Big Lessons Discovered in Small Store

My life changed forever inside the walls of a Payless Shoe Source.

Last week the small-but-mighty chain of shoe stores from Topeka, Kansas announced the closing of its 2,100 stores. Known for affordable footwear, you could always find a pair of shoes to keep your toes dry and a leave a few dollars in your pocket.

But it wasn’t the knock-off Sperry boat shoes that changed my life – it was the job as a shoe clerk inside the modest building that changed my life.

I was in college and needed a job. Payless needed a clerk. Not exactly a match made in heaven, but a job nonetheless.

Back then the school posted jobs on a bulletin board on note cards. When you ran across one you were interested in, you pried out the thumbtack and carried the blue card around the corner to the job placement department. The lady at a small desk picked up the phone and arranged an interview.

After a career of typical high school jobs of making pizzas and dropping chicken into vats of boiling grease, my job application probably did not knock the store manager out of his shoe-fitting stool. But for some reason, the manager gave me a shot.

Gordon was an interesting man. With his oversized-plastic glasses continually sliding down his nose, Gordon was what we called a Shoe Dog. Unpacking cardboard shipping boxes and carefully arranging each pair of shoes into a precise order along the half-dozen rows was his kingdom.

But there was more. Gordon taught me to sell.

“Walk up to the customer, greet them, and offer to help them find something.”

He made it sound so simple and effortless. But for me, it was terrifying.

First time I was left alone in the store I almost threw up in the backroom toilet.

One day I remember hearing a lady with her small daughter on the next row looking for a pair of shoes for Easter. With my back against a row of men’s work boots, my stomach began heaving, and a wave of sweat washed over me like I was back shoving pizzas in a stone oven. I took a deep breath and forced myself around the corner offering to help.

I don’t know if I sold a pair of shoes that day. But I do know I relived the same physical and emotional nightmare repeatedly until it one day, curiously, it faded away into the background.

Soon I learned the art of meeting strangers, discovering common ground, and finding a way to help them along the way. And to my surprise, this rewarding and empowering lesson altered the course of my life for the better.

Today whenever I find myself facing an intimidating or stressful situation, I always remember standing with my back up against the wall of boots sweating and panting – trying to break free from the chains of self-doubt. And then suddenly, I know whatever is on the other side isn’t so scary after all.

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Life Changes Lanes Abruptly 

My nerves feel as if my fingertips are being dragged across a rough piece of 40-grit piece of sandpaper.

Sniffles are dripping through the receiver of my cell phone.

“They are going to take me into surgery next,” says the voice.

Our daughter is strong, confident, and driven. But she’s also human. Being wheeled into an operating room is enough to shake even toughest of exteriors.

The day began as another Friday; not a day she would end up in the hospital.

I am sitting on a sofa 800 miles from my little girl – the same one who turned 24 a month ago. My wife, too, is on the other side, sitting on a tarmac waiting for the plane to unload. She’s still an hour’s cab ride away from holding our daughter’s hand.

As a parent, there is nothing you won’t do or give up for your children. And if a bottle of magic dust existed that would allow me to trade places with my daughter right now, I would gladly hand over a ransom.

I don’t need to see tears to know they are dripping down her cheeks, my heart hears them clearly.

The doctor has come and gone. Our daughter knows what is ahead. But knowing does not dilute the unknown.

I tell her I love her and that everything is going to be all right. I say I wish I could gently hold her in my arms.

Muffling sounds come from the other side.

“Someone is here. I need to go,” she says.

I discover an invisible force pushing back against my finger as it hovers above the glowing red button on the screen. Mercifully, the other end goes quiet.

My wife texts she is in a cab. It is raining. The driver says an hour.

Earlier today a friend told me of the birth of his first granddaughter and how he was given the honor to cut the umbilical cord. His words carried me back to a small hospital in western Pennsylvania when my daughter decided to arrive on a day Mother Nature decided to dust the landscape in white. I cut the cord that day as well. As much as I feel the memory is from yesterday, I know she is an adult, the time between dissipating into a mist of memories.

My phone dings from the kitchen counter. The doctor is going to hold for 10-minutes for my wife to arrive.

Twenty minutes later the map on my phone shows my wife is at the hospital. A text arrives saying the doctor’s held for my wife. I thank God – literally.

For the next several hours I catch snippets of sleep with the phone planted in my hand. A call comes each hour to share an update. Finally, a text says our daughter is headed for a room.

My wife calls. I know where my daughter gets her strength. Tears meet across the digital spectrum between us.

