Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Rage Against the Dying of the Light

The Adam Schmitz I knew was by no means a model of perfection. He smoked too much, he swore like a sailor, and good luck trying to nail down plans with him. But he was a kindred spirit and, in the end, my greatest inspiration.
Adam and I met as students at Knox College in the mid-1980s, and it wasn’t long before we became friends. We were both dreamers, sometimes to our detriment. We’d while away the hours talking about literature, music, movies and baseball when we should have been engaged in something more practical, like studying for the next day’s exam. The conversations were heady and illuminating, and I always figured that a lesser grade on an exam was a small price to pay for them.
One year at Knox as finals were approaching, we set up shop in Post Hall, where our friends Melvy and Angie resided. Never mind that Post was a females-only dorm with the requisite rules about the presence of males—Adam and I commandeered two study rooms in the basement and remained there for four straight days and nights, sustained by meals that Melvy and Angie shuttled in for us. We each had three big papers to write, and the going was slow. Invariably, I would wind up in his study room or he in mine so that we could discuss literature, music, movies and baseball.
In the midst of one of these conversations, with the sunrise an hour or so away, Adam paused and said, “You and I are different. It’s going to take us longer than most people to get where we want to in life, to be successful. But we’ll get there eventually.”
Those words always stuck with me. Whenever I’d suffer a setback, I’d replay them in my mind like a mantra, and they’d give me solace: I’ll get there…I’ll get there…I’ll get there.
I also took them as a license to occasionally veer off the beaten path, such as when I learned to play the guitar six years ago. Even though I didn’t have a lick of talent, my hobby quickly turned into an obsession, and I began writing songs with a zeal that should have been reserved for something more practical, like my job. Pretty much everyone laughed off my musical creations as the meanderings of a middle-aged man futilely trying to recapture his youth—but not Adam. I’d send him a song, and he’d respond with a copious, joyful analysis that dissected every note and lyric. It was as if we were back in those Post Hall study rooms again: You and I are different…You and I are different…You and I are different.

Adam and his wife Wooten at Knox's
homecoming last month.

About a year and a half ago, I was reminded of Adam’s words once more, except now they brought me neither solace nor joy. He had just been diagnosed with an aggressive form of brain cancer. It was the rawest of raw deals: a death sentence. In a cruel twist of fate, he wouldn’t be afforded enough time to “get there.”
Despite the depth of his illness, Adam and his wife Wooten came to homecoming at Knox last month from their home in North Carolina. Adam said he wanted to catch up—“transcend life,” as he put it—with some of his old college pals: Xan, Melvy, Gossrow, and me. I drove down to Knox that Saturday with trepidation, like I was en route to a wake and not a party. Some things, I reasoned, just couldn’t be transcended.
Man, was I wrong. He was wearing funky headgear that was accompanied by a cumbersome portable battery pack (an experimental treatment from Israel), and his equilibrium was messed up from all his meds, but otherwise he was the same old Adam. Still smiling. Still laughing. Still swearing like a sailor. Still having a blast.
At one point we were out on the patio at a bar, talking about music and sharing a cigarette. (I came out of smoking retirement for that night, as did Adam. I made no apologies for that, and neither did he.) Two scruffy guys were standing next to us, the types who looked like they hated the world and everyone in it. But they were curious about this man with the funky headgear who was talking about music as if he didn’t have a care in the world. They asked Adam about his circumstances, and without a trace of self-pity, he told them his story. When Adam was finished, one of the scruffy guys, nearly moved to tears, gave him a hug that lasted every bit of 10 seconds.
Adam was like the pied piper that night. Undaunted by the battery pack he was carrying and his messed-up equilibrium, he led us from place to place to place. Along the way, he and I had some of our best conversations ever. He told me that while he didn’t want to die—and was fighting like hell not to—he had never been so happy. His illness, he said, had taught him exactly how to live in the moment. He explained that love is strongest when you accept that you’ll have to let it go at some point, and his smile grew brighter and more convincing with each word.
A few days ago, Adam let go of this world. It’s a devastating loss, but at least I know this: Adam was able to “get there”—he figured life out. And he was indeed different: He was better than all of us, the kindest and gentlest soul I’ve ever met. As for me? I’m still a work in progress. But thanks to the hard-won wisdom that Adam passed on to me, I’m further along than I was before.
I make my living writing articles about people. Over the years, I’ve profiled world-class athletes and civil rights attorneys and captains of industry. Getting to the heart of the matter here, however, has been among my biggest challenges. I hope I didn’t fuck it up, Adam.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

April 5, 2012: Opening Day

So it begins today—another season of baseball for the Chicago Cubs. And judging from a look at the lineup, it isn’t going to be pretty.
Unfortunately, I’m no stranger to the stumbling and bumbling of the Cubs. In 2004, I wrote a book about them, Wrigley Blues. It was a year-in-the-life type of tome, a chronicle of the 2004 season that aimed to get at the heart of Cubdom. Unlike this year, expectations were high for the Cubs in ’04—Sports Illustrated even picked them to win the World Series. Obviously, that didn’t happen. It never does.
At any rate, in honor of today, I’m sharing a chapter from my book that depicts the home opener back in ’04: “Opening Day.” After reading it, feel free to cry in your beer.

Monday, March 19, 2012

March 17, 2012: Happy 80th, Pops

Since this blog sometimes transcends the bounds of unemployment and touches on all things life, I figure my toast from my dad’s 80th-birthday party on March 17 more or less fits in. Thus, I’ve decided to send it out into the blogosphere.

My toast:
My dad means different things to different people at this gathering, but since I’m the one toasting and I can only speak for myself, I’ll ruminate a bit on what he means to me.
Simply put, he has been a rock of stability in my life, a reassuring constant. And for that, I am eternally grateful, particularly because I haven’t always made it easy for him. Lord knows I haven’t.

• It’s a Saturday night in 1982, my junior year in high school. I’m on my way to the babysitting job of a girl interest, but I can’t find the blasted place. Trouble rears its head when I back our good old Plymouth Valiant into a lamppost as I’m turning around. My first instinct is to get the hell out of there, but I can’t because the Valiant is impaled on the stump of the lamppost.
Who helps me out of this pickle? My dad. He kindly buys a new lamppost for the Village of Wilmette and tidies up any lingering unpleasantness with law-enforcement officials. Soon enough, I’m back on the streets of the North Shore.

• It’s a Friday afternoon in 1983, my senior year in high school, and two friends and I are sitting in the parking lot of a local liquor store. An older guy with whom one of my friends works is inside buying us beer. (Cole: Don’t get any ideas.) Just as the older guy walks out and gives us our beer, a squad car screeches into the parking lot, its lights a-flash’. Before long, we're all in that squad car, and handcuffed.
Who helps me out of this latest bind? My dad, of course. After setting me up with his lawyer friend, my dad accompanies me to court as the legal process plays out. Yes, my dad—perhaps a bit tired and worn by this point—is there for me. However, his lawyer friend isn’t. Much to everyone’s dismay, he has forgotten about the court date. But that’s another story for another occasion, maybe my dad’s 90th-birthday celebration.

* * *

Now, I don’t want you to get the wrong idea here—it hasn’t been all flashing red lights and ill-fated court dates. In addition to protecting me from myself, my dad has served as my teacher, my mentor. More than anyone else in this world, he has showed me the way.

• It’s the mid-1970s, my preadolescence. Baseball is my life—I want to play the game 24/7. My dad on, the other hand, can take or leave America’s pastime. He didn’t really play it growing up, and now he only follows it casually.
Nevertheless, who’s out there throwing me hours of batting practice so that I can get better? You guessed it—my dad. It’s something of a sacrifice for him. I know this because I see the grimaces on his face as the pitches mount and his arm wears down. It’s also something of a sacrifice for me. I know this because, frankly, he isn’t much of a pitcher, and his many errant throws force me to duck or hit the deck. Still, these are my Field of Dreams memories, and I cherish them.

• It’s 1982, my junior year in high school, and my English class at New Trier is beginning the dreaded junior theme. This is the biggest, most daunting project of the New Trier experience, a months-long undertaking. I’m paralyzed by its enormity.
Who’s there with a pen, some paper and a helping hand? Two words: my dad. He suggests that I write my junior theme on Edgar Allan Poe, assuring me that Poe’s haunting works will capture my imagination. We sit together night after night sorting out my thoughts. Something eventually clicks inside me—my imagination is indeed captured—and I dig into my junior theme as I’ve never dug into an academic project. In the end, I blow the doors off the thing: I get the highest grade in the class and, more importantly, realize I have a degree of talent as a writer. This starts me down the path to a career in publishing. On second thought, Dad, I’m not sure whether to praise you or curse you for that one.

* * *

Yes, my dad did everything he could to provide me with a solid foundation. Unfortunately for him, the job didn’t end when I became an adult.

• It’s June 2001. Cassie and I have purchased a house, and we’re scheduled to close on it in less than 24 hours. In sifting through our paperwork, we realize that we have to bring $7,000 to the closing. We have the money, but it’s in a fund that we can’t access in less than 24 hours. The horror, the horror.
Who do we call for help out of this jam? That’s right: my dad. See, the beauty of my dad is that he’s always prepared for everything, even stuff he doesn’t know he needs to be prepared for. He lends us the $7,000, and we close on the house without any further hitches.

• It’s September 2011, and I’ve just been laid off from my job. I don’t know if any of you have ever been laid off, but it’s a dispiriting and scary experience.
Who do I call for help in this time of momentous need? Nope, it’s not my dad. For crying out loud, the man has paid his dues. He’s 80 years old, and he deserves some peace and quiet. Thanks in no small part to my dad’s guidance, I’ve grown into a relatively solid middle-aged man. I had the good sense to marry a helluva woman, and we had the good fortune to have two kids who are capable of going with the flow. My dad’s work is done—we’re handling this predicament ourselves.
Nevertheless, it’s reassuring to know that he’d have all the right answers if I ever did call upon him. That’s the way it’s always been. My dad never gave up on me, even at times when he probably should have. Instead, he simply nudged me in the right direction, sometimes with such deft subtlety that I didn’t even know I was being nudged. My dad has been my rock, my teacher and my friend. I don’t know where I’d be without him.

* * *

Thanks for everything, Dad. You’re a standup guy—I think that’s something everyone in this room will agree on.

Monday, March 5, 2012

March 5, 2012: The World Is My Oyster

As I sit hunched over my laptop at the dining room table, it occurs to me that I’ve needlessly bound myself to this setting. I could be hunched anywhere.
Consider: Cassie telecommutes for her job, which means she’s able to set up shop anywhere. I, too, work remotely doing whatever it is I do, so as Lynyrd Skynyrd once so profoundly said, I’m as free as a bird.
What’s holding us back? Hmmmm. Well, I guess the kids are to an extent. They’ve settled into an idyllic groove in our middle-America suburb where nothing ever really happens. On the other hand, maybe that’s the problem. Maybe a change of scenery would do them good—maybe it would teach them that there’s a big, interesting world out there beyond the strip malls.
I guess there’s Fluffy, too. This house is his kingdom, one he rules with an iron paw. On the other hand, his health is poor, and he doesn’t seem destined to make old bones anyway. Among his many issues, he has a chronic respiratory ailment that makes him sound like Darth Vader when he breathes. Fluffy’s days are most certainly numbered. Besides, who puts his life on hold for a cat?
The possibilities are endless:
• I imagine spending a year in Paris. I could sit in sidewalk cafés with my laptop, typing to the hustle and bustle of Parisian life.
• I imagine moving to the Pacific Northwest. I’ve always been a hippie at heart, and I’d take right to the earthy lifestyle. My laptop typing would have an easy flow.
• I imagine typing away in any number of other awesome locales: Australia, Alaska, Maine, Sante Fe, London.
The takeaway here isn’t that I’m traveling—it’s that I’m working. And that hasn’t turned out to be a fantasy. Life after Crushed Soul hasn’t gone exactly the way I would have drawn it up—instead of winding up as a 9-to-5er, I’m doing my own thing as an independent contractor—but that’s okay. The point is, I’m busy and, for the most part, productive.
And this leads to my next point: It’s becoming difficult to ruminate on the travails of unemployment when, increasingly, I don’t feel unemployed. My wife would claim that I’ve never written much about unemployment in this space anyway—that my blog has instead centered on matters concerning Fluffy and such. She has a point, but regardless, time is at a premium these days.
You’ve probably gathered as much, given that my blog has been appearing only intermittently lately. The foreseeable future will probably bring more of the same, but fear not—I have no intention of disappearing from the blogosphere. If Fluffy finally kicks the bucket, you’ll know; if I land a particularly cool gig (or lose all my current gigs), you’ll know; if I blow out my groin again, you’ll know. And maybe—just maybe—one of these posts will originate from a café in Paris.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

February 10-16: Winter Camping

I’m hopelessly late in writing this blog entry, but there’s a good reason. No, I didn’t get a job. I went on an Indian Princess campout.

Friday, February 10
Each Indian Princess season has three tent-post events: the fall, winter and spring campouts. (I’m pretty sure I pontificated on Indian Princess in an earlier blog entry, but it’s all hazy to me now.) Though I’ve spent most of my life in Chicago, I despise the cold and, thus, try to avoid the winter campout, the highlight of which typically involves standing atop a sledding hill for several hours as a subzero wind shears the skin off my face. This time, however, I have no choice but to buck up. It’s Liv’s final year of Indian Princess, and she doesn’t want to miss out on anything, not even the prospect of frostbite.
Initially, I sensed that maybe we’d catch a break. This winter has been uncharacteristically warm—just last week, the thermometer spiked into the 50s. But our luck runs out on this gloomy Friday, as an unsettling combination of cold, wind and snow gathers. I should have known there would be no breaks to be caught.

Saturday, February 11
Despite the blustery weather, I forge bravely ahead. I have errands to run before we depart, not the least of which is a trip to the butcher. Normally I bring two pounds of marinated skirt steak to the campouts—it’s a big hit with both the dads and the daughters. The last campout, however, took place soon after I had been laid off, and since I was freaked out about the future of my family in general and money in particular, I ditched the skirt steak and instead brought Cheetos and bottled water. Well, I’m done freaking out—I’m done with putting my life on hold. In an act of utter defiance, I sidle up to the counter at the butcher shop and order two magnificent pounds of skirt steak.
My Camry filled with sleeping bags, cold-weather clothes and skirt steak, Liv and I head to the campsite, which is located in the great state of Wisconsin, somewhere past Milwaukee. As we near our destination, I traverse a harrowing series of snow-covered back roads. I see a hole-in-the-wall gas station and stop to buy a cup of coffee.
Pointing at Liv, I say to the husky cashier, “We’re on our way to a campout.”
“Sounds fun,” she says.
“There’s a lot of snow up here.”
“Yeah, we got it all last night,” the cashier says with a grizzled smile. “You two lucked out.”
Yes, we’re so very lucky. Once there, I see a smattering of dads and daughters from some of the other tribes pretending to feel lucky as they wobble around the winter wonderland on snowshoes. Most of the members of my tribe play it smarter than that: They’re hunkered down in the common area of our cabin, playing games and munching on snacks.
Of course, this being Liv’s last year of Indian Princess, she wants to experience the whole ball of wax. We put our coats, gloves and hats back on and explore the grounds, which doesn’t take long since—praise the Lord—this particular camp doesn’t have a sledding hill. We wind up at a makeshift archery range inside the lodge and fire some arrows. We play some foosball and then fire more arrows. We play some ping-pong and then fire more arrows. We play more foosball and fire more arrows. 
Liv still isn't done experiencing the whole ball of wax, so we put our coats, gloves and hats back on and explore the grounds again. Our teeth chattering, we finally go back to the cabin to await the main event: grilling. This is the highlight of every campout—it’s something our tribe has elevated to an art form. Long after the other tribes have retired for the night, we're still heaving succulent slabs of meat onto the grill.
This campout is no different—thanks to our cook, John “Captain Jack” Connolly, who endures the biting cold in the name of feeding everyone. Liv is particularly gung-ho about the grilling festivities, this being her last year of Indian Princess and all. She gobbles down generous amounts of skirt steak, venison and pork, though she draws the line at the elk. I don’t. Nor do I draw it at the mushrooms stuffed with hunks of sausage, the strip steak slathered with blue cheese, the Italian sausage, the jalapeños stuffed with cream cheese and wrapped with bacon, or the countless other delicacies.

Sunday, February 12
At about 1:30 a.m., I stagger to my bunk and bob in and out of consciousness for about five hours before one of the dads wakes everyone with a bullhorn.
Liv and I groggily pack up the Camry and head back home. But this being Liv’s last year of Indian Princess and all, she insists on stopping at the Mars Cheese Castle near the Illinois border to pick up a pound or so of string cheese. Call it breakfast.
Upon our arrival home, Cassie says, “You heard about Whitney Houston, right?”
“Heard what?”
“That she died?”
“Nope. I had no idea.”
I retreat to my bed and spend most of the rest of the day bobbing in and out of consciousness.

Monday, February 13
I’m still not quite right. I do my best to roll through my freelance work, but I’m impeded by a nasty headache.
My lunchtime workout at the Y isn’t all that great either. I feel like weights are strapped to my ankles, though really I’m being dragged down by the elk, venison, beef, pork, sausage and other odds and ends that are still lodged in my colon.

Thursday, February 16
I’m back to normal now, and I’m finally pounding out my reflections on Liv’s last year of Indian Princess. Yes, this blog entry is long overdue, but I make no apologies for that. I’m just happy to be upright.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

January 29-February 5, 2012: A Field Trip

Friday, February 3
Ferris Bueller, everyone’s favorite sage/truant, said, “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”
I heed these words, though not by design and not by taking a day off. My circumstances are somewhat different:
Following a vigorous lunchtime workout at the Y, I return to my dining room table so that I can plow through an afternoon of freelance work and nail an end-of-day deadline. I fire up my MacBook Pro laptop, click on Safari, and…nothing. My Internet is down. This is not good. What will become of the work I must plow through and the deadline I must nail?
Luckily I’m a trained journalist, and I know how to think on my feet. I remember that the Caribou Coffee in my downtown has wireless and plenty of tables. Without further ado, I pack up my “office” (my MacBook Pro, some Post-it notes, a pen and The Chicago Manual of Style), say goodbye to Fluffy and the gang, and race out the door.
To my surprise, Caribou Coffee is hopping. I plop my bag on the only free table and go to the cash register, where I place an order for a large black coffee with a delightfully perky barista. I then mutter something to her about my Internet being down at home.
“Well, you’ve come to the right place,” she says with a reassuring smile.
After returning to my table and unpacking my office, I take a look around. A knitting club is convened at the largest table. Fueled by years of practice—and perhaps several cups of coffee, too—these women wave their knitting needles the way the heroes in an Alexandre Dumas novel wield their swords. Over in a lounge chair, a silver-haired gent—a retiree, no doubt—is engrossed in a book. The rest of the shop is occupied by mirror images of me: middle-aged men with their laptops. I wonder what dire turns of events brought them to this place and whether they’re here everyday. At any rate, they are typing on their laptops with a sense of purpose, which I find to be both heartening and motivating.
I take a few gulps of coffee and start plowing through my freelance work. My coffee cup is soon empty, and after refilling it, I take another look around. The knitters have departed, replaced by some moms and their kids. The kids are loud and obnoxious in a Chuck E. Cheese’s kind of way, and I long for the grace of the knitters. A glance at my fellow middle-aged drifters sets my mind straight. I take a few gulps of coffee and plow through more freelance work.
Before long, my coffee cup is empty. I visit the delightfully perky barista yet again and order another refill. Two college students have settled into the table next to mine. They discuss their classes with a youthful optimism that rubs off on me. I take a few gulps of coffee and plow through more freelance work.
Before long, my coffee cup is empty, which necessitates another refill. The college students have cleared out, and a robust-looking couple clad in North Face gear has claimed their space. Thanks to some eavesdropping, I learn that the North Face duo is out for a long walk and is taking a break.
I take a few gulps of coffee, plow through the remainder of my freelance work, and nail my deadline. As I leave Caribou Coffee, I have a bounce in my step—and not just because I’m jacked up on caffeine. It occurs to me that I’ve been hermetically sealed in my dining room for the past five months. All the while, life has been moving fast on the outside. Sure, this is just a coffee shop—it’s certainly not Ferris Bueller’s whirlwind trip around Chicago—but I’ve still enjoyed taking a look.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

January 22-28, 2012: Shop Talk

It occurs to me that I’ve devoted a lot of space on this blog lately to talk of Fluffy and cigarettes and the holidays and dirty dishes and the electric guitar and Twilight and iPads—you name it. Looking back, I’ve covered an impressive amount of ground.
But there’s an elephant in the ether, and it’s not the morbidly obese Fluffy. I’m referring to—grimace, grimace—my employment situation, which seems to be the one topic that isn’t broached on Unemployment Lines. By now, you might find this omission to be disconcerting. Maybe you think I’ve given up. Or worse, gone mad.
And while those are both plausible theories, they’re wrong. I’m not writing this entry from the loony bin—I’m at my usual spot at the end of the dining room table—and giving up is never an option. On the contrary, I’m on the rebound. At least I think I am. Maybe.
It’s merely been a matter of adjusting my definition of the word career. Some background: In the aftermath of my unceremonious exit from Crushed Soul, my spirits were understandably low. What I really wanted to do was crawl under the covers and sulk for the next 16 to 20 months, but my family needed me—you know the drill: mouths to feed, bills to pay—so I lurched forth.
The first painful steps involved reaching out to people I’d met through the course of my career who I thought could help me. Those interactions went something like this:

ME: (small talk)
PERSON I’D MET: (small talk)
ME: (heart of the matter)
PERSON I’D MET: (heart of the matter)
ME: “Well, let me know if you think of something.”
PERSON I’D MET: “I will.”

I’m no dummy. Times are tough all around, and I was pretty sure nothing would come of these conversations. Still, I had no choice but to keep lurching forth. At one point, I reached out to a former colleague whom we’ll call Andy.

ME: (small talk)
ANDY: (small talk)
ME: (heart of the matter)
ANDY: (heart of the matter)
ME: “Well, let me know if you think of something.”
ANDY: “I will.”

Now, the weird thing about this particular conversation is that Andy actually thought of something. He called me back a few days later and said, “Yeah, I have some work for you.” As fate would have it, he was part of a new venture, and he wanted me to do some writing for it.
At first, it didn’t amount to much—certainly not anything that would even begin to cover my mortgage. Slowly but surely, however, this little venture has been growing, and now I’m building and managing and editorial group for him. Though it still hasn’t taken me where I need to be financially, I’m starting to see that it has real potential. At least I think it does. Maybe.
Along the way, I’ve garnered other freelance gigs (while continuing to scour the landscape for a suitable full-time job, of course). Sometimes this piecemeal approach seems pretty tenuous; other times it feels like the safest route. I mean, when I worked at Crushed Soul, I had zero control over my destiny—it was in the hands of people I barely knew over in the corner offices. Now I’m the guy in the corner office—or at least at the corner of the dining room table—and I’m not flying blind.
So maybe this is my new career. Who knows? Either way, I’m on the rebound. At least I think I am. Maybe.