INSPIRED TO FIGHT AGING BY A BEACH TO BAY PIONEER

Carl Sandburg got it wrong. It’s not the fog that comes on little cat feet; it’s old age. We’re so focused on barreling through our daily lives that we don’t really notice age creeping up on us. But every now and then something happens that reminds us the clock is ticking.

On a recent trip to the chain barber shop I’ve been going to for years, I was assigned a pretty, perky, twenty-something cosmetologist. I was happily chatting her up when — for the first time ever—she asked if I wanted my eyebrows and ears trimmed. My brain skipped like a 45rpm and visions of Andy Rooney loomed in my head. “I guess so,” I squeaked. I spent the rest of my time in the chair sullenly counting the few grains of pepper left in my salt-and-pepper hair as they wafted onto my lap.

I was beginning to feel a little less shocky as we walked to the cash register. That is until, without asking me if I qualified, she gave me — for the first time ever — the 65-and-over discount. This forced me to shakily explain to her, and everyone else in the shop, that, though I clearly look at least 65, I’m actually 57. For my trouble, she charged me another 3 dollars.

I was relieved to get home until I noticed that—for the first time ever—the barber had left one clump of hair much longer than all the others. Mystified, I asked my wife about it. She gleefully explained that it was for a Trumpian comb over and asked if I’d considered getting an orange dye job?

Sensitized to my senior status by this encounter, I began to notice other sure signs of aging:

  • At a car dealership, instead of looking for as much styling, performance, and handling as I could afford, my only real consideration was the amount of lumbar support.
  • Every time I stand, I emit a little, involuntary grunt of dissatisfaction.
  • Every time I sit, I emit a little, involuntary grunt of satisfaction.
  • I can comb my hair with a towel.
  • When I look in the mirror, my father stares back.

 

Time is relentless, but is there a way to stave off its icy grip? Based on what I’ve seen in my own family, the best way to resist aging is to stay active. So, for the last several years, to keep creakiness and crankiness at bay, I’ve been running 3 times a week.

But running is a solo sport, so if you skip a workout, the only one you let down is yourself. And, because my bed never feels comfier or cooler than on those soupy Corpus Christi summer mornings, I used to wimp out a lot. But that changed when I joined a Beach to Bay team, because now I’m letting down my teammates if I spank the alarm clock and roll over.

And there’s one teammate in particular I can’t let down: Herman Vacca. He’s a perpetually sunny, 79-year-old triple bypass and cancer survivor who’s run nearly every B2B since the race began. He remembers the first one  as a few hardy souls running down wide open streets without police protection. There were no finisher medals, T-shirts, or post-race activities. He doesn’t remember the first time there were post-race beers, but he does remember there was no limit.

At our pre-race party last year, I told Herman I hoped I’d still be running when I was his age. He gave me a big smile and said he hoped he’d still be running right alongside me.

This year, health issues will prevent Herman from running, but he’ll be walking the first leg as fast as he can. That puts him in the conversation for toughest runner in the race, so, if you see him out there, give him a high five.

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THE GREAT PIZZA RIOT

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In the summer of ’76, I was 16 and got my first job working at a pizza restaurant. Orville (not his real name) was our manager. Only 20, he was laid-back, bright, and interested in everything except the pizza business. And he was the coolest guy I’d ever met.
My first morning, he handed me my new, red, plastic derby, with “PIZZA” and “FUN” printed on the hatband, and a jaunty, red and white striped vest. Then he hurriedly showed me how to run a large block of raw pizza dough back and forth through the roller press machine until it was flattened into a 20-foot-long sheet, only an eighth of an inch thick. He then pressed a steel cutting ring into the sheet and whipped a knife around its outside edge. He deftly repeated the process until he had three tall stacks each of small, medium, and large pizza “skins”.
The next morning I made the skins on my own. But Orv had neglected to tell me that before using the cutting rings, I should make sure the sheet of dough was not stretched tight. Because if it were, the skins slowly shape-shifted from round to oval.
After making the skins, I raced over to the food prep area to slice pepperoni and fill the tubs with toppings and sauce. But when I went to retrieve the skins to begin making pizzas, I was stunned to see that they had transformed themselves into stacks of small, medium, and large footballs.
I took one to Orv’s office in the back of the restaurant, fully expecting him to tell me to hand in my derby, but he just laughed.
“We’ll tell people it’s a football promotion,” he said.
“But Orv, it’s June.”
“Hey, it’s always football season in Texas.”
It worked. After an initial quizzical stare, few cared that their football-shaped pizzas were hanging over the edge of the pan or had to be crammed into a takeout box. And if they did ask, Orv would give them a fist pump and shout, “Go Oilers!”
One time, though, Orv carried being cool a little too far. One Tuesday morning the owner didn’t show up to count the receipts, like he usually did. I was busy with food prep, when I noticed that Orv was working frantically on the 6’x 6’ gas-fired pizza oven. I went over to ask what was up, and he said he’d stuck a match in every orifice he could find, but he couldn’t figure out how the owner lit the oven. By then it was 11:15, and we both knew it took an hour for the oven to heat up.
Soon, customers started to pour in for the all-you-can-eat pizza buffet. Orv took their money and pointed them all toward the salad bar. When they asked where the pizza was, he told them we were working on it. It didn’t take long for the normal conversational buzz of the 40 or so customers to be replaced by a menacing silence.
I asked Orv what we should do, and he said, “Let’s go to my office, close the door, and hide.” Which is exactly what we did.
Things went well for a while in Orv’s office. We were sitting around joking about the Astros and had pretty much forgotten about the oven issue when suddenly there was a loud pounding on the door. Apparently, the customers had elected a representative to find out what the heck was going on.
When Orv told him, he turned and bellowed to the other customers, “THERE’S NO PIZZA!” They all shot to their feet and rushed toward us like the pitchfork brandishing villagers at the end of Frankenstein. Orv started to explain that to request a refund, they must write a letter to corporate headquarters, but quickly realized that enforcing company policy was not worth his life.
Later that afternoon the owner walked in and asked how lunch went. Orv, as cool as the other side of the pillow, answered, “Not bad.”

THE DAY I WON THE LOTTERY

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.

HOW TO SURVIVE A BAD BABY, VOLUME II

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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

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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.