High Times & Hard Times

I’m now more than fifty blogs into this experience and I’ve not written a single story about my first, most identifiable, big-boy career. How is it possible that I could so easily avoid writing at least one anecdotal story from these umbilical years of my professional life?

I just haven’t been all that inclined to do it…yet. It’s as if I’ve sort of moved on into a different life-path and disregard those tense and tumultuous years. That said, despite moving on and living in the moment, the man I’ve become was in large part shaped by a lot of those early experiences. Particularly the way I process stress or how I view egoism. When I look back at the level of responsibility I took on at such a tender age, its no wonder people view me as aloof and stoic.

When the first decision you make everyday is to decide what clothing will allow you to conceal a large caliber handgun; or to consciously put yourself in harm’s way knowing full well the risks are very high, you either learn how to cope with your fears and anxieties or you find another profession. Similarly, when you work alongside others, some with an inflated sense of self and a bullet-proof mentality, and you’re witness to these friends falling into self-destructive cracks as a result of a painful realization of their own limitations, you gain certain perspectives on personality.

I’m one of those people who can barely tell you the time of day without a detailed conversation on the Prague Orloj Astronomical Clock to follow. So, if I decide to share a personal experience from my former undercover drug agent days, how could I possibly do that in 500 words or less? I can’t; so, buckle up for a long ride or put this thing down and come back when you’ve got a strong pot of coffee and some serious time.

Prague Astronomical Clock

The police investigation for which I’m about to describe for you would have taken place around the year 1994. I would have been a recently divorced dad to a 5 years old son. A year earlier, I had accepted a position as the project director for the 17th Judicial District Drug & Violent Crimes Task Force (JDDVCTF).

Here is a little background for those of you who are interested in the details. The state of Tennessee is broken up into 95 counties and 31 Judicial Districts. The 17th Judicial District consists of Bedford, Lincoln, Marshall, and Moore counties.

Drug & Violent Crimes Task Forces are specialized multi-jurisdictional police units tasked with investigating illicit drugs and violent crimes. They are organized at the state level and overseen by the District Attorney General who has jurisdiction in every county within the boundaries of each judicial district.

This particular job assignment, for me, would be the impetus for how I ended up living in the rural Tennessee town I now call home. More importantly, how I later got lucky and met/married my second wife, the great love of my life to which I often refer in these blogs; Emily.

I was actually very young for a position with so much responsibility; I would turn thirty years old in this position later in the same year. I’ve been told I was a 40 year old man the day I exited my mother’s womb although I’ve never been able to use it on any resumes.

There may be some tiny bit of truth to the description of me, but I can very easily admit now, I was nowhere near mature enough for the job. Oh well, too late to go back now. Aside from the enormity of inherent responsibility, the task force I took over had recently been completely reorganized and all its agents were inexperienced. My whole team was made up of men with almost no drug enforcement experience whatsoever – all but one older than me.

I’d been working the five previous years as an assistant project director for the 23rd JDDVCTF (5 west-middle TN counties) and an undercover narcotics agent. Prior to working dope, however, I’d worked for 3 years as a police patrolman and 2 years as a deputy sheriff. My marriage to my first wife, Tammy, took me west to live in Houston County although I worked in adjoining Humphreys County as a deputy sheriff. By the time this opportunity came around, Tammy and I had already divorced.

Having first begun my rookie police career in the city of Murfreesboro, a comparatively large city, my wife wanted us to move westward to be close to her family. It was all a great big adventure to me, having grown up in Nashville, to be so far from home and in such a predominantly rural environment.

Governor Ned Ray McWherter, a huge figure in Tennessee politics of that era, imagined the first Tennessee Judicial District Drug Task Forces in about 1987. I was immediately interested to pursue any opportunity I might have to be a part of it although I was all of 23 years old. I was not the first agent hired but was delighted to be their second pick.

The 23rd Judicial District was made up of five counties: Dickson, Cheatham, Houston, Humphreys, and Stewart Counties. If you were to look at a Tennessee map and notice the lone little section on the northern boundary that juts up into the state of Kentucky between the Tennessee River and the Cumberland River…well, that is what we rednecks call “The Land Between the Lakes” and that area is part of Stewart County.

The rather large District travels south from Stewart County, hugging the east bank of the Tennessee River through Houston, then Humphreys County till it arrives at an area just south of Interstate 40, then travels east toward Nashville in an almost perfect “L” shape, first through Dickson then onto Cheatham County’s. Finally, Cheatham County borders the west side of Metropolitan Nashville – Davidson County.

The 17th Judicial District; the place where I landed, lies in southern Middle Tennessee. It consists of Bedford, Marshall, Lincoln, and Moore Counties. If you’re still lost, Lincoln County boarders the state of Alabama near Hunstville and Moore County is the home of the famous Jack Daniel Tennessee Whisky distillery. So, my move took me literally from the top of the state to the bottom of the state.

The previous Director of the 17th, (Steve M.) the guy I’d just replaced, had gotten involved in some interesting but serious criminal behavior himself, resulting in an FBI/TBI investigation where he ultimately winds up changing his home address to a jail cell. The Task Force itself had, as a result, been dismantled and completely shut down for about a year. None of the experienced agents were left on the job – their lives insanely complicated by an intense investigation of their leader which left several good men as suspects and potential co-conspirators.

What was the specific criminal activity you ask? I thought you might want to know. Well, it seems the notorious bachelor director ended up in the arms of a Memphis prostitute who absolutely stole his heart – and every bit of his common sense.

Her skill sets, no doubt obtained through an intensely professional means, helped her to convince this Mensa member police official to steal a kilo of cocaine from the task force evidence room, replace it with an equal weight of a similarly textured white powder, then allow his new Boo to flex her entrepreneurial muscle on the streets of Memphis.

Unfortunately, the love match made in dysfunctional heaven fell flat when Steve’s new Boo got herself busted for selling cocaine. In case you haven’t already thought about this, the arresting agency was actually very interested to know from whom the object of our director’s misguided desire was getting all that 100% pure cocaine. Pure cocaine is not something commonly found in street level cocaine buys.

Apparently, a sudden bout of amnesia meant the only drug dealers’ name she could think to give the police at that very instance was the name of her more than generous new true love – Drug Task Force Director Steve. The next chapter of that love story read just like how’d you would expect it to read; a twisted fate of quid-pro-quo. She goes free; he goes down.

I should say, none of the other agents were found to have been involved in the love-distracted director’s illegal activity. Nonetheless, the District Attorney General decided it would be too uncomfortable to bring any of them back into the unit.

I was the young, naïve, out-of-town lab rat who was asked to put humpty dumpy back together again with nothing but duct tape and a flimsy rubber mallet. Way too ignorant to know I was incapable of taking on such an enormous task, I jumped at the opportunity to prove my young self.

One of the five operational drug agents I’d just inherited was in the process of signing up a new confidential informant (CI) who’d last been working for a sister Task Force just west of our 4-county southern middle Tennessee jurisdiction. The CI had just wrapped up a big investigation for them and wanted to keep working in the realm of undercover (UC) work. To stay safe, he needed to immediately leave the town he’d just been working for fertile ground elsewhere. For the sake of simplicity and privacy, I’ll just continue to use first names and call him Kenny.

I knew the Director over there, Mike, where Kenny had just been working. He was a crusty ole former Green Beret, Vietnam era, who most famously told me once, while sippin on a high-ball glass of Jack Daniel: “If my damn coon dog could piss Tennessee whiskey, I’d suck his dick till we both passed out!” 

Cop humor is bad…narc humor is really bad.

Moving on from Mike’s personal life, he had called me and asked if we could take Kenny on as a personal favor to him. Mike wanted Kenny to be stable, working, and nearby, if possible, in the event he may be needed for court testimony from time to time.

Kenny was a young guy who’d been brought up without his parents. His grandmother gave him a place to live in her subsidized public housing apartment. Although it wouldn’t be fair nor Christian-like to judge someone I’d never met, I saw no evidence in Kenny that anyone had ever really mentored him. As we southerners are fond of saying, “he’s a natural born durn’d fool.” Said slightly differently, if Kenny can’t con you out of it, he’ll just steal it from you.

Kenny is a white guy who was brought up and socialized in a predominantly black environment. But he could be totally comfortable among both white and black people. Kenny is most definitely a type A personality, is very out-going; a walking-talking social enigma.

I’d love for you to humor me for just one moment. In your minds, picture the famous rapper Eminem. Not only are his looks, swagger, and urban voice very similar, Kenny also had his neck tattooed with a common nickname for the famous entertainer, “Slim Shady”. To this very day, I cannot see Eminem on television or hear one of his songs on the radio without being reminded of Kenny.

His real gift as an informant lies in his ability to wedge himself comfortably in almost any environment, so long as the environment happens to be filled with thugs, thieves, reprobates, and drug dealers. Sounds perfect for the job right? Only in government does any of this make sense.

Kenny immediately hit the ground running, and in no time he and his control agent were turning in dozens of cases involving small quantities of crack cocaine. Unfortunately, it also didn’t take very long before I suspected Kenny was taking advantage of his agent/handlers’ inexperience.

The agent I assigned to manage Kenny was a mature cop in his 40’s, with 10+ years on the job as a police patrolman. But he was a rookie drug agent and had almost no experience in handling CI’s or working undercover. Alternatively, Kenny was an experienced hustler who had no more regard for hustling a cop as he would any other scrote on the street.

There are hard and fast rules associated with the development and management of CI’s. First and most importantly, you’ve got to define their psychological motivations for becoming an informant in the first place. Is it power; revenge-jealousy; repentance; altruism; mercenary-greed; egotistical; wannabe cop; fear of imprisonment; or perversely motivated such as an attempt to gain intelligence on the police? There are many reasons people choose to help the police. Not all are good.

You have to figure them out! If the thing that motivates them is not a good fit for you or the particular assignment, you let them go…quickly! Informants can and often do make or break police careers.

If you’re unable to understand the motives behind the people you’re risking your lives alongside, you’re bound to get blindsided. Generally, the greedy mercenary type can be the most productive informant because greed is a simple trait. These guys just wanna make money. Therefore, they’re generally easy to predict and usually very effective.

Egotistical informants, however, often want a more aggressive role in an investigation in order to justify as much praise and/or money as possible. They will often prolong an investigation unnecessarily to justify more money or praise – satisfying a strong desire to exercise control over a demographic that pretty much invented control. These guys need to feel as if they’re the mastermind behind all your success. Informants in this category will demand payment for services rendered, but in reality, the praise he expects to receive from an authority figure is the primary motivating factor for their participation.

The ego of the informant is many times in direct competition with the ego of the handling investigator. This is especially so for inexperienced agents. Kenny was/is an egotistically motivated CI.  Therefore, you could never give him enough praise or credit for any successful case outcome. He was always seeking my attention and always on the prowl for an opportunity to seek approval from persons in even higher positions. 

The thing that initially aroused my suspicions were that Kenny was repeatedly buying and turning in counterfeit crack cocaine. This is a guy who knows the difference. If the inexperienced agent was working an inexperienced CI, I wouldn’t have been so suspicious.

Mysteriously and also true, was that every case where he’d turn in counterfeit crack were also cases where the audio recordings were either inaudible or non-existent. I examined the faux drugs from all of cases from dozens of different defendants and ironically all of the fake crack looked like it was made by the same person with the same bar of soap and the same toothpick.

Crack Cocaine

It became obvious Kenny was taking advantage of the inexperienced narc and getting paid for his elaborately prepared chunks of soap. Not just once; he got paid fifty bucks for each undercover buy and he kept the money used for each drug buy, because there were no real defendants – he paid himself.

Clearly his ego was way out of control – he was getting off on manipulating his control agent. In order to teach the rookie narc a few tricks and also stop the nonsense, I met with the agent and the CI together to explain how the Agent would begin working undercover alongside the CI on all future buys.

I also took some soap and cut it into little irregular chunks and pieces then took a toothpick to create little faux air-bubble holes and indentions on the surface and spread a handful of the rocks on the table for our conversation. I demonstrated to Kenny that I too knew how to make fake crack and in true drill sergeant fashion, helped him to understand how his act was now over.

I explained, in not so nice terms, that he would work for free until he paid us back for all the fake crack cases. I also explained that filing a false police report is a crime and he’d be charged himself if he failed to pay us back or were to be caught doing it again.

In lots of city police departments, it is commonplace to let general detectives “handle” or “work” CI’s without ever working undercover in the field themselves. In fact, it’s very rare that a police detective ever buys drugs directly from a drug dealer. 

Instead, police detectives usually “wire-up” a CI with an audio transmitter and separate micro-cassette recorder and send them into an undercover environment in order to make what is called “controlled” buys”. The actual police officers are typically outside in cars listening to their CI’s via electronic surveillance, recording the audio to be used as evidence in court.

But, in task force groups such as I then worked, it was feasible to actually do the undercover work ourselves, making more solid cases and not being hamstrung by a CI who may not object to setting up a few rival drug dealers but has no interest whatsoever in targeting the people they know best or especially reliable sources of drugs. Each CI has a limit as to how far they will actually go.

When the cops can themselves go undercover, they can take each case to wherever it leads them. “Controlled buys” with CI’s are exactly the opposite. There’s so much opportunity for the CI to manipulate the deal, the cases made can often be unreliable at best. But going undercover is dangerous, and not everyone is cut out for doing that sort of work.

My agent was a bit uncomfortable with the new arrangement at first, he’d never been asked to work undercover before. But he did eventually warm up to it. I also cut off Kenny from buying anything for a short period while he busied himself introducing his undercover handler among his friends and associates. My goal was for people on the street to assume the narc was a small-time drug dealer himself and that Kenny was buying some of his own drugs from him (the narc).

Drug dealers are instantly suspicious of a new person in their circle, especially if that new person is trying to buy drugs. They’re less curious with a new person who doesn’t really want anything. So, I sent my agent undercover to just go around with the CI and hang out; to get to know the players and the lay of the land. We, of course, gave him a cover story that would make future drug buys more plausible.

Within a couple months or so, Kenny had introduced the undercover agent all around the area and the pair had already started making occasional small drug buys here and there. But the cases were insanely crappy. The CI was holding back, not opening doors for the agent to meet the more substantial dealers. 

When the CI had initially interviewed with us, he’d expressed in writing his relationships with bigger dealers. Yet he wasn’t taking our UC agent around or in those circles. I suspected our CI was manipulating the circumstances for his own advantage yet again; milking our resources and trying to string us along for more money than we’d set aside for this investigation. This was beginning to be more than I’d bargained for.

Kenny wanted the credit for himself, not wanting to share in the glory with his UC handler. Sadly, I came to the realization that my UC agent was too inexperienced to understand just how dangerous it is to be led around by a CI who knows more about you than you know about him.

I pulled the UC agent from the case for his own safety. Of course, the agent was pissed at me, but what choice did I have? He argued, “That’s my CI, these are my cases!” I, in a serious but gentle way, informed the agent that all CI’s are resources for the Task Force, they don’t belong to anyone. 

I brought Kenny into my office for another interview. I let him know I was aware of his expertise but also of his ability to manipulate – I conveyed this to him in a way that appealed to his ego. I told him I was pulling my agent from working him and I was taking over all investigations associated with him. “You are not to call or interact with any of my agents. From here forward, you’re only to work directly with me.”

I was like, “Kenny, you’ve already wasted months of our time and we’ve paid you more money than any of your cases are worth. If you’re going to make another dime from this task force, it’s gonna be for a real case; a real drug dealer, not some pitiful drug addicted asshole on the street who just wants to get high. You’re far more capable than you are letting on and I’m not interested in wasting your talent and my time on bullshit cases. Call me when you’ve got a real case. Until then, I don’t wanna see you.”

Kenny seemed amused by the whole thing, but I did get his attention. He teased me with an idea for a potential case in Alabama. He’d met some guys in Muscle Shoals who appeared to be well-connected drug dealers. He gave me what little information he had on them, so I could do some background inquiries on them. But he wanted to be paid for his information.

I wasn’t stupid, I instantly sensed that he had been holding back, shopping the deal to other task forces to see who’d pay him most. I was sure he’d been cultivating the potential deal to Alabama law enforcement, but I had no idea he’d also been shopping a sister Tennessee task force. This fact I would learn much later.

“Look dude, I don’t pay for words, I pay for prosecutable drug cases.” The experienced CI responded quickly, “Ok, so, what I get paid if I can buy a key?” Kenny was referring to a kilo of cocaine. He couldn’t help himself but to tease me with the idea of making a big case.

I never flinched. “I can pay you $100 bucks on every recorded call or conversation as long as I’m the one who sets up the recording…leading up to the actual buy and $2000 bucks for the controlled-buy itself, with me actually buying the dope. Not you.”

“What about seized stuff, money, cars…? Can I get paid on dat?” It’s customary on bigger drug cases that the agency will seize personal property used in the commission of a felony or any property believed to have been obtained with assets gained from illegal activity. Sometimes, the seized property can be very valuable. The agency is required to prove their seizure cases separately in an administrative civil hearing separate from the criminal charges.

“Ok, I’ll pay you 10 percent of the value of all seizure proceeds after the court awards them and immediately after they are sold at public auction. That’s the best I can do.” Kenny suddenly changed his body language and responded, “What if I can sell them the key? What I get paid for that?” I didn’t miss a beat, “If you can put together a reverse, I’ll give you ten-percent of the cash seized upon the court awarding it to us. You will not be selling it, I will. You will just be helping me put the case together. But if a key sells for 30k, you’ll get 3k. Same deal on seized property.”

In police work, a reverse-sting operation is a case where the undercover cop will sell drugs instead of buy drugs. It’s not a very common police procedure because of the inherent problems with navigating the entrapment defense laws. An entrapment defense is a very fine line to navigate legally and if the casework isn’t cultivated and followed through precisely right, your whole case could be thrown out of court, and you’ll end up looking shady yourself.

Essentially, the police can commit entrapment when they use investigative techniques which could entice any reasonable person to commit a crime when ordinarily the same person wouldn’t. Sexual enticement is a great example of one common technique used to lure such a person to do something outside of their ordinary behavior. Selling drugs too cheap, creating the potential for extraordinary profit, could also be considered a method of entrapment.

All that said, I had just taken over a drug task force where my predecessor had been jailed for selling drugs. There was no way I was going to sell drugs undercover, legal or not, unless I controlled every aspect of the deal and sought approval from the District Attorney General himself. Having a narcissist for a CI isn’t ideal in any situation but I felt I could exploit his ego for a successful outcome, simply because the stakes were higher, and the rewards were bigger. More than that, my CI was more interested in showing off than earning the money.

Kenny told me he was driving to Alabama to meet with the targets and wanted me to front him some travel money. I refused to authorize him any cash, known in the investigative world as confidential funds, and reiterated my deal to the ambitious informant. I told Kenny to just go out and cultivate the relationships, when he was ready to record some calls or a meeting, to let me know and I’d drive down to set it up then pay him for any work that contributed toward making the case. He wasn’t happy but he listened.

I didn’t hear from Kenny for about two months. When he finally paged me, he included a “911” after his number. At the time, it was common among most people using digital pager devices to use numerical codes such as this behind their phone number in order to convey a sense of urgency or some other hidden message. I knew from experience, when a CI calls with an urgent message, you better call them back quick or risk losing a big deal.

When I called Kenny back, he sounded very excited. The CI explained how his targets had allowed him to move into their house. The CI wanted to arrange a drug deal immediately. What he really wanted was some cash. But based upon his good fortune to wind up living with them, I realized there was an enormous vulnerability to the criminal organization that could definitely be exploited. Not only could we hit the organization hard, we could cripple them.

Kenny was certain he could arrange the sale of a kilo of cocaine to these guys. But my instincts told me the potential was much higher. My biggest vulnerability was trusting an untrustworthy CI. The development of this complicated drug deal was something I needed to personally orchestrate. I let Kenny know that we were gonna play, but we were gonna play hard to get.

Kenny was instructed to continue to do his best to keep the targets feeling confident, that a deal would eventually happen. Kenny was to convince the targets that he needed to work harder on his source (me) in order to convince him (me) to trust them, new unknowns. The strategy would buy us some time to build a record of recorded conversations and evidence which could survive and overcome any entrapment defense.

Although he was more interested in seeing some sort of deal come through quickly, Kenny understood exactly what I was doing, and I could tell he was totally into doing this my way.

I had been thinking about an investigative strategy wherein I could openly say very harsh or even offensive things directly to the bad guys. This in order to better convince them that I was legitimate. I needed to be raw, and offensive, but I didn’t want it to be personal. To accomplish everything I wanted, they would need to believe I was oblivious to them hearing me say those things. That way, I could be free to say exactly what was on my mind.

I couldn’t trust Kenny to say what needed to be said. He was in another state. I couldn’t record him from a state away. So, I created this method which was enormously successful.

From that day forward, Kenny and I would communicate in two ways. One type where he or I would page the other with our respective phone numbers, as normal. When we connected by phone, we’d have a private call with an intended purpose to strategize the case.

The way we accomplished this was when either of us would page the other with our phone number along with a numerical code of #99 following, which meant Kenny was to encourage the target of the investigation to secretly listen in on the two of us talking from another phone extension.

First, it allowed the target to feel as if he was given a window into the psyche of the drug dealer (me) that he normally wouldn’t have access to. He had secret access to my confidential conversations and that gave him perceived power over me.

Second, it allowed me to make demands of Kenny or the suspect without me having to speak directly to the suspect. It left Kenny to be the bearer of bad news and it also gave him an opportunity to take up for them, which they loved to hear.

Third, we would build trust and realism with the target as well as to pass along instructions that were not negotiable. Kenny could use it to build their trust because he could regularly come to their defense with me, constantly going to bat for them with a guy (me) who really doesn’t trust nor want to do business with them.

Pager Language

I built additional trust because I could be the son of a bitch that talked trash about them all the time and clearly didn’t trust them. It would put them in the very complicated role of making me happy.

I wanted to be able to say outrageous inflammatory things, suggest my suspicions of the suspect, threaten to call off the deal, or whatever I felt would be a great strategy for specific moments in the investigation. I could buy more time, or whatever I needed. I explained to Kenny that his responses would always have the same effect; he’d say or do whatever he needed to say in order to keep me interested in doing a deal with his friends.

For me to be able to safely control this deal, at the level I suspected it could be cultivated, it would require that I be able to keep the bad guys off balance. It also required that the bad guys understood they needed me and that I neither needed nor wanted them. Otherwise, I had no leverage to get them to agree make the sort of unorthodox allowances I would need in order to get the deal authorized by my District Attorney General.

Why? Remember when I told you about my predecessor having been arrested for criminal behavior? Well, you can imagine the level of distrust senior law enforcement officials held for members of the drug task force at that time. The General was cautious, as were the Sheriffs and police chiefs who oversaw law enforcement across the multiple counties making up the multi-county Judicial District I served.

The reverse sting which was being cultivated was an out-of-the-box investigative technique that the General was uncomfortable with me doing. It would require that I borrow and take possession of a large quantity of cocaine from another law enforcement entity, then negotiate and sell that cocaine to individuals in exchange for a large quantity of cash.

There was a rational fear that the cocaine ends up lost and, on the street, with the General having approved the deal. Reverse stings are not only a difficult technique to navigate legally, but they’re also dangerous situations of our own creation which are ripe for robbery, rip-off, and violence. Just months before this, a nearby agency was ripped off and the UC officer shot during a reverse turned robbery. The UC became too focused on the success of the deal and ignored all the warning signs.

One thing that can be the kiss of death for any undercover operative is to get emotionally invested in the success of any deal. You have to be willing to walk away from it. Unfortunately, ego plays an enormous part in this type of work on both sides of the coin. You pit your intellect against that of the target and you really want to win.

Once your identity becomes confused with your profession, especially a profession in which you live and present yourself in an alternative reality, you’re in deep shit. Principally because any professional failure feels like a personal failure. You become emotionally blind, unable to see the signs of danger which may be obvious to others, because you can’t allow distractions to get in the way of your own professional accomplishment.

Upon my request, the Metro Nashville Police Department Vice Squad agreed to loan me as many kilos of cocaine as I might need. The deal between them and my DAG was that they send the cocaine off to a crime lab for a qualitative and quantitative analysis prior to my receipt and again for the same analysis upon my returning it. That way, it could be proven that I didn’t tamper with their coke while in my possession.

So, you know all those movies where the bad guys shove a knife into the kilo, pull some out and inhale or taste the coke to see if its “good stuff”? Well, that sort of nonsense couldn’t possibly happen, because I couldn’t risk the quantitative analysis coming back short and having to explain why. It was clear I was going to have to pull yet another rabbit out of my hat.

The bad guys started upping their interest in order to get me interested to do business with them. Instead of one kilo, the were now wanting three kilos. I would tell Kenny, with them listening, that I wouldn’t waste my time fucking with a bunch of amateurs and he shouldn’t either. I kept telling him that he should get the hell out of there, that they were either cops or amateurs. You get the gist of it. Kenny would constantly defend them to me, saying they weren’t amateurs, they were just cautious. Of course, I would say something like, “Fuck Kenny, I’m cautious and their cautious, so lets just forget we met and move on. I don’t want anything to do with them motherfuckers.”

About 6 weeks into the relationship, Kenny requested he and his new friends come up to Nashville from Alabama in order to meet with me, so I could judge them for myself. Knowing they were listening in to our conversation, I reluctantly agreed but told him that we would not talk about business, I just wanted to look them over and get a feel for them.

They picked a day, so I had some work to do. I called in some favors with a couple more task force units to get about 20 undercover agents to help me put on a little side show. I also called in a favor from a childhood friend turned Nashville businessman/entrepreneur who happened to own, among other things, the fanciest strip joint in Nashville.

On the day of the first UC meeting, I met Kenny and them in their rooms at the Renaissance Hotel, I purposefully didn’t engage in a lot of chatter. My goal was to be aloof, observant, and keep them off balance.

Aside from the CI, I met with three individuals, all black males. One was an older guy, maybe fifty years old, who appeared to just be there to feel me out. I think his name was Jay. Bertrum, my main target, was about thirty years old, excited to be a part of something important for his little Muscle Shoals Cartel. He did most of the talking. Lastly, there was a gang-banger named Reynard who came with them as security. He was the most skeptical of the three and never spoke a word.

I learned a great deal about human nature during those highly formative years. But one thing that always gave me a bit of an advantage is that I can be naturally aloof and somewhat unapproachable. Not that I try to be or even see myself that way. In fact, the inner workings of my mind tell me that I’m anything but those things. I’ve just learned from others, including my wife, that people generally find me hard to know, at least until I open up to them.

In this undercover role, it was important that I just be myself. You never want to veer too far from your normal persona anyway, especially when dealing with street-smart individuals who can smell a rat in two seconds flat. The more you try to be something you’re not, the more easily the bad guys will sense something artificial about you. They may not know for sure you’re phony, but their back-hair will let them know something’s not right which is a dangerous thing for you.

You never want to consummate illegal activity with dangerous individuals when there are still questions about your legitimacy. If they sense a deception, it could be a recipe for a dangerous outcome. And you won’t know until its too late. Sometimes, your poorly executed pretense doesn’t necessarily translate as cop. It may actually look more like robbery in their minds. In which case, they may try to turn the tables and plan to rob you instead.

That said, it’s much easier to just do you. Aside from it being easy to do, it feels genuine to them.

In advance preparation, I had assembled four separate tables at a favorite BBQ restaurant in downtown Nashville with four undercover narcs at each table. My goal was very simple. When I would walk through the restaurant with my entourage to be seated, the men at each random table would stand up and greet me, calling me by my name and acting as if I were an important figure. I would greet them back, hug and shake hands with all four, then move on toward my table. Because it happened four separate times, it gave the appearance that I was a very well-known person in a very large city.

Me and my group had a great dinner, with light conversation, focused more on good food and good company, never talking about drugs at all. My next stop was planned as well. I asked them if they wanted to go see some girls. Of course, it was a given that we’d end up at a strip club.

When we arrived, we were once again escorted through the club, passing tables where seemingly everyone in the club knew me. Again, I had set it up with 4 tables of totally different guys to greet me as I walked through. The last table were a mix of white and black guys, all agents in different units except one, Robert, who was my assistant director. I had asked Robert to dress up in a suit and tie for a specific purpose.

