Life is grand

IMG_E3871She doesn’t have the strength to lift a tissue.

She’s as helpless as a bug floating out to sea.

And yet, she’s one of the most powerful human beings I’ve ever met.

Little seven pound Lenny Grace Jones has knocked this man right to his knees.

It’s been a long time since I’ve thought about my capacity to love. It’s been almost thirty years since my first-born came into the world. The moment his little blue eyes tried to bring my astonished face into focus, I was floating in an ocean of adoration. Love consumed every square inch of heart, bones, muscle, and tissue.

That’s it, I thought. I’m out. All of my love is taken. I don’t have any left.

Then along came my second child.

And my love doubled.

Then a third.

And it quadrupled.

I’m not sure how it happened. A heart bursting with complete and total adulation somehow found room for more. I didn’t have to pry a hunk of love away from my son in order to provide some for my daughters. God helped me tap into an unknown and yet amazing resource.

Once again, I thought I’d reached my maximum output for love.

Wrong again.

Now comes Lil’ Lenny Grace Jones. She fits perfectly beneath my neck, resting on the palm of my left hand, her tiny heart beating against mine. I know that it’s a perfect fit because I kept her there most of last weekend. Her mom, my middle child, had a difficult time prying her away from me for seemingly important events like nursing and diaper changes. Everything is right with the world when I can feel her tiny breath. I feel like a piece of me has been ripped away when I’m not with her.

This is what it’s like to be a grandfather. It’s amazing.

I’ve helped create a human being who created another human being.

Mind boggling.

There is no math or science that will explain why my ticker beats with new enthusiasm every time I look into the deep blue eyes of this miniature human. I’m absolutely astounded by what my old heart can do. It’s as if I’m now a bottomless well that not only overflows with love for my Lil’ Lenny, but I’ve found a way to love my wife and children even more.

She can barely open her eyes, but that vulnerable, sweet little girl has the power to change a man.

She has changed me.

Two days after she was born, as I was sitting in my kitchen missing her, I opened my Bible and read from the book of Proverbs:

 

Children’s children are a crown to the aged, and parents are the pride of their children.

 

Sometimes, I think of myself as a tired old man who has lost his purpose. But love is good. Love is energy. Lil’ Lenny has helped me find new purpose and power. While it might seem like a stretch to give that kind of credit to a person totally lacking in awareness, it is true. She fills my gas tank with excitement and joy as I make the four-hour drive to see her.

Love is not a storage shed with limited room.

It’s not a bank account that runs empty.

Love is abundant. It is powerful.

I have no doubt that someday Lenny will become a big sister and a cousin. My grandfatherly duties will grow. I don’t have to worry about wrestling love away from Lil’ Lenny in order to provide equal amounts of adoration to future members of our family. My bottomless well of love will flow even stronger.

There are exciting times to come. I’ll get to relive the excitement of first steps, first words, the first birthday. I still need a name. “Jammy” is the leading contender, but ultimately it’s up to Lil’ Lenny.

Seven pounds.

As tender as a butterfly.

Welcome Lenny Grace Jones, the newest little human to teach me all about my capacity to love.

What an amazing gift.

 

 

 

 

 

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How beautiful on the mountains

IMG_3598I had a feeling that my hike along the Appalachian Trail would bring experiences I could never foretell.

As it turns out, expecting the unexpected is the only thing I got right about my little adventure.

The plan, my plan, was to spend 10 days in the solitude of north Georgia where I would carry a 35-pound backpack all the way to the North Carolina state line and beyond.

In the Bible, the book of Proverbs says that a man plans his course, but the Lord determines his steps.

I finally know what that means.

The motivations were pure. Or so I thought. I wanted to honor the father and sister I lost to cancer. I desired time alone in the wilderness to confront my lingering grief. I wanted the quiet of a solitary stroll so I could listen for God’s whisper in the hopes that He might guide me toward my true purpose.

Somehow, I allowed selfish ambitions to get in the way. Without realizing it, I made my trip all about what I could accomplish and what I could endure. I planned hikes of 10 and 15 miles over challenging terrain. When my wife voiced her wise objections, I stubbornly claimed my tattered 58-year-old  body could endure the stress, the rain, and freezing cold without complaint.

I needed a little humbling. A lot of humbling, actually.

God was there to provide.

My pride took a ferocious hit on the very first day. As it turns out, just getting to the start of the famous Appalachian Trail is a struggle. The trailhead is at the top of Springer Mountain. That’s an 8-mile climb from the Amicalola Falls Lodge. I was an aching, breathless mess before I left my first footprint on the AT. I had another three miles to tread before reaching my first campsite. It was all I could do to eat a few bites of dinner on that first day before collapsing into my sleeping bag.

The next day was even harder. My backpack pulled me left, right, and a lot of backward as I stumbled over Sassafras Mountain. I’d done a poor job of stuffing food, clothes, tent, and the rest of my survival needs into a borrowed pack. Angels named Don, Keith, and Davis volunteered to push, pull, shove, tighten, and somehow relieve the pain in my shoulders. Unfortunately, my new friends lacked the ability to make me 30-years younger.

By day three, I was broken.

God and His amazing mountainous creation had thoroughly humbled me. My walk was no longer about making it 10 days or 100 miles. It was about surviving one more step. I’m not as tough as I thought, not as brave as I thought, and the north Georgia mountains were more than willing to deliver that message. It was then and only then, when my mind was no longer cluttered with selfish infatuations, that God spoke.

And I listened.

God taught me that you can find beauty where it doesn’t seem to exist. During a cold, wet climb up Blood Mountain, I fell in love with a rock. You heard me. It wasn’t even an attractive rock, but a bland, jagged bolder emerging from the mud. As the lactic acid building in my legs worked to convince me I would never reach the top of that mountain, there it was. It was as if God placed His slick, dirty creation in just the right spot. God knew I needed a breather even when I didn’t. For several minutes (I didn’t count how long) I sat there on my rock with the rain pouring off of my hat. I must have looked like a complete lunatic. That rock was a haven. It was cold jagged comfort. It was as welcoming as a couch in front of a warm fire. It remains, in my mind, a hunk of rugged, grimy, wilderness beauty.

At the top of Blood Mountain, I joined other hikers for a moment of respite inside of a drafty shelter. Protected from the rain, we were all equal parts fatigue, filth, and famished. Some of those gathered were the energetic youth who’d sprinted past me as I sat on my rock. There were experienced hikers with the best equipment money could buy. There was also one unusually joyful man who was woefully unprepared in his denim jeans, leather jacket, and steel-toed boots. He looked like a fresh baked biscuit as steam wafted from his head and shoulders, and we all had a good chuckle over this unusual sight. In that group were the fit, the unfit, the well prepared, and the spontaneously ill-prepared. It didn’t matter. In that setting, we were unified in our joy, our exhaustion, and the challenge of the trail.

The hike gave me the opportunity to spend hours in conversation with God. He helped me resolve lingering issues over the death of my father. There were words I should have spoken long before painkillers and the evils of cancer left my father still and mute. Through prayer, God assured me that He is taking care of my dad and that I shouldn’t stress. God and I still have more to discuss in that regard, but I know now that He is listening to my concerns. I am no longer a man of quick, superficial prayer to begin and end each day. I know the joy and comfort that comes when you pray without ceasing.

Ultimately, a journey that was supposed to take me to the North Carolina foothills instead ended after 5 days and 50 miles. I have many reasons for leaving the trail early, but let’s just leave it that the terrain, the weather, and my aging body got the better of me. Besides, it was never supposed to be about miles. It was about my relationship with God, one that is now better than ever. I found peace in a steep climb. I found comfort in an ice cold rain. In a slippery rock, I found a friend. I discovered that God doesn’t care if I’m a news reporter, a writer, or a professional race walker (never going to happen). He just wants me to allow Him to lead the way. He wants me to find joy in the struggle.

Had I walked 100 miles, 200, or 2000 miles, this journey was never going to end on the Appalachian Trail.

God has humbled me.

He’s in the lead now, where He belongs, and I want Him to stay there no matter how far we walk, no matter how steep the climb.

 

 
“How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news, who proclaim peace, who bring good tidings, who proclaim salvation, who say to Zion, “Your God reigns!” — Isaiah 52:7

Into the woods

Screenshot 2018-02-28 at 4.52.31 AMA few thoughts before I trade my pillow for rocks and tree roots:

There are several reasons why I picked early March for my solo jaunt along the Appalachian Trail. I didn’t carefully consider all I would miss. I am a college basketball junkie. March is prime time for the sport. I will have no possible way of keeping up with some of the most important games of the season. Unless that is, there is a bear or two with the ESPN app.

My wife made sure to have me read an article on how to avoid snake bites, and what to do if skin does happen to meet fang. There are no hospitals along the Appalachian Trail, and an ambulance would have one heck of a time climbing Blood Mountain. The article advises the victim of a snake bite to remain calm and move away from the snake. I’m not sure how calm I would be, but I’m certainly not going to move toward any snake angry enough to bite me.

For the last month, most of my hikes and walks around town have been accomplished with 35-pounds strapped to my back. For 10 days, I will give my whole world a piggyback ride over steep hill and stream, and I want to be prepared. This has drawn a few curious stares, especially when I rambled down to the neighborhood creek to practice my water purification techniques. I’m glad my wife talked me out of sleeping in the front yard.

There are only a couple of things that concern me about this venture, and one of them is keeping my meals from furry thieves. While camping along the trail, I will have to hang my food supply away from the black bear population. I have 50-feet of rope and absolutely no idea how to tie it. You see, I’m no Boy Scout. If somehow I manage to fake my way into an adequate slip knot, I’ve got to make sure my food bag is dangling in just the right position so a bear can’t reach it from the ground or the tree. I might as well just notify Yogi that there’s a nice plump picnic basket waiting for him.

I’ve taken a peek at the extended weather forecast for the days I’ll spend in the mountains, and it appears somewhat daunting. There is a mention of rain hanging over half of the days I will spend hiking and sleeping out in the elements. There is even talk of snow. Yep. Nighttime temperatures, if the forecast holds, will be in the 30s. My next step is to review the limited wardrobe I plan to carry. Unfortunately, there’s no room in my backpack for a space heater.

My wife is already fully aware that when she picks me up at the end of this venture, I will smell like the hot, rancid center of a landfill. I will not shower for a week-and-a-half. The closest I’ll come to bathing is a quick, daily rub down with a baby wipe. I won’t shave either, but that’s not much of an issue. There are 13-year-olds who will wake up this morning with more facial hair than I can grow in a month. The only thing that will look like a beard will be the cloud of flies following me.

One final thought–

I have absolutely no idea what I’ll encounter between Springer Mountain, Georgia, and the hills of North Carolina. I’m sure there are surprises waiting, and I really hope there are. I want to emphasize the purpose of my trip. It’s a little complicated, but then again, it has a rather simple core. I need to spend some time where it’s just me and God. I need the silence of the night so I can hear His voice. I need peaceful days away from phones and traffic noise so I can focus on His message. I’m dedicating my trip to the memory of my father and my sister and the loss that is still quite heavy. But it is God who will blaze the trail, lift my feet when they’re heavy, and warm me when the ground is soft with snow.

How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news, who proclaim peace, who bring good tidings, who proclaim salvation, who say to Zion, “Your God reigns!”– Isaiah 52:7

 

5A problems

IMG_1922The wifi isn’t working.

The cleaners put too much starch in my shirt.

The lawn care service canceled again.

In my neighborhood, we call them 5A problems. Exit 5A off of Georgia 400 leads you to my humble enclave, where you’ll typically find more blessings than legitimate reasons to complain. It’s not like we’re immune to real problems. There is grief, job loss, anxiety, and the like. But in general, my neighbors and I are pretty comfortable in well-manicured suburbia. Often, we have to invent reasons to complain.

The driveway is cracked.

The maid forgot to take out the trash.

My shoestring broke.

At least we have shoestrings. And driveways. And lawns.

Guatemala is a hardscrabble country filled with sweat, determination, discouragement, unbridled poverty, and hope. Majestic volcanoes rise into the heavenly blue to provide a postcard image. You have to look closer, deep into the towering cornfields patrolled by chickens and stray dogs, to find the real Guatemala.

I discovered the essence of Guatemala on the first day of my visit, near the top of the San Pedro Volcano beside Lake Atitlan. I was feeling pretty good about my five mile climb that wasn’t as much about the distance as the altitude. The thin air of 9,000 feet had my lungs in a stranglehold. My leg muscles were screaming “no mas”, and I still had to hike down the volcano. I’d already started the process of patting myself on the back when I noticed two Guatemalan men calmly duplicating my effort with 50-pounds of firewood on their backs. Suddenly, I didn’t feel like congratulating myself. The biggest physical challenge I’d faced in decades was, to these guys, just another day in Guatemala.

The dog groomer canceled our appointment.

The cable is out again.

This traffic light stays red too long.

I met a family living in a home unworthy of being called a shack. It is nothing more than two rooms with flimsy wooden walls, a tin roof, and dirt floors. When it rains, and it does often in Guatemala, the floors turn to mud. The family matriarch, Tomasa, kneels in the dirt to create tapestries she sells at the local market. Her father-in-law murdered her husband during an argument about property, a crime that went unreported because Tomasa feared reprisals. Her five sons walk a half-mile along a narrow trail to get to their school bus (a retired Blue Bird bus manufactured in Georgia). The children don’t go to school every day. Sometimes, they go to work at a local market selling their mother’s wares. That includes Tomasa’s 8 and 11-year-old boys.

The bananas at Publix aren’t ripe enough.

The price of gasoline is absurd.

I can’t find the remote control.

More than half of Guatemala’s people living in poverty. It’s not due to lack of effort. The unemployment rate is less than 3%. Among the able-bodied men earning their keep is the 80ish-year-old I saw trying to lift himself off of a bench while burdened by a massive sack of avocados. The streets are teeming with street vendors aggressively offering crafts and baubles for a negotiated price. Only once did I encounter someone who extended an empty hand in hopes of receiving something for nothing.

I’m not writing this to claim the Guatemalan people work harder or deserve more than the rest of the world. There are people right here in Georgia, right here in metro-Atlanta, who deserve better for their efforts. And I’m not saying we should be ashamed of the trappings that come with our own success. But we were blessed to be born in the land of opportunity. We could just as easily have emerged in a “developing” country without the advantages and freedoms of America. It’s only when we open our eyes beyond our comfortable surroundings that we gain perspective. Since returning from Guatemala, I’ve found it difficult to complain about my 5A problems.

The garbage disposal is too loud.

The color doesn’t seem right on the wide-screen TV.

The announcers on this football game are biased.

By the way, I was in Guatemala to help build a new home for Tomasa and her boys. When finished, it will be two concrete block rooms with a finished floor. There will be no television, no Netflix, no remote control. She’ll continue to cook over an open wood fire that she will build each day. A hole in the ground will still serve as the family toilet. Still, Tomasa is so grateful for the upgrade that she gifted me and other volunteers with a basket of apples. It’s all she had to give other than the hugs and smiles that were all the reward any of us needed.

I am blessed to live in a wonderful country with a loving family, to have a roof over my head, a good job, great friends, and a God who will never abandon me. No, my life is not perfect, but there will always be someone who works more and has less, and there will always be someone who works less and has more.

Where does complaining lead you?

Well, it leads you to exit 5A, where you can grouse that your daughter keeps a messy room, or you can be grateful that she works hard and makes good grades. You can get upset that the cleaners ruined a perfectly good shirt, or be happy that you’ve got a closet full of adequate replacements. You can get worked up over the oddball sound coming from the engine of your Volvo, or rejoice in the friends who are willing to give you a ride whenever and wherever you need to go.

I could complain about my failing body that ached for days after my hike to the top of that volcano, or I can celebrate God’s glorious world and the revelations of a country thousands of miles from exit 5A.

For years, I’ve been carrying my petty 5A problems like a 50-pound stack of cordwood strapped to my back.

Thanks to the lessons of Guatemala, I’m learning not to make a volcano out of a molehill.

 

Forever Yonge

Screenshot 2017-06-26 at 2.15.35 PMDear P.K. Yonge class of 1977,

Hello, friends. I have a confession.

I can’t spell.

I blame our school. Not the teachers. They were great. I blame the person who decided to name P.K. Yonge after a man who couldn’t spell his own last name. It’s no wonder my elementary school papers were marred with red ink. If only Mr. Yonge could understand the confusion he caused for this struggling young man.

It’s far from the only lasting impact from my days on the campus beside Tumblin Creek.

Let’s face it. We went to a weird school. It’s weird, wonderful, incredibly unique, and, to borrow a word I heard a lot over the weekend, quite special.

I must admit, I wasn’t sure what to expect when I traveled home for our 40th high school reunion. I thought for sure that the years would have dulled the memories, along with the compassion we once shared for one another. After all, I was so eager to graduate forty years ago, to knock the dust of Gainesville, Florida, from my Adidas and forge a new path. I’ve done an incredibly poor job of staying in touch with all of you, and that includes my closest high school chums. Still, I returned to my hometown to find a bond that has, despite time and distance, grown stronger.

Wikipedia will tell you that P.K. Yonge is “a leader in school-embedded educational research,” with a mission “to design, test, and disseminate best practices in K-12 education.” The real story is written on our hearts. Together, we endured constant changes in the curriculum. Because we attended a “laboratory” school that was part of the University of Florida, we were tested more than Fatty Arbuckle’s belt. The state of Florida determined the size, shape, and look of our class. It was kind of odd at times. One elementary school classroom had an additional room separated by one-way glass so anonymous educators could observe our interactions. We felt like gerbils uniquely trained to use a pencil sharpener. And yet, we took pride in knowing that our school was different, that we were a little bit different.

I joined P.K. Yonge in 1964, entering a kindergarten class that was painfully homogeneous. Two years later, at the height of the civil rights era, we were introduced to Kenny Welcome. Integration produced violent protests in Birmingham, Mobile, and Memphis, but on our campus by Tumblin Creek, we treated Kenny like a new sibling. Lavonne Chisolm arrived, then Elaine Hayes. Our class was like a piece of art that was growing in beauty and charm. No one taught us about tolerance; it seemed to come naturally. Anyone who dared discriminate due to race, religion, or social standing was quickly rebuked, not by teachers or administrators, but by classmates. Looking back, there was something really amazing about the way we turned into a family.

IMG_1444

Somehow, P.K. Yonge attracted teachers who knew how to bring out the best in us. There were times when they had to dig deep, but they never stopped searching. I mentioned this during our reunion, but it bears repeating. I am forever grateful to Chris Morris, who saw me as more than just a restless teenager who couldn’t stop talking. She guided me into drama, where I constantly went off-script, adding to my character without permission. Rather than trying to silence my runaway energy, she nurtured it, honed it, and encouraged my expressive side. She did this at great risk, because my mouth was often a giant disruption, but Chris Morris knew what she was doing. She corralled that energy and channeled it toward something productive. I fell in love with performing, a passion that came in handy when I decided to pursue a career in television. Mrs. Morris, you are amazing, and the impact you had on me has lasted a lifetime. There’s Mr. McFadyen, who invited my tireless vocal chords into the announcer’s booth at Citizens Field, where I spent many a Friday night huddled over a microphone during football games. And there’s Kathy Heidel. God bless her. During my junior year, at the height of my rebelliousness, she saw the journalist inside of me. I don’t know why she bothered, because I behaved like a royal pain in the rump that year, but she encouraged me to read Tom Wolfe, the journalistic novelist. Of course, I refused. I’m embarrassed to admit I’d reached a stage where I saw teachers, or anyone in a position of authority, as the enemy. I wanted to have my own way. More than once I crossed the line, and I dared my elders to discipline me. Miss Heidel was patient. She knew something I didn’t know about myself, that I was trying to hide a love of reading and writing. She waited me out, allowed me to calm down, then made a connection. She planted a notion so deep inside of me that it didn’t blossom for years, until I made the decision to enter journalism school at the University of Georgia. Miss Heidel, if you’re out there somewhere, I finally read The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, and it is a marvelous piece of journalistic prose. I see what you did there. I will never forget you.

Class of 1977, just look at what we’ve become. Forty years have passed, and yet Tumblin Creek still runs through all of us. We are doctors, lawyers, journalists, musicians…but we are much more. P.K. Yonge found the best in us. It taught us that we all have value. That weird little school helped us recognize not only our own worth, but also the value in others. I didn’t realize that until I saw you all again. We care about each other, and forty years hasn’t changed that. I still see in you the people who surrounded Kenny and loved on him when he lost his mother back when we were in middle school. When Gary Rothwell’s mother died recently, several members of the class of ‘77 were right there to comfort him. We rooted for each other back then, and we pull for each other now. During our reunion, I encountered one classmate after another who asked with true interest about my family, my health, and my job. Our hearts still beat strong for one another.

I’m proud of each and every one of you.

We are a small but fierce group, loyal to our school and to one another. I suppose I was like most teenagers when I tried to kick high school into the past and spread my wings. But I wasn’t going to leave P.K. Yonge, and it was never going to leave me. You people crawled into my heart decades ago, and there you remain. It took forty years and a reunion to acknowledge that, but there it is.

I was somewhat surprised when, during our weekend gathering, Chris Morris tearfully referred to us as “special”. I mean, Jerry Carnes is not special. But I realize that while I am ordinary on my own, I am indeed a part of a very special group of people. We, collectively, the class of 1977, conquered racial prejudice in the deep south. We learned to love the quirky, astounding, and eminently entertaining talents in one another. When one of us laughed, we all laughed. When one of us hurt, we all hurt. We all came with warts and scars, but P.K. Yonge supplied each of us with a set of goggles that made those warts and scars look appealing. I still have those goggles, and man, they give you an amazing view of life.

I love you guys. All of you.

We may not be young any longer, but we are forever Yonge.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bumble B

jerry and bEvery workplace has one. 

I’m talking about the co-worker who can cut through the darkness with a smile, a friend who can dissolve stress with a light hearted greeting, a partner in crime who will celebrate the end of the week with a Friday dance-off.

For more than three decades, the ray of sunshine in an often stressful newsroom on Monroe Place went by the name of Birnur Richardson.

We called her “B.” Just B. She immigrated from Turkey, finding her way to WXIA-TV where she began work as an intern in that often stressful newsroom that, in those days, was located on West Peachtree Street. Without complaint, B eagerly tackled each and every task the bosses sent charging toward her. Eventually, WXIA-TV had to offer her full-time work. It was either that, or lose our version of Muhammad Ali– smart, spry, able to punch out tasks with an entertaining bounce.

She could float like a butterfly, but this B had no sting.

I met Birnur in the summer of 1981. We were both interns, both tasked with working the WXIA assignment desk during the weekends. I arrived in the mornings, she took over in the afternoons. We were naive and nervous, and I took the job quite seriously, probably way too seriously. In her good natured style, B would often poke fun of my overstressed attitude and urge me to relax. She became a big sister. Seven years later, I would work my way back to the WXIA newsroom, and there was B, still trying to keep me at ease with her polite ribbing and her big, captivating smile.

Years passed. B drifted to the morning shift, and eventually, so did I. A newsroom can be a solemn, grumpy place at 3 a.m., unless you employ Birnur Richardson. Nothing could faze her. Editing glitches, computer problems, system breakdowns. She handled it all with polite professionalism. And if you had an issue, somehow she would break away from her job of editing two-and-a-half hours of videotape to help. Never, not once, did I ever hear B speak a cross word to anyone. Ever.

Last year, after 35 years at WXIA, Birnur Richardson retired. She went home to spend time with her husband and two children. She seemed quite happy, at peace. Her work family missed her terribly, so when word filtered back that she was sick, we worried. But it seemed she was going to be ok. At least, that’s the way it seemed to me. Part of it is that B didn’t let a whole lot of people know just how sick she really was. Part of it, I’m sure, is my fault. Perhaps I wouldn’t let my mind accept the possibility that cancer was about to claim yet another loved one.

When Birnur Richardson passed away, it was like Interstate 85 had collapsed all over again, only this time, it dropped right on top of my head.

I can’t stop seeing the smile that could cut right through the stress. I can’t stop hearing the song that our morning co-worker Jojo Johnson would sing to Birnur every Friday:

Bumble Bee

Don’t you dare sting me…

And I can’t stop hearing B’s exuberant “Whoo hoo” at the end of each Friday performance.

Since her passing, I’ve heard from people who are long gone from WXIA, but continue to cherish their time working with the effervescent Birnur. Everyone is in total shock. Generations of former co-workers remember her tough but gentle nature, and her joyful approach to each and every situation. We are trying to comfort each other with the the stories of how B treated us all like family.

She was tough. She was smart. She was hard working, but most of all, Birnur Richardson was happy. She lived and worked in a joyful manner that bubbled over, infecting everyone around her.

Once again, cancer leaves its sting.

It won’t erase our joyful memories of the Bumble B who brought a smile instead of a sting.

Welcome to the jungle

bridge collapseWelcome back, spring breakers!! Hope you had a great vacation.

To be brutally honest, we didn’t miss you.

Ok, that’s not completely true. Of course we missed you. It’s just that a lot happened while you were away, and we’ve been settling into a whole new way of life here in metro Atlanta. Quite honestly, and please don’t take this the wrong way, but your return throws a gigantic congested wrinkle on the situation. So, unless I can somehow convince you to spend another ten weeks on the beach, here’s a few things that you must know:

Your typical drive to work is history. Finished. Toast. Time to try something new. I’m talking mainly to anyone who is accustomed to driving into midtown or downtown. While you were on vacation, the rest of us have been searching for the best route around the I-85 bridge collapse. Truthfully, there is no best route. Piedmont is slammed. Ditto Sidney Marcus Boulevard. I-285 is experiencing a 40% increase in traffic. It’s worse than that on Cheshire Bridge Road, and that’s with you away. And the Buford Spring Connector? Well, let me tell you about the poor Buford Spring Connector. It is the most direct route past the missing sections of I-85, and it is stressed to the max. There is one lane open southbound. One lane is not going to handle the volume that used to travel on a massive interstate. Get out your map. Dial up Waze. Find another way.

Think about ditching your car for awhile. Seriously. I know that metro commuters are attached to their cars like mud to a truck tire, but life here has changed. There are actually some local teachers who plan to bike to work. You heard me. So many people have turned to MARTA, that the parking lots north of town are bulging more than grandpa’s waistline after Thanksgiving dinner. Now is the time to connect with some of your co-workers and discuss carpooling. Even better, talk to the boss about working from home. Believe me, if it wasn’t my job to PURPOSELY get caught in this mess, I would gladly spend a day working in my pajamas.

If you insist on driving, start now looking for routes that steer you away from the bridge collapse, and reset your alarm clock. The Georgia Department of Transportation has run models that indicate your commute into downtown or midtown is going to take you 25-30% longer. So, if you’re used to an hour drive from Alpharetta, add another 15-18 minutes of exhaust and talk radio. Those of you accustomed to leaving the house at 6:30 might want to try 6 a.m. And from what I saw last week while you were away, the morning rush hour is going to last past noon, so leaving later probably isn’t a viable solution. I suspect the morning and evening rush hour is going to join forces to create a new KAOS. You do remember KAOS, right? The evil organization from Get Smart? Remember? Maxwell Smart? Agent 99? KAOS? No? Nevermind.

Be patient. Be kind. Be respectful. No matter who you are or where you’re going, you’re journey is no more important than that of the people around you. This is not the time to make up your own rules. If you encounter a jammed intersection, wait until it clears and there’s room for you on the other side. When you see a crowded turn lane, don’t be shocked when your efforts to zip to the front of the line are met with stern rebuke. And if you’re one of those patient drivers who encounters the smug and the entitled, consider offering some forgiveness and a little space. I know, I know, allowing them to cut in line will look like you’re offering approval for their bad behavior, but your clever hand gestures will have no effect on them. Let them in for sake of the poor souls stuck behind them. After all, it’s only one car length. It will delay your trip less than a second.

Here’s hoping I can follow my own advice.

Anyway, welcome home. Hope you’re tan, rested, and ready to face the challenges we’ve endured for the past week. Our problem is now your problem. If you’re one of the many whose vacation was disrupted by flight cancellations and delays, you’re about to learn the true meaning of “grounded”. There are no travel agents to book you a new commute into town. This is all on you. Study up. Plan a new route, a different way of commuting, or wake up a little earlier. Download some of your favorite music, or maybe an audio book. Might I suggest you avoid titles like, A Bridge Too Far, or, On The Road, or, The Odyssey.

I’ll lean on the poetic words of the artful Jimmy Buffett.

Come Monday, it will be alright.

 

Four funerals and a wedding

march 5Reaching the 57th floor of my existence hasn’t been the smoothest elevator ride. Sure, there have been plenty of floors that have passed without a worry. Then, there are those rides where I’ve ascended too fast, dropped a few floors, stalled, rumbled, rattled, and limped toward my destination. On recent rides, one particular date seems to bring a either a dramatic rise, or a heart stopping fall.

March 5th.

On March 5, 2011, my father passed away after a lengthy fight with prostate cancer.

March 5, 2016, is the day my middle child married the man of her dreams.

Now comes March 5, 2017. Another ear piercing drop.

Gary Rothwell and I became best buddies when we were 5-years-old. My father accepted a new job at the University of Florida midway through the school year, so I was a late arrival at P.Y. Yonge, a rather eye opening and tolerant institution just a pebble’s throw from the famous graffiti covered wall on Highway 441 in Gainesville, Florida. On my first day of kindergarten, the teacher introduced me to the class.

“Children, this is Jerry.”

Gary Rothwell was one of the first to greet me.

“Hey,” exclaimed one of our classmates. “Jerry and Gary. That rhymes.”

After that, Gary and I were inseparable. I say that, but there were plenty of teachers over the years who did their best to separate us. I was a rambunctious child, and Gary was my go-to partner in mischief. We were constantly scheming to keep the school entertained, or at the very least, keep ourselves entertained. We were class clowns, the self-appointed merry pranksters. We never broke the law, but I imagine we caused more than a few teachers to regret their career choice.

It’s a friendship that has transcended graduation and adulthood. So, when March 5, 2011, arrived, Gary went out of his way to attend my father’s funeral. Likewise, when Gary’s mother passed away on March 5, 2017, I planned a trip back home to my beloved Gainesville, Florida.

To make the journey, I would need a day off of work. We, meaning WXIA-TV, were already shorthanded,  so I would need to labor beyond my normal hours to accommodate my absence. No one gave me that directive. I came up with it all on my own. I mentioned something to that effect to Gary, who clearly noticed my hurried, anxious tone. He responded with a statement as wise as King Solomon.

“Do what you need to do,” Gary quipped. “But it’s not like they can’t do without you.”

There are moments when I am actually arrogant enough to think the world of television news just can’t possibly survive a moment without me. My priorities run amuck, leading to long days and long absences from home that end with my brain still pounding with the call of unfinished tasks. My loved ones patiently wait their turn as I’m consumed with the self-imposed demands of a world that only cares for me when I give mile after extra mile.

Gary’s message was clear. He wanted and needed my company and my comfort. There’s no way to measure the accomplishment of simply being at his side for a few hours in his time of mourning. No one waiting on my “to do” list was upset when I informed them why their issue would have to wait until the following week. It’s not like Atlanta isn’t filled with capable news reporters ready and willing to fill my void, and quite adequately. No one’s television screen went dark during my absence. No one yearned for my increasingly gray locks. No one complained that their morning passed without the sound of my familiar yet mediocre voice.

Also waiting for me in my hometown was my mother. The loss of my father six years ago has left quite a void on NW 24th Way. She recently endured hip replacement surgery, and isn’t getting around quite as easily as she once did. I can’t fill the hole left by the departure of my well accomplished dad, but two days spent by my mom’s side, reminiscing, watching basketball, treating each other to dinner and a movie, are more valuable than any breaking news coverage, more treasured than twenty Emmy awards.

It’s a lesson I need to remember every single day. My hand can do more good holding  my wife in prayer than it can writing a million news stories. My voice is more valuable telling my children, “I love you,” than it is reminding Atlanta of its most serious traffic issues.

It’s not that my job is unimportant. I don’t plan to stop giving my all at work. I’m far too obsessive. But as funerals and weddings (I got an invitation to another today, the daughter of a friend) appear at the elevator door more frequently, I need to be more aware of the value of my attention. No tweeting when my wife wants to talk. No sneaking around to text when I’m supposed to be helping her with her Bible study. No drifting off to plan the rest of my week when friends, loved ones, or neighbors need my ear.

You never know when it might be someone else’s March 5th.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to take this call from my daughter. If you don’t hear from me tomorrow, it’s because I’m on the phone with my mom.

Forgive me.

The elevator is rising toward the 58th floor.

I’d love it to be a smooth ride, but it’s not likely. So, may the doors open to ways I can make that ride a little easier for someone else.

 

Enemy of the people

jfk_day1_deathannouncementFriends, neighbors, family members, I come here to provide insight to my industry, to my career, not to praise it.

I grew up in an era when the most trusted man in America was Walter Cronkite. He sat in our living rooms and delivered depressing news of war and grief with a gentleness that put you at ease. The crack in his voice when Uncle Walter told us of President Kennedy’s death was an unintended moment of transparency that said he was one of us, not some haughty celebrity imparting wisdom from on high, but a trusted confidant. To many of us, Walter Cronkite, a member of what is now known as the “mainstream media”, was as honest as mom’s loving embrace.

What happened? Did the business of delivering news change, or is it the attitudes of those who digest the news?

Actually, it’s both.

The last five years have brought more jarring changes to my industry that the previous thirty. It’s not just me and the journalists from other local media outlets out there hunting for news. The mushroom cloud that is social media allows just about anyone walking by a crime scene to serve as a “reporter”. Snippets of “news” fly at you that come, at times, with conjecture and alarm. I’m not trashing social media, because I use it. But information there can be so fast paced and so very unfiltered. Often, it is our job as experienced journalists to wade through the hysteria to find what’s true and what’s not. It can get confusing for those who consume it all. Who do you trust, the journalist appearing on your television screen, or the 140 characters and the hashtag you saw an hour ago?

Podcasts, blogs, phone apps…it’s overwhelming. I thought BuzzFeed was a place to find out which character from Gilligan’s Island you are most like. Now I find they have a news department. So does Yahoo, Google, and…Comedy Central. Yes, there are people who lump The Daily Show, a comedic parody, with NBC, Fox, and CNN.

It’s confusing for everybody.

Recently, I’ve read references to “the media” as if it was some single, giant, amorphous being sitting in a dark star chamber dictating who gets to know what. Instead, it is a collection of individuals, real human beings with different backgrounds, experiences, and motives for pursuing a career in this often vilified industry. We go about our work in different ways, but when it comes to building trust, the rules are the same. Journalists must be honest. Mislead your viewers, or a source, and your credibility vanishes. You must be fair. There are often ten sides to a story, and the truth can be hard to find. You can’t take shortcuts.

Those who fake it don’t last. They never do.

I find it important to let everyone in earshot know that I’m nothing special. I make mistakes just like everyone else, and I’m not above admitting it. I have the same struggles and insecurities that you do. Stress often gets the better of me. I do my very best to treat everyone with respect. Sometimes I fail. It’s the cost of being human.

The recent criticism of my business is something I don’t take personally. Instead, I view it as a challenge. The accusations of “fake news” and corruption are coming from more than one place. Even if it’s perception over reality, it should be a concern for every single journalist. There are people in this country who simply don’t believe us, no matter how pure our motives, no matter how hard we work to find and reveal the real truth, and not just our version of it. So, we have to work harder. It’s the only solution.

Lashing out at those who criticize us isn’t productive. I’m not saying we need to back away from our responsibility to hold the powerful accountable, to question and dig and hold our elected officials responsible for their actions. But we have to go about our work fully aware that there are people who do see us as biased and selfish. We need to be more honest than ever, more transparent than ever. We need to be humble. We need to listen.

There are, indeed, people out there posing as journalists who do have an agenda. As true journalists, we need to be more responsible than ever so our voices are heard over the distracting cacophony.

We need to let America hear the crack in our voice, as Walter Cronkite did so long ago.

I sure wish the most trusted man in America was still around to provide some sound advice.

Something tells me that in his gentle, avuncular way, he would remove his glasses, look at me through the television screen, and tell me to stay true to the honest, God fearing values that led me to this business in the first place.

The Boston gloat

patriotsfalconsnfl_september2013_646For a moment there, I was really angry.

My brain was a keg of gunpowder, while the words I saw printed in the Boston Globe appeared as a lit match.

Fortunately, I’ve been talked out of my fiery pique by a most unusual source.

There I was, still dizzy with excitement over the Atlanta Falcons’ historic win in the final game at the Georgia Dome. A team once considered irrelevant was steamrolling to the Super Bowl, football’s biggest stage. A town once so hapless that Sports Illustrated called us “Loserville” was one step from the ultimate in football triumph. Falcons fans, so maligned over the the last fifty years, would be mocked no more.

Then comes Dan Shaughnessy to lower his zipper and rain on our parade.

Mr. Shaughnessy, whose coif looks more like a labradoodle rescue than a hair style, writes for the Boston Globe. In his column of January 23, he offered pity to me and anyone else silly enough to invest our hearts and souls in the Atlanta Falcons. That’s right. He pities us. He opined that it is beneath his hometown New England Patriots to play the Falcons in the Super Bowl because, well, playing Atlanta is boring. We have no sports history. We have no passion for our professional sports teams. It would be more fitting for the Patriots to play a team seeped in football lore, like the Packers or Giants. He mentioned Boston’s “embarrassment of riches” when it comes to sports titles. In Mr. Shaughnessy’s curly gray head, Boston is Henry the Eighth, and we are his headless brides.

By the way, why are they the New England Patriots? We aren’t the Southeastern Falcons. I digress.

There are a few things Mr. Shaughnessy doesn’t understand.

He seemed flummoxed that on a weekend when the Atlanta Hawks and Boston Celtics were facing off in the NBA playoffs, the state was focused on the University of Georgia’s spring football game. College football is king here, and throughout the south. That is a fact. For whatever reason, southerners identify more with their college sports teams than the athletes who are paid. I don’t think we need to be ashamed of that. After all, the Georgia Bulldogs alone have won 29 national championships in a variety of sports. That’s something to crow about.

And our passion does bleed over to professional sports.

He concludes that our “apathy” over our professional sports teams derives from our lack of success. While it’s true that we hardcore Atlanta devotees are far outnumbered by our friends who’ve migrated here from other great cities, we are hardly apathetic. In fact, it’s the lack of championships that makes us viciously hungry. We are a wolf chained for decades to a tree, our nose less than an inch from a juicy steak. Perhaps, Mr. Shaughnessy, you watched our stunning, decisive victory over the storied Packers on your cell phone with no volume. It didn’t give you a very good view of the sold out Georgia Dome, which was an atomic bomb of enthusiasm.

My furor over Shaughnessy’s column cooled considerably when a few friends living New England reached out to assure me the Boston Globe scribe does not speak for all Patriot fans. One conceded that Atlanta is “due for a championship”, while another says the Patriot faithful “doesn’t disrespect the Falcons, and clearly the two best teams are in the Super Bowl.”

So, when Shaughnessy uses the word “we” while claiming that Patriot Fans “feel nothing” about a game with the Falcons, he must be referring to himself and his kinky white locks.

Look, I have nothing against Boston, and I most certainly feel no anger toward the fans of perhaps the most successful football franchise in history. The Patriots and their fans have my upmost respect. Boston is an amazing town, filled with history, and can now take pride in the fact that it helped produce one of professional football’s best quarterbacks. For it was on the campus of Boston College that Matty Ice honed his skills, preparing for his days as an Atlanta Falcon.

Thank you, Boston, for giving us Matt Ryan, the man who just might make Dan Shaughnessy eat his words.