Impromptu conversations

Earlier this week, I had a delightful conversation with an 80 year-ish old couple in a doctor’s waiting room. Doing what I often do, I observed
a conversation starter and took the chance to inquire.

The man was wearing a white t-shirt that had the cursive “Dodgers” in blue on the front. Rather than speak across the room, I walked over, got a cup of bad coffee, stopped at their seats and dove in.

“Is that for the Brooklyn Dodgers or the Los Angeles Dodgers?” I asked indicating where the baseball team moved in the late 1950s. He smiled and said the answer I hoped to hear, “Brooklyn.”

In response to my question if they are from Brooklyn, he said “No, Cuba.” Rather than segue into a different subject regarding why they left Cuba, I stayed with baseball. I asked if he was a Jackie Robinson fan and he became animated. He said he actually got to see Robinson play.

We discussed what a treat that was and our collective knowledge of Dodger history. I can remember old baseball history much better than recent history. We meandered down the path of Robinson, beating the dreaded Yankees in 1955, the book “The Boys of Summer,” the pitching prowess of Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale and Johnny Podres that swept those same Yankees in 1963 and the current team’s prowess.

His wife relished in his enjoyment of the conversation. She had a big smiile, Before I could move onto her, his name was called by the nurse.

It was a delightful conversation. I have shared before how much I like to uncover conversation starters, be it a name like Olivia or Aimee likely after a star or song or some version of double names like Mary Ellen or Betty Sue. Or, I love it when resort areas have someone’s home town on his or her nametag.

My wife said I made that man’s day, but he helped make mine better. I encourage everyone to have impromptu conversations. It brings us closer. Just look for those cues.

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Alcoholism – Feherty, Watson and me

I am an alcoholic, yet I am approaching the twelfth anniversary of my last drink. I bring this up today as I learned in an interview yesterday that David Feherty, a retired golfer, golf announcer and truly comical person, is also an alcoholic, along with some other demons he has to manage.

Several things about Feherty’s interview with Real Sports host Bryant Gumbel are worth noting. First, he credits his second wife for her tough love – after a final straw, she said you have 30 days to get clean or I am gone.

He also credits Tom Watson, one of golf’s greatest players, whose own career was almost derailed by alcoholism. As Feherty was interviewing Watson, the latter asked Feherty if he was alright. Feherty said he was not, but asked how could he tell? Watson said “I saw it in your eyes.” He then answered Feherty’s question of what did he see? Watson said bluntly, “I saw myself.”

Watson invited Feherty to his home and helped him through managing his demons. Feherty was sober for ten years, but fell off the wagon when his son took his own life after fighting a losing battle with the same demons his father faced. It should be noted Feherty’s alcoholism masked that he was clinically depressed and bipolar. His son inherited the problems. After renewing the fight, Feherty has returned to being sober.

Alcoholism or any addiction are tough enemies. You never fully defeat them. You put a lid on them, but they still simmer on the back of the stove. Over time, the heat is turned down, but it never is fully extinguished. In my case, I still want to have a drink, but it is a fainter flame today.

The key lesson I learned from a colleague, whose husband fought alcoholism, is to say this mantra – I am not going to drink today. This is a key reason recovering alcoholics know how many days they have been sober. The other piece of advice is to find a substitute for the alcohol. It may be green tea, fruit, fruit juice, near-beer, tonic or soda water or a piece of candy. Now, for me, it is hot tea and all kinds of fruit, dried or fresh.

Life is hard. It is not uncommon for some people to use some form of anesthetic to sand the edges off difficulty. If you think you may have a problem, you do. Be honest with yourself, first, but be honest with your spouse or partner and your doctor. Most addicts lie to all of the above.

People ask me what was my trigger to change? Another colleague’s wife, who was as vivacious and funny as David Feherty, died from complications due to alcoholism. She was only 59, one year less than I am today. I was a train wreck waiting to happen. So, I got off the train. It was and still is hard. But, remember the mantra, I am not going to drink today. Then, don’t and say it again tomorrow.

Brussel sprouts, breathing and beaches

“What an odd title?” you might be asking. “Outside of the alliteration, what does it mean?” These three terms represent a list of things I learned more about as I got older.

Brussel sprouts were nowhere close to being something I would eat when I was young. Okra, orange marmalade, spinach, etc. would also be in that category. Now, to my wife’s surprise, I will even eat brussel sprouts, preferably broiled or sautéed in a pan with bacon bits and olive oil. The brussel sprouts are a good metaphor for many things I now enjoy.

The breathing is an odd one. As a high school athlete, I was taught to breathe through my mouth as I worked out. Inhale when lessening the exertion and exhale when exerting. With yoga, more measured breathing is suggested, breathing in and out through the nose, exhaling through your mouth as you need it.

The yoga advice is sound. But, I read recently that breathing normally is better for your lung and heart health, as the sense of smell is activated and it better maintains the  breathing organs. The other observation is I find out I snore less at night by breathing in this manner when I exercise.

Now, what about beaches? I was thinking of the “Sunscreen” song where an older person shares a few pieces of wisdom including wearing sunscreen. I grew up twelve miles from the ocean. So, we hit the beaches often. Sunscreen was sparingly used especially with high schoolers. Yet, as more information emerged at the same time my scalp did so through my thinning hair, caps and sunscreen became paramount. And, don’t forget to re-apply the sunscreen after being out on the beach more than an hour. The sea breeze masks the burning.

So, breathe more naturally, protect your skin, and eat your veggies, including brussel sprouts. And, try other things you passed on. Our great-niece used to say to her mother when asked to try something, “I don’t think I could like that.” That feeling will change.

A fix up story from my past

A few days ago I wrote a post noting “We are ALL fixer uppers.” I shared a story with my oldest son yesterday about when life knocks you down. This one now seems small, but when it happened to me as a high school senior, it hurt.

I was a varsity basketball player who started for a very good team. I was a co-Captain, but not our best player. I was the one who focused more on defense, rebounding and passing. About 1/3 of the way into the season, I was moved to the second team as we had several pretty good players.

I had two paths in front of me. I could sulk and go throw the motions. Or, I could work hard in practice to make our first team better and try to win back my position or playing time. I chose the latter – life knocked me down and I got up and tried harder.

Everyday in practice scrimmages I would set out to keep our best tall player from scoring. Playing good defense requires effort. It should be noted that our best tall player would only wash his practice jersey periodically, so extra effort was required as I had to stick my nose into a sweaty, smelly jersey as I guarded him.

In short, he got a good practice work out and the coach saw my effort rewarding me ample time as the sixth man, the first substitute. Eventually, I would start again.

I shared this with my son to let him know we all fail. I have failed at other things as well. The key is what we do about it. We can mope or we can get back up, dust ourselves off and keep going. If you do otherwise, you let yourself down. And, you might even let your teammates down.

So, my 2019 wish for everyone is if (and when) life knocks you down, ask yourself the question, “what am I going to do about it?” Then, get up, dust yourself off and keep going.

Dick Cavett – an interviewer extraordinaire

My guess is many people are not familiar with the work of Dick Cavett. He is known for his conversational and engaging interviews with a who’s who list of entertainers, writers, directors, musicians, athletes and even politicians. He is known for giving the interviewee room to talk.

He had nightly show on ABC for about six years. While it was tough to compete with Johnny Carson, Cavett would get into deep conversations with folks like John Lennon, Muhammed Ali, George Burns, Katherine Hepburn, Gore Vidal, Colleen Dewhurst, James Earl Jones, et al, which drew an audience.

I remember two memorable moments from that show. His show was the first time I ever saw Janis Joplin live on TV. She gave so much of herself into the song, she would be out of breath as she answered Cavett’s questions.

The other is when he had Governor Lester Maddox, the racist governor of Georgia, on his show. During the interview, Maddox felt insulted by the questions and proceeded to walk off the set. Cavett was left there speechless. To be frank, it appeared Maddox planned to leave when the questions got tough. Yet, to his credit, Maddox accepted an invitation to return for a future show and did so.

There is a television channel on my cable called Decades. It plays reruns of thirty and sixty minute interview segments from various vintages of Cavett’s shows. It is fascinating to hear George Burns tell why he had a cigar, which gave himself a distraction. If the crowd laughed at his joke, he took a puff. If they did not, he kept talking. On another, I watched Catherine Deneuve, the beautiful French actress and model. She was quite thoughtful and deliberate as she responded to Cavett’s questions.

Seeing these icons years ago explain their craft or opinions is spellbinding. It is like finding an old album or CD that you misplaced. If you are channel surfing and come across Cavett’s show, give it thirty minutes. You won’t regret it.

Mistakes happen – focus on tasks at hand

Sometimes sports stories offer good examples for daily life. Four stories shed light on putting mistakes behind you, so you can focus on the tasks at hand.

Orel Hershisher was a successful pitcher for the Los Angeles Dodgers. While he looks more like a Sunday school teacher, this devout man was as tough a competitor as you could find. He had a knack for not letting mistakes get to him. He said in his biography he set out to throw a perfect game and after the first hit, he would try to throw a one-hitter and so on. One of his more significant achievements is setting a record for not allowing a run for 59 consecutive innings of play.

Years before the Chicago Cubs won the 2016 World Series breaking a 108 year drought, they stood on the brink of going to the series with one more playoff victory. With their opponent, the Florida Marlins, rallying in game six of their 2003 playoff, the hitter hit a foul fly ball that was just inside the stands. The left fielder had a chance to catch the ball by reaching into the stands. A fan did what many do and tried to catch it, so he prevented the Cubs player from catching it. The player demonstratively berated the fan, the crowd booed and the Cubs pitcher and players came unglued and they lost their cool and the game. It carried over and they went on to lose the next game losing the playoff series.

The New York Yankees had a pitcher by the name of Allie Reynolds, who the players called the Big Chief as he was he was a stoic and fierce competitor. He was throwing a no-hitter and the famous Ted Williams, one of the greatest hitters ever, was possibly the final out. Williams popped up a pitch and Hall of Famer catcher Yogi Berra settled underneath the foul ball…and then dropped it and fell down. Helping Berra to his feet, a tired and anxious Reynolds was kind: “Don’t worry Yogi, we’ll get him next time.” Williams popped up the next pitch and Berra squeezed it for the final out.

How you react to mistakes or a crisis is important. A great leader can be judged by how he or she handles a crisis. The leader’s calm and reassuring demeanor can make the difference as others will follow suit. Reynolds and Hershisher understood that. The Cubs pitcher and players did not and affected their behavior.

After mistakes happen, the best we can do is to focus on the tasks at hand. Preparation and practice helps a great deal in handling stress. The great basketball coach Bobby Knight was asked why he did not call time out at the end of a close game his team won. He said he knew his team was more prepared, so he did not want to give the other team a chance to do so. In one national championship game, one of his players Keith Smart hit the final basket after their opponent, Syracuse missed a free throw, and Knight just let his team play without a timeout.

So, following their lead, prepare and practice for tests, speeches, meetings, interviews, etc. Mistakes will happen, so don’t react too negatively and focus on the tasks at hand. And, thank goodness for erasers and delete keys.

Great leaders make everyone around them better

Thomas Friedman, the award winning author (“The World is Flat” and “That Used to be Us”), made an important observation in an interview with Charlie Rose. A great leader makes everyone around them better – think Michael Jordan, Tom Brady, Wayne Gretzky or, if you are older, Bill Russell. Donald Trump makes everyone around him worse.

This is a powerful observation. Defending this immoral man requires his people to go to a bad place in their nature. They must lower themselves and lie like he does. General Kelly harmed his reputation by lying about a Congresswoman. Sarah Huckabee-Sanders is not worth listening to as she defends the indefensible with inconsistent and nonsensical statements.

Trump values loyalty over competence, so the tendency to become a sycophant is rewarded. While he does have some competent people, they are fewer in number and the depth of talent is not as much as needed. Many experienced people could have helped him, but they either did not pass the loyalty test or chose not to work with such a narcissistic man. His team is not deep and they are very distracted trying to keep Trump between the white lines, so they cannot focus on global trends, issues and strategy.

On the flip side, I think of great leaders like Paul O’Neill, who turned around Alcoa by opening communication channels which improved productivity and safety. I think about my former boss whose mantra was hire good people and have them go see our clients. He kept senior leadership off your back and empowered you to work with others to serve.

Let me close with a story about Bill Russell, the NBA Hall of Famer with the Boston Celtics. He did all the heavy lifting (rebounding, defense, passing, blocked shots) letting his teammates do most of the scoring. His Celtics won eleven championships, his college team won two NCAA championships and he was on a Gold Medal Olympic team.

Great leaders make everyone around them better.