April 29, 2009

The Former Tsar of the Sports Section Bids ‘Farewell’ …

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This column has been hard to write.

I have been looking forward to having a goodbye column since before I even had a column. My friends are probably tired of hearing about my parting 5,000-word magnum opus that I’ve had in the works since freshman year.

But that’s just how I think.

I began looking forward to my high school reunion before I even graduated. My last year at summer camp, I based my actions on whether I thought they would create a lasting memory. In the words of John Dorian, I’m a “sensi.” I’m an emoter, if you will.

But that’s all been hard for me recently. I’m having trouble not being bitter.

For the two years I spent as an editor at The Sun, I gave everything for this paper. I sacrificed grades, sleep, friendships, relationships, sleep, exercise, normal eating habits, sleep, nights of drinking, weekends that I spent driving to and from other Ivy League schools and sleep.

I had multiple nervous breakdowns, several at The Sun’s office. I would quietly get up from my computer, wave off anyone trying to tell me something, and head upstairs. There I would sit, too paralyzed, overwhelmed and dumbstruck by the absurdity of my life to talk to anyone.

Obviously, I don’t handle stress well. Still, it’s unusual to only have time for homework after 2 a.m. or during the day when I was supposed to be in class. I can’t even go into Uris any more — too many memories.

Last semester, I played intramural football on Sundays at 3 p.m. After the games, my friends would jokingly say, “See you next Sunday.” Or maybe they weren’t joking –– I don’t know, I’m pretty sure I lost my sense of humor at some point (except for self-deprecating jokes, see: last sentence).

I took a class last semester that I attended three times, and another that I went to once over the last eight weeks of the semester. Mom, disregard that last sentence. My GPA has atrophied faster than Christian Bale in The Machinist. I made Dean’s List my first two semesters here. That notion seems laughable now.

It’s easy to get wrapped up in a daily paper and daily deadlines. That research paper due in three weeks seems a long way off when there’s an issue of the Sun that needs to get to the printer by 1:30 a.m. every night. Your professor doesn’t pester you to study for your prelim the following Monday. Staff writers do pester you … a lot. My dad once suggested I hold office hours so I could have some time to myself. I have three playlists titled: “E-mail Hell,” “E-mail Hell II: E-mail Purgatory” and “E-mail Hell III: Dante’s Third Ring of E-mail Hell.”

I’ll be the first to admit, I overworked myself. I wrote too much, covered too many away games, spent too much time at the office, spent too much time trying to please every player and coach, and was too ambitious with designs and assigning stories. At the first sign of distress, I would drop everything to head down to the office. Although, when one of your assistants gChats you asking, “At what point do we just give up and promo the entire sports section?” it’s hard not to try and step in.

And then, roughly nine weeks ago, it was all gone. I went from 60 to 0 not because I slowly braked, but because I was thrown from the car. Such is the natural progression of editors. When the new editorial board is elected six weeks into the spring semester, the graduating editors are put out to pasture, relegated to “Senior Writer.”

One day I was picking up the paper and saturating it with inky corrections during class. The next day, I woke up with no responsibility, no commitments, no one bugging me.

And what did I have to show for it? I’m unemployed. I can’t get through the first round of interviews at any decent journalism job (not to mention that journalism is dying faster than Ryan Leaf’s NFL career did). I drove to Philadelphia for a seven-hour interview where all they did was ask about my experience at The Sun and I didn’t get the job.

I could have half-assed my way through college, through my work at The Sun, and still been where I am. And that is why I am somewhat bitter.

My whole life, I have succeeded through hard work. My basketball coach told me bluntly that I started because I ran hard in practice. The only time he used me as an example of how the team should play was when I got a bloody nose in the third quarter and went back in three minutes later (I never told him that my nose bled all the time in the winter, and the bloody nose was from a particularly violent sneeze, and the blood on the jersey was somewhat intentional).

Two years after I graduated high school, I heard my former soccer coach tried to motivate his team saying, “I once coached this kid Cory Bennett. He wasn’t the most talented, but boy did he have heart.”

I never understood any of the math I did in high school, but I spent enough time memorizing the formulas to get good grades.

