A Reflection On Gratitude


December 31, 1987

Dear Cyndy,

As I look back on 1987, I am eternally grateful, notwithstanding my intermittent complaints, for having had the opportunity to share more time with Greg than I would (or could) have had we not had “problems” with this pregnancy.  I’ll never forget the 10 days that Greg and I spent “getting to know each other” in Myrtle Beach, nor, I suspect, will he!!! (Somehow, I sense that the “bad dreams” he’s been having lately emanate from my efforts to change his diaper in the lavatory of a 727 en route to that “vacation”!?!).  Since that trip, I’ve felt incredibly close to Greg and, although he “seldom says so,” I can’t help but think he feels much closer to his dad as well.  He is one of God’s greatest blessings to us!

I will also remember 1987 as a time of healing – a time when God bestowed a miracle on us in the strength of a child who simply refused to relinquish her “right to life” despite what unbeknownst to her were overwhelming medical odds.  I (already) thank God for the gift of our second child and for sparing us the grief of losing her and having to confront questions of what might or could have been.  I’m also thankful for you and your resolve throughout this difficult pregnancy.  I’m sure I’d have gone nuts if similar restrictions were placed on me for even a few days, let alone several months.  I know it hasn’t been easy for you and I admire and love you for your patience – and (mostly) good attitude through it all.

Actually, the list of the objects of my gratitude is long: Lisa (Greg’s early caretaker); a new appreciation for the “plight,” sacrifices and stamina of working moms; and a better understanding of the joys, challenges and responsibilities of parenting.  And then, of course, there’s the list of “complaints”: too many dishes that need to be washed; clothes, dirty diapers and floors that need to be cleaned; too many dinners that looked and tasted too much alike; too little free/me time, etc.  Still, the good, indeed the great, far outweighed those things!  Here’s where I come down on it:  When all is said and done, I think we both should take a minute (and a step back) to reflect on and thank God for the year that was 1987 – a year neither of us likely will ever forget!

With All My Love,



6 days later, Ashley was born – several weeks early, but, thankfully, healthy.

Left Off “The List” – Again


Sometimes, I think it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that the image that greets us to a new day in the morning mirror and likely is the last one we see before we tuck ourselves into bed each night is a LIVING, BREATHING, HUMAN BEING – a person with feelings that can be hurt; a heart that can be broken; an ego, however small, that, from time to time, could use a little self-stroking; a mind as capable of self-affirmation as it is of self-distortion and self-defamation; needs (for dignity, self-respect and self-fulfillment) that deserve to be attended to; longings (for love, affection, acceptance and a sense of belonging); insecurities; and a soul that, often despite its paradoxical inability to fully receive them, thirsts for warm embraces.  It’s also “someone” who is entitled to and, likely, desperately in need of a little slack now and then – for pimples, wrinkles and/or puffy eyes that, through no “fault” of “its” own, inexplicably surface overnight, often at the most inopportune times; for mis-steps and mistakes that are almost inevitable, despite the best of efforts and intentions; for shortcomings, “blemishes” (of all types and tones), impurities (of thought and action) and imperfections that are, well, simply part of what it is to be a human being.

I came to these realizations last night, as I struggled, for the 30th consecutive time, to come to grips with the fact that someone, in this instance Adam Levine, had beaten me out for People’s “Sexiest Man Alive!” Initially, I was able to rationalize the editors’ misguided decision by blaming it on my age, the fact that Levine’s simply able to afford a better tattoo artist than I am, has a better personal trainer and considerably more free time to work out, is “lucky” to score gigs on national T.V. like “The Voice,” while yours truly is relegated to the role of lawyer in a rather nondescript, 10’ x 10’ office at Seipp, Flick & Hosley – and then, of course, there’s the SMALL fact that he gets the chance to show off his voice in front of thousands of adoring fans as the lead singer of Maroon 5, while “this guy” (thankfully!!) sings mostly in the shower!  But then it occurred to me: Not only had I not been selected for the “gold medal,” I hadn’t even made “The List” of the top 50!  What’s up with that?  What’s up is that the editors never even took the time to contact me, let alone get to know me.  If they had, it would’ve been a no-brainer.  I’d be on that damn list, if not at the top of it! 

At least that’s my story and I’m sticking to it. For now, however, I’ll just have to take comfort in knowing I can write circles around Levine just about any day of the week and from where I’m standing, squarely in front of that mirror I talked about earlier, that makes me just sexy enough!

Make A Moment, Make A Difference

heart antenna

As I type these words, the San Francisco Bay Area Make-A-Wish Foundation and the City of San Francisco are “conspiring” to make the wish of a 5 year-old boy battling leukemia come true.  It seems that, not unlike many of his peers, the young man derives strength and inspiration from superheroes and Batman in particular. And so, tomorrow morning, with the City’s help, the Foundation will transform San Francisco into Gotham City for a day.  As reported by the Huffington Post, the morning will begin with a call from the City’s Police Chief, who will enlist “Batkid’s” help in “rescuing a damsel in distress from the cable car tracks in Nob Hill.”  The young superhero will then be whisked to a local bank, via the Batmobile, where he will “arrest the Puzzler for robbing a downtown vault.” From there, he will head off to lunch at a Burger Bar near Union Square, only to be interrupted mid-bite by yet another urgent call from the Police Chief directing him to look out the window, where a group of “panicked volunteers will be crying out for his help in saving the San Francisco Giants’ mascot, Lou Seal, who is being kidnapped by The Penguin in a convertible getaway car.” A wild chase will ensue, resulting, thankfully, in Lou Seal being freed unharmed at AT&T Park! The magical day will culminate with a trip to City Hall, where San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee and thousands of grateful San Franciscans will thank the by-then-likely-exhausted young crime fighter for his acts heroism and hand him the key to the city.

When it’s done, it will be only the latest (though clearly one of the more awesome) of the “wishes” that the Make-A-Wish Foundation and its supporters have helped make come true over the years.  Would that all of us had the time, talent and resources to do magnificent things like this for others, not only to make-a-day, but, in some instances, to make-a-life!  Imagine a world like that – one where, at least momentarily, “troubles melt like lemon drops.”  The truth is, of course, that very few of us will ever have a chance to make a difference on such a grand and public scale.  However, all of us have the time and the talent necessary to make a moment and, in the process, make a difference – and, more often than not, it doesn’t require us to spend a single penny to do it!  In fact, as I survey the landscape of my experiences over the past 12 months (and the posts that they inspired), I can readily identify “making” several such “moments” with the most minimal investment of time and energy: http://tinyurl.com/nxmorpb (“A Simple Act of Acknowledgement And Kindness”); https://donblackwell.wordpress.com/2013/07/14/we-all-fall-down (“We All Fall Down”); http://tinyurl.com/kt7mzqe (“A Little Girl, A BIG Red Balloon And A Radiant Reminder Of What Being Beautiful Is All About”); and http://tinyurl.com/cygmvst (“One Dark Cloud”).  And the interesting thing is all that was required was my being on the “look out” for an opportunity (trust me, they’re everywhere!) and my willingness to seize it.

And so I got to thinking. Why not start a movement? Why not try to assemble and inspire an “army” of “moment makers” – people who begin their day with their heart antenna fully extended, searching for opportunities to make a moment in someone else’s life, preferably, though not necessarily, a stranger’s?   I’m going do it – actually we’re going to do it!  Here’s how.  This weekend, I plan to set up a simple “Make A Moment, Make A Difference” Fan Page on Facebook.  Collectively, we’re going to get a million people worldwide to “like” it and along the way we’re going to encourage them to post the “moments” they make on the page!  And then we’re going to sit back and watch the power of a moment.  I’m totally psyched!


A Fighter’s Heart


While I certainly don’t subscribe to National Public Radio’s often too obvious political leanings, I’ve become a big fan of its cultural, historical, literary and human interest work, especially its Radiolab segments, which conveniently air around the time that I’m usually in transit to my Saturday afternoon Chick-fil-A runs.  One recent story in particular so captured my interest that I actually hit the Drive-Thru and ate my lunch in the CFA parking lot to make sure I didn’t miss a moment.  The piece, entitled “23 weeks, 6 days,” is the story of Juniper French, the daughter of Tampa Bay Times’ journalists, Tom French and Kelley Benham. Juniper was born one day shy of 24 weeks, the point at which many in the medical community (and the courts) consider a baby to be “viable” (i.e., capable of living “on its own” outside the womb).  It would be impossible within the confines of this post to do justice to the entire story, which primarily focuses on the gut-wrenching life-and-death choices that parents (and doctors) confronted with babies born that prematurely are asked to make in the face of statistics that, among other things, suggest that regardless of the extent of medical intervention 53% of all babies born before 24 weeks will die and 80% will experience some form of developmental or physical impairment, including the possibility of being blind, deaf or forced to spend their life on a ventilator, while only 20% can expect to be “normal”.

But there was one piece of it, Tom’s first encounter with his less than one pound, still translucent, incubated daughter that is still reverberating in my brain almost a month later.  The listener learns early on that this was Tom’s second marriage and that, initially, the thought of adding another child to the two already grown sons he had from his prior marriage was the last thing Tom wanted to do. To hear Tom tell it, “to have another child meant embracing a future he couldn’t control.” Ultimately, Tom changed his mind, though he likely would tell you that when he entered the neo-natal intensive care unit to see his daughter for the first time, he was questioning whether he’d made the “right” decision.  And then this happened: With the guidance of a nurse, Tom reached into the incubator through a small porthole in the side.  His daughter was lying on her back with her arms outstretched and the palms of her tiny, long-fingered hands facing up.  Tom gently placed his left finger into her right palm.  As he did, she grabbed it tight. Tom “heard” her message loud and clear.  “She was saying something,” Tom recalled.  “She was declaring herself and her will to live.  And I remember thinking to myself how could I be so afraid, when she was so strong.  In that moment, she was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen.”

Maybe the reason Tom’s recollections resonate so profoundly with me is that 26 years ago my wife and I were asked to make many of those same choices about our daughter. I still remember the early signs that it would be a difficult pregnancy, the doctors detailing all of the possible complications, their recommendations that we consider “terminating the pregnancy” due to the risk that those complications could result in deformities, including a loss of limbs as the fetus continued to develop, our agonizing over and then rejecting that advice, confident that God’s will would be done, and the months of precautionary bed-rest that followed.  I also vividly remember being awakened VERY EARLY on a January morning, 6 weeks prior to her scheduled arrival date, with the news that Ashley apparently had decided not to wait (like her dad, patience has never been one of her strong suits!).  I remember watching anxiously as the fetal heart monitor fluctuated wildly and then being hurriedly escorted into a very tense operating room where doctors performed an emergency C-section and then unwrapped what seemed like several feet of umbilical cord from around our newborn daughter’s neck, while she struggled to catch her breath – and I held my own.  I remember how incredibly small and fragile she seemed at that indescribably beautiful moment, my taking a quick Reagan-esque inventory of her limbs (just to be sure the doctors’ fears had not materialized – “trust but verify”!), and the nurses whisking all 4 pounds of her off to the neo-natal intensive care unit.

I remember “our own” Plexiglas incubator where Ashley would spend the first few weeks of her life and the vision of her laying there for days bruised and helpless, with tubes and monitors protruding from every square inch of her body.  I remember leaving the hospital without her and being scared to death that she might never come home – and the day she finally did. I remember the overwhelming sense of relief and gratitude I felt simply knowing she was alive.  Looking back on it now, it occurs to me that, not unlike Juniper French, Ashley too had “declared herself” in the first few days of her life, if not from the date of her conception.  She’d let us and her doctors know that she was a fighter, that she had a not-to-be-denied will to live.  What I had no way of knowing at the time was just how often in her young life Ashley would be called upon to reassert that will or that each time, like the fighter that she is, she would find the courage to answer the bell, pick herself up off the mat and re-enter the fray.  Long before Juniper French was born, Kelly Benham envisioned herself having a daughter, but not just any daughter, one who, In Kelly’s words, was “feisty and mischievous,” who always had “a dirty face” – a “tree climber.”  Turns out, we ended up having the same daughter – one with a fighter’s heart – hundreds of miles and a couple of decades apart and I’m eternally grateful we did!


The Grotto

Grotto 2

What has it done to my life to see you again?

Robed in the splendor of late winter’s downy flake,

Revered by the frost-bitten petals asleep at your feet,

Shielded from the wind’s whispered fury by the gray grotto stone.


Oh, how the choirs of candles below sing your glory,

Piercing the darkness that steals past the guard at your gate

(Golden words faded and woven in smooth silver parchment –

a dying man’s wishes frozen and sealed under glass).


Over my shoulder, I see what the letter describes –

The snowflakes disguising the lake that will blossom in spring,

The well-beaten pathway that students traverse year around,

And off in the distance a park bench in view of the Dome.


What has it done to my life to see it all again –

Our Lady’s statue, the lake and Tom Dooley’s words,

A path too familiar, too long to walk without you

On a winter’s night bathed in memories and dried by the wind.



Pick Up Empathy Instead

scarlet letter

Several weeks ago, while sitting in church, it occurred to me that I’ve long been fascinated by stories about adulterous women – actually two stories in particular, Nathanial Hawthorne’s timeless classic, “The Scarlet Letter” (1850), and the New Testament account of Jesus’ encounter with the adulterous woman, which I happened to be listening to at the time of my revelation – but not for the reasons you might think!  No, my interest in those stories stems from the light that both authors shine on two of the darkest and most destructive of all human emotions: shame and the lack of empathy and compassion we tend to have towards those experiencing shame, notwithstanding our own human frailties and indiscretions.

Chances are even if you’re not a Biblical scholar (which I certainly am not) or a person of faith for that matter, you’re at least generally familiar with the story of Jesus and the adulterous woman.  To hear John tell it, Jesus was teaching in the temple square, when a group of Scribes and Pharisees essentially dragged a woman, who, just a few hours earlier, had been caught in the act of adultery, and placed her before Him and the gathering crowd.  Suffice it to say, the Scribes and Pharisees weren’t seeking Jesus’ advice as to what to do with the woman, despite that being the apparent intent of their inquiry.  Indeed, as evidenced by their question, Jewish law was quite clear and unequivocal with respect to the appropriate punishment: “Teacher, this woman has been caught in the act of adultery. Now, in the Law, Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do you say?” Instead, they hoped He would respond in a way that was contrary to the Law, so that they could later use it against Him – and He certainly did not disappoint!  To the contrary, we’re told that Jesus bent down and began to trace in the sand.  When they persisted, He straighten and challenged the crowd saying: “Let the person among you who is without fault be the first to throw a stone at her.”  He then returned to the sand and, as he did, the crowd quietly began to disperse, one at a time, ”beginning with the older ones” (LOL!) until Jesus was alone with the woman.  He then turned to the woman and said, “Woman, where have they gone? Has no one condemned you?” She responded, “No one, Lord.” And Jesus said, “Neither then do I condemn you; go and sin no more.”

For purposes of this post, let’s set aside the theology of things.  From my perspective, even if the foregoing story was pure fiction – a fairy tale of sorts – it wouldn’t lessen the import of its message any more than the fictional nature of Hawthorne’s work diminishes its worth.  The adulterous woman had to be dragged into the courtyard because she was filled with shame and like most shame-filled people she feared (in fact, given the prevailing law of the day, she knew with absolute certainty) that if she shared her shame openly she would be judged unworthy (of Life!) – a judgment she almost certainly already had imposed on herself.  That is the nature of shame and one of the many reasons it is so insidious.  Would that she had known ahead of time what would unfold that day in the square – that she would not be judged for her transgression, that instead her shame, put on display for all the world to see, would be met with (and, ultimately, dissolved by) compassion and empathy.  Consider the implications of this – please!  I don’t know about you, but the older I get, the easier it is for me to relate to those “old guys” who were the first to put down their stones and walk away.  I’m here to encourage others not to wait until you’re old to understand the importance of “putting your stones down” and “picking up” empathy and compassion.  Because the truth is: When we are less judgmental and more vulnerable, which all of us have the capacity to be, we give others (loved ones and strangers alike) the “permission” they desperately need to be more vulnerable themselves and, eventually, to find the courage to release their shame.  Conversely, when we’re not, shame remains locked away deep inside the soul of its host or hostess and allowed to continue to do its dirty work.

I often wish John had added a post-script to his story.  One that let his readers know that not only did the crowd disperse, but that, the following day, one of its members invited the adulterous woman out for a cup of coffee at the Starbuck’s of the day and, after giving her a warm embrace, confided that many years earlier he too had done things he was ashamed of – and was glad to finally be able to get them off his chest with someone who could understand!


A Coincidence Or An Epidemic?

spreading lies

Over the past several weeks, I’ve had conversations with four very different women, from four entirely different backgrounds, at four very different stages in their life journeys, all of whom, for very different reasons, regrettably found themselves confronted with virtually the same unfortunate predicament: Someone in their lives who professes (or once professed) to care about them either already is disparaging (or is threatening to disparage) them to others in their respective circle of friends or colleagues and, in one instance, in the eyes of the public, by vindictively spreading falsehoods about them, impugning their integrity or challenging their identity as person, mother, wife/ex-wife and business professional. Given their disparateness, I would have expected each of the woman to have very different reactions to their situations.  Oddly, however, they responded in virtually the same way.  Initially, there was an almost paralyzing fear that the “audiences” to whom their respective tormentors were intent on presenting this distorted and, in some instances, blatantly false image of who the women were would actually believe the hate-filled messengers and either think less of or disassociate themselves from the women.  That, in turn, engendered the second response: An all-consuming desire to strike back – to mount an aggressive “defense of self” directed first at the hate-speakers and, ultimately, at the “audience” of the hate-speak in order to “prove” that they were not the person others were intent on portraying them to be, that they were a good person, a good mother, a good wife/ex-wife, a good worker, etc., even if it meant getting down in the gutter with the venom-spewers and slinging a little (or a lot) of mud themselves.

The fear piece is easy enough to understand, I suppose.  None of us want to be subjected to attack, especially when It gets personal, when it strikes at the essence of our identity, either personally or professionally or both.  It’s hurtful.  Over time, such attacks wear us down, play on our own insecurities, make us question ourselves and, ultimately, have the potential to heap even more shame and guilt on what too often already are shame-saturated and guilt-ridden souls.  Believe me, the “haters” in these women’s lives (in all of our lives for that matter) know these things and use them to their advantage.  They are consummate manipulators.  They wield shame, guilt and fear like Thor wielded his hammer.  The question, in my mind, is why do we “insist” on vesting others with so much power over us?  Why do we do allow what others’ think about us, rightfully or wrongfully, to have such a profound impact on our view of ourselves?  Why does what others do or say matter so much, let alone drive us right into the dirt with them – slingshots in hand?  Moreover, what could possibly be gained by our striking back?  What “standard” is there that will enable us to “prove” to others, let alone those predisposed to believing what they will, that we are a good mother/father, a good wife/husband (or ex-wife/ex-husband as the case may be), a desirable boyfriend/girlfriend, a competent, if not exceptionally talented, employee?  And how will we measure whether our “defense of self campaign” has “succeeded”?  The point is there is no such standard (at least none that I’m aware of), nor does any yardstick exist for measuring such “successes.”

What is the alternative?  Here’s my suggestion: Take a deep breath and a big step back.  Then, putting humility on the shelf for a moment, pick up a pen and a piece of paper and, under the heading “What I Know To Be True About Me,” take an honest inventory of all the positive attributes of your non-physical, authentic self.  My inventory, for example, included the following:  “I’m courageous.  I’m honest.  I’m sensitive and responsive to others’ needs.  I care.  I’m compassionate and empathetic.  I have the ability to inspire and motivate others and to instill a sense of hope in seemingly hopeless circumstances.  I’m resourceful and a good problem solver.  I’m creative and a good writer.  I have a good sense of humor and am able to see the humorous in life.  I am faith in action.  I’m bright.  I’m a good dad.  I have the capacity to be a good and loyal friend.  I’m a good kisser (just had to throw that in there!?!).  I’m passionate and persistent.  I’ve become a good listener and more patient.  I try not to be judgmental.  I am other-centered and good at giving.  I’m a little weird at times – and a lot more imperfect than I first realized (ouch! – not gonna lie, it wasn’t easy putting those last 9 words on paper!!!).  I’m warm and unselfish.”  Here’s the key:  Those who know you best and love you most, know these things to be true about you – and that’s all that matters – that and that you know and believe them to be true and that you cling to them when you are under attack, whether it be by another person or an equally insidious and powerful adversary like addiction, an eating disorder, loneliness or depression.  Because, chances are, you will never be able to prove them to those who are unwilling or unable to see the truth about you or, worse yet, who see it, but are commitment to obscuring or trying to destroy it.