Thursday, October 25, 2018

The Magical Fruit

*NOTE: sung roughly in the tune of the children's chant, "Beans, beans, the musical fruit"

Words, Words, the magical fruit
The more you imbibe, the more you can describe
The more you spill, the better you feel
So we have words in every spiel!

Words, Words, the magical loot
The more acquired, the more ideas squired
The more we squeal, the better we feel
So let's have words with every deal!

Words, words the miracle fruit
The more you repeat, the more you beat
The more you bear, the better you wear
So leave good words with every share!

Words, Words, the musical fruit
The more we churn, the more we learn
The more we learn, the better we earn
So let's burn more air on words together
before we ash our final urns!

#BeMightyWrite with magical implements of any sort!

Monday, September 24, 2018

Hail Mary

Heaven Harsh

The blood waters at sunrise
when the Universe cuts Earth’s cord.
The gory birth of each day
reflects back on the same seas
that mothered all land.
We don't see the difference
between Stone and Bone
after 10,000 years.
Time makes the extreme tones
of heartaches and heart-fulls
equally, equatorially weird.
Heaviness is a harshness
of Heaven by necessity.
All births are messy,
but some are a real Hail Mary.

If you give me a minute,
a tiny strand of time,
I will look for you in it.
The dawn of friendship
is only
a haven of moments
when we,
you and I,
mean something in the flood.
The right wave
is a long pass,
but even if you catch it,
every offensive play,
there is no such thing as a touchdown.
What goes up only comes around
in our harsh Heaven’s heaviness.

If I give you a minute,
a bare fray of rope,
I can only hope
you'll find me in it.
Irrespective of tides,
we could rise and pearl,
then curl,
a crashing wave,
feeling the heavy birthing pull
of Heaven’s sweetest harshness,
light, and inevitable,
as a baby's breath.
All births are messy,
but love is the real Hail Mary.
Blood waters when the Universe cuts Earth's cord, reflected on the seas that mothered all land. 

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Whom Am I in Your Head?

Who Am I in Your Head?  
A voice of reason? A seed of doubt? A season passing on route?  All reflections are a fun-house mirror of sorts. Grains of truth and sands of surprises wrapped up in the warped adobe abode we build of our lives. Our own reflection the most distorted of all. Seeing ourselves for ourselves only through others' memories of our images. Squinting gilded or glided eyes,
thus interpreted and rationalized, often obscured in the heady haze of emotions and the beady blaze of the varied beliefs that protect our individual primordial mists. But nonetheless, our real reflection remains always unknowable. Seen only through others’ eyes, back translations, we see our assorted distortions multiplied and miniaturized, compounded in spider eyes. This one that trait, that characteristic, those behaviors, in the past, this time, tomorrow and again, each difference stacked and piled. Green, ripe, putrid all at once like a boat of bananas. Out of season but returning flash frozen, on sale, in stores nearby, at random. Who Am I in Your Head? Always complex, but only an illusion of complete. Ever evolving, never resolving to one clear sliver of light. Unknown in the spider-eyed myriad mirrors of our reflections upon reflections on reflections rationalized. Ultimately unknowable in any life time, but hopefully, not forgotten. 

