…and odd months


Last year I went to see my older daughter onstage in Romeo and Juliet. I was taken in by the story, in a way that I never had been before. There are so many phrases and expressions that we use every day, and yet Shakespeare first put the words together, in a way that sounds good to this day.

A phrase that stuck with me–and it’s far from a well-known one–occurs in Act one, scene three. There is a question of how long it will be until a festival called Lammas-tide, at which point Juliet will be 14 years old and presumably old enough to be married. The answer to the question is “a fortnight and odd days.” I don’t know why it stuck with me, but for some reason it did.

I particularly like the “and odd days” part, because it’s not important how many of them there are. The fortnight–two weeks’ time–is the main thing, and everything else is not so very important.

The thought came to me today as I was walking home. It was a longer walk than I’m used to taking, and at some point I thought about having a beer when I got home. There are a couple of beers in the refrigerator downstairs, for the purpose of offering them to guests.

Here’s where the “odd days” part comes in. It’s been more than two years since I stopped drinking, after many, many years and many, many drinks. I was surprised by the beer thought during my walk, because I have found that not thinking about drinking leads to not wanting to drink. It’s pretty simple, really.

To offset this thought, I started thinking about how long it’s been since I had anything to drink, of an alcoholic nature. I came up with an answer that Shakespeare himself could have written: Fifty two fortnights and odd months. I never thought I could go so long without it, and putting it into terms like that made it seem like a real accomplishment.

For hundreds of fortnights, literally, beer was my friend. And margaritas were my friend. And gimlets, too. It didn’t really matter what I drank, so long as I drank something. Our society approves of this, and encourages it at every step. Turn on a football game and see how long it takes for a beer commercial to come on, if you don’t believe me.

I happily followed this path from the mid-eighties until the summer of 2011. And since then, I’ve gone a different direction. My liver is happier, I hope, and I feel as if I’ve managed to tame something inside.

This is not to say that those who drink are doing a bad thing. People can make these choices for themselves. But as for me, I made the wrong choice for a very long time. And in the years and odd months since realizing that, I’ve been much happier with myself. That’s something I never found inside any bottle.

Shakespeare and the dog


My older daughter is currently appearing in Romeo and Juliet, and the final two shows are taking place this weekend. Seeing the show performed live has made it come alive for me, in a way it never was before. Better I should come upon this later in life than not at all.

One of my favorite lines, perhaps because it is said to my daughter’s character, comes in the play’s first scene. When Sampson, one of the servants of the Montagues, bites his thumb at one of the Capulet’s servants, the servant says “Do you quarrel, sir?” and things go downhill from there, ending up in a sword fight that sets the tone for the rest of the play.

Over the past few days, I have been repeating this line a lot. It seems to annoy the Shakespearean teen, and everyone else in our house, except for my dog Dooney. He gets it, at least. Or he’s not able to tell me he doesn’t, which is the next best thing.

Whenever I say “Do you quarrel, sir?” to Dooney, he starts licking my face. The irony of his response, and the wet dog slobber, is always good for a laugh. Man’s best friend, indeed.

More to do with love


The Pete Rose story has died down by now, and I’m grateful for that. Life has moved on, as I knew it would, and it’s strange to think that it’s not even been a week since the story first appeared anywhere. Our culture and the 24-hour news cycle it has created–or that we have all been thrust into–is on full display with this story.

One story I have to tell about the whole affair unfolded last Saturday. Some baseball card collectors were especially unhappy with me that the story was ever written in the first place. Whether they hated me or not I can’t say, but it was clear they hated the negative publicity this story had created. There were accusations that I was trying to get fame and notoriety (I was not), and that I left out important exculpatory evidence for why Pete Rose’s name was not mentioned on this year’s Topps baseball cards. So I decided to engage these people on Saturday, since I had some downtime while at an ice skating competition.

Later on that evening, I went to see Romeo and Juliet onstage, and one of my favorite lines from the play occurs in Act I, scene 1, in the aftermath of the initial street brawl in Verona. Romeo, coming upon the scene of the fighting after it has finished, states that “Here’s much to do with hate, but more to do with love.” And I feel like, in some way, that summarizes my Twitter exchange with the angry card collectors.

As I say, I’m willing to leave open the question of whether any personal hatred was shown to me. But I’m quite clear that the result of the piece I wrote was hatred of what the story revealed. Card collecting is a serious thing for some people, and anything that puts the primary card producer in a negative light won’t be greeted favorably by them. The old idea that the enemy of my friend must also be my enemy seems to apply here.

