Ehrmann’s law

Ehrmann’s Law

 

Pulitzer Prize Winner MacKinlay Cantor once wrote that perhaps loving one’s children too much was a form of severe conceit.  That somehow by loving too much and living too vicariously through them,  that we forget that we are merely stewards preparing them for life.  In deriving too much happiness through them, we lose ourselves. 

 

I had the great privilege of witnessing Joe Ehrmann’s “sermon” at NC high school the other evening.  What I appreciated most about his life views was challenge to us as a community to consider how we are raising our young men and women.  More importantly, how do we prepare them to be a part of a community – whether it be on a sports team, middle school or our town?  As a parent, employer and coach, I was interested in how Mr Ehrmann defined success and what he did to reinforce it in his kids. 

 

Ehrmann talked about the pain and dysfunction visited on many children who fall outside of the fringes of a very distinct social order that starts at an early age and is reinforced by society – – a society that celebrates strength, athleticism, conquest and financial prowess in men, and beauty, belonging and popularity in women.  He related his own confusion as a young man with an absentee father.  He shared how he relentlessly pursued his athletic career, suffocating his own sense of self and having no interest in anyone other than the validation that came from winning.  As a 29 year old, All Pro NFL star, he lost his eighteen year old little brother to cancer, and had his epiphany.  Perhaps there was more to life than conquest, self satisfaction, conflict, and finally an unceremonious death where the crowd pays homage and then turns its backs on the cold hole in the ground and melts away.

 

He began a journey that he travels to this day – as a reverend, a coach, a father, a friend, a citizen of his community and a man.  He believes our society’s messaging to kids is all wrong.  He believes a parent and a coach’s responsibility is to validate each kid and to use that precious self esteem to teach them how to be the best that they can be.  A society defined by seeking to maximize the potential of every one of its citizens is a great and noble society indeed.  On his football team he asks his kids, “ what is the coach’s responsibility ? “  “ To love us” is his kids response.  “What’s your responsibility” asks the coaches.  “ To love each other “, is the team’s response.  He promotes compassion, community and self-less respect for everyone.  He has been the subject of an HBO special and an award winning book.

 

Ehrmann believes boys and girls need to be taught that it is ok to express emotion and love.  The penchant to hide one’s emotions, to dread embarrassment, to muscle through  pain and to always wear your “game face” has trained a generation of young men to separate their heads and hearts and to perhaps miss the very essence of what it means to be a real man, a complete human capable of love and to be loved openly and unconditionally. 

 

Ehrmann’s football teams sign contracts of conduct.  They have ten minute lessons on a variety of social and racial issues before practice to sensitize his community of players about their obligations to themselves, to young women ( these are teenaged boys after

all )  and to their broader community.  Sure, some parents feel like the coaches are overstepping their roles.  As Ehrmann said, “ the Mom’s get it right away.  It takes the dad’s a little longer , especially if they were brought up in the don’t cry, don’t back off, conquer everything “ culture of the great American Male. 

 

As I think about my own experiences as a baseball coach and the audience of young, earnest boys that I lead each season with my friend Michael Kramer, I understand the opportunity we have to shape these young men and reinforce key messages.  I realize when I coach and parent, I send my kids hundreds of little messages every day as I react to their actions and their accomplishments – – their grades, sports, achievements and popularity.  Am I reinforcing the right values?

 

I consider my own ten year old that lives for sports, idolizes ands seeks to please his coaches and thrives on the chaos and testosterone of his band of brothers. I think of my teenaged daughter and her vulnerability to the messages the media and our society sends her about the way she should dress, interact with boys, spend her money and time.  What will ultimately define her as a women ?  Is femininity defined by being cool or compassionate ?  Thin or thankful ?

 

Is the fact my eight year old son shows less interest in sports than he does in reading his Guinness Book of World Records ?  Nope.  It’s about me remembering what’s important and that if my kid finds a sense purpose beyond himself,  he stands a better chance to navigates life’s currents and shoals and find ports of serenity and peace.  It stands to reason that the opposite of self love is humility – not thinking less of yourself, just thinking of yourself less of the time. The true definition of love is to serve others unconditionally.  Ask Mother Teresa.

 

The fact is, as a coach, parent, friend, neighbor, boss, brother, sister, husband or wife, we can change so many lives.  As Clarence, the angel, says to Jimmy Stewart in It’s a Wonderful Life,  “ you see George, you really did have a wonderful life”.  It took Heaven to remind old George Bailey that his own self imposed sense of failure was defined by a misguided sense of what society judged him as and it had no real bearing on the fact that he was a great man, friend, father and civic leader.  George Bailey was a “rich” man – – wealthy in character, integrity, compassion and selflessness.  Joe Ehrmann reminded me that those are the attributes of a real man. 

 

I looked around that auditorium and I saw my friends, neighbors and fellow coaches.  I felt a sense of deep kinship to my community as I saw a village recognizing its need to come together to better raise every child.  That’s Ehrmann’s law

Mikey’s Song

imagesLet children walk with Nature, let them see the beautiful blendings and communions of death and life, their joyous inseparable unity, as taught in woods and meadows, plains and mountains and streams of our blessed star, and they will learn that death is stingless indeed, and as beautiful as life.  John Muir

It was a gorgeous Indian summer day when I heard the news that Mikey Czech had passed away.  It was the kind of day Mikey Czech would have loved – warm, breezy and perfect for New England Patriots football. Mikey was 11 years old and had been battling a brain tumor for months with extraordinary courage and resolve.  Over the course of the spring and summer of 2008, Mikey had become his generation’s Johnny Gunther Jr. demonstrating with every step, breath, treatment, and remarkable milestone, that the size of one’s body has no relation to the size of one’s heart.

I was 14 years old when I read the book, Death Be Not Proud, by John Gunther Sr, who chronicled the battles of his son Johnny Gunther Jr., as he valiantly fought a brain tumor.  The memory of this best selling novel written in 1949 remains with me to this day and changed my perspective on how each of us can achieve meaning in our fragile lives.  Not unlike John Gunther Sr, Mikey’s dad Steve Czech chose to chronicle his son’s battle via emails to family and friends giving and drawing strength from the community and the humanity that seemed to arise out of every “How’s Mikey” moment.

I followed young Master Czech’s story with keen interest and smiled as Mikey became a beloved accidental celebrity. A broad audience of concerned friends, family and acquaintances regularly gathered inspiration from his progress following treatments and were amazed at the extent of outreach, well wishes, support and prayers that he received from the farthest reaches of the world, from celebrities, athletes and dignitaries. Mikey became a surrogate son to many of us who followed his brave journey. At 11 years old, he was near the age of my own boys and it was only by one degree of separation that I realized it could be me sitting in a pediatric chemotherapy wing waiting for my child.

I watched Mikey fight hard.  He downplayed with his parents and sister Sydney the disabling effects of his chemotherapy and radiation.  He insisted on walking the several blocks to and from the hospital where he was receiving his treatments.  He dreamed of getting back to play baseball and football with his friends.  He threw out the first pitch, kicking off the 2008 New Canaan Baseball season, returning to play and graft back easily on to the huge oak of friends that shaded him and gave him strength.  I was so pleased to see kids in the community aware and rallying unconditionally in their support for Mikey –writing letters, sending cards, creating a massive banner and wearing Stay Strong wrist bands.

Throughout this long journey across a pitched black ocean, the Czech’s family ship kept taking on new crew, people wanting to lend a hand, offer a hug or just take a turn on the helm to let the family grab some shut-eye.  Mikey became every man’s child which is what every church, synagogue, temple or mosque strives to inculcate into its congregations – – that every child is our child, that no man is an island and that we are given the capacity and emotional bandwidth at our creation to care for everyone.

For sudden the worst turns the best to the brave, 
The black minute’s at end, 
And the elements’ rage, the friend-voices that rave, 
Shall dwindle, shall blend, 
Shall change, shall become first a peace out of pain, 
Then a light, then thy breast, 
O thou soul of my soul! I shall clasp thee again, 
And with God be the rest. 

Robert Browning

Mikey’s passing is devastating – – for his family, his friends and his community.  As a father of three children, neighbor and fellow member of the Czech’s community, I find myself unable to even comprehend the magnitude of the family’s loss.  I arise each day, first and foremost, a father who adores, loves, shapes and mends his children.  I have come to believe the true definition of joy is watching someone you love obtain happiness and that despair is the inability to trade places with that person you love to ameliorate their pain. It’s times like these that we look to Heaven for answers and we ask questions  – lot’s of questions.  Most often, we simply ask why?  However, if Mikey were here, I am certain he would be pleased that he brought people together and he would want us to celebrate his life.  He would probably explain that he has just run ahead of us into that deep mysterious wood around the trail’s curve.  He’s checking it out and he’s laughing as he shouts back, “ it’s beautiful.  I’ll just wait for you guys to catch up.  Bring your baseball glove!”

Mikey’s Song

You’re just a bit ahead of me

Exploring all there is to see

I can’t be sad to see you run

It’s who you are.  You are my son

 

It’s better when you’re by my sleeve

But I accept that you must leave

I’m supposed to take the lead

To clothe, to love, to teach, to feed

 

But you so full of life and spirit

You love the trail and never fear it

You made me more a man each day

Watching the way you lived and played

 

But now I’m in a shadowed place

I’ve lost my way, can’t see your face

The fear sets in, this path is wrong

And then I hear your happy song

 

It’s rushes waving in a breeze

The way the snow rests soft on trees

A single star aloft in space

The wind’s caress across my face

 

Our hands can’t touch but you are there

I feel your breath and smell your hair

Your song tells me you’ll be all right

Until the day we reunite

Mikey’s Song, M. Turpin

I Collect Therefore I Am

I Collect, Therefore I am

Of course, I started as a collector, a true collector. I can remember as if it were only yesterday the heart- pounding excitement as I spread out upon the floor of my bedroom The Edward G. Robinson Collection of Rare Cigar Bands. I didn’t play at collecting. No cigar anywhere was safe from me. My father and uncles and all their friends turned their lungs black trying to satisfy my collector’s zeal. And then came cigarette cards, big-league baseball players. I was an insatiable fiend, and would cheerfully trade you three Indian Joes for one of that upstart newcomer, Ty Cobb. Edward G Robinson

I have started and stopped more collections than Imelda Marcos has shoes.  My attention deficit disorder is reflected in the half completed ensembles of stamps, coins, first edition books, lead soldiers and baseball cards that could only temporarily hold my interest.  This was in sharp contrast to my older brother whose collections were meticulous and whose stamps, record albums and coins were lovingly organized and catalogued in a manner that would bring tears to the eyes of any anal retentive.

One fateful winter, my jealousy turned to larceny.  I surreptitiously began to steal his coin collection and insert them into my incomplete catalogues.  It was benign at first. A Morgan dollar here, a mercury head dime there, he’d never know the difference.  Yet, impatience got the better of me and I started to purloin an increasingly large part of his coins.

As quickly as my rare coin collection swelled, my interest waned.  Spring had arrived along with baseball. It was time to spend afternoons hanging out at the local Little League diamond, practicing, playing catch and learning the finer points of life from 13 year old boys who like merchant marines, seemed to have figured out all of life’s mysteries.  These long days would invariably bleed into dinner time.  To satisfy this adolescent need was Al and his snack truck – – a mobile Petri dish of gastrointestinal diseases and food inspection violations.

Al sold candy, ice cream and suspicious tube steaks wrapped in wax paper.  He would curse the mob of children that would gather by his truck. He peered through smoke as his three inch cigarette ash dangled from his mouth, “what do you want kid? “

It was on a spring day in 1973 that Al struck gold, or should I say, silver. On that afternoon, I decided it was time to begin to divest myself of my new coin collection.  Given that most of the coins were stolen, I was stymied as to how I might begin to diversify my holdings.   Al became my fence.  “Get out of the way” he would yell at the other kids as I rode up on my bike and sheepishly gave him my rare coins in exchange for food and candy.  He kept a face as straight as Johnny Chan and sifted through my offering – – “let’s see that’s $ 1.53.  What do you want to buy?”  The “dollar“ just happened to be a rare silver certificate dollar.  The fifty cent piece was a silver JFK half dollar.  The nickel?, a Buffalo head and the three cents all dated back to the early 1900’s.  Painful, isn’t it?  Occasionally an older kid might notice the coins and ask, “Say, is that a mercury dime? “  Al would chase them away from his truck and quickly distract me with offers of cotton candy and ice cream.

It all came to head when my Mom noticed I had put on weight and found empty coin display cases in my sock drawer.  As she interrogated me, my brother overheard the line of questioning and ran upstairs to his room.  The blood curdling scream confirmed her suspicions and she suddenly had to protect me from an apoplectic sixteen year old. “I’ll kill him “was all he kept screaming.  My near death experience was followed by endless days of punitive weeding and death threats.  At my parents 50th wedding anniversary, I “unearthed” a time capsule for the family celebration.  The contents were items from the 60s and 70s, including were several rare coins which I presented to my brother.  “You see, Miles, they weren’t stolen after all”.  After 35 years, he was still not laughing.

EBay has rekindled the world of collecting.  The massive internet based flea market is a collector’s Mecca.  Whether you favor stamps, coins, quilts, Flintstone memorabilia or underwear of famous rock stars, there is a market for anyone. My friend Mark collects antique penny banks. David, collects ticket stubs from every movie he has ever seen – -including a diary of the film’s date and time and his overall impressions.  Red Auerbach, celebrated one time coach of the Celtics, collected letter openers.  Quentin Tarantino collects vintage board games.  Tom Hanks is never far from a vintage typewriter.  Harry Connick Jr. is rumored to collect cuff links.  Perhaps the most obscure is the Johnny Depp who collects bat and insect skeletons.

Rare item collecting must be reserved for the world’s rich and famous.  The British Guiana One Cent Magenta Stamp is the world’s rarest stamp and was auctioned for $ 935,000 in 1980.  1969-S Lincoln Cent with a doubled die obverse is exceedingly rare and some are still found in circulation. A rare double eagle gold coin sold for $7.9m.  There are only six known signatures of William Shakespeare all selling for a paltry $ 3m.

Most collectors play it safe, sticking to fine wines, plein air art, antiques, flags, posters or in the case of New Canaan Cleaners, bobble head dolls.  I search for lead soldiers, scouring the electronic stalls of EBay auctions and antique stores – -the more dingy and out of the way the lead soldiers store, the better.  I am always looking for that bargain find  – -a complete set of early 19th century Britains made from solid molds, or perhaps a lead rendition of El Cid as he is ridding the Iberian Peninsula of the Ottomans and Saladin.  Like many things in life, it is the journey, not the destination that defines the joy in collecting.  It is the pursuit, not the kill. Collections require patience, passion, emotional intelligence and resourcefulness. The pathological resolve to scrape and save, to go to unnatural lengths to find, at all costs, that Mickey Mantle rookie card is an art form.  Finding that rare Lincoln Wheat VDB 1909 penny minted in Philadelphia is not just a purchase, it is a historical event to be recounted ad nauseum when someone is unlucky enough to innocently trigger the trip wire of a budding numismatist.

How people collect tells you a lot about their emotional intelligence.  Some allow their obsession to get the better of them and end up with a house full of WWII Gurkha army knives.  Some build their collections with restraint and finesse.  Each acquisition is a slow dance, or a fine meal – – an event to be savored and appreciated.  The beauty of collecting is that anything has the potential to become a collectible.  The most prosaic trash can be another man’s treasure.   While I still collect my lead soldiers, my golden age of collecting has passed.  I realize that I do not have the patience, financial resources or stamina to be a true collector.

However, owning a snack truck ?  Now that is a collectible.

A Spy in the Grotto

A Spy in the Grotto

First you get down on your knees,
Fiddle with your rosaries,
Bow your head with great respect,
And genuflect, genuflect, genuflect!

Do whatever steps you want, if
You have cleared them with the Pontiff…
Ave Maria, Gee it’s good to see ya,

Doin’ the Vatican Rag.

~Tom Leherer, The Vatican Rag

It started at a very young age.  Perhaps I was attracted to all the iconic imagery, ancient rites and ceremony, or the fact that my friends received weekly dispensation for their impure thoughts.  It might have been my envy of Saturday mass which left Sundays wide open to watch the Dodgers.  Even the Ash Wednesday smudge on the forehead looked fun.  You mean I can put dirt on my face and leave it there? 

It was the 1943 film The Song of Bernadette that hooked me into wanting to become a Jesuit.  It relates the story of Saint Bernadette Soubirous, who in 1858 in Lourdes, France, reported 18 visions of the Blessed Virgin Mary.  As was the role of the church in these days, Bernadette was subjected to harsh cross examination and accused as a heretic.  Hollywood (as only Hollywood can) has the young girl, played by Jennifer Jones, vindicated when she tells her tormentors about a grotto where the Virgin says she will find miraculous, healing water.  The church officials scoff at her – there is no water in this dark, rocky canyon.  In the midst of a vision, a seemingly possessed Bernadette digs and eats dirt as if it is water, all but convincing her critics that she is truly a heretic and insane.  As they attempt to cart her off to Le Loony Bin, water starts to bubble up from the earth where she was digging.  The flowing spring becomes a healing site of miracles; to this day, people inflicted with every possible malady make pilgrimages to Lourdes in hopes of being healed.  I was only eight but, oh boy, I wanted to be a Catholic.

Like Henry VIII, my father insisted that his Protestant theology should govern our religious upbringing.  The sit, stand, sing off key, sit, sermon, stand, pass the plate, and sprint to the car of our local community church seemed so lackluster compared to the genuflecting, holy water, rote Latin sayings, incense, communion and confession of the Catholics. 

When you are a young boy, you have a great need to belong to a tribe.  A secret society is even better.  While my Catholic friends were seemingly more conflicted when it came to sin, they seemed to wear their religion well and radiated a sense that God was looking out for them as long as they stayed in line.  Some attended schools with nuns and Jesuit priests as teachers.  To my father, this was a dangerous blurring of the lines between church and state, but I still wanted to be in the army of the Virgin Mary.  Being a momma’s boy, I liked the idea of a high ranking holy mother.  I was sure when my judgment day came, she would turn to God and say, “Come on, he’s a good kid.  He did not actually expect to hit that car with the orange.  Let’s give him a pass…”

After a predictable detour away from institutional religion in my late teens and early twenties, I returned to the church of my father and felt at home.  Yet I never lost my fascination for Catholic history and tradition.  I read extensively of the tensions between Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland, simply referred to as “The Troubles.”  I studied a Rome that author Stanley Bing referred to as “History’s First Multinational Corporation.”  Bing contended that after the fall of Constantinople in 1492, the Roman Empire, thanks to Constantine, had successfully transformed from an imperial to theological power and, in reinventing itself, achieved a broader reach than its original imperial borders.  Its prelates, senators and Caesars had become its abbots, bishops and Popes.  It no longer conquered land; it converted souls. 

I now noticed a world filled with monuments to the Catholic faith in the form of towering cathedrals, statues of saints, tales of sacrifice and martyrs, miracles, beatification, stigmata, healing and, best of all, their own football team.  A bastion of gridiron giants embodied all the virtues and nobility of the faith in one great institution: Notre Dame University, home to the Gipper, Knute Rockne, Johnny Lujak, Terry Hanratty, Joe Montana, Joe Theisman. 

Living close to the Coliseum in Los Angeles, I had become a USC football fan, but secretly held a passion for the Fighting Irish.  They were God’s team.  They fought like champions.  They had the entire Catholic Church behind them and a lot of people praying for them.  And, at South Bend, they had their own grotto, just like the one in The Song of Bernadette.  When the movie Rudy came out, it was as if they had made it for me.  I was Rudy.  I would have done anything to don that gold helmet and risk life and limb for the Virgin Mother and Touchdown Jesus.

I made my first pilgrimage to South Bend to watch the USC-Notre Dame game.  The last place I visited before the game was the grotto.  It’s an inconspicuous overhang of rock adjacent to a picturesque lake where people gather reverently to light prayer candles and to meditate.  There was no bubbling spring or invalids crawling in penance seeking to be healed, but it was a healing place – a place where believers and agnostics alike could sense the power that life is not all about sports or materialism.  The Irish were bad this year and the Trojans were very good.  The odds makers expressed no ambivalence about who was expected to win.  Yet, when you mix in a sacred grotto, religious fans and a team sponsor who can part the Red Sea, it wouldn’t have surprised me if the entire USC football team started getting cramps at a critical moment in the game.  No miracles occurred on this day and the Trojans triumphed 38-0.  Yet, even in the depths of defeat and self-doubt, the Irish faithful remained until the last play. 

To my spouse’s relief, I have no immediate plans to convert.  I like my minister as well as the congregation and have come to deeply appreciate the Presbyterian faith.  However, there is always that allure…a bell pealing in the distance, a nun in habit hurrying across a church common, a flickering candle inside an ancient grotto or a sea of green and gold helmets charging on to a battlefield armed with a belief that no matter how poor the odds, the Fighting Irish might prevail. 

As I felt the warm, gentle wind of a late Indian summer and watched the candles dancing in the grotto at South Bend, I could not help but feel a sense of peace.  In a fit of religious fervor, I made a sign of the cross and whispered, “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee.” I suddenly came to my senses and felt like an imposter.  An ancient Jesuit priest stood next to me and respectfully smiled.  I frowned and scurried away.  I was certain he was going to ask me what parish I belonged to…