Saturday, September 1, 2012

Health, happiness and heartache

I ran this morning. Under normal circumstances, that’s not worth mentioning, because it’s not that unusual for me. It’s something I do. But this entire summer I’ve been hampered by three successive injuries—a pulled muscle in my calf, a groin injury and, most recently, a stress fracture in the fourth metatarsal in my right foot. Individually and collectively, they have caused a setback in my exercise routine and been a source of great frustration.

But they’ve also been an ever-present reminder about the importance of being healthy—something I think we all need from time to time. We typically don’t realize how fortunate we are to be healthy until that health is taken away from us. I always chuckle to myself whenever I ask an older person how they are doing—which is usually more of a greeting than a true question—and they launch into a list of all that ails them. When you’re ailing, though, it dominates your thoughts and that has a tendency to spill out in conversation. Just ask those people who asked my how I was doing when I was hobbling around on one foot for a couple of months.

There are a few people, though, who aren’t like that. That rare breed who smile through their suffering. They remain upbeat despite being beat up. I’m jealous of those people. I’m not like that. I know one person who is. Christy Barford, a graphic designer in our office. A couple of years ago, Christy started disappearing for extended periods, and it finally leaked out that she had melanoma—skin cancer. Being a redhead with fair skin, that’s perhaps not all that surprising. And melanoma isn’t that big of a deal, right? Go to a dermatologist and get it scraped off, monitor it for a while and, bingo, you’re back running in the mornings. 

Apparently my knowledge of melanoma is frighteningly wrong. We would get updates that she was in the Cleveland Clinic or the Mayo Clinic or undergoing this experimental treatment or that new drug. That she was really tired and in a lot of pain. Yet somehow she was constantly, endlessly—almost annoyingly—cheerful. No one who’s that sick is supposed to be that happy. Especially at work. Yet she was.

One weekend some friends from her church threw a party for her to raise money to help her pay her growing medical bills. It was a huge affair and raised many thousands of dollars. There were more people at the party than I even know. Christy, of course, was there, laughing at the insanity of the whole thing, despite spending the previous week in the hospital in Pittsburgh undergoing some experimental treatment and driving back that afternoon.

Whenever I would see Christy, I would, of course, feel like a piece of dirt because she was going through hell and remained happy, while I was whining incessantly about my poor little pulled muscle.

It seems to me that people like Christy are rare. But they are right. We need to learn from them about health and happiness. But it's going to be a bit harder now. Christy died today. The cancer won. Damn the world.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

As time goes by

I got a new watch for Christmas. Ordinarily, a watch for Christmas isn’t big news unless it’s made by Rolex, Breitling or TAG Heuer. This one isn’t. It’s a Citizen Eco-drive. It’s somewhere between sporty and elegant, has multiple functions and is solar powered. I like that. Not only does it meet my needs, but the solar part satisfies my inner tree hugger.

In the two weeks I’ve been wearing the watch, though, it’s gotten me thinking a lot about time. Not so much the moment at hand, but time in the larger scope. The past. The future. The kind of time that drives you crazy if you start thinking about it.

The whole sordid wrestling match came about when I took off my old watch for the last time and put on my new one. I was suddenly flooded with memories. When I was in college, there was a corner jewelry store halfway between the journalism building and the newspaper where I worked. Every day I would walk past the store and admire this one particular watch that was on display in the window. It was far too expensive for a college student’s budget, but it became embedded in my imagination. When I graduated, relatives and friends sent congratulatory cards my way, many of which included money and instructions to buy something nice. I did. That watch.

Over the next 25-plus years, that watch and I went through a lot together. It was on my wrist when I dove into the ocean for the first time on a scuba trip. It stayed with me when I got bounced out of boat and into the raging river on a whitewater rafting excursion. It outlasted three wristbands and countless batteries. It kept me on time and on schedule. Finally, though, the bezel stopped spinning, the light burned out and the buttons stopped working. The waterproof seal no longer held tight and moisture got inside, leaving a fog on the underside of the crystal. A new watch was needed. It was, well, time.

That wasn’t so hard, though. The difficulty came when I realized that I wore that watch for more than half my life, and that time—if I may rewrite the Rolling Stones song—is no longer on my side. My life is now half over. At least.

It’s not that I haven’t been thinking about time anyway. I have. I have a birthday coming up in a few months. It’s one of those milestone birthdays. To me, birthdays are not that big of a deal. I’m kind of embarrassed by the fuss, and after you’ve had so many of them they have a tendency to just blend in with every other day. Except some. Some birthdays are landmarks, monuments erected to identify the passage of time. This is one of them. I’m turning 50.

I didn’t mind turning 30. Or 40, for that matter. But for some reason 50 is lurking over me like a vulcher.

At Xavier, one of the grizzled old Jesuits created a program: “The Second Fifty: Spirituality in Later-Life Issues,” which seeks to offer meaning, direction and spirit to those in the second half of their lives. That’s about to be me. I’m just not sure I’m ready for it.

With time running through my mind, an article on aging in yesterday's The New York Times naturally caught my eye. It offered advice on aging from those who would know—old people. Really old people. People in their 90s. “Embrace it,” they said. “Don’t fight it. Growing older is both an attitude and a process. Don’t waste your time worrying about getting old.”

That’s good advice. And it got me thinking again. It seems to me there’s a difference between getting older and getting old. The first is inevitable; the second isn’t. Even though I’ll soon be eligible for senior discounts at Perkins and mail from AARP will soon be filling my mailbox, that doesn’t mean I have to start mall walking or drive some great wheeled barge with my left blinker on. Yes, I may now be the oldest one at the gym, but that doesn’t mean I should quit and take up shuffleboard.

Screw it. I’ve done too much to regret my past and have too many things I still want to do to not look forward to my future. My new watch tells me I’ve spent too much time worrying about time. Onward, I say, to the second 50.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011


My mom grew up in Ocean City, N.J., a little town built on an island that stretches about six miles or so along the southern Jersey shore. Tourists flock to the town in the summer, drawn in by its sandy beaches, salty breezes and old-fashioned boardwalk. To Mom, though, it has always been more than that. It’s where hurricanes were weathered and school was attended and dates were made. The ocean was her pool. The breeze was her air conditioning. The boardwalk was her backyard. While others saw it as a vacation destination, to her it has always been someplace much more special. To her, it’s always been home.

My entire life I’ve heard stories about Ocean City. About how it was quaint and safe and something out of a Norman Rockwell painting. About how it was the home of Gay Talese before he became a famous writer and the summer home of Grace Kelley before she became a movie star and a princess. About how it was the greatest place in the world to grow up.

I always wanted to visit Ocean City, and last week I did. The circumstance that brought about the trip wasn’t a happy one—Mom’s brother, Frank, died, and we went there to bury him. It was only the third time Mom had been back since coming to Ohio in the 1950s to find work and raise her family. Still, even the sadness of the situation couldn’t overcome the joy she felt about being there. About being home.


What is “home”? That’s a question that’s often puzzled me. My wife is from Texas and has a shirt with a picture of the state flag on it and the word “Home.” I don’t share that same sense of home as my mom or Beth. I was born in Dayton and raised in various places around Cincinnati, and I feel no great connection to either. Yes, I eventually returned and settled here after living in a handful of other towns, but not because of any great fondness for the area. I don’t like the politics. There’s no great natural beauty to be awed by. I certainly didn’t come back for the weather. The pride they feel about the place they call home just isn’t there for me. Perhaps it’s because my youth was more transient than Mom’s or Beth’s. We moved around a lot, and I guess I never really established any roots. Not strong ones anyway.

But I think home is more than that. It seems to me that home isn’t just a place. It isn’t a zip code or address or four walls. It’s something more abstract than that. More philosophical or metaphysical or transcendental. It’s a state of mind. It’s an emotion. Is it where the heart is, to steal a cliché? Perhaps. It’s certainly where Mom’s heart is anyway.

“Do you like my little town?” she asked several times during the trip. Most of the time she’d have to clarify that statement, though, with, “Although my little town isn’t so little anymore.”

Today Ocean City has become the refuge for bigwigs from Atlantic City, whose neon-lit casinos and hotels sit just 12 miles up the coast and now pierce the horizon. Real estate prices have skyrocketed. Condos have sprung up on what was once swampland. The old drawbridge is slowly being replaced by a new modern bridge that soars high over the water so boats can simply sail underneath. Life, it seems, has invaded my mom’s utopia. But to her it’s still home.


Mom doesn’t walk very well anymore. Parkinson’s Disease and two artificial hips are robbing her of her once graceful gait. Feet now drag. Muscles now tighten. What were once easy walks are now feats of labor. None of that mattered, though, as we made our way around town. The trip home gave her the one thing life took away—her youth.

One day we sat on a bench on the boardwalk and watched as lovers strolled by and people milled about in the odd collection of stores. The air was filled with the sound of waves crashing and seagulls squawking as they dive-bombed people with food. “I still hear those seagulls in my sleep,” she said. Even though she was surrounded by the present, all she saw was the past. She was 10 years old all over again.

“There’s the movie theater,” she said. “My brother Bill was a lifeguard during the summers, I had to bring him his lunch every day. He wanted milk with his lunch and it had to be cold, so I’d ride my bike up here, give him his lunch and then go into the movie theater. I’d pay my quarter, sit in the first row of the balcony and watch a movie. Sometimes I stayed for all three shows. Then I’d jump on my bike and pedal as fast as I could. The only rule I had was I had to be home by 6:00 for dinner.”

The tide slowly rose and the sun slowly set, gracefully filling the sky with pinks and purples and oranges. “Feel that breeze?” she said. “We always slept with the windows open. It was good sleeping.”

I asked her if you ever get used to it, if the tranquility eventually becomes the backdrop of everyday life and loses some of its charm. She nods yes. But not today.


We drove past the homes where she once lived—a duplex, a second-floor apartment next to the fire house, a little Cape Cod her parents built when she was in high school. When we drove by the house, there was a dumpster out front and construction tools all around. The couple her mom eventually sold the house to died and their daughter now owned it. She was remodeling it. “Would you mind if I looked inside,” Mom asked. The owner was thrilled to invite us in.

“This was the kitchen,” Mom said. “Over here was the living room. I came home from nursing school one day and there was a TV sitting over in the corner. Nobody told me we got one. We were one of the first people on the block to get one.”

Her dad—my grandfather—was from Philadelphia and decided he wanted to live in Ocean City and moved there shortly after getting married. He got a job in a furniture store and worked there his entire life, providing for the family and getting bargains on new items like TVs. My mom came late in his life—10 years after her brother Bill and 11 years after Frank—and as she grew his health declined. He was determined to live long enough to see his little girl graduate from nursing school, though, and he did. She graduated at the end of November; he died in early January. That's one of my favorite Mom stories.


Mom’s 77 years old now, a lioness in winter. The physical requirements and financial resources for making trips like this are fading, and this was probably her last trip home. She never said anything, but as we drove across the old drawbridge for the final time, I think that reality set in. She just stared out the window, looking back as the buildings got smaller and smaller. When they finally disappeared, she simply gave a little wave and let out a sigh. “So long little town.”

Saturday, May 14, 2011


Today was Commencement day at Xavier. I’ve always liked Xavier’s Commencements. As an employee, we’re asked to volunteer for some of the myriad events that take place on campus, and I’ve always preferred giving my time to the annual graduation ceremony. There’s a buzz to the event, an excitement that overwhelms you and lifts you up right along with it.

It’s hard to describe unless you’re in the middle of it. Watching the event from the stands as most people do, the students are too distant and hidden beneath their caps and gowns to capture the true emotion of the moment. Their smiles don’t glow as brightly. Their joy doesn’t radiate from their eyes. You can’t here their shouts of jubilation and their sighs of relief.

I’ve often thought that if anyone needed motivation or a reason to go to college, all you had to do was take them to a Commencement and let them stand there as the procession of students walked into the arena. Let them experience the emotion and feel the sense of accomplishment. Every student has a different story, but they all share the same goal and that goal is being realized at that very moment. There’s nothing more powerful, nothing more motivational.

In the years I’ve worked Commencement, I’ve had a number of jobs. A couple of times I guarded the exit so students would stay for the remainder of the ceremony and not sneak out once they had their diploma in hand. One year I was at the end of a long hallway, directing people to turn to their left even though they had no other choice. One year I was stationed next to the stage, reminding each person—particularly the women with their long gowns and high heels—to watch their step as they walked down a small flight of stairs.

Today, though, was different. My job today wasn’t to be exit guard or traffic cop or handrail. My job was to be proud husband.

Beth never finished college. A lack of money and a job as an entertainer on a cruise ship lured her away. I always encouraged her to go back, but she always shook off the suggestion. I didn’t push it. Then, one day, out of the blue, she said she wanted to go back. It was her decision, just as it should be, but I was elated. We both knew it was going to be a big commitment and require a lot of work.

At the beginning of each class, the task always seemed too daunting and the work too hard. Nights were spent struggling with homework; weekends were spent in class. But, sure enough, at the end of each semester the call always came: “Guess what? I got an A.”

When she went to buy her Commencement gown, she was told she was graduating with honors. She didn’t know. She called to tell me as she was walking back to her car and you could hear her choking back the tears of joy as she spoke.

Sitting in the arena, watching as they called her name and she walked across the stage, I got a totally different perspective on Commencement. It seems to me that being behind the scenes and seeing the emotion on the faces of the graduating students is great, but it doesn’t compare to watching a loved one achieve such a major goal.

This Commencement, I’ve decided, is my all-time favorite. And of all the Commencements I’ve been a part of, being a proud husband was the best job I ever had. And, if you’ll pardon my boasting, I did my job well.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

The New World

Diandra Leslie-Pelecky is a professor of physics at the University of Texas-Dallas. Along with her husband and fellow physicist, Robert Hilborn, they wrote a book called “The Physics of Nascar” in which they break down many of the elements that are at the heart of the sport, like aerodynamics, tire compounds and structural steel. Almost every decision made in the sport, they say, is made for one of two reasons—speed or safety. I was reminded recently of one particular part of the book:

“A race car going 180 mph has 16 times the motion energy of the same car going 45 mph,” they wrote. “If you used the motion energy of a racecar at 180 mph to shoot a 150-pound person from a cannon, that person would travel almost five miles straight up.”

The reason I thought of this passage was because of what happened 10 years ago this weekend: Dale Earnhardt Sr. was killed on the last lap of the Daytona 500.

Michael Waltrip, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Dale Sr. led a pack of cars around the two-and-a-half-mile track at 190 mph. What was interesting to me was that even though he continued to drive for Richard Childress Racing, he started his own race team, Dale Earnhardt Inc., and the two cars that were in front of him—the ones driven by Waltrip and Dale Jr.—were his.

“He can’t lose,” I remember thinking. “He’s going to take the first three spots—two as an owner and one as a driver.”

When it became evident that the car he was driving couldn’t catch the cars he built, he went into owner’s mode—and father mode, in the case of Dale Jr.—and decided to do what he could to protect their lead. He tried to block the cars behind him and, instead, got clipped and turned. Suddenly, the 190 mph of motion energy he had pointed down the track was now pointed straight into a concrete wall.


I had to be somewhere as soon as the race ended, so I turned off the TV and ran out the door right after Waltrip took the checkered flag. The last thing I heard was Darrell Waltrip, who was broadcasting the race, say, “I just hope Dale’s OK. He’s all right, isn’t he?”

The words echoed in my mind the entire time I was gone, and as soon as I got home I flipped on the computer to get an update. That’s when I saw the headlines: “Earnhardt killed in crash at Daytona.” I remember the moment in much the same way I remember the Space Shuttle disasters or Sept. 11. I knew it was a world-changing event, although the world that this tragedy was going to impact was considerably smaller than the others. The change would be more limited to the insular worlds of auto racing in general, Nascar in particular and me in specific.

I was never really a Dale Earnhardt fan. There are two kinds of athletes in the world, I think: those with character and those with attitude. I prefer those with character. Earnhardt was all attitude. At least on the track. He would just as soon wreck you as race you. For a large portion of the Nascar audience, that’s what made him a hero. “He drove how I feel,” one fan was quoted as saying this week.

But I knew the impact Earnhardt being killed would have. Earnhardt was more than just a skillful and crazed driver. He was the bridge between what the sport was and what it was becoming. He spanned the gap between the old and the new. Between Junior Johnson and Jimmie Johnson. Between Winston cigarettes and Sprint cell phones. Between GM Goodwrench, which sponsored his car, and AARP, which now sponsors Jeff Gordon’s car.

When Earnhardt died, so did what was left of the old Nascar.


Last year Elliott Sadler had a similar crash at Pocono Raceway—180 mph headfirst into a barrier. The crash was so violent it ripped the engine from the car. Sadler, however, walked away—bruised and dazed, but alive.

The reason Sadler survived was because Earnhardt didn’t. After Earnhardt’s death, Nascar redesigned the cars to make them safer, started using SAFER (Steel And Foam Energy Reduction) barriers—“soft” walls around the tracks that absorb the impact of an accident—and mandated the use of the HANS (Head And Neck Support) Device, a brilliant piece of equipment that keeps the head from snapping. Interestingly, Earnhardt—and all the drivers—were given the option to wear one, and almost all declined.

Earnhardt’s autopsy revealed myriad injuries—eight broken ribs, a broken left ankle, fractured breast bone. But what killed him was a ring fracture at the base of the skull where the skull rests on the upper portion of the spine. Its breaking is caused by the violent whip-like motion of the head, which is exactly what the HANS Device is designed to prevent.

What happened 10 years ago is a sad but unfortunately all too common occurrence—that it takes a tragedy to force us to do what’s best, what’s smart. It took Dale Earnhardt’s death to change Nascar. Auto racing is still a dangerous and sometimes deadly sport. But it’s safer. Better. There’s a greater chance that drivers will live to race another day. Drivers like Elliott Sadler. And even though Earnhardt and the old Nascar are forever gone, it seems to me that in the end, the world's left in a better place. At least the insular worlds of auto racing in general, Nascar in particular and me in specific. And that's a good thing.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

The Wisdom of Snoopy

I have a cartoon I clipped out and pasted in my journal. Charlie Brown and Peppermint Patty are sitting underneath a tree discussing the meaning of life when Snoopy strolls into the frame. “Snoopy, what do you think the secret of living is?” Peppermint Patty asks. Without saying a word, Snoopy walks up and kisses her on the nose.


I love Snoopy. Always have. Some people are all about Disney and Mickey Mouse. Not me. I’m all about Snoopy. The dog is smart and imaginative and witty. He takes on the Red Baron while wearing goggles and flying a dog house. He plays hockey while wearing a knit hat and no skates. He imagines himself a writer. Mostly, though, what I love about Snoopy is that he’s funny. If he’s in the cartoon, chances are I’m going to laugh.

We have a dog like that. Dusty, so named because he looks, well, dusty. He has a second name, as well, his Native American name: Dog Who Runs in Circles. He earned that name because when you say the word “walk,” his floppy ears perk up, his head tilts to one side and then, after about two seconds, a switch flips. His eyes get wide, his tail starts wagging a million miles per hour and he starts running around in circles. All the way down the hall and all the way to the door. Cracks me up.

We used to have a cat who made me break into a smile every time I saw her. Annie, so named because she was a little orphan. Whenever I would sit in the chair with my feet up and this one particular blanket over me, she would stop whatever she was doing and come running, jump up on my lap and make herself at home. She would work herself into the crack between my legs, turning the blanket into a hammock. Unfortunately, Annie died a few years ago and I buried her out back near the shed, wrapped up in that favorite blanket. I cried like a baby the entire time I dug the grave.

We have a new cat now. A couple of months ago when my wife came home for lunch, she got out of her car and heard a meow. She looked around and a cat came running up to her like they were old pals. When Beth walked onto the screened-in porch, the cat followed. When she walked into the house, in came the cat—never minding that Dusty was so excited he was running in circles. It was too cold to send the cat back outside, so we kept it while we searched for an owner. We took it to the vet to see if it had a microchip in its shoulder. Nope. We looked for “Lost Cat” signs that are prominent around here whenever a pet goes missing. Nothing. I walked around the area knocking on doors and asking strangers if they lost a cat or knew who the owner might be. “Oh, it tried to run inside our house, too,” was the only response I got.

After three weeks, we gave her a name: Zia, so named because, well, Beth likes that name. Then we took her to the vet to be fixed only to find out that—oops—Zia was a he-a not a she-a. So we renamed him Zeke. I call him Z.

Last night I was sitting in my chair reading a book when Z came bounding down the stairs, jumped up on my lap and settled in. He sat down, put his head on my chest and started purring. I put the book down and just took it all in. I’m not sure who was happier, me or Z.

Funny thing about pets: They steal your heart without even trying. And, you know, it seems to me that we could learn a thing or two from our pets. They don’t try to be something they’re not. They don’t go behind your back or have a bad hair day or hate you because you have different political beliefs. They love you because, quite simply, you’re you. Imagine if we all behaved like that.

Yes, there’s a lot of crap that happens in life that makes it messy, but, really, is there anything else that genuinely matters? No, I would say. Love is what life's all about. Love is why we are here. Love is the secret of living. Snoopy got it right.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

The Oldest Generation

I went to a funeral today. A good friend of mine, Doug, buried his father. His name was Paul. Paul battled cancer for four years before it finally won. He reminded me in many ways of my own dad. They battled the same kind of cancer and they both never met a stranger. It would take my dad an hour and a half to walk his dog around the block because he would always stop and strike up a conversation with a stranger. Or two.

Paul was the same way. Although I didn’t know him that long or that well, it was easy to see that there were three things he loved: Racing, beer and people. When we went to a Nascar race, Paul would disappear for hours at a time. He’d eventually return and tell us about the people he just met and it would sound like he was talking about a long-lost friends.

I didn’t inherit that gene. Sometimes I wish I had.

During the homily, the priest kept reminding us that Paul was with God now, and I must plead guilty to missing part of the Mass because I was daydreaming about what that initial meeting must have been like.

God: Welcome to heaven, Paul.

Paul: Thanks for letting me in.

God: I didn’t let you in, Paul. You let yourself in. Your faith was the key. Plus, you did well. Good family. Honest, hard-working life. This is your reward. Make yourself at home—after all, this is your new home. Any questions?

Paul: Just a couple. Where’s the beer?

God: We keep a cooler on Cloud 9.

Paul: And what time’s the race start?

God: The race?

Paul: Sure. With all the great drivers who’ve died over the years, there must be a race up here somewhere. You know. Mark Donahue, Alan Kulwicki, Dale Earnhardt.

God: Earnhardt?

There in the casket Paul had two things with him: a picture of his dog and his Greg Biffle hat. My dad wanted to wear his Ohio State shirt. We are what we wear, I suppose, but that’s another thought for another time.

Mostly what’s been haunting me since the funeral—and since my own dad’s death a year and a half ago, really—is that my friend Doug and I now share another thing in common: we are now the oldest generation. That’s one of the funny things about life: it keeps turning over. Kind of like a Slinky on an escalator. The old pass on and the young become the old. Generation after generation.

For the most part, we have 40, 50, maybe 60 years if we’re lucky in which we have an older, more experienced voice of wisdom and reason we can turn to for help or advice. Whether we do or not is a separate matter. There are family dynamics that come into play. There’s the fierce belief in independence that dominates society today. There are logistical issues and societal issues. But if nothing else, there’s at least a sense of security in knowing there’s someone there. Someone older.

I’m not sure I’m ready to be the oldest generation. To be the one who people look to for advice and wisdom. I don’t really feel that old, and I’m not really sure I’m qualified. But that’s another funny thing about life: it doesn’t care. It seems to me that you are who life says you are, and when it says you are. Ready or not.