Jazz Rules or Jazz Prompts?

Do you make a lot of mistakes when you improvise? Do you have trouble with a lot of the rules and theory? If you are thinking of them as rules, you may be missing the point. There are no rules in jazz improvisation.

Photo by Pin Lim at forestphotography.com

Photo by Pin Lim at forestphotography.com

Prompts, Not Rules!

One of the things I’ve been telling my jazz improvisation students a lot lately is that the things I teach and the things we do in the lessons are not rules to follow. They are prompts to help inspire greater creativity in your playing. There is a very big difference between the two.

Rules are meant to contain and restrict creativity. In contrast, prompts help to give us ideas. When our improvisation is based on rules and theory, the music is never very creative nor is it very enjoyable to listen to. But when we view these exercises and various drills as prompts, instead of rules, then we unlock the doors of our imagination!

A Practical Approach to Teaching Jazz Improv

My approach to teaching students how to improvise in the jazz style is a practical one. Just as I was with my own playing, I am interested in results. I organize the students’ materials in a way that I know from experience will produce the best results with the least amount of time, effort and frustration.

And when we are talking about jazz education, frustration is a serious issue. Traditional jazz education is more theoretical than it is practical. Traditional jazz education looks at what “the greats” have played in their solos from a theoretical perspective and now asks the students to retrofit their own playing into that mold. Unfortunately for the students, the teachers fail to mention that “the greats” never learned that way. That’s why the traditional approach is so frustrating. Through their knowledge of music theory, they have a concept of where they are heading, but they have not been given any practical tools to get them there.

That’s what I mean when I refer to my approach being practical as opposed to theoretical. The exercises and tunes I assign my students are not meant to force them to retrofit their playing. I try to create for my students a musical environment for them the thrive in.

Rules vs. Prompts

This is where the distinction between rules and prompts is made. When jazz improvisation is approached from a retrofitting, theoretical perspective, the students are bombarded with rules. Those rules are crippling and completely unnecessary. One of my very first musical essays was on a topic I continue to believe to this day…the contradiction between creativity and criticism. You cannot be creative and critical at the same time. In the context of jazz education, the rules serve only to bring criticism in the performance and do nothing to the creativity but to stifle it.

The purpose of looking at it this way is to encourage the students to become more creative in their approach to the music. If I give them an exercise for them to improvise diatonically over a tune’s changes, this is not a rule…”thou shalt only play white notes!” Not at all. It is a prompt to help them discover other ways of performing. If I apply the “diatonic improvisation” exercise as a rule, I will limit their creativity. But if, on the other hand, I can convince them that this is nothing more than a starting point for them to explore new ideas, then the exercise works towards encouraging creativity, not stifling it.

I like to think of many of my improv exercises as nothing more than the kinds of prompts that creative writing teachers will give a class to try to encourage that class to think more creatively. When you approach jazz improv that way, the students are liberated from all the rules and the laws of jazz. By learning how to improvise this way, they are TRULY following the footsteps of the great legends of the past.

It Works

I’ve been teaching jazz improvisation for almost thirty years. I’ve been teaching this specific way, with prompts instead of rules, for about ten of those years. I know from experience that this way is better. I know that there are jazz teachers who are stuck in the theory rut and they will disagree with me (even though they know nothing about what I do – they will disagree in principle). But I tried their way and it doesn’t work. The success rate for the traditional approach is less than 50%. My “prompts not rules” approach has a 100% success rate.

The traditional jazz education approach frustrates musicians so much that it’s not uncommon for them to quit, thinking that they cannot do it. When those exact same students come to me for lessons, I liberate them from the rules that cripple them and give them wings to fly.

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Expanded Wholesome Musical Priorities: Health

Health wasn’t originally on my Wholesome Musical Priorities list. I only inserted it later when health became an issue with some of my students.

Woman with a headache

Health and Fitness Second?

The objective of these posts is to share with you where I believe music should fit into our lives. In previous posts, I told you that I believe our religion should come first. I believe in living according to your faith, regardless of what you believe. I feel people should not just believe things in theory, talking the talk, but should actually walk the walk as well.

I made health the second priority after several students came to their lessons apologizing for not practicing when they were sick with the flue or hospitalized for an illness. I explained to them that there was no need to apologize. I was already teaching these musical priorities and it soon became apparent that health needed to be added to the list.

