The Glue

grad pic

You’ve always been just a smidge off to the side, pushed into the background by forces beyond your control.

A husband who wasn’t much for compromise or open discussion and kept his love at arm’s length. A son you had just weeks after turning 21, a kid who for decades took your love and support for granted, consumed by what he didn’t have: be it his father’s approval, some random job or his latest crush.

Whether I earned Dad’s respect, landed the job or wooed the girl, you were always going to be there because hey, you’re Mom. And being there is what moms are supposed to do, right?

You HAD to support me. You HAD to put up with me because well, that’s part of the job description, pushed in there somewhere between cleaning up puke stains off the carpet after your only son was too lazy/scared to make it to the bathroom and sending  $50 and a note after that same son loses his rent money on a riverboat casino during Spring Break in ’96.

Or so I heard.

And while all that may be true, there’s something I’ve forgotten or overlooked or just been too wrapped up in myself to recognize:

You did this all by choice.

The first person that ever Ioved me has never asked me for anything other than to be happy. There are no conditions. No stipulations. No “if/thens.” I can’t even remember the last time you were even mad at me outside of a “hey, you better get your (deleted) together because you’re better than this kind of way.” OK, well there was that party Marcene and I threw during summer vacation back in ’94, the one where I drank Zima, got hammered, watched my oldest friend break a handrail, yak all over the pool deck at buddy’s house up the street before passing out for the first (but hardly last) time in my life.

It didn’t matter that the house was actually cleaner after the party than before, not so much out of fear but because Marcie Lawrence is so damn reasonable, so spectacularly accommodating, so unwaveringly supportive of her children we figured if the house was fine, we were fine.

In this case ummm, no. Sure, I might have been a month away from turning 20, old enough to fight for my country but not too old to escape seven days of house arrest.

The irony is that two decades later, I still give you hell about it and not the other way around. Why? Because it was one of the few times _ ever _ that you played the role of bad cop.

For most of my childhood you were my protector, the one who repeatedly saved me from Dad’s considerable wrath, the one who kissed my cuts and scrapes, the one who found any reason _ even when I couldn’t _ to cling to your fervent belief that I wouldn’t Screw It Up.

I love to tell people the story of how I went walkabout during one of Marcene’s countless gymnastics practices as a kid, traipsing around the outside of the industrial park the gym was stashed as if it was NBD even though I couldn’t have been more than 7-8 at the time. When we got home, you grabbed me by my hair just above each of my ears and lifted me off the ground for a handful of seconds. There may have been a wooden spoon involved. You blush when we talk about it, embarrassed. That’s typical you: I do something wrong and you apologize.

Enough.

The truth is, Mom, I’m sorry.

Sorry that I spent most of the first 25 years (or maybe 35, but who’s counting) of my life taking your thoughts, your feelings, your needs into consideration only after I’d exhausted all other opportunities. (Prime example: when you landed two tickets to a Redskins/Eagles game back in ’98 and I immediately asked my Eagles-loving roommate to go and not you).

Sorry for the way I would get ticked when Bruce would call us “twins.” Looking back, I should have taken it as a compliment. To this day you’ve always looked younger than you are (you’re like 47 now, right?) and when I look in the mirror, I see a little more of you each day. And for that I’m grateful (though part of that may have to do with the fact I’m simply relieved I didn’t get stuck with Dad’s nose).

Sorry for making you the butt of so many jokes, the ones you laughed at even as you probably wondered when I would either shut the hell up or turn my sarcasm elsewhere. (Though in a weird way, I think you kind of enjoyed the attention, another trait which I get from you).

Sorry for setting you up with an ex-con that one time. I swear I just wanted to put a smile on your face (besides, the guy could tell a joke). Then again, if you don’t date him, maybe you don’t meet Big Boy, someone who _ for all his quirks _ loves and appreciates you for the gift that you are (in his own unique way of course).

