Mountain Town Perfectly Imperfect

“Don’t try to ride an elk and don’t shake hands with a bear.”

I’m standing in a small Montana town scratching out a life between two different mountain ranges. With river water as clear as the air pulsating in my lungs, it cuts a gentle, but jagged line through town. Above, rocky peaks act as shepherds watching over the herd below.

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I’ve stopped at the town newspaper to say hello get some local advice.

A man approaches the counter. He offers a firm handshake and directly tells me his name.

He smiles, his face artfully and handsomely chiseled as if from the stone looking down from above. His eyes are bright like the blindingly blue canopy above.

As we shake hands I share my name and that I too, carry black ink in my veins – only mine from Texas. Instantly we are trusted brethren.

I’d asked my new friend about advice as a first time visitor to his state. The reference to staying clear of the wildlife is not fully in jest. Days before a man was arrested for trying to wrestle a buffalo.

My friend’s personality is as unique as this soil where he planted his feet more than 40 years ago. His pink ribbon tie playfully contrasts against the blue oxford shirt. His jacket is neat yet hangs comfortably from his trim shoulders.

Quiet confidence and being true to your self is a respected trait in this corner of the world.

He tells me about the town, the history, and what he sees going on hidden from the unknowing eyes of a visitor. I’m standing in a old town facing down the new in a not so quiet battle for its soul.

The town is in an interesting sliver in time. There in not a chain hotel or franchise restaurant within shooting distance of where we stand. A block over an old hand-painted Coca-Cola advertisement whispers from above in a red brick alley. Others faded signs mark once prominent businesses and family names forever part of the town’s lore.

I think back to my hotel room to where chipped plaster walls and decades of paint welcome me. Tall, narrow wooden doors with imperfectly brush stroked numbers lead me to my room each day. Where each morning 114-year old floor joists bark as I walk across their backs. Oddly, I feel at home in this place I’ve never been before.

Everywhere you turn you see a world stubbornly trying to hold on to its roots as a steady stream of outsiders continue attempt to remake the town into their vision of perfect. Art galleries are popping up and a custom watchmaker offers his handmade timepieces starting at $3,100 a pop. Ironically, most vehicles populating the side streets do not carry enough book value to trade for a locally made watch.

There is a timeless beauty of this corner of the world – a place where man, nature, and man’s restless drive to improve the other never stops. I’m pulling for Mother Nature.

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Train Plays Role In Slowing Down Time

My friend’s son lives at the far end of a 1,497-mile trail of iron rails. For him, the distance might as well be a million. Divorce can do that to a man.

“We’re hopping the Amtrak to California,” my friend said.

Church services are over and we’re standing outside giving hugs. He looks down, I can see his head shake thinking about his son’s visit time coming to a close.

“Yeah, we’ve driven it lots of time, but the train kinda slows things down,” he said. “All about making the memories these days.”

They are hopping the train in Houston. The end of the line, ironically, finalizes at the Pacific Ocean – four blocks from his son’s home.

“He can literally walk from his house to the train station.”

While I’ve only known my friend for a few years, I feel as if somehow, we known each other for decades. Maybe that happens as you get older, the ability to see through the murky veneer of people and more quickly recognize what makes them tick from inside.

“We’ll get to sit in the double-decker car, play games, and just talk,” he said.

I think my friend is more excited about being locked on an island on iron rails with his son than anything else.

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My friend is a good man. He works long and hard. He loves his kids and he hurts for having to live apart from them. I’ve seen smiles as large as the Pacific Ocean cross his face; I’ve seen tears roll off his strong and deeply tanned checks only to be wiped away by his pride. He’ll freely admit he is not perfect. But he’ll also freely admit God is always working on him and he’s listening best he can.

If you know the make up of a good man odds are you pretty much already know my friend.

What is so moving to me is how my friend’s priorities, even with half a continent separating him from his kids, are so solidly grounded in them. Never are they far from his thoughts or far from his actions. He is all in.

We never really know what life will deal us. But what we do know is, most times, life must be embraced and measured between sunrises and sunsets. Bank accounts run empty, fancy cars eventually wear out, and big houses get sold. But what really matters in life is the blood we share with others.

Families, genetic or by choice, are really the only things that matter. From them we reward our souls like ice water on a hot Texas afternoon. Droplets make deposits in memories, our hearts, and in help keep our internal compass from being pulled from our true north.

My friend is on this journey – one where his compass in now aligned to invest in his kids and making the best of a difficult situation. But I also know my friend is just the man to do it and he is not alone.

