Survivor’s Remorse

Yep, that's about right.

Yep, that’s about right.

A year later, it turns out I’m going to live. At least for awhile (give or take the potential of getting smushed by a bus). Now what?

They say there are stages of grief. I probably experienced a portion of them all over the last 12 months following my cancer diagnosis. Denial and Isolation? Hell yeah. Anger? Absolutely. Bargaining? Kinda sorta. Depression? Sure, why not. Acceptance? Well, four out of five ain’t bad, right?

I named this navel gazing, insightful. narcissistic, self-absorbed site “A Blog Called Quest” because a: I didn’t have a better idea. Actually, there is no B. It’s just A. Well, A and the fact that these guys remain the greatest hip-hop group of all-time. So much for truth in advertising. It’s definitely a blog. A quest? Hmmm. Depends on your definition of the word. I could have called it “obvious midlife crisis hastened a bit by unlikely diagnosis of disease that sounds way scarier than it actually is” but the URL was just a little too long.

So what now? After 10 cycles of chemo (and two more to go by September) I’m as healthy as I’ve been since before my kids were born.I went back for a maintenance cycle last month. I’ve had oil changes that were more emotional. My disease isn’t the first thing I think about in the morning or the last thing I think about at night. Call it the upside of arrogance. I never worried that this thing would get me, even as I see others in the handful of Facebook groups I’ve joined struggle to repair their lives as the medicine that’s given me a second chance wreaks havoc with their own immune systems.

The default line here is I should be thankful, right?

A year ago I couldn’t climb the stairs in my house without thinking I was having a heart attack. Now if I do less than an hour on the treadmill or the sorority girl (note, that nickname came from a female cousin in law) errr elliptical machine I get cranky. I’m thinking about a 5K in a couple of weeks (my first race in a decade) and can’t wait until I become one of “those guys” who take their bike riding waaaaay too seriously sometime later this spring even if the truth is I typically get lapped by kids on tricycles.

I would love to sit here and tell you that I’ve figured it out, that I’ve figured me out. Yet I’m no closer now than I was the day my oncologist told me “Hey, you’ve got a rare form of incurable cancer but you’re going to be fine.” He was absolutely right of course, but reconciling two drastically different notions has been maddening.

Cancer got my father at 59. My brother-in-law at 35. Dad built houses. Bill was a teacher (and a good one). There is no explanation for what happened. How a non-smoker can be struck down in his prime by lung cancer is something I’m never going to figure out. How esophageal cancer turned a 6-foot-6, 230-pound titan into a graying, frail old man in six months is terrifying.

My experience has been far different. I’ve joked repeatedly that I have “JV” cancer. Most people think it’s me just being modest (important: as much as I try, modesty isn’t really my thing). I’ve sat in chairs next to folks nearing the end. I’ve watched the nurses come out wearing the blue scrubs with the chemo bags and tenderly administer it. I get four shots to the stomach and a four-hour drip of a drug that is basically little more than a reminder to my white blood cells to get to work and start kicking cancer’s ass.

It’s hard not to think about why I was spared. Why is my life more valuable than any those facing far more dire circumstances. It’s like watching a disaster movie where the entire planet is wiped out but hey, the protagonist is gonna live so really, everything is gonna be OK.

I wish I could tell you I’ve found my purpose. Lord knows I’ve been searching for one. If the last year has taught me anything, it’s that I have spent far too much of the first half of my life screwing around. And yet old habits die hard. I still play video games. I still obsess over what my professional contemporaries are doing (and just as importantly, what I’m NOT doing.) I still stare at my phone way too much, and while I’m becoming more of a grownup on Twitter, I’m still not exactly a paragon of responsible tweeting.

My smart friend Nancy (disclaimer, while this happens to be her name this is also a blatant ripoff of this guy’s work) says repeatedly “You had cancer, not a lobotomy.” Sometimes I’d almost prefer the latter (and my incredibly patient wife would agree). Far too often over the last year I’ve sounded like every politician who has ever promised “change” (no offense Mr. President) only to discover the mechanisms of democracy make progress a difficult and sometimes ugly slog (I’m looking at you Indiana).

I get told all the time that I’m being too hard on myself. That what I’m going through is completely natural, that I need to give myself a break. And I get it. Yet when I’m sitting there undergoing treatment and I see people who would likely switch places with me in an instant, it’s hard not to feel like every second when you waste not maximizing your life is a complete waste of everyone’s time.

There was a blissful stretch last summer where I really did unplug. I focused on my health and my family. I took time off work. I stayed out of the bubble I had lived in for far too long.

Then my numbers started ticking up. I felt my strength return. And the bubble returned, version 2.0. And I realized how incredibly fortunate I am. At my core though, it only made the issues I’ve struggled with for years seem only more urgent.

Every day I deal with intensified expectations. I want to be the best father. The best husband. The best writer. The best son. The best brother. The best (insert whatever I’m doing at a given moment). Every damn day. I can say unequivocally I am a better person than I was five years ago. At the same time that pursuit has made my awareness of my own shortcomings only more acute.

God didn’t spare me so I could win the Stanley Cup on my Playstation one more time. (At least, I’m figuring he didn’t). Trying to figure out what to do with the 40ish years I have left is perplexing. My greatest gift as a writer is my ability to get a handle on people. Whether it’s the best gymnast in the world or the kid at the end of the bench. I can ask the right questions, talk to the right people. And yet I’m no closer to getting the gears in my head straight than I was a year ago. Or five years ago. Or 20.

At least now, though, I’m trying. My family is in the process of joining a church, something my wife and kids have somehow taken faster to than I have. I’m trying to break out of my comfort zone by volunteering for a non-profit. I might not save the world. Not all of it anyway. But I will do my part if it freaking kills me.

Which, thankfully, blessedly it won’t. Not anytime soon at least.

Cancer might not be the best thing that ever happened to me, but it might be among the most important. To fully embrace my life, first I had to realize I might lose it. What a world. What a ride. The quest continues.

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–30–

Balance

Photo by the AP's Jim Mahoney

Photo by the AP’s Jim Mahoney

He was always eating. Always.

Usually some kind of salad. Maybe every once in a while a sandwich. Jason Worilds did not miss a meal. He couldn’t afford to. You come into the NFL at 6-foot-2 and 240 pounds _ undersized in the irrational way that only football players are considered undersized _ and being tethered to the training table is a necessary job requirement that becomes ingrained long after it outlives its usefulness.

Manners counted too. At least to Worilds. Whenever you’d make your way over to his stall in the Pittsburgh Steelers locker room, he’d finish chewing whatever he was working on, bashfully wipe his mouth and apologize before giving you a few minutes to chat. He wouldn’t say much, it just wasn’t his way. Or maybe it’s because he just didn’t want to talk about football.

It didn’t matter anyway. Whatever polite and politically correct statement came out of Worilds mouth were largely unnecessary. Starting last summer, the narrative was in place. Journalism by watercolors. Worilds was entering his fifth season with the Steelers. He’d signed a one-year contract that paid him $9.75 million. Only four months of steady play separated the self-effacing kid that grew up in northern New Jersey from financial security for life _ his and the generations to follow.

It’s always about the money right? That’s what we’re taught. That’s what we’re obsessed with, who is spending what in a never-ending arms race to evaluate self-worth. Worilds just happened to do it in a job that made him a multimillionaire.

He did what every employee is instructed to do whether your employer is the local bakery, the high school down the street or the ATMs disguised as NFL franchises: he maximized his earning potential.

It made him richer than he ever imagined. This is the same kid who eschewed a limo to his senior prom _ he took his mom, by the way _ just because it wasn’t his style. He took it because it was offered. It’s not that he asked for it, necessarily, but that’s what the rules _ rules he didn’t come up with _ determined the going rate was for linebackers with his unique skill set. The deal raised his profile and raised the stakes too. Worilds entered training camp last summer on the cusp of the kind of small ‘s’ stardom (at least locally) reserved for those who wear black and gold and make a habit of burrowing opposing quarterbacks into the green sandbox disguised as the turf at Heinz Field.

James Harrison. Greg Lloyd. Joey Porter. Kevin Greene. Worilds was on the brink of joining them. He and linebackers coach Keith Butler talked at length during training camp last summer about how pivotal 2014 would be in not just shaping Worilds’ football career, but his entire world.

“I think for him, he said ‘Well, Coach money’s not important,” Butler said last summer.

It sounded like the right thing to say, even if players _ check that, employees _ in every walk of life say the same thing every day, unsuccessfully trying to squeeze a little sincerity into their triteness. We are programmed to make it about the zeroes on our paychecks. It’s how we keep score, the running tally always at the ready just in case you thought about stepping out of your place in line.

Only Worilds was not kidding. Not by a longshot. A season came and went. He played well if not spectacularly. His 7.5 sacks led the Steelers even though his coaches asked him to drop back more and attack the quarterback less to help a defense that played without its once considerable sense of menace.

