Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Sometimes the memory has to be enough

My oldest and I were in Milwaukee last week and we stopped to visit my parents.  My mom has this habit of sending me home with boxes of “so you don’t have to go through it when I’m gone” stuff.  I put that in quotes because those are her words not mine.  I wish she’d spend her time on other things but I’m thinking going through this stuff makes her happy.  Most of the time it’s silly stuff but every once in a while you get something that stops you in your tracks.  Thankfully this is one of those times.  
Have you ever heard a song or smelled something or whatever the impact is to the senses, but it takes you back and you can draw a picture of where you were and everything so clearly it’s like you’re there again?  I’d imagine most of us have.  Whether it be a first ball game you went to, your first crush, or just some random event that sticks out.  You remember every little detail.  Chances are you can remember the sounds, the smells, the sights.  This is what I got with what my mom had dug up.  She showed my a harmonica.
That harmonica sent me screaming down memory lane because it’s the harmonica my grandpa Stueck played for me the last time I saw him.  I was six years old when my grandpa passed, and I only have 3 or 4 good memories of the man.  This is easily the most vivid.  It was summer time and he was in his usual long sleeve flannel shirt tucked in and his cap on.  I wish I could remember the song he was playing, but I remember thinking how cool it was that I had a grandpa that could play the harmonica.  He was standing in the kitchen by the door.  He was a tall man for his generation and me being so little I remember my thoughts were always that him and my dad were larger than life.  I was standing in the doorway to the dining room between my parents just looking up in amazement.  I remember asking to hear more, but he said that was enough for now, and he put it in his shirt pocket.  We gave our hugs, and we were on our way.  33 years later, I can still go back there.
Of course all of this got me thinking, and the most prevalent thought that I kept coming back to was the power of memories.  In this case, that memory of grandpa playing is something that I go back to whenever I’m thinking about things like that, but seeing the harmonica made it all the more real.  Even though I never really got to know my grandpa, having that memory and being able to go back to that makes me feel like I’ve got a piece of him.  I cherish that. 

Memories are an amazing and powerful thing.  Obviously some memories are best left in the past, but for those fond ones, what a wonderful gift you’ve been given when you have something like that to look back on.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Productive Quiet Time

I’ve talked about my love of quiet time on here before. There’s no new revelations there.  What I want to talk about now is making use of that quiet time.  In a house of seven of us peace and quiet can be hard to come by.  It pretty much just happens for me when I get up early for work and nobody else is up and moving yet.  I’ve grown to love this time.  I can sit outside and have a cup of coffee on occasion, get the flowers watered, or best of all sit and close my eyes and meditate for a while.
Meditation may sound like some goofy hippy kind of thing.  I know in high school, in gym class of all places, we had a segment on meditation.  20 years later and I wish I had done more than fall asleep.  Meditation has grown to be something I work to get into my daily routine.  I’m still letting it slide more than I’m taking the time, but when I do it, the results are immediate.  I leave mediation feeling a sense of calmness, the world slows down a bit, I’ve got a better perspective on things, and I feel ready for just about anything.

For me meditation is quite simple.  I just sit there and notice sounds around me for a few minutes, count my breath for a few minutes, then let my mind go wherever for a minute or two.  For the first two parts, when my mind goes off the given task I simply remind myself of what I should be focusing on.  It’s as easy as that.  I started attempting to go for 10 minutes.  I am now up to about 20 mins.  For the longest time I had this odd thought that meditation had to be in these weird poses trying to think of nothing.  Trying to think of nothing is an incredibly hard thing to do.  Go ahead, try it.  Force yourself to think of nothing.  You’re not going to have much luck.  Meditation became something that I psyched myself out of because I allowed it to grow bigger than it needed to be.  Meditation is not a complicated thing, and there’s no reason to over complicate it.  There are two apps that I’ve tried that really helped along the way. one is called calm, the other is headspace.  These are great ways to guide you through a few sessions to get the idea of what meditation is all about.  I hope this gives you enough curiosity to try mediation.  It’s a great way to make use of that wonderful peace and quiet.

