Monday, March 31, 2014


I was barely 6 years old and in Kindergarten when I penned my first short story about a dinosaur egg being discovered on a farm. My teacher told my mom that I'd be a writer some day.

Somewhere between my childhood and when life experiences delivered overdoses of disappointment, I've rationalized letting go of fantastic dreams that exist in my creative conscious. It's not so much abandoning hope or the general goal of my dreams, but more like the negotiation I've gone through with my intellect in order to maintain at least a recognizable fraction of their existence. Reality has taken most of them hostage and, sadly, I've learned how to accept their disappearance as the norm in life. I've failed to give the ransom some have required to get them back. I've convinced myself that it's not practical to esteem such fantastic dreams.

I remember Christmas Eve in 1978 when a thank-you note was left next to a pile of crumbs and an empty glass of milk. The black grease pencil used for the cursive words lay next to the empty plate and was the same utensil that was nestled in my dad's work shirt earlier that night. I rushed outside to scan a roof full of fresh snow, wearing only a bathrobe over my pi's with rubber boots slipped over my feet. The street lamps were about to go off for the day at the early morning light, but shown enough illumination to see the glaring absence of reindeer tracks. We were renting a house in the city until our new home could be finished being built that following February. The 19th century abode had the first real chimney I'd seen atop a roof I lived under. I just knew for a fact that Santa would visit that rental house that Christmas Eve. After returning inside, I investigated a large grey paper wrapped package next to the tree that had my name clearly written on the outside. As my mind ripped through the paper and imagine the treasure inside, something ripped through my stomach as I recognized that same black grease pencil scribble of "TO: PATRICK - FROM: SANTA".  I can't recall how my mind connected potential dots, but in a moment of truth later that morning, I asked mom whether Santa was real. She paused with a tender look of despair on her face and inquired why I asked. Her look was more one of compassion for "life" and "reality" striking my innocence, than one of me decoding the clues I shared with her. She had undoubtedly experienced the same moment years earlier with each of my siblings, and as her last and youngest child, it had to be difficult.

"No, Patrick, Santa is not real."

"Ok mom."

She wasn't trying to kill my fantastic dreams. She was shaping my expectations.

As any parent can relate, the bewilderment and oft spoken belief for a future of adventure and excitement that our children share at various ages is something we cherish and reminisce at the same time. Whether it's their enthusiasm and anticipation of watching cartoons after their nap or the carefully laid out plans of a career, almost every age reveals similar fantastic dreams we still hear faintly thumping in our own memory's heart beat. We try with grace and love to teach our children how to temper their dreams because of the boogey-man called disappointment. We can become quite efficient in managing their expectations without crushing their motivation or enthusiasm. Sometimes we go overboard. Sometimes we don't go far enough. Sometimes we flood their fiery passion with buckets of our own regrets until we see theirs extinguished, all in the name of sparing their heart from being hurt. Either way, it's painful and blissful to experience at times.

A recurring memory from American Idol that I always cite when talking to other parents of talented youth is the embarrassing truth shared by Simon Cowell when addressing an auditoner who is clearly tone deaf or horrifically not destined for stardom as a singer. He bluntly asked if their friends and family felt they were good enough to be the next American Idol. Invariably, the contestants would either stay shy or emphatically state their family agreed with their talent level being good enough.  Many contestants left the room and show crying and angry because their dream was crushed by the bully called Simon Cowell. Simon may have been truthful, but to those contestants, it was hard nonetheless.

Perhaps not as dramatic, it wasn't long ago that we had a tough conversation with Spencer about a fork in the road he must address regarding his future.  He played basketball since the age of 4 and baseball since 7. In the fall of 2012, we were told by the leaders of iShine (based in Franklin Tennessee) that Spencer demonstrated the raw skills and character they felt could earn him a career in music if he continued working hard and allowed them to help him develop.  They didn't want any money from us. It's never been a ploy. It was just their industry experience and insight that urged them to encourage us to help Spencer pursue a career in the music business.

After the in-home visit from the iShine president, and a few days to digest what he presented through his two hour fact sharing conversation, we had a family meeting.

Looking at his face of angst as he listened to our parenting advice about what his 15 year old life was entering, we could see him grasping reality. He spent (we spent) his whole youth preparing him for the goal of earning a college degree as a student-athlete playing either basketball or baseball, or both. We shared that while he desired to maintain playing school team sports and travel AAU sports for both, he couldn't pursue a serious career in music at the same time. He simply would not be able to attend all practices and games and maintain his spot on a roster and travel and tour with music and acting. It was not right to his team and coaches and it would leave him both exhausted and unable to give his all to each one. Plus, he would need to maintain his academics in school. We frankly stated that he must make a choice based on what we knew at that moment and that we didn't have the ability to see the future. No matter what his choice, there would be no guarantees in sports or music about his vision for the best case scenario in either. We simply would support and love him no matter what he chose.

<Shortly after an in-school concert in Iowa, Spencer was challenged to play a varsity starter in one on one. Watch the video clip here.>

He was silent. We were silent. It was a screaming silence that allowed our staggered breathing to be easily heard in the living room.

Then, he clenched his eyes with his fingers and we heard a gentle whimper. It casually evolved into a quiet crying and tears flowed.

Spencer never cried about Santa. He never struggled with most life disappointments for long. He'd been resilient and emotionally secure. But we never saw him experience reality like that. While he was not being asked to never play sports again, his intellect began negotiating how to keep hold of his fantastic dream of being on a college team while pursuing what was quickly becoming a passion in music. We saw his heart wrench with real life disappointment setting in. It's as vivid a memory for me as I'm sure it was for him. I'd been beside him every step of his young athletic career. Nearly every practice, every game, every training session I was there with him. And at that moment in the living room, we all choked up at the same time.

It was ironic.

We had just been told about an amazing opportunity to pursue a life in music with trusted mentors and a faith based organization that wouldn't attempt to exploit his youth in an industry that is known for doing just that. My wife was told face-to-face that my son's youth and his heart were more important to them than any skills they could develop. It could have been formulaic, but hindsight says it has been everything they assured us it would be. But in that moment, the pain of watching him let go of every All-American boy's dream of being the star player on a winning team was hard to witness.

Spencer wasn't a little boy anymore.

He was a young man learning that life is mainly about free-will and choices amidst circumstances. I intentionally shared the statistical probability of him earning a scholarship and the realities of mom and dad not being able to afford to pay for his college ourselves. (A result of our own life dreams being hit with disappointment). We told him he could earn academic scholarships since he is a great student with a strong GPA and aptitude for learning. We shared that general physiological issues would play a part on his ability to earn a sports scholarship and those were the facts he'd have to consider to make a decision about his future at such a young age.

He eventually exhaled and formed a smile as he said okay about pursuing music.

That conversation occurred nearly 18 short months ago and in the midst of our logic, emotion and careful planning, God has revealed to Spencer what He has always shown my wife and I in our lifetime. No matter what the circumstance or opportunity, if we believe God is our shepherd and leading us, we can trust that the scenery and experiences along the path aren't ever the total picture. In this year and half span, we've witnessed a young man become a man in his independence and relationships. We've seen God grow his personal faith through his learning patience and adjusting expectations while staying motivated. We've watched him grow in his skills and talent, but more importantly heard the affirmations from many of those who experience time with Spencer outside our presence. We've seen him learn how to embrace a new dream, a fantastic dream, yet staying grounded in the process. We've watched him understand that he hasn't arrived, but he's making his way there.

Spencer still plays basketball as much as he can and still awes me with his skills and instinct on the court. He's 6'3" and more competitive against the big boys now than he was 18 months ago. But when I look back at that moment of his weeping on the couch, I reflect on my own life of crossroads and restructuring dreams to limit my discouragement. I am faced with a truth I can't deny.

Spencer's braveness to set aside team sports to pursue music brought about a whole new fruitful passion in his life, and it has certainly led to the unearthing of a near fossilized passion of <em>writing </em>in my own.

"Yes, Patrick, it's still ok to have fantastic dreams."

"Ok God."

Wednesday, March 26, 2014


Online privacy is only as strong as the posts, comments and geo-tracking updates attached to social media we use. Fortunately, for my sake, I've been quite invested in knowing the pros and cons of social media use, especially since my under-18 son has quite a following on his various accounts.
While most teens use social media for social reasons, in our home, mom and dad are staunch Facebook users for social reasons, but Spencer, not so much. His social media accounts are 99 percent used for communicating with fans and rarely with close friends or family as most teens do.
This has created some frustrations for him since he just wants to have a normal social life where things like Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, Vine and Google+ can be a version of phone-to-phone texting on steroids. He definitely texts his close friends andmom- and dad-approved new acquaintances, but it's presented challenges for us as parents anyway.
Having a son who is gaining popularity worldwide has created some necessary auditing of his social media and phone texts. Trust me, it's an outgrowth of his pursuit of singing and acting as a minor, but it's also something that I don't believe many parents really grasp about how invested in social media their children have become. Reading the random posts by teens that follow Spencer has opened my eyes to a generation of youth that desperately seek attention through a 140-character tweet to a total stranger or random connections they've made through social media. It's more likely that many teens connect to people they don't know on most of these accounts I've observed. How can a single teen have 2,500 followers when you calculate their schoolmates, family members and possible neighbors where they live? It's highly likely that there are a lot of strangers on the list -- people that share a common interest or mutual connection. It's the essence of social media to be honest.
So when my child has well over 50,000 of these types of connections, you can be certain that 99.9 percent of them are people he doesn't know and we've never met. This opens the door to some inevitable risk.
In early 2012 when we were exploring social media and posting his videos on Youtube, Spencer became a target of talent scouts and independent music industry professionals offering their services. Many of these contacts came through social media. This is a common story for most families of young artists we've networked with the past few years. In most cases, they were just annoying spam-like contacts hoping to gain a new client or one-time fee for their services. However, in a few instances we found that the inquiry was a bit darker in nature.
Spencer is an attractive, young man and, of course, has a sea of admirers on social media. Some are just hormone-filled teens expressing their undying love for him from countries around the world. To us (as parents) it's sweet and fun to see the admiration for him simply because he is an online popular artist. But when the admiration comes from an adult male or, in a few cases, an adult female well beyond Spencer's age, the creepy factor enters the picture and our instincts quickly take over to prevent a bad situation from starting.
One such incident involved a highly-intelligent and well-versed music industry executive who reached out to recruit Spencer for his exclusive mentoring program. He apparently was a multi-billionaire who helped the big three music labels (Universal, Sony and Warner) find blooming, young talent. His program involved a six-month development process wherein he would teach Spencer how to prepare for touring, songwriting, the physical aspects of being an artist and a plethora of other areas an emerging artist would need to learn. In the most traditional sense, he was an outsource A&R company which would prepare and package him for presenting to one of the big three.
Now keep in mind, at the time I was still learning a lot about what the music industry was about and when this fellow talked a very convincing bit of music related terms and namedropped plenty of past executives and artists he single-handedly helped launch, it was very mesmerizing. The bait from him was to have Spencer audition for his team of artists he's developing through a foundation-funded program. Each artist would receive about $250k in training, of which the artist would never be required to pay back because it was a philanthropic program to support the arts and young people. When I asked the tough questions along the way, I began to annoy the man and was accused of wasting his time with trivial points. When I inquired about his resume and referrals, he stated he was connected to the U.S. government for contracts with his normal business and his online presence was not available because he was under the Homeland Security privacy due to the nature of those government contracts. When I asked to see him on Skype and possibly meet as a family, he explained why that wouldn't be possible due to his immense travel schedule overseas. The more questions I asked, the more frightened we became that it was an elaborate hoax and a possibly stalker-like issue.
In further investigation of the man, I was able to uncover five more families of young male artists around the world that were given the exact same sales pitch. However, these families were much further down the line with him in the six-month program. One had written several songs and turned them over to the guy and actually gave him access to all the young artist's social media accounts. The man changed all the passwords and blocked him out of his own social media. Another family shared how the man required the young boy artist to do daily physical workouts in front of his skype camera while wearing tight-fitting bike shorts (a requirement of the man). The more we uncovered, the more we became convinced this man was dangerous. All five families, including ours, resorted to the FBI White Collar Crimes division (which handles online cyber-stalker threats) and within a month or two, all his online sites and communication were deleted and no longer visible. We didn't receive a direct reply from the FBI agent handling our case, but the fact that he disappeared proved that something happened.
I shared this story because it was a result of a simple social media inquiry that many young artists and families get sucked into. Beyond this, we've discovered a handful of fans that used social media to act coy about connecting with Spencer and found that it turned into a frightening stalking issue. At least two fans showed up in front of our home uninvited and only mildly known from social media general conversations between Spencer and them.
Since we've launched his public profile online, I have made it a policy that 100 percent of his conversations with anyone on any social media will be reviewed by me personally. In some highly antagonistic inquiries from bizarre fans, I've had to step in and either address them personally or simply block and delete them from his social media.
For practical advice, I'm including some suggestions about how to address social media disturbances that arise.
Twitter provides a few ways to reduce the cyber-bully and/or threats that may arise. First of all, you can always protect your tweets from general public viewing. This is the easiest way to maintain a stronger privacy from people. However, if you allow a person to follow you, the privacy disappears. The BLOCK feature on Twitter doesn't really do anything practical. The stalker or annoying account can still see your public tweets (and therefore know what you're saying and possibly doing). The only thing is really does is prevent them from following you. So unless you're set to PRIVACY on your tweets, the blocking of that person doesn't do much. It will hide their tweets about you from your own timeline, but it doesn't hide their tweets about you from anyone else on Twitter. So if they include your username in their tweet, you can do a SEARCH of your Twitter name and see that they are able to tweet about you even though you've blocked them. In our case, BLOCKING has been effective to send a warning that they need to back off. Twitter does allow you to report a user for the type of tweet they are sending, but apart from a serious safety risk, Twitter doesn't typically do much about it. There have been many users that get banned for the nature of their tweets, but it is likely only after multiple reports have been made. Twitter also has some pretty aggressive software intelligence to know accounts that are not safe or following normal activities compared to most online.
Facebook is a little different in that if you FRIEND someone, it is a mutual connection. On Twitter, it can be one way (you follow them or they follow you) or two-way (follow each other). On Facebook, when you have a FAN PAGE, it is different than a normal personal account. On a personal account, you can just unfriend and block a user. On a FAN PAGE, you can only ban the user from your FAN PAGE. This is essentially intended to be the same as blocking on a personal page, but it has a little bit of a different result. First of all, to BAN a user, you can only BAN them IF they make a post on your FAN PAGE. So suppose you notice a creeper just LIKED your fan page and you know they are up to no good. It isn't possible to BAN them from LIKING that page unless they communicate via a post. This simply means that they can monitor your statuses simply by liking your page. PAGES can be set to private viewing unless they LIKE the page or public. We have kept Spencer's pages public so people can see what kind of statuses he posts and become a fan by liking the page. There is no foolproof way to stop a stalker from seeing your statuses on Facebook, because it is just too easy to create multiple accounts and pose as someone different.
These do not have as much risk (so far) for us compared to Twitter and Facebook. You can simply BLOCK someone on Instagram and they can't see your stuff. Vine is so new to us that we've not experienced anything concerning. The most potential damage we've seen on either of these social media is in the COMMENTS area of a post. You, as the user, can delete comments from your own posts on both. This seems to send a message to a fan if they see you deleted their post.
As a parent of a teen artist and actor, we have joined a helpful Facebook Group which has over 55 families with young artists and actors all working together to report stalkers and dangerous profiles they encounter on their child's social media. This group is highly helpful in being a voice of warning to help prevent risk for their child. It is a great resource to simply become aware of how to deal with some of the risk as well.
Another great site to consider is Trends and Teens. Paige is a great counselor and youthfully connected resource for parents and teens that are engaged in this social media culture we live in.
We do our best to allow Spencer to use social media for fun social reasons, but unfortunately, as long as he's pursuing his professional goal of being in the entertainment industry, we (he) will be restricted to a higher rate of risk than most.

Thursday, March 13, 2014


While many tuned in faithfully the first few seasons of American Idol, we were busy with YMCA basketball and pee-wee baseball. Sure, for the sake of keeping up with the water cooler chatter, I'd read recap articles and occasionally view moments of the voting result shows while channel surfing. But eventually, our family joined the bandwagon. We'd rationalize why certain contestants were deserving over others and it was during this popcorn-bowl bonding time that my son, Spencer, began defining his standards of good artists over bad.

Eventually, Bieber-Fever struck the world and our eyes opened to the possibility of parlaying Spencer's school and church choir solos into Youtube popularity. Why not? If that Bieber kid could be discovered on Youtube, why not Spencer? So we naively thought.

Fast forward. Spencer auditioned once for America's Got Talent and twice for X-Factor. In every audition, he made it past the first round. In the final audition process for X-Factor, he made it to the round where he would await the call where to show up and perform before the judges. As a parent, you hope and want to believe the best can happen. As a teen, Spencer played out scenarios of what he'd do at each level of the competition. He'd also point out the 1978 Corvette for sale just off the main highway near home and describe how cool he'd look driving it around. After all, at this point he had fully consumed the fantasy of a life as a reality talent show contestant.

No call. No callbacks. Nothing.

I've purchased a few lottery tickets over the years. As I crumpled mine when watching the news of the winner in a land far from my own, I could only sigh remembering the small statistical chance I had at winning. After all, I went in with full knowledge of the remote chances. Reality TV was the same for us.

However, here's where the reality met the fantasy.

I can state that (as a matter of fact) these shows are not so much about casting the best talent as they are for what makes good TV; revenues. After all, sponsors buy ad time and producers and celebrity judges need their pay check. Like everything in the real music industry, it's not as much about the talent as it is the pot of gold everyone is trying to discover and keep. In that sense, reality TV is no different.

I've had the privilege of talking to a lot of parents who are on the same path as my family with one or more of their kids. Most have children with easily verified talent. Some even have phenomenal talent. What links us all together is the challenge we face of managing expectations of our highly impressionable, dreamer kids who ingest the fantasy-life these reality shows present. They see contestants who are overnight celebrities because they were fortunate enough to be an ingredient in ratings-seeking potions fed to viewers and advertisers. Which contestants will viewers most relate to... hate... love... despise... etc. all makes for good reality TV. It's what makes advertisers pay millions and viewers tune in. I envision droning prayers of show creators repeating "Please, Mr. Nielsen, accept our sacrificial offering of these diverse personalities for your blessing of a #1 rating on Tuesday night programming."

But what happens in the real world, like my own home, is exactly what these shows intend. Households are thrown into a pseudo-frenzy of comparing friends and family members who have more perceived talent than what they show on the TV. Hence, the Youtube star explosion and the making of divas at local talent shows. Instead of America's Got Talent, it could be "Everybody Thinks They Got Talent", a show in which Spencer may have been cast.

In our case, Spencer was not thrust into the national limelight. He was not a vocal prodigy that confounded viewers on his Youtube channel. He was just a cute kid that kept pitch and learned how to croon his way into social media popularity. But when the big labels didn't come calling, or big tours or festivals didn't return our calls, that's when reality set in for us. Even having a large social media fan base doesn't necessarily equate to success.

It isn't about the lottery like TV talent show that will help Spencer get discovered. It's all about the good old formula of hard work.

Then more hard work.

And finally, hard work.

Spencer has not arrived. But gone is his innocent, wide-eyed stare like he did at the Christmas tree when Santa was about to arrive in a few hours. Gone is the adrenaline rush of making it to the next round on a TV talent show. Gone is the waiting for the music industry's Big Daddy Warbucks to come a calling. Reality, not fantasy, has arrived.

Instead, what he has discovered is the joy of seeing the fruit of his hard work in the eyes of the fans at his concerts, or the messages on social media of how his music changed a life, or the schools that send reports of how they are being kind to one another because of his visit with them earlier that year. Now he sees that it isn't about the fantasy of skyrocketing to fame and fortune through a TV show. It's about the power of music to touch lives along the way. He's still highly motivated to make a career as an artist, but he understands like the wise spokesman, John Houseman, and the Smith Barney TV commercials of the late 70's, "...they make money the old fashioned way, they earn it."

Even if he never reaches elite stardom, what I know he will have learned is that nobody can take away his amazing experiences at such a young age and the up front and personal perspective of the real music business that the vast majority of artists live through. He is learning that success isn't the fantasy of reality TV, but comes in the form of a four letter word.