Sunday, June 26, 2011

Tony Gwynn & UFC Gear: Winning!!!

Some thoughts on today: ten years ago - June 26, 2001 - I was struggling as a part-time Padres usher and full-time Hispanic Chamber of Commerce employee, when both of those jobs intersected. The Chamber held a networking mixer in the parking lot of Qualcomm Stadium and each attendee got to also attend that night's very rare interleague match between the Padres and Red Sox.

But big news broke when we arrived that afternoon for set-up: Mr. Padre, Tony Gwynn, was announcing in a press conference his retirement from baseball after 20 seasons in San Diego. It was sad, but not altogether surprising, because injuries had made it harder for him to play. And Tony even said <chuckles while talking in a nasal tone>: "I wanna be the head coach at San Diego State. I ain't goin' anywhere, people, I ain't leavin'."

A decade later, as a Pads full-timer now who often feels overwhelmed by the work volume, today I got to experience a couple cool things. A family of three won a behind-the-scenes tour of PETCO at a Friends of Scott Foundation fundraiser so I took them into the press box. We slipped into the Channel 4 booth and there was Tony in the broadcaster's chair - white shirt rumpled, blue slacks neatly pressed, scorecard updated every few seconds, and that loud chortle every time he or partner Mark Neely made an observation. The family was definitely in awe.

About an hour later the Pads wrapped up a 4-1 win over the Braves and I headed out into a sun-drenched afternoon at the Park at the Park. There, Tony was on his way, after changing from suit to uniform pants and a Padres windbreaker and cap, to deliver a motivational speech and batting clinic to fans. Because one of my responsibilities today was overseeing Baja Little League Day, we made sure the kids and parents who traveled from numerous Baja cities got to the centerfield bleachers to see him. Tony didn't disappoint, talking about work ethic and batting tips (which the kids got personal instructions on later on the field) forged in his career as a Padre and current SDSU head coach. It was awesome, man, it was an exhausting day but I just felt blessed to see all this.

Afterwards, I met up with my friend Brooke for dinner at the Kilt and Rock 105.3-FM was there, giving away door prizes. Brookie won a pair of Del Mar, errrrrrr, SD County Fair tickets...which she kept...and a red UFC hat and blue UFC t-shirt...both of which she gave to me. I actually like UFC gear better than I do UFC fights. Does this mean I must now get a tattoo?

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Defining Yourself

So we're at Bub's last night, a pub just a half-block from beautiful PETCO Park, celebrating our Padres' 11-2 triumph over the Braves. Scotty B. had encouraged co-workers to get together for an early-summer night out and the win added excitement to the evening for the 20 people who heeded Scott's invitation.

As we're getting settled in, finding tables and booths and such, I lift my arm to flag down a server I know named Becca. Pip is standing next to me and points out that Becca is headed our way so I get ready to call out her name.

Suddenly a guy steps forward, stands right in front of me and says, "Captain Hook!"

I look at Pip, she looks at me, and we both make an expression indicating Who is this dude?

Again, he looks at my arms, looks back at me and exclaims, "Captain Hook!"

He's a little bit taller than me, but not by much, and doesn't look very drunk, so I'm really not feeling intimidated - just surprised and annoyed. Pip, on the other hand, is ready to punch him in his Ed Hardy-draped stomach.

So I forget about hailing down Becca and I take my extended arm and move it towards this This Guy, who is laughing at his name for me. "Captain Hook!" <Chews gum quickly while smiling.>

Pip's eyes grow wide and I take my right arm and I swing my body around and I......reach out to shake his.

"Hi, I'm Alex, what's your name?"

He didn't know what to do. I don't know if he thought I'd throw a haymaker, or maybe he was surprised I could talk, but douchebag looked pretty startled.

"What? Uhhh..." he stammered, "Ummm, never mind, buddy." With that he patted me on the shoulder - better than my head I suppose - and walked away.

"What a jerk!" Pip says, "Who does that?"

She then says she would've liked to pop him so I tell her: hey, welcome to my world. Sometimes these arms attract freaks, jerks, and rude ragamuffins. It happens. But stooping down to their level is not the answer.

See, he was trying to define me. This Guy had no idea of my name, background, story, nothing.  But he saw two prosthetics so I became Captain Hook to him. Apparently he expected me to respond either bitterly, or slowly, or maybe as a pirate.

But I defined myself in that moment by responding cooly and, in fact, friendly. Sure I get in bad or mad moods but in that moment, I wanted to seize the control.

