I stood in the back of the auditorium admittedly mesmerized.  Our key speaker that morning was a long time coming, and she was killing it.  Her topic of encouragement was more than fitting, as she’s mastered the art in her own, deliberate fashion over time. I’ve known my wife Jessi for over twenty one years, and to call this a proud moment would be a significant understatement. 

Our pastor had been asking her to speak at church for years, and although she is a ringleader to children, public speaking isn’t exactly her comfort zone.  Granted, if the public has a median age of say seven, she’s brilliant.  Although she was reluctant to do so, she ultimately obliged, and our congregation was better for it.

Jess ultimately  made the decision to speak all on her own, but the one message I repeatedly drove home was the reason Pastor Kurt wanted her to speak in the first place:  she’s an unsung hero.  As a founding member of our flourishing church, she helped build our children’s program, faithfully showing up week after week.  As I simultaneously helped build the youth program, she also opened our home to countless teenagers from the neighborhood over the years. 

Jess has never been one to draw attention to herself, which is evident from her everyday demeanor to her social media profiles (she refuses to take selfies: “I don’t get them,” she says).  Her humility is ironic, mind you, as she considers herself the farthest thing from fancy but she’s impossibly beautiful (don’t hate).  That Sunday morning I anticipated perhaps seeing her in a new light, but her sermon’s conclusion wasn’t an eye-opening moment for me because if there’s anyone on the planet who’s been on the receiving end of Jessica’s encouragement, it’s me.  There was no epiphany: I’ve always known this about her.  But I was indeed beaming.

Jess is the voice of reason in our household.  She has an uncanny ability to plan several steps ahead, make predictions, and pivot accordingly.  This is why our finances stay in order and also why she’s so sneaky good at board games and dominos.  I, on the other hand, am somewhat of a loose cannon.  This past week she has been away in Puerto Rico to attend services for her late grandmother, but I was able to hold down the fort only due to her preparation.  The task list she left me was impeccable.  She probably should have left a second list reminding me to read the first list.  She even planned one dinner for us over the phone by memory of what was available in our cupboard and refrigerator (“boom, dinner” was the conclusion to her text thread).  She accomplished all of this without questioning my capabilities; she was simply setting me up for success, which is what she’s always done.  She doesn’t tolerate my tendency to be self-deprecating, either.  She’s just ride or die in the purest sense.  If there’s one thing we all know it’s that Jess got our back.

Jessica is always the first to realize someone may need to be checked on-she just has a sense about these things because she pays acute attention to detail and then acts accordingly.  Although she may not have realized it when she chose her sermon topic, it was beyond fitting because she remains this way in the calm and in the storm.  And we’ve had some storms.  Like I said, I’m a very spontaneous husband who often puts the cart before the horse.  My seasons of various careers have required weeks of travel, adjacency to trauma, and late, dangerous nights. Regardless, she stood steady and never once discouraged my ambition.  She’s always seen my heart and embraced her role in ensuring I have a solid foundation at home.  In triumph, we celebrate together.  If I have to lick wounds, she always keeps the good vibes coming.  If I need defending, she throws the first figurative punch (and I’m quite certain she’d throw a literal one need be.  You can take the girl out of Jersey, am I right?)

Her judgement of character and fierce loyalty are second-to-none and I’m still learning to shut up and only hope some of that wisdom rubs off.  Bottom line, she extracts the best from people, and I’m fortunate enough to have a front row seat to God’s purposes for her.

Like I said, Jess, you’re a hero.


Taking Names

A roomful of students, faculty, and smart people took turns as my brother fielded questions after a brilliant seminar, and I was admittedly a bit star struck.  It wasn’t the same star struck as the day I frantically chased Kanye through LaGuardia and convinced him to take my demo back in 2004; this was my twin brother after all.  I’d been adjacent to his climb throughout grade school and college and had a front row seat to his sacrifices.  He’d been chasing his dream since he was a child, and nothing ever seemed to knock him off his path to success.  And his success spoke for itself as he stood there that day, a well-respected doctor in his field.  I listened intently as I gained a new appreciation for his work and his willingness to embrace a few moments of vulnerability.  Although we have traveled vastly different paths, I was the one that felt him that day.  They listened, but I heard him (awesome Wesley Snipes/Woody Harrelson movie reference; look it up).

Ken and I had experienced our father’s battle with cancer together, a battle Dad lost nearly twenty years ago.  My brother channeled that experience and gave meaning to his vision.  He never stops swinging the bat as he honors his patients and their loved ones with a remarkably tender approach.  I always knew he was good, but I gained an understanding for his passion that day.

I admit after twenty five or thirty heartfelt responses to their questions, I was tempted to raise my hand and inquire how it feels to wake up in the morning with such a handsome face peering back in the mirror.  He later told me he wished I had gone for it.  After his talk I quietly approached him in the back of the room to dap him up (we still dap up) and I tipped over a chair en route, causing a significant disruption.  As an esteemed professor gave an eloquent response to Ken’s seminar, he and I stood in the back failing to muffle our laughter.

As I reflected on the moment I realized just how proud I am to be Ken’s brother.  A few years ago, someone asked me if it was tough standing in his shadow.  Actually, he said, “Wow, is it hard that Ken’s kicking your butt in life?”  At the time I had no response to his audacious question.  Mostly because that dude was a 300 pound bodybuilder.  Today, though, I’m very clear in my answer.  I wouldn’t be in my dream job if not for Ken.  His determination was an inspiration for mine.  Granted, my journey has been a bit more unpredictable with trials and errors along the way, but the grand scheme absolutely equipped me for my current role as a mental health clinician and school social worker.  By the way, I'll be gushing about my sister, soon so get ready.

Had I not had a shining example of resiliency I may have caved to pressures instead of refusing to take no for an answer along the way.  I learned to simply embrace what I’m good at.  No, I could never be an oncologist.  But I’m really good at talking to teenagers.  Like really good at it.  And no, I’m not in Ken’s shadow; I’m at the front kicking butt (taking names) with him.


Best Man Business

So.  Ernest "Applejaxx" Owens is my dude.  I had the privilege of being his best man this past weekend.  Here's a piece of my toast:

"Ernest, you are the most empathetic person in my life.  You're considerate of others and you are very deliberate in your relationships.  You're ambitious and your conviction to genuinely cultivate those relationships is uncanny.  Our level of friendship is one most people don't get to experience in life and for that I'm grateful."

If you haven't checked out his brand, do yourself a favor and check him out at http://www.fadacy.com or listen to his music at http://soundcloud.com/fadacy

Find It

My stomach began rumbling around 8 o’clock as I was wrapping up a morning presentation to a classroom of freshmen.  They weren’t hunger pangs, either.  Something was up.  I hoped it would subside before 10 o'clock, as I had a much larger presentation for their entire class on-deck.

The pain worsened as 10 o’clock approached.  Needless to say, I was conflicted.  I tried standing up and couldn’t do so without buckling over.  I found a tolerable position sitting on the edge of the stage as the students filed in and I powered through the hour-long presentation/motivational talk, all from a seated position.  The students were completely engaged and somewhat oblivious to my discomfort.  I wrapped with a few minutes to spare as the adrenaline began to wear off.  Suddenly a student yelled out, “We heard you can spit.  Spit a verse.  We heard you can rap.  So rap.”

Uh oh. 

500 curious students chimed in, and before I knew it I had no choice but to give them something.  What I needed to do was throw up.  Not out of nerves. I’d been in front of that crowd times twenty.  I was just really, really sick.

The rest of that day is a blur.  I ended up in bed for several hours before my brother the M.D. instructed it was time to go get checked.  By 8 o'clock in the evening I was in a hospital gown and by 2 o'clock the next morning I was finally headed home (I’m okay).

In that final moment, though, I had to channel my inner 1997-Game 5-Michael Jordan (he had the flu) and deliver.  The road that lead me to this dream job was a long one with seemingly insurmountable obstacles.  Yes, I was already being handed big responsibilities.  But that’s not why it was so important to deliver.  No, I'm not Jordan but this was a make or break moment.  Students utilize my services only as much as they trust me.  Here was a whole new class of freshmen completely unfamiliar with me and this was the time to win them over.  If just one of them has a crisis in the future and they remember my name because of this moment, then I did my job.

