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

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

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

 

Sign O’ the times, mess with your mind

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Learning that Prince died from an overdose of fentanyl makes his death harder to deal with than ever. I’ve forgotten by now what the original cause of death was reported to be, but people swore up and down that his religion and/or his healthy lifestyle meant that drugs could not have played a role. But that lie has now been exposed for what it is.

When I was in graduate school a quarter of a century ago, I was given an assignment to find artifacts from different periods of history. The artifacts I used were a metallic bell that purported to be made from the USS Maine as a relic from the 1890s, the iconic image of Rosie the Riveter as a relic of the 1940s, and Prince’s song “Sign O’ the Times” as a relic of the 1980s. We were hardly even out of the 1980s at that point, and it already felt like Prince had encapsulated that decade as well as anybody could.

The lyrics to the song addressed everything from AIDS (“a big disease with a little name”) to crime (“being ‘ in a gang called the Disciples high on crack, totin’ a machine gun”) to the space shuttle disaster (“when the rocket ship explodes”). It was a snapshot of, well, the times we were living in back in the 1980s. I knew it then, and am even more aware of it now, all these years later.

But a line from it foreshadows Prince’s own death. Anyone familiar with the song knows what it is, but since many aren’t familiar with it, I’ll spell it out here as a public service. Think of it as my good deed for the day. Prince sings the following line:

In September my cousin tried reefer for the very first time

Now he’s doin’ Horse, it’s June

“Horse” was a reference to heroin, and the idea Prince was getting at was marijuana was thought of as a gateway to harder, more serious drugs like heroin. It’s beyond ironic, then, that a man who sang about heroin addiction could one day become a victim of it, himself. But what’s even more telling is that a gateway to heroin does exist, but it’s not marijuana at all.

The gateway that led Prince to heroin and fentanyl was opioids, and Percocet in particular. It needs to be pointed out that these drugs are legal when prescribed by a doctor. They aren’t illegal street drugs, the way that marijuana and LSD are. They are what’s known as Schedule II drugs, meaning they are entrusted to the medical community for the purposes of treating and managing pain. But once they leave the medical community, havoc ensues. And the path from there to heroin–a Schedule I drug which is cheaper and easier to obtain than the prescription drugs–is all too well-traveled.

If Prince– with all of his fame and notoriety–could not escape the clutches of these drugs, it highlights the challenges the rest of us face. We’re all just an injury or a surgical recovery away from having these things given to us. And it’s all legal, right there before us, with a doctor’s approval and an insurance company co-pay to soften the financial blow.

Congress and the individual states have at last grasped the seriousness of the heroin and opioid epidemic. May prevention and treatment be the leaders of the pack in this regard, instead of a “tough on crime” approach that our legal system isn’t ready to support. That was tried once already, and it simply hasn’t worked.

Maybe the best thing to come from Prince’s death, if anything positive is to be found, is a realization that “horse” and the drugs leading up to it are not a joke, and that those of us who have been lucky enough to escape their clutches must not judge those who are in their grip. We should instead help them in whatever way we can, which will help our society rise above the damage these drugs have wrought. If this should happen, we’ll all be much better off.

To close with another Prince lyric, in the outro part of “Sign o’ the Times” he sings

Sign o’ the times, mess with your mind, hurry before it’s too late.

It’s not too late to address the issue of heroin and its related drugs, but we do need to have some urgency as the death toll continues to rise.

Time….

 

Being somebody

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MASH

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unleashing my inner History teacher

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The room where it happened, 1860 style

I was a history teacher in a previous life, as I like to think of it. It was all during the same life I have now, of course, but it feels like I’m not that person anymore. Will I ever teach again? Who knows? But yesterday I presented something of a lesson to a small section of the internet. The results have been pretty gratifying, too.

On Friday, I was paging through a book by Dale Carnegie titled “Lincoln the Unknown.” I bought it at an estate sale some time ago and, like many of the books I have acquired that way, I didn’t read it right away. My thinking is you can always read a book later, but you have to first acquire them whenever you can.

On the pages of the Carnegie book, which was published in 1932, I found a story about Lincoln’s nomination at the Wigwam in Chicago, shown above, in 1860. I knew that it was the first “western” nominating convention, and Lincoln’s supporters used this to wrest the Republican nomination away from William Seward. I knew that fake tickets had been printed up, and used to pack the house with Lincoln supporters. But every story has details that can add a new wrinkle to what is already known, and this was no exception.

What I learned I tucked away in my brain, and when I saw a post on a Facebook wall from the Bernie Sanders campaign for president, I decided it provided a parallel that could apply to the present. That’s why history matters so much, after all. Patrick Henry said he knew of no way to judge the future but by the events of the past. And here was a moment to put this philosophy to work.

In reply to a post suggesting that Senator Sanders’ wide lead over Donald Trump in public opinion polls makes him a better candidate to face Trump than Hillary Clinton, I wrote the following blurb:

There once was a senator from New York who went to a party convention expecting to win the nomination. But a challenger was able to successfully make the case that he would be a stronger candidate against the nominee from the other party. The year was 1860, the party was the Republicans, the presumptive nominee was William Seward, and the eventual nominee was Abraham Lincoln. I don’t think anyone would have rather had Seward prevail, simply because that was the expected result. Fight on, Senator Sanders. You have millions behind you.

I am a Sanders supporter, and I know that his uphill climb has been sandbagged by a media and a party establishment that has opposed him at every turn. The Clintons are a known quantity, and they are the establishment of the Democratic party in every way. But Senator Sanders has tapped into a wide vein of resentment for this establishment, and has come very far to get to the point, like the Cheers theme song says, where everybody knows his name. He’s won more states, and earned more votes, than anyone imagined he would. But the headwinds against him have reached a gale force recently, and I wanted to help out.

Carnegie’s book pointed out that dissatisfaction with Seward–who was well-known and had the kind of political advantages that Lincoln never did–came from the idea that Stephen A. Douglas was a formidable opponent in the fall election. Lincoln had already run against Douglas in 1858, and was better suited to defeat Douglas than Seward. The persuasion paid off, and Lincoln won the nomination on the third ballot in Chicago. And we all know what happened after that.

My post seems to have resonated pretty well, gathering over 1,700 Facebook likes in the 20 hours or so since I posted it. There have been hundreds of replies as well, both pro and con,  and the notifications of all this activity have exploded my email inbox. Let’s say I now understand why many posts don’t allow for comments. They can get messy.

And, in response to someone’s suggestion that my post seemed like a Limerick, I came up with this beauty:

There once was a Senator Will

Who thought a convention was chill

But Abe came along

And proved Will was wrong

Just like Bernie will do unto Hill

That bit of online freestylin’ got another 50 likes, and I’m preserving it here because I’m happy with how it turned out. I’m not Lin-Manuel Miranda or anything, but a rhyme written to inform about the past came to me, and I like the way that feels.

There’s a ton of pressure on Bernie Sanders to drop out, based on the idea that he’s hurting Hillary Clinton’s chances by staying in the race. Seward, back in 1860, rented a cannon and brought it to his estate in New York. The idea was to announce his nomination to the world by firing off the cannon, but he never had the chance to do it. And would the Civil War have happened, and slavery been brought to its much-needed end if Seward had fired off that cannon? We can’t know that, but we can say that Lincoln’s election changed the course of history in a very profound way.

I don’t want Hillary Clinton to fire off her proverbial cannon this summer. I’m convinced that her vote for the Iraq war, and her bellicose actions and language, reveal her to be far too hawkish for my comfort. She’ll speak the language of the Republicans in Congress by leading us into a foreign entanglement somewhere, which will require weapons being used and soldiers being killed. A cannon is a perfect metaphor for her candidacy, actually. Trump, on the other hand, is a horrible danger to life on this planet, and I realize that he must be stopped. But Hillary Clinton is not the way to do that.