And now, as a family, we move forward.

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Cell Phone Stolen By Uninvited Callers

Someone has stolen my cell phone. And the odd thing is, the little black device the size of a perfect skipping rock is sitting next to me.

My cell phone constantly rings, converted into a de facto dumping ground for robot dialing, trespassing telemarketers. I’m not sure how this happened. I did not invite them into my private space and I wish they would go away.

My cell phone is a private space. From the home screen with a photo taken while my wife and I stood along the Pacific Ocean one chilly February afternoon to the Kenny Chesney music stored away for when I need a cool breeze of relief from the 40-grit sandpaper day. My cell phone is also home to strings of group text messages from my son, daughter, and wife – each dripping with the loving sarcasm only a family can deliver.

My cellphone is my personal and deeply intimate world. And I want my privacy back.

When I was a kid, a beige telephone hung from the wall in the kitchen. With a pigtail cord, you could walk clear over to the stove but not much further. And when the muffled but ear-piercing bells rang, you would run from wherever in the house you might be. After all, it might be long-distance.

But as much as we respected our telephone, we also viewed it as something akin to a public utility – much like the electricity running through the walls or the water dripping from the faucet over the kitchen sink.

I remember when telemarketers would interrupt our family dinnertime, and the caller would be lucky enough to get my dad on the line. He’d listen for a few moments like a cat waiting calmly for a few moments for its prey to drop down its defenses. And then my dad would spring in for the kill.

“Is this one of those damn recordings?”

On the other side of the call you could hear the pitch jaggedly interrupted, a bit of hemming and hawing, and then, sensing his moment, my dad would throw down his theatrically delivered closing line.

“Sorry, I don’t buy from people I don’t know and call me on the phone.”

And without another word, he would calmly replace the handset – many times with the voice on the other end trying to restart their pitch – as if nothing ever happened.

Today my cell phone lights up all day with the names of cities I’ve never visited and area codes I don’t recognize.

There was a time I loved my cell phone. To me, it represented the ultimate in privacy and convenience. I could drop off the face of the world and be back in a moment if need be.

But today my cell phone is the bane of my existence – now the 40-grit sandpaper of my life. Robot-calling thieves have stolen a private and valuable space. And with each passing day, this little device looks more and more like a perfect skipping rock.

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Technology invades daily life

“I feel like a 90-year-old man trapped in the future.”

My friend and I are standing in a hotel where so much technology is baked into the place you would swear you were standing in the cargo bay of Stanley Kubrick’s classic movie “2001: A Space Odyssey.”

We are not in the future, but rather a mainstream hotel off a generic highway exit 30 minutes north of Fort Worth. Blink and you would miss it.

“I can’t even figure out how to turn the lights on and off in my room,” he says.

There are moments when we realize the world is relentlessly marching forward, leaving us increasingly behind, holding on by only our fingertips.

We have everything from doorbells that double as video cameras to small connected devices on the kitchen counter capable of making a new television arrive on our doorstep the next day.

All of this, however, can leave some, like my friend, standing in the technological dark fumbling to turn on the lights.

My friend was not alone in over-connected funk.

“Why does my mirror in the bathroom have a power button and Bluetooth,” said another.

Technology is our friend. But when it becomes a friction point, we should ask ourselves are we going too far.

Pining is an old-fashioned phrase of when one romantically longs for the simpler days of when what you got was what you saw. I’ve never used the phrase — until now.

The standard room greets me with an iPad device to adjust the temperature, brighten and dim lights, and speakers built into the mirrors. My keycard is required to operate the elevator, and I won’t be surprised if they ask me for my Amazon password when I go to check out. I can feel my fingernails coming into play.

I pine for a key that fits in a slot to open my door. I pine for a light switch I can feel with my hand as I fumble across the room in the dark. And I pine for a mirror that does one thing well — let me know whether my shirt is tucked in before I head out the door.

I pine for a rental car that does not ask my name, ask to connect to my cell phone and requires the keys to be stuck into the dashboard.

My friend shakes his head as we get ready to part. His frustration reminds me of the time my 90-year-old dad traded in his flip phone for an iPhone.

“I want to talk to the Google,” he said.

Holding it in his hand like a delicate flower, he stared at it wondering where to begin.

The same feeling came over me holding the small touch-screen in the hotel room. I did not know where to start, what to do or how to get something to happen. I was, pardon the pun, left standing in the dark.

All I could do was walk back in the elevator and ask HAL to open the pod doors.

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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.

toast.jpg

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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