Thoughts from a friend

At the core of goal setting is a deep dive into your definition of what it means to make an impact with your time and resources while you are on the Earth.  Yet, goals are viewed as an end, not a means.  Too bad that isn’t true.

To many, the goal is the end.  Google “goal setting,” and it is likely that you end up on a page that lists out specific goals, with lots of stories about the people and how they achieved them.  You’ve seen the lists.  They include items like:

  • Achieve a physical milestone-lift such and such a weight, run a distance, etc.
  • Go to the Super Bowl/World Series/Master’s, etc.
  • Have a certain number of people follow you/like you/provide dopamine hits to your brain to justify the effort put into your social presence
  • Be a guest star on Oprah (yes, I read online that someone really has that as their goal)

It takes no effort at all to realize that the act of stating your goals exposes how shallow and self-centered we humans are when it comes to defining the value of goals.

After all, the true definition of the value of a human is the impact that they make in the lives of others, one decision at a time.

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Moments before puking

One of my best friends recently resigned from a job to take a new, lesser paying job, so he would have time to execute on what he thinks is his life purpose.  My friend is an engaging teacher, who loves to share his understanding of Biblical passages and blend them with anecdotal stories from the real world.

My friend’s tools include his understanding of ancient Greek and a cumulative total of the all the mornings he has spent listening to and reading the Bible.  My friend also adds to his exposure on the topic by listening to podcasts, both related and unrelated, while working out.  He immerses himself in scripture, as a discipline, like I do with running, cycling and strength training.

But there are literally tens of millions of people with the focus and dedication of my friend.  Those efforts don’t separate him from people like you and me.  But his life experiences do.

You see, his wife left him 7 years ago, using only a hand-written note to announce her departure.  Then, she convinced their two children to have nothing to do with him.  He has been intentionally separated from his children, grandchildren and their livelihood, based only on the words of a single, mentally ill woman.  He is recently recovering from a heart attack that he knows, deep down, was preventable.  My friend was given a 3rd chance.

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My friend, at Tengboche, on the way to Everest Base Camp

When I think about what persecution means, the visualization I get includes my friend.

Yet, with all that noise, the inner voice telling him, “you need to teach,” has been loud and is only getting louder.  His choice to take less money to have more time shows his courage to follow his heart and his intuition.  Best of all, My friend remarried, and his new wife supports him completely.    My friend had to experience pain and manage it, in ways that I can only imagine.

No pain, no gain.  You have heard that before.  What is missing in that phrase is whose pain and whose gain are we talking about.   My friend has taken his personal pain and is making it into our gain.  I look forward to hearing his latest teachings.

Sharing what you have learned from your pain is, after all, how you make an impact on humanity.

What pain have you experienced that you can share?

We are all listening.

Race reports and Waffle House

This entire blog was a discovery and a commitment that the things that pass through my mind as I train for and reflect upon big-deal events shouldn’t be kept to myself and the family and friends close enough to hear my stories.  Sharing here refines me as a person as I transcribe them, and it keeps me humble.

The concept of a race report has evolved.  If you google “triathlon race reports,” you can find lots of places where folks dump their “Here is what I did.  Here is what happened.  Here is what I learned.” commentary.  These writings now are a mini-part of history, and based on feedback I have received over the years, they make a difference to you.

Alex Gaura at the end of a 50K Ultra marathon
Father and Son at the finish line of a 50K race

Media tries to pull competition reports out of athletes during post event interviews, often before the athlete has processed what happened.  When the camera is running, the athlete defaults to a script of, “we played a great team today,” or “We were able to maintain our focus,” comments, knowing good and well that whatever they say would be held against them.  Truth be told, the athletes themselves have yet to formulate a coherent thought about what just happened.  How can they?  They haven’t debriefed in a safe environment with their peers and coaches.

When I watch my TV interview after my first World Championships, I see that I had no idea what I was saying.  The only thing I remember was committing to return one day, with my wife in tow, as I know she would love Portugal and Spain.  Hopefully, I will be able to honor that promise in 2019.

 

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Being Silly at the start of the National Championship

My race reports started when I got to participate on stages that I never dreamed of being allowed to stand on.  The primary reason I put them to pen was to address the fact that I was telling different parts of the same story to many different people.  And, my propensity to let my 2-foot-long fish to grow into a 3-foot-long fish by the end of the story’s third telling gets royally squashed when I put the details to pen.

A short and sweet race report often happens to my wife via text message after the event.  “Race is over.  Alex and/or I won our age groups.  Going to Waffle house.”  Sometimes, it takes the social form of a post on FB or Instagram.  I like stupid poses the best-reflects my own blend of silliness and discipline.  See above.

And yes, we really like Waffle House.  And yes, we know that you just fired us.

However, it is over that meal at Waffle House when we discover what happened and what we can perhaps do differently next time, to get better.  Amazing thing how such low-quality food cooked behind the counter can really change our thinking.  I’ll take another hot tea, please.

Why I do this?

I get asked, just like you do, ¨what did you do last weekend?”

As an endurance athlete at heart, my one sentence answers of distances traveled on bike and on foot can be viewed as prideful boasting or attempts to make a point.  Indeed, many people don’t know what to do with my answers and often respond with something that parallels, “that sounds uncomfortable,” or “why would anyone ever do that?”  Since I have had a couple of those responses in the last few months, I am writing this blog.  You see, my answers are a part of my faith.

At the core of the question, “what did you do with your free time?” lies the fundamental assumption that we all are striving for either more comfort or to maintain the joy that which we have found.  When they hear 100 miles of cycling or 50 miles of running, there is an unspoken conclusion that these events were NOT comfortable.  Some normal people  conclude that these events are a form of lunacy and create an outcome opposite of what would have happened if I had stayed with family at home.  Dead wrong.

I have not built my definition of comfort on those worldly premises.  Comfort is not a big house or an ever growing 401(k).  Comfort is not safe physical spaces filled with people you love and wholove you back.  As a Christian, I have a promise that following Christ will not be “comfortable” in the world’s definition.  Indeed, Christ tells us that the act of following him will result in suffering, and sacrifice is an inseparable part of Christian identity.

I find “comfort” when I am stripped down to raw emotion, unfettered with my thoughts or current events.  When my spirit and emotions are rubbed down to their barest of levels, I get insight into my own identity that doesn’t happen if I am going out to eat with family or working on yard projects.  In my Christianity, this is called faith “like a child,” because it is unencumbered by the world’s opinion.  I intentionally push myself to places that require heroic effort to reach.  Women with children understand this journey.  Women are quick and confident when they share how becoming a mother changed them more than any other life event.  I have spoken to female endurance athletes who say the act of childbirth has much in common with endurance racing.   The act of completing these tasks is cleansing and full of renewal.  Unfortunately, more people see endurance racing like going to funeral rather than childbirth.

Like all endurance athletes, though, there is baggage associated with these extremes.  There always is a “what’s next,” side to conversation with family, friends and peers, and it is nearly always assumed that there is a next one on the list. My wife is sure that I will never have enough of a challenge.  She hears me say, ¨”I will NEVER run the Badwater 135,” and hears, “maybe he will one day.”  It disturbs her.  She gets upset that I will get hurt.  She fears having a disabled husband who could have prevented the entire incident if he had just a bit more self-control.

Like most wives, she is right.  But there is more to it.

For those of you who seek traditionally defined comfort, you are normal.  But, do you really think that leaving behind an untested, well-preserved body is how God made you, or were his parables in the bible attempts at humor?

God tells a story in the book of Matthew called the parable of the talents.  In this story, talents are coins, but meant to serve as an analogy for God given gifts. In the story, a master entrusts each of three different servants with a fixed amount of coins.  Two of the servants invest their talents and yield a return.  When the master returns and seeks accountability for the gifts, they show what they did with their talents.  They are well received and respected by their master.  However, one servant fears failure and the risk associated with a bad outcome. He chooses not to use his talent but instead hides them awaiting his master’s return.

These talents are symbolic of the gifts that God gives us, and our bodies are one of them.  Using your body as God intended includes sacrifice and risking the unknown.  The obesity rate in our country shows how far Christian sacrifice has been replaced with Worldly comfort for modern Christians.  Using your body as it is intended to be used means that you must risk the unknown, and sometimes, that includes suffering.  In addition to the childbirth analogy, the adage quoted in nearly every gym of “no pain, no gain,” is an indication that in the world of fitness, suffering is a pre-requisite to achieving growth.

I cannot find comfort by hiding my gift under the rock of safety.  My faith calls me to find comfort in expanding my talents, and this necessarily includes using my body.

Risk aversion as a Christian is also problematic.  If we look at the servant who took no risk, the master responds to him, calling him, “lazy and evil.”  I have no interest in hearing that label applied to me on judgement day, considering who will be speaking it.  Just like sacrifice and suffering, help minimize the risk of heart disease and diabetes, I have the ability to control the outcome by saying, “yes,” when others say, “no,” and “no,” when others say, “yes.”

I want to die knowing I challenged the shallow definition of comfort and took my commitment to my faith as intended.  Last year, I feared both the Badwater Cape Fear and the Annapurna 100 Ultra Marathons.  This year, I am doing two World Championships with my son watching me.  Yes, I am scared, but that is a part of the reason I am doing it.

There is not enough space to write about the importance of asking what scares you and how it is impacting your choices to play it safe. The enemy wants you to play it safe.  The enemy is looking forward to you putting your “you” under a rock and awaiting Jesus to return in glory.  I, for one, am not going to listen to the enemy in this matter.

That is why I enjoy being an endurance athlete.

That is why I AM an endurance athlete.

 

Maybe

I can’t count the number of times I meet people in association with reading.  As a traveler, I am keen to see the differences of a changing geography as it passes in front of me: new mountains, beautiful blue rivers, new coastlines, etc.  Yet, a person reading a book in public seems to always get my attention.  Indeed, starting a safe conversation about the contents of a book leads me to accidental introductions.  Other readers whom I met unexpectedly often trigger my next reading project.

The unspoken story that is a part of seeing someone absorbed in a book, inspire me to do what I am doing, right now.  People love a story.  They love ideas to make them think, and they love the comfort of the idea be presented in the threat free environment of the book that they can set aside without offending anyone.

We live in a time when not offending people is perceived as nearly paramount.  It stinks that challenging people is now confused and even equated to offending them.  We are losing our culture.

Let me challenge you, though.

Maybe.

Just Maybe.

You feel an itch to write.  Yes, you love reading.  Yes, you love curling up with a book.  Yet, you KNOW that there are barriers to writing that you can’t wrap your head around.  The time required.  The focus.  The money.  Did I mention the time?

Yet, the desire, however muted, lingers.  Eines Tages.  That is a German phrase I learned in college and use when I travel in Europe.  It translates as “once upon a time,” or “maybe one of these days,” in colloquial English.  I use it when someone presents me with a call to action that currently no place in my life to fit without me changing how I spend my day.

Before I started to write, Eines Tages was my phrase to handle the thought that perhaps one day I would write, once I got around to it.   I would get around to writing that book..that blog…that story…that tale.  So I told myself.

Eines Tages.

I had an unexpected and unpredicted athletic occurrence that started this blog.  At first, writing was difficult, but I had a passion for it.  After 60+ blogs, that passion remains.  That, too, was an unexpected as the events that lead up to thoughts in training.

What do you have going on right now that has the ability to impact the future like a piece of your mind in the form of written words?  That question hit not just my heart, but it provoked action.  And you, my follower, are reading the result of that action.

Like all writers, I had to sacrifice to make writing a part of my lifestyle.  My choice isn´t for everyone.  I chose to work less.  I decided to take a smaller paycheck in order to free up the time needed to write.

As I ask the question, “What is it that I like about the writers whose work I appreciate?” Is it THEIR story, or is it how they tell it?  More often than not, I am drawn in by the story and not the words used.  Looking into a mirror, I see that with my own writing.  I like my stories more than the words I choose.   I seldom write to get out a esoteric thought.  I write to get out a story of a real event that impacted me.  My stories seems to include bikes and running shoes for odd reasons.

The ultimate “why write” resides in writer´s ability to pass meaning from our current culture to the next one.  I get a sense of responsibility when I see that my writings represent a part of our future’s history.  God knows I don’t want MSNBC or FOX News to be the main entities who detail what the next generation thinks happened in the world or what was of interest.

Go pass it on.  Go write something.  Use paper or a computer and get the idea out.  Even a rough draft can become a masterpiece.

 

Alex Gaura at the end of a 50K Ultra marathon

Jump Start on 2018

Athletically, 2017 ended on a high note. My son attempted AND completed his first Ultra Marathon, as the last race of the year.  I have so much gratitude as I review last year.

