Books Hold Special Place In Us

As if the karma Gods of the world would look down poorly on me, I never throw a book into the trash.

Last week I was sorting through a wicker basket near my side of the bed. Magazines, sections of newspapers, and books tend to find themselves filed away until I am encouraged to straighten up my side of the room.

Near the bottom, I spotted a worn copy of a book a friend loaned me more than a year ago. Opening the pages, I could see his handwriting and notes in the margins – and in some odd trick of magic, I could also hear his voice. While an author originally drafted the manuscript, my friend made it his own.

Books are remarkable creations. While generally simple thoughts placed on paper, books maintain a curious sense of value to us. No matter how old or worn, people hold on to books like few other objects. The act of opening of an aged book sends people into a curious set of motions like they are holding a newborn baby. Using our fingertips, we gently leaf brittle pages open and closed. And for those moments, we feel as if traveling backward in time, swimming in smell and aroma of yesteryear.

Looking down at the notes in the margins, I could clearly hear my friend’s voice. The thoughts, the concepts, and the ideas all came spilling out from him over the years we worked alongside each other. His passion is as colorful as the scribbling decorating the margins of the pages.

Several years ago, my brother and I closed down the old home where we grew up. Clearing out my room, I began sorting through piles of paperbacks I’d read growing up while leaning back against the headboard of my bed. The pages yellowed and book covers with a tear here of there, but they still spoke to me. I remember traveling across the country with John Steinbeck and his dog Charlie. Another carried me to walking alongside Holden Caulfield and his personal journey of teenage angst and trying to make sense of the world around him. And finally, an extremely worn and yellowed book my mother gave me when I was wrestling with paralyzing shyness as a kid in school. Dale Carnegie’s words gave this nervous 5th grader the courage to walk up to girl in our class and start a conversation by complimenting her necklace.

Good books can become deeply personal markers for each of us. And the magic inside of them is not exclusively the words on the pages, but what happens once the words lift off the pages and become a part of us.

Some books speak to us, while others do not. But one thing I know for sure is there is always a chance a book will connect with another in a profoundly personal way.

Sealing up my friend’s book into an envelope, I knew I was returning a piece of personal property – one he’d help create.

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Understanding Life Key To Living Forever

Last week I found myself standing in a room mostly filled with strangers. Considering the event was a wake service for a friend, you would say he built a remarkable off-the-balance-sheet inventory of deep and powerful love. To him, touching lives was his currency – and my late friend built his life around doing so.

“I remember how when I’d sit down and talk with him, and he’d listen,” said his nephew.

“No, I mean really listen. I mean, he’d actually respond and ask questions about what I said.”

Making genuine connections in life is one of the most important, if not currently endangered, opportunities we share as human beings. Doing so, creating a meaningful and emotional fusing of our selves with another, is powerful.

The younger man swiped away tears.

“He made me feel like the most important person in the world at the moment.”

A small parade of family and friends spoke. But what we heard, and what my friend would be most proud to hear, was how people spoke of how their lives were positively impacted by their lives crossing.

The nephew continued.

“He not only impacted me, but he also impacted my children, making their lives better.”

He spoke of sitting at a table with my friend, leaning in and talking with the kids over dinners.

“He’d spend all his time visiting with them, not hardly saying a word to me. But he was making them feel important, too.”

My friend was a successful professional. But in the small back room wake, only a few words of his career were mentioned. The rest, the vast majority of testimony was of how he had helped others achieve their dreams, lent a hand when they needed it, or simply was a good listener when a good listener was just what the doctor ordered.

I met my friend a few years ago. His handshake was solid, his words strong, and his heart large. I knew right away we would get along. There was no doubt his word was his bond, and he would always work find a way to push the credit to others.

Today’s world could learn a good bit from my friend. Never would he take credit for something – even if he earned it. All you might get is his trademark slow burn smile and then maybe a gentle tilt of his head.

To quote the Red Hot Chili Peppers, “this life is more than just a read-through.” We only get one shot to show who we are and our servitude to a higher calling. Knowing how to build a successful life without being derailed by the intoxication of our shallow reflection in the mirror is difficult. Instead, as my friend knew, we should aspire to be remembered by those we positively impacted through the course of our lifetime.

When we meet such remarkable people, they are never gone – no matter how many years ago they’ve passed. Because, as we all know, they live inside each of us.

