hope z

young black male with bright clothes and a quizzical look

For as long as I can remember, my usual workout time has been between midnight and 3:00 AM. A couple of weeks back, two young guys—Josh and DaeDae—started working the overnight shift at my gym.

I’ve been chatting with them here and there—when I arrive, when I leave or whenever they happen to be cleaning nearby. Nice guys. But until recently, it’s been mostly small talk.

Friday morning, on my way out, I decided to go a little deeper with them. I wanted to ask about something that’s been on my mind quite a lot lately, especially where Gen Z is concerned.

You see, I’ve noticed a distinct change in people’s mind sets over the last five or six years. I suspect it’s been brought about by a perfect storm of political upheaval, a pandemic, a stark rise in hate crimes and a 24-hour news cycle (or pseudo-news cycle, in many cases) where strong personalities seem bent on peddling controversy and worst-case scenarios in exchange for ratings or personal social-media followings.

Meanwhile, we’re being continually bombarded with click bait—video and article titles that are intentionally vague, misleading, skewed or outright false. If they’re to be believed, everything we know and love is a hair’s breath away from being torn away from us. Our freedom. Our democracy. Our safety. Our health.

Our very existence as a species on planet earth.

And the result has been an outbreak of fear, anxiety, depression and doom every bit as widespread, infectious and devastating as COVID-19.

So I stopped and asked Josh and DaeDae this question: “How do you feel when you think about your future?”

And in stereophonic unison, they immediately replied…

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scam

scam - The Best Advice So Far

Most people who read my blog know me first and foremost as an author. So they are surprised when they learn that I do other things as well. (And conversely, those whose first dealings with me center on one of those other areas are always surprised to find that I’m also an author.)

Well, one of those other things I do is designing information systems. I’ve done this since I was a child and home computers first came out. But as far this story is concerned, here’s the simple version: I build fancy stuff with spreadsheets. Often, it’s stuff that few other people can figure out. And for that reason, I always have clients who seek me out and pay me well for this work (which I fit in between my writing and marketing and mentoring and…)

You might think these two worlds are incongruous, but in my mind, they’re just different ways of helping people. And I am passionate about infusing both with core values such as kindness.

To that end, I choose to donate a little time each week as I’m able to helping answer posts on a couple of free online forums. Typically, I can only volunteer about a half hour or so per week; but I can get a lot done in that time, considering that the forums are designed to help people with relatively small stuff. A little knowledge sharing here. A formula tweak there.

Recently, I read a forum post from someone who appeared to be located in Romania, and who was requesting spreadsheet help. But in assessing things, what he required wasn’t small stuff. It was a highly customized, time-intensive solution (i.e., real work).

Usually, I’ll just pass over such posts or suggest that the person consider hiring a developer. In this particular case, however, I made the choice to “break my rule” and try to help the guy out anyway. You see, I’ve been especially aware lately of the need for tenacious worldwide kindness. And while it wouldn’t bring about world peace, going the extra mile for this stranger in Bucharest seemed a good opportunity to put feet to my convictions.

Still, it was a bit tricky. Sharing complex solutions on a free forum would create unrealistic future expectations for site visitors. In addition, I can’t offer in a free public forum the same level of complex work that my private clients pay me for.

But my mind was made up. I was going to help this guy (I’ll call him “Ivo” here).

Since Ivo’s shared spreadsheet contained his email address, I reached out to him privately rather than through the public forum. I introduced myself. I explained essentially what I’ve shared with you here: that I am a longtime forum contributor, that the help he required went beyond what I could provide through the free forum, but that I was willing to help him at no cost if he would simply share a copy of the sample spreadsheet with me.

Some hours later, his email reply popped up.

As I try to keep this blog family friendly, I’ll have to do some censoring:

“You bet. You [#&%@!] poor [*!@~$] scammer, eat [&$^#%]. Maybe that’s more useful to support your laughable existence.”

Here, I’d offered him free work —work I’d have charged any other client $150 for—and this was his response?

