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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Your Phone Is Not Your Friend

Life is eerily quiet of late. Or maybe I’m simply readjusting to a normal life.

This week I turned off nearly all of the notification settings nested inside my iPhone. No more news alerts about events roosting on the outer limits of my interests. Gone are the intrusive noises or text messages originating from the abyss of social media. Visual and audio silence never sounded so good.

The other day I was listening to a podcast from an author who questioned if the flood of input from our phones was a curse or blessing. Are we masters or servants to our phones? Are we turning inward and limiting our mind’s ability to sit idly and daydream?

This touched a bit too close to home for me. I have never considered myself the smartest person in the room. The only exception might be if I were alone room with a chair – and that could still be a debate. But in life we learn to play the cards God dealt us. For me, finding a creative way out of the proverbial paper bag was always one of the limited number of cards in my hand. I found her question unsettling.

Somehow through granting incremental permissions settings, I’d turned my life over to my phone. I was no longer the master, instead I was responding to the urgency of my phone’s wishes. My time was increasingly subservient to the what my phone dictated. Embarrassingly this small black brick of technology had successfully flipped the paradigm of control between us.

Albert Einstein reportedly said he got his best ideas while riding his bicycle. Not to say his bicycle stirred a particular space in his mind, but rather the act allowed his thoughts to wander and roam wherever they cared to go. Creativity works that way – the removal of rules, constraints, and expectations. Apple founder Steve Jobs called the creative process the connecting of unrelated dots in the universe in order to find new solutions.

The magic ingredient is quiet time – the time when your mind is mulling over ideas and thoughts like kernels of corn exploding in a hot pan of oil.

Having the time to daydream is one of our most valuable assets. No computer in the world, even one combining the sophistication of both AI (artificial intelligence) and EI (emotional intelligence) will ever replicate the instinctive creative process. There will only be one Mona Lisa.

Yesterday was a remarkably quiet day. I might have missed a marginal headline being fed to my world, but in the end the interruption didn’t change my life. When I wanted to see what was going on in the world, I decided when the world merited my attention. Instead I spent time day dreaming and working to push the intrusive and marginal noises of life away from my thoughts.

Day one was awesome; day two even better. All by taking a few minutes to turning the table on my phone. Day dreaming, after all, isn’t kids play.

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Meeting Myself Revealing Experience

The other day and friend and I were talking about life. Jokingly I suggested I wouldn’t be surprised if at my funeral someone might say “well that was fun to watch while it lasted.”

Afterwards the words refused to clear out my head. It was as if once out, the words were demanding their due contemplation and closer examination. Apparently a deeply rooted element of my psyche had stepped into the day of light and was refusing to quietly return.

The next day I took the words along for an hour and half bike ride along the ocean. And along the way I discovered some interesting answers to questions I never asked myself before. Like why am I attracted to strong, individualists in life, those who many consider the odd or misfits? Or why, when given a choice to do something new verses something I’ve done before, instinctively choose the former? And why is one of my greatest fears is I will run out of time before I get the opportunity to experience everything life offers?

Funny things can happen when your subconscious comes outside to play.

Sigmund Freud would be pleased to hear much of what I learned during this hour and a half of self-psychoanalysis ties back to my mother. And probably for most of us, this is true as well.

I now recognize my mother as a misfit. While she did her best to blend into the surroundings of her time and era, the gypsy mentality of living life with an engaging spirit to all and everything around her was always on display. She made life the life of those around her, remarkable.

An immigrant to the US in the 1950’s, she arrived in New York with essentially a suitcase and her name. And she never looked back. Her ability to look for the good in people, shake off the bad, and always move forward in life became seeds she would plant in me years later.

I remember once sitting up watching a variety show and a segment coming on with a musician playing the piano. Dressed in glitter, rings on all his fingers, and giant candelabra on the white grand piano, I asked why he was so different.

“People might make fun of him but this is America and he’s laughing all the way to the bank,” she said.

I remember how that stuck with me – my mother putting an influential seal of approval for me to view people who were different as the true risk takers, the courageous. For years she would continue to come back to this theme of not being afraid to be yourself and not letting the fear of things not turning out as you planned keep you from experiencing life.

I was fifteen when her bright candle unexpectedly went out, her passing from the side effects of a routine operation. But fortunately, and what I realized in my hour of self-psychoanalysis, she’d successfully passed along her candle to me to carry.

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Winds of Change Roll Through Life

The young man is in his early twenties. He smiles as broadly as the mountains surrounding the  small Alabama town tucked at the piedmont of one of God’s practice runs before getting to the Rockies.

“Welcome back,” he says as I approach the counter. My stops off the interstate in his town are more frequent as of late. Waffle House and a hardware store are both shadow the hotel.

We walk through the check-in process, he hands me my room key, and leans forward.

“I’ve been accepted to seminary school,” he says. “Start in January. Florida.”

I offer my congratulations and shake his hand.

“Yes, sir,” he says, “Felt the Lord’s calling as of late and this sort of popped up out of nowhere.”

I asked him about his chemistry degree, the one he’d always updated me when I’d visit.

“I’m within three classes but I might find a college down there and see about finishing up. Maybe teach and preach one day.”

He tells me about how he’d been telling his mom he wouldn’t be around much longer. Something big is coming, he said to her. She hoped nothing bad was going to happen. He assured her whatever it was would be good – wasn’t going to die or anything like that.

Then came an unsolicited message from a small seminary school planted on the panhandle of Florida. Pine trees, white sand, and Jesus, so to speak.

He’s as puzzled at the turn of event as anyone. He’d said to someone in passing he might one day consider the seminary. He figures a phone call must’ve got placed recommending a young man in northeast Alabama. A letter then went out addressed to the zip code of a small town populated with green trees and red dirt.

Youth is an odd thing. When we are young, the world is revealing itself with tiny clues leaving us to figure out how to navigate the opportunities ahead. Life outside of the nest can go either way – terrifying or enthralling. For this young man, he seems hardwired for the second.

A bit later he brings out his Bible. Meaty, brown, with gold-flakes reflecting off the edges of each page.

“I figured I might need to start reading this – they might be referring to it,” he says. His eyes are bight, expressive, and hint at someone who might be up for tossing toilet paper through the trees of a neighbor’s house on a moment’s notice.

“I’m reading the easy ones first – the short ones with single chapters.”

As the words hang between us I’m not sure if he’s joking or being serious. A betting man might rightly wager on the latter.

He’s young. His feet are where God planted him on the first day he came to be. But bit-by-bit the world is opening up around him. The winds of change are blowing through the piedmont of northeast Alabama.  And for one young man, he’s hitching a ride to wherever they take might lead him.

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Have Pity on the Superstitious Baseball Fan

My wife will not walk into a room when a baseball game is playing on the television. Welcome to the life of a spouse married to a superstitious baseball fan.

“I’m not coming downstairs – I don’t want to get stuck,” she said during the second game of the World Series.

Last week, during game seven against the Yankees, she made mistake of sitting down as the Astros began their push. Like a fly trapped in a spider web, I would not let go of her hand nor let either of us leave the game. Even after the break, we’d come back, I’d put the pillows in the same spot, even wrap our arms together in the same position. I even adjusted how we were holding hands to make sure I didn’t mess up the karma on the field of play.
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The Astros won. Case closed.

Baseball is a game filled with superstition like no other. Many of us, year of playing behind us, continue to honor baseless traditions like never stepping on a white chalk line, selecting lucky socks for special events, and incorporating rote routines into our daily lives. Even the selection of a parking space at work can become a hidden sign of our misguided allegiance to our baseball superstitions. We are a sad lot.

A friend of mine recently shared of how he dealt with a particularly difficult game driving home from Austin.

“I was moving my hands all around the steering wheel trying to change the karma,” he said. “I’d move them to 10 and 2, then 9 and 3, heck, I even found myself leaning into the steering wheel when I ran out of hand positions.”

“You’d think as a rational adult I would realize one guy driving in a car in Texas is not controlling the outcome of one baseball game in New York city.”

Like I said earlier, superstition runs deep in a baseball fan’s life.

We may look like normal people, but when you get to know us you discover we hold our superstitions close. Keeping them to ourselves in daily life, there are signs. Do we walk in the same door when given a choice of others? Do we drive the same pathway to work only to change when we we’ve had a couple of difficult days? We are out there amongst you.

One year I was on a tear – leading the league in triples. For weeks I hid my socks from my mom, bringing the dirty, sweaty – but lucky – socks out into the light of day only on game day. Whatever magic was in the socks I was convinced could not stand up to whatever cleaning agent was in a box of Tide detergent. I still believe that.

So please go easy on us. We know we have demons. But whatever you do, if the team is playing well, don’t leave the room. We know how the universe works and are going to make sure the home team always wins.

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Drive Not Defined by Limb Count

Amid a sea of cyclists I spot rider number 819.

He’s standing beside a half-dozen orange and white water coolers. Hundreds of cyclists jockey for position refilling their water bottles. Brightly colored cycling kits complete for attention. White paper number tags populate the backs of rider’s colorful shirts.

