Monday, December 28, 2009

2009 Top Ten Surprises



Great stories question expectations and appearances. Below please find my 2010 top ten unexpected, and rewarding, moments.

10. "Did you hear that?" On a recent trip to our old neighborhood's market, I saw the mother of a student from Lilli's preschool class. I asked: "excuse me, do you have a son who attended "Child's Play"? Shocked, she turned and responded: "well yes, about twelve years ago. How do you remember?" Not sure she'd appreciate my honest response, I offered it in Holiday Spirit.

During their class reading time in 1997, my daughter Lilli sat on my lap and her son asked if he could join us. He made funny faces and expressions to support the story line and checked my response. He leaned close and asked in hushed tones, "did you hear that?"

I asked "what?" Again, he asked: "did you hear that?" I responded: "what?" His excitement and approval seeking showed he hoped for the universal response (laughter) to his bonding behavior. He got it when he said: "I gassed!"

9. Birdie in the window. In unison they shrieked: "It's moving! Get here quick! Daddy, come here fast! Help it!" A sparrow flew into our back porch glass slider and lay on the porch with its head twisted at 90 degrees. Its legs and wings fluttered slow. It looked bad.

The bird kept moving when stroked with a leaf stem. It responded, but it's head stayed at an awkward angle. I lifted the bird and massaged its tiny head and neck. They straightened, but the bird was dazed and struggling to breath. Marisa held it. She kept massaging its back, and it expectorated a bloody seed. It breathed normal. I collected a box, soft rags, some water and bird food.

The bird batted its eyes and moved its head with improved ease, but it appeared too weak, or stunned, to fly. We placed it in the box with warm rags and nourishment. We left to select a Christmas tree. When we returned, the bird was gone.

At 5:30 the next morning, upon returning from my walk with Milo, about six of these sparrows greeted me in song, perched from wisteria overhanging our porch. Never before nor since has this happened.

8. Milo. This labradoodle joined our home one year ago today. He weighed ten pounds. He's all black with a white chest crest and paw. His fur is soft, like human hair. He does not shed. He's friendly to people and animals, and gentle. He offers unconditional love and friendship to my teenage daughters and young son. Milo thinks he belongs on our laps, yet now weighs over 100 pounds.

7. Call 911, or Bill. On December 12th at 5:45 PM I drove to collect my daughters at the movies. I headed north onto route 28, and just above the Rochester, MA tree line, I saw a huge flame with flaring sparks shoot across the dark horizon. It appeared to land in these woods. I stopped the car, called 911, and waited to hear the explosion. None followed. The girls saw nothing.

Everyone I asked saw nothing, except for Bill. My scientist friend and his wife witnessed this precursor Meteor from western Massachusetts while visiting their son at college. Bill was scheduled to wake at 2:00 AM the following morning to watch the complete Geminids Meteor Shower and was amazed by this early, giant, single meteor display. None of the scheduled meteors matched it size or beauty. I can find no one else who saw this meteor except Bill, his wife, and me.

In the summer of 2008 Bill's family lost their fifteen year old daughter to leukemia. Lauren was my daughters' best friend. Like this meteor, she was full of energy and possessed an indelible presence, forever etched in our hearts.

6. UMass Band In October, I joined Bill and his son to watch the University of Massachusetts football team play fourth ranked UNH. It's a fierce rivalry and the game was incredible. UMass won on its final drive.

Despite my love of football, I was most impressed with the UMass band. Its sound, size, and song selection are first rate. Music lifts the spirit. It was an uplifting, and unexpected, professional concert.

5. Philly Cheesesteaks I am a New York Giants fan and attended their games at Yankees Stadium and at the Yale Bowl. In 1976 I attended opening day at the soon to be demolished Giants Stadium. I played at this stadium when my high school football team won its 1978 State Championship (#77 below). I had an NFL Free Agent tryout with the Giants. I am also a Yankees fan. My Brown "offensive" linemate Jeff is an Eagle's fan. He grew up in Bucks County, PA rooting for Philadelphia's professional sports teams.

When possible, we attend Giants vs. Eagles games with Jeff's season tickets. This past March, we scheduled to attend the November 1st game in Philadelphia. As the stars aligned, both his Phillies and my Yankees made the World Series. For the first time in professional sports history, an NFL game including teams from the same cities as those in the World Series played on the same day in the same city.

We attended the Giants vs. Eagles NFL game at 1:00 and the Phillies vs. Yankees World Series Game at 8:00. At both venues we sat about twenty rows from the field. The Giants lost, but the Yankees won this fourth World Series game leading to their 27th championship. The day eclipsed when, at the World Series, I recognized a Penn State player I coached in 1987. We reminisced. This NY sports fanatic dream day culminated at 11 PM when the three famed Philly Cheese steaks I ate at 10 AM settled.

4. Arnie's Wedding I sublet a room from Arnie the summer before my senior season at Brown. We have many common interests including sports, entrepreneurship, culture, and people. In serious jest, we created an ideal date profile and hung it on the refrigerator to compare notes and standards.

It was an elaborate list and I struck improbable gold early when I met Linda while Arnie and I shared this apartment. I'm not surprised Arnie married, but based on the list's criteria, it's basically impossible for someone to meet all those expectations. Felicia does.

Their wedding filled their home with love, friendship, music, food, and an unanticipated mini Brown reunion.

3. Internet Fostered Reunions:

Cindy: Three weeks before my scheduled business trip to San Diego last March, I received a Facebook friend request from my good high school friend, Cindy. She moved to LA to pursue acting in 1991 and we lost contact. The last I saw Cindy was when I was up with infant Lilli at 2:30 AM, and Cindy was on TV with Jane Fonda selling an exercise program. We enjoyed lunch on San Clemente's ocean pier. Cindy also visited our family this past New Year's.

Nayan and Janet: This past summer I received a Facebook friend request from Bev, my Madison, NJ next door neighbor. She forwarded my contact information to her younger sister Janet who is one year to the date older than me. For a good portion of my first fifteen years, we all played a variety of games including tag, croquet, lawn jarts, volleyball, and badminton in our adjoining yards.

Starting when I was a toddler, I also played almost daily with Nayan. His yard abutted our property in the back. We built forts, played sports, and palled around for most of my first fifteen years when sports and my family's move to an adjoining town separated us. We are connected via Facebook and this connection brings me great comfort.


My mom took this picture of Nayan and me when we were about 4. I'm wearing Beatles garb and playing a plastic Beatles guitar from my aunt who attended their concert. This is telling because Nayan now produces major recording artists.

Janet, Nayan, and I never played together. It appeared Janet was called inside when Nayan joined us.

Both Nayan and Janet graduated a year ahead of me in high school. Their 30th reunion was this past fall. Thanks to my sports teams and our high school's peer counseling program, I was close to this class. Thanks to the internet, I reconnected with many of my friends and decided to attend their reunion. It was great seeing everyone, especially my wrestling coach, below, and my wrestling / track / football team mates.


What I cherish most is this picture of Janet, Nayan, and me.


Ramona: Ramona and I connected in geometry class, sophomore year in high school. She has a spark and it's ignited her to become one of four black women in America with both Legal and Doctor of Philosophy Degrees.

Via Facebook we reconnected. She invited me to speak at The University of Maryland, Eastern Shore. I was delayed on takeoff because the FAA's computer system failed. My connecting flight in Philadelphia left premature. I missed the talk, but was able to spend time with the panel members and coordinating students. It was great to see her influence on these students.

2. Business - It was a year filled with unexpected opportunities to offer keynote talks and seminars about transition, resilience, and growth at conferences, at universities, and in organizations. I also earned new clients and facilitated executive team development and strategic initiatives. Many new and existing clients hired me to create, and then sent me around the globe to deliver, management and leadership selection and development programs. These were offered to large, small, and individual audiences.

It's been a twenty year overnight success, and labor of love, refining, delivering, and transferring the traits great parents, coaches, teachers, and leaders use to influence constructive personal and organizational change. Your referrals and recommendations are most appreciated. Thank you.


1. Family Reunion My immediate family imploded when my mom died. I was a senior in high school. My dad remarried within the year and factions grew. I focused on my education, football, faith, friends, career, and my new family, but the immediate changes were difficult. My support structure was gone. I kept a respectful distance. It's been almost thirty years since and this past summer, for the first time, my whole and half siblings, their offspring, dad, and stepmother gathered at Hilton Head for what we hope is the first of many such reunions. Positive relationships foster great energy.

My hope is the New Year brings us more opportunities to connect.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Updates and Uplifts


Everyday, it seems, the media exposes a famous person's character flaws leading to the demise of vaulted athletes, politicians, executives, clergy, physicians, attorneys, and educators. Outside of athletes, people in these positions are expected, and selected based on their abilities, to be trustworthy. We expect their expertise to protect vulnerable clients and constituents.

Are you ready for some good news?


In March 2008 my family faced great uncertainty regarding our seven year old son's thigh bone being cut, reset to reposition the femur's end in his hip socket, and then his being set in a body cast for more than three months. We were vulnerable.

Enter HASBRO (http://www.hasbro.com/). A week prior to Noah's surgery, Hasbro invited Noah for a tour of its Star Wars design facilities in Pawtucket, RI. Noah met with the Star Wars design team and talked about Star Wars and Indiana Jones with their chief designer.

He and Noah hit it off and I saw why this man is considered a luminary in his field. He could relate to Noah like a seven year old. I didn't understand much of their conversation, but they discussed Star Wars books, characters, weapons, and abstract trivia for over an hour.

Before we left, he asked Noah to select three Ewoks to present to George Lucas to become Clone Wars toys, released following the 2008 summer movie. Noah's recommendations were forwarded to Lucasfilms.

When leaving the office, Noah was asked if a huge bin of Star Wars toys, requiring two men to carry, might fit in our car. As we left the parking lot with this treasure in tow, Noah stated this was the best day of his life. His spirits were lifted and he looked forward to opening up to three toys per week during his ambulatory recovery.

Noah and his new Hasbro friends corresponded during his cast ridden quarter of a year and six month recovery. We learned in June 2008 George Lucas approved Noah's three Ewok suggestions. In December 2008, Hasbro's chief designer wrote and asked for Noah's permission to name one of these selected Ewoks after Noah, in Ewok speak, Nho'Apakk (http://starwars.wikia.com/wiki/Nho%27Apakk). We were stunned.

Nho'Apakk was released last month in Hasbro's Star Wars Legacy Collection toy line. It is available as part of a two-pack with fellow Ewok Paploo. In November, the design team treated Noah and his parents to lunch and gave Noah three boxes of Nho'Apakk and Paploo and the new wave of legacy characters. We are humbled by this corporation's selfless consideration and thoughtfulness for Noah.

Hasbro Inc. also underwrites Hasbro's Children's Hospital where the gifted hands of noted surgeon Michael G. Ehrlich, M.D. guided us through Noah's ordeal. In Noah's most recent evaluation, Dr. Ehrlich was very encouraged and allowed Noah to return to full activity less contact risk sports like rock climbing and football.

We are not out of the woods. Whether Noah's surgery proves successful in preventing life long physical limitations will not be known for several years, but he is trending and responding very well.

Football changed my life and opened doors for me I never fathomed possible, so when I see Noah's restrictions, my heart pangs a bit, but I realize each person's path is different.

Regarding my football blog on Madison, NJ High School's Championship Football Rings,
(http://mattpaknis.blogspot.com/2009/02/championship-rings.html), Bobby Irving, or Irvs, contacted me with the following message.

"Matt! I have an update that you are not going to believe. The Josten's lady could not duplicate a new ring from the pictures Bernie forwarded, so I tracked down Coach Monica. He put me in touch with Guida Jewelers. Mr. Guida is the gentleman that helped design and place the order back in '77.

After 8 months of pictures from Bernie Tiger and emails to Mr. Guida, Mark Monica loaned Mr. Guida his ring. They made a duplicate for me and sent it to me. It is BEAUTIFUL and is an exact replica of my first ring. I received this ring in June, but wait, there's more.

In July, our master bathroom shower leaked into out kitchen. It was a long hassle collecting the insurance money. After receiving the money we decided to buy new cabinets and update our lighting.

I found a gentleman to help me and we received the cabinets and went to work tearing out the old cabinets. One of the old base cabinets was wedged between the range and a doorway. In order to get the cabinet out I had to pick it up over range.

I loosened the screws, picked up the cabinet and sitting on the floor, under where the cabinet had been, was my original 1977 championship ring.

I broke out laughing and my buddy just thought I had gone off the deep end. When my daughter arrived home I showed her the ring and she was ecstatic. I am going to give it to her on her birthday next year. I think I'll put it on a necklace so it's harder to lose.
Best Regards, Irvs"

This fall marked the 30th anniversary of our Madison High Dodger Football Team's Hoosier like ascent to the Star Ledger Trophy, recognizing NJ's top ranked high school football team. It was our team's third consecutive undefeated, state championship season, but we were a Group II, or second to the smallest, sized school. Thanks to our winning, and beating teams starring the state's best and fastest athletes, we ended my senior season ranked number one. I was a captain and the lone three year starter.

Coach Monica turned 80 this year and I called him on his birthday. The pains caused by his war wounds, and recognized with Purple Hearts, give him little relief, but his voice picks up whenever he talks about the Dodgers and his teams.

My mom and dad met at Madison High School in the early 1950's where she was a cheerleader and he was a linebacker and center. During my 1979 senior season, my mom succumbed to her eight year struggle with melanoma. She was buried the day before we played Orange featuring Sammy Seale, the fastest schoolboy in NJ who went on to play in the NFL for over ten years.

We won in the last minute when Steve Doherty scored behind my block. This experience galvanized in me the value of team, compassion, resilience, leadership and goodness - honest, selfless, and self critical behavior.

These traits, demonstrated by great organizations like Hasbro, are what now send me around the globe for my clients, helping them identify, groom and transition new managers and leaders. Despite trying economic times, my business continues to grow.

It is shocking to read about public and professional officials who violate the public's trust. Athletes, like Tiger Woods, are not selected or elected based on their competency to demonstrate skills or good decision making. They are gifted and we choose to be entertained and uplifted by their transcending physical qualities.

However, for people like me, who have life long love affairs with sports thanks to the goodness and positive experiences they helped us experience and funnel in our communities, we associate good character with athletic success because these are the base principles sports are taught to teach; sportsmanship, integrity, trust, cooperation, drive, determination, humility, resilience, friendship, teamwork, leadership, community, and role modeling.

It is disheartening to see egos, self interest, cheating, narcissism, money and fame undermine the initial intent of athletic competition - to better man and society.

Perhaps it's time to recognize good organizations and to include character as a critical competence, and determinant, of success.

Happy Holidays and Best Wishes for a Successful New Year!

Friday, September 4, 2009

Mentors and Success



In "Overcoming the Odds", Emma Werner and Ruth Smith share their research of Kauai's indigenous children determining resiliency factors influencing a Kauai child's capacity to transcend a population rife with excessive rates of alcoholism, poverty, and suicide.

Their thirty year study identified three factors influencing a child's capacity to overcome significant obstacles to become happy, fulfilled adults. The factors are not interdependent. Please find them listed below.

1. A child is more likely to overcome obstacles if no siblings are born within two years of his or her birth. Receiving focused nurturing and care in the first two years of one's life has a strong impact on one's ability to handle setbacks.

This translates to primates where chimps' normal gestation cycles are five years. When a chimp's sibling is born within this five year period, the older chimp usually fails to reach adulthood.

Werner and Smith also learned 2. children with special talents or skills, whose traits garner early recognition, are more capable of overcoming significant odds. Being artistic, athletic, academic, cute, big, funny, etc. attracts positive attention and gives a child hope. This is critical in fostering direction and confidence.

The study also found 3. Kauai's resilient children had at least one adult in their lives who took a sincere and meaningful interest in the child's well being. Resilient kids have mentors. Whether it's a parent, neighbor, coach, teacher, relative, or another member of the community, children need someone to care about their well being and to give them specific feedback to achieve goals.

Mentoring is the most controllable of these three resiliency factor. It's easy to identify good mentors and to train sound mentoring skills.

And, mentoring makes life more satisfying. A gallop pole surveyed Americans to determine "what makes Americans happy?" The survey found three actions contribute to a person's sense a satisfaction. Please find them listed below.

1. Happy people contribute to a cause larger than their immediate family, like a community center, church, or school.

2. Happy people identify and use their unique talents and skills.

3. Happy people make meaningful differences in other people's lives. They mentor.

A person or organization utilizes mentors to bounce back from adversity and to succeed. Being a mentor increases life satisfaction and happiness.

It's a win / win relationship.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Reaching the Peak














Great expectations don't always guarantee anticipated results, but a positive outlook and effort can bring uncommon rewards and growth.

It was the last night on the course and everyone was looking forward to ice cream at base camp the next day. Ten days of hiking fifteen to twenty miles per day with forty pound packs on our backs, and eating rationed, dehydrated food, leaned our bodies. It got me in shape for football camp.

Our goal was to merge with another New Jersey group and to greet the sunrise atop the Tooth of Time, a jagged rock outcropping whose silhouette brands Philmont belt buckles, shirts, and coats, recognizing the famed New Mexico Boy Scout reservation.

It was a fitting end to an eventful ten days where I worked to keep our unit together and safe. John Gruber, the unit's adult leader, threatened to leave us three days into the trip. Eagles on our crew were squawking over extra food, and acting, according to John, like brats. He wanted to leave unless they stopped. With peer pressure,they changed. Also, my boots were falling apart, yet they finished the trail intact.

Our unit was filled with Eagle and Life Scouts. Rank does not always correlate with leadership. I was First Class - the lowest rank allowed at Philmont. Despite my lack of merit badges, the unit awarded me an iron nail we forged at Cypher's mine.

The blacksmith stated it was to be given, at the end of the trek, to the most influential scout. This nail sits on my office desk, a constant reminder of our final morning's ascent.

We woke at midnight. I cut my fingernails before bed. In the high altitude, my finger tips swelled. This and being dazed from two hours sleep made me unable to tie my pack and shoes. I was in a fog. I think Owen Bird or Mark Copas offered to help. Or maybe it was Neil Guthrie.

As we hiked, I couldn't open my eyes. My sleep was off. I'd wake every night between two and four AM and remained awake until about five. The extreme quiet, or distant noises, made my mind and heart race. Rest was impossible. Early in the trip, I thought a bear visited our camp as we slept. We found bear tracks the following morning. This impacted my sleeping patterns.

The trek was a testing ground. My mom was into her sixth year of remission, but she was hurting. This and my dad's related sudden outbursts created undue stress. My schoolwork suffered because I was truant and hanging with questionable kids. Scouting was great for me, but it was not like my father's experience. We was NJ's youngest Eagle recipient, ever.

Life's tougher knocks overwhelmed me. It was hard for me to look at my situation with perspective when comparing my results with other kids'. I felt like a loser and wanted to prove myself.

My plan was to follow and reflect on the two positive weeks. It was very dark. There was no moon. John and Mr. Ames, the other unit's leader, assessed the map and thought we missed the Tooth's trail. They suggested we blaze a new path connecting us with the Tooth's proper trail they figured was between the Tooth's big mountain outlined in the night's sky behind us, and a smaller mountain we faced.

With a frenetic bounce appropriate for his Teddy Roosevelt looks, including the handlebar mustache, Mr. Ames forged ahead on a small, rough, path. It resembled a deer path. Brush was pushed aside. It was not well worn. Our units followed until we came to the base of boulders. A scout from the other troop led the climb. As he crawled, he loosened some rocks and they were falling. Some scouts panicked and screamed about being hit. Someone yelled: “I broke my leg”. The leader endangered climbers behind him so John and Mr. Ames stopped him.

There was a private meeting between Mr. Ames and John, but I heard them. They did not want to climb back down the loose boulders with twenty two scouts in the dark, yet they had no idea what lay ahead. I offered to lead the expedition and felt an adrenalin surge. There was a solid faced rock between boulders. It seemed to have enough hand holds and moss to make a continued climb possible.

I was hyper alert, and very cautious. We realized we missed the correct trail leading to the Tooth of Time and we were in a dangerous jam. One slip would cause an avalanche. We climbed the mountain in front of the tooth. It was not a marked, or approved, area. It was pitch black. We were in the middle of a vertical boulder field. We learned later several scouts were critically injured a week earlier at this exact site, in broad daylight.

I was calm and sensed there was a solution. Not everyone was on board. About three quarters up the mountain, after maneuvering around a ledge while checking its stability with my heels, Mr. Ames lost it. He was saying to himself: "Oh God, what did I do? One slip and we will all die!"

I told him to relax and to keep moving forward. At the same time, my arms walked me, like on parallel bars, across a crevice as my legs dangled free. It was a black hole and I imagined a bear or snake was resting in it. Everyone helped each other across the hole. No one was injured.

A well traveled trail appeared. We followed it and rested on a series of ledges in a clearing. We watched the silver lined clouds framing the sunrise. Looming directly behind us was the majestic Tooth of Time, our intended destination. It was crazy, but I learned more by taking this unmarked path than by climbing the traditional, well traveled, Tooth's path. In some ways, this parallels my life. I am very thankful for sensing guidance and leading those 22 scouts to safety. At the ledge, I sat down, cradled my head in my hands between my knees, gave thanks, and slept.

There was a broad, safe trail leading from these ledges down the other side of this mountain to base camp. The ice cream and subsequent naps were refreshing. And, my positive outlook started me on a unique high school odyssey.

