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

Desert Town Lives On Own Terms

No one ends up in Terilingua, Texas by accident.

Regardless of how many miles accumulate on the dashboard odometer, the town is a million miles away from the modern world. Terilingua is desert town doing a slow dance with the powerful grip of nature in one direction and while people searching for a brief reprise from an overly connected world pull from another. Instinctively you find yourself rooting for the former.

“By Terilingua standards I am well off,” said a man with bottle-dark hair leaning from a barstool in the fabled Starlight Theater. His words are both truthful and ironic.

The desert town, now only a generation or two from being abandoned by the world when the mining business dried up, still proudly wears the scars of time. Adobe and stone housing shells no larger than a backyard shed dot the landscape – some more recognizable than others. Whiles most have crumbled under the benevolent care of Mother Nature, others are slowing returning to life as small rentals for those exploring nearby Big Bend National Park.

Terilingua is an honest-to-God ghost town brought back to life – that is in relative terms. And those terms are completely at the discretion of local residents. Even the paved roads seem added more as a convenience to visitors than to locals where four-wheel trucks are as common as rattlesnakes.

While the nearest Starbucks is safely located hundreds of miles away, a small shed of a building serves coffee to both locals and guests. The ordering area generously allows room for three close friends to stand tightly next to each other. Outside picnic tables and a half-dozen or so small tables and chairs populate the space beneath sun-shading canopies.

The man at the bar continues to talk to a pair of women who obviously reside in a zip code far away. Shorts and shirt with a collar make him one of the best-dressed people in the restaurant. He could be selling real estate or himself – but here you never know.

And no matter how much the outer world tries to creep in, Terilingua remains a dusty town true to its roots. Outside on a bench sit four men each with a six-pack of beer between them. I overhear them debating if it is proper to pour the remains of one beer into a fresh one in order to cool it off. The problems of the world I know remain far away from the front porch.

There is a special kind of quiet in Terilingua. One where the soundtrack features birds excitedly talking back and forth, dust kicking up from the ground from a nomad wind, and being able to hear the hum of an overhead electrical wire from 50 yards away. It is quiet, but like everything else in this place, on Terilingua’s terms.

The truth is if rusty metal cans and white dust were valuable commodities, Terilingua would be a boomtown. But they are not – and to those who love Terilingua, this is perfectly fine.

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Abandoned miner’s cabin at sunrise. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Learning To Be Ourselves Threatened

Real life is getting less real every day.

Somehow the so-called reality shows or social media personalities have successfully skewed a generation of people’s view of what is, well, real. And for that, I am concerned.

Today’s world is an odd mix of media obsession – one where it seems better to be a part of the noise than on the outside looking in. With Facebook, Instagram, and other on-demand tools, we can share without meaningful context, any moment in our life. Contributors control the message, the volume, and the anticipated response by the receiver. Essentially narcissism run wild.

I often find myself wondering what American psychologist Abraham Maslow would say.

For those who may be rusty on his career-defining work, appropriately titled Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, the pathway he described traces from the basic levels of needs (physiological) to one of fully formed independence (self-actualization). While the former includes basics such as air, water, and shelter, the road builds upon others such as safety and social belongingness. But it is here – after only three steps through the five tiers – I am progressively worried. The next step, titled self-esteem, is not only under great threat, but if undeveloped, will keep one from reaching the top tier of self-actualization – the place where we become confident, balanced, and resilient to anything the world can throw our way.

Today’s narcissism is a needle to the arm of an addict delivering an instant yet hollow high on demand. Imagine the benefit you get from eating cotton candy you get the idea. Swinging emotions and rotting teeth.

Previous generations needed to work through each of these levels based on real life experiences. Two steps forward, one step back. Repeat. Over time we built our life based on comparing ourselves to not those on a social media feed but the man or woman in the mirror. The journey of building confidence and acceptance runs right through a road filled with jarring potholes and occasionally dark detours.

But with each chapter, another solid paver was added to our pathway towards self-actualization. And when we arrived, we recognized it from the inside, not someone on the outside passing judgment. We were, self-actualized, comfortable in our skin, and resistant to the influences of others or the outside world.

What we are seeing today is a life dangerously careening down a road where our self-assessments are replaced by those of others – where we become more trusting and dependent on the opinions of others than ourselves. And by doing so we become highly susceptible to untrue influences, actions unmoored by principles, and making decisions more consistent with receiving the acceptance of others than from within.

What I worry is about a generation of people who, stunted by the overwhelming peer pressure of social media or reality-based lives, will find reaching the top of Maslow’s important hierarchy nearly impossible. And it is there, at the top of figurative mountain where we find self-actualization, we are able see more clearly the possibilities of life.

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Banana Spreads Seeds of Humanity

Glancing at the side driver’s rear view mirror, I noticed a yellow banana sitting on the mirror of the pickup truck behind me. The light ahead remained red and I found myself watching the image.

Bananas may grow on trees, but the gesture behind the banana reminded me of the hidden acts of kindness in the world.

Looking to my center rearview mirror the lights on the white pickup truck behind me flashed on and off – repeating the pattern twice. Knowing I was sitting in bumper-to-bumper traffic, I didn’t know what the driver was trying to communicate.

Then the banana’s purpose came into focus.

A man, walking against traffic, passed my driver’s side window. Stopping at the truck behind me, he gratefully accepted the banana from the man in the truck and a few dollars passed. They briefly spoke and shared a smile.

It is moments like this that remind me the world is going to be okay, that good is waiting to get out and make a difference.

This can be a rather self-centered world. Social media feeds our thirst to put ourselves in the center of the universe, society fawns over celebrities who are famous for simply being famous, and we dismiss tragedies with the casual thumb stroke on a the newsfeed of our cell phone screens.

Fortunately there are still people who look outward, stubbornly focusing on others in the word around them. It may seem old fashioned to some, but our instinctive kindness to others is what the world needs most now.

For days now I have not been able to shake the image of the yellow banana in the rear view mirror and the hand reaching from out of view to accepted it. Behind the exchange was a beautiful under-the-radar moment of humanity. I feel as if God wanted me to see this as a reminder that I, too, can make a positive difference in the world around me with most humble of actions.

You do not have to be a billionaire to change the world. Most of us have been blessed with more material items than we can ever use of need. If you don’t believe this open a random closet in your home. For most, we’ll find shirts we’ve not worn in a year, shoes that have not left the house in months, and a scarf we are saving for the one day a cold front that never arrives. But for the most part, the items sit under our roof taking up space and not doing anyone any good.

I read of how in cities people will take old winter coats and tie the arms together around a utility pole for someone in need to take. The gesture is painless and heartfelt. A cold night can mean life or death to someone living on the streets.

The light changed, the banana gone, and I pulled forward. The fruit, however, planted a seed to never forget to make a difference in the world.

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