There are many reasons not to like her, and my point here isn’t to go through those reasons. For me, she’s a hawk who will lead us to war, which will have disastrous consequences. And I can’t vote for her for that reason alone.

How will this all play out, over the summer and into the fall? I don’t know. But the idea that a candidate should give up when they are behind, in the name of “party unity,” is not an idea that Lincoln went along with in 1860. There’s an election that must be won in the fall, but there’s still a fight to be waged over the summer months. Or, to put it in the words of Lin-Manuel Miranda‘s HamiltonWhen you got skin in the game, you stay in the game But you don’t get a win unless you play in the game. So why not keep on playing?

 

Pick up a pen, start writing

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My heroes are writers. I’ve come to realize this in recent years, probably in some small part because of my experiences with this blog. It will be five years next month that I took the plunge and started collecting my thoughts and stories in one place. And I wish I had started it earlier than I did. But it has taught me a couple of things.

The first thing is that it takes a willingness to open up with yourself. Finding an idea to explore is not hard, but turning it over and spinning it around takes some time and some extra thought. The time is something I don’t always have, and that’s the main barrier to writing more often. But going beyond surface-level thought isn’t easy, either. And writing that which deserves to be read, as Pliny the Elder once called it, requires this step to occur.

The second thing I’ve learned is that inspiration is a funny thing. It strikes at odd hours, and it doesn’t linger for too long. It’s essential to capture a thought and preserve it in the moment, because going back to it an hour later doesn’t work. The thought, whatever it is, won’t wait until you decide to address it. Like a deer staring at you from a distance, once it takes off you won’t be seeing it anymore.

The other day I had occasion to meet a fellow left-hander who enjoys writing. I told her I find writing to be therapeutic, and she indicated that it’s cathartic for her. These ideas both come from the notion that writing is beneficial. As the Beastie Boys and Nas once counseled, if you’ve got something on your mind, let it out. My experience is this is reason enough for writing a blog, or anything else.

When I suggested that writers are my heroes, I was asked for examples. I mentioned Lincoln’s name, along with Alexander Hamilton’s. The amazing musical by Lin-Manuel Miranda has inspired me to pick up an old copy of the Federalist Papers, and his writing is exquisite. But there are many more that I wish I had also mentioned, and here are a few: Thomas Paine, Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, George Orwell, J.K. Rowling, John Muir, Ernest Hemingway, and Rachel Carson. There are hundreds more, and in three hours I would come up with a list of different names than the ones here. That’s the nature of writing, after all.

I’m not far from the library at Nothwestern where I worked when I was in college. “Library” in an abstract sense for me is pretty much what the old Deering library looks like. But it’s a repository for the work of thousands, if not millions, of writers who managed to create something that endures. I used to handle books written on vellum in the Middle Ages, as well as comic books from the 20th century. The creators of these books, and all the others, committed their ideas to paper, and created something that endures after they’re gone. That’s what writers do. And for five years of my life, I’ve been doing that in this new electronic medium of a blog. It’s been an enjoyable, therapeutic, and cathartic experience, and I’ll keep on doing it for as long as I can.

One goal, accomplished

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

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

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

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

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

Shakedown, 1979

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Let’s hear it for the Bae

 

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The Cubs are off to an amazing start this year (24-6 through the first 30 games) and I haven’t yet written a single word about it. I voluntarily disengaged from my long-time writing gigs with FiveWideSports and ThroughTheFenceBaseball, just in time to have the Cubs catching fire like this. It’s all in the timing, I suppose.

Javier Baez hit a walk-off home run in the 13th inning to get the win today. I was very hard on Baez in his rookie season, because he struck out too damn much. But he had a hard time last season, between injuries and personal issues, and he kept on going to get through it. He even got injured before this season started, but he kept his head up and here he is. I’m certainly pulling for him going forward. For all the talent he obviously has, he’s a survivor, too.

I really don’t like the word “bae.” Kids use it, in part, because adults do not. If I were to call someone “bae” it would feel strange, and my children would make their displeasure known. Some terms they don’t want me using, and I don’t have the urge to use them, either.

