I’d like to thank the Lexus “December to Remember” commercial for fueling my recent obsession with happiness.
You know the commercial: On a perfect snow sparked morning a well groomed man finds a new Lexus topped with a big red bow trophied in his sprawling driveway. The man smiles then hugs and kisses the hood of his new toy as his tall, attractive wife and their beautiful blue-eyed children stand nearby and smile and dote and radiate with plastic happiness as a voice tells you how easy and affordable it is for you to own a sleek, well-equipped Lexus.
The message is simple and clear — If you buy or lease a Lexus this holiday season you can buy or lease happiness.
The commercial then gives way to the football game my 7 year old son and I are watching. We’re curled together on the couch, sharing a blanket. It’s a rare scene, especially for December. My son, the Energizer Bunny, is almost always moving, always playing. And with the promise of Christmas so close, his energy seems even more boundless. But at this moment, he is still, as if someone removed his batteries, and I know this might just be my only time to ask him.
“Hey Chase can I ask you something?”
The quarterback drops back to pass. Chase delays his response long enough where I think he’s ignoring me. The quarterback completes a 12 yard pass to a receiver who’s shoved out of bounds by a streaking defender. First down.
The teams huddle and the referee sets the football at the line of scrimmage and without unlocking his eyes from the television looking Chase says, “Okay.”
A little surprised he was even listening, I nod and smile and ask, “What makes you happy?”
The quarterback drops back to pass again and Chase turns and looks thoughtfully at me, as thoughtfully as a 7 year old can look, smiles and says “ I guess…spending time with you and mom.”
“Yeah like when we all went to the movies last week. That was fun.”
Though my interactions with Deb have been mostly through email and Facebook, I feel a kinship with her. We are parents and teachers and writers who, for better or worse, wear our hearts on our sleeve.
I felt like an asshole bothering Deb with my pretentious existential crisis. I mean, she’s warring with one of the most hellacious diseases we’ve never cured. Clearly, she’s busy.
But the question lingered then gnawed. What would someone with a terminal illness say about happiness?
It took me almost an hour editing and revising and second-guessing and ego-checking before I finally braved up and sent the following text…
“What makes you happy? Lately I’ve been obsessing over natural vs. plastic happiness and would value your sentiments. But please, no obligations. Be well.”
True to her awesome self, Deb responded with…
“What I’ve found that it is connections with other people that really make me happy. And in turn time and experiences with them.”
In the heart of the Lexus “December to Remember “ sales event Chase and Deb confirmed what I already knew, what most of us know — that relationships are the fruits of happiness. A 7 year old boy, a dying woman cemented such truth — we are fragile and finite but in relationships we find strength, we experience forever.
Why is such simplicity so hard to understand? Why do we foolishly think that one more material possession will sprout the happiness we so desperately desire?
And so if growing up is a just matter of perspective, it’s curious to think that we’ll spend so much pain, energy and money trying to realize what we knew all along.
PS–Checkout this 6 minute feature on the Write-a-thon! I want to thank all my colleagues and students who made this awesome event possible.
On a recent cleaning binge, my mom found my 11th grade report card stuffed in a file box along with old writings, homework assignments and a certificate announcing that I had passed Drivers Education class in August of 1997.
I’m 37 years old, and a high school teacher now, and everyday I witness the enormous pressures that 11th graders (and their parents) place on their still-rounding shoulders.
High school mythology decrees that 11th grade is the Acropolis. It’s the most important 10 months of your life. The make or break year. The one that demands academic greatness. The 11th grade transcript is the one colleges scrutinize and consider the most when deciding to accept or decline your admission. According to legend,11th grade is the year where your destiny is formed and fated.
Below you will find my 11th grade year end report card.
It’s apparent that at 16 years old I wasn’t overly concerned with achieving academic greatness. To be honest, my main concern was scoring a date with the pretty girl in Spanish class. Spoiler alert….9 years later I would marry that senorita… muy suave!
