Guns and Monsters Lead to Questions

During my high school days, students brought guns to school without a second thought. Earlier this week students at my old high school in the Missouri walked out of classrooms in a plea against gun violence. What a difference a generation or two can make.

I’m not here to offer solutions or argue one way or the other. Rather I am painfully wondering what has changed since I last walked the grounds of the campus and why these violent actions are occurring against students.

As students we cobbled together wooden gun racks as part of the required shop class curriculum. Outside in the parking lot hunting rifles hung in the windows of old pick up trucks. Guns were simply a part of the social fabric of our world.

My high school was not in the sticks. My school sat squarely in the middle of a middle class suburb in a middle class city in the middle of the country. Norman Rockwell would have been right at home.

But life and attitudes towards guns were different from today’s world. Walking past a truck with a rifle hanging in the window symbolized deer season. The rifle being used as a weapon against a student never crossed my mind.

The recent deaths of 17 students in Florida reflect something is significantly different in the world today.

The helicopter shot video clip above the school this week showed nearly 700 students standing on the same outdoor rubber track I’d competed in the 440 and 800 in high school. Standing side by side and holding hands, I couldn’t help but feel closer to the event. In an unexpected way, this brought their angst and me closer.

Guns are dangerous – but I knew that walking by an old pickup truck on my way to a morning class. Yes, the AR versions are much more lethal, but which weapon is the real danger – the gun or the mind? Beside the given incredibly high value of life, what is the difference between 17 students shot with an AR and that of 4 with a less rapid-fire model? Both are tragic results but both point to something principally different in today’s world.

My wife learned to shot a pistol at cans in a quarry before she graduated the first grade. And her older brothers, all skilled shooters, drilled into her the responsibility and respect she should always show to a gun. Teaching and passing along the respect for guns in her family was an important rite of passage. To this day she carries this with her.

Which brings me back to my original question of what has changed? Is this a sign of the intoxicating draw and access to high firepower or the declining state of mental health or other another cultural / behavioral change?

I don’t pretend to know the answer. But what I do know is 700 students who share hallways of my former high school are genuinely scared of a monster – one who did not exist in my generation. Let’s find the true monster.








Waitress Delivers Time Travel

“My boyfriend’s a skater,” said the waitress.

She’s old enough to carry and AARP card, wears her blonde hair tied behind her head, and her smile is one of a teenager in love.

You never know what you’ll find when you pick at a random string hanging from the universe. This day is no different.

Sitting in a small diner a block off the Pacific Ocean along the 101 in Southern California, I’d asked the waitress about the skateboarding stickers covering her black order pad. I knew the names well.

“Yeah, I know it sounds weird, but sometimes when we are at a skatepark someone will ask which one is mine – I’ll point to the old guy and say the big one out there.”

When I was fifteen years old I dreamed of skating the asphalt hills rolling out to meet the ocean along the Southern California coast. Posters and random pages torn from skateboard magazines replaced the kids wallpaper in my bedroom. The names of skaters, Jay Adams to Tony Alva – the notorious Z-Boys, were my heroes.

“Who is your boyfriend?” said a voice from the next booth. He could easily pass for the parent coach of a youth traveling soccer team.

She sheepishly shares his name.

“No way. That’s sick.”

The next booth joins our conversation proving that even in Southern California, a small roadside diner operates as under the same community conversation rules as one in Topeka, Kansas.

Our new friend in the next booth, he in his forties, knew the skater’s name instantly.

The waitress tells us about how her boyfriend traveled the world touring and is talking about building a new wooden ramp with some friends.

“He is pissed at the city’s skatepark,” she said. “Not enough vert.”

She tells us about how he came home one day stomping and sulking like a little kid.

“He’d jumped the fence when the park was under construction. He wanted to test it out since he’d helped design it with them. Found the city had made the vert only 8 feet instead of ten like they said they would. It was like living with a ten year old for an entire week.”

She laughed.

“When he told me he’d jumped the fence I was like, dude, how old are you?”

Our conversation, the one including our new friend in the next booth, turns to a local skateboarding shop down the street.

“McGill’s skateshop is just down the road,” she said. “Most legit shop around.”

The guy in the next booth speaks up.

“Yeah, he invented the McTwist, right?”

The waitress nods her head.

The coffee tastes a little better sitting here in the epicenter of skateboarding universe.

My fish tacos arrive. The waitress gets called away to another booth, her black notepad in tow. The veil on the universe begins to drop, returning us all to our adult lives. But for a moment, for all of us, we were nothing but a bunch of skate rats trading stories in paradise.

















Maternal Pride is Universal

“I always told my son when he dreams to dream with big wings.”

Sitting in the rear passenger seat of a silver Uber, the driver is telling me about her life. She’s friendly, she’s passionate, she’s only lived in America for a half-dozen years. In her accent, gently rolling with a hypnotizing melodic rhythm, she tells me is from Canada.

“My son has tried lots of things,” she said as we pick our way though the traffic. “But he always gives it his best.”

The last part of the sentence bubbles with the pride only a parent can project.

She’s been in the US for a short time, moving to California only after her 49-year old son finally convinced her to pull up stakes and join him in San Diego.

“At some point you also get tired of shoveling snow,” she said as we merged on to the parkway.

She’s young but she’s not – at least in terms of someone who is only measured by the dates registered on a driver’s license.

“My other son, he’s retired from the Army,” she said. “Lives down here.”

Mothers are remarkable. No one can project more pride than that of someone who literally brought you into the world.

She mentions a movie her son helped on after retiring from the military. The story is of Navy Seals going in to rescue a kidnaped American.

“He helped get the actors trained for their parts,” she said. “After watching the movie I got a better idea of what he did.”

She mentions watching the movie with her son and now being scared to death about what he did while serving in the military. She’s glad she didn’t know at the time.

Our silver SUV weaves back and forth as she darts between other cars. Her son’s confidence apparently comes naturally.

Both her sons carry her DNA and her drive to shape the world around them. As a mother, she has done her job well.

We pull into the circle drive of the hotel. A bellman walks out as she brings the car to a stop. She quickly hops out and heads to the back of the SUV. I offer to help.

“I work out at the gym,” she says. “This part is like getting in an extra workout.”

Grabbing the heavy suitcases, she effortlessly places them on the ground. The SUV quickly empties and she turns to say goodbye.

“Well, I hope you enjoy your visit.”

We shake hands. Her eyes are bright, her smile broad.

And like that, a force of nature, one beaming with maternal pride, boundless energy, and optimism, she slides back behind the wheel of the car.

As she pulls away I can’t help but feel as if God wanted me to meet this person. Life is an odd trail and if we pay attention, God puts the most interesting people in our pathway. I’m glad I met this woman who lights up the life of everyone she meets.




Must Be Present to Win

A friend once shared one of the hidden secrets to life he’d discovered.

“When I was doing handyman work, a lot times I get job because I was the only guy who would show up.”

My friend is right.

I also remember my mother saying, “The early bird gets the worm.” At the time I thought she was explaining why some birds were bigger than others. Only years later did the words reveal themselves as a key marker on the roadmap of success.

Life is hard, but many times harder than we make it by not giving it our all.

Looking back on life I recognize the most anxious moments or those that would try and drag me mentally down were generally self-inflicted. Worrying without taking action is a dangerous cocktail.

I enjoy reading autobiographies. Doing so is like getting to live extra lives and experiences in what little time God decides is appropriate. And woven through most engaging biographies are stories of great failure – and what came next.

Right now I am working my way through an autobiography of Richard Branson, founder of Virgin enterprises and billionaire. And with nearly every chapter comes another example of him sticking his finger in an electrical outlet until he finds the one opportunity that hits. His number of business failures far exceeds the number of those that gone on to succeed. And the same is true with Bruce Springsteen’s biography and that of automotive manufacturer Tesla Motors and Space-X founder Elon Musk. All three showed up early, never let their vision be clouded by the periodic failures along the way, and changed their piece of the world.

Like most people in the world, each carries a vision. And like most people, they believe the world needs what they have or see.

But unlike most people, they act.

I have a friend who is saying the worst thing you can do in a crisis is to do nothing. He’s right. Doing nothing is pretty much a guarantee nothing will change or most likely worsen. And from that comes added anxiety, stress, and almost an ironclad guarantee of a self-fulfilled failure.

Which brings me back to my first friend’s testimony of why he was able to be successful as a handyman.

I don’t need to look to far to see this play out in my daily life. Recently I needed gutters on the house. I phoned three or four different people and companies. Guess who got the business – the one who showed up to perform a bid. And to top it off, he showed up on time the Sunday morning he said he world and his work was exceptional.

Look at the formula: he showed up, offered a bid, said when he’d do the work, and did the quality work as promised.

Life is hard when you don’t give it your all and can’t take a punch or three along the way. Get up, show up, make it happen.