I walk over to number 819 and introduce myself.

“Mind if I ask?” I said looking him directly in the eyes.

He smiles and extends his hand. His eyes are warm, his handshake friendly.

“No, I’m not a veteran but it still hurt like hell.”

I first noticed rider number 819 up ahead pushing across the flat roads surrounding the bay. His gait was different but consistent.

Trucks and cars pushed past us along the two-lane highway, their wind wake pushing each of us briefly to the right and then sucking to the left. Naturally, we all watch out for each other.

As I drew closer I noticed his left leg – or the leg not there. Below his knee was an engineering marvel dressed in a sock and tennis shoe. High-tech parts driven by a powerful human heart.

We exchanged names, spoke about the ride, and his story.

“I lost it about ten years ago in a motorcycle accident.”

He is relaxed and someone who comfortable in his own skin. He is confidence balanced with humility – impossible not to like. Likeable is a fitting word.

Five years ago he got on a bicycle.

Never really rode before, he said.

We talk about the ride and the distance ahead of us. One hundred miles – or century – is a cyclist’s equivalent to a runner’s marathon of 26.2 miles. Everyone has an individual story, a reason, and motivation. Spending a day of sunlight unnaturally positioned over an inch of inflated rubber is enough to make others question your judgment.

Number 819, while one of thousands of riders, is one in a million. His newfound journey is one of grit, commitment, and self-accomplishment. He’s not dressed to impress, but rather to reflect his laid back and confident composure. In a sea of brightly colored riders, he’s dressed in comfortable commuter cycling shorts and top. His outward appearance is as comfortable and approachable as his personality.

He tells me his name, inviting me to find him on Facebook afterwards. The ride is his third century of the year. His commitment to the intricate web of reasoning behind  his riding is deep and personal.

We shake hands, we part, and he places a white ear bud into his ear.

I can only imagine his journey – the one before the bike. The pain, the mental challenges, and the unknown he faced after his accident. But here he is – solid, confident, and composed.

Walking back into the sea of brightly colored cyclists I realize rider number 819 changed my outlook on my day, my life, my future. He reminded me life is what we make of it – that is embracing life one pedal stroke at a time.

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Losing Your (Musical) Virginity Powerful

The first time I heard the Rolling Stones it cost me ten cents. Same for the John, Paul, George, and Ringo.

Standing in a neighbor’s garage, I picked up a stack of small black discs from a dark green Ping-Pong table turned garage sale display case.

“Ten cents a piece,” came a woman’s voice. “There are some good one’s if you look hard enough.”

Nixon was president and our family sedan consumed gasoline like a thirsty dog laps up water on a hot July afternoon. My ears were about to lose their virginity.

I’d only recently earned double-digit candles and didn’t know any of the cryptic names printed on labels. Forty-fives, the lady called them. They seemed almost mysterious and different. I bit.

“Hard Day’s Night” / Lennon and McCartney said an orange and yellow label. “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” / Rolling Stones read another. I grabbed a half dozen.

At that point in life I dealt exclusively in coin currency. I handed the lady the correct change. Putting down her cigarette, she counted the coins and sent me on my way– a short walk across our shared backyards.

I remember walking through the back door of our small house, down the hallway, and into my back bedroom. Closing the door behind me, I went over to a small, portable record player sitting on a repurposed cabinet.

Not knowing one song from the other, I randomly selected a disc and dropped the needle arm. Keith Richards came out of 2-inch speaker. To this day, the opening riff instantly transports me to standing in my childhood bedroom being indoctrinated into a magical world of sound and emotion. Suddenly a demarcation line was etched in my lifeline – one with Walt Disney on one side and Mick Jagger on the other.

Losing your musical virginity is a powerful thing.

The morning consisted of me flipping records over and over, not knowing the difference between and A and B-side. My room became a Pandora’s box of musical discovery, me carefully dropping the needle onto the discs for hours.

This changed everything in my childhood home – suddenly I had my own music. And as if a root of independence was planted with the opening riff from Richards, my music exposure was no longer limited to jazz, Dixieland, and classical music – the music of choice in our home. The discovery of rock music was as if I’d somehow walked into a Baskin-Robins after only knowing three flavors of ice cream existed – vanilla, strawberry, and chocolate.

Today I have an AARP card, two adult children, and sometimes find myself standing in the kitchen not knowing what I came in looking for in the first place. I also mindlessly take a cocktail of prescribed pills in the morning in hopes each is going down for a reason and will result is something good.

