Glorious Lives

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The most remarkable people in history have always been those who based their lives on principles. In the pursuit of integrity, generosity, courage they often found themselves standing all alone, but in the end they found success not so much because they were honored by others, but because they honored the ideas that existed in their hearts. Men and women like Abraham Lincoln, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Gandhi, and Mother Teresa were guided by the overwhelming belief that what they were doing was right and just. The focus of their lives was not easy or popular but they persisted in following the voice that whispered inside their souls.

It often appears difficult to find such imminent people in today’s world in which most people find comfort and shelter in joining a crowd. So many fear speaking out lest they lose their power or positions. They base their actions on polls and contests of purported admiration. They so want to be liked that they set aside the very essence of who they are for the fleeting elixir of feeling loved or appreciated. It’s difficult for us to teach our children of the dangers of such behavior when the messages and examples they see tell them that winning is more important than living for a set of values. How can we show them how to be moral when they see so much immorality being accepted in the name of seizing power? It is not so easy in a world that rewards winning and turns its back on those perceived as losers. Life becomes a constant game of striving to be number one, and unfortunately as adults we consciously or unconsciously tell our young again and again that there is no place for those who simply try.

I’m quite impressed by a young man who once played football for the University of Houston. Case Keenum was a good college quarterback but everyone seemed to agree that he was too small and that his skills were too average to make it in the heady world of professional football. Case was a nice guy, but it seemed unlikely that he would ever have much of a career in the NFL. Amazingly somebody forgot to send that message to Case. He was never willing to give up even when it appeared that he had reached the end of his dreams of making a career out of football. He worked for the Houston Texans for a time but once that team found a better substitute he was once again looking for a job. This year he is currently having a winning season with the Minnesota Vikings. I suspect that he is doing as well as he is because he was guided by a persistence that would not allow him to give up. and his willingness to make the team better has made him a good person to have around. Case is one of those people who has much to teach kids who are looking for an amazing role model.

As adults we need to be constantly on the lookout for individuals who have done things that will show our children how truly great individuals behave. Whether we agree with all of his political beliefs, everyone of us should be able to admit that John McCain is one of those people who has been guided by a moral compass founded on unbelievable courage. Whether as a prisoner of war or a leader he consistently does what he believes to be good for his country. He has often found himself being harassed either by Vietcong captors or his fellow lawmakers, but he has the fortitude to ignore the sound and fury and endure the pain all for the sake of doing what he believes is correct. We should all admire him even if we don’t agree with him. We should also use him as an example for our young who often face situations in which they must stand apart from the taunts of their peers.

When I was young I read a series of books that told the stories of individuals who faced defining moments and chose to take the high road rather than turning away from their own principles. I loved all of those profiles of remarkable people and I attempted to model my own life around their characteristics even though I understood that they were exceptional and I was a bit more ordinary. Whenever I faced difficult decisions I dod my best to truly stand for something rather than following the status quo. I learned to judge myself not so much on rewards or the opinions of others, but on how well I had adhered to my core beliefs.

Winning and being popular can be a fleeting thing. The very people who love someone one moment may turn on them the next. Opinions are fickle and when a life is based on them it can be as unsteady as shifting sands. Most of our big disappointments all too often come from the realization that someone whom we wanted to impress has moved on to the next big thing. If we are less concerned with how others rank us and more with how well we have followed our principles, we will feel personal success which is far more satisfying.

When we are working with our children it is important to help them to find the basic principles that are most important to them. Competition is not an inherently bad thing but it is far more powerful to compete with oneself than to constantly be worried about how one is doing vis a vis everyone else. Aim for a few more points on the next essay. Try to shave some time off of that one mile run. Determine to help someone in need on a given day. Remember to be honest and steadfast. Developing good habits is powerful and leads to becoming a better person bit by bit until the moral values become an integral part of our natures.

There are heroic acts happening all around us. Talk with your children about them. Help them to define what makes certain people seem so outstanding. They will soon realize that what differentiates J.J. Watt as an amazing person is his effort and his generosity of spirit. We love Mattress Mack because he has a kind heart which also happens to make him a very successful businessman. A favorite teacher is usually a person who has put forth a bit more inspiration and sensitivity than the average educator. That neighbor who always seems to be helping everyone else is special because he/she has taken the time to be so. Greatness doesn’t just happen. It takes hard work and a steadfast adherence to fundamental truths.

We owe it to our young to help them to be their very best. Winning prizes is glorious, but sometimes the real hero is the person who ran the race even though he was in pain. The person who refuses to give up is a rockstar win, lose or draw. Someone who faces the wrath of a group to adhere to truths is as mighty as the greatest heroes of all time. Teach your children these glorious ideas and theirs will be glorious lives.

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Being What We Want Our Children To Be

kids-learn-from-adultsUntil last week I really had no idea who Harvey Weinstein was. I’ve seen and enjoyed a number of movies that his film company produced, but never really paid attention to who was responsible for them. I thought that some movies like Pulp Fiction were the products of unadulterated genius and others not so much. I didn’t realize that it was because of Weinstein’s efforts that Shakespeare In Love won the best picture Oscar when it was up against movie gold like Saving Private Ryan and Elizabeth both of which were far superior to the winner in every imaginable way. I’ve since learned that Weinstein was masterful at garnering votes for movies produced by his studio. With his business acumen he made a name for himself and was quite the powerful man, not just in Hollywood but in political circles as well. In just a little more than a week his reputation and possibly his empire have come tumbling down. It appears that he has been taking advantage of his power by sexually harassing and maybe even attacking  young women who fell victim to his advances out of fear of destroying their careers if they came forward with accusations. The old stories of producers and directors having casting couches abound in the history of movie land and appear to be alive and well to this day.

I can’t say that I am all that surprised. I find the Hollywood scene to be so artificial. Let’s face it. Matt Damon is not really Jason Bourne anymore than any of the actors are the characters that they play. We tend to be star struck and to idolize them to the point of taking them more seriously than we ought. At the end of the day they are as human and imperfect as we are. Take away the lights, makeup, and film editing and they are often rather ordinary. The same goes for their thoughts and beliefs. As my mother always said, they have no more insight into how we should think than anybody else. In fact, it is generally in the most ordinary of circumstances that we find the most remarkable people.

Think about the totality of your life and you will be able to recall a cast of characters whom you have known who will never receive rewards or accolades, but whose ways of living were worthy of the pages of books or even the bright lights of the big screen. I recall teachers, neighbors, relatives whose impact on my development was positive and inspirational. There were so many of them, and they were oh so real. They were truly as courageous, generous and loving as they seemed to be. There was no trickery or illusion. They were the real deal, hard working people who quietly showed me how to become a responsible person in my own right. I watched them with the critical eye of a child and then a teenager and learned from them by example. I’ve never needed the moral dictums of movie stars or directors, because ordinary people have always been around to show me how to behave and treat others.

It is often said that children will do whatever they see the adults around them doing. I feel certain that that is true, because I often find myself emulating the behaviors of people that I admired long ago in my little corner of the world. My mother demonstrated unconditional love and acceptance each and every day of her life. Even when I was grown I often felt humbled by the generosity and selflessness that she demonstrated day after day without any thought of receiving thanks or praise. I had some incredible teachers who with their examples literally taught me how to be a good educator. Not any of the professional development that I have taken has ever been more effective than watching those inspiring mentors who encouraged me to love knowledge. I learned well what works in a classroom and what doesn’t from them. From my childhood neighbors I came to understand that we all live in a village in which we are keepers of one another. It is our duty to protect the people around us as much as we protect our own.

Perhaps more than anything I recall what I learned about being a woman, and those lessons were continually conveyed to me by other women who demonstrated strength and dignity in everything that they did. They showed me how to respect and protect myself. They made me aware of how to keep myself safe, and most importantly how to refuse unwanted sexual advances. I learned how to be aware of my surroundings and when to know that I might be in danger. They repeatedly helped me to understand my own importance in the world and let me know that I need never do anything that makes me uncomfortable. They gave me the tools that I have used to achieve an equal footing with my male counterparts without ever having to surrender my principles.

I feel for women who have been subjected to unwanted sexual harassment. My mother was a particularly beautiful woman and men were quite attracted to her. Sometimes they crossed lines in their behavior toward her, especially after she became a widow. She never allowed herself to be lured by promises or power, not even when she was struggling to keep up with the finances of leading a family alone. Still, she always felt such anger and humiliation whenever men attempted to take advantage of her. They always seemed to insinuate that she had somehow asked for the unwanted actions.

Why anyone would treat another human in such a vile way is beyond my comprehension, and yet we hear of such disturbing behavior again and again. Sadly it is not unique to men. It is sick and disgusting and yet we all too often see it happening and say nothing because we are frightened or simply don’t want to get involved. It’s up to each of us to not only be unafraid to report such things, but we have to get past the idea that certain people bring such incidents on themselves. We have a tendency to blame the victims of sexual violence more than we should. What’s even worse is when we assume that people from certain backgrounds are more likely to be lying whenever they step forward with stories of abuse. We need to listen to anyone with a story of sexual violence and then seek the facts that will ultimately reveal the truth. By the same token we need to be careful not to find someone guilty before we have all of the evidence that we need.

It is always shocking to learn that someone whom we trusted is not the person we thought him/her to be. What is especially sad is when many people know of abuse but look the other way. I tip my hat to anyone who has the courage to speak the truth no matter how powerful the offender may be. As a society we have to insist that nobody be given a pass regardless of who they are. Common decency and fairness requires us to be honest in dealing with abuse because our children are indeed watching. The messages that we send, the hypocrisies that we accept will mold their futures. We need to be certain that what they are seeing and hearing reflects the way we want them to one day be. The only way to curb the kind of behaviors that lead to powerful people believing that they can harm people with impunity is to bring what they have done into the daylight, and demonstrate that we will not tolerate such indecency from anyone. Right now we seem to have a long way to go before we set aside all of our false posturing and stand up for what is just.

The Importance of Being There

largeAs adults we wear many different hats, all of which takes chunks of time to accomplish. We have relationships to nurture with family and friends. We may hold jobs that demand enormous numbers of hours. We want to be healthy, and so we may be dedicated to a routine of exercise and healthy eating. If we are religious we attend church services or read from tracts integral to better understanding our faiths. There are tasks related to our finances, the maintenance of our homes, and personal care and feeding. We push back moments of relaxation even though we know that we need them as much as the other dynamics of living. We are on the go from the moment that we arise in the morning until we fall exhausted into bed at night, sometimes far later than we might have wished. If anything happens to alter our routines we may feel as though we are drowning. An accident, an illness, a death, an unexpected event has the power of throwing us out of kilter, because we already feel pushed and prodded from all sides. Since we are responsible we do our best to satisfy everyone who is asking us to give them our time and talents, but we often feel as though we are slighting everyone and every aspect of our busy days. We find people among us who appear to keep it together so much better than we do which only adds to our feelings of imperfection. We are taught to admire the over achievers among us and to scoff at slackers, but we somehow think that living on a perpetually moving hamster wheel isn’t the best way to spend our days.

I’m as guilty of running at full speed in the rat race as anyone. I tend to be a classic Type A personality. I recall times when my mother or my in-laws would drop by our home unexpectedly throwing my finely honed schedule into a state of chaos. I still remember how anxious I felt and how much I wanted them to leave as quickly as possible so that I might resume my routines. Sadly I can’t remember any of the tasks that I was so frantic to do, but I do have fond memories of those visits and I find myself wishing with all of my heart that my loved ones might come knocking on my door once again. It’s funny how our perspective changes over time, and how we ultimately come to value our relationships over all of the other distractions that once seemed so important.

I copied a quote from someone’s Facebook wall that spoke to me. It goes something like this:

What if we stopped celebrating busy as a measurement of importance? What if instead we celebrate how much time we had spent listening, pondering, meditating, and enjoying time with the most important people in our lives? —-Greg McKeown

It’s funny how Mr. McKeown’s words are little more than common sense, but they seem so profound. Why is it that we all too often choose to ignore what is truly significant in favor of tasks and duties that other people tell us are important? Why are we so often fearful of shedding some of our responsibilities so that we might devote more of our time to making ourselves and the people around us happy? Why aren’t our heroes the people who have learned how to say “No”, or those who allow a bit of dust to accumulate in their homes so that they will be free to have some fun?

As an educator I sometimes encountered parents who were well known and highly regarded in the community because of their many outstanding achievements, but they were literally neglecting their children. Somehow their little ones had become not much more than props that helped in the advancement of their careers. When their kids began to falter and fail they could not understand that their continual absence from the home was a major contributing factor. Instead of altering their own behaviors they often threatened to send the young ones away if they did not work harder to overcome their lazy ways. What those students actually needed was a more stable and loving home life, not lectures on becoming more like their parents. The oft lauded parents had eschewed their duties in favor of devotion to careers, and somehow never learned how to balance their lives to include loving time for their offspring. 

I’ve also met brilliant men and women who chose to view their jobs as an adjunct to the real purpose of their lives, which was to build a nurturing and loving home. These individuals were often viewed as being rather average employees because they gave full efforts during normal work hours, but insisted on going home at reasonable times. For them what happened at the end of the day when family gathered together was the highlight of their efforts. The job was work, but what happened at home defined their essence. We sometimes overlook the enormous accomplishment of being an excellent parent, even to the point of dismissing women who spend a significant portion of their lives staying home to raise the children. We dismissively ask them what they do and judge them to be uninteresting once we realize that they have not had exciting careers outside of their homes.

Perhaps many of the ills that we presently see in society have their origin in the frantic paces that define so many of us. We are so busy running from one event to another that we don’t allow ourselves to do the things that Mr. Mckeown suggests should be backbone of our existence. If we were more willing to listen there would be far less hatred and far fewer broken souls. If we allowed ourselves to ponder the things that we see and hear and read we would be less inclined to fall for propaganda. If we were to make meditation an integral part of our days we might learn to relax and love ourselves just a bit more. If we were to spend more time with the people that matter most to us we would find more contentment, and most assuredly we would build more beautiful relationships and memories.

As I look back over the sixty plus years of my life I recall  hundreds of spectacular moments that make me smile and feel accomplished. Few of them resulted from performing mundane tasks to impress people who would eventually drift out of my life. The best of them center around people, members of my family, my friends, my students and colleagues. In the end it is not how busy we are that makes us important, but how well we spend the time that we have. In being there for ourselves and the people who mean the most to us we find our ultimate success.

Stepping Back

earth-from-space-westernI possess a rather odd and illogical dread of odd numbered years. I suppose that my superstition began because almost consistently the most significant people in my life have died in a year marked by an odd number, or some especially dramatic and tragic event has taken place in times ending with a 1, 3, 5, 7 or 9. I quietly take a deep breath every other New Year’s Day and then heave a sigh of relief when we return to a reckoning in which an even number denotes the passage of time. I tend to laugh at my silliness and don’t really believe that there is some kind of curse on years not evenly divisible by two, but it’s a difficult  habit to kick when a coincidence of bad karma occurs again and again just as I feared that it might. God knows that this year of 2017 has been rather strange and difficult for virtually everyone, but there is in fact a silver lining that is almost always hidden in even the most trying times.

We have dozens and dozens of platitudes about our human resiliency and the notion that the hardest moments in our lives often bring out the best in us and the people around us. Loss and trauma are no small things and their after effects often linger for decades, but those also tend to be the very instances when the overwhelming goodness of humans becomes the most evident. It is when we feel as though we are in our lowest valleys of despair that we learn that we are not alone, for heroes appear of whom we were often not even aware.

I just finished Mitch Albom’s novel The Five People You Meet in Heaven. I had never before read it because I was miffed that Mr. Albom had appeared to have created a best selling story that was similar to an idea that I had. I had to set my pettiness aside because two of my grandsons are reading the tale as one of the assignments for their English class. I sometimes help them to demystify the intricacies of literature and so I needed to be familiar with this particular book. I found that the theme and the writing style were far more interesting and less maudlin than I had supposed. The thread of the story reminded me that life takes so many unexpected turns that may seem negative at the time, but often contribute to our betterment without our even realizing it. It is when we are most challenged that we witness the true courage of the human spirit.

Nobody who is suffering really wants to hear that what they are enduring is God’s will or that what doesn’t kill them makes them stronger. In the midst of tragedy we are mostly overwhelmed and struggling just to make it from one day to the next. Sometimes it feels as though our entire lifetimes are riddled with challenges that keep us perennially weary. Like Eddie, the protagonist of The Five People You Meet in Heaven we may even feel as though we are dying a slow death. We fail to see what is really happening in our lives. We are so fixated on hurt and betrayals and losses that we never realize the thousands of ordinary moments when people are loving and sacrificing for us. We are driven to react more by the ugliness that we see than the goodness that is far more overwhelming. We become locked in a struggle to unravel the old conundrum of deciding whether the glass is half full or half empty.

