Sunday, September 25, 2016

Pep Talk: "Grab The Keys and Car Seats"

“We should give a prize to the classmate with the most grandkids,” was a suggestion offered to an organizer of our 40th Raytown South (MO) high school reunion. A festive night was wrapping up with the deejay playing hits from 1976. When was the last time, if ever, you’ve heard Wild Cherry’s “Play That Funky Music?”

It had been ten years since the last gathering and much had changed. Not too many folks were grandparents in their late 40’s, but many are now. Few were in retirement, or close to it, some are now. A decade ago, many eagerly chased professional objectives, some are still. But chatter about work seemed less important for women and men nearing 60 years old.

The seasons of life. Grand desires taking a back seat to grand kids. An appreciation for good health - too many classmates have passed - was another theme as we imbibed, embellished and embraced. Ray-South Cardinals’ alums also talked about the importance of staying connected more consistently. Simple, not easy.

Just a personal opinion, but I believe isolation is a major piece to the divisiveness plaguing our country. Modern communication platforms have led to far fewer personal touches. The depth of knowledge, trust and concern we gain from interacting in person is melting along with the polar ice cap. The latter leads to rising ocean waters while the former has led to a lessening ability to socially relate to one another. Neither is good for us.

While writing my mind wanders to other connections experienced on the Kansas City-area visit for the reunion. For instance, quality time spent with the woman who delivered me and devoted many years to ferrying your scribe to youth sports’ activities, orthodontic appointments and other parental responsibilities associated with raising children.

My 81-year-old mother has been relieved of those duties. Her four children have moved onto bearing children who matured and birthed children too. Our senior populations, the great grand parents of our country, deserve meaningful and healthy connections. As a society we need to do a better job of decreasing the isolation so prevalent in their golden years. 

The seasons of life bring welcomed and undesired change, we know that. Connections are critical to effectively dealing with the roller coaster journey from womb to wherever. We should not be deceived, the voyage is fraught with peril if we choose to navigate, alone, its often turbulent waters.

Reunions. Gatherings. Connections. Call them what you want. What they are called is less important than what they create. They unite us. Recent unrest in Charlotte and elsewhere are examples of Americans desperate need to build a stronger cord to one another.

40-year reunion reflections? The Eagles’ “Take It To The Limit” was another 1976 hit song. The lyrics include “So put me on a highway and show me a sign....” We need signs of progress. An emerging generation of grand kids deserve better. We all do.

This week, let’s grab the keys, if applicable, the car seats and get moving!

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Pep Talk: "Angels Among Us"

After a recent A Stronger Cord wellness outreach event, a passionate participant with an awesome beard muttered fantastic words. “Mark, the pastor of my church encouraged everybody to be a thermostat, not a thermometer.”

Amen to that, buddy.

The latter measures temperature while the former regulates it. The preacher was challenging congregants to be conscious of what they bring to the party when they walk into the room. Do we make others comfortable? Do we uncomfortably raise the heat or chill the air? What kind of energy do we emit? For whatever reason my feeble brain wandered to another friend, definitely a thermostat, Doug Wittenberg.

I’ve written about the father of six frequently as a courageous battle with cancer continues. Recently many family members and friends gathered to celebrate his 50th birthday. “What a year’s it’s been,” cracked the devoted hubby. 

That is a vast understatement. It started with a sore throat. Then, the discovery of cancer in his thyroid, surgery to remove the tumor that left a nasty scar (one can barely detect it now) from behind the left ear, down along the neck and to the Adam’s Apple. From there, the adventure brought massive doses of radiation while his head was strapped down with a Hannibal Lector-looking mask. Doctors didn’t want Doug’s noggin moving while modern medicine’s laser machine tried to work its magic. For most, a wild and scary roller coaster ride.

This man’s spirit has never wavered. These days, in a brief respite from life-sparing treatments, the Denver native is back working full time. But recent news was sobering. The cancer is spreading, chemo looms as does a trip to Houston’s M.D. Anderson Cancer Clinic for fresh ideas. While attending his half-century celebratory party, I observed, and marveled, at the energy, warmth and love the engaging man radiates. For sure, he’s a thermostat.

“Yes, it’s been a tough year,” Wittenberg admits. “But it’s about turning tribulation into jubilation.” Wow. He quickly rattles off the children’s successes, the love and support of an amazing wife, Jennifer and the continued growth of their Family Life ministry. He joked, “We had more than 500 couples show up at our last retreat. I couldn’t speak much (cancer treatments have reduced his voice to a whisper) but many found that a blessing.”

Hah hah. 

It’s been said, “We have to be tested to bring forth the testimony.” We all have our stuff, don’t we? For an aging ol’ jock, this Pep Talk is being written well before the sun will rise for what is forecast to be a beautiful mid-September Centennial State day. The mind is restless. It’s plagued by self-condemnation for things trivial in comparison to Doug’s challenges. “This affliction is just temporary,” says the faith warrior.

What a blessing to have reminders about the importance of being a thermostat, not a thermometer; of realizing jubilation is born from tribulation; of understanding the test comes before the testimony. Life’s lessons and inspirations. When we’re open to receive them, they’re present and available in the form of angels, like Doug, among us. 

This week, don’t overlook them!

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Pep Talk: "The Boss Knows Best"

With a son living in New York City, visits are frequent. None is ever complete without a trip to Ground Zero. It’s a pilgrimage to honor those who perished, lost loved ones and responded but continue to suffer physically and emotionally for their efforts.

