Small investment pays off big

The most thoughtful gesture I witnessed in the past week involved a small bar of soap and a travel size tube of toothpaste.

Driving to the airport tends to bring a familiar landscape – brake lights ahead of me, billboards to the side, and someone who needs help standing on a street corner. Last week what happened to the last one changed my perception of how to help others.

As the light off the highway exit turned red, I slowed to a stop. From a half-dozen spots from the front I noticed a woman with a handwritten cardboard sign walking up to cars. Some windows opened and an arm extended with a paper dollar or two. But from the third car came something unusual – a clear zip lock bag filled with toiletries. The woman grasped the bag closely to her chest and leaned towards the car offering heartfelt thanks.

The light ahead changed – but so did my understanding of how to help others. As I entered the intersection I discovered myself telling myself to remember sometimes a few dollar bills can be less meaningful than a bag of travel-sized thoughtfully packed for someone in need.

We are all human – and we all have our pride. For some though, a detour can take them to place where they not only recognize their surroundings, but the face in the mirror.

There is a dynamic local church that tries to remember this as well. Every few months they gather up hair stylists who volunteer their time to cut the hair of those in need. The result is remarkable – transforming or returning many to the person they know they are inside.

And for someone living beneath a concrete underpass, a bar of soap or toothpaste can do the same.

A friend of mine invited me to join him and he and friends took socks to those living outside. A staple most of us take for granted is actually one of the more valuable items to those living without a roof over their heads. And as anyone knows, wet or cold feet are difficult to ignore.

Which brings me back to the incredibly thoughtful person in car number three from the light. Somewhere along the line they learned there was something they could do beyond pulling out a few paper dollars from their billfold. Could be their paths once crossed with someone who tipped them off. Or it could be they read an insightful article. Or it could be they were once on the other side of the widow.

From my vantage point in car number six I will never know. But what I do know is the powerful emotional response the plastic bag filled with toiletries brought from the woman in need.

Next time I find myself standing in front of the travel-size toiletries at the store, I think I will double up. After all, if doing so can so easily help someone recapture the person hidden in plain view, it could be the best investment I ever make.

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Fireworks Reflect American Dream

When we closed down my childhood home I was ready to let everything go into the back of a large white Salvation Army Truck. My hope was there was something left behind from my childhood could help someone else’s life going forward. Could be the pair of green high back chairs or set of mismatched dishes. But the small cloth American stick flag my mother kept on her dresser went home with me.

I am afirst-generation American because my mother believed in the American Dream. Growing up in Scotland – a small child during the Second World War – she wanted to leave the wars, the limited economic opportunities, and everyone and everything she knew behind for America. Her children, she promised herself, would be Americans. She was 21-years of age when she sold everything she owned for a one-way ticket on a New York bound liner across the Atlantic.

American was not easy. She worked as a waitress or low-wage jobs while working her way forward. But beyond the paycheck, there was one item she wanted more than anything else – citizenship of the United States. In sorting through a box of jewelry and letters I ran across a brown newspaper clipping. The list was recently naturalized citizens. My mother’s name printed alongside others who were collectively on the same journey. I kept that as well.

But her work was far from done. Shortly afterwards she married and settled down to raise a family in the Heartland – almost as geographically centered as if she’d sat down with a slide rule and calculated the center of America. But her American Dream did not start and end with her – she wanted to deeply embed the essence of the American Dream in her children.

I learned more about life sitting at the kitchen table than I ever did in a classroom. In my mind I can see her sitting down across from my younger brother and me telling stories of how America was special and unique from the world she had left behind. The opportunities, the wonder, the endless ability to reinvent one’s self.

No matter how much time passed, the fire of the American Dream burned brightly inside of her.

She loved America like no one I’ve ever known – right down to her final heartbeat in 1978.