As I walked through the club, I would simply hug or shake hands with the men addressing me. When I got to Robert, however, I actually took the additional step of introducing him to Bertrum as my banker. I suggested they may want or need his financial services from time to time but provided no other details – leaving the rest to their active imaginations.

We all had a great time at the club then I took them back to their hotel. Since I had Kenny living with them, I had the opportunity to keep filling their heads full of ideas, and also get feedback on what was working.

Once they got back to Muscle Shoals, Bertrum and his duo had a meeting with higher up members of their cartel. Kenny was invited to go with them. Kenny called me excited to tell me what happened after the meeting. It seems that one of the senior members was still very skeptical, not having participated in any of the phone calls or the meeting in Nashville. Reynard, the gang banger, spoke up boldly and said, “No ya’ll, this white muthafucka for real”!

When the same senior individual continued to question the legitimacy of the deal, Reynard became increasingly violent toward that member, standing up to address him physically over his lack of respect for his judgement. Kenny was blown away at just how far Reynard was willing to go to have his voice heard. Honestly, so was I. It meant all the effort had told a story I couldn’t have told on my own.

At the end of the day, they all decided to trust Bertrum and Reynard and agreed to do the deal. They decided to invest nearly $200,000 toward a first introduction purchase. This after Kenny told them I wouldn’t consider selling them less than 6 kilos on a first deal. Once Kenny called to inform me that they were willing to buy 6 kilos on their first buy, I agreed we would go ahead and do the deal, believing I had pushed it as far as I could.

Secretly, I told Kenny that I would go ahead and map out the deal, but I would need to have some conversations with him, Bertrum listening, where I could lay down some important ground rules. Kenny was interested to know the ground rules, so I told him. “They can’t test the coke, Kenny. They can’t cut into it, and they can’t test it. I’m allowed to borrow 6 kilos of cocaine but they’re not going to let me do anything to tamper with or alter them in any way.”

Kenny was blown away, he told me how ridiculous the plan was and that it would never happen. I told him to just let me talk to him about it with Bertrum listening and I would take care of it. I asked Kenny to be the one to initiate the call to me, then at some point ask me how I felt about them testing it.

Later, when Kenny called me, he informed me that they would be interested in 6 kilos and asked me what the price would be. I priced each kilo of cocaine at $30,000 each for a total of $180,000. Kenny said on que, “ok man, they boss is nervous, he wanna test it, dat ok right?”. I acted as if I was furious about it. “What? Is this fucking Romper Room Kenny? Who are these muthafuckers anyway, they don’t know what real cocaine looks like? These guys gotta be cops Kenny. This ain’t no fucking TV show…Miami Vice bullshit! I’m out! Don’t call me about this shit no more Kenny!”

Kenny acted panicked! “What – no? Come on man, don’t be like that. I just thought they might, I ain’t never done nothin like this man. I’ll just ask Bertrum, he probably cool, I mean, he do dis crazy shit all the time, not me. Don’t hang up, I’ll talk to him real quick.”

Kenny looked at Bertrum and Bertrum nodded his head in the affirmative, in essence, agreeing to buy the coke without cutting into the key’s.

Kenny came back on the phone, “He’s cool, he’s cool! It was my dumb ass, not them. I just didn’t know.”

Relief in my voice, I followed with, “Damn Kenny, you done made me paranoid as shit! Took three years off my life! So, let me think on when I can get you taken care of, ok? I’ll call you back tomorrow to let you know what to do.”

Kenny agreed and we hung up. Now I had to come up with a plan to deliver 6 kilos of cocaine to some bad guys in a controlled setting without getting killed, robbed, or ran out of town. The process began with conversations with the Assistant District Attorney assigned to my task force – Eddie.

Eddie was this larger-than-life figure, reminiscent of John Wayne with slicked-back black hair. He was about 6’ 5” and an easy 250 pounds, with cowboy boots and a swagger about him that exudes the type of confidence you only get from winning…winning at every thing you do. Well, all except one thing.

Eddie had been an ADA in Nashville during the 70’s and 80’s, having made a failed attempt at running for the high office of District Attorney General himself. The enormously contentious election loss meant he’d need to find another Judicial District in middle Tennessee in which to hang his ten-gallon hat.

There were a great many things I grew to respect about Eddie during the times I served under his leadership. In fact, the unique salutation I still use in all my personal written correspondence to this day was something I “borrowed” from Eddie and something Eddie “borrowed” from no other than JFK.

It wasn’t lost on me that Eddie was quite nervous about his new Director selling 6 kilos of cocaine. His boss, Mike, the General, was far more nervous than Eddie. The first thing I was told, unambiguously, was that I could do it but I would be doing the deal in Marshall County – not negotiable.

Eddie was assigned to Marshall County and was very close to the Sheriff there at the time. Eddie surmised that if we were able to pull off such a large deal and subsequently confiscate large sums of cash, then it would be customary to share a percentage of those funds with the agencies that participate in the investigation. That meant, the Marshall Co. Sheriff’s Department might receive a large sum of cash in which to utilize for their own drug enforcement program.

Eddie smoothed things over with his boss and commenced to letting me know just how and with whom this deal would take place. I was asked to meet with the Sheriff in order to explain the details of the case with them and formally ask for their assistance.

In Lewisburg, at the Sheriff’s office, I sat in a room with the Sheriff, his chief deputy and two detectives as well as Eddie the ADA. Once I’d gone over the entire scenario with them, one of the detectives commenced to tell me how the deal could never go down in the way I’d described it – it was implausible to believe guys would drive that far, not knowing me, to buy such a large quantity of cocaine on a first deal. He believed it was a rip-off scenario. Despite his detective’s concerns, the Sheriff committed his men to assist, but none had any confidence that it would ever happen. So, when it was time to negotiate the rate of sharing, I offered them ten percent.

The Sheriff was happy to agree to that sum, as they had zero confidence in it happening at all. But all that negativity put extra pressure on me to see this deal through to fruition as well. There’s nothing like a general lack of confidence from your colleagues to help give you the energy needed to rise to any occasion.

Of course, none of these cops knew anything about me anyway. I was the new guy in town, having moved from another task force a 100 miles away. Aside from that, none of these guys had any full-time drug enforcement experience whatsoever. So, it made sense to me that none of them really understood much of what I was doing or why I was doing it this way.

These guys were living in a world where you would lure a bad guy into agreeing to sell you drugs then when they show up you’d just bust them. I was coming from a different place, was familiar with alternative techniques and law, knowing that I had an opportunity to disrupt a major drug supplier, and I was willing to invest the time and energy into cultivating something more than just a simple buy-bust.

Although I wasn’t particularly happy with the content of the meeting, I was happy that we’d reached a positive conclusion and that I was turned loose to come up with an executable plan for this Reverse Sting Operation. I went to work on the details immediately.

Keep in mind, this took place about 25 years ago, things were a bit different. The biggest difference was the widespread use of digital pagers and the proliferation of phone booths. The way people communicated with each other was momentously different than the way we know it today.

I’d sent out a team to scout out every phone booth in Marshall County and log down the actual phone number with its address on a spread sheet. Back then, if you didn’t know the number of a pay phone, you could punch in a simple code and the phone would repeat its own number back to you.

While my team was busy scouting out pay phones, I began visiting hotels in the area to analyze the safety logistics for pulling off something which could turn deadly in a moments notice. There was only one suitable location, a hotel near the Shoney’s restaurant which will go nameless at this time.

I rented the entire 2nd floor of the hotel so that I could better ensure the safety of their staff and any customers that may have a room near us. I placed a couple cameras and microphones in the room intended for the undercover deal, which transmitted their wireless signals to the adjoining room where they could be monitored by the security team and recorded.

I wanted Bertrum to sit in a designated chair, one that had great video coverage, so I positioned my luggage and other props around the bed in order to discourage him from sitting in a place my team couldn’t see great. The principal camera I used in the room was a Watec B&W camera with a 12mm pin hole lens mounted on the inside of a hair dryer.

I used it quite often in hotel room scenarios. I used it particularly because I could always place it on the vanity by the bathroom, a good distance from where the action normally happens. With its 12mm wide-angle pin hole lens, it provided a great overview of the entire room.

The covert camera was great, but it’s biggest vulnerability was that it could be easily moved and lose its intended view. So, I took a pair of clean underwear and some brown rouge, then dipped my finger into the rouge to make a prominent streak of brown in the area where a skid mark would typically occur, then laid the “faux soiled” underwear across the hair dryer camera, just to discourage anyone from wanting to touch or move the hair dryer.

The hotel room now completely setup, I called Kenny to give him the arrangements. I gave instructions to Kenny to have his friend drive to the Cornersville exit off of Interstate 65, find a payphone, then to call my pager from that payphone, leaving its number, and I’d call him back as quickly as possible. I had two surveillance cars in the area in order to initiate a visual surveillance on them, just as soon as we could identify their location.

Once Bertrum, and the older gentleman who turned out to be Bertram’s father, showed up and called my pager, I quickly identified their exact location from the spreadsheet. I radioed my team to let them know their location and asked them to watch them closely, to identify the exact number in the party, and to establish if there were other cars with them. After about 20 minutes of watching them, I called Bertrum back on the payphone and told him to meet me in Lewisburg at the McDonalds parking lot in its rear and gave him directions.

My surveillance team followed them from Cornersville to Lewisburg, looking for additional cars or anything of concern. Nothing was noticed. Once they showed up at McDonalds, I pulled in next to them and asked to see the money. He opened his trunk and opened two duffle bags of cash to let me inspect it. Once I felt good about the amount, I told them to follow me to my hotel room where I was keeping what he wanted.

On the trip around the city of Lewisburg, I had several additional surveillance vehicles watching and following along the designated route, familiar with the entire team. I intentionally ran through yellow traffic lights in order to ferret out potential additional bad guys, just in case. Nothing suspicious was noted. So by the time we’d made the long circuitous route around the city, back to the hotel right next to the same McDonalds we’d just met, I drove into the hotel and began walking toward my room. Bertrum grabbed his duffle bags and followed closely behind.

Once we entered the room. I turned to Bertrum and said, look bro, I show you, you show me, that way we both know what’s up. I pulled up my shirt to expose the Smith and Wesson 645 that was tucked into the waistband my jeans. Bertrum followed suit, pulling up his shirt and showing me the Lorcin .380 semi-automatic, tucked into the waistband of his jeans. I had him do a little pirouette so that my team could see on video that he was armed and so the arrest team would know exactly where his gun was carried.

It’s common for undercover officers to have unique take-down signals that we use when its time for the arrest team to come in and make the arrest. We generally have both visual and audible signals, so that if a piece of equipment fails (audio or video), one technology may still be working. In other words, if the camera fails, my mic is still catching the audio and visa-versa.

My own personal all-time take down word was “Birmingham”, because there were no other words that sounded like it. I would just come up with a response that used that word somewhere in the sentence while simultaneously giving my visual take-down signal which was the removal of my ball cap.

Once I felt like I had sufficiently gotten Bertrum to verbally discuss the terms of the deal and I had counted the money and he’d visually inspected the drugs on camera, I just sat on the couch removed my hat and uttered the phrase, “Damn Bertrum, them boy’s in Birmingham gonna be happy with you today? Oh, you’re in Muscle Shoals, I forgot…”

Almost immediately, the door burst open, as if by the force of an explosion, except the explosion was made by a lot of ass and muscle, not explosives. Burtrum was handcuffed and his handgun removed safely from his waist with no violence whatsoever. Most importantly, none of the kilo’s were damaged or manhandled during the filming of the movie. Also good things; no cocaine made it to the street, and, despite the initial lack of confidence from my Marshall County brethren, Bertrum and his cartel donated $180,000 to my tiny little task force.

$180,000.00

Both the Sheriff and the District Attorney General were, of course, very excited to be on camera holding up all that cash money and talking about what was nearly exaggerated to be a tractor trailer load (13 + pounds) of cocaine. Oh well.

Of course, the very guy who predicted the bust would never happen, decided after the fact, that their department deserved twenty percent of the cash instead of the agreed ten percent. This, although they made no effort to make any contribution to the case other than to show up and assist in the arrest. They did, however, come through on a very nice group photograph after the fact. 

Aside from what was going on in Tennessee, I’d spoken to the task force in Muscle Shoals prior to inform them of what we were doing, in order to have their team conduct surveillance on the men headed to our state with cash. That way, search warrants could be executed there, once I confirmed our bust had been successful. 

My team and I drove to Alabama that same evening to assist them in their efforts. Several pounds of cocaine was seized there, and several hundred thousand dollars in cash was also found and seized. Mission accomplished!

Kenny earned himself quite a payday. That didn’t stop him from illegally charging all the phone calls made from his hotel room over the next couple months to my task force office number. I ended up charging him with theft after I noticed my phone bill had mysteriously doubled two months straight. The calls were all derived from a hotel room in LaVergne, a place a close friend of mine put Kenny in to start anew.

Kenny was convicted of theft and served 10 days in the Marshall Co. Jail, the same jail where Bertrum was housed. For a guy driven by his ego, I’d definitely given him some high times and some hard times. And despite him having a ten-day tight pucker, Kenny was never really in danger. I’d ensured his safety with the Sheriff. He did, however, learn his lesson with me. I make good on my promises.

Living Outside Boxes

Everyone knows I love movies. I have been intrigued with and entertained by movies since before I can remember. It is a passion born from mostly my mother who also loved movie going. I’m often quoted by my wife who likes to mimic me by saying that “I even love bad movies because at least they provide an escape from reality for two hours.”

My background in law enforcement draws me to suspense and action movies but my overall nerd-ness loves all things technical too – so you can imagine what my favorite genres may be.  But since I turned 50 and my testosterone levels have plummeted to levels deeper than Raquel Welch did in the 1966 science fiction film “Fantastic Voyage” (look it up Jon), I’ve noticed that the increasingly sensitive side of me is starting to totally dig the chick flicks nowadays.

I have this amazing memory of my mom taking me and my siblings to see a double-feature film at Harding Mall in South Nashville when I was 10 years old. It was “Barbarella” (Jane Fonda) and another movie called “The Groove Tube” which was Chevy Chase’s low budget film debut. I don’t know what my mom was thinking at the time but I think it must have been one of those duh moments because she only let us watch about 15 minutes of the second feature before jerking all of us up by the collars and getting us out of there.

I distinctly remember the film sequence that instigated our hasty exit; a mock public service announcement for venereal disease that covertly used a real penis made-up as a man’s face as its actor-spokesman. Yes, a penis with a mustache was talking to the camera. At ten, I didn’t fully understand all of the 15 minutes of sexual innuendo but I knew we were watching something we weren’t supposed to be watching which is pretty damn cool if you ask me. I still laugh about that all the time because we had brought along my next door neighbor Wayne and I wonder today if he has the same memories I have.

One of my favorite movie scenes of all time is the testing scene in the beginning of the movie “Men in Black”. To refresh your memory, let me sum it up as follows:

Will Smith’s character (who later becomes Agent J) is in a room with other candidates so the MiB can supposedly find the proverbial best of the best candidate for the MiB job opening. The candidates are all men from either military academies or elite law enforcement and are squeezed into tiny egg-shaped chairs that barely contain their bodies.

They are each given an exam booklet which is sealed in fragile paper that tears easily and a pencil. As they all scrunch up in their pods, twisting, wiggling, crossing and uncrossing legs to find comfortable positions for holding the booklet and writing at the same time, Agent J – after breaking his pencil while trying to open the envelope – stops, looks in front of him, and sees a more traditional looking table across the room.

SCREEEEEEECH! The otherwise silent and sterile room is filled with a deafening noise as Agent J drags the heavy metal table across the floor toward his egg chair. The other candidates shoot him some ugly eyes while trying their best to concentrate on the test while Agent J, oblivious to an unwritten decorum, makes himself comfortable to take the test. He repeats this type of abhorrence to all things status quo later when at the firing range.

At the firing range, these same best of the best candidates have no problem at all accurately shooting all the monsters on the targets but Agent J shoots the little girl instead. When Zed (Character played by Rip Torn) asks J “May I ask why you felt little Tiffany deserved to die?”, J responded with something like this: “When I saw little Tiffany, I’m thinking, y’know, eight-year-old white girl, middle of the ghetto, bunch of monsters, this time of the night with quantum physics books? She about to start some shit Zed.”

In that scene, Will Smith thought outside the proverbial box and instead of following what everyone else was doing. He was not afraid to literally make some noise, free himself from tradition or modesty, and do something bold that may help him achieve his goals. The situations he was placed in were structured to the point of absurdity, which is an exaggerated reflection of how complicated we tend to make life in general when we could just as effectively do things more simply. In J’s view, being quiet and conforming to others’ tin-soldier mentality only hindered his ability to accomplish the goal of passing the tests. His ability to think asymmetrically turned out to be his strongest quality.

Now if you are rolling your eyes at the phrase “thinking outside the box,” I completely empathize. The phrase has become trite and jargony and has an honored place on the list of most overused clichés and axiom’s by teachers and professors, which includes but is not limited to (yes, there are others) “seeing the forest for the trees”, “learning to think like a businessman”, or “An ounce of prevention…”, you get the idea.

Personally, I’m more moved by axioms which make you think rather than one’s which tell a commonly known truth such as: “99 percent of lawyers give the rest a bad name”, or “Madness takes its toll – please have exact change.”, or “It was recently discovered that research causes cancer in rats.”. But stripped down to its core, “thinking outside the box” says in four words what I believe to be the key to success in almost any venture as well as general happiness in life.

To me, thinking outside the box means not blindly following conventional wisdom as well as challenging assumptions about yourself, others, and the world around you. It is a shift from conceptual frameworks and paradigms to free-flowing uninhibited thought that challenges all common perspective. It’s not to say that you shouldn’t educate yourself with all that old-school knowledge, it’s just a theory that examines and explores the things unsaid rather than the things said.

We live in such a heavily controlled environment. The restrictions placed upon us do much to stymie our creativity and our ability to think freely. Perspective and perception are also powerful governors of our minds. We often view reality through narrow lenses sculpted, polished and honed by years of experience and education. But is my reality the same is your reality? In some cases yes. To you and I, red IS red and the number 4 IS the number 4. Those are constants nationally and worldwide. But what about the organic and obscure? Are we looking at the same things in the same way and coming up with the same conclusions? I doubt it.

If thinking beyond this proverbial box is so great then why do so many people encourage (or implore) you to color inside the lines, follow the rules, and stay inside the damn box? Well they are either inside the box themselves and not sure how to get out, are afraid to get out, or even worse — they are actually selling the box.

People often disagree with me about these things, citing the importance of their specific life anomalies, and I am often prone to accept the reasons they espouse because I have the heart of a teacher not a preacher. But the reality is that most of these people are simply afraid. An example of this is that in my car, while alone, I believe I’m an accomplished singer…but I’m too afraid to demonstrate just how great I am in public. Is that a fear of performing or fear of revealing how much I suck at singing?

I don’t know; ask Emily, she’s probably heard a few subtle A Cappella moans and some interesting intonations happening on long drives in the car before. Fact of the matter, I will likely never sing to anyone in public – ever. It’s just not something I’m willing to let out of my box, even though me and Michael McDonald sound identical.

Well, except for that time in Germany on a Rhine River cruise with friends Rob and Rachel. Rachel is a huge karaoke fan and begged me to sing a song. I reluctantly agreed after a long tumultuous series of offers to buy various desserts.

When the moment arrived and I drug myself to stand front and center for my performance, I whispered to the DJ to que my chosen song, much to the anticipation of my wife who was paralyzed with dread. Then the song “Tequila” started playing, you know, on and on without any lyrics.

Everyone was so confused; why wasn’t the redneck from Tennessee singing? Then, with one collaborative sigh, the whole ship finally got the joke as I confidently sang out-loud the one and only lyric…”TEQUILA!”.

That “box” for those whom are afraid represents all that is stable and controllable and accepted. I get it. I really do. I could sing one word, but to sing a legit whole song would have taken a level of something-something I just don’t possess. I understand that the box is rigid and sturdy and comfortable. But, it is still a stupid box and I know of no one who can truly spread their wings and fly inside a box.

You can paint the box and decorate it and bedazzle the box with rhinestones or Harley Davidson stickers or whatever it is that you enjoy but at the end of your life, you will move from that one beautifully decorated box to another simpler and more tasteful box. But will you have really lived?

Ask Bruce Jenner what he thinks about living in boxes. For him, his life was always about making the rest of us comfortable. His outer box was covered in rustic leather and had spikes and beer stains and cigar burns all over it. But the inside of his box looked somewhat different I suspect.

I’m not suggesting the “box” is about gender or sexuality at all, but I’m neither saying it is not. I think the box is different for everyone and the same rules apply no matter what is in that enigmatic box. The box can contain a multitude of things that have the effect of holding you back in life or in situations.

It’s just as important to recognize that your box might contain the elements of shyness as it is to recognize that your neighbor’s box is full of Pollyanna. Both qualities can hold you back from achieving goals but for entirely opposite and unexpected reasons only relevant to that one person.

Look, I love plans of attack and guidelines and goals and milestones and all those things you have read about, and yes, in some areas of life there are definite paths that must be followed to reach a specific destination — i.e., you are not going to become a doctor without going to college, taking the exam, going to medical school, passing your boards, doing your residency, etc.

But overall, never underestimate the value of thinking outside the box, figuring out your own way to get from point A to point B, and trusting your instincts along the way. Heck, maybe you don’t even have a point B in mind yet. No problem! Think of your current lack of a point B as already being outside the box. We can be sure that people like Michelangelo, da Vinci, Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg never knew a box existed.

And look, while thinking outside the box can certainly be about sitting down to solve or approach specific problems, it does not have to be. In fact, I like to think of it more as a way of life. Writing down your ideas or making a vision board is never a bad idea but there is something about saying it out loud that makes an idea sound really stupid or really profound. Don’t be afraid to bounce ideas off the chests of friends but don’t be afraid to execute a really strongly held idea just because that trusted friend doesn’t have the same vision as you.

Be forewarned, however; sometimes when you operate outside the box, people look at you funny, make not-so-nice comments about you and your actions, and maybe even tell you that you are crazy for doing what you are doing because, oh, I don’t know, you are not making any money at it; or, people won’t like it; or, you’re making people uncomfortable; or, you will never get anything out of it anyway; or, no one else cares but you; or, you are too old; or, you are too young; or, you are not being serious enough to really achieve anything… so what is the point?

Well that is just the thing and the most beautiful part of living outside the box, even if it’s just from time to time. Sometimes we do not immediately know the point when we venture outside our boxes. What is the point of doing as you feel? I don’t know, perhaps it is just because it makes you feel good, and what is the point not to do it?

Sometimes, thinking outside the box can produce challenges to those around you who’re used to a much less complicated version of yourself.

Sometimes a small spark of interest ends up turning into a passion and perhaps then into a new life or career. Or maybe your life becomes enriched with a lifelong love of a new author, subject, art, or activity. Or maybe you develop amazing new friendships that remain long after that particular dalliance outside the box is over. Or maybe your time out of the box is special just because it was time out of the box, and there really is no point besides that. You’re going to grow as a person regardless of the reason, the activity, or the point.

And besides that, there is nothing more stifling and frustrating than feeling boxed in, and that is because we are not honoring that part of ourselves that wants, that needs so desperately to get out. In 2016, I was feeling like I was in a box. A box of social and political correctness. The box grew more and more confining as the accepted conditions of my career held me back from engaging and being myself.

So, after suffering as much as I could stand, I decided to leap outside that box of political correctness and even beyond my own normal social boundaries and resolve my situation in the only way my life has trained me to do. Was I right to do it or wrong? That is a matter of perception for others but for me there’s no question that I did the right thing?

So what this blog is really saying, I suppose, is that thinking or living outside the box is not about what others think and it’s not about what’s good or comfortable for everyone else. Living outside the box allows you to shed the layers of social acceptance and just be the person you need to be at the moment.

“Every child is an artist, the problem is staying an artist when you grow up.”

Pablo Picasso

Creativity comes from peeling away the things which quintessentially make us adults, and instead, looking at situations and life from pure naiveté. Living and thinking outside the box is just a cliché way of expressing that same thought. When we strip away those latticed layers of conformity, maturity, shame, rationality, power, ego, reciprocity, and emotional clutter, then we can harness those crumbs of ingenuity floating around in a sub-consciousness that is much less chaotic.

I’m stepping outside my box right now. When I express my inner thoughts about life, love, parenthood, or politics, I’m pushing my own self-imposed boundaries of the first 50 years of my life. While I’m nowhere close to inventing an Alfred Hitchcock character like in the movie “Vertigo” nor could I possibly do justice to a character like Russell Crowe played in “A Beautiful Mind”, what I can do is articulate the things that keep my mind busy when put into a square room and asked to administrate black & white procedures all day.

My sister Lisa is an amazing artist. She principally works in the medium of portraiture. But what makes her amazing is not how accurately she can replicate a photograph. What makes her amazing is how she can so intricately produce what she see’s in her head – which could be quite different than how the rest of us see things or people. Lisa can create something entirely original and yet be instantly identifiable as the same thing, only in her own language. I

’m not an artist so I won’t attempt to impress you with a science or vocabulary I know little about, but I think the secret of anyone’s success is an ability to be bravely put forth your product, different as it may be, and own it. It’s your thing, your voice, your identity all mixed up as an ingredient inside your vision of the world around you. Own it.

For myself, I had one little dalliance out of my own box a few years ago and now here I am carving out the next half of my life, only differently and more deliberately. Maybe the lyrics from “Carry on My Wayward Son” will never resonate beyond the confines of my Chevy truck but the lyrics of my life and my thoughts will resonate in words on some digital cloud somewhere forever. Absent that one baby step, you and I wouldn’t have met.

When is the last time you stepped outside of your box?

Should We Be Here? Humanity’s Obituary.

One of my many interests in life is the field of genealogy. I’ve been delving into the woodpiles of my family story for over three decades now and I’m still just as excited about the journey as I was when it all first began. I find it incredibly fascinating that modern technology has given us the tools to collate vast amounts of historical and ancestral data that we’re now able to trace our direct ancestors back hundreds or even thousands of years with relative ease. On top of all that and with the addition of DNA analysis, we can find distant cousins in obscure places across the globe, then assemble individual family records to sort of reverse engineer parts of our family trees otherwise impossible to unravel.

My favorite of all our vacations has thus far been our trip to Wales. During that trip, we were fortunate on one day to have our lunch in a 16th century pub named the “Old Swan Inn” in a tiny southern Welsh village called Llantwit Major. The significance; that pub once was the ancestral home of my 12th Great Grandfather Sir Robert Ragland (b. 1510 d. 1565). Just the ability to know that is super cool; but actually visiting and dining there among the same broken plaster walls, hand-hewn beams and squeaky wooden floors that my distant ancestors also experienced cannot be adequately described.

There were, of course, lots of other interesting and genealogically important places we visited on that trip, but I don’t want to bore you with the history of my maternal ancestry. I just wanted to share the one part of it that I think supports the overall gist of this story and get you thinking about the possibilities that lie ahead of you should you begin pursuing your own family story.

Not all the things I think about in my quiet moments are appropriate for every audience but there are a few thoughts I often have that I don’t mind sharing. One is this idea of how incredibly miraculous it is that any of us are actually here today. When you really sit back and delve into the odds, its unfathomable that we could be here by mistake. When I talk of odds, I mean the obstacles our forefathers and mothers endured to be able to pass on their DNA to us. You and I are the children of the sturdiest, smartest, luckiest, healthiest, strongest, fastest, surefooted’est group of men and women ever born. If they weren’t all these things, we surely would not be here today.

I guess, what brought about all these ideas is my insatiable appetite for history. I love to read. Lately, I’ve gotten interested in the history and evolution of Celtic and proto-Celtic peoples as they spread themselves through early Belgium (Gaul) and Germany (Germania), through the beginnings of a country we now call France (Frankia), then onto the island of Britain (Britannia) and across and up into Wales (Cambria), Scotland (Alba) and Ireland (Hibernia). That is, of course, not the only way humans made it to the islands and areas well-known today for their Celtic inhabitants; just their most prolific path.

This journey, as is the case for every tribe of humanity, was and is affected by a plethora of circumstances and decisions that shaped the future of these people. Some of which they had no control over and some of which they did. Either way, hundreds of millions of people gave their lives along the way, learning and evolving and becoming more disease resistant then passing down that new knowledge and those priceless immunities to their children and grandchildren.

That seams easy to say and read doesn’t it…hundreds of millions of people. Unfortunately, it does even for me. If I were not the author of this story, I might myself roll my eyes at someone talking about hundreds of millions of people. But, when I’m done here, I hope that you think twice or three times about the scope of what it really means to be you and be me.

Just think for a minute about the many things our humanity has survived: famines, plagues, natural disasters, religious inquisitions, and wars. Let’s look at plagues for a second.

Plagues: When you add the deaths brought on by Malaria, the Black Death, Measles, Smallpox, the Spanish Flu, the Plague of Justinian, Tuberculosis, the Bubonic Plague, the Antonine Plague and AIDS, you’re talking about nearly 7 Billion deaths. That’s close to the current (2019) population of the entire planet and about 22 times the population of the United States. There were literally villages in the middle ages that were completely wiped out by plagues. The bloodlines of entire families were wiped out in some cases.

If your family happened to have been one of the victims of any of those plagues, you literally would not be here today. There would have been about a 50/50 chance that you wouldn’t. But your family and my family were made of good stuff…the best stuff; so here you are today playing video games and getting your news from blogs, all so very thankful and mindful of the sacrifices made before you that allow you to simultaneously hold the high score in Donkey Kong AND Super Mario Odyssey for 2 years straight.

But seriously, what would our planet look like today had all those deaths not occurred? The human experience is complex. From massive amounts of death and destruction have arisen new antibodies and disease resistance that helped to carry our ancestors, the ones with the strongest immune systems of their day, on to reproduce and evolve further.

War: If we examine the aftermath of war, which by the way is incalculable, and break it down from Ancient Wars (549 BC to 450 AD), Medieval Wars (534 AD to 1487 AD) and Modern Wars (1494 AD to 2018), it is a scary picture indeed. Ancient Wars took about 60,000,000 people from us. That is not including the spouses and children who died from starvation as a result of the death of their soldier husband/father or the death of civilians when villages were pillaged. Medieval Wars took another 90,000,000 people. Modern Wars, however, have taken more than 465,000,000 people out of our gene pool.

By combining just the known casualties of recorded war acts, the numbers are staggering – more than 600 million people. But the reality is that there has always been war, much of it unrecorded. Entire peoples, languages and cultures have been eliminated by war. Remember the song lyrics, “my baby she’s a Chippewa, she’s a one of a kind”? Well, the tongue and cheek humor in those lyrics aren’t so funny if you’re a Chippewa, except, there are no Chippewa left are there?

Religion: Religious persecutions, insurrections and inquisitions have been quite the DNA altering influences as well. More than 10,000,000 documented people have been intentionally and quite gruesomely murdered at the hands of various religious sects, orders, church’s, etc., in the absolute belief that God instructed them to do it.

It’s amazing to me that even an evolved and otherwise healthy human mind can be influenced to believe and to justify the complete intolerance of another’s beliefs and ideals. We see militant religious intolerance to this very day from every nook, cranny and political sphere known. There are some human conditions for which no cure could ever be invented – because perhaps we don’t want really want to be cured.

Famine: Famine is not something to sneeze at in our world history either. Just in China alone, widespread famines have taken the lives of over 80,000,000 Chinese family descendants. Russia too has a long and painful history of famines; the cumulative effect of which numbers close to 21,000,000 people.

Just think for a minute what it would have been like to live in either China or Russia during any of the dozens of separate national famines of those era’s. I remember news reports from my teens showing thousands of Russians standing in bread lines to get rationed food. These are not just historical era problems from a more barbaric past. Famines are also current events.

When the widespread push of Communism was spreading through Western Europe after WWII, the U.S. and its Allies were just as concerned about famine and hunger as they were about totalitarianism. People were dying by the millions. The U.S. alone spent more than 13 Billion dollars on foreign aid to western Europe from 1948 to 1951 in order to save lives.

Ethnic Indians too have lost nearly 60,000,000 people to famine over their recorded history and Africa has lost 20,000,000 just in the 20th century alone. When you look at famine deaths worldwide, it’s not difficult to figure out that we’re pretty darn lucky that our particular ancestors were somehow able to survive to leave us this healthier legacy – the importance of which we may or may not have figured out for ourselves.

Natural Disaster: Along with all the other drama and dysfunction happening before we existed, our poor forefathers also dealt with other issues you may not have thought about. Our planet has endured 5 separate ice ages, thousands of earthquakes, volcano eruptions, banana peel falls, floods, wildfires, hurricanes, tornadoes, asteroid collisions, pterodactyl attacks, mud slides and who knows what all else. I have no way of calculating the total deaths and migrations associated with the ice ages and it would be impossible to account for the historic numbers of people affected by the other events I mentioned.

I think though it would be more than fair to assume that millions and millions of our ancestors have been eliminated from our genetic heritage as a result of natural disasters. If you’ve ever been fortunate to visit the ancient city of Pompeii on the Amalfi Coast in Italy, you’ve probably met what’s left of some of these unfortunate ancestors in person.

So, for those of you who’ve not been keeping up with the score, we’ve passed the current worldwide population (7 Billion) by over 8 hundred million people. This unfortunate fraternity of humanity, I’ll call the Friends Without Benefits Club, are an anomaly for sure. Many of them never had the chance to pass on their DNA, but we know they made enormous contributions to our survival that will never be fully appreciated as we mostly have no names, books, statues or poems from which to memorialize them.

These were not just heroes of their villages and cultures who sacrificed themselves as soldiers in order to keep their family’s DNA safe. These folks were also the guinea pigs of early humanity who donated their existence to a science that was not yet knowable.

When you are at your lowest moments and you question why you are here or whether anyone would care if your gone, think about all the good karma that saw to it your existence was even possible. Even my dog has a reason to be here. None of us are accidental. None of us are incidental.

And when you begin to feel the pains of intolerance to anyone for anything. Step back a second and remember how radical intolerance begins. It begins with justified intolerance. Sometimes a justified intolerance for people who have a justified intolerance toward you and your ideals. Said differently, they may think you’re just as weird as you think they are.

Try instead to cultivate the grace within you and recognize that everything in this world has its own time, and perhaps…just perhaps, there is a very good reason things are the way they are. Time is temporary. Be patient and tolerant and it will soon all change.

An Enigma, Wrapped in a Mystery, All Inside a Tasty Little Cookie

I was dining last week with Emily at a Japanese steak house nearby and discovered a fairly evocative fortune inside my cookie that I just had to write something about. It’s not often that I feel inspiration from a fortune cookie but this one immediately aroused a common theme in which I’m always a sucker for writing about – advice. Probably 75% of my blogs are related to life-advice.

People close to me, pretty much my whole life, have told me that I’m a decent giver of advice. As a result, I’ve become sort of a reluctant incompetently competent supplier of advice. It’s important to note, in case you wanna stop reading here, I have absolutely no paying customers.

Although I’m comfortable to offer advice on some subjects, I’m also keenly aware that giving advice can be a dangerous thing to do. To presume that I should be telling people what to do with their own lives implies something very close to egomania, a condition in which I pray never takes me over.

That said, I think that my inclination to write forces me to place what little intellect I do have on-the-line, whether I like it or not. Otherwise, what would I write about, ugh, maybe fortune cookies?

It’s actually kind of funny to me; while you can obtain all these advice-wrapped fortune cookies pretty much anywhere in the developed world, you won’t find them at all in China or Japan – the places you’d most expect to see them. What does that say about America – or East Asia?

Is the Chinese Buffet some sort of hidden metaphor – perhaps that we all should be ‘getting our fair share in life’? The Chinese have discovered that Americans love getting unsolicited advice so much that they created a plain Jane cookie that draws us in like flies to their restaurants.

Regardless of any of that, we ‘Mericans’ love things to be simple, including our life paths. Just give me my high school diploma, a $50,000 a year job, and a cool house then leave me alone. Simple! But simple rarely gets us where we’d really like to be and life generally sucks a little while before you finally bite into to the big ole piece of chocolate with the hazelnut on the inside.

In the likely event that all four of you readers are wondering… my fortune cookie says, “Happiness lies in the joy of achievement and the thrill of creative effort.” I don’t know who to attribute that quote to because the cookie didn’t provide a bibliography, so I hope the blog police aren’t paying any attention. All jokes aside, just let that statement percolate for a minute or two. What statement could be truer than this one?

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I say this because no matter how great a job we have or how much money we’re able to bring home, nothing in my life thus far has ever trumped the joy I’ve experienced in meeting an important goal or achieving an important victory. That joy only amplified when my own creativity contributed to the success of the overall project.

A good example is this blog. No one is paying me to spend my free time writing down my thoughts; my pay comes from the personal satisfaction I experience at completing an endeavor I feel passionate about or where someone I love might benefit one day from my insanity. It’s just something I like doing – made sweeter with the idea that someone else may find it entertaining or insightful.

In the scheme of things, it really doesn’t matter if anyone else finds that same value, although I love it when they do, it only matters that I entered into a personal creative process from which there derived something tangible and meaningful. When folks are solving big problems, the last thing they’re thinking about at the moment is how much they’re getting paid.

If all of the above is true, then our goal in life might be to play, play, play, work, work, work at something – anything, until such time as we are better able to figure out just what it may be that we most enjoy doing, and what we’re naturally good at doing. Hopefully, a few years of toiling away at crappy jobs while making new acquaintances and conversing about life, one begins to start assessing where he/she is and where he/she may like to go or what job or career may better fit their personality or push certain peculiar buttons that absolutely need to be pushed.

Obviously, not everyone throws caution into the wind to see where things land before picking a career path. Some of us plan out our professional aspirations at dreadfully young ages. Some people are just natural born planners and organizers.

I’m not really writing about those people because those kinds of people don’t really notice people like us, people who start off adulthood without plans. Those other smarter and more organized people suck.

Organizer types don’t have time to worry about us because they, still, are too busy organizing their calendars for what’s happening this afternoon, tomorrow morning and next week. This particular blog/rant is really speaking to the folks out there who may be struggling emotionally because they’re stuck in a rut not knowing what they should do with the rest of their lives or even the right direction their ship should thus be oriented.

Obviously, we are not all alike. While some of us have no problem fixating on a goal then working to achieve it, others of us find it difficult to even pick a goal. I personally think it is an unspoken tragedy of life that we most often seek to understand the goal and not the self. We try to adjust ourselves to the demands of a theory when we might be better off adjusting ourselves to a congruence with our own personal identity. We should never strive necessarily to be a banker, a teacher, a pilot or a policeman. We should strive first to be ourselves.

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I’m not saying that you shouldn’t be a banker, pilot or policeman – what I am saying is that I think we are better off making our goals conform to our identity rather than mold our identity to conform to a goal. In each of us, DNA, environment, socio-economic forces, family values, etc., have all combined to produce a person with certain desires and aptitude, including a profound and deeply ingrained desire to have a life that is meaningful. We all find meaning and purpose in different ways. For some it’s children, or a great career. For others it may be shiny aluminum wheels on their Honda or a mink coat.

So, as I see it, we need not dedicate our entire lives to achieving any pre-defined goal, but instead choose a life we know we will enjoy. Goals are absolutely secondary: it is our functioning toward the goal which is perhaps most important. Allowing another person to define your own goals is to give up one of the most meaningful aspects of life – the definitive act of will which makes us all individuals.

In short, the formula is as follows: we must choose a path which will let us use our natural abilities, which lets us function at maximum efficiency toward the gratification of our personal desires, and in so doing we fulfill a need for expressing our identity and avoid frustrating our potentiality and the fear of watching our goals disappear or gradually lose the charm they once held.

Because, after all, every single day we view those original goals from an entirely different angle. As we evolve, those once powerfully attractive goals may lose some of their glitter. If we’ve dedicated our entire lives to achieving a goal which no longer seems appropriate for us; then what? Once I thought about becoming an attorney. Then I met attorneys and realized that they work all day and do homework every night. My perspective changed by means of experience and insight.

Our perspective on life and goals will change. It is not the pilot or the banker that changes, it is us. Each of us are the sum total of our reactions to different experiences. As those experiences multiply, we change – we’re evolving into different men and women. Because we’re different, our perspective changes. Alternatively, if we wait long enough – if procrastination becomes the goal, then it will be circumstance that makes our decisions for us.

So, in essence, we shouldn’t just throw caution into the wind as I was saying earlier. Metamorphoses shouldn’t necessarily be completely organic. You can and should read and listen and expose yourself to as many different ideas as possible. Every nowhere job you’ll ever have will expose you to new ideas and new situations and new people, all of which provide lots of life-lessons. Those absurd and gross people you despise may offer you one little gem of genius that completely transforms the way you think about something unrelated but nonetheless important to you. Wisdom is everywhere, even in assholes. Your greatest inspirations for obtaining the perfect ‘you-job’ will come from having lots of crappy jobs and knowing lots of assholes.

But, all the wisdom you’re accumulating while you are “doing” will give you the tools you need to eventually make big life decisions. Regardless of everything I’ve said about honoring the soul inside the worker, you still always have the goal of creating and achieving because that is something instinctive that must be nourished. We continually do that with information and knowledge that our experiences turn into wisdom. Wisdom of things and life and self.

Today, unlike the many generations before you, we live in a world overflowing with superfluous information. And yet, with such an abundance of information and data at our fingertips, what we seem to be experiencing is a growing scarcity of wisdom. I think it is very easy to confuse the two (very different) things.

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Many of us think that by having access to more information we can produce more knowledge, which automatically results in more wisdom. The reality is that the opposite is true. The reason I say this is because when a person inundates themselves with more and more data without the proper context, it only jumbles our understanding of the world rather than elevating it.

I see real life examples of this all the time at work. Someone is assigned to lead a task; the leader is naturally a person who lives and breathes those types of issues and thus is highly knowledgeable about the subject matter. Bureaucrats who are intelligent but not experienced in the subject matter quickly digest information from the task leader, along with information found by way of Google, as well as a few phone calls and all of the sudden they become experts themselves, regurgitating lines back to the leader that they learned from him/her not 10 days prior, no longer needing and many times rejecting the wisdom of the task leader because that wisdom and experience doesn’t align with Google’s version nor their own political agenda.

It happens all the time. What is lost is the deeper understanding of experience which can predict and help you avoid pitfalls that 40 hour experts will rarely ever see. Our society has become overly dependent and unconsciously confident because we all have a smart phone and Google to answer every question one could possibly present. Oh, if I had just had access to Google when I was a teenager, instead of the 1964 Encyclopedia Britannica, I could have been overwhelmingly smarter than my parents (just kidding mom).

There is a stepladder of understanding that takes a logical path from gaining information to achieving wisdom. At the bottom is a piece of information which basically tells us some small fact about the world. Just above that step is knowledge. Knowledge is the understanding of how different little morsels of information all fit together to disclose some particular certainty about the world. Knowledge hinges on an act of association and clarification – it puts the information into its proper perspective.

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At the very top of this stepladder is finally wisdom. Wisdom is not just a deep knowledge (i.e., I read those crib assembly instructions ten freakin times and called two buddies about it), wisdom combines a moral component to knowledge. It is the application of information that is worth remembering and knowledge that matters to the understanding of not just how our world works, but also how it should work. Trump haters know all about this concept.

To have true wisdom, one requires a moral structure of what should and shouldn’t matter, as well as an idyllic vision of the world at its highest potentiality. And once you’ve achieved some wisdom, you must convince your ego that whatever wisdom you may have acquired, is only wisdom about that one subject under that one set of circumstances. Throughout your life, there will be lots more work to do and many more subjects and circumstances to tackle.

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So while the fortune cookie, in its most basic form, can provide us with all the spiritual and motivational insights as our tummies and our appetite for Moo Goo Gai Pan can endure; the magical tickertape stuffed inside those cookies cannot by themselves offer us the true wisdom we all seek or need. It takes a lot of effort, a good heart, and the shedding of our narcissistic tendencies in order to recognize the depth of all that lie before us.

And sometimes, what we have before us are just ordinary people – people with unique experiences and information and failures and successes which are all different from our own. Yes, sometimes we are not allowed to have wisdom in certain areas because we can’t have experience in every area. In those cases, our wisdom comes from recognizing the value of other human beings around us.

Wisdom allows us the capacity to understand that mastery over any subject is outdated the very moment one achieves it. True wisdom is completely void of any independent identity. It is never about any one person or one group. It only exists in the collective because each of us contributes to the evolution of it every single day. Wisdom follows the doctrine of universal responsibility. It is akin to saying that every part of our body longs for our eyes, our lungs, our legs to be healthy; if one part suffers, we all suffer.

Work and living and parenting and every other important aspect of our lives are most positively affected by just being real. Being true to yourself in your profession, in your relationships, etc., allows you to function at your highest possible levels. Your wisdom will come from expending your energies and experiencing your world with a clear mind and an unambiguous path not littered by obstacles and chaos created by unrealistic expectations or less than honest intentions.

Lastly, I am no expert. I’m just a 53 year old husband and a hopelessly paternal dad, a placeholder of my job and a life-long old guy who loves to write about advice that I wish I could have ignored when I was young. My greatest achievement in life is the recognition that as my son gets older and more experienced, he is finally coming to realize that I may not have been as ignorant as I may have once seemed. Which mainly means I’m now entitled to be as crappy as I want and still exceed all expectations.

Bullying and Depression

One of the things I love about blogging is that the format is much more similar to a discussion than it is a story or news or whatever. It’s much more intimate and personal. We can address the things that are going on in our own lives or in the lives of people close to us and not necessarily have to wait for the next big national news event from which to launch our tirades or sweet-talks. Today I want to express my concerns about someone close to us about depression and bullying and offer a bit of advice.

 The biggest problem with being a young adult or adolescent is the fact that you’re, in many ways, an adult with adult brain power. You’re still in school which means you can still do long math, you can probably structure sentences better than most adults, and you can still recite State capitols and quote Shakespeare. All this mental flexibility makes us feel very bright and ready to take on the world. Our parents are the only adults we’re around enough to really compare our own intelligence to and what we see from them at home isn’t always the most representative of the whole person. So, we know we’re pretty smart like our adult parents but in many ways we’re still children, especially so when it comes to emotional intelligence. Your brain is literally wedged between a rock and a hard place.

 What your parents do have an abundance of (maybe…hopefully) that remains mostly unknown to you is the ability to cope with life’s up’s and down’s…a kind of emotional intelligence that we learn from surviving failure, betrayal, disappointments, infidelity, personal attacks, or the plethora of other lessons taught to us in high school and the work place, none of which that can be found in a textbook. Every single time we survive the next disaster, we sort of metamorphose into the next higher version of ourselves, shedding our thinner skins and growing a newer thicker one more capable than the last in defending ourselves or deflecting the danger away.  

 Without these skills, we’re left vulnerable and susceptible to all sorts of dehumanizing feelings that are sometimes strong enough to put us in a state of depression that can be so strong that it blinds us from finding a way out. It’s kinda like the dichotomy of needing a car to get a job and needing a job to get a car; we don’t always have the wherewithal to develop these coping skills when we need them most or when we’re most challenged by the pressures of growing up.

 When you’re gifted and smart, it’s way harder because you’re way more sensitive to right and wrong, you’re way more aware of how destructive the behavior is to you, and you’re way more perplexed at why you of all people cannot figure out how to solve the problem. Smart people have good ideas so you think you’re supposed to be able to solve these problems and yet you can’t. Not only is it emotionally damaging to be in the situation, but you’re simultaneously feeling insecure and unprepared to make it go away, maybe for the first time in your life. You begin to undermine your own intellect out of utter frustration at not being able to manage these feelings or solve your own problems.

 Depression is a humiliating human experience. Whether the result of bullying, stress, medical conditions or any number of other causes, the consequences are the same. Everyone experiences some form or degree of depression in their lives although some of us are better at shedding old skin than the rest.

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So, what we want to avoid is allowing a tumultuous situation to evolve into depression. If we allow it or if we don’t recognize the seriousness of our condition at a time when we can still think clearly, the ravages of clinical depression may creep into your life and take its toll on you and everyone around you. Whether you’re recognizing it or not (and some of us cannot), depression can turn intelligent, articulate and outgoing people into relative sleep-walkers and robots who can’t so much as wash a dish or change their socks.

 Depression can affect your ability to think clearly, to feel anything, to ascribe value to your own children, lifelong passions, and even your relative good fortune. On top of that, the usual medication for depression is usually some sort of psychotropic drug that helps your brain to quit feeling. So, not everyone does well with the drugs. There are both success and failure stories associated with the treatment of depression just like there are success and failure stories associated with the disease itself. I know people from both camps.

 Treated early enough, you can help to file the sharp edges of life away to help you focus on you and what is making you feel things so strongly. That doesn’t let you off the hook to solve your problems. If you’re fortunate enough to be able to reconcile your stress with medical intervention, take your medically induced lucidity serious and work to bring final resolution to the things or situations or people who are causing you problems, even if that means writing that person off completely and moving on.

 If allowed to continue, depression has the ability to scoop out your normal healthy ability to cope with bad days and bad news, and replaces it with an unrecognizable muck that finds no pleasure, no delight, and no point in anything outside of a couch. You may alienate your friends at school because you can’t comport yourself socially, your job may be at risk because you can’t concentrate, and you may live in moderate squalor because you have no energy to stand up, let alone take out the garbage. Sometimes, we’re just not quite ready to grow up and accept all that comes with being an adult and sometimes it’s the opposite, we just need to get the hell out of an environment that might be choking off our air supply. There is no one-size fits all solution when it comes to emotion and life. 

 My deceased brother suffered from depression. His depression was the result of a psychological disorder that limited his ability to cope in many ways but that never stopped him from feeling – just as you and I do. The world, as viewed from my brother’s eyes, was different than it is to me or to you but he was still a human being who felt and loved and innately understood that he was making the people around him uncomfortable. Although he lost the ability to recognize his own responsibility for how he made others feel, he nonetheless understood fully how everyone suddenly became afraid of him. While his empath began to fade, his overall sensitivities were elevated which made him acutely aware of the world, his family, and how he saw himself fitting-in among everyone and everything around him.

 It’s so sad to think about someone with a mental illness who once had full-competency. To live in a world that you perceive as dangerous, but in ways that you alone can solve if people will just give your ideas a chance. To want nothing more than to protect the one’s you love but to then feel the rejection of your ideas and the pain associated with the recognition that everyone thinks you’re crazy. Depression can be the catalyst that manifests itself into this type of mental illness, especially if you have other stressors that are working synergistically against you.

 Sadly, people with severe depression start to become pathetic and they know it. It’s one of the least appreciated parts of the condition. Depression, if untreated, can manifest itself into more serious conditions leaving its victims with little or no capacity to stop the downward plunge they see as inevitable. They begin to lose all perspective, all emotional reserves, and have no faith that things will ever get better. So they begin to feel guilty and ashamed of their inability to deal with life like any regular human, which exacerbates the depression and the isolation.

 Those of us around the depressed grow increasingly insensitive because we don’t understand the logic of it all (There is no logic). We only see how our loved one’s condition negatively impacts our own lives. Our loved one’s problems can be so overwhelming sometimes that we just want to run away to escape what we see as unnecessary chaos. We become desensitized to the whole affair and even duck and evade our troubled loved ones in order to find some normalcy and solace in our avoidance of them. I’m guilty of that myself. The guilt associated with that avoidance can also be overwhelming. You find yourself either victimized by psychotic drama or by self-guilt for not wanting to subject yourself or your family to psychotic drama. No one wins.

 If you’ve never been depressed, give thanks to your DNA providers and back off the folks who need to take a pill just so they can make eye contact with the grocery store cashier. No one on earth would choose the nightmare of depression over a typically turbulent normal life. That said, normal life is typically turbulent and we all take a few fastballs to the chest occasionally; it’s all part of stepping up to the plate of life.

 As I’ve written about previously, if the weight of certain things are dragging you down instead of lifting you up then you should move on to the next thing. Looking straight into the eyes of each person or situation; you must decide if this is going to a part of your history or a part of your destiny. Discovering that you have the courage to move on from destructive forces or people contributes to the cultivation of our super-powers, resilience being one of those. Depression cannot thrive among resilience.

 Recognize that we’re all perfectly flawed. Yes, you’re a kind and sensitive person and you need a pill right now to help you cope. But, alternatively, the bully has way more problems than do you. If you really think about it, what type of false-reality is that person living in right now? How much further toward adulthood or success or realizing your dreams are you right now compared to him/her? That person has a long hard road ahead and reality is going to suck way worse for him/her than it is for you right now. If anything, you should be feeling sorry for them.

 Stop judging yourself unnecessarily. The person bullying you is likely so selfish and full of themselves right now that they don’t even believe they’re a bully, much less able to recognize how destructive they are to those around them. While you’re reconciling the bully, don’t fail to recognize your own responsibility in how these situations evolve and encompass everyone and everything around them. Don’t be guilty of believing that the “high road” is somehow conveyed by your absence or refusal to stand up for yourself. If chaos is met by silence, chaos still exists because it creeps into new places you would have never expected. It’s also not anger or retaliation that defeats chaos, its wisdom and order – which, BTW, also defeats depression.

Depression is not just an incapacity to cope with day to day living in the modern world. It’s an incapacity to function. No one chooses it. No one deserves it. It can run in families and it can ruin families. Most of us cannot imagine what it takes to feign normalcy. But that is exactly what victims of depression do every day. My goal is two-fold; I want to scare you into facing whatever it is that is luring you into depression, and, I want to help you and others empathize with those who are suffering now.

 Bullying is real. Just because you’ve never suffered from it doesn’t make it imaginary. The way you survive it is to confront it and just proudly announce that what is happening to you is hurtful, whether they care about or want to take responsibility for it or not and that you’re done worrying about it. There’s something profoundly powerful about vocalizing your intentions that has a way of making your words come true. If you tell them you’re done…you’re done. 

 

Good Luck.

Narcissism Sucks!

“It is much easier to make good men wise than to make bad men good.” Henry Fielding said that in 1749. I like Henry Fielding as a writer because not only did he lace his thoughts in humor but he also had curly hair and a law enforcement background. I like people with curly hair and law enforcement backgrounds, I don’t know why.

Forgive me for ranting a little bit but this week has been just a little stressful. I don’t often have to deal with true narcissists in my job but when I do it’s a depressing reminder of my deceased brother who suffered from a mental illness late in life characterized by extreme narcissism. In defense of my brother, he couldn’t help it. He was principally a victim of circumstance, a war, and probably some crappy genetics. If you hang out with me for very long at all you will easily spot some of the crappy genetics I’m referring to (not from you mom).

There should be a test people take before being allowed to procreate. Men should have to account for all of the sperm they produce and pay a tax for any that escape an allowed allocation to partners who are on a list of government approved recipients. If your DNA has a genetic marker that could produce a narcissist then you should be sterilized. That way, the rest of us have some say about the kinds of folks we have to live with, deal with, subsidize or carry the burden for. I’ve met a few folks that have had some hard times but they’re so nice I didn’t mind them having an EBT card. I’ve also known a few folks that have no problem whatsoever carrying their own weight but really should have been aborted.

I’m not making any political statements here but I will say this about gay couples, at least when they decide to have children, they research the heck out of those eggs and make sure their kids are coming from good stock. Everyone make sure and watch the news tonight. When you see the barefoot – snaggletooth – meth mouth – blue gum – redneck talking about the latest UFO sighting at the local dairy dip then political correctness dictates that there’s only one thing you can openly say about the person with any real certainty…this person was definitely not procreated in a test tube. Next time you see a gay couple, hug them for saving the human race.

I digressed didn’t I? Oh well, sorry. Narcissism is a serious thing. I can’t imaging growing up with one as a parent. It’s probably one of the most difficult psychological legacies you can have. These are parents who are incapable of real love, who blame you for everything because they cannot make mistakes, who undermine your initiative because they fear your success, who dismiss your feelings because no one’s feelings matter except their own, who may adore a sibling because he/she is a reminder of himself/herself. These are some serious issues for anyone to overcome and grow up normal.

