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  • 'Funny Women' at The Birchmere

    OK, folks, you've got just under a month's notice, so I hope you'll join us at the Birchmere to see Carole Montgomery and other comediennes perform standup in "Funny Women of a Certain Age" on June 9. If you have Showtime on demand, you should be able to catch the recent special they aired.

    Carole is one of the best and funniest humans I know, and you'll have a great time. I can't afford to give money back guarantees but you trust me on this one. It'll be worth the price of admission.

    (And yes, I realize it's a Sunday, but the show starts at 7:30 for those of you who are of a certain age or have to get up early the next day.)

  • Embracing the Unexpected

    Embrace the unexpected. Be thankful for friends and family who allow you to make those twists and turns, or those who sometimes join you on the adventure.

    Case in point: A series of unexpected challenges/heartbreaks/joys/pleasures on a 10-day business/family/work adventure that just ended last night.

    I can and likely will elaborate at some point, because the experience was loaded with lessons. But suffice it to say, I'm grateful to everyone I encountered over the past week plus.

    And now it's time for ... Monday.

  • Birthday Thanks

    Say what you will about Facebook and other forms of social media, but there’s no better way to mark your birthday. Thank you to everyone, especially my family (biological and extended) who took the time to make it a blessed start to 53 yesterday.

  • Cold Weather Memories of Hot Stove Times

    As 2018 begins, we’ve just passed the halfway point of the baseball off season, a striking reminder that another nine-month marathon is soon to be upon us.

    After all of last year’s drama— Farewell 2017, we survived ye — it’s easy not to think about baseball now. It’s not time yet, with temperatures ranging from toddler to tween and a nonstop barrage of college and pro football games on every channel known to man. (I’m still waiting for the Hallmark Bowl to fill in the gap between the Christmas and Valentine’s Day movies, BTW.)

    Regrouping from the holiday season, I started thinking about the unfinished business of 2017 and returned to this essay, which I started writing while on a plane to Denver the week after the World Series. I’ve noodled with it at times over the past two months, but never found the way to finish it. Because, like so many things that occurred last year, what happened just seemed too unreal.

    My hometown Astros — losers of more than 100 games for three consecutive years earlier in the decade — won the first World Series in their 55-year history, soon after my adopted Washington Nationals imploded in a way fans of Houston teams find all too familiar. They became the first team to beat both the Red Sox and Yankees to take their first American League pennant. They exorcised the Dodgers, long a painful memory from their days in the National League West, and won two of the most thrilling games ever in route to a 4-3 Series win.

    As a lifelong Houston fan, I couldn’t wait for the end, knowing the other shoe was about to drop. Heartburn and heartbreak have helped fans of Houston teams keep Rolaids and Tums in business for generations. If a Houston squad was finally good enough to find a way to blow it in spectacular fashion, they were guaranteed to do so.

    Until 2017, the most unlikely of unlikely years.

    ••••••

    Sports are embedded in my DNA by my grandparents, parents and place of birth. Growing up, football was the obvious game of choice, but any dreams and aspirations of being a star athlete quickly met the twin realities of poor coordination and tortoise-like agility.

    Given that we didn’t have many kids in our neighborhood — who would want to play with a clumsy turtle, anyway? — I mostly contented myself with throwing a football at neighborhood trees while playing imaginary games in front of nonexistent fans. Other than sandlot games with friends from another neighborhood, any attempt at playing in an organized setting was nothing short of a disaster.

    Still, I loved the game and read about football all the time, collecting books and manuals and learning about as many trivial aspects as I could. It was something I shared with my grandmother, who jotted notes about games and players on scraps of paper that she never threw away. (Earlier in her life, she also was rumored to bet on Saturday’s games before Sunday church.)

    From the late 1940s through the mid 1960s, my dad’s family took numerous trips to the Cotton Bowl in Dallas, 120 miles west of Longview, to see games. I still have most of the programs, and a prized possession is from the 1927 Rose Bowl that my grandfather attended. (Note: Stanford and Alabama tied 7-7 in a game — dubbed the "the football championship of America" — in a game that broke all attendance records at the time.)

    After I was born, in 1965, my parents and grandparents mostly contented themselves with watching football on TV. The Dallas Cowboys were rapidly becoming America’s team; it was easier then to cover up the hijinks Peter Gent later chronicled in North Dallas Forty (still a great read). Given that we lived near Houston, I rooted mostly for the hometown Oilers, even though they didn’t give us anything to cheer for at the time.

    Following the Oilers in the early to mid 1970s was the equivalent to being a Cleveland Browns fan today. And, for some time, Houston and Cleveland shared the same sad sack tendencies — complete with paper bags on fans’ heads — when it came to all the major sports.

    In Texas, baseball was just one way for people to occupy themselves between the Super Bowl and training camp.

    ••••••

    Despite being the fourth largest city in the U.S., Houston is a town of many communities. If New York’s five boroughs are the equivalent of 1,000 small towns, Houston seemingly has almost as many pockets, thanks to a lack of zoning that comingles homes and businesses on every street corner.

    This, in part, is what helps Houston keep its contrarian, frontier-like sense of individuality, but the community historically has been too spread out and too divided in its loyalties to truly get behind a team. Combine that with some historically bad decisions by team owners in all the major sports — the Oilers’ Bud Adams was the worst, although various Astros owners were close behind — and you could not help but feel like the bastard stepchild of the other major markets.

    For a brief, shining period in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Houston’s teams seemed to get their act together, only to fall agonizingly, frustratingly short in big games. The University of Houston became the only team in NCAA history to make the Final Four for three consecutive years and not win the college basketball championship. Not once, but twice, the Rockets lost in heartbreaking fashion to the Celtics (They won back-to-back titles in 1994 and 1995 when Michael Jordan, ironically, was trying to play baseball.)

    From 1977 to 1980, the “Luv Ya Blue” Oilers were arguably the second-best team in the NFL, but they were in the same division as the Pittsburgh Steelers, which won four Super Bowls during the decade. In 1981, Adams fired Bum Phillips and proceeded to go on a decade-long rebuild. Then, four years after the worst collapse in NFL playoff history, a 35-3 lead that became a 41-38 loss to the Buffalo Bills in 1993, Adams abandoned the town all together for Nashville.

    The Astros, which opened the Astrodome just a few months after I was born, were lousy for more than a decade before finally breaking through in 1980. Six outs from advancing to the World Series, with Hall of Famer Nolan Ryan pitching, they lost to Phillies in what is considered one of the greatest series in baseball history. The next year, they lost to the Dodgers in the playoffs. In 1986, they lost a Game 6, 16-inning thriller to the Mets with Cy Young winner Mike Scott waiting to take the mound the next day. The Phillies, Dodgers and Mets all won the World Series that year.

    The Killer B’s of the 1990s seemed to forget their bats every time they encountered the Braves in the playoffs, providing a template that the Nationals have followed to a tea. The Astros reached the World Series in 2005, were swept by the White Sox, and then proceeded to land in a baseball sinkhole.

    ••••••

    Given the aforementioned lack of coordination and athletic ability, combined with heaping dollop of nerddom, I’ve never had a large circle of male friends. The ones I’ve had, however, share a love for baseball.

    At this point, I could tell stories about several who are Mets fans, but I won’t. Just know that I love you despite holding a 31-year grudge against your chosen team, which brings me to the 1986 NLCS.

    Brian, a college friend from the University of Houston, and I went to many Astros games together, including the infamous Game 6 when the team lost to the Mets in 16 innings. I was writing a story for the Texas City Sun, my hometown newspaper, and Brian managed to sneak into the press box because he worked on the sports desk at the Houston Post at the time.

    Press boxes were much different in those days. Sportswriters smoked and drank during games; beer and hot dogs were free, as was the accompanying indigestion. Given that computers were in a nascent phase, and “portable” PCs were the size of small cars, most still scribbled their observations down in notebooks and called their stories in to the newsroom.

    I worked nights, and I didn’t write sports, but my then-boss said I could go to the game as long as I didn’t drink. Brian was under no such restriction, having somehow secured the game pass on a night off. When the game went into extra innings, I called John — my boss — and asked if I could have a beer.

    “Sure,” he said, scrambling behind the mounds of paperwork that were clogging his desk. “But just one.”

    In the 14th, I called John. The Mets had just gone ahead and it looked like the Astros were going to lose. He said I could have another beer. Billy Hatcher homered in the bottom of the inning to tie it again, so I finished the beer and called John again. He said I could have a third.

    Finally, in the 16th, the Mets scored three runs to take a 7-4 lead. The Astros came back with two in the bottom half of the inning, but it was not enough. Almost 5 hours after the game had started, the Astros — and Brian — were toast. I called John again and he was so disappointed in the result that he said I could stay.

    We remained in the press box until they threw us out. It was the last time I had that level of access to my hometown team. The next year, at age 22, I left the Sun for the first time.

    ••••••

    Flash forward almost two decades. I’d been gone from the Houston area since 1993, having moved to North Carolina and then on to Northern Virginia in 2001. In 2005, as Ben tested out coach pitch baseball, I was wearing an Astros cap and struck up a conversation with a fellow fan.

    Little did I know then that Eric would become the brother I never had. His love for the Astros stemmed from a brief family stint in Texas, and had never abated even though he spent the majority of his childhood in Vermont.

    The Astros were great in 2005, advancing to their first World Series, a highlight during a tough year. Jill’s mom died and my father continued his downward slide. Brian, in many respects the other brother I never had, had died by suicide the previous fall. Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans and Houston was soon filled with evacuees who had no other place to go.

    I went to Houston as Game 1 started, wanting to be part of something and to meet a mutual friend for a toast to Brian, who should have been there. The place I had wanted to go, a bar he had taken me to in the mid 1980s, had closed the previous week, so we made do at a hole in the wall. The Astros were swept in four games, a fitting end to a melancholy year.

    I brought Eric a placard and a World Series cap. He promised to do the same for me when the Astros made it back to the series, not knowing then that it would take 12 years, another hurricane, and a last-minute trade for them to return.

    ••••••

    2005 also was the year the Nationals brought baseball back to Washington, presenting me with a dilemma. I still rooted for the Astros, and occasionally went to games when the teams — one lousy and one rapidly approaching bad — faced each other in D.C. Eric and I went to Houston a couple of times to see games and my family.

    After Astros changed owners and moved to the American League in 2013, in the midst of their historic rebuild, I found my allegiance slowly shifting to the Nationals. Even though they have become the new masters of playoff heartbreak, Washington fields a competitive team.  I’ve also been a National League fan my entire life — one of those people who likes small ball and strategy and hates the designated hitter — and had trouble dealing with Houston’s move to the AL.

    As Houston became more competitive, however, I slowly started to follow them again, rationalizing that I could root for one team each in both leagues. The fact the Astros and Nationals share a spring training facility made me even more interested, especially when I had a chance to go with another friend — Tony Jones — to Florida this year.

    The laid-back nature of spring training was a welcome respite from the start of a crazy year, and set the table for a season that was expected to be great for both teams. As a fan, I was nervous when the squads faced off in a meaningless spring training game, only to have the best possible result — a 6-6 tie after 10 innings.

    With our kids grown and our nest mostly empty, Jill and I purchased a half-season ticket package to the Nationals, and looked forward to seeing what would happen in 2017. I went to games with friends and clients, and Jill and I managed to catch more than 20 games together. We both enjoy the leisurely pace and the conversations we have with others at the ballpark.

    As summer progressed and the Nationals dominated their division, we hoped this would be the year they would get over the hump. Meanwhile, the Astros raced out to one of the greatest starts in major league history, only to fade after the All-Star break due to injuries to some of their best players.

    And then, in the dog days of late August, Hurricane Harvey hit. The Astros acquired pitcher Justin Verlander moments before the final trade deadline and, for once, put the wounded city on their backs.

    ••••••

    Two weeks after Harvey, I was back in Texas, working on a story for my former magazine about how schools were affected by the hurricane. Having grown up and/or lived in many of the affected areas, I was compelled to go back and see what had happened. It was the same feeling I had 12 years earlier, a need to return to my roots.

    My former boss, John, had retired several months earlier. His home in Dickinson, a community only a few miles from where I grew up, had several feet of water. My mom and sister did not have damage to their homes, fortunately, but the area was devastated.

    Twenty-five years after I left the Sun for the second time, John and I got together to reminisce about the old days. Our times there were so hectic, crazy, and fun that we had much to talk about, and it was nice — despite the hardships he and others were dealing with post-hurricane — to get the chance to renew our friendship.

    I spent seven days reporting and taking photos in Texas, following the trail of the hurricane, and needed a break by week’s end. I’d been watching the schedule and it looked like the Astros could clinch the division just before I left, so I asked John if he wanted to go to the game. Much to my surprise and delight, he agreed.

    We pre-gamed at 8th Wonder, a brew pub filled with memorabilia from the Astrodome and the teams of my childhood, that is located near the ballpark. Sitting in the padded, loud-colored seats that had been removed from the Dome, I thought about Brian and the memorable 1986 NLCS game, and texted pictures to Eric and Tony.

    The Astros won that day, clinching the division and setting the table for their memorable playoff run. I returned to Virginia and, with Tony, watched the Nationals lose a crushing game 5 to the Cubs. Baseball’s endless capacity for happiness and heartbreak was still in force.

    ••••••

    After the Nationals’ loss, my attention shifted solely to the Astros. Hopes were high when they won their first two World Series games in team history to go up 2-1 on the Dodgers. Eric and his wife, Mary, embarked on a memorable trip to Houston for game 4. The Astros lost 6-2 as the Dodgers tied the series at two each, but that didn’t dampen his enthusiasm. He also kept his promise, bring me back a placard, shirt and cap from the game.

    My son, Nicholas, and his new fiancée Conner were in town for Game 5, and we saw the end of the wild 13-12 Astros victory after attending an invited dress rehearsal for “Mean Girls” in D.C. Seeing my worlds — parenting, the arts and sports — comingle in a single evening was almost too much to take.

    The Dodgers came back to win Game 6, and Eric and I agreed to watch Game 7 together. Unlike the drama of the other series games, the finale was almost anticlimactic, except for the end result. A 5-1 victory lifted the 55-year curse, one that started three years before I was born.

    Eric and I stood in his front yard, almost unable to process what had just happened.

    Say what you will about the negatives of sports, how we seem more obsessed with games than learning, how precious resources go into high school Jumbotrons when they should be spent on other, more important things. But sports also have a unique ability to unite and bring people together in a special, almost unspoken way. I consider myself lucky to have these memories.

    So here I sit, two months later, waiting for it to start all over again.

  • A Heartfelt Thanks

    To say I'm overwhelmed by the birthday wishes is a great understatement. Thank you one and all for your nice words and messages. 52 may not be the new 25, but between the kindness of my family (biological and extended) and friends far and wide, I am humbled that you took a moment to acknowledge the fact that another year in this crazy thing I call life has passed.

  • Random Acts of Kindness #2: Fire Away

    I recoiled the first time I saw the video of Chris Stapleton’s “Fire Away.”

    One of the best songs off of one of the best albums I’ve heard in years, the video tells the story of a couple who becomes entangled in the throes of the woman’s mental illness. It ends, as do too many of these stories, tragically, leaving the survivors to cope with unspeakable grief.

    “The song is about loving someone unconditionally through not so easy times. The concept of the video came to me as that would be the hardest possible space in which to love somebody,” Stapleton says in an interview on the Campaign to Change Direction website.

    Stapleton’s debut album, “Traveller,” has sold more than 1.5 million copies in the U.S. It won two Grammys and drew attention for its mix of old-school country and Southern rock. The video for “Fire Away” has been viewed almost 15 million times, creating awareness around an issue — mental illness — that is too rarely mentioned or not seen at all.

    Until it’s too late.

    ••••••

    I’m a lucky man.

    I’ve known two people — one a close friend; the other the daughter of family friends — who have died by suicide. I have a daughter who is ADHD/bipolar and struggles to maintain her equilibrium at times. An uncle and an aunt also have suffered from severe mental illness.

    Their experiences have helped shape me as a person and as a father. I feel fortunate to have known these people, and lucky to have a daughter as kind at heart as Kate is. And I’m committed to sharing our family’s struggles in an effort to draw some attention to mental health issues. 

    Hearing that Stapleton would be performing in D.C., I noted the show was scheduled during an intense period of travel and was unsure if I could make it on a Sunday night after returning from a second trip to Pittsburgh in two weeks. Then, when I went to buy a ticket, all that was left was a single seat in the upper nosebleed section.

    Jill had a dinner to attend that night, so she told me to go ahead. The cause is the right one, and that’s what’s most important.

    The Campaign to Change Direction is a national initiative designed “change the culture of mental health in America.” Its goal is to get people to learn and share the five signs of emotional suffering — change in personality; agitation; withdrawal; decline in personal care; and hopelessness — so that we can prevent tragedies and help others to heal.

    When Stapleton had the idea for the video, he didn’t work with a specific charity on mental health issues. Actor Ben Foster, who is in the video, suggested the campaign, which has received the support of Prince William, First Lady Michelle Obama, and actor Richard Gere, among others.

    Stapleton agreed to work with the organization, although he had no idea about the video’s potential impact on his audience. He also had to get his record company to buy into the project, noting that label executives “looked at me like I had three heads” when he told them the idea.

    “I didn’t want to be in the video. I wanted to make it with these actors because it felt more artful and meaningful,” Stapleton says. “It was just a notion, but then we made it and it became real and useful and something that hopefully can make the world a better place. … That notion became a good thing.”

    ••••••

    The DAR Constitution Hall is a great place to hear a show, but a tough venue to maneuver. The lines are long. The bathrooms are in inconvenient places. The seats, especially in the upper reaches, have extremely limited legroom.

    Having driven more than 500 miles over the previous two days, I had to get up midway through the show and walk around a bit, so I went down to the restroom and saw an usher I had talked to while waiting in line earlier. Listening to the music, we made momentary small talk about the show and I mentioned my connections to the cause, then told him I had to go back up. I didn’t want to miss “Fire Away.”

    At that point, the usher opened the door and said, “Go on in,” pointing me to an empty seat in the orchestra section. “Wait a few minutes,” this random stranger said, “and I’ll take you up a little further if I can.”

    After standing in the back of the orchestra for a few minutes — by this point no one was sitting — the usher tapped me on the arm and escorted me up toward the front, just five rows from the stage. “Stand here,” he said. “You won’t have a problem.”

    And then he left without a trace. Two minutes later, Stapleton started playing “Fire Away,” just in time for me to pull out my phone and record it. At the end, he asked the boisterous crowd to repeat the last chorus, holding up their phones to shine a light on issues that are underreported and often unseen.

    The audience complied. Here is the video I took of the performance.

    Last month marked the 12th anniversary of Brian’s suicide. Next Monday marks the sixth anniversary of Lindsay’s. That time has passed so quickly is sobering in and of itself.

    On Saturday, Lindsay’s family will participate — as they do every year — in one of the Out of the Darkness walks sponsored by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. If you would like to help, go to the team page here.

    Pay it forward. It's the least we can do.

  • iPhone Photo Challenge: SNF

    This past weekend, Jill, Emma and I were fortunate to attend the Pittsburgh Steelers-Kansas City Chiefs game courtesy of Chris Ballard, a childhood friend from Texas who now works for the Chiefs organization. Also, thanks to Chris' kindness and generousity, we were able to stand on the sidelines during the pregame before going to our seats.

    I did not take my regular camera to the game due to restrictions set by Heinz Field, but used the iPhone as an experiment to see what I could get. (And fortunately, due to the steady rain we faced after kickoff, I'm glad I didn't bring the good camera for once.)

    As I've mentioned before, an iPhone is no substitute for a regular DSLR, but I've learned a few tricks along the way that can result in some good images. So here's a look at Sunday Night Football from a slightly different point of view, with a story of good fortune to follow in due time.

    To see more photos, go to my Facebook album here.

  • Life on the Road

    In a post earlier this week, I mentioned our crazy travel schedule and how thankful I am to have so many friends and family (biological and extended) willing to spend a little time with us on this journey.

    So here's a small photo summary of the last five weeks. (Roadmap not included.)

  • 'Newsies' Night, and a New Day

    Flying home yesterday from LA, with a brief stop to drop off my mom in Houston, I realized yet again how wonderful it is to have so many special friends and extended family members as a result of the boy's adventures. I saw people who have been part of our lives for the past eight or nine years and just shook my head in wonder at the community that surrounds him and us.

    Watching the filming of "Newsies" could have been better only if Jill was there. It truly was a remarkable evening filled with memories and hope. Now, after a frenetic past few weeks of work and wonder, things briefly slow down to "normal."

    Whatever that is.

  • Random Thoughts: Pre-College Version

    A few random thoughts en route to dropping Emma off at Point Park University:

    • This past weekend, as a farewell of sorts, our longtime friend Tom Pratt gave the girls, Nicholas and his girlfriend Conner a tour of the West Wing and the White House. Ginno and Elie came from New York, and we had a lovely time.

    The best part of this story, however, occurred before the tour. I had mentioned to Ginno and Elie that “business casual” dress was required, but failed to let Nick know. My son has to wear a suit to work every day, so he likes to be as casual — but stylish — as possible on the weekends.

    I guess it should not have come as a surprise that he came downstairs in shorts, but he didn’t even bring pants on the trip up from North Carolina. So he and Conner had to make a mad dash to get pants at the last minute just to get through security.

    As Jill said, “That’s totally something you would do.” I could only reply with, “Yep, he’s my son.”

    • In honor of our last child's college orientation, my forehead is the recipient of an enormous stress zit, proving yet again that you're never too far away from your inner 18-year-old.

    • Jill says she can’t go anywhere without me bumping into someone I know. It happened on our honeymoon 20 years ago, when I saw a couple I knew from Texas while hiking at Mount Rainier. And it occurred again on our vacation to Utah.

    Lynne Barnes, a good friend whose daughter was on the Billy Elliot tour with Ben, and I bumped into each other at a restaurant in Moab. I had gone to get dinner and went to the restroom when Lynne sent me a text saying she had seen my “twin.” I didn’t think anything of it until I got a tap on the shoulder and there she was. Small world…

    • A recent study said intelligent people tend to be messy, stay awake longer and swear more. If this is the case, I’m a genius.

  • Bits of Memories

    I love collecting bits of memories, the isolated stories about people, places and times past that inform and enlighten us in ways big and small.

    Everyone has these stories. Some are better than others at telling them, and the world lost two of those people this past week: my mom’s brother, Randy, and Ed Tunstall, a career journalist I happened to meet while waiting for a morning train.

    The news of their deaths during Thanksgiving week was a surprise, if not totally unexpected. Randy, who died at his home in Portland, Texas, last Tuesday, was 82 and had myriad health issues. Ed, almost a decade older at 91, also died at home on Friday, having moved back to his beloved New Orleans after his overall health began to decline.

    Randy, an intensely private person, allowed only a three-sentence obituary to be published. Ed, whose journalism, communications and marketing career spanned six decades, was honored with a glowing, staff-written 685-word story in the New Orleans Times-Picayune, where he served as editor for six years.

    Befitting the changing times, the story was published online first. New Orleans, which once had morning and afternoon dailies, has published its print edition only three days a week since Hurricane Katrina.

    ••••••

    In many respects, relaying the basic facts about Randy’s life makes it sound like it was spent stranded in a turbulent storm. The child of high school sweethearts who married just after graduation, he spent his formative years in Baird, a small West Texas town about 20 miles southeast of Abilene.

    Randy was 8 when my mom was born several weeks premature. My grandmother died a week later of complications from the birth, and several months later, my grandfather joined the Navy following the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

    Until he was 14, Randy and my mother lived with family members in West Texas while my grandfather served as Navy Seabee. When Pawpaw, as I called him, returned with a new wife in tow, they picked up the kids and moved to Longview on the other side of the state.

    Randy’s relationship with his father, and especially his stepmother, quickly became strained and he left as soon as he could. At 18, against their wishes, he married his 16-year-old high school sweetheart and joined the Navy, serving as on an aircraft carrier in the Atlantic during the Korean conflict.

    Like father, like son.

    ••••••

    When Jill and I first moved to Virginia, I rode into work on the Virginia Rail Express, the commuter train located near our house. In 2003, I started noticing this couple waiting for the same morning train. Watching them walk in together, the gentleman appeared to be much older than the woman, but they were obviously smitten with each other.

    After several weeks, curious about their story, I decided to introduce myself and met Ed and his wife, Renee. They had just moved to the area from New Orleans so — in Renee’s words — “he can follow me around for once.” I soon learned that Ed was then approaching 80, an amazing sight because his hair had never turned gray.

    “All mine. Not dyed. Good genes,” he said in three sentences Hemingway would have been proud to write.

    Over the next several months, Ed, Renee and I talked almost during the 20-minute ride from Lorton to Alexandria. As it turned out, Ed and I had several things in common — journalism, twins, and second marriages. Ed had “retired” from his third career due to failing eyesight and moved to Alexandria with Renee, who was working for a high-end cruise line, but he was still helping in the mailroom to stay busy.

    Given that none of us had been in the area long, we became good friends. I peppered Ed with questions about his storied career — two decades at the Associated Press, including covering four NBA championships and John F. Kennedy while working in the Boston bureau; more than two decades at the Times-Picayune, a newspaper in one of the nation’s most colorful cities; and time as a journalism professor at the University of New Orleans. But mostly, we talked about sports, especially his beloved Boston Red Sox. I’ll never forget the look he had after they broke “The Curse of the Bambino.”

    In some ways, Ed’s life story bridged a generational gap between my uncle and my grandfather. Born in the decade between the two, he also served in the military (although it was the Army, not the Navy). Like Randy, he used the G.I. Bill to become the first in his family to graduate from college.

    Also, like Randy, life in his later years was not easy, especially as his body began to betray him. But they both soldiered on.

    ••••••

    After the Navy, Randy earned a business degree from Baylor University. The Vestals and their two children moved a number of times during his career, first as a pharmaceutical salesman, then as a manager for a company that made cosmetic prostheses, then as head of the South Texas Lighthouse for the Blind until his retirement.

    Randy and his wife, Merry, were together 61½ years until her death in 2013. He remained devoted to her and to her care throughout her lengthy battle with mental illness and then dementia, stubbornly refusing to put Merry in a nursing facility even as his own health became more fragile.

    I wish he and my grandfather had been able to navigate their relationship better. The two didn’t speak for more than a decade and things were distant when they did. As my mom has said, “If either had married someone else, our family’s story would be much different.”

    Even though our families did not see each other much, the love my mother and her brother had for each other was evident, never more so than in the years following my dad’s death and my aunt’s illness/passing. Watching them together this past May, when Randy and my cousin, Melissa, came to see “Newsies” in San Antonio, it was good to hear often-told stories one last time.

    ••••••

    As a writer and photographer, I’ve always been fascinated what you can see behind a person’s eyes. What you could tell by looking at Ed and my uncle was they both knew the beginning, middle and end of the stories they were about to tell. Their eyes seemed to twinkle when an anecdote or story was in the cue.

    For those with whom they held court, their stories had the feel of watching original back-to-back Thursday night episodes of “Cheers” and “Seinfeld” on NBC. Ed, like many journalists I’ve known, would have been very comfortable in the Boston bar with Sam, Diane, Norm, Cliff, Carla and Woody. And his stories would have given the writers plenty of plotline fodder.

    As Renee said of her husband, “Life was an adventure and he was on it.”

    Randy’s anecdotes felt like a pungent episode of “Seinfeld,” Mostly about “nothing” in life’s grand scheme, they always left you thinking even as you laughed. His comedic timing and sense of humor were priceless; I always held on for the punchline.

    Last week, Jill and I watched the classic Thanksgiving scene from “WKRP in Cincinnati” and laughed until tears came to our eyes. Jill noted the scene’s pace and how it unfolded in a much slower manner than most of today’s sitcoms, all in the interest of the big payoff at the end. It made me think of my uncle and his stories.

    That night I called my mom on the way home and she told me about Randy’s failing health. She said they had talked for an hour and a half and he seemed at peace with where he was.

    The next evening, my mom called again to tell me the news. It wasn’t much more than the three lines that appeared on the funeral home’s website.

    The rest of the stories, now hers to tell, will have to wait for another day.

  • The Shiner Pilgrimage

    Anyone who knows me also knows of my love for Shiner Bock, a beer made by a family-owned brewery in a tiny Central Texas town between Houston and San Antonio. Knowing I would be in Texas this month, I made plans to take a tour of the small brewery with my good friends Eric Kleppinger (who came down from Virginia) and Bernadette Jusinski.

    We made the 90-mile drive from San Antonio on a drizzly Tuesday morning, took the short tour (the brewery is in the middle of an expansion), then stopped by the gift shop and Howard's all-encompassing convenience store for a sample of the local goods before departing. A pilgrimage well worth it...

    For more photos from the tour, visit my Facebook photo page here.

  • Thank You!

    Thanks to the numerous friends and family far and wide who came to see "Newsies" during its four-week run in Texas. It was great to see so many of you and I know Ben enjoyed the opportunity to get acquainted (and reacquainted) with everyone. Hope to see you (and others who weren't able to make it this time) soon! â€Ş#‎newsiesontour‬

  • Newsies Invade Baltimore

    “Newsies” invaded Baltimore this week, bringing Ben close to home and enabling relatives and friends to come see the show. Baltimore, like Philadelphia and Louisville, was a repeat stop from the Billy Elliot tour, and is the closest the show will be to our house until it comes to Washington, D.C., next June.

    It was a crazy week. My mom came up from Texas, seeing her grandson perform not once, but twice. The first time was with Kate, Nicholas, and his girlfriend, Katherine, in tow.

    On Saturday, the ASCA staff saw the show as part of their annual Christmas party, and we bumped into some old dance friends afterward.  After several families from Metropolitan School of the Arts saw the Sunday matinee, a group of 100 MSA students, teachers, and parents went to the final performance that evening.

    By all accounts, everyone had a great time. And it was nice to have Ben at home for a couple of days afterward. 

    Next stop: Chicago for four weeks starting on Wednesday, Dec. 10.

  • Say Our Goodbyes

    The last nine months have been a series of goodbyes — family, friends, jobs, and the things that once meant something to us or to others we cared about.

    This goodbye tour actually started in mid-December, when Jill’s aunt and my cousin died within days of each other — one at the end of a long life, the other at the end of a life hard lived.

    My mom and I embarked on a multi-day road trip to Albany, Texas, so we could say goodbye to my cousin. It gave us a chance to visit small towns in Texas, the places off the beaten path. It also gave us time to talk, and mom the opportunity to reminisce about her childhood.

    We drove past the house my great-grandfather and my grandfather built in Baird, another small town close to Albany, and visited the cemetery where they are buried with other family members. I saw cousins and kin I had not seen in 25 years, and revisited memories of my own childhood, both good and bad.

    I returned home in time for the holidays, with Ben in Baltimore for “Billy Elliot” and Nicholas coming up from Elon. Thanks to a break in the tour schedule, we would have all four kids at home for Christmas.

    On Christmas Eve, we went to a party hosted by friends from my work. Each year for the past several, Gene Broderson had invited us to come, but due to family obligations and travel commitments, we had never managed to fit it in.

    Last year was different. Gene’s son, Jeff, works with Jill. Both Gene and his wife, Lynda, had survived cancer scares over the past two years. Because of what we had just been through, this year’s party meant something, Jill and I knew we needed to go, so all six of us headed south on the chilly evening.

    Gene was, in the words of another of his friends, “a Jew who loved everything about Christmas.” And you could tell — the entire neighborhood, the Brodersons’ large, extended “family” was there. They were doing what you should during the holidays: celebrating life.

    It was a beautiful evening. Little did we know that the hits would just kept coming.

    ••••••

    On Martin Luther King weekend, Jill and I went to Boone to clean out her dad’s house, planning to return on President’s Day weekend to finish the job. But her father passed away in between the three-day weekends, and when we returned to Boone, it was for his funeral.

    Before March ended, we had returned to Boone for the funeral of Jill’s beloved Uncle Glenn, the last sibling of her mom. Meanwhile, my Aunt Merry also had died following a long, agonizing struggle with dementia.

    Having just been to Texas, I decided not to return for my aunt’s funeral, trying to protect the few precious vacation days I had left for the end of Ben’s run with the show and Emma’s dance recital week toward the end of June. My office was in budget mode, and my department was faced with some tough decisions, including having to change the magazine’s frequency from 12 to six issues a year along with its business plan.

    Jill and her brother were in the midst of selling her father’s house, the place where they grew up, when we went to Las Vegas in mid-May. Ben was saying so long to “Billy Elliot,” the show he had been in for almost three years, and was facing an uncertain transition as he returned home.

    Twelve days after we got back, I received some stunning news. The budget cuts we had made, in many respects, had also cut me out of a job.

    ••••••

    The past 3½ months have been an unsettled time. On one hand, I have been able to spend more quality time with the kids, shlepping them back and forth even though Kate now drives. I also have worked on building my skills, especially in photography and social networking, while applying for positions and trying to develop a business on my own. And that has been incredibly invigorating, in part because I have tapped into a creative well that I worried was turning dry.

    Unfortunately, it’s the job market that’s dry, especially in my field, where I am either overqualified, (formerly) overpaid, or considered not to have the skill set (especially in online media) that companies are advertising for these days. It has proven difficult to make it past the first cut with people who only see your life on a piece of paper or a computer screen.

    Despite the stability you get from working in the same place for so long, what I’ve found (and what I knew, really) is that stability also can prevent you from maintaining the cutting edge skills you need to stay sharp, particularly when you are in a profession that is imploding around you.

    That's a reason why I've been focusing so much on my skills. But over these past few months, I've learned a lot of other things — about how we handle transitions, about the people who care about you no matter what, about the people you thought cared more than they actually do.

    I’ve also learned a lot about goodbyes.

    ••••••

    Not long after I left NSBA, Jill told me some stunning news: Gene’s cancer, thought to be in remission, had come back. I called him at the office and we talked briefly. As usual, he was upbeat even in the face of what we knew were impossible odds.

    We promised to get together for dinner, but that never happened. In the beginning he had chemo on Thursdays, and by Saturday — the night we were scheduled to go out — he was too wiped out from the chemo to consider it.

    The last time we spoke was when he called and said he could not get together. I said my prayers continued to be with him and his family. He thanked me, and we left the time for our mutual dinner open for another evening.

    During the summer, as I continued to look for jobs, Jill and I discovered that our schedules would not let us take a family vacation this year. Somehow, given everything that occurred, that seemed appropriate, even though it also stung.

    Instead, Jill spent several days at home, which led to the inevitable spring/summer cleaning. She stacked up a number of boxes that belonged to me and asked me to do something with them, noting many had not been touched in years.

    That was true. Several boxes were from my parents, who had inherited them from my grandparents and my dad’s sister. I knew I needed to go through them, and slowly I started to do so. Each slip of paper reminded me of where I had come from, and served to show me that these were spaces and places to which I would never return. (See the rest of the story here.)

    As the summer moved on, my mom and I made arrangements for me to go back to Texas, in large part so I could help separate her from more of my dad’s things, which were languishing untouched in a storage facility six years after his death. We agreed on a time in early September, and I made arrangements to stay there for a week.

    It was a good week. Much like we had during our visit nine months before, my mom and I talked about her family, filling in more of the gaps and blanks. Over the two visits, the one in December and the one just recently, I have learned more about her upbringing than I had accumulated in 48 years.

    The day I left, Jill called, saying Gene’s son had told her that he was not likely to make it. Selfishly, I hoped he would live long enough for me to make it back to his funeral because, if I’ve learned anything, it’s that saying goodbye is important for everyone concerned.

