Is Retirement the Life for Me? (Part 2)

First of all, thank to all of you who read and commented on my last post via Facebook, Twitter, and the Blog Site. I love the conversation and I appreciate the wisdom even more. This is Post #2 of Evaluating my Quasi-Retired Life using Dan Buettner’s Blue Zones research. As a reminder, the nine Blue Zones recommendations for a longer, healthier, and happier life are:

  1. Move naturally throughout the day
  2. Know your sense of purpose
  3. Downshift every day to relieve stress
  4. 80% Rule: stop eating when you are 80% full
  5. Plant Slant: Make beans, whole grains, veggies, and fruit the center of your diet
  6. Red Wine in Moderation: Enjoy wine and alcohol moderately with friends and/or food
  7. Belong: Be part of a faith-based community or organization
  8. Loved Ones First: Have close friends and strong family connections
  9. Right Tribe: Cultivate close friends and strong social networks

Just a little recap on #1 – Move Naturally, which I addressed in my last post. My friend Ben reminded me that part of moving can be pushing yourself to extremes. Ben retired the same time I did, and has just put out a new podcast series called Fear of Retirement.  In the second episode, Ben goes into his version of movement, which is super intense and maybe not for everyone. He reminds me that it’s always good to have BHAGs (Big Hairy Audacious Goals). I agree with this – so, while I’m getting more steps in by walking and golfing, I’m also working on some BHAGs. For me, one of them is swimming in my sixties as fast as I swam in high school – or maybe just fast enough to beat a former student who is challenging me to a 50-yard sprint. (Whenever you’re ready, Brad.) For Ben, it was benching over 300 pounds (mission accomplished). It’s a great listen, and I bring it up just because there are so many ways to move, and we can all find our way to meet this goal. And not to brag about being semi-famous, but Ben gave me a shoutout in the 2nd episode. While not mentioning my name, he referred to me as a “psycho.” Thanks, Ben. I love you too.

Let’s move on to Blue Zone recommendation #2 – Know Your Sense of Purpose. After identifying the six longest living societies in the world and describing how they live their lives, Buettner writes that two of these societies, Okinawans and Costa Rica’s Nicoyans, have cultures in which individuals know “why I wake up in the morning” (Okinawans call it ikigai and Nicoyans refer to their plan de vida.) Let’s face it, we need to have some sense of purpose that we look forward to when we start each day. I love that, because one of my many annoying habits over the course of my life is that on top of being a poor sleeper (side note, this has not gotten better since leaving work), when I wake up in the morning, I am AWAKE and I am ready to go. There is no grogginess, and I am ready to carpe that diem.

As I think back, purpose was easy to come by in my life before this retirement phase. I was fortunate during my 30 years of raising children in our home and my 38-year career in education to have a life that was filled with a massive sense of purpose. Between all that it involved in parenting beginning in 1990, and providing our youth with a high-quality education starting back in 1984, I jumped out of bed every morning knowing that I was making a difference. Yes, every day held its challenges and triumphs, interspersed with many great moments, but I always knew that what I was doing was important, and potentially life-changing.

But, there is a danger in that too. I have watched people retire and come back looking ten years younger and smiling bigger than ever. They have cultivated more reasons for getting out of bed than just work. They have hobbies, passions, friendships, and many other reasons to look forward to each day. On the other hand, I have seen people whose whole sense of purpose was linked to their job. They might have been outstanding at work, but they did not fare well in retirement. So my strong advice is to find a sense of purpose outside of your professional world.

Dan Buettner writes that purpose can come when you can find flow on most days of your life. I love the research on flow. I wrote about it in a post back in April of 2020. If you have moments throughout your day where you experience flow, when you are so immersed in whatever you are doing that time ceases to have meaning, that alone is worth waking up for. Some of my best flow-producing activities are problem-solving, teaching, swimming, golf, playing music, and yes, even my morning ritual of making the kitchen look perfect for the day. It’s amazing how many times this concept keeps popping up into my life. Flow does make life worth living, and according to the research, it gives us improved odds for living longer and better.

And before I go any further, this is not a “check all of the boxes” list. That’s crazy and unrealistic. This is a “there are so many different reasons people have for waking up with purpose, what’s yours?” list.

