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Fear & Love, Part I

July 9, 2015

This past year, my students had one thing in common. They had not passed so-called “end-of-course” tests for 9th and/or 10th grade English. These tests were two of the five EOC tests the state of Texas requires its students to pass in order to graduate high school. Last year’s seniors, the class of 2015, were the first to graduate under the new testing regime. An alarming number were poised not to do so at the beginning of the school year.

In the end, almost all did pass. How did they overcome an obstacle that had knocked many of them down four or five times already?

This is not the part where I arrogantly claim it was my exceptional teaching. My ego is in check.

The greatest contributing factor was the motivation they felt. That motivation stemmed from a singular source: fear. Fear of not hearing their name called, of not getting to walk across that stage and accept that rolled-up piece of paper that holds far more symbolic power than any single portrait of a dead president ever can. Fear of not participating in this rite of passage with their peers, their friends, with whom they had shared this journey for the past four years, perhaps even longer. Fear of the future, of the uncertainty that loomed over it if this crucial step could not be fulfilled.

I would argue that there are two dominant emotional forces that serve in tandem as our greatest motivators: fear and love. It is not a bad/good dichotomy, because we can achieve great things due to our fears, and do tremendously stupid things for love; but fear is indeed often used for evil ends, and love can overcome the worse of human impulses.

To be continued…

Everyone Else is Writing, So Why Don’t I?

July 8, 2015

By “everyone else” I mean precisely four people who I know personally. It’s the middle of summer, so I have the time. Usually, when I post after a lengthy hiatus, I go on about my long off-and-on relationship with blogging. Not this time!

My name is Jason and I’m 40 now. How are you?

Purposelessly Piddling Procrastination

May 31, 2014

It’s nearing noon on a gorgeous Saturday morning, the final day of May. The mental math tells me it’s been 82 days since my last post. What happened?

It happens that today is the first day since that last post on March 10 when all of the following are true: 1) I’m not scheduled to work; 2) there’s not additional work I could do from home; and 3) I’m not studying for an upcoming test.

For someone who wants to be a writer so badly, it’s really easy for me to make excuses not to write. The trio above aren’t bad excuses, as they relate to either my present or future income. But did they really keep me from writing altogether? Not hardly.

What time I wasn’t being productive with 1-2-3 above, I piddled away. There was grocery shopping and dog-walking, occasional cooking and cleaning, and the other trivialities of daily life. Otherwise, though, there were collective hours of mostly mindless amusement. In the midst of it, a birthday passed, and I entered my final year before 40. Those few moments I’ve paused to reflect, I realize I have made progress in becoming a better version of myself, but I still have a long way to go.

It would be easy for me to sit here and type, now I’m going to do this! And I’m not going to do that! But broadly-defined, expansive, and/or unrealistic resolutions always fail. Yet, if I don’t give myself some structure for the day, it will end up like this… I wake up, much earlier than I care to. I walk the dog. I make coffee and breakfast and go sit on my patio to eat it and read my book. I come in and I turn on the computer. I don’t really have a purpose in doing so, other than I’m eventually going to write. But first, I have to get Pandora playing. Then, somehow, I end up reading a Yahoo! Movies article. I follow the link inside the article and spend over an hour looking (and laughing) at “The 301 Greatest Movies” list. Finally I remember that I was going to try to find deals on prescription sunglasses. I search on that briefly, but then come to my senses, realizing that such would not be a wise purchase at such an underfunded time in my life. Then I start perusing facebook. I’m not sure why I went there in the first place, either– I think I was going to play SongPop. I spend probably close to an hour there.

Just like that, it’s 11:30, I’ve been up over four hours, and have I done anything productive? Nope. I do apologize for boring you with minutiae, but it’s precisely my point. I am an accomplished procrastinator. When there’s something I have to do, I will find any and all manner of stalling tactics. When I don’t have anything I have to do– it’s far worse. I blink and it’s dark and I think, what happened to the day? That didn’t necessarily feel so alarming when I was 29, but I have a different reaction now at 39. I’m doing the polar opposite of carpe diem.

I have no grand plans to share, no lofty goals to set. I just want to do better. Teaching, as much as I complained about it, at least made me feel like I was doing something with my life. I was helping other human beings in a real way. When I withdrew from it, at first I felt I was regaining a sense of myself. The situation I’d gotten myself into had made me feel burnt-out and beaten-down, and I needed to recover. Once I felt I had, I started to feel that the risk of “taking time for yourself” is becoming self-absorbed. I feel myself falling again towards disliking what looks back at me in the mirror.

Writing and publishing this is its own kind of narcissistic posturing. It’s free therapy. I’m not going to lie; I’d love getting encouraging comments. What would do me better, I’m sure, is constructive criticism.

I have other things to write about, and this isn’t really what I intended when I started. I’ve got the final part of my family series to write, and the story of how my dog loves my best friend more than me, and maybe some actual, I don’t know, stabs at fiction in my head.

The one thing I’ll promise is, it will be less than 82 days until my next post. I’m thinking 82 hours would be better.

Family, Part III

March 10, 2014

friendship-Mark-TwainAs I shared in the first post in this series, I’ve longed for the kind of tight-knit family in which your close relatives are also among your closest friends. Despite being the last of four brothers, this hasn’t been the case for me, although strides have been made recently for the better. If you’re not friends with your family, though, you can still make your friends your family. Only a few friends in one’s life will be that close, so they are to be cherished all the more. I know this is veering into trite platitudes, the kind of sappiness cornered by Hallmark. But Hallmark can sell a lot of cards because, sometimes, those sentiments are true.

