I Would Not Wish This On My Worst Enemy

Those were the first words his mom said to me as I hugged her not knowing how to ease her pain.

I stood out in the bitter cold for 45 minutes. The line just to get inside the funeral home snaked its way around the building even now in the 4th hour of the visitation. The line never got shorter until the doors closed 5 hours later. Hundreds and hundreds of people who loved him, loved his family came to say they were sorry and to ask “Why?”.

Scottie was 17. Smart, athletic, funny. Dozens of good friends, dated regularly. Two older brothers who were friends as well as siblings. Two loving and attentive parents. Lots of close family. Seemed to be happy.

And then came Monday night. He seemed tired and went to bed early. His parents went to bed a little later. At 4:30 the police were at their door telling them that their son was dead.

The details are sketchy. At some point he drove from his house, parked the car on an overpass above an expressway and left the car with the motor running. Somewhere around one he was lying on the expressway when he was hit by a car. The assumption is that this kid, who was seemingly happy and loved life, and according to his father “afraid of roller coasters”, jumped off the height of the overpass with the intent to die. The injuries sustained from being hit by the car make it impossible to know for sure that he jumped. Questions of why was the car motor left running and did he jump or go down to the highway by foot would be interesting mystery clues if this were a made for TV movie. Instead it is all too real life.

The bigger and much, much harder to answer question is  WHY. No note. No signs of depression or despair. Had been talking to parents and friends about making various plans for the future. Why?

The sad thing is that we will probably never know. Actually the tragically sad thing is that Scottie is dead. Not knowing why just adds to the pain. Could something have been done? Should someone have noticed something more? We will never know. What I do know that for the past two days I have been witnessing the toll of this tragedy on his parents, brothers, grandfather and uncle. All have been a part of my life for a long time, 3 of them for most of my life. Let me share some moments from the visitation day on Friday and the funeral service on Saturday.

Just one word can describe Friday. People. Hundreds of people. They just kept coming and coming. They waited in line in the cold for an hour and then inside for another hour until you finally got to the family and the casket. The visitation was scheduled from 3-9 but lasted until 11 because people just kept coming.

Maybe there are three more words, love, sorrow and hugs. Love could be seen on the numerous poster boards with pictures remembering and celebrating Scott’s life. In so many of the picture he had that great big smile that he was so well-known for just beaming. Only one of the poster boards had been prepared by the family. The others were spontaneous gestures by friends and extended family, all who loved this kid.Because the love was so strong the sorrow went so deep. So deep for so many people. All of whom were asking why.As Scott’s grandfather said, this is the worst day of my life.

The hugs. When there are no words to be said, nothing that can provide any comfort, there are hugs. There was more hugging done in these two days than I can ever remember being a part of. A hug, a squeeze, a rub on the shoulder provided some measure of comfort to all of us who mourned.

Saturday was the church service and the cemetery. What I noticed the most about the church service was when a family member  would be heart-broken and sobbing another would be strong for the moment and provide loving support. Then sometime later, often moments later, the strong would become the weak and someone else would provide comfort and strength. During one of those moments Scott’s father broke down and his eldest on just put his arm around his dad as if to say yes, this is horror but I am here by your side and I will be strong for you now.

Scott’s uncle is one of my oldest and closest friends. His grandfather and my mother lived together for almost thirty years until her death. My goal was to be strong for them. Instead as I approached them during the service I broke down and sobbed. Loudly. Not the comfort I had been planning to provide but we all understood.

The deacon led a beautiful service and many good memories of Scot were shared. His eldest brother delivered a powerful speech. He made the point that as the youngest of three boys Scott wanted to grow up fast. He always wanted what his brothers had, wanted to do what they did and hang around with their friends. We were told that to honor Scott’s life we should each live our life as we want it to be lived. No compromises and no excuses. That is what a grown up does.

After the cemetery there was a lunch. At least 200 people came. It was the Catholic version of a Shiva. People and food together help the family to momentarily ease the pain and to recognize that while it will forever be different, life will go on. I was glad to hear the beginning of some normalcy in the conversation. Somethings other than more words about a life ended and how sad it all is. There was even a discussion of the best pizza in town. Why do I find that to be worth mentioning? Because I know from experience that the sorrow ebbs and flows and will be strong for quite some time and that talk of pizza takes nothing away from the respect that Scott’s memory deserves but it does mean there is life for others after his death.

After the lunch my wife and I could do nothing more than collapse at home. I have no idea how the family could physically and emotionally endure the past few days. I was exhausted and my body hurt as if I had taken a beating.

The last point I want to share takes some set up. Through my mother and their father our families became family. At several gatherings over the past couple of years, Scott’s dad had challenged my wife, an avid tennis player, to a game of doubles, he and Scott versus my wife and son.

One of the last things Scott’s dad said to my wife yesterday was;

“I guess we will never have that doubles match”.

How You Know You Are Having A Bad Day

Clue Number One.

Going through security at the airport to start a long trek home.  The 20 something TSA agent looks at my drivers license, then at me, back to my DL and ba ck at me. “You look much happier in the picture.”

I look worse at this minute than my DRIVERS LICENSE PICTURE. Wow.

No additional clues needed.

This wasn’t even the day I sat on a plane for 4 hours with several crying babies. The day started well enough, though damn early (4:45 my local time). Breakfast schmoozing with client, check. Good first meeting of the day. Check. Get ass kicked by a high-powered, all-knowing executive type in a meeting that I was not originally supposed to be at. Check.

Ok, that is when I started losing that keen DL smile. On to a 3 hour call that generally went well until someone tells me that something I know to be false to be true. He is in a power position. Telling him that he is wrong would not have helped. Ass kicking #2. Check.

Head for airport security…you know the rest.

Am I An Honest Man?

I have a choice to make.   I have known for days this choice  might come. The anticipation got me started wondering if I am on Honest Man. I then began to ponder what was the standard for being an Honest Man? Now I must choose . While my choice will not shatter the earth, it may shake my self-image.

What makes an honest man?  It is not that honesty is difficult to define. In my opinion honesty is more black and white than many other character traits.  dictionary .com got it right:

truthfulness, sincerity, or frankness
freedom from deceit or fraud
Saying what you sincerely believe to be true and not deceiving or committing fraud. Clear-cut, easy to understand…to a point. There are shades of grey.   To be an Honest Man must one always needs to be honest?  For if not always where do you dear the line. More than half the time feels inadequate. Is it even in the percentage of time? What about the magnitude of the lie or fraud? (BTW for the sake of this discourse I am setting aside those untruths we say to purely avoid hurting another’s feelings or to maintain marital bliss such as responding to “Do these clothes make me look fat?” or ” Am I funny?”)
If magnitude is measured in dollars or impact on another person”s life, again the standard becomes difficult to define.  If the fraud is small can one still qualify as an Honest Man? For example, if one chooses to pocket the few dollars a cashier mistakenly gives, is that dishonest?  Certainly it is the employee’s responsibility to do their job. You did not initiate the deceit you just chose not to correct it.  In fact you are doing a public service are you not? OK, not.
Anyways, honesty comes easy when the stakes are small.   The psychic reward for being honest often is often greater than the few dollars of gain. Does one need a large test to really know the extent of their honesty?  How far does one have to go to correct a mistake in order to be considered honest to the world or, more importantly in the court of self-introspection?

My dilemma, the choice, that began the quest to understand Honesty falls  into this latest category though the circumstance is a bit more complicated. Let me come back to the specifics. First let’s address the importance of  honesty about honesty at this moment in time.

First, this is personal. We all define ourselves.  I have never been Mr. Excitement, the Life of the Party, the Risk Taker, the Athlete.  I have always perceived myself and tried to live up to The Mensch, the person who does the right thing. Honesty is a core aspect of menschness. Am I honest all of the time? No. I try to be but am occasionally weak when  lack of honesty provides me with some advantage.  Yet I believe that I am honest the vast majority of the time. I definitely even desperately want people to know that they can trust me.  They might not agree with me but know I will be sincerely truthful.
Second,  like many politicians, I am concerned about the morality and values of people and the direction in which they are  headed.  ( I am putting aside from the conversation today the honesty of politicians. That would require an entire book’s worth of writing and more satire than I have time for. Between Jon Stewart and Stephen  Colbert one can find all one needs on that topic.) There are too many media reports of lies and deceit and the media only report on the smallest fraction of a percent of what goes on in the world. I am very concerned that people growing up in these times of high technology especially in terms of interpersonal communications.  The reduction in face to face and voice to voice communications I believe desensitizes us to the fact that what we do and say impacts real people.  Without strong  People to People connections can be  dishonest to a thing. The value of  honesty already falls further.. I am not some Luddite raging against technology I am just pointing out another factor reducing our tendency toward honesty.
I am sure  I do not have the big picture answers to what makes an Honest Man or how to make more of us Honest People. I do know that I have a dilemma.
Last month I bought an expensive camera lens that came with a $100 rebate. Knowing that I tend to forget to submit these on time i filled out the form immediately. In order to minimize fraud the lens company requires that you cut out a part of the box containing the serial number of the lens. There is only one of these. Otherwise, in theory, a dishonest person could send in multiple rebate requests.
I packed everything in an envelope but since I had no stamps the envelope sat in a jacket pocket — until one day when I was rushing to get out of a parking lot before the rates changed (it would have cost an extra $10) the envelope fell from my pocket. I discovered this much later. ( I will save for another post  the mixed emotions and how I beat my self up for hours. That has to do with other aspects of my twisted personality and nothing to do with being honest.)
The next day I called the lens company and explained my tale of woe to a very sympathetic employee. I went out of my way to explain that I understood the reason they require physical evidence of the purchase. That I was not looking to collect an an extra rebate just the one I had counted on when making the purchase. She had me scan and send the remaining documentation to her and said that she would do her best to get the rebate paid. She was true to her word and in a couple of weeks I had my check. At the time of our call we joked that maybe this envelope would be found (it was lost in downtown Chicago) and that the finder would even put a stamp on the envelope and mail it. Neither of us thought that this was a likely ending to the story.
Yet come New Years Eve Day, I received a letter from a man living in a small town in Wisconsin. He found and mailed my rebate on his vacation weekend in the Big City. I was floored. What a nice thing to do for a stranger.  I thought no more about it assuming that the lens company would notice the duplication and ignore the second rebate request.
Then in our electronically connected world I received an email from the company saying that my rebate has been processed and is in the mail. This email was almost identical to the one I had received 10 days before, shortly before my check had arrived. I said almost identical. The processing number was different and so I knew  a second check was on its way.
I had been mulling over this issue of honesty ever since it became a theoretical possibility. The email made it a high probability and the envelope I hold in my hand, presumably with a check inside, is the reality. This is not some random act of a mistake by some big faceless corporation. I had stated to a real person that I had no intention of defrauding them. She took me at my word. If she had not I would have been angry and frustrated. I was happy with getting what I deserved. Now I have more –and I don’t deserve it.  The devil on my left shoulder is saying that it will be more hassle than it is worth to return the check. After all, $100 will mean more to me than to some big corporation who should have had the systems in place so that this would not happen. Shame on them. I do not think that I need to tell you what the angel on my other shoulder is saying. Actually she is not saying a word knowing the greater impact this will have on me than a lecture about goodness would.
As I stated earlier what I eventually do will not be earth shattering. I am just not sure of the consequences to my little portion of it. If Diogenes walked through my house would he find what he was looking for?

Minor Characters

You know how sometimes in a play or movie there are these characters with minor roles that greatly enhance the show?

On a recent business trip to NY I encountered three people who struck me in an odd way.  I was overcome with this sense that in the movie of my life, or more appropriately the movie that is my life, in a two-day period I happened upon three people who would have made the final credits though towards the bottom of the list.  More than  extras but less than leading or supporting roles.  They all had small speaking parts in scenes that helped the audience, if there had been one, understand me as a person and added more than mere plot.  Let me present them in order of appearance.

The first is “Elevator Man”. As the scene opens I am in my hotel room dressing for dinner with clients at a nice restaurants. Though I am a blue jeans and T Shirt kind of guy I need to be in a suit for this event.  As I wait for the elevator i lament that I need to be dressed in more than business casual attire.  As the elevator door opens I smile and shake my head. The only other passenger is a guy in his 50s (I am guessing) medium height, thinning dark hair, with the air of an executive but the clothes a casual m. He was in a V neck sweatshirt with a deep V and no shirt underneath, a running jacket and blue jeans  (OK the jeans were designer and probably cost more than several pairs of my Levis). I had to say something. “That is how I wish I was dressed.” He glanced over at me and said, “I was dressed like you all day. You must still be on the job. ”  “Yeah. Business dinner.” As the elevator reached the lobby we exchanged, have a good nights and he headed to the door. I met my client in the lobby. The screen goes dark.

Next meet, Young Italian Lawyer.   In order to get into the place we wanted to have dinner that night we needed clout. Clout came in the form of the law firm that hosted my client’s meeting those two days. Three of us walked out of our hotel and headed to the law offices in order to meet Joseph, the young lawyer who was low enough on the totem pole that he got assigned to walk the clients to the restaurant , flash the firm’s special membership card and then leave. We joked that this would be the easiest chargeable hour he had in a long time.

To our pleasant surprise “Joe”, not Joseph, was personable and interesting. He shared stories of how his firm was representing NBA players in the lockout and that in his prior job he had assisted in negotiating the contract of some famous NY Jets player. He was tall, slender, good-looking and dressed like a fashionable young lawyer. He was not the least bit down at having this menial late night task. We had a modestly long walk together and he both entertained and listened.  We offered to at least share a drink if not dinner but he politely excused himself.  His job was done and he would not intrude.  The restaurant was fun, the food good and the wine excellent. Yet Joe was the hit of the night.

On the plane ride home the odds rolled in my favor. Not only did i get on an earlier flight but so did my client and by the longest of odds we found ourselves seated next to each other on the plane. At this point I need to mention that she is one of my favorite clients. Both good at what she does and fun to be with. We were in the window and center seats which left the aisle seat to be filled. Let me introduce Aisle Guy.

This client and I regularly joke back and forth. Aisle guy jumped right in as if we had known him for years. If this had been a serious private conversation that might have been annoying and a bit rude. I suspect Aisle Guy only took the initiative because the conversation was light and barbs were being tossed right and left.  By the end of the flight we knew that he was in sales, the company he worked for, what part of NY he lived in and lots about his twin girls. Pictures were shared.

Over the years i have interacted with hundreds if not thousands of these minor characters. I am not sure why these three brought this theme to my mind. All I can say is that they made the movie better.

Bad Service In Three Languages

We wanted desperately to get out-of-town for the Thanksgiving weekend. Warm weather preferred but we ended up in Montreal. That was OK. Billed as the most European city in North America. Neither of us had been there in ages and we were open to the magic of the city.

More on the total trip later. For now let us focus one experience that could have been just what we wanted but instead left a bad taste in our mouths.

On our first day we arrived late afternoon which left us just enough time to explore Old Montreal for a while and then have dinner. Our spirits were high going to dinner. We were together away from the stresses of normal life. The Notre-Dame Basilica was magnificent and other part s of old Montreal held promise.

Being people who enjoy joints as well as fine dining we headed off to nearby Chinatown to a restaurant that had good on-line reviews. A full place with a modest wait further raised expectation. Choosing from the usual too long Chinese menu took time but our selections were made. The waiter spoke broken English but had been polite and helpful in the selection. All good.

And then the food came. My Szechuan seafood came first and was tasty but then came my wife’s “sizzling” beef. It was not what she expected given the menu’s description, it looked bad and after one bite she knew it was not to her liking.  A different waiter had brought our food. We called him over and explained the situation. He looked as if he had never had a customer tell him a dish was bad. He he had a puzzled look and did not seem to know what to do. He finally said that he would go and speak to his manager.

At this point there were only two courses of action in my mind. The one I would have expected was that they would apologize and ask what else they could bring instead. Yet this was a small place and I was willing to accept that we would pay for a choice we made but order something else. We soon found out that there was a third alternative.

The waiter came back from peaking to his manager and whisked away the food saying nary a word. That was the last contact we had with him that evening. We had been transformed from happy tourists to unhappy invisible lepers. We waited several minutes while sharing my meal and the side dish we had ordered. We waited several minutes expecting the waiter to bring back a menu and let us select a second entree. Instead he entered and left the room several times without making eye contact. I can be overly patient. this was one of those times.

Finally I walked up to the manager and explained that we had been ignored and wanted to order. His first words were that there was nothing wrong with how the dish had been prepared. He then handed me a menu. Several more minutes went by with no waiter approaching our table or even willing to acknowledge our presence.

I became incensed but at that point my wife was resigned. We asked for the bill. They did not charge us for the meal — only fitting since they did not provide the option of keeping the food. The manager came by to ask us how our second entree was. I informed him that we had none and that we had never been approached by a waiter. He was nonplussed and unapologetic. 

This experience put a serious damper on the day even  though it was them and not us at fault.

Maybe if we had tried communicating in the French of Montreal or in Mandarin instead of English. Nah. The service at this place would have sucked in any language.

Having People You Can Trust

Do you have a circle of people you trust?

Last Saturday my 8-year-old VW visited the dealership to have them fix a recall problem.  ( The specifics of the recall are not relevant to the story but know that my fear of spontaneous combustion in the car has fallen dramatically.) After awhile the dealer guy who checked me in stopped by to let me know that they found two additional things to repair. $30 for replacing rear brake lights and $700 for repairing something called CV boots. I had them replace the bulbs even though I suspected that if they charged $30 it could be done for $10 but why risk a rear end collision over 20 bucks. The dealer guy was stunned that I would not get the other repair done and iterated how serious of a problem this was. I politely declined.

The mechanic I now use, and trust, looked the car over on Tuesday and said that yes, one but not both CV boots needed repair and it would cost $250. $250 vs. $700!!! What does that say about the dealer.

That got me thinking about who I trust and how that trust came to be… and whether people trust me?

My musings quickly went beyond people who provide a service even though this category of people is vast and they can play important roles in our physical and financial well-being. I refer to doctors, contractors, financial investors, care givers, teachers, counselors, etc. While not dismissing their importance, I view the road to trust as fairly straightforward with this this group. In the old days you would get a referral from someone you know. Now the internet provides dozens of forums for sharing our thoughts and experiences with service providers. Finding something on a website even carries more weight. If it is in “print” it must be true. We assume trust and then only when the evidence proves otherwise do we loose faith and start the process over.

So who do I trust and why?

I trust my friends, my close friends. As I think about it I am having trouble distinguishing between trust and true friendship.  I truly believe that if I really needed something my friends would step up. I am friendly with quite a few people but the number of people I count as close friends is few. With me, there is this deep cavern between someone I know and a friend. But once that cavern has been bridged, I “mate” for life. In fact once a friend, even if you disappoint me now and again I still believe in you.

Some bonds of friendship grew up over years. I accumulated friends at all of the major stages of my life. Yet in some instances the bond came fast. Some shared experience, feeling, moment we both hold dear. All of these people carry me through the tough times and lift me higher during the best of times. I am a better man because of who they are.

I hope people trust me. I know that I have had moments when I have let people down and moments when I stepped up big. I hope the people I think of as friends think of me that way.

This stream of consciousness has taken me  from thoughts of general public trust to feelings about people I care for. What a strange journey.

Ridin’ In The Rain

This morning’s ride never felt right. Tired, got in too late the night before. Dead legs, maybe from a big swim the day before. Mentally just not into it.

And the clouds.

Looking out the window when I awoke, it was dark. The forecast was for intermittent showers. But I either rode this morning or never. Too much to do later in the day. So I kept going. Filled the water bottle. Put on the bike clothes. Checked the tires.

Off  I went.

There was this constant feeling of dread. I looked up to the heavens ever few minutes. The sky was dark…but was it getting lighter to the west? The sun would pop through the clouds every once in a while and yet it was mostly dark. Inside and out.

The feeling of dread continued. My legs were not working as they should. I was struggling and I had not even gone 5 miles (on my way to 50 was the plan). A pack of bikers passed by. I entertained myself trying to keep up but then the hill came and they were gone.

I knew I had work and house stuff to do and if I rode 50 I would be too tired.  That weighed on my mind. So even as I lurched forward my mind and body conspired against me. And then there were those clouds. I picked a spot to turn around that was way too soon. I would go out later and add miles if I felt better I promised myself.

Within minutes of heading home the rain came. Heavy at first. Big drops. Then a steady downpour. I was 10 miles from home. That would have been 40 minutes in dry conditions but the rain makes me drop to casual ride speeds. I had learned my lesson early about speed and turns and thin tires at 100 psi. that day just left me with scraped legs and a bruised ego. I will not risk being that lucky a second time.

For a short time ridin’ in the rain had a romantic feel. The storm was not strong enough to invoke a sense of adventure. But this was different from my usual ride. The large drops felt cool on my skin and I figured what the f…

That romantic feeling faded fast. soon I was just wet and cold. My feet felt as if I was standing in puddles and the rain drove the sweat into my eyes. That burned. No, not in danger but this was no longer fun.

It took an hour but I was home. Ripped off my wet stuff wrapped a towel around me and made breakfast. Finally the day ahead seemed brighter. Then the scream. Hundreds of ant in the food pantry. That is another story.