Hello, California!

Oh, California. I’ve been here not even 24 hours, and I’m already in love.

Several months ago, I was tapped to assume the responsibilities that come with writing the cover story for the university’s alumni magazine. Those responsibilities took me this week to Los Angeles, California. … I’ve never been west of Denver and, therefore, with so much to see and explore, I’ve been anticipating this trip for months.

With a 7:30 a.m. flight, I was out of bed at 3:30 and picking up The Photographer at 4:15. At 8, we were in the air.

The flight was fantastic for the view alone. I’m so accustomed, from my years of flying over the Midwest, to looking over farm fields and residential neighborhoods dotted with pools, schools, playgrounds and highways dotted with cars gliding along them. … Today, the views were far different. I got my first-ever live look at the Grand Canyon and barren dessert as far as we could see.

* * *

After finding our rental car and settling into our hotel, we went to work, catching up and setting appointments with our interview subjects – and exploring the city during our down time.

Today’s interview subject was an awesome and inspiring young woman who graduated from the university last year. She was quite active as a student on the campus, and I got to know her while she worked as a social media intern in my office. She left a remarkable imprint on the university, and today she is employed at trendy shoe and accessories company. …

After a tour of her office complex, she took us to a hopping sandwich place, Mendocino Farms, for lunch. The line to place an order stretched out the door and past two storefronts. Once we got our food, the reason was obvious – the market fresh sandwiches and fresh salads they served up were very tasty.

Tonight, we spent five hours resuming our interview and photo shoot with our cover girl, with a break halfway through for a venture to grab some Indian food in Culver City. That was another first for me, and I liked it. …

Exhausted and pushed to our limits, we finally wrapped the interview and photo shoot at about 11:30 p.m., L.A. time – 1:30 a.m. central time.

The Photographer and I have put in a 22-hour day.
* * *

Some quick observations after one day in L.A. ...

The traffic doesn't seem to be near as intimidating or dangerous as other people or films make it out to be. I expected to spend a lot of time stopped in traffic jams, or see other cars whizzing by us at outrageous speeds. We've experienced none of that, and so far it's no different than every other big city I've visited. 
And everything's so clean and well-kept. The fact that there are trash cans every 25 feet probaby has a lot to do with that -- if you litter with that many trash cans around, you're a fool. Properties are meticulously manicured, too.

During a break this afternoon, The Photographer and I headed for a drive. We found a classic rock station on the radio and “Take It Easy” came on. Cruising the palm tree-sided roadways, the bright sun overhead without a cloud in the sky, and hearing that song in the city where it was born – man, it’s never sounded better.

We made our way to the ocean front and eventually to the famous Santa Monica Pier. Truth be told, I thought it was overrated, but it was good to walk it.


Maybe it's the hat

We gave away our softball game tonight.

We played poor defense the first inning and gave up six or seven runs. To the other team’s credit, it was not all on our defense – they were hitting the ball solidly, too. … Like we always do, our team pulled together and chipped away at their lead. But we continued to give up a run or two in the successive innings and could never fully catch up.

Finally, in the second-to-last inning we put together a string of hits and closed within three runs of the lead. … And in our last inning of at-bats we put some more runners on and managed to score one addition run. I hit a ground ball down the third baseline, but the third baseman made a play on it and threw the lead runner out at second base. The tying run came to the plate with me on first base and two down, but he popped out to first base to end the game.


So this week’s game ended up being a repeat of last week. We lost a game tonight that we could have and should have won with a little better play, and we won by forfeit Tuesday night because our opponent couldn’t find enough players – which is funny because our team also was struggling to find players for Tuesday night’s game. Most of the guys on our team are educators with young kids, which doesn’t always make it easy to play softball considering all the school activities happening at this time of year.

Our record sits at 3-2. Or – taking out wins by forfeit – 1-2 in games we’ve actually played. We’re 3-0 on Tuesday nights and 0-2 on Thursday nights.

I continue to be proud of my defensive play. The move to shortstop and the new shoes are working out. … Like a lot of our guys tonight, I misplayed a couple balls in the first inning that I should have had, but I pulled it together and fielded several ground balls the rest of the night. After a good second inning, the guys nicknamed me “Hoover” – because I was sucking up ground balls. We put up the first out in the second on a ground ball hit to my right; I fielded it near the edge of the infield and threw to first base on my back knee, and our 6-foot-tall first baseman pulled off a top-notch stretch to catch the ball while keeping his foot on the bag. Then I got the third out of the inning by fielding a ground ball cleanly and tossing it to second for a force out.

I caught several fly balls, too, which I’d shag all night if I had to choose ground balls or fly balls. In our opponent’s final at-bats, with two outs and runners stationed on the bases and them threatening to increase their lead, the batter hit a bloop down the third base line. The ball was over the third baseman’s head enough that he wouldn't get to it and shallow enough that the left fielder wouldn’t get to it, but I tracked it all the way and chased it down at the foul line. It was clutch.

Any true baseball – or in this case softball – fan knows we’re an extremely superstitious breed. In our minds, the right pair of socks or the way we step onto the field can determine a good night or a bad night.

Last Thursday night, I credited my new shoes. Tonight, I credit my hat position for my good defensive play. … During the first inning I had my hat pulled low over my forehead, partly to block out the setting sun, which was creating some wicked glare and shadows down the third base line. But when I came out for the second inning, I nudged my hat up and tilted the bill upward instead of covering my forehead. It worked, because I played well from then on.

Now I need to figure out the trick to finding my batting stroke, which hasn’t been great thus far in the season. I was 1-for-4 tonight with a flyout to right in my first at-bat and a liner out to the shortstop in my second turn. Finally, I swatted a solid line drive to left field during my third at-bat for a clean single before hitting the grounder to third in my fourth and final at-bat.

I know I can do better. … Maybe I should try wearing my hat backward during at-bats.


It's gotta be the shoes

Oh, summer, we’re rolling now …

Since I officially finished my graduate work and concluded my school year a couple weeks ago, I've been relishing my new freedom and the ability to enjoy life’s pleasures when I come home from work at night – instead of being tied down by 60 pages of reading and a research paper.

Kates and I have been taking the girls for walks on the campus almost nightly, and I’ve enjoyed returning one of my favorite past times – working in our yard and shaping the landscape.

Monday night, me and some of the guys on our softball team got together for some practice. Then, I came home, mowed the lawn and worked on one of our gardens until it was too dark for me to see. Tuesday night, our softball game was canceled because the team we were supposed to play couldn’t field a full team. So we got the win by a forfeit, and I spent that night working in the yard again.

Between our summer living in that wretched duplex and being too busy with school work the last two summers, I haven’t spent this much time working in – and enjoying – our yard since we lived in K-Town. I’m lovin’ it.

Tonight, I finally returned to the ball diamond, and what a relief it was.

You see, since I made my return to softball last summer, I’ve played in good ‘ol tennis shoes. My favorite metal cleats I wore for playing baseball in K-Town were no good. Illegal. … I hadn’t taken the chance to purchase a new pair of softball cleats, and my playing suffered because of it last season. I was always slipping on the basepaths, and it was difficult to gain my footing when fielding ground balls and making good throws to the bases.

After our season opener last week, I decided I couldn’t take it anymore.

So today, I headed to our local sporting goods store on my lunch break, on a mission to purchase a pair of softball cleats. On my way into the store, I met a co-worker who was walking out with a new pair of shoes.

“How’s the selection?” I asked.

He shrugged. “Not great.”


Inside the store, I went to the shoe section and began scanning the wall display for softball cleats. They had soccer. Baseball. Track and field. I wasn’t seeing softball and began to have a sinking feeling. … But a store employee stepped in, asked if I needed help and saved the day.

She showed me a sweet-looking black pair of Nike cleats. They were the only pair the store had in stock, and I figured they were going to cost me 70, 80 bucks for sure. The high cost of shoes has never made sense to me. Bracing, I asked how much the cleats would cost me.

“These are 40,” she said.

“Great! I’ll take ‘em!”

And I was on my way.

Tonight, I took my spot at shortstop and the infield dirt under my new cleats never felt better. I had traction. I had quickness in my step. I knew this was going to be a fun game.

In the second inning, I made my mark. The first batter of the inning laced a hard ground ball slightly to my right side. I got in front of it, but my momentum carried me backward to the edge of the outfield grass. Like vintage Cal Ripken, I leaned on my back leg, tossed the ball with ease to first base and made the out. One down.

Then, I fielded a ground ball from the second batter. And the third batter, too. I fielded both balls cleanly and turned both of them into easy outs. Two down, three down. I retired the side from shortstop.

I was greeted with a round of high-fives and smiles when I returned to the dugout. “That was kind of like Groundhog Day,” a teammate’s dad said to me from the stands.

After our at-bats, we returned to the field and the guys started cracking one-liners. “We’ll stay here, you go out and take this one,” one of them said.

The first batter of the third inning flied out, but the second batter hit another ball my way. This time, I got low to snatch up the ball and threw from my knees, getting the runner just in time. I put out four of five batters.

I credit the shoes.

In the meantime, our offense was running smoothly and we had mounted a good lead. A key to our team’s success is making the pitcher throw good pitches and a balance of timely hitting. Thanks to a string of walks in the first inning, we put seven runs on the board early.

I went 1-for-2 on the night. I walked and scored in that first inning. Later, I grounded out and then grounded a ball through the gap between the shortstop and second base for a single.

We kept adding to our lead but a couple defensive miscues here and there allowed the other team to stay in the game. … And we wanted to win this game badly. We were playing our rival – the team that knocked us from the playoffs last year in the semifinal round (on that triple play that wasn’t called) and the team that we’ll no doubt meet in the playoffs again this year.

In the last inning, they put together a string of solid hits that got through holes in the infield and dropped in the gaps of the outfield. They hit a couple hard ground balls to my left that I should have grabbed, but couldn’t. I got the tip of my glove on one, but it skipped past me, and I dove for another but couldn’t reach it.

Before we knew it, the game was tied. And then their winning run was crossing the plate. It was over.

It was a fun game. We’ll get them next time.


Let the games begin

So I played my first softball game of the summer tonight. Let the summer officially begin.

The weather was perfect. Sunny with temperatures in the 60s. Our wives gabbed while our kids played around the bleachers. And us guys played ball.

I love how a team of guys, working in a myriad of professions within a 45-mile radius, can gel and play together for an eight-week season, go their separate ways for the next 9.5 months and then come together as team again, picking up right where they left off.

After all, we're the defending league champions.

So tonight, my position assignment was shortstop. Last year, you may recall, I was regularly stationed at third base, but our regular shortstop from last year opted out of playing this year, leaving the spot open for me.

It took a few innings for me to knock off the offseason rust. I notched an out by catching a fly ball in shallow left field, but I botched the first three ground balls hit my way. The last one I took square off my knee cap. ... Yep, that's going to make things interesting when I try to get out of bed tomorrow morning.

But, I walked it off as the pitcher stalled for a few minutes, and I stayed in the game.

I then fielded cleanly the next three ground balls to be hit my way, throwing to first and getting the putouts on all three.

At the plate, I had a 2-for-3 night with two singles. We won the game 10-9, though the game never felt that close from our team's standpoint. We play good defense, we're patient at the plate and we're cool under pressure.

Ah, yes. The summer has begun.


Graduation Day

A close friend’s mother told me once that graduation day would be one of the happiest, most exciting days of my life – next to my wedding day and the birth of my children. I’m now two times as old as I was when she made that statement. And I understand now, more than ever, how right she was.

Saturday I took the walk across the university’s commencement stage, officially commemorating the completion of my master’s degree.

I will consider it fully official and complete in a few more weeks when I actually receive my diploma. During commencement, the university only hands graduates a diploma cover, without the diploma actually inside because the registrar still has to verify final grades and degree completion.

Leading up to Saturday and in the hours since, I’ve been basking in the glow of congratulations from family, friends and colleagues, and a whole lot of Facebook love. I drew shout-outs at Wednesday’s end-of-the-year celebration for our campus ministry group, at a university board meeting Friday and then from the university president during his commencement address as well as a mention of congratulations during church yesterday morning. When I returned to my office from the board meeting Friday afternoon, a couple of my coworkers surprised me with a cake and balloons.

This feeling could not be sweeter. And I’m holding my head a little higher today with my heightened status.

* * *

Good feelings aside, some other things during the run-up to the whole shebang Saturday added to the ride. Which was fitting, considering all the ups and downs woven into this two-year journey of mine.

Phoebe and I were home together Monday because she didn’t have school, and we had a wonderful time playing and hanging out together. She accompanied me on some morning errands. We played “grocery store.” And she played in the sprinkler while I did some work in our back yard. It was 80 degrees and sunny, after all.

Tuesday, I returned to work, and Phoebe returned to school. … But when I arrived home Tuesday evening, Phoebe was curled up on the couch and burning up. It was the beginning of a long night as Phoebe – in addition to Faye, who consistently wakes up at least a couple times a night anyway – was restless and crying out in discomfort throughout the night.

So I stayed home again with Phoebe Wednesday morning before I had to get back to campus for meetings, and Kates relieved me for the afternoon. Kates took Phoebe to the clinic Wednesday afternoon, but the nurse practitioner couldn’t diagnose anything more than a virus and prescribed an antibiotic. Our suspicions, based on Phoebe’s symptoms and the notice posted at Faye’s daycare – where Phoebe touches everything during the afternoon pickup routine – are that she came down with strep throat. … Her fever peaked at almost 101 Wednesday afternoon, and that meant she had to stay home from school Thursday, too.

So I stayed home with Phoebe Thursday, and by the early afternoon she appeared to be returning to her usual self. I thought we’d be returning to our normal routine Friday, easy.

Not so fast. Thursday night I went out for drinks with my graduate school cohort, and when I came home, Kates greeted me with the news that Phoebe had vomited, still had a fever and would, therefore, be staying home from school again Friday. … That sent me to my office late Thursday night to take care of some things I needed to get prepare for the morning. Fun.

Friday, Kates and I split the day with Phoebe again. I took the morning duty, and Kates came home for the afternoon so I could attend the university board meeting.

* * *

Meanwhile, Mother Nature can’t seem to make up her mind and get on with spring. As the week began, even after our gorgeous weekend, forecasts showed a major temperature drop during the second half of the week and the “s” word was being thrown around, with calls for a 90 percent chance. … Worse yet, the weather people were predicting it would last through Saturday’s commencement festivities.

Not cool, Mother Nature. Not cool.

I hoped and prayed it wouldn’t happen. I must have been checking my Weather Channel app at least once an hour to look for any changes in the forecast.

Worst of all, the brunt of the storm was forecast for Thursday – the day my parents planned to drive down from Wisconsin to join us for the weekend. Kates and I knew if there was any solid chance of bad weather, they wouldn’t be driving.

So it was no surprise when my phone rang Wednesday evening, and my dad broke the news that they had decided not to come.

I held out hope that the forecast wouldn’t hold true. But it did, and Thursday morning we woke up to this …

* * *

Nothing could contain our excitement – especially mine – when we awoke Saturday morning. Not even the unseasonably cold and gray weather for a May commencement ceremony.

After passing my research presentation a couple weeks ago, our household countdown to the end of “my work” transitioned to a two-week countdown to the graduation ceremony. … As Phoebe and I sat at the breakfast table this morning, she looked at me, between mouthfuls of cereal, and said, “Daddy, guess what!? Today’s the big day!”

As I got myself ready, it almost had the feeling of our wedding day. I’d been waiting and imagining this day for two years, and it signified a new chapter in my life …

I began playing one of my music playlists on my iPhone, and it was as if even it knew the significance of the day. In one sequence, it ran off John Parr's “St. Elmo's Fire (Man In Motion),” U2’s “Beautiful Day” and Boston’s “Don’t Look Back.” Phoebe and I danced around the bedroom as I buttoned my shirt and tied my necktie. Then we paraded down the stairs and through the kitchen, waving our hands and pumping our fists.

By 9 a.m., we were loading up the car and heading down the street to the arena for the commencement ceremony. I always have a VIP parking spot reserved for me on commencement day because of my media relations responsibilities during the day, but I rarely use it. This time, however, with the family in tow and me actually participating in the ceremony, having that parking luxury worked well; we didn’t have to fight all of the other parking traffic, and we didn’t have to walk far in the chilly, rainy weather.

* * *

Inside the arena, I left Kates and the girls to find their seats, and I headed for the staging area. Here now begins, what was arguably the most stressful part of my day …

Two of my office mates – a photographer and graphic designer – hatched a plan to spell B-E-A-R-C-A-T-S on a series of mortar boards, bookended with our iconic university logo. I volunteered my graduate cohort and they loved the idea. If our plan worked the way we envisioned, our photographer would capture a photo with our decorated caps among a sea of graduates.

So Saturday morning I carried a box of 11 decorated mortar boards to the staging area and handed them out to my cohort as each member arrived. On my way, I stopped in the arena to count out the number of chairs in a single row – there were 18 seats – to account for where our group had to position itself in order for us to be seated in the same row. Fortunately, our designer also had staked out the arena setup Friday afternoon and realized we needed to process into the arena in reverse order for our spelling to appear correctly to the crowd.

The first obstacle arose in finding a place in the line of graduates for our cohort to insert itself. To capture the perfect photo, we wanted to be close to the middle of the seating. But other graduate cohorts wanted to sit together as well – forcing us to not only find a place in the line where we could ensure all 10 of us would be seated in the same row but a break in the line between two cohorts.

Just when I thought I found a good spot for us to step into the line, additional graduates jumped into the line. I must have counted the people in the line and calculated the number of rows at least a dozen times – enough times that some people who had no idea what was going on started to give me some really weird looks.

