An Engaging and Thought Provoking Listen

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Roughly fifteen years ago, my daughters landed their first acting roles at the Ahwatukee Children’s Theater (ACT) in a “Muppets” version of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Talented stage actor Michael Rubino, a co-founder of the theater, played Scrooge in that production. Michael took on other challenging roles during the years that my daughters performed there, always bringing passion, professionalism, and vitality to each.

Months before I finished writing the final manuscript of The Road to Amistad, I invited Michael to narrate the audio book. He had never narrated before, but with a long acting history and a penchant for challenging roles, the offer intrigued him. That brief conversation sparked a fire and in short order, he began producing audio books for Audio Creation Exchange (ACX), an Amazon affiliate. By the time I published The Road to Amistad, he had narrated five books and set his sights on becoming a Platinum Producer, which requires having published twenty-five.

When I first approached Michael, I had no idea his sixth audio book would be so remarkable. Michael brought each character to life with unique quirks, accents, softness, or gruffness, and consistently reproduced those characters chapter after chapter. In addition, he occasionally included unexpected sound effects that always brought a smile.

I’ve read The Road to Amistad countless times, but Michael’s wonderful narration made me laugh, cry, and beg for more. Because I know him personally, he allowed me to listen to each chapter as he finished it. I waited patiently at my computer each night for the next amazing installment, sometimes until well after midnight.

Thank you, Michael, for your incredible creativity, talent, and dedication to producing a quality audio book second to none. It has been an honor working with you and I wish you the best of luck on your journey to becoming a Platinum Producer.

To learn more about The Road to Amistad audio book and to listen to a sample, click here.

Is Time the Greatest Healer?

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As I dressed for work on the morning of June 2, 2016, my wife, Beth, informed me that she had awoken earlier with a severe migraine. A morning swim, breakfast, and medication failed to give relief, so she returned to bed to sleep it off. At 9:45 a.m., she telephoned me at work with news that she could barely move her right arm or open her right eye. I rushed home immediately.

As I drove her to the emergency room, I dreaded what awaited us. Our experiences with hospitals were often disheartening and in some cases appalling. By the time we arrived, paralysis had spread to her right leg and she could not walk without help. I wrapped my arm around her waist and together, we hobbled into the emergency room.

Accustomed to six-hour waits in emergency rooms, my discomfort diminished when I noticed a sign that said, “Skip the Wait.” An attendant pushing a wheelchair hurried in our direction. We moved aside assuming that she intended to aid someone else. She surprised us by stopping beside Beth, then lowered an arm on one side of the wheelchair and helped her into it. In no time, we were in a treatment room and no one had even asked for ID or proof of insurance. Apparently, they had figured out that in emergencies, people skip reading the forms and go right to signing at the X.

As specialists conducted neurological evaluations, CT scans, x-rays, EKGs and recorded vital signs, I could not help but marvel at how courteous, compassionate and informative everyone was. A screen saver on a nearby computer monitor gave a clue about why. Every twenty seconds a new slide touted the benefits of Humankindness. I noticed that the term was trademarked.

I wrote my first book, Detour from Normal, to expose the horrifying practices of some of the facilities who admitted me to during my ordeal and press for better patient treatment. A sizable portion of Part 4 implores medical and mental health professionals to make reforms and includes the following statements.

 “View each patient as your spouse, mother, father, or sibling and ask yourself what course of action you would take if that were the case.”

“If you really want to help patients, you have to interact with them on a personal level.”

“We are people just like you, and you can make such a difference in our lives by getting to know us and accepting us in our compromised state.”

“I especially hope that this information will lead to more effective treatment and compassionate care by medical and mental health professionals.”

Now, I was seeing my vision in action. Medical professionals bent over backwards to make sure that we weren’t afraid and understood all of our options, detailing the benefits and side effects of medications and giving us informed choices for Beth’s treatment plan. Throughout the day, the kind treatment continued. A chaplain even offered to contact our church and put in a prayer request.

While Beth underwent a contrast CT scan, I grabbed a hasty lunch at the café near the emergency room, appropriately named Café Kindness. While eating, I wondered if by chance some of the nearly 50,000 copies of Detour from Normal in circulation had made it to key administrators and sparked a revolution in hospital culture. Perhaps I really had made a difference in patient treatment after all.

In any case, the experience moved me to tears. It thrilled me for Beth’s sake that things had turned around, but I wished that it had been like this for me back in 2011 during my ordeal. It would have saved me years of piecing my life back together. On the other hand, perhaps my struggle and determination to write about it was necessary to open eyes and find a better way.

Whether that is true or not, I am optimistic that I each of us can have an impact. If you know any medical or mental health professionals, please recommend Detour from Normal to them and continue to spread the word. In a huge and growing number of Amazon reader reviews the message is clear: it should be required reading for all medical and mental health professionals.

Kudos to you, Chandler Regional Medical Center, for getting it right. I hope that you are but one of many institutions making sweeping changes for the benefit of patients, having found that in every situation from preemie to retiree, kindness is the greatest healer.

Although doctors never found a definitive cause of Beth’s stroke symptoms, the quick response, and expert and compassionate care by the emergency room, stroke, and telemetry units resulted in a rapid recovery. Beth returned home to our relieved family on June 4, 2016. Although she is not yet her energetic former self, I have no doubt that she soon will be.

 

Image courtesy of Laurarama, Flikr Commons

The Power of Dreams

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Dreams have tremendous impact on our lives. Have you ever had a dream that frightened or inspired you? Recently, a kidnapper took my youngest daughter at gun point into a Lifetime Fitness. I desperately wished to rescue her, but I was afraid that she’d be shot if I tried. I reached for my cell phone to call 9-1-1, but it wasn’t in my pocket. I located another phone, but had no idea where I was. Once I found the address, I tried dialing 9-1-1, but there was no dial tone. In a panic, I woke up. I was thankful that it was just a dream, but it tormented me for hours. Why do we dream such things? That thought led me to investigate dreams further and here is what I found…

She lived on a remote farm, owned a pet pig and hoarded books from her favorite author. She was his biggest fan and when she finally met him, she told him so: “I’m your number one fan!” She said bizarre things like “He didn’t get out of the cock-a-doody car!” Her name was Annie Wilkes from a book entitled “Misery,” by Steven King. I’ll never forget when the movie came out. There’s a scene in it where Annie hobbles Paul with a heavy sledge-hammer. It shocked me! I saw the movie a second time just to watch the audience’s reaction to that scene. I sat on the right side of the theater and as Annie raised the sledgehammer, I glanced over my left shoulder just in time to see the entire audience jump in unison as it struck home. After falling asleep in an airplane, Steven King dreamed of a fan kidnapping her favorite author and holding him hostage. When he reached his destination, he remained at the airport and wrote the first 50 pages of Misery.

While suffering from a high fever, James Cameron dreamed fitfully. In his dream, a gleaming figure of doom dragged its broken body from a fire using kitchen knives. It was a skeletal, metallic monster with a rictus smile and glowing, ember eyes. That dream led to the unforgettable character—the Terminator.

The year was 1892. Albert Einstein lay sleeping in his bed dreaming of sledding down a snow-covered mountain. As he accelerated, he soon approached the speed of light. At that moment he looked toward the sky. The appearance of the stars astonished him. He spent much of his career trying to understand that dream. Thirteen years later, it resulted in the theory of relativity.

Nikola Tesla was once an employee of Thomas Edison but left to follow his own ambitions. Years later, he found himself competing with Edison for the first major power project in the United States: the massive hydroelectric power plant at Niagra Falls. He won the contract and because of that, his invention, AC power, impacts our lives every day. Why did Tesla win that contract? What advantage did he have over Edison? Tesla was passionate about dreams. He taught himself how to dream lucidly, and used that ability to create a dream laboratory in which he experimented with his ideas while fully awake.

As I read about Misery, the Terminator, Einstein and Tesla, I wondered how dreams impacted my life. It amazed me to discover that almost every story, poem, or invention I’d ever conceived originated in a dream. Dreams play a big role in my novels Detour from Normal and The Road to Amistad. Each novel has several dream sequences based upon real dreams. In some cases, they foreshadowed events that I hadn’t even written about yet, and I didn’t realize that until I read the entire manuscripts for the first time.

My troubling dream about my daughter being kidnapped drove me to learn more about dreams. What I found is that whether they frighten or inspire us, it is difficult to deny the power of dreams.

(Image courtesy of Paul v2.0, Flikr Commons)

The Little Man and the Crowd of Miseries

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Once upon a time, a little man lived in a ramshackle cottage on a weed-choked lot not far from a castle. Every day, the little man opened his door to find a huge crowd waiting. As the door swung open, they all shouted “Huzzah!” Then, one by one, they shared their miseries with him.

The little man was very popular because he was a good listener. He also possessed a great talent for transforming suffering into anger and riling the crowd. Fueling their rage filled him with a sense of power and purpose, which he greatly enjoyed.

The crowd spent the day together roaming the countryside, complaining, swearing, and shouting, always with the little man at the lead. At the end of the day, however, the little man returned home exhausted.

When he looked back upon each day, he realized that they were all the same: nothing accomplished, nothing changed. Many days he felt too tired to fix himself dinner, or he drank himself to sleep and forgot about dinner entirely. His life depressed him, and surprisingly, he felt lonely. After many years of the same routine, his health began to fail leading to frequent headaches, illness, and fatigue.

One morning, the little man awoke with a realization: No one is holding a crossbow to my head or a broadsword to my throat forcing me to do this.

Rather than continue his downward spiral, he instead decided not to open the door. Every so often, he peered through wooden shutters at the crowd gathered outside. They gazed at the door expectantly, talked among themselves, and shrugged their shoulders in confusion.

“Where is he? Why won’t he come out?” After a time, they began to leave, and by noon, everyone was gone. The little man breathed a sigh of relief. Finally, I’m alone.

Slowly, he opened the door to the most beautiful day he could remember. He left his home and strolled through the nearby wood. Bumblebees droned and Peacock butterflies circled lazily in courtship over his head. Celandine, Primrose and Bluebells painted the earth in shades of gold, yellow, and blue at his feet and the repetitive ballad of a Song Thrush whispered in his ears.

He followed a meandering path until it ended near a breathtaking waterfall. A beautiful little woman sat at water’s edge admiring the splendor. The snap of a twig underfoot caused her to turn in his direction. Upon seeing him, she smiled invitingly. Immediately smitten by her charm and good looks, he joined her in reverie.

The little man married the little woman, and they moved into the cottage together. Lush grass and pristine gardens replaced weeds and perfectly groomed thatch sealed the leaking roof. The cottage became one of the loveliest in the kingdom. People came from all around to see it, but most days, the little man and woman were not there—they were busy exploring all the wonders that the world had to offer.

*** We are victims of life not by design, but by choice ***

Image by Ron Adams, Flikr Commons

Together or Alone?

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This morning, I pondered the differences between my two novels: Detour from Normal and The Road to Amistad. Joined at the hip in many regards, these novels are nonetheless as different as night and day in a certain respect: one is about being alone and the other is about being together.

In Detour from Normal, I was thrust from normalcy into a life of cold, heartless professionals and the tragically mentally ill. A normal person in my place would feel frightened and alone, and many of the experiences I described are from a solitary perspective. Instead of feeling terrified, I felt at peace, and at times, blissful. A mysterious process had freed me from judgment, expectations, worry and fear.

That mindset allowed me to befriend people who were toothless, foul-smelling, crippled, rude or unable to communicate—people I would never associate with before. My best friend was a drug addict recovering from his eighth relapse who had lost his job, savings, car, home, wife and family because of addiction. Through different eyes, I found these people funny and interesting, and for those among them who felt frightened and alone, I became their guardian angel. It was an immensely freeing experience and I could not help but imagine what the world would be like if everyone could live life as I did then.

The Road to Amistad explores just such a scenario. People from all walks of life were spontaneously freed from their mental prisons and introduced to my world overnight. Unfortunately, their changed mindset more often than not led to heartache as family and friends demanded the return of their absconded loved ones.

A few managed to avoid that struggle and find a unity of spirit with others like themselves. Friendship and trust thrived regardless of former walls that separated them. They were magnets to each other, formed strong friendships and accomplished great feats together. None among them ever felt separate or alone.

Nowadays, it is difficult for me to tread the line between alone and together. I have a wife, children, friends and a full-time job. There are many rules and walls that impede me and I have limited time and resources.  It would be easier to abandon my vision and rejoin my former world, but I don’t want to close doors—I want to open them. I don’t want to be alone—I want to be together. I want to be part of something big.

I hope that you will read both Detour from Normal and The Road to Amistad and open your mind to possibilities that are ours for the taking. If my message rings true, press the button; twist the throttle; swing; jump; do whatever it takes to begin your own journey, and as you go forth, spread the word so that you may do it together instead of alone.

Resilience

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What is Resilience? According to the Merriam Webster Dictionary, it is an ability to recover from, or adjust easily to misfortune or change. Resilience can result from severe trauma, like a switch flipping in a person’s mind—a kind of wakeup call that closes a door to their immediate suffering, often opening a new one to latent passions.

That is what happened to me following surgery, adverse reactions to medications and resulting temporary mental illness. Within months, I embarked on a writing career and published my first book, Detour from Normal, just over a year later.

I asked doctors, psychologists, psychiatrists and counselors about my experience and was met with blank stares. The best they could offer was a pill to numb my mind and make me forget. Family and friends were no better—they either longed for the day I would fully recover, made fun of me behind my back, or shunned me.

I could have let that hurt my feelings or taken an easier route and pretended to be the old me. Instead, I chose a new path, convincing others even more of my continued lunacy. I desperately needed to understand why I changed so much.

At first, there seemed no answers. Eventually, however, I painstakingly assembled the pieces to the puzzle, one that perhaps only I could solve. Along the way, I discovered that few people in the world understood resilience, a fact that left me feeling isolated and alone.

As time passed and my desire to share my knowledge grew, I decided to write another book. I knew from my experiences that readers would likely be skeptical, so I hatched a brilliant plan: I’d divulge everything I’d learned in the form of an entertaining story, a kind of parable. If readers thought it crazy, I would tell them “It’s just a story.” Who knows, a crazy story might prove more popular than a sane one. On the other hand, suppose that my words changed lives and others became resilient without having to suffer trauma? It seemed a win-win proposition. I began writing.

More than anything, I wanted to live and breathe my story–experience what my characters did first-hand. Over the ensuing years, I traveled from the desolate to the exotic through Arizona, New Mexico, Utah and Idaho. I hiked down dusty desert roads; four wheeled through rugged wilderness, and gazed upon some of the most beautiful scenery in America. I even joined Toastmaster’s for a year to overcome a fear of public speaking, following the path of my protagonist. Frequently, I carried a notebook. On one road-trip, I pulled to the side of the road repeatedly to record notes–sixteen pages in all.

Although I aspired to be a great writer, I paled in comparison to any number of famous authors. Seeking tutelage, I found a local English teacher. Over the next year, we painstakingly dismantled two years of work and created a new story unlike any other—a story of a formerly mentally ill man’s quest to make sense of his new life; of finding others like himself; of his burning desire to share his gift with the world to end suffering and open doors to endless opportunity; a story that I believe is our destiny.

Thus was born my second book: The Road to Amistad. Soon, I will proudly present it to the world. I hope that you will join me then on an incredible journey into the unknown and test your own convictions about your mind.

UPDATE: The Road to Amistad was published on February 19th, 2016.

The View from Utopia

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In 2011 as I suffered from medically induced mental illness, I dreamed of a place I came to call Utopia. At the time, Utopia became very important to me, so important that I felt the place must really exist. For years after my recovery, I searched for it to no avail. Imagine my surprise when, by accident while on a family vacation in the summer of 2013, a real estate brochure gave me a crucial clue.

Recently, I flew from Phoenix, Arizona almost to Canada to see a view I’d only ever seen in a dream over four years ago. I wasn’t exactly sure of the exact spot so, based on studies of Google Earth, I planned on visiting several. To my surprise, it ended up being the first location that I chose. As I stood looking out over this view, it moved me to tears. I couldn’t believe that the place I dreamed of was in fact real.

Dreams play an important role in my life. My first book, Detour from Normal, has several real dream sequences and my next book has an equal number, all based on real dreams.

If you’ve read Detour from Normal, I hope that you will appreciate this view as much as I do. Had I arrived sooner, it would have included the snow on the mountaintops and ski runs that I describe in Detour from Normal. As a bonus, I also spent the night in the ski resort at the base of those ski runs.

I’d tell you where this place is, but I’d rather you learn more about it from my next book: The Road to Amistad, which is nearing completion and is targeted to be published in late 2015. It is a fictional memoir sequel to Detour from Normal written in the same style. I hope that you will once again join me and allow me to take you to places that you never imagined.

Kissed by a Hobo

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I stopped to pump gas at a Circle K in Tucson a while back and as I pulled up to the pump, I noticed a homeless man pushing a cart full of his meager possessions toward me. Hoping to discourage him, I left my door open blocking his way as I entered my credit card information at the pump. I didn’t want to say no to this man, but that’s what I normally do in such situations, not because I am uncaring, I just didn’t what to support a drunken lifestyle, believing that by withholding my generosity, I will somehow change his life for the better. Not to be deterred, the man made his way around the pump and caught me just as I reached for the nozzle.

“Excuse me, but could you spare eleven cents?” I scoffed at his request. Who would beg for eleven cents? “I’m eleven cents short to buy a boodie.”

“A  footy? “ I asked, clueless of what he was talking about.

“No, a boodie.”

“A booty?”

“No, you know, a boodie.” He repeated louder in frustration. “One of those big beers.”

“Oh.” I said, unable to make the logical connection. I reached into my pocket and pulled out what little change I had. “Looks like I only have two cents. Tell you what…” I paused, realizing I had no idea what was in my wallet. I pulled it out and opened it to reveal a five and a one dollar bill. I reached for the one and pulled it out. “I’ll give you a dollar.”

Before I knew it, the man wrapped me in a powerful bear hug. He was so happy that you’d think I’d offered him a million dollars. “You are so kind.” He said, hugging me even harder. Despite my reservations over hugging a hobo, I returned the hug equally strongly, laughing at the absurdity of the scene. Then, he did something really over the top: he kissed my head.

A dollar means nothing to me. I make that much in minutes at my job. I probably have a hundred dollars in change sitting in my piggy bank at home from emptying my pockets every day just so that I don’t have to lug it around the next day. It accumulates like dirty laundry until there is enough to warrant me bothering with it.

Eventually, the man stopped hugging me and with tears in his eyes, thanked me once again before continuing on his journey, clutching his dollar close to his heart. I proceeded to pump over fifty dollars of gas into my van in roughly the same time as our total interaction. I replaced the nozzle, screwed the gas cap on, and headed to spend another thirty dollars on pizza with my wife and children.

Surprisingly, that hobo’s hug and kiss made my day. I wished I’d given him the five instead, or even both bills. After he left, I realized that this is his life. I wasn’t going to change it one way or another with money, but maybe I could make a difference by treating him like a human being for a moment, by sticking around and listening to his stories. I can only imagine the places he’s been and the things that he’s seen. Perhaps talking with him would make a bigger difference in my life than his.

I’m crying as I write this thinking of the unfairness of it all. That hobo is equally the miracle that I am, blessed with the same extraordinary machine and unlimited capacity to thrive and succeed at anything he wishes. The only thing that makes us different are the beliefs and thoughts that fill our minds and the choices we make because of those thoughts. We are all capable of so much if only we knew how to get out of our own way.

Image courtesy of Vit Hassan, Flikr Commons

Perspectives

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If you spend all of your life in a valley, you cannot imagine the view from a mountaintop. If you climb to the mountaintop, you will learn that yours is not the only valley.

~ Ken Dickson

Image courtesy of http://pillionpapers.blogspot.com

A Life Well Lived

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My Dad died on January 11, 2015, but this is not a lamenting of his death, it is a celebration of his life: a life well lived.

“What is a life well lived?” You may ask.

It is serving your country. Dad received full military honors at his funeral including a 21-gun salute in respect for his military sacrifice.

It is recovering from failures and turning them into successes. Dad flunked out of college, then went back years later to that same college, Johns Hopkins, and received a BSEE, an MSEE, and a PhD.

It is taking what life throws at you in stride and running with it. Dad raised four boys, only one of whom he planned. Each of us presented our own unique challenges but he accepted all of us with love.

It is creating a bucket list and checking off every box. Dad petted whales in the Sea of Cortez, photographed unusual wildlife in the Galápagos Islands, explored China, and Europe, swam with fish in the Caribbean, and watched glaciers calve in Alaska.

It is throwing caution to the wind and starting something new. Dad moved several times during his career, living in the East, Midwest, West, and a few places in between. In his fifties, he left a secure job with IBM and consumed all of his retirement nest egg to found one company, and then another. By doing so, he enjoyed success beyond his wildest dreams.

It is sharing your good fortune. Dad donated religiously. He adopted a platoon. He created a scholarship fund for young people struggling, as he did, to go to college. He purchased school computers and equipment. He donated to the medical facility that restored his hearing with a cochlear implant. He put several children and grandchildren through college and helped a son and a daughter-in-law run for public office. He shored up fledgling family businesses and helped to buy first homes. He took many family members on trips to locations that they would never be able to afford themselves.

It is using your mind to its fullest. Dad held 88 patents. His ideas changed the world in the form of super market and industrial bar code scanners. The largest observatories in the world use his inventions to analyze the light from stars. Dad read voraciously and contracted as an engineer almost until he died, not because he needed to, but because he loved it.

It is having passion. Dad produced countless photographs of impeccable quality using the best photographic equipment available and his own darkroom. He possessed infinite patience when it came to capturing the “perfect shot,” whether it be at the top of a mountain or at the bottom of the ocean. He could hold his breath for four minutes thirty feet underwater while tracking a Queen Triggerfish or a Barracuda with his underwater camera.

It is taking care of your machine. Dad lifted weights, swam, ran, hiked, and walked his entire life. He ate healthily, maintained a good weight and never drank, smoked or used drugs. He was the picture of health and vitality and had better endurance than almost any other family member had.

It is always being optimistic, having a sense of humor, and looking at the bright side of life. In Dad’s last days of life, he could no longer fend for himself. My brother Dana helped him stand and get around. He was impressed at how solid Dad’s body was, even in its failing state and knew that came from years of exercise. He mentioned that to Dad. He grinned and flexed his muscles one last time, mocking death. My brother did not know whether to laugh or cry at his indomitable spirit.

It is about family. Our family gets along better than most, but it has its share of drama. Despite this, Dad insisted that we get together every year—nearly thirty of us. I cannot remember when that started, but it continued for many years through the last year of his life. Knowing that his time was short, we honored him and my mother last summer at the family reunion. Every evening, we held a question and answer session and listened to my parents tell stories about all of our lives. It was the last reunion he would lead.

It is saying goodbye. Whenever I visited Dad, he always stood outside and waved as we left. And he did not just wave, he continued to wave until he could no longer see us. Although my Dad’s health failed quickly at the end, and he could barely see or talk, instead of complaining or feeling sorry for himself, he used that time to make audio recordings for his sons, wife and extended family to let us all know how much we meant to him. It took every ounce of willpower he had left to do that, but he made sure the job was finished.

I will miss you, Dad, but I am more inspired by how you lived your life than I am sad about your death. You showed me what a life well lived is. Now, it is up to me to follow your example.

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