Category Archives: Motives and Attitudes

if i can do it today

if i can do it today - The Best Advice So Far - Barrel of Monkeys monkeys forming a chain across a blue sky

I was a skinny kid with a big butt.

Just calling it like it is.

By skinny, I mean that I’ve been five-foot-nine since eight grade—haven’t grown an inch—and yet, when I graduated high school, I had a 26-inch waist and weighed 105 lbs.

Alas, a disproportionate amount of that sleight weight was carried in the caboose.

For a too-long stretch growing up, I ripped the tags off all my pants, picking the threads apart stitch by stitch with my teeth if need be, just to get rid of the blasted thing. Why, you ask? Well, regular clothes never fit me. And we didn’t have money for alterations. So my mother wound up getting me a “special” brand of “slacks” that, to my recollection, seemed to only make wide-wale corduroys in burnt orange or puce green. But the tag and slogan were the real kick in the pants:

 

HIMALAYAS

For Full-Seated Boys

 

Feel free to cringe aloud as a show of solidarity at the awkwardness and indignity of it all.

(And doesn’t it just figure that burnt orange wide-wale cords are now considered fashionable, all these years later?)

In the 80’s, I discovered the magical properties of mouse and a hair dryer. So at least my hair was big enough to balance out top and bottom.

Still, the voluminous do did nothing to stem the comments and “nicknames” people attributed to me on account of my backside. Basketball Buns. Rhino Rear. Or the more straightforward Big Butt.

The nicest thing anyone ever said to me about it was “Don’t worry about your big butt. Everyone likes them in New York.”

Alas, the closest I would come to New York for many years was driving through on my way to college—where the coach for my freshman gym class wouldn’t allow me to do the one-mile timed run, because my body fat percentage was less than 3% and he feared a law suit.

Bobby was one of my early college roommates. Bobby had a feathered mullet like Don Johnson. He was also the first person I’d ever met who was a serious “weight lifter.” I remember lying on my bunk one day when Bobby came back from the gym. He peeled off his string tank top and started “making muscles” in the mirror.

Turn. Flex. Make tough face. Shrug. Turn. Flex.

I liked Bobby, but this peacocking irked me. (In retrospect, I wonder if it was mostly due to the fact that I was the skinny big-butted kid and he was the movie star.) Rather than scoff, I simply asked him about it. “Hey, Bobby, I’ve seen guys flex at themselves mirrors before but never known any of them well enough to ask why. So… why?”

I’ll never forget Bobby’s response. He didn’t stop his flexing. He didn’t seem the least bit irritated, just took it in stride. “Well,” he said matter-of-factly, “you write music and compose it on your keyboard, right?”

“Right…”

“And I’ve seen you work and work on a song that sounds fine to me. But you keep tweaking it. Listening to it again. Changing this one note or volume or sound or drum hit. Because it’s your song and so you know it best. You know what you want it to sound like in every detail. Well, my body and muscles are my song. I might look fine to you. But I know what I’m looking for, whether everything is even or not, proportioned, weird looking or whatever. So I’m ‘listening’ to my body in the mirror and then I know what needs fixing when I ‘compose’ my workouts.”

It was one of the first times I remember being aware that I’d judged someone unfairly. Bobby was no “dumb jock.” He knew what he was doing and expressed it eloquently.

In fact, the way he answered that question caused me to follow up with, “Would you mind if I… went to the gym with you sometime and tried it out?”

And so, at the age of 18, I swallowed my pride and shuffled my skinny-big-butt self behind Bobby into a gym full of clanging metal and grunting and sweaty socks smell and people I wanted to be. And I picked up a dumbbell and put it down again.

Bobby was unbelievably patient with me. A good teacher. Protective even. He introduced me to people I never would have thought were like me at all. And I made many friends who all seemed to make it their personal project to get the big-butt beginner buff.

I went irregularly at first, but I stuck with it. And by the time I graduated two-and-some years later, I thought I’d really arrived when I tipped the scale at…

… 112 lbs soaking wet.

But it was a different 112 lbs somehow. My butt didn’t look quite so much like the Himalayas in context of the rest of me.

I was sold. And ever since, I’ve continued to hit the gym, pick stuff up and put it down. It’s more than a hobby; it’s a way of life. And while I still haven’t grown an inch in height, I’m now generally in a weight range considered “borderline obese” on the BMI chart, even though my body fat is still quite low.

Yay, me.

Before I lose anyone who isn’t a gym-goer, this post isn’t about working out. I use that only as an example.

There are things each of us enjoys doing, things we’ve worked hard at, invested time in, grown to love and depend on.

For me, in addition to working out, I’ve studied languages for a lifetime.

I’ve played the piano, sung, composed music and recorded original songs.

I’ve mentored hundreds of teens and young people.

I write (obviously).

Your “thing” might be gardening. Or painting. Or dance.

Playing chess. Jogging. Surfing.

I’m talking about pursuits that take time. Skill. Endurance. Dedication. Brain space.

Things we get good at. Take pride in. Things we become known for.

Maybe even things that have become integral to our identity, a core part of who we perceive ourselves to be.

Are you with me now?

Keep your “thing” in mind as you continue…

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up

the best advice so far: up

I’m not a film critic—at least that’s not the point of this blog, though I do seem to have snuck a few reviews in from time to time (e.g., Beauty and the Beast, Singin’ in the Rain, Cinderella, and a few others) where they illustrate a best-advice-so-far kind of observation.

Well, as it turns out, it’s another movie—Mary Poppins Returns—that has me posting again for the first time in six months.

Why the absence? Well, I’m actually going to save that for perhaps another post. My mood is too cheery at the moment to relive the trials of the last half year through words. So allow me to “trip a little light fantastic” for now and simply tell you where my thoughts have been since Mary popped back into town.

And for those yet to see this gem of a movie, I’ll be careful not to drop any major spoilers.

Again, life’s been rather topsy-turvy (or, as Meryl Streep’s wonderfully quirky character puts it, “turning turtle”) since late August. On New Year’s Eve, I came down with a stomach bug on top of things—one more thing beyond my control. Yet I did have choices to make nonetheless (because, of course, “You always have a choice.”)

As it happened, I decided to go out with friends. After all, I could sit in a comfortable recliner at a move theater with a stomachache just as well as I could with it at home. And so it was that we headed off to see Mary Poppins Returns.

Now, I’ll admit—I was a little skeptical. The 1964 film starred the inimitable Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke. I understand that it ran in theaters not merely for months, but for years. And the profits on this one film alone were enough to have allowed Walt Disney to purchase and develop the Florida property that today is Disney World.

How could a sequel released 54 years later ever measure up?

Well, color me surprised.

Not five minutes in, my spirits were already lifted, with “nowhere to go but up.”

Yes, the characters were on point. Every song remarkably managed to capture the spirit of the original. There are show-stopping dance numbers. There are plenty enough Easter eggs and references to the first film for trivia buffs. There are even a number of cameo appearances that are sure to delight Disney fans.

But none of these are what I want to write about here.

The truth is that the movie connected with me on a deeper level. It got me thinking. It restored a sense of purpose amidst hardship. And it inspired action—including breaking the blogging dearth.

Let me share just a few of those personal takeaways. Whether you see the movie or not, I’m hoping these reflections will encourage some of you who may be feeling stuck at present.

Perspective is Everything

The scene opens in the wee morning hours on a foggy, wet London street. Ominous clouds hang overhead as far as the eye can see. Everything is grimy and dark and cramped. Oily smoke rises from concrete factories. Bleak, bleak, bleak.

Have you ever been in a bad place so long—whether with health or finances, career or responsibilities, relationships or loss or fear—that you’ve forgotten what life was ever like before? …

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even though

The Best Advice So Far - even though - black ink spreading out through clear liquid

I was talking with a friend recently. I’ll call him Ralph here. Ralph’s relationship with his brother has been on the outs of late, and he was trying to understand what had happened and what he might be able to do at this point to improve the relationship.

I asked a series of questions. This revealed that the rift had started when Ralph had voiced his stand (e.g., opinions, religious views, moral position and, dare I say, judgment) on some of his brother’s recent personal decisions.

I asked Ralph, “How do you think you’d handle it if you were in the mix with a flamboyant gay guy?”

At first, Ralph looked bewildered, like he thought I hadn’t heard him clearly or that I was having a flashback to my famed Amnesia Episode of 1999. But trusting that I usually have a point to my rabbit trails, he answered. “Well, a few years ago, I actually was in the mix with a flamboyant gay man that I needed to interact with at an annual event. And we got along great.” It was clear from the phrasing that this was one of very few such people Ralph had ever known, if not the sole example.

I continued, “So, would you say it would feel comfortable for you to use the words ‘even though’ in describing your relationship with that person? For instance, could you easily complete this sentence, ‘I liked the guy even though…’?”

Ralph straightened up, answering quickly and confidently. “Yes, absolutely. I feel comfortable saying that I liked him even though he was gay, flamboyant and married to a man.”

The slump to his shoulders told me that he wasn’t expecting what I said next.

“I thought that might be the case, Ralph. And that’s a problem…

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peepers

The Best Advice So Far - peepers - woodland wetlands in moonlight

Snow fell well into spring this year. So whenever a day’s temperate now peaks 50°, there’s a palpable buzz in the air that feels more like summer. As far as the eye can see, sidewalks teem with bikers and joggers, dog walkers and pullers of little red wagons.

By the time essential work wound down this past Friday, I found myself facing a laundry list of domestic tasks that “needed” my attention, not the least of which was, in fact, laundry. But heeding my own advice to prioritize time for stillness, and with the extended hours of daylight beckoning, I made the choice to head out to the park for an evening stroll.

It was the right choice.

As sunset gave way to twilight, I heard them.

The peepers.

At first, they were timid, tentative, sporadic. But the first bold few lent their courage to more, until the entire perimeter of marshy woodlands was alive with their cadence.

I wondered how many others in the park around me even noticed. Or, I should say, took notice. There’s a difference—a choice that draws us beyond vague awareness to intentional appreciation and further exploration.

Well, speaking of “further exploration,” I mentioned back in January that my theme for 2018 would be to further explore ideas I’d already covered in my book The Best Advice So Far from a different angle. Here’s one of the shortest pieces of advice in the book:

Do something new every day.

My friend Chad was the very first person I blogged about back in 2011. He now owns his own (fun and uniquely people-centered) company, called We!. And he’s got his own spin on that advice. Whether he’s speaking at a camp, college or corporate conference, Chad’s famous for putting it this way:

Follow your natural curiosity.

It’s even shorter than mine—just four words—but it’s so packed with potential life change that I dare say it’s the cornerstone concept every single time Chad speaks or facilitates.

Join me back at the park, surrounded by those peepers.

I stopped. I noticed. I took notice.

As a child exploring the acres of dense woods and wetlands behind my grandparents’ house, I’d seen the peepers up close and personal many times. Hundreds upon hundreds of them lining the marshy edges of some little swamp—popping up like corn kernels in hot oil.

But I realized that night in the park that, while I’ve heard peepers each year and cherished their songs until the very last of them quiets in the fall, I’d not ventured out to where they were in three-and-a-half decades or more.

And so, follow my natural curiosity I did.

I veered from the packed-dirt path and off into the trees, down a hill, crunching through a mat of dead leaves and twigs only recently released from the last of winter’s snow. Bits of green poked through—a wayward crocus here, a fiddlehead fern there—just visible in the last waning light of dusk.

A mere two yards in and—all at once…

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bathwater

The Best Advice So Far - bathwater - dirty brownish water

“You always have a choice.”

I’ve spoken or written this central message of The Best Advice So Far literally thousands of times by now. And yet, I still feel and see the power in it as much as I ever have—the power to transform the way we view and live life.

In the first chapter of the book, I introduce you to Chad. You can read his full story there in the book (or HERE, right now and for FREE, if you like); but I trust you’ll get the gist from this snippet, even without the full context:

You see, even an ultra-optimist like Chad fell apart and was completely overwhelmed and despondent, because he’d forgotten a very important truth. He was immobilized, because he believed in that space of time that life was happening to him, and that he had no say in the matter. Yet, once he was reminded of this key truth, he not only rebounded but began to take the world by storm.

THE BEST ADVICE SO FAR: You always have a choice.

Chad did not need to be a doctor. There was no rule that said he must struggle through a schedule of classes he hated, or even that he needed to remain at that university. Chad had choices.

If you don’t accept this truth—that you always have a choice—if you don’t remember it and live it, then you are left to play the part of the victim in life. You begin (or continue) to live as if life is happening to you, that you are powerless, oppressed by your circumstances. But, if you truly change your mind set to believe and live out in practical ways that, in every circumstance, you have a choice—now, you open a door for change. Instead of living as if life is happening to you, you will begin to happen to life. You will begin to realize the difference that one person—you—can make, that you are an agent of change in your own life and in the lives of others.

Don’t misunderstand me. I’m not saying that we get to choose everything that happens to us in life. We do not choose abuse, for instance, and we can at no time choose to undo those things which have happened to us in life.

We do not choose illness. We do not choose when or how the people we love will leave us. Or die.

We do, however, have the choice of how we will respond in every situation, even the hurtful ones. Instead, so often, we pour our frustration and anger into those things we cannot change, rather than investing that energy into the many choices that we can make from that point forward.

And yet, I realized recently that, much of the time, the stories I feature center on macro-level change:

  • You are not “stuck” in that job. It’s within your power to choose to walk away from it and do something else (as impossible as that may seem in a moment).
  • You don’t need to stay with that B.E.A.S.T., i.e., Big Energy-Absorbing Stupid Thing, that you’ve stuck with for so long even though it’s sucking the life out of you (for your own sake, if you haven’t already, please read that chapter in the book, or this post).
  • Chad wasn’t doomed to misery throughout his college years for the sake of grinding through a major he hated, even if quitting diverted from plan or conflicted with the perceived expectations of others.

In essence, each of these is a way of saying, “You can stop doing that—right now—and make a whole new choice.

And that is 100% true. You can.

But it isn’t the only option. Not by a long shot.

Today, I want to explore another possibility…

Staying.

You see, staying is also a choice. Sometimes, it’s even the best choice—one that involves countless other choices that have the ability to breathe new life into a tired, difficult or even painful situation.

I’m in the process of writing my next book, entitled Tried and (Still) True, which seeks to revitalize some very old pieces of popular wisdom that have sadly gone out of use. Among them is this gem:

Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Rather than just read over that and move on, leaving it as no more than vague notion, let’s do some visualization together.

I present to you Exhibit B (for “Baby”).

When most people hear the word “baby,” they envision a wide-eyed little wonder like the one on the Gerber label.

The Gerber Baby

Awww. Babies are adorable (even when they aren’t really). Babies coo and giggle. Babies think everything we do is hilarious. We want to cuddle them and talk gibberish to them and smell their baby-head smell.

Thing is … babies also poop.

In fact, sometimes, babies poop a lot. It’s remarkable, really, how such a tiny body can even… [continue reading this post at the main site by clicking the button below]

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choice: the wall

The Best Advice So Far - choice: the wall - dilapidated building inland Bahamas

In my last post, I invited you to celebrate with me the successful completion of a yearlong writing goal I’d set for myself in 2017.

Since that post, I’ve allowed myself a break from all things blog. It was strategic. I knew that if I were to just continue on writing at the previously set “goal pace,” I would have felt locked into it rather than having been able, as I did, to have closure on that goal—and to then begin a new one.

Well, today is the day I begin that new goal where this blog is concerned.

As my focus turns toward writing the next book—currently entitled Tried and (Still) True)—I want to be sure that I continue to give the concepts in The Best Advice So Far adequate development. They are, after all, timeless—just as true and life-changing now as they were at the start of things.

I imagine it’s much the same as having a second or third child: being sure, with all the time and attention that the new addition requires, to continue to love and foster and invest in the firstborn.

An idea coalesced during my short writing break: Why not revisit the advice in every chapter of The Best Advice So Far again, but from an as-yet-unexplored angle or with new stories?

As soon as the notion hit me, it just felt somehow right. Familiar and yet at the same time fresh and exciting. And so, for most if not all of 2018, that will be my new goal and focus. I’m not committing myself to stick stringently to plan, if something outside the express realm of the first book should happen along the way and burn to be told. But I believe it will make for a good guiding force.

*****

Sometime back in the early fall, I caught wind of a great deal on a three-day cruise out of Miami to the Bahamas. Little did I know at the time, when I booked a cabin for the MLK holiday weekend, that winter in New England would be plunging the region into weeks of sub-zero temperatures. During the worst of it, temperatures dropped to -19°F with wind chill affecting -35°F. Attempting such simple tasks as pumping gas (should one have run out of the house quickly without donning gloves) was not only painful but downright dangerous. And try as I might—whether by standing awkwardly with my toes tucked under the old-fashioned radiators in my home, or standing in the shower several times a day for no other reason than warming up—I was never quite able to thaw the blocks of ice that had replaced my feet.

So when the day finally came, I was beyond ready to walk barefoot on sun-warmed grass or sand, to squint with hand-shaded eyes at a too-bright sky—and to bask in the profligate luxury of feeling too hot.

As it turned out, the day I left for Florida, my own home area had a freakish warm streak approaching 60°, while Florida saw a relative cold spell, with one night dipping into the 40s. Still, their “chilly” was shorts-and-flip-flops weather for me.

The cruise was all I had hoped it would be, a real soul restorer. And yet, again, I was surprised by the abundance of generally bad behavior around me.

Before we even set sail, during the mandatory safety drills which required that all hands (and guests) be on deck, many people were disruptive and outright rude to the staff: crying out angrily in the middle of instructions that it was taking too long, or that they were bored, or that the (extremely patient) muster leaders were keeping them from the bar and drinks they had paid for.

I frequently passed people grumbling (to whom, I wondered) about the overcast sky.

Several cruisers with whom I tried to engage in friendly small talk while waiting in a line or on a transfer ferry (not, God forbid, keeping them from the bar or their drinks) were unnecessarily aloof—even dismissive.

Late one night, after a full day of fun on shore and a posh dinner in the formal dining room, I came up to the main deck and slid, smiling, into one of the large hot tubs. I asked the two other guests sharing the spa—a father and his college-aged daughter—how they were enjoying their cruise. They immediately began to complain:

…about the weather,

…about the “small” size of the (eleven-story) ship,

…about the “inferior quality” of the food.

Within fifteen minutes, able to tolerate it no longer, I politely extricated myself from the conversation in search of cheerier company.

Mind you, there were numerous dining options available at all times, each allowing all-you-can-eat access to, I dare say, several hundred varied and exquisitely prepared foods.

You’ll have to trust me when I say that I’m being generous to a fault as I describe the rude behavior of many aboard the ship. More than once, it was not only sad but uncomfortable, even for me.

*****

On Sunday morning, we docked in Nassau, Bahamas.

It’s not a beach sort of place. Rather, you exit the ship and are immediately greeted by a cacophony of urgent voices crying out from just beyond the iron fence:

“You! You! Taxi! Taxi!”

“City tour! Come now! I show you the best places only!”

“Beads! Necklaces! Good price, mon!”

Security guards usher cruise guests out of the melee and into a long, narrow—and carefully presented—strip of shopping options, where one can buy anything from Gucci watches and handbags to Vera Wang shoes at prices that hint at (if not outright tout) the use of slave labor.

The tourist shopping area pops in bright pinks, yellows and blues.

Walking beyond the shops funnels the wayward invariably toward Queen’s Staircase.

Approaching Queen's Staircase, all was looking picturesque and tropical.
A stone wall topped by long-rooted and lush trees funnels visitors toward the steep Queen's Staircase

The tall, steep set of stairs leads upward to—more shops on the periphery of what alleges to be the central attraction: Fort Fincastle.

A bright red cannon beside the manicured lawns around Fort Fincastle, Nassau, Bahamas.

For those who chose to look only as far as the wall or back toward the port, it’s idyllic:

Two luxury cruise ships (Royal Caribbean and Norwegian) dock at port, Nassaue, Bahamas.

