Day Eight: The damn books

UnknownHere’s Day Eight of the 30-day writing challenge Deana is forcing me to do.

Day Eight: A book you love and one you didn’t

It’s tough to narrow it down to one book I love. I have several, and each of them made me slam them shut and say, “Damn! I want to DO this.”

Writers like to say they write for themselves and no one else–that they’re letting out their feelings and personal truth, and it doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks.

We’re lying when we say that. It sounds deep and nice and all, but it’s not the least bit true. And Stephen King was the first writer I read who admitted that it was a lie. I’m paraphrasing, but, in his one of his many non-fiction pieces where he discussed his writing, he said: You write to have an impact on an audience. You want to control them and make them feel things. You want to dazzle them with your craft, overwhelm them with emotion, cross them over with a plot twist, but through it all, you want to impose your will on an audience.

I had a drama teacher in college who said something similar about acting. She talked about playing the Rat Queen in the school’s production of the Nutcracker each year, and how, for weekday matinees, they’d bring local elementary schoolchildren in on field trips. She said that, right before her scene, she would peek out from the side of the stage. “I want to see them all sitting there, with their little legs dangling off the seats,” she said, “and think, ‘I’m gonna scare the SHIT out of them.’ ”

I know the feeling, and Stephen King was the first writer to make me feel it. It wasn’t the scary scenes of his books that had the biggest impact, it was simple phrases and words. The first sentence of his that made me slam the book shut and say “Damn!” was in Pet Sematary.

Midway through the book, King wrote a scene about a father taking his toddler (named Gage) to the park to fly kites. He closed the chapter with, “And Gage, who now had less than two months to live, laughed shrilly and joyously.”

Bam! Just an open-handed slap to the face of the audience.

You can knock someone out with a jab, if you time it and place it perfectly, and that’s what King does here. We’ve gotten to know this young family, and that’s how he breaks the news that the kid is going to die.

He did it in The Shining and The Stand too–just grabbed ahold of his audience and took them where he wanted them to go, using whatever it took–jabs, body blows, wild left hooks. It’s just mind-boggling. How can you NOT want to do that?

Then there was Joseph Heller’s Catch-22. That was the book that explained to me what writing was. I read it early in high school, and up until then, I had spent my time learning the rules of writing–how a story needed to be structured, what you were supposed to do, how it was all supposed to work. And then Heller broke every rule.

Catch-22 is a glorious mess of a book. The characters talk in circles and the timeline is a muddled mess, and through all of that chaos, an organized, coherent narrative, with strong opinions on everything from war to bureaucracy to capitalism emerges.

There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one’s safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn’t, but if he was sane he had to fly them. If he flew them he was crazy and didn’t have to; but if he didn’t want to he was sane and had to. Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle.

“That’s some catch, that Catch-22,” he observed.

“It’s the best there is,” Doc Daneeka agreed.”

It doesn’t make a bit of sense … and yet it’s utterly brilliant. The rules are great, but writing really takes off when you break them for a reason.

More recently, Michael Lewis has been the writer that makes me slam the book shut. When I speak at schools, I always open with this (abbreviated) scene from The Blind Side, where Lawrence Taylor breaks Joe Theismann’s leg.

From the snap of the ball to the snap of the bone is closer to four seconds than to five. One Mississippi … Two Mississippi … Three Mississippi … Four Mississippi: Taylor is coming. From the snap of the ball Theismann has lost sight of him. He doesn’t see Taylor carving a wide circle behind his back; he doesn’t see Taylor outrun his blocker upfield and then turn back down; and he doesn’t see the blocker diving, frantically, at Taylor’s ankles. He doesn’t see Taylor leap, both arms over his head, and fill the sky behind him. Theismann prides himself on his ability to stand in the pocket and disregard his fear. He thinks this quality is a prerequisite in a successful NFL quarterback. “When a quarterback looks at the rush,” he says, “his career is over.” Theismann has played in 163 straight games, a record for the Washington Redskins. He’s led his team to two Super Bowls, and won one. He’s thirty-six years old. He’s certain he still has a few good years left in him. He’s wrong. He has less than half a second.

At that point, I close the book, look at the class, and say, “Damn! … Damn!” Dude is writing about sports and can do it like that. How can you not want to do that?

As for the second half of the writing prompt, about books I don’t love … there are plenty, but damn … I can’t think of them right now.

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30 day writing challenge: Day Seven–Inked up

As I’ve mentioned a few times, Deana is making me do this 30-day writing challenge, because a month of writing prompts makes everything better. Or something.

Today’s prompt is a fun one, though, and I’m sure I’ll beat Deana with this one.

Day Seven: What tattoos do you have, and do they have any meaning?

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I have one tattoo, on my left shoulder. I got it two years ago.

It’s the Chi-squared Goodness of Fit test.

 

I’d talked about getting a tattoo for years, but I was never really sure what to get. Then, after going through several relationship and job-related troubles, I decided it was time to do something permanent, to celebrate coming out the other side.

My sister and I had actually gone out a few months earlier to get tatted up, but, considering it was a holiday (I can’t remember if it was Black Friday or Christmas Eve), the tattoo place was closed.

I was living in an apartment, and I commented to my friend Catherine that everyone at the pool had tattoos, but none of them were interesting. I didn’t want any Chinese characters or tribal designs. Knives and snakes and skulls are all, of course, awesome, but I wanted something unique.

 

That’s where the Chi-squared Goodness of Fit test comes in.

My degree is in math. My graduate degree is in Operations Research. I used the Chi-squared Goodness of Fit test extensively in my Masters Thesis. Then I switched careers, and sides of my brain, and had to leave Chi-squared behind. It was time to bring it back.

I’m sure I don’t have to tell any of you what the Goodness of Fit test is, but just in case:

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In English, you have a whole bunch of data, and you have to figure out whether it has any type of organization. Chi-squared is a way to test for statistical significance. It involves creating categories and testing to see whether the data falls into categories the way you’d expect it to. In other words, does the data you see fit the way you expected?

Since things weren’t always fitting the way I expected in my life, it seemed like a good parallel. Plus, the Chi-squared distribution is a little bit skewed, which also fits me, and it’s only as strong as its degrees of freedom, which was also something I was becoming acquainted with.

Screen Shot 2015-10-27 at 10.00.21 PMSo I told Catherine I was ready to get my ink. We chose a non-holiday, just to make sure the place would be open.

She took me for a beer first, thinking that might be necessary to get me to go through with it, but there was no turning back at that point.

I handed the tattoo artist a copy of the Chi-squared Goodness of Fit test. He looked at it and asked me, “What is this? Like the formula for crystal meth or something?”

I told him no, and he looked disappointed. I believe he might have kept the piece of paper, just in case I was lying.

It didn’t take long–much shorter than I’d expected–and it didn’t hurt anywhere near as much as I’d thought it would.

And so I now am the proud owner of perhaps the only statistical significance test tat in existence.

ItFullSizeRender-3 got me some puzzled looks at the pool, but I didn’t care.

At some point, I’ll pay tribute to the other side of my brain and get an inkwell tattoo on the right shoulder, but I’ll wait until I feel the strong need.

Until then, I think my one and only tattoo is a pretty good fit.

Getting caught up

big_2005_02_05_17_26_kassim_ouma

OK. I promised Deana I would do this (stupid) 30 day writing challenge. That was five days ago, and I’ve done one post. So, I’m going to cram five days of writing into this one post. Buckle your seat belt … here we go:

Day 2: Your earliest memory.

Memory is a funny thing. I remember when my mother was eight and a half months pregnant with my younger sister, and a drunk driver hit my parents’ parked car, while they were in a restaurant having dinner. My mother had to be held back as she screamed at the driver, who was strapped to a gurney and being loaded into an ambulance at the time, asking how they would be able to drive to the hospital now that he had ruined their car. I remember this, even though I was three and a half at the time and home with a babysitter. Still, I can see the scene plain as day.

I also remember when my dad and Uncle Nick were driving through town and saw a police officer struggling in a fight with a suspect. They pulled over and joined in the fight, helping the officer to handcuff the guy. And even though it occurred several years before I was born, I could show you exactly where the fight went down. I remember the old car that backfired so badly, that my mother had to keep a few of my diapers in the back seat, in case to use to extinguish the occasional engine fire. Clearly, I couldn’t possibly remember that, if I was still in diapers.

That’s how families are: You hear stories and legends told so many times that, eventually, you don’t remember which ones you were there for and which ones you missed.

My daughters could tell you what song was playing in the labor room when their mother and I were sent home and told that the pains were false later. Our first daughter was born a few hours later, after a wild ambulance ride back to the hospital. (It was Macy Gray, and the doctor said, “We need to stop playing this music or it will make the babies scared to come out.)

They remember me using rubbing alcohol to set the dorm room bathroom floor on fire in college, even though it was years before they were born. They remember lullabies (Hey Jude) and climbing out of cribs and Aunt Wendy feeding them bread, because we were too timid to try solid food, sure that they would choke.

Day 3: Discuss your first love and first kiss

My first love … well, crush … didn’t end well. There was some miscommunication, and I take the blame for what went wrong.

It was second grade, and her name was Heather B. (There were two Heathers in the class, hence the need for a last initial.)  I don’t remember much about her. She was small (for a second grader) and had light-colored hair. I’m guessing she had pretty eyes, because I’ve always been a sucker for eyes.

After giving it some thought, I decided I would make my move with a Christmas card. For my birthday in October that year, someone gave me a “color your own Christmas cards” kit. I colored one for my best friend Rob, and one for my grandparents, and then designated various cards for select aunts and uncles. I held one out, however–the best card–for Heather B.

When you’re wooing females, self-scouting is critical. I knew this even as a second grader, and I had a major problem: I’m not that strong a colorer. I found it tough to stay in the lines–I still do. And I also frequently had little patches of white in the areas I was supposed to be coloring, because my attention to detail was lacking.

Basically, coloring is stupid, is what I’m trying to say.

I turned the problem over in my mind and came up with a potential solution. Bear in mind I was in second grade at the time. I would color the entire card black. It was a bold statement, and the color choice would make her less likely to notice the little flaws in my craft.

Not what it looked like

Not what it looked like

So I colored a black Christmas tree, with black ornaments, a black star on top and black presents beneath. “To Heather B.” I wrote in shaky black letters. “Love Shawn.” I then put it in an envelope and wrote “To Heather B. Love Shawn” on the outside as well.

For two months, the card sat on my dresser. Finally, on the last day of school before Christmas break, I put it on her desk.

This is when the miscommunication took place.

A short time later, she came up to me, holding the card. “Did you make this for me?” she asked.

I looked at her, looked at the weird black Christmas card she was holding, and there was only one thing I could do.

“Nope,” I said and walked away.

Day Four: 10 interesting facts about yourself

1 .In high school, I accidentally accepted someone else’s award at a school-wide ceremony, because I thought they called my name.

2. I once memorized “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” for an English class.

3. I shook hands with Bill Clinton when he was standing all by himself on our college campus while campaigning early in 1992.

4.  I voted for George W. Bush three times (I lived in Texas when he ran for governor) and he sends me Christmas cards.

5. I built a computer model to determine how long you would have to wait on hold when you called your credit card company’s customer service department.

6. I’ve been golfing once, and sliced a ball into the Pacific Ocean.

7. I was escorted out of a former job by security.

8. I was a finalist for the reality show “Faking It.” They wanted me to try to go to Vegas and learn to be a Chippendales dancer in 30 days, but they ended up picking someone else (although I can still do the “tip over a chair with my foot & ride it as it falls” move)

100_48269. My first new car was a magenta Geo Metro convertible. The first person that saw it said to his daughter, “Look, honey, it looks just like your Barbie car.”

10. I hate food with bones or shells, because it’s just too much effort, and I’m always afraid I’m going to bite into a piece of bone/shell, which makes it impossible to enjoy.

Day Five: A place you would live but have never visited.

lionheart_catamaran_1As many of my close friends know, when the going gets tough, I’m ready to go to Costa Rica. I’ve never been there and know nothing about it, other than the fact that there are beaches there, and I could probably get a job as a catamaran captain (even though I’m afraid of boats and water) and just live on the beach, hiding from my old life, while the natives and tourists keep a respectful distance.

I’d wear unbuttoned Hawaiian shirts and live on pineapples and rum. I’d grow a scraggly pony tail that I’d tie back with a scrunchee.

Day Six: Someone who fascinates you and why

Kassim Ouma.

He’s a former boxing champion that I had the privilege of covering. He was born in Uganda and kidnapped by the National Resistance Army at age six. He spent five years as a child soldier before he became an amateur boxer. He made the 1996 Ugandan Olympic boxing team but was couldn’t afford to attend the games in Atlanta.

Later, on a trip to the United States with Team Uganda, he defected. He was a wanted fugitive in his home country and supposedly would be arrested immediately if he ever returned. He claimed that his father was beaten to death as retaliation for his crime of leaving.

After surviving five years as a soldier in Uganda’s civil war, Ouma arrived in Florida and was promptly shot twice. He recovered from the injuries and became a boxing champion.

ouma-phillips12When he was fighting in main events, I once wrote, “No one loves what they do as much as Kassim Ouma loves his job.” Despite his brutal, tragic childhood, Ouma was the happiest person I’ve ever met. Joy seemed to radiate off of him, during interviews, and even in the ring. He would smile ear-to-ear at the end of rounds, seemingly wanting to hug his opponent for giving him a fun three minutes.

I remember on a conference call one time, someone told him his life would make a great movie. Ouma promptly gave everyone on the call his cell phone number, in case they wanted to be part of the movie. He was open and trusting and saw no reason not to give a few dozen writers his personal number.

Since his retirement, Ouma’s life has taken some interesting turns. He once struck up a conversation with a man in a bar and accepted the man’s invitation to come back to his house and have a drink, which seems completely in character for Ouma. The man then made several passes at Ouma, attempted to sexually assault him, and Ouma was arrested or knocking him out.

Ouma also made a return to Uganda in recent year. He wasn’t arrested as soon as he set foot on his home country’s ground, but a warrant for him was issued in the United States, while he was gone, for missing a court date on drug charges.

Everything about his life seems to be a contradiction, which fascinates me to no end. Someday, I’ll finish that screenplay. Hopefully he won’t have changed his number.

Five problems with social media

So Deana is making me do this 30 Days of Writing project. We have a different prompt each day which is supposed to help fill the internet with joy and insight. Or something.

Let me just say that I hate writing prompts. Coming up with an original idea or angle is an important part of writing. Why do most American Idol contestants fail? The number one reason cited is “song selection”. Writing prompts are the song selection of the craft. Idol would have been a very different show if they said, “This week, everyone has to sing Mele Kalikimaka.”

But Deana said I have to do it, so, with my objection registered, here’s my crack at topic number one: Five problems with social media.

OK, let me just also say that this is a terrible prompt. Not only are you telling me what to write about, but your big idea, to spur creativity, is a Buzz Feed article? You’re leaving out the click bait portion though. Today’s prompt is actually Five problems with social media that will cause your JAW to DROP. And you won’t BELIEVE number four!

Did I mention I don’t feel well, and I’m not in a good mood? Also, I don’t believe I’m being paid for this. Let’s get started.

  1. WHAT. FREAKING. HAPPENED?

IMG_7232Ohhhhh my gawd! Did you see that??? Un-friggin-believeable. GAAAAAAAA!

Sometimes Twitter is a party you weren’t invited to. And when it is, it’s awfully tough to figure out what you’re missing.

I assume from the cursing and capital letters on my timeline that Daniel Murphy just hit another home run.

Last Saturday, I was in the Kenan Stadium press box when suddenly it became clear to everyone present that …. Um … something happened in the Michigan game.

Think before you tweet. We get it. You’re excited. But does GAAAAAAA really add anything to the discussion? Can you maybe use your words to convey your excitement. I’m also not a big fan of the “this is so amazing that I’ve lost the ability to type coherently” brand of tweets. “K38f8$*%*#!” Yeah, that added a lot, Laugh Shack. Thanks for that.

 

  1. You Probably Think This Plea For Attention Is About You, Don’t You?

When Deana first invited me to participate in this exercise, I wasn’t sure if I’d have time. So, as anyone would do as a key first step in the decisionmaking process, I went on Facebook. “Facing a tough decision,” I statused. “What to do???”

When I found out it involved writing prompts, I went back to Facebook. “So frustrated right now!” I wrote.

It’s a simple rule. Share, or don’t share. That’s entirely up to you. But don’t half-share and force people to show they care by asking, “What’s wrong sweetheart?” “Praying for you!” “It’ll be okay.”

  1. Everyone you know is there.

Remember when you were in college, and you told your roommate, “You should TOTALLY meet my BFF from high school! You two would get along SO WELL!” And why did you think that? Because they both liked you. But then, when the big meeting finally took place, they were both like, “Yeah, you’re kind of a chump. And I don’t get any of these inside jokes. And the stories you two can’t get through without collapsing in laughter? They don’t sound that funny.” Yeah, that’s what Facebook is like. EVERYONE YOU KNOW IS THERE. That means your college buds, and your aunt, and your boss, and, depending on your age, your mom or kids (or, in my case, both). This is why you spend so long making seating charts at weddings—so these people don’t get too close to each other. And yet they’re all there, sharing their thoughts on your latest status update. That’s just a lot of fun, right there.

  1. Made-up Holidays

Hey hey hey… did you hear that it’s National Foot Rub day? That means that EVERY FREAKING PERSON ON EARTH has to go on Twitter and Facebook and try to say something original about foot rubs. Yes, even Arby’s has to come up with a way to tie their horse-meat sandwiches (I’m assuming, based on the name of the sauce they offer) to foot rubs. “Groans from a vigorous foot rub are wonderful. Groans from your car’s undercarriage are not. Get checked out at Meineke Muffler today!”

Pi Day. Star Wars Day. Back to the Future Day. Seriously. Just stop. None of it is funny.

Unless you’re giving out free stuff. You can tweet about how to get the free stuff.

  1. It’s all an intricate science

I’ve been to meetings at two different jobs this month where I was told the importance of reaching out to Twitter Influencers. You need to compile a list of the T.I.’s (as marketing consultants call them) and incorporate them in your tweeting.

Remember in the early days of Twitter, how people would write to celebrities and beg them for a retweet? That’s basically what “reaching out to Twitter Influencers” means. You want these influential taste makers to retweet your stuff, so all their followers will know you’re cool, and follow you too.

And how did these T.I’s get so I on T? Probably by following a formula laid out by a marketing expert. That’s usually how that works, right?

I remember, years ago, UFC champ Jon “Bones” Jones retweeted a link to my story on him and his football-playing brothers. I tagged him when I tweeted out the link, not because he was a Twitter Influencer and his followers could help my Social Media Reach. I did it, because I thought I’d written a pretty darn good story, and I thought he might like to read it.

I also benefitted from a number of Twitter Influencers (Ben Swain, Richard Averitte, Jim Young) when I moved to North Carolina and had to build an audience. But they didn’t start retweeting me because I compiled a list and systematically won them over … first by retweeting THEIR stuff and then by strategically tagging them in MY stuff. No, they thought my tweets were either informative or entertaining (or, on rare occasions, both), and, when I linked to stories, they liked them too. So they recommended me to their followers.

I know, what does quality have to do with marketing? My fault.

Road Dog: All 32 NFL Stadiums in One Season

I didn’t watch the unveiling of the NFL schedule on TV last night.

It’s not that I thought it was silly to televise it. No, I’ve seen Storage Wars. I’ve seen the last five seasons of The Bacherlor(ette). I’ve seen that show that Comedy Central is airing after Colbert (by accident). I realize that NOTHING is too silly to put on TV.

No, the real reason I didn’t watch the NFL schedule show is that two hours wasn’t going to be enough time for me to get anything figured out. I’d need much longer (say, a workday, perhaps) and access to a printer for week-by-week schedules, maps, and calendar pages.

I wanted to plan out a way to do the impossible:  Get to all 32 NFL stadiums in one 17-week regular season.

I tried it on a smaller scale when the ACC football schedule was released, and I came up with a way to get to all 15 ACC schools (including Notre Dame) and even catch a Maryland home game during the upcoming regular season.

If you care, here’s my itinerary:

8/30 UCLA at UVa

9/1 Miami at Louisville

9/6 SC State at Clemson

9/13 Southern Cal at BC

9/20 Clemson at FSU

9/27 FSU at NC State

10/3 Louisville at Syracuse

10/11 UNC at Notre Dame

10/16 Va Tech at Pitt

10/18 Iowa at Maryland

10/23 Miami at Virginia Tech

11/1 UNC at Miami

11/6 Clemson at Wake

11/15 Clemson at Georgia Tech

11/20 UNC at Duke

11/29 NC State at UNC

I thought the NFL would be tougher: Twice as many teams, an entire nation to cross, and only a few extra weeks.

As it turned out, it wasn’t hard at all. The ability to hit three games a week made it significantly easier than the ACC challenge. I even manage to catch one of the games in London, and, like starters on a playoff team, I get to take Week 17 off. Even more amazing, I only have to work seven Sundays (since I assume I’ll need the day to get back from whatever ACC game I’ll be at the night before)

So, here it is: 33 games in 16 weeks.

Week 1: Thurs: Green Bay at Seattle, Monday: San Diego at Arizona.

There wasn’t a good West Coast game to catch on Sunday, and I didn’t want to do too much flying.

Week 2: Thurs: Pittsburgh at Baltimore, Sunday: Miami at Buffalo, Monday: Philadelphia at Indianapolis

Three games in a weekend, but they’re all clustered fairly close together. I could drive it.

Week 3: Thurs: Tampa at Atlanta, Sunday: Washington at Philadelphia, Monday: Chicago at Jets

Again, a doable three-game trip as I could just drive up the East Coast.

Week 4: Thurs: Giants at Washington, Monday: New England at KC.

Week 5: Thurs: Minnesota at Green Bay, Sunday: Kansas City at San Francisco

I get Monday night off, since Washington is hosting again. That allows me to fly west and knock out a California home game.

Week 6: Thurs: Indianapolis at Houston, Mon: San Francisco at St. Louis

Week 7: Thurs: Jets at New England, Mon: Houston at Pittsburgh

Week 8: Thurs: San Diego at Denver, Mon: Washington at Dallas

Halfway through (I’ve seen 16 games through Week Seven), I have my first repeats on the visiting team.

Week 9: Thurs: New Orleans at Carolina, Mon: Indianapolis at Giants

Week 10: My first Thursday off. Kind of. I’ll be flying to England to watch Sunday’s Dallas vs. Jacksonville game in London

Week 11: Thurs: Buffalo at Miami, Mon: Pittsburgh at Tennessee

I get to see both Bills-Dolphins games! Well, *I’m* excited about that anyway.

Week 12: Thurs: Kansas City at Oakland, Monday: Baltimore at New Orleans

Week 13: Thurs: Chicago at Detroit, Sun: Carolina at Minnesota

I get to spend Thanksgiving at Ford Field.

Week 14: Thurs: Dallas at Chicago, Mon: New England at San Diego

Week 15: Sunday: Cincinnati at Cleveland

Other than my trip to London, this is my only one-game week.

Week 16: Thurs: Houston at Jacksonville, Sunday: Green Bay at Tampa Bay, Mon: Denver at Cincinnati

I close with a flourish. If Texans, Jaguars, Bucs and Bengals games can be called a flourish.

So there it is. There are 10 teams that I see three times, eight that I only see once (including the Super Bowl champions). I travel a total of 43,712 miles. That’s not quite two trips around the equator, but it’s pretty close.

I’m ready to go. Now, I just need a volunteer to pay for this.

 

 

Growing up journalist

I did something today that I haven’t done in years and, honestly, thought I would never do again.

I applied for a real job.

Don’t get me wrong—that doesn’t mean that I’m going to TAKE the real job, or even be offered an interview for it. But photo(42)applying was a big step for me. It’s been years since I had a real job. Heck, it’s been years since I donated all my real-job suits to Goodwill.

It turns out my real-job days may not be behind me, as I’d thought. Since walking out on my job as bank executive and ending my previous life, I’ve paid the bills by writing and teaching.

That’s not a slight against teachers, who perform a noble and important duty and aren’t paid anywhere near enough. But it wasn’t a real job in the “nine-to-five every day” sort of way. I had summers off and complained when Academic Senate meetings kept me on campus until 2. If I wanted to wear an Eagles sweatshirt and jeans to work, I could, although I’d probably have to make sure to avoid walking past the dean’s office.

I was going to say, “I was usually home when the girls got home from school,” when it occurred to me: My daughters have literally never known what it was like to have a dad with a real job.

They know what it’s like to have a dad that complains about having to get up so early when it’s my turn to drop them off to school, and that his notes to the teacher will probably be written on the back of an end-of-quarter box score.

They know that the dinner plan for the week includes notations for “press box meal” and that that sometimes means frozen pizza at midnight. They ask “how long was it” before the score when someone tells them they went to the game last night.tajh

They used to have to tell friends to be quiet when they come home from school with them, because, “Dad’s on the radio talking about sex.” (It was actually the Stupid News conference call for the next morning’s prep, but they never grasped that.) And now they know that Wednesday nights after 9:00, they can’t walk to the kitchen to get a snack, because “dad’s on the Chicken Show.”

When a friend gives them their parents’ number, so we can arrange a play date, they explain that the best way for them to reach me is with a private message on Twitter, and that “they punted to Gio” is a perfectly acceptable excuse for picking them up late from a friend’s house. So is, “I’m courtside at Cameron and can’t get out until the half.”

When dad brings work home with him, it means rewatching the same pass play over and over on the DVR, or answering the phone & having a heavyweight contender on the other end.krest losman

They watch the local news to see if they can find me in the background of B roll and read game programs before bed, because dad wrote the cover story.

When they listen to music, they know I’ll probably recognize more songs than their friends’ dads, even if I call fun. “Brandon Guyer’s walk-up music” and the will.i.am/Britney Spears collaboration, “The Club Cameron song.”

They know there’s a good chance I’ll show up for their teacher conference with a lanyard & credential around my neck, and I may transcribe audio while watching their gymnastics class. I may use a quote from Coach K when I run their Odyssey of the Mind team meetings, but they also know I’ll be there for all of those activities. Not all dads with real jobs can do the same.

They also know that Monday nights are for us to watch The Bachelor together, not another football game. They know that when I’m done with my sports work for the day, I belong to them. They know I still can’t fully stifle the giggle when I say I’m leaving for “work”.

They know which player laughed when I had to take notes from our interview with one of their singing Hannah Montana xina lakerspens, and that the biggest, toughest looking guys sometimes cry when they lose too.

They know it’s important to love what you do, and to remember that people win contests and bid high in auctions to get the chance to go to work with me.  They know that not every kid gets a note saying “you’re going to meet Kobe and Phil Jackson” for their birthday, like their older sister did.

They’ve also always known not to worry too much about money. A check for work you did months ago always seems to arrive in the mail, just when there’s a big bill coming due. And occasionally, you find a check you were sent weeks ago when you reach into the pocket of your winter coat or move books on the coffee table.

But grown-ups know that faith in the check’s arrival is fleeting, and while media guides and game notes are usually an acceptable trade for a night in the guest room of a friend who lives close to an out-of-town arena, they don’t work as well with the cell phone and cable companies.

I think they know that writing isn’t a job, it’s a compulsion. If not, they’re learning quickly, because I’ve seen them with their journals.

I don’t know how they’ll react to having a Real-Job dad. Their schedule would be more dependable, their childhood a little more normal. And maybe that’s a good thing—I’m not entirely convinced.

I applied for a real job today. I’m not sure how I feel about that.

I guess I’ll find out when the phone rings.

A Very Special Bucket List

My birthday is next week. So I’ve been taking stock of my life—where I am, what I’ve done, and what goals I’d still like to achieve.

If you’re considering doing the same thing, I’d recommend against it. After my self-evaluation, I came to a disturbing conclusion. After all this time as an adult, I’m no closer to achieving the dream I had as a child – I’m not a character on a TV show.

I don’t mean that I wanted someone to make a TV show about my life. I wanted to BE a TV character.

I was never picky. I didn’t have to be the main character. Quirky sidekick friend would have been fine. So would precocious child added as ratings flag in later seasons, or mystical old person who still tells dirty jokes.

It didn’t have to be a sitcom. I’d have been perfectly content to be cop who doesn’t go by the book or underdog lawyer fighting for what’s right.

But my life is not a TV plot, and I have proof. So, in honor of my birthday, here’s my bucket list:  Things that I haven’t done yet, because my lifelong ambition hasn’t been realized.fashion show

Things I’ve never done, because I’m not a character on a TV show

  1. Gone to a fashion show
  2. Had tickets to a fashion show, but ended up being IN the fashion show, because something happened to all the models and my friends and I happened to be the same size. As fashion models.
  3. Been to a masquerade party and had a hilarious mix up with someone wearing a mask similar to the one my date is wearing
  4. Presented at an elementary school career day and beenmasquerade immediately and repeatedly interrupted by insulting questions from the students, while the teacher stayed silent, apparently not aware that this was inappropriate behavior from the kids she’s responsible for teaching.
  5. Had someone tell me to “turn on the TV now” and turned it on, just as a news story was beginning that gave me information I needed.
  6. Had everyone in a movie theater turn and tell me “Shh!” when I said one thing, in a whisper.
  7. Run into a waiter and knock over the tray of food he’s carrying.
  8. Gone through a bathroom trash can for an innocent reason, found a positive pregnancy test, and assumed that it belonged to the wrong person.
  9. Argued with someone on a basketball court, blindly throw the ball as I’m walking away, and have it go into the basket.
  10. Made a mistake while doing laundry and had suds come pouring out of the machine and fill the room.turkey
  11. Tried to take a picture with a camera, on a tripod, with a timer.
  12. Burned a Thanksgiving turkey so badly it turned completely black
  13. Touched one button and irretrievably deleted a computer file.
  14. Tried on a dozen outfits for an important event and modeled for a friend who gave me thumbs up or troubled head shakes.
  15. Picked a lock
  16. Get my place ransacked by people looking for something
  17. Ransacked someone’s place looking for something
  18. Said, “We can’t go to the police. We need to handle this ourselves.”
  19. Said, “Mark my words. I’ll destroy you.”
  20. Been slapped across the face by a random person in a restaurant after they misunderstood what I said.
  21. Had someone throw a drink in my face at a restaurant and storm out.
  22. Get tied to a chair but manage to untie the ropes, or cut them, without anyone noticingfonz
  23. Said to a friend, “Let’s role play what you’re going to say. You be you, and I’ll be …”
  24. Played charades
  25. Watched someone leave their house and drive off and be completely invisible to them … because I’m in my car.
  26. Been invited to watch a married couple renew their vows
  27. Fell face first into a cake so my face was completely covered in icing
  28. Get into a paint fight while painting a room with all my friends

So that’s my list. I think it’s time to get to work on some of these items. After all, I plan to do a clips show for my birthday next year.

The TV cart

It was back near the start of my writing career, back when I was moonlighting at it while teaching math at Genesee Community College. (Not sure, but based on my answers at social events, their motto might have been, “Yes, the one you can see from the Thruway on your way to Buffalo”)

It was near the start of the school year, and my teaching career, which meant I had a remedial algebra class, reteaching what should have been learned in eighth grade, or perhaps earlier.  Week three of the semester, there was a good chance I was giving my famous lecture on how subtracting negative numbers is just like the story of Cinderella. (As was the case with most of the lectures in my “famous lecture” series, they were constructed for my own entertainment moreso than any impact as a teaching method. Although I’ve had other math teachers steal my Cinderella lecture for their own use)

It was still warm, as summer gave up its grip on the area slowly, which meant there was more tattoo than clothing visible in the student seats as I began my the lecture for my 9:20 Tuesday class.

I’d only had time to tell a few jokes when the door to the room banged open and a female student came in, late, looking flustered. My late policy was similar to my attendance policy (“You’re in college now. We’ve got your money. Do what you want.”) so I was sure she wasn’t worried about the consequences of being late to my class. Although the Cinderella lecture starts off strong, so she’d missed some good material.

“Sorry I’m late,” she said. “Somebody just crashed a plane into a building in New York City. It’s crazy.” She then took her seat.

We were about eight hours from Manhattan, so I wasn’t sure how a plane crash there delayed her in any way, but I was thinking Cessna or Lear, not American Airlines transcontinental flight.

I continued my lecture.

After a few minutes, I could see activity picking up in the hallway outside the room. People glared in at us, grim looks of judgment on their faces.

I was just getting to the part about the fairy godmother offering to whack a stepsister for Cinderella, but I’d clearly lost the class, as well as a good portion of my own attention. “Okay,” I said. “Let’s see what’s going on,” and dismissed class.

I’m not sure what classrooms use now. I’m sure most of them have smart boards or some other kind of built-in monitors as part of the standard-issue school technology, but back in 2001, if you wanted to show a video in class, you needed to sign out one of those TV carts. With the TV on top, they were about five and a half feet tall, and they had the VCR and (if you got a newer one) DVD player on the lower shelf.

Image

The school had moved their entire inventory of TV carts out into the indoor courtyard. All of them were on. Each had a cluster of people around them, stricken silent by the images on screen. I stood watching. I must have seen a plane hit a building about three dozen times in the first 10 minutes. I remember thinking to myself that I wished they’d show anything else except that clip again.

I got my wish. I was wrong. A short time later, the twins gave up the fight and collapsed, one at a time and the buildings falling in on themselves replaced the plane video. Over and over they fell. They’d be back upright again, a few seconds later, only to fall again.

I remember bits and pieces of the next few days, in no particular order. I remember crying every time they showed the rescue workers forming the bucket lines, to carry away debris. I remember going out to the local diner to get away from the TV on the national day of mourning, and the entire restaurant spontaneously singing “God Bless America” at the time the candlelight vigil was scheduled to begin.

Most of all, I remember the TV carts. I never signed out one again (not that there was a huge need for them in remedial math to begin with).   Any time I heard the rattle of one rolling down the hall or saw one set up in the courtyard, I remember feeling a punch in the guy and wondering, “What’s happened THIS time?”

The TV carts brought news, and even though after that day, the news was usually a Weather Channel map showing the approach of an oncoming snowstorm, in my mind the news could only be one thing: Columns of smoke and building that would never stop falling.

It Ain’t Over

The Triple-A playoffs start tonight. To get in the mood, my friend and press-box neighbor Adam Sobsey wrote a nice piece for the Paris Review about the most exciting game he’s ever attended.

I don’t claim to be Adam’s equal as a story teller, but I thought I’d join in on the fun.

I’ve seen four MLB All Star Games, one World Series (2006, in Detroit). I was at the NLDS game at Shea Stadium on October 4, 2006, when Mets catcher Paul Lo Duca tagged out two Dodgers runners at the plate on the same play. Two weeks later, I saw the Mets beat the Cardinals to even the NLCS, and heard manager Willie Randolph announce at the post-game press conference, “Game Seven starts now.”

I’ve seen two no-hitters and two triple plays. I’ve seen one bench-clearing brawl, when then-Phillies closer Ricky Bottalico plunked Barry Bonds.  Perhaps acting out some rage of unknown origin, Barry charged the mound and literally beat bumps on Ricky Bo’s head.

Last year’s Jayson Werth walk-off to lead the Nats past the Cards in Game Four of the NLDS is a candidate. So was Schilling vs. Maddux on April 10, 1998. The two had met five days earlier in Atlanta and combined for 21 strikeouts in 17 innings as the Phillies won 2-1 in 2:07. Sequels are rarely better than the original, but as I watched from field level at the Vet (this game was worth the upgrade from the 700 level) Schil and Maddux combined to allow just 8 baserunners in 17 innings. Schilling fanned 10 and got the complete-game 1-0 shutout win in two hours even.

But my most-exciting game ever goes back to the last time I covered a playoff team (and, up until now, the ONLY time I’ve covered one at the professional level—baseball or football):  The 2006 Rochester Red Wings.

Their manager was a young-at-heart southern boy from Mississippi named Stan Cliburn. His identical twin brother Stew was pitching coach, leading to national attention, since the Wings were the Triple-A farm club for the Minnesota Twins.

Stan liked fishin’ drinkin’ and women, not necessarily in that order, and not as much as he liked attention. He once bragged to beat writers that he’d hit both of his MLB home runs “off Hall of Fame pitchers,” apparently not aware that the internet made it possible to check that. Neither Jerry Koosman nor Ross Grimsley ever made it to Cooperstown. Stan seemed offended that we wouldn’t just take him at his word.

Stan once started a post-game press conference with, “Sparky Anderson once said that a manager wins five games a year for his team. Tonight was one of ‘em.” (I can’t find a record of Sparky ever saying this, by the way.)

The local weekly Red Wings show interviewed Stan for a preseason feature on the team, and he showed up wearing a full-length white fur coat. It wasn’t the only fur-lined item in his wardrobe.

fur coat

Stan once went golfing at Rochester’s Oak Hill country club with Twins roving instructor and Hall of Fame player Paul Molitor. The Oak Hill people asked Paul to sign their Wall of Fame, then had to do some fast talking to prevent Stan from signing it too.

On August 7, Rochester was in the final month of a season that would end in the Governor’s Cup finals when they hosted Pawtucket. I was in my first season working for MLB Advanced Media, on their Gameday pitch-by-pitch tracking system.

The Wings were clinging to a one-game lead over Scranton, and they jumped out to a 4-0 lead on the Paw Sox. Pawtucket scored two in the seventh, however, and five in the eighth, courtesy of an error, passed ball and two walks, among other carnage.

Willie Harris homered in the top of the ninth to give Pawtucket an 8-4 lead.

Then things got crazy. Rochester had two runners on and two outs in the bottom of the ninth. Scranton had already won, and Rochester appeared headed for a first-place tie when right fielder Andres Torres hit a slow roller to second. Alejandro Machado fielded it and tossed to first, beating Torres by about five steps. The Pawtucket players jogged off the field and began congratulating each other.

When I went to my MLB AM training prior to the season, they spent a great deal of time explaining how to fix errors if the wrong data got entered into the system. “What if we accidentally end the game early?” I asked. The trainers exchanged blank looks and answered, “That shouldn’t happen.”

As the beat writers got ready to run to the clubhouse and I entered final data to close the book on the game, the home plate umpire pointed frantically at the spot the catcher had just left.

Prior to Torres’ weak grounder that appeared to end the game, Pawtucket catcher Alberto Concepcion hit the bat with his mitt. Catcher’s interference was the call, which automatically awarded Torres first base.  Bases loaded, two outs, tying run at the plate.

I set about trying to un-end the game in the system, while explaining to the MLB folks in Manhattan what had happened.

“Hopefully, this last guy will make an out and we can just make the change later on,” my support person said. At the same time, Rochester third baseman Terry Tiffee hit a 2-0 pitch to deep right for a game-tying grand slam, three pitches after everyone in the ballpark, except the home plate ump, thought the game was over.

During the rally, Cliburn had sent in a pinch runner for lead-footed catcher Shawn Wooten. The only other catcher on the roster was Heintz, who was currently playing DH. He took the field, meaning that the Wings lost their DH for the rest of the game.

After Pawtucket opened the tenth with a single, Cliburn came out to change pitchers. Managers in leagues with a DH rarely get to do a double switch, and Stan was going to make the most of the opportunity. He sent players scurrying into the dugout to get new gloves as they moved positions to make room or the new defensive player. After the dust cleared, the reliever got an inning ending double play.

In the bottom of the tenth, former Duke cornerback and former Durham Bull Quinton McCracken hit a walk-off, pinch-hit  double to keep the Wings in first. And 20 minutes later, working with the MLB folks in Manhattan, we finally had a box score that accurately reflected what had taken place that evening.

That meant I missed Stan’s post-game press conference. He invited the media into his office, looked at the beat writer from the local paper and opened his remarks with, “How ‘bout that double switch, huh?”

The Gentleman Caller

The Durham Bulls play at 5:05 on Sundays instead of the normal 7:05 first pitch time they use for the other six days of the week. That’s a good thing:  Otherwise I’d have missed last night’s home invasion.

It was just before 10:00. I was flipping between the VMAs and an old Rams’ preseason game. Former Blue Devils safety Matt Daniels (the sole reason I was watching a Rams preseason game to begin with) had just missed a diving tackle when the front door of my apartment opened.

I was home alone, and not expecting company—plus, most of my potential company tends to knock before just walking in. So this was a troubling development.

I listened for footsteps (which would have been worrisome) or a shout of “maintenance” (which would have been even more worrisome since it would have clearly been a lie. I couldn’t even get maintenance to come when my air conditioning broke down and the temperature in my apartment hit 91.)

My mind raced. Clearly, I’d forgotten to lock my front door. That’s not surprising. I usually have my hands full when I enter my apartment and just assume I’ll remember to check and lock up before bed.

I don’t, always, which is why this wasn’t even the first time this has happened to me.  When I lived in Arlington, Texas, I chose my apartment based on proximity to the ballpark (My real estate tip for the day: Don’t do that.)  One night, a noise woke me up, and when I sat up to investigate, I saw the silhouette of the person who had just entered my apartment, slowly approaching my bed.

I was just out of college, so I thought I was young, rich and invincible. Without thinking, I leapt out of bed and charged at the intruder. It turned out to be a woman who reacted to an argument with her boyfriend by taking a handful of sleeping pills, chasing him into the parking lot, getting disoriented, and returning home to the wrong building.

Needless to say, she’d had a rough night, and when she returned to what she thought was home, she was greeted by a shadowy figure leaping out of bed and charging at her. She returned to the parking lot, screaming, and the police eventually arrived to sort out the entire matter.

This time, like any aging pro, I decided to rely on my off-speed stuff instead of charging forward with the heat. I said, “hello?” in what I hoped was a calm, but slightly annoyed voice, then got up from the couch and crept to the wall bordering the entry hall.

I looked around for a weapon, but I’d just left the lamp, the tile-topped coffee table, and several large books, all of which were near the couch.

After a pause that seemed a little too lengthy for my comfort level, the intruder said, “Oh. I guess I … live next door.”

That should have been followed by the door opening and closing again, but instead, there was no sound at all.

He might have been waiting for me to say, “That’s okay.”  I didn’t. First of all, it really wasn’t. It’s not that hard to remember where you live. There are numbers on the doors. Secondly, I didn’t want him to know where I was. On the off chance that he was a violent criminal, hoping to lull me into a false sense of security, I wanted the jump on him. From my spot on the wall, I would see him first, especially if he was looking at the couch, where he’d heard me speak initially.

“I live next door,” he repeated. “I guess I opened the wrong door.”  Still, he didn’t leave.

I hurriedly decided on a game plan. If he came any further into my apartment, after he was clearly aware that he was trespassing, he would emerge from the entry hall, and I would drop him with a wheel kick.

I waited … and worried. I’d thrown plenty of wheel kicks, usually into a heavy bag, occasionally over the heads of my daughters as they giggled, and, earlier in the day, over the heads of a friend’s daughters. They also giggled—the friend, not so much. This, however, would be my first kick to an actual human skull.

I positioned my feet and took a deep breath. I could do this. If the roundhouse kick wasn’t lethal, I’d be in position to throw a couple left hooks to the liver. If that didn’t stop him, I was probably doomed.

I bounced on the balls of my feet and ran the lyrics to hard rock songs through my head. It was about to be on.

The standoff was broken by Zoe, my pet cat. She stretched, lazily, and trotted past me, tail in the air, to greet our new visitor. Perhaps he had food. She turned the corner and disappeared into the entry hall, meowing.

I was concerned for Zoe’s safety. I wondered how I’d explain to my daughters that I’d let someone break in and steal the cat. I worried that the intruder might tell the landlord I had an animal in the apartment.

Almost immediately, the door opened and closed again, and I heard footsteps outside, retreating from my door.  Zoe returned and gave me a withering look.

“You couldn’t throw a wheel kick to save your life,” she seemed to be saying.

I left my spot on the ambush wall and went to get her a cat treat. Then I decided I should probably lock the door.