Perseverence

I canoe–Can you?

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Canoes and I have never had a great relationship.  I must be some kind of a masochist though, because I keep returning to that relationship for more abuse with barely a thought given to our sordid past.

I canoed for the first time when I was 12.  It was the Spring River, and I was assured that it would be a leisurely day of fun in the sun and that I would get to experience God’s creation with my church youth group.  I nearly died.

This was 30 years ago, so the details are a bit fuzzy, but the gist is that we were nearly to the end of this trip down the river and, at that point, had been the only canoe in the group that had not tipped over yet.  We encountered a minor waterfall that was maybe a three-foot drop just before a bend in the river.  No problem, right?  We landed fine, but as we tried to negotiate the bend, another canoe bumped into us and sent us headlong into a dirt bank on the side of the river.  Over we went, and our title as the most reliable boat on the water rushed away in the current, along with our cooler, flip flops, sunscreen, and my favorite hat.  I wasn’t aware at the time that my hat was gone because I was too busy drowning.

My foot got caught between two rocks in the river bed when I went under, and because I was 12 at that time I wasn’t tall enough to keep my head above water.  I began taking water into my lungs and I was in serious trouble.  My youth pastor swam under, dislodged my foot and hauled me to the surface.  I coughed up the water from my lungs and lived to fight another day, swearing I would never canoe again.

I went back the next year.  And the year after that.

I attended summer classes after my sophomore year at Ouachita Baptist University, and someone in one of my classes got the bright idea to blow off a day of class and go canoeing on the Caddo and Ouachita Rivers.  I reluctantly agreed to go, forgetting that I hate canoeing almost as much as it hates me.  I was warned that the rivers could be somewhat angry, so I really dreaded this trip.

There was good news and bad news when we got there.  The good news was, we weren’t going to canoe.  The company was out of canoes and told us our only option was inner tubes.  When I heard that, I figured we would cancel the trip and go back to the dorm.  The bad news was, we didn’t cancel the trip.  The decision was made to inner tube these rivers in succession that day, with our final destination being the OBU dock on the bank of the Ouachita.  Since I didn’t have a car, I had no choice but to participate.

Thinking I was going to die on one of these two rivers, I said a small prayer, mentally willed my meager worldly possessions (three pairs of faded jeans, a Sony Discman, and 200 CDs) to my little brother, and set out on what I was sure would be an aquatic funeral.

The trip was boring.  I mean, soul-crushingly boring.  The Caddo was so low that we wound up walking most of that leg of the trip.  The Ouachita, while plenty deep, was so slow moving that we had to paddle our arms off–in inner tubes–just to move forward on it.  What was supposed to be a 3-hour trip wound up taking 10 hours.  We walked up on the bank of the Ouachita at OBU well after dark, praying we wouldn’t be bitten by snakes.  I again swore I would never travel a river again in anything that didn’t have a motor attached.

If you’re at the Spring River this coming August, be sure to wave and say hello to me.

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Chase Your Dreams Into the Stars (But Have a Soft Landing)

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“Hey Uncle. Can I ask you for some advice?”

The Facebook instant message popped on my phone and when I saw that it was my nephew, I was surprised. We don’t really talk that often outside of one or two annual family things, and by “that often” I basically mean never. I quickly answered — I always do anytime someone messages me — and though I was being sought for advice, I came away from this conversation having learned something myself.

He wanted to know how to become a professional musician. He is quite good at several instruments and has developed a real passion for music, so he has decided he wants to pursue it as a career. I am, uh, NOT a musician, so I wondered why he would reach out to me.

“I know you are a writer and I was wondering if you could tell me how to get started,” he began. “This is really what I want to do with my life.”

I was just about to type out a brief note to him about how this isn’t my area of expertise when it hit me. OK, so I don’t know anything about music, right? I mean, the only instrument I have ever played was the radio. But I *do* know something about chasing dreams. As I began typing, I was surprised at how easily the advice came.

The first thing I told him is that no one will likely pay much for a vague idea or for talent at playing something that they’ve already heard.

“Michael, I know you play in a band outside of school and that you have caught a passion for that,” I said. “But there are thousands of cover bands all over the place, all trying to get noticed for playing something they heard on the radio. If you want to get noticed, you need to write your own music. Have you done that?”

I was pleasantly surprised to learn that he has been writing songs for a while and had as much of a passion for that as he did for playing. He understands that he has to grind and put in the work if he wants to chase his dream. Putting in the work is a good way to succeed, but it can also be a good way to learn from failure.

I wanted to be a professional basketball player when I was growing up, and I put in hours and hours and hours of work to achieve that goal…only to top out at high school junior varsity before my career was over. I learned from grinding and putting in work that even though it was my dream, it was not my future. Which led to lesson number two for my young Padawan.

“I also advise you to have a backup plan,” I continued. “Dreams don’t pay the bills — especially while you’re chasing them. If you make it, then you have a character-building experience of having to really push to support yourself while also learning your musical craft. If you don’t, then you at least have a skill or trade that you can fall back on.”

Again, I expected him to balk — teenager, remember? — but he didn’t. He understands that chasing a dream doesn’t guarantee you’ll catch it, and that he has to balance his life between that pursuit and common-sense living.

The last piece of advice that I had for him really hit home for both of us. I told him that no matter what he does, he needs to do it for the right reasons.

“Michael, don’t chase music, don’t write music, don’t play music just to get paid or become famous,” I said. “Do it because you love it and because you have something to say. If you have pure motives in chasing this dream, the rewards will come. Those rewards may not be money, airplay or girls, but they might just be a sense of pride that you created something that speaks to who you truly are. If you really consider yourself an artist, then create art.”

May we all chase our dreams because we love what we do. What can be more fulfilling than that?

Frank Vaughn is a regional Emmy Award- and Associated Press Media Editors Award-winning journalist. His first book, “0.4 to Graduation: How to Finish College in 17 Years or Less” is slated for release in Spring 2018. You can connect with Frank at his Facebook page and on Twitter

A wage more valuable than money

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The October sun beat down on my head with a relentless anger that seemed out of character for that time of year.  As sweat beaded on my head and ran down my face in tiny streams, I continued to pull the rake back and forth across the ankle-deep leaves on that five-acre patch of land behind an old farmhouse.  I was a starving college student in Arkansas in my early 20s, and the $100 I was promised for this particular task seemed like a small fortune—until about four hours into the job.

The man who hired me was a ruddy farmer who almost exactly matched my preconceived mental image of his weekly attire with old, faded coveralls and a straw hat to match a face and forearms that throbbed in a hue of dark red that reminded me of an overripe apple.  I met him at a church I just started attending, and he seemed a genuinely nice sort who just wanted to help a youngster out with a temporary job.  I learned a lot about him the first day I was there.

He set a platter of sandwiches and a jar of lemonade on the splintered and weather beaten picnic table on the side of his house and gave a loud whistle for me to stop and grab a bite.  The whistle was quite unnecessary, as I was standing maybe 20 feet from that table.  As I dropped the rake and stripped off my work gloves, he clamped his hands to his wide hips and shook his head slowly as if the burden of the world had suddenly descended upon him.  His first words were jarring.

“Boy, you ain’t worth the skin God printed you on, you know that?” he said in his low, gravelly voice.  “If you was my son, I believe I’d drop you off at a bus station somewhere and wish the world luck with you.”

Gone was the sweet, smiling older gentleman who welcomed me to his church only a few weeks before.  His upper lip was curved in a sort of menacing grin that told me these next few days were going to be the longest of my new tenure in adulthood.  As I settled down at that old, rickety table to hush my stomach with the help of a few ham and cheese sandwiches, he continued to stare holes through me.

“Seriously.  What have you been doing all morning?“ he asked in a growl that dripped with disgust.  “You should be halfway through this job by now and you ain’t got 20 feet from this house!”

He paused his tongue lashing long enough to bless the food, and once he uttered “amen” (in Jesus’ name, of course) the verbal flogging resumed.  Each bite I took through that entire meal was punctuated with some new commentary on my work ethic, the way I gripped a rake, the size of the piles I made with the leaves in his yard.  I waited through the entire meal for some nugget of encouragement, but none came.

The verbal beat downs continued each and every day for the entire week I worked for him.  I went to bed each night with blistered hands, a throbbing back, and a wounded spirit.  By the time the week was over, his entire property had been raked, an old storage shed had been torn down (and the rubble hauled off), his house had been repainted, and that old picnic table had been fortified, sanded down, and repainted.

At the end of the last day, he called me over to get my check before I left.  My shoulders slumped as I trudged over to receive my remuneration—and probably one last commentary on how I represented the most worthless generation he ever witnessed.

I stopped in front of him and noticed immediately that the man I had been working for all week was gone.  In his place was the warm, smiling man I met recently at a country church.  As he handed me a folded check, he gripped my hand tightly and thanked me for all of my hard work.  As my face turned into a soupy mess of confusion, he patted me on the shoulder and gave me one last speech.

“Son, I believe in hard work.  Always have,” he said.  “You were doing okay from the start, but I knew I could get a lot more out of you with the proper motivation.  No matter what job you are given, you owe your best.  All you can give.  That will always be rewarded.”

As I climbed in my car to leave, his words continued to ring in my ears.  I started the engine, but before I shifted into gear, I took one peek at the folded check from that old farmer with a unique motivational approach.  He had doubled my promised pay, but I earned much more than a couple of hundred dollars that week.  I earned a life lesson on the importance of pouring my all into every responsibility I have.

Frank Vaughn, award-winning columnist and aspiring author, can be contacted at frankvaughn@gmail.com. Follow/like Frank Vaughn on Facebook, @fnvaughn on Twitter and fnvaughn on Instagram.

Early impressions of single parenthood

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I was the child of a single parent for the first eight years of my life. Being a child, I naturally could not understand why my dad was always tired, frustrated and easily irritated. I couldn’t capture the challenge of our situation from a real-world perspective because I was looking at life through the eyes of the innocent—the inexperienced.

I have been around single parents my whole life, and although the math in my head certainly told me that one person doing the job of two must be difficult, I couldn’t really capture the feeling of being singularly responsible for other lives. All I knew was that I was determined not to find out the hard way what it feels like. Then the Army happened.

I am now two weeks into being a “single parent” and I am quite certain I have learned some lessons from this experience, but if you tied me to a chair and shined a light in my face I don’t think I could honestly say what they are just yet. I’m still processing through the lessons, but here are some of the circumstances I have faced so far:

First, there just aren’t enough hours in a day. I have a 12-year-old who is in constant need of—stuff.

“Dad, I need burgundy jeans for a party this weekend. Oh. And by the way, there’s a party this weekend.”

She’s also at an age where school projects are becoming a regular thing, so…you know that school supply list they hand out at the beginning of the school year? Yeah. No one told me there would be supplemental lists every other week throughout the year as well. She wears school uniforms, and in the infinite wisdom of the school she attends, the embroidered-logo polo shirts they wear are white. WHITE. Seriously?! So those have to be replaced about every other month and, of course, there is only one place to get them and they have to be pre-ordered.

My two-year-old is a human wrecking ball. Besides being roughly twice the size of a normal kid his age, he is also right in the jet stream of his Terrible Twos, which means I clean the house top-to-bottom, only to discover 10 minutes later that it looks like Fallujah in 2003 all over again. He is also in the beginning stages of potty training, and I admit I have no idea what I am doing with THAT.

So much to do and so little time.

Second, there isn’t enough energy to maximize what precious time I do have. I hated going to school when I was a kid, but as a parent I realize what a God-send it is. Daycare, too. Someone else takes care of my kids while I go to work and try not to fall asleep drooling on my keyboard in the middle of a teleconference or long chain of emails regarding some facet of my job. I love my children more than my own life, but I get a little anxious when it’s time to pick them up because I know the whole tornado of life circumstances will blow in again as soon as they are in the car. I also hated going to bed when I was a kid, but again, as a parent, I absolutely LOVE bedtime—for them.

Finally, the circumstance in all of this that grips me the hardest is fear. Fear that something will get missed and my kids will suffer for it. Fear that I will make bad decisions and we will all pay the price. Fear that I will let them down somehow by succumbing to my own fatigue and stress and act in a way that they observe and store in their memory banks for future use in their own adult lives. I know they are watching my every move and depending on my every action, and if I get something majorly wrong, what am I shaping them into?

I am not sharing all of this as a means of complaining about my life. I’m merely sharing what I have experienced so far (and it has only been two weeks!) as a way of saying…thank you.

To all of you single parents out there who are really working your tails off and doing your absolute best, thank you. Thank you for not giving up. Thank you for working hard. Thank you for loving your kids enough to lose sleep, sacrifice personal desires and ambitions and life goals to make sure they have everything they need. Thank you for being the model of responsible adulthood that our children so desperately need to learn from.

I also want to say, don’t worry. You will make mistakes, you will falter and doubt yourself from time to time, and you will be hard on yourself. But don’t worry. If you are there for your kids and truly love them more than yourself, then you are already on the right path. Never forget that you are important and valued, and never forget that your children will always know who was there for them.

God bless you.

 

Frank Vaughn, award-winning columnist and aspiring author, can be contacted at frankvaughn@gmail.com. Follow/like Frank Vaughn on Facebook, @fnvaughn on Twitter and fnvaughn on Instagram.

True heroes that last

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True visionaries certainly look ahead as they walk through life. They are always thinking of the steps in front of them that take them to their desired destination. The goal, of course, is in front of you, but I submit that looking back can be useful too. While your future is in front of you, the lessons you learned and the people who have shaped you are behind you. They must not be forgotten, as they are vital to the person you are now, as well as the person you strive to become.

I had a ton of heroes growing up, but they were mostly disposable. I greatly admired the football genius of Joe Montana, the fluid poetry of motion that was Ryne Sandberg on a baseball diamond, and the sheer hurricane of personality and brutal ring efficiency given to the world by Muhammad Ali. Those athletes captured my attention, but the one that captured my imagination was Larry Bird. He was all I ever wanted to be…until I grew up and realized that both he and the others I mentioned were limited quantities of contribution to the worlds they represented. In terms of how lasting their contributions to the life of a little boy in Arkansas were, they were indeed disposable.

I am now a man in his 40s with a family, a job, and bills to pay. Every hero I had growing up is either retired or dead now, and while I can still relive their former glory on the internet, they simply have nothing further to offer that is of any use to me. I came to a point in my life where I began seeking heroes with a more lasting influence, and I have been blessed to find them. Here are just a few:

Bishop Imad Al Banna was the acting archbishop of Basra Province, Iraq when I served there in 2009. Needless to say, it took a lot of courage to be a Christian of common stature in a province that borders Iran to the east. Al Banna was a very public figure there, as he was not only the priest for that area, but he also owned two pharmacies and a school that provided services to the entire population, which is 97% Muslim. The previous archbishop fled Iraq for fear of his life at the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom, but Al Banna resolved to stay no matter what and provide the services and ministry to everyone, regardless of their religious affiliation. Though he endured much personal tragedy as a natural course of being who he was in the place he was in, he never lost his smile or his resolve to serve the people of Basra.

Pakistani Recycling Christians: I was tasked with doing a journalistic piece on the burgeoning recycling program in central Iraq, and I made the mistake of trying to conduct the interviews on a Friday, which is the Muslim day of rest. The day was not a complete loss, though, as I was able to meet with the director of the plant (an American). As we were talking, I noticed that there were four gentlemen who were clearly not American that were attending to the office that day. One approached me and, as he spoke absolutely no English, flashed me a 1000-watt smile and began making hand motions toward his mouth as though he were drinking something. The director grinned at the puzzled expression on my face and let me know that the gentleman was offering me a cup of hot Chai tea. He also warned me that it would be culturally rude for me to refuse, so I readily accepted. As he and the other three men were frantically bustling about, preparing my tea and cutting into a pound cake, the director told me their backstory.

“These four men are from Pakistan,” he said. “They were forced out of their country and found refuge—and a job—here.” I asked why they were exiled from Pakistan, and he said, “They were lucky. By all rights they should be dead right now for the ‘sin’ they were forced out for. That ‘sin,’ mind you, is Christianity.”

I was bewildered. I said, “I may be completely uneducated on this subject, but I was under the impression that there weren’t any Christians in Pakistan.”

“Well, there probably aren’t now,” he said. “Because these guys are here.”

They were not only living their faith in Iraq, of all places, but they were also working hard to improve the environment and enterprise of recycling programs of Iraq—and making American soldiers feel welcome in their area.

All of these men are heroes of mine. I have never seen them again since I left Iraq in 2009, but I will never forget the courage, resolve, and joy they all contributed to the world around them.

Athletes entertain us and amaze us with their physical gifts, but those perish over time and the people that had them fade into the collective memory of websites devoted to reliving the past. People like Bishop Al Banna and the Pakistani Recycling Christians, however, have given something to this world that can never perish: they have given inspiration.


Frank Vaughn, award-winning columnist and aspiring author, can be contacted at frankvaughn@gmail.com
. Follow/like Frank Vaughn on Facebook, @fnvaughn on Twitter and fnvaughn on Instagram.

Giving up: The only way to guarantee failure

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It was 28-3 midway through the third quarter of Super Bowl LI and the Falcons were feelin’ fine. For some reason, 28 points must have felt like enough to prevent Tom Brady from cashing in his fifth Super Bowl ring and making history. It wasn’t.

The Patriots, long accused of taking shortcuts and skirting rules on the way to success, had something that night that no one — myself included — thought they had. After looking flat and confused for 3½ quarters, they suddenly came alive and caught the Falcons flatfooted. Twenty-five points and the game’s first-ever overtime period later, the Patriots not only had a record fifth Super Bowl title for one quarterback and one coach, they also owned the largest comeback in Super Bowl history. How — why — did this happen?

Put simply, they refused to give up. They refused to roll over and accept the odds that were stacked against them. I read on a very well-reputed sports website that at 20 different points in the game, the Falcons had a 99 percent chance of winning. If my math is correct that means the Patriots had a 1 percent chance of turning that game around and rewriting history.

Sometimes, if you refuse to give up, you may only have a 1 percent chance of succeeding. That alone is enough to make most people give up before they even try. Let me hit you with another statistic though. If you do give up, you now have a 0 percent chance of succeeding. There is no guarantee of success in anything, but the best way to guarantee failure is to not even try. It is easier to put something down than to pick it up — gravity, you know — but sometimes it’s better to hold on to something rather than give up on it.

The Patriots also had the tools to win that game from the start. Whether it was a halftime speech that fired them up or in-game situations that gave them hope, they remembered that they were good enough to do it and they got to work.

There is an old saying: “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time!” They couldn’t score 25 points on one play, so they focused on getting a first down. Then another. Then a touchdown. Their defense focused on one tackle at a time, one play at a time, and the end result was Atlanta scoring no more points that night. As each play unfolded and New England slowly began to arise, the odds began moving in the right direction.

Is your house completely wrecked to the point it seems impossible to clean? Start with something small. Wash a dish. Do a load of laundry. Pick something up and put it where it belongs. Make even the smallest effort to get started and watch the successes add up — however slowly — over time. It may seem impossible, but once you start and you see even the slightest progress, the odds begin to slowly move in the right direction in your mind.

Maybe you are in a difficult relationship that seems impossible to fix. If it is safe to be in it and you know you love that person, then start with something small. Do something nice for them that they were not expecting. Talk to a minister — either together or alone. Go to one counseling session. Apologize if you know you were wrong. Do something to stop the cycle of hurt and disappointment and see if it creates any hope. If it does, then do another. A series of small successes over a period of time can eventually add up to a huge miracle.

Just remember this: 1 percent is something. As long as there is something, you have work to do. Giving up when there is work to be done is the easiest thing anyone can ever do, but it always leads to regret.

If you truly want to turn things around and enjoy the feeling of fulfillment and success, then do the work. Don’t let seemingly impossible odds talk you out of it. Don’t let fear of failure talk you out of it. Just do it. If you do fail, then figure out what you can learn from it, and use that to fight again the next time. Just don’t fail because you didn’t try.

Frank Vaughn, award-winning columnist and aspiring author, can be contacted at frank@fnvaughn.com. Follow/like Frank Vaughn on Facebook, @fnvaughn on Twitter and fnvaughn on Instagram.

Breaking the code

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I was a lazy high school student who rarely did homework, rarely studied and merely got by on excellent test scores. Some of my teachers appreciated my ability to kill their tests so they let me slide on the work. Others decided I needed to learn a lesson about work ethic and hit me hard for not putting in the effort.  I walked into college thinking I had academics figured out, but I had no idea what was about to happen to me. Object lesson number one: Dr. Tom Auffenberg.

Auffenberg was a short, round, jolly man who made fast friends with everyone he met outside the classroom. He had an easy, infectious smile and a demeanor that immediately set you at ease. I first met him in an office call prior to the beginning of the semester and I immediately liked him. I walked away from that encounter knowing that his History 101 class was a slam dunk for me. I was in for a rude awakening.

Call-me-Tom from the hallways of Ouachita Baptist University’s history department turned into Dr. Auffenberg, Esteemed Academic once I crossed the threshold into his classroom. He still had a very engaging teaching style, but business was business when it came to academics. He handed us a syllabus the first day of class that looked like step-by-step instructions on how to build an airplane from scratch and I knew instantly that I was in trouble.

First, there was the reading. Just so…much…reading. Our textbook was at least three inches thick and when I say it was about history, I mean it was about ALL of it. I took AP History in high school, so I decided to ignore the book and coast through the lectures. The first test I took was a complete bomb. I mean, an F. I actually tried to study, too—a little, anyway. The rest of the semester went about like that with Auffenberg and I was awarded with an F for a semester grade.

I retook that class two years later thinking I was grown up and more responsible. I was doing much better in my other classes so I had some well-earned confidence in taking on The Berg again. Same class, same professor…same result, and this time it wasn’t from lack of effort. I was still missing something at age 21 that I couldn’t put my finger on. I retook that same class with a different professor the next semester and got an A. I was just glad to be done with Auffenberg. Or so I thought.

Military service conspired to keep me out of school until I was 30 years old. At that point, I had chipped my degree plan down to just a few classes, and among them was a senior-level history course. As it turned out, the only class available was taught by—you guessed it. My stomach churned, my scalp broke out in a sweat, and my hands began to tremble. I wasn’t a kid anymore, but I still expected failure.

Textbooks in 1995 gave way to laptops in 2006, but I read every word of assigned text. I took every quiz, turned in every paper, and got extra credit for never missing a day of class. The tests were still 70% of the grade that semester, though. When it came time for the first test review, I looked around the classroom and realized I was the only student in there over the age of 21, so I decided to try a leadership technique I learned in the Army. I raised my hand, and when called upon I asked Dr. Auffenberg if he could provide a study guide for us to organize our notes around while preparing for the test. He stared at me, dumbfounded, as the other 23 students in the class all turned in their chairs to get a better look at the old dude in the back of the room who had the nerve to ask such a question.

The Berg scanned the mixture of shocked and hopeful faces around the room, gave me that big Call-Me-Tom smile that I had not seen since the first time we met 12 years earlier and said, “What a splendid idea, Frank!” I instantly went from Old Pathetic Dude to Campus Hero. I also used that study guide—and the others that semester—to go from Auffenberg Flunky to straight-A student.

The obvious point here is “if at first you don’t succeed…” The less-obvious one, though, is that sometimes we require a little more seasoning in life before taking on monumental goals. I realized through my growth process that Auffenberg was not the code to be cracked in order to succeed. I was.


Frank Vaughn, award-winning columnist and aspiring author, can be contacted at frank@fnvaughn.com. Follow/like Frank Vaughn on Facebook, @fnvaughn on Twitter and fnvaughn on Instagram.