In life, you define yourself. Don't let others define you, dictate your mood, or push you to act in a way contrary to what you want.

Today I helped out at work with our Padres Scholars program, which since 1995 has provided over $2 million in scholarships to disadvantaged students. We honored them in a pre-game ceremony and I realized how these were students and graduates who embody that principle. Many of them come from schools or areas where it's against the norm to strive academically. They probably get told it's not worth working hard in school or harboring large dreams. But they define themselves as students, as leaders, as scholars, as winners. And I'm proud the Padres support them.

Don't let the world drag you down or tick you off. Be they jerks in bars or doubters in school or work, adversaries will come. They will try to define who you are but prove them wrong. Define your identity and show that identity to be that of a winner.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

The Hearts of Lions

My very first public speaking "engagement" was at my ninth-grade graduation, which was held in the San Diego Zoo's all-concrete Wegeforth Bowl, although technically the first time I stood behind a microphone to address a crowd was in first grade at the Lindbergh Elementary Talent Show. That night I sang "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Cowboy", a ditty that I recalled ended with Santa saying, "Rudolph with your nose so bright / Won't you shoot my wife tonight?"    My teacher, Mrs. Whitmore, was not pleased.

A few years after that ninth-grade graduation speech (my junior high ended at ninth and high school began with tenth), my first two engagements were as a freshman and sophomore in college.  Freshman year I addressed a Christian businessmen's breakfast and the following year I was flown from Notre Dame's campus in South Bend, Indiana, and back to California for a commencement speech at El Centro High School in the Imperial Valley. All four of these - the talent show, my junior high graduation, the breakfast, the commencement ceremony in hot and windy El Centro - were nerve-wracking.

But I was hooked, man, I fancied myself as more of a writer but each time I was loving the microphone time more and more. People actually cared what I had to say and were entertained and motivated by my stories and thoughts!

As time has passed I've tried to speak wherever possible so that I can keep improving and, really, because it's fun. As such, I've seen just about everything and have spoken in front of 1,000 people and an audience of four.  It's always petrifying but usually turns out well, from Rotarys to rallies, and grade school to grad students.

Two days ago, on June 14, as an "A-MOtivational Presentation" I spoke to my first-ever Lions Club, a service organization primarily dedicated to helping causes involving vision or hearing impairment. It was at a country club in Rancho Bernardo and on a sun-splashed, warm afternoon, my friend Brooke Griffin came along too. Among the 25 in attendance the majority were senior citizens but make no mistake, they were not easing into retirement.

Jokes crackled and the President next to me, in his still-strong Manhattan accent, told me how afterwards he was headed to a weekly dance class. He was 88.

With it being Flag Day I focused on the meaning of Old Glory and the meaning of American opportunity to me. They appreciated it because several of them had fought in World War II and Korea. I focused on the words "adversity" and "determination" and how that embodied the flag and my experiences.

Just as they were listening intently, and the room was still, we hear....CRASH! CLANK! CRASH!

The wait staff in an adjacent hallway were throwing dishes into a tub or basin and being quite loud about it. So loud several Lions turned to see what was all the ruckus. That made me speak louder and, for a moment, lose concentration on my message. As the plate-tossing got louder I thought to just hurry up and finish but then I thought about these guys in their yellow vests and exuberance for life. They meant it when they sang "Grand Old Flag" and I wanted to give them a good, thoughtful presentation. Fortunately, the speakers' coordinator also asked them to pipe down and I finished more peaceably.

But what an amazing group. I hope my stories impacted them but when I saw these guys in their 80's and 90's, loving life and serving their communities, it impacted ME.

The next afternoon I spoke at the National Association of Hispanic Real Estate Professionals (NAHREP) luncheon. With their membership being primarily immigrants or children of immigrants trying to make it in real estate, they too had a strong sense of patriotism and opened with the Pledge of Allegiance.

As I was speaking about handling life's challenges, midway through I hear a tapping sound. I ignored it and then I heard it again. I turned and it was an elderly couple looking for the entrance. They were tapping the window pane and although someone pointed to the front door being around the corner, they walked right into the side one.

So I'm talking and they walk right past me and through the center of the room. I laughed and said, "See? Life throws you curveballs."

Then I resumed speaking...and an employee starts up an ice machine. All I could do was laugh and just keep talking until they were done.

I loved both appearances and was inspired by both groups. You never know what you'll get in life or on stage. Right, Mrs. Whitmore? 

Sunday, June 12, 2011

The Road to Dapping Jerry Hairston & Embracing Bill Walton

It's hard to believe it's been seven days since I completed the relay in my second San Diego Rock 'n' Roll Marathon. Since then I've had a great week, including a birthday dinner with my family on Monday at Casa de Pico in La Mesa and a party with friends on Wednesday (the actual birth date) at Fox Sports Grill at the Bayfront Hilton.

It took only one day for soreness to subside, as opposed to three or four days last year, and for my life to get back to normal. Which is to say, back to crazy.

I find myself thinking a lot more about races now and actually wanting to get out there and do laps and improve my time and feel that post-race exhiliration. I love thinking about it and talking about it and dreaming of the possibilities.

This race came at the right time too because work lately has been overwhelming. I just haven't felt like I'm on top of every need or challenge there and often I walk away just feeling like an idiot. In the afterglow of people's congratulations about the RnR, it just felt good to feel good about myself.

I definitely felt love on my birthday too. Besides the family dinner and happy hour with homies, I was treated to lunch at Lolita's Mexican by Peanut, K-Mad, Kenny K., McEniry, Slick Nick, Marky, and Double J. It was a Padres gameday so some ushers with whom I used to work were getting their pre-game grub on and one of them shouts out a Happy Birthday to me. Next thing I know, she's singing and the whole restaurant joins her. I'd never been serenaded before. Like a pretty girl, that's how I felt.

Well, the week just grew more bizarre, but in a good way.

We had 1980's Padres pitcher Dave Dravecky, who lost his left arm to cancer and who I'd met once in 2009, at the ballpark for a "Faith Night" appearance on Friday. K-Mad said be on the field by 6:30 and I'll re-introduce you guys and take a picture. So of course when it's 6:43 and I'm still walking in that direction, she's texting me, "Where r u???"   I get there a couple minutes after that and as Karen breathes a sigh of relief, Dravecky spots me and says, "Hey, man!"   We rap about his motivational speaking in Colorado and how he's just dropped 50 pounds, and about my marathon relay with Madden, and yet there was so much more to say. How do you tell a guy, as he's about to throw the Ceremonial First Pitch, that he's your hero not for leading the team into the World Series back in the day, but for losing an entire arm and yet handling it with class and resolve and dedicating his life to encouraging other amputees?

As I ponder this my co-worker Pip (her childhood nickname), who had generously given me a birthday gift card to Brooklyn Bagels, texts me to meet up at Bub's for a post-work beverage. I said, you know what...why not? I was done with work so I scarfed a quick meal and met up with her and eventually other colleagues. Maybe marathoning activates a 'fun' gland.

After that a group of us (Pip retreated home early) crossed the street to Fleetwood and enjoyed a few hours of dancing. I see my boy Alex "Ag" Aguilar and his wife Ericka, who is wearing a blonde wig for a friend's birthday bash. I ask no further questions.

Now you know you've gone to a club a few times when the restroom attendant says, "Hey, man, where you been? We've missed you. What's new?"

A little while later, I'm outside Fleetwood catching some fresh air and this guy comes up and says, "Do you mind if I ask about your arms? I'm a science teacher and think they're really cool."

So I give him a demonstration and give him my card in case he ever needs a speaker for his classroom. That's just me, I network at nightclubs.

Suddenly I see Washington Nationals infielder Jerry Hairston, who had played for us last year, exit the club and I reach a hook out to him. He shakes it carefully. "Jerry, man," I tell him, "welcome back to San Diego, man. We've missed you. How you been?"  Then I realize I sound just like that restroom attendant. Although I'm not asking Jerry to take a stick of gum or spray of cologne.

All of this made for a tired Saturday morning but I arose for a speaking engagement. It was the Fifth Annual Union-Tribune Prep Student-Athletes of the Year Gala at the Hall of Champions. It was marvelous. Beautiful atmosphere, stirring ceremony, and amazing kids everywhere.

My time slot was brief, ten minutes, so I talked about my challenges and the Marathon. I told them life is a marathon and just like I felt on race day, at times you're going to want to give up. But you have to keep pushing and dig deep within to reach that Finish Line. Too, I told them, as athletes you are role models. Use this incredible platform to serve.

Upon finishing I was greeted with a hug by basketball legend Bill Walton. He liked the message and we exchanged contact info. He had the reach of an octopus and the presence of a general. If Bill Walton likes my message, I definitely feel like less of an idiot.

In fact, overall, I feel good. My life is a winding, unpredictable road, just like a marathon. 

Sunday, June 5, 2011

When Quitting Is Not An Option

The following is a timeline of my participation in today's Rock 'n' Roll San Diego Half-Marathon Relay. Some times are exact and some are approximate:

4:17am - I awake with a combined sense of urgency and excitement. It's race day, the day for which I've been training for six months. Three minutes later I realize my relay partner, Karen Madden, had set my cell phone alarm just in case. The message on the screen: "Wake up, bitch!"

4:57 - Some people eat bananas on race day. Forget that. I eat Strawberry Pop Tarts.

5:20 - I have ten minutes to walk down the cul de sac and cross the street before the 11 bus to downtown arrives. I've lightly stretched but realize halfway down I didn't stretch my back extensively. Walking briskly without fully stretching is a no-no for me.

6:45 - After many delays and proving that last year's ineptitude was no fluke, City Transit takes me on a trolley, then a shuttle, then another trolley just to get to Fashion Valley Mall.

7:18 - There are no signs anywhere indicating where at Fashion the relay transition zone is located. But a nice store employee who has let me in to use the restroom points the way.

8:55 - I walked way too fast up the hill to reach Friars Road because K-Mad was texting saying she was getting closer. So as I waited I continually stretched and then was thrilled to see, in succession, Krystal DiStefano, Alison Glabe, Nina "Peanut" Tarantino, and shortly thereafter, Katie Leisz.

8:57 - Karen arrives with Colleen McEniry in tow and I double fist-bump them. Ashley Schamu, a.k.a. Scham-Wow, is Colleen's relay partner so she's there too. Our co-worker Joslin Joseph takes a group picture and Karen admonishes me: "No stopping for chit-chats."

9:00 - I am off at 9 on the dot and two things surprise me: the crowd is cheering and the road is slanted, dipping east to west. Both have me walking much faster than I would prefer at the outset.

9:12 - It's sunny but with a Fresh, cool breeze, almost like an autumn day. This is good. The roads are very slanted and uneven and I can feel my left (good) leg is overcompensating, tightening up my lower back right muscles. This is bad. Very bad.

9:27 - The streets have flattened out and I'm in a better groove finally. I stop periodically to loosen the back and keep it stretched out. This helps, as does the DJ who has set up on the sidewalk to play energetic, fist--pumping music.

9:49 - A man runs up beside me and has his wife take a picture of us as we walk forward. A girl grabs my shoulder, snaps a picture as she speed-walks and says, "You're awesome."  I respond, "You're hot."

10:17 - We are passing Morena Blvd. and again the road is sloping. This is making me walk awkwardly and my back tenses up.

10:31 - I am pleasantly surprised to see an old Access Center colleague, Sandra Mendez, running in her first marathon, plus people are seeing my Notre Dame mesh shorts and yelling, "Go Irish!"  LIKE.

10:45 - My right leg, Black Max, is getting plenty of attention and cheers from runners and spectators alike. But I'm noticing that my prosthetic sock is slipping downwards from my hip, probably just caused by heat and duress. What this does is force me to stop, pull my hip up so my real leg is not sticking within the artificial one, and then take a few steps to settle back in. It's not painful but is annoying.

11:05 - I am getting doused in water by a team of volunteers in an area called "Margaritaville". They are blaring Jimmy Buffet music and, in true Parrot Head fashion, are regaled in Hawaiian shirts. I see Bruce and Patty Whitlow, parents of my friend Kimmy, and they give me a quick hug and word of encouragement.

11:12 - There is a concrete median and I see where runners have turned and are now walking opposite of my direction, as a loop. I am tempted to just cross that median. I'm sorry.

11:17 - I see two young ladies holding signs. One says: "Go Faster!"   The other reads: "That's What She Said."   I LOL.

11:20 - I am barely making that loop and, brother, I am hurting. My right hip feels strained. My left ankle feels wobbly, like I just want to roll over on it. Whereas I had been answering well-wishers with a clear-voiced "Thank You!", I now find it hard to breathe.

11:23 - This feels endless. We are near Mile 12 of the 13-mile course for relayists, but I feel spent. I can' I'm not really walking...I'm...lurching forward.

11:25 - A lady is walking her dog near Sea World Drive and starts walking beside me. I nod politely. She then blurts out, "So...what the hell happened to you?"  If Peanut were there, frankly, the lady would've been punched in the mouth.

11:27 - I'm not going to make it. I just want to quit. An elderly man rides up next to me on his bicycle and asks if he can escort me part of the way. Sure, why not? I see he has two small American flags on his bike so I say, "Hey, man, what are you gonna do with an extra flag?"  He replies, "Nothing, man, you want one?"  I say Yeah and so if you see pictures of me waving a flag, that's how I got it.

11:29 - Good friend Trina, as is her custom, waits at the beginning of the final mile and brings forth many cheers and camera-clicks. Suddenly I feel good. Exhausted but motivated. I can load up for one last stretch.

11:31 - Two volunteers ask if they can walk with me. One equally worn out walker sees me, starts crying, and just gives a thumbs up. I think about how blessed I am to live in the greatest country in the world and how here no dream or goal is absurd or unattainable.

11:34 - The thought strikes me that a race course is America. Runners and walkers, complete strangers, exhorting each other - black, white, Latino, Asian, gay, straight, disabled, non-disabled, men, women, old, young. This is Americans at their finest.

11:35 - The Finish Line is a few feet away and the dual emcees remember me from last year, I think. The female one is prepared with some dance moves so I respond by shaking my thang.

11:37 - I see my main Ollie Neglerio from Competitor Group - the awesome company who puts these races on - and he takes official pictures of my Finish Line routine. Swing, shimmy, point to the heavens, shake the torso, half-spin, point like Justin Timberlake.

11:40 - I officially cross the line, probably figuratively and literally, and my buddy Colleen McDonald stops filming my dancing and places a medal over my neck. She has been a great friend since graduate school at USF and I'll always treasure this great memory, especially when our other close friend, Jonathan Sandoval, completed the full maraathon just a few minutes later.

We did it. We scratched and clawed and trained and prayed and fought through adversity and we did it. I used to laugh at marathon runners because they looked so miserable but now I get it. It's the sheer challenge of putting your body through that and emerging victorious. It's never giving up and never giving in. It's the American way.

Anyone can do it and everyone should try it. I believe so strongly in that, I'm working on a book about it. Keep your eyes peeled for that. But this isn't about shameless self-promoting, it's about reaching deep down and gutting your way to a triumph.

A marathon is just like life. It requires discipline, heart, tenacity, preparation, desire, and the will to not give up. Don't ever give up.

We did it. And so can you.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

I'm Ready to Rock

I should be in bed right now. But I'm not. I'm too excited.

I knew this would happen from last year, when the Rock 'n' Roll San Diego Marathon wasn't just my first relay experience, it was my first-ever race, period.

The night before is an amalgm of nerves, excitement, anticipation, and fear. Knowing that I have to be up at 4am also sometimes leads to panicked awakenings with one eye on the alarm clock.

So I allow my mind and body to unwind before settling into a nice sleep. I then envision getting up, stretching, throwing on my lime-green Team MADness jersey, Fighting Irish mesh shorts, and white adidas kicks, eating, stretching again, and catching the 5:32 bus downtown.

This time I can't forget to put on the shoetag-timer, as I did last June. This time our relay time has to be made official. Or Karen Madden and my other friends won't let me live to see another race.

Another first is this is my first Rock 'n' Roll with Black Max, the prosthetic leg I got last summer. I did last year's relay with my old leg and then, upon getting this new lighter leg, have done two 5K's.

When people see my leg, and my two prosthetic arms, that's the reason, besides wanting to stay in shape, that I do this. It's exhilirating and energizing and fun. And people see that no matter one's limitations, with faith and hard work, all things are possible.

And it's been hard work. Since January, I've logged lots of miles walking in Paradise Hills - emphasis on hills - and the perimeter of beautiful PETCO Park. Some days I wake up the next morning with my back feeling like it was kicked a hundred times. I love to work out but I have a hard time with push-aways - pushing myself away from the table.

But I feel ready. Still nervous but ready.

There's always the fear of plain not making it and, at my age, ensuring muscles don't tense up prematurely. But I feel that last year's experience showed me how to pace myself without walking too slowly.

Walking too slow by way of allowing myself to get distracted won't happen either. Tonight I had an awesome carb-loading dinner at DiMillie's Italian with K-Mad, Nina, Colleen, Alison, and Mike. We were also visited by Jonathan (who's doing the full-marathon), his girlfriend Nikole, Filmore Frank, and his girl Jenna. They ordered me a ONE BUSINESS CARD maximum so I wouldn't stop and talk to people, like last year. Dang it!

I love my friends. I love my official teammate, Karen, and the other runners, who are like teammates. I love that we chose to do this and now it's a shared passion.

I love God giving me this opportunity. And tomorrow night I will probably love a chair, some Coca Cola, and some rest.

See you at the Finish Line!