Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Leaving Home, and Coming Home

                I took a trip back to college this past weekend. It had been awhile – more than a decade, in fact – since I’d set foot in Chapel Hill, N.C. Raising young children can make it difficult to drive 500 miles, so it wasn’t exactly a surprise that we’d gone so long without visiting Tar Heel country. But when two friends contacted us with plans for a reunion of former sports writers from my school’s daily newspaper, Amy and I knew it was time to bring the girls down South.

                As we drove down Interstate 95 on our way to North Carolina, I recalled the many trips I’d taken up and down this crowded highway.  I also remembered my dad and other friends asking me if I planned to live in the Research Triangle after college. I was, after all, writing about North Carolina sports for a living back then, which included covering the amazing basketball scene of the Atlantic Coast Conference. I also had unlimited access to dogwoods, sweet tea and barbecue. What could be better?

                I had thoroughly enjoyed the University of North Carolina, I found the sports scene to be truly enthralling, and I had come to meet a lot of great people in Chapel Hill. But ultimately, I wanted to be back north. My reason was simple – there were just too many pieces of New York that felt more like home. I wanted to hop on the No. 4 train, exit at 161st Street in the South Bronx, and see the mighty gates of Yankee Stadium before me. I wanted to drive eastward along the Pulaski Skyway on a clear night, heading toward the Holland Tunnel and viewing the elegant Empire State Building as it pointed skyward. I wanted to pop over to my old neighborhood in Staten Island for a pizza at Denino’s or Joe & Pat’s and an Italian ice at Ralph’s. When another journalist friend asked me why I was coming home, I told him it was because there was no Yankee Stadium in North Carolina. He said I had a point.

                As we traveled down I-95 on Friday, I was reminded of that Southern longing for New York several times. The signs for Brooklyn Bridge Road in Laurel, Md., called to mind the greatest bridge in America. The exit for Bowling Green, Va., reminded me of the oldest public park in New York, where tourists board Circle Line boats for the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. The signs for Willis Road in Chesterfield, Va., reminded me of New York Knicks legendary center Willis Reed, and the majestic Madison Square Garden court where he’d filled the paint. Even the highway that brought us into Chapel Hill – Route 54 – holds the same number as Rich “Goose” Gossage, whose blazing fastball closed out so many Yankees games in my childhood.

                New York’s geography and culture are deeply engrained in my self-identity and thoughts. When Amy and I lived in Massachusetts for five years earlier in our marriage, we felt similar longings for a glimpse of the skyline or a taste of the pizza. By the time Amy was pregnant with our second child, we were back in the New York area. By the time our girls were old enough to walk without complaining, they were strolling the High Line, Rockefeller Center and Brooklyn Heights.

                That said, geography does have its limits. This weekend, ultimately, was not at all about New York – no matter how many highway-sign connections my mind could make. Saturday night, we found ourselves in one of the great minor-league baseball stadiums in America, the Durham Bulls Athletic Park in Durham, N.C. As the Bulls ran roughshod over the Buffalo Bisons on the field, I sat in Section 124 beyond the right-field foul pole along with seven former sports writers of The Daily Tar Heel, as well as the paper’s longtime general manager. I hadn’t seen any of them in at least 10 years, so there was a lot of catching up to do. As we sat together, we shared stories of work, parenting, family and vacations. We talked about the past, the present and the future. We met one another’s children, and tested one another’s memories. I watched my old friends interact with their sons and daughters, and felt the love that passed between them.

                As I sat with my old friends on this glorious night in early summer, I thought again about home. It’s true that certain places feel more familiar than others, and draw us back to them like magnets. But ultimately, there’s nothing more like home than a day spent with people you care about deeply. I haven’t set foot in North Carolina for almost 12 years. But as I scanned the outfield here in Durham and listened to my friends tell me their stories, there was no place in the world I’d rather have been.

So yes, home is a bridge and a stadium and a pizza pie. But in the end, those New York spots only mean so much to me because I’ve shared them with family and friends. In the same way, Chapel Hill and Durham will always be home, whether I’m living there or not. Because these are places where I’ve connected with others. Back in 1993, we were hunched over computer monitors, scrambling to meet newspaper deadlines. This weekend, we were lounging in the outfield seats, talking and cheering and doing the wave.

            Wherever that kind of connection happens, whenever you feel it, you’re home. No maps or exit signs required. 

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Hay Fever in the Homestretch

Marathons end in a sprint, as every runner grinds it out for that final quarter-mile. The legs are burning, the body aches, and the heart is pumping. We can see the finish line, sure. But as of this moment, we are so not there yet.

School years are marathons. And up here in the Northeast, it’s time for that final sprint. Teachers like me are trying to keep our wits about us as we juggle the grading of final exams, the report-card entries and the assorted end-of-year gatherings. Most days, it’s enough to scramble the brain.

Case in point: Before a Sunday of grading papers, I drive over to my church to serve as worship assistant for our morning service. Running late, I slip into the robe room beside the sanctuary, quickly clip on my microphone, then grab a robe out of the closet to dress for service. Once ready, I enter the sanctuary to sit down beside the altar for service. As soon as the service begins, my body triggers an allergic reaction to the dusty robe I’m wearing. I begin sneezing. My nose starts running. And it’s now time for me to read the first and second Bible lessons to the congregation.

I turn on my mike, step up to the podium with handkerchief in hand, and try to read from the Old and New Testaments while also dabbing at my nose. I lose my place a couple of times, get through the readings, and retreat to my seat. After the pastor reads the gospel, I quickly walk back to the robe room, where there are tissues in an adjoining bathroom.

I get there and let out a giant sneeze. Then I blow my nose. I blow again. “Whew!” I say to myself.

Then I hear a knock on the bathroom door. The communion assistant is giggling. He says the following words to me: “Turn your mike off.”


Yes, I am a teacher and it is June. I am sneezing and blowing my nose into a live microphone before a stunned church congregation. Instead of a sermon, they’re getting Hynes hay fever. This is what it’s like in that last quarter-mile of the marathon.

I did make sure to turn off the mike before I cursed. Then I sat down in a chair in the robe room, trying to decide how to play this. The embarrassment was intense, but I thought back to the movie Naked Gun, and recalled the famous scene in that film in which Leslie Nielsen’s character steps into a bathroom without turning off his mike. Yes, it could have been much worse than a sneeze and a couple of nose blows. Much worse.

So I walked back into the sanctuary, continued my work as worship assistant, then asked folks afterward if they had enjoyed my impromptu entertainment. The teens in attendance had loved it all, and so we talked about just what might have happened had my problem not been a dusty robe, but instead an overload of baked beans. In the end, I was pleased with myself for turning this embarrassment into something that I could laugh about along with others. I came home and told my wife, and it made her day.

So back to that marathon again. We’re almost there, teachers. Hang on tight. Keep on running. But please, take it from me – keep a tissue handy.