But no matter how many years pass the best medicine for whatever ails me was purchased long ago for a handful of coins.

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Dates On Calendar Simply Digits

“Oh, that was last Tuesday I think.”

You know you’ve been together a long time as a couple when significant dates in your relationship quietly sneak by unnoticed and afterwards you both only laugh.

My wife and I are now in our 36th year of being together. The math consists of 6 years of me trying to gain her confidence and another 30 with rings on our fingers. Mix in two children, two dogs, and living in over a half-dozen cities and you get the idea of why we are easily confused when asked to provide a zip code when checking out of a grocery store.

I am still not sure why she said yes between classes that day in college. Like I’ve said before, she is smart. Maybe I caught her on an off day. It happens.

So here we are decades later laughing with each other because we can’t seem to remember dates on the calendar. Empty-nesting they call this stage. Whatever it is, we call it awesome.

We’ve seen things we never ever dreamed existed, discovered emotions we never knew could be felt, and already realize there are not enough days left to spend with each other.

Today as empty nesters we are in a new stage of life. Together we’ve raised and launched two remarkable adults into the world yet can’t wait to see each other at the end of the day. We had no idea there was this figurative pot of gold was waiting at this stage in life.

The other day a friend was telling me about how he and his wife loved their newfound freedom to simply drop and go. No questions asked, no worries. He laughs as he says this is the best part of marriage no one tells you about. Sixteen days exploring Utah without a schedule will do that to you I guess.

But arriving here together is so rewarding. We are both comfortable with who we are, don’t feel threatened by the other, and can’t imagine where we end and the other begins. Not to sound sappy, but this could turn out to be the best stage of life yet.

One night my wife and I were sitting around talking about society’s reverence of youth When we asked what age do we see each other, we both landed on a window when our relationship went from dating to falling in love. Between our ears we seem to see each other as some version or continuation of the person the other fell in love with decades ago. It is as if maybe love has the magical ability or distort time between our ears.

Along the way we’ve been broke, more than broke, and not broke. We’ve also faced births, deaths, and times not knowing if we would survive another day. But somehow, by the hand of God and a little maturity, we’ve arrived at a place where dates on the calendar mean more inside our hearts than on a piece of paper.

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Hurricane Upends Life in Paradise

I can’t stop thinking about my friend, Jimmy.

Jimmy is a small boat captain in the British Virgin Islands. We are about the same age, both easily laugh at ourselves, and view the world as a beautiful place to be. He’s a big man with an even larger laugh. He rarely wears shoes and can instinctively read the teal blue Caribbean waters like master chef surveys ingredients on a countertop. To both they see a canvas, a world where the magic happens.

Hurricane Irma has changed all that. His home – that is the islands where he grew up and lives – looks like the aftermath of a nuclear bomb. And the worst part is Jimmy is now off the grid and unable to be reached.

We met years ago as Jimmy guided 8 of us for a week through the BVI on a small boat. While we slept below deck in a room the size of an SUV, he slept in a space the size of a small bathroom. But Jimmy quickly went from our single crew member to friend within a day. And before returning us safely to harbor, he was forever family.

As beautiful as the islands and waters are in the BVI, life is as equally hard. The land is barren, built on volcanic outcrops. Farming is difficult. Roads are narrow and dangerous. A flat piece of ground is rare. Making a living in paradise is difficult. Tourists attracted the beauty are the primary trade.

With limited employment opportunities, Jimmy learned to sail the waters at an early age. A good small boat captain is one part instinct, one part skill, and one part being leader. And Jimmy is all of those and more.

As Hurricane Irma violently crossed over the BVI I found myself saying prayers for not only Jimmy, but the faces I’d seen while walking the small, economically depressed communities doting the barren island landscapes. What American’s consider abject poverty is what most residents on the islands consider normal. The standard of living is difficult to imagine.

When photos after the hurricane began to trickle out I was stunned. The lush green landscape, foliage and vegetation covering the mountain inclines lay barren and brown. The housing, many times built with more concern for keeping rain off one’s head than with any semblance of structural integrity, were gone. And the boats Jimmy earned his modest living lay crumbled up along the shoreline like a pile of wooden white matchsticks.

I pray for my friend and hope his disappearance is simply related to damaged cell towers.

The beautiful landscape is gone. Tourists are not there or coming soon. The economy in shambles for who knows how long. Life changing is an understatement in this now third-world economy.

Pray for Jimmy. Pray for the students I saw walking along the narrow street to school. And pray for the fisherman who lived by selling his modest catch to tourists each day. For them, life may never be the same again. Pray.

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