The Exaggerated Story Of Your Grandfather

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There was no way that it was true. But I enjoyed hearing it anyway. Every grandson wants, or maybe needs, his grandfather to be a relatable hero. My grandfather, known the world over as Pap, would stick his middle finger in my chest and say, “Did I ever tell you . . . ?” Yes, you have told me countless times, I’d think. But as a kid, you don’t have the tenacity or vernacular to chide a man two generations your senior. I’d just listen.

“It was the bottom of the ninth. It may have been in Germany, but you see, a lot of the best ball players were still serving. So, we were touring Army bases and playing real squads; it was a whole league. And I mean these guys were tough.

I come up with us down two runs and only one out. The bases are loaded. You know, Johnny on third’s got good speed. And Skip calls me back to the dugout. I walks up to him and says, ‘You want me to bunt, Skip?’ And he spits out his ‘baco and says, ‘No, I want you to hit a home run.’

I walks up and on the next pitch: Pow! I’m circling the bases.”

Sure, my grandfather was an exceptional athlete. The Pittsburgh Pirates had drafted him not long after that alleged heroism. In his stories, he’s the quarterback of his high school team, beating Mike Ditka in cross-town rivalries. But I still couldn’t buy the story.

Even at that age, I understood how time distorts and glorifies our stories. Exaggeration makes for a better story. We are all the Moses of our memories. Continue reading

The Taste of Anxious Leadership

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I could taste the anxiety. It boiled up through my throat, staining the roof of my mouth like second-hand smoke on wallpaper. It had been coming with a certain frequency these last few months. High jacking the moment without warning or provocation.  I pounded the steering wheel, hoping that venting frustration would will my gag reflex to submit to my commands. It didn’t work.

Looking at the time, I might be a few minutes late if I remained in my car. I had been asked to speak to two sections of Social Work 101 at Boise State University. Given the duration of the class to share about my organization’s efforts to end homelessness and my personal reflections on working in social services. The students had no expectation of me, of course; as entry-level seekers, they likely have no concept of the work they’re entering beyond the well-trodden script of “I want to make a difference.” How could they?

13895274_1363689890327346_2656045499545318246_nI came to tell them about the vision and values of CATCH, Inc. To tell them that Housing First is the most effective strategy to end homelessness in our time. But as I grabbed the railing on the stairs of the Multipurpose Building, resting to dry heave, I wished I could tell them that the world has enough social work martyrs.

It’s the underbelly of the work that we do. The do-gooders paradox. We are asked to help, but we sometimes struggle to help ourselves. We would gladly put on your gas mask first and get to ours long after the cabin loses pressure. This is not some rant about the need for self-care, as if taking one more hour each week would change our base psychology. We need to retire the idea of work-life balance. It doesn’t exist. We can’t – I can’t compartmentalize like that. Five o’clock comes, but the anxiety doesn’t dissipate. The balance, the desperate yearning for mindfulness is a full-time practice. Continue reading

Baseball, emotion, and reason

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The Brothers Schroeder enjoy a baseball game with, you guessed it, ice cream helmets

I was awake late in the night of October 14, 1992. I was 11 years old, a young pup and, against my constant wishes, I had a bed time. This night was an exception my mother was willing to make – it was Game 7 of the National League Championship Series and the Pittsburgh Pirates were winning. For the third straight postseason, the Pirates were close to the World Series and my brother and I were rapt with excitement. This was fandom at a young age. You don’t know sport heartbreak, you can’t parse the odds of victory, and you don’t really know about what decisions could increase your chances of winning. All you know it one Boolean outcome: win or lose.

Well, the Pirates lost. In the ninth inning, Barry Bonds’ throw from the outfield on a bases loaded single was too late. Sid Bream slid and so did another October, away from the Pirates away from our grasp and into the ether of sadness.

Twenty four years later, my fandom of baseball passes by another October, like a planet on an eccentric orbit.

Chicago Cubs President Theo Epstein has one of my all time favorite baseball quotes: “The game is best understood at 10,000 feet. But it is best enjoyed from the front row.”

It is during each monumental, invested sporting event that I can’t decide whether to get in the airplane or scramble down to the bleachers and lean over the fence. As I get older, the whimsy of naïveté passes and I detach farther and farther from the magic of sports. Players aren’t heroes. Games are largely about the money. TV rules the universe. And yet, it’s the ingrained childhood wonder that raises the emotional buy in when the playoffs roll around.

Continue reading

A Hole In The Earth

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One day, a hole in the earth appeared. There had been other holes, but this one seemed different. It lingered longer than it should have, and, upon a closer look, it looked to be deeper than other observed holes. The townspeople grabbed their shovels, ready to go to work to repair this section of town. But when the masses gave it a true inspection, it was clear this was no ordinary hole.

An expedition was tasked to research, since this was no ordinary hole, after all. It was worth a holistic investigation. Equipment on their backs, they descended into the deep. Immediately they learned that it was not just a hole. It was a cave, a maw, a long and twisting underground chamber. This was not to be a simple exploration.

Their first discovery on their expedition was sadness. The walls of the cavern showed the scars from a great battle, an emotional war that was waged over a short amount of time – a surprise to the investigators. This isn’t something we’ve seen in many years, they said. Why did this happen, they wondered. The battle left craters in the cavern, forcing the men and women to watch their step, lest they twist an ankle. Tiny shards of emotion, diamond shaped fragments littered the walls, jagged edges that cut deep if you’re not careful.

It was overwhelming and the inspectors debated an end to their search. But curiosity drove them and they decided to press on. We need to know what caused this, they said to one another. Onward they pressed.

Their second discovery was doubt. Questions marks dotted the walls, challenging the choices that were made.

Their third discovery was anger. The past fires of the caves burned hot, large black scores into the walls of crevasse. The investigators felt the dissent for the past actions taken, a burning for poor responsibility for the feelings at hand. But the most anger was directed inward.

Their fourth discovery was jealousy. Intricate paintings of pairs, sharing themselves with each other. The embrace of countless lovers, while lone souls sat far to the side, pining.

They found it. It took them weeks, almost months, but they found it. Buried at the bottom, steaming from the wreckage it caused, they got to the bottom of it. Loss. Placing their hands upon it, they could feel the sense of longing. This was something buried long ago, an icon of a time when things were better, pure, happy. But when those times passed, it transformed into loss and crashed, burying itself deep within the ground. The expedition was silent, their hearts tugged at the gravity of what was in front of them.

The expedition thought best to move Loss so that the hole may be repaired. One of them bent over to lift it alone, but could not. The weight of Loss was immeasurable, it’s mass bigger than the sum of it’s parts. It was clear that no one can carry this burden alone.

Without warning, ropes descended from the mouth of the cave, falling like a sudden rainstorm. The townspeople, unprompted, came to the lip of the cave and offered a hand. Without expectation, they worked seamlessly, motivated to move Loss, no matter how long it took.

There’s Got to be a Formula for Joy, Right?

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Would I know it if I felt it? Have I felt it before?

Ella, a vintage base ball, and her Uncle Zach

My niece, Ella, thrust the door open at our family’s Gettysburg farm and walked to the edge of bed, as I tossed away the covers. Her smile glistened like the morning sun and she threw her arms around my neck. She told me good-bye, told me that she was happy to see me – and I knew she meant it. I believe I felt it then. Something close to joy. But only a few hours away later, I was shuttled to Baltimore/Washington International, and with the fire of a car engine, I was alone on the curb. The feeling was gone. Should joy be so temporary?

I want joy like a permanent residence. Like a government pension. Like a blood relation. Always. Constant. Eternal. How can I get that? Am I closer today to it than I was yesterday?

Does it wash over you like a wave buries your feet in sand? C.S. Lewis wrote a memoir titled Surprised by Joy. Does it have to be a surprise? There has to be a formula somewhere, a to-do list stuffed in someone’s pocket. Everyone split up. Continue reading

Ask What Makes You Come Alive

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Reverend Sara LaWall asked me to give a sermon on ‘what home means to my work on ending homelessness’ for my congregation at Boise Unitarian Universalist Fellowship. This is what I shared.


It’s routine at this point. The visitors sit down in the well-lit conference room at the nonprofit that I lead, CATCH. Charitable Assistance to the Community’s Homeless. It’s our mission to provide home to those without. The visitors and I small talk until someone mentions not knowing much about how our nonprofit works to end homelessness.

Nothing excites me more. I’ll slap the table and insist we tour the office and unpack our mission.

The tour culminates in our 3,800 square-foot warehouse, an expansive space littered with mid-century tables and loved couches. Everyone’s eyes get wider, and they comment on how they weren’t expecting so much stuff. Where did it all come from? It comes from you, the community. This is how we transform a house into a home.

But to my visitors, it feels familiar. They recognize the furniture. They’ve had that TV; their linen closet is stuffed with those linens. The furniture is more than woven-together cloth and stuffing; it’s a sense of comfort. The apartment is not an empty cell; it’s on its way to feeling like home.

But what is that feeling? What is home?

A few months ago – at the beginning of the year – I sat in that warehouse. My staff had left for the evening. I was alone. I sat on a donated couch and wept.

That next day, I was moving into an empty apartment. I was willingly leaving my house and the relationship that brought me to Idaho two years ago. I owned no furniture. The walls, recently painted, would be bare. The carpet, recently laid, would be unaccompanied. I took a few minutes that evening wondering if I could steal a couch; maybe, lift a bed or pocket some toilet bowl cleaner. If anyone would notice.

In that silence, I had this deep, troubling question: as the director of one of the largest homeless service agencies in Idaho – how can I give home to others, if I don’t feel at home myself? Continue reading

Schroeders Go West (The Second Season)

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Last year, on Feb 21, 2015, Zach (Z) and Wyatt (W) deluded themselves into thinking that others might care about the reasons why they both uprooted their east coast lives and moved to Portland, Oregon (Z) and Boise, Idaho (W). Unable to take the hint, Z and W take to their keyboards a year later to update on their emotional progress:

W: A year ago in this blog, I shared with you many expressions of introversion and self-exploration. Looking back now, I completely rework those phrases in my head. They all seem like veiled ways of saying: I need help.

The three Schroeder brothers at Treefort Music Festival – Quintin was not invited to this blog chat. He knows what he did.

Z: At the time, I could tell there was something amiss – something bigger. But it worded more like the struggle of a town you didn’t really like and a job that wasn’t working out. You missed home and that came across in most conversations. Not that it wasn’t something important, but re-reading our chat, I can see now that you were deeper into it than we realized.

W: One thing that I’ve learned in the past year is that missing “home” is not an excuse for not making a home out of where you live. I am a Philadelphian. Yes. But that doesn’t mean I can’t make a home here. I’ve come to believe that blaming my move to Boise for any empty feeling or unfulfilled night is stupid. There are great people here; there are adventures here. If I’m not taking advantage of that, then that’s a reflection on me. On who I am. The move doesn’t make or break me as a person unless I let it.

Z: That’s just a case of history repeating, my friend. I learned the same lesson after moving to Wilmington, Delaware. I couldn’t figure out why I was so damn angry with the town. Well, surprise, it wasn’t the town. It was me, and it was my relationship with my ex-wife that put the toxic waste in my veins. One divorce later, I saw, with clear vision, that the town isn’t so bad. Sounds like you are down that same path.

W: I wanted to hate Boise, Idaho. I really did. But this town keeps giving me gifts, mostly unexpected gifts. Like a sweet, sweet radio flyer two months after your birthday. I was told that I was committing career suicide; yet, I’ve found my dream job. I was asked how long until I would be married; yet, I’m now single and feeling more fulfilled each day. Whenever I suspect that I’ve come upon a dead end, this town keeps birthing some opportunity. It’s almost as if my lack of expectations are allowing more possibility. You might have the exact opposite experience in Portland, since you moved with great anticipation.

Z: I have had the exact opposite experience. I moved to this city with a vision of how I wanted to pursue a life here and, thus far, I’ve been able to largely follow that path. Although, it’s inspiring to know that even if I hit a wall out here something else might come around the corner, much like it has for you. Continue reading

If I only had Furniture . . .

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It’s routine at this point. The visitors sit down in our open-air, well-lit conference room, always on the far side close to the fraying, drawn-on logo of CATCH. We small talk until someone mentions not knowing much about how our nonprofit works to end homelessness for families. How do you make a family feel at home after feeling so lost for so long? 

I slap the table and insist that they take a tour of the office, allowing me to unpack our mission.

The tour culminates in the 3,800 square-foot warehouse, an expansive space littered with mid-century tables, loved couches, and wrapped box springs. Everyone’s eyes get wider, and they comment on how they weren’t expecting so much stuff. But it feels almost like home to visitors. They recognize the furniture, they’ve had that TV, their linen closet is stuffed with those linens. I tell them to close their eyes and imagine walking into an empty apartment, their first apartment after months spent in an emergency shelter. At that point, the furniture is more than woven-together cloth and stuffing; it’s a sense of comfort. The apartment is not an empty cell; it’s on its way to feeling like home. The visitors nod.

Tomorrow morning, I am moving into an empty apartment. I’m willingly leaving my house and the creature comforts and trappings that have nurtured me for the past two years. I own no furniture. The walls, recently painted, will be bare. The carpet, recently laid, will be unaccompanied. I stole a few minutes in our warehouse yesterday wondering if I could steal a couch and a bed for my own. If anyone would notice.

The thought of the empty apartment is so damn lonely. It will look as I feel. But if I had furniture, a bed, a dining table, a bar cart, I might be able to will myself into believing that I’m making the right choice.

I Believe In The Trees

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_MG_5326I have a difficult time drawing spirituality from religion. Instead, I believe in the trees. Standing underneath the redwoods in Northern California inspired something deep but undefined inside of me. When I crane my neck to the very crown of their greenery, their marvel defies my imagination. I can’t get enough of the damn trees.

Over the long Memorial Day weekend I stole away to my favorite national park to find something. To find inspiration. To find a serene atmosphere. To find something I strongly identify with.

Arriving late Friday night, I didn’t get a look at the trees until the next morning as I drove south on highway 101. The foggy light shone in tall, thin slits between the trees. Goosebumps covered my body and a wry smile curled my lips upward. I might find something today.

I have no idea why I identify so strongly with the trees. If they can stand there and withstand time then so can I. If they can be strong, impressive, and beautiful maybe I can too. Their presence elicits peace, quieting my mind, even for a moment. Standing tall, even if I can’t. Telling me it’s going to be okay, even if I don’t believe it. Projecting their strength, even when I struggle to lift my head.

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Twenty four miles of running lie ahead of me as I got out of the car and stood below the trees for the first time. What better place to get in many hours on my feet than a place like this. Pack on my back and off I trot. The classic forest awaited me, tall redwoods and ferns larger than your body hugged the trail just as brush nipped at my lower legs on the largely unkempt trail. After five miles, the foliage changed into a green thicket on either side of me, the trees behind me as I curved around a trail about four feet wide. I had an eye on my gps watch, ready to turn around when my watch hit six miles.

Instead I ran into a bear.

I audibly uttered the word “nope” as I backpedaled. Thankfully, the five foot high black bear did the same, turning and sprinting the moment we encountered each other. Adrenaline pumping through every ounce of me, I ran back up the trail, grabbing a stick to carry for a poor security blanket. It took until I was back at the car, my halfway point, before I felt my sanity returning and the anxiety dissipating.

The rest of the run was uneventful, thank god, getting most of my remaining miles on an overgrown old highway, the paint of the roadway peeking up from under the moss from time to time. As I neared the end of my run, the trees coaxed me along, adding their aura to my soul.

I didn’t have enough moments with the trees.

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There were strong memories to joust when I visited the park and the city. The bluff where Emily and I sat watching whales feed off the coast, spraying the air dramatically. There was the time that Erin offered to move to Crescent City as a bargaining chip to keep us from getting a divorce. When you travel solo to a town with such weight you have no choice but to confront the emotions that flood your brain. Another reason to let the trees help keep your soul 300 feet in the air.

I stole one more quiet moment on my way out of town, finding a grove in the Jedediah State park not far from the road. Finding a downed redwood, I leaned back against me, closing my eyes and listening. I was reticent to leave, wanting the trees to whisper wisdom to me one more time before I got in my car and drove back to Portland, to a daily life, and to problems that needed to be solved. The wanting made me oddly happy. I’ve found a place that speaks to me, that my soul hasn’t finished exploring. I opened my eyes and checked the time. One last deep breath before that wry grin

“I’ll be back,” I said to the trees, craning my neck skyward for another peek.

“We know,” they whispered back.