Browsing posts in: Inspirational Mentors

Aloha, Aloha.

This photo always cracks me up.

This photo always cracks me up.

Aloha passed away today.

Her health had been declining for the past 3 months so this was not a huge surprise. While I tried to prepare myself, it’s still tremendously hard to lose your best friend.

I didn’t think it would be this quiet.

(Those of you that met her know how silent of a dog she was; Outside of her deteriorating days making moans from pain, she maybe barked less than 10 times the 8 years I had her.)

I didn’t realized how intertwined she was with everything I do, and especially lately, how much time I spent worrying and watching her.

I hear busses passing on the street and they sometimes make a faint low whine, and I think that it might be her, starting quiet surges of moans when her pain medication would start to wear off these past couple weeks. But it’s not.

I keep telling myself she’s in a better place now. I still miss my friend though.


Her Story

Aloha at the track with her race muzzle on.

Aloha at the track with her race muzzle on.

She raced in West Memphis under the name, “Lotta Heart.”

A missing toe is usually a career ending injury but it didn’t stop her. I was told from the rescue group that she had one of her front toes accidentally cut off as a pup, when her breeder was attempting to remove her dew claws to prepare her to race (so they don’t get caught and cause an injury) and accidentally took off a toe. Losing a toe before even racing though is usually a race career-ender.

She was also fairly small for a greyhound.

She wasn’t particularly aggressive (which usually indicates a fast racer).

She was an huge underdog on the track, but she had a lotta heart and still won.

She finished 76 career races over a year with 12 first places. All the way up to AA class (the fastest class) before she eventually retired and I adopted her.

(Background: In greyhound racing, many dogs don’t even race, the few best get in the triple digits of completed races and then retire for breeding. All dogs have to retire by the age of 5 and most don’t race until they’re around 2. If they don’t win, they don’t continue racing. Fortunately now there’s networks of rescue groups that help find homes for the thousands of dogs that have more than half of their lives ahead of them; 20-30 years ago the dogs were just killed when they stopped being of use to the racers. They make amazing dogs, if you’d like to talk about them, please let me know.)

Her breeder-race owner knew her as, “Ebony,” and he asked the rescue group about her frequently because of her kind and goofy nature, which is kind of odd considering most breeders have dozens upon dozens of dogs in a year. They don’t usually grow attached. He also made her a lot of money, by being such a long shot on the track and winning.

After she retired, taking her to dog parks you could see how she wasn’t particularly aggressive or competitive, she just loved to run in a pack and be around other animals.

When I was in St. Louis and used to travel frequently for conference speaking engagements and to train newsrooms, one of the greyhound rescue group members was my go-to dog sitter. They had a huge fawn male greyhound named Wally with a large suburban backyard for the dogs to run. Wally dwarfed Aloha in size and at least 30 pounds, but when they’d play in the backyard chasing a soccer ball, Aloha would always beat Wally to the ball, but wait patiently for him to get the ball and take it.

She was very beta, and just loved being part of the pack, but when she needed it she had a lot of speed and a lot of heart.


Aloha Life

When I was looking to adopt a greyhound in St. Louis, I was having a hard time trying to know who was the right dog; I met at least a dozen fosters before her, but as soon as I met her, it was clear she was the one.

She didn’t respond to her race name, Lotta Heart, since her breeder/owner called her Ebony and it seemed too literal of a name for me. So I debated what to name her and eventually landed on Aloha because of her personality and vibe.

Just saying the word, Aloha, has a meditative feel.  Like how being around her calm, peaceful and warm presence was a zen-like state.

Aloha getting her nails done.

Getting her nails done in New York.

Her presence over the past 8 years of my life has helped me through many challenging times filled with a lot of transition and challenges, professionally and personally.

She was always patient, kind and welcoming of new people and experiences. From many, many road trips visiting friends across the country to getting her nails painted by a gaggle of giggly girls she just met that weekend. She always made instant best friends. Her coat was remarkably soft, her body radiated heat and she enjoyed quietly cuddling up on couches and silently sidling up to strangers at parties to make new friends.

Several people had jokingly threatened to kidnap her over the years, and I think at least two were potentially serious about it.

Being around her was inspirational because she was many traits that I hoped and aspired to be: friendly, goofy, cuddly, warm, excitable but also relaxed, patient, stoic, mellow, and always loving everyone unconditionally.

Trying to be the person my dog thinks I am.

Trying to be the person my dog thinks I am.

Besides the memories of our time together, these traits are one of the most valuable things I’ve tried and will continue to try and incorporate them into myself.

I also always tried to focus on “being the person my dog thinks I am” as a code of conduct. They love you unconditionally and think you the greatest, most magical and good person ever.

Aloha love letter from one of the toe-nail-painters above. ("BFD" is "Best Friend Dog.")

A love love letter to Aloha from one of the toe-nail-painters above. (“BFD” is “Best Friend Dog.”)

In Hawaiian, Aloha means hello, goodbye and love. Aloha is a way of life.

Since I first said hello, I knew I would always be charmed her goofy and loving nature. I loved her peaceful aura and zen buddha vibe. I admired her stoic nature through adversity and uncertainty, and I admired her unconditional love she held for so many people. I will always carry these memories with me, continuing to try and be a better person, continuing to live the Aloha life, even though this is goodbye for now.

TL;DR: Inspirational Lessons from Aloha:

  1. Be kind.
  2. Hustle hard.
  3. Bark little, cuddle more, unconditionally.
  4. Always believe in and support the underdog.
  5. Don’t let people’s perception of a physical characteristic define you and your success.
  6. Enjoy the limited time you have with each other.
  7. Live the Aloha life.

Say “Yes.” How my mom inspired and changed my life.

This is a photo from my mom's surprise "Bon Voyage" retirement party we threw in 2012. (Please excuse her casual outfit, her friend that brought her to the surprise told her they were going to the greenhouse so she's wearing her work-in-the-yard clothes. There is no excuse for my brother's outfit though.)

This is a photo from my mom’s surprise “Bon Voyage” retirement party we threw in 2012. (Please excuse her casual outfit, her friend that brought her to the surprise told her they were going to the greenhouse so she’s wearing her work-in-the-yard clothes. There is no excuse for my brother’s outfit though.)

One of the people to make the largest impact and influence on my life has been my mother and her focus on always saying, “Yes.”

This may sound like a small or simple thing, but it’s made an exponential impact in my life. It’s really easy for people to say “no,” or be negative and put up barriers in their heads, make up excuses on why they can’t do things, but her focus and indomitable spirit has made me who I am and often opened me up to new adventures and opportunities that my peers passed over.

There’s so many reasons she has been an inspiration to me, but I keep coming back to this key value she instilled in me, along with all the tertiary values of sacrifice, focus, indomitable spirit and hard work that help make saying, “yes,” a possibility.

Her focus on frugality (almost to ridiculous levels) and living well below your means allows you to save and prepare for saying “yes” when the right opportunity presents itself. She raised me to appreciate people and our time with them, not material goods or fancy clothes.

She always said yes to doing things herself, from DIY projects to always taking great care cleaning/maintaining/fixing the things that you do have around things around the house, to gardening and enjoying nature’s bounty, to almost always cooking at home and only going out to eat on special occasions (which is a polar opposite to how most people live in DC, and it still feels weird to me). Even when I go home now, she puts up a fight when I want to take her out to eat. …maybe that’s swinging too far in the other direction, but it’s this mindfulness with her money that has made her financially secure on a public school teacher’s salary. She did her best to learn early about the stock market and how to make your money work for you, by founding an investment club with other teachers, and she passed these skills on to me.

Even when she didn’t want to say yes, she stepped up and did her best at whatever she tried. She didn’t set out to be a teacher, she originally wanted to be an entomologist but back in her day there wasn’t many opportunities for women to do much besides teachers or nurses, especially in the sciences. So she buckled down and became the best teacher she could be, with many awards, degrees and generations of glowing and thankful students. In doing so, she taught me to be the best at whatever you do no matter what it is. Similarly, one of my photographer mentors in Chicago, John H. White always relayed this story from his father:

When John H. White was nine years old, a teacher told him that he would grow up to work on a garbage truck because he was slow in math. At home, his father told him to grow up to be his best, to look for the best in others, and if he were to work on a garbage truck, fine—just be sure he’s the driver. White has said that this was a turning point in his life.

Her focus on public and community service and giving back through your life’s work, spending more than 40 years teaching generations of children also had a huge impact on me as I’ve worked through journalism helping the public good and now in government service. She has been a giving tree her whole life and gave that trait to me.

She also inspired me in saying “yes” to embrace travel as much and as frequently as possible and to seek out interesting and diverse people and events to learn about. In high school, I had a crazy eclectic group of friends from preppy jocks to metalheads to rustbelt gear heads to computer nerds to poets and artists, and looking back on it, I think part of that was founded by her always fostering me to embrace all sorts of different people, places and things to explore the world and understand more.

She seeded in me the intensity and indomitable spirit to say yes and chase my dreams and make them a reality. She also sewed a frank and sometimes cynical/realistic (depending on your perspective) view of the world, but always looking to find the best in people and life.

While she’s a bit more of an extrovert and social butterfly, people often say that we share the same laugh — loud, jovial and infectious; you can always pick us out in a room. I’m proud to carry her likeness, legacy and hope to instill the “say yes” values into the people in my life.

The Iron and The Soul

Henry Rollins The Iron and the Soul

Henry Rollins was one of my life’s biggest inspirations and passive mentors, especially in my late teens and early 20s after I lost my father. From his music, to spoken word, to books and other writing, Rollins made a humongous impact on my character and life (more on this later).

While doing some summer cleaning of my Pocket (formerly known as Read It Later) archive, I found a reminder of one of Rollins’ most popular pieces of mainstream writing from Details magazine back in the 90s about growing up, self esteem, discipline, physical fitness and life, entitled, “The Iron and The Soul.” This piece doesn’t appear to exist on Details anymore (the media is the worst when it comes to digital archives… more on this later too.) but it has become a legend among many — photo copied, cloned, reposted all over blogs, message boards and gyms around the world because of it’s impact, especially on developing minds and bodies. Here’s a passage:

It took me years to fully appreciate the value of the lessons I have learned from the Iron. I used to think that it was my adversary, that I was trying to lift that which does not want to be lifted. I was wrong. When the Iron doesn’t want to come off the mat, it’s the kindest thing it can do for you. If it flew up and went through the ceiling, it wouldn’t teach you anything. That’s the way the Iron talks to you. It tells you that the material you work with is that which you will come to resemble. That which you work against will always work against you.

It wasn’t until my late twenties that I learned that by working out I had given myself a great gift. I learned that nothing good comes without work and a certain amount of pain. When I finish a set that leaves me shaking, I know more about myself. When something gets bad, I know it can’t be as bad as that workout.

I used to fight the pain, but recently this became clear to me: pain is not my enemy; it is my call to greatness. But when dealing with the Iron, one must be careful to interpret the pain correctly. Most injuries involving the Iron come from ego. I once spent a few weeks lifting weight that my body wasn’t ready for and spent a few months not picking up anything heavier than a fork. Try to lift what you’re not prepared to and the Iron will teach you a little lesson in restraint and self-control.

I have never met a truly strong person who didn’t have self-respect. I think a lot of inwardly and outwardly directed contempt passes itself off as self-respect: the idea of raising yourself by stepping on someone’s shoulders instead of doing it yourself. When I see guys working out for cosmetic reasons, I see vanity exposing them in the worst way, as cartoon characters, billboards for imbalance and insecurity. Strength reveals itself through character. It is the difference between bouncers who get off strong-arming people and Mr. Pepperman.

Read the whole thing including the backstory on Mr. Pepperman.


Inspirational mentors: Nikola Tesla

Tesla in his lab

Happy Birthday, Nikola Tesla!

Seeing as Friday is his 159th birthday and this was on my list of entries to write about “Inspirational Mentors” in my life, I decided who better to kick it off with. (This series of posts will highlight people who have had huge influences on my life and what I learned from them. I use the term ‘mentor’ loosely here, because obviously I couldn’t have had a close mentor relationship with him, but I’ve read several books including his and watched documentaries and just about everything I can find on the internet about him.)

Tesla is probably one of the most brilliant, but unacknowledged scientists and inventors of our age (and not like Apple patenting a rectangle with rounded corners — I’m talking real, unique patents and inventions). Besides his creations, he was also a prolific writer and had some genius philosophies (check out this list of some of his best quotes/thoughts). It wasn’t until the past few years that his contributions to the world have been really elevated with The Oatmeal’s “The Greatest Geek Who Ever Lived” information campaign and museum erection and Tesla Motors (using many technologies he invented). Here are the core reasons I really admire and what I’ve learned from Tesla:

#1 – His amazing story reminds me of the miracle that is our live in modern society: One exceptional, focused, humble and hard working person can truly change the world and make it a better place.

#2 – If you want to make exponential change in the world on many levels, you can’t own/exploit/ride every single idea you create. Sometimes you have to birth them and see if they take flight. Sometimes you have to give the ideas to others to let them own them. Many modern inventors or non-workaholic people in Tesla’s shoes would have likely take one of his brilliant inventions and just rode the profits out of it, but he was so focused on creating he didn’t have time for that (and ended up getting exploited by Thomas Edison because of it).

#3 – Nikola lived the #AlwaysBeShipping work life. Hustlers are the best.

Nikola Tesla

#4 – The importance of having some nerd swagger. While nerdiness is becoming en vogue in pop culture right now, it wasn’t always and probably won’t always. He was evidently kind of a ladies man in the NY scene when we came to America. Being a nerd doesn’t mean you have to be a diminutive or socially awkward person. Own your nerdiness and live the dream.

Learn more about Tesla’s live and impact on the world: