In spite of itself, Wrigley Field hosts a brilliant evening of football

I am not a Cubs fan. I have nothing against the Cubs, but growing up in Central Illinois meant that all of the locals were either Chicago Cubs fans or St. Louis Cardinals fans. If you’ve ever had the urge to plumb the depths of human stupidity, ask a Cubs fan what they think about the Cardinals, or a Cardinals fan about the Cubs–but not until you’ve got your riot gear firmly attached.

When I think of the Cubs, I have mostly pleasant thoughts: Andre Dawson, Harry Caray, etc. Then I remember going to the University of Illinois, where the population was, as would be statistically expected, from the city and suburbs of Chicago. So, after having one too many of these urban–ah–people ask me to talk faster, I took an interest in watching their precious Cubs lose like… the Cubs.

Nonetheless, even I recognize that Wrigley Field is a shrine–a national treasure.

Wrigley, as part of the cityscape

When Joe called and asked if I wanted a ticket to see Illinois play Northwestern at Wrigley Field, I didn’t bother with my usual no/no/yes pattern [1], I immediately said, “Yes.” Wrigley Field is historical, and since it hadn’t hosted a football game in forty years, this was a truly special event.

On Friday, the day before the game, officials announced that both teams would use the end zone on the left field side of the stadium because the brick walls were too close to the right field end zone to be safe; meaning: every single offensive play would go to the left field end zone. Instantly the national coverage of the game was focused on the goofball rules and not on the special event itself. Only Illinois football could snatch defeat from the jaws of victory with such verve.

One way

OK. How could they fit a football field in Wrigley from 1921 to 1970, but not in 2010?

There are a few differences between then and now. For starters, the goal posts were moved from the front of the end zone to the back of the end zone in the 1974 NFL season, i.e., after the Bears vacated Wrigley Field. That’s why the eastern goal post was installed in the wall for the Illinois game.

The big difference was the orientation of the field. On Saturday the field was oriented east-west. When the Bears played at Wrigley Field, the field was oriented north-south. Hmmm. Well. Allow me to put on my rocket scientist cap: so why not orient the field north-south for the Illinois game?

Here I am introducing a dramatic pause because I’m just quivering to give you the answer to this question. My brain exploded in a massive, “Aha!” when I read this. Nothing could convince me more that Wrigley Field exists in some sort of fated-for-failure parallel universe.

Answer: the field never fit.

Lazy web, take it away: Wikipedia: Wrigley Field#Football. The Bears played 365 games at Wrigley Field and the field never fit in the stadium. The south end zone extended into the visitors’ dugout. [2] The end zone was slightly clipped.

Though it was handled poorly in public, it was a good idea to change the rules to accommodate the one-way game. The game was not hampered by the switch. After every change of possession, the referees would carry the football from one side of the field to the other. I was afraid this would be awkward, but it wasn’t noticeable. In every televised football game, there is a commercial break during a possession change anyway. The switch from one side of the field to the other happened cleanly in this break.

And what did it matter anyway? Illinois owned the east end zone, winning 48-27.

In spite of–or perhaps because of–the strange rules, the game was a spectacle. In a place like Wrigley Field, not even the most hapless mistakes can diminish the impact of the game itself. The crowd, mostly wearing Northwestern purple, alternated between roaring for the frequent big plays on the field–a 70-yard run, an 80-yard run for a touchdown, an interception returned 59 yards for a touchdown, a 58-yard punt return–and buzzing in reverence for the chance to watch football in Wrigley. Mikel Leshoure ran for 330 yards–three hundred and thirty yards, an Illinois school record and outstanding feat that under any other circumstances would not be outmuscled for the top headline by a brick wall.

Go Illini!

They played on into the night

Wrigley Field, empty

Hooray for the good guys

 


 

  1. “Would you like to go to the game?”
    “No.”
    “Would you like to go to the game?”
    “No.”
    “Would you like to go to the game?”
    “Yes.”[back to text]
  2. Let me repeat that, with emphasis: The SOUTH END ZONE extended into the VISITORS’ DUGOUT. Only in Chicago could something like this happen. [back to text]

Detoxification in the time of doldrums; or, Waiting to be led

Last week was quicksand, each day deeper into dullness by struggling to get out of it. This week–slowly, slowly–I’m crawling out of the hole.

I’m not any closer to getting paid–not yet. I’m trying to approach that problem from the other side. I’m thinking about how I want to spend my time first.

This upcoming week will be my first unpaid week since going to Strasbourg in summer 2006. Before that? Hmm. I think I’ve had some form of constant employment–from different jobs, though I patched them together quite snugly–since the summer after high school, summer 1999 (except for a break in fall 2001 when I was on crutches).

I don’t need income now. Before being laid off I was saving money to quit that job and embark on an Evil Plan. I have the luxury of being able to plant my feet and think. However, when it comes to the money question, for good or for ill, I’ve found that this is like planting my feet in a rushing stream. There is a persistent force pushing me to restore the money flow immediately–as if bowing to that force hadn’t landed me where I was, floating downstream on a raft of dollars and a steadily worsening case of process-induced brain atrophy. (Down, bile, down.)

My engineering background also haunts me. I have been trained rigorously in the art of calculus, meaning that I can optimize variables–in this case, optimizing net worth over time–as naturally as some people drum their fingers. I don’t think about it; I do it.

And then there are the little social pressures. “So where do you work?” “Nowhere, actually.” “Ah. I’m sorry. [eyes begin to glaze]

All of these things are self-perceptions. All of these things are self-perceptions. All of these things are self-perceptions.

This is my new, temporary mantra that I will repeat until I believe it.

These first two weeks out of work have been a period of detoxification: detox from work culture (including detox from the daily corporate propaganda that insisted on telling us what culture we were supposed to have [1]); detox from easy money; detox from having an externally defined schedule; etc.

That was the first phase: work detox. I expected that. I had felt it for months. The body had been rejecting the toxins, but not as fast as I was ingesting them.

The second phase was unexpected: home detox. Where did those toxins come from? Ah, right, I was producing those, and I had to manually detox from those: getting rid of several bags of the glass and plastic for recycling; donating bags of unused clothing to Salvation Army; getting rid of “archival” materials that I had kept from university; returning things that I had borrowed and not returned; selling unused things on eBay and Amazon and Craigslist; returning the cable modem to Comcast [2]; getting some delayed car maintenance done; and so on.

I had been moving and storing many things that were not providing any nourishment. I purged them–some of them. I feel better now. This was, at long last, an accomplishment.

* * * * *

I purged during the first half of the week and then, on Thursday, I loaded the car. If only there was a Wal-Mart for disposing of a variety of things just like there is a Wal-Mart for acquiring them–but there isn’t, so I had to make stops in Lowell, Tewksbury, Reading, Wilmington, and Woburn.

I ran all of these errands on Thursday because I had signed up for the “third-party career management service” that was offered as part of our severance package. It was free, so why not? Thursday was the introductory day, and Thursday will be my only day in that service.

Buckle up. The ride gets a little condescending from this point on.

Sitting in that conference room was strange. There I was with thirty other laid-off Raytheon employees–thirty people that were just begging to be led somewhere. In the mirrors of the career management funhouse, we former employees became “candidates” that had to think like “consultants,” companies were “targeted organizations,” and being laid off was to be known only as a “transition.”

It was creepy.

I believe that some people need to find work soon. Families and mortgages must be fed on a regular schedule.

I believe that some people might not have the confidence or savvy to find a job after getting laid off, and that this service would be helpful to them.

I believe that this process-based career service is probably developed on some sort of statistical analysis of what works–that is, where finding employment, any employment, is defined as success.

For me? No thanks.

I might be confused and unsure about What’s Next, but I see it as a stage on the journey. This is what years and years of hiking and traveling have done to me, for good or for ill. I don’t need to be anywhere in particular in my career by age thirty or forty any more than I needed to do the Top Ten Hikes in Southern California or wherever as decided by this or that travel service. I think there is an exceeding amount of creepiness inherent in allowing someone else to define where you should go.

Sure, consult the list for ideas, but by all means deviate immediately. Yes, go see Inspiration Point on the edge of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone from the comfort of your car with all of the other checklist tourists. It is an inspiring view. But please get out and take the trail toward Washburn Meadow or Sevenmile Hole, somewhere off the pavement and away from the bell curve of statistically significant tourism. Initially it’s an anxious feeling, not knowing what you’re supposed to look at–then, eventually, comes the moment when the entire journey weighs more than the sum of its destinations.

But what the hell? If you take my advice, you deserve what happens to you.

 


 

  1. Memo to executive team: you can’t create a culture. With apologies to John Lennon, culture is what your employees do while you’re busy making other plans. [back to text]
  2. I’ll accept only partial responsibility for this one. Comcast’s customer service system is not designed to be friendly to customers calling with an area code that is not native to the service area. That is, I, with my Virginia-area mobile phone number but living in Massachusetts, would be repeatedly routed to the Virginia, get forwarded to the Massachusetts service, then automatically routed back to Virginia, and so on. [back to text]

Happy birthday, Jeff Buckley

Today would be Jeff Buckley’s 44th birthday.

I feel a little artificial saying, “What a tragic loss.” I didn’t know the man. I didn’t know his music until years after his death. I’m not familiar with his full catalog of music. Dwelling on any what-might-have-beens is an unnatural affectation.

But his voice… If that doesn’t move you, what could move you?

What would I give to be able to do anything–not even music, just anything–with the emotional range and crystalline expression of his rendition of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”? Just give me one take to feel what it’s like. This is the top of the mountain. Grace or not, this is ground where not even angels are fit to tread.

Yes, of course, the artist himself might not be defined by a single moment, but in this life-in-death of his, all that exists are these recorded moments. So, in honor of Jeff Buckley’s birthday, celebrate the moment:

Raygrets; or, Adventures in bureaucracy

In my hand I am holding an unopened farewell card from M, dated March 2008. I am going to open it.

Later. I will open it later.

See, anticipation is the best part, and anxiety is the worst. The trick is to balance the anticipation with the anxiety, the promise with the purgatory.

The point I’m not getting at is: I am now a free agent.

Since being laid off from Raytheon last Monday [1], I’ve had plenty of time to… ponder. That’s a funny word. Ponder. Pondering. If I say it often enough, it sounds like I’m doing something deep and meaningful, not just pacing around an apartment, cleaning the kitchen counter for the sixteenth time and trying to avoid the urge to write a vicious screed about my recently concluded Professional Experience. I hope you understand what I’m hinting at, otherwise you might have to sit down with me over a beer or two and let me give you the full theatrical performance, complete with hand gestures and full body spasms and grinding teeth.

Instead, I’ll leave you with an iconic line from one of my managers, and we’ll move on to other things. I believe this is called mentoring:

“When I was your age I used to want to do things my own way, but I had it beaten out of me and I’ll beat it out of you, too.”

Indeed.

And with that, I throw the last nineteen months of my professional life on the pyre and burn the thing to the ground–ashes to ashes, and dust to dust.

* * * * *

Do you know what occupies my mind right now? Not much. That’s really why I’m writing these words, not for pity–and the first one of you that says, “I’m sorry,” will be the first against the wall–but for clarity. I follow my instincts, but I also try to edit and salvage the Idea from the Junk.

Did I learn everything I know from working at Boy Scout camp? Maybe. What occurs to me now is the summer of 1999, when I helped teach knot-tying to hyperactive twelve-year-olds. P, an assistant Scoutmaster from Troop 200, taught me how to untie knots. Have you ever tangled a rope or cord so thoroughly that throwing the thing away seemed more fitting than investing the time to untangle it? Some knots will frustrate you. A frustrated human will pull rashly at the rope, tightening the knot, making the problem worse.

The trick is, paradoxically, to make the knot bigger–to “bird’s nest” it, as P said. Leave the free ends of the rope alone and pull the constricted loops out until the result is a pillowy ball of rope, a bird’s nest. Then you have room to trace the ends back through from where they came.

That’s what I tell myself I’m doing. I like that version of the story. It sounds like a parable, that I’m unknotting the rope before starting again. If I told you that I’ve actually been mulling around for eight days in a fog because I haven’t summoned the constitution or the maturity to do exactly what I’ve often threatened to do–to define what I want and to do it my own way–then I’d have to tell you some pathetic, ridiculous, and absolutely true things about myself… that I’d rather not admit to right now. [2]

Anyway, it is a good place to start: untangle, then untie, then… [This space intentionally left blank.]

I never understood the revulsion that some friends had to working for superbureaucracies, but now I get it. To work for a large organization is to trade control for security. Oversimplifying this as a continuum of control versus pay, I’d rather have more control than pay. The pay was handsome, but it wasn’t enough to offset the emptiness. Now, I don’t think money is the root of all evil or that large organizations are bad, but I’ve learned from experience that there are certain environments that I like and others that I do not like.

And who chose the job in the large corporation? Me. I should thank them for cutting the cord because I didn’t have the courage to reach over my wallet and do it myself. I am aware of how sanctimonious this sounds.

I haven’t worked out what’s next yet, except to say that what’s next isn’t a hellbent dash to Get a Job. I have ideas. They don’t belong in this post.

* * * * *

Let’s step backwards for a moment. Let’s touch down briefly at Orbital Sciences Corporation, Dulles, Virginia. It is March 2008, I am a systems engineer on an actual aerospace system, and I am still invincible. I am leaving to go to Texas for something that will not turn out well. I have a farewell card from M, but since I have not opened it yet, I do not know that it says:

Good luck with taking a new path in life!

Stay positive, confident, and you can achieve anything. Our short conversations were enlightening and entertaining, and I’ll miss the riddles you speak. Take care.

Indeed, M, it was an immense pleasure to work with you, as well. I wish you had packed some of my confidence in that envelope so that I wouldn’t have to take responsibility for creating it myself now.

 


  1. Erin Allworth, “Raytheon is trimming its workforce,” The Boston Globe, 9 Nov 2010. Now, I’m not angry at all about being laid off, not even a little bit. What makes me angry is that they also laid off A, a college new hire that had been on the job for six weeks. Welcome to the workforce, kid, now get the hell out of here. [back to text]
  2. “I woke up at 3am with the radio on, that Gladys Knight and the Pips song on about she’d rather live in his world with him than live in her own world alone, and I laid there, head spinning, trying to fall asleep, and I thought to myself, ‘Oh, Gladys, girl, I love you but, oh, get a life!‘ ” [back to text]