Category Archives: Life (and other baffling things)

Mickey Roker: my moments with a drumming giant

Mickey Roker was one of my early influences, not just because he was a phenomenal drummer, but primarily due to a personal connection.

Mickey Roker w/Milt Jackson at Bach Dancing & Dynamite Society, Half Moon Bay CA 1980s
© Brian McMillen

It began around 1972 when Mickey was Dizzy Gillespie’s drummer. Dizzy’s trio had just played a matinée at Southeastern Community College in Whiteville, NC, where my dad was a dean. After their performance my dad invited Dizzy and his band to our home for dinner. Surprisingly, they accepted! Dizzy Gillespie in my house!

Somewhere during conversation before dinner I asked Mickey how long he’d been playing drums. “Long enough to know better,” was his immediate reply.

It wasn’t long before he found out I was an aspiring drummer (and by aspiring, I mean I owned a set of drums; it was too soon to call me a drummer.) With a big grin on his face he said to me, “Come on, let’s go see your drums!”

Mickey followed me back to my bedroom where my Sears blue sparkle drums were set up. “Let me see you play!” he practically shouted. I banged on them the best I could; I’m sure it sucked but Mickey was nothing but enthusiastic and encouraging to me. He did, however, admonish me to practice my rudiments. Must’ve been apparent that I hadn’t been…

Several years later while I was attending NC State University, I went to see Dizzy and band at a local nightclub. During a break between sets I walked up to Mickey and, just for fun, again asked him how long he’d been playing drums. “Long enough to know better.” (I loved it, and to this day I often use his line when somebody asks me the same question.)

I then reintroduced myself, and he at least pretended to remember me. He asked if I was still playing drums; I said yes, I was playing in a southern rock band. “Ah,” he said, “lotta shuffles, right?”

Oh, yeah, lotta shuffles. As a rookie I was impressed that an old school bebop and jazz drummer was aware of a very different musical style favored by us younger musicians. But Mickey Roker was actually much more than a jazz drummer – he was a role model for a kid who wanted to play.

Mickey passed in May 2017. I wish I’d had a chance for just one more conversation with him; if I had, I would have told him I never forgot his encouragement or his incredible drumming. And I would have confessed I haven’t always practiced my rudiments like I should, but I’ve tried to honor his passion for drums.

Rest in peace, Mickey.

Photo credit: By Brianmcmillen (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons



Most of us really don’t understand forgiveness. If we’re honest, we crave forgiveness at some point from someone, either a person we’ve wronged, or from God. We want it for ourselves, but we’re loath to grant it to others. We say things like, “there’s no way I can forgive that person…it would be like saying what they did was okay. It would be like an open invitation for them to keep doing it.”

But let’s stop for a moment and think about that God dynamic. When we confess our trespasses and sincerely ask to be forgiven, do we actually expect God to tell us that what we did was okay? Of course not! We know that forgiveness from God comes for actions that are absolutely NOT okay. What else would we need to be forgiven for? So, can we take that off the table? Forgiveness is not the same as excusing or condoning bad behavior. It’s much deeper than that.

Unforgiveness is hazardous to your health

A surgeon named Dabney Ewin conducted a series of experiments in 1978 on burn victims he was treating. He observed that many of his patients were extremely angry, either with themselves or another person they blamed for their injuries. His angry patients were slower to recover and their bodies more often rejected skin grafts than patients who were not so angry. His conclusion was their deep anger was interfering with their ability to heal.

When he took steps to help his patients forgive themselves or others, he saw their stress levels drop and they achieved faster recovery times. Unforgiveness had a tangible effect on their emotional and physical healing, but choosing to let go of their anger allowed his patients to relax and respond better to their treatment.

