Would you like to try…?

“Would you like to try / Something you never dreamed of?” is more than a lyric to a song; it is challenge and invitation to all of us.

Years ago, after reading The Aladdin Factor, I created a list of more than 100 things I’d like to accomplish in life. I accepted an invitation to join an adult softball team because of the book; I had on my list the desire to hit a home run. I realized that my chance of accomplishing my goal was nil if I wasn’t “in the game.” I did not get a home run, but I did get a “grand slam.” (Read this post for the explanation.)

The list also including writing a song and watching a music recording session. I got the chance for both, and the result is “Wrangler’s Ballad.”  It was written as a tribute to the clients of New Danville, where I work as their development director; it is a community for adults with intellectual or developmental disabilities.

“Would you like to try / Something you never dreamed of?” sticks in my head.

Try things; dream things; try things you haven’t even dreamed was possible. More than messages in a song, they  are reminders to everyone.

Telephone booths and what they said about us

I remember my grandmother and mother using an expression that is rarely or ever used today.  “Have they no shame?” they would ask when they witnessed people say or do things that would possibly diminish observers’ respect for the person saying or doing the something. Whereas in “those days,” people held restraint and privacy of actions in some regard, it seems like those qualities are lost.  It might do well to harken back to then.What got me to thinking about that was a photo of a telephone booth. They served a much greater purpose than giving Clark Kent a place to change into his Superman garb. The booths provided a place where a person could stand or sit and have a private conversation.  Private.  The assumption was that the world didn’t need to know, shouldn’t know, and wasn’t interested in the caller’s conversations and all the details entailed. Nowadays, cell phones make all conversations public; for some, everyone within ear shot hears both sides of the conversation. The more people in the vicinity of the person on the phone, the louder they speak and the more people who hear.  It is hard to ignore all the conversations that are nearby. I am sure we have all heard things that we wished we hadn’t, be it details, emotions or vocabulary from total strangers. No one seems to care if they are overheard.Sometimes it is impossible to hear with much specificity because there are so many people on the phone within earshot. Privacy by aural overwhelm, I guess.Merriam-Webster cites the primary definition of shame as “A painful emotion caused by consciousness of guilt, shortcoming, or impropriety.” Looking at each word of the definition, it seems there is, indeed, no sense of shame in society. To have shame requires standards against which behavior or actions are measured and the humility to know that one does not measure up.The more I think about it, the more I miss the age of telephone booths because in their disappearance seems to be a vanishing of the reasons to have them.


To See Life More Clearly

A few years ago, I wrote an article about how hearing aids, literally and figuratively, can help an organization’s leadership and management, based on a nonprofit’s executive director’s comment about her need for hearing aids. Having just been fit for my first pair, I can attest that these devices are good for a lot more than improving hearing. They help you see life more clearly; “see” has many definitions.

It is not like I am deaf or anywhere close to it. I attribute my diminished ability to hear on the high end of the spectrum to some good concerts, particularly the one when I stood in front of the speaker stack. I got great photos though, 45 years ago.  The audiologist revealed the results of the hearing test and explained that the auditory nerve will quit conveying particular wavelengths if they are not heard for a long period of time (many years). I decided to get ahead of the curve and get the devices. Along the way of the process, I was reminded about some important lessons about life.

Save what you have
Whatever asset, skill, attribute or capability you have, work to recover it, save it or improve it. Time and  age, or injury, may require compensations or workarounds, but so be it. Just because you can’t do something now like you did 5, 10, 20 or 40 years ago doesn’t mean that something should be abdicated or forgotten. Fish with bait if the constant casting of a lure irritates arthritis; play less sophisticated chords if your fingers can’t hit the ones they used to; walk or hike instead of jogging, or jog instead of sprinting; try knitting to make things if the miniscule sizes of needle eyes make sewing frustrating…and millions more.  There are always a multitude of ways to access the activities and pleasures of life despite changing personal abilities.

Hear and listen in order to see.
I’ve told my photography students the same thing for 40 years now:  “If you want to see better, close your eyes.” My goal is to get photographers to use all their other senses and then open their eyes to see what is in front of them. The aroma of food may change the perception of it, and therefore the inspiration for images; the sound of waves crashing will inspire a different approach to photographing waves than simply seeing them come in; the taste of sweat dripping into the corner of your mouth will change how to convey heat or strenuous exercise…and so on.