What would you have done at this point

Most people who read my blog know me first and foremost as an author. So they are surprised when they learn that I do other things as well. (And conversely, those whose first dealings with me center on one of those other areas are always surprised to find that I’m also an author.)

Well, one of those other things I do is designing information systems. I’ve done this since I was a child and home computers first came out. But as far this story is concerned, here’s the simple version: I build fancy stuff with spreadsheets. Often, it’s stuff that few other people can figure out. And for that reason, I always have clients who seek me out and pay me well for this work (which I fit in between my writing and marketing and mentoring and…)

You might think these two worlds are incongruous, but in my mind, they’re just different ways of helping people. And I am passionate about infusing both with core values such as kindness.

To that end, I choose to donate a little time each week as I’m able to helping answer posts on a couple of free online forums. Typically, I can only volunteer about a half hour or so per week; but I can get a lot done in that time, considering that the forums are designed to help people with relatively small stuff. A little knowledge sharing here. A formula tweak there.

Recently, I read a forum post from someone who appeared to be located in Romania, and who was requesting spreadsheet help. But in assessing things, what he required wasn’t small stuff. It was a highly customized, time-intensive solution (i.e., real work).

Usually, I’ll just pass over such posts or suggest that the person consider hiring a developer. In this particular case, however, I made the choice to “break my rule” and try to help the guy out anyway. You see, I’ve been especially aware lately of the need for tenacious worldwide kindness. And while it wouldn’t bring about world peace, going the extra mile for this stranger in Bucharest seemed a good opportunity to put feet to my convictions.

Still, it was a bit tricky. Sharing complex solutions on a free forum would create unrealistic future expectations for site visitors. In addition, I can’t offer in a free public forum the same level of complex work that my private clients pay me for.

But my mind was made up. I was going to help this guy (I’ll call him “Ivo” here).

Since Ivo’s shared spreadsheet contained his email address, I reached out to him privately rather than through the public forum. I introduced myself. I explained essentially what I’ve shared with you here: that I am a longtime forum contributor, that the help he required went beyond what I could provide through the free forum, but that I was willing to help him at no cost if he would simply share a copy of the sample spreadsheet with me.

Some hours later, his email reply popped up.

As I try to keep this blog family friendly, I’ll have to do some censoring:

“You bet. You [#&%@!] poor [*!@~$] scammer, eat [&$^#%]. Maybe that’s more useful to support your laughable existence.”

Here, I’d offered him free work —work I’d have charged any other client $150 for—and this was his response?

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less lonely

We’ve heard it a million times: “Bad news sells.” And we’ve certainly had more than our fair share of it lately, haven’t we?

As someone who takes my own advice perhaps more than anyone, and ever keeping in mind that central theme of mine — “You always have a choice” — I went beyond simply turning off the bad news to making an active search of good news.

Would you believe that there is actually a whole news site called Good News Network?

There I read an article that not only held true to the claims of offering good news, but that introduced me to something I’ve suspected was true for some time, yet for which I had no proof.

Until now.

I encourage you to read that article for yourself. But the short version is that researchers from California and Italy teamed up to conduct a study which reveals that people with greater empathy and wisdom are less lonely.

Conversely, as you might have guessed, that means people with less empathy and wisdom are more lonely.

Well, that seems easy enough, right?

Just get more wisdom.

Get more empathy.

Be less lonely.

Phew! Glad we solved that one so quickly.

Hmmm…

In reality, those two qualities — wisdom and empathy — are a bit hard for most people to nail down. After all, how do you measure something like wisdom? How do you gain more of it, for that matter? If it were a matter of merely reading the array of inspirational memes that endlessly scroll across our social media accounts all day and pressing the “Like” button, we’d all have wisdom to spare. None of us would ever be lonely.

Likewise, if empathy were gained simply by being around other people, or commenting on their posts, or hitting the sad emoticon button when they post that they just broke up with their boyfriend again, empathy would be the norm (and, therefore, loneliness the exception).

Alas, not so.

Here’s a quick self-check for wisdom:

1.) Do you listen as well as you speak?

2.) Are you known for being…

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it’s a breeze

The Best Advice So Far - it's a breeze - curtain fluttering by an open window

One day last week, I wished a friend of mine a happy birthday. He turned 30 and was feeling old. Interestingly enough, he was a sophomore in high school when I met him, and I was older than he is now. So I was able to paint a convincing picture for him as to just how young he still is.

As we talked about getting older, a famous quote came to mind:

“With age comes wisdom.”

Yet I’m inclined to agree with the second half of Oscar Wilde’s observation on the matter:

“… but sometimes age comes alone.”

I don’t need to look very far to find middle-aged adults who are just as petty, rash, irresponsible or egocentric as they were when they were teenagers. (Some, in fact, are even worse off now than when they were younger.) Likewise, I know many in their twenties who are quite well-adjusted and have exemplary character.

That is, wisdom comes not merely from experience but from intention to ponder that experiences. To learn from it. To make new choices.

To change.

Well, after this exchange with my still-young friend, my eye was immediately drawn to a seemingly trivial bit of movement in my living room—a sight so familiar to me that, if not for that particular conversation, it would certainly not have been noteworthy let alone served as the inspiration for a blog post.

At the open window, the edge of a sheer white curtain floated and fluttered in the spring air.

In that moment, I was transported to a particular night in February back when my birthday friend was still in high school. He and a dozen or so other guys his age were gathered in my home on a Monday night for our weekly meet-up. They crowded onto the olive green sectional or found space on the living room floor, happily munching on pizza, which was the norm.

The conversation that night coalesced around a theme. Many of them expressed that they invited change, that they wanted more for their lives, that they were open to deeper connection with others and a sense of real purpose. They came faithfully each week, ready to absorb. They were honest about who they were and where they excelled or struggled. They took part in discussions and read books. But they hadn’t seen the personal progress they’d expected “by now.” They still weren’t feeling or experiencing whatever it was they thought they should be feeling or experiencing.

One or two of them even hinted that they were disappointed that the other group members hadn’t gone to greater lengths in supporting them during the week between meetings.

Where was the magic that would grant them the life they were looking for?

As they continued sharing their thoughts, I got up and headed for the kitchen, presumably to grab another slice of pizza for myself. What no one noticed was that, on the way, I cranked the heat up another ten degrees.

Even at a moderate 70°, I can tell you that 15 teenage boys will heat up a room quickly. With the thermostat now at 80°, it wasn’t long before the sweat was trickling and they were begging for relief.

Instead of lowering the thermostat, I opened the two windows along one side of the room. “Let’s see if this cools things down quickly.” But even though it was a frigid winter night, the temperature in the room didn’t drop by even one degree. No air was coming in from those open windows.

“That’s not working,” they moaned. “Can you just turn the heat down?”

I had them where I wanted them. Breaking the current flow of conversation, I said, “The windows are wide open. Why do you think the cold air isn’t coming in?”

One of them held his hand up to a screen, as if he thought for a moment that maybe a tropical heat wave had mysteriously descended upon New England. I could see that they were thinking. Another offered, “Maybe there’s no wind tonight.”

After a minute or so more, when I was sure their minds were open, I got up without a word and disappeared down the short hall. I opened my bedroom door (which I knew they would hear). Twenty seconds later, I returned and stood in the center of the room. I pointed to the open windows and, as if I were a sorcerer, freezing air whooshed into the room. In less than a minute, they were bundling up in the hoodies they’d so recently discarded; and within two, they were shivering and had had enough.

I turned down the thermostat, closed one window, leaving the other open just an inch or so as I revealed to them how I’d gotten that air to come in—to transform a stagnant space with something new and refreshing.

My secret? I had…

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the builders

The Best Advice So Far - the builders

I was wakened from a sound sleep by the ungodly grinding of a saw cutting through what sounded like concrete or metal right outside my bedroom wall. The whole place shook, setting the nearby jar candles to skittering. It was immediately clear that this was not going to be a situation solved by fingers in the ears or pillows over the head. So I got up.

Just when I thought things couldn’t get any worse, there was a loud crunching and a thunk.

That sounds like it’s right in the house, I thought. And then the noise suddenly cut off. Moments later there was a knock at the door. I opened it to find one of the construction guys there wearing grubby jeans, a tank top and a backward ball cap. His ears were studded and gauged, and one tattooed arm leaned against the wall of the stairwell that leads up to my floor. “Hey, um… what’s on the inside of the wall we’re working on?”

I knew something very bad had happened. “My bedroom,” I informed him. “Bedroom closet to be exact.”

I led him through the entryway and into the bedroom. I live in an old farmhouse with open closets, so I had used the bedroom closet for storage, placing a low white bench with drawers and storage cubbies in front of it on top of which a full-length mirror leaned back against the door opening. I took down the mirror.

The workers had broken through the outside wall into the room, a five-foot strip of the wall revealing daylight beyond. But that wasn’t what caused the sharp inhale or widening of my eyes.

It was the…

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elevator

Up and down arrows on an old-fashioned hotel elevator panel

Whenever someone learns that I’m a writer, they inevitably ask the following two questions:

  • What do you write?
  • Who is your target audience?

They’re reasonable questions. And you’d think that after a decade of professional writing, I’d have honed my elevator pitch by now. I haven’t. I’ve tried—really, I have. But it doesn’t seem any easier today than it was when I first started.

You know how people will ask you a question and a response comes directly to your mind, but then you edit it by the time it comes out of your mouth because you know that your first thought isn’t likely to be considered an “acceptable” answer? Like when someone you’ve just met asks why you’re still single or what your family is like. I mean, not everything in life has an elevator pitch (at least not a completely honest one), does it?

Funny enough, I don’t even feel awkward in actual elevators. Talking or explaining things isn’t my problem. It’s that my genre and audience don’t quite fit in any one nutshell.

Most of the problem can be chalked up to the connotations of words. For instance, consider the following snippet of conversation between an imaginary person (IP) and me:

IP: Are you liberal or a conservative?

Me: Yes

Well, that answer is certainly both short and true. But it doesn’t really answer the intended question. Let’s try again.

IP: Are you liberal or a conservative?

Me: I’m both. For instance, I’m conservative with my money but liberal with my willingness to help people.

OK, well, now we’ve got a bit more of an answer. It’s short enough. Yet while it does relay some important information about me, it’s still not what the asker is expecting. What’s more, given the question itself in isolation, my expectation would be that the asker was looking to place me on one side or the other of a line relative to their own understanding of those terms.

In actuality, if someone were to ask me that question, here’s how it would most likely go…

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unmentionables

white cotton briefs/underwear hanging on a clothes line

I’ve always thought it a little strange that we as a culture are conditioned to believe that certain topics are taboo.

Unmentionables, if you will.

I’m not sure who decided what made The List. Perhaps it was the same unmentionable “they” who are so often referred to in cultural lore:

“They say people hide razor blades in caramel apples.”

“They say you shouldn’t swim within thirty minutes after you eat.”

“They say the average person swallows eight spiders a year while sleeping.”

Pure poppycock, of course. But such things have been passed on for so long now that they feel true; and so we continue to live in their shadow, crouching in corners from boogeymen of our own making.

It seems much the same process accounts for what “should” or “should not” be spoken about with…

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emoti-con

Stylized sketched emoticons (happy, mad, crying, love) against random doodle background

Yusif is a talented writer. He’s completed one novel. He’s several drafts into another novel and has two more in the works.

I know Yusif personally. I’ve read his work. We’ve brainstormed together often. He’s creative and his ideas are truly unique, never derivative. What’s more, I’m certain that Yusif’s stories have mass-market appeal.

I was hanging out with Yusif at a museum one day two summers ago. He was looking at a blurry, black-and-white photo from the early 1920s, depicting a nondescript teacher and her students standing outside a one-room schoolhouse in the Florida Everglades when, out of the blue, he spun around and announced, “I want to write a story about this!” Before the day was out, he had completed a full chapter outline for what would be a middle-grade novel. And over the next two weeks, if memory serves me correctly, he was writing a chapter a day.

Upon completing each chapter, Yusif would read it aloud to me, sometimes in person and sometimes over the phone. His descriptions were masterful without being overwrought. I cared about his characters. His dialog was fresh and authentic.

He was passionate about researching details. He read every book he could get his hands on about the early settlement of the Everglades: the people, their background, customs, housing, transportation, religion, food, relationships with the Native Americans of the area. We made several more trips to area museums, churches, schools and Everglade City itself. We walked together through the actual setting of his story, studying the buildings, the photos on the walls. Eating alligator.

Within a year, the novel was completely written, thoroughly edited and ready to be submitted.

It was an exciting time.

Except when it wasn’t.

You see, there were many, many days during that year when Yusif read his work… and hated it.

The enthusiasm and positive attitude with which he went into querying the manuscript fizzled. As sure as he’d ever been that this book could fly—maybe even become a favorite book for many readers—he was now equally convinced that no agent would want the book. That readers wouldn’t get through chapter one without putting it down, never to pick it up again.

“Be honest with me. It’s awful isn’t it? No one’s going to want to read this,” he moped.

How is it that the very same story and ideas that had thrilled him now felt lackluster? That the characters he’d grown to love—that he’d brought into being, and rooted for and cried over—now seemed like cardboard cutouts? And that the same configurations of words that he’d painstakingly crafted and tweaked, and which he’d read aloud to me with pride only weeks earlier, now sounded bland and trite, even embarrassingly bad?

To quote the Bee Gees:

It’s just emotion that’s taken me over
Tied up in sorrow, lost in my soul

Interestingly enough, while Yusif was working on his second novel (with all of the wide-eyed wonder and hope with which he’d begun the first), we watched a video series where prolific author Judy Blume talks about her process. Her unassuming nature, candor and vulnerability struck me. Here was one of the all-time bestselling children’s writers, whose books have sold over 82 million copies and earned her more than 90 literary awards (including three lifetime achievement awards) saying, “So often, I’ve…

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we are the world

My new book, TRIED & (Still) TRUE, just launched this past week. It’s been cause for much celebration.

It’s also been cause for a major lack of sleep.

And staying in sweats all day.

And not showering some days (which, if you knew me, is really saying something).

And, if I’m being completely honest, I even realized after 4:00 PM one day that I hadn’t even brushed my teeth yet.

So Sunday afternoon, when I ventured out for a trip north to visit my cousin, it felt strange to have the sun on my face, to feel the gravel of the drive crunch under my shoe-clad feet, which during the last few days had been bare.

Driving along the winding bucolic roads, passing apple farms and waterfalls that had iced over in motion, and with the sun playing like an old-fashioned projector light through the bare tree branches, I found myself singing aloud at the top of my lungs a song that’s been stuck in my head for the last few days:

We are the world
We are the children
We are the ones who make a brighter day, so let’s start giving
There’s a choice we’re making
We’re saving our own lives
It’s true we’ll make a better day, just you and me

If you don’t recognize it, it’s because didn’t live through the ‘80s or at least weren’t old enough to remember what was going on in 1985. “We Are the World” brought together some of the most well-known pop stars of the day to sing what would become the fastest-selling and highest-grossing single in American history, as well as the first song to ever be certified Multi-Platinum (Quadruple Platinum, in fact, selling over 20 million copies).

If you missed it in 1985, you may have heard it in 2010, when another all-star ensemble reprised the song to raise money for the victims of the devastating Haiti earthquake.

Anyway, there I was belting the song in my car. When I reached my destination, I was still humming it. And I got to wondering why. Why was this 35-year-old song stuck in my head? I hadn’t heard it recently nor talked about it with anyone. (As I say, I’d been holed up in my home for days around the book launch.) So why was this particular song burgeoning inside of me on this particular day?

Before I’d even reached the door, I’d figured it out.

I’ve had hundreds of interactions with people during the first few days since TRIED & (Still) TRUE launched. Calls, texts, emails, blog comments. I’ve read each Amazon and GoodReads review. And I couldn’t help but notice that much of the positivity and praise has been shared alongside a common counterpoint that took this basic form:

“It’s so refreshing to read this encouraging, uplifting book with the world being so negative, divided and scary lately.”

I totally get it. I’ve placed myself on total news blackout for long stretches and turned on ad-blockers so that I can’t even see sidebar headlines when I check my email. If anyone in my friend group happens to mention certain names or events, eyes widen and bodies tense, as if Bloody Mary is on her way through the magic mirror. It’s easy to give in to the sense that “the world” is broken beyond repair. That this is it. The End.

But I don’t believe that.

As I wrote this new book, I delved into the lives of the people who brought us some of the most famous proverbs from history. I didn’t just talk facts. I talked lives, reminding readers constantly that those who penned the words that have become part of our literary legacy were real people just like you and me. They weren’t giants or superheroes. The most famous of them wouldn’t have been known by more of the population than the average person today connects with via social media. They were us. We are them.

And I’m here to tell you—they went through some things.

Subjugation by tyrannical emperors.

Religious purges.

Mysterious and gruesome plagues that killed millions.

Natural disasters on a scale not seen before or since.

They had no running water. No hot water on demand. No showers or baths. No porcelain toilets or toilet paper. No sewage system.

They did not have prenatal care plans and epidurals. Their anesthetic for anything from dentistry to amputation was a few swigs of whiskey and biting down on a stick. There was no counseling or medications for depression and anxiety. No pills to control blood pressure.

No multi-vitamins. No toothpaste and toothbrushes. No Tylenol. No dry skin cream.

In many places and times throughout history, people weren’t out drinking with friends and celebrating on their 21st birthday. They were quietly reflecting on the notion that their life was likely more than halfway over. Living to the age of 40 seemed to them as living to 100 might to us now.

And yet, somehow “the world” continued on, no matter how bad things seemed in the midst of tragedy and hardship.

Here’s a snippet taken from page 26 of my new book:

One thing I have learned is that worry serves no purpose other than to waste otherwise good moments in the present.

I am also convinced, however, that we always have a choice. I cannot choose for a society, or even for a single other person. But I can choose what I myself will do, how I will live—right now.

Let me break down a few lines from that earworm of mine—“We Are The World”—in hopes of…

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where i’ve been

sketched montage of frog on a penny farthing bike, bugs on bikes, a cuckoo clock, key and derby hat

Well, my poor blog has lain neglected for just over six months.

In the past few years, such an absence would have been sure sign that I’d run afoul of some mysterious and prolonged illness or other. I’m happy to report that this time, that is not the case. In fact, I’m quite well!

You may also rule out other culprits such as laziness (never!), boredom (ha!) and forgetfulness due to age (alas, I don’t have a suitable interjection for this one because it’s not that far a cry for me to imagine anymore).

No, the happy reason for my recent silence is actually that I’ve spent the time writing a new book. After a wild ride right to the last minute here, that book—TRIED & (Still) TRUEis now complete.

And it’s available… well, TODAY!TRIED & (Still) TRUE book cover with antique pocket watchBoth the e-book and print versions have launched together (and the audiobook won’t be far behind!).

To celebrate the occasion of my second release:

1. I’ve set the e-book price at just 99¢ for the next three days on Amazon.

2. You can read the opening and entire first chapter HERE right now!

In addition, for those who do get a copy of the book in either format, who enjoy it, and who are kind enough to want to leave one of the vitally important first reviews, I’ve created a super easy, step-by-step guide to writing your Amazon review, which you can grab HERE. (After all, I found with my first book that most readers wanted to leave a review, but were just confused about the process or what they should write; so I took the guesswork out of it with TRIED & (Still) TRUE.)