Does the word risk hold a positive or negative meaning for you?

I think there’s a tiny percent of the population who live risky in the negative sense—bungee jumping without the bungee cord, sky diving without a parachute, or heading to work without drinking a cup of coffee. For the rest of us, I think fear—of failure, of looking bad, of being rejected—prevents us from taking smart risks.

In her latest book on leadership, sociologist Brene Brown notes, “Not enough people are taking smart risks or creating and sharing bold ideas to meet the changing demands and the insatiable need for innovation,” is a core issue identified by corporate leaders as what is getting in the way of organizations around the world.

You may or may not be a corporate leader, but the need today for smart risks and bold ideas is massive. In a world of rapid change, polarization, impulsive leaders and threats the world has never known before, the idea that we can ‘play it safe’ is an illusion.

Fear is one of the leading threats of our time and one of the most destructive forces in history. A year ago I launched the Stephen David Leonard brand, representing for me a risk to show up give voice to another approach to life. Whatever success I have experienced in the past, I have succeeded by carefully hiding my true self—I failed to truly show up and be who I am designed to be. I know I’m not alone. Many people, many men, fear to risk showing their true selves.

The Stephen David Leonard product, brand, my family and my life are reflections of a larger hope. Each of us is designed to experience life to its intended fullness in a ruptured world as agents of a better one.

I pray as I take the risk to show up in my life, you may be inspired to take the risk to show up in yours. Lisa and I have created product for a decade that are tangible reminders of hope for women. I have seen the ways women are inspired to take risks. But women aren’t the only ones who need to be inspired.

As a father, husband and man living today, I see how we live in a world characterized by ruptured relationship. Most responses today are born out of fear. Instead, I call us men to risk being the people we are designed to be. Rather than agents of fear, retaliation, power, and selfishness, risk being ambassadors of love, justice, mercy and faithfulness out of a hope this is not the way it’s meant to be.

The SDL products are tangible reminders of that hope and the strength of character it takes to risk showing up. I designed the product to reflect you—the people you love, the character to which you aspire, the authentic life for which you were designed. This coming year, I am committed to risk showing up more. I invite you to join me.

Thank you to all of you who have support the Stephen David Leonard brand this year. The brand exists for you. You are the ones bringing a scary dream into reality.

Climbing Mountains

Since November of last year I have been training and preparing to engage a life-long goal of riding my bike on the famous climbs used in the Tour de France. Wearing glasses since I was five, hand-eye coordination sports never came easy to me. In elementary school I was a small kid who got teased a lot. In 6th grade I visited my grandparents in England, where their next door neighbor, David, introduced me to cycling.

I was enthralled watching Greg LeMond, the only American, fight it out in the Tour de France with Bernard Hinault. The next year he won the first of his three victories, becoming the only American to ever win the Tour de France. He was my hero. I convinced my mom to take me to the bike shop where I got my first ten speed ever—A Univega, complete with handlebar shifters, extra brakes levers and 40 pounds of mean cycling machine.

I rode all over Fresno. I had a new found freedom and loved turning the toe-clipped pedals. I was so skinny my mom had to take in my cycling shorts. We found the smallest ones around, but even taken in, they hung a little loose on me. Riding around Woodward Park, I imagined myself as Greg LeMond, climbing the Col de Tourmalet and Alpe d’Huez. It was the perfect sport for me heading into Junior High. Having spent so many young years feeling rejected by other kids, feeling shame about who I was, on the bike I found a place I could be me.

As time went on I moved up bikes, first to a low end Bianchi (my first real racing bike!) and after saving up a lot of money from my paper route, I bought a Battaglin frame (the same as used by Stephen Roche to win the 1987 Tour de France!) complete with Campagnolo parts. This was a top end bike I rode and raced with pride. Cycling gave me a way to find myself, to grow up and become independent. I made a whole new circle of friends, who didn’t know me from elementary school. They only knew me as one of them.

All the while I dreamed of riding the Tour de France one day. Every mountain I climbed, every hill I went up, became those giants in the Pyrenees and the Alps. I pictured myself there, riding these giants and living the dream.

Now I have teenage boys and it’s been a long time since I was one myself. My boys are the ages I was when I fell in love with cycling and finding myself. I see them on their journeys to become the men God made them to be. I think often how some of my life long passions started when I was their age.

In October I joined some friends and signed up to travel to France and ride these mountains I’ve dreamed about since I was a kid. We began preparing in November, riding week in, week out. Every Saturday spending hours on the bike to be ready for days of 5,000-15,000 feet of climbing in France. At this stage of life, I have to navigate work and family time. Each workout had to count over the past months, whether on or off the bike. We aren’t in the Tour de France (other than in our minds!), but we are on an adventure that will finally take us to meet and ride these celebrity mountains.

Each of us has mountains to climb in our lives. Sometimes they are goals we hope to achieve. Sometimes they are obstacles we have to overcome. Sometimes it’s facing fears, taking risks, or engaging in personal growth. And sometimes they are literal mountains, just to see if you can do it. Each takes courage to take the initial step and sign up for the journey. In each case, it takes resiliency to show up week after week—especially when you don’t want to or when commitments make it difficult. And, once we’ve finally climbed the mountain, we realize we haven’t reached the end, but have begun a journey that will carry on through our lives.

Father’s Day Musings

Father’s Day is almost here. Our lives have been so crazy lately with David’s surgery and Matthias graduating Middle School, it’s easy to miss everything happening around us–especially a day like Father’s Day. But this time of year reminds me how grateful I am to be a dad and how grateful I am for my sons.

A few weeks back Matthias and I went on his school camping trip. I love getting out into nature with him and seeing him hang out with his friends. He seems to be growing and changing before my eyes lately. Honestly, sometimes I find myself freaking out that he only has four more years until he graduates. I think of the things I haven’t taught him yet, the things I neglected when he was younger, the things out ahead of him and feel like I could be such a better dad to him. Then I remember growing and learning is a life-long journey.

David has had a few bad colds and a hard time breathing this year, to the point I have worried about him many nights as I put him in his bed. Finding out he had a polyp in his nose the size of my index finger has explained so much. All these things remind me how inadequate I really am to keep my boys and my family from harm. No matter what steps I take to protect them, so much is out of my control. I have to admit the idea I can keep them healthy and safe is an illusion. And yet, I am grateful for those who surrounded our family and helped us help David get the surgery he needed.

People don’t really talk about this, but being a dad is vulnerable. Dads want to be strong for our kids and families. Dads work hard to provide for our families. Dads want to be role models and to teach our kids. We may not wear our hearts on our sleeves, but our love runs deep. Every dad, whether he drives a truck, works in an office, or stays home with the kids wants the best for his kids. And yet we all wonder if we’re up to the task. We worry the day will come when we can’t provide, can’t protect, can’t be there.

We want to be the super hero who can fly in and defeat our foes with lightning speed and the strength of steel. But we know we are flesh and blood. Our foes don’t use magic, or diabolical riddles, or elaborate scientific contraptions. Instead we fight to pay mortgages, pay for college and provide the best life we can for our families. Dads want the best for our kids.

In today’s world, being a dad takes courage. We have to withstand the pressures and fears we face. This Father’s Day honor and celebrate the dads you know who have shown their faithful love. Remember the dads who mentor and teach you. Let them know the difference they make.


Parental Musings

Even though my boys have hit the early teen years, they still allow me the nightly ritual of putting them to bed. For David, I give him his night time meds to help him sleep (sleep is an issue for people with Cornelia de Lange Syndrome), take him upstairs to his bedroom, put him and bed and pray for him. He still needs the assistance to make it to bed each night. For Matthias, he heads up on his own, gets ready, and calls me when he’s ready for me. I come upstairs, pray for him, sometimes we have a conversation about whatever’s on his mind, and then he grabs a hold of me to wrestle one last time before the day ends. I’m a believer in ritual in life—especially around touch points for our family to affirm our love for one another. I love the bed time ritual. It’s one last chance for me to connect with my boys before the days ends.

The other night, as Matthias and I wrestled, I had one of those moments of irrational parental panic. As we started to wrestle, I found myself thinking, “What would I do if something terrible happened to you?” I think every mom and every dad knows that feeling—you’re in the moment enjoying (or not) your kids when some horrible story of a child dying prematurely, or getting cancer, fleets across your mind. In those moments as a dad, I feel small in the universe. I become aware I am limited and finite, reminded that while in some ways I am the protector of our family, my ability to protect and defend my family is more illusion than reality. David has a severe genetic syndrome causing sudden minor and major health issues from time to time. I know anything from anesthesia in a simple surgery, to a bad cold turned pneumonia can take him without warning. Matthias is less than a year from getting his driving permit and has just begun the teenage years of being out with friends while Lisa and I are still home. The possibilities of what could happen when he’s on his own, without my protection, are enough to send shivers up my spine.

I’ve heard the best antidote to these waking parental terrors is gratitude. The truth is, we do not own our children or our spouses. The people in our lives are gifts from God we are given to enjoy for a time. The older I get, the more I realize life itself is but a fleeting vapor. How can our earthly relationships in this life be any more than that?

The other night, just as I began to think these dark thoughts about Matthias, I was about to break free of his grip and end our nightly match. I started freaking out internally—feeling my son’s life slipping from my tight grip on him—even as I was literally loosening his grip on me in our wrestling match. I thought, “If I lost him, we won’t have any more of these moments. How many more of these moments do we have as father and son? He’s 14, how many more times will he allow me to spend these last moments of his day with him before he decides he’s too old and he’s over it? I will have to give that to him when he wants it. Children grow up, parents help children grow up. One day, we won’t do this anymore.”

Remembering the power of gratitude I decided, “I’m thankful for this moment. This is a moment I could inhabit.” I looked him in the eye, relaxed my body ever so slightly, and he pulled me again thinking he was once again getting the upper hand in our match. As we wrestled through round two, I thought, I don’t know how many more of these moment we have together, but we have this one. I am thankful for this moment with my son. I am thankful for my son. These moments will cease one day, but I have this one and I will be present.

Maybe you’ve experienced these moments yourself. You find yourself worrying about things you can’t control. Perhaps you have experienced the awful parental pain of seeing your child afflicted, or worse. Being a parent is hard. We bring these little humans into the world, invest ourselves in their well-being and one way or another have to release them. We laugh and cry with our kids, counsel them and argue with them, and watch them experience joy and pain. I have to equip Matthias to enter the world and to brave it without me or Lisa. I don’t know what David’s future holds, whether living with us or apart, future surgeries, or how long he will be with us. Rather than dwell on the uncertain future, may we be grateful for every day, every moment we get with our kids. May we hold them open-handed, thankful for the privilege to steward their lives for a time.

Monday Musings

Last week was a busy week. It began and ended with David seeing specialists in LA. On Monday we went as a family to the pediatric orthopedist at UCLA to learn what’s going on with David’s scoliosis. The X-rays were shocking. His spine looks like a mlid today today, when only a few years ago it was straight. Apparently it’s classified as moderate, so we will wait and watch. Fortunately he’s not in any pain.  

Friday Lisa took David down again to Children’s Hospital LA to see the Ear, Nose, Throat doctor as he has developed a small growth in his sinuses called a polyp. We’ll be able to remove it with a simple surgery, but it means at least four more trips to LA for various doctor sign offs and tests beforehand.   

Saturday we took Matthias to see the new Avengers movie! I was thinking today, What do dads do who have daughters and no sons when movies like this come out? Do you play it cool and go with a friend who wants to see it, or do you just suck it up and admit, you’re a big kid who wants to go watch super hero movies? I love getting to share all these movies wit Matthias as he grows up. We’ve been able to see Star Wars premieres together, geek out over the Avengers and weep in frustration over Fantastic Four (why can’t they get that one right?).

I cook breakfast for our family every morning. Usually it’s our special protein rich pancakes, but sometimes I do bacon and eggs too. Our dog Louis always stands right behind my feet where I can’t feel him, but leaves me no where to go. I have tripped over that dog a hundred times if I’ve done it once! It’s our morning routine.

Fortunately, this week is a little less crazy than last week. I’m retooling my schedule and responsibilities to make more time to write, develop product and focus on my goals. Seems life is always clamoring to take over any time in the calendar. I didn’t get done everything I wanted to do last week, but I did get to be there for Lisa and the boys. As a husband and dad, I’m grateful for that.

Superheroes A-Z

“I think, think, think; draw, draw, draw; write, write, write. I am an artist and an author,” Matthias said when he came home one day at the end of his first week in kindergarten. He had drawn pictures since he was three years old. But, from this moment forward, Matthias has claimed his creative space as an artist and an author.

A couple years later, I was putting him to bed one night in late March. I noticed he had paper and drawing supplies in bed with him.

“What’s that?” I asked.“It’s drawing stuff. I’m making a book for mom for Mother’s Day.”

“Really? Wow, that’s still a few weeks away, I’m impressed you’re already working on it.”

“You guys are working on Mother’s Day at the office, so I thought I would work on it too so I’ll have enough time to make the book.”

“That’s awesome. What’s the book?”

“I’m drawing super heroes. Three for every letter of the alphabet.”

“Like, super heroes we already know, or ones you’re making up?”

“I’m making up my own superheroes. It’s a surprise, don’t tell mom.” he answered.

For the next few weeks, everywhere he went he had his superhero book project with him. As Mother’s Day neared he began taking his drawing supplies to bed with him more often.“I have to keep working so I can have it ready,” he told me, sounding like a college student working on a term paper.

“Ok, you’ve been working hard. You can stay up a little late, but only one picture then you need to go to sleep,” I told him. Putting him to bed I was both worried he wasn’t getting enough sleep and proud of his dedication to the project.

As he neared completion, I came up with a what I thought a great idea, “Matthias, what if we take your drawings and get them bound and put a cover on it, so you have a real book to give Mom?”

“Yeah, Mom would like that,” he answered.

“Maybe even we could make a few copies so you have one and we can give a couple to the family? You’ve worked so hard on it, it would be cool to share it. I think they would enjoy it,” I suggested.

A couple days after Mother’s Day (like many first time authors, he missed his deadline by a few days, but it was his first effort and he was only a kid!), we headed over to Staples together to make full color copies and get a cover for his book.

“To do full color copies is ten cents per page plus ten dollars for a cover,” the Staples employee told me.

I thought about the cost, and did some quick math in my head, but decided Matthias’ work and Mother’s Day for Lisa was worth the fifty bucks. “Perfect, when will it be ready?”

“Give us 45 minutes to an hour and we’ll have them for you,” she told me.

Matthias and I decided to run over to the grocery store and get Lisa some flowers to go with her awesome Mother’s Day gift. I was feeling happy with myself. Matthias had put weeks of effort into this project. Lisa was going to love it. We would have copies for the family. This was a win for the Leonard boys.

We went back to pick it up. “Color prints, plus covers for twenty-five copies,” the employee started punching numbers into the cash register. “Eighty pages times twenty-five plus covers…”

I began reworking my mental math, “Wait, how many??” I thought to myself. “That’s not a little under fifty bucks…”

“With tax that comes to $485.32,” she said, interrupting my thoughts.

My stomach sank. In my quick head math earlier, I somehow thought the total would be around $50. I missed something. I tried to look like that was the number I expected and pulled out my debit card to pay. “Oh man, Lisa is going to kill me,” I thought now. How quickly it turns from win to loss! Hopefully she would understand since it was Matthias’s work and we were helping him become the first published author in our family—all to celebrate Lisa.  I paid and we went home. Matthias was beaming.

“Are you happy with how it turned out kiddo?”

“Yeah. Mom’s really going to like this. It looks so good.”

Super Heroes from A to Z, a compendium of seventy-eight original super heroes! The book contained not only pictures and descriptions, but he knew the back story to every character, with detail far surpassing what he put down in the book.

Iguona Guy—”Skills of ignuona. Reptile strong. Chest plate of armer.”

Nine Man—”He has 9 times the strike. Nine punches and your out. His strength comes in numbers.”

Paraliser—“If you look into his eyes you’re out. He controls day and night.”

And our family favorite. Edward, “Edward has no powers and is poor. He has no relationship with his parents.” Explains so much, doesn’t it?

We arrived home and presented the book to Lisa along with the flowers.

“Wow Matthias! I love it. You worked hard on this didn’t you? This is so amazing—I can’t believe you came up with three superheroes for every letter of the alphabet! I love it and I love you.”

“Thanks Mom. I’m happy you like it. We made extra copies so we can give it to the family too.” Lisa hugged and kissed Matthias and he ran off to the other room.

“It was a little more expensive than I thought it would be,” I said tentatively. “Somehow I miscalculated how much all the copies would be together.”

“How much was it? How much were you off?” Lisa asked, her face with a look of surprise.

“Well, I was off by a zero.”

“A zero? What do you mean?”

“I thought it was going to be around fifty bucks—kind of a splurge, but you know, it’s Matthias’ book for you. But it was…”

“It was five hundred!” Lisa interjected, her eyes wide. At the very moment I felt my stomach tense up, she laughed. “Well, the good news is, the family will love it and will be happy to get copies.”

“It’s your most expensive Mother’s Day gift ever—but at least it’s for Matthias’ work.” I suggested. “You’re worth it Baby. So is he.”

“Totally,” she said. I gave her a hug and a kiss, relieved she was happy with her gift and not upset about the money.

To this day Matthias draws and writes and creates worlds and characters who inspire and capture a sense of wonder in the world. Everywhere he goes he carries his drawing materials with him in case we have ten minutes of down time. He still creates heroes and heroines, bad guys, villains and now he’s a teenager, creepy creatures too! He has begun writing down his characters’ back stories, creating worlds and telling stories of outer space, Arthurian legends, teenage boys and more.

Every April I pull out Super Heroes from A to Z to remember those precious days, to reflect on how far he has come as an artist and a person and to see Matthias’s labor of love to celebrate his mom.

Monday Musings

Sunday I got to live out a little dream I’ve had since I was Matthias’s age. For months I’ve been bugging my guitar teacher about how I can play music with and for other live human beings. Whether it was at my prompting, or something else, he set up a recital for his students at a local restaurant and got twelve of us out there playing for friends, family and whoever came by.

Lisa came out and brought the boys to support me. She earned wife of the year points, rallying friends of ours to come out and see me play. Matthias took a super sweet photo us and then kept shooting while she tried to get the camera back–it’s been his little joke with us since he was seven years old!

Matthias is getting so big–he looks more like the rock star with me, but I loved having him out there. The best compliment I got was him telling me he thought I sounded good. At 14 he’s prepared to tell me when something’s not good, so I’ll take it!

I was blown away, some friend gathered up their family drove 40 minutes (that’s far away here on the Central Coast of California!) to come see me and made a day of it. It’s a humbling thing to have people turn up to support and encourage you. Especially when it feels risky like playing and singing in public! I’m grateful to the five families that shared their afternoon with us.

When I started playing my set, David ran from the other side of the patio at the restaurant to come find me. So fun–he heard my voice and one of the songs I’ve been practicing at home and knew Dad was playing music! David is super musical. His favorite thing to do is play the various keyboards we have around the house. He often comes in and “joins in” when I’m playing at home.

Beach Hut Deli in Los Osos hosted us. They had great food and provided a fantastic family environment for all of us to hang out and perform our songs. The owner, Heather was super nice and supportive of us all. I love when we can support local businesses!
My teacher, Patrick Pearson, set all this up for us. Twelve of us performed, from seven to eighty years old, from beginner to some guys who shred on the guitar. I had such a blast performing with Patrick and hanging out to support my fellow students. I’ve been taking lessons for a little over a year now, and singing and playing a couple songs for and audience was definitely the next level. It’s funny how something so small can feel so big and intimidating. And yet, as evidenced by our group, it’s never too early and never too late to start. It doesn’t matter what stage of development you’re at, the more you practice and learn the better you get. There might be a bigger lesson there for all of us.


The path to your greatest success is through your greatest fear.

An imaginary force masquerading as danger, fear can hold us back, hinder our dreams, and act as an invisible barrier to the things we want. When our boys were little, we loved to read What Was I Scared Of? By Dr. Seuss. The Seussian creature main character (what is he anyway?!) strolls in the woods one evening when he shockingly encounters a Pair of Pale Green Pants with Nobody Inside Them. Not given to fear, our hero tells us, he is understandably shaken up by this aberrant creature floating before him. Then the PGPWNIT move, “They kind of started jumping. And then my heart, I must admit, It kind of started thumping.” Still unafraid, our hero runs. Don’t judge. I don’t know about you, but if I met a pair of floating pants jumping up and down in a dark wood, I would run too! And it doesn’t end there. The pants nearly run him over while buying Grin-itch spinach in Gin-itch. Again, he encounters the pants on Roover River fishing for Doubt Trout. By now our hero is willing to admit he’s frightened—screaming and running away as fast as he can. Who can blame him? Are the PGPWNIT stalking him? Everywhere he turns the PGPWNIT show up. So, he hides. In a Brickel bush. For two days. The only reason he finally comes out of hiding—a nagging errand on his to do list. He has to “pick a peck of Snide in a dark and gloomy Snide-field.” We’ve all been there.

Picking snide, his body shaking, confronting his fears, he summons his courage,

I said, “I do not fear pants

With nobody inside them.”

I said, I said, and said, those words.

I said them. But I lied them.

And then it happens—he reaches into a snide bush and touches the pants!

I yelled for help.

I screamed, I shrieked.

I howled, I yowled. I cried,

“Oh save me from these pale green pants

With nobody inside!”

In the midst of his shrieking terror, face to face with his greatest fear, he realizes the PGPWNIT are as afraid of him as he is of them! The pants are shaking and trembling as much as he is. Realizing the fear is in his head not the PGPWNIT, he decides to embrace them and they “become friends, meeting often, never shaking or trembling, but smiling and saying ‘Hi.’”

I love What Was I Scared Of? for the way it illustrates how we make up stories about people and our circumstances and let our minds get carried away—especially when we don’t understand something. I remember my big writing project from seventh grade, the Last Chance project. We had to write a story about our class taking a space ship to another planet and what we would do to create a new civilization. I did not understand the assignment. And it was huge for our grade. I spent a lot of time and energy avoiding the paper. It was my own PGPWNIT. Eventually, I sat down, read the assignment and start writing. We didn’t become fast friends that Last Chance project and I, but I did complete it and survived the experience.

I am continually learning to recognize when something scares me—especially something I need or want to do and to face it like those PGPWNIT. In my mid 30’s I decided I wanted to get a doctoral degree in theology. Despite my transition from ministry to business in the middle of the program, I saw it through, got through my dissertation and earned the degree. At 40 I realized I needed to exercise regularly to be there for my kids and Lisa. I joined a gym with a built-in accountability system of appointments to help me show up. I’m proud to say I’ve consistently worked out 4-5 times per week for four years. This past year I embraced my life-long love of music and started guitar and bass lessons. I’m not great, but I enjoy playing. Many times over the past decade in business, when things seemed scary, dark, uncertain, instead of shying away, I faced my deep fears and found a way forward. One of the scariest things I’ve done recently is to reach out to a group of guys I know in my gym class to grab a beer together. Men typically are not as good at getting together as our wives. And, I have faced the daily realities of raising a son with Cornelia de Lange Syndrome–his surgeries, his extra care, and the scares of nearly losing him to illness.

In each and every case, I looked my metaphorical PGPWNIT in the eyes and,

I said, “I do not fear pants

With nobody inside them.”

I said, I said, and said, those words.

I said them. But I lied them.

My heart thumping, screaming and shrieking inside, I went to the gym for the first time. I applied and interviewed for my doctoral program and finished my dissertation (It felt like my Last Chance paper all over again in my 30’s). Feeling like a fraud I showed up for my first guitar lesson. Feeling like I was high school boy asking a girl on a first date I asked the guys, “Hey, you guys think you’d ever be interested to grab a beer together?” They said yes! And, engulfed in fear, I have shown up for my family and my son to face the realities of Cornelia de Lange Syndrome.

I don’t know what your PGPWNIT is. Maybe it’s a dream, a project at work, a hobby you want to take up, or even the fears around facing a chronic illness. You probably have your own PGPWNIT following you around your Grin-itch village where you live. Danger is real. Fear is in your head. The path to your greatest success is through your greatest fear. Turn and engage your fear. Take a step toward your dream. Start your hobby. Show up for yourself, or your loved one, facing illness.  After all, your PGPWNIT and you just might become friends, meeting often, never shaking or trembling, but simply smiling and saying hi.

The path to your greatest success is through your greatest fear. What fear do you need to face?

Heart Surgery

I was angry. Who in the world did this guy think this he was? Lisa and I were already three hours into our four hour journey to UCLA to meet with David’s heart surgeon about his upcoming surgery. Our boys, David and Matthias, were in the back seat of the car and we were well into the trip when the office called. The woman on the phone informed Lisa the surgeon cancelled our appointment as he didn’t come into the office today. Really? Who schedules a pre-operation appointment and then waits to cancel with the patient at noon on the day of the appointment? David was going in for open heart surgery to repair a cushion defect and defective valve—one of his medical conditions resulting from Cornelia de Lange Syndrome. You could say we were a little anxious. I decided then and there I was going to give this surgeon a piece of my mind when we saw him the following week at the newly made appointment time.

The following week we again loaded up the car for the four hour journey from our home down to UCLA. This time, we called the office multiple times to verify the appointment before we got on the road. A week had passed since the enraging phone call, so I had to remind myself how mad I was at this surgeon. I had never met him before, but after his shenanigans the week before, I questioned whether this guy was responsible enough to handle my son’s heart surgery. After all, if he can’t keep his schedule straight, how can he be any good as a surgeon?

We waited in the office and finally were taken back into the consult rooms. A nurse came in and took David’s height, weight and blood pressure. Then we waited. I didn’t feel angry anymore about the cancellation a week earlier, so I had to work to be ready to confront the surgeon when the time came for me to voice my irritation over his lack of consideration and potential lack of competence. It’s hard to be angry when you’re in a reasonably good mood, so I had work at it a bit. At least I was stressed by the very nature of the visit, so that gave me a little negativity to draw on.

The moment of truth arrived. The surgeon knocked and entered the room. They say you never have a second chance at a first impression. In his case, my first impression has lasted in my mind for many years. As he stepped into the room I noticed his scrubs—not uncommon for surgeons to wear around the hospital between surgeries. But my eyes were immediately drawn to his white tennis shoes—out of date, funky soles, neither utilitarian nor stylish. They are the type of shoe hipsters began wearing ironically a few years later—which did not make them hip at the time. Then my eyes were drawn to his mussed, bouffant hairstyle. Truthfully he had probably come from surgery, having removed his surgical cap his hair showing the signs of a morning spent saving another child’s life. Of course, that wasn’t the narrative in my head when I saw Dr. Cardio Surgeon. To me, his hair and his shoes were further signs this was not the guy to handle my son’s heart.

And then there was his awkward manner. As he entered, he looked like a junior high actor unsure of how to move across the stage, unsure of what to do with his hands while people watched him. Each step was functional with a touch of conscious effort to get him from the doorway to the chair where he eventually sat down. I continued to build my case against him. He had offended me and was showing clear signs of incompetence in my mind.

He introduced himself and performed a rote reviewed of David’s case. He transitioned without so much as a breath into the procedure. With technical jargon I can no longer remember, he described how he would make a cut down the front of David’s chest and divide the breastbone to reach the heart. They would connect him to a heart-lung machine to pump his blood and act as his lungs during the surgery so he could remove David’s heart. He would need to enter the heart and patch the ventricular septal defect (holes in the wall of David’s heart). Then he would put everything back together and close him up. Imagine if Mr. Spock (the original Leonard Nimoy Spock, not Zachary Quinto’s Spock) explained precisely how he was going to open up your seven year old’s chest and repair his heart and you may have some idea what it was like, though Dr. Cario Surgeon lacked Spock’s human touch.

Then he asked if we had any questions. We asked a number of clarifying questions—mostly “Are you really hooking David up to machines to breathe and circulate his blood while you remove his heart?!” in different forms. We asked him how difficult this surgery was for him. He rated it a two out of ten. To us it felt like an eleven. In the midst of this meeting, I realized it would be no use to point out Dr. Cardio Surgeon’s offense at cancelling our appointment last minute. Like Darth Vader, he was “more machine now than man.” I am confident he would have listened and heard my complaint. I am confident the human subtleties of slight would not have computed for him.

A few weeks later, it was time for Halloween and David’s surgery. We spent the anxious hours of the surgery distracting ourselves around the UCLA campus from the stressful reality of David lying in an operating room with chest opened. When he finished the surgery and came to give us his post-op report, we were so elated and relieved the surgery was successful, Lisa couldn’t help but reach out and touch his arm in gratitude. He looked down at her hand and then up at her. He didn’t move other than slowly connecting the hand on his shoulder to its owner. His face didn’t change, he barely moved a muscle, but he simultaneously looked surprised by the contact and like he understood this is a positive gesture. We spent more time with Dr. Cardio Surgeon over the next couple weeks as David recovered in the hospital. Without fail, every other time we saw him, Dr. Cardio Surgeon had at least two other doctors with him. Often they did more talking than he did. He seemed to prefer to do rounds when people were less likely to be around.

Along the way, Lisa’s sister researched Dr. Cardio Surgeon and found he is among the best pediatric cardio thoracic surgeons in the world. He is a world class expert with world class skill. I could have made a big deal and even insisted on another surgeon to operate on our beloved David. Ultimately, who would I rather have open my son’s chest and handle his heart? Someone who’s polite, has his schedule dialed in and wears nice clothes? No way. I’ll take Dr. Cardio Surgeon every time.

We have faced a lot of things since this surgery. Our boys have been sick. Our business had a drastic downturn and we almost closed it down. We’ve experienced intense, rocky relationships with vendors and business associates. Our marriage came close to imploding. And more. Very little of any of these stresses compares with the stress of this experience, knowing someone holds your child’s heart in their hands. Watching David’s surgery, his determination and resilience in recovering, puts many things in life into perspective. And there is no one I would rather have holding David’s heart than Dr. Cardio Surgeon. It goes to show, while you may only have one chance to make a first impression, first impressions are often wrong. Who else have I misjudged? The barista I thought slighted me, who was simply coping with her breakup the night before? The quiet employee I overlooked because I failed to see her consistent and great work? The friend I falsely believed didn’t want to listen to my struggles? Sometimes the person we see as our enemy turns out to be our ally and the best person for the job.

Forging A Path

Matthias has always marched to the beat of his own drum. He prefers to be who he is and like what he likes rather than worrying much about what others think. I remember one Saturday in summer when he was seven and we went out to lunch as a family. As we were heading out the door Matthias appeared from around the corner.

“I’m ready!” he said

I took in the scene in front of me. Plaid shorts, coordinated T-shirt (the work of Lisa no doubt), green froggy galoshes, yellow rain coat, and a super-hero cape.

“Is that what you want to wear to lunch?” I asked.

“Yep. I look awesome.”

I couldn’t agree more. He managed to take it up a notch later that summer when he added upside down cycling gloves and a chef’s hat while we were on family vacation. As time has gone on, Matthias always finds his own unique sense of style. His clothing is a reflection of who he is—a person who sees the world through his own unique lens, comfortable in his own skin.

He went through a phase of lining up his toys in his room and around the house. I remember coming upstairs one afternoon and found all his stuffed animals in a big line in the loft. It looked like the crop circles in fields around the world.

“Did you do that?” I asked him.


“Why did you line them up? What are the stuffed animals up to?”

“They just wanted to be like this.”

Absolutely. Why wouldn’t they? Matthias’ creative take on the world often peered through his unconventional ways to play with his toys.

From the time he was little, Matthias has researched everything his interests with books, the internet, TV shows and movies—any way he could get more information. Whether it was Ben 10 as a little boy, or Pokemon, or Star Wars, to Greek and Roman myths, he gives his all to understand these things. In the past few months, he’s been researching the Arthurian legends. One Saturday afternoon I noticed he had been on the couch on his computer for a couple hours. During the week, he does this sometimes for his school work. Being the weekend I got curious with a little dash of parent concern. We have limits and rules around screen time in our house and I figured it was time to enforce the rules.

“What are you up to kiddo? Seems like you’ve been on your computer a while today.”

“What? Oh, I’m writing.”

“Writing? Like for school? Do you have homework you have to do this weekend?”

“No. I’m working on my book based on the Arthurian legends in the modern world.”

“Really? How much have you written?” At this point, it dawned on me I had seen him typing away more than usual the last couple of days.

“I’m on page 45 right now. I have some ideas and I really want to get them down while they’re fresh.” He answered, only slowing his typing slightly to engage me.

Matthias is a kid, an emerging young man, who forges his own path one step at a time.

So much of Matthias’ narrative gets bound up with his brother with special needs. At times expected to have it together because his mom and I have our hands full with David. At times dragged along as we face a medical crisis with his brother. Sometimes bearing the burden of being the perfect child, healing our wounds. Sometimes overlooked as the typical brother of a special child with special needs. At times overprotected by parents who want to keep him from harm, rather than freeing him—empowering him—to experience a free and risky life.

This month Matthias turns 14. With high school on the horizon and his boyhood behind him, I see my son bravely risking to be the person God made him to be. As I see him finding his own voice, figuring out who he is, rather than who others want him to be in the trying years of middle school, he inspires me to use my voice as an adult. I am proud as a dad and inspired to forge my own path.

Who inspires you to forge your path?