Sorry for not appreciating the sacrifices you made for me and Marcene. I can’t imagine becoming a parent so young and being able (or willing, if I’m being honest) to raise two kids and to do it so well, so unfailingly, so steadily. I sometimes wonder what you wanted to be, the dreams you had before I came along and forced you to scuttle your plans and learn how to be a mom on the fly. Yet you’ve never made me feel, not for a second, as if I was a burden, as if I was something that tripped you up and prevented you from doing something else with your life. There’s no chance _ no chance _ I would have handled it the same way, with the same grace, honesty, sincerity or maturity.

I’m sure 18-year-old Marcie Samuel didn’t plan on having two kids before her 24th birthday then working at a desk in some random office for the next 35 years, making the same maddening commute through traffic into D.C. to sit at a desk to put a roof over her children’s heads and make damn sure they had enough money for college.

It would be easy to look back at my childhood and label you the pushover, the one we went to when Dad wouldn’t let us have our way. That’s not entirely true. You were also the toughest, the one most willing to hang in there. You spent nearly two decades in a marriage where the pieces didn’t fit quite right no matter how much you changed, how much you tried. And even as you mourned the relationship’s ending you vowed to become stronger and more confident.

On top of all of that, maybe the most important gift you gave me as an adult was freedom. Not once, not one time can I remember you telling me what to do or how to do it. I’ll admit, there were times I should have asked more specifically for your guidance, demanded you nudge me (or drag me) in the right direction. But that’s not your way.

The only thing you’ve ever wanted for either myself or Marcene is to be happy. That’s it. That’s not a long list. That’s the best list.

And for too long I’ve fixated on what I didn’t get from Dad (at least verbally or with any real consistency) rather than be appreciative of all the things I’ve received from you, the same things I am trying to do for Colin and Catherine, two kids who love their GMa something fierce and not just because your house has the best popsicles (though it helps).

For God’s sake, you spent years printing out EVERY SINGLE STORY I’ve written. Binders and binders of my life’s work, work that I do (and love) because of your encouragement, your enthusiasm and _ this is a big one too _ the fact I am one of the few graduates who didn’t have to pay a dime for college.

Oh, about that. Sorry I spent the first three years at WVU screwing around (and running up that $700 phone bill that one semester, the one you found about as we were packing up to head home for the summer. Are we even on that by the way?)

It’s funny though. When I sit down to write a story, to this day one of the first thoughts that goes through my head before I start is “will mom understand it?”

Why? Because I want you to be proud of me. Because I want you to know that _ after all the crap I put you through _ that in the end, at the very end, I did not Screw It Up, no matter how hard I tried.

Why? Because you didn’t Screw It Up. I am who I am today because of the example you set, the love you gave (and still give) the million other unnamed, unseen things you did, the things I may never truly appreciate until I do them as a parent myself.

With a little luck, maybe I’ll be half as good a dad one day as you are a mom. Maybe.

Happy Mother’s Day Suck-O. You are The Glue that holds this family together. Not pushed off to the side but in the center. See:

Mom

Never forget it. Ever.

Love,

Willie (and Marcene too)

P.S. I post videos at the ends of these things. I was gonna put up “Weekend In New England” by Barry Manilow since I used to sing this with you when I was 3, but listening to the lyrics now …. ummm, that’s creepy.

So instead, settle for this one instead.

Advertisements

The Player

Colin batting

He bounds in every morning, obsessed with the night before. The winners. The losers. Who moved into first place. Who moved into last.

What follows is a 6-year-old’s version of “SportsCenter.”

“Hey Doddy, guess wot? Hey Doddy, guess wot?” Within minutes he’s ripped through everything from how Steph Curry and the Warriors are doing to who’s up to fourth in the NHL’s Central Division. (Important note: his sportswriter father might not be able name all the teams in the Central Division, let alone know who is what place at any given moment).

He is, in just about every way, a 4-foot version of myself. Will Graves 2.0. Precocious. Energetic. A bit obnoxious (which you can get away with when you’re in first grade, not so much when you’re 41). A little sweeter than his old man (his mother’s influence thank God) but with a bite that will sometimes surprise you. (Note to any 6-year-old’s reading this, the phrase “Mommy Days stink” should never exit your lips, trust me).

He is, even more so than I was at his age, obsessed with sports. We didn’t push it on him. It just sort of happened. He figured out pretty early daddy went to the games and talked to the players. But as the preoccupations of his young childhood faded (see you later “Thomas & Friends,” don’t miss you a lick weird, bald-headed “Caillou,” are we really past the “Cars” phase already? Sigh.) a new one emerged.

Baseball. Football. Basketball. Hockey. Soccer (true story: he dropped an MLS reference on a buddy a couple of weeks ago). He loves analyzing the stats of his favorite players (and some random ones too). I’ve written a series of very basic children’s sports books and occasionally I’ll find him laying on his bed flipping from one page to the next. “Hey Doddy, guess who was a good team? The 2013 Miami Heat. Hey Doddy,  guess who won Super Bowl X-V-I-I?” He knows the answers, packing them somewhere in his brain between what he wants for dinner (usually tacos) and whether or not he has gym that day (translation: Doddy will let him wear sweat pants if he does).

It is fascinating to watch him jump around while watching NBA highlights, for him to constantly provide updates that happen to scroll across the bottom, to reflexively flip to one of the ESPNs in search of a game, ANY game (we’ve watched softball and cricket and Monster Truck racing together).

He is a fan. And there is a purity in his fandom that provides with me a daily reminder on why I love my job, absurd as it occasionally may be. He doesn’t care about salaries or free agency. He’s never known a Pittsburgh Pirates team with a losing record or the Pittsburgh Steelers as Super Bowl champions. His shirt drawer is filled with hoodies and T-shirts of his favorite teams and his favorite players. Guys I know. Guys I cover. Guys I like. Guys I don’t. Guys who don’t like me.

I often think about how much of my job to share with him. Then I think back to what I knew about the men I idolized when I was his age, lower-case gods who didn’t have to deal with the 24/7 news cycle or social media, developments that kept my opinion of them restricted largely to how they did on the field. It wasn’t colored by their Twitter feeds or their Facebook posts or some Vine that got sent to Deadspin or TMZ, things I am thankful for. Things I will try to shield him from, though reality is only one revelation from a blabbermouth 4th-grader on the bus away.

His interest has less to do with the players winning — though he has already become uncomfortably obsessed with results (example: when we turn on some random game, he automatically starts backing whichever team happens to be up) — than the actual GAMES they are playing. Games he can play. With his friends. With his father. With himself.

His joy is evident. His smile unmissable. The way he cocks back his right arm to throw a pretty damn good spiral for a kid his age. The intent look on his face every time he grabs a bat and eyes the ball on the tee. The sound of his voice doing play-by-play during the imaginary showdowns in his head, the ones that make me feel 12 again, when I threw myself onto the ground in our backyard  to score the clinching touchdown (to the puzzlement of my parents and the neighbors) or pulled up to hit the winning jumper at the buzzer over and over and over again.

Yet back then I never worried about the risks. You played with your buddies and you got knocked around. I have no doubt my first concussion came when I was maybe 8-9 and playing in the street, my head bouncing off the asphalt when another kid tried to two-hand touch me into oblivion. I remember seeing stars, breaking down in tears and riding my bike home in a daze. The next one almost certainly came during my one year playing organized football, when _ as a 58-pound left tackle in a 75-pound league _ I was bowled over on a running play and woke up looking at the moon. There was the time in high school when I was clotheslined (I can still see Chris W in midair, his right arm extended). I laid on the ground for several seconds (no tears, thankfully) and kept playing. Then there was the street hockey game where the ball popped up in front of my face and the opponent in front of me grabbed his stick like a bat, swung and missed the ball … but not the front of my goalie cage.

I never went to the doctor. I never told my parents. I didn’t even really think about it once the headaches went away. It was part of the game.

I’ve heard that phrase over and over again in my professional life from athletes (not just football players) coming back from injury, concussions or otherwise. It’s a cliche I try to keep out of my copy, but one I have some sense of fealty to because, hell, I always figured it was.

But it’s one thing when it’s your head, your health, your pain. It’s another when it’s your child’s. I am not a helicopter parent (the morning routine in our house after my wife leaves every morning could best be described as polite anarchy) but I ask our kids “Are you OK?” so much it comes off as a nervous tic (and maybe it is).

Our son’s second Little League season awaits. He has more than a token interest in basketball (our Nerf games in his room are suitably epic) and his affinity for football (at least throwing it and catching it) is growing by the day. My wife and I have talked about what to do when he asks to play Big Boy Tackle Football.

Thankfully for now we don’t have to worry about giving him a serious answer. For now, simple games of catch _ the ones that end with a “Gronk Spike” _ are enough. Maybe by the time he’s big enough (at 48 pounds he’s still more Pop Tart material than Pop Warner material) the medical community will have some sort of consensus on how to deal with head injuries.

The science is evolving, but hardly fast enough to provide anything resembling consenus. Some doctors feel concussions are complex but treatable and apparently some of the guys they take care of agree:

AB concussion

Treatable, maybe, but treatable is far different than avoidable.

And that’s the part where the journalist in me and the dad in me can’t seem to agree on well, a lot of things.

The NFL acknowledged there was a 58 percent increase in reported concussions this season even as the league has tried to take steps to eradicate the kind of play that leads to them in the first place.

You know, plays like this (which Deadspin perfectly described as an “assassination attempt“) against Pittsburgh wide receiver Antonio Brown (and the reason the two-time All-Pro is in the above picture in the first place) in playoffs a few weeks ago:

 

The league ended up suspending Burfict for the first three games of next season, not so much for this one individual shot as much as his rapidly growing resume of hyper-aggressive plays make it appear he’s playing “whack a mole” with someone else’s life.

These hits _ for decades legal (google: Jack Tatum, Sammy White and Super Bowl XI if you need proof) _ are now either “a part of the game” or “criminal” depending on which side of the Ohio/Pennsylvania border you happen to live on. An hour before Burfict drilled Brown, Steelers linebacker Ryan Shazier was neither fined or flagged for this:

shazier

The sportswriter #HotTake (note: I am decidedly anti-hot take) is that there is a war on football. Not exactly. Ray Rice knocked his fiance out, and people still watched. The drumbeat of former players concerned about the long-term health effects of treating their bodies (and particularly their heads) like well-muscled but hardly invincible pinballs for years is growing louder. And still 62.9 million people clicked to the final minutes of the AFC Championship game.

There is no war, at least not one you can see at the professional level. The ratings have rarely been better. The money never more astronomical. The stardom of the league’s bold-faced names never more widespread.

The real battle, the one whose ripple effects won’t be felt maybe for decades, is happening at dinner tables across the U.S. between parents of their own little 6-year-old Antonio Brown wannabes, the ones who watch the games on TV, follow their heroes on Twitter, hear the roars, see the commercials and the highlights and dream of pulling a jersey over their own heads one day, running out of the tunnel and “Dabbing” to his heart’s content.

Cam

For now I can keep my son satisfied with a Nerf ball and our own imaginary 2-minute drills, the one where we have to go from our mailbox to the neighbor’s before the clock hits zero to win the game.

Yet those days are dwindling. He’s going to start asking more frequently, more seriously, if he can put on pads and play for real.

And I will try to reconcile the writer who makes a living chronicling a league and a sport celebrated in no small part for its brutality with the parent who isn’t sure he wants to send his small but rapidly growing firstborn into harm’s way.

The writer in me believes the dangers of football (or any contact sport) are self-evident, just like smoking. Watch a game for 10 minutes and you know what you’re getting into.  Firefighters will go to every elementary school in the country this year, hand out plastic red helmets and teach kids to “Stop, Drop and Roll” to avoid smoke in case of fire. How anyone thought inhaling a slightly filtered version of that same smoke into their lungs intentionally was a good idea, I’ll never understand.

While I sympathize with players and families dealing with CTE, I can’t ever remember a time when one NFL player _ or any player for that matter _ say he was forced to play against his will.

I freely admit that viewpoint is cynical with hints of hypocrisy and hindsight elitism. And yet I can’t shake it. And I understand that there’s no guarantee he’ll suffer any sort of long-term effects from playing football as opposed to anything else.

Still, I can’t help but wonder if his dreams are allowed to come at the expense of my wife and I’s unspoken terror.

A coach I once covered likened every play to a car accident. When I asked him why he felt it necessary to have one running back carry the ball on 19 straight plays (or “19 straight car accidents” as I called it) he flushed and said he was simply trying to get the game over as quickly as possible.

Look, there’s a Senior Golf Tour. Gyms across the country are filled with guys playing basketball into their 60s and beyond. The same goes for tennis and soccer (and even hockey) and on and on and on.

Not in football, which is typically relegated to once a year Turkey Bowls. Why? Because it hurts like hell. Because it’s dangerous. Because the risks of what can happen when the ball is snapped are clear and hardly worth the pain when there aren’t millions of dollars on the line.

Yet my son doesn’t know that. He just wants to watch the game. He wants to know the score. He wants to pretend to be the guys his father spends so much time writing about. He wants to join them on the field.

And each day that goes by brings us closer to the day when his mother and I will have to give him a real answer.

Right now, we have no idea what it’s going to be. And we’re not the only ones.

Swing State

Tiger Tiger Woods yall

Photo by AP’s Matt Slocum

I’m still pulling for him. Five-plus years after the Escalade and the fire hydrant, the Perkins waitress and the porn star, the squandering of his marriage, a fortune of public goodwill and the moral high ground over his critics.

I still want Tiger Woods to walk into Butler Cabin on Sunday night, accept his fifth green jacket as Masters champion and renew the chase of Jack Nicklaus’ 18 major titles that once seemed a foregone conclusion but now seems like an overambitious fever dream.

Michael Jordan is a decade too old. LeBron a decade too young. Tom Brady too pretty. Peyton Manning too polite. For men of a certain age, Tiger Woods is our avatar. The torchbearer for a generation of athletes (and wannabe athletes) whose single-minded greatness served as undeniable proof that Generation X _ who invented navel gazing before the millennials took a stab at perfecting it _ really are the Best. Thing. Ever.

It’s not his fault, really, that he bore the burden of our own expectations. His father raised him _ or maybe engineered him is the right word here _ to be that beacon.

“Tiger will do more than any other man in history to change the course of humanity,” Earl Woods once famously said before his son was old enough to drink legally.

And here’s the thing, Woods seemed to thrive off the pressure. His success was our triumph. Over the course of four days in April, 1997 he changed a stodgy, graying and moneyed game forever. Birdie after birdie after birdie between those plush azaleas and Amen Corner and the Eisenhower Tree. He was the hip-hop (albeit in his own benignly nerdy way) son of an Army infantryman, a biracial amalgam of golf’s New World Order. He word red on Sundays and blasted Biggie Smalls from massive speakers during practice rounds back home.

He turned an elitist sport and pushed it kicking and screaming into the 21st century. The powers that be at Augusta National were so terrified of his talent they added heaping amounts of rough “a second cut” to try and give mere mortals a chance.

There was more to it than that, of course. Somewhere along the way the kid nicknamed “Urkel” by his college teammates at Stanford became less “You the Man” and more “You the Brand.” And it was all well and good as long as the victories piled up. If he felt the need to put himself at an icy remove, whether it was letting a former Masters champion turn on the media-crazed spit awhile before accepting an apology for racist remarks or hiding out on his yacht named “Privacy” that was fine. On Sundays in the spring and summer, he was our golf-club wielding pied piper, smashing records and stereotypes, showing our parents that we knew what we were doing, that we had things under control, that the future was not beholden to the past.

He burst onto the scene as a supernova burdened with outsized expectations and not only managed to surpass them but had no problem rubbing it in the game’s face in the process:

Woods was perhaps the last big star to evolve before the Internet truly came of age, before every public misstep was tweeted and Vine’d and parsed by TV caricatures for our entertainment. Inside the cocoon he created for himself it’s easy to see how things could get lost, how priorities could get mixed up, how personal shortcomings could stay hidden from view.

He married the pretty girl, had two beautiful kids and bought an island. By the time we he reached our his early-30s, Woods wasn’t going to break Jack Nicklaus’ major record, he was going to bury it. The chip-in back on 16 at the Masters in ’05. The putt on 18 to force a playoff at the U.S. Open in ’08. The tearful embrace of his caddie Steve Williams at Royal Liverpool to win the Open Championship just weeks after his father’s passing. These weren’t just milestones but something more, something deeper. This was our generation growing into adulthood, surviving whatever life threw at us and coming back stronger than ever.

I’m a child of the 80s. My father and I were friendly but not close, so I discovered my role models in the pages of Sports Illustrated or The Washington Post.  The mistakes of my athletic heroes rarely made it into print. I didn’t know my favorite football player was a sometimes petulant child behind the scenes, that my favorite college basketball player wasn’t above trying crack cocaine (whatever that was to my 11-year-old self) until it was far too late.

Tiger was the last one to get in before the inherent cynicism that comes with part of the job became my default setting. He was a peer _ if by age and happenstance _ who just happened to be the best in the world at something. Maybe the rest of us could be the best in the world too.

Of course it all came crumbling down on that night in December, 2009, when he became a punchline and just another philanderer, fodder for talk shows and tabloids. His response was tone-deaf at best and frighteningly out of touch at worst. The image he so carefully cultivated came crashing down around him. He was mortal, after all. Painfully so.

And while he’s spent the last six years battling his stunningly fragile body, his form and the ghost of his own dominance on the course, off it he has become something of a curiosity. His ex-wife has moved on. He is arm candy to the world’s greatest skier. The pieces are still being put back together. Who knows how far he’ll get.

And maybe that’s why I still find myself in his corner. We all fall short. I reached a painful crossroads in my life four years ago. I’m still grappling with the reasons, the remorse and the recovery. I don’t view Woods as a role model or a touchstone for my generation anymore but simply a product of it. I have friends working on second marriages, second careers and second (or third, or fourth) chances. Woods is in a different tax bracket, but he’s really no different from the rest of us. The perfection we projected onto him is myth-making at its finest.

My 5-year-old son is starting to take an interest in sports. He reads ESPN’s “Bottom Line” religiously and shouts out the scores. He knows who “The Crosby” is and where the Pirates play. He’s obsessed with race cars and can name more NASCAR drivers than I’m willing to acknowledge in public.

He will develop athletic heroes of his own. And that’s OK. I want him to have posters on his wall and jerseys to wear. Yet I’ve come to realize that heroes are one thing but role models are another. He can root for any player he wants. He’ll no doubt one day stumble upon a phenom who he’ll identify as the leader of the next wave, the one that will be better, bigger, faster and stronger than his dad’s.

There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s what’s supposed to happen. The problem begins if Colin takes his cues on how to act from the millionaires his father writes about. Then I’m doing it wrong.

One day _ hell maybe this weekend _ we will talk about Woods. When Colin is older he’ll get a chance to read all about Woods’ ignominious fall. My hope is he doesn’t pass judgment. My hope is I can teach him _ in a way that I was never taught _ that people screw up but it does not necessarily define who they are.

There is nothing Americans love quite as much as a good comeback. Maybe Woods will regain his confidence, his swing and his swagger on the same lush greens where he began forging his legend 18 years ago. Or maybe he’s done. The next generation is already banging at the door, ready to bust through and turn Woods into a sideshow and a footnote (it’s possible it has already happened).

I’m pulling for one last stand, an Indian summer before the sun sets on the prime of his career for good. If the rest of us can return from the brink, then he can too.

I am Tiger Woods. And he is us. Warts and all.

 

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.

<iframe width=”575″ height=”324″ src=”http://cache.vevo.com/assets/html/embed.html?video=GB1101200340&autoplay=0&#8243; frameborder=”0″ allowfullscreen>

–30–

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 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: