Thursday, May 26, 2011

The Dilemma of Memorial Day

I think most people know this, but just so we’re straight let’s clarify that there’s a fundamental difference between Memorial Day in May and Veterans Day in November. The group that we honor on the Memorial Day holiday is deceased, while the Veterans Day group is still alive. This distinction poses a real marketing dilemma to local businesses since dead people can’t come in and buy stuff. So, the marketers and ad agencies pretend to be too stupid to understand the difference and continue to put out commercials that say things like, “We want to salute our veterans on this Memorial Day weekend, so come in and get 10% off on . . . “

I say “pretend” because although I do think Jon Hildebrand at Caldwell Country New and Pre-Owned Chevrolet is dumber than a bag of hammers, he’s not too stupid to do what many thousands of business managers and marketers do every Memorial Day: illogically appeal to people’s sense of patriotism in order to increase profits.

For people who have lost friends and family members in war, Memorial Day means much more than the opportunity to inflate second quarter sales. A few years ago I was invited to speak at a Memorial Day ceremony in Broward County, FL and I was so overwhelmed by the whole thing that I pretty much fell apart and could hardly deliver my remarks in an intelligible fashion. Dave Green, a friend of mine, had been killed in Iraq the year before. Dave and I had attended Amphibious Warfare School in Quantico together and then went to Camp Lejeune. He got out of the Marine Corps a couple of years later and then went back on active duty after 9/11. That fact, along with the remembrance of the millions of others who died (probably some survivor’s guilt, too) really hit me hard.

So, how do I propose we celebrate Memorial Day? I believe we should pause and remember the sacrifices of the fallen and keep their families in our thoughts and prayers. And that pause should be fairly brief. Then we should go for a bike ride or go to the lake or the pool or the ballgame and enjoy the weekend with our families. Because I guarantee you that’s what Dave Green would want to do more than anything else.

And if any business wants to really celebrate Memorial Day, I challenge them to either give all the money they make this weekend to a scholarship fund for the children of people who have lost their lives in the service or close up shop for three days to give their employees a chance to celebrate with their families. They should at least stop trying to cynically leverage tragic death and heroic sacrifice into an opportunity to make money.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Passing with Grace

Last month I did a duathlon out at Lake Bryan. All you students of Latin will correctly deduce that the duathlon includes two disciplines in the same event: running and cycling. This event started with a 5k run (3.1 miles), and then had a 20 km bike (12.4 miles), and then, just to keep the funmeter pegged, another 5 km run. In the course of the second run, with a little over a mile to go for the whole race, I passed a guy who looked to be in his early twenties. He had his tri-suit unzipped down around his waist and his socks betrayed some affiliation with the U.S. Navy. The guy, his powers of observation undiminished by his race effort, glanced over at me as I was passing him and said, “Ah, it doesn’t matter, you’re not in my age group.” Hmmm. Good sportsmanship and shortness of breath kept me from saying the things that I thought the rest of the way to the finish line; things like, “Really, homeboy? I’m not in your age group so it doesn’t matter? I’m more than twice your age and I’m decisively passing you on the run and you’re OK with that? I have tattoos older than you and I’m beating you like a rented mule and that’s what you say? It doesn’t matter? Those grapes are sour anyway?” As it turned out, by passing him I beat him for 4th overall (it was a small race), so it’s not like we were finishing 20,843rd and 20,844th in the Chicago Marathon.

So, is there a right way or a wrong way to pass someone or be passed by someone in a race? Is there a right or wrong thing to say? Oh, yes. I think so. First off, in the case of “Mr. Chill” in the previously mentioned example, he’s perfectly within his rights to not care how he runs against anyone outside of his age group. If it doesn’t matter to him that he just paid an entry fee to not race as hard as he could, that’s his business. I know pride is an antiquated concept. I might think it extinct if it were not for the people with whom I race bicycles. But for me to race as hard as I can, fully conscious of friends of mine (like Rich Werschel, who died of a massive heart attack working out) who can’t do this anymore, is a true blessing. So it does matter - to me. So if he can’t muster a “Good job, man” as he’s getting passed by someone, he needs to just shut his pie hole.

The opposite of “Mr. Chill” would be “Mr. Macho” who will blow himself up scrambling to try not to let a woman pass him. The phenomenon of being passed by a woman in a race even has its own verb: chicked. I.e, “I got chicked by Fred’s girlfriend about a mile into the bike.” I’m as competitive as anyone, but I can say I have long, long gotten over having any shame about getting chicked. My wife’s an athlete and I figured out a long time ago that if a woman is passing me, she trained harder and smarter and is willing to hurt more and, bless her heart, she deserves to beat me. Rarely do I do a road (running) race or a triathlon, though, where I don’t see “Mr. Macho” just about turn wrongside out to try to keep a woman from passing him. It’s uglier than a bowling shoe. We don’t have a proud history in this area, guys. Just do a search for “Katherine Switzer+Boston Marathon” and see attached photo.