Rarely a day passes that I do not recognize this ember of optimism glowing inside of me – ready at a moment’s notice to jump in and help change the world around me. I will help a stranger, I will take a risk on someone down on their luck, and I will forever believe whatever comes can be overcome. America works that way, so mother planted inside of me. Whatever comes your way can be overcome if you work hard enough and dream big enough.

I hold the Fourth of July dearly. In the fireworks I see my mother’s face – each burst representing the sparkle in her eyes and the land she loved with all of her heart.

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Indian Culture Cut Deep Into Rocks

“When I was a kid we would run all around here, climbing the ladders, jumping off the rocks.”

Simon is guiding me through a Pueblo settlement north of Santa Fe more than 800 years in the making.

“Yes, this was our home.”

His voice is strong but wrestles at times in finding the right word to communicate what he is trying to tell us. His long black hair is woven into a braided tail and hangs from beneath a mesh baseball cap. He is genuine, he is proud.

Our walk is unstructured as if he is doing this for the first time – but he is not. His words, rather, are genuine and unscripted. A life of living and absorbing history cuts you free from talking points.

As we walk across the mesa he recounts of how hundreds of people lived in the communal area, building two-story adobe structures accessible to the upper floors by ladders.

“This was for whenever danger came you would pull up you ladders,” he said.

The ground is a barren and dry. An open area surrounded by stones that once housed fresh water is now barren and overgrown. His ancestors dug the retention area out of the surface of the rock allowing for the water to remain clear and drinkable.

We climb down a wooden ladder into a small hole dug out from the surface of the rock. The floor rests ten feet below the surface, the air noticeably cooler.

Back up on the mesa we look out across the valley. Trees, rocks, and brush populate the grounds.

“There is the volcano the created this land,” he said, his arm pointing to tall conical structure miles off into the distance. The image ominously looks over the valley.

“We farmed below and lived up here. This was our home.”

Simon lead us down the face of the cliff to the homes cut from the face of rock where his ancestors spent their winters. Following his footsteps, we work our way down a hand carved aquifer that also served as stairs as his ancestors moved back and forth.

Pointing up he shows us pictographs etched into the walls. Animals, men, and nature are celebrated. The carvings date back hundreds of years before Christopher Columbus sailed to the Americas. Simon’s ancestors did not need to be discovered.

The caves, created by stone on stone, are small, but spacious. The ceilings darkened from the soot of fire inside during the winter months.

“The rock walls retained the heat from the sun helping make the rooms warmer,” he said. “In the summer months they would return to the cooler mesa village.”

We continue to climb down the cliff – something I never would have imagined doing earlier that day. But somehow I never felt in danger. There was something there, something bigger than me watching over us.

Standing at the bottom and looking up I understand the world is not always what we are told. And for Simon, his is one of great depth and honor.

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Vision Is Not Always What You See

While leaving a hotel located on the Mescalero Apache reservation in New Mexico, the  doorman mentions a blind man needing a lift across town.

I look back to see a  neatly dressed young man with a small hat sitting on top of his raven black hair. A white cane rests against him.

“He’s good people,” he said. “Just dealt a tough hand in life.”

After helping the young man close his seatbelt, we are driving down the road.

He’s upbeat and talkative. His white cane rests between his legs.

Then, as if he can hear unspoken questions dancing in my head, he offers his story.

“The bullet entered my head right here,” he said.

Pulling his dark sunglasses down, he points to a small scar near his left eye socket.

“The bullet exited over here,” he said pointing to a small indentation on the right side of his temple. The skin is white and discolored.

“They had to cut my optic nerves to save my life.”

His white cane shifts as I turn onto the highway.

“I was nine years old. I came home from school one day and found a 9-millimeter handgun hidden under my bed. My older brother put it there.”

“I released the clip but didn’t think about a bullet being in the chamber.”

I don’t know what to say. Silence fills the car.

“You’ll turn left at the blue self-storage,” he said as we approached an intersection.

He mentions the day before was his 29th birthday. I wish him happy birthday.