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Bread Served Warm and With Love

Quietly, the older man approaches. His feet move slowly across the sand to our table near the water’s edge of a tiny island off the coast of Central America.

Our small boat rests in the sand nearby; we’ve stopped to grab a bite to eat on an island so small cars are not allowed on roads.

“Would you like to buy some freshly baked bread?”

His hands shake ever so slightly, his words as soft as his steps across the white sand.

“My wife baked it this morning,” he said.

Looking down, I see small bricks of cake topped with a slice of pineapple wrapped in cellophane.

His nods and edges his wares closer to me.

Skin darkened from a lifetime of living on sun-bleached sands isolated by teal blue waters, and he is as much a part of this island as the palm tree raining shade on us.

I take a piece, the bread still radiating heat from the oven.

Passing a couple of dollar bills to him, I ask if he would take a photo of my wife and me near the water.

He smiles and nods.

“I’m sorry I can’t. I’m blind.”

He explains he can barely see, and this is what he does each day. His wife bakes, and he goes outside selling the pineapple-topped bread. Together they make a living in spite of the challenges of their age and circumstances.

I pause and thank him and ask him to thank his wife for baking the bread.

Moments later, our lunch is delivered to our wooden picnic table, cooked on an open fire pit a few feet away.

Eating, I think of the man – a man living in a paradise he can barely see, struggling to earn a living from strangers coming ashore from small boats. I think of him and his wife’s routine, getting up at sunrise each day, scratching together another batch of bread, cutting the cake into individual cubes, and wrapping each in the clear plastic.

And then the man walks out the front door and into a world his vision has long since silenced to his eyes.

I finish my beans and rice and reach over for the small dark package. Moisture from the heat contents decorates the wrapper with dimples of water. My fingers feel the warmth of the man’s home transporting to me in my imagination to picturing the journey of my bread that day.

The bread is soft, the pineapple a perfect blend of sweet and bitter. The surface bends beneath the pressure of my fork, its freshness allowing it to break away only at the last moment. Afterward, my wife and I take turns picking at the leftover crumbs.

One day after returning home, my wife mentions to someone about us visiting the tiny island. They ask about the blind man and his bread and is he still there selling his wife’s banana nut bread. And suddenly, through magic of small brick of bread, the world becomes smaller.

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New Watch Watches Over Me

As of late, I have an unsettling feeling as if an ominous shadow is peering over my shoulder. From the always-listening speaker in the living room to a wrist device recording the hours I slept the night before, I’m finding myself increasingly uneasy.

More and more I feel tethered to a modern version of Big Brother, an omnivorous consumer bent on capturing the most intimate details of my life. And with each passing day, I am questioning my comfort of being linked to a bank of computers located in the figurative clouds tracking everything from my heart rate to what streets I drove to the local grocery store.

Last week I took a dramatic step – I bought a new watch that does nothing but tells me the time.

In a world where we are swimming in a feature-rich society, I love the pure simplicity of my new watch. In an odd way, I admire the single purpose of its existence – to passively sit on my wrist, only stepping into action when I tilt my left wrist upward and reflexively glance my eyes downward. Like a great friendship, we peacefully co-exist without asking of anything from the other but can pick up at a moment’s notice and feel as if time never passed.

I realize this might seem odd, but I want my life back – or at least regain a sense of control of what information is being captured.

A friend of mine makes his living pouring and sorting over what is called ‘big data’ or large unsorted data dumps collected from digital devices. His job is to look for both commonalities or individual patterns of behavior from which companies can leverage to make money.

I’ve another friend in the tourism business who told a group of us she can track behaviors down to when a person arrives in town, whether they turned left or right, where they ate dinner, and how much the spent. Doing so helps her better understand how to better develop strategies to get someone to spend more money.

My new watch will have none of this. Instead, it quietly sits on my wrist waiting for me to cast a glance in its direction.

With a black face adorned with a single hand for the hour, minutes, and seconds, the watch travels as lightly as seasoned hiker crossing a desert landscape. No creature comforts, nothing extra – utility rules the day.

And did I mention, like a good friend, it keeps my secrets? Never does it upload my activities, my bodily reports, or vibrate when my phone rings in the other room. Together, we share a peaceful coexistence based on mutual trust and respect.

Maybe this is age, maybe not. But with each passing day, I ache for simplicity in a world awash in intrusiveness and purported convenience. And with my new watch, I consider this my first symbolic salvo in returning to a more simple time, one I control.

Pardon the pun, but only time will tell.

