Monday, March 29, 2010

The Last to Be First

Baseball season is around the corner and "hope springs eternal" (even for Cub fans).

We will spend many nights at the park, looking out at number 42, never to be worn again.

42 belongs to Jackie Robinson, the Dodger great who's number was retired by all professional baseball teams (majors and minors) a few years ago. Robinson broke baseball's color barrier in 1947 as major league's first black player. Before Jackie greats like Josh Gibson and Satchel Paige tolied in the relative obscurity of the Negro leagues.

I have a challenge for you. As you read this, think of five people you can ask the question, "Who is Larry Doby?"

I would be surprised if one person knew the answer. Do you?

Larry Doby was the second black player in the majors after Jackie Robinson. Coincidently, he was also the second black manager (after Frank Robinson) of a forgetable White Sox team in the late 70's.

Larry Doby signed and played for the Cleveland Indians eleven weeks after Jackie Robinson broke in with the Dodgers. He led the Indians to their last world championship in 1948, played in nine all-star games and, like Robinson, is a member of the Hall of Fame.

So Jackie Robinson "paved the way" a couple of months for Larry Doby. Was life in "the show" any easier for Doby than Robinson? Hardly. But nobody remembers Larry Doby.

How about Kathryn Bigelow, the first woman to win an Oscar for Best Director. Who will be the Oscar's Larry Doby?

I'm not a fan of "firsts;" first black player, first woman director, etc. In J school I had an editor who hated "first" stories because they neglected everyone who came before them. Amen.

Not to take away from the achievement, or the significance. But too often we skip the first steps on the ladder.

For example, I was moved to tears in 1988 when Jesse Jackson gave his remarkable speech at the Democratic National Convention. "My right and my privilege to stand here before you has been won," he said. "Won in my lifetime, by the blood and the sweat of the innocent."

Jackson got it. So many had come before him, many forgotten until he spoke of the "common thread" which unites us all.

It's too bad we can't run an "honor roll" with the next "first" story of everyone who built the mountain the subject stands on. In that sense, the first is in fact last.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Pleased To Make Your Friendship

The phone rang at 9:00pm on Friday night. One of my oldest friends, calling to ask whether I can meet him on the South Side of Chicago at 8am Saturday to help load boxes for Haiti relief.

Of course, I said, where do you need me?

My wife marveled at the fact that I responded immediately, and happily corralled the kids into the van for a rainy trek south.

My friends and I, it's how we roll.

I learned long ago that the most valuable treasure we have is friendship.

I have a many, many acquaintances, but a handful of dear friends. In fact, I joined Facebook a few months ago and never realized just how popular I am, with a daily dose of new "friends."

They are acquaintances, of course, not friends.

But nothing to scoff at. Acquaintances serve a purpose. They are there for us at various points in our lives, we visit, spend time together, but they don't see me the way my friends do.

I was touched hearing Sportswriter Frank Deford tell a story recently about Boston Celtics legend Bill Russell. Deford and Russell spent a good deal of time together through the years as Deford covered both Russell and the Celtics. One afternoon they were riding together on a highway when Deford said (I'm paraphrasing), "You know Bill, I really appreciate your friendship through the years."

"We are acquaintances, not friends" Russell said. "Friendship requires a tremendous amount of work, and I just don't have the time to invest in another friendship. I do value your acquaintance, however."

He's right, of course. Most of us go through life without bothering to make the distinction, and their acquaintance seems to bring both satisfaction.

But they aren't friends.

My sixth grade daughter expressed concern recently about her number of friends. It's about quality, my dear, not quantity.

I have a handful of friends. Most go back over 30 years. They are my brothers and I would do anything for them.

They see every side of me, especially the raw, vulnerable side I try so hard to keep from everyone else. Lord I am not perfect, but they see me for who I am, and I see them for who they are.

We've been through a lot together. Marriage, divorce, kids, vices, job advances, jobs lost. We are older now, heavier and a bit grayer. But we still laugh like kids when we're together.

My children think it's funny that I have known them for so long. I hope they have the gift of true, loving friends throughout their lives.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Forget Hoops, Give Me Some Wraslin!

As I write this there are about 15 hours or so to complete your "March Madness" bracket.

Offices are sure to empty over the next couple of afternoons as a testosterone charged migration begins to local watering holes. Suddenly we are interested in schools such as Oakland (Michigan, not California), Wofford (South Carolina) and "directional schools" - Eastern, Western, Southestern (insert state name) that serve as preseason sparing partners for teams in the Big Ten, ACC, Big East etc.

A recent article cited the next two days as the most popular time to get a vasectomy, with many practices offering discounts for those who book ahead. Anything for a couple days on the couch, I guess.

64 teams to start, 16 teams by Sunday. Best of one, with upsets galore. Madness.

But I would rather be in Omaha this weekend catching some wrestling. Not the WWF nonsense, but the amateur, freestyle variety.

Omaha is the site of the NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships.

