One Last Time


Not that I’m trying to be cute, but Life is like the World Series: Sometimes you have finality, but more often you don’t. When this year’s Series went to seven games, we knew that whoever won that game would be crowned champions, and whoever lost would have a long offseason to think about how things turned out.But not every Series goes that far, and most are decided in four, five, or six games instead.

My friend Mark was a presence in my life from kindergarten until we graduated from high school together. I saw him thousands of times, and we passed through–or at least we started to pass through–the difficult period of transitioning from children to adults with each other. But for all that, nobody ever told me when the last time I would see him would be. Try as I might, I can’t even remember it myself.

When I learned a week ago that Mark died in a New York hospital over the summer, I was hit very hard by the news. I hadn’t seen him since probably August of 1986, before he went away to study at Arizona State. I went off to a different school the following month, and our paths had forever diverged. I had hoped to see him again someday, somehow, but it won’t happen like that. And that’s why I want to get a few words down, to record what this feels like.

I went to the chalk mural that sprang up at Wrigley Field during this year’s playoff/World Series run last Wednesday, and wrote Mark’s name among the thousands of others that covered every available inch of space. I couldn’t find a good spot on the walls, so I used the ledge of a ticket booth instead. I wrote his name and the years of his birth and death, and took a picture to commemorate the event. It proved, in case anyone ever needed to see it, that Mark–who wasn’t a Cubs fan, at least as far as I knew–was there, at least in spirit. It felt very good, and very humbling, to be able to do that for one of my oldest and best friends.

Yesterday, less than 72 hours after visiting the mural, I drove past it and was saddened to see it had been removed and fenced off. I could see the wall, and the booth where I had written Mark’s name, but none of the names and artworks and victory messages were seen. Again, nobody told me it was going away, so I had no way to know that I was getting in at the end of the process. But I will be forever glad that I did.

As I have probably mentioned here before, I love the music from the Broadway show Hamilton. And my favorite song of all is “One Last Time,” which speaks to finality and the importance of making a known parting of the ways matter. When we get this finality on lives we must savor it, but we must appreciate all the other times in life when finality may (or may not) be present. An old Stones song that says “It may be the last time, I don’t know” is equally fitting. This could be my last blog post, I don’t know. I hope it’s not, but if it is, at least I enjoyed putting it together.

And now on to the rest of the weekend…..and hopefully not my last one, either.

An unexpected payoff


Being a Cubs fan is never an easy thing. After spending almost forty years in that fold, I can make such a statement with complete confidence. The good years–as measured by when the team makes it to the playoffs– can be counted on one hand, or two hands at the very most. And every one of them has also supplied a moment of defeat and disappointment, whether it’s Leon Durham letting a ground ball go through his legs in 1984, or Greg Maddux serving up a grand slam to Will Clark in 1989, or Moises Alou throwing a fit when he didn’t catch a foul ball in 2003. Even the best years haven’t ended well for Cubs fans like me.

But every once in a while, there’s a moment of validation. The Rolling Stones got it right: you do, once in awhile, get what you need. And what I needed is a sense that decades of following a baseball team has put me in league with some good people who share my interest. Our team never has won the big prize in any of our lifetimes, but so what? That doesn’t mean we can’t follow them, all the same.

I very publicly threw up my hands on the present version of the Cubs, as constructed under the front office of Theo Epstein and others. I’m convinced that they aren’t worth following at this point, because they aren’t doing anything to make the team on the field any better this year. But even if that’s the case, decades of following the Cubs are still with me, and purging all of that from my memory just isn’t possible. I’d sooner cut off one of my hands than deny all of the memories I have acquired through the years, and have put so much time and effort into trying to describe them in this space.

And so tonight, I had an opportunity to put all of these memories to use. The Chicago Public Library sponsored a Wrigley Field centennial celebration, centered around Wrigley Field: The Long Life and Contentious Times of the Friendly Confines by Stuart Shea. The format of the evening was a trivia game, where members of the audience were randomly chosen to compete for prizes. I would have had fun watching others compete, but fate was smiling on me as I had a chance to put my Cubs experiences to work.

I answered some of the questions correctly, and missed some other questions, and had a great time in the company of others who cared about the Cubs as passionately as I do. I even walked away with a copy of the book, which is great because books are the best thing that anyone can give me. Abraham Lincoln once said that his best friend was the man who could get him a book he hasn’t read, and I agree wholeheartedly, particularly when that book is about the Cubs and Wrigley Field.

