Why I Celebrated My Worst Day

When I decided to celebrate my worst day I had romantic dreams of baking a chocolate cake, coating it with vanilla icing and beautifully decorating it with some unabashed inspirational quote.

Here’s what happened.

It’s okay to laugh. Seriously. I know, it’s high fructose, high caloric train wreck.

Just in case you can’t read it, beneath the scattered sprinkles, squiggled in red gel is the iconic line from Bruce Springsteen’s Badlands — “Aint no sin to be glad you’re alive.”

Here’s why.

This past September 4th was a big day for me. An anniversary of sorts. So I baked and decorated a cake to commemorate the day.

On September 4th, 2013 I had my first MRI revealing my brain damage–large chunk of my cerebellum had degenerated.

The date has now become a personal milestone. In the days and weeks following September 4th, 2013 there was, as you could imagine, a quiet tension. The kind of quiet tension that lingers between the pages of hospital waiting room magazines.

With every test, with every confused doctor I grew more desperate, more convinced that I was going to die a young man.

Four years later my brain damage is still unaccounted for.

However, eighteen months after the MRI, a muscle biopsy revealed an autoimmune disorder, sarcoidodsis, that causes inflammation not degeneration.

Four years later doctors are still nosing through medical journals searching for precedent. They are still hypothesizing.

I say let them hypothesize. For the only fact that matters today is — I’m still alive. And according to the Boss, that ain’t no sin.

If the September 4th picture marks my worst day, a day which initiated the worst stretch of days I have ever experienced, I’ve learned that celebrating your worst day is an important step toward healing. Though I’m not physically healed, and may never be, mentally, emotionally and spiritually I’m stronger for having endured my worst day.

Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given circumstances, to choose ones on way. Victor Frankl author, psychologist, neurologist

Suffering is lonely work.

Often, when we suffer we alienate the very people who take us to our appointments, who hold our hand, who cry alongside of us.

It’s understandable that when we suffer we become selfish. We fall into ourselves. Yet by doing so we fail to recognize the anguish others are in because of our suffering.

Cutting cake (even a poorly decorated one) and celebrating your worst day is an important step toward healing.  A sugary reminder of how resilient the human spirit can be and how our lives, whether we want the responsibility or not, are the models that others will follow.

Be well,

Jay

12 Things I Learned This Summer

As a teacher, my relationship with summer is complicated.

I love being lazy at 10 am. I love long afternoons on the beach, watching my children build sand castles and dig for shells. I love impromptu BBQs and staying up past 11 pm on a Tuesday to watch reruns of The King of Queens.

Yet, after a few weeks of freedom, I miss the routine and discipline it takes to survive each school day.

Sure, I love spending time with my children especially when they’re smiling and sharing…not so much when they’re being loud, selfish jerks.

Summer’s complications provide good reflecting material. Here are 12 things I learned or came to better understand this summer:

1. The movies are (still) outrageous

As a kid, when mom would take me to the movies, she would stuff her pockets with contraband– homemade popcorn packed Zip-lock baggies, juice boxes and shoe string licorice from Woolworth’s– and tell me that concession prices are simply too outrageous to buy anything. That was 30 years ago.

Embarrassed and annoyed, I’d tell her that when I’m a father I’m going to buy my kids food at the theater.

On a rainy summer day, I left the wife home and took the kids to see Despicable Me 3. Yet after 4 tickets and 4 sodas (yes, I bought each kid a soda because I’m dad and I’m awesome) and the the 5 gallon tub of popcorn totaled $72 I firmly announced to my children that the movies are outrageous and they’ll never be dining at the theater again.

I think I owe mom an apology.

2. Your credit card company may have a “pay down program”

On a recent statement I noticed how much I was paying in interest a month. Embarrassed and annoyed, as if my credit card company had courted me to the movies with its deep pockets filled with pre-bought snacks, I called and talked to a representative and learned that my credit card, Discover, has a “pay down program”. After you enroll (which is free) simply pay any amount over the minimum monthly payment and Discover will apply a 5% credit to your minimum payment.

Which means, if your monthly minimum is $100 and you pay $100.01, Discover will apply a 5% credit to your statement, subtracting your balance by $5.

If your looking to pay down your credit card it’s worth finding out if your credit card company has a similar program.

3. Surprise your children

When I recently asked my daughter what the best thing about this summer, she replied, “The surprise trip to Tennessee.”

In July, Cindy and I surprised the kids with a trip to visit family in Tennessee. We rolled the tikes out of bed, assembled them on the couch and announced we were boarding a plane to Tennessee in 4 hours. They had no choice but to brush their teeth and be excited.

A family trip is great. A surprise family trip makes it that much more memorable.

4. Your marriage requires you to be proactive

This summer I read a lot about living a proactive life. It’s apparent that addressing your problems before they gain mass and weight is critical to living a healthy, happy life.

After 12 years of marriage ( I’m not an expert by any means) but a proactive marriage–one where you address feelings and choices as they arise– is the healthiest thing a married couple can do. Passiveness and inactivity in a marriage creates tension, frustration and division which only further compound the relationship.

5. You control your destiny

I found one of my new favorite books this summer–The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho. It’s a simple, parabolic read. A boy journeys through the desert searching for wealth yet along the way he learns about the realities of life.

The Alchemist stakes this truth– no matter the circumstance, we hold ownership over our actions. By victimizing ourselves, by blaming others, by skirting responsibility we stunt our growth, we immobilize ourselves.

I’m so glad I found this book and, if it hasn’t already, I hope it finds you.

6. Vitamins are good

After a friend’s suggestion, I ordered and tried a vitamin package from The Melaluca Company called Peak Performance Total Health.

I take two vitamin packets a day, one in the morning and one at night. The packets are filled with 12 supplements and vitamins.

After two months, I’m happy with the results. I have more energy, better focus and my joint and muscle pain have noticeably decreased.

Also, I began taking Vertisil, which is an all-natural supplement to help relieve symptoms including balance, vertigo and motion sickness. You can order it on Amazon but it’s a little pricey at $40 for 60 tablets. However, I would highly recommend it for anyone struggling with balance issues.

7. Trust your change

I kicked-off summer by delivering the commencement speech at my high school’s graduation. Trust Your Change was the speech’s title.

Trusting your change is hard. But what helps to better accept change is having a set of cemented principals like honesty, discipline and patience that stand as everlasting personal pillars, that weather uncertainty and provide us the courage to trust our change.

Having such principals lessens the stress of change.

If you work on establishing principals, trusting your change becomes more natural.

8. It doesn’t hurt to ask

This summer I interviewed authors, teachers, entrepreneurs and professional storytellers because I wanted to learn more about their craft.

At first it was a little intimidating cold-emailing strangers and slightly disappointing when a few didn’t respond. However, in the end, more people responded than those who didn’t.

I talked to some great people this summer, like award-winning storyteller Hillary Rea, and learned that if you’re genuinely looking for help most people are willing to field your questions and offer such help.

9. Sometimes no one shows up

In consecutive years, August has proven to be my toughest blogging month. As summer concludes the traffic on writefighton.org is at its thinnest.

Sure it’s a little frustrating, but it’s the serving of humble pie I occasionally need.

August is a reminder that writing is about honing a skill and putting in unseen work, like shooting foul shots in an empty gym.

Writing requires practice even when no one is reading.

10. Medium.com is a great place to spend time

If you’re looking for something interesting to read or thinking about blogging but don’t want the hassle of building your own blog I recommend medium.com.

Medium.com is free site where you can write, share and read articles on essentially any topic. (I’m a big fan of the life lessons and writing articles).

I joined medium.com last summer but didn’t get serious until this summer. If you want to read more or publish your own work then you should definitely check out medium.com.

11. It’s ok to let your children go

Just as I pulled into the parking lot for her soccer practice, Haley said, “Dad just drop me off here. I will walk up to practice.”

“It’s ok sweetie, I’ll park and we’ll walk up together.”

“No, I can do it myself.”

When she turned 9 in April, Haley’s feet began growing roots in the soil of stubborn independence. Seeing her everyday this summer made me realize how she’s distancing herself from childish things and stretching into adolescence.

12. It’s only nature that summer passes by

There’s a tendency at the end of the summer to lament how fast the summer has passed. But that’s life. The brevity amplifies the beauty of it all. Watching the seasons, watching people you love transition from one phase of life to the next is what gives brilliance to the human experience.

I hope your summer season was filled with a lifetime of warm moments that ride with you deep into the future days of your life.

Be well,

Jay

How to Persevere Like a 4 Year Old

Total Read Time: 4 minutes

THE MONKEY BARS. The playground’s proving ground. The callouser of hands. The skinner of knees.

A horizontal symbol of strength, of perseverance. Conquered by only big kids.

On a sun-splashed day, my wife and I take our 3 kids to a local park.

When the kids find the playground, our youngest, Dylan rushes to the monkey bars.

He stands underneath, looking up (the littlest one is always looking up), sizing up the bars with his big blue eyes. His little head swirling with possibilities, willing to disregard his physical safety to answer his own little “What if’s…?”

Dylan shouts, “Hey mom, dad watch!”

Cindy and I plant ourselves, across the playground, on a stone bench anchored in some shade.

Like a little gymnast, Dylan stands on the platform and eyes up the bars.

A buzzer sounds in his head and with both hands Dylan grabs the first rung and pulls his feet from the platform. He dangles. And dangles.

And dangles.

Feeling the fullness of his own weight for the first time.

Valiantly, he tries to muscle his right arm forward but the distance between rungs is too great and he crashes to the ground.

Cindy and I let out that familiar parental gasp.  But before we could push ourselves from our seats Dylan unknots himself, springs to his feet,”I’m ok!” and dashes back on the platform. Unfazed. Determined.

Cindy and I sit down and find our breaths.

They don’t know it, but these children are fantastic teachers. Little daredevils who remind you about the power of perseverance.

And if you’re struggling, questioning your limits (and let’s be honest…who isn’t) observe children discover their abilities, their potential, their unflinching desire to persevere, to answer the “What if…?” and you’ll be humbled.

Never confuse a single defeat with a final defeat. –F. Scott Fitzgerald

Begin with the End in Mind

Dylan is standing on platform again, staring down the length of the monkey bars. It’s only 6 feet, but in his eyes it must look like crossing the Grand Canyon.

How quickly do we think about falling before our feet leave the platform? How quickly does doubt extinguish our fires of victory?

Skin Your Knees, Callous Your Hands

Dylan divorces the platform. Unafraid to skin his knees, to callous his hands.

He dangles with nothing but his soft, little kid arms holding his weight. His right hand moves forward. His left hand remains. In the space and time when he’s dandling by one hand, I’m sure he feels the strain, the familiar flash of human doubt, but his right hand finds the next rung, followed by his left.

Leaving doubt and fear behind on the previous rung.

How many times have we skirted a challenge for fear we might get hurt? For fear, that the risk wouldn’t be worth the reward?

Success seems to be largely a matter of hanging on after others have let go. –William Feather

Keep Your Enthusiasm

Rung by rung, Dylan moves forward. It’s hard and it hurts but he’s smiling. He feels his own momentum. He feels the tide of achievement. He understands he’s on the verge of doing something he’s never done.

He’s happy.

Why is enthusiasm so hard for adults to find? 

Crush Your Threshold

One rung remains.

He’s dangling by both arms. His body like a soft pendulum, swinging back and forth.  His arms are screaming. He’s at his limits. Then, somehow, his right arm pushes forward, and grabs the next rung.

Why is it that the older we get, the more unwilling we are to cross our thresholds? Why do we see thresholds as roadblocks instead of doorways into a new world?

“It does not matter how slowly you go as long as you do not stop.”
— Confucius

Go the Distance

When Dylan’s feet hit the platform at the end of the monkey bars he smiles, throws his hands in the air and shouts’ “I did it!”

It’s the pure joy of accomplishment. He stands on the platform and looks back at the monkey bars he just crossed.

Cindy and I are clapping. We’re the only ones, in the whole playground, clapping.

And that’s all Dylan needs.

My 4 Year Old Teaches Me About Perseverance

A writer’s life is not for the faint of heart.

There have been plenty of moments, after I’ve poured my blood into a piece, convinced it was my finest work, sure to be liked and shared and explode across the internet only to have it published– not with a bang but a whimper. 

And if I’m still being honest, there have been many late nights sitting at my table, glassy-eyed, staring at the computer, dandling on the rung of doubt. Questioning myself. Why am I doing this? Is anyone really going to read this? Why aren’t I in bed already? What if I fail?

But on a perfect summer afternoon I witnessed my son, a 4 year old boy, strain under his own body weight.

I witnessed him persevere.

He taught me that the strain is our greatest teacher.

And I was humbled.

May you always stay committed to your goals. Because your commitment, your perseverance is another person’s motivation.

May you always have the strength to keep moving forward.

May you always persevere.

Be well,

Jay

Why You Should Clean Up Your House Before You Go On Vacation

It’s the day before our annual family vacation at the New Jersey shore and my wife is buzzing around the house doing chores.

Vacuuming and cleaning out closets and dusting and hanging pictures we meant to hang last summer.

Amidst this whirlwind of Windex, I’m on the couch watching Predator 2.

Bill Paxson just met his fate on a Los Angeles subway car when Cindy asks me to come upstairs and help her move some boxes into the attic.

I hold my spot on the couch just long enough to see Gary Busey (who offers an honest portrayal of a bat-shit crazy scientist) get sawed in half by the Predator’s razor Frisbee when I hear my name called again.

Reluctantly, I trudge up the stairs and into our bedroom to find Cindy smiling.

“Look how clean our room is!”

“Yeah, it looks great.”

Cindy proudly looks around, “I think so.”

I nod and smile and wonder how Danny Glover is doing.

“Can you help me put some boxes in the attic?”

“Why are you cleaning? We’re going a vacation tomorrow.”

Cindy moves her hands to her hips and holds the look of a feisty double-handled teacup, “Because if I leave the house a mess, the whole time on vacation, I’ll be thinking about how when I come home I’ll have to clean.”

I help Cindy with the boxes, then hang a few pictures in the boys’ room, then dissemble and put away Dylan’s crib that he hasn’t used in two years.

Sadly, when I get back to the couch Predator 2 is over.


As for you, pour your time and passion into what brings you the most joy, your mission in life. I am convinced that putting your house in order will help you find the mission that speaks to your heart. Life truly begins after you have put your house in order.”
Marie Kondō, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing

The past few days have been a little rough.

Physically, the summer humidity has been fueling my sarcoidosis symptoms. Joint pain. Muscle fatigue. A slightly off-balance feeling. And plus 12 weeks later, my broken foot is still not fully healed.

Mentally, I’ve been thinking a lot about my career. I love teaching. I love helping students become critical thinkers and better writers. And I’m grateful for the opportunities and experiences I’ve had. For the friendships and connections I have made.

But the house of education is in disorder.

Transient policies. Administrative hypocrisy. Commercially produced standardized tests. A one-size fits all teacher evaluation system. Lack of governmental funding. The piles of paperwork no one ever reads. Grade grubbing. Participation awards. Helicopter parents. Stale contracts. Capricious copy machines. No child left behind.

It’s all starting to wear on me.

Trust your change is what I proudly announced to a stadium full of students and parents and teachers and administrators and school stakeholders a few weeks ago.

And now, I’m fixed at the always awkward intersection of taking my own advice or becoming a hypocrite myself.

It’s Saturday night.

We leave for vacation early tomorrow morning.

With a mound a duffel bags, coolers and sleeping bags by the front door I’m writing this post, setting it to auto-publish for Friday morning, and I’m going to spend the next six unplugged.

My body, my mind need this.

However, I needed to write this post before I left. If I didn’t, I would have been worrying about what to write all week instead of giving myself permission to organize my life, to enjoy the moment.

I guess now, I know how my wife feels.

Be well,

Jay

“Trust Your Change.” My Commencement Address at the Robbinsville High School Graduation

On June 21, 2017 I was fortunate enough to deliver the commencement address at the Robbinsville High School graduation. Over 2,000 people were in attendance.  Below is the audio and transcript of my speech. 


(Note–Due to rain, the ceremony was delayed 30 minutes.)

Transcript:

Introduction (or my attempt to get the crowd to listen)

First and foremost, I’d like to thank the rain.

Because like study hall or lunch or AP Literature class I used the rain delay to write this speech.

It has not been proofread.

And most of this is written on napkins I found in the commons.

I’d also like to thank…

Dr. Foster, the Robbinsville High School Administration,  the Robbinsville Board of Education, colleagues, family, friends, returning Ravens and of course the graduating class of 2017…Thank you.

I appreciate it. I really do.

But I have a ask to question…

What do you say to a stadium full of people who really don’t care what you have to say?

It’s the predicament I’m in right now.

Understand, I’m honored to be here.

But I know my role.

I am your impediment.

The longer I talk, the longer it will take for us to enjoy the sweet elixir of summer.

My job is to fill the Robbinsville sky with poignant wisdom and worldly perspective as a capacity crowd collectively thinks…

“I hope this guy doesn’t take too long.”

I know how unforgiving those bleaches are.

How the June sun is currently burning a hole through your retina.

How you have surveyed the parking lot and proclaimed, “we are never getting out of here.”

In fact, as irrational as it sounds, some of you are contemplating ditching grandma and her one good hip and walking home and not returning for your car until August.

So… the question remains…what do you say?

Maybe I’m being a little too critical, a bit hyperbolic. I know there are a few people in attendance who want to hear me.

My wife.  Cindy and I are the American dream …we met in high school, married, bought a house in the suburbs, had 3 adorable children and bought a large SUV that looks like a minivan but it’s really an SUV… I’m sure Cindy would like to hear what I have to say.

My mom is here.

My brother Keith is here… Keith told me that he would only listen if I make frequent allusions to the Beatles and give him an air high 5 when I do.

And statistically, one of the 87 Twamley* boys would like to hear me.

(*the Twamleys are a set of triplet boys in the graduating class)

And that’s about it.

4 people.

In the whole stadium.

My wife. My mom.

Keith as long as I allude to the Beatles and give him air high fives.

And one of the 87 Twamleys.

Let’s breakdown my situation even further…

What do I say to 221 soon to be high school graduates who know everything?

Seriously. You do.

If you didn’t, they wouldn’t let you graduate.

That’s a rule in New Jersey… along with other rules like no left turns and knowing all the words to Springsteen’s Thunder Road… the greatest song ever written.

So there’s you–the class of 2017, the smartest people in the world…

And then there’s everybody else.

To most people here I’m a stranger.

And what stranger wants to hear advice from another stranger especially if the advice-giving- stranger is punctuating their suit with a pair of sneakers.

So what do you say to make people listen when the promise of summer and freedom and adulthood are achingly close?

I’ve been turning over this question for weeks.

Turning over the thought that I will spend hours writing this speech, you will spend minutes sort-of-listening and in seconds everything I say will be forgotten.

Then I realized that this moment we are sharing, right here, right now is a microcosm for life.

Because once you graduate, the world is waiting for you and the world doesn’t really care what you have to say.

The class of 2017, for 12 years, you’ve been groomed in a school district that has put you first, has listened to your voice.

A district that has held your hand, entertained you, coddled you, pampered you, made you feel special.

And in a few minutes, once you graduate and if you ever escape the parking lot traffic… the cruel world will turn to you, laugh at your ideas and tell you to be quiet.

So if this is a microcosm for life, and I was graduating high school today what would I need to hear?

I decided the best way to deliver this speech is by telling two stories.

Two stories that have made me the person I am today.

One from high school, one from adulthood.

Two stories that.. ready for this Keith… “come together” (high five) to teach one lesson I wish I learned when I was 18.

Because at 18, I really could have used the…”Help” ( high five)

Do you realize what I just did there?

Do you?

That’s two Beatles allusions in 2 sentences.

The First Story

The first story goes like this…

I’m 14 years old, sitting in freshman English class pretending not to care. Because that’s what the cool kids do– pretend not care.

My teacher,Ms. Baker is handing back our essays–an assignment that required us to write as a Puritan woman being falsely tried as a witch.

I don’t like high school much. The lesson are boring and the homework annoying. The only class I can tolerate is English class.

As I tell you this I can hear the clacks of Ms.Baker’s heels on the classroom tile floor.

Ms.Baker arrives, hands me my essay, smiles and tells me I have talent, that I should keep writing.

She spins and clacks away and before I can smile the kid sitting behind me, the middle linebacker on the freshman football team, whispers “loser” in my ear.

Right then in freshman English class I submitted.

Right then I began to distrust myself.

If my high school offered a class on intuition… I’d failed.

For a long time, almost 20 years, I silenced my voice, my desire write and connect to others because I was afraid of what other people might say.

I listened too closely to opinions.

Don’t listen.

I bought the fabrications the world was selling.

Don’t buy them.

The Second Story

The second story is one that most of the graduating class is familiar with.

On the first day of the school year I decide that instead of handing out a syllabus, or introducing classroom procedures I would simply to tell a story.

A story that I hoped had enough drama to hold the attention of a room full of angsty 12th graders.

This year I introduced my students to the writing strategy known as full circle.

Full circle is also a band from Central New Jersey currently on hiatus. They have lovely album called “This Long Used Trail”  available on Spotify and Soundcloud.

In fact….As you wait in post graduation traffic in your SUV that looks like a minivan but is not a minivan, you just need extra cargo space to fit your kid’s beach toys… you should check them out.

Standing proudly with the members of Full Circle.

To model the full circle strategy it’s only fitting on the last day of school I tell the same story I told on the first day of school which only seemed like… “Yesterday “ ( high 5)

Class of 2017… this might blow your mind…on the first day of class, while you were admiring each other’s tan……I was writing the end to our story.

All at once I was saying, “Hello, goodbye” (high five).

No, Joe Natalie*…

(a student who, after a rousing lecture on Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road… asked if I was God.)

I am not God…

I am the Walrus (Keith … high five)

Senior English…

Representing…

What… What…

The second story goes like this…

It’s March 2010.

I’m in my car driving south on 95, into the heart of Philadelphia.

After muscling through evening traffic I find myself on North 20th Street, a block away from the Philadelphia Public Library.

I get of my car, shut the door, turn up my coat collar to the whipping wind and walk south along North 20 Street.

At the corner of Vine Street I hook a left, climb a flight of stairs and find myself in the quiet warmth of the Public Library.

I cross a marble floor, move down a staircase, into an auditorium to see and listen to my literary hero- whose words strengthened my beliefs on writing, storytelling and love and beauty and the purpose of life.

For 90 minutes  author Tim O’Brien, writer of The Things They Carried, read from his novel and talked about it. He fielded questions and gave writing advice to novice writers like myself.

Then it was over.

I exit the library, hook a right onto North 20th and march into the howling wind.

I progress up North 20 with the library is on my immediate right.

When I look over to my right… I see Tim O’Brien, alone, leaning against the library, under the throes of a lamp light, smoking a cigarette.

I stop.

I turn toward him.

I must be 30 feet from Tim O’Brien, my literary hero.

I step forward.

29 feet.

Like some anxious fanboy I turn over all the things I’m about to say to him.

28 feet.

I reach into my bag and pull out my copy of The Thing They Carried. One of the most important books of the 20th century.

27 feet.

It’s at 27 feet where I got nervous. Where I began to distrust myself.

I take a step back.

28 feet.

What would I say to a stranger that is compelling and interesting? What do I say that would inspired him to listen?

29 feet.

The march wind whips my back. Why would a ground breaking author waste his time with me?  What if he told me to shut up and go home?

I slip my copy of The Things They Carried into my bag and turn and head north, and open my car door and drive home and pull into my driveway and crawl into my bed and realize in a way I’m still 14, still sitting in freshman English class, still distrusting myself.

Class of 2017, there will be many fine chapters in your book. Stories of victory, love and pride.

Scoring your dream job.

Feeling the love while slow dancing to Lil Wayne’s “How to Love” at your dream wedding.

And the swell of pride felt when you buy an SUV that looks like a minivan but is an SUV so your family can enjoy the extra leg room.

But those chapters are often short.

The chapters where sadness, regret, shame are the subjects are the longest, hardest to finish yet they are the stories that make life interesting.

They’re interesting because they test your intrinsic commitment.

My two stories are about regret and judgment and distrusting myself.

Yet I’m so grateful for them, for what they taught me–how you must endure difficulties to find out who you are and what you stand for.

For the last four years you’ve been a cliché.

A brain. An athlete. A basket case. A princess. A criminal.

You’ve played a stock character in a stage production.

But what will you do now?

Those cliches are cute in high school and movies about high school but in the reality of adulthood cliches are boring and uninspiring.

Intuition does not get easier with age.

Self-reliance comes with a real cost.

And a fear of judgement lingers long after high school.

I can only hope that you find the courage to trust yourself, to take the risk to be heard.

You’re impressionable–miles away from figuring out who you are and yet you’re about to change in immense and unknown ways.

Change for yourself and what you believe is right for you.

Trust your change.  

Like this speech, high school will end. Your graduation gown will lie in rags at your feet. And adulthood will begin.

But your identity, your voice, your story is just taking shape and important questions await…

What will be the subject of your next chapter?

Will you be a minor character in your own life?

Will your story be the thing that connects you to others?

It’s so easy to plagiarize your life.

Don’t do it.

It’s so easy to believe your own fiction.

Don’t believe it.

Before I go…

I challenge you…

To relax.

Trust yourself.

Avoid cliches.

Be authentic.

And toil until you to find the courage to tell your story with absolute allegiance to your truth.

Finally, I have a last request…

To quote the ancient Detroit philosopher Eminem…

“If you had one shot, one opportunity to

seize a picture  with the class of 2017

would you capture it or just let it slip?”

Class of 2017 and everyone in attendance…

It’s been an honor and privilege…

Good luck with the traffic, thank you and be well.

In Honor of Father’s Day: 6 Pieces of “Dadvice”

It’s Father’s Day Weekend!

Time to hike up your socks, fire up the grill, lean back in your favorite chair and say things like …”Hold your horses!” and “”My house, my rules!” shortly followed by “I don’t know… go ask your mother.”

With the popularity of Justin Halpern’s hilarious Shit My Dad Says to the emergence of the soft and lovable physique known as the “dad bod” and cringe worthy “dad jokes”, pop culture has declared being a dad cool and hip.

And on this rare occasion, I agree with pop culture. Being a dad is cool.

We carry pocket knives.

We clog then unclog toilets.

We treat wounds with dirt and spit.

We pride ourselves on knowing where things are located in Home Depot.

We play golf.

We build fires.

We embarrass our kids.

We consider it a declaration of war when we spot a field mouse scurrying across the kitchen floor.

We have a spatula with our name engraved on the handle.

But of course with this “coolness” comes great responsibility.

My dad ( far left), my two brothers, my two sons and me (holding the camera) talking in a baseball game.

It has occurred to me that my children are seeing me through the same lens in which I saw my dad when I was their age.

In their young eyes I’m all powerful, all knowing. My actions, my “dadvice” are seared into their little brains and one day (God forbid) may serve as good blog fodder about fathers.

To highlight the power and coolness of being a dad here are 5 pieces of dadvice my dad offered me many years ago…

1.On eating a big breakfast every morning

My father has always championed the need for a hearty breakfast. Dad scoffed when those FDA “nitwits” claimed that eating highly processed foods–loaded with sodium and saturated fat could be deadly.

My dad (like a lot of dads) has a signature dish. .A culinary cuisine that he describes in with great pride to the other dads at the CYO meetings. My dad’s Spam and Egg sandwich is one of the reasons I had friends as a kid. His signature sandwich is a 900 calorie heart-stopper made with only the finest pasteurized cheeses and slaughterhouse scraps.spam

I remember once asking him why he needed to eat such a big breakfast every morning. He looked down at me with serious eyes and said “Who knows if or when I’ll have the opportunity to eat again today.” Which seemed a bit dramatic –like something Lewis said to Clark on the first morning of their Continental Divide expedition. But it was also funny too– because as he said this dad was packing his work lunch box/cooler with a week’s worth of food.

*I should also mention that at this time dad spent most of his working life and passed a Burger King every 8oo feet.

2.On boosting confidence

In grade school, for some school project ,  I was forced to work with the smartest kid in the class who openly teased me– claiming that he was smarter than me. Upon hearing my complaint, dad looked at me, smiled and said, “But can this Einstein hit a curve ball?”

3.On medical care

Once when mom wasn’t home, I threw my younger brother Kyle into a wall joint leaving him with a gash in his head and blood streaming down his face. Dad, who was outwardly annoyed that Kyle’s melon had dented the drywall, carried Kyle into the bathroom, dropped him in the tub, offered him a roll of paper towels and said, “Wait here until mom gets home.”

 4.On eating expired food

“Do you think George Washington had expiration dates on his ground beef?”

5.On love

When I was in my early 20’s I begin thinking about proposing to Cindy. But naturally I was hesitant.  I wanted to know how to know someone was “the one”. Dad met mom when he was 17 and seemed to have the whole love-thing mastered. So I sought council in dad. I was certain that he had some sage advice to offer on the matter of love.

So one day I ask him how did he know mom was the one. And after a long, thoughtful pause dad looked at me and said “I just knew.” End of conversation.

6.On the most important thing to do in life

Next week, I will be delivering the commencement address at Robbinsville High School.

An opportunity granted after I was named the Robbinsville Public School District Teacher of the Year.

I’m flattered and humbled to have this opportunity to speak at high school’s penultimate event. I’m not threatened by speaking in front of 2,000 people however, for the past few days I was growing concerned about finding the right subject to talk about.

Really, what do I say to a stadium full of people, sitting under the June sun on metal bleachers, who can’t wait until I’m finished talking?

For the last few days I’ve been engaged in some heated brainstorming sessions, considering what the 18-year-old version of me want to hear? Need to hear?

Now there were a ton of things I needed to hear…

You’re not as cool as you think you are.

Talk less, listen more.

Make time your friend, not your enemy.

Opinions don’t matter.

Take care of your knees.

But after all the brainstorming I settled on a simple truism to guide my writing, “be honest, tell the truth.”

My dad is and always has been a mild man.

But nothing poked his ire more then catching me in a lie. I remember, on many occasions,  his blue eyes drilling holes through mine as he pressed me, interrogated me on the inconsistencies of my stories.

