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:

Pepper-B_resized

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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My Mickey Mantle

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When I was a kid, most of my friends looked up to athletes. My hero was my grandfather Merle Shelton. I used to call him my Mickey Mantle. The Mick was my grandfather’s favorite ballplayer. In my eyes, Merle was just as legendary. This month he celebrated his 84thbirthday. Not bad for a guy who has smoked a pack a day since he was a teen. He did adult things early. On his 17th birthday Merle walked into a Navy recruiting office in Pittsburg and enlisted. It was 1943 and the military promised a better future than the coal mine he worked in.

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Me and Julio

First a follow-up on my last blog post about teaching children well. The number of reader responses was off the charts. I heard from a Wall Street banker, an artist, stay-at-home mothers, lots of fathers, a Harvard professor, many grandparents, a surgeon, a minister, and everybody in between. Even David Crosby’s lovely wife Jan chimed in. Responses came from as far away as Dubai and Ghana. Usually blog comments are just that – a comment. But I received dozens of emails that read like letters flush with emotional memories of your best times. I guess we know what matters most.
Now, I had intended to make this blog post about my short piece in the Dec. 6 issue of Newsweek, titled ‘A Historic Wreck in New Orleans.’ It’s about how the government is doing to a New Orleans neighborhood what Hurricane Katrina couldn’t – wipe it out. But alas, you’ll have to go here if you want to read it because I've decided to write about something else in this space – my new friend Julio. He’s a 29-year-old migrant farmer from Mexico City. He works here in the states on an organic farm that supplies some of the more upscale restaurants in the DC area.
This past Saturday Julio had a rare day off. So he offered to come to our place to work. We paid him the same rate he makes at the farm. At lunchtime I invited him inside to eat. Just under six feet tall, he had on a gray winter jacket, dirt-stained pants and muddy work boots. His hands are weathered, his cheeks raw. He has a thick Spanish accent. But his eyes tell you everything you need to know – that he’s genuine, humble, and true. As he warmed himself by the fire, I served him a toasted tuna fish sandwich with dill pickles canned by my wife, potato chips and some chocolate almond cookies. I made it a point to treat him like a VIP because that’s how I felt about him. As he ate, I did what I do – ask questions.
How long have you been in the States? (9 years)
Where is your family? (Mexico City)
Do you have children? (A 6-year-old son)
Would you like your family to come here? (Yes, but immigration lawyers charge too much and do too little.)
The first time you came to America, how did you get here? That's when he put down his sandwich. He said he was 19 when a member of the Mexican Mafia guided him and a dozen or so others on a four-day hike through the Mexican desert before crossing the border by foot into Arizona, where Julio nearly died. I asked him what happened and he tried to illustrate by shaking violently at my kitchen table. Despite being in the hot Arizona desert, Julio’s body got fatally cold. He used the word “chills.” Hard to know just what happened. Seeking medical attention wasn’t exactly an option. But he survived. Here’s the interesting part. The price of admission to the U.S. was $3,000. That’s how much the Mafia charged in 2001 to deliver an alien over the border. (Today the cost is twice that much. The Mafia is a big fan of Arizona’s new get-tough border policy – it’s driving up the price of admission.)
So, I asked, how did you come up with that kind of money? (“I started saving when I was 15 years old.”)
I pressed him to explain. He said he worked very hard as a young teen, doing any kind of labor he could find. Every two weeks he stuck about $30 in a bank account. It took him four years to reach $3K. Then he withdrew it all and gave it to a man who makes his living navigating aliens over the border. Julio was one of a dozen people in the party. The guide made close to $40,000 during that four-day voyage. “The drug business is only part of what the Mafia does in Mexico,” Julio told me. “There is a lot of money in immigration.”
For five years Julio crossed back and forth between the U.S. and Mexico, bringing American currency back home. The last time he entered illegally he was with a bunch of aliens, packed into a truck like cargo in the dead of summer. Two passengers died. They essentially cooked to death. Julio remembers like it was yesterday.
Today Julio has a green card, a driver’s license and a visa. When he goes home to see his family in Mexico in a couple weeks, he’ll travel on an airplane and carry papers. Then he’ll return here at the end of February to begin another 10-month stint as a farmhand, sending almost everything he makes back home. Most of it goes to take care of his 6-year-old son, who suffers from a medical condition and recently underwent a very expensive surgery that will take a couple years to pay off. That’s Julio’s life. Meantime, the food he helps grow feeds the elite who dine at Washington’s finest tables, including the lawmakers who can’t figure out what to do about immigration.
But I’m not talking politics. I’m talking about perspective. When I was 15 I was working odd jobs and saving up money for a used car. At 19 I took a couple years off from college to serve a volunteer mission for my church. Those are the choices afforded to an American teenager. Today I work about 70 hours a week developing and writing stories. I see my wife and my children virtually every morning and every night. Those are the privileges of an American adult. Julio lives alone in an apartment in rural Virginia. He drives a car that barely runs. He sees his family eight weeks a year. On his day off he works to earn a little extra. Yet the guy has a smile on his face.
My wife and I invited Julio back. I think I can learn a lot from Julio. Lesson one – be grateful. Lesson two – when you think life is rough, think again

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First a follow-up on my last blog post about teaching children well. The number of reader responses was off the charts. I heard from a Wall Street banker, an artist, stay-at-home mothers, lots of fathers, a Harvard professor, many grandparents, a surgeon, a minister, and everybody in between. Even David Crosby’s lovely wife Jan chimed in. Responses came from as far away as Dubai and Ghana. Usually blog comments are just that – a comment. But I received dozens of emails that read like letters flush with emotional memories of your best times. I guess we know what matters most.

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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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