Until His Shoes Melted

Man crossing on pedestrian lane

My friend has this great story.

One day he woke up and decided he wanted to go to the beach. The only issue is he had no money and no car and he lived in Pasadena. That’s about 20 miles away.

But he was feeling stagnant so he packed up 6 peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and a bath towel and set off for the beach.

He never made it.

About 15 miles in and several hours later, the soles of his sneakers completely melted and the blisters on his feet were too painful to continue. He sat down on the side of the road and ate a peanut butter sandwich.

Then he called a friend and got a ride home.

People think he was crazy, like that guy that burned his ID and went into he woods one day.

But he doesn’t tell the story like that. He’s happy about it.

He never got to the beach but he got something else: a new perspective.

He saw new neighborhoods up close, which is different than seeing them from a car window. He watched the demographics change from block to block, the things people carried with them, their clothes, the way they called to their children.

And he had something else he hadn’t had in a long time: a sense of purpose.

He was going somewhere. His feet were on a mission. The people around him could see that. It was reflected in their eyes and that sort of reflection, the way other people see us, if only for a few squares of sidewalk, makes us change the way we see ourselves. Yesterday he was the guy on the couch. Today he’s the guy walking swiftly to the beach.

Maybe you don’t need to walk until your shoes melt, but if you’re feeling stuck, it’s a good idea to get out and get going someplace new.

Walks, with a clear destination and an open heart, change minds and therefore change lives.

Whether you make it or not, rest assured, you won’t be in the same place as when you started.

In more ways than one.

On Hold (In Hell) With Customer Service

Man in pink dress shirt

I’m a pretty chill guy, but one place I always lose my shit — where I literally end up shouting at the top of my lungs at a decibel that makes my daughter cry — is when I’m on a call with a customer service agent.

It’s my Achilles heel.

Try as I might, I can’t seem to keep the compassion flowing.

I think it’s the inherently impersonal nature of the call, the fact that it’s set up for us to fail as humans. The person on the other end of the line has a script, they have rules, and they’re not allowed to stray.

I have a problem I don’t fully understand.

And so the dance begins by two people on opposite sides of the world.

But we’re usually battling more than time zones.

It’s their job as an agent to prevent me from talking to their supervisors. They’ve been coached and disciplined to get me off the phone as quickly as possible. I know this because I’ve written resumes for their supervisors. It’s a metric they call “Average Resolution Time” or “Average Handle Time.” ART and AHT for short.

These customer service reps (CSRs), they have targets, and those targets are placed far above customer satisfaction, (CSAT). (Note how the word “customer” is completely eliminated?)

When companies get big enough, they no longer need my satisfaction, or anyone’s, for that matter. A poor customer rating doesn’t impact the business anymore so it drops down on the priority list.

It’s painful for me to step into an environment without compassion. It’s the same reason I avoid jail, the military, and investor meetings.

I prefer gray areas, dotted lines, the option to explain myself and my unique situation. Perhaps that’s my issue. I believe everything and everyone is unique. There is always a chance to see something from another angle.

I’ll always choose essays over multiple-choice questions. And, if I’m forced into multiple choice, I’m the guy who writes “depends…” in the margin, because there is always another way to look at things.

I hate boxes. They never have enough room for 2 people.

There’s always someone left on the outside.

And, when it’s compassion you seek, it feels crappy to be on the outside or the inside.

Can I put you on hold, sir?

Sure.

Said with fake smile (SWFS).

I’m just not good at this.

Memories, Like Butterflies

black digital camera capturing yellow flower

I’ve been obsessing about digital storage.

Up late on review sites trying to find the best backup drive.

All my precious files from computers, from phones: images, photos, MP3’s, Word documents, PDFs… but really, memories, ideas, accomplishments… love.

My files are perhaps even more sacred than my memories because they’re likely to be more accurate. And more vivid.

Digital treasures.

Pictures of me and my friends: people once healthy, now sick and whithering; people in love, now split and suffering; hands that will never clasp together; houses before the remodel; forests before the fire…

My kids. At 2, 3, 4, 5… 13, 14, 15. Precious seconds captured. And my mom, fading like her photographs, becoming less recognizable in speech and appearance.

I have to save them all.

But, in all my frantic research, I realize there is something more going on here: my mind is trying to get somewhere, spinning and whirring, and my heart is at risk, electrical currents looping and accelerating, closing in.

I get it now.

It’s the loss, the dark patch that’s spreading, the thought of not having those people, of forgetting the birthday where we dressed up as fairy tale characters, of losing the searching blue eyes of my mom, of never riding through the thick green treeline of the Sierras, ever again. In my lifetime.

It hurts, and I can’t stop it. The more I look, the more it hurts.

There are some finish lines that won’t budge and some demons that never stop chasing us.

Try as I might, in gathering up my backup files — these memories, these beloved moments, organized into neat little folders, compressed into albums like butterflies — no matter how hard I stare at them, no matter how many wishes I wish, I can’t get them to flutter back into life.

I Wish I Had More Time In The Day

brown-and-white clocks

As adults with full lives, this often becomes our mantra:

I wish I had more time in the day.

We carry the belief that we need more time. We work hard with the hope that we’ll free ourselves by day’s end and capture that elusive extra time we know is out there somewhere.

But, if you are to be one of the lucky ones to find more time somewhere in the corners of your day, you know all too well, deep down, that it’s not more time that will save you.

It’s not automatic.

Time isn’t a solution.

Time is an empty room.

You don’t need more time.

You need INSPIRATION.

Instead of seeking more time, seek something that will inspire you. It’s both easier to do and more effective.

And if you can’t think of anything that will inspire you, ask someone what they think will inspire you. They’ll know. It’s usually pretty obvious to everyone else because they’re on the outside watching what you do, not caught up in thinking what you think.

If you have no time, the solution is not to cut things out of your day; rather, what you need to do is add one more thing into your day: an activity, a pilgrimage, an unusual visit. You need to go somewhere. Have a destination in mind but allow yourself to wander. Do something novel, something you haven’t done at all, or at least not in a while.

Once you make a physical shift, the mental shift will follow.

It’s counterintuitive: solving your time-shortage problem by doing an activity that will take more time, but trust me…

Inspiration is an alchemist; it turns lead into gold and emptiness into energy.

And once you have energy, real energy at the cellular, you transform. Your eyes see through things. You can knock down walls with your breath, and escape that small, empty room you didn’t even realize you were in.

It’s INSPIRATION, not Time, that allows you to step past the rubble out into the vast expanse and see the paths winding through the trees.

It’s INSPIRATION that enables you to feel the warmth of the sun, instead of resenting it for disappearing over the horizon.

And, strange as it sounds, once you find INSPIRATION, and sit with it, bask in its glow, you’ll suddenly have more time.

A Fight Not Worth Winning

Flying Half Mast

Whatever side you’re on, we all can agree on one thing: we’re splitting apart in the middle. And nothing can survive that’s torn through the center.

Yet, somehow, this knowledge is not enough for us to make it stop.

Quite the opposite actually. We’re aggressively and intentionally making it worse.

Imagine us in pairs, standing on a delicate tree limb 50 feet in the air, and, instead of reaching out to clasp hands and balance each other out, we’re swinging at each other with chainsaws.

When we miss our target, we cut the tree. And when we hit our target, we cut into the other’s flesh and release something so ugly and vile that neither of us can stand to see it. We get embarrassed, blame the other for what we’ve done, and swing harder next time.

All this anger, and we don’t know each other’s names.

We don’t know the sweet tender moments that happen throughout the day.

All we know is the battleground.

All we see is the chainsaw and the fight in each other’s eyes.

And if we weren’t blinded by this rage and the sun, if we weren’t distracted by merely trying to survive, we’d notice the double-armored, bulletproof, gold-crested space crafts zinging past us every once in a while, to check on the Progress of Things.

Though we can’t make out their faces through the tinted glass, we know these people. These are the same people who sneaked loudspeakers into our pockets and bedrooms, who quietly collect ‘likes’ and dollars and prayers from us in return for cleverly arranged language.

These are the ones who gave us all the shiny metal parts to build our chainsaws. (They didn’t have to give us instructions; the parts were so carefully crafted, we couldn’t build anything else.)

It’s nothing new: a centuries-old game in which the game creators are always the winners.

Divide and conquer.

Don’t look up, the faraway voices whisper to us. Look next to you. Look Right. Look Left. There’s your enemy.

And we advance, the weight of our weapons shaking the limb that we stand on, off balance from the start.

When will we learn?

But, But, But… Values, Tested

The choices we make for our kids really show, and test, our values.

My teen is in a prestigious multi-year STEM internship. We literally danced when she got in.

But, she hasn’t been learning anything for a year. She’s bored and says everyone is bored. We checked it out one day, and she’s right. It’s a ruse. The kids are just milling around in matching shirts. Nothing on the brochure is happening. They were literally blowing bubbles.

But… (and this particular ‘but’ is why everyone stays in the program)…. it looks DAMN GOOD on a resume.

Seems that’s mostly what’s driving our teens today: will it get me into a good college?

Don’t get me wrong, college is important. The name of your college is important. It plays a role in our work-obsessed society.

But there’s one thing you can’t learn in college, and that’s having a real, genuine love of life.

And our daughter has that in spades.

You only have to meet her for five seconds to feel it. She burns with excitement. She wakes up inspired.

I’ve always felt it was my job, as her dad, to keep that fire burning, to make decisions for her based on the flame: Is it going to grow if we do this, or go out?

This crappy internship was making it go out.

But it looks good on a resume…

A real test, for sure. For her future.

What do we want for her? What will set her up for success?

These answers aren’t on the Internet.

We yanked her from the program. We’re probably the only parents in the history of the program to do such a thing.

Ha!

I gotta protect that flame. This girl is going to do things. She needs to know that what she already has is of more value than what people want her to be.

We need those weekends back.

And we got ’em!

On her first free Saturday morning in 2 years, she proved to us that we made the right decision.

She got up early, filled a bucket with water and flour, went out into the yard, and made an oversized paper mache hat for Halloween (her favorite holiday).

Some might think I’m crazy to pull my kid from an internship so she can make a hat out of newspaper, to choose fun over first place.

But it’s likely their flame is already out.

Not my daughter’s.

She’s burning bright. Bright enough to light the path and warm her up from the inside out. For life.

Which means she’s good.

Wherever she goes.

==

Happy Halloween, folks! Go where you shine.

Your Own Podcast

White earphones on black surface

When we’re going from point A to point B, our instinct is to plug into a podcast. It’s become our thing.

I guess we feel less like we’re wasting time if we have information flowing into our heads, especially when we’re doing something mundane, like cleaning the kitchen or walking around the block.

I do it too, on my afternoon walks with Ziggy.

But some days I force myself not to do it. And I’m always glad I did. It’s sort of like willing myself to get up in the morning or take a cold shower. Seems like a bad idea… until about 10 minutes later…

I invite you to try it.

Put on some music instead of your podcast. Play a tune instead of the news. Plug into stanzas instead of thick paragraphs.

Or better yet, don’t plug in at all. There’s a symphony outside already. And, something else: when I don’t have my earbuds in, I’ve noticed people are more likely to wave.

I’ve noticed a lot of things.

Among them, this: if I’m not shoveling someone else’s brilliant ideas into my head, I tend to find some of my own.

And there’s nothing more energizing than that.

Jedi Heart Trick

My daughter is an empath of the highest order, Jedi-level capabilities.

When it comes to emotions, she’s as absorbent as a sponge, silently sitting there soaking up the mood molecules around her.

There is a disturbance in The Force, father.

She knows when the conversation is heavy. She knows when real things are being talked about

When someone is down, her excuse-me’s and thank-you’s come out in full swing. She’ll drop a hand on your shoulder when you’re hurt. She cries during TV shows, like when the dad dies or when the teen gymnast gets news from the doctor that she can’t perform anymore.

And it works the other way too: If anyone else in the room is excited, she will ratchet that joy up to level twenty-five.

She feels everything.

It’s like she’s constantly pulling in the air around her and everything in it, seen and unseen, ingesting the tornadoes of others. And launching them out at even faster speeds.

We have to usher lingering negative emotions out of the house. Otherwise, they start to infect her.

Our little Jedi.

Holding up the weight of the world at the age of 6. Clearly a chosen one.

Born with a gift but burdened by it at the same time because the world and all of its inhabitants will forever be imperfect.

Flying into the storm with fists and gritted teeth.

Such is the fate of our heroes.

That Time I Was Mistaken For A Homeless Man

Selective focus photography of brown wooden bench

I was 22. My girlfriend wouldn’t let me sleep because she wanted to fight, so I left the house. It was 3am and I didn’t have a plan.

I would have slept in my car, but she had driven the car home that night, so I didn’t know where it was parked.

I ended up on a park bench by a public building, just a few blocks away.

I started in a sitting position but woke up laying down.

Or, was woken up…

By a cop, flicking feet with his big gloved hands.

“Sit up,” he demanded.

I sat up, looked around, there was another man on the bench across from me, as disoriented and disheveled as I was, also sitting up. The cop must have started on that side of the street.

“Can’t sleep on the bench,” he said, looking around.

I’m not good at being woken up. I’m totally disoriented for a few seconds. I say things that don’t make sense but I say them as if they do, which is a good way to sound crazy.

“I wasn’t sleeping here yet.”

He looked at me funny.

It was the 90’s so I was in full grunge regalia, which meant both knees were showing through holes in my pants, which had paint splattered on them. My flannel was 3 sizes too big, flappy cuffs covering my hands. My sneakers were unlaced.

And of course my hair was unkept, almost dreaded and running down past my shoulders.

This was the look I chose: not caring. But it was carefully sculpted — my shirt was from Urban Outfitters. My shoes were old Jordans. My hair was unkept because that’s the way novelists are — but it definitely wasn’t working for me at that moment.

The sun was hot on me like a spotlight.

I stared straight ahead.

I was startled and scared, probably much like the guy across the street.

“What’s your name?” the cop asked.

I told him.

“Where do you live?” he asked.

I told him.

“You have ID?”

I patted my pockets.

“Um…”

The look on his face… I’d never seen someone look at me like that before.

“This isn’t your bedroom,” he said.

My brain came out of its fog. I started to realize what this looked like.

“I’m not homeless,” I blurted, which was probably the best way to prove that I was.

He looked me up and down.

My outfit was solidly in fashion but perhaps this guy didn’t listen to Nirvana.

It didn’t matter that I’d just graduated college a year ago, that I worked at the bookstore a few blocks away, that I’d just gotten promoted, that my boss loved me. He didn’t care that I was working on a novel, that the paint on my pants was mine, from painting at the Museum School in Boston, that my parents loved me.

All those details had been whisked away by 1 desperate act and some unfortunate wardrobe choices.

I was a thick, meaty buffalo staring down a bayonet.

I was, for all intents and purposes, homeless.

“You’re new,” he said, staring down at me, and I got the sense I wasn’t supposed to talk.

He had his hands on his hips, tapping his index fingers, middle fingers, and ring fingers on his belt in unison.

Tap-tap-tap. Tap-tap-tap. Tap-tap-tap.

Maybe he saw the real me. Maybe not. Maybe this was the real me and the bookstore, the unfinished novel, my degree, that was all just a cover up. His gaze was heavy, his silence, cruel.

Despite all I had written and all I had painted, the great high-ceiling rooms I had filled with meaningful discussions, I was just a kid on park bench. Maybe not even that.

I had no story: a blank page, an empty canvas.

“Sad,” was all he said. And walked away.

The future, no matter how hard you work for it, is always unwritten.

As if to underscore this universal truth of the thin line between hope and despair, I got a head nod from the guy across the way. Then he stood and checked his pockets for important things.

We walked in parallel on opposite sides of the street, a mirror image of each other separated by double yellow lines, our steps slow, the gait of dreamers woken up, in no hurry to get anywhere in particular.

Big Microphones

Silver dynamic microphone on black microphone stand

We’d be a lot better off if the people with microphones would commit to saying positive things more often.

Oh, the progress we’d make if we chose to CREATE rather than CRITIQUE!

It’s okay to not like something.

But does that dislike have to be said out loud, into a microphone, in clever ways, over and over again?

Instead of saying what someone else is doing wrong, why not go out and do it right?

Instead of taking someone down, why not take a risk… like they did.

You’ll understand them better.

And you’ll create your own thing, instead of suffocating someone else’s.

Let’s make more, not less.

Let’s prove that our hearts are as big as our microphones.