True Country: A different Virginia story. 

“Here’s what you gotta do. Turn on the shower as hot as possible. Stick your head under there and all that stuff will come right out. I’ve done it.” 
It was a gross image. Stuff coming right out. 

I didn’t know what “stuff” but I’m pretty sure I didn’t want to see “it” coming out. Especially since I was currently having breakfast. I wasn’t a part of this conversation, I was simply sitting at a table near by,but it was still gross. 

The woman who was speaking was a waitress at the Waffle House in Norfolk, Virginia. She was talking to an elderly gentlemen who evidently had some “stuff” that was causing discomfort. He sat there across the counter from the woman listening intently and openly. She leaned over the counter toward him with a genuine desire to help. It was touching. Here in this small diner in eastern Virginia two people were having a simple conversation. What probably wasn’t on their mind was their skin color. 

The waitress was white. The elderly gentleman was black. In that moment, however, they were just two people engaged in a calm conversation about solving a problem. 

Most of us know about the racial tensions going on in parts of our country, especially Virginia. But knowing there’s tension does nothing to solve it. Pointing out how we are different does not ease that tension. Vilifying one another only widens the divide. There are many of those who wish to use a knife to heal wounds initially inflicted by the knife. Wouldn’t we rather  heal with what is truly needed? Time and stitches. 

We all have “stuff” in our heads and hearts that makes us uncomfortable. Right now in the U.S., the discomfort palpable. It is driving many people to takes steps in anger and vitriol. We think that our anger will help us find peace. We think it will help drain the stuff. But it won’t. A hot shower probably won’t fix it either. Honestly, I don’t know what would fix it. Other than the saving grace and power of Christ I can’t see what would ease the deep and painful hurts that so many of my brothers and sisters have felt and experienced. 

What I do know is that if we want to make progress towards healing, we must be willing to sit across a counter from those who are different than us and talk about the “stuff”… gross or not. 


The Quiet Nicaraguan and La Lengua of Joy

La Rocha is a quiet man. Not quiet in how he held his tongue, rather quiet in his demeanor. How someone can speak openly and yet still carry such a reserved way baffles me. His words are quick and to the point, always thoughtful and insightful but rarely playful. That is until, he begins to speak in Spanish. Then his words are anything but reserved. 

The second he breaks in to Spanish, his visage transforms from quiet listener to mischievous and abundantly playful. His jokes are quick witted and numerous. It’s as if he was just waiting to strike. Like a verbal Spanish cobra. Except instead of venom, he infects with laughter. 

It’s delightful. 

And it’s all in Spanish. 

Lucky for me I know Spanish or I may have missed this complete change in personality. 

La Rocha is from Central America. Nicaragua to be exact. He is short. Central American kind of short. His underwhelming physical stature might be the reason why his demeanor seems so gentle and understated. I’ve seen small people with big personalities before. And I’ve seen big people with small personalities. What’s most surprising about La Rocha is that it shouldn’t surprise me at all. It shouldn’t surprise me that his most dynamic traits manifest themselves in his native tongue. We all do this. 

I’ve taught tons of students and met many adults who have showed similar traits. They are reserved at first, almost timid, but get them in their “zone” and it’s a new day. This was how it was for La Rocha. 

But why should I care about “zones”?

We are surrounded by people everyday. Many of them we know pretty well. But do we? We might know one side of them but do we know them in theirzone“? This isn’t the superficial rant about not judging a book by its cover. I think it’s an ok analogy but books are much simpler than people. People are complex. And complex systems perform uniquely in certain situations. 

We all have environments in which we are comfortable. What makes us really comfortable is when we can speak our native tongue. For some that might be another language altogether. Spanish. French. Philadelphian – it’s a language, trust me. 

For others their zone might be with a certain group of people – friends, family, teammates. Then there are those whose zone is in a certain place. This might be their home or even a bar or restaurant where “everyone knows their name”. 

If we want to understand others we can ask some questions and have some conversations and that’s all well and good. But if we want to make an impact on others and really see people at their truest then it  is important to find out and meet them in their zone. That is when authentic relationships are forged. And while we’re at it we might even find our own zone along the way. 

Over the past decade God has allowed me to travel the world – from Europe and Africa to Asia and the Middle East. I am extremely grateful. Having seen countless wonders, now that I’m home in Philadelphia, one thing stands true. 

None of those places mean anything, 

They were beautiful and stunning and sublime but they in the end the are here then they are not. As the writer in Ecclesiastes would say, they are a “chasing after the wind”. Pursuing such wonders will bring no lasting joy. 

What does bring joy? People. 

It is the relationships we form with people along the way that have had and will have the most eternal significance. 

Walking in the Great John McShain’s Footsteps, As Far as the Eye Can See

The moment was surreal. 

The bells from St. Mary’s Cathedral rang out over Killarney National Park. Up ahead a woman walked her small dog. A family of four cycled down the path. A couple stood to the side studying the park map, planning their course of action. The flowers in the gardens to the right swayed gently in the midday breeze. Far off to the left, the gold and hunter fields let out onto the deep shimmering waters of Kenmare lake. Just beyond the lake climbed the forests hugging Shehy mountains. 

It was an exquisite moment. Every bit of it made possible because of my great uncle John McShain. 

Ever since I can remember I have heard tales of my famous great uncle John McShain. How he was the son of an Irish immigrant who had come from next to nothing. How he continued his father’s business and had become the “Man Who Built Washington”. How he had been a man of generosity in wealth, faith, and spirit. How he had used his wisdom, wits, and work ethic to take care of his family, his church, and his community. And how he had bought a sprawling estate in Ireland where he spent the waning hours of his life. But all of the tales I had heard were just stories. That was until I stepped through the “Golden Gates of Killarney” on Wednesday morning, June 28th, 2017. 

Harry O’Donoghue met my wife, child, and I at the front door of Killarney House. The house was right in the middle of Killarney city, situated in Kerry County, Ireland. Harry was the butler, groundskeeper, house manager – basically, he was anything the house needed him to be. He had served at Killarney House all his life, just as his father and grandfather had before him. He was a tall man but never overbearing He was slightly hunched over from decades of faithful work. He had an easy smile and a confidence about him. A confidence that can only come from seeing the ebb and flow of life at a manor such as this. He showed a fondness for the McShains. 

“They were a good family. Took care of the house. Took care of the church. Nice people.” 

Valerie O’Sullivan, an energetic photographer from the local newspaper Killarney Today, showed up and offered a few more details of John McShain and the house. 

This July will be the grand opening of the house to the public. Last August they had opened the grounds and gardens, to the locals’ delight. Killarney House, known by many as the “Golden Gates”, had been a mystery to many for well over three centuries. 

The Earl of Kenmare had originally owned the estate which spanned over 8000 acres of southwest Kerry. The myth then grew to epic proportions when Queen Victoria visited the house in the late 19th century. But by the time John McShain, my great uncle, purchased the estate in the late 1950s, the house was in deep disrepair. The original estate, pictured below, had burned down leaving only the smaller, but still impressive, manor stables. 

John and his wife Mary set about renovating the house and the gardens, bringing beauty and vigor once more to the luscious grounds. Eventually, John and his wife bequeathed much of the land to the state to be joined with the nearby Muckross estate. They sold some of the land, but the majority of it, nearly 8500 acres, they gave free of charge for the public’s enjoyment. They only asked to stay on in their later years. John passed away in 1989. After Mary died in 1998, their daughter Sister Pauline McShain – our Aunt “Polly” – then gave the remaining house and gardens to the Irish government to make available to the public.  

Nearly a decade and a half after that act of generosity, on July 3rd, the Killarney House itself will finally join the gardens in welcoming every Kerry man, woman, and traveler that wishes to see the Killarney’s most coveted grounds. 

It was these thoughts that filled my mind as I walked through the house. Thanks to the likes of Harry O’Donoghue and Pat Dawson, the overseer of the whole project, the house was shaping up nicely. They had done a spectacular job in restoring and refurbishing many of the original furniture and decor which brought the house to such high esteem. Crystal chandeliers. Decadent curtains. Chests, dressers, and drawing tables of the finest wood. The dining room table could host 14 people. 

We walked through the car tunnel where Harry laughed. He shared how people used to know the McShains were coming out because they would hear the gates opening. This was a big deal because the family car was a Rolls Royce. This was at a time in Ireland when cars themselves were scarce. One of the locals, John Kearney, told us of how he used to have fun dreaming and planning of how they would steal the Rolls Royce and go for a joy ride. 

We finished our tour of the house and walked out to the gardens in the rear of the house. I looked out over the acres of green, and the lakes further down, the mountains careening off into the distance. I asked Harry, “How much of this was ours?”

“As far as the eye can see”, he replied. 


I couldn’t comprehend it. I could comprehend ANY of it. 


“As far as the eye can see”

All of this had been ours. And now it wasn’t. I wasn’t bitter. On the contrary, I was filled with great joy. 

I looked at the families walking down the paths, and the couples taking photos by th flower beds, and the old man sitting quietly on the park bench, and I thought – McShains made this possible. 

It inspired me. 

It inspires me now. It drives me to create, to build, to care for and love my fellow man. To leave something behind for others’ enjoyment. 

John McShain was a brilliant man who continued the works of his father and left an even greater legacy. He became one of the richest men in the U.S. and Ireland. But through it all he maintained his humility and his regard for others. Even more, through all of his success he never forgot God, the one who made it all possible. He maintained his faith until the end. 

St Mary’s Cathedral- where John and Mary spent many a Sunday

John McShain built a legacy, one that I hope to continue. That is why I think Pat Dawson’s words perfectly summed up my experience walking in John McShains footsteps. 

“Ireland has put a lot of work into  your great Uncle’s house, rest assured, the McShain’s legacy will go on forever. ”

Correct you are Pat. The legacy goes on, in Ireland and in the United States, in name and in deed, because of John’s work and the generations of McShains to come. 

Photo courtesy of Valerie O’Sullivan, Killarney Today

Thank you to Harry O’Donoghue and Pat Dawson for their diligent work on the Killarney House and Gardens. Thank you to Valerie O’Sullivan for cataloging the restoration process. Thank you to Aunt Pauline McShain for such a model of courage and wisdom in our family. And thank you to John and Mary McShain for creating a legacy of diligence, success, and faith for our family to continue. 

Light Up the Lanterns – Last Night in Vietnam in 3 Minutes (Video Tour)

Vietnam holds a special place in my heart. That is largely in part to the enchanting old world feel of a small town called Hoi An in the center of the country. That small town is made even more charming at night when they light up the many colorful lanterns that adorn the facades of the small two story river cafes and stores. What you end up with is this…

Care to read about some more of my Vietnam adventures?  Read on here.

You Need to See It to Believe It: Day 5 and 6 in Vietnam


People & Places

Miscellaneous Mayhem

Surrounded by Foreigners: Day 2 in Vietnam

It was a small table. It felt even smaller because the groups on our right and left were foreign to us. The group on our right consisted of three french women. The group on our left consisted of an irishman, a  danish girl, and a german. It could have been the start of a joke, but instead, it was simply the start of our meal on this second day in Vietnam. 

Down a dark alley and up four flights of stairs we walked through the kitchen and sat down in the waiting area as they prepared a table for us. I was greeted by a friendly chicken. I sat down on the waiting bench, and she nipped at my ankles. I hoped she wasn’t about to become my dinner but I accepted her fate, if only because she would become something far tastier. 

They sat us down between the two parties at a table just wide enough to hold our drinks. The food came, as did the conversation, and the three groups became one as night two of our SE Asia baby adventure continued. Only in such an environment can strangers from across the globe come together peacefully and enjoy each other’s company. The biggest unifier was the six-month-old baby girl who stared and smiled her way joyously into the hearts of patrons and servers alike. 

As we left the small restaurant on the roof of a neglected apartment building, we realized, through conversation and one social infant, that 9 people had sat down together as foreigners but walked away as friends. 

Back but not Backwards: The Return to Philadelphia

Broad Street is called broad for a reason. It is 100 feet wide and the longest street in the city of Philadelphia, as well as “the longest straight urban boulevard in the United States“. It’s broadness offers space, light, and a general openness. That openness should deter any underhanded deals from taking place, especially in the day time. However, it did not stop two young men from following me one Spring afternoon as I walked home from Central High School. Fortunate for me, I had a plan.

At 5 feet, 3 inches, I had yet to hit my growth spurt by high school. I had been lecturing the baseball coach during tryouts that season about my inevitable height explosion. It would be the reason they could expect great things from me. Great things! He was skeptical.

I did not make the baseball team my freshman year. 😦


I would eventually grow almost 8 inches during the summer after my junior year, but on the walk home that spring, the spurt had not yet come, and so my height was not an advantage. My weight was even less intimidating. At 96 pounds (43 kgs), I could not join the wrestling team because the lowest weight class was 98 pounds (44 kg). I also could not donate blood. I guess they didn’t want anyone donating blood who barely had enough of for themselves. I was slim as slim could be.

My father used to encourage me to gain weight by saying we would celebrate me crossing the 100 pound threshold by going to the Olive Garden Restaurant. When I finally reached 100 pounds it was a huge moment. We laughed and ate endless breadsticks while I shared stories of how I could finally feel myself getting bigger and stronger.

Major League, here I come!

I didn’t have the heart to tell him the following week when I dropped back down to 97 pounds. Tiny was a part of life for me. Most of my sporting career in Philadelphia was spent going against people much taller and much heavier than I was. So when two young men with nothing to do saw a tiny 5 foot, 3 inch, 97 pound “child” walking down their broad street they must have thought, “Yes! It’s my lucky day.”

When I first noticed them it wasn’t a big deal. People tended to give me lots of attention in those areas. Not sure why but small white boys strolling around some neighborhoods in Philly seemed to attract more attention. I grew up just off of North Broad Street and Godfrey Avenue. It wasn’t the worst neighborhood in Philadelphia by any standards but it definitely wasn’t the best. I loved where I lived though. It was a few blocks from Fern Rock station, which was the end of the North-South Subway Line. The area is called East Oak Lane. It is a quiet neighborhood with historic stone mansions and centuries-old oak trees that have somehow both lived on hidden from the rest of the city. It was a forest kingdom for a little boy’s imagination to run wild.

That imagination began to run wild as I noticed my two followers were not breaking from their pursuit. In my mind, their sinister ambitions led to a one-sided brawl where I lost my money, books, and whatever self-respect I had maintained through my freshman year of high school (which wasn’t much). I tried to lose them, but each time I crossed the street or turned the corner, they followed. And with each passing second, they inched closer.

I started listing my options. I could take off running, but gauging my size it might incite an eager chase. One that would end poorly. As I thought deeper, most defensive actions ended poorly, so I shifted to the offensive. What would two young men from North Broad Street be afraid of?

I could call their mom…

Formidable as moms can be, that would likely lead nowhere, as the odds of their mother being within shouting distance was unlikely.

I could act gay… 

I had heard my brothers talking about people being uncomfortable with that life choice. Could I “come on” to them? Did I even know how to hit on someone as a gay man? The only exposure I had received up unto that point was either the Simpsons (Zap!) or watching a comedian “act” gay by tying the front of his shirt in a knot and letting his wrist go limp. It didn’t exactly instill fear. So I let that idea go as I reasoned it would just as easily end in a beating worse than if I had just curled into a fetal position and started crying. That was my back up plan by the way.

In the end, I was left with the only thing that made sense in the mind of a scared fourteen year old boy…

 I would act retarded.

First off, before you are too quick to judge the political correctness of a frightened teenager, please keep in mind that teens are often an amalgam of emotion, hormones, imagination, and experiences. And I was heavy on the last two. I had two unusual parents and eight older brothers and sisters, who had all been through some form of “mugging”, “chase”, or “gun point robbery”. So in that moment, I was not thinking about whether or not I was being sensitive to those with cognitive, physical, or emotional impairments. I was thinking, “Uh oh! I’m bout to get beat up.”

Please forgive me.

The two assailants were mere feet behind me now. My heart was racing, but somehow I was in control enough to begin the process slowly. As if something had been triggered in my brain by the stress of the situation, I began to moan softly, like my stomach ached. Then I combined the slow moan, which got louder with each step, with a subtle twitch of the head. Before I knew it I was slamming my chin against my right shoulder, yelling inaudible screeches at no one, as I swung wildly at the air with one arm, and struck my chest with the other.

This continued for what seemed like minutes.

Then suddenly the footsteps behind me stopped, and I heard one of them say to the other…

“Yo. F**k this! I ain’t messin’ with no retard.”

And they were gone. Poof!

I had done it. I had used my wits and courage to avoid potential physical and emotional harm. It was a good day! I walked the rest of the way home, down Broad Street, with the afternoon sun on my face and the spring wind at my back.


Philadelphia was my city. I would not be disheartened by the malicious acts of a few “boys” with nothing to do on a Spring afternoon. Philadelphia was the city I was born in and it is the city in which I was raised. It’s streets have felt my feet, it’s trees have felt my hands, and this summer, Philadelphia will feel my presence once more. With my wife and child in toe, I will once again call Philadelphia home – my city of brotherly love – for we are moving back.

And I am ready!

When I left Philadelphia almost 4 years ago I did not have a wife or a child. I was 26 and still lived, in many ways, as I had that Spring afternoon – controlled by imagination and experience. This July 2017, I am moving back to Philadelphia, but this is not a move backwards. This time I will be a battle-ready, seasoned warrior… and I’ll have reinforcements.

Philadelphia… here we come!