Can you write a six-word story?

According to lore, Ernest Hemingway was in a bar with fellow writers when they challenged him to write a six-word story. He picked up a napkin and wrote the now-famous, “For sale. Baby shoes. Never worn.” History is unclear whether the legend is legitimate or urban, but so it remains. …and so it remains.

Maybe I need to bring a pen and a napkin with me to an appointment my wife and I have this week. We are shopping for land. About 80 square feet of it—two grave plots.  Our recent COVID experience, particularly her leaving the hospital after a four-day stay the same day that I was admitted for a week-long term, has placed the need for preparations front and center in our minds. All of which calls the question, “What do I want written on my gravestone?” Those will be the words that remain.

I was in my 20s when I sketched a simple version of a gravestone and what words I hoped I would earn for it. Four decades ago my stone had, “People knew he loved them” inscribed on it. I have come to realize that that is/was my aspiration but may not necessarily be my story. Perhaps the epitaph story should be written by those who remain, by those who will find comfort in the words after the grass has covered the bare dirt, and for those who might see the verbiage that remains years and decades later. Maybe their perspectives as observers of my life are more accurate reflections.

My mom and dad would never have chosen the words that now appear on their gravestones. My mom, sister and I chose the words for dad’s epitaph – “He has left for us a most noble pattern” – and my sister and I chose mom’s 13 years later, “A tender mother and a faithful friend.”  I don’t think mom and dad would have chosen those descriptions because they were too close to the story, and they were essentially humble people. I cannot help but think they are pleased with what is etched in their granite, even if it was ghost written.

Hopefully many years from now, someone is going to have to decide on what to put on the stone above my head. Those words will bring comfort, insights or memories to those who remain. But, I ponder whether the six-word story in stone is what I want to say or what others want to say about me?  I will, after all, not be around to read it.

I am going to need a lot of napkins. More than likely, none of the napkin drafts will be “published.”

Lessons from a “First”

Within a few months of turning Medicare age, I experienced a first. I was admitted to a hospital. A week later, at 1:00 in the morning, I returned home.

Every opportunity in life is a chance to listen, pay attention and grow. There was a lot of growing going on this past week, plus the time ahead of that before an ambulance took me in. 

  1. Gratitude. And appreciation. For everything. I had the benefits of great care from the tireless efforts of folks with roles ranging from doctor to custodial crew, and everything in between. I tried to thank each visitor (and they came at all hours with IVs, blood tests, therapies, and so on) for their efforts. I asked that each take care of themselves. Several commented on how rarely they hear “thank you,” “take care,” etc. There is not a moment that we draw breath that is devoid of the opportunity to have gratitude for the moment and appreciation for every person you encounter.
  2. Listen to stories and all that comes with them.  I heard about career/profession decisions, faith, love and loss, kids…life. The insights helped connect me to those who worked hard on my behalf. There was humor. I will carry with me forever the story of the woman who said she was going to empty my multiple urinals. “We don’t want you to get your wee wee in the pee pee.” Her humor was disarming. I chuckled. “Hey, I have $30,000 in student loans where I learned to talk like that,” she said with a smile. Humor – as in “sense of” and “attitude” – is a possession to hold onto.
  3. Lung health. Inhale. Exhale. “Easy peazy, lemon squezzy,” as one young tech reminded me. How your lungs function is quite remarkable. Here are a few tips they shared with me about lung health and good habits that would be remiss if I didn’t share:
    • Sleep on your belly/chest. This helps empty the lungs of the “junk.” If you can’t sleep on your belly, sleep on your side. Don’t sleep on your back.
    • In through the nose, out through the mouth. Exhale for twice as long as you inhale. This habit helps to inflate the lungs. “Blow over the soup,” one respiratory tech reminded me as an example of how to breathe.
    • Pay attention to occasionally stretch out your arms while breathing to help open the lungs, clear the pathways and allow for what are truly, “cleansing breaths.”

Sweet Sauce of Nostalgia

They say don’t look back, but the sirens sing there; my mom and dad are there; more and more friends fall into the “in the rear view mirror” category; and the sweet sauce of nostalgia seasons my moments and memories.  Melancholia sometimes becomes part of the moments, but Van Morrison assured me years ago not to fear it.

Watching the movie Field of Dreams alone, remembering watching it with my oldest son when he was a teen, and recalling how often he has watched it into his adult years, brings on a mixed drink of nostalgia and melancholia that I must sip gently because any movie that includes the opportunity for a son to have another chance to interact with a now-deceased dad brings me to tears. I must be careful on these baselines.

All of which reminds me about listening to life. Had I not listened so carefully and absorbed so much, I would not have the keen affection for, and attention to, the past that I have now.  It illuminates and enriches my moments and my hope for the future. Treasuring the past is perhaps the only good investment I’ve ever made; the returns are available to me in all aspects of my life.  I hope to pass that investment advice to others along the way, for as long as I get to play on this field of dreams…life.

We all have secrets and wisdom to share with others, secrets learned in the trenches (and on the field) of life.  Little things and big things. It is incumbent on us to share. It is important for us to go to well of our wisdom and dip out what we can to share. For the nostalgia well, I go to movies, music and photographs. We all have sources available to use. Share with others what you get from your sources.

Happy Daddin’ Day

Almost 11 years ago, I received my author’s copy of my book, Daddin’:  The Verb of Being a Dad and gave the first copy to my oldest son a day later as we all waited in hospital waiting room for the birth of his first born. A torch was passed.  Actually, it wasn’t.  Just like a match moves from candle to candle on a birthday cake, the torch of daddin’ moves from son to son, continuing the light, not passing it off. And for those men who are not daddin’, they are father figures to others whether they know it or not.

Daddin’ is a verb covering the things that are done in the moments, not just the title of “father.” I came up with the verb in my journal in 1998 because dads needed a verb. Mothers mother.  Their verb connotes tenderness, nurturing and caring; however, “fathering” merely connotes procreation. I used the verb in a story in my book Listen to Life:  Wisdom in Life’s Stories in 2005. From those perspectives, I look at today with three sons, six grandchildren and all carry a bit of the light that my dad passed to me.

My dad didn’t get much, if any, good light from his father. It seemed to me that dad made his own match, lit it in his marriage to my mom, and together they created a family where the match could move from candle to candle. He wasn’t perfect. No one is. He fought demons borne in the challenging conditions of growing up very poor, and that was before the Great Depression exacerbated tough times. The death of their first-born daughter at the age of five to leukemia right after World War II added more pressure. His gravestone reads “He left us a most noble pattern.” Despite it all, a noble pattern.

Fathers of then, fathers of now and fathers in the future will face challenges, demons and forces that can blow out the match. They face times when it is “easier” to spend time doing other things than daddin’. I can’t think of anything more rewarding though.

For whatever light a man can pass along to his children, be thankful. Light chases away darkness. Doing in the moments the things of daddin’ is to carry the light. Happy Father’s Day to all dads, past, present and future. May the light guide the path to the future.

The Grass Was High…Thank Goodness

Between a full schedule, a problematic lawnmower, recently applied fertilizer and a rainy season that would have encouraged nostalgic reminiscing among Noah’s family members, I had not gotten to the lawn for a few weeks and the grass was in desperate need of being mowed. I contemplated taking to it with a machete, but my backfiring lawnmower (obviously I did not get all the issues resolved) was my weapon of choice as I tackled the grass that happens to be on a 45-degree angle (more or less) lawn. As with all experiences in life, great lessons came of the time.

Go Slow…Smell the….St. Augustine

A neighbor drove by and struck up a conversation as I edged the sidewalk.

“Gonna cut the yard, huh?” he said. “It’s going to hard since its wet,” he added.

“Yep, and it’s going to rain again soon. But I have to cut it now that I have a chance.” After a couple of minutes of small talk, he drove off, obviously pleased with having shared his wisdom about wet grass being hard to mow, especially when it is jungle high on a 45-degree angle (more or less).

There is another truth about high, well-fertilized St. Augustine grass when cut in thick, humid conditions: the aroma is rich and it hangs in the air to be consumed, feeding memories of little league practice, mowing lawns for extra money, and teaching young sons the suburban tradition of weekend mowing.

Go slow in tasks, chores … in life … and let your senses feed you.

Don’t Give Up

I probably didn’t mention that I have a good ol’ push lawnmower. An until recently reliable Briggs engine powers the blade but not the wheels. It goes nowhere unless it is pushed. Now seems like a good time to bring up the point.

While cutting the grass in a pattern that follows the length of the yard instead of using an up-and-down pattern on the 45-degree angle (more or less) would be easier, it would not look as good. It’s worth it. Good outcomes are worth time, effort and exertion, no matter to what goals the effort is expended.

In the interest in transparency, I just turned Medicare age, so tackling the project in the conditions of the day required a few breaks but I believe that I had a better outcome than in the old days of youth when success was measured more by the speed in which I finished than by the final look.

Take breaks. Recharge. Don’t give up. Never, ever surrender, as I tell my sons frequently. Some goals are not reached in hours, days, weeks, months or years…sometimes the desired outcome takes decades (that will be a story for another day). Never…ever…surrender.

Drink Fluids

Hydration matters. If I counted correctly the number of 32-ounce tumblers my wife filled for me, as well as those in the evening, I figure I drank almost a gallon and one-half. Recharging my fluids was a good thing, but, as with all things, the main purpose is not where all the benefits reside. With each refill, I got a wink and a kiss; with each break, my body felt the cooling, calming of ice water; at each pause, I reviewed the progress of my efforts; with each swallow I got a sense of “I got this.” And I did.

As much as your body needs the hydration, your spirit can benefit from the refreshing pauses if you enjoy the time and not just the fluid.

This morning, I looked through the blinds at the grass that was cut 18 hours before. I think it had grown. So, too, is life; it is never over until it is over. And that is a blessing if we see it as such.

To Mothers…for how they make us feel

The other day, I listened to a digitized version of a recording from about 55 years ago. Back then, I had turned on my little reel-to-reel tape recorder to pick up the sounds of life in the McInnis household while some of my parents’ friends were over. In the voices, I heard Mrs. Perkins, a good friend of the family, my sister and a woman with a very Southern accent. Tears formed. It was mom. I had not recalled the sound of her voice as clearly and deeply as my memories of how she made me feel, that is, loved unconditionally.

It has been said by many, in various eloquent ways, that people won’t remember what you said as much as how you made them feel. Though moms dispense all sorts of important words of wisdom (do you remember my Listen to Life of several years titled “Mothers Say?”), it is how those words make us feel and how their actions make us feel that we celebrate on Mother’s Day.

I have cited often in this blog that my mom’s epitaph reads “A tender mother and a faithful friend.” Those sentiments were not borne in anything I recall her saying or in my memory of the sound of her voice; they were earned in how she made her kids feel.

To all mothers – past, present and future – thank you for those positive, encouraging, caring, loving feelings that you have created in the hearts, minds and memories of your children.

I have never been this old before

My sons and I often use group text messages for updates, jokes, check-ins, news and whatever else is on anyone’s mind that may be of interest to all four of us. In a recent shout out, my youngest asked how my running regimen was coming along.

On March 1, I started a “running” routine so I could, someday, truly run again. I put the word in quotation marks because the old track guy in me won’t allow me to describe anything as running that involves more time or distance actually walking. I have loved running all my life but participating regularly in my favorite sport tapered off to nothing about 35 years ago.

I thought I had it all figured out about how to get back into the swing of things – I was, after all, certified as a track coach by The Athletics Congress (overseer of amateur track and field at the time) almost 40 years ago and I coached youth for about five years, and I coached myself when I got kicked off the track team in high school. Surely, my experiences would appropriately facilitate my return to the sport with intelligent, well thought-out workouts that would bring me back to running condition. My mind raced with possible responses to my son’s query. The first thought that came to my mind before I typed a response was telling.

“I’ve never been this old before,” I thought.  Behind that thought were many lessons learned from a lot of research between March 1 and March 31. The new workouts revealed new realities. On April 1, various home projects and a new work schedule officially knocked me out of the workout routine that was leading me to improvement, as well as teaching me new lessons, humbling my ego, lowering my goals and the timing thereof, and much more.  Clearly, a lot has changed over the past 35 years, not the least of which is my body, i.e., its size, flexibility and mechanics. While being able to use some of what I knew about the sport and about myself, I was learning a lot because I was in new territory…”I’ve never been this old before.”

Trying something at 30 that you did at 20 is challenge enough but trying at pert-near-65 what you did at 30 is altogether different. And that’s okay.

I want to run because I WANT to RUN, not to compete, not to achieve some conditioning goals, but because…I love running, particularly shorter runs at faster pace, not that I object to the ideas of competing again and getting into better shape. My motivation is that I WANT to RUN. I figure that objective might need some adjustments, too, as I re-start this weekend the running quest, armed with new information, insights and humility.

The March experience achieved some goals, but more so enlightened me that once-flexible muscles are not nearly as much now and that the body doesn’t recover from workouts as quickly as in the younger years.  And that’s okay, too.

Fact is, on any given day none of us have ever been as old before. We age, learn, grow. Conditions change, as do our mindsets and some realities. It doesn’t take a three-decade gap to remind us that today is different than before; we might need to learn something new to fully appreciate and enjoy this day. We may need to be more humble and wiser; we may need to be more patient and more understanding; we may need to be clever and creative. And that is definitely okay.  It’s better than okay; it is what makes each new day a chance to live in newness.

With a new day comes a new chance, empowered by new insights and knowledge. And so it was that when I typed my response to my sons, I concluded with “But learn, adapt and move on.”  Such is life, such is getting older and that is more than okay…that is living.

Listen to a Year

I had no idea how powerful the experience would be. I think I will continue to do it, one year at a time.

A “Hits of 1971” web search brought up some interesting options, and one offered 100 tunes from the year that carried me from freshman to sophomore year in high school. The time travel proved to be more poignant than I imagined, providing several elements to my lens of memory creating sharp recollections of the experiences. They also helped me to more accurately pin down memories from a range of years to a specific year, which then connects them to particular other memories involving people, places and things.

The tunes, all but three of which I remembered, formed a hall pass to roam the old halls of school without disruption, a passport to journey to locations of events long since passed, and a telescope to look far back in time to the wonderful life of a not-yet-able-to-drive-boy-looking-toward-manhood from the perspective of a man who next week will register for Medicare. The songs made for a stress-free time trek.

As much as I love nostalgia and nostalgic feelings, the goal of listening to more than three hours of music was not to stir such feelings. I needed a waypoint, more accurately, to review the waypoint (A point between major points on a route, as along a track.) of the year that brought me into the sophomore stage, not forgetting that sophos (Gr: wise) and moros (Gr: foolish) aptly describes that phase of life.

Life is about moments. Remember the moments. Time travel with whatever method is available to you to recall how you made it from one phase to another, and how you grew each step of the way. Someday you will look back at the time that is now and smile as music plays, wondering how you made it through this time and proud of the wisdom you’ve gained along the way. I think anew of what my mom and dad may have thought as they listened to Big Band era songs. I wished I could ask them.

Next up, the music of 1974 (high school graduation) and a tour of websites that sell candy from my elementary school years. Between those points will be memories of a blessed life. What waypoints will you review?

Red Rover, Red Rover, let…

If you were able to finish the sentence started in the title of this piece, you not only had the fun of playing outdoors with friends instead of finding entertainment in video games, but you also learned about life.

The challenge of picking teams and strategically calling over opponents who will try to break the line of players who are side-by-side holding hands provides so much more than simple play; good play is that way. Of note for this story is the simplest, and most profound lesson, from Red Rover. (If you missed out on this great game or want a refresher, check this article.)

Life is Red Rover.

We find ourselves on teams, by selection or by action
In Red Rover, players end up on teams by selection or by action. The two captains of the teams first get to pick who they want on their teams. Experienced captains realized that not everyone could be strong armed and fast and heavy enough to break through the opponent’s lines; success came from a good blend of attributes. (Managers and leaders today would do well to remember that, but I’ll save that for another story. Spoiler alert, attributes are not the same as skills.)  Sometimes, a player will end up on a team because s/he was unable to break through the opponent’s line when called; so, there are times in life when you end up switching teams and changing sides, and your loyalty to the objectives follows.

We are stronger when bound together
Key to success is holding hands. Let that sink in as a metaphor. The key to success for a team is to hold hands, properly matching strengths to minimize the chance of weak links that others can break through. It is also important when holding the hands of your teammates that you don’t overpower their hands which actually weakens your connection. The proper combination of handhold and strength, appropriately applied, makes for the strongest bonds that are less likely to be broken through by the adversaries charging into your line.

We are called
I can still almost remember the excitement, the knot in my stomach, the anticipation of running as fast as I could get my 50 pounds to go when I heard, “Red Rover, Red Rover, let Dion come over.” My asset was speed, not mass; nonetheless, being called to face the challenge was exciting. Life is that way. I would use my speed and head to where I thought the weakest link in the opposing chain might be so I could achieve the goal, which was to break through and bring back a good player to my team. We are often called to use whatever assets and attributes we have in order to achieve a purpose. That never stops. Life is that way.

We continue on, even if we can’t have a breakthrough
As I mentioned, mass was not an asset for me. While I had a fair share of victories of breaking through, I would often bounce off the line. The game – and all the fun, lessons, camaraderie and competition of it – continued, this time with me on a new team. Even if we don’t have a breakthrough, we continue the game with a good attitude and sense of fun. Profoundly, the person who is left alone, without a team, is the official loser of the game. But the loss isn’t permanent; on another day, teams will be picked and they will be stronger when bound together; we will be called to face a challenge and sometimes we’ll have breakthroughs, though sometimes we won’t. Life is that way.

Listen carefully. Somewhere, someone or something is calling you to come over.

The Perfect Church Song

Every Easter reminds me of the perfect church song, thanks to an event about a quarter century ago. It speaks to all days, but particularly today…Easter.

The short version of the story is that the new pastor to our parish liked to change things up at the last minute, including the songs that were to be sung. On this particular Sunday, he told the congregation that he wanted to change the listed song to one of the old, beloved songs that everyone knew.  Before he got a word out, a child’s voice from the back of the church began to sing what he thought of as an “old, beloved song that everyone knew.” 

“I love you…you love me…” the child sang. Of course, it was the theme song to the popular Barney cartoon.  Who knew that a cartoon purple dinosaur’s song, shared through the innocent voice of a child, would summarize the perfect song for church. I think of that event often, but always on Easter.

Happy Easter everyone. I love you.