Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Lesson Learned

I noticed recently that the Golf Writers Association of the America selected Tiger Woods as its player of the year.
I assume that means “player of golf.”
At any rate, I mention this because I wrote something a while back and have been sitting on it, wondering if and when I’d submit it. The Tiger Woods story triggered my decision to do so, and here’s why: In his mea culpa regarding his marital meanderings, Tiger Woods said, “I convinced myself that normal rules don’t apply.”
He may well have been speaking on behalf of a generation of talented, young male athletes, who are too often taught by parents, teachers, coaches and many others that the normal rules don’t apply to them either.
I say this based on a piece by Andrew Smiler, a North Carolina therapist and author of a book about promiscuous young male sexuality. He examined several incidents where seemingly popular, likeable boys did insidious things, usually to not-so-popular, not-so-likeable, powerless girls.
How does this happen, Dr. Smiler wondered. How do otherwise good boys behave like beasts?
Well, here’s how, he concluded.
• Mom and dad are fans, not parents, so when grades sag, they blame the teacher. He gets in trouble at school, they bail him out. It’s not his fault. The rule isn’t fair. The policy is arbitrary and capricious. He gets in trouble with a girl, well boys will be boys.
• Teachers and administrators fail to enforce rules. He curses a teacher, doesn’t do his homework, flunks a test or a course, well there’s always an escape hatch. As they say, the teacher knows the rules; the student, the exceptions.
• He is surrounded by servants and sycophants, hangers-on who coddle, protect and clean up after him. In some schools, they’re pep or spirit club members. In others, they’re groupies. Either way, he’s treated like royalty.
• His narcissism is constantly stoked. He’s late to class, gets caught sneaking a smoke between classes, rips a toilet out of the bathroom wall, takes a jab at some kid in the hall, well maybe he’s just having a bad day. There’s always a coach or a counselor to smooth things over. He might end up running a few bleachers. If worse comes to worse, he might scribble his name on a letter of apology someone else wrote.
• His parents feed off of his celebrity. Perhaps mom and dad are socially connected anyway. Maybe they’re chummy with the police chief or the mayor or even a state representative or two— people who are in a position to pull strings, make phone calls, make problems disappear.
• He gets whatever he wants when he wants it. Hot wheels. Cool clothes. Five hundred dollar headphones. Access to the liquor cabinet and free weekends devoid of nosy parents who may wonder but won’t ask what’s going in there.
• He’s raised to believe that men are men, and girls are just girls, and anyone who attempts to bend or straddle the line is inferior or weird and thus worthy of whatever comes their way. This is particularly true for sissy boys and misty-eyed girls.
• He’s taught to choose his victims carefully, preferably the weaklings, the chemically incapacitated, the mentally or socially impaired. If caught or confronted, he knows the system will blame the victim. They asked for it, after all, and they got it.

And so, this is how otherwise nice, likeable, popular boys come to behave despicably. In so many cases, they’ve been taught — and they’ve learned — that the normal rules apply to saps and nobodies, not to them. After all, they're heroes.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Roses in the rain

I won’t feel the full brunt of Jeff’s death until the Saturday before the 2014 summer journalism workshop at Michigan State because he won’t be there to pick me up at the airport and drive me to his home in Grosse Pointe and lug my suitcase up the stairs and deposit it in his twin boys’ bedroom, where I’ll spend the night.
Jeff and I won’t then head over to a Polish restaurant in Hamtramck or to the Cadieux Cafe for Belgian beer and steamed mussels and feather bowling, where he’ll try gallantly to let me win at least one game because, he believes, that’s what a good host and a good guy does. He’ll fail, even though he’ll spot me a huge lead because I suck at feather bowling, especially after two or three beers, and even though I really want to win. 
Regardless, he’ll find all this hilarious, as if we haven’t done these things a half-dozen times already. By the evening's end, we’ll be exhausted from laughing and yapping, and I’ll have no trouble sleeping in Cy or Cal’s tiny twin bed, even though I’m a chronic insomniac and have been for decades.
And so, I know the Saturday before the 2014 MIPA workshop will be painful, and I’m thankful for and fully expect my Michigan friends and colleagues to pull me through. I promise to reciprocate in full.
Jeff’s funeral service was as perfect as a funeral can be. The pastor choked up once. Two of his former students spoke brilliantly, as did his two colleagues and four of his long-time running mates — members of the so-called "Fab Five." The wives of one of these pals — a woman Jeff had known since kindergarten — dubbed him “the daughter his mother never had,” and it drew a huge laugh. Though there wasn’t a dainty cell in his body, Jeff was kind and courteous and as giving a person as I’ve met. I know no one who thinks otherwise. 
In the last couple of years, as he grappled with his horrible illness, I came to understand how much I adored — oh, fuck it, how much I loved — him, and so it was hard for me to admit to myself that he had better friends than me — though, of course, I knew it had to be so. I rarely saw Jeff more than three times a year. It's also hard to realize that he was a better friend to me — not his best friend —  than I am to my best friends. 
I plan to rectify that.
The all-too-brief time I spent with Jeff was crammed with long, interesting conversations about family and sports and journalism, interrupted only by an occasional bad movie or amazing meal or wild adventure — like our trip to Cedar Pointe, where he and I literally sprinted from roller coaster to roller coaster, elbowing our way past 12-year-old boys and anyone else who dared stand between us and the front of the line. We rode every monster ride in the park before lunch —several of them twice.
Then, we wolfed down cheeseburgers and fries and laughed and yapped and then rode two or three rides one last time before hitting the road back to Detroit to pack up Jeff’s GM van and head toward East Lansing — me with my carry-on suitcase and Tumi man-bag; Jeff with his ice chests, air conditioner, sacks of candy, stacks of handouts, and God only knows what else. As in all of his life, Jeff arrived locked and loaded. All in.
For example, years ago, the workshop directors quietly pressured their instructors to quietly pressure their students to compete in the closing night’s big talent show — and most of us did, even though we knew either Jeff or Kirk would win because both started planning their performance months in advance. They'd arrive with props and costumes and scripts and everything short of a Children's Chorus and chamber orchestra.
I once kidded Jeff that his class syllabus must look something like this:
Sunday: 5-5:10 p.m.— Welcome. Review of rules.
Sunday: 5:15-7:30 — Auditions. Costume fittings.
Monday: 9-9:30 a.m. — Sports coverage, writing, opinion, headlines and captions. Design, graphics and photography. Tom Izzo press conference. First draft of story due at 9:28. Second draft by 9:30.
Monday 9:30-9:40 a.m. — Break. Change into costumes.
Monday 9:40 a.m.-Wednesday, 3:45 p.m. — Rehearsals.
Wednesday 4-5 p.m. — Show time.
Thursday 9-9:30 — Presentation of First Place Trophy. Brainstorm next year's performance. 
Strangely enough, no one I know begrudged Jeff a bit because (1) he made it part of a larger learning experience, and (2) he somehow convinced 15- and 16-year-old boys to sing and dance, and to wear makeup and an occasional boa. In other words, he taught them to prepare, take chances, give their best and laugh the whole time they were doing it.
And, I'm guessing, that’s how he lived right up to the second he died.
That's why the church was packed. 
As I said, the service was lovely — funny, uplifting, powerful. I only cried a little. It ended with a video, of course, and I want to thank and curse whoever chose “Thunder Road” as its soundtrack because I’ll never hear it again without thinking of Jeff, and I love that song and listen to it often. I played it three or four times during the plane ride from Detroit to Dallas, and each time Bruce belted, “Show a little faith, there’s magic in the night,” my eyes puffed and turned watermelon pink.
I also listened to “Hungry Heart” and “Blinded by the Light” and “Jungleland” and five or six other Springsteen songs including, of course, “Born to Run.” And when he sang, “Together, we can live with the sadness,” well, it was as if Jeff were saying to me — and to us — run 'till you drop, never look back, love each other with all the madness in our souls. One day, we'll walk in the sun. 
Or, as he might also put it, "Rehearsals in ten, kids. Find your boa."

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Sun and grand-daughter

I wrote this for Texas School Business magazine, for whom I'm a regular columnist and reporter. Since then, Evie has been fitted with hearing aids and is progressing fabulously. She will be here Thanksgiving, and I plan to make sure she hears "A Hard Day's Night" at least a dozen times.

There’s little chance Simon Sun will try out for football or any other sport inasmuch as he suffers from cerebral palsy, and it’s a struggle for him to talk let alone walk, but he’s determined to live as normal a life as possible, and his efforts to do so are nothing short of heroic.
I’m thinking about Simon a lot right now. He was one of the best students in an advanced writing class I taught this summer at Michigan State. I was notified beforehand that he had signed up, and I received a copy of a letter his father wrote, asking that we be patient with but not coddle him.
“He is 16 and will go to college,” his father told us. “He needs to learn how to get around on his own.”
So, we helped when Simon needed it and were patient as he struggled to ask a question or explain how he thought an anecdote might be used or how a descriptive phrase might be teased.
But it was tough. At first, I couldn’t understand him. His words seemed a jumble of honks and squawks, and I felt guilty being unable to decipher them, of pretending that I could. Several times, I interrupted him with responses to questions he didn’t ask, and I hoped — assumed, actually — he wouldn’t notice the difference.
I committed the cardinal sin of teaching: I defined Simon by his disability, not his ability. And then, I read his personal opinion column. He cranked it out in about an hour, and I suspect he has wanted to write it for a long, long time.
Here are a few excerpts:

• I’m trapped in my own mind. At least, that’s how it feels. As one who is physically disabled, it’s constantly a struggle to breathe before I suffocate in my thoughts. Almost no one listens to what I have to say. Or, if they try to listen, many can’t understand me. It’s as if I don’t exist.
         • What irks me the most are not those who ostracize me. Instead, it’s those who insist on helping me. I fully understand that they’re just being nice, but when I’m treated like a 5-year-old or a sick puppy, that’s what I hate. I don’t need my hand held as I walk through society. I’m 16, and I would like to be treated as such.
• While we’re at it, don’t call me “buddy.” I’m not your buddy. I don’t even know you. It’s as if you’re talking to a dog, or a scruffy little kid. Call me “friend.” “Bro.” Say, “Hey, man” as I pass you in the hall, not “Hey there, little buddy.”  I’m not Gilligan.
• When I try to speak, I either get ignored or interrupted. I’m not sure whether I’m just not loud enough or whether the others don’t have the patience to really listen to me. I want them to know what I have something to say, but it’s frustrating. My thoughts are caught somewhere between my brain and my mouth, and so, I’m trapped, trapped in my own mind, suffocating in my own thoughts. But let me tell you something. I exist. And I will be heard. Somehow. Some day.”

I’m thinking about Simon a lot now because my wife and I recently learned that our 20-month-old granddaughter, Evelyn, is mostly deaf, and there's a chance she could lose what little hearing she has.
I’ve not had time to process this, and I’m not sure when the reality of it will sink in. Soon enough, I suppose.
It’s ironic. A couple of months ago, I wrote a snarky piece about how the U.S. Justice Department's Office for Civil Rights had reminded school districts that they were obliged to provide students with disabilities equal access to extracurricular sports.
I contacted the UIL and a couple of athletic directors and coaches and asked if this changed anything, and they assured me it did not. I had no reason to doubt them, so I glibly dismissed it all as another case of government run amuck.
The piece never saw the light of day though. I shared it with my wife, and she hated it, so I dumped and forgot about it.
But now, this.
As I begin to imagine all that Evelyn might miss — the opening chord of “A Hard Day’s Night,” a thunder clap, a kitten’s meow  — I hope the chance to play high school sports isn’t among them. I hope she’s defined by her ability, not her disability.
I hope too that you think of Simon and his determined heroism when you encounter another young person with a disability. Please be patient with but don’t pander to him or her. I ask this of you because one day, that young person might be my granddaughter.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Cookies and memories

I am baby-sitting my 3-year-old grandson, Oliver. His mom is having her hair cut — a task that takes three or four hours, apparently. My wife is working or watching. I’m not sure. At any rate, I’m here with Oliver and our 21-year-old yellow tabby, Woody.
Oliver and I have explored, rough-housed, tormented Woody and chased each other up and down stairs and around the kitchen island. Later, we’re visiting the fire station that’s just around the corner. We baked oatmeal-pecan-coconut cookies that we’ll deliver to the firemen, a little thanks for welcoming us into their cramped, old station. I know they will. I stopped by the other day, and they assured me they’d love to show Oliver the gear and the truck. It’s going to be great.
Fact is, Oliver loves firemen. He’s watching Fireman Sam on Netflix right now. That’s how I have time to write this. It’s something I’ve been thinking about for a couple of days.
You see, Oliver is a special kid. I know, all grandkids are special. Brightest. Cutest. Most this. Best that. That’s a given. But he is special. He’s incredibly verbal. Yesterday, he said “forget,” then corrected himself and said “forgot.”
Remember, he’s three.
He’s also plucky and courageous. He doesn’t mind taking a hit. We played “close your eyes and Pops will sweep your legs out from under you” for about an hour. He laughed every time, even once when he almost fell off the couch onto the tile floor, perhaps by way of the coffee table corner. Scared me to death. Don’t tell his mom. Please.
He has the innate ability and temperament of an athlete.  The only problem is that he’s little and a little shy, and that can be a problem. He can get lost in the pack, become discouraged and disenchanted, and quit.
I would hate that. It almost happened to me. It did happen to my daughter.
I have no intention of re-living my childhood through a grandson. If I were to, I’d re-live it through Oliver’s 1-year-old brother. His name is Shepard, but I call him Turbo. If there’s a middle linebacker in our future, it’s Shep.
I just want Oliver to enjoy the thrill of the game. I want him to be tutored and mentored by men and women who fully appreciate how profoundly important they can be in his life. I don’t want him to be the cannon fodder of coaches revisiting or, even worse, trying to reclaim their lost youth though my grandson.
I want his coaches to teach values like hard work, persistence, dedication and teamwork, but I don’t want these terms to be twisted or warped. I once knew a coach who ran his boys until they threw up, and he was proud of it. He placed barrels around the gym floor and warned his players that if they puked on his floor, he’d run ‘em that much and more.
His floor.
He was a bully and a creep.
I had a high school coach, Tommy Atkins, who inspired me, motivated me to achieve something I could have never achieved alone: to run a 2-minute half-mile on a cinder track on a cold, windy February evening. Sure, he ran me half to death too, but I busted a gut for him out of respect, admiration — not fear. I finished third in district, and he treated me as if I’d taken first at state.
I hope Oliver’s coaches help him to discover the love of athletic competition — be it football or golf or table tennis or even, God forbid, soccer. With my luck, he’ll be an all-star flopper, and I’ll spend the autumn of my life camped out with 16 other parents and grandparents, caravanning to soccer matches coast to coast.
Of course, I’ll be glad to do it if he loves the game and if he’s getting out it as much as he’s putting into it. One of my great regrets going forward is knowing I’ll never play another game of football without suffering horribly for it. My best tennis and racquetball and basketball are far behind me too.
That’s OK. I have my memories.
I want Oliver to have his memories too. If you’ll help him, guide him, inspire him, then I’ll make sure there’s a batch of oatmeal-pecan-coconut cookies coming your way too.

A True Falcon

Linda Burgess laughed when her 12-year-old son told her he planned to play seventh grade football for Fulmore Middle School, where he is enrolled in the humanities and law magnet.

He had shown not a scintilla of athletic ability or curiosity. He was tall and wobbly, and his talents seemed better spent in Boy Scouts, in the orchestra, in the Episcopal Church as an acolyte.

He had never thrown a football. Ever.

“You’ll get killed,” Linda blurted and might have protested had her husband, Steve, not intervened.

“It’s going to be OK,” he insisted. “He needs to play a team sport. Let him try.”

“Fine,” Linda thought. “But he has get in shape first,” so she signed him up for two weeks with a trainer at a West Austin country club. If she had hoped he would find it too hot, too sweaty, too grueling, then she was disappointed. Her son is not a quitter. And so, the Falcon season began, mostly with Stephen riding the bench as a second or third string tight end.

Linda didn’t expect him to play at all and was thrilled that he made it onto the field in every game, not that she had a clue what he was doing out when he was out there, other than standing around, “looking adorable,” in her own words.

Despite growing in Shawnee, OK, attending Notre Dame as an undergraduate and OU for law school, Linda knew next to nothing about football.

“I knew you had to go 10 yards to get a first down, and you get four tries,” she admitted. She knew who the quarterback was. She also knew football players were supposed to hit each other, and her son was not.

“I kept thinking, ‘He’s gotta be more aggressive,’” Linda said. “’He’s gotta knock someone over.’”

He never did. Stephen spent a good deal of the season trying to learn his plays and master the 3-point stance. He didn't catch a pass, and the team lost far more than they won, but it wasn’t a losing season, and here’s why: At the beginning of the season, Stephen knew none of his teammates — mostly South and East Austin neighborhood kids, mostly brown and black. Lots of free-lunches and lots of issues with test scores. Fulmore can be rough, especially for a nice boy who plays the bass in the orchestra and helped the Academic Quiz Bowl team to the 2013 national tournament in Chicago.

Football changed that — at least, it did for Stephen.

“Without football, he would have never interacted with kids from that neighborhood,” Linda said. “He did through football. He wasn’t going to school with kids he had known for years. Just the opposite, and it was good for him to have to handle all of that.”

It was good for Linda too.

“It made me care for these kids,” she said. “I didn’t know them or their parents, and without football, I wasn’t going to know them. They weren’t part of our social circle, and I wasn’t going to meet them through work.”

Without football, Linda and Steve would have mingled with the magnet school kids and their parents at random music and academic events. They would have never met the second-string quarterback’s mom. They would have neither known nor cared that the school had no football booster club. They would never appreciate the sacrifices some of these boys make to play, the sacrifices their parents make to watch them play.

But now, they do. Linda and Steve have become woven into the fabric of the school. They care about Fulmore, and not just the magnet program. The whole school.

“I didn’t realize that the Fulmore teachers come to all the games,” Linda said. “We were able to visit with them outside of the classroom. And I still can’t believe how excited I was when we finally got cheerleaders. I participated in every cheer.”

She also took charge of arranging snacks before games and bought a $70 royal blue rubber stamp the size of a slice of bread — to stamp all the lunch bags, “Go Falcons.”

She’ll use it again this fall, and she’s thrilled about that because Stephen briefly flirted with the idea of transferring to a private school before deciding to return to Fulmore for eighth grade. He’s more mature, more responsible. He’s spent the past year, tossing the football around, tucking it under his arm should he ever catch a pass. He’s even ready to knock someone over. He remains a Falcon because of football.

And Linda says she’s no longer worried about injuries. Steven is bigger, taller and slightly less wobbly, but things happen. Oddly enough, one of the Quiz Bowl boys tumbled crossing a Chicago street and broke his wrist.

And so it goes. The season begins soon, and the Oklahoma girl, the Notre Dame graduate, the wife of the die-hard Texas Longhorn fan who barely knows the difference between punt and a pickle says it can’t get here fast enough.

Saturday, March 9, 2013


By his own admission, Adan Peña was a lousy student. Lazy. Apathetic. A typical junior high loser. Call it a family tradition. Of his 19 aunts and uncles, only two have received a high school diploma, and Adan was on his way of slacking out of Nazareth High School and into a life of who knows what — at best, working on a dairy farm. At worst, jail.

“In junior high, I was one of those kids who teachers hated,” said Peña, now a senior. “I didn’t care about school. I put forth little or no effort. I was always looking for trouble.”

It was easy to find. Wanna-be gangsters from surrounding towns. Tobacco. Alcohol. Drugs. Just another troubled Hispanic kid going nowhere. 

His freshman year in high school was even worse. 

“My grades were at an all-time low,” he said. “I was on the brink of flunking out, of going down the same path as almost all of my family members. Quit. Struggle. Live the rest of my life doing hard work for little or no money. I figured that’s where I was headed anyway, so why fight it.” 

But his sophomore English teacher, Cindy Huseman, saw something in him that others didn’t. Adan had all kinds of problems, but he was smart and articulate when he wanted to be. When Adan’s grandmother died, his cousins were asked to speak at the funeral. None volunteered, so he stepped up.

“I spent five hours writing the speech,” he said. “The night I wrote it, I had a feeling, for the first time, that I was ‘good’ at something other than being lazy.” 

The day after the funeral, Huseman — who had attended the service — encouraged Adan to join the UIL speech team.

 “No way,” he said. “Me? In speech?” He told himself the same old thing: “You’re like the rest of your family: not good enough. Never was. Never will be.” 

But Huseman persisted. Join the extemporaneous speaking team. Give it a shot. If you don’t like it, if it’s too hard, if it’s not for you, then move on. But don’t fail before you even try. Don’t be a coward. 

OK, he relented. Where do I sign up?

“I wasn’t very good as a sophomore,” Adan said. “I was competing in informative and persuasive speaking, and I was losing, but I realized that it wasn’t because my opponents were smarter than me. They worked harder. They were better prepared, and that made them more confident.” 

After finishing fourth at the 2009 district meet, he considered quitting. He’d proven to himself what he’d always believed: You aren’t good enough. You’re a failure. Why bother trying? The day before he planned to quit the team, Adan’s mother pulled him aside and told him how proud she was of him, that he was changing the family, that he was living the dreams she wished she could have lived.

Inspired by the support of his mother and his coaches, Adan worked harder. He read newspapers, gorged on political and current events websites, attended speech workshops and clinics. From the first day of school, he gave three speeches per week. He practically lived Huseman’s classroom.

Though it was a huge expense for the family, Adan’s mother spent more than $200 for his tournament outfit.

“I will make it to state this year,” he vowed. “I will make it to state.” 

Last spring, Adan Peña — the junior high loser — placed second in persuasive speaking at district, first at region and third at the UIL Academic State Meet, held the first weekend of May on the campus of the University of Texas at Austin. 

“UIL academics have changed my life entirely,” he said. “I apply the things I learned in speech to my everyday life, especially the relationship between work and practice and success. I went from a lost student who did not care about school or his future and have become an A-student. If I had never joined the speech team, I doubt I would have ever seen this change.” 

When UIL officials draped the third place medal around his neck, he stood on the stage  of the Lyndon B. Johnson Auditorium on the UT campus and thought, for the first time in his life, “I am somebody, and I can become anyone or anything I want to be if I’m willing to work hard enough.”

In May of 2015 of thereabouts, he hopes to take another stroll across the UT campus — this time, with a university diploma in his hand.