With thanks to my Dad on his birthday


Family has been one of the constant themes on this blog, since I started writing it more than five years ago. I’ve put over 1,500 entries into this space since then, but I didn’t get through the first ten posts before I mentioned my dad for the first time. Since I’ve always been one who prefers writing over speaking, this is the best medium for wishing my dad well on his 70th birthday. I hope he still has many more birthdays ahead of him, too.

Parenting is great for many reasons, but perhaps the best one is that it wakes you up to how just difficult it is to raise a family. My own daughters don’t understand that yet, and I’ve told myself that one day, if they’re lucky, they will. But it will probably take arriving at the gates of parenthood to drill that point home. That’s certainly how it worked for me.

My dad gave me his name, and for many years I hated being a Junior. But now I’m OK with it, and I like his (and my) distinctive middle name. The world has thousands and thousands of Robert Harrises, but at least we have an interesting way to stand out in that crowd.

I’ve also written about being left-handed on many occasions, and I get that from my dad. It makes me different from most people, since we lefties are never in the majority anywhere (except for the cast members of Seinfeld, where Julia-Louis Dreyfus is the only righty in the bunch). I also enjoy counting Jimi Hendrix, LeRoy Neiman, Barack Obama, and David Bowie–among many others–in my lefty tribe.

But the thing I’ll always be most grateful for is that my dad taught me to learn how to love baseball. I had no idea about what baseball was as a kid in the 1970s, but that summer my dad took me to St. Louis to see a doubleheader against the Mets in the first Busch Stadium.

I’ve written about this before, how being a part of the baseball experience shaped me like nothing had before, and not too much has since. The best way to get into a sport is to go and see a game for yourself, and that’s probably always been the case. I’ve been to hundreds of ballgames since then, but that first game still remains a treasured memory. At one point in the game, Ted Simmons doubled off the outfield wall, and everybody came to their feet and cheered. All subsequent baseball memories have built upon that moment for me. I don’t know if I’ve ever thanked my dad for taking me along that day, but I need to do that here.

The Dad memories don’t stop there, either. I remember playing Pong with my dad in either a department store or a grocery store, back in the 1970s. The sensation of being able to move a controller and have it move something on a TV screen was pretty revolutionary to the young kid I was at the time. Today’s kids won’t ever know what that feels like, but I remember it because I was playing a game with my dad.

My dad also took me to see Star Wars back in 1977, around the time that I turned nine years old. Before that, the only times I had been to a movie theater were old Disney movies with my mom. Those were fun, but Star Wars was different. Seeing R2D2 on screen again in The Phantom Menace a year ago reminded me of how excited I was to see him for the first time. And without my dad, that moment wouldn’t have happened.

So as my dad celebrates a big round number for his birthday this weekend, I’m happy that he’s made it this far in his life’s journey, and that I was along for a good chunk of the ride.

2015 is slipping away

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Now that Christmas is behind us, there’s just a few days left in 2015. It’s been quite a year, as I suppose is true of every year on the crazy blue marble we call home.

Our losses this year included Ernie Banks, Minnie Minoso, Stuart Scott, Dusty Rhodes, Roddy Piper, and lots of people who weren’t ballplayers or sportscasters or pro wrestlers.

We lost many people– just as we have every year–but we also gained some people, too. People who will change the world someday, as they grow and learn and figure out what it is the world needs, and how they can go about providing it. That day will come, even if many of us won’t be around to see it. As long as the world is spinning on its axis, people will be finding new ways to make life better.

But we also got a few things back in 2015 that I thought were gone forever. “Bloom County” was my favorite comic strip back in the 1980s, and its creator Berkeley Breathed has recently revived it for the 21st century. I genuinely look forward to seeing Opus and Milo and Steve Dallas and the rest on Facebook every day.

But even more than that, 2015 was the year that Star Wars came back. I never really followed the first three movies in the series as they were coming out over the past decade or so. I had resigned myself to thinking that the series came to an end–at least for me–around the time we first saw the Ewoks in Return of the Jedi. But Disney has rejuvenated the franchise, and reminded me of how much I had enjoyed the characters and the story when they first came into my life back in the late 1970s.

It’s been an interesting year, and given the rate I’m posting in this space lately, this could very well be the last time I’ll post anything here in 2015. With that said, let’s hope that 2016 will bring us more surprises worth writing about.


