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Shining a light on Christmas – the Murray Way


So here’s how things go around Casa de Murray. We got our Christmas tree Friday night from the local lot we always patronize. Really nice family from the mountains runs it. They even tie the tree on your car for you. Got it home and put it in the garage because we were tired and hungry. Saturday Garrett and I brought it in the house, set it in the stand, helped Karen get it straight and screwed in. We were going to decorate Saturday night after Karen went out to wrap up Xmas shopping and a short trip to the grocery store. Only we didn’t because we were tired and hungry. So we got up this morning and started decorating, beginning with the three strands of Xmas lights we had, figuring it would easily be enough. Only it wasn’t. So I threw on some jeans – more on this later – zipped my Red Ventures Insurance hoodie and ran to the CVS a block away from the house to buy two more strands of 100 lights each, just to be sure. When I got back, Karen – wanting to stay busy – had been working on decorating the mantle. It looked great to me, but she wasn’t happy with the ribbon. So she went to a different type of ribbon, which looked great to me, but she wasn’t happy with the ribbon loops. So she redid the loops after some careful measuring. Meanwhile I’m just evaluating her work, offering encouragement, which is what I do. (insert smiley face here) She finishes and it looks great to me. And good enough to her. So I go to open the boxes of lights I’ve just bought so we can get back to the tree. Only I bought two boxes – 100 lights each – of white lights. Which don’t go at all with the multi-colored strands we have on the tree. So I throw my jeans back on and zip up my Red Ventures Insurance hoodie and go back to CVS, cursing my stupidity all along. One good thing about waiting to open the lights – I still had the receipt instead of throwing it away as I normally would have immediately. So I get to CVS and wait in a short but very slow line. I don’t really understand how much receipt the registered printed for the woman standing in front of me, who only bought one thing. But I returned the white lights with no problem. So then I went back to the Xmas light aisle and discovered why I bought while lights in the first place – there were no small boxes of multi-colored lights. I searched and searched, even in the hair products aisle, but no luck. So I went back to the Xmas light aisle and bought a 300-bulb multi-colored strand on a pretty cool hose-reel-like apparatus, which fascinated me. Even though I didn’t think I needed 300 more lights and was pretty concerned that we’d have loops and loops of lights surrounding the tree skirt. Oh, and remember those jeans and that RVI hoodie I threw on – you thought I’d forgotten the more on that later, didn’t you? Well, they were my oldest jeans still in the rotation. And right now they’re pretty stretched out. And I’ve actually lost a bit of weight over past couple of months or so. Which mattered, because I could feel them start to sag as I walked up to the register with my hose reel of lights occupying at least one of my hands. So I couldn’t pull them up, which had the potential to be an issue. But luckily my Red Ventures Insurance hoodie is long, long enough to mask the problem until I could get to the car. So I get home and open the hose reel of lights and find that the strand, as packed, ends with the male end of the prong. Only we need it to end with the female end. So I start unwinding the lights, figuring I’ll have to unwind the whole strand to get to the connector I need. And it was then that I got my first break of the day – it wasn’t a 300-light strand – it was three 100-light strands. So I only had to unwind one. Which we connected to what we had on the tree. Which finished it up. We added our ornaments – we have some really cool ones which we supplemented this year with ornaments we picked up in Cozumel and Honduras. TL;DR – we expected to be done by 11 a.m. or so. We finished at 3. And, yes, we were tired and hungry. But we have a pretty beautiful tree, in my opinion.

So that’s how we do Christmas trees – it might take us 56 hours from the time we start until the time we finish, but we wind up with something we’re proud of. And to think I suggested to Karen that we might need to consider an artificial tree this year …

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A Bad Moment Turns Good


(Editor’s note: Some readers of an earlier version of this post may have come away with the impression that I attended Syracuse. I did not and would not.)

It was excruciating. When that Villanova guy hit the three-pointer to beat my Heels in the national championship game, I was – you guessed it – pretty devastated.

I was angry about the refereeing. (When did the NCAA hire notoriously clueless WCW refs Tommy Young, Teddy Long and Earl Hebner – how else to explain the obvious foul on Justin Jackson at the end of the first half on the ‘block’ they never replayed? I’m not sure JJ wasn’t hit with an international object or a steel chair.) I was angry about our failure to guard the most dangerous outside shooter on the Villanova team. I was angry about our foul shooting.

I stayed angry about a day. Then I got over it. Because of my old friend Andy Jasner’s post on Facebook

Andy and I knew each other from our days at the newspaper in Gastonia, the Hellmouth of Weird. Andy was a sports reporter, the son of a famous Philadelphia sports reporter, Phil Jasner, and grew up near Philly. And this is important to this tale.

I’d actually been a fan of Phil’s even before I met Andy – in those days before the internet (it still pains me not to capitalize internet), his work was syndicated and accessible to those of us who lived outside Philly.

Anyway, Andy and I became friends even before I moved over to sports (and technically became his boss). He was a Syracuse grad, though, and we went back and forth on the Orange and UNC – always good-natured, though. In fact, it was actually refreshing to have non-Wolfpack fans on the sports staff.

So I knew Andy would have been cheering for Villanova in the finals. His Philly love notwithstanding, he would have been angry at the Heels for stomping – there, I said it – Syracuse three times this season, including in the national semifinals.

The day after the game, I mostly stayed off the internet in general and Facebook in particular. But at some point during the day, probably during lunch, I checked out my feed, and I saw the following post from Andy:

So much of life is about memories. I remember 1985 like it was yesterday watching the Villanova game with my dad. Last night, I sat with Jordana (his daughter) and we watched the whole game together. Sacrificing one night’s sleep will now give us another memory forever. This is making me well up now. Great game. Great memories.

Frankly, it made me well up, too. And I lost the anger I’d felt since that fateful shot went in. If you know me well at all, you know I have great trouble letting things go. As in, I NEVER let things go. But this time I could. And I did. (I’m ashamed that it took me this long to write this.)

I reflected that day (and later) about just how right Andy was. As the great songwriter Townes Van Zandt says in To Live is to Fly, ‘Everything is not enough; And nothing is too much to bear; Where you’ve been is good and gone; All you keep’s the getting there.’

Which to me says this: Take care of the moments. One of the great things about being a grandparent is that I have the time and energy to enjoy and cherish the moments I spend with Sam. I had another one yesterday.

I was going outside to light the grill to cook some chicken (turned out excellent, if I say so myself). Sam wasn’t crazy about the idea. ‘Play with me first, Pop!’ he begged. We play with cars, build Legos and work with flash cards regularly on Sundays, and he didn’t like his time getting interrupted.

We compromised – he came outside with me and blew some bubbles, drew with chalk and played with cars. He stayed a comfortable distance from the grill, and Austin and Grace came out and spent some time with us, too.

‘Play with me first, Pop’ is one of those great moments, though. It was private as heck (until now), but I thought I’d share it. Andy’s moments separately with his Dad and Jordana certainly lifted my spirits on what was a ridiculously dark day.

My mantra is a simple one. Look for those moments. Live for those moments.

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What Would Arthur Do?


I’m pretty sure you can’t answer the question in the headline. I’m not positive I can always answer it. That’s because I think there’s often an inconsistency in how I react, and I like that. Being predictable, to me, is being boring.

But there are certain guidelines, I believe, that govern the general philosophy behind my actions. As I posted the other day on FB, one of my biggest strengths and challenges (and yes, there’s a reason I say challenges instead of weaknesses – unfortunately, it’s kind of an inside joke to myself, and trust me it’s not the funny kind of joke) is that I’m very self aware, sometimes to the point of being self absorbed.

I bring all this up because that self absorption recently landed me squarely in the darkness that descends over me from time to time. The reason for the most recent period is important to me but not so much to anyone else, so I’ll skip that part. But trust me, I was in a dark place, and I didn’t like anyone – even myself – except for Karen, who is always my anchor to reality. She tried – she really tried – to find some light in me.

And she succeeded in at least providing a spark that I subsequently was able to ignite into a full-fledged flame (thanks in part to a tragedy that befell a friend that made me realize my problem – much as it meant to me – was embarrassingly insignificant at the beginning, middle and end of the day).

That spark – a simple sentence Karen said to me: ‘I know you always do the right thing eventually.’

That’s a helluva compliment, and I’m vain enough to think it’s true. I’m certainly not perfect, but I can own a mistake and do my best to make it right.