  • I didn’t get injured! Thank you, Pilates!
  • I attempted two difficult Ultra Marathons: Bad Water and Annapurna, and I was successful at both! I completed 5 Ultras in 2017-three years ago, I couldn’t run down the driveway without pain.
  • I PR’d a standard distance duathlon that just so happened to be a World Championships (WCH), after age 50! Yahoo!
  • I qualified for and signed up for a double World Championship in Denmark next year with my son. Two WCH in 2 days is exciting and requires a whole new sort of racing fitness that I have not ever tried to develop.
Alex Gaura at the end of a 50K Ultra marathon
Father and Son at the finish line of a 50K race

Success in 2018 will require a plan that addresses shortcomings and a plan to get better.

No one progresses in life without a deep dive into what could be improved upon and executing on a plan to get better.  This year, I want to inject some of those philosophies into my daily plan.

To run faster, I need to incorporate not just more running, but more speedwork into my running.  Too often, I train as if the next race is a marathon, and I head out for long, slow runs.  Those long runs benefit a lot of body systems, but they aren’t enough, if the plan is to get faster.  Starting in 2018, my 10-day training cycle includes 2 speed days, up from just 1.   As I get closer to competition, I will increase that to 3 speed days.

To bike faster, I decided I needed a disk rear wheel, hopefully to grant me about 2 mph.  I am already training hard and often on the bike, and the incremental increase with additional training would require more time than I invest today.   That 2 mph may not seem like much, but it is a nearly 10% increase, and all it cost me was a pair of shoes.  Long Story-I sold a pair of shoes in 2015 for some bitcoin.  I sold the bitcoin in December 2017 and bought a Reynolds Rear disk with the proceeds.  Yes, non-criminals are making money on bitcoin, too.

My weaknesses are flexibility and late-night eating.  I am certainly doing nightly stretching, but I am also taking time during the day to do some basic stretching, as well.  As a minor change, there is a part of Pilates class when I conveniently get up to go to the bathroom, as I hate rollovers.  I have decided that I can’t become more flexible if I keep avoiding that which I do not like.  I have since committed to staying in the class during rollovers.  Sounds silly but doing what you don’t like is part of growing up.  Isn’t that what we ask of others when we expect them to change their behavior?  Can’t lead if you don’t practice what you are preaching, right?

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TRX Training at a Pilates Studio

As I have repeatedly blogged, we all need “why” behind what we are doing that isn’t about us, if it is to have an impact on others.  My wife and I are down to one kid at home, our son Alex.    Next year, the “A” event is the World Championships, followed by 3 days of serious trail running with my son in the mountains of Jotenheimen in central Norway.  That will give me a period of 7 days when I engage in 2 WCH, then run 20 miles a day for 3 consecutive days.  I am calling this my “A Week.” With this being my son’s last summer at the house before heading to college, this trip to Norway represents his high school graduation gift.  I can’t express how grateful I am that he has embraced and even helped plan the events associated with our choice to go to Norway and see the home of Thor, Odin and the like.

I put off until last that which I am the least capable of doing something about, namely, late night eating.  We eat an early dinner, then, something “happens” between dinner and bed and I get a serious case of the munchies.  Sometimes, it includes wine, and that makes this worse!  I have a couple of ideas:

  • Pre-portion out the late-night snacks, so as to prevent spontaneous binge eating.
  • Just say, “no.”
  • Give myself a couple of “free” days each week, say, on Saturday and Wednesday, when I can feel less constrained and restrain myself on the other days.

I am going with the first one…

What is you plan for 2018?  What does it look like?  Have you vetted it with someone you either trust or has shown evidence that they have overcome what you haven’t been able to?

More importantly, why are you doing it?

Good reasons, good plans, good feelings, good citizenship-they go together.  Plan 2018 before Jan1, when the rest of the world attempts this task.

 

 

 

 

The impact of Sunday School on air travel

As I prepared to leave for Nepal to run the Annapurna100 Ultra-marathon, I was excited to have negotiated an entire row of 4 seats, all to myself, for the flight.  I knew that having 4 adjacent seats would make it easy to sleep as we crossed both the Atlantic and Europe, en route to the Middle East.  There is no amount of training or nutrition that can substitute for rest, and there is no chance that I will do well on an Ultra-marathon, at altitude, in a land known for the Earth’s largest mountain range, without good rest leading up the event.

