Tag Archives: Self Improvement

There is a Light that Never Goes Out

26 Mar
Chicago Winter. Photo by MAG

Chicago Winter. Photo by MAG

The first time I’d seen him, he was bundled in a camel overcoat, fast asleep.

I thought I was extremely lucky when I hopped on the almost empty El car at the Chicago stop and grabbed a seat during rush hour, but once the doors closed, I quickly realized why the car was deserted.  The stench coming from the corner made my eyes water and I followed the lead of the man next to me and pulled my scarf up over my nose and mouth to filter the air enough to be able to make it to the Clark/Division stop where I quickly changed cars.

I didn’t really think much about it after that.  Over the past year, I’ve become acclimated to riding public transport and have learned to adjust to the inevitable clash of cultures, and this brutal Chicago winter has made me even more aware of the challenges faced by the city’s poor and homeless residents.   The CTA became a refuge from the subzero temperatures, and to their credit, the CTA employees who run the trains did their best to shepherd the all-day riders onto one car in order to keep an eye on people and make sure no one froze to death.

Last week, I saw him again.

I recognized the tattered camel overcoat, and the smell.  As he walked the platform the crowd of people parted and gave him a wide berth.  When he found a bench to settle down on, the man sitting there got up and moved ten feet away.  Everyone on the platform turned their backs and looked away as if not looking would make the man – and the smell – disappear.  I wanted to look away, too, but I’d just written my last blog entry about how I was going to smile at strangers and help when I could, so I looked.

The man sat on the bench fiddling with a pair of ripped gloves that barely covered his fingers, a tattered black plastic bag at his feet.  He stared at the ground as he tugged his coat, pulling it more tightly around his body, as I debated about what I should do.  And then in an instant, I knew.

I walked over and leaned down close enough to say, “Good morning, sir.”  Startled, the man looked up and then looked away quickly.

Taking a deep breath, I continued, “Have you had breakfast?”

He looked back up, confused for a moment, and asked, “What?”

I repeated, “Have you had breakfast yet?”

He ducked his head and gestured toward the black bag, “Not yet, but I’m going to have a bite soon.”

I reached into my messenger bag and pulled out the PBJ sandwich that I’d packed before I left the apartment that morning and offered it to him, saying, “It’s just PBJ, but you’re more than welcome to it.”

He smiled a little and replied, “Oh no, ma’am, I’m fine.  I’ve got breakfast in this here bag. But thank you.”

My first impulse was to press further and make him take the sandwich, but I quickly understood what he was saying and backed off, tucking the sandwich back into my bag.

Sometimes preserving one’s dignity trumps hunger.

I smiled at him, and asked a question that I would spend the next few days kicking myself for asking, “Do you need anything else, sir?”

What kind of idiot question was that?  Of course he needing something else.  He needed a lot of things, but since he’d refused the sandwich I didn’t know what else to offer and I didn’t want to insult him by assuming I did.

He smiled back at me, and replied, “Oh no, I’m fine, ma’am.  Thank you.”

As I looked at him and nodded, he lifted his head and looked right into my eyes as he smiled in a way that could only be described as serene and said, “And God bless you, ma’am.  God bless you.”

I returned his smile and his blessing, and then stepped on the train leaving him sitting on the bench.

As the car sped down the tracks I felt sad for a moment because I hadn’t been able to do anything for the man.  I hadn’t been able to give him anything or help in any measurable way.

And then I thought about the way he’d looked me in the eye, raising his head and smiling as he blessed me.

Maybe the greatest gift we can offer another person is the dignity of being seen.


Dreamer Profile: Colin McComb

7 Dec

Oathbreaker: The Knight

[Editor’s note: I first met Colin when we were both teaching at the same school – right next door to each other, in fact – and would “threaten” to do something about the noise coming from our respective classrooms. Earlier this year, on my birthday, he supported my dream and wrote, “I wish you New York this year,” and (unbeknownst to him) was one of the people who inspired me to take a chance and visit New York this past June. A few months ago, when I read that he was looking for supporters to help him publish his novel, I did what I could to return the favor, and am absolutely thrilled to be able to feature him in the Dreamer Profile series – and to have the honor of being able to count him as one of my friends.]

NAME: Colin McComb

WEB ADDRESS/BLOG SITE: www.colinmccomb.com, http://www.3lbgames.com

EMAIL ADDRESS: cmm@3lbgames.com

What is the dream you are pursuing?

  • After years of talking about it, planning it, and plotting it, I’m releasing my first novella, “Oathbreaker: The Knight’s Tale“, the first in a series. The series started off as a single snapshot image of a cocky young wizard who suddenly realizes he’s overmatched as his enemy summons forth a creature from beyond, and with that image burning a hole in my mind, the rest of the pieces began to fall into place. I promised my wife (as part of our wedding vows) that I’d write a book, and hey, ten years later! Here I am.

What inspired you dream about doing this project?

  • I’ve been a fantasist for a long time. I started playing Dungeons & Dragons when I was 10, and I’ve been reading fantasy since well before then. I’ve been a professional game designer and writer of one sort of another since 1991—I’ve always had the desire to share my imagination, but I’ve never published any fiction. Putting together a coherent story seems to me another route to do that… and this way, I don’t have to worry about game balance, which always been a concern.

What challenges have you faced in order to pursue on this dream?

  • The biggest challenges have come from inside. Procrastination, fear that my work wasn’t good, or fear that it wasn’t good enough (especially when compared to the great writers), fear that I’d fail, fear that I’d succeed, making something else the priority… lack of focus, in other words, because of an underlying anxiety about finally being responsible for my own fate, with the commensurate penalties for imagined failure.

What has surprised you the most about pursuing this dream?

  • When I launched my Kickstarter project to help pay for my artist and editor, I thought I would get some desultory interest, and I set my pledge bar low. Instead, total strangers to me backed me generously, along with friends and family and fans of my other work, and I met the goal handily. I suppose it was surprising to me to realize that people really do like my work. You’d think that I’d have internalized this long ago, since I’ve had a fairly successful game career, but I’ve always rationalized that as people being interested in the game, or the setting, or the company I was working for.

What have been the most rewarding aspects of pursuing this dream?

  • Pretty much the answer I just gave. That, and finally launching my book. There’s something about seeing it put together and knowing, “I did that. I made this.” Even if it doesn’t sell thousands of copies, I know that I did it. I launched something under my own power.

Is there anything you wish you would have known or done differently?

  • No procrastination! No fear! It’s easy to look back at the end of a project and say, “Man, I shouldn’t have wasted so much time.” I should know! But I wish I could keep the focus I’ve learned in the last few years and apply it retroactively to my life. I just need to remember: When I sit down to a project, I sit down to the project – and I don’t get distracted. Take the time to do it right, because otherwise there’s no point in doing it.

Where do you hope this dream leads?

  • Fame and riches, of course! Mostly the latter, anyway. At the very least, I’d like to maintain enough interest in the series that I can finish it off as a complete story. Chances are good I’ll do that anyway, but it’d be nice to get paid along the way.

Who inspires you to dream?

  • My friends Chris Avellone and Tony DiTerlizzi, who really do embody the work ethic I want. They are both astoundingly creative and prolific, and if I can match even half of their output over the course of my life, I’ll be happy.

(Oathbreaker: The Knight’s Tale Book I can be purchased on Amazon.com)

Dreamer Profile: Laura Heineman

1 Dec

Detroit Night - Photo by Laura Heineman

(Editor’s note: Laura is not only an aspiring med student, she is also a talented Graphic Designer and photographer who writes the blog DetroitByBike, which details her bike trips around the Detroit area. She is also a true artist – as evidenced by the way she reshaped the questionnaire – and I love that!)

NAME: Laura Heineman

WEB ADDRESS/BLOG SITE: detroitbybike.com, lauraheineman.com


You gave me this questionnaire to fill out. But I’m just not to good at filling out questions. So… here is my dreamer profile:

I don’t believe in regret in life. But I also believe that you need to be able to recognize when higher powers are trying to tell you something. About 2 months ago I randomly told a Doctor that if I could live my life over again I would have gone to medical school. I then told her that I was too old to go now. Her response was, “Just do it. I was 28 and a single parent when I went back to school and I did it. It’s hard but it’s worth it.” I had already committed to going back to school so I started looking into it. It turns out medschool was only going to be an extra 2 years of education when I broke it all down. Not a huge difference in the long term view of life. I talked with a few other doctors that I knew and they all told me the same thing. It’s hard, I’ll be putting my life on hold, but in the end it is worth it and I should do it. (It’s funny because I got exactly the same speech from all 3 of them, they also weren’t focusing on money, they all seemed to be happy and fulfilled in their careers.)

Detroit Lives! - photo by Laura Heineman

The things I would tell someone in this (especially if they were your students) are below:

-Get good grades. It sounds so trivial and stupid at the time but grades are a way of tracking your success and work ethic. It’s your proof to people. I didn’t always focus on my grades because I knew that I knew the topics so I was ok with working just hard enough and getting B’s. Fast forward to 10 years later and those B’s may be the thing that stops me from getting into medschool. Even though I believe I am smart enough, I didn’t put in the effort into the “society approved” way of saying that I’m intelligent.

-Believe in yourself. When I first started telling people that I was leaving a good job to go back to waiting tables so I could go to school I got a lot of really bad looks. This isn’t something we do in our society. Especially in our parents society. You sign onto a job and you work it for the rest of your life. Hopefully you work your way up. But since I have left my job, many random things have happened that I cannot believe are just chance. I like to believe this is life’s way of telling me I’m on the right track.

-Lastly, surround yourself with intelligent, inspiring people. Spend your time with people that lift you up. When I first told my family that I was going to attempt medschool at 31 they basically didn’t talk to me. I’m lucky that I have such good friends that pushed me to go for it. They gave me the little boost of power I needed to be able to believe in myself.

Detroit night park - photo by Laura Heineman

Dream Like New York

23 Oct

The First Step... photo by JAS

“What ever happened to those childhood years?/When we thought we could fly/We got to keep those dreams alive.” –Tyrone Wells

The past few weeks have been an incredible reminder of the power of dreams and the miracles that come from keeping dreams alive – no matter how impossible they seem.  Some people might call it luck, but it’s reinforced my belief in the idea that you get back exactly what you put out into the world.

But let me explain…

My rockstar fantasy has been the cornerstone of  a lot of my blogging and teaching.  I first talked about it last year with my Information Literacy class, who responded more than favorably, and fed my dream.  I knew then that becoming a rockstar was going to involve a lot more than simply dreaming optimistically, and, at the time, I didn’t have the time or the inclination to begin the process of learning to play the guitar – but the dream stayed alive.

Earlier this summer I went to Chicago to visit J. and while chatting with her downstairs neighbor [who is a professional musician and was looking into starting an online guitar teaching business], I jokingly told him about my rockstar fantasy, and then played the opening lines of “Rock You Like a Hurricane” for him on my iPhone and said, “I don’t care about music theory, or even really about becoming a great musician, I just want to play that solo.”  He laughed a bit, and then nodded and said, “I’ll have to think about how to do that, but I think it might be possible.  You are; however, going to need a guitar.”  I laughed and said I’d work on it, but that money was too tight for me to be spending even a minimal amount on such a luxury item.

But I kept the idea in the back of my mind, and knew that when the time was right, it would all work out – because it always does!

In the meantime, I was looking forward to the August release of a new album from Dream Theater, my all-time favorite band.  I mention this because when talking about my rockstar fantasy I always get laughs and nods when I say that I envision myself playing on stage with guitar heroes like John Petrucci [the lead guitarist for Dream Theater, and the player who, according to internet lore, can play “four million beats per second” on his guitar]. Those in the know immediately understand where I’m coming from – and how completely insane my idea is.

In addition to the new album, DT had scheduled a tour and a few weeks before the album’s release, one of my students informed me that the band would be playing on October 3 at the Royal Oak Music Theater.  I sat and debated whether or not I should buy a ticket – for about 60 seconds – and then got online and purchased it.  By the time the concert date rolled around, not only was I excited, so was everyone else around me [or at least amused enough to support my excitement].

Dream Theater’s live performance was amazing, and I loved every minute of it!  I returned to the classroom full of excitement and tales to tell about the concert, and my students generously shared their own transformative concert moments.  I was pumped and ready to play the guitar, again!  However, the lack of an instrument was still my biggest obstacle.

I wasn’t worried about it, but I felt a little sad that, again, my rockstar fantasy wouldn’t begin to come true.

Two days later, a student brought her electric guitar to school and offered to loan it to me  on the condition that she could be the bass player in my band once I learned to play.  I was overwhelmed by the incredible generosity and the fact that she believed I actually could not only learn to play, but also form a band once I did. As I assured her that she would absolutely be the bass player, students around the room began piping up about what they wanted to play.

I strapped on the guitar, and found myself suddenly leading a band [named “Flaming Salad,” don’t ask…] that currently consists of a lead guitarist [who needs to learn to play], a bassist [who already knows what she’s doing], a wanna-learn-to-play-keyboardist, a tambourine player, a triangle player, and five drummers.

We’re going to be stars.

Later, when I posted the picture of me and the guitar on my Facebook page [with the title “One the Road to Rockstardom: 1. Learn to hold the guitar. 2. Learn to play it”], students chimed in and told me I looked like a “super bad ass” and that they knew where I could find the online resources that would teach me to play.  The student who lent me the guitar told me that she thought it shouldn’t be any problem to learn to hold and play the guitar, rip on solos, and then, contact Petrucci and ask to play with him – on stage.

No problem whatsoever.

As the conversation continued, more students weighed in and they began introducing themselves to one another and asking each other questions.  All of a sudden we had a community of music loving people discussing guitars, finger exercises, guitar heroes and how to best teach me to play.  Since that day, students have offered me all kinds of tips, tricks and suggestions, and one accomplished musician has even brought in his own guitar and ukelele and performed for our class!

I still don’t have any illusions about actually becoming a rockstar [mainly because I am just now realizing the horrible toll that playing electric guitar strings takes on one’s fingers.  It’s painful and not pretty at all], but the process of dreaming out loud has created new ways for people to connect with one another and talk about their dreams!

In the end, I think that keeping the dream alive is what matters the most.

And as Tyrone Wells sings, “I only strive to stay awake/But the child inside me/Dares to believe I still can fly/Can’t let those dreams just die.”

So, if anyone’s got Petrucci’s number, I think I’m just bold and crazy enough to make the call.

Just dreamin’…again.

“Dream Like New York” by Tyrone Wells

Far From Heaven

17 Sep

The Brooklyn Bridge - photo by MAG

Keeping dreams alive is a Herculean task in this society.

I’m always saddened by the reaction that follows someone’s admission that they dream of doing something different than what they are currently doing.  What usually happens is that someone close to the person will say, “You want to do what?  Who? You?”  The person doing the dreaming will then immediately begin doubting themselves [because, of course, these are the people who “know best”], and mumble something along the lines of, “Yeah, well, it’s just something I’ve been thinking about – I’m not going to do it!”

I know this because, in the past, I’ve been on both sides of the exchange, and neither side has made me feel good.  So, I’ve made the choice to shift my thinking and have moved to a new vantage point.

I choose to believe that anything is possible.   

I am not delusional, and I don’t have unreasonable beliefs about achieving the impossible [because as much as I’d love to do a stadium tour with my guitar heroes, it’s not going to happen until I actually learn to play the guitar].  What I’ve come to understand is that the one thing that all people who dream big dreams have in common is that they set goals, they work hard, and they understand that they are not in control of the outcome of the dream.  They see that the dreaming, in and of itself, is the important part of the equation, and that the only things they’re in control of are how much they learn from the experience and what they do with the knowledge.

This became clear to me a few years ago, when I listened to Steve Jobs’ 2005 Stanford Commencement address.  Jobs told the story of how he’d dropped out of college, and that this decision had had a profound effect on the aesthetic features of Apple computers.  Jobs certainly wasn’t advocating “dropping out” as a way to “move ahead.”  The point he was trying to make was that “…you can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something — your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.”

I can see this reflected in my own life.  So many things that have happened and that I’ve done didn’t make sense until much later [sometimes more than 30 years], but eventually I connected the dots.  When I heard Steve Jobs’ speech, it suddenly made sense, and much to my delight, I heard him encouraging people to become intellectual pack-rats.

Personally, I’ve found the pack-rat mentality to be the very thing that makes it possible for me to continue to dream, as well as to be able to support the dreams of others. I can’t know how the dots will connect, I just have to jump in and give things a try.

Recently, after months of resisting, I let go of my preconceived notions and played Dungeons & Dragons for the first time.  My resistance to playing was, ironically, as a result of buying into the stereotypes about how all D&D players are “anti-social geeks who live in their parents’ basements.” However, a friend who is a D&D player, and someone I respect as an intelligent, articulate educator, patiently explained the game in a way that appealed to my interests, and when I said I thought I’d like to try it out, he created a character for me and invited me to join a game.

As a result, I spent an evening with some incredibly intelligent [and hilarious!] people who introduced me to the game and showed me that D&D is about so much more than the stereotypes surrounding sci-fi fantasy role play.  To my delight, I found that the game actually requires many skills that I try and teach to college students every term – research, critical thinking, storytelling, following directions, and teamwork.  It opened my eyes to new tools I might be able to use in my classrooms, new ways of thinking about how to approach problem-solving, and creative challenges, and well, it was just plain fun to play.

My evening playing D&D is just one example of the many experiences that have helped me gain a new understanding of concepts and ideas, of the way other people think and process information, and even of myself and my way of thinking.  It’s these kinds of experiences that have taught me, over and over again, that there is a common thread connecting all knowledge, and the interesting part is finding out where that thread begins.

How does this all connect to keeping the dream alive?

Dreaming requires us to have faith, and in order to do this, there has to be some kind of evidence that the faith is worth the effort it takes to keep it alive.  There has to be a reason to keep believing.

There have been plenty of people who have told me my dreams are crazy, and, at first, it dampened my enthusiasm [and hurt my feelings], but the more I’ve thought about it, the more I’ve come to realize that these “Dream Killers” are people who have surrendered their own dreams. They feel anger, regret, disappointment, and shame because they’ve let go of the things they hoped to achieve.  In order to justify the choices they’ve made, they try and discourage others from aiming too high or dreaming too big because they don’t want to be reminded of their own failures and they don’t want others to see how fearful they are of taking a risk.

The only thing that can protect dreamers from this negative influence is to fortify their defenses with a wealth of evidence showing that dreams can come true; that it’s better to remain optimistic and hopeful; that it pays to believe.

The evidence that keeps me believing is based on the fact that I see what happens when students take the knowledge they’ve gained each term and use it to fuel their own dreams – and the dreams of those around them.

When I see the light go on as an English student suddenly understands how a thesis statement for a “boring research paper” is connected to the mission statement they want to write for the film company they hope to start;  or when a Cultural Diversity class suddenly understands that putting people in categories that limit who they are – and can be – is a way of making it easier for other people to define them rather than giving them the option to define themselves as individuals; or when an Information Literacy student suddenly grasps the connection between evaluating sources for a research paper and evaluating manufacturers for a product they hope to develop, those are the moments that give me hope and remind me of why I keep believing. And I get just enough of them, at regular intervals, to keep my faith alive.

It’s a cycle, really.  Faith fuels the belief, and belief fuels the faith.

I know what keeps me dreaming [when I want to give up and admit that it’s not possible] is that I’m constantly searching for new ways to convey information to students.  I feel responsible for making sure that someone believes.  It’s not because I think that I alone make the difference as to whether or not my students believe [sometimes it’s their faith that keeps me believing], it’s because being responsible for maintaining hope and optimism, gives me the power to keep my own dreams alive, and the more I do, the happier I am.

Last year, I started this blog as a means of showing students how to blog and encouraging them to dream big. Looking back, I can see how this exercise has helped me overcome my own fears and pushed me to do things that I didn’t know whether I was capable of doing or not.  This blog has inspired me to write – in public – and to accept that nothing I write will ever be “perfect,” but that I can continue to edit while I try and clarify my ideas.  This blog was one of the reasons why I took a chance and believed I was capable of traveling to New York – alone – this past summer. This blog has allowed me to connect with students, family, and friends in ways that might otherwise not have been possible, and has enriched my life in ways I had not anticipated.  And this blog has inspired me to push forward and look for new ways to support other people who are dreaming of doing something bigger and better.

Some of the things I have planned for the next few months just might help jump start a new career path for me, they might help me become a better teacher – and a better person – and then again, they might simply be fun experiences that leave great memories.

Whatever the case, I now know that it’s important to plan and set goals for the future, to work hard at what I need to learn, and to never ever be afraid of dreaming big dreams. And I’ll let you in on a little secret – it’s not that I’m particularly brave or courageous. Most of the time, I’m scared as hell when I start pursuing a new dream.  The secret is that I’m incredibly stubborn about the fact that I believe things can be better because I’ve seen how things can change when I do believe.  Well, that and the fact that, for better or for worse, my stubbornness frequently overrides my fear.

So, the next time you hear someone talking about what seems like an impossible dream, instead of telling them they’re crazy, look them in the eye and say, “I believe.”  Because the more the dreamers support one another, the better chance they have of keeping their dreams alive.  There’s strength in numbers, and that strength can make all the difference.

I encourage you to push past your fears [and the fears of those around you] and pursue your dreams.  When you do [and if for some reason you wind up feeling afraid] just remember that there’s at least one person out here who believes in your right to pursue that dream – no matter how outrageous it seems.

Let go of your preconceived notions of what the outcome should be, do what you want to do, and have fun doing it!  And trust that the dots will all, eventually, connect.

I believe.

I hope you will, too.


7 Sep

Union Square - photo by MAG

Frank Sinatra always manages to sing his way into my life when I need it the most.

Lately, people have been asking me exactly when I’ll be making the move to New York. I understand the question to be part curiosity, part support and part desire to know that someone is making their dreams come true. And while I know that I began this blog as a way of actively moving toward my dream of living in the city, the truth is that I don’t know.

In the past year, I have traveled more than I ever imagined – both physically and emotionally – and I’ve come to realize that it’s the dreaming, not the outcome of the dreams, that matters the most. I can’t know where I’m going to end up, I can only plant the seeds of a dream, tend the garden, and accept that, no matter how hard I try, I cannot control Mother Nature.

I know that sounds fatalistic, and maybe even pessimistic, but I don’t see it that way at all. I view my life as an experiment – a hand’s-on learning lab of sorts – and in order to gain the most from it, I have to let go of the notion that to be “successful” means I must, somehow, achieve absolutely everything I set out to do.

Not all crops make it to the harvest season, but even the ones that fail to thrive serve a purpose – those crops fertilize the ones that remain viable.

Around this time last year, I was teaching, was on the verge of starting a second job, and was still dreaming about finding a way to travel to New York City. A year later, I’m still teaching, have left the second job, and spent an amazing week in New York City. I learned that teaching is my passion; it’s my reason for getting up in the morning and the one job I would do even if I didn’t get paid to do it. Teaching is who I am. My second job, in sales, was instrumental in helping me understand this, and I will be forever thankful for the experience and for the opportunity to work with some of the most intelligent, creative, and incredibly kind people I’ve ever known.

And New York…well…New York helped me realize that it’s not so much where I am physically, as it is my perception of and my attitude toward where I am that matters the most. As long as I am learning, growing, and excited about all of the possible adventures that each new day brings, I will be happy anywhere.

For me, New York City really is a state of mind.

This epiphany freed me from a lot of “have to’s” and “should’s”, and opened up new ways of thinking about where I am, and where I want to be. It has me realize that the people who truly love and support me [my students, colleagues, friends, and family] are absolutely vital to my growth efforts because they continue to have faith in my wide-eyed optimism and my belief that I can grow something in even the the most unlikely soil. The people I love celebrate when my garden flourishes, and generously share their resources during the lean times.

So, what’s next?

As usual, I’ve got new ideas, new plans, and new dreams, and I’ve begun planting a few seeds with the knowledge that every savvy gardener possesses – growing things takes patience, time, and faith in nature’s cycle. Earlier this week, I was reminded of this when I heard Old Blue Eyes singing the words, “Life is like the seasons/After winter comes the spring/So I’ll keep this smile awhile/And see what tomorrow brings.”

I believe I’ll do just that.

Drop Me Off in Harlem

5 Jul

42nd Street & Madison Ave.- Photo by MAG

One Year to Move Soundtrack

What happens when you turn a woman, who marches to the beat of her own drummer, loose in New York City? You get a week full of surprise and adventure, of course!

The first few hours I was in the city, I attempted to navigate it on my own – and got lost. 

How, you ask? 

Well, it was a collision of various factors, the main one being my stubborn desire to do things “my own big self.”  However, as usual, the screw-ups led to some amazing discoveries that couldn’t possibly have happened had I colored inside the lines – or followed directions.

When I arrived at Port Authority [much earlier than anticipated],  D. was still in class, so he texted me and told me to hang out around 42nd St. for a bit, and when his class let out, he’d come meet me and help me find my hotel. 

42nd Street was bustling with activity at 1:00pm on a Saturday, and as I tried to navigate around all of the tourists [who were slowly walking the sidewalks] with my suitcase, I quickly adopted the New Yorker walk – fast and purposeful.

It was wonderful to be in a place that was so full of activity, so I explored for a few blocks, looking for a place to sit down and have a cup of coffee and wait, but every establishment seemed to be full of people enjoying a leisurely break from whatever they were doing, and who seemed to have no intention of vacating their tables [I wouldn’t have wanted to either!].  As I scanned a third Starbucks, I suddenly got the bright idea to find my hotel myself and drop off my bag at the desk.

I thought I could do this quickly and efficiently, and be back on 42nd by the time D. got out of class.

Brilliant idea, right?  Ah yes, the best laid plans…

I pulled up my NYC Subway map, located 113th Street, and saw that the C Train would take me right to 110th where I could walk three blocks to the hotel.  I patted myself on the back for being so resourceful, and headed down into the subway station to buy a Metro Card.  I did this without incident, and hopped right on the C Train at 42nd Street.

This was where the real adventure began.

Why I thought my hotel was on 113th St. is the first mystery.  The address for the hotel was 113 Jane Street, and somehow, in my mind, that translated to an address on 113th.  Thinking back, I still can’t figure out why I thought that.  It might have been because the streets in Michigan are “Mile” Streets [8 Mile, 9 Mile, etc.], but that still doesn’t account for the fact that the building number isn’t the street number.  In the end, all I can do is chalk it up to the excitement of finally being in New York.

Once on the C Train, the driver made an announcement that I couldn’t quite hear.  It turned out that on weekends, the C Train goes express between 59th St. and 125th St.  You got it – no stopping.  Once I understood, I shrugged and thought, “Oh well, so I have to walk thirteen blocks instead of three. No biggie.”  Plus, it was kind of nice to sit back and relax.

When I arrived at 125th, I got off the train, hauled my bag up the stairs, and headed out to find my hotel.  I must have looked like I knew what I was doing because a few people stopped me and asked for directions.  I laughed and said I had no idea where they needed to go because I’d just arrived in the city myself!

As I walked south on St. Nicholas, I came across the Nine West Outlet store, and just as I stopped to take a photo, D. texted me and asked where I was.  I texted back, “125th St. and St. Nicholas.”  His response was, “WTF?”  I told him what my plan had been, and he asked why I hadn’t used the directions he’d sent me for getting to the hotel.  I texted back that I couldn’t remember where I’d saved them in my phone.

He told me to return to 125th and hop on the train towards downtown, so I did.  The only problem was that I still had it in my mind that my hotel was close by, so I got off the train at 110th St.

Don’t ask.  I do not know why.

By now, it was raining steadily and I was sweating like crazy from having walked up and down the subway stairs lugging my suitcase.  When D. texted and asked where I was, I told him “110th and Cathedral.” He replied, “Oh good! Keep coming downtown to 34th!”  But I had already flagged down a cab and decided that it would be okay to pay for a driver to take me the remaining few blocks to my hotel.

In the cab, I gave the driver the address of the hotel, and he said, “That’s over on the south west side of town, ma’am.”  To which I replied [as I consulted the map I’d picked up at the airport], “Oh no you don’t, according to my map it should be about three blocks from here!” The driver was a very kind and patient person who knew stubborn when he saw it, so he smiled and told me to direct him – and I tried.

Meanwhile, D. and I were texting back and forth about where to meet.  Finally, D. said, “Tell the driver to take you to 21st and 7th.”  So, I stopped being stubborn, gave the driver the streets and let him do his job.

While driving, he turned slightly and asked me if I was from Alaska.  I was confused, and replied, “No, why do you ask?”  He replied, “Well, you said you’re very hot, you’ve rolled down the window, and now you’ve got your head sticking out in the rain. I figured you must be from somewhere very cold.”  I laughed, and we began a conversation that lasted the entire 20-minute cab ride.  His name was Alpha, and he said he was from Guinea.  I asked what he did there before he came to New York, and he told me he’d been an economist, but that he’d given it up to find a better life in the U.S.  He asked me what I did for a living, and I told him I was a college instructor.  This began a very philosophical exchange about the American educational system, and how it might be improved.

By the time we reached 21st and 7th, Alpha was concerned about how I would get to my hotel.  I told him my friend would be waiting and he would help me find it.  Alpha asked if my friend knew New York better than I did, and I assured him he did.  When we got to the corner, Alpha asked where my friend was, and I replied, “Oh, I’m sure he’s here somewhere!”  My kindly cabbie then offered to wait and see if my friend had shown up, just in case I needed a ride to the hotel.  I’m sure he was mostly motivated by economic necessity [and the fact that I’d tipped him $5.00], but he was such a kind man that I think he was also concerned about my ability to navigate the city – and about turning me loose on another unsuspecting cab driver.

21st Street & 7th Ave. - Photo by DMT

D. was waiting on the opposite corner, and as he crossed the street I yelled “Hey you!” as I did a little dance of joy on the corner.  He laughed, and yelled back, “Welcome to New York!”  We hauled my bag a few blocks to the nearest Starbucks, had coffee and caught up while we waited for the rain to subside.

When the storm had passed, D. and I caught a cab to my hotel where I checked in and dropped off my bag.  The rest of the afternoon was spent walking, riding the subway, and seeing the parts of the city that D. knew I wanted to see [to be detailed in my next post].

My first few hours in New York City were filled with so much excitement that I began to wonder the rest of the trip would measure up.  I need not have worried, my entire trip was even more wonderful that I had anticipated, and it confirmed my belief that I do, indeed, belong in New York.

And in case you were curious about where I went – here’s a map of my travel to Harlem and back.

First Day on Subway

Stay tuned for more adventures!

Empire State of Mind

15 Mar

Photo by DMT

I’ve taken the first step!

This morning, I made travel reservations for my second trip to New York City.  I’ve been considering the possibility since I heard about Jeff Pulver’s 140# Conference that will be held at the 92nd Street YMCA in June, but I was scared to make the commitment to attend.

I’ve been nervous about the amount of time, effort and money it would take to travel to NYC for the conference, and my life has been hectic, so I kept putting off making a decision.

What I haven’t wanted to admit is that I’m scared of taking another step toward making my dreams come true.  It’s one thing to blog about wanting to live in a city I’ve visited only once, and it’s quite another thing to actually travel there.

This trip will change things, and I know that.  I’ll no longer be able to idealize the city from afar.  I’ll be moving toward my goal with new knowledge and experience.  I’ll have to step off of neutral [and relatively safe] ground, and start actually moving.

I think that while I’ve become comfortable talking about my dreams, I’ve grown too comfortable just talking.  The problem with taking action is that it disrupts what’s comfortable and familiar, and changes everything – for better or for worse.  Taking action leads to the unknown.

For months, while I’ve been contemplating attending this conference, my good friend, D. has watched as I’ve run up to the cliff countless times, looked over the edge, and then backed up to where I feel safe again.  The great thing about D. is that he doesn’t criticize or judge.  He knows I’ll get there in my own time – or not – but he also knows when to cut through the fear and give solid advice that will help me make a decision for myself.

The other day, I wrote him a long analysis about how I viewed this trip in terms of cost and time.  My main fear was that I shouldn’t spend the money because I should be building a bigger savings account.  I should be sensible.  I should play it safe, not take a risk.

D. wrote the simple response, “Mary, make the trip.  In ten years you’ll remember your trip to New York, but you’ll have no recollection of the couple hundred dollars you spent.”

And he’s right.

My plans aren’t foolish.  I’ve done the research, examined all of the angles, and evaluated many possible choices – the logistics and costs – and I know that this trip won’t entail over-extending myself in order to “live large in the big city.” If it did, that would be the sign of an unwise choice. I have no guarantee that this trip will result in anything other than a visit to New York City.  However, it could provide me with an experience that would help my personal and professional growth. I just have to be willing to set aside my fears and take the chance.

How will everything work out?  I have no idea – yet.

I have to trust that everything I do is for a reason – even when I don’t know what the ultimate outcome will be – and that, in the end, it all works out the way it’s supposed to work out.  I have to trust my instincts.  I have to trust myself.  Only then can I take a leap of faith and just go.

So, this morning I ran up to the cliff, hesitated for a moment, and then booked a ticket.

I don’t know where this will lead, and that’s okay because it’s not the destination that brings us joy, it’s the journey.


One Year to Move Soundtrack

Live as You Dream

30 Oct

Central Park. Photo by DMT

I’m keeping my New York City dreams alive.

In part two of my “Optimism 101” course, I’d like to offer a list of movies and videos I frequently watch in order to remind myself to keep dreaming and, maybe even more importantly, to keep believing in my dreams.

These movies and videos inspire me for a host of reasons, not the least of which is that each one of them gives me faith.  None of the “heroes” in these digital motivators is perfect.  In fact, that’s precisely what I love about them.  Infallible heroes are not interesting or inspiring, what’s inspiring, to me, is the idea that the challenges presented by human frailty are used to shape spirit and mold character.  I love the flaws, and I love those who can get knocked down over and over, and yet continue to rise.  I love the heroes who have faith in their convictions, but who also aren’t afraid to admit when they’re wrong and change direction.

Oh, and I’m a sucker for great quotable lines.

Optimism 101 Movie List

1. Peaceful Warrior [2006] – This movie is based on the real life story of Dan Millman, a former UC Berkeley gymnast who underwent a personal transformation after a terrible accident and later founded The Peaceful Warrior’s Way, a self-help motivational teaching movement designed to help people empower themselves.  The movie is a cross between a drama and a philosophical life lesson, and it does an incredibly good job of driving that lesson home through the lessons that Dan learns when he meets a gas station attendant, Socrates [convincingly played by Nick Nolte]. My favorite lines in the movie are “Take out the trash. The trash is anything that keeps you from focusing on the only thing that matters – this moment.  And when you’re truly in the present, you’ll be surprised at what you can do, and how well you can do it.”

2. Interstate 60: Tales of the Road [2003] – This movie is a hilarious trip down the fabled “Interstate 60” as Neil searches for answers to his life’s purpose after meeting the elusive O.W. Grant [Gary Oldmam].  Neil’s lesson is about how to let go of the need to look to others for answers and to trust what he knows is right for him.  One of the best scenes in the film is when Neil takes a woman to the town of Banton to look for her missing son, and ends up in the office of the local sheriff [Kurt Russell].  There he learns an important lesson about the ways in which trading individuality for the perception of happiness is an incredibly dangerous choice.  My favorite line is uttered by Bob Cody [Chris Cooper] who tells Neil, “Say what you mean, mean what you say. You know that if everybody follow that rule, there’d be a lot less trouble.”

3. Steve Jobs’ 2005 Stanford Commencement Address – This video makes me simultaneously cry and cheer when I watch it.  Jobs reminds the audience of newly minted graduates that they should “follow their bliss” and do what they truly love.  It is very simply the best reminder that while circumstances and events in your life are not within your control, your choice to see them as obstacles or life lessons is.  My favorite lines are after Jobs explains that Macs have such beautiful fonts because he dropped out of college. He says, “Of course it was impossible to connect the dots looking forward when I was in college, but it was very, very clear looking backwards 10 years later. Again, you can’t connect the dots looking forward. You can only connect them looking backwards, so you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something–your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever–because believing that the dots will connect down the road will give you the confidence to follow your heart, even when it leads you off the well-worn path, and that will make all the difference.”

4. Tombstone [1993] – I love this movie because it is about loyalty, friendship, love, and the strength of believing in one’s convictions.  Wyatt Earp [Kurt Russell] follows his conscience – and his heart – and does what he believes is the right thing to do, knowing that it might very well cost him his life.  The friendship between Wyatt and Doc [Val Kilmer] is an amazing thing to behold, and is the source of my favorite quote.  On his deathbed, Doc tells a conflicted Wyatt, “There is no normal life, Wyatt. There’s just life, and you live it.”

5. Simon Sinek – How Great Leaders Inspire Action [2010] – This talk is based on Sinek’s book Start With Why.  In it, Sinek discusses “The Golden Circle,” the basis for his theory on why great leaders and corporations inspire action and loyalty.  My favorite line is Sinek’s thesis, “People don’t by what you do, they buy why you do it.”

6. Freedom on My Mind [1994] – This California Newsreel documentary about the struggle to gain voting rights in Mississippi in the 1960s should be required viewing for every American.  The film goes to the heart of the movement and combines actual footage shot during the Mississippi Freedom Rides with 1990s interviews with the people who were involved in the rides and in the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party.  I love this film because it illustrates the enormous complexities that were involved with the struggle without trying to provide a monolithic narrative.  My favorite line is from Endesha Mae Holland who, at the time, was viewed by the town as a teenage girl with no morals.  She recalls, “The whole town looked down it’s nose at me, but the movement told me I was somebody.  They said I was somebody.”

7. A Man Named Pearl [2006] – In 1976, Pearl Fryar was s a black factory worker who bought a house in an all-white Bellville, South Carolina neighborhood.  When the real estate agent informed the residents of the neighborhood that a black family would be moving in, they were upset because “Black people don’t keep up their yards.”  As a result, Mr. Fryar, who had no artistic or horticultural experience, created a yard that is now considered a topiary masterpiece in both the art and horticultural worlds.  My favorite line comes from an interview with the Reverend of Mr. Fryar’s church.  When people ask him how an old man can do what Mr. Fryar does [he was in his 50s when he started the garden], the Reverend says, “Sometimes blessings come early and sometimes blessings come late, but they are always right on time.”

8. Braveheart [1995] – The epic story of the fight for Scotland’s freedom, William Wallace is one of the best heroes on film.  He loves his country, his friends, his family and his late wife, and while he isn’t perfect in any way, he is deeply committed to doing the right thing to the end.  There’s a tie for my favorite lines in this film, it’s either “Every man dies, but not every man lives.” or “In the year of our Lord, 1314, patriots of Scotland, starving and outnumbered, charged the fields of Bannockburn. They fought like warrior poets. They fought like Scotsmen. And won their freedom.” The last one leaves me sobbing every time.

These are a few of the films that give me hope, and allow me to keep my faith alive.  If you’d like to share the movies or videos that lift your spirits and help you keep your faith in your own dreams, please do.

I’m always looking for new inspiration — and my students would probably appreciate it if I’d add some new quotes to my repertoire.

One Year to Move Blog Music

Live Like We’re Dying

26 Oct

Photo by DMT

I am a sliver lining kind of woman.

No matter how awful things seem at any given time, I always seem to be able to find the good side of any situation.

A few weeks ago, J. asked me how I maintain my fairly consistent positive outlook on life.  I had to think about it for a while because I had no clear cut answer for her.  Some days, I’m not really sure how I do it [many of my students might suggest it’s the result of watching the film Peaceful Warrior twenty-five times], and some days I’m not very successful at it.  I thought about her question for a few days, and took a close look at what things contribute to my ability to maintain an optimistic attitude, and I’ve come up with a few lists of things that help me.

For the next few posts, I’d like to offer up these lists and ask those of you who read, to contribute whatever it is that helps you maintain an optimistic outlook on life.

I’d like to say from the outset that these are the things that have worked for me – your mileage will vary – so take what you can use and set the rest aside.  Trust your instincts and do what feels right for you, but keep an open mind and remember that what doesn’t work today, might work tomorrow or next week or next year.

Optimism 101- Mary’s Reading List

1. Simple Abundance – Sarah ban Breathnatch — I’ve read this book of daily meditations for women for the past four years.  Some of what she writes is unrelated to anything in my life, but a lot of her short essays hit at the heart of something I’m struggling with, and I’m finding that with this latest reading, the essays are like old friends that I love, but haven’t seen in a while – familiar and comforting, but new again.  [Lest you think I’m a goody-two-shoes, on my earnest days, I jump in ready to believe, but on my cynical days, I roll my eyes and wonder who in the world could be this optimistic.  That usually makes me laugh at myself].

2. Choosing Happiness – Stephanie Dowrick — This book is made up of short readings about how to develop, cultivate and maintain happiness.  It is full of helpful offerings that are designed to give the reader a way to envision their life in a more positive way, and then to follow through to reflect that outlook.  I frequently turn to this book when I am experiencing a difficulty that causes me to revert back to unproductive [read: negative] behaviors.

3. A Girl Named Zippy – Haven Kimmell — Forget the fact that Kimmel is the author of my all-time favorite book, The Solace of Leaving Early, Zippy is quite possibly the single funniest memoir I’ve ever read.  Seriously, how could you not love Zippy’s mother? She tells Zippy that instead of being birthed at a hospital, she’d been acquired in a fair-ground trade with wandering gypsies in exchange for a special purse. As Zippy is taking in this information her mother throws in an “oh by the way” comment that Zippy had been born with a tail, which they’d had removed so she could wear pants.  When I need a laugh-out-loud read, I reach for this book.

4. Atlas Shrugged – Ayn Rand — This might seem like an odd choice for me since Rand’s book basically extols the virtues of unchecked capitalism, but I read this book with D. last summer and I loved it.  I read it less as a treatise on how to get rid of socialism, and more as a psychological drama about how individuals wrestle with making decisions about what they “should” do and what they want to do.  I loved Dagny Taggert because she was a strong woman who wanted to do what was right for herself, her company, and her dream – and none of her decisions were easy.  I liked the book even more after a new biography about Rand revealed that she violated the ideals she’d written about in Atlas in order to get the book published.  Breaking rules in pursuit of a dream makes me cheer!

5. Stone Butch Blues – Leslie Feinberg — If I could make this required reading for every individual in the world, I would.  A novel based on Feinberg’s real-life experiences being gay and transgender in Buffalo, New York during the 1950s, 60s and 70s, this book breaks down the ways in which homophobia is insidiously woven into the fabric of every aspect of our lives.  And yet, even in the most horrendous experiences, Feinberg manages to hold onto the thread of human dignity and the power of friendship and kindness.  If you can walk away from this book unaffected, then you need to find the Emerald City and ask the Wizard of Oz for a heart.

6. Finding Your Own North Star: Claiming the Life You Were Meant to Live – Martha Beck — This book took me a long time to read because it was frightening to have someone who has never met me, seem to know me so well.  Dr. Beck is a well know life coach who has written numerous books and also writes a monthly column for Oprah Magazine.  I love her writing because she is forthright, but understanding and kind.  This book helped me understand what it would take to actually live the life I love, and love the life I live.

7. Life Strategies: Doing What Works, Doing What Matters – Dr. Phil McGraw — I love this book because it is a no-nonsense, in-your-face, wake-up-and-smell-the-coffee kind of book.  When someone recommended this book to me, I rolled my eyes and sighed heavily, the person recommending it said “I know, I think he’s hokey too, but give this book a chance!”  I’m glad I did.  Dr. Phil’s ten Life Laws are probably the most helpful pieces of advice I’ve ever read, and I love his unsentimental approach.  He recognizes the difficulties we all face, but ultimately says “Man up, and do something about it.”

8. The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency – Alexander McCall Smith — Actually, I own the entire series of the Mma. Ramotswe mysteries, and I love every book in the series.  Mma Ramotswe is a wonderful, beautiful, and resourceful character who is absolutely human.  I love her acknowledgment of the ways in which all of the pieces fit together – of a mystery or a community.  She radiates love, and as a result, I love her, too.

9.  A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose – Eckhart Tolle – This book surprised me when I read it because I was expecting to cast it aside after a chapter or two.  I thought Tolle’s combination of philosophy and spirituality would be far too over the top for a pragmatic dreamer.  I was wrong.  What I found when I read this book was that I was fully engrossed in what Tolle was explaining, and I actually ended up reading the entire book in a weekend because I couldn’t put it down.  What resonated the most for me, at the time, was Tolle’s explanation of how the ego drives negative action through fear.  Critics argue that Tolle’s discussion is nothing new, but it was a new way for me to understand my own life, and I appreciated it.

10. The Women of Brewster Place – Gloria Naylor – This is one of the most beautifully written novels I’ve ever read.  Naylor captures the spirit of a community of women in a way that no other author ever has.  This book is uplifting and heartbreaking.  It underscores the courage and dogged determination of the women who live in Brewster Place, and the writing is absolutely breathtaking.

I know this seems like an odd mishmash of reading materials – it is.  It is in no way comprehensive [as if any list ever could be].  This list simply represents books that have been useful to me as I’ve searched for answers to my millions of questions.  And after reading these books, I find that not only do I not have any definitive answers, I have actually come up with more questions.

Read it Again Books, my local used bookstore, and Amazon.com love me.

One Year to Move Blog Music

%d bloggers like this: