Category Archives: Personal Posts

Head games: moving forward even when you don’t want to.

Who cares about one more post from an ever-happy, always-productive blogger?  Not me.  Who needs to know that sometimes, even the best of us has a bad day?  Now that’s what I’m talking about!  Well, right now, that describes my situation.  So today, boys and girls, I am going to share a little about what I am doing instead of being super-motivated, hyper-productive, and, in the sage words of Clark Griswold, “hap, hap, happy.”

If you only have a minute to read this, I will give you the executive summary version: get over it because its all mental.  I control my mind, therefore I control how I handle, and respond to, every situation.  But the bottom line is that no matter how great you are, you are going to have tough days.  The secret to moving past these moments is simple.  Apply some mental energy.  As gospel recording artist, Donnie McClurkin sings, you can fall down.  You just have to get back up.  And as much as I am writing this knowing others will read it, I am really saying it to myself, because I need to get back up.  See, what you are witnessing, is me.  Giving myself The Talk.  Getting myself in gear to do more, do better, and not fall into a counterproductive pit of excuses and pity.

  1. Do Something!  Often, we are so overwhelmed by the growing mountain of tasks we have to wrestle, we lose our focus and motivation before we even have a chance to be awesome.  As a friend and I were discussing this morning, you need to know whether you will respond better to doing the most odious task first, or the simplest.  Either way, when you look back on it, you will feel some satisfaction at having done it.  And more importantly, you will have done Something that moves you closer to completion on a project, pushed an idea forward into implementation phase, or simply set the agenda – and tone – for the rest of your day, the rest of your team or staff, the rest of your family.
  2. Congratulate yourself on accomplishing Something.   Pat yourself on the back.  Come on, you can do it. if you need more encouragement than this, you should sincerely take a vacation, re-center yourself, and enjoy yourself a little more.  I am not qualified to address that issue, but please see someone about it soon.
  3. Build a list of several Somethings you need, or want, to get done.  There, you tricked yourself intro building a road-map that will help you navigate through the forest of useless, time-wasting busy work you could be doing instead.  You are already being productive.  Don’t take your hands off the handlebars now, but “look Ma, I’m doing it by myself!”
  4. Take a break.  You have earned it.  If it lasts more than 10 or 15 minutes, you’re not taking a break, you are chilling.  That is counter-productive.  Stop it.
  5. Do Something Else.  Remember that list you built, way back in the halcyon days of Task 3?  Now you get to use it!
  6. Repeat!  Finish with self-congratulatory, but quiet golf clap, and go do something fun!
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It is not about me: what is important one year after my stroke

One year ago today, at this very hour, my life changed.  I had a stroke, which led to two subsequent surgeries, a Code Blue in medical parlance, and the rebuilding of a life.

A tragedy was on its way to becoming a blessing.  I was less than 40 years old, active physically, and  engaged civically and professionally.  I thought I had the world by the tail.  And I quickly found myself having to re-evaluate what was really important. It has taken me a year to get the courage to even think about what happened to me.

The real lesson is about the power of good people doing good.  It is about the heroes who saved my life, This story is about my experience, and learning that living life successfully is about the impact you have on other people’s lives.

The first — and most important — hero in my life is my wife, Teri.  In hundreds of ways since I fell ill, she has stepped up as a family leader, world-class organizer and communicator, and amazing partner.  Before I got sick, and as much as I hate to admit it, I did not show this hero enough appreciation.  Since my stroke, she has been my constant companion.  One of the greatest gifts the stroke gave me was a better appreciation for her.  I don’t think I can thank her enough.

My family, collectively, gets hero status.  From my own personal security guard — as one of my favorite nurses called my brother, Kevin — to my Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity brothers from William and Mary, who came and waited quietly alongside my wife in those early, trying hours; to my in-laws, whose love and support defy categorization; to my sister and brother from Richmond, who visited me at every opportunity, to my sister-in-law and brother-in-law, who both made so much possible for me; to my colleagues, who went above and beyond for me daily; and including my many uncles, cousins, nieces, nephews, and aunts who prayed constantly and visited as often as they could.  I saw my health improve as each LIVED more meaningful sermons about  faith than any pastor ever could speak.  I have seen God’s hand at work in my life.

I would also bestow hero status on the enormous network of friends and extended family. Each of them prayed, visited, gifted and carded me back to health.  They showed me love in ways that were inspirational, instructional, and completely humbling. Every one of them did what they could, some even more than that.  Heroes, every one of them.

And finally — but certainly importantly — I thank the entire Centra Health medical team who saved, then rebuilt my life.  Each first responder, doctor, nurse, and therapist is a hero of mine.  I am alive because of their skill and care, and I  owe them the appreciation due heroes.

So, yes, less than a year after I almost died, and nearly left a wife and two young kids – nearly mirroring my own mother’s death before I was a teenager  — I stood before a group of fellow stroke survivors in Danville, VA.  And as I said to my fellow stroke thrivers, I am a miracle, and a child of God.

Thank God for my heroes.  I owe each of them my life, and I will continue trying to live it as worthy of having been saved.  And I pray with the faithfulness of my aunts and friends. Thank God for heroes.  Amen.

News that is not news

Why is NBC’s Today Show presenting Michelle Obama’s family history with shock and awe? An African-American woman has ancestors who were slaves? My Lord, how bizarre.

I am glad that this is considered “news” this morning because it means there are no terrorist acts, child negligence or abuse, or other horrid lead stories.

In the words of Norah O’Donnell, it is truly remarkable that an African-American descendant of a former slave girl lives in the White House!

No, it is neither news nor remarkable. What is remarkable is that it took 140-plus years after the end of legal enslavement on our shores for an African-American man to be considered so safe, so intelligent, so capable that he was electable. What is remarkable is that in our quest for true diversity, we have so few stories of minority leadership in numbers that are representative of the general population’s diversity. What is remarkable is that Obama’s election, for cynics, is a complete acquittal for every crime of discrimination being promulgated in the American corporate, academic and social community. What is remarkable is that the Obama’s personal story is so remarkable. What is remarkable is that there is so little true racial reconciliation and mutual understanding and respect. And all sides own that failure. All of that is remarkably pathetic.

And the sorrow of the matter is that behind Barack Obama, there seems to be a cold, bleak chasm separating him from any other African-American or female, or other minority (since we’re on it) candidates who are electable. Not qualified, mind you . . . electable. Let the newsmakers start reporting on that. That might be news.

Death as inspiration: what happens at a funeral

This week has brought me face-to-face with the reality of life’s cruel promise: I will die (you probably will, too).  A number of past deaths have allowed me to deal honestly with the matter of death and dying.  Death, in fact, has shaped the entirety of my personal value system.  Life is extraordinarily simple to me.  I believe we as humans are obligated, and should be happy to, live by The Golden Rule, and ensure that our “hyphen” has made a deep and lasting impact on other people.

The death of my mother in January 1983 slammed my life into a wall that brutally stopped me in my tracks.   And for a person like me, who looks for meaning in tragedy and loss, I have spent the better part of my 20s and 30s processing, shaping, attempting, failing, and moving.  Moving toward a life that FEELS right to me.  The only reason I have been introspectively investigating and challenging, then rebuilding, the beliefs of one Matthew L. Brandon is because  I have needed to find a way to honor and carry forward my mother’s legacy.  I am a far superior version of myself because of that wall I had to pick myself up from hitting.  I don’t wish the premature death of a parent on any child, but I believe God prepared me for it fully.

ONE FUNERAL, TWO FUNERALS, THREE FUNERALS.  NO MORE!

Fast forward to this week.  This week, I mourned the loss of two beloved relatives, and one deeply-respected leader and friend.  In each case, I listened as highly-intelligent people struggled to find important-enough words to express their personal grief.  They told illuminating stories, shared funny anecdotes, and made profound observations on the way to praising the people who had given up their mortal coil.  In each case, an emotionally-overwhelming picture of the deceased emerged and our healing was facilitated by those gentle, loving words, so carefully chosen, so admiringly delivered, so earnest . . .  These people — a handicapped man, an educator, a pastor — were amazing humans.

If only we could spend more of the time in our daily lives focused on sharing and celebrating those same traits!  Why must we wait until we can no longer hold a loved one in our grasp to tell them how much we admire them?  Why must the shock of death jar us into thanking one another and saying “I love you” to people who really do mean the world to us?  Why did it take a week of gruesomely accurate poems of love and appreciation to remind me that death forces, allows, gives us permission to be completely human?  Why do we need reminders to follow a simple rule about humans looking out for other humans’ needs?

HONOR THOSE WHO DIED BY HOW YOU LIVE

I honor each of those beloved departed souls by helping me reconnect with core values I hold dear.  In the face of death, in the shocking, numbing, acidic, bracing kiss of death and grief, I wipe away pain and lift my eyes to the heavens in thanks.  I give thanks that the path I have traveled has hammered me — for it has not been easy and the material God has worked with not the most malleable — into a sensitive human, concerned for the welfare of others, quietly doing for others only that which I would wish them to do for me or my family, and importantly, wonderfully appreciative of those moments when you know what you did mattered to someone else.  That is what being a better human means to me.

EULOGIZING MY MOTHER AND MYSELF. MEASURING HYPHENS

My mother’s is the eulogy I speak silently to myself at every funeral I attend.  It is why funerals are so emotionally raw for me.  Consider for a moment how it feels to revisit the moments and weeks when the very source of inspiration in your life was torn away.

And then I write my own eulogy.  Yes, at every single funeral I attend, I rewrite my own eulogy.  Then I wonder whether the ones on the podium, when replaced by those left to mourn my death, will speak nearly as well of my contributions to their lives.

In the words of Jesse Jackson, as I listened to him eulogize my beloved fraternal brother, Arthur Ashe, so many years ago, I use those moments to consider the “hyphen” that is my life.  Jackson reminded the thousands assembled there, you see, that the hyphen on Ashe’s tombstone — as on ours –represents the work he did and the life he led between that birth year and death year.  Then he wondered aloud, “what will your hyphen represent?”

So finally, I saw a way to make sense of a mother’s loss; figured out a purpose for my own life; found an ethos that could sustain me for a lifetime.  I needed to ensure that my hyphen made me a better human, and made someone else’s path a little easier to nagivate.  It is simple, and yet elusive for so many.  And for others, not even a desirable ambition.  But for me it was everything.  I knew it was a revelation because it reminded me how amazing my mom’s hyphen was.  It motivates me to live in a way that would honor her and carry on that tradition.  I get back to work on my hyphen!

I hope my hyphen will be good enough to merit the appreciation of those whose lives I tried to uplift.  Even if you didn’t attend a funeral this week; even if you didn’t hear the eloquent recitals; even if you haven’t been affected by the death of a loved one, consider the life you are leading, and the story that will be told by your hyphen.

WORKING ON MY HUMAN-NESS

For a moment, I explore whether I am completely human: not just strident and bold; but humble and caring.  Not just effective and efficient, but supportive and insightful.  Not just pleased with my own progress, but careful to ensure I do no harm.  Not just strong, but weak enough to consider where I can do better.  I need no’t wait until my final breath to wonder what legacy I will leave.  I get to go out there and work on it now.  Create my own reality.  Use the brick walls as stepping stones instead of blockades.

My eulogy yesterday and today reminded me how much I have left to add to my hyphen.

I am inspired by Johnny, Evelyn, Topper.  And now that you three are gone, my mother will thank you for the time you spent with me (tell her she is my inspiration).  My father will ask whether I am using the common sense he and the good Lord tried to instill (tell him yes, regardless of the truth).

Tell them I AM them.  I am their legacy.  And tell them I know I still have much work to do, loads to lift.  But I shun not the struggle, for it is God’s Will.  I will be strong.

I am strengthened by your three eulogized lives, each of which I celebrated in some way this week. And rest in peace.  I got your message loud and clear.

How did this guy nail ALL of the things I try to be/do/rep?

READ THIS FIRST.  It is not about me, and yet it is me.  Perhaps if I continue to develop, those folks he cites will be peers, not aspirants.

I feel passionately about each of these issues, and really do work hard to practice each.  As I grade myself objectively, I think I bat a solid 90 percent.  I don’t do each one perfectly, of course, but with partial credit, I definitely at least THINK I am coming close to full effort on each, and have mastered several.

Its almost bizarre to see them captured so neatly here.  My favorite of all is number 4: They work on themselves.  I often fear failure after working hard to get where I am.  My lingering fear is that it will somehow come crashing down around me.  But because I adhere to quality four, I am encouraged by Dr. Humbert’s citation.

Now if only he would let me do some editing for him!

The power of changing One Small Thing

On January 5, a number of colleagues and I started a weight loss challenge.  The competition would be replete with tired false self-motivation, old platitudes, and false starts, but I pushed my usual standards aside in favor of a new concept.  This time, I was already self-motivated.  I decided to change one small thing.

To date, I have lost 20 pounds, hit and worked through at least one difficult plateau, and seen at least two weigh-in periods in which I lost at least 7 pounds.  I have dropped one waist size, lowered my blood pressure and cholesterol, and have more energy.  I find my racquetball game improving and see the possibility of returning to near the weight I was when I wrestled at William and Mary.  So what am I doing differently?

When I sit down for a meal, or have an opportunity to splurge, I simply ask myself to make a very simple decision to stay disciplined long enough to choose what to eat.  I also make sure at least one meal every day is a tasty salad.  The beauty of this method is that the longer I stick to it, the more invested I am in ensuring the next interface with a decision is advantageous.  Even though making many small decisions becomes second-nature, it does not get so easy I can stop thinking about it.  I have to remind myself frequently to maintain discipline, and not get over-confident.  It would be easy to get cocky, and forget that calories don’t care about my confidence.  They respond only to controlled management.