My moral compasses

I’m not a religious person, but I believe I have a strong sense of right and wrong, and that I fall on the side of right pretty darn consistently, even if I don’t always follow the same path to get there.

How do I do it? I look some people I admire – OK, some are fictional characters – and try to walk around in their skin when I’m confronted with a problem. And then I try to act as I believe they would. Let me be clear: I could never be the person any of these people/characters are, but I can darn sure aim that high.

Let’s examine them and the qualities I try to emulate:

  • Dean Smith. The greatest basketball coach of all time – don’t even mention the guy in Durham if you don’t want to fight – got me started on the right path at an early age. Coach Smith championed civil rights when it wasn’t popular, particularly in the South, and that resonated with me at a time when I was growing up and deciding how to treat people. He was a competitor and wanted to win, but he had a way of making me feel OK about not winning (and sometimes even making me feel not so good about winning) – the philosophy of feeling good about not winning sticks with me today at Red Ventures. I’ve said before that we fail (lose) better than any other company because we don’t call it failing (or losing) – we call it learning. Finally, and this is really important to me because I have a HUGE ego about my skills, I learned from Coach Smith to do what he did – never take credit for victories but always own losses.
  • Rick Blaine. This, of course, is the character Humphrey Bogart brings to life in Casablanca – now and forever my favorite movie. ‘I stick my neck out for nobody,’ he says, except he pretty much sticks his neck out for everybody. Where I try to model my behavior after his is by putting others first. I’ll never eat the last piece of apple pie or pizza as long as I think someone in the family wants it. (A disclaimer: Potato chips and jelly beans are the exceptions – I’m pretty selfish about these.)
  • Superman/Batman/Spider-Man. No, I’m not faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive and all that other jazz. But I like to think I can employ some of Kal-El’s other powers: Super-hearing, to understand what folks are really saying – and not saying; super-vision, to see the wrongs around me and when friends need a kind word or a smile; and the courage (and voice) to speak up for those who can’t. From Batman, I try to use my brain – my biggest superpower – to solve problems. Like him, I can seem aloof – some might mistakenly say combative, and that’s something I try to work on. And like Peter Parker, I was thrust into a position of power at a very young age and had to learn the responsibility that comes along with it, especially in a team setting. Karen also says I have a pretty good dose of Spidey-sense – an awareness that often, but certainly not always, keeps me from being blindsided by developments around me.

None of this is meant to say I’m perfect – I’m filled with ambition, jealousy, greed and all the other vices you can imagine. I don’t suffer fools gladly. But I do try every day to exceed the expectations I have for myself.

What Would Arthur Do? I still don’t know exactly for every situation – and I often disappoint myself. But I can’t think of a better way to put it than that I’ll always, ultimately, try to do the write – and right – thing.

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A Probably Too Long Goodbye


Arthur’s note: I wrote most of this blog post five years ago, and I published it then. But the ending has changed, and I find myself revisiting the topic. I deal with stress and sadness in two ways – I eat or I write. And I’m not hungry.  Five years ago, when I started this story, I promised that it would be sad but not maudlin. I make no such guarantee as I sit at my laptop tonight.

I met Laura just before my sophomore year at Carolina. A lot of us had signed up to be orientation counselors that year. Out of character for me? Yeah. But we figured it would be a good way to meet chicks. And it got me out of SoBo a week earlier – always a good thing.

I can’t remember if she was in Greg’s group or not. But it didn’t really matter one way or another. Once they met, it was on.

I’ve written about Greg before, in this post about the cohort of friends I joined at Carolina. Greg is the one college friend I’ve stayed in touch with since graduation. And Laura became a good friend too. Although many of us who’d hung with Greg freshman year sometimes were jealous that he now spent nearly all his time with her. We got over it once we saw how happy she made him, of course.

After she graduated, Laura went to work at the Wilmington newspaper. I worked in Jacksonville, and she and Greg invited me down many times just to hang out. I made friends with some of the reporters Laura worked with, and they tried to recruit me. Trouble was, I never liked the paper, though I liked Laura’s and others’ work in it. I still don’t like it very much.