Knowing that there are others like me who enjoy the Cubs, despite all of the disappointment that they will inevitably bring in October (if not earlier), is something like finding old treasures in an attic, or finding money in the pocket of your jeans. It makes this year’s team (which was shut out for the second game in a row today, and will have the worst record in the majors until further notice) tolerable, not for the feelings of victory which EVERY OTHER TEAM in this city has experienced in my lifetime. No, it makes it tolerable because even though the team on the field has been defeated time and time again, the part of this city who loves the team has not allowed themselves to be defeated.

On the day that Maya Angelou passed away, many of her inspirational writings have been making the rounds on the internet. One of my favorites is “You may encounter many defeats, but you must not be defeated.” And tonight, I put those words into action at the public library in Chicago. Ms. Angelou’s words were undoubtedly meant in a larger context than following a particular baseball team, but the spirit of her remarks can be applied to any circumstance at all.

We all fail in life, and it’s not fun when it happens. We suffer defeats, and our expectations do not always meet the realities that we encounter. Certainly that’s been the case for the Cubs this year, and last year, and every year before that, as well. But those setbacks must never serve to crush our spirit. And following a team like the Cubs reinforces this lesson on a regular basis.

Eddie Vedder sang that someday we’ll go all the way, and there are untold numbers of people waiting for that day to arrive. In the meantime, at least there’s a new book about it to read. I think I’ll get started right now.

Have you heard about the Midnight Rambler


Tonight’s hockey game went into three overtime periods, and the sudden death nature of the playoffs meant that any scoring opportunity could have ended the game. And in the end, a shot taken at midnight deflected off of not one, but two Blackhawk players, and set off a wild celebration scene at the United Center.

I’m calling the winning shot the Midnight Rambler, to honor a Stones tune of the same name. And now I’m off to get some sleep. Tonight was a classic game, with an epic result. Can’t ask for too much more than that.

It’s time for me to try


Today I got some shocking news about my older daughter’s first caregiver. I hadn’t seen her in more than a decade, but the news of her sudden passing over the weekend brought memories flooding back to me. Her name was Amy, and I am grateful to her for taking care of my daughter once upon a time.

I’m just a few days away from a birthday myself, and for the first time I’m thinking about the possibility that it could be the last one I’ll ever have. I suppose that’s  also been the case for every birthday I’ve had, but this is the first time that I’ve ever contemplated that possibility. I doubt that Amy knew her last birthday wouldn’t have any more to follow, but that’s how it turned out. I wonder how we would react if we had that knowledge in advance. It would be much better to act as if a birthday could be the last one, than to know this for certain.

I’ve written several posts ruminating on the deaths of people I don’t know: Clarence Clemons, MCA, Darryl Kile, and probably many others. Last fall I also reflected on the murder of one of my former students. And today I think about the passing of a person that I hadn’t seen in a very long time. I’m reminded that my own time will come some day. Everyone’s will, whether we choose to think about it or not.

The age that I’ll get to, hopefully, in a few days will be the same age that Freddie Mercury was when he died. And the same age that Natasha Richardson was when she died from a skiing injury. And many other people, known and unknown, who made it to 45, but not to 46. With this in mind, I’m going to suspend writing any new material for this blog. Maybe I’ll come back to it someday, and maybe I won’t.

So why am I walking away from something I enjoy so much? The short answer is I had a flash of inspiration today, and I want to follow that to see where it leads. Otherwise, I’ll never know for certain. Following a voice is one way to put it, but I can verify that there will be no ball fields built in the corn (and I couldn’t resist the Field of Dreams reference, either).

In a little less than two years, I’ve created–and essentially donated–hundreds of images and a few hundred thousand words to the digital archive that we call the Internet. And I’ve loved doing it, too. Now I’m going to see if I can parlay that into something else. And in case it matters, I’ve always wanted to use the word parlay in this space, and now I’ve accomplished that.

The Rolling Stones once told us that “You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you just might find you get what you need.” So now’s the time to try. All the best to anyone who reads this.