Another researcher, Dr. Robert Enright, a psychologist at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, developed a four-part forgiveness therapy in the 1990s:  1) uncovering your anger, 2) deciding to forgive, 3) working on forgiveness, and 4) discovery and release from emotional prison. I think that last part is the most telling – unforgiveness is nothing less than an emotional prison.

poisonChristian pastor Greg Laurie puts it this way: “Unforgiveness is like drinking rat poison and then waiting for the rat to die.” Withholding forgiveness does little or nothing to the object of our anger; it only imprisons and even incapacitates us. And thus showing forgiveness, which we’re actually commanded to do, is an act of liberation…for ourselves. Forgiving that person releases us from the bondage we put our own selves in, for when we hold onto anger we sacrifice our own peace.

Jesus taught us to ask God to forgive our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. He went on to say, “For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.”

But, how?

Easier said than done? Absolutely. So, how do you forgive someone who doesn’t deserve it, maybe doesn’t even want it? Enright’s four-part therapy is an excellent model. First, you must recognize your anger and the damaging effect it’s had on your health, your outlook on life, the way you act, even your relationship with God. Understanding that, next make a conscious decision to forgive.

Working on forgiveness is where it might get a little harder. You can start by praying for that person. Jesus said, “Love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you.” You may be surprised to find that by really praying for that person you develop compassion and empathy for them.

The payoff comes in the final step. As you begin to truly forgive, the weight of hurt, anger, and longing for vengeance will start to lift. The chains of your emotional prison will break. Who knows, you could even discover a way to bring some good out of your experience.

Consider the Old Testament story of Joseph, who suffered great cruelty at the hands of his brothers. He had every reason to be bitter and vindictive; no one would have blamed him if he had destroyed his brothers when he had the chance. Yet he rose above his plight in dramatic fashion and he showed mercy instead. “You intended evil for me,” he said to them, “but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives. So then, don’t be afraid.”

His actions healed a family and left a shining example for the rest of us.

Now, who do you need to forgive?

Memorial Day

It’s a terrible thing…

“It’s a terrible thing to die on a battlefield a thousand miles from your home and family.”

I heard that statement during a Memorial Day observance in church yesterday. I’d never heard it put quite that way before and it got my attention.

Most of us are sincere in our effort to remember the people who died while serving in our country’s armed services, especially on Memorial Day. Most of us know someone who has lost a family member even if we haven’t personally suffered a loss.

But hearing this remark put things dramatically into a service person’s perspective for the first time for me. It prompted me to imagine vividly what thoughts might flash through the minds of a mortally wounded soldier and his or her comrades on a battlefield. Give the choice, I would prefer to die at home, or at least close to my family. I imagined the utter loneliness – aloneness, if that’s a word – that must overtake a soldier, knowing he or she would never see home and family again.

That personalized the sacrifice which we endeavor to honor on Memorial Day. It’s a far greater sacrifice than most of us can fathom. Regardless of whether we believe a particular war is just or the cause noble, we stop to honor those sent to battle who didn’t come home.

Who is your starfish

Who is your starfish?

You may know the story of the old man walking on the beach early one morning. A storm had blown through overnight and the beach was littered with thousands of starfish as far as he could see in both directions. Continuing his walk, he noticed a small boy in the distance. As the boy walked along he would stop occasionally, bend down to pick up a starfish, and toss it into the ocean water.

“What are you doing?” the old man asked when he came closer to where the boy stood.

The boy looked up at the old man and replied, “I’m throwing starfish into the ocean. There was a big storm last night that washed them up on the shore. Now that the tide is going out they can’t get back in the water by themselves and they’ll die if I don’t throw them back in.”

“Son, there are probably ten thousand starfish on this beach,” the old man scoffed. “You can’t save them all. Even if you worked all day, you’re really not going to be able to make much of a difference.”

The boy bent down again, picked up another starfish, and threw it as far as he could into the ocean. He smiled at the old man and answered, “It made a difference to that one.”

So, who is your starfish?

I’m willing to bet there’s one around you somewhere. For me at this moment it may be the friend I discovered in a homeless shelter a few nights ago. I can’t solve homelessness even for my immediate community but I’m determined to do something for my friend. At other times it’s been less dire, such as someone who asked what it takes to be in my line of work and what he/she should do to get the necessary experience.

