Leaving a Place Better Than You Found It

Pop-tops. Some call them pull tabs. What a lousy invention. But they were everywhere when I was growing up. Today, when you open a soda or beer can, you use a Sta-tab, which is what you find on nearly every can in the world these days. Daniel F. Cudzik was the engineer working at Reynolds Metals who invented the Sta-Tab. His picture should be on environmental flags wherever they wave. But he did not invent those until 1975.

This means that from 1959, just before I was born, until the late 1970s, when I was finishing high school, pop-tops were everywhere. To give you an idea, I saw a stat that said the estimated annual recycling weight of Sta-tabs alone was 4 million tons. And I believe it. Over my childhood years, I bet my siblings and I literally picked up at least 1 million tons of them after every trip! (I know I mis-used literally there – I just want to join almost everyone who does the same. Whenever I hear someone use literally in a sentence, I cringe, waiting for the misuse, then I am pleasantly surprised if it’s used correctly. When in doubt, follow Weird Al’s advice, and don’t commit that word crime!

What is it about free people that they feel entitled, or inclined, to leave trash everywhere? China, Singapore, and Russia have clean streets, but in those countries there’s a harsh penalty for being a litterbug. Does Ron Burgundy, who threw away a half-eaten burrito on a San Diego freeway causing Jack Black to wreck his motorcycle which then caused the near death of his beloved dog Baxter, represent all of us? And why don’t Canadians litter like we do? These are important questions! Ask anyone who’s been a public high school principal about kids leaving trash around campus- none of us can walk by candy wrapper or any piece of paper that we spot on the ground without picking it up and throwing it away. I’m not recommending caning, but come on free people!

Whenever my parents took us to a public place, an act that took great courage on their part, whether it was a campground, a picnic spot, one of the islands at Lake Ouachita (Pronounced Wah-shə-taw – and yes, I am a big fan of the schwa!) in Arkansas where we would spend the weekends water skiing, or anywhere else, we always ended the trip the same way. Our parents would start packing the car, and they would tell us to start cleaning up.  And not only the area we had been using, but the surrounding areas as well. We would each have a bag, or even a box, and we picked up every bit of trash there was.

It wasn’t stuff you noticed until you looked for it. Then it was everywhere. Pieces of paper, pieces of foil, broken glass, some occasional big items, but mostly it was two things: cigarette butts and pop-tops. Don’t get me started on cigarettes – an invention that has brought overwhelming death and misery to humanity. We picked up hundreds of discarded butts every time. But those pop-tops, they were everywhere! No wonder Jimmy Buffet stepped on one! As usual, with tasks forced upon us by our parents, we grumbled about it. But we usually felt a begrudging sense of pride when we finished.

My dad and I were reminiscing about those days last week, and as I reflected on it, I thought that the “Leave a place better than you found it” adage is a great life rule as well. I recently left my job as Superintendent of the Manhattan Beach Unified School District. I loved that job. It gave me a great sense of purpose, required all of my leadership skills, helped me to grow as a person, and gave me the opportunity to work with spectacular board members, educators, parents, community members, and students. And in return, I believe I left MBUSD better than I found it. It wasn’t by my efforts alone of course, but it was in coordination with almost everyone there. For those of us rowing together, we should all be proud of what we accomplished over eleven years in terms of curriculum, Advanced Placement success, sustainability (yes – we reduced how much trash we produced!), construction projects, and technology. For a full list click here

As I enter this gap year after 37 years in public education, I am going to keep finding ways to employ the “leave it better than you found it” rule, even though the instrument for that may not be with a job. For the next few months, my focus will be on my health and my home, two aspects of my life that have needed a little more TLC and attention for a while. And then who knows! But I am certain that even without those annoying pull tabs all around me (thanks Mr. Cudzik for doing your part!), there are still all too many cigarette butts, and all of us have many opportunities to leave this world better than we found it.

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Taking My Youngest to College

That was it. Dawson gave each of us a long and hard hug, picked up the last bit of dorm room essentials from our double Target run, turned around, and walked off to his dorm in the Colorado School of Mines. Oredigger Camp – his three-day orientation – starts tomorrow. He is fired up and ready for this new phase of his life.  And we’ll see him again in November when we come back for parents’ weekend.

Jill and I are truly excited for Dawson, but right now, sitting in our room in the Golden Hotel, we are also both so sad. Sniffling and journaling, there is no talking. Kind of pathetic – I know. But we both knew taking this time would help us.

It’s been an amazing journey – 18 years, 9 months, and 9 days, since his birth in the hospital. I still hear about that day. Jill’s water broke around four in the morning, about two weeks before her due date, and she called the doctor who said we should go to the hospital right away. I told Jill I just needed to go to work for about an hour, as I was leading a large professional development session that day and needed to give some notes to those who would now be leading it. She did not like it, but she acquiesced. Not the best call, I know. It was a quick delivery, but a little more painful because of my delay. Mark that as exhibit ZZZ in the case of Mike being an imperfect husband and father. Why does that list keep growing?

Where was I? Oh yes, it’s been 18 years, 9 months, and 9 days – and I’ve loved all of it. Dawson has been a source of joy and inspiration in our home. He has been a remarkably easy-going kid, and as he progressed through high school, he began asking us to relax boundaries we had set for him.  I don’t remember ever saying no – he earned our trust all along the way. Watching Dawson grow and become the man that he is has also been incredibly special. He is known as a super smart science student, a talented gamer and programmer, someone with a wacky sense of humor, a quiet leader, and most of all, a remarkably kind human being. I like to think I helped with some of those attributes, but in reality, he is filled with so much from his mother.

Dawson and I had quite the journey to Colorado. We took four days to drive over 1,500 miles via the Grand Canyon and Santa Fe. And of our 23 hours of driving, I think Dawson sat behind the wheel for 18 of them. He wishes he could have driven all of those miles and hours.

Packing up the rental car and posing in front of a smoky Grand Canyon

Jill let us have our time together, then she flew into Denver yesterday. We picked her up and together, we all drove to Dawson’s new home in Golden, Colorado. After a family dinner, Dawson left us to join thirty or so other freshman who had arranged a Meet-up via Discord, a social media app too obscure for most adults. I still haven’t figured out Facebook! He got back to our hotel room long after Jill and I had gone to sleep. It was a great start to his college career.

Today was move-in day. We are so impressed with the Colorado School of Mines. They had volunteers out the kazoo greeting students, carting their room contents into the dorms, smiling, and confirming our belief that Mines is the perfect college for our aspiring computer scientist son. Jill thankfully took over as we helped Dawson set up his room. We unpacked everything, figured out where it all seemed to work best, and determined what else we needed. It’s a good thing Jill was there. If it had been just me, I would have given Dawson a thumbs up after we moved the boxes and duffle bags into his room and said, “You got this!” With Jill leading the effort, his traditional, ordinary, and very non-air-conditioned room ended up looking pretty darn good. The tables, crates, chair, and containers from the Lakewood Super Target fit perfectly, and Dawson’s dorm was nicer than any college room I ever lived in. I told my son that guys can be pretty darn worthless when it comes to making things look like home. And even though he was ready to jump into this without our help, Dawson admitted that once again, he’s better off because of his mom’s help.

Dawson putting together his computer, and Jill making his dorm room into a home

And now he’s settled at Mines, and we fly back to Malibu tomorrow – just the two of us. A week ago, I was ready for this moment. Then, as my youngest son and I drove through the deserts and mountains on our way here, I was reminded of how much I would miss everything about living with Dawson. We laughed at Mike and Tom Eat Snacks, an inane podcast that truly representsour kind of humor. We listened to a lot of pop punk music, much of which I knew, but I did not know until our trip that Dawson knew the words to so many of the songs! We talked about important topics, and about silly ones. It was all sublime. I found myself getting more emotional as we neared Golden. And even writing this, I can barely see through my tears.

I know our relationship, and our friendship, will only grow. That’s what I have experienced with my now-30-year-old son Ryan. But I will miss the daily interactions and joy that dominated this portion of my life with Dawson. I miss it already, and it’s been about an hour.

On to hour number two. Wish me luck.

There he goes . . .