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Astros Loss Totally On Me

It is my fault the Astros lost the World Series.

Baseball fans are odd lots – and I am one as well. Baseless superstitions run deep, making us feel as if our actions directly impact the outcome of a ball game on par with the power the earth’s gravity carries on the moon. The mere sitting in the wrong chair in the living room can destroy the outcome of a game played 1,000 miles away.

This year’s World Series loss is on me.

For the first two games, I wore Astros shirts, plunked myself down in front of the television and let the games wash into the room. And the Astros promptly lost both games played. Down two games to zero, the team headed to Washington DC for a three-game series.

As any red-blooded fan would do, I put my Nolan Ryan vintage rainbow-striped jersey back in the closet along with the rest of gear and did the only thing I knew would help – did not allow myself to watch the next two games.  Yes, I benched myself for the team.

I love baseball. I love the ridiculous traditions and superstitions. Never step on the white line. Never mention a no-hitter while in progress. And never, ever, wash your socks during a hot-hitting streak.

My sacrifice worked and the Astros went into the Nationals’ home park and took the next three games and headed home to Houston.

Feeling confident, I returned to the sofa – but only after pulling out a specially choreographed plan for victory.

An hour before the game time my wife and I went to a local pizza shop, ordering the same pizza we ate the night the Astros took the trophy in 2017. And when returning home, I carefully took the same cushion on the sofa I’d jumped up from two years earlier with the 27th out. In my mind, I was coming off the bench to help win the World Series.

But, somehow, the baseball gods had a different plan.

As the game progressed, the Astros faltered – or the Nationals came alive – call it what you will. I tried to stay the course but changed cushions. No change in karma. I then turned off the television volume and listened to the local radio announcers hoping to ding the universe into realigning the direction of momentum.

Things got worse.

I change my pants, removed my socks, and spent nervous energy standing in different parts of the room. I even turned off the television and began watching the pitch by pitch on an app on my phone.

The baseball gods would have none of my interference and the Astros lost.

I am a fully mature adult but I still cannot shake the feeling my actions led to the downfall of the Astros. And I’ll bet I am not alone. For when it comes to baseball, many of us will always revert to our childhood where we still believe in the magic of our actions.

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Purposeful Life Keeps Old Man Out

I’m standing in front of our home, speaking with a friend. His large dog nudges gently against my hand for attention. She’s beautiful and knows it.

“You have to be careful and not let the old man in,” he says.

He’s talking about retirement – how the destination is different from what many tend to think.

“I’ve retired and unretired twice,” he says. “Played golf, took walks and filled my time. Always found something to do.”

But in retirement, something important was lacking, he says.

“You’ve got to have a purpose in life, a reason to get up in the morning. Filling time becomes simply filling time. One day you ask what the purpose of living each day.”

My friend is upbeat, healthy, and looks years younger than the date on his driver’s license. He is always with a wave and kind things to say.

His dog yawns as if trying to speak. She is growing bored with the conversation and wants to get going.

“Don’t get me wrong,” he says. “I enjoyed my regular tee-time with friends, but after a while, I began to miss the sense of accomplishment. So I unretired and went and did something new.”

His words run against the grain of society’s prepackaged definition of retirement – work long, save your money, and find ways to fill the hours of your days. One doesn’t have to stretch too far to see this as a twist on the putting one out to pasture formula. My friend would have none of this.

“As I said, you’ve got to keep the old man from getting in. You’ve got to have a purpose to your days, keep learning new things, and stay healthy.”

His dog rubs her white coat against my leg, asserting her wishes to get moving.

My friend pauses and then changes my life.

“Happiness is simply enjoying the passing of time. You’ve got to do what you enjoy – and that includes having a purpose of how you use your time.”

My dad’s generation defined retirement as a destination – a predetermined mark in time complete with a finish line where you effectively exited the interstate of a purposeful life.

Filling time, my friend says does not offer one the sense of making a difference in the world with each sunrise. We are not one-act plays, but rather should view life as a journey, one where we always have something to give or contribute to the world. And in the end, our happiness is driven by the purposeful reward we receive by actively investing our time and attention in others.

Forcefully tugging on the leash, my friend’s dog is ready to go. Her purpose apparently awaits down the street.

My friend is not afraid of life or the passing of time. He also knows he alone controls his true happiness. With each day he embraces the opportunity to continue to learn, grow, and find purpose in how he chooses to use his time.

That – and keeping the old man out.

