Home for the Holidays: 227 miles gone by

The sun is almost blinding as I drive north on Lakeshore Drive.  With the bright rays reflecting off both Lake Huron, to my right, and the bright white snow, all around me, I squint through my cheap, CVS sunglasses, looking for the number in the 9800's to appear on one of the mailboxes to my right.  As the numbers get higher, I see that I am in the 9600's, and know that I'm close.  It is right around then, the 9600's, where I start to get butterflies in my stomach.

At that moment, it occurs to me that this is the stretch of road that my parents must have been driving when they brought me home from the hospital for the first time.  What were they thinking/feeling?  Does every new parent have the same thoughts or feelings on their first drive home?  I don't think I've ever heard anyone describe that moment to me, and as the mailboxes get up in the 9700's, I make a mental note to ask my parents about that first drive home the next time I see them.

I pull into the circle driveway, where the snow has been freshly plowed, and from where I pull in, I'm able to see just pass the house and over the picturesque lakefront.  I don't think I ever remember my family talking about living on a lakefront, though I, personally, only lived there just over a year.  I ring the doorbell, and Saleena comes to see what stranger is at the front door.

"Hi. My name is Greg. This may be weird, but I actually lived in this house around 1979-80. Earlier this year, I got married"

Saleena chimed in, "Oh, that's nice. Congratulations"

I continue. "Thanks.  So, anyway,  before my wife and I have our first Christmas together, I wanted to stop for a minute at each of the homes where I've ever lived, just to reflect, I guess.  I hope that's ok...I'll be out of here in a minute or two"

Saleena lit up. "My husband and I got married in July ourselves, and we moved in here right after we got married.  It's definitely an old house, but we like it."

"Well, congratulations to you and your husband as well!  Have an amazing Christmas season!"

"You too. Merry Christmas."

With that, the tour around Michigan had begun.  In my life, I've lived at 12 different physical addresses total, with 7 of those being in my home state.  I've been interested in the concept of "home" as this Christmas is approaching, the first Christmas my wife and I will have as a married couple.  So since my interest was piqued, I thought a good way to get insight would be to physically visit the 6 places in Michigan that I had called home up until this year.  

The first home was where I met Saleena, and where I lived, in Jeddo, Michigan, for my first 12-ish months.  The second spot was a bit of a drive from Jeddo, on the south side of Cass City, MI.  From age 1 to age 4-ish, my parents and I lived in a mobile home park, a park that had a sign that said "Huntsville" in the front.  I pulled in after my 64 mile drive through the thumb of the state, from Jeddo, and while I don't have many memories, per se, from my toddler years, the entire place looked vaguely familiar.  

I don't recall a lot from my family's time in "Huntsville".  My mom had taken a full-time teaching job in a city she and my dad were barely aware of before the offer.  When they decided to move there, my dad did manual labor work while getting his teaching certificate at nights. All I really remember from our time in that trailer was eating lots of mac and cheese, the neighbors having lots of cats, and the night that my mom's mom passed away.  Weirdly, I can remember sitting on the floor of the mobile home, and my mom giving me the news about Grandma Hickok, and her consoling me as I cried and stared at the phone mounted on the wall.  Pre cell phone, the phone-on-the-wall was where I understood family news would come from, and I think, as a 4 year old, I was hoping there would be better news at that moment.  

As I was in my parked car in "Huntsville", looking up my next address, a mom with two young children, probably around 3 or 4 years old themselves, waddled past me, bundled up in winter gear and looking to go play in the snow.  Will those kids be sitting in a car like this in 34 years?

I continued on to the second Cass City house my family lived in, on Schwegler Road.  The Schwegler road house was where I'd spend ages 4 through 8, and THIS is the house where I had memories. 

  • I remember learning to ride my bike in the driveway, which felt huge at the time. (When I pulled in today, I saw that it actually was only about 40 feet long)  
  • I remember our big, picture window, where dozens of birds would meet their end, thinking that there was an opening where they could fly into our living room, and finding out the hard way that there was a very clean, solid pane/pain of glass.  We would hear a thud, and look outside to see the bird on the ground, writhing.  I always thought that window was mean.
  • I remember, the last year we lived there, getting ready for my first/only sibling to arrive, decorating the extra room and getting toys I didn't care about.
  • Finally, that house is where I have my first memories of Christmas.  I remember decorating the fake, plastic tree (the bottom half, anyway).  I remember my parents starting the tradition where we would sit in a circle, and take turns opening gifts. (a tradition we still observe).  And I remember having It's a Wonderful Life playing on our "gigantic" television in the living room.

Today, that house is painted a nasty yellow on the outside, but looks exactly the same, otherwise.   As I pulled away, I wondered how many more birds that picture window has claimed, and if the people who've lived there in the 30 years since kept the tradition of the fake tree, or if they did the real thing.

I continued on to the other four homes where I've lived in Michigan; the Otisville house where I lived for the 10 years up to graduation (where my parents still live today), the apartment attached to the horse training facility where I nearly died from rhabdomiolysis, the downtown apartment where I mooched cable and internet services from neighboring businesses for the better part of a decade, and the house that is our's now.  

In all, today's travels totaled 227 miles.  Every house I visited brought back memories I forgot that I had, and reminded me of who I was when I lived there.  Looking on a map, it's a strange route to take to get to each place.  There aren't a lot of people who's home journey goes:

Jeddo-Cass City-Otisville-Watertown, WI-Wilmore, KY-Jacksonville, FL-Greenville, SC-Otisville-Clarkston-Waterford.  

Unexpectedly, the most emotional/spiritual parts of today weren't the home visits, themselves.  The moments that got me were the moments where I was traveling to the next destination.  At some point in my life, I (or my family) had packed up and left each of these places.  As I drove between each destination, I remembered what it felt like to MOVE OUT from each place.  Every time, there was a life event or major decision that led to the move; a new job, a different life stage, a family addition.

So every time I was driving today, I was thinking of the life event that was the reason for the move in the first place.  This life journey has made me who I am, and taken me through a life that I'm infinitely grateful for.  Every home I've had has taught me something, and, spiritually, I've taken them with me each time I've moved.  Every home has prepared me for the next, and with every life event, has helped me understand what "home" is.

It took me 7 houses and 227 miles, but today's lesson was clear:

This Christmas, I'm now on this journey with the woman I love, surrounded by people I love, being led by the God who loves me.  

Our journey IS our home.  

We are home for the holidays.

The Bromance Chronicles

With eleven days left before I marry the girl of my dreams, I wanted to take a minute to acknowledge the fellas that will be standing next to me as I say “I do”.  We’ve all heard stories about guys having to fill out their groomsmen party for their wedding, and having a hard time getting a full slate.  But when it was clear I was going to propose, there wasn’t a second thought about what guys would be standing next to me on the big day, not because they were a big group of friends, but because each individual guy means the world to me.

Dude friendships are rare, and seldom celebrated in our society, so rarely in fact that, when there seemed to be a genuine friendship between our former president Obama and vice president Biden, it became it’s own meme generator on the internet.  Because of their friendship’s uniqueness, our collective population’s instinct was to characature-ize it.

Most guys are lucky to have one or two other guys they view as “brothers”.  Somehow, I was blessed with dozens, including my five groomsmen.  So, for a few hundred words, I will honor each them in a work I’ll call…

THE BROMANCE CHRONICLES

Ryan French

On a random Friday night, four of us decided to have dinner at a popular local restaurant called The Union.  The Union is a restaurant with an open floor plan and high ceilings, a former church adapted into a world class eatery.  Because of the architecture, the restaurant can get quite loud, with the combination of chatty patrons and bad acoustics.  One of the guys in our group of four, having dinner, was Ryan French.  

Group conversations are always lively when Ryan is involved.  He’s well read on lots of interesting topics, and has a keen eye for social details.  As we sat in the booth waiting for food, Ryan introduced to the rest of us the concept of “Manager Hands”.  Manager Hands was the act of politely folding your hands together as you ask someone you’re serving if there’s anything more you can do for them, a position commonly held by restaurant managers as they check in with customers.  

“I bet if I use Manager Hands, I can make people think I work here,” Ryan observed.  Before we knew it, Ryan had risen from the table, and began making his way around the restaurant floor, stopping at each table, assuming the Manager Hands position, and asking the diners if they were enjoying their food.  Each table assumed Ryan was floor manager, and answered politely before he moved on to the next table.  Halfway around the restaurant, Ryan stopped at a table and repeated the routine...in front of the ACTUAL manager of the restaurant.  But because he was so smooth in his presentation, the manager could only stand quietly and observe, hopefully taking mental notes of the perfect hand clasp position Ryan was demonstrating with his Manager Hands.

The three of us watched Ryan go around the entire place, laughing hysterically the entire time. Ryan nailed it.  He returned to our booth, barely cracking a smile, saying something to the effect of “...and that’s how it’s done.”.  

Cracking up the people around him is nothing new for Ryan.  The guy is as fearless as he hilarious.  But being funny isn’t a solitary attribute. Like most funny people I know, Ryan is impressively insightful.  If there’s something that interests him that he doesn’t know, he’ll spend lots of time and energy to learn what he can about it.  I’ve gotten to spend hours of my life accidentally learning things because I was just hanging with Ryan.  He freely shares what he learns with his friends, which leads to some great experiences that come as a byproduct of being his friend.

Another reason for Ryan’s humor is his ability to empathize.  One particular Saturday afternoon a few years back, Ryan and I got some one-on-one time in his living room.  As we were chilling/snacking, Ryan made the face like he had an idea, scurried out of the room, and returned with a box full of cards, which looked like it was from some sort of board game.  He then proceeded to start asking questions from the cards.  “I want to hear stories about you,” he said, “Tell me as many good stories as you can.”  So, for an hour, he would ask a short question, and then sit and actively listen as I tried to answer with an interesting story from my past. After an hour of just listening to stories he hadn’t heard before, he said, “That was awesome!”, and put the board game cards away.  Ryan genuinely wanted to hear where I was coming from, and took the time to try to understand his friend better.  That’s who he is, a guy who never tires of learning, and experiences life to the fullest because of it.

I was never in Boy Scouts growing up, but I was jealous of kids that were. The idea of marking a learned activity/experience with a badge on your uniform seemed like a cool way to view life.  We all accumulate skills and stories, some people more than others.  Being friends with Ryan is like an adult version of a scout experience.  Each time you hang with him, you’re accumulating new experience badges, learning along the way.  You’re being coaxed by someone who obviously cares about you into things that you’re glad you did, and you realize more and more how full life is.  

I noticed a while back a phrase that Ryan uses often with me.  If we’re talking about our days, or reflecting on stuff we’re going through, Ryan will listen, and then start his response with “I bet you felt like…” or “I bet you thought…”.  This is what a friendship with him is like; another dude who is actively trying empathize with what you’re experiencing.  That’s my dude.  In a world where most people can’t see outside of themselves, Ryan French has my back.  You’re just as lucky as me if he’s got your back, too.

Nick Dymond

At the age of 27, I moved back to Michigan from the south.  It had been nearly a decade since I’d lived in my home state, and I was in a bad place.  I had moved to multiple cities over a few years, and because of it, had a lack of deep relationships.  Even more, most of my friends were way older than me, and I was starting to feel like I was the only 27 year old, single guy in the world.  

Growing up, my family had brought me to a summer camp every year called Simpson Park Camp.  Because of the timing of my move back to Michigan, I was able to visit my family at SPC that summer.  While I was there, I ran into people I’d been friends with while attending the camp in high school.  I hadn’t seen most of them in nearly a decade, but slight familiarity is better nothing, so I struck up conversations with people who were acquaintances of mine from what seemed like a lifetime ago.  One of the guys, Nick, was now a truck driver, and had brought his big rig to the camp.  As we chatted, he said “Hey man, later tonight, during quiet hours, a bunch of us are gonna come hang out in the truck.  You’re welcome to join us.”  So with nothing else much to do, I walked up to strange semi-truck around 11pm, knocked on the door, and climbed up to join about 18 other people who were chatting and playing around on a couple acoustic guitars.  (Who knew those trucks could hold 18 people?)

As we sat in there, a sing-along broke out.  We started singing some of our favorite mid-to-late 90’s hits as a crew, with a couple of the truck sitters harmonizing throughout the songs.  Thirty minutes into it, I decided to speak up.  “Guys, lately I’ve been into this really obscure pop/bluegrass band you kind of remind me of.  I can’t get enough of their latest song. You probably haven’t heard of them...they’re called Nickel Creek.”  Without missing a beat, Nick immediately started playing the chords to Nickel Creek’s latest hit and my at-the-time song obsession, This Side.  Before I knew it, fifteen 20-somethings were singing a song I thought no one else loved, with multiple harmonies and guitar parts.  It was a moment I’ll never forget; it was a moment of connection.  At a time in my life where I was very alone, I all of a sudden felt like I was with people who got me.  

That’s the thing about Nick; he has the uncanny ability to connect with his friends, no matter what they’re going through.  In short, Nick is one of the most loyal guys I know.  Over the years, he’s gone above and beyond to put his time and energy into things his friends think are important. More personally, he’s made sure I had help with whatever endeavor I decided to take on.  

In 2007, I wanted to put a band together for my job.  That band evolved into a local cover band called The Hook, and Nick was the guitarist.

In 2009, I was starting a new worship service/program at my church called 611.  Nick didn’t miss a Sunday.

In 2010, I needed to drive to South Carolina to pick up my old motorcycle. Nick was my co-pilot.

In 2012, I started a nonprofit disaster relief agency based around buckets, and I wanted to assemble a bucket drumline.  Nick’s played the 5 gallon bucket in nearly every parade we’ve had a float.

In 2014, I decided DRAW needed a new website.  Nick designed it.

He doesn’t just punch the clock, either.  Whenever Nick gets involved, he has a charisma to be able to bring the other people involved together.  As part of 611, we once went to a local lacrosse tournament to pass out free snacks and drinks.  Some of the youth involved were timid at first, until Nick noticed their timidity, marched into the middle of a crowded bleachers, and screamed at the top of his lungs “I’ve got bags of juice, here! Free bags of juice!  It’s hot out here...anyone want a free bag of juice!”  Within seconds, the fans were asking for Capri Suns, and the youth involved got excited to give away free snacks.  Because, really, who doesn’t want to be the one who’s giving away free stuff just to be nice...that’s a fun person to be.  Nick brought them together, just like he’s done at parades, camp meetings, and the night he invited me to hang in his semi-truck.

It’s ironic that Nick is known for loving crushed red pepper on his pizza.  Seriously...he’s KNOWN for it.  But crushed red pepper is great, because it makes something that’s already good even better.  It’s ironic, because, really, that’s Nick.  In any situation, he’ll use his guitar playing skills, his great grasp on social humor, or his obscure knowledge of random trivia, to take anything he’s a part of and make it better.  

So, for more than a decade, I’ve been blessed to call Nick “my dude”.  Because he’s been there for me at key points in my life, he’s been the crushed red pepper to my pepperoni pizza, making it just a little bit better.  

Sam Van Wagoner

A few years back, a couple guys and I went on a road trip to Chicago.  Though we’d gone to Chi-town a couple times in the past, this particular trip had a purpose.  Earlier that year, a newly married couple had moved in next door to my apartment.  The husband was a local musician named Sam.  As we got to know Sam, we learned that he’d been playing professionally locally for nearly a decade, and after we met, occasionally we’d go to places like the Clarkston Tap and the Irish Tavern to hear him play.  

Sam was a good musician, and great at interacting with the crowd.  It was clear that he’d mastered the art of working the room when he was playing, which served him well in his quest to book gigs all around the area.  But Sam had recently made friends with people who worked at a Chicago music venue that was reasonably well known, a venue called the Elbo Room.  Because he was going to Chicago to play at the Elbo Room on a weekday, a buddy and I wanted to go with him, partly because we wanted to be supportive, and partly because we knew Chicago would be a good hang.  

And a good hang it was.  After the gig at the Elbo Room, the three of us ventured to a couple open mics in busier sections of town.  We even went to blues hotspot Kingston Mines to see some of the best blues music Chicago had to offer.  The trip itself was a blast, but one obscure story from the trip still sticks out to me.

During the next day, the three of us went to a big mall near the downtown Chicago area.  Because of the long night before, we were in need of caffeine, and there was a food court at the mall with a coffee shop...a win.  We got our coffee and sat in the middle of a crowded common area.  At the time we had known Sam for a little less than a year.  This was a our first road trip together.  We sat and chatted for a while, and in the middle of our conversation, without breaking eye contact or interrupting, Sam slowly started to slide out of his chair, and move toward an adjacent table.  It was then that I realized that the woman sitting next to us had unknowingly knocked her coat off of the back of her chair where she’d hung it, and it had fallen onto a wet floor.  Before I had fully processed what happened, Sam had slid over, picked up the coat, re-hung it on the back of the woman’s seat, and returned to our table conversation.  He never said anything to the woman (or to us, for that matter), and she never knew that he had saved her winter coat from being drenched in dirty water from everyone’s boots.

That story seems insignificant, but it isn’t.  It stuck with me.  As Sam and I’s friendship has grown since he moved into apartment 2, I keep coming back to it.  

Most people who know Sam know he’s a lot of fun.  If you ever get to hang with Sam, if you get to form a friendship with him, I guarantee you’ll think he’s one of the funnest people you’ll meet. He’ll play a private party gig, and stay after to joke and have a nightcap with the host, because they insisted.  You’ll have a meal with him, and before you know it, you’ll have been sitting there for 2 hours because the banter has been hilarious.  

If you haven’t seen him perform live, you should.  Sam’s a great musician.  But part of the fun is to watch after his set is done, as he interacts, one by one, with everyone who stuck around to see him play.  It’s almost as if he’s running for local office (which he could easily do one day).  His positive outlook and ability to make strangers laugh makes him one of the most fun hangs I know.  

That’s the Sam you see on the surface, the Sam you see with a giant smile on Instagram.  But if you get know Sam, you see a guy who’s a new-ish father, and can’t get enough of his one year old daughter.  If you get to know Sam, you’ll see a dude who brags and brags about his wife, the basketball coach, telling anecdote after anecdote about the woman he makes sound like a future hall-of-famer.  If you get to know Sam, you’ll see him in the middle of a crowded mall with a ton going on, making the effort to help a stranger, but not even wanting a second of thank you or credit.  

As his friend, I’m also lucky enough to get to hear his catch phrase over and over whenever we hang out.  You see, Sam has a pretty remarkable life.  He’s gigging constantly, sometimes playing in different states and in unique venues.  Many guys in his shoes would spend your time jamming humblebrags into conversation about his music career.  But that’s not Sam.  Every time we talk, at least once or twice, I get to hear Sam say, “Dude, that’s awesome.”  I can hear it in his voice in my head as I type it.  Because if we’re talking, he’s determined to encourage me.  He’ll inevitably ask me about DRAW, about driving for uber, about being in love with Michelle, or anything else I have going on. And nearly every time, his natural response is “Dude, that’s awesome.”

It’s as if Sam, himself, is a magic trick.  I love watching magicians, and after they perform, I almost inevitably think, “Man, how’d they do that?”  But I know that they did it by some form of trickery, getting me to focus on one hand, while their other hand is making the magic happen.  That’s Sam.  While I was enjoying meeting him, enjoying getting to know him, because he’s such a fun guy to be around, he slowly started to encourage ME, to be thoughtful of ME.  Before I knew it, over time, it’s clear that while we were having fun, I became great friends with one of the most encouraging, thoughtful dudes I’ll ever meet.  That’s the magic trick. That’s Sam.  That’s my dude.

Danny Kimosh

On a brisk spring morning, more than 70 volunteers from Oakland Christian Schools came to DRAW’s former HQ to help us move our more-than-2500 sq ft. of inventory to our new HQ in Pontiac, MI.  To move that amount of supplies, I needed to find a volunteer willing to pull our 8’x20’ trailer with their large vehicle between the two locations.  Recruiting volunteers for specific tasks like this can be difficult, and I knew that Danny was my ace-in-the-hole.

We probably all have that one person we know we can ask for help, and they’ll be there, no questions asked.  For me, that person is Danny Kimosh.  What makes it difficult is that Danny is so good at so many things, and I don’t want to overdo it.  But in this case, with such a big project, I just needed the peace of mind that Danny brings by volunteering.

When Danny arrived, my mind was going 100 miles a minute, so I greeted him with a quick, “Hey, man”.  Without saying anything, he walked up to me, and pulled me into him for a brief man hug, almost as a way of saying, “Dude, calm down.  It’s good to see you.”.  That’s a total Danny move, to make sure he lets you know he’s glad to see you before you move on to anything else. The 70 students arrived shortly after, and immediately we set up an assembly line, of sorts, to move our inventory from the crowded warehouse to the mobile trailer.

There was one shelving unit with our supplies on every shelf, along with supplies that were on the ground.  The shelving unit was surrounded by office chairs stored by another one of the tenants of the warehouse.  Because it was difficult to get to different parts of the shelves, I climbed to the top shelf myself to hand down supplies so that no students would have to do it.  As I stood at the top of a 12 foot shelf, I briefly lost my balance, and before i knew it, I was falling backward off the top shelf, and i landed on the back of an office chair setup on the ground below.  

All the volunteers close by gasped. I laid there in intense pain, just missing the chair hitting my spine directly.  I tried to tell everyone I was fine, but with the back of my jeans ripped, and the intense pain shooting up my back with every attempted step, it became increasingly clear I needed to get to the ER as soon as possible.  Without much explanation, I went to Danny, told him I needed to get to a hospital, and asked if he could “handle this”, without much explanation.  He said, “Don’t worry about this, man. I got it.  Go get checked out.”  

Hours later, after being released from the hospital, I checked in with OCS’s Volunteer Coordinator.  I nervously asked how the rest of the day went, and she said, “Oh, it was great! Our students had a great experience.  You’re assistant handled everything very well.” She had no idea Danny didn’t work for our organization, nor did she realize I had given him zero instruction.  He just handled it.

“He just handled it” should be Danny Kimosh’s motto.  I’ve watched him over the course of a decade of friendship handle everything life could possibly throw at him.

Two kids? No problem.

Buying a fixer upper house and making it livable in a couple months? Sure.

Two jobs at once?  That’s nothing.

A career change to self employment in his early 30’s? At least give me a challenge.

But here’s what makes it more remarkable: You won’t ever hear Danny have an ego about what he does.  The guy can be as resourceful as a modern day Macguyver, yet he’ll just go about his business without tooting his own horn.  The morning I fell off the shelf, after I called OCS, I called Danny to get his take on how everything went.  His response; “It was cool.  Kids were great.  We got it done.”  No victory lap, no “I can’t believe you left me in charge”, not a hint of complaint.  He knew the move was important to me, so he made it happen so I could make sure I hadn’t broken my insides.  

Alan Thicke recently passed away, which had me reflecting on the 80’s sitcom dad.  Those dads were like Teflon, man.  Tony Micelli, Danny Tanner, Carl Winslow, Jason Seaver.  They always had the right amount of wisdom at the right time, they always let their family and friends know how much they loved them, and they always made sure stuff was taken care of for the people they loved.  Danny Kimosh is a throwback, a modern day 80’s sitcom dad.  Steady with his words, proficient with his actions, pure with his intentions.

Even as an engaged couple, Michelle and I have had questions about household things, mechanical things, etc.  Every time there’s a question, and I respond that I’ll do some research and figure it out, Michelle’s first suggestion is to say “Well, why don’t you check with Danny and see what he says about it?”  Even to my future wife, it’s clear that Danny cares, that he probably knows more than me, and he’ll help me figure it out.  And when I stop by his place to have the conversation with him, he’ll meet me in the driveway, and before I can say anything, I know he’ll pull me in for a man hug.  Almost as his way of saying, “Dude, calm down.  It’s good to see you.”

Don Hudson

Before Instagram, Twitter, or Facebook were ever mainstays in the palm of your hand, keeping up with friends was difficult.  If you were like me, and had gone to college out of state, or taken your first full time job in another region of the country, it didn’t take long for you to lose touch with nearly all of your friends from high school.  Maybe there was one or two that you would intentionally touch base with, but as a young adult, I wasn’t very good at tending to those type of long distance friendships. By the age of 25, I had lived in 5 different cities from 5 different states since graduating high school. When I got to the 5th city, Greenville, South Carolina, I was very aware of the relationship attrition that had taken place in my life, and people who had always meant something to me were not much more than a name and a memory.  On one Sunday night in 2005, I decided to see if I could do something about it.

Back in ‘05, you could dial 411 on your phone, and ask to find the phone number of a particular person in a particular city.  This is back when people still kind of used landlines regularly.  I hadn’t talked to Don in nearly 5 years, but on that Sunday night, I thought, “I wonder what Donnie’s up to?”  So I dialed 411, and asked if they had a number for Don Hudson in Davison, MI.  The operator said they had a listing for a Don Hudson, gave me the number to write down, then connected me to the listing.  Unbeknownst to me at the time, the operator had called Don Hudson II, Don’s father.  When the female voice on the phone answered, I asked if Don was available, to which she responded “Which Don?”  I told her I was looking for the young one, and she said, “Oh, Donnie? Yeah he’s here visiting.  Hold on, I’ll get him.” Within seconds, a vaguely familiar voice came through the phone.

“Hello?”

“Hey, is this Don?”

“Yeah, this is me.”

“Hey, man, it’s Greg.”

“Ok.”

“Greg Martin…”

“What?!?

For 45 minutes, Don and I caught up on life from the past 7-8 years.  We barely scratched the surface before we both needed to get off the phone.  “Next time you’re in town, let’s grab dinner or something.”  “Of course,” I said, exchanging info, but not knowing when “next time” would be.  

Just over a year later, after my dad had survived a stroke, I decided to move back to Michigan, and Don was my first call.  It turns out that we lived about a mile from each other after my move back, even closer than when we were in high school.  Because we both lived off the beaten path and had long commutes, we would hang out all the time, sometimes carpooling, and our friendship grew, almost like we hadn’t missed out on 8 years of young adulthood together.  

It’s hard to sum up the next 6-7 years with just one anecdote.  We once had a push-up contest that almost killed me, literally.  He would help out occasionally at the youth group where I was the youth director, and made such an impression that, on the weeks he wasn’t there, the kids would ask, “When is Don coming back?”  We’d catch local concerts whenever we could.  He flew down to join me in Alabama on the first disaster relief trip I’d ever gone on.  He was involved in all kinds of outdoors activities, and he’d involve us all in things like trying to walk on a slack line, or letting us relax in his hammock that was packaged the size of small wallet.  We started dabbling in music (the guy always had crazy amounts of raw musical talent), and we connected with other friends of mine to form a cover band, a band that started by playing 2-3 times a year, and grew to playing 2-3 times a month. Everyone from the band and their families would come to Don’s place once a week to have dinner, rehearse, and sometimes get on his boat for a sunset ride. Don even picked up photography along the way, and was naturally talented at that, too.  It wasn’t long before he decided to quit his desk job, and try to see if he could survive as a professional photographer.  (Which...of course he could/did)

The previous paragraph could be pages longer, but doesn’t sum up what makes Don great.  What makes Don a great friend is the one-on-one conversations we’ve had.  Some dude relationships get stereotyped as a couple guys drinking beer, staring at a game on TV, and occasionally grunting.  But I’ve been blessed enough to have countless times where Don and I would just sit and chat about every piece of life you can discuss; family, relationships, career, art, faith, what it means to be a man, what it means to build something with your life.  Each of us would weigh in on the other’s stories.  Don genuinely cares about his friends’ lives, and invests himself intentionally into helping them be and achieve what they want.  I’m living proof of it.  

If Don was just this way with me, that’d be cool, but he’s more than that.  If you meet any of Don’s friends, they’ll inevitably be able to tell you that they’ve experienced something similar.  Last fall, I had to stop through Chicago for a night for a work trip, and Don invited me out to hang with his Chicago friends.  He’s lived in the windy city for nearly five years, and to meet his friends there, you would think he’s been there his whole life. You could tell each person there felt like Don was one of their best friends, because he has such a positive way that he engages people authentically.  Even friends of mine here in Michigan, who met Don through me years ago, will ask me, “So, Don is gonna be at the wedding, right?”  Mark Twain said “No man is a failure who has friends”:  If this is true, Don is as successful as they come.

Most Super Bowls don’t match the hype they are given leading up to the game.  Usually, 2 weeks of press and events end with a subpar football game that leaves people disappointed.  This year bucked that trend.  Super Bowl LI was incredible, with the Patriots staging the greatest comeback in Super Bowl history.  The whole time you watched the game unfold, you were thinking, “This is crazy.  I can’t believe this is happening.”  And then it did. For once, the Super Bowl lived up to the hype.

Don Hudson is Super Bowl LI.  It seems impossible for him to live up to the hype, but then he does.  He can’t possibly be that good of a musician; but he is.  He can’t possibly have that great of an eye for photography; but he does.  He can’t possibly surprise you with another creative idea; but he does.  And he can’t possibly be as good hearted/personable/engaging while being that talented; but he is.  Don creates a lot of hype, and once you befriend him, he exceeds it.

A year and a half ago, a few months after Michelle and I started dating, we made a trip to Chicago.  It was a must to have the woman I was falling in love with meet Don.  When we got there, Don and his girlfriend joined us on two nights to get dinner, experience the city, and just talk.  Leading up to the visit, he and I chatted and texted often about the visit.  Don could sense pretty early on that Michelle was special, and he was noticeably excited about our visit.  After our Chicago trip, Michelle immediately said, “I love those two. I wish they lived closer so we could hang out with them more.” Of course she was sold on Don, who wouldn’t be?  A couple months after the trip, I had decided I was going to propose to Michelle, and my first call was to Don.  He was nearly as excited as I was.  He’d lived through 12 years of my single life with me, and he came to the same conclusion I had.  “This is amazing, man. It’s a total no-brainer.  You guys are meant for each other...I’m pumped for you.  Let me know when the proposal happens and I’ll make the drive.”  As we hung up that day, I couldn’t help but think “That’s what a best man sounds like.”  And of course he’s the best man.  That’s also a no-brainer.  

An open letter from DRAW's Executive Director

To all of the volunteers, first responders, donors, and supporters of DRAW over the first 5 years (and anyone interested in the next 5):

WHAT HAVE WE DONE?!

Facebook has a way of getting me nostalgic.  They pop up "memories" regularly, things you posted in past years on this day's date.  This week, I had memory pop up from 5 years ago that this was the week we had decided to go ahead with the formation of DRAW (Our actual 5th birthday is May 22, the date of our first board meeting).  

So I want to tell you two things.  First, thank you for everything you've poured into DRAW in its first 5 years.  Our efforts have affected tens of thousands of storm victims.  We've given away in the neighborhood of $750k of supplies in that time span. And we've mobilized, literally, thousands of volunteers to help in storms' aftermaths.  I've been in the weeds working with stats this week, and a number of times I shook my head in disbelief, thinking "I can't believe we got to do this."  None of that happens without any of you.  It's been awesome building something special with you all.

*     *     *     *     *

WHAT ARE WE DOING?!

On the same day that facebook got me nostalgic, I got a question from a supporter, who asked, essentially, "where is DRAW going?" I've been realizing the last couple years what many people advised me as DRAW started, telling me that it's very easy to slip into maintenance mode. But I believe there are big goals for DRAW to attain in our near future, and I wanted to communicate those to all of you. My hope is, by communicating our goals clearly and often, it will be easier to involve you, and all of our supporters, in the process.  As I've found in five years, the best guidance and ideas have come from you.  So here are quantifiable goals to shoot for over the NEXT 5 years.

  • Starting in June 2017, DRAW will sign a lease on our location. So our goal is to create a stable home base/HQ, one that is a great place for volunteers to make a difference, and will be central to everything we do going forward.
  • Each year, we've had an average of 45 yearly partnerships (schools/churches/businesses).  I'd like for us to (at the least) double that number by 2020
  • To this point, DRAW has responded to disasters with either a crew of volunteers, a load of supplies, or both.  I'd like to add a third type of response in the next year or two; a mobile logistics team.  This would be a team of volunteers who would go for 10-14 days after a storm, working with other organizations (Convoy of Hope, World Vision, etc) to manage the distribution of supplies donated to disaster stricken areas.  This will require recruitment, training, and some possible capital investments into the program (trailers, tents, computers, etc)
  • By 2022, I'd like to see DRAW employ three staff:  The executive director, an operations director, and a super-admin.  Currently, we are filling three obvious roles with one full time staffer, and combination of a large number of dedicated volunteers/interns.  

Of course, all of these goals will require processes and funding.  As I said, I'm sharing the goals with you to let you know that a) we're not content with the status quo, and b) we don't have all the answers on how we can make this happen, which is where you come in.  While we've successfully helped thousands in 5 years, we've learned from experiences and believe we can do even more to serve disaster victims.  

*     *     *     *     *

WE NEED YOU MORE THAN EVER!

In the short term, we have annually done an online fundraiser/"web-a-thon" for DRAW on our birthday.  On our 5th birthday, we're going to aim big, trying to raise $30k in that one day, asking for pledges from our awesome supporters leading up to the day.  We also have plans to put on a 5k run this year, and continue many of the programs that gained steam as we started.  And even as soon as the next 4 weeks, we have 9 different churches/schools/community groups/girl scout troops collecting supplies and funds to make DRAW's mission a reality. But here are ways we need you:

  1. Volunteer at our HQ on Wednesdays (or any time, for that matter)
  2. Weigh in on DRAW's future, giving suggestions to our leadership of how we can get there, and how you might join us.
  3. Make a financial pledge to DRAW's upcoming Web-a-thon, on May 22
  4. Donate to DRAW's ongoing mission to serve victims of natural disasters

I love y'all, I love making an impact with you, and I'm thankful for what may come with DRAW because of you.

 

Our Top Ten meals

2 years ago, on March 15, Michelle and I met for a meal for the first time.

Because I'm told that half of relationships is trying to decide where to eat, in commemoration, here's a list of the top 10 meals we've had in our two years.

10. Calexico, Detroit. Downtown a few months ago, we were debating where to eat, when the rain forced us to make a quick decision, so we ran into this restaurant unknown to us. It was awesome...I recommend the special sauce.

9. Rediger BBQ, Rowlett, TX. Visiting her relatives shortly after our engagement, I found out they have a full-sized smoker! The BBQ was awesome...what you'd expect from Texas.

8. The Signature Room on the 95th floor, Chicago. It's cool to eat high atop the city simply for the view, so we dressed spiffy for the night. Unfortunately, we ate on a super cloudy night. Luckily, the food saved the day, especially the creme brulee.

7. Pink Pony, Mackinac Island. We didn't eat much, since we had stopped every two hours for fudge that weekend. But being on the water, on the island, during the summer, with decent food...that's alright.

6. Hong Hua, Farmington. The first time I got to meet her family as a whole was at her mom's birthday dinner. I got to sit next to Elli, her niece, and Elli & I recreated a pic from Lady and the Tramp. From that meal on, I was sold on/comfortable with her family. Also...great dumplings.

5. Central Kitchen, Detroit. Our first big weekend getaway once we started dating, we explored Detroit for two days, with Central easily being my favorite spot...great Carne Asada. Plus, that was the weekend I realized that I loved her.

4. Luxe, Birmingham. We double dated here with friends early on, and the meal was amazing. The spicy tenderloin makes my mouth water whenever I think of it.

3. Morningstar Cafe, Grand Haven. On weekend getaway last summer, we stumbled upon the best brunch joint I've ever had. The cinnamon roll was killer.

2. The Root, White Lake. The scene of our first date. We've been plenty times since, because the menu is great. With all glass behind her on a sunny day, it's funny that I could barely see her face on our first date. I'm lucky that was just a first date thing.

1. The Union Woodshop, Clarkston. This one is obvious. Though the food was great, neither of us ate a ton that night, mostly because we had so much adrenaline after I'd brought a ring that night, and she'd said yes. But this is the number one meal on my list, because it's the meal where I found out that she and we would eat meals together for the rest of our lives.

The Best Teacher I've Ever Had

On February 8, I had a difficult decision to make.  With failure staring me in the face, I had to do what the kids call "take an L".  And before I go any further, I gotta tell you...failure hurts.

*     *     *     *     *

For the first four years that DRAW has existed, I've tried to make myself available to speak to whatever groups would have me come and talk about DRAW.  I've spoken with girl scout troops, retired, bridge playing groups, bank employees, knitters, high school students, and middle school marching bands.  I made the decision that, if I got an invite, I would go to talk to whoever about the mission of DRAW.

A year or two in, the requests started to change.  Instead of being asked to talk about the mission of DRAW, groups started specifically requesting that I talk about how DRAW came to be.  Rather than the day-to-day workings of a charity relief organization, groups started wanting to hear about how something came from nothing.  The DRAW narrative became just as powerful in listener's minds as the DRAW mission.  It was a subtle alteration I didn't even recognize until it had already happened.  Suddenly, by 2016, I was speaking 5-6 times a month about the birth and evolution of our organization, with the narrative becoming a message of inspiration, a message that anyone with ideas and passion could create change by bringing together others with a similar passion.  

By the end of 2016, this emergence led to an idea: What if DRAW sponsored an event that took the spirit of the DRAW narrative and pulled it into one big day of inspiration, instruction, and action?  We could have multiple speakers tackle different aspects of one common theme; "How can my life become an Agent of Change?"  The day would explore how our personal relationships, our social media interactions, our studies, and our life philosophies could shape the kind of lasting good we could do in the world.  We would then have multiple opportunites to put these concepts into action, having group service projects on site that would contribute to existing world changing organizations.  The parameters were in place for an event we decided to call The Agents of Change Summit.

I was fired up.  I recruited speakers, day-of volunteers, a local host-church building, and organizations to partner with us on the day of the Summit.  Though all ages were invited, our volunteers, board members, and speakers started promoting the event amongst our target audience (high school students, college students, and young entrepenuers). I would get asked by the people involved, "How many people do you think we're gonna have at the event?" I never had a hard and firm number planned. I had hoped for a minimum of 50 for our first time, but thought 100 would be an easy number to hit.  We would cap it at 150, which I thought would be necessary, considering the number of groups where I was already being recruited to present.  This would be an event that would be easy to fill, and I was focused on making sure it was going to be a great experience and impactful to the participants.  

As we got closer to the Agents of Change Summit, scheduled for February 11, delays started to happen.  Delays always happen.  The event registration page took a while to get posted.  Many of my communications with school/college contacts went unanswered.  When the registration page finally went live, signups were slow.  When people would say "We'd love to promote the event!", what they meant was, "We'll throw a link on the bottom of our weekly newsletter", or "We'll mention it at one of our meetings."  Without empowering people with easy access to signup or a clear understanding of the event, we set ourselves up for a collective response of ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

The slower the registration went, the harder I pushed to get groups and individuals signed up.  The event itself was coming together beautifully, and I was determined to fill the seats.  But, as the event inched closer, it was becoming more and more apparent that we weren't going to reach our minimum attendance.  By the time February 8 came, the decision I had to make was inevitable.  I was going to have to contact everyone I'd asked to volunteer to help put the day together, along with the people who had registered, and let them know that we needed to postpone the Agents of Change Summit, probably until a date later in April.

Now, the good perspective was DRAW was still thriving, still building our volunteer base, still responding to storms around the country (even responding to a tornado in Georgia a week and a half before the Summit).  But it was hard for me, personally to not feel like I'd failed.  I'd taken an idea, and put an incredible amount of time, energy, social capital, and DRAW's volunteer hours into the leadup of the event.  For it to have to be postponed because of a lacking registration was a major blow to my ego, and took the wind out of my sails for a couple days.  

Instead of instructing others on February 11, I was forced to learn something myself.  It was like March 10, 1997 all over again.

*     *     *     *     *

As a high schooler, the only sport I cared about was wrestling.  My dad was a wrestler in college, winning the MAC championship twice at Western Michigan University.  Three years he was an NCAA qualifier, coming up one place short of being an All-American two of those years.  He started coaching high school wrestling as soon as he graduated from WMU, and because of it, I'd spent my entire life around high school wrestling.  I'd watched some Michigan high school wrestling legends compete, and by the time I got to high school myself, I wanted nothing more than to be a high school state championship wrestler.  I had plenty of success throughout high school, winning over 160 matches and earning all-state honors before my senior season.  But I had yet to reach my ultimate goal.

I feel like I need rewind a little, here.  It wasn't just that I wanted to succeed in wrestling.  I was obsessed with wrestling.  In a pre-internet era, I would collect newspapers from all over the state to read about/memorize stats of other wrestlers.  At a time where I was struggling with my Spanish class vocabulary word memorization, I could quote for you scores of wrestling meets from three hours away.  I would go back through old tournament brackets to disect how certain guys had made their way to the semi-finals, and I would take any time off to find wrestling tournaments nearby where I could scout potential future opponents.  

Going into the the state tournament my senior year, the biggest hurdle I would need to clear to win the state championship was a guy I would have to wrestle in the semifinals, DJ Waters from Eaton Rapids.  DJ and I were the top two ranked wrestlers at our weight class, and we had wrestled once before our sophomore year, with DJ winning 4-2.  DJ and I had similar body types, and identical records, and really, it was tossup between the two of us if you asked any of the wrestling publications at the time.

So when the match started, I was able to take an early lead, before DJ came back to go ahead 4-3 in third period.  In the match's final seconds, knowing I needed to score to tie or win the match, there was a huge flurry of activity that lasted nearly 30 seconds.  I know this because I watched the VHS recording of the match about 150 times the year after, and now have it seared into my brain some 20 years later.  The match ended with no more points scored, despite my last ditch attempts, and after winning 4-3, DJ went on to win the state championship, whereas I came up short in my final attempt to achieve the only major wrestling goal I'd ever wanted.

I remember when the match finished, I was in shock.  Everything slowed down around me.  It felt like the few seconds after you get into a car crash, where you're assessing everything in disbelief.  I slowly walked over to a quiet, cement wall in the arena, slumped down to a seated position leaning against it, with my head buried between my knees, exhausted.  "What else could I have done?" kept running through my head.  This was another life ago, and to this day, nearly 20 years later, I can picture every detail around me as if it had just happened.

As I got some time between myself and that moment, it became clear that my failure had been a sliding doors moment, of sorts.  Without making a long story longer, that one loss changed the college i would decide to attend, which would change the major I would graduate with, which changed my career/where I would live.  It also taught me a lot of individual lessons about myself, my family, my priorities, my responsibilities, and my ability to empathize, just to name a few.

*     *     *     *     *

Failure in all of its forms, has been the greatest teacher of my life.  Whether it's a failed attempt at a new endeavor or coming up one point short of a high school dream, failure hurts.  It's supposed to.

But usually failure is fair, and can mold you into a much better version of yourself.  If you let it, failure will make you smarter, stronger, more humble, and more determined.   

Over the course of my life, failure has taught me that I shouldn't be afraid of it.  If you have to "take an L", there's a good chance it won't be the last time you play.  And the next time, you'll be better.

So we'll reschedule the Summit.  And when it finally comes off, and we start to become better Agents of Change, we'll be thankful for failing on the first try, because the world will be better for it.

Uber Rider of the month, February 2017

I can tell you that it was 3:37pm on a Tuesday afternoon.  Detroit was experiencing, what felt like, it's 473rd straight day without sunshine.  The city streets were freshly plowed after having 6 inches of snow dumped on them the night before.  My phone went off, requesting an uber pickup on the campus of Wayne State University.  As I approached the campus, I called the rider waiting for me, so that I could pinpoint exactly where to pick her up, knowing that campus is usually somewhat chaotic in mid-afternoon.

As she answered the phone, I could tell English was not her first language.  I adjusted to understanding her speech patterns, saw she was waiting on a sidewalk across from Jimmy Johns, and in no time, I had pulled up next to her. She got into the back of my car, and it was then I learned her destination was 40 minutes away.  

Typically, I start making small talk with my riders as soon as they get into the car.  Within that first minute or two, I try to gauge whether he/she is in the mood to be chatty, or if he/she would prefer to sit in silence and peruse the phone for the duration of the ride.  In this particular case, I made the decision not to push any conversation.  If a rider speaks a broken version of English, small talk can be difficult, misunderstandings could happen easier, and the conversation might take more brain power than the rider wants to exert on an uber ride.

Much to my surprise, Reem started into the small talk shortly after we drove away from campus.  

She asked me if I drove for Uber full-time.  

She asked how long I had been driving for Uber, and if I liked it.

She asked if I grew up in the area.  

Reem was a curious student, which made me curious about her.  "How long have you been using uber?" I asked.  "I have only been living here for six months, so I haven't used uber very many times." It seemed almost inevitable that the conversation was going to 'go there', if only because Reem wanted to talk about it.  If I had been her, I can't imagine how anything else would have been on my mind.

"So you moved here six months ago?  Where are you from, originally?"

"I'm from Iraq.  I came here last semester on a student visa."  

Just the Friday before, President Trump had signed an executive order, temporarily disallowing any entry into the United States to anyone from 7 major countries in the Middle East; Iran, Syria, Somalia, Lybia, Yemen, Sudan, and, yes, Reem's home country of Iraq.  If you've been alive at all in the last 5 days with access to the internet, it's been impossible to avoid hearing about the EO, the backlash, or the resulting airport protests.  Even more, you probably have had your laptop or social media feeds flooded with memes, hashtags, and hot takes/opinions from anyone from celebs, to your co-worker, to your Aunt Joan.  But, as tired as I was of hearing about the EO and its fallout, it was important for me to listen to what Reem was feeling.

"I'm scared.  My family is very scared.  We don't know what could happen next.  My parents are both sick, and I was going to visit them over winter break.  But now, if I go back to see them, I won't be able to return to finish my semester."  As Reem described her situation, there wasn't an ounce of anger in her voice.  She spoke softly, as if she was still processing everything.  "The people at the university, they've been great.  My professors gathered all of us, and said they were here to support us, that we're a community."  

Reem went on. "My family is scared that I'll be sent back...that my student visa will be taken away.  But I don't want to go back.  I'm the first of my family to come to the United States to get an education.  If I go back, all of the money that we've put toward my education will be wasted, because I won't be able to return to finish."  But then Reem started to play out scenarios..."but what if my parents get worse?  What will I supposed to do then?  This is very scary."

I wanted to assure Reem, but, honestly, what the hell do I know?  At heart, I'm a fixer; maybe you know the feeling.  If someone you care about has a problem, your instinct is to come up with a solution to fix the problem.  In this scenario, I was at a loss.  I thought that maybe I could reassure Reem by asking about her student visa, to show she'd already done what she needed to do to get that.

"So, what did you have to do to get your student visa?"

"It took me about...I would say...it took me two months", she said as she tried to recall the process.  "I applied with the U.S. Embassy at home, and then they interviewed me three weeks later.  It was a long interview.  They asked me about my background, my family. They asked what I thought about America, why I wanted to go there.  They even asked about my rings, my earrings, my jewelry.  They wanted to know what they meant...if they had any significance.  After my interview, I had to go to another office two more times.  It was not hard.  It just took a long time."

Let me say at this point:  I'm not here to take political sides.  I believe that compassion for humans is a good thing.  I believe an instinct to keep a country's citizens safe is a good thing. I believe political engagement is a good thing.  And I believe there's a way for all of us to attain all of these things, and do them with love, void of malice, name-calling, or prejudice.

But on a random uber ride on a Tuesday afternoon, I didn't see a political side.  I saw a person, scared for her future, feeling lonely and even more separated from her family than before, and yet determined to accomplish what she'd spent tons of time, money, and airline miles to achieve.   

As we arrived at her destination, Reem said, "Thank you so much for listening to me.  I'm sorry I talked so much."  I told her not to apologize...that her story was worth listening to. I then asked if I could tell her story to people (and take a selfie with her). 

"Of course," she said as she started to climb out of the back seat.  "Thank you, Mister Greg.  I will pray for you."  Before I could respond, she shut the door.  

I'll pray for you, too, Reem.  All of us will.

Uber rider of the month, January '17

I've failed you as a writer this month.  While many riders shared pieces of their stories on their way from point A to point B, I didn't do my due diligence/ask the right kinds of questions to be able to relay an inspiring story for the month of January.  Twenty months into driving for uber, I'm more than 2000 rides/riders into the process.  Occasionally, specific stories stand out, and those anecdotes are usually shared with my fiance or friends at the end of the day.  

I'll keep mining for the best/most inspiring narratives from future riders, but for this month, I thought it might be interesting to do a quick, top 5 of do's and don't's for uber rider conversations.  Basically, this is my very own, small-talk manifesto.  After a couple thousand interactions in just over 1.5 years, here's what I've learned about modern day, uber small-talk:

Top 5 topics of conversation for good uber chatting:

5. Travel - If your uber rider is headed to or from the airport or train station, it's obvious that he/she either is or has just been out of familiar surroundings.  A simple "where are you headed today" or "what brings you to town" can start a fun back and forth about other cities or regions that you may not be totally familiar with.  In the past week, I've gotten to chat with passengers about landmarks in Montreal, events close to Fenway Park in Boston, and the pros and cons of taking public transit in Chicago.  These convos can easily kill 15-20 minutes while you're heading somewhere.

4. Other uber experiences - This can be easiest if this is one of the first times using uber for the rider.  For them, "this uber thing" is a whole new world, and they love to ask what kind of crazies have been in my car.  They'll also talk about how helpful other drivers have been, or even how hard it is for them to get a ride.  Re-assuring the rider that most drivers aren't crazy, most riders are generally good people, and "this uber thing" can be an overwhelmingly positive experience usually brings out good energy, and puts them at ease.

3. Food - Seriously, who doesn't like to talk about food.  Everyone loves restaurant recommendations, or talking about a great meal they just devoured.  This also can lead to some good natured competition, i.e. what place has the best burger, bbq, etc.  Food is always safe, and I usually stop for a snack after rides where we talk about it.

2. Technology - I think, deep down, we all love to be pundits, trying to predict what the next big app or tech product might be.  I've been introduced to all kinds of new and convenient tricks with my phone or online accounts just by chatting with riders who seem to have their finger on the pulse of the tech boom.

1. Love - This encompasses dating, marriage, and family.  It's convenient for uber chatting that I'm fairly newly in love and planning a fast-approaching wedding.  People love to talk about wedding planning, how I met Michelle, and then how they met their spouse/significant other.  When you think about it, it's fun to talk about where your relationship began, and you don't get to do it as much when you've been together for a long time.  

Top 5 topics of conversation for bad uber chatting:

5. Work - This was a hard thing for me to learn, because I love to talk about my job.  But a lot of people would prefer to leave work at work.  For some, it's hard to explain exactly what their job is, and others, they know their job is temporary/a stepping stone to what they really want.  I've found, in general, talking about work is a non-starter.

4. Parents - I'm also a little off, in that, I like to brag about my parents (in their 60's, volunteering for every charity under the sun).  But I've found that most people get quiet or sad when discussing parents.  Sometimes this is because of an illness, and other times, it's because they don't spend as much time with them as they want to or feel like they should.  

3. Politics - No explanation needed

2. Friends - Your uber experience is, on average, about 20 minutes.  Twenty minutes is not enough time to explain the context of your friends/social circle.  So if a story about your friend or their friend comes up, that's usually the beginning of the end.  I care about you, and I care about you getting to your destination safely.  I do not care about the 6th grade class where you met your third best friend.

1.  Music - Sure, we COULD talk about music.  I know you probably like certain genres, and we could even talk about concert experiences.  But if we're talking music, sooner or later, I know you're gonna ask me for the aux chord so you can play some song in the car that you SWEAR I'll like (and I'm almost certain I won't).  Honestly, if I haven't already heard the artist you're trying to get me listen to, I'm probably not gonna like it now.  Plus, NO WAY am I giving up the aux chord...who's car do you even think you're riding in?

Ode to an intern

In March of 2014, I had the unique opportunity to be a keynote speaker at the MASC Student Leadership conference in Traverse City, Michigan.  The conference was hosted at the Grand Traverse Resort, where 72 Michigan High Schools congregated with their Student Council members and advisors, 1600 attendees in all.  The resort is laid out so that every school that attended the event had a block of rooms, and they could just walk to and from the conference hall for the weekend's activities without having to brave the Michigan cold on their commute.  

As the speaker, the conference organizers asked me to talk to the students about honing their passions to make a difference, using my personal story of founding DRAW as the main example.  I attended the entire three days in Traverse City, even after my talk was finished, sitting down personally with some of the students attending to help them talk through some of the ideas brought up at the conference.

On the Saturday night of the conference, I had gone out to a late dinner, and returned to the resort to turn in.  My hotel room was on a floor where a couple of the attending schools were staying, and, as I got off the elevator, I noticed that many students from one of those schools, Grosse Pointe South, had spilled out into the hallway.  Their group had ordered pizza, and was staying up late chatting about all manners of things. The students stopped me and invited me to hang out, offering leftover pizza as the olive branch.  (It might be physically impossible to turn down free pizza after 11pm.)

As I plopped down in the middle of the GPS students, we kicked around all kinds of subjects, with the students asking me questions about college, dating, and public speaking.  But, in short time, we started to talk about the theme of the entire conference; leadership.  For a good number of the attendees, being on student council meant planning Homecoming themes, selling tickets to dances, and organizing events to promote school spirit.  All of these things are good things that develop life skills.  For a smaller group, though, student council was a place to explore the concept of leadership.  They were interested in figuring out how to bridge divides in their schools, and wanted to be the ambassadors that would bring together all of the high school stereotypes in their school, so that everyone was treated with respect.

But as I sat chatting with the GPS, there was one girl who seemed disinterested with the normal functions of high school student council.  She was a leader, without question; easily the alpha dog of the group.  The girl's name was Maggie Rapai.

Maggie was obviously pegged by her teachers/advisors, and not because she could put together the greatest prom or design the best GPS spirit banner.  Maggie was a leader amongst her peers, regardless of whether or not she held a position on the GPS Student council.  Maggie cared about oppression around the world, and wasn't afraid to speak openly about how it bothered her.  She was fearless to act, never questioning whether she could make a difference (as a 17 year old, she went with her church on a two week work project to a poor area in Ghana) , and often involved other people around her in her efforts to make a change in the injustices she saw. At times that night, Maggie seemed almost annoyed when her fellow students would bring up petty grievances from their shared high school experience.  I don't know who came up with the hashtag #firstworldproblems, but I would not be shocked if Maggie was the brainchild.

We had been chatting for around 45 minutes when the group decided collectively to disperse and head to bed for the night.  They thanked me for hanging out and chatting at a late hour, and I thanked them all for their willingness to discuss the possibilities of life with a (relatively) old guy like me.  As I walked to my room, I can still remember being impressed with the girl named Maggie.  She was on the verge of becoming the kind of rare, thoughtful young woman that our world badly needs.  And I remember thinking to myself that, if I ever got a chance, I wanted to do what I could to make sure I could help her succeed.  

**********

Two years after founding DRAW, or Disaster Relief At Work, I learned that, for the organization to grow, to thrive, and to be sustainable, there are two assets that are absolutely essential; Volunteers and Data.  For DRAW to be the best version of itself, I had to constantly enlist the input, energy, and hours from people who shared with us the same passion to serve victims of natural disasters. At the same time, I needed to make sure we had thorough and accurate data about our own work, about weather patterns around the country, and about how like-minded organizations do what they do.  Basically, if our organization is a large number of committed individuals willing to learn the best ways to serve, we'll be able to have an positive impact beyond our wildest imaginations.

In the summer of 2015, I knew I needed to put this into action.  DRAW had responded to tornadoes, hurricanes, floods, landslides, and even a fertilizer plant explosion.  But what we hadn't responded to up to that point (and still haven't) was a blizzard/winter storm.  Because of our HQ's proximity to the north, and the regularity with which blizzards can strike, I wanted our organization to learn how we might be an asset to blizzard victims.  However, with a finite number of hours in the week, and the heavy workload of being the org. director, I needed to find volunteer interns willing to tackle the research and analysis necessary for us to be prepared for such events.

So, leading up to the summer of '15, I had two college students in mind that I wanted to approach about being our summer research assistants, and, of course, one of the candidates I had in mind was Maggie.  I reached out to her in January '15 to see if she would be interested in position.  Via text, she responded by saying that she already had an internship lined up with Cass Community Social Services in downtown Detroit, but wanted to see if maybe she could make both internships work.  (Think about that for a second: one unpaid internship wasn't enough!  Both internships presented opportunies to make a positive impact, so why not do them both?!)

The job for the two summer research assistants was simple (or so I thought): Research all federally declared winter disasters from the previous five years, learn the "weak spots" in the recovery process, and make recommendations of ways DRAW could fill in the blanks in future recovery scenarios.  The assistants found a couple of things very quickly: First, that most organizations, both governmental and non-governmental, did keep good or accurate data from their winter disaster responses, and second, that they had little patience to explain themselves to a couple college interns asking (in their minds) too many questions.  Maggie found very quickly that most every call she made would end up in a voicemail, and not quickly returned.  Her efforts to learn/accumulate recovery data were falling short.  This is the spot where most college students (or you can replace "college students" with "people of all ages") would have let their frustration set in, and just given up trying to find answers. 

Part of what makes Maggie special is what she gets from her parents.  Her mother is a journalist, and her father is an author.  In both cases, her parents know that the answers are not always easily available, but they are important to find.  In the case of DRAW's research, we sent our two research assistants to multiple cities that had been victimized by dangerous, and in some cases, deadly blizzards.  

In one city in particular, I got an email from an emergency manager from entirely different state, because Maggie had cornered the Buffalo, NY, emergency manager after he'd avoided two months of calls and tried to sneak out the side of the building once he heard our research assistants had visited to ask a couple questions.  I sat proudly in my office that day, cracking up, as read how our assistants had chased down a grown man in the parking lot to ask how many of their citizens had lost power in the previous year's blizzard.  It was hilarious, but not the least bit surprising.

By the end of summer, Maggie and her summer colleague submitted five different levels of plans for DRAW to execute for future winter storm disasters.  All five plans are at different cost levels, and all five plans are realistic ways to use the volunteers and make a positive impact on the people who might be affected by the next winter storm.  The future of DRAW's mission was shaped in the summer of 2015 by two assistants who were undeterred, caring more about the needs of future victims than their fear of failing or being rejected.  

**********

Now a Junior at the University of Michigan, Maggie is just 15 months from finishing her International Studies degree and figuring what's next.  But don't bring that up with her. "I'm doing everything I can to not think about what's after this..." she determinedly said as we sat down to order lunch.  "I'm just trying to focus on what's happening with me here and now."  

For Maggie, "here and now" is pretty incredible.  The day after she and I met for lunch, she was driving to Ann Arbor, where she was going to meet with the leadership of MRAP (Michigan Refugee Assistance Program), to help them tweak their organizational constitution.  Maggie has been involved with the MRAP leadership on the UM campus and in some of the surrounding churches for a while.   Not long after her internship with DRAW ended, I remember texting Maggie to ask what she's thinking for her career path long-term.  Her exact response was; "MSW/MPH, because I hate myself but love refugees"...the text with the perfect blend of self-deprecation and determined servanthood.  When the crisis in Aleppo reached a new low in November, with reports of chlorine bombs being used, and I overwhelmingly felt that I needed to help, Maggie was my first text.  I wanted to find out the best way to make an impact, and in that moment, I wanted/trusted her to be the leader.

And in less than two weeks, Maggie will be jumping on a plane to Senegal to study at the West Africa Research Center for 6 months, adding to her wide range of knowledge and experience, making her even more versatile in ways she can serve people.  When I pressed her on where all of this is going for her, she finally let herself think about life after college.  "Honestly," she reflected, "I want to end up serving vulnerable populations somehow.  I'm not 100% sure how, but that's really what I'm excited about."

At this point, I wish I could tell you to follow Maggie on twitter, so that you can be inspired by her like I am.  But that won't do much good. "No, I'm not on there much.  I really only tweet when there's a UM football game or a presidential debate.  Plus, the internet has become a place where everyone is putting stuff out, but not many people are listening."

Funny, I think back to the Grand Traverse Resort, eating late night delivery pizza, chatting with a bunch of high school students in a hotel hallway.  When most of the kids would talk, I don't think much listening was happening.  But when the alpha dog talked, everyone else paid attention.  That's what happens when you're a leader; you lead, whether or not you have the "leader" title.  

Keep doing your thing, Maggie.  We're all listening, and we're ready to follow.

 

14 things no one warns you about when you propose to the woman of your dreams.

Warning: I wrote this article almost 6 months ago.  For whatever reason, I decided not to post it, and frankly, forgot about it.  But I found it sitting in my saved writings today, and got a kick out of it.  So after a brief edit, here are my thoughts 2 days after changing my relationship status:

I got engaged two nights ago.  I decided to write about it.  Before I do, I feel the need to give two disclaimers.

 A)  I know this website is for work stuff, to show off my talents to get hired, theoretically.  So I acknowledge that this blog post has nothing to do with that.

 B) I also acknowledge making a list with an obscure number of points is very Buzzfeed circa 2015.  It's a dumb gimmick, and I'll do my best to not do it again. 

But as my fiance, Michelle, and I have decided, our mantra in the planning of our wedding is "Screw it! It's OUR wedding." (We're trying to fit in with millenials).  And I'm taking that mantra and applying it to the writing of this blog post.  It's hacky and self-serving, but, Screw it! It's my blog post.

So without any further ado...

The 14 things no one warns you about when you propose to the woman of your dreams:

1.  You won't be able to sleep the nights leading up to the proposal.  This isn't because you have doubts; it's because you want the moment to be everything she would want. Prepare to be sleep-deprived when you're popping the question.

2. You're gonna need to lie to the woman of your dreams a lot more than you're comfortable with leading up to the proposal. Honestly, I've forgotten all of the lies I told Michelle in the two months before I actually asked her to be wife just to keep the moment a surprise or throw her off the scent.

3. The trend of tighter fitting pants makes it harder to keep the ring in your pocket beforehand.  You end up looking like you have a strange tumor sticking out the side of your hip.

4. It's nearly impossible to eat in the aftermath of the proposal.  Your body will be pumping so much adrenaline, you won't have an appetite for food.

5. Don't try to have a speech prepared leading up to the question.  Your brain will be moving too fast to have something rehearsed come out the way you want.

6. Make sure your fiancé has her fingernails recently done.  Because, you know, pictures. Offer to do them yourself if you have to.

7. Be prepared to have at least a couple thoughts about your wedding. Even though she doesn't know you're going to propose, she's still going to have more thoughts about the wedding than you will, and I guarantee you'll start discussing it before the night is over.

8. If possible, propose on a soft surface.  You'll be one knee longer than you think, and your joints aren't as young as they used to be.

9. Once she says yes, come up with a joint social media plan fairly quickly.  As dumb as it sounds, you want the important people in your life to hear about the engagement directly from you before that one guy from the gym finds out from your status update.

10. Don't try to get too many pictures on engagement day.  There's gonna be PLENTY of time for pics over the next few months.  Try to just exist in the moment, even if your in-the-moment default is dumbfounded or speechless.

11. If you picked well (and I did), you have the kind of relationship with her where you'll have a couple "Holy crap, this is actually happening!" moments with each other, in between the calls to the parents and everything else.  Those will be your biggest smiles of the night.

12. If you involve other people in the proposal, make sure they are people you want close to you going forward.  If you end up with a rocky patch in your relationship, those are the people who will be able to say they were there, and will remind you they've witnessed that your fiancé makes you the happiest you've ever been.

13. Have plenty of mouthwash/breath mints available.  You're probably going to kiss your fiancé a time or two, and you'll need to counteract the cottonmouth that may come with the nerves of proposing.

14. Breathe, man.  Don't forget to breathe. She's already stolen your heart; make sure there's still oxygen going to your lungs.

 

 

Uber rider of the month, October 2016

I like to drive for uber a few hours in the early morning, usually from 4am-8am, before I go to work.  When I drive that early, I get a wide range of personalities.  Many times, at that hour, I'll get a call from a rider who needs a ride to the airport because of business travel.  Sometimes, I'll get a call from a plant worker, who is on his/her way to do the morning shift.  I've even gotten calls from students getting a ride to school at that hour.

But a couple of weeks ago, I got what was maybe my oddest rider to date.  Around 6:30am in Redford, I pulled up to a neighborhood house, and Ashley walked out to the car.  Ashley looked fairly young.  She was wearing thigh-high socks with horizontal stripes, much like the Wicked Witch of the West, to accompany her concert T-shirt, black leather jacket, shorts, and pigtails.  She walked up to the car, and from outside, asked whether she should sit in the front or the back. (For future riders: your driver will normally say either is fine, but as a driver, I can tell you that we DEFINITELY want our riders to ride in the back.)  So, of course, Ashley jumped in the front seat, and we were on our way...15 minutes from our destination.

Now, I don't want you to think that I'm about to use hyperbole in any way, so I'm going to transcribe the EXACT conversation that happened from the moment Ashley jumped in the car.

Me: Good morning, how are you today?

Ashley: How old are you?

Me: Oh...well, how old do you think I am?

Ashley: Probably 32?

Me: Ha, no.  I'm 37.

Ashley: Yikes. I'm 19, so this is weird.  Ok.  Anyway...can I smoke in here?

Me: No, Sorry.

Ashley: *Expletive* *Expletive* All my other uber drivers are cool and let me smoke in the car.  Whatever.

Me: Yeah, sorry.  I'm not that cool

...5 minutes of silence passes...

Ashley: You're kinda boring.

Me: Excuse me?

Ashley: Yeah, you don't smile, or laugh, or anything.  Weird.

Me: Well, it's 6:30am...I'm just trying to get you to your destination.

Ashley: Are you married?

Me: No, I'm engaged.

Ashley: But, how?  I mean, you're so boring.  I don't get...you know what I mean?

Me: I don't know...I guess some chicks just dig boring guys.

...10 minutes of silence goes by, and I pull up to her destination...

Me: Ok, have a good one. Enjoy your smokes.

Ashley: Oh I don't want to smoke anymore. (Door slam)

That was a human interaction that ACTUALLY HAPPENED to me.  I remember it vividly, for obvious reasons.  I wasn't mad or offended...I didn't know  Ashley enough to care about her opinions or be bothered by them.  I was in disbelief, more than anything.

I'll refrain from too much commentary about Ashley...I think the transcript speaks for itself.  But I'll say this:  There are two extremes.  The first extreme is individuals who act like they're the star of their own show, and the people around them are extras in the show.  The second extreme is individuals who respect others around them, no matter if those people are best friends, baristas, co-workers, or strangers.  I want to continually be more like the second extreme.  It's easy to ignore, write off, or be totally indifferent to people who can offer nothing.  It's even easier to write someone off, or disrespect them, from behind a computer screen or windshield (interaction behind glass always emboldens us, distancing us from empathy).  

Hopefully this hilariously odd uber rider can encourage you today to have more compassion, and be more human, to everyone in your world.  You could be the positivity that someone needs today.

 

The Gigantic, Enormous, Ginormous 1st Annual NBA Season Preview: CENTRAL DIVISION

We are 90 days to Christmas.  

We are 59 days to Thanksgiving

And we are 29 days to the opening of the 2016-17 NBA season!

So in Part 2 of the Greg-martin.com NBA Season preview, we break down the CENTRAL DIVISION.  Just like Part 1 (The Atlantic Division, which you can READ HERE), We look at the Most Interesting Storyline, the Most Interesting Personality, the Most Interesting Stat, the Most Interesting 5-man lineup, and the projected record.  I cut out a lot of the extra stuff so that this time, it's the reading length of a short drive or a good trip to the lieu.  Enjoy!

Central Division

Cleveland Cavaliers

Most Interesting Storyline: Will the honeymoon linger?

Objectively, the converging storylines of last June’s NBA finals were amazing.  A cursed city, void of a championship in any of the 4 major sports in over five decades, wins its first NBA title.  They won their first title behind a home grown prodigy, who, after playing for the franchise for seven years, left under an avalanche of scrutiny and hurt feelings, only to return four years later a two-time NBA champion, and promising to deliver on the unrealized potential from his time there before.  The team that the home-grown prodigy helped to bring down in the NBA finals was weeks from being the most celebrated and decorated regular season team in NBA history.  The Golden State Warriors were/are in the process of completely revolutionizing the game of basketball at the professional level, and in the middle of the revolution, a team from a cursed city broke their own curse and the hearts of the Bay area fans at the same time.  If you wanted to dig further into the numbers, there were dozens of other storylines in that one series.  

So as you can imagine, when victory was finally their’s, the team from Cleveland, and it’s tortured fans, had a massive party.  There was parade in the city where retired athletes from other historical Cleveland teams were invited to participate.  The attendance for that party reached epic/fire code violating proportions.  I’m still not 100% sure whether or not JR Smith has put a shirt on since the team won back in June.  The players and organization employees made the press rounds to do interviews everywhere, and the summer ended with a punctuation, as the team and it’s hometown hero agreed to the biggest per-season contract in the NBA, locking Lebron up to a 3 year, $100 million deal.  As a whole, the team’s roster didn’t undergo huge changes, as they lost their backup point guard to Milwaukee (Dellavedova), and their backup center to LA (Mozgov), while picking up some aging spare parts for their bench.

So, after a championship that was as dramatic as any NBA titles in recent years, the obvious question now is: Is it possible to deliver an encore?  Lebron James carried a crazy workload in last spring’s playoff run.  Kevin Love was under enormous scrutiny about whether he could even stay on the floor during important playoff games.  Kyrie Irving had his defensive ability questioned. Ty Lue had never coached before.  And on and on...and yet they pulled off the unthinkable. Did they empty the gas tank?

This year, they’ll rely on the continued development of Irving, especially in an effort to take some stress away from Lebron, who turns 32 this year, and who has played nearly 100 games every season for the previous six years.  They’ll hope that letting Mozgov go, and replacing him with a less defensively adept, yet more offensively explosive Channing Frye won’t hurt the team, at least during the regular season.  Much like last year with Tristan Thompson, they’ll eventually cave in to the contract demands of JR Smith before the season begins.  On a strictly human level, I don’t know how a team that climbed the mountain that the Cavs just climbed doesn’t fall back into being “fat and happy”, after enjoying their unprecedented success.  

Most Interesting Personality: Lebron James

Lebron has been the center of the NBA universe for 13 years. With one, incredible chase down block with 2 minutes left in Game 7 of the NBA finals, he proved that he was going to stay in that spot for at least another year.  There will be dozens of stories written nationwide, throughout the season, breaking down his relationships with his coaches, his leadership of the Cavs, and his offensive and defensive metrics (as his usage rate and efficiency will inevitably drop in his 14th year).  Each story will be interesting to read, each one probably with a slightly different angle, because there is a lot of meat on that bone. From the sportswriter’s perspective, Lebron is the gift that keeps on giving.  For 13 years, he always has been.  

Most Interesting Stat: 9

9 is the number of seasons, including last year, when Lebron’s single season PER (Player Efficiency Rating) has been in the top 75 of best single season ratings in NBA history.  That ties him for first with Michael Jordan, who also had 9 PER season ratings in the top 75. (MJ and Lebron together hold 25% of the top 75  greatest PER season ratings...they’re in a class by themselves)  There are arguments amongst NBA junkies about who is in their top 10 players, all-time, who is on their Mount Rushmore of NBA players, or who is the best player ever at each position.  In those discussions, partly because they don’t want to succumb to recency bias, and partly because they want to bid homage to players of the past, but sportswriters often leave Lebron out of their “top 5”, usually listing names like MJ, Magic, Bird, Russell, Wilt, Duncan, or Oscar Robertson.  

But the numbers bear it out, and I’ll stake my claim here:  If Lebron were to retire today, he would be the second best player to ever play the game of basketball. For a guy who has had a crushing level of expectation/pressure on him since he was 18 years old, he’s sustained a level of greatness matched only once in the history of the league.  And we need only rewind two minutes of game action to see the awe-inspiring moments he’s still capable of.  He’s close to the best ever, and he’s still got his A-game.

Most Interesting 5-man Lineup: Irving/Smith/Lebron/Love/Frye

This lineup isn’t much different from the one that anchored last season’s championship run.  But replacing Thompson with Frye adds a nice little wrinkle to Cleveland’s half-court offense, with his shooting creating even more space for Lebron to post on the elbow, Kyrie to drive the lane, and Love to swallow up offensive rebounds.  

Cleveland’s projected 2016-2017 record: 59-23

 

Indiana Pacers

Most Interesting Storyline: Will the team’s offense be offensive?

A 45 win team, with a superstar that successfully bounced back from a nearly career-ending leg injury, the Pacers went into the playoffs a 7th seed, and nearly pulled off the first round upset, taking the Raptors to seven games, and nearly stealing the fourth game they needed when a buzzer beater 3 pointer by Solomon Hill was a milli-second after the game ending buzzer.  Relatively speaking, Indy had a pretty good year, and had some pieces to continue to build on for the future.

And though President of Basketball Operations, Larry Bird, had to feel hopeful about the ends, he was very unhappy with the means.  Bird did not like the lack of cohesion of the Pacers offense all year, and had to admit that, at times, his team was hard to watch.  So Bird made the bold move of firing a relatively successful head coach, in Frank Vogel, in an effort to change the leadership, the direction, and the style of the team.  

But Bird didn’t stop there.  He let go of his center, defensive stalwart Ian Mahinmi, who signed with the Wizards for a hefty 4 years, $64 million, and replaced him by trading for athletic and wily power forward Thaddeus Young of the Nets.  He made a draft day deal, where he moved point guard George Hill, who specializes more at shooting and defending, and picked up Atlanta point guard Jeff Teague, who has, year in and year out, been among the league leaders in drives to the basket.  Finally, Bird replaced Vogel with veteran NBA coach Nate McMillan, who was the coach of the Sonics back in the days of the Ray Allen/Rashard Lewis combo.  

Bird made a gamble this offseason that he could, on the fly, switch the team’s identity, and make up for any losses on the defensive end by improving the team that much more on the offensive end.  Bird is betting on his offense, though his gamble has flaws.  Shooting guard Monte Ellis, though a speedster and great offensive penetrator, is notorious for poor shot selection and a high turnover rate.  Losing Hill on defense means that McMillan loses out on the option of hiding Ellis’s poor defense on the worse of the two opposing guards, since Teague doesn’t have the ability to switch over and guard bigger 2 guards.  And Bird is relying on the potential of 2nd year big man Myles Turner to be realized much earlier than most young bigs typically develop.  

Perhaps this team is a work in progress, though that’s not how Bird describes them.  He’s banking on the Pacers’ offense, and hoping that it isn’t flat-out offensive

Most Interesting Personality: Larry Bird

This pick is influenced heavily by the feature piece that Jackie MacMullan did on Larry Bird last year.  In it, Bird openly questioned his own mortality, quipping that, if we look at the statistics, big guys don’t typically live very long...alarming self-awareness from a guy who was an elite athlete, guys that sometimes are lacking in the self-awareness arena.  Larry has had a lot of success as a front office NBA guy, but has yet to win a championship like he did as a player in Boston.  

So though I won’t go as far as Larry did about his mortality, I will wonder out loud how much longer Bird will work as a front office executive.  His Pacers have had multiple iterations of teams that contended for titles, most recently with the Paul George/Lance Stephenson/Roy Hibbert teams, and the Reggie Miller/Ron Artest/Jermaine O’neal teams before that.  But neither of those two cores were able to break through and win a title.  So in the midst of his 3rd or 4th rebuild, it’s fair to wonder when Bird might get tired of the rebuilding roller coaster.  

Most Interesting Stat: 1

Nate McMillan has been a head coach in the NBA for 12 seasons, first with the Seattle Sonics, and then with the Portland Trailblazers.  With those teams, Nate won more games than he lost, and he generally has a great reputation across the league as a manager of talent.  But in his 12 years, Nate has ONE playoff series win.  That’s it.  If this Pacers team is going to move on to the next level, and win playoff series, they’re going to have to do it with a coach that has about the same amount of  experience doing it as they do.  

Most Interesting 5-man lineup: Teague/George/Miles/Thaddeus/Turner

As mentioned earlier, Teague is a ball-handling point guard who excels at getting the ball into the lane and then making decisions from there, based on how the defense reacts.  Paul George is also a superstar who has the ball in his hands, initiating offense throughout the game.  Monte Ellis was last year’s starting shooting guard, and has been an on-ball creator throughout his entire NBA career.  Having 3 ball handlers with those usage rates won’t work in one five-man unit...there won’t be enough basketballs to go around.  

Indiana would be better to bring Ellis off the bench for a couple of reasons.  First, he’d be devastating for backup guards to defend in the second and fourth quarters of games.  Second, inserting Miles into the starting lineup would balance the floor (with his spotup shooting prowess), and give the Pacers some extra length on the defensive end.  A defense with Miles posted in the corner, Turner spotting up around the top of the key, with Teague/George running side pick and rolls and Thaddeus being a menace along the baseline is one that Bird might have had in mind when he decided to put more of an emphasis on the team’s scoring.

Indiana’s projected 2016-2017 record: 40-42
 

Detroit Pistons

Most Interesting Storyline: Is continuity a 4-letter word?

At the end of the Pistons 2015-2016 season, coach Stan Van Gundy and GM Jeff Bower sat behind a table with two microphones, and went through the motions of a time honored NBA tradition, known as the end-of-the-year press conference.  Mostly it’s meant for teams to reflect about their season out loud, hopefully with some punchy quotes that journalists can use to write the obituary on the team’s season.  Sometimes, in these press conferences, questions will arise about offseason plans and what direction the team wants to go.  Now, no coach or GM worth their salt ever wants to show their cards that early, especially in an NBA climate where player movement is at an all-time league high, a lot of that being in free agency.  

However, Stan and Jeff did take the questions they knew were coming about what the team could look like the following season, and in the exchange, Van Gundy dropped a phrase that signified what the summer was going to look like: internal improvement.  Without giving much away, Van Gundy let it be known in the year end press conference that no one should expect the team to swing for the fences with a big name acquisition.  Even after signing Ish Smith (3/$18 mil) to be the backup point guard, Jon Leuer (4/$41 mil) to be the backup power forward, and Boban Marjonivic (3/$21 mil) to be the backup center of the future, Van Gundy was still quoted as saying, “We said to our team and coaching staff that we thought we could go out and improve our depth but most of the improvement would have to come internally.”

Internal improvement isn’t fun. It’s not going to get the general NBA fan’s attention.  Adrian Wojnarowski isn’t going to get thousands of retweets when he reports that Kentavious Caldwell-Pope has taken 1000 corner 3’s a day this offseason, or that Tobias Harris has improved his post-defense by working with Hakeem Olajuwon. (I doubt either of these are true)  But however Detroit’s coaching staff directed the players, the fate/improvement of each individual player is going to make the difference between an increased team win total and flatlining.  

The focus on internal improvement also builds on the Pistons greatest strength going into 2016-2017; team continuity.  The NBA’s latest collective bargaining agreement shortened the length of players’ contracts, and NBA agents over the past 3-4 years have encouraged their clients to work player options into their deals, so that they can take advantage of a constantly rising salary cap that resulted from a lucrative TV deal signed by the league a couple years ago.  Combine those two factors, and team chemistry has become endangered, with teams that have played longer together, developing their chemistry, regularly outperforming their preseason, projected win totals. (think of teams like the Memphis Grizzlies, San Antonio Spurs, and Toronto Raptors)

To the average fan, the Pistons had a ho-hum, almost boring summer.  Look around the Eastern Conference.  The Bulls signed Dwyane Wade AND Rajon Rondo (Wow!).  The Pacers traded for Jeff Teague and Thaddeus Young (Dang!).  Atlanta picked up Dwight Howard (Woah!). And Boston somehow got Al Horford to sign with them (Holy Crap!).  Yet, the Pistons, who had the cap space to make some big signings, are bringing back the same core they had last year.  Internal improvement is boring.  But, if recent NBA history is any indication, continuity will factor into the Pistons outperforming the “experts’ projections”.

Most Interesting Personality: Stan Van Gundy

As long as “Most Interesting Personality” is a category, Stan is going to be the one listed.  Whether Stan is urging his team to “Form a F---ing Wall”, speaking out on social injustice issues in our country, or restocking the talent pool in the Pistons’ deep, front office organizational chart, his actions are usually thoughtful and positive, leading to success.  This hasn’t always been the case.

You’ll remember that he was roasted by his own players in both Miami (Shaq) and Orlando (Howard).  You’ll remember that his boss fired him to take his job, because his boss didn’t believe that Stan was able to win at the highest level.  You’ll remember that it was Stan who, in retrospect, took a team of Howard and non-all stars to the NBA finals, beating Lebron when he was entering his peak years the first time around in Cleveland.  But even as his Orlando run was happening, he was criticized for giving Rashard Lewis too much money, for not getting the ball to Dwight enough, and for seeming to panic in spots because of his high energy demeanor on the sidelines.  

Back in 2014, the Warriors wanted Stan Van Gundy as their coach.  But, having been burnt too many times professionally in the past, Stan demanded a dual role as coach and president of basketball operations, basically ensuring that he would get to coach the team that he put together with some job security.  The Warriors balked at the offer, hired Steve Kerr instead, and shortly after won an NBA title and set the regular season record for wins.  Van Gundy got the deal he wanted in Detroit, but it meant starting with a lot less talent in a lot less attractive city to free agents.  So he started doing what he’s done at his other coaching stops: he put together a plan, and worked thanklessly to build something that other teams quickly became jealous of.  

Stan has taken his lumps, not just in his lower level positions, but in the NBA’s brightest spotlight.  And here he is now, at the age of 57, turning a dormant franchise into a team with deep playoff run aspirations in just over two years.  He’s spent the majority of his NBA coaching career being second guessed and underappreciated, but just 2 years into a 5 year deal, he’s on his way toward facing the demons of his coaching past, and bringing a young, talented core of hungry players with him.

Most Interesting Stat: 73/18.5

The Pistons did make one major move during the season last year, trading Ersan Ilyasova (and Brandon Jennings) to Orlando for Tobias Harris.  Harris replaced Ilyasova in the Detroit starting lineup, joining Jackson, Pope, Morris and Drummond.  

Before Ilyasova was traded, the starting 5 of Jackson/Pope/Morris/Ilyasova/Drummond averaged 19.1 minutes/game in the 48 games that the unit played together.  That number led the league in mpg for any 5-man unit.  After the trade happened, the Jackson/Pope/Morris/Harris/Drummond lineup averaged 18.5 minutes/game in the 25 games that they played together, which led the league in mpg for 5-man units over that stretch.

In total, last year the Pistons had two 5-man units that averaged at least 18.5 minutes per game over 73 games, a number that was WAY more than the next highest for 5-man unit mpg’s.  

If Detroit is relying on the internal improvement of the players to make their next jump in the standings, perhaps that belief comes from the idea that, not only will they get better, but they will understand each other’s games better.  

Most Interesting 5-man lineup: Jackson/Johnson/Harris/Leuer/Drummond

A lineup that isn’t expected to get much run, putting Johnson at the 2, and dropping Harris down to guard small forwards, this lineup would provide a little more shooting by adding Leuer to the mix, but would be what I would refer to as the “length and strength” lineup.  All five guys in this lineup would be above average rebounders for their positions, and all 5 would be longer than the average player at their position.  It’s definitely a lineup that would excel more in the halfcourt, while inserting Pope and Morris makes them more potent playing up and down.

A little extra...

When I was studying standup comedy in Charlotte in 2005, there was another comic there at the Comedy Zone named Joe Zimmerman.  Joe was a naturally funny guy who has actually gone on to succeed in the comedy world, cutting an album and having his own Comedy Central standup special a couple years ago.  When he first started, he told a joke about dating a girl that intimidated him because it seemed she had way more sexual experience than he did.  Finally, he worked up the courage and asked, "So how many guys have you been with, anyway?"  She thought for a second and then answered, "mmm...80...ish".  His next line was my favorite: "Damn! That's a big number for an 'ish'."  That joke has stayed with me for 12 years.

At 3:30am on July 1, Woj tweeted out that the Pistons had signed point guard Ish Smith to run their second unit.  As a lifelong Piston fan, I know that about 50 times this season, the broadcast will flash a stat that has to do with how Smith is playing, and every time, I'll say out loud, to no one in particular, "Damn! That's a big number for an Ish."  I'm sure I'll chuckle right after, and if anyone else is around, they'll look at me like I'm crazy.

Cheers to you, Joe.  Keep making people laugh.

Detroit’s projected 2016-2017 record: 47-35
 

Chicago Bulls

Most Interesting Storyline: Will ticket sales translate to wins?

For eight years, the Chicago Bulls had their poster boy.  He was a hometown kid, a borderline prodigy, who made heads turn both in high school and college.  He was a near can’t-miss prospect, and when the Bulls won the lottery in 2008, it was a match made in heaven to bring in Derrick Rose to be their franchise guy.  

For 4-5 years, Rose was breathtaking.  What Russell Westbrook is now, that’s what Derrick Rose was when he entered the league.  He had the rare athleticism and ball handling skills that allowed him to drive right into a defense, even when the defense was set up to stop Rose from driving to the basket, and dunk over whatever poor soul was standing closest to the rim.  Rose was so good that in year four, he won the regular season Most Valuable Player award, and led his team to the Eastern Conference Finals.  It was a year later, in Game 1 of the playoffs, that Rose ACL snapped on the way to the bucket, and from that moment on, the franchise has never been the same.

This summer, the Bulls brass decided it was time to move on from the hometown hero, and traded him for a couple nice players to the New York Knicks.  For a few days, it seemed as though the Bulls were going to be absent a homegrown talent, and would start to form their core around point guard, Rondo, looking for a new start, and a Jimmy Butler, the guy who, in actuality, the team already was built around.

But doors of opportunity open in weird places, and in mid-July, the Bulls found themselves in a place to be able to afford and obtain a hall-of-fame talent, albeit nearing the twilight of his career, former Heat guard Dwyane Wade.  And for a little extra sugar on top, there’s the convenient fact that Wade, much like Rose, had grown up in Chicago.  The hard-working, Midwestern baller, the prodigal son, had returned home, and Chicago once again has itself a hometown hero.

In the four weeks after the Wade signing, the Bulls ticket sales increased significantly compared to ticket sales at the same time last year.  Wade is a marquee name, and anyone who saw him in last year’s playoff run by the Miami Heat knows that Wade still has nights where he can bring his marquee game.  

But the acquisition of Wade, and Rondo, for that matter, begs the question: Hey, weren’t you guys rebuilding?  The Bulls new backcourt is north of 30, and both on short, two year deals with options after the first year.  There’s no guarantee that either of them will return next year, which is a weird energy to have around a team that has been pretty stable for a few years.  Young guys like Denzel Valentine, Bobby Portis, and Jerian Grant will now have to fight for scraps of playing time that seemed like it would be available after the Rose trade.  Perhaps the signing two veteran, former stars will provide a two mentors for the young guys still molding their professional game.  Or maybe, it stunts them.  Either way, there’ll be lots of work to do at training camp to assimilate these two unique talents.  Sure, the hometown hero is back in Chicago.  But did he bring his heroics with him?

Most Interesting Personality: Jimmy Butler

He’s an All Star shooting guard.  He’s an Olympic Gold Medalist.  He’s a guy who signed a max contract 13 months ago.  And he was set to become the face of the Chicago Bulls franchise.

Then, with almost no warning, the ponied up money to sign Wade away from the Miami Heat.  Now, Jimmy Butler is a small forward, and Wade’s picture is likely the one on the cover of the Chicago media guide.  If the ball is going to be in someone’s hands in a tight game spot, it would behoove the team to give it to Wade, since he’s a below average off-the-ball player (though he still can make some nice backdoor cuts, even at his age).  

There’s an enduring image from this summer’s Rio Olympics of the majority of the U.S. men’s bball team on the plane, belting out 1000 miles by Vanessa Carlton, Carmelo Anthony off to the side annoyed by the experience, and Butler is in the forefront, with some pretty rough vocals.  In the middle of his prime, Butler is likely to play a lot of second fiddle to his new backcourt mates, guarding bigger guys, while at the same time, likely covering on defense for two guys not known for staying in front of their man on the perimeter or hustling back after a turnover they committed.  In a year that should have been Butler’s coming out party as the Bulls’ alpha dog, I wouldn’t be shocked if Butler ACTUALLY had to run 1000 miles, and I doubt that he’ll be as happy about it this time.

Most Interesting Stat: 7.2

Chicago has a new starting backcourt, trading a broken down Rose to New York and moving Butler to small forward, and replacing them with past all-stars Rajon Rondo and Dwyane Wade.  That sentence, on its surface, sounds like a positive thing for Chicago.  There are questions about fit, about the ability for both to stay healthy, and how their additions will impact developing players like Denzel Valentine, Doug McDermott and Mirotic.

But the stat that is most ominous is Wade and Rondo’s combined turnovers last year.  Between the two of them, they averaged 7.2 turnovers per 36 minutes.  That is an exceptionally high turnover rate for two guys who will have the ball in their hands on the majority of Chicago’s possessions.  Factor that number in with both Wade and Rondo’s notoriously bad transition defense, and those turnovers may put the Bulls in a hole too deep to recover from on most nights.

Most Interesting 5-man lineup: Rondo/Wade/Butler/Mirotic/Gibson

I highly doubt this will be Chicago’s best 5-man unit.  For that, they will need one of either Denzel Valentine or Doug McDermott on the floor.  But having the perimeter full of playmakers is a fun wrinkle.  If you’re defending them, and you have one perimeter defender who struggles to stay in front of guys, Chicago can just pick on that guy with whoever he’s guarding.  The struggle for Chicago will be who the ball gets kicked out to in the case that there’s nothing available on the inside.  Both Mirotic and Gibson are good spot up shooters, with Gibson posting the best spot up numbers in the league last year.  

Rondo and Wade are also two of the most vocal complainers to the ref in the league.  Add that to the rest of the mix, and this lineup is as unpredictable/volatile as it is problematic for the defense.

Chicago’s projected 2016-2017 record: 41-41
 

Milwaukee Bucks

Most Interesting Storyline: Can Jason Kidd exploit the NBA’s market inefficiencies?

The NBA seems to be going a direction.  If you watched the playoffs last year, a couple things stood out on nearly every team:  A point guard that can break down the defense, a lot of “small-ball” minutes, where teams would go with one big man, or even at times, zero big men, in their lineup, and a record-breaking number of threes taken over the course of the four playoff rounds.  

But when Jason Kidd took over the Nets, and then the Bucks, a couple things stood out about his coaching.  First, his point guard, much like Kidd as a point guard, was urged to be general on the floor, as opposed to an attacker.  This could’ve been because that’s what the personnel dictated, but it’s at least coincidental that this matches Kidd’s style from his playing days.  Second, Kidd gravitated toward long lineups.  Both in Brooklyn and in Milwaukee, Kidd loved to play a combo of guys that almost mirrored the lineups that Jim Boeheim likes to put out in coaching at Syracuse: 5 guys with long arms, coached to drop back into passing lanes and make it nearly impossible for the other team’s offense to get into a flow.  In Milwaukee, Kidd is blessed with a couple gems in this respect, with Michael Carter Williams, Khris Middleton, Giannis Antetokounmpo playing like three octopi at the top of the key, making life hell for opposing guards.  

Kidd’s system has promise, as it values certain defensive principles that have had defensive success in Kidd’s last couple of years coaching.  However, the personnel that works best for this system in Milwaukee makes for a really bad offense on the other end.  The Bucks have added a couple players in the offseason, Matthew Dellavedova and Mirza Teletovic, that hopefully will continue the defensive foundation that Kidd has laid in Milwaukee, while also improving the halfcourt offense.  Delly, in particular is an interesting add, as he’s looked great in some sequences, including the Cavs playoff run two years ago, and this year’s Olympics with Australia.  But at other times, with Cavs, Delly has looked like a minus at the point guard position.  

So Coach Kidd has assembled an array of NBA misfits, to an extent (we haven’t even mentioned Greg Monroe, Jabari Parker, and Michael Beasley).  But perhaps Kidd, like Billy Beane portrayed in Moneyball, can gather this strange collection of market inefficiencies to cobble together a playoff level basketball team.  If he does it, it won’t because he followed the trends of today’s NBA.  He’ll have done it his way.

Most Interesting Personality: Jabari Parker

NBA life can be difficult when you have to miss your first year due to injury.  Ask Blake Griffin (who bounced pretty well) or Joel Embiid (we’ll see).  For Jabari Parker, it was already going to be difficult.  There were questions about what positions he would end up playing in the pros, after Coach K played him all over the place, including center, in his year at Duke.  Just as he was getting acclimated to NBA life and the NBA game, 25 games into his rookie year, Jabari went down with a torn ACL, and just like that, his year one was gone.

During his absence, something strange happened: another young guy on his team emerged, Giannis Antetokounmpo.  Jabari had been mentioned as a small forward part-time, but with Giannis in the mix, Jabari would be pushed almost exclusively to power forward when he returned.  Giannis just signed a 4 year/$100 million extension last week, and with the Bucks making recent big money commitments to guys like Teletovic, Monroe, and John Henson, and the drafting of athletic phenom Thon Maker, the big man rotation should be fairly tight.  

Now look at the numbers for Jabari last year.  He got nearly 32 mpg, but averaged just 5.5 rebounds/game, way below average for a starting power forward.  Jabari has always been considered a minus defender, all the way back from his time at Duke, and his per minute numbers for blocks and charges taken are embarrassingly low for a power forward.  On a team that regularly plays Michael Carter Williams and Giannis, it would be helpful to have a power forward that has some shooting range, but Parker is not a willing shooter outside 16’-18’.

Frankly, if Jabari could pick his own team, I highly doubt this is the team he’d want to be on.  It’s not totally his fault, but he’s a bad fit on a below average team, fighting for minutes, after missing out on crucial developmental playing time his rookie year, because of the ACL.  The Bucks have to hope that Parker has developed into much more than he showed last year, which is why he’s the most interesting Buck to watch this season.

Most Interesting Stat: 29.3

With the injury to Middleton last week, the stat that seemed interesting/pertinent was the outside shooting percentage of the guys coming back from last year.  Of the six returning Bucks rotation players, not counting Middleton, The player with the best 3pt shooting percentage was Rashad Vaughn, who shot a meager 29.3%.  

That, plus Middleton’s injury, is what makes the acquisitions performances of Dellavedova and Teletovic so important.  If those two new guys don’t perform from outside, there’ll be no room for Giannis, Parker, or Monroe to operate.

Most Interesting 5-man lineup: Dellavedova/Beasley/Giannis/Teletovic/Henson

Kidd loves putting out lineups that irritate the other team in the halfcourt, shutting down nearly every passing lane.  The combo of Delly and Giannis is going to wreak all kinds of havoc this year, and along with Henson on the backline, with his fairly quick hands, this five could end up having one of the highest live-ball turnover rates in the league.  Add in the the only three shooters the Bucks have on their roster, and you may have a 5 man unit that could be a menace in short bursts, perhaps outscoring them by 4-5 points per 100 possessions

Milwaukee’s projected 2016-2017 record: 33-49

 

The Gigantic, Enormous, Ginormous, 1st Annual NBA Season Preview: ATLANTIC DIVISION

We are 94 days to Christmas.  

We are 63 days to Thanksgiving

And we are 33 days to the opening of the 2016-17 NBA season!

So, without wasting your time, let me present to you:

The First Annual, Greg-Martin.com, NBA Season Preview.  

I’ll be posting the preview in 6 parts; with the Atlantic division today, and the other five divisions over the next week or two.  Each team will be broken down, analyzing their most interesting storyline, most interesting personality, most interesting stat, most interesting lineup, and projected record for the upcoming year.  I may even throw in some extra stuff on a few of the teams.  And if there are a couple teams you find boring, that you want to skip over...that’s ok; I had a couple teams I wanted to skip over, too.  Enjoy, and feel free to criticize...that’s what the internet is for, right?

Atlantic Division

Toronto Raptors

Most Interesting Storyline:  Has Toronto peaked?

34, 48, 49, 56.  That’s the progression of wins, per year, for the Raptors since the 2012-13 season, and that upward trend is, not coincidentally, since the hiring of GM Masai Ujiri.  Ujiri was known as a shrewd dealmaker from his time at the Denver Nuggets, who, also not coincidentally, topped out with a mid-50’s win total in their most successful, and last, season under Masai.  But that last season was the last in the upper echelon of the Western Conference for the Nuggets, and while this team is still mostly in place, it seems that this Raptors team may be in for a similar fate, barring any major moves.

In the offseason, the team locked up Demar Derozan to an eye-popping, 5 year, $139 million deal.  The deal was eye popping for a couple of reasons; because Derozan has an obvious handicap to his game (He’s a below average outside shooter), and because the last two years of the deal, Derozan will be in his 30’s, typically the age where players are starting their post-prime.  But Toronto was between a rock and a hard place...they couldn’t afford to NOT pay him, risking losing a centerpiece of a top-2 Eastern Conference team for nothing.  

Aside from locking up one of the two centerpieces to their team, Toronto had a couple noteworthy moves, including letting walk their rim protector off the bench and playoff spark plug, Bismack Biyombo, and replacing him with a relatively bargain bin signing, Jared Sullinger, formerly of the Boston Celtics.  Sullinger’s Defensive Win Shares from last year were surprisingly impressive, but he’s nowhere near the rim protector that Biyombo was.  But also noteworthy for Toronto was a move they didn’t make, which was a trade that would have sent a package of players/picks to Oklahoma City for Serge Ibaka.  Power Forward is the Raptor’s achilles heel, where they’ll either try to make due with a replacement-level player like Patrick Patterson, or go small in situations, while letting Demarre Carroll handle the bigger players.  

So, while continuity is a good thing, the Raptors have two-fifths of their starters this year, Kyle Lowry and Carroll, going into this season over the age of thirty.  With teams improving around them, and some of their depth gone up front, it’s fair to ask what’s on everyone’s mind: has this team peaked?

Most Interesting Personality: Kyle Lowry

Two summers ago, Lowry was a free agent, all-star point guard, and because the salary cap was relatively stable, there weren’t many teams bidding for his services.  He ended up signing what was, at the time, a very fair, 4 year, $48 million deal to stay with the Raptors, and has since been the leader of their ascendance to the top of the Eastern Conference.  

But a couple things have happened since Lowry signed his deal.  First, the NBA Salary Cap jumped by almost 50% in two years, and even though Lowry is a multiple time all-star and Olympic gold medalist, backups were getting contract offers the same size as his deal this summer.  By the time his current contract is up, Lowry will be turning 32, and likely won’t be getting near the money he would’ve gotten had he been a free agent this summer.  Second, though the Raptors went into free agency in 2015 and were able to sign a new starting small forward, Demarre Carroll, they didn’t really make any in-roads improving the team this summer, and infamously turned down the Serge Ibaka deal that was reportedly on the table for more than a hot second.

So you’ve got an underpaid, late-prime point guard, who has been notoriously prickly earlier in his NBA career, living in the coldest city in the NBA, on a team where he has to share ball handling responsibilities with his younger, better paid backcourt mate, Derozan, and a team that hasn’t improved itself on paper in the offseason.  For my money, Lowry is the personality to watch on this Raptors team.  Can he raise the level of his game even higher, and bring the team with him, or could the fabric of the team unravel from the seeds of Lowry’s discontent?

Most interesting Stat: 26.7

Last year’s Raptors team led the Eastern Conference with 26.7 free throw attempts per game, third overall in the NBA.  Because of the games of both Lowry and Derozan, who relentlessly work to drive to the basket, and the impressive offensive rebounding chops of their two centers, Biyombo and Jonas Valanciunas, their games took a little bit longer with the free throw stoppages.  But those free throws were a major factor in the Raptors outperforming their metrics, with their actual record much better than their season point differential.  They will need to continue their march to the free throw line if they hope for another first-round playoff series with home court advantage.

Most Interesting 5-man Lineup: Lowry/Derozan/Terrence Ross/Carroll/Valanciunas

This is a lineup I expect to see often from the Raptors.  I like the idea of Carroll as a small ball 4, with Ross, and his length, at least on paper, being able to bother frontcourt players on defense, and then allowing for two the forwards to spot up while Lowry/Derozan bully their way into the paint.  Sub in Cory Joseph for either of guards, and the concept still works.

A little extra…

A few weeks back, I was driving for uber, and got a call from the Palace of Auburn Hills, just a ten minute drive from my place.  When I arrived, I saw a ton of commotion in the parking lot, and the guy that jumped in directed me to run to the store, and asked that I wait outside so that I could bring him back.  Early into the ride, I learned that my rider was, in fact, the tour manager for the show to play at the Palace that night; Drake & Future.  He said he called uber because he needed to get away from the insanity for a little bit...they had just gotten to the Palace late that morning after a show the night before at the United Center in Chicago.  

He shared a couple interesting anecdotes from the tour during our ride, but the one that stuck out to me was the economics of a single show.  “Just from last night’s show, the tour made a tick over $4 million”, he bragged.  “After paying the vendors there in Chicago, I’d say the tour made about $2.4 million, and Drake, himself, after paying everyone else on the tour, will pull in around $1.5 million just from last night.”  My bottom jaw was in my lap.  “So how many shows are on this tour?” I asked.  “Just 40”, he said.  The words “One point five million” echoed in my head.  That’s a nest egg for retirement...I’d be perfectly happy to hang everything up and live off of the interest of that nest egg the rest of my life...and Mr. Degrassi made that by performing 90 minutes of bad music.  

So if you’re wondering, those Raptors courtside seats fit in Drake’s budget pretty easily.

Toronto’s projected 2016-17 record: 52-30

 

Boston Celtics

Most Interesting Storyline: Is Ainge still wishing for a “star”?

The offseason was pretty good to the Boston Celtics.  They were able to get the third pick in the 2016 draft, and used in on super-athlete Jaylen Brown (though there was plenty of backlash from Celtic fans for not taking point guard Kris Dunn).  Boston was then able to land the second most sought after free agent on the market, big man Al Horford, luring him away from the Atlanta Hawks with a 4 year, $113 million deal, the promise of a young nucleus on the uptick, and one of the most respected young coaches in the game.  Without a doubt, this Boston team will be improved on both ends of the court.

But it’s well known across the league that Boston’s GM, Danny Ainge, has always wanted to catch a star.  He was able to nab “the Big Three” a decade ago, which led to an NBA title and many other deep playoff runs.  Ten years later, Ainge has a very deep team (there are multiple players on the team that were high draft picks, but won’t see playing time).  He also has multiple upcoming 1st round picks from a huge trade made three years ago with the Brooklyn Nets.  He could put together many variations of a package of attractive assets to other teams if he wanted to try to bring back another high profile star to his Celtics roster.  And even though this team is on the rise, with career years last year from guys like Isaiah Thomas, Avery Bradley, and Jae Crowder, Ainge’s name keeps coming up in trade rumors for other big name guys in the league.  

One underrated downside this summer was the team losing their secondary creator on offense, Evan Turner.  Portland made a huge, 4 year, $70 million offer to the swingman, and Boston was wise to let Turner walk.  With their depth and youth, they didn’t need to start locking up bench guys at that price, especially if they’ve got their eye on other moves.  But losing out on Turner will hurt the team initially. Boston has impressive, athletic guys around the perimeter, including guys that haven’t already mentioned here, like Marcus Smart or RJ Hunter, but other than Thomas, no one else excels at initiating the offense like Turner did.  Horford may help with some of that, but there’ll be some growing pains with their secondary units.

So with a deep, talented team, and big expectations for the year, there’s still a chance that one more big move is in the sights of Danny Ainge.  Either way, Boston will be a serious challenge to Toronto in the Atlantic, and a favorite to host a first round playoff series in the East.

Most Interesting Personality: Marcus Smart

Marcus Smart was the 6th pick in the 2014 NBA Draft, and was initially projected to go higher.  With impressive athleticism and incredible work ethic, scouts didn’t worry as much about Smart’s shaky jumper or his sometimes questionable decision making on the court.  What did raise an eyebrow with many was a confrontation in the stands his final year at Oklahoma State.  After diving into the crowd on a hustle play, he was confronted by a fan that was yapping in Marcus’s face.  Even though there was debate afterward over what the fan might have said, it was inexcusable that Smart shoved the fan in the heat of the moment.  Smart was suspended for the incident, which led to many pre-draft discussions about his “character”.  (Sidenote: I hate “character” discussions...99% of the time they seem like sportstalk filler where the athlete is put on trial with a small fraction of evidence).  

Going into his 3rd year now, Smart has shown flashes of promise, but his shooting has not improved in two years.  And while he can handle the ball ok, it doesn’t seem as though he’ll ever be a lead guard in an NBA offense.  He also has vets like Bradley and Crowder ahead of him on the depth chart, along with newcomer Brown, who could also eat into his minutes.  Smart could be eligible for a contract extension next summer, and he faces a season where his time on the court could actually go down.  So, combine a tight Celts rotation, a potential upcoming payday, and a fiery competitive spirit, and Smart is the personality to watch this year for Boston.

Most Interesting Stat: 4.5

Al Horford was 9th in the NBA last year with 4.5 Defensive Win Shares.  That is a major improvement over Jared Sullinger, Kelly Olynyk, and Tyler Zeller, three guys whose minutes Horford will take from last year. So I’ll make this prediction now: Boston will have the best defensive metrics in the NBA this year, thanks to Horford’s addition.  

Most Interesting 5-man Lineup: Thomas/Bradley/Crowder/Amir Johnson/Horford

Say hello to Boston’s “vice grip” lineup.  Those five will be as good of a 5-man defensive unit as there is in the league this year, and if they really wanted to get nasty, they could substitute Smart for Thomas in spot minutes.  

A little extra…

A friend of mine is a coach at a small college in the Midwest.  When you’re coaching in that situation, you know everyone else in the coaching world from conferences, camps, and recruiting trips.  Because of that, about 10 years ago, he became acquaintances with Brad Stevens while Stevens was at Buter...not close friends, mind you, just coaching acquaintances.  The first year that Butler made it to NCAA championship game and lost to Duke by a point, my friend shot Stevens an email telling him congrats, and how impressed he was in the work that Stevens had done with his team over that year.  Stevens responded with a heartfelt, thank you email 12 minutes later.  

A year later, Butler made the NCAA finals again, unheard of for such a small school.  This time, they lost to UConn in the finals, and again, my friend sent Stevens a congrats via email, and again, Stevens responded with a thoughtful thank you, this time 9 minutes after the original email was sent.

It then came time when the Boston Celtics shocked the NBA world by not hiring an assistant NBA coach for their head coaching vacancy, but instead, dipped into the Horizon League in college, a mid-major school, and hired Stevens to be the head coach of the NBA’s most storied franchise.  My friend, a third time, sent a congratulatory email to Stevens for such an amazing accomplishment.  You guessed it...11 minutes later, Stevens responded with a heartfelt thank you, and encouraged my friend for all the hard work he’d been doing at his small school.  

There are certain guys in sports you root for just because they have incredible integrity.  They treat everyone the same, don’t have a negative thing to say, and work their tail off to be their best.  Stevens is one of those guys.

Boston’s projected 2016-2017 record: 49-33


New York Knicks

Most Interesting Storyline: Is this how it ends for Melo?

Carmelo Anthony is a 4 time Olympian.  He is a 3 time gold medalist.  He is an NCAA champion from his one year at Syracuse University.  He’s been celebrated since his first year in the NBA with Denver Nuggets, and always compared to his peers, Lebron James and Dwyane Wade.  But in year 14 of Carmelo’s NBA career, there is one thing that haunts him, much like Karl Malone from the generation before him; he has never won an NBA championship.  Lebron has 3, Kobe had won 5, and even guys like Dirk Nowitzki and Paul Pierce won one.  But Carmelo’s ring count rests at zero...but there’s always hope.

A championship seemed like it was in the cards for Melo from the moment he was drafted.  He was supposed to be dominant.  And he was, occasionally.  But over the course of his career, he let other interests take up his time.  Maybe those interests didn’t cut into his basketball training at all, but in the fans’ eyes, they did.  Because, to the people that rooted for him, it seemed like he was trying to be a basketball player “plus”.  Sometimes the “plus” was a business venture, sometimes “plus” was a celeb, and most recently, “plus” has been an activist.  People can be more than one thing...typically they are.  But when you fall short of your expectations in one area, the “plus”s can be seen as a reason why by those who don’t know you...but there’s always hope.

So the Melo fans, most of whom are also Knicks fans, are conflicted.  Going into this year, Melo has very little time left in the NBA.  He could go the Duncan/Dirk route, and tack a couple unsuspected, high level years onto the end of his career.  But typically, for most NBA stars, the mid-30’s is where it ends.  The Knicks have a made a couple, ill-conceived attempts to try to build the team around Melo this year.  They made a trade for a former NBA MVP, Derrick Rose.  But Rose hasn’t looked like an all star in half a decade.  They signed a once dominant, defensive center in Joakim Noah, but Noah played a third of last season, limited by seemingly-chronic injuries.  They signed one time a starting point guard in Brandon Jennings, less than 18 months after Jennings’ achilles tendon burst.  And they have a second year phenom big man in Kristaps Porzingis, who, at this point, looks to be more potential than reality...but there’s always hope.

So the fans are back to Melo.  32 years old, they’ve been together for 7 years.  But without much help around him, and having seen this show before, his fans are tired.  It seems like Melo is tired too.  Could this be how the NBA ends for him?  Playing out his contract, being the marquee name on road games, giving superhuman efforts from time to time, but inevitably, falling short of what was expected of him when he was drafted 13 years ago.

It seems to be destined that Melo will be thought to be a tragic NBA figure...but, well, you know…

Most Interesting Personality: Derrick Rose

Derrick Rose was, once upon a time, the pride of the NBA.  Playing in his hometown, there wasn’t a fanbase that loved a player more than the Bulls fans loved Rose.  But multiple surgeries later, the franchise traded Rose for spare parts in an effort to move on.  They traded him to the highest profile franchise in the league, at the same time that Rose is involved in a legal battle involving a sexual assault accusation.  (BTW, avoid the transcripts from the case on google...you’ll feel better about your day).  

Is it possible that Rose regains the form that made him so celebrated? Probably not.  Do we know how he’ll react when he’s not coddled by a community that thought of him as their own?  Not really.  But redemption stories are my favorite kind of story, so I’m eager to watch the saga of New York point guard Derrick Rose unfold.

Most Interesting Stat: 22.2%

Carmelo Anthony spent 22.2% of his possessions last year on postups. He was one of only two NBA players not listed as either a power forward or center to be in the top 50 in the league in % of postup possessions (Shaun Livingston, 6’7” point guard of Golden State, was the other). On the block posting up is where Carmelo excels.  It seems he’s best suited, in these last couple years, to be a small ball, power forward.  Yet, in constructing the roster, the Knicks seemed hell bent on making sure that Carmelo continued to play small forward, investing $72 million in Joakim Noah to play center, which bumps Porzingis down to play power forward.  The Knicks know what they have and chose to go with a system of play over playing to the strengths of their guys (or at least their most important guy).  

Most Interesting Lineup: Rose/Courtney Lee/Lance Thomas/Melo/Porzingis

Because of their stubbornness, I expect that this lineup will see less than 5 minutes per game, but this lineup would allow for flexibility, and put Porzingis in the best position to take advantage of slow-footed centers on the other team.  If my team was playing New York, and this was who was on the floor, it would give me more reasons to be anxious.  

New York’s projected 2016-2017 record: 36-46


Brooklyn Nets

Most Interesting Storyline: Can Sean Marks master Thrift Shopping?

The truth about our world, about our economy, is that some people bargain-shop because they enjoy it.  They get more joy with every good bargain they can find. To these shoppers, bargain shopping is a bit of a game.  But some people bargain-shop because they have to.  Life has dealt them a difficult hand to play, and their livelihood and their family’s livelihood depend on their ability to find the right bargains.  If they don’t find bargains, they don’t live...it’s that simple.

The San Antonio Spurs, in sports terms, have thrived at being bargain shoppers.  The Spurs took the 28th pick in the 2001 draft, plucked up a speedy point guard from across the Atlantic Ocean, and turned him into future Hall-of-Famer Tony Parker.  They scooped up a South American guard that played like the Tazmanian devil with the 57th pick in the 2nd round of the 1999 draft, and nearly 20 years later we’re watching the final season of trailblazing and universally beloved guard Manu Ginobili.  Just 5 years ago, they traded a backup guard for the 15th pick in the draft, and that pick ended up being the current cornerstone of their franchise and all star Kawhi Leonard.

The Spurs were bargain shoppers because they enjoyed it.  They were already successful, but kept finding bargains.  The Brooklyn Nets are in a position right now where they HAVE TO be bargain shoppers.  So when the position of head shopper opened up in their organization, of course they hired a guy from the best bargain-shopping organization in the league, Sean Marks.

The Nets are void of much talent up and down their roster, and their draft pick situation is in shambles.  So last summer was the first one where they put the new bargain shopper in charge, and here were some of their results:  

They traded a decent vet, Thaddeus Young, for a mid-first round pick, and got a guy, Caris Levert, that would’ve been much higher on most draft boards had it not been for health scares. Fortunately for the Nets, their team doctor was the one who had operated on Levert in the first place, and gave good reviews.

The Nets signed Jeremy Lin to be their starting point guard.  Lin has bounced around the league since he emerged as a legitimate force in, guess where, New York, where he, you guessed it, was a starting point guard.

Marks tried signing other young guys with upside, each time missing out when the original teams of those guys matched their offers.  But Marks is trying, and he’ll give opportunities to guys that may not get opportunities elsewhere.  He’ll invest energy in areas where other teams might not, because that’s what bargain shoppers do.  As the season goes on, and the ones after it, Marks bargain shopping will begin to be judged.  The Nets are banking on Marks ability to clip coupons, scan flea markets, and find the best deals.  They're hoping that, if he succeeds, they’ll get back to being able to thrift shop again because they WANT TO, and not because they HAVE TO.

Most Interesting Personality: Jeremy Lin

Do you remember Linsanity?  The Nets do.  New coach, Kenny Atkinson, is known as a great teacher/instructor, and is in need of cerebral point guard on the floor as he tries to mold young guys like Levert, Rondae Hollis Jefferson, Joe Harris, and Justin Hamilton.  Enter Lin, the Harvard ball-handler who has taken just enough lumps in the last 5 years to be considered a trusted vet.  

But with his place on the team as a statesman/floor general, there will be days of magic.  Sure, Lin will go 4/15 with 4 turnovers a time or two over the course of the year.  But there will be games where he slices through the lane like he did just a few years ago.  There will be games where he’ll finish at the rim time and time again, completing a handful of and-1’s.  He might even single-handedly win a game or two for the Nets.

Do you remember Linsanity? It’s rare in sports when success comes from a place that NO ONE saw coming, and that’s what happened with Jeremy Lin on the Knicks.  And when it did, it was must-see television.  I remember watching a game against the Raptors where he hit a 3 from the top of the key at the buzzer to win the game, and he just turned and looked at the camera blankly, almost like he was saying, “I’m the one doing this, and even I have no idea how i should feel about this.”  

On a mostly boring team, I’ll check in every once in a while, just to see if a hint of Linsanity still exists.

Most Interesting Stat: 3

Three.  That’s how many years the Nets have before they can draft with their own 1st round pick again...2019.  First round picks are how you build talent in the NBA, and the Nets just don’t have them.

Most Interesting 5-man Lineup: Lin/Levert/Bojan Bogdanovic/Trevor Booker/Brooke Lopez

There’s not much to this.  Levert has the most upside on the team.  Bojan showed some flashes in the Olympics.  Lopez has proven to be a reliable, 20ppg scorer over his career, and Lin is Lin.  In trying to put together the most interesting lineup, the cupboard is pretty bare.

A little more…

I believe in sports curses.  I believe in sports karma.  Maybe not the “greater forces” part of curses, but I definitely believe the psychological side of it, as in, the longer it takes you to break through some barrier, the more freaked out/anxious you will get each time you get close to that barrier.  I believe it’s in the Cubs' heads each time they get close to success.  And because it’s in their head, they are more likely to make a mistake at a key moment.

I believe the Nets are cursed.  Success isn’t easy for anyone, and there’s no quick shortcut to it, especially in sports.  In 2013, the Nets tried to rush success.  They approached the Celtics, and basically said, “you have a good team, and we want your team.  We’ll give you any current and future assets we can to make that happen.” So, in the blink of an eye, the Nets traded for two hall-of-famers, both near the end of their careers, and they gave away, basically, their future.  They traded all of the 1st round picks they had that they were legally allowed to trade, and Boston said yes without blinking.  Boston was willing to rebuild the hard way after trading Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett, while the Nets were trying to cheat the process and be good right away.  And in that moment, when they traded future success for instant gratification, they put a curse on themselves.  Billy King, the orchestrater of that trade, did far more permanent and psychological damage to the Nets franchise than any edict handed down by the commissioner could have.  

And so, three years old, I believe the curse of Pierce and Garnett has a stranglehold on the Nets franchise.  Because, just like love, you can’t hurry success.  You just have to wait...It will be decades before the curse is lifted.

Brooklyn’s projected 2016-2017 record: 22-60


Philadelphia 76ers

Most Interesting Storyline: Can Brett Brown coach?

When Philadephia started their long rebuilding project a couple years ago, they did a fairly excessive job at cleaning house/turning over the roster.  Gone was any semblance of a veteran presence, instead replaced by an large number of 2nd round picks, undrafted free agents, and longshots.  As they cleaned house, they also cleaned out the coaching staff.  I remember watching it all transpire, and thinking to myself, “I know it’s the NBA, but who would want to take THAT job?  You’re basically coaching a minor league team.”  

The Sixers did what many franchises have done before them in an employee search; they looked at other successful franchises, and cherry picked one of the longstanding employees from one of those franchises, hoping that the institutional wisdom and quality processes would come with the person they hire.  They surveyed the landscape, found an assistant coach ready for the next challenge, and hired Brett Brown from the Spurs.

For two years, Brown has been the overseer of a team that nearly set records in two straight years, reaching historical records of losing.  But there was almost no one in the NBA landscape, media or otherwise, willing to place the blame at Brown’s feet.  What the heck was he supposed to do with TJ Mcconnell as his point guard?  How could it possibly help if he could get Jerami Grant to improve his outside shot?  Even last year, when the Sixers brought veteran coach Mike D’antoni to be his assistant midseason, there isn’t anyone who thought it could help the team’s bottom line.  Hell, put Phil Jackson, Red Auerbach, and Pat Riley on the bench; that team was not going to put up wins.

But in year three, the Sixers finally have the makings of some pieces.  A couple years after being drafted, Dario Saric is making his way over to join the team (and he looked pretty stout in his Olympic experience).  In theory, the team should finally have healthy the three bigs they drafted in the three lotteries before this one: Nerlens Noel, Jahill Okafor, and Joel Embiid.  The team also signed a couple point guard free agents who, at the least, should be interesting with their range, in Jerryd Bayless (43% from 3 last year) and Spaniard Sergio Rodriguez (known for his scoring streaks).  Finally, the Sixers seem to have struck gold by winning the draft lottery and striking it rich with number one pick Ben Simmons, who has quickly drawn praise around the league for his once-in-a-generation passing ability, unheard of in a small forward.  

So, for Coach Brown, this is the season for him to start showing his value.  He sat through a raging dumpster fire for two straight seasons, and there wasn’t one person who claimed he was the arsonist.  But in year three, with some pieces in place and a new boss at the helm, Brown needs to show off some of the chops that got him the head coaching gig in the first place, or perhaps, Philly’s front office will start to look for a better fireman.

Most Interesting Personality: Joel Embiid

This one can be quick.  Embiid is interesting because he's the unknown.  Hyperactive on social media, loaded with potential when he was a draft prospect, Embiid has yet to play one NBA minute in two years because of injury.  This was a possibility, even when he was picked 3rd overall by the Sixers, and it was a possibility as there was real talk about Embiid being the number one overall pick during workouts.  It seems that his fate rests somewhere between Greg oden and David Robinson.  The Sixers are hoping for the second, but with every physical setback, and every day another young big jumps him on the depth chart, it's looking more and more likely that it will end up being the first.  

Most Interesting Stat: 6

6 is the number of career playoff starts the entire Sixers had in total (2 for Bayless, 4 for Gerald Henderson), before signing octogenarian Elton Brand to be the 17th man on their roster.  This team is GREEN with a capital GREEN.  

Most Interesting 5-man lineup: Simmons/Stauskus/Covington/Saric/Noel

A move that is fun is when a team has a player who runs the offense who's not the point guard (Think Grant Hill, Giannis Antetokounmpo, or Lebron James), so they just decide to play without a point guard, period.  With Simmons, the Sixers have the opportunity to do this, by putting the appearance of shooters around him in Nik Stauskus, Robert Covington, and Dario Saric, and then taking advantage of the extra length on the defensive end.  With so few 5-man units familiar with one another on their roster, I can see Coach Brown taking a shot with these five on the floor.

A little more:

Sam Hinkie was the world’s most annoying Uno player.  In Uno, it’s most fun to be the player that has a bunch of weird crap in their hand.  You don’t want all colored numbers.  You want a couple skips, maybe a reverse, a Wild Card or two, and maybe even some Draw Two’s or Draw Four’s.  When your hand looks like that, you’re unpredictable, and none of the other players know when you’re going to strike.  

In as much as it was possible, Sam Hinkie was running the Philadelphia 76ers by holding/hoarding all of the good cards.  As teams around him in the league got their hands down to three cards, two cards, or even sometimes calling Uno, Hinkie would never use any of the Wild Cards in his hand.  At any point he could have laid one down, whether that was in the form of a trade, a max contract offer, or a dozen other wily maneuvers.  But he never did it.  He just kept drawing cards, having the craziest looking hand in the history of Uno.  Sometimes, he could barely hold it all with one hand.  But he never used them.

Now imagine you’re Bryan Colangelo.  Someone just kicked Hinkie out of the game for hoarding all of the good cards, and you’ve been put in his place at the table with the hand he left you.  Do you make everyone Draw Four in the first five minutes?  Do you Skip the person after you repeatedly until he wants to quit the game too?  If you’re Colangelo, you have SO many options.

He played a couple of his Wild Cards during his first summer at the table.  He picked one of the most heralded number one overall picks in the last decade in Simmons.  He offered a near-retirement Manu Ginobili a ridiculous, above market contract, just so his team of 15 years had to match it to keep him.  He got Saric to finally come west to join the team he’d avoided since he’d been drafted in ‘14.  

I don’t know if Colangelo is going to win this game of Uno, but if he does, he’ll owe Hinkie for leaving him the craziest Uno hand anyone has ever had.  And even if he doesn’t eventually win the game, he’s definitely the one at the table worth watching.

Philadelphia’s projected 2016-2017 record: 18-64

Uber rider of the month, September 2016

We were sad of getting old, it made us restless. It was just like a movie. It was just like a song, when we were young.  -Adele

Jerry and Kim called for a ride shortly after the concert was over.  If you've been outside the Palace of Auburn Hills after a show, you know that it's a gridlock similar to NYC rush hour.  So I told them their best shot was to walk to where I was, rather than me trying to drive into an all-exit parking lot.  So after they hoofed it halfway around the arena, Jerry and Kim slid into the backseat, ready to be back to their hotel.

After the great show that Adele had put on, both Jerry and Kim were on a bit of a high, the kind of high that only great musical performances can take you to.  "Was it the best concert you two have ever attended?" I asked.  Jerry raised the stakes a little with his answer; "Well, it's the best year we've ever had."

"I was so scared to face my fears
Nobody told me that you'd be here"

Jerry and Kim retired less than a year ago at the age of 58, 36 years after they married each other.  "36 years is a long time, but we feel very lucky that we've made it to where we are now."  The two of them were very open about the fact that, 23 years into their marriage, their relationship was on the rocks.  Both Kim and Jerry were phased out of their jobs at the age of 45, and the strain of their professional lives spilled over into their personal lives.  "There was a year and a half where I was certain that she was going to leave me." Jerry recalled.  Kim chimed in; "...I'm pretty sure I felt the same thing about him at the time."  

With a big chunk of their lives invested in a career that no longer existed, and no real obvious road map in front of them, Jerry and Kim started a small business to provide resources to the education system in southern Ohio.  "Going out on our own on that business venture, together, really made me fall back in love with him," Kim confessed.  The two of them hadn't worked together in the past, and the process of trying to start something from nothing, professionally, allowed them to see sides of each other they hadn't seen in 23 years of marriage together, to that point.

"'Cause I've been by myself all night long
Hoping you're someone I used to know"

So, after 13 years of growing the business they started together, Jerry and Kim sold the business, and dove headfirst into retirement. Jerry explained the manifesto for their new lifestage: "For this first year of retirement, we made a decision: Let's do everything we wanted to do.  When the year's over, we'll reevaluate and see if we need to work a little more. But for now, let's live like we're embarrassingly in love." Here's what that looked like: Jerry bought a Harley Davidson, and in less than year, he and Kim had put more than 13,000 miles on it.  In that time, the two of them had been to 23 different major concerts, as they've both always been music lovers.  "Who have you seen in that year," I asked.  Jerry quickly started to rattle off the list. "Let's see, we saw Stevie Wonder at Madison Square Garden.  We saw Paul McCartney. We saw Billy Joel.  We saw Journey and the Doobie Brothers.  We saw Beyonce.  We saw Kenny Chesney..."  The list came so fast, and was so full, I could barely keep up.  

Kim chimed in with my favorite comment of the night. "This last year, it's like Jerry and I have been dating again.  On the bike, I have three jobs; I'm the navigator, I keep an eye out for good restaurants, and I'm responsible for flipping off the bad drivers.  It's like we're back to being 21, and just loving every minute we get, whether it's burning up highway around the country, or singing along with songs we know."  

I dropped the two of them off at their hotel. As we parted ways, Jerry left me some parting wisdom.  Stepping out of the car, Jerry said, "Have a good night, but remember not to put off the good parts of life."  From there, the two of them smiled at each other as they went through the revolving door at the lobby and inside for the night.

So I'll keep this short and sweet: Do me a favor and raise your glasses...to Jerry and Kim, to finding young love, no matter your age.  Cheers!

We were sad of getting old, it made us restless. It was just like a movie. It was just like a song, when we were young

 

A Letter to Emmy the Day before Kindergarten

Dear Emmy,

I know we've only known each other for a year, but I think it's fair to say that we're friends. Ever since your auntie Ella and I started dating, you've been a regular part of my life. (In fact, you don't know this, but the first photo your auntie ever texted me was you and her at the Kelly Clarkson concert, and you had your tongue out, colored completely blue from cotton candy) When we first met in person last September, you immediately started explaining all of the coloring book art on your kitchen walls, which took about 20 minutes.

So let's just say I'm invested in your life.  We tease each other about burping and how high we can swing on the swing set.  But I also care about big landmarks in your life, and you've got a big one tomorrow.  You've been playing it cool the last couple weeks, but I'm excited for you to experience your first day of school.  So before the alarm goes off tomorrow morning, I wanted to give you some of my best/unused advice for tomorrow.  You know, like friends do.

First, before you get on the bus in the morning, make sure you hug your parents and tell them you love them.  Trust me, they are more freaked out about your first day than you are.  You gotta let em know you'll be ok, you can handle your stuff, and that they did a good job getting you ready...simply saying you love them is the easiest and quickest way to tell them that.

Once you get on the bus, try to sit in the middle.  Sitting too far back will make the bus driver think you're gonna be trouble all year, and sitting too close to the front makes it harder to make friends, since everyone is staring at the back of your head.  Also, if possible, sit in a seat that's empty.  That way, whoever ends up sitting next to you chooses you.  No matter who sits next you, do your best to be as kind as you can to them.  They'll be just as excited/nervous as you are about tomorrow.  Always remember that first person...the person that chooses you on your first day is also the person most likely to have your back throughout the year, and you should have their's, too.

When you get to your classroom, they'll assign you a cubby hole for the year.  If you have any say, try to get a cubby that's not on the bottom...kneeling on the ground to get your stuff can get gross, especially in the winter time.

Once you get to your class, introduce yourself to your teacher.  Whoever he/she is, I guarantee that he/she has been working hard for a few weeks to make sure your first day is awesome. Your teacher will help you learn A LOT over the next nine months, and I'm willing to bet that, when you're my age, you'll still remember your teacher's name.  So start strong by making an introduction/talking to him/her, just like you did to me when you gave me a tour of your kitchen art curation last September.  

While I'm talking about your teacher, let me say this: do your best to have a sense of awe and wonder when you're learning.  School is a burden for a lot of students, but if you think of learning as something you GET TO do, rather than something you HAVE TO do, you'll be more successful, and have fun doing it at the same time.

A couple more things...

You're a beautiful young lady. Be as girly as you want to be. But if there's something the boys in the class tell you you can't do "because you're just a girl", ignore them.  If there's something you like, that your good at, and you want to do, don't let other people's expectations keep you from it.  You're freaking exceptional, and sometimes other kids are intimidated by that, so they might try to keep you from being the best version of you. Ignore those people.

Finally, do your best to see the good in every kid in your class (AND the adults at your school, for that matter).  Every kid in your class is full of potential, and a compliment, a helpful hand, or an invite to play with you could make the difference between loneliness and joy in their day.

And who knows, you may end up making a friend for your next 13 years of school, and beyond...just like you did in your kitchen last September.

Love ya dude.  Be awesome.

Uncle Gweg

 

 

 

 

 

A Tragically Beautiful Week

Growing up, I hated those stupid paintings where you had to stare really hard into the painting to see the picture hidden deeper in the painting.  Sometimes I didn't see it, no matter how hard I stared...which was maddening!  Other times, the picture-within-the-painting jumped right out at me, and I thought it was super easy to see, only to hear other people say they didn't see it.  I don't understand the point of hiding the picture...what's with the exclusivity?  If the painter wants me to see what he/she is making, just show it to me already.

This week was one of those pictures-hidden-in-the-painting kind of weeks.  This week was about Jason and Jen, except that it really wasn't.  This week was about an old lad named Gord, except that it really wasn't.  This week was about Carson and his 9th birthday, except that it really wasn't.

*     *     *     *     *

Friday, the I love the 90's tour came to the DTE Energy Music Theatre.  It seemed like the kind of show that would be prime for people in need of uber rides, after thoroughly enjoying themselves at the concert.  Frankly, I was a little bummed that I didn't think to get tickets myself, so I did the next best thing, which was to drive uber after the show and live vicariously through my passengers, whoever they might be.  I got a call for a ride from Jason as the show came to an end, and after walking out of the park, Jason, and his wife Jen, hopped into the car, and we headed to their hotel about 20 minutes away.

Jason and Jen were from the west side of the state.  "We don't get to many shows, but when we saw this one, we knew we had to make it happen."  Graduates of the class of '93 and '94, respectively, the music was right in the wheelhouse of Jason & Jen.  They had a great time at the show, enjoying plenty of adult beverages, and were much more open to talking because of said beverages.  We discussed music of the 90's, how the two of them met, and funny things Jason learned to say from Jen's dad.  The subject eventually got to their kids and parenthood.

"Our 10 year old is way more socially advanced than our 13 year old..." Jason mused, as Jen rested her head on his shoulder.  "The 13 year old is locked into the video game world, while our 10 year old is already cycling through girlfriends, mostly in texting relationships.  It's definitely a new experience as a dad."  Side commentary: this is one of a million examples of my there-is-no-parenting-handbook-but-i-wish-there-was theory.  Two kids, two of the same upbringings and environments, and yet they had totally different interests/patterns of behavior.  As Jason was musing, Jen mentioned they had a third child, a six year old.  I joked with them, "Oh, the 6 year old will be way ahead of both of them...you better watch out."  Both of their moods changed, and Jen replied, "...eh, I don't think so."

Jason and Jen have a six-year-old daughter.  When their daughter was two, she was diagnosed with leukemia.  After a year and a half of treatment, it was found that the treatment/illness had caused some brain damage.  And though she's been declared healthy after a few years, their daughter now is barely verbal.  She mostly uses a wheel chair. And Jason and Jen still have to feed her.  In describing his daughter, Jason reflected that, "Yeah, we still have to rock her to sleep every night." Then, in an effort to lighten the mood, he said, "I'll probably have to rock her to sleep in her teens, too.  I don't know how I'm gonna do that...I'm already getting a sore back, and she's only six."  He said it in an honest, lighthearted way, that led me to believe he wanted to rock her to sleep, no matter her age.  There was a beat of silence in the car after Jason and Jen described their youngest daughter's situation, and then, almost in unison, they spoke up, with Jen going first.  

"But, you know what?  She's always going to be our little girl," she said with the intense pride of a mother.  "Even if we have to rock her and feed her the rest of our lives, we'll always have our little girl."

*     *     *     *     *

Saturday, I was finishing up a wedding in Orchard Lake.  After packing up all of my gear, I started scrolling Twitter to catch up on the Olympic results I'd missed during the wedding.  As I looked through posts, I kept seeing references to a band performing in Canada, and it peaked my attention.

Tragically Hip is an iconic band from Kingston, Ontario.  They have been "Canada's band" in the same way that Kid Rock has iconically become "Detroit's rockstar".  They have had nine number-one albums in Canada, and have won 14 Juno awards (Canada's honor for musical achievement).  I vaguely remember some of their music from radio station 89x.  

A few months ago, the Hip's lead singer, Gord Downie, was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer.  It was then that the band decided that it would do one more tour, if they could, with the final stop of the tour playing at Downie's hometown of Kingston.  As the final stop of the tour neared, the Tragically Hip's rabid fan base clamored to be a part of this final experience with the band and their adored lead singer.  So the CBC, even in the midst of the Olympics, decided to stream the live show on their air, to the delight of the 11.7 MILLION Canadian viewers that tuned in to share the last live performance of the band.

Downie, noticably thinner than the tour before, came out and gave an inspired performance, as the band played for three hours, playing songs that spanned their 30 year catalog.  Even after the three hours, the Hip came back for three separate encores, with Downie finishing the night with a simple "Thank you for that." to the crowd.  

As I mentioned, twitter was abuzz the whole night, with all different hashtags paying tribute to the Tragically Hip, and more specifically, singer Gord Downie.  This was his life.  A relationship like this between a band, a singer, and their adoring fans is rare in it's longevity and affection.  And on a Saturday night in Kingston, there stood Downie, with everyone knowing that this was it.  I was with musicians that night, and asked them what they thought.  Most thought the scene was very sad.  But, in a way, Downie doing what he's best at for the people who adored him the most, and who he adored, was a beautiful picture.  Because what is life, but a collection of relationships, experiences, and art created, all bound together by unfiltered love.

*     *     *     *     *

Sunday, I prepared to pull together a team of thirty or so volunteers, who are going to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, to help in the flood relief efforts there.  In a city of under a quarter million people, more than 10% have been displaced from their homes.  Helping after a flood of this magnitude takes a massive undertaking, and efforts of any size and from any source are needed to help the residents take steps back toward normalcy.

As we prepared to go to Baton Rouge, I was reading up on the area, what has been done, and what is still needed.  It was then that I came across the story of Carson Boutte.

Carson lives in Youngsville, about 80 minutes from Baton Rouge.  When the flood was happening in real time, Carson's mom was Facetiming their family in Baton Rouge, and Carson could see the flooding happening at his family's home in the background of the Facetime.  According to his mom, Carson was deeply affected seeing the damage the water was doing.  Shortly after, Carson's Baton Rouge family came to stay with them, temporarily, while they could figure out what to do.

Shortly after the family came, Carson's 9th birthday was coming.  Carson's mom asked him what he wanted for his birthday, and what Carson wanted was to feed the flood victims in Baton Rouge.  Originally, the plan was to make 500 sandwiches for the people of Baton Rouge, but the logistics became unfeasible.  Carson's dad suggested that, instead of sandwiches, they buy pizza for the flood victims.  So Carson's mom, who had budgeted $100 for Carson's birthday gift, would take that money, and buy as much pizza as she could.  But she also put out on social media Carson's birthday wish, and, after just a day or two, dozens of people helped to chip in for pizza.

When it was all said and done, for Carson's birthday, with the help of people all around, Carson's family was able to buy 363 pizzas for displaced flood victims in Baton Rouge.  His birthday wish was able to feed over 1000 people.  Carson didn't have much, other than a burdened heart and a wish to make it better.  

Carson Boutte is now 9.  He is now one of my heroes, because heroes care about the right things, and do what they can to make them better.

Happy Birthday Carson.

*     *     *     *     *

Our world can be filled with so much pain.   

Debilitating Illness.

Terminal Cancer.  

Natural Disasters.

That's the painting, the realistic painting, that a lot of us see every day.  There are days when it seems like there are unwinnable fights on every front.  Some of the fights belong to us, and some we fight as proxy to our friends, family, and allies.  

But what lifts me this week is the picture-within-the-painting.  In the painting of tragedy is the picture of a selfless birthday wish of a 9 year old.  In the painting of impending death is the picture of a man who stands in a moment and lives out what he was created to live out, in the midst of a community of love.  In the painting of debilitating illness is the picture of two parents that love and treasure their little girl above all else.  

Perhaps those paintings, the Tragically Beautiful Paintings, are really the most beautiful of all.

Uber rider of the month, August 2016

On a warm Tuesday night in the middle of Michigan summer, one of the biggest musical acts touring in the world made a stop at the Palace of Auburn Hills.  Coldplay was just six months removed from a fun, collaborative Super Bowl halftime show, watched by north of 50 million viewers, and shortly after, they started their U.S. tour to promote their newest album.  It didn't matter what day of the week Coldplay was going to play at the Palace; their presence was a guaranteed sellout. Thousands of fans would be leaving the Palace at the same time when the show/encore was over, and there I was, just sitting across the street, waiting to get people home safely.  

My uber app beeped at me around 11:15, and Rachelle was ready to get out of there.  Rachelle and her two girlfriends, Jamie and Dawn, had been dropped off by one of their husbands before the show, but because the husbands were on kid duty, they needed an uber back to Brighton.  They were on a bit of a high after a great show, and we had a good hour of bonding time ahead of us...the first uber ride for two of the three ladies.  

We discussed all kinds of things, from their favorite live performances, to their husbands/kids, to wedding preparation. Somewhere in the conversation, there was a mention of what it meant to "be open to possibilities".  This got us to the story that I won't soon forget:

Jamie was the quietest of the three ladies in the car. She was 39, a mother, and a life long Michigan resident.  When she was 11 years old, she lived in a stereotypical suburban neighborhood.  She learned to ride her bike in the subdivision where she grew up. She got her first business experience starting a summer lemonade stand there. The neighbors were all very friendly, many of whom were often outside during Michigan summers, just shooting the breeze with one another.  They knew each other, hung out with each other, and supported each other.

Jamie's neighbors "on the left side of the house" were a middle-aged couple.  They, like the rest of the neighborhood, were very friendly, with the husband being a pudgier, jovial fellow, and the wife known for her baking.  Jamie described them by saying, "I wouldn't say they were 'friends' with our family, but they were very nice." [For the purpose of this story, I wish I could remember their names.  I'm not sure Jamie every said them.]

One night, Jamie woke up from a deep sleep in the middle of a dream.  She was crying, and barely consolable.  She couldn't understand it.  Her mom came into her room, and trying to calm her down, she asked, "What's wrong, honey?" Through her tears, Jamie answered, "I had a dream about our neighbors.  In the dream, the husband told me I needed to give this message to his wife.  I can't remember why, but I need to go over there and give this message to his wife."

Jamie's mom's face went white as a ghost.  "Jamie," she said, throat immediately dry, "you can't go over there tonight."  

"Why not, mom?  I have to tell the wife about the dream."

"Jamie, her husband died tonight.  We shouldn't bother her right now.  I'll take you over there in the morning."

So the next morning, Jamie and her mother went to their neighbor's house to visit the newly widowed woman.  She seemed happy that her neighbors came over to pay their respects.  But then Jamie spoke up. "I told her what here husband had said in my dream, and that I NEEDED to tell his wife," Jamie recounted.  "I didn't really even understand what I was telling her, but the gist was there was a reference to a story that only the two of them knew about, and that he wanted her to know that he was ok."  As Jamie relayed the message from her dream, both the she and widow broke down crying again, and the neighbor embraced Jamie, thanking her for telling her about the dream.  After telling the story, Jamie reflected; "It was crazy.  I get goosebumps thinking about that story, and it's almost three decades later."

Jamie's story blew my mind. Honestly, I don't know what I believe about spirits communicating from the afterlife.  But there were two qualities that Jamie had that made the whole story possible.

First, Jamie was willing to listen.  You could tell this about her before she even told the 28 year old story.  In the "first person, singular voice" explosion of the last ten years, it seems everyone has a status to update, a tweet to post, and a blog to promote. (guilty)  But being open to listen is rare and valuable, not just listening to what people around us are saying, but what's happening in their lives as well.

Second, Jamie was determined to speak a word of comfort/encouragement into her neighbor's life, even if she didn't totally understand it. I can't imagine what it meant to that woman to hear that from an 11 year old, but, based on her reaction, it was obviously positive and a help in her grieving process.

So... (this is the part of the piece where I assume the role of Danny Tanner in Full House)

Your friends are a gift.  Your family is a gift.  And your words are a gift.  I know that it is easy to use my time/words to complain about things that happen in and around my life.  I'm guilty of that.  But if I stop and listen to other people, and I'm determined to speak words of encouragement into their world, I have the power to increase their quality of life, and indirectly, my own.  If you've read this far into the piece, I can tell you that there is someone, or multiple people, in your world, who you'll interact with today, and that person(s) needs a word of encouragement/a word of comfort.  You can give them what they need today, and all it costs you is listening.  

I dropped off Rachelle, Dawn, and Jamie around 12:30.  "Thanks for listening to our stories," they said, as they left the car. "Our first uber experience was better than we could have imagined."  And with a goofy smile on my face from that one word of encouragement, I headed home.

How is DRAW even a thing?

Days after Houston, TX was flooded, I got on the phone with a half dozen of our fellow relief agencies, a couple of whom were on the ground already around the disaster stricken areas, and a conversation took place of who might need help in that area, how many people had needs, and what kind of needs did they have.  Hours later, I posted that I was looking for a road trip partner to drive about $17k worth of supply buckets to help hundreds of displaced families in two Houston suburbs, Rosenberg and Sealy.  Because they are both retired and enjoy spending time with their son, my parents called and said they'd be willing to drive down with me to deliver DRAW's buckets.  And so, 50 hours of driving later, we were able to deliver supplies to people that needed them, impacting nearly 1000 Houston area residents that were unable to stay in their homes.

So that's it, right? That's the story of how DRAW works.  A few people who respond at a moment's notice to deliver/distribute supplies and/or volunteer to help with cleanup.  Pretty easy.

Except that's not totally it.

You see, for Houston, we had to load the hundreds of buckets into the trailer the night we left to drive to Texas.  So I went down the list of people who had expressed interest to volunteer.  I was able to find about 10 people to help us load the trailer; one who had volunteered through the Clarkston High School LEAD program in the past, a few who had volunteered through Oakland Christian School earlier that year, a couple volunteers who had read about us in the paper three years earlier, and one who had started following DRAW's facebook page years ago.

So that's about it.  That's how DRAW works.  A few people that volunteer at a moment's notice to go help, and a few people who will volunteer as support to help get us on the road.

Except that's not totally it.

In order to have buckets ready to take at a moments notice, a week earlier, there were two churches who had organized volunteer days to collect supplies and help assemble buckets; Oakwood Community Church in Oxford, MI, and New Covenant Church in Clio, MI.  They got a bunch of people together, announced the effort weeks in advance, and had people from all around their community collect supplies so that they could have a lot of finished buckets (more that a couple hundred).  Efforts like this are what allows DRAW to have buckets ready to go at a moment's notice, so that we can respond effectively to those in need.

So that's about it.  That's how DRAW works. A few people that volunteer at a moment's notice to go help, a few people who will volunteer as support to help get us on the road, and a couple churches that work to collect and assemble buckets for us to take.

Except that's not totally it.

You see, we have LOTS of supplies in our warehouse (less so now, since we've been giving so much away lately...these floods gotta stop!).  The only way to track everything, know what we have, and know what to ask groups to collect, is by having a dedicated crew of volunteers that can come to our warehouse weekly to sort, inventory, clean, and organize all of the stuff that comes in throughout the year.  So for months, Cathy, Debby, Roger, Charlotte, Kathy, and Warren have been making Wednesday mornings their "warehouse time".  They come in, and organize themselves, often with coffee in hand, and start the often times thankless work of moving supplies around on shelves, counting (and re-counting) things like toothpaste tubes or dust masks, and preparing our layout so that, when a group wants to come in to assemble buckets, all of our stuff is ready to go, and we know how many buckets we can finish with that group.  Almost no one sees them, there's no amazing group photos in matching shirts, but they are what we like to call "the guts of the organization" (Flattering, I know)

So that's about it.  That's how DRAW works. A few people that volunteer at a moment's notice to go help, a few people who will volunteer as support to help get us on the road, a couple churches that work to collect and assemble buckets for us to take, and a crew of dedicated weekly organizers to make sure we're ready.

Except that's not totally it.

There were the 5 churches that helped pay for our travel expenses to get the supplies to Houston, TX.  

There are 8 board members, who went from meeting twice a year to meeting once a month, in order to plan fundraisers, set up infrastructure, develop communication plans, and set goals for the organization for the upcoming year.  

There are drummers that give their time to act like fools in parades, banging on buckets with specific rhythm, in order to raise awareness of DRAW's efforts around those communities.

There are people who make crafts year round to sell at Christmas time to raise funds for DRAW.

There are people who organize for me to come speak to synagogues, scout troops, or social functions about DRAW's mission, passion, and efforts.  

There are people who volunteer to file reports for us with the IRS, LARA, and every other acronym that needs our info.  

Except that's not totally it.

I founded DRAW four and half years ago under the premise that "we" could make a difference in the lives of people whose lives had just been turned upside down by mother nature, that we could help the people at rock bottom take a few steps back up toward normalcy through empathy, forethought, precision, and organization.  But I never imagined who that "we" was or would become.  

I had a passion and a belief in early 2012, but if that's all I would have had, DRAW wouldn't have lasted six months.  Instead, what happened in those four years was investment, whether time, ideas, or finances, by thousands of people of all ages, all walks of life, from all around the United States.  

So...How is DRAW even a thing?  DRAW is a thing because it stopped being "mine" just days after we started.  Now it's "ours".  Together, "WE" continue to impact people's lives through empathy, forethought, precision, and organization.  And as I'm looking forward to our continued growth and reach to help in disaster aftermaths, I look forward to what "WE" will become.  

In short, to the so, so many of you that have invested yourself in DRAW, I thank you.  It turns out, working together to make others' lives better is amazing.

Uber rider of the month, July 2016

Rebekah had her bags packed.  In a whirlwind of a month, she was flying out to Charlotte, NC to do video shoot for Chevy, part of her job as a PR account manager, only to return a few days later to pack up the rest of her stuff, and move three time zones away to the west coast, to start a new assignment for work, along with a new calling.  

But we're getting ahead of ourselves.  Rebekah had tapped the uber app, needing a ride to the airport, and yours truly happened to be the only uber driver within 15 minutes of her small apartment in Birmingham.  So within a couple minutes, we loaded her bag up, and started toward the airport.  Rebekah was a bit frazzled, trying to pull together some last minute things before catching her flight to "Nascar country".  

"It's been cool to work on Chevy's account for a few years, but I think I'm ready for something else," Rebekah said, as she was reflecting on her coming events.  "I'm excited for what's next...I feel like I have a little more purpose going out to San Francisco."

"What were you trying to get done before you left?", I asked.

Rebekah, in her spare time, made gourmet cupcakes.  Before she was to take off for her Chevy assignment, she was trying to make 200 gourmet cupcakes to sell, with proceeds going to the Hope Water project.  HWP was started by Rebekah's church, Kensington, to provide clean water to communities in developing nations, and after a trip to Kenya to serve in the mission of HWP, Rebekah was hooked.  She served through Kensington's efforts, made cupcakes to sell, and even ran in half marathons to raise money for the HWP. But her next step is her biggest so far.

"Later this month, I move to San Francisco.  My job transferred me there, but what drove me there was the opportunity to help Kensington expand it's reach.  So I'm going with a couple of their staff to help start a church in that city, but, really, I want to go to expand the audience who hears about HWP."  Rebekah was in full elevator speech mode, as any good PR person would be, giving me the lowdown on the the passions that drive her.  

As we compared notes between HWP and DRAW, I talked about how I revived an old practice of mine, standup comedy, in an effort to have events that raised money for DRAW's efforts.  "Do you like standup comedy?" she asked. "I don't think you've told one joke yet this entire ride."  So I explained to her what I'm about to explain to you...my philosophy of humor.

I love humor.  I love real life humor, the stuff that comes organically.  Perhaps the reason I was never a great standup comedian is that I don't always need to be the one to deliver the punchline...I get just as much satisfaction setting someone else up for a joke as I do when I'm set up for a joke.  At my roots, I love improv, specifically the concepts from  Improvisation of the Theatre, by Viola Spolin. In it is the well known concept of "YES, AND...", a principle that states, "I affirm what is positive and good coming out of you, and I want to add to it to make it even better."  YES, AND... is at the center of any healthy creative, collaborative process, and it just so happens to apply to comedy.  But YES, AND... has also become a central theme/manifesto of my life.  I want to affirm the dreams of the people around me, and do my part to make them even better.  I want to strive to not claim credit, because anything good that comes from me, that I can add, is only good in the context of someone else pulling that good out of me, whether that be God or community.  

By the end of the ride, Rebekah, had pulled out a small pad and started taking notes.  "What's the name of the book? Say the YES, AND... part again.  What's DRAW's website?"  As I dropped Rebekah off, I wished her well.  I remember the times in my life where I have started new; a move to a new city, the launching of DRAW out of nothing, a new relationship with Michelle.  Every time was a little scary, but dripping with potential.  And every time, I relied on other people, pulling every ounce of good out of me, and adding to it.  I reflected on those landmarks, and I was inspired by Rebekah, who is doing the same.

So cheers to you, Rebekah.  May you find a community that pulls out the best in you, and makes it better.  May you make a difference through your involvement in the HWP.  And may you YES, AND... all of the people in your path, letting your passions come through just as raw as they did on a seemingly inconsequential uber ride to the airport. 

Uber rider of the month, June 2016

Five months ago, Detroit hosted one of its biggest events of the year, the North American International Auto Show.  Because there were so many out-of-towners staying in the Detroit area that week, I thought it would be a good opportunity to cash in on, uber-wise.  I planned my schedule so that I could uber in downtown Detroit almost every early morning that week, from 4am-9am, before my day at DRAW got going.

On the second day of the show, I got a call from a rider at the Crown Plaza Hotel...a hotel just walking distance from the NAIAS. (Uber hint: if you hang out around popular hotels, you're more likely to get rides quicker, since out-of-towners are more likely to need rides).  I picked up Paul, a good looking, silver haired fellow, likely in his late 40's, who directed me to take him to Livonia.  

Paul hopped in the car, Starbucks coffee in hand, and said a warm hello.  It was 6:30am, so it was fairly obvious that Paul was a morning person.  After our hellos, Paul admitted that, like most people staying in Detroit, he was in town for the NAIAS.  He explained that he was with Elio motors, and as we drove under the Cobo Center on the Jefferson Ave tunnel, he pointed to the window where his display was set up for the week.  "Have you heard of us?", he asked.  "Nah," I replied. "I'm not a huge car guy."

So I asked the obvious question that monopolized the rest of our 30 min ride together: "So what is Elio Motors?" I thought I'd get a description of a car, or stats about its performance; instead, I got a pretty incredible story.

In 2006, Paul was a family man, a wife and two kids, and a guy with an entrepreneurial spirit. He had come up with a patent for a new kind of car, and started investing a lot of his own money, as well as recruiting outside investors, into his new project.  If you remember recent economic history, you'll remember that 2006-2009 was not the easiest time to find investors for anything, as the US economy took a major tumble.  For Paul, his investors dried up, as did his own cash flow.  In the midst of a pretty rough financial patch, Paul's wife asked for a divorce.  He was at a pretty dark moment.

In survival mode, Paul started looking for a job.  He put out over 1000 resumes in a couple months, and couldn't get so much as an interview.  From the backseat, Paul recalled "I wasn't too proud for anything at that time. I was near desparate...I would have been fine saying, 'do you want fries with that?'" Finally, living in Arizona in 2008, there was a serious hail storm in his town.  As luck would have it, Paul's college buddy was in town that next day, and Paul met him for lunch.  His college buddy made him an offer: "I run a company that does home repairs after hail storms like the one that just hit here in town last night.  If you'll run my Arizona operation, I'll give you the flexibiliy to continue to recruit investors for your auto project."  It was a win-win for a Paul at crossroads in life that he would've settled for just a win.  So, for 15 months, Paul ran a roof repair company in Arizona.

Over that time, the economy and the auto industry, very slowly, started to turn around.  People started buying cars again, and more importantly to Paul's project, people started investing in projects again.  One by one, Paul found companies and investors willing to take a chance on his vision.  At one point in 2010, Paul was able to recruit a big investor, another entrepeneur by the name of Stu, that really gave his project a boost.  By 2012, Paul's company, Elio motors, had purchased a 400,000 sq. ft manufacturing plant in Louisiana, where Elio motors would manufacture it's vehicles.  Paul touted the fact that the car would be more than 90% North American made, and that his car would provide jobs for thousands of blue collar workers.

"So, what kind of car is it?", I asked, obviously playing right into his elevator pitch.  He gave me two numbers that still stick out to me months later:

  • The car would get 84 mpg
  • The starting price of the car is $6800

I was in disbelief.  Paul was spouting stats (he had his numbers down pat) about societal mobility, carbon emissions, and economic class oppression.  The car, to Paul, wasn't just about making something. It was about changing something.  He wanted to make it easy/affordable for low income families to be able to get to work, even if the commute was longer.  

The final pieces of the puzzle in the car's story are it's capacity and makeup.  The car is a 2 seater, but not a bench 2 seater...a "single file" two seater, one passenger behind the driver.  It's also a 3 wheel vehicle, with the front axle the same size as a Ford Taurus.  

As we pulled into Paul's stop in Livonia, Paul mentioned that his biggest sense of pride was that they would start production on the vehicles this upcoming December, and the company already had over 50,000 reservations/down payments from consumers.  The dream was actually becoming a reality.  

As an uber driver, it was pretty remarkable to get to meet 2016 Paul Elio, and hear the story of how he got to this point. His story is incredibly exciting.  But I gotta wonder how many 2008 Paul Elios I meet every day, people who have incredible visions of how their efforts can make a change in the world around them, but, at this current moment, all they see are obstacles.  Maybe their personal life is in a rough patch. Maybe it seems like no one is investing in them. Maybe it seems like they gotta change their dreams to make it all work.  But success happens when you seize opportunities that don't look like opportunities.  Time may seem like your enemy, but really may become your friend.  If I took anything from my Crown Plaza-to-Livonia trip with Paul Elio in January, it's the simple equation:

Passion+Smarts+Resillience=Success

Uber rider of the month: May '16

Deandre was a tall fella who stepped into my backseat with a 5.0 rating.  Usually, as an uber driver, when I see a 5.0 rating on a rider I'm picking up, I assume that the rider is either a) abundantly polite, or b) new to the uber process.  Standing around 6'2", Deandre slid his large athletic frame into the backseat of the Dodge Caliber and we were on our way to the Walmart fifteen minutes away to get Deandre some groceries. 

It was obvious in his first couple of seconds in the car that Deandre was not from Michigan.  "Man, it's cold here."...the first words from the backseat, on a day that most Michiganders would say was a very pleasant Spring afternoon; Sunny and 54. 

"What are you up to today?", a question I ask nearly all of the riders I have. 

"I'm in town from Houston.  I have a workout in the morning with the Lions, and then I gotta fly out right after to work out for Oakland."

As a sports fan, my interest was piqued.  Here's a guy pursuing his dream to play in the National Football League, and after playing a year at the University of Houston, then transferring to a Division 2 school to finish his college career, Deandre was going through one of the longest and most public interview processes that exist, professional sports workouts, just days before the 2016 NFL Draft.

"My 40 time has been on point so far, so I'm hoping I can show these guys what I can do catching the ball in traffic.  Like anyone, all I'm looking for is a shot."  Deandre didn't play in the BCS, and he wasn't headlining anyone's wish lists going into the final week before the draft.  But in a few minutes of chatter, it was obvious that there was one team that didn't lack confidence in Deandre's skills, and that was Team Deandre.  His management, his family, his college teammates all texted him while he was in the uber to wish him luck at his tryout the next morning.

After the ride, I paid attention to Deandre's fate.  I looked up his college stats, his scouting report, and for what teams he officially worked out. In the football world, there weren't many people giving Deandre two seconds of thought as a pro prospect.  "Too old", "Too slow", and "Not enough experience" were all comments you can find scouts writing about him.  In short, Deandre is a longshot.

But that's why Deandre is worthy of a blog post as an uber rider.  Deandre's story is the same story that many of us share.  Other people have labeled him a longshot.  If you're reading this, there's a chance that you've been labeled as a longshot at one point in your life.  You had long odds to beat a disease, you had a goal that seemed too far to reach from the outside, or you had obstacles that seemed like they were too much to overcome.  But you also have people around you that believe in you, that text you encouragement, that love you.  So there you stand, in the middle of two competing choirs of voices.

In Deandre's case, what outsiders said about him didn't shake his belief in himself, or his dedication to his call.  He tuned his ear to the radio station of his supporters.  He never considered himself a longshot.  Neither should you.  If your call is noble, if your goal is right and praiseworthy, then be a Deandre. 

Listen to your team, because they don't see you as a longshot...they see you as an inspiration.

Deandre ended up going through the three days of the NFL draft without getting drafted.  He's a free agent.  But in 15 minutes of riding with him in the car, I can guess that this is not the end for him.  And I can guess that's exactly what Team Deandre is telling him.