As an educator I often encountered problems that were so trying that I began to question my abilities. I would stew over my powerlessness to reach the hearts and minds of everyone of my students. I tended to focus on the most terrible incidents of my daily routines in the classroom rather than recalling that I had done well more times than I had failed. Like most humans I was unforgiving of myself in my quest for a perfection that is in fact nonexistent. We innately know that none of us will get through life without enduring or even creating total mess ups now and again, and yet we upbraid ourselves for our very humanity. It takes a great deal of living and self reflection to ultimately learn how to be kind not only to ourselves but to our fellow men and women as well. The wisest among us are those who take the hard knocks without beating themselves just for being normal.

It has almost become a blood sport to criticize people and actions that we do not fully understand. We sometimes hide our own insecurities in a cloak of smugness, pretending to be more righteous than we really are. The best among us are less likely to do that, and we often secretly long to be more like them. We all know someone who seems to maintain an almost angelic optimism and an ability to keep a cool head when everyone else is melting down. If we take the time to learn more about such individuals we generally find that they have worked hard to be self aware and nonjudgemental. They actually choose to take life’s blows in stride. Theirs is a very conscious effort to stay calm and carry on even when the disappointments that they face threaten to push them into the abyss. They allow themselves to be fully human and to find the good that is always present even when it is unseen.  Nobody ever escapes the trials of life. There is no Garden of Eden anywhere, but there are ways to step back just enough to get a wider view of what is happening and to witness the big picture of the world around us. When we are able to do that we almost always see that we are surrounded by more love than hate, more goodness than evil, more hope than despair.

In an era when we feel as though the very earth is wobbling it is especially confusing. We worry that mankind has gone mad, and there is certainly evidence that a significant proportion of our species is behaving badly. Still we have to remind ourselves that the sun is still rising and providing a new day to set ourselves straight. We have to inhale and truly see the brave souls who wade through high water to rescue the stranded, the courageous who run toward the bullets to aid the wounded, the friends and strangers who surprise us with their largesse. We are essentially a human race with the same blood tracing through our veins, the same desires for happiness, the same generous spirits. We cannot allow the ugliness to overtake the beauty of who we are as people. We shouldn’t have to go to heaven to learn the important lesson that each of us has significance in the flow of history and that our collective impact on life is far more dramatic than we might ever have imagined.

Perhaps if we all were to become more self aware and more conscious of all of the people around us we might find more hope even in odd numbered years or stressful times. We would gain a more realistic perspective of what is really happening in the long run. We would realize that it is incredibly rare for anyone to be always bad or always good. We might begin to enjoy more moments of clarity and insight if we learned first to look for the true meaning of what it means to be human. We might even find that those platitudes that sometimes irritate us exist because there are grains of truth and wisdom to be found in them. Mostly we will find the peace we seek when we take more time to number our blessings big and small.

I always think of how confused and unpleasant the world may appear to be from the vantage point of being in the middle a crowd on a noisy street. If we instead travel into the vastness and solitude of outer space we look down on a blue planet that is stunning in its beauty. It is as though in seeing the entirety of the earth we are able to finally understand how remarkable it truly is. That is what we must also do in assessing both ourselves and our fellow travelers in his journey between birth and death. It is a breathtaking experience to see all of the events of our lives put together forming a whole. Look carefully and you will see how truly beautiful we are.

The Hero We Need

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What the world needs now is love, sweet love

It’s the only thing that there’s just too little of

What the world needs now is love, sweet love,

No not just for some but for everyone.

We live in a confusing world these days. We dream of seeing stories and images of great love in our midst. We know it’s there. We’ve witnessed it in our families and with our friends, but we long to see a public figure who demonstrates a level of generosity and concern for mankind that seems to typify the kind of self sacrificing for which we are desperately searching. We witnessed acts of great love and heroism when my city of Houston was inundated with water. Images of strangers helping strangers inspired and uplifted us, sustaining our hope that mankind is still at the end of the day a force for great good in this world. We innately believe that underneath the rhetoric and divisiveness that has been tearing away at society there is a common yearning for decency and compassion. We just need that one person who has the capacity to represent each of us as a beacon of light in a world that has gone dark far too often of late. I believe that I have found him right here in the place where I live, and he is no doubt in my mind the real deal.

Who would have thought that a furniture salesman who jumped up and down on a mattress frenetically waving wads of cash would one day become one of the most beloved individuals in the city. Mattress Mack as all of us in Houston know him set up a furniture store in North Houston and garnered our attention with television commercials that appeared to have been filmed by amateurs. He made bold claims about his wares and the savings that he offered, but mostly he caught our attention with his cheesy spots that tickled our funny bones and our curiosity. “Who was this character?” we wondered even as we smiled at his antics. Over time his modest business thrived, becoming a local empire. When other furniture stores closed, Mack’s Gallery Furniture continued to thrive with retailing innovations like same day delivery. Soon enough we all understood that Jim Mcingvale was no joke, but rather a business genius whose sales acumen had made him a wealthy man. Even better was the realization that Mack was more than just an entrepreneur. He was also a humanitarian with a heart even bigger than his massive store.

Mattress Mack as we lovingly and respectfully call him slowly but surely began to show up all over town doing good works. He provided scholarships to students and hauled truckloads of free furniture to people who were devastated by personal tragedies. He remodeled teachers’ lounges and honored first responders and veterans. He seemed to be everywhere donating his time, talent and goodwill to the people of Houston. No request was too large, no task too difficult to handle. Mack was a fireball of energy and good intentions. We all cheered his success as his philanthropy became more and more legendary in our town. We began to collectively love this man whose heart appeared to be limitlessly huge. Before long he had opened multiple stores and his television spots took on a professional patina but the essence of Mack remained as down home and unpretentious as ever.

Mack let us into his most private world, sharing the personal journey of his family in caring for a daughter who is afflicted with a mental illness. He wanted us to understand how to see the signs of trouble and to know that there is help for those who are affected with various disorders of the mind as well as their families. He was not afraid to show his emotions and let us see his very human side. We learned about the courage that it took for him to take the risks that eventually lead to victories over his own struggles with confidence. He visited schools and spoke to students about taking charge of their lives. He encouraged them to go after their dreams and told them how to create plans that would make things happen.

We saw Mack everywhere spreading joy and hope in Houston and we really did love him, but we had no idea that we had not yet even tapped the surface of his remarkable character. It was not until the rains of hurricane Harvey began falling unrelentingly on our city that we began to truly understand that the inspiration for which we had been searching had been with us all along and his name was Jim Mcingvale, our Mattress Mack.

There was so much desperation when the homes in Houston began to flood. The waters were in the yard one minute and then gushing through walls the next, filling the rooms so quickly that there was little time for thoughts other than baling out to find safety. People understood that they had to flee with little more than the clothes on their backs or they might be hopelessly trapped in very dangerous situations. Many of those whose homes had been so rapidly rendered unsafe lived near the original Gallery Furniture store, and remembering Mack’s history of generosity they turned to him for help because they had no other place to go. Like the Good Samaritan, Mack invited them into his store. He gave them shelter from the storm and turned his place of business into a safe haven where they would have beds on which to find the comfort of sleep. He allowed them to relax in the recliners that he so often featured in his adds. He requested their presence at the solid wood tables for which he was famous where he sated their hunger with food and love. Before long the word was out that Mack had opened his stores for shelter from the storm, all because he understood that it was his duty as a fellow human to render aid in a time of great distress.

Now that the waters have receded and people are attempting to return to normal Mack is making another in his long line of incredible offers of good works. For the next twenty weeks he will provide an entire house of furniture and mattresses to individuals who lost everything in the floods. He is requesting that members of the community nominate worthy candidates for his largesse. What he hasn’t boasted about is the fact that he has already very quietly been donating items from his store. There is no telling what the true extent of his charitable nature has been.

Jim Mcingvale is the good soul for whom we have been waiting. He is the man who has been a bright light in a world that might otherwise have seemed so dark. He demonstrates the goodness of the human heart day in and day out and we love him. Mack himself will tell you that he is not a hero or a perfect man, but what he is to all of us is a representation of the most positive values that we all seek and cherish. He embodies the qualities of the kind of person that we want to be. We are so glad that he is among us, showing us how to be compassionate and what it means to live a life of purpose. Jim Mcingvale, aka Mattress Mack, is our hero.