“The outlook wasn’t brilliant for the Mudville nine that day”*
We’ll call her Judy. Not her name but if you’ve been around Indianapolis for 30 years or so you’ll remember her. She looked like a news anchorwoman because, well, that’s what she was.
She had me at “Film at 11”. And I was gunning for her.
I was young, single, and had absolutely no fear about asking women out. Even women I had known for about 30 seconds. A lot of times I struck out. Okay, probably most times. But not always…so I did not feel like I was dreaming when I set out to meet this striking newscaster. You just never knew until you tried.
I had friends that worked in broadcasting…but not at that station. They were friends that knew people that knew her. Two degrees of separation as the saying goes. Not as good as one degree but a hell of a lot better than six. They were helpful, they had a few suggestions on how to get in front of her but they were all like “we can introduce you to someone that knows someone that knows her.” Nah. If you are going to go the “introduced by a friend” route they needed to know you better than that. So I decided I was on my own. I laid a plan.
That year I was running the Indianapolis 500 Mini-Marathon and her station was a sponsor. They were talking about it on the air. They were going to have a table at about the ten mile mark where they would be giving out water, shooting some video and cheering people on. She was looking forward to being there. I was looking forward to her being there. My grandfather told me that an important skill for a man was being able to make a woman laugh. My uncles all had that gift and as always I did my best to emulate them.
My plan was simple. When I saw the TV station’s tent I would change pace, maneuver and do whatever it took to put me close to her. Stretch goal was to get a cup of water from her if she was giving out water. Then I would say something witty, she would laugh and I would follow up with a phone message. I am aging myself I know, but email was not yet in widespread use. I had no idea what I was going to say to her but I was going to make it up on the fly…often worked best. I could not control whether she called me back or not, all I could do was execute my part of the plan. Like most simple plans there was little that could go wrong.
Now it’s race day and I’m slowing down at about nine miles so I can look like I’m not working too hard when I get to the TV tent. I can see it up ahead. I start trying to figure out exactly where she is. I see her co-anchor and a few intern looking types. I am not seeing a tall blonde. I am going really slow now, maybe she is hidden behind the remote truck. No. I look over at the male anchor and yell “Where the hell is Judy????”. He yells back, friendly like, “she got pulled off to do another assignment”. FML. Oh well, it was a shot in the dark anyway, and I laugh at myself as I am running. I don’t think about trying again. The gods have spoken, she would have been there if it had been meant to be.
Life goes on and I am sitting in the waiting room at the former Metro Health facility over off of Lafayette Road. Don’t remember why I am there. It doesn’t matter. As I am waiting a pretty girl comes out and sits near me with the usual and customary one-seat of separation. We exchange nods. She is pretty. She is friendly. She looks familiar. While we are chatting it sinks in…she is a TV reporter. Holy shit. From the same station as Judy….one degree of separation! Man, this was as good a chance as I was gonna get. As we are talking I am trying to figure out how to leverage this new opportunity when I realize something. The young lady I am talking to is sending signals. Was it a sure thing? No of course not, but I was pretty sure she would get a drink with me or drop her phone number if I asked her. The crazy thing is she was really cute but I couldn’t shift gears. I could not figure out a way to take the conversation from “hey we seem to be hitting it off” to “oh by the way do you know Judy?” How rude would that be? Why didn’t I just hit on her? I don’t know. My mind was locked up and not doing anything seemed like the best thing. FML. Again.
There is a small theatre a few floors up from the main stage at the Indiana Repertory Theatre. Not the roof ballroom…below that. I was a season ticket holder and so I sometimes took a date, sometimes a friend to see shows with me. In this case it was a date but not someone I felt real strong about. (If you are thinking it might be you, it wasn’t. I swear. ). The layout is a little fuzzy all these years later but I remember we were seated at round tables, the kind you sit at when you are listening to a lunch speaker at a conference. Except this was a play and it was dark. Which play? I don’t remember, I saw a lot of plays there. It might have been Strindberg or some other depressing Scandinavian crap. It might as well have been. Maybe one where the wife kills herself because she thinks her husband is dead but then he comes home after taking a detour to get a loaf of bread and a carton of milk and schtup his sister-in-law. Anyhoo, we all turned our chairs around to face the stage, maneuvering so that no one was blocking our views. My date was sitting to my left and a bit behind. I scooted more to the right so she could see better and I bumped into someone from the next table who was also maneuvering. We apologized and I looked into her face. I was staring at Judy. Zero degrees of separation. She was sitting with a table of women.
If I had brought a male friend with me it would have been game on. Not tonight. I was with a woman. You know there is no way to make this happen. Even had I wanted to be rude to my female guest, it would have been noted by Judy and her table of friends and I would have been placed in the “jerk” category never to emerge. (Jerk is much higher status than friend zone, but to make it work you actually have to be a jerk). And so there we sat. Judy, oblivious to the trauma she was causing, and me. Occasionally bumping elbows, her legs crossing and invading my space. I felt like I was in the plot of “Hitchhikers Guide To The Galaxy” and someone had turned on the Improbability Drive.
Can you imagine the phone message I could have left her? “Hi, you were driving me bat-shit at the play the other night but I was with another woman so I couldn’t properly flirt with you. I was wondering…”. FML over and out.
And thus ended our one sided relationship. I regret nothing but at the time it seemed like the Gods had it in for me.
“Oh, somewhere in this favored land the sun is shining bright; the band is playing somewhere, and somewhere hearts are light, and somewhere men are laughing, and somewhere children shout; but there is no joy in Mudville — mighty Casey has struck out.”*
Let’s get one thing straight right off the bat: They are smaller than they used to be. I don’t care what you say. I don’t care what the current purveyors of the legacy say. They are smaller. Full stop. I am an expert, I should know. Based on my consumption of these chocolate and cream delicacies in college alone, there should have been enough revenue and profit to endow the brand for millennia. I don’t know what they did with the money.
There is a bit of betrayal here as well. You see my family worked for Drakes Bakeries. A lot of my family. Their coworkers became godmothers and godfathers, husbands and wives and life long friends. In the Northeast they were bigger than Hostess and had their own, better, treats. Hostess used a spongy type of recipe for its cakes. Drakes used a heavy Devils Food. If you ate a Devil Dog or Yankee Doodle for example, the cake would stick to the roof of your mouth. You needed to drink milk with Drakes Cakes. They were better. Me extolling Suzy Qs is like a Pepsi family admitting that Coke ain’t so bad. Treachery.
Naturally there are stories in my life that revolve around Devil Dogs or Ring Dings or Yankee Doodles. But this is about Suzy Qs. And I gotta tell you they’re pretty damned good. And like the Drakes Cakes, there are stories.
Suzy Qs and Mountain Dews got me through my first Computer Science class. I spent a lot of time in the lab, half programming and half eyeballing the lab assistant. Either way i needed constant sugar and caffeine infusions and right down the hall were the vending machines. It was just too easy.
One day I ran across this girl out by the vending machine area. Turns out she was one of those vitamin chicks. But, she was hot for days and so normally I’m gonna listen to whatever the hell she’s saying. So she starts going on about her concern for my health. Now if I thought she actually gave two shits about my health or if there were any possibility of exploiting her professed concern that would have been different. But this was one of those bullshit pyramid schemes and she doubled down “If only you used (insert bullshit vitamin product name here) you wouldn’t have to eat those awful things.” She waited. She was pretty. She was used to guys agreeing with her just on the main chance. I stared back. And then I went full John Belushi on her. I stuffed the entire (original larger size) Suzy Q in my mouth and begin chewing, noting with satisfaction that a good portion was escaping out the sides of my mouth. She looked at me in disgust, turned on her heel and stalked off. Was it as good as sex? No, but that wasn’t going to happen anyway. But I’ll tell you, as I walked away, wiping the mushed chocolate and cream from my cheeks I was walking away with my dignity intact.
And that wasn’t the last incident. But if I told you about it you’d never believe me. Except that there was a witness…
I’m not sure what her maiden name was but it sure as hell wasn’t Wheeler. She was as Hungarian as Hungarians came but she married a guy by the name of Wheeler. He was an airplane mechanic for a huge airline and he made good money so they had a very comfortable house in Queens where they boarded me.
I was clearly a source of revenue for them but overall they did not treat me poorly. I was like an associate family member and went wherever they went; shopping, visiting relatives, fishing…whatever. She was a good cook and that combined with the fact that she believed I was too skinny led me to become more filled out.
And so food was never a problem. I got anything I wanted. And plenty of it. Goulash, chicken paprika, spaghetti and meatballs, devil dogs and black cherry soda.
She had asthma, had gained weight and so the image and rough coughing voice was not pleasant, especially when she wanted me to bring her a cup of tea or cigarettes up to her headquarters on the main level.