My Class Ranking
If my 11th grade report card is an approximation of my destiny, I’m destined to be stunningly average.
I ranked 168 out of 337 students in the 11th grade class. If you do the math (because, clearly, my algebra grade indicates I don’t math) 337/2 = 168.5
Analysis: In high school I was absolutely, fantastically, beautifully average.
Final Grade: 87
Analysis: Religion was my second highest grade in my report card. I believe the grade is slightly underwhelming given the fact this was my 11th year of Catholic education.
But like a true B+ Catholic, I knew the basics of the Bible, received the required sacraments and was a semi-annual church goer (Christmas & Easter) who pretended to go every Sunday.
Final Grade: 85
Analysis: This was a massive blow to my current (and slightly bloated) ego.
I have presented at writing workshops for college professors.
My article, “It’s called The Alchemist and you should read it”was recently retweeted by International Bestselling Author Paulo Coehlo.
Yet, in spite of all that, an unimpressive B in 11th grade English will forever be etched in the annals of time.
American History 3
Final Grade: 89
Analysis: Everything I know about American History I learned from watching Forrest Gump.
Final Grade: 74
Analysis: In high school I clearly did not understand algebra which, interestingly was the very last time in my life I was forced to multiply numbers by letters.
Final Grade: 84
Analysis: According to my teacher, Mr. Krier, I was “one of the top one of the students in the class.” I earned an 84. Either he was just being nice or I was, in fact, the one star in a constellation of street lamps.
Final Grade: 77
Analysis: I blame Cindy for this one. I spent the entire year distracted by her legs and perfecting such romantic expressions as “Coma estas, chica?” and “Muy caliente” in a deep, seductive inflection.
Analysis: One of my students once told me that he was going to be an accountant because in 11th grade he did well in accounting class. If 11th grade grades are indicators of future professions I clearly should have been a professional athlete.
Final Grade: 97
Analysis: Minus a shirttail infraction, which was sheer blasphemy in a Catholic school, I was absolute saintly.
It’s time to be serious.
I didn’t learn much in high school.
It’s nothing against my teachers but, aside from meeting Cindy and a group of friends I’m still close with, the educational experience was uninspiring.
In fact, I can’t name one high school teacher who inspired me to become a teacher.
So why did I become a high school teacher if my experience in high school was incredibly forgettable?
It’s a question I’ve tussled with lately.
Selflessly, I want to spend my days talking and teaching about reading and writing. But I also think I’m attempting to vindicate my own stale high school experience.
Work is a tricky thing. Immersing yourself in work for only a paycheck is a soul-sucking existence. Working for personal fulfillment is righteous but doesn’t pay the electric bill.
Maybe, if we look hard enough, we find work that fills a previous void.
Maybe, teaching is my attempt to provide students with experiences I never had. And maybe, selfishly, I stand and deliver in the classroom everyday attempting to fall in favor with the teacher, earn some extra credit and improve that 85.
And every June, I get asked by soon-to-be high school graduates big questions about work.
“How do you know your doing the right work?”
“How do you find work you’re passionate about?”
“How do you avoid unhappiness and complacency?”
Though I don’t consider myself a beacon of wisdom on such matters (I’m still learning myself), I’m always flattered and (always) a bit stunned by the demands of these questions.
And despite having graduated high school almost 20 years ago and am now 20 years older than most of my students, I’m still wrestling down a response.
But here’s my latest attempt to explain what I know about work.
Dylan, my 3 year old son, is stretched on the living room floor playing with his trucks, pushing them across the carpet, parking them next to a row of couch pillows.
He makes truck sounds. Honks and beeps and low rumbling growls. He is lost in his little world, playing and imaging, when his eyes snap suddenly wide.
He jumps to his feet, holds himself and launches into some full-body toddler tribal dance.
“I have to go potty, I have to go potty!
“Well go Dylan!”
Still holding himself, Dylan turns, runs across the living room, breaks out beyond sight as the patter of his little rushing feet trails away to the bathroom.
Parents of young children bare witness to the sudden need-to-pee-pneumonia all the time.
Children get so lost in play, so focused on the present that the pangs erupting from their bladder are ignored until the very last moment.
This moment fascinates me — that a mind can be so enraptured, so focused that it’s ignorant to what is going on in the body.
They might have a bumbling vocabulary and their nose always drippy but children possess the stuff of Buddhist monks.
When I reach the bathroom, Dylan is standing at the front of the toilet with his Paw Patrol underwear lassoed around his ankles. He’s head bowed, his eyes studying the tile.
“Dylan, did you go potty?”
He flinches. His shoulders inch closer to his ears. His eyes refuse to look.
Dylan did you go potty?
He slowly, sheepishly looks up , his eyes ache with tears, “No. I peed myself.”
Why More Adults Should Pee Themselves
Sure, it’s hyperbolic, but stay with me.
I love watching my children lost in absolute play, seemingly ignorant to both the outside and inside world. It’s amazing that children can become so invested in play that they will ignore their screaming bladder. ( I hate to brag but a few months ago Dylan’s efforts earned him a tract infection.)
From what I’ve seen, most adults are bored. They find no wonder in their work. So they fill that void with frivolous things, destructive behavior and unnecessary drama.
As adults, we pine to find good work. Work so curious and engaging that we become constructively lost. Work that we joyously return to again and again.
Listen, my analogy may sound sophomoric (and clearly I’m not advocating bladder infections) but it’s absolutely critical for young adults to find good work that inspires deep contemplation, deep play — the kind of work that is hard to walk away from, not because of the money or convenience or ease, but because you simply the love the essence of it.
My advice for all those who will be turning the tassel and contemplating their future profession — if you find work that is the igniter of imagination, the destroyer of clocks, the antagonist of bladders, work that reminds you of what it was like to be lost on the living room floor, congratulations — you found your work.
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My mind tosses and turns while I lay still, staring at the ceiling.
My mental restlessness began with the obvious tumbling thought, “I should be sleeping”.
It blooms like an innocent thought. But innocent thoughts can seed big, complex, even damaging thoughts.
Start eating healthier again.
Be more patient.
Listen more closely to my wife.
Payoff my credit card.
Answer that email.
Get my haircut.
Care less what people think.
Give my boss a piece of my mind.
Spend less time on my phone.
Go to the dentist.
Make tacos for dinner tomorrow night.
Buy new shoes.
Contact an old friend.
Install new windshield wiper blades on the car.
I should be sleeping.
I should…I should…I should.
Should is dangerous word for me.
Because when I think in shoulds, my focus shifts from what I’ve done, my accomplishments, my successes to what I haven’t done or need to do.
Should punctuates the life I haven’t achieved and I feel unsettled, unsatisfied.
Should causes desire. Desire causes tension. Tension causes unhappiness,
I am happy because I want nothing from anyone. I do not care for money. Decorations, titles or distinctions mean nothing to me. I do not crave praise. The only thing that gives me pleasure, apart from my work, my violin and my sailboat, is the appreciation of my fellow workers.―Albert Einstein
A few months ago I privately challenged myself to answer as many shoulds as possible. So I…
Recorded my own podcast.
Started my own business.
Made more time for my children.
Started exercising every morning.
Read books, listened to podcasts and watched movies that were recommended.
No doubt, should motivated me. Should enriched my life. But meeting the demand of should became unsustainable. The shoulds kept coming and I couldn’t keep up.
My unfulfilled shoulds caused desire, tension and unhappiness. And instead of the pride, and despite my determination, I focused on the shoulds and was left feeling unfulfilled.
Yes, should motivates and inspires. And yes, you must push yourself to achieve more. But should is also the killer of confidence. Because should announces you haven’t.
I should write a book.
I should have more money.
I should practice mindfulness.
I should have a nicer car.
I should lose weight.
What can we do?
Now we can’t control what others say or do.
But we can commit to things we’re passionate about instead of appeasing the interests and suggestions of others.
We can examine how we offer unsolicited shoulds to other people.
We can acknowledge the power of should and know that if we’re reckless with should we’re deepening the discontent in the listener.
A listener who will lie in bed at night, unable to sleep, attempting to steady their tumbling mind as they worry about all the things they should do with their life.
It’s an old story. A bit cliched. But still a worthy one…
A man and a woman are in a car.
The man drives as the women navigates through unfamiliar territory. They have no map, no cell phone service. The woman acknowledges the pending darkness and lightly suggests, they stop and ask for directions.
The man keeps driving, keeps his focus, pretending not to hear her.
The sun is all but gone. The street lamps start their work.
The woman looks out the window and clears her throat. She protests, this time with a bit more force, causing the man to snip. He insists he knows where he’s going. He speaks in phrases like, “we just got turned around a bit” and “no big deal” and “any second now”.
The woman runs her hand through her hair and exhales. The man wonders if the heat is on as he, grips the steering wheel and glances out the window hoping for something familiar– a landmark, a sign, a motion from God.
The 17 Year Old Male
A high school classroom serves as a great observatory for human quirks.
It’s always interesting when I ask my 12th grade students about their life-after-high school plans. The females often confess they don’t know. They have some ideas but are mostly unsure. A lawyer, maybe.
When asked, males are quick to verbalize their plan. Business or engineering or medicine or general awesomeness, for sure.
As if, to the 17 year old male, being lost, confused and unsure is a sign of weakness.
Prince Harry Finally Talks
This week, in a New York Times article, Prince Harry explained how, for almost 20 years after Princess Diana’s death, he struggled with anger, with depression. And how his behavior was often erratic and destructive.
Harry, 32, attributed his recklessness to his inability to address his mother’s death.
An now an advocate for mental health, Harry credits his recovery to counseling and finding the courage to do what so many man can’t– talk.
“I can safely say that losing my mum at the age of 12, and therefore shutting down all of my emotions for the last 20 years, has had a quite serious effect on not only my personal life but my work as well.” –Prince Harry
A Moment of Honesty
A few weeks ago I had an conversation with a male friend of more than 20 years.
The friend, I assumed, was doing well.
Then, over a drink and an hour conversation, he opened up about his crumbling marriage. How he’s been married for twelve years and that it had only been good for about three.
He explained how he’d been living a life of silence. A silence that drove him into a depression.
His eyes filled with tears as he looked across the table, held his drink and said, “I don’t know what to do. I don’t know who to talk to.”
For most men, self-expression is hard. And only gets harder with age.
The longer they cling to a prolonged silence, the more difficult it is to talk. Men often consider stubborn stoicism as dignified and respectable. Yet they often fail to see how their hardness taxes themselves and those around them.
As a male writer I’m torn.
Because I know in order to write well, to produce meaningful work, make others feel–I have to feel. Yet the square-jawed history of men has conditioned me not to. To remain quiet in pain. To accept my feelings as weaknesses. To emotionally alienation myself to remain accepted.
When you’re 17 years old, you’re inclined to define courage as being bold in the face of danger. You also think courageous men are always decisive and strong.
And it’s shocking to learn that 20 years later, remnants of that teenage ideology still remain steadfast in me.
The Tension Mounts
The sun is down now and the man still refuses to talk.
The woman eyes him. There’s been a growing distance between them for some time now. Why can’t he just stop? Ask for help? Why doesn’t he ever talk?
He wants to say he’s been conditioned not to. He wants to tell her about the misaligned tenets of masculinity. He wants to tell her vulnerability is something men don’t do yet long for because they secretly know talking could very well save their lives.
But for now– the man and the woman stare out different windows, wondering how they got so lost, listening to the engine hum, driving aimlessly into the darkness.