But turn the other direction—to where the majority of the island lay beyond that wall—and the illusion quickly evaporates.

I stood on the barricade and hopped down a few feet to a square landing made of cracked concrete. From this perch, drifts of garbage became visible, piling up yards high against the wall. Peering through the nearest thicket of palms, I was able to just make out a shanty. A young woman slumped on the porch, watching a naked child and a chicken totter about in the dirt. A rope drooped low to the ground, laden with a few articles of clothing hung out to air.

I had no interest in the veneer that had been set up for tourists. I wanted to know the real people of the island. So it was that my travel companion and I decided to venture over the wall and into…

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candy canes

The Best Advice So Far - candy canes

I finally got my tree this week.

The front lot at Hanson’s Farm up the road glistened with new-fallen snow. They had fewer than a dozen trees left, having started with nearly two hundred just three weeks ago. This actually worked in my favor, given my longstanding tradition of choosing the Charlie-Browniest tree I can find — the one least likely to be picked due to some flaw or other.

Some I had to rule out on account of their being too tall or too fat to fit in the space, nestled between a window, the bookshelf and the low pitched ceiling in that corner of my second-story farmhouse living room.

Yet even with the further reduced selection, they all seemed perfect. Too perfect.

I gave them a second looking over and then a third, before deciding on the only one that appeared to have any gap at all in the branches — a little Fraser fir.

The owner, a kind-faced farmer with weathered skin and calloused hands, sold me the tree for just twenty dollars, including trimming the trunk by half an inch and settling my purchase into the trunk of my car.

It started to snow again on the drive home — that kind of gentle snow that looks like tiny perfect circles and falls straight down.

Once home again, I hoisted the tree onto one shoulder and edged my way up the narrow, steep stairs, seemingly without losing a single needle. As I settled the base of the tree into the heavy cast-iron stand, I noticed that the trunk was actually bent. I’d have to work a bit to get it to stay upright. I smiled. I’d chosen the right tree after all.

Lying on my back, branches outspread above me, I steadied the tree with one hand while turning the three keys bit by bit.

Check.

Tighten this one three times.

Check.

Loosen that one twice.

As I worked, my face mere inches from the stand, something rather magical happened. So cold was the tree still that, though the room was plenty warm and cozy, I could see my frosty breath.

At last, the tree was standing plumb.

I gave the frigid tree a day for its branches to settle. And by the next morning, the house was already permeated with the rich scent of evergreen. All of the water I’d poured just the night before was gone, having slaked the thirsty tree, and so I added more.

It was time to string the lights.

My lights are white, never the colored variety. No LEDs. No blinking. No fading. Just the old-fashioned, steady white bulbs — the kind where the whole strand goes out if one of them fizzles.

It’s very important that the lights wind deep inside the tree as well as to the tips of branches, as opposed to simply wrapping them round and round the outside. It gives the tree depth. And as much as possible, wires should be strategically hidden, since they break the magical effect.

Once the lights were in place — with just the right number remaining to weave into the wicker star on top — I gave myself an evening to enjoy the tree in that simple state.

Friday night, serenaded by Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters, I decorated the tree with ornaments spanning a lifetime.

A set of six intricately painted Fabergé-style eggs, unpacked from their rectangular, satin-lined case.

Cookie-cutter shapes — a holly leaf, a stocking, a gingerbread man and others — each made by hand with nothing but applesauce and generous amounts of cinnamon, and smelling exactly as you might expect them to.

Classic glass bulbs, their crackled gold paint casting multiple reflections.

And, of course, the candy canes.

Actually, the candy canes are the first to adorn the tree. There are only five left from the set of twelve that first decorated the tiny tree in my dorm room during my freshman year of college.

That makes them exactly three decades old this year.

And, yes — they are real candy canes.

When Chad was still in high school, I had a group of his peers over around Christmas time. The crowd was bigger than anticipated, so I ran out quickly to grab some more food. When I returned, Chad told me, a look of comical disgust on his face, “I think something’s wrong with your candy canes. I ate one of them. It tasted gross and…[click the button below to continue reading this post at the main site]

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