Giving

We Can Do More Than Watch the NFL This Weekend

Syria’s civil war has claimed over 200,000 lives and displaced over 11 million people since 2011. Better descriptions than I could ever write exist detailing the war’s timeline, its origins and terror, and the ideologies of its factions. I encourage doing so.

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America’s favorite distraction kicks off Thursday. Right now, the start of another NFL season seems secondary, as sports should when measured with the same tape as the real crises afflicting us. I fear, though, that sometimes this perspective is lost.

I’m not here to condemn sports. I love them, especially football, and believe sports instill values of teamwork, sacrifice, loyalty, and commitment through moments that reverberate our hearts and instruct our minds after the act of instruction itself has passed. They have for me. And I know that without them I would lack the same capacity to care.

Which is why I’m considering numbers on the eve of a new season.

Did you know, the combined seating capacity for the 16 home teams during the NFL’s opening weekend is 1.1 million? And that more than 100 million more will watch on TV?

Imagine if each NFL team gave $1.00 of every ticket to a relief organization aiding Syrian refugees. That equals $1.1 million donated.

Imagine if only 50% of us watching football at home offered that same $1.00. That donation would equal more than $50 million. The precedent is not crazy. The world’s other prominent football teams have already donated millions.

Look, I understand that checkbook philanthropy – especially four years into this horrific crisis – can be condemned as the simplest and least impactful way to assist. In many ways, it’s an easy-out meant to appease one’s guilt. Besides, the U.S. has already donated more than $4 billion to Syria only to witness the need necessary to support the biggest humanitarian emergency of our era swell.

Against this backdrop, it’s easy to question the worth of any single dollar. Why continue giving when the crisis only worsens? What good will it do anyways?

Well, here are more numbers on Syria to help answer those questions.

Every day more than 2,000 people place their lives at risk to flee the war-ravaged nation now too deadly to call home.

$140 provides a cash lifeline for a family of three to five for one month. $1,500 can support a family for one year.

$5,500 can refurbish a classroom and pay a teacher’s annual salary. $17,000 refurbishes an entire hospital.

Imagine what $1 million could do? Or $50 million. I lack answers and a better way to help. Doing something, though, seems better than doing nothing.

I love sports. Practicing and committing to the work to excel at them helped shape my outlook on work ethic, compassion, and sacrifice for others. Sports can congregate masses like nothing else. Sometimes, then, we need to take the platform that sports afford and use it for something much bigger than the games themselves.

I will watch the NFL on opening weekend. I have also made a small donation. It isn’t much. But it’s something.

Whether this organization or another, I hope if you’re watching the NFL this weekend that you follow suit. And if you do, please share with me over email at kelly@kellylytle.com or twitter @kelly_lytle.

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Hurricane Katrina Changed my Life

Hurricane Katrina unleashed hell on New Orleans ten years ago this week. Levees burst, storm waters surged, and families fled – their homes ruined, their hopes scattered. From the horrors witnessed in the Superdome to decency inside the wreckage, stories detailing the endurance of survivors cover the news.

Katrina changed my life, though in a less accosting way than most. A visit to post-Katrina New Orleans propelled me on an inward journey. Part selfish search for meaning – part reconciliation – without New Orleans this quest never happens. And I’m likely not doing anything – writing, storytelling, volunteering – that I’m doing today.

Many Katrina stories exist. This is mine.

Revelations

Chevy To LevyI sat on the fractured wood floor of a single-room Baptist church buried in the Lower 9th Ward of New Orleans and rested my back against a white wall rotted by water and spotted with dark circles. It was early August 2007 and the second to last day of a volunteer trip I made to paint schools ravaged by Hurricane Katrina almost two years earlier. Sweat dripped from behind my bent knees, slipped down my calves, and settled on the ridge of the dirt-stained tube socks stuck to my legs. On the floor near my right leg rested a black Bible. I flipped through its smudged, cracked pages with my yellow and green paint-stained fingers. Moses melted into Jesus who melted into Paul and the disciples. They all vanished into Revelations.

In front of me, a decaying white hat clung to the edge of a large pulpit streaked by ash the way pale scars decorate a ravaged body. Members of my volunteer group stepped over broken statues and around pictures of Jesus, cautiously making their way through this tiny house of God long ago left to rot. Others sat on the dust and mold covered pews in the church’s center. They pointed at the water lines that reached a foot below the sole wooden cross hanging just below the ceiling. The building had flooded when the levees burst, swallowed like the rest of New Orleans. My life was about to change, though I didn’t realize it steaming in the church. (more…)

Saying Thank You to Mom on Father’s Day

I watched Mom stand, rest her hands on the top ridge of the wood pew in front of her, exhale, and move toward the front of the church where I stood. My words of remembrance for my father had just filled the air, and now Mom would speak. The sun pierced the stained glass windows, shining into the hushed crowd, which spilled into the balcony, aisleways, and crevices behind pillars. Grandpa, Mom’s dad, pressed a tissue to his eyes.

Mom moved with purpose. Red eyes singed by grief resisted an onslaught of tears. She would cry them later, in private. We hugged. A storm lurched inside me, a faucet dripped from my eyes. Mom ascended three slight steps until she stood behind the lectern ready to speak.

With her head high and voice steady as to betray the inner misery only those who’ve lost a spouse can understand, Mom read two passages from her books of daily inspiration, both from four days earlier—November 20—the day Dad had died.

The first came from the book of James: How do you know what is going to happen tomorrow. For the length of your lives is as uncertain as the morning fog.

The second from Ralph Waldo Emerson: The greatest gift is a portion of yourself.

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Each day is nothing if not a series of choices—big and small, simple and difficult. Every morning I ask myself a series of questions: What type of person will I be today? Will I be someone who teaches? Will I give of myself to help others? I fall short (often) in my mission because life is too hard. Still, my answer never wavers, and my intentions are always the same. Yes, I will be that person, I say, and the reason is due to Mom’s example.

Mom exemplifies kindness, patience, and selflessness. She is a servant who acts in the service of others. And does so not for reward or recognition, but because the authenticity of her spirit demands no other path. Mom is that rare person who is wholly genuine in how she cares for others—day in, day out—in every patient question and every extra minute spent listening. Small acts magnified by thousands of changed lives.

I see school papers spread across our kitchen table, some decorated with stickers and others splashed with red ink. Mom is awake, working, before the sun has lifted its head from its pillow and not in bed until long after the Moon has spent its goodnight wishes. This is the example of Mom as a teacher, and thirty years of students are lucky to have had their essays on photosynthesis graded by someone who will never stop challenging—and encouraging—them to dream bigger and care deeper.IMG950914

There is the example of Mom as a patient listener. Students visit our house long after they’ve left Mom’s 5th grade class. They want to stay connected and close to the woman who will listen to them without limitation. Friends and family need her ear, too. Protected, guarded souls lay bare—exposed, yet comfortable as they seek counsel. When empathy always trumps judgment, every conversation is a chance to make a difference.

In 4th grade, I was in my basement playing video games on my Sega Genesis. Mom pounded down the stairs toward me, a fast and furious tornado whipping destruction from every blonde curl atop her head. My report card—and the C- I had received in reading—hung like a sickle waiting to slice at her side as she stood above where I sat on the floor. She backhanded the control from my hand, picked up the console, and smashed the Sega into the ground.

“This is the reason your grades stink,” she pointed at the Sega’s battered corpse. “Get your act together!”

This moment kickstarted my appreciation for how words and stories can transform our hearts. It also reminds me that for anyone who believed that Dad, with his football hero past, ruled our house is mistaken. Mom set the example for toughness.

I see Mom today as a grandmother, asking questions of and conversing with her granddaughter. Their interactions are blessed with laughter, smiles, and love. I watch these exchanges and I remember the mother who immersed herself in Erin’s life and mine. I remember Mom always helping with homework, probing us with questions, listening as we talked, and holding our hands as we cried. She’s with me in our driveway rebounding my missed jump shots, and she’s there on the track for every childhood sprint workout. Always positive; always caring; always present.

Mom made the best nachos, mixed the best Kool-Aid, and offered the best conversation for my friends and me. There exists a group of kids who grew up in Fremont, Ohio, near Birchard and Park or just off Buckland Avenue, who will always associate the Lytle home with Mom’s inviting spirit.

In This is Water, David Foster Wallace says: The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day.

If the greatest gift we can give is a portion of ourselves, than I know of no greater example of sacrifice than Mom.

On this Father’s Day, as I reflect on the time I spent with my father, I find myself feeling grateful for Mom. Mom inspires me each day that she faces with courage, strength, and the willingness to rebuild from her heartbreak. She has inspired me with a lifetime of compassion, consideration, selflessness, and caring.

Thank you, Mom. I love you.

Why everything returns to content

Scratched hums and plucked banjo strings bounced against the red brick walls lining the outdoor courtyard of my favorite bookstore. A woman with a reaper tattoo and a tightly worded inscription on her forearm spun in rhythm with a dark-eyed fella. A pit bull strutted between tables, tail wagging, smiling slightly, attention hunting. A harmonica joined the band. Bluegrass roared.

As I listened, I saw a man reading Bad Monkey—Carl Hiassan’s romp about bumbling characters involved in a South Florida mystery. This evening marked the third time in two weeks that I had seen someone reading Bad Monkey (the first occurred at Reagan National in DC and the second at my local coffee shop).

I had never heard of Bad Monkey until it was included on the title list for the Navy’s inaugural NeRD order. Sitting in the courtyard sipping my glass of Malbec, I thought, wow, three times in two weeks that I’ve seen someone enjoying this book, this Bad Monkey must be damn good.

This moment reminded me that content is always king. Yes, the eReader solution we helped develop overcomes storage limitations on submarines and security restrictions to deliver a book collection where it wasn’t previously possible. But it is the content—those fall in love with and can’t stop turning the page stories—that will truly help the program enrich lives.

Whether it’s on an eReader, a blog, in a conversation with friends, business venture, our character, or really anything, substance speaks the truth about who we are, what we value, and the meaning we provide to others. Are we honest, truthful, and caring? Did we act with integrity?

In the end, content is always what matters.

What Do You Remember

A curious thing happened last week when The Dave Matthews Band song Say Goodbye played on one of my Spotify playlists. Now, before anyone mocks the song, (or my general taste in music on Spotify) I do have a point to make.

As the intro played, I remembered all the times I heard that song and every other DMB song in late high school and college (and if I’m being honest a little after college). I said to myself, this intro lasts 1 minute and 22 seconds before Dave sings. Turns out, I was wrong.

The musical intro lasts 1 minute and 25 seconds – not a shabby memory considering the years and beers that have passed since I paid attention to this tune.

This moment then made me think about the other things I can remember with unusual detail.

For instance, I know I saw a ~7:30 showing of Rudy in Fremont’s Paramount Cinemas on November 20, 1993. I wore navy wind pants with a large Michigan block “M” on the left leg, a navy Michigan #21 jersey, and a white Michigan undershirt. Why? Because earlier that day my Grandpa, Dad, and I traveled to Ann Arbor, sat in Section 43 of Michigan Stadium, and watched the Wolverines upset the #5 Ohio State Buckeyes 28-0. We returned home in time to catch the end of Boston College’s stunning victory over then #1 Notre Dame before Mom, Dad, and I went to the movie.

Oh, Glenn Foley was the quarterback of that Boston College team. Notre Dame’s was Kevin McDougal.

Not enough? Well, in winter 1993, I learned this quote by George Washington Carver: “Take what you have, make the most of it, and never be satisfied.” I scribbled it on a napkin and kept it in my desk drawer for many years. I can also tell you that I learned the quote during a speech at my church by former Bowling Green State University coach Gary Blackney, sat at a long, rectangular table just left of the center of the stage, and they served steamed carrots as part of the meal. That was the first time I ever ate carrots prepared that way.

The first time I saw My Girl was on December 19, 1992. I watched the game alone in my basement while flipping the channel between the movie and the Fab Five’s basketball game versus Iowa State. My sister had three friends over and at some point I played the game Mall Madness with them. This is all true.

I find this fascinating because besides the day I first watched Rudy, the other memories are not extraordinary. In fact, they are completely unremarkable moments that should melt into all the other memories of my youth. For some reason, though, I’ll never forget them.

It occurs to me that it’s impossible to anticipate the moments that stick in our brain – the moments that form who we are. We have no idea what words will leave a lasting impression on our children or our students. Just like we never know if a compliment, thank you, or offer to help will leave a positive impression with our friends and family long after the occasion itself passes. Who knows, maybe a joke or a laugh given to a stranger while waiting in line for coffee is exactly what he or she needs to have a better day?

Although we can’t choose if, or when, others will remember our actions, we can choose how they’ll remember them. By treating others with respect and kindness, fairness and appreciation, we can ensure that the memories that do last are ones that will make us proud.

$3K for 30 Provides Gifts for 44 Children

$3K for 30 started in 2012 as a fundraiser to celebrate my 30th birthday. The goal was to raise $3,000 to support the Community Christmas program of Sandusky County, Ohio. Community Christmas provides food, gifts, clothes, and other items to individuals in need of aid during the Christmas season. Last year, $3K for 30 raised over $3,500 to support the efforts.

Now in its 2nd year, $3K for 30 exceeded expectations. Thanks to everyone’s generosity, we raised $4,600 and purchased clothes, gifts, and toys for 44 individuals from over 20 families. In addition, we assisted with the purchase of Thanksgiving dinners for 10 families. In total this year, Community Christmas assisted more than 1,000 families and over 3,000 individuals.

I am incredibly thankful for everyone who supported this year’s fundraiser. With your support, we touched many lives and brought holiday smiles to many children and families this year.

To recap this year’s $3K for 30, I created my first infographic. I hope everyone enjoys.

3K for 30

Jason Silva’s Existential Bummer

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Do we love longer and hold tighter? Do we embrace more passionately and cry vulnerably, sitting in the open exposed and raw for others to see.

Do we mean it when we ask “how are you?” or “what can I do to help?”

Do we care deeply and give whole-heartedly?

Or do we run? Away from what could hurt or could cause pain or could cause suffering?

The choice, to me, is simple and it’s ours to make.

It Don’t Cost Nothing to be Nice – A Bear Bryant Story

I write regularly about moments and how seemingly ordinary occurrences can cause waves that ripple into lives beyond our own. We never know when or how or even if any one moment will leave a lasting impression that changes the course of someone’s day or inspires a positive change in a life. No on/ off switch exists that lets us choose the moments we want others to remember. They just happen and they often occur without expectation or realization.

What we can control, though, is how we treat others. Are we respectful? Are we kind? Do we care about what others have to say or are we preoccupied with our own thoughts and agendas? Have we valued another’s importance as a friend? Have we offered to help and genuinely meant it? We can control the answers to these questions, and, I believe, it’s how these questions are answered that determine if we can create moments that echo in other’s hearts and minds.

A good friend sent me a story last week. He expected that I would appreciate it. He was right.

In the story, legendary Alabama football coach Bear Bryant touched a life in a simple conversation over lunch at a small diner. The Bear was a tough as nails football coach, a strict disciplinarian who demanded the most from his players – and then asked them to give even more. In this moment, he also showed he could care more than anyone expected. By doing so, he cut an impression that resounded in ways he could have never imagined.

It Don’t Cost Nothing to be Nice – A Bear Bryant Story

I had just been named the new head coach at Alabama and was off in my old car down in South Alabama recruiting a prospect who was supposed to have been a pretty good player, and I was having trouble finding the place. Getting hungry, I spied an old cinderblock building with a small sign out front that simply said “Restaurant.”

I pull up, go in, and every head in the place turns to stare at me. Seems I’m the only white fella in the place. But the food smelled good, so I skip a table and go up to a cement bar and sit. A big ole man in a tee shirt and cap comes over and says, “What do you need?”

I told him I needed lunch and what did they have today?

He says, “You probably won’t like it here. Today we’re having chitlins, collard greens and black-eyed peas with cornbread.

I’ll bet you don’t even know what chitlins are, do you?”

I looked him square in the eye and said, “I’m from Arkansas, and I’ve probably eaten a mile of them. Sounds like I’m in the right place.”

They all smiled as he left to serve me up a big plate. When he comes back he says, “You ain’t from around here then?”

I explain I’m the new football coach up in Tuscaloosa at the University and I’m here to find whatever that boy’s name was, and he says, “Yeah I’ve heard of him, he’s supposed to be pretty good.” And he gives me directions to the school so I can meet him and his coach.
As I’m paying up to leave, I remember my manners and leave a tip, not too big to be flashy, but a good one, and he told me lunch was on him, but I told him for a lunch that good, I felt I should pay. The big man asked me if I had a photograph or something he could hang up to show I’d been there. I was so new that I didn’t have any yet. It really wasn’t that big a thing back then to be asked for, but I took a napkin and wrote his name and address on it and told him I’d get him one.

I met the kid I was looking for later that afternoon and I don’t remember his name, but do remember I didn’t think much of him when I met him. I had wasted a day, or so I thought. When I got back to Tuscaloosa late that night, I took that napkin from my shirt pocket and put it under my keys so I wouldn’t forget it. Back then I was excited that anybody would want a picture of me. The next day we found a picture and I wrote on it, “Thanks for the best lunch I’ve ever had.”

Now let’s go a whole buncha years down the road. Now we have black players at Alabama and I’m back down in that part of the country scouting an offensive lineman we sure needed. Y’all remember, (and I forget the name, but it’s not important to the story), well anyway, he’s got two friends going to Auburn and he tells me he’s got his heart set on Auburn too, so I leave empty handed and go on to see some others while I’m down there.

Two days later, I’m in my office in Tuscaloosa and the phone rings and it’s this kid who just turned me down, and he says, “Coach, do you still want me at Alabama ?”

And I said, “Yes, I sure do.” And he says OK, he’ll come.

And I say, “Well son, what changed your mind?”

And he said, “When my grandpa found out that I had a chance to play for you and said no, he pitched a fit and told me I wasn’t going nowhere but Alabama, and wasn’t playing for nobody but you. He thinks a lot of you and has ever since y’all met.”

Well, I didn’t know his granddad from Adam’s housecat so I asked him who his granddaddy was and he said, “You probably don’t remember him, but you ate in his restaurant your first year at Alabama and you sent him a picture that he’s had hung in that place ever since. That picture’s his pride and joy and he still tells everybody about the day that Bear Bryant came in and had chitlins with him…”

“My grandpa said that when you left there, he never expected you to remember him or to send him that picture, but you kept your word to him and to Grandpa, that’s everything. He said you could teach me more than football and I had to play for a man like you, so I guess I’m going to.”

I was floored. But I learned that the lessons my mama taught me were always right. It don’t cost nuthin’ to be nice. It don’t cost nuthin’ to do the right thing most of the time, and it costs a lot to lose your good name by breaking your word to someone. When I went back to sign that boy, I looked up his Grandpa and he’s still running that place, but it looks a lot better now. And he didn’t have chitlins that day, but he had some ribs that would make Dreamland proud. I made sure I posed for a lot of pictures; and don’t think I didn’t leave some new ones for him, too, along with a signed football.

I made it clear to all my assistants to keep this story and these lessons in mind when they’re out on the road. If you remember anything else from me, remember this. It really doesn’t cost anything to be nice, and the rewards can be unimaginable.

Coach Paul “Bear” Bryant

Tell Me Your Story

In the days following my dad’s death, several Northwest Ohio area newspapers asked me for sound bites about what I learned from this larger than life figure who doubled as my old man. Although a sad fog hung heavy over my thoughts in those days, I remember answering varied versions of the same question in the same manner: Dad taught me that every person matters, that every person has a story to tell, and that caring enough to learn those stories is of the utmost importance.

In the years since, I’ve spent considerable time exploring this topic – in the form of a memoir (which is currently under revision) and a renewed focus in life on engaging with those I meet to try to learn more from them. Time’s battle march stops for none of us, though, and sometimes it’s difficult to remember this message, even as I devote my early mornings and late evenings to exploring it. The routine of the everyday interferes. There are family outings to attend, work obligations to meet, errands to run, and laundry to do so my clothes don’t smell worse than normal (smelly Kelly, right). These factors (and more) play a role in dulling this once sharp message – a message that is impossible to maintain in the practice of the daily grind. And that’s just a normal, if unfortunate, fact of leading a busy life.

The challenge is to keep the lesson I learned throughout my life – one rooted in the importance of each individual’s story – somewhere in the background of every interaction and every conversation. The challenge is to recognize those moments that remind me of the significance of Dad’s message and what it meant to the lives he touched.

Recently, my mom and I received an invitation to attend a homecoming night event at St. Joe high school. For those unaware, St. Joe is the Catholic school in Fremont, and they planned to celebrate the 35th anniversary of one of their football teams reaching the state semifinals. The emcee of the event informed Mom and me that Dad played a pivotal role in this night coming together, and he hoped we could attend. Though Mom and I weren’t certain what we were in for, we made sure we were present.

Last Friday, a small crowd gathered in St. Joe’s cafeteria. A liquor license ensured that cans of beer would circulate through the audience. Conversations between old friends – some who see each other regularly and some who only enjoy such company on special occasions – filled the cafe. Mom and I sat towards the rear of the sea of silver and crimson that dominated the room.

They announced each member of the team. A former player and the head coach shared a few memories of the season. Meanwhile, Mom and I remained curious as to why our presence had been requested.

Then, at the conclusion of the ceremony, the emcee – the man who had invited us to the event – shared with the crowd a thank you. As his story went, he and Dad had a conversation in 1993 where Dad had asked him to share something important, something consequential from his life. They spoke that evening about football and what that high school season meant to those involved so many years before. For the next 17 years, every time Dad and this man crossed paths, Dad urged him to pull his old team together and celebrate their triumphs together.

Finally, in October 2010, they spoke for what would be the final time. Dad asked, “so when are you gonna tell that story. When are you gonna share it?” As things turned out, plans for the celebration that occurred on Friday had recently commenced. When Dad learned of the possible event, three years before it would take place, he said he would be there to enjoy the moment when the time came.

Dad died one month later.

Mom and I learned again on Friday night how Dad’s faith in the importance of each person’s story caused a chain of events that brought old and current friends together. We learned how one simple request– tell me your story – led to an important night.

For me, Friday was a reminder that all of us have something important to share. It reinforced a lesson I learned throughout my life: everyone has a story that counts and that story counts because of the people who lived and enjoyed the moment.

A Strange Brand of Happy

A wandering bachelor. Career quandaries. The search for oneself. The hope for love. All wrapped into a movie.

Strange Brand of HappyWell, now, that sounds like something I want to see. Thanks to some smart, creative friends – friends who share a passion for finding magic in the stories people can share – we now have the chance to do just that starting Friday.

A Strange Brand of Happy is the story of an aimless bachelor who loses his job and finds himself chasing the same girl as his manipulative boss. (eeee!)

It opens in theaters this Friday (September 13) and is showing at the Atlas Eastgate Theater in Mayfield Heights, Ohio, for all you Clevelanders!

The details of the story are good ones.

David’s life is a mess. His job is gone and his purpose is missing. The possibility of finding love is a mystery entirely unsolvable. David needs help. He needs to get his life unstuck. Love needs to find him. Somewhere, somehow, and with someone.

When things finally turn up for David, just when he starts to see the light in the tunnel, a problem ensues: The girl of his dreams, who happens to be the life coach helping him get on the right track, is also being pursued by his manipulative ex-boss.

Oh, life, you are a devil. How you tease men with the temptation of delight.

Will David find himself? Will he win the heart of the girl he fancies? Will fighting his ex-boss for love destroy his chance of finding it? And what in the world is he to make of the make-you-think wisdom spewing from the ragtag crew of men and women living at the retirement home where he volunteers?

Life doesn’t promise anything easy for David. Maybe, though, with the help of inspiration as seen through the old eyes of his new friends, and a fresh perspective on the world around him, things might work out for David all.

A Strange Brand of Happy is a movie about love, hope, and unlocking one’s dreams. It’s a reminder that discovering what motivates and inspires you is a journey – and one that takes hard work and friends to realize. Finding yourself does take a search party. It also makes for one hell of a fun story.

A Strange Brand of Happy opens this Friday at the Atlas Eastgate Theater in Mayfield Heights, Ohio.

I have a few free tickets available. If you want one, drop me a line and I’ll deliver!

For those interested, I’ll be attending on Sunday afternoon. Come enjoy and spend the day with me watching a beautiful film!

Congratulations, by the Way

Writer George Saunders delivered a commencement address at Syracuse University this past spring urging us towards kindness.  Chances are you’ve read it already, or someone has at least shared it with you as the speech tours social media and flies in and out of work emails. Random House plans to publish Congratulations, by the Way next year, similar to This is Water by David Foster Wallace.

During his speech, Saunders says that “although it’s a little corny, and don’t quite know what to do with it: ‘What I regret most in my life are failures of kindness.’ The words resonate because, as David Ulin writes, “we’ve all been there.”

I know my failure (or one of them because if you know me well you know there are many). The image is clear, a vision more crystal than the memory of exploding convenient store glass in my parent’s Trailblazer. The moment, or moments, occurred in high school. Senior year. Lunch. I sit and eat with a pack of friends. A young kid a grade or two below me sits alone at a table. Day after day. Lunch after lunch. Alone.

Nobody mocked him. Nobody poked fun. Nobody teased. We would have had to notice him if we wanted to be jerks. And we didn’t even take that step. Or at least I didn’t, ever, not in any meaningful way. And I think about this lack of kindness, this complete and utter indifference to someone else. It eats at me, most days,

This is just one example of many regrettable actions (or in-actions) on my part. Live, learn, and improve, I suppose. It just sucks that sometimes how we learn what we learn never leaves our side.

Perfection is impossible. This is fact. But if we’re all going to screw up anyways, shouldn’t we aim to “err in the direction of kindness”?

George Saunders: Congratulations, by the Way

“Down through the ages, a traditional form has evolved for this type of speech, which is: Some old fart, his best years behind him, who, over the course of his life, has made a series of dreadful mistakes (that would be me), gives heartfelt advice to a group of shining, energetic young people, with all of their best years ahead of them (that would be you).

And I intend to respect that tradition.

Now, one useful thing you can do with an old person, in addition to borrowing money from them, or asking them to do one of their old-time “dances,” so you can watch, while laughing, is ask: “Looking back, what do you regret?” And they’ll tell you. Sometimes, as you know, they’ll tell you even if you haven’t asked. Sometimes, even when you’ve specifically requested they not tell you, they’ll tell you.

So: What do I regret? Being poor from time to time? Not really. Working terrible jobs, like “knuckle-puller in a slaughterhouse?” (And don’t even ASK what that entails.) No. I don’t regret that. Skinny-dipping in a river in Sumatra, a little buzzed, and looking up and seeing like 300 monkeys sitting on a pipeline, pooping down into the river, the river in which I was swimming, with my mouth open, naked? And getting deathly ill afterwards, and staying sick for the next seven months? Not so much. Do I regret the occasional humiliation? Like once, playing hockey in front of a big crowd, including this girl I really liked, I somehow managed, while falling and emitting this weird whooping noise, to score on my own goalie, while also sending my stick flying into the crowd, nearly hitting that girl? No. I don’t even regret that.

But here’s something I do regret: (more…)

Maybe They Do…

Do simple acts of kindness make a difference?

Photo: Laura Pegg

Photo: Laura Pegg

I ask (and am asked ) this question often because I think in the micro when it comes to giving. The importance of small gestures – the hello’s, thank you’s, how are you today’s – matter to me. I believe in small gifts of meaning, extended conversations, and unexpected offers to help someone else.