Monday, June 20, 2016

Needs vs. Wants The parental version…

      I’m sitting here writing this right after Fathers Day.  Just like most of us, I spent some time yesterday thinking about my dad and the role he is playing in my life, and how I want to play quite a similar role with my kids.  I’ve been trying to figure out what exactly he did and how he did it.  It’s easy to say things like Dad has always been there for me, or he’s world’s greatest.  I’m sure most of us have the mugs to prove it, but I want to go a bit deeper than that.  I feel like of course dad was there when I needed him.  Most dads would be.  I want to think about what he did when either I didn’t notice he was instilling some lesson, or even when I just flat out didn’t want him around, and he just wouldn’t go away.  What did he do when it wasn’t blatantly obvious that helped me and my siblings become the people we are?  
I think the best way to summarize the answer is that my dad made sure I never needed for anything.  You always hear people describe a parent or something and they’ll say “So and so made sure that we never wanted for anything, he provided for us.”  There were plenty of things my parents made sure I wanted for.  I know I’m switching back and forth a bit between saying things like Dad or Father and parents.  For me in describing things like this it is hard to decipher between mom and dad sometimes.  Some times Mom would even play a bit more of the disciplinarian role because dad was at work. Sometimes that discipline would take the shape of “Wait till your father gets home!!” but she is a tough little lady.  Anyway I got off track a bit there.  The point here is that I want my kids to want things I can’t or won’t provide.  I want them to understand that personal accountability is something to strive for.  I want them to understand that a work ethic isn’t something that you can just decide you have one day.  I want the kids to understand the sense of pride one gets when pouring your heart and soul into something.  I also want the kids to understand how to deal with failure.  I want them to understand that the world isn’t fair, and that the world also owes you nothing.  All of this sounds like it would take the mother of all after school movies to instill in the kids.  The way my parents taught it is through example.
When I was going through my confirmation classes many years ago, my dad wrote me a letter talking about this very subject.  He talked about how it was his job to help shape my character and actions.  He talks about setting an example.  He talks about how that one time we got pulled over for speeding, he did it on purpose so he could show me how to interact with a police officer.  That was a fun discussion.  I think about all this now, and it was these examples that taught me so much when I wasn’t even paying attention.  It was things like watching my parents become involved with the community and joining the Lions Club. It was watching them work at project concern through church to help the less fortunate.  It was holding the door for the elderly person, or burying our American flag properly when it had gotten into disrepair.  There are countless examples that can be given of the small seemingly insignificant steps they took to go about things the right way.  Whether it be taking care of the chore that needed to be done after working 12 hours, or taking the time to talk with me after an especially hard day.  They took the hard road.  Consistently.  That’s what I want to pass on to my kids.

I’m sitting here now and I’m blessed with 5 kids that I get to help raise.  They may not appreciate it now, but I hope at some point they are able to look back and realize they never needed for anything either.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Things aren’t that easy…

       I’m amazed at the amount of people that think they are right. Like most of us, I spent a decent part of my Sunday being horrified by the stories people were recounting about the senseless tragedies that happened in Orlando over the past few days.  There are no words.  Watching some of the reactions got me thinking more about the first sentence above, which I’ve been pondering for some time.  It is truly amazing how many people think they are absolutely right about many things.  Obviously at times like this you hear more about gun control and what is wrong with people and everybody has a solution that can be boiled down to a slick sentence or a few bullet points and make it sound so easy.  Life is not that clear cut.  That was a rough thing for me to figure out.  There was a time where I felt like I had most of the world figured out.  I had a firm grasp on 80 - 85% of things in life, and there was maybe 10 % on either side of the spectrum that I wasn’t quite clear on.  You know, things like photosynthesis or what makes women’s purses so damned heavy.  Everything else I pretty much had a handle on.  Life was easy.  I had all the answers.  Then my world got turned upside down.  I was faced with divorce, and starting a life that was completely different than anything I had ever expected.  Up until that point I had built my life on being married, raising a family, and celebrating a 50th wedding anniversary just like my parents did.  That was one of those solid black and white things in my life.  Anything outside of that was failure.  Obviously this wasn’t true, and with time I came to see the complexities involved and realized what I had thought before was foolish.  There are many roads that lead to a successful family, just as there needs to be many roads that lead to a safer society.  So the question is how do we make all these people with the simplified beliefs and their pithy sayings realize those thoughts and ideas are foolish?
I’ve been sitting and staring at that last sentence for a few minutes now.  I’m laughing at imaging what some of the responses are.  I’m sure there are plenty of people that feel anger or any number of emotions when faced with the fact that their belief may be foolish.  The elephant in the room with this one is obviously religion.  How dare I call somebody’s religious beliefs foolish?  Well I’m not, depending on how hard you hold on to those beliefs.  Just for full disclosure, I was raised Catholic, and still believe we’ve got God and Jesus to thank for all that is around us.  That being said, I also believe that God likes religious fruits, not religious nuts.  I can’t take credit for that phrase, that came from a CCD teacher I had growing up.  I like it because it seems to embody the point I’m trying to make. Chances are you aren’t right, or at least not completely right.  I alway point to the story of The Tower of Babel.  There people began working together too well.  God decided he needed to spread people out and give them different languages.  Who’s to say he didn’t also give us different religions and that part was just left out?  Right there I gave enough reasonable doubt that our Hindi, Islamic, Jewish and whatever else friends are also correct. 
Now that we’ve got the religious aspect of the foolish thoughts out of the way, let me ask you a question. For this question you need to think of a belief you hold dear.  Something you wouldn’t consider to be in a grey area.  Take a second to think of something.  Now that you’ve got it, here is the question:  Can you think of any scenario where you’d condone acting exactly opposite of that belief?  Think hard.  For my example I used stealing.  I think stealing is wrong.  However if my children were hungry and I had no other means to put food on the table, I would steal it.  The possibility of me running out of other means is very slim, but in the scenario where I did run out, yes I would steal.  I’ve now come up with a scenario where that black and white thing in my life is a bit more grey.  Take what I believe to be the ultimate example, murder.  Whether it is right or not, I can come up with an example where I can justify it.  I’m also not alone there.  The Catholic church has gone back and forth on the topic of the death penalty a number of times.  With all of this being said, I think that you can see where I’m coming from when I say that absolute thoughts are foolish.
Right along with the foolishness of absolute thoughts is the desire to be right.  Most people really enjoy being right, myself included.  Who doesn’t like to feel that we’ve got all the answers and we’re the problem solver?  Do you see the problem here?  How can somebody have all the answers when most of the time the assumptions we’re making on the situation are completely false(foolish).  This is where the complexity of thought comes in.  There are no answers that can be boiled down to a simple sentence or a few quick bullet points.   Yet we end up electing our politicians based on who has the best sound bites.  No one has time to allow a candidate to sit down and explain a nuanced answer to a complex problem.  Now a days we’re either democrat or republican.  We’re either for gun rights or we think every single one should be taken away.  We believe our version of God is right and everybody else is wrong. As we discussed above, things simply aren’t black and white like that.  There needs to be room for detail.  There needs to be complex thought.  There needs to be disagreement and discussion.   I wrote a while back about wanting to disagree with people.  You can find that blog here(  I won’t rehash all of that, but it’s worth a read.  Discussion, intelligent nuanced thought, and civilized disagreement are the only things that are going to move us forward.
Hopefully by now I’ve got you at least considering the idea that long held beliefs may not be entirely accurate, and that developing simple solutions based on these beliefs are doomed to failure.  Where do we go from here?  My thought is that we begin by expecting more out of our children.  We ask them to challenge our ways of thinking.  We reward them for asking the tough questions and struggling to find answers.  We then begin to ask more out of our politicians, and work to find common ground.  Back to the gun example from above, even if you are the most ardent of the pro gun NRA, I believe that you can think of at least one person you’ve met in your life that should not be allowed to own a firearm.  We build from there.  We talk about the less politically charged topics in our day to day life and build consensus.  We talk about common sense and the greater good.  Disagreements are encouraged, resolution is sought, and we move on.  We let go of our need to be right and focus on our need to be kind.  We realize that if we all had all the answers, we’d be rich sitting in the Caribbean somewhere worrying about the ice meting in our drinks or something. That sounded bad, even if I were rich, I’d still care about this stuff, and I’d probably still be writing…

I could ramble on about things like this for quite a while, and truthfully if you’re still reading this, I’m pretty sure I owe you a beer, but here is what I hope you take away from all this: What are the beliefs you hold and what are the alternatives to those beliefs?  Also to what extent are you willing to go to in order to be right?  Is it worth it?  Can you think of an instance where you’ve given up the need to be right and sought to be kind?  Or better yet, where have you gone into a conversation feeling challenged in your thoughts and learned something?

Thursday, June 9, 2016

The Power of Absurdity

I love coming up with the most ridiculous nonsense ideas I can.  It’s fun.  Most of the time I think I’m absolutely hysterical, and sometimes, rarely, if ever, other people think that way as well.  That part doesn’t matter, because as long as you’re entertaining yourself, what else do you need in this world right?  I’ve taken to it so much so that now I’ve got a soccer game I play with the kids where we literally make up the rules as we go.  If you come up with something and say it before the actual thing happens, it counts.  Let me give you an example.  I had been eliminated from the particular game we were playing, I decided that if I could moon walk across the goal box, I’d be allowed back in.  I stated the rule, moon walked across and I was back in.  At one point my oldest boy decided that hitting the cross bar was worth 300 points.  He hit the cross bar.  He won.  You get the idea, it’s one example of something goofy to get our minds working and laugh a little bit.  At first the kids were quite against this whole idea.  They were used to my antics with things like calling certain areas of the woods “Squatchy” seen as how I thought we might find big foot there, or other stupid stuff like that, but joking around about their beloved soccer?  How dare I!!!  After a few minutes of uncomfortableness they tried it and had a lot of fun.  I found this to be a pretty good analogy to my start down this path.  There was a time I would take most things in life too seriously.   It wasn’t fun.  Life was difficult, and there wasn’t a whole lot of joy.   Once I started looking for the humor in almost every situation, it’s amazing how much easier things got.  Now when a guy cuts me off on the road, I just think about the story he’s racing to tell his proctologist!
Obviously there are things in life that just are what they are, and difficult situations need to be addressed.  I’m not talking about those times.  I’m talking about the 90 percent of other times where your anger and frustration aren’t going to do a damned bit of good.  I’m talking about those times where you’re going to get frustrated, and let it impact a significant portion of the next hours or days, yet nothing will be done about it.  There’s really no need.  Whatever frustration exists is not going to be permanent and truth be told it’s way more fun to think of the escape plans the husband is making while his bitchy wife complains about the fact that the gruyere cheese isn’t fresh enough. 

Another thing this seems to help with is the fact that what others think of you, or what they think of anything else in the world is none of your business.  Again, a line needs to be drawn here, you see a guy eying up your daughter, you don’t laugh about the life she could potentially marry into, you yell as loud as you can that she is 16 and that’s still considered jail bait in this state!!!  Then you politely grab him by the ear and get him caught up with his wife and proceed to explain to her how the whole thing was probably  just a misunderstanding and that you’re sure the husband just thought your daughter didn’t have matching socks on, and that’s why he had to stare as long as he did.  See what I did there?  I took a hypothetical, made it real, and then twisted it back into a hypothetical!  I thought it was hilarious, I’m still laughing, and you’ve probably stopped reading by now…  My point with all of this is to say that we don’t need to take life so seriously.  Find the humor in it.  Search out absurdity and enjoy it.  Take the kids to find big foot one day.  Take the kids snipe hunting, have a yes day where the answer to every question somebody asks you is YES.  Make fun of yourself.  Enjoy everything you can.  If the humor isn’t immediately obvious, search it out.  You’ll be glad you did.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

17 Years….and what do I get?

Yesterday was my 17 year anniversary at my company.  Granted the name of the company has changed 4 times, but I’m still sitting at the same desk.   My dad jokes with me about wishing I could keep a steady job.  He’s a funny guy.  Anyway, it got me to thinking, what have I accomplished in these 17 years?  I’m not running the place yet, which my mom thought would only take 5 or 6 years to get to.  Sorry Mom. I guess the main thing I have accomplished is that I’ve kept gainful employment for that whole time, and I feel like I’ve helped the given applications I support run more smoothly and helped people increase productivity.  I have also learned a few things. I’ve learned a lot about what it means to lead people, to be led, to understand I don’t know everything, and never will.  I’ve learned what great successes feel like and I’ve learned how to deal with failures. I’ve learned that I need to work on trusting others to do work, and to fight through the noise and find a path to productivity when feeling overwhelmed.   I’ve also helped raise 5 great kids over this timeframe.  All in all it’s been a very successful 17 years.  Oddly enough though, I still feel angst over what I haven’t done.  I’ve become a bit of a jack of all trades but a master of nothing.  That sounds a bit harsh and I don’t mean it that way, I just mean that my job hasn’t allowed me to put those 10,000 hours into one thing to become a master at it.  I guess that’s ok, obviously I’m not changing that now.  The thing I think about most is this is not where I thought I’d be come just about 40.  That’s a hard sentence to read back to myself, but it’s the truth, and I’d imagine most people feel that way in one regard or another.  There’s something you thought you’d get done or these big hopes and dreams that you had and the next thing you know 17 years have gone by and you’re not there.  In some respects you haven’t even started.  This isn’t to say that I’m unhappy where I am, far from it.  Without hesitation I can say that this is the happiest I’ve been in my adult life.  I’m just not done.  I know nobody told me I am, but I guess what I’m saying is that I don’t want everybody to be reading another blog post in 17 years and I’m sitting in the same spot I am now.  If you’re taking the time to read stuff like this, you understand where I’m coming from.  It’s a good thing to want to continually move forward. Obviously that notion can be scary.  Especially since most of the time you don’t know what that next step is going to be, and for most people change is hard.
Over the last couple weeks I’ve been thinking about graduation speeches.  The girls had their 6th grade “recognition” the other day, and that added to my thoughts about this.  I was thinking there should be a graduation speech out there for those of us who aren’t graduating.  I guess I’m thinking those motivational posters with the kitten telling me to hang in there aren’t cutting it.  I’ve been thinking of that motivational speech for the rest of us.  What would that look like?  What would I say?  The more I think about it, I think this is it.  I was trying to write something all clever and slick, but it comes down to:  Life happens.  It happens quickly.  No matter what, time keeps marching forward, so if you’ve got something you want to accomplish, today is the day to start, take that next step, or change paths.  It doesn’t matter if you just graduated or have been working at the same desk for 17 years.  In both scenarios you’ve still got tomorrow in front you.  It’s just sitting there waiting for you to make something of it, or not.  

In a weird bit of irony it’s been a few days since I touched this blog entry, and in that time a lot has changed at work for me.  The boss that I’ve had over the last few years is leaving the company.  He’s leaving to spend more time with family and lead the life he wants to lead.  No one can blame him for that, I’m happy for him.  I hope later in my career I’m able and willing to make the same decision he has.  Anyway, he has been a great mentor to me and now it’s time for me to take that next step.  I don’t know what that next step is going to be, but I know it’s going to be one that gets me to where I want to be.  Two days ago I was dealing with the hypothetical question of what I’m going to make the next 17 years look like, now I’m presented with the very real scenario of making a conscious decision.  I just wrote that sentence and I don't believe it.  The decisions I had to make a few days ago and the questions presented were no less real than what I'm dealing with today.  Today just seems a lot more real because of circumstances.  Had this not happened at work, I would have just had an excuse to not take action as quickly as I feel I have to now.  There's a lesson procrastination lying in there.  I'm good at procrastination.  Anyway, this will end up being a good thing for me.  I'm not sure how, but I'll keep you posted as things play out.  For now I know I'm happy how I spent my last 17 years, and I am eager to see what the next 17 have in store.

Friday, June 3, 2016

Mark Twain...Do yourself a favor

It's hard to think that a man who has a Kennedy Center honor named after him is underrated, but I would contend that Mark Twain is.  There is the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor which has been handed out annually since 1998, but I still contend he is underrated. Maybe I'm just not as well versed as I should be in literary circles, but outside of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, I've gotten to this point knowing very little about the man.  That is a shame. A colossal shame. I've started on The Gilded Age and I am loving it.  This is a man very much worth investigating for all of us.  Outside of his books, I've also enjoyed discovering some of quotes and thoughts.  My favorite so far has been this:

“I've had a lot of worries in my life, most of which never happened.”  - Mark Twain

This seems like quite the simple statement right?  Yet stop and think about it, most of what we worry about is never going to happen.  This just really put things in perspective for me.  I can't help but picture this coming out of the old man and appreciating the wisdom.  Anyway, my goal here is that you'll leave this blog and hopefully do some more digging on Mark Twain and get to know a great American thinker.  Here's a few links to help you get started: