Friday, December 30, 2011

Winning is rad: June 8, 2008

Confession: I'm not very competitive. I've never played team sports and I've never cared much whether other people were beating me at stuff or not. It just doesn't mean anything to me. In everything from athletics to my career, I set goals and I work toward them and I obliterate them. Then I set more goals. What other people are doing never enters the equation.

So I was completely clueless about team-based beating and winning and losing and stuff like that when we embarked on our journey as the parents of a Little League baseball player. I learned a lot. Mostly that winning is rad.

You win some, you lose some (or not)
    I have learned a lot in life by losing.

    I know what it feels like to be picked last for kickball. I have been on the receiving end of lousy report cards. I have competed at my very best in horse shows where I won absolutely nothing. I have had bosses who didn’t like me, written articles that contained errors, invested years in relationships that didn’t work out.

    We all lose sometimes. We learn from losing. We grow.


    “What does ‘builds character’ mean?” my 8-year-old son, Jack, asked me recently.

    I pondered this for a moment. I knew why he was asking. The answer was important.

    “It means that something bad happening makes you stronger once you get over feeling bad about it,” I said. “It means you learn from living through things that are tough to experience. It makes you a better person. Does that make sense?”

    Jack leveled his blue, blue eyes at me. “No,” he said.

    This conversation occurred about halfway through May, when my son’s Little League baseball team was on a fairy-tale winning streak. Ten games into the season, not one loss.

    When my son decided on a whim to give Little League a shot this season, after years of saying he’d rather just play baseball in the yard with his dad, I worried a little.

    “What if he’s on some lame-o team that never wins, and he hates it?” I asked my husband (because there is no situation where I cannot find a crisis.) “What if he’s totally demoralized, and it ruins baseball for him?”

Jack, far left, contemplates the horizon. That's my boy.
    My husband just shrugged (because that’s what you have to do to survive being married to me). “I don’t know,” he said. “We’ll just wait and see.”

    So we embarked on our first Little League season. And, as is customary most every time I make a dire prediction, I ate my words. The team is amazing. The coach is phenomenal. The kids are all talented and good-natured. The parents are the nicest lot you’d ever want to meet. We love Little League. And our team just kept winning.

    Which you would think is a good thing. But somewhere around game seven I started to worry. The stakes were getting high. The team was getting known league-wide as the one to beat. Every other team was gunning for them.

    At one point, even the coach felt the need to let his boys know that there is no shame in a loss. He sent out an e-mail to all the team families reminding them that even the great Ted Williams hit the ball only four out of 10 at-bats.

    I read Jack that e-mail. I don’t really know if he was listening.

    “I sure hope we win tomorrow,” he said one night as he got ready for bed.

    I seized the moment. “It’s really not a big deal at all if you lose,” I said. “As long as you have fun and do your best. Besides, losing builds character.”

    Which, as we’ve already established, Jack did not buy.

    “I know it’s OK to lose,” he said. “But it’s better to win.”

    I couldn’t think of a good response to that.

    At the game the next night, Jack’s team not only won, they won after one of their strongest hitters slammed the ball clear over the outfield fence, driving in three runs and sending all of us into an absolute tizzy. It was really cool.

    The next morning, I related the story of the dramatic game to a good friend as we slogged through our 5 a.m. workout.

    “It was awesome,” I said, “but I’m worried they’ll never lose a game, and Jack won’t really understand that winning isn’t everything.”

    My friend rolled her eyes (because that’s what you have to do to survive being friends with me).

    “Mary, didn’t you always want to be that kid whose team always won?” she said. “Did you ever get to be that kid? I was never that kid, and I always wanted to be that kid.”

    If we were cartoon characters, a light bulb would have appeared over my head at that moment.

    My friend is right. I was never that kid. I always wanted to be that kid. And there is absolutely nothing better than seeing your kid get to be that kid.

    My son’s team finished the season undefeated and is heading into the league playoffs in the top spot.

    I hope they crush everyone in sight. They can build character next year.
Jack and Jim, the day the team had their only loss of the
season -- the playoff.  He clearly doesn't care. That's my boy.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

The plague: April 27, 2008

There's nothing quite like that lightning-bolt realization you have as you watch one of your kids get horribly ill -- that soul-crushing certainty that everyone in the house is doomed to get this, probably already has it and now we're all just waiting for the suffering to begin.

The flu shatters our immunization illusions
    I always thought my children would discover I’d been lying to them all these years when they caught me placing presents under the tree on Christmas Eve or slipping a dollar under a pillow in exchange for a tooth. But it was the flu shot that cost my sons their first illusion.

    Every year, like good little virus-fighting soldiers, my husband and I and our two boys roll up a sleeve and get a flu shot. The kids don’t like it. But I have so aggressively promoted the mythology that a flu shot will “help us stay healthy all winter long” that they’ve nearly stopped questioning it.

    In fact, as summer packed up its tent and fall weather blew in last year, my 7-year-old asked me one day, “Will we have to get a flu shot soon?”

    “Oh, yes, indeed,” I told him, “to help us stay healthy all winter long.”