Staying Healthy Should Be a Selfless Act

When people learn that I run and exercise regularly, they always assume that I do this because I enjoy it. Well, yes, I do enjoy it. But they have gotten the cause and effect backwards. I do not run because I enjoy it. I run and exercise because I have a commitment to staying healthy for those who depend on me.

I feel it is very important to point out the difference between this and someone who exercises for more selfish reasons. There are two kinds of selfish exercisers that come to mind as I sit to write about this.

The first is people who are addicted to exercise. They are exercise fanatics who put their exercise routines first on their priority list the way some other people put music first on theirs. This is not what I’m referring to when I say that health should be second on our musical  priority list. Putting that sort of health consciousness ahead of God and ahead of everyone else in your life is not wholesome.

The second group of people who I think are more selfish exercisers are those who only exercise because of the way it benefits their music. They continue to make music their first priority, above their religions, above everyone else in their lives, but they recognize the musical benefits of staying fit. This is certainly not what I’m talking about when I say that health should be our second priority.

Staying Healthy for Them

I have hypertension and there is a history of heart disease in my family. If I don’t run, exercise, eat right and get good quality sleep, then I cannot serve God nor serve the people in my life as well as I know I should. THAT is why I take care of my health.

Yes, I do enjoy it. But I enjoy it because I MAKE myself enjoy! If I know I need to continue eating right and exercising and all of that, why would I curse myself by choosing to dread it all? I choose to enjoy the healthy foods and enjoy spending the many hours exercising. I choose to enjoy the achy muscles and sweat. I choose to enjoy it because I know it will bless the people who rely on me. And that appeals to me.

If you have never lived this way, I urge you to give it a try. When you begin to do things for other people instead of for your own selfish gains and purposes, you can experience much greater levels of joy just knowing you made a difference in someone’s life. That’s what I enjoy about exercising and staying fit. I enjoy the fact that this is a gift I have to give to other people.


Staying On Focus

When you root your health in selfless service to other people, this will help you stay on track and not be distracted by things that fall outside of that selflessness. That is the point of having priorities, is it not? We establish priorities in our lives so that decisions are made in advance.

That’s a big reason why I haven’t signed up for any marathons yet. I do not want a competitive spirit to distract me from my attitude of service. I am not confident yet that completing a marathon would not infect me with the desire to push harder than I should. My commitment, because of my heart, is to exercise daily. But the spirit of competition may cause me to injure myself or make me feel complacent after the event is over. Neither of these works towards my attitude of service towards others.

I hope this makes sense.

Health and Self Employment

Another reason for me to watch my health is because, as self employed business owners, all of our income is channeled through me. Pearl contributes greatly to the business, but if I cannot work, the cash flow dries up. This is not an ideal business model and we are working on changing this, but for now, I have a very real reason to stay healthy. Any day I miss from work because of illness is a day we don’t get paid. I would be a selfish jerk if I lived a dangerous health lifestyle, putting our income and welfare at risk.

Where Music Fits

It’s obvious that I believe that your health should come before your music. I put it second on the priority list so that we can better serve the people God places in our lives. That said, I believe you should never choose music over your health. When you are faced with those decisions in your life, it is “wholesome” to chose your health over the music.

Yes, sometimes it works the other way around. Sometimes music can go a long way towards helping you stay healthy. However, this is not always true, so don’t try to use that as a loophole. That’s why I said you should keep selfless service at the center of your health habits. That will help you know what to do when conflicts arise.

God should come first. Then your health. In the next post in this series I will write about family.

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South African Birds: Black-Collared Barbet

These photos come from two different locations. The first one we saw was in Beacon Bay, close to the Nahoon River. The second one was looking for food in the Tree Tomato Trees on the farm in Komga.

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Jazz Forever Website Now Up and Running

This is a quick post to let everyone know that the jazz forever website is now up and running. You can go there to read more about the band and to listen to some of the sound clips. Soon you will be able to purchase our CDs from that site:

Photo by Jeff Grass at http://jeffgrassphotography.com/

Photo by Jeff Grass at http://jeffgrassphotography.com/



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What’s Wrong With Impatience? (In Music)

What’s wrong with wanting great results NOW? So what if I speed things up a little bit? Isn’t that just an expression of my enthusiasm?


Impatience Makes Everything Take Longer

The irony of impatience is that it makes whatever you can’t wait for take even longer to get. I remember writing a poem long ago that said,

He knew the way he did it was wrong.
To do it right would have taken too long.
Second rate job for a second rate price.

It all fell apart and such was his plight.
There was not enough time to do it right.
He had just enough time to do it twice.

Impatience In Learning Literature (songs)

It has been my experience as a trumpet teacher that “He had just enough time to do it twice” is a huge understatement. I remember one year I had the great idea of offering All-Region Boot Camp during the week of Thanksgiving vacation. Since it is only a week or two before the All-Region auditions, I thought that an hour of coached practice each day for one week would turn most students around.

Unfortunately, I learned that week something that has changed my approach to trumpet, teaching and life in general. After a full week of coached practice sessions (these were not private lessons where I spoke for half of the time – they were coached practice sessions where the students practiced under my supervision) the students’ progress was unrecognizable.

At first, you may question my teaching skills. Right? After all, these are my students and if they were that bad off to begin with, that’s my fault, isn’t it?

No, I disagree. What can you do when the band directors hire college students to come to their schools to teach the students the All-State music, cramming it all into two weeks during the summer? Those students paid for their band directors’ impatience with sloppy musicianship and ultimately a bad auditions.

Some of the things those students learned wrong in those first two weeks were never corrected. Many hours of coached practice sessions couldn’t even turn those students around. Thus is the nature of learning music. You cannot remove a bad habit. You can only minimize its re-occurrence, and not very well at that.

Because of that All-Region Boot Camp, today I understand how important it is to get the music right from the start. There’s no such thing as learning it wrong and then fixing it. It doesn’t work that way.

Impatience With Physical Progress

Another example of impatience for trumpet players is range development. Those students who push their ranges too soon end up making it take much longer to develop that range. So much so that for many it becomes impractical to keep trying. It can often become the end of their short lived trumpet careers.

Note: I always use the word “career” to describe the length of time someone has been playing the trumpet. It does not necessarily mean that they are professionals.

The biggest reason why impatience can destroy a trumpet player’s physical potential is because pushing beyond your current limitations forces you to do something different to “get the notes.” This is why so many of those students end up with two (or more) different embouchures. Instead of growing the embouchure they already have to include all registers, because of their impatience, they force themselves to find a different embouchure for the higher notes.

The same is true for other physical aspects of trumpet performance. Working on endurance can be extremely detrimental if you are over eager to get it now!

Photo by Pin Lim at forestphotography.com

Photo by Pin Lim at forestphotography.com

Growing Into Excellence

Instead of forcing our development to happen at an unnatural pace, if we choose to grow into excellence, we will be able to stand in confidence in every performance. That’s another problem with impatience. Students who do not nurture their playing, choosing to rush into everything, are constantly playing at the edge of their abilities. They will always lack the kind of confidence one gains from knowing, REALLY KNOWING, that the skill they need to perform has become a innate part of their personalities.

There is a wonderful book by Robert D. Weast called “Key’s To Natural Performance for Brass Players.” In its introduction, Weast acknowledges that the term “natural player” commonly refers to those who could perform correctly from the very beginning. But he clarifies and explains that in his book the term “natural player” describes someone who reached that level of naturalness as a “result of nearly perfect synthesis of mind and physique.” It is an excellent book and if you are interested in being a natural player as opposed to an impatient, forced, unnatural one, then I highly recommend it.

This synthesis is not gained through short cuts. If you are serious about being a good musician, then it’s time to slow down, be patient, and let that naturalness grow.

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Life Builders: Milda Berndt

I am typing this post on the first leg of our three flight return trip home after spending a month in South Africa. Although this was a business trip, we were able to spend some time with Pearl’s mother, Milda Berndt. During that time, I was able to get to know her better and to see with my own eyes, hear with my own ears, the ways that Pearl’s mother has contributed to our success.

Pearl and her mom at the airport.

Milda Berndt My Mother-In-Law

These Life Builders posts are part of a series of posts about the people who have contributed to my success in life. The very first post I wrote was about my wife, Pearl. Now that we have spent more time together, I know with all certainty that many of the ways that Pearl has contributed to my personal success are things that she inherited from her mother. So most of what I write here is for the purpose of acknowledging those things that Pearl’s mom has contributed to my life through her daughter.

God First in All Things

What brought Pearl and I together in the first place was our faith. It was not only a mutual religion, like two people who just happen to be Christian, but an alignment that bore so many similarities that we could not possibly ignore them. It was more than an agreement of a philosophical nature, more than a mutual ideal. It was an immediately recognizable “fit” in lifestyles and priorities. (You can read more about this “fit” on Pearl’s Life Builders post.)

I remember when we first began talking about our parents, when we were courting, Pearl said that she was more like her mother than her father. This month, I saw this likeness with my own eyes. Pearl’s lifestyle and priorities are a direct influence of her mother’s. There is nothing more important to either of them than walking in God’s will for their lives. This defines their behavior in every way. Every other blessing I can write about here stems from this one central theme of their lives. My life is blessed because of the seeds that were planted in my wife’s life. For that, I am so very thankful.

Traditional Values for Traditional Marriage

Traditional marriage is no longer a popular ideal or lifestyle. Because of my life experiences, I understand and appreciate the strengths and benefits of traditional marriage. However, such marriages are only possible when both spouses desire to live this way.  I am blessed because my wife desires that lifestyle just as much as I do.

Consider the significance of Pearl’s desire for a traditional, God centered marriage. She is an accomplished and capable, modern woman. She has a background rich in accomplishments. She knows the taste of athletic victory. She is a capable artist. She has a doctorate in Physics which is predominantly a men’s field. She has great strengths and needs no man to protect her, to provide for her, to guide her or to be the head over her.

And yet, she has always desired to marry into a traditional, God centered marriage where her husband is the so called “Head of the Home.” She knows the advantages of living this way because she grew up in a family where her father was the head of the home.

Pearl’s mother is her role model in that respect. Living this way is very difficult if you don’t know how it all works. The husband and wife have different responsibilities, different roles and it’s so much easier when you have seen this in action, in your parents, while you are growing up.

Prayer Warrior

Another way that Ma Berndt contributes to our success is through prayer. She often tells us that she is praying for us, for our health, for our success in business, for any difficulties that we encounter in our daily walk.

This means a lot to us. We believe in the power of prayer. We believe that God listens and has a caring heart. We believe that we can pray for someone on the other side of the world and it will make a difference. No distance is too far for our Heavenly Father. No problem too great!

And as you have probably guessed by now, Pearl’s mom has influenced Pearl in this regard as well. Together, with her other sisters, Pearl and her family can move mountains. In that way, they not only help me through prayer, but also serve as an inspiration to be more active in my prayer life as well.


So far, I have only been writing about those things that Pearl’s mother has influenced through Pearl’s life, blessing me in indirect ways. The majority of what I have to share falls in this category simply because we live 8,000 miles away from her. But during this trip, we had many conversations about our faith in general and more specifically about marriage.

The world continues to turn its back away from God and traditional marriage. It is easy to feel increasingly more rejected, unpopular and alone in these beliefs. It is good to spend time with likeminded people.

I remember when Clarence delivered a message at Quail Valley Church about how satan tries to make us feel like we are alone in our faith. It is the old “divide and conquer” approach but on a spiritual plane. For this reason, Christian fellowship is very important. This is one of the many reasons why “organized religion” is a good thing (I have many Christian friends who do not believe in “organized religion”). We were never meant to be alone in our faith and our beliefs.

This trip was good for me because I was spending time with people who not only believe in a Risen Savior, but also strive to live the life that goes with that belief.

Thank you Ma Berndt

Comical Note: I have always referred to Pearl’s mom as “Ma” because that’s how she addresses her letters to her mom. He he he… But it is common practice in South Africa to address letters with first and middle initials followed by the surname. Well, I still refer to her as “Ma” anyway.

That you, Ma, for being a major part of this wonderful and successful trip. Thank you for your time, your wisdom and your generosity. Thank you for letting us bless you and thank you for blessing us so richly. And most importantly, thank you for being who you are because I know that the best parts of who Pearl is stem directly from the seeds you planted into her life.

We love you and can’t wait to get back to see you again.

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Ed Lewis: Random Memory Vingettes of My Father

Most of the following blog was something I tried to publish in early April because it was my father’s birthday and the anniversary of his passing. But it just kept getting longer and longer. I didn’t want to stop but I didn’t want to post it if it wasn’t done yet. Now that father’s day is here, I figured I would try to get it done as part of my celebration of his influence in my life.

I think about my father a lot. More than anything else, I try to remember what he would have done in my situations. He was a man of acute, practical wisdom and I miss having him to talk to about the things that matter in my life today. He wasn’t much of a talker, but when he did speak about important things, he was almost always right.

Anyway, so here are my random thoughts. I have a lot more thoughts and memories than what I’ve written here, but I think these that I’m sharing paint an accurate picture of the man I see in my mind who I called “Daddy.”

We found this picture in the garage when we were cleaning it. My father loved to fish!

We found this picture when we were cleaning the garage. My father loved to fish!

I always think about my father during this time of the year. Early April is both his birthday and the anniversary of his death. But what prompted me to actually write about my father now, on a blog post, was that I just got my hair cut. One of the stories he loved to tell so often was about the time when I decided I was going to run away from home.

He Thinks He’s Sampson

I was a high school student by that time and all of my friends had cool looking, 1980’s style haircuts. I, however, was allowed to only get my hair cut on base by the military barber. If I’m remembering this correctly, the barber had two cuts, the boys’ cut and the men’s cut. The boys’ cut was only a little longer than the men’s. Not cool! Not by 1980’s teenager standards.

Well, one day I had decided I wasn’t going to get my hair cut. I was going to let it grow long like my friends’ hair. We argued. My father won – quite simply as a matter of fact. When I threatened to run away from home, he laughed at me and asked me “where do you think you would go?” He was right. I was just a kid and there was no way I could survive on my own. I wasn’t street smart or anything like that.

But the story doesn’t end there. After giving in and going with my father to the barber, sitting there in the chair, I cried as the barber cut my hair off. Today, I think I can see this better from my father’s perspective. I was his eldest son, a teenager, crying in the barber’s chair like a baby. I think that probably hurt him as much as what he said in response had hurt me. He laughed at me and looked at the other soldiers in the room and said, “He thinks he’s Sampson and he’s going to lose all his powers.” All the guys laughed and I was humiliated.

To be completely honest with you, as much as that memory tormented me when I was younger, it has become one of my fondest memories of my father. He had normal, healthy concerns about me. He wanted me to grow up to be a man, not a cry baby, not a wimp, not a girly boy. He wanted me to be the kind of man who could take care of his family, provide for them and protect them. What he wanted for me was already unpopular at that time, even more unpopular today, but I’m glad he instilled those values into my life. I admire and appreciate him for it.

This is what my hair looked like in high school - on a good day!

This is what my hair looked like in high school – on a good day!

Support Your Habit

As I was growing up, my father told me time after time that the most important thing for me, as an adult, would be to “put a roof over my family’s head and put food on the table.” He explained to me that those things come first and anything more luxurious must come later. He told me this over and over and over again. He said it so often that I can’t help but to remember it today.

I believe that the reason he shared so much of this kind of wisdom with me was because he knew I was going to become a musician. He thought I was going to ruin my life chasing after pipe dreams. Don’t misunderstand me. I’m not saying he discouraged me from becoming a musician. Not at all. He was always supportive and even enthusiastic about my playing. But he often told me that I needed to find a job to “support my music habit.”

Another one of my fondest memories of my father was the time when my parents came to visit me in Houston. It was the first time they had come to visit since I had begun working as a pro player and I took him to a couple of my gigs. Back in those days I played regularly with a cumbia/ranchera band called Promessa. I remember coming home from a flea market gig when my father said to me, clearly trying to reign in his tears of joy, “I have never been so happy to be wrong. I never thought you could make a living as a musician.”

To my father, making a living and providing for my family was top priority. He didn’t want me to become one of those stereotypical musicians who not only wastes his own life away but also ruins the lives of his family. When he saw that I could make enough money to pay the bills playing my horn, that brought him great joy.

Do What You Like To Do

My father was stubbornly principled, almost to a fault. I started thinking about writing about him this way months ago because I find myself going back to his wisdom often in my daily life. So much so that I’ve begun keeping notes as I remember these things.

One of the things he always used to tell me about choosing a career is something you would sort of expect from a caring father. I have heard other people say it as well, but to me it always meant something different from what everyone else thinks.

My father used to tell me that you should do for a living what you enjoy doing best. But he would ALWAYS follow that up with a caveat. He would say, “I just happen to be one of those people lucky enough to enjoy doing almost anything.”

Ha! The only thing I ever heard my father say he didn’t like doing was sitting behind a desk. When he was working for D.E.C., he was offered several promotions that would have put him behind a desk and taken him out of the field and he didn’t want that.

But other than that, my father was content to do any kind of job. I remember he used to be in the Army and working two or three part time jobs at the same time. I asked him about this many years later, asked him if he liked working the floor for Two Guys. He said he loved it. Here we are talking about a man who was trained to fix complex electronic equipment. He had a great talent for electronics but didn’t feel like working the floor at a discount store was beneath him. He enjoyed something that most highly qualified employees would have thought was a waste of their time and talents.

What I took from the wisdom my father shared with me was that it is my attitude that matters most, not the work that I’m doing. In scouts we used to swear to be cheerful no matter what kind of work we were doing. THAT was my father! If I am to follow in my father’s footsteps, I need to “enjoy” every kind of work I ever need to do. I need to seek reasons to like and enjoy my work instead of finding reasons to complain about it.

In my line of work, there are a lot of complainers. Musicians love to complain. I think my father is one of the reasons I never did much of that.

What’s Wrong With Church?

As I said previously, my father was stubbornly principled. I remember one morning, back when I was in high school, that my casual tennis shoes had gone missing. I had searched the house for them but they were gone. All I had left to wear to school were my black church shoes. I was adamant about not going to school looking like Bowzer from Shanana. But when my father asked me why I wasn’t going to wear those shoes, I told him it was because they were church shoes.

His response was one of the only times I remember that he ever became angry at me. With veins bulging from his forehead, eyes almost popping from their sockets, he asked in a very controlled, very angry voice, “what’s wrong with church?”

I stuttered and didn’t have an answer. Certainly there was nothing wrong with church. Now that I’m older and understand how to communicate better, I know what I meant to say. Church shoes don’t match with the genes and casual shirts I could wear to school. Ha! Not much of a better excuse for not wanting to wear dress shoes to school, but if I had said it differently, if I hadn’t called them “church shoes”, he probably wouldn’t have become as angry as he did.

To my father, this was a serious offense. It was serious enough to make him very angry with me, this from a man who I had almost never seen become angry. That gives you an idea of how serious he was about his faith.

Mysterious Veneration

Another memory I have about my father in the context of church was something he used to talk about all the time, but we never found out what it was all about. Our family always sat in the second pew, left of the isle. My memory may be failing, but the way I remember it, we sat in these same pews no matter where we lived or which church we were going to (we went to a LOT of different churches because we lived in so many different places).

When we lived in El Paso, we were members at Center Chapel One on Ft. Bliss. Every Sunday as we walked back down the isle towards the exit, this Asian woman always stopped to bow at my father. She didn’t bow to anyone else. Not any of the other men in the church nor anyone in our family. There was something about my father that prompted her to venerate him this way.

That’s how my father was. It’s almost ironic because you wouldn’t have known how serious my father was about church, and his faith if you only met him casually on the streets. He was the kind of guy who enjoyed hanging out with the guys (and was quite capable of communicating in that language – if you know what I mean), wasn’t opposed to a casual drink or two, and always enjoyed watching his “bloody movies.” He was also the kind of man who could fight if he had to.

Ruth, Jeff and Ed Lewis

Fight Dirty

In fact, that’s one of the things he used to talk to me about. My father believed that you should avoid fighting at all costs, but if you did end up in a fight, then you should fight dirty. He believed that you shouldn’t be fighting unless it was completely necessary and there was absolutely no alternative. So, if things had become that serious, then you fight to win. It’s not just a couple guys in a pissing contest. He didn’t believe in that kind of machismo male stuff. But if it was a matter of life and death, he told me to grab a two-by-four, one that has nails if you can find one, and take care of business.

Fortunately, I’ve never had to fight in my adult life. Not once. (I did come close once, but I think the guy could see that I wasn’t afraid of him) But if the need were to arise, I would probably do as my father suggested, and I would do whatever was necessary to make things right. Of course, I have no fighting skills now, but I think that’s the whole point he was making. If you are not a fighter, then you don’t have those skills. So yeah, if it comes to it, don’t rely on skills, just do what needs to be done.

Of course, this is just theoretical. I don’t recall my father ever telling me about any fights he had as an adult.

But that is not what we typically associate with Christian behavior. And yes, my father’s life style did fall a bit outside of the traditional norms of Christian life. That said, he was a fervent Christian, full of love for everyone he met.

To be completely honest, that’s one of the reasons I wanted to write about my father this way. Yes, I did say on my Life Builders page that I will only be writing Life Builders posts about people who are still alive today. But this is not a Life Builders post. This is something all together different. I’m hoping that people who didn’t know these wonderful things about my father will take a different look at his life. He was a very strong Christian but a lot of people may have assumed otherwise because of their own personal prejudices.

Yes Sir

There’s a story my father used to tell about when he was applying for jobs after he retired from the Army. He said he had interviewed with one company that he was already trained on their equipment. So he was a shoe-in for them. But during the interview, they told him he would need to stop calling them “sir” and that he would have to stop wearing dress shoes if he wanted to work for them.

This story always fascinated me. The way he told it always gave me the impression that they wanted him to “loosen up” and be himself – just assuming that he was putting on an air, or that maybe he was still too military for them. What they didn’t know was that my father called all adult men “sir.” That’s how he was raised and that’s who he was. It had very little to do with him being in the Army.

Job Loyalty

I’ve written about this before, but my father still believed in job loyalty. He didn’t believe that you should just switch jobs because you feel like it or because you found a better offer. He believed this so much that he told me it was wrong to take a job if I knew before hand that I would be quitting.

You don’t meet people like that anymore. I think I followed his example and I know my brother and sister also did. But this is not a popular way to live anymore. Our society has decided that it’s most important to look after numero uno. I believe that’s why my brother and sister are so very successful today. Just take a look at how long they’ve been with Intel and Super Cuts! It’s a little different for me because I am self employed, but still, I think this sense of loyalty has made a huge difference in my career as well.

My Father and Cars

One of the things my father was very good at was fixing cars. I remember him teaching me how to rebuild an engine when I was in eighth grade. He had a Corvair convertible, one of those with the engine in the rear with what he called “butterfly carbs.” We used to ride around the island of Oahu in that car, stopping for snow cones and hot malasadas. When the engine needed to be rebuilt, he asked me to help and wanted me to pay attention so I could learn about cars.

That was my first experience working on cars and he thought I didn’t like it. And guess what – he was right! He he he… I wasn’t very interested in it at all. So when I started working on cars, it surprised him. I remember when he took a road trip all the way to Houston to help me with my first valve job. He laughed at me because I was very dirty. He said, “You really like to get all the way in there.”

When we were finished with the valve job, he seemed happy when he said to me, “I didn’t know you liked to work on cars.” Ha! LOL

I told him, “I don’t do this because I like it. I do it because I can.”

Yes, I can work on cars! And yes, I do sort of like it. But not in the way he meant. I like it in much the same way as he said he liked working at Two Guys. I don’t just do what I enjoy….I enjoy what I do. As I already said in this post, that’s something I learned from him.

I used to call my father every time I had trouble with a car. I would explain the problem to him and he would give me advice. He was almost always right. But one time he amazed me when he asked me to put the phone over the engine of the car. I did what he said and he told me precisely what the problem was based on what he heard over the phone.

Daddy had a very logical, approach to fixing cars. I think a lot of the diagnostic skills I use in my teaching are influenced by his ability to use logic to fix things, whether they were electrical or mechanical.

Newton E Lewis fishing

This was from the last fishing trip I ever took with my father.

My Driving Instructor

It was also my father who taught me to drive. He believed in learning to drive safely by exploring the dangers in a controlled environment. That was his main concern was safety. While I was learning, with him in the car, he would tell me to drive two wheels on to the shoulder of the road, so that I feel what that is like. He said that people over reacted when they feel the shoulder and over compensate on the steering wheel. I believe that I survived at least half a dozen close calls because of his training.

He also believed in practicing driving in the snow or on ice. If you don’t practice those skills in a controlled environment, how will you be able to use them when you need them in an emergency? So long after I had gotten my license, the first time it snowed in El Paso after that, I did what he told me to. I went out to drive in that weather just to practice my skills.

My Father and Drugs

I am a completely drug free man because my father raised me to understand the dangers of drug addiction. I will never forget the day that my father had us kids sit down so he could talk to us about the guy who used to come over and hang out with us. My father said that he wouldn’t be coming over again because he had been caught by the MPs with pot. He said that they stopped tank maneuvers and pulled the guy from the tank and threw him in jail. Then he told us that this soldier’s life was now ruined because of the drugs.

He was extremely opposed to recreational drug use. He believed that it destroyed people’s lives. And you know, I don’t think he was just talking about the physical effects of the drugs. I think he was talking about all of it. He was talking about what it does to your ability to get a job. To keep a job. He was talking about the legal side of it and what happens when you get caught. When you get down to it, there’s nothing good that comes from drug use.

You see, I think my father was a selfless man. He put our needs, my mom’s needs, me and my sibling’s needs, first in his life. Just like he taught me to live, he made a priority of providing for his family. And I believe he recognized that drugs was a selfish thing that ruins the lives of the people around us. No, he didn’t say it that way. I’m a lot more geeky than he was. But you can be certain that that’s what he meant. When he said that drugs will ruin your life, he wasn’t saying that they will make you feel bad about yourself. No! When you look at what he used to say and apply that to the context of the rest of his life, it’s easy to see that he was talking about your ability to work, your ability to care for your family, your ability to care for other people. Drugs take that away from you because drugs are all about you feeling good and nothing else. It’s very selfish and very addictive, causing you to become increasingly MORE selfish as the drugs dig deeper into your life.

If I’m wrong about why he didn’t like people to do drugs, it changes nothing. The fact is, he didn’t like it at all. As a soldier serving in both Vietnam and Korea, he wasn’t ignorant about drugs. He wasn’t stupid. He had good reasons for believing what he did.

Corny Sense of Humor

Okay, one last memory before I close this vignette marathon. My father had an almost annoying and corny sense of humor. He was constantly “teasing” and joking and kidding around. He enjoyed to have fun and often at our expense. 🙂

There’s one thing he used to do that I actually tell my students about because it helps me to make a certain point. He would poke us real hard with his finger and ask us if it hurt. If we didn’t answer right away, he would poke harder, laughing as he did it. When we said it hurt, he would tell us, “then don’t do that.”


I also remember that he would always say, when he was doing an U-turn, “I’m doing a sick bird, I’m doing a sick bird” – which meant that he was doing something illegal….get it? “sick bird” = “ill eagle”. 🙂

And what would he say if we asked him where our mother went? Always…..”She’s driving a bus.”

What would he say if you ask him what he’s doing? “I’m driving a bus.”

And then there was Micky Mouse. My father always used to say, “Micky Mouse is the bad guy” because he knew it would start something with one of us kids.

He loved to “torment” us kids. And we loved it when he tormented us.

You know, I used to think that sometimes he went overboard teasing and tormenting us that way. But you know, when I look at how fragile people are today, how easily they fall apart just because someone looked at them a certain way, I thank God that my father teased me the way he did. I thank God that my father had enough practical wisdom to know that practicing social skills in a controlled setting was just as important as practicing driving in the snow.

I don’t know if he knew what he was doing when he teased us. I can’t know if he was doing it for our benefit or if he genuinely got a thrill out of it. But the bottom line is that we did benefit from it. We are not overly protected, overly coddled brats and I believe that’s one of the reasons all four of us kids have been successful in life.


My father was not your ordinary man. He wasn’t just old fashioned, I mean, he liked a lot of the new ways. So it wasn’t that. He was, as I had already put it, stubbornly principled. He believed there was a very clear difference between right and wrong. And no, that’s not popular today. It’s even more unpopular now than it was when he was alive.

But his moral and ethical values were at the center of his being. His beliefs defined who he was as a man and I cling to my memories of him because he was the last of a dying breed. I want to be like he was, more now than ever before. But I have no living role models to follow. All I have is my memories of my father and my Bible.

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