Inspire and Be Inspired

Head on over to the new davecenker.com, sign up to be a member of my author community, receive a free award-winning short story and continue the conversation! See you there!

DaveJen-BannerOne thousand days ago (hey, it just sounds better than 2 years, 8 months, and 26 days) I remember sitting down with a guitar resting on my knee.

Those malformed chords I was strumming were messy sounding, but the chord it struck inside me was perfectly in tune. I remember thinking … I should start a blog. It came out of the blue, and I wasn’t sure why I vocalized that thought. I had written less than a total of 500 creative words up to that point in my life.

If someone would have told me way back then that I would be composing this post today, I would have surely let out an involuntary chuckle beneath my breath. It’s not that I wouldn’t have wanted to be here, but I have this way of starting different things (lots of them) only to have them collect metaphorical dust as the initial excitement fizzles out along with my passion for it.

And yet, a thousand days and just a few more than five hundred words later, I compose this post with an anxious yet excited heartbeat. This will be my last post at this blog site. That’s the sad part, for me at least. This little corner of the blogosphere has been a sort of virtual private sanctuary for me to discover and share insights, thoughts, and stories with each and every one of you.

The exciting news – again, for me at least, and hopefully for you too – is that my writing will continue forward with as much, if not more passion than I have had up until this point. Today, I am launching my new author-centric website at www.davecenker.com.

For those of you that have been following along with me on this journey over the past three years, you will know my tagline by heart – inspire and be inspired.

Second ChanceI’ve written personal essays, flash fiction, short stories, and even a novella up until this point. During NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) this past November, I set an ambitious goal to write my first novel, uncertain where that lofty ambition would land me. 50,000+ words and several personal revisions later, I have a draft of my first novel, Second Chance, that I am now ready to pass over to my editor. My plan is to have it published sometime later this year.

In an effort to build an author platform, I have migrated my online presence to www.davecenker.com. Along with promotion and news on the release of my first novel, I will be offering flash fiction, short stories, book reviews, and the occasional dip into non-fiction.

I have a feeling that pressing the publish button on this post is going to be more difficult than any I have pressed up until this point in my writing life. But, if you’re reading this, I suppose that I’ve been successful in overcoming that small hurdle.

I want to sincerely thank each and every one of you for all the reads, the likes, and most importantly, the comments that have helped me to embrace this role as an author. I know it sounds so cliché, but truer words could not be spoken – I simply couldn’t have done it without you.

HomecomingI invite each one of you to visit my new site and continue onward with me on this journey we have started together. As a small token of my appreciation, when you sign up to be a member of my author community, I will send you a copy of a previously unreleased short story titled Homecoming. I would be honored to share this story with you that has received an honorable mention in the 2015 Writer’s Digest Popular Fiction Contest.

You can join my author community by visiting my new site at www.davecenker.com and clicking the Free Story! link in the top right corner of the home page. I’ll still be checking this site for the next couple of weeks, so if you have any problems or questions, feel free to leave a comment here.

And suddenly you know: It’s time to start something new and trust the magic of beginnings. ~Meister Eckhart

Let the magic of new beginnings be with each and every one of you. Inspire and be inspired.

 

The key

old-faucetDrip, drip, drip, drip. The rhythmic sound of water hitting the porcelain sink was not soothing – not now. Damon was seated on his bed, laptop open, headset secured over his right ear, awaiting the quarterly communications meeting that never seemed to occur at a convenient time for east coast employees.

Damon had made this small northeastern seaside town his new home less than a year ago. He would have been perfectly happy to remain in the one bedroom apartment he had taken residence in since his cross country relocation. As was the case for most of his life, however, he gave in to the desires of others too easily.

The one constant in Damon’s life for the past ten years had been Gryffin, the golden retriever now curled up beside him on the bed. Apartment policy had dictated that pets would no longer be permitted in the complex without an exorbitant surcharge imposed on the monthly rent payment. Instead of opposing the injustice injected into his life, Damon cowered to pay the additional amount until it became too much for him to afford.

That’s how he found himself in this drafty abode with creaky floorboards, dripping sinks, and a leaky roof. The abandoned house on the edge of town was the epitome of a fixer-upper. The real estate agent had advised him that the house had not been occupied in over fifty years and had many problems. In a moment of unprecedented stubbornness, however, Damon ignored the warnings and purchased the property – as much an attempt at portraying a resolute personality as it was the need for a place to live. The fact that his monthly mortgage payment would be less than his rent payment, it was easy to rationalize the decision.

“Welcome to the third quarter communications meeting,” came the voice through the monotone speaker secured over his head. As the voice lagged behind the slides displayed on his laptop, just enough to annoy him, Damon sighed and double checked that his microphone was muted. The company had registered a banner quarter with revenues increasing in a way that had Wall Street advising investment in his company much more aggressively.

If only the company would invest in their employees the same way, thought Damon. Over the course of the next fifty minutes, the buzzwords were casually tossed into every other sentence – alignment, sustainability, exit strategy, paradigm shift, and organic growth. If he had been playing buzzword bingo, Damon would have won five times over, the prize being an invitation to yet another quarterly meeting three months from now – another six paychecks in his checking account, another twelve weeks of his life lost to the aspirations of others.

golden-retrieverAs the meeting concluded, Damon closed the lid of his laptop, and set the headset on top while simultaneously reaching for the brown head of tousled fur next to him. Closing his eyes, Damon slipped into a meditative state – almost. Plop, plop, plop, plop. The cadence of the improvised musical composition had changed. Instead of water meeting porcelain, water was now meeting water.

