Duke

How do we sleep while our benches are burning?


Happy Friday, good people. Despite the headline, this blog post will be bereft of current events of the political variety. Or at least I plan to write this post with the clear intention of steering clear of that high glycemic index stuff. Or try to. 

Instead, I want to talk about burning furniture. 

The above image was captured last night on Duke’s West Campus and published in this morning’s Chronicle. In light of news reports of late, one would be forgiven for presuming the photo reflects some sort of violent protest. College kids losing their minds over what’s going on in DC. And recklessly, dangerously lighting ablaze anything that could be lit ablaze. And stoking the fire with piles of more unlikely fuel until the flames practically lick the brooding gargoyles standing sentry in the Gothic towers overhead. 

What is the world coming to?!

In truth, this photo gave me a sense of relief. A brief respite. A breather. Although I had watched the game myself last night with an old friend, I forgot to savor it. I neglected to bask in it for a bit, allow myself to enjoy something simple, primal, and longstanding. But the kids didn’t forget. They do what Duke students have done for decades after a big win — particularly over Carolina — they burn shit. Typically, oversized wooden benches constructed by fraternities and other living groups and such. Ostensibly for sitting; in actuality, fodder for hoped-for celebratory bonfires. 

So given the state of the world, how great is it to see people experiencing genuine joy? Stretching out a moment. Following a long tradition involving building a huge bonfire because they are happy about something. And although it was the kids who lit the fire, I imagine there are some adults smiling this morning. As they meander past the charred embers on campus. As they catch the scent of burnt hardware store pine from a mile away. And as their Facebook feed conjures up visceral memories of better days. Ones from long ago and ones yet to come. 

Thanks for reading. 

Half Centurions and a Devil Mask (Frank’s Trail)

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I have written before about this cast of characters. Friends who count 30-something years of shared memories.  Beginning way back with fraternity hijinks committed and tolerated as 17 or 18 or 19 year-olds. Mostly run-of-the-mill stuff; but plenty not for public consumption.  Oddly, most of those involved public consumption, as I think back. Now, more or less, grown men.  With mortgages, high school-aged kids, lengthy professional careers of one sort or another. Family pets.  Wives to whom we’ve been serendipitously hitched for 20-something years. And a penchant for scaring the bejesus out of one another on occasion. 

This explains the mask.  I know you have been wondering about that. I am the guy in the red devil mask.  No, this photo is not evidence of some odd paganistic ritual.  Well, maybe that’s not entirely true.  No half-naked people circling midnight bonfires were injured in the making of this particular weekend, however.  So back to the mask, because it is a curious thing.  And I have been meaning to write this particular blog post for over a month.

You see, the 2nd gent from the left turned 50 back in December.  He shares my own mother’s birthdate, which I have always found intriguing.  He shared the altar with me on my wedding day 20 years ago.  I stood there shakily, sweating profusely — from the ambient air temperature, not from the gravity of the moment. Maybe it was both. In any event, fair to say I’m woozy.  Trying desperately to follow and repeat back the muffled words of the pastor before me. And while I’m mildly annoyed that my best man’s best efforts to stem my forehead faucet involve a fistful of fibrous hotel toilet paper, I’m grateful he’s there for me. My face is more or less covered with small, sweaty fragments of Charmin.  Basically “TP’d” in front of a couple hundred friends and family members. But I am overwhelmed with gratitude for this man standing by me. 

Now fast forward. On a similarly auspicious occasion in his own life some 20 years later — turning 50 years old — how do I repay him? Sure, I fly with another great friend from the west coast to the east coast, where Frank now lives.  To surprise him. For most right-thinking people, that should suffice. Gratitude shown.  The debt repaid. Leave it at that. But alas, right-thinking people rightly think that I am not one of them.  

Exhibit A: The Satan mask.  Most folks pack socks and undies in their overnighters. I stuff a terrifying rubber mask in mine — two of them actually — with every intention to deploy said mask during my trip. And not spontaneously, no.  I’ve planned this out.  Thought hard on it. I believe this is known as “malice aforethought.” Can’t you just see the group of right-thinking people shuffling slowly away from me, with sideways glances? 

