December 5, 2017

Intentional Domination

Juice Compound Rolls Out Martial Arts Test Camp

U.S. Olympian and camp co-host Stephen Lambdin

On a Friday afternoon in a training hall in Mansfield, Texas, a crew of black belts—each multiple medal winners in national competition—sat quietly and nervously in folding chairs just beyond Pinaroc Taekwondo’s mat.
“Are you ready?” one athlete whispered to another.
“I don’t know,” the teammate replied while twirling a wristband that read “2017 Domination Camp: When winning isn’t enough…”

“I’m kinda nervous.”

The Juice Athlete Compound, a fledgling athletic performance company, is intentionally testing traditional martial arts training regimens to devise the best methods to help today’s athletes dominate the competition—and its first strike was via a test camp in an equaling fledgling community in Texas.

“It’s different,” said Tim Thackrey, nine-time U.S. Taekwondo Team member and coaching and mentoring programmer for the Juice Compound. He folded his arms and a bearded grin slowly appeared.
The camp schedule alone was ambitious, covering mindfulness and mobility, flexibility and footwork, strength and conditioning—and even ice baths to mimic mental conditioning and breathing techniques learned by camp co-host and U.S. Olympian Stephen Lambdin.
Most of the 25 athletes—who traveled from Montana, California, Virginia, and all over Texas—were veterans of elite-level training camps and seminars, but when Thackrey told them to put their sparring pads away, eyebrows tensed.

Two athletes practice a mental exercise on setting intentions.
Intentional Power
Dr. Karen Cogan didn’t coach the athletes through a high-octane warm-up in Session 1. Instead, the sports psychologist for the U.S. Olympic Committee sat them in semi-circles to talk about mental toughness.

Cogan, a former gymnast, has worked with U.S. athletes in six Olympic Games.
“What separates good athletes from great?” she asked the camp. “A mental game.”

Mental preparation as an afterthought is a mistake, she said, adding that at the Olympic level, where competitions are lost by miniscule margins, athletes need to dedicate time to prepare for dealing with the pressure.
Elite athletes need to set aside “time when you’re not doing anything else: Your phone’s not ringing, you’re not texting,” Cogan said. “We’re looking for the edge. (Mental conditioning) is one thing that can give you that edge.”

Athletes paired up for exercises to test the power of setting an intention, and amid giggles of nervousness, some seemed surprised by the results.
Cogan cited Michael Jordan’s “flu game” as an example of competing with an intention, regardless of life’s circumstances. Twenty years ago, despite Jordan having the stomach flu, Jordan scored 38 points to help the Chicago Bulls win that night’s NBA finals game. The Bulls ultimately won the 1997 NBA Championship.

“Some people call it grit—resilience,” Cogan said. “You gotta stay tough, no matter what’s happening around you.”
She recommended athletes begin a daily practice of doing a body inventory; practicing breathing exercises, progressive muscle relaxation, and positive imagery; and moving in mindfulness. Lambdin said these mental conditioning strategies helped him prepare for the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
“I’ve seen much more talented athletes (than me) crumble under pressure,” he said. “It really helped.”

But can athletes completely rid themselves of anxiety?
“There’s no way that’s going to happen,” Cogan said, adding that implementing a daily mental conditioning practice is the key. After that, “you just accept where you are.”

A Thousand-Dollar Kick
Session 2 began not on a Taekwondo mat—but on a sidewalk.

In the humid night air, Thackrey and Lambdin gathered the athletes on the cement path leading to the school to prepare them for the upcoming sessions. They began with their training history.

“We joke around,” Thackrey acknowledged, but stressed that when it’s time to train, “in order to mimic competition, training must reach a heightened state.”

Out on the sidewalk, Thackrey encouraged the athletes to set the following intention for the weekend: “Get comfortable being uncomfortable.”

Lambdin concurred, adding, “The second you enter that room, we’re intense.”

The athletes quietly filed one-by-one into the training hall, and formed four uneven lines.

Lambdin began the evening session’s drills with a quick and curt order to sprint to the other side of the mat.

He led the athletes through fast-paced footwork drills of steps, side steps, front-leg kicks, back-leg kicks, and highly technical combinations, taking the time to emphasize proper hip rotation and foot positions. The athletes went through the drills multiple times. Sweat dropped from chins and T-shirt colors darkened.

“We’re going to hammer this home,” Lambdin said. “(The fighting scenario) has to be real. If it has no intent, we’re wasting our time.”

Lambdin stopped practice to make this point. He offered a female participant a paddle with the following intention: “Kick as if the Olympics was on the line.” She hit the paddle with a sharp pop.

Lambdin offered the paddle again: “Kick as if I were going to hand you a thousand-dollar bill for your hardest kick.” She hit the paddle with a louder, sharper pop.

