Ken Streater

My New Good Ol’ Friend is Alive and Well and Not Doing So Good

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I met a guy a couple of years ago who at that point was an active, accomplished, and engaged man. Let’s call him “Greg.” He is still active and engaged and successful and driven, but things have changed a bit since we first met.

If you were to ask Greg, he might humbly tell you he would prefer to not be labeled with words like “accomplished,” words that some consider egotistical. While I have never run this by him, he might like it if I used the word “fertile” to describe him, as in a beautiful field from which good things grow. He would jokingly argue that the male reproductive prowess meaning of the word was more applicable, but that’s just him chest puffing for the ladies.

Greg got sick and is dying. Or, he got sick and keeps on living. You hear stories all the time of people who get the devastating diagnosis and change their life in order to squeeze into their remaining ___________ (fill in the blank with days, weeks, months,  years) what they had not done over the previous ___________ (fill in the blank with years, decades, lifetime).

You also hear of folks who may not have lived the most ________ (ethical, moral, giving, compassionate) life. Realizing what matters after the doctor delivers the news, they seek and hopefully find God or gratitude or grace. They change their __________ (conniving, untoward, apathetic, selfish) ways in hope that years or decades of being so can be reversed in what little time is left.

From the stories I hear from him and others, the photos on the walls of his home, the casual mention of this childhood friend who is up visiting or that beautiful grandchild playing outside, the loving banter between he and his wife, and just how he carries himself today, Greg has long filled his days with incredible moments, as a good man. He is ethical, moral, giving and compassionate. Greg has positively impacted those around him in ways too many to count. I don’t think he knows how much he teaches us about doing good and doing right, because he is not a teacher. He is simply a witness and a doer, and we learn from him by listening to what he says, watching what he does, and, remarkably, feeling what he feels. This is possible only because there are no layers on his heart to refract its message.

When one struggles with failing health and is limited by a frayed body it can be difficult to keep a good perspective on life, to continue to bring and feel good cheer. I once spent eight straight months on my back unable to walk more than 100 feet due to a lumbar disc that was crunching spinal nerves. I was constrained, physically and spiritually. I learned empathy but did not laugh or love much. It was a daily battle to be fun or friendly. It was easier to be woeful and despondent. I wondered back then if I had built up more of a good-spirit reservoir from a life more purposefully and compassionately lived before I was hurt, could I have drawn on that during tough times to be more hopeful and nicer.

Greg is giving and lighthearted and kind—and full of life, even as his body is not, now. I believe that his spiritual vitality is intact and shines through because it has been this way his whole life, and his muscle, brain, and soul memory will never forget this.  He has built reservoir of remarkably positive attributes that continues to overflow. He has taught me the importance of being generous and honorable, just to be that way, but to also be that way so that it is part of your core—your essence—and cannot be stripped away no matter how tough things get.

This is not to say that Greg is holier than thou. He’d be the first to admit he made some mistakes along the way and that he ain’t no Buddha or Mother Teresa or Dalai Lama (although rumor has it he dressed liked Buddha one Halloween). He once wondered aloud if his condition today is due to too hard living. But what he stands for makes this possible regret relative. We should all heed this: the distance from bad to good is far greater than the distance between good and great. If you perpetually live doing what is right—or very, very  close to it— then lament from not always hitting that mark is mostly meaningless.

Being confined to a wheelchair with joints that ache all the time would make it tough—no, nearly impossible—to be lighthearted and to laugh. In addition to his honor and dignity, Greg has maintained his ability to find humor in every situation. I ask myself about myself “Why, with no aches and no diagnosis of dying, can’t I do this as well as he does it?” This question remains unanswered but, as Greg illustrates, maybe I should find something positive within my reach right now, and just enjoy the ________ (company, sunset, ice cold beer, moment).

I have learned so much from Greg in the last two years that I consider him to be a lifelong, good ol’ friend. I have learned from him that while our time here is limited, the impact we have on others and the world is not. Whenever I hear this Sleeping at Last song (and I play this song over and over these days) I realize that it is Greg they are singing about, and I get tears in my eyes. Not just because I am losing my new old friend, but because I am blessed to know him:

“You taught me the courage of stars before you left.
How life carries on endlessly, even after death.
With shortness of breath, you explained the infinite
How rare and beautiful it is to even exist.”

I hope to spend more time with Greg; a lot more time. I want to keep witnessing love personified and be a part of that.

Every once in a while I feel cheated because I have not been friends with him for decades, as countless people have been. But then I remember a conversation with him just yesterday and another a few days ago, in which he unknowingly shared a lifetime of wisdom.  I live today knowing that I am and the world is better because of him. I honor his gift by modeling him, by endeavoring to always do what is right. His star helps light my life and always will. And, I am one of the fruits borne of his fertile field. I owe it to him to help make the world as he does: a place where good things happen and where doing right matters.

Thanks, Greg. I am excited to talk with you later today and tomorrow.

Getting to the Heart of It

Getting to the Heart of It

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“It’s the hunger to write a new story that drives them to overcome their limited circumstances,” writes Carmine Gallo in his book, “The Storyteller’s Secret.” As I read this sentence—about how individuals change for the better and achieve greatness in their lives—I realized it had broader implications: It’s the hunger to write a new story that drives us to overcome our limiting circumstances.

“The Storyteller’s Secret” is about people who are making the world a better place through meaningful work and inspiring speeches. These folks have one thing in common: They lead with, come from, and give of their heart. And so do you, when you do. And so do we, when we do.

Meaningful positive change takes root only in the heart. Harmful change is driven by something outside the heart. If you closely examine significant pivot points in your life—when things went from bad to good or good to great—you will find that the shift started in your heart. When closely studied, it is apparent the same thing applies for us as a community, be it a small town, state, country, or world. Simply, positive change starts in hearts.

American independence was not born of the brain. It was hatched from a deep-rooted desire for life free of royal encumbrance. Slavery ultimately was not abolished for economic reasons. It was because we knew in our heart that it was not right to condemn and control others based on skin color; and we now know the same of other injustices such as those wrought by religious or ethnic differences. Women did not earn the right to vote through a series of academic papers that swayed public opinion. It was because a small—then a large—group of people illustrated that fairness emanates from the heart. And laws against abusive child labor practices were put into place and continue to be enforced because we ache when innocent kids are mistreated. These and so many other positive changes illustrate that we instinctively know what is right.

The categorical imperative, an idea posited by 18th century philosopher Immanuel Kant, essentially states that “right” really does not need to be defined. Knowing what is “right” is as much a natural part of us as breathing. This knowing of right comes from our heart, not our head. It is a common and shared understanding that we humans have, and cannot ignore. It can only be shrouded by ego, greed, excluding ideologies, or hate.

Right lives in a narrow center of the spectrum of choices we make, but should always be where we turn to make good decisions. Outside of this narrow band, unconsciousness, fear, dogma, or apathy form culturally and individually harmful pulls. Decisions made outside this center lead to troubling acts. We know this because these actions often require us to irrationally justify or apologize for unjust behavior, individually or as a society. Think the “reservationing” of Native Americans, polluting of Erie Canal, and drugging and incarcerating of mentally ill.

When we examine true right—and its offspring of healthy and helpful actions—we intuitively know it is from the heart. It is our responsibility—and a perpetually beautiful opportunity—to listen to and heed this imperative. It is an obligation to not give attention to deceptive inner voices or those who seek to grow discord by manufacturing things outside the band of right, things powered by ego, greed, or capitalizing on fear.

The merchants of the economics of fear want us to follow them without us listening to our hearts. Let’s not do this anymore. Let’s listen to our hearts in order to end this practice, this administration of angst and anguish. Let’s honor our instinct and disallow a body politic bent on promoting and exploiting fear. History bears out the weakness of these approaches, as evidenced by the end of slavery and abusive child labor practices, and our growing recognition of the right to freedom for all. Over time, those who have bought from the merchants of fear see how much better it is to return their purchases, as these “goods” ultimately limit growth and happiness.

Let’s have trust and kindness and generosity and compassion guide and help us all. Let’s overcome limiting circumstances. Let’s lead with, come from, and give of our hearts. Let’s write a new story.


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During the Tiananmen Square uprising in Beijing, China, citizen protestors clashed with their own army. One brave man even stared down a phalanx of tanks, stopping them dead in their tracks. Coincidentally at that time I was in Asia, only a thousand miles but a political world away from the horrors of Tiananmen, where hundreds of hopeful young men and women were killed.  As I wandered the streets of Hong Kong early one Sunday morning during this massacre, tai chi groups flowed in unison and through tears in a downtown park, silent freedom fighters marched with a giant papier-mâché Statue of Liberty, and worried young couples pushed their babies in strollers along the waterfront.

Chinese man practicing Tai Chi outdoors.
Hong Kong, the most densely populated island on earth, is a place of contrast especially given its proximity to China. Towering office complexes and glistening apartment buildings define the skyline. Yet four extended families are likely to live together in a two bedroom apartment. Rolls Royce, Mercedes Benz, and Jaguars roll down boulevards while just across the bay and into China donkeys pull carts along rutted trails. The Hong Kong archipelago is home to some of the world’s wealthiest people and some of its poorest.

I was in Hong Kong for a few days to meet with the manager of the company that was printing our rafting business brochures. I was treated to five-star meals and personalized tours of the city. Factory and office workers hustled at a pell-mell pace to produce and achieve. Children in school uniforms played hop-scotch on asphalt playgrounds. The insane paradox of free-willed citizens living regular lives while people on the other side of a line drawn on a map were being bloodied in a fight to live unoppressed was evident all around. The death of innocents—some of whom were relatives of the people I spent time with—was the worry of the Hong Kong populace.

After spending a long weekend in this shell shocked city, I exited the taxi at the airport for my return flight home. I was politely besieged by locals who asked if I was American. They had a simple request: Could I please take a letter they had written to a loved one in China and mail it from the States? One after another, I was told that a letter from Hong Kong to China during this populist uprising would never make it to the person it was addressed to, as the Chinese security forces destroyed each one. If the letter was mailed from the U.S. there was a chance that their child, mother or father, sister or brother would get it. I took all the letters that time and space allowed. I boarded the plane with dozens of expressions of love tucked safely in my knapsack, saddened at the lengths that many people have to go through to live freely, and awestruck at how much their loved ones wanted to give them their hearts.

A couple of years later my brother, Sam, and I vacationed in Ireland, taking in the rich history of the Emerald Isle. Among a palette of lessons learned was that in the 1600’s Catholic priests were thrown in jail in Ireland for practicing against the faith of the country’s people. For a time Ireland did not like to be told how to live this way. While the Irish still bristle a bit when asked to behave, things are a little different than they were long ago. Catholicism is alive and well in Ireland as it rocks and rolls. The Irish blend godliness and good times with the best of them.

