Monthly Archives: September 2013

Making change make a difference


(Note: Many of my readers, having known me during my years as a psychotherapist, suggested I share some of the things that I have found to be most helpful to my clients.  In contemplating this story, I decided to share an insight, which in practice, was an intervention I used largely without their awareness, the explanation of which would have been unnecessary for their successful therapeutic outcome.  The best therapy is when a skilled therapist gently induces an intervention within the context of the helping relationship, thereby not appearing to be prescribing anything more than an invitation to consider one’s thinking.  The result is the client comes to his own epiphanies and therein is ultimately more empowered and engaged in the change he originally sought.  This change is referred to as change of the “second order.”  The therapist in the equation essentially becomes incidental, the client improves and moves on in life.

A discussion of this topic may have a tendency to come across as more “academic” than you are accustomed to here on my site. Therefore, I’ll try to simplify and streamline it so that it has maximum opportunity to hit you straight between the eyes, the scar of which may just change how you live and see yourself forever.)


So the frustrated wife complains of her husband’s lack of attention with an example: “You never bring me flowers.”  That afternoon, the compliant husband, seeing he has the time, ability and means, returns home with flowers for his wife. “Thank you,” she says. “They’re lovely. I knew you really cared.” Pleased with the response and the outcome that night, the husband and wife are happy.

For awhile.


The drug addict, strung out on crystal methamphetamine, realizes the loss of his teeth, his job and income are taking a huge toll on his well-being.  He decides to quit using. His teeth and health improve, he finds work and can pay his bills once again.

For awhile.


Change can be good, but oftentimes for all the wrong reasons.

Now let’s play the two scenarios a little differently.


So the frustrated wife complains of her husband’s  lack of attention with an example:“You never bring me flowers.”

That afternoon, the compliant husband, sees he has the time, ability and means, to return home with flowers for his wife…but before he visits the florist, he recalls the deeper meaning he almost buried within his wife’s complaint. He has been working longer hours, gets lost in mindless video games at night as his way of decompressing. He has been noticeably depressed at work and his friends have made comments. Shamefully and honestly, he thinks about how useful his wife is in cleaning up, feeding him and having sex with him a couple times a week despite her frustrations. This wasn’t why he first fell in love with her 20 years ago.  He stops by the park for a little solitude and reflection and not just a few sobs alone on a dirty bench, ashamed of how he has shown little regard for her other than for what she does for him versus who she is as a woman. A maid. A prostitute. Wiping his face on his sleeve, he continues on to the florist and returns home.  Upon arrival, he takes one of the giant red rose floral arrangements and places it on her bedroom night stand with a handwritten apology poem that doesn’t rhyme, but still, shows a genuine brokenness and renewal of promises he has never revealed to her before.  The other bouquet, he disassembles petal by petal from the front door, up the stairs and into the candlelit bedroom with the final petals falling randomly on the bed and waits for her arrival home from work. “Thank you,” she says. “They’re lovely. I knew you really cared.”Pleased with the response and the outcome that night, the husband and wife are happy.



The drug addict, strung out on crystal methamphetamine, realizes the loss of his teeth, his job and income are taking a huge toll on his well-being…and in a quiet moment with a .45 caliber pistol to his head, deciding why he wants to live anymore, he is scared into a sudden series of epiphanies answering that very question.  He phones the friend he defriended months ago when he became sober, apologizing for his abandonment and swallowing his pride for the moment, perhaps the first time since he began using many years ago, and asks his sober friend for help.  The friend shows up within 10 minutes, discards the gun and embraces his desperate friend for an hour.  They go to the 5pm meeting of Crystal Meth Anonymous together and his sobriety begins.  He decides to quit using. His teeth and health improve, he finds work and can pay his bills once again.



“Well that’s a horse of an entirely different color, “ as we remember the gatekeeper to Oz responding to Dorothy, pleading for entrance because it was the only hope she had to find home once again.


There is change…and then there is change.


What differentiates the two?

Call it desperation. Call it God. Call it an epiphany from the far reaches of the universe which had been lying in wait to be delivered at just such an opportune moment.  Call it a horse of a different color, crafted by the Wizard, ready to take you home.

My moment came after I was arrested.

I had already paid for two weeks of Bartending School to start in September and had saved a substantial amount of money which would pay the balance of my child support and provide enough to pay my bills and expenses for six months, perhaps more if I stayed clean and was particularly frugal. I had a mental plan to immediately cut off all drug contacts, fabricate a story about a sudden horrible illness and post a new sign at my front door which said “THE CHENS” as if drug seeking visitors would be persuaded that my residence was now occupied by a Chinese family…and would with any luck, walk away puzzled.  For awhile.

But it was August 28th, 2011 and before all my September plans could fall neatly into place, the narcotics detectives in surveillance of my house for months prior, decided to abruptly move up my stop date without prior notice…and with handcuffs.

For the sake of brevity, I won’t go into detail of my own story which you can read here at my website if it helps (Scroll to page bottom, hit “older stories” and read “My 9-1-1”.)  My forever began here.


The twist of the second order…

In the first scenario, the wife who had spent the last several years frustrated, fantasizing about other men, and who also had a bag packed and a plan to leave him, is now not quite sure what to do with herself as a result of what appears to be a genuine, systemic change in her husband.  Her ways of dealing with him, herself and her own beliefs and values seem to now be in disarray.  Though she has her airline tickets to depart on Tuesday, she stuffs them in the top of her closet along with her luggage just in case this man she married 20 years ago might be the real deal after all.

In the second scenario, the addict whose commitment to change included not answering calls from his partying friends, having changed his phone number and his address and now spending more time alone than ever before in his life…finds his decision evoking the anger and insults of his dissed “friends.” In addition to developing new skills for managing his new sobriety, he is also faced with the reality that he really has no true friends and that he lacks the necessary skills to make healthy drug-free relationships.  But he will find a way. He has to.



After years of training and for many years subsequent, I was a very successful psychotherapist. I worked in private practice as well as in group and hospital practices.  I learned many things about helping others, but perhaps the best education was in learning how to help one to help himself.  I am convinced that my practice was most successful due to that last point.

While I lapsed into and swam in my addiction for a few years, several planets were aligning in my life which eventually lifted me out of the mire. Timing, events, God, my despair, etc…all unified on 9/11/11 when it became clear to me I could no longer get high enough to ignore the Voice any longer.


If knowledge, formal or otherwise, does not morph into wisdom, your efforts are without reward.

In the practice of psychotherapy, there is a school of thought which refers to how people change in thinking and behavior over the life span.  That thinking suggests that circumstances and enlightenments of our experience create “first-order change” and,  if we are very lucky,  “second-order change.” The first scenarios illustrate the idea of first order change.  The second set of the same scenarios—and the aforementioned subsequent dilemmas of both the wife and addict—illustrate what true, second order change in one person can create for self and others, the creation of a “crisis of homeostasis” of second-order change, the horse of a different color.


Change is easy.

Sustained change, notsomuch.

Change is attainable. We know it. We do it every day.

Different results, better performance, improved relationships…we use our present knowledge, alter our behaviors and employ our abilities to effect that change.  However, second order change, which requires the complete altering of mind-set, attitude and beliefs is a more complex task, but the dividends are ten-fold.



William A. Guillory, (2007) “The FuturePerfect organization: leadership for the twenty-first century – Part I”, Industrial and Commercial Training, Vol. 39 Iss: 1, pp.52 – 58

I always find that making a graphic representation of a difficult concept makes it more palatable for visual learners like myself. The graphic above shows the primary difference between making a change of the first order and making a change of the second order…sustainable change.

Most of us can proceed through life making first-order adjustments along the way, be reasonably successful, reasonably happy and die reasonably unchanged.

That’s not good enough for me, and I will venture to say it is also not good enough for you now that you have read this far and will forever know that there is more to life change than just reasonably “okay outcomes.  Much more.  It’s the difference between “for awhile” and “forever.”

Change of the second order requires self examination, humility, deep gut honesty, determination and follow through.  You might also add forgiveness, repentance, and a deep education of the heart.  Those who have been enlightened to second order changes, either by force or by volition, never turn back to living how they once did.  It’s dissatisfying.

So my hope in closing is that I have presented the idea of change in a way perhaps you never considered.  In doing so, I hope the idea hit you some place in the vicinity of your forehead…or better yet, your heart. And if you ever decide to make those very difficult changes in your life that have been hanging around like 10 pound ankle weights, you may know the optional kind of freedom and vibrance of a truly full life that comes with change of the second order.  If you don’t, I’m sorry to have stuck an idea in your head which is likely mess with every decision you’ll ever make forevermore.   Please forgive me.

I’m a changed man.

Perhaps you, too, will join me and think differently, for a change.




“My 9/11” Story to be Guest Blog at Popular Recovery Site

The  “My 9/11” story on this site (see “older posts” link at the bottom of the page,) will be Monday morning’s guest blog on my friend’s very popular website. A little about Joseph Sharp..

Hi, I’m Joseph Sharp, the author of Quitting Crystal Meth: What to Expect & What to Do (CreateSpace 2013). I have two other books: Living Our Dying (Hyperion 1996, translated into Spanish, German, Japanese and Chinese) and Spiritual Maturity (Penguin Perigee 2001, translated into Spanish). I’m a longtime survivor of HIV (over 30 years) and of cancer (just over a year as of this writing in May of 2013). I’m also a recovered crystal meth addict.

The following was his very kind message to me this morning:

Hey Don, I’ll be posting your guest blog this coming Monday at 1am. I’ve linked to your website at the front and end of the article so hopefully you’ll get some more traffic. And if not right away, it’ll be in the archives.  Anyhow, I want to to thank you again and say, again, how much I enjoy your blog. Not only is it usually poignant but you are a very good writer, something not so common in the blog world I find.  Best, Joseph


Quitting Crystal Meth - Recovery & CommunityQuitting Crystal Meth – Recovery & Community

Please visit, read and LIKE his Facebook Page.



burning ego

Of all humanly virtues I glimpse in action

I find humility most attractive.

It speaks silent volumes of your character

so you don’t have to.

It is the unfeatured attraction which magnetizes others and selflessly reveals the presence of greatness without  a summons, the spirit without a potion, and the notion without an action.

It is the simple, subtle, sultry sense of an unpunctuated smile from across the room unaware of its own potently captivating fragrance.

Its effect, alluring,

Its existence,  entrancing.

Its essence, unintended.

It is both effortless confidence and its own purest consequence distilled for no one yet inebriating all in its presence.

Spite, Malice & Revenge

Strategically planned and tactfully executed, the net effect of an original practical joke can be priceless.

The ability to run incredibly fast also helps.

Once upon a time, many years before camera phones and YouTube postings, practical jokes were widely accepted gestures of goodwill among members of tightly knit subcultures who knew instinctively how to retaliate, practically speaking.

I am not typical of bookstore patrons.  When there are that many books of all conceivable genres in one place, it’s like a golden ticket treasure hunt at the Willy Wonka Chocolate Factory.  I was single at the time, having bought my first new home, and though I had virtually no furniture, I was spending money on books, and plants and beer.  Enough beer and a good book and you can sleep anywhere.

The bookstore aisle I enjoyed the most was one for bizarre humor.  That evening, the thick hard-backed book that caught my eye, would turn out to be a handbook for some of the most fun episodes of my life.

“Spite, Malice & Revenge” was its name.

Now as a caveat, those who know me best know I’m not a spiteful person. I’m not malicious either. And they can attest to the fact I never seek revenge for dastardly acts against me.  But those who know me best also know the first place to look when an unexpected prank is pulled.

Commandeering one of those cushy upholstered miniature sofas in a back aisle, I began feeding my dark side with all manner of brilliant and wonderfully creative ideas. I was lost in the book there for perhaps hours.

These days, if you were one moseying through the displays in a bookstore and observed some entranced guy frantically taking notes on a pad through an eerie grin, oblivious to his surroundings as he chuckled through the pages of “SPITE, MALICE & REVENGE,” you would have ample reason to call the police or homeland security.

I escaped before they arrived.

Having bought the book, I went home to select my mark(s) and scheme into the wee hours.

Over the next few years, I enlisted the assistance of a few equally evil-minded cohorts to carry out some mildly elaborate pranks on my most naïve friends who I knew had no concealed weapons permits.  Safety first.

Among my greatest achievements in this ongoing life adventure, the outcome of which was an immediate and radically thinning of my social circle, was the staging of a murder.

They were out of town, which of course helps when you’re planning a murder scene in their driveway.

A neighborhood in physical decline, their house was top and center at the end of a cul de sac .The deeply sloped driveway was in full view of anyone turning onto Denby Circle. With the assistance of a well-connected friend, and a roll of official yellow POLICE LINE DO NOT CROSS barrier tape at 2am one Wednesday morning before their arrival home, we wrapped the crime scene.  The instructions suggested an ample supply of catsup and some thick white chalk.  The family of four, two adults, two children, were posed on the driveway by my friend as I outlined her body in various grotesque positions flowing down the grade.  Strategic squirts of catsup added lovely touches to the artwork which glistened under the early morning street lamps and was visible from the end of the street.

Like adolescent pranksters, we left the scene and came home to giggle and laugh at what fun it would be to see their faces when in just a few hours, they turned the corner home.

Later that morning, after having laughed ourselves to sleep, the phone call came.  It was them! Expecting a snort and chucklefest as we prided ourselves in the prank, the unexpected happened. Their trip home had been delayed a day.

As I hung up the phone, the two very predictable words which emerged from my lungs at max volume were followed by a shuddering reality.

It was just about the time of morning when all hardworking men and women left their homes, briefcases in hand, kissed their spouses good day and waved to their neighbors as they drove off to make the day’s wage.  On Denby Circle, families-turned-militia, mourning the grotesque, overnight loss of the loving Christian family at the end of the street, were still wondering how they’d slept through the bloody massacre.

A full 24 hours later, the Denby Circle neighborhood watch on full patrolling alert, our friends cheerily turned the corner, happy to be arriving home.

The call I received from them was short and to the point:

“Do NOT, I repeat…DO NOT come over or they will kill you in the street.”

The prank intended for our family friends had become a criminally punishable act of terror on dozens of families and children who found sleep during the weeks that followed in short supply.  Upon arrival home, our good-natured friends exiting the family van were a psychological shock to the patrolling neighbors who screamed in communal terror at the family they had since come to believe had suffered sudden and gruesome deaths only the day before.

After a couple months, when Denby  Circle had returned to a cautious homeostasis, the tables turned.

My wife and young car-seated kids and I were exhausted, having driven non-stop from a rushed Thanksgiving weekend with family in Phoenix.  Exiting the freeway, our final approach home was under a mile as we let out signs of relief, hoping to leave bags in the van and immediately crawl into bed for a needed nap.

We had missed a couple of the cardboard signs below eye-level on the street corners as we made the second to the last turn home, but the one in front of us caught our notice.





We had both seen the sign but our mutual, sleep-deprived minds processed it much too slowly. Still silent, but each of us obviously caught up in thoughts we began to psychically share on our final turn onto our long street, I floored it as we turned to each other in a Home Alone-esque scream.

The crowd of real estate agents, vultures who’d taken residence for who knows how long in front of our home awaiting our arrival and in full view of the huge 4’x8’full color professional sign erected in our front yard, blocked our driveway.  Various neighbors, thoroughly irate at what they believed was our attempt to instantly undercut neighborhood home valuation by what would be at least 80% in what was certain to be the sale of the century, laid in wait in their lawn chairs eating turkey leftovers and saving the carcasses for a satisfying slaughter of the Miller Family.

Of course, we’d woken the kids up with unrestrained laughter as we found a parking space down the street and briskly walked up to our front door.  The master rolodex of a corporate secretary couldn’t hold the fire hazard of business cards wedged in every crevice.  Car doors up and down the street opened as realtors raced to be the first to cut a deal.

The turkey carcasses rained like tomahawk missiles from all hating directions.

Like celebrities pursued by paparazzi, we sealed ourselves and the kids inside. Apart from the relentless knocking and ringing of the doorbell, the continuous beep of the maxed out answering machine was all we could hear as we picked up the phone to call the culprits on Denby Circle to demand a truce.

Suffice to say, as close as our families had been, it was no longer safe to visit each other at our respective homes.  Ever.  I pulled one last prank on them which had sealed that deal.

Simply, I had taken several random old house keys and assembled them onto rings labeled with the Denby Circle address and tossed them into the seediest neighborhoods in town.

During young adulthood, my best of friends and I lived in a perpetually alternating state of laughter and terror, never knowing, but always expecting another page of what had now become a very popular book among our friends,  to come to life at home, work or on the street without warning or apology.


You gotta have ‘em.

You gotta love ‘em.

You gotta get back at them every chance you get.

We are all much older now and hopefully more mature.  We can’t pull off such spectacles as we did back in those days where our camaraderie’s as co-conspirators cemented our family bonds.

But what a legacy we have left.

Our kids, now at the ages we were, once terrorists in training, are making best friends our old-fashioned way.

And looking over their shoulders daily…as we once did.



Gentleman Jay

He was only seven years old and depending on the events of that Friday, he was either desperately in need of some loving, gentle guidance or a swift back hand. Either way, Jay was a great kid, really. He just always arrived completely disassembled. I had never tried to piece together a respectful young man, but accepted the challenge every Friday night for over a year.

You could taste the estrogen in his home. Three women, none of whom had a clue about what it’s like to be a boy or what a boy needs to become a gentleman, were trying all the wrong things in my opinion. Two generations above him, his portly Grandma was from the well-fed bayous of Louisiana and empress of the kitchen stove, the burners of which daily licked at a large beaten silver pot, wide as it was tall. And it was always there, always steaming and always full of some southern blend of fish or stew or unidentifiable tomato gumbo soupy stuff. Though she referred to it each Friday by a different name when I showed up for dinner, it always tasted the same. And because it was always there and always on in the same position, I seriously wondered if Saturday through Thursday weren’t just days when new ingredients were added at random from the refrigerator or scraped in from the plates of other mealtimes. I could see why Jay always relished going out to dinner with me.

I’m guessing he’s about 34 now, the same age as his mother when I first met her working together on our new church magazine. She was a sensual, mysterious woman in every regard. Southern, thin frilly-flowered dresses, milky white skin and fluffy blonde hair. Her sister, who completed the female royalty of the household, was much the same, only several years older, taller and much more weathered.

I saw a lot of myself in little Jay. He was the cherished prince of the household, the only male child and without fatherly influences or male role models for the entirety of his young, impressionable life. Though we were unlike in some regards, like me, he was the proverbial “boy in the window.”

There was no escaping the touch, the advice or the eye of the female aristocracy, so for the sake of survival, he’d learned to embrace their ways. Privy to their gossip about the other gender, the idiosyncratic female ways and for years enduring the mood swings of their unified monthly cycles, he was a boy drowning in estrogen who needed a savior. When he chanced to lift himself up to peer outside the window at the other neighborhood boys at play, he was scolded not to fall, enveloped once again into the overly protective womanly ways of the household.

Jay definitely needed a savior.

Tired of the silver pot dinners—both of us—one Friday night, I broke the ritual.

“Jay and I are gonna take off and get a bite tonight, y’all,” I said in a mock southern drawl, hoping the humor would compensate for the disinviting it implied. I had seen how he looked at me so many Friday night visits before which had taken their course and I got up to leave for home. He’d yearned to be able to do the same. The boy inside him needed the man inside me if not for just for the influence of one night a week.

I don’t think we waited for a discussion of my proposal nor an approval. We were out the door, in the car and driving off fast as boys do. He loved misbehaving with me and I could take the heat of the female disapproval for the both of us if needed upon our return. Tonight, we were defiant, forgetting to take our coats and determined to dine on fast food and root beer for a long time. High five!

Entering Long John Silvers, the lip of the silver counter stretched half the length of the restaurant, ending at the very round black woman commanding the cash register. I walked sidestep, eyes feasted upward at the menu bannering the wall above. I took mental note of the selections to dictate our order at the finish line where our defiantly delicious dinner could begin.

“What the hell are you doing, man? That’s just sick, Jay!,” I yelled out, seeing his tongue, lick the length of the silver counter on its way toward me. Clearly, he’d not been schooled in the gentlemanly manners of dining out. Perhaps never.

I paid and together, we mocked the stride of the gentleman who’d departed the register before us. Our pace entering the dining room, fine plastic cutlery in hand, to the table with a view, was deliberately dignified as if we were some proper gents in a castle. He cracked up as boys should, but can’t around years of smothering women. Taking seat and waiting to be served, I explained the manly art of napkinning. I showed him how it could be folded and tucked in the collar, shaken to the side and laid in the lap, or, in his case, both.

The butler presented us a tray of assorted, quite scrumptious, deeply fried, artery clogging somethings so covered in greasy, crusted batter, we weren’t exactly sure it was what we ordered, but it didn’t matter. As refined gentlemen we were there for the moment, and we didn’t care.

For men, once the food arrives, all decorum is off. The goal that evening was to munch with our mouths open, burp loudly, fart occasionally and talk about guy stuff.

Of course, being only seven and curious being exposed to this new environment, he won the competition for “most disgusting tableside act” in the final round, peeling and chewing the dry, discolored rind from the lip of the ketchup bottle.

“Bravo!,” I cried out, awarding his achievement with a greasy napkin to the head.

We talked much longer than the food lasted. It was mostly about sports, school and guy stuff and after a belching contest, made our way out the door and back to the palace where a worried royal ensemble impatiently laid in wait for our arrival.

He raced me to the door and it opened on its own. His mother remarked how she’d been busy with affairs of the house and asked about our outing. We vowed to keep the belching contest our secret so we rattled off some menu items we enjoyed and how to fold napkins properly as a cover up. He glanced my way. I winked at him and he laughed his way down the hall to get his bath before bed as instructed.

Jay and I spent many Friday nights out on boy excursions to eat disgusting food or play video games, throw a ball and sometimes to just to escape. It became the highlight of his week–and mine.

I don’t know what became of Jay. As I said, it’s been many years. The matriarch and her princesses moved away and I recall our last Friday together as the moving truck sped off. I watched the tearful face of the boy in the window for the final time and I winked and waved, wondering what might become of him and if our many Friday nights might somehow have changed the manhood of his destiny.

I still sometimes imagine him having found a wife or lover, the wisdom of a gentleman, or at least, the peace that comes with finally feeling he was one of the guys learning to be a man in the midst of an estrogen ocean.

I know that at least for a little while every Friday night, I did.

One in a million, nineteen thousand seven hundred twenty one.

“One in a million, nineteen thousand seven hundred twenty one” All I could see were the odds, and I almost missed the obvious.
I had seen the advertisement a month earlier but never was one for competition. In high school, my six foot, one thirty frame wasn’t made for the beating it took during hell week in the dog days of summer 1977. Football tryouts for my newly opening high school seemed a formidable but attainable goal. My goal was only to try out. I was fooling nobody, especially myself. I figured a start up sports program at a newly opening high school would let almost anyone with four limbs at the very least, try out. The two feeder schools to the shiny new Bonanza High School were the oldest, richest and strongest sports powerhouses in the valley at the time. Recruiters figured they’d at least net the fallout from the noteworthy neighbors which, incidentally, included the soon-to-be star of the Atlanta Falcons and then Bonanza High ’78 grad, Gerald Riggs, thankyouverymuch. That last piece of trivia notwithstanding, my intimidation level was eased. Just make it through the tryouts, don’t make the team.

I made it through the first four days of hell week. After having crossed the halfway point of tryouts, I was satisfied to drop out. I had achieved my own goal, had enough bruises already just from practices and was so exhausted each night when I arrived home, I skipped dinners mom had kept warm only to drop into bed fully clothed and filthy to awake in exactly the same pose.

Tennis was not much different. Less physical, yes, but I soon realized my motor skills were scarcely precise enough to drive a car much less swing a racket at a moving object. I pitifully made the first cuts, but as with football, I didn’t want or need to finish. I could be an excellent athletic supporter.

Why I set my competitive sights so low in high school has been an ongoing discovery for me. Bullied and not well built physically, a late bloomer in all respects, I abhorred those who were showboats. I had friends from all walks—geeks to athletes and every subgenre in between. But despite their builds, looks, beauty or other socially valued attributes of the high school age, they were pretty genuine people. I guess in hindsight, I valued in others that which I didn’t yet possess for myself. In psychotherapy, we call that “cannibalism” as cannibals would only kill and consume those whose traits they admired. The reverse was true for me as well: I hated those who would dare flaunt an adolescent confidence.

Later in school, having been elected president of the student body by a narrow margin, I found it hard to believe I had achieved such a feat for something I “was” to the students who voted, but rather persuading myself that my victory was because of things I “did,” like having the best signs (my father was an artist,) politically befriending key players of all social genres and getting the teachers to think well of me.

This advertisement in the fall 2004 (or thereabouts) issue of the Las Vegas Weekly wasn’t for a game of sport, per se, but a competition for which I had prepared all of my youth.

