Fighting back against life’s little inconveniences

Some days you find inspiration from the unlikeliest places.

A few weeks ago, CBS kicked off its Thursday Night Football schedule with a short 2-minute introductory speech featuring actor Forest Whitaker.

footballI’ve long forgotten the game. If I’m not mistaken, the Denver Broncos came back for a last minute victory over the Kansas City Chiefs. However, three weeks later, the speech is still very vivid in my thoughts.

In the montage, Whitaker asks, “How many people in this room have ever had one of those days when everything just seems … to start out wrong?”

I’m raising my hand here. Can’t you see it? Yesterday, I spilled apple sauce all over my shirt and pants right before I had to give a presentation. Two weeks ago, our mechanic called to give us the bill on our car. I’m thinking he’s calling to tell us we owe $100 at most. Umm, how about $2,300? Hello, really?

The CBS montage shows a kid getting up off the wrong side of the bed: spilling his breakfast, getting lectured in class and fumbling the football on the field.

And Whitaker in only the way he can, says:

I never understood people who wished they were born rich.

I never understood athletes who just wanted to join the best teams.

Build your own business!

Start your own dynasty!

A good start to a day is easy; I want no part of easy.

I want the struggle.

I want the fight.

I want the pain.

Every time I hear that speech I think to myself: Really? You really want the pain? You want the hassle of a bill you weren’t expecting. You want the last-minute request that forces you stay late at work. You want traffic congestion, forcing your commute to be tougher than usual.

Really?

And then I want the best feeling of all: the feeling that the world did everything it could to beat me.

 But I won.

 Okay, you got me. I want to beat the odds too. Sign me up.

Words of wisdom from an unlikely source

Baseball great Yogi Berra died this week at the age of 90 and was known across the globe for his many quotes. You know you’ve lived a long, productive life when The USA Today runs a story on your death listing 50 of your greatest one-liners and quotes.

baseballMany people are familiar with Berra’s more commonly quoted expressions or turns of a phrase: “It ain’t over till it’s over” and “It’s like déjà vu all over again” to name two that have been cited the most over the years.

I’ve always had a preference for Berra’s more lesser-known and off-beat quotes. I suspect it’s the folksy wisdom that he presents and how it can be applied to work, home, and everything in between. He would have fit in well with some of the rural, farm folk I grew up with in Central Pennsylvania.

If I close my eyes tightly, I can hear the retired school teacher and part-time farmer who I helped one summer offering the same type of Berra-esque advice as we took our lunch break one summer day during my tenure working for him. We’d spend the morning chopping wood or weeding his small garden in the hot sun and then retreat for lunch on his porch. I didn’t think much about his advice then, but ended up learning a lot about life and myself that long, hot summer.

I suspect too that my affinity for Berra comes from the fact that I’ve been known to botch a quote or two in my day. Here’s a handful of my favorite Berra quotes:

–“When you come to a fork in the road, take it.”

–“You can observe a lot by just watching.”

–“Always go to other people’s funerals, otherwise they won’t come to yours.”

–“How can you think and hit at the same time?”

–“It gets late early out here.”

–“You’ve got to be very careful if you don’t know where you are going, because you might not get there.”

–“It was impossible to get a conversation going, everybody was talking too much.”

–“A nickel ain’t worth a dime anymore.”

–“You better cut the pizza in four pieces because I’m not hungry enough to eat six.”

Thank you and Rest in Peace Yogi.

A new take on the thrill of victory & the agony of defeat

The runner raced up the slight hill and made the turn to the left. He led a pack of five other runners by a good 15 yards. He looked like a machine, his long legs chewing up ground, his arms moving forward and backward like pistons. His face was all business, no stress, no strain, just focused on the goal ahead. You could see droplets of sweat on his face and back in the stifling heat, but nothing seemed to slow him.

running photoThe runner clipped off half mile chunks like they were quick sprints down the block. He took an early lead over the large pack of other runners in the first 500 yards, stretched it even further at the mile mark and never let go. He kept the pressure on and cruised to an easy win.

A continuous stream of other runners followed. They all came to the cross country invitational wanting what the lead runner had: they wanted the top spot. There were runners of all types, short, tall, and everything in between. They ran in packs and then others ran all alone. The course looked like a battleground, with mini chess matches taking place around every bend, hill or curve.

For example, one young runner struggled to stay with a group of six runners who overtook him in a wooded area where few spectators had ventured to cheer on the runners. The runner with the name of his high school, Hempfield, plastered across the front of his red singlet looked like he might drop back at any moment, lost in the heat of the battle. The wear and tear of the run was catching up to him. He lacked the same smooth form of many of the other runners and the pain seemed to seep out from every pore in his body. While many runners had an emotionless expression, he looked like he was in the worst pain possible. The heat was catching up to him. But at the same time, he refused to be passed without a fight. He kept up with the other runners and when they came to three short hills, he attacked. He pushed the pace up the hills by several notches, losing three of the other runners in is wake and when he reached the crest of the last hill, he used a short straight stretch to catch the final three right before the finish line.

The young runner crossed the line and immediately fell to the ground barely out of the way of the mass of runners finishing after him. Bent over on all fours, he took huge gulps of air.  He couldn’t seem to catch his breath. His coach ran up to him, picked him up off the ground, said something into his ear, and gave him a long hug.

The two runners reminded me of everything I love about Cross Country: the pain, the hard work and disciple, the constant battle against other runners and against yourself, the camaraderie of the team. It all came flooding back to me.

“I should be out there with them,” I thought to myself. “I should be running down other runners. I should be clocking speedy mile times and catching slower runners. I should be feeling the wind rushing through my hair.”

And then the truth came rushing back. I’m not 16-17 years old anymore. I’m thirty-some years and 80 pounds removed from my years as a cross country runner.

Oh, where have the years gone? For a few glorious moments, however, it was neat to reminisce and dream.

Treasures once lost, found again

For decades, Roman Totenberg, a legendary master violinist and teacher played his beloved Stradivarius violin all over the world. And then one day in 1980, he turned his back after a performance and the violin was gone.

The music was stopped.

Award-winning National Public Radio reporter Nina Totenberg penned a piece earlier this summer on how the stolen instrument came to rest in the FBI’s hands and finally back to her family.

The theft of the violin was a crushing loss for her father.  “As he put it, he had lost his musical partner of 38 years,” Totenberg wrote.  Her father would later buy a Guarneri violin from the same period as the Stradivarius, but he had to rework the fingering for his entire repertoire for the new instrument and never got the same enjoyment.

“My father would dream of opening his violin case and seeing the Strad there again, but he never laid eyes on it again. He died in 2012, but the Stradivarius lived on — somewhere.”

The violin did indeed live on, but the trail for it went cold until this June when the ex-wife of a deceased California man found an old violin in storage and asked an appraiser to take a look at it. After a detailed inspection, the appraiser told her had some good and bad news for her. He told her that she had in her hands a rare violin dating back to the 17th century.  Unfortunately, however, the violin had been stolen and he was obligated to contact law enforcement.

The FBI soon contacted Totenberg.  “As the reality of his message washed over me, I had a hard time actually believing it. I called my sisters right away, and we were soon laughing and crying on the phone,” Totenberg wrote.

Thinking of my own father

My own father never played the violin. He wouldn’t have been able to tell the difference between a Stradivarius and cheap toy violin. He never played any instrument for that matter and didn’t have a lot of time for music. When I heard this story, however, I instantly thought of my own father. He’s been dead now for more than 11 years. I thought about the treasures my father would have liked to have reclaimed in his old age that would have brought a joyful tear or smile. Is there something that would have touched him the way that the Stradivarius touched the Totenberg family? What would have brought a smile to my father’s face?

I heard a rich man once talk at length about his first car, a beat-up Dodge Dart. The man regularly drove a Porsche to work and could have any number of fine cars at his disposal, but the thing he cherished the most in his life was a rusted, fender-missing, beat-up Dart. Life is funny. We cherish different things.

My father’s Stradivarius

My father was never a rich man so the items he would cherish the most would have to be run-of-the-mill objects that might not mean much to someone else. A few items popped up in my head right away: my father’s old Army uniform; the keys to his old Kay-Vee ice cream truck, the one job he used to talk about more than any other else; possibly a photograph of the old sea captain my father saw when the ship taking him from basic camp in the U.S. dropped anchor in Europe (England I believe).

The longer I thought, more items came to mind. My father never seemed to be without a pocket knife or two. He treasured them. He had specific ones for whatever task was at hand. I’m sure that holding one or two of those long-forgotten knives would bring him a smile.

The more I thought, more things came to mind. He spent a good portion of his life carving and he created some doozies:  various sea captains, hoboes, hunters, and one of a comical-looking dentist pulling a tooth with a pair of pliers. They would mean something to him, but they always seemed to mean more to others than him.

Finally, I came back to family. My father loved his grandchildren. They held a special place in his heart. He could be the father that he wasn’t able to be in his youth. He could pass along wisdom to his grandchildren without anger or undue financial stress. He could be a mentor and grandfather.

I’m sure a picture of his family, especially his grandchildren, would mean much to him. He would get much enjoyment seeing his grandchildren graduating high school and college and making something of their lives. I like to think he would cherish seeing the smiles on everyone’s face.

I finished out my make-believe list with one last possession. I added my father’s wedding band. My father wore his band until his death. My mom and him never had it easy, they fought like cats and dogs when they were younger and later fell into the comfortable routine of two older people who’ve grown used to each other, but he cherished the band and everything it represented above most everything else.

My own list

What about me? What do I cherish the most?

I’ve been pretty lucky. I haven’t misplaced a whole lot of items in my life. My high school class ring was stolen in college, but no one has ever stolen my own version of the Stradivarius. I’ve been able to hold onto most of the things that have meant the most to me.

In the end, my wife and kids mean the most to me and I’ve been able to hold tight to them.

Here’s hoping it stays that way.

Getting out of my own way

I have a wonderful education. I have a bachelor’s degree from one of the best state schools in the country and a master’s degree in business from a school where I was able to get excellent one-to-one attention from experts in the field.

You would think with all that education I would have the analytical and decision-making skills needed to make any decision known to man or at least your average suburban father. You would think . . . but you would be wrong.

Those wonderful skills, the same skills that should serve me so well . . . in actuality, they get in the way. I came across a quote the other day that sums up my predicament. The quote read:

“One day when I wasn’t paying attention, when I was just letting myself be, and forgot to judge . . . I became a writer. It’s amazing what you can become if you get out of your own way.”

How so?

—When I forgot about finding someone to love, put others first and just responded to the card and call from a concerned friend of my brothers, I found the love of my life.

—When I stopped trying to be “Dad of the Year” and got on the ground at eye-level and played and talked with my kids, I became a dad.

—When I stop worrying about money and our debt for five minutes, I stop and realize that I’m rich with things that money can never buy, including true love, the love of a close-knit family, health, integrity, trust, peace of mind, appreciation, respect, common sense, perspective, and happiness.

—When I stop lecturing and trying to solve everyone’s problems and just listened over dinner, I became the husband Kathy wants and the father Erin, Sean, and Stephen need me to be.

—When I stop worrying and simply let my mind wander, it goes on a wild, wonderful journey full of new ideas and specific phrases that I just need to get down on paper before they magically slip away.

—When I stop being jealous and envious of everyone else and work hard and not become concerned about anyone else, I become grateful for everything I already have. I see too that the other side of the fence isn’t so perfect.

—When I’m forgiving of other’s flaws, I’m lucky to find that they’re more forgiving of my too-many-to-count foibles.

—When I’m disciplined, hard-working, trusting, patient, forgiving, brave, committed, cooperative, empathetic, flexible, focused, honest, joyful, hopeful, sincere, reliable, selfless, tough, and thankful, I’m rewarded many times over.

So yes, I have a wonderful education and keen mind, but when it comes right down to it, my best course of action, more often than not, is to follow my heart.  My point: God has a plan for me. I’m certain of it. I just need to get out of the way.

The birth of a blogger

When I was young, I was small for my age and struggled to get my thoughts out. I’d stutter or stammer over the smallest things. Writing, now that was a different story. I could create new worlds or new endings to my favorite books.  I soon learned that I didn’t have to be the biggest kid in the class or the most talkative. I could use my creativity and my writing to get me through class or to make new friends.

Fortunately for me as I grew into my body and matured, my stutter soon disappeared. My love of writing, however, did not, sticking with me through the years.

I write now to communicate and touch my reader, and even more important, figure out exactly what I think about life. I write too to figure out how I feel about the many different hats and roles that I play in my life: husband, father, son, friend, coworker and a million other roles.

My writing tends to have a mind of its own. Since my youth, I’ve always known that I will one day write a book. I have a couple half-written novels and memoirs thrown in the back of a junk drawer. I’ll get around to finishing them one day.

In the meantime, however, I’ve started this blog to give me a chance to get my thoughts out into the blogosphere. Some of my blogs will be short. Others will be lengthier short stories or thought pieces that I’m looking for feedback.

I’m asked a lot by friends over the years to describe my writing. I’ve never really had a good response. I find that no one word or description really fits. In the end, all that matters is that I’m writing and I’m speaking up and letting my voice be heard.

Thank you for reading.