“I’ve been blind for 20-years now,” he said. His words are as flat as if commenting on the weather.

As we drive down the road he mentions landmarks for me to watch for. His sense of time and place are remarkable.

The doorman would later tell me about taking the young man home on back roads.

“He could still tell me how to get him home. He just knows.”

I ask the young man how he got to the hotel earlier in the day.

“I walked,” he said. The words hang for a moment. “Someone picked me up near the Walmart.”

He then reaches down into his pocket and hands me a small object.

“Here, take this.”

I look down at his gift. Attached to a small red carabiner, an item used by mountain climbers, is a small black crucifix. Jesus hangs from the cross.

“I want you to have it,” he said.

I try to encourage him to keep the gift but finally accept not wanting to be disrespectful. The symbolism does not escape me. Both are symbols of safety, items men place their faith to protect them from danger.

We pull up to his home – the description uncanny. I help him unbuckle his seatbelt and he gets out. With his white cane he pecks across the overgrown yard where two old abandoned cars rest.

Pulling away I look down at the gift knowing, once again, God is at work.

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Batman, a Playboy Bunny, and me.

At fifteen years of age I met my childhood hero.

The black magic marker moved across the underside of my skateboard.

“Best of Bat Luck,” said the handwritten words.

Adam West handed the pen back to his agent. Reaching out he shook my hand.

“Thank you young man,” he said. “That was something else.”

Our teenage years are filled with odd experiences – many time a result of finding ourselves. My particular journey occurred over thousands of hours riding a skateboard. And one day that led me to meet Batman.

While lots of my friends were at football practice or spending time hitting the books, I could be found figuring out how to make a small wooden plank flip over or ride up the side of a vertical wall. Misspent youth, maybe, but a growing experience all the same.

One night the competitive skateboard team I was riding for was performing at an annual auto show in large convention center. We shared the ticket with Patty McGuire, former Playboy Playmate of Year, and Adam West and the Batmobile. We, of course were a distant third item on the night’s playbill.

There were a half-dozen of us in a corner of the auto show – a small space carved out between new car auto exhibits. At each end were wooden ramps along with an open space to do freestyle tricks.

All around us the auto companies were unveiling new models. Lights, turning tables with cars and scantily models. For a teenage boy this was the thing dreams were made of. Throw in Playboy Bunny and the Batmobile and I figured my life was peaking on that cold January night.

Throughout the night the announcer called out upcoming show times for both our skateboard demonstrations sandwiched between those for our better-known costars.

One night as the event wound down I was hanging around after the rest of the team’s parents had picked them up. While I was working on a kick flip, a man leans over the red velvet ropes.

“Hey son,” he says. “My client was wanting to see the show. Think if I bring him over you could do some of that skating for him?”

“Sure,” I said and went back to my skateboard.

Minutes later the man returns – only this time with Adam West.

I’ll never forget how cool Bruce Wayne looked, his checkered sport coat casually tossed over his shoulder. He reached out and gave me his best Bat Handshake.

As a kid my mother drew a Batman logo on the back of a white towel. She told me I’d run around the house for hours fighting imaginary villains as Batman. Little did I know a dozen years I would be standing face-to-face with the real thing.

I did about a 5-minute show but honestly I don’t remember a thing. That happens when you are star-struck.

When I finished, Batman smiled and asked his agent for a pen.

To this day the black ink has never dried in my heart.

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The Allman Brothers’ Real Mama

One thing I learned in while living in Georgia is that Mama Louise always took care of her boys.

The passing of Gregg Allman brings back memories of fried chicken, greens, and an overpainted Coca-Cola sign in the old downtown district of Macon, Georgia. Inside the doorway was the small H & H Restaurant where Mamma Louise, owner of the shotgun-sized restaurant, opened her heart to a near penniless and hungry group of musicians trying to make a hit record at the nearby Capricorn Records studio.

As the band struggled to create a breakout sound 1970, the band stumbled into the nearby restaurant with enough money to buy 2 dinners. The band, however, consisted of a half-dozen hungry stomachs.

Mama Louise took pity on the boys. She told them to sit down eat. They could settle up one day when they made it big. Truth is, she never really expected to be repaid, only help take care of someone else in need. Her heart was as big as the servings you would find on your plate.

Macon is located halfway from Atlanta and Savannah – or close enough to call it so. The H & H Restaurant, became a beacon for Allman Brothers’ fans who would be passing through. Located alongside a worn city street, the rusted newspaper rack outside the front door attracted more attention than the small 4-foot by 3-foot Coca-Cola sign hanging outside. I once drove around the block several times before I ever discovered the front door.

Parking was difficult and the hours limited. Until her death, in 2007, Mama Louise could be found in the kitchen making up the day’s specials for the regulars – none of whom were musicians. Her menu was a classic soul food mix – or “meat and three” as they are known throughout the south. And the fried chicken would stay with your soul long after the city limits would fade into your rear view mirror.

Truth is I found the H & H closed as many times as it was open. If you were ever going to eat there, you had to make surgical plans to arrive during the short hours of operation. The small sliver of fame never changed the restaurant’s calling – to be there and open when the locals were hungry for lunch.

Inside you’d find standard issue red vinyl chairs, well-worn tables that tilted when you rested your weight, and possibly the greatest authentic personal collection of Allman Brothers items in the world.

The Brothers never let the kindness of Mamma Louise fade as fame exploded around them. On the yellow walls of the restaurant I remember staring at gold records personally signed to Mamma Louise, concert posters, and other one of a kind items given to her over the years. And the remarkable thing is the hangings were in no way presented for any commercial gain. A photo of guitarist Duane, hung below one of Mary Magdalene and to the lower right of Jesus tending a flock of sheep. The boys were simply another part of Mamma Louise’s extended family.

But the kindness from the boys extended beyond wall hangings. The band took care of her the rest of her life. They would fly her to concerts, putting special chair off stage for her. They even hired Mamma Louise as the official cook for their 1972 tour, however, never asking her to raise a spoon.

On one visit I walked back towards the kitchen to see Mamma Louise sitting in her chair focused on peeling vegetables. She looked up and smiled and as quickly, went back to her humble task. Yes, she was personal friends with one of the most celebrated bands of all time, but in 20-minutes some hungry soul would be coming through the doors and would need something to eat.

There are hundreds of off-the-book tales of how the band kept in touch with Mamma Louise – from special birthday parties to visits. But as big as the band became, they never forgot the woman who took them off the streets and into her kitchen. Mamma Louise never forgot her boys, and the boys never forgot her kindness.

Mama Louise passed away in 2007 at the age of 94. She was in the kitchen.

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(Photos are from my personal visits – LW)

Cancer a foe we must defeat

Death rarely calls ahead for an appointment.

This week my wife got behind the wheel of her car to go see her brother for the last time. After years of cancer treatments — ones where he fought the cancer with a remarkable stubbornness — his doctors have decided the treatments are no longer going to be effective. The big ugly C is coming to take another beautiful person from our world.

Originally, my wife’s brother was given a few years — a prognosis based on the results of what years of treatment experience might predict. In these difficult situations both doctors and families are searching for answers — and past experiences are all anyone has to go on.

But then there is the other factor. My wife’s brother is a fighter like no one’s business. And to his credit, he has wrestled this ugly monster to the mat time after time over the past decade or so. But in the end, the battle became a match of endurance. And as we know time does not wait for any of us. Age and fatigue compound making treatments more difficult, less effective.

As I write this, my wife’s brother is at home and resting comfortably. He is under the care of hospice and his family. But I also know he is continuing to fight each and every day. And surrounded by his family, he is where he needs to be.

But death does not set an appointment. The days could be hours. The minutes could be moments. Waiting for the inevitable is the most painful.

