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.