Friday, June 26, 2009

The Material World ...

Boston, sun and thunderstorms ... Go figure!

The guiding mantra in real estate, we all know, is "location, location, location." But Lauri and I didn't plan to buy a home in Hamilton. Our Beverly apartment was sold out from under us shortly after we got engaged. We started canvassing the entire North Shore, and happened upon a quaint cottage on a quiet circle in this bucolic hamlet. We were sold.

Lauri was the visionary. She saw the potential in the neighborhood for raising a family – lots of young couples, a safe street, schools with good reputations. What we didn't foresee was the demands that living in a wealthy town would place on us, and our kids.

Hamilton is an affluent community. That's just a fact. Our neighborhood abuts the Myopia Hunt & Polo Club (the baying hounds kept me awake until dawn our first night, and I thought we'd made a catastrophic mistake). Beneath the veneer comes subtle and sometimes exasperating baggage. Once, a good friend's son, with the unregulated honesty of a 9-year-old, asked during a visit: "Dad, why is their house so small?" My friend was apologetic, but I laughed it off. "It's true," I told him.

But this materialistic "arms race" got trickier once our girls came along. When she was in 3rd grade, Mary, our eldest, began dropping hints about getting a swimming pool. When I finally asked why a pool suddenly became so important, especially when we had access to several in the neighborhood, she spilled the beans. Apparently, a friend told her: "Why would I want a play date at your house? You don't have a pool."

It's only gotten more challenging. While carpooling to hockey or soccer, I've overheard kids brag about many toys they have to how gigantic their houses are. I know that's natural, and most of it is good-natured. This is what kids do. I keep reminding Mary and Brynne that there will always be those with more, and those with less. It's not the size of the house that matters, I tell them, but how much love is found inside those four walls. Our girls will never have every bauble. Now 12 and 10, they don't have Wii or X-Box or Play-Station or cell phones (though Mary finally got an iPod this past Christmas). They don't have their own TV, or their own computer. They share a room, with bunk beds.

That's OK with Lauri and me. We believe it's a good life lesson. I'm a freelance writer, and admittedly that's not the fast track to "Lifestyles of the Rich & Famous." Mom works too. But we both love what we do, and try to impart that philosophy on the girls. Mary and Brynne have never had to worry about having good cloths, good food, plenty of after-school activities, and a warm home filled with big hugs. And we're always here for them.


Wednesday, June 24, 2009

USA? Yes!!!

Boston. What? More rain? No way ...

Now THAT, my friends, is how you shake US Soccer Nation right out of its collective doldrums! All but left for dead, the United States national team rallied in South Africa today to pull off one of the great upsets of modern-day soccer, slipping past mighty Spain, the world's No. 1 team, in the semifinals of the Confederations Cup, 2-0. What a great result for the boys in red, white and blue. Even better, I called it. OK, my guess was a 2-1 margin, but that still would have rocked the oddsmakers from London to Vegas, and probably would have set up a nice retirement account, if I had the guts to put a few bucks on the Yanks. I didn't.

Still, what a great result, and what a great game to watch. The USA squad scratched and clawed and willed themselves to this win. This was not a dominating performance by any stretch. Spain, which rolled through the preliminary round without conceding a goal, controlled the ball for two-thirds of the game. They were clearly the more talented side (as their 35-game undefeated streak and 15 straight wins would attest to). But this game was decided by heart, a few lucky bounces, and an immense performance by goalkeeper Tim Howard. The Everton goalie, who was tagged for six goals in two previous games against Italy and Brazil, was under siege much of the game, but proved impenetrable. Meanwhile, teenager Jozy Altidore scored a sublime goal in the 27th minute, shielding the ball from his Spanish defender before ripping a shot off Spain's Iker Casillas, nipping the inside of the right post.

For the next 50 minutes, it was the Tim Howard Show, as the American goalie collected eight saves, many spectacular. Then, against the run of play, American Clint Dempsey converted a mangled feed from Landon Donovan (see photo, above) and the US was up, remarkably, 2-0 with 15 minutes to go. It was, in all likelihood, the longest and most nerve-wracking 15 minutes ever played by this group of 11. The Spaniards would not go quietly, and they repeatedly pounded the ball into the box. The Americans proved equal to the task, however, clearing every dangerous cross and shot. And when the final whistle blew, the joy on the American side was palpable. It was sweet indeed!


Tuesday, June 23, 2009

The USA's magic act ...

Boston, the Seattle of the East.

The United States soccer team is starting to remind me of my golf game. I keep playing that maddening game because, every once in a blue moon, I hit the ball perfectly -- right in the sweet spot -- and that one improbable moment keeps me coming back to the links. Likewise, Uncle Sam's squad can completely stink out the joint, like it did against Italy and Brazil last week. Collectively, the gang resembled my typical round of 18 -- unpredictable, uninspired, unconvincing, unable to finish. Then, everything changed with one thoroughly unexpected effort against a resilient Egypt team on Sunday. The Yanks won, 3-0, and coupled with Brazil's 3-0 dismantling of Italy, found themselves propelled into the semifinals of the Confederation Cup.

How crazy was that? Italy is the reigning World Cup champion. Although they looked old and tired against Brazil, they are still a formidable squad, having pasted the Americans 3-1 in the opening round. The real undoing for the Azzuri was a subsequent 1-0 loss to the Pharoahs, who summoned the will and tenacity to keep a clean sheet against the potent Italians (after losing a wild 4-3 affair to Brazil). Unfortunately for Egypt, it appeared the Pharaohs didn't have any bullets left in the chamber when they met the USA in the final game of the knock-out round.

