HIGHER EDUCATION

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Southern Virginia University is a small liberal arts college nestled in the Shenandoah Valley. The school’s president recruited me to teach there a few years back. He told me I wouldn’t have to cut back on my writing comm itments and I could design my own course.

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THE MAKING OF AN SI COVER STORY

 

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For the past six months I've worked on one of the most ambitious journalism investigations of my career. Sports Illustrated and CBS News collaborated to conduct criminal background checks on all 2,837 college football players on SI's 2010 preseason Top 25 poll. The results are this week's cover story in Sports Illustrated: CRIMINAL RECORDS IN COLLEGE FOOTBALL, which hit newsstands today. Additional reporting and videos are online at SI.com and CBS.com.

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SGT. PEPPER IN THE HOUSE

SGT. PEPPER IN THE HOUSE
Recently, after a long work day, I came through the kitchen door and these lyrics boomed through my house:
It was twenty years ago today
Sergeant Pepper taught the band to play
They’ve been going in and out of style
But they’re guaranteed to raise a smile.
This greeting certainly raised a smile on my face. My 14-year-old son, Tennyson, had ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’ playing. He returned my nod of approval with a grin. Before I put down my bag and plugged in my cell phone, the track had changed to ‘With a Little Help from My Friends’ and I was humming: Do you need anybody? I need somebody to love.
What a pleasant contrast to so much of the music being pushed on teenagers today, obnoxious noise wrapped in lyrics laden with sex, violence and profanity. I bristle at the prospect of my kids listening to this stuff, never mind paying for it.
But getting your teenager to avoid following the herd when it comes to music trends requires a carrot, not a stick. That’s why I gave my son a two-disc set of Beatles classics for Christmas. I hoped he’d develop a taste for some of the bands that shaped my upbringing. I’ve also given him my old records by Springsteen, the Police, Paul McCartney, and U2.
Guess what? I never have to tell my son to turn off rappers hyping lawlessness, infidelity and bling. My son is into Lennon, McCartney, Bono, Sting and The Boss. I say, Turn it up, turn it up, turn it up.
Music taste can easily disconnect a parent from a teenager. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Last summer, when Tennyson turned 14, I took him to see his favorite musician John Mayer. Tennyson’s best friend Zack Fish and his father came along. Us dads sat there reminiscing about our teenage days while our teenage sons took in their first live show. At one point I leaned over and said, “You know you’ve got the coolest dads in the arena, right?” They laughed. Truth is we were probably the only dads in the arena.
Here’s the point. Teen years are a time of exploration. Rather than send my son out into the woods alone, I prefer to go along on occasion.
My motivation is simple. I want him to trust me enough to talk to me when he gets tangled up in something that can lead to long-term problems if left unaddressed. Internet porn comes to mind. When I was a boy it took great effort to see porn. Today it takes great effort to avoid it. It’s no longer a question of if your kid will see it; it’s a matter of when and where.
Some guys pooh-pooh the seriousness of porn in the hands of a teenager. Not me. I see pornography as one of the biggest threats to my boys’ long-term well being. Its addictive pull is far greater than cigarettes, alcohol or gambling. The danger also takes longer to recognize. When a teen drinks and drives, the tragedy can be pretty immediate. But introduce a youth to distorted images of women and the tragedy might not manifest itself until his wife is wondering why he hasn’t embraced her in months. Then come the tears.
The bottom line is that teenage years are a minefield, a time when they easily stray from us. So I make a point to take each of my children on a couple business trips per year. Tennyson is a more frequent companion because he has fewer years left at home.
This past year I took him along when I had meetings in New York with a group of editors, reporters and writers from CBS News and Sports Illustrated. At one point I looked around the room and it dawned on me that my son was observing some of the top people in my profession. Terry McDonell, the editor of Sports Illustrated, led the meeting. He took the time to pull Tennyson aside and speak with him one-on-one. These brief words of encouragement from a luminary figure in the magazine world gave my son a sense of confidence and encouragement. It’s the kind of thing that inspires an impressionable young man to greatness.
Afterward, we went out to lunch with my editor, strolled through Central Park, and bought huge pieces of chocolate cake at a midtown bakery. Then we talked non-stop on the six-hour drive home.
A month later, I had to deliver a series of speeches at the Brigham Young University campus in Rexburg, Idaho. Tennyson and I flew out a day early so we could spend a night at Yellowstone. We got close enough to touch the bison. We spent hours photographing wildlife. But the highlight was getting up before dawn and hiking to the top of a cliff that overlooks Old Faithful. Alone, we looked down on one of the most breathtaking landscapes in America. That’s a moment when no words are necessary, only quiet reflection.
Before going to sleep in our cabin we watched ‘Catch Me If You Can’, one of our favorite movies to watch together. In a nod to my son, I decided to show a clip of Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hanks at the outset of my speeches the following day at Brigham Young. The students thoroughly enjoyed it. But the real fun for me was letting my son help me select and edit which clips to show the college students.
Yes, my son misses a few school days when he travels with me. But I think he’s getting the kind of education that helps him navigate the minefields of adolescence.
I’m at the end of my blog post and Lennon and McCartney are singing ‘The Long and Winding Road’: Many times I’ve been alone and many times I’ve cried …anyway you’ll never know the many ways I’ve tried.
Pretty sad words, especially if coming from a boy who can’t talk to his dad about a problem.

Recently, after a long work day, I came through the kitchen door and these lyrics boomed through my house:

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It was twenty years ago today
Sergeant Pepper taught the band to play
They’ve been going in and out of style
But they’re guaranteed to raise a smile.

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Travels With My Best Friend

Who’s your best friend?
For me, that’s an easy one – my wife Lydia. There’s no one I’d rather be alone with.
The trouble is that time alone is hard to come by. I work relentlessly. (I’m writing this at midnight from a hotel in New York City.) She works even harder teaching our four children and running our organic farm in Virginia.
We live in the fast lane. I like it there. But speed and ambition pose hidden dangers to relationships. When we married 22 years ago, I wondered why couples divorce after twenty years together. Now I see that there are lots of reasons. But you can boil them all down to one word: drift.
This happens gradually when the most important relationship consistently takes a back seat to profession, child rearing, volunteer assignments, and even Monday Night Football. Then one day you wake up and realize there’s a stranger living in your home.
I’m as vulnerable to this danger as the next guy. So I work hard to keep my best friend close. One thing we do is leave the world behind once a year and stamp our passports. Travel criteria are simple: go in the dead of winter; go someplace hot; and go alone.
This year we chose St. Thomas. Yeah, I know …entry into the U.S. Virgin Islands doesn’t require a passport. But we got a stamp. You’ll see.
With our kids at home in the hands of a trusty couple, Lydia and I packed our bags with beach gear, books and organic food. Mango, coconut and papaya are the only locally grown crops on the island. So you pay big for food that’s processed and shipped. We opted for good stuff from home.
As soon as we boarded the plane, Lydia delved into Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. I began reading my Christmas present from Lydia: John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley. Published in 1962, it’s a first-hand account of Steinbeck’s journey across America with his dog. Along the way Steinbeck interviewed people he met. Here’s how the book begins:
When I was very young and the urge to be someplace else was on me, I was assured by mature people that maturity would cure this itch …. Nothing has worked. Four hoarse blasts of a ship’s whistle still raise the hair on my neck and set my feet to tapping.
Lydia knows me well. I instantly fell in love with this book, so much so that I finished it during our first day on the beach. Then I started Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. Meantime, Lydia began working her way through To Kill a Mockingbird. Few pleasures can top sitting beside a beautifully tanned woman on a Caribbean beach, reading and discussing characters like Sydney Carton and Atticus Finch.
To maximize beach time, we packed a lunch each day: peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. We bought the bread on the island – $9 a loaf. News is costly, too. The Sunday Times was $15.50. But we only spent about $3 a day ($21 for the week) on breakfast and lunch, thanks to Lydia’s thrift.
At night we broke out clothes we seldom have time or occasion to wear at home – linen pants and summer dresses – and headed for out-of-the-way restaurants offering freshly caught seafood. The best place we found was Herve, a French restaurant set atop a hill that overlooks the city. Our waiter was a former criminal defense attorney from St. Louis who walked away from law and moved to the Caribbean. He’s been waiting tables for eight years and never been happier.
Our waiter at Herve took this picture of us
We met lots of interesting people on our journey – a West Virginia garlic farmer who moved to the islands and opened a restaurant; a woman from Philly who wanted a change and now works at a seaside bar and grill; and a college student from Queens who decided to take courses on-line and live where the sun shines year round. They all had the virus that Steinbeck calls restlessness.
Then there’s Garth, a fisherman from Maine who moved to St. Thomas. Hemingway would have loved this guy. He’s single, rugged, and spends his days on the open sea aboard his 30-foot boat. Acting on a tip from a local, we tracked down Garth and negotiated with him to serve as our private sea captain for a day. We said take us where cruise ships never venture.
Speeding over waves that took the bow of the boat airborne, we entered the British Virgin Islands. From a dock, we got our passports stamped. Then it was on to some uninhabited islands. There are many of them in the Caribbean. We found one that had nothing on it but white sand, some coconut trees and breathtaking views.
As we approached, Garth turned off the engine, dropped anchor and informed us that we’d have to swim to shore. This was a surprise. We were out a ways and the water was 20 feet deep with the current running out. So we’d be going against it and neither of us is a particularly strong swimmer.
I’m fortunate to have a fearless wife. We jumped in. So much of our marriage has been about swimming in deep water and going against the current. It makes for rich love.
Together we reached the shore, a little out of breath and the taste of salt coating our lips. Amazingly, we were the only two people in the world on this tiny island.

That’s where I was a couple days ago. Now I’m looking out the window of my midtown Manhattan hotel room. It’s cold, dark and snowy outside. Although alone, my mind is on my journey with my best friend. We are separated tonight. But there’s no distance between us.

 

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Sunset in St. Thomas

Who’s your best friend?

For me, that’s an easy one – my wife Lydia. There’s no one I’d rather be alone with.

The trouble is that time alone is hard to come by. I work relentlessly. (I’m writing this at midnight from a hotel in New York City.) She works even harder teaching our four children and running our organic farm in Virginia.

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Giving Beats Receiving

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Frank Capra’s classic film ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ opens with friends and family praying for George Bailey, whose about to jump off a bridge. God summoned an aspiring angel named Clarence to help. “Splendid. Is he sick?” Clarence asks.
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“No. Worse. He’s discouraged,” God responds.
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Capra was onto something. Discouragement can eat a man up just as fast as cancer. A big source of discouragement is loneliness, especially during the holidays. With that in mind, I wrote a tribute to my grandfather and posted it a few days before Christmas. He’s alone and MY MICKEY MANTLE was intended to give him a lift. This is a postscript to that story.

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Jeff Benedict is a best selling author of 14 books and a television and film producer.  His latest book — QB: My Life Behind the Spiral (written with Hall of Fame quarterback Steve Young) was a New York Times bestseller. He is currently writing the biography of Tiger Woods. He is a producer on the forthcoming motion picture “Little Pink House,” starring Oscar-nominated Catherine Keener with music by David Crosby.  To book him for a speech or private event, contact Ellis Trevor at ellis@chartwellspeakers.com

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