Reflections on Losing a Man I Never Really Knew


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I received an email today that the man whom I called my father-in-law passed away. He died April 23, 2015. More on why I’m just now finding out in a minute.

Winston T. Smith Jr., age 80 of Murfreesboro, Tenn., passed away on April 23, 2015. Funeral services were held on Sunday, April 26, 2015 from the Williams Cove Holiness Church. Interment followed in the Trenton Cemetery. Bro. Pat Coffee and Bro. Wayne Williams officiated.

Mr. Smith is survived by his daughter, Sandra Darley; sons, Tim Smith and Wendell Smith; eight grandchildren; ten great grandchildren; sister, Earline Allison. Mr. Smith was preceded in death by his son, John G. Smith; sisters, Emily St. Clair, Eloise Pogue and Willie H. Smith.

I’m glad that John was included as his son, preceding him in death, and that my sons are included in the “eight grandchildren.”

See, that side of the family — the “Smith” side — doesn’t really stay in touch with me, so I wondered when their father died if I’d know and how I’d find out. The email telling me was sent by a cousin of John’s, who stays in touch with me about a tract of family land that belongs to John but is cared for by this relative.

I hadn’t seen him in many years. He didn’t come to our wedding, but he came to John’s college graduation. We saw him about once a year from 2003 til about 2007. When John died five years ago I was told that his father was not well enough to receive the news about John’s death, that he was in an assisted living home with dementia.

I have mixed feelings about his passing. It’s one of those times that I wish John were here to tell me how he feels about it and tell me how I should feel, what I should do, if anything. Should I send a card to his siblings? I had to break the news to John’s mother today, and that was sad. I wish he were here to do that.

The reality is though that both John and his dad professed to believe in Jesus, so what that means, to me, is that John knew of his dad’s passing way before I did and that they’re together now, without the tension and problems that were part of their relationship here on Earth. I’ve never doubted John’s salvation, but I know John was troubled about making sure his dad believed and would be in heaven. I hope with all my heart that his profession was sincere.

John and his dad weren’t that close. Their history was hard. His parents split when he was young, and he spent summers and the occasional weekend with his dad. He had funny stories about fishing and country living. His dad lived in the sticks. He was a farmer and a truck driver.

I remember John telling me how hard his dad was on him to succeed and do well in life and to make money, and how he never felt he could live up to his dad’s expectations. When his dad gave him a hard time over and over again about not playing well at baseball, John quit the sport and didn’t play any more. The grief from his dad wasn’t worth it.

His dad was the one who encouraged him to study engineering and gave him money for a computer and other college costs. He pushed him into engineering because it would make good money. Turns out it was a good fit for John; he had a brilliant engineering mind.

My boys have lost a granddad they didn’t know they had. They’ve heard me refer to their dad’s dad and they’ve heard a story or two about when they were babies and we took them out to his trailer in the country. His dad didn’t keep his trailer very clean, and once the boys got mobile it was difficult to keep them from getting into the snuff cans and popcorn kernels that were scattered around.

One time John picked his dad up and brought him to our home to visit with us and we took him out to eat at Ryan’s. I remember that John called him the day before to tell him to be ready, but when John got there he hadn’t remembered and wasn’t ready. John helped him get cleaned up so he could bring him to our home. That’s the last time I saw him, I’m pretty sure. John saw him a few times after that, but we never went back as a family.

John was the only child of his mother and his father, but his father had three children from his first marriage, significantly older than John. Old enough that some of their children were John’s same age. He was never close to those siblings either. When John died, all of his siblings came to his funeral and expressed sympathies. I thought that was kind of them.

It feels strange to me to bear the last name of a family of which I’m not really integrated into, and for my sons to pass on that name and line and not know their relatives of the same last name.

The Bedford Talk: Journey from Bedford, Indiana to ‘Bold They Rise’


I had the opportunity to give a Bold They Rise talk recently in the community where I spent the bulk of my print journalism career. It was important to me to go back there and offer a book talk because my time there was very instrumental in me ending up working on Bold They Rise and I wanted to go back and tell them that.

So I titled my talk “From Here to There” and filled in the missing 11-year timeline from the time I left the community and the newspaper in 2003 until now.

The highlight was bringing with me their hometown astronaut Charlie Walker. His missions are included in Bold They Rise, so it was a privilege and an honor to do this talk with him.

So my talk started with this picture of Charlie Walker on the space shuttle in 1984.

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I told the people that while Charlie was doing this, I was doing this.

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In 1984 I was 4 years old and more into Minnie Mouse than I was astronauts and space.

It was important that people “get” that yes, I grew up in Huntsville, Ala., the Rocket City and home to Space Camp and Wernher von Braun and NASA, but I didn’t learn to appreciate space exploration because of that upbringing. If anything that upbringing caused me to take astronauts and space travel for granted.

It wasn’t until I moved to southern Indiana, to Lawrence County Indiana specifically, that I saw how the rest of the world viewed space. Three astronauts hail from this little southern Indiana community — more than any other county in the U.S. — and the people there are very proud of that. Their pride made its way into the newsroom where I worked as the paper covered space-related news and kept up with the comings and going of these space heroes and their legacies.

Writing about space-related things gave me a hearty set of clippings with which, upon my return to Huntsville,  I used to apply for a writing position at NASA.

I think those clips made a difference in my getting the job. My Bold They Rise co-author says they didn’t — he should know, he made the hiring recommendation — however I might not have even applied had I not felt that I had dappled enough in space writing to be able to do the job.

So in my talk, I told the audience that I went from here, my old Times-mail mug shot

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to here

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my semi-official NASA mug shot; this photo accompanied a blog I wrote for NASA during my time there.

I briefly told stories of getting to do this, a reduced gravity flight

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and this, attending Space Camp,

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and then writing Bold They Rise.

It was important to me that the people of Bedford, Mitchell and Lawrence County know that their community played a role in this book, and I wanted to bring it to them and share the book and its story as it relates to them.

After that I introduced Charlie who told his own “from here to there” stories about growing up in Bedford with his fellow “rocket boys” friends and his journey from Bedford to Purdue to McDonnell Douglas and to space as NASA’s first payload specialist astronaut.

walker rocket boys

We’re all travelers, traveling from here to there, we just don’t know always know where “there” is until we get there.

This is a story of what it’s like for something to come full circle, because that’s exactly what happened. Extremely grateful I got to go back and finish the loop.

Violence & Video Games


At the science writers conference I just got back from, I heard this really interesting science lecture on violence and video games. What I write here is by no means a case for or against the playing of violent video games, but just some things I learned and a few opinions I have based on what I learned.

To start the lecture, the psychologist went up to the podium and asked half the room to close their eyes and the other half to silently watch a slide show of images and then fill in the missing letters from the following words

k i _ _

g u _

h a _ _

r_ p e.

The group with their eyes open (of which I was a part) saw images of guns, knives and other weapons, and of military and police using weapons.

I, and the majority of my half of the room, filled in the blanks with

k i l l

g u n

h a t e

r a p e.

Then he had my half of the room close out eyes and he showed the other half of the room a different set of images and fill in the blanks. We found out later that the other side of the room saw non-violent images. Not necessarily happy images but just regular things. Office supplies. The outdoors. People smiling.

The majority of that half of the room filled in the blanks with

k i t e

g u m

h a n d

r o p e.

Hmm…

Interesting, isn’t it?

The point of the exercise was to demonstrate what the psychologist called the “weapons affect,” or the idea that the mere presence of weapons can make people more aggressive.

They did more tests where they assessed people’s moods and feelings before and after playing certain kinds of video games, and they found that after playing even just 20 minutes of a violent video game people report a tendency toward more violent or negative response in real life.

For example, a person who played a non-violent video game for 20 minutes was asked afterward how they would respond if they were in a fender bender on the way home. They responded much more calmly than the person who played a violent game for the same amount of time, who said things like they’d yell at the person or want to crush their skull in.

The most shocking to me was the revelation that violent graphic images, like those in video games, are used to de-sensitize military special forces to being able to kill without question or hesitation. I didn’t know that.

Also shocking was that we tell ourselves it’s OK just for 20 minutes or just for a few hours, it won’t affect our behavior. But if a 30 second commercial can persuade our behavior to buy a certain product, how much more will 20 minutes plus of shooting people in video games persuade our behavior as well?

Now I don’t know if I fully believe that playing these games will cause players to go out and shoot people. But I think the research supports that watching violence and playing out violence affects how we feel and may cause to react more aggressively just in general.

I kinda have to ask myself the question, why do people find it so entertaining to pretend to be violent in games, whether it be shooting a gun or fighting like ninja warriors? Is it a power trip? Do we feel stronger, more powerful, in control if we can outlive or kill? And if we do, then does playing violent video games create a false sense of strength, power and invincibility, all of which are sure to boost our ego, too, right? Do we then cross over how confident we feel in the game into real life, sometimes blurring the lines, so that if provoked to tap into our “violent side” this side of us is trained and ready to respond? Video game-like virtual reality simulators are used to train astronauts for space travel and soldiers for war, so it makes sense that our minds perceive the video game experience as a sort of training.

I don’t have the answers, and neither did this psychologist on this day. But he’s studying it and drawing interesting conclusions, conclusions that made me think, thus why I’m sharing it here to maybe make you think too.