But “bae” happens to be first three letters of Baez’s last name, and adding the Z separately at the end–a la Jay-Z–seems like it can work. I’m going to call him Bae-Z, especially when he goes deep in extra innings to win the game. And the odds are very small my children (or anyone else, for that matter) will encounter that term here.

None of this will matter once October arrives. The Cubs have to bring home the pennant and the World Series this year, because at least a few of the Cubs fans enjoying this year’s great ride won’t be here when the 2017 season rolls around. I’m not being ominous, as much as I’m stating a fact. The sooner the Cubs climb to the the mountaintop, the more fans will be able to die happy when their time comes.

But so far this year has been amazing, and I hope it continues.

 

Enough is enough

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Opioids are taking a terrible toll on this country, and yet they’re perfectly legal. The Pharma companies that manufacture them are profiting from addiction and death. I’m grateful I don’t know anyone who has had an addiction to these things, but not everyone has been so fortunate.

Can we now have an honest discussion of legalizing marijuana everywhere for medical use, at the very least? I’d rather have Prince–or anybody else–walking around with a bong in his hand, treating his pain in a way that wouldn’t get him addicted to anything.

I’m in favor of legalizing it for recreational use, too, because people are going to smoke whether it’s legal or not. Alcohol takes an enormous social toll, but experience has shown that regulating people’s vices is a fool’s errand.

Sacrificing our brothers, sisters, friends, family members and music idols to the opioid makers doesn’t make sense anymore, if it ever did in the first place.

Note: This is cross-posted from something I wrote on Facebook this morning, commenting on a Washington Post story about Prince’s scheduled meeting with an opioid specialist the day after he was found dead. 

UPDATE: Apparently this approach worked for Jim McMahon. Why not allow others to self-medicate like this? I can’t think of a good reason not to.

My Dancing Queens

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When you have two lovely, artistic-minded kids and a few thousand pictures saved on a hard drive, as I do, putting something like this together when you learn about #InternationalDanceDay isn’t very difficult. Call it a labor of love.

May everyone do a little dance today.

Saying thanks to The New Yorker

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Many years ago (almost 34 years, to be exact) I wrote a letter to the editor of a wrestling magazine. The young teenager that I was at the time watched a lot of professional wrestling on TV, and they were to me what Batman and Superman were for those who read comic books. Dusty Rhodes, Ric Flair, Dick the Bruiser and, most of all, Roddy Piper were living, breathing examples of escapism and super powers. I would practice wrestling moves on the bed at home, or with my two younger brothers. It was a fun time in my life, and I miss it in some ways.

I felt sufficiently moved by my admiration for Roddy Piper to write a letter and put it in the mail slot of the hospital where I went to visit my dying grandmother. I never really thought they would publish it, though. Just saying it, or writing the words down, was enough for me at that time. But they published my letter in the fall of 1982, and the excitement I got from seeing my words and my name in print is something I haven’t since forgotten. My name has occasionally made its way into print, but literally millions of my words have been submitted  for public review since then. It’s tremendously gratifying to know that many of my ideas and words are floating around, somewhere.

Two days ago, in the aftermath of Prince’s sudden and shocking death last week, I was again moved to send out a letter to the editor of a magazine, this time The New Yorker. I was barely aware of who Prince was back in 1982 when I wrote my first letter to the editor, but I learned not too long after that. And just as the Internet has come along and brought great change to the way news and ideas are shared with the public, I didn’t actually write out a letter this time, but I did compose the following as an email:

It’s April 25, and the news of Prince’s sudden passing still feels shocking and raw. We’ve all had a weekend to mourn and reflect on what his music meant for those of us who grew up in the 80s, as well as those who either discovered his music after that, or those who followed his newer music right up until the end. It’s a hard time for all of us, no matter which category we may fall into.