When I got to Cornell, I decided I wanted to be the sports editor of The Daily Sun. I eventually ran unopposed for the position. But I’d like to think it was the three-part, 4,000-word ramblings I wrote; or the two-mile route I ran from the boathouse to The Sun’s office freshman year while I still rowed (although apparently I didn’t need to write every story at the office –– why did no one tell me this?); or the times I drove down at 9 p.m. after getting the demoralizing call, “No one from sports showed up to desk,” that qualified me to be sports editor. But they weren’t.

I did those things because I take on too much responsibility, because I don’t know how to ask for help, because I don’t know how to yell at people, because I give in easily and because I don’t stand up for myself. I told myself it was all a means to an end. I don’t know if it really was.

What qualified me was me, if you’ll forgive the solipsism. This realization made it hard to look back and think I could still have accomplished what I wanted to without sacrificing so much. I had convinced myself the extra effort would be worthwhile because it would make me sports editor and impress employers. I’m starting to see that maybe it doesn’t work that way.

If I was playing Scattergories, the letter was “V” and the category was “How I Would Describe This Semester,” I would list words like vivacious, vacation or valiant. If the category was “How I Would Describe Last Semester,” I might write vacuous or vicious.

Study, sleep, play basketball, go for a run, watch a movie, watch professional sports, have a successful relationship, go to chapter meetings at my fraternity, eat at normal hours — these were all things I had given up on.

Having these things in my life again created a perplexing conundrum.

Had I thrown away years of my college career for nothing?

The perverted part of my brain made a conscious choice to exhaust myself for two years because I felt The Daily Sun would give me something: a sense of purpose and achievement in college, a unique real-world experience that can’t be taught in the classroom, a professional mindset, the understanding of how to motivate and organize people, a group of friends united by being collectively dragged through the mud by The Sun, anything.

And it did. In fact, it gave me all of these things, and more. It gave me these things in droves, and it did a damn good job.

Do I regret some things? Of course. But catch me in a non-self-deprecating mood (admittedly hard), before I’ve had a few drinks, and I’ll tell you that I wouldn’t trade it for much.

Working for The Sun is unquestionably one of the most defining experiences of my life.

But trying to untangle all of this is like political scientists trying to get historical perspective on the 2008 election — it’s impossible to get distance from the situation and be impartial.

Here is what I know for sure:

The Sun is a fascinating cross-section of life at Cornell. Three parts fratty, two parts indie, one part artsy, eight parts nerdy, three parts pothead, two parts political activism, one part sporty, one part Schroeder, three parts minority (two parts Asian designers), one part religious and a dash of hotelie, architect and engineer. It’s like a diverse, punch-drunk zoo.

Never in my life have I been surrounded by a group of people driven by such sundry motives toward such a collective goal. Like a house of mirrors, it’s easy to get lost in it because all you can see is yourself and those around you. It’s hard to see past The Daily Sun. It’s easy to forget life in the broader sense of the term. It reminds me of a cult that the Simpsons join in one episode, the Movementarians. The main difference is that The Sun won’t take you to Blisstonia (“well-known for its high levels of bliss”) like the Movementarians promised, it will push you to your mental and academic limits.

It will make you a public figure. Not Beyonce public, or even Ruben Studdard public. Hell, not even 2008 Hanson public, but public nonetheless.

I once ran terrified out of the room before a violin recital. When I took drama in seventh grade, my legs visibly shook when I performed. People have told me they’ve learned more about my personality from reading my columns than from talking to me.

So when I became the one that everyone contacted, when I became a face on the back of the paper, when I had to report to the athletic communications department for everything, I was bound to have problems. The first real ranting, hateful e-mail I received after becoming sports editor made me tear up a bit.

But I needed that. As a player from the 1939 Cornell football team told me, “Can I give you some advice? Kids these days need a good swift kick in the rear.”

I needed to toughen up, take a punch and keep on ticking. Doing poorly on a test is so personal. No one but you and the professor knows what you got. Once I was elected sports editor, though, I became a Whack-A-Mole for the judge and jury of public opinion. And unlike a professor, who tells you if you did good or bad, readers and staff writers only come down with the black foam mallet when you mess up. No hit meant I was doing my job, a strange concept after years of living my life in a rigorous grading rubric.