Your starfish might be someone who’s struggled or stumbled in his/her career whom you might be in a position to offer a job or career advice. Perhaps you can introduce someone to your network as they look for a better opportunity. Or maybe you can show a little patience to a young co-worker and mentor him/her in how to succeed in your profession.

No, you probably can’t save all of them, but you absolutely can make a difference to at least one person. Keep your eyes open, look around, and I bet you’ll find your starfish.

Homeless shelter

Old friend at the homeless shelter

I saw an old friend at the homeless shelter last night. It was a bit of a surprise.

I was one of a handful of adults accompanying a church youth group to serve dinner to the shelter’s guests. I could see him approaching as we stood in the hall waiting to wash up and put on our gloves and hairnets. It took me a moment to recognize him, you know, how you can’t place a familiar face when you see it entirely out of context.

He was clearly there for dinner. He spoke as he walked past. “Hi, Chip.” I guess he felt like he had to say something since we’d made eye contact. I said “hi” as he continued down the hall.

Soon the food trays came out to the counter and I stood behind the youth as they began serving guests. He made his way through the line and sat at a table in the small dining area. For ten minutes a debate raged in my mind. Does he wish I hadn’t seen him? Does he hope I’ll leave him alone? Would we both be too uncomfortable if I went over and spoke again? Ultimately I decided it would be worse to do nothing than to risk being rebuffed.

What do you say?

I asked for permission to sit for a moment at his table; he said ok. I searched for something meaningful to say, but what DO you say? How are you? Well obviously not great, he’s eating dinner in a homeless shelter for crying out loud. Good to see you? That sounds trite, and he probably doesn’t think it’s good to be seen there. I fumbled awkwardly, confessing to him that I felt like a dumbass because I didn’t know what to say, but wanted to say SOMETHING. He was gracious but subdued, and not extremely talkative.

Finally I asked how I could pray for him, hoping for something tangible, not wanting to offer the usual hollow I’ll-pray-for-you line. “Right now, anything would be good, really,” came the reply. Fair enough. Not knowing what else to do, I wrapped my arm around his shoulder as I stood to leave and quietly said, “Love you, Brother.”

I moved back behind the counter with the others in my group. He finished his dinner, rose and walked out of the room, never looking in my direction.

I guess we’re done

I figured that was the end of that, but as the time drew near to leave I saw him walk back into the room and sit again. No eye contact. But after several minutes he stood and walked toward me. We chatted more freely this time, even smiling and laughing. He spoke of how proud he is of his daughter who’s graduating from college soon and how he hopes he can make the trip to see her walk across a stage for her degree. I hope so too.

As it was time to go, I reached out and shook his hand, still not sure what to do and feeling mighty inadequate. But hoping that making an old friend laugh was at least better than nothing at all.


(Photo credit: By U.S. Navy photo by Chief Mass Communication Specialist Dave Kaylor [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

The prayer I dreamed last night

Continue us not in our goods but in our services
“Continue us not in our goods, but in our services.”

I don’t think I’ve ever dreamed a prayer before, but that was a line I either heard or read in a dream last night. I could dismiss it as a random string of unrelated words, as dreams so often generate. Or I could embrace it as a pretty cool metaphor.

Might it have been a supplication for strength to rise above the everyday grind of tasks and action items? To set our energy on the greater good through serving others, on providing value and not just “stuff” to do?

There’s the obvious spiritual connotation – do your words and actions constitute service to God and those around you?

And there is also a work and life context. In your job or other avocation do your activities simply allow you to check something off your to-do list, or do they provide a tangible benefit? Is there a worthy purpose for what you do?

The lesson of the survivor tree

The survivor tree outside our dining room window

This frail and disfigured little tree stands just outside our dining room window. We call it our Survivor Tree.

It’s not much to look at. The oddly curved branch once was the trunk, much longer and rising straight and strong toward the sky. But when a severe winter storm struck a few years ago it nearly collapsed under ice that entombed its branches. Ice can increase the weight of a tree’s branches by as much as 30 times; this tree bent all the way over until some of its branches touched the ground. A few branches were indeed lost, broken off under the icy weight.