So repeat after me: “Lookin’ strong,” “Great job,” “Keep it up,” “Way to go.”

There, you’ve got it.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Gran and B-Paw's 50th

Last June my brother Ben and I were in Kerrville, Texas chilling out getting ready for a bike race. I forget what we were talking about, but we got on the subject of what day it was. We realized that it was my parent’s wedding anniversary and that we hadn’t called them or anything, which made us feel a little thoughtless. But when it dawned on us that it may have been their 50th anniversary (we were having trouble with the math) we just about soiled ourselves. We quickly called them, wished them a happy anniversary and confirmed, much to our relief, that it was anniversary number 49, not 50. Dodged a bullet on that one.

During the ensuing year, my brothers and I went through several cycles of planning to try to align the planets that would get four nuclear families together in the same place at the same time and we finally settled on this past Easter weekend.

We all met at a really nice resort near Bastrop, TX and to sweeten the deal, my dad’s brother and sister also came and celebrated with us. Friday evening we ate BBQ and took the kids to the pool. My boys and my brothers’ kids make a perfect stair-step of seven kids from 17 down to 7 and they all play well together. When it got dark my dad and brothers and I celebrated the manly but unhealthy ritual of collective cigar-smoking. Stories were told - some of them true - and we retired to our rooms to prep for the next day’s events.

My brothers and I woke up dark and early to go out for a bike ride on the park road between two local state parks. The whole ride was only about 25 miles, but very hilly, and for some reason, maybe because we can never take it easy on each other, it occasionally turned into a race and we wore each other out pretty good. We got back to the resort in time to get cleaned up and go out and take pictures. We took family photos with multiple cameras with every conceivable combination of family members (“OK, now all the people who like ranch dressing”) and eventually got all the kids to look like they were having a good time and got some nice shots.

For the next event we went to a meeting room where we did a program to honor my parents. It was mostly planned by my youngest brother, Andy. The idea was that several of us would get up and tell our parents what they’ve meant and mean to us. I guess I had an inkling that it would be an emotional deal, but I had no idea it would turn into such a cry-fest. When you try to pack a half-century of family life into a couple of hours of commemoration, though, you better count on it being very emotional.

We started off with my son, J.D. singing and playing guitar. He did a couple of Avett Brothers songs: January Wedding and St. Joseph’s and did an excellent job. I got up and read a poem I wrote for them. I didn’t look up much as I was reading so I’d have a better chance of holding it together. When I finished and looked around the room, though, there were some teary eyes and quivering chins along with mine. My middle brother, Ben, did a little bit of a combination sermon and speech honoring my parents and he used the perfect combination of gravity and levity and knocked it out of the park. My youngest brother, Andy, showed a slide show with family photos that covered about eighty years. We all sent him photos and he catalogued and organized them all chronologically and set them to music; a huge undertaking. The slide show was really like seeing our lives flash before our eyes. As new pictures popped up we said the names of people out loud as if we were calling to them to wave at us from the screen decades away.

Then Andy surprised us by announcing that he was going to put his nine years of perfect attendance in church choir to good use by singing a song to my parents. Well, when a friend or family member says, “OK, y’all, I’m gonna sing now,” you kind of grit your teeth and get ready for some karaoke-like slaughtering of a song you used to like. He went and pulled the music up on his I-phone and stuck it into the speakers and commenced to singing. And let me tell you, the boy can sing. As Jerry Clower would have said, “He forevermore shelled down the corn – shucked it right on down to the cob.” How do you not know your own brother has a great singing voice? Beats me, but he took us all by surprise.

We went and ate lunch and packed up and headed back to our respective homes. The celebration passed too quickly, but what was said and sung and celebrated will stay with us for a long time.

Some lasting impressions I took away from the weekend:

-All the things my folks did for us and for each other over the past fifty years are staggering. They were (and are) attentive, supportive parents. They were present at so many events all our lives including driving halfway across the country and flying halfway across the world to come see us do things. We owe them more than we could ever repay.

-I have some uber-talented brothers who married tremendous gals and are raising great families.

- I am grateful for the continued health of my parents and their commitment to each other.

-I’m very happy Margaret and the boys were there for the whole thing. One of our planning options fell on a week when our boys were going to be gone on a trip and we were able to change that and now I can’t imagine it any other way. I think the whole weekend helped my sons get their minds around the idea that they’re not just themselves and they’re not just products of their two parents. They’re part of long lines of people who have a great story. So they’ll be a little more aware when they go off to college and high school in the fall they’re not just out there on their own. There’ll be a cloud of witnesses and a family history that follows them.