    ••••••

    The funeral occurred this past Friday, four days after I returned from Texas. I saw many of my former work colleagues there. Some had little to nothing to say; some gave me a hug and seemed genuinely concerned about the well being of our family. For others, the superficiality of the greetings was as if nothing had changed, just like we were bumping into each other again in the hallway at the office.

    Goodbye, I thought. Goodbye.

    The service was truly a celebration, a chance for many of us to gain insight into someone we cared about but didn’t truly get to know within the confines of the business setting. I left feeling fortunate to know Gene as well as I did, and even more thankful that we had celebrated the holiday with them just a short time before.

    I also left safe in the knowledge that I’m tired of saying goodbye.

  • No Answers

    Sometimes you ask “Why” and there are no answers. Sometimes you say it with a question mark, or an exclamation point, or both, and still the answers don’t come.

    Sometimes there is just no answer.

    Four days ago, a 29-year-old woman who apparently had everything committed suicide. I didn’t know her well, hadn’t seen her since she graduated from high school, only mentioned her occasionally in conversation. Her parents, for different reasons, had a great impact on our lives and, ultimately, on the places where we are today.

    Why does this affect me so? Why has it had such an impact on Jill?

    Because this was not supposed to happen. It was the last thing anyone would have — could have — anticipated. No one would have thought, or could have imagined, why someone with so much would end everything.

    No one ever can.

    ••••••

    I grew up in a small town, or at least I thought it was small. Compared to Houston, 35 miles to the north, Texas City was — and is — a small town.

    And with around 40,000 residents, it is 2½ times larger than Reidsville, N.C.

    From 1993 to 2001, I lived in Reidsville, moving there as the managing editor of a small newspaper and leaving there to be the managing editor of a national education magazine. I’ve said often that leaving the Houston area to move to a small community where tobacco and textiles were the prime industry felt like going from fifth to first without hitting the clutch.

    And yet, during those eight-plus years, my life changed in ways I can’t imagine. Looking back now, it’s hard to believe I didn’t leave with a permanent case of whiplash.

    To sum up, while living in Reidsville, I:

    • Turned 30.

    • Got a divorce, rediscovered my love for theater, remarried, changed careers, bought a house, and had Kate, all within an 18-month period.

    • Discovered shortly after Kate was born that we were having twins.

    • Found a series of surrogate families — and my children at least one additional grandma — that we’ve stayed in touch with over the years.

    When we left to move to Northern Virginia, it was time. The many things that Reidsville offered, the hooks and lures that held us there, had their allure. We could have stayed.

    Something told us — both of us — that we needed to move on. And I’m glad we did, for our sakes, and for the sake of our children.

    But there is something about living in a small town, or growing up in a small town, that never leaves you. It’s an extended family you can’t leave behind.

    ••••••

    I just don’t get it.

    I don’t think anyone else does either.

    Separating the intellectual from the emotional is difficult most, if not all the time.

    Retrospect helps you point to signs, like putting the pieces of a puzzle together. But, ultimately, it doesn’t answer the central question: Why?

    Jill and I had not seen Lindsay in years. We heard about the different things in her life from friends and acquaintances with whom we still maintain contact, but like all too many people we encounter, she was another person from a place we lived in a decade ago that we assumed was going to be OK.

    Her parents are extraordinarily kind people, who’ve done nothing but help us — and others — over the years. Our lives intersected with theirs at various moments; the memories we share of each other are good ones, lasting ones, or at least I’d like to think so.

    But as happens all too often in this life, people you care about drift away. You don’t mean for that to happen, but life intervenes and it does.

    And then something like this happens, and abruptly, without warning, you are slung back into memories of a time you had left behind.

    •••••••

    First and foremost, I’m a chronicler. I would like to be someone who can develop scenarios and turn them into classic fiction, but my writing at heart comes from everyday life. Why create something out of nothing when there is so much around you to chronicle?

    That said, although I love biographies, I’m not a person who typically follows others’ blogs, just as I don’t expect you and others to follow mine. I hope what I have to say is something that is of interest to others — at the very least my children — but if not I can say without question that writing has provided me with an outlet that otherwise I would not have.

    Earlier this week, I happened to find Lindsay’s blog (http://applebloggingjeans.tumblr.com) and could not stop reading it. It’s a fascinating chronicle of a young, caring, witty, and extremely intelligent woman facing life in her 20s. Naturally, I found myself looking for clues, hoping something would answer my central question, knowing that nothing would.

    Somewhere in my reading, I happened on this paragraph that I can’t seem to shake:

    “I am, at my core, a person who fights everyday with who I am at my core— both an open book, ready and willing to share all that I am with the world, and a person who deals with many of my own demons, triumphs, blessings INTERNALLY and without desire to share those things even with those closest to me.  I have been, for as long as I can remember, a walking contradiction.”

    ••••••

    We encourage our children to be open about their struggles. We try to be open about ours. 

    Of course, bookstores are chock full of memoirs from people whose families did an incessant data dump on the author, who suffered so much in the process that they managed to get an autobiography and an Oprah/VH1 episode out of it.

    That’s not what we’re trying to do, in our dealings with our kids or even in this chronicle I’m putting out there for them — and you. What we want them to know is that they can come to us — no matter what.

    I think they do know that. And I pray, every moment of every day, that they feel like they have someone to share their thoughts with.

    No matter what.