Who knows? Maybe I’ll just enter.
I might even succeed at it.

The headline read: “Fado’s Irish Pub at Green Valley Ranch Hosts the First Ever Las Vegas Adult Spelling Bee Championship”

Now, you must understand. I was the original Grammar Nazi. My enthusiasm for language, spelling, grammar and my love of diagramming entire sentences– breaking them down into their smallest denominators–was bathroom entertainment for me. Word searches, Reader’s Digests and dictionaries were adolescent pornography I read into the night.

In elementary school, the weekly spelling tests were a bore. Always the first to finish, I would not only spell the word, but write its definition in the margin. Classmates hated me. Teachers loved me and I loved it when they did, so they unwittingly fed the cycle of reinforcement, and my enthusiasm for wordsmithing grew.

Early on, I began collecting dictionaries. Dictionaries of obscure, preposterous words, dictionaries of euphemisms for being drunk, dictionaries of words that did not yet exist, but should. I had a huge collection. I only have a few left now as I lost track of most of my possessions when I was using drugs and didn’t really care so much where my books went as where my drugs were.

High school term research papers were often begun the night before and always received the top grade in the class. In my undergraduate program Speech 101 class, a core freshman course, I remember a stunning Norwegian with big Nordic breasts who expressed great interest in seeing me outside of the classroom environment. But getting lucky waned in importance to getting their, they’re and there correct. Proofreading her speeches was agony. There was no hope for a future with someone still having trouble at this stage of the game (and she didn’t shave her armpits or legs, either.)

Linguistics class with Dr. Tom in my undergrad program triggered one of my switches of major, as he was also a dictionary collector. Into my graduate program, I remember Dr. Sexton’s Systems Theory class final paper was a 24 page analysis for a maximum 10 page paper. I got a B- for excessive length. My thesis paper “Multicultural Counseling: The Prime Directive?,” was cited in a friend’s book and I was told was/is the thesis paper on file as an example of how they are to be done.

At the time, I was working in our family ad agency and wrote reams of ad copy daily for clients. I had lists of words organized in themes for various client projects. I had every possible reason to believe in my ability to compete and to win a spelling bee.

I had done it once before in 6th grade. And the plot thickens.

But I had misplaced the ad. It resurfaced in the car one afternoon. At some point, everything resurfaced in my car. I was a hoarder, but at least I could spell it correctly. It was 2pm on a Friday I think. The crumpled newsprint with that same headline had made its way to the top of the trash heap I called my back seat. It was as if it wanted to be found. After all, as was noted, the competition was that very night.

I called my friend Henry and my parents and invited them to meet me for dinner at Green Valley Ranch where I might also try my hand at a spelling bee.

In separate cars, we arrived at the Ranch just in time for the early bird dinner menu, presumably to beat the Friday night crowd of diners-turned-gamblers whose well-intentioned paychecks would later undoubtedly find a resting place in the casino coffers after a few strong Irish brews.

The place was already packed. It had opened only recently so I attributed the capacity crowd so early to the fact that it was a Friday and a new, trendy hangout for yuppies of that era. We waited for a table and by some miracle, a fourtop opened to the immediate right of the stage. I recall wondering if one of us looked like some celebrity or a preferred high roller to have been awarded such a prime spot while dozens waited in line.

We sat down, ordered our beers and some indigenous and tasteless Irish fare. Very soon, it didn’t matter, as everything we ate tasted like the last beer we’d downed. I was feeling good. I was also in no condition to spell my own last name.

Crowds gathered, the stage was meticulously populated with podiums and sound systems and semi-celebrity types telling each other what to do.

Three very large beers later, the pub was standing room only. If someone had yelled “fire,” no one would have heard over the crowd. Nor would they have escaped.

The Irishman spoke into the microphone.

“Participants in the Las Vegas Adult Spelling Bee must first complete the paper and pencil preliminary test. The top 24 will proceed to the actual spelling bee.”

If the timely emergence of the lost ad and the procurement of a prime table in a crowd like that wasn’t enough, the fact that my lifetime lucky number was 24 gave me the final push. I was feeling no intimidation. I was feeling dizzy.

I think I heard that 330 people had signed up and had taken the paper preliminary. As they called the top 24 scorers from the crowd, my name was the last.

“Donald Miller.”

I snaked my way through the hundreds of observers to check in, the crowd thickened even more, and the competition began.

It was a process of elimination program. If you missed your word, you were out. After all 24 were through, 12 remained, then 6, then three, and finally there were two left standing. I think this was the format, I may be wrong. I was very drunk and I had to pee a bucket but held it.

I’d had more beer that evening than I usually drank in a month, but somehow, I realized I was either going to walk away second best or win the entire thing.

Some of the words others had failed to spell correctly were obscure terms I was recalling from Word Power Reader’s Digest bathroom visits of the past. Despite my floating bladder and brain, I remained alert when it came down to the final round, me versus the other dude whose name I didn’t care to know.

15 minutes of fame is short-lived media publicity or celebrity of an individual or phenomenon.The expression was coined by Andy Warhol, who said in 1968 that “In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes”

I was about to have mine. But I was also about to have my mind completely blown in the process.

This story is not about my lifetime fascination with words. Neither is it about whether I won or lost the spelling bee. Third strike: it’s not even about my 15 minutes of fame.
It’s about taking the chance to take something to the finish line, win or lose, fame or flounder.

Truth is, you don’t know how many times you missed one incredible moment in your life. One that was divinely chipped off, polished and set directly in front of you, nudged your way and all but short of doing the chicken dance on your damn nose, did everything possible to get your attention.

Perhaps you do, and right now you sense that recurring and immediate ache that has become the only thing left to fill the tiny but so very important void that lost moment has left in your soul; as if you had missed completing the final line in Tetris, letting the blocks fall on their own as your fingers went suddenly and unexpectedly numb.

Note: There are one million, nineteen thousand, seven hundred twenty one words in the English language.

In my only other spelling bee in the 6th grade, I made it to the final round, having lost on a word I will never, ever, ever forget. Even today, I use the word in variations with my lucky number as my passwords on some accounts. (This is probably not the smartest thing to reveal, I know, but it’s part of the story.)

There in the Irish pub, the three judges called me to the stage to give me my final word. Correctly spelling the given word won me the title. Missing it, by default, gave the championship to the other unnamed contender.

The drunken pause was deafening. The several hundred onlookers, 22 bitter disqualified contestants and strangers who had found a small niche or window to peer from, waited as the center judge spoke me the word:


I was well aware I was drunk, but oblivious to this auditory hallucination I was experiencing at that moment. I briefly shuddered, shook myself into temporary sobriety at the microphone and with a wave of chills that rolled the length of my body, I waited for the judge to give me the actual word…one I could soberly understand and spell.


It’s funny when the beer, the crowd, the pressure and the screaming memory of the 6th grade judge saying, “I’m sorry” converged in that instant, all I could muster was

I’m sure the judges had read through my reaction that they had finally found the word to choke me in my snooty spelling tracks.

“The word is…asph…”

“I KNOW what the word is…I just can’t believe it,” I said. I turned left in time to see my parents and friend with jaws on the table and huge beercan eyes staring back at me in disbelief.

Slowly turning to address the crowd, I softly and briefly thanked Mr. Warhol under my overbrewed breath and into the microphone, I spoke through a smile.

“In 6th grade, I lost a very important spelling bee. Apparently, I have not yet forgiven myself.
I used an “I” instead of a “Y” in this

“Judges, the correct spelling is

It was that One-In-A-Million- Nineteen-Thousand-Seven-Hundred-Twenty-One word moment.

I let the 15 minutes begin and I would like to say I basked in the fame and glory of being crowned and showered with gifts and prizes reserved for the Las Vegas Adult Spelling Bee Champion. The truth is, I had instantly sobered up to the fact that what just happened was much, much bigger than having spelled a word correctly. It was not about having instant redemption from my 6th grade failure. It was not about the cheers and applause of hundreds of strangers I would never see again and who would soon flow out into the casino to lose the rest of their week’s wages that night.

I saw an ad, lost it, and found it the day of the event. Against all odds in a standing room only crowd, I got the only fourtop available stage left.

330 entries boiled down to my lifetime lucky number of 24 finalists.

And a one in a million chance at a word I had vowed to never forget.

The beer helped, but only to drop my defenses and anxieties long enough to see the possibilities before me that night.

Something…someone…invisibly orchestrated the events and turned the odds in my favor. Not for fame, prizes or applause. The purpose was much greater. It helped me to break, once for all, and very persuasively, the low view of myself that I’d held to for all those years.

Setting your sights and hopes low is safe, but ultimately, you never really get to play in the game. Taking leaps when you’re not quite sure of the footing underneath is risky, but I had found it was a helluva lot more fun.

And God came through in the end, as God always does…if you look closely. He asphyxiated the old self talk and breathed life and confidence into this redeemed new man. If I’d been focused on the prize, I’d have missed His process and all the nifty coincidences along the way.

If indeed, all things happen for a reason, then it is equally true that nothing also happens for a reason. I had been the reason God did what He did. Conversely, I’d lived the safe life but believed I had nothing much to show for it.
By the way, the Las Vegas Adult Spelling Bee, such a popular, well attended and raving success that night, has never been held nor heard from since. So until it does again, my fifteen minutes may just last a lifetime.

My interview this morning

Good interview, you can uncross your toes now.
“If indeed, everything happens for a reason,
it is equally true then that nothing also happens for a reason.”
I’m not a “closed door, open window” mantra type of person
but I do think that if I practice what I preach these days, that
if the job is for me, I’ll get it. If not, then there is a reason
well beyond my comprehension and another opportunity will
soon present itself.

Thanks for the well wishes and prayers!



Are you the reason?

If, indeed, everything happens for a reason,

then it is equally true that nothing happens for a reason.

This truth came to me a short time ago here at 2am on a Monday morning while I’ve been writing my next story for you, the working title of which is:

“One in a million,  nineteen thousand seven hundred twenty nine”

You might want to chew on the thought and ponder with it your own personal self assessment.  Are you the reason?

Stay tuned:




If I was a younger man,

I would use more commas than exclamation points,

make pregnant pauses mean something more in conversations,

and think a lot more during the silent moments I was dealt.

If I was a younger man,

I would take up causes that mattered most,

my view of the future would be shorter,

and I would risk so much more for what I believed in.

If I was a younger man,

contemplations would be richer,

reflections clearer,

and conversations more indelible.

As a younger man,

I would spend more time creating poems,

writing longer notes in greeting cards,

and I would call those I love for no reason at all.

My friends would be closer,

my enemies further,

and my heart would be softer,

as a younger man.

I would have listened to the older men more,

memorized more quotations,

created more memories,

and remembered what was most important.

Everything I’d do

would be taken down a notch or two,

time would be much more precious,

and Life would be boiled down

to a purpose,

because I was a younger man.

I would do it today instead of tomorrow,

look at the big picture,

and take more snapshots on the way there.

The clock would pale insignificant,

and my “I” would be much less important

than you.

And because I was a younger man,

my gains would be more intangible,

my virtues more apparent,

and my focus more intense.

I’d play more,

give more,

and say thank you to complete strangers

for their unknown acts of valor.

I would pet more puppies,

take longer walks,

and pause a few more times

to see the smaller things around me.

And I wouldn’t be afraid to cry.

I would be an older soul in a younger body,

chasing more inventions,

reading more genres,

and blazing more trails for the young men to follow.

I would scour the dictionary for just the right word,

enter more contests,

and I would share more of my winnings with strangers.

Edit less,

listen more,

and use smaller words to say the same things to more people,.

so they could understand

the musings

of men much older than them.

And maybe then, the younger men

would see the value of using commas more,

And exclamation points, a whole,



An Incredible Brown Box

I buried an old woman in my backyard.

My two young daughters and I dug a hole, put her in, said some farewell prayers and cried. It was more than 35 years ago and I still miss her terribly.

Her name was Josie Brown. She was originally from Sapulpa, Oklahoma, a little town in the northeast part of the state smack dab in Tornado Alley. I remember that because all my life I’ve been fascinated by tornadoes and she would tell me tales of those “wicked winds” nearly every visit if I’d ask. I’d like to say I remember exactly how she made her way to live and die here in Las Vegas of all places, but I don’t. But I do know that for the last several years of her brittle life, I was her closest friend. I was her only friend.

I got the call from the mortuary one afternoon at work.

My family-owned advertising agency business was in its peak years. Clients were demanding. I rarely left for lunch unless it was to treat a client. None of us did. The agency was an incredible firm staffed with 21 employees, five of which were my family members. Miller & Associates was a great place to work. We took care of each other and our employees. We had each others’ backs before it became a cliché.

I was writing some quick ad copy for a banking client so dad could get the ad typeset and out for production to make the newspaper deadline that evening. We were never late, even with the most last minute of rush jobs. And because of our impeccable reputation for timely payment, honesty and fairness, we very well could have been late and the paper would have made exception for late insertion without question. They didn’t do that for anyone else to my knowledge.

Judi paged my office, “Donnie, there’s a call on line 4 but I can’t tell what it’s about. Some mortuary. Are we pitching a mortuary for God’s sake?” She was a riot, my mom’s assistant, and her best friend. She might as well have shared our surname.

We were always pitching business and the company was so well run by the Miller & Associates staff, it wasn’t unheard of for companies to pitch us to handle their advertising, marketing and public relations needs.

“Hello, this is Don. How can I help you?,” I answered, still frantically “keyboarding” the rush copy for dad on my brand new, state of the art Kaypro 256 computer. The entire hard drive was 256MB and the $2,000 investment made the now obsolete IBM Selectric 3 my sister still used for typing her press releases in the next office a noisy nuisance. I closed the window between our offices.

“Good afternoon. Is this Donald Miller?,” the woman on the other end asked.

“Yes ma’am, this is.”

“This is Bunker Brothers Mortuary on Las Vegas Boulevard South. We have Josie Brown here for you to pick up.”

It had been a long time since I’d last seen Josie or heard her name but not as long since I’d thought about her. I knew the call wasn’t that Josie was waiting for me in their lobby for a ride to the store.

Josie had passed the week prior. The cause of death was unknown, but I knew better. She died of loneliness. A lifetime of it. She was 84, and had earned every year of it.

“We called her nephew, a Pastor in Sapulpa, Oklahoma. He’s the only kin she has left. They didn’t want her,” she said rather hastily, as if families routinely rejected the cremated remains of their deceased kin.

Having worked phone sales at a cemetery once before many years earlier, I would eat lunch out by the crematorium and on some days when the door was open, I’d go inside and look around. Little plastic twist-tied grey bags of so many unknown souls lined shelf upon shelf around the big burning ovens. No one had come for them. No one had claimed them. Their final resting place was a wooden shelf among strangers with a daily view of the ovens which had incinerated their existence like so many others.

“He what?!,” I replied in disbelief. “He refused her cremains?”

“Yes, Mr. Miller, that is the case. Your name is the only other contact we found in her belongings when she passed. If you don’t want her, we’ll just put her out for disposal.”

I made arrangements to get her after work and called my wife to say I’d be late, but I didn’t say I was bringing company home. For good.

I first met Josie Brown when I was a 17 year old Bonanza High School student. I’d been elected Student Body President at the new high school that year and our student council had planned a Christmas visit to the old folks home on the corner adjacent to the school stadium. It was just another service project like so many service projects we’d done before.

We were armed with decorations, holiday cookies, snacks, a council secretary who played an impressive single finger piano, me with my guitar and all those we could recruit for the early evening event. We were given a certain window of time to get in and get out as the staff didn’t want med and sleep schedules interrupted, likely for fear they might miss the start of their favorite prime time programming.

It was a dismal place. The only holiday décor in sight was what we’d brought, and this was a week before Christmas. The caretaking staff tolerated the visit of our dozen or so teens. I think we were all genuinely happy to be there, though. It was that rare feeling in youth when you do something good for someone else when all you’ve ever been concerned about at that age has been yourself. I’m not sure if that was the source of our smiles or if it was seeing the room of lonely pajama’d octogenarians leaning in chairs and wheelchairs, none standing, fewer smiling.

It wasn’t organized this way but it seemed like each of us picked one resident for the evening. But in my case, I’d quickly realized it was I who was chosen.

She sat in a modest blue calf length house dress with brittle weathered hands folded in her lap atop one another. It was her smile that had caught my attention. She was, to the best of my memory, the only one whose face carried any expression at all. Her rich blue eyes had long since clouded over with cataracts, especially the left one. It was probably not the only untreated illness she’d endured for as many years as she had lived there.

I say “lived,” but there was no life at that place. At least not as we experience life, especially then as self-indulgent teens who’d volunteered our time that evening without any real inconvenience. It was a two hour Friday night stint and we could party afterward. I know, privately, through the smiles, each wondered when the project would be over. It was a gloomy sadness we experienced that evening, a stark contrast to the colorful, loud, joyous fun times we had been enjoying in preparation for the holiday outside those walls.

Josie’s seat was closest to the piano and her cloudy blues summoned me to the empty chair at her side.

“Hi! Are you having fun?,” I asked in adolescent naivete.

“Well hello young man. And yes, this is wonderful, thank you,” she replied with the distinct southern drawl of a proper lady.

“My name is Don Miller and we are so glad to be here with you this evening. What is your name?”

“Josie. My name is Josie Brown Don Miller.”

“Well that’s funny, we share the same last name “Josie Brown Don Miller!,” I said in a lame attempt at humor an 80 something old woman wasn’t likely to get. I was 17, quite sad at the time and I think my attempt was really to boost my own mood, not hers. I’d confused her a bit with my humor and it was embarrassingly obvious.

“So, Josie, how have you been?,” I asked as if it had been awhile since our last visit, with a woman I’d never seen her before in my life.

“Well fine, Don.” She spoke softly as the single finger pianist next to us pounded out the notes of some indistinguishable Christmas hymn. It was hard for her to hear me and while she loved music, this was not music. She was getting uncomfortable and anxious at all the sound and action around. Surely, it was more noise and action her group had heard and seen in perhaps years.

Relocating to two vacant chairs across the room took some time, of course. Once seated in the still warm chairs which had been vacated minutes before by two other residents who had already returned to their rooms for any number of reasons, Josie and I began to talk.

“Well, Don, I’m from Oklahoma. Do you know where that is?”

“Of course I do. That’s where Tornado Alley is, right?” I was attempting to find a topic for a conversation starting point and it was easier to begin with something of interest to me than to her.

Josie and I talked tornadoes, family, Christmas memories and all the topics of holiday chats. It was apparent she’d had a rich life history of stories which had rarely, if ever, been told. Nobody was interested. Drinking our punch from styrofoam cups and an occasional bite of a store bought sugar cookie, I listened.

Our two hour gig was up 20 minutes ago and most of my classmates had long since said their goodbyes and lies to come back and visit again soon. Me, I couldn’t get out of my chair.

That frail old woman had captivated me that night. Her stories of Midwest living, life on the farm, the hard times and hard work of being a prairie woman in the grain fields and the vivid imagery of a kind of country life this city boy had only read in books had brought us into the third hour of the evening. The nurses had cleaned up, patients and residents were long since in their rooms asleep and we had been cued at least twice by one of the nurses that it was time to go.

That night changed my life forever.

Many years later during my graduate program and a class named “Society and the Psychology of Aging,” I had written a shortened version of this story for my final class project. I have looked all over for that essay, especially the photo of Josie that I’d paired with it. I have yet to find it. It is important because it is the only photograph of her that I have. I don’t need it, really. Her face is as clear in my now own rapidly aging mind as that night in the Torrey Pines Convalescent Center. My short essay for the class, the last one presented before the Christmas break, brought the entire class to tears. I got an A and a million questions about this magical pioneer woman who’d stolen my heart. I have since found two photos.

A little more than a week after having met Josie, I returned. It was either Christmas Day or Christmas Eve, I don’t recall. What I do remember, however, made me more sad than I’d initially been on my first visit. Except for the skeleton crew of workers and the residents, the place was void of visitors. It was the biggest holiday of the year, and nobody was celebrating. Nobody had reason to.

Checking in at the nurse’s station, I managed approval to visit Josie. Walking down the dingy linoleum hall, gift in hand for Josie, I paused just a little at each door to see how other residents might be spending their holiday. It was cruel. Seeing some stranger at their doors this holiday, even for an instant, brought small words of welcome, believing they were the one selected to be remembered that cold winter day. As I walked on, door to door, the expressions were the same. I had brought one gift for Josie and in that short walk down the hallway, had broken the dreams of so many bedridden others.

Josie was startled by my visit and said all the quiet humilities to me of how she didn’t deserve such a treat, especially since I had family to be with. Her room was darkened and not so good for her already impaired vision. She was wrapped in a thin blanket, half reclined in her bed. The night stand was empty except for a table lamp with a low watt bulb, the only illumination for her holiday. No cards. No gifts. No trinkets or holiday snacks. The room was cold, austere and obviously designed to make the outgoing of one resident and the incoming of the next as seamless as possible. They were not in the business of keeping beds empty.

Her room was shared by another elderly woman who had died during the week and Josie expressed anxiety wondering who her next roommate might be. “I hope she’s not mean,” she said. “The lady who was here was not a very kind person. She was loud and kept me up all night, Don,” she continued. I was pleased she’d remembered my name.

I presented her my gift, a digital alarm clock radio, which she opened slowly marveling as if it were the crown jewels. Hastily, though, she pulled open her nightstand drawer and placed it inside, closing the door and looking over her shoulder as if she were a bandit hiding her loot.

“You know, it would probably look better if you put it on your night stand and plugged it in, Josie,” I joked. Looking at me, she was puzzled a bit, but cautiously retrieved the gift from the drawer and I installed it on her table. The volume of the radio was factory set to max and as I tried to demonstrate the many functions, she was frightened as I clamored to find the volume control. It hadn’t been programmed so the loud shriek of radio static coming from room 24 had disturbed countless residents down the hall. No nurses though. They were at their station having a holiday potluck of their own. The radio sound could have been shrieks of agony from a resident and they would have known no difference.

Josie told me that she was reluctant to leave such an expensive gift out in the open for long as “they take things, you know.” Whether it was her now deceased roommate, other residents or the nurses, she was definitely afraid of losing the $20 gift I’d brought her.

We talked for awhile, occasionally pausing as a patient on a walker meandered past the open door destined for a hard seat in the TV room down the hall. Josie was big on privacy and not just a little paranoid, I’d thought. She mentioned the family in Oklahoma she hadn’t seen nor heard from in many years but was obviously proud of her nephew Richard, who was a pastor back in Sapulpa. He had a large congregation in the very small town, last she knew. I asked if she’d heard from him for the holidays and though it was quite obvious she’d heard from no one, she made excuses on his behalf about the many miles between them, the possibility that the nurses had intercepted his greeting cards or that the holiday season was his busiest time.

I never heard if she had any other living relatives. On my visits, I tried to keep the topics current and relatively upbeat.

I came back almost weekly from there on out. I usually brought some sort of gift or trinket for her drawer and we’d chat for an hour until I had to be back to work. As years passed, I followed her to three other convalescent centers after her Torrey Pines eviction. Each one was progressively worse, dingier, dirtier, even less involved and more disinterested than the one before. Nursing home prices went up and her small government check could buy her fewer and fewer conveniences.

And as those years passed, I was ashamed to have scheduled less and less time for her. Weekly visits became biweekly, then monthly and eventually only on the major holidays. Each time I would track her down in those later years and show up unannounced. She was always as cheerful to see me as on that first Christmastime visit.

I learned more about myself during those times than I knew what to do with. And writing this, even now I’m still very much at a loss with the emotions.

I’d become busier with work, marriage, family and home that I didn’t seem to make time for even a quick visit now and then. I was secretly ashamed of myself but shared the sentiment with no one but my conscience.

My feelings of guilt over having gradually abandoned her like everyone else in her life had done were laid to rest the day my kids and I buried that small, sealed brown box which contained the remains of the old prairie woman from Sapulpa who had more than once captured my heart.

“Was there anything else?,” I asked at the mortuary that afternoon picking up Josie’s cremains. “She had many possessions I’d given her over the years.”

“No, nothing was turned in but this Valentine card with her picture. That’s how we knew to contact you because your name and phone number were on the back.”

The red construction paper with deckled edges and a wallet sized photo of Josie inset in a lacy red heart in the center read, underneath in pencil:

To my friend, Don Miller.

Love your friend, Josie Brown.

When my family moved from that home to a bigger one, we’d packed and cleaned it out and were already moved into the new place when I’d remembered one box I’d forgotten to pack in the move.

I raced back to the old house and shoveled and dug on my hands and knees for hours into the night in the mound of dirt in the corner of the yard where I’d laid Josie’s brown box to rest so many years before.

I never found her.

The angels had beat me to it, and Josie was no longer alone.

I know I will meet up with her again someday, and like old times, we will talk of tornadoes and Christmases once again.