Purposeful Life Keeps Old Man Out

I’m standing in front of our home, speaking with a friend. His large dog nudges gently against my hand for attention. She’s beautiful and knows it.

“You have to be careful and not let the old man in,” he says.

He’s talking about retirement – how the destination is different from what many tend to think.

“I’ve retired and unretired twice,” he says. “Played golf, took walks and filled my time. Always found something to do.”

But in retirement, something important was lacking, he says.

“You’ve got to have a purpose in life, a reason to get up in the morning. Filling time becomes simply filling time. One day you ask what the purpose of living each day.”

My friend is upbeat, healthy, and looks years younger than the date on his driver’s license. He is always with a wave and kind things to say.

His dog yawns as if trying to speak. She is growing bored with the conversation and wants to get going.

“Don’t get me wrong,” he says. “I enjoyed my regular tee-time with friends, but after a while, I began to miss the sense of accomplishment. So I unretired and went and did something new.”

His words run against the grain of society’s prepackaged definition of retirement – work long, save your money, and find ways to fill the hours of your days. One doesn’t have to stretch too far to see this as a twist on the putting one out to pasture formula. My friend would have none of this.

“As I said, you’ve got to keep the old man from getting in. You’ve got to have a purpose to your days, keep learning new things, and stay healthy.”

His dog rubs her white coat against my leg, asserting her wishes to get moving.

My friend pauses and then changes my life.

“Happiness is simply enjoying the passing of time. You’ve got to do what you enjoy – and that includes having a purpose of how you use your time.”

My dad’s generation defined retirement as a destination – a predetermined mark in time complete with a finish line where you effectively exited the interstate of a purposeful life.

Filling time, my friend says does not offer one the sense of making a difference in the world with each sunrise. We are not one-act plays, but rather should view life as a journey, one where we always have something to give or contribute to the world. And in the end, our happiness is driven by the purposeful reward we receive by actively investing our time and attention in others.

Forcefully tugging on the leash, my friend’s dog is ready to go. Her purpose apparently awaits down the street.

My friend is not afraid of life or the passing of time. He also knows he alone controls his true happiness. With each day he embraces the opportunity to continue to learn, grow, and find purpose in how he chooses to use his time.

That – and keeping the old man out.

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Pizza Includes Special Ingredient

I am sitting in a deep-dish pizza shop in downtown Chicago. The smell of the three-inch deep pies competes with the excited voices of customers for owning the room. Red and white table clothes, accents from around the world, and energy you can almost reach out and touch in the air. Americana is on full display.

But near the door is another piece of what is sometimes undervalued as an Americana trait – hard work.

A man, probably my age, is standing at a nearby work station. His English is broken, but his commitment to doing a good job at the task in front of him is as solid as the foundation of nearby skyscrapers.

Drying plates and wrapping silverware into a white napkin is not sexy work. But to him, his head leaning forward and his hands moving as fast as possible, this is the most important work in the world.

I lean over and clue my wife into what I’m seeing.

“Look how fast he works,” I say.

For a few moments, we watch as he takes a stack of white serving plates, fresh from the dishwasher, and prepares them for being placed on tables. His hands move so fast I can hardly keep up – as if someone were slight speeding up a video for emphasis. With each plate, he used a pattern to wipe, flip, and stack. And remarkably, the deeper he got into the stack, the fast his hands moved – as if he were playing a game against the clock.

When it came to sorting the clean silverware, he used the same urgency and self-competitiveness. Reach, bunch, wrap, and stack.

Again, this is not sexy work – but what I was seeing was a man taking extreme pride in the work that touched his fingertips, taking full responsibility to do the best job possible regardless of anyone else’s measure of value. It was nothing short of moving to me.

And this was not his only task. Throughout the night I watched him bus tables, carefully replacing plates and silverware on each for the next customers all with the same urgency and attention to detail. Whatever he touched, he signed his name to, so to speak.

I wanted to take the lightning in a bottle he carried and share it with the world.

Too often people feel defined by their perspective of what they believe the world places value on the tasks they perform. And unfortunately, this leads to potentially undermine the effort and pride they take away from a job well done. The truth is, one does not need to look any further than across the street at the skyscraper to prove this wrong.

Hard work and pride in our accomplishments built this country. And while our society is filled with casting out judgments, I will always remember the man tasked with setting and creating the right environment for me to indulge in a sinful experience of cheese and crust. He is a critical element of the pie as the crust and America.
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Less Is More When It Comes To Happiness

I have yet to see a glass bottle abandoned alongside the road in Belize.

“Would you like me to take these empty bottles away for you?” says the young woman stopping by our casita.

My wife and I are holed up in a small remote beachside house tucked along the barrier reef of Belize. Life is much different – from a simple drink of water to basic transportation.

IMG_4669.jpegTo most of us, an empty bottle, be it Coca-Cola or beer bottle, is trash. In Belize, each empty bottle is worth twenty-five Belizean cents. In a part of the world where the per capita income is $4,400 a year, you can see why empty bottles are considered an unofficial currency.

Earlier in the week, an older man joined me in line at a small grocery store. His clothes told of a long, hard day: dust, paint, patches in his pants. In one arm were a half-dozen mismatched bottles. In his other, he held a cold drink from a nearby cooler. Only the next day did I realize he was making a trade with the quasi currency of empties.

Belize is a contrast of worlds – one of immense beauty and another of a life most Americans can never fully relate. Not that the Belizeans are lacking; on the contrary, they seem to be grounded in the real, valuing what is tangible and what matters the most.

One thing I’ve observed is people are happy for what they have instead of unhappy for what they lack. American life, unfortunately, is tilted far to the latter. Material objects with temporary value, shallow praise from social media, and the desires for more and more cloud our minds.

Each morning we rotely pick up our phones to immediately invite the outside world to contaminate our peaceful thoughts. We open kitchen cabinets to an abundance of items as simple as coffee mugs and dishes. We fill our closets with clothes that gave us a momentary boost of excitement but now sit dormant for seasons if not years.

We cannot understand the purity of pure life, simple pleasures, and the happiness of being.

In Belize, I’ve watched a man mow a space the size of an American football field with a small push mower. I’ve also watched a man shimmy down from the top of a coconut tree, machete at his side, without the help of a ladder. I’ve also observed another pull a rake across hundreds of yards of white sand to wash away footprints from the day before.

I asked the latter about his morning stroll.

“I love to rake the sand,” he said. “The quiet is so beautiful.”

In Belize, there are a different set of values, ones not exclusively measured in dollars, cents, or material objects. And while we as Americans continue to subscribe to our quest for the next bigger, better thing of the day, I’ve now seen a world of beautiful people genuinely happy without ever joining our the never-ending race.

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Office Without Walls Brings Large Responsibility

Teal waters playfully wink at a cloudless sky behind the young man. He’s standing at the rear of a small white fishing boat, his arms spread like the frigates gliding the ocean breezes above our heads. His dark hair is shaved close on the sides with a dozen long blonde-tipped woven ends dancing above his head.

“This is my office,” he says. “No walls, no limits.”

He is twenty-three years old, completed high school and college, and makes his living in the waters off the small Central American country of Belize. While English is his primary language, his words roll rhythmically, not unlike our boat in gentle morning waters.

Tall, muscular, with a smile as bright as the sun reflecting on the water around us, he is at home.

“My father is a fisherman, too,” he says. “I grew up with this as my life. Now I do the same, and I love it.”

He and his friend, another young man with an equal love for the water and islands, are taking a few of us snorkeling on Belize’s barrier reef, the second-largest in the world.

Before anyone can get in the water, he makes sure we understand how precious he and this countryman regard the reef.

“Not only is this a beautiful natural habitat for fish and other life, but it also protects our land from big from storms. If large waves crash into the reef, by the time they reach the mainland, they are much smaller, less dangerous. We need our reef to survive.”

Storms are very real to the young man. Later he tells me of surviving his first hurricane at the age of four.

“I remember my dad was out on the water protecting boats for people, and my mother and I were back in the house as the storm came ashore. She was leaning up against a window to keep it from breaking, and I look up and see the roof peeling off and flying away.”

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He’s experienced several other hurricanes, some larger, some smaller, but understanding the delicate balance of man and nature is a life and death relationship for him. The waters, reef, and marine life are woven together like the Hangman’s knot on the end of a fishing line. And for he and others, managing the balance is a responsibility they must deliver for future generations.

As our boat moves closer near the white sand coastline, he points to the gaps exist where landowners fight a losing battle with beach erosion.

“Developers are removing the mangroves along the water,” he says, his arm pointing a waterfront retaining wall under construction. “The roots were kept the sand from eroding all these years. Now, without the roots and bushes to keep the sand in place, coastlines wash away with storms.”

It is then I see a new world, one where material possessions are secondary, and managing nature is primary. For here, balance is one of life and death and their way of life.

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Relationship Happiness Very Real

My friend and I are talking about marriage, both of us in long term relationships.

This week my wife and I crossed 38 years since our first date – a day I stole a kiss from her while riding a glass elevator. The moment – we both felt the magical spark – changed the direction of our lives.

“While it feels like yesterday,” I said,” it also feels like so long ago.”

“I can’t believe I am with someone who still makes my heart skip when she walks into the room.”

My friend agreed, only her story is different. She’s on her second marriage, and if anything, she is probably in a better position to appreciate the value of true love.

“Today,” she said, “I can’t wait to get home.”

“In my first marriage, there were times I didn’t even want to go home at night.”

She’s in a different place now. To meet she and her husband, you might confuse them with newly dating teens. He is always at sending end of the brilliant smile radiating from her. I always picture the two of them laughing and smiling — kids with a few streaks of grey here and there.

I remember her once telling me one of the things she loved so much about her husband was how he could make her laugh. And to compliment this, she owns one of the most infectious laughs you will ever meet.

Being crazy in love is an odd feeling. From one point, you feel so blessed. From another, you ache for others to share in the excitement. It is as if you’ve found the ability to fly and want others to join you up in the clouds.

But I also understand, life does not work like that. Real relationships are forged over time, challenged by the pain and stress of everyday life. The good and bad are going to come. But it is there, in those moments, the relationship is tested.

You cannot fake a strong relationship – everyone must travel the bumpy road of life. After all, the strongest materials result from the highest levels of heat and pressure over time. Why would relationships be different?

My friend and I both are parents with dating age children.

“I hope one day they can experience this feeling,” I said. “I don’t want them to miss out on this.”

I don’t claim to be particularly unique in the relationship world. If anything, my wife deserves any credit for the good. I was jagged stone, to begin with, but she inspired me to want to be better.

One day, if you are lucky, you wake up and realize the true joy in life comes from making others happy. Society leads us to believe our happiness is in our possessions, or what others think of us.

Fortunately, because of a kiss 38 years ago, I’ve learned I’d give everything up without a whimper for one extra day with my wife at the end.

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Trip Via’ Rabbit Hole Fun Time Travel

Recently I found myself down a rabbit hole of 1980’s music videos. Most bands featured I remembered as clearly as yesterday complete with the outrageous fashions the world may rightly never let see the light of day again. And dang, was that ever a fun way to burn a half hour.

Music Television, or commonly known as MTV, became the intersection of culture, fashion, and music in the ’80s. And for those who witnessed it, the world was never the same. In days the before online video games or social media feeds, we hung with friends on a sofa watching music move from the radio to our television screens.

Down the rabbit hole was not how I planned to spend my morning. An automotive site offered a list of the best music video’s featuring cars. And as a sucker for horsepower and vintage music, I bit.

My journey began with ZZ Top’s “Give Me All Your Loving” – a video where the music stands the test of time better than the production values. But still, in its day, the video was groundbreaking for the imagination and fit and finish. On the other end of the spectrum came a Sammy Hagar’s “I Can’t Drive 55” – complete with bad lip-synching and even worse acting. Additionally, the 80’s motorists anthem meaning lost on today’s drivers.

Next thing I knew a list popped up by the video teasing me to follow it to another list promising more than 100 of the best videos of the is1980’s. And again, I bit.

Soon I was swimming in Meatloaf’s “Paradise By The Dashboard Lights” and former Van Halen frontman David Lee Roth doing “California Girl.” The former remains a piece of art and impossible not to sing along, the latter an example of breaking every current PC code possible within one video. Still, well worth the time. I even found myself sitting through the – then ground and genre-breaking – “Walk This Way” with Aerosmith and Run DMC. At the time, the crossover of rock and hip-hop was the first major hit of its type. Still a favorite of mine, too.

All this brings me back to the fun I had down the rabbit hole and how much fun I found down there wallowing in the music videos of the 1980s. And oddly, doing so didn’t make me feel old, but rather appreciative of the great times my life has covered.

But like anything else, time moves on. MTV became a lifestyle network with reality demographic centric shows. And then as quickly as MTV burst on the scene, the format was over.

Ironically the video disc jockeys have now migrated to satellite radio, reliving their past in the present by playing the same tunes for paying customers who watched them from a sofa decades before. And unfortunately, many videos of the period are locked up in copyright infighting. But in my head, I still have the memories boosted by an occasional trip down the rabbit hole.

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Have fun: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLmXxqSJJq-yXrCPGIT2gn8b34JjOrl4Xf

 

 

Grocery Store Jolts Self Confidence

Last week I found myself far from my comfort zone, a place a lifetime of survival skills were rendered useless.

I could starve in a grocery store.

My wife sent me to the store with a list of items for a family Labor Day cookout. Nothing particularly complicated but from experience, we both know anything beyond three items can be a challenge for me. Far from the keyboard or an occasional flat tire on my bike, my valuable skill set quickly runs shallow.

In a nod to technology, my wife discovered writing a list on paper and then texting it to me proved efficient, rending my absentmindedness less likely to leave the list on the top of the truck as I pull out of the driveway. This time was no exception.

Being a good steward, I grabbed a cart from the parking lot and pushed the four-wheeled buggy into the store, hoping the karma would help me on the rest of my journey.

Unfortunately, the karma gods must have been looking the other way as I entered the store naked of any useful intuitive wisdom or confidence.

Instantly questions began popping into my head, begging for answers that would help mask my insecurity. First of all, is there a designated direction to follow in the grocery store? Does everyone go, counter-clockwise? And do I have to go up and down each row or can I go rogue and jump around? If I do, am I risking creating havoc?

And is there a specific set of rules to navigate the lanes? This rule does not apply in the grocery store as I found myself in a twisted version of chicken – wondering who will blink first.

Speaking of eye contact, what a strange experience in the grocery store. What is the accepted social custom or doing so? Or are we supposed to keep our heads down unless scanning the shelves?

And speaking of shelves – why are olive oil and olives not next to each – let alone on the same row? Is that such a big logical leap? And similarly, shouldn’t peanut butter always be next to the jelly?

And does the world need an endless number of choices of pasta sauce? I grew up with one kind, my mom changing brands occasionally, but I stepped off a fifteen-foot by eight shelves high section of the store of nothing but pasta sauce. My brain nearly melted down on aisle eleven.

And why don’t they offer a loaner sweater when you enter the frozen food department? Put a big logo on it for all I care, help me not catch a cold while grabbing a pizza.

Finally, the biggest challenge is self-checkout. I rarely make it through without an employee coming over and helping me scan an item or two. Avocadoes or other fresh vegetables always trip me up.

In the end, I successfully made it out of the store will all the items, but unfortunately, not my dignity. Hello, sunshine, I’m back home.

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Dreams, Prayers, and Pain Very Real

“You know, while I appreciate your words, people saying they are sending prayers is pretty much a throwaway line these days.”

I’m somewhere in a dream, it is early morning, and this conversation is going on in my head.

In the story, a friend is telling me he recently learned the doctor is telling him his cancer is a one-way road, no U-turn available. All he knows is the pavement will run out too soon.

“People tend to type those words into a keyboard and never think of them again,” he said. “Like I said, translucent platitudes.”

As is in dreams, my voice speaks from a strange third-person way. I am outside the body speaking but somehow connected. I know what I’m wearing and the color of the bike I’m standing next to.

“Prayers are real,” I said. “I’ll grant you some people might toss out words of encouragement in certain situations, but I can tell you prayers are very real.”

“If you say so,” he said.

“Look, if I tell you you’ll be in my prayers, you will be in my prayers. And I can tell you, from my personal experience, they are very real and very powerful.”

As is dreams, the surroundings ebb and flow into different locations. I then realize we are on a cell phone, his voice carrying a bit of static.

I hear my voice again.

“I’ve been in some difficult spots in life and there is no other way to explain what came next other than someone listening on the other end. Call it God, call it something else, but I’m telling you there is someone there. I believe it with all my heart.”

“Well, I’ll be counting on yours. Maybe you can put in a good word or two,” he said.

Professionals tell us dreams are unpredictable manifestations of churning emotions inside of us. In the last several days I’ve learned someone I knew in school taking his life. I also learned another friend quietly being treated for cancer yet never sharing with me. Instead, he selflessly focused his attention on the difficult medical journey my daughter was on at the time.

I am not a professional at much beyond a keyboard, arranging letters and words in order to tell a story. But I am sure these two items deeply disturbed and impacted me deep inside.

I’m going with the following: all around us, people are secretly going through difficult times and highly personal challenges. And while we may or may not know about them, we need to not be afraid to ask for prayers for those in need. The clerk at the grocery store, the homeless man pushing a cart alongside the road, our spouse.

In the end, and there will be an end, let us cast our net of prayers far and wide, asking of help on behalf of those we may not know who need it most. Because, in my experience, someone is out there waiting to receive your words.

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Kale Becoming Uninvited Dinner Guest

A stranger is working into my lunches and dinners. Rough around the edges, lacking any redeeming sense of taste, and abruptly showing up when least expected, I’m done with him.