No hit also frequently meant that staff writers were simply ignoring what I asked of them. I always joked that I tried to run the sports department on a strict diet of “hug therapy,” which, while soft and cuddly, just doesn’t work. People take advantage of leniency, loose boundaries and amiability (and hugs).

It was an important lesson to learn, however, given my inherent insecurities, which should be pretty obvious as we pass the 2,000-word signpost in this interminable treatise.

If nothing else, The Sun is the most fun you’ll never want to have again. My life was so defined by the bizarre schedule I was living. It became even more bizarre because once I was through the meat grinder, I went back to real life a little more battered, consolidated, and tasty, knowing I would never get to experience anything like it again.

And the whole experience would not have been palatable without the people around me.

So with that said, everyone take a deep breath, get up and stretch for a second. There are a few people I’d like to thank (move over Tolstoy, I’m making a run at Anna Karenina length here).


To my Mom: I think at one point in my life, I went several years without telling you I loved you. That was probably the biggest mistake of my life. Neither of us are the most open people. I may wear my heart on my sleeve, but I certainly don’t like talking about it. I think I get a lot of that from you. Which means that when our powers combine, we can create a tundra where sharing goes to die.

I remember growing up, when I was doing homework and you were watching TV, if I ever heard you laugh, I would run to see what could possibly make you laugh out loud. It was usually monkeys dressed in suits or William Shatner doing anything, but I digress. The point is that you usually saved your outright laughs. I can remember a multitude of occasions where I would recount funny stories to you, only to be met with “That’s funny,” and a vague smile. I’m still proud of myself every time I make you laugh.

At my junior retreat in high school, we had a candle lighting ceremony, where everyone got up and lit one candle for someone they wanted to thank, but had never been able to. I wish I had a transcript of what I said that night, but all I remember is being overwhelmed by the emotion of trying to verbalize concepts I had never grasped before, or issues I had never tried to tackle. I wish I could remember what I said that night so I could tell you, but the images of that night in my mind are just of the awe-inspiring understanding of just exactly how much you have sacrificed in your life for me and what you have gone through to make sure I had the happiest, best upbringing and all the greatest opportunities in life.

I had never put things in perspective until it hit me like a freight train that night. What you have gone through for me — always putting my interests first, always being the unselfish one, never showing weakness in tumultuous times — is nothing short of incredible. Maybe that’s why I never understood the magnitude of the difficulties you have faced raising me — because you were always so stoic and strong.

In raising me, you have endured more than most parents, and you never once complained, played the pity card or asked for sympathy. And it’s not because you don’t deserve it. I have spent much of my life whining to you about things more trivial than issues you have dealt with every day of your life.

I’ll admit that I tend to run to you when I’m overwhelmed, freaking out, confused or paralyzed by doubt and fear. I don’t, however, share my happiness with you as much as I should. But to your credit, you always sit and listen, and put up with my incoherent mumblings and you put up with me when I refute every piece of advice. I’m sure you feel like nothing you say is right, and you often have even said, “I wish I could be more helpful.” I hope you can understand, though, that you are helpful, that you are always there for me.

Maybe it’s because you don’t know how to help that I sometimes find brownies or cookies in my mailbox a week or so after a freakout. Although, you didn’t need to do these things to be there for me, they still meant a lot to me.

You didn’t have to send me the Milky Way cake (exactly what it sounds like, butter, sugar and melted milky way bars — amazing) on my birthday each year, but you did. You didn’t have to send me the ginger bread house I made at home over winter break, but you did. You didn’t have to send me a heart shaped pizza on Valentine’s Day, but you did. You didn’t have to wait to get autographs from Cubs players as they left the locker room during a Spring Training game, but you did because you knew I wanted to watch the rest of the game. You don’t have to scribble tiny notes on post-its during my doctor’s appointment so I don’t miss anything, but you do. You don’t have to test used DVDs that you buy me before giving them to me, but you do. You didn’t have to save those ridiculous cardboard glasses dotted with snowmen we got at a zoolights exhibit for the next year, but you did.

All these things weren’t necessary, but they brought a smile to my face and put me in a good mood. As my friends can attest, that hasn’t always been easy.

For all the problems I have dumped on you, you have still always managed to show me how much you care and raise me to have the same characteristics I admire in you. You always seem worried that you never imparted a proper moral code on me, but that couldn’t be further from the truth.

When I was young I remember having a vivid dream where a bear mauled you to death, or maybe pushed you off a cliff. The next day I recall asking you where I would live if you were ever to die or go away. From the rest of my childhood, that issue haunted my mind. At the risk of sounding like a Mama’s Boy, you have been and always will be the most important person in my life.

Mom, I love you.

To my Dad: You have consistently showed me how proud you are of my accomplishments. That has been a wonderful driving force in my life. I am a fairly self-motivated person, but to have someone encouraging me along the way justifies my hard work. I love the daily articles I get in my e-mail inbox from you and the stack of papers and books you pass my way. You may think I never read them but I usually do. I think each one of us has expanded the other’s interests throughout the years, and that has brought us closer together. I am grateful for the relationship we have developed throughout the years.

To Bill: Growing up in a house with just my mom and I, my dog Bill became more than a family pet — he was included in my mom’s yearly Christmas letter. My teacher gave every student an award on the last day of fifth grade. I got “Most Likely to Write About Your Dog” (I was clearly a winner from an early age). Bill is the most lovable, goofy, loyal, unfailingly happy dog in the world. Coming home every day to find him sitting by the back door — struggling to hoist himself up on his basset hound stumpy legs, the loose skin on his face molded to the shape it had taken while he slept — never ceased to make me happy. Bill has slowed down over the years. Now he picks up rocks outside thinking they’re food, we have to hold his haunches up so he can climb the stairs. What hasn’t left him, though, is his simple love of life — being petted, eating, going outside. All these things still make him wildly happy even though his body is slowly giving out on him. Bill will always be one of my favorite things in this world.

To anyone who understood my column moniker: You rock. Everyone else should go YouTube “Cub Fan Bud Man.” Former Cubs TV broadcaster Harry Caray did a series of hilarious commercials for Budweiser in the mid-80s where he sang that tag line.

To the Sun’s 125th editorial board: I thanked you last year, but just for the record, thank you again.

To Allie Perez: You are one of the most consistently optimistic people I have ever met. Your outward enthusiasm and positive attitude affects all those around you. I could not have picked a better person to keep Meredith, Keenan and me — all prone to lapses of grumpiness — sane. Your encouraging nature is far from your only outstanding trait. You are an incredibly hard worker and never miss a deadline. You always made sure I was on top of everything. When I saw your name on a text or a call, it felt like a lead ball dropped into my stomach because I assumed you were reminding me of something I forgot or asking me a question I wasn’t prepared to answer. You never complained and always stood by me in tough times. Thank you.

To Meredith Bennett-Smith: How you’re still alive, I really don’t know. It should be publicly noted that you are the busiest person I have ever met. For those who don’t know, Meredith has been an editor on two boards at The Sun, sung a cappella and choir, worked the morning shift at the gym and volunteered at a homeless shelter, all while remaining a dedicated student. I can’t overstate how impressed and proud of you I am that you care enough to remain so devoted to each of your activities. I had to give up on all my other extracurricular activities because of The Sun. That makes you an amazingly talented person. You are the king of showing up to the Sun at 10 p.m. every night to help put pages out, sketchily call Rob Koll at home and just bring a degree of ridiculousness to the office. The sports department needed that. We needed things like bumper chairs and mad dashes to the Chanticleer to keep us sane. Thank you.

To Keenan Weatherford: I guess if I ever had a protégé, it would be you. Since you competed for assistant sports editor at the same time that you were pledging, I always felt more of a vested interest in you. It was never that easy to mentor you, however, because I rarely had much I could teach you. You never required much guidance. Your natural instinct and talent would always get the job done. My nature is to be hands-on, always advising. With you, I learned to step back and just trust that everything would get done, which you always did in a quiet and efficient manner — a.k.a “Destroy Mode.” The few times you have turned to me for advice or help meant the world to me. It has been wonderful, but in no way surprising, to watch you progress. I cannot think of a better person to replace me as sports editor. You deserve a gold star for still wanting to take the job after watching the rollercoaster ride known as my tenure as sports editor. Thank you.

To Harrison Sanford: We’re all that’s left of the old sports board. It’s been great having you as a friend that whole time. You would never let me be morose or despondent at the office because you would always have some story about some Brazilian work from the weekend, or some new catchphrase you were trying out, or your backpack with only a 40 of Olde English in it, or a 30-minute story that you insisted everyone listen to. Even if you weren’t around, re-telling stories about you to the new editors kept everyone laughing. In all seriousness, though, your charisma, talent and creativity will take you far in this industry. I’m just glad you can’t embarrass me on The Red Light any more.

To Matt Manacher: You may have developed more as a writer than anyone else on the Sun. You were always a good writer, but your dedication to learning the difference between good sports writing and great sports writing is commendable. You were always willing to pitch in an extra hand when needed and your quirky humor was always a bright spot at the office (even if the Derek Jeter references got creepy at a point).

To Alex Kuczynski-Brown: A few weeks into compet this year, I felt a little worried. I asked you how you were liking everything so far, and you paused, thought about it and said: “Well, I like the trips to Shortstop.” From what I’ve seen, though, you have really come into your own. You have been forced to progress quickly, but you have taken on every challenge with aplomb. Keep up the good work.

To Rahul Kishore: Rahul, why are you so well dressed? The sports department has a long history of slovenly styles at the office. While I feel bad (almost) that we stole you from the design department, convincing you to run for assistant sports editor will be one of my most lasting impressions on this paper. I knew we had you when you offered to cover a field hockey game at Harvard. You will be putting your distinctive imprint on the Sun with your humor, outgoing nature and enterprising attitude for a long time. Hearing that I was part of your decision to commit to sports was one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever heard at the Sun.

To Sarah Singer: I don’t think I talked to you once while you were a news editor, which made me nervous when we were elected to the last board. As the year went on, however, you became one of my most trusted friends. As a managing editor, you were the perfect balance of a calming influence, strictness and dedication. I respect your direction, creativity and organization to no end. I honestly tried to emulate your leadership style while running the sports section, and I could always lean on you when I needed to.

To Noah Grynberg: It was nice to have a fellow sports fan in the office. I appreciated that you valued my opinion and would bounce concerns off me, or just vent to me. You did a wonderful job of keeping me involved. I am pretty sure you are as neurotic as I am, so I always related to you in a strange way.

To Carol Zou: CAROL! That’s the last time I will ever yell your name to get your attention. I’m sorry for all the times I verbally badgered, bludgeoned and battered you while we were desking. I hope you know it was all in jest. Not only are you a wonderfully talented designer, you are laid-back, easy to work with and unflappable. I know I may appear like a meathead to you sometimes, but I always admired your philosophical, intellectual and creative nature, as well as your commitment to Green Star food.

To Peter Finocchiaro: I always saw us as kindred spirits in terms of leadership and overall self-esteem. You’ve come a long way from being scared away from The Sun freshman year to taking command of the arts section. I’m sorry I made fun of you for not having a personality. In reality, you’re quietly well-informed, knowledgeable and talented — although you don’t use self-deprecating humor as well as me.

To Julie Block: You are one of the most bubbly and boisterous friends I have. You’re always up for a good time, and are a great listener. I’ll never forget the night you talked our way into that posh nightclub in Chicago. Although I was promised a surprise concert that night, meeting Ben Gordon was probably better.

To Jasmine Marcus: For being the best friend the sports department could ever have outside of the department itself. For the sake of my synonym-drained brain, please refer to the endorsement I wrote for you.

To Molly O’Toole: As was detailed through the first 3,200 words of this behemoth, I tend to have a hard time expressing how I truly feel. Instead, I cover it up with humor and light-hearted insults. The first formal I took you to, I made fun of your poofy red dress instead of telling you how beautiful you looked, repeatedly asking what secrets were hidden inside its billowy fabric. What I should have told you instead, and what I should tell you every day, is that you are one of the most insightful, caring, supportive and genuine, not to mention beautiful, people I know. You are right next to me at all times, dealing with my stress-addled brain, telling me to believe in myself and have confidence. What I should tell you more often is to believe in yourself too. You impress me every day. You are wildly talented and write with a level of intellect and wit that is far above most people’s heads. I am beyond fortunate to have someone in my life who makes me as happy as you do. Thank you for making this semester the best of my life.

