Putting Our Best [Face] Forward – Or Not

Removing the Mask

I vaguely remember a scene in one of the Rocky movies when, as often was the case, the champ was taking a terrible beating. As the round’s final bell rang, Rocky struggled to his corner and slumped down on the small wooden stool with blood streaming from his nose and one of his eyes quickly swelling shut. His corner man took one look at him and told him he was going to have to throw in the towel, but Rocky would have none of it. “Don’t even think about it,” I recall him saying – “I’ve got him right where I want him!” Sure enough, thanks to Hollywood, it turned out he did, but, to me, the outcome of the fight was secondary to the moment in the corner. I suspect, at one time or another, all of us have had those moments – moments when we feel compelled to do or say whatever it takes to put our best face forward regardless of how we really feel.

Maybe it’s a “brave face” like Rocky’s – the one that pretends “it” really doesn’t hurt as much as it would appear even though the “it” may be the break-up of a relationship, the death of spouse or child, the sting of a daily barrage of hurtful or demeaning words, the loss of a job or our being rejected or forgotten by someone who once professed to care. Maybe it’s an “I’ve got things under control face” – the calm exterior that, like a seasoned thespian on opening night, we present to our daily audience of employers, parents, friends and spouses to hide the chaos going on behind the curtain.  Maybe it’s an “I’m fine face” – the one with the plasticized smile designed to distract others from the ever present and sometimes unbearable pain and sadness that lies perilously close to the surface.

I’m sure there’s a psychological explanation (or two) for the “masking” that is so much a part of so many of our daily lives. But my sense is that part of it emanates from our not wanting to burden others (even those we love and who we know love us) with our pain and hardships. That’s particularly true for those who misguidedly believe that their mere existence is a burden to others or that others’ plates already are over-flowing with issues of their own. For some, fear is the glue that keeps their masks in place – fear that others couldn’t possibly understand, let alone empathize with what they’re going through; fear that if they revealed their true self or true feelings they will hurt someone, disappoint them, be judged or be-littled or, worse yet, be abandoned; or fear that their vulnerability will be seen as a sign of weakness or, God forbid, imperfection.

And that’s where the royal “we” come in. You see, the “unmasking” process is not a one way street. Simply put, we can’t reasonably expect others to reveal their humanity when we repeatedly have demonstrated an unwillingness to embrace our own. We can’t expect others to feel safe expressing their true selves and feelings, when, time and time again, we have refused to validate those expressions, taken them personally, or greeted them with anger, defensiveness or demeaning conduct and words. We can’t continue to harshly judge ourselves (and others) and expect those we love to freely and vulnerably share their brokenness. No, the only way masks will come off and hearts will be opened is if we are willing to take off and open our own. I say we give it a try. What have we really got to lose?

On Daughters, Dads and Dogs

Ashley and Buster

While she likely will never admit it for fear of hurting my feelings (it’s who she is), in my heart I know that this little girl will never fully forgive her dad for “insisting” that this BIG boy relinquish his dual role as four-legged childhood best friend and family pet in favor of an equally laudable one: as Service Dog to someone in need of a companion.

In my defense (I’m a lawyer for God sake!), it seemed like the right decision at the time, especially coming, as it did, on the heels of Buster a/k/a “The Yellow Clifford” devouring the wooden backyard swing set (where did all of that wood go?!?) and setting his sights (and teeth) on the Mexican tile in the family room (I wish I was making this up!!!).

Still, if I had the decision to “do over” knowing what I know now, I’m certain I would have made a different one. You see, I believe little girls deserve two men in their early childhood life – a dad and a dog – both committed to the same singular goal: showing her what unconditional love really looks and feels like.

Why two? Because one is certain to get it right 100% of the time! Now that you’ve read this brief note, I’ll let you guess which one.