Social Media Dependency A Real Risk

The breakup was hard. We’d become so close over the years. With each day, our lives become increasingly intertwined; my secrets no longer mine and mine alone. My thoughts consumed by my need to share, the need to tell, and an increasing expectation for validation.

Breaking up from social media was one of the most difficult experiences in my life.

This may seem odd, but I’m so glad this chapter of dependency is behind me.

I wasn’t a heavy user and could quit anytime – at least that is what I said to myself. But was it changing the way my mind naturally worked? And was social media taking away valuable time with the most important people in my life? And how did my digital dependency become so powerful?

Social media is developed on scientific behavioral data resulting in the intentional numbing our self-awareness. And our organic brains are no match for learning algorithms written with the intent of manipulating our behaviors.

Facebook claims US adults spend nearly one hour per day scrolling, clicking, and uploading photos. The math equates to more than 2 weeks annually – nearly equal to the time the average American takes off for paid vacation. Imagine that. There are as many people spending more than 2 weeks scrolling, clicking, and making comments. And the end result is nothing of any real value or able to carry forward.

Breaking up is hard. It is more than deleting the apps from you phone or removing from your bookmark menu. There is a chemical dependency you must first break – the very one the rewiring of your brains are feeding you with every like, every share, every view. Through these we become literal dope addicts – the neocortex releasing small doses of highly addictive dopamine as a reward for the visual or emotional input. We become, chemically, dope addicts. Thus simply deleting the app or saying you will eliminate will bring on mental withdrawal pains.

For weeks my chemically dependent brain instinctively fought for its shot of dope – urging me to check my social media accounts, upload a photo of something I might see, or thumb scroll a the never ending feed of images or posts. Breaking up was hard as my brain chemically unwound itself.

Recently a friend said she, too, deleted the Facebook app from her phone and discovered something remarkable.

“I was standing in line at the grocery store and suddenly struck up a conversation with a stranger,” she said. “Before that I would’ve been scrolling my app.”

“It was like going back in time and I loved it!”

Recently more of my friends are sharing their recovering journey from social media dependency. Afterwards they admit to being surprised how deeply social media had encroached into their lives. And getting their life back altered how they would forever use the media in the future.

Social media is not too unlike fire. Used purposefully it can be remarkably beneficial. But unchecked it can destroy you and all things you hold dearly.



America’s DNA On Display In Desert Town

Terlingua is hard to spell and even more difficult to get to. No one ends up in small desert town by accident. Located west of Big Bend National Park in Texas, the small town is at the crossroads of nowhere and hard to find.

But among the quirky atmosphere and desolate landscape, life is remarkably familiar.

With a newly filled tank of gas, I turn south and pull into a small Mexican restaurant on the eastern side of the highway. Dusty pickup trucks outnumber cars about 10 to 1. And eleven is about how many vehicles are parked in the gravel lot. The single story building is modest, roughly the size of a double-car garage.

But as far away from what many of us consider normal, life inside the four walls is surprisingly recognizable. In the kitchen an eclectic sound of pots, pans, and a microwave beeps fight for attention. Mom and dad work together to manage the orders coming through the window. Wooden shelves struggle under the weight of large cans waiting to be called into action. Everything in the kitchen is at arm’s reach – even each other.

The front is managed by a teenage girl, daughter to crew working the kitchen, who shares orders in Spanish through the door or window. She’s young, her decorated fingernails tapping her iPhone between handing out menus to whoever comes through the single door. Copied so many times, the words and descriptions are faded and running together.

Behind the register on the wall is a framed newspaper clipping. A ribbon and medal lay across the story of the local boy who set a record in track and field. His family is proud as they continue to work in the kitchen around the corner.

We sometimes get lost in the popular narrative of business’s success being measured by what a financial talking head might say on television: is the business scalable and will it grow? Are they maximizing their prices and preparing to expand into another market? What is the financial exit plan?

Success in this small business located along the unforgiving desert is measured by a completely different yet equally valuable set of metrics. Inside a family is working together, each dependent on each other to play an important role in the restaurant, and to never lose sight of what is important in life – their family unit.

Diners come and go while I am sitting near the door. There is no tension between family members – only a fluid and well-oiled process of operating a small family business. Conversations bark back and forth, orders are delivered to tables with minimal fuss, and no one is rushed out the door. Their home is for the sharing with those who have come in from the hard environment.

The family business is the backbone of America. Generations of small businesses raised their families beneath their feet while serving customers. Work ethic and respect for each other were burnished into the DNA. And in Terlingua, the true American small business is still alive and well.












