One Fine Burger

By Mark E. Smith

It’s a simple, quiet place. The confusion and struggle of a younger man are long gone. It’s reminiscent of when I look out through the pane windows of our farmhouse on a wintry Sunday morning. There’s something gentle and still about it all – winter and life.

It’s another Friday night and my wife and I are the early crowd at a local restaurant. It’s the kind of restaurant where some go for special occasions; others are regulars, older folks who have dinner there several nights per week. We’re neither. It’s close to home, and despite its higher-end menu, I prefer to sit at the vintage mahogany bar and get a basket of bread, one fine burger, and just be, with my wife. There’s no complexity to it. It’s all comforting – my wife, the food, the atmosphere.

The owner-chef and I have an understanding. We’re acquainted just enough to be on a personal basis. He’ll sit with us and chat. We’ve been open to the degree that we both have shared that we come from families on the other side of the tracks, as he’s politely put it. When you come from that type of family and get to a point in adulthood where you’re no longer running, no longer hiding, no longer out to prove yourself, and you don’t need to worry about being able to pay the utility bill each month, life becomes easy, almost effortless – at least emotionally. So, what’s the key to moving beyond it all, where you’re no longer running, hiding, or proving, but just being, finally at ease?

I’ve come to understand that there are two sides to living with a difficult past: sometimes we hold on to the past and sometimes it holds on to us. Some of us, with struggle, get to a point where we can, for the most part, let go of our pasts. For me, time has equaled distance in that process. The more that time passed, the less my past affected me. Sometimes we can move beyond all in a literal sense by simply moving our lives forward. Education leads to career, which leads to financial security, just as finding love leads to understanding love, and at some point we transcend from what we knew into what we know, all for the better. That’s the key to the best of my understanding of how to change one’s life and leave the past in the past – we realize that we can work to move beyond what we’ve known, into a life of different possibilities, potentials, and outcomes. It’s not easy, but the time-distance equation makes it possible.

On the other hand, when our past has a hold of us, it’s a harrowing plight, as well. We live in a culture that propagates the belief that anyone can “pull oneself up by one’s bootstraps.” It’s not just physically impossible – try pulling on your shoes to lift yourself off of the ground! – but it’s also emotionally impossible when one’s past has its grip. We can’t expect anyone to just get over it and move forward. Trauma is far more complex to heal from.

We know that the healing process is subjective. Of course, the severity of the trauma plays a role, as does one’s psychological and physical health. Where the subject gets tricky is when, say, siblings grow up in the same dysfunctional family and one is able to move beyond the trauma while another continues in its grip. Similarly, in my world, I often see individuals of the same severe injury or illness, but some cope in positive ways while others struggle in a negative space. Therefore, it’s difficult to say who escapes the grip of trauma.

Regardless, it’s vital to have empathy and utmost respect for both plights. After all, both plights involve just as much struggle. We can’t look at someone who’s moved beyond his or her past and say, You’re lucky, because we know the phenomenal amount of work it took. Similarly, we can’t look at someone who’s struggling in the grips of his or her past and say, You’re just not trying hard enough, because we know that’s not how the process works. Again, one only knows what one knows until one knows differently – and there’s no single or direct or surefire route to getting to that point. If you swam across a channel of water, knowing how tough it was to cross, you can’t look at those still in the middle, struggling, with anything but empathy and respect.

My wife and I try to remember if I ordered my burger medium-rare or medium-well? I don’t recall. I simply know that, regardless of how they’re cooked, such burgers taste better than ever these days.

Lou Gehrig’s Disease

By Mark E. Smith

While writing a medical article about amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), I was intrigued by the story of Lou Gehrig. Although “Lou Gehrig’s disease” is a synonym for ALS, little is discussed in literature in a linear form about how the most famous person with ALS actually dealt with the condition. In extracting parts of Gehrig’s experience from many sources, bit by bit, I saw an amazing story unfold, one with a profound lesson for many of us.

In 1923, Lou Gehrig joined the New York Yankees, soon taking his spot as first baseman. By the 1930s, he set an all-time record, playing in 2,130 consecutive games, a record unbroken by another player until 1995. In the 1930s, Gehrig, alongside longtime teammate, Babe Ruth, became a homerun champion, as well. However, in 1938 everything changed for the baseball legend.

In the 1938 season, Gehrig had his first seasonal slump. Based on the 1937 season, he was still going strong, even in his mid-30s, but his performance was suddenly amiss. What’s more, Gehrig felt it was more than just an unlucky season. He struggled not only on the field, but with tasks as simple as tying his shoes.

By April of 1939, during spring training, even the press became concerned. Sports journalist, James Kahn, wrote:

I think there is something wrong with [Gehrig]. Physically wrong, I mean. I don’t know what it is, but I am satisfied that it goes far beyond his ball-playing. I have seen ballplayers ‘go’ overnight, as Gehrig seems to have done. But they were simply washed up as ballplayers. It’s something deeper than that in this case, though. I have watched him very closely and this is what I have seen: I have seen him time a ball perfectly, swing on it as hard as he can, meet it squarely—and drive a soft, looping fly over the infield. In other words, for some reason that I do not know, his old power isn’t there… He is meeting the ball, time after time, and it isn’t going anywhere.

On May 2, 1939, Gehrig ended his consecutive-games record by pulling himself from the lineup. Six weeks later, on June 13, he checked into the Mayo Clinic, where he was diagnosed in the following days with ALS, a degenerative muscle disease, fatal within two to five years. He was 36.

Although contrary to the actual diagnosis given, Gehrig’s initial reaction was expressed in a letter to his wife: “There is a 50–50 chance of keeping me as I am. I may need a cane in 10 or 15 years. Playing is out of the question.”

On July 4, 1939, with the news of Gehrig’s illness filling newspapers, he returned to Yankee Stadium to retire, giving his “luckiest man alive” speech. There’s little record of the speech, but the following pieced-together excerpt shows Gehrig’s disposition:

For the past two weeks you’ve been reading about a bad break. Today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth…. When you look around, wouldn’t you consider it a privilege to associate yourself with such fine-looking men as are standing in uniform in this ballpark today? …I might have been given a bad break, but I’ve got an awful lot to live for. Thank you.

One might think that upon retirement from baseball, with such a grim health prognosis, Gehrig would have settled into a quiet life. However, in keeping with his show-up-and-play nature, he took a civics job as a New York Parole Commissioner in January, 1940, maintaining a very low profile as he worked with prison inmates, where he believed in rehabilitation.

By 1941, while Gehrig worked as a Parole Commissioner, his condition dramatically declined. His wife, Eleanor, was his constant companion, helping him perform his duties. In May of 1941, Gehrig resigned his position due to ever-deteriorating health.

On June 2, 1941, Lou Gehrig died of ALS at 10:10 p.m., at his home in the Bronx.

While many remember Gehrig for his Hall of Fame baseball accomplishments, his ultimate legacy may be a single quote that he left us with that applies so well to all facing such harrowing adversity: “Don’t think I am depressed or pessimistic about my condition at present. …I intend to hold on as long as possible and then if the inevitable comes, I will accept it philosophically and hope for the best. That’s all we can do.”

Complaining About Complaining

By Mark E. Smith

Complaining is an interesting subject to address because it’s sort of complaining about… well… complaining. However, before you deem this writing as the ultimate hypocrisy, keep reading!

Indeed, we live in a culture of complainers. Everyone seems to complain about everything. For example, is there any type of weather that people like? I know a television weatherman and he once told me it’s a completely thankless job because no matter the weather, his email and voicemail are filled with complaints. We see this in our own lives, too – can’t people just accept that the weather is what it is, rather than complaining about it, that which no one can control?

Of course, people incessantly complain about everything from their jobs to the lives of celebrities. If complaining wasn’t so toxic, it would be amusing to witness at times. However, that’s precisely what many don’t understand – complaining takes a toll on our lives. So, why do we complain so much and what’s its true impact on us?

By definition, we complain to “express dissatisfaction.” Yet, there’s a legitimacy scale to it. We all may rightfully complain when we receive poor service by an establishment. On the other hand, complaining about, say, the weather is a futile expression that truly has no point. You can’t change the weather, so there’s no reason to complain about it.

Interestingly, research shows that chronic complainers are individuals who feel powerless in their overall lives. You might have previously thought that chronic complainers were egomaniacs or know-it-all critics; but, in fact, the opposite is true. Chronic complainers typically use complaining as a way to mask feeling inadequate. For example, people who are envious of others most often use complaining about them as a coping device – albeit, a self-destructive one. The school board members are idiots. I could do a much better job….

The reality of complainers feeling a deep sense of powerlessness makes sense because those who feel a sense of control in life strive to resolve issues rather than simply complain about them. Those who do, do. Those who don’t, complain.

Complaining can also serve as a way to shun responsibility. I know someone who’s complained about his job for 15 years, constantly disparaging the company and complaining about never getting promoted. Someone of action would either pick up the pace of his performance or would find another job. Complaining conveniently shifts responsibility elsewhere, pointing a finger away from ourselves.

It’s the shift away from personal accountability that makes complaining so toxic in our lives. Look what happens when we question a complainer:

If I was in charge, this would never happen!

Ok, but why aren’t you in charge?

The complainer ends up in a bind quickly because a lack of responsibility and accountability is exposed.

With that said, it’s most often pointless to confront a chronic complainer. Again, they are individuals who shun responsibility and accountability. However, we can change ourselves. Let us begin by noting how much we, ourselves, complain – you might be surprised by how often you’re engaging in it once you’re monitoring your own behavior.

Next, let us focus on less complaining and more doing – that’s a surefire way to actually resolve dissatisfaction and mobilize our lives toward the positive.

Of course, the biggest trap of complaining is that we rob ourselves of joy. Complaining is rooted in bitterness and resentment – read that, misery –whereas the surest path to happiness is gratitude.

Therefore, let us see not the negatives in life, but empower ourselves and those around us by focusing on the positives.

Maya Angelou put it best: “What you’re supposed to do when you don’t like a thing is change it. If you can’t change it, change the way you think about it. Don’t complain.”

Lighting Fires

By Mark E. Smith

Our 20-year-old is home for the weekend from college, work, and her own apartment in another state.

She and I are arranging logs in the fireplace. They’re not real logs, but ceramic ones.

“There’s a science to this,” I tell her, as she sits on her knees in front of our 19th-century fieldstone fireplace, first log in hand. “How the logs are positioned dictates gas flow, flame characteristics and heat efficiency.”

For almost 200 years, the fireplace in our farmhouse burned wood, but has been converted to a more-practical, modern gas set up. I push a button and it ignites. Not unlike what might happen with real wood, the ceramic logs fell out of place over the summer and now must be reset. My wife wanted to reset them weeks ago, with the fall chill, then the first dusting of snow. But, I asked to await the help of our daughter.

At her age, our daughter sees time as infinite. We all did. It’s like the stones in our fireplace that transcend mortality. How many fires have they seen come and go over generations? Yet, life is different – we learn that.

I, too, was once 20, with nothing but time. Then, I realized that time shifts as we age, becoming tangible. Life brings the abruptness of change and loss, and we awake one day with an intimate understanding of time – gone.

My daughter and I study the log installation guide and talk about her schooling as she carefully, methodically aligns each log in a lifelike but scripted pattern.

This all began when she was 10, helping me wash our van. It started as a chore, but as she moved into her adolescence and teenage years, the van was lost in the background to our father-daughter conversations, safety for all to come out, a bucket and water hose a ruse as to what it was truly going on, the talks and emotions. Those years, like the cornerstones they were, seemed like they would last forever. Time, though, found its way into our life, a meandering of wonderful events, that took us from the present to the future to new presents that showed me that time wasn’t as it once seemed, that it does pass, that it’s not infinite – and that’s the way it should be. Children grow up, fathers age, time passes, change occurs. But, like the mortar of life, we still cling to the memories of what’s passed.

My daughter sets the last log and I press the button, igniting the flames. The fireplace flickers with authenticity and timelessness, another winter is here.

“Resetting these logs might be a new annual tradition, “ I say and she smiles.

Quitting is Winning

By Mark E. Smith

I saw a video of a Little League coach giving his team a pep talk. He rolled out every possible cliché and movie line one can imagine to pump up the kids. These talks work well with 10-year-olds, but not so much for us adults.

See, one of the clichés the coach invoked was, Winners never quit, and quitters never win!

We’ve all heard that saying and it sounds great. However, if we’ve ever struggled, then succeeded at an accomplishment, we also know that that saying isn’t true.

In order to succeed, we do need perseverance, but only in the most successful ways. It sounds great to say, Winners never quit and quitters never win, but such a black-and-white situation is rarely found in life. Perseverance only works when combined with adaptation. If we’re not succeeding at a task, but just keep doing what we’re doing, we’re going to fail. Persevering means constantly moving through that which isn’t working by finding different approaches in order to achieve success. Winners always quit doing that which isn’t working!

I’ve faced a lot of adversity in my life and I’ve always known when to throw in the towel and try a different approach. The key I’ve learned is to be realistic, not dogmatic. I remember going through occupational therapy as a child and was taught single ways to accomplish tasks. However, the approaches, although text-book to the therapists, rarely worked with my abilities, or lack thereof. When I couldn’t accomplish tasks as directed, I simply stopped trying – I quit. Even as a child, I understood the futility of metaphorically beating my head against a wall by pursuing failing approaches. It didn’t mean I was a quitter. Rather, it meant I had good sense. I then pursued other approaches that enabled me to successfully accomplish the tasks and move on to more, arguably to degrees of success greater than my therapists fathomed possible. Winners stop pursuing failing strategies and adopt those that work.

If an aspect of life clearly isn’t working, stop doing it. It doesn’t mean that you’re a quitter; rather, it means that you’re motivated to pursue greater paths. We shouldn’t hold on to that which isn’t working, as like an anchor, it holds us back. I read a great quote that said, “Don’t worry, I’m not quitting. I’ve decided I’m going to stay and make life a living hell while I run this business into the ground…” That’s crazy talk, but many literally do just that!

Quitting is, in fact, a part of the path to success. After all, some kids quit baseball for music lessons – and rock stars are made.

Not Giving A Blank

By Mark E. Smith

I’m a firm believer in not caring what the blank other people think of us. In fact, it’s a skill that I developed living with cerebral palsy as a child and one I’ve continued as an adult – and it’s served me phenomenally well.

See, I’ve faced being viewed as “different” my whole life. As a child, I was taunted and teased at times. I wish I could say that changed in adulthood, but it merely shifted toward more discrete forms of ignorance – looks, reactions, comments. People can be cruel toward those of us who are seemingly different.

However, truly not giving a blank proves the ultimate antidote toward those who may try to treat us differently. It doesn’t mean not caring what anyone thinks of us. It means having the confidence and self-esteem to not care what inappropriate people think of us. I’m a fan of constructive criticism. I truly care what my wife or colleagues think of me, and I want to improve myself when needed. Yet, when it comes to strangers or self-appointed critics, I don’t give a blank what they think of me. I learned as a child that I could either let the negative attitudes of others stop me or I could own my destiny and not give a blank about what others thought of me and move through the world on my own terms. I chose the latter.

My I-don’t-give-a-blank attitude has served me well. I’m comfortable being me, regardless of what others may think. I garner attention rolling into, say, a restaurant. But, I hold my head high, smile, and if I’m a spastic mess at that moment, all the better. Here I am, and I don’t give a blank! We’re each unique, and owning who we are is key. We can either let others define us or we can define ourselves.

So, how do we do this consistently – that is, not give a blank what others think?

Firstly, let us move beyond our own self-consciousness and focus on others. It sounds like an oxymoron, but the truth is, when we’re consumed by what others think of us, it’s a form of narcissism – we’re making the world all about us. If we focus less on ourselves and more on other people, we’re less self-conscious and more engaged. If you watch really confident, comfortable people in social settings, you’ll see that they’re very engaged with others. When we focus on others, we release focusing on ourselves, and we’re not dwelling on what others think of us.

Secondly, extend people the benefit of the doubt. Just because someone doesn’t understand your situation doesn’t mean it’s personal. People have different life experiences, and just because someone is ignorant toward yours or mine, shouldn’t be taken to heart. As the proverb says, live and let live.

Lastly, focus on what you’re doing, not what others may be saying or thinking. As an adolescent, a group of kids teased me as I struggled to push a manual wheelchair up a hill. I could have been deterred by them, but I chose to stay focused on surmounting the hill. Focusing on the hill voided the taunting.

Really, all of us should carry an I-don’t-give-a-blank attitude, wielded at the right time. Of course, we should care what certain people think. However, we shouldn’t give a blank what everyone thinks. Move through the world and let the chips fall where they may. Better yet, don’t worry where they fall at all!

The Eye of the Beholder

By Mark E. Smith

The phrase, “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” dates back to the 3rd century, with the literal meaning of, “The perception of beauty is subjective.”

While what we may find beautiful is subjective – as in fashion or art, for example – there’s a truth that our beauty is not subjective, but intrinsic to each of us. The beauty of objects certainly is subjective. The beauty that each of us possesses is not.

Unfortunately, we live in a culture that all but encourages us not to see our intrinsic beauty, but to see our so-called flaws. Grab most magazines, turn on most television shows, watch most movies, and we’re bombarded with messages that we’re somehow not good enough. Every year the “sexiest man alive” is named and it’s always an insanely rich, handsome, suave celebrity who’s the farthest person from who I am as one with spastic cerebral palsy. I could look at that idealized image of a “man” and think, No woman should ever love a guy like me. Yet, my wife does, just as many other perfectly imperfect couples are madly in love with each other. How is that possible when we’re supposed to meet cultural ideals to be labeled as beautiful?

I learned of an amazing young lady through a friend. Kennedy, who’s pictured above, was born with lymphatic malformation, a condition that results in a mass in the neck or head due to abnormal formation of the lymphatic vessels. If you’ve ever struggled with issues surrounding your appearance, you can imagine how difficult this condition could be to live with in our culture of idealistic beauty.

However, it’s not difficult for Kennedy. At 20, a college student, she’s an advocate for all to “let their inner beauty shine,” beginning with her own. She’s spreading the rightful message that we’re all beautiful in our unique ways.

Of course, no one looks at Kennedy and sees anything less than beauty. She’s a young lady lighting up the world with her spirit and work. Still, so many of us don’t see the beauty in ourselves. We see so-called flaws and beat ourselves up over them, to the degree of not letting others in. No one should love me like this…. No one could find me attractive like this…. We have the wisdom to see the true beauty in all others, but don’t apply that truth to ourselves – and that must change.

Those around us love us for us – perfectly imperfect – and we, too, must take that to heart, loving ourselves for who we are, as we are. It’s most often the case that the aspects for which we beat ourselves up are, in fact, among the qualities that make us uniquely beautiful and endearing to others.

You are you because you are you, and that creates your unique beauty. Don’t resent any differences you may see in yourself – we’re each different! – but embrace them. I have none of the attributes of the “sexiest man alive, “ but my attributes make me… well… me, and they create a uniqueness that my wife happens to love. I don’t want to be the sexiest man alive; rather, I’m confident in just being me, spastic cerebral palsy and all.

All of us – even the so-called sexiest man and women alive! – can look in the mirror and see only our supposed flaws. However, our perception isn’t reality. The beauty that others see in us is the truth we must see in ourselves. If we are to fully open ourselves up to the love of others, we must also open ourselves up to the love of self, recognizing our own beauty.

We’re each beautiful, not because we meet the fallacy of an idealistic standard, but because we are unique. Let us celebrate each of our uniqueness by being the epitome of beauty – simply ourselves.