Sunday, December 18, 2011

A Christmas Memory

Getting the two young boys to sleep on Christmas Eve, like so many their ages, was an exercise in futility. In an effort to corral the two boys, their parents had asked their aunt to sleep in the room with them. She slept on the lower bunk, with the younger of the two, while the older boy tossed and turned atop them in his bunk.

The older boy, two and a half years his brother's senior, dwelled on whispers spread in fits and breaths at school. Whispers that Santa wasn't real. Whispers that it was all a lie. Staring at the popcorned ceiling, the boy listened to the whispered words in his mind, tugging at the frays of his memory. Could it be true? Could this season all be a charade? It must be. The whispers made too much sense.

But the boy dared not voice his doubts, he had two younger brothers that still believed. He shifted in his bed, head probing for a cold part of the pillow, the traditional nervous anticipation keeping him from sleep on Christmas. Would he tell his brother? Could he repeat the whispers? He flipped to face the wall, a Miami Dolphins pennant decorating the white. He wouldn't tell the baby, obviously, but maybe his other brother deserved to know.

His brother and aunt rustled in the bunk below.

"Go to sleep," she said. His aunt normally slept over on Christmas Eve, as did Abuelo and Abuela. The three added to the excitement of Christmas morning, offering but a prelude to the pajamaed pandemonium that would ensue as other family members arrived for breakfast. They all must have been in on the lie, every one of the adults. They all claimed to believe in Santa, but, more likely, they were party to the intrigue.

There was no Santa. How could there be?

"What was that?" the young boy asked.

The older boy sat up, his young brother tumbling out of his bunk.

"I'm sure it was nothing, Christopher. Come back to bed."

The older boy peered down over the railing. His brother stood frozen, the zipper of his red foot-pajamas down near his belly button. The younger boy turned slowly, arms out.

"What are you--"

"There it is again!" The younger boy leaped for the aluminum blinds that covered the only window in the room.

The older boy climbed down from the top-bunk, eyeing his aunt, who wore a smile and half-heartedly tried to get his brother back in bed.

The younger boy thrust aside the aluminum blinds, not taking the time to pull the drawstring. "Dave, look!"

"What is it?" his aunt asked.

The older boy approached the window, his younger brother obstructing most of the view. The bedroom door opened behind him. He looked back.

"What's going on?" his mother said, standing in the threshold with his father just behind.

The older boy nudged beside his brother, who pushed back for a better view.


The older boy leaned in, his nose practically against the glass. He saw nothing at first, then...


The figure walking along the sidewalk was undeniably Santa Claus; the belly, the red coat trimmed in white, the floppy hat, the full sack slung over his shoulder.

"Santa!" his brother screamed again, now hopping up and down.

The older boy stared out at Santa as he ranged across the sidewalk. With hands pressed to the glass, the older boy craned his neck for a better look. Santa had moved too far down the sidewalk.

"Can we go out there?" the younger boy asked.

Their father put a hand on their shoulders. "No, we can't go out there. He won't stop in our house if we go out there."

"And you guys have to hurry and go to sleep!" their mother said. "You need to be asleep when he comes in."

Reluctantly, the boys settled back into their bunks. The older boy lay with his heart thundering in his chest. It was the whispers that were lies. He smiled and snuggled down against the new cold on his pillow. He couldn't wait 'til morning.

This is probably my most vivid Christmas memory. For years, my aunt, Tata Christy, and my father's parents, would spend the night on Christmas Eve. They would be there as we set out the cookies and milk, and even carrots for the reindeer. My brother's and I each wore matching red foot-pajamas. Once we grew older, Abuelo and Abuela moved to spend Christmas morning with my younger cousins.

The Christmas Eve described above was one of the last ones they spent with us, but it was the most memorable. As it turns out, Santa was played by my dearly departed, paunchy-bellied Tio Emilo, his amiable and loving personality (along with his belly) giving him the perfect disposition to play the part of Santa.

Looking back on it, I smile. It was a wonderful moment in my life, and a lasting memory I cherish. I can't thank my parents enough now, and I hope to provide my own children with such memories one day.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Don't Dive Into the Deep-End

So, I failed. The NaNoWriMo challenge, that is. I've thrown in the towel. I've waved the white flag. (Feel free to insert your own cliché here.)

50,000 words in 30 days was too deep a dive for me. I can line up a myriad of excuses, but I'll save you the violin playing. I comes down to a simple lack of discipline on my part, something I know to be my greatest fault as a writer. I dream of being able to walk away from my current job as a teacher, and when presented with an opportunity to hone my craft (an ultimately hone the skill that will allow me to walk away from my current job) I failed at it. I sit writing this entry a disgruntled mess.

When I say I failed, I don't mean anything more than the National Novel Writing Month challenge. I couldn't craft a narrative of 50,000 words in 30 days. The goal was, perhaps, too ambitious. But that's where my failure ends. I'm still working on the manuscript I began for NaNoWriMo, I just won't finish it by midnight on November 30th. Choosing the confines of NaNoWriMo as the platform from which I took my first dive into the science fiction pool was misguided. Up until recently, my stories have swam in the modern/urban fantasy genre. But my hope of cannonballing into the deep-end of scifi during NaNoWriMo turned out to be more of a reddening belly-flop.

See, the story (whose working title is Township Avalon) is one I feel can work. The difficulty resided in learning the proper strokes it takes as a scifi writer to navigate the waters of the genre. I'm building an entire new post-apocalyptic society intended to mirror the societal structures of Roman and Medieval times. In my mind, the story is greatly influenced by Arthurian legend, Spartacus, and the fantasy writing of George R. R. Martin. But the further into the draft I waded, the more I felt there was a lack of depth to it. Now, the intent of NaNoWriMo isn't to spit out a sellable novel, at least, that's not the intent I took it to have; I felt that trying to craft a 50,000 word manuscript in the 30 day time frame was more of a starting point, a diving board. As it stands now, the word count floats at 23,241 words. I might try to spray in a few more scenes before the 30th, but I can't imagine that word count getting up above 26,000 or so.

With the pressure of NaNoWriMo shed to the towel, I can turn my attention more fully to preparation for the writing conference I'm attending in January. I've got about two months, albeit busy ones, to sharpen my focus. I need to polish off the 3rd draft of my first novel--Mythos, put together a Query Letter, and type-up a synopsis. I also plan to finish the first draft of Township Avalon, and try to hammer out one or two sellable short stories. A close friend has always maintained that I need to get a short story sold before I can really get any agent's attention. We'll see. I've got plenty of short story ideas, but despite the seemingly similar oceans, short story writing and novel writing are two totally different swims.

I've written short stories before--that really was the only type of writing assignment I tackled back in the FIU creative writing department. I've posted one of the old college stories on this blog before. (The Jambalaya Pull) It was an ill-fated attempt at comedy. Attempting to revise that story years later was not-unlike learning how to swim at first. You know: dive in, paddle those arms, kick those legs, keep those chlorine-soaked open, reach for Dad. But Dad doesn't seem to be getting any closer. Actually, the s.o.b. is backing away. And just before your lungs burst, he grabs you and lifts you out of the water. Everyone around cheers, exalts you for such a good job swimming, even though it felt more like actively drowning. That's what comedy writing feels like: actively drowning.

Instead of actively drowning again, I've got another modern fantasy set up. I've also planned a simple little historical fiction piece. But all of these things will come after I finish up Township Avalon's first draft and the polishing of Mythos' 3rd draft. As NaNoWriMo comes to a close, I'm glad I gave it a go. I'm glad I stepped off the ledge and jumped in, but the challenge's waters were just too cold and too deep for me to deal with. I understand why denizens of the publishing world poo-poo the idea of NaNoWriMo. I can see the desks of agents becoming cluttered with half-drowned ideas gift-wrapped in the guise of a novel. But as I finally wade back to the depth I'm comfortable with, I take with me a better understanding of myself as a writer. I know what strokes I need to master before I attempt to cross the ocean of scifi again.

As the next few months pass, I'm planning to post several more bits of my writing. I'd love to get feedback. I'm planning on revising another short story from my college days soon, and posting it here. In addition, I'll might load up portions of the other pieces I've got going.

In something of a belated announcement, I'm thankful for all of you who take time out of your busy days to read my musings here on DLFwriting. I'm also thankful to those of you who have forwarded any of my writing to those people you know who might enjoy it. In addition, I'm thankful for my beautiful and supportive wife, my wonderfully maddening children, my loud, obnoxious and growing family, my health, and, although I'm not what you'd call happy there, my job. Thanks again for reading.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Polarizing Tim Tebow

I'm genetically predisposed to hate two things: the New York Jets and the Florida Gators. One of my favorite movie lines of all-time comes from the film "10 Things I Hate About You" when David Krumholtz (Michael in the film) tells Heath Ledger's character that the girl (Julia Stiles) "hates [him] with the fire of a thousand suns". That's how I feel about the Jets. That's how I feel about the Gators. I hate them with the fire of a thousand suns. (For the record, that's pretty hot.)

You might wonder why, as a Canes fan, I hate the Gators and not say, the Seminoles. Truth is, I did hate the Seminoles for a time, but after the Tim-Tebow era in Gainesville, coupled with the fact that a few close family members root for the 'Noles, the Gators take top-hated billing. Also, I can't hate Leonard Hamilton, FSU basketball coach. He's a former Canes coach, and, he's awesome.

What bothers me the most here might be rooted in Media exposure. The Jets are the brash, loud-mouthed child born from the country's biggest Media market. The Gators, while calling the small town of Gainesville home, were thrust into the national spotlight with Tim Tebow. ESPN forced Tebow down the throat of their viewers, exalting him as the greatest college athlete since the dawn of organized sports. Viewers had to suffer through extended spots on Sportscenter regarding the greatness of Tebow, or flip-over to the Food Network to learn how to roast a pork shoulder.

The one solace many so-called Gator Haters had was simply this: Tim Tebow had no shot to succeed in the NFL. He was (is) by no means a conventional quarterback, lacking the polished throwing-motion, the ability to analyze defenses, and the accuracy required to win at the professional level. There was no way he'd be a first round draft pick. He'd toil into the middle rounds and ESPN would have to watch their Media-driven creation flutter to the turf after their lofty touting of the young man. Well, they would've had to if Josh McDaniels and the Denver Broncos not lost their collective minds and traded up to draft him.

My aversion to Tim Tebow was based more on the fact that ESPN told its viewers they needed to love him. They espoused his virtues, purity, and greatness. We were all lesser humans in comparison. But, in the same commercial break from College Football Live to NFL Live, the network and all its analysts turned on Tebow. It was a curious development. All of a sudden, he would never make it in the NFL, he would never succeed. They granted he was a great college player, but he wasn't an NFL-caliber quarterback.

Well, suddenly I felt bad. The coverage swung to the opposite pole. However, I agree with the analysts. I don't think he's has long-term viability as a quarterback, but tide turned so quickly on him that it left me not regretting my hatred, but certainly no longer stoking the flame. NFL analyst Merril Hodge was among the many who called the Denver Broncos idea of starting Tim Tebow patently absurd. Some of his most publicized quotes included this: "It's embarassing to think the Broncos could win with Tebow!"

At the moment, the Broncos have won four out of their first five games with Tebow. Despite one of those wins coming against the Dolphins (I reveled in it at the time... hoping for the number 1 pick then... alas) and another coming in glorious fashion against the hated Jets, I find myself still rooting against Tebow. By all reports, he's a wonderful person. He's performed circumcisions in the Phillipines. He's a very good footbal player. But I just don't see him as a very good quarterback. Not even average, really. That said, I still feel bad when analysts pile on him because it's the easy thing to do. (Much like analysts praised him while he was at Florida because that was the easy thing to do.)

What it comes down to it this. Tim Tebow might be the most polarizing figure in sports these days. To me, the coverage of him has evolved from nauseating to facinating. By all accounts, the offense the Broncos are running these days should NOT work in the NFL. The Option has never consistently worked in professional football. But what makes this all so interesting is the amount of questions it has produced.
Miami Killian-grad Stephen Tulloch
tebowing after a sack of Tebow.

Can the Spread Option really work in the NFL? Did Stanford grad and Bronco VP John Elway insert Tim Tebow thinking the team would lose and he'd get the opportunity to draft Stanford's Andrew Luck? Can Tim Tebow win at the NFL level despite his unconventional style? Will the Broncos stick with the Option or will Tebow evolve into a more traditional pocket passer? Are the Broncos trying to sabotage Tebow? Does Tebow have long-term viability as a starter in the NFL? Why is Tebowing a Internet-phenomenon?

I think it's incredible that the Broncos retooled their offense in a matter of weeks and have found success. They have simplified things for their quarterback by limiting the reads for him and provided him with an attack he is comfortable running. But perhaps the most facinating thing about this entire discussion is the irony. Tebow is proving both his doubters and his supporters right... at the same time.

Doubters (myself included) feel he'll never be a true quarterback. Look at his abysmal 44.8 completion percentage, by far the lowest in the league. Look at the fact he didn't complete a single pass over the course of 60 football minutes, the equivalent of an entire game. Look at the fact he completed just 2 passes in a single game. But Supporters can point to his 4-1 record as a starter through 5 games. And, to echo Herm Edwards, you play to win the games.

For me, this Bronco offense feels like David Lee's Wildcat offense the Dolphins used in 2008. They didn't manufacture the offense. It had been used by the Vikings and Falcons in 1998, and former Dolphin offensive coordinator (and Wildcat implementor) Dan Henning used it with the Carolina Panthers in 2006. But the Dolphins used the unconventional style of play to wiggle into the playoffs that year. Teams didn't know how to defend it, so it caught them off-guard. Well, that is until Ray Lewis, Ed Reed and the Baltimore Ravens came to town for a playoff game that year. The Ravens killed the Wildcat, and once other teams around the league saw the blueprint to dismantle the atypical set, they dismantled it as well. That's were I think the Bronco Spread Option Offense is headed--a quick, gimicky death.