But I’m not anybody’s enemy. I don’t have any ill-will towards Topps, either now or when I wrote the piece. As someone said to me, Topps and baseball cards have brought too much joy to too many people over too many decades to be thought of in a bad light. I love baseball, in large part, because I was able to buy these things and have them at a time in my life where I didn’t own very much else. That counts for something, all by itself.

What I love, secondary only to the love I have for my family, is the game of baseball. And that’s where Romeo’s “more to do with love” part enters into this for me. Is it silly to cling to a love of this game, when it has done so much to alienate fans like me? Mega-million dollar player salaries, labor unrest, restrictive licensing deals, and a perpetual pattern of squeezing fans for more and more money all seem to make baseball less and less appealing than it once was. But the game also has a poetry that football and basketball and soccer and hockey and golf and on and on could never match. I write about it all the time on this blog. I’d sooner gouge my eyes out than give up on baseball, and if that’s not love, please tell me what is.

I seem to have come to a truce with the card collectors, at least in the sense that accusations aren’t being hurled my way on Twitter anymore. And I appreciate this very much. A large part of Twitter, as I see it, is the ability to say something to the world, with the expectation that at least some people will read it. And when that something is about a topic you care deeply about, it’s far better to let those things out than to keep them bottled up inside.

One of the card collectors told me that “baseball card collectors are a passionate bunch.” I appreciate his comment, as it reminds me of the tagline for this blog, which states that “the world needs all the passion it can get.” I write this blog to show the world what I’m passionate about, and baseball is clearly one of those things.

The card collectors who took me to task on Twitter have their passions, too, and while they may not overlap with mine exactly, they’re no less valid than my passions or anyone else’s. I thank them for their passion, and their willingness to share it with me. It wasn’t necessarily fun to mix it up with them online, but I’m glad to have engaged with them, and I’m also happy that Shakespeare provided me with a line to put this into some perspective.

What’s in a name?

robert harris loading coffee

I have a new-found respect for the work of William Shakespeare, after seeing Romeo and Juliet performed onstage these last couple of nights. He tells a great story, and the words coming from the actors’ mouths are secondary to the emotions being displayed. That’s what doesn’t come through in simply trying to read the plays. The annotations get tiresome, and the fact is these plays weren’t written to be read; they were written to be staged. For the first time in my life, I understand that.

Maybe Shakespeare’s most well-known line–and he has many of them–is in the balcony scene, where Juliet calls “Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou, Romeo?” People who don’t know the first thing about Shakespeare know that line, 400 years after Shakespeare first penned it. But there’s another, also well-known line that Juliet speaks in the same scene.

Juliet is trying to come to terms with the fact that Romeo is a Montague, and she is a Capulet. Their families are enemies, and Juliet cannot understand why that should get in the way of her feelings about him. She asks the audience “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose would, by any other name, smell just as sweet.” And he’s got a point there.

Abraham Lincoln–who was known to be an avid Shakespeare enthusiast–would ask this question of his son: “How many legs does a dog have, if you call a tail a leg?” His son would answer “Five legs” and Lincoln would say no, reminding his son that calling a tail a leg did not make it a leg. The gist of this, I think, is that you can name something whatever you like, but that does not change what that thing actually is.

I use Shakespeare and Lincoln, two men I have great respect for, to bring up the fact that I have a very good name, but also a very common one. I share my name with many, many people and, as I discovered this week, an AP reporter in Great Britain.

There was a band in Los Angeles in the early 1970s that called themselves Mammoth. They started playing in clubs, doing the things that a band has to do to get noticed, but they had a problem. There was already a band named Mammoth, and people were never going to get to know their Mammoth if they had to figure out which one it was. So the newer band changed their name to reflect the last name of the guitarist and the drummer, and so Van Halen took flight. I think that name change worked out pretty well for them, so I’m going to try it for myself.

I can’t use the more formal version of my name, since that’s also the name of an established novelist (and I’m very fond of his work). It’s the name of a coffeehouse chain in New Zealand, as well, and one of my goals in life is to one day go to New Zealand, so I can walk around with a cup of coffee bearing my name (and his). So that’s out, too.

The most logical thing to do, then, is to look to my middle name. I’ve written before about how much I admire Lincoln, and how fortunate I feel to carry his name around with me through life. I’ll never be Abraham Lincoln–nobody could–but I can honor him, while also setting myself apart from all the others who share my name. So my Twitter handle is now going to be my pen name, as well. And if there’s anyone else out there using that name, they’re just going to have to get used to the competition.

Purple Pride, win or lose

NU Deering

Image from Flickriver.com

Last night I went to see my daughter in Romeo and Juliet. She’s an amazingly talented kid, and I marveled at her and the others in the cast. In just a few weeks, they’ve come together from all different places and brought this story to life. We give teenagers a bad rap sometimes, but knowing there are kids like this out there, who are willing to put their time and their energies into pulling this off–and without being paid to do it–leaves me very hopeful for the future.

As I was getting ready to attend opening night last night, I pulled on a purple Northwestern sweatshirt. I’ve always been proud of my alma mater, because it’s one of the best universities on the entire planet. Everybody says that about their own school, of course, but there’s evidence to support this, too. When people hear about colleges and universities, they usually associate the schools with their football team. Or maybe their basketball team. But the assumption–unless you’re MIT or an IVY League school–is that you’re only as good as your football team. Or maybe the school only exists to provide another college football team to the world. Neither of these is the truth, of course.

I didn’t put on my Northwestern sweatshirt to represent the football team, either. I’m genuinely proud of where I went to school, as everyone should be proud of the school they attended, wherever and whatever it is. Education is a sign of achievement, and if you’ve reached a level where a school grants you a degree or a diploma, go ahead and tell the world about it.

The football team was miserable when I was on campus in the late 1980s. When I was a senior, in the fall of 1989, they didn’t win a single game. So to see them resurrect the football program, under the masterful leadership of Pat Fitzgerald, has been gratifying to see. They’ve finally won a bowl game, even, and this fall should be one like I never thought I’d see.

I can’t wait to see what happens on October 5, when the B1G (or the Big Ten, for an old-timer like me) sees its game of the year played in Evanston when Ohio State comes calling. But win or lose, I’ll still wear the purple proudly. I’d much rather win, of course, but nobody wins all the time in life. Thank goodness nobody loses all the time, either.

Sunday Parking


Time changes everything, and some of these changes aren’t good ones. Today was a perfect example of this, as I made the rounds on the North side of Chicago, looking for a used copy of “All Quiet on the Western Front” for my teen-aged daughter.

It’s a book that I’m sure I’ve seen dozens of times at garage sales, estate sales, and resale shops. I frequent these places, looking for interesting things that I can pick up cheaply. And books are typically the cheapest thing of all in places like these.

The first instinct of many people might be to go to the library and check out a copy. That’s a good plan, except that I have untold overdue fines on my card (for the record, the books were checked out by my children using my card. It’s my responsibility, still, but I’m in no hurry to pay off the fines). I’d have to pay the fines before I can check out another book, so that  option wasn’t going to work.

The second option would be to go to a bookstore and pick up a new copy. The problem, as you may know, is that bookstores have been closing at an alarming rate. How I wish my neighborhood Border’s was still around to sell me the book. But alas, the digital revolution has crushed that chain and many others.

Another option is to buy it online for an ereader, but my Kindle Fire may not make it back if it were taken to my daughter’s school. It could get broken, or stolen, or left behind in a classroom and never seen again. Those are large risks to take, for a book that would cost six or seven dollars new, and even less used.

So on a Sunday afternoon, I made a trip to two resale shops that were fairly close to where my daughter had play practice (she’s in Romeo and Juliet, for the record). I came up empty in each place, but in order to leave my car on the street and not get a ticket (which starts at $50 here in Chicago) I had to feed a parking meter first. They aren’t even meters anymore, but are large boxes that accept credit cards and print receipts that you then put on your dashboard.

In the not-too-distant past, parking was free on Sundays. But no more, as the parking company that paid just over a billion dollars for Chicago’s parking meters now gets to call the shots. The parking meter contract reeks to high heaven, and it’s a long-term liability that will weigh this city down. When the history of this deal is finally written, it will make the mayor who proposed it, and the 40 aldermen who voted to approve it, look like the fools that they were. But be that as it may, paying two dollars at a meter beats the $50 kick in the head that a parking ticket represents.

I finally found a copy of the book, completely by chance, in the impossibly dense and unordered shelves of a bookstore that I’ve written about before. I paid $3.75 for the book, which is more than a resale shop would have cost, but I’m also not adverse to helping bookstores like this stay afloat.

My victory at finding a used–and thus cheaper–version of the book was tempered by the fact that the two dollars I spent to park my car as I looked for it would have been unneeded just five short years ago. As the parking people skim a couple of dollars from me, I’m reminded that this city–which I love and will probably spend the rest of my days living in–is far from being perfect.