Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Wright Words: The 25-year anniversary you don't care about

It is an anniversary of absolutely zero significance to anyone else in the world but me. Not even my wife knows. (Note to self: Tell wife before column is published.)

Twenty-five years ago I heard my father shout two words at me I'll never forget. Even though the meaning has changed, their significance hasn't.

The journey to those two words started on a tennis court nestled on my neighbor's historic and humongous southern plantation. I learned to play the sport by hitting balls against a faded green cinderblock wall. The practice wall was standard height, but what waited for me on the other side wasn't so standard at all.

If I caught too much air, balls would fly into a field filled with a toxic mix of thick weeds and thorny bushes that ate my 12-year-old bony legs. I learned quickly not to hit the balls over the wall.

Once I was comfortable with the rules and could sustain something vaguely resembling a rally, I let a much more talented friend talk me into entering a citywide doubles tournament to be held on the grounds at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.

I'll never forget the day my father picked us up from school and drove us to campus to see the tournament draw. We rode in the bed of my father's prized, silver Dodge Rampage. It was one-third truck, one-third car and one-third complete awesomeness.

Sure, we were happy to learn we'd received a first-round bye. Sure, we were excited to see we'd drawn one of the few mixed-doubles teams. But we were downright giddy that the female half of the opposing duo was a student from our high school who we knew we could handle on the court. We didn't recognize her playing partner's name, but he just had to be lousy. No reason, just because.

We sat in the bed of the truck as Dad drove my friend home and felt like we ruled the world. I recall how we repeated our opponents' names over and over with derision and disrespect dripping from our lips. "We got matched against them? Them? We can beat them! With a bye and then these chumps, we're guaranteed to make the third round!" We even came up with a snarky little chant.

Every day after school we practiced and strategized. On the day of the tournament I felt like such a man pulling up the new socks my mother bought me at a real sporting goods store. Not Sears or Kmart but an actual sporting goods store. I stretched them over my calves and made sure they didn't crinkle or get bent at the top, so friends and competitors alike could see the brand name.

There were at least 20 courts at the tennis complex, and we were assigned to one that ran alongside the major thoroughfare in Charlottesville. Our parents and a few friends sat on a grassy hill between the sidewalk and the court with a perfect view.

The four of us met at the net for introductions, and I wondered who the old guy was with the girl we already knew from school. Funny thing: It turns out there wasn't an age limit in the mixed-doubles competition, and the chump staring at us was her personal coach. They promised to take it easy on us, and I promised to beat my friend later with my tennis racket.

The girl was very good, much to our surprise and chagrin. Thankfully her AARP playing partner kept his word and played loose and light.

The first set was competitive and stood at 4-4 with my partner serving. I hugged the net, my strong suit, and stabbed and punched back every volley I could.

We engaged in a long rally with me on the right side of the court. Grandpa hit a crushing forehand that sent me diving toward the doubles alley. My sweet '80s hair flew behind me, and I launched through the air like Superman in gym shorts and a tournament-issued T-shirt. I grunted for effect and somehow, miraculously, I got the ball back over the net and into play. The rally continued without me.

Twenty-five-years later I remember lying on the court with my hands at my sides and feeling the sting of little pebbles embedded in my palms.

Twenty-five-years later I remember my father shouting two words at me from his perch on the grass hill: "Get up!"

I did. Then two or three exchanges later we won the point, and my friend and I exchanged "Top Gun"-style high fives.

This story could end like a Disney sports movie where everyone gets what they want, and both the game and film come down to the final play and the final scene. Or it could end with the truth, that we lost that first set in a close battle and then got hammered in the second by the girl and Abe Lincoln.

Yes, we lost two sets to none. Yes, I took it hard. But I'll never forget hearing my father's voice from the distance. I'd lose a thousand tennis matches to have learned the lesson.

Sometimes I fall and get up. Sometimes I don't. But my shot at being successful only comes on the occasions when I brush the pebbles off and stand again. Even then, as much as I want it, I still sometimes lose.

My father died less than a year later, and I wonder how many times since his passing he has shouted at me from his perch on a grassy hill. "Get up!" I wonder if he knew then how badly I needed to hear those two words or how many times I've longed to hear them since.

No, this anniversary means nothing to anyone but me, and that's just the way I like it. I simply hope that all these years later I'm still trying to "get up" every time I fall.

I also hope he's still shouting.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Wright Words: One reason I love New York City more than ever

I love living in tiny Woodstock, Va. I get to punch out columns and manuscripts from a one-room office on Main Street and enjoy watching and waving at passersby. I'm in the same building as an old-fashioned three-screen movie theater, one of which is above me on the second floor. Beneath me is a real wood floor almost as old as the town itself. It's a quaint, historic community that provides my family and me most everything we need.

What it's most certainly not is the publishing capital of the world. For that I'm required to make a long trek three or four times per year to New York City. In fact, this column comes to you from my favorite hotel on Times Square.

The biggest difference between this trip and all the others is that my sweet wife has come along. At this moment she sits across the room fiddling on her iPad, patiently waiting for me to finish so we can return to the concrete jungle in search of more adventures. She's also rolling her eyes because two minutes ago I went to the window and yelled, "Live from New York, it's Wright Words!" She's positive I'm the only one who will find that funny.

Who cares, right? I can dream of being funny. It is, after all, The City of Dreams. We're in The Big Apple, The Empire City, Gotham and The City Where Jason Once Fell Asleep on the Shoulder of a Complete Stranger.

I should confess that to make this trip happen I schemed and white-fibbed my way to an itinerary so sugar sweet it would send a diabetic over the top. The schedule has been ambitious.

She and I came by train from Washington, D.C., something my wife has always wanted to try. We strolled China Town and took cheesy pictures on Times Square and on the subway. She finally met Glenn Beck, something I've been promising for years. We sat in his office with a stunning view of the city and soaked up his creative energy.

She also met Academy Award-winner Kieth Merrill, and together with another filmmaker we talked books, movies and morals. We ate at a place that felt lifted from a Woody Allen film, The Cranberry Café.

My kids won't go to college, but we saw the new musical "Spider Man: Turn off the Dark." It was simply sensational. Of course it helped that none of the actors fell on their heads — or ours.

It's been a wonderful trip, but as I flip through the memories in my mind's photo album, I smile most at the things that I didn't plan. I suspect the most colorful memories when I'm 50, 60 or 160 will be the ones for which I didn't make reservations.

This morning we took a frightening cab ride to Battery Park so wild it felt like we'd been swallowed up in a racing video game being played by my 4-year-old on a sugar rush. I don't remember paying the cabbie; I only remember kissing the pavement when I flopped out.

We ate dinner on Valentine's Day at a restaurant in Little Italy. The place was so romantic it belonged in a Hallmark commercial, all except for the couple at the table next to us arguing. When the woman threatened to get up and walk out, I leaned over the table and whispered to my wife, "Please don't leave. This is better than the ravioli!"

Somehow we walked four blocks from our hotel in a big loop to a pizza place that we were embarrassed to find was right next to where we started. I convinced my wife it was part of my plan to work up a healthy appetite for the best pizza she'd ever eat. Maybe "convinced" is the wrong word.

We took the ferry to the Statue of Liberty, our most anticipated excursion, and she and I endured biting wind and brutal cold. At our first opportunity we bought matching sweatshirts so corny even Mr. Rogers would have laughed and called us names.

Liberty Island was nice, but it was the unscheduled stop at Ellis Island that left the stronger impression. I felt the Spirit remind me how lucky I am to live in a country that people have flocked to since its divine creation. The feelings were almost indescribable as I sat in the cavernous Registry Room and imagined the millions who stepped off ships for better lives and more colorful dreams. We toured the dormitories, and I pictured the day my own ancestors arrived, were processed, and then were sent by rail to seed the country I would one day call my home.

Yes, it is the land of opportunity. But not for the homeless man we saw eating frozen gum from a manhole cover. Neither my wife nor I will soon forget that memory. It didn't bring a smile, but we're glad we saw it anyway. Another reminder how blessed we've been and how much more we should be giving.

Tomorrow we'll make our way back to Penn Station, hidden deep below Madison Square Garden, and board a train for home. We'll keep gushing about "Spider Man," the meals, the meetings and the future. But what we'll laugh about and what we'll cling to are the memories we created, not the ones we planned.

What's the one reason I love New York City more than ever? Because this time she was in it.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Wright Words: Hero lives undetected in Ogden

I grew up thinking heroes moved mountains, saved lives or won Super Bowls with last-minute drives. A few days ago, I learned they also diagnose eye problems.

On a trip to speak at the Time Out for Women 2011 kick-off event in Ogden, Utah, I began to have problems seeing out of my left eye. It was mildly irritated in the morning, sore when I boarded the plane and on fire by the time I landed in Salt Lake City.

Sitting inside my rental car in the parking garage, I did what most husbands do when they feel lousy on a business trip. I called my wife. Her advice was three words long: Find a doctor. Then she added a fourth: Now!

Have you ever been travelling in another state with sparks coming from one of your eyeballs and desperately needing to find an eye doctor? I had grown exhausted from back-to-back nights of very little sleep, a ridiculously early morning and a long flight. Then I looked at my watch and realized I still needed to shower, shave, put on a suit and report to the venue at Weber State University in just a few hours.

I searched eye doctors on my trusty iPhone and began making calls. Some said no. Others asked if I could come next week. One said I could come hang around with no promise of actually seeing a doctor.

Then I called a doctor in Ogden not far from my hotel. After a moment on hold the receptionist returned and said, "Can you come right now?"

I raced straight there and walked with one eye closed through the front door of the Ogden Vision Center. Before I could even sit, someone offered me drops for the pain. Before I could fill out a single piece of paperwork I was sitting in a chair in Dr. Lincoln J. Dygert's exam room having my eyes checked.

He took care of the pain, put in a special contact lens to help protect the eye until I could see my own doctor back home in Virginia and gave me his cell phone number. He was concerned the bright lights on stage would wreak havoc on my eye, and he made me promise to text him if it became too painful.

I didn't have to. My phone rang on the way to the venue. The good doctor wanted to know whether I needed anything. He also made me promise to contact him the next morning before I boarded the plane.

The event couldn't have gone any better. None of the 1,800 women in attendance threw rotten fruit at me, and only a few hundred had to be nudged awake by their seatmates when I concluded.

The next morning, the doctor insisted on driving in to his office to check my eyes again. He swapped the contact, gave me valuable advice on managing the discomfort until I could return home and wished me well.

I stared out the window as my eastbound plane cut through the cold evening air and contemplated just how many heroes there are like Dr. Dygert. How many heroes in my life have I taken for granted because they don't fight fires for a living or drive tanks across a desert in the Middle East?

I wondered then and I wonder now as these words hit the page, what defines a hero in today's world? Must they be brave? Should they be strong? Do they have change hearts or minds? Save a life?

Maybe a hero is simply the person who answers the call when others ignore it. Maybe a hero is someone who lives every day to serve in big moments and small moments. Sometimes they get thanked; sometimes they don't.

I wonder how many I've failed to thank. How many heroes in my life have gone undetected, unappreciated, unrewarded?

How about you? When was the last time you examined your own life and identified the heroes around you?

I'm embarrassed to think how many have zipped in and out of my life without knowing how thankful I was for their heroics. But not this time.

To Dr. Dygert and his team at Ogden Vision Center, I say thank you for answering the call when others didn't. Cape or no cape, you are modern-day heroes.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Wright Words: The top ten excuses for missing a deadline

Like many of you, I live in a world of deadlines. I’ve got one for this very column you’re reading, another for a contract I’m reviewing and one for a church project. I’ve even got one for my wife’s upcoming milestone birthday. Naturally each carries penalties for being late, and you can guess which deadline would be the most painful to miss.

Through the years I’ve become a certified blue ribbon-winning deadline misser, an expert at massaging my way through excuses and negotiating extensions. It’s a vicious cycle: If I had a nickel for every occasion I had to buy myself more time, I would have spent all those nickels.

I’m not a newbie to this game. I’ve been waving to passing deadlines since I was a kid. You said that book report is due by what day? Tomorrow? My room cleaned by what time? Six? Potty trained by what age? Seven?

The latest deadline costing me sleep is for my fall 2011 novel. I can’t tell you the title yet, and I can’t tell you what it’s about, but I can share one juicy nugget: It’s not done. Let me clarify: It’s kinda sorta done. And by kinda sorta I mean – not really. I’m still editing, proofing, dotting my I’s and squiggling my S’s.

To keep my editor and his trusty assistant from hunting me down and handcuffing me to my laptop, I’ve rolled out some of my time-tested, mother-disapproved excuses. They’ve served me well through the years. May you find them equally useful.

The top 10 excuses for missing a deadline:

1. Did you mean Eastern Standard or Hawaii Standard Time? I’m 1/64th Polynesian, plus I had ham and pineapple pizza last night.

2. “The Brady Bunch” was on, the one where the boys want a rowboat and the girls want a sewing machine, and they compromise on a color television. That episode taught me something your science project couldn’t.

3. My teddy bear bore a cub overnight, but it wasn’t stuffed. We had to rush him to Build-A-Bear.

4. Two words: "American Idol."

5. I’m late with this assignment because I haven’t actually read the book, and I thought your keen sense of morality would appreciate honesty much more than a faked report.

6. I got a flat tire on the way to school but had no spare. I’d forgotten that I put it on my elderly neighbor’s station wagon during last week’s hailstorm.

7. I’ve been under a lot of stress lately. My DVR is almost out of space, and I’m still behind on "Cake Boss."

8. My kids needed some daddy time, and I felt it was important to take a few days off. Why don’t you want my children to be happy?

9. My crops have been struggling with the harsh weather, and I’ve had to commit a lot of extra time to working the fields. Farmville is a lot more difficult than it looks.

Whoops, no time for No. 10. My deadline has passed. If you have a spectacularly bad excuse you’ve heard or used, share it in the comments.