Learning late, at least

I was sorry to hear about the actor Chadwick Boseman’s death. Especially as all of these incredible tributes to his life and work poured in over the weekend, I was sorry to hear that I’d never really heard of Chadwick Boseman.

I’ll explain. I’d seen Boseman in his first breakout role, as Jackie Robinson in “42” when that movie came out in 2013. He was very compelling as Robinson, a difficult role about a monumental man. So I’m sure I was aware of his name at that time.

But days move on, we have our lives and pursuits, we are of certain generations and we (well, some of us, probably to our loss) pay zero attention to the Marvel movie franchise, which of course is where Boseman made his greatest impact in “Black Panther.”

Now after learning the kind of intense and gentle soul Boseman was, of his talent and humanity, hearing of the incredible warrior within that allowed him to battle colon cancer off the grid for years while still contributing major, impactful work and deeds, well, I feel as though I dully napped through a giant walking in my midst.

Boseman, only 43 at his death, seems more than an African American and movie hero, but a cultural — even societal — rock in a teetering country and world so desperate for stability, consistency, love.

I want to continue to learn about what I missed out on Boseman while he lived. I want to find and watch his movies, appreciate his talent, and read more about why and how he influenced lives.

I want to be more aware as a person, more awake, more grateful for the depth of passion and genius around me.

I’m sorry to hear of Chadwick Boseman’s death. I’m hopeful his footprints — much like his characters Jackie Robinson and Thurgood Marshall — will lead us all to more dignified days.

Rocky mountain life lessons

This is not Caleb.

Caleb peed his pants.

I don’t know Caleb, but evidently he is 4-years old. Someone, presumably his parents, dropped him off Saturday at the Breckenridge, Colorado resort ski school. Caleb was among the half-dozen children, all ages 4 to 6, assigned to my son, a snowboard instructor who is finishing his second month at Breck.

He is a newbie instructor, a year out of U.Va., so newbies get the wee ones by default. New high-school teachers get the convicts, new snowboard instructors get the pants-pee-ers. That’s how it works.

Caleb faltered early in the day. He had to have been nervous, probably scared to death. He is 4, for crying out loud. It was cold and he was surrounded by strangers and a blanket of white.

I don’t know how my kid handled the situation; all he reported via good-natured text was Caleb, well, you know. I suspect he comported himself well, that he calmed Caleb and paged one of Caleb’s responsible adults back to the school to gather their pup.

But it both amuses and heartens me that my kid has been thrown into the abyss to deal with cold, scared children with odd appendages lashed to their feet, and their parents, always an unknown quantity as well.

He is out there in the Rockies doing what he wants to do, living how he wants to live, supporting himself and his dreams. While he is at it, he is learning the best kind of lessons — how to think on his feet, how to talk to and persuade people young and old, how to be patient, kind, confident and certainly stern as necessary. And to take distinct gratitude when an envelope appears with a tip and a personal thank you note from a parent appreciative of my son’s attention and demeanor.

From what I know, “ski bums” need not apply for these positions. Slobs? Not when spot checks of his resort-owned, four-person apartment are frequent. Professionalism is a thing, every day, all day, on the mountain or in the office. This is wise to remember.

I have no idea how long he’ll stay at Breckenridge or that particular vicinity. The work is seasonal, of course, and at 23, the time from one winter to next tends to be especially unpredictable. But I know out West is where he wants to be, to follow his muse, embrace his youth and savor this life.

If the need to deftly deal with a childhood bladder accident or two is a prerequisite along his path to somewhere, that price is small indeed. His rewards are already rich, and getting richer.

Sugar’s tale

Hey there.

I like that this story has been shared on Facebook about 1,300 times in the few days it’s been posted online. It’s a good one that I was pleased to do for Distinction magazine, a great product here in town. I don’t think we all can understand Sugar Rodgers’ young life and times. But I do think we can learn from them, young and old. I know I have.



freemanI saw a tremendous finish to a college basketball game the other night, one of the best I’ve seen live. Maybe the best. I was sitting just to the left of the basket, at a media table, when Trey Freeman banked in his running 3-pointer that beat Murray State and sent Old Dominion to the NIT semifinals next week at Madison Square Garden.

