Lincoln would have loved this

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Today was the first time that I had ever been inside Carl Schurz High School on the northwest side of Chicago. It’s over a hundred years old, which gives it a historical cache that many schools just don’t have.

I found my way to the library,  which has a scale to it that I’ve never seen before. There are many beautiful murals adorning the walls and ceiling, and I felt very happy to have discovered such a hidden jewel. But what inspired me to write, as usual, was Abraham Lincoln.

The building itself was constructed in 1910, and when the walls were painted I can’t say. But a number of portraits of scientists, writers, and the like had been painted onto the walls, and the position of Lincoln’s was most interesting.

As seen in the picture above, Lincoln and William Shakespeare are located alongside each other. To the other side of Lincoln was George Washington, and he would have appreciated that, as well. But I have to believe that Lincoln’s fondness for Shakespeare’s work would have made this placement most appealing to him.

Shakespeare was a brilliant writer, and Lincoln was gifted in his own right. So to see these two linguistic champions in the same place is quite a sight, and I offer my congratulations to the long-ago artist who made this happen.

Shakespeare and the dog

Dooneyroo

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.

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.

My high school lifelines

I was at an estate sale this afternoon, killing time while my daughter was at her gymnastics class, when I came upon a stack of old-school Cliffs Notes. I wrote about Cliffs Notes a few days ago, and since then, the company that I work for has acquired the Cliffs Notes titles. The ones that I found were listed as being copyright 1960 by C.K. Hillegrass (I think I know what the C stands for), and they were all for Shakespeare’s works.

I love the way Shakepeare strings words together, and I have a big volume of his plays that I pick up on occasion and flip through, looking for an interesting turn of a phrase. But I never have, and likely never will, understand the stories that are being told. I can follow them well enough onstage, since that is the medium they were written for in the first place. But they just don’t read very well to me, and that’s where “Old Cliffy” always came in.

I’m very pleased to be connected with Cliffs Notes, if only in a very tangential way. And because I’m feeling nostalgic, now it’s time for the all caps disclaimer that was on the inside cover of every Cliffs Notes that I ever used:

READ THE ENTIRE LITERARY WORK. THESE NOTES ARE NOT INTENDED AND HAVE NOT BEEN PREPARED TO SERVE AS A SUBSTITUTE FOR THE TEXT ITSELF OR FOR THE CLASSROOM DISCUSSION OF THE TEXT. STUDENTS WHO ATTEMPT TO USE THE NOTES AS SUCH ARE DENYING THEMSELVES THE VERY EDUCATION THEY ARE PRESUMABLY GIVING THEIR MOST VITAL YEARS TO ACHIEVE.

I can see their point, all these years later. But then again, there were no annotations in Cliffs Notes, either. And that, to use one of Shakespeare’s many phrases, is the long and short of it.

Beware the ides of March

My WordPress user name and online identity are taken from Shakespeare’s Julius Ceasar. In Act III–just before Caesar is killed–one of the characters calls another character “Sirrah,” as a term of address directed at an inferior. I took this word and added an extra “h” at the end, in order to approximate a feeling of satisfaction, as after having drank a really good beer.

“Sirrahh” had an appeal to me, and so I took it as my own. You don’t get to do that when you’re born, but the Internet provides the opportunity to pick your own online name. If your online alias has any funky meaning, please tell me about it below. And thanks for reading, as ever.

Life, Death, Alcohol and New Jersey

I met up with a friend recently when I was visiting New York. It was the day after Clarence Clemons had died, and since my friend lives in New Jersey I offered him my condolences. He told me that if you don’t live in New Jersey, you can’t appreciate how much Springsteen and his band mean to the people who do. And I take him at his word on that.

As I often do when I consider matters of life and death, I shared with him a bit of wisdom taken from Shakespeare’s Hamlet. In Act 5, Scene 2, Hamlet says that “There’s a divinity that shapes our ends, rough-hew them as we will.” I wish I could say that I’m well-versed on Shakespeare, but unfortunately I’m not. I only learned of the quote because it was often cited by both Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. These two men represent, in my mind, the truism that overarching brilliance can take a person far beyond their original station in life. If Shakespeare’s words had an impact on these two great men, who am I to question it?

I’m not a religious person, in the least. All of those many years of Catholic school just didn’t take root with me. But the beauty of Shakespeare’s words is that I don’t have to be religious in order to believe them. If a person falls out of an open window, and an awning breaks that person’s fall and they walk away without a scratch, well it just wasn’t their time yet. But if somebody else gets run over by a sightseeing bus, as recently happened in the city where I live, it just meant that that person’s time had come around. And there’s nothing that either person could have done to change that. I believe that as much as I believe anything in life.

Since my friend and I hadn’t seen each other in 25 years, we had a lot of catching up to do. And with all that catching up came lots of drinks. Pitcher after pitcher of beer, topped off by a concoction of Hawaiian Punch and too many types of hard alcohol added in (makes the karaoke sound better, I was told). So when we left the bar at 2 AM, the story here began to take shape.

I had stopped drinking, by and large, late last year. I hadn’t had a beer in almost seven months, which probably hasn’t happened since about 1983. I had grown tired of battering my liver, and decided on my own to see if I could live without it. And it turns out I could. But being out with a friend–and one who I hadn’t seen in so long, at that–made everything else go out the window. I reverted to my old habits, and drank with reckless abandon. By all rights, I should have been falling down drunk, due to a lowered tolerance for alcohol. But, as it turned out, the opposite was true.

I found myself on Canal Street in New York with my drunken friend, and realized that I had to take control of the situation. With just a few dollars in my pocket, and no idea where I was, I knew this was not the time to be staggering about. I told my friend I was going to get him home, no matter what it took, and that was the end of it. The problem was that he lives in God-knows-where, New Jersey. Which it might actually be called, because I had no idea what the town’s name was, let alone what the street address in this unknown town might be. And good luck getting into a cab with that.

I made the decision to get my friend back the hotel I was staying in, which was a few blocks away on Canal. Maybe I could stash him in the hotel lobby (they would love that one, I’m sure) or maybe I could get him into the fitness center or the laundry room or something. Anyplace would be better than where we were.

We made it down one block on Canal, and he’s alternating between calling me a dick and threatening to fight me. Thanks for nothing, right?  But he was my charge, and I had a mission to get him off the street safely, so he could say whatever he wanted to.

At the first intersection, my friend stepped off the curb and into the street. That was when his knees gave way, and he fell down and hit his head. But he didn’t just hit his head, he cut it open, too. So now there’s blood everywhere, and I’m really thinking that something needs to happen, and fast. Cabs wouldn’t pick us up because of the blood, and I wouldn’t know where to have them take us if they did.

Fortunately, I had my friend’s cellphone, and so I called 911. The ambulance came after what seemed like a very long time (magnified by the situation, I’m sure) and they loaded my friend in and sped away. I saw a spot of his blood in the street, and realized that he might not come out of this alive. Shakespeare’s words weren’t quite so comforting to me then.

After an extended cry–thinking that I had let my friend down and failed in my self-appointed mission–I got up and walked back to the hotel. As I walked,  I began hoping that Shakespeare had been wrong. Maybe, if my friend was in the hands of paramedics and doctors and technicians who all knew what they were doing, my friend would still be OK. I wouldn’t call what I was doing prayer, but I’m sure that more religious people than me would call it just that. I was hoping against hope, and pleading with the ‘divinity” that Shakespeare spoke of to give my friend a break. It was all I could do at that moment, and if I had really believed Shakespeare’s words I would have thought it was a waste of time. So my faith in the wisdom of  Shakespeare/Lincoln/Douglass was tested that night.

The next morning, I got a text  from my friend saying that all was well. But in the meantime, I learned about what had happened to Ryan Dunn of Jackass and his friend. (FWIW, I’m completely of the thinking that Ebert said what needed to be said, and Bam Margera should STFU about it). No Porsches were involved with my friend and I, fortunately, but a night of drinking had turned out bad for them, and I went back to worrying that maybe something bad had happened to my friend. It wasn’t until I got a Facebook message from him the next day that I knew everything would be OK. And I can’t describe how grateful I am for that.

It was a harrowing night, and one which I probably won’t forget anytime soon. For one thing, I am going to cut out drinking for good. I don’t need it, and if nothing else I realized that drinking can have some bad consequences, even where no driving is involved. But, more importantly, I realized that life can be subject to tragic turns at any moment. We can’t be afraid of them, but we can’t pretend that they don’t exist, either. Every day is a gift, meant to be enjoyed to the fullest extent possible. Plan for the future, yes, but don’t be fooled into thinking that life will last forever. It never has, and it never will.