The Jedi President


So President Obama brought up the ways of the Jedi from the Star Wars series, and welded them onto the Vulcan Mind Meld from the Star Trek series. And some people, desperate to stem the rising Obama tide, have called this a gaffe. But I don’t see it that way.

I grew up with Star Wars, and have written about it before in this space. The Star Wars series worked because even though it made Darth Vader and his cohorts into the baddest of the bad, they still had to lose. Whiny young Luke, grizzled old Solo, and their ragtag band of rebels still carried the day. It wasn’t easy, and it sure wasn’t likely, but good conquered evil in the end. As it must.

By casting himself as a Jedi, Obama is in fact drawing lines between good and evil. The moneyed interests–the Koch Brothers and people like them–did all they could do to buy the last election for Mitt Romney, but thankfully they failed. So now the sequester is upon us, and Boehner and his minions in the House have been holding up a compromise that would end this situation. So now it’s game on.

All of the “Obama will cave” talk that I heard during the first term in office seems to be gone now. Obama’s been re-elected, and he’s a lame duck to boot. The Republicans will have to accede to him in a way they didn’t have to before. And if they won’t, and the sequester’s spending cuts start spreading pain in American society, they will pay the political price, not the Jedi president.

It’s your move, Republicans. But understand that this president won’t be afraid to use the light saber against you.

A couple of interesting Lincoln views

LincolnRushmore LincolnRushmore2

One of the perks of being a history geek is having some interesting old things. A piece I wrote about Mount Rushmore yesterday triggered a memory of an old issue of American Heritage from 1977. At about the same time Star Wars was redefining the movies forever, the self-proclaimed “Magazine of History” ran a story about the carving of Mount Rushmore. It’s the sort of a story that you probably couldn’t find on a newsstand today, at any price (and do newsstands even exist anymore?).

I love these unique views of the Lincoln sculpture on Mount Rushmore. The cover shot shows the type of maintenance work that is done on the sculptures’ faces to prevent them from cracking. Lincoln had no work done in life, but he’s probably a constant battle in these times. And the second image, which was taken from atop Washington’s head, shows some of the detail on Lincoln’s face that probably isn’t visible from a distance. It shows how finely detailed the work on the faces really is, considering that –as with the cover image–the men doing the work were suspended in midair at the time.

Of all the Mount Rushmore images online, I was not able to locate these two through a Google search, so this could be their online debut. If that’s the case (and even if it isn’t), I’m happy to present the images here. Rushmore is an American shrine, and I’m glad to say that I’ve seen it a couple of times in person. If, for some reason, you have not, I humbly suggest that a trip to South Dakota in the not-too-distant future. It’s worth the long drive to get there.

A modern pioneer

Like many people, I was stunned by the recent passing of Dr. Sally Ride. Although she was 61 when she passed away, she accomplished very much during her lifetime.

The obvious accomplishment was that she was the first woman to go into space. The decision to open up the application process at NASA in 1977 grabbed her attention, and she was among the 8,000 people who wanted the chance to go into orbit. I’ve never heard her or anyone else say this, but that extremely large applicant pool–NASA’s never had anywhere near that number since then–had to be aided, to some extent, by a movie named Star Wars that was released in May of 1977. If nobody who applied to become an astronaut in 1977 had seen the movie first, well, I apologize for floating the theory. But it seems like a reasonable enough correlation to me.

Of the 8,000 NASA applicants, Sally Ride was one of the 35 who were selected to be a part of the new Space Shuttle program. And her trip into space in 1983, around the time that I was starting high school, made her into a national celebrity. She doubtlessly inspired others to follow her path into space, as well. That, all by itself, would make hers a life worth noting.

But she didn’t stop there. She also founded Sally Ride Science, which was meant to make science fun to students in school. I never liked science, and did everything I could to keep my distance from it when I was young. But Sally Ride’s company strove to change that, and it was successful if even one student was steered in the direction of thinking about science in a new light. I have to believe that it was far more than just one student who was impacted by her efforts, though. I’m certain that the benefits of her efforts will be felt for decades to come.

And in death, Sally Ride became a pioneer in another way, which most people probably didn’t see coming. By acknowledging that she had a partner, she posthumously added her name, and the weight of her accomplishments, to the LGBT community. It was a very courageous thing for her and her partner to do, and its social impact will be felt far and wide.