(Jason Hirschfeld photo)

The ball arced from about 30-feet away. It banked into the basket cleanly. And the white-noise eruption of multiple jet engines, or something like it rising from the seats and bouncing off the ceiling, ensued. And it sustained for many minutes of pure delirium at the Constant Center.

Yet I barely moved a muscle the entire time, except for my fingers pounding a keyboard and my eyes scanning a stat sheet. I was working as a freelancer for the Associated Press. And it was my job to file a short story on the game immediately, if not sooner, after the horn sounded.

So I stayed calm, composed my words and hit the “send” button mere seconds into that swirl of chaos.

But I wondered as I left The Ted a bit later, after refiling a story with quotes from players and coaches, how I’d have reacted had I not been on the clock, but rather just a patron in the stands.

I didn’t have to ponder long, though, because I’d been in similar situations, and so I already knew the answer. I would have looked on with a large measure of minimal reaction. I’d have recognized the magnitude and serendipity of the moment, certainly, and probably uttered a “Wow” or an “Oh my God” or “Well, how about that?” to my seat-mates. Would have offered appropriate applause for the athletic drama.

But go crazy? Lose a lung bellowing? Rush the court? Feel lifted on wings, somehow, the next day or two? Not quite. That shipped sailed long, long years ago, if it ever really floated in the first place.

No cheering in the press box is right, and proper. It is a workplace, not a wing joint. And so working in sports journalism — and I started part-time in college — stripped from me all but the most deep-seated fragments of “fan” that percolate to the surface, for this child of Philly sports, only occasionally via an Eagles or Phillies game.

So it was during some of the greatest, most famous sports moments I was blessed to cover as a writer: Kirk Gibson’s World Series home run in 1988. Keri Strug’s gold-clinching vault in the ’96 Olympics. Payne Stewart’s putt to win the ’99 U.S. Open. They happened. I soaked it in. And with the crowd noise bursting my ear drums, my brain immediately began forming words and sentences. No time for emotion. No instinct toward emotion, really. Labor needed to be performed.

But react impassively often enough and “impassive” becomes a default state. That’s the danger. It drills so deeply into the nervous system, this requisite detachment, it infiltrates personal spaces and behaviors far from the arena. It did for me, I admit. So let me re-state that thesis as a singular assessment.

Still, as I ruminated on my ride home from a Ted gone bonkers, I truly was pleased I had witnessed what I had witnessed, and also that I’d been able to provide the news-service story read by much of the country  — well, anyone who cared about the game anyway.

Had you looked at me before, during and after that ball banked through, however, you’d have had no clue to my satisfaction for having added a cool, great moment to my mental menu. I know that is unfortunate collateral damage of the task-focused, neutrality-required, deadline-driven vocation in which I trafficked for so long.

There’s no crying in baseball, and there’s no emotion — if it can be helped — in writing about the pulsing emotion of sports. That’s irony not lost on a sports “fan” lost long ago.

Positively aware

I’ve been thinking about how much negative stuff I do in an average day, mindlessly. Stuff that doesn’t help me improve as a person, friend, partner, employee, citizen, stuff that actively detracts from that goal., in fact. I keep a mental list. It’s staggering. Embarrassingly wasteful of precious time. It comes to me depressingly easy if I let it; eating or drinking or reading or watching or coveting the wrong thing, and too much of it in many cases. Using empty and even hurtful words to people I love and respect when the opposite is appropriate and would be so appreciated. Burying feelings, building walls, denying truths. Failing to comfort or guide or inspire myself, let alone others. Wallowing, in the face of such grace and abundance? How dare I!

I am better than that, and I know it. We all are better than our lazy failings.

It’s mid-March, but I hereby resolve, as if a new calendar year is turning, to pursue the positive action, the uplifting outcome, the kind or soothing word. To stop and be mindful of the options each moment brings, and to do and say what I know to be true, to spurn the false result and the temporary road.

I don’t expect this to be easy; breaking habits and patterns and attitudes never is. And I don’t expect a flawless tomorrow or next day or next week. But I do expect to be better tomorrow and the next by keeping this vision in sight. By admitting that I am a flawed individual who owns the strength and the will to do better by myself and by those with whom I share space and life and dreams.

We get to our places and crossroads as we will. But speaking personally, I know I have rolled over and too often allowed inertia, especially lately, to decide too much of what follows, without reason or benefit.

Time to chart a new path. One day at a time? There is no other way.


Hearts out there

I wish I had stayed up with this college basketball game to its conclusion Tuesday night. North Dakota State was battling South Dakota State – isn’t that great? – for the Summit League tournament championship and an automatic berth in the NCAA tournament.

North Dakota State wound up winning 57-56. The Bison rumble on, the hard-luck Jackrabbits scoot along to the National Invitation Tournament.

March is full of euphoria and heartbreak like this, it’s why the term March Madness was coined lo these many years ago, and why so many lives rise and fall with it. But now and again there is something to be gleaned beyond the winner and loser. South Dakota’s coach Scott Nagy delivered that in his post-game comments, according to reports on the game.

I’ve been in enough post-game press conferences to hear in my head the reporter ask Nagy the obligatory, “Coach, what did you tell your team in the locker room?”

This is what Nagy said:

“Most people don’t try, they live in the middle. They don’t put their hearts out there and they try and protect themselves. When you do this and you put your heart out there in front of all these people, sometimes it’s exhilarating and sometimes it’s incredibly painful. But that’s what living feels like . . .

“I hope they live the rest of their lives that way and they don’t protect themselves. It’s hurtful sometimes. Very hurtful.”

I would venture this is always a timely message and reminder, for a lot of us. Timely, yes. But poignant, too. Inspirational, for sure. I’ll read that quote a few more times this week. And the next.

It’s also a reminder that we all need coaches in our lives, of some sort, even if they pass through in just the flash of a basketball press conference.

Thanks, coach.

Work and learn? Yes, please.

The word of the day is bioluminescence.

You might already know what it means. Somehow I have lived fift . . . um, a long time, but did not know the word until I Googled it Thursday, although I guess I’d have puzzled it out in the usual way we break down words for their meanings. Loosely “bio” — natural. “Luminescence” (luminous) — related to light. Natural light.

This word came across my new desk at my new job writing for Old Dominion’s public-affairs staff. My small, break-him-in assignment was to cobble together a news release on a lecture to be given next week by an expert in marine organisms that “glow” in the ocean deep.

Hmm. I read up for a bit on the guy and his research, took the dense title of the planned lecture — “dense” speaking for my non-academic self, of course — and turned out a functional addition to the slate of happenings at ODU.

It all made me smile, even still after my kid shot down my bragging about learning this new word by informing she’s long known it. My satisfaction, though, was for the very small victory, the modest validation, it provided me. When I was considering the job, an enticement to me was the chance to work in the vibrant environment of a college campus with really smart, diverse people discussing really smart, diverse things. Impactful things. So many things I didn’t know or think about. Things that explore and describe natural mysteries and social solutions where I was unaware there were mysteries and solutions to be found.

I could have come across bioluminescence in prior random reading. Heck, I probably have and forgot it or skipped over it. But in this  context, working now among an academic setting for the first time since my undergrad days, learning and incorporating this new scientific word, I’ll be honest, it made me feel good. One day older and just a tiny bit wiser — or at least less unaware — to the world around me.

Clearly, a Ph.D pursuit will not be far behind . . .

(Stay safe out there on the still-frozen tundra, friends. )

Pay now, remember always


I’m blowing the freelance-writer monthly budget for this brief trip to the Bay Area to see this kid of mine who suddenly lives and works here. Some piggy bank protecting rainy-day reserves is in for a pummelling, I’m afraid. Sorry, piggy. But if there’s something I’ve learned as gray (silver?) layers thicken atop my head, it’s paying for experiences is the far more delicious pain than paying for, you know, the superfluous stuff of our desires. Like, I’ve wanted some stupid brand of stupid car for a while. Doesn’t matter which one. I started noticing it all over the place once I started to want it. Want … not need . . . but feel, in my more self-centered, insecure moments, that I’ve “earned” it or whatever, because I’ve been told life is short, etc. etc.