Anyway, I once went with Laura and Greg to her parents’ house in Hyattsville, Md. Laura’s dad had been a journalism prof at Ohio University until he left to be a vice president of something or other at The Washington Post. We’d gone up to see the Carolina-Maryland football game, but we squeezed in a side trip to the Post offices that Saturday morning.

Both publisher Katharine Graham and Bob Woodward were working that day. That should have scared me off journalism right there. Mr. Anderson, Laura’s father, introduced us to them. Mrs. G, as she was known around the office, was warm and seemed interested in us. (This is the same person of whom Nixon henchthug John Mitchell once said, during Watergate: “Katie Graham’s gonna get her tit caught in a big fat wringer if that’s published.” Yes, that was our attorney general in those days.)

Woodward, on the other hand, could hardly have been more disinterested. He gave us a limp handshake and not much else. Still, it was a big thrill for a young journalist, and I’ve never forgotten it. The game – not so much. I think we lost on a late field goal. But what I know is that the hot dogs at Byrd Stadium – we called ’em Byrd dogs – were terrible.

I’d later go to Greg and Laura’s wedding and kept in touch once they moved to Charlotte. Greg was doing PR for a large Southern retailer at the time and Laura wound up at Price McNabb ad agency, now Eric Mower. When Karen and I moved to Gastonia in the ’90s, we’d occasionally run into them. Laura was smart and hard-working and she became a big-time exec there.

When we moved back to the Greater Charlotte area in 2000 after our three-year exile in Henderson, I renewed the friendship again, mostly with Greg. We’d go eat barbecue every month or so at Bill Spoon’s, and we always had a great time. He remains one of my favorite people, someone who is just as nuts about UNC as I am.

It was at one of those lunches in 2008 that he told me something that scared the crap out of me. Laura had an incident driving in Charlotte one day. Basically, she’d forgotten the way home. He was worried. So was I. The doctors couldn’t find anything wrong. I thought maybe she’d had a small stroke.

It happened a couple of other times. Later that year, she finally got the diagnosis: Early onset Alzheimer’s. She wasn’t even 50 years old.

Greg and I don’t see each other much anymore. He works in SouthPark, I work in Fort Mill. But we email back and forth occasionally, and I kept up off and on with Laura’s condition and her kids through those emails with my friend.

In addition to be smart and driven, Laura was courageous. I never knew of her ever complaining about her fate, indeed she blogged about it as long as she could. Without an ounce of self-pity. Her energies, and much of Greg’s, were devoted to working on behalf of Alzheimer’s. Her blog urged everyone to live life to the fullest.

Five years ago, Greg and Laura were the honorary chairpersons for the Charlotte Memory Walk fund-raiser on a beautiful November Saturday morning in SouthPark. Karen and I walked with them, and we made an all-too-small contribution to the cause. On that day, Laura vacillated between knowing who I was and introducing herself to me. I think it was the last time I saw her.

Greg emailed me last week. Laura had suffered a series of seizures and fallen into a coma. They told him she wouldn’t recover. I wasn’t surprised to learn that she’d asked that no extraordinary measures be taken.

Wednesday night, Laura lost her long fight. My heart aches for my friend. Her courage – and Greg’s, as he stood beside her every step of the way – inspires me. He spent nearly all of his time with her, as he had practically since the day he met her. And it still wasn’t enough.

I know there are a zillion causes out there, and I don’t want to denigrate any of them. But this one is special to me, because of my long friendship with one of the nicest people I’ve ever known. Please keep Greg in your thoughts.

And for all of you, please live life to the fullest. Right now, not tomorrow. Love your partner. Right now. Hug your kids. Right now. There just aren’t enough tomorrows for everything we still need to do.

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We CAN Be Heroes – For Ever and Ever


Let’s get this straight. I’m not really a hero – I don’t even play one on TV. But if you know me at all, you know I’m enamored – some might even say obsessed – with superheroes. I come by it honest. My mom bought me comic books – she always called them funny books – when I was a kid. They were part of what ignited my passion for reading – and eventually writing (we’ll get to that later) – at an early age.

I’ve always wanted to be a superhero (and I still do, even at my current age of more than 40 years old), but it’s never quite worked out. There’s that lack of superpowers thing standing in the way. But I did follow another dream for many years, and it was superhero-related as well. That thing was becoming a reporter – much like Superman’s alter ego Clark Kent. You see, Superman comic books were some of the first my mom bought for me.

Yep, that was my inspiration for going into journalism. I couldn’t be Superman, but I could be Clark Kent. Looking back, I’ve always blamed my mom for what followed. She really SHOULD have bought me Batman comic books first. I’d be much more suited for the billionaire playboy job than I ever was as a reporter/editor.

Not that I didn’t enjoy being a journalist for a large part of my run. That’s how I met my wife – the best thing that ever happened to me. But when it came to being a reporter/editor, I have to admit that I never lived up to being a hero – and eventually I got out so I could have a real life. Which meant that I was one of the lucky ones – I fell out of love with newspapering WAY before it could fall out of love with me, as it has done with so many in the profession who never seem to get over the rejection.

Later, I served my time in magazine writing and editing, where I learned a hell of a lot over the years. Plus I got lucky. I got laid off. It was the best thing that ever happened to me.

My new secret identity

Now I’m a mild-mannered editor for a major high-tech company, Red Ventures. I help explain insurance. And how to invest your money if you live in Brazil. And how to make sure your small business can get the right credit card. And a lot of other stuff.

I know what you’re thinking – that doesn’t sound too heroic. Maybe not, though I’d argue that each has its place in the circle of life.

But, through RV, I’ve been able to unleash my inner hero. You see, in the past year or so, I’ve taken part in efforts to raise money to fight cancer, ALS, and many other diseases. I’ve participated in an effort to raise money to grant a Make a Wish request. I’ve volunteered for a basketball camp for children with epilepsy, autism, and other problems.

None of that is extraordinary. At my company, it’s very ordinary. All those millennials you complain about not caring about anything outside of themselves, they do this stuff at RV. And they do it not because someone made them sign a United Way pledge but because they truly want to do it.

But in July I got to feel a little special. It happened at the annual Golden Door Summit. Golden Door is another group I work with at Red Ventures. We grant scholarships – full ride scholarships – to high-achieving undocumented students. I mentor two spectacular young women in the program. Truth to be told, they mentor me, too, about courage and determination and optimism. I wish you could meet Maria and Vanessa, and I wish you could meet Keny, Katherine, Oscar, Pablo, Jose B., Lela, Melyssa, and so many other fine young students in the program.

And if you did, you’d realize just exactly how stupendous an idiot Donald Trump is, with all his talk of criminals and mass deportations and everything else. You’d see him for what he is – a disciple not of Americanism but of pure hate. Someone who sees money as power and will do anything to keep his. A real-life Lex Luthor.

I digress. On the Friday night of this year’s Golden Door Summit, the students and some of the mentors and other volunteers gathered at Red Ventures CEO Ric Elias’ house for dinner and frank talk. As the event was breaking up, one of the students, Martha, approached me. I didn’t know Martha as well as some of the scholars – she’d gotten her scholarship two years ago at the same time as Maria and Vanessa.

But she knew me (and not just because, as my wife says, I stand out greatly at RV because of my, er, advanced age): “One of these things is not like the others …”

“I want to tell you something,” Martha said as she walked up to me. “Thank you. When I interviewed for the scholarship, I was so nervous. And you really put me at ease. I was able to get through the day because of that.”

I didn’t realize at the time, of course. All I had done was smile and tell her to please believe we all wanted her to succeed. And treat her with respect and kindness. That’s all it took. I had influenced her life without even knowing it. I was very touched.

The headline for this post is a lyric from a David Bowie song, Heroes. In most places, he sings, “We can be Heroes, just for one day.” But in one place, he sings it the way it is in the headline. We can be heroes, forever and ever.

I found out when I was talking to Martha that I could be a hero. In my own small little way. Without even realizing it. And I have to tell you. It’s super.

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Reaching the Unreachable Star, or It Started When I Chased a Pig, Part 3


Our story so far in Part 1  and Part 2 – We’ve missed a flight, drank, met an older couple from Akron, drank, been charmed by a younger couple from Orlando who wanted a monkey (well, he did, at least), learned a little about SpaceX, met an unforgettable cruise director, and voted up on St. Kitts and down on St. Maarten.

Why is this installment called Reaching the Unreachable Star? Two reasons:

  • It’s a line from The Impossible Dream, from Man of La Mancha, which is about Don Quixote, which sort of references donkeys (who appear in this post).
  • And it almost seems like an Impossible Dream to finish this story, because there was so much I loved about this vacation (and I’m not just talking about my traveling companion. And so much that I won’t even be able to get to, like the woman in the Charlotte airport who used to be into bedazzling.

A funny coincidence

Karen and I aren’t hard to please when it comes to onboard entertainment. We enjoy the musical shows, the live bands – we made friends with Mickey and Marilyn, a couple who (and I swear I’m not making this up) found love at the IRS, and the comedians – so much so that we didn’t even get to do one of our favorite things: Watching movies under the stars on the big screen on the Lido deck.

Both comedians we saw were funny. And dirty. Both interacted with the audience as part of their humor – I guess it’s a comedy thing. But Percy Crews Jr. – the first comic we saw – had us rolling with one routine where he asked audience members whether they liked something – I won’t be more specific than that other than to say his question wouldn’t make it onto non-premium TV even in these relaxed times. He asked a woman in the front row who had the audacity to get up to get a drink. He asked the waiter he summoned for her – whom I’m not sure understood the question – and he asked a young, clean-cut guy in the front row who was just minding his own business with his pretty girlfriend. Juvenile as it was, we laughed heartily at the interplay but then didn’t think too much about it.

Or so we thought. One of the things about cruise ship dining is that you can either dine alone or with other folks. Karen and I alternated, and the next night we were seated with some other couples, including John and Shawna. Turns out they were from Scranton, PA, (Karen’s from Williamsport) and attended Penn State. She was pretty, he was handsome and buff (turns out he is a personal trainer in addition to being a student), and they were nice, engaging kids. And then someone at the table asked the question: Hey, weren’t you guys at the comedy show last night? John reddened a bit but admitted it; he was pretty good-natured about the whole thing.

That opened things up even more: It was Shawna’s first cruise and I think John’s second. They wanted to move South after graduation. And both were majoring in marketing. Which meant Karen and I started selling them on Red Ventures, where I work. I don’t know what will happen. John has a semester left; Shawna has two. But how cool would it be if one or both of them ended up working with me?

Oh, the places we went

The boat didn’t stay in San Juan long, but we made the most of the stop. We went on an excursion to the rain forest there – it did sprinkle a little while we were there. I don’t have much to say about it, except it was so beautiful and so obviously fragile. One surprise – there isn’t much alive there but the vegetation, some birds, and a few lizards. But it was truly awe-inspiring.

My one regret is that our trip to the rain forest meant we didn’t have any time to visit San Juan – it looked like a terrific place, and I’m very interested in the bioluminescent bay there.

Which brings us to Grand Turk – our final port before returning to Cocoa Beach. By this time, Karen was deep in the throes of a summer cold – mine was to come. (Funny how that worked out.) But anyway, Karen was looking for some over-the-counter medication to ease her symptoms – the only choices on the boat were Benadryl and Dristan. She went with Dristan (talk about old school), and we discovered why no one hears about it any more – it’s pretty crappy.

But Grand Turk wasn’t. It was a place of great beauty and kindness, as our tour guide John explained. There were wild horses (I thought some of them might have to drag me away) and donkeys everywhere. They were friendly, furry, and it seemed pretty well-fed. They just kind of coexisted with the people there and – as long as residents secured their garbage – didn’t seem to be causing anyone any trouble. We petted some who were hanging around the lighthouse.

Grand Turk also was home to a beautiful beach, where we met a family from Matthews (part of the Greater Indian Trail Metro) and chatted in the water with them for ages. I think we’d welcome the opportunity to go back someday.

I’m an eating man

No blog post should be complete without a Beverly Hillbillies reference, and the title of this section (a play on the prestigious British boarding school) qualifies. Like Jethro, I enjoy eating. And that’s one of the great things about being on the boat – an abundance of food, much of which is pretty good. There are the big dining rooms that come as part of your fare, but you can also choose some specialty restaurants on your ship for an extra fee. We did the specialty thing twice, and one of them was fantastic! (The Italian option – not so much.) But let’s talk about the Asian place.

