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

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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: theartistsproject.com

 
The other day I had to run an errand. It wasn’t just any day, it was a Saturday. Oh, and it wasn’t just any errand…it was going to the DMV to renew my driver’s license. Put the two together and you are basically asking for it. Believe me, I was dreading it so much that I lost a little sleep the night before, but I got up early Saturday morning because I had a frog to eat.

Eat the frog. Many people have heard the phrase, but I find that equally as many have not. If you fall in the latter category, to “eat the frog” means to get the worst thing over with so that you may enjoy the rest of the day. I first heard it years ago when I was interviewing a potential employee at work. I was quite impressed, although I didn’t hire him because, upon checking references, I learned that not only did he apparently never eat a frog, he was probably allergic to them. Nonetheless, the phrase stuck. Mark Twain commonly gets credit for its origin, but a little research suggests that the idea actually came from Nicolas Chamfort, an eighteenth century French writer.

Regardless of the true source, it’s something that I’ve been making a conscious effort to do. It started as a way to be more productive, but it has evolved into something completely different. It has become not just a way to get something difficult or dreaded out of the way, but also a sort of challenge to make myself better. It is a mindset. Allow me to explain.

I think I’m a pretty good dude. I care about others and try to treat people with genuine kindness and compassion. I spend a great deal of time with my family and would do anything for them. I’ve never had a speeding ticket. I’m lucky to have a number of talents and skills, but I also have two big problems — I procrastinate and suffer from anxiety. These do not mesh well together, although I think they are commonly attached at the hip.

Someone smarter than me said that nothing cures anxiety like action. I’ve grown to believe this, even if the action consists of slow-motion baby steps. I’ve eaten frog and felt great about it, so I thought about the idea of finding a specific frog to eat daily, weekly, or even monthly. Usually my frog doesn’t actually cause anxiety, but is just something I don’t want to do (and tend to put off longer than I should) such as the visit to the DMV, home maintenance, or exercise. Getting these types of things done on a regular basis — especially when done early in the day — has made life much more enjoyable and surprisingly more fulfilling.

Sometimes, however, the frog is an anxiety producer. Maybe it’s seeing a doctor for that nagging health concern (despite feeling fine at the moment), taking the car to the mechanic because of that occasional odd noise (despite it running great), or calling a financial advisor to get a better handle on retirement investments (despite having plenty of money now). These types of things are unpleasant for many of us, so we don’t address them. Yet they linger in the back of our minds and we begin to worry. The more time that passes, the more we wish we would have done something sooner, then it becomes even more difficult to take care of the problem — which at one time was probably (and may still be) very simple to fix. I’m not saying this mentality is rational, but it is real. The simple solution? Eat the frog and get things done.

Perhaps the frog isn’t something that actually needs to be done, but is simply something that you’ve wanted to do (or have purposely been avoiding) for years. Public speaking, skydiving, asking that gal from the grocery store out on a date, changing careers, buying a home, getting a tattoo, traveling to some far off destination, going back to school, or joining a rock ‘n’ roll band. It could be anything, the point is that you are putting yourself in an uncomfortable position. Whatever the outcome, you will feel so good for going for it. Growth happens outside of your comfort zone, and committing to eating frogs is a trap to get yourself there.

Once you get a taste for frog you’ll want more. You will love how your sense of accomplishment swells, how your confidence improves, how your desire for adventure flows, and how your zest for life starts to ooze. Okay, maybe I’m over-selling it slightly, but if nothing else, a frog a day will form a habit of getting things accomplished. Trust me, you’ll love the liberating feeling that is a natural byproduct of this. There is more to life than anxiety, fear, dread, and wanting. Eat some damn frog before life eats you.

  
Today I turn 43. Despite the aches in my back, knees, and hands, I feel very young. Younger than I have in a long time, actually. I’m fitter, happier, and in an overall better mental state than I’ve ever been as an adult. Not that 43 is old, necessarily — age is really just a relative number. To a child, 43 seems like a lifetime away; almost certainly incomprehensible (and why should a child need to understand or think about it). To the very old it may seem like a lifetime ago. Although I doubt it. The one thing I notice most with aging — my biggest complaint — is that time seems to move faster and faster the older we get. I’m trying my damnedest to change this, however. And it’s working.

