Desert Town Picks New Residents

A young man wearing a protective black bandanna walks across the restaurant to take our order. My wife and I are in a once-bustling mining community in western Texas; now, a locally claimed ghost town. A quick look at the chalk on your shoes and sun blistered desert basin, and you easily extend the town the benefit of the doubt.

The waiter is polite and happy to see us come inside.

Brisket tacos served with a side of cold beer in an aluminum can are on the menu.

Life is hard on the desert – harder if you can’t come to terms with yourself and your surroundings.

The young man mentions he moved from Houston to this corner of the universe, one with fewer actual residents than parking spots at a Walmart.

I ask how he picked Terilingua for his new home.

“You don’t pick Terlingua, Terlingua picks you.”

His words, intentionally or not, resonate with confidence.

“I moved out here about a year ago,” he said. “Best decision of my life.”

Pausing, words of love for his new home flow out like a bottomless bowl of chips and salsa.

“You learn to adjust out here. Things I thought I needed back there, I don’t need out here. I’ve friends back in the city, hustling and struggling. Here, we are a community where everyone knows and helps each other. I have everything I truly need.”

He tells me life as hard as the Coronavirus is impacting local businesses, but he is learning to do with less and remains self-sufficient.

“I haven’t had to take a dime from the government,” he says.

The front door creaks open, flooding the room with blinding white. Instinctively, we look away as another couple comes inside.

 “You learn to appreciate simple things – like water,” he says. “You recapture water, use when you need – and not when you don’t.”

He tugs at his shirt.

“If you don’t need to shower each day, you don’t – and it makes a difference.”

The restaurant is quiet, and the tables spaced apart, allowing guests to dine within Coronavirus restrictions guidelines. In years past, tables and guests were elbowed to elbow both inside and out. If life in this corner of the world was hard before the arrival of the pandemic, you don’t need to look too far past the now silent businesses now representing a twisted version of modern ghosts.

“You learn to look at everything differently,” he says. “Like after you use something to take a moment and ask if there might be another way to use it afterward. You don’t just to toss things away.”

I think about his words and how he is learning – or unlearning – to adapt to his new world. The water here is regularly captured from the sky, abandoned auto parts welded into sculptures, and shards of shattered limestone become walls.

The waiter returns with brisket tacos and cold beer.

As he walks away, I can’t help but feel like he is, indeed, home.

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Learning To Play The Right Game Important

Learning to get out of my way changed everything.

I am a big believer in karma, humility and appreciate the flow of the universe. Arriving at the understanding, I am only a bit player in a much bigger story that proved a life-changing experience. Call it ‘getting religion’ or finding enlightenment, but arriving at this point in life became a gamechanger.

Youth brings a wagonful of conflicting emotions and underdeveloped instincts. Some useful, others dangerous. In our discovery, we can fall under the spell of telling ourselves there is no such thing as too much of a good thing.

But fortunately, life is rather stubborn. Bigger, stronger, and immune to the petulant demands of our youthful wants, life moves on without hesitation. The secret is to learn not to allow our selfishness to get in the way.

I remember decades ago when the markers of adulthood were seemingly defined in significant part by the accumulation of material objects. The right emblem on a car, the hot logo on a shirt, or even the overbuilt neighborhood indicated the achievement of success. Happiness was measured by playing a fancy – and expensive – a game of picture bingo.

Big house, cross off the picture. Luxury nameplate on your car, mark off another. Second-home – mark off another! Five across, and you’re a winner!

But one day, you realize this is a game of fool’s gold. And if COVID teaches us anything, it is material objects pale in comparison to one’s health. Yes, you can have four across, but if you are on a ventilator, nothing is more valuble than healthcare workers risking their lives to save yours.

At this point in my life, the world consistently demonstrates when we become too inwardly focused, a slap is coming our way. My mother used to warn, “don’t get too full of yourself; coming down is hard.” And she was right.

Years ago, my life crossed paths with a remarkable man decades a half-century my senior. I’d stop by his office periodically. Ten minutes or an hour, our conversations would wander the rich landscape of life. And regardless of how many zeros lined his bank account (many), he always focused on first being a good person.

Take care of others, take care of your family, and take care of yourself, he said.

He told me the true measure of life is what people know and think about you as you stroll the sidewalk. Are you someone they recognize as generous to others, caring for strangers, and always willing to help? Or are you someone they can only project on based on your outwardly material objects. It was then I understood he played a different game of bingo.

Since then, I’ve tried to stay out of my way and become a person of quality and good character. I openly admit I am imperfect at times come up short. But learning to play by a different game card allows me to understand my role in life better.

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Discovering My COVID-10 Humbling

I went charging into the COVID-19 stay-at-home period like a 5-year old with a tasting spoon at a Baskin-Robbins Ice Shop.

So many choices and ways to reboot my life, alter my values, ramp up my self-improvement activities. I was excited, and the world was my oyster.

Instead, I discovered what I’d call the COVID-10.

Granted, I did read several excellent books and started a new exercise routine, but somehow my version of Kryptonite, ice cream, found a way back into the freezer.

I like to consider myself self-motivated and disciplined. The sun rarely beats me up in the morning, I always return the shopping cart to the corral, and I make a list nearly every day – even weekend. Ice cream, however, melts my willpower into a puddle of goo.

It started innocently. A small scoop after a hard day of pulling weeds in the yard or maybe following an extra-long bike ride. But like all weaknesses, the erosion quickly slipped from an occasional treat to an outright psychological dependency.

Exercising when you are older is a different formula. No matter how far you ride or how long you work out, you can’t seem to outpace cheats. Sometimes I’m riding along and picture an ice cream drumstick with scrawny stick legs running a few paces behind, taunting me all the way.

“You can ride, but you can’t hide,” he says. “I’m going to get you.”

And he’s right. As the sun goes down and I’m unwinding, I hear a distant drumbeat from across the house. It begins slowly.

“Drumstick, drumstick, drumstick…” it says.

Minutes pass, but the noise returns only louder. After half an hour, I’d swear I was the troubled protagonist in Edgar Allen Poe’s classic short story, The Tell-Tale Heart.

“Drumstick, drumstick, drumstick…” the beat continues, growing louder between my ears.

I fidget in my seat, try to refocus on the pages of spy novel I’m reading. Eventually, however, I’m under the hypnotic beat and standing in the middle of the kitchen. As the freezer drawer opens, light spreads across the freeze bin, revealing a cornucopia of artic-temperature treasures. For some reason, the drumsticks seem to draw a few extra rays of light, calling me to them.

I fold.

Moments later, my book cast aside like the cellophane wrapper once protecting the ice cream, I dive in. Guilt must add several tantalizing layers of flavor because the forbidden fruit (ice cream in this case) never tastes as good as that first bite. The second isn’t too bad, either. Rarely do I remember anything beyond that point. 

I’m not alone. I’m hearing from friends about their ways of dealing with self-imposed isolation. The closing of schools, in particular, put some in a new position.

One wrote during the stay-at-home, “don’t judge my recyclables, I’m homeschooling.”

Our battle with COVID is a serious challenge. And while we need to follow medical professionals’ advice, I’m not sure covering your mouth with an ice cream cone is the preferred strategy.

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Masks May Alter Entertainment Forever

COVID-19 is infecting my perception of reality, and I fear I may never recover. 

I now live in a world where watching an old episode of the 90’s television show Friends begs me to wonder where the social distancing is. Or while enjoying the climactic scene in When Harry Met Sally, I ponder why they are not wearing masks. And finally, the opening moments for the Brady Bunch now looks remarkably normal, much like an everyday Zoom conference. 

Who thought the masked criminal Bane from Gotham City would suddenly look, eh, normal? Suddenly Batman looks surprisingly vulnerable with his exposed chin. 

If masks continue to be a needed protective element for an extended period, can we expect producers to add a CGI mask to the upcoming James Bond movie? 

Imagine Daniel Craig sauntering up to the roulette table, and the evil mastermind sits across the playing surface. They exchange the knowing the looks of predators sizing each other up. Craig lights up a cigarette and introduces himself to the players.  

“Name’s Bond, James Bond.”

“What? I can’t hear you through your mask.”

“BOND, JAMES BOND.”

“What? James Blonde? Who has a name like that?

“Bond. B. O. N. D.”“Wayne Bond you said?”

Author Ian Fleming would be spinning in his grave like the license plate of Bond’s trademark Aston Martin DB5 in Goldfinger. 

Imagine being in Hollywood today. How do you manage to put out a product in today’s mask-populated environment? Doing so risks dating scenes like bell bottoms, and long sideburns did for the ’70s. Imagine Thomas Magnum with his trademark mustache hidden behind a coordinated Hawaiian shirt.

Today’s network newscasts are already there. Watching a national news report this week, I noticed all the reporters were wearing protective masks. I appreciate their gesture, but I’m feeling relatively safe watching from my television at home. 

Look, I’m all in wearing a mask, but you must admit getting dressed each day is more challenging. Is my blue mask clean? Will it complement this t-shirt? So many new decisions. 

And in true American fashion, we figured out how to monetized the space for advertising or branding. Somehow it took COVID coming to the shores of the USA for someone to spot an opportunity – a place where people’s eyeballs would be focused and then use the space to drive messaging. God bless the American entrepreneur.  

Who would have thought Birdwell, the maker of generations of board shorts for surfers, would repurpose fabric into making patterned masks? And people would gladly pay top dollars to wear them?

As masks are becoming a fashion item, materials and creative designs are popping up galore. Entire companies are springing up, turning scraps of fabric into immense fortunes. Again, God bless the American entrepreneur.

As for Hollywood, they have their hands full. Imagine the scene where Goldfinger has James Bond, masked up and strapped a table, a laser encroaching closer.

“Goldfinger, I know about operation grand slam.”

“Did he say something?”

Cut to credits. 

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Father’s Day Gets No Respect

Father’s Day is the Rodney Dangerfield of holidays.

Thanksgiving gets a parade, Mardi Gras gets beads, and the Fourth of July gets fireworks.

Father’s Day gets a tie.

Maybe not so much in these COVID-19 work-from-home days, but you get the idea. A tie is tough to pair with grey sweatpants and a wrinkled white t-shirt.

Speaking as a father, becoming one continues to get heavy rotation on my greatest hits or moments in my life. From the day my son first wheeled by past me, his eyes wide open and as stoic as a sack of Rooster potatoes to my daughter proudly announcing her arrival in the delivery room. Electricity could not jolt my soul more.

Being a father is not a biological exercise. Yes, science demands male and female elements fertilize. Genetic or not, being a father is about stepping up into a role versus making a biological connection. And the job description includes love, care, and large quantities of caffeine.

“Don’t worry,” said the nurse changing our son’s first diaper. “They won’t break.”

His legs anchored in her right hand, her left hand slid a drink-sized coaster diaper below him. Her words did little to reassure me. I might as well be wrestling an angry alligator with the shallow level of confidence I carried.

But guess what? Both our kids survived me and my significant shortcomings as one posing as a responsible adult. One time my wife and I played a tennis set before we realized we left our son sleeping in his car seat on top of a green electrical transformer box.

Or when my wife spotted me down the third base line at a minor league baseball game, our daughter dangling upside down from my arm and me reaching out to catch a foul ball. I caught both the ball and hell.

My wife carriers the mom gene. She instinctively knows what to say, when to say it, and when to bring out love. She also knows when to bring down the hammer of discipline with a surgeon’s precision – swift, narrow, and tremendously effective.

Dads use two speeds – neither particularly useful. Overreact or no reaction. Our hammer is more like a horse running around in a hospital, breaking things as it figures out a solution. And I broke a lot of gurneys.

But as humbling as being a father can be, I would not trade the ride for anything. The hand-written cards, the stuffed animals, and the first attempt at cupcakes from an and Easy-Bake Oven are all moments adding deep meaning to my life.

Both our kids are now adults. And remarkably, both are well-adjusted, mature, and genuinely good people from the inside out. I would – and do – trust them with everything. Granted, most of the credit goes to their mom (May’s big holiday), but I like to think I might’ve had the tiniest bit of influence.

As for ties, both have exceptional taste. I’m sure the colors will match my t-shirt just fine.

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When In Doubt, Act Like A Dog

I am convinced dogs are indeed man’s best friend.

My friend is ill. He’s wrestling with challenges capable of melting most of us in our flip-flops. And he never complains, taking life one day and one step at a time.

Sometimes the only thing worse than not knowing is knowing.

But my friend has a dog at his side.

My friend is surrounded by family and people who would eagerly walk across burning coals to help him. Loving, kind, and unique he is. There is no forming mold to break. He is a hand-crafted one of a kind canvas of a living, breathing masterpiece. Life, love, and the drinking in of all of life’s most interesting offerings shaped his unique soul.

But no matter what, his caramel-colored friend is there to share the journey.

Dogs are remarkably intuitive. They see what can’t be seen, feel what can’t be felt, and hear what can’t be said. They are both mystical and real at the same time.

Sitting on my friend’s back porch the other night, his dog invites herself to a cushion. Her head gently drops into my friend’s lap, his hand softly receiving her gift. His thin, long fingers scratch the short hairs between her ears, his words, and attention never distracted. They’ve been doing this so long time neither notices.

Cool summer nights are rare. Like the subtle temperature difference resulting from a few extra ice cubes in your iced tea, you notice. This night Mother Nature is generous.

My friend is good – good in the sense of managing the biggest challenge in his life. He’s collected and rational, exactly like we say we would be – but also admit to ourselves highly unlikely. Confidence is borne internally, birthed from rough roads, broken loves, and repeatedly experiencing the crescendos and dead cat bounces of life.

Taking a deep breath, my friend’s dog settles in for an extended moment. Does she know what is going on in his head, the voice of distraction he hears becoming more vocal each day? Does she know from his touch where his mind wanders?

I like to believe so.

Call it what you will, but God put man and dogs together for a reason. Yes, there is the caveman theory of protection and help chase down wild game, but something other exists. Dogs own a corner in our hearts and souls like no other.

A lull arrives on the back deck, and the night sounds creeping in around us. My friend’s dog offers the slightest of movements, inviting further attention. The long thin fingers unknowingly respond to the silent, shared conversation between them. I’m alone.

When someone you love is in pain, you will do anything to help. Say jump on a flight with an hour’s notice, send them the last shirt you own, or drop off a plate of cookies. In response to the emptiness we feel, actions become our go-to solution.

But sometimes, all we need to do is follow a dog’s lead and be there.

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We Must Move From Platitudes To Progress

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I am not sure what to think or feel. I can’t.

The brutal death of George Floyd leaves me numb, stunned. As much as watching his death triggers revulsion to my core, I recognize I am not equipped to appreciate systemic racism fully. I am a white male born in the 20th century. In some ways, I am an unintentional cog in the cruel machinery perpetuating the condition of systemic racism. History proves silence is every bit as dangerous as physical actions against another.

I am from an immigrant home. Unknownst to me, my skin color would provide me with both opportunities and advantages as I chased my God-given and constitutional rights of the pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness. In my world, if I kept my nose down, worked hard, told the truth, and stayed out of trouble, my efforts would translate into me realizing my dreams.

Our home was wide open and loving. My mother knew she was an outsider and was always welcoming of others. And for us to treat anyone differently was not even on the radar. I never once heard an unkind word uttered about someone’s race, creed, or religion. And I thought that was the way of the world outside our home.

But I was wrong.

As an adult, I learned there was a big ugly world running below the surface. Moving around the country, I began to recognize there were hurtful judgments placed on others for unmerited reasons. And the more I learned, the more I read, the more I realized I could never fully appreciate the pain and injustice. Imagination is a poor translator of the painful reality of systemic racism. To fully understand racism or discrimination, you must be the recipient of the injustice.

I hope and pray the death of George Floyd is a watershed moment for our nation.

In the past several week’s we’ve seen a black man, Ahmaud Arbery, attacked with vicious intent while running along a street in Georgia. He died, I believe, because of his skin color and the prejudices riding shotgun in the pickup truck tailing him.

And the image of George Floyd’s death cannot be unseen.

Floyd was not in custody for a violent crime. Nor was he considered a threat to society. One does not need to connect too many dots to see a picture of systemic racism come into focus. Being black should not be a crime he paid for with his life.

America is better than this. Humanity is better than this.

We need not let this moment pass without making sure platitudes get turned into real progress.

I may not fully appreciate the pain and indignities others experience, but I know enough to listen to others and act on what I see as wrong. I am proud of the peaceful demonstrators. It is time for our society to push forward. Only then will our nation more fully realize the greatness and opportunities written into both our constitution and human DNA.

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Worldly Lessons for Graduates

(Please note, this column originally published several years ago when my son graduated high school. Being as I didn’t write this — the contents are contributed by friends and family and are generally timeless. I hope sharing with yet another class of graduates will prove helpful. Congratulations to the class of 2020.)

With the end of this school year, my son will graduate from high school and move onto another stage in life in which I’ll most likely play a contributing role at best. No longer will we share the day’s events over the dinner table or hang out on the front step talking. My relationship will be transitioning from parent to consultant in many aspects. In the end, the decisions – and results – will be his and his alone.

While I’m accepting of this development, I realize my work will never be complete. There will always g be an urge for a “just one more thing I want to share” moment.

This moment in time brings me to this week’s column. The random lessons below – written in no particular order – are a culmination not only my life but also from those I value in my life: friends and family. On a Wednesday, I posted this idea for a column on Facebook and within hours received contributions from nearly two dozen individuals around the world. And therein lies the credit for the vast and varied wisdom. 

So as yet another high school class approaches graduation, here are a few final thoughts from those who’ve been there.

The “one more thing….” list:

Always put the newest tires on the front of your car. 

Always do your best – especially when you think no one will notice. People do.

Telling the truth is always easier to remember.

When using a wrench: lefty loosey, righty tighty.

Take action when you first think of it – time has a way of getting away from you.

Remember to regularly tell the important people in your life you love them. 

Regardless of what you hear, God does exist and will be there when you need him most. Really.

Change your oil every 3,500 miles and rotate your tires every other time.

The tip of a shoelace is named an anglet.

Being right isn’t always the most important thing in life.

Moderation is usually the best choice.

You’re not likely to be the smartest person in the room – so don’t act like it.

Count to ten before getting angry. It really works.

What goes around, comes around.

Never spend more than you make.

Don’t eat yellow snow.

If you don’t make mistakes, you don’t make anything.

You will experience failure, and the key is always to fail forward…never repeat a failure

Don’t stand up in a canoe.

If it sounds too good to be true, then it probably is.

Never underestimate the power of kindness to make a difference in the lives of others.

Treat everyone like you wish to be treated.

Call your momma.

Don’t take yourself so seriously. No one else does.

Learn to laugh at yourself.

Your beliefs determine your actions; think seriously about what you believe.

Always expect others can change; it is what you would want others to believe of you as well.

You are entitled to your opinion; the world is not obligated to hear it.

If you think you can or you think you can’t – you’re probably right.

You want it, earn it.

Remember you to listen more than you speak – that’s why you have two ears and only one mouth.

Everything is sales. EVERYTHING.

Learn how to prioritize.

Great love and great achievements involve risks.

God first, others second, me third. A hard one but true. 

Believe “failure is not an option,” and you will be a success at everything.

Worry is like a rocking chair: it takes up a lot of energy and doesn’t get anywhere.

No man ever lay on his deathbed wishing he’d spent more time at the office.

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Invest In Your Local Businesses

I hope you are shopping locally whenever possible.

COVID-19 is rewriting the rules for nearly every aspect of our lives. Until a vaccine is developed and widely distributed, we are all in a brand new world. Until then, elementary classrooms will not fill with dozens of students. We won’t be elbowing up to the stage at a concert, and squeezing into the tiny middle seat of an airplane will make us feel strangely threatened.

But we need to make sure we do not lose our connection to the local businesses making up the threads of our community. Doing so could leave this critical fabric in tatters.

While large corporations get the glamor and attention when courting a local community, small businesses quietly go about their activities. No glitz, no massive tax breaks. I would bet if you step out your front door, you can toss a rock into the yard of someone either owning or working for a small business. I know I can.

My wife and I are slowing getting back out as local businesses struggle to reopen. We are both careful and cautious but know we are ultimately responsible for our health. Strangely, a face mask hanging from the rearview mirror of our cars is becoming the norm.

Today, as so many local businesses – and by direct relation, neighbors – struggle to regain financial footing, look at your choice of shopping as an investment. When you have a choice, make it local. Invest with the businesses you know whose roots are firmly grounded in your community with blood, sweat, and tears.

As local restaurants began to reopen, my wife and I sought out specific favorites of ours to visit. The driving factor? We wanted to support those we did not want to disappear from our community and lives. Previously our modest dinner might not have made the difference between them being open, but now, it just might. And that would hurt our community.

The other day I needed a can of spray paint. I had three choices – online, a mega store, or one where the store owner lives locally. Doing so, in small part, ensures he will continue to operate his business, hire young local students, and make modest but essential contributions to local charities.

And for the price of a can of gloss clear coat, I cast my vote.

Locally-grown and managed businesses are so much more than the sign on the side of the road. Picture the face of the person who created this dream or where someone landed their first job. Think of the families, depending on these modest businesses for a paycheck. Most shops may be small compared to those making national headlines, but locally and collectively, they are the heartbeat of our community. They are too small to fail.

As we all learn to shape our new reality, let’s commit to spending our dollars with a purpose – one we carry with the respect we do in the voting booth.

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The New Norm Coming Into Focus

The novelty of working from home is over. Oh, so over.

“Sometimes I look up at the computer screen during a video conference and wonder who the old guy that looks like my aunt Thelma is,” said a friend. “Then I realize it is me.”

Video conferencing might only be the tip of the sword.

The COVID-19 crisis is changing our lives in profound ways. If this is a disruption, then it is one akin to a tectonic behavioral shifting occurring within a generational gap. And if most of us experienced the coming of the internet, 9/11, and the Great Financial Crisis of 2009, this event is an attention-getter.

As medically dangerous the COVID-19 crisis is, the forced change in behavior could forever warp how we manage our days. And maybe there are a few positive takeaways.

My wife and I are getting to know each other in ways similar to when we first began dating. Without the constant pressure of having to be somewhere, we find ourselves sitting and talking more. One night we played a game of naming restaurants from our childhoods until the other called uncle. And with most, came a story or memory to share.

I’ve also learned my back might be able to survive multiple workouts a week, but whoever imagined doing a 1,000-piece puzzle would wreak havoc on my spine?

One morning I finished up a video call and realized I was wearing the clothes I’d slept in the night before. How did this happen to someone who is rather particular about his wardrobe and hair? If this is the future, I’m not sure I want to play. I genuinely enjoy a well-tailored suit, sharply pressed shirt and matching tie, and colorful pocket square.

This week another friend joked they’d put on 10 pounds.

“We better hope this does not turn into the COVID-19,” I said.

As much as I try to stick to my exercise routine, I’m beginning to think it might not be the dryer’s fault that my pants are barking.

On the other side of this, I am relearning to read music, reading more books, and carving out moments where I suddenly ask myself, “where did all these birds in the trees show up.”

The Wall Street Journal reports Americans are working more hours than ever during this chapter of work-from-home. On average, people are working up to 3 hours more a day – something I can personally attest. Days start early and run long.

Psychologists point to habits being taking root after 14-days. I’ve lost track. Some days I the only clue I have on what day of the week it is the little letter embossed atop my morning pillbox.

Suddenly I feel naked at the grocery store without a mask. When watching television and someone touches a door handle, I wonder wiped down recently. And a clip of a baseball game crowd doing the wave seems like a lifetime ago.

The world is changing. I guess I can, too.

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