Your April 25 cover is a fascinating glimpse into this present day. There’s just no way that anyone connected with your magazine could have known that, by the date appearing on the cover itself, we would lose a man who was an absolute wizard on the electric guitar. Nor could you realize that the man whose music broke down every barrier–racial, gender, and generational, to name just a few–would leave us within days of this cover’s appearance. And yet, there it is on your cover, in red and blue (and the fact the two colors combine to make purple is another inexplicable coincidence).

We can see people of all concert-going ages, backgrounds, and stations in life joined together in a room, enjoying themselves in a way that would not be possible in any other public setting. The guitar’s fretboard we can see on the cover, but the guitarist’s identity in this idyllic scene remains unknown. My interpretation is that the guitarist most likely to make such a gathering possible is the one who is being commemorated in purple in your next issue.

I’m already thinking of these as the most accidental–and yet most appropriate–covers pairing that we’ll ever see. Many thanks for such an unintentional gift.

Whether the New Yorker does anything with this note is besides the point. I had something to say, and I said it. And the internet and this blog allow me share this message with whatever part of the online world wants to read it, too. Just having an outlet for the idea is enough. And when the Prince tribute cover arrived in the mailbox today, I had to put the covers side by side and share them here. They are the beautiful ones, indeed.

The sky was all purple

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

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

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

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

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

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

I spent the 80s in purple

Prince died today, at the age of 57. Coming on the heels of the deaths of David Bowie and Glenn Frey already this year, I didn’t think there would be any more meaningful musical deaths for some time. Apparently I was wrong in that belief. This one really left me stunned.

The high school I attended had purple and gold as its school colors, and when “Purple Rain” came out in 1984, not only was the music undeniably great but it also felt a bit like hitting the lottery. The title wasn’t “Auburn Rain” or “Sapphire Rain” or any of the other colors available on the visible spectrum, but it was “Purple Rain.” My high school, like a thousand others I’m sure, used “Purple Reign” as their homecoming theme that fall, because our purple-clad school was supposed to rule, you know? Totally. (It didn’t happen like everyone thought it would that year, but it was a kickass idea, all the same).

When I graduated from high school in 1986, my college choices came down to the orange and blue of the University of Illinois, or the purple and white of Northwestern. School colors played zero part in making my decision, but once I threw my lot in with the purple and white, I made sure to put a window sticker in the back of my old Dodge Dart. The purple looked great, and I still have a purple and white sweatshirt to announce to the world where I went to school once upon a time. And if people want to see purple and think of Prince, that’s fine. I do the same thing myself.

Musicians enter into our hearts in ways that actors and writers and other artists never do, particularly when we’re young. Prince kept on making music until the end of his life, but Purple Rain and a few other albums he released in the 80s have, and always will, cement his status as a cultural touchstone for me and millions of others who came of age decades ago.

The identification of Prince with the color purple will be seen over and over in the coming days and weeks. Simply put, purple is his color, but I’m happy to say that it’s mine, as well.

A Freudian Slip

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It’s fitting, in some way, that the trial I served as a juror for ended on Tax Day. I realize that taxes aren’t due until the 18th of April this year, but everyone knows April 15 is the day that we’re supposed to settle up with the IRS by filing our tax returns. Money changes hands on that day, generally in the form of a tax refund that people use for whatever they need some extra money for.

That didn’t happen for me this year. Instead of a healthy refund, I owed something to Uncle Sam, and not a trivial amount, either. But I paid that amount because, well, that’s just what you do. It keeps the National parks open, and pays for social programs and military defense and all the other places our tax dollars go to. Living in America is a privilege that I can’t fully appreciate because I haven’t lived anyplace else. But that privilege comes with a price, and the IRS is there to extract part of it from us all, whether we want to pay it or not.

Another price of citizenship in this country is jury service. In my many years of living, I had never served on a jury, of any kind, until this past week. The right to a trial by jury is an enormous gift, and that entails giving up your time when called by the courts to do so.

The trial I served as a juror on wrapped up yesterday, and I made a point to ask the judge if I was allowed to write about the case online. Writing is a form of free, self-induced therapy for me, and I needed to put a few things out into cyberspace, before the experience fades away into memory. I expect jury service to be a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and after this trial, I very much hope that’s the case.