Other reasons for waking up each day include knowing that you are making a difference. My friend and blogger mentor Chris Erskine is finding purpose being a grandfather. Learning something new provides outstanding, interesting, and brain-building motivation for life. And as my friend Pam wrote in the comments of my last blog post, it’s never too late to learn how to live better. Engaging in new and complex activities requires immersion and can also lead to flow. Even gratitude for what you have provides more purpose than any of us actually realize. (Note – this paragraph could have been dramatically expanded, but most of my blogs are too long already, so just know there’s a lot that could be delved into for each the bolded topics.)

As my friend Dawnalyn pointed out after reading my last blog, a lot of this comes back to Stillman’s research on how to survive…. or even thrive during the quarantine phase of the pandemic.

This is a good time for me to ponder this critical question of having a strong sense of purpose in retirement, as I am taking a pause from all of this retirement bliss and working for two months helping out a local school district. More on that in a future post, but for now, I am asking myself whether immersing in more flow-inducing activities and the increased opportunities for thinking, writing, and learning are sufficient to replace the overwhelming sense of purpose I had while working in public education. So far, the answer is strongly affirmative, but there are many ballots still to count, and I’m not making any projections yet.

My next blog post will be on flow’s less purposeful yet equally important counterpart – downshifting.

Thanks for reading!

Mike

Note: The picture at the top of the post is of the mighty Kings River in Central California at sunrise. Between getting up early and loving to cook, one of my jobs at a four-day river floating/camping/game-playing trip that we took every year with 100 of our closest friends was to wake up each morning to cook breakfast for everybody. I always took a pause at the river before I headed up to the outdoor kitchen to make the coffee and start working through frying 40 pounds of bacon. As I said, waking up has always been easy for me, and witnessing beauty like this makes it even better.

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Sing It With Me! Don’t Let the Old Man In

I was talking to my friend Kevin last week. Kevin and I have ventured through our public education careers with similar jobs as teachers, high school principals, and finally as superintendents. He has been a mentor and a friend for over 30 years, and I truly appreciate our bond and understanding of one another. Kevin has been asking me about my experiences in this new retirement phase, and he has recently decided to retire from his superintendent position. Last week, we were talking about what not working 60 to 70 hours a week is like. He said, “Don’t let the old man in, right?” I got what he was saying, but did not know the context. Now that I know, it’s worth sharing.

In a golf pairing I wish I could have joined, country music star Toby Keith was playing with multiple-Academy Award-winning actor/director Clint Eastwood. Keith marveled at Eastwood’s persistence, as Eastwood had just filmed yet another movie, The Mule, at the age of 88. Eighty-eight! He asked Eastwood how he does it, and Eastwood remarked, “I just get up every morning and go out. And I don’t let the old man in.” That inspired Keith to write and sing Don’t Let the Old Man In, a song which is featured in The Mule.

Can’t leave it up to him
He’s knocking on my door

I’ve written before about my appreciation for Younger Next Year, which encourages all of us over a certain age (it starts at 40!) to push ourselves hard physically to keep our bodies from aging so quickly. Chris Crowley, the author, is not talking about our graying hair or our wrinkles, which is good because I have both! He’s talking about taking care of ourselves and fighting off the old man as long as possible. Through hard exercise and good nutrition, we can swim against the relentless tide of decay and “change decay back into growth.”

Get up and go outside,
Don’t let the old man in.

Having children has helped me to stay young. Without question, my sons have kept me on my toes for the last 31 years. I have listened hard to learn their interests, joys, and fears, read the books and watched the movies they wanted to read and see, competed with them in the games they want to play (side note: my children have beaten me at many games, but I never once let them win. They knew they earned it when they won), and ate the food they wanted to eat. I did not see an In-n-Out 4×4 or a gazillion milk shakes on the Younger Next Year or Noom nutrition list, but sometimes you just have to say, “What the heck?”

When Ryan was 16 and I was 44, we celebrated all of those fours by each eating an In-n-Out 4×4!

And just because I’m an empty nester, don’t think that my children are still not a huge part of my life. My older son told me many years ago, “Dad, you act a lot younger than you are. I like it, but it’s different.” My sons will be keeping me young for a long time and I’m grateful.

Ask yourself how old you would be,
If you didn’t know the day you were born

In the meantime, I’m focusing on learning and improving. I’ve already sat down and learned how to play and sing this song.  I’m loving writing, helping out at home, and I’m doing my best to keep up with the craziness in public education. My wife joked (kind of) about how nice it is to have so much help at the house – and that she loves this new role in my life. I’m taking that as a compliment, and I’m staying on it.  It’s all part of the never-ending effort to live life fully and stay young.

Try to love on your wife
And stay close to your friends
Toast each sunset with wine
Don’t let the old man in

And I know that all of this can be sideswiped by something awful, and that life holds no guarantees. But I plan to enjoy the journey as much as possible, and to see what life brings. I’m loving today, and looking forward to tomorrow.

So thanks to Toby Keith and Clint Eastwood for their artistry and inspiration, and thanks to my friend Kevin for sharing this song with me – Kevin is young at heart and I know his wife and family will keep him that way for years and years. May you all do the same.

Mike

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Notes:

  • The background for this article came from a Billboard Magazine article by Cathy Applefeld Olson and the photo by Eric Charbonneau. You can find the article here.
  • If you want to hear and see the music video for the song, with a whole lot of Clint Eastwood, check it out here.

On New Year’s Resolutions

What do I want said about me when I die? That was a question posed to me in Michael Hyatt’s Living Forward book. He encourages readers to write their own eulogy, then live their life so that they live up to those words. “By writing the eulogy as if it’s being delivered today, you may see some gaps between what people would say and what you would like them to say. That can be unsettling for some people, but news flash: You’re still alive and have the power to change the course of your life!”

I love stuff like that. And I hope that more than half of the people at my funeral say nice things about me! A guy can dream, right?

I know there are plenty of haters out there, but I love New Year’s Resolutions. I spend time thinking about them, and I actually write them down. I’ve done it forever and I have no intention of quitting now.

Probably the biggest change for me this year is two items that are no longer on my resolution list. For the first time in almost 40 years, I have no goals related to a specific job. That is still beyond mind-blowing to me. After four months of not working, I’m still not used to it, but I do like it. A lot. One of my favorite Kenny Chesney songs is The Life. The chorus in the song is about what retirement could look like, and it goes, “I fish, play my guitar, laugh at the bar with my friends, go home to my wife, and pray every night, I can do it all over again.” Substitute golf for fishing (I think they are similar in many ways – social sports performed in beautiful places that are really hard to do well), and you have a pretty idyllic existence. But I’m not ready for “The Life” yet. I have always believed and I still believe that if you are not growing, you are dying.

Also for the first time in decades, losing weight is NOT one of my resolutions. Thanks to a massive reduction in stress in my life, and a new guide to food intake, I have lost enough of the weight that I’ve been holding onto for a long time. At the suggestion of a very good friend, I have been on the Noom diet for two months now. I did not have a ton to lose, but when my knee doctor told me to lose some weight and my knee might feel better (aka – she called me fat), I knew that it was more than getting my BMI below 25. Now my goal is just to eat healthily for the rest of my life, except for a few times. And let’s be clear – there will be some big calorie meals. I believe that you can’t trust a skinny cook. If I’m making good stuff, or if I’m presented with spectacular food, I’m eating it. I don’t need to be skinny, but I need to be light enough to be healthy and to reduce the load on my back and my knees.

Steven Covey called this quest for continuous improvement “sharpening the saw.” He told a story of a person coming upon a logger who is exhausted, as he has been sawing on a big tree for three hours. When the logger hears the suggestion to stop and sharpen the saw, he says, “I don’t have time. I’m too busy sawing.” That’s the problem. If we don’t take time to sharpen the saw, we are wasting time and being highly ineffective. And not to be hyperbolic, but again, if we are not sharpening our own saws, we are dying.

When the logger hears the suggestion to stop and sharpen the saw, he says, “I don’t have time. I’m too busy sawing.”

How am I sharpening my physical saw? Well, as I said, I’ve been spending a lot of time recently sharpening my physical saw with Noom – and I want to continue to do this. A lot of the food choices in Noom echo what I have been reading in the Blue Zones research. Michael Pollan, author of the Omnivore’s Dilemma, echoes the advice, writing, “Eat food. Not a lot. Mostly plants.” I’m working on expanding that into a haiku.

I’ve always been an avid exercise fan, and I continue to follow the advice in Younger Next Year, pushing myself hard when I work out (following up on my last post, I swam 10,000 yards with a group of crazy people on New Year’s Day!), doing my best to avoid the body decay that time wants to impose. And one day, I will learn how to sleep more than six hours a night. Maybe.

How about my social and emotional saw? Now that I don’t have the built-in ease of being social at work (which I do miss), I have to work on this more. Being a better husband, father, sibling, son, and friend is hard work. And while those who love us the most can forgive long lapses in communication, it’s better not to have to ask for that forgiveness.

And while those who love us the most can forgive long lapses in communication, it’s better not to have to ask for that forgiveness.

My mental saw is probably the one I have to work on the most. While I was working, I was always learning. I was learning from teachers, from principals, and from new challenging situations. Every day was something new. Saw sharpening was unavoidable. Now, I have to take initiative. I will do that primarily through my writing. And all the while, I’ll continue to follow the Make Your Bed advice: never give up, and get stuff done every day.

I’m not itching to go back to working 70 hours a week, and these writing projects will give me academic and mental challenge, meaning, and a way to continue pursuing my passion for public education.

And finally, I have to sharpen my spiritual saw. I was raised as a Catholic, but I have also worshipped as a Presbyterian and as a Methodist. I do not attend church at this point in my life, but I still hold dear the lessons I learned from those years of church. I believe all of the world’s religions hold truth and inspiration. I don’t have one of those coexist bumper stickers on my car, but the world would be a better place if we all could coexist. If I have a text that I would call my Bible, it would be The Power of Now, by Eckhart Tolle. Relying on inspiration from all of the world’s major religions, he focuses on finding personal peace from the craziness we often make for ourselves, and freeing ourselves from our own incessant thinking by focusing on the present moment and nothing else. On a more practical spiritual level, I seek to follow Marie Kondo’s advice and continue to simplify and enjoy what I have. And I am seeking to declutter my mind out on the golf course, following the advice in Golf is Not a Game of Perfect, and accept the failures that happen on the course, get over it, and focus on doing well on the next shot. Like a lot of things in golf, it carries over as good life advice.

I hope that we all can give ourselves the luxury of time invested in ourselves this year, as we sharpen our saws and do what we can to not only tread water, but to swim even faster towards our goals this year.

Mike

Books that guide my resolutions for this year:

Critical Race Theory – A Superintendent and History Teacher’s Perspective

Critical Race Theory. It’s something I had never heard of until September of last year. And then, I began getting very angry emails and people started coming to board meetings to demand that we stop teaching it. The questions were very much like ones featured in the first-ever school board meeting parody on Saturday Night Live, where a concerned citizen stands up and says, “Hi. I’m so mad I’m literally shaking right now. Forget COVID. The real threat is Critical Race Theory being taught in our schools. My question is, what is it? And why am I mad about it?” 

First of all, those of you who read my blog know that I love their use of the word “literally.” But secondly, it’s a perfect parody, because I’m a former history teacher and school district superintendent, and until I started receiving these emails and listening to these public comments, I too had no idea what Critical Race Theory (CRT) was.

In many board meetings around the nation, mostly in more affluent school districts, this scenario has repeated itself. In speaking with many other superintendents and board members from around the country, not a single one of us, prior to all of this, ever had even a single conversation about CRT, much less about whether or not we should be teaching CRT. So why are we all being yelled at about something we are not doing and until last fall, knew nothing about?

Two trends that have occurred in the last two years help us to understand. First, the murder of George Floyd in May of 2020 galvanized anti-racism forces around the country. In addition, Asian and Pacific Islander hate incidents increased around the nation, in response to both overt and tacit commentary from national leaders condoning anti-Asian actions, making those anti-racism forces even more comprehensive. In my former district, students, former students, and adults in our community were looking for ways to make our schools better for all students – looking for ways to make schools as free from racism and discrimination as possible.

I have great faith in our youth. I have observed and interacted with thousands of students, and I have watched my own children and how they get along with their peers. I truly believe we have never seen a more open-minded generation of young adults. More than ever, they are fully accepting of persons of all races, religions, sexual orientations, gender identities, and more. I think that a big reason for this is that their desire for a discrimination-free America, though renewed, is not new. Brown vs. Board of Education, Title IX, and Special Education laws have been major forces in improving equality in American education. And it’s important to remember that when those changes started having an impact on equality of opportunity in America, then, like now, there was serious backlash. This has never been about everyone being equal – this is about everyone having true equality of opportunity for an excellent education. Our efforts have continued. When I first started teaching in the mid-1980s, we were talking about how to embrace all cultures through multicultural education. And we’ve come a long way since then.

But in spite of that progress, there are still acts of hate that continue to occur in our schools and in our communities. There are racial slurs, anti-Semitic comments, hateful graffiti, and more. I don’t know of any educational leaders who, when confronted by incidents of hate, will accept or ignore those incidents and just say, “Kids will be kids.” That’s why districts like Manhattan Beach and others took an even harder look at what they can proactively do to make schools as hate-free as possible. In Manhattan Beach, this movement kicked into high gear in 2015 when someone firebombed the front door of one of the few black families living in the city. The community rallied around the Clinton family, gathering together for a powerful candlelight vigil to support them. Malissia Clinton’s powerful TED talk on how she was raised, the firebombing, and the aftermath should tell you all you need to know about why this work needs to continue. You can call the firebombing an isolated incident perpetrated by an outlier, but when you start hearing about the common experiences of so many people of color – our students, co-workers, colleagues, and friends – it’s different. I can’t tell you how much it hurt when, at a Board meeting while I was superintendent, I heard from some of our recent graduates about widespread discrimination they experienced while they were in MBUSD. We can and should build better and more inclusive schools.

Enter Christopher Rufo. Wikipedia describes Rufo as an “American Conservative Activist.” He appeared on the Tucker Carlson show in September of 2020 and made the case that Critical Race Theory was an existential threat against our nation. He gave evidence of government trainings on racial sensitivity that were aimed at understanding concepts such as white privilege and systemic racism, and he called on the President of the United States to immediately take action against this threat. Three days later, at the President’s request, Rufo flew to New York to meet on the topic. The President quickly issued memos and even an executive order banning the use of Critical Race Theory in our government. That’s precisely when the emails started, and the board meeting chaos began shortly after.

I’ve received messages stating that by addressing the issues of racism in our community, we are (1) calling our entire community racist, (2) pushing for a Marxist agenda, (3) shaming white students, and (4) being anti-American. All four of those accusations are blatantly false. This is what is happening in districts around the nation, and now states are getting involved. At least seven states have already passed laws making it illegal to teach Critical Race Theory, and 13 more have bills in process. Here’s the problem – I’m a history teacher, and I still have no idea what it means to “not teach critical race theory.”

The least effective history teachers see history as memorizing names, dates, places, and facts. But highly effective history teachers teach students to view the past from different perspectives, to analyze events in terms of who benefited or who suffered from the decisions and actions, and to draw conclusions about why events happened and how they shaped who we are as a nation today. These new laws make teachers question whether or not they can do that. In one Texas school district, teachers were told that if they were going to teach controversial issues, like racism or even the Holocaust, they should present multiple perspectives. A district administrator said, “If you have a book on the Holocaust, [make sure] that you have one that has an opposing, that has other perspectives.” The district has since then apologized, but come on people! This is what bad laws do.

Like the Holocaust, there are plenty of events in American history which do not, in my opinion, deserve a different perspective. But they do deserve serious inquiry and investigation to see how they occurred, the impact they had, and what we can learn from them. Here’s just a few of them.

  • Slavery
  • The Japanese Internment
  • The My Lai Massacre
  • The rise, resurgences, and continued existence of the KKK
  • The Sand Creek Massacre
  • The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire
  • The racist restrictions on immigration in the 1920s
  • The racist Plessy v. Ferguson Supreme Court decision and all the Jim Crow laws that were commonplace throughout the South well into the 2nd half of the 20th century.