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Success In Life Requires Falling

A friend of mine recently said 90% of surfing is paddling, only 10% surfing.

I thought about his words and how relatable they are to life in general whether work, home, or in relationships. Without a significant investment up front, the opportunity for the payoff rarely presents itself.

Earlier this week I found myself sitting on the beach watching a young surfer offshore. Hearing my friend’s words, I decided to see how close his words applied to the reality in front of me.

With a cross-shore breeze and the waves breaking to the left, the surfer found himself repeatedly paddling his board back to where the breaks began. And many times, after paddling what could amount to half a football field, he’d stand up only to lose his balance to the wave within seconds. Hardly a fair payoff for the minutes it took him to get into position.

But then again, and it could be five minutes later or 45-minutes later, he’d hit the right wave and dance along with the violent water as if he were a master dancer.

And what follows his moment of joy? More paddling, more scrutinizing the approaching sets, and more preparing to be in the right spot at the right time. In other words, back to the 90%.

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I began to think about this in my life and how true this formula seems to play out.

In my relationship with my wife, we cruise along each day, both living life and doing our best to keep our world moving forward. We are making deposits in each other’s life by complimenting, supporting, and listening. But then come those moments that will always remain as fresh as if they happened only yesterday, the moments you realize a life shared with someone you love deeply is one of most powerful experiences in life. The payoff might be the birth of a child, navigating raising children, or simply finding yourself standing in front of a beautiful sunset, your fingers entwined.

In our professional lives, the people who tend to move ahead are those who never sit still on their existing skill or knowledge sets. They are always self-learning or exposing themselves to new experiences, unafraid of what they do not know. And to them, a new set of waves is always coming and they want to be prepared.

The surfer offshore continues to fall, his footing not quite right for the wave. But again, with each attempt, he is preparing for the moment he can see in his mind. Learning anything difficult in life is to understand you will need to put in extraordinary amounts of time before you can ever realize the reward.

The surfer offshore falls yet again and is quickly back to paddling. But, importantly, he is not discouraged.

Thomas Edison never considered how many times it took to get a light bulb to work – considering it the necessary preparation to the successful outcome.

Do not be afraid of the 90% for inside it lays the important ingredients for success.

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Childhood Memories Taste Like Darwinism

Summer always brings to memory a phrase my mother would say to me my brother.

“Remember, you boys be sure to wipe off the end of the hose before you drink from it – your dad sprayed weed killer on the lawn the other day.”

Yes, that was the world I grew up in and somehow survived.

By today’s standards the world I experienced as a child seems like a twisted suburban version of Darwinism. With little direct supervision and the light-handedness from our parents at the time, we were left to learning lessons from our childhood experiences.

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To this day I can detect the taste of weed killer in my drink. Now that might not sound like a life skill, but if you considered every neighbor’s garden hose a free drinking station as a kid, you’d better learn fast. Far as I’m concerned, if the zombie apocalypse arrives one day, I’m ahead of the game.

Our parents cared for us. But in my childhood the term nanny-state had yet be uttered. Honestly, we didn’t even know what a nanny was in the first place.

Our parent’s didn’t have email or smartphones, but they all seemed to operate with the same playbook. While one might be grumpier than another, there were certain universal understandings between them.

  1. Being outside was the default for kids during the day.
  2. If kids happened to be at your house at lunch, you fed them.
  3. Don’t get hurt or in trouble, and be home when streetlights came on.

Believe it or not, those rules encompassed about every situation.

Each house was a local ER station, complete with Band-Aids, and ice water. And when it came to eating, no one ever balked at a peanut butter sandwich because of a nut allergy. And after you ate, you said thank you and quickly got back outside.

We crawled beneath neighborhoods via’ underground storm sewers, pushing up manhole covers like Christopher Columbus discovering new worlds. We jumped into flash flood waters, riding them hundreds of yards without ever a concern of drowning. And we engineered plastic bats with small cutouts to allow us to shoot bottle rockets at each other with deadly accuracy.

And for the most part, our parents simply viewed these activities as within the universal parameters outlined.

It was a remarkable time. We’d fight and make up without the need to a therapist asking us how we felt. If hurt, the default was to walk it off – that is unless blood was evident.

To us this world seemed remarkably normal. That is until I began telling my wife about what we did as kids. Apparently not all kids climb out of second story windows and across steeply pitched rooftops simply to take in the view. And apparently finding a bag of gunpowder did not lead most other kids to make small exploding bombs out of glass Gerber’s baby food jars.