I also think the Broncos are doing Tim Tebow a disservice by not helping him improve as a passer. By dumbing down their offense, and relying on college-style playcalling, they aren't growing their player. To win in the NFL you need a successful quarterback, but all the Broncos seem to be doing (aside from winning right now) is pounding their quarterback into a pulp. I wonder if John Elway is secretly pounding his fists against the wall with every Bronco win. I wonder if he and Bronco head coach John Fox regret making the switch to Tebow.

As I said before, I'm genetically predisposed to hate the Gators, so I'll never root for Tim Tebow. But just as the polarizing Tebow story continues, I find myself drawn to it. I want to see how it plays out. And I'm glad it's evolved as it has so far, because without it, I don't have this picture:

Jason on Halloween, as Jack Sparrow, Tebowing.

Monday, October 31, 2011

A Reasonable Amount of Trouble

The impetus to attempt something in 30 days that previously took me more than 3,600 seems like an unreasonable amount of trouble, no matter the catalyst. The idea strikes me as asinine. Yet, tomorrow, November 1st, I will embark on the lonely journey of traversing Middle Earth to deposit a ring in a volcano crafting the manuscript of what will one-day, hopefully, read as a novel. I call it a manuscript crafting because, the more I've thought about this little jaunt the clearer the sense I get that it is not humanly possible to write a novel in 30 days. I mean, first, you'd need Shakespearean-style prodigious talent (which I don't have), and you'd need to be a Obi Wan-like hermit (which, sadly, I can't be).

Here are the ground rules for participating in National Novel Writing Month, or as it's more affectionately known: NaNoWriMo. Rule #1: Write 50,000 words of fiction in 30 days, starting on November 1st and ending by midnight on November 30th. Rule #2: the work needs to be from "scratch", though writers can pen character sketches, outline, and research ahead of time. That's it. There's no tangible prize, unless my overwhelming sense of pride and accomplishment coalesces into a brownie. But once said Pride Brownie is consumed, and all wayward crumbs are wiped away, what I'm left with is a steaming pile of raw material that still needs quite a bit of spit and polish before it graduates to "novel" status.

The reason I allowed this momentary lapse of rational judgement seize me is simple. I am a lazy S-O-B. Taking ten years to hammer out two drafts of the same novel is sad for someone who aspires to be known as a novelist. That being said, thinking I can go from 3,600+ days to 30 days might be a bit daft as well. The pacing, though, seems doable. 50,000 words in 30 days is 1,667 words a day, or about 7 manuscript pages. I can do 7 pages a day.

I think.

I need something to propel me forward as a writer. I need to push myself. To quote the great Humphrey Bogart, "I don't mind a reasonable amount of trouble." (That's from The Maltese Falcon . ASIDE: If you haven't seen The Maltese Falcon you need to seriously reconsider calling yourself a highly functioning member of society.) See, crafting this manuscript will be trouble, but if I'm going to move forward toward my goal, further the Dream of my career, I need to sit my boney ass in the chair and churn out another manuscript. I can't justify spending upwards of $500 for a writer's conference in January if I don't head up there prepared.
Beyond the trouble, it's practice. Kurt Vonnegut once said: "The primary benefit of practicing any art, whether well or badly, is that it enables one's soul to grow." I'd like to think that's true. See, Writer's Block (which one can't afford in the 30 day crunch that is NaNoWriMo) is a myth. It's an excuse that does nothing more than get you off the hook. If you don't start, you can't fail, right? If it's failure I'm afraid of (and I most certainly am to a certain extent), Samuel Beckett offers this piece of advice: "Fail better next time." After all that, it might be Ernest Hemingway I end up listening to the most. He said, "All first drafts are shit." He really knows how to let the pressure off.

So what have I decided to trouble myself with, you might be wondering. I've elected to try my hand at one of my favorite genres, Science Fiction. Thanks very much to my dad, I grew up a bit of a Trekkie. Beyond Star Trek, I have a well publicized obsession with affinity for Star Wars. I also love Stargate. (Put the word "Star" in the title and I'm more than likely going to enjoy it.) Science Fiction affords the writers an easily accessible platform for social commentary and thematic development, within the confines of fantastical story realms and realities.

But in all the writing I've done, or thought about doing, I've never tried SciFi. It takes an incredible amount of work. You've got to research the science of it, the plausibility. You've got to develop original details, and build the world of the story much like engineers would build a spacecraft. Piece by piece. I've spent the better part of the last two weeks researching what the world's borders would look like after an apocalyptic flood. Maybe the icecaps melted, maybe the poles shift. Whatever the case may end up being, the Earth in my story will be very different from the one we reside on today. (I'm not talking Waterworld bad, but let's just say the Eastern seaboard of the US will be no more. Now that I've said this, I cringe at comparing my up-coming manuscript to one of the worst crimes against humanity movies of all-time.)

Okay, let's refocus. My manuscript will be set sometime in the not-too-distant future, where many of the world's inhabitants will call floating City Ships their homes. These ships will have an almost feudal society, and I've elected to slant the story as a Medieval Romance. Now, Medieval Romance is not lovey-dovey knights going after ladies, rescuing the damsel in distress. It's a tale of high adventure. Crusade or conquest, it's a story that idealizes chivalry and the noble hero-knight and his deeds. It's a story that idealizes the hero-knight's love for his lady, but also one whose setting is imaginary. A true Medieval Romance derives its mystery from supernatural elements and regularly uses concealed identities. It focuses on a hero-knight character who is honest, loyal, faithful, courageous, generous, fair, and courteous. These are the ideas I hope to infuse into my manuscript, the themes I hope to steep the story in. 

So that's where we're going over the next 30 days (and more). The working title is The Township Avalon, and the main character's name is Bear Blackbourne. Bear is a young man, 25 or so, who works as part of a salvage crew. He spends much of his time training as an MMA fighter with his crewmate Gully. He's smart, athletic, honest, loyal, courageous, generous, fair, and courteous. He'll have a love interest at some point. And, he'll get mixed up with a character named Cannon Grace, a Viceroy on the Township Avalon, who will be one of the antagonists. I will likely post excerpts here in the coming weeks to get some feedback, so whatever input you have it will be welcomed. If you're curious, the soundtrack for this manuscript will be "A Thousand Suns" by Linkin Park. (FYI: the soundtrack for my first novel, Mythos, was "Fallen" by Evanescence.)

Wish me luck as I embark on this journey. Hopefully, there'll only be a reasonable amount of trouble.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Not the Coach I Want to Be

In retrospect, the line is ridiculous.

"Go Dance!"