Worilds said repeatedly _ politely of course _ throughout the year he’d proven he was a productive NFL player worthy of a long-term deal somewhere, be it Pittsburgh or some place else. The Steelers declined to hit him with a franchise tag _ which would have made him one of the highest-paid players at his position in the league _ but it hardly made a difference.

When you’re talking about making $11 million or “only” the reported $7-8 million a year Worilds figured to get as a free agent, either way you’re still just talking about an awful lot of damn cash for a guy whose mother worked multiple nursing jobs just to help the family get by.

Worilds’ teammates kept an eye on him. He sat a couple of spots over from Troy Polamalu and James Harrison in the Steelers locker room, franchise icons who won multiple championships but entered the twilight of their careers dealing with their own diminishing skills and murky medical future as the miles and the hits and the grind of 20-plus years treating their bodies a 3% body fat projectile missiles piled up.

As 2014 wore on, Worilds grew only more introverted. His answers blander. His sentences shorter. There is little doubt he cared about the season, cared about the guys next to him. Outside of that, who really knows?

“He’s always been a quiet guy,” Steelers cornerback Ike Taylor said. “And when you’re a quiet guy, people can’t figure you out. That’s when people just get to writing.”

It’s what we do. We ask questions, get quotes, try to provide context and perspective. We are emissaries between the players and the thousands in the stands and millions on TV who have turned a children’s game into high commerce. We try to humanize them, strip away the very real wall that exists between Them and Us and find common ground.

Yet in most cases we don’t really know them, not really. The majority of our interactions are no more intimate than having a friendly chat with somebody in an elevator or a hallway.

Close personal relationships are difficult to establish let alone maintain. There’s not enough time, not enough access and in most cases not enough give a damn on either side. The players are almost to a man professional and courteous but hardly forthcoming. We are always in search of the next nugget, the next incremental development, the next Meme-worthy moment to share on Twitter or our blogs/Facebook pages whatever.

It’s a business exchange and a good one. They get paid handsomely to play. We get paid (not nearly as handsomely in most cases) to watch. We try to wring meaning from symbolic moments on the field or small conversations off it.

In the end though, they only let us know as much as they want to let us know. If we knew them, really knew them, then maybe we wouldn’t be surprised when somebody like Worilds walks away from a something that seems impossible to resist.

Hours into free agency on Tuesday, right at the moment we assumed he’d spent years pointing toward, that precious time when a player truly controls his own destiny, Worilds grabbed hold of it in a way few imagined. He retired.

No leaking through sources. No posturing. Three tweets and then poof. Gone. Done at 27. Leaving easily $10 million in guaranteed money on the table for someone else to fight over (and there will be no shortage of candidates).

It’s the why that is tripping us up.

He didn’t do it to be a movie star, as Jim Brown did when he retired at 30 back in the 1960s. He didn’t do it because his spot in the Hall of Fame was cemented, his financial future secure and his drive ebbing, as Barry Sanders did in the 1990s. He didn’t do it rather than face a lengthy and painful rehab from foot injuries as San Francisco 49ers linebacker Patrick Willis did on Tuesday just hours before Worilds’ midnight missive.

Worilds tweeted he was going to pursue other interests. For some, pursuing anything other than becoming lavishly wealthy and famous is beyond reason. People want an explanation. He has declined countless interviews in the last two days (including multiple ones from me).

Five years ago I would have been baffled. Three years ago irate. At all times I would have taken the cynic’s stance. It’s my default position, though I’m not accepting full blame on that one.

For every Jason Worilds there are countless other athletes who feign retirement only to come trudging back through the locker room door for riches, vanity, opportunity, desperation or any combination of the four you choose.

Maybe he’ll come back, helmet in hand. Outside of marriage, parenthood and probably a mortgage, there are few things you should commit to at his age that you can’t wiggle out of if you feel like it. Provided he stays healthy and in shape and there are jobs that require 260-pound guys to run at top speed after a piece of leather available, he’ll have another chance to prove himself if the spirit moves him.

Things change. Narratives change. The ones we built for Worilds was on the well-worn premise that wealthy, fame and glory were his ultimate pursuit. He never said it. Not on the record. Not off. We foisted it upon him because that how it works whether there’s truth to it _ to be fair, there almost always is _ or not.

During one of our conversations last October with the Steelers struggling at 3-3, we talked briefly about the stakes and the future.

“If I have 30 sacks and we got 8-8, what did we really do?” he said.

I joked that if he did have 30 sacks _ which would smash the NFL single-season record _ his accountants would need accountants he’d be in such high demand in 2015. He laughed then repeated something he’d said in one way or another for years.

“I don’t really look as far as that,” he said. “I just try to be the best I can be day in and day out and I think the rest will fall into place.”

It fell into place for Worilds on Tuesday, just not the way we wanted. Not the way we planned. Not the way that fits so easily into the little narrative box we had built for him.

Perspectives shift. He made more money last season than all but a precious few will make in our entire lifetimes. We always viewed the next contract as “The Big One.” The smaller truth is it had already happened. The larger truth is no answer he could ever give will sate those who can’t fathom making the choice in the first place.

He spent 20 years chasing a dream. We always assumed that dream included the trappings of the modern star athlete as we know it. We we wrong.

Perhaps one day he’ll talk about it. Politely, (as if there is another choice). Without a salad in his hands and some other place he needs to be. Without cleats on his feet. Without the expectations of others on his shoulders. Healthy. Happy.

A man _ not just a football player _ in full.

Balanced at last.

Blood in, Blood out

blood donor pic

 

She sits quietly at the table absent-mindedly skimming the reading for her Russian film class. She doesn’t really want to, exactly, but the class is in an hour and she might as well because if 17 years of school have taught Alana Carr anything about herself, it’s that all those As didn’t simply appear on her report card because she simply wanted them to.

Outside the William Pitt Union student union it’s one of those Pittsburgh mornings that in its own Stockholm syndrome way isn’t that depressing. Cold but not that cold. Gray but not that gray. Bleak but … well actually it is pretty damn bleak but hey, at least we’re alive, right?

Tucked inside a lower level lounge Carr welcomes the slow trickle of students who have shown up for an impromptu Red Cross Blood Drive, one arranged with less than a week’s notice after a drive at another business was cancelled. Some of the kids are bleary-eyed, some are in a rush, some nervous, all of them practically buried in their phones. Each of them greeted with smile as they make their way to the reception desk, where Carr _ the vice president of Pitt’s Red Cross Club _ cheerily awaits with questions she memorized long ago.

“Do you have an appointment? Do you have a donor card? Is this your first time? Can you please take a seat and read this over? Great, when you’re done give it back to me and hop down the steps so the nurses can take care of you.”

There are more than 1,000 students on the Pitt Red Cross Club mailing list, but if Carr is being honest there are maybe 40 or so truly active members. They do things like plan visits to local VA hospitals, volunteer at camps and help raise money for disaster relief. But that’s not why Carr joined as a freshman. It’s not why she’s spent the last four years asking the same questions over and over, why she’s only too happy to take a random volunteer, give them 30 seconds of instruction then put them to work.

The way Carr figures it, she owes each person that walks through the door one.

More than one, probably.

She can’t quite remember when it started. Maybe it was her sophomore year of high school. Maybe she was a junior. What she does know is one day she could rip through marching band practice with her flute at the ready and the next day she was gasping for breath trying to keep up. She felt like she was suffocating. Her mind wanted her to get moving. Her heart had other plans.

A battery of tests revealed anemia. Not the kind that you treat with a couple of iron pills and fistfuls of spinach. The kind where your body struggles to get the oxygen where it needs to go. The kind of which there is no real cure, the one that can make an 18-year-old feel like she’s 80.

Carr spent more than a year receiving transfusion after transfusion, relying on bag after bag to sustain her until her doctors and her body could sort things out. While it’s under control at the moment, she understands it won’t be forever. She can tell what kind of day it’s going to be on how she feels after climbing her first flight of steps.

Ask her why a kid from Chicago with a blood disorder decided to go to school at a place where you have to scale Cardiac Hill to get anywhere and she just laughs.

She can afford to now, now that her blood is behaving. Now that she’s weighing her postgraduate options as she ponders medical school after spending four years as a premed major. Maybe Loyola Chicago. Or an Ivy League school. Or maybe someplace out west.

The future is a blank slate, one made possible in part by the charity of strangers she’ll never meet. This is how the whole give blood thing works.

A wave of her hand and she’s off to class _ she never did really read that Russian film class paper _ while another wave of Red Cross Club members file in. One girl is volunteering for the first time and spends 40 minutes quietly keeping to herself before ducking out. Others scatter about as donors come in, offering water or juice to some, ushering others from one station to the next.

The donors wait dutifully, a good 20 to 30 minutes after finishing up, before heading out. Some accept the free T-shirt; others don’t. They’re not here for the swag (though to be fair, the T-shirts are pretty good as far as these things go). They could be selling their plasma for a little extra beer money, asleep in their dorms, studying for midterms, or playing in a Madden tournament against half of their floor–but they’re not. They’re carving an hour out of their day just because.