I toyed with the crowd for a second as I insisted I was unprepared and out of practice, but then I hit them with a power verse and their collective heads exploded.  I’m confident their cheers could be heard throughout the building; it was fantastic.

Although my music season ended a few years ago, that day I was able to genuinely identify the full-circle nature of ambition.  Sometimes it’s difficult to appreciate how our past prepares us for our future, but that day it was loud and clear.  I had spent years on big stages in moments I had to “find it.”  Finding “it” isn’t easy.  Digging deep is liberating, though because we realize we’re more capable than we imagined, particularly when others recognize we are the person for the job and trust we will deliver.

 In that moment I was exactly where I was supposed to be, illness and all, and I’m grateful.


Walk with a Limp Part 1: If You're Not Ready to Fall, You're Not Ready to Hurdle (a series for new social workers)

She had that faraway look in her eyes that I knew all too well.  I had been in my new position as a school social worker for just a few months when a new worker from our local child protective services agency responded to my school.  She had been given instructions to conduct an emergency removal, and the child was to be picked up directly from my office.  It took me no time to realize she had never done this before.  She had likely entered the field with abundant enthusiasm, as is often the case with bleeding hearts, but only experience can adequately prepare one for this work.  She’d get there; she just hadn’t taken her lumps yet.  She had likely been walking tall and strong with no sign of slowing down, so this sudden obstacle had the potential to put her on the sidelines.  I couldn’t let that happen so I held her hand through the process, as I had been in her shoes countless times between the years 2000 and 2016.  Removing a child from their caregivers, regardless of the circumstances, is simply unnatural.  I wanted to tell her “how to be,” but “how to be” isn’t a teachable tool.  You have to figure it out.  You have to fall down, get up, fall back down, and get back up.  Once you’re limping, they’ll trust you.

I recall a situation years ago in which I, too had to remove a child from his biological family’s care. The emergency removal took place abruptly and the family didn’t see it coming.  I had been conducting such removals for a long time, but in that moment I realized I would never become desensitized to watching a family crumble before my eyes.  Thankfully, I’d learned “how to be” with this family.  They actually embraced me before I departed with their infant child.  The court didn’t rule in their favor the following week, and yet again, in the parking lot these family members embraced and thanked me.  Let me remind you:  they were the defendants in this case, yet there we were, hugging it out.  Their attorney looked absolutely perplexed and reminded them of the circumstances.  He couldn’t understand their displays of affection. But I knew why.

This family and I had been cultivating a relationship for months.  I had faced the daunting task of coaxing the grandfather out of his bedroom, as previous social workers had reportedly had no luck engaging him in conversation.  This family had recently moved from out of state and were still adjusting to their new city.  In these moments it's important to take in your surroundings, so I started looking around.  On the first home visit I noted the grandson shared his name with a prominent social justice icon.  On the next, I noted the images of Civil Rights leaders adorning their walls.  Although there were issues to be addressed, this was clearly a very proud and community-minded family, so I pieced it all together and gave it a shot.  Within ten minutes, we were all chopping it up.  Coincidentally, I had visited their old neighborhood years previous.  In fact, as a performer I had participated in an outreach concert in the housing development on that very block.  I couldn’t follow every detail they unraveled, but I knew just enough to engage them.  On subsequent visits we continued to build the relationship, and in the midst of some significant concerns that ultimately led to the child removal, a bond had been established.

This is why they didn’t view me as their enemy.  This is why they embraced me as I placed their beloved family member into my car and took him away.  This is why they hugged and kissed me after court with no concrete answers regarding their anticipation of a reunification with their loved one.  But they had hope. 

That’s my word:  give them hope.  If we search for common ground and plant ourselves there, people will respond.  In the midst of difficult decisions, people don’t forget kindness. 

Getting started as a new social worker is hard, but once you face that first figurative hurdle, do yourself a favor and try to surmount it.  Even if you trip, don’t take yourself out of the race.  Walk it off and finish. 

Believe me, you’ll get over that hurdle the next time.  Limp and all. 

If you're not ready to fall, you're not ready to hurdle. 

                                                           -Tonie Campbell



Be Better

I've been a Red Sox fan my entire life.  Picture a 10-year-old kid crying on the couch in 1986 after that ball passed Billy Buck.  Image a 20-year-old kid being subjected to the VHS tape of said error in 1996 upon meeting his future father-in-law for the first time (he's a New Yorker).

The Sox were in my blood long before I had any understanding of their unfortunate history regarding race relations.  So these situations aren't objective to me; I take them personally and I genuinely want to contribute to the turnaround of this narrative.

In case you missed it, a group committed to social justice hung a banner over the Green Monster this past Wednesday night that read Racism is as American as Baseball. I have absolutely no idea how they smuggled that thing into the park.  I was just at a game this past spring and we were preoccupied with our small backpack so bigups for that heist.  The activists were promptly escorted from the park and I'm presuming this was due to recent implementation of a no tolerance/ban policy regarding fan behavior (racist epitaphs and discriminatory remarks, etc.)  Their intentions were clearly misinterpreted.

This was of course an anti-racism quote borrowed from Shaun King of the Black Lives Matter movement.  Sports Illustrated had a good take:

"It was meant to call attention to the prevalence of racism in American society—not, of course, to endorse it—and to compel some blithe baseball fans to take stock of the world around them. Perhaps some of the confusion comes from the fact that some understand 'American' to be a synonym for 'good' or at least to have some sort of positive connotation baked in. It isn’t and it doesn’t to the people who unfurled that banner, and its meaning becomes entirely uncomplicated after accounting for that."

I've already written a chapter about Boston's history of racism and sports that's I'll release shortly.  Turn on local sports radio the morning after such an incident and you'll hear a string of callers insisting Boston should not be labeled as a prejudiced city because the 1970's busing desegregation days are behind us.  Yet these incidents continue to cast a shadow over our region.  I don't defend us, though because my perspective is through a lens of experience:  I've witnessed the dog whistle statements more times than I care to count.  Just this week, two public figures spoke negatively of a local school in my presence.  They made the mistake of presuming I was on their page:  

"It's not the staff over there," one of them said, "I don't like the population."

"We're the minority, now," the other replied.

I wanted to ask them to define "we," as their last names indicated heritages from very different European countries.  The unspoken presumption was that I agreed.  Such statements are unsurprising.  I expect them.  But they hurt my heart.

The incident is a strong reminder that we need to stop insisting racism isn't a reflection of who we are in Massachusetts, and we need to continue to attack the problem. I'm Photoshop illiterate so I had to slap this logo together with what software I had available.  Please share and let's get to work. #bebetterboston #reversetheracism


We Go Higher

"Where were you?" We say it every 9/11.  I vividly recall being instructed to leave work and go home; instructions with which I complied once I confirmed my mother was safe.  She was a flight attendant for American Airlines and her hub was Boston, so needless to say that was the longest fifteen minutes of my life.  Once home  we spent countless hours glued to unimaginable images.  

There are so many directions one can take regarding an effective reflection of our freedom and privileges, but I wanted to focus on the kids.  

We Go Higher, the first documentary by and about the 9/11 Kids, is due out in 2018 and it looks amazing.  Here's the link.



Sunday Night Wind Down: I got some of it done.

I've given myself permission to make the Sunday Night Wind Down a mindless entry.  After church I had a list of chores and projects to tackle and I'm just glad some of them were accomplished.  Yard is trimmed.  Lunches are packed.  Food is prepped for the week (I'll get into my maniacal diet/exercise obsession at some point soon).  Kids are in bed.  Dishes are clean.  Best Man duties for Ernest's wedding are coming along (I'm on fancy sneaker duty, twist my arm I ordered up the J's and they're crisp).

Side of the house is not fully scraped.  Office is still cluttered.  Ugly living room wallpaper is still ugly.

This week is a serious juggle.  I'm looking forward to writing something meaningful once the wheels are ready to start turning again tomorrow.  Peace and love.



It's boring and bland but it'll work.



This wallpaper still mocking me.



Ernest and I are gonna look fly.

Be Humble. Sit Down.

Before church each Sunday morning we sweep the courtyard.  This area is adjacent to the train station and a parking garage; needless to say there's significant foot traffic and shelter-seekers.  Yesterday, my brother-in-law and I were sweeping up the liquor nips, beer cans, empty spliff wrappers, cigarette butts, and discarded lotto scratchers in preparation for church services when a presumably homeless gentleman approached us.  He was pushing a shopping cart full of collected items and wearing a jacket at least three sizes too small.  It was beginning to rain and the temperature had dropped significantly.  My brother-in-law had placed his sweatshirt down while he pushed a broom.

"Whose sweatshirt is that?  Mine is too small,” the gentleman said.

"That's mine.  You can have it," my brother-in-law informed him with no hesitation whatsoever.

A wide grin spread across the man's face as he put it on, thankful for the generosity. 

I later told my sister of the encounter as an explanation for the missing hoodie.  She had no idea what I was talking about because a thorough explanation hadn't been offered.  That's her husband, though.  He's humble.  He didn't need to tell anyone about the encounter or his generosity.  He didn't need to post it up on his FB feed as #blessed #humbled #honored #endhomelessness #justdoingmypart.  Actually, #imsocold would have been acceptable and hilarious.  He just gave away his really dope sweatshirt because he identified a need and he filled it.  That was it.  Jesus' instructions to love as He loved in its purest form. 

The mural on our wall in that very courtyard says it all (see below).

Finally, all of you, be like-minded, be sympathetic, love one another, be compassionate and humble (1 Peter 3:8 NIV).



artist:  Cey Adams

artist:  Cey Adams

Brown Bread vs. Bacalaitos


Jessica won't generally let me do the food shopping because of my attention deficit (yes, this is a confirmed diagnosis).  For me, ADHD is like attempting to carry a load of clean laundry from the dryer   without a basket.  First a shirt hits the ground, then a sock.  If I bend over to pick them up, I drop some underwear and some pants.  Eventually the whole armload falls apart.  If only I had brought a basket.  You get me.  Too many tasks sans proper preparation equals struggle.  

So back to the food shopping (incidental ADHD tangent).  Jessi won't let me go.  She doesn't even like me to join her because I tend to stray and return with non-essentials.  On a recent date night we took a romantic detour to the supermarket and I refused to wait in the car.  While she was tackling her system-committed-to-memory, I found it.  The brown bread.  If you're not from Massachusetts you don't know what you're missing because brown bread was a Saturday night tradition.  Beans, franks, and brown bread from a can. You heard me right, the brown bread is from a can and its bomb.  You slice it with butter and heat it up.  It's full of molasses and other unhealthiness but Mema (our beloved grandmother) nostalgia kicked in and I enthusiastically introduced Jessi to the brown bread.  

She was puzzled:

"I don't understand.  It's in a can?  How is the bread in a can? That's impossible."

Her Facebook post about the brown bread received more responses than she's ever received, as Jessica's Bostonian coworkers and friends confirmed this is indeed a local tradition.

I recall a similar moment in 1996 upon a visit to her childhood home in New Jersey when her mother handed me a fried fritter and said, "Try this bacalaito."  A whole world of Puerto Rican cuisine had recently opened up to me and I enthusiastically took a bite.  Except it wasn't sweet like a piece of fried dough.  It was salty. I needed a second:

"What's in this?" I asked.

"Codfish," she said.

Wait.  There's fish in the fried dough?  Fried dough has butter, cinnamon and sugar.  Not fish.  

I took another bite within my new framework.  Then another. Then I went in for seconds because that fish fried dough was my new jam.

Jess and I have been a couple for twenty one years, and we've established our own household culture while simultaneously continuing to appreciate our respective traditions.  I love Puerto Rican food (I'm partial to dishes prepared by Morales women).  It's now part of my family tradition.  Visiting New Jersey means being welcomed into the home by that delicious aroma.

Similarly, Jess unfolded a brown bread tasting party at our Cape Cod vacation a few weeks later.  Granted, her reaction differed from my bacalaito enthusiasm, but I appreciated the effort.