Tuesday, August 18, 2015

What stops you?

"After the final no comes a yes."

—from Wallace Stevens poem "The Well Dressed Man With A Beard"

Things can stop you. There can be no doubt of that. A quarter of a million people were killed by the 2004 tsunami that raced across the Indian Ocean.

I work for a bankruptcy attorney. I see things that stop people all the time: illness, job loss, financial mismanagement, greed, mental illness.

So some things can stop you that you have no control over. And some that you do have control.

So what stops you?

Maybe you failed a couple of times and figure it's no use trying any more. Maybe you're a perfectionist that nothing is good enough for. Or you procrastinate. Yeah, there are million things that can stop you.

Sometimes it's not even a disgrace to be stopped. Half the work Leonardo da Vinci did was never completed. Then there is Franz Schubert's "Unfinished Symphony" and Mozart's "Requiem." Westminster Cathedral in London was left undone. And all of these things are considered great even in their unfinished states.

But some things really are a disgrace if you let them stop you. Things like giving up. Or being afraid. Or being lazy. Or not trying.

That's where the Wallace Steven's quote comes in. There is a "yes" coming into your life. You may not get to it. You may. But whatever you do, don't let the wrong things stop you from finding out.

So let the Grim Reaper take you out. Maybe you'll get struck by lightning.

Or maybe you won't.

Inspirational writer Catherine Ponder, herself an early failure, writes: "By refusing to give up or give in to failure, failure is finally worn out by your persistence and gives up its power to success."

A Japanese proverb says: "Fall seven times, stand up eight."

Your "yes" is out there waiting for you.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

What's your gift?

Not just your talent, but what's your gift to the world? Do you have one? Should you?

Here's my take on the after-life. We all have one. (Of course, I don't know that.) I think heaven or hell is going to be our memories.

How did we live? What did we do? Did we die rich, fat and happy? Huge bank account? Reputation as a shrewd businessperson? Big winners at the game of life?

<shaking head> I don't know about you but I wouldn't want to be thinking about that for eternity. I'd want to be thinking about what I gave.

For me, part of my gift to the world is writing. I have a free novel, lots of free short stories on my website. I help other writers whenever I can. And it's not just that my writing is free. People might not like my writing. They might think it's lousy. No one might even read it. But none of that matters—it's the intention of the gift that counts. And I do intend my writing to be a gift. A gift to encourage and bless as well as entertain.

But it's not only about writing. Just the simple human kindnesses I've shown people are precious memories for me. Any of the times I've really helped someone in need.

It's funny. Maybe you've seen these magazine subscriptions that are very inexpensive. Most magazines don't need you to subscribe to make money. The ads they carry are already doing that. But if you subscribe, you will be one more in their circulation, which allows them to charge more for advertising, so they offer a year's subscription for ten bucks or so.

On a lark, I signed up for Forbes magazine. Forbes is all about business and specifically about getting rich in business. Seems every issue is about billionaires and how to be one yourself. Most of the billionaires featured don't do much for me, but there was a bio of one guy that  touched me so much I cut it out from the magazine. The guy was big into charity and he said that his ultimate goal was to "die with a net worth of zero."

That inspired me more than all the others—who just cared about racking up more and more cash—combined.

I'm a pretty selfish person. I'm no hero. It's hard for me to give. I feel like I don't have a lot so why should I be giving. But that said, the times I have given are the very best memories I have.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Is there such a thing as a mistake?

And what's the opposite of a mistake? How come we don't have a term for it?

Who decides if something is a mistake?

When is the decision made?

When is the decision final?

A mistake is the vaguest of concepts. And yet it can be crippling emotionally if taken to the extreme.

"I made a mistake." Even "I am a mistake."

The fact of the matter is people make the best decisions they can, they take the best actions they can. No one ever thinks, "This decision/action is a mistake."

No, it's only in hindsight that the mistake label is slapped on. And even then it's not terribly reflective of reality.

Back to "I made a mistake."

It simply is not that cut and dried.

You made a mistake forever? Couldn't your "mistake's" consequences change over time?

Aren't there multiple categories and viewpoints to be considered? You made a mistake when your business lost out on an investment. So okay, it's a mistake for your business' bottom line. But that investment loss allowed you to spend more time with your family, so it's clearly not a mistake in that sense.

Mistakes are bogeymans, nothing more. People do the best they can at the time and how things play out are multitudinous. "Mistake" is just too simple, too easy and very inaccurate.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Are "good" and "bad" meaningless concepts?

A friend of mine one day discovered a lump in his abdomen. Over time the lump grew. This was bad, my friend thought. Fearing cancer, he went to the doctor. After all the tests had been run, it was determined that the lump was a hernia. This was good (compared to cancer anyway). But also the tests revealed that my friend had the very beginnings of bladder cancer. This was bad. But the cancer was caught so early it was easily cured. This was good.

If my friend hadn't had the lump (bad), he would've never discovered he had bladder cancer and he would have died (bad). So maybe him having the lump was not so bad, after all. Maybe, dare we say, it was good?

That's the catch. Labeling things "good" and "bad" is pointless because we never know if what we're calling bad might ultimately be good for us and vice versa.

I was a heavy cigarette smoker. When I quit many years ago I knew that even though I'd quit, there was still a substantial risk that I'd get lung cancer. So I was reading the newspaper one day and there was an article about how consuming beta carotene (an organic compound found abundantly in carrots) greatly reduced the risk of getting lung cancer in former smokers.

So every day for one solid year I ate carrots, which I really don't like, but hey, it was good for me.

Then one day I was reading the newspaper and there was an article about how consuming beta carotene increased former smokers risk of getting lung cancer.


Well, now that was quite a surprise to this carrot gobbling guy. But there it is again. What I thought was good was acutally bad.

All this isn't to say that life is arbitrary and the choices we make make no difference. But it is to say that the judging we do (assigning things as good or bad) is exceptionally unreliable.

Personally, I think life is much better when we avoid judging things altogether. By all means be aware as best you can of what your options are, make your best decision. But leave off the good and bad designations. And leave them off events and things, as well. You don't know what might be good or bad for you. What you thought was the worst thing might in hindsight be the best. Life flows more peacefully without all the judgments. Something happened. Well, something happened. Just leave it at that. It will be a more accurate representation of reality, and it will save you the ups and downs of calling it good or bad.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Is spirituality real?

I'm listening to a series of lectures on cds. They're all about skepticism (in a scientific sense). It's all about debunking spiritual "myths," conspiracy theories, clairvoyance and prophetic dreams. That sort of thing. It's fascinating really. The speaker gets into the difference between gender beliefs, social class, intelligence and how they influence what we believe. In a short form he says a skeptic is from Missouri, aka the "show me" state. A skeptic, he says, will believe anything as long as he is shown rational proof of its existence.

It's all very appealing. As I continued to listen I thought, "Yeah, that's me. I don't fall for all the spiritual hype out there." And really who would?

But is that the truth? Is spirituality a hoax? Is it simply explained by statistical analysis? (The author gets into prophetic dreams. How there are so many dreams that we dream that simple statistical chance explains many of them being prophetic.)

Well, don't get me wrong—I am a rationalist. I think reason is a necessary (and excellent) tool for living. But I also believe in spirituality.


Because of my experience. I believe every once in a while (and maybe it's all the time and I'm just not able to perceive it on a regular basis) God anoints my life, directs it so it flows with a grace and effectiveness that tremendously exceeds my natural ability. It's amazing really and the times I'm aware of it I'm so very grateful for it.

A brief example. I am a lousy golfer. But I love this little 9-hole golf course by my apartment called Falling Squirrel. Well, alas, corporate development swallowed up Falling Squirrel and it just closed not even a week ago.

A good friend and I had made plans to play the last day it was open. But the weather was turbulent, the clouds coal-black and a mass of rain was on the radar screen heading right for Falling Squirrel. It was such a shame that we wouldn't be able to play the course one last time (and say goodbye).

Well, it rained for only about ten minutes and then the sun came out! (On the radar the mass of rain that was headed our way just kept disappearing as it got near!) We were able to play the course.

When we got there, the course superintendent warned that the mosquitoes were bad. My friend and I discussed getting a cart (we usually walk) and the course superintendent said, "Hey, it's the last day. The cart's on me."

So off we drove and we had so much fun playing the course. And I (remember I am a lousy golfer) was playing with nearly supernatural skill. (I birdied the second to last hole and parred the very last—and very difficult—hole.)

As we stood on the last hole finishing up (the black clouds were encroaching), the first rain drop hit the bill of my hat. We hustled to my car and a deluge ensued.

The timing. The friendship. The weather. The new-found skill. Everything came together to make for a remarkable good time and for a satisfying goodbye to the course we both loved so much.

Could such good fortune be explained by statistical odds? Maybe. A meteorological quirk, fronts colliding? Yeah, it could. Could the improvement in my golf game have come from the practicing I'd done? Yes.

But I'm telling you I knew in my bones that it was more than any of that. I could just feel it. Everything we did that day had the touch of the magical. Had the touch of God's grace. His anointing.

