My Advice To Graduates

With this being the time of year for college and high school graduations, I’ve been paying more attention lately to the plans of those receiving diplomas. I’ve also been reflecting quite a bit on the decisions I made over the course of my educational journey, and while I would not by any means consider myself someone qualified to dole out career advice, I believe I made enough wrong turns along the way to be able to pass along a few tips about how to not fall into some of the pitfalls I have over the years.

I was always one of the “smart kids” in school. I made good grades, enrolled in all the honors and advanced classes in high school, graduateeven took the SAT in middle school. I graduated college with a 3.5 GPA, and that was even with my failing one class and not retaking it (For the record, it was an earth science class, and I could take it a thousand more times and still never pass it.). I received honors and awards and got my name in the newspaper a few times for different accomplishments. As a student, I was a success.

And, for the most part, none of it meant a damn thing.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying I didn’t learn anything useful in school. For instance, had it not been for the encouragement and efforts of some great teachers, I would have never realized I had a (debatable) talent for writing. I never had any vision or passion, though, for what I wanted to do with what I was learning. Even worse, I somehow believed that doing well in school would save me from the more mundane jobs and tasks I didn’t want to deal with learning. I didn’t learn things because I didn’t want to. I was a good student, and that would get me where I wanted to go … even if I didn’t know where that was.

So I never learned how to change my own oil or repair a broken transmission or hang sheetrock or build a bookshelf or bring in a crop or shoot a deer. Are you going to be required to do any of these things in your lifetime? I can’t tell you for sure. I can say, though, that everything I just mentioned (with the exception of shooting the deer) is a service people will always need someone to do. I used to make fun of the kids in vocational school. Now I wish I knew how to do at least half of the things they do. Never consider any job beneath you, no matter how smart you think you are.

Manual labor is not for everyone, though, just as college isn’t for every high school graduate. We live in a society now that preaches everyone must go to to college, whether they have any clue what they want to do there and no matter how much debt they incur on their way to obtaining a degree. I am sad to say this is not a recent development. A great many of us have diplomas hanging on our walls that don’t have much to do with where we wound up. If you find a calling in life that doesn’t require a degree, go for it.

Sounds easy, doesn’t it? Well, unfortunately, it’s not. You’ll be faced with all kinds of decisions. What do you need to learn? How much time, energy, and money will it cost? How will it affect those around you? Should you move and make a new start or make a go of it where you are? Fear and uncertainty will be waiting around every corner to derail you, and, unfortunately, you won’t always get the best advice. Education will be a tool, but it can’t make a decision for you. Be brave, and don’t take the freedom you have right now for granted. It won’t always be so easy to take chances.

Keep in mind, of course, these words are coming from someone who flubbed up in one way or another nearly all of the things he was just talking about, so I’m not claiming to be some kind of expert or guru. I just don’t want you to travel some of the roads I have. And, if you do happen to wind up on one of them, I hope you’ll be able to navigate them better than I did. That reminds me of my final bit of advice: Give yourself room to screw up. Because you’re going to – a lot. Instead of endlessly beating yourself up, though, keep going forward or backward or sideways or whichever way you have to go to move on.

Take all that for what it’s worth, graduates. I’m guessing a lot of you already know more than I do anyway. Just remember me when you get really successful. Okay?

Perfection

About two weeks ago, one of my daughters and my two sons began mentioning this idea of theirs to open a restaurant. Now, given the fact that this particular daughter is 9 years old and her brothers only 7 and 4, I was naturally curious as to how this plan would proceed. Apparently, this was to be a roadside restaurant, sort of in a lemonade-stand design: People would drive by, see the sign, and then, hopefully, stop and order something.

Just to give you a mental picture of the “town” we live in, it’s called Coldwater. Doesn’t exactly imply a thriving metropolis, does it? Also, considering we actually live approximately a mile off the nearest main highway, the likelihood of much traffic in our neck of the woods is fairly slim. The enthusiasm was so high between the three of them, though, I decided my best course of response to whatever they told me they were going to do would be to smile and nod affirmatively, as long as it didn’t have anything to do with power tools, the killing of animals, or a start-up cash loan.

Of course, the 4-year-old lost attention fairly quickly once the other two actually began to actually hammer bits of wood together for signs, but the other two stuck with it. Soon, I came home to discover, sitting in the yard, a couple of kids’ lawn chairs, a wooden pallet, some assorted cinder blocks, and painted wooden signs advertising the new establishment. Granted, they still hadn’t solved the dilemma of not having any actual food for their restaurant, but problems of this nature are relatively minor to aspiring elementary school-aged entrepreneurs.

No one actually stopped at the new roadside attraction the first day, but I was told there were some curious looks and plenty of smiles from those who drove by. They were proud of their work, and I was proud of them for putting the time in, even if I knew there wasn’t much way they could succeed. That night, as the sun was setting and my daughter and I were heading inside, I noticed one of the signs had a strange word written on it – skare – so I asked her what it meant.

“Oh, that says ‘Come On In To The Old-Time Square.'”DSCN1201

“Oh, okay. Um…”

“Did I get a word wrong?”

“Um, yeah. That’s not how you spell square.”

“How do you spell it?”

“S-q-u-a-r-e.”

“Well, what did I spell?”

“I guess you would pronounce that scare.”

And then, my daughter laughed, said, “Oh, well,” and went on inside our house.

I just stood there, dumbfounded. Even at 9 years old, I would have been absolutely mortified if someone had pointed out one of my mistakes like that. I would have been completely distraught at the fact that people had driven by all day looking at it. And I would have worked until the daylight was gone trying to fix what I had done wrong.

And my daughter just said, “Oh, well…“, and didn’t give it another thought.

Now, this particular incident has caused me to reach two very distinct and different possible conclusions: Either I have taught my daughter that it is okay to make a mistake and that she needn’t beat herself up if she gets something wrong or I have not taught my daughter to strive for perfection and she does not care enough about doing a good job. The former of these, I can live with; the latter … eh, not so much. In fact, that would be something I would want to rectify immediately.

Therein lies the rub, though, so to speak. I have struggled with perfectionism for as long as I can remember, and I certainly don’t want my children to grow up afraid to try different things because they might get something wrong. On the other hand, by virtue of them being my children, I have a burning compulsion for them to be the best possible human beings they can be. So I don’t want them to settle for “Oh, well…, but I also don’t want them belittling themselves constantly and killing their self esteem.

I suppose there is the possibility here that God is trying to teach me through my daughter to learn how to move on from mistakes and not worry so much. I also suppose the possibility exists that this is a wake-up call to me to teach and preach a better work ethic to my children. The actual answer probably lies somewhere in between, and, unfortunately, finding it will be a largely imperfect process.

Oh, well…

One Year

DSCN0805It seems like it should be a bigger deal than this.

One year ago today, my daughter went under the knife for open heart surgery. She was just shy of being seven months old. She had a ventricular septal defect, which is a fancy way of saying “hole in her heart.” We took her down to Monroe Carrell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt May 5, discovered there was a mix-up and the surgery had been moved to May 6, lost our minds for a few hours, showed up again the next day, and handed our baby girl over to a team of extremely skilled surgeons who were given the task of patching her up.

I’m not going to lie and say everything about the road leading up to the surgery and that day itself wasn’t difficult. Because the heart defect was basically stunting her growth and because she was too stubborn to take a bottle, she had to have a feeding tube stuck up her nose for several days prior to the surgery. Another tube, this time of the drainage variety, was inserted into her chest once the surgery was over. She spent about a day in the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit, and she barely moved the entire time she was there.

All I can seem to remember clearly, though, is this: She had open heart surgery on a Tuesday and was sitting up in her bed by Friday.

The year following that surgery has been a blur. My daughter has filled out, mainly because once her heart defect was repaired she10300113_10154138292315217_5804047300102415917_n could actually nurse properly (She was having trouble breathing and nursing at the same time.). The scar on her chest has already faded quite a bit, and there’s nothing about her that would indicate anything had ever been wrong with her. These days, we just live life with her like we do with our other four children. We don’t even have anything really special planned for today.

On the surface, then, this day doesn’t seem that different from any other. We’ll always know it is, though. This will always be the day God answered our prayers and made a way for our daughter to be whole again. And that is something this family will store in their hearts forever.

So maybe it is a big deal after all.

The Fine Art Of Not Caring

I have had three rather significant occurrences shape my life over the past couple of years. The first was my decision to enter counseling for my depression, accompanied by the decision to give antidepressants another try. The second was learning my baby daughter was going to have to undergo open heart surgery before her first birthday and then walking through that process. And the third was turning 40 earlier this month.

don-t-care--sourceI’ve never been a person who could just shrug things off. I might have said, “Eh, it’s not bothering me,” but I can tell you that nine times out of ten whatever it was definitely was bothering me. A lot. Relationships. Striking out in a baseball game. Having to get my car worked on. Workplace disagreements. Being too shy to talk to people. Seeing a C on my report card. Hitting a ball long playing tennis. Prayers that I didn’t think were answered…

Actually, it might just be easier to say everything bothered me.

These days, I am certainly not immune to caring too much about trivial matters. For example, a horrible night on the lanes at the local bowling alley this past October nearly ruined my wife and I’s night out for a friend’s 40th birthday party. I do seem to be mellowing out considerably, though, almost to the point of wondering if I’m getting a little too relaxed about things. I’m moving on from regrets, conflicts, and hesitations quicker than I did before, and I keep asking myself, “Is this a good thing?”.

Here’s what those three circumstances I described in the first paragraph did for me. Depression counseling helped me learn to prioritize situations and stop worrying so much, and the medication (presumably, at least) seems to leveling out my highs and lows. Turning 40 made me face up to the fact that time is not something to be wasted, and dwelling on things for too long slows you down and stunts your growth. And, well, once you’ve seen a drainage tube stuck up in your infant daughter’s chest, life’s annoyances don’t seem all that terrible anymore.

This is where the slippery slope lies, however. How does one stop caring enough to relax and live a balanced life without going over the edge of total ambivalence about everything? I went the medication route years ago without counseling to accompany it, and I nearly lost my focus altogether. Right now, I’m enjoying the peace of being able to just let things go, but I catch myself wondering if maybe I should care just a little bit more about some things. I think that’s a positive thought, though, because if I didn’t care at all, I wouldn’t be caring that maybe I didn’t care enough … right?

Sometimes I want to go all Tommy Lee Jones in The Fugitive, where I’m staring down the loaded gun of a situation but I’m so The-Fugitive_7878_19focused on what I’m doing I can throw up my hands and say, “I don’t care.”. As awesome as that would be, though, everyone knows Deputy Samuel Gerard really did care about what Dr. Richard Kimble might or might not have done. It’s a fine line to walk between caring and not caring. I just wish I could look that cool doing it.

Raison D’être

I was a tumor … or so I’ve been told.

A chance meeting with one of my neighbors today revealed this to me. He knew my dad when I was born, and that’s what my dad had told him when my mom was taken to the hospital the night of my birth. See, my parents didn’t know I was coming, and not in the sense that I was born ahead of my due date.

They didn’t even know my mom was pregnant.

There were circumstances that made this not so difficult to believe at the time, but the fact remains I went through the entire Reason for Existencepregnancy without anyone checking on how I was actually doing in there. In my lighter-hearted moments, I joke that this explains why I’m so screwed up in the head now, but the truth is I’m amazed by the whole story. Granted, probably not as amazed as my parents 40 years ago, as my neighbor told me he received a call from my dad that night that began with the words, “You’re not going to believe this…”.

I called the meeting today a chance one, but the more I think about it I’m not so sure. I’ve known that story for a long time (Well, not the tumor part. That was new.), and I’ve learned to embrace it in times of struggle. I’ve had so many days of feeling lost or inadequate or just plain embarrassed to be here that I’ve thought on more than one occasion that I had to be some sort of mistake. If that were true, though, how do I account for the miraculous way I wound up here in the first place?

So in my frustration today, I decided to go for a walk. A little ways up the road, I ran into a neighbor, and he told me I was a tumor. And I was glad he did.

Happy To Be Here

For a while there, I wasn’t sure I was going to be around for this.

There wasn’t anything wrong with me … at least, not physically, anyway. No chronic diseases, no recurring health scares, no rotating list of prescriptions. I wasn’t courting some kind of death wish, either. No repelling off mountain sides, no canoeing down turbulent waters, no bungee jumping from bridges. And even though I had battled depression for the better part of my life, I wasn’t plotting my untimely demise. Things never reached that level, thank God.

I just had this feeling, though, that maybe I wasn’t going to make it to 40. I have no rational explanation for this. I know in the past few years I have put tremendous pressure on myself to achieve certain things before I reached that dreaded age. I basically kept a running checklist in my mind, and not many items were being crossed off as time went on. I felt more and more like a failure. So, instead of saying I wasn’t sure I would make it to 40, maybe it would be more accurate to say I didn’t want to make it there.

Today, however, I am 40 years old, and an amazing thing has happened: Life has continued to go on. Not only am I still here, I’mlife begins pretty happy to be so. My list is still in shambles, and there are days when I feel totally aimless and desperate for direction. That cutoff date I had established in my mind, though, doesn’t mean a thing today. Much to my surprise, I’m feeling fairly optimistic, even though this past week has left my scratching my head as to what the future may hold.

So what changed? Well, lots of things. I took a look around and realized there are many people who don’t “make it” in their younger years, and a large majority of them don’t care if they’re the old codgers on the block. I noticed I’m still in (relatively) good shape and good health. I got some help for the depression that had dogged me for so long, and I began to think about things differently. I finally began to see the truth in the Bible telling me that “all things work together for good,” even the things I don’t understand.

At the risk of sounding schmaltzy, I want to share one more very important thing I’ve realized: I have been blessed with some really great friends over the course of these last 40 years. Some of you I see a lot, some of you not so often. Some of you I haven’t seen anywhere other than social media for over 20 years. Whatever the case may be, every one of you who have been a part of my life are still very special to me. I love you all, and even in written form, it takes a lot for me to express that in words.

Here’s to 40, then. I’m glad I’m here for this, and I’m glad you’re here, too. Hopefully, we’ll all be around for 40 more.