Life: There’s Not an App for That

Today the screen of our smartphone contains clever solutions and shortcuts to nearly every problem but one: life.

As much as software engineers develop sophisticated tools embedded with predictive behavioral algorithms or endless deep pools of information, life continues to prove the one area no App can ever solve.

Each day my phone tells me where and when to be at nearly every moment of my life. If an event, appointment, or task is not on my phone, it may very well not happen.

By some twist of technology, my brain is offloading the mundane aspects of life into an App, converting them into lines of code. And while all done in the spirit of progress and allowing my brain to focus on more important items in my life, I have to wonder about the endgame here.

For example, the app for my local grocery store allows me to create my shopping list as well as tells me what aisle to locate them. And no matter how often I visit the same store, I still struggle to find where the salad dressings are located without my App.

My brain, it seems, is being retained to simply do the mundane input of information, not perform the critical calculations of life. And that, frankly, concerns me. My brain at times feels as mushy like an overly ripe avocado.

But as of late I’ve begun to take life back from my phone and these sophisticated software engineers. And the tools I’m using is as old school as it gets: my own brain and a pencil and paper. Granted these are remarkably unsophisticated, but I am really enjoying to learn to explore life off the App grid. I love to wander the aisle of a store with prehistoric 3 by 5 cards crumbled from being in my pocket, crossing off items or remembering the moment I scribbled the imperfect letters.

But there is more.

No App can tell me when the person I am speaking with is hurting or distracted by something in their life. Only through being fully attentive to the other person, listening for both the spoken and unspoken, can we perform the difficult and rare task of being able to read another person. And no App can ever help us know when to offer a hug or drop a card in the mail to someone who has lost a loved one. And when it comes to know to take out the trash, well, if we ever need an App for that, we are in even bigger trouble.

As much as I offload the details of my life to a magical data hub locate in the clouds – and not the white puffy clouds dancing across the horizon – I am determined to fight for my ability to remain human. I am increasingly valuing the fact I am imperfect and can at times be incredibly fallible. I like being flawed and, well, human.

And, God willing, no App will ever take being human away from me.

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Real Cowboys Do Cry

Real cowboys do cry.

While a physical tear did not make a journey down his cheek, the man’s voice revealed the unmistakable sound of longing pain.

“First time I’ve had to be away from my family on business,” he said. “I sure miss them something terrible.”

We are standing in the parking lot outside a small Mexican restaurant. We’ve met inside, sharing stories about dogs, cattle, and family. The sun already checked out for the day leaving the air temperature to gently free fall like a wayward feather dancing in still air.

He blinking pattern changes, a tell of his emotions trying to secretly escape through his tear ducts.  Soft crow’s feet gently shape his eyes.

“Here,” he says pulling out his phone. A photo comes up of a young couple, his arm around her shoulders.

Ten minutes before we were total strangers. Sitting five feet apart, the only thing we had in common was we were both served Spanish Rice.

“Excuse me,” came the voice. “I hate to make you think I am eavesdropping but I do believe it was the Indian Red Wolf.”

Back at our table, we were discussing the unusual heritage of our son’s new dog, a Catahoula Leopard Dog.

“It was the result of the Spanish Conquistadors bringing their greyhounds to North America in the 16th Century and cross-breeding them with the Indian’s dogs.”

“I have thirteen running with my cattle back home in Louisiana,” he said.

I get up and we shake hands, I offer my name. He nods, shares his.

“I run cattle on a little place in south Louisiana,” he says.

Pulling out his cell phone he scrolls to a video of a team of dogs corralling a herd of beige cattle.

“That’s them,” he says. “See how they keep the cattle tight, baying them towards the gate?”

The dogs, heads down and barking, run tight quick circles around the tightly clustered cattle.

“They start running circles at 8 am and don’t stop moving until 3 pm,” he says.

He shows us a few other videos and then offers to share his Facebook page if we are interested in seeing more. He is not selling anything, only being polite.

Back in the parking lot, he tells us more about his family.

“I’m here working on a temporary job for an oil company. Hate being away from my family.”

It is here I spot the reflexive hitch in his voice revealing even real do cowboys cry.

“Gotta pay the bills, though.”

We shake hands, say our goodbyes, and he climbs in a full-size pickup truck. The bed is equipped more for oil than ranching. An oil company logo is painted on the driver’s door.

Meeting people isn’t hard, just a numbers game. Meeting genuine people, those who will stay in your heart long afterward your one meeting is much rarer.

The truck comes to life, belching back smoke into the air. Inside, however, is a man missing something only time and distance can repair.

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Slowing Down Time Takes Time

“Aim for the front or right edge,” says the man standing next to me.

I am in the most unnatural of settings for me – a shooting clay club in western Houston. Or maybe not. All I know is I am so out of my sorts; I can barely remember how to stand.

“The right edge?” I say. “I can barely see the thing flying across in front of me.”

The man chuckles to himself and reaches for the shotgun.

“Here,” he says, “like this.”

“Pull,” he says. I push a small button on a box. An orange clay shoots up from the left side against a backdrop of green oak trees and quickly dissipates into tiny fragments.

Without a word, he hands the gun back to me.

For the next few moments, orange clays are set free in front of me – all flying safely to their destination. Front, back, or middle of the clay are irrelevant terms when your inability to control time.

Contrary to common logic, you can control time – it just takes work.

Time is can be our friend or enemy when completing a task. But to get there, you have to first invest an extensive amount of time building a deep well of knowledge. Standing on the shooting map reminded me of how uncomfortable I could be when out of my element. Exciting? Yes. Challenging? Yes. Humbling, you bet.

The best hitters in baseball claim to be able to see the rotation of the seams of an approaching pitch to in order to decode what may come next. This not all about eyesight. Repeatedly experiencing the same task increases your ability to react to the surroundings or timeline you are managing.

While most may only hear a 100 MPH fastball, a major league player’s library of experience of processing what is happening to him with the white object leaving a pitcher’s hand is as deep as a rock quarry pool. And after a certain point, your body defuses the pressure of time, magically slowing down the moment. Doing so allows you to focus on the smaller details, think differently and react accordingly. Or hit the right edge of a clay.

I learned this firsthand public speaking. While most find getting up to speak in front of 1,000 people unnerving, for those who’ve done so more times than memory allows, it is like stepping into an alternate universe where time slows down. You find yourself already forming the next sentence before the current one is out of your mouth. Adjusting on the fly is more akin to the baseball player reading the spinning seams of an approaching pitch than an interruption. After all, in these situations, time is moving in slow motion.

This applies to one person sitting in front of a keyboard or another faces a complicated mathematical equation – you simply evoke the ability to slow down time. It may sound crazy, but this is real.

If I could only slow down time with a shotgun in my hand.

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Open Door Policy Of A Different Kind

Everyone loves an open-door policy. But earlier this week I saw a different take on the phrase.

Sitting at a red light in traffic, a young couple walked across in front of my car. Holding hands, they stepped into the parking lot. It was then I saw a different open-door policy play out.

Instead of each walking to their respective doors, he walked with the young woman around the front of the car and around her door. Reaching down, he opened the door wide and stepped aside for her to get in. And only when he was sure she was comfortably settled in did he close the door. He then walked back around the car and got in.

To some this 15-seconds of life might not seem particularly noteworthy. But I can assure you there are plenty of us out there who are seeing less and less of what we once considered common courtesy.

This is not about gender, but rather respect.

My wife and I have a son and a daughter. And for our entire lives, we’ve encouraged them to treat each other with respect based on reverence instead of perceived weakness or thinking less of the other. Chromosomes are never an excuse to treat another with anything other than the utmost respect or extending opportunities.

The best thing about raising both a son and daughter was the opportunity to teach through example. And we believe teaching respect should begin at home – giving our children a front row seat to what we hoped they would one day carry forward. And in our house, even the simple act of passing the scalloped potatoes was to include a please and thank you.