Obviously time is constant, but our perspective and perception of time seems to become completely screwed up as we age. Most of us rush around all day, meeting schedules and deadlines. We worry about what happened yesterday and lose sleep over what may (or may not) happen tomorrow. The free time that we do actually have is often wasted by us believing it isn’t enough time, so we discard it completely. This wasn’t the case when we were kids. The ancient philosopher Heraclitus wrote, “Time is a game played beautifully by children.” I think he’s right. Kids are better at making good use of time than almost all adults. Especially younger children. If there’s a spare minute in the day, they will find a toy to enjoy. Five extra minutes of playtime before bed is like a gift that is gratefully received. Kids don’t worry about it getting dark, but instead play hard until they can’t see. Unfortunately we regress as we age to the point that most adults are dreadful at this “game.” I know I used to be.

I’m far from an expert now, but I’ve found that I’m getting much better by reminding myself to be mindful, grateful, and frugal. These are really all related, and once you start to understand and practice them, worry and stress naturally fall by the wayside. I find myself appreciating life more, desiring less, and not caring much about keeping up with the demands put on us by American society and consumerism. By this I basically mean not worrying as much about money and material possessions. When you are truly aware, thankful, and consciously spending less on unnecessary items, life becomes simpler, more fulfilling, and time is much less of a constraint. It is a very liberating experience.

Many people think I’m crazy. I traded a very lucrative career to be a stay-at-home dad, and am now pursuing a career in teaching. My life is much fuller and my time is much better spent — and appreciated. I’m not suggesting anyone give up a career, but I would also caution against knocking it if you haven’t tried it. The older you get the more you understand the old “life is too short” saying. It is certainly possible to juggle a busy, stressful job and have a productive, happy personal life. But the key is to be sure you are happy — a question we can only answer if we are truly honest with ourselves. Time — or the lack thereof — has a unique knack for showing us what really matters in life. Sometimes it’s too late. My sincere birthday wish is that everyone eventually finds happiness…and has the time to enjoy it.

Cheers.

 

 

 

Recess

February 17, 2016

Photo Credit: A Photographer

 
If you’re one of the seven people who read my blog regularly, you know that I quit my job — no my career — almost a year ago to pursue happiness. I spent about six incredible months as a stay-at-home dad, and have been working as a substitute teacher since school started. I love being a sub and working with kids. It’s challenging, rewarding, and sometimes I’m lucky enough to work in the same school as my kids, which is pretty cool for all of us.

Back when I worked for “the man,” there was a trendy deli in a quaint neighborhood that I went to often for lunch. Okay, it was actually a Subway, but this particular location truly had some of the freshest ingredients, and it was in a cool part of town. It backed up to a park bordered on the far side by a school. On nice days I would get lunch to go and eat in my car with the windows rolled down. While enjoying some fresh air and a mediocre sandwich, I was always able to hear the school kids playing during recess. I couldn’t see them because a little hill was in the way, but I didn’t need to. What I could hear was pure joy. Jubilant laughing and playful screaming was perfect background noise on a warm, sunny day. The students were obviously elated, without another care in the world at that moment. It was a great — albeit very temporary — escape from the conflict resolution meetings, particularly particular clients, and general negativity and stress of the daily grind.

I’ve been a long-term substitute at the same school for nearly two months, and I now get to experience recess up close on a daily basis. Being able to physically see recess gives me a newfound appreciation — no awe, really — of the early coordination skills of our youth, which I formerly perceived to be somewhere in the range of fairly awkward to dangerously clumsy. Every day I expect to witness broken bones, lacerations requiring urgent medical care, concussions, or worse.

Let me attempt to paint a picture for you: at each recess there are about 125 kids playing on a chunk of rock-hard concrete that’s approximately the size of a football field. Sound scary? Wait. Now imagine these 125 kids playing seven separate games of tag, two games of basketball, a game of four square, and pretending to have a gymnastics meet. All while a soccer match is taking place. Oh, and a handful of the students like to just sit on the ground and talk. When I worked a recess for the first time, I asked one of the seasoned, full-time teachers where the ambulance was kept on standby. I was only sort of kidding. Amazingly, I have never witnessed more than a scraped knee (knock on wood), and even that is rare. It’s similar to what I would expect if several flocks of birds were put in a giant cage. The kids just magically follow their group around at high rates of speed, never running into the ever-present trouble surrounding them. It is truly something to behold.