It’s not heroic exactly. Yet for people like Carr (and me) who can no longer donate but have relied on the occasional transfusion to survive, their selfless act is humbling.

And _ unfortunately _ all too rare.

While 40 percent of the population can donate, only 10 percent of eligible donors roll up their sleeve, grab the stress ball and wait for the pinch of the needle. (Note: IT DOESN’T HURT.) This means that the entire blood supply relies on the generosity of 4 percent of the population.

That’s not a typo.

There’s a shortage in Western Pennsylvania at the moment, a byproduct of a nasty flu season that’s forced some regular donors to push back their next visit and a particularly brutal winter that has forced several drives to be postponed. There’s not blood enough to go around, at least not in any sort of sustainable way. Clever marketing, peanut butter crackers, donation stickers (which run second only to “I voted” stickers) and plush T-shirts can only get you so far. Donation is a personal and sometimes time-consuming act. People are busy. They can’t be bothered. They’ll do it next time.

Here’s a suggestion. Check that. Here’s a plea: make now the next time. Not when you can get around to it. Not when the mood strikes.

Now.

The funny thing is most of us (like say, me) don’t realize how valuable the gift is until you’re on the receiving end. Until you’re the one getting prepped for transfusion. Until you’re with the red bracelet they make transfusion recipients wear wrapped around your wrist. Until you’re studying the numbers on the bag and wondering who provided the one thing you absolutely needed to survive.

At some point in your life, you’re probably going to need it. And it’s only then that you’ll wish desperately that you’d given more back when you had the time, the health and the motivation.

Do it for Alana so she can spend the next 40 years exploring her potential as a mental health professional or wherever else her life may lead.

Do it for the folks sitting in cancer treatment centers who desperately need transfusions to keep them going until the chemo starts to work.

Do it for those coming out of life-saving surgery.

Do it for the thousands who will walk into blood clinics this week anxiously awaiting the best (and most natural) drug there is.

Do it for the snacks or the stickers or the warm feeling in your soul or the T-shirt.

Do it so you can get out of class or an afternoon of work.

Do it so you can one-up your neighbor on the “do gooder” list.

Or maybe do it so that one day you’re not sitting in a chair giving yourself a guilt trip knowing one of the few things keeping you alive is the blind benevolence of a complete stranger.

Do it so I’ll shut up about it (note: I probably won’t shut up about it).

Red Cross. Central Blood Bank. Your local hospital. It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t cost money. It won’t eat up your weekend. Oh, and it won’t hurt. Promise.

To schedule a donation appointment, click here: http://www.redcrossblood.org/give/drive/driveSearch.jsp

or here: http://www.centralbloodbank.org/donate-blood

or here: http://club25pledge.org/

or follow @RedCross or @CentralBloodorg or join if you’re at Pitt, email redcrossclub@list.pitt.edu for help.

March is National Red Cross Month. It’s also National Frozen Food Month and Irish American Month and National Craft Month. If you can squeeze in an hour between National Pig Day (March 1) to National Ear Muff Day (March 13) and National Bunsen Burner Day (March 31), someone you’ve never met but whose life you’ll help save would greatly appreciate it.

The needle isn’t big. The nurses are great. The snacks are solid. The T-shirt a solid option on laundry day.

It isn’t heroic. But it is necessary. For Alana. For me. And maybe one day for you. Pay it forward so one day it can pay you back.

Play us out, Bob:

 

 

SCOREBOARD

scoreboard

Every pickup basketball game has “That Guy.” Never the best player (who can’t bothered to be bothered) nor the worst (who is too busy working his ass off to notice or at the very least admit it out loud), “that guy” is the guy who has decided long before he took the court that he’s going to keep score.

After every basket or possession, he’s calling it out. Quick to correct those who have it wrong. Repeating it ad nauseum _ particularly especially when his team is winning _ to serve as a reminder that there must be a sense of place in the universe and (with god’s grace and a couple of 3-pointers) his team’s place is on top, not yours.

I am that guy. I have always been that guy from the day my dad paved part of our backyard and turned it into a 20 x 20 court with one of those upper-end glass backboards in hopes that I would use it to become the kind of player that made him a pretty good junior college forward (before life got in the way) and my uncle an even better one at Penn State (before being 20 got in the way).

While I loved to play, genetics and a decided lack of ability relegated the idea of me making a last-second shot for the Washington Bullets to the goings-on inside my head. I topped out at 5-11, a good seven inches shorter than my dad (and if we’re being honest here, a deck of cards shorter than my little sister). I made up for my lack of height by having no talent whatsoever other than the confidence to jack up any shot from anywhere no matter the circumstances.

We’ll pause here to give anyone who has ever played with me a chance to avoid vertigo while they finish vigorously nodding their head.

But dammit, I could add and subtract. Maybe it was simply a byproduct of all those imaginary games I would hold when noone was around, the ones where Jeff Malone or John Stockton or whoever I wanted to be on a given day was always open from 15-feet as the buzzer sounded. And yep, you can bet I was “fouled” if for some ungodly reason that shot had the temerity to clang off the rim.

It was my court. I figured it was my job to keep order. I can’t tell you I did it on purpose, but hey, nobody stopped me. Looking back, it’s hard to not laugh. During those countless afternoons spent honing a shooting stroke that still stops by every now then at 40 (and hopefully sticks around until 80) I was a walking/talking/jump-shot heaving abacus.

Not much has changed. While I technically don’t get paid to keep score (though I do anyway most nights) I am paid to tell you who won, who lost _ and perhaps most importantly _ what it all means. Some days, I’m pretty good at it. Some days I stare at the screen waiting for inspiration to strike and _ when it doesn’t _ pluck my right eyebrow furiously and hope I can “fool’em again” as the great Jim Murray used to say.

If only the scoreboard fixating was limited to my work. And that’s the problem. I have too often turned every part of my life into some kind of endless track meet. I can tell you my weight without getting on a scale within a pound or two (and no matter how high or low the number, it’s never low enough). I haven’t balanced a checkbook in years but I know what the balance in my account is within a buck or two (and no matter how high or low the number, it’s never high enough). I can tell you who has done the last five loads of laundry, who called who last in (insert relationship here), and who sent me a note on Facebook on my last birthday and who skipped.

The funny thing about this is, I’m losing. I’ve been losing for as long as I can remember. The blessings bestowed upon me are so countless it would make most people puke. Every problem I have is a #firstworldproblem. And I’d include my cancer on that list. This week the FDA approved the use of a drug that could turn something I worried would eventually kill me a year ago into something that requires one silly pill a day. (Downside: this means playing the “but I have cancer” card to win any argument I’m losing may be coming to an end).

I have treated every single aspect of my life like a game. I read the wire to see which of my colleagues is writing what, who is traveling where and wondering why I’m not. I read both newspapers in my town and send texts/twitter shoutouts when I see something I like while at the same time wondering how I could (or have) done it better even if in many cases that’s probably not true.

It’s even worse in my house. For too long I viewed my marriage like a competition. I kept mental tabs on who was doing what/when. If I cleaned the litter box a half-dozen times before my wife got to it, I made damn sure to passive-aggressively let her know. (“Oh, you know where the litter box is? I thought you’d forgotten” stupid stuff like that).

I am the player who – with his team down 30 points in the last minute – drills a 3 and hoists his arms in the air. You know, kind of like this:

The irony _ even on the days I want to admit it or not _ is that I am down. Big time. And yet I create scenarios that allow me to find a category in which I somehow have an advantage. I have known my wife for nearly 14 years and she has devoted herself to me selflessly and relentlessly, sometimes against her better judgement. She does not need to keep score _ hell, it probably has never even occurred to her to try _ because this isn’t some contest. This is life. There is no scoreboard. There is only the day to day. How we live and who and what we devote our lives to is what matters.

It’s a lesson that I have spent the last four years trying to beat into my head, with mixed results. Parenting has taught me a lot (actually, it’s taught me just about everything) by forcing me (at long last) to grow the *%# up. I see my two kids every morning and wonder how some schlub like me has managed not to screw them up yet.

This is usually the point where I would throw in a “but there’s time” in order to get a laugh. But there are still moments when that obsessive competitiveness seeps out and finds its way into my son through some strange osmosis. He’s 5 1/2 and he absolutely hates to lose. It doesn’t matter if it’s a video game or a race around the house or brushing his teeth, he absolutely cannot come in second (and heaven help you if he comes in third). I have used that drive as a motivator when he doesn’t want to do a chore or get dressed, often pitting himself against his sister in a sprint to see who can finish what task first.

This morning it led to tears, my 3 yo crying because her brother tugged on her arm in the scramble to reach the top of the steps so they can finish a mad dash to get dressed. The moment soon passed, but they are becoming a bit more frequent than I would like.

I have no idea how to change it and I’ll admit I’m probably not quite ready. I played pickup hoops on Wednesday night. The first game I happened to be guarding a friend of mine. He got the ball. A small skirmish that may have resembled defense ensued. He called a foul and I immediately became a fourth-grader, making a joke about his height and disrespecting the call. What an idiot. While the call was debatable, my immediate reaction was not. It was dumb. And I’m getting too old to do the same dumb stuff I’ve done for the last 40 years.

I imagine I could start by trying to set a better example, to take some TNT to the ever-counting scoreboard in my head _ the one that reads “Will 2, Life 1” with “Dude, when are you gonna stop doing that and realize you’re one lucky bastard and just get on with it” scrawled beneath it like some sort of advertising sign _ blow the thing up.

Pass me the detonator. it’s time, don’t ya think? At least, after this one last game …

Hey, Rome (and the eventual deconstruction of my ego) wasn’t built in a day.

A little new school for this space, but hey, times change:

Roots

The Burgh2

This was not supposed to be the place. Too many hills. Too many unironic moustaches. Too many roads to nowhere. Oh, and too much black and gold. Way, way too much for a kid who grew up in the D.C suburbs and spent each spring of his childhood watching Mario Lemieux and his buddies crush the dreams of the guys wearing red, white and blue (you know, the colors of America, not some industrialized wasteland).

I never wanted planned to live in Pittsburgh. Let’s just get that out there. My college buddies and I would drive up a couple times a semester when we were at WVU 20 years ago, going to games and charging beers to a Discover card I ended up not paying off until I was nearly 30. (Note to kids: I don’t care how cool that free T-shirt those credit card dudes are offering in front of the student union looks, pass on it until your annual W-2 hits at least five digits).

Back then Pittsburgh was the big city. Then my world got bigger. Larger. More complicated. I graduated and my horizons expanded. I needed a job. The location didn’t matter, just the opportunity to see my name in print and tell everybody how good I am live the dream.

One problem: by wanting to be from anywhere, I ended up being from nowhere.

When I tell people where I went to school, they assume I’m from West Virginia. I immediately correct them and tell them I’m from Maryland, as if being from West Virginia is something to be ashamed of when the fact is most of the truly great people I’ve met in my life are from the place where montani semper liberi. When people hear I’m from Maryland, they assume I identify with Baltimore. I make sure to correct them and tell them I grew up 30 minutes from the White House regardless of my stance on the NFL’s team’s nickname.

The truth is I’m from a town without a center. There is no main street in Waldorf, MD. The most unique things about it _ slot machines and tobacco barns _ are long gone. There’s a liquor store, a bank and a fast-foot place on every corner, but there no there there. That doesn’t make it the seventh circle of hell, but the truth is my memories and fondness of it are tied to the people, not the place.

My adult life has been little more than a series of itinerant phases: 4 1/2 years in Morgantown (sorry about that extra semester mom and dad, I was just too damn lazy), 2-plus at my first job in Easton, MD (where I didn’t have nearly as much fun as I should have), a half-dozen more in southwest Florida (where I became ridiculously tan, incredibly fit and professionally challenged but also terribly broke) and another six in Louisville, KY.

It’s telling _ and not in a good way _ that I hardly keep in touch with anybody from those stops. I adore Motown but I’ve only been there a handful of times in the generation since I left. My first boss remains an inspiration but we’ve spoken maybe four times since I hooked up the small UHaul trailer to my Jeep Cherokee and sprinted for the Gulf of Mexico in July, 1999. I met my wife in Florida. We were married in paradise in June, 2005 then bolted for the Bluegrass (sight unseen, I might add) five months after we made it legal.

Louisville is tricky. We bought a home there (still sort of for sale, if you’re looking!), had our children there and where I might have been happy if I’d allowed myself to be. I couldn’t. It wasn’t enough. The job. The house. The life. I spent so much time fixating on what came next I didn’t bother to make a real investment personally or professionally. I became claustrophobic and did everything in my power to sabotage any chance at developing a meaningful, lasting relationship with an area that had warmly accepted me even as I daydreamed about where I’d end up next.

When the opportunity in Pittsburgh popped up, it took me five seconds to apply and three months sweating out the decision even though the truth is I wasn’t running to something as much as I was running away from the notion of truly settling down. It was only when I accepted the job that I bothered to look down. I’d grown roots in Louisville. Real ones. Mortgage. Kids. Did I mention mortgage? Yet I pressed on anyway, determined Pittsburgh would offer salvation and a needed fresh start. The truth is, the fact it was Pittsburgh was merely incidental. It could have been Sydney or Sheboygan. It was a step up, a step away, another notch on a bedpost becoming ever more crowded and ever more meaningless.

The carousel needed to stop. Any maybe it has, as hard as it was to imagine 3 1/2 years ago when my wife pulled up to the house I’d chosen to rent with a 2-year-old on one arm and an infant slung under the other. She stared at the 32 steps up from the driveway to the front door and shouted “do you (bad word) hate me?”

She wasn’t kidding. Neither am I when I say it wasn’t her that I hated. It was me. Pittsburgh initially was my purgatory, a place I needed to atone. And for the first two-plus years I treated it just like I treated every other mailing address I’d used during my adult life: as a waystation between this stop and the next, wherever it might be.

Juggling a demanding new job while replacing someone who had been an institution for three decades with a family life that included two young children and a wife who wondered how in the world she’d gotten here was a hell of my own creation. I couldn’t stand the town for a good two years, projecting all the anger I felt about my own mistakes onto a city that didn’t give a damn either way.

And maybe that’s why here  _ as odd as it seemed during those first miserable months _ became the perfect place to rebuild. Pittsburgh is welcoming but not charitable. It makes you earn its respect. Maybe that’s because its spent the last 20 years remaking itself after the collapse of the steel industry.

The Pittsburgh in your mind (alright, the Pittsburgh in my mind too) is not the Pittsburgh you imagine. The mills are all but gone. There is a thriving college scene. A dynamic health care industry. A booming energy economy. Hipster neighborhoods. family-friendly cul de sacs and perhaps the prettiest baseball park in the country. There’s an arena where two of the best hockey players in the world go to work 40-plus nights a year, hardly complaining even as their everyday brilliance is taken for granted. There’s a model NFL franchise that rarely makes me check the police blotter. There are parks and bike lanes and dive bars and five-star restaurants.

We ended up buying a house in a suburb east of the city that _ to be honest _ looks an awful lot like a hilly version of my hometown. Chain restaurants and Target. Giant Eagles and a gym. It’s comforting even as we warily planted true roots. We spent the first year basically renting the house from ourselves, unpacking what we could and throwing everything else in the basement. We survived a cancer scare, back surgery (her’s, not mine) and potty-training the world’s most dramatic 3-year-old girl. Over the Christmas break we decided it was time to unpack. We recycled an avalanche of boxes. We tossed a bunch of crap that we’d forgotten we even had. We came upon a trove of pictures from when we were younger, thinner and tanner. We laughed. Then we put them back.

Slowly we are making the house our own. The art on the wall doesn’t favor the past but the promise of the future. Our 5-year-old’s kindergarten’s pic. Our daughter’s beautiful smile. Our fridge is dotted with pics of people — check that, of FRIENDS — we’ve made here. I am trying to emerge from my own self-imposed bubble (the one that’s kept me from investing in anything other than what I see in the mirror) and become a part of the community. Hanging out at my daughter’s daycare. Wrapping presents at my son’s school. Maybe (MAYBE) running a 5k. Maybe (MAYBE) volunteering with the Red Cross. Learning my neighbor’s first AND last names.

I don’t know if we’ll be here forever. But I do know that I’m OK with the idea of that being OK. My son has a Pittsburgh Pirates jersey. He asks me about “the Crosby.” One day during the fall he wondered where his Steelers shirt was (he doesn’t have one yet, but I have a feeling I’m fighting a losing battle). My daughter will attend her first birthday party for a friend early next month. They will grow up Pittsburghers, certified “yinzers.”

And while I can still get lost here at the drop of a hat, while I’m still mystified at why everybody feels the need to slow down entering a tunnel and while I still feel like I have a ways to go before I will no longer be considered an outsider by my peers (a concept that might be in my head at this point than anybody else’s) I have developed an affinity for this place. It has earned my respect. I’m trying to earn its.

As long as it doesn’t require a moustache, I think it’ll work out just fine.

Usually we close with a rap song, but not today. The quality is poor, but this video the Pirates showed the home crowd before Game 3 of the 2013 NLDS gave me chills, and I’m not one to get chills. It’s a tribute to those who had faith in a franchise that for years was lost but found itself after two decades at sea.

Sounds familiar. Sounds awfully damn familiar.

The Kid on the Back of the Bus (aka Tweet Decked)

twitter yin yang

I can still see that kid in the back of the bus. Toughskins. Not quite brand name tennis shoes. Hair straight as the hands of Big Ben at 6 o’clock. Small. Smart. Insecure as hell.