So I attribute my success in this competition, in which I have remained in no worse than second place, to NOT having to co-exist with some enormous, complicated diet program, or special food system, or even enormous amounts of exercise.  Nope, I just make one small decision, up to five times a day (lasting about three minutes per day, in total).  So requiring that level of discipline in such short bursts, mentally, is really easy to accommodate.

So far, I think I have made 180 small decisions.  Of those, more than 90 percent have been good decisions.  So 160 times, my system has worked for me, and 20 times I blew it.  Or so it would seem.  But upon closer review, six of those have been intentional “pressure release” choices, made intentionally.  After each of our twice-monthly weigh-ins, I purposefully enjoy a really delicious, unhealthy cheesesteak.  Its a small decision to not be too hard on myself.

Will I win?  Is this a defensible long-term strategy?  I don’t know and right now I don’t care.  The absolute beauty of this new technique is that I don’t have to worry about either of those things.  They will take care of themselves.  All I need to do is  keep spending one minute at a time, three t0 five times per day, making good calls.  Time for breakfast.

Biggest election revelation: Obama’s election easier than gaining “equality” in middle America

Here is an opportunity to infuriate all those who strain against reality to argue that Barack Obama’s election is proof that racial equality has been attained.  At one time, many felt the primary test for racial equality was the inability for an African-American to be elected president.  And before I state my case here, let me be clear: I believe the most prevalent form of discrimination in America is not racial, but soci-economic.  Racial discrimination has been pressed further into the recesses of the corners of America’s socio-political environment, but its effect is still profound.

Obama’s election demonstrates the complexity of the problem.  It may have been easier — difficult as it actually was — to get him elected POTUS than it would be for your town’s corporate and political entities to appoint him to its presidency or head position.

In 2008, not even the Supreme Court had a chance to save the race for the conservatives.  Bush II created such a hostile environment against the conservative political Right that “even a black man proved preferable to another version of Bush.”  McCain didn’t lose the election, Bush did.  But that’s another story for another day.

Its quite a confluence of historical tides that allowed Obama to be elected.  He was the right man for the right time.  He is prepared.  He has a vision that Americans are compelled to welcome.  He is qualified by any measure, and his race didn’t get him elected, it kept him from winning by an even-larger margin.  And I am not belly-aching.  Far from it.

Without the combination of an historically-low approval rating for W, flagging support for a sustained American presence in Iraq, unfathomably high fuel costs, and financial disaster on the macro and micro-level of our economy, the Democratic ticket would not have succeeded.

Thank God for it!  All those forces needed to conspire to allow the best man to win the election, and he did.  But it occurs to me that now, proponents of racism and racial discrimination, and opponents of ground-leveling legislation have new fuel to pour on the fire in the argument that everyone is truly equal.  In point of fact, the new political reality will only serve to increase the amount of racial tension in our country.

But herein lies the real opportunity for change and hope.  This, if handled with civility and honesty,  could allow for an impassioned, rational discourse.  It may be precisely what is needed to tip the nation toward acknowledging and dealing with the less-visible, and more nefarious, forms of racism that still prevail.  Even before Obama was a candidate, I am proud that my community accepted this challenge and underwent an intensive, and ongoing community-wide discours on race and racism.  Lynchburg leads the way!

Ironically, Obama’s presidency will cause latent misgivings, and shallowly-concealed disdain to bubble to the surface in areas where the courage to do the same don’t exist.  I say bring it on.  The central reason our nation has not truly realized its potential is because we have pushed too many sensitive discussions to the margins.  We have instituted political correctness in place of honest disagreement.  We have surrounded our views with comfortable compassion, and insulated ourselves only with those who share our world-view.  We have created a situation where an African-American man could be elected president of the United States, even though the vast majority of American institutions from colleges to corporations would struggle to permit equal courage in choosing leaders who don’t fit the “traditional” model.

In the few areas where I have seen data, African-Americans have lost ground, not gained: college enrollment of African-Americans lags behind the general population proportions.  There are fewer black head coaches in Division I football, for instance, than there were just a few years ago.  And our children still seem to be fighting for equal footing in the public education system.

When Obama is the rule and not the exception, then and only then can we say America has undergone the type of soul-searching and unification that allows true change.  And when we do, we will restore our pre-eminence on the world’s stage politically, socially, culturally, and economically as One America.  I long for the day.  In the meantime, I look forward to new American leadership paradigms.  I truly have hope.