Rainbow, Hold the Rain


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I woke up late. Like the kind of late where the time I woke up was the time I should’ve been leaving.

I had had a disturbing dream, and it was still bothering me as I went rushing about getting ready.

I woke up the boys, took a quick shower, threw on clothes, and went to take the dog out when I saw it.

The most gorgeous surprise.

The most gorgeous rainbow, end to end in a complete arch.

What was most surprising, though, is that it wasn’t even raining. It wasn’t even rain-y looking. It was a clear day at sunrise.

Any time I see a rainbow I’m reminded that God makes promises, and God keeps the promises he makes.

It had been a stressful morning already so this was a reminder I really needed.

Not Your Mother’s High School


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My sons attend the school from which I graduated, so on the one hand there’s this unique connection between my past  as a student, my present  as a parent and their presence there as students now.

For example, a few of the teachers that taught me in middle school 20 something years ago are now teaching them. And I’ve talked before about how some of the students when I was there are now their friends’ parents and the youth league basketball coaches. My past touches their present.

But on the other hand, the school they are experiencing is nothing at all like the school I experienced.

Today, WCA is bigger and has fancy new facilities, but more than that the growth in the student body has facilitated the addition of new programs, namely football. I wasn’t around when football was added but I have a feeling that it was football that changed everything.

There were always the rumors of us getting football way back then, but the size of the student body wasn’t large enough to support a team. It was kind’ve a cart before the horse problem in that you had to have a certain number of students to sustain a football team, but without a football team the school was less attractive an option for some families. I mean, we are in the south; people here love their football.

At some point after I left the school the school started a team and the first thing built on the new campus wasn’t classrooms but — you guessed it — a football stadium. One could say the priorities were skewed, but I don’t think so. I think the success of competitive sports, especially football, was an important factor in growing the school to the size where the leaders wanted it, where it could sustain all of the beneficial things the school wanted.

With football came a marching band, a flag corps, a dance team, pep rallies, bonfires, and the annual homecoming celebration  moved from basketball, which was previously the largest sports program, to the more traditional football.

This means that when I go back to my alma mater for “homecoming” it doesn’t feel like going back. It feels new, at the same it feels familiar.

I was there for homecoming events last week and as the marching band played and the bonfire raged, I commented to several of the other alums who are now also parents of students that this isn’t anything like the school we went to. Oh, no, of course not, they agreed.

The school we went to was good. But this is better. I’m a little jealous for what I didn’t have, but glad my sons get to experience the best of both worlds and that I can be along for the ride.

Social Listening


I’ve acquired a new skill at work.

Actually, a skill I’ve always had has a new name, a name that sounds better than oh, being nosy or reading the Internet.

This new skill is “social listening.”

I had never heard of the term until several months ago but it describes well a very valuable asset that I bring to the table at my job and other areas in life too.

So what is it?

Well, it’s listening to the world around you by reading, monitoring, observing all the “noise” and gleaning the usable parts.

The cool thing? I love doing it, I’m a natural at it, and it’s pretty much something I’ve been doing my whole life just without the fancy name.

In my career story of how I became a writer I tend to start the story around 10th grade when my English teacher asked me to join the high school yearbook staff. It had a little to do with my ability to write a good essay so seems like a good place to start, and being on yearbook staff in high school certainly set me on track for a career in communications.

But what shaped me to be able to write a good essay by 10th grade was more than just education or a natural knack or God-given talent, though all of those are there too; it was that I loved reading. And not just reading books — although I read a lot as a youngster and still do — but reading periodicals.

I enjoyed reading newspapers and magazines and learning interesting things about the world around me. I would clip out articles about a new can design from Coke or some other new attraction or product … I was social listening, listening to the world around me, which at that time was a world in black and white, in print. Today’s “world around me” is via a screen and there’s so much to listen to, but there are amazing gems if we make it a priority to not just hear but listen.

I’ll be honest too, I have a little help — there’s lots of tools out there to help with this, right? Google alerts, hash tags, services.  Those are good and I use some of them.

But my best social listening has been just paying attention with good old fashioned investigative reporting, with a natural nosiness, and with time. Not a lot of time, but a little time dedicated to actually reading what comes through on the Twitter feed and having my ears perked up in all the listening situations, whether I’m reading, listening to radio or TV or mingling/networking.

Social listening is two things to me:

Fun — Like I said, I’m kinda good at it. I desire to know breaking news, to know new things and to share them, and social listening fits that to a T. It’s the satisfaction of learning about something, being the first to tell someone else, and then seeing them react and get excited too.

Valuable — This stuff works. I have story after story of good things that have started or happened because I heard about something, shared it with the right person and they were able to act on it or make good use of the information.

So there you have it. Social listening. Who knew?!