The Moral Bucket List

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Moral Bucket List

This article by New York Times columnist David Brooks is more than a year old, but it is a powerful essay about people we all know who are able to see beyond themselves, and achieve a certain grace and contentment through good works. It’s about those folks who live their lives for a greater purpose than just career success or personal happiness, and how we might all become more like them. If you can carve out a few minutes, “The Moral Bucket List” is well worth reading and reflecting on.

At my age, it’s easy to get wrapped up in career, family life and the ever-growing number of tasks that must be crossed off my to-do list. Life sometimes seems like a series of obligations that need to be met and goals that need to be reached. However, I believe it’s important to take a step back every once in a while to think about my place in the world, my impact on others, and what it truly means to be living a fulfilling, grateful, meaningful life.

In my son’s Kindergarten class, his teacher will sometimes ask the students if what they are doing on a particular assignment is their “best work.” It’s a good question for every stage in life, I think. Is your life today your best work—not only for yourself, but for the people and world around you as well?

Memories of a Young Prince

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Purple-Rain
I bought my first LP with my own money in August 1984 at the Turtle Records in Atlanta’s Lenox Square Mall. The record I bought was Purple Rain. It came with a full-sized poster that showed Prince and his band, The Revolution, wearing pouting expressions. Two Revolution members, Wendy and Lisa, stood tightly together in a way that, back then, suggested scandalous female intimacy.

Over the past two days, countless TV and social media tributes have paid respects to a man who transformed popular music over the span of more than 35 years. The news of Prince’s death was shocking not only because he was only 57 years old, but because so many people my age vividly recall when Prince epitomized everything that was forbidden and dangerous and exciting and new about music. We think of Prince as a restless prodigy in his early 20s, not the guy who released Hit n Run Phase One late last year.

Back in 1984, Prince was not only the most popular recording artist of the day, he was Middle America’s Worst Nightmare, oozing sexuality with a decadent blend of 1970s funk and 1980s rock. He wore eyeliner and lacy outfits, and spent a portion of his concerts thrusting himself on a massive brass bed. It was rumored that Prince sometimes had sex with one of his female cohorts onstage, though nobody in my eighth grade class had any proof during this pre-YouTube dinosaur age.

In 1980s Georgia, where there was no such thing as sex education in public schools and the closest thing to pornography for most boys was the annual Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue, you could learn an awful lot by playing “Darling Nikki” over and over on the turntable, which is exactly what we did one night at a friend’s dance party. This was the Purple Rain song that described Nikki “in a hotel lobby masturbating with a magazine,” easily the most shocking thing any of us had ever heard on vinyl. We were careful to turn the volume down low as we played the song again and again in my friend’s garage, junior high boys and girls nodding to the beat and grinning shyly while our parents drank cocktails and talked about who-knows-what inside the house.

When I bought my first record in 1984, it was more out of a wish to keep up with my peers than because I was a huge Prince fan. I listened to the record many times, captivated by some tracks (“Purple Rain,” “Let’s Go Crazy,” “Take Me With U”) bored by one (“When  Doves Cry”), and confused by others (What did it mean when Lisa asked Wendy if the water was warm? Were they going swimming?).

Years later, I gained a much greater appreciation for Prince’s musical artistry and lyrical prowess (is there any better description of anxious, teenage lust than “The place where your horses run free?”). I don’t have a lot of his music, I’m a casual fan at best, but the news of his death—whatever the cause—is still sad and shocking. For me and other people my age, we not only lost a another great artist to the After World, we got a reminder that Purple Rain was a mighty long time ago.

The 2016 Liebster Award!

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Liebster Award

First, I want to thank my friend Kara for nominating me to receive the coveted 2016 Liebster Award. Please check out her entertaining and insightful blog at https://gratefulandauthentic.com.

So, what is the Liebster Award, anyway? Well, it exists only on the Internet, and is essentially a “pay-it-forward” award given to bloggers from other bloggers. The Liebster has been around since at least 2011, and it’s an effective, free way of helping to raise a little awareness about bloggers you enjoy and admire.

The rules for the Liebster Award are pretty simple:

1. Thank and link the person who nominated you.
2. Answer the 11 questions given to you by the nominator.
3. Nominate up to 11 other bloggers who have 1,000 or fewer follows on their blogs.
4. Create 11 new questions for your nominees to answer.
5. Let the nominees know that your blog post is up.

My Responses to Kara’s Questions:

Why did you decide to start a blog?

I started the blog because I needed a vehicle to build an online audience and to help promote my first book, A Plot for Pridemore, which was published in 2014.

What inspired your blog’s name?

A George Carlin routine from the 1980s, which was titled A Place for My Stuff. I thought that “A Place for My Stuff” would be an apt name for my blog since I did not intend on giving it a narrow theme or focus. I have always envisioned my blog as a repository for whatever I feel like writing at the time. It’s about anything and everything, but mostly about Stephen.

How long have you been blogging?

More than three years, since January 2013.

What is the best piece of advice that you’ve ever received?

This question almost begs for a glib response, because it’s really hard for me to sort through all of the wise, caring advice I’ve received in my life. I’ll go with this: when I got my first credit card, my parents directed me to always pay the full balance every month. I actually listened to them, and that practical advice has helped me manage my money and avoid financial stress.

If you could have any super power, what would it be?

I wish I had the power to protect all children from abuse, hunger or an early death.

What has surprised you most about adulthood?

That you never seem to reach that hilltop where you can relax, take a breath and look back on what you have accomplished. There’s always something steeper than must be climbed, immediately.

What advice would you give your 18-year-old self?

“Most of what you’re doing is fine, but quit being so self-conscious around girls.”

What is your favorite book?

Catch-22, by Joseph Heller. Hilarious, painfully true and one of the first books that made me think, “I wish I could write something like that.”

What is your greatest blessing?

Being born into a situation that allowed me to learn, grow and build the kind of life that I thank God for every day.

What is your favorite television show?

Currently, it is Madmen. The series finale left me with a bittersweet wish that the story could continue, the way you sometimes feel after reading a really terrific novel.

What is your favorite quote?

I am having a hard time with this one, but the quote that comes to mind is, “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.”

Here are the Blogs I’m Nominating:

http://trailheadproductions.com/palette/blog/
http://www.kennethwbarber.com/#!blog/c1bbq
http://karenzach.com/
http://mustlistentoallthemusic.blogspot.com/
http://www.fowllanguagecomics.com/
http://devinestudios.com/blog/
http://www.instaprincess.net/blog/

Here are My 11 Questions for the Nominees:

What is the most valuable thing you have learned from blogging?

If I could read only one post on your blog, which one should it be?

What is the last thing that made you laugh really hard?

Why do you feel the need to blog?

You have to make an eight-hour drive through Kansas. What famous, living person would you most enjoy taking along with you, and why?

What famous, living person would you least want to take with you on the drive through Kansas, and why?

Describe an instance in your life when you really thought that you might die.

Almost everyone has a “happy place.” Describe yours.

When you were seven, what did you want to be when you grew up?

Name a movie that you just can’t stop watching whenever you see it on TV.

Name a time when you took a big risk, and it really paid off.

 

I Got a Name

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Croce

August 2006,
driving home for lunch,
a long-dead folk singer warbling
that sentimental tune about
staking a path in life,
which clutches your throat
as you consider
your 11-week-old child
and the dreams
that will call his own name.

You won’t hear the song again
until the following Father’s Day,
when its familiar chords drift
from the PA speakers
while you sit by the swimming pool,
holding a paperback dampened
by the splashing
of kids in the shallow end.

You, no longer a father,
smile at the dewy musings
the song once inspired,
just minutes before
they called you with the news
that changed everything.

I ought to be hating this,
you think as you sit by the pool,
but part of you wants to believe
that the song’s return
actually means something.

In memory of Maxwell Arthur Roth
May 31-August 14, 2006

Revisionist History: Trump in Gettysburg

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TRUMP-LINCOLN

On the afternoon of November 19, 1863, Donald Trump stepped off the train in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, to deliver what would become one of the best-known speeches in American history. There to dedicate the Soldier’s National Cemetery just a few months after Union armies defeated Confederate forces in the nation’s bloodiest battle, the President approached the podium, unbuttoned his grey overcoat and removed an iPad mini, on which he had jotted a few “appropriate words” to honor the fallen.

Here is what the president said:

“This is really beautiful, really fantastic… What a crowd! What a crowd!

Eighty-some-odd years ago—I’m thinking 85, but it might have been longer than that. Anyway, a long, long time ago, some very great men got together and they formed the most powerful nation ever known in the history of the world. This nation was so great, nobody had ever seen anything like it. And you know what made it so great? Top-notch people, for one thing. The very best and brightest. Just fabulous, first-rate people. Also, freedom and this idea that everyone was equal. Even the lowliest street sweeper—some filthy guy who probably made in six weeks what I spent on my last haircut—was every bit as important as a very successful businessman with a huge, diversified real estate portfolio. This was the kind of thinking that made this nation so, so great.

Anyway, now we’re in a civil war, right? And not just any war, but the biggest, bloodiest war ever known to man, because this is the American Civil War. And, as you know, Americans don’t do anything half-assed. I wasn’t here back in July, but I understand this place was a real mess. Bunch of bombs going off, mutilated bodies all over place. Just a major, major battle. A real hell-hole, they tell me. That’s why I’m here today—to honor the dead and, you know, thank them for their service.

You know, I was thinking on the train how, even though these men lost their lives, they’re actually winners. Real winners. Because what they did here at Gettysburg really set the tone. We’ve had so many good things happen in the last few months, it’s been actually amazing. Did you see what Grant did to them at Vicksburg? Did you see that? We’ve got full control of the Mississippi now, which is huge. And we’ve got some plans for those Confederates next year. I don’t wanna to give too much away, but let’s just say it’s gonna be a very hot summer next year in Georgia. A very long, hot summer.

Look, I gotta go. You people have been outstanding. Southern Pennsylvania is a fabulous place. Let me just close by saying these lives were not lost in vain. We’re gonna take Richmond next year. W’re gonna take our country back, folks. We’re gonna remind them why government of the people, by the people, is the best way to do things. Because it’s the American way. Thank you, and God bless.”

Spiders! In the bathtub!

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spider

According to several articles I’ve read on the Internet, it is fairly common for Kindergarten-aged children to develop intense fears that have no basis in reality. Our six-year-old son has a couple of these.

One fear is being left alone in a room in our house, particularly the basement. Our son loves playing in the basement, where we keep most of his toys, but is deathly afraid of being abandoned down there by himself. Sometimes we will be able to talk him into taking the dog downstairs with him, but he usually insists on human companionship. A typical after-dinner conversation goes like this:

“Daddy, can you go downstairs with me?”

“Not right now. I’m doing the dishes.”

“Can we go after you finish doing the dishes?”

“We can,” I say. “Or, you can go downstairs now and I can join you in a little while.”

My son nods as if giving this some thought. “That’s okay,” he decides, heading to the living room couch. “I’ll wait for you.”

Our son’s fear of the basement is nothing new. He has never felt comfortable being alone in most rooms, even when surrounded by stuffed animals and other toys. I am told he will gradually grow out of this. My wife and I pray this to be true.

A newer development is our son’s fear of spiders—specially, spiders in the bathtub. This started a few weeks ago, when our normally mild-mannered son broke into a screaming fit and emphatically refused to take a bath in the tub he has been using since he was one week old. When pressed on the issue, he explained that he was afraid of spiders in the tub, even though he admitted to never having seen a spider anywhere inside our house. He had, however, seen a picture book about tarantulas at school. What could be more terrifying, really, than to be relaxing in your tub and to open your eyes to find a palm-sized, hairy spider swimming toward you? Do spiders even swim? Well, it doesn’t matter. The image alone is just horrible.

All the child-help literature instructs us to sympathize with—not belittle—our child’s fear, no matter how insanely irrational it might seem. We tried a few different tactics to get our six-year-old to wash himself. We let him use our shower. We let him use the “big” tub in our master bathroom. One of us took a bath with him to ease him into using his own tub again. We made a big deal about how cool his bath toys were, and now much they seemed to miss him.

After a few nights, our child seemed to conquer his fear of spiders in the bathtub. A washcloth under his rump seemed to help, for some reason. Bath nights were, if not exactly fun, at least tolerable again.

Then, a few nights ago, it started all over again. Our son, who used to love splashing around in the warm water of his tub, again refused to set foot inside its fiberglass shell. “I’m scared of the spiders!” he sobbed.

We know enough other parents who have kids our son’s age to understand that every child has his or her own quirks. This fear of spiders, and other bugs, confounds me, though. Like any other overprotective parent versed in the trendy psycho-babble of the day, I wonder what our son’s unprovoked fear of arachnids really means?

How to Tell if There’s a Frank Underwood Lurking in Your Office

The presidential race has me feeling nostalgic about the Frank Underwood administration, where most of the corruption and skulduggery is behind the scenes and not on CNN and Fox News every day. I’m re-blogging this in honor of the new season of House of Cards that Netflix launched today. And I hope you’ll consider voting for Frank and Claire in 2016–are they really much worse than the real candidates?

A Place for My Stuff

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If you are among the millions of Americans who subscribe to NetFlix, you probably know that Frank Underwood is the scheming, manipulative, smooth-as-molasses congressman played by Kevin Spacey in the popular political series, House of Cards. If you are not familiar with Frank Underwood, but plan on binge-watching House of Cards before the third season comes out in February, you might stop reading this post now. I may or may not have included a few spoilers. As Francis Underwood might say, consider yourself duly warned.

Even though a few of Frank Underwood’s actions and deceptions while consolidating political power seem far-fetched, most of us accept the idea that the halls of the U.S. Capitol are teeming with charming, well-dressed sociopaths. That’s why House of Cards works – it feeds off of and heightens our cynical perception of D.C. politics. “Yep,” you might say after watching Frank Underwood’s latest late-night…

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What Was Your First Favorite Book?

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Happy World Book Day! Can you think of one book that instilled you with a love for reading? I was in second grade when I received Charlotte’s Web as a Christmas gift. Our teacher had read it to us in class, but I wanted to revisit it by myself. Up to that point in my life, I had found reading to be difficult, monotonous, and sometimes even painful. That all changed with the first chapter of “Charlotte’s Web,” where Fern rescues a runt piglet from her father’s ax. I’ve loved books and reading ever since.

Charlottes-Web

Conversations in the Car

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“Daddy, do you wish that dinosaurs were still around today?”

“I don’t know. I’ve never really thought about it.”

“But if you thought about it, would you want them to still be around?”

“I don’t think so,” said the middle-aged man. “It would be kind of scary, having those big dinosaurs stomping all over the place.”

The little boy sighed, as if frustrated by always having to explain everything to his imagination-starved father. “But it would only be herbivores stomping around. No meat-eaters allowed.”

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“Okay. Well, that makes me feel a little bit better.”

“What’s your favorite dinosaur?”

“Hmmm,” the man said, looking both ways before pulling onto the main road. It was a question he’d gotten a lot recently, so he should have been ready with an answer, but he wanted to come up with something flashier this time. “I’d have to say my favorite dinosaur is…the Stegosaurus.”

The boy giggled. “That can’t be your favorite dinosaur. That’s mine!”

“Why can’t we have the same favorite?”

“Because it was my favorite first,” he said. “I like how Stegosaurus has spikes on his tail, so he can use it against his predators.”

The father nodded, having seen his son demonstrate a Stegosaurus “tail sweep” more than a few times in the downstairs TV room.

The child looked out the window at the beige winter landscape. “Daddy, do I have to go to school today?”

“Yes, you do.”

“I wish it were summer already.”

The dad chuckled, thinking how the swimming pool would open in just three short months, which would have seemed like an eternity back when he was in Kindergarten.

“It’ll be here before you know it,” he said, trying to sound hopeful.

A Book Club for Pridemore

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Over the past few months, I have been delighted to speak with a couple of book clubs that took the time to read A Plot for Pridemore. The most recent engagement was conducted via conference call with a friend’s club in North Carolina. The ladies drank wine and peppered me with questions about the book while I paced around my basement trying to summon intelligent-sounding answers. As far as Saturday night conference calls go, it was a lot of fun, and I was flattered that the book club would want to talk with me about my novel.

If you have a book club, or are thinking about starting one, let me provide you with five compelling reasons why A Plot for Pridemore would be an excellent selection:

1. The book is funny.

2. The plot is fast-moving and engaging.

3. The characters are colorful.

4. There are some dark, chilling moments that should spark interesting conversation next time your club gets together.

5. I would be happy to talk with your group about my book, whether you are in Kansas City or Kathmandu. Obviously, if you are based in Nepal, we might have to converse over the phone.

These books aren't going to sell themselves.

These books aren’t going to sell themselves.


Want to know what the book’s about? Here’s a summary:

For five heart-churning days, the world turns its attention to tiny Pridemore, Missouri, where rescue teams work around the clock to free a mentally challenged man from a collapsed cave.

That’s how Mayor Roe Tolliver envisions it, anyway. Weary of watching the town he’s led for more than forty years slide into economic oblivion, the mayor hatches a devious and dangerous plan-trap a local man in the bowels of nearby Dragon’s Ice House cavern, start a massive rescue operation, and prompt a media vigil that puts Pridemore on the map for decades to come.

Over the course of a year, the mayor and his cronies carry out the convoluted scheme, which involves everything from bilking state money for a bogus tourist attraction to hiring a militia “ballistics consultant” to detonate the limestone cavern. Their success hinges on unassuming pawn Digby Willers, whose simple-minded likeability provides human interest in the made-for-television crisis. As events unfold, however, forces beyond even the mayor’s control turn Digby’s rescue into a real, life-or-death drama.

Get ready for a fast-paced romp filled with quirky characters, hilarious twists and turns, and a small town that just might get its fifteen minutes of fame.

You can find more information about A Plot for Pridemore on the Mercer University Press website, as well as Amazon. If you’re interested in reading the book with your club, please send me a comment and let me know.

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