I looked down on the ground. In the grass sat a little plastic coin, scuffed and scratched from little-boy cleats that had walked over it on the way to home plate.
“Caught doing good,” read the legend on the trinket’s perimeter. It was something a teacher or a coach might have given a child for an exemplary day. Somebody had left it behind.
An inning earlier, my son had legged out a grounder. His foot hit the bag hard. As my eyes saw it, he was a step ahead of the throw. I was close, just a few feet away and taking pictures for the team. My brain processed the ump calling my kid out just as his little eight-year-old frame flew through the air. His foot stuck too hard in the bag, and it catapulted him forward. He didn’t catch himself. He fell flat, his ribs and stomach hitting the dirt first.
I try not to run to my injured children when they are playing in games. I never have before. They have coaches to take care of them.
But this time, I was close, and it was clear my little boy was hurt. And so I was the first over him, rolling him on his back as he winced and struggled to breathe. He couldn’t cry because he couldn’t pull air into his lungs. I rubbed his chest and explained to him what was happening, that I knew it was scary, and that it would be better in a minute.
I felt all the people around me. Coach Tom had run in, and he was doing his best to comfort my kid, too. For sixty seconds, everyone watched a scared little boy try to process the fact he couldn’t breathe. I saw nothing but my boy’s tearing eyes.
It passed, of course. It’s happened to almost any athlete. It’s terrifying when you can’t breathe, even if you know what happened. But that didn’t stop me from absorbing the feeling of my hands on my eight-year-old’s chest as he struggled to take in a breath. Even though I knew it was fine, I couldn’t help but feel the stillness of my son’s body.
Martin Richard was eight years old. He’d gone to the Boston Marathon with his family to watch his father cross the finish line.
“No more hurting people,” he had written on a piece of blue construction paper at school.
Somebody took a picture of him with it. Somebody was as proud of Martin as I was of my son as he stood at the plate.
The picture of Martin would come to define him. The photo was taken on the day of a peace march.
Stop. Breathe. Pull oxygen into your lungs and process that.
It was for a peace march.
Martin wrote the word “peace” in the middle of the blue construction paper. There were hearts on either side. There was a peace sign at the bottom.
Martin died in the bombing at the finish line of the Boston Marathon. His sister lost a leg. His mother took shrapnel in her head.
That night, Martin’s father went home alone and walked numb and blank into his house. He couldn’t respond to neighbors asking about how they could help. He couldn’t speak because somebody blew up his life while he struggled through 26.2 miles. Martin’s father didn’t have the breath knocked out of him. Somebody blew his life away.
Martin was eight years old.
I’ve tried to think about what an eight-year-old knows about peace. I’ve tried to think about how they can’t understand foreign policy, domestic strife, political battles, party fights, economic spirals, corporate shareholders, foreign oil, false flags, Supreme Court rulings, elections, religion, or the rule of law.
They don’t know anything, do they? They’ve not lived as we have lived. They haven’t joined a party, voted in an election, or even considered the necessity or lack thereof of wars, foreign or domestic.
But they know the one thing that matters. Martin Richard knew it. My son knows it. This is it:
We shouldn’t hurt people.
It’s the beginning and end of the discussion for an eight-year-old. There is no way to justify hurting someone who isn’t trying to hurt you.
And, yet, who do we kill?
Who are the people in America who have died the most incomprehensible deaths in the past six months?
Who do we kill?
We kill the people who believe in peace, people—children—who believe in peace wholly, as if it were sunshine, air, dirt, or love.
That’s who we kill.
I know. I know. We don’t kill them. We mourn them. Crazy people kill them.
And yes, I know. I know. Crazy people don’t kill kids because they believe in peace. Crazy people kill them because the kids are soft targets in elementary schools or at marathon finish lines.
And yes, I know. I know we’re not supposed to blame anything for the kids dying except the fickle hand of fate, statistical outliers, or the sharp scythe of genetic madness. If we blame anything else, it becomes an ideological fight, and it’s a fight idealists never win.
I know we’re supposed to accept the collateral damage. I know I’m supposed to turn off the TV when I can see the blood from a helicopter’s height. I know when we all light a candle, it’s supposed to be better.
But you know what I don’t know? I don’t know how we can look at a dead eight-year-old child and feel anything but fury about how he died.
Maybe you don’t feel the fury. Maybe you don’t feel sick in your gut. Maybe you haven’t found yourself walking to another room so your kids don’t see you cry.
Let me explain.
For reasons I would never have predicted ten years ago, I’ve taken the attacks on Boston personally.
I’m not from Boston. I’ve only been there once. I’ve never run the Boston Marathon.
I’m nobody. I’m just some guy who has been luckier than most others. My personal tragedies have literally been common twists of fate—aneurysms, cancers, heart attacks, car crashes. I’m America’s average guy who hides behind a cellophane shield of hope that tragedy won’t blow up his life.
But, I’m a runner.
Well, that’s not quite true.
I’ve run quite a lot in the past three years. I’ve pushed into corrals in races with more than 30,000 people. I’ve finished races where it’s nearly impossible to find a friend, let alone the one friend you’re looking for.
I know the joyous chaos of a finish line.
I know the environment, I know the people. I know the joggers who turn themselves into marathoners. And I know the family commitment that goes along with being a distance runner. Put another way, I want to be a runner, because I think the runners have things figured out much better than I do.
Monday, when the bombs went off, I was downstairs with my wife outlining for her how I was going to prepare for a 12k mountain trail race in May. I was on my way to put on my running shoes when I stepped into my office and saw the first Twitter messages coming out of Boston. It wasn’t lost on me that my Twitter feed and friends came in faster than any news outlet. I follow, love, and respect my runner friends. They told the story first.
My friends couldn’t find their friends. My friends were falling apart.
My friends. Yes, it was personal. But for more reasons than that.
I stopped myself from writing anything all day Monday and all night Monday night. I decided Tuesday morning I wouldn’t write anything at all.
Because it wasn’t my place. I’m not from Boston. I’m not a marathoner. I didn’t know anybody who was killed or injured. This wasn’t my story, so what right did I have to write about it? What right did I have to feel anything?