I thought it would stand back up when I knocked the ice off of the remaining limbs just as the other shrubs and trees in the yard had done. It didn’t. Instead, it remained stooped and defeated. “It’s done,” I was told. “You need to get rid of it and maybe plant something else in its place.”

But I refused to cut it down. “Let’s just give it a few weeks and see what happens in spring.” I pruned back the most damaged branches and waited.

Sure enough, as the weather turned warm again small green shoots began to appear on the upper side of the bent trunk. The little tree had survived the ice storm. In time the shoots became tiny new branches that sprouted leaves. You could almost hear them crying out, “there’s still life here!”

It’s winter again now and our Survivor Tree is bare. But in a few weeks those signs of life, symbols of being a survivor, will start to appear again.  Something that’s not much to look at now will transform into a poetic image that “looks at God all day and lifts her leafy arms to pray,” to borrow a line from Joyce Kilmer.

There’s a lesson to be learned here, of course.

Don’t be in a hurry to write off something, or someone, bent or broken by life’s winter storms. As long as there is life, there is hope. Hope for regeneration, for rebirth, for not just surviving but even thriving again.

Once a musician, always a musician

Last month I had the great fortune to reconnect with a childhood friend whom I haven’t seen since I was about 14 years old. I met Sam Hawkins after my family moved to north Raleigh when I was 11. He was one of the first neighborhood kids I met and we quickly became friends.

Me on my first drumset, age 12

Me on my first drumset, age 12

Though I speak often of my first band in high school, Sam was actually the very first guitarist I ever played with. Soon after I got my first Silvertone drum set on my 12th birthday Sam and I started jamming together in neighborhood carports and basements. We had grand visions of becoming rock stars.

Our moms drove us to a Battle of the Bands competition being held at Dorton Arena on the NC State Fairgrounds. We were not yet teenagers, too young and inexperienced to compete, but the event organizers agreed to let us set up on the floor near the arena entrance and play a couple of songs before the real show started. We were nervous, enormously self-conscious, mostly unnoticed, and I’m sure we stunk up the place. Nevertheless, we were bitten by the music bug in a big way.

Disraeli Gears album coverIt was Sam who turned me onto an album by a cool new band called The Israeli Gears. This band combined blues and rock in a way I’d never heard before and I promptly fell in love with their sound. Some time later we discovered the band’s name was actually Cream, and the album we were digging on was Disraeli Gears. Pretty heavy stuff for a couple of middle school boys.

My family moved away from Raleigh shortly after I turned 15 and I hadn’t seen or spoken with Sam since. We connected on Facebook last month and messaged each other briefly, which in turn led to a 45-minute phone conversation the next Saturday morning. It did my heart good to learn he still plays his guitar, and I was excited to tell him I’m still playing drums every chance I get.

For better or worse – once a musician, always a musician. Rock on, Sam!

Gets Better

If you could write a note to your younger selfI saw this post on Linkedin today asking, “If you could write a note to your younger self, what would you say in only two words?” The comments were filled with the usual pithy and silly responses like “bless you,” “enjoy life,” “go ahead,” and even “buy Apple.”

But among all that, one comment stood out to me as the thing I would say to my younger self: “gets better.” Boom! Kudos to whomever wrote that. We all go through seasons where we don’t believe that’s possible, but then in time it happens.

Sometimes my older self needs to hear that too.

An exquisite moment in time

Autumn yellow and red - large

First weekend in November – that exquisite moment in time when you know without doubt you’re in the home stretch toward the holiday season. Summer a distant memory, your world is now painted autumn yellow and red. Halloween is history and Thanksgiving really will be here soon. You can almost feel your spirits lift, just a little, in anticipation.

Then, as if that weren’t enough to put a smile on your face, you remember you’re getting an extra hour of sleep tonight as the clocks fall back to standard time.

Savor it. These moments are free – and priceless.