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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Sunshine Wears A Size Eleven Shoe

Recently I saw a friend in line at a local grocery store. Good guy. I said hello and asked what he was up to lately.

“On my way back from the hospital,” he says. “The found another tumor in my head.”

His finger points to an area near his forehead. This will be third cancer trying to lay claim to his cranium. Subtle marks near his face hint at earlier surgeries.

He tells me the doctors will try something new. Poking a small electrified rod into the new tumor, doctors hope to burn and neutralize the growth. He is excited to try something new.

He smiles, his trademark grim brightly filling the space between us.

“Like I need another hole in the head.”

In life, you can complain about the hand you’ve been dealt or play your hand to the best of your ability. My friend has always been the later. If sunshine would walk, he would be its mascot and wearing a size eleven shoe.

Truth is he has always been this way. Before cancer decided uninvitedly set up residence in his brain, you would’ve sworn each morning his wife would wind up a giant spring located somewhere inside of him. Watching him throughout the day – his warmly interacting with both friends and strangers – inspired others to follow his lead.

And now, in a street battle for his life with an enemy that does not play fair, he continues as if the invasive parasite were simply a small inconvenience, something passing.

But more importantly, he is more likely to ask you are doing or how is your family? His heart has always been bigger than his head.

Unchanged is his sincere interest in others and their well-being When speaking with him, people would swear he makes them feel like the most important person on the planet. And to my friend, that is true. Like a solar panel gaining energy from the sky above, he seems to draw an energy from making others feel welcome and their time value.

A couple weeks ago my friend invited friends and strangers to stop a restaurant and visit. This was not about him but rather his effort to help others feel more comfortable talking about cancer. Knowing my friend, I know his smile filled the room and his only goal was to help others.

Society likes to eagerly attach glamorous descriptors to people to the point of unintentionally devaluing them from overuse. Hero, champion, courageous. But to me, the highest compliment is to proudly refer to someone as a friend. Doing so demonstrates your admiration and support for them. I am proud of my friend as he’s taught me and others how to face down challenges that would melt most of us like a candle sitting on a Texas windowsill in July.

My friend may not know it but he is giving strength and confidence to others. And for that, I am proud to call him my friend.

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Tea Bag Tastes Of Journey

Each morning a small white tag dangles from a cotton string leading back to the tea bag gently dancing in my mug. And written on each tag comes a phrase from which to launch my day. Wisdom, inspiration, and soul-stirring caffeine in one tidy package.

Today’s message resurrected painful memories of someone I don’t care for – a person I left behind years ago. Specifically, an earlier version of me.

“Love is to live for somebody, love is not to live with somebody.”

The tea bag’s words kept dragging me back to a time for which I am ashamed but accepting of a journey that needed to happen.

I’ll admit I was a bit of a mess coming into adulthood. A recipe laced with selfishness, materialism, and overly judgmental was a bad road for me that those around me. Maturity, by practice, is learning to leave your adolescent tendencies behind and embrace the values of serving others. And nowhere is that formula more important than with love.

IMG_2042Imagine a traditional shooter’s target with a bulls-eye in the center. As an adolescent, we identify ourselves as the bulls-eye with the world circling around. Things we say, do, and think are crafted to serve the needs of the center – or in this case, us.

One day, if we are lucky, we realize it is lonely in the center.

I may not be alone in having to grow through this stunted stage, but in life, you must hold tightly your failures as you do your successes. From your failures, you learn humility and a greater appreciation for the world around you. Inside are lessons you will never learn anywhere but on the playing field of life.

For whatever stage I am at now, I can promise you I did not start out here. Ask my wife. And God as my witness, she deserves the nod for reshaping this mess of malformed clay into something worth her keeping around.

Love is a painful journey. And to travel the road successfully requires two people to facing each other, not standing side by side. Only by looking into the eyes of the other will your hearts ever meld together. This is where you cross over from living for someone verses living with someone. Marriage is a man-made business agreement in one sense; love is a human bond, full of powerful mystery and emotion. If you are lucky in life, you find yourself blessed with both.

