Category Archives: Reads

What and Why?

I went to see my mom for the first time in a long while last week. She lives in a really nice assisted living apartment two and a half hours away from where I live. She’s in her upper 80s and doesn’t move around very well. As is probably a common theme across similar situations over the past two years, the pandemic times have taken a toll on her wellness. 

We had a good visit. I talk with her at least weekly on the phone and we tell stories about our household adventures when we six Hays kids were growing up. We laugh a lot about the old days. Although talking on the phone is a very good thing, it’s still nice to be able to see her in person.

Of course, during the visit last week, we laughed and told the stories as usual. She told me she was trying to learn to paint after they had a painting class a few weeks earlier. We watched the TV (an X-Files movie!) and she had her usual, highly entertaining running commentary, which let me tell you is even a whole higher level of entertaining during a science fiction story. Classic stuff. I wish you could have been there.

During our phone or face-to-face visits, we inevitably end up heading toward a tough conversation. Mom will turn a little sullen and say. “Michael, every morning I wake up and ask God why he keeps me here and what I’m supposed to be doing.”

Tough questions. They’re tough questions I’m never really prepared to answer and it leaves a hole in my gut. I often reply, “I don’t know.”

We had that conversation last week. I once again answered that I didn’t know. After a few minutes of contemplation, we were back to the movie and making fun of aliens buried under Antarctica. The movie ended, we said our goodbyes, and I headed home.

During the drive home, I couldn’t shake that conversation. I couldn’t shake the emptiness at not being able to provide an answer that could give my mother some peace of mind.

God, what am I supposed to be doing?

Today the answer hit me. It hit me in church during the funeral of one of the most selfless, kind, and giving individuals in our small town. His life was all about finding the things that needed to be done and then doing them humbly. He led a purpose-driven life at its very best.

The answer was right there all along in with my mom’s hard questions.

God keeps us here in order to find the things we’re supposed to be doing.

We are given the gift of a day. It’s up to us to find the best way to spend it. It’s up to us to find ways to be the best stewards of our world and our communities that we can be.

God keeps us here in order to find the things we’re supposed to be doing.

Thank you Mom for the question.

Thank you Dennis for a life well-lived. 

Thank you, God, for the gift of today.

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The Favorite Place to Play

Coaches should always have a favorite place to play. This favorite place should trickle down to their entire team and organization. Everyone from the assistants to the players to the support staff should share a passion for this place.
What is the place?
Simple. It’s wherever the next game on the schedule is.
Because that’s what it’s all about. Getting your team ready to play the next game wherever it is.
Any other concerns, worries, or complaints steer the ship off course. There’s already a lot of other stuff to deal with in getting ready to play a game, especially at the high school or youth sports level, to detract from the goal of reaching that favorite place. A coach’s actions and demeanor matter. Negative thoughts spread to teenage athletes before anything can be done to prevent it and affect performance.
There’s a certain special feeling going to a game and seeing the field or the lights or the arena waiting ahead. A favorite kind of place lies ahead.
Anticipation. A touch of nerves. The heart quickens. It’s a special feeling.
So what’s a coach to do?
Put their head down and go to work whether you’re playing on the most pristine of fields or on something barely suitable as a landfill site.
Get ready for the next game, wherever and whenever it is.
Make the places and spaces we inhabit better. Leave a mark. All day, every day.
Isn’t that what life’s all about?
Above all else, enjoy the ride!

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Happy New Year 2022!

The Priestly Blessing

The LORD said to Moses:  
“Speak to Aaron and his sons and tell them:  
This is how you shall bless the Israelites.
Say to them:  
The LORD bless you and keep you!  
The LORD let his face shine upon      
you, and be gracious to you!  
The LORD look upon you kindly and      
give you peace!

So shall they invoke my name upon the Israelites,  
and I will bless them.”

Numbers 6: 22-27

Sunrise, Kansas, Nov. 2021, Sometimes you just have to pull over & appreciate.