In the fall, I gave up Scouting to focus on football, wrestling, and track. My grades got better. Our football team went undefeated over the next three years and we finished top ranked in NJ my senior year. I graduated from Brown, coached college football, received a Masters Degree, and created a business. The attitude influenced by this wrong and dangerous Philmont Mountain path changed my life for good.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Memorial Day Reflections



Growing up, my role models were those who served to protect and defend the United States of America with honor, duty, and compassion. On this Memorial Day 2009, I’m reminded of five men who risked or gave their lives and well being to preserve our freedoms.

Edmund Bowen (above right), my grandfather, was a World War I Army Veteran. He was blown out of fox hole and lost considerable hearing as a result. He was also the only member of his battalion to survive the blast. Most of this war involved hand to hand combat. He spent the remainder of his long life coming to terms with those horrors. In addition, he became an inaugural member of NJ’s State Police Force where happenstance allowed him to meet my grandmother. Throughout his life he served and assisted those less fortunate.

Joseph Salvest, my Godfather, served the Army with distinction in World War II’s Pacific Theatre where resulting injuries precluded his ability to have children with his wife, my great Aunt Myrt. They married during a long weekend furlough between two year long calls. He became postmaster general of the second largest, per volume, postal center in the country. As its board member, he established National Credit Union Member accrediting standards exceeding FDIC requirements.

Ted Monica, my head high school football coach, is a Marine Veteran who received a Purple Heart in the Korean War. A bullet lodged in his spinal column, ultimately causing great pain in his back and legs. In his twenty five years as a coach, he never discussed his military service yet led exceptional teams to record victories. His legacy is the selfless teamwork and coaching skills he modeled and fostered amongst his players. He helped his players accomplish things they never thought possible.

Fred Lippitt, my former neighbor and friend, received two Purple Hearts; one for his service in World War II and one for his service in Korea. He shared with me the bullet a nurse place wrapped in his hand following his surgery near a World War II battle front. This injury rendered him unable to have children, so he dedicated his life, and considerable good fortune, to elevating those less fortunate. He was a public servant, philanthropist, leader, and friend to all.

Dave Laychack
, my Brown fraternity brother, lost his life on 9/11/2001 when an aircraft commandeered by terrorists smashed into the Pentagon. Dave’s office was located on the building’s perimeter wall. It took searchers three months to find his remains. Dave left a wife and two children. I’m guessing they were in his thoughts as he gazed from his office that morning.

The freedom to choose to attend a university, and then to work as a civilian for the department of defense, was afforded Dave by sacrifices made by men like Fred, Ted, Joe, and Ed. As undergraduates, it was appropriate, albeit ironic, for Dave to think quickly to avoid violence as he broke into patriotic song and lead us in a singing protest against students petitioning the Solomon Amendment.

This amendment conditioned eligibility for Federal financial aid for higher education and job training, Federal government employment, and other Federal benefits with an individual’s registering with the Selective Service System or certifying he or she was not required to do so.

Most members of my fraternity came from middle class families with military histories and were happy to register with the Selective Service System. Many of us were recruited by, and considered attending, United States Service Academies.

One fraternity brother, Bobby, questioned the petitioners by quipping: “let me get this straight, your petition basically states you want the United States, and our tax dollars, to support you financially while attending Brown, and as “thanks” you say “screw you, I’m not willing to sacrifice for you”, is that it?“

Following Bobby’s question, the small room filled with forty fraternity members and the two petitioners became hostile. At the time, our fraternity had no housing privileges. We were walking on egg shells to comply with the university’s good behavior expectations to qualify to return to campus housing. A violent outburst against these visitors would ruin the chance to get housing, yet seemed inevitable until Dave’s quick response and stirring rendition of “God Bless America”. Our voices, not our fists, blasted these petitioners from the room. We ultimately secured campus housing.

Dave, Steve Brown, and Dan Nelson were seniors. They were graduating and were in no position to benefit from us being granted housing, but they supported us through their senior year, especially Dave. His dedication and loyalty was exemplary.

Dave had a quick wit and a great sense of duty. We were not surprised to learn he dedicated his work life to the Pentagon. A few weeks ago, my family toured this facility. We visited Washington to see the memorials. We also arranged Capitol Building and Pentagon tours via our congressman.

We learned the Pentagon has 17.5 miles of corridors. If placed on its side, it would be taller than the Empire State Building. It’s the largest functioning office building in the world with 23,000 employees.

Dave’s area was under construction the morning of the attacks. If this area was occupied to capacity, at least 6,000 – 10,000 people would have perished. One hundred and twenty five (125) employees and contractors died while working at the site. An additional fifty nine (59) hostages aboard Flight 77 died on impact bringing the casualty total to 184. Although horrific, it could have been much worse.

Some engineers speculate had it not been for the steel girders, in place to support renovations, the plane may have destroyed the entire building. I believe Dave blocked the plane’s potential destruction. In the memorial garden, of the 184 benches, Dave’s sits closest to the building, signifying his proximity to impact.

The contractors tasked to reconstruct the building committed to finishing the project within a year of the attack. They charged no overtime, yet worked around the clock to accomplish this goal. They considered this considerable sacrifice their contribution to society. They succeeded.

I am humbled and deeply patriotic thanks to the behaviors and selfless sacrifice my role models demonstrated. This devotion to the United States was shared by most of my hometown friends, but I had to search for it at Brown. Not many of the faculty or students embraced the fundamental truths dictated by the constitution and defended by my role models. Instead, I saw people manipulate these protected rights for selfish reasons - social and economic advancement.

I do not see our candidates for higher office or Supreme Court appointments demonstrating their sacrifices as often as I hear them using political correctness for personal promotion or to browbeat others from challenging their perspectives.

