I started the day teaching about storytelling

This morning I taught a session for the INCubator program at a local high school. In the past I’ve served as mentor to groups working together to create a product, service or solution.

Today’s session was on storytelling, a major component of marketing. to explore the subject of what makes a good story, we discussed some of their favorite television show. One young man shared his interest in a show about corrupt superheroes owned by corporation. We talked about how the contradictory nature of the show’s subject was an immediate attraction.

We talked as well about the branding success of the Nike slogan “Just Do It.” We discussed the fact that the phrase has been used for a couple decades and somehow still feels fresh. “How does that work?” I challenged the students.

The Nike approach works––we decided––because it allows the company to show examples of Just Do It while also issuing a Call To Action. That way everyone gets to be part of the story.

Culling a brand message down to such a simple, useful form of marketing takes a bit of inspired thinking. It’s easy to get caught up in all the associated stories and lose sight of what you want customers to do: Identify with your brand.

That sense of ownership is vital. We talked about how customer stories actually become the product when they offer strong enough testimony to its value. I also shared a hint that could help them find that brand messaging the easiest way possible. Ask questions, then listen.

Listening to people is the most powerful tool to build ownership on the whole earth. It is true when you’re a brand marketer. But it’s also true when you’re a caregiver, a team leader or any number of other positions of responsibility in this world. Your brand is composed of the character it expresses. Its authenticity depends on how well people trust what is being said. That’s why influencers have such powerful voices in today’s marketplace. They are the storytellers that people trust for word of mouth advice.

With all this information swirling around, I shared one last image to help the students understand the process of revealing the main story of their product, service or solution. I showed them a fossil (at top) that I’d collected years ago. It has the back of some segmented creature protruding from a sedimentary rock. “Your job,” I told the students. “Is clearing away the material around the creature inside the rock. That’s what you want to show them.”

Every fossil is like a new product emerging from the rock of creativity. It is a revelation when the whole thing is revealed. The reward is sharing that discovery with other people in a way that invites them to participate in the story going forward. That’s what Steve Jobs did with Apple… from the personal computer through to the iPod to the iPhone. Those devices were locked in the rock of perception. It was his genius to see them lurking there and dig them out.

Jobs once stated: “Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things.”

Having the will to persist in that exploration and discovery is the right kind of pride.

Take pride in that aging face

Originally published on my blog WeRunandRide.com

Posted on November 18, 2020 by Christopher Cudworth

Let’s talk about aging faces. I have no real way of knowing the age of the people who read this blog. There are about 1500 subscribers, and there are some who don’t subscribe but read these words through social media and other portals. But no matter what age you are, we all deal with the aging on our faces.

When you’re in your tweens and teens, those facial changes have profound impact on your self image. Getting zits and growing facial hair is a part of growing up. Dealing with tweezed eyebrows and the right makeup mix, or watching a callow jaw shift to manhood are all part of the process. Hair length also affects how facial changes are seen.

So the process of dealing with our aging faces starts early in life. Add in the impact of getting braces on your teeth, or in my case having a baseball accident smash a front tooth, and the changes never cease.

Those of us that compete in athletics put our faces through an entirely different kind of strain. The grimace lines wrought by the pain of endurance sports begins the process of forced aging that continues throughout our lives.

The effort shows in our faces.

So perhaps it’s time for all of us to take a healthier form of pride in that aging face we see in the mirror each day. That face of yours has so much to tell about all what you’ve gone through. There is laughter, joy and excitement. There is sorrow, fear and depression. All in the same face. It’s a wonder we don’t wear them out with all these emotions.

In recent years, I’ve worried that the look of my face has begun to limit opportunities in life. The ugly specter or ageism creeps up on you secretly. People aren’t going to tell you to your face that they consider you “too old” to do a job or fit into a workplace culture, but it happens. By law, age discriminate is illegal. Yet we all know that it still happens.

Wattled and tired

I was sickened one day while reading an article that popped up in my social media feed. A younger writer crowed that he wants nothing to do with people whose faces are “wattled.” That’s a disqualifying factor in his mind. His thinking seemed to be centered around the idea that if someone looks old, they must be unable to think clearly or creatively.

That would be news to millions of people throughout history whose contributions to this world continued or even began in their later years. I think in particular about the life of R. Buckminster Fuller, one of the most creative yet practical individuals to ever live. One of my favorite quotes by Mr. Fuller evolved from an experience of great sorrow and near defeat in his life. He’d experienced a great personal tragedy and was depressed beyond imagination. He indulged in a period of intensive personal isolation to figure out what to do next and emerged with a vision of new purpose, “You do not belong to you. You belong to the universe.

He used that perspective to face the world in a new way. Among his many inventions were the geodesic dome, a mathematical breakthrough in architecture. His influence and thinking continue to expand to this day. No one cared that he looked young or old. What matters is how he thought. We all need to grab that truth and never let it go.

We should also never forget that our faces are attached to our bodies. Today I read an interesting article in the Chicago Tribune about the fact that people who do something more than walking in their exercise routines wind up having better efficiency and posture as they age. While walking is beneficial, it doesn’t stress the body in the same way that cycling, running or swimming do. It’s the classic training principle that applies to life itself: you have to push past your boundaries to gain the most benefit.

That seems to be the principle at work when we consider the condition of our faces as we age. If you’re engaged and passionate and pushing yourself to continue learning and trying new things, it shows in your expression and even the condition of your face.

Facing life

Until a few years ago, I’d never heard the term ‘resting bitch face’ applied to the baseline expression of someone who looks dour or unhappy all the time. Is that term as bad as dissing someone through ageism? It certainly seems cruel. Yet there is a reality at work in how we project our emotions through our visage. I’m perpetually aware of the value of smiling during conversations with people.

That’s especially true in business situations. I once had a boss tell me, “I like you a lot more when you’re smiling.” He was right. I wasn’t a happy person during that period. My late wife had just experienced a recurrence of cancer and had a nervous breakdown as a result. I was scared, felt alone, and had little tolerance for the daily vicissitudes of business, which seemed so insignificant compared to what was going on at home.

Those internal conflicts showed in my face. There was little I could do about it at the time. Just put on the best face I could, and get through it.

Facial control

So we perhaps don’t always have control of what our faces say about us. There’s always the possibility that a person with a ‘resting bitch face’ has gone through so much in life their face reflects that path. But then again, some people develop attitudes of victimhood and duress that dominate their existence. There is such a thing as becoming so bitter about life that it shows in everything you do.

I’ve got enough life experience now to look back and understand the causes of the challenges I’ve faced in life, and the reasons for the mistakes I’ve made. I’ve come to realize that a native anxiety affected many of my decisions. So did a likely associative form of ADD, a lifelong challenge that often determined the manner in which I processed information, or did not. In summary, I’m proud of having dealt with these challenges and adapted to succeed in some ways along the way. It all comes with knowing yourself well enough to accept past mistakes and not let them rule the present.

I can look at my face in the mirror now and see all sorts of experiences etched there. I see miles of training and racing, and the self-belief emerges from all those tests. But they keep coming. A former coach once told me, upon hearing that my late wife was diagnosed with cancer back in 2005, “Your whole life has been a preparation for this.”

He was quite right. That coach later faced cancer himself. He passed away a few years ago. The thing I remember most of all about him is still his face. I don’t see him as young or old. There’s a spiritual aspect to that, I believe. Take pride in that aging face, no matter what age you are.

Tests of character

When I published a memoir titled The Right Kind of Pride in 2014, my goal was twofold: to write about the journey that my late wife and I shared through cancer survivorship, and to share some of the things we learned along the way.

Eight years of dealing with the physical and psychological effects of medical treatments, surgeries, chemotherapy and its side effects is enough to test the mettle of anyone. Toss in the emotional components of dealing with medical scheduling and recovery, insurance premiums and bills, financial changes and losses, and the whole thing gets overwhelming in a hurry.

During those years of dealing with cancer and remission, work and family challenges, I kept sensing that there was a message in it all.

That’s the other reason I wrote The Right Kind of Pride. I learned that taking care of business in the face of a crisis comes down to three critical components. These are:

Character: the mental and moral qualities distinctive to an individual.

Caregiving: the activity or profession of regularly looking after a child or a sick, elderly, or disabled person.

Community: a group of people living in the same place or having a particular characteristic in common.

To address how understanding these three factors helps one through a crisis, we’ll begin with the subject of character, and what that means to each individual.

Character is not a fixed trait

We often view “character” as a fixed quality in a person. But people respond to crisis in different ways. Some grow resolute, facing whatever comes their way with what seems like determination and courage. Others appear frightened or worried at the onset of bad news. There is no real predicting how someone will react to a crisis. Sometimes a seemingly strong person reacts with fear. At other times a seemingly timid person responds with great strength.

Character can even shift with age. Many character traits are subject to change over the years, especially as stress or life changes affect the emotional bottom line. Character can even radically shift within minutes if shocking new arrives. The death of a parent, a spouse or a friend. The birth of a child. All sorts of events, good and bad, affect how character is held or expressed in a given person.

That’s why it is important to understand the nature of “character,” and how to support it in yourself or the people around you.

Character tests

We might like to assume that character is the foundation that carries us through all kinds of tests. We speak of a person with “solid character” almost like they’re a piece of granite able to withstand all sorts of conditions. Yet if you’re in a position of helping another person get through a test of some sort, it is vital not to assume how they’re feeling, or even trust what they’re telling you at times. Most people don’t like to show or share their fears.

That is why it is important to be patient when it comes to placing expectations on others during times of crisis. Some want to avoid attention or engage in denial, wishing it would all go away. Others want to tell the world what’s going on in their lives, as if that alone could cure the problem. Most of us fall somewhere in between or run from one end of the spectrum to another.

Out of character

If someone responds in a way that seems “out of character” for them, it is clear they are trying to process whatever news or stress they are experiencing. Even good news can be a source of stress to a cancer or heart patient used to hearing nothing but frightening words about their condition. It is hard to trust good news because we don’t like to let our guard down in case something bad is about to happen again.

That puts us into a state of mind where character, “the mental and moral qualities distinctive to an individual,” needs to be considered a tool for monitoring the emotional health of anyone facing a crisis. There really is no such thing as behaving “out of character” when we think about it. No one on this earth possesses a permanently rigid nature. Nor should we.

It is what it is

Obviously it’s desirable to stand strong and deal with necessary actions as they arrive. My late wife and I treated medical regimens with a brand of objectivity. We compartmentalized the cancer and its treatments by saying, “It is what it is.” In other words, let’s not fool ourselves or try to avoid medical advice that might be hard to hear, much less endure. But if you put that practical activity in its place, it is much easier to support the character or the person or person’s involved.