Still, I wonder if  such acts count in the larger sense? Can something as simple as a good morning wave change the course of a day? A career? A life? Most of the time, we never learn the answer.

Along with other members of the Cleveland Betterment Foundation, I volunteered last Saturday to support the Team Up 2 Clean Up efforts of the 2100 Lakeside Emergency Men’s Shelter. 2100 Lakeside provides beds, meals, showers, and a host of other services to over 350 men per night. The Team Up 2 Clean Up day united shelter residents, volunteers, and neighbors through gardening work, art projects, and other beautification projects in areas surrounding the shelter.

Photo: Laura Pegg

The magic of 2100 is in its people. The stories the men can share, the effort given in the community, the sacrifices made, and the hope cultivated for a future changed from the present. The individuals of 2100, both those seeking help and those offering such help, are making a difference.

I don’t know if I helped all that much, really – pulled weeds, carried trash from here to there, planted several small flower beds and placed them outside second-floor windows. Not life changing work but it satisfied me to play a small role in a larger production of positivity.

I know that my green-thumbed efforts won’t change poverty statistics, drug abuse, or homeless rates. Maybe this day will never even means anything to anyone at any time.

Photo: Laura Pegg

Photo: Laura Pegg

Maybe it will, though. Maybe someone’s eye sparks at the sight of red and yellow flowers seen through splotches of mud and dust on a window. Maybe this jolts them from a dreary morning and improves a mood. Maybe the accomplishment of creating change in the neighborhood becomes a call to action for another act of positive work. Maybe these clean-up efforts will help someone smile, clutch to a hint of light while surrounded by darkness.

Maybe simple acts of giving don’t matter at all.

And maybe they do.

I’m simplistic, possibly naïve, because there’s no way of knowing how a day might be changed by the touch of a hand offered to help. Still, in my mind, the possibility of this maybe is all that counts.

And we’ll never know the answer unless we say yes to trying.

Mr. Einstein Once Said…

Einstein

Quote: Albert Einstein; Photo: Izquotes.com

Knowledge, learning, creativity, these are all admirable virtues. They should be cultivated, explored, improved. Never ignored to erode or become stale.

Real art, though, comes not simply from having these qualities but in how we teach them to others. Joy is in sharing, in exposing the process of learning – from ups to downs and setbacks to accomplishments – so that someone else can learn and use the boost to reach their own creative pinnacles.

Learn in order to teach. Teach so that you never stop learning (put that on a bumper sticker!). 

Unconditional Smiles

Sometimes, the best thing about a day is seeing a smile on someone else’s face…

I went for a jog this morning. It has been a long seven days preparing for the play I’m acting in (for the first time in my life) that starts in less than a week, and I wanted to clear my head of all its nervous thoughts and my stomach of the butterflies ravaging my insides.

I needed an energy boost, so I set Spotify to my “90’s Rap” playlist and let 2Pac and Biggie take control as I set about navigating the road craters and construction barriers around Tremont (Cleveland). In the first ten minutes, I passed several runners—some on my side of the street and some on the other—and although we came in different makes and models, shapes and sizes, gear and form, we all shared scowls that growled at the morning air.

It seems as if they were as enthused about their morning jaunt as I was.

After a few more minutes, another runner and I approached each other on one of the area’s many cracked sidewalks. At about 10 yards apart, I held my left hand in the air poised in the position to give a high five. The running man’s eyes cut me a curious look for a moment before they softened. He flashed a smile, slapped my hand with his, and we both continued on our way.

Two songs later, I encountered a different runner while crossing through Lincoln Park. This time, I thrust my right hand into the air. Once again, she offered me a cautious, momentary glance before embracing my odd behavior with a wide, beaming smile and high five.

I collected my breath on a short walk through my neighborhood after finishing the run. In addition to the terror that haunted me over looming performances, I realized that recently I’d felt mentally withdrawn and unable to glean the energy I normally do from others. Thinking about the two runners’ smiling faces snapped me to life.

Troubles and worries come and go, they’re like seasons that pass and return later just a little different from before. Often it’s the joy of seeing a smile – a wonderful, surprised, unconditional smile – that reminds us how much fun life can be if we allow it.

The challenge we have every day is not only to find something that makes us smile, but also to do something that lets us share in a smile with someone else.

Cleveland’s First Living Library Brings Books to Life this Summer

“The more that you read, the more things you will know.
The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go.”
Dr. Seuss

In August, a unique approach to education and community engagement called Literary Lots will offer Cleveland area children a chance to learn in a setting unlike any other experienced in this city or around the country. Kauser Razvi, the creator of Literary Lots, envisions the program as an opportunity for local artists to leverage themes from several children’s books and transform Novak Park in Ohio City into a cultural and creative center for learning.

Photo Courtesy Literary Lots

Photo Courtesy Literary Lots

To promote an imaginative environment for kids, Literary Lots intends to host writing workshops and reading expos, initiate interactive art projects based on scenes from each book, feature speeches from authors, and engage with community leaders. With its ambitious goals, Literary Lots shows what is possible when individuals conceive and execute original ideas with the public’s good in mind.

I first learned of this arts education program several weeks ago when my employers tasked me with finding an organization for our firm to support with a small donation. Following a brief search on Kickstarter for Cleveland focused projects, I found the Literary Lots page and pressed play on the overview video. Excitement, like the boom of red and blue fireworks erupting into a July night’s sky, sparked inside me. I then stared mesmerized at my computer screen during a second viewing. And when I finished the video for a third time, I realized how much I cared about the project’s desire to “bring books to life” for children around Cleveland.

“Yes!” I shouted while seated at my desk imagining this learning-based adventure in action creating an “educational space to engage local youth in art and culture.”

