Monthly Archives: October 2011

Morning Paper

The older I get the earlier I awake. If the trend continues, I ‘m concerned I might be rising at 4:00 a.m., eating supper by 3:00 p.m. and hitting the hay at 8:00. The jokes about senior citizens early bird dinner specials starting at mid-afternoon taking on a different, more practical meaning to me.

“You know,” I say to my wife, Yolanda, “and I’m not saying we’ll ever do this, but eating early kinda makes sense if you’re startin’ the day before dawn. I mean, think about the pioneers, Ben Franklin, early to bed, early to rise…all that jazz.”

“Iy, vato,” she says, slipping into Spanish when aggravated, “you’re staying awake with me until 10 to watch the news.  I’m not ready to live with an old man.”

Often, around 9:30, I’ll nudge her awake, both of us asleep on the couch and we’ll stumble upstairs to bed. With the hard-earned judgment of a man married for over twenty years, I make no comment about living with an “old woman.”

As was so often the case, Ben Franklin was correct regarding the pluses to rising early. I can write, check email, and take a soul-centering run through my silent, slumbering small town. It also allows time to read the morning paper while drinking a couple of cups of steaming coffee, two practices which Ben would approve. The solitary act of reading the newspaper gives me the chance to consider the news of the day at my pace with no hyperactive news anchors, flashing “ALERTS,” or gold commercials touting the end of the world. (Apparently a lock box filled with precious metal will, according to G. Gordon Liddy, make economic Armageddon more palatable since those of us with gold will yield a profit.)

A newspaper contains none of these distractions. We are in control of the process, interacting with a newspaper in ways we do not with other media. We read what we choose, lingering over an article or ad that catches our attention, scanning past those that do not.  We separate the thin pages with our fingertips, smell the “fresh off the press” scent, hear the snap, crackle, pop as we crisply fold it to the shape we desire.

Of course, not everyone has time to read the paper in the morning or has delivery available. When I lived in downtown Chicago and rode the El to work I purchased the Chicago Sun-Times at a newspaper stand. I chose the Sun-Times not because I thought it was a better paper than the Tribune, but for its tabloid design which made it easier to read on a crowded train. When Yolanda and I lived in Dallas and drove to work, dropping the kids off at daycare along the way, there was no time to read the Dallas Morning News.  Busy with two toddlers up to bed time, we never woke up any earlier than necessary. So I’d read the paper on my lunch break as I munched on a sandwich.

Newspaper readers also have the choice to prioritize sections per individual tastes. Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren famously said: “I always turn to the sports page first, which records people’s accomplishments. The front page has nothing but man’s failures.”

As a sports fan, and a person who grows weary of what seems to be an increasingly dysfunctional world, I enjoy the sports page as well. The Champaign-Urbana based News-Gazette, our daily, has one of the best. But I save sports for last. First, because for me, like Earl Warren, it is the most entertaining and satisfying section so I savor it like dessert. Second, and more practically, Yolanda and I share a love of the morning paper. Since I rise about an hour before her, there is usually no conflict. But to preserve early morning peace I read the hard news, editorial and local sections before she comes downstairs. These are Yolanda’s favorites and she pours over them like she’s preparing for the bar exam, mumbling in Spanish when, you guessed it, she disagrees with a point of view offered in a column or editorial.

The other section I make sure to look through is the obituaries. Some may think this macabre, but for me the obits are similar to the sport section because they highlight an individual’s accomplishments. Even more so, they provide insight into the deceased’s life by recording lineage, loves, and passions. This is particularly interesting when the individual has lived a long and productive life. The list of parents, spouse, children and siblings go on for paragraphs followed by the place of birth and a recounting of a life from childhood to death. Even in the tragedy of a life cut short, there is always a paragraph or two about the individual’s love of family, friends, music, reading, model trains, doll houses, school or any number of passions. You certainly will never learn such personal things by listening to brief obits on the local radio station.

No, it is only the newspaper which gives us the breadth and depth of coverage we need to digest local, national and international events. From coverage of local bake sales to the machinations of an international economy, from high school softball scores to the Olympics, from the death of a fellow you knew as Frederick, but his friends called “Spud,” the newspaper covers it all.

Most importantly, for an “old man” like me, I don’t have to stay up until 10:00 p.m. to learn about it all.

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Filed under 21st Century America, Family, Newspaper, October 2011, Running, Small town America, Sports page

Seeing Cardinal Red

Bo Schembechler, the legendary football coach at Michigan, had just died when I had the following exchange with a close friend.

“Well,” I said, “maybe you can bury the hatchet with Michigan, now.”

“Louie,” he said, using my high school nickname, a signal as to the gravity of his pronouncement, like your parents calling you by your first and middle name, “you should know by now there is no possible scenario in which I will ever root for Michigan.”

“You gotta let things go, man,” I countered, a classic case of the pot calling the kettle black as you will soon learn. “I realize the history with Schembechler, but you tellin’ me you’re not going to root for Michigan if they’re the Big Ten rep in the Rose Bowl and we’ve got a chance to beat one of those arrogant West coast teams?”

“I will never root for Michigan,” he said, blood running hot, a man prepared to fight a war he cannot win, to hell with the consequences or logic.

That exchange pops into my mind with the St. Louis Cardinals facing the Texas Rangers in this year’s World Series. Within the realm of baseball, more than other professional sports, you tend to have National League fans and American League fans. The league within which your team resides often becomes the one you root for in the All-Star game and the World Series.

As many of you know, due to the crap shoot that is genetics and environmental influence, I am a Chicago Cub fan.  My grandmother, Alta Pemberton, her son and my father, Jim, bear responsibility for this affliction.  The tinged lineage traced to when Grandma was 8 and the Cubs won the World Series. That was in 1908, for those of you unfamiliar with the Cub’s sordid history. The woman lived to be 97 and never saw them win again.  A Cub addict, she sought company in her misery as she lured my father when he was a boy, then me, into the destructive disease cycle that is Cub fandom: Sky-high spring optimism, sweaty, dog days of summer doubt, soul crushing fall defeat and winter “hot stove league” rumors about free agent signings or bright minor league prospects stoking the embers of hope for spring training, the cycle repeating.

The ’69 collapse, the ’84 2-0 lead against San Diego slipping past Leon Durham’s Gatorade soaked glove, and, of course, the 2003 NL championship meltdown, low points with which we are all familiar. The 2003 loss and many Cub’s fans harsh treatment of Steve Bartman has created, in my mind, a deservedly bad Karma which may make the “Billy Goat” curse appear minor and prevent victory for another century.  The first thing Theo Epstein should do as GM of the Cubs is have a Steve Bartman Day and sincerely apologize on behalf of Cub Nation.  If Bartman is gracious enough to forgive, then perhaps we can reverse the Karma and at least lose in our normal, real world fashion of combining poor pitching with an accumulation of overpaid every day players past their prime.

But I digress.

I lived in Dallas for seven years in the late 1980’s and early 90’s. I attended many Texas Rangers games and adopted them as my American League team. It seemed a logical choice given my baseball pedigree. The Rangers were, in many respects, the Cubs of the American League, their teams generally filled with mediocre pitchers (Nolan Ryan, the exception) and not enough good day-to-day players to fill out a roster. They came to Texas in 1971 and did not win their first National League pennant until last year (division titles do not count., the Cubs have won a slew.) So I do not feel like a bandwagon jumper in cheering for the Rangers in the World Series. However, I’m primarily a Cub and National League fan and so, per baseball tradition, should probably support the Cardinals.

That said, like my Michigan hating friend, I cannot root for the Cardinals.

Is it, like my Illini fan friend’s loathing of the maize and blue, childish jealousy for their success?

Absolutely.

Is it due to their eighteen pennants, ten World Series titles, Cardinal fans witnessing championship teams over the last century filled with players like Rogers Hornsby, Dizzy and Daffy Dean, the Gas House Gang, Stan Musial, Lou Brock, Bob Gibson, Steve Carlton, Ozzie Smith, Albert Pujols, coming to be known as the  “Yankees of the National League” and their many victories over the Cubs?

Yep.

Just as Michigan’s numerous Big Ten championships, major bowl appearances and consistent thumping of the Illini over the decades grates my buddy, the Cardinal’s success sticks in my craw.

It would be nice if I could give you a more logical, unemotional reason for my dislike. Great, if I could point to some dastardly deed or even a lightning rod owner like George Steinbrenner or tough talking coach like Bo Schembechler to hang my Cub hat on as a legitimate grievance against the Cardinals.  But I cannot.

Tony LaRussa is a class act. Pujols as well. The Cardinal’s organization is a tremendous corporate citizen within the St. Louis area and throughout the states of Missouri and Illinois.  Stan “the Man” Musial is an American treasure. No, like my friend and Michigan, my dislike is based purely on one of the seven deadly sins, envy. I’d confess to a high school buddy who is now a priest, but he can’t stand the Cardinals either.

As an example of how unhinged I can get when it comes to the Cardinals, I stood, along with a few other scattered Cub fans, and roundly booed a couple of St. Louis players introduced at halftime of an Illini basketball game. The Cardinals had won the World Series that fall and were making the rounds.  I could not help myself. It was an automatic emotional reaction. A friend attending the game with me, a Special Forces vet, coolly calculating our chances of survival when surrounded by cheering Cardinal fans, tugged at my shirt tail.

“Better take a seat, Mike,” he said, “you’re outnumbered.”

That all said, and the fact that I ‘m no longer a kid, I am trying to conduct myself in a more adult manner in regard to the Cardinals and channel my emotions in a productive direction. But given the odds that the Cubs will not beat the Cardinals on a regular basis, my options are limited.  So the best way I can see to maintain my position of total disgust with the St. Louis Cardinals, minus the venom, is obvious:

“Go Rangers!”

At least I know I have one friend who understands

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Filed under Baseball, Chicago Cubs, Friends, October 2011, St. Louis Cardinals, University of Michigan, World Series

Always a Parent

My wife, Yolanda, and I were settled in the for the evening when the mother of a friend of mine called and began to leave a message on the answering machine.

“Have you seen my son?” she said.

Yolanda picked up the phone.

“No,” Yolanda said, after a pause, “we haven’t today. But Mike’s going out to supper with him tomorrow. I’m sure everything’s OK. He probably had a meeting.”

Having heard this conversation before, I turned my attention back to the laptop and my writing, typing with a new-found urgency.

“No, no,” Yolanda said, “you’re right to call us. You can always call us… He’s not picking up at his house? Mmm. Well, I’m sure everything is fine. He’s probably just running late.”

After more back and forth, Yolanda said goodbye.  I kept my head down, determined to finish the paragraph I’d begun before the phone rang. I felt Yolanda’s stare.

“OK, OK,” I said, hitting the “save” button and rising off the couch, “I’ll go check on him.”

I drove over to my friend’s house, peaked in the front window and saw him talking on the phone. As I walked through the front door he glanced at his watch and said to the person on the other end of the line: “Oh, oh, I’m a half-hour late to see mother.”

As he wound up the call a young woman, another friend, strode into the house, pointed at my buddy and said: “You need to call your mother.”

Those of you who read this blog on a regular basis know that I’m 50, not 15, and may be wondering why a friend’s mother is calling my house looking for him.  No, I’m not hanging out with teenagers. Actually, the mother in question is 101 and her son is 71. And, no, he’s not a “Momma’s boy” who never cut the apron strings. He is a successful businessman and the father of three grown children. He is also a loyal son, who stops by his mom’s house every evening.  As for her, she may be 101, but her memory is sharp.  So, like most moms, when one of her children is not where she thought they would be and she cannot contact them, she worries.

It reminds me of when my grandmother moved into my father’s home. Dad was in his 70′, Grandma in her 90’s. He’d grumble about her keeping tabs on him and she’d complain about his coming and going without necessarily telling her every time.

“Jeez,” he’d say with a shake of his head and a smile, “I survived the Depression, combat in WWII, helped raise 5 kids, ran a successful business and managed a multi-million dollar budget as chairman of the county board and my mother tells me to be careful how much I’m betting on poker games at the VFW.”

“Well, Dad,” I’d counter, in my thirties with a wife, two kids and ten years into a successful career of my own, “you’re always tellin’ me to deposit money from each paycheck into a rainy day fund.”

Once a parent, always a parent.

Which brings me to our own kids, specifically our son, Michael, who turns 21 soon. Michael is a wonderful guy. Like all kids he’s hit a few bumps along the road to adulthood, but his accomplishments far exceed any mishaps. He was a dedicated and talented high school swimmer, played drums in the band and was a top student. He is also a hard worker, laboring two summers in Illinois cornfields, another operating a press punching out aluminum can lids at a steamy local factory and now as part of the building and grounds crew at the college he attends.  Michael also earned a scholarship to spend a semester abroad in Taiwan where he took classes in Mandarin.  Above all this, Michael is a considerate and empathetic young man.

Am I bragging on my kid in honor of his 21st birthday? Yep, but also to make a point.

Our son has grown up. He’s a man. I recognize this. But I will always carry memories of the little boy who followed me around with his Playskool lawn mower as I cut the grass.

“Maybe,” I said to him recently as we discussed his taking his motorcycle into a shop for repair and to question a warranty, “your Uncle Luke should go with you. He knows a lot about bikes.”

Visions of my boy walking into a garage in another town where a slick talking sales rep and a less than honest mechanic lay in wait to point out the fine print where Michael’s repairs were not covered and sticking him with a huge bill flooded my mind.

“Pops,” he said.

“You don’t know how these guys can be son…”

“Pops…”

“Some of these guys. Let me tell you…”

“Pops, I’ve got this. Don’t worry.”

There was something in his tone of voice, not irritated, not disrespectful, but confident and calm, that made me take a deep breath and step back.

“OK,” I said.

I changed the subject even as my mind wandered to possible ill-fated scenarios regarding Michael and the repair bill.

Always a parent.

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Filed under Family, Friends, Greatest Generation, October 2011

Fifty-Fifty

“When you turn fifty,” one of my friends told me on my birthday two weeks ago, “you have more days behind you than ahead. That’s the reality, not fifty-fifty like some people like to think.”

And “Happy Birthday” to you too.

While he might have saved that Eeyore like insight for another day, my friend is correct.  The odds of a 50-year-old living to 100 are 1 in 37.  Although my paternal grandmother made it to ninety-seven and my father might have lived just as long were it not for a three pack a day smoking habit (the genes on that side of the family are stout) it is doubtful I will see my 100th birthday.  Although I share those genes and my mother lived into her early 80’s, from an actuarial perspective, it’s unlikely. That’s nothing to beat myself up about.  Not too many folks become centenarians.  Certainly I try to take care of myself. I am no longer much of a drinker, but I’ve had more than my share of booze over the years, like to smoke a cigar a couple times a month and other than a bowl of oatmeal each morning I eat whatever I feel like.  Not thinking that adds up to a 100 year life span.

So I concede my friend’s point. The end is closer than the beginning. Perhaps that is why, at fifty, we tend to take stock of ourselves more than other milestone birthdays.

On the plus side, I am very much in love with my wife, have two great kids, enjoy my day job and the people I work with and am able to express my creativity through writing. I enjoy good relations with my brothers, sisters, in-laws and have a wealth of friends, fellow parishioners and neighbors.  I live in a small town that allows me to not have to get in a car every time I want to do something. I walk to work, church, the post office and the American Legion for the occasional whiskey shot and cold beer. Once in a while after Saturday night Mass I combine my taste for booze, ability to walk and the practicing of my faith and stop at the Legion for a drink on the way home. How nice is that?

Physically, I’m in good shape.  At 6-2 and 180, I’m where I need to be height and weight wise. However, I have a cranky back as the result of an injury in my mid-thirties which caused two bulging discs to press on my sciatic nerve and caused considerable pain. Through physical therapy I avoided surgery and have had minimal problems since.  Last  year I was diagnosed with early stages of hip impingement (the ball joint of my leg is rubbing against the socket and will likely require surgery in the future.) It causes stiffness, not pain, and I do exercises every day to strengthen my abdominal and upper leg muscles, thus relieving the stress on the joints.  Every third day, I run three miles at an eight and a half-minute per mile pace. Certainly not fast enough to win my age group in a 5k, but better than most 50-year-old males I suspect.

As for stress, I confess to a lesser amount now that both kids are in college. Out of sight, out of mind in regard to worrying about them certainly holds true.  That, and the fact that my wife, Yolanda, and I know they are where they should be at this stage of their lives and are happy, makes for content parents. Probably my biggest concern is in regard to this country’s economic future. A concern that many folks carry these days.  While I’m employed with an income that provides for my family’s needs, I come in contact with hard-working people every day who cannot say the same. Economic well-being is not something I ever, or have ever, taken for granted, but what disturbs me about our current state of affairs is the lack of confidence in the future.  I have not encountered this among folks from so many walks of life as I have the last few years.

I wonder myself what life may be like when Yolanda and I can no longer work and our bodies start to fail us.  It seems that every time you pick up the paper another societal institution is crumbling down upon the individuals who supported it. Our national psyche is unsettled, too many Americans are living in fear, and without a dramatic change in the near future this may become what some economic forecasters call the “new normal.” If so, who wants to live to be 100 anyway?

That all said, I sleep well at night. Perhaps it’s because I was raised by two people who survived the Great Depression and WWII and they taught me to take care of what I can, turn the rest over to God and do my best to enjoy the day.  Let’s face it, life is a crapshoot.  How we all happened to be here to begin with still a subject of debate.

So, in response to my friend, yeah, I’m no actuary, but  I get it.  Sure, it’s unlikely that I will make 100  But as I sit  here on my screen porch with our Sheltie, Sammy, I’m OK with that.  The sun is shining and a soft breeze is blowing as I write. With rustling fall leaves signalling their approach, a friend and his three-year-old son, our God son, walk by and wave.  They’ll be over for supper later. I’ve got a pork roast in the smoker and Yolanda is making potato salad.  We’ll visit, eat, have a couple of beers, Yolanda will play in the leaves with our God son and we’ll watch the sunset on the screen porch.

Like everybody else, I have no idea what the future holds or whether I’ve lived more days on this earth than not. But in this moment, in this place,  I do know the odds that today is going to be a great day are better than fifty-fifty.  That’s good enough for me.

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Filed under 21st Century America, 50th Birthday, 5K Races, Baby Boomers, Economics, Family, Friends, Greatest Generation, Institutions, October 2011, Running

Blog Holiday: Be Back Next Week

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