Being able to say “It is what it is” provides a clear focus on the most difficult aspect of life in the moment. That’s at least a degree of control, and knowing the truth and having a plan to follow takes pressure off the character of a person. Then the mental and emotional aspects can be addressed on their own terms.

Character on the line

The same holds true for many circumstances in life. A business or other venture has a “character” of its own. Applying these same principles; identifying the central challenge, categorizing the necessary response, and setting aside conflicting emotional, competitive or selfish aims to address problems is vital in facing life or business challenges. That is how to manage character as a rule.

Despite all our best efforts, there are often selfish aims at work behind the scenes of everyone involved in a crisis. Our primal instincts are to protect our own instincts. Fatigue and stress, fear and self-doubt all work to undermine our character when facing our own crisis or helping someone else face get through difficulties.

The important thing in understanding character is that it is the cumulative experience in a person’s life their character is built upon, including weak moments and strong. The key to supporting the character of an individual, a team or an organization is to identify common traits of belief, hope, determination and goals, then relate those back to the character of those involved.

Asking questions to gain answers

That means asking questions in order to gain answers about how people feel about their own character. These don’t need to be probing psychological ventures. A simple question such as “How are you feeling about this?” defines the person’s character in the moment. That’s what you need to know first. In what mental or emotional state are the people involved?

When I first found out that my wife had cancer all those years ago, a longtime friend and coach called me on the phone with a message of encouragement. “Your whole life is a preparation for this,” he told me.

That was his way of saying that I’d faced adversity before. Dealing with stress. Managing emotions. Setting near-term objectives. Reaching goals, however fluid they may be.

Every person on this planet has a foundation of their own from which to build and maintain character. Helping others do the same in times of crisis is one of the highest levels of compassionate behavior in the human sphere.

QUESTIONS TO ASK YOURSELF ABOUT CHARACTER.

  1. What are some of the most formative events in my life?
  2. When were some of the times I was required to respond to crisis?
  3. What do I consider some of my most important character traits?
  4. How do I measure ‘character’ in others?
  5. Why do I value character in myself and other people?

I’d be interested in hearing some of your responses to these questions and would like to post some (named anonymous, your choice) to this blog.

Send your answers to cudworthfix@gmail.com. Your answers if you choose will posted anonymously. We can all learn from each other if we share.

“Have you solved the world’s problems yet?”

The world is a tangle of problems.

I often work and write at any number of coffeehouses. I don’t visit these shops because I like coffee. Hate the stuff. But a cup of chai or an icy frozen hot chocolate stimulates the brain sufficiently.

Most coffee shops have “regulars” who treat the place like their office. So do I quite often. Yet I also move around from local shops to any number of Starbucks across the Fox Valley.

While not actively eavesdropping, one still does hear bits of earnest conversation. A week ago a pair of women next to me were consulting on a job search in which one of them was engaged. Hearing that affirmative dialogue on the part of the advisor and the job candidate’s self-examination was a case study in “figuring it out” in real-time.

Then there are the conversations you don’t overhear. But you can still tell the talk is serious in one way or another. Occasionally I’ll pass by people talking at a table and smile. Then I ask, “Well, have you solved the world’s problems yet?”

The question is typically so unexpected it draws a laugh from people, and that’s somewhat how it is intended: Let’s have a laugh at the absurdity of it.

Typically, the answers are just as humorous. “We’re trying,” is a common response.

The world in black and white.

I asked the same question to a table of women as my wife and I were on our way out of an outdoor bar space. They were talking intensely at the moment and my question caught them off guard. Still, they embraced the opportunity to share what they had been talking about––their experience as teachers for example––to point out they were “doing what they can.”

That’s all I really want people to think about. Solving the world’s problems is itself an absurd proposition. That will never happen. Even the claim that Jesus is coming back to fix it all is a misconception. In truth, scripture holds out for the day that we all do our part in making the world a “better place.” Only then can the so-called “return of Christ” take place. It’s not a literal event at all. Neither was the promise made by Jesus to “tear down the temple and rebuild it in three days” a literal prediction. The Lord’s Prayer confirms the same thing. “Our Father in heaven…your Kingdom come, your will be done…on earth as it is in heaven.” That’s up to us.

But the religious authorities of the era in which Jesus threatened to tear down the temple and rebuild it in three days did take him literally. They mocked his proposition and later conspired to get him killed to prove their authority over all challengers.

In other words, they sought to solve the world’s problems by killing off the truth that was hitting them in the face. The same thing is happening today.

I’m not here to proselytize that Jesus is the “only answer.” Readers of this and my blog at Genesisfix.com know better than that. What I do want to communicate is that solving the world’s problems isn’t a matter of shunting it off to someone else, or even counting on some future figure about whom scripture prophesies to return and create a “new heaven and a new earth.” That’s reverse literalism.

The real way to fix the world’s problems is by looking at them with real eyes, in a real contest. We’re called as rational human beings to protect the world for future generations.

I will say that the present generation of leaders, the people that have led the rape of the environment and economic coercion of the masses have done quite the opposite. To make matters worse, the allies in this destruction claim to be in deep favor with God. That’s not the right kind of pride. That is human arrogance.

That is why I think the next generation, the much-maligned “millennials” hold so much promise for the future. They seem eager to dispense with traditional or conventional views of the human condition. Race and religion, nationality and economic status, sexual orientation or family position are not the defining factors in how this generation regards and treats each other.

I truly think that if I asked people of this coming generation if they have solved the world’s problems, they might quietly turn to me and say, “We’re ready for our chance.” In fact, I’ve done that a few times, talked to millennials at coffee shops and asked that same question. They typically don’t laugh it off. They honestly look at me as if I’m serious.

And that, my friends, is the Right Kind of Pride.

On apples and temptation

3 Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?”

The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden, but God did say, ‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.’”

“You will not certainly die,” the serpent said to the woman. “For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”

You may recall the fateful verses cited above from the Book of Genesis. That last line in Genesis 3:3 is a tricky passage when it comes to understanding the nature of temptation. When the Serpent said to Eve “You will not certainly die,” it was not a lie. Not in the short term, anyway. In fact, Eve took went ahead and ate the fruit, and lived. So did Adam.

They were both now engaged in a conspiracy theory of sorts and would have to hide their nefarious deed from God. That didn’t happen, of course. We all know the outcome of that story. Adam and Eve were booted out of the Garden of Eden. God then informed them that by listening to the Serpent and breaking the unspoken vow of obedience, they had lost the gift of eternal life. “Now you really will die someday,” God warned them. Ooops.

This tale is so popular in religious tradition that the “fruit” in the Garden of Eden came to be represented by an apple. That fruit is a good choice. Everyone recognizes apples. Even the Apple computer symbol has a bite out of it, and that’s no lie.

Apples play a large role in both religious and scientific history. As the legend goes, Sir Isaac Newton was bonked on the head by an apple that led him to consider the nature of gravity. History.com explains that didn’t quite happen: “There’s no evidence to suggest the fruit actually landed on his head, but Newton’s observation caused him to ponder why apples always fall straight to the ground (rather than sideways or upward) and helped inspired him to eventually develop his law of universal gravitation.”

We know that gravity behaves fairly consistently here on earth. The same cannot be precisely said about the genetic direction taken by apples. The human race has coerced and cobbled apples into countless varieties. Each tastes and feels different to eat. Some are tart. Some are mild. Some are crisp. Others are soft. All apples grow on trees, yet even these vary by shape. People love to play games with genetics.

While apple-picking this past weekend it was obvious that people also like the hands-on experience of plucking apples from a tree. The organic quality of that experience recalls the act of temptation conducted by Eve and followed by Adam. A ripe-looking fruit of any kind is hard to resist. We filled our quarter-peck bags with apples of different sizes and shapes.

Along the way, we shared bites of different kinds of apples. There were Liberty and Empire, Honeycrisp and many others either ready for plucking or waiting a few weeks until they were in prime condition.

On the ground lay the detritus of apples either discarded with bites in them or recently fallen from the trees on their own. Some would be plucked up for use. Others would serve as fodder for yellow jackets.

The potential energy in every apple is hard to imagine. The evolutionary processes and human intelligence that combined to create these fruits would not be easily replicated if some tragic cataclysm befell the world’s population. The art and science of apple breeding is collective as much as it is individual.

Certainly there are growers out there who take great pride in the quality of their apples. The docent who talked us through the process of apple picking tried to educate the milling crowd about the best apples for baking and eating. It was a short talk. Civilization seems to have little time for learning. The apples sat out there like Forbidden Fruit. Let’s go have a taste.

As we left, I discovered an apple on a tree that had a face on it. The mouth was agape as if it had just seen some distressing surprise. Someone said the fruit looked diseased. I picked it and put it in my quarter-peck bag just the same. It was coming home with me. That apple and I might share some time with a plate of peanut butter. We could talk about the birds and the bees, the sun in the orchard, and try to make some sense of why some people seem to believe in talking Serpents anyway.

I think it’s possible to wander through an orchard, a garden or a field full of goldenrod on a clear September day and realize that we can all look at the blue sky and see forever. We are alive in eternity. We can take pride in the fact that our human awareness enables us to consider the nature of our existence.

That brings us back to the meaning of the fruit in the Garden of Eden. Taking a bite out of that “apple” was not the whole story. The real sin in that situation was the Serpent claiming to own the authority of God and a shortcut to wisdom. That’s a warning against all others that would do the same. While tradition tells us it was the “Fall of Man” that took place in the Garden of Eden, in truth it was the Rise of Religion as one of the stumbling blocks between the human race and God.

That may sound shocking to some who hear it, especially to those who supposed that religion is the one gift from God that we can trust because it exists in close proximity with the Creator. That’s also not what scripture tells us.

Jesus learned that harsh lesson when Satan caught up with him in the wilderness. Just like the Serpent in Genesis, Satan offered food for comfort and all the authority in the world. Jesus wisely said no, showing that discernment is the right kind of pride even when the fruit looks so good you can almost taste it.

About dogs and cats and appreciation of kindness

Lucy the dog. She’s about 18 months old now.

We have a dog named Lucy adopted from a foster parent who got her from a non-profit called Safe Haven. That organization rescues abandoned dogs in states like Tennessee and brings them up to Illinois to find them homes.

Lucy is somewhat named after Lucy Charles, a triathlete that my wife Sue and I both admire. Her foster name was Bliss. We found that too hard to say.

She seems more like a Lucy anyway. Upon adoption, we received a breakdown of her breed background and it turned out to be 50% and a mix of border collie, boxer and beagle. She’s all that and more, as she’s willful and playful and silly all at once.