Karen and I shared a bunch of delicious dishes, but the two that stood out were the pork belly “appetizer” and the creme brulee dessert. That appetizer was the largest single piece of pork I’ve ever seen at a restaurant. And it was tres delicious. It was cooked perfectly. And I left out something about the creme brulee – rose. Yep, it was rose creme brulee, which just made one of my favorite desserts even better.

The trip back home wasn’t eventful. We drew Pauly again as a driver – his biggest grumble this time was about the passenger who wanted to tell him how to pack the bags. He wasn’t happy.

But we were when we got home. We love traveling, but we love home, too. You can chase happiness (if not a pig) all over the place, but the best location is right where you live. I don’t have to chase it.

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Shooting Down the Monday Blues


I didn’t have to look long to find a familiar face. “Hi, Ben! Good to see you,” I said, thrusting out my hand before I thought too much about it. I still had on my black – to match my mood – polo shirt, but I was holding a spiffy red Bounce Out the Stigma T-shirt that I’d change into in a few moments.

Bounce Out the Stigma is a weeklong youth basketball camp held for three years now at Red Ventures by Mighty Mike, an enthusiastic guy not much taller than me but a lot younger and skinnier than I am. Mike tells the story often of how he got sent home as a kid from a youth camp because he had an epileptic seizure. He vowed he’d do something about it someday.

And he has. He holds these camps for kids who have epilepsy, autism, and an assortment of other challenges, including Down’s syndrome. Some are young, others are not so young. But what they have in common is a desire to play basketball for a week with people who get a thrill from what they can do and don’t worry so much about what they can’t.

This is the third year I’ve volunteered to help with the event, and it’s the third year I’ve encountered Ben. Something was different this year, though. I’m not really sure what Ben’s challenge is, and I don’t care. All I know is he’s a good kid who gives it his best.

As I looked around, I saw some other kids I knew: J.J., Kyle, Kevin, Gabby, and a few others – I knew more faces but not always the names. What I really remembered, though, was the smiles.

Some differences, too

But everything wasn’t familiar, even with Ben. As I said, I’d initiated a handshake without thinking when I saw Ben. Ben doesn’t – or didn’t – like touching. His first year at the camp, he’d told me he wore earplugs because he couldn’t stand noise – almost any noise. As a result, he missed a lot of Mighty Mike’s instructions, but I didn’t mind repeating them to him.

For some reason, he trusted me from the get-go – maybe because I’m a wee bit older than the average RV-er (other than Peter Smul – I’m really sorry for that, Peter).

Anyway, he shook my hand and beamed as I told him I noticed he’d slimmed down a bit. “I just graduated, too,” he said. “I got an Xbox for graduation.” We chatted a bit more – he was a lot more interested in communicating than in previous years – but he wound up in a different group than the one I was helping.

What I learned in my group

Mighty Mike tries to group the kids not so much by age as by skill. I know a lot of the volunteers really like to work with the younger kids, so I usually try to help the older ones who get overlooked somehow. My group included the relentlessly happy Mikayla – she had a terrific smile, braces be damned. Others in my group included J.J. and Kevin and a kid I didn’t know named Austin (which is the first name of my oldest son).

Austin didn’t seem happy – he scowled a lot, but you could tell he was glad to have someone who would listen to him. “My dad served during the Vietnam War,” he told me. “He was in the Army. He was a general. He’s still in the Army but he’s a sergeant now.” As unlikely as that sounded, I told him it was great and that my father had been in the Army, too, but a really long time ago. “Is he dead now?” Austin asked. “Yes,” I said, “but not because of a war.”

Then he asked me another question about my father: “Did you save your Dad’s patches and stuff from the Army?” “No,” I said, surprised by the question and, truthfully, by my answer. “No, I didn’t,” I said, for the first time wishing that I had.

Austin moved on, and he joined the other kids working on dribbling and passing that day. He never did smile too much, but nearly all the other kids did, responding to all the praise and encouragement we could give.

My black mood left – these kids fighting to enjoy a little basketball teach us volunteers much about courage and bravery and smiling through the tough times.

When I left the gym Monday morning, it was with a big old smile across my face. My next scheduled volunteer session is Thursday morning, but I’m not sure I can wait that long.

Thanks to Mighty Mike, Red Ventures, Ben and Austin, among others, for proving again what’s really important and why this Monday deserved to be celebrated – not dreaded.

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