I am hereby declaring myself not aborad the kale train.

The first time I spied Kale was the vegetable department of a local grocery store, my friend holding out his fresh catch at arm’s length like he had trapped a rabbit in the woods.

“You tried kale yet?”

I shook my head, his grip seemingly tightening on his catch as if primal instincts were kicking in.

“Kale,” I said. “What does it taste like?”

The conversation stalled right there.

The concept of so-called super foods is like a train hurtling down the tracks without an engineer at the helm. Granted I understand the premise of higher concentrations of vitamins or some other healthy appeal. But how did I get over a half-century though life without knowing certain foods were slightly better for me and therefore should cost a small fortune?

My wife likes kale. Well, “likes” might be an overstatement, but she is increasingly finding ways to sneak the green leafy vegetable into my diet at home.

Last week kale showed up in my fish tacos.

I love a good fish taco. Grilled, blackened, even fried. Large or small, fish tacos are a separate food group for me.

But nowhere in the great recipe book of fish tacos, does kale show up.

Picking at the leafy contents, I asked my wife what going on between the flour tortilla. Something was askew, so to speak.

“I used some of the salad from last night,” she said. “Figured why not?”

My mind quickly identified the intruder hidden inside my taco: kale.

My wife is strategically blending kale into meals. Not that she is a huge fan either, but kale is seemingly included in more recipes or dishes at local restaurants. Recently I’ve gone to defensively asking waiters if the salad includes kale.

“We can add some if you wish,” comes the reply.

I then share with my quest to keep kale from being subversively pushed onto my plate or into my palate. Not that the taste of kale is bad – a taste that reminds me of getting a piece of cardboard accidentally stuck in my mouth – but I do wish to have some semblance of control over what shows up on a plate.

Believe it or not, I am not alone. Unscientifically-speaking, half the waiters volunteered they, too, were not on the kale bandwagon. But sprinkling a bit into a salad allowed them to charge a bit more on the menu.

I love vegetables. My mom would be proud. But at kale, I am drawing the line. Superfoods be darned, I am taking back control of my vegetable intake no more cardboard-tasting veggies in my food for the sake of being fashionable.

That is except for at home. There I’ll eat what is on my plate – or fish taco – and like it.

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Drowning in a Flood of Choices

I’m ready to dial back the choices in my life.

Last night I found myself 20-minutes deep down a rabbit hole of a streaming service for the television. And the longer I scrolled, the more overwhelmed and disinterested I became. Finally, in frustration, I clicked off the television and tossed the remote onto the coffee table.

How did life, with all the time-saving choices before us, become so overwhelming?

My television is home to several paid-for streaming services, each promising to make my life richer, easier, and more rewarding. And my truck, music streams from a satellite service with more flavors of curated music, news, and sports than I can find time to explore. And my phone, now filled with little-used apps, is similarly bloated beyond everyday use.

I need a break from the world’s generous offer to help simplify my life.

Technology is a funny thing – original promises regularly being amped up to a level most of us eventually decide is beyond useful or helpful. Unfortunately, we – as consumers – end up drowning in the success of helpful intentions. I know I am.

I am reading a book chronicling the settling of western Texas. Pages describe small mail-order houses built on rugged grounds struggling to simply grow vegetation let alone support a family of six and their livestock. And from what I read, they got along fine without thousands of commercial distractions in front of them. Honestly, I envy them.

Somehow we have become geared to believe more is better. More movies, more music, more choices of tomatoes in the grocery store. At one point, however, when are the number of choices creating the opposite effect – stunting our curiosity and appreciation for variety?

I consider myself an average person of average intelligence. And in addition to that, one with a lower than normal attention span. Focusing deeply and for extended periods, unfortunately, could be a skill being groomed out of us by an onslaught of the never-ending noise of choices.

Recently I’ve begun turning down the noise. At home we have cut the cable cord, eliminating hundreds of little-if-ever watched channels, now relying on streaming from three subscription services. I now subscribe to only three newspapers (The Daily News, The Wall Street Journal, and New York Times), and reintroduced a handful of favorite CDs into my truck. I’ve even worked to remove social media from my mind and attention, only rarely checking it to keep up on a few friends and family members. I don’t miss the noise one bit.

I guess in a way, this is akin to being a pioneer in the twenty-first century, turning away from the invasion of choices in my life. I appreciate a good apple, but I don’t need ten choices in the grocery store. I appreciate a good movie, but I don’t need 100,000 choices from a dozen streaming services. What I need is the time I control. And as of late, I got to tell you, this is a battle worth fighting.

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