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Pizza Includes Special Ingredient

I am sitting in a deep-dish pizza shop in downtown Chicago. The smell of the three-inch deep pies competes with the excited voices of customers for owning the room. Red and white table clothes, accents from around the world, and energy you can almost reach out and touch in the air. Americana is on full display.

But near the door is another piece of what is sometimes undervalued as an Americana trait – hard work.

A man, probably my age, is standing at a nearby work station. His English is broken, but his commitment to doing a good job at the task in front of him is as solid as the foundation of nearby skyscrapers.

Drying plates and wrapping silverware into a white napkin is not sexy work. But to him, his head leaning forward and his hands moving as fast as possible, this is the most important work in the world.

I lean over and clue my wife into what I’m seeing.

“Look how fast he works,” I say.

For a few moments, we watch as he takes a stack of white serving plates, fresh from the dishwasher, and prepares them for being placed on tables. His hands move so fast I can hardly keep up – as if someone were slight speeding up a video for emphasis. With each plate, he used a pattern to wipe, flip, and stack. And remarkably, the deeper he got into the stack, the fast his hands moved – as if he were playing a game against the clock.

When it came to sorting the clean silverware, he used the same urgency and self-competitiveness. Reach, bunch, wrap, and stack.

Again, this is not sexy work – but what I was seeing was a man taking extreme pride in the work that touched his fingertips, taking full responsibility to do the best job possible regardless of anyone else’s measure of value. It was nothing short of moving to me.

And this was not his only task. Throughout the night I watched him bus tables, carefully replacing plates and silverware on each for the next customers all with the same urgency and attention to detail. Whatever he touched, he signed his name to, so to speak.

I wanted to take the lightning in a bottle he carried and share it with the world.

Too often people feel defined by their perspective of what they believe the world places value on the tasks they perform. And unfortunately, this leads to potentially undermine the effort and pride they take away from a job well done. The truth is, one does not need to look any further than across the street at the skyscraper to prove this wrong.

Hard work and pride in our accomplishments built this country. And while our society is filled with casting out judgments, I will always remember the man tasked with setting and creating the right environment for me to indulge in a sinful experience of cheese and crust. He is a critical element of the pie as the crust and America.
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Less Is More When It Comes To Happiness

I have yet to see a glass bottle abandoned alongside the road in Belize.

“Would you like me to take these empty bottles away for you?” says the young woman stopping by our casita.

My wife and I are holed up in a small remote beachside house tucked along the barrier reef of Belize. Life is much different – from a simple drink of water to basic transportation.

IMG_4669.jpegTo most of us, an empty bottle, be it Coca-Cola or beer bottle, is trash. In Belize, each empty bottle is worth twenty-five Belizean cents. In a part of the world where the per capita income is $4,400 a year, you can see why empty bottles are considered an unofficial currency.

Earlier in the week, an older man joined me in line at a small grocery store. His clothes told of a long, hard day: dust, paint, patches in his pants. In one arm were a half-dozen mismatched bottles. In his other, he held a cold drink from a nearby cooler. Only the next day did I realize he was making a trade with the quasi currency of empties.

Belize is a contrast of worlds – one of immense beauty and another of a life most Americans can never fully relate. Not that the Belizeans are lacking; on the contrary, they seem to be grounded in the real, valuing what is tangible and what matters the most.

One thing I’ve observed is people are happy for what they have instead of unhappy for what they lack. American life, unfortunately, is tilted far to the latter. Material objects with temporary value, shallow praise from social media, and the desires for more and more cloud our minds.

Each morning we rotely pick up our phones to immediately invite the outside world to contaminate our peaceful thoughts. We open kitchen cabinets to an abundance of items as simple as coffee mugs and dishes. We fill our closets with clothes that gave us a momentary boost of excitement but now sit dormant for seasons if not years.

We cannot understand the purity of pure life, simple pleasures, and the happiness of being.

In Belize, I’ve watched a man mow a space the size of an American football field with a small push mower. I’ve also watched a man shimmy down from the top of a coconut tree, machete at his side, without the help of a ladder. I’ve also observed another pull a rake across hundreds of yards of white sand to wash away footprints from the day before.

I asked the latter about his morning stroll.

“I love to rake the sand,” he said. “The quiet is so beautiful.”

In Belize, there are a different set of values, ones not exclusively measured in dollars, cents, or material objects. And while we as Americans continue to subscribe to our quest for the next bigger, better thing of the day, I’ve now seen a world of beautiful people genuinely happy without ever joining our the never-ending race.