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A Words Look: Texas In My Rear View Mirror by Mac Davis

I hadn’t heard this song for years but the line, “And when I die you can bury me in Lubbock Texas in my jeans”, popped into my head the other day for no particular reason. The mind is a weird thing—an amalgamation of stored experiences, thoughts, and dreams. I was thinking about home and found homes and adopted homes and how all three meld together to form your true home. To me, now on the downslope to sixty years on this planet, that single line from this great 1980 song defines the essence of what true home means.

Mac Davis could do just about anything in the entertainment business. Songwriter of such  megahits as Elvis’ In the Ghetto, I Believe in Music recorded by a whole slew of people, Baby Don’t Get Hooked on Me, and the late-night, driving home from a party anthem, Lord It’s Hard to Be Humble. Singer/songwriter of many popular hits and albums over a twenty-year career. He also acted. Over his long acting career, he starred in the 1979 movie, North Dallas Forty, hosted his own variety show, appeared in several TV shows, including a hosting gig for an episode of The Muppet Show, and was a voice-over talent in a handful of popular animated series. He could pull off just about anything and do it with his mix of down-home personality and general likeability. 

For some reason, probably because he did so many things well and did them in his own easy-going style, Mac Davis was never really given the credit he deserved for the talent he exhibited. He died in November of 2020 from complications after heart surgery. 

This song, Texas in My Rear View Mirror, will always be in my top 100 songs. It means as much to me now as it did in my 1980s crazy-ass youth. It’s about true home. Something I’ve been lucky enough to find and something I hope to never take for granted. Because every day, “ the vision was getting clearer in my dream”.

Texas in My Rear View Mirror by Mac Davis

I was just fifteen and out of control lost to James Dean and rock and roll
I knew down deep in my country soul that I had to get away
Hollywood was a lady in red who danced in my dreams as I tossed in bed
I knew I’d wind up in jail or dead if I have to sta
y

I thought happiness was Lubbock Texas in my rearview mirror
My mama kept calling me home but I just did not want to hear her
And the vision was getting clearer in my dream

So I let out one night in June stoned on the glow of the Texas moon
Humming an old Buddy Holly tune called Peggy Sue (pretty, pretty Peggy Sue)
With my favorite jeans and a cheap guitar, I ran off chasing a distant star
If Buddy Holly could make it that far then I figured I could too

I thought happiness was Lubbock Texas in my rearview mirror
My mama kept calling me home but I just did not want to hear her
And the vision was getting clearer in my dream

But the Hollywood moon didn’t smile the same old smile that I’d grown up with
The lady in red just wanted my last dime
And I cried myself to sleep at night too dumb to run too scared to fight
And too proud to admit it at the time

So I got me some gigs on Saturday night not much more than orchestrated fights
I’d come home drunk and I tried to write but the words came out all wrong
Hellbent and bound for a wasted youth too much gin and not enough vermouth
And no one to teach me to seek the truth before I put an end to this song

I still thought happiness was Lubbock Texas in my rearview mirror
My mama kept calling me home but I just could not, would not hear her
And the vision was getting clearer in my dream

Well I thank God each and every day for giving me the music and the words to say
I’d never had made it any other way he was my only friend
Now I sleep a little better each night and when I look in the mirror in the morning light
The man I see was both wrong and right he’s going home again

I guessed happiness was Lubbock Texas in my rearview mirror
But now happiness was Lubbock Texas growing nearer and dearer
And the vision was getting clearer in my dream

And I think I finally know just what it means
And when I die you can bury me in Lubbock Texas in my jeans

Songwriters: Mac Davis
Texas in My Rear View Mirror lyrics © BMG Rights Management

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Christmas Chaos

There are many great Christmas memories of growing up in the Hays Household. Most of these memories are not tied to any particular gifts or presents. When you are a family of eight surviving month to month on a public employee’s salary, materialism plays a prominent role only in dreams. Nevertheless, we were unbelievably happy for the most part. 

