Cats In the Cradle Comes Home

I’ve lived long enough to complete crossing the arc of Harry Chapman’s iconic folk song, Cats in the Cradle.

Our son called the other night.

“Hey,” he said. “I’m just calling to check in on you guys.”

My wife and I put my phone on speaker so we could share the experience together. He’s crossed over his mid-twenties but in our eyes, will always be the excited blue-eyed boy ready to greet each morning. As parents, memories of our children tend to suspend themselves in amber like an insect trapped in time. We are the same.

Background noise hints he is his car. The hours separating us are there, but he is always on our minds.

“All good on this end,” he said. “How about you?”

I convinced no matter how many years go on our personal odometers an unexpected call from your child will always magically refresh your soul like a cold drink of ice water on a humid Texas afternoon.

We barely get into the conversation when a pulsing sound between us indicates another call is coming in on his end.

“Hey, he interrupts. “I need to take this call.”

It wasn’t necessarily the words themselves, but the phrasing and tone. Strong, firm, mature. In one moment, my wife and I both recognizing the paradigm of parenting shifting. Looking down at his photo on the screen looking back at us, the moment fused in our hearts.

Much like the song, our son had unknowingly crossed the line into full-blown adulthood by using the exact phrase easily recognized in our family – six words he’d heard as code for a highly-important call related to work throughout his life.

“I need to take this call.”

In our home, this was a drop everything code for a storm hitting and the newspaper losing power, an unexpected call from a coworker at a highly unusual hour, or one from someone we were urgently waiting a return call. In our family, the phrase was sparingly used, but universally understood. No one’s feeling were hurt, but rather we all recognized as a family a newspaper’s life is fluid and unpredictable on each of us.

In Chapman’s song, the story arch goes from the young boy wishing for his father’s attention to a total role reversal, one where the father is now the child thirsting for a moment – any moment – with his son.

If you are a parent, it is hard to listen to this song without both your mind and body reacting to the deep and authentic emotions. From the young boy asking his dad to play catch to the closing where the son is telling the father he’s tied up with work and the kids have the flu, the words rip deeply into the listener’s heart. I remember doing the same as a kid with my dad, fighting to get his attention.

And like the day of his birth, our conversation this week will always be held closely as one I will never forget – and my world shifted.

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MLK Continues to Lead, Teach

I met Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in a small wooden sunroom off the side of our home in and even smaller Mississippi town.

Like many, the death of Dr. King occurred either early in our lives or before we were brought into this world. But getting to know someone through their writings and words can be a powerful journey.

Living in a modest community struggling to support two grocery stores at the same time, my wife and our two kids lived a year or so in a town where the horizon was defined by tall pine trees and one-syllable words were routinely stretched into two. People were equally modest, polite, and somewhat distant to anyone who was not born within the state let alone the city limits. My wife, a Texan by birth and me a Midwesterner, found ourselves at time living in a shadow dimension where words and gestures many times never quite lined up. But we loved it all the same, as if a door to curious culture had been left ajar just enough for us to peek in and look around.

At the time, in 1998, the autobiography of King was released. I’d grown up in a relatively quiet suburban life that could be transplanted to numerous other cities across the nation without any real material difference. But walking the streets and listening for the unspoken so carefully laced between those used in a small traditional southern town proved revealing.

 The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr. is a remarkable collection of interviews, recordings, correspondences, and other archival materials. His unvarnished words, unpolished and raw with emotion took me on a life-changing journey.

Racism is an ugly side of the human condition. No one with a heart or decency can honestly justify nor support of the practice. Furthermore, this human condition exists throughout both time and cultures around the globe. A universal scab on mankind not contained by borders or laws.

But sitting in the small sunroom off our home in Mississippi, pine trees whispering outside the window panes, I listened to Dr. King’s words as they came off the pages and into my soul. The pain, the injustice, the strength in character to never lose sight of the bigger picture, the longer goal. I hurt for him. There is nothing more powerful than reading the actual words penned by the originator as if sitting next to them. King’s voice is true, the emotion immediate, a powerful connection fusing between you and King. You cannot help but be changed.

Dr. King’s words and writings forever changed how I would look view the world. Sitting in the small room, I felt as if a rotating kaleidoscope of images and emotions fell into place – one forever solidifying and intensifying my instinct of measuring others based on their character and contributions to others, rather than the color of their skin, religious beliefs, or even small patch of dirt the found themselves entering this life on planet earth.

Thank you, Dr. King.

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Flu Brings Fireworks and Dancing Bears

I’m sick of being sick.

The New Year snuck into our house under a fog of pharmaceutical haze – one where both time the time of day and any ability to reference a somewhat accurate date on calendar are lost to dreams of dancing bears and fireworks. A fever will do that to you.

Apparently this is one of the most popular flu seasons in a good while. According the Center for Disease Control, 47 of 50 states are reporting widespread outbreaks. Apparently Maine, New Hampshire, and Hawaii are good places to be right now if you wish to avoid the outbreak. I’ll take the latter if you’re asking.

I’ll admit not getting a flu shot is hardheaded, illogical, and can be medically threatening to someone who carries an AARP card. Add to the fact I’m a guy and still harbors misguided beliefs that most ailments will cure themselves if you simply try to walk them off. Being guilty of all of the above probably made me a prime target for an extended dance with this year’s all-American, star-spangled flu.

A few weeks ago a friend told me about his personal journey through the forest of bright lights, hallucinations, and all around body-draining experience.

“I don’t know how to explain it,” he said, “but I kept seeing this one word – berry – blinking before my eyes like a neon sign. And the image just kept coming back with my fever.”

If you know my friend, nothing takes this guy down. Tough, focused, not going to let a little discomfort keep him from engaging the day. That is until he ran across this year’s electric Kool-Aid themed flu bug.

A week later fireworks and dancing bears filled my head all from the vantage point of wrapped in a blanket on the living room sofa. I could only imagine this was akin to Timothy Leary experiencing Jimi Hendrix perform at Woodstock.

For those of you who have not had this year’s mode, here are the crib notes: prepare to suffer and hunker down for a week long cycle until you return to a shell of your previous self. Most of us wake up early, feel a bit woozy, and then like cresting atop a tall roller coaster, quickly descend into a furious ride through a funhouse of haunted terror. Not trying to scare you, but this is a miserable journey.

I laid down with plans of what to do the next day – celebrate New Years Eve, catch the college playoff football games on New Years Day, and draw up an annual list of goals – only to wake up as a twisted and modern version of Rip Van Winkle. When the fever finally broke, we were already a couple days into the new calendar year and people we talking about an epic double-overtime football game as old news.

And to add to my disorientation, it was already Tuesday.

So yes, I’m sick of being sick. I’ll live, but count me in for a flu shot next year.

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Your Life Is In Your Hands

What if you had one more day to live? Would that change the way you lived today? And why?

Life is a long sequence of sunrises followed by sunsets – thousands to be literally correct. Too often we dismiss days off the calendar like we mindlessly dip our hand into a bag of chips. The start and finish similarly thoughtless.

Again, why? Why wait until a wake up call to lead your life by design, guided by what defines you, your dreams, and your values? Why not make your life, yours?

To be honest, we’ve all gone stretches of life with our heads boring into the wind, telling ourselves this too will pass. And for the most part, those moments are an essential part of building character, demonstrating to ourselves we can survive the worst life can throw at us. Nothing builds confidence like earning a victory by your own sweat and determination.

But do we also understand, those moments, as necessary as they are to our development, are designed to be temporary? Markers in life for us to rise up and build a better version of ourselves?

Time is a great teacher. Along the way we learn to understand not too much in life is worth getting worked up about, grudges tend to cheat us from important relationships, and the fear of the trying or doing new things is akin to being afraid of your shadow.

I know I’ve been blessed beyond anything in my dreams. I met the most wonderful woman in the world, together we built a beautiful family, and survived everything from not having money to buy a package of diapers to holding hands for possibly one last time before a surgery.

But in the end, which could be today as likely as any day, life has made each of us stronger and more resilient to whatever is ahead.

Life should be lived one day at a time – but on your terms. Too often the world would like us to sign on like we do for cable television and simply accept what comes out on the other end. Unfortunately, like what comes out of your television, most of it is crap.

I’m not the smartest guy in the room and most likely never have been or will. But life has helped me see taking notes and acting on what is most important to me is the difference between genuine fulfillment and helpless anxiety. It is my responsibility to use my God-given tools to create and shape the world around me.

I tell my children-now-adults that life is hard. But I also tell them you will more likely regret the opportunities you don’t take than those you will. Our minds want us to be safe; life, however, wants us to evolve, grow, and drink it in.

Before you figure out how to live tomorrow, make sure the one you are living today is one you would have no regrets of turning off the light switch one final time.

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Americana Served with Chili

I discovered America alive and well over a bowl of chili the other day.

Romance is a funny thing – our hearts and minds working together to present an edited version of the past. One where the burs are softened the unvarnished is touched up here and there. Artist Norman Rockwell made a good living tapping into this vein of Americana.

But on the corner of two well-worn streets, America is still living as true as red, white, and blue.

Grey skies and cutting northerly winds instinctively send me searching for a bowl of chili. This week, however, I found warmth is not limited to a ceramic bowl and stainless steel spoon. In a small, community pub, you would be hard pressed to find a better slice of Americana.

Darkened wood, black and white sports photos, and dollar bills lightly draping from the walls and ceilings, these bastions of our history would make Norman Rockwell proud.

The waitress takes my order without needing to write it down, greets people by their first names, and connects with every patron on one level or another. The menu is simple but honest. Some sandwiches appeared to be originally named after star athletes who now sit in their respective sport’s halls of fame. Larry Bird and Ryne Sandburg should be honored.

The door, cut at a 45-degree angle and facing both streets, swings open and patrons purposefully walk in taking a seat at the modest bar. Never reaching for a menu, the waitress many times simply confirms what she thinks they want. Drinks, similarly, arrive without spoken communication. One man’s shirt reflects the contractor he is working for while the person next to him thumbs through the Wall Street Journal. Flip phones competed with iPads.

Americana is alive and well.

In true Texan style, my chili arrives absent of beans.

The door abruptly swings open. A man loudly asks everyone in the room where the nearest Mexican restaurant is located. Patrons offer directions and he is off back into the cold.

Americana is an interesting concept. Honest, authentic, and you can touch it like you shake a man’s hand. Rusted pickup trucks, catching the whiff of a hot dog on the grill, and two people laughing for the sake of laughing. Real. No filter. You know it when you see it, hear it, feel it.

The chili is great. My body sends a thank you card up from my toes – the warmth apparently working its way through my system.

The door burst open again. The return visitor loudly says that is not the right Mexican restaurant. He describes the booths. Someone gives him directions to another up the street. He turns and exits. The place returns to normal as if loud strangers bursting through the door and abruptly asking for directions is normal in the first place.

The chili disappears quickly, my body hungry for not only the food, but for the peek at Americana. Have faith, America still exists.

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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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