Sunday, January 29, 2012

When in Doubt, Say Thanks!

One of my readers recently issued a challenge.  While I am not sure the intention was to drive me in a different direction than I am currently headed, it certainly knocked me off my course for a little bit.  Now, I am happy to say, I have faith I am back on track, albeit a different one.
The reader didn’t issue a challenge straight-up, medieval style, slapping a glove across my face.  In fact, I am not sure the point was ever to challenge me at all.  Needless to say, the result is the same - I need to take a more positive view of the world in which I live.
Looking back on the course my blog has taken, I see the message has altered, straying from my original uplifting and positive messages focusing on how to live a better life.  Lately, I seem to live in a semi-cynical world, full of selfish people only interested in self-serving opportunity - at least, that is what my blog might have you believe.  I know this is not the world I live in.  I have let myself develop tunnel vision, focusing only on those people whose actions and words seem to force my conclusions into an ego-driven corner.
February will be my challenge.  I will remain positive every day, looking for the best in every situation.  Instead of looking for the worst in people, I will actively make the choice to see the perfection hiding behind a scared and hurt facade.  I will find opportunities to practice what I have preached in my blogs, working to help the people who share my existence find the same positivity in their own universe.  Then, I will come write about it.
I know the first few days, maybe even weeks, could be challenging.  While I fear that I might have been marinating in this negative stew for a while now, I am confident my destiny lies somewhere other than cynicism.  
My first step, and probably the most important, is to always be thankful for what the universe brings my way.  Every situation offers a teachable moment, no matter how negative it might appear at first.  Finding those lessons and building upon them is primary to my success.  At the very least, I will be thankful for the learning opportunity brought to me.
Laying a foundation in thankfulness should help direct me towards the positive goal I hope to achieve.  By establishing my life in a place of thanks, I can be confident that my mindset will begin to change.  How fast change occurs depends on how devoted I am to finding the best in every situation.
I would like to challenge you with the same goal.  Make February the month you determine to find positivity in every experience.  See the best in everyone you meet.  Look behind upsetting actions and words and see the real person, then find a reason to love them.  Share your experiences by emailing me or commenting on the blog.  I would love to know what obstacles everyone else has overcome in the drive to discover the world we live in is, in fact, awesome.

Frank Chambers

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Spin Cycle

Last night, I wasn’t sure my washing machine was working properly.  I could hear it making noises, but couldn’t tell if anything was actually happening on the inside.  We have a front loading washer with the window in the door, so I snagged a flashlight and shined it through the window, peering into the guts of the machine.  Inside, the towels were tumbling as the washer was going through its spin cycle.  Everything was as it should be.
The laundry room isn’t the only place we experience the spin cycle.  Last night, the entire country received a lesson on the spin cycle from our two major political parties and the Tea Party.  Facts were bandied about, claims of success and failure presented by all three sides, figures and numbers were held up for all to see.  Spin was in full session.  Afterwards, the news media took the spin and spun it some more, twisting vague statements, squeezing every last drop of advertising value from the political statements.
This is every day in the political sphere and the news media.  In the GOP primary process, one candidate makes claims about themselves only to have them disavowed by another candidate.  They make claims about each other that later are exposed as lies and falsehoods.  This is spin.  This is the game played constantly in every aspect of political life.

The media is famous for spin as well.  Each news outlet, regardless of what they might say in public, is driven by a certain set of principals.  The reporters, copy writers, and editors at print and television news establishments have their own politics which will invariably color their content.  Each company spins the news, choosing its presentation to garner the appropriate reaction from readers and viewers.
Spin isn’t just a game played on the national level.  We practice spin within our own circles.  We might exaggerate to our friends to make ourselves look better - “I once caught a fish thiiiiiiiiiiis big!”  We cover mistakes with viable excuses, we avoid telling the whole truth to people to protect our image, we attempt to recuse ourselves from situations that would make us appear unfavorable.
We even spin ourselves.  Have you ever done something, felt bad about it later, then justified it to yourself just to feel better, despite the fact that you still disagreed with your own actions?  I have.  Sometimes we spin ourselves so well we confuse the truth and end up believing the false story.  Only later, when we truly look within, do we see where we hid the truth.
Look behind the mirage.  Look past the spin to find the real story.  Get your news from multiple sources, then piece the real story together.  Listen to what the politicians have to say, but check their facts before you believe them.  Sometimes, like I had to do with my washing machine, you just have to get a flashlight and look around a bit to see if what you are hearing is the truth, or just the spin cycle.