Nothing is better around the last week or so of December than to be stuck inside a house with four brothers and one sister. I’m sure my mother recalls these times through rose-colored glasses and neglects the reality of the chaos which ensued but the chaos is what made these great memories. The fights over electric football frustration (Yes, electric football was absolute frustration for a child by its very design.), who played with whose toys, who ate the reserved piece of pie tucked in the back corner of the fridge behind the vegetables, etc. The list goes on and on.

I’m sure when Madison Avenue set out to create the idyllic American Christmas with smiling families drinking punch and singing carols around a fire while opening expensive but thoughtful gifts they did not have the Hays Family in mind. Who uses the wooden nutcracker as a brotherly torture challenge to see how much pressure one could take on their thumb? What houses tumble into complete pandemonium over whose turn it is to turn on the light inside the 15” plastic Santa decoration? Not many, I would guess. Certainly no houses in the Madison Avenue plan.

This year there are two Christmas memories making me smile. The first is povitica. It is a sweet bread made by my Croatian great aunts, my grandmother, and my mother. It is a wonderful food. It’s also one of the few Croatian traditions we have left. Povitica is a mixture of melted butter, walnuts, and sugar spread over a thin layer of bread dough. The bread dough is folded over and over upon itself (which is a beautiful, synchronized dance when performed by elderly Croatian women) until it fits neatly into a bread pan. The finished product is heavenly. Where bread is usually orderly and structured, a loaf of povitica is swirls of bread layers and filling layers becoming a thing both chaotic and beautiful. To this day, when I bite into a piece of Strawberry Hill Povitica on any occasion, holiday or otherwise, the taste chaos brings with it memories of my Croatian ancestry. Good memories. Chaos that warms the soul. 

The second Christmas memory is of a plywood Santa cutout. I have no recollection of where we got this thing. Perhaps it came from a relative’s storage cleanout, I don’t know. It was about four feet tall. It had an old color printing scheme of white, red, and a kind of pea-ish green. The colored, thick cardboard print of Santa was tacked with small nails onto a cut 1/4” piece of plywood. It would often be stuck against the wall between the Christmas tree and the television set in the living room. This Christmas memory, however, is not of the Santa cutout but about projectiles and homemade weaponry.

I went through a period where it seemed like a great idea to create missiles out of paper clips to be shot from rubber band launchers. It was fun, I guess, to fire the projectiles at increasing velocities from thick and larger rubber bands. We were sons of an engineer if that helps explain anything. It turns out, however, that siblings do not like to be forced to take cover or be struck by high-velocity paper clips shaped like arrowheads. I was forced into coming up with a better target than my family members for practice and experimentation. Hence, the Santa cutout. 

After several strikes, I noticed the paper clips left a mark on the paper. I should have stopped to avoid a verbal thrashing from my mother but…science called! I began to wrap the business ends of the paper clips with masking tape. Success! The mark on jolly, old Saint Nick was barely visible, plus the “THUMP!” made when the missile found its mark was now barely audible. Success!

After all these years, that sound still brings a smile to my face. Chaos created with siblings diving out of the firing line. Chaos in placing Santa at various positions in the house for a little variety. Chaos in the memory of, not only how lucky I was to have never shattered the TV screen into a million useless shards of glass, but of the fun of growing up in the family I grew up in. 

Chaos and order. That’s the core of Christmas. It is a birth from the chaos we celebrate. A birth that brought the Savior into the world while the family’s own world was tumbling into chaos. Christmas is the turning from dark to light. It is hope inside a nutshell to be cracked with a wooden nutcracker exerting about as much pressure as it took to make my little brother’s thumb throb with enough pain to make him tap out. There is light after the dark. This is hope amidst despair.

There is beauty in the chaos of our life. Every, single day.

Merry Christmas! 

Happy Holidays to all!

The actual wooden nutcracker we used as a thumbscrew.

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Live As If Your Players Are To Be Answered

I woke up this morning and stumbled bleary-eyed to the computer to check the latest numbers. No, not the 2020 Election numbers, the Kansas high school football playoff scores. 

When I opened up my laptop, my email program greeted me with its usual, “Hello, Hays. Here are your morning distractions!” On top of the inbox was one of my favorite daily emails, the American Football Monthly (AFM) Daily Newsletter. Today’s newsletter was titled, “How To Build A Winner”. I perked up. Everybody wants to win, right? Here’s a football coaching golden ticket!