I’ve read that there can be some genetic markers for this but by and large everything I’ve read about them suggests that they are products of their own creation. It’s not an accidental thing, unless caused by mental illness, but a series of life-long choices that manifest themselves into problems which cannot be solved because by doing so it undermines an entire lifetime of embellishments and denial. They create their own disorder then go around inflicting it on everyone around them.

And somewhere along the line they all wander into my office and find me minding my own business. They ask for advice and information and I gladly give it. Then they pursue an agenda driven by a complete disregard for rules and a spirit of “I’d rather get forgiveness than permission” and ultimately fail. Then, unable to admit personal failure, they blame their problems on me as I was the one “who told them what to do”. Then, they punish everyone in their proximity because they were “against” them all along, not realizing that those same people have now become his/her victims and he/she may be going to need their support later on when he/she sticks his/her middle finger up and makes another go at it. Then they file a lawsuit against me and lose but because they’re a narcissist, cannot accept that they were wrong so they go about recording everyone in an attempt to capture “conspiracies and lies” so that they can one day prove that they were right all along.

narcissists

Or maybe it’s another type of narcissist who inherits a business and never has to work for anything but feels jaded because he knows that his intellect is far superior to those around him but life and luck superseded his ability to “prove” his own immense value. So, in evaluating those around him whom have worked hard to better themselves and who may get a little attention because of that hard work, he finds it unfair because he’s the one who really deserves the attention, he’s the real genius. His narcissism just cannot allow others to share the spotlight so he manipulates and undermines everyone around him in order to expose what he perceives to be weaknesses in the armor of his rivals for attention. His goal is not to accomplish anything, but to undermine the success of others. Why should he accomplish anything, everyone already knows that he’s awesome. Can we all make a very strong alcoholic drink and make a toast to this type of narcissist?

Let me get a breath of oxygen because that was a mouthful. Ok, what I’d love to impart in this blog is that no matter how smart or gifted you are, someone in this world thinks you are a complete dumb-ass. Trust me, I’ve met more than a few people who think that about me. I like words but I suck at math. My wife loves math and she sucks with words. God did a great job of equalizing and distributing the powers among us. None of us could live fully independently of others. We all have to accept our own limitations and inadequacies then praise and recognize those around us whom possess the missing puzzle pieces of our own lives. If you do nothing else this Christmas, give the gift of acknowledgment to your spouse or children or parents and friends that they matter and that they make your life a lot better. Then quickly pour some cold water on that ego. Don’t just listen to me, I’m not an expert on anything but I heard from a reliable source that Santa Clause thinks narcissists suck!

My One True Love & Cracker Jack’s

My whole life I’ve heard about the idea of true love. There are many ways to express it (i.e., real love, made for each other, perfect partners, soul mates, numero uno, love of my life, my one and only, etc.) but how many people among us can really comprehend the idea of such a thing in its full context? We’ve all had our up’s and down’s and most of us end up tied to someone special eventually, but are you truly with your “one true love” or did you just settle for someone just a little less “perfect” than you expected?

Most people can’t wait to get married. Sometimes it’s because they just want to get out of a bad home environment, or sometimes it could be that they just want to grow up and move on with life. Perhaps it’s because all their friends are getting married, having kids, and they think they’re supposed to do the same thing. But when you’re young and fresh out of school, you’ve not really lived and navigated through enough personal relationships from which to accurately judge whether your current person is really the best person for you or not. That is one reason why statistically more marriages fail than survive.

I’ve blogged about the idea of perception-versus-reality several times because I truly believe that each of us have our own special reality shaped by several things including nature (DNA), nurture (parenting and mentoring), and experience (what we do with both of those things). To truly experience something as rare and complex as finding your soul mate, wouldn’t you think we’d first need to live just a little? Aside from the good stuff, we also need to suffer just a little in order to fully appreciate just how low things can get when we’re with the wrong person.

Experience develops our individual perceptions and helps us to recognize not only what is special about a person generally…but what is particularly special about that person from our own personal perspectives – through our own jaded and subjective eyes. These are two distinctly different things.

I’m sure there are a few very lucky people out there who were fortunate to find that special someone on their first try but I seriously doubt the probability of that happening very often. Most of us think we know, then proceed to jump off the proverbial cliff of sanity, directly into a pit of uncertainty, then swim against the current in the river of probability, then drift slowly toward an ocean of insolvency and finality. Those are not great odds. To make it worse, our own ego sometimes refuses to allow us to quickly resolve a mistake and let go before we become so entrenched that leaving becomes problematic or even dangerous.

We fail mostly though not because we hitched our wagons necessarily to bad people but because we had no idea who we were in the first place. Our idea of what a relationship should be is just as undeveloped as our sense of who we are or what makes us happy. How can we begin to address the issue of what we can do to please another person when we’ve ignored our own needs and wants?

That’s not selfish, it’s absolutely critical. If we ignore what’s inside, foregoing that critical component of personal happiness and instead focus on making someone else happy, then we are doomed to eventually implode with anger and expectation of reciprocation. But it becomes unfair to the other person because they’re expectations are based on who you started off as, no matter how unrealistic it may all seem.

Well; I’ll let you in on a secret. When you give yourself an honest opportunity to figure out who you really are, forgetting about the idea of love or marriage, the internal images of prospective mates is suddenly illuminated. Sort of like the secret decoder ring in the box of Capt. Crunch; you suddenly have a magical lens by which you see the world that illuminates that which is good and healthy and filters out that which is…maybe a bit unripe.

That’s a kind way of saying that sometimes people who will eventually become great partners start off with no idea of what being a great partner is, and, as a result will potentially hurt you. We are not all ready at the same time or at the same age. Thus, a great partner for me may not make a great partner for you. No matter how awesome my wife may think I am for her has no bearing on whether I would be viewed as equally awesome to another person.

Cracker-Jacks

We’re all like big irregularly shaped boxes of Cracker Jack’s. We all have a little prize inside. But since we’re all looking for something different, the value of that little prize weighs more or less to whomever it is that gets to open your prize package. Some folks may love that little magnifying glass you have but I might just think it’s cheap. So, here we are, you with a cheap magnifying glass and me with an awesome rubber ball. On a higher note, just because one person doesn’t fully appreciate the value of what’s inside or what you have to offer, doesn’t mean that someone else won’t.

After my divorce, I was single for 16 years. There were moments where I thought I’d be married again and moments where I believed I’d be single my whole life, mostly the latter. I think my son was more worried about me than I was. There were times when I embraced the idea of being single and times when I wept about it. There were girlfriends along the way, some good, some better, but with each failed connection I was forced to excavate the archaeological remains of failure and grow a higher understanding of me.

Initially I had this superficial mental idea of who I was supposed to find, not realizing that there was a real person inside of all that perfunctory shallowness. Then slowly but surely I got to know me better which added some depth to my minds-vision of who I should end up with. The best way I can describe it is like comparing a road-map to a relief-map – with all the mountains, rivers, bumps and valleys to provide some perspective. When you’re ready, your like a blind person reading braille – you can feel your way along the route. For me, it took a little while longer than it does for most people.

When I first met Emily there were no questions and no concerns. I already knew her from my mind. I wasn’t looking for a hair color or a particular personality, I was looking for her and there she was. But even though I had that initial easiness about her, she wasn’t all that prepared to meet me. She believed, like I did, but wasn’t ready to accept it until about a year later. There were, of course, obstacles to overcome and trust to establish but the hard work was done internally in both our minds while we both recovered from previous bumps and bruises. Fortunately for me, she was looking for me too. All I had was this stupid rubber ball but it turns out that she loves stupid rubber balls.

cracker-jacks

I got the better end of the stick. It turns out that her Cracker Jack box was chocked full of generosity, kindness, a sweet spirit and awesome twice-baked potatoes. In my mind, my rubber ball really didn’t really compare to all that but I guess it must have been exactly what she was looking for because it turns out that Emily is my one-true-love. She is the perfect person for me.

Seven years of marriage, some seriously screwed-up butter cream cake-frosting, a job related police-raid, one failed business venture, and a tumultuous local election later and yet we still love spending time with each other. Believe it or not, she is still bringing me breakfast in bed. Not only do I love her immensely, but I can feel how strongly she loves me too. When you have what we have, you never feel jealous and you never feel insecure. No matter how our bodies evolve through age or how many mistakes we make, the love we have for each other is always profoundly present.

True love, soul mates, perfect partners…call it what you want. There are so many bad things that never enter your mind when you’re with the right person. Similarly, there are so many good things that are always on your mind when you find that certain someone. It’s a wonderfully liberating, incredible, and rewarding feeling to be with the one person in the world who really knows you inside and out, loves you unconditionally, gets all your jokes, and still wants to spend time with you regardless. When you read some of my jokes, you may understand just how lucky I truly am.

Luck: The Good Choices We Had Nothing To Do With

“You’re so lucky”, how many times have you heard that? Luck — good and bad — plays a big role in all of our lives, right? I know I am lucky — ridiculously, amazingly, fantastically lucky. And I am ever so grateful.

I am lucky to be alive; I am lucky to be healthy; I am lucky to have been born into a family that could care for me, and in a place where I did not have to fight medical odds just to survive infancy; I am lucky to possess the DNA to let my body develop in a way that is acceptable to my mind; I am also lucky that I was born with a decent amount of intelligence and natural tenacity to steer me where my luck may provide advantage; I am lucky to have a healthy and intelligent child who loves me back and who I can proudly observe as he discovers all the things I write about independently of me; I am lucky to have found and successfully trapped a wonderful woman who loves me like crazy and whom I love the same way back; I’m lucky to have a good job when a lot of people are struggling to make ends meet; I’m lucky to have a fantastic mother who has always been attentive to both my physical and mental well-being; I am lucky to have wonderful siblings who have continued to support me emotionally throughout my entire life; yes, I am one lucky SOB.

Every single one of those things, I would say, make me one of the luckiest people on this planet. I had nothing to do with most of those things, partial responsibility for a few, and I am lucky as crap they all went in my favor. Heck, one time I found a McDonald’s bag in a rental car with $500 cash in it…that’s pretty darn lucky huh?

Has everything gone perfectly in my life? Please. We all have bad luck too, but more than that, we all have challenges and struggles and disappointments and just plain ole crappy times. But none of those things – good, bad, lucky, indifferent, or unlucky – are what defines us. We’re way more complicated than that.

The way in which each of us handle good as well as bad luck is what best defines who we really are. If we are willing to learn, the way we deal with good and bad times can tell us quite a lot of what we need to know about ourselves. If things go your way do you get cocky, or appreciative…if things go South, do you pout and feel sorry for yourself, or just try again and again?

The knowledge gained from both situations becomes useful in many situations, but especially when we face hard decisions and potential life-changing opportunities. Because even if you have great opportunities constantly falling into your lap, luck is never going to be what pushes you forward to take advantage of or get the highest and best use of that opportunity. More often, it’s what you’ve learned from failures that will be the thing that propels you forward when an opportunity presents itself. People who don’t try, never fail. If you never fail, what have learned and how will you apply the wisdom from failure when luck avails itself? 

“Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.” ~ Lucius Annaeus Seneca (2 BC-ish)

I drank it

Making the most of any opportunity, indeed, even to recognize an opportunity for what it is, means you have to be prepared. You must do the hard work to put yourself in the mindset that makes you ready to jump when your “luck” shines upon you. When you see that sliver of light, that tiny bit of hope, that opportunity you have been waiting for, which sometimes comes cleverly disguised as the exact opposite of what you had been waiting for, what will you do? Luck has a strange sense of humor; it is a 1st cousin to karma.

What happens at that point is called choice.

No matter our relative luck levels and no matter how dire our emotional, financial, work, or other situations…that choice – that free will — that is what makes us human, right? The ability to step back, look at our lives, and decide what to do next is so very precious. But sometimes we do not notice an opportunity for what it really is. Clarity cannot happen if we are not ready or prepared for it. Circumstances do sometimes limit our choices. But even not choosing — being a chronic non-decider who just lets things happen around them — is too a choice.

Tough decisions, the ones that tend to yield the highest rewards, are called “tough” for a good reason. So how do we become more self-prepared? Well-informed decisions and smart choices are built on a lifetime of getting to know better who you are, what you want, what makes you happy, what makes you anxious, what makes you intolerable — and you do not learn that kind of thing in the Valley of Unicorns and Leprechauns.

In Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Hamlet, Polonius told Laertes, his son, “To thine own self be true.” Timeless advice yes, but the only way to know thine own self is to put yourself out there, try new experiences, meet new people, try different professions, and make lots of mistakes. Through this “trial and error”, you will learn what works for you and what does not. You will discover other people’s methods and decide to take them on as your own. You will learn where you want to be, what you want to do, and an amazing number of other things about yourself that you never knew you didn’t know.

Although that particular line in Hamlet is one of the more recognizable lines, another of Polonius’ lines I find to be equally valuable is, “Though this be madness, yet there is method in’t”. Remember that line when you’re out on a limb doing something unorthodox and people are giving you a funny look.

In case you are looking for some sort of reward for all that hard work – your journey to self-awareness not only becomes enlightening along the way but it WILL make tough choices down the road a lot easier for you. Easier to make, that is. Not necessarily easier to carry through. After that initial choice, you see, comes the all-important follow-through, and that consists of tiny choices every single day to continue the path you have now chosen. And now we are getting to the real important part, Thoreau’s “suck[ing] the marrow out of life” I mentioned in my last blog.

This very blog, the one you are reading now, was written because of a series of small choices made each and every day. I love writing and I love teaching. Making the choice to write more, to teach those around me who I really am inside, to help those I care about navigate life’s up and downs…these are all things that I can do because of decisions I’ve made in my life that allow me to do it – and some good ole luck which provided me with the DNA needed to develop a love for words. The doors we open AND close each day will decide what we become and how we live our lives.

But, sometimes doubt creeps in because I would dearly love to be writing for a living. My failure or lack of initiative or lack of time and money and other distractions in my early life has delayed my own ability to finish what I started with my formal education. I continue to tinker with it but I never seem to find the time to just commit to finishing school. I changed majors 3 times and I finally know what I want to do, I just haven’t done it. That lack of a diploma closes a lot of doors for someone who likes to write…thus some bad choices were made.