I read once if you are happy in your relationship you carry a haunting feeling as if not enough time remains. Conversely, if you are unhappy or unconnected, time hangs like a heavy blanket of daily dread.

Recognizing the bulls-eye is where everyone else should reside is life changing. The moment you see your earlier mistakes and commit to change, you effectively must start your life over one day at a time, relearning what is important, retraining your instincts.

The road is hard, bumpy, and bone-jarring but I highly recommend the journey.

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Holidays Offer Reason To Believe

I believe.

Every year around this time we run across reminders to ‘believe’. But in each instance, the message is incomplete – never really telling us what to ‘believe’. Here, over the course of 500 words, I hope to share a few personal suggestions.

First of all, I still believe in God – regardless of how cool or uncool, this might seem. The reality is He is there and if you don’t believe me, I’d invite you for a test drive without Him. Traveling without this copilot can be unnerving. Over my lifetime I’ve done it both ways. Having Him along for the ride has made mine a difference of night and day.

Secondly, I still believe in the spirit of Santa Claus. How can you not believe in the power of thinking of others and giving the gift of time, love, or small expressions of your gratitude to those we hold most dear? Also, Santa is one sharp dresser.

Next, I’d have to say I still hold great faith in my fellow mankind. At times most of us will find ourselves questioning what the future holds. But if we’re honest, we’ve got a pretty good track record of doing the right thing when it comes down to it. I’ve seen this too many times to deny that most people are, by default, good and decent. And I intend to continue to invest my energy and strength in supporting them.

The American Dream, bashed, battered, and run over in the public court of opinion, is still the best thing going on the planet Earth. If you’ve ever really traveled outside these borders and touched, tasted, and experienced the other side, you know what a blessing it is to live in this country. Doubt it? Ask around. I’ve spent more than my fair share with people who want nothing more than to call America their home for the simple reason of having an opportunity to break free of the shackles of economic, political or religious restraint.

I also still believe in America. Remember, this is the country that put a man on the moon, invented instant coffee, and where individuals contribute to charity more per capita as a measure of gross domestic product than any other nation on the planet. Not only are we a resourceful and innovative nation, but we’re also generous to others via’ giving beyond anything the world has ever seen. I don’t know about you but I don’t mind being associated with smart, generous people.

And finally, I believe in you. Granted, many of us have never met, but odds are we’ve more in common than separates us. If I’ve learned anything in my continuing accumulation of years it is most of us value our families, friends, and neighbors. We even value strangers we’ve never met before – lending a hand or other resources to help someone in need. Aside from needless divisiveness, we are all pretty much alike.

So next time you see a sign encouraging you to believe look inside of yourself for the answer.

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Zombie Apocolypse Has Arrived

I’m pretty sure I am living through the zombie apocalypse.

Looking at the water Gulf of Mexico, waves rhythmically crash onto the beach. I notice two people sitting on a concrete bench. Backs turned to the blue horizon, their heads stare down at the tiny screens anchored in their hands. The only hint of life is the twitching of their thumbs, repeatedly asking the screen to keep them entertained.

The couple is somewhere – but certainly not a few yards from Mother Nature’s big show.

I am increasingly worried about the unintended impact of people disengaging from life, addicted – for a lack of a better word – to tiny devices in their hands. Their world is less about where they are or whom they are with at the moment and more about the environment pouring from a tiny screen.

Looking back at the concrete bench, waves dancing behind the couple, they have yet to move or say a word to each other. Mother Nature is doing all she can do short of splashing them with salt water.

You don’t have to look too far to see what I’m talking about. People are so engrossed in the tiny screens in their hands they blindly plod along city streets, dangerously unaware of their surroundings. Restaurants are filled with couples on dates, both pouring their valuable attention into millions of pixels instead of each other. And more and more you see entire families sitting around a table, each with a device in their hands, totally disengaged from each other.

This zombie apocalypse could change the world, as we know it.