It’s OK to teach, and not in the least bit anti-American to say, that America has made tragic mistakes in our past. And it is untruthful to teach students that racism no longer exists in our country or in our community. Our students know better. Our students want to learn from multiple perspectives and read from a diverse group of writers, not just white and male perspectives. We should all know that even though our nation is one of the greatest nations ever for providing equality of opportunity, that opportunity is not as universal as we might think.

And by the way, what is Critical Race Theory? I have researched it, because I wanted to understand, and here is what I gather. CRT is an academic premise postulating that, in examining laws in our country, it is helpful to use the lens of racism to better understand how those laws came to be, as well as what impact they had.  To me, it’s similar to techniques of my history teachers in college, who asked us to examine historical events using an economic lens, a political power lens (by far the most common), a social lens, or a technological lens. Adding the lens of racism might also be helpful. And who makes the decision on what the right answer is? The student. The grade is not based on what a student’s conclusion is, rather it is based on how well a student defends their position.

CRT is not an existential threat against the United States. And it certainly is not something infiltrating our schools. But our schools are not and should not be ignoring incidents of racism and discrimination that are continuing to happen. No one will argue that discrimination is far less of a problem in our schools now than it was a century ago. But to say it no longer exists is putting your head in the sand. Teachers and school boards enter their positions to make life for their students, all students, better. Many of them are taking steps to do just that. Without lowering rigorous standards for achievement, educators are learning how to better address these issues in their classrooms.

Finally, to those who think that the anti-racism efforts are going too far, I urge you to follow the advice of Steven Covey, and seek first to understand, then be understood. Schools are trying to help our students to think for themselves, and a curriculum that reflects diversity and diverse ideas is essential to that effort. We educators are not aiming to make any student feel shame about who they are. In fact, wasn’t it just a few years ago that many were criticizing schools’ efforts to build students’ self-esteem? We want all students to emerge from our schools prepared for their future, confident about themselves, and caring about all others. And in spite of all of our progress, we have miles to go before we sleep.

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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 . . .

Ladybugs and Dogs( Reflections of School and Life in the Midst of COVID-19 (#9, April 25, 2020)

It may have been the most thoughtless senior prank I ever experienced.

As a former high school principal, I don’t love senior pranks. Usually, very little thought goes into them, and they end up being destructive, damaging, or time consuming. Occasionally though — and I mean very occasionally —  a group of seniors pulls off a truly clever idea that is not at all destructive, damaging, or time consuming. A few years ago, seniors brought their pets to school. It brought a lot of smiles to campus, and some students declared it the best day ever. My mistake was not saying it was a one-time only event, which I had to say when the next year’s students tried to do the same thing. Clever one year, and inconvenient after that. I know that with my cat allergies, I would not like Bring Your Cat to School Day. But we all know the cats wouldn’t like it either.

During my time as a high school principal, the second-best senior prank was when some students, with inside help, moved my entire office, desk, chairs, bookshelves, everything, into the quad. I “had to” work outside the whole day, holding meetings in the bright sun, and making a spectacle of it all.

But the best prank was when a group of seniors spent months deconstructing a Volkswagen Beetle and then one night rebuilt and secured it around the flagpole in the quad. When I came to work, students and employees were admiring a VW Bug in Malibu High School colors with the campus flagpole rising through the middle of it. It was awesome, and I let it stay there for a week. And when I asked the students to take it down and leave the quad in perfect condition, they did just that. Spectacular.

Back to the thoughtless prank. Some seniors at Santa Monica High School had released about 200,000 ladybugs on campus. I’m not sure that was the number, but that was the rumor. It was a lot. Ladybugs blanketed several hallways and just didn’t know what to do. I’m sure there were rose bushes all around town that would have loved them, and local aphids should have been fearful, but instead the ladybugs were just clogging up the hallways, getting stepped on by people trying to leave the building, and eventually being removed by custodians. It was a needless loss of life for some beautiful and extremely useful creatures, and I hated it. In the course of helping to deal with the prank, I mentioned to one of the office assistants that my then-five-year-old son loved ladybugs, and he would have hated to see this. As I was leaving, the assistant gave me an emptied plastic liter bottle, punched with air holes, containing about 50 ladybugs to give to Dawson. Her unsolicited act of kindness gave me the only smile I had that afternoon, and I am still grateful.

When I came home, Dawson came outside to greet me and I gave him the bottle-o-bugs. He looked at it with big eyes, then looked at me and said these now famous words: “Thanks, Dad. I finally have a pet.

Oh boy.

Dawson had been bugging us for a while for a dog, but he’s such an easy-going kid, that he figured lady bugs must be the next best thing. I turned to Jill and said, “It’s time to get a dog.”

That weekend we went to the local animal shelter and spotted a Pekingese that someone had dropped off at the pound’s front gate. We saw her as she was being taken out of her cage for the first time and walked around. There’s a Kenny Chesney song about his adopted dog, where he sings, “Lying there like a lost string of pearls.”  It’s a perfect line for a beautiful abandoned dog. Dawson and Jill fell in love, I quickly gave up any hope of looking the least bit masculine as I walked this white fluff ball through the neighborhood, and Penelope (Penny) was ours. That was October 18, 2008.

Last Saturday, exactly 11 and one half years later, our Penny died of old age in our arms.

Those of you who have lost beloved pets know that in these deaths you lose a family member and a friend. It hurts.

But it was a great run.

There’s a touching book called The Art of Racing in the Rain, by Garth Stein. The movie is OK, but the book is special. It features the relationship between the main character, Denny, and his dog Enzo. Their close friendship is almost human in nature, and the dog understands emotions, illness, auto racing, and the meaning of the universe. I don’t think Penny understood any of those things, but she was still a wonderful dog. More from Enzo later.

Pets have been a great source of companionship during this COVID-19 era. There are plenty of Facebook posts about dogs tired of walks and belly rubs, of happy dogs, or dogs imploring their humans to go back to work. I Zoom regularly with two colleagues, one of whom has a dog always begging to get picked up so he can co-Zoom from her lap, and another who has a cat who lurks behind her, ready to attack, like Cato in the Pink Panther movies.  Our pets and companions, intelligent, loving, or diabolically crazy, make our lives so much more full, which is particularly reassuring while we are spending so much time at home with plenty to worry about.

YoungPenny

We adopted Penny when she was four or five, when Dawson was also four or five. They grew up together. She slept at the foot of Dawson’s bed, they played together in their younger years, and when they were older, you could usually find her lying on a soft pillow next to Dawson as he sat at the computer. She didn’t need much: a little food, occasionally with some cheese mixed in, clean water, access to the back yard, and short bursts of companionship. She spent most of her time just looking for a soft place to sit, close to us, but not too close. We called her a cat-dog. She liked us, but didn’t need us, except when she did. We loved her in spite of or because of all of that.

OldPenny

“Dogs’ lives are too short. Their only fault really.” I found that quote from Agnes Turnbull, and I couldn’t agree more.

I have never spent more time at home than in the past few weeks. Never. One of the gifts of that time was getting to spend so much time with Penny in what turned out to be her final weeks with us. All of us being with her at 3 a.m. when she breathed her last breath was powerful and emotional. She knew she was loved, and though I was not ready, I believe she was.

Back to our dog philosopher hero Enzo, who philosophized, as only dogs can do, “To live every day as if it had been stolen from death, that is how I would like to live. To feel the joy of life, … to separate oneself from the burden, the angst, the anguish that we all encounter every day. To say I am alive, I am wonderful, I am. I am. That is something to aspire to.

I am convinced that many of us, when it comes to the pursuit of happiness, are our own worst enemies. We humans overthink things, and the more leisure time we have, the more we overthink our lives. We should learn from our dogs.

One last quote from Enzo the wise sage/dog: “That which is around me does not affect my mood; my mood affects that which is around me.”

We are living in the midst a very challenging time. If we can take the time to step back from our challenges, feel the joy of life, and seek to improve the moods of those around us, that’s good stuff.

Thank you, Penny, for making our moods better every day of your 12 years with us.

May all of your animal friends, dogs, cats, horses, and even ladybugs, past, present, and future, ease your burdens and bring smiles to your faces throughout your lives.

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