As kids, they plain wore out the words thank you and please. When particularly young we even ignored requests without the critical word. We hoped doing so would painlessly allow them to become adults who never found themselves having to remember to practice the basics tenants of respectful manners in any given situation.

I have always opened the door for my wife – beginning on our first date. Not because she couldn’t do it herself or I felt like as the male it was my job to open a door for her, but because I never wanted to miss an opportunity to show her how much I valued and respected her in my life. This is not about gender, but me wanting her to know how lucky I feel that she is letting me be a part of her universe. Being with her made me happy and a better person. Why wouldn’t I do everything I could to let her know?

This young couple reminded me of the journey. Our kids are both now adults. And I can say each understands the value of treating others with respect.

And the lessons must have taken root as my daughter once stood next to the car door while on a date and told the former boyfriend “this door isn’t going to open itself.”

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Survival Without Technology Uncertain

Technology is going to be the end of civilization – and I’m not referring to weapons.

“You know, I’m terrible at directions,” says the sales associate behind the register.

He is scanning the barcode on a metal wall hanging of a compass.

“My dad keeps telling me I need to learn how to tell my direction but I just can’t,” he finishes, the register beeping in the background.

I pause. I’ve heard this before. It worries me. I wonder about the day technology all goes offline. We’ll be doomed.

“You know,” I say “there are only four directions. North, south, east, and west.”

Silence. I’m not making any headway.

“Here is a helpful hint. The sun comes up in the east and sets in the west. Figure that out and you can pretty much go from there.”

The young man smiles.

“Yeah, thanks,” he says handing me a paper receipt.

I really do worry about the day all these networks and all the electronics go down. I’m not a doomsdayer, but at some point in life, we are all going to find ourselves dependent on our wits and ability to think on our feet. And not getting a signal is not going to be an excuse.

There is something to be said for a Kindle that never runs out of battery life. Yes, I mean a physical book with paper pages and if recycled, will decompose into the dirt.

The other day my son called to tell me about a car sold in Japan with roll-up windows. He was honestly intrigued at the simplicity. And I guess for anyone born in a world where a cell phone quickly became an extension of your arm, this would sound fascinatingly and refreshingly simple.

The next battle may very well happen on a field of ones and zeros – that is software code. Every nation currently contains groups who work feverishly to crack into the digital vaults of whatever adversary – or ally – they wish. Why blast missiles from submarines when with a well-placed change in a code so one can take out a strategic electrical grid or create false data?

Which goes back to the day we potentially looking at our phones or other computer sources and having to step back and ask if what they are saying passes the sniff test. Will we have the critical mental skills to operate outside of a world absent of computer-generated information? Can we read the clouds and tell us what is going on with an approaching storm? Or can we figure out how to troubleshoot when the vehicle we are driving suddenly stops on the side of the road?

I am not a survivalist by any stretch of the imagination. If the dinosaurs reappeared on earth today I might be one of the first snacks they nosh on.

But I can promise you if I ran across a secret note telling me to head west for safety, I am confident I would successfully find my way.

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Rudder Result Of Respect, Trust

Everyone needs a rudder in life.

My wife and I are speaking on the phone. I’m sharing something weighing heavily on my heart. I’m struggling for an answer, blinded by dozens of trees before me.

Calmly she straight up tells me what I need to hear. Like that intimidating machine used during eye exams, the confusing clutter clears. Gone is the self-inflicted pressure, allowing a new focus comes into view. My rudder, excuse me for mixing metaphors here, finds its groove again, firmly takes hold, and my mind moves forward with a completely different point of view.

Being married to the right person – someone who intimately knows you to the core as well as being the one person in your life you can trust without question – makes all the difference in life.

Life is about learning one plus one, if done right, equals three.

Earlier this week I ran into the wife of an elected official who also happens to share an occasional handshake in the highest office in the nation. Married long before their journey took off towards the life they now experience, they recognized it takes two in life to be successful. While both are independent thinkers, I also know they unquestionably trust each other’s instincts and judgments. In many ways, if you meet her, you are meeting him. If you meet him, you are meeting her as well.

I’ll admit my life is a long way from a kid who spent countless hours beneath a corner streetlight on a skateboard figuring out a way to make a flat piece of wood twist in the air as I’d read in the pages of a copy of Skateboarder magazine. God sure has a sense of humor is all I can say.

But a few years later He also connected me with someone who would change my life – someone I wanted nothing more than to earn her respect and love. Doing so meant making wholesale changes to what I did, where I was going, and learning to trust another person unquestionably.

Forged metal is considered among the strongest pieces of manmade materials, created under intense pressure. Doing so takes all the elements contained and condenses them into something many times stronger, able to withstand whatever comes. Whenever you run across a relationship indeed forged from time and experiences, you know you are looking at one worth taking mental notes.

My wife jokes I live a good part of life off-script. I tend to study what I’m trying to learn and then out it comes out through a somewhat unpredictable filter resulting in an equally unpredictable interpretation.

But over time she became the guiding rudder in my life that, even when living or making off-script decisions, became the deeply rooted predictor of where the limits would be. And I can assure you this is a serious upgrade.

I am humble enough to admit I need a rudder in life. And I am also proud of the fact that she helped us break the rules of schoolroom mathematics.

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Time Traveler Tells Tall Tales

Once upon a time, in a world close to us all, people did not carry cellphones.

“What do you mean?” said the driver as we drove along the interstate south of Atlanta.

Quickly sliding past the passenger side window is the 1996 Olympic Stadium turned Turner Field turned Georgia State University stadium. Red bricks and green metal project upward making a shadowy silhouette between our grey four-door and the orange sunrise.

I’ve told the driver I was inside the stadium watching a track and field event the night the bombing at Centennial Olympic Park.

The driver is asking what happened in the minutes following the explosion, which in reality, was a mile or so from the stadium.

“I never knew it happened until I got home,” I said.

“What? Was your wife freaked out when you didn’t call her?”

I explained this we before everyone carried a cell phone and our pants legs would vibrate with every news alert. In 1996 we were living in the moment without the help of the world calling us or social media siphoning away our attention spans.

The driver is quiet. I can see him attempting to solve a puzzle in the air between him and windshield. My backseat math puts him at in his early 20’s.

“So how did you let your wife know you were okay?”

“When I walked through the door at two in the morning,” I said.

The driver shakes his head. He is a good young man. His generation knows no differently than a life where the world feeds through a cell phone and into our lives with the fury of an open firehose. I feel my age quietly advance a year or two as the stadium fades into a blur of cement overpasses.

Our conversation migrates to email and fax machines. I begin to worry the driver may feel he collected a time traveler at the airport curb – one filling his cabin with stories of a mysterious universe. A place where people we disconnected from each another, alone in their thoughts most of the day, and left to their survival skills.

The driver is an intelligent young man. His mind is artful, curious, and sincerely trying to figure out how he might survive such a dystopian world bubbling up from the backseat of his car.

I tell him of life before email, describing how we would send business contracts to each other in the mail. I say it might take a week or two to arrive on one end, be signed, and then mailed back. His head shakes in disbelief. I’m willing to bet he doesn’t even own a book of stamps.

In ways, I guess I am a time traveler, someone who brings mind-bending stories challenging the listener to separate the truth from absurd fantasy. Only I’m not crazy. I know of a world without incessant communication, one where although the planet rotates at the same speed, life itself was slower. And for some odd reason, I miss it.

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Life Filled With Curveballs, Knuckleballs

One of my favorite lines is “if you want to hear God laugh, tell him your plans.”

Too often we make the mistake of believing we are in total control of our lives, that if we carefully plot a dotted line and follow along, we will arrive precisely at a predetermined destination. Life, we like to tell ourselves, is a linear equation.

Then it isn’t.

Recently my daughter, after planning of her college timeline, found out firsthand how life can throw you a curveball. In her case, she saw an especially nasty knuckleball arriving over the home plate.

She’s not alone. Unexpected life changes happen to a lot of people. And learning to deal with unforeseen changes is a part of life. One day we learn to appreciate we are only in so much control of our lives. How we deal with the changes, however, determines what happens next.

The doctors have told our daughter she is going to have to live life on a different pathway going forward. Not a dead-end road, but one where her choices will be more complicated and requiring making more educated decisions about her health. Life, but different.

But the good news is how our daughter is embracing this as a challenge, a medical condition she is completely throwing herself into, learning and consuming large amounts of complicated information in a short window. For some reason, God selected her to place on this pathway, apparently believing she is the right person for the journey. No victim here – she is merely figuring out what the best road forward will be to her.

In football, the quarterback after looking at the defensive alignment makes what is called an audible – that is changing the plan to adapt to the circumstances. Doing so allows his team an opportunity to make the best of the situation in front of them. And as in life, learning to call an audible is a critical skill. Nothing is forever nor is will circumstances play out exactly what we expect. Life requires both strength and flexibility. Being upset by changes beyond our control is nothing but a fruitless fit of wasted energy.

Maturity comes in lots of shapes and forms. Learning to successfully deal with both good and bad news and appreciating we are only in control of life to a certain degree all contribute to our to maturity. We can set up all the plans we wish, but we must always be aware life can change in an instant.

I believe we are caretakers of our life and those around us. And in life, my responsibility is to work to live my life and serve others to the best of my abilities. But I also understand God has a plan for everyone – including me and those around me. To expect a steady diet of easy-to-time fastballs is unrealistic. My job is to take care of the daily details but always be ready for the knuckleball.

And as for my daughter, I am confident she will hit this one out of the park.

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City Of Dreams Comes With Baggage

“I can’t tell you how many people I’ve driven to the airport without luggage and they said they had to get out of this town.”

The man behind the wheel is a part-time limo chauffeur, part-time Uber driver, and part-time front seat philosopher. Las Vegas is his town, his canvas.

“Been here 30-years now,” he says.

His voice is harsh, his Michigan accent nearly bleached from his words.

He tells me he has done a lot of things in life, much like the landscape rushing outside the tinted windows of his car. Driven celebrities, worked as a casino dealer, and helped people get people their life right.

“The single most important skill to living in Las Vegas comes down one thing – self-control,” he says. “Everything you could ever want or fantasize about is available to you 24/7. Without self-discipline, Vegas will eat you alive.”

He tells me about his days running a casino blackjack table.

“You learn to read people, and not just cards,” he says. “I can clearly remember the look on someone’s face when I flip down the winning card for the house and their face suddenly changes – instantly telling me they are playing with their bill-paying money.”

He slowly shakes his head. He’s a good man with a good heart.

The landscape outside the window changes. He tells me about the history of the community going past, of how the eccentric millionaire aviator Howard Hughes bought the once raw desert land for practically nothing and named the area after his mother’s maiden name. Today a sea of mansions and tech hubs sit atop the former sandy dessert scrub. As the driver said, anything is possible in Las Vegas.

I think about what I’ve seen in my first few hours in Las Vegas. Slot machines lining the walls as I walk off the morning flight, rolling billboards on the backs of flatbed trucks pumping out music and smoke to promote a show, and girls dressed in more feathers than fabric. People walking the streets with open beers, every language of the world filling the air, and people taking selfies in front of iconic neon signs. And my watch declares it is still breakfast time.

“Yeah, this place can eat you alive. I’ve known so very talented and successful people who just had to pick up and move out of Las Vegas because they couldn’t resist the temptations.”

I picture the driver pulling up to the curb at the airport, the door swinging open, and out stepping a beaten soul preparing to board a flight with only the clothes on their back. Unfortunately, my driver does not have to imagine this picture as he’d delivered too many to catch the flight out of town.

The driver unapologetically loves his adopted city. While Detroit is decades in the past, he came to Las Vegas to chase his dreams. And in the city of dreams – or fantasy – he’s done just that. And along the way, he’s helped others find their way home.

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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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