Sunday, February 26, 2012

Giving It Up

Eyes opening sluggishly.  Movements slow.  Early afternoon headaches and falling asleep by 7pm.  Never quite on edge, but trending towards crabby.  Cravings so insistent the playful combination of bitter and sweet flavors actually dances along the crenelated surface of my salivating tongue, though the warm liquid responsible for delivering such homey comfort is unfortunately absent.

This is how the Lenten season began for me.
I am not by nature a religious person.  I feel no spiritual obligation to participate in Lent, though invariably I jump on the bandwagon every year.  As odd as it may seem, I find a certain attractiveness in depriving myself of anything towards which I have an uncomfortable fondness for forty days.  Last year was meat, and though I didn’t reflect the reason in my blog Meatless, Lent was the trigger that allowed me to abandon it.  Well, for six months or so.
My decision to test my functionality caffeine-free was actually pretty easy.  I questioned my behaviors and habits, and settled on the one that seemed the most addictive and the hardest to kick.  Caffeine was obvious, as most other private music teachers will attest.  
My last caffeinated beverage was Tuesday afternoon courtesy of Starbucks (surprise!).  Using my free coffee card earned by way of addiction, I went big, ordering a Quad Venti Soy Caramel Macchiato.  For those of you unfamiliar with the hot, sweet, goodness delicately balanced by the Bux baristas, this is an espresso (not pronounced with an “x”) drink layered for a tiered flavor profile.  A well made Caramel Macchiato will delight your buds with a tunnel of flavor, the warm (soy) milky center, flavored with vanilla and caramel, passing through the bitter espresso until it reaches your waiting tongue.  Usually a Venti is made with two shots.  I had four.  Sort of a Bon Voyage to Caffeine.
Needless to say, Wednesday was rough.  Thankfully, my teaching day on Wednesdays doesn’t begin until 11am, so I had the opportunity to stretch the alarm that morning.  When I arrived at the school of the day, I didn’t recognize the kids on the stage. 
These kids are on a rotating block schedule.  They have four classes every other day.  Today wasn’t my day to teach them; the day before was.  A Monday holiday threw a kink in my schedule, and I hadn’t caught it.  I felt like standing on the edge of the stage, fists shaking in the air, yelling “KHHHHAAAAAANNNN!”
Oh well.  The beginning of a glorious Lenten season can not be ruined so easily.  Feeling thoroughly chastised by the universe for missing a day of lessons, I went the one place I would feel better - Starbucks.
To tell the truth, I was invited.  Samantha was already there, doing some Mary Kay business, and we had already planned to meet at a different Starbucks on one of my breaks later in the day, so it wasn’t as bad as I make it sound.  I ordered a decaf Latte for her and a Iced Passion Tea for myself - it is the only decaf iced tea, and it was warm out.  The headache started a little later.  Then the fatigue, which quickly turned to exhaustion.
Thursday was no better, especially since I taught 18 lessons between 7:45am and 7:00pm.  I survived on the eager hope I would make 39 more days, combined with the gentle placebo affect of a decaf (yes, I know there is a tiny amount of caffeine in decaf, but for all intensive purposes it is negligible - it would be like trying to get drunk on non-alcoholic beer).  The placebo effect ended as soon as my cup was dry.
Now, Sunday morning, sitting in the inviting environment of my usual Bux, Led Zeppelin radio on, I feel semi-normal.  My body hasn’t always relied on caffeine to stay alert, and I look forward to rediscovering early morning wakefulness without plugging my veins into a percolator.  
The challenge of giving something, even if it is only for a limited time, is a tough one.  The longer the habit has to develop, the more effort the dislodging process takes.  My coffee habit began only a few years ago as a result of the energy drain of marching band season.  It cemented itself that spring.  
I know a few years is nothing compared to some people’s caffeine habits.  I imagine my struggles are just a microcosm of the immense struggle it would take for a true addict to kick the habit.  But, at least for my experience, I like to know I can choose to go without something if I make the decision.  All it takes is one second at a time.  Those seconds add up to minutes, hours, days, and weeks.  Finally, at least for me, it will total 40 days, and if I choose, Lady Caffeine can be mine again.

Frank Chambers

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Making Waves

A couple of times a week I drive past the Liberty Tax services office near my house.  I always feel amused by the young person stationed on the corner, dressed in a poor impression of the Statue of Liberty, dancing as if they are in the middle of their own private Soul Train.
I can’t imagine working that job.  Sure, a paycheck is a paycheck, but my personality just doesn’t fit the job requirements.  In fact, I imagine it takes a very special person to stand out in public, dressed in ridiculous garb, and wave at people all day long.
For the longest time, I felt embarrassed for the kid, projecting my own feelings onto their experience.  Why, though, does it have to be embarrassing?  Should dancing in public, in full view of thousands of people a day spur thoughts of inadequacy?  Most of the people working the corner don’t display the best dance skills, but does it matter what anyone else thinks?  I have written many times that it isn’t any of our business what others think of us.  So, why should anyone feel uncomfortable selling tax services by dancing on the corner? 
Honestly, I felt embarrassed for myself.  No matter which Liberty Tax service I passed, the dancing statue always waves at everyone.  I refused to wave back.  Deep down, I felt that if I acknowledged their presence through my return wave, I would encourage their ridiculous behavior.  By not waving, I ignored the potential discomfort felt were I dressed in a frumpy, green dress, jamming to the latest top 40 hits.
How dumb is that?
Recently, I decided to change my own ridiculous behavior.  I now wave at the Liberty Tax Service dancers, wherever I find them.  The first time I waved was spontaneous.  As I approached the corner, I noticed the kid throwing down some awkward moves.  Traffic was slow, so I watched for a long time from the corner of my eye.  Of course, as I passed, he waved at me, and although I looked away and didn’t make eye contact, my right hand raised into the air and waved back.
Immediately, I giggled.  I know part of my reaction stemmed from the amazement that I had actually acknowledged his presence.  I just couldn’t contain my mirth that I had actually waved back, and accidentally, no less.  I also giggled at the face Lady Liberty made, a combination of both surprise and joy I can only assume derived from my wave.  Is it possible that through the simple action of a wave, I validated someone’s existence?
Since that day, I have made sure to wave every time I pass.  I get the same reaction every time, though the dancers vary.  They wave, I wave, then I giggle at the silliness of the whole episode.  But, silliness is ok.
The one random wave that broke my pattern exposed a profound truth about my actions - the only reason I had to be embarrassed rested in my own inability to participate in something as simple as acknowledging another human being.  My experience also opened my eyes to the majority of the people around me.  If my waves could engender reactions of surprise, how infrequently do other people wave back?  I don’t think I have been alone in my reluctance.  
There is no reason not to wave back in a situation like that.  No one needs to feel embarrassed for the Liberty Tax Service dancers.  In fact, the only embarrassment any of us should feel originates from our unwillingness to pick up our hand and wave back.  How hard is it, really?

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Shot Through the Heart (and you’re to blame)

Valentine’s Day is near.  Can you feel it?  The supermarket candy aisles pay tribute to candy hearts and oversized boxes of chocolates, floral markets burst with the giant influx of roses, and the diamond industry would have us believe the only way to your loved one’s heart is through sparkly minerals.  Yes, America, St. Valentine’s day approaches - capitalism’s take on love.
The Valentine’s holiday has always amused me to some extent.  In college, there was always a group of students who refused to participate due to the lack of a significant other.  Instead of the celebration of love, these poor individuals focused on their lack of  a partner, mourning their situation through Singles Awareness Day, or SAD.  They wore black, some wouldn’t speak, and they refused to entertain the notion that love was possible.
Samantha and I officially started dating right around Valentine’s Day in 2002.  We had our “coming out” at a joint mixer with Phi Mu Alpha and Sigma Alpha Iota in the music building at the University of Houston.  We had both recently emerged from long relationships and planned on taking things slowly.  She made me peanut butter cookies and gave me yellow roses.  I gave her a book I made out of construction paper (elementary school style) detailing the reasons I liked her.  I think it worked, after all, she has kept me around for another ten years.

Since we have been married, we have always agreed not to do the extravagant gift exchange celebrated by Valentine’s Day’s commercial sponsors.  Our decision isn’t a protest of the commercial nature of the Hallmark Holiday, instead we have chosen to spend our money differently, creating memories instead.
Whether or not your buy an expensive gift, make something crafty, or do nothing at all (with your love’s permission), be sure to celebrate the holiday beyond the gift giving - celebrate the love (or pre-love) you share.  It isn’t just about the gift wrap, the floral presentation, the fancy dinner, or the pay-off afterwards.  Valentine’s Day is about the time you have spent together, the experiences you share, the moments you are apart and can’t stop thinking about each other.  Valentine’s Day is about how you feel when your love is around, how you feel when they look at you, and how you still feel ten after you first got together.
Valentine’s Day should still be about love for those people tempted to celebrate SAD.  Whether or not you have found love before, know that love is out there.  Don’t feel saddened by the sappy couples that pop up like wildflowers on Valentine’s Day, feel emboldened by the possibility that love will find you for the first time or the thousandth.  The most important thing to remember when thinking about the future possibility of love is that most people find it impossible to love someone who doesn’t love themselves.  If love is avoiding you, turn introspective, make the decision to love yourself.
No matter what your plans are for Valentine’s Day, treat everyone you encounter with simple human love.  Celebrate every personal encounter with the spirit of Cupid.  Give those who have love a reminder and those who do not a reason to hope.
Happy Valentine’s Day 2012

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Garbage In - Garbage Out

I find most demotivational posters funny.  They keep the humor simple, accessible, and pertinent to current trends.  Barney from How I Met Your Mother decorates his office with demotivational posters (what does he do for a living anyway?), keeping anyone who enters his office grounded.  Recently, I found one on Facebook I thought particularly funny.  Under a picture of a hoverboard from Back to the Future II the caption declares “Scientists: You have 3 years.”
I always appreciated the power source for the futurized Delorean - trash.  2015 technology takes garbage and turns it into fuel for flying cars.  Wow!  Somehow, in the next two years, we are going to be surprised with rapid development in antigravity technology and a reimagination of our roadways.
I think many of us believe our bodies work the same way as the Delorean.  We fill our bellies with heavy, unhealthy food, yet we expect to be fit and trim, full of energy.  Somehow, our bodies are supposed to take garbage and turn it into fuel to fly.  I am not sure biology works that way.  Most of us know this, yet we do it anyway.
We treat our mental health the same way.  When we input rubbish, we output rubbish.  Garbage In - Garbage Out.  We are not futuristic Deloreans.  Dr. Brown has not been tinkering under our hood.  We should not expect miracle results after filling our minds with trash.
Please allow me to clarify exactly what I mean by trash.  I am talking about people and situations that pull us down.  How many of us have a friend who chooses to dump on us every time we see them?  That person fills our minds with trash, weighing us down, and eventually bringing us to a place where we are even with them.  Ever heard the phrase “misery loves company?”  Well, it does.  When misery goes in, misery comes out.

The same goes for what you read, listen to, watch on television and in movies.  All the stimulus found in our environments does one of two things - it lifts us up or it brings us down.  Think about your experience.  Do you fill your universe with garbage elements or with uplifting elements?  Do you wake up to a series of demotivational posters, constantly describing how much you suck?  Or is your life filled with the opposite - positive messages, stocking your soul with energy and life?
Garbage In - Garbage Out is true, but so is the opposite.  Surround yourself with people who beam with positivity.  Find friends who always build you up.  Fill yourself with abundance instead of emptiness.  Demotivational posters are fun, but your life should not read like one.
While a Delorean that flies using only garbage is fun to think about, our spirit does not work that way.  The only way we are able to fly is to fill it full of positive energy, freeing us to float high above negative influences.

Frank Chambers

Sunday, February 5, 2012

The Hero

Our culture loves to celebrate the Hero.  We idolize these men and women, placing them on a pedestal in hopes that someday we too can share the same characteristics they so prominently display in their lives.  More often than not, these heros are sports characters, TV or movie stars, cultural and societal faces; all people who are detached from our everyday experience.  But, what is to stop us from being the heros?
The term hero is versatile, used to describe a person who acted extraordinarily in a particular set of circumstances.  In 2010, the year my band marched in the Tournament of Roses parade, the Grand Marshall was pilot Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, the man who safely landed his disabled plane on the Hudson River shortly after take off.  Most of us know nothing of this man other than this one heroic action.  He was feted, then forgotten.
No doubt this year’s Super Bowl will feature a hero of sorts, the sports superstar who leads his team to the win.  Millions will buy his jersey, displaying their proud support of their hero, eager to live up to his on field heroics.

The idea of the hero is an ancient one, stemming back to the Greeks.  Heros were usually demigods who shared complicated relationships with both the people around them and the Gods who spawned them.  Hero worship was real, as cults were typically founded to celebrate the hero mythology.  Later, the idea of hero transferred into literary archetype, presented as a common man or woman who performed amazing feats of bravery without regard for their own safety.
The modern concept of heroics still fits into these two molds, with our sports superstars playing the part of conflicted demigod and more common, everyday people like Sully Sullenberger filling the role of the literary archetype.

I would like to suggest a third type of modern hero, one who never receives airtime on news stations, is never discussed over coffee with friends, or has their name plastered all over merchandise.  This is the hero that does the right thing as often as possible, the hero that demonstrates how to live life through unremarkable example, quiet and steady, yet strong.
This is the hero we can all be.
Most of us will never win the Super Bowl.  Most of us will never land a plane full of scared people on the Hudson River.  But we can all live our lives in a way that encourages others around us to find the best way to live themselves.  Our words and actions can be rooted in love.  Our legacy could be as simple as leaving behind people who have chosen to live more positive lives.
While our heroics will go mostly unsung, we should take comfort in knowing that people are watching.  Just as those familiar heros we see on TV will never know the names of all the people they have effected, neither will we.  The power we have to be a positive force of change is amazing; use your power in the best possible way.
Be the hero to those around you.  The true hero is one who doesn’t live to be a hero, but simply through living, becomes one.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Signing Day

Today is college football connoisseur Christmas.  It is Signing Day.  This is the day where high school seniors and junior college standouts officially commit to a university football program, signing their next three to five years over to a coaching staff, a university body, and to a fan base.  This single choice can make or break their career depending on a slew of influences beyond the recruit’s control.
I had a Signing Day of a sort while writing my last blog.  There wasn’t the same kind of fanfare that accompanies a top recruit inking his name to the line, but the commitment is the same.  In order to accept my February challenge of living more positively, I had to make a commitment to myself.  I committed to being positive.
Unlike the college recruits, my commitment shouldn’t have a shelf life.  Most of these athletes will be part of the squad at least four years.  Some schools will red-shirt them for a year, elongating their eligibility to five years.  If they happen to injure themselves during their college experience, they could even gain a sixth year of eligibility.  If they are good enough, they might even declare for the NFL after three.
My commitment to retaining a positive outlook on life is indefinite.  There is no expiration date when it comes to changing your life.  No person with physical addictions ever wants to quit for just a few years; they want to quit for good.  By signing up to live a more positive life, I am quitting negativity, not just putting it on hiatus.
Another difference between the young football players and myself are the benefits that accompany the commitment.  They have to finish high school, move to college, pass their classes, practice, work out, then win football games while performing at a high level.  Their big payoff is down the road, assuming they have worked hard enough, are talented enough, and have gained the right notice from scouts and pundits.  
My commitment to finding positivity begins paying off right now.  Immediately, my human interaction gains an extra level of connection as I look for the positives.  I look for reasons to love everyone I meet.  I look to celebrate simple moments.  
Sure, there is as much work happening within my soul to maintain my positive positioning as there is with the future linebacker or wide receiver to become stronger, quicker, and more agile.  While they spend time working on their bodies, I spend time crafting my spirit.  They will see results just as I will, but while both sets of results are personal, mine are intangible and immediate.  

Signing up for any commitment takes strength.  These young men are choosing a college to craft their future, and whether or not they know it, their decision can have a long lasting impact on their success.  Committing to personal change takes strength as well, and it is strength all of us can find within.  If there is something you dislike about yourself, make a commitment, sign a contract.  Making that decision is definitely scary, but finding the faith to go through with it is the first step towards something beautiful.
Today is Signing Day.  What is your commitment?