The Pier 

May 28, 2017


Summer is when we jumped off the pier

Immortal, for all we knew, as we sprang from the rotting wood, held together by stubborn rusting nails, ever so slowly losing their grasp

The pier is long gone now of course, the weary nails gave in and let go, as we all eventually do

Oh how I long for one last leap 

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


There is something about fathers, sons, and baseball. It’s a strange relationship that is probably overly romanticized in many ways. Most dads dream of having a son who can either follow in their cleated footsteps or be the player they never were. Either way, dads’ baseball dreams often lead to unnecessary demands and burnout for our youth. 

My son is one of the many baseball casualties. While he wasn’t a superstar, he was a talented and important member of his team for five seasons. He was a solid pitcher, very reliable first baseman, and had very good range in center field. He also hit his team’s first out of the park homerun — a memory I’ll never forget. But, as often happens, kids get older and interests change. A couple years back, my son decided he’d had enough of baseball. This decision was bittersweet for me. I love the game and loved watching him play, but baseball was also becoming a way of life. I could see that it was more work and less fun for my son. Politics, practices, and pressure had turned a beautiful game into an ugly chore. I think moving on was the right decision for him. 

I must admit that I haven’t really missed the many hours spent under the beating sun, the dust blowing in my eyes, or the screaming coaches (and, occasionally, parents). There is one thing I have missed greatly over the last couple of years, however. Playing catch and talking about life with my son. We did this almost daily during every baseball season since my boy could barely catch a ball. At first we’d mostly talk about the fundamentals of the game. We would discuss and work on grounders, pop-ups, getting into position to make plays, and making good throws. 

As he got older, though, we started talking about Major League Baseball, our Kansas City Royals, school, girls, and other “guy stuff.” When we were throwing that seamed ball back and forth we weren’t so much father and son, but instead were just a couple of buddies hanging out. My wife used to insist that I didn’t need to feel like I had to play catch every day, but she didn’t quite understand that I wanted to do it. I needed this time — maybe more than my kid did. 

Last night, out of the blue, my now teenage son asked me to play catch. I couldn’t believe my ears, and blurted out an overly emphatic “YES!” We picked up right where we had left off. I delivered not only grounders and pop-ups, but “divers” and “jumpers.” We talked about guy stuff and threw the ball hard. I felt the sting and heard the smack of the ball hitting my old glove. I smelled the leather, took in the glowing green grass of spring, and watched my son’s shadow grow in the setting sun. I’m not always mindful about being “in the moment,” but I was very present for this. I wanted to remember it. 

We laughed as the sun hid and we had trouble picking up the ball in the growing darkness. “One more,” we took turns yelling — many times. Finally, when it was just too black, I yelled, “last one.” My little boy — who isn’t little anymore — caught the ball and walked it back to me, setting it softly in my mitt. I hope this isn’t really the last one, but I suppose at some point it will be. If this is it, I’m going to remember it well. 

When I was a young man, I worked as a carpenter. I learned an old saying that you never make a mistake until you have run out of lumber. I’ve modified this as I race at what feels like an increasing pace through middle age — there are no mistakes as long as you have time. I make many mistakes. I’m far from a perfect parent, and I don’t generally give advice. But to both future and current parents, I would say this: if your child asks you to tell a story, shoot hoops, have a tea party, play a board game, help with homework, or have a catch…say yes. Because at some point they will stop asking. 

Today my shoulder aches and my arm is weak, but my heart is full and my memory is strong. 


With the early-morning squeal of the bus’s brakes, I knew that the end of summer was actually a reality. Sure, summer isn’t over on the calendar. There will be some heat, humidity, and fun yet to be had on weekends to come. But the days of the kids riding bikes past dark and sleeping in past noon have been halted for another year. We will continue to hear the hypnotic hum of weed-eaters, have our favorite baseball team to cheer on, and be met most days by singing birds and beating sunshine. There will still be some splashing in pools, backyard badminton, and — at least for now — the ground still feels very inviting to our bare feet. But a change is coming soon.

Summer certainly swims by faster than when I was young, but so does the rest of life, I suppose. Sadly, I don’t see it slowing down any in my lifetime. It feels as if the earth’s rotation is gaining momentum, and there are simply no brakes. The passing of summer is not all bad, however. It actually brings plenty I look forward to.

Like Friday nights, when my family will wrap ourselves in comfy sweatshirts and sit in our driveway, listening to the distant P.A. system announcing names and numbers at the local high school football game. We will watch leaves turn colors and breathe the strange, wonderful smell of decay when they fall to the ground. Autumn brings Halloween and Thanksgiving, flannel shirts and cozy blankets, bonfires and the roasting of marshmallows.