I’m not even a runner.
But there’s this: my son is eight years old. My son is the same age as Martin Richard. My son believes in peace. My son believes hurting people is bad.
There are a lot of things I don’t understand. There are more things that I misunderstand. Of all of those things, the only subjects I feel I can truly grip are those about which I write. It’s a selfish endeavor, but it’s the only way I survive.
And somehow that’s made me realize—no matter what you see on the news or how anyone chooses to eulogize this story—that I’m not wrong to feel fury. I’m not wrong to take this personally.
It’s not just because I appreciate the marathon and its value.
It’s not because I’ve tried to re-invent myself in the shape of a runner.
It’s because I’m a parent.
It’s because I value the people who still believe in peace.
And there are people out there who want to kill those people.
In 2013, it seems everything is an ideological fight. Maybe that’s not actually true at its roots, but the mass media, Internet, and constant stream of outrage and hate make it seem so. Maybe you and I can turn it off, but there are people—crazy, hateful people—who cannot. And they are the ones killing our children.
Are we so confused as a nation that we have to take up sides on everything? Is it true that the future of our country and our people depends on us taking up arms—figurative or literal—to fight the people who oppose us?
Put another way: I have no idea who bombed Boston, and I don’t care what his motive was. But I am not the least bit surprised it happened.
When you add a dash of madness to a cultural discourse that is already red-lining on hate, anger, and vitriol, all you need after that is a pressure cooker, some black powder, and an opportunity.
I can’t stop thinking about the decade before I was born. It’s when we killed our ideological leaders. We snuffed out Kennedys and Kings before they could further spread their belief in change. For a segment of our population, they were the embodiment of hope.
We don’t kill our leaders anymore. We parody them. We turn them into caricatures and scapegoats for our bad decisions and apathy.
We don’t kill our nation’s leaders. We kill our kids, because as I see it, they are the only hope we have left.
I picked up that little plastic coin and held it in my hand. My son grabbed his Easton bat and trotted to the plate. He was breathing again. He was smiling again. He stepped into the box, pulled his right elbow to his chest, put his left elbow in the air, and swung hard.
You know things as a parent. You know when your children are hurting. You know when your children are scared. You know when your children are happy.
And you know when your kid has just hit a home run.
He smiled as he trotted back in from home. One of the two runners on base had already picked up his bat. They ran beside him back to the first base dugout. I smiled and gave him five as he passed.
It wasn’t what I wanted to do.
I wanted to pick him up under his armpits and carry him off the field. I wanted to kiss him. I wanted to scream at him that he was a fascinating child. I wanted to remind him of the straight-As he brought home. I wanted to tell him he had just done a relatively inconsequential thing that made me as proud as I could be.
I wanted to tell him he was amazing.
But that’s not what you do as a father when your boy hits his first homerun.
So, I gave him five. I told him he swung well. And I let him live the moment on his own in the dugout with his friends. While he did, I thought about Martin Richard. Somebody stood over him. Somebody put hands on his chest and felt nothing move. Martin didn’t breathe again, and my son did.
When the game was over and we were back in the car on the way home, I leaned into the backseat and handed him that crinkled little coin that read “Caught doing good.”
“I found this just before you hit your first home run,” I said. “Throw it in your sock drawer. Someday you might want to remember this day.”
I want him to remember this day as I do. I want him to remember it as a joyous one where the worst thing in the world was getting called out at first when he had beaten the throw. I want him to remember the biggest pain of April 2013 was getting the breath knocked of his lungs. I want him to remember his first home run.
And I want him to remember above all that, at least for now, it’s still okay to believe that hurting people is bad. It’s okay to not worry about the crazies. It’s okay to just smile.
Damn it, it should be okay for an eight-year-old to just be alive and happy.
Former Rutgers basketball coach Mike Rice is at best a very confused and disturbed human being. He is at worst a psychopath in need of inpatient treatment. Today, I suggest we should thank him for his service.
Yes. Thank him.
This morning, Rutgers fired Rice for behavior that could get him arrested in most civilized parts of the world. What he did to his players was the very definition of assault and battery. He screamed at them. He demeaned them. He manhandled them. He threw balls at their heads. It wasn’t just one emotional moment. It was a pattern of behavior that a lot of people knew about. The release of the video shamed Rutgers—which at first only suspended Rice—into the firing. If there aren’t more firings to come, we should be just as offended as we were when we saw the video.
I’ve not seen anyone come to Rice’s defense, largely because it’s an indefensible position, and anyone who takes it should probably be monitored for similar psychopathic tendencies. What I have seen, however, is a slew of friends who report having experienced or witnessed the same kind of abuse by coaches throughout their lives beginning as early as Little League.
Indeed, we’ve all seen it before. Yelling. Cursing. Laying hands on kids. We’ve written it off as emotion and the drive to win. I even recall a track coach at my high school getting briefly suspended for kicking a runner in anger (the coach claimed low blood sugar).
I’ve never understood using shame or fear as motivators. I know that both can be effective (so can holding a gun to somebody’s head), but all the best coaches I’ve had and known have been patient but firm. They made it clear what was expected of their players, and they led by example. They appreciated that their players were doing their best, and if they suspected the players weren’t working hard enough, they found a civilized way to make that known. It might have been firm, but it was done with respect.
The difference: the gray line between respect and fear.
Perhaps it’s just me, but the last thing I want to do is disappoint someone I respect. The shame of being a disappointment rises so far above physical pain and/or yelling that the latter don’t even register. I suspect a lot of people are like that. Coaches do their best to instil that respect in the hope their players will work hard enough to not disappoint.
All of that said, when coaches confuse fear with respect, they have failed–maybe not necessarily as coaches, but definitely as humans.
I am the father of a young athlete. At eight years old, he’s a boy of tremendous spirit and energy. He’s already shown more athletic ability than his old man ever had. He’s maturing into a talented young player. No one can be harder on him than he is on himself when he fails to do as well as he thinks he can.
Does he frustrate me sometimes? By all means. He’s easily distracted. He loses focus. When he gets tired, he gets mentally lazy. Have I wanted to yell at him? Sometimes. But something I’ve come to realize about my son is how much better he responds to leadership and direction than he does to me getting mad.