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4 seats, all to myself…so I thought.

Three hours after lift off, I found that the combination of movie watching and eating had made me sleepy.  I stood up and headed to the bathroom before settling into my row of seats to get what I thought would be 8 hours of sleep.  I was grateful that Etihad Airlines had agreed to allocate an entire row of seats for me with no one else sitting in them, and I was quick to share on Facebook using the hashtag #iloveetihad.  It felt like I was flying first class.

The map showed that we were about to leave Canadian airspace and would be over Greenland within a hour.  I visualized that I would wake up somewhere over Russia.  I was so excited to be travelling to the land of world tallest mountains to run an epic race.

Unexpectedly, I woman in Middle Eastern garb approached me and started a conversation that mandated I come to terms with some malformed opinions from my past.  This woman was a Syrian Refugee who was flying to the Middle East for back surgery.  She was having difficulty walking, let alone sleeping, and she asked if she could have my 4 seats so she could rest and offered me her one seat up at the front of the cabin.

It would have been culturally easy to tell her, “no.”  After all, had just negotiated for all those seats and had paid the price of the ticket.  In that moment, I felt righteous in claiming that those seats were mine, and I had the full-support of Etihad, company that owned the transportation service.  Instead, I found myself agreeing with the contents of a recent blog that all but connected the dots that to be a Christian is to be pro-Refugee.

“Yes, Ma’am, you can have my row of seats.”  I picked up my headphones and water bottle and headed to my new single seat up front.  I was feeling upset and self-righteous that my faith was mandating that I suffer, without any joy, when I did nothing wrong.  For sure, this outcome wasn’t anywhere close to my expectations when i negotiated that row of seats just a few hours earlier.

“Thank you, kind sir!”  I only sleep few hours, then I come find you and you sleep some hours.  Is that item OK?”  I knew she was translating from her native tongue into English, and she was expressing a plan that she thought was equitable.

“It must be OK,” I said with a giggle, knowing darn well that God uses moments like these to change people’s hearts.

I have had multiple bad experiences working with the local refugee community in Charlotte. I have found them to be more demanding than newborns  In addition, they are unequaled in their inability to share gratitude with those who are trying to help.  Lastly, they have demonstrated insensitivity to adjust to meet the demands of Charlotte’s culture.  They have shown to me that they are OK not fitting in nor taking steps to improve their lot, no matter how much it hurts them to resist the change.  To be succinct, I found it a waste of time to help them.

In Sunday school, we are discussing pro-life.  Sure, it is nearly always associated with abortion rights, but leaving it only in that context is like saying food shopping is about buying desserts.  The Pro-life position includes a stance with regard to special needs children, the incarcerated, the handicapped and even includes conversations on racism. God loves all life and has never shown any one group greater or lesser favor based on who they are.

In that moment, I didn’t want to give up my seats to a refugee.  I didn’t know her circumstance or anything about the choices that she made that got her to the place where she needed back surgery.  I made me question how the Good Samaritan felt when he, too, stopped and spent both time and money helping someone who had no ability to return the favor.  I wonder if the Samaritan “wanted” to stop and help the guy who lay dying  in the ditch that day.

She kept her word and came to trade back with me a few hours later.  I slept for a few hours before we traded again.  When we arrived in Abu Dhabi, neither of us were rested, but we were both better off than if we had regular seats on the flight.  I knew that the only want to overcome any sense of resentment for the moment was to talk to her and get to know her a bit.  I learned that she had one family member on the plane (sister, maybe), but she had “no more husband,” and based on her body language, it meant he was no longer living.

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Syrian Refugee and me, flying to the MIddle East
As we left the plane to go our separate ways, I lifted her up and prayer and thanked God for using that moment to change my heart, even if only a little.  It wasn’t an accident that I read that NY Times article and had a real world refugee experience in the same month.

As I prepared to board the plane for my final leg of the trip from Abu Dhabi to Kathmandu (another 5 hour flight), I was met by a representative from the airlines who took my boarding pass from me and replaced it with a first class service, saying, “Thank you for your advertising.”