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Office Without Walls Brings Large Responsibility

Teal waters playfully wink at a cloudless sky behind the young man. He’s standing at the rear of a small white fishing boat, his arms spread like the frigates gliding the ocean breezes above our heads. His dark hair is shaved close on the sides with a dozen long blonde-tipped woven ends dancing above his head.

“This is my office,” he says. “No walls, no limits.”

He is twenty-three years old, completed high school and college, and makes his living in the waters off the small Central American country of Belize. While English is his primary language, his words roll rhythmically, not unlike our boat in gentle morning waters.

Tall, muscular, with a smile as bright as the sun reflecting on the water around us, he is at home.

“My father is a fisherman, too,” he says. “I grew up with this as my life. Now I do the same, and I love it.”

He and his friend, another young man with an equal love for the water and islands, are taking a few of us snorkeling on Belize’s barrier reef, the second-largest in the world.

Before anyone can get in the water, he makes sure we understand how precious he and this countryman regard the reef.

“Not only is this a beautiful natural habitat for fish and other life, but it also protects our land from big from storms. If large waves crash into the reef, by the time they reach the mainland, they are much smaller, less dangerous. We need our reef to survive.”

Storms are very real to the young man. Later he tells me of surviving his first hurricane at the age of four.

“I remember my dad was out on the water protecting boats for people, and my mother and I were back in the house as the storm came ashore. She was leaning up against a window to keep it from breaking, and I look up and see the roof peeling off and flying away.”

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He’s experienced several other hurricanes, some larger, some smaller, but understanding the delicate balance of man and nature is a life and death relationship for him. The waters, reef, and marine life are woven together like the Hangman’s knot on the end of a fishing line. And for he and others, managing the balance is a responsibility they must deliver for future generations.

As our boat moves closer near the white sand coastline, he points to the gaps exist where landowners fight a losing battle with beach erosion.

“Developers are removing the mangroves along the water,” he says, his arm pointing a waterfront retaining wall under construction. “The roots were kept the sand from eroding all these years. Now, without the roots and bushes to keep the sand in place, coastlines wash away with storms.”

It is then I see a new world, one where material possessions are secondary, and managing nature is primary. For here, balance is one of life and death and their way of life.

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Relationship Happiness Very Real

My friend and I are talking about marriage, both of us in long term relationships.

This week my wife and I crossed 38 years since our first date – a day I stole a kiss from her while riding a glass elevator. The moment – we both felt the magical spark – changed the direction of our lives.

“While it feels like yesterday,” I said,” it also feels like so long ago.”

“I can’t believe I am with someone who still makes my heart skip when she walks into the room.”

My friend agreed, only her story is different. She’s on her second marriage, and if anything, she is probably in a better position to appreciate the value of true love.

“Today,” she said, “I can’t wait to get home.”

“In my first marriage, there were times I didn’t even want to go home at night.”

She’s in a different place now. To meet she and her husband, you might confuse them with newly dating teens. He is always at sending end of the brilliant smile radiating from her. I always picture the two of them laughing and smiling — kids with a few streaks of grey here and there.

I remember her once telling me one of the things she loved so much about her husband was how he could make her laugh. And to compliment this, she owns one of the most infectious laughs you will ever meet.

Being crazy in love is an odd feeling. From one point, you feel so blessed. From another, you ache for others to share in the excitement. It is as if you’ve found the ability to fly and want others to join you up in the clouds.

But I also understand, life does not work like that. Real relationships are forged over time, challenged by the pain and stress of everyday life. The good and bad are going to come. But it is there, in those moments, the relationship is tested.

You cannot fake a strong relationship – everyone must travel the bumpy road of life. After all, the strongest materials result from the highest levels of heat and pressure over time. Why would relationships be different?

My friend and I both are parents with dating age children.

“I hope one day they can experience this feeling,” I said. “I don’t want them to miss out on this.”

I don’t claim to be particularly unique in the relationship world. If anything, my wife deserves any credit for the good. I was jagged stone, to begin with, but she inspired me to want to be better.

One day, if you are lucky, you wake up and realize the true joy in life comes from making others happy. Society leads us to believe our happiness is in our possessions, or what others think of us.

Fortunately, because of a kiss 38 years ago, I’ve learned I’d give everything up without a whimper for one extra day with my wife at the end.

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