Frank Chambers

Sunday, January 22, 2012

When the Reason has Gone . . .

“Next door there's an old man who lived to his nineties  
And one day passed away in his sleep
And his wife; she stayed for a couple of days 
And passed away”

These are lyrics from the Ben Folds song “The Luckiest.”  This touching song struggles to describe the undefinable feeling of love people share.  In the quoted verse, after the man dies, the woman passes too.  Her reason for existing - her husband - has left, leaving her without a reason to live any longer.  
Joe Paterno, the stalwart icon of Penn State football, succumbed to the same fate.  While I certainly do not discount his relationship with his family or his wife, Penn State football was JoePa’s life.  His tenure in State College began in 1950 when he followed his college coach as an Assistant Coach.  His relationship with Penn State lasted for 61 years.
The story of Paterno’s death really began three months before he actually passed.  Abandoned by the school whose success as a major university and football powerhouse are closely tied to Paterno’s tenure, Paterno went home.  Nine days later he was diagnosed with lung cancer.   Three weeks after that he fell and broke his hip.  Six weeks later he was in the hospital due to failing health.  Nine days after he entered the hospital, he died.
While Joe’s passing was not as quick as the woman in the song lyrics, his death derived from the same source.  Penn State was his life blood.  While he still technically remained a tenured faculty member of Penn State, he was not the coach.  He was forcibly put to pasture.
I have to wonder, had Joe left on his own terms, would he have fallen so quickly so fast?  Part of me thinks not.  The void left by Penn State football would have been large, but manageable.  But, can anyone survive when their heart has been torn from their chest?  Penn State was Joe Paterno’s heart.
While I find the lyrcis of “The Luckiest” touching and heartfelt - it is the song Samantha and I danced to at our wedding - the same circumstances found in Joe Paterno’s death are sad.  Heartbreak is tough to overcome.

Frank Chambers

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

The Difference Between 15% and 31% is Zero

I am not entirely sure what the deal is with Presidential candidates and their tax returns.  Apparently, there is no law on the books that requires candidates to disclose their income tax return, but since 1968, when Mitt Romney’s father ran for President and released his own records, it has become tradition.

Recently, Romney revealed that he was taxed around the 15% level.  His income comes primarily from financial investments made years ago, which keeps the bulk of his income taxed at the capital gains rate.  By contrast Newt Gingrich revealed his tax rate was 31%.
So what.
What is the big deal that Romney was taxed at a lesser rate than Gingrich?  Does this somehow affect either of the men’s ability to govern?  Does it change their politics or their electability?  
So what is the big deal?  Well, the point Gingrich seems to be hinting at is that Romney’s income level, based primarily on investments, prevents him from understanding the plight of the working man.  How can someone worth over $200 million understand what it is like to worry about bills at the end of the month?  How can someone who theoretically never has to work a day in his life to earn a dime connect with the overwhelming number of Americans who are now below the poverty line?
I think Gingrich has a point.  Romney can’t.  Now, please don’t get me wrong.  I am not saying that because of Romney’s financial situation he would not be a good leader.  I am saying that Gingrich is correct.  Romney can’t understand.  Romney himself, in an effort to make light of his own income level, shoved his own foot into his mouth by saying his speaking fee income for last year wasn’t very much.  It was $374,327.62.
You know what is even funnier about Romney’s not very large speech related income?  In 2009, it only took $343,927 to be in the 1%.  I think this is where Gingrich hits the nail on the head.  Romney is so used to a lavish life, so used to money always being there, that an income that qualifies him for the 1% is regarded as “not very much.”
So, does Gingrich prove anything about being a better Presidential candidate by exposing Romney as wealthy?  Not necessarily.  Gingrich, while being taxed at twice the level as Romney, was still taxed at 31%, which also happens to be the tax rate for the top 1% of income earners in the US.  So both Gingrich and Romney are in the 1%.  The only difference is that Gingrich was taxed on earned income versus investment income, leaving him subject to a higher tax rate.  
Gingrich has since said that his goal in getting Romney to reveal his tax level is not to lambast the man, but to point out that everyone should be taxed at that rate, not just the super wealthy.  I don’t think he minded scoring political points with lower income groups though by seemingly bloodying Romney’s nose.
Gingrich himself is worth somewhere between $10-$20 million.  While only a paltry 10% of Romney’s worth, his net worth is still at the very least 100 times the net worth of the average American citizen.  While Gingrich still has to work for his money, he is still a far cry from the ability to connect to ordinary, everyday Americans.
I am sure many of you think I am trying to play the angle that the Republicans are out of touch with the common American experience.  You are right, I am.  But, I am playing this angle as well -  so are the Democrats.
The point I am trying to make is that it doesn’t matter what the finances of the President are like.  Presidents over the years have been very wealthy men.  Some were not wealthy until they left office, but most recent presidents already had accumulated wealth prior to entering office.  If Romney were elected President, he would be the 4th wealthiest man to hold the office (accounting for inflation).  Gingrich would be the 21st wealthiest.  Even the esteemed George Washington was worth over half a billion dollars.

What matters is their character, their leadership traits.  Bullying someone into releasing their tax records accomplishes nothing because it proves nothing.  The only result is that it demonstrates that the current tax code benefits those with a lot more money than you or I.  We all know these men have more money than we do - does it matter how much more?  
Instead of losing ourselves in the drama, pay attention to how the candidates act.  Review their record, not what they say.  Sure, the rhetoric can be entertaining, but half of what any politician says seems to false and the other half confusing.  Choose your candidate based on what you see in their soul.  You can just about count on them being rich.

Frank Chambers

Sunday, January 15, 2012

The Marathon

Runners by the thousands descended on downtown Houston today for the running of the Houston Marathon.  All kinds of people braved the cold morning to get this years chance to conquer the course.  Of course, to get to the starting line, each and every one of them had to conquer something else first - themselves.
For the amateur runner, the decision to run 26.2 miles is not an easy one.  There is a large leap between running three miles as a fitness routine and swallowing the twenty-six week training period that typically precedes running a full marathon.  Many people start the training and never finish, succumbing to injuries or excuses.
I trained for the marathon a few years ago but failed to make it to the starting line due to a knee injury.  While I was disappointed not to have to opportunity to participate, I still learned much about myself.  Without the guts to jump into the training process in June, I wouldn’t be able to say that I have run sixteen miles straight.  Apparently, sixteen was my limit, because after that last run, my right knee wouldn’t even let me go one mile before the pain was so much I couldn’t even walk.
I have since recovered from my injury, but have consistently succumbed to the other reason runners don’t compete - excuses.  I have experienced the excitement of following the race on my bike though, and while I definitely didn’t feel the joy of success at the end of the run, I did enjoy myself.
The runners in a marathon are all types - professional, amateur, recreational, exhibitionist, etc.  Some are running for causes, having raised money for a charity.  Others run for themselves, eagerly desiring the 26.2 sticker they can add to the back of their car.  While following the marathon on the bike, I saw people wearing normal running clothes, bathing suits, trash bags, and even a statue of liberty costume.  Like I said - all types.
At one point, our friends running the race texted “need advil.”  We raced to the nearest drug store and bought a bottle, then tracked them down north of the Galleria and delivered the goods.  After they ran off, we offered the advil to the other runners passing by.  It didn’t last long, eager hands grasping at the tiny pills.  Later we did the same with a tray of Oreo cookies.
Running a long race like this teaches you a lot about yourself.  Over the course of the training period, you run hundreds of miles, and unless you have a partner or a running group, much of it is spent on your own.  Some people get lost in their iPod, others in their own mind.  I ran without music, listening to what my body had to say, making adjustments as I went.  
Steady activity like this is a lot like meditation.  Rhythmic breathing, steady footfalls, conscious awareness of your body, your mind, and your surroundings, all contribute to a meditative state.  The results of long distance running are similar to practicing yoga, producing states of a gentle euphoria along with an intense knowledge of self.
I applaud the runners today for their dedication to their goal and to themselves.  Persevering over such a long time is difficult, and your race today is tribute to both your strength as a runner and as a human.  Congratulations on both your physical and mental resolve.
Some of us might be involved in marathons of our own without ever running a single step.  Remember, just like the runners today, if you believe in yourself and never quit, you can feel the exhilaration of conquering your goal as well.

Frank Chambers

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

There'll be Banana Hammocks Everywhere!

Have you ever taken a situation, and anticipating some sort of dread consequences, blown the potential end result way out of proportion in your mind?  Yes, table of one right here!  I think this is one of the reasons I have always felt a kinship with JD, Zach Braff’s character from the TV show Scrubs.  
JD’s fantastical departures from reality were the backbone of the comedy element to the show.  No matter the seriousness, any situation lent itself to being elaborated upon through JD’s wacky imagination.  He would play out fights, adventures, tragedies, and love stories, lost in his own mind until snapped back into reality.  The results were always funny.
I often find myself lost in mental episodes like JD, although the humor level is never quite so high.  I frequently play out conversations I am about to have, attempting to anticipate the direction in my head.  Arguments seem to be a favorite, going through the he said, she said, as if my mind really could understand the way other people think.
The funny part about my own episodes?  Like JD’s, they rarely ever turn out the way I imagined.
For JD, imagining alternate realities provided an escape from the drama of his real life.  Sometimes his fantasies took him to a place where he could feel like a kid again, lost in his cotton candy dreams.  Other times, his mind jumped track like a runaway train, ending in a place no one anticipated, like finding his apartment full of male strippers wearing nothing but thongs.
Where JD got lost in the wacky and absurd, I get lost in the negative too often.  There have been plenty of occasions where I attempted to avoid the mental parlay, but the ego is sometimes hard to control.  Playing through the negative provides one small benefit - I prevent myself from saying something stupid out loud when I have already said it in my mind.  On the other hand, when my brain does go the way of JD’s comedic romps, I have the opportunity to ready jokes and anecdotes.
The imagination is a wild horse, full of spunk and eager to run.  Just like any feral animal, it can turn on us and bite.  When harnessed properly, imagination opens doors to worlds we couldn’t have previously imagined.  You have to be careful, reigning it in at times and letting it run free when appropriate.  If not, you never know where it will take you.

Frank Chambers
Follow @fxcIV

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Wildflowers, Flip-flops, and the GOP

I am wearing shorts today. I wore them yesterday and the day before.  I also wore flip-flops, which in Hawaii are called slippers.  Is it really January?  

Dropping Samantha off at church this morning, I noticed a field full of blooming wildflowers, their bright colors a refreshing contrast to the typicaly bleak Houston winter.  But, they are spring bloomers.  Isn’t it January?  
The GOP field had yet another debate last night.  Again, it was touted to be Mitt Romney vs. the Un-Romneys, but ended up as yet another fight to be the Un-Romney of the week.  The fervor of the election cycle ramped up early this year, begging the question - is it November?  I thought it was January?
The major difference between warm weather, wild flowers, and wily political banter?  I will never tire of the first two.
I pledge allegiance to never go away, even when I should.
I am surprised the political handlers of the GOP have allowed so many debates.  Gearing up so early creates voter fatigue, generating future disinterest in the political process when it actually matters.  Can they really imagine the typical voter continuing to welcome the GOP candidates into their living rooms for another nine primary debates.  Thank God the first Presidential debate won’t be until October 3 - we will enjoy a blessed seven month reprieve from the debates.  
Perhaps I misjudge the differences between flowers, nice temperatures, and stuffy politicians.  Maybe I should search for similarities.  
We got to know Mr. Cain so much he dropped out.
The longer the warm weather persists, the more opportunity people have to dress in lighter, more revealing clothing.  Shorts make an appearance; tank-tops, t-shirts, skirts, and the afore mentioned flip-flops emerge from winter storage to show some skin out in public.  The same happens with the GOP candidates.  The longer they show their face on TV, the longer their blurbs are featured on the internet, and the more debates they have, the more we get to know them.  Just like warm-weather influences the length of hemlines, the more we get to see what these candidates are hiding.  Perhaps this is the reason we have enjoyed seeing the cycle of Un-Romney’s parade across the GOP’s favor.  After a little time in the spotlight, we see more of the candidates than we wanted to.
When compared to the beauty of wildflowers, I balk at finding an accurate comparison with the current crop of GOP candidates.  While their personalities are sometimes as colorful as a field of blooms, I have a feeling few parents would be comfortable photographing their children sitting in the midst of the GOP field.  The biggest similarity between the GOP candidates and these early blooming wildflowers can be drawn to their longevity.  The earlier they come out, the sooner they wilt, their flowers losing color and falling to the earth, becoming fodder for the next crop to emerge.
The only real conclusions I can draw on this early January day are ones that suggest my joy at finding unseasonable warmth and an early splash of color will soon be extinguished.  Unfortunately, I will only be left to survive the grey Houston winter with the warmth of knowing that when the flowers return for real, accompanied by clear skies and comfortable temperatures, the GOP field will be gone, leaving in their place only one candidate.  Maybe the election cycle will take a break.  Probably not though, but, at least it will be nice enough to go outside and avoid the craziness that is this current election cycle.
Frank Chambers
Follow @fxcIV

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

A Starry Night

Have you looked at the stars recently?  I mean really looked at them.  The kind where you step outside the city lights, away from the light pollution, away from the urban hustle and bustle, and stare into the heavens.  It is majestic.  If you haven’t done it recently, I suggest you create some time in your schedule to do so, even it it means just driving until you can’t see the obscene glow of a nearby metropolis creeping over the horizon.
I had the opportunity to bare witness to the sky over the recent holiday break and I have to admit, I had forgotten about the natural beauty constantly hanging over our heads, hidden behind the sheen of electrical progress.  I stood there, draped in the cloth of night, gazing at the unfamiliar stars whose names I had once known.  I could make out the constellations I faintly remembered, find the unblinking planets whose names I knew but locations I didn’t, and spot the faint glow of the Milky Way constellation floating across the dark night.
It was beautiful.  And the sad part - I was still not nearly far enough from civilization to taste all of the beauty the night sky has to offer.
As more and more of our population flocks to city life, we increasingly lose touch with our place in the universe - I know I had.  Ancient man constantly knew his seeming insignificance.  Overhead, placed by unknown forces, the glowing embers burned through the dark of night.  While looking up at the multitude, our ancestors couldn’t help knowing haw small they were.  As the universe is blocked from view by the glow of cities, we observe less and less stars, forgetting where we are.
As I stood looking upwards, I realized how tiny we are, our insignificance in this world.  I am only one person in seven billion living on this planet.  Humans are only one species out of millions.  How many planets hide in the billions of undiscovered solar systems belonging to uncounted galaxies.  Our average life span only counts for .00000002125% of the Earth’s total existence.  The Earth has only been around for a quarter of the time the Universe has existed.
How small are we?  How infinitesimal?  How unimportant?
It would be very easy to sit back, overwhelmed by the sheer weight of imagining the immensity of the universe, but doing so would be unnecessary and unwise.  As tiny as we are, as simple and small our impact on this Universe might be, we still mean something.  We play a part in the grand drama simply by existing.  
Naturally, we might feel lost looking up at the glowing tapestry of stars, but our influence is definitely worth something.  Imagine this world if our heroes had looked up at the stars and decided to do nothing, choosing insignificance when faced with the overwhelming reality of the universe.  We face the same choice every day.  Our actions determine whether or not we choose insignificance or importance.
Staring up at the stars on an early winter night, I felt unburdened by their presence.  Looking billions of years into the past proved to me that we are part of something greater; each of us plays a part.  No matter your beliefs, there is no denying the beauty of this Universe we call home.  Take a trip.  Look up.  See into your own heart.  You might be surprised to find billions of lights shining back at you.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Step by Step

Recently, I spoke with a friend of mine - Roland Gomez - about exercise.  You may know Roland from some of my blogs.  He is the super-human endurance athlete who has made being fit one of the supreme goals of his life.  While we always talk about other things, inevitably our conversations will steer back to fitness of some sort.
During this particular conversation, I mentioned that I had a hard time maintaining a work out regimen once I got started.  Beginning was never the problem, but following through with the routine was.  I would begin, and within a few days or weeks the excuses would build, I would take a day or two off, then I would never get back out.
So Roland, who has heard this particular complaint from me before, smacked me in the face with a little bit of truth.  He told me that while I had a goal, I didn’t have a goal.  I didn’t quite understand it right away, but after some explanation, we were on the same page.  
The problem with my goal is that it was intangible, something I couldn’t see or absolutely work towards.  My goal was a number, a weight I wanted to be, and therefore  didn’t have a solid deadline by which I needed to be there.  Roland’s advice was to find something athletic to do, some sort of competition for which I could register, then create a workout regimen leading up to the contest.  The date of the contest would be my real goal, then I would achieve my not-a-goal of a certain weight in the process.
Genius, right?  Right.
Most of us will make some sort of New Year’s Resolution today.  And in a few days, weeks, or months, we will break those resolutions.  No one is surprised by this.  We all have a sloppy history of maintaining the changes we want to employ in our life - my exercise history is a tribute to this.  It doesn’t have to be this way, though.  We can take Roland’s exercise advice and apply it to our resolutions.
Most of us have extremely abstract resolutions, just like I had an abstract weight goal.  The most common involve health - losing weight, eating better, quitting smoking, etc. - which are all extremely abstract in their original form.  Other popular resolutions involve saving money, spending more time with family, giving back to the community, finding a better work-life balance, getting organized, reading more, finishing home improvement, and many more.  
While all of these resolutions are noble at their core, most of the people who make them will certainly fail.
The way to help ensure the successful completion of a resolution is to make the second goal, the real tangible goal.  In the weight loss/fitness goal arena, registering for a competition gives a solid date you have to work for.  For other resolutions, finding ways to interact with them tangibly every day will help guarantee that you will achieve change.  Make a list of everything you can do to reach your goal, figure out how to incorporate elements from the list into your daily life.  Build a routine with weekly and monthly check-points.  Set larger goals and craft your resolution curve to crescendo towards these.  By the end, you will get much closer to accomplishing your desired change.
Sure, cold-turkey works for some of us, but there is a reason 12-step programs are effective.  Most people need to gently install change one facet at a time.  Holding to the high-pressure of an instant change overwhelms us, leading to failure.  Instituting the steps, the smaller goals that lead towards our large resolution, shrinks our mind’s impression of the work-load.  We will achieve this time rather than pushing the boulder up the hill, only to let it roll back down again.
So, good luck to all of us as we proceed in chasing down those resolutions.  Hopefully this year we will not feel so overwhelmed by the magnitude of our choices as we advance step by step.

Happy New Year 2012!

Frank Chambers
Follow @fxcIV