It is very tempting and certainly easy to think that this was coincidence based on worldly events.  I know better.  I walked down the Jetway crying like a boy saying, “good bye” to his mother as he left for military boot camp.  I was just used by God…and I got to see it in near real-time.  I got a moment in time when I made the world a better place, and it altered my heart, in the process.

I slept like a baby in a big seat that I didn’t have to share with anyone else on the final flight, and I arrived in Kathmandu, refreshed.  My boys greeted me at the airport with flowers and hugs as we headed into town.  We talked and joked until it was time for bed.

I am nowhere close to pro-refugee, but God is.  And I see that now.

I am running the race of my life in three days.  It is the high point and my “A” race of my athletic year. Yet, I am already sure that the greatest growth moment of this trip has already passed.

Loyalty, Athletic Training, and the American disconnect

As the year comes to an end, I find value in looking back at Trainingpeaks.com record of my activities.  I like to compare what I did against what I planned on doing.  Was I loyal to my workout commitments?  Or did I make up an excuse that equated to saying, “I wasn’t loyal to myself.”  Was I loyal to my race commitments?  What races did I plan as my A races, and did I treat them as such?  It is a valuable endeavor that I recommend we all do, in our work lives and with our personal goals.

Then, I got a real world opportunity outside of athletic training to apply what experience has taught me about loyalty.  Last week, I lead out scout troop on a discussion of the application of loyalty, in modern America.  The 100+ year old vision of loyalty predates anyone currently living, and when Baden Powell and his successors wrote down what it means.  They said,

“A scout is loyal to family, leaders, friends, school and nation.”  Lots of kind words here, but some examples to clarify seem appropriate.

Loyalty is when the older brother helps the younger brother with homework, because Mom and Dad forgot how to do it.

Loyalty is when a fireman goes into a burning building to save someone’s life.  It isn’t the paycheck that he is being loyal to.  It is humanity.

Loyalty is when you visit someone in a nursing home when you would rather being doing something else.

Above all, loyalty is what causes young men to give their lives, in battle, both on domestic soil (police) and on foreign soil (military).

Loyalty is the center piece of an endless cycle of giving and getting that in scouting has repeated itself for decades, as men have continually helped boys to become better men.

Stand for the flag

And, at the center of the symbol of this loyalty is our country’s flag.  Since before written language, there have been flags that represent a people group.  To disrespect the flag in some countries (China, for example) is deemed a crime with mandatory jail time.  Same goes for the national anthem.

Currently, the US media has created a spotlight directed at those demonstrating disloyalty to the flag.  They are using these events to seek attention for their cause.  It parallels both in action and intent when a toddler starts breaking things as part of a temper tantrum as he tries to get his way.  Those who do choose this specific attention seeking path are a route to tear down a universal value.

At the core of the value of any flag is the desire to have something that represents all of us when words can’t do that.  In central North Carolina, there is nothing going on to warrant the attention that the media is putting on the current confusion that a handful of people are experiencing, Most Americans still get the contents of the picture above without the need for an explanation.

The flag represents the country we call our current home.  It doesn’t reflect your opinion of your your home, nor does it reflect anything that you have earned or are entitled to.  Others earned the right for this to be your flag, and some of them paid the highest price for you to be able to have that flag.  If you live here, it is your flag.  The only way to change that fact is to move.  For the record, I suggest that you stay.

We are grateful that this is our flag.  It has survived many wars, intermittent assaults on both is value and its longevity, and it is part of the uniforms that many of us wear, myself included.  I love what it stands for and respect those who have graced me with the ability to call it my flag.

The cross, though, represents perhaps the only symbol that is greater.  The Cross is the way to our original and true home.  Without the cross, no such path to eternity exists.  It is for the cross that we kneel.  Our hand goes over our heart for the flag.  We kneel for the cross.

There is a reasonable chance that some folks just don’t know this.  For you, I hope this serves as some education.  For those that know it, it is your reminder not get to get caught up in momentary justifications or words from people whom you trust that are deceiving you into believing something contrary.   For those that disagree, it is your warning and our plea-don’t tear down that which others have built with their lives.  The Chinese get this.  Most Americans get this. You should, too.

Finally, John Wayne said, “The very word ‘loyalty’ is life itself, for without loyalty, we have no love of person or country.”  Loyalty is inseparable from our identity.  Don’t get lost.  Be loyal, instead.