Sunday, April 27, 2014

Rainy Day Tulips

The Tulip
Once traded for gold
and buried away like treasure,
deep below the sun and light,
we wait.
For spring is here
and with it arrives the tulip.
 With majesty of color and texture
that nature has designed
to delight us and
affirm our faith.
For we have waited all winter
and will surely wait again
for this spring.
There will be more
warm sunny days,
but today the rain comes,
yet another gift
bestowed on us from above.

Friday, April 25, 2014

It's About Time

"Does anybody really know what time it is?
Does anybody really care?
If so I can’t imagine why
We’ve all got time enough to cry."

You might recognize that lyric……it’s an oldie but goody by the timeless band, Chicago. I’ve sung along to it a thousand times and have even played it in a band more times than I care to remember. But I needed a song lyric about time for this story and it was the first one that popped into my head.
I’m teaching a one-hour class on time management on Monday for a group of professionals I support at work. Not that I’m any kind of expert of this topic, in fact, it’s been at least 20 years since I had this subject on my to-do list. But the group that requested the topic  appreciates my efforts and I enjoy working with them so sure, why not. Besides, I’ve got plenty of time.
Or do I?
You see, I was prepared to be writing this blog post about the whole notion of managing time and at some level, how ridiculous and absurd it seems.  When did life and work get so demanding and complex that we need to be taught how to manage our time?  And isn’t the topic of “time management right out of the late 70’s or early 80’s?  Shouldn’t we be more evolved as a society by now? 
I was all set to make a mockery of the concept of multi-tasking and how it is really an insidious plot by corporate America and motivational speakers to squeeze more money out of already declining middle class workers. And I was going to have some fun with the pitfalls of technology and how we seem addicted to the gadgets that were supposed to make our lives more manageable. At least that is  what they told us back in the day. Don’t get me wrong, I love my I-phone and the 14,000 songs  I have stored in the Cloud- I just don’t have time to listen to all of them. (see “First World Problems”)
So when I crawled out of bed this morning at 5am so I could take Grace the beagle for a walk before I headed off to work (can you see my “time management” skills working?), I checked my I-phone for messages and was greeted with a FB message from my youngest brother, Jerry. It started like this:
Brothers and Sisters,
I wanted to let you know that I dodged a bullet this week. Seems I was on the verge of a heart attack.

Holy shit, not Jerry.  Not the “Little Nipper” who is the youngest of the 8 Kingkade kids. Not they guy who just celebrated his 52nd birthday last week. . Not the guy who is active and in relatively good shape. Not the guy I just saw in February at our brother Tony’s funeral.
Yes, Jerry nearly had a heart attack, at age 52. About the age our father had his first triple-bypass. Jerry was lucky-he got away with just a stent in one artery and no heart damage. Seems he was having intermittent pain in his jaw for a couple of days. When it reappeared along with some chest pain and tingling while he was celebrating his 52nd birthday with his wife and one of his daughters, he was whisked off the ER and the rest is history. Just in time. 
I’ll admit it- I was shaken by this news. I mentioned it briefly to Georgette before heading out to walk Grace and it was on my mind the entire time we were walking. In fact, its been on my mind all day.
All of my siblings and I have lived with the reality that when it comes to heart disease and genetics, we are seriously pre-disposed, which is a nice way to say “we got screwed”.  In all truth, I don’t feel like I got screwed at all. Who doesn’t have a family history of some kind? We all have things we need to manage as we age. I've done what I can to control my risks and so far so good.
But reading Jerry's words and pondering his fate reminded me that there are more important things about time than time management. It will be for my group on Monday morning and  I’ll do the best job I can for them, after all, I am a professional. 
But my relationship with time needs some adjusting-not a major overhaul, but a tune-up at the least.
Lately, I’ve been spending too much time focusing on how to get to 3 years from now sooner than 3 years from now-in other words, how I can get to my official retirement life faster than planned.  And that’s not a good use of the time I have today. Jerry’s “incident” as we refer to them in our family jargon, is a reminder that I need to savor every day and live in the moment.  Just as we can’t turn back the hands of time, we shouldn’t wind the clock forward either, daylight saving time excluded.
Jerry’s going to be OK. He’s a fighter and a competitor. He will double down on his diet and exercise but probably won’t slow down that much. I guess 2 out of 3 isn’t too bad.
Me,? I’ll be OK too. I’ve always worked to control what I can and that will continue. I’ll get there when I get there. In the meantime, there’s life to be lived today-right now.