Humans are social animals. And the art of conversation is a skill you hone over time, drawing out and listening to others. And as predictable as the algorithm feed is before your eyes, real life is as equally unpredictable. While one is based on feeding you the cotton candy of what you already like, the latter is like a form of Russian roulette – you never knowing exactly what will come your way. And therein lays the fun, the development of skills, the appreciation for others and different points of view.

I can’t help but wonder if our new zombie culture won’t lead to our undoing or at least severely damage our ability to built successful families, friendships, and society.

Today’s zombie culture is fed by a diet of predetermined content and interests and the reinforced by like opinions. The very platform heralded as the opening Pandora’s box of information is instead closely controlled by sophisticated formulas designed to sharpen, narrow, and shallow out our pools of interests. We are, technologically speaking, not too far removed from cattle being led to the slaughterhouse.

We could all end up as tasteless and homogenized hamburger.

I look back at the couple at the water’s edge. I wish they would speak to each other, learn something new about the other, and building a deep well of conversations to one-day build upon.

But then again, zombies don’t feel or speak.

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Growing Pains Not Exclusively For Kids

Our daughter ended up in the hospital last week. Eight hundred miles and another time zone only added to the anxiety. Parenting from a distance is unsettling.

A doctor’s voice scratches from my wife’s cell phone, the speaker on.

“Appendicitis,” she said. “We’ll do the surgery tonight and keep her overnight.”

My watch sweeps towards 9 pm local; our daughter an hour ahead. My wife aches to be there. Flights are done for the day. Fourteen hours by car won’t work. This is going to happen without us.

“Don’t worry,” the doctor said. “We do these regularly. The doctor performing the procedure is very good.”

She didn’t, however, solve our time zone and distance problem.

As much as I know my daughter is a full-grown and mature woman, someone who is working her way through college and keeping up her grades, who on the spur of a moment jumped a flight so she could wake up alone in New York City on her birthday, she remains the fierce bundle of energy I first met on a snow-covered morning in Pittsburgh. In that delivery room, she kicked and screamed her way into my heart like an angry hurricane. And I gladly made room.

The doctor again reassured us all would be fine. I thought of the bundle of energy twisting in a blanket – putting the world on notice she had arrived, loud and proud.

The doctor closed the call and my wife sat with the phone between us. I did not need words to understand what she was going to do next – my opinion not invited. Marriage is like that, learning to read between the lines, understanding what is being said without having to say a word.

We said a prayer and parted ways – my wife to pack her bag and me to book her on the first direct flight the next morning.

Letting go as your kids become adults is not easy. While you need to give them their space and the opportunities to fail, you soon realize it is more difficult on you than them. They are ready; you are not or never will.

I thought about teaching my daughter to ride a skateboard at the age of 3. I’d put her brother’s Batman helmet on her head, one so large it tilted to one side. I’d have her place her small feet between mine, her facing me.

We began by coasting down a gently sloped driveway. Eventually, we moved to larger hills and faster speeds. We took a few falls, but each time I’d pull her close and take the tumble on me, pulling her safely between my arms. And each time as we would get up I’d hear a giggle.

“Let’s do that again,” she said.

That is what I was thinking of as the doctor wheeled her to surgery – and all I wanted to do was pull my little girl tightly into my arms and protect her, taking away any pain or danger.

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Cash No Longer King

Apparently, cash is no longer king.

I’m standing the branch of a nameless mega-national bank to deposit money into my out-of-state daughter’s account. It is the first of the month and rent is due in another time zone.

“I’m sorry, but we do not accept cash,” said the bank teller.

On the counter between the teller and me are five crisp $100 dollar bills, so new the bouquet of the distinctive ink still leaves a trail when handling. The edges of each bill so sharp, mishandling could risk getting a paper cut.

I look down at the bills between us. I can see a shock on the face of Benjamin Franklin, whose portrait graces the currency.

“You’ll need to go get a money order and come back,” she said.

Benjamin Franklin’s face is now wincing.

“But this is cash,” I said. “Like real money.”

The teller then drops her get-out-of-jail-free-card in hopes of ending any further discussion.

“Sorry, that is our policy.”

I take a breath. Looking down I see Benjamin Franklin’s hand planted squarely on his forehead, his eyes closed.

“But this is real cash and I’m only trying to put it my daughter’s account – the one she has with you – this bank.”

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The clerk repeats the distancing phrase, this time completely absent of any discernible emotion. Nothing I can say is going to change the situation. Turning around, the man in line behind shrugs his shoulders.

I turn back, reach down and pick up bills. I notice Benjamin Franklin has pulled a horse around. Franklin was always a smart man with a keen political sense. He must be sensing his job may no longer be secure and it is time to get out of town.

Together, Benjamin Franklin and I leave the bank, he on his horse, and me on foot to find an 89-cent money order.

Days later, my concerns slowing fading, I walk into a local pizza delivery shop. Handing the man behind the register bill, his hand pauses in mid-motion.

Having a flashback, I ask if they take cash.

“Yes, but not too often,” he said.

The next few minutes are consumed with conversations between he and the manager sharing passwords and codes to get the register to open. Finally, the clerk squats down, disappearing from view, and the register springs open.

I don’t have the courage to look down at the portrait of Andrew Jackson afraid Benjamin Franklin has spent the week sharing his traumatic banking experience.

The young clerk, as polite as can be, delicately hands me my change, a couple bills, and five coins. I sense his touching cash is not something he’s particularly familiar doing – his fingers touching the currency like it might be carrying some sort of long-forgotten plague.

Putting away my change, I notice George Washington looking back up at me. His mouth is open as if he’s seen a ghost. All I can figure is Franklin and his horse are back at the US mint spreading the word.

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Polishing Life Requires Discipline 

Standing outside the window of my truck, a man is holding a bowl of Halloween candy. A large motorcycle rally is in town, the island flooding with chrome and a constant deep rumble.

“Here, please take some,” he said.

He is friendly, but with a hint of desperation to be separated from the colorful bowl of treats. Unclaimed candies from Halloween, no matter how small the colorful packages appear to the eyes, turn radioactive to adults – the mere proximity a threat to contributing to expanding waistlines.

We strike up a conversation. He is working detailing motorcycles in the corner of a narrow parking lot along the water. His disposition is sunny, matching the sky above. Across the road, incoming waves twinkle as if a bag of children’s decorative glitter dances across the surface.

The day is much brighter than the night he came to town.

“I’d parked my truck for the night,” he said. “Then the storm came through, flipped it over. Totaled the 8 bikes I’d brought.”

His voice was even in tone, almost as if speaking about someone else’s experience. There was a disappointment in his voice – but a disappointment absent of anger.

He shrugged his shoulders, pushing the movement back into the past.

“Figured I was already down here. I might as well hang around and do something.”

We talked through the window about how he’d once owned a company selling detailing polish. He proudly held up a bottle for me to see.

But what struck me most was his total acceptance of his circumstances. What had happened had happened. Nothing on his part would have stopped the high-winds from coming to town. Maybe, he admitted, he could’ve moved the bikes out of the trailer, but he didn’t. His bad, so the saying goes.

Two Kit Kat bars moved from his bowl and into my truck.

But he’d given me much more than two pieces of candy. What he’d really shared me was a reminder of how to deal with situations we cannot expect to control in life. Here was a man, polishing rag in hand and 8 motorcycles mangled and twisted in a trailer, with a smile on his face. What was done was done. What he controlled, he demonstrated, was the now.

To him, and the success he’d found in life – the one led by a positive attitude – saturated his being like an inland marsh during high tide.

Everyone gets upset or mad from time to time. But what separates people seems to be their ability to successfully control the moment, somehow putting the proverbial genie back into a bottle without creating lasting damage. Careless words used in anger or emotional decisions made without thought can linger uncomfortably afterward – serving as stubborn reminders long after the original moment has passed.

Candy in the truck, we laughed, wishing each other a good day. But pulling out into traffic it occurred to me that for him, that was already a given.

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