Walking into the bathroom adjacent to his bedroom, Damon found the leaky faucet now dripping into a puddle accumulating in the basin. He knew there would be work to do. He didn’t expect it to be the day after he moved in. He had only used the sink to shave and brush his teeth in the morning. The leaky faucet was one problem he would have to address later, but the clogged drain could not wait. With the rate that it was filling up, Damon would have an overflowing sink and wet floor by the next morning.

Resigning to the immediate task at hand, Damon found his way out into the living room. Digging through the unpacked boxes, he located the one labeled “garage” in black marker and ripped it open. The assorted tools inside would become his best friends over the next several months. Right now, he just needed the pipe wrench. Retrieving it from the box along with a few other tools, just in case, he returned to the bathroom with Gryffin following behind, tail wagging.

Placing a bucket beneath the area he would be working on, Damon placed the wrench around the pipe and tightened it. The whole time, Gryffin sat there watching as if he would surely jump in and help if only he had been blessed with opposable thumbs. Damon treated him as he would a father his own son, explaining everything he was doing as if Gryffin might actually be able to help at some point in the future.

Loosening the coupling joint, Damon removed the pipe as the trickle of water began to drain into the bucket beneath it. Steadily, the pool of water from the basin above fell into the bucket. The clog had not occurred between the drain and the point where the pipe was disconnected. Reaching into the other side with his index finger, Damon felt something. Unable to pull whatever it was out with his hands, he grabbed the pair of pliers, secured them around the object and pulled it out. With a wet thud, the ball of coiled string fell to the floor, landing on the aging wooden floorboards of his bathroom.

brass-skeleton-keyPerplexed by the appearance of the finely wrapped twine, Damon grabbed the end and began to unravel it. Inches turned into feet, until the final few wraps revealed an object embedded in the coil. The brass skeleton key had two numbers emblazoned on the side. As if to prove canine instincts were sharper than that of humans, Gryffin gave an abbreviated bark. Rising to attention, Gryffin began to wag his tail more animatedly, his panting becoming shallower. As Damon twirled the key in his fingers, he couldn’t help but feel the same way.

Author’s Note: This is the first part of a six part “not-so-short” short story about self-discovery. A new segment will be published each Wednesday in December with the closing chapter being posted on the first Wednesday of 2015. Thank you for taking the time to read and comment – best wishes for an inspired day and new year!

Digging deep

calligraphy-journal

Author’s Note: This is the final installment of a three part story. If you would like to read the first two sections, please feel free to read Submission and Rejuvenate.

Maybe Jess should have waited before opening the journal, but there was something tugging at her from inside – call it women’s intuition, or just plain old human curiosity – that had her soiled fingers easily creasing the spine, as it had evidently been done many times in the past. Etched in perfect penmanship on the first page were words that looked vaguely familiar.

Nous avons tous nos secrets. Meme les mieux caches seront decouverts, souvent quand ils ne sont pas etre recherches.

The high school level French class that she was required to take many years ago provided Jess with a rudimentary understanding of the text. Standing behind her, Claire was just as captivated by the exquisite handwriting. It was almost as if the curls on the letters, the accent marks absent from the English language, pulled the two women into the page despite the fact they didn’t completely understand its content.

“Is that French?” asked Claire in a whisper, as if they were sharing their own little secret together in the privacy of her backyard.

“Yep, I think so,” replied Jess in a monotonic voice. “I’m a little rusty, but I think I am getting the general gist of things,” she continued as she traced her index finger over the page, picking up the meaning of every second or third word. Sensing the feeling of suspense in Claire’s voice, Jess shared her makeshift interpretation of the story unfolding on these pages.

As it turns out, it was a story of love – and betrayal. As the pages turned, one after another, it was revealed that the author of this journal was being drawn into a vicious maelstrom by his own mind, unable to fight the urges formulated by the dark corners of his psyche. The business trip was just supposed to be business, but it turned out to be much more. All because of a woman – again. The scent of her perfume, the look in her eyes, it was just too much for him to resist. In a matter of days, he had fallen into a trance, spellbound by the charm she didn’t realize she was casting.

Page after page, the story continued, each page almost turning itself in anticipation of the next revelation. It slowly transitioned from a story filled with conflict and moral dilemma into one of rationalization and vindication. And that’s when Jess came to the confounding conclusion of this memoir. Turning to the final page, there were no words on the page, just a three by five inch photograph.

“Is that …” began Claire, but she didn’t want to complete the sentence for fear of knowing the answer.

eiffel-towerJess’ hands began to tremble, her eyes fixated on the image that didn’t make any sense – but made perfect sense all the same. Standing in front of the base of a metal structure, presumably the Eiffel Tower, was a couple, man and woman, smiling at one another, each holding an infant aged boy in their arms. The resemblance was unmistakable. The man was a younger version of her own husband. That’s the part that made sense, even though it didn’t. That’s how the mind operates when it is so utterly disoriented. One part is trying to analyze the facts while the other part is shielding the subconscious self from emotional trauma.

What didn’t make sense was the woman beside him, the children in their arms, and the silver band around his left ring finger. It was much different than the gold one he was presumably wearing at this very moment. A tsunami of emotions washed over Jess, her fingers reflexively releasing their grip on the journal along with the caustic energy held inside it.

The thoughts and questions began to formulate quicker than Jess could process. What did this mean? If this story was what she thought it was, why was it here? She thought back to the cover of the journal, My Secrets – Chapter 5. Chapter five? Jess was the other woman in chapter five. Did that imply there were four other journals before this? Did they share a similar story? Was chapter six being written right now? Jess found the weight of this information could not be supported by her physical being – not now. Falling to her knees, she could do nothing more than stare blankly at the ground in front of her.

Claire placed a hand on Jess’ shoulder as the tears rolling down her cheek caught up with her rational mind. Jess was going to need to dig deep – in a way that had absolutely nothing to do with her professional calling – in order to emerge from the dark hole she now found herself in. Her emotional resilience would be stretched to its limits. Jess was already beginning to understand that she didn’t want or need the white picket fence. She just wanted to find the gate. She needed to find her way out. Thank goodness she now had a sister who would help her every step along the way.

