Saturday, November 23, 2019

ninjas of kindness

 When I was a kid in the early 1980s, it was a big deal to get candy from a convenience store or ice cream from an ice cream parlor.  My parents both worked hard, and money was tight; it takes a lot of groceries to feed three sons.  Candy bars were $.50, and a Coke was about the same.  An ice cream cone may have been upwards of $2.00.  This seems like chump change to us now, but these were luxury items in my childhood.  When my dad needed something from a store, he would sometimes pause before leaving and ask if my brothers or I wanted to tag along.  We didn’t understand the importance of an invitation like this from a work-a-holic dad.  This was a valuable pause for him.  An invitation to spend time.  I remember many of these quick trips ending with a stop at a convenience store or the Dairy Dreme by Heron Circle.  An edible reward for us going with him.  A small act of kindness.

Origin stories are important.  How and why things begin are so important in the understanding of what something means.  Humans have historically enjoyed creating these stories and passing them down through generations as a way of sharing who we are and what we value. 

Last spring I started to really consider the importance of small acts of kindness.  I experienced some kindness with friends, I watched a docu-series on Netflix called The Kindness Diaries, and I was the recipient of some serious kindness during the summer.  I had many experiences with family, friends, and strangers that showed me how powerful even the smallest acts of kindness can be.  Each of those stories individually could take up an entire blog post.  Each story is important to me, and each one has changed me over the last year.  Each one could be cited as an origin story for The Ninjas of Kindness.

When the academic year began in August, I picked up my weekly coffee talk with a handful of students.  This started with Armir, a long time student, a couple of years ago.  We found sort of accidentally that we had free time on a Thursday morning and started meeting there each week to chat and have fancy coffee.  We kept adding all the art majors who passed by until we had a weekly group of 4-8 people.  These were fun times of laughing and talking, a good way to feel better about starting our full days of studio classes.

A very bright and observant student noted one day that these events were fun, but they were inwardly focused.  They wondered out loud what would happen if we changed that focus by turning it more outward.  Instead of having a coffee club that was at least a little exclusive (to those who had free schedules on Thursday mornings), what would happen if we made that same amount of time about other people?  Even non-art majors.  Maybe we could take that special magic we have in our department and spread it to our campus neighbors. 

And with that question, The Ninjas of Kindness was born.  Each Thursday since that question was asked we’ve gathered in the same spot, still had a quick coffee, but also started doing at least one activity to spread kindness.  The first couple of weeks we huddled up and then spread across campus handing out little slips of paper with inspirational phrases on them.  We handed out candy a couple of weeks.  Another week we wrote kind words on painted rocks and planted them around campus to be found by strangers.  We’ve given high fives in the plaza.  We’ve given hugs.  We’ve given out balloon animals.

But these are all just the activities.  Just the physical, observable part of the Ninjas of Kindness.  I could speculate that what we’ve also done is make people smile on a Thursday morning.  I could argue that we’ve changed the course of someone’s morning, day, or even week.  I could argue we’ve changed someone’s life…just by taking a couple of minutes of free time and thinking outside of ourselves.

 It’s a little like my dad pausing and thinking about us before getting in the truck.  Taking just a moment to bring kindness and joy to someone through a small, selfless act. 

Recently I was asked how the Ninjas of Kindness group started.  I thought about how kindness kept showing up in my life over the last several months.  I thought about how people went out of their way to be kind to me over the summer.  I thought about my mom baking sweets for me, my aunt Laura Jean sending bags of groceries to college with me every weekend, and students sending me thank you notes or small gifts.  I thought about the student suggesting we consider other people, and I thought about my dad walking up to the window, ordering a Humdinger for himself and a chocolate malt for me, silently teaching me how to be kind.

You can watch a video my son Blue created about the Ninjas of Kindness here:

or search "doug mcabee" on Youtube and find my bald head in the profile photo.  Follow or subscribe or whatever you do there.

Saturday, September 14, 2019

this one is about running

With the start of the new semester came the start of slogging with students after class.  Slogging is “slow-jogging,” and it often alternates between jogging and walking.  There is always lots of talking and laughing mixed in too.  We’ve been doing this for a couple of years now and it’s been a great way to get to know students better or even meet new freshmen.  At the first slog of the semester, Michael, who “slalked” with the group of slow walkers all of last year decided to run with us.  I asked him if he had run in the past, and he said, “Yes.”  I asked if he ran cross country or track, and he responded with, “I ran in elementary school, you know, to the playground.”  Three miles later Michael had completed his first 5K.  His legs were tired, but he was pretty amped up and very proud of himself.

Two weeks later E. Coop showed up and said she was going to run too.  She is a self-proclaimed non-runner, but what the heck?  She hung right in there with us, alternating between running and walking in 95 degree heat and full sun for 2 miles.  When she told us she was heading back to her dorm, she appeared to be dying.  An hour later she posted on social media “So now that I’ve been able to sit, shower, and drink water, I feel more alive.  And I’m a little proud of myself for actually running today.”

If I’m completely honest, I run for selfish reasons.  I love the way I feel after a run.  I love the quiet time in my brain while I run.  I love what running does for my health.  I run to stay in shape and to hopefully stay alive long enough to see my kids grow up.  I run so that I can be healthy enough to enjoy life.  I run so that I can eat doughnuts, waffles, and ice cream.  But somewhere under all that selfishness, I also run for moments like the ones described above.  I love to share something so wonderful - something I truly believe in – with the people around me.  I know how it can help them, and I want them to experience it. 

The last week of July my son Blue joined the Cross Country team at his school.  He was not a runner and had zero desire to run Cross Country.  Basically, he was told he needed to find a school sport he wanted to participate in.  The physical activity and social aspects of team sports are important, and it’s something he’s avoided up until 8th grade.  So he looked at the practice times and the length of the seasons and decided that Cross Country might be the lesser of all the evils.  Some of you may be thinking his runner dad pressured him into running.  You would be wrong.  I never ran for any team or school and other than running every day and having great running shoes, I know relatively nothing about running.  His first Cross Country practice was also my first Cross Country practice. 

On July 25 Blue ran 1.5 miles in 18 minutes.  On August 20 he ran his first ever 5K in 44:55.  He’s been steadily improving since.  He’s shaved more than 10 minutes off his 5K time, lost about 6 pounds, and has stopped feeling like he’s seriously dying every time he runs. 

To qualify to run with the team in a meet, male runners must run a 5K on a tough course in under 31 minutes.  The last .25 miles of the 5K is up a killer hill.  The kind of hill that leaves you gagging at the top.  And the heat and humidity in the South during August and September is something you have to experience to fully understand. 

Everyone on the team knows exactly how difficult it is to start running.  Some of these kids are running 18 and 19 minute 5Ks.  But there’s something really amazing about runners.  Runners encourage each other.  Everyone probably wants to be the fastest person on the team.  Everyone wants to make All-State and win awards, so there is a level of competition, but even when they’re running in a race you’ll hear these kids encouraging other runners.  I watched a girl pass another runner in the final stretch of a race and she managed to shout “You’re doing great!” to the runner as she passed. 

While his teammates wait for Blue to finish running, they often backtrack on the trail until they meet him and then run with him to get him to the finish line.  On laps they all shout instructions and encouragement to him.  The team parents also do this.  On the days I’m not able to make it to practice, some of the other dads run with him.  It’s so cool. 

Last week during a Saturday morning practice Blue had to run 2 miles and his goal was sub 20 minutes.  We started out strong and he was at the front of the pack, running with the fastest runners.  As we approached the .5 mile mark, the other runners slowly started to pass and move forward.  As each one passed Blue they shouted encouragement telling him what a great start he had.  I stayed with him, just a couple of steps ahead, for the entire time.  I shouted, pushed and encouraged.  I told him his pace and when he needed to pick it up.  The last .5 miles of his run was going to be downhill and he needed to make up some time.  There were several college team runners on the trail doing laps for a long run and as we approached the last .5 mile a group of them were gaining on us.  I urged Blue to run hard, to sprint to the finish.  I told him not to let those guys pass him.  He turned it on and ran as hard as he could.  For that entire stretch I shouted and he pushed.  And then the coolest thing happened.  As the group finally started to overtake him near his finish line, each of them started shouting encouragement to him.  They called him by his name and told him to finish strong, that he could do it, and to not give up.  It was truly wonderful.  Blue finished his two miles in 20:02, just 2 seconds over his goal.  He felt great.

Last night Blue ran the 5K course and hoped to qualify.  During the team time before running, the coach asked the runners to share something they were thankful for.  One of the varsity runners said he was thankful for Blue and that he was working so hard to get better. 

When we started running the 5K Blue didn’t feel like he was going fast enough.  He did well on the first mile but stopped hitting his goals after that.  His legs were tired and felt sluggish.  Every runner knows this feeling well.  He was getting frustrated but still he was close.  Close enough to have hope all the way to the last terrible uphill stretch.  Other runners were on the course, strangers not affiliated with his team or any team.  As they passed each one offered encouragement to Blue.  During the last half mile the male varsity runners from Blue’s team left their practice sprints and backtracked down the trail to find Blue and run him in to the finish line.  They ran with him every step and offered advice and encouragement to the very last step.  They paused to congratulate him on running hard and told him he was doing great before heading back to finish their practice.  Blue didn’t make his qualifying time but shaved another minute off his 5K.  He did great.

Now I can’t stop thinking about the encouragement Blue has been given since he joined the team.  These runners offering words of encouragement and acts of kindness are just regular people  They’re high school and middle school students with normal lives and stresses of their own.  But when they encourage someone they become extraordinary.  They literally change another person’s life. 

I can’t help but wonder what it would look like if I lived my life like those runners.  What would it look like if you metaphorically stopped your regular practice and backtracked to meet a frustrated soul where they were and ran with them to the finish?  What would it look like if I encouraged strangers with kind words and deeds that literally changed their lives? 

I want to find out.

Saturday, August 31, 2019

It was the summer of…

If you’ve followed along here for a while or if you’ve ever been bored enough to scroll through the archives, you may remember that my kids and I have the summers off from our regular school schedule.  For them that means sleeping later and then doing some parent-mandated tasks related to exercise and education (yes, we’re those kind of parents) before goofing off and being lazy.  For me that means sleeping a little later, not running in the dark, and spending my days alternating between various art-making tasks.  A significant portion of my summer involves preparing for the Summer Studio Sale.  Art-making is a required part of my employment as research and creative development. 

However, it’s still summer so whenever possible, the kids and I take at least one day each week to do something awesome.  We had the “Summer of Waterfalls” when we visited 30 or so waterfalls in the region.  I think there was the “Summer of Free” where we tried to do free fun things all summer.  Some people accuse us of doing the “Summer of Beaches” every summer, but I’m not convinced we go to the beach as often as people think.  I only spent a third of my summer there this year.

This summer got off to such a great start.  The day after graduation I loaded up my truck and a van and spent a week at the beach doing the Sand Sculpture class.  This was actually work for me---I’m not even kidding--- but it was also a very fun week.  I had a wonderful group of students, and I enjoyed every single minute of it.  Maybe you read that post.  There was also a public sculpture installation and dedication. When the kids got out of school, we went on our family vacation to the beach.  No bad days.

Violet has an early summer birthday, so when we returned from vacation, she asked for a kayak of her own.  Kayaking is something we’ve done regularly for the last few years, and she was tired of having to float with me.  A few days after her birthday we got the whole family out on the lake and had a great time together.

For that entire week I had a headache.  Nothing would make it go away.  At 4:00 am on Father’s Day I woke up with intense pain in my left eye.  I’ve worn contact lenses since 7th grade, and I’m pretty familiar with eye pain.  But this.  This was a more serious pain.  After struggling through this pain for a few more hours, I got up, put on my thick glasses and went to Urgent Care. 

I don’t go to the doctor.  I don’t take medicine.  I have no family physician.  This is difficult to explain to the Urgent Care people.  The doctor on duty came in and looked at my eye.  He asked a few questions and sent me away with some prescribed eye drops and instructions to go see my optometrist on Monday.  I was still in a ton of pain.  I spent the next few hours in a dark room and eventually decided I was hurting bad enough to bother someone about it.  I texted my optometrist and because he’s a great guy, he agreed to see me on Sunday afternoon.  He found irritation in my iris and gave me a different prescription for eye drops.  Monday was pretty terrible.  My eye felt like someone was constantly drilling into the center of it with a jackhammer. My eyelid, eyebrow, and forehead were tingling.  On Tuesday morning I had a rash on the left side of my forehead.  My optometrist texted me to check in.  He said to come in right away so he could look at the rash.  

Ocular Shingles was not something I had ever heard of before that Tuesday.  I knew of old people getting Shingles on their backs, and they always talked about how terribly painful it was.  But getting Shingles in your ocular nerve just seemed like something you’d only find in one of Dante’s circles of Hell.  By Tuesday afternoon I had yet another set of prescription bottles in my possession. 

I have only one memory of the next two days.  I got up after G went to work, put on running shorts, and ran 3.1 miles.  When I came back inside I think I showered before collapsing on the bed and falling asleep again.  I did this Wednesday and Thursday.  I’m pretty sure Blue thought I was dead one of those mornings because he was texting G while she was at work giving her the play-by-play of my actions.  He was pretty concerned until I started moving again.  The left side of my head was covered in lesions.  I looked like a leper.  It was terrible.  If you like gross things, Google “ocular shingles”.  If not, forget it and let’s just agree that I looked like a monster.  My left eye was swollen shut--- at least that’s what was written in my sketchbook.  I couldn’t keep my eyes open.  I couldn’t stand light.  I couldn’t wear my contacts.  I couldn’t watch TV, draw, or read.  Miserable doesn’t even begin to describe it.  And that pain was still there, jackhammering into my eye.  You never get used to that.

Despite having a blog, (where I can carefully filter the information I share with the outside world) I’m a pretty private person.  “Hermit’s Head” wasn’t chosen as a blog title without reason.  Aside from my immediate family and my optometrist, only one other human knew about this, and they felt it was important enough to visit briefly and bring some gifts to try to make me feel better.  G and the kids were also doing their part to make things better.  G didn’t want to bother me when I was able to sleep, so she made herself a bed downstairs and suffered through nightly dog snuggle attacks.  The kids both laid low and kept quiet, which is a significant thing for people their ages during summer.  They all brought me things and took over all the dog care responsibilities. I’m not really sure how or what I ate, but G made sure I had food and candy.

After two weeks of this I was able to watch a movie.  I mostly watched through one eye but it was better than staring at darkness in a quiet room.  We ventured out for G’s birthday, and that turned out to be pretty difficult.  I felt like a vampire in the sun.  I had to wear sunglasses all the time and since I was still having to wear my glasses, the sunglasses were worn over my glasses.  I was a mess.  It took a couple of days to recover from venturing out. 

The lesions on my head had healed, but my eye was still the same.  The same pain was still present every single day.  My optometrist told me that there were some serious concerns with Ocular Shingles.  There’s about a 50/50 chance you’ll lose some vision in the affected eye.  The pain comes from nerve damage, and some people get regular sensation back in the affected area within 6 months. Others never get it back.  The eye pain can last for several weeks leading the affected person to despair.  I was afraid of losing vision.  I could tell my vision in my left eye was cloudy.  I couldn’t focus on anything with it.  I couldn’t feel the surface of my skin on the front left side of my head, and I would get strange tingling sensations randomly.  I had also lost a good two weeks of my summer; I wasn’t making art or preparing for the Summer Studio Sale.  Despair was setting in.

The third week was all the same.  I could draw a little at that point, so G took me to stock up on some canvases and paint markers. That way I could at least feel a little productive.  I still spent most of my days in dark rooms cursing all things Shingles and Chicken Pox.  My eye doctor worried enough about me to send me to a couple of new doctors.  Each one sent me home with a new prescription and a new encouragement to “give it another two weeks and you should feel better”.  My sketchbook describes the new eye doctors as “asshats”.  I’m sure there was a good reason for that.

During week four the eye pain was getting worse, which was something I couldn’t even fathom as a possibility.  You know how you deal with something terrible and say it couldn’t be worse?  Well, it can get worse.  Despair drove G and I to Urgent Care again to try to get something to ease the pain.  We sat for 3 hours one afternoon only to be dismissed by the nurses because the doctor refused to see me.  They apparently thought I was just there for painkillers.  I think I was in too much pain to write anything mean in my sketchbook about that. 

The next morning I was in the office of a medical doctor who listened to my summer story and immediately prescribed something to help with nerve pain.  She told me it was still going to be a while before this pain eased and I needed to prepare for that.  I prefer truth to empty promises.  I didn’t write anything bad about her in my sketchbook.  But remember that part about me not taking any medicines?  Yeah.  That’s important to remember now.  Pain medicine makes me weird.  I’m weird enough on my own, so I do my best to avoid it.

That night I took the first recommended dosage of the medicine for nerve pain.  I went to bed and woke up at midnight with the worst pain I have ever felt in my eye.  Excruciating doesn’t even come close to describing it.  It was about a 76 on that 1-10 pain scale the doctors like to use.  When I remember being awake I was already standing up holding my eye and apparently shouting some very not-nice words.  Every muscle in my body was tight and I was blood red all over.  It was pretty intense.  Especially for G who woke up to me standing up shouting in the middle of the night.  She was about 30 seconds from throwing me in the car and taking me to the Emergency Room.  After about 10 minutes the pain went back to the normal jackhammering in the eye and a very confused and tired me got back into bed. Eventually I fell asleep again.  I may have had some very strange dreams after that too.  Apparently that medicine was not for me. 

The mystery pain happened again the following day while I was drawing and then again that night.  Very intense, but each one lasted a shorter amount of time.  A new medicine was prescribed, a new bottle added to my collection, and it seemed to help a little.  Meanwhile, I was still wearing my glasses every day – something I absolutely hate.  I was still avoiding sunlight like Dracula, I was still having to be driven everywhere, Blue was cutting all the grass at the Plantation, and G had taken over as the “Fun Manager” of summer trying to get the kids out of the house as often as possible. 

When week five arrived, it was the week of the Summer Studio Sale, and I had truckloads of work to do.  I enlisted all the help I could get.  The volunteers really stepped up to help me every single day.  People were making things and cleaning the house.  They were supplying me with all the materials I needed.  They were getting off work early to help move furniture around and set up tables.  They were postponing important things in their lives to help me.  They were keeping the freezer stocked with ice cream.  They were picking up my prescriptions.  As Friday approached I honestly had no idea how prepared we would be for the sale.  I think we were up until 2:00 am putting things out and pricing them. 

It was week five that I started to gain some perspective about this summer.  It was the end of July and so far our summer fun consisted of a week of family vacation and one kayaking trip.  In the dark rooms and impatient despair I had only thought of how I ruined everyone’s summer by getting sick.  My kids are wonderful humans and they both made light of the lack of fun by giving me a hard time about it…in a very funny way.  G was quick to correct me and so were my friends.  Physically and emotionally I felt terrible, but everyone around me was telling me I hadn’t ruined anything and that they didn’t mind doing all the things they were doing.  It was a lot to process and slowly a feeling of gratitude started to wash over me. 

Every day of this ordeal I continued to make my daily gratitude list.  Even on the toughest days I managed to write 11 things I was grateful for that day.  Even those two days I can’t remember I scribbled my list.  I had been so encouraged at the start of the summer with ideas and plans.  There was so much positivity, and then this door of pain and darkness slammed in my face.  I had every reason, every right to be negative but I have to confess to you that I have never in my life felt so loved.  The things these people did for me and the personal sacrifices they each made still staggers me to this day.  My family and friends who you may just expect to step up in times like this really went the extra mile for me.  And what about that optometrist who drove to his office after hours and on a weekend to see me? Who texted me every morning until I was better?  Truly exceptional people.  I pretend to be the Tin Man, but when I feel things I feel them very hard. 

The day of the Summer Studio Sale my eye still hurt but I was able to wear my contacts until everyone left.  The following week I made even more progress. I was able to wear my contacts enough to make a new sculpture in the studio.  I also got to start driving again.  My truck had sat so long the battery was almost dead.  One night that week the kids and I went on a Walmart run, and they begged for a milkshake.  I seized the opportunity to obtain their forgiveness for a summer of sitting at home in a dark house.  I asked if I bought them both large shakes would they forgive me for not doing fun things all summer.  $6.00 was a good deal for that kind of forgiveness, but of course that was just nonsense.  There was nothing to forgive.  There was only love. 

This morning, more than two months after all this started, my left eye is still bloodshot.  I can feel nothing on the left front side of my head except the occasional twinge of pain.  My eye still recoils in terror when I walk outside.  We’ve got a running joke in the family about how terrible the summer was.  Blue told me this week that Taylor Swift wrote her song, “Cruel Summer” , for me.  But honestly, while I’ll never forget some of the pain, I had to look back through my sketchbook to remember most of this experience.  What I do remember is how people loved me, how they prayed for me, how they texted and called me.  I can still see clearly.  My vision did not change at all, and I’m grateful.  I’m down to one medicine bottle, and I’m back to all my normal daily activities.  I never missed a day of running.

So it was the “Summer of Shingles,” but it was also the summer of feeling loved, the summer of learning how to let people help me, the summer of family, the summer of friendship, and the summer of gratitude for all the wonderful people I have in my life. 

Ocular Shingles left me with scars on my bald head that look like tiny leopard spots.  Every time I see them, every time I feel that twinge of pain, I remember the love I received this summer.