But I do know if the zombie apocalypse does arrive, my childhood skills will come in handy.

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Heaven Gets A Great Journalist

My friend is dead. Rear-ended while parked at a red light, the impact crushed his Ford F-150 and pushed him into the intersection. He died a few days later from complications resulting for head injuries. Already the world feels a bit less exciting, a little less complete.

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I first met my friend inside a small conference room without windows. Sitting across from each other, his resume in my hand, we looked at each other. He needed a job and I was unsure the mysterious ball of nervous energy sitting across from me. To this day I’m not sure he could ever sit still for longer than the brief spit of time between flashes of a firefly. His strong hands, tightly clasped in front of him, seemed to be anchoring him to the table.

“I know you don’t know me,” he said. “But if you will give me this chance, I’ll work harder than anyone you’ve ever met. And I’ll promise I’ll work to be the best journalist you’ll ever hire.”

Out of most people’s mouth this would sound like someone trying to blow dust into a place it should not go. But something was peculiar about the man. Maybe it was the twinkle in his eyes – a twinkle like I imagined I’d see if I’d ever ran across Santa Claus.

And then there was his voice. Something was different. Nine-nine times out of a hundred your gut says walk away. And generally that is the right call. All I can say is that day must have been number one hundred because I put my trust – and comparatively smaller hand – into his and we shook.

I was sitting at home last week when the text came though about my friend’s accident. Details were sketchy but you didn’t need to be a doctor to know he needed God to be at his side. I prayed out loud repeatedly.

My new editor soon proved his word. Many times I asked him if he was sleeping in his office. He denied it, but that darn twinkle in his eye told me I shouldn’t press my luck. Within days he was teaching me what a real journalist was – the kind born, not made with a university degree. Over the course of the years we worked together we banged heads over deadlines, filing Freedom of Information requests, and his unorthodox manner of conducting business. I remember him once confronting a district attorney with damning information while they were out alone fishing on a nearby lake. Right there, with God and 213 striped bass as witnesses, the two of them negotiated an early retirement for the district attorney.

That was how my friend did business. If unorthodox is not considered a compliment, it ought to be. Watching my friend do his version of journalism was like witnessing naturally brilliant self-taught pianist play as Beethoven originally heard it in his head. You don’t see that twice in a lifetime.

The next day a call brought the news I knew I might hear. God called my friend home. From what I hear, St. Peter waved him through. Something about heaven needing a man of true character and a penchant for the unorthodox. Score one for the good guys.

[Mitch Sneed passed away on Sunday July 1, 2018.]

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American Dream Driven By Drive

“It is a lot harder than I expected.”

I’m riding in a small black Honda along well-lit streets of a large city. The Uber driver is young, polite, and borderline shy. The car is clean and well kept.

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She is in her early twenties, born in Saudi Arabia, and relocated from South Africa with her mother a few years ago.

I ask her about her thoughts of living in America and how it compares to what she expected.

“When I first arrived, everything was so beautiful, clean, and exciting. There is everything in America,” she said. “But then I found out how much it costs to live here and you have to work hard all the time.”

She tells me she is in school to be a radiologist and drives when she is not studying or in class. She and her mother came to the US together. Soon afterwards, her mother became ill and passed. The bright light in both her voice and eyes dims. I ask about her car, hoping to bring her back.

“I was a waitress for 2-years and saved all my tip money – cash money. Each night I’d come home and careful stack the dollar bills with the others until I had enough to buy this car,” she said. The spark, reignited by pride, returns to her voice and eyes.

She tells me about how a friend took her to a local auto auction.

“Guess how much I paid for this car,” she said. She is proud.

I toss out a number.

“Ten thousand,” I said.

She looks over, flashes a full, prideful smile.

“No, only $7,000.”

She is beautiful from the inside out – her spirit and commitment to make a life for herself in her adopted homeland. She tells me about how hard her studies are and I remind her they are supposed to be.

“If you’re my radiologist I want you to get it right,” I said.

She tells me of how she has traveled to California – her accent making the word melodic and magical.

“San Francisco is beautiful,” she said. “I want to one day live there.”

She can’t be much older than my 23-year old daughter, but she is in a different world – one where she lives without the safety net of parents in the background. Each decision carriers the potential for making a broader life change, each action she makes potentially leading to a dramatic change in her delicate ecosystem, her schooling, and future. I can’t help but admire her for her maturity.