The school I’ve been at recently happens to be designated as one of the district’s “English Language Learners” elementary schools. This means that students who are new to the country or unfamiliar with English are brought in from outside of the school’s normal boundaries in an effort to help get them up to speed before middle school. This results in a wonderfully diverse student population. I get to not only hear the youthful fun, but I see children from many different races, nationalities, and religions playing together (mostly) in harmony. Sure, there are disagreements and even occasional scuffles, but at this age there are really no cliques or clubs, just kids having fun together. It’s firsthand proof that love — or at least acceptance — is natural, and hatred is learned. This is a great thing to be able to witness.

Remember when we were kids? Most of us didn’t worry, judge others, or overthink our existence. Life was pretty simple, and most of the time was simply great. Despite that, we couldn’t wait to get older. Now many of us make things more difficult than necessary, as our remaining time on this earth races by at an ever-increasing rate of speed. Someone more clever than me said that “these are the good old days.” Trust me, you can do better than briefly escaping over your lunch break, over the weekend, or even over a vacation. Live your life like the kids on the playground — with exuberant energy, with kindness, and by making the most of the moments we have left. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that, regardless of age, everyone says they feel like a kid at heart. After all, we are just kids who grew up. Find time for recess.

  
I understand the idea behind them. The intention is great. But please don’t do it. Don’t make resolutions this year — or ever again. Hear me out on this.

We all make or have made resolutions at the start of a new year. Sometimes they are almost said in jest because the resolutor has the keen self awareness to understand they are a pipe dream:

“I’m drinking less and joining a gym (resolutor chuckles). No, actually I mean it, I’m gonna give it a real shot this year (more chuckles).”

Other times the resolution is very serious:

“I’m drinking less and joining a gym (no chuckles).”

I recently heard a great business idea. It’s a large gym that is stocked with state-of-the-art exercise equipment in January, and is then transformed into a well-stocked bar from February through December.

If you feel the need to make resolutions, may I suggest that you instead make goals. Everyone should have goals. A goal is a way to make a change for the better. Change is necessary in order to grow physically, mentally, spiritually, financially, etc. You may think that resolutions and goals are the same thing, but I would argue that they are entirely different. A resolution is something that is practically expected (and accepted) to fail. It’s a wish that probably wasn’t really thought out or given a real chance to succeed. A goal is a set of specific plans created to turn something that is realistically possible into a reality.

Use SMART goals, which are written and tracked. Here is an example that will be more effective than resolving to join a gym.

Goal – I will lose weight.

Specific – I will lose X pounds.

Measurable – X is measurable and can be tracked by weighing myself every X and recording the data.

Action – I will get some kind of physical activity X number of days each week. I will eat better by limiting X.

Realistic – I can have a cheat meal (or day) X times a week.

Timetable – My goal will be reached by X.

The entire goal has to be attainable, so don’t declare you will become a vegetarian in order to lose twenty pounds. Don’t plan on running every day or losing ten pounds each week. Give yourself some — but not too much — wiggle room. Don’t set yourself up to fail. Still, there are a lot of X’s in this example, and it is probably no coincidence that many goals end up getting X’ed out.

SMART goals are good, but even better is making the decision to be more mindful of the present. Setting a goal — the outcome of which is somewhere down the road — is fine, but what about today? Mindfulness doesn’t happen over night; it is a practice and an attitude that can take years to master. Focusing on today instead of feeling guilt and remorse for what happened yesterday, or experiencing fear and anxiety about what may (or may not) happen tomorrow, is very counter-culture. It sure seems to make sense to me, though.

I’m far from a master at being mindful (hell, I have to remind myself to be mindful almost daily, assuming I remember…), but over the past year I’ve worked hard on living in the present and focusing on living well each day. By “living well,” I mean being physically active, finding ways to be mentally stimulated, being kind and helpful to others, spending more time with my family, and just generally appreciating and enjoying life as much as possible. It doesn’t mean that everything is perfect, and as I said, I’m far from a master, but I can say that over the last nine months I have lost weight, I haven’t been sick (not even a cough or cold), I sleep better (and I’m not a good sleeper by nature), and I’m happier than I’ve been at any time in my life.

I have no desire to make any resolutions this year. I will simply keep trying to live well. William Morris wrote, “The true secret to happiness lies in taking a genuine interest in all the details of daily life.” Forget about making this year better than the last. Go out and make today the best it can be. Make yourself better than you were yesterday. Be grateful for all the good life has to offer. Be kind and generous. And then watch how your life improves and everything starts falling into place. Seriously.

Never mind Happy New Year, here’s to a happy today. Cheers.