I opened the email. The first thing to catch my eye was the AFM Daily Quote. In bright red font, it read, 

“Live as if your prayers are to be answered.” -Unknown

Fantastic life advice! One of those inspirational quotes to add to the bulletin board of quotes. Dream. Prepare. Be ready.

It would be nice to end it there but I have to be honest. I was, as I said, bleary-eyed while reading the AFM newsletter. My mind was focused on the “How To Build A Winner” article potential. My mind was on championships, plaques, trophies, being carried off the field by my adoring players…

Okay, okay. Back to reality.

I read the quote as, “Live as if your players are to be answered” instead of, “Live as if your prayers are to be answered.” 

One letter makes a big difference. I laughed off my error and clicked the link for the article. Then it struck me. That mistaken quote might just be the actual key to developing a successful program. That change in one letter can philosophically change an entire program. A coach should live as if their players are to be answered. Everything a coach does, from planning to development to schemes, needs to be done to provide an environment to allow the players to improve and give them a fighting chance to succeed.

No matter what a coach’s coaching style, he or she must have this basic relationship with their athletes. There must exist the understanding that the coach works toward answering their players’ needs. This is the trust that drives successful programs. This is the contract sealed by hard work and preparation to achieve a common goal. 

The players can trust the coach.  The coach can trust the players. It’s a two-way street.

If you want to know what the “How To Be A Winner.” AFM post said, check it out for yourself. I highly recommend signing up for the free daily AFM Newsletter. It’s great football nerd material that’s definitely worth your time.  

If you want a simple philosophy for turning your program around and developing better relationships with your players, then “Live as your players are to be answered.”

Who knows? Maybe your prayers will be answered.

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The Ball Will Find You

There’s this weird and strange thing in sports. I’ve witnessed it as a player, a coach, and as a fan. I saw it quite often while coaching baseball and football, especially at the JV level. You put a player into the game at a critical junction for any number of good reasons like an injury substitution, playing time, or just a hunch. Inevitably, the ball will be hit in their direction, they’ll get targeted as a defensive back against the opponent’s best receiver, or the ball will find it’s way into their hands for the last second do-or-die shot. This scenario seems to play out with great frequency. The ball will find you.

From the highest office in the land to the lowest levels of sports, it’s important to put the people in place to get the job done. If you don’t, errors occur, mistakes are made, and systems devolve into chaos. But why? 

Because the ball will always find you. 

The negative results we often see are an effect caused by incompetence in addressing each and every situation. In short, like the third-string, sophomore right fielder seeing his first varsity action in the late innings of a state playoff game, people get put into situations that are over their heads. They neither have the tools or the experience to react with competence. 

Personally and professionally, I’m a firm believer in the old adage, “You are only as strong as your weakest link”. Weak links are holes in the ship and the holes are always most vulnerable, especially in a crisis. Holes sink ships. Weak links sink organizations, teams, and systems.

This is why when it’s time for you to make a decision, cast a vote, or trust someone with a job, you need to consider if that person is up for the job. Who’s going to get the job done and who’s going to be the weak link in a system? Who’s going to be the one who, as President Theodore Roosevelt most aptly said, will “Speak softly and carry a big stick” and who’s going to be as we said back in the day, “All blow and no show.”

The choice is up to you. 

But always remember that whomever you support, honestly evaluate whether they are capable of performing the required duties in a responsible manner. 

Because they will be tested. They need to be ready to up their game and be prepared to take on the tasks at hand. 

The ball always finds them. 

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A Grind

There’s been so much talk about getting back to “normal”. I understand. These are strange times indeed. Home, school, work, play, even going shopping, have all been knocked topsy-turvy in 2020. 

The problem with expending so much energy and emotion trying to get back to “normal” is that, in reality, there is no normal. Things are what they are. Things have always been what they are. And, if we need reminding, these things aren’t always what we want them to be. Never have been, never will be. 

