Sunday, April 13, 2014

Reflections and Life Lessons

"Just as much as we see in others we have in ourselves."
--William Hazlitt

On January 23rd, 2013, I spent a long night obediently following my inspiration across the page with a pen. I took a break to Tweet some random and unexpected thoughts about my father. I had no way of knowing how important those words would be to me in hindsight, as I read them again nearly 10 months later, when my father passed away:

My father earned the title of hero during his service in the Army. I learned this not from him, but from his friends, brothers in arms and West Point alumni from his class of 1950, whose memories and stories I collected in bits and pieces over the years.

To me, he was just Dad. And by no stretch of the imagination would I say he was an easy dad. He was a man I felt I could never please. All throughout my formative years and long into adulthood he admonished me not to live on the coattails of the success of my ancestors. "Never mind them," he'd say. "What have YOU done lately."

It seemed to me, growing up, that when it came to what I'd accomplished, nothing I did was ever good enough for him. I could bring home what I thought to be a proud accomplishment, and he would find fault in some part of it somewhere and demand more from me. And if he couldn't find fault in my work, he'd find fault in my pride.

I took these things to heart. And I battled with them for years.

One day I became a speechwriter for Laura Bush. I sent Dad one of the first speeches I wrote for her. He called me after he read that speech and told me he loved it. And then he asked me who wrote it.

Maybe he thought I'd been hired as press aide, not a speechwriter, and that I'd been assigned the task of transcribing the First Lady's remarks, which must have been crafted by someone better qualified, with more talent and experience than I had. No explanation could wash away the heartbreak I felt when I realized my own father couldn't believe that I'd been entrusted with that job -- and that I was capable of writing that speech.

Some years after that, I had the honor of working in the White House as Laura Bush's speechwriter, and I invited my dad to visit me in Washington, D.C. and attend a White House Christmas celebration and dinner party with me. I took him on a tour of the East Wing where my office was, and where some of the White House military staff also had their offices.

I'll never forget the look on his face that day. He beamed.

Later, when we were eating dinner together at the White House staff party, Dad told me something that changed my life.

He said in all of his years of military service, working at the Pentagon and so on, he had never been invited to a White House event like the one I'd brought him to as my guest that day. And I knew then, finally, that he was proud of me.

And then, more importantly, I realized that he'd been proud of me all along -- but greater than his pride in my achievements was a father's fear for his daughter...that I would somehow falter, or fail, or stumble and get hurt.

All my life what he really had been was not critical of me but vigilant for me. He had the compulsive protective need to find the flaws in my plans and point them out to me so I could fix them and overcome them -- and thus not falter or fail, but succeed - even soar.

My dad saw the hero in me that I didn't see in myself. And I guess the only way he knew how to nurture and protect that vision was by being what I saw as impossible to please.

I wish I had realized that sooner, but I am grateful that I know it now. I see it in the smile behind eyes that don't always recognize his surroundings or the people who help him every day. And I hear it now, when he says, "You're an angel. I love you."

I have found much peace in that. And gratitude.

It was a bittersweet revelation. I only had a year to spend with him in that new light of acceptance and understanding, while I looked after him in the aftermath of a stroke that led to dementia and ultimately took his life.

I read somewhere once that West Point had experimented with a new curriculum for cadets, which was a radical departure from the old-school "find the weakness" methodology: instead of finding the flaws to fix, they taught cadets to find the strengths, and build upon them.

What they discovered is that the cadets were far better and ultimately more successful for the new curriculum. They reported better, optimistic outlooks on life; when faced with challenges in both their military and home lives, they saw opportunity and hopeful outcomes and reported less depression and illness over the long term.

A fundamentally different philosophy, radically new for the institution but as old as time itself: Accentuate the positive. And it works. With fewer side-effects.

As Barbara Colorose said, "The beauty of empowering others is that your own power is not diminished in the process."

The most important life lessons seem to take the longest time to learn. But they're worth it.

Saturday, November 09, 2013

Have you heard the news? American Legacy Tour hits St. Louis Saturday Night

The American Legacy Tour's 17 artists have left Kansas City....we're gonna rock all our blues away tonight in SAINT LOUIS, Missouri.

We're halfway through the tour and ready to TEAR IT UP tonight! Come on out to the show and see what everyone's been talking about across Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, and Missouri.

We're doing all of this in honor and support of our heroes at home...America's veterans. Help us raise money for the Homeless Veterans Outreach Initiative. Your purchase of a show ticket will help erase some of those 66,000 names from the ledger of homelessness.

Bring it on, St. Louis...see you tonight!

Friday, August 09, 2013

Batten Down the Hatches, Memphis: Elvis Week Approaches

This ain't no time for Disneyland, America. It's mid-August in the Little Ol' South, and that can only mean one thing: Elvis Week.

While I'm tossing out metaphors, I just have to say that I feel like one of Santa's elves on Christmas Eve as I pore over all the activities on my Memphis schedule next week. I may be working hard to prepare for a long list of activities and appearances, but dang if I'm not downright giddy with anticipation.

I can't decide which event's going to be more fun, but one of them is bound to be the highlight (and not just for me): the ever-so-handsome and charming Ronnie McDowell's playing at the New Daisy Theatre on Wednesday, August 14. If you haven't seen this actor-singer-hit songwriter work his magic on stage, you've missed one mighty good show. Don't make that mistake again this year, people. Hop on a plane or jump in your cars and get yourself down to Beale Street next week and catch Ronnie's show.

I'll be looking for you.

There's one other item on my list that looks pretty fun: I'm going to Graceland.

The King may not be around, but his spirit lives on there...and it shines far beyond the gates of that place, in the hearts of his family, friends and staff -- and millions of fans worldwide. I've had the real pleasure of meeting one or two of them myself, and I very much look forward to another encounter, which is bound to be as epic as the first.

If you're wondering what all the fuss is about, here's a quick message from the one and only (and did I mention handsome and charming) Ronnie McDowell about the show on Wednesday:

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Under Construction...

Unmasking the new Web site soon...
I've been working on something big, and it's almost finished.

This month we're wrapping up a major overhaul of Charlie Fern Ink's web site. It'll look and feel unlike anything you've seen from me before, and that's precisely the point. Things have changed.


My work has taken on new life and meaning -- so much so that my present Web site doesn't truly reflect either my clients or the passion I have for what I do... primarily communications strategy, public relations and publicity/promotions.

Before the new site launches next month, I wanted to thank everyone who's helped me complete this project, specifically:

MATTHEW LEMKE - photography & video production; brand/image consultant

JENNA GELGAND - consultant on board for the epic rebranding photo shoot

JACQUELINE SINEX - designer and longtime consultant for Charlie Fern Ink

WEBii - Web site hosting

I can't say enough about this terrific group of professionals. I've worked with them for years, and there's a reason for that: they're the best. It's been a pleasure, as always, working with each of them. Check them out!

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Sunday, July 07, 2013


I've spent many long summers in Texas, but I don't ever recall seeing bold dashes of pink among the barren, rocky soil in July. For the past two weeks I've been observing mile after mile of these stubborn little bunches appearing in seemingly inhospitable locations.

I look at them and think, my, my. Something so pretty in such a difficult place. Mother nature paints metaphors.

Hard places aren't unfamiliar territory, of course. Sometimes we even choose them. You can complain about them if you want, or you can stop and look around for something beautiful.

I know of places where people who are hurting get together with other people who are hurting, and they gather round and talk awhile about it. When they leave, they generally feel better. So I gather too, sometimes, and sit and listen. Sometimes I talk, too. Sometimes I cry.

Like the time the plain-spoken old man recounted his life and shortcomings, whose voice quivered when he reached the part about his wife, best peach on the tree, and said he was grateful most of all for love. In a few short minutes he blew the room apart, stripped it of its shallow pretenses and misguided obsessions, filled it with hope and brought its human contents back around to what is real, and what it's really all about: love.

I know what love is; but I don't know how to go about it very well sometimes. I don't guess any of us do all the time. But I want what that man and his wife have - good, bad and all. So I keep working away, trying to get better at it. Because it matters.

The day his story moved me to tears, I was driving home and noticed, once again, the pink blossom bunches scattered among the rocks and sun-singed grass. I couldn't stand it any longer.

I pulled off the road and came to a screeching halt in a bar ditch. I took the keys out of the ignition, climbed out the passenger-side door and scrambled up the rocky hillside so I could get a closer look at the things. I took their pictures and lingered there, while cars blew past on the busy road 50 feet away. I studied the flowers and thought, "There but for the grace of God, grow I."

I returned to my car, climbed back in the passenger door, slid across to the driver's seat and reached for the ignition. I looked down at the keys in my hand and realized that the car key was missing, somehow, from the key chain.

I looked out the window at the hillside, freshly baked in the afternoon heat, covered with rocks and grass and stickery thorns. The car key was somewhere out there, and I had to go find it. I was stranded. That wasn't part of the plan.

I sat there a minute or two, staring out the window. Caught between a rock and a hard place. I laughed.

After a few minutes I got back out of the car and found my key on the ground a few feet away from the passenger door.

If you wish to go hunting for metaphors, choose wisely the one you intend to pursue, because you just might find it. You also run the risk of becoming it. So don't forget your spare key.


Monday, April 29, 2013

The Outcomes of Wordplay

As much as writing is a profession, it is also a sport. Wordplay falls within the latter lines as an essential element - and reward - of child rearing.

The process of learning to form and understand words never seemed to be a "job" for my child; it's been more of an ongoing fascination for him -- and a source of great entertainment for me. Perhaps that's because the lifelong writer has inspired the child in subtle ways, unnoticeable even to me, at times, and with surprising outcomes. It's also likely the more obvious: reading's a daily ritual that we have practiced together since his birth.

The better he reads, the bigger his library gets - and the more books seem to disappear from my own shelves and reappear on his. We read thick books together at bedtime, now: leaping long chapters in a single bound, across wide spans of pages lacking pictures and loaded with words, words, words... words pieced into altogether different syntactical shapes and strung along new lines of thought.

This has not been a solo expedition, either. As the child graduates to higher levels of understanding, I, too, must forge ahead and practice ever-higher levels of instruction, explaining the growing complexities of syntax and meaning, humor, paradoxes, metaphors, sarcasm, turns of phrase and figures of speech, in a manner of speaking.

I expect he reads now better than he speaks and writes, but the latter two are catching up with the former one so quickly that I can hardly make the assertion without having to correct myself. The first time I read one of his poems, which earned him a school award at the tender age of seven, I wept. Let the nay-sayers nay-say what they will. My child will turn out just fine. Give him a book, a blank page and a ball point pen, and he can entertain himself (and me) for hours.

I remain fascinated by the various stages of cognitive development, awed by the magnificent processes that unfold with incomprehensibly perfect rhyme and reason there inside the brain, in regions and neighborhoods that are naked to the human eye and yet quite clearly visible when they're behind obvious outward expressions.

Words have meaning and subtleties, we know, but when you put words in the hands of a child who hasn't quite mastered the art of sorting the literal from allegorical and metaphorical...the outcome is brilliant and exceptional, often unintended - and funny. I love being along for the ride. Sometimes it's like bobbing up and down in a primordial sea of alphabet soup, picking out letters; sometimes it's like floating weightless in cognitive outer space, snatching particle-thoughts out of the tails of idea-comets as they streak silently by; sometimes it's like riding seat-beltless in a run-away roller coaster car as it screams along the circuits of a Unix motherboard.

We also know now, he and I, that nonsense words can have better meaning than their sensible peers, and un-words often do a better job of describing things than word-words do. When was the last time you abandoned the traditional rules of sense for more rambling paths of syntax... and traced out your own semantical designs?

This is my latest adventure, called The Youandiser.
You are all rightling and magneticism,
abounderling as you do, so
I sairdedly said
Infinterly as you go,
I am awounding
For immeasures and nevererendy stretches
I skazerly can contain the indomitabilliest hushush true.
Yiked percertain, did we
With unslingable floatedism
Absoluting the edgeries
of sweet kitishskys while the
Jeralding Shushkas blushed
Yourminest sween
as properly ingrested,
And, oh, among the trinkledowny leaves
Saccharine feelishes
And stutters beguned
wending, wending
humming-hims and herisms.

Monday, April 08, 2013