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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