Reflections on Life, Leadership, Mindfulness, Change, and other Important Stuff

Month: April, 2016

An Excerpt from Cabal: Two Old Men

Lay this unto your breast: Old friends, like old swords, still are trusted best

John Webster


 March 2016

Martin Summers sat down in a corner booth of the Waffle House in Fredericksburg and waited on his friend.  He and Mason Finch had met years before at Our Lady of Good Counsel when both men were struggling to raise good children in an increasingly complicated world.  When they met, neither man had known what life might bring them and felt the invincibility of ignorance and youth.  But over the years, they had supported one another in loss, victory, and frustration.


Mason had been his confidante when Martin’s daughter, Sarah, found herself pregnant at age seventeen.  When many had whispered unkind things and stole glances at him, Mason’s support never wavered.  Martin consoled Mason when his wife, Elaine, fought and lost her desperate battle with depression.  When she finally gave up the struggle by gulping a dozen sleeping pills washed down by a bottle of Smirnoff, Martin wept with his friend.


Now, each man bent and gray, drank coffee once a week at the Waffle House in the same booth from which some wayward occupant would be quickly shooed by any one of the staff of the little temple, where coffee, toasts and eggs were the offerings.  The booth had become their confessional, a holy spot amidst an odd assortment of clientele that could only be found in such a place; there were blue collar men in steel toed boots trying to fuel themselves before a day’s labor; there were stoners with red eyes and ravenous appetites who smelled of the sweet acrid residue of their drug of choice; and there were lonely old men straining to read the newspaper through cataract clouded eyes.  Amidst them all, Martin and and Mason sorted out life and baseball.


“I’m not sure how to help him, Mason.  I just know he’s in danger.  He’s uncovered something I think he wishes he hadn’t. All I know is that he wrote some article about a man named Grant Larkin. A big shot in Chicago. One minute he was on cloud nine; he was back on track professionally.  The next minute he was desperate. Afraid for his life.  Now he’s just gone.”


Mason’s transition from consoling confidante to quiet investigator had been subtle.  Though he had long since retired from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, his mind was still sharp, honed from years of sorting fact from illusion.  Mason still did contract work for both the FBI and ATF, and that, Martin hoped, might give the man some insight into how to help his son.


“Mmm? If it’s a comfort, Larkin’s not really a bad actor.  Not that I know of.  He’s not quite as folksy and good humored as he seems to be publicly, but he’s not likely a man that would cause Chase any problems.  Though the company he’s kept over the years might be.  Anything else you can tell me?”


“Just that the FBI came to see me.  They are trying to locate Chase.  They wanted to know if I knew his whereabouts—if I had heard from him.  Of course, they told me he wasn’t in any trouble, but that he might have information regarding an investigation they are conducting. I know that’s just bullshit.”


Although Martin had always guarded his language, his trust in Mason’s knowledge of his own convictions, what he stood for wouldn’t be diminished by his occasional use of profanity.  The man knew everything about him as he did about Mason.  Here in the confessional, how and what they spoke of here was sacred—inviolate.


“I’ll poke around and see what I can find out.  Pretty sure I can at least figure out what he’s gotten himself into.  Not sure I can help get him out of it.  I’ll try, of course.  You and I both know there are rules for most of us that don’t apply to certain people.  If he’s mixed himself up with those people—well—you know.


Martin nodded.


“I know.”


“One more thing. Did you tell him to call me? Maybe to reach out?”


“I did. But he wasn’t interested.”


“Okay.  Look, Chase is a resourceful guy, Martin.  Let’s don’t worry until we have to.  The kid has always been pretty resilient.  Little guy was a pain in the ass growing up, I know.  But he’s not stupid. And he knows a lot of people.  Working at The Post for a decade, he made some friends while making a few enemies. Give me a couple of days. I’ll see what I can do.”


The two men finished their coffee and breakfast addressing the most pressing topic of the day wondering why in the name of all that was holy the Redskins had not drafted another quarterback and if the Nationals could sweep their three game series with the Braves.  Their dreams of a pennant and maybe even a World Series were always the topic over their final cup of coffee.  Sometimes there was even a small wager placed on a particular game.  And for years each man would claim the other owed some great fortune that was only payable in friendship.