We’ve had her a year. It’s taken time, but she’s adapted to a nudging friendship with our cat named Bennie. He came to us from a vet friend who took him into the pet hospital after someone found him burned with a broken leg inside their car engine. He apparently climbed up there as a kitten to find warmth and got badly hurt.

Bennie the Cat. He’s five or six years old.

They called him Bernie (get the pun?) at the vet’s office but we changed it over to Bennie. He’s an orange and white charmer who escaped once and lived for ten days out in the neighborhood before Sue’s kids captured him down the block. He ate like a hog when fed that day and has never left the house since.

Lucy chases Bennie sometimes, but only in play, or when the cat sticks his nose into her food. Then Lucy charges to rid her bowl of cat cooties.

There are days when all this dog and cat caregiving get to me. I’d rather read the paper in peace some mornings than grab the leash, go out for a walk and wait for Lucy to pee or poop. Bennie, meanwhile, wakes us at 4:30 to be fed. I do the duty and go back to bed.

I was previously a dog dad to our family pet Chuck, the Schnoodle mix that my son saved from the streets of Chicago. That pupper is going on twelve years old now and lives with my daughter Emily.

But even these pups and kitties are not enough for me in this world. I ask permission to pet many a dog when I’m out and about. Sometimes the owners say, “They don’t usually like strangers. They don’t seem to mind you.”

That’s the biggest compliment one can get. To be something other than a threat in this world may be a small achievement in the scope of things. Yet if more people had the character to show kindness toward others we would all be better off for it.

Chuck the dog. He’s about twelve years old now.

The cats and dogs that need a home in this world are a testament to the difference between being kind and being a threat to others.

That is not to say that everyone should go out and adopt a dog or cat. But the number of abandoned animals left to fend for themselves, especially in certain states where the problem is rampant, is a clear indication that people are making raw and often selfish decisions about the value of life.

Then there are puppy mills where female dogs serve as breeding labs for commercially profitable pets. Some of those operations are run by people claiming to be almost holy in other aspects of their lives. It’s amazing what money ultimately does to the theology and ideology of so many people.

That harsh reality illustrates the dividing line between the selfish notions of what people expect from animals and what their grasp of humanity really is. I’ve heard many people say there is no gratitude like the loyalty of an animal who knows they were saved. I’ve seen that grace firsthand. Even on my most selfish days––and we all have a few––the only reminder I need to be kinder and more attentive that day is to look in the eyes of these cats and dogs. They teach us to appreciate all that we’ve got in this world.

What cracked earth can teach us about humility

Yesterday I stopped at a dried out wetland to see what shorebirds might still be lingering behind in Illinois. Most have moved through our region during July and August, as shorebirds are the first to head south in fall migration. There are typically some stragglers, so it’s often worth checking out watery places in case there is some interesting bird to be found.

The wetland I visited was nearly dried out. That’s often the case in August, when lack of rain and heat combine to evaporate what’s left. Then the mud shrinks. The earth cracks open.

Once the process of dehydration starts in earnest, the waters often recede quickly. This wetland shrank so quickly that I found a ring of bird feathers at the outer edges of the mudflat. Even that feathery edge wasn’t the true high water mark. Further up the low bank a thick mat of cattail stems lay choked among the bushes. Earlier this spring the wetland swelled with water. Over weeks and months, it shrank in size until there is only a broad puddle left.

Year after year, these events occur in varying fashion. Early in my birding career, I’d often visit a slough on a farmer’s property at the edge of town. In spring there were would be twenty species of ducks that stopped at the wetland in spring. In summer, I once found the tiny black chick of a Virginia rail, evidence that many species depended on that wetland.

These moments teach us plenty about nature’s movements. When the wetland would dry up in late July or August, there would be swarms of small catfish left to wriggle about in the narrow channel of water. Water birds such as herons arrived to glean them for meals. Then the water would be gone completely. So would the food supply. These are the rhythms of nature.

Yet they’d spring back again to life the following year. Frogs and turtles lived through the same big rhythms. Their evolution as a species is built from the process of natural selection taking place every moment in time. Those with instincts to sink into the mud and wait out drought conditions will live to see another day. Others take off in search of wetter places. Some make it. Others don’t. It is humbling work, this process of survival.

Yet those that die often leave traces of their lives and evidence of their former existence. The world is rife with fossil records that run thousands of feet deep. Layers sedimentary rock hold evolution’s grand story in place. These fossils tell a tale of lives come and gone, entire species that flourished into existence and vanished when conditions changed. It has happened before. It will happen again.

The earth cracks and absorbs the living and the dead. It humbles those whose arrogance ignores warning signs and whose instincts fail them as a result. The human race loves to think itself a bold and brave species, almost separate from nature. Yet the raw intelligence of history cannot be denied. The waters cover the continents or gouge the earth, creating great chasms like the Grand Canyon. These speak to the time and patience the earth embraces. Selfish believers may write these events off to sudden cataclysm in an attempt to own the narrative. But these selfish notions deny the reality of the ages, replacing them with literalistic notions of Great Floods and Rainbow Promises that are an insult to the massive grandeur and eternal flow of nature.

Even the human race is but a footprint in the passage of time.

The ephemeral mark of a bird on the surface of a parched wetland reminds us that life and time don’t owe us anything. Science pokes and prods at these truths while religion reflects them in prose and praise.

