Thankful for Friends

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I don’t see them as much as I’d like, but today I’m especially thankful for my friends. These are the guys that I’d still be friends with even if there were no Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram. The ones that make time for me and who get priority in the scheduling of the hallowed ‘guys weekends.’

Thank you Jason Pittser, Eric Richardson, Brad Mitchell, Chad Plageman, and Judd Blau. Doesn’t matter how long it has been, the conversation picks up like we just had coffee yesterday because we don’t have to start with the unimportant, bullshit small talk. That’s how I know we’re friends. You are as interested in me and my life as I am in yours. That’s how I know we’re friends. We talk about the painful stuff because we know it helps and we can trust each other with those things. That’s how I know we’re friends. We could have a guys weekend in a hotel in Dubuque and it would be just as fun as some of the awesome places we’ve been together because it is the being together that is important. That’s how I know we’re friends.

I love you guys and appreciate your friendship. Can’t wait to see you again.

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A Week of Thankfulness

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This picture pretty much sums up my daughter’s personality. She loves life and lives it at full speed. This morning, as my wife and I waited at the bus stop with our kids and Josie spent the entire time making up new games and races for everyone while we waited, I was reminded about how thankful I am that I have two healthy children, who love each other and each other’s company, and who are curious and sensitive.

In a week that calls all of us to stop and be thankful, I’m going to try to reflect each day on a small thing in my life that I’m thankful for and today it is the smiles of my children.

A Broken Mindset

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I’ve written before about some of the negative things that go on in youth sports in America and how sad I am about that state of affairs. Until now, I haven’t coached either one of my kids, but I figured if I was going to rant and rave about the degradation of youth sports, I’d better try to be a part of the solution; so this year I’m coaching my 8-year-old in his youth basketball league. Maybe I shouldn’t have done that, because last night we got the season started with a coaches’ meeting and a ‘draft,’ and what I witnessed during those two hours started to shed some light on why parents act the way they do at practices and games.

I’m not sure if you caught that last line…we had a DRAFT! I’ll point out that this is an 8 and under, Parks and Recreation League in suburban Charlotte, NC. There are 14 teams in the league and my assistant and I were two of about 25 guys in a room at Town Hall that were given a spreadsheet with every participant in the league, in SKILL RANK order. Over the last couple of weekends, the league has had ‘skills and drills’ days where the kids just come and do some drills and practice individual skills. During that time, they are apparently being evaluated in order to rank them for the draft. The list I received when I walked in the door had name, age, height, Ranking (1-5), and any notes that the parents might have included with their registration. Most of the notes were things like “teammate with Johnny Smith so we can carpool,” or “can’t practice on Monday nights because of piano lessons.” However, my first disturbing moment of the night was the note I saw on 5-6 kids on the list: “NOT on Jimmy Williams’ team.” That’s right, parents specifically requesting not to be on a certain child’s team. (I made up the name)

As disturbing as that was, it was just getting started. I found my seat just before the draft instructions started and I sat down behind the guy pictured above. I’m not sure the picture really does justice to the absurdity. This coach, who is the dad of a kid in the league, had attended both of the skills and drills days and taken copious notes on each player (they had numbers on at skills and drills). He then took the extra step of putting all of those kids into a spreadsheet and color coding them in some way to guide his draft day decisions. As I was busy throwing up in my mouth, I didn’t have time (or the stomach) to ask him his methodology, but as the draft went on, it was clear that he had this well planned. If it was just one outlier who went to the effort to take notes on kids and prepare to that extreme I might pass it off, but he wasn’t the only one. He was the only one who typed it up and color coded it, but almost every coach had a folder of some sort with their strategy clearly laid out. I was clearly out of my league, and my assistant coach could sense it.

As the draft went on (for 2 hours), some of the discussion about individual players was embarrassing. Throughout the course of the night I overheard “that kid is fat and slow, we don’t want him,” “no way we’re taking that guy, he’s a pain in the ass,” and “that kid is really an athlete, he’ll dominate, we’ve got to get him.” There were trades, trading of picks, negotiations not to take a kid because he lives in the neighborhood of some other kid, and all manner of back door deals.

Meanwhile, I took what was my intended strategy of just sort of picking kids at random and trying to get a couple of kids that my son knew on the team. My son’s final instructions before I left the house were “don’t get any guys who are going to be critical and take it too seriously.” My assistant had been through this before with our town’s youth baseball program, so he had more insight on the skills set and athleticism of many of the boys, so we may luck up and have a good team. But we might not. We might lose every game. Honestly, it really doesn’t matter to me. What matters, and matters even more after what I saw last night, is that every kid on our team has FUN, learns something about basketball they didn’t know before the start of the season, feels great about themselves because they know they improved, and starts to develop a love for the game of basketball, no matter how good of a player they are as they get older. You see, of the 140 kids in our league, most of them will end up going to the same high school. That means that less than 10% of the kids in the ENTIRE LEAGUE will ever play high school varsity basketball and even have the chance at a college scholarship. So to me, it is a lot more important for the health of the game that all of the kids on my team learn the game and learn to enjoy the game so that as they grow up it will always be a fun part of their lives regardless of whether they are a spectator, jv player, coach, or NBA superstar.

I don’t really know what else to do to fix what I view as an epidemic in youth sports where parents have taken everything, at every level, to the extreme. All I know to do is coach the 10 boys on my team to the best of my ability, teach them the game that I love, treat everyone at every practice and every game with respect, and make sure that we all have fun. Hopefully the result will be one other dad or mom that sees that example and decides to do the same thing when they coach.

Writing Helps

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It was an unlikely place to learn one of the most valuable lessons in life. You’d expect an ‘a-ha’ moment for a teenage writer to come from an inspiring English teacher or from reading a book of Emerson poetry for the first time, or something like that. And, while I had some great clinicians for English teachers (Neuleib and Kelly), it was in my AP U.S. History class that Ms. Scott taught me that writing helps. She forced me to write about history in a way that EXPLAINED it, not just recounted it, and in those exercises I learned the value of using writing to explain things. You see, when you write to explain your thoughts and feelings, your mind is forced to process and organize those thoughts and feelings into understandable sentences. The result is that writing helps us understand ourselves, process our feelings, and express those feelings to others in ways that speaking cannot because of the filter of our hands on the pen or fingers on the keyboard.

So, I return to the task that Ms. Scott often assigned now as an adult, particularly when I’ve got something swirling around in my mind that needs some translation to make any sense. While I still love to read about Sherman’s March to the Sea and Roosevelt’s New Deal, those topics don’t find their way into my creative writing these days. However, when I was writing about those things I was forced to study the facts, examine the commentary, and develop my own thoughts about the how and why of some of history’s most important moments. I try to apply the same exercise to my writing now – I am usually stirred by facts (something I read, hear, or discuss with a friend usually), I examine the commentary (often inside my own head), and I try to develop my own thoughts about the implications of what is going on.

You see, I’ve been in a bit of a ‘funk’ lately. Nothing serious, just not the best me, not the me I want to be. Unlike my writing hero, Edward Abbey (pictured above), I’m not intending to set off to blow up a dam out of angst; although if you are thinking about that you should watch Damnation on Netflix and you’ll definitely want to. I digress…

So, I review the facts: I’ve had 3 straight weeks of heavy travel (like multiple flights, coast to coast, red-eye heavy travel), I’ve been out of my consistent running pattern (only 1-2 days a week the last few weeks), I’m eating like crap (on my last business trip I had back to back nights of 10p wings and beer at the hotel bar because of that crappy travel schedule), and I haven’t written anything since October 30. I examine the commentary in my head – “Wow, looks like you’re putting on some weight this morning in the mirror,” “Gee, I’m awfully tired this morning, I think I’ll sleep another 45 minutes since my client meeting isn’t until 10a today,” “It’s been a long trip, you deserve some ‘comfort food’ before bed tonight.”

Now it’s time to develop my own thoughts into something meaningful on this page. Travel is a natural part of my job, it us unavoidable, so there is no sense in taking a negative view of the necessity of some tough trips. The real thing that is going to get me out of this ‘funk’ isn’t less travel, it is a change in discipline and attitude. If I look at times I’ve felt great about myself and the world, I was actually traveling quite a bit then. Travel inspires and energizes me, it is fun for me to explore new places and meet new people. The difference is my approach to that travel and how I spend my hours on the road needs a re-start. When I leave enough room in my travel schedule to enjoy a city, sit down for a decent meal at a decent hour, and make it a priority to get out of bed for my morning run, my whole attitude and experience changes.

In my old high school ‘blue books’ where Ms. Scott made us write our history essays, she always made us leave margins so that we had room for notes and additions if we needed them. I think the same applies here – I need to get back to leaving some margins in my days; time to think, time to read, time to explore, and time to write. Because writing helps.