Monthly Archives: May 2013

The Bad, The Ugly and The Good – The Really Good


“If there were no bad people, there would be no good lawyers.” _ Charles Dickens

“I’ll probably just stay in my room most of the time, checking on my Blackberry.” Those were among the first words Karen and I heard that morning from Jeremy. We didn’t know his name then; we’d hear it later.We’d sat beside him at our hotel in Fort Lauderdale, and an older woman who turned out to be his mother, in the hotel breakfast room.

The reason we noticed him was because he was being so rude to his mother. She was asking his work, his life, just generally trying to make conversation. Every response was short – most were nasty. That’s a good word for him – nasty. He was bald and bored and just generally sour on life, Through it all, she stayed upbeat and engaging toward him.

Not that it mattered. As the morning proceeded, we’d see the rest of his family – his father also was kind of a tool. His brothers, on the other hand, were pretty friendly. One was married to a woman I called Megan, because she resembled a not-as-pretty Megan Draper (from Mad Men). My first impression of her wasn’t great. She was yelling at her small kids (hey, not judging, I’ve been there). Another brother and his girlfriend seemed pretty friendly. The third brother obviously was the favorite uncle – Megan’s kids absolutely loved him.

Anyway, we had worked up a pretty strong dislike for Jeremy. And of course he and his family came back down to the lobby to catch the same shuttle for the port that we did. Our only hope: There were two ships leaving that morning. We hoped against hope they were getting on the other. They weren’t. We saw them every day on the cruise, from Fort Lauderdale to Grand Cayman to Ocho Rios, Jamaica. For the most part, our first impressions held true. Megan and I got to the point where we frequently acknowledged one another. She was much nicer on the boat.

So much for the bad, let’s move on to the ugly and good people we met (or saw) on board.

The Ugly

“I thought the two ugly ones were sisters, but they got very insulted when I asked them. You could tell neither one of them wanted to look like the other one, and you couldn’t blame them, but it was very amusing anyway.” _ J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye

These folks weren’t so physically ugly – not that I judge. But these are the folks I didn’t care so much for:

  • Carl and Victoria. They were from Wisconsin. Which isn’t bad in itself. They were Packers fans. Which isn’t bad in itself. They were seated with us one night for dinner. Carl – Karen first thought he said His Name Was Earl – looked like Jim Valvano with a mullet. (Karen will tell you it wasn’t a mullet, but I’m telling the story so I say it was.) Carl wasn’t a bad guy – he just talked all the time. He talked about sports all the time.
  • Bald Elvis. I’d seen – and disliked – this guy around the ship. But I really developed a huge dislike of him during the ship talent show. It turns out he was from Vegas, and he came prepared with a sound system/light show. Here’s what really turned me off: He sang a “Dixie/Glory Glory Hallelujah” medley (yes, I know the King himself sang it). With the hand movements and the crouch and it just turned me off. At the end, I wouldn’t clap for him. Karen asked why and I told her: “I don’t clap for Dixie.”
  • Bernadine and Crystal. I didn’t actually know their names, nor do I want to. Bernadine was this woman who rode on the shuttle from the port to the airport. Why’d I dislike her? She stayed on the phone, talking oh-so-loudly, the whole way. But she actually wasn’t anywhere as bad as Crystal, who was from Birmingham. Who was on our plane. She sat a row over and one up from us. At one point she was talking about – and I swear I’m not making this up – the Dalai Lama. She said he was from TIE-bet. ’nuff said.

The Good

“Good looking people turn me off. Myself included.” _ Patrick Swayze

Here’s the thing, though. We met a ton of really good folks on the trip. Some really quick descriptions:

  • Austin and Linda. We were seated with them the first night for dinner. Austin had just graduated from Ohio State and was headed to Lexington, Ky., to sell Triscuits. He was a really nice, good-looking kid. Linda was his grandmother. They were traveling together, staying in the same cabin. He said it worked out because she was sleeping while he was out and he was sleeping while she was out.
  • The Swimmer Girls. They were from Chicago and swam competitively at the University of Nebraska. They weren’t sisters but resembled one another. They were traveling with one’s parents. The dad told us they’d swum against one another throughout their adolescence and decided to both go to Nebraska and room together. They were pretty cool.
  • Brad and Geri. They were married and lived in Phoenix. We ate with them the same night we were with Earl and Victoria. (To be honest, they saved the night.) He was a concrete contractor from Chicago; she worked for a REIT. They met through online dating.
  • Vin and Kaley. We didn’t know their names. But he was a bald bodybuilder type (resembling Vin Diesel) and she was a cute blonde (resembling Kaley Cuoco. We’d noticed them because of their little boys, who were rough 2 and 4 years old. Frankly, they were running Kaley ragged. They lived in Fort Lauderdale, where she’d gone from dancer (pre-kids) to marketer for an arts venue. They sat beside us at the talent show. We liked them a lot, but Kaley looked increasingly ragged as the cruise continued. (We’ve been there.)
  • Nick and Kelly. Again we didn’t know their names. They were a young couple that we kept running into. We sat beside – not with – them twice in the dining room, and I ran into them in the pizza line another day. They were a nice, quiet couple – we thought they maybe had just started dating.
  • The Bradys (not their real last name). They were an older couple we ate with one night. I swear I’m not making this up: He was an architect, and their names were Mike and Carol. They were from Chicago (a lot of the cooler people we met were). Update: They might have been from Memphis, but people from Chicago really ARE nice.
  • Joe and Melissa. By far the nicest couple we met. They were a young pair from upstate New York but have lived in Manhattan for two years. They asked where we were from. When we said Charlotte, they were astounded. That’s where they plan to move. She’s a PA; he’s a market researcher – I told him about Red Ventures – and we just connected. They weren’t just saying they’d move. They knew some neighborhoods and everything.

We met a lot of other folks, too. But these were some of the most memorable. A lot of people asked me last week whether we’d had a good time. My answer: We always have a good time when we’re together. We love people; we try to find something good in even the bad and ugly ones. Even Jeremy. Oh, he still seemed bored and unhappy and above it all, but he sort of redeemed himself – in my eyes, at least – on the last full day on board. There was a party that day on the Lido deck and if you bought a T-shirt, proceeds would go to St. Jude’s. Jeremy bought one.

“Happiness is good health and a bad memory.” _ Ingrid Bergman

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The Myth of the McMansion


The Myth of the McMansion.

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The Myth of the McMansion


Certainly, the notion that a big house doesn’t guarantee happiness is nothing new. Look no further than The Great Gatsby. The book upon which the new movie was based was published in 1925, and protagonist Jay Gatsby bought a fabulous mansion to attract the object of his dreams from across the bay.  We see how that worked out (Spoiler alert: It didn’t).

Fast forward to today, and many of us are chasing our own green light – happiness – by building larger and larger houses. In about 60 years, the size of the average house in the U.S. has more than doubled. Meanwhile, we’re working longer hours to pay for houses that cost 18 times as much as they did in the early 1950s. The new bigger houses have more bedrooms for fewer children.

But maybe more room – and three times as many televisions – has fragmented those even smaller families. Remember when we all used to gather around the TV in the den to watch a show. Now, with three televisions in the house on average, and digital recorders that record five shows at a time, we watch different shows in different rooms at different times. No wonder we spend much less time together as a family.

We have larger kitchens but cook less, eating out nearly five times a week. We have home gyms, and spend billions to equip them, but are in worse shape than ever. We eat more and sleep less, so much so that as many as 80 million people in the U.S. have sleep disorders.

None of this is meant to suggest that everything was great in the early 1950s. It certainly wasn’t if you weren’t white or were a woman who wanted a career or contracted polio. Or if you wanted to avoid asbestos or lead paint.

But there is something to be said for a closer family dynamic – and if nothing else, smaller houses made families closer by necessity. Maybe we can recreate this closeness with more family vacations, making greater efforts to be together, to work less and sleep more and to get healthy together instead of having individual agendas.

Ralph Waldo Emerson once said this: “A great man is always willing to be little.” A great house can be little, too. Particularly if it’s home to a great family.

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Gatsby: Great, Yes, But a Terrible Home Insurance Risk


I wrote this for another site but figured some of my regulars might appreciate – and share – it:

In a few days, Jay Gatsby gets another chance to charm his way into our hearts. It wasn’t enough that he was the title character of the fantastic F. Scott Fitzgerald novel, The Great Gatsby. Gatsby also has been in the movies, played most notably by Robert Redford in 1974 and by Leonardo DiCaprio in the version that’s coming out.

Whether on the screen or the page, Gatsby stands as one of the most enduring characters of American fiction. He had money, looks and a mansion. But, as it turned out, he had terrible taste in women and a bit of bad luck, and he would have been a terrible risk for something most of us take for granted — home insurance.

Click here to read more.

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A Daring Adventure or Nothing At All


The headline is part of a famous Helen Keller quote. The missing words: Life is either …

Spoiler alert! This one could wind up being sad in a way. Though that’s not what I intend for it. Sometimes these things take on a life of their own, however.

I’ve written about these topics before, but they came up again this week. In a bad way.

I guess it was Monday. I got a message from my old friend George Fountain. I was hoping it meant he was coming to Charlotte, and we could get together. Sadly, it wasn’t. George told me of the death of our mutual friend, Larry Scott. It shook me, but I couldn’t say it was a surprise. George and I had discussed before that Larry had been in poor health.

But it started me thinking about the old days. Larry, George and I met in seventh grade. When they fully integrated the schools in my county in Virginia. Before that, they’d gone to an elementary school just over the hill from Cluster Springs Elementary School.

George had – and has – a big personality. He was funny and cool and had the best laugh ever. I can’t even describe it – other than to say once he started going he sounded kinda like a duck quacking. But you couldn’t be around George longer than about a minute without liking him. And I was around George a lot that year (we’ll get to that part in a bit) and throughout high school.

Larry was quiet, kind of nervous. He had kind of a high-pitched voice, but he was kind and happy and liked being around people.

I’ve talked before about my love for basketball during those years. My friend Mike Lipford and I played nearly every day after school. We’d walk back to the playground at CSES. The outdoor court there was terrible. The asphalt reached unbelievably high temperatures during the summer, for one thing. For another, it was on an incline. Which meant that the goal on the one side of the court was slightly too high and the goal on the other side was slightly too low.

We preferred the low side. Some days, before the schools even mixed, some of the kids from the “other” school would walk down to the court. Usually they’d start on the goal that was too high, but it wasn’t long before they’d come down and we’d choose up sides and play. But it was always shirts and skins, not whites and blacks. I can’t remember ever playing hoops with George and Larry in those days – they lived farther away than the guys that walked down the hill to CSES.

Anyway, Mike and I also had played basketball the year before in what was then a city/county recreation league. Or maybe I should say Mike played. He was really good athlete and excelled in every sport I can think of. I was one of those players of whom Dean Smith always said, “He means so much to the team in practice.” Which was a kind way of saying I was a scrub.

The team was called the Springers. We wore dark (but not dook) blue uniforms, trimmed with yellow letters and numbers. I bought a pair of suede Converse shoes that sort of matched the colors going into my last year on the team, and I thought I looked pretty cool. Our coach, and he was the coach of pretty much every youth rec team in Cluster Springs, was a guy named Harrison Conner. He was a tough coach, he yelled at us a lot. And I believe he cut me twice from the local youth baseball team – and I have to say with good reason.

Anyway, this is where I really got to know George and Larry. We were Springers. We practiced together and played together and endured the yelling from Coach Conner together. We stayed friends the rest of our days in school. And, oh yeah: Larry, George and Mike were terrific players. They went on to play throughout junior and high school, and Larry was a scholarship player at what was then Elon College. Our other two starters were Ronnie Ratliff and myself. Our job was not to screw it up. We didn’t. Our team might have gone undefeated in the county league that year – there’s a chance we lost one game. My good friend Stephen Palmer would know, but I’d prefer to say we went undefeated. (We did lose in the South Boston World Championship game against the best team in the city league, the Hawks. But that’s a tale, possibly, for another day.)

And about that yelling coach. We didn’t know it at the time, but the community group that sponsored our team had dropped its backing before the season. Because we had integrated the Springers. The only reason we played that year was because Harrison Conner paid for it out of his own pocket.

I think I might have seen Larry once in the 38 years since we graduated high school. We had the kind of awkward conversation people do when they encounter one another after a long time. We shook hands and said we’d keep up, but we didn’t.

The strange thing is, I’d been thinking about the Springers a few days ago and how proud I was to be part of the team. I’ll miss you, Larry, but I’ll never forget you, old friend.

********

At my new job, we work with keywords a lot. The key word of that last sentence in the previous section, as far as this post goes, is this: Forget.

Later Monday, another friend sent me a message after she heard about Larry. She had some more sad news, concerning a mutual friend of ours (whom I won’t identify for what will become obvious reasons).  She told me our mutual friend – who had been part of the group of kids with whom I had eaten lunch almost every day in high school – had been diagnosed with early-onset dementia.

I was devastated. I hadn’t seen her in years – probably not since I started college. She hadn’t attended the class reunion I attended a few years ago. But she was – and I suppose still is – a very kind, sweet person. And I know a little about early-onset dementia/Alzheimer’s.

That’s because a dear college friend of mine was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s in 2008. I’ve seen her a few times since; sometimes Laura has known me and sometimes she hasn’t. I wrote about her here.

So I know what my high school friend is facing, and I’m scared for her.

********

The point of this: Live. Live while you can and as long as you can. Don’t put anything off. Hug your partner. A lot. It can all go away so quickly. Get all the happy in that you can. Make life a daring adventure. Don’t let it be nothing at all.

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