Finally, the line started moving toward the arena. A couple more graduates joined the line in front of us, and it was too late. There was nothing I could do but hope it worked out when we arrived at our seats.

It did. We fit into the row, with the final piece of our puzzle taking the final seat in the row. I breathed a sigh of relief as my friend Angel leaned over and said to me, “Your job is safe today.”

* * *

I’ve said for years that commencement day is one of my favorite days at the university, but the fact that I was participating Saturday upped the thrill.

As the graduates, we entered the arena and processed through a line of faculty members – now my colleagues and friends. I reached out to several of them to shake hands as we passed. I missed Kates and the girls sitting just past the line of faculty but caught a glimpse of them on the big screen as we continued toward the graduates’ seating area.

I’ve helped plan and observed enough graduate ceremonies at the university now that I can recite the routine without looking at the printed program. The president greeted the crowd and offered some statistics about this year’s graduating class – at 708 strong it was a record for the school. Then, there’s a heart-warming tribute video about the university featuring reflections of some of the graduating students, which never fails to bring a smile to my face and send chills down my spine.

Here was my view of the proceedings ...

Eventually, the featured speaker steps to the podium – this year’s speaker was a leading student engagement officer from a university in the United Kingdom. He opened his address by relaying two bits of advice he received while preparing his remarks: keep it brief and don’t worry too much because people will simply enjoy listening to his English accent. When finished, he'd given a wonderful and entertaining address.

And finally, it was time for the conferral of degrees. Adding to the ceremony's special for me was that the graduate school was paired with the college of business and professional studies. Two other academic colleges shared the afternoon ceremony, but the college of business and professional studies was my home base as an undergraduate student, and it continues to be an area with which I work closely and know many students.

I crossed the stage behind students I’ve had the joy of mentoring, working with and knowing these last few years. Philip, Kacie, Kate, Kari, Alex, Amanda, Chloe, Erin, Lindsay, Denise, Carl, Adil, Ash and Megan, to name a few. Most of these students were freshmen when I arrived on campus 3 ½ years ago now, and I’ve had the chance to watch their college careers unfold. They’re a special group.

Soon I followed the procession behind the stage, up a ramp and then to the front of the stage to wait for my name to be called. Amanda, a professor who also has become a friend, read my name with a smile. I stepped in front of the dean of the graduate school to the sound of cheers from friends in the crowd. He wrapped my master’s hood around my neck and shoulders, chatting the whole time and offering words of congratulations. Then I stepped to the provost, who shook my hand, handed my diploma cover to me and complimented me on our cohort’s decorated hats. At the end of the stage stood the university president, ready to greet me. We embraced in a hug, posed for the obligatory picture and he reminded me that I’ll be able to watch more baseball during my free time.

To my surprise, as I walked down the ramp from the stage, Phoebe appeared and ran toward me, shouting “Daddy!” before hugging my leg. Unknown to me, our friend Gina, who directs the commencement ceremony, spotted Kates and the girls in their seats and invited them to the backstage area for an improved, more private view of the ceremony.

I gave Phoebe a hug and sent her back to her backstage seat before returning to my seat with the graduates. But then as the ceremony was ending and the graduates were readying to process out of the arena, Phoebe weaved her way into our seating area to find me. It was utterly adorable and unforgettable as she appeared, hugged my leg again and took my hand to walk out of the arena with me and the other graduates.

Phoebe stayed with me as I wound my way through the crowds in the arena hallways and reunited with my cohort for some group photos and more congratulatory hugs with friends, colleagues and faculty members. Soon I found Kates and Faye back in the arena for some family photos.

By the time we left the campus and returned home it was about 12:30 p.m. That left enough time for me to grab a snack and refresh before heading back to campus to cover the afternoon ceremony. … When I arrived back at the arena and entered the backstage hallway, I found our commencement staff taking a lunch break. Without skipping a beat, I was back to work, managing the media who were covering the afternoon ceremony and greeting and assisting the graduates as they arrived.

I took my usual perch in the arena press box for the afternoon ceremony and followed the program, which was much the same as the morning. … By 4:30 p.m. it was all over. I walked home and slipped into our house to find everyone curled up, asleep on the living room couches.

In the meantime, I tried to figure out what to do next. I’m still getting used to this new found freedom.

As we put the girls to bed last night, Kates appropriately pulled out “Oh, the Places You'll Go!” for a bedtime story. … Our copy of it was given to me on my high school graduation day, half a lifetime ago.