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


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.


Bob Dylan was born 75 years ago today. I must admit that, despite being a musician and lover of music, I never really delved into Dylan’s music. As a teen in the 80s and 90s, I owned his greatest hits collection. The one with the blue and white cover and a silhouette of his head and hair. I learned to play and sing some of those songs — particularly “It Ain’t Me, Babe” and “The Times They Are A-Changin’.” It was good music and I appreciated Dylan’s songwriting. That was about it.

One day I was away at college and was really wanting to be home. Not just for a visit, but I wanted to move back home. I didn’t like school, I didn’t know anyone except for a handful of friends from high school who had all joined a fraternity (something I had no interest in), and I had no idea why I was there or what I wanted to do with my life. This was 25 years ago, yet I vividly recall lying on my twin bed, alone in my cell of a dorm room on a rainy Saturday morning, wishing like hell that I was home, when “Like a Rolling Stone” came on the radio.

I had heard the song many times, and I liked it a lot. But that particular day I really heard it. It was like it was written for me. I had always had friends, done well in school, and was expected to be successful at whatever I chose to pursue. Yet here I found myself floundering in college, with no direction or interest. Dylan’s song spoke to me that day as it crackled through my cheap mono radio.

How does it feel? How does it feel? To be on your own, with no direction home, a complete unknown, like a rolling stone. 

It would be kind of cool if I could say that, as the triumphant organ solo faded out, I rose from my bed, threw my few belongings in an old duffle bag, and jumped on the first train home. That’s not how the story ends, though. While Dylan’s song tells the story of someone falling from social grace, it is equally about dealing with uncertainty, isolation, and the unknown. I realized that I wasn’t alone at all — I was actually very similar to many others. Most of us are sometimes lost for a number of different reasons. That was very comforting.

So instead of some dramatic, romantic result, I simply decided to just keep on keepin’-on as well as I could. Boring, I know, but sometimes that’s the best (or maybe the only) choice. They say a rolling stone gathers no moss. I think sometimes that means learning to roll with life, rather than running from it. Happy birthday, Bob. Thanks for helping me out that day so long ago — and when I still occasionally feel a little lost now.

 

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

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.

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.

There was a time when I didn’t think I’d have a second child.  My wife and I had our first child, Jack, less than two years after we were married.  We of course were thrilled, and because we wanted at least two kids who were close in age, we started trying again just a few months after Jack was born.  But, as is often the case in life, things didn’t go as we planned.  Six and a half years and a couple (at least) of miscarriages later, I had resigned myself to the fact that Jack would be an only child.  We were fortunate to have him, and to be honest, I didn’t know if I wanted another child any longer.  I was in the latter half of my 30’s and my wife was on the doorstep of 40.  I didn’t want to put her at risk of a dangerous pregnancy or another devastating letdown.  When we were told about a specialist who might be able to help, we agreed that we would give it one last try.  I’m so glad we did.  In 2010 my wife gave birth to a healthy baby girl we named Ainsley.  She completed our family, and made us who we are today.  I can’t imagine our family — or life in general — without her.  She is beautiful, smart, funny and kind.  She has made me a better person.  What more could a dad ask for?

Six months ago I had a midlife opportunity (it may possibly have seemed to others to be a crisis) and quit my job of almost 20 years to become a stay at home dad.  Taking on major change and/or major risk is not part of my M.O., but, with great support and encouragement from my wife, I took a leap.  The first three months of my “retirement,” for lack of a better word, were spent with Ainsley.  Each morning my wife went to work and Jack went to school, and the two of us were left to have amazing adventures.  We did something every day — hikes, parks, libraries, tennis, picnics, movies, and more.  We read books, told stories, sang songs, and laughed.  A lot.  More than anything, we had great talks.  If there are any parents who think you can’t have good conversations with your five year old, I would challenge you to try harder.  We truly became best buds.  I’m not sure who enjoyed our time more.

Before we knew it school let out for the summer, and Jack joined us.  The three of us continued to have great fun, but he’s much older and isn’t always interested in doing some of the things we enjoyed in the beginning.  He’s at the age where he would rather hang out with his friends.  I get it and certainly don’t blame him.  What I was too naive to appreciate or understand while we were trying to have Ainsley is that it gave me a long period of time to spend solely with Jack.  I’m very thankful for that now.

When I left my career, I was on a quest to find happiness.  I feel truly fortunate to say that I’m finding it.  Happiness doesn’t mean every day is wonderful, instead it’s about learning to enjoy the moments that matter; to relish and remember them.  After all, it’s individual moments that make up our forevers.  If we slow down and pay attention, we will find that these moments are not few and far between, but are actually all around us, just waiting to be experienced.  Those more enlightened than me refer to this as being mindful.  I have found that being mindful is quite easy, as long as I remember to remind myself…

When Ainsley was a baby and would cry in the night, I would usually offer to take her so my wife could sleep.  I would go downstairs to our couch and lay her on my chest, where she would almost always settle down very quickly.  I would listen to and feel her deep, calming breaths as we both fell asleep.  I offered to help not only for my wife, but also for me.  It felt so good to hold her.  At that moment nothing else mattered.  This is how I have felt the last few months — nothing else mattered.  Nothing else could compare.

Tomorrow Ainsley starts kindergarten.  She’s so excited and so ready but, selfishly, I’m not totally prepared to let her go.  Everybody talks about time moving so fast, and man, it really does.  I would love to be woken up tonight — just tonight — to find a crying baby needing to be nestled on my chest.  Instead, she will excitedly wake me in the morning.  My wife and I will walk her to school for the first time, new backpack and lunchbox in tow.  I will remember to pay close attention to her expressions and actions until the first bell rings, and we have to leave her so she can start her own new adventure.  I don’t mean to be overly sappy, as I realize she is only starting kindergarten, but it is another step in what is a long staircase of simultaneously exciting and depressing (at least to me) events in our children’s lives.  I admit there is a part of me that doesn’t want my kids to grow up.

I am eternally grateful for the experience I’ve had over the past six months, and look forward to so many more great times to come with both of my children.  The future will never be quite like the past, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be equally good — or maybe even better.  Although she’s very young, I think Ainsley will retain at least a few faint, fond memories of our recent time together.  I know I will never forget.