The pride of Manchester, NH, Charles Davies, got the USA on the board in the first half with a never-say-die effort, eventually outmuscling three Egyptians to tuck the ball in the net (see accompanying photo, above). In the second half, the US went up 2-0 on a strike by Michael Bradley (not a bad Father's Day gift for the USA coach, Bob Bradley), and appeared to have the game well in control. Still, if they held the Yanks to two goals or fewer, Egypt would have gone through to the final round. But a tremendous header by maligned US forward Clint Dempsey (a former favorite during his New England Revolution days) dashed Egypt's hopes and dreams and jettisoned the Yanks into the semifinals.

The reward awaiting the Yanks is a date with Spain, the world's No. 1 ranked team, on Wednesday. Not only has Spain set a record for consecutive undefeated matches (35), they're also riding a current 15-game winning streak (unheard of on the international stage). Translation? Things don't look promising for the good ol' US of A. But as several pundits have pointed out in the past few days, that's exactly why the games are played on the field, and not on paper. And I vividly remember the United States' "Miracle on Ice" victory over the Soviet Union at the 1980 Olympics in Lake Placid. I'm not sure a result against Spain would resonate quite the same, but it sure would be cool. Should be fun; at least as much fun as a good walk spoiled on the links.


Sunday, June 21, 2009

Thinking of Dad ...

Boston, more rain ...

Today, on Father's Day, I find myself torn between generations. On one hand, I'm looking ahead to the coming challenges I face as a dad (my girls are 10 and 12; life is unlikely to get any easier in the foreseeable future). On the other, I'm thinking of my own Dad. It's been almost four decades since we lost Dad, a victim of a smoking habit he just couldn't break. I say "we" because, by all accounts, Dr. John Joseph O'Connor Jr. was an immensely popular man. That was doubly true under his own roof, with a beautiful wife and six kids who adored him. He finally succumbed to his Camel-induced cancer in the summer of 1971, just before I began 8th grade. I can't begin to describe the upheaval that loss caused, in part because I probably never fully dealt with it. We O'Connors are pretty crafty when it comes to compartmentalizing our feelings, though some are better than others.

Now that I'm past my own half-century mark, my own memories of Dad are somewhat faded, like the edges of an antique, sepia-toned photograph (similar to the one above, of Mom and Dad on an early date in New York City). I remember watching the ambulance leaving our driveway, not understanding that I'd never see Dad again. And I remember bawling my eyes out at the funeral, when the stark sight of his casket brought home the full impact of our new-found reality: Dad was gone, and gone for good.

The years that followed brought a rough-and-tumble road of highs and lows. Mom, a truly remarkable woman, managed to keep our clan together when a number of her kids – myself included – threatened to veer out of control. Later in life, after I began my career, it slowly dawned on me that Mom had been both a mother and father to all of us. The burden must have been immense, yet Mom never flinched (or, if she did, she never let on to us). So I suppose that, on this day, she deserves credit as well. But she had help. Just before Dad went in for exploratory surgery in January, 1971, he wrote us a letter, parting words of wisdom from a man who knew full well that no one is guaranteed to wake up from the operating table. Mom saved the letter, and made sure we each got a copy after Dad passed away. I wish I could say Dad's words always kept me on the straight and narrow, but I've made too many mistakes. But those are mine, not his.

Still, for a man who understood that he might be looking the Grim Reaper straight in the eye, his words were kind, supportive, almost soothing. Here's an excerpt:

"As for loving and helping each other, this is the greatest gift you can give me. Sometimes it's hard, I know, but it can be done, and once done is a great and warm feeling and a wonderful thing. And you bigger children, watch over and guide Pooken especially – he's awfully little and will need all of you.

"Always stand straight and honest – work hard, hurt no one, enjoy the really good things in life. Look at trees and the sky and flowers and really see them as God's gift to us. Be fair in all your dealings with people. Try to see and understand their side. Don't get into arguments over unimportant things – rise above that – but be strong and steady in your principles. If you have to stand all alone for what you believe to be right, do it! And somehow know I'll be beside you always. "

Over the ensuing 38 years, the simple, straightforward 400 words in Dad's letter have buoyed me, nurtured me, and sustained me. They've comforted me, and motivated me. I still cannot read his line about being beside me without my eyes watering. Clearly, the words don't replace the man, but they've kept his legacy alive. There was no better proof of that than the spring of 2008, as my Mom was in the final stages of her own struggle with cancer, and my five siblings and I gathered in Manchester, NH. Our spouses later commented on just how moving it was to see the bond that the six of us have, how close we are, how much we care for one another. This, again, is part of Dad's legacy. He would have been proud, I'm sure.

For the longest time, I was convinced that I'd never have children of my own, due in part to my own fears of what the future might hold, and the possibility of leaving them prematurely. Then I met an amazing woman, one who had maternal instincts in spades. Fatherhood no longer seemed so daunting, not as long as I had Lauri to share the load. We've been blessed with two terrific daughters, Maddi and Brynne. Neither are perfect, but given the fact that I'm their dad, that would be an unfair expectation.

I've now lived longer than my Dad, though my girls are younger than I was when he died. That responsibility sometimes scares the daylights out of me, even now. In those moments of doubt, I still talk to Dad (and Mom), asking for advice, and for patience. I know they're both beside me. More than anything else, they taught me that family come first, no matter what pitfalls life throws in our path. But I also need to find the strength to avoid disappointing them. That's not a burden. It's a blessing.