“Why was the second kick harder?” he asked the athletes. “You can imagine what that bill feels like in your hand. Players need to make their Olympic training as real for them as that bill. They need a thousand-dollar kick.”

Lambdin kept up the conditioning pressure. The drills were challenging for even these athletes, who regularly practice conditioning at their home schools. Periodically, Lambdin would stop to make a point, and the athletes could catch their breath.

Conditioning is vital, Lambdin said, relaying the story of a match he once watched in which the player won despite being down 12 points with seconds left.

“He didn’t stop kicking and he stayed with his opponent,” Lambdin said. “He shouldn’t have won that match. But his opponent wasn’t conditioned.”

Lambdin, left, coaches athletes on the art of fighting from the clutch.

Small Things Win Big Matches
Every session of the camp began on time. Day 2 was no different. Again, camp leaders set an intention. Day 2 was going to be physically challenging, filled with brainy, technical movement drills that challenged athletes to think and move fast. Thackrey, who has a comical side, was unrelentingly serious during the morning sessions.
“Do one more, guys,” he barked, as athletes rested hands on hips. One by one, the athletes each took off down the mat, practicing the drill with focus and determination. During speed drills, the athletes’ feet kicked up so much air that the school’s flags—representing the United States, Republic of South Korea, Philippines, and World Taekwondo Federation—swung and flapped against the gray wall.

Nine-time USA Taekwondo Team member Tim Thackrey keeps athletes light on their feet during ladder drills.
Thackrey, an energetic coach who speaks with his hands, moved with the pace of the athletes. He periodically broke the tension with well-placed humor or encouragement.

“If it feels goofy, good,” Thackrey said, encouraging the athletes to embrace a more relaxed motion and to think outside the box of traditional Olympic-style training regimens.
Then he spotted a struggling athlete. “Did you get that (combination)?” he asked a boy from Houston. The preteen shook his head in disappointment. Thackrey encouraged homework.

“O.K. Go practice at home. You’ll get it,” Thackrey said with a smile and tap on the shoulder.
A smile emerged from the athlete’s lips.

Lambdin remembers when he tapped Thackrey on the shoulder in 2013 with questions about how to improve his competitive performance. He was the Juice Compound’s first client—before the company officially existed.

At Juice Compound, Thackrey, along with Dr. Jason Han and Antony Graf, offers remote coaching, youth empowerment systems. When they started the company, they came up with a five-point vision:
  1. To help athletes and ordinary individuals find meaning in their paths;
  2. To bring passion into working with athletes;
  3. To provide a platform for athletes to succeed in impactful ways;
  4. To push the envelope forward with personal and athletic development; and
  5. To be grateful, and help others live with gratitude as well.
Lambdin said he spent years searching for a program to meet both his sport and life goals.

“The real blessing is that the Juice Compound fit both of those requirements,” Lambdin said, adding, that “nobody knows martial arts and strength training like they do.”
Since joining the Juice Compound, Lambdin says that his injury rate has plummeted. “I’m in better shape, and I feel better than ever,” he said, adding, “They are the reason I made the 2016 Olympic Team.”

Rolando Marin, 10, of Houston gave up a birthday party to attend Domination Camp.

The Best Birthday Present
As the day progressed, Thackrey and Lambdin put athletes through more advanced and challenging drills, making them digest and execute complex movements in real time.

During ladder drills, in which coaches expanded two ropes with evenly spaced rungs, the athletes’ feet quickly tapped the ground, at first sounding like a hard rain, then morphing into a low rumble. Some athletes flew through the rungs effortlessly. Others struggled, missing rungs as they tired.

“Start out slow, then pick up speed,” Lambdin advised. “It’s the small things that win big matches."

As the Olympian’s words echoed across the mat, the smallest athlete in the room was listening. Ten-year-old Rolando Marin of Houston already thought outside the box to get to the camp. As the youngest participant, Rolando felt lucky to be there.

His home school was destroyed by Hurricane Harvey just a month earlier.

“We lost everything,” said his mom, Irasema. “He hasn’t been able to train.”
Rolando desperately wanted to train with Lambdin, who he met at the 2016 U.S. Taekwondo Championships in Detroit. Irasema said that before her son met Lambdin, he wanted to quit Taekwondo. But Lambdin had such an impact on Rolando that he stuck with the sport.
“(Their meeting) changed him,” Irasema said, noting that the Olympian’s humble, down-to-earth nature “made a difference.”
Rolando even sacrificed his tenth birthday celebration to attend the camp.
“He didn’t want a birthday cake or anything. He wanted this instead of a party, so I said, ‘We’ll do that.’”

Master of Mobility
Cory Hill, former member of the U.S. Taekwondo team, strode across the mat in gym pants and perfect posture. Hill, a certified trainer for Physicality—GymnasticsBodies in Washington, D.C., was there to help athletes improve strength through mobility.
He paired athletes in an exercise of bending over one vertebrae at a time and then curving their back up in the same methodical manner.
Hill demonstrated a seemingly effortless pike, then led athletes in a drill meant to strengthen their ax kicks.
Cory Hill leads athletes in mobility drills.
“Actively getting into and back out of position helps with our kicking,” Hill said.

Athletes also practiced a series of stretches to challenge their core.
“Hold for 30 seconds,” Hill coached as athletes grimaced. “It’s hard, I know. It’s called Domination Camp for a reason.”

Hill glided from athlete to athlete, gently moving legs and adjusting torsos to correct posture.
Hill challenged athletes to work on mobility and flexibility.
“Make sure you breathe,” Hill said with a smile. “Breathing is a good thing.”

Hill stressed the difference between flexibility (the ability to stretch muscles) and mobility (elements that allow movement with a full range of motion).
Athletes got plenty of time to practice both, and at the end of the session, they gingerly walk back to the edge of the mat to hydrate and commiserate. It had been a long, grueling day, but there were smiles.

Most admitted that they rarely focus on mobility.

“I’ve never done these exercises before,” said Lydia Rosbarsky, 14, daughter of Missoula Taekwondo Center school owner Steve Rosbarsky. “Just to get my hips to open up more…. I felt stronger. It was so helpful.”

Rosbarsky said she's excited to take the mobility exercises back home to her team in Montana.
Athletes who take advantage of Hill's expertise will be ahead of the game, Lambdin said.

“I discovered him super late in my career,” Lambdin said, adding, “(Mobility) is a huge advantage.”
Ice Baths, etc.
Months before his Olympic debut in Rio, Lambdin traveled to the mountains of Poland to meet and train with Wim Hof. Nicknamed “The Iceman,” Hof is famous for using meditation and breathing techniques while sitting in ice baths—consciously hyperventilating to raise his heart rate, adrenaline, and blood alkalinity. The immediate overall goal is to gain mental control over the body to optimize performance. The long game benefits reportedly include more energy, reduced stress levels, and a stronger immune system.

Lambdin leads athletes in an early morning ice bath.
Photo credit: Jeff Pinorac
On Day 3, Lambdin led athletes to sit in a bin of ice water and practice Hof’s controlled breathing method.
Rosbarsky said she hates being cold. Though she had attended Lambdin-led seminars before, she had never taken the ice plunge challenge.

On Sunday, Rosbarsky submerged slowly into the icy plastic bin.

“(The ice) made your muscles want to tense,” she said later, “but the whole point of the exercise is to breathe through it. You don’t want your muscles to tense.”

Rosbarsky said she and other ice bathers tried to keep their minds off the fact that they were cold.
“We engaged in conversation with other people about how cold it was,” she said. “They were trying to get me to laugh.”

She stayed in the ice bath for about four minutes. (“It felt like 10!” she laughed.) Did she notice a difference?
“For me, it helped to not focus on the actual cold and instead make my breathing normal,” she said.

Rosbarsky said that when she returns home, she plans to apply what she learned in the rivers in Missoula.
Elijah Tatum of Texas asks for clarification on a drill during a question-and-answer session.
Stamina Stretch
It didn’t take long for the athletes to get warm blood pumping again through their icy veins. The day’s conditioning drill was intended to push the athletes to exhaustion, starting with running increasing rounds of laps.
One by one, athletes took a seat when they reached the end of their stamina.
In the end, four were standing.
Elijah Tatum of Dallas wasn’t one of them. But he wasn’t disappointed.
Sweat pouring down his forehead and his previously light gray T-shirt darkened with effort, Tatum was happy with his results.
“I made it to 16 (rounds). A year ago, I would have only been able to do 11 or 12. So I’m getting better.”
Thackrey and Lambdin agreed that conditioning should be a standard part of every athlete’s training.
“Why don’t (you) have power in the third round?” Thackrey asked the winded athletes. “Why do (you) burn out in the third round? Conditioning.”
Elite athletes can’t afford conditioning to be an afterthought, Lambdin said, adding that they shouldn’t think “just because you’re good at (sparring), that that’s going to be enough.”
“You just can’t slap (conditioning) on the end” of training preparation, Thackrey said. “Real conditioning is years in development.”
Finally, the athletes donned sparring gear for the final two-hour session. Amid the sound of the thud of a good kick to the chest guard, their movements were slower than when camp began. Faces were softened by exhaustion—and relaxation. The atmosphere lacked the pre-camp anxiety. Still, the mental intention and focus that the athletes set outside on the sidewalk on Day One remained.
What Next?
Time and competition results will tell whether the camp and its future iterations are a success, Thackrey said. In the meantime, the coaches left the athletes with some last pieces of advice.
Lambdin emphasized three things:

1.     Be responsible: “You’re the only one who will be awake in the middle of the night, 20 years from now, if you don’t achieve your goals.”
2.     Have a spirit of servitude: “People don’t remember what you won, but they will remember how you made them feel. Go out of your way to give back.”
3.     Don’t give up: “I was never the smartest, fastest, or best athlete, but I persevered where others quit…. Stay with it. It’s worth it!”
Thackrey kept it simple:
“Get good people around you, and hold them to the highest standard.”

October 27, 2017

Life Tips for a One-Month-Old

“If there’s a NICU rocker in the house, can you come to Bay 3?” I heard on the hospital intercom. The baby girl I was rocking was asleep in my arms, so I returned her to her bed and answered the call.

When I walked into Bay 3, I saw the familiar, relieved smile of a tired nurse who desperately needed help with a fussy boy so that she could finish charting before her shift ended.

She was about to go home.

And when I saw a car seat sitting on the floor near his bed, I knew Fussy Boy would be going home soon, too.

“He’s doing really well,” the nurse said. “REALLY well. We’re so happy he turned a corner.”

I settled into my rocker with a pillow to cradle my elbow. When she handed him to me, Fussy Boy was warm. Baby warm. I don’t know what the exact temperature is of Baby Warm, but if you hold enough babies, you quickly discover that they have a special warmth: A physical feeling, but more notably a spiritual warmth that melts your heart.

Soon the nurse was off to her computer station, typing away to update her patients’ charts for the next shift. And Fussy Boy, although wonderfully warm, was uncomfortable. Irritable. Fidgety.

So we worked on the first thing that usually calms restless souls: body position. Rocker protocol is to always start with a flat cradle, making sure the baby’s chin is tilted upward enough for good airflow through the throat. So I cradled him flat. He fussed. I moved the pillow to raise his upper body. He whimpered. And then I hit the sweet spot (every baby seems to have one): I held him upright against my chest, patted him gently on his bum, and began humming a slow “Love Will Keep Us Together.”

He couldn’t hear my hums for his crying, but I kept humming anyway. My experience is that at some point, the baby takes a breath, and can hear other things going on besides his own cries. He hears a soothing hum, a vibration from my chest to his, and then his cries slowly lessen.

So I kept humming, patting, and rocking. After that song was over, I moved on to “Muskrat Love.” And when that song was over, he had become quiet. I could tell by the pace of his breathing (and the monitor) that he was falling to sleep.

I was quiet for a long while, enjoying listening to him breathe. I noticed that he had a big 1 on the side of his bed. He was one month old already!

Since I knew he’d be going home soon, I suddenly felt compelled to give him some advice. So I just started talking.

“A lot of what I’m about to tell you is from a book I wrote, which you may never read, so I’m going to give you the CliffsNotes version.

“1. Always respect your parents. At first, you’re going to love your parents. They’ll do everything for you: feed you, clean you, play with you. Then when you get older, they’ll teach you things, take you to the park, and tell you what to do. You may not want to do what they tell you to do. In fact, you’ll probably get really mad at them at times. It’s O.K. to be angry at someone you love. But be respectful. They’ll be mad at you some day, too, but that doesn’t mean they don’t love you. No matter how mad you get, even if you’re right about something even though they say you’re wrong, show respect. I’m saying a prayer for you right now that you have a good, strong, loving relationship with your parents. I didn’t have that. It was hard for me. And I don’t want that for you.

“2. Always say hello to your mom and dad when they come home from a long day at work. Until you’re old enough to take care of yourself—pay for your own food, shelter, transportation—they’re going to work hard to provide for you. They may have had the most absolutely horrible day, and you saying hello and being present might just be the love they need at that very moment.

“3. Never lie. Unless your life is in danger. Seriously, just don’t. It’ll get you in so much trouble and cause pain for you and those around you. It’s so hard to remember a lie, anyway, but you always know the truth, so just stick to that. Now, when you’re older, if you decide that you like to write stories, then it’s O.K. to write fantasy books (hint, hint). But, dude, just don’t lie. Life’s so much easier that way.”

Fussy Baby became fussy again, but he was well on his way to a good nap, so I switched to cradling him in my left arm.

“Do you have siblings?” I asked. “Well, No. 4 is a real challenge. Always try to have a good relationship with your siblings.”

He made a sour face.

“Oh, so you already know what I mean?” I chuckled.

“Yeah, this is a hard one. It’s hard for me, and, boy, I’ve made some mistakes. But your siblings are training-wheel relationships—practice for how to communicate, collaborate, and cooperate with others. You’ll build puzzles together and maybe have sword fights in the back yard. And you may tell them your fears and dreams. Then sometimes they’ll be annoying. So try to be patient.

“5. Eat your fruits and vegetables. When you get old enough to chew and digest real food, you’re going to LOVE to eat. And there’s some really tasty food out there. But don’t forget to eat stuff like broccoli, spinach, apples, bananas, oranges, cauliflower. This stuff is really good for your body, and will help you grow and stay healthy. Your parents may want you to try certain foods. Don’t be stubborn. Try it. You might like it!

“6. Speak up for yourself. Tell others when they’ve done or said something that hurts. If they love you, they’ll hear you, apologize, and not repeat the behavior. If they ignore your words, you might want to walk away. And make sure you apologize when you've done the same. Never be afraid to own up to your mistakes.

“7. Trust your instincts. And if adults tell you to keep a secret, just between you and them, that’s a sign that you DEFINITELY need to tell someone. Go to someone you trust and tell. You won’t get in trouble.

“8. Don’t do drugs. Just don’t. Trust me on this, nothing good comes from it. I did it. O.K.? Full disclosure here, I drank a lot and experimented with drugs, and it didn’t turn out well. Now I’m better, but I wasted a lot of Earth time with chemicals. I know that when you get older, your school friends are going to want you to try drugs and alcohol. So if you don’t mind, I’m going to plant a little seed here. You ready? ‘I don’t like drugs and alcohol. I don’t like drugs and alcohol. I don’t like drugs and alcohol.’ If you stay away from that stuff, you’ll bypass a lot of pain.”

Fussy Boy was no longer fussy; he was now snoozing a soft, nasally hum. The monitors indicated that he was in a deep sleep when the new shift’s nurse came over to check on us.

“I see a car seat on the floor over there,” I said. “I know what that means!”

“That’s right,” she smiled. “He’s about to go home!”

“Did you hear that?” I asked No-Longer-Fussy Boy, though he was fast asleep. “You’re about to go home, where there won’t be so many noises, lights, beeping monitors, and round-the-clock assessments. You’re going to love home. You’ll get so many more cuddles from your parents.”

No-Longer-Fussy Boy smiled. Or burped, depending on your interpretation. I slowly rose from my rocker, placed him gently into his bed, and tucked the baby blue polar bear blanket under his body.

“Have a great life,” I said as I left. “We’re so glad you’re here.”

June 29, 2017

Baby Rockin' 101

Every week, someone spouts an excited variance of, “I didn’t know you could volunteer to rock babies. Didn’t even know that was a thing. Can I do it?”

Why, yes, you can, and in a minute, I’ll tell you how. But first, I want to tell you why.

Marvel Lanagan was Mare’s friend, and so she was mine too. Marvel and I bonded over giggles and a deep love of other people's babies. Neither of us had children, yet both of us loved them.

Marvel volunteered once a week in the nursery of St. David’s Medical Center in Austin, and she would share stories of how wonderful it was to rock babies.

“Oh, I didn’t know you could volunteer to rock babies. Didn’t even know that was a thing. I want to do that!” I often said.

“You should,” she often replied with a wide smile. “You’d be good at it.”

I never did.

One day at work, Marvel, at age 45, collapsed in her cubicle. Her heart suddenly stopped. A coworker found her, EMS was called, and she was resuscitated, but she’d been without oxygen too long.

Marvel died nine days after doctors removed all life support.

I remember grieving deeply. I remember not wanting to train for an upcoming triathlon. I remember crying at work. And I thought of the babies. Who’ll rock the babies now? I couldn’t do it.

Years later, after much introspection via a 12-week program called The Artist’s Way, I wrote down a bunch of bucket list items. “Baby rocking” was high on the list. So I began researching how to make that happen. Here’s what I did.
This isn't me. Photographs are not allowed at St. David's
due to HIPPA patient confidentiality rules.

Intro to Baby Rockin'

1.     Choose a hospital.
I knew St. David’s had a baby rocking program, and there was a hospital 10 minutes away from my home. So I searched the hospital’s website and clicked on its Volunteering page. Turns out there’s A LOT of ways to volunteer. I had no idea. St. David’s has Community, College, and Teen Summer volunteer programs.

2.     Choose a program.
Don’t let your eyes glaze over when you click on Volunteer Opportunities. At St. David’s, a person can volunteer for everything from the gift shop and information desk to the emergency room. You must be at least 25 years old to volunteer as a NICU rocker, but check out the official job description: “Provides compassionate nurture to NICU infants by rocking and holding eligible patients.” Sweet!

3.     Apply online.
St. David’s has an easy, year-round online application process. Very convenient.

4.     Interview.
After I filed my online application, a Volunteer Services staff member sent me an e-mail to set up an interview. I sat in a small office with two women who asked me all kinds of questions. I knew they were trying to gauge whether I was a baby stalker nut. (I’m glad they realized I wasn’t.) It was a great conversation. We talked about the typical interview topics (“What’s your greatest strength/weakness?”) and then they got to the point: "Why do you want to rock babies?"

I told them about Marvel.

5.     Undergo a drug screening and thorough background check.
Wouldn’t you want to know that the person rocking your baby isn’t a baby rocker stalker nut? Me too. So St. David’s takes a while to do a diligent screening, including carefully checking all character references. I had no problem waiting. It actually made me feel good that the hospital went to such great lengths to ensure that all volunteers are the people they say they are, and that their patients are safe.

6.     Attend volunteer orientation.
The next month, I attended the all-hospital volunteer orientation held in the evening in a large conference room at the hospital. I got a free sandwich and LOTS of interesting information. I learned about facility policies and procedures, HIPPA patient confidentiality rules, and that Code Adam means someone is trying to run off with a baby and that I should immediately guard the nearest exit. (The black belt in me knew I could do this without a problem. Come at me, bro'!)
At the end of orientation, we took a test and then signed final documents in a thick agreement packet.

7.     Get your flu shot, and prove that all your immunizations are up to date.
I couldn’t find my childhood immunization records. Could you? No worries. There's now a cool blood test that can detect whether you have the chicken pox, measles, and mumps immunizations in your system. Ah, the wonders of science! (FYI: The flu shot is non-negotiable. You either get it or you don't volunteer. St. David's is serious about not spreading viruses and infections.)

8.     Pick a day and time to volunteer.
In the NICU, volunteers are required to commit to a year of service for at least three hours a week. I’ve been rocking babies every Wednesday night, 6 p.m.-9 p.m., for almost two years and have no plans to stop any time soon.

9.     Attend training session in your department.
On a Friday afternoon in early December 2015, I started my journey by learning the importance of scrubbing thoroughly before entering the unit (protocol calls for washing your hands for 20 seconds; that's equal to singing Happy Birthday twice). St. David's is serious about halting the introduction and spread of infection. They even have little plastic filers to help scoop out dirt under my fingernails.

Next to washing my hands, the other important thing to remember was to always pull on surgical gloves before touching a baby. After that, I got coached on how to cradle a baby’s head to ensure good airflow and how to maneuver around wire connections. In no time the nurse trainer asked if I was ready to hold one. I suddenly got scared. (My mind was screaming, "Don't break the baby! Don't break the baby!") I gulped, sat in a rocking chair, and she handed me my first patient. Rocking that baby was such a blast. I was so proud of myself!

My trainer was so nice, and she gave me small yet important tips such as, "Some premature babies have imbalance issues, so don’t rock so fast."

My great nephew, Landon, was born in Corpus Christi that same Friday. He had fluid in his lungs, so he spent some time in the NICU.  My niece was frantic. But I learned that Friday that some babies go to the NICU for this kind of stuff all the time. It's common and temporary. Their lungs just need a little help learning how to breathe on their own. My niece was relieved when I told her that she didn’t have to be afraid. All those tubes and wires connected to her little boy were for good reason, and everything would be alright.

10.Rock on!

I hope this blog post helped answer some basic questions about volunteering as a baby rocker in your area. If your local hospital doesn't have a rocker program, show them this blog post and ask to start one!

If you have any other questions, shoot me an e-mail at, or check out your local hospital’s website under Volunteer Opportunities.

Happy Rockin’!

June 2, 2017


The other night during my baby rocking shift in the NICU, I saw that J. was awake, so I pulled on the standard purple latex gloves, leaned over the bedframe, and started talking to him.

J. has a mass on his head, and he’s most likely blind. Nurses aren’t sure whether he can hear. J. has been in the NICU for months now, and he needs stimulation. So I just decided to talk to him for a while, whether he could hear or not.

He's a sweet boy. Patient. Curious. Sometimes scared about things he obviously doesn't understand. I found that rubbing his belly while talking to him works to calm his spirit. (Maybe he feels the vibration of my voice. Maybe it's my imagination.)

I slowly and softly rubbed his belly while I told him my version of an old Zen story of the farmer and his horse.

“There once was a farmer who had a horse. One night there was a terrible storm, and the lightning scared the horse so much he busted out of the corral. The next day the farmer realized his horse was gone.

“His neighbor said, ‘Now you don’t have a horse to plow the fields. That’s terrible!’

“And the farmer said, ‘Maybe.’

“Two days later the horse came back with two mares. They all trotted right into the corral.

“And the farmer’s neighbor said, ‘That’s terrific!’

“And the farmer said, ‘Maybe.’

“The next day, the farmer’s only son put a saddle on one of the mares to tame her, but when he climbed on, she bucked wildly. She threw him down on the ground so hard that he broke his leg.

“And the farmer’s neighbor said, ‘That’s awful!’

“And the farmer said, ‘Maybe.’

“Days later, a war broke out, and the emperor sent a group to the area to draft young men for his army. Well, the farmer's son had a broken leg. He couldn’t serve, so they left.

“And the farmer’s neighbor said, ‘That’s terrific!’

“And the farmer said, ‘Maybe.’ ”

By now, J. was peacefully sucking on his binkie. His eyelids had started a now-familiar, slow, downward droop. He was falling asleep. And so I left him with my moral of the story.

“J., maybe you’re blind. Maybe you’re deaf. Whether these are bad things depends on perspective. There is likely a gift in you that none of us recognize. So you hang in there. You grow into the man you’re supposed to be, because your story hasn’t been written yet. And even if it had, maybe—just maybe—the ending will change into something completely different.”

J. fought sleep, but sleep was winning, so I pulled off the latex gloves and left his side.

The nursing staff know all the medical jargon and reasons why J. might be in for a challenging life. But I have to remember that medicine—the physical realm—is only part of the picture of this little boy’s life.

Is it a tragedy that he’ll be blind and possibly deaf?
As the farmer often said, “Maybe.”

May 24, 2017

Father Figure

Facebook tells me today that I’ve been friends with Ivan Ujueta for four years.

This is a lie.

We’re not friends.

Our sometimes-complicated relationship has always been more than that—for much longer than that. And it’s something for which I’m deeply grateful today.

Kyoshi Ivan (kyoshi is a title given to karate masters) was a father figure to me during the years in which I had no relationship or contact with my alcoholic father. Kyoshi was my first karate instructor, and I idolized him. He was strong, confident, and generous. As a karate instructor, he was tough, demanding, and inspiring.
Kyoshi Ivan Ujueta of the Professional Karate Institute in San Antonio
I remember the first time I saw him 25 years ago at a San Antonio mall. I gazed with other onlookers through a glass storefront window while he taught a bunch of karate kids. He had a bald head, a finely trimmed goatee, and arms to rival Popeye. I was mesmerized, and I pretty much stayed that way the entire time I trained with him.

Oh, let's be frank: he scared the crap outta me, too.

There were many days when I was sure I’d die during one of his workouts. He taught jukido (“the gentle, powerful way”), an eclectic blend of half a dozen Japanese, Chinese, and Korean martial arts. I was terrified almost every day on the mat. He made me get over my fear of rolling (I might break my neck), falling (I might break my arm), and sparring (I might die for lack of oxygen).

There were many tests I was sure I’d fail. I never did.

There were times—fewer and thus that much more memorable—when he praised my performance and technique in front of my classmates.
He helped me through many dark days of early sobriety. I doubt he realized this. He was so important to me. I wanted to be like him in so many ways. I loved him dearly, as I would my own father.
When I moved away two years later to take a job at a newspaper in Austin, I left with mixed emotions. By then, we had grown spiritually close, and then grew spiritually apart, for we held different views. The details are unimportant, for the ultimate outcome is more telling:

When I opened Tao of Texas Martial Arts Institute in 2006, he was the first instructor I hosted for a seminar. My students loved him, and some still talk about his dynamic, powerful presence.

Through the years, we have somehow maintained a special relationship. Few may ever really get how much we mean to each other. And that’s O.K. No one else has to understand. A higher power put us together at the same place and the same time for different reasons. We each honored that meeting, and that's all that matters to me.

So, Facebook, thanks for the (erroneous) reminder. Kyoshi and I have been more than friends for more than four years, and today, I’m grateful.

April 27, 2017

A Prayer Letter to a Teen in Pain

Second in a series

The letter below was written to a suicidal teen who's been going through a tough time after a breakup. The name has been changed to protect his identity.

Dear Kyle,

You probably don’t remember me, but I’ve been on the outer circle of your life from the beginning. (I visited you the day you were born, attended your bris, watched a few college football games with you and your mom and dad when you were a toddler, and have kept up with your soccer feats through your mom’s Facebook posts.)

I know you’ve been struggling. I’m sending you massive healing chi and prayers, but sometimes the best prayer is the one in which people share something hard that they’ve gone through in the past in hopes that it might comfort someone else today. You’re my “someone else.” So here goes:

When I was your age, books and academics were my friends. Socially, I was pimple-faced and awkward, scared to become vulnerable enough to have a relationship with anyone. I stayed single for the first half of my life because I was so afraid to open my heart and get it crushed. I was 22 when I had my first relationship. It lasted three months, and after it ended, I plummeted into a deep depression. I slowly regained my footing, but it took seven years for me to gather enough courage to have another relationship. That one lasted a whopping eight months, and it was after that breakup that I hit an emotional and spiritual bottom. (This turned out to be a good thing.)

I was depressed. I cried constantly. I felt like throwing up and fainting several times a day. The grief was overwhelming—almost too much to bear. I lost my job because I couldn’t function. I was sleeping on a friend’s couch because I didn’t have a place to live anymore now that I moved out of my girlfriend’s house. (She wanted to still be friends. But I was in too much pain. I couldn’t be around her.)

One day I was sitting on the edge of my friend’s couch, and I was crying so hard that snot was dribbling down my blouse. I didn’t care. I thought I was going crazy, telling her, “I think I need to go to a hospital.” Before she could respond, the phone rang. And I sat on the couch and cried some more. Then I had a moment of clarity, and I prayed.

“God, if I’m going to go crazy, let’s get it over with, because I can’t do this anymore.”

You see, I was afraid that if I felt the depth of my pain, that if I LET GO, that I would either go crazy or die, or go crazy and then die because of all the strain crying put on my heart. In the moment, either one was better than keeping the pain inside me. I had finally reached the point of letting go. I was willing to cry myself into insanity, and you know what? I didn’t go crazy. I didn’t die.

My friend interrupted my tears: “It’s for you,” she said, handing me the phone. “Some doctor."

I picked up the telephone and discovered that in a grief haze, I had called a counselor the day before for an appointment.

“It sounds like you’re having a rough time today,” the counselor said. “How’s 3:30?”

I don’t remember calling the counselor, but spiritually, her call for me that day was perfectly timed. I went to that appointment, even though I couldn’t afford to pay, and she allowed me to continue therapy for a few more sessions until I could get on antidepressants that worked for me and get back on my feet. I don’t remember her name, and I don’t even know if she was real. It doesn’t matter. She’ll always be an angel to me.

That was the absolute lowest point of my life, and Life waited until I was in my early 30s to hand me this lesson and this amount of pain to overcome. You’re just 16. So I can only imagine how hard and scary and overwhelming all the pain is for you right now.

Here’s what changed: I had loving people in my life who helped me see my value. Hilda C. was one of them. She challenged me to take myself out to restaurants and NOT bring a book—to just sit there with ME. To practice having a relationship with ME. I gotta admit: This was incredibly uncomfortable. But she helped me see that at the core, there were some things that I didn’t like about myself. Once those realizations surfaced, she helped me work through those things—to find peace with the things I didn’t like by working little by little to change those things. More over, she helped me recognize the things that I LOVE about myself. And today, after many years of practice, I LOVE me in a lot of ways. I even cherish my alone time. I’ve gone to movies, lunches, concerts, and even vacations alone. I decided that I was worthy of love, and that I wasn’t going to wait around for a partner to start living my life and having adventures.

I spent three more years alone, and in that time, I focused on getting my chemistry stabilized. (I still take antidepressants because depression runs in my family; it’s hereditary and it’s not my fault.) I focused my energy on doing things that I loved: martial arts, writing, reading, and service work. I practiced vulnerability with friends who were much safer and less scary than a romantic love interest.

Today I’m happily married to a woman named Marianna. She’s been my partner for almost 20 years. I couldn’t even put together 20 months in a relationship before her. And today I can say that I’m so incredibly grateful that THOSE OTHER RELATIONSHIPS DIDN’T WORK OUT. I had no idea what was waiting for me. When I was in my grief, I felt so lonely and alone. I didn’t think anyone would understand my pain, so I didn’t talk about it. All I could see was what I wanted and couldn’t have, and I didn’t think anyone else would want me.

I was so wrong.

The Universe has a wicked sense of humor. All those failures in relationships weren’t failures at all. They were lessons I needed to learn that would make it possible for me to be with someone like Mare, who was working on her issues, too.
Thank goodness for Hilda and my current mentor, Catheran. They taught me how to build higher self-esteem. They taught me that I was a wonderful person all by myself. They taught me how to love myself and treasure my gifts. They taught me that life can be good with or without a girlfriend or boyfriend.

This is such a hard time for you. I feel your pain. Truly I do. I also know that if I would have hung on to my pain, it would have killed me. I had to let go—as scary as it was to do. I had to believe that there was something better out there for me—something worth living and fighting for: ME.

If you can, Kyle, I urge you to let go, but don’t give up. These are two very different things. Letting go is harder than giving up. Giving up is so final. Letting go takes courage, but is so freeing.

So that’s my story. I hope you get something out of it. And if you’d like to meet for ice cream sometime and talk more, I’ll buy. Please don’t give up hope. Better, happier days are closer to you than you think.

With love and respect,