Friday’s Fast Five… 5 Things Death Has Taught Me About Life

Picture this– we are all crammed in one big classroom. All of us.empty-314554_960_720

You, me, Tom Hanks, Hilary Clinton, Ronaldo, Kim Jong-un,  Stephen Hawking, Jennifer Lawrence, your neighbors, my neighbors, everyone. The entire breathing population. And it’s chaos. It’s a circus. It’s Woodstock. And every day new people arrive while the expired souls disappear.

He, the teacher, took Prince last week. Whispers swirled that He seized Kelly Ripa earlier this week but alas, those rumors were false. Bill Cosby is here, alone, slumped in a corner. LeBron James is signing autographs. Jon Kasich is trying on a pair of children’s gloves. The teacher instructs Tim McGraw to play “Live Like You Were Dying”. Again. Some listen. Others roll their eyes and ignore and go about their lives.

In this classroom there are no division lines. No borders. No walls. We are all enrolled in the course of Life. An enigmatic course taught by the much maligned, much parodied, under-appreciated teacher– Death.

Like any teacher, Death is highly criticized. He’s got a 2 star rating on ratemyteacher.com. His pupils toss insults behind his back and slander his name with Sharpies on the inside of bathroom stall doors. I’m guilty of this. In last week’s piece “To Robbinsville, New Jersey” I announced “Death sucks.”

Now, I don’t regret my criticism of Death ( I’m from Philadelphia, criticizing is what we do.) But since last week I’ve thought a lot about Death.  I’ve thought… maybe we’ve got him all wrong. In fact, I’ll swallow my pride here and humbly admit–Death is the greatest teacher we have.

I look around this classroom. Some of us are listening. Some are taking notes. Some are asking questions and absorbing everything Death is teaching.  Others stare at the clock. Count ceiling tiles. Drawl little four- dimension squares. Some are nodding off. Some sound asleep. The thing is most of us (maybe not Keith Richards) are very aware of this truth– we are going to die.

A few days after Dr. Steve Mayer’s death, a former student who was very close to Steve and his family emailed me. The student said she just didn’t know what to do. She was lost. No passion for life. I thought about her desolation. I thought about how Death can steal life from the living.  I responded by telling her Death is our greatest teacher (yes, even better then me). Death teaches us how to live. By doing his thing, He teaches perspective. He shows us what matters. And though He may bring us- the living- sadness and grief, those emotional hardships are opportunities for growth.

So after a tough week with Death, I would like to give Death some props and present 5 things Death has taught me about living…

1. Don’t hold grudges

Look living is hard business. And if you hang around long enough you will get hurt. That’s the deal.  But I’m amazed at the amount of people who trudge through life with a 20-pound backpack stuffed with anger and hate strapped to their shoulders. Carrying around that kind of weight makes daily living exhausting.  I know, people can be pretty shitty. And people can really mess you up. But from what I’ve learned, grudges are toxic stuff. They poison every relationship you’re involved in. Death teach us that in the end, grudges don’t matter.  Death implores us to live light, to give up our grudges.

2. Do more of what you love

It’s that simple. Forget money, fame, fortune. In the end, those things don’t matter. Just figure out what brings you joy, what makes you glad to be alive and do more of it.

3. Take risks

When I say risks, I’m not talking about wearing a “Hilary for President” shirt to a Trump rally. I’m talking about healthy risks. Accepting positive challenges that push you out of your comfort zone. Healthy risks fill you with zest and zeal. In my 36 years, I’m proud to have taken some risks– stand-up comedy, fatherhood, this website, the Wendy’s Baconator. These risks, though scary at first, facilitated growth and ignited self-improvement. By taking risks, I’ve learned that the only way to lighten the darkness of death is to live an electric life.

4. Appreciate nature

My life doesn’t afford me the opportunity to travel as much I would like. But you don’t have to travel to exotic places to appreciate the tranquility of nature.  If you can’t travel to coast lines or mountain tops or bareback a donkey into the belly of a canyon just step outside– watch the sun roll across the blue sky, feel the rain on your skin, stare at the stars on a clear sunrise-1371391077dmNsummer night. We live on an amazing hunk of rock and quite frankly, I’m a little nervous to know what the view is like on the other side.

 

5. Don’t take people for granted

A few years ago I promised my wife I would tell her I love her everyday. I was good for awhile. Then I missed a day. Then another and another. It’s not that I stopped loving my wife. I guess, I just became self-absorbed and lazy. Something that happens to most of us.  Here’s a tough but sobering thought– one day either my wife or I won’t be here to gaze back at the other, to smile together–like we’ve done for so many years– and say “I love you.”

Be well,

Jay

 

The Write on Fight on College Scholarship Award

Hey Everyone,

I’m excited to announce that the next WoFo sponsored Write-a-Thon will be held on May 17 at Robbinsville High School in Robbinsville, New Jersey. This event is helping to raise money for the Write on Fight on College Scholarship Award. An award that will be given to one deserving senior at Robbbinsville High School.  This event is closed to the public however if you would like to support the event and get yourself a cool American Apparel WoFo t-shirt check out our Booster campaign below. As always thanks so much for your support!shrt2

Be well,

Jay

Click the link below to read more and donate…

https://www.booster.com/the-write-on-fight-on-scholarship-fund

To Robbinsville, New Jersey

Death sucks.rville

Not because of its invincibility or apathy. Its ruthlessness or timelessness. Death sucks because it divides the living.

Amidst the grieving crowd, death ostracizes  us into our own private corners.  Yes, when a person dies, the living find other. We nestle together like spoons. We offer shoulders and hands. We whisper condolences and pray together and light candles and send flowers and food. And yet despite our collective human efforts to ease each others pain, coping with death emotionally isolates us. And to me that is fucking terrifying.

To make matters worse–we grieve uniquely. The depths and degrees of our grief are individualized. We can say we understand another’s pain but no matter how accurately we can articulate, our words fall tragically short of what is swirling in our heart and head– further exposing the flawed nature of the human design.

Death sucks because we must figure out how to deal with him individually. Yes we should talk to counselors. Talk to friends. Talk to God. But with grief there is no universal set of directions. No one size fits all model.  Coping is unique to the individual. And over time we, the living, must heal in our own unique ways.

Its only been three days. This is my first attempt to heal.

It’s August and I’m standing outside his office door. To hide my nervousness I wipe my sweaty palms on my khakis.  Beyond the windows, there’s an immense blue sky holding an fiery sun whose heat is italicizing everything, whose heat crawls along my skin, whose heat provokes the butterflies in my gut to flutter a little faster and a bead of sweat to sprint down my back.

Before I became a teacher in the small town of Robinsville, New Jersey, my small town knowledge was curated by movies and John Mellencamp songs. However after 10 years of working in Robbinsville I’ve come to learn some things. Like big cities, small towns have their own movers and shakes. In small towns these people often own restaurants and hardware stores. They are as recognizable as the mayor or the varsity quarterback. Their names carry weight and a certain reverence. Their names, in a lot of ways, provide the town with its identity, with its pride and spirit.

One of the big names in Robbinsville is Dr. Steve Mayer, Superintendent of Robbinsville Schools, the man whose office doorway I’m about to enter.

If you are familiar with Write on Fight on, I have discussed before how when I got sick, I  dropped out of grad school and decided to make my stories, my life public. If I was a rodeo clown this wouldn’t be an issue. But I’m not a rodeo clown ( yes, I know– a matter of opinion) I’m a teacher. And teachers are public figures, sure not on Kardashian levels, but we do live under a small microscope.

I’m now framed in his office door and before I even knock, Steve looks up and smiles at me, as if we were meeting for the first time.  Steve always smiled as if he was meeting you for the first time.  His smile was big, original and genuine. A smile that F. Scott Fitzgerald would have dreamt up and wrote about. A smile you just don’t often find on the face of a 52 year old man.

Steve moves from behind his desk and shakes my sweaty hand. He offers me a chair and looks at me with his big blue eyes, still holding that Fitzgerald smile and says, “So, what’s up Jay?”

The butterflies in my gut land on something and I tell Steve about my idea for creating a website. About my desire to promote writing and storytelling. My desire to host Write-a- Thons  for charitable causes and my strange desire to make my life a public spectacle.  I tell him about my medical conditions. I show him the MRI of my damaged brain. His blue eyes water when I speak about my children and how I want them to know my stories in case something happened to me.

After listening, Steve smiles his smile and tells me he wholeheartedly supports my visions. He applauds my courage to tell personal stories. He validates my desire. We shake hands and wish each other well. When I get home I start writing. That was the day this website was born.

In November, Steve participated in WoFo’s first ever Write- a- Thon. An event that raised money for Special Olympics– a cause stamped in Steve’s heart. During the Write-a-Thon Steve wrote alongside the students and myself. He wrote his annual Thanksgiving newsletter. A newsletter that gave my little website a big shout out.

This past Monday I made flyers for WoFo’s second Write-a-Thon in May.  The next day, while on his morning jog, Dr.Steve Mayer was hit by a car and killed.

As I write this– an entire town is feeling his death. Feeling it the way you can be in your house, away from the windows and somehow know the sky had clouded over, that the world had darkened.  Right now there’s a little universe in central New Jersey spinning without sun. Spinning off its axis. Spinning without purpose.

On Thursday school resumed. Our first attempt at normalcy. My first period class was senior English. These were students who had known Steve their whole lives. They described him as a father figure. A mentor. A pillar of the community. A good man. A man who championed their young, promising lives the way he championed mine.

Seeing my students cry was hard. Harder than I thought it would be. I didn’t know what to do. I took deep breaths and found things to do with my hands. When I finally calmed my own tears, I found a voice, cleared my throat and I said, “Its August and I’m standing outside his office door. To hide my nervousness I wipe my sweaty palms on my khakis.”

Telling you, telling my students this story is the best way I can honor the life of a man who gave me the support and courage to start this website, to tell stories.

To Robbinsville– death sucks. But take solace in knowing that through the human magic of memories and storytelling Dr. Steve Mayer, his message and his smile are still alive. In fact, it is our earthly responsibility to make sure the dead never die.  Right now, as I’m telling you this, Steve is shaking my hand, his blue eyes are meeting mine, he is nodding with approval and his smile is big and bright and forever.

Be well,

Jay

Friday’s Fast Five…5 Things I Wish I Knew When I Was 18

It’s crazy to think that 18 years ago I was farting my way through the final hours of high school, of childhood.

I naively assumed that because I breezed through the seas of high school that my future Public+Domain+Sailboatwaters would be calm and easily passable. I thought because I wrote a few essays, passed Algebra and successfully dissected a frog I was, as the Victorian poet William Earnest Henley once penned, “the captain of my soul.”

Like most 18 year olds I was– for no good reason– confident. I was sure I knew everything that needed to be known. I even remember, in the waning hours of high school, telling Cindy about my life plan…

  1. marry Cindy (ok somehow, by the grace of JK Rowling, this magically happened)
  2. write an award-winning novel
  3. sell the manuscript to Hollywood
  4. make millions of dollars
  5. retire at age 30

(Of course, at the time Cindy gushed over my plan. But that was 18 years ago and dreams  2 thru 5 can now be found in my private landfill rusting and rotting along aside other quixotic dreams such as growing a full beard and 6 pack abs.)

Teaching high school seniors affords me the opportunity to witness the oddity that is 18.  It’s a time where childhood idealism begin to tangle with adult delusions. And so at 18 you’re a bitter concoction of idealism and disillusions. No wonder why when you’re 18 no one really likes you.

It’s April now and my students are beginning to commit to college and though this is exciting and worthy of a celebratory dinner down at the Olive Garden, my students are starting to breaddigest the odd feeling that the free breadsticks and salads of high school are running out.

Of course, I love this time of year– tax rebates, baseball and only two more calendar flips until June. But even more so– in my class, literary discussions are now giving way to life discussions.

At this time of year my students pepper me with questions about how I was able to figure out life. They see me in my current state– an established teacher, this blog, my wife, kids and they think that this was all part of my plan. They did not witness all the failures and fears and and heartbreak and indecision that led to this current moment.

But here’s the thing… it has taken me 18 years to just begin to figure it out… only recently the purpose of my life began to grow clearer. Now the edges are still blurred but at least 18 years after I graduated high school I am starting to have a clue. So for this week’s Fast Five I share with you 5 things I wish I knew when I was 18…

1. There is a real danger in believing in your own fiction.

This has nothing to do with writing and everything to do with living authentically. You spend most of high school fabricating a life that will impress other people. And often these fabrications are mistaken as truths. If you’re lucky you will receive and accept your dose of reality.  But sadly some don’t. Some never accept reality. And for those unfortunate blind souls there is such devout belief in their own fiction that reality has been permanently skewed. This is dangerous. It leaves you destined to live an inauthentic, fabricated life.  When this is the case, when this is your life– you, my friend, are stock character in classic Greek tragedy.

2.That earning a degree in “experience” is more important than earning a degree in some field of study.

I tell my students that as you age you collect “baggage.”(Baggage is just a visual name for responsibility– a job, a mortgage, school loans, children, a spouse) And with this accumulating “baggage’ it will become exponentially more difficult to explore the possibilities of your life.  I highly recommend that you meet new people, try different jobs, and travel before you accumulate too much baggage (especially with the cost of carry-ons these days).

3. No one really knows what the hell they are doing.

I’m pretty sure that unless, you’re Steve Jobs, Lebron James, or Jesus  most of us at 18 have no clue what we are doing with our lives. Take comfort in that. I do. Everyday.

4. School loans are real.

I though school loans were just another things adults used to scare teenagers. But those loans are real. And they are not spectacular. Don’t believe me? Ask Wendy down at the TD Bank if you can see my current bank statements. When you graduate from college you want financial flexibility. Look, I know I sound like Charles Schwab here but financial flexibility will allow you to do more of the experiencing I was talking about in point #2.

5. It will take many years for you to figure out who you are and what you want.

Self-discovery is a long and arduous process. One that many adults grow tired of and ultimately settle for a life that disinterests them. Don’t give up on yourself. Allow yourself the opportunity to evolve into something greater. Look,  my children have their own life, their own destiny– but its been a great privilege to watch them evolve into these creative, curious people who are trying to figure themselves out. I only hope they spend the rest of their lives being just as creative and curious.

Listen to your life. Be patient with your life. Have courage to figure yourself out. You owe it to yourself to evolve into the best version of you.

Be well,

Jay

 

 

 

 

My Interview with Bree Hogan…AKA… Starbrite Warrior

Bree Hogan is a certified holistic health coach and the founder of Starbrite Warrior , an online resource and support community for women living with invisible illness who want to do more than just simply cope.

Through her unique mix of realism, positivity, humour and a whole lotta heart, Bree shares her personal, oftentimes confronting (no sugar-coating here!), insights and experiences to help women shine brite and live ah-mazing, possibility-fuelled lives in spite of chronic health-related limitations.bree

When she isn’t Starbrite-ing it up, Bree can be found doing wheelies around her Hubby in her mobility scooter; playing personal chef and butler to Master Horus (fur-baby); or indulging her love of all things mint and chocolatey.

Be sure to checkout Bree at http://www.starbritewarrior.com/

At the inception of chronic illness there is a lot of fear and confusion. Can you describe the time you felt the most scared?

When I was 24-years-old, I was diagnosed with a life-threatening case of Guillain-Barrè Syndrome, an autoimmune system disorder that attacks the peripheral nervous system.

Within 3 days of initial onset, I was lying in a bed in the hospital’s critical care unit, my body systematically shutting down.

I was essentially a working brain trapped in a non-working body. I was not in the driver’s seat of my own vehicle. I had lost complete and total control over what was happening to me.

I experienced full body paralysis. My eyes were taped shut at night as my blink reflex had stopped working. I was fed using a nasogastric tube. I slurred my speech, making it very difficult to understand me. I was in an incredible amount of pain, barely able to stand a sheet covering my body.

There were days, which morphed into weeks, of uncertainty. Guillain-Barrè isn’t diagnosed based on a blood test, it’s done on symptoms. In the first couple of days of diagnosis, the doctors were pretty sure I had Guillain-Barrè but they weren’t 100% certain.

They decided to treat me for it anyway, knowing that if they didn’t then there was a very real possibility that I may not survive.

I had to trust that these doctors, these people whom I had only just met and yet essentially held my life in their hands, knew what they were doing.

I had to trust that this would all play out as they said (hoped!) it would.

I had to trust that I would eventually regain function in my body, to move again, to speak properly again.