Exhibit B: During my Uber ride to the unsuspecting birthday boy’s east coast location, I scour my co-conspirator’s neighborhood via Google Earth.  I push through mild car sickness in order to assess where a proper point of entry at my buddy’s Atlanta home might be so as to maximize the jumpscare factor. As I roll out of the car — my Uber driver Yolanda now giddy in cahoots — I confess that images of stealthy Seal Team 6 storming that Pakistani compound flit through my mind.  I tiptoe down the pitch black driveway, quietly unhitch a backyard gate, and crawl.  On my hands and knees. Peering through the devil mask’s eye slits.  Breathing heavily like Michael Myers, I realize.  As I secretly skitter across my buddy’s backyard deck and into his screened patio.  At least I hope this is his deck and patio.  I’ve never actually been here before, and am really really hoping I Google Earthed the right residence. I’m dressed all in black, with a blood red devil mask on, and shouldering what looks like a burglar’s kit.  Crawling across someone’s redwood-planked deck.  Late at night.  What could possibly go wrong?  The right-thinkers shuffle a little further away, now shielding their children’s eyes.

Exhibit C:  My newly-50 friend has had back surgery very recently.  His body is not as sturdy and unbreakable as it once seemed.  He is, I think, still convalescing. Probably having to chew heavy back pills on occasion.  So I don’t ignore this information.  I do the cost-benefit calculation.  Crunch the numbers.  Do the math.  I conclude that (a) this will be one of the all-time scare jobs, and (b) the odds of my causing Frank to wrench his back and pop his stitches and unfuse his fused vertebrae are astronomically low.   My co-conspirators deliver our unwitting victim to the darkened back porch.  A masked figure lurches out of the shadows.  Frank stiffens and shudders a bit — the best scares often look like this, I have come to appreciate. And as far as I can tell or anyone will admit, no drawers were soiled.  This is how I show my deep and genuine gratitude to one of my oldest and dearest friends? 

My saving grace (I hope) lies in the poem I wrote and read aloud through tear-blurred eyes and with halting voice the following night in a room full of people who are also grateful for Frank. At the risk of embarrassing him a little bit, I’ve taking the liberty of pasting that poem below.  Perhaps another ill-advised and ham-handed attempt to show him my gratitude. Admittedly not from the Right-Thinker’s Playbook.  But it’s the best I can do. And if nothing else, it is straight from the heart. Happy birthday, Frank.  I’m grateful. 

Thanks for reading.  

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Frank’s Trail

Dear Frank, it seems you’ve turned 50

And you know how these sorts of poems go

In your chair you should be shifting

‘Cause what I’ll say, you just never know…


You see, my man, we knew you when

You ran our dear Theta Chi

But before you ruled our wooden bench

You were only a BOG’er, guy


Later, you landed that sweet gig with Apple 

We all know this much to be true

But along the way, remember, you grappled

With the infamous dead-legged interview


Expertly fielding question after question

So grown up, so very mature

You rose at the end to shake hands — a true gentleman

And here is where fan meets manure


Your leg, now numb, sent you lurching 

Uncontrollably forward

Your boss’ adrenaline surging

Turns into a matador

You crumpled to the floor

Dear Frank, remind us, did that offer letter ever find your dorm room door?


Yes, Frank was a “Big Man on Campus” 

Filled with youthful pride

When he pitched Sergeant Paul Dumas

On the business deal of a lifetime


Frank offered a cut of 20 percent

But Dumas, unmoved, dismissed you 

With a furious face bright red, 

Saying “Don’t let the door hit you where the good lord has split you.” 