As Mason climbed into his 2007 Tacoma PreRunner and turned the ignition he heard his friend call to him.


“Martin, be careful.  But please, help him if you can.”


Mason just nodded, slamming the door to the ancient truck. He had always been a practical man.  The truck, with more than 150,000 miles was “just getting broken in,” he told people.  And the flip phone he dialed worked  fine.  It was just a telephone. No need for something smarter.  Or more expensive.   If he wanted to use a computer, he could do that when he was sitting at his desk.  The man exuded the calm of a Buddhist monk, disguising a keen intellect and capacity for decisive,  and sometimes violent, action.


“Hey Rick,” he said, pulling onto the highway.  “Mason Finch here.  Yeah.  Good to talk to you too. Yeah.  You’re right.  Ben too long.  No.  You’re right.  Not just a social call.  Trying to help an old friend.  I need one of your analyst to give me a little history on a fellow Grant Larkin. Guy in Chicago. Standard stuff.  Known associates. How he makes his money.  Stuff we usually wonder about.”


The man on the other end of the phone was glad to help he said. “Anything else?”


“Yeah, while you’re at it, let me know what you can give me on a reporter named Chase Summers.  Used to work for the Post.  There may be some people in his background I need to talk to.  No.  That’s it.  Hey, I owe you.  You need something, you just call, okay.”


Mason Finch snapped the phone shut and began to feel the same feeling he always felt when he started working a case for ATF.  When he looked in the mirror now, it pissed him off.  He wondered who the old man was staring back at him.  He still felt thirty years old.  Not in his body, but in his mind.  He remembered reading something about how the neurons in the brain pretty much don’t die off and replace themselves like other cells in the body and why that was probably you could still feel like a young man trapped in an old man’s body.  It didn’t matter, he thought.  His mind had always been his greatest asset, his best weapon.  Leave the guns and hand to hand to the young bucks. That was fine. He would just enjoy the game while he could still play it.

Magic Mike, Goals and Other Amusements

Goals are important.  They keep us focused on what’s most important in our lives.  I have some goals at the gym.  I have goals for writing.  I even have a few goals for travel.  But as Joan Rivers asked, “Can we talk?”


As a recovering Type A, I’ve begun to rethink my goals.  Rather than let them drive me, I’ve decided to let them be about things that simply make me laugh and give me joy.  So I’m inviting you to peer deep into the abyss of my soul and get ready to judge me.  I’m a giver, you know.  If you’re tired of spouting off about politicians, I’m here for you.  So here goes.


Goal number one is to take myself less seriously. You know, laugh at the fact I can’t ever get all my laundry cleaned, folded and put away at the same time.  Sometimes this moral failing leads to more for me to laugh at myself about.  Like the fact I’ve been known to desperately snatch socks from the laundry basket and wear one blue sock and one black sock at the same time—to the gym.  (Not really.  I only wear tube socks to the gym.  You know, the kind Dr. J wore–back in the day.)  I’m also prone to “wear” selected parts of my lunch or dinner on a clean white shirt or a new tie.  It’s a long way from the table to my mouth, so I have an excuse.  But I’ve chosen to let this be something delightfully charming about me rather than belittle myself for my manners—sorry Mr. Trump—I know you’re disappointed in me.


My second goal is to do more of the things that give me joy.  Now this is where things get really personal.  It’s kind of PG-13.  You see, I’ve always wanted to be an exotic dancer. (Wait.  Was that my outside voice?  Sorry.) What I meant to say was I love to dance.  Not in public.  Good heavens, I don’t want to scare the children.  But when I get up in the morning, I turn on the music and dance a little.  You’d be surprised how good I am, even with the bad knee.  I also find great joy in singing. I’m kind of a rockstar in my own mind. Lately, I’ve spent a lot of time practicing my covers of Guns and Roses and Barry Manilow.  I think the people below me believe there’s human sacrifice going on in the apartment above them.  But I just smile when I pass them in the breezeway.  It keeps them off balance.


I have some more goals.  I won’t give you all the details but they involve craft beer, good friends, and occasionally, fine Kentucky Bourbon.  Never in excess.  (Well, not the friends part.) I’m kidding.  Nothing to excess.  (Don’t judge me.  Or do.  It’s okay.  We’re still friends.)  I’ve got some goals related to investing in myself.  I try to learn something new or new about myself every day.  Like whether my eyebrows are growing closer together or if I can still touch my toes (I can) or do a cartwheel (I can’t).  Or how to make those “facey” things on Snapchat (aaaaargh!).  I’m even considering taking a pottery class or learning to Salsa.


It would be nice to share more about these things.  But I have to go.  I have to rehearse. My dream of becoming an exotic dancer has come true.  I’ve just been cast in the next Magic Mike sequel.  It’s the story of a once famous male stripper who attempts a comeback after a hip replacement.  It’s called Magic Mike:  Out of Rehab.  Like I said, its good to have goals.  What are yours?

Long Trail Home: from chapter 26

In adolescence, as boys are becoming young men, there is, for a brief season, a convergence of boyish gentleness and masculine bravado.  It is a time when boys retain the sweet innocence of childhood, yet one washed with doses of testosterone.  In becoming men, they can remain kind and tender, yet challenge one another in bold acts of manhood. It is a time in which victories are sweetest and defeat is most bitter.


The two boys were in such a season that summer.  Friends since they were toddlers, they had pledged themselves to a lifetime of shared adventures. Together they would woo women, vanquish beasts, and win glory.  They would rule the world, forcing it to bow to their whims.  This they had decided a few months earlier, in the late spring of their thirteenth year.


“I’ve never told anyone this before,” said Marcy.


She was absently mindedly folding and refolding the paper napkin, each crease a hesitation or a worry.  It was a habit she had developed in her youth, a ritual of contemplation.


“Sure,” said Claire.


“And you won’t tell anyone?”


“Of course not.”


Even though they had been friends for years, Marcy was reluctant.  Baring her soul never came easy to her.  She often wished you were more like Claire.  The woman had an endless supply of courage, she thought, unaffected by the judgments, both large and small, that came with the choices the woman made.


“I’m just not sure I can do this.”


“Do what, Marce?”


Claire noticed Marcy was beginning to tear small bits of paper from the napkin, littering the table with flakes of anxiety.  Marcy had everything a woman could want.  A great job.  Beautiful children.  A doting husband.  But there had always been a sadness in her.  You had to look to see it.  But it was there.


Sometimes the sadness showed itself when Marcy was standing alone at a party, when her broad smile resolved into a distant look.  Whenever someone asked if she was okay, she had learned to say “Oh, sorry.  I was just thinking about work.  I’m great.”  Sometimes she would claim she was thinking about her kids or if she was really quick she would offer “I’m just so grateful for all of this.  I guess I’m just lost in the moment.”


Marcy leaned back in the booth, letting go of the napkin, debating with herself, saying nothing.  Claire let the silence do its work.  Life is too noisy, she would say.  You have to let solitude work for you, she had told often Marcy.  It’s not the enemy.  Marcy treated solitude like a good friend who was always there, waiting to invest some time in their relationship.


“You’re biting you lip, Marcy,” Claire cautioned.  “You know you can tell me anything.  Or not.  I love you just the same.”


“Sometimes, I just don’t think I can do life.  Not well, at least.  I love Mark.  I love the kids. I just wonder, sometimes, if everything we have really has us.   Do you know what I mean?”


Claire only nodded. She waited for Marcy to finish the thought.


“I’m really grateful for everything I have.  But sometimes it feels like it all has me.  Like I’m that guy on the old television show, show, running from plate to plate to keep them spinning.   It’s exhausting.”


“So what happens if the plates fall?  Not the ones that matter.  The other ones.”


Marcy looked at Claire, trying to understand what she meant.


“I mean think about it.  What’s the worst thing that could happen, if you let some things go?”


Marcy had spent much of her life trying to do the right things.  Be a good mother.  A good wife.  An exemplary employee.  Always willing to step up.  Take up the slack.  Fix things.  Maybe it was because she was a middle child.  Bake sales.  Get the kids to practice.  Have it all together.  These were the spinning plates of her act.


“How do I decide which ones don’t matter, Claire?  And if one of them falls, there will be a mess and I’ll have to clean it up,” she laughed.


“Pick one thing.  Just one.  Noodle on it.  Figure out what is the absolutely worst thing that happens if you let go of it.  Maybe you disappoint someone who doesn’t really matter.  Maybe you create a little space for yourself.  You can always go back to it.  The stuff that’s bullshit is always there.  Someone will always let you handle it.  Even if you let it go for a while.”


By now Marcy was working on the napkin again.  She had unfolded it and was neatly pressing it flat on the table, working out the creases.


“May I take your plates, ladies?” asked the waiter.  The two women looked at one another and started laughing as they slid them to the edge of the table.  He looked at them with that “what did I say?” look and slipped away.


“Poor guy.  That’s what he gets for interrupting girl talk,” said Claire.


Marcy looked at Claire.  They were so different.  Claire never looked at her phone or her watch when they were talking.  She was smart and beautiful and more than a little irreverent.  Marcy secretly wondered what kind of medicine the woman was taking.


“I have to go, Claire.  I have to pick up Grace.  She’s got a doctor’s appointment.  Any more words of wisdom before I go?’


“Are you asking me for advice?”


“Well, duh?  Of course.”


Claire knew that advice was as welcome as it was asked for.  She never offered it unless she was certain it was something someone actually wanted.  Otherwise it was just wasted breath.


“Just talk to Mark.  Tell him.  He’s probably had the same thoughts.  Figure out what you’re doing that’s in the way of being.”


Claire knew what was coming.  This was where Marcy told her that she secretly wondered if Claire was a “bells and smells” meditator and was in touch with the universe in some mystical way.  Marcy loved the fact that Claire was a little weird in most people’s mind.  They said it was her IQ that made her that way.  But Marcy knew better.  It was Claire’s heart.


But Marcy didn’t make her normal wise cracks.  She just leaned over and hugged her friend saying, “I think it’s your time to buy.  But I’m gonna get this one.  Gotta go.  Love you.”


As she walked out the door of the coffee shop, Marcy could feel her pulse quickening.  She would need to hurry to get Grace checked out of school and to her appointment on time.  She worried traffic might make her late.  But as she turned ignition and thought, “Being a few minutes late isn’t the end of the world.”  She flipped on the radio, took a deep breath and headed out.  Slowing down, not racing to be on time, wasn’t a panacea.  But it was a start–a plate to let drop.

Chapter One: Long Trail Home

“Who do you think was the first man to have such an idea, sir?”  Matthew asked Jonas Taylor, the literature teacher whom he had come to see as a surrogate father when he had been sent to Stone Hill.


“I don’t know, Matthew.”


Normally, having someone call him by his given name would have provoked the boy.  But when Taylor did so,  it seemed as natural to him as his own breathing.  Sometimes, the boy wondered why it didn’t bother him.  When he thought about it, it made no sense.  Like so many other things in his life.


“What kind of man could do that? Make a slave of another man.”


“That’s an interesting question.  This world is full of men who act without consideration of the consequences of their actions, with little appreciation for the past or for the future.  They don’t see much beyond their own circumstances or how their actions give rise to things.”


“It seems to me it would take men who are cruel and greedy.   Men who only want to get what they want out of life.”


“I suppose that’s true much of the time.  Men, human beings that is, are strange creatures, Matthew. They can’t see themselves very well.  I think many men are simply reacting to what they see before them as the opportunity to be happy or secure or respected.  Most of the time they are just unaware of how the pain and difficulties they they cause others.  They don’t see how we’re all connected.  Sure, there are those who know it and simply don’t care.  But God save us if that’s true of all of us.”


“I’m not sure God cares that much about us, Mr. Taylor.  If there is a God.”


“I suppose it’s a fair concern—wondering about both, I mean.”


“From what I’ve read, during the War both sides thought God was on their side.  He sure wasn’t on the side of the Confederacy.”


“Probably not.  I don’t know. I’m not sure God chooses sides.  Maybe, he just allows us to be our own worst enemy, sometimes.  I guess men want to believe in their own causes so strongly they can’t help but convince themselves there’s an almighty hand on their side,” said Taylor.  “But I suppose God is as dismayed over the actions of men, the things they do in his name, as you are.”


Taylor knew enough of the boy’s past to realize his struggle was about more than just how God’s role might have played out in the War or making slaves of men.  But he knew better than to challenge the boy about it in that moment.


“You know Matthew, slavery, it’s a terrible thing. The worst. But you know men can be enslaved to all kinds of different things.”


“What do you mean?”


“Well, men can enslave themselves to liquor, gluttony, even to their own pasts—even their fears. And sometimes to their view of the future, forgetting who they are while planning to be who they think they are supposed to be.”


Matthew gave Jonas Taylor a wide grin.


“Mr. Taylor, I enjoy your literature classes, but respectfully sir, I suppose I’d just as soon leave the religion and philosophy to the Chaplain.”


Taylor nodded and laughed, “Probably good advice, Matthew.”


“I have to go to class now, sir.”


“You should, Matthew.  You should,” the man said.  “Pay attention,” he added, “and try to learn something,” laughing as he said it.


Taylor’s laugh ebbed as the boy walked away.  To him, the boy was a puzzle to be solved; a boy who wondered about things most grown men never considered. The teacher stood there, waiting for Matthew to disappear into the building, shook his head and winced over the grief that had befallen the boy.

Divorce: A Brief Mindful Fiction

“So that’s it?” Taylor asked, sliding the papers to his attorney.

“That’s it.  You’ll have to wait for the judge to sign the order.  But that’s just a timing thing.”

After so many years, his marriage had finally come to an end.  Taylor wasn’t happy about the divorce.  Or sad.  When he thought about the almost two years it had taken to get to this point, he realized his only emotion was relief, mixed with a large dose of fatigue.  The anger and hurt had faded into resolve at some point, even in the face of well meaning friends and family who had said unkind things—the result of their own grief, their clinging to their own notions of how things should be.

“You seem to be doing very well with this,” said his attorney.  “You aren’t angry or bitter like so many people I see in my practice.  Why not?”

The question came as a surprise.  But Taylor had left because somewhere along the path he realized the thing he was clinging to was what was causing him the most pain.  Marriage had always been a lifetime commitment to him.  But a moment had come when he saw himself and his situation so clearly he knew it was time to leave.  Leaving would hurt his wife, it would hurt his kids, and, though no one particularly understood, it would hurt him too.

“When I left, I decided not to cling to things; not to struggle to get my share of the material things we had accumulated in our marriage.  And I decided not to blame her.  Or even me.  I mean, I know I did some things wrong.  When my daughter was small she would ask for ‘do-overs’ when she didn’t like the result of some of her actions.  There are some things I’d like to have a ‘do-over’ for.  But I decided I wouldn’t beat myself up for those things either.”

His lawyer just looked at him, saying nothing.  She thinks I’m a little woo-woo, he thought.  But Taylor was glad for the things he had learned from Thay’s writing and from Pema.  There had been times when he had been clumsy and let his indignation turn to anger.  But he had learned to pay attention to his thoughts, at least a little, and reign them in when he found himself playing out angry conversations in his mind.  He could return to his breath and choose to be kind and compassionate rather than bitter.  It wasn’t easy.  It took practice.  But it was simple.

“So what was it that made you leave?” she asked him.  “What was the final straw?”

Taylor thought a minute.  He had been asked that several times since he left.  People always seemed to want something dramatic, some tale of infidelity or abuse.  They would ask it the way someone would ask “Was he a smoker?” when they learned someone was dying of lung cancer, secretly hoping that smoking was the cause, and that since they were nonsmokers they were somehow immune to the disease.

“Oh, there were some deep wounds that finally kind of woke me up.  But I try not to write my own story.  I mean, I have my own thoughts.  I know my own mind about what happened.  But telling it over and over again doesn’t seem to do me any good and it wouldn’t honor the good things we had in the marriage.  It certainly wasn’t all bad.  I suppose it was just time.  When I got married I couldn’t imagine a time when I would divorce.  Not me, I’d say.  Never.  I was clinging to some idealized measure of manhood and the idea that things would always be the same.  They aren’t.  They change.  I changed.  Things are impermanent in this world.  I suppose realizing that woke me up.”

When Taylor looked at his attorney, he could tell she was beginning to understand.  She had seen so many marriages, even good marriage, end badly, that she admitted she fought cynicism about the whole institution of marriage.

“Do you think you will ever marry again?”

“Gosh,” said Taylor. “You know I try not to say never to anything anymore.  It just seems like that means I know everything.  I don’t.  There’s a peace in not knowing stuff.  Not having to get it right.  It doesn’t mean its okay for me to be an asshole.  But I said I would never get a divorce and, well, here I am.  I leave room for marriage again.  But I want to be better at it.  I want to have learned the lessons I need to learn before I make another marriage commitment.  Divorce sucks.  But it is a reality.”

The paralegal walked in and handed Taylor a file full of financial data he’d provided before the mediation.  She said they wouldn’t need it since there wouldn’t be a trial.  He had already paid the mediator and looked at his lawyer wondering if he could go now.

“You can go home.  I’ll get you copies of all the documents.  You’re done.”

He scooped up his back pack and the folder.

“You know, Suzette,” he smiled and said, “I’m really not done.  I think I’m just getting started.”

Of Mud and Ego

“Well have you done enough now to satisfy your ego?” asked my mother.


I smiled.  The question came during a conversation about my having just completed my third Tough Mudder—at age 55.  I was just a babe when I did my first two.  I was 54.


People say I’m a little crazy (not just for the Tough Mudders). They look at me with that “at your age” look when they hear I’m participating.   The notion of a grown man (on the outside) choosing to run a more than ten-mile obstacle course, slogging through mud, leaping off towers, and climbing walls is a bit unusual.  Hell.  It is crazy.


Why it’s fun to slide into four-foot deep pool of ice water (The Arctic Enema) and having to climb over a wall into another pool before you get can get out, isn’t something I can justify.  Nor can I explain the terror/joy of slipping into darkness, rolling onto your back and floating, with just enough room to breathe, below a cage (Rain Main) while water is dripping down in your face, is, well, fun.


Maybe it’s the challenge.  The determination to honor what part of one of the things my father says.  “Everyone has to get older.  Nobody has to get old.”


Maybe it’s the fact that I can eat absolutely anything I want before and after the race.  Pancakes with syrup before.  Double cheeseburger, milkshake and fries after.


Maybe it’s the fact that it’s a team challenge.  Everyone puts aside (mostly) his own ego and invests in helping complete strangers accomplish things they never thought they could.  Together.


Or maybe it’s the beer you get at the end of the race.  I like beer.  Beer likes me.  We’re kind of a big deal together.


My Mom knows me pretty well.  I’m sure she’s on to something.  Sure, there’s a little ego in it.  But I’m an only child so that makes it okay.  We really are perfect (kidding!). In the end, I wouldn’t participate if it wasn’t fun.  Crazy fun. I think the world could use a little more crazy fun.  So I’m signing up for another one this Fall.

And don’t worry Mom.  I’ll be careful.

I’m a Toys-R-Us Kid

Grow up.


Be serious.


Act your age.


This being a grown-up thing should have an NC-17 rating.  Adults only.  There are bills to pay, appointments to keep, and things to do.  Go to the gym.  Eat right.  Get enough sleep.  Wake up.  Start over.  Excited misery is what one psychologist friend of mine called it. You know, when you spend all your energy and time doing things you either have to do or feel you’re supposed to do.




That’s it? That’s being an adult?




There’s one more thing.




If we’re fortunate, our lives will be filled with about fifty years as a working adult facing Mondays.  Fifty years as a grown up.  And somewhere between being a kid and being old, life happens.


So many people greet Monday with an “ugh” because for some reason the weekend has become the only time grown ups play. For some, those two days are the only time of the week when we maybe, just maybe, we act like kids.  Sort of. Think about that.  Stand on the outside of your life and take a good hard look.


Like what you see?  Maybe you should act like a kid a little more.  (Not the “mine, mine, mine” kind of kid.)


Now, before anybody gets to cranked up about and suggests I’m advocating irresponsibility, hang on.   I’m not.  I just don’t wanna grow up.  I’m a Toys-R-Us kid.  I’m not letting go of the really fun stuff of childhood.


Playing in the rain.


Catching fire-flies.  (We call’em lightening bugs here in the South.)


Dancing in front of the mirror.


Wading in a creek.


Laughing at dumb jokes—you know, the ones that include references to—um, never mind.


Maybe even burp the alphabet.


Sure.  I have appointments to keep–grown up appointments, like annual vision examinations, and dare I say—uh, no.  I daren’t.   I try to eat right.  I do the grown up stuff.  Some of it I do well.  Some of it—well, not so much.  But in a world of doing, I hope I’m taking time to be–especially to be a kid.  Not just on the weekends, but on Mondays and every other day of the week. Maybe, you should too.


I have to go now.


I have some calls to Walgreens to see if they have Prince Albert in a can.

Epitaph: A Brief Look at Eternity

She said she knew what she wanted on her tombstone.


“She made a difference.”


It’s a noble goal.  And, I think, appropriate for her.


The truth is, dying isn’t something most people want to think about.


Being dead.  Here one day. Gone the next. The dirt nap.  Six feet under.  An empty seat at the table of life.   Now, if you fear this is some dark examination of existential angst, you don’t know me very well.


When she told me she wanted that as her epitaph, my mind did what it usually does.  It wandered to some irreverent thoughts.  I’m not afraid of death.  It’s the dying that scares me.  Like flying.  I’m not afraid to fly.  It’s crashing that I’d like to avoid.  But what of my epitaph?


See, I told you I didn’t feel good? That sounds appropriate.


I rather like the notion of someone unexpectedly coming across my headstone, amidst all the other deeply reverent ones, and having them laugh.


Pull my finger?  Maybe.  Maybe not.  Not too subtle.


Here lies Jim.  And here.  And here? 


That one seems to fit me. I’ve been buying extra long clothes since I was fourteen and paying more for it.  I wonder if there is a big and tall section in the casket catalogue. Will I have to pay more?




That one seems kind of fun.  Though I’m afraid it might bring a reply of Rubio rather than a reminder than children splashing in the pool calling back Polo as some pink water logged kid tries to locate his friends.


I’ve even considered some made up symbol, implying some mystical mystery.  Or maybe just a light bulb or a question mark.


Houston we have a problem?


I like that one.  Maybe Tom Hanks would stop by to visit.


Now, some of you are uncomfortable with such silliness.  Eternity is no laughing matter, you’ll say. But I can’t help myself.


I’m too busy living.

Big Man. Small World.

In 1988, he could still skip a day of shaving. He was a 185 pounds of bone and skin, stretched over a six foot six frame, and full of world changing ambition.   When the young man walked through the steel door, the Special Agent welcomed him with surprising warmth.


“Welcome to the FBI,” he said.  “Let me show you around.”


The office was quiet.  The furniture looked uncomfortable.  There was no receptionist.


“So, what makes you want to join the Bureau?”


The young man cleared his throat and tried to sound capable.


“My Dad,” answered the young man.  “He’s spent his career working for Treasury, working to make the world a better place.  I’d like to make a difference.”


I had just turned 27, had a young family, and the thought of becoming a G-Man was intriguing.  A few months at Quantico, then off to work in a major metropolitan area and I would be wearing Ray Bans, carrying a weapon and tracking down bad guys.  Cool.


Except, I chose a different path.


I stayed in banking.  I’ve had a good run.  I’m not done yet.


My career has taken me places, given me the opportunity to do things, and meet people, I could never have foreseen.  Just as I couldn’t have foreseen running in to the same FBI Agent who interviewed 28 years ago in Birmingham at a Writer’s Conference in Huntsville, Alabama today. He didn’t recognize me, but he had a name I couldn’t forget.  His name badge gave him away. Out of respect, I won’t share his real name.


Let’s just call him, Hoover.


I tapped Hoover on the shoulder and asked if he was a retired FBI Special Agent. He smiled and confirmed my suspicions.  It wasn’t long before we were laughing, sharing stories, finding out we had more in common than either of us would have expected.  He’s published a memoir.  I need advice about an FBI agent in a novel I’m writing.  Hoover was just as warm and he had been when Reagan was President. He said he would be glad for me to give him a call.


While Hoover and I were talking, I knew the look he was giving me.  I’ve seen it before.  People always want to ask it.  Little kids always do.  They gaze up at me and something like, “Man, how tall are you?”  Hoover wanted to ask, but we got distracted with the moderator calling us back to our seats. 

 I’m no longer 185 pounds. Now, I tip the scales at about 240—a big man in a small world.  Still hoping I made a difference.