Wednesday, January 21, 2009

'The Price and Promise of Citizenship'

His name was Joe. He was livid because he had been replaced as the starting third baseman on our high school baseball team. A fellow senior had taken Joe’s spot thanks to some strong defensive glovework. As one of our home games was being played, Joe sat on the sidelines and pouted about the unfairness of it all.

As one of the team’s captains, I felt the need to speak out. “Either be a part of this team or get off the field,” I told him. Joe looked at me, picked up his equipment, and quietly walked away. He never did return to the team.

Four years later, as a senior in college, I found myself covering the University of North Carolina men’s basketball team as part of my work with the school newspaper. I spent many days watching Coach Dean Smith preach the value of teamwork and sacrifice, and I saw his student-athletes listen intently. They listened all the way to a national championship by drawing fouls, grabbing offensive rebounds and playing tight team defense. They also had a senior leader, George Lynch, who sacrificed overall statistics for the good of the larger group.

Yesterday, I was reminded of my encounter with Joe and of my time watching George and Dean in Chapel Hill. As I listened to the words of our new president, I heard him speak of sacrifice, of unselfishness, and of humility – the kinds of qualities that don’t lead to splashy headlines, yet have long been at the core of our national identity.

“What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility,” President Obama said to the millions watching around the world. He called for “a recognition, on the part of every American, that we have duties to ourselves, our nation and the world, duties that we do not grudgingly accept but rather seize gladly, firm in the knowledge that there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character than giving our all to a difficult task. This is the price and the promise of citizenship.”

How do we heed these words in an American society that has let competition and a “me-first” approach to life run rampant in recent years? Are these core values still present within us? Can we play Dean Smith’s game in life itself? Can I do it?

I looked up Joe, my old baseball teammate, on one of those high school classmate web sites. Apparently, he’s been in the U.S. Coast Guard for some time now. So if I’m looking for advice on how to make sacrifices and fulfill those greater duties, it appears that Joe might just have a lot to teach me these days.

A new era of responsibility. Count me in.

Monday, January 19, 2009

You Say It's Your Birthday

As I turned 38 this past weekend, I was asked the usual question: “How does it feel?” My answer is always simple, that you’re as young as you feel. I’m grateful to be in good physical shape, and hope to keep that up in the year ahead. I like this number, 38 – it’s a reminder that I’m still plenty young, yet also old enough to have some of what we like to call experience. If I were a lawyer, I’d probably have just made partner. If I were a baseball player, I’d probably have just retired.

I think that birthdays are also a good time for thinking about our own development as individuals, and whether we’re moving in the right direction, toward the people we want to be. I am very proud of the fact that I’ve made service toward others a priority in my life so far. I’m proud of myself for being there for family, friends and students, and also for succeeding in two different careers. I think my heart is in the right place, and that is probably the most important thing I need in life.

But I do see room for improvement. I see a need for greater confidence, as I wonder sometimes whether I’m selling myself short with what I can accomplish in my career and in life itself. I also see a need for less stress, as I tend to let the smaller things eat me up inside and lose the ability to roll with the punches. I know that worrying has never actually made my life better, yet I still struggle with the temptation to fret over far too much.

I look forward to working on these pieces during the months ahead, and to build upon my own experiences and emotions to lead a life of fulfillment, hope and happiness. As I do so, I can find many notable role models among those who were born on the same day as me. January 17th is a crowded day among the notable birthdays. We have Ben Franklin and Anton Chekhov. We have Muhammad Ali and James Earl Jones. We have Michelle Obama.

The famous birthday web sites don’t list my name. Kid Rock has got January 17th, 1971 locked up. My alter ego. As I think about why Kid Rock is a famous man and I’m not, and as I scan through the New York Times Magazine photo spread of Obama staff appointees and see so many who are younger than me, I am tempted to feel deflated.

But that’s missing the point. I don’t need fame to be successful. I just need to know deep inside that I have done what I should, what I can, for the purposes I find most important – my God, my family, my fellow man, myself.

This weekend, as we await this new moment of hope in America, I look within and see a man who is a making his way quite nicely through life, but who can – and will – do even more. Sounds like a pretty good 38 to me.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Winter's Slow Crawl

We have wandered into the bleak mid-winter, the time of year when we find ourselves bundling up, shoveling snow and fighting assorted ailments. It’s enough to get you counting the days ‘til Spring Training begins.

I saw a poll on the other day, in which web visitors said they feel more upbeat during warmer weather by a 3-to-1 margin. While I’m certainly amenable to having a great day in January, I find myself agreeing with the scientific research that claims warm weather boosts our moods and mental health. It’s a challenge, when a flu bug is racing through your house and you can’t open the windows and there’s ice outside, to get yourself pumped up for a super day.

It can be crummy, this cold-weather scene. But if you’re living in an all-seasons climate like I am, to feel the blues for three or four months of every year can be quite a drag. The solution, of course, is to find a way of fighting through the frigid days by making your own fun. For some, it’s skiing. For others, it’s trips to the movies. For still others, it’s walks outside or on the treadmill. The list goes on.

As I sit in bed today recovering from a stomach virus, I look for the silver linings. I read some baseball “hot stove” rumors on I get paperwork done for my job, and even get myself ahead of the game a bit. I watch Bill Cosby and Alvin F. Poussaint speak about their new book on “Meet the Press,” and I feel inspired. I talk with my wife about going away to celebrate the 20 years we will have been together next month. I hear my girls chattering throughout the house, and listen to the joyful song of their voices.

The slogan tells us life is good. And it is right, as far as I can tell. Studies also tell us that our moods improve when we smile. So as the winter continues its slow crawl, may we all find the things that lift our spirits and make us feel as though we are standing in the warm sun.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Pixie Dust and Pinstripes

So fairies are the new princesses in the wonderful world of Disney. I just finished watching the film “Tinker Bell” with my 3-year-old, and I also saw her eyes light up when she received a Tinker Bell sweatshirt, children’s book and T-shirt for Christmas. Perhaps Disney has finally milked all it could out of the “Princess” phenomenon that has connected Snow White, Cinderella, Belle, Ariel and friends for the past decade, and must now turn to little creatures who create magic with their pixie dust.

But let’s face it: Princess and fairy tales are the kinds of stories we were raised to love. Is it part of our genetic DNA or is it learned behavior that causes so many of us to seek out the happily ever after? Whatever the cause, it is what we root for. Whether it’s the girl with the glass slipper or the untested rookie pitcher, we all seem to find ourselves pulling for the underdog.

Last year, I watched the Tampa Bay Rays shock the baseball world for six months, winning game after game with a team full of young, talented and unseasoned kids. These players soared all the way to Game Seven of the American League Championship Series. And then, when the Boston Red Sox had the Rays’ backs fully against the wall, Tampa Bay even brought out a prince of its own – take away the “N” and you’ve got his name, David Price. This rookie phenom, with just a few innings of major league ball under his belt, blew away the mighty Red Sox hitters and led his new Rays teammates to the World Series.

It was quite a story, and it’s one that baseball fans will surely remember for some time. But fascinating as I found the Rays’ rise, I remain very much a New York Yankees fan. I like the fairy tale stories, but when the 2009 season begins I will be rooting for the Disney Corp. of baseball. I’m a die-hard fan of a multimedia conglomerate. Yay! I know, there’s no real charm to that. As the new stadium opens, and many of us are boxed out of affording tickets, it seems illogical to be cheering for such a business.

Rooting for the Rays would make more sense if you’re looking for some pixie dust in your sports appetite. But if you’re honest with yourself, you know that entertainment, at its best, invokes a connection to the dreams and imaginations of our childhood. I can go on and on about the Yankees being a might giant – an Evil Stepmother, if you will – but it doesn’t change the fact that I grew up idolizing the players on this team. It doesn’t change the fact that the sight of those pinstripes reminds me of my own youthful innocence and joy, as I made believe I was Graig Nettles at the plate or Ron Guidry on the mound.

Say what you want about the media giants, but they know what they’re doing. A 20-year-old can take a college class in economics and turn all cynical on the might and manipulation of Disney. But slip “The Lion King” into a VCR player, and that 20-year-old turns to mush, singing “Hakuna Matata” with sheer joy.

So bring on the fairies. And the new pinstriped millionaires. I’ve got my critical business eye trained on the Yankees. But I’ve also got the wide-eyed wonder. And as far as I can tell, the latter isn’t going away.