Day 47 of Gratitude – The Existence of Kryptonite

While I would never have said it this directly, I’ve always thought of myself as invincible. Not as in dodging bullets or stopping speeding trains, but I thought there was nothing in normal life that could harm me. I believed there were no obstacles to my personal well-being I couldn’t overcome by sheer force of will. I was wrong.

For the past six months, I have struggled in my relationship with a friend. Our interactions left me feeling bad about myself. But he wasn’t trying to do this and so I thought I simply needed to control my reaction and asked that he alter how he spoke to me. Neither worked, of course. Kryptonite cannot stop being kryptonite any more than Superman can stop being vulnerable to it. And that is the realization for which I am grateful today.

Kryptonite exists and I cannot will myself to survive it. Sometimes the only solution is to walk away. And so, my friend and I no longer speak. I wish it were different, but it isn’t and I have to accept that. Having been away from my Kryptonite for a few weeks now, the joy is returning to my writing – and laughter will soon follow. Sometimes the only way to win the battle is not to fight it, and I am grateful for having learned this lesson before it destroyed me.

Day 41 of Gratitude – A Brain

Recently, someone told me I think too much and  should stop. I’m not able to do that, but even if I could, I wouldn’t because of a conversation I had during my senior year in college.

I was at a professor’s house with an incredibly intelligent fellow senior. She and I were speculating on how much easier life would be if we were dumb and didn’t think so much. The professor, Ron Santoni, promptly chastised us on both intellectual and spiritual levels. For all our claimed intellectual prowess, he told us, we failed to see that the issues others face each day were at least as difficult for and important to them as the ones we considered were for us. His spiritual argument was a bit more forceful – essentially, “How dare we scoff at the gift God has given us.” He was right to correct us.

I doubt I will ever understand why I am compelled to examine human behavior for what makes individuals tick. I admit the constant search is not always pleasurable, particularly at those times when I’m isolated and turn the analysis inward on myself. But at the same time, I believe it is important to understand people and how their needs and fears show through whatever role they are playing. I have been blessed with a brain that seems particularly suited for those thoughts, analyses, and observations.

Ron Santoni was right – it is a wonderful gift that should not be wished away.+96+———–

Day 38 of Gratitude – From Ignorance to Arrogance to Wonder

I started my adult life in ignorance. I didn’t know how to be an adult and found myself in a world of business and law, where being taken seriously was of utmost importance. I foundered cluelessly. In my first performance review, I was told I smiled too much. I didn’t know what to do and so I faked it. I imitated a guy I worked with who was upbeat but always managed to get his point across. My life became a series of “What would Mike do?” moments.

At some point, it occurred to me that maybe that’s all anyone was doing – feigning confidence and comprehension. Yet I was pretty sure some people believed the lie and in time, as the role became more comfortable, so did I. I liked having the answers, being certain of what to do next, understanding everything. It made me feel powerful and important.

When I left my legal career behind, it was disorienting to find those things no longer mattered. But instead of sinking back into the depths of confused ignorance, I found myself in a place of wonder. Now, I see the magic of a snowy morning without planning around it or analyzing when it will be gone. Now, I talk to people and experience their joys and sorrows without considering how to leverage them. I will never understand all the intricacies of this life nor any hidden meaning behind it. But that’s okay – I wasn’t meant to understand. All I have to do is sit back and enjoy.

Day 18 of Gratitude – Money

I despise money. It ties my head in knots when I even think about the stuff.  Despite that, I had a conversation with some non-writer friends this week that made me realize just how grateful I am for the stuff.

The premise of the conversation was that, as a society, we use money to evaluate a person’s worth. Being a relatively new and unknown author, not only don’t I make a lot of money, but the temporal and causal disconnect between the act of writing and receiving money is huge. And so, when I look at my writing, I have to find other measures of value for the endeavor to feel worthwhile. One person in the conversation agreed that money isn’t an accurate reflection of value, while the other suggested I look into various paying part-time positions so that I would feel worthwhile. For her, money was a reflection of value. And as it turns out, all of us were right.

Money is what we use to obtain those things that are necessary for life and comfort. Money procures housing, heat, clean water, electricity, internet, electronic communication tools, food, etc. – the necessities of modern life. Money is very important to us for that reason. If you are doing an activity that neither directly provides for your family nor is paying money with which to support your family, then what good are you? As long as your family is in need of money for the necessities, money DOES reflect the value of your activity.

But what about when you aren’t in need of money for the necessities? I live a modest life and am by no means rich. A house burglar would find nothing to fence but a couple of aging computers. But we have enough to provide for our necessities for the foreseeable future. When we reached that point, money became meaningless to me. I couldn’t stand the thought of working harder and harder at a job I didn’t enjoy in order to keep making more and more money that I could get by without. And so I left my illustrious career as a health care lawyer in order to write full-time – to pursue value that was not measured in money.

Some say that I earned this opportunity because I worked hard and saved money, but I know it was chance as much as anything else. I am fortunate to pursue my passion rather than pursuing money, but it is only because of money that I am here. And so to that money – stuff providing the necessities – I am very grateful.


Day 12 of Gratitude – Ripples of Kindness

And speaking of friends…

I awoke to a personal message on Facebook from someone I first met several years ago. I admire this woman for her strength and integrity. When the going gets tough, she sticks to what’s right rather than following the easier path. But when I met her, she was at a low point. Nothing was going well for her and she was acting out in ways that were causing her friends, family and employers to back away from her. Had I not been being paid to work with her to resolve her resulting legal issues, I can’t imagine I would have given her the time of day. As with most of my clients, however, I tried to deal with the root of the problem – in this case an underlying, treatable health issue – rather than just patching over the life divots  and sending her on her way. That was years ago.

This morning, her message told me of a her new position where she  making a troubled nursing facility work better. She said: “It has been an honor to have been asked. I just wanted to thank you for all you have done for me. You believed in me while I was considering leaving nursing all together. HUGE THANK YOU!”

We all need someone to believe in us. I’ve been through times when it seemed everyone was pelting stones into the pond of my life to force me out. But all it takes is one person to wade into the pool to assure me I’m not alone and that someone believes in me. I’ve had a lot of stone pelters in my life, but I’ve had the ripples of kindness from the waders as well. And for that, I am grateful.



Modern Day Poverty: Lessons from Les Mis

Les Mis Valjean prisonJean Valjean stole a loaf of bread to save a loved one from starving. Faced with no other option, I hope I would do the same. Les Mis portrays a brutal society with a gap the size of the Grand Canyon between the haves and the have-nots. Through his incarceration and the subsequent terms of parole, French society condemned Valjean to a life that he could not make better through honest work,  his survival dependent on sparse, unearned handouts.  Thank God we don’t live like that any more.

…Or do we?

In my hometown of Columbus, Ohio, 15.4% of the population live in poverty. We could feel proud of that because its slightly below the national average, but we should not. 15.4% equals nearly 200,000 people in this community. A household of three is struggling to live on less than $16,000 per year in a city where the average rent for a 2 bedroom apartment is approaching $900/mo.

People say that the poor are that way because they have no pride or work ethic, and that the state of their dilapidated homes and broken down cars is proof.  Heat or glass to replace the broken window?  A loaf of bread or repairing the fifteen-year-old car. Which would you choose?

Les Mis ThenardierBut many of my Facebook friends say that the poor don’t have to make that choice, pointing out that government handouts make it so people don’t have to work hard or improve themselves in order to get better jobs. Like the Thenardiers in Les Mis, I’m sure there are some people receiving benefits who prefer it to earning what is given, just I am sure some of the rest of us take advantage of free things are offered us. But consider this: the Ohio Benefit Bank, which assists individuals to obtain benefits for which they did not know they were qualified, has only existed a few years, and yet has already helped Ohio citizens receive over $1 BILLION in benefits.  If the poor’s strategy has been to live a comfortable life off the government, they certainly weren’t doing much to avail themselves of the handouts.

Still, the poor seem like “those other” people to us.  Those folks living in distant slums where we don’t go. At one time, that may have been true, but now the demographic statistics say otherwise. In my middle to upper-middle class neighborhood, 25- 35% of the households are below the poverty line. These are not anonymous people somewhere else. These are the people I see and talk to when I go for a walk. I don’t know which ones they are, but they are there. Families constantly on the edge of losing their home, picking and choosing which essential bills to pay this month, trying as hard as they can to stay in the “nice” neighborhood where their children can safely play outdoors and attend schools with adequate computers and text books. But a minor illness or car-trouble results in a lost part-time job, and the house of cards they have worked so hard to stay in comes crashing down. The temporary homeless shelters are operating vastly over capacity.

Les Mis TunnelI have no solutions. Poverty is complex and can’t be finally and completely solved. It’s not just the creation of jobs, but the location of the jobs, transportation to them, child-care, elder-care, and a whole panoply of obstacles individuals need to overcome to rise up from its grips.  In the most recent movie version of Les Mis, the homeless line a damp tunnel, as the horsemen travel past without seeing them.  There will always be poor in our world, but let’s not turn a blind eye. See them, be aware of their plight, and help reduce their obstacles when you can. It may have no overall economic impact, but it could be the encouragement someone needs to keep trying.

The Great Sandwich Conspiracy, or I Need Instructions for THAT!?!

