A Letter to Myself, Age 23

Tomorrow marks another trip around the sun for me. This time I’ll be twenty-four years old. That’s kind of a cool number: 24 hours in a day, 24 elders before Christ’s throne (Rev. 4:4)—and growing up, Jeff Gordon was my favorite NASCAR driver in his #24 DuPont Chevrolet.

As I thought back on the past year, I realized how much I’ve experienced, how much I’ve learned, and how far I’ve come. I’ll be honest: Age 23 was a tough, trying year. I asked myself questions I never thought I’d ask because I felt things I never thought I’d feel. (Welcome to the real world.)

But I came through the darkness back into the light. I am in a much better state of mind as the meter rolls over once again. And I’d like to think I learned some things along the way.

As a way of recollecting, I decided to write my 23-year-old self a letter. It’s the letter I probably wouldn’t have expected at the time, yet it contains everything I would need to know to get through this rough patch of life.

And instead of journaling it and tucking it away to get musty on a shelf, I am writing it publicly in the hopes that perhaps it will help you, too.

Without further ado, here it is.

Dear Matthew,

Congratulations on everything you’ve accomplished so far. You’ve worked so hard to be where you are today, and now you’re starting to enjoy the fruits of your labor after all these years. Having a job and a stable income, with some spending money to boot, is a birthday present all on its own!

For your birthday, I want to give you something more important than money, and that is wisdom. Not just any wisdom, but some lessons I’ve learned that you’ll do well to keep in mind as you go through this next year.

You see, for better or for worse, you’re about to enter what is going to be the darkest time of your life so far. I don’t mean to scare you, but I’m not going to sugar-coat it, either. I know you’d rather have someone tell it to you straight. I know—I do, too.

But you’re not going to go into this blindly. I’m not going to tell you everything that you’re going to experience, but I am going to tell you what I’ve learned after coming out on the other side. This is by no means the ultimate guide to life, but I think it’s the guide you’re going to need for this season that God’s about to allow you to be in.

The first thing you’re going to feel is a sense of helplessness. Even though you’re well-off financially, you’re going to feel that your life—your career, your future—is out of your control. You’re going to feel like someone else—a man, The Man—is running your life. You’re going to feel trapped in a job you don’t want to be in, doing things you don’t want to be doing. And being the independent-minded individual you are, you’re not going to like that feeling. You’re not going to like it at all.

As a result of this helplessness, you’re going to start feeling that God has abandoned you. You’re going to call out to Him—cry out to Him on many an occasion—and you’re not going to hear an answer. It’s going to make you question your life and your faith up to this point. You’re going to start to wonder whether He led you to a stream of water that’s suddenly dried up—and now He’s nowhere to be found.

To quote a Styx song, you are going to feel like a man in the wilderness.

The good news is, there’s hope—both in this life and in the next. You confess Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior, and that guarantees you eternal life with him. Just remember that one day, all this pain is going to be washed away, and he will dry every tear from every eye.

“That’s great to know,” you’re going to say, “but I’m still living in my earthly body! I’m dealing with problems in this life, not the afterlife!”

And you’re right. So let me offer you what I’ve learned from the wilderness so that you can survive it, too.

First, the question is not whether God has abandoned you, but whether you have abandoned Him. I’m not going to speculate—you know where you need some work. Start by getting on your knees and rededicating yourself to Him. Do this daily, every morning right when you get out of bed. He wants to be number one in your life, so put Him first—and don’t even have anything else on the list.

Second, understand that life is full of pain and suffering. You don’t need to look very far to see this. It’s a result of The Fall, of sin entering the world and corrupting God’s very good creation. Until Christ returns and sets things right, this is a fact of life.

Along that line, don’t try to find some deep meaning in life except for God. Nothing else will satisfy. It might fill you up for a bit and make you feel good inside, but before long it will leave you feeling empty and depressed—longing for more, for something else. The wisest man in the world said so himself: “Meaningless, meaningless, everything is meaningless!”

But that same wisest man also said that to fear God and keep His commandments is the end of all things. In other words, that’s the meaning of life—of every life, including yours. Fear God and keep His commandments. This is the duty of all mankind.

Outside of that—listen to your emotions. If you feel strongly about something in your heart, pay attention to whatever it is. Especially if you feel it in your solar plexus—what one might call your “heart of hearts”.

But be sure to use some logic and reason before you go off and make a decision based on emotions alone. You could make a serious mistake and derail your life—your job, your career, your future—for years to come.

The exception is a “gut feeling”. If you feel something deep in the pit of your stomach, regardless of what it is, follow that instinct. It’s the strangest thing, but you’ve got to do it.

Now, aside from that, you need to strive for optimization in all four aspects of your life: physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual aspects. Being sick or out-of-shape in one will start to affect the others, and your whole well-being will deteriorate.

Exercise consistently. You don’t have to work out every day; two or three times a week will do. But be sure to push yourself so you can become stronger. Don’t stagnate—that’s a great way to become mediocre in any aspect of your life. And the neat thing about working out is that it stimulates the other aspects of your life. It’s also a natural stress-reliever!

Do things that mentally stimulate you. Read books—you enjoy doing that anyway, so carve out time to read. But be sure to read books that you enjoy, or that edify you in some way. If you don’t like book, stop reading it! There’s no law that says you have to finish it!

Oh, and keep your German skills sharp. You never know when they may come in handy. In fact, consider working on another language in your spare time. You’ve wanted to pick up some French—maybe even Koine Greek or Ancient Hebrew—so why not start now? There’s no better time than today.

In terms of emotions, one of the most powerful things you can do is to choose to be a glass-half-full person. Yes, you can choose to be positive. The lenses that you wear determine how you perceive the world. And you live in a vibrant, colorful, bountiful world that God has given mankind dominion over! Celebrate that! Celebrate life every day! Celebrate all the possibilities that you have!

Also, surround yourself with positive people as much as possible. That’s not to say that you should cut negative people out of your life completely—sometimes that’s not feasible, and even if it is, it’d be pretty rude to do so. But you have to look out for your own emotional well-being, and if that means spending less time with people who drag you down, then so be it.

On the flip-side, always be an encourager. Listen to those who, like you, are walking through the wilderness. Remember that each of us is fighting our own battle of survival every day. Have mercy and compassion, and show the love of Christ to everyone you encounter.

And I’ve already addressed the spiritual aspect somewhat. Pray every day, read the Bible every day, and obey the Lord’s commands. Live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with the Lord your God.

In all things, strive for balance. Strike a balance between work and play. Strike a balance between producing and consuming. Strike a balance between order and chaos. (Have one foot firmly planted on the shore of order while you dip your toes into the sea of chaos!)

Take things one day at a time. Live for the day while keeping an eye on the future. Again, strike a balance—between today and tomorrow.

Remember that you have only one life, and that there’s a unique place for you in the grand scheme of things. So, while I don’t advise you to make rash decisions, if you feel like you’re the square peg trying to fit into the round hole—make a change! Do something different! Take a step, even a small one, towards what you think you were made to do.

I’ll wind this long-winded letter up by saying that you’ve always navigated through life by finding out what you don’t like to do. There’s nothing wrong with that. On the cusp of age twenty-four, I still haven’t found that “one thing” I love to do above all else. You may never. And that’s okay. As long as you can find pleasure in your work, your play, and your people, you’re doing pretty well for yourself. In fact, if you can manage that, you’re already a wealthy man!

Oh, one last thing: Never let go of your dreams. They are what drive you when you’re down. I happen to believe that they’re uniquely yours, given to you by God Himself. Keep that boyish gleam in your eye, that roguish smile on your face, and don’t chastise yourself if you catch yourself looking out the window and thinking about what could be. Do what you can to make those dreams reality. Follow them, even if it will take years to get to the end of the trail. It’s better to wonder “What if I hadn’t?” (which you won’t) than to wonder “What if I had?”

That’s all I’ve got for now. I think this is enough for you to chew on and digest over the coming year. You’re young and you’ve got a big, bright future ahead of you. (Look at all that you’ve accomplished already!) Just don’t let a few black clouds obscure those silver linings.

Stand firm,

Matthew

Want to Expand Your Comfort Zone? Hop on a Motorcycle

Though you don’t necessarily have to do this. Photo by GEORGE DESIPRIS on Pexels.com

Just over a month ago, I did something I’d been wanting to do for a long time: I signed up for a motorcycle training course.

Now, why motorcycling? I don’t know that I can really give a good answer, other than it’s just something that I wanted to do. A skill I wanted to learn. An item on my bucket list. (Actually, my life list.)

So I showed up early at my alma mater’s parking lot on Saturday morning a couple weeks ago, ready to learn. There were six of us taking the course, ranging from no experience on motorcycles (me and a few others) to many years of experience but no Texas license endorsement.

The first component of the course was in the classroom: We went through a PowerPoint presentation that reiterated much of the content we learned from an online training course we had to take prior to the “real deal.” We dissected and discussed some risky street scenarios and “what-ifs” before breaking for lunch and getting on the bikes for real, hands-on training.

Most of us started out like babies learning to crawl. We hesitantly straddled the 125cc machines, turned the ignition on, checked for neutral, and hit the engine start switch. I know those of us who hadn’t ridden before either felt a surge of adrenaline or a surge of fear when the engines throttled to life beneath us for the first time.

We progressed from crawling to walking: We learned how to slowly let out the clutch and apply throttle to move forward. We learned how to stop. We learned how to turn and shift gears and slow down without braking.

By Sunday, we were making U-turns, weaving in and out of cones, swerving to avoid obstacles, and zipping around at 20 mph on straightaways in the parking lot. It was the most fun I’d had in a long time, better than Six Flags or Disney World.

Then came the skills evaluation, the two-wheel equivalent of a final Drivers Ed test. This test determined whether we would pass the course and be eligible for our M endorsements—or have to take the course again in order to legally ride a motorcycle.

I’ll be honest: Even with practice, I freeze up with practical tests. Maybe it’s because the crazy lady who rode with me on my first driving test got on my nerves so much that I hit a curb and failed.

“It’s okay, Baker. You’ve got this. You’re the man.”

Yet I still went wide in both the sharp right turn and the U-turn. I lost the friction zone of the clutch when coming out of a corner and barely kept the momentum going through to the end. And I was half-certain that I failed.

But, I passed. And that was a confidence-builder. I can now legally ride a motorcycle in Texas, the United States, and (as a matter of fact) Canada, France, and Germany as well.

Does that mean I’m a proficient motorcyclist, though?

Heck no. I need to get my own bike and keep practicing what I’ve learned.

And I need to keep learning. In fact, I have a couple books on my shelf for this purpose: Proficient Motorcycling and More Proficient Motorcycling, both by David Hough, and both incredibly informative on more advanced riding techniques and maneuvers.

It’s my opinion that people should always be moving forward. You certainly don’t want to be moving backward. And if you’re standing still, well, unfortunately you’re likely to be left behind by those who are moving forward.

Moving forward means that you’re constantly stepping out of, and thus expanding, your comfort zone.

In his fascinating book 12 Rules for Life, Jordan Peterson argues that the optimal place to be in life is with one foot placed firmly in order, and one tentatively placed in chaos. In other words, there needs to be a balance—or in Johnny Cash’s words, you have to “walk the line.”

Too much order and you’re going nowhere. Your life is stagnant and slowly becomes boring. You can’t grow as a person.

Too much chaos and your life spirals out of control. You have no tether. You don’t know what to expect around the corner and you live in a constant state of duress from fear or uncertainty.

But, if you can toe the line between order and chaos, Peterson argues, you can live optimally. You can expand your horizons (and your comfort zone) without feeling distress (the negative stress). Instead, you might feel eustress (the positive stress), and that’s what helps you grow.

If, for the first exercise, my motorcycle instructor had told us to hop on the bikes, fire ’em up, and accelerate to a speed of 20 mph in second gear, that would have distressed most of us because we had no experience. We would have been completely submerged in chaos. We might have quit the course then and there out of intimidation, or (worse) tried to follow his directions and hurt ourselves.

Yet if we were still just practicing rocking the bikes backward and forward by the end of the weekend, we would have been completely immersed in order. There’s nothing exciting about that!

So, if you want to expand your comfort zone and become a better, stronger, more well-rounded human being, start by dipping your toe into a little bit of chaos.

Do something you’ve always wanted to do but haven’t yet. Take an art class. Learn to dance. Learn how to use a computer (I have a book that helps with that!).

Fall down, mess up, and get back up again. Eventually, your paintings will improve. You won’t step on your partner’s toes. You’ll know more about computers than your friends and maybe even your tech-savvy grandkids.

Or, you can always hop on a motorcycle. Because on a motorcycle, there is no gear for reverse. You can only move forward.


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What if I told you that you could quickly and easily learn how your computer or smartphone works?

What if I told you that troubleshooting your technology can be easy and painless?

Well, now I’m telling you! My book How Computers Work and What to Do When They Don’t explains, in everyday English, how your computer operates and what you can do when it’s not operating the way you want it to.

It teaches you about the basic components without getting too technical, so you can become more computer-literate.

It walks you through simple steps to fixing common computer problems, so you can get back to using your computer instead of struggling with it.

It explains how to easily solve issues such as sluggish performance and virus infections, so you can keep your computer running smoothly—instead of running out to buy a new one.

And… it includes over 30 full-color pictures, so you can actually see what I’m talking about.

I’ve spent a great majority of my life solving computer problems (and I’m only in my twenties!), and I studied IT in college partly for this reason. I’ve helped kids, seniors, and everyone in between… and now I want to help you.

This book contains all the “secrets” I use to solve computer problems… secrets that everyone can use, including you.

Imagine feeling confident that you can solve your own tech problems without calling your tech-savvy friend, child, or grandchild. Imagine quickly feeling at home with software or apps you’ve never used before.

With How Computers Work and What to Do When They Don’t, you will!

How Computers Work and What to Do When They Don’t is available on Amazon in all regions for Kindle and in paperback. Why not pick up a copy today and start becoming comfortable with computers?

P.S. If you opt for the paperback version, you can also get the Kindle version for only $0.99 more and read wherever you go on your smartphone, tablet, or Kindle e-reader. Also, be sure to sign up for my email list to receive free bonus content to supplement the book.

2018: The Year in Review

Today is the last day of the year, a day I usually spend taking stock of what I did over the duration of the year. 2018 was a year of transition, discovery, and personal development for me: transition, because I finished college and am now living in “the real world” to some extent; discovery, because I’ve realized more about myself and what I want (and most importantly, don’t want) out of life; and personal development, because I’ve learned a lot about a wide variety of things and am starting to make changes in how I live.

I’m not a statistician, but I like statistics. I use them to look back on the year and see how far I’ve come and what I’ve done. Here are some stats to summarize my 2018:

  • Where I started the year: Kansas City, Missouri
  • Where I will end the year: Arlington, Texas
  • Approximately 6,000 miles traveled on trips
  • 29 full days spent away from home
  • 48 books read
  • 360 podcast episodes listened to
  • Approximately 100,000 words written
  • 1 musical instrument built (a fretless bass guitar)
  • 1 vehicle purchased (a Ford F-150)
  • Estimated 949,000 calories consumed (assuming average of 2,600 calories/day)
  • Estimated 3,000 push-ups performed (of different varieties)
  • Estimated 2,000 pull-ups performed
  • Approximately 15 miles hiked
  • 365 days seized

A few weeks ago, I looked back and thought 2018 was a less-than-stellar year, especially in contrast to 2017, which I believe to be the best year of my life thus far. However, looking back now, and in light of these numbers, 2018 was a pretty good year. By good, I mean it was productive, enlightening, and somewhat adventurous.

What would have made the year better? It’s hard to say. A transitionary year such as this one sets me up for a new year that hopefully provides new and better opportunities for career and travel. I’ve learned from some mistakes and misfires of 2018 and don’t plan to repeat them in 2019. I’ve got a few new hobbies I’m hoping to explore, and some books I plan to write and publish. My brother and I may also (finally) release some music for the world to hear.

Spiritually-speaking, one goal in 2018 was to read through the Christian Standard Bible (CSB) translation by year’s end. That didn’t quite happen. I’m in the middle of Acts right now and slowly working my way through. I plan to finish the CSB up in the early part of 2019 and then spend the rest of the year doing book or topical studies that I’ve shirked in favor of plowing (ploughing?) through the Bible once per year for the last couple of years. I want to sit and savor God’s Word more than I want to breeze through it.

I won’t be staying up ’til midnight to ring in the new year. Instead, I’ll toast to 2018 with a Boddingtons Pub Ale at dinner, go to bed at my regular time, and enter 2019 feeling well-rested and refreshed.

So long, 2018, and thanks for the memories.

Standing at an overlook in Petit Jean State Park in Arkansas. Photo credit: Drummer Dan.

Five Philosophies Followed for Everyday Living

This post is prompted by a question I saw (and answered) on Quora, asking for five philosophies followed for everyday living. On the spur of the moment, I came up with my five, five which I think accurately represent the lens through which I view the world and are unlikely if ever to change.

  1. “Act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with the Lord your God.” — The prophet Micah, inspired by God (Micah 6:8)
  2. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength; and love your neighbor as yourself.” — Jesus (Luke 10:27)
  3. “The high concept [of travel] is, ‘What is the most excellent thing I can do today?’, but it must sometimes yield to realities like time and distance, weather and traffic, or even just getting to work on time. Because sometimes work is the most excellent thing I can do today, and I can only try to embellish the work with some recreation and exploration.” — Neil Peart (I apply this to more than just travel; every day I ask myself this question.)
  4. “Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.” — Theodore Roosevelt
  5. “Time is the universal equalizer. Rich or poor, famous or nameless, we are all given the same allowance of twenty-four hours per day that we are forced to spend. How we spend that allowance is up to us.” — Me, inspired by Arthur Bennett’s excellent How to Live on 24 Hours a Day

On Indelible Imprints: Novels

blur book stack books bookshelves
Photo by Janko Ferlic on Pexels.com

Last week, I wrote a post called On Indelible Imprints: Music about some of the songs that had significantly shaped me and my musical tastes, to the extent that I could remember when and where I first heard them. This week is a continuation on that theme, this time for books, specifically novels, the other art form that has entertained me, inspired me and changed the way I think.

  1. The Hardy Boys mysteries by Franklin W. Dixon — Starting in first grade, I began checking out and reading the original series of Hardy Boys mystery novels, shelved in the children’s section of my church library (which is now a thing of the past, but that’s another story). Even now that I’m older, I can hardly think of a better series of books for young boys. Though antiquated, they still provide clean, wholesome, exciting entertainment.
  2. The Chronicles of Narnia series by C.S. Lewis — Around the time the Disney version of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe came out, Mom bought the whole Narnia series at the local Mardel and, over the coming months, Dad read them to me and Daniel every evening after supper. Great memories of a great series, complete with illustrations. What more can I say?
  3. Around the World in Eighty Days by Jules Verne — If there was ever a man ahead of his time, it was Jules Verne. He was writing about space travel and deep-sea diving before it was cool—no, he made it cool. I remember reading this adventurous novel while cooped up at my grandmother’s house in Wichita Falls during a very unadventurous (and deathly hot) summer. I reread it last year for kicks and still enjoyed it, vowing to read more of Verne’s works.
  4. The Lord of the Rings trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkien — Dad told me I had to read each book before he would let me see its corresponding movie, so over one summer I checked them out from the library and read through them. I was young enough to like the visuals the movie provided more than the books, but I think now that I’m older I’d appreciate the books more. Either way, it’s an incredible story (I’m especially fond of Frodo and Samwise’s undying loyalty to each other), and it’s no surprise that it’s inspired so many other fantasy writers.
  5. Mythology by Edith Wharton — I’m not a big mythology fan, but I had to read and annotate this for my ninth-grade English class. I at least gained more appreciation for some of the epic Greek and Roman tales, though unfortunately I had to study this book on a weekend vacation to San Antonio with my family.
  6. A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens — Dickens isn’t the most fun to read. In fact, he can be pretty laborious with his sentences, and that turns a lot of readers off. (You have to remember, back in the day, he was paid by number of pages and installments, so he had to make some convoluted elocutions.) While I worked my way through what was, at the time, only a marginally interesting story, to me it was the ending that hooked me. No spoilers, but one word: sacrifice.
  7. Dracula by Bram Stoker — I’m not a fan of any modern vampire tales, but I am a big fan of Stoker’s classic. Ironically, my dad, who never reads, read this one and raved about how great it was. I picked it up and immediately understood why. I don’t categorize it as a horror novel so much as a suspense novel or a thriller. Of course, you can’t have suspense without some elements of horror, but it’s not the gritty, gruesome kind of stuff you see today. I want more books like this.
  8. The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas père — This is the most epic tale I’ve read to date. It has it all: adventure, romance, betrayal, prison breaks, treasure hunts, revenge, murder, theft, blackmail—mostly in that order. It’s also a great tale of good and bad, and how easy it is to slide from the good end of the spectrum down to the bad end. It’s long, but it’s completely worth the read.
  9. And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie — To date, this is the only Agatha Christie novel I’ve read (yes, it’s a travesty), but am I glad I read it. I started it on the return leg of a camping trip to Laredo, and couldn’t put it down. If you only read one thriller in your whole life, read this one. It’s as simple as that.
  10. War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy — I figured if I wanted to introduce myself to Russian literature, I’d might as well dive in head-first and tackle this epic work. I started it mid-December 2017, right before I graduated college, and finished it just over four months later in mid-April. My intention was to read it in a year (which could be done easily if you read just one chapter a day—there are 365 of them), but I found it hard to limit myself so I plowed ahead. This is not quite a novel, nor a history book, nor a philosophy book, but it has aspects of all three. It’s far from the easiest book to read, due to its length, number of characters, and time span (fifteen years), but if you’re interested in the Napoleonic Wars, the Russian Empire, or history told through real and imagined characters, it’s worth adding to your reading list. You can also read my writeup of War and Peace for more.

Of course there are more than these ten, and hopefully many more down the road. Maybe a part two or a list of non-fiction titles is in order. In fact, thinking as I write, I think I will compile an Indelible Imprints list of non-fiction books. Stay tuned.

On Indelible Imprints: Music

A few days ago, I heard a song I hadn’t listened to in a long time play on the radio. It was one of those songs, one that I associated with a time and a place, when and where I first heard it.

A few days later, I thought of a book I hadn’t read in a few years. And yes, it was one of those books that my mind linked to a when and a where.

Needless to say, there are two things in life that have greatly affected me: books and music. I’m currently reading through Neil Peart’s Traveling Music, in which he gives a (musical) autobiography and explains some of the songs and artists that made him into the musician he came to be, and the points in his life when he heard certain tunes. In the spirit of this book, for mental exercise (and fun), I tried to recall as many songs and books tied to a memory as I could. For brevity, I decided to break this into two posts, starting with music. And now, for your entertainment, here is what I came up with:

  1. “In the Mood” by Glenn Miller — Probably the first song I “remembered,” and my favorite growing up. I remember dancing with Mom and Dad to this song in the living room of our old house.
  2. “Twenty-Five or Six to Four” by Chicago — In the car with Dad and Daniel in a Kroger parking lot, probably four or five years old. I thought the electric guitar solo was played by a trumpet at first, but Dad corrected me. (Thanks, Dad! Otherwise I might have taken up the trumpet!)
  3. “New Sensation” by INXS — On a VHS tape of missiles blowing stuff up at China Lake, California. No, really. Somehow or another, Dad acquired a VHS tape of footage from missile flight tests set to rock music. There are many other great songs on that tape (“Rock and Roll” by Led Zeppelin, “Just What the Doctor Ordered” by Ted Nugent, “Bad to the Bone” by George Thorogood), but “New Sensation” stuck with me more than the others.
  4. “Down to the Waterline” by Dire Straits — In the car with Dad and Daniel, driving to karate lessons. The three of us took lessons together for several years, and listened to the same cassette tape every time there and back. That tape also included songs by Jeff Healey, Charlie Daniels, and Foreigner.
  5. “Message in a Bottle” by The Police — In the car with Dad on the University of North Texas campus (Denton, TX) at a BEST Robotics event. This song impressed me with how well the music fit the lyrics, the theme of the song.
  6. Boston by Boston — I listened to this whole album several times during a family vacation to Durango, Colorado, before I started eighth grade. I’ll probably never be able to separate Durango from “More Than a Feeling” or “Rock and Roll Band”.
  7. “Tom Sawyer” by Rush — In the car with Dad while driving to guitar lessons. This song changed everything for me. (And if you didn’t figure it out already, being in the car with Dad is a recurring theme in my musical formation.)
  8. “Roundabout” by Yes — In the car on the way to San Antonio for my great uncle’s military funeral at Fort Sam National Cemetery. This was probably the first time I heard a bass guitar and thought, “That’s cool!”
  9. “Things Can Only Get Better” by Howard Jones — Driving Dad’s Subaru back home from Dallas after looking at a car I wanted to buy, but wasn’t a good option. Every car we’d looked at within my budget needed repairs or had been smoked in, and I was feeling a little down. This song lifted me back up, and still does.
  10. “Alive” by Pearl Jam — Jamming (no pun intended) in the guitar studio with Brian, my instructor. It was one of the first times I seriously played bass, and one of the last times we saw each other. Brian passed away just months later, far too young. I always think of him when I hear this song, knowing he’s still alive with Christ.

Those are just ten, and there are many more. Next week’s indelible imprints: books!

Receipts: Overlooked Journals and Time Capsules

white graphing paper
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Last year, I established a new method of tracking my receipts. I acquired twelve page protectors, labeled each one with a month of the year, and installed them in a three-ring binder. I decided I would save my receipts for a year by placing them in the appropriate page protector. This method has three benefits: first, it makes it easier to find a receipt if I need to return something; second, it makes it easy to throw them out a year later (when the page protector for the current month needs to be cleared out); and third, it provides an interesting glimpse into life one year prior.

This past rainy weekend in North Texas, I spent some time sorting a pile of receipts from the past five months into their appropriate page protectors. Having started this sorting method last August, I needed to clear out the August and September sleeves for this year’s receipts. The things I bought said a lot about what I was doing, and had done, this time a year ago:

  • Food and gas receipts from the Kansas City area (bro-trip to see The Great American Eclipse)
  • A packing slip from a scuba mask made to my eyeglass prescription (I was taking a scuba class at college)
  • An Amplified Bible I bought at Mardel (that I later learned is not the most accurate)

It’s amazing how much life can change in a year. I journal, and yet seeing some tangible examples of where I was and what I was doing one year ago brought on some nostalgia. The trip to Kansas City was one of the best ever. I learned that I’m “claustrophobic” underwater and I can’t equalize my ears, so no scuba for me. And that Amplified Bible is still sitting on my shelf, having only been opened once or twice.

I don’t want to say life was simpler for me a year ago, but I do miss many aspects of it. College was tough, but I enjoyed the freedom I had outside of classes and studies. I had less money but more time. I was applying for jobs in preparation of graduation. And I had different people present in my life for that season, whereas now God has brought completely different people into my life.

So, if you want to not only keep records of your expenses (you should) but also remember who you were a year ago, save your receipts. They tell a lot about you. If you’re like me, you might look at a receipt and say, “I can’t believe I bought that!” The tragic reality is that, one year from now, you’ll look back on your receipts and say the same thing.

Nice: A Four-Letter Word

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This isn’t a nice guy; this is a gentleman. Photo by Jeswin Thomas on Pexels.com

There are so many words in the English language, so many of which that could be used in place of the word that’s the subject of this post. All of them are more descriptive and have a more positive sound. Consider these examples:

“That was very kind of him.”

“It’s a pleasant day outside.”

“Those are some good-looking shoes!”

Instead, we English-speakers, at least in the United States, tend to use a catch-all word that comes with some negative connotations: nice. Now, consider these examples:

Nice job, Mark; that foul cost us the game.”

“She’s a nice girl, but…”

And the quintessential quote from absent-minded mothers: “Play nice, kids!”

“Nice” seems so duplicitous! It’s probably just me, but I’ve never liked the way the word sounded, with that hiss at the end that some extend. Some people use it like it’s filler when they don’t have anything else to say or don’t care about what someone is telling them. “Oh, that’s nice.”

After reading books like No More Mr. Nice Guy by Robert Glover and its Christian counterpart No More Christian Nice Guy by Paul Coughlin, my dislike for all things “nice” has only increased. Think about what’s implied when two women are talking and one says, “I think Joe is such a nice guy.” When you think of Joe in this context, what comes to mind? Is he an emotionally strong man who is comfortable in his skin and knows what he wants in life? Or is he a man who, bless him, holds the door for a beautiful woman but doesn’t have the nerve to ask her out because he doesn’t think he’s capable (or worthy) of dating her? Ladies, be honest: would you date a man you or your girlfriends called “nice?”

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Is this a nice (ignorant) guy? Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

There’s another thing I learned about the word “nice” from reading these books. Our modern four-letter word comes from the Latin nescire (“not know”) and nescius (“ignorant”) To be “nice” was to be an idiot, to put it plainly. The Latin found its way into Old French and eventually came to its current form in Middle English, where it simply meant “stupid.” Do you understand why I don’t like the word now?

I know not everyone uses the word this way, but I can’t help but bristle when someone tells me I’m “nice” or calls me a “nice guy.” I suspect their intentions are good, but sometimes I’ll ask them why they say that, or even tell them plainly, “I’d rather you call me good or kind than nice.” That goes for everyone: call me kind, but please don’t call me nice. In a way, I think it’s like Christ telling the church of Laodicea that he would rather them be hot or cold than lukewarm (Rev. 3:14-22, and yes I know I’m taking it out of context a bit). Let me be hot or cold, but not lukewarm. Let me be good or bad, but not nice.

I’ve all but banished the word from my vocabulary. In addition to the reasons above, I find that not using the word requires me to think of more descriptive, appropriate adjectives to describe things that would ordinarily be “nice.” Instead of talking about my “nice” lunch catching up with a friend, I’ll use a word like “great,” “fantastic,” or even “superb.” More generally, I’ve found that taking a moment to use a better word does more to further a conversation with others. It wasn’t just a “nice” burger I had, but a “juicy” one, and it wasn’t just a “nice” conversation that we had, but an “edifying” one. Those words create more vivid mental pictures (you’re picturing a burger dripping with flavor, aren’t you?) and elicit more interesting responses: “Juicy? Wow, I’ll have to try that sometime!”

To put a biblical spin on this, the Book of Proverbs wisely notes that “To make an apt answer is a joy to a man, and a word in season, how good it is!” (Prov. 15:23 ESV) and “A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver” (Prov. 25:11 ESV). Apples of gold in a setting of silver—what imagery! Why throw out a boring, banal word like “nice” when you have so many other impressive words at your disposal?

Bringing it back home, I don’t want to give people reasons to call me nice. I want to give people reasons to call me good, kind, responsible, helpful, faithful, truthful, and wise. I believe that men who exhibit these characteristics won’t be called “nice” by anyone; they will be called other names, both good and bad, but they will wear those names as badges of honor, hard-fought in the battle of life. May it be so in my life.


Post Scriptum: This post is written unashamedly from my male perspective, and though I write about “nice” guys, I want to be clear that the same applies to “nice” girls, too. Ladies, don’t be nice, either! For reference, there is a No More Christian Nice Girl for you, as well.

Farewell to a Friend: Mazda 3

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The Super Mazda Brothers!

When I was a senior in high school, I bought my first car: a little yellow 2003 Mazda Protegé5. It had a 2.0L inline four engine, four-speed automatic transmission, and just under 200,000 miles on it. I paid cash for it (probably more than I should have due to the number of repairs that had to be done to it), and the man I bought it from was the original owner. In fact, just before we drove off with the car, Mom found a Polaroid-style photo of the man and his family in the glovebox, taken by the dealer on the day he bought it brand-new. (He didn’t knock the price down for that find, though.)

After a new radiator, an EGR (engine gas recirculation) valve clean (which took three days for Dad and I to do), a brand-new front end and hood from when I rear-ended someone, and I-can’t-remember-how-many other repairs, I decided to upgrade to a car I thought would (more) reliably get me to college and work every day. One year after I bought the Protegé5, I bought a 2005 Mazda 3 hatchback from a guy in Dallas. When I bought it, it had just over 110,000 miles on the engine and had just had the clutch replaced. That’s right: it was a five-speed.

It took me several hours spread over the course of three days to really learn how to drive stick, and then a month or so to really master it, including idiosyncrasies like hill starts, rev matching, and heel-toe braking (not something I used every day, but taught myself anyway). After that, though, I melded with that car.

Compared to the Protegé5 that soon became my brother’s car, my Mazda 3 was a step up in almost every way. It was quieter, it rode smoother, and you could actually drive over sixty miles per hour in it at lower RPMs. The dark interior, though cloth and plastic, looked and felt more luxurious than the drab gray of the P5. Being a five-speed, it got great gas mileage: I averaged 28 mpg combined over the course of my ownership. And, while the P5 would take off like a go kart, the 3 would actually keep going.

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Undoubtedly the best picture I’ve ever taken with my phone: Daniel and the Mazda 3 at Smithville Lake, Smithville, MO. We traveled over 600 miles that day, and traveled over 600 miles back home two days later.

Was it reliable? Yes, it was. I don’t recall a day when I didn’t drive it to school. It started up every time, had a hot heater and a cold A/C (important in Texas!), and always stopped when I needed to. Aside from replacing the MAF (mass air flow) sensor and cleaning carbon deposits off the intake manifold (I think Mazda engines, at least from this era, tend to run rich and leave such deposits), the car required no engine work. In fact, I would wager the engine to last at least 200,000 miles, if not more.

However, it did require work elsewhere. The headlights were so oxidized that I had to take the front end of the car apart and replace both assemblies. The suspension grew squeakier and squeakier throughout my ownership. I had to replace both front struts, and needed to replace both rear suspension assemblies (but didn’t). A motor mount caused a rough ride, so I had it replaced as well. These are things that do wear out over the normal life cycle of a car, and yet even as I replaced parts, things continued to squeak, creak, and groan.

Despite all this, I really bonded with the 3. In a way, I developed what some call “machine empathy” with it. I could feel when to shift gears without looking at the tachometer and isolate new rattles and squeaks from the existing harmless ones. It wasn’t the fastest or flashiest car on the road, but I felt like I operated it as an extension of my arms and legs, and that’s what mattered to me.

We had some great experiences together, too. It got me safely home during a surprise snowfall one afternoon (a rarity in Texas). It got me and my brother safely to Kansas City and back for the Great American Eclipse of 2017, and more recently to Austin and back. For whatever reason, rain is the car’s perfect weather. Everything just tightens up and smoothes out, and it’s one reason I enjoy driving in the rain.

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The Mazda parked on Baylor St. in Austin, viewed from atop the HOPE Outdoor Gallery.

It’s been a great commuter, get-around-town car for me. However, it has to stretch as a road-trip or travel vehicle. It’s fairly loud on the highway, it channels bumps abruptly into the frame, and it’s hard to pack out when camping. As I find myself traveling greater distances by road, whether in the Metroplex or on vacation, it’s sadly less and less pleasurable to drive. Though I’m torn, and I wanted to “drive it until the wheels fall off,” I’ve decided it’s time to acquire another vehicle.

So, this write-up is in honor of my intrepid little Mazda 3, which I have put through the paces during my ownership. It ain’t the young car it once was, but it’s still got a lot of life in it. It’s not a Honda or a Toyota, but I’m impressed that it runs and rides as well as it does at its age. It’s served me well, and I know it’ll serve its next owner well too.

Happy Birthday, Neil Peart!

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Bonus post! Today, the world’s best drummer and lyricist turns sixty-six. His name is Neil Ellwood Peart, OC (that’s Order of Canada for us non-Canadians).

You can go on Wikipedia or elsewhere on the Internet to read about his life, but I wanted to take a minute to write about how he has inspired me. Some of this is rehash from my post On Rush from earlier this year, so bear with me.

The first thing about the band Rush that captured me was the music; the second thing that captured me were the lyrics. As a fifteen-year-old, I had been exposed to a fair amount of classic rock, thanks to my dad, and of course that meant that I was exposed to the songs about sex and drugs. I liked the music I heard, but realized very quickly that not all of the lyrics meshed with my Christian beliefs.

Enter Rush, where all of a sudden lyrics were about mythology, philosophy, and culture. Everything about the lyrics seemed backwards compared to all the other music of its time: “Limelight” was about an introvert dealing with fame, “Subdivisions” was about growing up in the ‘burbs, and “The Analog Kid” was about a young man coming of age and facing a big life decision. Not exactly the kind of stuff that gets radio airplay (though the first two songs do!), nor kind the stuff that gets most people going, but the kind of stuff that gets some people thinking.

I soon learned, much to my surprise, that the drummer of the band was responsible for writing the lyrics! That could explain a lot! And yet, Neil Peart (pronounced “peert”) is potentially the least drummer-like drummer there is. When reading about his personal life, I learned that not only does he drum for a rock band and write lyrics, he writes books, rides motorcycles, drives fast cars, has introverted tendencies, and generally knows a lot about a lot. He’s probably the smartest drummer out there, and as I’ve said before, gives the Dos Equis guy a run for his money as the Most Interesting Man in the World.

I’m not a drummer, but I have a high amount of respect for Neil and look up to him as a musician. Why? He put it all out on stage. While touring with Rush, he played with an intensity for two or three hours, and at sixty-two years old! At the time, he’d been doing it for over forty years, almost non-stop. (He’s now enjoying a well-deserved retirement.) Some will disparage him for being too precise and calculated in his craft (and he might even disparage himself for that!), but I respect it. It shows dedication. He puts it all out because people paid to see him put it all out, and he holds himself to a higher work ethic than most.

He also knows what he wants in life. Since the late-80s, while touring with Rush, he traveled from concert to concert via bicycle or motorcycle, taking out-of-the-way routes across North America with his riding partners so he could escape the tour-bus lifestyle. He’s written about these and more riding adventures in many books, which are worth the read whether you love Rush, travel, philosophy, or all three.

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That brings us to philosophy. Neil has an interesting outlook on the world. He’s misanthropic yet sympathetic, epicurean yet modest, public yet private. He’s very much a realist, yet also somewhat of an idealist. He lives in the moment and tries to squeeze the most he can out of every single day, whether that’s motorcycling through the Midwest, playing to a sold-out show in Chicago, or spending time with his wife and daughter. After losing his first wife and daughter within ten months of each other, he realizes that life, and where we find ourselves in life, is fleeting. As he wrote in “Tom Sawyer,” “He knows changes aren’t permanent / But change is.”

That brings us back around to his lyrics, and I promise I’ll stop gushing. If anyone has inspired me consistently since high school, it’s been Neil via his lyrics. I can relate to the “modern-day warrior… whose mind is not for rent” in “Tom Sawyer” and the boy with the “fawn-eyed girl with sun-browned legs [dancing] on the edge of his dreams” in “The Analog Kid”.

This brings me to a common theme of much of Rush’s music: dreams. That’s why I connect with Neil’s lyrics so much; they are about people pursuing their dreams, or looking for how they can make their lives better somehow. As he says in “Mission,” “A spirit with a vision is a dream with a mission.” In “Middletown Dreams,” “Dreams transport desires / Drive you when you’re down / Dreams transport the ones who need to get out of town.” And, on the flip-side of life in “Losing It,” one of the few songs that makes me tear up, “Some were born to move the world / To live their fantasies / But most of us just dream about / The things we’d like to be.”

Neil’s lyrics have given me hope at some really low points in my life. Many times they keep me pressing on, pressing toward my own dreams. That’s not something I can say about too many other songs or bands. I know others feel the same way.

So, Neil, thank you so much for inspiring thousands of us to keep our chins up, hopeful for the future. Thanks for being sort of a kindred spirit to me. I hope you have a very happy birthday, and may God bless you.

For the rest of us, let’s feast on the masterpiece that is “Subdivisions,” live from Dallas during the Clockwork Angels tour in 2013, complete with plenty of shots of Neil’s work on the drums and, of course, his lyrics that hit home. Headphones are required.