A Portrait of a Dog

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Photo Credit: Emily Austin 2016

For those of you who follow this blog, you know that Sidney has been both a joy and a challenge.  Entering our lives in the summer of 2009, she was a rescue from a sad daily existence that consisted of a 14 hour day in a crate, a short break in the evening before it was time to return to the crate for another night.  When she joined our family, she needed socialization, love, constant attention, and a good long walk.

Six years later, she has become an ideal companion. Age has helped, as anyone who has ever raised a Labrador knows, but she has also learned that she can receive a pat on the head without the need to lick the hand that pets her (as well as the arm, leg, ankle, face, and neck). She’s discovered that we expect her to follow the rules and that we will give her a little grace when she ignores us.

She’s absolutely fallen in love with my daughter and joins her every evening in her room, laying quietly on her pillow while Emily puts around.  There is nothing she likes more than to sit at my feet when I work from home and is happy to join me in the garage when I’m working on a project of any kind. She simply wants to be near those she loves…and those who love her.

The transformation wasn’t quick and it wasn’t easy.  Going from a manic hound to man’s best friend didn’t occur overnight.  It was a slow, sometimes painful process, and while she is much better today than she was six years ago, the growth and change is a process that continues with each passing day. And honestly, we’re quite proud of her.

Sidney isn’t alone in her journey of growth and change.  The same can be said for each one of us. We all have our own manic moments. We all struggle with those bad habits and personal issues. We all have inner demons created through early trauma, pain and perceived neglect. Often, these inner miseries take on a life of their own, and while we know we could be living our best, we sometimes act our worst. You know it is true, even if you pretend no one else sees it.

But, as Sidney’s life reveals, there is hope. Progress is possible. Revitalization can be a reality. Transformation is no longer unthinkable. Yes, change is a challenge but not an impossibility. It might take time. It might require constant vigilance. It might demand extra effort. But it is doable. It is a worthwhile goal.

Get out of the crate of your past. Let someone love you and love them deeply in return.  It just might change your life for the better.

Star Gazing

17991487168I believe the soul is the very being of who you are.  It is the essence of your existence.  It is the principal of your presence.  It matters more than anything…and I mean, more than ANYTHING.  More than your job, more than your house, more than your car, more than your marriage, more than your family, even more than your dog.  And, if this is true, and I’m just thinking out loud, but if this is true…why do we waste time on things that do not feed our soul?  Why do we invest in things that distract us from becoming who we are truly meant to be at the very center of our spirit?

Why don’t we create a space in our life, our home, our work, our commute, and our relationships that feeds this soul, this part of us that will move from this world to the next even as our bodies lie rotting in the grave?  Why instead, do we seek to entertain and numb the senses?  Why do we stress about the money and the drive and the work and the bills and the, and the, and the?  Why don’t we look for ways to renew our soul, to feed the very core of our beings?  Why don’t we seek solace?  Why don’t we pursue purpose?  Why don’t we want wisdom?  Why don’t we ask for answers?

As I write this, I am attending a day-long personal Advent retreat.  I am sitting alone in a cloistered room in the upper level of this three-story, turn-of-the-century home studying the Christmas story and the Wise Men who so committedly pursued the star in the sky in order to see a king in a stable.  It was their purpose.  It was their passion.

This amazing home and the time “away” has giving me the opportunity to reflect on the “Stars” in my own life; those things which guide me into the presence of God.  They may be people, events, places, or even experiences.  And to be honest, as I’ve pondered this idea and searched for the guiding light of my life, I’ve realized that, sadly, I have very few.  Or rather, I am aware of very few: I suspect the stars are there but I’m simply unable to see them clearly.  I’m too distracted by the blinding glare of the false illumination in my world.

I am reminded of our trip to Yellowstone Park in 2009.  We were driving from one end of the park to the other and because of the heavy traffic and the great distance, we found ourselves shy of our destination very late at night in a high plateau in the park. There were no cities, no street lights, and no other cars for miles.  We were there, alone, in the darkness.  We stopped the car and turned out all the lights and sat on the hood, looking up into a sky that was unlike any I’d ever seen before.  Without man-made ambient light to limit our vision, we were able to see stars in a way we’d never seen them before.  The clarity and intensity of those heavenly bodies was breath-taking.  They spanned the night sky and left us at a loss for words, in awe of their scope and grandeur.

As I think about the search for stars in my life that leads me, I realize that there is no time in my life when I am not blinded by the ambient distractions a busy world.  Understand, I don’t blame anyone but myself.  I’ve erected the lights.  I’ve cultivated the distractions.  I’ve created the lack of space and time for careful observation and sky gazing.

The sad truth is that I fail to carve out time that is purely committed to this endeavor.  Instead, I fill my hours with television, movies, busy work, worry and games – as many distractions as possible, diversions of every kind.  As a result, I fail to feed by soul, exercise my body, and manage my physical, emotional, and spiritual health.

And so, it begs the question:  What would I need to do to renew my soul on a daily basis?  What space do I need to create that will allow me to find peace, discover grace, and feed my soul?  And if you are like me, and I suspect you are, what do you need to do?  What space do you need to create?

Let’s be honest; when is the last time you truly looked at the stars?

Owls and Squirrels and Peace of Mind

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My view this past week. Many thanks to the property owner who allowed me to hide among the trees and renew my soul.

Twelve days of vacation; I needed it more than I knew.  And it was glorious.  I had no real agenda.  There were no exotic travel plans. My greatest desire during my scheduled time off was to spend as many hours as possible sitting in the woods, waiting for a deer to wander past.  If my view was good and my aim was true, I would come home with meat for my freezer and a story to tell my family. Fully decked out in camouflage, I had my bow, warm gloves and a great hiding place.  I was ready.

However, I suspect the deer were on to me.  They spread the news.  They sounded the alert.  And much to my Bambi-loving friends’ delight, I didn’t see one deer during my entire vacation.  I didn’t see one in the woods, or beside the road driving back and forth, or near my neighborhood, or even in my dreams.  So, when people ask if I went hunting, I have to respond that I am anything but a hunter.  I’m just a guy who enjoys looking at trees and nature…and I’m okay with that.

In truth, while unsuccessful at the hunt, the experience was unparalleled in it’s impact on my heart and my soul.

Each morning I would leave my home at 5:15 and drive the hour-and-a-half to this fantastic piece of property that boasts deep woods, rolling prairie, cornfields, marsh and pond.  I gathered my belongings from the car and stood in the darkness, waiting for my eyes to adjust to the black.  I would then hike into the woods, allowing at least forty-five minutes before daylight.  Finding my spot on the bucket next to the tree, I would prepare my space, set my bow, hang my pack, and lean back against the strong Maple, ready to listen and wait.

One morning, in the darkness of those woods, I enjoyed Barred Owls calling their familiar “who-cooks-for-you” as it mixed with the Eastern Screech Owls calling back and forth.  Finally, with the brusqueness of an old uncle and as if to tell them all to quiet down, the Great Horned Owl made his presence known.  The woods once again became quiet.

The light rising over the Randolph County farmland illuminated a rainbow of colors on rain-dappled leaves and dew covered grasses.  It reflected beautifully off the small, lily-covered pond, as steam rose gracefully off the surface and into the chilled morning air.  The breezes blowing over the cornfields and up the hill created a song, a chorus of sound; a rustle of dry corn, the clicking of limbs high overhead, the rhythmic drum of the windmill as it turned in time with the wind.  The birds flying from tree to tree, branch to branch entertained and dazzled with their aerial acrobatics and enthusiastic calls and songs.  It was magical.

As the sun came up over the horizon, the rest of the woodland world came to life.  Squirrels chased one another and investigated the forest floor.  Two Pileated Woodpeckers called to one another and met in a grove of trees just forty yards from my position.  They shifted up and down large Hickory and then flew off in a rage, only to return and repeat the performance.  Canada Geese passed overhead in V-formations, honking furiously to one another as they prepare for their long flight to warmer climates.  Chickadee, Downy Woodpeckers, Mourning Dove and Nuthatch dotted the landscape, searching for breakfast and making quite a show.

No, I didn’t see any deer.  But in the end, I realized I didn’t need to.  This vacation was a retreat for my soul.  It heightened my senses.  It awakened my spirit more than I could ever have imagined or hoped.  Each day was a blessing and I’m so grateful for the time.

One Picture Too Many

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A wind-blown walk along Yellowstone Lake, July 2009.

I’ve been accused of pointing the camera into too many faces and taking too many snapshots.  Some have mocked my shutterbug fascination.  My neighbor wonders why I keep taking pictures of my backyard, close ups of my flowers, “artsy-fartsy” photographs of my tomatoes and lettuce.

I just thought they were jealous.  No one understands that art takes work.  Great pictures require time, patience, a good eye, and an artistic flare.  I thought this with every heckle, jeer and taunt.

Until last week.  It was last week that I realized I might have a problem. In an effort to enter the 21st century, I decided to start using the “Cloud”.  While no one really knows what the “Cloud” is, it seems to be all the rage.  Never one to be left out of new technological fad, I decided to move my file folders full of photos to the “Cloud” and free up some space on my hard drive.

Before I give you the shocking details, I just want to outline a few of the facts:  1)  I’ve been taking pictures with my Olympus 35mm since 1991.  2) Before that, it was a little 110 mm camera or disposables from the drug store. 3)  These pictures were expensive to develop and print and there were many years when we would have a drawer full of film rolls awaiting a significant financial investment and a brave trip to the photo department at CVS.  4) This never stopped me from TAKING the pictures. 5)  I took LOTS of pictures.  6) We just didn’t see the results until a decade or two later.

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My first digital photograph, 2004.

We welcomed our first digital camera to our family in 2004 and it revolutionized the way we (I) took pictures.  Gone were the days of 36-frame rolls that could be wasted with one accidental opening of the back of the camera.  Gone were the outrageously priced processing fees.  I could point and click for hours.  The only limitation was the size of my memory card and the battery life of the device.

Today, I have an electronic Olympus that utilizes my original lenses with a 32 Gb flash drive and a 24-hour battery life (and I have three batteries charged and ready at all times).  There is no end to the picture excitement I can create.

And this is my problem.  Between shutter-finger reflexes, my digital camera and my ability to scan into our system every print picture taken, I have amassed quite a bit of digital data and enough photography to bring Kodak back from bankruptcy.  When it came time to move my beautiful works of art over to the “Cloud”, I discovered that I had a collection of photographs that exceeded 48,000 images.

I’ve crashed my Google Drive multiple times trying to move this mass of Kodachrome over to my space.

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A night on the Circle, downtown Indianapolis.

But here’s the problem:  What picture do I delete?  Sure, there is an occasional random shot of my shoe or a bad picture of someone with their finger up their nose but even taking those goofy moments into account, how can I delete my babies?  And where do I start?

Getting great pictures requires taking a lot of average pictures in the process.  I just never thought that great art would require these kinds of hard choices.

Water Off A Duck’s Back

Duck on a RockMore and more, I believe that all we need to know about life, we can learn from the birds.  For instance, did you know that ducks are waterproof?  Really.  But more on the at later.

First, let’s talk about how hard life can be and how people can be very mean.  It’s true.  You know it’s true.  Don’t deny it. There are days when you walk out of your office, church, school, or home and wonder if you can ever return.

People say hurtful things.  They relish in the painful look on your face.  They search for ways to stab at your heart and wound your spirit.  I don’t know why.  I can only assume that their own pain must require this kind of pitiful response.  But it’s sad.  It is sad for them and for you.  Living in this atmosphere, day in and day out, can become debilitating and life-threatening if we don’t protect ourselves.

Here’s were the duck comes in:  Did you know that there is a special gland located near the base of their tails called the Preen Gland?  This amazing adaptation produces a special oil that the ducks use to coat their feathers.  This oil, once applied to the surface of the feather, creates a protective barrier that keeps out the harsh water and life-draining cold temperatures and helps trap in their own life-giving body warmth.

But here’s the thing:  The duck has to spend much of its time preening to benefit from this protection.  Otherwise, the water world in which they live will kill them.  Without preening, the water will seep into the downy feather layer and make it impossible for them to survive.  Their own self-maintenance saves their lives.

When is the last time you protected yourself from the constant barrage of negative statements and hurtful comments?  When did you last take some time to prepare your outer shell, preen yourself, oil your feathers?  Does the constant barrage roll off your back or does it seep in from time to time?

When did you last spend five minutes in solitude?  When was the last time you self-spoke words of encouragement?  How long has it been since you spent time looking at art, walking in the woods, knitting, laughing, singing at the top of your voice?  Pet a cat.  Walk a dog.  Eat a good meal.  Drink a fine wine.   Smell a beautiful flower.  Hug a good friend.

In short, preen.  Take time to take care of you and in the end, the vitriol of others will simply roll away, like water off a duck’s back.

 

Don’t Forget To Smile

The Happy CoupleYou might have had a stinky day.

You may have suffered a terrible blow.

The rain may fall and the wind may blow.

Whatever you face, whatever happens in your world, whatever the day brings, there is no reason you cannot smile.

Are you happy?  Perhaps not.

Are you overjoyed? Doubtful.

Are you singing a happy tune?  Tone deaf.

But you can always smile.

Raise your eye brows.  Nod your head.  Show some teeth.  Make the effort.

Because someone may take your picture and 70 years later they will wonder, “What in the hell was wrong with them?”

 

Changing History

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Abraham Lincoln, ranked No. 5 in the 100 most influential people of history.

I often wonder about the mark I will leave on this planet when I’m gone.  It is common for us to be interested in our legacy.  We want to stand out.  We want to make a difference.  We want to be unique.  We want to be known for something.

But the truth is, you are only one in 7 BILLION people living on the planet today.  A 2011 estimate suggests that at least 107 billion people have populated this planet over the course of all recorded time.  Of those, only a rare few have made it into the pages of your 5th grade history book.

TIME Magazine ranked the top 100 historically significant people of all time. I was not surprised to see many religious figures on the list; Jesus (1), Muhammad (3), and Gautama Buddha (52).  Philosophers and deep thinkers like Karl Marx (14) and Socrates (68) will find their names on the list, if they ever care enough to look.  Way too many American presidents are on the list.   Many church leaders, artists and writers win a spot; Martin Luther (17), Leonardo da Vinci (29), Shakespeare (4), Dickens (33) and Martin Luther (17).

Of note, and worthy of its own blog, only a few women made the list:  Elizabeth I (13), Queen Victoria (16),  and Joan of Arc (95).  Seriously?  You either have to rule a monarch or be burned at the stake to be an influential female.

But here’s what I realized as I thought about those 97 men and three women on TIME’s list:  A list of 100 people in a world populated by 107 billion is absurd.  People change the world, influence history, make a difference each and every day.  You just don’t know their names.  They might not free slaves like Lincoln (5) or start wars like Bush (36) or conquer the world like Caesar (15), but they leave a mark, just the same.

For instance, who created the perfect cup of coffee?  I don’t know his name but he changed my world.  How about Napoleon’s (2) mother?  She helped shape the little man, for better or worse.  Why isn’t she there to get a little credit and share a little blame?  At the very least, an honorable mention should go to the guy who invented indoor plumbing. And while we’re on the subject, how about a nod for the genius who developed softer toilet paper?

If it were up to me, I would have added Neil Armstrong (101) for, oh, I don’t know, walking on the moon, and Rosalind Elsie Franklin (102) for truly discovering DNA.

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Generals develop strategies but it’s the soldiers who win or lose a war.

Over the course of history, men and women fought tyranny and oppression by storming beaches, hiding refugees, and standing up for what is right and against what is wrong.  Millions fed hungry children, provided shelter for the homeless, helped the hurting, and held the hand of the dying.  We will never know their names.  We will never know the full story.  They are the anonymous masses that make life bearable.  We only know the world is a better place today because of their selfless, courageous acts.

And that’s the lesson, isn’t it?  Not everyone can or should grow up to be President.  (Of the 472 million people who were born American, only 44 of them ever took the oath of office.)  But everyone, every single one, can make a difference.  They CAN leave a mark.  They can change the life of someone through tenacity, courage, creativity and love.

We may never make the list of the top 100 influential persons of all time, but we can, we must make a difference in the world.  Starting today.

 

Slow It Down

Warp SpeedHere’s the plan:  Stop going so fast.

Stop thinking about your next move.  Stop looking forward without considering your current location.  Follow the speed limit.  Forget Instant Coffee.  Give up Instant Pudding.  Stop using Instagram.

Instead, Go Slow.

I get it.  It’s hard not to respond immediately to emails and telephone messages and texts.  It’s hard not to flow with traffic on the interstate when it’s flying along at 75 miles per hour.  It’s hard not to go fast.  It’s hard to go slow.

But I’m convinced that this is the answer to many of life’s most difficult questions.

What if we drove the speed limit instead of ensuring we are always in the fast lane?  What if we made supper in a stove instead of a microwave?  What if we plant seeds now for a summer garden?  What if we sit and watch a sunrise or sunset for the entire event?

I get it.  It’s hard to go slow.  But that’s my plan this week.  I’m going to take my time, drive slow, live slow.

I invite you to join me.

 

 

Taking Out The Trash

cropped-austins-acre-sunrise-barn1.jpgLet’s be honest.  This was a week of crazy.  This was a work week of stupid.

In just three short days in the office I dealt with a liar and a thief and a couple very smart people without an ounce of ethics in their bones.  I was trapped in my office as people went on 30-minute rants about their drives to work, the conditions of the roads and the stupid people who drive them.  I suffered a man who seems to desire nothing more than making his girlfriend uncomfortable with his choices, his humor and his selfish desires.  I tolerated a woman who finds joy in making her coworkers’ lives miserable by assigning meaningless tasks.  I endured another woman who needed action on a project immediately, resulting in hours of work on my part only to find that she meant her 32 emails to go to someone else and their project.

It was a banner week.  One for the books.  And I can guarantee you’ve had one just like in the past…And will have one just like it in the future.  People can get under our skin.  Their constant droning can ring in our ears like the 7-year locust on a hot summer day.

However, I’ve discovered a new trick to avoid the annoying buzz they bring:  I let them carry out whatever they’ve carried in; not literally, of course, but in my own mind’s eye I see them hauling out the hubris.  What I do is this:  As they talk, blab, drone, blather and complain, I grab a notepad and I scribble down their story.  I record their rant.  I compose their confession.  I draft their droning.  I write their rant.

It’s like taking notes in a meeting…only a lot more fun.  I don’t write entire sentences but only jot key words, central themes and great quotes.  And when they leave, I throw it away. I simply toss it in the trash. I crumple the complaints. I destroy the diatribe.  I shred the sound off.  I trash their tirade.  When they leave the room, they take their garbage with them and I eliminate the evidence.

I don’t allow them to leave their emotional litter.  I pick up their piles of poisoned passion and I sweep away the sour sentiments.

Imagine a day in your life when you are not side-tracked by crazy.  Imagine a time when another person’s philippic doesn’t become your own internal struggle.  Imagine living life free from other peoples’ problems. This is one way to clear your desk and your mind and get back to the things that matter most.

Try it next week.  It just might work as well for you as it does for me!

 

Resolving to Revolutionize My Life

WWLHappy New Year!  This is it.  This is the one.  This is the year when everything changes:  You will make and save more money than ever before.  You will loose those last (or first) ten pounds.  You will find a meaningful hobby.  You will volunteer in a way that changes lives.  You will fix up the house, get a new wardrobe and read War & Peace.

This is the year that you climb the mountain of apathy, plant the flag of determination and take the stance of self-assurance.

This is your year and nothing will change your mind.  You will set your sail, stay the course and find new adventures over every horizon.

Or…you won’t.  You might just stay the same…or worse.

You might make less money and spend it foolishly.  You might blow up like a human balloon because you can’t control your eating and your emotions.  You might live a year of sloth; no hobby, no meaningful service, or no home repairs.  You just might sit around in Cheetos-stained t-shirts watching reruns of Happy Days wishing you were as cool as the Fonz.

Instead of blazing new trails, you are afraid to mow your own yard.  Instead of leading the charge into a life of adventure, you cuddle under your Harry Potter Snuggie in the dark of night.

This is it.  This is your year.  And it could go either way.  Which one will you select?

Happy Thanksgiving, 2013

20131117_160359I try to live my life in a way that reflects gratitude.  Sometimes I’m actually successful at reaching this goal.  There are times when I celebrate little things, give thanks for the many blessings and embrace those in my life who strengthen my heart with love or my character with challenge.  Sometimes.

There are other times that my pride and sense of entitlement overwhelms my better nature.  There are those times when I expect others to understand my selfishness and bow to my childish demands.  There are times when I become upset because life doesn’t fall into a perfect plan that benefits me.  There are those times.

Thanksgiving Day is the easy one, right?  November has become the month of Thanksgiving and we list off the 31 things we are thankful for; each day getting its own item.  But all that seems to change the minute the store doors open on Friday morning (or Thursday night, or Thursday morning, or Wednesday night).

But, what if each moment was as it should be:  Less about us, and more about others?  What if our hearts overflow with joy instead of bogged down with desire?  Shouldn’t we live lives of gratitude and grace instead of the desire to grab and go?  Shouldn’t we have pure souls and open minds instead of jaded thoughts and bitter viewpoints?

Thanksgiving:  It’s not just for November any more.

Grace House

Dinner Table

There are a few places in my life that bring deep peace to my heart and soul.  When I enter the space, I find comfort and ease.  Some of these sanctuaries of solace include the obvious locations:  The Chapel in the hospital and my church auditorium.

Others are more obscure:  McGregor Park, Turkey Run State Park, The Rocky Mountains, The Library.  But one haven of healing stands out above all others.

Of all my precious asylums, our abode is my favorite.  Our house is nothing short of a retreat center for my spirit, a balm for my soul.  It is a residence of rest, a hearth of harmony, a quarter of quiet.  Our home is a dear and wonderful place of tranquility and renewal.

I’m not exactly sure what makes this place so magical to my weary heart.  It might be the way the light shines through the dining room window on a late autumn evening.  It could be the way the grass grows in the back yard, thick and lush even on dry summer days.  It is possible that it is the amazingly warm and inviting colors we’ve painted the walls.  Or, most probably, it is the love and trust we’ve honed over the past thirteen years in this a little, vinyl-sided structure planted on a cul-de-sac in a norther-Indianapolis suburb.

Whatever it is that creates the mystery of this mansion, this house is more than my home.  It is my sanctuary: A place of grace.  It is “Grace House”…my place of safety and strength. And I love it, dearly.

And the Setting of the Same…

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When the day comes to an end and the sun slowly drops below the western horizon, it is a good opportunity to give thanks for another day; whether it was good or bad, evil or holy.  It is a moment to reflect that our world, though filled with trouble, does not compare to those who just lost everything in the wind and rain of a storm.  Our life, though disappointing at times, does not come close to the devastation that some suffer as they learn of the violent death of their loved on on the field of battle.  Let us be thankful.  Today, we drove to work and made it home safe.  Today, we earned money to buy food, put shelter over our heads and clothes on our backs.  Today, we celebrated the rising of the sun and the setting of the same.

Changing The Way You See It

“Mercy triumphs over judgement.”  James 2:13b

First, read this four-word nugget of wisdom again.

Now, think about the last time you were judgmental.  Perhaps it was in the line at the grocery store when you questioned the items of the person in front of you.  Maybe it was at your last family gathering when a sibling started talking about their financial struggles, again.  Or, on the other extreme, when a coworker blathers on about their new car, boat, TV, or their latest trip to some exotic location.  Or it might be every morning on the highway as that car cuts you off and speeds away.  We often begin and end our days with judgement.

We are very good at judging others.  We should be; we practice it enough.  But what does that get  us?  I would suggest it gets us nothing more than a jaded perspective and a hardened heart.

Now think of the last time you showed mercy.  It’s not as easy to come up with examples, is it?  Let me help:  It could be the time you listened to your coworker, spoke gently to your children, forgave your brother, encouraged your sister or bought lunch for a stranger.

Mercy triumphs over judgement.  It could if we practiced it more often.  I should if we allowed it to be a driving force to our actions.  It will when we stop thinking of our selves and really pay attention to those around us.

A Place To Call My Own

The New Office
My new office space / spare room.

There is something about having a room to call my own.  For the past many years, I’ve either had a desk in a dark corner of a busy room or in the middle of the chaos and hubbub.  However, this past weekend we claimed my sons’ room and turned it into a space I can finally call my own.

Grandpas Chair
Made by my great-grandfather, this chair is passed down to the first Austin son of the next generation. It will stay in my home for a very long time.

In this space I will study my class work.  At this desk I will write my novel.  On this couch I will read devotions.  In my grandfather’s chair I will sit quietly and pray.

This is a holy place.  It is a holy space:  Set aside for a purpose, this room will speak to my soul and allow the creativity of my inner being to flourish.

Who knows?  I might even pick up the guitar from time to time.