I wrestled in high school and through the years have become a big fan of college wrestling, particularly Northwestern. I watch and go to dozens of meets. Northwestern is a program on the rise, with three recent individual champions and a 4th place team finish in 2008. NU alum Jake Herbert is likely to make the Olympic team in 2012.

I love wrestling because it features constant movement by some of the best conditioned athletes in the world. If you have ever tried boxing, kick or otherwise, you understand the endurance needed to last seven minutes on the mat. It's grueling.

On the mat you're alone, working through a series of moves and counter moves. Coaches wave their arms, contort their bodies and yell during a match, but it really doesn't matter. Take your arm, leg or head out of position and it's over. Fin. Nyet. Wrestling is a sport for thinkers. Fast thinkers.

So who will win this year? No mystery here. Unlike basketball, where dozens of teams have a shot, wrestling is dominated by the Iowa Hawkeyes, who are competing for their 23rd national championship. A couple of teams will challenge (Oklahoma State, Iowa State) but rooting for Iowa is like rooting for the Yankees, or Microsoft. The only Iowa intrigue is last year they won the team title without an individual champion. At a minimum Jay Borshel and Brett Metcalfe should take first this year.

And for the record, I have Ohio State, Kentucky, Duke and Kansas State as my Final Four picks.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Lent, Coffee and Spirituality

So we are about half way through Lent, the 40 day period leading up to Easter and the holiest period for Christians.

I'm in the club. Raised Catholic, attended Catholic grade school and now raising my three (soon to be four) children in the church.

I'm observant, attending mass weekly in addition to teaching Sunday school (fifth graders) for over ten years. I love fifth graders because they are "young adults" and on the verge of so much, including deciding for themselves whether to attend mass. All I can do is help strengthen the roots and branches, along with their parents.

It's not easy rounding everyone up for two hours of church and school on Sunday. My son Thomas used to say "How many more songs?"

Two stories regarding religion and kids:

Years ago I was in the habit of letting one of my kids place the collection envelope in the basket. It became a big deal because I based it on who was behaving well. One Sunday I forgot the check but had an extra envelope, which I sealed and gave to Thomas, age 7. We were in the second row, and as the usher came towards the front with the basket my son held up the envelope, saw that it was empty, stood up (my wife and daughter were between us) and exclaimed, "Dad, there's no money in here." It was on that day that I started to give online.

Another time I was walking in downtown Chicago with Nora and Thomas, then age 8, when we passed a panhandler. He asked for money and I politely said, "Sorry not today." Later when we stopped for lunch Nora asked why I didn't give him money and I explained that we donate money to organizations which provide food and shelter to those in need, and that we are told in the bible to help the poor.

Boy was I proud. We got home and Nora began explaining to my wife about the man on the sidewalk. With a big smile on my face I asked Nora to explain to Tania why we didn't give the man money and she said, with true conviction, "WE DON'T GIVE MONEY TO THOSE PEOPLE!"

Can I get a witness?

I've always tried to be a moral compass for my children, and one of the highest compliments I received was from a friend who said I "blend spirituality and religion in a way few others do." Early on with them I focused on two things: 1) We are all God's children and 2) The golden rule.

I remind my kids (and students) that Lent is about giving and observing as much as sacrifice. For several years now I have given up coffee for Lent. I am not a happy camper for the first couple of days, but as I say to my kids, going without my morning jolt is nothing compared to Jesus dying for our sins. I also try to attend daily mass more often and read daily meditations. Most years I have to get past kids wanting to give up broccoli or school. Some things never change.

The God I pray to loves everyone. In terms of my Catholic faith I am moved by Gary Wills and his book "Why I am a Catholic." The Creed is the essence of my faith.

Religion is a personal experience, one that ebbs and flows. Right now I am in a good place spiritually and feeling great about my life and all of the blessings it brings. I love my work, advising people who are rich by any definition. Yet I am truly a wealthy man.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

I'm Sorry...Really?

Are you tired of public apologies? Are you sick of seeing famous people with seemingly perfect lives screw up, blubber about it on camera and wonder what possessed them to behave that way in the first place? John Edwards, Mark Sanford, Ted Haggard. Enough already!

And Tiger, I get that you messed up, but it seems to me the only people you owe an apology are your wife and family, friends and maybe Nike shareholders.

Save the rest of it for another time. Take away TMZ and The National Enquirer and Tiger would still be crushing the PGA like walnuts. In other words, he didn't seem to be apologizing for his behavior as much as for getting caught.

Some apologies, however, I would like to hear.

Which brings me to Derrick Rose. I was at a Bulls game the other night entertaining (this year some would say subjecting)guests when I looked around at a number of Bulls jerseys with Derrick Rose's number 1 on the back.

My son Thomas received the same Rose jersey from one of his running buddies for his 11th birthday. He was excited and wore it for a few days until the story broke about Derrick Rose having someone else take his SAT exam to get into Memphis. I sat down with Thomas a couple of weeks later and let him know that he was not to wear the jersey any more for two reasons:

1) His mistake would likely cost students, alumni and fans of the school any games he played in. Rose was "one and done" to the NBA after only one season, and subsequently Memphis was forced to forfeit their entire season which ended in the Final Four.

As an aside, Memphis was also forced to vacate their only other Final Four appearance in the mid '80s. I am planning a reality show featuring players from schools forced to forfeit games and seasons due to misbehavior. A cast of thousands, as they say.

2) He has yet to apologize for his mistake.

We all make mistakes, I said, but without contrition his bad example is made worse. So I asked for the shirt, which we gave to goodwill, and offered to buy him a new one. He chose a Bulls shirt without a players name.

Teachable moment accomplished. I was proud of his reaction. He really had none, just looked at me as if to say "Yeah Dad, that makes sense." I reminded him that character is the way you behave when nobody is watching you.

I have never met Derrick Rose. Seems like a nice guy. Brilliant basketball player. He's young and has the talent to be an All Star for years to come. It's also apparent he had no interest in going to college, forced to do so by the ridiculous requirement that you must be 19 to play in the NBA. Have they set a maximum age yet?

Seems like a nice guy. That's the point and where, like Tiger's Nike ad, "I am Tiger Woods." We all craft an public image. Some people are active in social causes, or at least offer opinions once in a while. Some aren't. Tiger Woods is no Muhammad Ali. Or Jim Brown. He plays golf. Like nobody before or since.

Tiger plays golf, but that's really all he does. I have never heard him speak about infidelity or much of anything else, so he is no hypocrite. Flawed? Oh yeah. Hypocrite? Nah. Hello Mark Foley. A friend of mine said at one point, "Tiger's father must be so disappointed." Really? How would I know? How would anyone know?

As a kid one of my heroes was Cardinals great Lou Brock. I went to a game at Wrigley Field when I was 12 with a homemade sign congratulating him on his 3000th hit. Later I sent him a letter requesting an autograph. He (his peeps) sent a form letter saying I needed to send $20 for it. My Dad said to remember the moment, what he does on the field.

Teachable moment accomplished.

Later I remember meeting Artis Gilmore, "the A train," at a Bulls game. No autographs, just a handshake and smile. Much more meaningful.

So to me heroes are like politics. If all politics are local, let's keep the heroes local. Parents, teachers, friends and family. Those we know, or at least think we know.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Pinch me - Bears got it right?

I am sitting in my office on a sunny Friday and just saw a headline that the Bears signed Julius Peppers and a stud tight end who played with Love and Mike Martz on the Rams.

This offseason has been particularly bad for diehards like me. Not only do we have to think about another mediocre season of 7-9 but the Bears have no draft choices to speak of next month. Thank you Jay Cutler.

And every time I turned around another coach turned down the chance to coach with lame duck Lovie, or as I heard on the radio recently "Lovie Del Negro." Stiffed more times than a clueless waiter.

I saw the headline, but don't want to look. The Bears could actually come out of this in good shape. I know, I know they need O-line help and a receiver, but this is big.

All of the talk this winter has been about the Hawks, rightfully so, although something tells me a letdown is coming. Hockey being the one sport where top seeds do get upset in the first round and the goalie position is anything but settled.

I digress. I love the Bears, and Chicago is a Bears town. Always has been. There is a whiff of optimism this afternoon which is exciting. Now if we could just find some blockers.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Vacation..or a trip?

I recently returned from our annual family pilgrimage to a waterpark in Sheboygan, WI. We have been going for five years now, always in the dead of winter. Great trip. But not a vacation.

The difference? A vacation is when my wife and I get away. A trip is when the kids are along, we have a great time but I am (more?) worn out when I return.

The park is a lot of fun and combines two of my favorite things, family and water. Too cold for a bass boat which would be the trifecta. The plan is simple. Pack a swimsuit, sweats and flip flops. Park the car in the lot for three days and wander around the resort.

I have two observations every year outside of the fun we have as a family:

1) Obesity is a serious problem and 2) A lot of people just aren't very happy, and it shows.

Maybe it's the environment. The resort has everything - we are captive and sometimes I think of the waterpark as a cage. "Come see the wolly midwestern whales." To those who say "I'm not ashamed of my body." You should be. Your kids get to watch a walking heart attack.

But it's not just the blubber that bothers me but the unhappiness. And it's not that people are overtly anxious, fighting or crying. It's just a sense from looking in their eyes that somehow, at this time and this age, life is not what they imagined.

I see the same thing when I take my kids to the park. I always observe someone not engaged, detached, unhappy. I can tell. I have had those moments. Yet somehow theirs seems more permanent, where I have usually seen mine as transitional. I have experienced plenty of pain, and maybe that's the key. Most of the folks I see are just there, unavailable to others and detached from the pain. But it's there.

And it saddens me because life brings me such joy. When I choose to embrace it.