Tuesday afternoon, 2:30 p.m. I was waiting for my daughter to get done with her doctor's appointment, stuffed into a small room with people I didn't know and magazines I didn't want to read. As usual, I was plugged in to the Internet, keeping an eye on email and RSS feeds via my beloved iPad, occasionally choosing to reply to an e-mail or save an article for future reading avoidance.
Into our uncomfortable midst comes a woman, probably in her late 70s or early 80s, who makes her way over to the window and engages in conversation with the receptionist, who she appears to know.
"Where are you going for the holiday," the elder woman asks.
"Oh, we just go to our aunt's house for Christmas," replies the receptionist.
"No Barbados for you?"
"No, but (someone) is going to India."
"Oh, how exciting!"
And so on, for quite a few more minutes. I'm not comfortable listening to other people's conversations, but small rooms and loud voices result in eavesdropping whether you want to engage in it or not. Fortunately, my daughter emerged a little while thereafter, allowing me to leave so that I could reconnect to the omnipresent info-stream back in the cozier confines of my office.
The innocuous conversation stuck in my mind, though. I didn't realize until later what I found curious about it, which was that the older woman never once talked about herself. Not a word. Just questions about others, praise and excitement for other people's lives.
It was a casual selflessness which, in this age, borders on the extraordinary. I found myself thinking of my own grandmother, deceased now for almost 10 years, the kindest person I have ever known.
* * *
As an influx of bloggers and the acceptance of information-recycling takes NFL-related chatter an ever-higher level of oversupply, many pleasant journalistic standards of the past have been crumpled up and left on the side of the road.
Hoping to get their fix of attention amidst the Internet's white noise, columnists, bloggers and rumor mavens are pushing the envelope further than ever before. Twice-sourced stories from respected writers are history, as single anonymous sources are deemed adequate to put a story on the front page of everything from ESPN to the Cleveland Plain Dealer.
Also pushing the limit are columnists and bloggers, each fighting for mindshare in an overflowing cauldron of rehashed analysis and often-pointless statistics.
Paying the price for both, in a more dramatic way than any other local sports figure I have seen, has been Browns head coach Eric Mangini. Perhaps because of his perceived ego, or because he was loathed in the eastern media capital of Manhattan, or because having overgrazed the supply of injured zebras makes hyenas more vicious, Mangini received a motherlode of abuse from media outlets in 2009.
Witness this from Pro Football Talk, which managed to add bad speculation and a suggestion of misogyny to insult last year:
"(Hiring Dawn Aponte to replace George Kokinis) would help Mangini score major style points for hiring the first female General Manager in NFL history. It also might help to soften Mangini's reputation for being a butthole, even if he ultimately picks a woman in part because he thinks she'll be more likely to defer to a man."
Or this from occasionally brilliant but eternally empathy-free attack dog Matt Taibbi of the Rolling Stone:
"I always wondered what happened to Augustus Gloop, the fat little boy in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory...a boy with fat bulging from every fold, with two greedy eyes peering out of his doughball of a head--(but he) somehow ended up as head coach of the Cleveland Browns, perhaps the most f***ed franchise in all of sports right now… "
Taibbi called Mangini's performance with the Browns "one of the truly thrilling sports disaster stories ever… a sort of Hurricane Andrew of football mismanagement… coaching catastrophe… Enjoy it for the very short time it is sure to last."
As Browns fans, we recently had to endure a child-tackling slur due to apparently bogus and never-retracted reports on local TV, ESPN New York and Cleveland.com. These are folks who count, generally successfully, on the relatively short memory of crowds. As angry as this should make us, Mangini endured far worse from generally distant critics, who quickly scurried out of sight when things turned up for the Browns.
Where was Matt Taibbi at the end of last season's four-game winning streak? After the Patriots win? Anyone hear from him? Me either.
Matt Taibbi was dead wrong about Eric Mangini and the epic "disaster" being wrought on the Browns. While Mangini hasn't created a dramatic two-season turnaround, even the head coach's fiercest critics generally have to concede that progress has been made in some areas.
These are just examples of the over-the-top criticism from supposedly professional outlets a little over a year ago. If you're Eric Mangini, and you're exposed to this level of elegant venom, there's no way it can fail to wound. Eric Mangini knew what they were saying about him, and felt the sting. The big salary doesn't make all that go away.
Want proof? The guess here is that the shots at his weight were among those he internalized and resulted in the slim Mangini of 2011. If my hunch is right, though, that's just a physical manifestation of something far more meaningful.
* * *
I know a little bit about viciousness, and both giving and receiving it. I was doing snarky commentary on sports news all the way back in the 90s, have dabbled in it a few times in recent years, but am trying to walk away from it entirely now. It's never really felt right to me for years after the chuckling at my own cleverness faded.
I don't want to play that game anymore. That's not just because the world is already overloaded with Deadspin, Kissing Suzy Kolber, and a million others slicing and dicing sports figures with their rapier wit. In my case, I just find that focusing my creative energies on taking clever potshots at sports figures is disposable and pointless. The world is already groaning with all the pointless and disposable things human beings have unloaded on it.
I know a little as well about taking on challenges that are bigger than expected, with the expectation that your ability, effort or or sheer force of will is enough to make them successful.
As Eric Mangini was moving through his experiences with the sports media in New York and Cleveland, I've been moving through my own. It's not the sort of world that welcomes interlopers. Ultimately, it's not the competition or even being a small outlet in a world of giants that gets you down. It's the operators outside the periphery of decency: the debtors who stiff you, driving you and your employees to the brink, the reporters who steal material from the premium areas of the site. The unreturned calls, the declarations of irrelevance, the rough shoves of the bigger bullies, the smiling stab in the back.
Or in Mangini's case, the critics lacking perspective or empathy, the reporters more interested in their own self-advancement than the lives and careers of those they supposedly cover and the readers they serve.
Growing older isn't just an endless accumulation of history and infirmities. Age is weathering the relentless storms, the ebbing and flowing of fortune's tides. It is the continual wearing down of ego, one layer at a time, like tides smoothing down the rough edges of a rock.
Overcoming ego, learning one's limits and internalizing criticism shatters some people. In others, it provokes a greater understanding.
Like the elderly woman who so impressed me on Tuesday afternoon seems to know, your legacy will not be what you earn, or whether you sidestep criticism each step of the way - it's how you live your life, and how you help others learn to live theirs.
I'm not the OBR's man in Berea. I don't know Eric Mangini well. I've only spoken to him a few times and watched him through transcripts, web replays and audio files. But I see a change in how he accepts being a member of a team, not the young stud calling all the shots. Some self-deflating humor here and there. Some admission of mistakes. Acknowledgment of limits. Maturity.
Perhaps I am reading too much into it, or feel a kinship with Mangini's trajectory that biases me. Perhaps I am, like Mike Holmgren last offseason, empathizing more than I should. I'm undoubtedly a part of a rapidly-shrinking minority, but even after this last plummet of the roller coaster, I still regard Eric Mangini as a capable, smart, hard-working coach who is growing as a person before our eyes. Albeit one with a roster very thin in the trenches.
If the 2010 Cleveland Browns season continues its tumble, Eric Mangini may once again have to bear the weight of spittle-infused media rants and the hometown boos of the Browns faithful. I can hear the beast beginning to stir.
Along the way, someone will invariably cross the line, and go after Eric Mangini the person. But they'll be wrong.