A smile relieves a heart that grieves

Stones logo

Back in the fall of 1981, I was getting into the Rolling Stones for the first time. I had bought a cassette version of Tattoo You, and listened to it all the time on my fake walkman. Little did I know that it wasn’t the Stones’ best work, or that most of the songs had been left over from the 1970s. None of that mattered to a kid who didn’t yet know that Start Me Up wasn’t exactly about racing cars.

I remembered reading about the Stones tour in the fall of 1981, but noticed that they never played anywhere close to where I lived at the time. It was the first inkling I had that some places were big enough to merit a Stones concert, and other places weren’t. And I only wanted to live in a place that did.

In the mid 1980s, as I was looking toward a future outside of the Stones-free zone of Springfield, Illinois, I considered where the Stones might play someday as a very small piece of the college-going puzzle. But what I never thought about was how to get to–and then how to pay for–a concert tour that was basically building up demand all through the 1980s. When the Stones finally did come to Chicago in 1989 with the Steel Wheels tour, the tickets were priced far out of my budget, and Alpine Valley, Wisconsin may as well have been on another planet for someone who didn’t have a car.

I say all of this because the Stones are playing in Chicago this evening, but my desire to see them perform live has gone the way of my Tattoo You cassette. I still love their music, and was singing along with Start Me Up and Waiting on a Friend while driving home from work this evening. I’m sure that the Stones are a great band live, but some things in life will just have to remain a mystery. And reliving the memories from another stage in life is enough fun for me.

And it really hit home


How can it be that I’ve written hundreds of posts in this space without focusing on the Stones even once? I’ve mentioned them in passing before, but never given them their due here. I heard a cover of “It’s All over Now” at a bar recently, and it’s far from the best-known Stones song there is. But damned if it doesn’t rock harder than any almost any modern band that I can think of.

So I was inspired enough by that song to fish out my Some Girls CD as I was out driving around today. If it’s not their best album, it’s certainly in the top three or four. And aside from “Miss You” and “Shattered” and “Beast of Burden”–the best-known songs on that album–there’s a little gem called “Before They Make Me Run.” Keith sings vocals, and perhaps that’s one of the reasons I like it so much.

Think about it this way: Mick Jagger is probably the best frontman that there’s ever been in rock and roll. There’s bound to be some disagreement about claim, but I would ask if there’s anyone else who could sing “It’s Only Rock and Roll (But I like it)” as convincingly as he does. There’s nobody that I can think of.

So the Stones are so good that they can turn the lead vocals over to the guitar player instead. Lots of bands do that–Townsend and the Who spring immediately to mind–but Keith wrote and recorded this beauty, and Mick wasn’t needed in order to make it work. I like it, yes I do.

A no-no-no

The Cubs managed just one hit tonight against A.J. Burnett of the Pirates. Burnett had a no-hitter into the 8th inning of tonight’s game, and only a single by rookie Adrian Cardenas stood between Burnett and an historic feat. As the saying goes, close but no cigar.

Most people are aware that the last time the Cubs suffered the indignity of being no-hit was in September of 1965, when Sandy Koufax threw a perfect game against them in Dodger Stadium. The fact that it hasn’t been done against the Cubs since, a span of nearly 47 years, is fairly impressive. Many of baseball’s franchises today haven’t even been around that long to begin with. But there’s more to the story than just that.

The Cubs have been on the receiving end of no-hitters just twice in their current ballpark. In 1917, they lost the famous double-no hitter game, which was played in what was then called Weeghman Park. I’m sure we’ll never see another game like that one. Decades then went by before the Cubs were no-hit in their own ballpark, as they nearly were by A.J. Burnett this evening. In fact, the only other time that the Cubs were held hitless in front of their home fans happened in August of 1965.

Yes, 1965. The year that the Rolling Stones recorded “Satisfaction” and changed rock and roll forever. There was indeed something that the 1965 Cubs weren’t able to get, and that was hits against the other team’s starting pitcher. On August 19 of that year, they were no-hit at home by Jim Maloney of the Cincinnati Reds, losing that game 1-0 in 10 innings. Yes, the Cubs endured a ten-inning no-hitter that afternoon. Then, after playing 19 games in which they weren’t no-hit, they ran into an unhittable Koufax on September 9 in Los Angeles. Koufax’ perfect game was the second time in three weeks that the Cubs had made 27 outs without registering a single base hit.

I’m wondering if any other team in baseball history has suffered two no-hitters in the same season. It may have happened, but I would be stunned if it had ever happened to the same team twice within a single month. That brand of futility seems to be something that only the Cubs could accomplish.

