Even if your whole life has been nothing but luckless drudgery, the fact is you can never be completely sure what will happen tomorrow. Maybe the cards will finally turn in your favor. One crazy day, they turned in mine – a little bit.
For years, I’d always driven to the same convenience store at lunchtime to get a printout of the winning lottery numbers to check against my losing numbers. There was a ritualistic sameness to it as I’d sit in my car sucking on a 32 ounce drink, checking the numbers, tearing up my losing ticket, and cursing myself for being stupid enough to keep playing this sucker’s game.
But on this day, I quickly saw I had picked three of the numbers. I opened the car door to go get my $3, but fell back into the seat when I saw I had four numbers. I thought I had somehow gotten hold of two winning number printouts, but no, it was actually my ticket. And then I suddenly realized I had five of the numbers.
My shocky, fevered brain then determined that I had picked all six numbers.
The tattered remnants of my soul shot out of my body and flew over the Circle K. I was free in a way I hadn’t been since I was a barefoot five year old running around my backyard.
But then stern reality reimposed itself, and I realized that I had misread the sixth number. There was an immediate physical sensation of crashing back to earth. After a minute or so, I looked at the printout and saw that I had won $1063 for picking five numbers. It was a long, long way from the 20-something million that would have almost gotten me completely out of debt, depending on whether my wife had gone shopping that afternoon.
I went back to work and tried to play it cool, but the ticket was burning a hole in my pocket. Was this little scrap of paper really worth $1063? I told my boss what happened, and he gave me the rest of the afternoon off. I made a beeline for the lottery office on Corona.
I walked in the door, and the lady behind the counter looked at me and said, “Let me guess, five out of six numbers, right?”
“How did you know?”
“Because every other winner who walks in here is happy, happy, happy. The only ones who look like their dog just died are the five-out-of-sixers.”
I cashed the check and went to pick up my kids early from after-school daycare. You have to understand that the father of a 6 and a 9 year old spends most of his time explaining to them why he can’t afford to buy them the thousands of things they’re always wanting. So when they came running up to me, and I shouted, “Tell me what you want me to buy for you,” they both skidded to a stop and stared at me as if I’d been body snatched.
That night I was careful to tell my wife “$1063, that’s how much I won in the lottery,” in that order, because I didn’t want her to go through anything like my ordeal in the car.
Some hijinks ensued the next day after my kids told everyone at school that their dad had won the lottery, but we weathered it.
Overall, my advice is to play the billion dollar lottery. But, have somebody else check your numbers.


Portraits of Katrina

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In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the City of Corpus Christi opened several shelters to temporarily house evacuees. I worked at the shelter in the American Bank Center for four days. These are just a few of the unforgettable people I met there.

She was fifty something, still in shock, and her filthy clothes looked like she’d just fled a muddy battlefield. I was trying to convince her to get back in the shelter registration line because other evacuees were getting ahead of her. She shook her head no. I told her that the young man she was waiting for could get in line next to her after he cleared security. “I can’t be away from my son,” she said. “We’re all we’ve got left.” At that, she stared into the middle distance and set her jaw, but she didn’t cry.

A lone elderly man in a wheelchair asked if we’d found his luggage. I told him that his was the only bag we hadn’t found. He said he figured that by now it had either been picked up by mistake or stolen. He told me the flood waters had risen so fast that he’d only had time to pack the things that were most important to him. All he really wanted out of the bag were his family Bible and his marriage license. I asked a police officer to talk to him. He spent most of each day alone just outside the doors of the arena staring out over Corpus Christi Bay.

A woman came up to me shaking and crying. She tried to speak, but she couldn’t control herself long enough to tell me what was the matter. Finally, she showed me a government assistance form she’d been given. She pointed to a question asking if she was buying a home. “I was,” she sobbed, “but it’s all gone now.” I told her filling out the form would help put her in a new home and gave her my pen. She later went to way too much trouble to make sure I got my cheap, plastic pen back.

An elderly woman was being wheeled toward the shelter exit on a gurney. A coworker asked the paramedics if the woman was “checking out”. “Yes,” one of the paramedics answered. With great difficulty, the woman propped herself up on her elbows and fixed us all with a cold stare. “No, I’m not,” she said. “No, I am not checking out. I am coming back here.” She laughed along with us as she rolled past

Many local clergy showed up to offer consolation and hope. The second night in the shelter, a loud, boisterous religious service spontaneously broke out. I walked over to an American Bank Center official to try to explain what was going on. ”No, it‘s alright” he said with a big smile. ”This is just what these folks need.” I looked again, and he was right. It was a hallelujah shouting, hand clapping, gospel singing eruption of joy from people who’d just lost everything. It was enough to make even the most cynical heart believe there’s more to this world than is dreamed of in our economics books. It was the inspiring music of people regaining faith in their future and finding the strength to rebuild it.

Well done, Corpus Christi. Well done.



Sooner or later, it occurs to every dad that this whole having a baby thing might not have been the greatest idea. That thought occurred to me pretty much every day because my son Matt was the worst baby who ever lived.

His specialty was waiting for my more vulnerable moments and then striking suddenly like a submerged crocodile ambushing a wading wildebeest. For instance, in restaurants he’d always wait until the food was actually served before making his move. Until then, other customers would gurgle over my cute, smiling, seemingly innocent baby. But I knew the truth: he was waiting for the trap to be baited.

As soon as the waiter would set the plate in front of me, Matt’s eyes would lock on mine. I’d pick up the fork, and he’d just stare. It wasn’t until the first forkful was an inch from my mouth that he’d let fly with one of his screaming, Tasmanian devil tantrums, and I’d have to rush him outside.

One night, we went out to eat at a nice restaurant with some visiting friends. I was starving, so, rather than take howling Matt outside right away, I quickly choked down several mouthfuls of food. It couldn’t have taken two minutes, but already the other customers were glowering at me. And as I reached across the table to pick up Matt, I knocked over a glass of red wine onto the white table cloth, which prompted the smirking guy at the next table to applaud. My friend sprang up and rushed toward him shouting, ”Yeah, you like that? You want me to knock over your wine glass?”

Just another fun-filled, relaxing night out with the family.

On airplanes, he was Mr. Charm until we were wheels up. As for what happened in the air, suffice it to say that when we finally de-planed every passenger took extra time to give us an angry glare, I had a Mount Vesuvius headache, and my wife was usually crying.

But it was on our road trips to visit my parents in Houston that Matt would paint his masterpieces. It was three hours trapped in our tiny car with a blaring air-raid siren in the backseat.

One late night, there was only one empty intersection with one last red light between us and my parents’ house, and I couldn’t take it anymore; I took a gamble and ran that light as big as Dallas.

As I watched the police officer walk slowly toward our car, I was sure Matt would stop crying in order to avoid giving me any advantage in the coming negotiations. But, because we had stopped and we weren’t immediately letting him out, he started crying even louder.

I rolled the window all the way down – to give the officer the full air-raid siren effect – and handed him my license. He grimaced, and then looked up at the sky, swinging his head around as if on the lookout for dive bombing Stukas. Then he shined his flashlight through Matt’s window and stared for several seconds as Matt struggled to rip apart his car seat straps like a hysterical Superman trying to free himself from kryptonite restraints.

“How long has he been like that?” he asked.

“All the way since Corpus,” I told him.

Still staring at Matt, he handed me back my license, told me to drive carefully, turned, and hurried back to his cruiser. Score one for dad.

All grown up now, Matt left home for good a couple of weekends ago. Ever since, the silence has been driving me mad. More than anything, I hate it when the world is round.

Tax Day Blues

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA                                                                                          Douglas Shulman, IRS Commissioner during President Obama’s first term, admitted in 2010 that he had an accountant prepare his returns because the tax code was just too complicated. So it’s understandable why, like all Americans who are forced to go it alone, I approach my 1040 with all the courage and resolution of the Cowardly Lion shuffling sideways towards the Wizard of Oz.

I learned the tax day ritual by watching my father. Armed with only pencil, paper, and Pall Malls, he’d sit at the dining room table surrounded by thick clouds of blue smoke and piles of cancelled checks and receipts miserably calculating and calculating again as midnight ticked ever closer.

All of us kids would lay low, because that night literally anything would set him off. My mother would sit, very still and forlorn, on the living room couch dreading his next barked order to immediately find a missing receipt or cancelled check. When it came, she’d sigh softly and slowly head back to the big kitchen drawer stuffed with 20 years worth of “important” papers, dead batteries, broken pencils, a hammer, and birthday candles, and sort through it all…again.

There was also a ritual dance and chanting involved. Dad would suddenly slam the palms of his hands against his forehead, shoot to his feet, and pace quickly around the room, all the while repeating, “There’s no justice in the world!” I’ve added banging my head against the computer screen to the routine; somehow, I know he’d approve.

My tax day weapon of choice is TurboTax. It figures the amount you owe by asking a series of strange, seemingly disjointed questions. If you give the answer it wants, it asks another question to determine if you qualify for a particular deduction. If not, you’re out of luck. For example:

Q: Between June 9 and September 3, 2012, did you purchase any beer from a domestic retailer to be used solely for personal consumption?

A: Why, yes I did.

Q: (So far so good.) Between June 9 and September 3, 2012, did you consider purchasing a team of Clydesdales to assist you in transporting your beer?

A: Yes. (Hey, what foamophile hasn’t dreamt of that?)

Q: If you had purchased Clydesdales at any time during 2012, would you have grazed them in Puerto Rico, Micronesia, or American Samoa?

A: (Coin Flip.) No.

Sorry. You do not qualify for the American Protectorates Clydesdale Reduction Deduction.

Me: “There’s no justice in the world!”

Thanks for nothing, TurboTax. And you too, Doug Shulman, O Wise and Wonderful Wizard of the IRS.

Why I Fell For Notre Dame Football Coach, Charlie Weis, In 2005


Cheer, cheer for old Notre Dame. Wake up the echoes cheering her name, send the volley cheer on high, shake down the thunder from the sky. What though the odds be great or small old Notre Dame will win over all, while her loyal sons are marching onward to victory—-Notre Dame Fight Song 

It wasn’t until I was kneeling in front of the TV pounding my fist on the floor that I figured it out. It was October 15, 2005 and Notre Dame had just lost to USC, the #1 team in the country, thanks to some last second heroics by their Heisman Trophy quarterback. USC had won 27 in a row, so the loss wasn’t really unexpected. But for all 4 quarters I kept thinking that something about this game was different.

I became a Notre Dame fan several years after they won the last of their 11 national championships in 1988. My Notre Dame teams meant well, behaved well, were overly prone to helping opposing players to their feet, and consistently lost every game that actually meant something. They fit in well with my two other obsessions: the Astros and the Oilers (RIP).

But there is something about ND that holds me in its grip far more than the other teams I follow. Maybe, given my 16 years at hard labor in Catholic schools, it’s their name. Maybe it’s the high academic standards and graduation rate of its players. Or maybe it’s just the rubbernecking fascination of watching a yearly train wreck. But whatever it is, my identity with the team and its fortunes is complete.

At each bad break or zany misstep, my anguished, profane cries are so loud that every backyard dog in the vicinity howls right along with me. My football fan neighbors must think it’s a miracle that whenever Notre Dame throws an interception or fumbles the ball, the local mutts mourn.

In 2005 they hired a new coach, Charlie Weis, who had never played college football, never head coached above the high school level, and looked like the Pillsbury Doughboy’s “before” picture. And, incredibly, he really seemed to believe the Irish could be national champions again. I laughed at him along with everyone else.

But then a strange thing happened. The team started playing like they thought they could be champions too.  On both sides of the ball, they looked like they actually expected to win. And win they did. Going into the showdown with USC, they were a remarkable 4 – 1, and nobody was laughing at the chunky coach anymore.

Throughout the game, the Irish relentlessly battled on in spite of an overpowering USC running back and their own shattered plans and blasted hopes. If it had been any other school, you’d say they played like a team possessed. They fought the two time national champions to a stalemate, only to lose in the last few seconds of a game for the ages that drove me to my knees.

And that’s when it dawned on me. Something had happened that I’d heard of, but never actually seen before: Coach Weis had awakened the echoes. Echoes of championships, but much more than championships. Echoes of greatness, but far rarer than greatness. They were echoes of glory.

And on that one nearly perfect Indiana afternoon, they were honored.

Just Another Childbirth, No Big Deal

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As I watched the most beautiful girl in her class walk across the stage to collect her college diploma, I thought back to the first time I saw her 22 years ago.

Her mother and I had driven to the hospital very early that morning, running red lights (!) the whole way, but the doctor sent us home because she wasn’t far enough along. So we’d spent the rest of the day trudging up and down hills and walking around and around our apartment complex trying to speed things up, but nothing  seemed to work. When I told her I’d read about a woman who had climbed stairs carrying two heavy suitcases until things started moving along, she made a face, rolled her eyes, and went to bed.

By then it was 10 at night, and I was hungry. I searched the freezer and found a lobster frozen in a tube of seawater that I’d bought months before as a joke. I dropped it into a pot of boiling water and instantly the entire apartment reeked like Boston Harbor at low tide. That did it. She came into the kitchen, green at the gills, and announced we were immediately going back to the hospital. (More red lights!)  We were broke and had no insurance, so the plan was natural child birth: in and out of the hospital in 24 hours.

At first it was kind of fun. They put us in a homey “birthing room”, MTV was on, and the doctors and nurses were laughing and making jokes. Then about 4 in the morning the laughter stopped.  The baby’s blood pressure was too high and there was some danger the umbilical cord was wrapped around her neck. Suddenly the comfy bed turned into a gurney, and I was running beside it careening toward an operating room.

The doctor gave my wife one more chance to push. She tried, but she was too far gone. The half asleep anesthesiologist on call ran in, his bare feet covered by blue doctor’s footies. Trays and other equipment were quickly wheeled in, and several O.R. nurses appeared. The prep for the C-section looked like something being thrown together at the last minute, which is exactly what it was.

A nurse noticed my ashen gray, sweaty face, quickly grabbed my arm, and dragged me back to the birthing room. A low pitched, keening sound I’d never made before or since emerged involuntarily from the back of my throat. “It always looks like that,” she assured me, “but they know what they‘re doing.” She left, and after a few minutes of taking deep breaths and feeling ashamed because I’d left my wife alone, I staggered back to the operating room. I held my wife’s hand and tried to appear calm. There was a ripping sound, a baby’s cry, and the doctor happily shouted, “How about a girl?” Nurses rushed the baby off and I was led back to the birthing room.

After a while, they took me to see my daughter. There she was in a clear plastic basinet with a McDonald’s warming light overhead. The nurse picked her up and handed her to me. I stared into those sky blue eyes, and saw everything all at once: loving, smiling, sleeping, laughing, crying, crawling, walking, falling, rising, running, playing, learning, dreaming, studying, leaving, graduating, working, struggling, marrying, mothering, nurturing, worrying, aging, dying, and loving.

As for me, my beloved, insatiable, all consuming self shattered like a windowpane hit by a Nolan Ryan fastball, and all that remained was the perfect baby girl I held in my arms.

How I Made Saint John Paul II Laugh, Twice

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In 1979, I spent a semester at the University of Dallas, Rome campus. A few days after we arrived, five or six of us decided to wander around the city to get our bearings. We wound up in St. Peter’s Square where we saw two parallel lines of barricades running down its center about twenty feet apart. When we asked why, we were told that when John Paul II returned that night from Mexico, he would be driven through the square in an open car. We hustled over to a spot right next to a barricade and began the long vigil.

As we waited, I thumbed  through  a little book of helpful foreign phrases for English speaking travelers. I sat up straight when I realized that some of them were in Polish. What better way to  stand out to a Pole in a crowd of screaming Italians than to yell something in Polish? We carefully studied the  book to choose just the right phrase and practiced it together all afternoon.

The huge crowd became electric when the Pope finally arrived. As his car drove slowly by, our little group shouted out in Polish, in unison, “Where are you going with our luggage?”  His head snapped around, and for a second his eyes flared with the burning indignation that would eventually smelt the Iron Curtain. But, when he saw it was a group of smiling, dumb – probably American – students  desperately trying to attract his attention, he laughed and gave us a blessing .

A couple of months later, we were working our way back to campus from the train station after a 5 day trip through several countries.  We were too broke even for youth hostels, but we did have Eurail passes, so we had slept on the trains.  We were tired, hungry, and didn’t smell great.

As we walked behind the Vatican, we saw several people obviously waiting for something. They told us the Pope was coming back from a dinner in town, and that this road led to his private drive. Just then, a large car drove up and stopped right in front of us. John Paul II popped out of the sunroof and everyone began taking pictures and wishing him a good night.
I threw my suitcase down, knelt beside it, and began frantically searching for my camera. I couldn’t find it. In desperation, I dumped its contents onto the street, but it was no use; it wasn’t in there. Then I noticed that all the cameras had stopped flashing, and that our little group had fallen into an awkward silence.

I looked up and saw that the Pope was patiently waiting for me to find my camera. As I knelt in the gutter, surrounded  by my dirty socks and underwear, I threw my arms out wide and shrugged my shoulders as if to say, “That’s life.” And then the Pope, the Occupant of the Throne of St. Peter, the Vicar of Christ threw out his arms wide and shrugged his shoulders as if to agree, “Yeah, that’s life.” He laughed, threw me a quick blessing, got back in the car and was driven away.

I miss him.