To John Schroeder: You are perpetually the Wizard of Oz, the man behind the curtain (literally and figuratively) pulling the strings that operate The Sun. On a day-to-day basis, you saved me from a host of idiotic errors. On a larger scale, you give The Sun continuity throughout the years, which makes people love working for this organization. The sense of history and commitment you bring to work every day really does inspire both the staff and myself. You opened my eyes to all sorts of music as I tried to hold my own and not embarrass myself during our always-enjoyable discussions. I don’t know if there is anyone else at The Sun who I was more concerned about what they thought of me than you. Thank you for everything.

To Steve Donahue, Jim Knowles and Jeff Tambroni: I covered your teams for two years as an editor at The Sun. Coach Donahue, you were always straightforward and honest with me, never turning down an interview request and always returning my calls. Your candor and insight made my writing and understanding of your team better. Coach Tambroni, I always appreciated your politeness and appreciation of our coverage. More than any other coach, you consistently told me how much The Sun meant to the lacrosse program. Hearing that made my job worthwhile. Coach Knowles, your humor and kid-like giddiness after wins and during interviews was always refreshing. I wish I could have a transcript of all your pregame speeches because they were always fun and innovative.

To Andy Noel: You exude passion for Cornell athletics in everything you say and do. In several meetings we had, I would come with very little to talk about and we would end up excitedly discussing Cornell sports for more than an hour. You are the perfect person to run the athletic department in tough times, and it is your amiability and enthusiasm which will keep Cornell competitive.

To Jeremy Hartigan and the Cornell Athletic Communications Department: The Sun sports section would not exist without the hours you guys log. Jeremy, you always had my back and showed me the respect of a professional colleague, which meant the world to me. Working at a student paper, sometimes I felt slighted or not taken seriously, but that was never the case with you. You were always upbeat and knowledgeable. It was truly a pleasure to work with you.

To Pat Maloney: Thank you for being the most understanding friend I could have had. It’s not easy to be good friends with someone who is absent for days at a time. You always made me feel included, but still respected my need for time to deal with my crazy life. No one really knows how it happened, but somehow you became one of the most respected and trusted people I know. I called you being cool before you were cool, though — remember that. I never thought I would have a friend as close as you in my lifetime. I hope someday my kids call you “Uncle Pat.”

To Carter Hirtle: We once had a legitimate discussion wondering why Facebook didn’t allow people to be “in a relationship” with multiple people. We tagged a photo with the caption “Cory Bennett is in a relationship with Pat Maloney and Carter Hirtle.” That pretty much sums up our experience in college. Carter, you were there for all my best memories at Cornell. You are a conscientious and loyal friend — one of the best I have ever had.

To Llenroc: Simply put, every brother of Delta Phi gave me the community and home that I desperately needed at Cornell. I will always feel welcome at Cornell because I will always have a home in Llenroc, and that is a rare and invaluable thing to have. Thank you to all the brothers who make the house what it is.

To Erg Team Delta: You guys were my first real group of friends at Cornell. I had a tough time adjusting to college and even more trouble finding my niche here. All of you gave me something to look forward to every day and made me feel included, welcome and comfortable here. We have all gone our separate ways since freshman year, but whenever we get together, it amazes me that it’s just like freshman year all over again. We are truly funny people.

To that girl who recognized me and said, “I love your column” in Ruloff’s: That was awesome. Seriously, I will tell my kids about that some day.

To anyone who ever sent me a positive e-mail or comment: You cannot understand how much of an effect just a small compliment can have on a writer’s psyche, or maybe it’s just my lack of self esteem. But seriously, taking a minute to go out of your way to tell a writer that they did a good job really makes it all worthwhile and rewarding. Thank you.

To unlimited word counts: The sports section is the only section in the paper where we really just don’t care about word counts. Terrible preparation for real life? Yes. But it has allowed for me to break Tim Kuhls’ record for longest goodbye column.

To my ’92 Volvo station wagon: For never (knock on wood) breaking down despite my best efforts to drive it into the ground all around the East Coast — 232,000 miles and counting.

To all those who actually read this whole column: You have the patience and kindness of a zen master.

To The Cornell Daily Sun, Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y., and life in a bubble: Goodbye.

To the real world: Hello.