I’m glad the Cubs managed at least one hit tonight, to keep their no no-hitters streak going. But I’m also glad to discover and present a story with the world about the 1965 Cubs, who were possibly the most unsatisfied team in big-league history.

It never felt so good, it never felt so right

The Sony Walkman has now officially been scrapped, a victim of its own success. But when the Walkman first appeared in the 1980s, it was nothing short of revolutionary. Never before had it been possible to choose your own music and enjoy it in public. The boombox forced your music onto other people, and that invariably came with a pushback, since not everybody wants to hear your music. But a Walkman was different. It allowed you to put your headphones on, play your music, and the rest of the world wouldn’t bother you about it.

My first “Walkman” wasn’t even a Walkman at all, but a cheap imitation of one that I think came from Sears. I was self-conscious of that, since it wasn’t the real thing, but music is music and that’s what matters most. I remember playing the Rolling Stones’ “Tattoo You” over and over again, and I’m sure I owned some other tapes back then, but that was my favorite one. So I think this was way back in 1981. Thirty-plus years ago. So much has changed since then.

The Walkman paved the way for the iPod, no question about it. But the iPod had some definite advantages, which primarily came from its ability to play music that had been digitized and stored on the device. If you wanted to change what you were listening to on a Walkman, or later on a Discman, you had to remove the music and replace it with something else. And there was the issue of having to replace batteries on a regular basis too. The concept of a charge, which could be renewed by plugging into a computer, was another point in the iPod’s favor.

I was at a trash swap not far from my house a couple of weeks ago, where people were sorting through donated things and grabbing whatever they wanted and nobody else had yet claimed. I went there looking for books, mostly, but I also saw an old Walkman, sitting in a pile of misfit electronic gear. I picked it up and, for the first (and likely, the only) time in my life, I now own a real Sony Walkman. But these things aren’t any good without tapes to put in them, and I haven’t owned a cassette tape in a long time. So I picked up three tapes–John Couger’s American Fool (from the pre-Mellencamp days), Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the U.S.A., and Meatloaf’s Bat out of Hell–and took them home with me.

The Cougar tape plays so slow that he sounds like he took a few too many quaaludes, the Springsteen tape churns unpredictably, but the Meatloat tape plays just fine. I won’t think too much about why that is, either. That might make for an interesting tale one day, but not right now, it won’t. I was never really into Meatloaf before, but I have to say that from start to finish, it’s a fantastic album. And “Paradise by the Dashboard Light” is a classic (the recent Glee version doesn’t come close, either).

So now I have a Meatloaf-dedicated Walkman. I never imagined I’d own such a thing but, then again, life can take some interesting directions.

So now I’m praying for the end of time, so I can end my time with you….

You drive us wild, we’ll drive you crazy

I just learned today that my family and I will be going to Cleveland in May, and I finally will get to visit the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Besides the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, that’s probably the only one that I would be interested in seeing. So it will be a pilgrimage of sorts for me.

But as I was out driving around tonight, I got a reminder of a reason why I’m not so high on the rock Hall in the first place. On the radio, the most anthemic rock song ever written was being played. If you read the title of this post, you already know which song I’m talking about, but if not, let’s just say it’s the one song that anyone going to a KISS concert wants to hear.

I’ve been to a couple of KISS concerts, and they’re quite an experience. They’re rock concerts in every sense of the word, and the fact that they’ve appeared on the ballot for the Rock hall, and not gotten in, rubs me the wrong way. Strip away everything else but this one song–the perfect embodiment of the rock and roll ethos–and that’s enough to put them in. But Jann Wenner, the publisher of Rolling Stone and the gatekeeper of the Rock hall, seems to have something against KISS, so they remain on the outside looking in. And it’s a shame, really, because KISS has a fan base–the KISS Army–that could make the turnstiles move in Cleveland, which has been something of a problem.

So I’ll go and visit the Hall when I get the chance this spring. I’ll look at Springsteen and the Stones and U2 and all of the other acts that are represented there. And I’ll probably walk away from it with some material to post here, too. But KISS, and Rush, and many other fine acts who have also made a contribution to the music won’t be there, and I’ll just have to remember them as well. And if I break into a little Rock and Roll All Night, they’re just going to have to put up with that.