Yet, we in modern America have made a huge mistake. We’ve convinced ourselves we are in charge. We’ve done such a great job of controlling aspects of our life and society that we’ve fallen into the trap of thinking we can control everything.

We can’t.

Never have.

Never will.

Life changes. Shit happens, man.

What matters is how we deal with it.

What matters is what we choose to do every day with the situation we’ve been given. Do we rise to the challenge? Or do we whine and throw a hissy fit? The choice is ours.

Time is linear. It never stops moving forward and there is not a dang thing we can do about it. We can, however, live that next moment in the moment. We can take the bull by the horns and give that next moment in time our very best. That’s what Americans do. That’s what Kansans do. We don’t whine. We don’t point fingers. Okay, okay! I know we all whine and we all point fingers at times. Recently, though, we’ve forgotten there’s always the next step. The step where we take the cards we’ve been dealt and make the best happen after the whining is done.

Life’s a grind. It’s one day after the other. Linear time.

Our job is to wake up each day and grind it out the best we can. 

Our job is to take advantage of the possibilities that come with each sunrise.

Our job is to make the world a better place.

We’ll get through these tough times by working together. 

One day at a time. One play at a time. One swing at a time.

Every man, every play.

Be safe. Be kind. Grind it out.

By Peter van der Sluijs – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=26141131

 

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The bell rang!

When you point a finger, remember there are three fingers pointing right back at you. 

That’s a little nugget of wisdom I picked up from Coach Dail Smith back in the day. It’s solid advice and packed with truth. I wanted to write a post about our collective response to the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States but just couldn’t find the right approach or the right words until I turned to one of my favorite scenes from A Christmas Story.

Sure, there’s been a lack of top-down leadership across the nation with an inconsistent and often confusing response but only pointing fingers doesn’t do anybody any good. In the end, it all goes back to the Coach Smith-ism and remembering there are three fingers pointing back at each of us. We haven’t responded well at all to the coronavirus. We’ve overreacted, underreacted, and just plain ignored the fact each of us as citizens needed to take some responsibility in the coronavirus response.

 

Our general response as Americans has been the “Ralphie Response”. An uncomfortable situation stares us in the face and yet when the bell rings, we chose to ignore everything in front of us because “The bell rang!” We rushed to resume the routine instead of just dealing with the problem and then resuming our regular routines.

Hopefully, we learn from our mistakes now that we understand a pandemic is indeed possible in the United States. Hopefully, we react better the next time our great nation faces a threat.

Stay safe!

Look out for each other.

Try not to point fingers.

Or stick your tongue to a frozen pole.

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My Dad, Part Two

For two summers when I was in college, I worked as a materials inspector for the Kansas Department of Transportation. It was one of the few summer jobs around at that time and a place where I could do some science. I got to be honest, my dad got me the job. He was the Field Engineer Administrator for the Kansas City KDOT office. Basically, he was the big cheese.

What I’d did as a materials inspector was going to concrete plants and test the sand and gravel they were using that day for state highway jobs. I’d also have to sit in the concrete plant as long as the contractor was pouring concrete that day and check the calculations of materials the batchman used for each load of concrete. If the numbers looked good, a signed ticket was filled out and given to the driver to take to the job site.

Whenever I went to a new concrete plant, I was treated as an outcast. The inspector. Nobody really likes having an inspector hanging about their business. On top of that, I was a college student, a double whammy in the construction world. College boy. This was the greeting I walked into on a regular basis. I’d enter a plant being the enemy until they saw my last name. Hays.

“Are you Joe Hays’ boy?” always followed a few thoughtful seconds after giving my name. In the first post, I talked about how different my dad and I were physically. These workers in the plants had no clue who I was until I answered that I was, indeed, Joe Hays’s boy. 

Everything changed with that piece of information was revealed about me. I went from being the inspector to having serious credibility. All because I was Joe Hays’ boy. That’s the kind of man my dad was.

