Get on the bus!

The bus went around the curve traveling faster than it probably should have and nearly sent me sprawling to the floor. I hung on tightly to the armrest to make sure the next curve or large pothole didn’t send me flying again. To top it off, the bus engine roared louder than a sell-out heavy metal concert, making it hard to concentrate.

My daughter has my car more than 350 miles away in another state so she can participate in a summer internship and my wife needed her car for the day, so I took the shuttle bus that my company offers to get to work. The ride lacked a certain smoothness ― or even pizzazz for that matter ― but I took away a number of positives from the trip. In particular, within a few minutes of sitting down in my seat, the shuttle bus took me back in my mind to my days as an elementary and middle school student.

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Leaving something for my son

We dropped my son off at college this past weekend. He graduated high school earlier this month and he’s taking two college classes over the summer to get a head start on his degree.

With his bags dropped off in his new dorm room, his clothes hung up and put away in his closet, his desk supplies prepared, and his laptop set up for the first day of class, I wanted to leave him something that would help him through any challenging times he might run into and to remember us over the next four years. I had been thinking about the question for weeks. We had dropped our oldest daughter off at college two years ago. I wrote about that day previously in “The Challenges of Move-in Day,” so I knew what to expect. 

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Finding the middle ground

My wife and I have much in common.

We like to take long road trips. We like similar music. We both like a range of singers and groups from U2 to Tim McGraw, Classical to Broadway, harder edged alternative to even metal. 

And we both like to read for enjoyment, her, mystery and crime novels, me, biographies, historical fiction, and fantasy.

We have one major difference.

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Living with the unknown, living with MS

We drove home in silence. My wife didn’t say anything. I didn’t say anything. We were stuck in rush hour traffic and I searched for the right words to break the silence, but they never came. We had seen the umpteenth doctor and we still had no real answers. We had sought answers. We left with more questions.

traffic-jam-688566_1280For the previous three months, my wife had been experiencing pain and loss of feeling in her arms and legs. She would be fine one minute, the next her leg would give out underneath her. She complained constantly of her arms falling asleep or simply feeling like 20-pound weights.

We went first to our family doctor, then to a specialist. They gave her one test then another, and another. In particular, each time they would ask her to close her eyes and touch her nose. Each time, she would miss completely, touching her eyes, lips, ears, but nowhere near her nose.

doctor-563428_640The search for answers

We continued onward in our quest to get answers, traveling to some to the most respected hospitals in the Philadelphia region. After one such visit, we finally got the answer we had been searching. The doctor walked in the room and let us know that he thought my wife suffered from Multiple Sclerosis.

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Love, laughter & tears each day?

The speaker droned on. His presentation lacked any real substance, I was already tired from staying up late the night before to take care of a work-related fire, and I was eyeing up the “X” button on screen to click out of the training.

And then he said something that caught my attention.

“You should always be willing to tell people what you stand for. They should know instantly what you believe in and what you’re made of and where you draw a line in the sand.”

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The point being that the stronger our believes, the stronger the presence and commitment that we give off.  He soon went back to into sales mode, trying to get you to sign up for his next talk, instead of offering any key takeaways and I once again lost patience and went onto more productive tasks, but I pondered the question for the rest of the day: Do people know what I stand for? Do I spell it out?

My answer: Sometimes I’m good about spelling it out, sometimes I’m not. So here it is, here’s what I stand for, for better or worse. Some full of clichés, some not:

  • My top four priorities are God (God, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit), my family, being a “good person,” and my country.
  • I try to live my live ― not so successfully mind you ― with Christ’s commandment of “faith, hope, and love.”
  • I believe in the power of my wife’s hug to turn a crappy day into a memorable one. I believe too in the power of my daughter’s smile, my middle son’s laugh, and the twinkle in my youngest son’s eyes.
  • Each day I try to love, laugh, cry, and smile. I try each day too to learn something, to improve myself, and to take another step toward my life goals.

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  • I believe in working hard and making the most of your talents and opportunities; being authentic and who you say you are; living your life with virtue, including integrity and trustworthiness; honor; patience; fairness and justice; humility; charity and kindness to others; treating people the way I want to be treated; courage; perseverance, and humor. (Yes, humor. I’ve written it before, but I’m convinced that God has a sense of humor. At least that’s my hope.)
  • I believe in the written word and how it can move us to emotion ― be it laughter or tears, happiness or anger ― and then to action.
  • Finally, I believe in miracles. I’m convinced of them, because God gave me my beautiful wife and kids. They are infinitely more important to me, than I will ever be to them. They inspire and make me a better person. They challenge me and love me for who I am.

I stand for other things too, but these are what stand out today. I’ll leave the rest for another day.

Mocking a cliche

Like many things, they started out interesting. They were fun and fresh and seemed to offer some bold insights. And then they were everywhere and quickly tiresome and boring.

What? Finger spinners, Snapchat filters, or the Vineyard Vines whale? No, I’m talking about the internet feature “Letter to My Younger Self,” of course.

I’ve counted at least five of them, or various versions of the theme, in magazines and online on social media over the past week. Celebrities and self-help gurus seem to love them. They talk of key accomplishments, trials overcome, steps not taken, and a million other things in between.

They tend to be favorites this time of year because of graduation and the passing of the torch from one generation to another. They remind me a lot of graduation speeches and, while sometimes interesting, many have lost their touch or power.

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Like other fads that have come and gone, “the letter to myself” now come across as clichéd and trite. As a writer, I still love them, but I wish the person writing them would just once be honest. I mean, really honest, brutally honest.

The truth shall set you free

What do I mean? I’d love for the writer to say “that [fill in the blank] tattoo you want on your shoulder, save your money” or “the trip to the beach with 20 of your closest high school friends, skip it to go backpacking with your brother across the Appalachian Trail.”

You know what I mean, right? I want the writers to give the unvarnished truth. I want them to spill the beans so-to-speak. I want to know about the crazy party they would’ve skipped or the embarrassing act that got them into trouble. I want to know where they went wrong and what they would change so that I and others can learn for ourselves and avoid the same mistakes.

Dreams with a splash of realism

Instead, writers often talk about wishing they had taken more chances and followed their dreams. My radar goes off. Dreams, really? I’m a big believer in the power of goals and dreams. However, I dream of a life of leisure. Does that mean I should quit my job, run away to New York, and demand that I be penciled in as the starting centerfielder for the New York Yankees? Or run away to Caribbean to spend my days relaxing in sun and surf and partaking in fruity drinks on a soft white sand filled island?

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No, I may wish it, but that’s not going to work.

I want the truth, because we all make mistakes, they’re a fact of life. You can’t change reality. You can’t go back in time. You can’t always get the proverbial cat back into the bag. Instead, we often have to face the music. We have be present in the moment and to move-on and overcome. We have one life and we need to make the best of it.

At least that’s what I would write if I were to sit down and write a letter to my younger self.

 

Remembering a graduation embarrassment

The countdown for my son is down to a few hours. He’s down to his final hours of high school. He took his last final exam on Tuesday and he’s got just a few hours of graduation practice left with the rest of his class before “walking” to pick up his diploma on Friday.

From the sounds of it, graduation practice hasn’t changed much in the decades since I had my own. I get the sense that herding cats would probably be more enjoyable, but it’s still a necessary evil.

In any event, he’s excited for graduation to get here. I advised him  to try to soak it all in, to enjoy the pomp and circumstance and to enjoy the moment. In particular, I told him that his graduation ceremony had to be better than my college graduation.

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The guest speaker that day went on-and-one. Now he was a titan in the business world, an early pioneer in the public relations field and he had a ton of great stories, some of which I would’ve loved to have heard in class, but by this point I was done. I was ready to say sayonara to college. I feared that his speech might be my college’s last, albeit lame, attempt to ransom a few extra dollars from us students.

During the speaker’s extended commentary, my graduation gown got stuck on a sharp piece of the auditorium seat. When the school president told us to stand up to switch our graduation tassel from right to left to signify that we were now graduates, the guy behind me stepped on my gown and I heard a rip in the flimsy material, loud enough for people five and six rows back to hear. I feared that the rip went up the entire backside of my gown and that it would fall off my shoulders in shreds.

Of course, everything was fine, but it still made for an eventful walk to the stage to pick up my diploma, as I tried to crane and rotate my neck in a 360 degree owl-like swivel, to see how big of a bite had been taken out of the gown. 

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Fortunately, I soon gave up and threw away any cares. I would’ve walked up on stage naked if necessary. Hell or high way, I was going to come away with my diploma in my hands. I had worked too hard to not come away with the piece of paper testifying that I had successfully completed the required courses for my bachelor of arts. I wasn’t going to walk away empty-handed.  

I’m not sure my son feels the same way, but give him some time. He just might feel that way by the time graduation practice is over.

Proving the experts wrong: Celebrating graduation

I like to go back and read the 25-page report.

It’s written in a medical, matter of fact tone. Large sections of the report are highlighted and my wife has written comments in pencil on several of the report pages. I read it over-and-over again and I remember the intense fear and worry we shared.

The report gives a full medical history, lists the tests the doctors gave and how my son fared, who was present, and finally a summary and recommendations. I’m barely a page or two into the report and my head starts pounding.

“(My son’s name) is still fairly young and so, needs intensive work in reading. He needs to be taught the basics, phonetics, and decoding skills.”

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When I get to this next part, my reading slows. I pause after every couple of words to take them in and ponder their meaning in my mind. They pack a powerful punch.

“However, we are not very optimistic about his ever acquiring these skills. The time will quickly come when we need to focus on circumventing the lack of decoding skills. He most likely will do better at sight word recognition and working to expand this skill. Also, he will need to begin using technology to essentially read and write for him.”

My breathing is deeper now. If I close my eyes, I can remember the doctor’s face when she handed us her preliminary report at the end of our visit.

“He will have trouble reading stop signs. He seems to be a strong listener, but he’ll never be able to enjoy a book, other than maybe a picture book, or function as a normal adult.”

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Never give up, great things take time

I like to play Chess with my son. I’m a novice and he’s a much better player than me, but I still like to play him. I like the ebb and flow of the game and how you need to be thinking two or three moves in advance. I find too that it’s a great metaphor for life.

My son will inevitably take the early lead. He’ll take a couple of my pawns and then he’ll get my Bishop or Knight. He’ll get a big devious smile on his face and he’ll start to rub his hands together. He can’t wait to throw his arms in the air and scream out to anyone who’ll listen that he “owns me” or some other boastful claim.

Fortunately for me, I’ve been around the block a time or two. He’s the better player than me no question, but I know a thing or two that he doesn’t. For example, I know that a few early losses doesn’t mean the game is over. I know too to be patient and to see the game through to completion. I’ve won more than my rightful share of games by simply following this strategy.

In short, I’m resilient.

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