And as far as the question that was posed in the song lyric above- I could care less what time it is. I’m just grateful to be alive on this beautiful spring day.

For any Chicago fans out there, here's the tune that was rattling in my head.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Confessions of a Nerd

I've got a confession to make.

Bless me Father for I have .....oops, sorry, wrong kind of confession.  The confession I'm about to make is more of the admitting variety than the sinning variety. So, are you ready to hear my confession?


I'm a nerd.

I'm actually several types of nerd.....a band nerd and a garden nerd for starters. I've been a band nerd for over 50 years now. The garden nerding started back in 1995.

I've probably have some sort of genetic pre-disposition to nerd-ism because I just can't seem to help myself. 

The signs of my nerdism are obvious. Just yesterday I spent 5 hours in the garden digging up weeds, volunteer seedlings and other spring clean-up. And as we speak, it is pouring rain and I am ecstatic ( a sure sign of garden nerdism is the reaction to rain- garden nerds love rain and obsess about it).

And just before I sat down to write this, I practiced the saxophone for an hour in preparation for a band rehearsal this afternoon. And I have another band practice tomorrow night for another band I am in. ( a sure sign of band nerd-ism is playing in more than 1 concert band past high school).

Back when I was growing up, we didn't use the term nerd. We might have called someone a doofus, or a weirdo, but nerd was not in our lexicon. I know some of you reading this are thinking "he's a word-nerd" for using the word lexicon instead of vocabulary and you might be right. I'll not take umbrage with your assessment since I admitted earlier to being at least several types of nerd and only listed garden and band as nerd-isms. Truth be told, I've got a plethora of nerd-isms.

I'm not exactly sure of when I started to identify myself as a nerd, but when I did, it was as a band-nerd first. A feature writer  for the Omaha World Herald wrote a column about our community band back in the early 1990's and titled it "Band Nerds are Envied".  He wrote about how cool it was that a bunch of people who were probably thought of as band nerds in high school had a pretty good thing going as adults.

 I never thought being in band wasn't cool. I realize now that admitting that probably qualifies me as a band nerd, but it takes more than just being in a band to make you a band nerd. It got me thinking about what constitutes a nerd anyway. I looked it up.

"An intelligent but single-minded person obsessed with a non-social hobby or pursuit."

"A person who behaves awkwardly around other people and who usually has unstylish clothes, hair, etc."

I like the intelligent part, but single-minded? Hardly, although I admit to the obsession with hobbies  and pursuits. Playing in band has always been an extremely social activity for me. And as for the behaving awkwardly and unstylish clothes, well check out this picture taken when I was a senior in high school. It's got style, sociability and marching band all wrapped up in a nice package (never mind the fact that I'm hitting on sophomore girls).

So while I might not have the social ineptness that usually accompanies the stereotypical person described as a nerd, I do bear other resemblances to my fellow nerds. 

My garden nerdism started when I visited Claude Monet's Giverny garden in 1995. It exploded a couple of years later when I asked my soon to be spouse if I could plant a few flowers back in the corner of her yard.  It turned into this:

Here a just of few examples of my band and garden nerdism:

  • I get excited when seed catalogs start arriving in the mail and I read them cover to cover storing away all kinds of useless information about plants and gardening related minutae.
  • When I see an old classic march or Broadway show medley in the band folder, my heart jumps a beat or two. 
  • On vacations, I'm always looking for gardens or botanical centers, that sort of thing. And I'm tempted to trespass into stranger's backyards just to get closer look at their gardens.
  • I've requested to have some of my favorite band selections played at my funeral. Forget the sad songs, let's have a Percy Grainger tune or a Karl King march.
  • In spring, I make the rounds at all the garden centers and nurseries just to see what they have, to compare prices and see what's new and to scout for places to work in case I need a job in retirement.
  • I get a kick out of nonchalantly telling people, "I've got band practice tonight". At nearly 62 years of age, that never gets old, even though I'm getting older.

Between music, band and gardening, I've the fixation and "obsession with a pursuit or hobby" thing down pat. As far as the social inpettitude, that's not my deal, but I also think it is a bit unfair to many I know who have been labeled a nerd just for that reason.

Sure, if you go to the band rehearsal I'm participating in tomorrow night, there a few odds ducks there. Some dress like they bought their clothes at a rummage 1978. And a few seem to be more comfortable relating to their shoes than to other people, given where they eyes are cast more often than not. But once you get to know them, well, that's the hard part, but I'm sure they are quite nice people.

And I'm sure if you attend the Master Gardener's free workshops at the County Extension Office, you'll meet a few folks there who are better at pruning shrubs than dressing for success. But who needs to look stylish when your hobby is playing in the dirt. 

The point is that when you pursue your passions, other things just aren't as important. And while I certainly didn't intend to be a nerd, I did make an intentional choice to pursue my passions. And if that makes me a nerd, then I'll wear that label proudly. And loudly.

So what's your nerdism? Books? Birds? Golf? Gadgets? Cooking? Crafting? Almost anything goes if you're passionate about it.

Just don't say shopping or how you look.

Pursue your passions without regard to what other people think and you'll live a rich life.

And while you're at it, reach out and make friends with a nerd. It may take you a while, but you'll get a lot of practice working your social skills.

And it will annoy the nerd. 

Just kidding. Sort of. 

OK, I'm done now.

This picture is proof of my band nerdism. Leisure suit, anyone?

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Andy's Gift--The Power of "We"

Something really extraordinary happened this week. Something that I was witness to and played a small part in.  Something I'll never forget.

Last August I met a young man named Andy. We met online before we ever met in person. Andy and I had both joined a Facebook group sponsored by an author whose blog we follow, Jon Katz.  Jon had created a Facebook group he named "The Open Group for Bedlam Farm" as a place for people to share their creative efforts and receive encouragement. People share their original work, blogs, photography, poetry, and other creative expressions on this page. Then people provide feedback and dialogue with each via the Facebook comment threads.

Andy posted a story about his 18 month sobriety journey, and mentioned that he was from Omaha. That got my attention, but so did another part of his story- his battle 9 years ago against a brain infection that nearly killed him. Having looked death squarely in the eye made him think he was invincible, he said, so why not drink all you want.  Yeah, I get that.  So not only did he nearly lose his life twice, he lost almost everything else he had, except for his family.

I wanted to meet him, in person, so shortly after reading his first post online in the Open Group,  we agreed to meet for coffee and Andy and I have been friends ever since.

As Jon Katz's Open Group Facebook site grew and evolved, a core group of people emerged as an online community.  Regular contributors and commenters became more familiar with each other, people learned more about each other through their writing (much of it personal and autobiographical), photography and other sharing. Friendships were forming in ways that many of us had never experienced before in an online community.

 Andy's gift for writing quickly made him a favorite of many in the Group.  The dude can write, seriously write. He shared his victories and his struggles openly which made him not only real, but just damn easy to like. His drunken alter ego that he named "Him" was the subject of many of his blog posts that had the Open Group members begging for more.

Andy had been living in a "3/4 way house" with a group of other recovering men since he completed his treatment but was nearing the time when he was ready to move into a place of his own. He had shared his feelings about this next step in his sobriety journey with the Open Group. And he had secured a place to live with a friend and moving day was quickly approaching.

With the Open Group community he had never met in person pulling for his success, one of the members sent a private Facebook message to about 20 of Andy's Open Group friends, suggesting we take up a donation as a housewarming gift.

Since I live in Omaha, I volunteered to receive the checks, cash them and present them to Andy in person, on behalf of the Group. Soon envelopes began appearing in my mailbox at home, with familiar names on the return addresses.  As I opened each letter and saw the names on the check or card, I thought how wonderful and generous this way, people who had never met Andy in person sending him a gift just because they cared. The ironic thing was that the contributors were thanking me for agreeing to collect the gifts and present them to Andy. It was me who should gave been thanking them.

Along with the $400 in cash, we also had gifts of a meditation shawl, a sage burner and stand, and a personalized calligraphy with words "Peace" on it, gifts sent by some of the Open Group friends of Andy.

The following is an excerpt from the story I wrote, along with a video, and posted on the Open Group Facebook site last Monday afternoon after I presented the gifts to Andy. 

"Andy moved into his new place yesterday so I arranged to meet him today for lunch. He knew that something was because I was insistent we meet today, although he will probably tell you he had no clue what is was about really. We met at a local place that is typically busy over the noon hour. When I arrived, Andy was sitting at a table right near the front door. Looking back, I should have seen if there was a place near the back where we might have had more privacy.

I had placed the gifts in a plaid, more manly gift bag that I dug out of  the stash we have at home. As we exchanged greetings,  Andy noticed the bag and asked what was up with that. I told him that I was on a mission, serving as a messenger from the Open Group. I remember saying, "There are a lot of people out there who care about you". And as I said that, I felt a surge of emotion well up inside of me. 

At the time the video begins, Andy has already looked over the beautiful meditation shawl and the sage burner. I then pulled out the calligraphy, the cards and the envelope with the cash. I stuck the cash under the cards, but I noticed him making note of it. He has read a card or two and is now ready to examine the envelope with the bills showing. 

As he pulls the cash out, he first opens the note I made with the list of names of each contributor on it. The names are all familiar to him. His reaction is there for you to see. If your eyes are still dry after you watch this, well then, watch it again. Shortly after opening the cash, Andy excused himself and went to the rest room for a bit. 

We eventually got around to ordering our salads and had a good visit. I apologized for the choice of location-could have picked a more private spot. Andy viewed the video and said he was OK with me sharing it here. I wanted it to be his choice. It's a pretty intimate moment,  but tears of joy are more easily shared than tears of sorrow.

It still hasn't set in with me, this opportunity to be part of a gesture so kind, generous and caring and how I stumbled into the Open Group, met Andy, and can genuinely call him a friend and someone I care about. Someone I know will make it.

And to all of you who gave freely of your thoughts and dollars, you gave me a gift that I wasn't expecting and will always cherish. The gift you gave Andy is to be cherished.Life is good. People are even better. The Open Group is a gift. The gifts keep giving."

The response to this was overwhelming. People were awed with the kindness and generosity shown by the Open Group members. Many who didn't know about the small group that contributed wanted to know now they could send something. Most were simply lifted and touched by this simple, but heartfelt gesture.

The next day, Andy messaged me and asked if I could send a copy of the story I posted and the video as he wanted to share it with his family. What happened next was even more unexpected and overwhelming.

That afternoon, barely 24 hours after I met Andy for lunch and have him the gifts, I received an e-mail from Andy's sister-in-law, telling me of their long emotional journey with Andy, from the depths of despair to the highs of hopefulness. She had read the story I posted and viewed the video on You Tube. Here is the last part of her e-mail to me:

"Andy forwarded us the email you sent to the Group with the video of your meeting and the story of collecting gifts for him. There are no words for how appreciative we are of your kindness . 

One of my favorite authors says:  "We belong to each other." All of us are brothers and sisters and when one of us rises, we all rise. Open Group has embraced that sentiment so fully and illustrated it so well through this beautiful act of kindness. So...thank you, thank you, thank you! And...please extend thanks to the Group from the Rhode Island Family. As you said, "Life is good. People are even better." 

And if that wasn't enough, several days later I received another e-mail, this time from Andy's mom. As I told her when wrote her back later, I can't imagine what she had gone through as a mother, but that I was glad to have been a small part of the "We" that had contributed to Andy's success.

Dear Dan,
For more years than I care to count, I have wondered what it would be like on the day I could finally say, “We made it.” Now I know.

Your email and the video  represent the end of a long dark time in my family’s life and the re-starting of Andy’s life journey – this time as a man made humble by alcoholism and made confident by his determination to overcome “Him” one day at a time.

I know that with the friends he has made in the Open Group and AA, he has the support he needs to fight the good fight and live a happy and productive life. I don’t think he would be where he is today without all of you. Today is a good day.

I will cherish your email and video forever.  

Thank You
Andy’s Mom

"We made it".  No truer words could be spoken. I humbly accept all the words of gratitude that were sent my way. The truth is, I was just doing my small part of the "We". And so were the members of the Open Group who sent gifts to a man who they simply believed in. 

And for that, "We", among all people, have been richly blessed.

Last week was a good week. Life was good. "We" were even better.