With hearing aids bringing the high end sounds back to me, I am reminded about the value of hearing, and listening to what is heard, in order to change what is seen (again, using the various definitions of “see.”) My wife and I sat on the back porch to start the morning with conversation and coffee while enjoying the sights and sounds of the early day. The sights changed because of the sounds. I was almost giddy with the “new” sounds of so many birds making a variety of chirps, tweets and beckonings. I turned off the hearing aids and heard birds; I turned them back on and heard a symphony of winged instruments near and far. I couldn’t help but look for the creators of the sounds; I listened to the distinctive sounds and sought out the makers in nearby blooming trees, on the roof, on the fence and so on. Hear; listen; see differently.

Pay attention
Pay attention and stay out of cruise control. Pay attention to the details of information (“Go too long and you’ll lose the high-end spectrum forever.”); pay attention to nuances and subtleties; pay attention to distinctions and differences…pay attention to everything; you’ll learn and grow from the process and will soon see life more clearly, with better understanding.

Something New or Something Better

Should I use some time to learn something new or to get better at something I’m pretty good at? Yes. It is a quandary since time is finite. There are always things to learn and there is nothing that each of us are good at but could also get better.

I’ve always wanted to learn to play a musical instrument. Piano lessons when I was a lad failed, though I believe that dealing with me likely benefitted Sr. Dolores on her path to heaven. I tried again at 16. I did pretty well until the lessons required getting my left hand involved by cooperating with my right hand. My left hand has a mind of its own.

In the intervening years between piano attempts, I showed a proclivity to writing and photography. I seemed to have some talent in those areas and have embraced them throughout my life. I can get better at both…of course!

But some things just gnaw, like wanting to play an instrument. When I went through the “what I want in my life” exercise described in the book The Aladdin Factor, I included learning to play the acoustic guitar. Two years ago, I bought a guitar and enrolled in a learn-to-play-in-30-days program (and ongoing instruction). One month. It has been almost 24 and I still don’t know how to play. To be fair, I was making reasonable progress until a couple of hospital stays in the summer of ’21. The lessons were going pretty well until I needed more compliance from my left hand…the one with a mind of its own. Lack of progress led to frustration to lack of practice to…back to step one. I have not surrendered; I am re-grouping.

I think that is okay. By tackling something of interest, it has the called the question as to whether I should use time to get better at the things I know how to do well (but could do better) or persist by changing patterns to learn something new. After all, I am still a young man…at least in my own mind. I discovered the answer to the question is “yes.”

Words to Live By

I only met Vernon twice, but he had an impact. The first was a brief conversation after a meeting at my job, the second was when I had gone to interview him and his wife for the newsletter I produce for the nonprofit I work for; I left feeling like we were life-long friends. He had that effect on many, as evidenced by the crowded church at his funeral the other day. As the pastor said, “The church has not been this full in two years.”

The closing sentence from the short bio about him that accompanied the service’s program read, “In all life’s journey, he lived out his true calling as a pastor.”  He was studying chemical engineering when he was commissioned into the Army through ROTC. His life of ministry began during his military service in Vietnam when he decided to become an Army Chaplain. This engineer was also ordained after graduating from the Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University. He returned to engineering later in life.

Of the many things said during the two eulogies presented by his sons, and comments from the various pastors who spoke during the service, two stand out as words to live by.

Be present and listen. These were the words of advice that Vernon shared with a young minister who was struggling with how to be pastoral in a specific situation he was working with. Whether we are with family or friends, strangers or alone in prayer, his simple, powerful advice holds true. It is easier not to, but more loving to do so.

Merriment is good medicine; dad was well medicated. One of his sons shared that insight. Laughter from the attendees affirmed what was apparently common knowledge about Vernon. Several people cited Vernon’s special sense of humor. The images shown prior to the service revealed a life full of smiles and laughter; many smiles were wry. Of all the advice and information that we hear about medicines of all sorts, this is the one we should perhaps pay most attention to. Be well medicated with heavy doses of merriment.

It takes a special person to create a sense of lifelong connection after only an hour of conversation. Vernon was that kind of man. We should all aspire to connecting to others in such authentic ways.

Mail room lesson in humanity

We live in a community with a central mail room that serves all the residents of the community. There are no mailboxes on the street or at homes. Tonight, I realized the mail room is life. It reveals humanity.

The centrally placed building is a gathering area, of sorts. While retrieving mail, one might run into a friend or meet a neighbor. You can also see the fullness of life, providing a view that provides a great perspective on how we’re all in this together.

This is the second time I have lived in the community. A quarter century ago, the area proved to be a great place to raise kids. My three sons enjoyed the small-town feel, fishing on three lakes and the overall environment. The gap between leaving here as a father to teens and returning as one of the senior set is 20 years. My perspectives now are richer, and, hopefully, wiser.

It’s a close-knit community; there are a lot of us seniors in it. It is not unusual to find notices on the door about a resident who has passed away. The bulletin board inside the building reveals all of life leading to its conclusion.

Notices abound, tacked to the cardboard. You can find used sets of golf clubs for sale; some are sold because the seller is improving their game, or aging out of it. Some are offered through estate sales.  There are offers for tutoring assistance in classes ranging from middle school math to college physics (we live in a “college town”). Invitations to fund-raising events for local charities can almost always be found on the board; there are always people in need and people who want to help. There are also invitations to join bridge clubs or pickleball groups, as well as many other activities that young people or retirees like to participate in. The pinned papers reveal people’s desire to socialize, engage and support. Yesterday, I noticed a message that bundled all the aspects of humanity; a resident who was diagnosed with Parkinson’s in 2015 was looking for others to join in the creation of a support group. I paused to absorb the wording and left with a profound sense of mortality, along with an affirmation that the way to make it through life and its challenges is with other people.  The entire board reflects the same wisdom, each sheet of paper in its own way. Amidst the “for sale” sheets and event notices stood a card of gratitude from one of the women who works behind the counter of the mail room. It has been there since the Christmas holidays, expressing her thanks for the gifts and well wishes. It stood out for its look and message; gratitude has a way of doing that.

My truck was the only vehicle in the parking lot as I headed out the door. A car pulled next to mine as I made my way through the lot. The driver seemed to be in no hurry to get out of his car. He was moving slowly when I called out, “How are doing this evening, sir?” He rose slowly, his pace clearly age induced. “Getting older,” he replied with a smile. “God willing, we get to do that every day,” I said. He nodded. “It’s the end of that that I’m worried about,” he said, his smile giving way to a look of resignation.

My trip to the mail room was a lesson on humanity and the human condition.

It’s 3 a.m., do you know where…

One of the vestiges of my month-long COVID fun during the summer (one week sick at home, one week in the hospital and two weeks recovering at home) is that of waking up around 3 in the morning, sometimes 4. When I was in the recovery phase, the early wake-up was welcome if I had had a good night’s sleep; at that time, I would get up, as would my wife (because she was awake, too), and we’d chat or read, or I’d get some writing done and then we would lay down for a solid nap later. Now when I wake up at those times, I remain in bed because I need the sleep for a workday that will start in a few hours.

It usually takes quite a while to get back to sleep; sometimes I simply can’t. But I lay in the dark, say some prayers, watch my wife breathing and rub our dog’s head. Used to be, what was on my mind would likely surface in the night with frustrations about work, or worries about projects, or … but now it is different. A question popped into my head a few nights ago as I lay awake. “It’s 3 a.m., do you know where your heart is?” I do.

When I was growing up, a public service announcement would be broadcast on television at 10 p.m. on weekdays:  “It’s 10 p.m., do you know where your children are?” It was a good reminder. I liked my answer when the heart question popped into my head a few days ago. I eventually went back to sleep, likely with a smile, before the alarm went off a couple of hours later.

I think it is a wonderful thing to wake up knowing where your heart is, more telling than waking up with things on your mind with it being scattered over dozens of places. I believe that your heart will be with things that matter while your mind will be on things to be done or issues that demand attention. There are no such demands on your heart.

I don’t know whether a sense of peace came from the odd sleep schedule during the COVID time or the sleep pattern came from the sense of peace I had then. Either way, a sense of peace has a lot to do with knowing where you heart is.


Maybe being “great” isn’t your purpose

It seems like in every aspect of our society, we are told, coached, encouraged, rewarded and brain-washed to be great, famous, or hold some other form of status. In every role we hold there seems to be some sort of rank or honor we are supposed to strive for, according to the “experts.” “Role models” are constantly presented to others as what a successful life is supposed to look like. I have come to realize that Adolph Sobieski is a more reasonable, laudable role model than 99.9% of those who are held up as shining examples that we are supposed to admire for our life’s aspirations.

You don’t know Adolph.  Neither do I. You won’t find him on the internet. He is not an “influencer,” unless this story influences you. He was my great-grandfather. The focus of his life, the request of all his prayers? …to live long enough to take care of his wife, Anna, his “beloved Annie.”  She had suffered a stroke which paralyzed her side and left her bedridden for the last 15 years of her life. He built a small chapel in their garage so he could spend time praying. When my mother, Dorothy, asked him why he spent so much time praying, he told her that he asked to live long enough to take care of Annie.

He got what he prayed for. He lived longer than his wife. He was able to take care of her until the end of her life. He died two months after her.

Adolf had many successes in life in a variety of roles. I suspect he saw those as work and life. He felt his purpose was not to be “great,” but to take care of Annie. He didn’t know his purpose until her stroke. For all his successes and accomplishments in life, he didn’t realize his purpose until later.

Being open to something other than fame or acclaim leaves open the opportunity for greatness in ways much more important than social media status, title on the business card or vehicle in the driveway; the door is open for true purpose.

Tell Them What You Remember

“Sure, I remember you,” the highly accomplished Houston-area photographer said to me.  “You wrote for Rangefinder Magazine.” I am so glad he told me that he remembers my writing.

I wanted to be a freelance writer and photographer and started on that quest after high school. I pursued it throughout my college years and was full-time in the field until 1987. The last time that I was published in Rangefinder Magazine was about 1985, but Alvin remembered. I wrote for them for several years. In fact, the first appearance of my name in the magazine was in a marketing column. I had sent one of their columnists some samples of my letterhead and business card, explaining that I did not want to be perceived “as just another college kid with a camera.” The columnist featured me in one of his columns; I was about 21 years old.

Alvin reached out to invite me to a tour of his studio, which is actually very close to where I grew up, and for catching up over lunch.  I haven’t see him in decades, though I have always been a fan of his work. He is very well known in the field, and beyond. I look forward to the visit. In our call was an important reminder – tell folks things you remember.

I remember his modest beginnings and called them out. He acknowledged that my recollection was correct. He has come a long way. He seemed pleased that I remembered.

People are pleased when they hear of the things others remember (focus on the good, the positive, the loving and the humorous) about them. The stories travel across time and space. Sometimes the recollections strike a familiar chord, and sometimes they touch on something that is important to the other person but is assumed to have been long-since forgotten…like writing for a photography magazine.

Recollections, big and small, and stories, short or long, compress time and remind people that others have been listening, have noticed and remember. Tell people things you remember about them.

Give ’em a Chance at Success

I was in sixth or seventh grade when I learned an important lesson on giving folks a chance at success. The wisdom was gleaned during a kickball game played in the school parking lot since the school didn’t have athletic fields. I’ve never forgotten the lesson and have embraced the wisdom with greater understanding over the years, trying to apply it as often as possible, because I was the one given the chance then.

I was a little guy back then. Hormones were several years away. I could round the bases pretty fast, if I could get on base. (Kickball is played like baseball, except the kickball is rolled on the ground and kicked instead of being thrown and hit with an instrument.) Invariably, I was picked near the end of the team-picking process and played in the several outfield positions that is common in school-based kickball. There might be four or five outfielders, depending on how many people were in the PE class, divided by two teams. I was usually one of those, but everything changed in one game.

When the team captain assigned players to positions, he sent me to third base. I was shocked, excited and nervous. What was I going to do if a line drive kick came my way, or a screwy grounder or a limp kick rolling along the baseline? As I recall, it was in the first inning that I found out.

I think it was Fitzgerald (we used last names in those days and he was very athletic, already developing under the influence of hormones) up to kick. I believe it was the second “pitch” that he kicked, a strong, straight line drive just inside the third base line. Luckily it wasn’t very high or it would have sailed over my low-altitude head. I stepped to it and brought it in as it hit my chest and forearms. “Out!” the PE coach yelled out. My heart pounded. The “cool” guys congratulated me.

I played outfield a few more times in the future games, but the guys usually picked as team captains weren’t afraid to pick me for their teams and try me in different positions.

I learned a lot of important lessons about coaching, managing, leading and parenting in childhood experiences with friends and classmates. One of the lessons was, “Give ‘em a chance at success.” You might find a star in the making. More than likely, you’ll simply be giving someone a chance to grow, to face a challenge, to build confidence, to push boundaries…and all those outcomes are successes for them, and you.