Amore

bakery-storefrontEmily wiped down the counter one final time. This thousand square foot space leased by her ten years ago was like a second home, even though the time spent here far outweighed that in her studio apartment uptown. The charming cafe was filled with delectable pastries, muffins, and gourmet cupcakes. The complimentary sights and scents occupied every last drop of available space in the most delicious way. Each time the door was pushed open a small piece of the love poured into her craft floated out on to the sidewalk, took hold of an unsuspecting passerby, and lured them into her savory world. Her skills with flour, eggs, butter, and milk were only matched by her magnetic personality that transformed ordinary members of the public into new patrons, and usually new friends.

As the sun was beginning to set on this Friday afternoon, traffic on the street was beginning to escalate which signified the beginning of another weekend. To Emily, Friday was no different from any other day of the week. Each day found her following the same familiar routine, commuting back and forth between her apartment and cafe on the Route #7 city transit bus. She noticed the same people each morning on that bus. With a little game she devised to amuse her, Emily gave each of these regulars a name, even though they were complete strangers.

There was Snarky, the tall man, always wearing an overcoat, hair slicked back, attaché firmly in his right hand, always his right hand. Then there was Clueless, the petite redhead, ear buds permanently embedded it seems, eyes aimed at the cell phone in her hands, never looking up. Finally, there was Bambi, a peculiar name for a member of the male species, but it fit well nonetheless. Like a deer caught in headlights, this young man’s appearance, disheveled at best was not as unsettling as his eyes. The blank and empty stare, like a deer in headlights, was unnerving when their glances met for the first time. Emily had become accustomed to the creepiness since that initial encounter.

She felt sorry for all these individuals. Emily saw a look of resignation in each of them, as if they were simply going through the motions, following the directions on a medication prescribed by society for their ailing souls. Either the dosage was not correct, or the medication was wrong. She suspected the latter. As she pulled the front door closed on her cafe and turned the key, she caught a reflection of herself in the pane of glass. Amore, the name of her second home etched in the glass on the door complimented her reflection well. Sure, she worked day and night. And although she was exhausted at the end of each day, she simultaneously felt energized in a paradoxical way. Her chosen life was a labor of love.

nyc-at-nightTempers were already escalating in the world outside. The yellow cabs darted to and fro like mice chasing an elusive piece of cheese. With their horns blaring, the animated facial gestures behind each windshield uttered slanderous remarks that could not be heard, but understood nonetheless. She could have afforded to take a taxi back and forth each day. Emily, however, tried to insulate herself from the inherent stress of a bustling city. The bus had a much more relaxed and less hurried atmosphere. Besides, she was always on the lookout for new regulars. She had a whole lineup of new names on hand when the matching individual appeared.

As she stepped next to the sign with the number seven printed inside the transit system symbol, Emily glanced at the watch on her left wrist. The familiar parasol on its face, Mary Poppins floating over the London skyline, was a constant reminder of her past, equally encouraging and upsetting depending upon the day of the week, the month of the year. The rotating hands on the face indicated the bus should be arriving shortly. As if looking at her watch could magically summon her ride, she glanced up and saw #7 Uptown on the display marquee of the approaching bus. As the hazard lights flashed, the squealing brakes decelerated the bus to a full stop. Retrieving the transit card from her purse, she waited for the driver to open the doors. As she prepared to board the bus, Emily was frozen in her tracks when she recognized the man getting off of it.

He was ten years her elder, she knew that. What she didn’t know is what he was doing here in this city. She had intentionally moved to a location on the map as far away from his last known residence to insure that an encounter such as this was unlikely to occur. Emily felt this man had a severe impact on the quality of her younger years, not for what he did, but rather for what he failed to do. The person stepping down the steps of the city bus had not yet noticed her, but Emily could not mistake the blonde hair, blue eyes, and charismatic smile he tossed at the female driver. And if that wasn’t proof enough, the armband tattoo sealed his identity. It was without a doubt Josh, her older brother.

It is believed by some that a near death experience causes the most poignant memories from a person’s past to flash before their eyes. In this fraction of a second between the recognition of her brother and what would come next, the roller coaster ride of emotions began for Emily.

mary-poppinsThe memories closest to her, both physically and mentally, arrived first. The Mary Poppins watch created a flashback to the cave she had fashioned in her childhood bedroom. Complete with a body size bean bag chair, a small clip-on desk lamp mounted in the corner, and a combination video tape and television unit on a makeshift table, this was Emily’s sanctuary as an eight year old. This is where she snuck when she heard the screen door slam. This is the place she retreated when she heard the voices, escalating in volume, and the slurs of alcoholic influence evident in every attempted syllable. Unfortunately, the volume on that little portable television could not be turned up loud enough to drown out the misery from down below. Emily instead tried to focus on the visual image of Mary Poppins, hoping and wishing for a magic nanny to drop out of the sky and rescue her from this dismal situation.

Josh had taken a different route than Emily in dealing with this chaos. Instead of cowering in submission, hiding from the effects, Josh reacted with rebellion. He and his friends had formed their own band, Academic Mishap, a fitting moniker given that the cumulative high school grade point average of its three other members didn’t reach that of Josh’s alone. When Josh heard the same indicators of imminent jeopardy, he instinctively headed out the door, hopped on his bike, guitar slung across his back, and disappeared into the evening. He rarely returned until after school the following day and usually didn’t stick around for long as the pattern repeated itself.

In a moment of uncharacteristic courage during this distressing time in her life, Emily decided on a different course of action when the yelling and screaming commenced one evening. Tiptoeing down the wooden staircase, hand delicately poised on the banister to support her weight, she knew just where to step to avoid any creaking, the human wolves continuing to howl in the room at the foot of the stairs.

Sneaking out the side door, she arrived at Josh’s bike a few second before him. “Let me come with you. Please,” Emily urged. Josh and Emily both ran away from their problems. Josh, however, preferred to do it alone. “You better get back in side Em. If mom and dad catch you out here … well, you just better get back inside.”

Emily retorted with tenacity that she didn’t realize she had inside her, “Josh, I can’t take this anymore. I need to get away from them, if only for a little bit. Please, let me come with you.” Perhaps it was the grit in her voice or the bleakness in her facial expression, most likely a combination of the two, Josh succumbed to her plea, “Get your bike, quick.”

bike-next-to-shedThat evening proved to be one filled with the most inner calm in Emily’s young life, even though it consisted of music that was not to her taste, underage drinking, and distasteful jokes. There was a release of tension. A floodgate opened that allowed Emily to just be her eight year old self. It was a state of being that she wanted to revisit again and again, except Josh would not oblige. In fact, it was even worse than that.

One afternoon, before the recurrent nightly chaos began anew, Josh knocked on Emily’s bedroom door which she always kept closed and locked. It was a way to insulate her from the malignant aura that pervaded the rest of the house. They had a secret knock so that Emily knew when it was Josh. Unlocking the door and swinging it open for Josh, she could see in his eyes that he did not have news that she would accept well. He didn’t provide any idle chit chat. He got right to the point.

“Hey Em, I’m dropping out of high school. Me and the guys found a manager that wants to hire us for a nightly gig at a bar downtown. This could be our big shot.” Josh left a moment of silence with a pleading look in his eyes for acceptance from Emily. He often forgot that Emily was eight years old. She was mature beyond her years. She needed to be in order to survive in this place. But, in the end, she was still eight, and the tear that formed in the corner of her eye and rolled down her cheek showed just that. Josh sensed this and continued on, “I know this is rough for you to understand, but this is my one shot to make something of myself, my golden ticket out of this life.”

Emily was frustrated, distraught, sad, and livid all at the same time. She had a million nasty retorts racing through her young mind. The only words that emerged from her lips, however, to accompany the multiple tears running down her face, “Please, don’t leave me.” Despite their complicated and dysfunctional lifestyle, Josh always had a soft spot for Emily. He was her big brother after all. At this point in his immature life, however, this was not enough to keep him around. “Sorry Em, I need to do this. I’m leaving tonight.” And with that statement and decision, another chapter had been closed in her life. Another person to help navigate these tumultuous seas had jumped ship. She was left alone, physically and mentally, to weather the storm. Struggling to keep herself afloat, she knew that drowning was an unavoidable consequence in these unforgiving waters.

For ten years, Emily had scraped together a piecemeal existence, relying on fairy tales in books and movies to bolster her hope for a chance to live. And she had succeeded, treading water and avoiding the sharks until she graduated from high school and moved east. Her parents probably never knew that she left, most likely because they treated her like she was never there in the first place. The resentment held against Josh and his decision to leave grew with Emily during those formative teenage years. And despite her bitterness towards Josh, there was always a small corner of her heart that understood his dilemma and his decision. Given the same opportunity, she could not be sure that she wouldn’t have done the exact same thing. Regardless of the troubled past and experiences that plagued their relationship, she was still his little sister, and he was still her big brother.

As the flashback rolled through its final scene, Emily felt the departure of a life, a death of sorts. But, this turned out to be a passing that was welcome and long overdue. Seeing Josh as he stepped off the last step on that bus, her only desire was to put the negativity of the past to rest and focus on possibilities for the future. It’s what she had always lived for in her personal life. Why not do the same for her own brother?

As his eyes transferred focus from the steps of the bus to navigating through the crowd of people, his eyes landed upon Emily. As his jaw dropped in disbelief, Josh inquisitively uttered, “Em?” Half question, half statement, he did what came natural to him, as unnatural as it was for his own parents. He wrapped his arms around Emily and squeezed tight. For what seemed like minutes, but was seconds in reality, they hugged. And in that embrace, all prior transgressions, all feelings of discontent, and all the grudges that may have been held between the two of them melted away.

As she stepped back at arm’s length, still touching his shoulders, Emily looked at Josh and smiled, “What are you doing here?” Josh, still in a dumbfounded state, replied, “I could ask you the same thing. Our band broke up out on the west coast. That kind of thing tends to happen when your lead vocalist gets arrested for dealing drugs.” In a slightly more coherent tone now, Josh continued, “I got accepted to the university in the city. I have finally decided to get a degree in music even if it is a few years later than most. What about you? What are you doing here?”

Emily went on to explain the synopsis of her last ten years over a three minute span. When the immediate necessities had been shared between them, it had only led both of them to crave more details about the other’s life since their childhood days. “Hey, I’m starving,” said Josh, “Do you want to go get a bite to eat somewhere?” Emily, eager to share some of her recent history firsthand shared, “Why don’t we head across the street? I can’t offer you a gourmet meal, but I can provide some fresh coffee and the best banana nut muffin this side of the Mississippi.”

As she pulled the keychain from her purse once again and unlocked the door, the impressed look on Josh’s face could not be hidden. “Amore. That means love in some foreign language, right?”

amoreWith the coffee brewing and two muffins placed on plates, Emily flipped on the spotlight in the corner seating area. There was no bean bag chair. There was no television. But, there was also no screaming from outside this personal sanctuary. There was only Emily and her big brother. The alluring scents and delicious tastes of Amore, an infusion of Emily’s love, had served to provide her with a swarm of new customers. She was quickly coming to the realization, however, that the latest one sitting across from her at this very moment was undoubtedly her most important one.

Front row

WP_20140619_002A year after a storied and improbable visit to the World Series, I sat in my seat at Tropicana Field, cheering on my baseball team, the Tampa Bay Rays to a victory against the Kansas City Royals. As fate would have it, the ticket in my possession entitled me to a post-game concert. I had no reason to believe anything remarkable would occur on that evening. That’s the way most special things actually establish their roots.

Despite the poor acoustics of a baseball stadium and my seats a hundred yards from the stage, I found myself moved by the live music. I clearly remember leaving the concert that evening, oblivious to the fact that I was there first and foremost to see a baseball game. Purchasing both albums available by Daughtry at the time, I vividly recall the following morning, driving with my windows down, Starbucks cappuccino in the cup holder, music blaring as I cruise along the shores of St. Petersburg Beach on my way back home. Music has a way of doing that, imprinting indelible memories in our consciousness that resurface when we need them the most. It’s as if musical melodies hold a brush, sweeping strokes of color across our mind, painting a vivid image of our first connection with a song or artist.

Fast forward to the present day and my much anticipated Father’s Day gift courtesy of my son and wife, tickets to see Daughtry in St. Augustine. It is believed by some that anticipation of an event provides more pleasure than the actual encounter. On this occasion, I was giddy before, during, and after the entire experience, primarily on account of the person standing beside me.

In addition to seeing my favorite male artist perform live, I had the privilege of taking my son to his very first rock concert. I could tell by the look in his eyes and the mannerisms of his body prior to the opening song that he wasn’t quite sure what to expect. Although we weren’t in the front row, it felt like it. Seated just five rows back in the pit section, there was an intangible connection between us and the band. We could do more than see their facial expressions. We could feel the emotion. Every smile exuded happiness. Every scowl expressed angst. Every bulging vein conveyed a sense of determination and hope. Rocking my head, bouncing my leg, and belting lyrics from deep inside, I nudged my son and encouraged him to do the same. I understood from personal experience that you can’t force a connection with music. In due time, I knew it would come to fruition.

When I first obtained the latest Daughtry album, Baptized, I played it non-stop in my car. Who am I kidding? I still play it non-stop. But, at that time, there was one song, Battleships, which seemed to come on with an uncanny frequency when my son was in the car. It became our shared anthem of sorts.

WP_20140619_024Standing in our spot at that concert venue, awaiting the first chords of the next offering in the set list, we both instantly recognized the signature opening drum beat of the song. And when the first few notes traversed the air and landed upon our ears, the drums thumping in both our hearts, I saw a spark. In the form of a sly grin and a slight, almost imperceptible bounce in his step, he began to sway to the rhythm of the music. As I watched Chris and the rest of the band pour everything into the performance of this song, I saw my son entranced. I enjoyed watching him experience the spellbinding power of live music as much as I did watching the performance itself.

It happens to each of us in our own unique way. Music moves us. In a way that even the most carefully chosen and eloquent words can’t fully express. And the reason I can identify with this particular band so well is twofold. First, the voice, the melody, and the lyrics of each song are captivating. Second, and more importantly, I feel their performance. This is something that cannot be appreciated from a studio recording. It must be experienced live. And when I witnessed the emotion, passion, and energy exerted by this band in the performance of their music, it extended beyond seeing it. I felt it. We both felt it.

If you got a wild heart, don’t you let it die. ~Chris Daughtry

Leaving the venue, heading back to our car, I asked my son whether everything sounded a little muffled. To ease his worried mind, I said “No worries, that’s the way it’s supposed to be.” Holding his hand as we navigated through the crowd, I felt as though we shared another important connection together as father and son, courtesy of some good old fashioned rock and roll music.

WP_20140619_005We may not always be in the front row, but that doesn’t mean it can’t feel that way if we allow the music to enter our soul. As true a statement for a rock and roll concert as it is for anything we experience in life. Another indelible memory etched into my heart. And I hope when my son hears a song from this concert played on the radio five years from now, he recalls the same memory that we were fortunate to share together and smile. I know I will.

Fly away home

second-baseAfter the signature ping of aluminum bat meeting baseball resulted in a double down the left field line, I stood hunched over, catching my breath at second base. The double ear-flapped helmet obscured my peripheral vision as well as the cheers from the small crowd comprised of other parents in the bleachers. The run I represented held great significance. Well, it did for the twelve year old version of me some thirty years ago. As the potential winning run, I was the difference between a team victory and extra innings. And the customary reward for a win, a free cherry sno-cone from the snack stand behind home plate, tightened my focus. Well, truth is, we got that sno-cone regardless of whether we won or lost, but I digress.

As I shuffle off second base to take my primary lead, my eyes are locked on the pitcher taking his position on the mound. In the split second that I glance behind me to find where the shortstop is positioned, the pitcher spins around and relays the perfect pick-off throw to the second base bag. Whether by some ill-conceived plan to appear as an accomplished ballplayer, or out of sheer instinct, I dive back headfirst towards the bag. There is a very good reason why headfirst diving is discouraged in little league baseball. I learned exactly why in the seconds that followed.

As my outstretched fingers attempted to touch the safety of second base before the approaching ball tagged me out, I overestimated the distance between me and the base. With too much force and excessive momentum, my fingers jammed into the side of the base. What used to be of utmost importance now meant nothing. I didn’t care whether I was out or safe. All I cared about was the searing pain running through my fingers as they collided with the stationary base.

The imminent swelling and varied shades of blue color brought tears to my eyes. Partially from the excruciating pain, the tears carried more emotion from the anticipated plans for the coming week. With an injury to the fingers on my glove hand, it would be extremely difficult to participate in the baseball camp I was scheduled to attend at Penn State University. Was I excited to learn baseball skills that would improve my game? Absolutely. Was it my sole purpose for wanting to attend this camp? Decidedly, no. With an opportunity to stay in college dorms, eat in the dining halls, and maintain responsibility for my own schedule, it provided me an opportunity to develop and exercise independence. A healthy dose of ice, some tape wrapped around my fingers, and a stubborn resolve to carry forward allowed me to attend that summer camp, to develop that independent spirit.

Fast forward thirty years to the present day. With our son sitting in the back seat, my wife and I are driving him to his first week long Boy Scout summer camp. And although my camp experience occurred so long ago, it is one of the most vivid memories from my youth, most likely due to the impact it imparted on the aforementioned opportunity for independence. I remember feeling a mix of nervous anxiety and eager anticipation for that chance to strike out on my own, even if it was only for a week. Back and forth, the emotions rattled inside. And here I sit in the driver’s seat feeling the same thing, for myself, my wife, and my son.

Over the course of this past week, my wife and I have attempted to keep ourselves occupied, acknowledging the void in our household, struggling to not let our son’s absence affect us too deeply. It’s amazing how much you miss the sarcastic comments, the random sounds emanating from his room, the assortment of clothes scattered in the most unconventional places all around the house. And by unconventional, I mean everywhere but the laundry basket. The subtle reminders of his presence are missed dearly, especially his voice.

I have been away from my son for a week long period on many different occasions. But, I have never been away from his voice for that long. Even while traveling halfway around the world, I was able to call him from another continent, the radio waves bouncing from satellite to satellite in order to connect us for a few moments each day. And here we are separated by a mere two hours of driving between the Boy Scout camp and our house without a hint of verbal connection.

And so, with the help of a suggestion by my wife, I devised a different way to stay connected with my son over this past week. Although decidedly one sided, I have formulated a story, broken up into five individual pieces, which I have shared with him by the e-mail he receives from us each afternoon at camp. The ironic thing is that story and the process of writing it helped me as much as I hope it will have helped him.

arctic-ternThe Arctic Tern is an amazing bird. Each year, it travels up to twenty five thousand miles in migration from its Arctic breeding grounds to its wintering grounds off of Antarctica. Over the span of its lifetime, it travels a distance equivalent to the space between the Earth and the moon, three times over. Although we don’t necessarily need to reach for these extremes, it behooves us to spread our wings on occasion and take flight into the unknown. Flying away from what is comfortable can open our eyes to new possibilities and bring us a sense for what it truly means to be home, not only in our house, but also in our heart. For now, I am looking forward to flying north in our car tomorrow morning to pick up our son, give him a hug, and find out just how far he has flown over the past week.

Walk in the woods

clearest-wayThe snow drifts, layered like a deck of stacked cards during this unrelenting winter season, are finally succumbing to nature. Or so I am told. The frozen north is slowly transitioning from snow and ice to puddles of water, maybe more like small lakes. The anguish of prolonged indoor confinement is being replaced with the hope of fluttering butterflies, budding blossoms, and the warmth of spring. Hope springs eternal, in different ways for different people. While our northern compatriots are yearning for a rise in the mercury, I am clinging to the last few days of cooler weather before the heat and humidity settle in for the Florida summer.

It’s Saturday morning. Sitting on my back porch, I look into my coffee cup, steam rising through the dollop of whipped cream floating on the top. I inhale the scent of fresh java and feel inspired. This may be one of the final weekends of the season to enjoy the delightful weather that Mother Nature reserves for the winter months in Florida. Today, I decide to commune with nature through the majestic pine trees of Welaka State Forest.

Historically, I have a propensity to plan. Like, every single hour of the day. Thankfully, my spurts of spontaneity are becoming more frequent and leak out just when it is needed the most. The location of today’s expedition carries me two and a half hours north of my home base. The very loosely defined plan is to hike about three miles into the wilderness, towards the undisturbed shores of the St. John’s River, and camp overnight.

Upon reaching the trail-head, I anchor the thirty five pounds of necessary gear in my backpack around my hips and over my shoulders. As I set forth on this solo adventure, my mind is perpetually hunting for the next orange blaze painted on the trees to insure I remain on the right path. With more focus on staying the course, per se, my mind is tangled in the logistics of the hike instead of the captivating displays of nature surrounding me. The ironic thing is that being alone out in the forest allows one to recognize this preoccupation. One deep breath of crisp forest air persuaded me to let go, exhale, and utilize my five senses to consume everything bestowed upon me.

I suppose there is a fine line between completely letting go and remaining at least peripherally aware of your surroundings. After two hours of lightheartedly placing one foot in front of the other, I looked on the ground to find a most familiar sight, my own footprints. After three miles of carefree trekking along this tranquil forest path, I had come full circle, quite literally, walking in a complete loop to my point of origin.

With the sun slipping closer to the horizon, there was no longer enough daylight to safely make a second attempt in finding the primitive campsite by the river as intended. Disappointed, and slightly embarrassed, I lumbered towards my car for a return trip home. Once en route, however, a peaceful sort of feeling washed over me. I didn’t accomplish what I originally set out to do. Did that mean my experience had to hold any less significance? Do we always need to achieve what we intend in order for it to make a difference?

I reflected on my mood throughout the day. I had thirty five pounds on my back, but I felt as light as a feather. I was caressed by soaring pine trees on either side of me as I navigated farther from civilization. The stimulus for my senses was subtle, yet revitalizing. The crunch of fallen pine needles beneath my feet, the flash of red as a male cardinal crosses my path. The kindly visit from serendipity as I watch a young doe prance across the trail aptly named Deer Run.

wander-lostSometimes we need to follow a well-charted path. And more often we need to wander, into nature and within ourselves. Over the course of those two hours, I hadn’t taken a single thing out of my backpack. And yet, in the end, it felt lighter. Like a huge weight had been lifted from my shoulders. All that is gold does not glitter, not all those who wander are lost. Wandering through that forest, getting lost while meandering gently through the depths of my mind. It may not have glittered, but it certainly was golden.

Standing tall

Lighthouse at TwilightThe sea may be placid and tranquil, an undisturbed canvas upon which passing ships etch their story. Or it may be a cauldron of immense proportions, filled with turbulence and turmoil, writing a story of its own as it summons payment by those same vessels for crossing through her waters. Through it all, the beacon of light perched over the horizon radiates a signal of calming influence. Never moving itself nor asking for anything in return, the lighthouse perseveres against the forces of nature, securing a pact between land and sea as a conduit for safe passage.

Is it the manner in which it majestically towers above the landscape? Is it the memory of a simpler time in our human existence? Is it the story of adventure, mystery, and quiet contemplation that is held within its walls? Is it the sense of hope that its light resolutely displays for the entire world to see? What is the allure of a lighthouse? For me, it is all of these things, plus one more. Courage. Although an inanimate object, each lighthouse has a personality all its own that breathes life into its onlookers. Each is a symbol of the willingness to persist against all obstacles tossed in its direction. It stands tall in the face of adversity.

There are times when the ocean is not the ocean – not blue, not even water, but some violent explosion of energy and danger: ferocity on a scale only gods can summon. It hurls itself at the island, sending spray right over the top of the lighthouse, biting pieces off the cliff. And the sound is a roaring of a beast whose anger knows no limits. Those are the nights the light is needed most. ~M.L. Stedman

My persona is analogous to a buoy floating on the water. Save for the most extreme circumstances, I undulate to follow the motion of the waves. Whether mere ripples in a pond or frothy whitecaps washing over my head, I remain steady, rather even-keeled. This is a blessing and a curse. There are times when it is best to allow the raindrops to roll off your back. But, there are also moments when it is best to confront those same drops of rain head on, bravely wipe them from your eyes, and stand tall in the name of principles held within. Confrontation, definitely not a term in my daily vernacular.

In the words of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, each person in this world must choose to be an anvil or a hammer. Sometimes, I wonder whether I am both, anvil and hammer, at the same time. In a fiercely contested psychological battle, I hold myself responsible for those scenes where I remain submissive, my own voice quiet, not ready or willing to speak the thoughts screaming from the depths of my being. Is it just too much effort to rock the boat? Has this personality characteristic planted its roots in my upbringing? Do I favor acceptance over respect? Does my internal compass need re-calibrated to point towards my true north? Whatever the case may be, the first step is to recognize this anomaly, a worthy exploration of confrontation in its own right. The second step is to forgive yourself for prior transgressions against your personal creed and march forward with courage.

You only have to forgive once. To resent, you have to do it all day, every day. ~M.L. Stedman

It is said that books which touch us most deeply are the ones that speak the message we most need to hear. I have finished reading two complete works of fiction since turning the final page of The Light Between Oceans, a novel by M.L. Stedman. It is the first time a book has brought a tear to my eye. The significance of its influence on my frame of mind has been matched by no other. One month, two story lines, and dozens of characters later, the plight of Tom, Izzy, and Lucy still remain vivid in my memory. I wish that I could reach into the pages of this gem and pull each of them into my world. Perhaps it is because I deeply respect their exhibition of mental fortitude. In the face of adversity and difficult choices, each remains true to their deeply held beliefs, speaking their mind, standing tall.

stand-aloneThe origin of radiance from a lighthouse is but a modest and unassuming flame, nothing more than a flicker of light to the casual observer. However, a series of delicately aligned and precisely focused lenses magnify that flame to an intensity hundreds of times more powerful than the source. Cutting through the densest fog, overcoming the force of gale strength winds, peeking through the drops of a torrential rain storm, it provides guidance. That beacon of light is a symbol of hope, a demonstration of courage, a reminder that just like that lighthouse, we can all stand tall.

Mining gems

pitfallI remember the December morning many years ago that found an Atari 2600 beneath our Christmas tree next to the fireplace. Today, I would be more enamored by the dancing flames in the hearth. On this day, however, that gaming console was the sole object of my desire. For hours on end, I would play the likes of Asteroids, Pitfall, Dig Dug, and Pole Position. With joystick in hand, I was able to transform my living room into a personal arcade. It was the love of playing these games and understanding how they worked that led to my interest in computer programming and eventually to my current profession as an engineer.

Although difficult to comprehend for the youth of today, the graphics in these games were state of the art and revolutionary for that point in time. We were blown away by the simplest of animations, captivated by the most primitive sound effects. The computer gaming industry has come a long way. Advances in technology have provided consoles such as the Playstation and Xbox. And the improvements in personal computer technology have produced games with mind-blowing levels of detail and virtual reality.

Minecraft-LogoThat is why I was perplexed when I learned of my son’s interest in this new game called Minecraft. At first glance, the allure of this game eluded me. The graphics looked on par with technology from the 1980s. The game appeared to center around a block-like character running around an open field with a pickaxe in hand, digging up material from the ground to be used later. I will be the first to admit that it was a shallow interpretation.

Your assumptions are your windows on the world. Scrub them off every once in a while, or the light won’t come in. ~Isaac Asimov

Over the course of the last year, my perceptions have evolved. My windows have been scrubbed clean. Through the amazing creations that my son has authored through this game, I have grown to appreciate the depth of this platform. It has allowed my son to explore scientific principles such as fusion and fission. It has opened his eyes to quantum physics principles such as observational dependency, entanglement, and superposition.

To be quite honest, it has opened my eyes to some of these things also, things that I personally enrolled in college courses to understand. Initially closed minded about the educational value of a computer game, my beliefs were challenged and changed based upon the transformative power I was witnessing.

Each year, the Minecraft developers organize a conference to bring game enthusiasts together from around the world to share their passion for this hobby. With a limit of 7500 attendees, it was the luck of the draw that would determine whether we would be in attendance. Through a carefully choreographed arrangement of computers and web-enabled devices, we incessantly clicked the refresh button in our browsers with the hope of scoring tickets. Luck was on our side, as we were proud owners of two tickets to Minecon 2013.

In today’s complex and fast-moving world, what we need even more than foresight or hindsight is insight. ~Author Unknown

It often seems that the impact of a particular event or occurrence in your life doesn’t become apparent until you have had the opportunity to absorb it, to let it spread and permeate your being. This was one of those times. I had originally agreed to attend the conference with my son since I was the system administrator when things didn’t work as expected in the game. I figured I could learn a few technical skills to help alleviate any future problems. I learned a lot more than I imagined. And it had absolutely nothing to do with technology.

The most impressive observation over the course of the entire weekend was the breadth of influence this game has on its community. It’s not about the game. It’s about the people. Young or old, boy or girl, people from all over the globe were brought together through this one common interest, a video game. The level of cooperation and camaraderie in the name of fostering a healthy community was staggering. It is this abstract piece of software that allows a quantum physicist, computer programmer, musician, and artist to be brought together at one venue and have a common bond that ties them all together. Through an eclectic mixture of art, science, music, and technology, I learned that it is possible for the most unlikely sources to provide a bridge that connects people, both literally and figuratively.

steve-pickaxeAs I watch my son eager to share his new creations in this magical world beyond the computer monitor, I suddenly see a vision of myself from a time when I was the same age. The joystick has been replaced by a mouse. The TV has been replaced by a 24 inch computer monitor. The spark of creativity and imagination, however, are exactly the same. As he explores the new virtual world on his screen, pickaxe in hand, he will mine for the most coveted of diamond ores. He may or may not discover these elusive gems. But, what he has found is a well of pride and a sea of inspiration. And that is infinitely more valuable, a true gem to be sure.

Great expectations

challenge-limitsWe forge the chains we wear in life. ~Charles Dickens

Put a computer keyboard beneath my fingertips and I can work my way through almost any set of problems. Give me a list of numbers and I become a human calculator. These are my domains of excellence. I am ready, willing, and confident of the outcome when put in these scenarios.

Put a hammer in my hand, a tape measure on my belt, and a hacksaw next to a few two by fours and I seize up. My confidence level plummets while my anxiety level escalates. I don’t have tremendous amounts of positive experience to draw upon. In the past, blueprints for a coffee table would have a high likelihood of ending up sloping to the right and wobbling like a see-saw. Accompanied by a few choice words that usually don’t emanate from my mouth, I suppose I save them for these special occasions. Or maybe they come about due to the untimely introduction of said hammer to left index fingernail.

About a year ago, the landscape lights that adorned our front yard for more than ten years had seen the end of their useful life. Beginning to corrode and hunch over like a wilting flower, their last evening of illumination was complete. The removal of these lights left a set of exposed wires, naked to the elements. In the name of safety, the electrical breaker tied to these lights was turned off so as to avoid an unintended short circuit and potential house fire. Sounded like a good idea.

As luck would have it, this particular breaker was tied to many other electrical components in our house. The garage light, the outlet in the laundry room that powered our wireless router, and our doorbell all received a vacation from service at the same time. As a result, a sign was hung outside our front door (Please knock loudly, doorbell does not work), an extension cord snaked across the laundry room floor to obtain internet connectivity, and a piece of blue painter’s tape was adhered to the circuit breaker to serve as a temporary switch indicator when light was necessary in the garage.

This workaround was meant to tide us over for a few days. As weeks and months passed, this temporary fix became much more permanent as we approached the year milestone. With every return trip home, I was constantly reminded of my perceived deficiency in resolving this situation. The two inch diameter PVC pipes sticking out of the ground with exposed wires laughed in my general direction, mocking my procrastination and apprehension.

As the past weekend came upon us, it was decided that it was time to take care of many things on the to-do list around the house. Yard work, weed picking, pressure washing our paved surfaces, and fixing the dreaded landscape lights. For a brief moment, my heart skipped a beat with trepidation. What would the outcome be? How was I going to secure the new lights to the exposed fixture? How could I possibly make this work given my past track record?

Whether you think you can or think you can’t – you are right. ~Henry Ford

Something inside clicked, an infusion of self-confidence flowed briefly, and I grasped it with expediency and faith, ready to undertake the challenge ahead of me. I was in control of this situation. I was capable of not only being successful, but enjoying the process. I had a choice to believe that I would be looking at a home illuminated by new floodlights come evening’s end.

I didn’t come up with something that worked the first time around. It took several iterations. After many trips to our local hardware store, however, I finally honed in on a solution that was safe and reliable. With the help of my son and a healthy dose of self-confidence, we carried out our well-laid plan to completion with cheers of applause from all in attendance (ourselves included).

You must do the thing you think you cannot do. ~Eleanor Roosevelt

Expect-Great-ThingsAs I walk into our kitchen, a framed cross-stitch created by my wife holds this quote inside its borders. It’s time to do the dishes and we are only able to use one side of the sink due to a leaky pipe from the depths below, a place I don’t usually like to go.

And then I hear the doorbell ring. The doorbell that now works only because I had the courage to do the thing that I thought was not possible. A smile crosses my face as I realize the doorbell is a signal from inside that I have more work to do. I have more bridges to cross, more things to do, inside the house and within myself.

And with each return trip home, the illuminated palm trees re-ignite that flame of self-confidence inside and remind me to have the courage to persevere and prevail. You get what you expect. Expect greatness.