It’s A Big Universe – first published November, 2008, Goal Lines Magazine

“C’mon, we need to take a ride.”  That is what he said.  My manager’s face was unreadable.

“What’s going on?” I asked nervously.  Was I in trouble?  Was I getting fired?

“Get your things,” he replied.  “I’ll tell you in the car.”

He explained it was a family emergency and he was taking me to my parent’s house.

After a moment’s pause I asked flatly, “Is it my wife or son?”

“Your wife is okay.” He replied with a controlled voice, keeping his eyes on the road.

“I have to assume my son is dead.”

He did not reply.

Our son, Joshua Dustan, died of SIDS on January 16th, 1991.  He was three months, eight days old.  Kim and I were twenty-four years of age and married only two years, yet we suddenly owned our own cemetery plot and headstone.  I will not detail the darkness that followed, but would have you understand I wish no such pain on any person.  Everything was gone.  My dreams of teaching my boy to throw a ball, peddle a bike, split wood and build a good fire were irrevocably erased.  I would not stand at his graduation or wedding.  We would never have the chance to come to blows over some petty dispute, only to laugh about it years later.  His death could not be undone.

Before my son’s death, I lived in a box.  Everything I considered important was inside the box, and I simply dismissed things outside my box as having no consequence.  If something small inside my box got disturbed, I would be upset, but remained unaffected by ill news coming from outside my box.  After the wreckage of losing my son cleared, I found the lid to my box torn away and suddenly I realized I was only a small bit of an infinite universe.  The pain and suffering we were experiencing was a mere glimpse of the place many people spend entire lives.  Despite my loss, I counted my blessings for the first time in my life.

As I began writing this article, one of my daughter’s dearest friends, Molly McCool, was gravely ill.  Both Megan and Molly play for three-time OYSA State Champion, THUSC Neon, coached by Tom Atencio.  Molly admitted to the hospital before Neon’s semifinal game against Lake Oswego Dynasty.  Things were touch and go, and the McCool’s were looking through the doorway to a place they did not want to go.  Once home from defeating FC Portland in the championship final, my daughter went to her room and cried.  Not for the joy of winning, but in desperate worry for her friend.  Then my wife started to cry, so being the man, I tried really hard not cry, at least not when people were looking.  We knew what the McCool’s were facing.  Molly was airlifted to Doernbecher’s Children Hospital two days after Neon’s victory and the McCools found themselves in a real battle, facing a real loss – nothing they would walk away from as easily as a loss on the pitch.

Of course, after State Cup finished, the Oregonlive internet forums lit up with its usual petty bickering, insults and finger pointing.  The losers got robbed, the winners were cheaters, and all the parents, players and coaches were poor sports.  In other words, the usual banter by a handful of shortsighted prigs who enjoy hiding behind anonymous screen names.  While not getting the worst of it, Neon got a healthy dose of underserved bad press in the forums, and not for the first time.

After a long battle, Molly recovered and the McCools were able to close the door without actually stepping through and burying their own child.  It was a real win, stark, cold and painful.  There was no prize, bonus or trophy, only the knowledge they did not lose.  No matter how faded or distant the image of their win becomes, it will always be sharper and clearer than their greatest athletic contests.

Not long after State Cup, I happened across a tournament game between two teams I had little interest in, aside from the simple entertainment value of the contest.  My girl’s were done for the day, so I grabbed a seat in the bleachers amide a group of parents I did not know, and behaved as though I have not seen enough youth soccer for two lifetimes.  It was an even contest, with both teams getting good looks, but by judging the rising frustration in the crowd as the game progressed, the wrong team won.  The defeated coach threw a temper-tantrum and yelled at the players.  In turn, the parents began screaming at the coach, who, after unsuccessfully attempting to calm the mob, waded in and head-butted an angry father.  Several players began to cry.  It was like watching a pressure cooker filled with chili explode at the Sunday social.  What should have been good turned into a big mess!  What an embarrassing display of poor sportsmanship all over a consolation game that meant absolutely nothing.  The incident was a timely contrast falling honestly into my lap.

I would like to pose a question to the grown-ups involved in the post-game riot.  Actually, I would like to pose a question to every disgruntled adult involved in sports.  Actually, the question is for just about everyone.  If your kid is not getting enough playing time, this question is for you.  If your team lost, this question is for you.  If you feel the referee was biased or simply bad, the other parents were rude, the other team played dirty and you are steaming mad or frustrated about what ever it is you think is important enough to expend significant emotional energy on, this question is for you.  If you are wishing for some sort of karmic revenge for some perceived slight or injury, this question is for you.  If you believe sports are worth sacrificing your integrity and character over, this question is for you.

Would you trade places with the McCools?  Would you trade places with me?

Of course you wouldn’t.  And for that rare fool who believes it would be a fair and equitable trade, to win at all costs, all you will get out of me is a head-butt and a 5AM wakeup call.  You are behaving like a man blind to the power and beauty of the sea because he is angry about the sand in his shoes.  Take the lid off your box, and be thankful you have no real worries.

The Best Gift Ever

Just as I enjoy listening to the radio for news, sports, and music, I also take an interest in the advertising. Radio advertising has far more explicit language than other advertising mediums because it lacks any visual aids. I find a unique social commentary in the language and music advertisers use to create these products whose singular purpose is to get the listener to take some sort of action that usually includes spending money.

Currently Mercedes-Benz is running a Christmastime advertising campaign touting their vehicles as “The Best Gift Ever!” The ads feature what we assume to be a man between the ages of thirty-five and fifty years blathering on about lame gifts, then sharing with the listener that what he really wants is a Mercedes, because that would be a gift unparalleled in his entire life.

After rolling my eyes at the utter ridiculousness of Mercedes’ claim, I began thinking about our middle-age man’s claim, and what sort of man he must be to consider a new Mercedes, which are very fine automobiles, the best gift he had ever received. Who is this man, let’s call him Mr. Mercedes, where such a gift would be so extraordinary, and how does he compare to me? This led me to make some very basic assumptions about this man’s life, and the gifts he never received.

Whether or not Mr. Mercedes parents are divorced, he grew up in a dysfunctional household. His relationship to his parents was painful and he had little love as a child except what he earned by attempting to live up to an overbearing father’s irrational expectations. If he ever won any athletic contests or sports championships, it was a gift for his father instead of a personal achievement. Mr. Mercedes also discounts his academic achievements in a similar fashion. While he is intelligent, well-educated and successful, he does not see all the opportunities of his life as gifts per se. He is simply living up to expectations.

Mr. Mercedes is likely married, but is more in love with his image than his own wife. He may dabble in the occasional infidelity, or the occasional prostitute while traveling, because it truly means nothing to him. While he is surrounded with associates, he does not have any real friends, men outside his class with which he shares a bond of love and brotherhood.

While he may have a bit of spirituality, Mr. Mercedes scoffs at the weakness of Christians, and does not feel any sense of universal obligation to his fellow-man. Instead, he believes the man with the most toys wins the day.

He has children, but little understands them and certainly does not consider them gifts from God or anywhere else. He may either mimic his own parents’ failings, or spoil them with material goods and indulge them with permissiveness. Either way, he will fail to give them the firm, but loving guidance a good father provides.

All this wondering about what sort of man Mr. Mercedes is, a man who believes the best gifts are bought and sold, actually made me a bit sad. It is a sad thing that the target demographic for Mercedes-Benz’s advertisement is a very real, very large group of consumers. Mercedes-Benz knows from the get-go that I am not their target audience. I buy used Subarus and keep them until they die. All the greatest gifts I have ever received exist in the depth of the relationships I have with my faith, my family and my friends. Mercedes knows who their consumers are, and they also know who their consumers are not (ie. me). As much as I am not swayed by their advertisements, I came to understand the practical theory behind them. It they want to sell, they have to target those who really believe Mercedes-Benz might be the best gift ever.