As we drive she is even-tempered, never barking at other drivers, and exceedingly polite. To her, inside her car is an extension of who she is – and how she wishes for the world surrounding her to be.

We pull up to the curb and I exit the car. I wish her well on her studies and her dreams of California. As the car pulls away I know, eventually, she will find her way west and the American Dream.

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Learning To Get Over It Important

“Sometimes you just got to let it go and move on,” said the woman.

I’m standing in parlor of an old wooden hotel along the Atlantic coastline. While the building itself has experienced countless lessons, the woman is telling me about she and her husband’s long marriage – 54 years best she can recall.

“When you are young you waste a lot of time being angry,” she said. “One of you hurts the other or someone upsets the other. But then one day you realize you’re both in it for the long haul and neither one is going anywhere. Might as well get over it and move on.”

She’s dressed in a white lace dress, her husband in a matching white dinner jacket. Palm trees are outnumbered by oak trees with spiraling arms. Outside, Spanish moss gently drapes from branches, moving slowing, like the woman’s accent.

There are wonderful lessons out there for the picking if we’ll only slow down and listen.

Her husband is successful man. Probably works too much, drives too hard, and at times gets preoccupied with the family business. But they are solid and adore each other. Neither one was going anywhere. To them, they were there to build a family and life together.

Marriage and relationships can be difficult. Two people who are strong, confident, and individuals are sure to butt heads or disagree on lots of things. But the strongest relationships, I’m hearing from long-termers is they all seem to carry a powerful element of respect and admiration for the other.

She holds up her hands, palms out, and slowly brings them together until they overlap.

“We don’t always have the same opinions or interests,” she said. “But we each bring something new to the relationship.”

She looks over at her husband and he back at her. Unspoken words with a meaning only they will know are transferred between them. They both smile and return to their conversations.

I think about her words, her lessons, and how long-term couples tend to arrive on the same notes in  life: mutual respect, honesty, and the commitment. Mix in passion – a must – and you begin to wish everyone carried this roadmap in the beginning.

But then again the journey is an integral part of arriving at 54 years of marriage.

My wife and I, like most people, have been on this road. We’ve been broke, built a family, not understood the other, and ridden over some rugged potholes we thought we might not survive. But, thank God – literally, we did. And it is the looking back and recognizing we are on the same road the lady in the white dress that is so encouraging. We are proud to have survived and are much closer because of the shared experience.

Someone comes along to visit the woman in the white lace dress. She smiles and we excuse ourselves from the conversation. But her words, and reminders, will be with us forever as we know we still have some road ahead of us.

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Piano Plays Memories Forever

Sometimes the most valuable physical objects in our lives are worth the least when measured in dollars and cents by the outside world.

“It was my mother’s piano,” said my friend.

She was describing an old upright piano she had recently moved into their newly constructed home.

“It originally started out life as a player piano and was converted to a regular piano afterwards.”

This limited description alone, if heard by an outsider, could never accurately identify the deep and valuable emotions embedded into this piece of furniture.

“My mother died when I was 2 years old,” she said.

Suddenly, with a handful of words, the value to piano leaps from an interesting and potential collector’s item to one you could never offer her enough money to equate to the value in her heart.

Life seems to break people into two camps – one influenced by commercial values and the other by powerful emotions hidden out of sight in small number of objects. The former’s value might be what the perceived selling price might project. The latter quietly sits inside someone’s heart paying precious dividends with each encounter.

Another friend recently shared with me about an old watch he was considering having reconditioned. My friend can buy any watch he wants, but this one is different. Decades old, the watch keeps decent time, is not flashy, and reminds him of moments in life he never wants to lose.

“I remember once in the Army we were marching in the dark through water – my hand on the back of the guy ahead of me – and the band gave way and the watch dropped into the murky water,” he said.

He said he reached down into the abyss feeling around in the mud and somehow up came up with the watch. He then told me about the same watch almost disappearing during a paratroop jump, hanging on by a single Velcro thread when he happened to look down at the right moment.

Again, the watch – as a tool to tell time – is replaceable. A watch that can roll back time is priceless.

We all have these in our lives. I keep an old skateboard in my home office that instantly takes me back to the day it arrived in the mail – all the way from California. I’d been skating for a while and saved up to buy a competition-level board. Opening the brown cardboard box with my mom, I placed my nose against the edges as in hopes of somehow capturing a whiff of the mystical air of southern California.

Every time – without fail – I think of that moment I shared in the kitchen with my mom at the age of twelve years old.

My friend says the piano will always be with her. After she is gone, however, she said she does not care what happens to it. That alone underscores her heart and motivations – the value in not locked in the physical but rather the purity that resides deep in her heart.

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Grown Men Do Cry

Grown men generally do not have tears in their eyes at the car wash.

It was the morning after a student shooter took 10 innocent lives at a local high school. Our community – and beyond – was raw from the shattering event. Emotions were shallow and easily accessible for everyone.

“It just goes to show you that you need to tell everyone that you love them each and every day,” he said. His eyes were read, his voice hinting at breaking, and heart broken.

My friend is a remarkable man. Strong, poised, and someone people instinctively want to follow. I feel the same towards him.

The morning sun began to heat the ground and air around us as a few seconds oddly move unnaturally slow. We are both hurting deeply inside and working to process how such a cold-blooded evil came to our community. Words begin to fail us and a handshake feels inadequate. Instead we hug.

The world changes when something like this comes to town. Being a coastal community we are somewhat prepared for Mother Nature to occasionally visit and bring with her flooding, winds, and periodically a full-on hurricane. And many times there is a loss of life.

But a student taking innocent lives inside the confines of a classroom is a much different emotion for us. Not that lives lost to Mother Nature are any less valuable than those lost in the classroom, but each day we expect the former to occur in our community; the latter happens somewhere else. Or so we believed.

My friend and I easily talk when together – local business, community developments, and family. We both share a drive to help our communities and those who call them home. When Mother Nature comes to town, my friend is always one of the first to step forward to help others put their lives back together.

Only this time all we can do is pray.

I consider myself blessed to live in a community where so many people are willing to step forward and do all they can to help others. I’m told that is a part of living along the coast – after a storm hits and you find yourself down and out, you never know who’s hand will be reaching down to help you back up off the ground. Coastal DNA so to say.

But standing in the parking lot of a car wash the school shooting has put all of us in an unfamiliar space. We hurt, we want to help, but we’ve never been in this place before. The shooter has trumped Mother Nature.

We let our embrace slowly evaporate and we look each other in they eyes.

“All we can do now is pray,” he said.

And with that there was nothing more for us to say. We part and wipe away any traces of tears around our eyes. But the one thing that will remain forever is the pain and feeling of helplessness we shared in the car wash parking lot.

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Mr. Shooter, get help, then help us understand

Mr. Shooter, I am not going to mention your name in relation to the deadly and repulsive event you wrought at Santa Fe High School. You do not deserve this acknowledgment in neither my eyes nor ink.

According to an arrest affidavit, your only non-random actions might have been to avoid shooting certain people so as to leave behind select individuals to tell the first-person story of your reign of terror. Guess what, Mr. Shooter, not going to happen in this column.

The only thing you deserve at this point is to live the rest of your life with a number attached. The crimes you are accused of are on an inhuman scale and I refuse to dignify you by using your birth name at this point.

I pray to God you get help. I even pray you one day wake up from what dangerous and delusional fog that accompanied you Friday to fully appreciate the irreversible and irreparable damage you have inflicted on individuals, families and communities across this nation.

That day, I promise, will be more painful than anything the justice system can place on you.

Look, I get it. You are not going to read this column but that does not mean these words should go unsaid. The sequence of events you put in place led people down a road of anger, confusion and slow, yet painful, healing.

For the record, I am like most in this community and woke up Saturday praying the day before had been a bad dream. I cannot tell you how painful the moment was when I realized otherwise.

Yes, you changed the world — but not for the better. You will forever be remembered as an individual whose biggest contribution was to bring great pain, carnage and evil into a place of peace. You really didn’t need anyone to tell your story — you wrote yours in blood.

I believe in God and that Jesus Christ is my savior. I have already and will continue to pray for you as well as all of those affected by your actions Friday morning. Your shooting does not remove me from being a human being with a deep love for others in this world.

Nor am I judgmental in life. I am accepting of others and their differences in beliefs, interests and ways of life. This is a big, blue planet and we all bring something to the table. That is with the exception of when the goal is to bring harm or do harm to others. The more innocent, the more heinous the value of the action. Well, maybe this week you finally made it to the top of one list.

I pray you get help. I hope you accept that help. Also, help us as a society understand what drives an individual to such a dark and lonely place. Believe it or not, there are lots of people who would have listened, helped and offered you a pathway back — many closer than you think.

You want a legacy? How about starting with helping us better understand and identify ways to keep this from happening again.

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  • The Daily News, Sunday May 21, 2018