Sunday, December 13, 2009
Ever since then, no one’s been able to get a club out of my hand. Not only do I love being out on the course, surrounded by nature in a beautiful setting, the game gives me a special language that I can speak with my father, something that I treasure deeply. And despite Roy McAvoy’s (Tin Cup) warning that “perfection is unattainable,” I enjoy tinkering and experimenting with my golf swing in hopes of discovering that one magic move that will unleash my full potential.
But more than anything else, I am captivated by the individualistic nature of the sport – that I’m out there alone, and it is all up to me to overcome the hazards, the elements, the breaks, and even my inner demons to get that little white ball into the hole.
Each time I tee it up is like taking a long look in the mirror and being put face to face with every facet of my personality. I learn more about myself – my strengths, my weaknesses, my integrity, my spirit – in 18 holes than I ever could on Dr. Melfi’s couch.
The game has this uncanny ability to expose your true character, testing you in every way imaginable. It will deflect a perfectly-executed shot into the water. It will defy you to bounce back from a double bogey that’s completely your fault. It will present you the opportunity to cheat without anyone knowing. And the way you handle all of this – the misfortune, the adversity, the ethics – can reveal who you genuinely are as a person.
Sadly, the exact opposite appears to be true of Tiger Woods.
On the golf course, Woods is the embodiment of a champion, possessing an iconic combination of talent, skill and athleticism that has propelled him to play the game at arguably the highest level ever. With a mental and emotional approach that rivals his physical gifts, he can seemingly will himself and his golf ball to do whatever is needed to succeed (case in point: winning the 2008 U.S. open on a broken leg).
But with the recent revelation that he has been unfaithful to his wife, cheating on her with enough mistresses to field a couple of starting basketball lineups, the public persona we’ve witnessed on the fairways was evidently nothing more than a façade.
When the news first broke, I immediately dismissed it, figuring it was just the work of some tabloid publication scrounging for exposure. After all, I had seen the American-dream portraits of Woods with his family. I had watched the commercial in which he eagerly awaits the delivery of a tiny set of Nike golf clubs for his unborn child. I had witnessed the scene at the British Open, where he fell into his wife’s arms, overcome with emotion from winning his first major title since losing his father.
There was no way he could’ve done this.
“It’s Tiger,” I assured myself.
That sentiment of belief carried a lot of credence, having been built over years and years of Woods being in the limelight. From the moment he walked onto the stage of The Mike Douglas Show at the age of two, he's been a part of our lives. We may have only watched him on a TV screen or from behind a gallery rope, but we got the sense we knew him, and we cheered him on as if he was our best friend.
The personification of hard work and determination, he was the poster child for everything that was right with the world, showing us that true greatness is possible, inspiring us to keep reaching for the stars and going after our dreams.
Several years ago, when I was attempting to play golf competitively, he was the gold standard that I was always striving for. His undying self-belief and bottomless resolve to get better motivated me whenever I struggled to get up those last few reps in the weight room or thought about skipping that extra bucket of practice balls. All I had to say to myself was, “Tiger’s working,” and I was immediately back on track.
And during the tough times, when I couldn’t do anything right, and I doubted that I had what it took, I would wish that I could be more like him.
Now, I feel foolish for ever wanting that.
But beyond his failure as any sort of role model, what makes his infidelity that much harder to comprehend is that he is a golfer. Unlike other sports, where the prevailing attitude is, “If you’re not cheating, you’re not trying,” golf is a gentleman’s game, a game of honor, and every player who puts a peg in the ground is expected to uphold that.
That’s why we rake the sand traps and repair the green when our golf ball makes an imprint. We stay quiet while others are hitting. We call penalties on ourselves. And at the end of the round, we sign our scorecard, putting the weight of our name behind the number we post.
So while it may have a (much-deserved) rap for being exclusive and elitist, when it comes to honesty, golf rightfully holds its head high above the rest. And it’s shocking that a man who has devoted his entire life to the game could somehow miss out on its most basic lesson.
Look, I understand that he’s “far short of perfect,” and that everybody makes mistakes. As a young, good-looking billionaire, I’m sure he’s constantly presented with a buffet of women that any man would have a hard time resisting. And we don’t know what went on behind the closed doors of his Florida mansion…he could have a miserable marriage, or his wife could’ve threatened to go Lorena Bobbitt on him if he didn’t win The Masters every year.
There are a million different reasons why this happened, but unless he has a sex addiction – a real, medical condition he needs to be treated for – they all ring hollow to me.
Because when it comes down to it, you either do the right thing, or you don’t. You either act with character, or you don’t. You either stay true to your values, or you don’t. And the allure of forbidden fruit or the actions of others or any other excuse you can come up with should have no effect on the choices you end up making.
Fortunately for Woods, the world will eventually move on from this. We are a forgiving society, and it’s only a matter of time until our what-have-you-done-to-me-lately ADD kicks in. Sure, his first tournament back will be a circus, but once he starts winning majors again, most people will remember why they liked him in the first place – for his tremendous skill as a golfer.
But I will never look at him the same.
While he owes me no apology, he has violated a moral code that I believe in, and I cannot separate his ability as an athlete from the deceit of his infidelity. I see the whole man, and this will forever be part of the picture.
I had never doubted Woods before, whether it was his work as a philanthropist (which I will still applaud) or his capacity to overcome a five-shot deficit. But as more women come forward and more tawdry tales are told, I don’t know what to believe at this point…nothing seems implausible.
And if allegations suddenly pop up that he cheated on the golf course or was involved in shady business practices or took steroids to build his body, I’m not going to be able to automatically reject them anymore.
“After all,” I’ll cynically consider, “it’s Tiger.”
Sunday, December 6, 2009
In fact, one of my mom’s favorite pastimes is telling me how handsome her female friends think I am. I know that whenever I run into one of them at a wedding or event that it’s only a matter of time before my mother calls to relay their glowing report.
And while I appreciate the confidence boost, I’ve had to explain to her that because her contemporaries are married and have kids who are older than I am, their flattering opinion could never change my dating life from resembling an episode of Seinfeld – a show about nothing.
“Let me know when you start hanging out with Mrs. Robinson,” I’d say.
Last winter, though, the goodwill I had garnered over the years finally paid off. Having just moved to a new city, I barely knew anyone, and I was spending most of my nights driving around aimlessly, hoping to find a Subway where I could pick up dinner.
But that all changed after one of my mom’s oldest friends suggested I get in touch with her niece, Emily, who happened to live in the same area code. We exchanged a few e-mails, and she postponed on me once, but we were eventually able to connect.
As we settled in at the Thai restaurant of her choice, I was still unsure if it was a date, or if she was simply doing her aunt a favor. Not that I cared…she was prettier in person than her pictures I’d stalked on Facebook, and when it took us 45 minutes to open our menus because we were talking so much, I had to smile at my good fortune.
Over the next several months, the chemistry we had that first night continued to grow. She quickly accepted my over-the-top obsession for Texas Longhorn athletics, and I slowly got used to her affinity for singing random dialogue as if she were in a musical. Sharing the same sense of humor, we laughed constantly, and there were very few occasions when I didn’t feel completely at ease.
That is, until it came time to meet her parents.
Because I’ve had fewer relationships than Screech Powers, I have only been “presented” as the boyfriend once, and that was when I was a freshman in college. But being so young, it was a relatively low-pressure experience…I was nothing more than the non-threatening boy their daughter was hanging out with.
This was completely different, though. At this age, you’re not just going to football games or dancing at fraternity formals anymore…there are playoff implications here, and you are only introduced to someone’s family if there’s a chance for bigger and better things.
My knack for getting adults to like me was going to be tested like it never had before.
Adding to the pressure was the fact that Emily had recently come home with me for a weekend and met my parents. To say that they liked her would be an understatement. She charmed them with her personality, and – without any hint from me – brought them the perfect thank-you presents. They were so impressed that I think the first thing my dad did on Monday morning was call his lawyer to have her added to the will.
With the standard now set so impossibly high, I had to devise a way to match Emily’s performance. Knowing that her parents were friendly with my parents, I decided to use that to my advantage.
So when it was finally showtime, and we all sat down to dinner, I tried my best to relate as much of the conversation back to my mom and dad. Like a salesman staying on pitch, it was Jeanie-Stoller-this and Joe-Stoller-that. I figured that even though I might sound ridiculous, at least they were consistently being reminded that I came from a good family.
But when her father asked me what kind of job I thought the President was doing, my strategy reached a dead end.
Seeing how I know next to nothing about politics, I had no idea how to answer. I felt as if I was playing Trivial Pursuit and landed on green for a “Science and Nature” question about the intricacies of photosynthesis. And after three minutes of incoherent rambling and Beavis & Butthead “Uhhhs…” my ignorance was proven out.
Had Brian Fantana (Anchorman) been there, he would’ve turned to me and said, “Take it easy, Champ. Why don’t you sit this next one out…stop talking for a while.”
Luckily, her parents were as nice as they could be, smiling and nodding, as if I had made some sort of valid point. But inside, I felt like an idiot.
With my tail tucked firmly between my legs, I kept to myself for the next little while, hoping to not fuel the embarrassing fire. And it was during this period of quiet reflection when I remembered that we often date people who share similar characteristics with our opposite-sex parent: guys seek out girls like their mothers, and girls seek out guys like their fathers. So I was curious to see what I had in common with Emily’s dad.
Unfortunately, it quickly became apparent that outside of the fact that we both wore glasses and we were both white, I simply didn’t measure up.
He was very cultured, asking about different wines and how certain entrees were prepared. His intelligence was obvious, as he spoke knowledgably about a wide variety of subjects. He clearly got his news from a channel that wasn’t ESPN.
I started to wonder if Emily had taken me on as some sort of charity case.
Over the next few weeks, though, I licked my wounds and said my daily affirmations. And when I heard that her parents would be in town again, and that I was invited to join them at their favorite Mexican restaurant, I was determined to make a better impression.
The night got off to a good start, and my confidence only grew with each sip of my swirled margarita. But I was still a bit on edge, bracing for the conversation to veer towards something I was utterly clueless about.
Then, out of nowhere, like a gift from above, the discussion turned to…
Because Emily is in a league, her parents wanted to know more about it. And having played with my friends for over a decade, this was right in my wheelhouse. I explained the way the draft works and broke down the scoring system. I talked about the effect the internet has had, and how we used to have to wait for the Tuesday paper to see if we’d won or lost. I was on a roll.
And then her father asked me how much I paid to be a part of my league.
Now, I freely admit that I pay a decent amount of cash for my entry fee. It’s not obscene, but it’s not cheap, and it is definitely more than I would prefer to spend. And the moment the figure came out of my mouth, I knew I’d made a mistake by saying it.
I promptly tried to justify it by mentioning how I split a team with a friend, and how it allows me to keep in touch with everybody, and how it makes following the games more interesting, and that if you spread it out over the five-month season, it’s really not a bad entertainment value. But it was too late.
“That’s a lot of money,” he said, shaking his head.
When I recounted the story to my mother the next day, she calmed my fears, assuring me that Emily’s parents were some of the warmest, most non-judgmental people she’d ever met.
And honestly, that has been my experience with them, too. Despite the fact that I have portrayed myself as an uninformed, irresponsible gambling addict who risks too much change on a make-believe competition, they have been nothing but welcoming and accepting of me.
Their kindness will once again be tested in the coming weeks, as Emily has invited me to go home with her to California to celebrate New Year’s. Staying in their house, on their turf, I hope I can somehow summon the magic that allowed me to charm all of my parents’ friends into thinking I was a good guy.
But considering my track record, I should probably pack some of my baby pictures, just to be safe.
Sunday, November 8, 2009
Lord knows our parents couldn’t have been happy with our new hobby, but I guess they settled for the lesser of two evils: if we were going to develop a debilitating addiction, at least we were doing it in a safe environment.
The whole thing was all in good fun, though, and the stakes weren’t over-the-top, with the highest-valued chip being worth a quarter. But when you’re 14, and your bankroll consists of a $5 bill, it stung whenever you lost a pot.
And I got stung a lot.
Despite my best efforts, nobody was going to confuse me with Doyle Brunson or Mike McDermott. I lost so consistently that I became little more than a halfway house for my allowance on its trip from my dad’s wallet to my competitors’ pockets.
It wasn’t that I didn’t know the rules or understand the hierarchy of hands. My problem was that in a game that required trickery, I was too truthful. I couldn’t pretend to have something that I didn’t, and bluffing to any degree was out of the question. If I bet, I had good cards. If I folded, I had “rags.” And everyone knew it.
With honesty as my default setting, I inevitably had no money to count when the dealin’ was done.
Eventually, I stopped playing altogether, figuring there were more economical ways to spend my weekends. I recognized that I would never thrive in a situation that demanded me to be disingenuous…it just wasn’t in my nature.
Slowly, my gambling days faded into the rearview mirror, and I assumed that I was done with any setting that revolved around dishonesty and deceit.
But as I’ve gotten older, and I have seen more of what the world has to offer, the more I realize that the deceptive dynamic I struggled with at my friend’s kitchen table isn’t all that different from what I encounter in everyday society.
Everywhere I turn, I see it: people taking advantage of others, searching for an edge, trying to get away with something, regardless of the moral implications. Politicians lie so they can get elected to office. Corporations cook their books so their stock will go up. Athletes take performance-enhancing drugs so they can hit a ball farther. Larry David swaps out a 5-wood from his friend’s casket so he can play better golf.
This win-at-all-cost attitude has created a gap between what something appears to be on the surface and what it actually is at its core. Look no further than the sticker price of a car. We all know that only a sucker would pay the listed rate. But if you took a third-grader – an innocent, trusting soul who has yet to be jaded by cynicism and doubt – into a showroom, stood him in front of a car and asked him how much it cost, he’d probably point to the big, bold number that is printed on the window label.
And why wouldn’t he? That’s what the price tag says.
But out of insatiable greed, dealers choose to ask for more than what they deem the car to be worth, using their position of power to extort their customers for every last nickel they can get out of them. Why?
Because they can.
If they wanted to, dealerships could offer their vehicles at the bottom-line, can’t-sell-this-for-less price – a figure that is fair, accurate and would assure the necessary profit. But doing so would force them to sacrifice the opportunity at the few extra bucks they can get from shaking down the unsuspecting mark.
(Besides, every salesman knows this drop-dead figure anyway, so no matter how shrewd a negotiator you think you are, and no matter how much of the rust-proofing fee you convince them to knock off, you are still playing on their terms. You’re not getting a bargain…you’re getting the we’ll-use-Vaseline deal.)
Having to bend over like this all the time has permeated a lack of trust throughout our culture. We have to constantly be aware that someone could be trying to put one over on us, and we worry about being made a fool.
As a result, a person’s word is now worth as much as Kramerica Industries.
About a month ago, I had to cancel my cable service, so I called the 1-800 number and put in my request. The representative walked me through the process, explaining that I would be getting a pre-paid packaging box I was to use to send back my receiver. I asked him if I got a confirmation number, but he said I didn’t need one, assuring me that everything was taken care of.
But a few weeks passed, and the mailing supplies had yet to arrive. I figured it was just the cable company’s trademark inefficiency, but I wanted to make sure.
And it was good that I followed up, because when I finally got through to customer service, I was informed that they had no record of my previous call, meaning I was on the hook for the extra month of service.
My first inclination was to yell and ask to talk to a supervisor, but I determined that my best course of action would be to prove that I had, in fact, already submitted my cancellation. So I told the agent the exact date I had originally called, and I recounted the instructions I’d been given. I reminded him that at the beginning of our conversation – before I learned my service was still active – that I’d said I was checking to see if the packing materials had been sent. Why would I say that if that wasn’t the case?
When that got me nowhere, I pled with the guy, promising him that I was being honest, that I wasn’t just making this up to get out of paying my bill.
I asked him to have a little faith in me.
Not surprisingly, he wouldn’t. And as mad as I was, I couldn’t really blame him. After all, he probably fields countless calls from countless customers with countless excuses.
To him, I probably sounded like another boy crying wolf.
But I guess that’s just the way it is right now. We are all leery of one another, and we cast a suspicious eye towards everyone and everything we deal with. And until we stop collectively proving the notion that trust is something that needs to be earned – not given – that’s the way it will be.
Hopefully, though, we’ll one day be a sticker price society, where things will be what they seem, where there will be no need for the cliché “too good to be true.” People will mean what they say, and they will do the right thing.
That’s a world I could get with. Not only would it be a more pleasant place to live, but it'd probably help me hold onto my allowance for a little longer than usual.
Tuesday, October 27, 2009
So that’s exactly what I tried to do on my recent trip to the Department of Motor Vehicles.
Having relocated to a new state nearly a year ago, I decided it was finally time to switch my driver’s license and car registration to my current residence. And while I was not wild about severing these ties to my home state of Texas, the nostalgic disappointment I felt would soon be dwarfed by the mental and emotional anguish I was about to experience.
When I told people what I was attempting to do, they inevitably responded with a laugh and a sucks-to-be-you shake of the head. And I couldn’t disagree with them. Dealing with the government is never fun. They’re slow. They’re apathetic. And even though your tax dollars pay their salary, they would rather serve as a speed bump on their driver’s test course than go out of their way to help you.
Knowing this, I did everything I could to be fully prepared for my impending mission. I pored over their website like I was trying to crack the Da Vinci code, making sure that I had the correct type and adequate amount of each of the required documents. I wanted to be ready for any question or problem that might arise.
Once I accumulated everything – my passport, my social security card, my W-2 and two documents that proved residency – I set out for my neighborhood branch. Unable to go first-thing in the morning, I decided to show up in the mid-afternoon, hoping I could avoid the crowds by slipping in that window of time between the lunch and after-work rushes.
I mean, how many people could possibly need a license at 2:30pm on a rainy Thursday afternoon?
A lot, it turns out.
After checking in at the information desk – where they confirmed I had the proper paperwork – I took my ticket and sat down in the waiting area. I stared at the hanging TV screens, attempting to make sense of their system of jumbled letters and numbers to determine how many people were in front of me.
Ten minutes and a headache later, I estimated that I was approximately 80th in line.
After reading just a few pages of the book I’d brought, my eyelids began to get heavy. Because I had so much important personal information with me that could easily be stolen – and because I didn’t want to fall asleep on the scuzzy biker chick one seat over – I figured it’d be best if I came up with a different way to pass the time.
So I started observing my surroundings – the employees going through their motions, the mopes seated around me, the half-conscious security guard – and one thing became abundantly clear: nobody wanted to be here. It was a miserable environment.
The only ray of sunshine came from the 16-year-old who was about to get her license for the first time.
Slowly, with time dragging on, I got sucked into this void of negativity. My positive, do-what-you-gotta-do attitude gave way to frustration and anger. I reached the point where I hated everyone and everything in sight. Every time a person took exceedingly long at a window, every time someone disrupted the flow of the operation by asking a question when it wasn’t their turn, every time a clerk got up for a break (which was every 20 minutes), every time the automated announcer called a number that wasn’t mine, I felt like taking the “Now Serving” monitor and slamming it over my head.
Finally, after two hours of seething, I was summoned to window No. 4. Despite all of my research and preparation, a sense of uneasiness came over me as I laid my papers on the table. I couldn’t help but expect the worst.
Sure enough, the clerk examined my documents…then got up to go talk to her supervisor.
“Is there a problem?” I asked when she returned.
“Your passport has the name ‘Brent J’ and your driver’s license has the name ‘Brent Jason’,” she said. “Therefore, we can’t accept your passport as valid proof of identification.”
Every corner of my body became charged with rage, as homicidal visions swirled in my mind. The attendant’s blank, unsympathetic stare only fueled my fire, and I was so flustered that I could only manage a “Thanks a lot,” before storming out of the building.
But had I been able to construct a coherent thought, I probably would have asked why this discrepancy hadn’t been caught at the initial check-in, before I flushed two hours of my life away…or why my social security card or W-2 form didn’t count for anything… or if she was worried that my middle initial “J” stood for “Jihad”…or why MY PICTURE on the “conflicting” documents was not proof enough that I was who I claimed to be.
Not that saying any of that would’ve made a difference. Expecting the government to use common sense is like trying to convince Cialis that it’s impossible for a 65-year-old couple to carry two bathtubs into a meadow…it’s just not going to happen. Everything is black and white, and you’re completely at their mercy. If they think there’s a problem, no matter how miniscule, there’s absolutely nothing you can do to change the situation. All you can do is meet their ridiculous requirements.
In order to do that, I had my dad over-night my birth certificate to me, and I returned to the DMV the next day. As I waited in line, brimming with confidence, I was certain I would be successful. After all, I had the original document. It’s what my parents received on the day I was born. It had imprints of my feet on the back, for heaven’s sake.
They couldn’t say no to this, could they?
But that’s exactly what they did. Because the document was issued by the hospital – and not the state of Texas – the DMV had no use for it. I thought about taking off my shoe and slamming my foot on the counter for comparison, but I resisted the urge.
So now, I’m left to await the arrival of the certified copy of my birth certificate that I ordered from another government agency – the Department of Vital Statistics. I think I filled out the form correctly, and I think I made my check out properly, but the instructions weren’t very clear, so who knows if it will ever get here.
Not surprisingly, when I called to see if my request had been processed, nobody could tell me anything.
Over the two-and-a-half hours I have now spent at the DMV, I’ve seen an endless stream of people get called to a window, smile for the camera and get issued a driver’s license, while I’m still left out in the cold. I guess they were smart enough and prophetic enough to fill out every application, every official document – middle name included – in a uniform manner.
I understand the government has these rules in place to protect us, and sometimes, they can be extremely intrusive and inconvenient. And that’s okay. After 9/11, I’m willing to put up with whatever measures are deemed necessary to keep us safe.
That’s why I believe the President should deputize the Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration to oversee the Department of Homeland Security. They’re deliberate, they’re unflinching and absolutely nothing gets by them.
After all, if they can protect their citizens from a hardened criminal like me, Al Qaeda shouldn’t stand a chance.
Wednesday, September 30, 2009
When I was a kid, there was nothing more I wanted to be than my older brother, Brian. Four years my senior, he was my image of cool, and I did all I could to serve as his “Mini-Me.” I listened to the same music. I played the same sports. I mimicked his hairstyle. I even dressed like him.
(Of course, that was partly due to the fact that my wardrobe rarely consisted of much more than his hand-me-downs, but still.)
As I got older, I naturally individualized, developing my own set of interests, but I never strayed far from the course Brian had set. Sharing the same values, morals and sense of humor, I figured our lives would always track in a similar direction.
That is, until Brian made a life-altering move that I simply could not duplicate:
He became a rabbi.
It’s now been over six years since Brian gave up his prestigious post as Press Secretary for a U.S. Senator to go to rabbinical school, yet I haven’t fully grasped that he is a “Man of the Tallis.” Hearing him identify himself as “Rabbi Brian Stoller” on his outgoing voicemail message still makes me laugh in amazement.
And while I have seen him co-officiate our cousin’s wedding, listened to him talk in-depth about the Torah and heard him chant at our grandmother’s funeral, nothing could have completely prepared me for my recent trip to his congregation for high-holiday services.
From the very beginning, I felt as if I was in an alternate universe. When my family and I pulled up to the temple and identified ourselves as relatives of the rabbi, the security guards went scrambling to accommodate us, directing us to a special, coned-off area of the parking lot, only a few steps from the front entrance.
Once inside, you would’ve thought we were royalty, as numerous members kept stopping us on our way to our reserved seats in the VIP section to gush over how wise and well-respected Brian was.
I guess they hadn’t heard that he used to run around the house in Superman Underoos.
But as the service got going, all of the complimentary things they had said about Brian were proven to be accurate. He was self-assured and confident. He was an outstanding speaker. He was a commanding presence on the pulpit.
He was…a rabbi.
Sitting in the audience, watching him lead his congregants in prayer, I was impressed – though certainly not surprised – with what my brother had become.
But I was also struck by how drastically our paths had diverged. I mean, here I was, in synagogue for maybe the fourth time since the Clinton administration, and there was Brian, standing in his white robe, giving the sermon on one of the holiest days of the Jewish year.
I couldn’t help wondering how this had happened. Where did Brian find this motivation? How had he located this road to soul-saving enlightenment that I had missed?
After all, we had grown up in the same house, where Shabbat dinner consisted of saying the blessings over a Domino’s pizza. Sure, we both had Bar Mitzvahs, and the Jewish Community Center often served as our second home, but our religion was not an integral part of our day-to-day existence.
Yet Brian somehow ended up developing a hunger, a yearning to seek out and learn about our heritage. Maybe it was because he was rejected by a girl because of his religion, or maybe it was because he had spent so much time as a kid at his best friend’s home, who happened to be the son of our rabbi.
Whatever it was, I apparently didn’t get the memo.
Judaism has just never engaged me. Like many kids, my parents made me attend religious school, hoping that I would embrace the faith I was given at birth. But I got absolutely nothing out of it. The subjects that were taught were uninspiring, and the song sessions made me cringe with annoyance. When I wasn’t misbehaving with my friends or watching the clock to see how much longer I had left, I was waiting for the cute girl two desks over to finally make eye contact with me.
Going to services was just as tedious – and much more confusing. With all of the Hebrew and sophisticated English being spoken, everything went way over my head. I didn’t know what I was praying for or rising to my feet in honor of.
How can you connect with something that you can’t understand?
So I’d bide my time until an opening presented itself – typically, right before the sermon – to take an extended bathroom break.
Practicing Judaism felt like something that I was being forced to do, so once I was out from under my parents’ jurisdiction, I put an end to the charade. I did not see the point in going to synagogue or reciting prayers or celebrating traditions if I wasn’t getting anything out of the experience.
Instead, I’ve chosen to express myself spiritually in my own way. I pray more than I ever have, but I do it whenever and wherever I feel the need, regardless of what the calendar reads. I say prayers that make sense to me. I express my thanks to G-d in a manner that resonates with who I am.
Despite my lack of formality, I do consider myself to be Jewish, and I still fast on Yom Kippur and attend the family Seder on Passover. If I ever have kids, I plan on raising them with a Jewish background.
But once they reach an age when they are informed and educated enough, I’ll encourage them to make their own decision about their faith, and I will honor whatever they choose. Because no matter what any biblical law says, I believe that what truly makes a person a Jew – or a writer or a golfer or anything that is part of one’s identity – is what is in their heart and mind, not their family tree.
I realize that there are those who look down on me for not being more active, that some see me as a catalyst for the demise of the Jewish religion. And maybe I am. But I’d rather be viewed as a “bad Jew” by my peers than stand in temple as a fraud before G-d.
Besides, if not practicing Judaism on a regular basis earmarks me for a not-so-pleasant after-life, I figure my brother can make a few calls to negotiate for my eternal salvation.
Thursday, September 17, 2009
I much prefer keeping in touch through e-mails and text messages, so I don’t have to…you know…talk to anyone.
One of the few exceptions to this anxiety, though, is when my parents are on the other end of the line. I like getting the recap of my dad’s latest round of golf or my mom’s recent Kabbalah meeting, and I know they’ll still love me, even if I have nothing interesting to say.
But when my phone rang the other day, and the contact “Home” showed up on my caller ID, I couldn’t help but feel a twinge of sadness.
That’s because, after nearly 40 years of living in the same city, my parents finally decided to move.
In the background, I could hear the packing of boxes, the loading of trucks and the ending of an era. It hit me that this was the last call I’d ever receive from this number.
My sense of equilibrium was thrown off, because I have always considered my true home to be where my parents are. Maybe that’s the Peter Pan in me, but despite moving all over the country, I have never changed my permanent address. I have had the sense that every place I've gone was just temporary, while my roots remained anchored with my mom and dad.
And for my entire life, they have been anchored in Houston. It’s where my parents were married and where they built a life together. It’s where my brother and I were raised. It’s where I could go whenever I needed to feel safe and grounded again.
Of course, once I graduated college and began looking for a job, I wanted to get as far away from Texas as possible. Hoping to increase my independence, Houston was at the very bottom of my list of desirable destinations.
So over the next several years, I bounced around different regions, from the Deep South, to the Rockies, to the Northeast.
But no matter where I went, whenever I told people that I was from Houston, they all responded with the same I’m-sorry-to-hear-that “Oh,” like they had asked me how my girlfriend was – only to find out I had just been dumped.
And while my initial instinct was to stick up for my hometown, I knew it was a tough case to make.
After all, Houston is not the nicest of cities. It’s flat and unappealing to the eye. Everything is spread out, making the overwhelming traffic that much less bearable. The heat and humidity in the summer make you sweat more than Matthew McConaughey in A Time to Kill. And because there are no zoning laws, the layout of the city is completely disorganized, with million-dollar homes backing up to Boyz-in-the-Hood projects.
But in my mind, nothing captures the essence of Houston more perfectly than the sight of a Zone d’Erotica sitting next to one of the nicest malls in town.
In spite of all of that, it’s still home to me. I have a history there. I can drive around and, block after block, see the story of my life unfold. The house where I grew up is just a few blocks from the McDonald’s that I rode my bike to as a kid, which is across the intersection from the Blockbuster where I worked in high school, which is right down the street from the field where I used to play football with my friends.
Even though I’m no longer a resident, the city is never far from my mind. At my desk in Maryland, I often listen to the internet feed of Houston sports talk, so I can keep up with how my teams are doing. And when the station runs a commercial for the local institution Gallery Furniture, I can only smile, because I still have their phone number committed to memory (694-5570).
So while I might not ever live there again, I will always be a Houstonian at heart.
It’s going to be weird to go home and not go to Houston. Last week, I was arranging my flight for Thanksgiving, and just as I was about to click “Purchase,” I realized I had to start over – I had booked myself into Houston’s George Bush International instead of Austin’s Bergstrom.
As with any change, I’m sure there is going to be an adjustment period for everyone. But I know that my parents will be extremely happy in their new community. My dad will have his own personal golf cart, which he can drive to one of the three courses in the neighborhood. And Austin is scenic and “hippie” enough to nurture my mom’s granola, spiritual side.
Luckily, it already sounds like they’re getting settled in, and I can’t wait to get down there to see it all for myself. Sure, the house may not be in Houston anymore, but I’m comforted in knowing that when I walk through the door, I’ll be met with all of the love and warmth that makes my family so special.
Because even though the phone number behind it has changed, the meaning of “Home” never will.
Friday, September 4, 2009
Fortunately, when it came to my mom’s relatives, distance wasn’t an issue, as nearly everyone was a Houstonian. So whether it was going to our weekly Sunday night dinners or having the biggest cheering section at my tee ball games – including my great-grandmother, high heels and all – I was constantly surrounded by love.
It was special to have so many people I cared about serve an integral role in my daily life. Sure, like any family, we dealt with the usual disagreements and flare-ups of tension. But whenever someone’s feelings were hurt or the pot roast was not sliced to specification, there was one common bond that could always bring us back together:
Texas Longhorn football.
The University of Texas at Austin has one of the most successful, tradition-rich football programs in the country, boasting more wins than Oklahoma, Alabama and Notre Dame. It has produced two Heisman Trophy heroes, four national championships and countless exciting moments.
And my family has lived and died with nearly every one of them.
The obsession started with my grandfather, Lou “Pop” Marks, who graduated from UT. A brilliant, charismatic salesman by trade, his true passion was football. So when the opportunity presented itself, he got involved with the program, lending a hand wherever he could.
When the Longhorns hired a bright, young assistant coach named Fred Akers, they asked Pop to help him get settled in his new environment. The two bonded instantly, and through recruiting trips, late-night film sessions and dinners on the road, they became the closest of friends.
In 1977, Akers was named the successor to Darrell Royal – the winningest coach in school history, and the man whose name would eventually be put on the front of the stadium. Trying to replace a legend, Coach Akers needed all the support he could get.
So my grandfather stepped up, traveling to road games and staying in the team hotels. He used his business savvy to promote the coach’s radio show, and he established a weekly breakfast that re-engaged the alumni with the program.
But above all else, he was a confidant, someone the coach could count on amid all of the chaos that encapsulates the world of college football.
It’s no wonder, then, that hanging in my grandfather’s office is a signed photograph from Coach Akers with a dedication that reads: “To my right arm.”
Pop’s love for the Longhorns was contagious. My late grandmother, Mom, was the sweetest, most kind-hearted woman who ever walked the earth, and growing up, she didn’t know anything about football. But after being married to Pop for 41 years, she was cheering for the good guys and cursing opposing coaches.
This passion permeated the entire family. My mom, my aunt and my uncle all have degrees from UT. And when grandchildren came into the picture, Pop had a new audience to mold.
So once we were old enough, Pop started teaching us about the sanctity of Texas football. He took us to practice, where we met the coaches and played catch on the sidelines. He filled our closets with burnt orange apparel, so we didn’t have to wear any shade of red (the color of the Horns’ biggest rivals). He impressed upon us that sending a college application to another school could be grounds for disownment.
And when we were lucky, he took us with him to Austin to see the Longhorns in person. Riding shotgun, we’d cruise the backwoods, two-lane roads Pop preferred (interstates are for grandmas), flashing the “Hook ‘Em Horns” sign to everyone we flew past.
As if attending the game wasn’t enough, Pop would let us go with him down to the locker room afterwards, where we’d get to high-five and take pictures with our favorite players.
It was a thrilling experience – except for one, small issue…
A football locker room is like a nudist colony, with all of the guys getting undressed and cleaned up before heading to the bus. And because we were so short, we had the unfortunate vantage point that gave us an up-close look at what exactly was and was not covered by a jock strap.
That can be a traumatic encounter for a 9-year-old.
In hindsight, it’s probably why my brother, Brian, eventually stopped following the team and became a rabbi…he had to purify his soul somehow.
But not all of us were jaded.
With just two months separating us in age, my cousin Andrew and I were born under the same burnt orange moon. We are both equally insane, spending countless hours obsessing over the team – studying depth charts, scouring message boards for inside information and watching recruiting reels to identify the next Texas star. After an exhilarating win or a devastating loss, he’s the one person out there I know who is experiencing the same range of emotions that I am.
So it was only fitting that we were together on January 4, 2006 to see the Horns play Southern Cal for the national title. Every trip we’d taken to Austin, every humiliating defeat we’d survived, every lesson Pop had taught us – they had all led us to this night.
The game was a rollercoaster ride, with two talented teams trading punches for the full 60 minutes, and it was a test of our sanity.
Nataly, Andrew’s fiancée (now his wife), was there, but she just tried to stay out of the way. As I was screaming at the big screen, and Andrew was fiddling with the TV volume to find the optimum karmic level (yes, superstitious rituals, such as adjusting the sound or switching seats, can affect the outcome of a sporting event), she had to be asking herself:
What kind of family am I marrying into?
When Vince Young scored the winning touchdown, securing the Longhorns first championship in 36 years, it was almost too much for Andrew and me to handle. Like two little boys, we fell to the floor and rolled around on top of each other.
Somewhere, Pop was smiling.
I often question why I invest so much time and energy into something as trivial as a college football team. Looking at it rationally, it makes no sense. There are no problems being solved or discoveries being made. There are no diseases being cured or lives being saved.
At the end of the day, it’s just a bunch of 18 to 22-year-old boys playing a game.
But the truth is that UT football is in my blood, and it’s something that keeps me tied to my family, like a second religion. Just seeing that burnt orange uniform, just hearing the “Eyes of Texas” reconnects me with my roots, and the memories come flooding back.
I think about finishing Thanksgiving dinner in time for the kickoff against A&M. I think about Pop throwing me passes in the Astrodome as the team practiced for their bowl game. I think about tailgating on Rosh Hashanah with matzo ball soup in the stadium parking lot.
It’s just part of who I am. And no matter what I do or where I go, Fall Saturdays will always be about watching the Longhorns play.
Hook ‘Em Horns!
Wednesday, August 26, 2009
And while this follow-your-heart attitude has been a source of pride, it didn’t make going to my 10-year high school reunion with an address that matched my parents’ any less embarrassing.
Fortunately, I have been gainfully employed for a few years now. But when I think back to my last stint of joblessness, I can’t help but cringe, the wounds and battle scars still tender from an extremely stressful time in my life.
I had just put aside my dream of playing competitive golf, and my mind and spirit were the consistency of jell-o. I couldn’t think about taking on anything meaningful, so I scrapped my idealist aspirations of finding work that I cared about. I just wanted a job – something that would give me a steady paycheck and allow me to get out of my mom and dad’s house.
“Job Search ’06: The Less Responsibility, The Better.”
But despite sending out countless resumes for countless jobs – many of which I was overqualified for – the rejection letters poured in (that is, when I received a response at all). Frightened at how closely my life’s arc resembled that of George Costanza’s, I wondered if things would ever get better.
After nine fruitless months, I was tired – of feeling down, of feeling helpless, of feeling sorry for myself. I didn’t know what to do.
That’s when it dawned on me that maybe the problem wasn’t the jobs I was going after, or the people I was dealing with, or the competitiveness of the market, or anything on the outside.
Maybe the problem was me.
I began looking at what role I might be playing in my lack of success. I determined that, because I wasn’t passionate about these jobs, my indifference was seeping into my interactions with potential employers. I wasn’t aggressive enough. I wasn’t selling myself enough. So I decided to implement a new strategy:
I started lying.
Over my next several interviews, I buried my inner-Peter Gibbons (Office Space) and became Mr. Enthusiastic, proclaiming my excitement for the opportunity and how good of a fit I would be. I stressed that this was the job I wanted, and all I needed was a chance to prove my value.
While the first few companies didn’t buy my act, I eventually found one that did. After grinding through three call-backs, I finally had a contract.
Sure, I had sold my soul to the Initech Devil, but it was a small price to pay for an upgrade in the state of my union.
Getting out of an unhealthy situation isn’t easy. Stuck in a rut, unable to stop looping the same traffic circle of pain and frustration, you start to feel like you’ll never find an exit.
Oftentimes, it takes something disastrous to jolt you out the cycle, to finally put your foot down and say, “Enough!” You switch up your diet when a loved one has a heart attack. You move on from an ex-girlfriend after hearing she’s dating someone new. You stop texting behind the wheel, because it caused the star player on your alma mater’s football team to drive into an apartment building (this actually happened – click here).
But what if it didn’t have to come to that? What if you didn’t have to go through the anguish and agony of hitting rock-bottom to make a change?
Looking back at the difficult situations I’ve dealt with in my life, they are all unique, each distinctive in their own particular way. They’ve occurred at different ages under different circumstances over different issues. There have been plenty where I piled mistake on top of mistake, and there have been some where I was the recipient of injustice and bad luck.
When it comes to struggling, I’m an equal opportunity employer.
But despite all of the dissimilarities, through all of the changing variables, there was one constant:
That took me a while to recognize, and it was a hard realization to stomach. But as I analyzed the valleys of my life, and I asked myself, “Why do these things keep happening to me?” I saw that there was a clear pattern of behavior, and I had to own up to it. Because as much as I believe in fate, I also acknowledge that we were blessed with free will.
Of course, when things aren’t going our way, it’s convenient to dismiss this reality, to throw up our hands and act as if the world is conspiring against us. Instead of adjusting our approach, we keep doing what we’ve been doing, even though nothing is working. Instead of welcoming the help of our friends and family, we “yes, but” their advice, as in, “Yes, you are right, but can’t you see that I’m the victim here?”
We blame our predicament on anyone and anything but ourselves.
Sure, making excuses may help us sleep at night, but it also holds us hostage, preventing us from ever moving forward.
Shattering the status quo is a challenge, because it requires us to step out of our comfort zone. And the longer we’ve been in a situation – no matter how toxic – the harder it is to extract ourselves from it. Strange as it sounds, that hurt we’ve been feeling, those distressing emotions we’ve been experiencing, have become familiar and safe. (In my “expert” medical opinion) It’s why someone who is raised by an alcoholic parent ends up with an alcoholic spouse – it’s what you know.
But we are not always at the mercy of our DNA or other people’s decisions or the universe’s sick sense of humor. Each of us has a choice about how we want to live our lives. And until we accept responsibility for that, the possibility of real change will elude us.
Yes, sometimes the breaks don’t go our way, and sometimes things simply aren’t meant to be, regardless of how badly we want them or how hard we try. But it’s up to us to take ownership of our lot in life and be honest with ourselves about the part we play in it.
We may not be able to control the outcome, but we can control the process.
Albert Einstein once said, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results." Lord knows I’ve been guilty of this enough to have Nurse Ratched as a babysitter, but it's empowering to realize that whenever I want to make a change, I hold the key.
And since I hope to have a better showing at my 20-year reunion, I should probably get started now.
Monday, August 10, 2009
So I was disappointed the other day when I got to Subway around 1:30pm, only to find a line so long that it was snaking around a display in the middle of the store. But that disappointment was quickly replaced by anger because of what happened next…
I was patiently waiting my turn, when a woman walked in, clearly unsure as to where the line started. As she stood there for a few seconds, the man in front of me – who was at the apex of the “snake” – got out of line, creating a big gap between me and the next customer.
Suddenly, I was in no man’s land.
Before I could move, though, the woman stepped into the opening, killing the “snake” and extending the line towards the front door.
Now, if you’re at Subway, you’re doing one of three things: waiting, ordering or eating…it’s not a place you go to hang out or pick up chicks. And since I didn’t have a $5 foot-long in my hand, it was obvious what I was doing.
But this woman didn’t say anything to me. No “Are you in line?” No “Were you here first?” Nothing. She just re-routed the line to her advantage.
My mind began racing, dumbfounded by her actions. How could someone be so inconsiderate?
As I searched for an answer, the man who’d been waiting behind me did her one better, stepping around me to take his place at the end of the “new” line.
Not wanting to make a scene, I didn’t say anything and quietly got in line. I waited for one of them to turn around, so I could flash an are-you-kidding-me expression, but neither ever did. They were probably too embarrassed to make eye contact with me.
How could they not be? Being respectful of others is one of life’s basic lessons, something we’re taught from the moment we leave our mother’s arms and integrate into everyday society. As pre-schoolers, we learn how to politely coexist – to not hit one another; to share our building blocks; to not pour juice on our classmate’s nap mat.
But as we get older, these fundamental teachings often become secondary to the hustle and flow of our day-to-day responsibilities, and there’s no one to make us stand in the corner when we misbehave. Stressed out, pulled in 18 different directions, we needed to be somewhere five minutes ago, and we have no time to hold the door open or wave “thank you” to the driver who let’s us merge onto the freeway.
And it would be bad enough if our biggest crime was our failure to perform these simplest of social niceties, but it’s not. This lack of common courtesy is emblematic of a deeper lack of respect that runs to the heart of our humanity.
I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve lived a charmed life. The product of stable, loving parents, I won the birthday lottery, and I have never really wanted for anything.
While I don’t consider myself lazy, and I’ve been employed (on and off) since I was 16, I haven’t had to fight for my standing in society. I inherited it, benefitting from the hard work put in by the top of my family tree. All of the comforts and opportunities I have been afforded – from living in a nice house to graduating college to a white-collar career path – are largely due to the circumstances into which I was born.
It’s taken some time, but I am now okay with that fact. While I’m thankful every day for my good fortune, I’ve come to think – and hope – that pulling myself up from my boot straps to make ends meet isn’t one of the soul-evolving tests I have to pass in this life.
(There have been plenty of others to challenge me, like quieting the negative voice in my head and figuring out how “could care less” and “couldn’t care less” mean the same thing.)
But that only makes stopping at an intersection to see someone begging on the corner seem that much more unfair. Sitting in my foreign-made SUV, I look around at the luxuries within an arm’s length – my cell phone, my iPod, my golf clubs – and I’m embarrassed. The amount of money I spent on those items alone could feed a family for a month.
Giving the person some spare change feels like a feeble attempt at doing the right thing.
I guess this is the Darwinist effect of a free market society – some people thrive, some people dive. The social order sorts itself out.
But it’s troubling to me how low the lowest class is on the range of socioeconomic status. Yes, many of these people, through their poor or sinister choices, have put themselves in this position, but whether they “deserve” their plight or not, no human being should have to resort to holding a cardboard sign to survive.
Our society is drastically out of balance. It’s not a community…it’s a hierarchy. There is excess everywhere you turn, from the inflated contracts of professional athletes, to the 30,000 square foot mansions featured on MTV’s Cribs.
Nobody needs that much.
So I can’t help but wonder if, out of the goodness of our hearts, we each made the smallest of sacrifices to spread the wealth more evenly. What if a couple spent $45 on a steak dinner instead of $90? What if a young executive spent $40,000 on a car instead of $50,000? What if an oil company’s CEO took a salary of $60 million instead of $70 million?
Just think what would be possible if we kept a little less money for ourselves, and shared a little more with those who really need it. We could still lead magnificent lives, while helping to ensure that everyone is taken care of.
If we are all G-d’s children, don’t we owe each other that much?
Look, I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with indulging in the finer aspects of life. Every person has the right to spend his money however he chooses. Working hard at the office allows us to do things that make us happy – playing golf, decorating a house, "making it rain" – and there’s value in rewarding ourselves for a job well done.
What I am saying is that it is time we make some adjustments. If we’ve learned anything from this past year, with its financial crashes and scandals and frauds, it’s that our standard operating procedure is not working. Driven by greed and a me-first mentality, when we step on the fortunes of others to get to the top, we all end up sinking to the bottom.
When I was in third grade, I started riding the bus to and from school every day. While I spent most of my time listening to inappropriate rap music on my Walkman, I do remember hitting pause long enough to take note of the sign that was posted up front, in a spot where every impressionable, elementary school passenger could see:
Somewhere along the way, that message got lost, and we need to find it again. Too often we dismiss the inequality around us with a that’s-the-way-it-is shrug and go on about our lives. After all, we’re not the ones who have to wonder where our next meal will come from.
I’m as guilty of it as anyone, but if we each do our part, then little by little, piece by piece, we can create a world where nobody is left behind, and the biggest injustice anyone endures is waiting a few extra minutes for a sandwich at Subway.
Tuesday, August 4, 2009
“What does the Little Man inside you say?” Kramer asks him. “See, you gotta listen to the Little Man.”
When George replies that his Little Man doesn’t know what to do, Kramer dismisses the notion.
“The Little Man knows all!” he insists.
“My Little Man’s an idiot,” George replies.
Like Costanza, I have been struggling with my Little Man, too. You know the Little Man – that voice inside your head that’s constantly reacting to the world around you, narrating your experience of life. Like the voiceover of the grown-up Kevin Arnold in The Wonder Years, it’s your unfiltered inner-dialogue, helping you decide what to eat, giving your true opinion of a friend’s outfit and cussing out that driver in the left lane who’s going 10mph under the speed limit.
And while my Little Man hasn’t told me to knock over women and children to escape a fire or to eat an éclair out of the garbage can, his impact has been just as destructive:
He’s turned me into my own worst enemy.
Ideally, the Little Man would be your biggest cheerleader, talking to you the way an encouraging friend would. He’d keep you calm when things get chaotic and would instill a you-can-do-it confidence when doubt sets in.
Unfortunately, my Little Man has taken on the opposite persona. He’s a drill instructor – think Private Pyle’s nemesis in Full Metal Jacket – berating me at every turn, casting a shadow of negativity over my entire existence. He gets an I-told-you-so kick out of seeing me fail, and my life is slowly turning into a demented self-fulfilling prophecy.
It’s not due to a lack of effort, though. I’ve continually put myself out there, trying different jobs and different addresses in hopes of finding a path that is in harmony with who I want to be. But my search has led to little success – and even less inner-peace – because I’m consistently derailed by the demonic voice in my head.
Having always been an evaluative person, I am constantly reviewing and analyzing everything I do, from my job productivity to how symmetrically I trim my sideburns. In a lot of ways, this is a positive characteristic, as it gives me a clear picture of where I stand, helping me to transform my weaknesses into strengths.
But this trait became a detriment the moment the Little Man shot it full of HGH. Now, every situation – no matter how inconsequential – is an opportunity for him to judge me. A casual conversation with a friend will get replayed over and over in my mind, as I try to determine if I said the right thing or cracked the right joke. I probably spend more time breaking down my “performances” than an NFL quarterback.
How I ended up like this is beyond me. Since the day I was born, my parents have done nothing but shower me with affection and acceptance. My mom went so far as to say that she’d love me no matter what – even if I killed someone.
And while I don’t plan on testing the bounds of my mother’s promise, I do feel like head-butting a wall when I think about the negative impact the Little Man has had on me. I’m always drained, constantly battling him, expending my energy on simply surviving instead of thriving. No longer relishing the thrill of being in the arena, I now seek out the relief that comes when something is over and done with.
That wasn’t always the case, though. As a kid, I loved to play golf. There was no place I was more at peace than out on the course at dusk, racing the sun to the 18th green, imagining I was in the hunt for a major championship.
Like the PGA Tour golfer Tim Petrovic said, “I was always happy when I was hitting a golf ball.”
So as I got older, and I went to work for Corporate America – where if you work in golf you never actually get to play golf – the Little Man was not pleased. He’d call me a coward for selling out and shrinking from the challenge of playing competitively. When I watched tournaments on TV and saw guys my age succeeding, he would mock me for being at home on the couch.
After a few years of taunting, I conceded that, despite his cruel delivery, the Little Man had a point – I was not doing what I wanted to do. So I quit my job, trading in the spreadsheets and staplers for my 3-wood and a daily tee time.
I thought that the Little Man had been so tough on me, because I wasn’t being true to myself, and I appreciated the nudge. Now that I was on the right path, I figured he would become an ally.
But nothing is ever good enough for the Little Man.
My golf game was just a new forum for him to deliver body blows. Every shot, every swing, every score was under his merciless scrutiny. No matter how hard I worked, and no matter how much my technique improved, my progress as a player was stunted because I couldn’t shut him up.
I don’t care how much talent you have…it’s hard to hit a 200-yard cut shot over water when someone’s screaming “Don’t choke” in your ear.
Going to the golf course became like going to the proctologist, and eventually, I couldn’t do it anymore. I was tired – of feeling inadequate, of thinking I was a joke, of emotionally going 15 rounds with Ivan Drago. The Little Man had taken something that I was passionate about, something that gave me joy, and turned it into a never-ending prostate exam.
I didn’t hit a golf ball for a year.
And now he’s starting to attack another one of my passions: writing. Lately, I’ve dreaded doing it at all, because I know that I’ll instantly start hearing about how I can’t come up with a good story idea, or that I’m not funny enough, or I won’t figure out how to say what I want to say. I find myself scrounging for anything that will keep me from having to sit down to the computer.
“Ya know, I haven’t been on Facebook in three minutes…maybe somebody who I haven’t seen since elementary school just uploaded some new pictures!”
With “compare” being one of the Little Man’s favorite verbs, it’s hard for me to even read or watch the work of accomplished writers. Instead of being inspired by the brilliance of Aaron Sorkin or Malcolm Gladwell, I end up taking a series of you-could-never-do-that punches to the stomach, leaving me scrambling to find an episode of the new 90210, so I can feel a little less inadequate as a writer.
The most frustrating part of all of this is that I’m doing it to myself…it is the voice in my head, and the Little Man is my own creation.
But I know that deep down, beneath all of the chatter, is my spirit, whose voice is the spokesperson for the true me – the one that pushes me along, that fosters my dreams, that gives me the energy to keep going in the face of the Little Man’s discouragement.
There are psychiatric hospitals filled with people who can’t control the voices in their head. I guess I just hide it better, but I am still searching for the Little Man’s “mute” button.
Who knows…it may take the work of a priest, but maybe someday he’ll get demoted to lowercase letters, from "Little Man" to "little man."
I often wonder what I’d be able to accomplish if I could get out of my own way long enough to allow my natural talent and abilities to flow through.
Come to think of it…Costanza did become a fake marine biologist, so that could be an option.
"If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer."
-Henry David Thoreau, Walden
"Pain and suffering are inevitable in our lives, but misery is an option."
-Chip Beck, Professional Golfer
"I'm 36 years old, I love my family, I love baseball and I'm about to become a farmer. But until I heard the voice, I'd never done a crazy thing in my whole life."
-Ray Kinsella, Field of Dreams
"There's a diffrence between a failure and a fiasco. A failure is merely the absence of success. Any fool can achieve failure. But a fiasco, a fiasco is a disaster of epic propotions. A fiasco is a folk tale told to other's to make other people feel more alive because it didn't happen to them."
-Drew Baylor, Elizabethtown
"It's really an advantage when you don't watch film, because then you can be stupid."
-Mack Brown, Head Football Coach, University of Texas
"There's no dollar sign on a peace of mind, this I've come to know."
-Zac Brown Band, Chicken Fried
"When you're a little kid you're a bit of everything; Scientist, Philosopher, Artist. Sometimes it seems like growing up is giving these things up one at a time."
-Kevin Arnold, The Wonder Years
"Fundamentals are a crutch for the talentless."
-Kenny Powers, Eastbound and Down
"Don't let her be a regret...it's worse than being a loser."
-Simon Wilder, With Honors
"When nothing seems to help, I go look at a stonecutter hammering away at his rock, perhaps a hundred times without as much as a crack showing in it. Yet at the hundred and first blow it will split in two, and I know it was not that blow that did it, but all that had gone before."
-Jacob Riis, Stonecutter Credo
"It was one of those days when it's a minute away from snowing, and there's this electricity in the air, you can almost hear it. And this bag was, like, dancing with me. Like a little kid begging me to play with it. For 15 minutes. And that's the day I knew there was this entire life behind things, and... this incredibly benevolent force, that wanted me to know there was no reason to be afraid - ever. Video's a poor excuse, I know. But it helps me remember... and I need to remember. Sometimes there's so much beauty in the world I feel like I can't take it, like my heart's going to cave in."
-Ricky Fitts, American Beauty
"The book of love, has music in it.
In fact, that's where music comes from."