But four-hundred years ago, many of the good and some not-so-good Fathers were banished to Inishbofin Island, a speck of quartz, grit, and granulite seven rough-water miles off the mainland coast of the County Galway. To these priests, this island outpost must have seemed like the last stop on the way to the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, one final chance at life and salvation before a walk on a plank. From inside dark gray cells it didn’t matter much that the rest of the island, all 3.5 miles long and two miles wide, was often covered in snow, rain, or fog. One has to wonder if that is what the holy prisoners felt their insides were covered in, too.

Irish PubWhen Sam and I vacationed in Ireland the remains of Inishbofin’s hell-on-earth were largely eroded. Prison wall stubs poked up from sea grass. Beaches played host to gentle tides. Happy townsfolk gathered in the evenings to share stories and songs, always accompanied by a Guinness, guitar, squeeze box, and fiddle. To us, despite its dark history as a ruthless pirate’s hideaway, a naval garrison, and a death sentence for the men of God, Inishbofin sparkled. Its’ jagged black rocks, rolling green hills, fine white sand, bright azure sea, plus the sun on our backs and beers in our bellies—all against Inishbofin’s harsh past—were a brilliant backdrop to discover a culture that deeply knows and humbly admires itself.

For us Americans, whose country was born in 1776 (giving full respect to the Natives who were there long before America became America), it is a mystical treat to grab a sandwich and ale in a tavern built in the 1300s. It is also fun to be-bop down pedestrian-only Grafton Street in Dublin, where countless sidewalk musicians pound out beats for the thousands of Irish and foreign shoppers to enjoy as they explore block after block of stores and people watching. It is breathtaking to take in sunsets along the Connemara Coast, where vistas are exact matches to those you see in those picture perfect Ireland calendars.  But it is the nights that reminded us most of how and why Ireland came to be one of the awesomely artistic and culturally-rich countries on earth.

The heritage of Ireland is found on the fiddle strings that are bowed nightly in neighborhood pubs across the country. Its pride is boomed from robust voices singing with pick-up bands in towns north and south. And, its beauty is found in the laughter and smiles of those who gather as their ancestors have for centuries—for a pint and a pat on the back. We ended up in awe at the people of this isle who truly reveled in each other’s company, who honored a culture that time has only enhanced.

Nature panorama mountain landscape at sunset, Norway.The Lofoten Islands, north of the Arctic Circle in Norway, served as another source of adventure inspiration one summer. Running north to south through the land of the midnight sun, the Lofotens are home to a few thousand hardy souls and the most dramatic mountains on earth. Here straight-up escarpments rise thousands of feet from the ocean, with serrated tops that slice into the sky. At their base, fishermen head out to maelstroms at sea, seeking cod and other fish that have sustained their country for generations.

In an effort to find new rivers to run and to take a break from managing a busy rafting company in Norway, I boarded a train near Lillehammer with my friends Leo Durand and Kate Jeremiah for the twenty-hour journey north. Norway is so long that even after a day and a night on the train we were just over half way up the country. To get even further north, we took a ferry to the town of Å (that’s right “Å”, but it’s pronounced “oh”). Even though Å is at the top of the alphabet, it is serenely perched at the bottom of the Lofotens.  After grabbing a cup of chowder (deciding against a bowl of alphabet soup) we headed up island and ended up that afternoon in Reine, a fishing village nestled in a harbor at the base of those towering mountains.

We checked into our rorbu, a converted fishing shack with beds, a bathroom, and the most beautiful views imaginable, and laced up our boots. After a short hike up a mountainside to a hidden tarn, we lay our travel-weary bodies down in tufts of Arctic grass.  At that moment, a Norwegian Sea breeze began to blow, moving threads of clouds into our line of sight from behind the ridges above us. The wisps literally ran over the mountain tops like a crystal clear stream spilling over rocks. It was as if we were under water looking through it to the sky. The clouds were vapor liquefied, all the while changing color and flow. I remember getting goosebumps as Mother Nature held us in her sway, aweing us with her beauty.

As I traveled on these three unique islands, very different things gave me feelings of awe. I found wonder in the drive for freedom and expressions of compassion. I was struck by a people who share a common past and passion for their countrymen and women. And, I was awed by the glory of nature. There have been countless other times and places where awe pulsed through me, a divine blend of amazement, humility, and love. Most notably was when my children were born. I will never understand the connection I felt the moment they took their first breath and I held them in my arms.

Awe takes your breath away, drops your jaw and gives you goosebumps. Goosebumps have a couple of simple physiologic origins. One is to increase insulation with elevated skin when we are cold—with bumps. Another is to make ourselves look bigger. When we were (and some of us still are) pursued by warring tribes or giant animals that wanted to kill us, we would get goosebumps from facing something larger than ourselves. This was an autonomic nerve response to get hair to stand up on our arms, shoulders, back, head, or wherever, in order to look a little bigger than we were in hopes of scaring the hungry beast. We often banded together at these times, connected by our common fear, respect, and awareness. While this ancient survival mechanism has largely become obsolete, we still react similarly to things way bigger than ourselves. Sometimes this still comes from fear, but mostly it is from incredulousness and reverence that we experience awe.

Awe arises from the need to connect and to honor something much bigger than ourselves. It’s a reminder that we need to pursue a life that extends well beyond our narrow here and now. It is to remember that much in life is beyond explanation. It’s a nudge to stand quietly rapt together, to cherish beauty, the human spirit, and universal love.

As we hiked down from the river of clouds and into a week of more collective amazement on the Lofotens, I was struck by the irony that my deeper understanding of awe as a connector came on three very different islands. Generally, the metaphor of an island evokes thoughts of isolation and solitude. But virtually every one of us experiences awe as we stare at spectacular sunsets, feel blessed by newborns, marvel at majestic mountains, rollick in rooms of laughter, and honor freedom as a birthright. In awe, we are always and forever connected.

Let’s Be Still

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sitting-by-river-smaller-fileOver the past twelve hours, I have watched my kids play with their friend who came to our home for a sleepover. My wife and a friend went out for a drink. And my buddy Mitch and I worked out together and talked about the election and the state of the States.

My children’s friend is from a family whose parents and grandparents voted for Trump. My wife’s friend voted for Trump. Mitch did not vote for Hillary or Donald. My wife and I voted for Clinton. By the time you have read this you likely have already decided something about everyone mentioned just above. I believe this because I suffer from this same affliction. I wrote this article to help me understand the folly of my ways. I hope this story inspires you to see things differently, too.

My guess is that after reading the second paragraph your thoughts did not travel to, “It is great that kids are having fun in a comfortable home.” You probably did not think that we are fortunate to live in a place where two people can safely go out to talk and laugh over glasses of wine. Maybe after reading about Mitch you thought he did not fulfill his free-world duty or that you didn’t blame him for not voting for either one. I wonder if you noticed that two friends helped make ourselves better by positively pushing each other, or that we were trying to make the world better by just listening.

Odds are, like me, you focused on a narrow band of the person you got a glimpse of and, like me, could not understand how someone could possibly have voted that way. So, here is an idea. Actually, here is my plea.

Just for a moment, let’s be still.

I remember rowing a raft a few years back on the Wild and Scenic Rogue River, in Oregon. On the second night of the trip, a storm packing 90 mile per hour winds and horizontal rain blew through our camp. Tents were knocked over, 100 year-old towering pine trees snapped all around us, and we hurried to the camp kitchen in the middle of the night to put all of the gear on the ground and cover it with tarps so it would not blow away.

In pitch blackness we returned to the tents that remained standing and tried to go back to sleep. It was impossible. Five thousand-pound trees shattering all around leaves you with only two things to do: close your eyes and hope for the best. There was no escaping this maelstrom. There was nowhere to go to get out of the darkest of nights and craziest of storms. I lay awake tossing and turning in my thoughts, believing that my world may be coming to an end, crashing down all around me.

Morning broke with lots of good news. All the camp gear was still there, no one had been crushed, and the sun rolled in behind the mist. My river friends and I were safe and glad to be alive. We were glad to be alive. Because I had an appointment the next day I had to leave my friends after breakfast. They were going to take their time floating the rest of the river and spend one more night. I headed downriver in my raft, all by myself. As I rowed through a narrow all I could hear was the sound of the oar blades breaking the river’s surface and canyon wall rivulets whispering into the river. The peace completely contrasted with the powerful devastation of the night before. And even with a couple of rapids coming up around the corner, just for this moment all was still.

Two days after the election my good friend and musician Joe Fred emailed me a Head and the Heart cover song he had just recorded.* The lyrics are:

“I can get lost in the music for hours, honey, I can get lost in a room.
I can play music for hours and hours, but the sun will still be comin’ up soon.
When the world is spinning a little too fast, it will slow down for we are meant to last.
We’re tearin’ down so we can rebuild, and in this moment the future is feeling fine.
So just for a moment, let’s be still. Just for a moment, let’s be still.”

Just for a moment, let’s be still. Let’s stop arguing. Let’s stop fighting. Let’s stop assuming that someone is an ass or someone else is an idiot.

Just for a moment, let’s just listen. Let’s just relax. Let’s be still.

I have never lost a job as a steelworker or a coal miner. I have never been treated differently because I was black. I have never known the challenges of being a single parent. But I have been desperately in debt and out of work. I have been surrounded by gangs that wanted to beat the crap out of me just because I was different. And I was raised by a single mom who juggled it all. So, like each and every one of us, I can understand what someone else might be feeling, if I try to.

We don’t need to blame each other for the mess we have created. We are each other. We don’t need to point at someone else and say he or she is the problem. I am part of the problem. We do need to recognize that there is big money to be made in a divided society. Think war machines. Think two homes per family. Think greater media profits when viewership is up because of sensationalist news. It is vitally important to be aware of the power and desires of these industries. But don’t assign blame there, either. By default or demand, we support the media. We fuel lobbyists with the economy we make. We elect those who are making decisions for us. We are them. We can change them by changing us.

It’s possible that we have reached a breaking point. We did as a union just before the Civil War. We did as a country when civil rights differences and the Vietnam War tore us apart. While violently painful and scarring, we came through these events and many more like them not unscathed but at least more understanding. To come out right side up and on the other side of this hell, history needs to repeat itself. The vast majority of us need to focus on what we have in common, leading more with our hearts than our heads.

It’s possible that we can’t repair the damage done from this election, where “free” speech allowed kids and young adults and parents and senior citizens trashing each other without even listening to what anyone had to say. In this case, free speech came with a cost. My gut tells me we are not at a breaking point but we are certainly at an intersection. Where do we go from here? I don’t know, but I pray it is somewhere together. How do we get there? I am not sure, but I think I know where we need to start.

Rivers have a way of turning out calm. Rapids can toss and turn over a raft, but below every rapid is a stretch of quiet water. Storms can rile up a waterway until it is unrunnable, but then the storm passes. Time and distance on a river means you will end up moving peacefully to your destination. A journey is made by this, made of old and new friends who marvel at what we all see and feel: the beauty of where you are, the comfort of good company, and the recharge of peace.

Kids like to laugh. Friends like to hang out. Each of us like the idea of a better life. Before saying another word, before taking another step, before trying to figure it all out, let’s just drift a bit, together. Let’s sit in awe at the same goodness that surrounds us all. This can be done even after a hellacious storm. So, how do we restart this journey? Just for a moment, let’s be still.

A Crying Shame Campaign

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end of tears

I just watched a video of Mexican-American children quietly crying that their mom or dad or grandma might be forced to go back to Mexico if Donald Trump is elected. I realize this video could be seen by some as campaign propaganda, to which I say it could be. But to me, it is simply this: So many times I have heard Donald Trump say to so many people that they should “be ashamed of themselves” or “shame on you.” Personally, these phrases turn my stomach, because they say “The world should place shame on you” or “You are to be shamed.”

The lowest emotional state we can feel is shame. It exists in its purest form to self-ostracize, to punish by belittling or banishing oneself, to make ourselves feel unworthy of belonging, unworthy of being loved.

Only a person without empathy would seek to fill people with shame. Only a person lacking compassion would fill living rooms with words that break children’s hearts. This is a shame.

McDonald’s is Back! Let’s Celebrate!

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McDonald's is Back!McDonald’s is back! They are profitable and growing their sales again. After a couple of years of declining revenues, their top and bottom financial lines are looking better. Let’s salute their turnaround!

Are you asking yourself, “Why is this something to celebrate?”

The not-so-subtle message here is that we can improve our culture by not supporting businesses that injure us physiologically and psychologically. As a nation, America stopped eating as much at McDonald’s because their food is harmful to our bodies and our environment. But, as they change their menu a bit and get rid of some toxins, we start to think that maybe they have our better interest at heart.

There is still a long way to go-a long, long way to go-but we can alter industries that hold too little regard for what truly matters. We can reduce the profit-at-any-cost mentality and the economics of fear. Be it media, fast food, banking, insurance, or politics, we can inspire industries to embrace heart-driven values. We can beautifully boomerang big business.

Don’t minimize the power of voting at the polls and with your wallet. Know that turning off the television, taking one less trip through the drive-thru, or switching from a Wall Street bank to your local credit union has an impact. We each and all can do these things. Let’s approach this positively in order to evolve and thrive instead of doing it angrily, at the expense of others. This makes the world a better place. Cheers!


On Rainforests, Rappelling and Reflection

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There were 35 of us: nine families with a total of 19 kids, from 20 years old down to nine, living in three vacation homes for a week in Costa Rica. This was our third annual trip with multiple families coming together in an adventurous place. Each year this great group of friends gets a little bigger. First, twenty of us hung out on the North Shore of Oahu, then two dozen rafted Oregon’s Wild and Scenic Rogue River, and now we played in rainforests and on beaches, in the place of “pura vida.”

On day three of our vacation we piled into two mini-buses and headed into the rainforest hills, to spend hours zip lining, rappelling down towering waterfalls, and “monkey dropping” into idyllic pools, all in the canopy of towering Coconut, Ceiba and Gumbo Limbo trees, some of which reach over 150 feet tall. After a thorough safety presentation at the remote Quepo Canyoning headquarters—a talk that gave us an appropriate scare and respect for what lay ahead—we geared up with climbing harnesses, carabiners, figure-eight belay hardware, and helmets. We climbed aboard jeeps and four-wheel drive trucks and motored on rutted rollercoaster roads deep into the wilderness. At a river’s edge we hopped out of the rigs and waded across. Our Costa Rican—“Ticos” as they call themselves—guides led us into the woods as we nervously snaked up slippery steep slopes to the base of a huge tree with a zip line platform overhead.

The first to climb up the rickety twenty-foot ladder to the five-foot wide deck cabled to a Ceiba tree 120 feet above the forest floor was the smallest among us, my intrepid nine-year old daughter, Delaney. At four-foot zero-inches and 55 pounds, “Laney” is a munchkin of epic proportions. When she was three she slammed her fingers in the car door, clean shut, without my realizing it. As I stepped out of the car she quietly said, “Daddy, my hand is stuck in the door.” I quickly opened it and saw that she had creased her fingers to the point where most kids would have shrieked in pain. She didn’t draw a tear. I was again reminded of her toughness 15 minutes after getting home from this Costa Rica trip. Before even walking in the front door, this perpetual gymnast did a few flips on her treasured trampoline and then walked barefoot across the lawn towards our porch. “Dad,” she said. “I think I stepped on a bee.” Sure enough, she had. After a few minutes of ice on her arch she headed back to the trampoline.

Now, she was getting “binered” on to the zip line cable and given a thorough “how to” by one of our guides, my wife and I and others drop-jawed at the height and distance of the run and her pioneering spirit. We cheered her on as she inched to the edge of the planks. She stepped off in to space and slid at the speed of fun around and through tree branches with leaves as big as she.

After a several eternal seconds she was grabbed on the other end of the line by another guide, and stood up on the distant platform. We all hooped and hollered and followed her on this and another and another ride. How could we not? Who among us would not match her will, borne of single digit years of life experience?

This day of adventure and the entire week—filled with body surfing, scuba diving and snorkeling, hiking in torrential rain, and more—provided everyone on this vacation with opportunities to face fears and move forward. Most found the 100-foot rappel down a thoroughly soaking rainy-season waterfall the scariest. To say that the cataract’s spray got in our eyes would be an understatement; the water was so powerful and frightening that it got under our skin.

After the zip line, waterfall, and rappel day I asked Laney which activity had made her the most nervous. Her answer was the same as mine; walking across the v-shaped cable bridge suspended over a deep canyon with only a ½ inch wide wire underfoot and two thin lines at shoulder height to help us balance. I have long been afraid of heights (maybe that is why an ex-girlfriend who loved to rock climb left me for her climbing instructor!). I was able to inch my way across the thing by focusing on the other side without looking down, my heart climbing in my throat with each sloth-like step. Laney said she got scared about half way across the 100-foot span. I asked her how she managed to keep going. “I was really afraid and almost stopped,” she said. “But then I just starting singing a song to myself, and I made it to the other side.”

Many mornings on this trip, before others awoke, I would head up to the open air palapa at our rental house, lie down in the hammock, marvel at the Pacific below and birds and monkeys around, and read. The sound of the ocean rolling in and the toucans greeting the day sometimes lulled me back to sleep. I would read a few pages and peacefully drift off and then come back to life and read some more. The new book that I serendipitously brought—The Space Within—was written by a friend of mine, Michael Neill.

I was Michael’s liaison and advisor for his TED talk, where he shared one of my all-time favorite quotes: “You are never more than one thought away from a whole new experience of being alive.” Since I first heard those words I have tried, but often failed, to live by this credo. In Costa Rica, I read his new masterpiece filled with insights into how thoughts control our actions and emotions. I took to heart his lessons on how I can be and do more for me, those around me, and the universe we each create and call home. One of the ideas he conveyed in The Space Within that I applied on this trip helped me realize “a whole new experience of being alive” on this vacation, and to this day. That idea was to consider one simple sentence when I cower, am overly concerned or harsh, or may be limiting myself or others by overthinking: “I don’t have to think that.”

It was the morning of the zip line day that I first read that line in Michael’s book. When Delaney explained to me that evening that she just started singing, I realized where her zest for life comes from: when she has thoughts that frighten her, make her mad or sad, or keep her from fully experiencing life, she chooses not “to think that.” When she was too scared to take another step she recognized that she did not have to think that she was petrified. She changed her emotions by thinking of and singing a song. My favorite quote of Laney’s is “Happy makes me happy.” With this as her underlying approach to life it is easy to see how this old-soul youngster changes her thoughts to make life better.

Delaney’s mom, Danielle, used to love the ocean and big adventure until she almost died in Costa Rica 20 years ago. After living together in bush Alaska for two years, where I taught at a K-12 school with only 90 students and she finished her Master’s thesis, she pursued a lifelong dream and joined the Peace Corps. She had been in Costa Rica for a month, training for her assignment in Panama, when she and two new Peace Corps friends from the Midwest decided to enjoy a rare day off. They took a bus from the bustle of San Jose, the capitol city, to Jaco, a west coast beach town. She dropped her towel on the sand and ran into the water, the former Huntington Beach, Southern California kid seeking a rebaptism of ocean water.

In an instant, Danielle was swept 200 yards out to sea in one of the notorious Central American rip tides. She treaded water as the shore faded away, dove deep every time another and another and another five-foot wave crashed down on her, and felt the presence of her father who died when she was only seven years old. Between the swells that swallowed her, she frantically waved and screamed at her month-long friends who were sunning on the beach and thought she was just being a kid in the waves again, not hearing her pleas over the water’s roar. She swam in and out and sideways for thirty minutes, cried in fear of never again seeing her mom, brother, and me, kept coming back to the surface by believing she could fight through one more dunk, one more dunk, one more dunk. She finally kicked and clawed herself ashore with the help of locals who dragged her out of the ocean. One week after she saved herself eight tourists died at the same beach from those same rip tides. Today, lifeguards sit watch over these waters.

Danielle is a magnificent mom. From Dawson, our 12-year old son who kayaks wild rivers and first flew a plane at ten years old as part of his pilot’s license lessons, to Dari, who is learning how to jump big horses over increasingly higher fences as a nine-year old equestrian, and to Dari’s twin sister, Delaney, our kids and I are blessed to have her. Danielle has also put up with me and my “idiosyncrasies” (that’s a fancy word for “smart mouth and pain in the ass behaviors”) for decades. With my witness to a few potentially fatal accidents on wilderness expeditions and her near-death experience, we tend to be overly cautious at times with our kids. But we let them try to do adventurous things as much as our etched-in memories allow.

The bravest among us on this trip was not Delaney or another youngster, or the forty and fifty-something year-old friends, who ranged from shivering scared (I am speaking for myself here) to super excited. It was Danielle. I saw something in her that I first fell in love with, that she understandably had closeted away for a while; her free and adventurous spirit. In Costa Rica, again, she quieted her thoughts and faced her fears by screaming across zip lines, watching her kids getting gentle-cycle washing machined in tropical waves, and yes, plunging head first into ocean waters that once stripped bare her soul.

“Pura vida” directly translated means “pure life.” But the direct translation does not convey the heart of the phrase as felt by Ticos. The smile on their faces and the light in their eyes as they say these words express how peaceful, grateful and content they are, and how they want you to be the same, moment after moment, in their rapturous country. Costa Rica is a place aplenty of food, sunshine, fun, nature, and great company. It is a country where thinking too much can get in your way. It is where Ticos and tourists find themselves in beautiful feelings, in what Michael Neill calls “the white space between thoughts.” On this trip, the scars of the past unblemished and were replaced with here and now existence. Bliss advanced as thoughts receded, allowing Danielle’s memories to rest and her pura vida heart to shine through.

Up high in the hammock on the eve of our return trip home, I reflected on Delaney’s wisdom, Danielle’s emergence, and the pattern and challenges of my thoughts on this trip, and beyond. Even though I once led dozens of people at a time down rivers and up mountains, I struggled with opening up in this large group, believing that what I had to say didn’t much matter with all of the ideas and plans presented by others. I grew impatient with Danielle’s fretting over little things like how to split the cost of dinner with all of us diners or it being unsafe for our kids to walk along the road through town. With a lifetime of experience handling logistics for international adventure expeditions, I got frustrated with good friends who over-planned walks along the beach from our oceanfront vacation homes. There is more than a little irony there: I thought way too much about companions who thought way too much.

But by grace and the lessons I learned from a great author, a wife who washed away worries, and a mighty mite who simply started singing, during this vacation I often changed my experience of being alive by not thinking limiting things. Instead I marveled at the beauty of 35 beautiful people who collectively and individually found joy—and peace of mind—in a wild place.

Do We Need To Fear Donald Trump?

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I was recently asked by a friend if we should fear Donald Trump. I answered “that is up to you whether or not you choose to fear him, but I don’t fear him.” I try not to fear anyone or anything. Even though I try not to fear, sometimes it gets me, which ultimately limits me from experiencing more, doing more and being more.

It is not really fear that Donald Trump stirs in me, but pain. I am pained by his message and wonder about the impact it has on my kids. To best understand the impact of his loudly expressed ideas, I take it down to street level. Imagine you are walking through your hometown with your children and you see people and businesses on this or that corner. Can you imagine saying the following to them?

“See those people over there with the burqas (or fez or turban)? Don’t trust them because they practice a different religion than you do. They should not be in our town. And, see those Mexican immigrants working over there? We should chase them out of here because they don’t belong and they are stealing jobs. And, see that guy over there that once disagreed with me? Do you want to go punch him in the face? Its alright if you do. And, see that bank over there? It is okay if you don’t honor your obligations to them even though you could if you just took money out of one pot and put it into another. And, see that woman over there? Go ahead and make fun of her because she is not very attractive.”

I just can’t figure out a way to explain to my kids that this is an okay way to regard and treat others. I also can’t figure out how explain to them that it is okay if someone who wants to lead them feels and acts this way, too.

Fear or Trust in Your Community: It is Your Choice

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Ken TEDx Stage 5

My TED talk seems all the more appropriate given the tragedies of the past few days. Innocents die by senseless, unprovoked acts. Communities become scared and scarred. The media sells fear in order to increase profit. Anger burns. Horrific violence occurs. Innocents die. The cycle repeats and builds.

How do you stop this tornado, this hurricane, this spinning out of control? Take shelter. In each other. See others for who they really are: someone just like you, wanting to trust and be trusted. Turn away from your television and turn to your friends and neighbors. Build your community by seeing what is good and by believing in one another.

The Greatest July Fourth Story Ever

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Dawson Go Kart Parade (2)Just out of first grade, enjoying summer riding his bike, building forts with friends, catching lizards with his sisters, and playing Army, Dawson stood on the curb in the heart of downtown Redmond, Oregon, on July 4. “Dad,” Dawson said during the small town Independence Day parade, “In next year’s parade I want to drive a tank with a turret that actually moves and fires.” I scratched my head, scrunched my face, and replied, “Well, we might be able to do something like that but it may not be a full-on tank with an actual weapon. Let’s think about it.”

For the rest of that summer and through his second-grade school year, Dawson had a blast with his friends doing soldier drills like the belly crawl, marching in order, and training on home-made obstacle courses of old tires, sawhorses, and hula hoops. He created “Dawson’s Army Club” so that he and his friends could just hang out as soldier buddies. He read books and watched videos on World War Two, modern and old tanks, and bombers and fighter jets, learning everything he could about the military. He visited an air museum, spent a day at a living history event amid jeeps, armored personnel carriers, and modern day soldiers, and he wrote a picture book on weapons around the world, passionately pursuing his newfound greatness as a young military expert. And I bought him a go-kart.

By the end of June, the go-kart was painted in camouflage colors and had features like any good military dune buggy. The roll cage was adorned with a decommissioned real-life anti-tank weapon, toy M-60 rifles were strapped to the sides, and the homemade compressed-air marshmallow bazooka was ready for action. Dawson and I had built that contraption that now sat in the hands of giddy Army kids who pulled the trigger to launch king-sized sugar puffs into the air.

The pre-parade training-run day arrived. Dawson and his friends, outfitted with camouflage helmets, real military vests, and jungle and desert-rat face paint, were set for the big day. For a year, Dawson and I had worked together so Dawson’s dream of driving a tank in the parade would come true. The go-kart was now the ultimate stealth desert patrol vehicle, as Dawson’s tank was replaced with this Desert Storm dune buggy he loved. Ready to roll, I pulled the starter cord to start the training. The rope handle snapped clean off. It turned out that I, living blithely on the opposite end of the high mechanical aptitude scale, had bought a relatively funky Craigslist vehicle that only through the grace of the go-kart gods had run well for weeks—up until now. The next day I took the buggy to my neighbor, who ran a small engine repair business.

“Dawson has been planning and building and dreaming of driving a military rig in the July 4th parade, and I have a problem,” I said.

“Don’t worry, we will get it fixed,” replied my neighbor, Daryl. “But, this is a goofy homemade kart. The engine is an irrigation-line motor and this frame was built in someone’s garage.”

Daryl’s employee fixed the cord and made a few other improvements that would help the makeshift machine make it through the parade.

Two days later the kart was back in action for another test drive, and ready for July 4th. The Army Club boys started it up and took it for spins around the school parking lot, preparing to drive it in the parade line between the rodeo horses and classic cars. They drove it hard until it ran out of gas. After filling the tank back up, I tried and tried to get it started. With no luck and three days to go, I took it back to Daryl—my new hero. Daryl ran a busy shop, with three employees, dozens of lawnmowers, chainsaws, and even a few go karts lined up waiting for a fix. Normally, it would take a few days to get your machine repaired, which didn’t matter much considering the speed of growing grass. But this was different. The parade would not wait and Dawson’s fulfilled dream was on the line.

I didn’t even need to plead with Daryl. A retired airline pilot turned small town business owner, making the right decision in order to take care of people was in his DNA. Generosity flowed through his veins. He said he knew how important it was to get it running and would clean the carburetor and add a fuel filter by tomorrow. The next day it was back in action—until it stalled on its final training mission. One last emergency trip to “Super Daryl” and his mechanic left us with hope and a new throttle spring for the big day.

The go-kart inched along a side road towards the Main Street parade start. Dawson, excited and nervous at the wheel, his three friends, me, and Bubba, another father who had decided at the last minute to walk the route with the boys, slowly moved through the blast-oven heat, as the first real hot day of summer swept in. A huge crowd framed the mile-long route, forming a sea of red, white and blue. Dawson rolled forward, gingerly touching the gas pedal so he would not run into the group in front of him.

Then, it died. I pulled and pulled on the starter cord, but it would not start. Dawson, whose eight-year old heart sank as he sat, motionless, yelled “Dad, it’s not running. Please fix it!” Bubba, who was a mechanic, asked Dawson to put the gas pedal all the way down to let air into the superheated flooded carburetor. The engine roared to life and the group again moved forward, with serendipity now along for the ride. We turned the corner and headed into a roar of waving flags and clapping families.

Every foot of the packed parade route kids yelled out, “How cool! I want to do that!” as the Army Club passed. Dawson gave thumbs up after thumbs up, bazooka marshmallows sailed into the crowd, and the emcee at the judges’ table exclaimed, “I can’t believe these are second graders! What a great Army Club vehicle!” The machine fought its way to the end of the route, threatening to die but never giving up. It was as if Daryl’s gift willed it across the finish line. After 30 minutes of pure joy and pride, Dawson pulled to the curb, climbed out, unsnapped his camouflage helmet, high-fived his friends, Bubba and I, and glowed. I stood back and soaked it all in. His dream had come true.

A few minutes later a motorcycle pulled up. The rider jumped from the bike and took off his helmet. It was the mechanic from Daryl’s shop!

“Right on!” he said, “You did it!”

“Thank you,” I said, with tears in my eyes. “You made my son’s dream come true. Thank you.”

He smiled from ear to ear, snapped a photo with the boys around the rig, climbed back on his bike, and roared away.

In his book The Generosity Path, Mark Ewert explains, “The word generous comes from the Latin generosus, which means ‘noble’, ‘magnanimous.’ Magnanimous in turn comes from the Latin words magnu—‘great’—and animus—‘soul.’ Generosity’s rich meaning implies giving freely, giving more than necessary, and giving more than expected. Generosity ennobles us. It makes us great souls. As an added delight, the prefix ‘gen’ means birth. So, generosity causes something new to be produced.”

Two days after the parade Dawson and I walked up the street to a place that had become more than just a repair shop, gratitude held in our hearts and hands. I gave Daryl a six-pack and Dawson handed them a homemade thank you card—with a drawing of a boy driving a military go-kart. Dawson shook Daryl’s hand and told him thank you. Glowing with quiet pride, Daryl tacked the drawing on to the wall.

“I’m guessing you don’t know this,” he said to me as he pointed to his mechanic. “He walked just behind you the entire parade route, carrying his tool kit, staying real close to keep an eye on you. We figured he’d better do that in case the go-kart died and he was needed on an emergency basis.”

My head spun and heart swelled, hit by their caring. “Thank you,” I said, “Thank you.” Overwhelmed by this act of kindness, Dawson and I turned towards home, as tears again filled my eyes.

There is no way truly to understand the power of a dream and the depth of a gift. But on this July 4th, a dad, a son, hard work, dedication, and a loving neighbor brought hope to life. Daryl’s giving made one little boy realize that dreams do come true and that people do care. His generosity—his  great soul —spawned kindness that forever ripples out into the universe, like a funky old go-kart with precious cargo aboard that just keeps rolling along.

Thanks For Your Request!