So, there you have it. Can I prove that spirituality is real? Absolutely not. I'm just grateful to have experienced it that day and look forward to experiencing it more and more.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Is life fair?

Dustin Johnson

A couple of days ago the U.S. Open golf championship was played in Washington state. I watched it with interest, especially since the Pacific Northwest is so beautiful. But really it was how the tournament wound down that left me pondering, pondering, Is life fair?

The guy undoubtedly playing the best was a lean, powerful twenty-something named Dustin Johnson. Dustin's had a troubled past: drugs, wild living, gang association, but he's worked hard at cleaning up his act. And this particular day he was hitting the golf ball so far and then hitting it so close to the flagstick on the greens. Only thing is—he couldn't make any putts. Even the short ones. And you need to make putts, especially the short ones, if you are going to win a major tournament like the U.S. Open.

On the very last hole of the tournament, Dustin was tied with Jordan Spieth, who is golf's new "golden boy." Only twenty-one, an easy smile and a graciousness not often found in twenty-one-year-olds, Jordan Spieth has endeared himself to the golfing world.

In many ways it was a white hat vs. black hat showdown. Spieth had already finished playing and now Dustin Johnson had a chance to win the tournament by making a relatively easy twelve-foot putt. The guy played the best. I don't particularly like him as a player but as I watched the TV broadcast I said aloud: "He deserves to win."

He lined up the putt meticulously. Crouching low. Squinting. Looking at the contour of the green from every possible angle to increase his chances of the ball dropping into the hole. The glory of being the United States Open Champion was his if he could make this one putt.

He missed.

And the ball ran by the hole three feet. Now he had to make this little three-foot putt just to tie Spieth. Again, he went through the process of endlessly lining it up, leaving no avenue or contingency unexplored. Finally he settled over the putt and made his stroke.

He missed again.

He lost the U.S. Open.

Was it fair?

Was God or the Universe or as golfers say "the golfing gods" favoring Jordan Spieth over Dustin Johnson? Was it a case of good prevailing over evil?

As in most questions like this, there is no answer.

Try to figure it out. You won't be able to. Life is a mystery. Life is life.

Some will make deep-thinking speculations that Dustin Johnson needed to learn something from the defeat. I don't buy it.

Some will say Jordan Spieth needed to learn from winning. I don't think so.

Sometimes you win. Sometimes you lose. You'll do plenty of both during your lifetime.

Keeping things that simple makes it easier to accept that that's just the way life is.

Friday, May 22, 2015

When life knocks you flat

My porch is great for watching storms. It's a simple porch but it's sturdy, practically wrap-around windows. You couldn’t ask for more. So one scorchingly hot July day I was out there watching a thunderstorm roll in. The first winds starting up, the dark clouds encroaching, a grumble of thunder and then BAM the storm hits full-force, vicious screaming winds, rain squalls, blistering lightning, deafening thunderclaps. It was so intense. I half worried about tornadoes and being hit by lightning but I stayed the course. Then I saw something that really transfixed me.

I need to back up just a touch. The company next door to the apartment building where I live had just put in new landscaping a couple of weeks before. Top shelf stuff. Sod. Mulch. Everything first-class, including fully-grown trees. Well, it was kind of odd to suddenly see the trees especially. It's like there's nothing but a worn-out lawn, brown patches everywhere one day and then you wake up and it's like the Garden of Eden. (Okay, maybe a slight exaggeration.)

Back to the storm. The windows were bowing. Plastered by angry rain. Butterflies racing through my stomach but I kept watching. Then a wind shear cut across the earth and—snap!—one of the fully formed trees broke right off at the root. That was it. Where there once was a beautiful tree there was nothing.

And the storm left leaving no apologies.

A couple of years went by with nothing but a lawn where the beautiful tree had been. But then...but then one spring there was a tiny little shoot that rose from the earth. Not much bigger than a dandelion. In fact, at first I thought it might be a weed. But that summer the little shoot grew to maybe two feet high. And then it survived a brutal winter, buried under mountains of ice and snow. The following spring it came back and now there were two shoots and they were thicker and stronger.

And year after year the process continued until where there once had been nothing now stands the tree you see in the photo in this post.

Oh, maybe it's not the lean beautiful tree it once was. But it is. It survived. Maybe when it went down people wrote if off. "Too bad," they might have said. "That used to be a nice tree." But they didn't know that little tree wasn't done, that it wasn't giving up, that it wasn't influenced by what people said or didn't say. It was going to live.

The tree looks different now. More like a bush than a tree. But it's stronger now too. All the shoots protect each other. Year after year it's weathered every storm with ease, and it's going to keep growing and growing and getting stronger and stronger.

And all that from something that got knocked flat.