Oh, and loud. Really flipping loud. He didn’t have an inside voice. Or an outside one for that matter. It’s as if God stuffed a megaphone down his throat then shredded the internal filter that was supposed to protect him from blurting out every thought before it neared completion.

That mouth tended to lead to trouble. The constant need to be heard, to be taken seriously, to be deemed “cool” led to problems, specifically “fist in the vicinity of the face” problems. He had no trouble telling people when they were wrong, where they screwed up, how they could do better. By third grade that mouth could curse a streak so blue if it had to be edited for TV it would have sounded like a garbage truck backing up (which in some way, it was). Beep. Beep. Beep.

That kid got his ass kicked on more than a handful of occasions. There was some bullying involved _ it tends to happen when you are a nerdish 57 pounds in fifth grade _ but just as often it was that mouth, that damn mouth, piping up, unable to resist the temptation to get the last word in. The mouth made up for in bravado what the kid lacked in strength and _ sadly, especially when it was time to get off the bus in the afternoons _ speed.

God, was I a piece of work when I was 8.

I taught my sister (who was three grades behind me) the seven words you can’t say on TV (and then a few dozen more) when she was in kindergarten. I remember this because she would use them (some of them even in correct context, impressive considering she was 5) to whoever happened to be chasing her too cocky for his own good older brother on a given day.

I can laugh about it now, three decades later, because I survived. And if it sounds like I’m blaming the victim a bit here, I don’t consider myself the victim of bullying, not really. Sure I had to deal with kids who wore cooler clothes, who were stronger and more popular and didn’t have a problem letting everyone know it. I was never in that group (not really) and it pissed me off. So I attacked with that mouth, the one that all too often would start moving even though it had no idea where it was going. I’m not saying the kids I would fight with (and before we get too far into this, let me stress it was typically the same handful, including a kid who lived down the street and was the size of your typical motorhome). We antagonized each other. My words rattled him. His arms occasionally tried to rattle me. It ended mercifully when I was in 5th or 6th grade. We were fighting. He told me to look down. Because I’m nothing if not accommodating, I obliged. One knee to the nostrils later, my Georgetown Hoyas T-shirt was covered in blood, my parents were called we were both told that if my insults wouldn’t reach his ears then his knuckles wouldn’t reach my face.

I’d love to tell you has a ton has changed. It has not. Not really. While it’s been probably 20 years since I last got in a fight _ and it was during a hockey game, so it probably really doesn’t even count _ that mouth still gets me in trouble. It just does it in an entirely different way: by using my fingers as an accomplice.

I get paid _ amazingly _ to write about sports for a living, just like I planned when I was 15. I am incredibly fortunate, particularly when there are thousands of journalists who have lost their jobs, victims of an ever-changing media climate that can’t seem to strike a balance between profits and public service.

It should be enough. It should be more than enough. And yet, it’s not. In many ways, I’m still the kid in the back of the bus, surveying everything in front of me, trying to find a way to fit in, trying to find a way to be cool, trying to bridge the gap between my shortcomings _ both personally and professionally _ and the incessant voice in my head that never stops reminding me that I can be better, that I can do better and that I’m not nearly close to reaching whatever murky goal lies out there in the distance even as the realist in me knows I’ve got it better than just about anybody.

Which leads me to twitter (FOLLOW ME! … or don’t). Finally, a medium where my brilliance could be doled out in 140 characters or less. A chance for those unfiltered thoughts to run wild. A place I can say what I think (and just as importantly, what YOU should think) and be funny and snarky and obnoxious without the fear of getting off the bus and facing whatever target I honed in on in a given day.

Over the last five years and 33,000 tweets (and counting) I have inadvertently painted myself into a corner. What began as a legitimately earnest attempt to be the sarcastic voice of reason has morphed into me becoming the kind of shrill, “get off my lawn and by the way, you stink” troll that I have for so long despised. Take any subject and I’ll find a way to find the cloud inside the silver lining. Whatever your take is, I’m only too happy to take the opposite point of view. My ability to find the one thing that’s going to tick someone off remains fully functional. Do I believe it? Not always, but hey, anything to get one more retweet, one more favorite, one more follower even if it’s just a spambot or Taye Diggs.

I am trying to have it both ways. My employer is one of the most trusted names in the news industry, and part of the deal is they ask us to color inside the lines, a standard I am growing more and more thankful of as accuracy and fairness takes a backseat in the increasingly heated competition for more clicks, Facebook likes and hashtags.

The small (note to bosses: VERY small) tradeoff can be relative anonymity compared to my peers. Sometimes you’ll see a byline. Most times you’ll just see “PITTSBURGH (AP).” It can appear nowhere or it can pop up in millions (no, I’m serious here) of newspapers and hundreds of web sites depending on how big the story is on a given day. More people stumble across my stories than I ever dreamed, and yet the kid in the back of the bus remains unimpressed.

That kid has opinions. Dammit, they must be heard. That’s what the mouth tells the fingers all too often when I hit “send” for the latest bit of snark and analysis to unwitting souls who mashed “follow” (whether they meant to or not) next to @WillGravesAP. And while I think I’m hysterical (just ask me, and I’ll tell you) at times it’s also gotten too much. The back of the bus is crowded. And I don’t want to sit here anymore. Not all the time anyway.

There are people who have made themselves professional provocateurs and who have the chops and conviction to back it up. And there are folks who hide behind easter eggs to take shots at those further up the food chain. I’m not in the former group and have no interest in joining the latter.

At my best I consider my feed a mix of news and benign antagonism. Too often lately it’s become me shouting just to shout, to chime in on whatever the topic of the day is because Important People are doing it (the trolls too) and dammit, I’m important, right? RIGHT?

I have a 5-year-old son who is bright and thoughtful and as competitive as hell. He wants you to do well so long as he does better. He’s cornered the market on patronizing, amazing considering my wife would tell you I perfected the art long ago. He beat me in “Sorry” the other day, did a victory lap and patted my head saying ‘You did good daddy.” The flashback was so vivid I wondered if my wife had laced that night’s spaghetti with LSD.

He’s starting to pay attention to sports now. Flipped on a game the other day and one of the teams I cover was losing on the road by a hefty margin. He told me “Pittsburgh isn’t very good.” It’s as if a seedling sprouted its first shoot. I’ll be honest, I’d love it if one day he wanted to do this for a living. In my wildest dreams I can see him sitting next to me in a press box putting together a game story or writing a feature or talking to a player. I have little doubt sports will provide the same bond that was the only real connection between my father and I.

Yet I wonder what he would make of the old man on twitter. He might say “daddy, why are you so mad?” The other day I went on an unasked for rant on the baseball Hall of Fame vote, chiding more senior members of the Baseball Writers Association of America for failing to elect two stars whose careers were pockmarked with evidence they used performance-enhancing drugs. Why did I do it? I have no idea. Was it personal? Not really, but 140 characters doesn’t allow for nuance, not in the chase for eyeballs. My rant might have been well founded but it was also unnecessary. Even worse, it was borderline unprofessional.

When I was done, I was kinda disgusted. I thought, “dude, get over yourself.” It’s a battle I’ve been fighting since those days in back of Bus 98. The war is nearing an end. It has to. The noise is becoming too deafening. The constant need to prove myself by being the funniest, smartest, whatevereset guy out there is exhausting.

I love Twitter. And I’m not quitting. But I’m going to try _ TRY _ to be more of a grownup. The truth is the only thing that will quiet that voice in my head, the one that won’t shut up, is by becoming a better man, a better reporter, a better role model for my son and hell, for me.

As much as that kid on the back of the bus is exasperating, he’s still a part of me. He just doesn’t need to talk so much. Maybe more thoughtful writing and more aggressive reporting will calm him down. Maybe a little less worrying about what everybody else is saying and a little more worrying about the example I’m setting will help. Or maybe he just needs to listen more and check his twitter feed less.

Like Common says on “Driving Me Wild” — “It’s a shame what they do for fame and to be respected/ Joe, you coulda got it if you never woulda stressed it.”

It’s time to get off the bus. Or at least move up a few rows. Save me a seat, will ya?

<iframe width=”560″ height=”315″ src=”//www.youtube.com/embed/NOa5UOHdwnc” frameborder=”0″ allowfullscreen>

The Search Continues

silentnight

The moment almost always starts out awkward, no matter how good the intentions behind it.

Each night before dinner, my wife and I ask our kids which one of them would like to say grace. Our 3-year-old daughter usually volunteers and after some gentle prodding she will treat us to one of the sing-songy prayers they say before each meal at her daycare located inside a local church.

It’s between those walls that our kids have nominally been exposed to religion. The children learn about Jesus and all that, but the truth is for Ellie and I the religious education our kids have there (our son attended the same daycare for nearly three years before starting kindergarten) is almost beside the point. It’s a safe, nurturing environment. The fact the teachers talk about Jesus is practically incidental.

Maybe it shouldn’t be.

