Featured

Inspiration

A middle-aged man, a stranger to me, walked awkwardly along the rails-to-trails path this morning as I ran north toward the town of Abita Springs. Just as we passed each other he yelled out, “You’re an inspiration, man!” For the remainder of my run, I thought about people and places that have inspired and lifted me over the years. Here are a few:

I hated putting my face in water, but my mother made me go to swimming lessons year after year with the other kids until I realized she was going to make me go until I learned. Mom’s determination turned into inspiration and I learned to swim in a couple of days. Later I became a boy scout swimming instructor and lifeguard.

For a science fair project in high school, I was attempting to replicate Abraham Michelson’s 1887 interferometer, a breakthrough experiment about splitting a light beam into two parts. After seeing my futile attempts day after day, my father told me he thought the concepts were too complicated for me to understand. I took that as a challenge and soon I’d built a working interferometer that took me all the way to the state competition in Baton Rouge.

In north Louisiana, there’s a river called Bayou de L’Outre, the River of Otters, that runs through bottomland hardwoods and empties into the Ouachita River just north of Monroe. Towering cypress trees hug the river’s banks; pines and hardwoods dominate the higher ground beyond. The river seems almost untouched by humans and that makes it feel like a treasure. When I need to feel more at peace, I just close my eyes and picture Bayou de L’Outre. 

At age forty-seven, I met Eva. We snapped together like two long-lost magnets and I wrote love poems like a maniac. Pure inspiration – I needn’t say more.

In college, a sociology professor graded test papers immediately when they were turned in – right while you were standing there. He marked the grade in red ink in his grade book and on the test paper and handed it back. Then he had a brief exchange with the student and sent them on their way. I had struggled in college at first, but this was the semester when I was trying to turn the corner. I made an “A” on the first two tests. When I turned in the third one, the professor looked at me, not the paper, and said, “What grade did you make?” I said an “A” and he marked “A” on the paper and in his grade book and sent me on my way. Through that one act, I knew that it was up to me, not anyone else, to do my best all the time, and I became an adult.

Inspiration comes in many forms and we give it to each other.

Featured

The Garden of Eden

Ten years ago my wife and I attended an educational event at the University of Delaware on a cold, rainy evening. The featured speaker was Alan Bean, an American astronaut who walked on the moon during the Apollo 12 mission in November 1969. Bean resigned from NASA in 1981 to devote himself to painting full-time. He said his decision was based on the fact that, in his 18 years as an astronaut, he was fortunate to visit worlds and see sights no artist’s eye had ever viewed firsthand and he wanted to express these experiences through the medium of art. He described his experiences while displaying a series of large paintings he’d made since leaving the space program.

More than 40 years after he walked on the moon his memories were still quite vivid. He said that in spite of the grave danger, the uniqueness of being on the moon, and the incredible adventure of it all, what impressed him most was — there is absolutely nothing on the moon. No colors, no wind, no sounds … no trees or living things of any kind. As he looked out into space, the sun’s light was so bright he couldn’t see the stars. He saw and felt only the vast black emptiness of space.

Then he described the incredible experience of looking at Earth — a magnificent blue-green sphere in the deep blackness of space — and he realized that he was looking at the Garden of Eden … Paradise. His words sent a shiver down my spine the way profound truths always do.

Earth is our Paradise and we have everything we need to live out our dreams.

Featured

Work the Problem

There’s a lot to worry about these days. So much is beyond my ability to influence. I reached a low point on Thursday night though I knew I shouldn’t wallow in it.

Friday morning when I awoke a scene from the movie Apollo 13 came back to me. At that moment in the space flight, the three astronauts were in deep trouble. Life support and electrical power were insufficient to get them home alive. In the midst of the panic and confusion, NASA Flight Director Gene Kranz (played by Ed Harris), told the room full of engineers and flight experts —

“Let’s work the problem people. Let’s not make things worse by guessing.”

Immediately the team got to work focusing on their areas of expertise, explored every system and developed a series of solutions that miraculously saved the astronauts lives.

So I took that on as my new mantra — Work the Problem. Learn all I can and take the steps I can to protect myself and others. And celebrate every day of life in spite of the circumstances. Exchange worry for work.

Peace, friend.

Featured

The Invisible Cloud

Just inside the glass doors of the grocery store, I happened to glance up at the security mirror and I saw a scary-looking, gray-haired man in a faded orange tee-shirt, tan pants and work boots wearing a brown face mask. Immediately the thought popped into my head — That old man’s gonna rob the store! My heart bumped and I turned around to get the heck outta there. The store attendant who was disinfecting the shopping carts, laughed so hard she dropped the roll of paper towels she was using! I had quite literally mistaken myself as a grocery store robber!

As I found the items I needed, taking care not to interact with anyone, the heart-bumping incident unleashed a flood of sadness that had been building up inside. I like to chit-chat with people I run into, offer a funny line, wave at children, and smile at people who look depressed. And I certainly do appreciate it when others do the same for me.

Zoom, phone calls, emails and texts are good, but let’s face it — there’s no replacing eye-to-eye contact, the real sound of each other’s voices, and the non-verbal things we communicate without thinking.

I miss the strong, Southern voices of the women who cut my hair and the stories they tell about Guinea pigs, yummy purple-hulled peas with cornbread, and the latest storm. I miss trading sports quips with the 20-something fellows across the street who are heading out in their pickup truck for a night on the town. And I miss tossing the football with the ten-year-old boys on the street who play in their front yards way past the time when it’s too dark to see.

So when we all get out from under this invisible cloud, I’ve promised myself I’ll never again take for granted the everyday opportunities to be friendly to friend and stranger alike. There’s just so much to life that I don’t want to miss. Stay safe and I’ll see you in person on the other side!

Featured

FENCES OR BRIDGES?

SET-UP — Here in South Louisiana we have a lot of water. Many houses have ditches, 2 to 4 feet deep that run along beside the street and sometimes in between yards. If it weren’t for the ditches, everyone would have water in their living rooms.

I was returning from an early morning run a couple of days ago when I came upon a crew of bored-looking workers in our neighborhood standing around a trailer stacked full of beautiful cedar boards and beams. Not being one to miss an opportunity to chit-chat, I yelled out, “Y’all building a bridge?”

One of the fellows yelled back, “Nope. A fence.”

It was a short conversation, but it got me thinking … Fences or bridges? What do we need most? I concluded right away that we need more bridges and not so many fences, and I recalled a story about a fellow named Bob.

I worked for about 25 years in several states in the field of affordable homeownership, so I spent a lot of time raising money. Everywhere I worked I dealt with cities, states and the federal government, as well as foundations, to attract the grants and loans needed to make the deals work.

When I started working in a state not to be named, I heard through the grapevine that Bob, the government official I’d be working with for grants, was unfriendly, uncooperative, and generally a pain to work with. This was discouraging to hear, because Bob was the gatekeeper for grants, and I had no other choice but to work with him. Building quality, affordable housing is a tough job to start with. To be successful it takes a lot of hard work, a good deal of luck, and an unreasonable expectation of success. What I heard about Bob added to the weight of the task ahead. So I did what I often do when faced with a big hurdle, I slept on it.

Sure enough the next morning, I popped awake with one thought in my head … Bob’s going to be my next best buddy. I had no idea how I’d try to make Bob my next best buddy, but I had a clear goal and that’s always a good place to start. That day I called around to three or four other folks who, like me, worked with Bob for grants, and I asked them what he was like. I heard a lot of groans and complaints, and then someone mentioned that Bob loved basketball.

I made my first appointment to meet Bob and showed up at his office. I left my project plans on a chair in the waiting room on purpose. I introduced myself and asked Bob about his history and it didn’t take long before we were talking basketball. We must have talked about basketball for 20 minutes before he asked me why I was there. So I retrieved my plans from the waiting room, rolled out the blueprints and introduced my project.

For the next eight years I worked with Bob on one project after another and secured a good number of grants. He was tough on project feasibility, but that was his job. He had only so much grant money to award and he wanted to fund projects that had a high probability of success.

Basketball was the bridge between us. It was a lesson I carried forward to my next state and the others that followed. I discovered that there were people like Bob everywhere I worked, so I looked for the bridge … the human connection that makes all things possible.  

Featured

I’D RATHER BE COMMON THAN FAMOUS

According to Merriam-Webster the COMMON MAN (PERSON) is defined as: “the undistinguished commoner lacking class or rank distinction or special attributes.”

I don’t know about you, but all the people I know on a first name basis are commoners. They are kids, schoolteachers, nurses, parents, waitresses, engineers, retired people, social workers, writers, programmers, mechanics, librarians … and one is an actuarial mathematician. Not a single one is a famous politician or criminal, TV or movie star, singer or entertainer, admiral or baseball player. When I think about the top-20 people who have been instrumental in my life — 100% are commoners.

I think Noah Webster, and George and Charles Merriam got the definition wrong. Let’s break it down:

Class — I worked for a department head many years ago who had so much class that when he had to fire an employee, he looked the person in the eye and was so straightforward and honest they shook his hand and thanked him on the way out. 

Rank Distinction — my mother, without a doubt, ranks #1 in many regards including communication, organization, loving us kids well and letting us go free.

Special Attributes — one professor in college, in the space of short interchanges on three consecutive Fridays, tipped me into taking full responsibility for my study habits and grades, and that took me all the way through graduation and into the work world.

In my retirement years I’m spending more time doing creative writing and self-publishing. Sometimes I tell people that my writing goal is to be famous posthumously. That usually gets a laugh. But now that I’ve thought about it a bit more, I’ve decided I’d rather be common posthumously. That way I’ll be in good company.

Featured

WHY TELL STORIES?

“Stories make us more alive, more human, more courageous, more loving.” Madeleine L’Engle

“We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” Joan Didion

In third grade I decided that writing stories might make me live forever, or at least to 120. A lot of water has flowed under the bridge since then, but I think that is a little slice of the truth.

I remember:

  • Dad’s story about Granddaddy getting the family car (a 1930s Ford Model A) stuck in the mud overnight somewhere between Louisiana and Texas in a snowstorm.
  • Mom’s stories of her father driving her and her friends around Arcadia, Louisiana in one of the first automobiles in that part of the country.
  • My children telling stories of their misadventures in school.
  • Exactly where I was and what I was doing on Friday, November 22, 1963.

Come to think of it – just about everything I remember is a story of sorts.

So why tell stories?

How could we not?

  • Without stories we’d wander only in the present, batted around by the stuff that happens around us.
  • Without stories we wouldn’t have a past. Like a kite without a tail, spinning around and around in circles.
  • Without stories we’d have no idea of a future to move toward. Like a car in the dark without headlights.
  • Without stories we couldn’t look back and laugh at the way we were in the past, or the difficult things we lived through.

Sharing our stories, layer upon layer, gives the human race a past, a future, and brings greater meaning to our individual lives.

Why do you tell stories?

Featured

WHAT DO YOU THINK?

Hey, I was THINKING to myself the other day about something, I can’t remember what anymore, when it occurred to me that “THINKING TO MYSELF” is a weird thing to say, or even to THINK, because how else can one THINK?

I tried to THINK of the last time I THOUGHT WITH MY WIFE, and that’s never happened. I’ve been in a lot of committee meetings over the years and don’t recall a single instance when we THOUGHT TOGETHER! 

Maybe there have been a few times when Ginger, our cat and I have THOUGHT TOGETHER, but he’s not at all inclined to talk, at least not with me, so I really can’t be sure of that. 

Now that I THINK about it, there’s another weird thing people say – “I’M THINKING OUT LOUD.” No you’re not! You’re TALKING OUT LOUD. I don’t know about you, but when I’m talking my mind is also THINKING! THINKING is just not the same THING as talking.

Hey, did you ever notice that THINK and THING have the first four letters in common? The only difference between them is a K (as in King Cake) and a G (as in Ginger).

Well … maybe I’m OVER-THINKING all these THINGS. I THINK I’ll go have a piece of King Cake with Ginger and lighten up.

Ship Ahead!

I searched the rolling seas from horizon to horizon from the crow’s nest as menacing waves pounded our sailing ship, sending sheets of spray over the deck. A rope around my waist tied me in the wooden barrel thirty feet above. Suddenly a three-masted pirate frigate appeared in my spyglass. A gust of cold wind shoved me from behind and the hair on the back of my neck stood at attention. I yelled down to my captain, “Ship ahead!” and pointed east. Then the bell rang and library period was over. I’d gotten lost in a book in third grade, again. Reluctantly I returned to the world of A.E. Phillips Laboratory School, in Ruston, Louisiana.

Those early reading experiences were magic for sure. From third grade on, given a quiet place and a good book, I left everything — friends, school, cares, even gravity behind. Now in my 60s I can still suspend disbelief pretty well, but gravity keeps a firm grip.

How can stories transport us to other places and times?

How can words make us feel lonely, excited, crazy or peaceful?

Is it the writer or the reader who makes the magic?

When the bell rang, I looked at the front pages of the sailing adventure book and discovered that the author had died years before. The thought popped into my head – to live forever is easy, just write stories.

Do you remember the first time you got lost in a story? Or the last time?

Happy travels!