Before we know it, there is snow on the ground and flames in the fireplace. Wet boots and heavy coats pile up by the front door, with sleds and shovels waiting just beyond. The frigid air stops our kids’ running snot in its tracks, causes our old joints to ache, and keeps everyone from wanting to leave the warmth of our beds. But we keep forging ahead, until the holiday season and new year bring joy and hope to all. Slowly the snow begins to disappear as the mercury creeps upward a notch or two at a time.

Spring renews our faith in all that is good. We feel truly alive for the first time in months as the grass turns green, leaves fill the barren trees, and neighbors come out of hibernation. Bicycles are dusted off, balls are aired up, and cars are washed. We inhale the aroma of freshly mowed grass, budding flowers, and charcoal. Life is finally good…although it was never actually bad.

And in the blink of an eye, school is out again. But our children are a year older. So are we…

My kids are excited to get back to school. It’s a time of endless possibilities for them, and excitement of the unknown. I guess it’s bittersweet for me. I’m happy to see them ready to go back, but I will miss our summer life when laziness is not only respected, but encouraged. When happiness is the main goal. It seems like that should be the case more often. The occasionally melancholy, over-thinker in me realizes that summers with my kids are a fleeting time and one day will truly be only a fond memory. But, as with the changing of the seasons, I know there will be more to experience, love, and remember as they grow older and become adults, themselves.

In the meantime I hope and trust that we can all make an effort to pay attention to what’s happening around us, and appreciate what life offers us. There really is so much it offers. Let’s cherish the time we have with our families, and look forward to the changes. Sometimes life will be good, sometimes it will be bad, and we may never know the reason. But may we all have endless summers, regardless of the season.

 

Photo Credit: Audrey Bowers

There’s a good chance that you haven’t heard about today being National Teacher Appreciation Day, which is a shame and a bit ironic. I’ve been working as a substitute teacher all school year. I’ve been to a number of different schools, and have interacted with many teachers. What have I learned? We are so lucky to have teachers, and should never take them for granted.

The majority of uninformed people seem to think teachers have it pretty easy. They mostly babysit all day and get summers off. Sure, they don’t make much, but why should they? If you fall into this category, let me try to enlighten you a bit.

Being a teacher is a largely thankless job. A teaching degree with a state teaching certification usually requires more than four years of college (without a Master’s Degree, which is highly recommended), classrooms are typically too full, resources are almost always very limited (many teachers buy classroom supplies with their own money and are not reimbursed), oh and yes, the pay is not very good. So bad that many work a second job in the summer.

Teachers are educators, mentors, and friends. Sometimes they are more involved than parents in their students’ lives. They spend evenings and weekends planning lessons and grading papers. They deal with bullies, offer a shoulder to cry on, break up fights, inspire our next generation, and get vomited on. Teachers are expected to keep students in line and well-behaved, yet routinely get harassed by uninformed parents for mistreating their kids. It’s all in a day’s work. Oh, and the pay is not very good.

How bad is the pay? Depending on the source, an average elementary school teacher makes about $44,000 a year. To put that in perspective, let’s look at the average pay of a few other professions:

Accountant – $66,000

Physical Therapist – $82,000

Chef – $53,000

Computer Systems Analyst – $86,000

Podiatrist (yes, a foot doctor) – $121,000

Cartographer (correct, a map maker) – $61,000

Teachers are largely responsible for preparing our children for adulthood, yet they make significantly less than a cartographer. By the way, no one with a cell phone uses a map anymore.

I ask many of the teachers I meet if they like what they do. Almost all of them say yes. Not one has ever said they like their job because they get the summer off. They don’t usually mention that they wish the pay was better (although I know they do). Most admit it can be very frustrating. However, I can’t think of an instance where a teacher hasn’t mentioned that their job is rewarding.

I was talking to a younger, male teacher about a month ago. “I could go make a lot of money and probably still enjoy my job — maybe even like it more,” he said. “But I’m doing this because I have a chance to make these kids’ lives a little better.” I believe this to be how most teachers feel, and think it helps define the type of person that most teachers are. As a father of two school-aged children, it certainly makes me feel a little more at ease.

Teaching may be an underpaid, largely thankless profession, but teachers seem pretty happy to me. They should be, they have the opportunity to genuinely make the world better. On National Teacher Appreciation Day — and every other day — I’d like to offer a very sincere “thank you.”

 

Photo Credit: A Photographer

 
I’m only 43 and am very young at heart, but I am starting to realize that you might be getting old if…

…minivans seem like a logical solution.

…you get out of bed at night because you remember you forgot to take your vitamins.

…you think the kids today have it so easy.

…Saturday mornings are for oil changes.

…you ask yourself, “how would my parents handle this?”

…the “oldies” station is playing songs you loved in college.

…the expiration date on food doesn’t seem as important.

…you still enjoy wearing Crocs.

…the thought of getting hair plugs has crossed your mind.

…you get your tax return filed before April 15th.

…you look forward to yogurt with granola.

…you look in the mirror and it’s your father’s face.

…you pass up an invitation to play golf with your buddies because the blinds need a serious cleaning.

…a good evening is simply being able to take a dump in some peace and quiet.

…on the way to a play date your five-year-old daughter says, “just drop me off here and I can walk the rest of the way.”

…you actually yell at a neighbor kid for cutting across your lawn.

…you use the little ladder to get in and out of the pool.

…your wife tells you to drive faster.

…you wear ear and eye protection while weed-eating.

…your family is more important than anything else.

…it’s so damn hot out there.

…you injure your back by sneezing.

…SPF 50 seems inadequate.

…your twelve-year-old son has to show you how to work your new cell phone.

…you start wearing a bike helmet without even considering how ridiculous you look.

…during the big ballgame you find yourself sipping on green tea instead of a beer.

…you have no clue what the cable channels are.

…going to sleep or having sex becomes a mental tug of war.

…you worry about how your family would get by if you were to die. 

…back hair has entered the picture. 

…your kids (and/or wife) routinely say, “I’m sorry but you’re not wearing that.” 

…you routinely tell your daughter, “I’m sorry but you’re not wearing that.”

…prostate exams, while uncomfortable, seem necessary.

…movie theaters are perfect for napping. 

…you realize you’re not going to live forever.

…you think you should probably take a jacket. 

…your children are asking for the car keys. 

…it’s too loud. 

…it’s not loud enough. 

…you can laugh at how pathetic you are.

Getting old ain’t so bad. It beats the alternative, as they say. Let’s raise a glass (or cup, if you’re drinking green tea) to getting much older and much wiser. Cheers.

  
An interesting thing about musicians dying, for me anyway, is how it takes me back to a time in my life that I might never have thought about again were it not for the artist’s passing. I hope that doesn’t sound selfish, as I’m not trying to make it about me, but music is a very personal thing. I think most artists would be happy to have a legacy of creating unique memories and emotions for their fans.

I first heard Prince in ’84 or ’85 on my best friend Chris Eason’s boombox (meaning no harm and knowing no better, we called it a ghetto blaster), which he brought on the school bus most days. “When Doves Cry” was played over and over again for months, driving many of us crazy. I hated the song originally but, over the course of the school year, grew to like it quite a bit. In part because my buddy did, and in part perhaps because my subconscious convinced me that I might as well accept it. Three decades later, as a musician and music lover, I can truly appreciate the genius of Prince’s work, although I admit I was never a huge fan of his entire catalog, and haven’t really listened to him in a long time. Oddly, I still keep in touch with some of the people who were on that bus — people who were never really close friends — yet I haven’t talked to my pal Chris in well over 20 years. I wonder if Prince’s death made him think about those days on the bus so long ago. I hope so — or maybe it conjured up a different memory. Hopefully a good one.

Sadly, we are on the cusp of losing many of our beloved musicians. Prince went too early, but their are many brilliant, aging artists like Paul McCartney, Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson, Mick Jagger, and Joni Mitchell, just to name a few, who are in the twilight of their careers and lives. They have created memories for multiple generations, and continue to do so today. When the time comes, I will remember them for their contributions to my life. How their music impacted me personally. How it got me through rough times, and also how it made good times better.

When we are young, many of us consider our favorite musicians to be immortal heroes. As we get older, we realize that musicians are very human. Maybe they are more talented and creative in some ways, but they have problems, the suffer, they hurt, and they die — just like the rest of us. The wonderful thing is that they leave something behind for us to enjoy, to remember them by, and to continue being a part of our personal soundtrack of life. 

There is an old saying that heroes get remembered, but legends never die. The truth is, though, that we are all just gathered here today to get through this thing called life, and that’s not always easy. May the heroes, the legends, and all the rest of us continue to rock on as long as possible. 

Cheers.