Our hero Frank was undeterred 

He wowed us with 94 Cup Daily

USA Today devoted nearly a third

Of a page to Frank’s exploits and savvy


A veritable titan of the industry

But let’s not forget our history…


As I recall, for example, there once was a necktie 

Accidentally dipped

In the toilet bowl of a grand high rise 

During a last minute bathroom trip 

Before a meeting with men old and wise

Whom Frank hoped to wow with quick wit

Undaunted, our Frankie, he improvised

From his neck, the “potty tie” ripped

Showed up in the boardroom as “Business Casual Guy”

I’ve no clue if they bought what he shipped


And on another occasion

About this there is no doubt

Frank was to serve as liaison

Introduce bigshots with a deal to work out

But the night before he’d gone out guns blazin’

Forgot to press the alarm clock button down

Woke up feeling fresh, amazin’!

But that meeting? It never went down. 

So Frank, he had some explainin’:


“I slipped in the shower, fell down!

I was knocked completely out!

I came to after 3 or 4 hours

When cold water came out of the spout.”


Ah, and those wonderful parties

Your Upper West Side garden flat

Disgruntled neighbors, those smarties

Threw down bags of urine, and splat!


In truth, it could have been much worse

Chalk it up to life in the City

If your neighbors were more perverse

Those bags would have been, well, shitty


And let’s not forget your “Rollerblade Years”

Frank, you were simply fantastic!

Those Aquafresh skates fueled by 2 or 3 beers

Threw sparks, though made only of plastic


And how ‘bout that challenging ski trail

Suggested by frat brother McMex?

Called “Our Father,” it was not for the frail 

Frank, what the hell’d you expect?


I’m told your yardsale was something to see

Your slide down the ice quite fun

Your Ironman watch sliced your wrist up the sleeve

A million-dollar lawsuit to be won!

Alas, a courtroom you never did see 

The statute of limitations had run


Well, how ‘bout Frank’s counterfeiting skills, then?

So many New Years Eve Balls — for free!

With just a few strokes of his fine pen

Oh and the Apple-issued laser printer was definitely key


Same goes for the Boston Marathon “race bibs”

Frank’s work gave Dave and I thrills

Though looking back now, this was one of those fibs

That led to the fetal position with chills.


I could go on forever, dear Frank

Salty tales like steaks of Delmonico

But the story of your Pre-Cana

Will stay between you, Noeleen, and Father Philatronico 


Alas, my poem has reached its end

Though I have so much more to say

Here’s to your next 50 years, my friend

With just one final thought, if I may

Your wounds from “Our Father” have mended

Your rollerblades long stowed away

But let’s have a few more adventures

‘Cause we’ll follow your trail all the way

Happy 50th, buddy!

 


 










 

5.2%

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I had no business going to Duke.  Or more accurately, I had no business being admitted to Duke.  I don’t know what the Duke admissions folks were thinking back in 1985, even contemplating the thought that I belonged among the incoming freshman class the next Fall.

I’ve interviewed a number of high school students over the years as a Duke alumnus.  These students have been, without exception, far more deserving than I was.  They have founded their own dance companies and introduced ballet to innercity neighborhoods more accustomed to drive-by shootings.  They are classically-trained pianists, starting point guards, and DJs specializing in “trance” mixes.  (“They” in this last sentence actually refers to a single person.)  They have spent their vacations mentoring underserved kids in bare-bones, but life-changing, summer camps.  They are polite.  They make and keep eye contact.  They are ridiculously modest; I have to practically drag out of them all of these outsized accomplishments.  They are amazing.  To a person, they are amazing.

No Duke alumnus interviewer or admissions packet-reviewer could have said the same about me in 1985.  I was jelly-headed, narcissistic, arrogant, far from worldly, and insufficiently curious.  Reading through that list again, I may well be all of these things still.  But that is better left for a later blog post.

My performance that first semester fairly proved the admissions committee had made a mistake on me.  By mid-semester, I had two Fs and a D, or maybe it was two Ds and an F.  It didn’t help that I had stubbornly chosen to take Chemistry, Calculus and some other ill-fitting course the name of which I cannot currently recall.  Clearly, they should have offered my spot to someone else.

On the plus side, I had learned to juggle beanbags; a skill I picked up from one of my two perfect SAT score roommates.  My mother, who had scraped by to pay my tuition, was not amused by my juggling.  The move where I toss a single bag in the air, then loft the others simultaneously to cross each other’s paths, cascading back down in a half-circle?  My mother’s eyes glazed over, probably calculating the tuition math in her head just as my juggling cubes scattered across the kitchen floor.  My kids will tell you, by the way, that this is still my signature juggling move.  Well, maybe my only juggling move.