    Both my boys are in school from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. every day, which means they spend about 35 hours a week marinating in a Crock-Pot of viruses. All the handwashing and good hygiene in the world just cannot combat the power of one sick kid’s runny nose multiplied by the number of times he wipes his face with his sleeve and then tackles a classmate. (And I say this as the parent of a 3-year-old who has a penchant for both sleeve-as-tissue behavior and tackling.)

    Since my oldest, now nearly 8, was a toddler and we developed the flu-shot habit, no one in my house has had the flu. And we have gone to great lengths to get that shot.

    One year all the pediatricians were out of them, so I lugged my youngest, then a baby, to the health department downtown to get one. It took four hours. But we did it.

    And when my older son got out of school that day, I drove him up to the health department branch in North Hamilton County, where the shot was administered in about four minutes. Go figure.

    I should have known we were in trouble this year when three things happened.

    First, a broad alert went out to the public that there were plenty of flu shots this year. (Come and get it! Take extra! Use them as Christmas ornaments!)

    Second, I quit my job at this newspaper to work in corporate communications, and I managed to schedule three weeks of free time.

    And third, a broad alert went out to the public that those plentiful flu shots we’d all had were no durn good. (An article appeared on the front page on Feb. 20, my very own BIRTHDAY, under the headline “Flu bug sneak attack.”)

    On the first Monday I was off work, my youngest son woke in the night wailing. I went into his room, leaned over his crib and could feel the heat radiating off his body before I even touched him. He was diagnosed the next day with the flu, and down we all went like dominoes through the rest of the week.

    We had every flu misery, from terrifying fevers and sick stomachs to sore throats and hacking coughs. All of us. All. Week. Long. We took Tamiflu, but if it helped I couldn’t tell. (For some of us, it probably didn’t stay down long enough to do any good.)

    “Do I even need to comment on the timing of this?” asked my friend when I called her to explain that I couldn’t meet her at the gym. “Isn’t this your first week off of work?”

    “Ugh,” I said, which is all I could muster.

    As I write this, a week after the onset of the Plague of 2008, my houseful is on its way to health again. We’re still a little weak, but the boys are back in school, and I am making plans to spend my next week off in far pleasanter fashion. Nothing like wallto-wall misery to make you appreciate a little normalcy.

    I’m hoping for better luck next time, so this fall we’ll get flu shots again. But when my kids ask me why, I think I’ll skip the syrupy line (lie?) about staying healthy all winter long and just go right for the bribe, laced with a little symbolism.

    We may be suckers to believe in the flu shot, but from now on everyone at our house who gets a flu shot gets a sucker.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Recovering journalist: March 16, 2008

Leaving the newsroom was so hard, for so many reasons. Nearly four years after I peeled the 'press' stickers off my car, I still have a little reflexive deadline panic anytime I see a big story breaking. And I still miss the hell out of the quirky, talented, irreverent cast of characters that made up my work family. 

Newsrooms are intense, fun, wonderful, awful, exhausting places. I was so lucky to get paid to hang around one for so long. A lot of people never figure out what they were born to do, let alone get to do it.

So long, farewell, just get in the car already

    I hate goodbyes. When I was growing up in the Army, we moved all the time. Every couple of years we’d pack everything up and go. I usually told people I was leaving, but I never made a big deal out of it. Wave goodbye and just get in the car already.

    I’m trying not to make a big deal out of it this time, either. But I’m having a hard time packing up and disappearing the way I used to. I guess that’s because I’ve never spent 11 years anywhere before. And that’s how long I worked at this newspaper. Well, 10 years and 9 months. But who’s counting?

    In the ways that matter, I grew up in this place. I started out in 1995 as a 23-year-old summer intern at The Chattanooga Times. Then I spent a couple of years commuting to the newspaper in Dalton, Ga., and begging the Times to hire me. In June 1997, when they finally did, I was so happy I cried.

    I was right to be happy. This is a wonderful job. It doesn’t pay much starting out (which all reporters know going in), but I got to go everywhere, see everything and write about it. I had a license to ask every nosy question that came into my head. I got to live in a city I had grown to love and do the work I wanted to do. Who could want more?

    When I married in 1999, a news photographer friend (long married to my editor friend) shot the wedding. As I said my vows, the pews were full of my colleagues — writers, editors, photographers. (If there had been any sort of news event in that church, it would have been really thoroughly covered.)

    I worked through my first pregnancy in 2000, laboring (appropriately enough) for nine months on an eight-day series of articles that was published just before my son, Jack, arrived. I worked right up to the day before he was born, when my boss eyed my enormous stomach and said, “You’re so ready your eyes are dilated.”

    Five years later, the night before my second son was born, I left from a Thursday evening shift editing stories by handing in my timesheet and telling my boss I didn’t know if I’d be in the next day.

    “I know it’s not Friday and this timesheet isn’t due yet,” I said, “but I’ve got a feeling I won’t be here tomorrow.”

    Ben arrived about 12 hours later, nearly three weeks early.

    In my time as a reporter, editor and columnist, I have covered post-Katrina New Orleans and the war in Iraq. I’ve lived in public housing and ridden along with Chattanooga police officers on patrol. I’ve been to fires, floods, car crashes and funerals. I’ve covered Fourth of July fireworks and written about the quirks of Southern culture. I’ve written stories that left me weeping and stories that had me grinning as I typed.

    Through it all, the people I work with have become beloved friends. Some have been around since the beginning. Others have arrived in the last few years. But what has kept me coming back day after day after day are the people who produce this newspaper 365 times a year.

    Dozens of my colleagues hit the front door of this place every 24 hours with a plan and a big pile of optimism that they can get it done. They start from scratch every single morning. And it takes a lot of really amazing people to make that happen.

    But I’m leaving. I have a chance to do something utterly different, to learn new skills and find out what the world looks like from a different perspective. Leaving journalism is hard, but it’s also wonderful and exciting and strange.

    The Army brat in me is absolutely loving all this upheaval. The Army brat in me wants to wave goodbye and just get in the car already. Just head to my new job and dig in and get started.

    The rest of me wants to hold on to these people who taught me to tell a story, to meet a deadline, to never, ever take no for an answer. These people who taught me about toughness, kindness, persistence and optimism. These people who showed me how to get it done and then counted on me to do it.

    Thanks to my bosses (here and there) I’ll still get to write this column. And I expect I’ll have some stories to tell about reinventing myself at age 36, about the trials and joys of leaving the place I’ve called my professional home for most of my adult life. About moving on.

    And now it’s time to go. So I’ll just get in the car already. ...Wave goodbye.
The old home place. Read all about it at

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Please don't vote for Jack's mom: Feb. 3, 2008

The completely uninitiated perspective kids bring to the world has been a delight to behold. It can even make politics fun.

How do I explain election year to my son?
    As we drove into town the morning after the New Hampshire presidential primary, my 7-year-old piped up from the back seat, “What’s all that noise on the radio?”

    “It’s people talking about an election,” I told him. “Our country is voting for a new president this year, and some people think a woman might win this time.”

    My son gasped. “Oh my gosh,” he said. “I hope it’s not you.”

    I puzzled over that for a second, then realized my son considered becoming president something that could just happen to you with no warning — like waking up with a leg cramp or getting hit by a snowball.

    “I don’t think it will be me,” I assured him. “You have to ask people to vote for you if you want to be president. And this one woman who wants to be president has a lot of people voting for her right now.”

    He thought about that for a minute as the radio chattered on.

    “Is she a mom?” he finally asked.

    “Yes,” I said. “She has a daughter.”

    “Well, then she doesn’t have time to be president,” my son declared.

    I laughed. “Her daughter is a grown-up who has her own house,” I said. “She would have plenty of time to be president.”

    My son mulled this over a while, then extracted from me the promise that he will never have to move out of our house — not even when he becomes a grown-up, not even if I become president.

    “No problem,” I said. “You can stay as long as you like. I could use your help in the yard.”

    As what looks to be an interminable election year slogs into its second month, I envy my son’s nascent perspective on the whole thing. The last time our country went through this, he was 4 and preoccupied with backhoes, firetrucks and Blue’s Clues. He has no memory of the rainy November day in 2004 that I recall so vividly, in part because our roof sprung a leak just before John Kerry conceded.

    This year, my son is about to be 8 and has a tendency to ask impossible, intelligent questions. He is, for example, amazed that neither a woman nor a person of color has ever been president, and he wants to know why. He also wants to know why our country is at war and, more to the point, when we won’t be anymore.

    I answer these questions the best way I know how — and probably not very well judging by a piece of schoolwork he brought home recently. On wide-lined paper, my son wrote a little description of his country as very strong, with a lot of tanks and at war over who is going to be the next president.

    “Um, we’re not exactly at war over the next president,” I said, wondering at what point I lost him in my explanations of election time and war time. “We’re at war in a couple of countries very far from here, and we’re having an election here in the states to decide who will be our president.”

    “Aren’t a lot of people fighting over who’s going to be president?” he asked evenly.

    “Yeah, but they’re not fighting with guns or anything,” I said. “They’re just having a contest.”

    “Who do you want to win?” he asked.

    I sighed. “I really don’t know,” I said. “There are so many hard things happening in our country right now, it’s difficult to know which person is the best one to help make them better.”

    My son wandered away to mull this over, which left me thinking about 1980.

    In 1980, I was 8 years old and Ronald Reagan was running for president. My father, a deeply faithful conservative back to the time of Barry Goldwater, leaned over my bed late on election night to whisper in my ear, “Reagan won.”

    “Good,” I mumbled, knowing only that my father liked this Reagan guy and that he was happy.

    I don’t remember asking any questions about race or gender or war or even about what an election was. I was just happy for my dad.

    Which leaves me to wonder how my son will recall this election year, the first he’ll remember and one in which the stakes are so high in so many ways. It’s clear he knows something big is happening.

    But maybe he’ll just wake up on Nov. 5, relieved that no one voted for his mom.