Hey, no one ever promised that living life on our own terms would be easy, and sadly, no magic unicorns have shown up to guide me. I never found that pot-o-gold at the end of a rainbow and I still do not have a rocket propelled jet-pack to travel back and forth to work on. Perhaps I would if some rocket scientist out there had taken an unconventional path instead of the NASA path of least resistance.

But, that’s another story. Getting to know yourself and making conscious, informed choices on how to live your life, your one and only life, is based on what you should now know to be true – and that is experiencing life to the fullest without fear of failure. I do not know of any better way to move closer toward Shangri-La, which, by the way, is a moving target if you are doing things right.

Indeed, the learning process, realizing things about yourself, looking at situations from different angles, dreaming up of new ideas, goals, and adventures — those never end if you don’t allow it. How lucky are we? How lucky are people with luck? Well, if we have learned anything at all I think it would be that lucky doesn’t necessarily mean successful. Make choices and make every choice matter – good or bad. Living deliberately doesn’t give you the key to every door, it IS the key to building your own door.

Getting The Most From Life…

What a subjective title I chose…somebody please stop me now before I try to explain what color car is best, or which species of animal is most beneficial for the environment. I mean, seriously, what makes my belly quiver in laughter and what does the same thing for my wife can sometimes be miles apart, and that’s just a simple comparison between two people on this planet doing one thing.

Imagine trying to find consensus in what makes the typical American happy versus a typical Asian or Colombian or Eastern European. I know it seems like I’m arguing with myself, but I just wanted to lay a little groundwork first and say out-loud that talking about getting the most from life is certainly not as easy as doing it.

Whether you lived in the 1800s or are living today, the path to getting the most out of life and living on your own terms was/is paved with daily challenges and overwhelming complexities. This includes having to deal with other folks who don’t or can’t understand the concept at all.

Henry David Thoreau, in his book “Walden, Where I lived, and What I lived For” wrote, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.I wanted to suck out all the marrow of life…” Profound as some people believe his writing was, there were those around him, his peers, who not only couldn’t appreciate what he was writing about but who were also openly critical of the ideas and the inspirations behind what he wrote about. It seems that good writing along with good anything generally lie in the eyes of the beholder.

In fact, another popular author of the time, Robert Louis Stevenson, called Thoreau’s journey into the woods “unmanly” and something he “tended with womanish solicitude.” John Greenleaf Whittier wrote that Thoreau would have man “lower himself to the level of a woodchuck and walk on four legs.” I think it is safe to say that neither of those men “got” what Thoreau was preaching about. Instead, they took a much more literal approach to his subject than he would have wanted them to take. Author George Eliot did get it though: “People—very wise in their own eyes—who would have every man’s life ordered according to a particular pattern, and who are intolerant of every existence the utility of which is not palpable to them, may pooh-pooh Mr. Thoreau and this episode in his history, as unpractical and dreamy.”

What? Another intelligent opinion which differs? Actually, you may find it interesting to know that this very wise man and famous novelist of the era George Eliot, was not a man at all. Eliot was the pen name of Mary Ann Evans who authored seven novels from 1859 to the 1880’s. It‘s amazing how wise her words still are today, especially now considering the plethora of accepted alternative lifestyles of today versus that of the Victorian period when she lived and wrote.

The main idea I am trying to convey here is that people around you, including family, will not always agree with the path you are taking and may sometimes be very critical of you. Opinions, no matter how trusted the source, may or may not always be relevant at all to your decisions and choices. We should always appreciate the thought behind a person’s opinions and reasonably consider them, but it is US who find the applicability of those opinions or not and US who bear responsibility for following or not following that advice.

Living deliberately, as Thoreau was instructing us to do, if you’re really serious about it, requires first that you know who the hell you are. How do we really get to know ourselves if all we are ever doing is timidly sticking our toes in the water? Even if you’re taking a road well-traveled, that doesn’t mean that you have to do it in a Chevy just like Paw did.

Perhaps you will invent the next means of transportation? If that is your dream, then pursue it. The only promise I can make you is that there will be lots of people along the way who will criticize every idea, every vision, and every version you have about your dream. Trust yourself when everyone else is doubting you but always make allowances for a person’s doubts because tucked away inside those doubts are another person’s failures that you can learn from.

When we or our loved ones carve life paths that are independent, open, and outside of conventional boundaries, we always run the very real risk of losing people along the way. If you are a doctor and your father was a doctor and suddenly your child wants to be an artist or musician, then everyone stops to offer free advice to the young person which may or may not be all that wise for him/her. That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s not well-intentioned, but equally it doesn’t mean that it’s all that wise.

What about college? If you strongly believe your child needs to get that diploma, what do you do when they reject the idea and move on to early employment and financial freedom? What if…OMG, your child wants to marry a person outside of his/her race? What if your child chooses a partner of the same sex? There are lots of scenarios here, not necessarily related to career choices, which can challenge you to rise up and forge new uncharted paths. Trust me, life almost necessitates you filling in one or more of a very broad array of blanks here.

I wish I could tell you that when you take your life into your own hands and create your own path, all your loved ones will be overjoyed for you. That they will excitedly continue loving and supporting you, so very proud that you not only know what you want but are also working your ass off to get there — learning, growing, and confronting challenges you had no idea existed. That no matter what you do in life or where you go, you will always be able to lean on the support network you thought was solid.

But alas I cannot offer this to you. Some of your loved ones not only won’t get it,  but there are some who won’t even care to try. But God doesn’t create perfect humans and never promised any, so we have to work with the imperfections available to us. It’s up to the more thoughtful and intelligent ones to not only ignore the emotional clutter caused by ignorant family members but to also empathize with why they care so damn much about what you are doing.

Guess what, living deliberately, sucking the marrow from life, and creating your own path is not about them and their judgments. This life is always going to be about you, your commitment to yourself, and your vision for who you are or will become. What are you about? Who will you be? Those things are decided by you every time you make a choice or respond to a stressful event in your life.

Will you go down the road someone else took to get to the real you or will your journey to “self” be independent and directed in a way which best reflects who you strive to become? We are all works in progress and the beauty of life is that we can make bad decisions then later decide to make better ones. Screwing up is just a metaphor for a crash-course. So get out your cliff notes and start screwing up…grow dammit!.

We all grow up with certain influences, then we live our lives based on certain pre-conceived ideas mixed with those influences. Then, with those pre-conceived ideas and influences, we carve a path through life touching and being touched along the way.

Those personal experiences add to our realm of reality. That reality, the one we and our loved ones inherit then expand, is different for us all. It governs our consciousness which makes us want to save others from making mistakes that we recognize do not to fit within our own set of parameters. So, don’t take it personal. We just don’t quite know yet that you have a different set of parameters because we can’t be expected to know what we don’t know.

Now let me be very clear. It is completely understandable that your mom may not immediately get why you are suddenly writing incessantly about people she doesn’t know, or if she learns of your plan to spend a year practicing Yoga in India; or, that your childhood best-friend cannot wrap his head around your career change from investment banking for teaching; or, that you’re concerned father is freaked out about you leaving the crappy newspaper you work for to do a stint as a photojournalist in Afghanistan. You cannot make enormous life changes and expect that everyone you know will understand your choices and motivations. Sometimes it’s just love and concern that drive suspicion and insecurity.

But, aside from the concerned, if you are lucky, you will have some people around you who care enough to try to understand. I will…I think.

Throughout your life’s journey, some in your inner circle will prove to be your lifelong connections, regardless of how much you’re stressing them out; they will do so by hanging in there with you even when they question your logic and your sanity. They will talk to you about your life, your goals, your dreams, your decisions, your actions, and try to understand where you are coming from — and hopefully you will reciprocate and keep up your end of the relationship, only enriched by new experiences and a deeper level of understanding. But don’t grow dependent upon adulation. You don’t need it to succeed. Instead, just be thankful you have it. Success stems from many things but hard work and confidence are among the top contributors.

Now, what about those other folks? The ones that cannot bend and will not try? Unfortunately, we all have those other types of people in our spheres of family and friends — the kind who absolutely refuse to try to understand your life as you envision it, or perhaps as you are already living it. These are people with closed minds and strict ideas not only of their own lives but also of yours and everyone else’s. Or as Eliot wrote much more poetically, “…intolerant of every existence the utility of which is not palpable to them.” These folks cannot fit you comfortably into a proverbial box, which means you threaten everything they think they know as absolute.

You thought these people loved you unconditionally, but as it turns out, they only support you when you live life on their terms, according to their plans and expectations. They may or may not confront you about the mistakes they think you are making, but regardless they cannot help but to judge your decisions and withhold love and support based on those judgments, whether they are based in fact or assumption (usually assumption since they do not know enough about your life on which to base a valid opinion anyway).

Continued sanity and lifelong productivity require us to learn who really has our backs and who among our circles will only be there for us when it is convenient or comfortable for them. I call these types of people conditional lovers. The only way to objectively deal with these folks, sometimes our grandparents, parents, aunts and uncles, is to embrace them honestly and accept that they do not have the capacity either socially or mentally to ever understand who you are, and that’s OK.

People who offer conditional love can suck the energy, inspiration, and dreams right the hell out of you if you let them. So do not let them. When it becomes painfully obvious in certain places all you will find is a wall of judgment, condescension, and conditional love, you have no choice but to either avoid it altogether or to confront it with an ultimatum. When you have tried for days, weeks, months, or even years to keep a relationship going, but you get nothing but criticism and judgment in return, offer them a choice of acceptance or avoidance. Let them take some ownership in whatever the outcome.

If you are otherwise living a positive life and someone else is judging or criticizing you, the issue is not about you. It is about them. It is either about their own insecurities, failures, and unhappiness or perhaps it’s about their own inability to move on and forgive your mistakes of the past. If they do not want to make the effort to understand you and your life, that is their loss — and not your problem.

How you react to the actions of others is always your choice, and you can either allow conditional lovers to suck up your time and energy, letting their snide comments, judgments, and lack of a desire to understand, break your heart repeatedly, or you can follow Thoreau’s example and continue to suck the marrow out of life on your own terms. Live-deliberately, be mindful of each and every precious moment, and cherish the wonderful people around you who do love and support you unconditionally.

Grow!

Spending so much of my off time this year writing about negative things, I decided to begin writing about positive and hopeful subjects in an effort to evolve last year’s sarcasm into a brighter theme for the remainder of the year. Perhaps a new theme every year might be in order, maybe not. Let’s just see where this takes us.

My last blog was about thinking outside the box. Honestly, I was just writing my thoughts on the matter to my son who always surprises me with his intuitiveness. But in the end I thought others might enjoy my journalistic journeys in the same way that people sometimes enjoy watching bloopers on television or turtles getting stuck upside-down.

What I optimistically think I will end up with are short but insightful vignettes of life. The ramblings, mid-life assumptions, and truths of “my-world” honed by my own experiences, tribulations, and incredibly stupid decisions. Since everyone knows I am fond of assigning short and pointed phrases or words that get right to my points or ideas (laughing), I have decided for the remainder of 2014 to have a one-word theme: This one is the word GROW.

At this age, one never enjoys wishing away time, but for me, I couldn’t be more ready for 2014 to end and for 2015 to begin. Adopting this one-word theme may, in some way, help to guide us through the next four months, embarking on a new year with enthusiasm and gratitude for having survived. This year has been one of my most challenging yet — certainly not what I had envisioned when I was thinking about the context of my New Year’s resolution, because I had not bothered to think about this year’s elections. Who would have imagined how I would have been thrust into such a thing, nor how I would have reacted? I guess I must be growing as a person and a reprobate all at the same time.

It seems unfair to me that experience, in some situations, actually does more to stifle a good time than to play saxophone for it. When you’re 20, life is all conga’s and bongo’s; at 50, it’s a tambourine baby. Now even the perpetually young Dick Clark has euphemistically walked-the-plank of the USS Minnow along with dozens of my other childhood benchmarks. All of which are being replaced by their Generation X versions, of which I seem less and less connected. Growth is not always appealing.

While there were some amazing highs in 2012 and 2013 like finally seeing Hawaii with Emily or her and I vacationing with my son in Europe, the emotional investment of an online inquisition has pretty much deflated my hot air balloon. Although 75% of people loved it, 25% are now my sworn enemies. But the canvas of 2015 is yet before us.

Whatever images or color palette that make their way onto the tautly stretched fabric of our lives will come from how well we interpret our subjects and how we position our brushes for the down stroke. The main idea is that we are growing our works. We may have to sidestep or even back up occasionally but we’re moving and improving, nonetheless.

A decidedly up-hill year like this can either break or make you stronger, and I feel confident I will be falling into the latter group. Though, of course, nothing worthwhile comes easy. Happiness, a basic human desire, cannot be obtained without emotional and intellectual growth and maturity. For this type of emotional growth to occur, we need to teach ourselves to be more expressive of our feelings and come to terms with whatever outcomes rise ahead.

Intellectual growth is best achieved by expanding your knowledge through cultural, technical, professional and scholastic endeavors. If you are not pushing yourself into uncomfortable places, you’re probably not growing. Being open to new ideas, learning new skills, considering opposing views, involving yourself in the community, and reading books, or attending lectures, art exhibits or traveling to faraway places to experience alternative cultures, can all provide great opportunities to grow.

How we react to challenges and obstacles can, however thoroughly define us? If you’re unable to rationally respond to a mini crisis, then you could benefit from a broader perspective. Perspective and perception are so important in approaching life’s big and little challenges.

Most of what we hear from others are opinions, not facts. Everything we see is a perspective, not necessarily a truth. So don’t let others control your direction. Grow your perspective through experiences of every kind so that what you see is closer to reality and stop giving other people the power to set your limitations. If you take the time to listen to good and bad, real and fake, truth and lies…you will grow.

I love GROW because it encompasses many different types of improvements — the continued development of our religion, education, relationships with family, our children, grandchildren and spouses, a new or evolving professional direction or talent, or just the intimate relationship we have with ourselves. I also like GROW because the concept is closely related to increases instead of losses. Much as I would love to slam the door shut on 2014 and never open it again, I know this year’s events will continue to influence me in 2015 and beyond . . . and that is never a bad thing. That indeed is the very concept of growth isn’t it?

So bring it on, 2015, because you when you get here, we will potentially be armed with an entirely new one-word theme. I’m just not sure what it will be yet.