Dec. 14, 2003: The Reflections of a Mortal Man

I had a bit of a health scare recently that hopefully will be determined to have been just that — a scare. A routine physical revealed an unexpected blip on my electrocardiogram. That led to a morning of being stuck, stung and stressed by a group of eager medical technicians looking for answers. While lumbering away on the treadmill with needles in my arm, it occurred to me that the things occupying my fret list that day — self-important yuppie-boomers with status-symbol Hummers, dirt-sorry television programming and overpaid ballplayers — didn’t seem quite so important anymore.

Instead, I was reminded how fragile life is. A visit to the heart clinic can change one’s focus quickly. We won’t admit it, but we all think we are going to live forever and that nothing bad will happen to us. Maybe that is why we drive like idiots and tailgate each other. Maybe we all need an occasional EKG blip to remind us that we are in fact very mortal.

My thoughts bounced around that day like a pinball. I thought about the extraordinary people who have crossed my path. People like Billy Payne, who brought the Olympic Games to a city too dysfunctional and small-minded to appreciate his gift. I could have done a better job helping him stage the 1996 Olympic Games, but if I disappointed him, he doesn’t show it. He is the epitome of a true friend, somebody I would want in the foxhole with me. And then there is Bill Riley, the retired chairman of Atlantic Steel, one of the wisest and kindest people I know and one of the most patient. I have asked him a lot of questions over the years to which I should have known the answers. Bill Riley has made me look a lot smarter than I really am.

I thought about cold mornings and sweltering afternoons in places like Athens and Carrollton and Tyrone, watching my grandsons run cross-country for their respective high schools, Chapel Hill and Cartersville, and competing directly with each other. Grandma and Grandpa didn’t enjoy seeing the boys go head-to-head, but the cousins seemed to get a kick out of it. I don’t know much about the sport of cross-country, but I do know that it takes a lot of mental toughness. Unlike most sports, there isn’t a teammate to make up for your lack of effort. You gut it out or you fail. My boys gutted it out.

I thought about the people I didn’t call, write or visit this year because I was too busy gnashing my teeth about the robber barons at Delta and the mean-spirited bullies who won’t let the state flag issue rest in peace. Both deserve all the slings and arrows I can hurl, but that doesn’t excuse ignoring my friends. If I keep that up, I soon may have no friends.

I thought about music and those who make it. The incomparable Ray Charles could sing the Cornelia phone book and give me goose bumps. Same with Willie Nelson. My musical tastes are wide and deep, from Pavarotti to Jerry Lee Lewis. The only thing I can’t stomach is rap. Not even a health scare will change that.

I thought about how much I love chili and corn bread and banana pudding and corn-fried shrimp and how much I don’t love broccoli and beets and broiled fish and liver. I pray that some medical wiseacre won’t decide that I have been eating too much of the former and not enough of the latter and make me change my diet. I can’t see myself at the exquisite little Georgia Sea Grill on St. Simons Island ordering broiled fish and broccoli with a side order of beets and liver pate.

Perhaps strange blips on an EKG tape are God’s way of telling me to slow down and back off. Laugh more and fret less. Eat better. Do good deeds. Don’t purposely hurt anyone’s feelings. Say “thank you” and “I’m sorry” and mean it. Sing in the shower. Enjoy every moment of every day and don’t sweat the small stuff. As this mere mortal discovered recently, life is too short to do otherwise.