Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Chariots of Fire

Last night I watched Chariots of Fire, a 1981 British film. It tells the fact-based story of two Cambridge athletes in the 1924 Olympics: Eric Liddell, a devout Scottish Christian who runs for the glory of God, and Harold Abrahams, an English Jew who runs to overcome prejudice and for the glory of winning. Contrasting the spiritual motives of one man versus the more selfish goals of the other, the film shows that despite the different reasons they run, both men are prepared to make great personal sacrifices to be the very best at what they do. Their fierce, personal competition ends up uniting them in a great victory in the 1924 Olympics against a highly favored American team.

What makes a person so single-minded that they can focus intently on a goal and shut everything out of his or her life that does not contribute to the achievement of that goal? It's common to hear the advice: You can do anything you put your mind to, but it takes a very strong person to actually want something so badly that they are prepared to do what it takes to get it. How we deal with the obstacles that stand between us and what we want to accomplish says a lot about our character and endurance. When we hear an inspirational story like Chariots of Fire, we admire these men who overcame adversity and triumphed.

When you think about it, we are surrounded by heroic people who struggle every day to get by. We may not think about their deeds as heroic, but when you consider the harsh hands they have been dealt, you must acknowledge the great courage they show just getting out of bed. Many have physical or mental problems that should limit what they can do, but by the sheer force of their wills, they rise above what is "normal" and lead rich, full lives. They refuse to accept that they are in any way limited, and look for ways to compensate. Someone sent me an e-mail recently with some beautiful paintings attached. At the end of the e-mail I learned that the artist was a quadriplegic who painted with the brush between his teeth.

Parents with special needs children have certainly been dealt harsh hands and yet so many of them find wellsprings of strength that help them learn as much as they can about their child's condition, often as much as many non-specialist doctors. They network with each other and learn things about coping that even doctors can't tell them. They advocate fiercely for their children, sometimes boldly questioning a doctor's diagnosis, or advice that seems wrong to them, and often time proves them right. These heroes, outside their circle of family and friends, get no special recognition for their efforts, no gold medals, no movies made about them, but they are perhaps more deserving of our admiration. They fight, not for fame or fortune, but for the best life their child can have.

What if Liddell and Abrahams had not won those races in the 1924 Olympics, would we consider them failures? No, it is not so much the victory that defines success but the striving. When we put everything we have into an endeavor and hold nothing back, we have already won, no matter the outcome. At some point in Chariots of Fire, Abrahams, who is obsessed with winning, tells his girlfriend: If I can't win, I won't run! Her wise reply: If you don't run, you can't win.


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Thursday, September 23, 2010

The Dallas School Book Depository

If ever there was a building that no one in the world would have heard of except the people who worked there, it was the Dallas School Book Depository. That all changed on November 22, 1963 when Lee Harvey Oswald aimed a Mannlicher-Carcano rifle at the head of President John F. Kennedy, and burned the name of that building into our memories and the pages of history. How many times during the weeks that followed JFK's assassination did we hear the words "Dallas School Book Depository" mentioned in the news?

In 1963 the building, located in Dealey Plaza, was in use as a seven-story warehouse for the storage of school textbooks. On that fateful day in November, Oswald, a 24-year-old former U.S. Marine who was working as a holiday-rush temporary employee at the building, fired rifle shots from the sixth floor of the Depository into the motorcade of John F. Kennedy. Anyone who lived through that tragedy and its aftermath will never forget the image of First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy cradling the head of her mortally wounded husband in her lap as pandemonium erupted around her. The motorcade raced to Parkland Memorial Hospital, but sadly it was too late for Kennedy.

Still reeling from news footage of the shooting, Americans were jolted again two days later when Oswald was shot and killed on camera by a shadowy mobster-wanna be named Jack Ruby while being escorted to a car for transfer from Dallas Police Headquarters to the Dallas County Jail. The conclusion of many in law enforcement at the time, including the FBI, and the Presidentially-appointed Warren Commission, was that Oswald acted alone. The second major investigation by the U S Government of the events of 11/22/63 in Dallas, the House Select Committee on Assassinations, concluded that there was a high degree of probability of conspiracy in the murder of the 35th President of the United States.

The entire scenario, had it not actually transpired, would probably have been rejected as not believable had it been presented as a screen play. A lone, disaffected sniper who had failed miserably at everything else in his life, taking out the President of the United States in broad daylight under the noses of the police and the Secret Service was too implausible to ponder. I feel the same way about the destruction of the twin towers at the World Trade Center by a bunch of bumbling terrorists who confounded our "world-class" intelligence and anti-terrorist could it happen?

Those of us who were around in 1963 will always remember where we were on that sad day. I was at a job interview chatting amiably with some H.R. guy when his secretary walked in. He was annoyed at the interruption, but our jaws dropped when she blurted out that the President had been shot. Naturally we broke off the interview, and I don't recall if I got the job. I do remember going home and being glued to the TV set for the next couple of days watching this unlikely drama unfold. Later, during the funeral, we were presented with more images that would remain with us forever...the riderless black horse following the hearse to symbolize our fallen leader, and the heartbreaking picture of his young widow and her children watching, little John-John saluting, as his father's casket passed by.

The Kennedys, like most politicians, would be proven by history to have feet of clay. Things were much different though in 1963. My eyes well up thinking about that day and the sense of loss we all felt over the death of a man who many believed was the hope of the free world.


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Friday, September 17, 2010

Ah Peez

Pizza is probably in my top three all time favorite foods. I can eat it any time, night or day, but it has to be good pizza. I'm not a pizza snob; I've enjoyed it at some of the most renown pizza joints in New York as well as the unheralded little storefront places that sell it by the slice. It is the ultimate comfort food for me, recalling the days when we sat in Sportsman's Cafe on Fulton street, first with my family, and later with my friends, enjoying their unique square, thin pizza prepared lovingly by my cousin, Pete Caruso. Sportsman's was an unassuming neighborhood bar that just happened to make incredible pizza.

Over the years I have found some great pizza places to indulge my passion. One is John's Pizzeria in Manhattan. They have several places, but the best is on on West 44th Street in an old converted church. The place is enormous, beautifully constructed, and a great stop for a pre-theater bite. Other great pizza places in New York include Lombardi's on Spring Street in Little Italy, Patsy's in East Harlem, DiFara's on Avenue J in Brooklyn, Totonno's in Coney Island, and maybe the best of them all, Grimaldi's at the foot of the Brooklyn Bridge in Brooklyn.

Last night, to celebrate my nephew's birthday, we went to Grimaldi's . Grimaldi's is a dump. They haven't put ten cents into the place for fifty years. You stand in long lines to get in. They sell no slices, only whole pizzas, and they accept just one form of None of the furniture matches. The peeling paint on the walls is covered with signed pictures of celebrities who have eaten there. There is only one, grimy, unisex bathroom. Parking is nearly impossible. Why would anyone go to such a place you ask? The pizza my friends, the pizza. Their pies are to die for, especially the white pie with no tomato sauce.

People come to Grimaldi's from all over the world because of the pizza, and nobody leaves disappointed. A couple of years ago some friends of my daughter Laura were in town visiting from Oregon. Carolyn and Mike wanted to visit an authentic New York pizzeria, so naturally we took them to Grimaldi's. After waiting in line we were seated at a crowded table by the owner, who looks like a benevolent Mafiosi. When it came time to order, Carolyn asked about getting some pineapple and ham on her pizza. Silence fell over the room. The waiter looked embarrassed and the owner strolled over with danger in his eyes.

We hurriedly explained to the owner that Carolyn and Mike were from Oregon and that's how they serve pizza there. From the look on his face, I might as well have said they put dog turds and fish eyes on their pie. I thought I heard him silently uncock the hammer of his Smith and Wesson as he nodded in understanding. What could anybody from Oregon know about pizza. Don Pepperoni immediately summoned his oily Italian charm and graciously explained to the bewildered couple that Grimaldi's wouldn't dream of putting pineapple on a pizza, and suggested some authentic alternatives instead.

I'm happy to say that Carolyn and Mike, a really nice couple, enjoyed the pizza immensely, not knowing how close they came to starting a shooting war. Italians are very touchy about their food. I'd bet my next Social Security check that somewhere in Southern Italy, someone has been murdered for putting too much oregano in the sauce.


LOOKING FOR A WORTHY CHARITY? TRY THESE FOLKS: Children's Craniofacial Association

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

The Geezers

My regular golf partner is away for 3 weeks vacation so I showed up at the golf course hoping to get teamed up with someone. This is usually not a problem since there are always groups short of a foursome. Sure enough, Sal, the starter, says he has a threesome I can join. He tells me that all are old geezers, but I don't complain since I just want to get out. I usually try to walk for the exercise when I play, but because most people seem to prefer riding in a cart, especially in the heat, I rented a cart. As I pulled up to the first tee, imagine my surprise when I see that all the geezers are walking and here I am riding like a girley-man. I felt even worse when they introduced themselves: Bob is 84, Skip is 85, and Freddy is 89.

One of the things I like about golf is that it's a highly social game. The walk between shots, and standing around on the tee waiting your turn to hit affords plenty of time for chit chat. I learn that all three geezers are ex-Marines who served in WWII. Bob saw action at Iwo Jima, and Chip and Fred were at the battle of Okinawa. Fred told me he remembers digging a foxhole on Okinawa as his buddies serenaded him on his 23rd birthday. None of these guys could hit the ball very far, but that didn't matter much. Since I had the cart and their eyesight was poor, I would help them find the balls they sprayed all over the place. Despite being in their eighties, the geezers were full of P&V and needled each other mercilessly.

If Fred mis-hit a ball and it only traveled 20 yards, Skip would ask him if his club got caught on his skirt. When Bob would leave a long putt 20 feet short of the hole, and he did this often, Freddie would ask him if his husband played too. And he said this after every weak putt Bob hit. All through the round, one or the other would pull a club from his bag and proudly tell me he paid only $19 for it at a garage sale. Of course the rejoinder was not long in coming from the other geezers: "Why that's perfect, since you've only got a $19 swing." These were friends who had passed through a lot as young men and who were obviously enjoying each others' company very much. Skip had to leave us after 9 holes because he cares for an invalid wife. I'm sure his time on the golf course is a welcome break from a hard routine.

We were playing slowly since a man in front of us was teaching his son the game and not really moving along as per the rules of golf. Freddy, at 89 the most impatient of the three, maybe figuring he had less time left on earth than the others, had to be restrained from hitting into this group to speed them up. Fred also had the marvelous habit of uttering the following words after every shot: "Freddie, you got to HIT the fu**ing ball!" Every once in a while one of them would weigh in on things like politics. Clearly all three were conservatives and didn't like one bit the direction the country was taking. They resent that America gets pushed around by "these little piss-ant countries who all hate us until they need our help."

The geezers are a dying breed. As young men they saw indescribable horrors that no one should have to see. By the grace of God they came back in one piece and got to live out their lives in the country for which they and their comrades fought and died. Patriotism ran high in WWII with many young men lying about their ages to get into the war. They didn't complain, didn't protest or run to Canada, they just did what their country asked of them. I'll be honest with you, when Sal told me he was sending me out today with three eighty-somethings, I wasn't exactly thrilled. I felt very differently though after finding out who I had the singular honor to be playing with.


LOOKING FOR A WORTHY CHARITY? TRY THESE FOLKS: Children's Craniofacial Association

Monday, September 6, 2010

Take Me Out to the Ball Game

Well, after winning it all in 2009, the Staten Island Yankees ended their 2010 season last in their NY Penn League division with a dismal 34-40 record. On the other hand, the Brooklyn Cyclones, the Yankees' rivals across the water, finished first in the same division. We had an 8-game seat package this season that included all-you-can-eat (my four favorite words) food and drink at the concession stands. Anyhow, the Yankee team lacks a real starter who can hold the opposition to a couple of runs. They also come up short in the power department because the guys who can hit it out swing at way too many bad pitches.

The Brooklyn Cyclones on the other hand have some major league talent who should soon graduate from AA ball to the big leagues. They have at least four pitchers with winning percentages over .700 and ERAs under 3.5. They can hit too, with six starters batting .300 or better. I guess Karma is catching up with the Yankees who practically owned the Brooklyn Dodgers in post-season play during the '40s and '50s. The Cyclones are a Brooklyn team extracting their revenge for all those World Series losses.

Watching baseball in a minor league park is a genuine pleasure. The seats don't cost an arm and a leg, parking is easy, and the food concession prices don't kill you. The Staten Island Yankees' stadium is a beautiful place with no bad seats in the house. The view from home plate is spectacular, out over New York harbor with the Manhattan skyline in the background. The bright orange ferries scurry back and forth carrying people between Staten Island and Battery Park. After most night games, fans are treated to a rousing fireworks display. The Brooklyn Cyclones have a comparable field in Coney Island just a stone's throw from Nathan's Famous hot dog stand.

These minor league ball fields are also very kid friendly. There are between-inning fun events like sack races that the kids can join in. The players are highly accessible, unlike many of the pros who won't sign a kid's baseball unless it's for money. They constantly toss foul balls to kids carrying over sized gloves, and give those kids a memory for a lifetime. After the game the kids are invited down onto the field to run the bases. It gives me a warm feeling to see fathers and sons attending the games together. One of my fondest childhood memories is when my Dad took me to see DiMaggio and the Yankees in the old stadium.

Baseball is one of the things that defines America. It's changed very little from the day when Civil War general Abner Doubleday "invented" the game. Baseball's origins are uncertain, but Doubleday was the first to be officially recognized as its creator. A turn-of-the-century national baseball panel awarded him the honor on the strength of a letter from an old schoolmate claiming Abner devised the rules for the game in 1839 in Cooperstown, New York. No matter how it came to be, baseball is a part of most boys' childhoods. I smile as I watch the kids in the Staten Island Yankees' stadium scramble for foul balls in the seats. It seems like only yesterday that I was chasing down fly balls in Callahan and Kelly Park in Brooklyn. It was really a lifetime ago.


LOOKING FOR A WORTHY CHARITY? TRY THESE FOLKS: Children's Craniofacial Association