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.

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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.

 

The tears of a fanatic

110512 falcons CC32I wept.

I know. Big boys don’t cry, especially over a football game. It’s ridiculous. It wasn’t a babbling gusher or anything, but I made sure to hide the swollen eyes and quivering lip from my wife. I was a little surprised myself by the unexpected display of emotion. It seems I was simply overwhelmed by a moment of pure joy.

I’m one of those people who gets thoroughly attached to his sports teams and the athletes who play for them. It’s a bit bizarre, but I can still name the entire starting lineup from the 2008 Georgia Bulldog baseball team that made it to the national championship game. I learn their names, their hometowns, their shirt size, their favorite brand of cereal, and their high school grade point average. I need to know if they use waxed or unwaxed dental floss. Their fortunes are my own. If they win on Saturday, I arrive at work on Monday on a cloud. If they lose, I feel like I’ve been docked a week’s pay.

As a fan of Atlanta’s sports teams, I would be living in a tent if they actually withheld a paycheck with each loss.

There have been many seasons when the City Too Busy to Hate has fielded teams too distracted to win. Inept owners and terrible luck became their signature. Brett Favre, one of pro football’s greatest quarterbacks, started his career with the Falcons. He was a complete bust until he left Atlanta. Nick Esasky was an All-Star third baseman with the Reds and Red Sox. He arrived in Atlanta with a bad case of vertigo, and never played a game. The city has had two hockey teams, only to lose them both. For most of my life, the city of my birth has been a punchline for the sporting world.

Oh, how I’ve hungered for Atlanta to have the last laugh.

There have been so many opportunities to bail and adopt other teams. I won’t do it. With every losing season, I dig in even deeper. I’m deeply invested in a losing stock, but I refuse to sell. Atlanta is a town filled with millions who come from somewhere else. They bring their banners with them. Packers. Steelers. Yankees. They root for teams that have hoisted championship trophies time and time again. They tempt me to abandon my roots. I am stubbornly convinced that I will be richly rewarded for decades of suffering.

Atlanta does have one title. One. It happened in 1995. The Braves, once perennial losers, climbed the baseball ladder so quickly it made us all dizzy. They made it to one World Series, and lost, then another, and lost. The third time was, indeed, the charm. Then came another World Series loss, and another, and just like that, the magic disappeared.

Now comes these Atlanta Falcons.

I started rooting for the Falcons in 1980, the year they steamrolled into the playoffs only to lose an unlosable game to the Dallas Cowboys. I stayed with them as they hired and fired the hapless Marion Campbell, a man they’d hired and fired once before. I traveled to Miami to witness the Falcons’ first appearance in the Super Bowl, and felt the elation ebb away with the arrest of a key defensive back the night before the game. It was as if fate had punched a hole in our hot air balloon. The team, and the experience, fell flat.

This time, it’s different. It feels different.

This time, there’s Matty Ice, who warms my heart. Quarterback Matt Ryan goes about his business with fearless calm, never bothering to draw attention to himself. There’s Julio Jones, who doesn’t let injury stop him as he stiff-arms larger defenders to the ground. It’s a team that refused to doubt after early season losses. They’re playing with a grit that leads you to believe they understand this town’s hunger. Matt Ryan was 5-years-old when the Falcons finished their 9th losing season in 10 years, one of  the lowest moments for a franchise full of lows. Ryan hasn’t lived with our frustration, but he’s fighting to cure it.

So, excuse the fat, wet bubble that appeared in my eye as the clock ticked down toward perhaps the biggest win in Falcons history. I’m a sap, a stupid sports sap who fell in love with the Dirty Birds nearly four decades ago. They’ve broken my heart so many times, it would make a stirring romance novel. For me and thousands of other long suffering fans, this season is like a thrilling apology. It’s the misbehaving pet that ran away years ago, only to return with a tail-wagging leap into your lap. It’s the girlfriend who broke up with you at the prom, then calls to profess her undying love.

I pine for all of my sports team. Falcons, Braves, Bulldogs, Hawks. I know that it’s dumb to invest so much emotion in the performance of athletes I’ve never met. It’s not like I have a say in their wins or losses. It’s not like they’re thinking about my mental well being when they trot onto the field. And yet, I can’t help myself. It’s really beyond explanation.

For me, the Super Bowl will be played at a most inconvenient hour. My alarm will ring at 2 a.m, Monday morning. If I stay up to watch the game, I will get, at the most, four hours sleep. More than likely, I won’t sleep at all, especially if the Falcons win. If that happens, I won’t want to sleep for a month. After all, there will be no more need for dreams.

And I will cry. Oh, yes, I will most certainly cry.

The heart of darkness

Twitter is giving 2016 a harsh goodbye. Facebook, too. Everywhere I look, the brokenhearted are eager to rip December out of their virtual calendar and start anew.

I understand2017. This will not go down as one of my favorite years. 2016 is the multi-car pile up that ruins a trip to the beach. I survived with a badly damaged hood, scrapes along the front panel, dragging my back bumper toward 2017. At least I have insurance that come in the form of loving friends and family. I’m going to have to change four flat tires and rebuild my engine before I can finish that trip to the beach, but I’ll make it. There is sunlight at the edge of darkness.

It’s not really 2016’s fault. The year itself didn’t participate in vitriolic political debates, didn’t end the life of a single celebrity, nor did it take part in any of the mass shootings around the world. 2016 arrived like a fresh set of downs for a struggling offense. It offered optimism, hope, another chance. It’s crazy to think an altered number on our daily planner will erase our problems, but there’s a feeling that comes with the segue from December to January. It’s almost like the champagne and fireworks are delivered with a reset button. Push it, and life is good again.

I had that kind of optimism when 2016 awoke.

The first part of the year was pure bliss. My daughter was married in March. I danced on clouds, breathing thin air, as lightheaded as a circus balloon. Unfortunately, when the clouds began to dissipate, I didn’t have the legs to provide a solid landing.

Heartbreak came in waves.

There was the car wreck that ended a young life, a member of our church youth group, a friend of our daughter, the child of my own friends.

There is the tragedy and confusion that descended on other dear friends as harmful influences imbedded its toxic fangs in their son.

The brother of a young girl I’d mentored at church died in a motorcycle accident.

More recently, we received news that my sister’s latest cancer treatment has failed, dragging her back to the cruelty of chemotherapy as the tumors on her liver spread.

With all of that hanging over me, I wasn’t prepared for the sucker punch, delivered beneath my appendix scar, that sparked a series of confusing events that are too personal and painful to detail here. It sent me spiraling into the depths of uncertainty and depression. For days, I walked around in an Alaska winter, with moments of light covered by immense darkness.

I’m doing my best to focus on that light.

It would be foolish of me to sit in a dark corner and sulk. That would mean ignoring all of the bright, beautiful blessings that rained down upon me in 2016. It would mean turning my back on a God who is always there, holding a lantern to guide me away from gloom and misery. It would mean licking my wounds while friends and family who have faced far greater challenges over the past year stand strong. For my sister Nancy, 2016 was the pitbull that grabbed her in its powerful jaws and shook her like a stuffed toy. The cancer marches through her body, leaving painful footprints. The treatments leave her weak and disappointed. And yet, she finds the strength to smile. The harder cancer works to extinguish her light, the more Nancy shines.

How can I let my stupid little pitiful problems drag me down when I see perseverance like that?

Nothing grows well in darkness except anger and resentment. With the help of God’s light, I can see my way toward forgiveness. If I can’t heal and forgive, then I can’t expect others to forgive me for my indiscretions.

If I can’t move on from my own petty problems, I can’t be there for the people who need my love and support through their more significant struggles.

Rather than looking upon the negatives of 2016, perhaps I should be thankful for the opportunities to love, comfort, forgive, to mature and grow closer to a God who dearly wants me strong and happy.

2016, you are forgiven.

In fact, thank you. Thank you for shining a bright light on the many blessings that trump any of my difficulties, for encouraging me to tend to the needs of others, and for forcing me to realize God must come first, ahead of my own selfish desires. I can’t thank you for the difficulties you imposed on my friends and family, for they continue to struggle. But I can thank you for opening my eyes to the absolute need to focus on them, not me.

The calendar isn’t all that needs to change.

I need to change, too.

 

The Don of a new day

screenshot-2016-11-10-at-6-00-39-pmTen times, I’ve entered a voting booth with the hopes of sending the candidate of my choice to the White House. More often than not, the candidate I picked was not elected. The following day, the sun arrived in the east. My family still loved me. The earth failed to crack open and swallow our nation whole.

Life goes on.

Our nation has survived a political season like none I’ve ever seen. I say we’ve survived, and yet there are some people who behave as if Thomas Jefferson just ran over their puppy. Following a presidential race that resembled a reality show, I suppose it should come as no surprise that:

College students are walking out of class in protest, too distraught and disillusioned to focus on their studies.

Protesters have taken to the streets in anger, as if Donald Trump might find out and decide he doesn’t want to be president after all.

High school students have been the targets of threats and insults because, well, because the bullies feel the election results give them the right to do so.

I’m 57-years-old. I’ve never seen anything like it.

I understand why a certain portion of our voting population didn’t want Donald Trump to be president. President-elect Trump has a way of stirring emotions like no one I’ve ever witnessed. Those who like him really, really like him. Those who find him distasteful really, really don’t like him. Sometimes, he’s like the sandspur that catches you right on your bare arch. (For those of you who don’t know what a sandspur is, I grew up in Florida where they are abundant. They’re painful little suckers, in the same category as the mosquito and horsefly.) There are Americans who find his frank talk endearing. There are others who want to remove his oddly colored hairpiece and jam it down his throat.

What? That’s not a hairpiece?

Whatever your opinion of Donald Trump the candidate, let’s face it. That ship (or in Trump’s case, that yacht), has sailed. He won. From this day forward, we should base our views of Trump on his actions as president.

And he hasn’t served a single day yet.

Jimmy Carter, man of peace, after months of blasting Trump for his “lack of moral and ethical principals,” said our nation’s 45th president needs America’s “support and prayers as he prepares to take office.”

Hillary Clinton, who Trump called “Corrupt Hillary” during the campaign, offered to work with Trump.

“Donald Trump is going to be our president,” she said during her concession speech. “We owe him an open mind and a chance to lead.”

And listen to this.

“I hope that he will be a successful president for all Americans.”

Remember when Barack Obama was elected president back in 2008, and the conservative pundits who wanted him to fail? I remember it. I remember it distinctly. I also remember thinking that no matter your political slant, you should never wish for our country’s leader to fail. Failure inside the White House risks the collapse of the entire country.

I pray that Donald Trump, as I pray that anyone who is elected to the presidency, will remember that he was elected to serve this country. I pray that he will serve us honorably, and that he will succeed in hearing our voices and doing what’s best for all of America.

Trump himself said, “It’s time for us to come together as one united people.”

Put aside your resentment. Forget that you didn’t get your way. Hillary Clinton managed to do it. Don’t wish ill upon this man. He’s our country’s leader. He needs us. He works for us. If he doesn’t listen, he’ll have to answer to us in four years.

I have faith. Remember, Donald Trump belittled my profession. He chided reporters who dared challenge his words and his views, often with great vitriol.  He’s threatened to make it easier to sue members of the fourth estate. I have faith in America. I have faith in our system, in our Constitution, and in the checks and balances that have survived more than 200 years.

Most of all, I have faith in God, who teaches us love, patience, tolerance, and acceptance of all people. I have faith in Jesus, who came to this earth to teach us to look beyond political leaders, to a power much, much higher.

Ultimately, God is still in charge.

As I write this, there is a Bald Eagle stuck in a storm drain in Orlando, Florida. As rescuers work to save him, another Bald Eagle is there, protecting his feathered brother.

The emblems of America.

Never leaving one another.

Protecting one another.

This is America. We’re different. We disagree.

But we stay together.

Roadside assistance

heard county deputyOn a rural Georgia road, covered by nightfall, comes a powerful beam of light that cuts through the darkness of hatred and misunderstanding.

A Heard County Sheriff’s Deputy was doing his job when he observed a young man ignoring a stop sign. In law enforcement, there’s no such thing as routine. An innocuous traffic violation performed by the wrong person, at the wrong time, in the wrong place, can cause a situation to go south in a real hurry. The deputy in this situation didn’t know if the driver he stopped was an innocent teenager who wasn’t paying attention, or an escaped convict with a taste for blood. The deputy stepped forward with his hand on his service pistol, completely unaware that he was moving toward an encounter that just might change his life forever.

Consider, for a moment, the current state of affairs for anyone wearing a badge. Officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge are dead because of the anger over shootings that had nothing to do with them. Some people, not all, but some have indicted an entire profession because of the actions of a few. It’s not fair. It’s like destroying an entire orchard because of the worms found in two apples. It is but another example of hatred run amok. Nothing good comes of hate.

That Heard County Deputy had no way of knowing if he would be the next target.

Then it happened. Another car arrived. Two people got out and walked toward the deputy. He tensed.

“I immediately start running situations through my head, and praying for the best,” the deputy wrote on his Facebook page. “I’m nervous, and praying to God that nothing is going to happen.”

One of the people approaching the deputy identified himself of the father the young man the deputy had stopped. Papa Bear had arrived to protect Baby Bear, always a potentially volatile situation.

“That’s my boy,” he told the deputy. “I just want to make sure everything’s okay.”

The deputy calmly informed the man that his son was going to get a warning for running the stop sign. What happened next came straight from all that is pure and good.

“God bless you,” the man told the deputy. “I just appreciate everything you do.”

The man went on to tell the deputy that he was on his way to the hospital to visit his father, who had just suffered a stroke. Then he reached for the deputy’s hand.

“Do you have a minute? I’d just like to say a word of prayer.”

Right there, on the side of that dark Heard County road, a man whose father had just suffered a stroke stopped to offer compassion to a complete stranger, to a deputy who’d just interrupted his trip to visit a loved one.

“Lord, keep this man and his fellow officers safe as they’re out here trying to keep us safe,” the man prayed, all of it captured on the deputy’s dashboard camera.

The prayer ended with a hug.

“As he prayed for me and my brothers in blue, my eyes filled with tears,” the deputy wrote. “This man, with all he had going on, stopped to pray for me. As I walked away, I was in total shock.”

Think of that. The deputy was in shock that someone would pause to express appreciation for his commitment to protecting others.

Every day, hundreds of thousands of law enforcement officers leave their homes for a day’s work, unsure if they’ll make it back to their families. They’re sassed, disrespected, and cussed for doing their job. They’re not perfect. None of us are. There are a few who have allowed the power of the badge go to their heads, resulting in horrible decisions. But the overwhelming majority of officers I’ve known are good people with a genuine heart for protecting the rest of us. Still, it’s a job where they’re more likely to hear a threat than a thank you.

This doesn’t have to be about law enforcement officers. It doesn’t necessarily have to be about prayer. It’s about bringing peace to a troubled world. It’s about lifting your neighbor when they’re down.

Imagine you work for a business that’s struggling. You’ve said goodbye to co-workers forced out by layoffs. You have no idea if the next pink slip is bound for your in-box. You’re on a sales call, stressed over the added pressure, when a customer, a total stranger, offers you comfort and understanding. It might not erase all of your woes, but the pressure might not seem as overwhelming. Your outlook might not appear quite so dark.

Despite all of the marches, the protests, the pain, and the doubt, that officer in Heard County now knows at least one man cares.

On a rural road covered by darkness, there is light.