hear! hear! (the story behind the audiobook)

The Best Advice So Far- hear hear

I still remember the first time as a mentor that I had to turn someone away.

Until then, no matter how many others I was committed to at the time — no matter how strongly I debated with myself that I couldn’t stretch any further — I found a way for “just one more.” But then there it was: the first I’m sorry, I won’t be able to.

As someone who believes in the difference one person can make in the life of another, and who is deeply empathetic, it was like a punch to the gut.

About the same time, years of “kids” I’d mentored, past and present, along with their families, secretly organized an appreciation dinner in my honor. I have to say, not only was I shocked, the timing was uncanny.

As part of the evening’s events, I was given a seat in the middle of the crowd. I remember meeting eyes around the room, one by one. For more than an hour, people spoke word of affirmation or thanks, expressing what I had meant to their lives. Tears welled up (just as they are even now, as I recall the day). Even being a writer, it’s be hard to put to words what that was like.

One young man, Alex, said something that night that has not only stuck with me, but which has changed the course of things thereafter. Alex said…

 

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umbrella

The Best Advice So Far - umbrella

Singin’ in the Rain just may be my favorite movie of all time.

I watch the film at least once a year, and I reference lines or scenes from it often. It still gives me the same feeling it did the very first time I saw it. I laugh just as hard. My eyes still get wide at some of the dance numbers. And, of course, I sing along through the whole thing.

I dare you to watch it and not at least smile.

In Gene Kelly’s big number, his character, Don Lockwood, is feeling giddy with new love; and so, despite the torrential rain, he waves his driver on and walks home, using his umbrella as a dance prop rather than as any sort of protection. Soaked and smiling broadly as the scene ends, he hands his umbrella off to a shrug-shouldered and miserable-looking man passing the other direction.

Between gorgeous sunny streaks, we’ve also had our share of heavy rain here in Florida, where I’m spending the month of August. In fact, within my first 24 hours here, I was caught driving in the most blinding storm I can recall — the sky, road and crushing downpour all blending into one continuous sheet of gray.

And I hadn’t brought an umbrella.

Thing is, I could easily have bought one. But — call me crazy — I just figured, why bother? So I get a little wet. I’m getting wet in the ocean and pools and hot tubs anyway, right?

During one such storm, I ventured out to get a few things at the nearby grocery store. I hadn’t quite stopped dripping by the time I got in line at the register. Yet there in front of me, right in the store, an even bigger storm was brewing, lashing out at everyone nearby…


i spy

The Best Advice So Far - i spy

 

My tank top clung to my skin with sweat. After temperatures that had topped 100° over the last several hours I’d been exploring, the air conditioning that wooshed out to greet me as I opened the metal and glass doors felt like an ice bath. I settled briefly onto a blue sofa, across from a young couple who had also just entered.

“See anything good?” I asked them.

The man rolled a shoulder. “Nah, nothing really. Just a couple of the usual lizards.”

I was mystified.

We’d each just emerged from an incredible Audubon-protected swamp sanctuary here in Southwest Florida, having traversed the same boardwalk that meandered through six different ecosystems. How had they seen “nothing” … when I’d seen so much?

Just a few paces in, I’d spotted a small alligator lounging along the far side of a murky pool.

Yes, I’d seen lizards, noting which were green anoles and which were brown. But I’d also seen black ones, trying to hide among the puzzle-like pattern of tree trunks covered in red and white lichens. There were skinks as well.

Great egrets sauntered among waist-high marsh grasses, one only perhaps a yard away, its slender neck undulating side to side then straightening regally.

I’d lingered in the shaded areas where possible, canopies of giant palm and ancient cypress overhead. At times, I just closed my eyes and listened. I wondered what creatures were making the slurping, splishing, crackling sounds in the water around me. Birds laughed raucously somewhere among the trees as sonorous grunts ping-ponged back and forth from among the tall grasses. Pig frogs, as it turns out.

There on a moss-covered log, motionless at first, was a fairly rare species of turtle, Deirochelys reticularia. After watching a while, however, I was rewarded with a full extension of his yellow-striped neck.

Another alligator, much larger than the first, blinked its eyes at me from among some reeds around a bend. I was patient and he was curious. Before long, he glided lazily over — so close I could have reached down and touched him — before continuing on his way into unseen spaces.

Just moments later, something caught my eye to the right…


un-dumb frog

The Best Advice So Far - un-dumb frog

With age comes wisdom,
but sometimes age comes alone.
~ Oscar Wilde

As I start this post, there are just a few more hours left until my birthday.

Birthdays for me are still a time of celebration. They are also a time of reflection:

Where have I been?

What have I done?

Where am I going?

This time around the sun, I find myself thinking about the life advice that’s been passed along to me and that I have, in turn, passed along to others over the years. It’s an ongoing process. Sifting. Sorting. Testing. Honing. Much has been discarded. What I’ve kept has become all the more precious.

From books to broadcasts, seminars to sermons, political missives to posted memes — everyone seems to have “truer truth” than everyone else. I can’t help but wonder, amid the onslaught of voices, why anyone should be inclined to listen to mine. How’s anyone to know what to believe when it comes to advice?

What is factual — and what’s no more than loudly proclaimed opinion?

Somehow, all of these thoughts coalesced into a scene from my childhood. Or rather, I should say scenes from my childhood and adolescence; some tend to blur together on account of their repetitious nature.

There I am, sitting in a church pew. The side pieces are white, trimmed with dark-stained, ornate armrests. The back side of the pew in front of me is the same near-black wood, and at intervals along its length are matching outcrops that hold hymnals with gold foil lettering and faded maroon covers made of cloth that makes a zzzip! sound when I run my fingernails lightly over them.

Oscillating block chords emanate from the organ, reverberating from high ceilings, only to be pulled back down into the pits of stomachs by the weight of pulsing bass tones played on long, black foot pedals.

As the last echoes retreat, a suited man with slick hair solemnly ascends crimson-carpeted stairs and stands before a ponderous, stark white pulpit that matches the end-caps on the pews. As hymnals thud back into their places, the pastor’s eyes dart to parishioners, cowing any last whisperers into awkward silence, until he is sure he has everyone’s full attention.

His speech is slow, measured, punctuated with pregnant pauses. Authoritative. He knows what others do not — could not — know, mysteries that the masses would have no hope of understanding unless by his impartation.

He begins with an object lesson, as a principal might to abashed school children who had played hooky. He tells us that a frog placed into boiling water will jump out; but a frog placed into a pot of cool water that is heated slowly, degree by degree, will sit motionless, unaware, until the water reaches a boil and…


what not to say

The Best Advice So Far - what not to say

I always seem to have some crazy story or other to tell, don’t I?

I was asked a thoughtful question recently, as my birthday nears: “What would you like to see more of and less of in the year ahead. After The Zinc Fiasco of 2015/2016 and last month’s visit to Death’s door (aka, The Black Pill Debacle of 2017), my “less-of” response seemed a given”

I’d like to have less … in the way of health issues.

Don’t get me wrong. I consider myself very fortunate. Yet when birthday presents past include a medical dictionary marked with sticky strips on every page containing some strange malady I’ve encountered … one might have reason to suspect that something’s up.

And many have told me I’m the healthiest sick person they’ve met so far. (I suppose that’s true to my nature, being a lifelong “balance of extremes” as I call it.)

Well, wouldn’t you know, a week ago today (just after I finished writing last week’s post, in fact), I wound up adding another sticky to that medical dictionary of mine.

The hedge along the driveway had turned into a jungle; and the worker the landlord had hired to take care of it had just informed her that he’d have to postpone — until the second week of September. Well, that was just not an option. The drive would literally be impassable by then. So the landlord asked if I might consider taking care of tedious job for some cash. I agreed.

Picture it if you will:

  • Eight-foot overgrown hedge
  • Five-foot ladder on an uneven gravel drive
  • Electric hedge trimmer

So there I was, tip-toeing on the second-to-last rung of the too-short ladder, stretching as far as I could over the top of the hedge to get those last few outcropping branches at the far side … when the ladder began to wobble.

I reached out instinctively to steady myself … on nothing … and in doing so, let go of the heavy, two-hand-operated saw …


adventure

The Best Advice So Far - adventure

In May of this year, the dare-based television show Fear Factor was revived by MTV. I don’t think I ever watched a full episode of the show during its original run from 2001 to 2006, though catching snippets at a friend’s house or while at the gym was virtually unavoidable.

I recall an episode where one person from each couple/team had to lie down in a glass coffin which was subsequently locked. A few dozen tarantulas were then dumped on top of the person through a chute, followed by a hundred or so live crickets.

Outside the coffin, more live crickets were fed continuously through another chute into a blender-type mechanism with a tap of sorts at the bottom. And only by chugging down glass after glass of the fresh cricket guts — fast enough to get the blender level to dip below the halfway mark — could the second contestant from each pair pop the latch on the coffin and release his or her teammate from the feeding frenzy of spiders.

My aversion to the show, believe it or not, wasn’t due to any particular disgust at the situations, but rather to something closer akin to irritation. However, that’s beyond the scope of this post.

People would pull pained faces or shudder and exclaim, “I can’t imagine ever doing this stuff, no matter how much money!” Meanwhile, I’d be thinking things like…


superstition

The Best Advice So Far - superstition

It was Thursday, well past the witching hour. I was on my way to the gym, the silent back roads lit only by the cold white light of an occasional street lamp. As I approached an intersection, something darker than the surrounding night dashed out from the woods in front of my car, stopping just long enough to fix bright green eyes on me before continuing into the thick brush on the other side.

A black cat.

And it had crossed my path.

Of course, being a rational person, this didn’t cause me to turn back the way I’d come and find an alternate route. Yet I was clearly still aware of the superstition associated with the incident. And it occurred to me that this awareness did have a subtle effect on my emotions. I drove onward as I normally would have; but some part of me felt I was doing so despite the superstition. And that would seem to indicate that the superstition had credence, if only in a residual way.

In other words, it seems to me that we don’t do things despite other things, unless those other things are perceived to hold some power or sway.

We wouldn’t say, “We had the picnic despite the forecast” — unless we perceived that the forecast had at least the potential to disrupt our plans.

Back to the example of the black cat crossing our path, it’s almost as if some small part of us feels we’ve accepted a dare, and that by crossing that path, we’re somehow giving the proverbial finger to the universe, proving we’re not one to be controlled by such nonsense.

No one could deny that we don’t have the same reaction when, say, a squirrel or turkey crosses our path. It wouldn’t even occur to us to think such a thing. Why? Because, well … we really don’t believe squirrels or turkeys crossing our path makes a lick of difference.

I guess what I’m saying is that all of us are affected to some degree — maybe even more than we might be aware — by …