The focus of Literary Lots on education, creative enterprise, and the nurturing of reading and writing skills through innovative, engaging projects meshes with my own values in so many areas that I wanted to support the project in any way that I could. I am thankful to co-workers and my firm for sharing in this wish by making a generous gift that underscores their commitment to learning and the surrounding community.

My interest, though, extends beyond the creative coolness of the program and into reasons far more personal. The story, for me, reaches back to 7th grade football practice and a time in my life when uncertainty swirled everywhere I turned.

I didn’t transition well from elementary school into junior high. Everything about 7th grade felt wrong, and different, as I suppose it does for most boys willing to reflect on their adolescence with a pair of honest glasses. I lacked close friends and preferred to stay home and avoid any junior high parties where I just felt like an outsider looking in on a place not meant for me. The mere hint of a conversation with a girl morphed me into a tongue-tied, palms-sweating, heart clunking 13-year old looking for a sandbox in which to bury his head. I was a shy bookworm who enjoyed reading over socializing.

Worse, playing football intensified my youthful insecurities. My dad had starred in the game. He was a high school and college All-American and scored a touchdown in Super Bowl XII. As I grew up, I did so thinking that I should love the sport as much as he did. But the truth was that I hated football in 7th grade. From the one-mile walk I made every day between the junior high building to the football stadium, to the inane ritual of plopping oversized pads on my shoulders so I could ram them into other kids I didn’t want to hit, nothing about it felt right or fun. I cried at home on most nights after practice, confiding in my mom that I needed to quit. Every day, I endured a new series of taunts about not being as good as my dad or carrying favor with coaches solely because of my last name. These words hit harder than any collision endured on the field.

One part of the day brought peace, though, and it occurred after my practice ended while I waited for the high school team’s practice to end. My dad helped coach the varsity team and most nights I hitched a ride home with him once they finished their work. During this time, I could sit alone and read whatever book I had just borrowed from the local library. I would plop on the grass away from the action, drop an oversized backpack next to me, and sit with my legs crossed and my eyes glued to pages of constant creativity. Surrounded by the screams of zealous coaches, the shrill of blown whistles, and the thump of padded bodies smacking each other, I let my imagination sprout word by word and line by line.

On these afternoons, I found perfection by sitting with a book in my lap and drifting into fictional adventures that calmed the undulating waves of apprehension and unease that threatened to overwhelm me.

I discovered solace in books, then, much as I do today. Along with writing, reading forms the foundation (and often the crutch) I rely on to express the emotions and ideas that I otherwise might bury, afraid to share with myself, let alone others. Loss, joy, grief, want, excitement, pain, pleasure—I understand what it means to live for and through these feelings because I grew close to them in the books I’ve read and the words I’ve written.

What I know now that I didn’t in 7th grade is that the creative expression of words, whether written or read, sustains me. I needed books to grow and think as a young kid. And I need them now as an adult.

When I watched the video for Literary Lots, I identified with its goals to stimulate learning, bring books to life, create, experiment, and build something new through sheer imaginative effort. The project enticed me from the moment the animated figures first appeared on my computer screen.

A deeper interest, though, arrives from a more personal place. When I picture Literary Lots, I do so with the heart of a 7th grade kid confused by his school and his sports and his life. I found my place in the company of good books and creative thoughts. Now, I want to support efforts that strive to help kids achieve this same result at a much earlier age.

In my mind, Literary Lots is such a chance to help.

“This is Water” and it’s worth a watch and listen…

Today, find time and spend 10 minutes with This is Water by David Foster Wallace (From Nathan M. Peracciny). It’s worth it.

I wish that I could add my own words to this speech but they don’t measure up. Instead, I’ll end with a passage from the conclusion of the talk:

“I know that this stuff probably doesn’t sound fun and breezy or grandly inspirational the way a commencement speech is supposed to sound. What it is, as far as I can see, is the capital-T Truth, with a whole lot of rhetorical niceties stripped away. You are, of course, free to think of it whatever you wish. But please don’t just dismiss it as just some finger-wagging Dr. Laura sermon. None of this stuff is really about morality or religion or dogma or big fancy questions of life after death.

The capital-T Truth is about life BEFORE death.

It is about the real value of a real education, which has almost nothing to do with knowledge, and everything to do with simple awareness; awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, all the time, that we have to keep reminding ourselves over and over:

This is water; this is water.

It is unimaginably hard to do this, to stay conscious and alive in the adult world day in and day out. Which means yet another grand cliché turns out to be true: your education really IS the job of a lifetime. And it commences: now.

I wish you way more than luck.”

Revelations

I traveled to New Orleans in the summer of 2007 to paint schools and repair homes damaged by Hurricane Katrina, which engulfed the city in August 2005. This trip forced me to care—about New Orleans, about friends and family, those with less than me, and those with more. It set a process in motion to work in the service of others that six years later I am only beginning to understand. Life’s ebb and flow is a process full of inflection points and defining moments. And this experience that occurred with New Orleans’ sweat dripping off my sunburnt skin, is one of mine.

Revelations

Bible 2

Bible has seen better days

I sat on the fractured wood floor of a single-room Baptist church buried in the Lower 9th Ward of New Orleans and rested my back against a white wall rotted by water and now spotted with dark circles. It was early August 2007, and the second to last day of my volunteer trip to paint schools ravaged by Hurricane Katrina almost two years earlier. Sweat dripped from behind my bent knees, slipped down my calves, and settled on the ridge of the dirt-stained tube socks stuck to my legs. On the floor near my right leg rested a black Bible. I flipped through its smudged, cracked pages with my yellow and green paint-stained fingers. Moses melted into Jesus who melted into Paul and the disciples. They all vanished into Revelations.

A few feet in front of me, I saw a decaying white hat. It clung to the edge of a large pulpit smothered in ash and scarred by the elements. I watched as some members of my volunteer group stepped over broken statues and around pictures of Jesus, cautiously making their way through this tiny house of God long ago left to rot. A few others sat on the dust and mold covered pews in the church’s center pointing at the water lines reaching a foot or two below the sole wooden cross hanging near the room’s ceiling. Sitting on the hard floor, I recognized how the entire church had flooded when the levees burst and water swallowed New Orleans. What I didn’t see, or expect, was the life-changing moment just minutes away. (more…)

Two Words that Always Count

Sometimes, all it takes is a simple gesture of kindness to make a difference.

Last week, a friend of mine posted the following comment on her Facebook page:

Thank You

If given the chance, say thank you.

Say thank you to mom before Mother’s Day arrives next weekend. And say thank you to dad just because.

Say thank you to an old friend for something they did that they might not realize matters as much as it does to you.

Say thank you to the boss who drops a pain-in-the-ass, keeping-you-at-work late project on your desk because they have the trust to believe you will finish the job.

Say thank you to the person who makes you laugh or the coworker whose smile brightens your elevator ride into work in the morning.

Say thank you to the stranger who holds the door open.

Say thank you to the individuals whose efforts make the day’s journey possible. The strategy of going it alone doesn’t cut it anymore.

Every day we have the chance to say two words that remind others of how much they’re appreciated. The tricky part is actually saying them.

Now, it’s my turn to tell my friend thank you: Thank you for sharing your story. Thank you for reminding me of the magic that exists in giving thanks. Thank you for this simple, elegant act that I can replicate in many of those often-overlooked moments that occur each day where it’s easier to say nothing than it is to show genuine appreciation for someone’s help.

Thank you.

On the road searching for a definition

“But of course there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talk about in the great outside world of wanting and achieving…The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day.”
David Foster Wallace, 2005, Commencement Address to graduates of Kenyon College, Published in This is Water

NO Chairs

We missed a chair…

In late July 2007, I spent one week in New Orleans repainting schools damaged by Hurricane Katrina’s landfall nearly two years earlier. My plane touched down in the Big Easy late on a Sunday morning and after dropping my bags in the cockroach-infested hostel bedroom I would share with twelve others that week, I set off to explore New Orleans.

I bought a tin of Skoal mint snuff, carried a copy of Bryce Courtney’s The Power of One, a blue pen, and pale skin roasting in the suffocating air I collided with on each step. Drops of sweat slid down my frying forehead; the pinch of fiberglass and nicotine jammed into my lower lip seeped into my bloodstream and my head buzzed. I needed relief and found it in the shade of a secluded bar patio near the Garden District and an ice-cold Abita Purple Haze beer.

In one gulp, I sipped away a third of my beer and settled comfortably into my chair. I flipped my book open to the inside of the back cover where I scribbled the following phrase: What Ideas Define Me?

(more…)

The Wisdom of Youth

In 2nd grade, I wanted to be a dentist. By age 24, after having my four front teeth replaced, I had a dentist call me at work to inquire about my condition because I turned pale, cried, and nearly fainted in her office during a checkup.

In 8th grade, after reading Richard Preston’s The Hot Zone, I wanted to become a virologist, wear a biohazard suit, and study viruses such as Ebola and Marburg. I’m now terrified of needles and the owner of a queasy stomach that barely tolerates the medical trauma shown on cable television.

For much of 10th and 11th grade, I studied Thoreau and returned constantly to my much-underlined copy of Walden. His discussions of simplicity, living, and sucking “the marrow from life” captivated me.

Throughout these years, I harbored the same far-fetched dreams of many youngsters, hoping a magical growth spurt might kickstart my career as a professional athlete. Unfortunately, the only growth spurt I’ve had in about 15 years is the one that sees me gaining weight around midsection faster than I can lose it.

Recently, my mom told me that while I was in high school she and my dad started forming their own opinions of my life’s future direction. In their private conversations, they settled on the assumption that I would join the Peace Corps after college and spend most of my time in the serene solitude of my mind reading, writing, and thinking. Mom and Dad understood better than I did that deep down I wanted to spend my life in service helping others, and they appreciated my slightly more compassionate outlook on the world. They recognized these traits since I was a boy, and they also saw how I worked to conceal them from others – afraid to reveal myself honestly from fear of negative judgment.

So, what actually happened after I graduated college?

Well, first I went into investment banking keen on becoming the next Gekko or perhaps a toned down version of Barry Pepper’s cowboy in the movie 25th hour.

Next, I tried my hand working in an NFL front office before returning to the life of a financial analyst manipulating numbers across spreadsheets and making data say whatever I need it to say.

For some reason, though, nothing ever seemed right. And I spent most of my twenties feeling restless, impatient, and frustrated.

Over the last three years, I’ve pursued passion projects in my evaporating spare hours. I write (this blog, for this site, and this memoir), I’ve done some public speaking and hope to do more in the future, and I have plans to start a lifestyle business that encourages people to develop stronger personal relationships through meaningful acts of giving. I’m transitioning my life to one rooted in writing, reading, thinking, and serving others.

It’s taken many years, self-denials, detours, late nights of contemplation brought about by one too many beers, and some pitiful Sunday morning soul searches for me to realize the futility in spending my days attempting to be something that I’m not. As I’ve learned, there isn’t much use in trying to be anything other than yourself.

After all these years, I’ve started to realize the very things that my parents understood about me before I could even drive a car. Ironically, as I get older I get closer to becoming the person I was when I was younger.

As it turns out, sometimes it’s OK to want to be a kid again.