One Out Away From Victory

baseball on pitchers mound

I was never like most of the little league baseball coaches against whom I competed – the ones who poured over their try-out day notes for weeks before the annual draft trying to find a hidden gem or two to snatch up in the 4th or 5th round who they thought would assure their team’s spot in the post-season tournament; the ones whose major-league-drill-intensive pre- and mid-season practices seemed a lot more like work than play; the ones who viewed “game day” as a life or death event and by their behavior and intensity demanded that umpires and opposing managers do the same.  No, my approach was different.  Don’t get me wrong.  I am as competitive as the next guy and like to win as much (or more) as almost anyone I know.  I even will confess to “questioning” an umpire’s call (or two?!?) over the years.  But, that was not why I coached.  I coached mostly because I always wanted to be an elementary school teacher and it occurred to me that a youth league baseball diamond likely was the closest I would ever come to a classroom.  I coached because I saw it as an opportunity to make a positive difference in the lives of young people, not so much in the baseball skills department (i.e., the finer points of catching, throwing, fielding and hitting a ball), though, obviously, I did some of that, but in imparting life skills that I hoped would help them in the matters-of-the-heart department.  Much to my very talented son’s chagrin, that strategy seldom translated into a lot of wins, but most of the moms and dads seemed to understand and appreciate my lower key, kids-first approach.  There were, however, occasional exceptions (both in the dugout and in my living room) as was the case on an especially “memorable” Spring evening back in 1995.

We were mired in an unusually long and demoralizing losing streak (an 0 – 9 start that was abysmal by any standards) and everyone’s patience was wearing thin, including my own.  To their credit, the boys on the team had come close several times only to have victory slip through their hands at the last minute thanks to an untimely error or strike-out.  Still, game in and game out, they continued to play hard and that night it looked like their tireless efforts would finally be rewarded.  We’d built a fairly sizeable lead against one of the league’s better teams thanks to some exceptional pitching and, despite a furious comeback late in the game, we were still clinging to a two-run lead heading into the bottom of the final inning.  Under league rules, our starting and second string pitchers had reached the maximum number of pitches allowed which left me with no option but to send our third stringer to the mound for the final 3 outs.  He was a very bright, but soft-spoken young man, who made it a habit of doubting his abilities, but he knew how to throw strikes and that’s what we needed most at that critical point in the game.  So, after a quick pep talk from yours truly, I sent him and his other “fired-up” teammates onto the field, hoping against hope that they would return victorious.  Two quick outs had the guys, their parents and those of us in the dugout poised for celebration.  But, two hits and a walk to load the bases changed all of that in a matter of minutes and I could tell from the unmistakable body language of my relief pitcher that he was in full panic mode.  I quickly called time out, before the other team’s clean-up hitter could settle into the batter’s box and strolled out to the mound.

By the time I got there, tears had begun to well up in my young pitcher’s eyes and his hands were visibly shaking.  Having already stared down a few “demons” of my own by that point in my life (including the fear of failure and of disappointing others), I knew intimately what he was wrestling with.  “My arm is really sore Coach,” he said, staring down at his feet.  “I don’t think I can throw another pitch.  You’re gonna’ need to take me out of the game.” Translation:  “Coach, I’m scared to death I’m going to lose this game and let you and my teammates down.  I can’t bear to have that happen.  You’ve gotta get me out of here!”  I remember pausing for a moment to ponder the likely ramifications of the words I had to choose from, scanning first the dugout, then the bleachers and, finally, the expectant, but equally worried faces on the field, as I did.  Then, I turned to him, insisting that he look at me, and said, as matter-of-factly as the circumstances would allow, “I’ll tell you what, you can come out of the game right after you strike this guy out.”  “But, Coach,” he responded, “if I strike this guy out, the game’s over.”  “Exactly,” I said with a wry smile.  “But, if you don’t your life’s not – and neither is mine!”.  And with that, a pat on the shoulder and a word of encouragement, I turned and headed back to the dugout, as the home plate umpire screamed, “Play Ball!”  No sooner had I reached the entrance and turned around than I heard the unmistakable “ping” that’s made when a belt high fastball finds the sweet spot on the oversized barrel of an aluminum bat.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen a baseball hit by a 10 year-old travel quite as far as that one did (for all I know, it could still be in the air!), nor had I seen such a simultaneous juxtaposition of joy and heartbreak.

I don’t really remember much about my post-game remarks.  I’m sure they were wholly inadequate to take away the sting of what had just happened and having to watch the celebration in the opposing team’s dugout.  They likely had something to do with how “proud I was of them” and how “no single play or player is responsible for a team winning or losing.”  But, I do remember, somewhat distinctly, the car ride home.  I remember my son in the back seat and his mom asking me “what in the world I was thinking about in leaving the pitcher in?!?”  I remember trying to explain that taking him out would’ve been “the worst thing I could have done,” the one message I couldn’t afford to send – that I thought it was important that he confront, rather than run away from his fears and that teaching him that lesson “when all that was at stake was the outcome of a baseball game” made sense to me.  “A 1 run lead with 2 outs in the bottom of the last inning is hardly the time to try and teach a 10 year-old a lesson about life!” she exclaimed.  I recall looking in the rearview mirror at the tears streaming down my son’s face as he silently stared out the window and thinking maybe she was right – maybe I could’ve/should’ve picked a better time.  But, maybe not.  Maybe it was the perfect time – for him and for everyone who witnessed it, including my son (and daughter). 

I ran into that young man’s mother a few months back – nearly 20 years later.  She told me her son was an investment banker on the West Coast and was doing great!  I smiled to myself as I thought back on that moment and my parting words as I left the mound – that no matter what happened with that next pitch his life wouldn’t be over and neither would mine.  Turns out, I was at least right about something! Oh, and by the way, that last pitch (the only piece he could control) would’ve been a perfect strike!


Dispelling The Notion That I Did (Or Said) Any Of It “Just Because I’m Your Dad”


Dear Greg and Ashley,

I realized on this morning’s walk that I haven’t written either of you a letter in some time.  Part of that is a by-product of the fact that you are both getting older and starting lives of your own – and my wanting to let go to allow you to do that unencumbered by concerns over “what dad will think” about choices made (or not made as the case may be).  But, part of it is the general busyness that has crept back into my life over the last few years with work, the book, my blog, my teaching, my speaking and writing and the ever present demands of daily living – not excuses, just a fact of life.  Still, I think of you often and today was no exception.

In fact, since the day you born, I can’t recall a day I haven’t thought about you – about how you were doing, what you were feeling, how I was doing in the dad department and what more I could be doing to help you better appreciate how very special you are. It was the latter piece that often consumed me.  Time and time again, I and others (e.g., teachers, coaches, instructors, friends, casting agents, etc.) held “the mirror” up only to have you turn a blind or too-critical eye to it – always slow to accept praise, but quick to find faults and imperfections. My response: Re-double my efforts to show you the “you” I see. Yours: “You’re just saying (and doing) those things because you’re our dad.”

Let me clear about one thing: I never deemed it to be my “parental obligation” to view either of you through rose-colored glasses, nor am I (or have I ever been) blind to your human frailties – any more than I am to my own. No, the reason I struggled mightily to show the two of you the truth about you is because I know firsthand how important it is to not only be able to see it, but embrace it fully, especially in an increasingly self-absorbed world where critics are plentiful and cheerleaders too few and far between. I also knew from the time you were very young that, regrettably, you had inherited your dad’s inability/reticence to see that truth – and the painful consequences often associated with not seeing and believing it.

To me, second to my unconditional love, being the “mirror” you could turn to and trust when you lost sight of the truth about you was the most important gift I had to give – and the one I most wish my dad had given to me.  Ironically, you have him to thank, in part, for the “breadcrumb reminders” I’ve left along the pathways of your lives – the pictures, cards, year-end letters, paper-plate, pillow and napkin notes, e-mails, Facebook and blog posts – and, hopefully, (enough) fond memories to carry you through. But one thing that won’t be here forever is me. I don’t say that to upset you.  I say it to encourage you to take a moment and at least pick up the “pom poms” yourselves – if only to see how they feel.

Maybe tomorrow – and the day after that – you can give them a shake (or two) and consider the possibility that I actually may have been telling you the truth about “you” all these years – simply because it was (and is) the truth!

All My Love,