My wife opted for driving the 14-hour distance to where her brother is resting. Loading up the car, she and our daughter decided the decompression time together would be good for them both. And I know she is right. The open road can be a healing place for a wounded heart.

Bright eyes, a sheepish smile and a generous heart. This is what I see when I think of my wife’s brother. He is a good man surrounded by an army of close family who have walked this journey alongside him. He is not alone.

But in the end, the battle becomes one of who can outlast the other. And in too many cases, the ugly monster wins. The human spirit, while our most powerful tool in life, is still contained inside an organic vessel susceptible to the natural decay of time.

I hurt for my wife. I hurt for her brother and the family at his side. I hurt for anyone who experiences similar moments in life.

Cancer sucks. Lurking like an invisible villain waiting to disrupt or destroy an unsuspecting life. I pray to God we one day are able to contain this ugly monster. The pain, the suffering, the loss of good people must stop. We can never stop fighting.

My wife will kiss her brother goodbye, squeeze his hand one final time, and then head back home. But she is not alone — nor is her brother.

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(Her brother lost his courageous fight agains cancer in the early hours of May 23rd.)

Life Unfiltered Increasingly Rare

Living an unfiltered life is becoming increasingly rare – and we are as much at fault as technology.

Photographs are among the most powerful tools for documenting human existence. With a high-quality camera at nearly everyone’s fingertips today, we are documenting life like never before. According to the Atlantic magazine in 2015, humans take more photos every two minutes than existed in total 150 years ago. We are collectively creating visual essays for future generations to look back upon when trying to understand the social experiences of our time.

When we try to envision what life might have looked like in 1900, we tend to drawn on similar compositions – generally black and white or the gold-toned sepia images. Stiff, stoic, and unsmiling. Each deliberative and lacking emotion. While the color, or lack of colors, make the images haunting, they also paint the pictures we accept to define a period.

Photographs of my childhood are predictable. Images were intentional – a family photo gathered for Christmas or holding up a fish by a lake. But the photos were taken to document the unvarnished and significant moments in time. The collective volume was random, unpredictable, and authentic.

But in today’s world we are all brand managers – a commercial term of a carefully crafting a public image designed to lead the receiver to an intentional destination. And in that quest, authenticity is traded in exchange for blurred or filtered vision.

Today we are all amateur brand managers. Armed with powerful social media tools, the sharing of photos is as easy as pushing a button. So easy in fact, we increasingly filter life through a lens of how to promote our brand instead of documenting life.

Living an unfiltered life is becoming increasingly rare. Authenticity, the powerful ingredient that helps others to unravel the story of life, is now sacrificed with our self-serving selections designed to generate responses from a target audience. In some ways, we are becoming much like a box of cereal on the grocery store shelf.

Even I am guilty of this amateur branding. If a hundred years from now someone were to look back over the digital scraps of my digital feeds, they would think all I do is ride bikes, write stories, and visit small towns. But the unfiltered me is someone less interesting. I work, I come home and eat dinner, and I pull weeds in front yard. My brand management, however, is a highlight reel – one based on what I see inside my head, not the mirror.

Where will this lead us down the road? Where will our increasingly self-centered and self-selected content take us? Will we find our way home or are we now forever unchained from reality? Are we no more authentic than the advertising slogan begging us to pick a cereal box from the shelf?

An authentic life is one lived with weeds and all – a life where honesty is valued and accepted. What I hope is the unfiltered life is not forever lost to the digital dust of history.

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Inner voice determines outcomes

The other day, a friend brought up the subject of one’s “inner voice” — that unsolicited voice who speaks up without us ever asking for an opinion.

My friend had spoken with someone whose inner voice instinctively responded with reasons about why things couldn’t or shouldn’t be done.

Our inner voice is best described as how we instinctively react to circumstances or challenges we meet in life. And learning to successfully train our inner voice to our advantage is one of the most valuable lessons we can learn in life.

Imagine when someone suggests you perform a task at work differently? For many people, their first instinct is defensive. Even the dreaded — but comfortable — phrase of “but we’ve always done it this way” can find it’s a way to our lips. Or, say, another suggests you could save money by shopping at a different grocery store? Again, we rationalize that we’re familiar with our regular store. Having to learn a new store layout would make us uncomfortable, less secure.

“No” is easy. Going back to the literal beginning of human existence, our brains were intentionally wired for us to avoid change — equating shifting surroundings with danger. Survival is about being aware of unusual activities and potential threats. Fast forward through history and this is still our default setting — even if it means doing a task as nonthreatening as finding what row the peanut butter is on in a different grocery store.

And in today’s world of hyper-change, this default setting is increasingly a losing proposition.

The good news is, we can rewire ourselves.

One day a group of us sat around a table and looked up at an image on a screen on conference room wall. The image was large horse tied by small leather reins to a plastic lawn chair.

“The horse is larger than the plastic chair, right?” was the question. “Then why does the horse not simply walk away, dragging the chair wherever it wants to go?”

This was not a trick question involving physics or clever word play.

“Because he does not believe, he can walk away whenever he wants,” came the answer.

The truth is when the horse is young it is reined to a solid fence post. Try as it might, the young horse cannot pull off from the anchored marker. After a length of time, the horse learns whenever it is reined to something, it cannot break free. It simply stops trying. For the rest of time, the slightest resistance of the reins when tossed across even a tree branch will keep the horse in place.

This learned behavior is inside of us. Our minds as well as outside influences tend to teach us to be cautious and avoid danger or uncomfortable situations at all costs. Successful people commit to breaking from those reins — learning to fail or experience uncomfortable situations.

Training your inner voice can be the difference between you forever tied to small tree branch or running freely across open fields.

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Bullies Leave Lifelong Scars

Bullies come in all sizes and shapes. Mine was 8 feet tall, had a face covered with hair and a booming voice that made you squint. At least that is how, as a small seventh-grader, I saw this ninth-grader each morning when I boarded a bus headed for my new school.

Standing up in the back of the bus, the bully towered over smaller students, aggressively aiming his voice at anyone he locked eyes with. Everyone’s plan was to face the front and try to stay off his radar. 
One day, he caught up with me while getting off the bus. He said that if I got back on the bus the next day he would beat me up. While he was short on details, his reputation — earned or not — preceded him.

And when someone has you by a perceived 100 pounds and is covered in facial hair, you don’t feel inclined to find out.

The next day I ran to class. And the next. And then again. School was only a couple miles away and it seemed like a reasonable solution. Truth be told, I essentially ran from the bully.

Bullies are everywhere. The reality is, however, not everyone can run from their bullies in today’s world. 

Last week when The Daily News launched the first installment in our “Bullied to the Brink” series, readers throughout Galveston County suddenly discovered long-buried and painful memories reawakening.

The subject of bullies runs deep and wide. In our own offices, people opened up like I’ve never seen before. I witnessed a lot of pain, shame and anger. Some of it was decades old; some was from people trying to help their own kids through this ugly chapter of life. 

Bullies never really know how deeply they affect people or for how long. But bullies at their core are cowards, so other’s feelings are most likely not a concern. 

Today, decades later, I still can see the face of the bully who told me not to get on the bus the next day.

As the painstakingly researched series reveals, bullies are not new. But we may have reached a point in time when we need to push the effects out into the bright light of public examination.

Recently, a high school student told me about how bullies, with social media, have so many more tools to attack others. He’s right and we should listen.

It is time we step up and recognize bullying for what it is – a violent action against another that deserves punishment.

We need to educate students and parents that bullying will not be tolerated. And if you are deemed a bully, you will be removed from society so you can’t hurt others.

I cannot stomach the death of another teenager due to bullying. And you shouldn’t either.

Please read today’s piece in The Daily News on cyberbullying. Unfortunately, today’s solutions are not nearly as simple as running to school in the morning.

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