This was during an important part of my life. 5th grade, well you go through a lot. I had to transfer schools to live with her and the new school was better but the teacher sucked. More on her in another story. I had to leave behind a girl named Claudia…maybe a blooming first love and my best friend Ricky to go where I knew no one. But there were decent kids in the neighborhood, and her sons took me under their wings and taught me about their music scene…Kenny Rodgers and the First Edition, The Cream, all kinds of psychedelic shit. Her wanting to fatten me up with her cooking was an act of caring. Overall they were okay, and it may have fueled a life long affinity for things Hungarian.
I held her hand tightly, because I could. It’s what she wanted. It was sure as hell what I wanted.
She was visiting me from out of state and I was showing off the city. We had been wandering around Manhattan all day and now long into the evening. It was New Years Eve and we had taken the train in from the Island to watch the ball drop. That would be later. For now we were just looking for things to do that didn’t involve being out in the cold.
So we lingered, here on the top of this tallest of buildings. Seeing the city spread out before us…the warm orange glow of sodium vapor lights stretching out in all directions…as far as the eye could see. It was pretty, interspersed with the dark tendrils of rivers and the blotches of bays and inlets. To the east it came to an abrupt end where the mainland gave way to the dark Atlantic.
Somewhere near, in relative terms, stood a twin. Just as high but you never thought about the other tower when you were up here. You were too awed by the panorama and the engineering marvel you stood on top of. The observation deck was dark and combined with the glow outside it had an intimacy. I was no fool…that is why we came here.
It was always quiet at night. For some reason no one spoke. Or at least they spoke in whispers. At the Narrows I could see the lights of the Verazanno Narrows Bridge. My grandfather, a union electrician had worked on that illumination; as he had done with the building we currently stood in. I never thought about it at the time. He had been involved in so many of the iconic public works around our city.
Now…now that place where Jenny and I stood is no more. Pulverized into dust. The soaring steel arches melted down to make warships and toaster ovens. We stood atop a massive structure that turned out to be as fragile as the egos of the men that built it. I’ve lost that memory of Jenny. But more importantly, those men, those zealots that flew airplanes full of people into the spot where Jenny and I stood, those men, took away the legacy of my grandfather. They took a little piece of me I cannot get back. Like so many New Yorkers, we lost a family member. An in-law of a cousin, a fireman trapped when the towers came down. I never met him so the grief did not touch me directly. My only loss was of memories and legacies and while those hurt, they can be gotten over.
Still, Lower Manhattan will never look the same to me. The imposing view from the Staten Island Ferry. The sweet memories of my Grandfather, and the night with Jenny live on, but they are tinged with melancholy. I miss the buildings. I miss Jenny. I miss my Grandfather.
I’ve had the opportunities to make friends and acquaintances from all over the world. From different faiths, political beliefs, and personality types.
I at one time had Christian friends from Lebanon and shortly after that a Muslim roommate from Lebanon. I lived in a graduate dormitory with people from literally every continent and worked for a multinational which allowed me to travel the world. I went to church with Egyptians for a time (try being a squirmy kid sitting through an entire church service in Arabic when you don’t speak the language), and spent summers at Catholic, Protestant and Jewish summer camps. Growing up, all of my friends came from somewhere else…that is the melting pot that is NYC.
Some of the people I have had the good fortune to meet have been unhappy, but many, perhaps most, have been happy people. Here is what I have observed.
They define success by the strength of their relationships.
Everybody has their own measure of success and that is a good thing. But the happiest people I have met always lead with people. Whether it is family, friends or just interesting people with whom they have shared an experience. Volume is neither a good or bad thing. One good friend, a million good friends, it doesn’t matter. Relationships come first.
They know what’s important.
Sorry…but it’s probably not that big project you’re leading at work. Not that they won’t work hard with great enthusiasm; perspective is key. They tend to reserve their emotional energy for family, friends, or other things that are important to THEM. This drives great inner strength because smaller things are less likely to derail them. Bonus: when your project crisis hits they’re not gonna be freaking out.
They value experiences over material objects.
Maybe they drive a beater. Maybe they have a limited wardrobe and a 10 year old phone. They eschew bling and other trappings of material success. They are full of stories of interesting experiences. You wanna hike the Appalachian Trail? Jump out of a plane? Spend an afternoon enjoying a Picasso exhibit? They’re in. Will you remember that cool new mobile phone 10 years from now? Will you remember the time you went backpacking in Colorado? You tell me.
They don’t let goals rule their lives.
Don’t get me wrong. Goals are generally a good thing but not everyone’s brain works that way. It’s a nice story when we hear someone had a single-minded goal to cure some disease, start their own company etc. But what did they sacrifice to get there? Rigid goals can also stop you from seeing the real opportunity that is staring you in the face.
Happy people sometimes set goals but aren’t afraid to pivot when they see a better opportunity. Some of the most laid back, happiest people I know don’t set many goals at all. “I’ll know it when I see it” is a common refrain.
They are highly adaptable.
Life happens. You are going to get derailed or your plans will have to change. It will happen. Learn to live with the unexpected and when it occurs lean into it or move towards something that works better for you. The opera wasn’t quite what you expected? There is always another opera. Career not working out the way you planned? Maybe there is a better plan that suits you better.
Happy people aren’t necessarily hyper-positive thinkers. But when a setback happens or life has to change they can roll with it.
They are profoundly grateful.
Scratch a happy person and you will find a grateful person underneath. They can be a CEO, a truck driver, a scientist, a janitor. I guarantee you they are grateful for something and even more likely someone. These are the “well, it could be worse” people.
They consider themselves lucky.
No one get there alone. Talk to a happy person and you are talking to a person that considers themselves lucky. Ask them how they achieved something and the first thing out of their mouths is gong to be all the help they had along the way.
Did they work hard? Probably. Are they gonna lead with that? Definitely not.
They don’t take themselves seriously.
They can laugh at themselves. Nothing amuses them more than when they stick their foot into something. You will find them laughing the loudest of anyone in the room. They tend to be self-deprecating which some people mistake for a lack of confidence. But it’s just the opposite. Confident people aren’t afraid to laugh at themselves or admit when they’ve screwed up.
They listen to other points of view.
You know those people with the fixed views you cannot change? Don’t wanna listen to it, love living in their echo chamber? Yeah. They’re not happy. Happy people surround themselves with a variety of opinions and learn from all of them. They may have friends they disagree with but they don’t let it affect their friendship.
They Have a Sense of Perspective.
They’re not rattled by little setbacks or challenges. This enables them to respond in ways that are proportionate to the challenge at hand. We’ve all been in situations where someone loses it over something everyone thinks is minor. These people make everyone around them miserable.
And Finally, They Don’t Compare Themselves to Others.
Hey, there is nothing wrong with having mentors, heroines or people you look up to. A little competition or having a yardstick to measure yourself by can be a good thing…in moderation. But there is a slippery slope from there and it leads to envy, and envy is toxic.
Happy people don’t worry about where they are in relation to others. It’s not that there are some people ahead and some people behind…they don’t think that way. They are mostly focused on where they are…because its the only thing thing they have any control over.
Sam woke up with a start. Where am I? He was slightly panicked. He had never been in a room this dark before. Not a hint of light. Then he remembered, he was at his Aunt’s house and had never stayed in this room before. But man, this was seriously dark. He pushed down that feeling of disorientation and fumbled around, looking for some source of light near the bed. He knew there was a night stand and a lamp. He knocked something off the night stand and there was a sickening sound of broken china. Damn. It was the cup of water he had left there.
He took a few seconds to calm down. One, two three…he counted. It was a trick his father had taught him. If you are ever angry, scared, whatever. Anytime an emotion was threatening to outstrip reason, start counting. Mainly it was a backcountry survival skill, but he used it frequently. He had a bit of a temper and it kept him out of trouble.
Calmer, he reached over and found the lamp right away and with a little feeling around found the switch and flicked it on. Blinded, his eyes took a second to adjust to the sudden onslaught of photons he’d unleased. He blinked his eyes…the photons were bouncing off his cousin’s friend, Amy. She was standing just beyond the foot of his bed, her robe fastened, but not quite. She had been teasing him all evening. Now he realized, belatedly than it had been less teasing and more flirting. His blood was rushing to parts it shouldn’t be rushing to.
“Amy…I don’t think you should be here?” Dammit! He thought. How had that come out as a question?
She toyed with the belt on her robe…it remained fastened but a little less so. She pouted “are you saying I should leave?”
He struggled for words. The answer was obvious, yes go, you shouldn’t be in here. But then they were both old enough and so it really wasn’t so obvious. “You’re my cousin’s friend. Seriously you had better go.” He realized how unconvincing he sounded.
Amy apparently realized it as well which made her move closer. She was now right at the foot of his bed. The robe was hanging on for dear life. He saw part of a shoulder. He couldn’t find any words.
“I. Don’t. Think. You. Want. Me. To. Leave.” She teased. “Because if I do leave, you won’t get the surprise I have for you.” She moved closer.
“Hmmm hmmm, Close your eyes.”
The cold water hit him in the face like a ton of bricks. It soaked his pajamas, and all of the bedding. Amy ran laughing and giggling from the room leaving him sitting there embarrassed for being taken in.