Our world forever changed on September 11, 2001. The ability to see goodness in one another drastically eroded in the horror of falling buildings, fire, toxic ash and death. A friend was a New York University student at the time. He recalls hearing a loud “boom” when the first plane hit, the shudder of the ground when the first tower fell and the cloud of hazardous dust that billowed eastward from lower Manhattan and toward NYU’s campus. Today he’s among thousands receiving yearly, federally mandated, physicals to search for signs of illness from inhaling dangerous chemicals. 15 years later, according to the World Trade Center Health Program, more than 37,000 have sought treatment for medical conditions related to the attacks.

Rock legend Bruce Springsteen’s 2002 album, “The Rising” contains many songs in remembrance of a day that will live in infamy. One is called, “My City Of Ruins.” I love the closing portion of the ballad. There, in an emotional crescendo, the New Jersey native implores America to “rise up” and overcome despair with hope.

When visiting Ground Zero, it’s a favorite exercise to stand at the Freedom Tower’s base and gaze skyward following the building’s seemingly endless march toward the heavens. It’s a powerful reminder to life’s uncertainties and the importance of mustering the will to rebuild when and where necessary.

The nearby museum touches my soul deeply for its tragic loss of life artifacts and the sacrifice of so many. Springsteen honors them in another song about first responders who went “Up the stairs, into the fire.”

New York City is a busy place. However, the pace slows considerably when standing before The National September 11 Memorial. The reflective water pools occupy land where the World Trade Center towers once stood. Touching the names engraved in the bronze panels edging the memorial, hearing the rushing water and feeling mist the twin waterfalls create inspires a somber experience not easily forgotten. 

These days Facebook reminds us of posts from our past. I wrote the following three years ago on 9/11: “To those who lost loved ones on this day 12 years ago, to those who deal with injuries suffered, to those who responded so bravely to help others, please know you’re in our thoughts and prayers that time may somehow ease the pain. Emotionally and physically.”

The thoughts and prayer remain the same. Another Springsteen song, “Empty Sky” remembers the 2,753 who perished with, “I woke up this morning, I could barely breathe, just an empty impression in the bed there you used to be....”

Let’s never forget, life often leaves us with an empty impression of the way things used to be. We have to courageously go up the stairs and into the fire. We must resiliently rise up. 

The Boss knows best. It’s the American way.

Monday, September 5, 2016

Pep Talk: "Encouragement's Magic"

A beloved buddy is suffering from early stage Alzheimer’s. It’s the first time your knucklehead scribe has intimately dealt with this terrible disease. My heart aches for those in the muck of this mind-trapping form of dementia. Their families, too. I feel blessed my 81-year-old mother is still sharp as a tack. We have lively conversations that, in describing them, one often mentions “debates” while the other prefers “arguments.”

A recent one (hey, a blind sow occasionally finds an acorn) reached common ground. Cool. Grateful also applies. We acknowledged most would trade places IN A HEART BEAT to be able to engage loved ones’ in robust conversations like we enjoy most of the time. Alzheimer’s dark and wretched march into the mind denies that. Tragic. 

So mom and son ended up talking, and surprisingly, agreeing, about the importance of realizing life rarely goes according to plan. At least not our plan. Those “What the heck is going on around here?” moments come from unexpected directions and diverse sources. They are painful. We know that. We also know how we react plays a huge role in our future. Victim or student? Our decision, choose wisely.

While these thoughts were marinating in the cranium, for whatever reason, this blurted from my mouth: “Mom, let me tell you about Rich Dixon!” I had met the amazing guy the day before.

“The first time I tried to push the wheelchair down the hall, it was impossible,” stated an affable man who many years ago lost the use of his legs. In 1987 the Fort Collins, Colorado resident fell off a roof while hanging Christmas lights and suffered life-changing spinal cord injuries. The retired mathematics teacher was the featured speaker at a Denver Rescue Mission event. Employees, guests and Mission residents soaked in an inspirational and faithful example to the power of the human spirit to overcome.  

“On a perfectly polished hospital tile floor with no friction, I could not push a wheelchair down a lousy ten-foot strip of tape.” The dog lover struggled almost a decade with the new reality. “The little blue guy (handicap sign) was an open wound.” Then one day a friend showed up with a hand-powered bicycle and stated firmly, “You’re getting on that sucker and riding it.”

Nothing has been the same since. “I lost hope falling off that roof and found it again through the hand-cycle.” Since that defining moment, the engaging motivational speaker slowly began the transformation. He cycled down the block, then around the neighborhood and beyond. Way beyond. Dixon has hand cycled across America many times in many directions. Today he hosts an annual event, Rich’s Ride, to raise money for a variety of causes. Triumph has come from tragedy. “Without my buddy’s insistence, I don’t know if this happens. Others loved me enough to not give up on me even when I had.”

We all have stuff like Alzheimer’s, injury, addiction or whatever. Let’s make sure this week we care for one another. Let’s encourage those we touch that they can traverse ten feet of lousy tape on the floor.  Whatever physical, mental, emotional or spiritual adversity lies before us? Well, we’re gonna push through it.

Ya never know, encouraging one another this way could change a person’s spirit and attitude about life in ways never imagined. It sure worked for Rich. Encouragement’s magic. Good for his buddies for caring so deeply. Let’s do the same this week!

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