Tuesday, July 24, 2012

The Unexpected

Robert Burns, the Scots poet, wrote "To a Mouse, on Turning Her Up in Her Nest with the Plough," in 1785. One of the more famous lines from that poem is "The best-laid schemes o' mice an' men -- Gang aft agley." The English translation of the Scottish is even more familiar, "The best laid schemes of mice and men -- Go often awry" It is the "Gang aft agley" part I was thinking about the other day when I was watching the news. A four-story, 200-unit apartment complex caught fire, and when the smoke cleared it had been transformed into a three-story, 100-unit apartment complex. Every person in the complex had to be evacuated, with only minutes notice. One resident experienced the urgency firsthand, as the fire doors closed just after she exited the building. All the residents were safe; none were able to take anything more than the clothes they were wearing. They experienced a "Gang aft agley" moment for sure.

We all know what it's like to have our plans take an unexpected turn: the stalled train delaying our commute into work; the overnight snowstorm sidelining our vacation flight; the flat tire making us late for our daughter's recital; the Army buddy dropping in at work and taking us out for a quick one; the computer screen turning blue, the hail storm busting out the car window; the teddy bear stopping up the toilet; the conversation starting out, "Daddy, I love you ...."

Each time our plans "Gang aft agley," we can react in one of two general ways: accept what happened and move on or get angry and bog down. I observe that many times guys tend to respond with anger. Many are the times I have witnessed guys giving some gate agent a spirited piece of their minds over a delayed flight. I have also seen a fair amount of steering wheel abuse by men stopping suddenly because the car in front of them decided to prudently brake for a yellow light. Some of the most interesting words I have heard were uttered by men whose plans "Gang aft agleyed."

I mention this because I tend to be one of the guys who blurts out his frustration to those within earshot, especially if I am with my wife in the car. Just the other day, a lady parked directly in front of the doors of a store, causing me to stop and go around. I launched into my familiar speech, asking her who she thought she was and why she deserved such preferential treatment, taking pains to call into question her mental abilities as well. Just then I saw my wife smiling alongside me. As I concluded my heartfelt diatribe, I pointed out that smiling at an angry husband probably isn't the best thing for a marriage. I then stopped and calmly asked her why she was smiling.

She told me I reminded her of her dad when he got angry.

That stopped me cold. Do I want to be remembered as the man who was mad or the man who was able to face unexpected changes with calm and resolve? I would certainly rather be remembered as the man who could handle life's delays in stride, always finding a way through it.

Responding with a cool head to the sudden and unexpected hitches that come our way just makes sense.

How about you? How do you want to be remembered when life throws you a curve ball?

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

The Lawn

This summer has been brutal on my lawn: the lack of rain, extended days with record-breaking heat, and watering restrictions put in force by the city have turned my once lush, green yard into a field of tawny scrub grass. Not that I am alone in this, as most of the country is experiencing conditions not seen since the Dust Bowl or days of the Dirty Thirties. Understanding my predicament does not diminish my feeling of loss; however, I hear the forecast for the next several days will be pushing the upper 90s.

I have been taking care of my lawn since I was 14. It was early May several years ago, and I was sitting on the front stoop with my dad, admiring our neighbor's lawn. Earlier we had moved into a brand new house with nothing for a yard but graded top soil. Our neighbor moved in the same week we did. As soon as the weather broke, the soil was raked, seeded and watered. Dad and the neighbor planted the same seed.

However, as we sat there we couldn't help but notice the neighbor's grass was growing in more lush and green than ours. As the sun started to set, our neighbor came over and sat with us a while. Dad offered him a beer, and we began a discussion about lawns.

As the fireflies began their nightly dance, dad remarked how he didn't have the time it took to coax out a beautiful lawn. Then our neighbor said something that changed my life, "Why don't you give the kid the lawn? Let him take ownership. You give him the materials; I'll teach him what to do, but it will be his responsibility: his lawn."

From that day forward I cut, trimmed, fed and watered my grass. The goal was to have the best (or second-best) lawn on the block.

From that day until now I still find great pleasure working in my yard. Such was the power of giving a 14-year-old boy responsibility -- and not just responsibility -- ownership. Dad may have thought he was getting his son involved in taking care of the grass, but he gave me a whole lot more. He gave me pride of accomplishment, lessons in stewardship, and a sense of striving for something bigger than myself. My neighbor taught me about lawns, but he also taught me the importance of an adult mentor. All these lessons have stayed with me ever since.

Men, what will you give your sons and daughters -- or your neighbor's sons and daughters?

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

The Olympics

Soon the world will converge on London to witness the quintessential quadrennial sports event known as the 2012 Summer Olympics. This year athletes representing 205 countries are expected to compete in 300 events to earn the ultimate national bragging right: an Olympic gold medal. Tens of millions worldwide will follow and cheer their country's athletes, as they compete on the world's stage. Naturally, if an athlete from your country wins a gold medal, you are overjoyed. But it doesn't stop there. You become downright emotional when you hear your national anthem played, as the flag is raised to the highest position. The gold medal belongs to the nation's athlete; the pride belongs to its citizens.

So it will be that I will sit in front of a TV or a computer, watching and cheering my nation's teams, as they compete in track and field events, football (soccer), basketball, boxing, wrestling, hockey and weightlifting. But I will also follow my country's progress in events I would not ordinarily follow such as gymnastics, beach volleyball, table tennis and synchronized swimming. For a gold medal in basketball counts as much in the medal tally as a gold medal in table tennis!

But beyond the glory of winning a medal, I tip my hat to the way these athletes conduct themselves. For it is all about the games and not politics. For a few weeks every four years we get to concentrate on the pinnacle of human athletic excellence, the crowning achievement of lives spent immersed in the rigors of honing bodies and abilities to remarkable heights. I like that. Watching these gifted athletes give their best inspires me to give my best -- for my wife, my family, my profession and my country.

If these athletes can train for years to earn a few gilded moments on the world's stage, I can certainly train harder to be the leader I need to be -- for my family, my friends, and my country. Now worthy as these pursuits may be -- and they are indeed commendable -- this is not to say I haven't been honing my own individual sport.

That's right. If channel surfing was an Olympic event, I'd surely be a contender.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Fighting Stress

Stress is a normal part of living. Without stress we wouldn't have the drive to achieve more, improve the quality of our lives, fight the good fights of equality and justice, or simply take a vacation. Stress is the spark that pushes us to grow, change, fight and adapt. All life events, including the good ones, produce a certain degree of stress -- ask any man who has been married -- the wedding is a good thing, but the preparations cause stress, mainly in the form of wallet strain. Stress also stimulates our brains, so we don't suffer from boredom, lack of motivation, and low self-esteem. Stress does indeed have some positive effects.

Too much stress, however, can wreak havoc on our body, leading to headaches, chest pains, fatigue and stomach disorders. Large amounts of stress can impact our mood and lead to anxiety, anger and depression. The effects on our behavior such as eating disorders, angry outbursts, drug and alcohol abuse and social withdrawal can destroy our jobs and families -- and have done so for way too many men out there.

Stress, the silent destroyer, can be beaten down using a few simple techniques:

Laughing: laughter makes us feel good! Doing it aloud is contagious and spreads to those around us. A good daily belly laugh does much to release stress and get us refocused. Laughing at one's own mistakes is almost guaranteed to relieve stress, but remember that laughing at others can increase stress -- for them.

Sleeping: sleep relaxes and rejuvenates our bodies. It is probably not a good idea, however, to sleep on the job.

Exercising: the physical exertion of walking, running, playing basketball, or some other physical activity brings down stress levels and actually gives the body energy.

Eating: the healthy consumption of vegetables and fruits are really good for us. Yep, mom was right.
And then there are those bad habits we acquire: smoking, excessive alcohol use, illegal drugs, and other bad habits add to our stress levels. Your body will feel the positive effects almost immediately after you stop. NOTE: A glass of wine a day is a good thing; a bottle of wine a day is not.

Of course, there are other ways to reduce stress in your life, and these are some of the best ones available: talking with friends, placing your worries in God's hands, reading the Bible, praying, etc.

My personal favorite stress-reducer is laughter. I have a hard time being stressed out when I watch The Three Stooges in action. Oh, the comic genius.

What's your favorite way to reduce stress?