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.

 

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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:

 

 

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?

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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.