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Getting on the record with some (gulp!) resolutions

New Year’s Eve is a holiday for the young, although even when I was young, I can’t really recall many memorable times I had. The last New Year’s I remember standing out was 1987, when I left Sioux Falls, S.D., in a morning when the wind-chill factor was nearly 50 below zero. I had been there for four days covering a college basketball tournament — my only time ever in the Dakotas — and I was leaving for two weeks of vacation at home in Virginia.

Not mine, but same model same color.

I had it figured as a 2-3 day drive in my two-seat Pontiac Fiero — the only new car I ever bought for myself — but I wanted to get as far as I could the first day. When 1987 turned to 1988, I was circling Indianapolis on I-465 and looking for a motel to get some sleep.

I loved that car and I drove it till an 18-wheeler crushed it in December 1990 on I-5 in Los Angeles. But I never put as many miles on it as quickly as Colorado to South Dakota to Virginia and back to Colorado that winter. Nearly 4,000 miles in a little more than two weeks.

Anyway, I digress. I think the last date I had on a New Year’s Eve was in 1981, the second of two New Year’s dates with the lovely Lisa McGrady.

Tonight is the 21st New Year’s Eve of my second marriage, and there haven’t been more than a couple when Nicole and I were even awake when 11:59 p.m. became midnight. The only reason I’m still up with 90 minutes or so to go is that I really wanted to be productive and put down some resolutions for 2013.

I don’t usually do resolutions. I know how easy it is to break them, but 2012 has been a disappointing year in many ways and I want to go on record that 2013 will be better.

So, a few resolutions:

1. BE NICER — The best compliment I ever heard about anyone was when my son’s freshman roommate in college said to me, “Virgile is the nicest person I have ever known in my life.” Nobody’s ever going to say that about me, but I have a very fragile wife who I love with all my heart. I want to be gentler — and nicer — this year.

2013 is here.

2. GET HEALTHY AGAIN — I established wonderful habits for myself in 2010. I’ve got to get them back. Eat right and exercise. Every day.

3. GET PURPOSEFUL AGAIN — I need to finish my book. That means writing at least a little bit every day. No more screwing around.

4. RIDE MY BIKE — Part of the exercise thing, and I have to learn a whole new way of riding to do it, but I bought myself a thousand-dollar road bike and it’s time to hit the road.

5. BE THOUGHTFUL, NOT THOUGHTLESS — Don’t take anybody for granted.

6. DON’T PROCRASTINATE — Just because we have two phone lines, it doesn’t mean I should ignore the one that isn’t working. Call and get it fixed.

7. FOLLOW THE RULES — Love God, let go of regrets and treat other people the way I would want them to treat me. Three rules for a great life.

So, I guess I’ll file this and …

Oh Lord, here comes 2013!

 

posted by Mike in Family,Friends,Happiness,Health,Holidays,love and have No Comments

We all have memories of a few Christmases past

I was trying to remember my first Christmas as an adult, the first one I didn’t celebrate at my parents’ house or my grandparents’ house.

It was 1975, although you could argue 1971 on a technicality. I was still living at home in 1971, but the rest of my family went to Russia with a tour group. I got together with three other friends — my closest friends — whose families were also away. We worked together and did a Christmas dinner at my friend Mick’s house. Mick and my two Chris friends — one Christine and one Christopher — filled out the group. I think I can safely say without fear of excessive chauvinism that we were fortunate to have a female in our group.

My first apartment -- 35 years later.

That was really just Christmas dinner, though. My first real Christmas in my own place, with decorations and everything, came in 1975.

We had moved into a new development outside Herndon, Va. The apartments in Stuart Woods were brand new. A one-bedroom unit was $230. It was the only apartment I ever had with its own washer and dryer. We moved there in February, we got married in April and we lived there till May 1976. She commuted to Langley and I commuted to the Ballston neighborhood in Arlington.

I don’t know if we had any problem-free years in our marriage. We were together for less than five years; we probably married too young. It’s as good an excuse for failure as any. It’s funny how 37 years later, I have little memory of where in our living room we put our Christmas tree. Maybe we didn’t. Ironically, it was the only Christmas we celebrated together in the United States. In 1976 we were in Austria and in 1977 we were in London for Christmas week.

She spent Christmas of ’78 on temporary duty in Beijing and she went to Nevada to spend the ’79 holidays with her parents. In January 1980 we split for good.

Regrets? Yes and no. I doubt that a thoughtful person could fail to regret a marriage that didn’t work, but on the other hand, I have spent the last 21 Christmases married to the real love of my life.

Lex this Christmas.

If there is a sadness at all, it comes when I see my two grandchildren celebrating their first Christmases, Madison in 2009 (at 15 months) and Lexington this year (at 13 1/2 months). My first Christmas with my wonderful children came when Pauline was already 12 and Virgile was nearly 8.

Seeing pictures of the grandkids with the gifts we gave them is so wonderful. In the picture here, Lex is pushing a cart we gave him for Christmas and wearing a Georgia Tech football jersey we gave him for his first birthday in November.

Christmas is pretty wonderful when you have children or grandchildren, but it was also pretty special when I was first on my own and never dreaming that a marriage could end in the most excruciating pain. I don’t think of her all that much, but there are times I wonder what it would have been like to hold a baby in my arms and know that it was my child, not my grandchild.

I am a very fortunate man. I have two wonderful children who look at me and see a father, not a stepfather. I could never love a child more than I love Pauline and Virgile, and I could never love a grandchild more than I love Maddie or Lex.

I know it all worked out for the best.

No question at all.

That doesn’t keep the “what ifs” from popping into my mind once in a while. In the end, I guess I’m only human.

posted by Mike in Christmas,Family,Friends,Happiness,Holidays,love,memories and have No Comments

From one generation to the next, there’s baseball

“People will come. The one constant through all the years has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It has been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game: it’s a part of our past. It reminds of us of all that once was good and it could be again. Oh… people will come. People will most definitely come.”
– TERRENCE MANN in “Field of Dreams”

I’m really not sure that there is anything better about America — anything that has lasted across the centuries, from one America to another to another and another — than baseball and the feelings so many people have for it.

I’m not sure why, but I’m a lot more likely to divide the world into people who love baseball and bad people than into liberals and conservatives. Someone can be totally opposed to me politically, but if they love baseball, I have a hard time thinking too badly of them. As much as I disliked George W. Bush’s politics, they fact that he had once said his real dream job was to be commissioner of baseball was definitely a point in his favor.

There isn’t anything that connects the generations — fathers and sons — more effectively. At the height of the Sixties, when my father and I couldn’t talk about much without disagreeing, we could usually talk about baseball. My earliest memories of my dad were of baseball games at Crosley Field in Cincinnati and Yankee Stadium in New York, and my most wonderful memories of my own son are of the four years I coached him in youth league baseball.

We had some wonderful times and some other times when I found myself embarrassed at my own actions. In our final season, when we lost every game, we were trying to protect a small lead in one of our last games. The bases were loaded and the batter hit a line-drive into the gap in left-center. The center fielder moved over and cut the ball off, but he froze on where to throw the ball and before he threw it, all four runners had scored.

“What are you, brain dead?”

That was what the most laid-back coach in the league yelled — at his own son.

Fathers and sons, Field of Dreams

But Virgile understood. Back then, although I don’t think he loved baseball as much as I did, he seemed to get it. We went to a number of ballgames together in Los Angeles and Anaheim. When he was 8 years old, we skipped school and went to the Angels’ home opener. When he was 9, in only the second game he ever attended, we saw the Braves’ Kent Mercker pitch a no-hitter against the Dodgers.

Maybe my favorite time with him was in 2001, when I got to do something for the very first time at age 51 — sit in the very first row of box seats on the third base side just past the Dodgers’ dugout. I had been going to ballgames for more than 40 years without ever having a foul ball hit to me, but on this day, Virgile got three in the first five innings.

My son’s interest in baseball has faded. The whole steroid thing bothered him a lot, and he has become an outstanding performer in Ironman Triathlons. We have still managed to go to an occasional ballgame together, and it wouldn’t surprise me if someday we got out our old gloves and played catch one more time.

I forget where I wrote this — maybe on Facebook — but describing the things that really matter in the world to me, I said that I love my family, I love my friends and I love baseball.

That’s me.

posted by Mike in Americana,baseball,Family,Friends,Happiness and have No Comments

Friends pass away and others sometimes come back

When you reach a certain point in your life, the world stops giving you things and starts taking them away.

In the last couple of years, I have gotten several rude surprises in the form of bad news about former friends and colleagues. In April 2009, my former roommate David Poole of the Charlotte Observer died at age 50. I hadn’t seen him for more than 25 years, but he had been morbidly obese when I knew him and I don’t think that had changed. The bad news in that case was a surprise but hardly a shock.

Andrew Cseplo, upper right

The news I got this morning was truly a shock. My friend Andrew Cseplo, who preceded me as editor in chief of the campus newspaper at George Mason University, was found dead in his cab Thursday night at 13th and Constitution in Washington, D.C. Emergency medical technicians tried to revive him, but were unable. It looks like he had a heart attack, which came as a shock to the friends who actually see him from time to time.

He was 53, and at least during the last two years on Facebook, he seemed to be having a really good time. He had one of the best senses of humor I have ever seen; I would have thought he might have been able to make it as a stand-up comic.

And now he’s gone. It is depressing to lose a friend, but it is especially depressing when the friends you lose are younger than you are.

I have been blessed in my life. I had three grandparents alive till I was 35 years old, and I was 58 before I lost one of my parents. I have only lost one relative — a cousin — at a shockingly young age, but he had a medical condition that made it certain he wasn’t going to make it past adolescence.

It’s strange, though. Relationships end all the time, and some end with a finality that resembles death. For five years or so, I was closer to my first wife than I had ever been to anyone else. But we split up in 1980 and haven’t seen or spoken to each other in more than 30 years. We might as well be dead to each other.

Still, for all the friends and relatives we lose along the way, occasionally they come back. Some years back, I was able to re-establish contact with my friend Walter Masterson. We stayed in touch for the last three or four years of his life. When he died at age 87, our renewed friendship had made both our lives more pleasant.

Billie Johnson

Friday on Facebook, I got a pleasant surprise. A woman that I knew for only one year — my senior year in high school — sent me a message. Billie Johnson was my government teacher in 12th grade, one of the two or three finest teachers I had in my many years getting educated.

She taught government at my high school until she retired in 1994, and she is still actively working for teachers — both active and retired — to protect their rights. In a challenging time when the far right seems to see teachers as the villains for everything that’s wrong with our country, it’s important for people to stand up and say no to them.

It made me very happy to hear from her. I have never forgotten something she said to me at the end of 12th grade. She apologized to me for not being able to make the class more interesting. She said she knew I would have benefitted from a more advanced class, but government was a required subject for every high school senior in Virginia. She had to teach a class that would get as many kids through as possible.

Her apology embarrassed me. Sure, what she said was true, but I hadn’t even gotten an “A” in the class. I didn’t think I had the right to a more challenging class.

Good teachers are like that, and she was one of the best. It’s strange to go from a teacher-student relationship to a friendship between two retired adults.

It’s kind of nice, though.

Not all the surprises we get at this point in life are bad ones.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

posted by Mike in Friends,Happiness,Health,memories and have No Comments

If I could putt, I’d rule the world

If I could putt, I don’t think I’d have anything to worry about.

My favorite green? If only I could putt.

I’m getting fairly consistent at hitting my drives a decent distance and keeping them in the middle of the fairway, and my approach shots from off the green are getting better and better.

If only I could putt. The other day I wrote about the shot on the 17th hole that felt almost perfect. In the two times I have played since then, I have had similar results on that same hole, putting shots first within 15 feet and then within six feet. My putting was bad both times, a three-putt for bogey and then a two-putt for par.

Yesterday I missed at least five putts from six feet or less, and if I had made the last one — on the 18th green — I would have broken 80.

It’s a very strange feeling. I’m hitting good shots more consistently than I ever have  in my life, and even though I take a few shots over since I play alone, I would probably still be good enough here to get a 12 or 13 handicap.That’s not bad at all for somebody who used to have a really tough time breaking 90.

In fact, when I first started playing full-length courses about 18 years ago, breaking 130 was a big deal for me.

I miss my friends, though. Playing with Chuck and Mickey for more than 15 years meant that a day on the golf course was about more than just golf. As I’ve written before, we were lucky to be able to play twice a month, which made it tough to improve. Playing two or three times a week has shown me the difference.

Who knows? Maybe someday I’ll play with them again.

Friendship matters.

 

posted by Mike in Friends,golf,Happiness and have No Comments

More people should know what really matters

Some months back, I was trying to discover some basic truths about life.

I asked numerous people who mattered to me to send me their thoughts on the matter, and it came as no surprise to me that one of the most insightful comments came from my daughter Pauline. She wrote that what really mattered in life was family, and that living that belief was the most important thing to her.

Family, what matters most

“I always put my family first,” she said.

Recently, when I wrote about the Proust questions and posted an interview with myself, Pauline sent me an e-mail — not for publication — in which she answered the same questions. Her answers showed something I knew all along — that what she had said earlier was 100 percent sincere, 100 percent true.

That left me wondering, because I agreed with her 100 percent. If you look at the basic human motivations, going back thousands of years, it seems to me that loving and being loved are pretty near the top of the list. Certainly there are others that matter, such as the desire for security, but it seems to me that so much of modern society with its “he who dies with the most toys wins” attitude has gone off track somewhere.

I could ask almost any of my friends who have children what matters most to them, and I can’t think of any of them who would rate their careers ahead of their families. Even the ones who haven’t been particularly successful, when I look at the choices they have made, their career problems have come because they refused to put their jobs ahead of their families.

The other night I was watching “Awakenings,” the wonderful film from 1990 in which experimental drug therapy helped “awaken” patients who had been catatonic for more than 40 years since an encephalitis epidemic in 1926. Some of the patients were resentful, upset at how much of their lives had been lost. The main character, played by Robert DeNiro, wanted people who hadn’t been through it to understand what really mattered.

After his character was once again catatonic, his doctor — played by Robin Williams — passed along his thoughts.

“What we do know is that, as the chemical window closed, another awakening took place; that the human spirit is more powerful than any drug – and that is what needs to be nourished: with work, play, friendship, family. These are the things that matter. This is what we’d forgotten – the simplest things.”

I couldn’t agree more.

posted by Mike in Family,Friends,Happiness and have No Comments

A wonderful idea for a shared retirement

My wife is the smartest person I know, and there isn’t anything that is going to change that.

Nicole is a world-renowned scientist with two doctorates, and I only know two other people who have even one. Although I should include my friend Mick, who has a Th. D., the first to be awarded since the release of “The Wizard of Oz.”

Christine Miller

That said, another one of my friends is moving up the list fast and could find herself in second place before long. Christine Worth Miller was a good friend of mine for about two years during the Nixon Administration, but we lost touch and had almost no contact again until the last year or so on Facebook.

She lives in Florida now, and recently ended a relationship that had lasted nearly two-thirds of her life. Since Chris is an early Baby Boomer — a few years younger than I am — she has begun to think about how retirement will work. Or won’t work, as the case may be.

Our generation is the one stuck in between when it comes to retirement. Our parents’ generation generally had pensions, and our children started putting money into 401(k) accounts and Roth IRAs as soon as they got out of school and started working.

I never had the opportunity to contribute to a retirement account at work until I was past my 40th birthday, and if it weren’t for my wife, I would either be looking for a job or living in genteel poverty on Social Security. I am truly blessed.

But other friends nearing retirement age either don’t have enough saved, still have large mortgages or don’t own homes at all. And money isn’t even the only problem. I’ve been reading the wonderful book, “The Art of Happiness,” by His Holiness the Dalai Lama, and one of the most interesting parts to me was his emphasis on personal relationships as important to happiness.

Chris’s idea, which fascinated me, was that people who had been her friends for many years, some of whom didn’t have significant others or the money to live well on their own, might benefit from a sort of communal living. For example, four friends might be quite happy sharing a four-bedroom house. Each would have their own bedroom and they would share some of the bathroom facilities and the rest of the house.

Maybe the best thing about her idea is that the worst part of getting old is almost without question being alone. To not only have friends to share your days, but for those friends to be people who share the fond memories of your youth, truly sounds wonderful. It reminds me of the Harry Chapin song, “Let Time Go Lightly:”

“Old friends, they mean much more to me than the new friends, Cause they can see where you are,and they know where you’ve been.”

I think my friend may just be brilliant.

posted by Mike in baby boom,Friends,Happiness,Health,retirement and have No Comments

Proust picked the questions; they’re my answers

I was reading this month’s Vanity Fair in the doctor’s office and I came across the leading man interviews with George Clooney, Matt Damon and Daniel Craig.

What fascinated me was the questions, apparently an interview format developed by Marcel Proust. So I thought I would interview myself, using those questions. Here goes:

Moving on down the road.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?
My children.

What is your greatest fear?
Hurting the people I love.

Which historical figure do you most identify with?
H.L. Mencken.

Which living person do you most admire?
My daughter.

What is the trait you most deplore in yourself?
I give up too easily.

What is the trait you most deplore in others?
Self-righteousness.

What is your greatest extravagance?
My collection of movies on DVD.

What is your favorite journey?
Ten days in Venice with my wife.

What do you consider the most overrated virtue?
Patience.

On what occasion do you lie?
To spare someone’s feelings.

What do you dislike most about your appearance?
Fluctuations in weight.

Which living person do you most despise?
I wish I didn’t, but Rush Limbaugh.

What words or phrase do you most overuse?
I’ll tell you what …

Which talent would you most like to have?
Being able to sing well.

What is your current state of mind?
Frustrated.

If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?
My work ethic.

If you could change one thing about your family, what would it be?
I would make my wife healthier, both in spirit and in body.

What do you consider to be your greatest accomplishment?
Playing the small role I did in helping my children grow from wonderful kids with great potential into high-achieving adults.

If you could choose what to come back as, what would it be?
Someone who works very hard and perseveres despite average talents. Or maybe a kangaroo.

What is your most treasured possession?
The love of my family and friends.

Where would you like to live?
Wherever my wife Nicole is.

What is your favorite occupation?
Writing a newspaper column.

What is the quality you like most in a man?
Unselfishness.

What is the quality you like most in a woman?
Kindness. Either that or large breasts. Just kidding.

The future is his.

What is your greatest regret?
The fact that I probably won’t live long enough to see how things turn out as adults for my grandchildren.

What do you value the most in your friends?
The wonderful history that we share together.

Who are your favorite writers?
Pat Conroy, Robert B. Parker, Bob Greene (not the fitness guy, the other one).

Who is your favorite hero of fiction?
Atticus Finch, also Jonathan Kent.

Who are your heroes in real life?
My wife and children.

What is it that you most dislike?
People who carry water politically for the mega-rich.

How would you like to die?
Peacefully, with the people I love close at hand.

 

 

 

 

 

posted by Mike in Family,Friends,Happiness,memories and have No Comments

We’re all dying someday, so why not be nice

“Probably everybody be nice to you if they knew you were dying.”
“Everybody knows everybody is dying. That is why people are nice. You all die soon enough, so why not be nice to each other.”
– MARK HARRIS, “Bang the Drum Slowly”

Robert De Niro as doomed catcher Bruce Pearson.

Everybody knows everybody is dying. From the moment we’re born, it’s an invisible countdown to the end, invisible only because none of us know exactly how many years of life we’ll have.

So we do our best to ignore it, taking it seriously only when someone near to us has a serious illness.

Nicole and I have been through several tough illnesses in the nearly 20 years we have been together, and the older we get, the more serious the implications can be. I’m certainly not complaining. I have friends whose health problems are every bit as serious as ours. My friends deal with their problems by continuing to put one foot in front of the other and taking one step at a time.

It’s really all you can do, and while people certainly do seem to be nicer to you when they know you are dying, I think most of us are nicer to the people we love when they are simply ill.

My wife said something to me recently that served to make me both happy and sad at the same time. She said that one thing she liked about being ill was that I am so kind to her when she is ill.

I was happy to hear it, but disappointed in myself that it should take an illness to make me be nicer to the person I love  more than anyone else in the world.

It is a step, though, and as health improves, maybe we can hang onto the feeling that made us be nicer in the first place.

After all, everybody knows everybody is dying. That is why people are nice.  We all die soon enough, so why not be nicer to each other.

posted by Mike in Family,Friends,Happiness,Health and have No Comments

Lieberman ruined me in my watershed moment

Who would have thought someone I never met would turn out to be one of the key figures in the watershed moment of my life?

Damn you, Senator Joseph Lieberman.

The villain of the story

This story may seem a little weird, since the veteran Connecticut politician’s name will be the only one in the story. I’ll let the other folks remain anonymous out of respect for their privacy.

When I celebrated my 20th birthday in December 1969, my life was somewhat off track. I had gone away to the University of Virginia when I was 17 going on 12, and I had foundered in the party school atmosphere in Charlottesville.

I had started over again at George Washington University two years later, and my fall semester was sort of an academic disaster, but for a different reason. I had joined a fraternity and was having fun for the first time. By the end of the semester I was on academic suspension, but I was in love for the first time in my life.

She was a freshman and the daughter of a Connecticut politician (not Lieberman), we dated until the end of the spring semester while I worked and got ready to earn my way back into school for the fall semester. I had to take two classes in the summer at the community college to prove I could do college work successfully.

She went home for the summer. Her father — a state senator — was running for the U.S. Senate, and she was working on his campaign.

I took a humanities course and a chemistry course, and for the first time since elementary school, I worked hard and did well. An A and a B; I hadn’t gotten a B in a science course since seventh grade. My girlfriend and I had been drifting apart over the summer, and after the end of July, we were no longer talking on the phone.

I sent my grades in, and GWU accepted me back — on probation — for the fall semester.

I was fired up, and I actually felt OK about the fact that my first real relationship was over. In early September, just before registration, she called me. She was flying in to register for classes and then returning home for a week. Her dad had lost his U.S. Senate race, but he still had a primary election for the job he already had. He was the majority leader of the state senate, so no one expected anything except a victory.

I picked her up at National Airport — Ronald Reagan was still in his first term as governor of California then — and we drove down to the campus. We had dinner together at our favorite restaurant, and we were walking back to her dorm after dinner when she asked me a question that took me by surprise. She asked me if I still loved her. Without even thinking, I said of course I did. She said that was good, because she still loved me.

We registered for our classes the next day, and we decided to take a political science class together. I drove her to the airport, and she told me she would be back in a week.

Then disaster struck. Almost out of nowhere, her veteran politician father lost his primary election to a 28-year-old political rookie named Joseph Lieberman. She was devastated. When she returned to school, we had spent a little more than an hour together when she told me we had to break up.

I didn’t even ask her why, but something I had come to terms with completely in August now hit me like the proverbial ton of bricks.

She said she hoped we could still be friends, and I just shrugged. At 20, I was playing Bogart when I felt like anything but that. All my motivation for doing well in school had vanished, and by spring I was gone again. I was 21, and most of the rest of my twenties turned out to be wasted — a bad marriage, bad jobs and very little progress toward a real future.

So there was my watershed moment. I’m not saying we would have dated all through college, gotten married and lived happily ever after. Maybe, but not likely. But I think in September 1970, I had reached a point where I was ready to straighten my life out. If she and I hadn’t broken up, I think I would have had the motivation to get through GWU and then go on to law school, which was my goal at that time.

I certainly don’t blame her. I have very fond memories of our semester together, and I can’t blame anyone but myself for the fact that I was so weak as to let myself get knocked off track.

Well, that’s not quite true that I don’t blame anybody.

I do blame Joe Lieberman.

 

posted by Mike in Friends,Happiness,history,humor,memories,Politics,Ranting and have No Comments
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