You can’t talk about my dad without talking about him as a civil engineer. He went to tiny Findlay Engineering College in Kansas City, Mo. My dad is a testament to the philosophy that it’s not where you get a degree, it’s what you do after you get your degree. He was a bridge-builder in more ways than one. He was meticulous. He knew his stuff. He was a good co-worker and a great supervisor. He distrusted computers because he saw young engineers use them as a crutch instead of as a tool. He was respected throughout his profession. Even though I’m a molecular microbiologist, I’ve tried to emulate his example in everything I do. Often, I’ll look back and try to figure out how dad did it. I think I’m starting to figure it out.

When I first started at K-State, dad would come to Manhattan every year for a civil engineering conference. Before he moved to Texas, my oldest brother, Pat, also a civil engineer, would come to the conference. I’d find an hour or so during the workday to walk across campus for a quick visit. I was always amazed to see the admiration, the camaraderie, and the way the throng of civil engineers would treat dad. He was respected. It was almost like he was ten-foot-tall when I’d seek him out in the crowded Union during a break. As we’d walk together, people would stop and say hello or ask him questions. It was pretty damn cool being his son.

What did I figure out about dad’s secret? I’m still working on that one but I think it has to do with being trustworthy and being consistent. More important, that trust and that consistency have to be built on a foundation of ethics. A moral compass and rock-solid ethics. This is what dad stood for. 

  • Do the right thing at the right time and do it every, single day.

  • Be the rock everyone can rely on.

Early in my microbiology career, I was struggling trying to find a foothold to stay in my career of choice in my place of choice with a young family at home. Dad was never a man of many words, especially with us kids, but he gave me something I still hang in a plastic cover in my lab today. It was a simple photocopied cartoon of a stork swallowing a frog while the frog reaches out from the beak with a stranglehold around the stork’s neck. “Never Give Up” is the caption.

A silly, somewhat stupid cartoon that was poorly photocopied made a difference. It was my dad’s way of telling me to quit whining and get back to work. Things would be okay. Things would work out. Do the right thing at the right time and do it every day. Never give up.

Growing up, I guess I never realized or even thought about Dad as a professional. He was just my dad. It wasn’t until I got to see from a first-hand viewpoint just how great he was at what he did. In life and in death, his legacy endures. He touched so many lives in a positive way. Many of these people came from near and far to tell us this fact at his funeral. Dad was a rock to many people through good times and bad times. We were lucky kids.

(NOTE: I’m writing a few memorial pieces about my Dad to celebrate his life. Part One is here. With each piece, I’ll try to post a picture that helps tell the story of who he was. Most of the time, the actual monetary value of these things is nothing. The memory value, however, is priceless.) 

The T-square. Years ago, Dad gave me his old t-square and his drafting board. These, along with his drafting tools in a purple-velvet-lined-case, are marvels from his early engineer days. He kept these things at the house, stored in his closet. Every once in awhile, he’d get them out for us to see. They were magnificent tools. We kids felt like giants whenever we got to use them.

I don’t really know why or how it came to be me who is in possession of the drafting board and the T-square but I am. He might have thought they’d come in handy for my drawing work. I just know one day, they were with a box of my memorabilia stuff he sent back west with us when we left KC. Dad never was a big arts kind of guy. He used to draw some cartoon stuff with us and was able to hermetically seal a Christ The King School textbook in a brown paper sack cover that they are probably still trying to unseal forty years later, but that was about it.

He was all about the function. Drawing for the sake of drawing was not in his DNA. It was in mine, though, and he helped me in my youth to get started creating. He was always there to help with school projects and the like. From using coffee cans as a circle template to draw planets to using the T-square and drafting board to lay out a grid to plan a drawing, he’d always get me started down the right path. Creative work is creative work and not often thought about from an engineer’s perspective. Dad taught me a lesson early on for both writing and drawing. He taught me to look at the project not only from an artist perspective from also as an engineer. Design the framework and build a creative idea around it. Simple but beautiful. 

Here’s the T-square. It hangs over my work desk. I still use it to frame up drawings and templates. It comes in handy more than one would think. Plus, it still looks pretty magnificent—even in its old age. Thanks, Dad!

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