Also on the plus side: I learned how to roll a quarter from the bridge of my nose, the coin’s thin circumference striking a hard surface two feet below, keeping just enough kinetic energy to wobble back into the air half again, before collapsing into a foamy, 24-ounce, plastic cup of beer.  This trick I taught my perfect SAT score roommates, as I recall.  I’m sure their parents were very impressed at their sons’ newfound skill.  My kids will tell you nothing about my proficiency with a quarter, by the way, because, well, just because.

My parents selflessly cobbled together the funds to cover my tuition, a critical piece of which was a gracious scholarship from the company for which my step-father worked.  Keeping that scholarship would require more than juggling tricks and bouncing currency, as I confessed in a repentant missive addressed to the scholarship director.  The scholarship director must have been persuaded, as she gave me another length of rope, when she could easily have cut me off and changed my trajectory.

Somehow I managed to scratch my way through the rest of my time at Duke.  I figured things out as I went along.  A couple days ago, prodded by my wife, I opened up a white cardboard box in my garage, unearthing some musty college notebooks.  The pages yellowed, my handwriting clearly imprinted there and clearly more legible than it is today.  Reading the words now, I can picture the 20 year-old me, brain slightly less gelatinous and slightly more curious.  Figuring things out.  Or perhaps more accurately, figuring out how important it is to want to figure things out.  Safe to say I am still trying to figure things out.

Those weathered pages also brought back an interesting and timely memory —

On one atypically snowy evening at Duke, I was wrestling at the bus stop with a buddy of mine.  I’m sure he had perfect SAT scores, with a double major in chemical and electrical engineering, to boot.  About all we shared, then, were bellies filled with beer.  At one point, I had managed to pin his arm behind his back or maybe stuff his head in a snowbank, and he complained, “C’mon Keir, get off!”  A solitary figure standing in the periphery startled me:

“Keir?  Is your name Keir Beadling?”

I stumbled to my feet wiping snow from the knees of my jeans, eye-balling him.  Not my age, and not someone I recognized from campus.  “Yes, um, hi, do I know you?”

“Well, no, not exactly, but I read your admissions essay and it was great.  Really great.  I was on the admissions committee a couple years back.  Good luck and take care.”

With that, the stranger climbed aboard the shuttle bus to East Campus, and left me standing there a little dumbstruck. Feeling as if I’d just seen a ghost, a piece of my own history, a rare glimpse at how and why things happen.  Fate, maybe.

I read this morning that Duke received 32,506 admission applications this past season — the school’s largest ever pool of applicants.  All competing for just 1700 spots.  I went to law school to avoid math, but I believe that equates to just 5.2%.  Very rough odds for kids with perfect SATs, ballet companies, cross-over dribbles, and Rachmaninoff sheet music.  Impossible odds for a beanbag-juggling quarters savant who apparently wrote one really good essay.   I figure I need to keep writing, if only to prove that my bus stop apparition made the right call on me thirty years ago.

Thanks for reading.

Go Syraduke Orangebluedevilmen!

There’s a big college hoops game on today.  I know this because I’m in the Salt City, home of the Orangemen.  This town has embraced the Syracuse Orangemen basketball team for as long as I can remember.  But that embrace has turned into a crazed squeeze in the last decade or so, like the Abominable Snow Rabbit clutching Daffy Duck.  “I will name him George, and I will hug him, and pet him and squeeze him.”

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Except that these Syracuse Orangemen love it.  They want to squeeze the Abominable Snowman right back.

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Off the top of my head, I can’t think of a college town and college men’s hoops team so locked in such an unabashed embrace.  Public display of affection unlike any other.

