Too Close to Home

Friends, I want you to stop for 5 seconds and look around you.

Most likely, you will observe walls, windows, streets, and other man-made developments that comprise your immediate environment.

This is new. This is novel.

As you can guess, the Earth, however, is not new. Cycles of life. Seasons. Natural heating and cooling. These processes churn together in a rhythmic harmony that has kept our world habitable for millennia.

This global ebb and flow is being majorly threatened if not completely disrupted today.

The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) and Zoological Society of London (ZSL) 2020 “Living Planet Report” found a 68% decline in the 21,000 monitored populations of mammals, birds, fish, reptiles and amphibians around the globe between 1970 and 20161. Sixty. Eight. Percent. Let that sink in.

And this is just one of a myriad of growing statistics today.

It’s saddening and disheartening. I tear up just writing about it. I am sure you, like me, want your children (or at least the children born today) to experience the same fresh air and witness the same natural world you probably were able to experience to as a child. I doubt, however, this will happen when looking at our current trends.

BUT there is hope. For example, the book “How to Avoid a Climate Crisis” by Bill Gates distills the science and concludes we can still curb this worsening problem, though it will take sacrifice on ALL fronts, both personally and as a global population2. I have hope we can find a way to think about changing our lifestyles now to avoid a problem that will soon be too difficult to fight.

So what can you do?

Below are three ways you can do your part today:

  1. Look at your single-use plastics consumption. Is there a way you can limit the amount of plastics you use? Maybe try going out to eat less, or bring a reusable cup to Starbucks in the mornings.
  2. Limit the amount of new things you buy! You can always purchase used clothes, or sew up a tear. Make things LAST!
  3. Try and limit your vehicle usage! Don’t have a bike? Get one! Close enough to walk? Do it!

I leave you with one of my new favorite quotes:

A special thanks to my dad, Paul Merrill, for the header images! He took these while on the beach in Kenya circa 2006.

To add a little pizzaz to your day, please check out his blog here.

  1. https://www.zsl.org/sites/default/files/LPR%202020%20Full%20report.pdf
  2. https://www.amazon.com/How-Avoid-Climate-Disaster-Breakthroughs/dp/059321577X#:~:text=In%20this%20urgent%2C%20authoritative%20book,and%20effects%20of%20climate%20change.

Variety

It’s cold outside in Baton Rouge this morning. Drops of dew cling to the stems and leaves of trees outside my apartment like small crystal balls magnifying a gray sky. From my window I can see cars jet past, parting waters like Moses in the ruts and depressions of the road. A bike ride is probably not on the docket for most folks today (or the few folks who do ride here). I’m sure many people’s usual agenda in this city has changed due to the weather.

I wouldn’t have it any other way. Variety adds something new and unique to the regular pulse of daily life. Without seasons or weekly changes in weather the world’s bored news anchors would dust off their notes as they blink into the camera, attempting to shake off thousand yard stares. Thank goodness this isn’t the case.


If the weather happens to be rather consistent in your area as you read this, do something fun to add variety to your day in another way. Try checking out a new part of town, buying a new item you’ve never tried before from the grocery store, or taking a different way to work. Your mind will thank you for it.

Deep Roots

A large tree near my Aunt’s house in Belgium

I love my parents’ backyard. Every spring, ice and snow soften their grip on the dark soil, which expresses its gratitude by producing a multitude of healthy emerald blades of grass. But spring rains do not show partiality. Fueled by moisture and sunlight, dandelions begin to clump in small rebellious clusters that pockmark what should be a clean, crisp lawn.

“5 cents a weed,” my mom used to say.

Metal garden tool in hand, my brother and I would spend hours between lemonade breaks pulling these small pests from our lawn and restoring peace to the galaxy. Each little dandelion was yanked out with relatively little effort. Other sprouts such as the round-leaved mallow weed laughed at my attempt to extricate them from the ground. Like a lizard’s tail, they would grow back within weeks of being “pulled”. It became incredibly frustrating, yet their deep roots allowed for persistent survival each growing season.

If I thought these plants had far reaching roots I was wrong. Rutgers University published an article in 2017 highlighting the rare shepherd’s tree (Boscia albitrunca, for you plant lovers), which has been found to have roots extending up to 230 feet into the subsurface in search of water. Surprisingly, these trees take up residence in one of the world’s harshest environments: The Kalahari Desert1.

Why am I going into detail on roots? We hardly see them on a daily basis. The answer is simply because I believe roots provide a pertinent and needed analogy to our lives as human beings.

As I’m sure you’ve been told, it turns out that what type of job we throw ourselves into, how we spend our free time, and who we surround ourselves with are all where we choose to place our roots. It’s naturally human to try to find a place to feed our souls. The more you put your trust in things that last the test of time, the more you love where you are, who you are, and who surrounds you. In essence, the deeper your roots go. When drought hits, storms arise, and the weather of life seeks to pull us from our spots and make us question why we’re even here, we have hope of making it through those times because we’ve developed deep roots. For me, it’s my faith and close friends that I find the need to continually invest in.

If you have a moment, take some time and consider where you’re trying to deepen your roots. It may turn out that some areas of your life need a reassessment.

1. Canadell, J., Jackson, R. B., Ehleringer, J. B., Mooney, H. A., Sala, O. E., & Schulze, E. D. (1996). Maximum rooting depth of vegetation types at the global scale. Oecologia, 108(4), 583-595.

I just wanted to be an extra

We have all had thoughts of turning a hobby or idea into something more. It’s only human to dream, right? Some might say to themselves, “This passion for sumo wrestling might just be a future career,” or “I could make some real money selling my ‘five turtles on a log’ paintings.” For me, it’s always been acting. Not to be the star of the show, just an extra in a movie. I imagine frazzled humans shuffling around a set with sloshing coffee in their hands as they prepare for the next scene. An exciting buzz fueled by starry film lights. With this shining vision in my mind, I began my hunt by signing up on a casting website looking for “talent.” The familiar little chime sounded in my inbox two days later. Something along the lines of, “Mr. Merrill, we formally request your presence at our studio in Denver next Thursday for an audition.” I jumped out of my seat.

A week passes and I’m there, staring at massive doors just opened by an invisible receptionist inside. I look up. A wall of glass creates a camouflaged mosaic with the sky. The building must be at least 15 stories tall. I lower my head and take a sniff. Good. The Old Spice Pure Sport is doing the job of masking my nervousness. A few moments later and I step into a brightly lit room. Behind the front desk sits a gal sporting a permanent smile who couldn’t be more than 18. She hands me an information packet.

“Just fill out these questions and you’ll be ready to go in no time.”

I fill out the three pages of questions and leave one of my throwaway emails. I’m quickly escorted down a narrow hallway to join a tightly packed line of fidgeting people, like a litter of puppies in a cardboard box. The line is getting shorter, as one by one each person is called into a windowless room to our left. About thirty seconds before being waved into this room I realize we’ve each received a short blurb to recite. Mine’s about the benefits of Advil. Shoot. I usually stick to Tylenol. I memorize as much as I can and before I know it, I’m standing at in front of a well dressed man who just put down his mug of coffee. At least this somewhat resembles a set.

“Great, Mr. Merrill… Let’s see what you’ve got.” I blink as the man scribbles something on a clipboard.

“Ehem… Um… here it goes.” I screw up my face in pain and get out something along the lines of, “Ouch! my head hurts. This Tylenol is not helping. You know what I need? Advil. With a 98% customer satisfaction rate.” Feigned pain followed by a pained smile.

“Good job Mr. Merrill. If you’ll head to the first room to your right.”

He scribbles something else down and before I know it I’m ushered into a second room with the rest of the group. It takes about 10 minutes to realize the platform cutting through the center of the room is not a public speaking stage. It’s some sort of runway. The same man who scribbled as I attempted the Advil ad struts into the room and explains that their “agency” is looking for the next best models. Models? Not what I had in mind.

Finally, he pauses before saying, “Now is your time to shine. This runway is your stage. It is a way to give us your best modeling talent. Show us a little pizzaz and strut down the ramp however you would like… Tut tut.”

I sink in my seat and look towards the exit. All the way across the room and the door is shut. Why? Why me?

But I do it. I walk down the runway to the fake cheers of the audience and now three judges at the end of the ramp. I attempt a kind of spin near the edge and walk back, shaking my head.

Before I can leave the room I now equated with a medieval torture chamber, I express that I just want to be an extra in a movie or show and whether or not they have acting opportunities. Seeing my sliver of hope shrinking, they hand me a 10 week “modeling” course and tell me to consider joining their studio. The course costs more than my car. So I tell them, “I just wanted to be an extra,” and left.

Some people may try and take advantage of someone’s passions by giving them a false hope that they can achieve greatness with little effort. “The path to fulfillment is within your grasp if you follow these steps,” they’ll say. I know better. There is only one true way to find that fulfillment when life throws the unexpected at you. And He says that the road is straight and narrow.

So next time your experience isn’t what you thought it would be don’t ever think that it’s hopeless and don’t wallow in self pity. These are all learning experiences to something more. Laugh about it and move on with your dream being a little more well rounded.

Amidst the barrage of false information and scams out there, I still have hope that a future acting opportunity will come along. I just hope it doesn’t involve a catwalk.

Photo by Avel Chuklanov on Unsplash

G-paw

My grandpa is nearing his 90th lap around the sun, and let me tell you, after several laps around the track, let alone the sun, people tend to get rather tired.

My grandfather (second from left) on his wedding day

“Um… Hmmm…”, he’ll sometimes frown as he delves into his memory to collect his thoughts. I don’t blame him. It takes time to recall the name of a friend who shot the head off a poisonous snake at his farm, the night he drove nearly 240 miles for a first date with my grandmother, or standing on a podium to give a speech to his fraternity scolding his fellows for stealing sandwiches from the kitchen.

I remember eating lunch after a round of golf with him last year. As I set down my drink and began to express some of the more intricate details of life in another state, I was abruptly cut off by song.

I know a lassie as fair as can be, and she dwells where the bluebells grooooow…”

G-paw when he was a youngster
G-paw when he was a youngster

Although lately he may launch into melody at inconvenient times, I can’t help but laugh, and love him for tenderly bringing up some experience from his past tied to a tune.

The older people in your life may fall into their idiosyncrasies occasionally, but don’t neglect their wealth of experience and wisdom. You might find some life changing advice behind a note or two.

Caffeine

I never thought coffee would taste good. The bitterness always left me puckered like someone who just ate a “dirt” infused Bertie Botts Every Flavor Bean. 26 years of my life I never touched the stuff. My ignorant bliss was soon rattled when our workplace installed a new chrome-lined, touch-screened, I,Robot of a machine that discharged the perfect amount of sugared, creamed, caffeinated goodness. And thus, I began my wakeful slide down the inescapable muddy slope of “coffeedom”. In the words of Donald Trump, “Everybody’s saying. Everybody’s talking about [coffee]. Everyone love’s [coffee].”

If you haven’t heard of the relatively new audio book Caffeine, by Michael Pollan, put down your java and give it a listen (It comes free with an audible account. Check it out here). It’s filled with tidbits of information on not only how caffeine pervades our modern culture, but how it shaped many historical advances that shaped our world today. He then pours over the science behind the drug’s positive and negative effects on your brain.

Either way, for those of you that love to wake up to that fresh-ground, roasted fragrance in the morning, or can’t stand the cupped pizzazz, there’s some interesting perspective in there for everyone.

Siblings

It took me one minute to type out the title to this post. Partly because I needed to find inspiration for what to write and partly because I found that inspiration in my sister’s shoe, which uncomfortably thrust against my ribs as I sat down on the couch.

“You want me to move?” She cheeped, “Then say pleeeaaaase.”

Annoyed, I glared at her and took the long journey to the wooden chair on the other side of the room.

For those of you who have siblings or close friends you live with, I’m sure you’ve experienced the dichotomy of annoyance and charm. A dirty rock underneath which somehow lies a gem in the dirt. What makes me mad at my sister yet truly happy that she is sitting across from me? Maybe it’s because she is one of the few who has been there when I’m at my worst and one of the many who have seen me at my best. Lord have mercy on her soul. I can’t help but love her for that.

Either way, I want to sit on that couch. This chair is uncomfortable.

In the shadow of the factory

The bus slowed, a large yellow fish in a sea of concrete. Shadows dappled the cracked asphalt, lengthening as the sun stretched lazily.

“Driver…. Er…. Mr. Ben, have you had chapati?” The little girl’s wide eyes gleamed with anticipation. “My mom makes the best chapati, just like when we were in Congo.”

“Yes, that is one of my favorite breads. I have had it before too, even when I was your age.”

“How old are you?”

“24.”

“Wow…” The girl trailed off, looking to her right as the darkness passed over her face, plunging the school bus into a dim world under the shadow of the factory.

“We’re here.”

“Thank you, Mr. Ben!”

The girl jumped to the front of the bus and hopped down the steps as the hiss of the doors sounded the freedom of home. Ben smiled nervously and looked at his watch. 20 minutes late. This stop was not on his schedule. He sighed and glanced back out the window. She would most likely be opening her front door and slinging off her backpack, ducking under the TV screen as her parents scolded her for being late. His gaze met something very different.

The girl was running down the street, jumping over the gaps in the asphalt with her eyes fixed straight ahead. She jumped, but did not come down. The giant arms of her father lifted her into space. A pillar. A Rock.

As he rose he looked through the bus window and met Ben’s eyes. He smiled gently. Waved. Satisfaction. His daughter was home.

Ben broke his gaze and put his foot on the gas. These tiny homes could barely be called apartments. How many people lived there? Did the noise keep them up at night? Did the natural darkness of evening never fully exist underneath the glare of the factory? A tear surfaced and he wiped it away. The man and his daughter seemed so happy. Genuinely joyful, with what seemed like so little.

Wealth means many different things. Invest in what matters.

Photo by Alexander Tsang on Unsplash

The Unmoving Coaster

I’ve always been a risk taker. Growing up I relished every chance to fill my personal “jar” of adrenaline complementary to dangerous experiences. Some jars were large, and some small, but by my early college days I had accrued quite a collection.

It began when I was a wee lad. On the many family camping trips during childhood, for example, my parents would fruitlessly attempt to stop me from pinpointing the largest behemoth of a tree and poking my head above the highest (rather thin) branch. Nature called and I simply had to answer.

But, if my risky mentality was a roller coaster ride, it would come clanking to a halt one warm February day in 2019. This story begins with the very thing I’m dedicating my career to now: The ocean.

Where I’m from warm days don’t exist in February, so let me explain. Two years ago a small crew and I were sent to the lush island of Puerto Rico to assist local engineers with restoration efforts in the wake of hurricanes Irma and Maria. A rather exquisite perk of the job, outside of the wonderful people, fried pork, and cheap beer, was the opportunity to stay at AirBnBs during our operation.

One such abode was a quaint two bedroom house nestled against a thick leafy forest. This specific AirBnB happened to be situated mere seconds from a sandy beach, sprinkled with shy fish and the occasional hazardous sea urchin (warning: do not pet the animals). If you take a careless 5 minute meander along this beach, you will come to an abrupt halt, your way barred by an outcrop of limestone, like a larger than life hedgehog permanently keeping the sea at bay.

It was on this hedgehog’s back I scrambled as I made my way to a view of the watercolor blue horizon beyond. Have I sold you on Puerto Rico yet? So there I was, the bottoms of my shoes cut from razor sharp limestone, running up this rock to catch a glimpse of the oceanic expanse. As I summited and looked down, I noticed a rather large finger of rock jutting from the outcrop. This particularly bowl shaped cusp happened to be situated mere feet above a gaping sinkhole. The frothy chasm was the size of a large trampoline, but rather than bounce you back to safety, you would most likely get swallowed only to become quick friends with the ocean floor. The endless waves lapped at the edges of the overlying buttress as I made my way down. Oddly enough, if you sat in the bowl atop this horn, as I promptly did, not even the slightest salty mist would reach your outstretched hand. It’s like you’re on a stationary roller coaster, everything moving below you while you stay put. Soon I felt like that chick in Titanic, except without DiCaprio, of course.

Me to the right of the coaster. Thanks to Gabe Pelletier for taking the shot.

After several minutes of bliss I decided to take the 5 minute jog back to the house and tell my coworker Gabe about the experience. Intrigued, he donned his flip flops and we ambled back to the site. He mainly took pictures of the limestone (see snapshots above and below) while we swapped turns on the “unmoving coaster”. After my rather large daily bottle of adrenaline reached the point of overflowing, we sauntered back to the house and switched on Netflix over plantains and chicken.

Fast forward to the next morning. After a quick breakfast I started packing food for the day, stuffing processed lunchmeat into my old backpack. As I washed my hands I suddenly realized one thing: It’s high tide. With a bolt I ran to the living room and asked if my compadre wanted to take one last ride. Through at least two full eggs worth of scramble I received a muffled, “Nah”. So off I went.

Now here’s what I did not realize:

One: Waves are loud. I could have screamed a slur of profanities at the top of my lungs and no one (save God) would have been blessed with my remarks.

Two: As I scuttled down to the cusp I don’t have the foresight to realize that a soaking wet horn of rock meant something more than rain the night before (which it hadn’t).

Three: Not a soul is there.

I’m sitting in the bowl as the waves surge and break underneath me. My adrenaline meter is off the charts. I’m on the moon. And then, just after I had settled into a divine euphoria, it hit.

In a split second I glanced up and saw a foaming wall of white. I hate to say I can now to some extent relate to the many poor souls caught in an avalanche. When it’s right in front of you there is nothing you can do but brace and hope for the best. My hands grabbed the slippery rock to my side as the impact hit me with full force. For what seemed like an eternity I was at war with the ocean, it’s watery claws successfully starting to drag me from my perch. Slipping. Soaking. Clinging on for dear life. And then…. It’s over. In that split second the ocean funneled back into the sinkhole’s greedy mouth. Like a tossed salad, I was utterly shaken and drenched. You know when people tell you they have an out of body experience? I used to snort, laugh, ask for further explanation. Now I’m quiet.

I sat there too shocked to laugh or cry as the next wave merely sent a gentle mist in my direction. Snapping too, I launched myself from the perch, and from a safe distance above, turned back to look at what may have been my doom. My emotions kicked in and I started crying like those kids who got their candy stolen on Jimmy Kimmel. Crying and thanking the Lord I am alive.

My perception of risk changed that day. As I looked down one last time to that sinkhole I saw a version of myself fighting, trying to escape as the waves crushed my frame against the sharp limestone. Would I have made it? Only God knows.

Next time you think about taking a risk, try looking around, assessing your situation, and knowing what you’re getting into. You may just look down in time to find that your seat belt is unbuckled before takeoff.