I’ve resisted pulverising the piggy, though, and for that I pat myself on the back. Good boy. Good parsimonious boy. Except flying on relatively short notice to San Francisco and paying for a few days out-and-about is one of the more extravagant American urban pleasures, I have to admit. So my responsible financial profile is skewed. Skew it. Um, screw it.

Because we will appreciate and remember these few days forever, the things we see and do in the short, spare time she has as she learns a new job among new people in a new land, and before I return to wander into a new employment adventure myself.

We will sit and talk and laugh and eat and drive and cry — me, I mean, always freaking crying — (as an aside interesting to perhaps only me and a few of my closest friends, I also will pay a decent penny to witness professional golf on the world’s most beautiful stage, yards off the Pacific blue and its sweeping fogs) before the time comes again for another goodbye.

And I can’t wait for every sweet second of it, for every ch-ching moment that will mean so much more to me, by untold multiples, than wheels in the driveway, a designer suit in the closet or the screened-in deck that’s been demoted down the to-do list for 20 years in favor of more urgent to-dos of younger days. Those days when “experience” is often  by necessity just the commute to work or a trip to the doctor for ear drops to soothe a screaming baby.

But as years gain and days diminish, we find dollars take on a different purpose. They sustain, naturally. But they are never as worthy as when they are able to enhance the sensual thrill of being alive, for ourselves, for friends and loved ones, or for anyone who benefits from the power of their philanthropy in any form.

I am beyond grateful for the ability to blow the budget, here and perhaps there, to buy a permanent imprint on my heart.

To ride . . . and to heal


We stepped into the stables and rounded the corner. Inside the first stall stood Jack, a magnificent brown Percheron that had spent most of his 16 years pulling Amish carts in Pennsylvania.

Chris, the Air Force veteran who would groom and ride Jack this day, leaned into the space, whispering to Jack. The horse stepped forward, lowered his massive head and, as Chris stroked the side of Jack’s face, nuzzled into his friend.

In that instant, my eyes stung.  I had to blink, remember to take a breath. What the . . ? It shocked me.

I had only met Chris about five minutes earlier. He had agreed to be the subject of a story an insurance company hired me to do on Equi-Vets, an equine-therapy program in Pungo.

I didn’t know Chris’ own story yet, why he was drawn to Equi-Vets last year or what communing with horses did for him.

But in that first moment, when my throat reflexively tightened to dam in my professional composure, the truth was clear.

Like the members of a military unit, this beautiful, powerful beast had Chris’ back. And Chris very much had his.

Chris spent the next hour walking, talking, trotting and running with Jack inside a riding arena and across some of the 92 acres off Heritage Park Drive on which Equi-Vets, and the more populated Equi-Kids program, operates.

In a compulsive minute toward the end, Jack even dashed off toward the stables, evidently spooked by a noise or some potential danger. However, Chris rode so steadily during Jack’s flight, it appeared he had asked his mount to let it out, or however Horse Whisperers say “step on it!”

Only after Jack eased to a halt near the barn and we caught up in a golf cart did we learn that Jack had acted alone in his hair-raising jaunt. But Chris, who’d grown up riding horses, steered with the calm assurance of a man who knew far greater peril, transferring that confidence through his hands and legs and voice to his best friend for the day.

I haven’t ridden a horse. An elephant, yes. Not a horse. Still, it takes zero horse sense to see how and why equine therapy is a wondrous tool for physical and emotional rehabilitation. Horse people have long known this. They could cluck with condescension at my wide-eyed, “Wow, horses are awesome,” announcement, as if I’d uncovered a huge discovery. But to the credit of instructors Susan and Liz, they nodded and said, “Yep. Aren’t they great?”

Equi-Vets, yeah that’s great, too. Wounded veterans ride free of charge, although if they can’t or don’t want to ride, they can groom, walk with and talk with the horses, whatever works.

There is incredible power in any and all of it. The veterans are broken, in ways inside and out that many of us cannot fathom. Chris’ personal story of his year in Afghanistan leading engineers trying to build infrastructure is beyond haunting.