That kind of trust, that level of reliance on another person(s) with your own life…that’s one of the scariest things you can ever experience.

Anyone living with a chronic illness can attest that there are good days and bad days. How do you embrace the good days?

With both arms wide open in a gigantic hug!

Seriously, you take the good days and you make the absolute best of them. Because you don’t know if tomorrow, or the next day or the next day, will be an absolute sh!t storm. Life isn’t promised so get busy living!

Is there a particular poem, song or book that offers you inspiration and courage during bad days?

I like to bop along to songs that bring out my inner warrior and superhero. Songs like “Kryptonite” by 3 Doors Down, “Tubthumping (I Get Knocked Down)” by Chumbawamba and “It’s My Life,” by Bon Jovi.

Sometimes I like to switch it up with more mellow songs, but they are songs with lyrics really strike a chord with me. For example, “Thinking Out Loud” by Ed Sheeran with lyrics like, “When your legs don’t work like they used to before.” Kind of appropriate to my situation and in a weird way helps to make me feel better.

But mostly it’s power songs on repeat. Oh yeah!

On your website you have discussed that getting sick was a good thing. How do people react to that idea?

Most of the people who come to my website are facing medical challenges of their own, so they tend to get where I am coming from.

I wrote a piece just a couple of weeks ago about how I never would have thought I’d feel grateful for living with chronic illness. I was prepared that it might generate a lot of “WT!” comments, but the response was overwhelmingly supportive with comments like “I know exactly what you mean!” pouring in.

I need to make one thing very clear: It’s not my intention to downplay or sugar coat anything to do with chronic illness because living with it can really, really suck.

If I were given a choice not to have this illness, I’d gladly take it. I’d hit ‘return to sender’ in a heartbeat. I’m sure anyone in a similar position would do the same.

But I can hand-on-heart say that I have come to a point in my life where I can acknowledge that I wouldn’t be the person I am today if chronic illness and disability hadn’t been part of my journey. It’s led me on an expedition of self-awareness and improvement, survival, love.

I have grown so much more, become so much more, because of the challenges I have faced and I am stronger because of it.

I’ve found a way to be happy, engaged with life, and to keep working towards my dreams, even with illness and limitation.

Life is good and I am so grateful to still be here!

Can you describe how writing has helped you cope?

I’ve always had a bit of a flair for the written word.

I wrote a lot as a young child and teenager. Then this thing called adult life took over – career, social life, etc. – and I drifted away from my writing.

Then two years ago I decided to start a blog called Starbrite Warrior.

We all have methods of coping with what we don’t understand or dealing with painful situations in our lives.

Rediscovering my love of writing has been that for me. It’s been the cathartic release that I’ve needed to move ahead in my healing journey.

Human connection is a powerful and inspiring thing. Can you explain how connecting with people from all over the world through your website has helped you cope?

Living with a chronic illness has the potential to be very isolating.

I’m fortunate enough to have a loving husband, family and a great circle of friends, but I still find it incredibly comforting to connect with other people through Starbrite Warrior and be able to say “That’s exactly how I feel, you really get it!”

Their illness may not be the same as mine but their direct experience means they have the ability to be empathetic, encouraging and supportive in a way that others can’t.

Where else can we find you?

You can connect with me through my website…

http://www.starbritewarrior.com/

Facebook

https://www.facebook.com/starbritewarrior

Instagram

https://www.instagram.com/starbritewarrior/

 

Twitter

http://www.twitter.com/BreeStarbrite/.

5 Reasons Why Parenthood is the Best Form of Professional Development

If you’re a working professional I’m sure you’re familiar with the term “professional development”. If you’re not a working professional– stop reading my blog and get a job you bum. No just kidding! You’re not a bum! Keep reading! Please, I need your readership!

If you’re still with me–professional development (or PD) consists of seminars and workshops sponsored by your employer, often sweetened with coffee and donuts, that are meant to essentially make you a better employee.

In my 13 years as an educator I’ve endured many PD workshops. Some have been highly effective. Others not so much. As teachers it’s incredibly important we stay abreast on current pedagogical strategies to keep our classroom instruction effective and relevant. Additionally, we teachers are often subjected to PD that instruct us how to better deal with people—how to relate, how to be more empathetic, how to be more positive.

Now for me the most effective, challenging and rewarding PD I’ve been a part of is this never-ending workshop I naively signed-up for 8 years ago known as Parenthood. Parenthood is PD on crack. Parenthood is being dropped ass-first in your underwear on a battlefield. Parenthood is Wal-Mart on a Saturday afternoon.

Parenthood is brutal, unnerving, at times a hilarious experience. And if you’re paying attention (and lucky to survive) Parenthood can teach you how to be a better human.

And though Parenthood does not offer little printed certificates at the completion of the workshop, Parenthood has been my greatest form of PD. (The only downside to this Parenthood PD is that you have to supply the coffee and donuts.)

This week my daughter Haley turns 8. And she alone has been one of the greatest PD workshops in my life. Two reasons…

  1. She’s the oldest child which naturally makes her the test child (aka the guinea pig).
  2. She’s a girl and I know very little about girls.

So in honor of Haley’s birthday I present… 5 Things My 8 year Old Daughter Has Taught Me…

1. Dance like nobody’s watching

As adults we are often paralyzed by judgment.  We often act, fail to actFullSizeRender(1) (or fail to dance) for fear of what people may think or say. Adults spend their whole life fighting this fear. Haley has not learn about judgment yet. And she’s clearly better off for it.

2. Love learning

As children we craved knowledge.  We were excited to learn new stuff. As adults, learning  is often treated like a hassle , a chore– something your mother nagged you to do.  I’ve been adulting long enough to admit that I don’t know everything, that there is always more to know and an afternoon in a library would probably do us all some good.

3. Never, ever compromise your voice for anyone

Haley has two brothers. When things don’t go her way she lets the world know. She’s unafraid to tell us how she feels. She’s honest. If only we were all as honest as an 8 year old.

4. Be curious

Sometimes adults need to be reminded that curiosity takes little effort.FullSizeRender(1)

5. That it’s my job, as her father, to personify the good and decent things in this world.

This is hard to admit —but I know my child, my little girl is in for a world of hurt. And there is nothing I can do about it.  But as the Parenthood PD PowerPoint suggests it is my job to help my daughter- to help all my children- shoulder the pain of living by showing them all the good stuff that this life has to offer.

Friday’s Fast Five… 5 Simple Things My Life Has Taught Me

On Wednesday I turned 36 and found myself in my attic.

Let me explain.

As my wife and children, my parents and brothers milled about the living room I was sitting in the attic, alone, leafing through my old photo albums– doing my best Clark Griswold.clark

So I’m 36 now. Maybe it took 36 years for me to finally respect life. You know, the fragility, brevity and urgency of it all. Or maybe at 36, I’ve just come to appreciate the quiet stillness of a dusty attic.

Either way in those albums, I found a younger version of myself. A version that is both familiar and foreign.  The eyes, the smile, the full cheeks, the tilt of head– it’s me but a version I have to work to recognize.

Here I am— deep in thought and rocking some polyester overalls.

It wasn’t long ago that 36 seemed impossible. An unfathomable age. And I guess, in some ways I thought my life would be different at 36. I thought I would be more mature. I thought I would be more intelligent. I definitely thought I would have more money. Maybe even a jet ski. At 36, I never thought I would have an auto-immune disorder or love yoga or be a high school English teacher or author a blog.

Somehow it’s March 30, 1996 and someone downstairs shouts for me. The echo of my name calls me back. I close the album, tuck it away for another birthday and smile– knowing this is exactly how my life is suppose to be.

So for this–a rather nostalgic edition of Friday’s Fast Five I would like to share with you 5 simple things my life has taught me.

 

IMG_1337

1. What WoFo has taught me…

Once you find the courage to be genuine and vulnerable people will begin listen.

 

2. What my wife has taught me… Listening is the best way to honor any relationship.

j and cin
Just a couple of kids in the spring of 1996

 

 

 

 

 

 

3. What aging has taught me…

Life gets a lot easier once you stop giving a shit about what other people think of you.

 

4. What fatherhood has taught me…kids

Watching my children play helps restore my faith in humanity.

 

 

5. What getting sick has taught me…

It’s only when you fully accept your tragic, inevitable death that you begin to understand the purpose of your life.

family