A couple weeks ago I went in for a haircut.

The barber, not my usual one, smelled like he had just recently emerged from a pool of that aftershave favored by elderly terminal alcoholics, the kind of aftershave their own dads wore, whether their own dads were alcoholics or not, the kind they must think obscures, not highlights, the reek of old drunk.

As I took a seat in the chair I thought to myself, “It’ll be okay, this place hasn’t steered you wrong yet, go with it, have faith and the universe will provide.”

Mr. Night Train cut my hair with an insouciance I had never before encountered in a barber. He had chosen to keep my back to the mirror the entire time, so at no point could I see what he was doing. I dug deep into my pool of faith and tried not to imagine the hack job he might be doing up there.

As he cut he told me his life story. He had been a drug dealer years ago, and one of his best customers was an addict weaning his wife off heroin by getting her hooked on crack. My barber ended up stealing away with his customer’s wife, marrying her, having a child with her, and then divorcing her.

He told me this story while gesticulating wildly with sharp objects in his hands. I wasn’t sure whether to follow my own internal train of thought wondering about this woman and did she have second thoughts about the various choices she had made in life, or whether to key in on the tenderness and pride I could hear in this guy’s voice when he talked about his daughter.

Later, when he asked me if I wanted him to shave my neck with a straight razor, I said no thanks.

But it was one of the best haircuts I’ve ever had.

I wake up in a cold sweat. Mr. Dickson was just telling me I would not be graduating. I had signed up for a class and then forgotten about it. I had failed.

Wait a minute, why is the room dark? Where’s Mr. Dickson, wasn’t I just talking to him? I stagger to my feet and stumble to the bathroom.

I’m never going to be able to show my face around here again, my professors will be so disappointed in me.

Wait a minute, how old am I? I’m 41. I graduated 19 years ago, right? My parents were there. I wore a robe. They called my name. It happened, I know it did.

It must have been a dream. I can go back to sleep now, I don’t have to get up for work for another couple hours.

For years after graduation I used to have this same dream. Then it went away. Now it’s back. Why is it back, why?

When I was about 15 years old, I was really into bicycle road racing. It was my life, my main activity. I spent almost every single hour of every single day either doing it, training for it, or learning how to train for it.

The thing was, I wasn’t very good at it. In my small town in California I was one of the best at it. But when I’d go to a race where the other riders were coming from bigger ponds, I was well below average. In fact, I rarely even finished with the pack. I’d get dropped and then come straggling over the finish line long after the race had ended.

My best friend at the time was named Andrei Kleist, another rider from the same small town. Andrei and I were the same age, but we went to different high schools. That was okay, because neither of us thought much of school. We were both straight-A students, but there was too much bike racing to be done, and the world was too big a place to bother with high school.

Andrei had a natural talent on the bike I didn’t. His talent was especially brilliant on the hills, the most difficult part of any course. When the rest of us were suffering up a hill, gasping for breath, thighs burning, working so hard we were almost blinded to the road in front of us, Andrei would float up from behind us, dancing on his pedals as if he didn’t even realize what he was doing. He would glance over at us with this bored, nonchalant look, scream that spastic guttural scream of his that said, “I’ve had enough of this,” and then he would magically, effortlessly accelerate and disappear around the bend ahead as if we had been standing still.

We would inevitably find him a half hour later at the top of the hill, sitting on a curb wondering why it had taken us so long. We all hated the fact he would never understand we had worked harder than he had, and yet we were the slow ones.

There’s a story about Andrei, one I wasn’t there that day to witness, but have no trouble believing…

When Andrei was 16 or 17, he was competing at a race in Northern California, a road race out in the rolling hills at the foot of the Sierras east of Sacramento. The older age groups were sharing the same course, and one of our grown-up friends, Bob Brooks (another very talented rider), came upon Andrei sitting on the side of the road, his bike leaned up against the dirt bank. Bob pulled over and asked Andrei why he had dropped out. Did he have a flat tire? Was there a big crash? Was he hurt?

Andrei shrugged his shoulders and said, “I don’t know, I don’t care, this is stupid.” Bob was so dumbfounded he didn’t know what to say, except, “Well then, get back on that bike and finish the race!”

Andrei hopped on his bike and started riding. He caught up with the pack, rested with them for a few miles, and then pulled ahead. Without even appreciating the magnitude of what he was doing, he dropped every single one of them and won the race so far ahead of the others the officials wondered if they had gotten lost.

Andrei was not racing against average schmucks that day. He was racing against the best of the best, young riders who would go on in a few years to race in the Olympics and the Tour de France.

By the time I was 17, Andrei and I had fallen out of touch. My family had moved out of state. In our new town my interest in cycling dwindled quickly, and by the time I went to college I barely even rode a bike often enough to remember I owned one.

Then one day when I was about 30 years old, my dad called to say he had some bad news. Andrei had been killed while riding in the foothills east of Fresno, California, where he lived at the time. He had run head-first into an oncoming car while riding with his father on Tollhouse Road, one of his favorite courses. Descending around a blind corner, he had crossed the yellow line into oncoming traffic just in time to meet up with a Jeep coming the other way.

He was killed instantly, probably even before he landed on the pavement behind the Jeep. His dad, descending at a slower pace behind his son, came upon the scene a few minutes later.

I hadn’t seen or heard from Andrei in over 12 years, but there was no question in my mind that I was going to the funeral. I hopped in my car and drove straight-through overnight, arriving in town about 2 hours before the funeral.

After the funeral, I learned that as Andrei grew into adulthood, he had never stopped riding. However, he had never gone on to Olympic fame or world domination. Instead, he rode occasionally on the weekends and puttered away at a computer repair shop. Cycling had been relegated to the back burner of his life. The one rider who would probably have learned how to leave even Lance Armstrong in the dust had never stepped up to the line.

We all have a talent like Andrei’s. Not necessarily for racing bikes, but for something else. A talent for motivating others. A talent for calming them during stressful times. A talent for expressing love through cooking, or a talent for bringing old classic cars to life.

Many of us don’t even know what that talent is. Some of us do, but we don’t know how to use it. Others have an inkling what it is, but the daily obligations of life seem to keep getting in the way.

Whatever the constraints are, we must make figuring out how to get past them our mission in life. Not because we owe it to ourselves. Because we owe it to others. We owe it to everyone who wishes they could do what we can, but can’t.

Andrei was my best friend, but I will never forgive him for treating with such nonchalance a talent I wished to god I had, but knew I never would.

Just like there are people who will never forgive Andrei for not making the most of his talent, there are others who will never forgive me for not making the most of mine. I am not always clear on what that talent is, but I owe it to the people who love me to find it, to polish it until it shines, and to bring it to the world.

And so do you. Do it like your life depends on it, because it does.

[If you want to listen to this on video, click here.]

I recently started running barefoot.

Up until a few months ago, I never liked running. In fact, for years, when people asked me if I ran, I would answer, “Only when chased.”

Instead, to get my exercise, I’d head for the nearest hill. By hiking up nice steep hills, I could work myself into a frothy delirium and never risk the bodily wear and tear of running.

But these days I’m living in a place that’s flat as a board. Freakishly flat, for miles and miles. So to get my exercise, I started running.

Unfortunately, running hurt like crazy. After a while the shin splints faded away, but there was this one small area of my inner calf that hurt no matter what I did.

I tried different kinds of shoes, different orthotics and arch supports, even an insert that you had to bake in the oven before you used it the first time.

But the same pain kept coming back. I gave up running, figuring I’d just have to make do with walking really fast.

Then I heard about running barefoot, and I decided to give it a try. After all, what did I have to lose?

Oh. My. God. I LOVE IT!!!

The muscles used, and the motions made, are completely different than in regular running. Instead of landing on your heel, rolling forward, and pushing off with your toes, you land on the front of your foot, gently touch your heel to the ground, and then lift your entire foot off the ground.

When I first started out, I wore Vibram Fivefingers. But I kept reading that when you are learning how to run barefoot, you should go completely barefoot on the hardest pavement you can find.

I thought that sounded a little extreme. Surely, keeping at least a little bit of rubber between my feet and the ground, and spending most of my time on dirt and grass, would be the best way to ease into it.

But one day, I figured I’d take off my Vibrams and see what happened. And it was amazing.

A hard cement sidewalk is a completely unforgiving environment in which to run barefoot, so you have no choice but to do it right, and your body will give you immediate feedback if you do it wrong.

As a result, from the very first step, running barefoot on cement is amazingly smooth and gentle.

In fact, it’s more gentle than running in shoes. I know, it’s totally counter-intuitive. But it turns out it’s so true.

Muscles I didn’t even know existed are appearing in my feet now, but other than that, at the end of the day my feet feel like they did nothing all day but walk around on padded carpets.

Now, if you run in shoes, and if it’s working for you, don’t lie awake at night wondering if you should try running barefoot. It’s like starting all over again — new muscles, new technique, new everything. Even if you’re a seasoned runner, it’ll be a month before you’re ready to run even one mile barefoot. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

But if you want to run, but can’t because it hurts, or if you just want to get back in touch with your inner Kalahari bushman, give it a shot. It’s not just exercise. It’s zen.

The sad thing about this photo isn’t the unemployed people. It’s not even the factory or the town going downhill.

The sad thing about this photo is the guys who wrote the sign were basically telling the world, “We are such bad businessmen, such unimaginative people, that even if someone came up to us who could take $5 and turn it into $10, we are so busy dying that we can’t talk to that person.”

That’s an incredible, and embarrassing, lack of faith in yourself.

For 20 years, we, the United States, have been playing consumer to the world. Now we, and much of the world, are paying the price. What got us here won’t get us where we want to go next, and it will take us a while to figure out what that next is going to look like. In the meantime, we get to have a recession.

The spirit that caused those people to write that sign, I see a lot of that spirit going around these days. It’s the spirit of, “We are so busy dying we don’t have time to live.”

Find that spirit within yourself, and root it out like there’s no tomorrow. You owe it to yourself, and you owe it to your country.

I went to Walmart to pick up some groceries today. When I had everything I needed, I went to the checkout lane, and the cashier started ringing up my stuff.

I was off in my own little world, caught up in my own little self-pity party. It had been kind of a rough week for me. I wasn’t feeling too good about being me at that particular moment.

The cashier started making small talk. She asked if I was having a good Father’s Day. I replied that I was having an excellent Father’s Day, thank you (a little white lie, since actually I was busy thinking about how hard my life was).

She asked me if I was a father, and I smiled and said, “No, but I have one.” She smiled back and replied, “I think we all do.” I said, “Yes, I guess it tends to work that way.”

There was a moment of silence, while she continued ringing up my groceries.

Then I asked her, “How about you, do you have any children?”

And she said, “Well, yes, we had three, but they are in Heaven now.”

This woman was about 25 years old, and she had already buried three children.

No matter how much you might be thinking your current situation sucks, the person standing next to you is probably going through a tough time of their own, too.

And in fact, theirs might be worse than yours.

When my Grandpa Hofer was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, his doctor gave him three months to live. What my grandpa did with those three months was one of the greatest gifts anyone has ever given me.

There was no energy spent hoping death wouldn’t come. Every ounce of energy available was spent preparing for what would happen when he was gone.

He went and made his funeral arrangements. He bought a burial plot for himself (and one for his wife, who is still here with us, bless her heart). He sold the house he had built with his own two hands, knowing that he wouldn’t be around to keep it up anymore, and he moved himself and his wife into a retirement home near my folks, where he knew his wife would get the care she needed when he wasn’t there to provide it anymore.

And when his time came, there was no dancing around the reality of what was about to happen. If he had managed to handle his final months the way he did, then the least those of us around him could do was to respect him with the same kind of straightforwardness and frankness. We said our goodbyes to him to his face, while he was still conscious enough to know what was going on.

Everyone’s got a place they go when they need some “buckup inspiration” or some “raise your game inspiration”. That memory is mine. Whenever I need to dig deep for that little extra something, that’s where I go.

By the way, since my grandpa’s not around, I can’t thank him personally. So I have no choice but to go around thanking other people for what they’ve done for me. Like Craig Wight, or Gordon Boggs.

Turns out that’s been another gift my grandpa gave me, too.

Before I lived in Turkey, I thought the word “jihad” was a word of hate and violence. I associated that word with crazed lunatics, suicide bombers blowing themselves up in public squares, and people flying airplanes into tall buildings.

But then I went to Turkey, and I started meeting people named Jihad!

I remember this one day in particular, when I met my first Jihad. He was my wife’s cousin (actually, his name was “Cihat,” the Turkish spelling of “Jihad”).

My wife and I went to this beautiful tea garden, one of our favorite tea gardens in all of Istanbul.

We met up with my wife’s cousin, his wife, and their kids. And this guy, this cousin, his name was Cihat!

Cihat carried himself with the pious, thoughtful nature of a deeply religious man. His wife had a conservative headscarf tightly wound around her head and neck, and she wore the plain, long, beige-colored overcoat even my new eyes recognized as the mark of a socially and religiously conservative woman.

Their kids, a young boy and a young girl, carried themselves in the poised, well-mannered way you often see in kids who are growing up in a religious household.

But this guy with the radical, violent name, he was just a big teddy bear. You could see it in his eyes, in his face, in the way he looked at his wife and kids. You could even hear it in the way he talked to me, a godless, heathen foreigner he had just met.

Cihat was one the gentlest souls I had ever met.

That afternoon, I was feeling a little confused, wondering, my god, how can this gentle teddy bear of a man have a crazy, violent, hateful name like Cihat? What on earth were his parents thinking? Did they even know what that word meant?

Turns out I was the one who didn’t know what that word meant. Because in the months that followed, I met tons of Cihats in Turkey. Cihat is actually a pretty common guy’s name in Turkey. It’s like being named Paul, or Mark, or Bob. And when someone comes up to you and says, “Hi, my name is Bob,” you don’t panic and run for the hills, do you?

So I figured, the parents must know something I don’t. After all, it doesn’t matter where in the world you are, parents love their children. No parent in the world is going to give his kid a hateful, violent name.

I decided to look into what this word meant, jihad. And here’s what I found…

The word “jihad” has multiple meanings. And yes, “violent war against an external infidel” is one of them. But that is not the primary meaning of the word. It is not the mainstream, popular meaning of the word.

The word jihad more often means “struggle to cleanse your own heart of sin.” It means to purge your heart of sin, to live God’s word in your own heart. Never mind the other people, just purify your own soul.

I didn’t go to some obscure, Middle East-loving, crazy peacenik source to find this definition. I just went to Wikipedia. I went to Wikipedia and typed in “jihad.” And then just to verify what I learned, I went to a couple other mainstream American websites like Yahoo, and Ask.com.

This other meaning, “purging your own heart of sin,” is a mainstream, widely-accepted meaning. In fact, it is the majority meaning of this word. Most of the people who use this word mean “purge the infidel within your own heart.”

Now, I’m not saying that suicide bombers are peace-loving, gentle souls. I am saying that for every crazed lunatic, there are thousands of gentle, loving souls who say jihad is about purifying your own heart. They are saying never mind the non-believers, our hands are full just living God’s words in our own hearts.

This phenomenon is common to pretty much every religion around the world. Take Christianity, for example. For every Christian who thinks Christianity is about grabbing a sword and slaying the heathens in the name of the Lord, there are thousands who say Christianity is about saying, “Never mind the heathens, my job is to purify my own heart.”

It means our conventional-wisdom, popular understanding of the word “jihad” is ridiculously myopic.

And if we’re myopic about that, what else are we myopic about?

When we meet someone else, someone from another religion, or another country, or another job or social class, it is our duty to that person to remind ourselves that our understanding of that person is probably incorrect.

And it is our duty to humanity to try to overcome that incorrectness.

After all, when we allow an incorrect understanding to drive our actions, those actions will be misguided. And even if we do reach our goal, we will probably find out, too late, that we have chosen the wrong one.

The other day I was listening to the radio. They were talking about the lack of civility in society, and how people were feeling more disconnected and less satisfied. They were talking about Americans’ focus on GDP (Gross Domestic Product), and the need for an alternative measure, like Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness.

They were talking about how people are rude to each other, how people are alienated from each other, etc.

I’m sorry, but when you want to complain about human relations in your society, you don’t get to blame society. You don’t get to blame anyone but yourself, and you don’t get to propose solutions that are anything except, “I will treat my fellow man better”.

When you walk up to the counter at Wendy’s, you have to treat that clerk with respect. You have to look him in the eye, and you have to say please, and you have to say thank you. You have to treat that clerk just like you would want to be treated if you were the one standing behind that counter.

You don’t get to treat that clerk like a piece of cardboard standing between you and your hamburger. You don’t get to say, “The clerk at Best Buy was rude to me a half hour ago, so since everyone else is lowering the standards, I am going to lower them too”.

And yes, when you start treating people well, lots of people are still going to treat you badly. You’re going to have plenty of times when you feel tired and say to yourself, “Why do I have to treat this Wendy’s clerk with respect, no one treats me with respect, I’ll get lazy and be rude to this Wendy’s clerk just this one time”.

Groups don’t change when people stand around and point fingers at each other and say, “I’ll change when he does”. Groups change when people take individual actions.

But you’re not treating people with respect for something in return. You’re doing this for yourself. It will remind you that you have power over yourself, and that there is joy in exercising it.

Like Gandhi said, “You must be the change you want to see in the world.”

There’s this guy, Gordon. He’s an older guy, maybe about 60 years old.

Years ago, when he was about 20 years old, Gordon was in a big car accident. He lost the use of most of his body, and he had brain damage that made him completely unable to speak. Not as in “speech impaired” — as in couldn’t even mouth the words, “My name is Gordon.”

Gordon went through years of physical therapy, and regained most of his day-to-day physical ability to get around. He probably doesn’t run too many marathons, and the way he holds himself might look a little stiff, but I wouldn’t think twice about asking him to walk a couple blocks to the store to pick up some milk.

As for the speech part, Gordon went through some speech therapy, enough to regain most of the speech he needed for day-to-day life. But he decided that wasn’t enough. He wanted it all back. So he started going to Toastmasters meetings. A couple a week, week after week, year after year. He’s been doing that now for at least 25 years.

When you first meet Gordon, there’s almost no sign any of this ever happened to him. Sure, maybe something about his brain is still just a little off, just enough to make you think, “Huh, is it just me, or does this guy seem a little eccentric.” But in a room of above-average people, Gordon is more articulate than most of them. And in a room of rockingly articulate, elite people like the Sandpiper Toastmasters, Gordon is one of the most interesting and entertaining speakers.

It’s so easy to forget that at one point in his life, this guy had everything stripped away, and he couldn’t even stand on his own or say hello. In the decades that followed, he must have conducted an only-God-can-understand-what-is-under-the-covers campaign to regain what he had lost.

After he told me this story, I told him I was looking for a job, and really enjoyed this particular Toastmasters club and hoped to find work in the area, because I’d like to be back to attend the club’s weekly meetings as a regular member.

Gordon looked me in the eye and said, “If that’s what you want, then you make it happen.”

When some random person on the street says, “Make it happen,” you think, “Yeah, thanks for the pep talk.” But when someone like Gordon says, “Make it happen,” you can feel your gut realign itself, and you just do.

Thanks, Gordon. Six months ago you told me to make it happen, and I still wake up every day and strive to live your words.

Do yourself a favor…

Look up an old teacher, someone you’ve thought about for years, but have lost touch with.

Google them, and try LinkedIn and Facebook. But you might have to dig around a bit to find them. You might have to go to an online phone book, or even a print version (yes, some towns still have those). Or even call the school and track them down that way. Even if they’re retired now, the school will probably be able to help you find them.

Call them up, tell them a specific memory you have of them, and thank them for helping you become a better person.

And if you’re in the same town, take them out to lunch.

Teachers run into old students all the time on the street. The now-grown students ask, “Hey, remember me,” but the teacher can’t, because the old students are now middle-aged, bald, and fifty pounds heavier.

But believe it or not, even the best teachers go years, sometimes a decade, without an old student calling them out of the blue and saying thanks, you meant a lot to me, I still think about you often after all these years.

People love to know they’ve changed the world around them. Especially teachers. There’s a reason they do what they do.

Imagine being in their shoes, you have to spend all day surrounded by kids who act like they don’t care. Then out of the blue, an old student you haven’t seen in 20 years calls you and says, “Thank you so much, I’ve been trying to live your lessons every day for the past 20 years”.

After you get a phone call like that, the next time you have to go stand up in front of a bunch of bored-looking kids, you’re going to remember exactly why you do what you do.

That’s a great gift to give someone. And you have it within your power to give that gift.

Besides, when you honor another person, you honor yourself.

By the way, this post was inspired by Craig Wight, who is retired now but taught shop at Mt. Whitney High, and whom I knew in 1984-85, when I was 14-15 years old. 25 years later, it was an honor to see him again and thank him for being a guide in my life every year since then.