He told me he has found conversation with counselors has its place and its purpose.

But one gentle eyeful, let alone one hour, of him loving a noble horse, sharing with it in soft word and silent thought secrets he shares with no human, speaks a much different language of healing.

For some, it catches the breath. For others, it completes a fractured soul.


(Equi-Vets can be reached at 757-721-7350)


(Photo courtesy jasonhirschfeld.com)




Life is not a game of perfect

If I were ever asked to give a commencement speech – and to paraphrase an old joke, I wouldn’t want to attend any college that would have me as a commencement speaker – I know what I’d say. I’d tell all those perfect fresh faces that if they are perfectionists, snap out of it. Today. Right now.

As with so many life lessons, I learned, or am learning, this kind of late. The added knife-twist is I chose pursuits – writing, and briefly before that, playing baseball, among our most failure-soaked sports – that especially mock perfectionists, then knocks them down, beats them about the head and neck with a pillowcase full of oranges and sneers, “Sure, kid, come on back and let’s go for perfection again tomorrow.”

But that was always my devilish deal with perfectionism, that it was in fact the perfect motivator for whatever task was at hand. I figured if I tried to write the perfect story, or play the perfect game every single time, I’d of course have high standards (so admirable!) and would at least get close to perfect when I inevitably fell short of perfect (so determined!).

The problem with such high-mightiness, though, comes when you struggle to accept that inevitable imperfection part. It unbalances the equation. I couldn’t complete the formula. It was as if I should possess some magical infallibility that would make me the only infielder to catch every ball and make every throw. As if I should have some extra proprietary gear, known to the most special achievers, that would propel me toward the glorious sports-writing sun every time my fingers touched a keyboard.

What a bunch of insufferable crap. God. Shut up.

Perfectionism weighed down so much of my life, my 31-year journalism career, my marriage, my parenting, my piano- and guitar-playing (I noodle), pretty much anything I touched. It abused me, tormented me, frustrated me, made me feel unworthy, pretty much made me just a total damn joy at parties.

That isn’t correct, though, because perfectionism only did all that because I allowed it to. Allowed it to explode my head if it took me multiple stabs at some stupid household chore for which I had no aptitude;  think Ralphie’s dad in “A Christmas Story,” clanking and cursing the furnace. I was who allowed the satisfaction of conquering an oppressive p.m. deadline — getting the column or story done and in — to die amid almost immediate post-filing angst that Sports Illustrated certainly wouldn’t be sending a limo after reading more of that meatball surgery.

The sports psychologist Bob Rotella writes in his great book “Golf is Not a Game of Perfect” that while “striving for perfection is essential, demanding perfection . . . is deadly.” I read that once upon a time. Must have skipped over that nugget. Pursued golf anyway. Still stink at it. Still tomahawk clubs into the turf now and again after a shank, as if I’m supposed to hit it like Rory Freaking McIlroy.

Ah, but all that internal self-tomahawking happens nowhere near as often, or with such flair, here as I come out as a recovering — I hope — perfectionist. And that hints at perhaps a happy ending, because for pretty much forever, I was as bad as they came at forgiving myself. At being kind to myself, being my “best friend,” whatever you want to call it. I didn’t even understand the concept. Thought it was yoga-babble. It’s embarrassing to be that developmentally challenged, that inwardly inept, so far into the game.

The good news, though, is the game isn’t over. And that while wisdom was later arriving than it should have been – but blessedly so over a past few years of personal tumult and regular shortfalls — it arrived nonetheless, informing me that gratitude is not a platitude, but something real and precious and human and humbling, no matter your transitional stage on the spectrum.

I think that’s kind of what I would yak at the commencement kids, what I’ve tried to reinforce of late to my own kids, who fortunately get it. To take care of others, first take care of yourself. Forgive your flaws. Work to improve them, but forgive them. Breathe. Apologize. Pat your back. Congratulate the full and honest effort. Stir the essential pot of ambition, sure. But don’t muddle it with that demand for perfection, that expectation of it. That’s a disease, the counterintuitive curse that guarantees a complete picture of yourself will never emerge.

Yeah. That’s what I would tell the kids.