Cats In the Cradle Comes Home

I’ve lived long enough to complete crossing the arc of Harry Chapman’s iconic folk song, Cats in the Cradle.

Our son called the other night.

“Hey,” he said. “I’m just calling to check in on you guys.”

My wife and I put my phone on speaker so we could share the experience together. He’s crossed over his mid-twenties but in our eyes, will always be the excited blue-eyed boy ready to greet each morning. As parents, memories of our children tend to suspend themselves in amber like an insect trapped in time. We are the same.

Background noise hints he is his car. The hours separating us are there, but he is always on our minds.

“All good on this end,” he said. “How about you?”

I convinced no matter how many years go on our personal odometers an unexpected call from your child will always magically refresh your soul like a cold drink of ice water on a humid Texas afternoon.

We barely get into the conversation when a pulsing sound between us indicates another call is coming in on his end.

“Hey, he interrupts. “I need to take this call.”

It wasn’t necessarily the words themselves, but the phrasing and tone. Strong, firm, mature. In one moment, my wife and I both recognizing the paradigm of parenting shifting. Looking down at his photo on the screen looking back at us, the moment fused in our hearts.

Much like the song, our son had unknowingly crossed the line into full-blown adulthood by using the exact phrase easily recognized in our family – six words he’d heard as code for a highly-important call related to work throughout his life.

“I need to take this call.”

In our home, this was a drop everything code for a storm hitting and the newspaper losing power, an unexpected call from a coworker at a highly unusual hour, or one from someone we were urgently waiting a return call. In our family, the phrase was sparingly used, but universally understood. No one’s feeling were hurt, but rather we all recognized as a family a newspaper’s life is fluid and unpredictable on each of us.

In Chapman’s song, the story arch goes from the young boy wishing for his father’s attention to a total role reversal, one where the father is now the child thirsting for a moment – any moment – with his son.

If you are a parent, it is hard to listen to this song without both your mind and body reacting to the deep and authentic emotions. From the young boy asking his dad to play catch to the closing where the son is telling the father he’s tied up with work and the kids have the flu, the words rip deeply into the listener’s heart. I remember doing the same as a kid with my dad, fighting to get his attention.

And like the day of his birth, our conversation this week will always be held closely as one I will never forget – and my world shifted.



MLK Continues to Lead, Teach

I met Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in a small wooden sunroom off the side of our home in and even smaller Mississippi town.

Like many, the death of Dr. King occurred either early in our lives or before we were brought into this world. But getting to know someone through their writings and words can be a powerful journey.

Living in a modest community struggling to support two grocery stores at the same time, my wife and our two kids lived a year or so in a town where the horizon was defined by tall pine trees and one-syllable words were routinely stretched into two. People were equally modest, polite, and somewhat distant to anyone who was not born within the state let alone the city limits. My wife, a Texan by birth and me a Midwesterner, found ourselves at time living in a shadow dimension where words and gestures many times never quite lined up. But we loved it all the same, as if a door to curious culture had been left ajar just enough for us to peek in and look around.

At the time, in 1998, the autobiography of King was released. I’d grown up in a relatively quiet suburban life that could be transplanted to numerous other cities across the nation without any real material difference. But walking the streets and listening for the unspoken so carefully laced between those used in a small traditional southern town proved revealing.

 The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr. is a remarkable collection of interviews, recordings, correspondences, and other archival materials. His unvarnished words, unpolished and raw with emotion took me on a life-changing journey.

Racism is an ugly side of the human condition. No one with a heart or decency can honestly justify nor support of the practice. Furthermore, this human condition exists throughout both time and cultures around the globe. A universal scab on mankind not contained by borders or laws.

But sitting in the small sunroom off our home in Mississippi, pine trees whispering outside the window panes, I listened to Dr. King’s words as they came off the pages and into my soul. The pain, the injustice, the strength in character to never lose sight of the bigger picture, the longer goal. I hurt for him. There is nothing more powerful than reading the actual words penned by the originator as if sitting next to them. King’s voice is true, the emotion immediate, a powerful connection fusing between you and King. You cannot help but be changed.

Dr. King’s words and writings forever changed how I would look view the world. Sitting in the small room, I felt as if a rotating kaleidoscope of images and emotions fell into place – one forever solidifying and intensifying my instinct of measuring others based on their character and contributions to others, rather than the color of their skin, religious beliefs, or even small patch of dirt the found themselves entering this life on planet earth.