Part of me wants to get into the specific facts of the case, but that’s not really going to help anything. Painting in broad strokes about what happened is probably good enough, at least for my purposes. I could write a long treatise about the case I was charged with deciding, but the end result wouldn’t change, not even the tiniest bit.

The case had to do with a fraud, pure and simple. The federal government rooted out the defendant’s misdeeds, which were filing tax returns in the name of people who had no idea they were having returns filed on their behalf. Their names and social security numbers, and access to online tax filing software, are apparently all it took to set these wheels into motion.

So prisoner A (We learned his real name and saw him testify in court, but his first name began with A so I’ll call him that here) is doing time. I learned what it was for, but it really didn’t matter that much. He’s serving time, and not receiving any Social Security benefits from the government. But a tax return was sent to the IRS, indicating that not only was he receiving these benefits, but he had a portion of those benefits withheld by the IRS, and he wanted the withheld portion back. It’s a classic case of turning nothing (as in the Social security benefits which were never paid in the first place) into something (as in a few hundred dollars that wound up in the tax preparer’s pocket.

This happened for hundreds of prisoners, and the IRS paid off like a slot machine by depositing the money in waves. There were hundreds of prisoners, and thousands upon thousands of dollars being shoveled out for this scam. The legal term is “scheme,” which sounds a hair more respectable than a “scam,” but this was the scammiest thing I’ve ever seen in my life. And it makes a mockery out of those who pay taxes and wouldn’t think to  run a fraud like this.

At the close of the trial, on Thursday afternoon, the jury received instructions from the judge about what the relevant law is. We were told to follow those instructions, whether we agreed with them or not. One juror failed to do so, and that vote was enough to result in a hung jury. Our romantic notions of “Twelve Angry Men” and the noble juror who spares a defendant from being wrongly convicted by standing up to, and ultimately persuading, his fellow jurors didn’t apply in this case. Life didn’t imitate art, at least not in this instance.

But the two sides had to give closing arguments before we could begin deliberating, and the otherwise masterful defense attorney nearly gave away the game with one small, practically imperceptible slip. I may have been the only one that noticed it, but it was very telling. It didn’t make a difference, in the end, but I wanted to preserve it here, anyway.

A Freudian slip, also called a parapraxis, is when someone gives away their inner feelings by accident. As the defense attorney was summing up the defects in the government’s case–since they have the burden of proof, his job was to point out the ways they haven’t done so, regardless of whether any such defects actually existed–he said “They have fooled–failed–to show….”

The “fooling” that the defense attorney referred to, in his moment of unintended candor, wasn’t the government’s doing, but his own. He was there to fool the jury into believing that his client had been wrongly accused of defrauding the government–and by extension the taxpayers on the jury and all over the United States–out of withholding proceeds from prisoners who had not receive any Social Security benefits while they were behind bars. All he had to do was fool one juror, and the week’s worth of trial would have gone for naught. And that’s exactly how it played out, too.

I put a picture of Frederick Douglass in this post, because the holdout juror bears a strong resemblance to him. I even thought of him as Fred, though his real name was something else. Frederick Douglass became friends with Abraham Lincoln, and their unlikely rise from the circumstances they were each born into has always inspired me. I will always admire Frederick Douglass, but I’ll probably see pictures of him now and think about the juror who wouldn’t agree with the rest of us on the jury. Life takes some strange twists sometimes.

On my way home from the courthouse, after the verdict had been read and my fellow jurors and I were excused with the thanks of the court, I took a train to a bus in order to get home. The transfer point from train to bus led me to a statue of Abraham Lincoln, which I’ve written about before in this space. I looked up at Lincoln, who is depicted not as the bearded president we all know, but as a clean-shaven Illinois attorney, which he was for many years before he was elected president.

As I looked up at Lincoln’s representation, I tried putting my frustrations with the case into some type of order. And I realized that our legal system, for all of its imperfections, is still something to be proud of. The defendant wasn’t set free by my jury, and he still has to face the prospect of perhaps another trial in the weeks and months ahead. We as jury did what we had been charged with doing. I didn’t like the final result, but it was far from the first time where something I was involved with didn’t end up the way I wanted it to. Those are the breaks, whether in the courthouse or anyplace else in life.

The Lincoln statute reminded me that our legal system is worth preserving and supporting, even if it isn’t perfect. It won’t ever be perfect, but it will always seek to do justice. The truth is  that I’d rather live in such a place than anywhere else.

Back to the bench

A a quarter of a century ago, I was fresh out of college, and finally on my own. There were bills to pay, of course, but life as I had imagined it to be was underway.

I moved into an apartment in Chicago, lured by a free month’s rent. And each day, I rode the bus downtown to the job I had, as a legal go-fer for a solo practioner attorney in the Loop. It was an exciting time in life.

This week, after a good chunk of my lifetime has passed by, I am back in the Loop again, serving on a jury trial. I walked through the lobby of the old building I once worked in. It was just as stately and marbled as I remembered it being.

I also sat on a marble bench, but that may not be the right word for it because it has no back, outside of the post office  a block away. I would sometimes eat my lunch there, watching the people going by as I tried to imagine what my place in the world was going to be someday.

Sitting on that same bench yesterday morning reminded me of how the world has turned upside down since then. I got married, had two very lovely daughters come into my life, and now have a house and a mortgage and two cars and a few other things. The ride of life has been very good over those years, and I have many fine memories that have shown up in this space over the years.

But the ride still  continues, as it will until I finally come to the edge of my mortality. When and how that happens remains a mystery, but I’m leaving this behind as a remnant of my life for after it happens.

I moved away from the building and the bench, as I imagined I would, and was happy for the having the chance to sit on it once again and remember those days.

Ferris Bueller said that life moves pretty fast, and if you don’t look around, you could miss it. I’m writing this to affirm that it does, and that I haven’t.

A siblings day remembrance

 

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I was very fortunate to have some fun people to grow up with. Peg is my only sister, John is my older little brother, and Mickey is my younger little brother. I could tell stories about them all (and I have to my own kids, at various times), but I’ll let the pictures do the talking here.

Thanks for all the memories and laughs!

Everybody wants to rule the World

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A song by Tears for Fears encapsulates the 80s for me like few others do. And the irony now, all these years laters, is that it was probably in the air when a high school teacher and coach named Hastert was doing some terrible things to trusting young kids.

He went from Yorkville High to third in line to the presidency. He literally did help to rule the world, at least in theory, and made millions in the process. Some of those millions would later be funneled to those who he abused when nobody knew his name. That’s punishment enough for what he did, right? If only if were that simple.

I never knew any of the people involved in this tale, so perhaps it’s not my place to say anything about this. But the good teachers and coaches who want the best for the kids they work with will bear the brunt of Hastert’s actions, far more than he ever will. And that is beyond unfortunate.

High school sucked for me, and I’m not the only one who felt that way. When adults in position of authority and trust use the circumstances of this difficult age of transition for their own benefit, in order to sexually prey on those who are still trying to figure out their own place in the world, all of us suffer, in ways that we may never realize. I’m grateful that nothing like this ever happened to me, but I can easily understand why others were not so fortunate.

After a long and financially rewarding stretch in the halls of power, Coach Hastert’s past finally caught up with him. He paid off his prey, but money alone can’t make everything OK, either for those he molested or the rest of us, as well. He’s old and going to die soon, so perhaps he’ll get what’s coming to him when that happens. But here on earth, his request for probation is an affront to anyone who’s paying attention.

His “family values” and likely unstated opposition to the very behaviors he engaged in as a wrestling coach makes him an outsized hypocrite. Sending him to prison won’t make him any different, but the idea that he can do this and slink off with nothing more than his own shame and humiliation seems wrong, on some level.

I have no doubt he feels bad about what he did, but this is only because it came up again. The abuser can forget his actions however he wants to, but the abused cannot. And to protect those who need it, neither should the rest of us.