It is evidently clear that all depends on paying attention to the rhythms of time and place. That is all we have to discern our place in this world. If we respect that reality, and do our best to provide a place for the generations to come, that is what the religious among us love to call the Kingdom of God.

But from a more pragmatic perspective, caring about stewardship of the earth and those who live with us is the right kind of pride. Anything else is a sin of selfishness. Ignoring that fact, we have no meaning or purpose at all in this world.

“I’ve BEEN A WAITRESS SINCE THIRTEEN…”

One afternoon while heading out of the college cafeteria during the last semester of college, a classmate clearing plates and cups from the tables in the Union lost control with her hands and it all came crashing to the floor. That moment inspired a poem that I wrote based on how she responded.

WAITRESS SINCE THIRTEEN

Although the saucer fit the dish, she turned too quickly, threw the cup,

and watched in vain as coffee stained her shoes and left her morning drained,

“You’d never know,” she said to me, “I’ve been a waitress since thirteen.”

Last night I was writing at a local eatery and overheard the head waitress talking about her previous places of employment. Both are well-known restaurants. They’re not cheap places to dine. She talked about the fact that some of the clientele was snooty, and that the establishments charged way too much for what they provided. Now she’s happier working in the open bar and restaurant atmosphere where customers are more down to earth. She works the room with candor and kindness. An expert waitress in her element is a sight to behold.

Hands-on, hands off

Two weeks ago in Florida, we celebrated a landmark birthday with a relative at their golf club. Our round was delayed by rain and there was a wedding going on upstairs where the main bar and grill are located. So we moved to the downstairs bar and ordered food and drinks. Things were getting merry among the members that had already played that morning. Several were showing the effects of drinking.

The waitress working the room is a veteran of such situations. I watched her deftly fend off the handsy attentions of a member well into his liquor. She kept a smile on her face the whole time while using her arms like fencing swords to redirect his advances. In those situations a waitress is something far more than a person who serves food and drinks. She was at once counselor and therapist well-aware that there would be a tomorrow even if her customer refused to recognize it in the moment.

Frontline dedication

During this pandemic mess, we’ve all learned who the real frontline workers are. They are people at the point of contact for all sorts of human interactions. This morning the Chicago Tribune reported that here in Illinois, customers will be required to keep their masks on while ordering food. That’s a small move to protect the health of those who wait tables. Surely some people will take offense to that requirement as they have toward the concept of wearing masks at all. But they would be selfish and wrong to do so. Sadly, some will refuse to comply.

That further places our wait staff in positions where they are forced to govern all sorts of human behavior. Here in America, waiting tables is typically viewed as some sort of servitude. Not so in other parts of the world, where being a waiter or waitress, or however you care to describe it, is considered noble work. It takes real character to be a good wait staffer, whatever the circumstance. It is a form of caregiving in real time. Our sense of community in this world comes from such dedication. Wait staff are the frontlines of civility.

In-flight service

The same goes for the people working these days as flight attendants. That profession has changed drastically over the years. Where full meals used to be served on many flights, these days it is more common to receive a bag of salty snacks and a glass of ice water.

The old standards about appearance that once applied to flight attendants are now gone. Travelers also don’t fly in formal wear they way they once did. Airplanes are now packed wall-to-wall with people to maximize profits for every flight. That strategy has backfired in the age of the pandemic, and the middle seats now sit empty.

The entire industry is a bit more low-brow and some regret that loss of glamour. Flying moved from an experience to be enjoyed to a gut-level mode of transportation. Airplanes are no longer a version of a flying restaurant for shorter flights. The in-flight movies can be nice, and Wi-Fi is appreciated. But these are more about sharing isolation than engaging in the communal experience of air travel with flight attendants as hosts.

Noble work

It is still noble work taking care of others, despite what the prideful and selfish among us care to think about it. In a world where so many people behave grotesquely in public while looking down on others for their manner of earning a living, it is the right kind of pride to look for the humanity in all those doing their jobs. Because unless we all do that, the world is doomed to its caste-like appetite for tribalism, wrought with greed, dismissiveness and abuse.

So to make the point about treating others right in public, we’ll leave with this video from the Monty Python movie The Meaning of Life. The first time we watched this in the theater my brothers and I almost heaved up our popcorn while nearly dying from laughter. Absurdity is often the best illustrator of graphic abuse. There’s a little too much Mr. Creosote in the world right now. That’s not the right kind of pride.

Finding a way to make things work out

Over the past winter the coffeehouse where I often go to work and write was closed for a complete remodeling. They stationed a smaller store a block away while the expanded Graham’s 318 Coffeehouse was being constructed. But it was a test of patience and timing while the new store was being built. The City of Geneva is pretty picky about its appearances and historical feel, yet Graham’s and the builder Hogan Construction made it work.

Then when it finally opened, the Covid Crisis hit. That delayed things again. Now the business is operating at full function allowing for masks and social distancing.

It has always been a welcoming place. There are regulars who work here daily. During peak hours the bustling background of people coming in and out of the restaurant acts as white noise to a writer. They don’t play their music too loud or too soft. The vibe is one of community. They even serve Two Brothers beer along with their incredible menu of coffees, teas and food menu.

Long-time associates

I’ve known the owners Bob and Beckie Untiedt for perhaps 20 years. We were members of the same church. They led an exceptionally well-run Praise Band in which my son played bass and cello. Then my daughter followed suit playing violin, but she was never much of a fan of praise music with its repetitive chants and predictable key changes.

That didn’t stop me from joining the group later on as a rhythm guitarist. I’d grown up playing clarinet and participating in bell choir in elementary school. Come high school, I learned to play some guitar chords with a group of friends and even performed a few songs for our Key Club banquet. That went horribly. Following that, I let the instrument go for twenty-plus years until my daughter asked for a guitar and I started playing again.

Joining that Praise Band was a humbling experience. My brain does not memorize music well. Some of the chords I was asked to play were difficult for my knuckle-cracking fingers to accomplish. But Bob and Beckie were patient and encouraging. After a year or two of being in the group, they even urged me to perform a song I’d written. So we practiced and had a go at it. I recall singing somewhat tentatively in rehearsal that morning and Beckie was direct and real with me. “You’re going to have to sing clearer than that.”

That was the point, after all. The song was titled Flowering Tree In Spring, a piece I’d written from different aspects of my experience. Perhaps it was also a competitive attempt to write something better and less repetitious than the praise songs we played so often.

The first stanza lyrics introduced the metaphor:

Have you gazed in wonder at a flowering tree in spring?

no petals yet have fallen a perfect, holy thing. 

If life were just that simple, no rain or wind would blow

then we might be as perfect as a flowering tree, you know. 

The song came out really well. I think Bob and Beckie have always appreciated the idea of people trying new things. Their businesses of Graham’s Chocolates and 318 are a living example of that. As a result of their considerably novel approach to business, these businesses are lively fixtures in the communities they serve. They also provide work for dozens of employees of diverse backgrounds and needs.

Yet the thing that I appreciate most about them is the impish brand of honesty one finds in Bob and the earnest commitment to quality in Beckie. Their business was recognized by the Geneva Chamber for its contributions to the community.

Appreciation

The Untiedts (center) with daughters Jaynie and Maddie. Kane County Chronicle File Photo.

Bob’s impish side is not directly revealed. I well recall playing a song in Praise Band by the musical artist Bruce Cockburn. Whether intentional or not, that act was a bit of a thumb in the face of the conservatism of that church, whose pastors often preached against homosexuality. Cockburn is gay, and performing his song in that church was something that I relished whether it was a closeted protest on the part of Bob or not. It was for me. All I can say is that Bob often had a wry smile on his face the days we played that song. But then, Bob always has a wry smile on his face. That’s who he is.

Beckie is kind of the opposite type of person, with an open-faced honesty for which she is both apologetic and unapologetic. If that sounds contrary, so be it. She’s a person of strong faith, but no stuffed shirt either. I recall the night that she was singing when one of the cups of her underwire bra broke, sending a sharp bit of metal into her side. She let loose a surprised yip and then starting laughing along with her Praise Singer sisters while trying to push the whole contraption back into place.

Musical talents

It was always astounding to me to watch their respective musical talents in action. Bob could sit and play songs on the piano seemingly out of nowhere. He’d transcribe chords for all the instruments from one key to the next, and orchestrate the parts of bass, rhythm, drums, lead guitar and piano in real-time. I don’t think in musical terms like that, but I can keep rhythm with the best of them, and that was my role.

Beckie is possessed of one of the most beautiful, clear voices one can imagine. There were nights while playing the guitar in practice that I’d get distracted by her lead vocals. Along with the harmonies of the gals singing with her, one could not help but listen. But then, I’m always easily distracted. Still, I once broke script in rehearsal and told her that she had one of the most wonderful voices I’d ever heard. She was a bit taken aback. Perhaps it was a bit too laudatory. Yet if someone doesn’t express appreciation for the good things in life, events roll by and things like that never get said.

Eclipsed by circumstance

That is why I felt horrible a few years ago when I was invited back to play with the Praise Band and was given a lead part to play on the rhythm guitar and things got out of hand.

The main song I was asked to play was one of my favorites and it went well in rehearsals the week before the service. But the morning of the performance I was also scheduled to do a live painting in front of the church and things got a bit chaotic setting up the easel and floor coverings while also trying to get ready to play the guitar. It was so noisy around the front of the church I went out to the narthex at the last minute to tune my instrument. On the way, I accidentally bumped the settings on tuner and changed the readings of the pitch. Not knowing that had happened, I tuned my guitar to the wrong key and returned to the front of the church to begin the service.

To my horror, I knew within two bars that my guitar was badly out of sync with the rest of the band. The only option I knew was to stop playing. Actually I faked it a bit at first, strumming nothing, then looked at Bob with a guilty shrug and mouthed the words, “Out of tune.” There was no time to explain. He covered my parts with some creative piano playing but to this day I get a queasy feeling every time I think about that moment.

That made it tough to concentrate on the painting process as well. The flush of embarrassment was still on my neck and face when I stood up to begin the painting. There was pressure to complete the picture in the few minutes allotted for the performance. It came out okay, and people were gracious, but I knew it wasn’t my best effort. It was all a lesson about being present in the moment.

It was also a lesson that taking chances and trying new things comes with some risk. I’m pretty sure that Bob and Beckie know better than anyone else I know that not everything we try in this world comes out a success. The story behind the scenes of life and work is often chaotic and challenging. In the end, the public face we present is the product of both determination and patience in the face of adversity. Along the way, we hope to celebrate the joys as well as endure the failures. That is how our true character is formed and emerges.

That is the right kind of pride. Finding a way to make things work out despite the frustrations of life is what it’s all about.

people can generally get along great, if you let them

Our neighborhood is diverse in almost every manner of description. Race and ethnicity. Sexual orientation. Nationality. Occupation. The list goes on.

Everyone gets along great because we’ve all gotten to know each other. Even when turnover takes place, and people move on to other places, new residents are welcomed.

Humanity on the block

We’ve held block parties every other year or so. These are informal occasions. Yet one year, a woman on our block who is one of the leading Latina marketers in the country brought a Mexican Senator to visit with us in our ring of lawn chairs at the end of the street. The Senator was in town to speak at a Mexican Independence Day event, the first woman to ever do so. Yet she confided in us that it was nice to be able to relax in a less pressured-filled situation, and just talk.

Someone suggested that we go around the circle that day and share a personal insight about gratitude. It was fascinating to hear the diversity in scope of those telling their stories. Then one of the families in attendance shared that they were glad to be alive. Only a few months before they had been in a dangerous car accident resulting in profound personal and emotional injuries. None of us had heard about that.

We all have challenges

That testimony illustrates that while we can all know each other casually and as neighbors, many times there are events and issues that we don’t necessarily share on a day-to-day basis. Yet the challenges we don’t share are often the most compelling parts of our existence.

We all sat stunned upon hearing the seriousness of the accident. Then someone quietly said, “We’re so glad you’re okay.” Yet the physical therapy continued, and the emotional strain too.

These are the feelings that connect us as human beings. While some shared quiet joys or happy accomplishments, others mentioned gratitude for having a trusted companion, or children, or a job that supports their household.

I don’t recall what I actually said about gratitude. But one of the feelings I had during that session was gratefulness for being around such an interesting and obviously compassionate group of other human beings.

Ethnicities are only the beginning of humanity

That brings us to the socially fabricated aspect of our neighborhood. Our ethnicities. According to traditional categorizations, there are four black families, three Latino families, an Asian household, several white or Caucasian families, a home with two women in a relationship, some elderly retirees and, of course, several dogs and cats that live in our cul de sac.

One of those families embraces several generation within the household. The head of that household is a leading law enforcement officer and former police chief of a Chicago suburb. But there are many variegations within the family, and attending one of their family parties means being introduced to visiting sisters, cousins, matriarchs and more.

Nacho diplomacy

One of the pre-teens who lives up the block loves to stop and talk with me now and then on our sidewalk. He’s got a curious mind and loves to test me with questions and topics of many kinds. Likewise, I like to ask him what he thinks about while riding his bike around, which he does all the time. Then one day he asked me, “Do you like nachos?”

For some reason that caught me off guard. “Yes, I do.”

He looked off in the distance for a moment and replied, “I love nachos.” So that became a bit of a joke between us. I’d drive by when they were out playing basketball in the neighbor’s drive and yell out, “Do you like nachos?”

I conspired with one of the same-aged neighbor girls to organize a “Nacho Day” when all the kids on the block were hanging around. She counted up ten children from the age of five through thirteen, and I called a local fast-food Mexican takeout and pre-ordered enough nachos for the whole group, who were waiting in the yard when I returned. Within minutes the entire stash was gone. I teased my friend again. “Did you even get any nachos?” I asked.

“Ohhhh, yeaaahhh,” he laughed while smacking his hands together on a basketball. Then it was back to playing pickup for him and the other kids.

Just let it happen

The kids on our block are a living example that friendship and trust and conviviality are all possible when people just let it happen. The same goes for the adults of all these different backgrounds who live in our neighborhood. It’s only when people are pushed apart by selfish interests and traditional fears that people don’t naturally get along.

The desire for control that stems from fear is the source of all racism. Yet it also drives other forms of prejudice as well. These lead to bigotry and authoritarian discrimination. Nothing splits up a society––or a neighborhood––or a country––like allowing selfish fears to depict people as “the other.”

Because rather than forming relationships around gratitude, compassion and shared aspects of humanity, such bigotry invests only in the “I’ve got mine and you can’t have it” aspect of existence. When that happens for reasons of tribal priorities, and these range from religious beliefs to racial identity to political or economic platitudes––civil society is at risk. Those priorities only lead to hate and division while the “live and let live” philosophy of a neighborhood sharing in commonality and humanity succeeds far better. That’s the right kind of pride.

People can generally learn to get along great, if you let them

I believe that everyone gets along great, if you let them. That may seem naive to say, but it’s proven so often and in so many parts of the world that despite all the conflict it is still true that people can learn to get along together when they aren’t told that other people are a threat.

Those that refuse to get along on those terms need to be held accountable for their selfish ways, and made to understand why that isn’t acceptable. They will often resist and brand themselves the “victims” of reverse discrimination or claim to be “persecuted” for being exposed for their bigotry. Those habits go all the way to the top in this world.

The self-inflicted will even attempt to turn around and call the compassionate among us inhumane, as if caring for other people and standing up for the meek or disadvantaged in this world was an act of oppression.

That is the gaslighting defense of those possessed of anger and fear who are eager to avoid facing their own inhumanity and the flaws it so often reveals. They refuse to accept vulnerability as a legitimate condition of human existence. These are the people that love to claim higher ground and preach unity while playing people against each other to create opportunities for control.

We should not let this happen. Not in our neighborhoods. Nor in our nations. People can generally get along great, if we let them.