Tag Archives: silence

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.


Tighten this one three times.


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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fear: two

The Best Advice So Far - fear two

The previous post wound up being a sort of flight of ideas on fear. I had no intention of taking it further than that when I hit “Publish” last week. But the theme of fear has continued to rear its … well … rather common head in the time since then. So it seems worthwhile to take another walk on the dark side.


I wound up getting to the gym quite late last night — 4:15AM to be exact. (Yes, that was late, not early, considering my usual arrival is between midnight and 2:00.) As you might imagine, the place was pretty empty. Other than myself, there were only two people working out.

One of them was a woman. We were busy at opposite ends of the gym, but I noticed her. She was quite thin, perhaps in her mid to late fifties. Her gait was unsteady, hinting at a neuromuscular disease. And she was tearing the place up (in the best of ways). She moved non-stop between machines, taking only minimal breaks between sets before she was back at it.

By the time I moved that way to use the cables, she was on the mats doing bicycles (an ab workout) for durations that would make me cry. I thought about wandering over, introducing myself and telling her that she was putting me to shame. But she was wearing headphones; and so I kept my admiration to myself for the time being.

We both finished up about the same time. The sky was still black with just a hint of cobalt on the horizon as I headed out to the parking lot, only a few yards behind the woman. I walked a bit faster, thinking now might be a good time to introduce myself. Perhaps hearing my footsteps on the pavement, she cast a wide-eyed glance over her shoulder and then turned abruptly, quickening her own pace.

I decided to let the moment pass, heading for my car instead. By the time I got my things inside and was finally situated, the woman was in her own vehicle and slowly rounding the corner in front of me. Just then, she hit the Caution: Pedestrians crosswalk sign. There was a * thunk * as the plastic yellow tower tipped to the side and scraped along her rear fender before righting itself. She stopped, her face worried. She craned around backward but still couldn’t see what she’d hit.

I knew that getting out of the car and back in would be no mean feat for her. So I hopped out to tell her there was nothing to worry about, that there was no damage to the sign or her car. Our eyes met in her rearview mirror. Her brow furrowed more deeply, so I smiled and waved, moving toward the side of her car where she might be able to see me more clearly.

She gunned the gas, tires chirping, and hightailed it out of there.

As I stood there holding my good intentions, it felt odd to consider that anyone would see me as a threat — that I could ever strike fear into someone.

On the drive home, an interesting thought occurred to me…

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The Best Advice So Far - fear

Today, if I’m being honest, I’m not exactly sure where I’m headed with things.

I’m starting with a broad topic: fear. But beyond that, it’s all vague notions at this point, shifting shadows on the walls. Or maybe it is clear notions — just too many of them.

All I can do is invite you to buckle your safety belt, place your seat backs and trays in the upright position and enjoy the ride, trusting that this flight will eventually land.


Wednesday of last week, I was out at a local snack shack with one of the kids I mentor — a young lady I’ll call Hailey. Other than us, there were only six other customers in the place. One elderly couple sat at a small table not far away, chatting quietly. A group of four teens huddled near the counter, placing their orders.

If you’d been there, you would likely have thought the place was “dead.” Hailey, however, looked panicked. Her shoulders were hunched, body rigid, as wary eyes darted back and forth between the other patrons. I could hear her tense breaths going in and out.

When one of the young guys wandered in our direction to grab a straw from a nearby dispenser, Hailey cringed away as if he were wearing a black ski mask and brandishing a weapon at her. “I don’t like this,” she murmured in a ragged whisper, her lips pale and barely moving. She swallowed hard. “I really don’t like this.”

In that moment, Hailey was experiencing intense fear.

Until recently, Hailey had always met me at my house for our sessions. When we first started five years ago, fear engulfed her. She barely spoke, answering me with gestures where possible; and when words were absolutely required, her voice was so timid that I had to lean in to hear her, even though we sat a mere two feet apart on the same couch.

We took baby steps.

I had her work on speaking with gradually increased volume.

I helped her learn to smile. And her mother intimated to me that she’d never heard Hailey laugh out loud before her visits to my home.

I’d have her sit just outside my door where a passerby might hear her while we continued talking (though I don’t know if any ever did).

Her parents worried and wept, fearful that Hailey would never drive. Never graduate. Never be able to work a job.

I’m happy to say that Hailey received her high school diploma this past May. From side streets to highways at rush hour, she drives (and parks, I might add) like a pro. And she’s even worked a few jobs already.

But fear still limits her. So now, we do “field trips” out in the wide world. Little by little, I’m exposing her to small doses of the things she’s afraid of — unfamiliar people, decision making in public, and more — all carefully meted out with the safety net an inch further away each time.


I have a close friend who used to have to open her front door, close her eyes and count to three, then run to her car, ducking and squealing the whole way. Why? She was terrified that…

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eating my words

The Best Advice So Far - eating my words

I was in a hurry. I had company coming any minute and realized that I was out of a few things. So I dashed out to the closest grocery store, had the car door open before I’d even turned off the ignition, and made a beeline for the entrance.

However, once I’d traversed the crosswalk and arrived at the outdoor gourd display, I was stopped short by an elderly couple who shuffled, a quarter-step at a time, toward the automatic door, which opened, then closed, then opened …

The man seemed to be the root of the hold-up. His back was hunched, his head stooped and shaking, as he leaned heavily on a quad cane in his left hand while his wife supported him on the other side. Once they’d gotten through the first door, they doddered a few more laborious steps and the woman headed right to retrieve a shopping cart — leaving her husband in just about the only spot that could have completely blocked the second door.

