A Note to Graduates 

May 13, 2017


Dear Graduates,

The month of May is possibly my favorite. I love the weather — summer is trying to shove its way in with welcomed warm breezes, yet spring is holding its own, providing crisp mornings and pleasant evenings. Birds chirp outside my open window at dawn, and a late-inning baseball game glows on my television screen at dusk. There is a freshness in the air that makes me feel renewed. Life is grand.

Perhaps the best part of May, however, is school letting out for the summer. I think back to my own school days and can vividly remember the feeling of sheer excitement and joy as that final bell rang each year. Having kids of my own and working in a school now, I must admit I still feel it — maybe for different reasons — but there is still that sense of adventure that lurks at the start of each summer.

For you, this year truly is the final bell. It’s the endless summer. Social media is filled with photos of you in your caps and gowns. Smiles are plastered across your faces and invincibility twinkles in your eyes. Many of you are heading off to college, while some will opt to go find jobs. You will become our next generation of doctors, teachers, farmers, politicians, steelworkers, lawyers, carpenters, and accountants. The world needs all of these and one is no better than another — remember that. You “kids” will be taking care of the rest of us just a few years down the road. And believe me, kids, the years will go fast. So fast.

I don’t know much, but I’ve managed to figure out a few things along the way. I’d like to offer you some simple advice. I’ll keep it short, as I know you have better things to do:

1. Advance your education beyond high school. Whether it’s a certificate from a trade school or an advanced degree from a university, education gives you power and promotes the freedom to change jobs and careers. Do it now, because going back to school when you have a wife, kids, a job, and other responsibilities is really hard (trust me). Take your education seriously.

2. Happiness isn’t expensive. Yes, you need to make some money to reach a certain level of happiness and to give you and your family some opportunities. But be very aware there is much more to life than striving to “be rich” and possessing material things.

3. Despite everyone telling you who and what to be, please do what makes you happy. You may not even have a clue yet what you want to do with your life. That’s okay. You may think you’ve figured it out, then change your mind. That’s okay, too. Whatever you end up being, be a great one. Trying to be your best self will make your life better in many ways.

Look, kids, I know you’re not really paying attention. I’m trying to give advice to 18 year olds who already know everything. I used to be as smart as you all are… If nothing else, remember that regardless of our age, we are all writing our own stories. My generation has already written many chapters, and you may be searching for the right words to get started, but none of our stories are complete. No matter how much or how little we have written, no matter how many failures, hardships, and disappointments we face along the way — and there will be many — as long as we are alive, we get to keep writing. So make your stories long, fill them with love and kindness, include many crazy and wonderful adventures, and — most of all — make sure you keep writing until you are happy with the ending. It’s never too late for any of us to change our tale.

Now get out there and make a difference. Each one of you can alter the world in at least some tiny yet amazing way. We are counting on you. 

Sincerely,

A Friend

I, too, sing America.

When I was young I sang loudly.
I learned what they wanted, minded my manners, recited the pledge.
My white friends and I pedaled our bicycles through suburbia, swam the summer away, and sat in our air-conditioned homes watching MTV when the heat was simply too much to bear — sometimes it was so hot.
Just living the American dream…

Two decades passed and I wasn’t sure what had happened.
I had a wife and a mortgage, two kids and two cars.
My pockets were full but my stomach felt sick.
I was sleep-walking through life,
Just living the American dream…

Then, one day, I turned into the wind and woke with a start.
Dirt stung my face as I walked our gritty streets.
I saw people with dreams of their own —
Like living in that big house on the hill,
And driving that big fancy car,
And wearing those nice clothes that the pretty people wear in the magazines left in the trash cans.
Like finding a bite to eat and a way to make their children warm again — sometimes it gets so cold.
Yes, we all have an American dream…

So while I lost my faith, I found some purpose.
And tomorrow I will continue to trudge along, singing my song and trying to make some tiny difference.
Because I, too, sing America.
And I’m wide awake.


I’m probably overreacting. It’s probably no big deal. This too shall certainly pass. Still, I’m genuinely concerned about the direction our country is heading. What direction, you ask? Increasing violence? Decreasing human rights? Social security running out? Healthcare in limbo? The economy? The threat of terrorism? These are all extremely valid concerns, but I’m most troubled by how we seem to be losing any interest in kindness and mutual respect, and seem to get off on being hateful. 

For the record, I’m not attacking or blaming any one group. I can point a finger at Republicans, Democrats, Christians, Muslims, Jews, athiests, jocks, freaks, nerds, and geeks. Oh, and even me. We all seem to be on the bandwagon of hate — even if we don’t see it, or worse, somehow justify it. Is this magnified and blown out of proportion by the media? Definitely. However, is it real? You better believe it. 

We live in a time when our president tweets hateful messages on a daily basis, religious leaders post discriminatory messages on Facebook, and the news media is on the constant lookout for any controversial, disappointing, or downright hateful news. We are possibly as divided nationally as we’ve been since the Civil War, and there is little evidence indicating improvement anytime soon. I truly fear that in the not too distant future it will be considered acceptable for bank tellers to look us in the eyes, smile, and say, “Thanks so much for banking with us, and go fuck yourself.” 

Despite our very serious problems, all hope is not yet lost. I know for a fact that there are great people doing incredible things every day. We may not all share the same political, religious, or economic views, but there are people putting kindness first. Every single day. It’s not sexy, it’s not popular, but it’s happening, and it needs to get noticed. It needs attention so it can gain traction. This matters — maybe more than anyone realizes. 

It’s not always easy to be genuinely kind and respectful. In fact, it’s damn hard. It’s far easier to lash out, to try to prove a point, to try to make someone feel small, while we make ourselves feel clever. I struggle with it regularly. Taking the high road is sometimes an agonizing climb, but I’m always proud of myself for getting to the top. What people forget — or maybe haven’t learned — is that it feels good to be kind, even to people you disagree with or simply don’t like. If we truly gave everyone a chance, we might just discover that we get along with far more people than we thought. 

I think I was born a realist. I know we will never see eye to eye on everything or be just like one another. Man, I’m glad because life would be awfully boring. I’ve chosen to be an optimist, partly because it just feels better, but also because it forces me work at being a better person. I hope we (and we includes me) can put an effort towards being kind and respectful, because we are all in this together. This is life people, it’s not a drill. Can we agree to stop judging those who are different? Can we let people — as long as they are not directly harming anyone — do what makes them happy? Can we not only accept those who are different from us, but actually wish them the best, and then expect the same in return? 

We all think our opinion is right. We all have beliefs we think others should follow. Many see this as conviction, a positive, the only way. I will continue to do my best to make my conviction kindness. When I’m kind and respectful I always feel like I’m doing what’s right. 

If we care about our nation’s well-being, I hope we will not just agree to disagree, but learn to sincerely respect each other and be honestly kind to one another. This isn’t easy and won’t happen overnight. It takes practice. It requires trying to see the world through the eyes of others, even if we don’t always like the view. We can choose kindness. Don’t jump ship — we can change our course — it’s not too late. However, it’s a big ship, it’s a pain in the ass to steer, and we all must have a hand on the helm. 

 

Photo Credit: wallpaperup.com

 
As I try to keep my head above water in the ever-cresting tide of gun violence, I posted a simple observation about guns on Facebook this week:

Despite the strange popularity of handguns and assault rifles, I can’t recall hearing any uplifting, feel-good stories about them — just murders, suicides, avoidable accidents, and other tragedies. I can’t wrap my little brain around the fascination with devices designed specifically to kill humans.

Within minutes of posting this, “friends” I haven’t heard from in years were coming out of the woodwork in defense of the sacred and beloved Second Amendment. One or two comments were a reasonable attempt to defend this Almighty Right, but most were basically calling me an unpatriotic idiot. One family member even commented that I shouldn’t post such “nonsense,” and that my dad would be upset with me. I laughed out loud at this one. Oh, is my daddy going to be upset? (By the way, he’s not.)

If you read my post again you’ll notice that I never mentioned anything about gun control or the Second Amendment, yet that is where so many gun supporters — gun lovers — took it. So this got me thinking about both the Constitution and safety, as well as the current state of our nation.

First, let’s talk about the Constitution. The Second Amendment is a hot topic. Most who support the right to bear arms claim that we must never give up this right. I, like most people in favor of gun control, do not want to see this right given up or have all guns confiscated. But let’s look beyond the term “gun control” for a moment, and focus on the Constitution. When the Bill of Rights was ratified in 1791 our country had been independent from England for only eight years. Militias were still in regular use, despite being somewhat frowned upon by some (including George Washington). The army and navy, both established in 1775, were still in their infancy. Guns were regularly used for hunting as a source of food, and were typically very long (and difficult to hide), single shot muskets that had to be slowly loaded through the muzzle.

When I process all of this information, the right to bear arms in 1791 makes perfect sense. We weren’t packing semi-automatic handguns in our pants or carrying assault rifles that can spray hundreds of bullets per minute. But hey, maybe our incredibly wise founding fathers, the framers of our Constitution, would have been okay with the average farmer or blacksmith owning these types of weapons, too.

I’m sure that gun-lusters — wait, that’s not fair, Constitutionalists is a better term — are also familiar with and in favor of all the other amendments. I have to assume that they think all amendments are equally important and relevant today. Like the Third Amendment, which limits the government’s ability to use our homes to house soldiers during wartime without the consent of the owner (FYI, this practice is completely forbidden during times of peace). This doesn’t seem very relevant today, but I guess you never know when we might be at war, and a law could (legally) be passed to force us to let soldiers occupy our homes. Completely irrelevant today — and wrong, yet widely accepted by our all-knowing founding fathers — is the exclusion of rights for minorities and women in the Constitution. In fact, many of these enlightened men owned slaves. Oddly, this is rarely mentioned by those supporting the Second Amendment and/or Constitution today. When brought up, some will remark that, “It’s just how things were back then.” I have to chuckle when I hear this because it only supports my point. It’s also strange how modern gunslingers, while using the rights of the Constitution and the Second Amendment as their defense against gun control, simultaneously bash those using their First Amendment right to express opinions in favor of it.

*Quick side note: the First Amendment also covers freedom of religion. Is it just me or are many pistol-packers also very religious Christians? I mean, what’s up with that? Doesn’t God have their backs?

The term”gun control” almost always refers to an effort to make guns and gun ownership safer, in turn making our country a safer place to live freely. It should not be associated with banning all guns, as many jump to conclude. I seriously ask what is wrong with increasing safety measures? Why should it be easier to buy a gun than to buy a car, or even get a license to drive? Why can someone on a terrorist watch list purchase a gun legally? Why should any dude — with no training and potentially no good judgement or common sense — be able to buy an assault rifle that trained military personnel have accidents with? What’s wrong with increased safety?

For example, no right-minded person says:

Henry Ford, our brilliant forefather in the automobile industry, didn’t have life-saving seat belts in his cars. And that’s why we shouldn’t have them today. It’s just that simple. By the way, the laws of the road are infringing on my freedom. Before you know it the government is just going to take away our cars. 

Football used to be played without helmets or pads. That’s how it should be today. Batting helmets, catchers’ gear, and gloves in baseball…stupid. Sports today are too safe and that’s why no one wants to play or watch them. Pretty soon the government is just going to ban sports. 

Don’t even get me started on the absurdity of things like building and fire codes…it’s all just the government taking away my right to get hurt. I refuse to give up my rights!

I suppose it’s true that bad guys, not guns, purposely kill people. Guns just make it much easier for them to kill more people. Potentially many more. If you are one of the gun supporters who say a bad guy will use a baseball bat if he doesn’t have a gun, my response is simple — I’ll take my chances with the bat, and bats don’t make good weapons for mass-murders. Bats do create some great feel-good stories in baseball, however. Handguns and assault rifles serve a purpose in the military and for police — even though sometimes these service-people are bad people who abuse their power. I personally see no reason for any civilian to own any weapon capable of literally shredding a body in seconds, however I am willing to listen to respectful, intelligent arguments to the contrary. Most in favor of these assault weapons chastise Democrats for their disapproving stance, yet many Republicans, including Ronald Reagan, have also openly opposed them. There is no reason for this to be a Republican or Democrat issue. Violence is an American problem.

Good guys have handguns and sometimes protect themselves from bad guys. Good guys use rifles for hunting and feeding their families. Children and adults are regularly involved in deadly yet avoidable accidents involving guns that good, responsible people own. In these cases, I would argue that guns — not just bad guys — do in fact kill people. Guns also make suicide much easier, although I will concede that people who want to end their lives will find a way without guns.

Here’s the deal, guns are made for one purpose — to kill. Sometimes this killing is for protection or food. Sometimes it’s not. I stand by my original Facebook post. I simply can’t comprehend the fascination with devices used to end human life. Why do so many people find guns to be so cool? Why do so many people immediately get defensive — no, downright angry — at the mere mention of changing gun laws? We live in a scary, messed-up world. Guns will never go away, but if we can’t unite as Americans and at least have a dialogue about making guns and gun ownership safer, we are going to have a much bigger problem on our hands. Progress only happens with change. I hope it’s not already too late.

 

Photo Credit: A Photographer

The best thing about being a substitute teacher is working with kids. Admittedly, there are times when this is also the worst part of my job, but it’s rare.

Many days I find I’m inspired by seeing students — often from different races and nationalities — being genuinely kind to one another. This supports my belief that people are inherently good. Other days I feel excited and happy when a child finally “gets it,” and I see their eyes light up and a gap-toothed smile stretch across their face. It’s proof that kids learn differently, but they all actually want to learn. Each and every day I am lucky enough to hear or see something that makes me laugh out loud — a reminder that we take life a little too seriously.

Yesterday was no different. I was subbing for a teacher who takes students out of their normal classrooms to be part of smaller group instruction. So I would go to various classrooms, retrieve the students, then walk them to the room where the smaller groups meet. I’ve subbed for this teacher several times, so the students know who I am, but I still try to help put them at ease by making a little small talk as we walk. 

It was mid-morning when I went to a first grade class and pulled out a girl I had previously worked with a few times. Walking down the hall, we were having a typical casual conversation when things turned serious.

“So how’s your day going so far?” I inquired.

“Well, not very good,” the girl replied very solemnly. 

“Oh no, what’s the matter?”

“Well, I think I got dog poop on my shoe,” she said as she lifted her foot and hopped along for a second.

Sure enough… I couldn’t help laughing, and then she started laughing, too.

Regardless of our age, we all have days when we step in poop. Life’s just like that. Rather than getting upset, I hope I will think of this story and take it in stride (yes, pun intended) the next time it happens to me. We all could be better at this.

My son starts middle school tomorrow.  This truly seems impossible, as I have such a vivid recollection of trying to console my sobbing wife after we dropped him off at daycare for the first time.  That was nearly twelve years ago.  I know from experience and from the words of people older and wiser than me that time isn’t going to slow down any.  On the contrary, it will most likely seem to accelerate.  If I had the middle school years to do over (and I’m glad I don’t), these are five things I would want to consider, so I will share them with my son.  I’m sure he won’t want to listen, but between the eye-rolling and sighing, maybe something will stick.

1.  Don’t take things too seriously:  Despite what you might hear, there really is no “permanent record” at your age.  You are going to make mistakes, make bad choices, and make a fool of yourself.  Don’t beat yourself up; learn to laugh at yourself instead.  If you do this, it will be much harder to be hurt when others laugh at you — and they will.  When you stumble, make it part of your dance.  When you fall down, pick yourself up (with a chuckle).

2.  Be yourself:  I know this will sound crazy, but please don’t worry about being one of the “cool” people.  Being yourself, instead of trying to be someone you think people want you to be, is one of the secrets to finding true happiness.  You are a great person, and don’t let anyone tell you differently.  By being yourself, you are giving people a great opportunity — the chance to know the real you.  By the way, many of the so-called nerds, dorks, freaks and geeks will grow up to be much more interesting than the current “in crowd.”

3.  Be kind and compassionate to everyone:  Kids will be mean, but you don’t have to be.  Everyone you meet will be worried about something, sad about something, and will have problems similar to yours — or possibly much worse.  Set an example by treating these people the way you want to be treated.  It’s just that simple.  Remember that the best way to get rid of enemies is by becoming their friends, and that the best kind of popularity is to be admired for your kindness.  People will notice kindness.

4.  You can talk to me and Mom about anything:  Your mom and I are extremely interested in what’s going on in your life.  We want you to be happy to talk to us about all of the good things, and to be totally comfortable coming to us with any questions or problems.  You will go through times when you feel like there is no one to listen, but we are always ready and willing.  Yep, we are your parents, so there may be times when we get upset or are disappointed.  Regardless, we will always have your back.  Don’t forget that we were your age — and it wasn’t that long ago.  We had the same questions you will have, and we made the same mistakes you will make.  Let us in.  Please.

5.  Be a kid as long as possible:  High school, dating, driving, getting your first job…  These are all things you’re excited about, I know.  Trust me, though, that one day, which will seem way too soon, you will look back and ask where your childhood went.  For now just have some fun.  Play hard, laugh loud and be silly, ride your bike with no hands, and do cannonballs off the high-dive.  You will have plenty of time to be older, but you will never be younger.  Bottle some of that youth up, however, because the good news is that you are never too old to act young.

Hopefully my son will heed at least some of my advice.  Come to think of it, I should too.  We all should.