Has anyone else noticed that lunch-meat packages now include instructions on how to make a sandwich?  I won’t pick on a brand, because its on most of them.  Do people really need help to figure out how to slap some shaved ham and a piece of cheese between two slices of bread, or is there some liability concern over the improper use of meat slices? But if its the latter, then shouldn’t the instructions be how to eat the lunch-meat, not how to prepare it?

Cut quarter-sized section of product using teeth or clean utensils (either metal or plastic). Place section in mouth. Raise jaws up and down to bring teeth together and repeat until the texture of the section becomes a lumpy paste. Press tongue to the roof of mouth, hold breath and swallow.

I haven’t seen these lines appear on any packages yet, so I can only conclude the reason for the sandwich-making directions is not fear of someone eating it incorrectly. So why are they there?


All of the instructions, from the simple ham and swiss to the more elaborate peppered turkey with cream cheese and cranberry sauce, include other ingredients. Even a quick examination of these dagwood-to-be components reveal one common characteristic: they have flavor. That must be the reason they are included. Aha! Now the reason for the sandwich-making instructions become clear. It is a conspiracy – a concerted the industry-wide effort to hide the fact that packaged lunch-meat has no taste!

What happened to the savory flavor of turkey? Why does what should be smokey, salty ham have a nearly identical flavor?  Why does a soy burger in my mouth taste more like chicken than slices of the real stuff?  There’s only one answer – they must not be real! The lunch-meat industry is hiding from us what their processed, packaged products are actually made of… Controlling us through the simple messages on the packaging. OMG!! You know what that means!?!


…oh nevermind. I get a bit paranoid when I’m hungry.  This ham and swiss sandwich is great.  Good thing I had instructions on how to make it.

The Insurmountable Wall of Language

sheer rock climberTwo travelers meet in the desert in a foreign land where they must throw their fortunes together to survive. They speak different languages that share an overlapping vocabulary. For example, in Frank’s language, the word “bot” means “sleep” while in Yuri’s language it means “anger.” The word “nasfly” means “guard” to one and “kill” to the other. After some confusing and hostile exchanges, Frank and Yuri realize that the words mean different things to them, and they believe their difficulties are at an end as they resort to using gestures and pictures in the sand to communicate with each other.

Night falls and, as their meager fire wanes, they hear the grunt and howls of carnivores surrounding them. In the dark, gestures and picture are useless, so they begin barking orders to each other on how to protect themselves, each in his own language.  They hear the orders from the other and apply the meanings those words would have in their own language. In the morning, the remains of Yuri and Frank are found, and their rescuers are puzzled over why they died when they had plenty of  fuel to keep the fire going as well as defensive means to keep the animals at bay.  Who was at fault?

Obviously, the answer is that they share equal “fault” in their fate, but perhaps neither of them could avoid it. While perfectly capable of communicating through neutral methods under ideal circumstances, when under pressure, they both resorted to using their native language and hearing the other through that same native language. And had Frank and Yuri survived their night in the dessert, each would blame the other for their peril, stating that the other had refused to listen.

Unfortunately, Frank and Yuri are no different than the rest of us. The primary medium we have for communicating with each other is words, but the nuances and sometime the outright meaning of those words vary from person to person. That is a fact that authors must live with, do their best to accommodate, and know that, at times, they will fail.  Some reader will walk away with an interpretation that is quite different from what the author intended.  Given the limitation of language to convey actual meaning, it is a wonder that we communicate at all, but in general, we manage because the approximations are close enough and we can adjust our words or our listening to the other person’s language.

Put us under enough personal stress, however, and our ability and willingness to filter the familiar words through a foreign language fails. Our capacity to hear from the other person’s perspective used ends, and arguments break out where none had been before. And after false disagreement is cleared up at the end, both parties remain resentful that they were blamed for not accommodating the other’s language, when the other person could have just as easily accommodated theirs.

I have firsthand experience with this problem – I suspect we all do – and I  don’t have a solution. But I wonder over the centuries how many friends were divided, marriages ended, and wars begun over our inability to hear past the words.  Maybe we all need to try a bit harder.




Getting Messy: Some Thoughts on the Good Samaritan

I am not a Biblical scholar. Not even close. In fact, I have a friend I ask when I need a Bible reference for my writing. Nevertheless, I find myself thinking about the parable of the Good Samaritan and how it applies to our lives today. If you are still reading this post, I ask that you read it for what it is: not commentary or interpretation of the Bible, but simply thoughts triggered by the parable.

I imagine that everyone raised Christian remembers the parable, and those who were not probably have some familiarity with it.  To paraphrase, Luke 10: 29-37, it goes like this:

Seeking a qualification on “love our neighbors,” someone asks Jesus to define what is meant by “neighbor.” As usual, instead of giving a clearly defined rule that could be twisted for other purposes, Jesus relays a story of a traveler who was beaten, robbed, and left half dead by the side of the road. A priest, and later a Levite – a man who would have had high level religious and political duties – went to the other side of the road and walked passed the man. A Samaritan – a member of a group hated by Jesus’s audience – stopped, tended to the man, and took him to an inn where he paid the innkeeper to continue the traveler’s care.

Most of us, including me, would like to believe we would behave like the Samaritan. Many of us, including me, believe we do behave that way by donating our time and money to worthy causes that assist those in need. We even give extra when a specific group is in need due to an unexpected disaster.  These are undoubtedly positive actions and provide aid to strangers, but they merely cast us in the roles of the priest and Levite in the story – not as the Good Samaritan.

Why do I say that?  Because in doing those very good deeds, we don’t do what the Samaritan did – make a one-on-one human connection. We don’t risk getting messy by touching someone – by actually connecting with a stranger who is not like us. And by not taking that risk, we miss the point.

I have continued thinking about the experience of participating in Kate Collins’ Don’t Talk to Strangers last month (see my previous post for a description). Perhaps that is the reason I was thinking about the Good Samaritan this morning. Collins created an experience that forced us to take the risk of reaching out to someone we wouldn’t normally associate with.  We had to listen to who the other person was – that was the primary requirement of the exercise. That act of listening formed a connection that wasn’t there before.

I’ve had this experience before. One of my most valued relationships is with a person I had no business talking to. We appeared to be ideological opposites in every respect. Yet, for some reason, we didn’t just talk, we listened, and in doing so, we discovered ideas behind the disparate words we use that are far more similar than we would have guessed. We also learned to understand and respect the areas where we differ. The result didn’t just benefit the goal of our dialogue, it improved us.

Still, I fail the Good Samaritan test on a regular basis – I walk through the grocery store or down the street so absorbed in myself or my duties that I barely see the people around me. Today, I will do my best to be different. I will try to raise the spirits of others rather than my own, to help others rather than help myself, and to listen rather than talk. I’m sure I won’t do it well – after all, it’s safer to remain insular in a world where differences are shouted down and waved like flags through the isolation of social media. But still, I am going to try.

Human connections are messy. It is HARD to listen to another person. Perhaps it was easier for the Samaritan because the needs of the traveler were obvious without words getting in the way of hearing with his heart. In the end, I suppose that’s what this post is about – we all need to hear with our hearts. Where our brains see divisions, our hearts hear connections. Perhaps we should listen more often.


(Don’t) Talk to Strangers!

Tonight, I participated in a great event organized by Kate Collins, a Ph.D. candidate in Art Education who is teaching an undergraduate class focused on the intersection of art, community, and dialog. I had been to a couple small events she had organized as part of the class, but tonight was the culminating event.  No details were given other than the name “Talk to Strangers,” so I didn’t know what to expect.

I arrived in a manicured downtown park on the river to find balloons, laughter, music, and popcorn.  It was like a child’s birthday party, Kate explained, knowing we’d all been to one at some point in our lives and probably remembered it fondly. But we all learned something else as children, she continued, that we carried forward into our adult lives: “Don’t Talk to Strangers.” But tonight was to be different. We were to pick someone out of the crowd to walk with along a trail across the river and back and talk – or more importantly to listen to what the other had to say.

I looked around the crowd for someone “safe” to hang out with for the walk, but that wasn’t really the point, was it? I found myself face to face with a woman who was also seeking a partner for the stroll and, given that we were both wearing denim jackets, we figured fate put us together. But she wasn’t someone I wanted to get to know. Not because she looked mean or smelled bad or anything like that. It was because she was beautiful, and as someone who doesn’t consider herself in that same category, I prefer to think of beautiful people as shallow and unworthy of my time. Getting to know them spoils that illusion. Nevertheless, Patty and I were now a team.

We set off on our trek across the bridge in easy conversation. Very easy. In less than a block, we’d learned that in the past few years we’d both lost our mothers who’d been vibrant women until the end and that we’d both recently gone through serendipitous career changes. And the conversation flowed from there, moving from the simple social topics of our backgrounds and where we lived to the deeper ones about the revelations that came from the loss of our mothers, to the “whiteness” of certain areas of town, to the importance of human connections. Along the way, we stopped and took pictures for a family that was in town for a convention, framing them against the backdrop of the Columbus skyline. We arrived back at the park to a party of peanut butter & jelly sandwiches, dancing, and new friends.

No burning social issues were resolved tonight, nor did we achieve world peace. But true connections were made – human beings reaching out to other human beings and listening to them exist. I’m glad I met Patty tonight. She reminded me that knowing people and interacting with them in positive, meaningful ways is what life is about. And we all could spend more time learning what we have in common rather than focusing what separates us.

Talk to Strangers. It was a beautiful event. Thanks, Kate.