Thoughts and Prayers

Sadly, there are cliches that have developed when it comes to school shootings.

(This is sad because school shootings should be so infrequent that each is remembered as a historic tragedy, like the Challenger space shuttle explosion, but just the opposite is true.)

First, people will call for thoughts and prayers. Then Facebook will develop a border for profile pictures that say something to the effect of “praying for (insert name of school that was recently attacked).”

Then the gun control people will start. They’ll be joined by the “we need help for mental illness victims” gang.

Next will be the “it’s too soon to talk about gun control” and “it’s disrespectful to the victims to make this political” crowds.

Right about this time is when the government starts discussing responses to the matter. Six months after that, some bill aimed at reducing the chance of another school shooting will be laid to rest … and we’ll all be back to square one.

But the one that happened in Florida today has triggered an entirely new response I’ve seen multiple times on social media: the mockery of the “thoughts and prayers” response. Yeah, I get the point. They believe we need to do more than pray, specifically at the legislative level. They want laws passed, etc., etc.

(I mock the idea of more laws helping anything, truth be told.)

 

It is true there is no way to stop a well-armed school shooter who has knowledge of the building layout and procedures school staff and students have rehearsed. Technology exists to help the building occupants’ chances, but school districts don’t have the money for these kinds of purchases. Arming teachers is a joke, too. A person has to have many hours of experience handling, using and embracing a handgun to be comfortable enough with it to respond swiftly and safely under pressure. A lot of people think they’d turn into a special agent for the FBI in the event of a bank robbery or if they came across someone getting mugged in the parking lot, but it’s easier said than done. Some weekend seminar on firearm safety isn’t going to be enough for the vast majority of teachers.

So don’t attack those who view thoughts and prayers as all they can really do about it.

We should never, ever stop praying in times like these. Seriously. No, I’m not the formally religious type. I don’t even know what religion to call my family and actually dislike the institution of church. But I will tell you what the lot of us has: faith. It may not be as strong as it should or could be, but there’s at least a little flicker of a flame somewhere inside. While it seems at times God is not by our children at school each day, protecting them and keeping them safe, He is. He must be. We have to believe this or we have nothing at all left on days like today.

My middle school-age daughter asked me tonight while watching coverage of this shooting if I thought her school was safe. I told her she’s at greater risk for mesothelioma (her school district was recently given an F on some report card for building maintenance) than she is being shot. And this is true.

So tomorrow, I will watch her get on the bus in the morning like she always does and know she will come home safely. I will give my son a hug and kiss goodbye as I leave him off inside his daycare classroom. I will be aware of Earthly threats, but confident God will provide the protection necessary and wisdom to teachers and administrators to respond should a threat arise.

hope we citizens – public and private – come up with a way to reduce the number of tragedies that are occurring in our schools, but I know God controls everything that will happen throughout the course of my children’s day, their mother’s and mine.

I can’t directly move a nation to action, but I can pray. I can keep people in my thoughts. This is something I can do. God listens.

And I will never stop doing this, no matter how ineffective it may seem to some or hopeless it feels to me at timesBBJ8X5S.

 

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Three

When people who do not have children think about having children, oftentimes money is near the top of the list of reasons they do not have children.

Money is also a man or woman’s No. 1 fear when faced with an unplanned pregnancy. It’s even a concern when a happily married couple begins planning to have a child. This group may not worry about additional mouths to feed affecting day-to-day operations, such as paying bills and buying groceries, but substantial thought goes into “capital requests” down the road, including paying for college, a wedding, etc.

I AM GUILTY of this. I did not plan to have my daughter and certainly never thought I’d raise her on my own for so long. Back then, I was fresh out of college with a pretty much worthless bachelor’s degree. I worried too much about finances not enough about what she really wanted: my time. Now it’s too late. The opportunity to read more with her, paint her nails more and teach her how to use the kitchen set I bought her at Christmas one year are gone.

But, hey … at least she’ll be good for college and never had to worry about having food, right?

MY SECOND CHILD turned 3 last week. We had his party this weekend. I look at his sister, the myriad of complex 12-year-old girl emotions, interpretations and motivations she is and yearn for her to be like her brother: a little kid who doesn’t want to do anything without me or his mother. Having learned my lesson, I spend as much time interacting with him as possible.

It’s easy to consider my circumstances have changed since his sister was his age and presume that’s why money doesn’t matter to me as much. I’m no longer a single parent. My income has increased substantially since I was entry level plus his mother works very hard to provide financial needs (and wants) of the household. My job permits me a schedule that maximizes the amount of time I get just to be with my children.

While these two factors are helpful, time is what your small children want … not your money.

SO I SPEND LESS time worrying about Kalob’s college tuition (he’s 3 for God’s sake) and more time teaching him how to use his new Leap Pad interactive learning book. I turn down opportunities for bonuses at work if they require me to be away from my children. I even rejected a promotion that would have increased my salary by 50 percent because it would have been almost completely travel. While this one was tempting because of the money and because I really would have liked the assignment, it’s not like we needed any more money.

I would not have been benefiting my family at all by taking me away from them. Trading my role as a regular, constant fixture in their lives for occasional lavish trips to Disney World and foreign countries would not have been okay. 

I CELEBRATE MY son, my daughter and my Hollie in this post and the role they have played in teaching me about what matters. Those happily married couples waiting for financial reasons to have children should stop waiting, as the younger they are, the more energy they will have to give time to their children. Those like I once was – terrified having a child was going to make me destitute – should realize having a child only makes one richer.

People nearing death don’t think about ways they could make more money. They think about ways to maximize the time they have left with those they love.    

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Emerald eyes

I see you when I close my eyes and I don’t like it.

It’s uncomfortable. Awkward. Alarming.

I should do something, but I’m tired of doing something. I choose to do nothing. It’s better for everyone in the world except you leave you to your own self-inflicted suffering … to wallow in the puss from the wound you’ve created and has become your life.

I want to help, but I can’t.

You were not always like this. I used to look into your eyes and see their emerald tone. Now I can’t look into your eyes without seeing your struggle. I only glance at them; I look away quickly, awkwardly and ashamed of what you’ve become … not because you’ve become this sorrow, but because I never tried to stop it.

I feel like things would have been different had we spent more time together. But we didn’t. I left, you roamed. You latched onto vagabonds, thieves and undesirables. Eventually, you learned their ways until they became a part of you … until you became them. 

There are strands of flowers in fields that grow after the hay is cut in the fall, before more hay tries to grow until after winter has passed. I gaze at them and think of you. They stand proudly, only swaying in the wind and not succumbing to it. They reach for the sun. They savor each drop of rain. They are color amid gray, but not without a fight.

Even the deer leave these flowers alone, out of distaste or respect. They instead eat what remains of pecans on the ground and remnants of persimmons from late summer. Be it by choice or default, these flowers escape the wrath of these animals.

Why can’t you be a flower in the field?

I know we will meet again someday and for that I am grateful. You will be better and I will be too – you without your sadness and me without mine. You with excitement for tomorrow. Your enchantment. Your delight. Your hope. Me with my happiness to see you again the way you were when we were kids.

The house in which I grew up was sold by my parents. I never want to see it again. I never want to go through there. I want it forever in my mind the way it was the day I left – the way it was when we were kids. 

I do not like what you have become more than I dislike what I have become. Sometimes, I am callous. I am callous when it comes to you. I am callous when I ask myself to be, but my soul would have me be otherwise. I do not listen to my soul when it tells me to be empathetic. I do not like myself when I do not listen to my soul.

And I find a way to blame you for conjuring this filth inside of me. I do not know where you’ve been, but I know where you are. I cannot make you escape. I cannot support you to freedom. I cannot pity you back to your emerald eyes.

I cannot make these demons go away; I will not try. For that, I have a blackness in my heart. For that, I do not know who to blame.

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Authoritative leadership doesn’t work anymore

When I accepted my current job, it was to fill a void left by a manager who was no longer effective.

The days that followed were filled with stories of him hollering at people, threatening, belittling and basically just being a bully. I was pegged for his replacement because I interviewed to be his polar opposite.

BACK IN THE day, bosses could get away with throwing their weight around, scaring people into submission and using the “you will do this because I am your boss and I told you to do it” tactic. A boss who “doesn’t put up with shit” was desired by companies.

However, be it a generational shift or result of in-depth social studies on work places, it has been discovered “not putting up with shit” isn’t good enough. In fact, to some degree, it’s a bad thing.

Turns out the best leaders are those who get the best out of people instead of those who inspire people to do just enough to keep their jobs.

Authoritarian leaders are on the way out.

WE FIND OURSELVES amid this transition when it comes to leadership in our country. We have a president who prides himself on being this old school boss, not “putting up with shit” from anyone. This sounds good to some, but is even worse than ineffective to others … it is counterproductive.

For instance, we saw this last week with the government shutdown. We see it every time our president tries to get legislation passed or reform an institution installed prior to his tenure. It’s a struggle … a bad struggle where people actually put so much effort into fighting him that they have no effort left put into being the leaders they were elected to be.

While the president may have sound ideas that might work if put in motion, they will never take off simply because of the “you will do this because I am your boss and I told you to do it” approach.

He will ultimately always be ineffective – and always blame others for this ineffectiveness.

THE BOSS I REPLACED had his direct reports’ attention at first. He did scare them into doing the things he told them to do. They were even covering for him when he was not present but should have been.

But eventually, it became too much and the whistle blowing began – slightly, at first, but loudly before it was over. They were tired of being talked down to. They were sick of not being appreciated, recognized or encouraged. Not one wanted to be a worker bee anymore for a “queen” only in it for herself.

So which is better? On one hand, the less authoritarian and more authoritative is preferred by many direct reports. This is the person who sets high goals, but also offers the tools and support necessary to meet them. Positive reinforcement plays a big role. But on the other hands, some direct reports will always interpret the authoritative leader as a friend and ultimately a pushover … which generally does not happen with an authoritarian leader.

The answer to this is in recent history, with our president. He may be full of wonderful ideas and schemes, but until he stops being a dictator in a democratic society, he will not accomplish anything.

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Need to do better

I have a son who is full of life, bursting with energy … and has a toy box full of mangled toys.

Some may say the toy box goes with the first two attributes, but it doesn’t.

It goes with no one teaching him how to play with the toys.

I GO TO WORK every day and make sure both of my children have all they need to be healthy. They also get plenty of the material items they want, which seems particularly important to my 12-year-old daughter.

This is part of the reason my son has a box full of toys – they’re puzzles with pieces missing, train tracks with mismatched parts and learning toys that have taught him nothing.

For the last two years, I’ve said to myself over and over “I need to sit down and play with my boy.”

SOMEWHERE ALONG THE way, like many adults, my definition of wholesome time with the kids has shifted from actual time with the kids to incorporating them into things I need to get done.

For instance, I feel like I’m doing a good thing when I let my daughter tag along with me at work (some days all I really do is drive) if she doesn’t have school. That’s because she’s so happy to be with me.

But I’ll tune her out and be fleeting when she talks to me about her friends or favorite music.

If I can find a way to have my son stick by my side while I’m working around the house, I feel like I’m being a good parent.

But I don’t routinely sit down with him to assemble the multiple puzzles we bought for him at Christmas.

CHILDREN NEED PARENTS who can be children with them. They need teachers, guides and support, but they also need these people who can be on their level at times. This is common sense. I knew that before I was a parent because my parents were this for me.

It’s too easy, however, to go to work, pay the bills, keep the lawn mowed, make home repairs and say, “I’m taking care of my family.” It’s like you are, but you aren’t.

I would like to:

  1. Go to work
  2. Pay the bills
  3. Take care of the house
  4. Be the guy who my family loves

Reality is, when my 12-year-old daughter was 3, I was nearly a decade younger and had more energy. I also had fewer people who wanted my time.

My daughter is loaded with fond memories of us playing in the sandbox, reading on the front porch and painting with me at the kitchen table.

Today I am older and have fallen mildly out of shape, my job is more demanding and I have others who need me to be the person who brought us together. I have to make it a point to remember this list and do it, no matter how tired I am at the end of the work day.

I need to do puzzles with my son. I need to cherish conversations with my daughter. I need to be Hollie’s friend more often than I am, although we generally do all right with this.

While this will be forced at first, it will eventually become second nature. Parenting is a natural skill, but every skill needs the occasional polishing.

It’s not so natural that it doesn’t take effort.

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Degrees of success

If there’s one good thing that’s come out of the polarization of American politics through social media, it’s the uprising of those without tradition college degrees.

Well, personally, it’s not a “good” thing, as it’s generated regret inside of me.

I liken this to politics and social media because social media has generated more interest in politics than before Facebook went public. People just see an idea, latch onto it, share it, and others latch onto it and share.

One of those ideas is you don’t need a bachelor’s or master’s degree from a lavish university to be successful in this world. It seemed to start not long after President Obama was elected and labeled part of the “liberal elite.”

It took off from there and reached full climax during this last election. It is my opinion President Trump’s masterful media moguls and campaign managers capitalized on the crux of this battle between those with formal education and those without. It actually spiraled out of control on social media platforms with military, trade school and nothing-but-training folks taking the offensive against the hoity-toity formal degree holders, who they found belittling each time they cited articles or quoted subject matter “professionals.” Trump won the votes of the former as well as the masses that don’t bother with social media, while the latter assumed there was no way Trump would win because they promoted Library of Congress articles suggesting Trump was racist, sexist and terribly unqualified.

How it turned out is history.

IT ALL GOT ME thinking, though, about how the tables had turned against the belief one goes to elementary school, high school and college, earning more money in a lifetime the longer he or she stayed in college. That was what I was taught by society and my parents, as I can still remember my dad saying he was determined to have at least one kid with a college degree.

But my experiences with that degree have suggested I may have fared better without one. Here’s why:

  1. I pigeon-holed my job search … that is, I limited the jobs I believed I could do to those seeking my degree.
  2. Loan repayments aren’t as bad as people make them out to be, but it’s still money I don’t need to be spending every month.
  3. I had unrealistic expectations with my first jobs because I had this degree and everyone had told me degrees lead to big bucks
  4. Shamefully, it wasn’t until recently that I actually stopped thinking those without degrees knew less about the world. In reality, I knew moderate amounts about a greater number of things, but their knowledge of specific topics with which they’ve had extensive, direct experience was far greater.

COMBINE THIS WITH my career and life to derive my conclusion.

  • Roughly 50 percent of my high school comrades with degrees are doing what they studied in college; I am among those not using their degree.
  • I know men and women who’ve served in the military doing very well following their time enlisted.
  • My job today exposes me to technical colleges and trade schools; these students will be set up to live comfortably for the rest of their lives without repaying student loans.
  • Finally, my fiancee, Hollie, does not have a degree and has used hard work, dedication and past job experiences in retail and customer service to go from cook to salaried manager for a semi-formal chain restaurant; her potential with not only this company but any restaurant like it is virtually limitless.

Hollie’s situation is a prime example of what it takes to be successful with or without a degree. After our son was born, we were fortunate to be in a position where she did not have to work. After he was a year old, though, she was ready to rejoin the workforce in a capacity that was “just enough to keep her busy and bring in some extra cash.” Having worked in restaurants through college, I told her that if she did nothing more than have perfect attendance, she’d stand out from 90 percent of her co-workers. She not only showed up every day, but she did an incredible job at her role and others, receiving promotions appropriately and setting herself up to one day run the entire restaurant. She’s compensated well and the satisfaction brought on by her success has been a thing of beauty to me.

I am completely proud of her.

NOW I’M NOT ONE to second-guess myself when it comes to decisions that have carved my life’s path, but I do when it comes to my career. My time in the newspaper business exposed me to a realm of careers I believe I would have liked more than mine. I wanted to be in the Army as a kid but gave up on that when I discovered a medical conditioned disqualified me. I would have liked something to do with horticulture, landscaping or turf management. Maybe something to do with carpentry. I absolutely would have loved being a farmer.

Instead of learning a little about a lot of stuff, I would rather have learned a lot about just one thing.

That’s not to say my degree has gained me nothing. After all, it was my experience as a reporter that exposed me to these trades and piqued my interest in them … and I couldn’t have been a reporter without my degree. My job today is rewarding, as the compensation provides for my family and I thoroughly enjoy teaching others what I’ve learned about the craft. I have made a difference in others’ lives with this job – and I earned it through a connection I established as a newspaper reporter.

While this debate is one I’ll probably always have with myself, three things are perfectly clear:

  1. Gone is the notion one cannot be successful without a degree.
  2. Gone is the belief people with degrees are somehow better than those without.
  3. If you don’t work hard – with or without a degree – you’ve no right to expect success.

Instead of teaching students to go to college, we should be teaching our young persons to do jobs that make them happy … even if that job is a trade, craft or service. Teach them they will always get out what they put in.

 

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Riding like Dad

When I was in college, I had a friend who introduced me to bicycling to get around campus.

He told me to get a high quality mountain bike, swearing it was “way better” than cheap Walmart bikes.

He was correct. My $300 basic model Trek shifted smoother, rode better and felt virtually indestructible. This evolved into more than something for riding around campus. It virtually replaced my car, as I purchased racks and saddle bags to carry groceries, things I needed for work and beer.

Then I wanted more. I wanted to ride to other towns. I wanted to double my speed getting to class and work. I wanted to be a real cyclist – even if it meant wearing spandex and flamboyant  colors. I needed a road bike.

THIS DECISION ACTUALLY GOT ME my first writing gig, as when I took my first newspaper job and was not a reporter, I began an online column for the paper that was pretty successful. I moved to a smaller city than my college town, but continued to ditch my car for the bike. It turned out people enjoyed hearing about my experience riding around their community – both cyclists, non-cyclists and angry old retired men who pegged me as an environment-loving liberal (I’ve actually never cared about the environment or much politics).

By this time, I’d introduced my father to the freedom that is being on a bicycle. Sure, it’s great exercise and all of that stuff … but I liked knowing it was my own strength taking me to other towns and states instead of an engine fueled by a government cash cow.

When Dad would visit, he always brought the Trek mountain bike I’d helped him pick out at a dealership where he lived in New York. It was kind of a drag at times, as even if he had been in the physical shape I was in from 100+ miles a week of riding, his mountain bike wouldn’t have allowed him to keep pace. He also dressed positively ridiculous: sweat pants, sweat shirt, back pack, tinted safety glasses and water bottles that looked like they came from an end-cap of the little kids’ section of Walmart.

I never said anything about it, though, because we were grown men riding bicycles in the Bible Belt … not exactly a cycling utopia. We could be armed in full military battle gear and would still look like sissies to the locals. I would, however, chuckle to myself when we’d begin even the slightest of inclines and I’d hear his gears shifting as he slowed but pedaled faster, never confident enough to lift his butt off the seat to truly climb. He’d do one of two things as I passed him, since I always rode behind him so not to lose him on the ride: he’d either remark how nice his Trek shifted gears or call me an asshole.

FAST FORWARD A FEW years. Okay. I graduated college in 2006, so fast forward 12 years. That’s right – an entire decade and some change. I am no longer in the business of writing and have a job where I’ve been told to avoid physical exertion because “it’d be hard to replace you if you got hurt.” I have a 12-year-old daughter and a son who will be 3 at the end of the month. To top it off, the diabetes I’ve had since I was 9 has triggered some disease associated with my thyroid, which makes becoming a fat ass seem inevitable.

I have no time to ride my road bike, which has sat the last 7 years idle but for the occasional ride around the block towing a child trailer or loaded with a toddler in a seat over the rear wheel. I got rid of the speedometer when the battery died because it had been so long since I gave a crap how fast I was riding. Tire tubes generally popped every time I rode because they’d dry rotted due to never being rotated.

I’m not sure what created less time to ride a bike … being a single parent or finding a woman. I believed when I was the former that having the latter would give me more opportunities to ride, but that wasn’t true, as leaving her at the house with three children so I could ride for three hours seemed selfish. I realize there are fathers who leave the house to play golf all day, but I could never be one.

But I digress. 

FOR CHRISTMAS, I TOLD HOLLIE all I wanted was to be able to ride my bike again. The cables needed replaced. My front rim was bent. The rear sprocket was worn out. I wasn’t looking for it to be new again, but I did want to be able to shift gears and have brakes. Hollie came through on this. It rides like a million bucks again.

So today I began my routine of riding at least 30 minutes a day – a goal I would have laughed at in college for being too easy. I don’t care how fast I ride. I don’t care how many times I shift gears. I don’t care if I never stand up to climb a hill. I’m probably 30 pounds overweight, get winded when I dance with my son in the kitchen, now take blood pressure medicine and haven’t felt fully rested in months. Thirty minutes on the bike a day is a good start.

And when I set off on this journey, I was not wearing sweat pants, but something similar. While I wasn’t wearing a Richard Simmons-style sweatshirt like my dad, I was wearing a hoodie. I wore ski gloves to keep my hands from going numb. I didn’t wear anything over my eyes or carry a water bottle, but wished I had. I’ll do that next time.

As I came to the bottoms of uphill slopes, I shifted gears like a madman. It took all I had to each the top. When I began down these slopes, instead of shifting into high gear and flying, I coasted so I could catch my breath.

Everything has a starting point. Today was mine. While I’ll never share a selfie to flaunt my physical fitness, I will be glad I’m doing something to prolong my life and be with my children longer. I really don’t care about my appearance. It’s all about not dying.

I realized this as I made the last turn of this 8-mile ride that seemed uphill for 9. My dad had it right all along. Life is not about where you can ride or how fast you can get there … it’s about enjoying your time on the road.

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