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.

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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.

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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.

 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Americana Served with Chili

I discovered America alive and well over a bowl of chili the other day.

Romance is a funny thing – our hearts and minds working together to present an edited version of the past. One where the burs are softened the unvarnished is touched up here and there. Artist Norman Rockwell made a good living tapping into this vein of Americana.

But on the corner of two well-worn streets, America is still living as true as red, white, and blue.

Grey skies and cutting northerly winds instinctively send me searching for a bowl of chili. This week, however, I found warmth is not limited to a ceramic bowl and stainless steel spoon. In a small, community pub, you would be hard pressed to find a better slice of Americana.

Darkened wood, black and white sports photos, and dollar bills lightly draping from the walls and ceilings, these bastions of our history would make Norman Rockwell proud.

The waitress takes my order without needing to write it down, greets people by their first names, and connects with every patron on one level or another. The menu is simple but honest. Some sandwiches appeared to be originally named after star athletes who now sit in their respective sport’s halls of fame. Larry Bird and Ryne Sandburg should be honored.

The door, cut at a 45-degree angle and facing both streets, swings open and patrons purposefully walk in taking a seat at the modest bar. Never reaching for a menu, the waitress many times simply confirms what she thinks they want. Drinks, similarly, arrive without spoken communication. One man’s shirt reflects the contractor he is working for while the person next to him thumbs through the Wall Street Journal. Flip phones competed with iPads.

Americana is alive and well.

In true Texan style, my chili arrives absent of beans.

The door abruptly swings open. A man loudly asks everyone in the room where the nearest Mexican restaurant is located. Patrons offer directions and he is off back into the cold.

Americana is an interesting concept. Honest, authentic, and you can touch it like you shake a man’s hand. Rusted pickup trucks, catching the whiff of a hot dog on the grill, and two people laughing for the sake of laughing. Real. No filter. You know it when you see it, hear it, feel it.

The chili is great. My body sends a thank you card up from my toes – the warmth apparently working its way through my system.

The door burst open again. The return visitor loudly says that is not the right Mexican restaurant. He describes the booths. Someone gives him directions to another up the street. He turns and exits. The place returns to normal as if loud strangers bursting through the door and abruptly asking for directions is normal in the first place.

The chili disappears quickly, my body hungry for not only the food, but for the peek at Americana. Have faith, America still exists.

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Keeping A Grinch Named Harvey Away

Rows of tall empty cardboard boxes stand at attention waiting to be filled. Each box represents a family in-need; each family represents a child or three. There are hundreds of them. The math equates to over 3,000 Galveston County children in need this season.

For many, Hurricane Harvey is the Grinch attempting to steal Christmas.

The Salvation Army of Galveston County is housing their distribution center inside the dark and hollow space once occupied by the Dillard’s department store at the Mall of the Mainland in Texas City. The space is deep, dark, and cavernous. Voices echo and get lost in the depth of the once alive space. The number of rows of boxes only adds weight to the task ahead.

The other evening my wife and I stopped by to offer a hand filling orders for the Angel Tree. The hard truth is there are still too many Angel Tree vouchers waiting to be filled this year. The impact from Harvey continues to hang over Galveston County – threatening to steal Christmas from the youngest and most innocent residents.

Behind every cardboard box is a family prequalified to be in need. While their circumstances are as individual as the spelling of their names, their situations are similar – they are hurting.

Each year many people go out of their way to collect an Angel Tree voucher. The process is simple – children request a few modest items they would wish to see under the tree. A toy, a book, and more times than you would imagine, clothes to wear. When an individual returns the order filled and ready, the bag is then placed in the box designated for the family and child, waiting for the pick up date.

The hard reality is not all Angle Tree vouchers are collected ahead of time – leaving many to be being filled by volunteers inside the hollow shell of an empty department store.

On the night we visited, children and adults were filling Angel Tree vouchers. Long tables of donated items – toys, clothes, socks, and books – lined the walls as volunteers work to fill the orders. Once filled, the volunteer searches through the rows of numbered boxes, placing the bag inside the family’s designated box.

Here is the truth – this is labor intensive and the supplies are low. If you have the opportunity to help, this is the year. Remarkably the items in need are modest, many kids saying clothes as their most needed items. Books, too, are especially high on the list and low in availability.

The entire experience of filling the orders is humbling. Imagining the faces behind the vouchers is impossible for anyone with a beating, loving heart.

Let’s not let a Grinch named Harvey steal our children’s Christmas. Reach out and help. Allow your blessings to help bless others this year.

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Make a difference today by making a donation or volunteering to help. Contact Holly McDonald at the Salvation Army of Galveston County at: Holly.McDonald@uss.salvationarmy.org.

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Handshake Becoming Endangered Species? 

Strolling down a quiet street in eastern Texas, a small white window sign catches my eye.

“Where a handshake still means something,” read the black letters.

Pausing, I couldn’t help to find myself transported back to learning the ropes of life as a young adult and how one conducts themselves as a person of character. A world where your word is stronger than any signature on a piece of paper, a handshake universally binds you to another, and your name is the most valuable possession you’ll ever own.

The black and white letters hung with me as a full moon looked over my shoulder, casting my shadow towards the building.

Life really is that simple, I thought. And are we making sure to pass these timeless concepts to future generations? And if not, what will this mean?

I’ve bought cars, houses, and deeply apologized over a handshake. And never was there a question by either end of the grasp what being communicated or committed. Deal was done or apology accepted.

Today I pay for items with the swipe of my phone or by inserting a small plastic card into a reader. I can also spend thousands of dollars by clicking a mouse over a small image on a computer screen. Nothing is real, nothing is said – only ones and zeros racing around the globe in small packets of data.

I increasingly miss the currency of the handshake. Binding, personal, and universally accepted as more valuable than gold. As much as the world of technology continues to tractor us into a world absent of looking one another in the eyes, I take great comfort in knowing people of true character never walk away from a handshake.

A friend once casually tossed out a phrase after explaining why he’d done something to help another in need.

“Heck, that is just the Cowboy Way,” he said. He was tall, his words slow, and his word gold.

I thought about his words and the emotional gravity they projected. Your word is good, your handshake binding, and doing the right thing is non-negotiable. And at every opportunity, he did.

The sign kept looking at me. I thought about the tradition of teaching young people to look another directly in the eyes when speaking, being sincere in your commitments, and only offering a handshake when you are ready to conclude an agreement or reach a mutual understanding. Are we making sure to instill these values in current and future generations? I hope so. These values and traditions are critical predictors of a person as they go through life.

I wonder where this is all leading, that is are these basic tenants of maturity going to end up in the scrap heap of society? The outcome is nothing short of unnerving. To have our most valuable currency evaporate, replaced by digital signatures or passwords, is to potentially undermine our trust in each other.

My friend clearly knows what his word and handshake mean. Let’s hope technology doesn’t delete this valuable tradition.

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