A backup was now forming, others patrons unable to circumvent the painfully slow couple to get inside.

I sighed in irritation, feeling a pressure build behind my eyes. Why now of all times? I need to get my things and get home.

The man was too close to the door — which continued to open, close, open, close — for his wife to get the carriage around him. She let go of it, assisted him in stepping sideways a few times, then pushed the cart through the door … where she left it to block the inside of the doorway while she returned once more to aid her husband.

I saw my opening. I quickly maneuvered behind and around the old man. Yet even on tiptoes and sucking in my breath, I wound up knocking his left elbow as I passed. I slipped to the front of them and through the doorway, where I moved the cart forward a few inches to scoot around it and on my way.

A minute later, somewhere toward the back of the produce section, I heard a voice…

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brand you

The Best Advice So Far - brand you

This past Wednesday, I was invited to be a guest lecturer at Benjamin Franklin Institute of Technology in Boston, where I taught a group of opticians-in-the-making about branding and marketing.

I love teaching. And by all indications, I’m good at it. But as a rule, I’m more interested in people than I am in imparting information. As such, I found myself naturally sliding into the role of mentor throughout the two-and-a-half-hour class. Whether these students ever wound up becoming opticians or not, I wanted them to go away from our short time together thinking differently about life, themselves and how they interact with others.

It’s actually not all that big a stretch to get personal when talking about branding and marketing. After all, in essence, every single one of us is an individual brand.

That is, whether we like it or not — or are even aware of it — we are constantly engaging in the same core functions as any business where marketing is concerned. We face similar challenges. And we are therefore subject to many of the same “rules” concerning success or failure.

Maybe you rail against commercialism. Maybe it gets your blood up that I’d be using capitalistic terms as a comparison in interpersonal matters. And that’s all well and good. But I’m afraid it won’t exempt you from experiencing gains and losses all the same, based on the foundational principles that follow.

Or perhaps you’d claim that you really don’t give a flying leap what anyone else thinks about you. And that may be true. Nevertheless, just as any company operating with such a mindset would suffer negative consequences, so will an individual who doesn’t qualify that statement and adjust accordingly.

Allow me to share a few terms from my Wednesday class, as well as some thoughts on how they might apply to brand you


The Best Advice So Far - puzzles

Many of you know that I just returned from the longest vacation of my life — a full five weeks on Florida’s West Coast.

Prior to the trip, I began concocting plans for all I wanted to do, see and accomplish while away:

Get the audiobook up and available online.

Visit Captiva and Sanibel Islands.

Spot a wild dolphin.

Start writing my next book.

The list went on.

And I’m happy to say that most of my goals were achieved, including each of the above.

But among my aspirations was one that may seem strange to some:

Complete a difficult jigsaw puzzle.

When I was a child, and into my teen years, I always had a jigsaw puzzle going. And as far as I was concerned, the harder — the better.

I did an all-black puzzle with only a tiny pinhole of light at the center.

One was just bubbles.

I enjoyed the square variety where the same picture from the front was displayed again on the back, only rotated 90 degrees.

I did puzzles where the frame was irregular instead of having flat edges.

And though finding room was a challenge, I often did puzzles of 4000 or 5000 pieces.

Still, as big a part of my growing-up years as puzzles were, it struck me recently that I hadn’t done a single one since high school.

As crazy as it sounds, setting into that jigsaw puzzle — whatever it would be — was cause for just as much anticipation as watching a tropical sunset. I’d been given a Barnes & Noble gift card for Christmas and had tucked it away in a special place, just the occasion.

Within 24 hours of arrival in Florida, I’d chosen a first puzzle. I decided to ease my way into it with a puzzle of a mere 500 pieces: a colorful underwater scene featuring sea turtles. (After all, I did have other things I wanted to be doing on this vacation besides puzzling.)

Working on the puzzle, I was transported back those three decades. I often became aware that I was biting my…

happy sad

The Best Advice So Far - happy sad

I’m writing mid-flight, on my way back from the longest vacation of my life — five weeks in Southwest Florida. After so long away, it feels more like a move than merely returning from someplace I’d been visiting.

Late last night, I drove to the beach for one last walk.

The main street downtown was still aglow, lit up like Christmas. I’d strolled the strip often during my stay, this year and during the five years of previous visits.

I’d eaten at that Persian restaurant on the right.

I’d sat awhile on a bench in that tiny garden park on the left.

I’d played gin rummy and sipped iced chai and written blog posts in that little coffee shop.

People sat at outdoor tables, talking and laughing. Music greeted me from the open doors of a warmly lit restaurant.

Just a few days ago, it had all felt very much like my street — like a place and people who knew me well. Last night as I drove, however, it felt … different. A bit foreign. Like I was a ghost passing among the living, George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life.

A few zigs and zags and I’d arrived at my destination. I kicked my sandals off into the car. I’d walk the shore barefoot, as ever. The colorful ceramic turtle mosaics set into the cement pavilion that opened onto the pier seemed somehow to be swimming … away.

Caribbean music pulsed from the close side of the pier, a group of young Haitian boys having an impromptu dance party. They parted as I approached, smiling and turning toward me with hands overhead and hips swaying, a wordless invitation to join them if I liked. I returned the smile and dance-stepped my way over to the stairway that let down onto the beach, the small crowd closing in my wake.

Above, in the sky, silent lightning played its own complex rhythms, reflecting off the waves beneath. The water was warmer than ever, tumbling over and around my feet, then pulling the sand out from under them in retreat.

A perfect night.

I walked with the knowledge that, whether I stayed ten minutes or two hours, there would come the time when …