But as an utterance that exploded from my mouth in a fit of uncharacteristic, yet inexcusable ire, the line carried a weight that I haven't been able to shrug free from in the hours since its vocalization. Worst yet, it was aimed at a young man who had just spent the last hour pouring nothing but effort and sweat and heart for a game in my name. Beyond that, I tore the jersey from the young man's chest and slammed it at his feet, in plain sight of his surrounding teammates and whatever adults happened to be focused on my red face.

I've been coaching for almost ten years. I have lost by more than fifty. I have lost at the buzzer. I have lost championships. But that moment, after what seems like an inconsequential 1 point defeat, is the lowest moment of my career.

I left high school coaching by choice. I stood on the sidelines as amateur sports circled the basin, being flushed by greed and a blind focus on just winning. I was a good high school coach, could have been incredibly successful, but I recognized the growth of an environment I, as a student, would not have been given the opportunity to compete and one I did not have the heart to participate in. Sports had lost their joy at the high school level, replaced by shiny AAU trophies and glittery new travel-team uniforms. My high school was seized by the talons of recruiting, swept from the innocent nest of fun and carried to a stone to be rended and torn by the beak of Winning.

I witnessed all of this and retreated to the safe-haven of middle school, where it was about fun, and learning, and competing. I've since lost and won a championship. I've gone winless and undefeated. But it was never about those things. It was always about teaching the young men under my charge about life. About effort. Commitment. Teamwork. Communication. It was about helping them develop life-skills in a setting where they didn't even realize they were learning anything.

There, in the protected nest I once called home myself, I tried to mold these young men. I tried to set an example of how they should behave, and compete, and react.

Then I lost my mind.

Growing up, I never responded well to the Ogre-Coach, the coach that grew red-face and delivered his message amid a rain of spittle and curses. As a player, I was in fear of being the target of such an outburst-- so much so that I didn't even try-out for my high school basketball team as a freshman. Once I donned my high school's jersey, I applied a sharp focus to my game so that I wouldn't be the target of such a verbal assault. I saw friends crumble under the pressure, and others simply give up.

I'll never forget a friend, aptly nicknamed Goofy for his playful personality, suffering such a vitriolic battering from our JV basketball coach sophomore year. It was halftime of a hotly contested game, and our coach berated us for undisciplined play. As the onslaught zeroed in on Goofy, Coach lost his mind.

It was a verbal mugging. Goofy stood, ripped his jersey off and threw it at our Coach. The other eleven members of the team sat amongst the exercise equipment of that weight-room turned locker-room in frozen silence as our coach, a full grown man, challenged the sixteen year old Goofy to a fight. The two had to be separated. Goofy never played another minute in his high school career. To be fair, that Coach's contract was not renewed.

That story doesn't stand alone. I have dozens of friends, and a brother, with similar ones. And when I became a coach, I knew that wasn't the way it should be done. That's not how you teach. That's not how you coach. That's not how you interact with young men.

Less than three minutes passed before I realized my mistake. "Go Dance!" probably echoed throughout the neighborhood to a chorus of snickers. It certainly felt like it in the cavernous hole that was my mind. The young man was gone. The rest of my team cleaned the court as the visiting team celebrated their victory en route to their rides home.

I found myself alone, gathering the remaining bits of my profession's tools at the scorer's table, when a colleague, who has her son on my team and under my charge, approached. She witnessed the entire exchange, and asked what did "they" want?

The "they" in the question was a pair of students who had interrupted the game at its most tense moment. See, the 8th grade is practicing for a dance recital for the school's Harvest Fest. Our game had started late, and the dance teacher was likely searching for her wayward performers. Her emissaries did not seem to realize the gravity of the situation when they interrupted not only a timeout-huddle, but the final play of the game. After barking at those two, then losing the game at the buzzer, I was beside myself. It was during the post-game huddle, when I was trying to express my disappointment to my players, that one of them mentioned the dance practice. I would hear none of it.

Then the young man came running in. The same young man that the dance-interlopers had come in search of. And I wrongly assumed that my player, the young man that has given me nothing less than all of himself in the last three-plus years of my coaching him, had run off for that practice then realized he still needed to be part of the post-game huddle.

I tore his jersey from him. I yelled, "Go Dance!" I slammed the jersey to the court at his feet. (I must have been a sight.)

The young man left.

I gathered myself enough to finish the post-game huddle, but not before taking another verbal jab at the dance recital. Then, as the team dispersed to clean up and go home, the young man's best friend, my starting center that had gotten sick during the game, told me that the young man wasn't going to the dance practice but to tutoring.

If I had been full of hot-air and blustered every breath before, I wheezed at that announcement. I deflated, folding in on my self-importance and ogre-like gasbaggery.

Holy shit was I wrong.

The weight of it slammed home when discussing the events with my colleague. She listened to every word, and in what is her perpetual, non-judgemental way, she said: "It's good that they know we're human, too." Her words hit hard. I thanked her, and she shuffled off to gather her son and headed home.

See, I've got to be better than that. There is no conceivable reality to justify my reaction. That's not the coach I want to be. That's not the leader I want to be. That's not the father-figure I want to be. That's not the man I want to be.

Before I made what felt like the longest walk of my career to my car, I stopped the young man's best friend and asked him for his friend's phone number. I told him I needed to apologize. Hours later, after the young man had finished his tutoring session, I spoke to him and apologized. I also told him I would apologize to him again in front of his entire team. Shit, if I could, I'd recreate the entire damned scene, each and every man, woman, and child within ear-shot of my line, and I'd apologize to the young man in the same, loud, obnoxious, self-absorbed voiced I boomed out: "Go Dance!" with.

In retrospect, the line is ridiculous. But the very tangible pain those intangible, weighty words might have caused will haunt the rest of my coaching days because, that's not the coach I want to be.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Too Many Sunsets

I've caught too many sunsets. I realize that's a good thing, when focusing the lens at Life. But when I'm adjusting the camera's dial, zooming in on Dream, too many sunsets have been snapped without my Dream being warmed enough by that passed day's sun.

Two things have happened in the last few days that have brightened the otherwise shadowed visage of my Dream. First, my cousin JJ took a leap no-one, to my mind, has recently taken in my family. He packed up all his belongings and followed the arc of his Dream before he could witness any additional sunsets. He's off chasing that daylight in the biggest and brightest place his Dream glows. His decision burns as a beckon of inspiration for me.

The second thing that has brightened the darkness holding my Dream was ushered to me via a Hand of Fate. An email found its way into my in-box last week heralding a writer's conference in that same Mecca for Dreams my cousin finds himself in, New York City. That Herald provided a Call that might be the next step in my journey. What caught my eye about the 2012 Writer's Digest Conference was not only the list of speakers and sessions, but the opportunity to sit one-on-one with several agents during something called the "Pitch Slam". Here, writers get to discuss their stories and receive feedback from industry insiders. It's an opportunity to get some legitimate, valuable feedback from people who know the publishing business.

The likelihood that my Dream is realized at this very conference is remote, at best. That's not my goal in deciding to pay the $525 for the conference. My goal is to learn. Learn the proverbial ins-and-outs of the publishing business. Learn what agents and publishers have to say about my stories. (More on the plural "stories" later.) Learn what my Query Letter needs to say. Learn how my Synopses (synopsi?) need to read. Learn what genre I should label my stories under.

I have too many questions. And combing the tangled mane of the internet will only do me so much good. I need to take the opportunities presented to me before my Dream catches too many more sunsets. I've had the seed of a poem growing in my mind these days. It's based around a metaphor where Life is a Bull and I'm the Bull-fighter, my Dream, the red cape. The more I unfurl the cape, the more the Bull charges and tries to gore. It's a bit excessive, I know, but that's how it feels sometimes. Life just gets in way. I don't know that I'll actually flesh out this poem, as I find it hard to connect my Life to such a violent vessel. We'll see.

So what's the plan? 

Well, I'm blessed to have a wife that is so incredibly supportive. She's practically pushing me out the door. But swiping upwards of $700 from our savings account is irresponsible, considering we've been living in my parents' house for the better part of a year to save money to buy our own home. While it would have been nice to hit on one of those parlay bets I laid down in Vegas few weekends ago, I'll seek out students to tutor rather than rely on my gamblin' skillz.

But money isn't something that has me overly concerned. It's my material. As I've discussed here before, I have a complete novel manuscript. At the moment, I have several trusted friends reading and painstakingly providing the much needed red marks of an editor's pen. I have already been given good ideas to tighten the narrative and streamline the story. So, before I embark on the next stage of my journey, before I allow any more sunsets to be captured, I need to polish the manuscript to a shiney new 3rd draft. Beyond editing the current novel into another incarnation, I need to write a query letter and a synopsis for the story as well. Thing is, I don't want to head into this great opportunity without making sure I can squeeze every little ounce of useful publishing juice out of it.

While the completion of the 2nd draft of my current novel took more than ten years, I've decided to head to this writer's conference with at least one other complete novel manuscript. I've decided to participate in a "contest" called NaNoWriMo, or, National Novel Writing Month.

Crazy? Probably. Again, considering it took me more than 10 years to craft my first novel, I might be nuts to think I can craft a second one in 30 days. But that's the challenge. I'm not going to fail here. I have several ideas worth exploring, and some strategies I'm going to employ, all of which I will further discuss in a coming blog entry.

As I've sat here writing this entry, yet another sunset has slipped by through the window behind me. My Dream rests, the dim glow of the moon providing its only light, but now, thanks to my cousin's inspiration and a Call to Adventure, a new candle can burn for the coming nights to provide the light I need to keep chasing that Dream until the next sun rises.

Monday, September 26, 2011

An Anniversary in Pictures

On September 18th, my wife and I celebrated our 7th wedding anniversary. We took the weekend and traveled down to the Keys. In lieu of a traditional post, I've decided to Blog in Pictures. Enjoy!

Saturday, September 24, 2011

A Chance to See Simba

For those of you who know my son, you are more than likely familiar with his near-ubiquitous companion, Simba. This stuffed animal might as well be stitched to his arm. It's serves as a friend, a safety blanket, and as an intimate part of my son's self-definition. For Jason, Simba has simply always been there. I bought the plush toy while at Disney, chaperoning Grad Nite during my first year working at LaSalle when Jason was but 3 months old. Since then, Simba has been tossed, travelled and tattered.

Most nights, Simba is cradled in the crook of Jason's arm, the toy's worn fabric brushing against my son's soft cheek as he sleeps. This sight tugs not only at the clichéd heart-strings, but at threads of memory as well. His connection to the plush toy might very well be a learned behavior, as I spent most nights growing up cradling a similarly sacred stuffed animal, Bugs. Now, my Bugs (a gift from my Madrina when I was one) resolutely rests on a shelf in my children's room, sitting as a sage sentry amongst the other stuffed animals. So, the opportunity to take our son to see Simba on the big screen, in 3D no less, was not one my wife and I would pass on.

I grew up (and sit am) an avid fan of the Star Wars trilogy. Countless Saturdays were spent in my parents' home with one of the three films coursing through the VCR while I sat on the couch or at the counter, usually thumbing through a stack of basketball cards. By the time the films were re-released to the theatre in 1997, I could recite the scripts from start to finish, but the chance to see the films on the big screen was not to be passed up. Though while "The Lion King" might not be my son's favorite film, his connection to Simba was the impetus that pushed us to squeeze in a viewing, despite the two-week run.

Last weekend, Disney re-release their 1994 blockbuster in 3D. It became the first re-released film since "Return of the Jedi" in 1997 to hit the box office at #1. (Don't worry, good ol' Georgie has set the Star Wars franchise on the 3D train track, "The Phantom Menace" inexorably chugging toward a 2012 re-release. More importantly, "A New Hope" is set for a 2015 3D re-release.)

"The Lion King" is arguably Disney's greatest hand-drawn animated feature film. The story's original treatment was written in 1988 by Thomas Disch, best known for "The Brave Little Toaster", and it has strong connections to William Shakespeare's tragedy, Hamlet. It also sports strong a premeditated murder scene that had my son twisting in his seat, cowering behind his Simba. (Of course we let our son bring the stuffed animal to the movies!)

I've watched many a Disney film in my life, and "The Lion King" is the only one that comes to mind where a murder is planned AND executed on screen. Scar's murder of his brother Mufasa pushes the boundaries of the film's G-rating, probably much more so than some of the other G-rated movies where the title characters lose a parent. (See: "Finding Nemo" (2003), "Tarzan" (1999), "The Fox and the Hound" (1981), and/or "Bambi" (1942). In all these features, parents are killed, usually by a hunter, but always off-screen.)

Jason squirmed when Mufasa was murdered, so much so that I raised the arm-rest in the theatre and let him rest against me for the next thirty minutes or so of the film. It's really the murder of Mufasa that ties the strongest link to Shakespeare's Hamlet, and although the Bard's tragedy opens after the murder of the king of Denmark, many of the connections are still quite strong. Scar and Claudius both usurp the thrones and their brothers' wives, although Claudius does repent in the end. We see both Simba and Hamlet Jr. delay their retribution, while Mufasa and Hamlet Sr. both become heralds for their sons in death. There are even links between the duos of Timon and Pumbaa and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. That being said, thankfully Disney did not end the script as a tragedy like Shakespeare. I mean, killing off the King, the Queen, the Prince, the Prince's Love Interest, and giving the kingdom to a foreign Prince would have been a bit much for Disney viewers.

You be the judge.
The integration of 3D technology was pretty seamless and very effective. My daughter, not one to wear the 3D glasses for any length of time, reached out repeatedly during the film, most notably trying to catch the rain near the end of the film. The 3D animators didn't bombard the film with the effects; rather, they used it in the obvious spots like Simba's presentation and during some of the musical numbers. Even the controversial alleged "SEX" in the flying dust floated out and across stylishly. Animators claim that the dust spells "SFX", a common abbreviation for Special Effects.

Abby loves Simba, too.
 "The Lion King" was never my favorite Disney film, that title belonging securely to "Toy Story"  (1995). Even as a hand-drawn feature, I think I like "Aladdin" (1992) more. However, as we left the theatre last night, my son smuggling the 3D glasses out of Sunset Place like a practiced pick-pocket, I couldn't help but be impressed. The film is incredibly strong. The music is fantastic, and the animation is obviously eye-popping. My son's love for Simba aside, after re-watching it for the first time in years, I came away with a greater regard for the film. The themes of hope, love, family responsibility, and renewal are resonant, and the connections to literature like Hamlet give it a lasting quality.

Now, Disney just has to stop killing us parents.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Maybe My Biggest Regret

I can't imagine there are many subjects in this world that Lucille Ball and Metallica front-man James Hetfield agreed upon, but their takes on Regret remain strikingly similar.
Lucille Ball during the
Vitameatavegamin skit.
"I'd rather regret the things I've done than regret the things I haven't done." -Lucille Ball

"I'd rather regret doing something than not doing something." -James Hetfield

James Hetfield, Metallica guitarist
and lead vocalist.
 I'm sure that if I continued to comb the Internet, I could finds hundreds of additional quotes that speak to the same sentiment. The idea that inaction would be the greatest cause of regret seems to stand out as the unifying theme on the matter.

 Babe Ruth (left)
with Ty Cobb (right)
Ty Cobb, regarded as one of the greatest baseball players of all-time, has an interesting regret. He said: "I regret to this day that I never went to college. I feel I should have been a doctor." Considering the man is widely credited with setting at least 90 Major League Baseball records during his playing career, some of which he still holds to this season, I can't imagine that the sport of baseball or the storied Detroit Tigers franchise would have been the same without the surly, tempermental Ty.

I write all this because yesterday, I spent the afternoon with much of my family at a farewell barbecue for my cousin, Carlos, who is off (sadly, with all of his barbecue and meat-smoking prowess) to Loyola University in New Orleans. This was the same day my youngest brother, Nick, returned to Tampa for his senior year at the University of South Florida. So, what is perhaps the biggest regret of my life? As I'm sure you've guessed by now: Not going away for college.

As I sit here pounding away on the keyboard, there isn't a single moment of my life I would change. I love how my life has progressed and continues to unfold. Do I wish things were different from time to time? Of course. Who doesn't? But if given the opportunity to time travel and change my past so that I did go to some far-off campus, I wouldn't do it (even if said travel takes place in a Delorean...although that would be incredibly tempting...). Time Travel has been a staple of the science fiction genre since H.G. Wells. Hollywood has cranked out some spectacular films on the subject, like The Terminator (1984), Back to the Future (1985), Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991), and even the classics, Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure (1989) and Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey (1991). [Aside: Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey might very well have the greatest tag-line of all-time: "Hell Hath No Pizza."] But it all those films and the many like them, things turn out the way they should.

Over the last several years, though, a pang of regret has resonated within me from time to time. The loudest gongs came during field trips I chaperoned to New York City and a Writer's Conference being held at Columbia University. Strolling the beautiful campus of that decorated Ivy League school, that oasis of knowledge nestled between the spires of Harlem, I wished so much to have been enrolled there. To be in my late-teens/early-twenties in New York, living, learning, would have been something to shape me in such a different fashion. I urged the high school seniors I was with to take their chances and try to leave Miami for college. I vividly remember visiting Princeton in New Jersey with my family, and even touring the campuses of Stetson and UCF with friends as a senior in high school. The opportunity was there, but I left it on the table. I chose to stay home and attend FIU. I can point to the circumstances; the uncertainty of living alone with diabetes; the would-be distance of the familial safety net; the lack of a basketball coach who pushed his players to perform at the next level. All of these things can help justify the choice, but that would be a cop-out. It comes down to cowardice. I was too scared to go.

Now, I say all this not because I'm necessarily jealous of my cousin or my brother. I say this because I am proud of them. They were able to make the decision I was unwilling to make. I had the opportunity, like so many others, but I didn't take it. I could have played basketball in college, but I was too afraid to step out of my proverbial comfort-zone. (Something, I find, that I still do to this day.) I felt that pang of regret again yesterday, wishing my cousin luck before he embarked on his journey. I know Carlos will do well in New Orleans, and not only in school or on the track field, but in life as well. He, like my brother Nick in Tampa, has a good head on his shoulders, confidence, and a superb support group back home.

I understand what Lucille Ball and James Hetfield meant when discussing regret. Like Ty Cobb said he regrets not going to college and becoming a doctor, I regret not leaving for college. But just like Ty Cobb was supposed to be one of the greatest baseball players of all-time and wouldn't have been had he gone to college, I'm right where I'm supposed to be, and I like that.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Doing the Same is Insane

Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross said recently: “To continue doing the same thing is insanity, and I don’t think I’m insane yet.” This was in reference to the team and the effort being put into developing a winning style and philosophy. And while I find myself wondering if the owner hasn't in fact lost his marbles (see his attempt to hire Jim Harbaugh, then, after being spurned by the then-Standford coach, awarding contract extensions to the men that would have been fired), his words resonated within me. In regards to my writing, I have been doing the same thing for too long. By Stephen Ross' definition, I am most definitely Insane.

My pattern of taking entire months off from writing is disconcerting. I find myself mired in a rut these days. I have to report back to school in a few short weeks. (I know, I know, all the non-teachers out there have just rolled their eyes and started a chorus of "woe is me"s with the world's smallest violin playing in the background.) (Eat it.) But each summer, my song is the same. I vow to finish this or that writing project. I vow to blog more often. I vow to lose weight. I vow to eat right. But what do I do? Lounge. Play video games. Watch ESPN for the latest news on Dolphins Free Agency. (And action eerily akin to slamming one's head into a brick wall.)

So with my frustrations continuing, I combed the files of my computer for something to jump-start my latest blog entry. I considered revisiting an older post about Lobster season in the Keys (click here to view the post), and I thought about writing about the changes in my lifestyle concerning my Diabetes (which I will likely do soon). But, as I sat at this computer and stared at the white void of an empty New Post, I thought about who I want to be. That question is obviously complicated and multifaceted, but it drew me back to a journal assignment I wrote about four years ago in an education class I was taking for my teacher's certification.

The assignment was a simple one. As an icebreaker for the course, the instructor wanted each student to bring in something they felt represented them, and we were to present this to the class as our introduction. Some people brought pictures, others brought trinkets, but I decided to put together this little journal entry. Much of what you'll read below still holds true. (Except now, my wife wakes up before me. I need every minute of sleep I can get.) Feel free to try a short journal entry with the same title I used, Who Am I?, then answer the question in a little two or three page scene from your life. If you do, please share it. You can post it in the comments area of my blog so we can all enjoy it. I hope you enjoy mine. Thanks for reading.

Who Am I?
The alarm clock blared its battering ram straight through the front door of the young man’s dream house. He slapped at the hateful contraption and the incessant screaming was silenced until the next morning at five a.m. Tired, no amount of eye-rubbing would relieve the exhaustion in his bones. He pulled his mostly comatose carcass to the shower and seared the sleepiness from his skin with scalding water. But the only hot water that would wake him wouldn’t come until the second or third cup of coffee.

As the young man moved through his early morning routine—shower, insulin injection, coffee, breakfast, more coffee—his mind roused from the recesses of his slumbering consciousness. The sports page stoked the connections in his brain as he finished the eggs and bacon he had made, and gradually, unhurriedly, his mind presented the day’s list of concerns and responsibilities.
What to do with his first period of students in a few hours?
Would they have basketball practice that afternoon, or was it a game?
Would he continue work on his novel, or make another empty promise?
Would he have to pick up his son from the babysitter?

As he sipped from the steaming mug, he heard his wife rustle out of bed, quickly followed by the shuffle of his nearly two year old son amongst the battalion of stuffed animals that accompanied him with every evening’s campaign to sleep. His home was waking up, just as it did every weekday morning—ungodly early, but, once given time to collect itself, ready to go. In moments, he would officially wake his son, dress him and feed him, all the while continuing to pump the sacred caffeine into his own system. What would he do without coffee? Probably kill one of his students. A few came to mind.

Just as he turned the final page of the newspaper’s sports section, he caught a glance at the high school box scores from the previous night. His school’s boy’s basketball team had won again, and that brought the day’s first sideways smirk to his stubbly cheeks. He always felt a pang of pride when LaSalle was victorious, because while he was part of the English department, and given the arduous and thankless task of teaching seniors, he had once walked those halls as a student, and had donned the uniform of the basketball team as a captain. While his playing days were long over, aching knees, pitifully inadequate height, and cowardice among the reasons, much of his life still revolved around sports. If you asked his wife, the devil was the studio-head at ESPN. 

His son beckoned from his crib. The young man moved to the room, softly announcing to the boy his entrance, and that it was time to get ready. He caught a glance of himself in mirror as he approached the crib and a familiar thought jumped at him from the reflection: I can’t believe I have a two year old son.

His friends were single and partying, but his life was different. He was young, twenty-six, one of the youngest teachers on staff at LaSalle. As he routinely changed the evening’s diaper from the happy but mostly uncooperative boy, he thought of how he was responsible not only for this young life, but the young lives of so many teens at school.

He wondered, at times, what they thought of him. Did they see his demons? Was he good enough? Was he failing them? Things he was told that all teachers, especially newer ones, dwelled on. He resigned himself to the fact that he would likely never know the answers to those questions. He would get those answers from his son, as the boy grew, but rarely from his students, who disappeared into their lives after graduation.

As he pulled his son from the crib, promising a bottle, some Cheerios, and the Cars DVD to the boy, his mind wandered to reflection—to the teacher his students saw. Did they see the young, thoughtful, careful, and caring man he tried so hard to be? Or the young man who was still very much uncomfortable in his own skin? The truthful, generous, honorable, and compassionate person? Or did they see something else? Someone unfit to lead them—to guide them. Did they see the man who struggled every day with his disease to gain control of his life, but still realized it could be so much worse? Or did they see an embittered person merely wasting his time away? Did they see a man who loved?

The boy smiled up at his father as they moved to the small living-room of the two bedroom apartment. He rested his son down on the kiddie couch he and his wife had bought for the baby, gave the boy his bottle, and pressed play on the DVD remote. Joy leaped to the boy’s brown eyes as the familiar cartoons raced across the screen, and everything seemed perfect.

The young man smiled. He loved his son, and he knew his son loved him. He heard his wife emerging from her shower, and he knew she shared that love. He turned to the table for his coffee, but glanced at the collage of pictures hanging on the wall his wife had made of them and their extended family. They loved him too, and he loved them all. As he sat to finish reading his high school’s box score in the newspaper, the young teacher and hopeful writer thought that he loved his students as well. He dreamed that he changed them, made them better—stronger, helped them succeed, and if that were true, then there must have been at least one who loved him in return.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

My Take on the 10/11 Miami Heat

I'm finally able to watch ESPN again. Since the Miami Heat faltered against the Dallas Mavericks, I avoided the 24-hour sports network because I couldn't stand the coverage of the Heat. I say "faltered" and not "failed" because, although it's been a tough loss to swallow, and perhaps a more difficult one to digest, I can't see this season as a failure. They were within 2 games of the championship. While they may not have reached their ultimate goal, I still think the team can look back and be proud of what they were able to accomplish (Eastern Conference championship) and overcome (unprecedented national scrutiny). And, having watched parts of Thursday's NBA Draft, I fear that I won't be able to watch the further development of this team with the dark spectre of labor strife on the horizon.

From the beginning, I looked at the roster with uncertain. I saw a few holes: lack of depth, ball-handling, and size. I wasn't sure Spolestra could handle the load, either. And, staring at the train-wreck of a start, the nay-sayers in the national Media could be heard at their loudest. They said Wade and LeBron were too similar, that Spo didn't have the experience, that the team didn't have the right pieces. At 9-8, it seemed they were right.

Then I saw the dunk. This dunk changed everything for me. I was at the game, early in the season, against the lowly New Jersey Nets. I had spent the afternoon coaching on the AAA floor, my middle school varsity squad had lost its only game of the season. (Technically, we went undefeated, because the AAA game was an exhibition game. We won the All-Catholic Conference 1A-2A championship that December.) They had shown flashes of greatness early in the season, but being able to witness that play live, albeit sitting basically on the roof of the American Airlines Arena, it was incredible.

Talk about capturing the moment.
The validation for different fans came at different points in the season. (This full court alley-oop may have been it for many.) For me, I still had lingering doubts from time to time, like during the five game losing streak when Spo mentioned players may (or may not) have been crying in the locker room. It wasn't until the playoffs that I felt this team was actually ready to win it all. The entire regular season felt like the Prologue to an epic novel that, at times, read like a Spanish novella. Once the playoffs (particularly the series versus Boston) had arrived, we could finally judge this squad.

I remember feeling uneasy at times during the Philadelphia series, but once the Boston series started and James Jones poured in three-pointer after three-pointer in Game 1, the team seemed to surge to the next level people had been waiting for. Danny Ainge's inexplicable trading of Kendrick Perkins certainly helped the cause, but the bully big brother Celtics could not match the up-and-coming Heat. My heart still thundered in my chest as these games played out late into the fourth quarters and beyond, but deep within me was a quiet certainty that they would win. And they did. Resoundingly.

LeBron's play during that series proved to me that I was watching the best player in the world and the greatest player of this generation. However, for as much as the Eastern Conference Finals against Chicago cemented that idea, his maddening performance in the Finals showed that the concrete had not quite set in place. Still, its such a luxury to witness (pardon the marketing pun) greatness. As a child watching Dan Marino play, I had no idea I was watching one of the best passers to ever play football. But now, as a (still) young man, I know what I am seeing. What might be the most incredible part of all this is, LeBron is only 26 years old. Typically, basketball players enter the prime of thier careers at age 27. Now, LeBron has logged many a minute on those young legs, so I can't say with absolute certainty he will get markedly better, but even if he's been in his prime for say, three seasons, we're likely to see another 3 to 5 years of League MVP-level greatness. Jordan didn't win his first title until 27. Kobe Bryant had his best statistical season at age 27. Magic Johnson scored the most points per game of his career at age 27.

I think, with slight roster adjustments here and there, this Miami Heat squad, led by a 27 year old LeBron, should win the NBA title next season. Granted, nothing is for certain when considering aspects of the game like injuries (see Udonis Haslem and Mike Miller for an example), I still think the Heat should win. (As long as the new collective bargaining agreement doesn't hamstring the finances of the team.) Hopefully, Spolestra will not ride a veteran player like Big Z, or Bibby, or Erick Dampier, for long stretches of games before dumping them from the rotation like an ex-girlfriend. Hopefully, Spolestra can develop a reliable Zone Offense that the players feel comfortable executing. (I say this with the following caveat: He may already have a suitable Zone Offense, but maybe the players didn't execute the plays to completion, as some league scouts have reported.) In the end though, it's the players that play.

I hope Riley (and Spo) realize this team should be built around LeBron and his, hopefully, still-developing talents. I'd like to see them develop Dexter Pittman into a suitable rotation player, and hopefully the guard they nabbed in Thursday's NBA Draft, Norris Cole, will also as well. I can't say I'm excited about Cole, because I know nothing of him, but I'd like to think he can help. This team can improve, these players can improve, and these coaches can improve.

All in all, I write this after having unwillingly digested a very bitter end to the Miami Heat season and I feel that this season was maddeningly enjoyable to watch. I may have been throw-the-remote frustrated from time to time, I may have been apoplectic watching a game or two, I may have had heart palpitations, but in the end, I truly enjoyed the season. I'd like to think the NBA can solve their labor issues before hurting the positive momentum built up after this season's great playoffs, but some people, like Charles Barkley, think next year's entire season could be lost. I don't think I can suffer through an extended lockout, because if the only other choice is watching the Marlins, Food Network, here I come.

Monday, June 20, 2011

The Wedding Conga

When the Miami Sound Machine released "Conga" in 1985, I wonder if Gloria Estefan and the rest of the band knew their song would become a staple drunken dancing during wedding receptions. While I've never seen Gloria or the band perform it live, I can't image a redition more gloriously steeped in greatness/cross-dressing than this one, courtesy of Hank Azaria's Agador from The Birdcage (1996). The song has been featured in many films, including Dana Carvey's unspeakably terrible 2002 ditty, The Master of Disguise. (Here's a clip. Fast forward to the 2:10 mark for the song, to avoid the fall of the once brilliant thespian, Brent Spiner, who's efforts brought Star Trek: TNG's Data to life if nothing else. Aside: We are ignoring the existence of his role in Independence Day...)

The song beats through silver screen scenes in many a film, but most people recognize it from the various weddings they've attended. The snake-like widing through tables in the hall, conga-liners waving their drinks with one hand and holding the unsteady shoulder of the person before them, is an archtypal reception sight. It's a dance I participated in last weekend, at the wedding of long-time friend (and basically little sister) Katie and great guy Kevin; and last month, at my wife's cousin Alexander's wedding. It's a dance that, no doubt, I will partake in when my brother's wedding rolls around in November. The Conga isn't alone in wedding line-dance lore, however. Other staples include the Macarena, the Cha-Cha Slide, the Cupid Shuffle, Cotton-eyed Joe, and, of course, the Electric Slide.

But as I Conga-ed my way around the reception hall in the Mayfair hotel last weekend, clutching my Jack and Diet with my right hand and a shoulder with my left, I wonderful memory flooded my mind. It's something that is forever etched into the wall of my memory. See, growing up in a family where parties always included music, growing up with parents who twirl and twist their way beautifully about a dance floor, finding myself in a place where the recognizable intro to Conga pulsed from the speakers... yet no one in the room moved was a strange sight.

A few years ago, when another of my wife's cousins exchanged vows with her husband, the Conga brought the reception to a stand-still. Sitting in my assigned seat, beside my wife and other members of her wonderful family, the familiar beat pumped through the room. The reception was well into its second hour at that point, and the dance floor bore scratches from many a well-worn heel or wingtip. So, to my utter dismay, when Gloria implored the crowd to shake their bodies and do that conga, and not a single person shuffled to the head of a line, I sat stunned.

People stood frozen, as if Medusa had distributed Gorgon-headed wedding favors. Slack-jawed in my seat, I watched with rapt interest. The tune seemed like a foreign anthem in Fort Lauderdale, the beat fruitlessly commanding bodies to bounce about the room. Wedding Goers heedlessly milled, ignoring Gloria's calls. Clearly, these people could control themselves for at least a moment more. Perhaps it was the lack of Latinos in the room, or the ill-timed playing by the DJ, as the tune pulsed through the hall, no bodies were shaking. I feared for a moment, this was a sign of the apocalypse. The four horsemen hadn't made it into the room, they were probably at the carving station.

But, as inexorbly as the flight of the Garter succuming to Gravity, Wedding Goers soon found their bodies feeling the heat. The bride and groom shimmied to the center, as slowly, a conga-line coalesced behind them. Perhaps these Goers were afraid of an inability to dance, and it took Gloria imploring them not to worry before they allowed the music to move their feet. Within moments, the music struck Goers' systems and they moved as if they were planning to party till the break of day.

The Universe was back in order.

As the line snaked through the room, hips and drinks swaying in unison, I doubled over in laughter. I had witnessed a frozen panic, the likes of which I had never seen, and likely will never see again. It was wonderful. People cavorted through the room, the beat having grown stronger within them. The four horsemen never made it into the room. (That carving station was tasty.) Alas, the Gorgon-headed favors lost their stone grip on the Goers, and the so-called rythmn of the island righted the world.

I left that wedding sometime later, toting perhaps my favorite wedding favor of all-time (a bag of whole bean coffee--thank you Tim), and an irrepressible memory. In the end, the joke may have been on me, as in my dismay, my drink and I never made it to the Conga line.

The image fades in my memory, but whenever the familiar beat pumps from the TV or radio, or my wife and I find ourselves at some couples' nuptuals, it all comes flooding back, surfing a tidal wave of laughter. And as my brother's wedding quickly approaches, I know that I will once again get myself together and hold on to what I've got before grabbing the nearest shoulder and making my way, snake-like, through the room.