Play ball!

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It’s no accident that “Baseball” is the biggest topic in the wordcloud associated with this blog. Nor is it an accident that the first thing I wrote on this site related to baseball in some. Without baseball, I might not even have a blog in the first place.

Today it’s Opening Day, and what I’ve been looking forward to since last October has finally arrived. And this year, 2016, is the year that the Cubs will finally get to the Promised Land of the World Series. I’m beyond happy about that.

Enjoy the baseball gallery, and more importantly, enjoy the season ahead. Go Cubs!

Signing off from TTFB

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When I started writing this blog in the summer of 2011, I did it because I had things I wanted to say, and no outlet for saying them. I sent a couple of things I wrote to other blogs, but in the end I wanted my words to go someplace that I got to direct. The result was this blog, and starting it was a decision I’m very happy about.

For the first few months, this blog was a spigot that gushed forth with thoughts I had kept locked inside my brain for a long time. Nothing seemed too trivial to write about, because it was all stuff that I wanted to share with somebody–anybody–and finally I could do exactly that.

And then I started to wonder if some of my ideas wouldn’t be suited for wider consumption someplace else. The 2011 World Series between the Rangers and Cardinals was amazing, but my thoughts and writings about it came here to sit. I’d rather write something than let the thoughts die inside my brain–and that’s the feeling that still keeps me doing this, 500,000 words or so later. But there should be something else I could do with this stuff, too.

So the following spring, I began sending things into a website called ThroughTheFenceBaseball. I think I learned about them on a Craigslist ad or something like that. From the start, I wanted a place to send some of my baseball-related thoughts, while keeping the blog for everything else. And it worked out pretty well, because I sent them 215 pieces over the past four years, ending with a farewell piece that was published yesterday. I even got in a reference to Boston in my parting shot, which made me happy.

The number of outside websites I write for has varied through the years, but my four-year run at TTFB will always be my first one, and probably my longest one, too. I had hundreds of thousands of page views there, which means somebody might have read something they liked.  It was something I enjoyed doing, and I left a body of work that will live on for as long as the site does. And who really knows how long that will be, anyway?

 

A half-empty bottle

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The worst night of my life started with a half-empty bottle of beer.

It was not quite five years ago in New York City, and I was in the process of trying to give up drinking altogether.

The details aren’t really that important. The bottom line is I knew that alcohol was no friend of mine, after a quarter century of acting as though it was. Drinking made me feel like something other than what I was, and that was a good thing in my view.

Then, in late 2010, I made the decision to stop drinking altogether, in the hope of finally embracing what I was, and to quit feeding myself something that was harming me. When you’re in a hole, stop digging. That’s exactly what I needed to do.

After a few months of giving it up altogether, I drank a couple of margaritas while watching the NCAA tournament one night, and got drunk on mojitos celebrating a friend’s birthday a few weeks later. But I still had quitting on my mind when I went to New York with my family in June of 2011.

My wife had ordered a bottle of Bud Light in a restaurant, and only drank half of it. Starting to drink and then stopping had always been a foreign concept to me, from the very first time that I had a drink. once I started, I did not–and could not–stop. And after decades of denying this about myself, I finally knew it to be true.

I stared long and hard at that bottle on the table, all those years ago. And in the end, I finished it myself. Lots of bad things followed after that, but in the aftermath of it I told myself that it couldn’t happen again. And nearly five years later, I’m very happy to report that it hasn’t. I don’t miss it, and I never really needed it in the first place. That’s a hard-earned realization on my part, but one that I’m very glad to have made.

On Easter Sunday today, my wife again left a half-finished bottle of beer, this time on the dining room table in our house. I remembered the night in New York where I answered the call to finish the beer, but today was a completely different story. When faced with the opportunity to revert to my old ways, I didn’t even think about doing it. And that’s the way I have to live from now on.

If the Cubs finally win the World Series, I may allow myself a celebratory glass of champagne. But no half-finished beer bottles are going to knock me off this stride.