-Peter Gabriel, Book of Love
"I have just created something totally illogical."
-Ray Kinsella, Field of Dreams
"Who's gonna turn down a Junior Mint? It's chocolate, it's peppermint...it's delicious!"
“Well, all I'm saying is that I want to look back and say that I did I the best I could while I was stuck in this place…Had as much fun as I could while I was stuck in this place…Played as hard as I could while I was stuck in this place...Dogged as many girls as I could while I was stuck in this place.”
-Dawson, Dazed and Confused
“So you failed. Alright you really failed. You failed. You failed. You failed. You failed. You failed. You failed. You failed. You failed. You failed. You failed. You failed. You failed. You think I care about that? I do understand. You wanna be really great? Then have the courage to fail big and stick around. Make them wonder why you're still smiling.”
-Claire Colburn, Elizabethtown
“You can’t lose what you don’t put in the middle…but you can’t win much, either.”
-Mike McDermott, Rounders
“That’s called the ‘quart-of-blood’ technique. You do that, a quart of blood will drop out of a person’s body.”
-Billy Ray Valentine, Trading Places
“I relate to George through you. We’re more like friends-in-law.”
-Elaine Benes, Seinfeld
“Remember those posters that said, ‘Today is the first day of the rest of your life’? Well, that’s true of every day but one – the day you die.”
-Lester Burnham, American Beauty
“The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.”
“What will be the next thing that challenges us? That makes us go farther and work harder? You know that when smallpox was eradicated, it was considered the single greatest humanitarian achievement of this century? Surely we can do it again, as we did in the time when our eyes looked towards the heavens, and with outstretched fingers, we touched the face of G-d.”
-President Josiah Bartlet, The West Wing
“It became clear to me sitting out there today that every decision I’ve made in my entire life has been wrong. My life is the complete opposite of everything I want it to be. Every instinct I have, in every aspect of life, be it something to wear, something to eat – it’s all been wrong.”
-George Costanza, Seinfeld
“Yeah, you know gray…it’s my favorite color.”
-Counting Crows, Mr. Jones
“You’re a big winner. I’m gonna ask you a simple question and I want you to listen to me: who’s the big winner here tonight at the casino? Huh? Mikey, that’s who. Mikey’s the big winner. Mikey wins.”
“The man who thinks he can and the man who thinks he can’t are both right.”
“You know the message you’re sending out to the world with these sweatpants? You’re telling the world, ‘I give up. I can’t compete in normal society. I’m miserable, so I might as well be comfortable.’”
-Jerry Seinfeld, Seinfeld
“Faced with crisis, the man of character falls back on himself.”
-Charles de Gaulle
“The wind blows wild, and I may move.
The politicians lie, and I am not fooled.
You don’t need no reason or a three piece suit to argue the truth.”
-Brett Dennan, Ain’t No Reason
“In Philadelphia, it’s worth $50.”
-Pawnbroker (Bo Diddley), Trading Places
“If you’re dumb, surround yourself with smart people. If you’re smart, surround yourself with smart people who disagree with you.”
-Isaac Jaffe, Sports Night
“If you weren’t real, I would make you up.”
-Joseph Arthur, Honey and the Moon
“It’s only after we’ve lost everything that we’re free to do anything.”
-Tyler Durden, Fight Club
“I went broke believing that the simple should be hard.”
-Matt Nathanson, All We Are
“Everyone’s got plans…until they get hit.”
“Straight cash, homey.”
-Randy Moss, on how he settles his financial debts.
"Do the thing you fear, and the death of that fear is certain."
-Joe Stoller (courtesy of Ralph Waldo Emerson)
"Greatness courts failure."
-Roy McAvoy, Tin Cup
"Sadness is easier, because it's surrender. I say, make time to dance alone with one hand waving free."
-Claire Colburn, Elizabethtown
"It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat."
-Theodore Roosevelt, To the Man in the Arena
"The answer's in the dirt...dig it out."
-Ben Hogan, Golfer
"No true fiasco ever began as a quest for mere adequacy. The motto of the British Special Service Air Force is: 'Those who risk...win.' A single green vine shoot is able to grow through cement. The Pacific Northwestern salmon beats itself bloody by traveling hundreds of miles upstream - against the current - with a single purpose: sex, of course. But also...life."
-Drew Baylor, Elizabethtown
"Anyone can be confident with a full head of hair. But a confident bald man - there's your diamond in the rough."
"Yeah, it's overwhelming, but what else can we do? Get jobs in offices and wake up for the morning commute?"
-MGMT, Time to Pretend
"Like Papa Walenda said, 'Life is on the wire...the rest is just waiting.'"
-Mike McDermott, Rounders
"In that moment, I knew that success - not greatness - was the only god the world served."
-Drew Baylor, Elizabethtown
"'Cuz I could never live with me before you came along."
-The Churchills, Everybody Gets What They Deserve
"Bob Dylan once wrote: The times they are a-changin'. Ron Burgundy had never heard that song."
-Narrator, Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy
“According to most studies, people's number one fear is public speaking. Number two is death. Death is number two. Does that sound right? This means to the average person, if you go to a funeral, you're better off in the casket than doing the eulogy.”
Thursday, June 11, 2009
I also learned that, because of my pre-game nausea, I needed easy access to a bathroom approximately 10 minutes prior to the first pitch.
And while I benefited greatly from all of those (who needs vomit in center field?), there was another lesson in particular that stood out above the rest:
Try your best.
In a world of fanatically possessed coaches and my-son-is-the-next-A-Rod parents, you would have thought the primary message would’ve centered on stats and scoreboards. But from a young age, I was taught the only thing that mattered was that I tried my hardest.
I mean, even when we lost, we still got a Capri Sun after the game.
As I've gotten older, that lesson has stuck with me, but it’s continually gotten harder to determine what my “best” is. Dealing with open-ended, grown-up situations, the measurement of maximum effort is more complex than simply diving for every ball or running out every grounder. The line that separates “giving up too soon” from “time to move on” can be a blurry haze, leaving me constantly wondering:
How do you know when you’ve given something your best?
We’ve all been there before. Sometimes it’s with a dream, an out-of-the-box ambition. Maybe you are trying to start your own business. Maybe you move to a new place. Or maybe you…I don’t know…quit your secure, Corporate America job to go wait tables and play competitive golf.
Sometimes it’s with a relationship. You meet someone who moves you, someone you connect with, and thoughts of falling in love and living happily ever after begin dancing through your head.
In both instances, you are putting your heart on the line in hopes of achieving something great.
After a while, though, you hit a wall. Things stop progressing. Your intentions are right, and your effort is full, but you are just not seeing the results you want to see.
Frustrated and discouraged, your steely-eyed conviction begins to waver. What was once something you were certain of is now not so clear.
With your plan at a standstill, embarrassment sets in. Looking in the mirror is enough of a challenge, so being around others can be especially distressing. It’s like you’re carrying around the “elephant in the room” on your shoulder, and everyone has an opinion. Even if they don’t say anything, you imagine what they’re thinking, projecting your insecurities onto them. And while you know they mean well, and you know they want you to be happy, you long to be anywhere but here.
Eventually, the ping-ponging between those outside voices and your inner-dialogue becomes too much. On the verge of taking orders from your neighbor’s dog Son-of-Sam-style, you can’t help but ask yourself:
Should I hang in there and keep trying? Or is this simply not meant to be?
It’s only natural – and oftentimes healthy – to question the state of your union, to conduct your own personal review. Like Forrest Gump looking at a person’s shoes, you can see where you’ve been and where you’re going, giving you a fair assessment in determining what to do next.
Unfortunately, we often end up focusing on all of the wrong angles, from our preconceived notions of how things should be progressing to our daunting fear of the what-ifs. We turn up the volume of the naysayers. We compare our circumstances to others, and we wonder why it can’t be as easy and effortless for us.
The process leaves us even more perplexed than before.
What we tend to forget, though, is that each situation has its own path and its own timeline, both of which are unique and completely independent from anyone else’s. Just because a friend knew her guy was “the one” because he took care of her when she was sick doesn’t make “playing nurse” a universal soul mate indicator. And just because you weren’t on national television at age two like Tiger Woods doesn’t mean you can’t be a successful golfer.
These matters of the heart – the things we truly care about – are messy, and they don’t adhere to any hard-and-fast rules or married-by-30 mandates. They’re illogical and irrational and unpredictable, and the more we try to make them objective, the more we spin our wheels, because matters of the heart cannot be solved with our head.
You can apply all of the logic and pros-and-cons lists to them you want, but when it comes down to it, you just have to go on that indescribable, individual sensation of what feels “right.”
And you’re the only one who knows that.
People may think you’re crazy, and some may question your level of self-respect. But luckily, you don’t have to answer to any of them...you just have to be honest with yourself.
So the next time you’re faced with a fight-or-flight predicament, picture the future version of yourself, lounging on the porch in a one-piece jumpsuit, with the story of your life in the rearview mirror. Will you be able to look back at this moment and know that you didn’t leave anything on the table?
If you can do that, you can move forward without any regret and enjoy a hard-earned Capri Sun in peace.
Wednesday, May 20, 2009
So it was no surprise when this mother called in to pay off her account balance – then began grumbling that, given these difficult economic times, camp was too expensive. We went back and forth for a minute, as I tried to ease her concerns and remind her how valuable the experience would be for her child. Once she agreed, I thought I was finally out of the woods.
But then the call took a most unexpected turn…
“I recently separated from my husband.”
“Oh, no,” I muttered, clueless as to how to respond. “I’m sorry to hear that.”
She then proceeded to go in-depth about the situation, how the marriage had ended not due to a lack of love, but because of financial problems. With the uneasiness slowly enveloping my body, I realized I had to quickly transition the discussion back to camp business before she got the chance to reveal something really inappropriate – like why her ex-husband preferred Cialis over Viagra.
Don’t get me wrong…I did feel bad for her. But I was not interested in going above and beyond the standard customer service relationship to create a sing-it-sister connection.
I didn’t want to be her Dr. Phil…I just wanted her credit card number.
I was dumbstruck that this woman would share her deepest, darkest thoughts with a complete and total stranger. Maybe it was like confession for her, and she felt a protected comfort in talking to an unseen, anonymous voice.
Or maybe she had been keeping this bottled up inside, and she just needed to get it out. Coming out of a failed marriage, maybe no one had listened to her in a long time, so she jumped at the chance of having someone’s ear.
After all, everyone has a desire to be heard. We all want to express a thought or an emotion and know that it is getting through to the other person. We don’t need them to agree with us…we just need them to understand and recognize where we’re coming from.
Like the lawyer in court, it doesn’t matter whether an objection is overruled or sustained, as long as it’s noted on the record.
Unfortunately, this seldom happens in everyday life. Buoyed by our specific agendas and shaped by our own biases, personal interaction often resembles a UFC cage fight, with each participant striving to gain the upper hand. We end up having parallel conversations, where nobody truly hears what the other is saying.
To quote ‘The Living Years’ by Mike and The Mechanics, “We all talk a different language…talking in defense.”
When I was a waiter, I once had a table of a mother and her five children. Swamped and scrambling, I greeted them, filled their plastic cups with Shirley Temples and patiently stood there as they took, oh, 15 minutes to order.
(Hey, take your time…it’s not like I have other customers – who I won’t have to work as hard for – whose bill is going to exceed $17.)
Seeing that their food had arrived, I checked in to make sure everything was okay. That’s when the mother went off on me, explaining that she had ordered a corn dog for her youngest, NOT macaroni and cheese.
Now, had Billboard rated the world’s worst servers, I would have frequently appeared on the weekly Top 40, but I know I got this order correct. To this day, I still contend this woman ordered macaroni and cheese.
So that’s what I told her, and, not surprisingly, it didn’t go over well. She got mad, my manager got apologetic, and all I got was a shriveled 10% gratuity.
Maybe it’s my perfectionism, but few things bother me more than someone blaming me for something that is not my fault. It eats away at my insides, and I can’t let it go. I am not a confrontational person, but when I know I’m right, I do not back down from an argument. There’s even a part of me that takes pleasure from proving my case.
Of course, that approach has rarely gotten me anywhere besides the wrong end of a $2 tip.
Luckily, I now have a better way to handle these types of situations. A few years ago, my mother-the-therapist taught me a secret weapon that, if used properly, can not only help diffuse a majority of disagreements, it can also improve your communication skills, making you a better partner, spouse, friend or – yes – waiter:
To validate someone’s feelings is to let them know that you hear what they’re saying…you value their opinion...you appreciate their circumstances…you understand what they’re going through.
It’s a show of respect.
Validating comes in handy in any interactive setting: a dissatisfied restaurant customer…a friend complaining about a thoughtless boyfriend…a husband whining to his wife that he doesn’t want to sit through an American Idol marathon.
Most of the time, the person isn’t looking for advice or solutions or for you to make it better…they just want to vent. So it’s typically a waste of time to dole out any wisdom, because they’re probably not ready to hear it anyway.
Instead, you can put your energy into validating, which can be very simple to do. The bare minimum only requires you to say three words at a time:
“I’m really sorry.”
“That’s too bad.”
“Must be awful.”
To take it up a notch, listen to what the person has to say, and then reflect back to them what you heard:
“Colonel Jessup, I know that you have a responsibility that is greater than I can possibly fathom. I understand that we live in a world that has walls, and those walls need to be guarded by men with guns. And since neither Lieutenant Weinberg nor I is going to pick up a weapon and stand a post, you had to order the ‘Code Red,’ because Santiago’s death, while tragic, probably saved lives.”
What you don’t want to do is immediately follow this validation with a “but,” as in, “I really do apologize for the miscommunication, but your son should eat that macaroni and cheese before I pour it down your blouse.” It’s like hitting the “backspace” key, erasing all of the hard work you’ve put in, because the only thing the person will hear is what is said post-but.
That doesn’t mean you can’t express your opinion. Once you have made it clear that you’ve really heard what the other person is saying – that you empathize with them – you can then give your perspective, focusing on how the situation makes you feel (if you’re in an argument), or how you have handled similar predicaments in the past (if you’re serving as a sounding board). Just be sure to use “I” statements – I think, I feel, I believe – to prevent the other person from instantly going on the defensive.
Since my mom taught me this technique, talking to her about my problems can be a predictable experience, as she almost always responds with one of her go-to validation moves. But even though I’m aware of what she’s doing, I still end up feeling better, because I know she’s listening.
And just think how much better the world would be if we all took the time and energy to do that. Not only would we make each other feel more cherished and valued, but we’d step out of our own cocoons and see things in a new light. The level of respect would go up. Divorce rates would go down. Who knows…maybe there’d even be peace in the Middle East.
Of course, if guys listened all the time, what would women have to complain about?
(On second thought, don’t answer that…)
Friday, April 24, 2009
So I was a little uneasy when I pulled up a piece I wrote a year ago that outlined the attributes of my potential “dream girl.” While the writing wasn’t as bad as I anticipated (it was still a bit sketchy), and the overall message was true, I ended up getting pimp-slapped by a sledgehammer-to-the-ankles realization I never saw coming:
I’m the stupidest guy on earth.
Having just broken up with someone who possessed every characteristic I had so eloquently articulated, how else could one explain my actions?
That’s a question I’ve been wrestling with since I decided to end the perfectly good relationship with my sweet, warm-hearted, vertically challenged (in a good way) girlfriend.
The elaborate, expanded answer is complicated enough to be its own article – or book, for that matter – but the simple explanation is that she was the collateral damage of emotional issues I’ve been fighting since well before I met her.
An innocent bystander to my inner-turmoil, she did nothing wrong, and she didn’t deserve to get hurt, making this an extremely difficult decision. Lord knows it would’ve been easier had she been some crazy, obsessive psycho who saved my discarded hair in a shoebox.
Simply getting the words out was a challenge, my voice wavering more than a politician’s principles. After we both said what we needed to say, we just sat there for a minute, the silence a deafening contrast to the laughter that had typically filled the room.
(Although I’m sure she was screaming inside, “Get the hell out of here, you %*$&#@^!”)
I’ve been in a haze ever since, sorting through a sordid cocktail of sadness, disappointment, regret and pretty much any other negative emotion out there. It’s all that I can think about. Did I do the right thing? Did I make a colossal mistake?
If it weren’t for Tylenol PM, I would probably resemble the backup dancers in the “Thriller” video by now.
It’s during times like these, as I’m tossing and turning, and the memories are racing through my head at 100 MPH, when I question if the chance at love is worth all the pain.
Despite the persistent temptation to reach out to her, we have not talked. While I miss laughing with her and joking with her, I know that taking space is the only way for the healing process to begin. I owe her at least that.
It hasn’t been easy, though, because I’m reminded of her at every turn. No matter what I see, no matter what I hear, I somehow tie it back to her – my own, cruel version of “6 Degrees to Kevin Bacon.” I wonder what she’s doing. I wonder if she’s hurting, just like me.
Look, I’m the one who did this, and I take full responsibility for what happened. But that doesn’t mean it’s not agonizing, and it doesn’t mean I don’t care about her.
I was just trying to not repeat my past relationship-related mistakes. I recognized early on how special she was, and I wanted to treat her the right way. Terrified of hurting her too deeply, I chose to err on the side of caution.
But in my attempt to be fair to her, was I fair to our relationship?
I just don’t know.
Considering all of my emotional baggage, I sometimes think I should do everyone a favor and go live by myself in the mountains, with only myself to torture. That way, no one would have to worry about engaging in the excruciating experience of caring for me.
I’ll keep trying to work through this mess, but what scars me the deepest is that my personal issues ended up hurting someone else. Yes, there is an inherent risk of getting burned that you accept upon entering a relationship, but still…she deserved better.
To her credit, while she might be cursing the day she gave me her number, she has handled everything with grace and class, not that I expected anything different…
She might only be 5’1”, but she’s a much bigger person than me.
- "It's not a lie, if you believe it." Those were the words of one of my generation's great sages, George Costanza, and the more of life I experience, the truer they ring. And while I still haven't found what I'm looking for, the search for my own personal "truths" is never-ending. Care to come along for the ride?