Granted, not everyone feels their protected class, affinity, or family was treated, historically, with the same equality as my role models. The two Brown petitioners may have been fighting the Solomon Amendment because they felt it penalized gays.

During the tour, another interesting fact was shared about the Pentagon. The building has twice the number of bathrooms and water fountains required by code. When it was built in 1943, a mere 66 years ago, separate facilities were required for different races.

The system Jefferson and his cohorts penned, the system my role models defended, can correct and adjust itself with incredible speed. To date, it can be argued, it’s the greatest governing system ever created.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Drive for Life: Just because You're Diagnosed with a Life Altering Disorder Doesn't Mean it's Time to Give Up!

John “Bake” (his nickname complements Brown point guard Alex Bynum’s “Shake”) McBride and I were on the same schedule during our 1980 freshman year at Brown University. We shared, along with twenty five other young men, the third floor bathroom in Perkins Hall.

Perkins is the most removed dorm from Brown’s main campus. It was acquired from Bryant Business School and sits on the edge of Fox Point. Before gentrifying, Fox Point was a blue collar neighborhood filled with immigrant populations. When we started at Brown, Fox Point had fallen on hard times. Rumors had a robust street drug trade thriving around the corner, though I never witnessed illicit dealings. Suspicious characters flourished.

Perkins has a typical brick and mortar institutional look yet attempts to reflect Le Corbusier edicts with pillars supporting its jutting first floor, to separate living space from the street. The roof became “Perkins Beach” when the weather turned nice, but between November and April, sunny days in Providence are as uncommon as ethical legislators in its capital building. Cement engravings extolling: “As Ye Sow” centered on its left fa├žade, with matching: “So Shall Ye Reap” on its right, greets visitors.

Being on the top floor secluded us from the central campus community, but fostered a close bond with survivors. The dorm’s location added considerable distance to the athletic center, classes, libraries, and meals. Several hall-mates, burdened with time management challenges, left Brown for academic reasons.

Brown blended freshmen football recruits, more hockey recruits, a few basketball recruits with several female weight throwers, rowers and interspersed them with about ten students accepted to Brown’s then seven year medical program on our hall. These students were admitted to medical school out of high school. It was a culture clash – extreme jocks with extreme students.

I lumbered upon and stopped attempted crimes, including assaults, on my off hour travels to and from main campus and speculated Brown placed athletes with big bodies from urban settings on Third Floor Perkins to deter crime and to befriend and to protect less imposing dorm mates. Brown was strapped for cash and I’m guessing they decided to transfer the added security risk to us large students.

If true, it’s twisted irony. Outside of a few notable exceptions, Brown made large, male, heterosexual athletes feel unwelcome. The implied message was clear; presence and physical gifts are not significant, memory and brain power are. Most faculty and staff stereotyped us. They inferred our physicality was the key factor in gaining admittance. They assumed we were inferior students, yet placed us in a disadvantageous location to study so our physical gifts could help secure the campus.

It was edifying seeing friendly Bake preparing his contact lenses every morning. Bake and his roommate, Robinson “Robby” Alston were from the Bronx, and they were likeable – cool, yet eager to smile. I think Rob could bench press more than anyone on our freshman football team. He played nose guard with a gracious spirit. Bake was a basketball recruit. He was about 6’3” with natural calm. Nothing bothered Bake. He just kept plodding, and observing. I noticed him shaking his head once and guessed he was wondering how a third floor contemporary gained admission to Brown.

At least once a weekend our dorm was cleared at 3 AM when a hockey recruit returned to his room and, drunk beyond cognition, triggered the fire alarm. His behavior changed a Providence Fire Department policy with Brown. Prior to Scott, the fire department never charged Brown for false alarm responses.

I observed and admired Bake over four years. Although we did not share living space after freshman year, we remained friends. He played varsity basketball. He has a great perspective, and an imposing presence. I figured he would go to law school, or return to NYC and carve a unique career. He seemed to have a beacon directing him. He was always in control, and always moving forward.

About a year ago, and thanks to Face book, Bake and I reconnected. I learned he returned to NYC, married his Brown sweetheart, Jessica, and has two children. He’s worked for Manhattan’s Department of Transportation and its Department of Finance for most of his career. He started his MBA at NYU’s Stern School, found the students beyond cut throat, the antithesis of his valued teamwork, and left. A crisis prompted Bake to return to school and to receive his MBA from Baruch College. When we talked for the first time in twenty four years, I was reminded of his eloquent speech and thoughtful insights.

We exchanged pleasantries, caught up with each other’s lives, and committed to stay in touch. Based on our initial conversations, Bake’s life appeared to meet his expectations and my anticipations for him. After reading the blog about my son’s hip disease and surgery last year, Bake shared his Cross with me. This deepened our friendship and opened new communication levels.

In 1998 Bake McBride was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis (MS).

Multiple sclerosis (abbreviated MS, also known as disseminated sclerosis or encephalomyelitis disseminata) is an autoimmune condition where the immune system attacks the central nervous system, leading to demyelination. The disease onset usually occurs in young adults. It is more common in females. Its prevalence ranges between 2 and 150 per 100,000. MS was first described in 1868 by Jean-Martin Charcot.

MS affects the brain and spinal cords’ nerve cell ability to communicate with each other. Nerve cells communicate by sending electrical signals called action potentials down long fibers called axons. These are wrapped in an insulating substance called myelin. In MS, the body's own immune system attacks and damages the myelin. When myelin is lost, the axons can no longer conduct signals. The name multiple sclerosis refers to scars (scleroses – better known as plaques or lesions) in the white matter of the brain and spinal cord. This is mainly composed of myelin. Although much is known about disease process mechanisms, the cause remains unknown. Theories include genetics or infections and different environmental risk factors.

Almost any neurological symptom can appear with the disease, and often progresses to physical and cognitive disability. MS takes several forms, with new symptoms occurring either in discrete attacks (relapsing forms) or slowly accumulating over time (progressive forms). Between attacks, symptoms may go away completely, but permanent neurological problems often occur, especially as the disease advances.

There is no known cure for MS. Treatments attempt to return function after an attack, prevent new attacks, and prevent disability. MS medications can have adverse effects or be poorly tolerated. Many patients pursue alternative treatments, despite the lack of supporting scientific study. The prognosis is difficult to predict. It depends on the subtype of the disease, the individual patient's disease characteristics, the initial symptoms and the degree of disability the person experiences as time advances. Life expectancy of patients is nearly the same as that of the unaffected population.

In 1997 Bake’s legs tingled. At first, he was bothered, yet not too concerned. Over time, the searing jolts intensified. The pain and anticipation prompted him to undergo a battery of tests, including an MRI and an EMG. The tests returned negative. Symptoms continued through 1997 with no conclusion.

In 1998 Bake experienced Optic Neuritis; he lost vision in one eye caused by the swelling and destruction of the myelin sheath covering the optic nerve. The most common etiology is MS. Up to 50% of patients with MS will develop an episode of optic neuritis, and 20% of the time optic neuritis is the presenting sign of MS. Bake received his diagnosis.

At first, he was in denial. As an athlete, Bake always prided himself on controlling his body, his emotions, and his destiny. He felt strong, and kept working out. His identity was wrapped in his physical prowess and gifted agility. As he experienced significant strength loss, Bake’s denial shifted to resistance.

Bake, who once flew through the air to knock down slam dunks, must now give his feet instructions to walk. At Virginia Beach one recent summer, he was rescued from the waves after his body failed to respond to his brain’s command to get his face and body out of the water.

Feeling his body fail forced Bake to acknowledge, perhaps for the first time, lost control. Accepting and managing MS is the hardest, albeit most affirming, challenge in Bake’s life. He constantly proves to himself he’s much stronger, mentally and emotionally, than he ever fathomed. This acceptance has spawned emotional growth and empathy for others.

Prior to his affliction, Bake was less tolerant of people who appeared to be overwhelmed and halted by what he perceived as “normal” (failings or obstacles causing dissatisfaction with health, friends and family, recreation, romance, finance, career, living conditions, or spiritual /emotional well being) setbacks. He assumed they used these challenges as excuses to blame or to wait to be rescued.
He felt they should, as his mom preached: “pick themselves up and get on with getting on”.

Now Bake identifies and empathizes with people struggling with life’s unexpected changes. He figures they may be suffering like him, from a somewhat disguised mental or neurological malady, and he accepts them. He hopes for them. Because of this, his mother in law states she likes Bake more now than before his diagnosis.

How does Bake maintain his incredible calm, focus and positive outlook first admired on Perkins Hall 28 years ago? The MS gave him a renewed appreciation for life’s miracles. He’s more attuned to laugher, beautiful days, coincidence, consideration, art, music, family, and friends. His MS allows him to apply his considerable focusing abilities to be present, to compartmentalize more temporal concerns like finances and work, to address his body’s needs.

According to Bake, his mom resembled a drill instructor. She did not tolerate failure. She demanded her children to plow through problems, to avoid self pity and to keep moving forward. There are many challenges in Bake’s family. Jessica is a breast cancer survivor. Bake’s brother is 6’8” and was a basketball marvel with NBA potential before blowing out both knees and a shoulder. One sister has colitis. Another sister suffered partial, permanent, hearing loss at sixteen months. His siblings were not allowed to wallow in misfortune. All were expected to explore options, to choose a path, and to get on with life. They all evolved into productive citizens.

Post script: When I spoke with Bake for this article, he and his ninety six year old father just watched Obama’s inauguration. Due to the color of his skin, and while being raised in South Carolina, Bake’s father experienced legal segregation, suffering, and limited opportunities in America during the first half of his life, before moving to New York City. Bake stated his father just shook his head in wonder as Obama took the Oath of Office, amazed at this symbolic correction of social ills. My hope is Bake will one day experience similar elation when an MS cure is discovered. Merck is in the process of gaining FDA approval for a promising MS treatment. In the interim, Bake will be energized with his new grandson, Cash.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Championship Rings


Expected: Today, the Arizona Cardinals or the Pittsburgh Steelers will be crowned Super Bowl Champions – football’s ultimate prize. To recognize this achievement, the winning team members will receive championship rings.

Doubt: Is it possible to connect a football championship ring with its rightful owner after more than 31 years?

Trials: Bernie Tiger, www.serenitysjourney.com, was mentioned in my October 2007 blog. We attended high school together in NJ and reconnected in 2004 after crossing paths at our respective child’s middle school orientation. Bernie’s son and my eldest daughter are in the same class at our Massachusetts regional middle / high school, attended by students from three abutting towns. Our meeting is Providence.

It’s hard to avoid Bernie. He was the tallest person in the auditorium, and he looked somewhat familiar despite adding a few requisite pounds. A few days later, I saw him at a Blockbuster Video store. We stared at each other. I nodded, and said to myself: “man, this guy looks like Bernie Tiger”, but figured it was just a striking resemblance; Bernie’s being in the area was too improbable. Plus, I side stepped my daughters’ mortification and subsequent wrath by not greeting Bernie, his son and friends.

After Blockbuster, I returned to my office and received an email from Bernie. He wrote he saw me at the orientation and at Blockbuster, then did a web search and saw it was, in fact, me. He reintroduced himself and asked if I’d remembered him from Madison. Of course I’d remembered him. Several things stand out about Bernie. First, as mentioned, he is big. Second, he is talented. We were in the same freshman drafting class. Every week Bernie’s work was posted on the board with Mr. Tourell’s coveted “Excellent” comment.

Third, we are football teammates, positioned next to each other in our 1977 Championship Team Photo. We had a unique team incident. I cracked my helmet (a helmet once belonging to Bobby Monica, our Head Coach’s middle son and a Madison Athletic Legend) down the middle against Summit, NJ during this 1977 sophomore year and needed Bernie's helmet. Bernie, and eventual All State linebacker John Dagon, were the only players with helmets big enough to fit my great pumpkin. John played special teams, and was needed on the field. Bernie had less football experience and was eager to let me wear his helmet.

Fourth, Bernie and I were raised by a terminally ill parent and lost this young parent to cancer. We also share transition challenges caused by our respective parent’s quick remarriages. Bernie's dad had colon cancer and died when Bernie was fifteen. Bernie's mom remarried and moved Bernie, his sister, and his brother to Pennsylvania. Thanks to the move, Bernie did not graduate with our Madison High class. He sort of disappeared. We never knew what happened to him.

As soon as he moved, Bernie and his stepfather butted heads. He threw Bernie out in the dead of winter. Bernie slept in the snow for three nights, looking for work during the day. He found and lived at a Salvation Army for six months. He was homeless.

Transcendence: Despite these significant odds, Bernie survived, and then thrived. He stuck with his passion, music. He played bass guitar in a band. He got a job. He earned his GED. He had the spiritual and emotional tools needed to self protect. He looked around, saw others succeeding, and realized there was no difference between them and him. He knew he could compete in the race. He started testing himself, to see how he could improve himself. Success proved he was good. He belonged. He met his eventual wife. He got a better job. He and his wife had a son and committed to doing it right. He was relocated to the Massachusetts town next to mine. Bernie and I meet for breakfast or lunch, or to workout, about every two weeks.

On January 19, 2009, I received a Facebook message from another high school teammate, Bob Irving, who is two years older than Bernie and me. Irvs is an amazing person. He is full of heart and inspiration. He’s always been this way, and especially since battling back from cancer, diagnosed in 1980. We reconnected at the Ted Monica Field Dedication in September 2007. Coach Monica is a NJ football coaching legend. Our playing field is named for him. Irvs and I trade emails and messages.

After responding to Irvs recent note, I noticed Bobby Monica, who is two years older than Irvs, listed as a friend on Irvs’ Facebook contact list. I also noticed Mark Monica, www.impactpads.com, listed on Bobby’s friends list.

Mark and I are Madison classmates. As quarterback, he led us to our third consecutive, undefeated, NJ State Championship title during our 1979 senior year, admirably replacing graduated Steve O’Donnell, who was then playing for Bo Schembechler at Michigan. Mark and I grew up together. We were in kindergarten together, and shared most elementary school classes and friends.

The 1979 season was significant for me because my mom succumbed to her eight year battle with melanoma a few days before our state championship playoff game. She was buried the day before. Mark, John Dagon, Pete O’Donnell, and I were senior football captains. The love, teamwork, and leadership I experienced during this season fostered my resiliency and prompted me to pursue my career.

I mentioned my lunch with Bernie Tiger to Mark. He wrote back immediately, stating he was helping his dad and mom organize his dad’s football belongings a few months earlier and came across a wrapped ring box with “Tiger”, #79 – Bernie’s number, and 10 ½ - Bernie’s ring size, on the sleeve under the wrapping. Mark was not sure what he did with the ring. He remembered Bernie as a good guy, but never knew what happened to him.

I wrote Mark it'd be great to surprise Bernie. Mark wrote back: “Pak-nye, I FOUND BERNIE TIGER'S RING. The foam inside the box has seen better days, but the ring itself is pristine. Can you imagine giving this thing to him 32 years later? Call me at the office tomorrow, toll-free 866.393.1400 please. Talk to you later.”

Mark followed this up with: “Ring went out today via FedEx Next Day Air. You should have it tomorrow morning by 10:30AM. I sent it Priority so the chance of it getting lost is decreased (never know with these guys). Good luck!”

This past Thursday, January 29, 2008, I surprised Bernie Tiger with his 1977 Madison, NJ High School Football State Championship Ring, at, ironically, a restaurant named “How on Earth” in Mattapoisett, MA, more than 31 years after, and four states away from, the original awards ceremony, thanks to a series of championship – football, telecom, and friendship - rings. It fit. I claim Bernie almost passed out, at least got teary. Bernie refutes this.

When I called Bernie later to see if he'd shown the ring to his son, who questioned Bernie's claims about being on an undefeated state championship team because Bernie had no ring or proof, Bernie stated: "it's his ring now!"

Post Script: As I was leaving “How on Earth”, I returned a call from Bobby Irving. His daughter had lost his 1977 Madison High State Championship Ring, and he was calling to see if I had mine (I do) and if he could get some pictures. He’d met a woman from Josten’s who stated she could make a duplicate with ease from photos. Bernie is making the jpeg copies of his ring to make Irvs’ new ring.

KISMET!