Thank you, Dr. King.








Flu Brings Fireworks and Dancing Bears

I’m sick of being sick.

The New Year snuck into our house under a fog of pharmaceutical haze – one where both time the time of day and any ability to reference a somewhat accurate date on calendar are lost to dreams of dancing bears and fireworks. A fever will do that to you.

Apparently this is one of the most popular flu seasons in a good while. According the Center for Disease Control, 47 of 50 states are reporting widespread outbreaks. Apparently Maine, New Hampshire, and Hawaii are good places to be right now if you wish to avoid the outbreak. I’ll take the latter if you’re asking.

I’ll admit not getting a flu shot is hardheaded, illogical, and can be medically threatening to someone who carries an AARP card. Add to the fact I’m a guy and still harbors misguided beliefs that most ailments will cure themselves if you simply try to walk them off. Being guilty of all of the above probably made me a prime target for an extended dance with this year’s all-American, star-spangled flu.

A few weeks ago a friend told me about his personal journey through the forest of bright lights, hallucinations, and all around body-draining experience.

“I don’t know how to explain it,” he said, “but I kept seeing this one word – berry – blinking before my eyes like a neon sign. And the image just kept coming back with my fever.”

If you know my friend, nothing takes this guy down. Tough, focused, not going to let a little discomfort keep him from engaging the day. That is until he ran across this year’s electric Kool-Aid themed flu bug.

A week later fireworks and dancing bears filled my head all from the vantage point of wrapped in a blanket on the living room sofa. I could only imagine this was akin to Timothy Leary experiencing Jimi Hendrix perform at Woodstock.

For those of you who have not had this year’s mode, here are the crib notes: prepare to suffer and hunker down for a week long cycle until you return to a shell of your previous self. Most of us wake up early, feel a bit woozy, and then like cresting atop a tall roller coaster, quickly descend into a furious ride through a funhouse of haunted terror. Not trying to scare you, but this is a miserable journey.

I laid down with plans of what to do the next day – celebrate New Years Eve, catch the college playoff football games on New Years Day, and draw up an annual list of goals – only to wake up as a twisted and modern version of Rip Van Winkle. When the fever finally broke, we were already a couple days into the new calendar year and people we talking about an epic double-overtime football game as old news.

And to add to my disorientation, it was already Tuesday.

So yes, I’m sick of being sick. I’ll live, but count me in for a flu shot next year.







Your Life Is In Your Hands

What if you had one more day to live? Would that change the way you lived today? And why?

Life is a long sequence of sunrises followed by sunsets – thousands to be literally correct. Too often we dismiss days off the calendar like we mindlessly dip our hand into a bag of chips. The start and finish similarly thoughtless.

Again, why? Why wait until a wake up call to lead your life by design, guided by what defines you, your dreams, and your values? Why not make your life, yours?

To be honest, we’ve all gone stretches of life with our heads boring into the wind, telling ourselves this too will pass. And for the most part, those moments are an essential part of building character, demonstrating to ourselves we can survive the worst life can throw at us. Nothing builds confidence like earning a victory by your own sweat and determination.

But do we also understand, those moments, as necessary as they are to our development, are designed to be temporary? Markers in life for us to rise up and build a better version of ourselves?

Time is a great teacher. Along the way we learn to understand not too much in life is worth getting worked up about, grudges tend to cheat us from important relationships, and the fear of the trying or doing new things is akin to being afraid of your shadow.

I know I’ve been blessed beyond anything in my dreams. I met the most wonderful woman in the world, together we built a beautiful family, and survived everything from not having money to buy a package of diapers to holding hands for possibly one last time before a surgery.

But in the end, which could be today as likely as any day, life has made each of us stronger and more resilient to whatever is ahead.

Life should be lived one day at a time – but on your terms. Too often the world would like us to sign on like we do for cable television and simply accept what comes out on the other end. Unfortunately, like what comes out of your television, most of it is crap.

I’m not the smartest guy in the room and most likely never have been or will. But life has helped me see taking notes and acting on what is most important to me is the difference between genuine fulfillment and helpless anxiety. It is my responsibility to use my God-given tools to create and shape the world around me.

I tell my children-now-adults that life is hard. But I also tell them you will more likely regret the opportunities you don’t take than those you will. Our minds want us to be safe; life, however, wants us to evolve, grow, and drink it in.

Before you figure out how to live tomorrow, make sure the one you are living today is one you would have no regrets of turning off the light switch one final time.