Since California recently, and amid much controversy, changed their school curriculum to include the study of contributions made by LGBT individuals, I suggest that Sally Ride should be included as Exhibit A. While she deserves to be remembered for her accomplishments as an astronaut and an educator, her personal life doesn’t add or detract from her accomplishments in the least. But it’s a part of her life’s story that going to be difficult, if not impossible, to leave out going forward.

I applaud Sally Ride for the legacy that she leaves behind in space travel, science education, and social relations. Overlooking or ignoring her accomplishments would be an injustice, and is something that will not happen, at least in this little corner of the internet.

A word count milestone

Early in the process of creating and maintaining this blog, I made a decision to keep tabs on how much writing I actually did. I started keeping an Excel file, and every time a new post is added here I record four things: The number of the post, the date it was first published, the title of the post, and the number of words contained in the post. WordPress provides the word count, and I wouldn’t bother with doing this otherwise.

But knowing exactly how much has gone into this space is helpful, on some level. I’m written more than 500 posts in just over a year’s time, which means slightly more than one new post a day. I try to write and post something new here every day, but some days I don’t get my thoughts finished  and have to get some sleep. But 500 posts don’t create themselves, and I’m sure that a large amount of sleep has been sacrificed to create whatever it is I have here. So be it. This is more fun for me than sleeping, anyway.

The word counts for these posts can vary from less than 100 words if I’m posting a picture or a link to something online, to over 1,000 when I’m rambling on about something that interests me. But 500 words seems to be the steady average of the things that I write. And as the posts keep piling up, so does the aggregate word count.

If somebody had ever told me that I’d write a quarter of a million words, and then put them on the internet, where people in all but a handful of the nations around the world would happen upon them some day, I would have thought that person needed some serious help. But that’s just what has happened. The internet is indeed an amazing thing.

As I reached the 100,000 word mark in this space, I began looking at word counts for well-known books and novels. I had passed George Orwell’s 1984 by that point, which I still consider as the most engaging and thought-provoking novel I’ve ever read.

As time went by, and I kept adding more verbiage to this space, I passed other works like Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (109,000 words), Thoreau’s Walden (114,000 words),  and James Fenimore Cooper’s Last of the Mohicans (145,000 words).  But the standard, as far as contemporary books go, is J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series.

By the time I had reached 200,000 words, earlier this year, I had surpassed the word counts of all of the books in the Potter series except for Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, which was the fifth of the seven Potter books. At just over 257,000 words, it stands as the longest in a series of hefty books.

This is important to me, since I wanted to get to the point where I could take any of the Harry Potter books off my shelf (and I have them all because I’ve read them all) and say to myself “I’ve written more words than that.” And now, with this post, I can say exactly that.

Quantity does not equal quality, and I’m not suggesting otherwise. Jo Rowling could write 100 words, and I could write 100,000 words, and I’m that sure that hers would be far more compelling than mine. She has a storytelling gift that is beyond dispute, while  I can give you 500 words about going to see Star Wars when I was a kid. There’s really no comparison, other than to say that she writes in English, and I write in English, too.

The sum total of all Harry Potter books is well beyond the million words that I’m aspiring to write, before I die or lose interest in the process. And I won’t even be thinking about approaching this number for at least two more years. But my love and respect for what Rowling has created is hereby acknowledged in this space.

I’m trying to develop my writing skills, and this blog has become my vehicle for doing so. Hopefully, my writing now is more engaging than something I would have written a year ago.  Doing anything over and over again, for more than a year, should have that effect. And so for sheer persistence, if nothing else, this is a milestone that I’m happy to put behind me.

The movie that changed everything

Today is the anniversary of the release of Star Wars. I was eight years old back in 1977, and had only been to the movies to see old Disney films that had been re-released. My mom had taken me, my sister, and my brother to go and see Dumbo or Bambi or something like that. But Star Wars was different, and in a very good way.

My dad took me to see the movie, I suspect to keep him from having to see it by himself. The theater was packed, and everybody enjoyed the story of Luke and Leia and Han and old Ben Kenobi. The laser guns were almost a miracle of movie effects. The droids were funny and amusing. The Wookie was scary. And Darth Vader…where to begin? For a kid like me, Vader was the incarnation of all things evil. I still remember how it felt when Kenobi stopped fighting to let Luke escape. Vader swung into Obi-Wan and he just vanished. It has terrifying. But the fighting scenes at the end–where Luke destroys the Death Star–was just about as exhilarating as the movies ever got for me.

Part of the magic–and that’s really what it seemed like– was me being a kid, but part of it was discovering, for the first time, how movies can create, and then draw you into, another world. In the days before VCRs and DVDs and even Betamax machines, this was a feeling that could only be recreated by seeing the movie over and over again in the theater. I didn’t do that with Star Wars, (the only movie I can ever remember doing that with was Raiders of the Lost Ark a few years later) but I would have if I was old enough to get to the theater by myself.

I recently did some research on NASA for a project I’m working on. I learned that the number of applications to their astronaut training program spiked to their highest level ever in 1978, and I have to believe that Star Wars had something to do with it. If they would have taken an application from a kid like me, I would have done it too. The movie had that kind of an impact.

So now, all these years later, May the 4th is now called “Star Wars day,” thanks in large part to social media. But the date when it was actually released to the world–which also just happened to be as school was letting out for the summer–is the best time to remember it.  Every movie wants to capture some of what Star Wars had, but none ever has, or likely ever will.

And remember, the Force will be with you, always.

A tale of two halves

1977 was a unique year for me. Every year is unique in one way or another, and I wouln’t ever want to live through a year that was exactly like some other year. But there were some things that will stick with me for as long as I live.

The first thing was that my family had just moved into the “house I grew up in” the previous year. It had weird red carpeting and still smelled of cats from the previous owners, but it was home, and would remain so until I left for college ten years later. It would become familiar in time, but for the time being it was still new and exciting.

Related to the new house was a new baby brother, who had been born the previous year. He was the only “baby” sibling that my brother and sister and I got to have, because the three of us were all close to each other age-wise. So we all had to help take care of the baby, but we also got to have fun with him, too. We never had a dog, but having a baby was probably more fun, anyway.

The third new thing in 1977 was non-Disney movies. Prior to that year, every movie I had ever seen in a theater was a Disney movie like Bambi or Robin Hood. I still remember my Robin Hood metal lunchbox with much fondness. But Star Wars was all the rage that summer, and when my dad took me to see it with him, my eyes opened to a whole other world I had never known before. Talk about a cool experience.

But the new thing I remember most, as usual, was the Chicago Cubs. We had cable television in our new house, and it was not a given to have it back then. I had discovered that WGN carried Cubs games every afternoon, and I embraced the games as I rarely have anything else in life (except for my family, of course). Watching the Cubs play on TV was my entry, of sorts, into the world beyond my house and my school and my neighborhood. It may even explain why I live in Chicago, all these years later.

To the nine-year-old that I was back then, the Cubs had no painful record of losing. That this history had existed throughout my lifetime, and even my father’s lifetime, wasn’t clear to me just yet. But I would learn the truth soon enough.

All I knew was that the Cubs’ team flag flew at the top of the scoreboard’s flagpole. That meant they were in first place, which was where a team wanted to find itself as often as possible and–most importantly of all–at the end of the regular season.

The 1977 Cubs, including the previously-unknown Bruce Sutter, occupied first place in their division from Memorial Day until early August. At the end of the first half of the season, the team was at 51-30 and cruising along. And then the air started to hiss from out of their balloon.

By early August, the Cubs’ lead in the National League East was gone. And so, in an attempt to stem the tide, the Cubs purchased the contract of veteran pitcher Dave Giusti, who was in his fifteenth (and, ultimately, his final) season in the big leagues. Giusti joined the club, not really to save games (that was Bruce Sutter’s job), but to provide some stability to the pitching staff. But the drop from first place, and finally out of contention altogether, was swift and complete, as the team finished in fourth place, 20 games behind the division-winning Phillies.

It still doesn’t seem possible for a team that was 25 games over .500 at one point to miss the playoffs.  But that’s how it went down, and whatever the Cubs had hoped to accomplish would have to wait until the next decade. Giusti didn’t pitch badly, but his job appeared to be closing out the games that the Cubs were behind in. If they were ahead they used Sutter, and if they were behind they went with Giusti.

Giusti retired at the end of the season, and the Cubs didn’t get another whiff of first place until the breakthrough season of 1984. And by that time, I was well aware of the good thing that the Cubs had going in the first half of the 1977 season. I should have enjoyed it more, since it has been all too rare in the years since then.