Time Traveler Tells Tall Tales

Once upon a time, in a world close to us all, people did not carry cellphones.

“What do you mean?” said the driver as we drove along the interstate south of Atlanta.

Quickly sliding past the passenger side window is the 1996 Olympic Stadium turned Turner Field turned Georgia State University stadium. Red bricks and green metal project upward making a shadowy silhouette between our grey four-door and the orange sunrise.

I’ve told the driver I was inside the stadium watching a track and field event the night the bombing at Centennial Olympic Park.

The driver is asking what happened in the minutes following the explosion, which in reality, was a mile or so from the stadium.

“I never knew it happened until I got home,” I said.

“What? Was your wife freaked out when you didn’t call her?”

I explained this we before everyone carried a cell phone and our pants legs would vibrate with every news alert. In 1996 we were living in the moment without the help of the world calling us or social media siphoning away our attention spans.

The driver is quiet. I can see him attempting to solve a puzzle in the air between him and windshield. My backseat math puts him at in his early 20’s.

“So how did you let your wife know you were okay?”

“When I walked through the door at two in the morning,” I said.

The driver shakes his head. He is a good young man. His generation knows no differently than a life where the world feeds through a cell phone and into our lives with the fury of an open firehose. I feel my age quietly advance a year or two as the stadium fades into a blur of cement overpasses.

Our conversation migrates to email and fax machines. I begin to worry the driver may feel he collected a time traveler at the airport curb – one filling his cabin with stories of a mysterious universe. A place where people we disconnected from each another, alone in their thoughts most of the day, and left to their survival skills.

The driver is an intelligent young man. His mind is artful, curious, and sincerely trying to figure out how he might survive such a dystopian world bubbling up from the backseat of his car.

I tell him of life before email, describing how we would send business contracts to each other in the mail. I say it might take a week or two to arrive on one end, be signed, and then mailed back. His head shakes in disbelief. I’m willing to bet he doesn’t even own a book of stamps.

In ways, I guess I am a time traveler, someone who brings mind-bending stories challenging the listener to separate the truth from absurd fantasy. Only I’m not crazy. I know of a world without incessant communication, one where although the planet rotates at the same speed, life itself was slower. And for some odd reason, I miss it.

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Life Filled With Curveballs, Knuckleballs

One of my favorite lines is “if you want to hear God laugh, tell him your plans.”

Too often we make the mistake of believing we are in total control of our lives, that if we carefully plot a dotted line and follow along, we will arrive precisely at a predetermined destination. Life, we like to tell ourselves, is a linear equation.

Then it isn’t.

Recently my daughter, after planning of her college timeline, found out firsthand how life can throw you a curveball. In her case, she saw an especially nasty knuckleball arriving over the home plate.

She’s not alone. Unexpected life changes happen to a lot of people. And learning to deal with unforeseen changes is a part of life. One day we learn to appreciate we are only in so much control of our lives. How we deal with the changes, however, determines what happens next.

The doctors have told our daughter she is going to have to live life on a different pathway going forward. Not a dead-end road, but one where her choices will be more complicated and requiring making more educated decisions about her health. Life, but different.

But the good news is how our daughter is embracing this as a challenge, a medical condition she is completely throwing herself into, learning and consuming large amounts of complicated information in a short window. For some reason, God selected her to place on this pathway, apparently believing she is the right person for the journey. No victim here – she is merely figuring out what the best road forward will be to her.

In football, the quarterback after looking at the defensive alignment makes what is called an audible – that is changing the plan to adapt to the circumstances. Doing so allows his team an opportunity to make the best of the situation in front of them. And as in life, learning to call an audible is a critical skill. Nothing is forever nor is will circumstances play out exactly what we expect. Life requires both strength and flexibility. Being upset by changes beyond our control is nothing but a fruitless fit of wasted energy.

Maturity comes in lots of shapes and forms. Learning to successfully deal with both good and bad news and appreciating we are only in control of life to a certain degree all contribute to our to maturity. We can set up all the plans we wish, but we must always be aware life can change in an instant.

I believe we are caretakers of our life and those around us. And in life, my responsibility is to work to live my life and serve others to the best of my abilities. But I also understand God has a plan for everyone – including me and those around me. To expect a steady diet of easy-to-time fastballs is unrealistic. My job is to take care of the daily details but always be ready for the knuckleball.

And as for my daughter, I am confident she will hit this one out of the park.

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City Of Dreams Comes With Baggage

“I can’t tell you how many people I’ve driven to the airport without luggage and they said they had to get out of this town.”

The man behind the wheel is a part-time limo chauffeur, part-time Uber driver, and part-time front seat philosopher. Las Vegas is his town, his canvas.

“Been here 30-years now,” he says.

His voice is harsh, his Michigan accent nearly bleached from his words.

He tells me he has done a lot of things in life, much like the landscape rushing outside the tinted windows of his car. Driven celebrities, worked as a casino dealer, and helped people get people their life right.

“The single most important skill to living in Las Vegas comes down one thing – self-control,” he says. “Everything you could ever want or fantasize about is available to you 24/7. Without self-discipline, Vegas will eat you alive.”

He tells me about his days running a casino blackjack table.

“You learn to read people, and not just cards,” he says. “I can clearly remember the look on someone’s face when I flip down the winning card for the house and their face suddenly changes – instantly telling me they are playing with their bill-paying money.”

He slowly shakes his head. He’s a good man with a good heart.

The landscape outside the window changes. He tells me about the history of the community going past, of how the eccentric millionaire aviator Howard Hughes bought the once raw desert land for practically nothing and named the area after his mother’s maiden name. Today a sea of mansions and tech hubs sit atop the former sandy dessert scrub. As the driver said, anything is possible in Las Vegas.

I think about what I’ve seen in my first few hours in Las Vegas. Slot machines lining the walls as I walk off the morning flight, rolling billboards on the backs of flatbed trucks pumping out music and smoke to promote a show, and girls dressed in more feathers than fabric. People walking the streets with open beers, every language of the world filling the air, and people taking selfies in front of iconic neon signs. And my watch declares it is still breakfast time.

“Yeah, this place can eat you alive. I’ve known so very talented and successful people who just had to pick up and move out of Las Vegas because they couldn’t resist the temptations.”

I picture the driver pulling up to the curb at the airport, the door swinging open, and out stepping a beaten soul preparing to board a flight with only the clothes on their back. Unfortunately, my driver does not have to imagine this picture as he’d delivered too many to catch the flight out of town.

The driver unapologetically loves his adopted city. While Detroit is decades in the past, he came to Las Vegas to chase his dreams. And in the city of dreams – or fantasy – he’s done just that. And along the way, he’s helped others find their way home.

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Big Lessons Discovered in Small Store

My life changed forever inside the walls of a Payless Shoe Source.

Last week the small-but-mighty chain of shoe stores from Topeka, Kansas announced the closing of its 2,100 stores. Known for affordable footwear, you could always find a pair of shoes to keep your toes dry and a leave a few dollars in your pocket.

But it wasn’t the knock-off Sperry boat shoes that changed my life – it was the job as a shoe clerk inside the modest building that changed my life.

I was in college and needed a job. Payless needed a clerk. Not exactly a match made in heaven, but a job nonetheless.

Back then the school posted jobs on a bulletin board on note cards. When you ran across one you were interested in, you pried out the thumbtack and carried the blue card around the corner to the job placement department. The lady at a small desk picked up the phone and arranged an interview.

After a career of typical high school jobs of making pizzas and dropping chicken into vats of boiling grease, my job application probably did not knock the store manager out of his shoe-fitting stool. But for some reason, the manager gave me a shot.

Gordon was an interesting man. With his oversized-plastic glasses continually sliding down his nose, Gordon was what we called a Shoe Dog. Unpacking cardboard shipping boxes and carefully arranging each pair of shoes into a precise order along the half-dozen rows was his kingdom.

But there was more. Gordon taught me to sell.

“Walk up to the customer, greet them, and offer to help them find something.”

He made it sound so simple and effortless. But for me, it was terrifying.

First time I was left alone in the store I almost threw up in the backroom toilet.

One day I remember hearing a lady with her small daughter on the next row looking for a pair of shoes for Easter. With my back against a row of men’s work boots, my stomach began heaving, and a wave of sweat washed over me like I was back shoving pizzas in a stone oven. I took a deep breath and forced myself around the corner offering to help.

I don’t know if I sold a pair of shoes that day. But I do know I relived the same physical and emotional nightmare repeatedly until it one day, curiously, it faded away into the background.

Soon I learned the art of meeting strangers, discovering common ground, and finding a way to help them along the way. And to my surprise, this rewarding and empowering lesson altered the course of my life for the better.

Today whenever I find myself facing an intimidating or stressful situation, I always remember standing with my back up against the wall of boots sweating and panting – trying to break free from the chains of self-doubt. And then suddenly, I know whatever is on the other side isn’t so scary after all.

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Life Changes Lanes Abruptly 

My nerves feel as if my fingertips are being dragged across a rough piece of 40-grit piece of sandpaper.

Sniffles are dripping through the receiver of my cell phone.

“They are going to take me into surgery next,” says the voice.

Our daughter is strong, confident, and driven. But she’s also human. Being wheeled into an operating room is enough to shake even toughest of exteriors.

The day began as another Friday; not a day she would end up in the hospital.

I am sitting on a sofa 800 miles from my little girl – the same one who turned 24 a month ago. My wife, too, is on the other side, sitting on a tarmac waiting for the plane to unload. She’s still an hour’s cab ride away from holding our daughter’s hand.

As a parent, there is nothing you won’t do or give up for your children. And if a bottle of magic dust existed that would allow me to trade places with my daughter right now, I would gladly hand over a ransom.

I don’t need to see tears to know they are dripping down her cheeks, my heart hears them clearly.

The doctor has come and gone. Our daughter knows what is ahead. But knowing does not dilute the unknown.

I tell her I love her and that everything is going to be all right. I say I wish I could gently hold her in my arms.

Muffling sounds come from the other side.

“Someone is here. I need to go,” she says.

I discover an invisible force pushing back against my finger as it hovers above the glowing red button on the screen. Mercifully, the other end goes quiet.

My wife texts she is in a cab. It is raining. The driver says an hour.

Earlier today a friend told me of the birth of his first granddaughter and how he was given the honor to cut the umbilical cord. His words carried me back to a small hospital in western Pennsylvania when my daughter decided to arrive on a day Mother Nature decided to dust the landscape in white. I cut the cord that day as well. As much as I feel the memory is from yesterday, I know she is an adult, the time between dissipating into a mist of memories.

My phone dings from the kitchen counter. The doctor is going to hold for 10-minutes for my wife to arrive.

Twenty minutes later the map on my phone shows my wife is at the hospital. A text arrives saying the doctor’s held for my wife. I thank God – literally.

For the next several hours I catch snippets of sleep with the phone planted in my hand. A call comes each hour to share an update. Finally, a text says our daughter is headed for a room.

My wife calls. I know where my daughter gets her strength. Tears meet across the digital spectrum between us.

And now, as a family, we move forward.

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Cell Phone Stolen By Uninvited Callers

Someone has stolen my cell phone. And the odd thing is, the little black device the size of a perfect skipping rock is sitting next to me.

My cell phone constantly rings, converted into a de facto dumping ground for robot dialing, trespassing telemarketers. I’m not sure how this happened. I did not invite them into my private space and I wish they would go away.

My cell phone is a private space. From the home screen with a photo taken while my wife and I stood along the Pacific Ocean one chilly February afternoon to the Kenny Chesney music stored away for when I need a cool breeze of relief from the 40-grit sandpaper day. My cell phone is also home to strings of group text messages from my son, daughter, and wife – each dripping with the loving sarcasm only a family can deliver.

My cellphone is my personal and deeply intimate world. And I want my privacy back.

When I was a kid, a beige telephone hung from the wall in the kitchen. With a pigtail cord, you could walk clear over to the stove but not much further. And when the muffled but ear-piercing bells rang, you would run from wherever in the house you might be. After all, it might be long-distance.

But as much as we respected our telephone, we also viewed it as something akin to a public utility – much like the electricity running through the walls or the water dripping from the faucet over the kitchen sink.

I remember when telemarketers would interrupt our family dinnertime, and the caller would be lucky enough to get my dad on the line. He’d listen for a few moments like a cat waiting calmly for a few moments for its prey to drop down its defenses. And then my dad would spring in for the kill.

“Is this one of those damn recordings?”

On the other side of the call you could hear the pitch jaggedly interrupted, a bit of hemming and hawing, and then, sensing his moment, my dad would throw down his theatrically delivered closing line.

“Sorry, I don’t buy from people I don’t know and call me on the phone.”

And without another word, he would calmly replace the handset – many times with the voice on the other end trying to restart their pitch – as if nothing ever happened.

Today my cell phone lights up all day with the names of cities I’ve never visited and area codes I don’t recognize.

There was a time I loved my cell phone. To me, it represented the ultimate in privacy and convenience. I could drop off the face of the world and be back in a moment if need be.

But today my cell phone is the bane of my existence – now the 40-grit sandpaper of my life. Robot-calling thieves have stolen a private and valuable space. And with each passing day, this little device looks more and more like a perfect skipping rock.

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Technology invades daily life

“I feel like a 90-year-old man trapped in the future.”

My friend and I are standing in a hotel where so much technology is baked into the place you would swear you were standing in the cargo bay of Stanley Kubrick’s classic movie “2001: A Space Odyssey.”

We are not in the future, but rather a mainstream hotel off a generic highway exit 30 minutes north of Fort Worth. Blink and you would miss it.

“I can’t even figure out how to turn the lights on and off in my room,” he says.

There are moments when we realize the world is relentlessly marching forward, leaving us increasingly behind, holding on by only our fingertips.

We have everything from doorbells that double as video cameras to small connected devices on the kitchen counter capable of making a new television arrive on our doorstep the next day.

All of this, however, can leave some, like my friend, standing in the technological dark fumbling to turn on the lights.

My friend was not alone in over-connected funk.

“Why does my mirror in the bathroom have a power button and Bluetooth,” said another.

Technology is our friend. But when it becomes a friction point, we should ask ourselves are we going too far.

Pining is an old-fashioned phrase of when one romantically longs for the simpler days of when what you got was what you saw. I’ve never used the phrase — until now.

The standard room greets me with an iPad device to adjust the temperature, brighten and dim lights, and speakers built into the mirrors. My keycard is required to operate the elevator, and I won’t be surprised if they ask me for my Amazon password when I go to check out. I can feel my fingernails coming into play.

I pine for a key that fits in a slot to open my door. I pine for a light switch I can feel with my hand as I fumble across the room in the dark. And I pine for a mirror that does one thing well — let me know whether my shirt is tucked in before I head out the door.

I pine for a rental car that does not ask my name, ask to connect to my cell phone and requires the keys to be stuck into the dashboard.

My friend shakes his head as we get ready to part. His frustration reminds me of the time my 90-year-old dad traded in his flip phone for an iPhone.

“I want to talk to the Google,” he said.

Holding it in his hand like a delicate flower, he stared at it wondering where to begin.

The same feeling came over me holding the small touch-screen in the hotel room. I did not know where to start, what to do or how to get something to happen. I was, pardon the pun, left standing in the dark.

All I could do was walk back in the elevator and ask HAL to open the pod doors.

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Burnt Toast Tastes Like Heaven

Nothing brings back the tasty memories of a home-cooked meal than the distinctive sound of a dull butter knife scraping across the face of blackened toast while being held over a kitchen sink.

My mother, God rest her soul, was not a natural born chef in the kitchen. She possessed, as they say, other important qualities. As a child, you tend to expect the outside world to be similar to the one you grow up with at home. The sights, the sounds, and for me the more-often-than-not morning toast blackened with love.

American food was genuinely foreign to her. Emigrating from Scotland as a 21-year old adult, she left behind a menu of curious dishes so exotic and unusual the rest of the civilized world decided never to adopt. Food served in a sheep’s stomach, steak and kidney pie, and heavily salted and dried fish.

Unfortunately, my mom would occasionally get a bit emotionally weepy for her homeland and put some old world dishes on the kitchen table. And to our American taste buds, the ones already inducted into the world of salty fast food, her dishes tasted as bland as chewing notebook paper from a three-ring binder.

Toast, however, was a regular staple in our home. Breakfast, lunch, dinner. Only as an adult did I recognize my mother employed a loaf of bread and stainless steel toaster like her own personal Swiss Army knife.

Toast and oatmeal for breakfast, a piece of toast with a slice of American cheese layered on top of a spread of butter for lunch, and a peculiar imported dish consisting of a boiling pot of grated cheddar cheese, odd spices, and half a can of beer mixed in while cooking.

Don’t get me wrong; my mother could work her way around the kitchen. We never starved as a family. But we did, at times, tilt our heads a bit sideways like a dog picking up an far away whistle. And then we would dive in.

But the truth is my mother’s best servings at the kitchen tables came in the form of long one-on-one conversations. Across the circular wooden table, she drew us into first-person stories of her waking up in the morning to seeing a nearby house – the one her friend lived – flattened from an overnight German bombing raid. Or helping put together a jigsaw puzzle, one with the United States on one side, the countries of the world on the other. From there she would hold a piece and transport us with tales of different worlds and enchanting ways of life. And then there was the morning she announced the Beatles were breaking up.

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This week I heard the sound of burnt toast being gently scraped by a butter knife above our kitchen sink at home. My wife rarely burns toast and feels embarrassed each time. What I don’t think she realizes though is how the staccato sound of a butter knife scraping across a piece of blackened bread is music to my ears.

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Choices Determine Your Average

How can it be we are all average, but none of us are the same?

In what seems like a clever riddle, the answer is rooted more in the outcome of our choices than our circumstances.

Motivational speaker Jim Rohn is credited with saying that we are the average of the five people we spend the most time with. And while some debate the point, the logic is difficult to completely dismiss by looking around us. Daily life is full of examples difficult to ignore.

What Rohn means is we tend to hang around those who inspire, shape, and emotionally reward us. This can be good and bad. Good choices elevate you; poor choices push you down or hold you back.

Rohn didn’t have to crack a secret code to land on this conclusion. Culture is populated picked with witty phrases supporting this conclusion. Misery loves company. Winners hang with winners. Birds of a feather, flock together (my mother’s favorite).

Again, Rohn’s logic is designed to reinforce how our decisions impact our outcomes. We are in control and not some mysterious force lurking behind a bush in the mist.

As I’ve over five decades under my belt, I gave myself a bit of self-examination through the lens of Rohn’s now famous phrase. And surprisingly, I found his words held water in my life.

When I was in school, hanging out with those who were more interested in cutting class and challenged the value of school, set an inherently low bar. And in my gut, it never felt right. Soon afterward I was peeling away people with whom I questioned didn’t line up with like removing layers from an onion.

But when rebuilt my circle with people where more interested performing well in any task placed before them, my personal performance moved upward. My new circle fed my both my emotional and psychological hunger. And my life changed dramatically for the better.

Interestingly, this is an ongoing process. Along the way, you might pick up a spouse and a few friends. And due to careers or family changes, many will come and go. But in the end, you find yourself more carefully selecting with whom you spend your time.

We’ve all repeatedly performed the peeling of the onion exercise in life. But do we do it with purpose? Do we craft our choices to feed the hunger, thirst, and emotional needs we hold? Or do we simply remain holding onto the past, fearful to let go of non-nourishing relationships?

I love my friends. And my best friends are nothing short of an eclectic mix of interests, personalities, and pathways in life. But they do share certain core values important to me – thus feeding my emotional needs. All are highly curious and respectful of the world. They are also deeply honest and committed to their friends and family. And they all smile easily laugh deeply, and love life like it was going out of supply.

And among them, I am proud to be average.

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Lists Help You Mind Your Mind

I am increasingly convinced I am losing my mind.

While one may mistakenly interpret the previous conclusion, the hard facts are no longer debatable. The noises residing inside my head are taking over. And my only defense seems to be the noble act of making lists.

Yes, lists. Picture independent entries hand-written on a scrap piece of paper. Literally, an analog solution resurrected in a digital world.

Entries are brief, and to the point, ominously beckoning to cross them out, putting them out of their misery. No entry wants to be left behind.

The noises in my head are not imagined. Research in 2011 said our brains consume 5 times the information consumed per day than in 1996. Since then I’ve added social media to my life, my cell phone is rarely beyond reach, and there is a crazy device in the house answering my questions. No wonder my brain acts like a bag of microwave popcorn at the one-minute mark – indiscriminately shooting kernels in all directions.

Today I am armed and doing battle against the machine of distraction with a lead pencil and piece of paper. While not glamorous, the old-school solution is changing my life for the better. And the result is I am happier between the ears.

Getting started is easy – find a piece of paper and a writing instrument of choice. I prefer a pencil for the visceral feel of lead on paper. Paper, too, is a personal choice. At home, I am keen to the 3 x 5 lined cards sold in those cellophane packages. Lines make me happy.

The first step is to begin. Put your tools in an open area where you can get to them before a thought is flushed from your brain by an oncoming train of thought. Running is an acceptable tactic when necessary – don’t count on your mind to remember later. Again, this is a battle you must win.

Secondly, reward yourself by crossing out your accomplishment. After stroking through the letters, step back and let the moment wash over you. You’ve earned your victory – and freed up brain space.

Third, come to terms with your new friend. Commit to the long-term with your new friend, understanding your shared dependency will make you a happier person. The simple acceptance and practice will dramatically reduce the number of haunting moments – the ones where you get home from the grocery store and realize you forgot the item you initially set off to get.

I love my lists. I now manage my work life with a small journal, keep my weekend list on 3 x 5 cards. And I only write in pencil. And nothing feels better than looking at a long list with dark graphite scratched horizontally across each entry.

My brain might be getting taxed. I may be reaching the limits of ability to effectively process massive amounts of sensory input. But so long as I have a pencil and paper, I’ll be able to hold onto my mind.

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