And now, when I’m questioning my own children on their stories, I can feel my dad’s eyes, I can hear his voice, “Be honest, tell the truth.”

The more complicated life gets, the more evasive truth becomes.

We dangerously mark truths with a capital “T” only to endure bouts of moral terror and heartbreak and doubt and question if capital “T” truth ever existed.

We get mixed up.  We lose our authenticity and integrity.

We replace our own truth with the opinions and perspectives of others, distancing ourselves from the person we want to become.

Dad and I (1983)

I want to thank my dad for instilling the importance of truth and honesty in me. How honesty is the foundation of every relationship you will build in your life.

Like everyone, writers are wrestlers, constantly trying to pin down the squirming truth.

I realize now (as I write this sentence) that this blog, my writing and the life I’m striving for pays homage to my father’s stare, to his endless work of trying to get me to be honest and tell the truth.

Happy Father’s Day!

Be well,

Jay

Ants Marching: When an Anthem of Your Youth Foreshadows the Quandaries of Adulthood

It’s becoming increasingly clear that my body is not built for Friday nights anymore.

After a week of typical adult life the last thing I want to do is take my creaky knees and venture out. And I mean out, out.  Like the type of going out that requires you to slip on a pair of nice shoes and hustle along city sidewalks and shoulder your way through noisy crowds.

But like every wash-up Friday night hero, I figure I still have a few good nights left in me.

So last Friday night–I went out.

My younger brother Keith and I grabbed some dinner at a hipster craft beer bar in a hipster part of Philadelphia before heading to the Mann Music Center with thousands of other hipsters to see Dave Matthews and Tim Reynolds play an acoustic set.

After a grinding drive through city traffic and traversing across Fairmount Park, Keith and I stood in a long line at the concert gates, followed by another long line for $9 beers while listening to a middle-aged, sandal-wearing crowd complain about city traffic, the swelling crowd itself and $9 beers.

Ants Marching

For those of us who were in high school in late nineties the music of The Dave Matthews Band soundtracked our coming-of-age.

The first concert I went to without adult supervision was the Dave Matthews Band at Veterans Stadium in the spring of 1999.

The Dave Matthews Band released its debut studio album “Under the Table and Dreaming” in September 1994.

One of Dave’s biggest hits during that time (and still one of his most recognizable song) is the rousing, drum-thumping, sing along Ants Marching.

I remember being 19 and dancing carelessly in concrete aisles of Veterans Stadium to Ants completely oblivious to the warning Dave Matthews was bestowing upon us all.

“He wakes up in the morning
Does his teeth, bite to eat and he’s rolling
Never changes a thing
The week ends, the week begins.

She thinks, we look at each other
Wondering what the other is thinking
But we never say a thing
And these crimes between us grow deeper.

Take these chances
Place them in a box until a quieter time
Lights down, you up and die.”

That’s some bleak stuff– the boredom and banality of the rat race, our fear and inability to communication with honest and purpose punctuated by regret only to be overshadowed by our inevitable death– sung by a bunch of drunk and happy teenagers.

The Seduction of Ignorance

The  drums, the saxophone, the violin– the musicality of Ants is auditory seduction. But strip the music away and Ants resembles a stern warning,  a cautionary tale that so many of us failed to embrace when we were younger.

Underneath its sing-song veneer lurks the painful and scary and soul- sucking realities of adulthood.

 Ants explores the tragic nature of growing up, “Goes to visit his mommy”  and how we all yearn for simpler times as we “remember being small/ under the table and dreaming” and how complacency seduces us in to playing a high-stakes version of follow the leader, “We all do it the same way.”

Yet, what is interesting about Ants Marching is that the song makes you feel good.

Like life, we crave togetherness. We want to be swept in the undertow of a community doing the same thing, singing the same song. Yet by doing what everyone else is, we remain ignorant to the consequence of such conformity.

But at 19 I didn’t know this. I guess, few of us do.

We didn’t know that one day the lyrics will outweigh the beat. That the lyrics will become real pills we swallow each day.

Lights down, you up and die.

Gulp.

Anyway. Sure it’s fatalistic, but the heartbeat sound of Ants reminds us that despite our inevitable death we must not forget to celebrate life.

It’s a song I will continue to dance and sing to. Maybe not with the same foolish exuberance since it’s a Friday night and I have bad knees and now fully understand the painful cost of growing up.

A cost that’s much steeper than a $9 beer.

Be well,

Jay