And I think that’s awesome.  I went to Duke for undergrad.  And I still think it’s awesome.  Allow me to elaborate —

I have vivid memories of watching SU on the little black and white in my bedroom as the team played in Manley Field House.  My routine was to peel and munch on an orange, while watching the Orange, and to blink as infrequently as possible so as not to miss any of the action.  I cheered the “Bouie and Louie Show” as loudly as every other 10 year-old Syracusan.  I remember my Cub Scout troop–the one that met in my buddy Sean’s basement, his dad was our “Den Dad”–we once visited Manley.  And got to watch these giant trees of men practice.  Silken warmups.  Dale Shackleford happily signed my SU season program.  I still have that program and the autograph somewhere in a cardboard box in my garage in San Francisco. Along with my Corcoran Cougars Baseball Team Annual Programs & maroon-striped uniform pants, high school graduation cap & gown, and a bunch of other stuff that I pore over every few years.

I recall feeling what I later understood to be civic pride when the Carrier Dome was built.  And I recall the sight of the Dome collapsed (unintentionally, the first time) under the weight of a heavy snowfall.  The entire town wrung its hands, concerned about the Dome then as if it were a close family member.  I remember the feeling of independence when I was allowed to wander around the Dome, behind the curtain, with my buddy Johnny.  Turns out I wasn’t quite ready for that independence, as we got separated somehow during that mad rush at the end of the game, that reverse vacuum of air whooshed me out of the gate, and I couldn’t find my friend.  I ended up walking all the way to Salina Street wearing only a thin blue hoodie.  I dug a quarter out of my lint-lined pocket, and managed somehow to round up a ride from one of my aunts.  The air was so frigid, by the time she picked me up one of my white drawstrings was frozen solid, my nervous saliva turned to ice.  But I survived, and that experience of being lost is no less powerful now than the equally clear experience of witnessing Pearl Washington hit that half court buzzer-beater against BC in 1984.  As I recall, he kept right on running straight to the locker room, never breaking stride.  These memories are a big part of who I am, and I am grateful for them.

I’m also a Duke Blue Devil, through and through. I spent four ridiculously fortunate years there a long time ago, made some fantastic lifelong friends (of the Alien Head variety), camped out in Krzyzewskiville as a freshman with painted face, cheered with my fellow students at courtside, etc.  I think I’ve managed to watch nearly every single Duke hoops game on TV since graduating.  More importantly, I’ve managed to convince important people who arrived later in my life to become Duke fans.  My wife whom I met in law school screamed as loudly as I at Laettner’s unforgettable shot that broke Kentucky’s heart.  And both of my kids now live and die with my Duke Blue Devils, our Duke Blue Devils, though we have until today watched from afar, on television.  In fact, my SU-loving mother will be outed right here:  For Christmas, she sent both of my boys Duke hoodies.

The very same one that my youngest son Everett will be rocking at the Dome today.

Yessir.  A couple months back, when I realized that Duke would be playing in the Dome, I scrambled up some inexpensive airline and game tickets.  My 90 year-old grandmother unexpectedly passed away a few weeks ago, so this Duke-SU game afforded a second opportunity to be with my east coast family in the wake of that unimaginable sadness.  This new rivalry has generated some positivity and excitement to help heal the void my grandmother left.  (If anyone says that sports, especially college sports, are trivial, I beg to differ.)

Strangely enough, everything seems to have come full circle.  My connection to both SU’s and Duke’s men’s hoops team has brought me home again once more, an unexpected chance to be back where it all started, and with one of my children in-tow, no less.  And there’s something very cool about this new rivalry now allowing my siblings and I to share a little college hoops fanaticism with our own kids, and with each other’s kids.  My stepfather twisted my stepsister’s arm into making two “Go Duke” cupcakes last night (for Ev and me), although said cupcakes were surrounded by orange and blue.

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And for my part, last I helped teach my nephew Kellan the ropes —

So if you happen to catch Everett and I at the Dome today, please resist the urge to malign him for the royal blue Duke hoodie that his grandmother the SU hoops fan bestowed upon him.  And if you can’t quite make out the weird cheer being shouted from our 335ZZ seats, here it is —

“GO SYRADUKE ORANGEBLUEDEVILMEN!”

It’s a mouthful, but it makes sense to me.

Thanks for reading.