Monday, August 13, 2018

11 Lessons Learned from Extreme Environment Work

I have had the honor and the privilege of observing (and sometimes participating) in a lot of training for living and working in extreme environments. I've learned a lot, but I 'd like to share some of the things that are common in training for extreme environments.
What makes an environment extreme? Existing in it is dangerous because of constant physical, emotional, and/ or mental threats to your presence (e.g. Space, the Arctic Tundra, a war zone, a fire scene). An environment might also be extreme because it requires an ultra-high level of performance and even small errors can be deadly (e.g. emergency rooms, fighter jets). Training to perform in any one such environment or job reveals many interesting lessons. However, I think what astronauts, special forces operators, first-responders, law enforcement agents, Antarctic expeditionary members, divers, pilots, off-shore rig crews, and ER and ICU staff all learn in common may make great lessons for life in general...
  1. If we're all breathing, then we've got enough time to handle the other problems. This is a difficult perspective to keep, but absolutely necessary. NASA has an additional way of framing it: The first over-arching, non-negotiable mission objective is to keep everyone alive. For that objective, failure is not an option. The second objective can be the mission goals (i.e. what you, your team, your organization, your country, your planet wants); but everything is subservient to and depends on that first objective of making sure every one is and can continue breathing.
  2. Craft your work and your job to honor your own meaning of life or you will die inside (or burnout). What is the meaning of life? Like Albert Camus wisely witted, "The meaning of life is whatever keeps you from killing yourself." You define it. It can be love and family, rugby and roller derby, ballroom dancing and tacos, hope and learning and anything at all in the universe that makes your life your adventure. What matters is that you define it, reassess how well you are honoring it for yourself, and redefine it as needed to keep your meaning alive and use it to shape your work. All work can be shaped to fit your meaning, but first you must know your meaning.
  3. Hell is exciting, but boredom is heavenly. Pray for boredom. Use it wisely. The fate of the world depends on each one of us doing so. Boredom is when self-reflection and self-care happen.
  4. You must do self-care well before you can do team-care. It's very tempting to go all out and "sleep when I'm dead" and eat like every meal is your last and over-caffeinated and on and on and on. We're good at pushing ourselves and each other, but if you make a habit out of living and working like that then you will die 15 to 50 years earlier than you could have. Take a lesson from flying, you have to put your oxygen mask on first in the airplane or you will pass out before you can help your children put theirs on. 
  5. Meet others where they are at right now unless you want to be miserable. A mother afraid that her baby is about to drown will not listen to any advice on potty-training or managing her own diabetes. It doesn't matter how big of an expert you are, or how well-educated you are, or how good your intentions are. Inevitably, some people are not in a comfortable enough position to listen and hear certain things. Pay attention to others' situation and their current ability to hear and process information before you speak.  By the way, this requires that you find out about their current situation and capacity first (e.g. do a situation assessment in firefighter speak).
  6. Get comfortable with repeating yourself. You really will have to convince everyone of everything all of the time, and the sooner you accept that and learn to communicate persuasively the happier and more successful you will be. The key here is in knowing what must always be communicated repeatedly: your goal, the reasons for your goal, and how achieving your goal impacts the future (i.e. your recommendation, your rationale, and the intended/ anticipated impact).
  7. Make decisions, not judgements. Reserve your judgement as long as possible. Make and share decisions as far in advance as possible so that you have time to explicitly and repeatedly invite others to critique and improve those decisions.
  8. All criticism is scary and constructive if you mine it right. There is always a diamond hidden in even the cheapest coal, and even a diamond given to you on a satin pillow is shocking. Accepting, appreciating, and using criticism well takes a life-long dedication and lots of practice. Even bad, offensive criticism helps us learn what we don't want to do ourselves when others ask us for feedback (like not snapping and yelling at young students). Bad or unnecessarily harsh criticism should also be a bold reminder to remember to ask for feedback on what you are getting right and doing well (even more important than what you could do better). You wouldn't try to coach yourself to run a marathon by asking only what is wrong with your want to pull information from others about what you're doing right too. It is far easier to leverage your strengths to overcome or work around weaknesses than it is to fix a weakness out right.
  9. You can't do it long for the money, fame, or status, but you can do it forever because you care. Extreme environment workers, often care-takers like first-responders, quickly learn that it is a gray, gray, gray world. A big, fuzzy, chaotic bad-with-the-good mess. And we are not really a thin blue, red, green, or black line of dedicated helpers standing between everyone else and danger or harm (as advertised and idealized). We are at best, a candle light in the murk. We learn that we can't stop doing it, even when we're tired and frustrated, because we care so damn much. And we also learn that we feed our own and each others' souls and resilience by appreciating each other for caring so damn much. We learn to express our gratitude daily and eventually, our gratitude make us brighter, bolder, stronger, and keeps the gray at bay.
  10. Plan your planning and plan to review your plans. It sounds silly and obsessive, especially once you realize that 95% of your plans will get trashed in the first 5 minutes on scene or in action. However, it isn't about the plan per se, but rather the act of planning as a team that ensures great results. Agree on objectives, SMART goals, and milestones so that everyone involved can quickly see when things aren't going to plan and decide how to adapt before failure is imminent. Agree on checkpoints, safe-words (i.e. everyone stop all action and pay attention words), and normal communication expectations (i.e. who will tell who what, how, and when under normal conditions and under stress). Finally, take a moment during planning to ask what is the most-likely, worst-case obstacle or challenge you can expect. Make a plan for surviving that and then when your plan inevitably gets screwed up you will stress less because you already have a plan for adapting to your worst nightmare.
  11. Curiosity is what cultivates nirvana. When all you want is to learn, then failure becomes expected and tolerable.  Curiosity also crowds out the other less-meaningful wants and your fears. Real, lasting success of any kind requires many creative and fortuitous failures (also known as iterations)...that is innovation.
There are many more, I'm sure. What others have you seen hold true in extreme environments or under stressful living and working conditions? Sharing is caring!
Cacti grow strong in extreme environments. Why not us too?

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Doing the twist inside

I'd like to feature a poem by a friend (who would like to remain anonymous) this month, that I think captures the scariest aspect of battling any truly traumatic stressor or mental illness. I hope reading it makes it easier for us to empathize with each other, knowing that others get stuck on the roller coasters too. We all get twisted up inside, but we also each have a chance to #Bethe1to


That swirlin' 
spinnin' round 
won't slow down
expands and contracts 
insanely fast and laser focuses 
a persistent loop 
    that just keeps wrappin' 
itself around 
and around
 and can't be derailed 
with comedy or tears 
won't be deterred 
with silence or swears 
it insists 
on accompanyin' you 
to your dreams 
and throws random 
and minor chords 
 through your mind 
and it won't abate 
or fade 
and i'm just 
so done 
with this 
unendin' roller-coaster 
i never wanted to ride.
Even the twisted have some beauty.

Sunday, July 1, 2018

The 4th Novel is now happening

After an unfortunate series of disconcerting and time-consuming events, I am writing fiction again. Here is a teaser from my 4th novel (currently in creation). Please ask me how my novel is going, as there is no accountability so motivating as your friends and family kindly nagging you about your progress! 

The Synopsis of A Badge Washed Up:
A grieving middle-aged, African-American cook finds the badge of a forensic scientist, who is presumed dead, washed up on the shore at a beach-side retirement community. No one in authority will take Janey’s clue seriously so she searches for Brooke Stone, the missing scientist, on her own. Janey finds a lot more than she expected.

Chapter 1: The Hook

My son, Saul, didn’t always die in my dreams, but that didn’t make any of the nights after his death less of a nightmare. Even in my sleep, on some level, I suppose I still knew that he was really and truly dead. I found every dream of him so close to real though, because I wanted it to be so badly, that I could smell his hair still. My heart was a wound that never healed. Walking long distances on the beach numbed it some. Plodding fatigue brought me to an edge that hinted at living. Moving proved I was breathing. That I should continue breathing.
I often walked the shores after work, at sunset, until my heels were cracked and bleeding. One day last August, I got more than I bargained for though.
My hands were shaking even though the heat beating down on the sand was so hot that my eyes felt scorched.  I felt sorry for all the little elders of the Shore Acres Seaside Retirement Resort where I worked. Their thin old skin loved the heat, but so much sun was hard on their pale eyes.  In truth, I felt sorry for the entire world. All the time, I just felt sorry.
 I felt sorry for my beautiful dead baby. The injustice of his promising life cut short in his prime burned so rough in my chest that my hands still shook, two years later, whenever I thought about it.
I paused my walk, stuttered stepped into the surf, and let the green Gulf of Mexico wash in and out over my toes. The smell of salt filled my nostrils and pricked at the edges of my eyes reminding me of the taste of the tears I was too dry to cry any more. I kept playing back the last time I saw my son, Saul, alive. 

“Come on, Momma, I'm walking one mile up the road.  Julie's house is right on the edge of Orange Grove.  The first house on the left as you turn into the neighborhood.” He bugged his eyes out at me and shook his head.
“I know you can walk the mile, Saul.”
“Julie is a good kid.  We're really going to work on our project for the science fair.  I promise.” Saul spread his large hands open in front of his body and stuck out his lower lip.
“I know Julie is a good kid. And you know I trust you.”
He rubbed the palm of his hand over his tight brown curly hair. “So, what's the hold up?”
I watched him shift from foot to foot, one ratty Converse over the other, as he waited for me to answer him.  He was sixteen years of earnest adolescent energy.
I wasn't sure what my problem was, but for some reason, I didn't want him to go out that evening.  My stomach grumbled. I should have listened to my mother's intuition that early February night. “It's winter, Saul.”
“It's Gainesville, Florida, Momma.  Low of sixty-two degrees today.”
“It gets dark before six 'o-clock, Saul.”
“There is a sidewalk the whole way.  I have to cross one street and there is a stop light there.”  He gave me a sideways smile and draped his arm around my shoulders.
I said nothing. Why didn’t I hold him tight right then?
“I'll take my hoodie in case it gets cold, and I'll be home by seven for dinner.”
I shook my head and smiled back at him. Why didn’t I tell him I knew the hoodie wasn’t necessary?
“I'll also leave Julie's phone number on fridge for you.”
He was a good kid, an Honors student.  He never sassed me. He never complained that we couldn't buy him a car or a phone, or that his clothes came from the third-hand bargain boxes at second-hand shops.  He smiled every day and he did his best to make others smile too.  He tried to take care of me. 
“Okay,” I consented, trying not to frown. Why didn’t I insist he hug me right then?
He promised to be home by seven for dinner that night because we both knew his dad would probably wander in very late, drunk and smelling like some other woman. 
I don't know when I heard the first siren for sure. It was fifteen minutes after seven, I was sitting at the kitchen table with our food plated, when the bottom just dropped out of my stomach as if I was on a plummeting airplane. I got really worried.  Saul was never more than a few minutes late to anything in his life.  He was two days early for his own birth.  He rolled out of bed every morning before his alarm clock went off.  I stared at our plates. Instant mashed potatoes, canned green beans, and thin fried pork cutlets cooled on the microwave-safe malanite. I listened to the sirens outside. The one siren warbling siren exploded into a symphony of sirens.
I thought I should call Julie to see what time Saul left her house, but when I got up from the table my feet took me past the phone and through the front door. 
I ran accross black-top parking lot in my socks, toward the front gate of our apartment complex, and the sound of sirens.  I remembered tasting my heart in my mouth as I called out for Saul. I remembered seeing one of Saul's Converse on its side on the pavement, covered in so much blood that it looked red rather than washed-out gray all over.

 I remembered many things. All of them hard. I couldn’t remember what it felt like to be whole, to be real, to be happy. I couldn’t remember being innocent enough to believe that justice would eventually prevail. I couldn’t remember what it was like to assume that the world would play fair if I played fair too. My heart ached the most though, because I couldn’t figure out what good love was in a world that killed my kid with impunity.
Eventually the sound of the ocean, tide rolling over shells, brought me back to the hot beach again. I hadn’t realized how far I’d walked out into the Gulf of Mexico. I tottered on the unsteady slope of sand. The hem of my basketball shorts was wet.
Salty waves tugged against the back of my knees and shell grit slapped at my shins.   That’s when it hit me, literally. A sharp wet slap on the side of one knee pulled past me on a wave and then caught between my legs, limp and leathery, as the wave receded. The water was gritty, so I couldn’t see what it was. I reached down and plucked it from the water. Black leather, well-worn before it was worn more well by the ocean. It looked to be a wallet at first. A broken clip on one side. I thought it was odd to have a money clip on the outside of a wallet at first. I flipped it open to find a wad of kelp wrapped around a gold colored shield.
Even through the kelp, I could tell the shape of a badge. The bare edge of metal glinted in the sun. I pulled the kelp away and peered at the badge’s dull enameling proclaiming, “Florida State Department of Public Safety.” I rubbed away more kelp and the engravings became clear, “Forensic Scientist, 424242.” The plastic ID sleeve was empty, gaping like a dead jelly fish. A shiver shot down my spine. The leather, dead skin, was waterlogged and gross. I wanted to drop it, but the enamel of the badge was warm, and I couldn’t let it go for some reason. I traced the “424242” with the tip of my index finger. The grooves were soothing. I folded the wallet up and clutched it, dripping beside me as I walked home. The numbers and the title sang in my head with each foot step. I didn’t know much about law enforcement then, at least not much positive, but I knew a, “Forensic Scientist” probably wasn’t a typical police officer. A Forensic scientist might not even carry a gun. Worry tugged at my gut. A Forensic Scientist sounded like someone who could easily get hooked into troubling things and end up dead. Or mired in a world of hurt. Like me.
I put a paper towel down on my dresser and left the leather wallet laying in the sunlight to dry. The badge unclipped with a soft thwap and I rinsed it carefully under the bathroom tap. Multi-colored sand grains trickled down the porcelain and rimmed the rusting metal edges of my sink’s drain. I knew I would leave the sand there to sparkle in the water, a testimony to my new complete-lack-of-housekeeping habit.

An old mock-up of an idea for the cover.

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Owning The Adventure

You will never believe
The things that I have seen,
Though, I could tell you a hundred stories

Days when everything
Is sacred
And pregnant
With hope.
Grass stands
Thick, cool, and green
Beside a burbling stream
On a Siberian slope.
Trees older than Jesus
Reach to the sky
Gnarled high,
Mid-Nevada miracles,
Stark clear and dry.
A mother,
A astronaut,
Reaches the stars
And shares the trip
So that more children
Dare the slip
From the surly bonds
Of gravity.
Free to see
Earth’s blue marble beaming.
Underpaid firefighters
Stop traffic
To rescue
Squirrel puppies.
All God’s creatures
Are small,
Are great--
Small on judging,
Big in faith.
And I believe
In everything.

Days when nothing
Is sacred
Nor born
With good will.
Rival owners
Firebomb strip clubs
Killing sex-traffic victims
And booming their business.
A trusted official
Commits the felony
And not only goes free,
But doesn’t have to flee,
And still gets re-elected,
While the Under-Represented Minority
Remains unduly suspected.
Fundamental attribution error
Breeds increasing cognitive bias
Like plastic pollutes the sea
And millions in apathy
Toss on billions of straws.
Camels aren’t just beaten
Bloody and raw
In fables of Shahs.
A Grandmother,
A hater,
Brutalizes a baby
Breaking bones zero to 206
Per angry shake,
But she gets to demand
The doctors finish
Killing the kid slowly
On life support.
And I believe
In nothing.

What does it mean to believe?
There once was a fork in the road…
I choose my own adventure.

There is never enough time to choose, and yet we must choose again and again each day.

Saturday, June 9, 2018

The Low Down, Dirty, Shameful Truth

I'm not always zen.
I believe in the magic
of cheap rhymes,
thick novels,
lonely times,
and not worrying
about when,
as much as

I love like sin.
I believe in my wife,
one of the biggest,
bad-ass heroes
in life.

I'm a total goof.
I believe in singing
in full Texan drawl,
to too many pets
and stone deaf
to the wall,
to keep laughter
and misery aloof.

I know I'm a fool.
The doctorate
is only more proof.
I'm stubborn
and dumb,
plumb crazy
to basic
like common sense
and public cool.

You can plainly see,
millions more patient
than me,
more focused and kind,
and ready to find
fault fixed
in our world.

the low down,
I'm already
your side.

already set sail
a gritty
long time
and we're on it

I'm not always zen,
and I don't care about when,
but here's my hand;
and I hope you'll take it.

I think we can make it,
if we
love like sin,
keeping laughter warm,
too stubborn
and too dumb
to find fault
to fix
in each other.
Stuff grows on the dirty down-side!

Sunday, May 20, 2018

The Poet Knows It

A poem on a napkin
is more like a tissue.
A poem on a blog,
ephemeral as fog.
A spoken rhyme
mere litter
among airwaves
in time.
words to the sea,
a token memory
of a world
that existed
with me.
A moment of sunlight creates poetry of light.

Monday, April 30, 2018

Every Time I Hear Loony Tunes

Every time
I listen
to The Cure
I think about
the boy
that got away,
like Wile E. Coyote,
over the edge
of a car crash
in the dark of night.

Every time
I listen
to Tricky
I'm sure about
the love
I've given up,
like Bugs Bunny,
knowing I should
have taken
a left turn
in Albuquerque.

Every time
I listen
to Morrissey
I'm crazy about
the day
fading out,
like Yosemite Sam,
hollering when
I say, Whoa!
I mean, Whoa!

Every time
I listen
to Lucinda Williams
I'm sick about
the way
grace slips by,
like Sylvester
lisp suffering
while Tweety Bird

Every time
I listen
to Wagner
I'm mad about
the gray
given sway,
like Marvin the Martain
sneaking in unnamed
for two decades
until Warner Brothers
needed to market him.

Every time
I listen
to One Republic
I feel about
to hope,
like Pepe Le Pew
fondling faith
despite rebuff
the millionth face.

Every time
I listen
to Everything But the Girl
I remember
what it's about,
obnoxious but true,
like Foghorn Leghorn
that's a joke
to the bewildered
book Chick.

Ever time
I listen
to the music,
I hear
a Loony Tune,
a siren song,
about life,
and keep
like that's what
it's for.

Another nostalgic siren song source.

Saturday, March 3, 2018

A Lone Star

An excerpt from my new Romantic SyFy story, now available in The Lone Star Collection (12 Texas Stories). All proceeds from the book support the Lonestar Lesfic Festival in Austin. If you buy the print book and bring it to the festival, I know a whole lot of authors who will sign it up good for you (including me).

A Lone Star

Bad ass. That was the first thought that came to Venn Jules’ mind as she looked over the Lone Starport’s new sheriff, Arnika Verne.  The sheriff stood on the deck of the hovercraft, eyeing the vast sea below, with one hand on her trim neoskene-armor clad hip and the other wrapped around a laser-arc spear like she knew exactly how to use it in a hurry. Which was very comforting, given that Venn herself was too stymied by the Great Orange Kraken’s tentacles, and now also too fatigued from wrestling with it, to keep the kraken from chewing on either her or the Starport’s tidal stream generator.
Operating a new near-equatorial launch facility on the shores of Austin came with more risks to manage than the Governor and his cronies cared to admit; but at least that ass-hat and his merry troupe of brown-nosers had finally seen fit to grant Venn’s appeal to hire some protective muscle. Sexy muscle too.
“Looks like you’re an ass-crack away from becoming Kraken snack,” the sheriff said with a sultry grin. Her accent dripped of Nor-easterner, someone used to the cold horror of the Arclantic ocean, and thus she probably knew fuck-diddle about the warm terrors of Venn’s Gulf of Mexico operations. Venn’s hopes of salvation diminished.  “No shit. Now shoot the bastard in his damn plate-sized eye.”
Black hair whipping in the wind, the sheriff sent an off-hand laser bolt into the Kraken’s beak just a foot shy of Venn’s head and then, in such quick succession that Venn never saw the sheriff move, fired two more bolts into the Kraken’s eyes.  Venn dropped from the Kraken’s failing grasp into the ocean like a stone.
Luckily, she hit the muddy red waves feet first, but the velocity of her fall still sunk her a dozen meters. She knew her immediate-personnel-locator-tags likely tripped on two seconds after being submerged, but they wouldn’t do the sheriff any good toward dragging her out of the water is she didn’t break surface in a hurry--before any of the Kraken’s sisters sensed her presence and dragged her to the blackest deep.  And it would be the Kraken’s sisters, Venn knew, because their males were mostly lame, much like the men of today’s United States of Oceania.
Venn kept kicking hard, but nearly laughed underwater as the words of her cynical birth mother sprung to mind. Men were only good for three things: sperm, hysterics, and a whole lot of indignant insinuating that some ancient artifacts indicated they were really the dominant gender a thousand years ago. “Yeah, and I bet the water and sky were clear back then too,” Venn thought and added broad desperate breast-strokes to her efforts. She spotted what could only be the snout of a monstrous Great White shark speeding through the murky redness in front of her. Another murderous sister hard on her heels. Just great...

Read the rest in the book, available now in print and eBook formats on AMAZON:

Lesfic Romance
Benefiting the Lonestar Lesfic Festival

Friday, March 2, 2018

Muses Never Die

Last August, the day after the Harvey flood hit my house in fact, I also lost a very dear friend and fellow warrior-of-the-written-word, Mr. Trey Garcia. Trey and I started trading poetry (and challenging each other to keep writing) in 6th grade. We avoided some arrests together in high school and wrote letters swapping poetry while I went to college and he served in the Navy. We challenged each other into writing a novel in a month for the last seven years or so too. He was my muse, and I miss him.

But I still hear him. I still have his poetry, and I still have the poems he challenged me to write. In celebration of this light that lives, I share one of his poems (one of my favorite) and one of mine (written in response to his challenge on the same theme).

The Paris Line by Trey Garcia

Trust no one but the pavement and the wind,
And never quite clear of the grey statues
As we lay in the river by the bend
A nightingale on a fig tree eats cashews
Taken from the pilgrim land just this Spring.

Can he not see that which will not be?

You and me and love. This is just a fling
Nothing more than a squirrel in a tree
Hiding acorns in a burrow made by
Ancient squirrels in hope for generations
Present and future. Now we start to fly
Above nature, above waves from stations
Playing our favorite songs as we dance
And kiss and feel and know
There is no chance.

What is the purpose of a pickup line exactly? by Lacey Schmidt

Some Egyptian-rule, obsidian cruel, 
icy social milieu 
where your eyes meet mine 
and suddenly complete some small space 
in time?

Something must be said...

to simultaneously let you know 
I think I just might love 
dipping my hands into your russet curls 
to pull your lips expectantly near mine 
while still enmeshed 
in the thoughts you’d share 
for thoughtful wear.

Something must be said...

to convince you our met stare
is more than a chance glance 
in a crowded room 
of social graces,
but I can only gulp 
and fret 
until you’re on the verge of turning 
toward some other day.

Anything should be said...

but will “your shoes are nice” really suffice?

Trey toasting our long-time limericks, with Laura, the night before my wedding.

Friday, February 16, 2018

Save Some Kids Today

I am a teamwork and leadership coach, but once I was also an operational manager. Many of my colleagues, many other managers and executives complained to me about how they spent the last decade (or five) telling someone (an employee, a mentee, a spouse) that the door was always open.  They extorted folks to interrupt them, walk-in, and complain about anything. The important thing was to let them know that there was a problem or frustration before it became a disaster… BUT NO ONE EVER DID. Their planes crashed. Their space shuttles blew up. Their supervisor went crazy and shot up the factory. Their CFO told some million-dollar lies and many executives went to prison. Even though a leader’s door was always open. Even though they talked every day, liked, and were liked by the culprits. Problems still festered, unannounced, and unheard. This happens with our children too. Sometimes they suffer in silence and expect us to know the truth behind their evasions, to do more than wait with an open door for them to confess their confusion or guilt.

What more can we do?

I like questions because they inspire research. I am a scientist-practitioner. My job is to verify and translate psychological knowledge into practical behaviors that working adults can implement to positive effect (without having to do the reading and the research on their own first). So, the question haunting me became, “What more could we all do?”

Obviously, just having open doors doesn't work. They are necessary, but not sufficient. Even if someone does walk in to tell you about a problem, there is still one massive obstacle to understanding well enough to help. Psychology has cataloged over a hundred cognitive biases that keep us from hearing well (check Wikipedia for cognitive biases if you don’t believe me). Among them is a molehill that is really a mountain for families and teams…the Bystander Effect. Individuals are significantly less likely to offer help to a victim when other people are present. Everyone believes someone else has more time or authority to deal with it, or is doing something about it already, or hears and understands the victim better. For the bystander, denial and rationalization kick in quickly and paying attention to the real situation becomes hard. This is what families and teams were fighting against really.

I tried many things that science said should engage listeners and facilitate shared understanding. I coached leaders to declare who they wanted help from by name and to assign specific actions. I coached teams to use shared communication protocols so that it would be easier to build and share a common understanding of what was going on. These things helped, but they didn’t answer the root issue. They didn’t get people to walk into the leader’s office and proactively assert their concerns.

Then one day, fifteen years ago, I read a book on managing in hospitals. Hardwiring Excellence by Quint Studer. One chapter stuck out like a beacon, the one on something he called, “Rounding.” He was applying something that clinical and counseling psychologists frequently do: ask specific and consistent questions in brief one-on-one moments with individuals every week. He was doing this to build a culture of responsibility. I tried it as a manager first, then as a mentor, and occasionally as a professor. It worked so incredibly well that I extrapolated it to my personal life.

What works.

If you take away only one thing from this article, please let it be this: I know of only one sure-fire way to get information from others about a problem before it becomes a disaster. Ask your team and family members 3 specific questions, deliberately and consistently:

1) What went well today/ this week?

2) What didn’t go well today/ this week?

3) What surprised you today/ this week?

And then, JUST LISTEN.

Show you are sincerely interested and that is all.

I know some of you are thinking that you already ask your kids how their day was. Every day. And you do listen. But the magic is in asking these specific questions that are formulated to draw out actionable information. And in asking them habitually, so that your family and team members start telling you the answers before you they start barging in your open door to tell you their answers and you are conditioned to listen well.

Asking these three structured questions and listening well saves kids (and suicidal adults and teams on the brink of unseen troubles), because they help you understand the larger pattern of behavior, make more astute predictions about consequences, offer more support in advance, and take preventative action to prevent crises.

Listening to understand is leadership.

If you ask follow-up questions, then make sure they are open-ended and non-judgmental questions like, “What did you think was most surprising about that?” Above all else, finish the conversation with something like, “Thank you for telling me. I really value your thoughts.” If someone (especially a child) pushes to know how you feel or think about something they’ve said, then resist passing judgment by answering with something like, “I’m not sure yet. Will you give me a day/ X hours to think about it?” When they agree (and they will 99% of the time, that is another psychological phenomenon), then state exactly when you’ll get back to them and do get back to them on it.

Our first job as leaders and parents is not to advise, or impart wisdom, or fix anything, or hope they’ll learn better if we work hard enough to give them the opportunity. A leader is a canary in the coal mine. A leader is the first one in, literally. A leader is supposed to see and hear and start developing an awareness that can be shared and used to plan actions. The leader is not supposed to have the answer (…that is usually the last one in, the guy in the back of the mine, furthest from the danger, who has the most time to process the information).

True leaders ask good questions. True leaders help team and family members hear their own thoughts out loud. True leaders help team and family members think about what they really want and need to do so they can make wise decisions on their own. True leaders influence by Judo, so to speak. We listen and thereby use the momentum of the individual already in a complex situation to discover the healthiest and happiest way for opposing forces to fall.

A specific, actionable, and practical plea for your help.

Please try these three questions and listening with the children in your life. Notice you don’t have to be a parent. It works for uncles, aunts, grandparents, cousins, teachers, and anyone with a meaningful social connection to the child. It works gradually though, so you have to try it repeatedly. You have to be consistent and specific with the three questions until the problems start coming through your open door.

Research on Rounding is newish. We’re still learning things about how it works and how to make it work better, but I promise you from my own personal experiences that applying it makes a world of difference. I learned to ask great questions, and I’m still learning to ask better ones. I focus more now on seeing and hearing before it’s too late to be of any help. I know some kids better now. Enough to spot some big scares and save some kids before it was too late. Sometimes my kids, sometimes someone else’s kids, too. It feels amazing saving a life by asking the right questions and listening. It feels a whole lot less confusing and sad than wondering why a tragedy happened.

Help save some kids today.

In memoriam of the victims of the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in 2018; and the 15,381 additional victims of the 417 mass shootings events in America in 2019.

Save some lives before more blood hits the ground.

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