I grew up in a home that was gently agnostic. My father was a lapsed Catholic. My mother a Baptist who gave up on trying to get us to go to church regularly when we were still in elementary school. Life was so hectic Monday-Saturday, who wanted to spend Sunday mornings trying to convince minimally interested kids it was time to get dressed up and go out when the time might be better spent reading the paper, doing the crossword or prepping for the Redskins game?

Then, stunningly, an abrupt sea change occurred. My senior year of high school I dated the first real capital C “Christian” I’d ever met. My freshman year in college, I was “saved.” I spent the better part of three years doing a deep dive into nondenominational Christianity. I went to Bible Studies. I witnessed to students in dorms, led public prayers and joined Campus Crusade for Christ. I served as a youth group leader and basketball coach at one church, sang in the band at another and attended the occasional service at a third. I wasn’t a Bible thumper, exactly, but a Bible suggester. “Hey, this book might be pretty good, I think you should read it.” That kind of stuff.

I didn’t drink. I didn’t party much. Hell, I even quite cursing for awhile.

(We’ll pause a minute here for the folks that didn’t know me then to absorb that last part.)

Looking back, it’s obvious the decision to get so heavily involved was as much social as it was spiritual. There was a sense of inclusion in these groups that I couldn’t find in other places, mostly because my idea of a good time (then, at least) did not include drinking as much Milwaukee’s Best as I could stand.

I felt like I belonged even if I wasn’t sure I did. The nagging voice in the back of my head constantly questioned my motives, wondering if I truly believed in anything at all other than the need to find a place where I was accepted. And during those three years I saw the same kind of cliqueish behavior I would have found in any other group. I also had the pleasure of being treated with true kindness, generosity and wisdom by people whose faith and spiritual walk I respect even more when I look at it through the all-knowing prism 20 years of hindsight provides.

The relationship didn’t stick, though. My senior year in college I joined the student newspaper and found my calling. I knew I belonged with the ink-stained masses (back when ink on dead wood was a thing), churning out copy on deadline, sharing a beer afterward and plotting to save humanity one dazzling bit of prose at a time.

For the better part of two decades, my profession has been my religion. Hell, I’d argue it’s more of an obsession. I have spent far too much time worrying about the state of journalism _ and more importantly, my place in it _ than anything else in my life. My family. My health. My kids. My future. My grammar (apologies copy editors).

Yet this time of year, every year, I can feel something tugging at me. The time in my early 20s when I was idly driving through Annapolis and Handel’s “The Messiah” came on as I was scanning the radio and I spent the ensuing 40 minute trip to my parents’ house driving through tears. The Christmas Eve service at a downtown Louisville Catholic church eight years ago where all I could think about was that if “O Holy Night” sounded this beautiful then someone, some thing, must be behind it. The quiet moments the last few years when I get home late after a game and my family is asleep upstairs, those blissful minutes in the dim light of the Christmas tree when my brain finally gives me a break and lets me focus on the wonder of all the things I have _ instead of all the things I don’t.

My daughter’s daycare class had birthday cake on Monday. It was for Jesus. Said so in red icing right there on the top. When she came home she talked about it. Before dinner she sang the sweetest version of “Johnny Appleseed” that you have ever heard. Trust me.

Then it was one with the typical dinner stuff, the bartering to get them top finish their pork chops. My wife and I running down our day. The anxiety that comes with trying to get everything ready for Christmas, the loneliness of being separated from our families, all the usual stuff. Our 5-year-old reminded us to turn the fireplace off so Santa wouldn’t get burned when he visits on Christmas Eve.

We didn’t talk about going to church. We haven’t been with any sense of regularity since well before our son was born. And yet this year the pull feels stronger than ever. Maybe it’s the cancer (in remission, btw). Or the fact that four years out I’ve finally started to accept that my father is dead, or that our time is more precious than I ever imagined.

I don’t know what I believe. I am terrified that my kids will start asking in a few years who and what God is about and my answer will be to shrug my shoulders and check to see what Twitter says about it.

My wife and I will never be the kind of parents that foist religion on our children. It’s a personal choice, one each individual needs to figure out on their own. I am slowly growing worried that I am no closer to an answer now than I was on that September night in 1992 when I got on both knees in my dorm room and asked for salvation even though I wasn’t quite sure what I was doing.

But I do know this: it’s time to start talking about it, if only to make those awkward moments before dinnertime prayer a little more meaningful and little less random.

Merry Christmas folks. Harry Connick Jr. is here to play you out:

 

The trouble with Thanks

If you got the chance to jab me with needles on a regular basis, you'd be smiling too.

If you got the chance to jab me with needles on a regular basis, you’d be smiling too.

I promised them this post would come months ago, maybe it’s a tribute to the work of those two kind folks in that picture that it hasn’t. Sorry Mary Beth. My bad Dr. Mehta. A thousand apologies Sandy and Phil and Melissa and Michelle and Tani and Jen and Lori and everybody else who has jabbed my arm for blood, stuck a thermometer in my mouth, threaded an IV needle into my hand or laughed politely at the decidedly lame “hey, look at me, I’ve got cancer” jokes over the last nine months.

I’ve been too busy trying to reclaim the life you so carefully restored over the spring and summer that I haven’t had time to thank you properly.

Resiliency is a funny thing. I spent the first few months after my lymphoma diagnosis in March questioning everything: my health, my future, my relationship with my family, my commitment to my children and my  passion for my chosen profession. It wasn’t a midlife crisis exactly. It was more of a stop sign. Those thoughts had been building _ much like the disease in my bone marrow _ for years. My diagnosis simply crystallized them and my treatment gave me time (too much probably) to try and figure out who I am, where I’m going and who, exactly, I’m taking with me.

Then, sometime in July, things turned. I started producing healthy blood again. My energy level went up. I began regaining the 10-15 pounds I lost. All the stuff I tried to put in perspective suddenly became important again. How many twitter followers I had. My place in the cliqueish hierarchy of the press box (and my company for that matter).

The same old crap. The same old concerns. All the stuff I thought I was ready to ditch because there was a chance the rest of my life would be measured in years and not decades. The small stuff became big stuff despite my best efforts. The perspective I was searching for vanished. It was back to the grind, back to the next story, the next mortgage payment, the next chore on the to-do list that regenerates itself relentlessly day after day after day.

On the final day of my eighth and final cycle in September, I had this plan that I would do a victory lap around the doctor’s office, sprint to my car, give Waldenstrom’s Macroglobulinemia the finger and put it in the rearview mirror for good.

It didn’t quite go like that.

Tani patched me up after a four-hour drip of Rituxan and my 32nd shot of chemo and I quietly slipped out. Nobody dropped what they’re doing. Nobody stood up and slow-clapped me out the door. When I turned to look back the half-dozen nurses who make a living keeping the living alive were going about the business of providing comfort and confidence to a never-ending stream of terrified, defiant and confused strangers.

Sorry ladies. I meant to say I owe you one for helping save my life.

If you’d seen me in my car afterward, sobbing uncontrollably in the front seat as the realization that “holy crap, I just spent 24 weeks getting treated for cancer and I think I’m going to be OK, how in the hell did that happen” washed over me, I hope you would have taken it as a compliment.

You made it bearable. On some days, you even made it enjoyable. (Well, that and the free crackers). You took one of the most intimidating processes of my life and made it seem routine.

It’s a pretty remarkable mind trick considering most us don’t want to be there. Not for a second. Not for a minute. To be honest, those of us who jot our names on the patient sign-in sheet are in some form of shock.

It’s surreal that it has come to this, trudging into a bland office building and wading through a crowded waiting room to a sea of tan leather chairs where we sit and wait for medicine that _ hopefully _ will work. We fixate on our blood counts, our symptoms and our prospects. It should feel like purgatory. It’s because of your mindfulness it does not.

You try to get us to talk about our kids, our jobs, our plans for the weekend. Anything to distract us from the battle going on inside our bodies. You study charts, consult with doctors and check our progress while trying to make sure we don’t feel like so much sickly cattle, no matter if we’re the first or the 40th patient you’ve seen that morning.

While we won’t tell you this because this just isn’t what we do, we are in awe. I am in awe. I cannot comprehend the responsibility that comes with your job.

No matter how much I try to convince myself that what I do is capital I Important, if I screw something up a fix is only a couple of mouse clicks and keystrokes away. In the end it’s just nouns and verbs, subjects and predicates, hanging clauses and occasional grammatical errors. My idea of pressure is looking at a blank screen with five minutes to go in whatever game I happen to be at. (NOTE TO BOSSES: that like almost never happens. Honest).

I cannot fathom a job where every decision has to be right, one where there are real, actual consequences for any tiny mistake.

A good friend of mine worked in newspapers into his early 30s, when he had a heart attack. He was so touched by the care he received he left the business, moved back home with his folks and spent a handful of years getting a nursing degree. I thought he was insane. (Colby, technically you might be). While there is zero chance of me trading my laptop for a pair of Crocs, I can see why he made such an abrupt sea change.

Look, the medical system in this country is screwed up. The fact it cost $21 grand for a doctor to look at my blood and figure out what type of lymphoma I have is insane, for starters. And the idea that health care is a privilege and not a basic human right is beyond me. But that is paper and policy. It’s not people. And it’s the people as much as the medicine that keeps us going.

I head back to those tan leather chairs on Monday, for the first of four “maintenance” treatment cycles over the next 12 months. I am (mostly) healthy. I am (usually) happy.

And before I forget and get too caught up in the frustrating business of being me, know that I am thankful.

See you in a bit ladies. I’m almost looking forward to it. Almost.

Just careful with the needles, OK?

Here’s Shawn, Nate, Wanya and Mike to play us out.

 

The Owner and the Onus

Skins tix

Those tickets up there? Those are my Magna Carta. My Holy Grail. The pebbles that grew into stones that evolved into the cinderblocks that became the foundation of my adult life.

And this post is going exactly where you think it’s going _ unless you think it’s going to be about cancer, sorry not this time_ but first, a love story.

My childhood memories before the 1982 NFL season, particularly when it came to football, are vague. I remember briefly adopting the Cincinnati Bengals as my favorite team in 1981 because they switched to the tiger stripes on their jerseys and they happened to make the Super Bowl. I was 7. My first favorite player was Cris Collinsworth, because he was Cincinnati’s best wide receiver. The fact we shared the same skin tone was merely coincidental.

The flirtation with the Bengals didn’t last. It couldn’t last. Grow up in the Washington D.C. suburbs as I did, and really, you had no choice. There was the Redskins and there was everything else. And by everything else I mean God, family, friends, work, life, whatever.

None of that mattered Sunday afternoons, especially not in 1982, not with Riggo and the Hogs and Theismann and the Fun Bunch and Dexter and the Pearl Harbor Crew and Coach Gibbs and nattily clad owner Jack Kent Cooke, so perfectly dubbed “The Squire” by Washington Post columnist Tony Kornheiser.

That 1982 team was my first true love. They were instant gratification. Sundays would come and Sundays would go, and they’d find a way to win. The joy those triumphs brought my family, particularly my father’s side, was indescribable. My grandmother would make spaghetti and bring cucumbers soaked in vinegar. One of my aunts would bring deviled eggs. We’d eat after the 1 p.m. games _ at halftime during the 4 p.m. games _ and watch and celebrate.

They won the NFC East during a season truncated by a two-month players’ strike and crushed the Detroit Lions in the first round of the playoffs. Then they took out the Minnesota Vikings the next week _ with Riggins bowing to the masses after 37 wearying carries for 185 bruising yards as RFK Stadium trembled in delight.

The Dallas Cowboys, with Tom Landry and Tony Dorsett and Randy White and that ugly star and nauseating aura of entitlement, awaited in the NFC Championship game.

And my dad got his hands on two tickets. He could have taken my mom. He could have taken my grandfather. He could have taken my uncle or any one of his buddies.

He didn’t. He took me. And it changed me _ and bonded us _ in a way that I will never forget.

I remember it was cold. We had a thermos of hot chocolate. We sat a million miles away _ at least it seemed a million miles away to this 8-year-old _ and it couldn’t have mattered less. I remember looking at the scoreboard as it flashed jersey numbers (for some reason it seemed like linebacker Neal Oklewicz made every tackle for the Redskins that day) and chanting “We Want Dallas” at every stoppage in play.

I’d love to tell you I remember Darryl Grant causing the earthquake that sent the Redskins to the Super Bowl but I don’t. I do remember the glee of 55,000 true believers walking out to the parking lot, some of them singing “Hail to the Redskins” at the top of their lungs. The way it snowed big snow flakes on the way home. The look on my typically taciturn father’s face. The smile lasted for days. Maybe weeks.

Seeing him happy made me happy. I became more than his boy that day, I became his buddy. We felt like equals. We felt like friends.

And while those moments became more fleeting as I grew up and our relationship became more distant before his death in 2010, the fact those ticket stubs remained on his dresser for years afterward served as a sign to me that he wanted to hold onto a part of that day forever. The only time I truly lost it after he cancer took him so abruptly at age 59 didn’t come as I stood at his bedside as he took his final breath, it was when I discovered the ticket stubs while taking an inventory of his things. Though my parents divorced when I was 17, the tickets remained in the same spot they’d always been. My guess _ my hope _ is his memory of that day did too.

The Redskins won the Super Bowl the week after that Cowboys’ game and two more by the time I graduated high school. My passion for them is what led me to become a sportswriter for a living. (Well that and the realization during my one inglorious fall as the smallest offensive lineman/linebacker in the history of the 75-pound Waldorf Wildcats that I was probably going to spend most of my teens in traction if I continued to play.)

My fandom for the franchise has flickered more than flared over the last two decades, though the embers remain ever vibrant just waiting to be stoked.

After all, I may be the only man in America to have this in his closet:

Schroeder

That is the jersey of former Redskins quarterback Jay Schroeder. He’s known mostly as the guy who came in when Joe Theismann’s leg was snapped in two during a Monday Night Football game like a first grader getting his hands on a Twix. I didn’t care that his prowess for throwing the deep ball was only matched by his petulance when he got benched. He was my guy. (And I maintain that if Doug Williams knee forced him out of Super Bowl XXII for the entire game Schroeder would have led them to victory anyway).

While I haven’t lived in DC for 15 years, I’ve done what I can to catch them when I can.

I flew halfway across the country to watch Jim Zorn coach in Dallas. I paid more than $400 bucks to watch Peyton Manning fillet them in Indy. I jumped out and down for 10 minutes the day Joe Gibbs returned in 2004. I was crushed when Sean Taylor was murdered and pissed when Art Monk spent year after year on the waiting list before going into the Hall of Fame.

And because of all that, because of the years and the money and the inordinate amount of time I’ve spent fixated on a franchise that made me want to become a sports writer before I ever figured out I wouldn’t be good at anything else, I can say this.

The nickname has to go. Has to.

And here’s why: because it doesn’t matter. The name itself _ like the nicknames for basically every other team in every sport at every level _ does not matter. People do not root for teams for the nickname. They might have an affinity for certain jerseys because they look cool. They may swag out because there’s something about how the colors silver-and-black go together or the way the NY falls on a Yankee cap, but the names themselves do not matter.

My connection with the Redskins has nothing to do with the word Redskins. My connection is with the players  _ my heroes _ that brought those jerseys to life. My connection is with the fans _ my mother and father especially _ who communed every Sunday at the altar of the burgundy and gold and spent every Saturday night watching “Redskins Sidelines” on Channel 9 (RIP Glenn Brenner) and every Monday at the dinner table obsessing over every triumph and mistake the day before.

That day I walked into RFK, the guys wearing the home whites could have been named anything. Seriously, anything. Not for one second in 32 years have I ever expressed an affinity for the Redskins other than the way the name evokes such strong feelings about my childhood.

But it would have been that way if they were called anything else. Because it does. not. matter.

I used to think the argument over whether the name was racist and offensive was dumb. It’s just a name and an emblem. It’s laundry, right? 

Not really. The first domino fell when trying to get my son (who was 3 at the time) to watch a game with me. He asked me who was playing. I told him the Redskins were playing.

“What’s a Redskins?” he asked.

“Hmmm. Well, see Colin, they’re well. What I mean is … it’s ummm.”

And then I just gave up. The truth is it’s a compound word. Red and skin. According to the Oxford English Dictionary it started out as a way to describe the tone of Native Americans along the Delaware River Valley but over the years “redskin lost its neutral, accurate descriptive sense and became a term of disparagement.”

OK then. You’d think that’d be enough to start a relatively short and effective conversation about maybe switching the name right?

Well, not exactly.

Owner Dan Snyder _ who like me grew up in the DC area and basked in the glory and the agony of each season as a child and who unlike me became smart enough and rich enough to buy the team for himself _ has dug in his heels. He told ESPN recently “The Washington Redskins fan base represents honor, represents respect, represents pride.”

Snyder also put his money where his nickname is, establishing the Original Americans Foundation early this year, a group which pledges to work with tribal communities to provide resources and opportunities.

All of which is well and good. Here’s the thing though. He’s owned the team for 17 years. The team has been named the Redskins for [checks Wikipedia] oh, 17 years. Why now _ only after the critics have started coming after what ESPN’s Bob Ley called the “low hanging fruit” of bashing the name _ is Snyder suddenly so down for the cause?

Not surprisingly, a large percentage of the fan base (my mother included) has joined in. And they’re not alone. A poll released last week indicated 71 percent of Americans are just fine with the nickname staying

Which makes perfect sense, except for the part where it doesn’t. Asking the casual fan _ almost all of whom are an ethnicity other than Native American _ on whether the team should keep its nickname is akin to doing a poll in the south during the 1840s and asking folks who aren’t slaves if they think slavery is cool.

Over the top? I don’t know, any more over the top than having the most popular professional franchise that represents the capital of the most powerful country in the world boasting a nickname that is the equivalent of a slur?

I understand the defensiveness. I believe some of the energetic defense of the nickname is due to a sense of “racism by association.” My mother thinks “I like the Redskins. I’m not a racist. But if you say the name is racist and I’m a fan of the team, then I’m a racist.”

First mom, you’re not a racist. Nor, I’m sure, are the hundreds of thousands of others who part with a substantial chunk of change for tickets, parking, food, the 18th version of a Robert Griffin III jersey or anything else that Snyder (who also does not appear to be a racist) has monetized to within an inch of your wallet’s life.

If you like the team, that does not mean you are a racist. If you’re not bothered by the name, that does not mean you are a racist.

You know who was a racist though, in deed if not in words? George Preston Marshall, the man who co-founded the Boston Braves in 1932 then switched the name to Redskins the following year because _ according to The Associated Press story at the time _ he didn’t want his team to be confused with Major League Baseball’s Boston Braves. The fact he had several Native Americans in uniform was immaterial.

“The fact that we have in our head coach, Lone Star Dietz, an Indian, together with several Indian players, has not, as may be suspected, inspired me to select the name Redskins,” the AP quoted Marshall as saying on July 5, 1933.

Marshall was a visionary marketer. He moved the franchise to Washington D.C., in 1937 and saw that football was entertainment. He created the Redskins Marching Band, who made “Hail to the Redskins” the first fight song for an NFL team. That song’s lyrics include the lines “beat’em, swamp’em touchdown let the points soar” which last I checked, appear to be pretty damn offensive. “We Are The World” it is not.

Marshall wasn’t, however, a visionary in terms of progress. Even as the number of African-American players flourished throughout the NFL in the 1950s, his team’s roster remained all white. It wasn’t until his hand was forced by the federal government _ which threatened to pull Marshall’s lease on DC Stadium _ that he reluctantly traded for Cleveland Browns star running back Bobby Mitchell. Of course, this was after Marshall drafted former Ohio State running back Ernie Davis, who declined to play for the Redskins because of Marshall’s reluctance to integrate the team.

So let’s see. Folks are backing a nickname considered a slur that was thought up by a guy who refused to sign African-American players for 15 years after it became common practice.

Yeah, that makes sense.

It’s the why that gets me. Why does the name matter? Will people stop coming to games, watching on TV or buying swag if Snyder decides to ditch Redskins for something _ anything _ less offensive.

No. In fact, he’d probably make MORE money. New name means new merchandise. It also means Snyder will still get to sell Redskins merchandise because if there’s anything the NFL loves it’s selling old jerseys as a revenue stream. People can complain all they want about the state of the economy, but I’ll start worrying only when I see folks stop shelling out money for things like this: 

When I was a kid, the NBA team in Washington was called the Bullets. In the late-1990s owner Abe Pollin _ pointing to the alarming rise in gun violence in the city _ held a contest to change the name. They came up with the Wizards. The colors went from red/white/blue to blue/gold and something else. It was an uninspired choice, but I understood the reasoning even if any sort of link between the team’s name and DC becoming the “Murder Capital of the World” for a brief time had nothing to do with each other.

There are much larger issues in the NFL _ and in life _ than the nickname. I get that. And when the Redskins play in Houston this afternoon, I’ll keep an eye on it even as I work in the press box at Heinz Field doing a job that I love, a job whose seeds were planted on that unforgettable day 31 years ago when RFK shook and the jubilation gave me a high I’ve spent three decades chasing.

But here’s the thing. The name is fixable. An easy fix at that. If even a small handful of people are offended _ and really, the number is considerably higher _ then what’s the point of keeping it around.

There was a time when it was OK to say “colored” or “Negro.” I know this because I heard those words from people in my extended family as a kid. That doesn’t mean it’s OK anymore.

Times change. And this is all so arbitrary and unnecessary. Any other name would work. Unlike college, the NFL is about the names on the back of the jersey, not the one on the front.

I don’t root for the word Redskins. I root for Riggo and RG3. For Schroeder and Santana and Coach Gibbs and (for now) Jay Gruden.

And I root for this silly nonsense to end so I can pass my love for the franchise _ and the link it provided to my father _ along to my son. I’m already fighting an uphill battle. He and his little sister will grow up surrounded by Steeler fans. And if they become one, I can deal with it.

Of course, if they opt for the Cowboys then they’re out of the will. I mean, you gotta draw the line somewhere.

Like say, a nickname whose time has come and long since gone.

Hail to the Redskins? I’ll hail when common sense prevails. Until then, may the battle for decency “fight on, fight on, till it has won.”

Then _ and only then _ will the franchise become “sons of Washington.”

Dear Colin

Colin bowling

Hey little man.

You’re not gonna believe this, but you start kindergarten tomorrow. Note in some far off daydream in my head, but In real life.

Your mother, sister and I will walk you the 400 feet from our front door to the bus stop. We’ll wait for No. 105 to come around the corner. The doors will open. We’ll make sure you have your lunch, your pencils and your courage. You’ll take three big steps up, find the window seat you’re so excited about and sit down.

Then off you’ll go. 

You’ll be fine. Hell, the fact that this is your favorite song means we should just drop you off at the nearest college and be done with it.

You’re ready. Your mother and I are not. Not even close. Sure we’ve known this day was coming since May 20, 2009, when the doctors stubbornly pulled all 9 lbs., 7 ounces of you into the world. (By the way, there’s a good chance your mother’s gall bladder _ the one you held onto as they tried to unwedge your foot from her ribs _ still hasn’t returned to its original shape.) And sure there were times during those first few months when colic made you so angry every night I actually stuffed cotton balls in my ears to survive that I wouldn’t have minded the thought of you finding somewhere else to go every day.

Not anymore. Not by a long shot.

You (and your sister) are the greatest thing to ever happen to anybody ever in the world. It’s as if someone distilled the best parts of us _ your mother’s kindness, grace and generosity, my inherent silliness _ and threw away the rest of the crap when they made you.

Your curiosity astounds me. Your photographic memory scares me. The light burning inside you is so pure that the only thing I want to do is protect it.

Only I can’t. That’s not fair. That’s not the way it goes. For you and for the other 20 kids who will walk into Mrs. Hoyle’s class in what quite literally will be the first day of the rest of your lives.

There’s a lot to do. A lot to know. And the sad truth is when you’re older you’re not going to remember much about your life before school started. There may be an image or two, a thought that might stick with you but beyond that it’ll be some sort of foggy blur.

So I’m going to tell you this now so we can look it up in 20 years and laugh about what a chicken your father was (and probably still is):

You are joy. You are everything that is good stuffed into 38 pounds of skin, bones and bliss.

I know that sounds like a lot to put on your tiny shoulders, but anyone who has spent more than five minutes around you knows it’s true. It’s the only way to explain a kid who turns to either one of his parents randomly and says “Mommy/Daddy, I really love you” and then goes back to whatever he’s doing without asking for something in return. The only way to explain a boy who still needs to touch his mother’s skin before bedtime, who shares his toys with his sister so willingly, who loves with a sincerity that I wondered could ever exist.

I see you and wonder how I could possibly be responsible for half of it. I’ve spent most of my life dealing with a voice in my head that makes me constantly examine my worth. If that same voice pops up in yours, I pray you have the strength (and the confidence) to ignore it the way I couldn’t. 

The greatest days of your life lay ahead. It begins the second the bus doors open tomorrow and you let go of mommy’s hand and grab onto your lunchbox and pull out of sight.

And as much as part of me wants to stop you, take you home and barter with God for another few weeks, another few months, another few years of the seemingly unlimited happiness you have provided us, it’s not what you need. It’s not what you deserve.

Starting tomorrow, your journey really begins. You will learn how to write letters and read books with chapters in them. I predict you’ll become obsessed with math. You’ll sing songs and run races. You’ll make friends that will last a lifetime. You’ll have your heart broken by a girl (eventually). You’ll get sent to the principal’s office (at least once, or you’re doing it wrong). It will be the best time. And I can’t believe I get a front row seat.

In a month this will all seem routine. In a year it will be an afterthought. In five we’ll pull out pictures of your first-ever day of school and your mother and I will laugh about how scared we all were.

We promise to be brave tomorrow morning. We won’t cry until the bus is around the corner, until the little baby with the seemingly inflatable cheeks is on his way to take on the big, bad world. One that will be a little better because you’re in it.

Thank you for the last five years Goobs. They have been the best of my life, no matter how complicated I tried to make it at times. You have taught me how to be a man, a gift I’ll never be able to repay. I’ll try to remind myself (and you) that you’re still our little boy. I’ll make sure to remind you that no matter what adventures await, your mother, sister and I will be there.

We just don’t get to hog you anymore.

It’s time for you to share your light.

May it never go out.

Love,

Daddy