Put another way: he might hear me better if I yell, but he won’t necessarily listen.
I watched the St. Louis Cardinals opener on Monday, and I was reminded of the Matheny Manifesto (covered expertly here by my friend Derrick Goold). Read the whole thing. It’s an amazing document, and it’s made a huge impact on young players. Its mission statement is one that would make any parent proud:
“We may not win every game, but we will be the classiest coaches, players, and parents in every game we play. The boys are going to play with a respect for their teammates, opposition, and the umpires no matter what.”
The two words that stand out there for me are “respect” and “class.”
Around the same time Mike Rice was getting fired today, ESPN posted the first interview with the Louisville Cardinal’s Kevin Ware. I watched it in awe. Ware–just a few days out from snapping his leg into two pieces–was in tears. He wasn’t crying because his career might be in question. He wasn’t crying because he won’t get to play in the Final Four. He was crying out of appreciation for his coach–a coach who stood beside him, helped him mature past some personal problems, and literally stayed behind with him at the hospital when the rest of the team left town. Say what you will about Rick Pitino (and there is a lot to be said), but try to imagine any Rutgers player having that kind of respect and appreciation for Mike Rice.
Our children–no matter whether they are eight years old or in college–probably will not be professional athletes, but that doesn’t mean their experience on the field or court can’t have a lasting impact on their lives. We can help our kids become good young men and women simply by giving them the kind of respect we demand. And they get to learn to play some amazing games in the meantime.
I won’t lie. It’s hard to follow Mike Matheny’s example. It’s a lot easier to be Mike Rice. Being disappointed happens. Losing happens. Mistakes happen. It’s how we respond to those things that will define us for much longer. When it’s all said and done, when our kids think back on their time as athletes, do we want them to remember the joy of playing or the fear of their parents and coaches?
So, tonight let’s thank Mike Rice for being the coach we shouldn’t be. Let’s thank Mike Rice for being a smudged and dirty mirror that reflects our own worst tendencies. Let’s thank Mike Rice for showing us that we as sports fans, parents, and humans have work to do.
Thanks, Mike Rice. Now, get the hell out.
You want your freedom, do you?
I know you do, because you post about it on Facebook, and you talk about how the government better not come and try to take it from you. You are an American with God-given unalienable rights. No politician is going to take your freedom any more than a welfare queen is going to take your money. You will, as you’ve said, fight to the death to be free.
And you want it, you say, not for yourself. You know you’ll be gone someday. You’re thinking of the children, those sweet innocent children who might be forced to live without the freedoms you’ve enjoyed.
I believed you. I may have disagreed with you on some points. We may have looked at politics differently. Our spirituality might have not aligned exactly. But I believed you, because you were earnest. You spoke of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights and our forefathers. Our visions of America were different, but I believed you honestly believed in freedom.
I guess I was wrong.
I don’t know if you know any gay people. Even if you don’t think you do, you probably do. But that’s not the point. The point is this: I wish you did, and I wish you had the kind of love in your heart for your fellow man as you do for your own freedom.
I need to tell you a story.
Ordinarily, this would be the place you stop reading because I’m not writing about you and your freedom anymore. But I’d like you to just stick with me for a few minutes.
I knew several gay people in my teens and early 20s. They were acquaintances more than friends. Though I came from a place where discrimination was a sport, it never resonated with me, and I never found any reason to dislike homosexual people or, for that matter, any group of people that wasn’t like me.
But that’s not the story. That’s just letting you know where my head was a little more than a decade ago when I met a guy with whom I instantly clicked. He dug music. He played guitar. He was smart and hilarious. And the first night we went out together, I watched him make out with not one but two women…at the same time.
Over the next few years, this guy became one of my best and most trusted friends. He became family. And as you probably already guessed, he eventually told my wife and me that he was gay. It wasn’t any great surprise in retrospect, but it was a crucial moment in my life, because it was the first time I had any hope of understanding what it meant to be gay in America. This was a person for whom I would do anything, and he was gay. He would not be my only gay friend, but he was the one who helped me grow as a person of tolerance. I had never been prejudiced, but I’d also never had any frame of reference about truly caring for someone who was gay.
I wish you knew him like I do. In fact, I wish you had someone in your life for whom you cared with all your heart, for whom you would take a bullet, and with whom you would trust your whole family. And I wish you would discover that person is gay, because then you might begin to understand.
Well, here’s the thing. You have spent months telling me how much you value freedom and how much we have to protect our liberty. You’ve grown red-faced. Your anger has been righteous.
Well, today you let us all know you oppose letting certain Americans get married. Because of your religion, or your fear, or your bigotry, you want to deny a community of people—American people—the same rights you and I have. Maybe you believe that the current system of marriage—the one you believe you are protecting, the one that’s riddled with divorce, abuse, and adultery—has resulted in grand success for America.
We disagree on this point. You should know that. I know gay parents who have wonderful, well-adjusted children. They have served as good examples, and are much better than some straight parents I’ve met in my day.
But just because we disagree on this point doesn’t mean we can’t agree on freedom, right? Because of all the things I found detestable about you, I at least could admire your commitment to your cause. It’s confused me, because now I think you’re saying that your family deserves more freedoms than mine does.
You were honest, righteous, and a defender of freedom.
But, now it’s clear that’s just not the case.
I’m afraid you might be inching up to a line people would call bigotry. And even if you don’t accept you’re in that danger, consider this. You are in critical danger of becoming a hypocrite.
Take a moment and reconsider how you’re thinking. Educate yourself. Reach out to people you don’t know. Find the same compassion for other people that you would expect them to have for you.
Otherwise it will be clear you do believe in it all—God, country, the Constitution, and unalienable rights—just as long as it’s you who gets to decide who gets to be free and who doesn’t.
I don’t even know how to start this, so I’ll just say it.
My kid peed in my mouth today.
There it is. My child—a boy who turns four years old in less than two months—urinated in my mouth a couple of hours ago.
You should know my love for this boy is boundless. The younger kid—the one you might know as Dos—and his brother have absolute immunity for the entirety of their lives. They can do whatever they want, and my love for them will not flicker or wane.
And today one of them tested that dedication by shooting a stream of urine right across my lower lip and into my mouth.
I’m reading Live By Night by Dennis Lehane right now, and I’m giving away nothing too important about the book by telling you the protagonist (a young Prohibition-era outlaw) is the son of a high-ranking Boston police official. The early part of the book is a nice study of the bounds to which a son can push a father’s love. It strikes me tonight that at no point in the first act of this novel does Joe urinate in his father’s mouth. In fact, I don’t recall any urine at all. Lehane was smart. No reader would ever buy into something so unimaginable.
So, non-parents are sitting there asking, “How can it be that a child manages to commit such a horrifying act? How can a boy with the ability to hold his bladder until he makes it to a toilet do such a thing? How can a kid who needs a boost into his car seat even reach that high?”
Listen, I know we Willises are not necessarily private people. We live our lives aloud for better or worse. But good taste (and, really, no pun intended there) requires a little discretion here. Let’s just say, we’re at the tail end of toilet training with young Dos and, well, we’ve had easier tasks to complete. He knows when he needs to go have a sit-down. We know when he needs to go have a sit-down. Things get sort of blurry about the time he starts screaming he doesn’t want to. I only know he’s adamant he doesn’t want to, and we’re adamant that he must. I’ve had blackouts that have more reason and logic to them.
There’s no reason to attack this subject of toilet training in full, because it’s most parents’ least favorite job. I’m not breaking any new ground here. If you have a child four or older, you’ve probably also torn out your remaining hair trying to reason with an irrational machine.
But, damn it if I didn’t think we are on the verge of a breakthrough today. I saw the look in his eye and the dance in his step. There was an intestinal necessity about to rear its rear, and I was ready for it.
And so to the restroom we ran. I lifted him high, sat him upon the seat, and opened my mouth in such a way as to say, “Oooooookay, buddy.” And you’ll have to imagine this in slow motion, because that’s how I saw it. I had completely disregarded the fact it had been a couple of hours since he had been to the bathroom at all. I was sitting on the edge of the tub and leaned over in paternal encouragement.
And, yeah, that’s when he peed in my mouth. And, really, all over my face, pants, shoes, and hands.
And the kid laughed. He laughed with the kind of mirth reserved for drunks and the truly cruel. It came from his gut in high-pitched giggles that eventually drew a crowd to see what-oh-what was the matter.
But, my friends, that was the only thing coming from his gut in that room. He sat there long enough for me to rinse out my mouth, spit several times, wash my face and hands, and wonder how I have made it this long without striking another human being in anger. Then he got up with the promise that he would tell me as soon as he was ready to go.
I’ve been to some terrible places. I’ve seen some terrible things. I’ve been doused in substances I don’t dare describe here. I’m a man of the world, and I have rolled around in the muck. I’ve carved my initials into rock bottom. But today was a first.
“So, check that one off the list,” my wife said. And she laughed, too.
I showered. I relaxed. I got ready to put the boys in bed. I was tuning up an old guitar for a bedtime song when I realized something was wrong. It was like a tingling on the back of my neck, an electricity in the air…a bowlegged walk from a child as he walked into my office with a look on his face that made me say things in my head that I wouldn’t say in front of anyone.
And so it was on this March 25th, 2013 that rinsing urine from my mouth was not the grossest thing I did today. I’ll save that story for when my wife gets home. She probably hasn’t had a good laugh since the last time her husband had pee in his mouth.
I can’t boil it down to 140 characters.
I don’t know why I feel compelled to even consider doing that. Maybe it’s the cook in me who knows that a well-simmered pot will eventually find its essence. Maybe it’s the social media “expert” in me who understands that brevity is the only way to reach today’s audience. Whatever it is, I keep looking for ways to reduce all this to a quick tweet on Twitter.
I can’t do it.
And so, there is this:
One of my best friends could’ve died yesterday morning. Or maybe he would’ve been paralyzed from the neck down. Who knows what another fate might have ordered during that freak accident. Whatever stepped in the quarter-inch between his broken C7 vertebrae and his spinal cord…well, I owe that bit of warbling energy a bit of gratitude. And this is it.
About a decade ago, we all sat in an apartment. It was where our friend Chris Gulfman lived. He was fastidious and clean, a man who always knew (within a factor of one or two) how many beers and how many chicken breasts were in his fridge. He had old coin-operated candy machines next to his television. We weren’t allowed to use them.
“Don’t eat the fruit,” he demanded.
Gulfman was one of the most real people I’ve ever known, and he welcomed we married men into his place when the NCAA tournament began. We took off from our jobs at the TV station that Friday, played Monopoly, watched basketball games, listened to the Grateful Dead, and lived our young lives.
We called his place Melrose Gulfman because a couple of exotic dancers lived across the breezeway, and they would wander in while were there. It all seemed so unseemly and so real. It was a soap opera on which we got to play walk-on roles. The girls were lost souls, we were professional and married young men, and Gulfman was the link between us all. They were stories we planned to tell with winks for the rest of our lives.
We started to grow up. Gulfman found the love of his life. We stood for him at his wedding. We drank and sang and declared ourselves men. The inconsistencies and failures of our youth were behind us. We were adults, no matter what was across the breezeway.
Any man who has lived this part of his life knows how it goes from here. Men recede happily—if reluctantly—into family life. They spend less time with their friends. They don’t take off work on the first weekend of the NCAA tournament. The little indiscretions of youth become happy memories and stories you tell on the few and far between nights you get a chance to hang out.
Or, in short, you grow up.
But, what you don’t expect, what you never plan, what you can never handle is a call that comes in the middle of a morning a year or two later that tells you Gulfman is dead. There is nothing in all your training that can prepare you for the fact that a man you considered your brother just died out of nowhere—in his early 30s—from a brain hemorrhage.
There is something about true friendship that makes you believe it will simply last until you’re gone. You account for the time you’ll spend with your bride. You account for the time you will spend with your kids. But you never do the math and make time for the space that fate will indiscriminately strip away.
And so, you sit by yourself and cry for a friend you’ve lost, and you vow to never again take friendship for granted. You stand together when the funeral is done, you cry in each other’s arms, and you tell the old stories. You promise to not let life grow in between you.
But you do.
You move away from each other. You let your life get away from you. You get caught up in the whirlwind of family, work, and whatever it is that drives us from generation to generation. You worry about everything that you will surely someday understand means nothing. It’s not your fault. It’s simply how your brain and society dance.
But then you start to grow old. You find a gray hair on your chest. You think about your blood pressure and what you eat. You start exercising, not in the hope of looking better at the pool, but in hope of living longer for your kids. Or, in short, you realize you’ve not only grown up, but you’ve grown old.
It’s a tough spot. I’ve not yet fully understood it. There is a gray and uncomfortable space between thinking you’re young and understanding you aren’t anymore. If I had to guess, it’s a lot like it must be when one is dying, a moment in which you understand that no matter how much you would wish it otherwise, it is inevitable.
That’s the problem with fate. You believe because it’s inevitable you have to accept it, and you simply hope that fate doesn’t deal you wrong again so soon.
But then one day a few years later, you wake up to news that maybe fate didn’t wait so long, that maybe one of your closest friends–a man who has saved you from yourself more than once–might not have made it until sundown. That’s when you simply stop, breathe, and say thank you for the fact that it wasn’t worse.
Tonight, my friend was convalescing at home and still struggling to understand what happened. I took him dinner. We watched NCAA ball and remembered what it was like a decade ago at Melrose Gulfman. We were old, but were alive.
And so now, I sit at home. My NCAA bracket is busted in the first round. My wife and kids are fast asleep. My older boy has a baseball game tomorrow. And I’m sitting here watching Pulp Fiction again and being thankful the last 48 hours weren’t worse.
Because, as it stands, one of my best friends could be dead right now, and instead of sitting here thinking about how he beat me out of 47 points in an Open-Face Chinese Poker game tonight, I could be sitting here thinking about buying a new suit for his funeral.
There aren’t many things I consider essential in my life. Even the dreams I’ve never revealed here don’t compare to the value I put on the essential parts of my life.
My real life is my family and my friends, and it’s only when I lose one of those people that I feel truly broken. It’s already happened more than I want and more than I thought I could ever handle. Tonight I’m thankful it didn’t happen again, and I still can’t think of a way to reduce that to 140 Twitter characters.
There’s this black dog in my house. Let’s call her Black Dog. She’s been here for two weeks, and I just told my wife to say her goodbyes.
I absorbed my old dog’s death under 108° sun in the back parking lot of Las Vegas’ Rio Hotel and Casino. I sat down against a wall and cried on desert-hot cement.
When Scoop died in July 2010, I was halfway across the country working at the World Series of Poker. My wife held the 13-pound mutt as she died. It ended more than a decade of living with the first pet we had as a couple. Scoop (named by a newsroom, in case you were wondering) pre-dated our children, our marriage, and our move to South Carolina.
Scoop wasn’t a good dog, and few people outside of our family liked her very much. She was terrible with kids–and, frankly, most adults–but we loved her. She brought joy to our life, and losing that joy made us sad.
It made me even sadder that, because we had a one-year-old in the house, we couldn’t have another dog like Scoop. It just wasn’t going to happen.
That is how I justified one of the bigger mistakes I’ve made in the past few years.
There was never any question we would have another dog. The only question was how we were going to get the perfect dog for our family. Weeks of research, countless conversations, and more than a few late night sessions on Animal Planet led us to the conclusion we had to have a Labrador Retriever, America’s most popular dog. Everyone we talked to said Labs are perfect for families, smart, and great around children.
And so we set out to find the perfect dog. We scoured the web. We found White Dog in a neighboring county.
Yes, at a breeder.
Listen, I’m not going to pretend we hadn’t heard all the arguments. I’m not going to lie and say I wasn’t aware of overpopulation, purebred medical problems, and the countless and senseless instances of euthanasia because of overcrowded shelters. Deep down, I knew all that.
But the argument at our house went like this: “We have kids. We have to be careful. We have to know what we’re getting.”
And somehow we made ourselves believe the only way to find the perfect dog was to buy one.
Yes, from a breeder.
Sometime around the very moment the check cleared, we made a fairly startling discovery: White Dog was not the perfect dog, and she was not bringing joy to our life.
Here’s the thing. White Dog is a purebred Lab we’ve had now for two and half years. She’s never shown a single sign of aggression. She’s smart—too smart—and she is now a permanent part of our family.
But for the first year of her life, White Dog was the world’s worst Labrador Retriever. She was seemingly immune to training. She ate everything in sight. She refused to walk on a leash. She destroyed major parts of both our old house and new house. All told, between what we paid for her, her healthcare, her training, and extensive repairs, White Dog ended up costing us thousands of dollars. Indeed, it was far from perfect. There was no joy.
That finally changed when we met a guy named Jeff Jones, a confirmed miracle-worker who can train the toughest of dogs. Jeff is the lead trainer at Upstate Dog Training, a company I will recommend to anyone with a dog.
Beyond the necessary training White Dog got, the training facility also offered daycare where White Dog could play with other dogs. It was around that time we learned something.
See, old Scoop didn’t like animals any more than she liked most people. We got used to simply keeping her away from her fellow canines. But White Dog? Nothing makes her happier than running with another dog. She is never better behaved than she is when she’s had a day to play.
So, while she finally started bringing joy to our lives, it seemed her biggest joys came when she was up the road running with the other daycare dogs.
In short, it felt like we were still doing it wrong.
I’m sure there is probably a place for breeders in the world, and I don’t like to judge, but there was no chance I was buying another dog from a breeder ever again. It wasn’t necessarily that buying a dog from a breeder had made our dog any worse. The point was, it hadn’t done anything to make the dog better. We had fooled ourselves into thinking we were getting a sure thing. It was as naive as we’ve been in a very long time. Even if our bad experience was completely unique to us, it didn’t change the fact that buying a dog bred for the purpose of selling it just didn’t jibe with what I came to feel was the right thing to do.
But, get this: I wanted another Lab.
Up until the past year, I thought the process of rescuing a dog was little more than going down to the Humane Society, picking out a mutt that looked right, and rolling the dice. Even recently, my frame of reference for modern so-called rescue groups was a fairly unflattering article in Slate. I wasn’t optimistic, and when I got in touch with a group called Lowcountry Lab Rescue, I was harboring some fairly serious bias. When I had to fill out a long application and submit references, my attitude was poor.
And yet, I continued to look at the dogs the group had available. My wife and I would talk in the evenings about what sort of dog might fit in our house: another girl dog, maybe a little past the puppy stage, maybe one that was black, because we’d heard about “black dog bias,” and even if it was an urban myth, we still dug black dogs.
Finally, a few weeks ago, we saw a picture of a black, one-year-old Lab mix on the Lowcountry Lab Rescue site. A few days later, the dog’s foster dropped her off to hang out with us. It was a two-week trial period to see if the dog fit in with our family, was good around White Dog, and had good manners.
Our friends and family—some more politely than others—issued their concern. How, they wondered, could we possibly consider having a second dog when White Dog had been such trouble for us? How could two busy parents—one of whom travels a great deal—tend to two mischievous boys and the rest of our lives if we added a second dog to it?
Or, as one friend put it: “Are you insane?”
I asked myself the same question over the past two weeks. Every time my wife brought up the “Do we or don’t we” question, I said we’d make our decision when the two-week trial period was up.
Along the way, I discovered a lot of things. Most notably, I learned that the Lowcountry Lab Rescue people are fantastic and doing some important work. I discovered that a one-year-old dog is infinitely easier to welcome into one’s home than a puppy. Finally, I watched White Dog chase Black Dog around the yard. I watched the kids chase the dogs. I watched my wife curl up with Black Dog. I discovered that Black Dog might just be bringing a new joy to our home.
And so tonight I told my wife to say her goodbyes to Black Dog. Why? Well, I was just curious to see if she was in all the way. I wanted to see that flicker in her eye that said, “You’re not getting rid of this dog.” I wanted to know she wanted to keep Black Dog as much as I did.
And she does.
So, yes. We’re insane. No, we don’t really expect our friends to understand. And yes, we now have two dogs…and a little bit more joy in our home.
So, here’s a story.
On January 8, 2003, my phone rang just as I was getting up for work. A plane had tried to take off from Charlotte, NC bound for my home airport, Greenville-Spartanburg International. It didn’t last a minute in the air. Flight 5481 didn’t even clear the airport before crashing into a nearby hangar. All 21 people onboard died. As one of the lead reporters in the Greenville market, it was my job to tell the story.
There is a lot I remember about that day. I remember standing next to CNN’s Gary Tuckman as we talked to the NTSB. I remember the news conferences where they told us about the victims. I remember blindly walking into a gay bar that night with my late friend Chris and a couple other journalists (who we won’t name here, but you know who you are), all of us in need of a beer and none of us recognizing the rainbow on the sign of what we thought was a cowboy tavern.
Covering that plane crash was one of the toughest things I ever did as a journalist. There was something terribly clinical about the entire operation. Everyone around me–the investigators, the journalists, the emergency workers–all had a look in their eye I couldn’t force myself to adopt. For them, it seemed it was just part of the job. For me, it was my first plane crash and one of my biggest mass casualty events (a term that seems sickeningly clinical as I type it). I’d seen a lot up to that point–the kinds of things I still think about today but almost never talk about–but I hadn’t seen the smoldering ruins of 21 lives ended in less than one minute. I was 29 years old and had two years left in the business. That was ten years ago next week.
When the cockpit recordings came out, I listened to them, two young pilots–a man and woman–chatting about everyday silliness. The tape was so short, and I don’t know how many times I rewound it and started over. After that, I developed a sick habit of finding cockpit recordings from doomed airlines and listening to them over and over again. I never talked to anybody about it. I just listened and discovered how completely hopeless a crashing plane’s victims are.
The takeaway was a weird and lasting one. For whatever reason, I remembered the flight from taxi to crash lasting exactly 29 seconds. The number is burned into my brain. I know this because almost exactly two years later, I became a globetrotter. I’ve flown to countries in Europe, Asia, and South America. I’ve flown all over the United States. I honestly have no idea how many times I’ve taken off in a plane over the past decade. But I know this: every time I’ve taken off since Flight 5481 went down, I’ve started counting with my eyes closed. I open them when I hit 29 seconds.
Ridiculous? Yes. Arbitrary? Completely. Superstitious? Without question. But I do it. I’ve done it on four continents. I’ve done it at my home airport. I did three days ago with my son sitting next to me on the plane. That’s the hardest part, and one I can’t write much more about without getting too dark and maudlin.
The simple fact is, for whatever reason, my brain re-programmed itself to believe that if my plane could make it to the 30th second of flight, that it was all going to be okay. I honestly have no idea about the statistics regarding air disasters. I don’t know how many happen on takeoff, landing, or in midair. It doesn’t matter, because the irrational brain is irrational. My only comfort is knowing how irrational I am. Oddly, I’m not the least bit afraid of flying.
So, for the past ten years, I have counted to 29 when my plane took off. When I hit 29, I opened my eyes and got on with the flight.
I’m on my way to an event. I took off from Atlanta a little while ago on my way to Nassau. It’s the ninth time I’ve taken this same trip, and it’s become pretty rote.
Tonight, I’m working with a pilot named Woody Wood (who seemed a little drunk) and a flight attendant named Prudence (who seemed a lot drunk, if completely friendly, and a lot hotter than a self-identifying grandmother should be). And I kept my eyes open. This is what I saw:
It was a gorgeous sunset over Atlanta (one I photographed with my iPhone against all Delta rules). I don’t know how many seconds passed before I realized I’d skipped my ritual. I was too busy realizing that I thought this was the day I was going down.
I can’t explain it. I’ve been on planes in China, Denmark, and Uruguay. I was once on a retired Iberian Airlines plane on which the oxygen masks fell down in front of us. I never thought once about crashing. I’ve been in two emergency landings. I’ve been on a plane in which smoke filled the cockpit. On this same trip last year, I experienced the most ridiculously jolting turbulence. I never thought I was going to die.
Today? Before I ever went to the airport? I wished my wife happiness. Why? I wish I could say. For whatever reason, I thought this was it.
It’s apparently not. We’ve made it through the first 90 minutes of this flight and we’ve not gone down yet. We should be landing soon, and all will be normal again.
But, as we prepare to land, here’s the odd thing: from this plane’s inflight WiFi, I looked up the flight on Wikiepedia to confirm my memory. It tells me flight 5481 lasted 37 seconds. Not 29. I pulled up the NTSB report and looked it over. It’s hard to determine how I came up with 29 or how Wikipedia came up with 37.
All I know is that I have to put up my tray table. And maybe, just maybe, I have an extra eight seconds.
My three-year-old son just fell asleep on my chest.
It’s gray outside, spitting little wet snowflakes and rain on cold ground. It’s the kind of weather that makes you sleepy no matter how much time you’ve spent in bed. My son, a boy who only stops moving long enough to shift gears, took deep, full breaths. He drifted toward somewhere else and fell fast toward a deeper gray, some sort of natural respite from the chaos of his mind and the adult world around him. From the perspective of a man who has felt really, really good in countless and storied ways, I can assure you there is no more pure and good feeling than the slow steady breath of your sleeping child against your neck. It was the most perfect moment I’ve experienced in as long as I can remember, and it gave me a few minutes to think.
We’re all reflecting today in our own way. It’s a natural–if completely arbitrary–response to the last day of the calendar year. We think about the weight we’ve put on. We think about the people we’ve lost. We think about how we can be better and how we can work not to lose the people we love. Moreover, we think about how can save ourselves from immoderation, weakness, and sloth. We think about how we can be better, stronger, or smarter.
I’m thinking all of these things, too. I see myself aging. I see myself getting slower, weaker, and less ambitious. I struggle with it all–the guilt, the weakness, the fear. I resolve to achieve much in the coming year. It’s all ambitious and insane, but I’ve come to appreciate that I’m capable of far more than I ever thought possible. The only things at risk are my brittle bones and doughy pride. I’d like to be much better than I am, because otherwise I’m just getting worse. I’ve been worse, and it’s much less fun.
To you, my goals are irrelevant, and I’m cool with that, but I can’t let this arbitrary and gray day of reflection pass without telling you about what I hope for all of us. This is my New Year’s wish for you, yours, me, and mine.
Hug more. Hug hello. Hug goodbye. Hug as much as you can, because if you find yourself doing it enough, it’s because you are spending time with the people you love enough to hug. That may seem completely obvious, but the simple fact is that it’s not. Whether by circumstance or habit, we often surround ourselves with people for whom we have no affection. The life around us becomes stale and void of anything that resembles real caring and love. Eventually, that starts to feel normal. It doesn’t have to be. We don’t always have a choice, but when we when do, we can make the right one more often if we try.
Hide the switch. There are people who–for reasons of insecurity, fear, or abject meanness–spend their days looking for your switch. They are life’s trolls. They identify the things you hold dear and try to make you feel bad for your passions and beliefs. They are incapable of listening. They are incapable of admitting they could be wrong. Their only fuel is your outrage. Don’t give it to them. Hide your outrage switch. Stop fighting with people who have become the modern versions of people who go into bars looking for a scrap. Outrage is exhausting and frequently misplaced. What’s more, those quick to rage diminish the times when true outrage is necessary. Ignore the switch-seekers and believe in yourself enough that you don’t have to fight.
Do something. Do something new. Do something you used to do. Just do something. It’s so incredibly easy to think about how little time we have in the day. As a guy who has seen his free time shrink to almost zero, I can attest that you’re unlikely to find more discretionary time as you get older. That shouldn’t stop you. Do something that makes you feel good. You can’t be good to the people who need you without doing something for yourself. Ask yourself today what you want to do but don’t have the time to do. Now…make the time.
Be nice. Say “please.” Say “thank you.” Say “excuse me.” It will freak people out. They will look at you like you came from another generation. Do it anyway.
Say “I’m sorry.” And say it right. No apology begins, “I’m sorry you…” Every good apology begins, “I’m sorry I…” Look for times you think you might have wronged somebody, and make sure they know you’re sorry. The other day, a friend of mine apologized to me for a minor offense that I’d forgotten about by the next day. I likely won’t remember the offense a month from now, but I will always remember he took the time to say he was sorry. Contrition isn’t weakness. It’s strength of the highest order. The real weak people are those who either fail to recognize the need to apologize, or those who refuse to do so, regardless.
I know there are people who will read this, roll their eyes, and think me naive. If there weren’t those people, there would’ve been no reason to write this in the first place. I know those people are out there, and I hope at least one of them takes something here to heart. The day I’m forced to believe hope is synonymous with naivety is that day I close the shutters on this little spot and everything else.
Both of my children are now napping in beds with the hopes of staying up until midnight. It will be a low-key night for us. It’s what we needed this year. We’ll spend it with people we love before setting off to see what 2013 has to offer. It’s my hope that I can achieve all of the above and more. My hope is that you can, too.
Remember yesterday when I helped you learn how to spell Connecticut? Today, a man in that state went to a school like yours and killed a lot of kids like you. He shot them in their kindergarten class.
I know you want to know why. It’s what everybody is asking. The parents of those children are walking up and down the street right now screaming that very question.
Why would anybody hurt anybody? Why would anybody want to hurt children?
There is no good answer. We have taught you for a long time that there is no reason to hurt someone unless he is trying to hurt you. I do my best to give you as many answers as I can, but I don’t have any answer for why. My only answer is, Son, there is no answer for why.
There are a lot of people in this world who are bad. Evil is another word for some of them. There are also people who are sick. Their brains don’t work like everyone else’s. They need help. Sometimes they can’t get it. They can’t understand how terrible it is to hurt other people.
Sometimes, Son, evil people have guns. Sometimes sick people have guns. Guns themselves are not evil tools. Police and soldiers need them to protect our countries. Some people use guns to protect their homes and property. Some people use guns for hunting. A lot of times, guns are used for good reasons.
And sometimes, they are used by evil or sick men to kill people as efficiently as possible.
A lot of people in our country—enough to make it matter—believe that our nation’s laws are enough to keep guns out of the hands of evil and sick men. A lot of people believe we as a society can’t be held responsible where those laws fail.
There are many people who believe that we take care of sick people as well as we can. They believe that we find and treat sick people as well as a society can based on the money we have to do it.
What I mean, Son, is that if all of these people are right, if all of our gun laws are sufficient, and our mental health system is sufficient, then things like this just happen. We have to accept them like we accept tornadoes and hurricanes and lightning strikes. There is a phrase for this that you might understand some day. It’s called “collateral damage.”
What do I believe?
Buddy, today I am just sad. I’m scared. I wanted so badly to run to school today and bring you home with me. In fact, I’m writing this while I wait for you to get home with your mom, and I hope you ask me none of these questions, because I don’t trust myself to be rational and objective right now. People I respect believe all of this is just something I have to accept if I want to be part of a safe society. People I respect believe that when this happens that it happens for unique reasons and that any common threads I find are a matter of my politics.
But what I feel right now isn’t about politics. It’s anger. It’s something called empathy. It’s actual physical pain for parents who won’t be putting their kids to bed tonight. I’m so sad, Son, and I have to find a way to wipe away these tears before you get home, because if I don’t, we’re going to have to have this talk sooner than I feel capable of having it.
Could it happen to you? Son, I’m terrified to say it could. Statistically, you are probably safe, and I’m supposed to take some comfort in that, because losing you in a horror like this is as likely as winning the lottery. It’s not likely to happen.
But I can’t feel right about taking comfort, because you are not the only child I love. You and your brother are my favorite, and you are the reason I wake up in the morning, but I also love your cousins. I love Mr. John’s kids. And I love Mr. Gordon’s kids. I love so many of our friends’ kids, and they all go to different schools.
I can’t take any comfort in the fact I didn’t have to run to your school today, fight through the traffic, struggle with the police, and wait for you to come out of the school. I can’t take any comfort that I didn’t have to feel the abject terror of wondering if you had been shot in the head at school. I can’t take any comfort in the fact that the man who did this was crazy and that things like this are “just going to happen.”
More than anything, buddy, I can’t take any comfort in the fact that it’s not me who has to bury his kids next week.I just can’t.
I love you, Son, and I’m sorry I can’t explain it any better.
My dad died a year ago today.
I was in China when it happened. In the hours I struggled to get back home from halfway around the world, I remember wondering how I would comfort my boys. I was barely in control of myself, and I couldn’t imagine trying to explain to my young sons that their PaPa was gone. When I finally got to Missouri, my family and friends held me up. My wife stayed at my side through the exhausting and terrible logistical protocols of death. Through it all, my friend Ruth watched over my sons. I’d known her for a quarter century. She married the man with whom I’d spent almost every day from kindergarten to high school graduation. She was a saint.
Over the past 12 months, I’ve dreaded this weekend in ways I can’t really explain. Part of me wanted to go to bed the night before Thanksgiving and wake up tomorrow. That feeling grew stronger as I made it through the weekend. But when I woke up yesterday, I got news that broke my heart. Ruth’s dad had died Sunday morning, almost exactly a year from the day my dad died.
I spent most of Sunday thinking about Ruth, wishing I could be there for her as she was for me a year ago. Last night, I crawled into bed early, exhausted and emotionally shot. I grabbed a t-shirt from a bedside drawer, one that I hadn’t worn in seven years. On the front of it was my face and the face of three other dear friends with whom I worked at the TV station years ago. The four of us worked in a little area just off the main newsroom. We called it The Romper Room, and we spent years there like brothers and sisters. One of the four of us in that room was my buddy Nigel, a guy who has reached out countless times over the past year to make sure I was okay, a guy who had checked in just this weekend because he knew it was going to be tough on me.
I got up early today, unsure where the day would take me. Though it’s just a calendar day, it holds a significance for me unlike any other in the year. I settled in behind the computer and started to do some work, but my head wasn’t in it. My wife noticed. She dragged me away from the computer and out for a long run. We ran underneath a blue sky. I looked up and smiled as Railroad Earth sang the line, “Ain’t it good to be alive?”
Eight miles later, we climbed back in the car and got ready to go pick up the kids from school. We grabbed our phones and read the message at the same time. Nigel’s dad died this morning, exactly a year to the day after my dad.
Over the past year, I’ve been forced to learn a lot about grief and what it really means. One of the things that’s struck me the most is how intensely personal such a universal experience can feel. Almost everybody loses their dad at some point. It’s a pain we’ll all have to know, and it’s seems like it’s something we could all share as a bond. That’s not really the case, though. Though countless other people have experienced the loss, each one is different and personal. Even today as I think about my dad and the first year I’ve spent without him, I can’t find adequate words for my friends who are missing their fathers for the first time. This is my best attempt.
I wish you both peace. It’s not necessarily easy to find, but it’s out there. It’s in the eyes of your children and the love of your spouses. It’s in waking up to pretty skies and knowing that you have made it this far because of how much your dads loved you. It’s in the life you still have with the rest of your family, people your fathers loved as much as you do. It’s in knowing that your daily smiles and continued drive toward happiness are what your dads would’ve wished for you. It’s in knowing your dads sacrificed for you so your life with your children would be easier. It’s in knowing that the grief you feel is yours, and that you will use it to be better, not worse. It’s in knowing that you can’t change what’s happened, but your can continue to live in a way that would make your dads proud. It’s in a love that prevails over grief.
Both of my kids are home from school now. One has a lot of homework. The other one is proud of the boo-boos he got on the playground. They are both as happy as I could want. I know it’s my job to make sure they stay that way. The best way to make sure it happens is to keep hold of that sometimes elusive peace. I won’t stop wishing my dad was here to help me teach them, but I know this: a father’s true legacy is not in the money he makes for his kids. It’s not for the things he buys them, the power they achieve, or their success in business. The true legacy of a father is how happy his children are, and in turn how happy they can make their kids. By that measure, my dad was a successful as any man I know.
Peace to my friends tonight. I’m sorry your dads are gone, but I smile knowing their legacies are so strong.