I first met Becca on another blogging site, and she quickly became that kind of friend to me. I was at one of the lowest points in my life at the time, and she helped me through it as, I’m now convinced, no one else could have. She has written her side of the story on this site before. When I needed a fresh start, I couldn’t see any better place to go than near her. I actually lived with her family– she and her husband and two kids– in their guest bedroom, for the first three months after I arrived in Texas. It was funny how quickly I was integrated into the household. I had assigned chores, I ran errands, I house/dog-sat for eight days while they visited family out-of-state; but I also shared in almost every family activity.

Even after I moved into my own apartment, when I would visit their house, it quickly became clear that my status had permanently changed from guest to family. This means that you don’t just come over for dinner, you help cook and/or clean. But it also means that you get to watch the kids open their gifts from Santa, long before any guests come for Christmas dinner. It means when a kid’s birthday party is over and everyone else goes home, you go out to dinner with the family. It means they dog-sat for me when I went out of town, and even though said dog bit Becca then, they welcomed that same dog back into their home. That’s love, folks, the kind of love that can only come from family, even if that family is not by blood.

download_20140310_210311Recently, I was out with all four of them. I thanked them for inviting me on this excursion and Becca said, “you don’t need to thank us, because you’re part of our family. Instead of saying ‘your best friend and her family,’ you should call us your Best Framily.” She was terrifically excited and pleased with herself to have invented such a clever new word; I was sad to tell her that Sprint was already using it in commercials. But I think she uses it in a much better sense than they do. I’m proud that I can call her my Best Friend and them my Best Framily. I never want to take such a blessing for granted.

P.S. Becca says I should sign my blog posts at the end because they just seem to stop abruptly otherwise. She also says I should floss my teeth, so I guess I should listen to at least one out of two.


Family, Part II

March 5, 2014

Today (March 5) is my stepsons’ 15th birthday. I’m no longer married to their mother, and we live in different states, so my hold on our relationship is tenuous at best. It’s still better than what I have with their two older sisters, which is nothing. I didn’t foresee the end of my marriage being the end of my family. We both made bad choices. I didn’t know those choices would affect them so much. Naively, I saw the relationship between my ex-wife and I, and its demise, as only between the two of us. Though it was never meant to be a battle for love or loyalty, she’s Mom to them, and so I was destined to lose.

A long, long time ago.

A long, long time ago.

We were together for almost a decade, and married for over 8½ years. Her four kids were, respectively, 3, 4, and 9 when I came into their lives. The oldest I adopted. Her younger siblings had their father nearby, but I was at home with them and grew into being a father to them. Eventually they called me “Dad,” but now I’m back to “Jason.” I don’t regret leaving a failed marriage. I was blessed to watch four great kids grow up and have such an important role in their lives while I did. What ended needed to end. What won’t end is loving them. I haven’t done my best to stay close to the boys, and the girls would prefer not to acknowledge my existence, but I love them all. I would do anything in my power to help any one of them at a moment’s notice. Even if one day I have a biological child, or adopt one, they’re still my kids too.

I can only hope that time does heal all wounds. In many ways I feel like ten years of my life were all but blinked out of existence, as if they never happened. An “instant family” may not have been something I was ready for, but I tried. I smile at memories and learn the lessons of experience.

It’s been my lifelong dream to have a child who only knows me as Dad. I’m nearing 40 and I don’t know if I will meet someone with whom I can share this amazing journey. What I do know is I have the love in my heart to give to both a partner and a child. Trust me, if I didn’t like kids, I wouldn’t have endured six years of middle school. Even in the role of a teacher, there is no underestimating the impact you can have when you touch the life of a child. Part of the void is filled by the presence of my “best framily,” the subject of Part III. Stay tuned :)

Family, Part I

February 27, 2014
John & Miguel at the beach

John & Miguel at the beach

Valentine’s weekend. Love was in the air, the just-slightly-cool air of an ocean breeze, as my toes bathed in the surf. I stood on this romantic beach in Miami not with my lover but with my brother and his partner. Once we left the beach, we had to hurry back to shower, shave, and constrain ourselves in suits and ornamental nooses, because it was time for another brother’s wedding. Altogether there are four brothers, of whom I am the youngest, and three of us were there due to the relentless prodding of my new sister-in-law. This prodding may or may not have included financial aid, guilt, and/or electricity.

This event brought a total of four weddings among three brothers, including two divorces, and one brother’s right to marry denied. Only the first in the series, the oldest brother’s wedding, was attended by the entire immediate family. No other family members were present at the next two weddings. But that simply wasn’t going to be allowed this time. My family has never been particularly close and those bonds have been weakened all the more by separations of age, geography, and religious views. Once my father passed away and my mother subsequently developed dementia, we lost much of the impetus to gather at holidays or just because.

Us 3 "constrained" that evening

Us 3 “constrained” that evening

I’ve long found myself envious of people I’ve known who had strong family ties, counted siblings or cousins among their best friends, knew automatically where they would be and what they would do on any given holiday; the kind who, if asked who or what is most important in their life, will always say “family” as their first answer. I’ve longed to become one of those people.

The story of my family is now a story of four families: the one I was born into, the one I was married into, the one my brother just now married into, and the one of my best friend that I have been “adopted” into. That means there’s three more parts to this story to come, so stay tuned. To be continued

Pillaging Pedantic Pontification

February 18, 2014

If you’ve ever watched American Idol, you know the kind of train wrecks you can witness in the auditions. Everyone walks into the judges’ room believing they can sing. Many are told they can’t, and react to that news with varying degrees of shock and indignation, protesting about how their family and friends have always told them what great singers they are. Some are average singers but not good enough for the competition, and that news must be even harder to take. The producers of the show know viewers laugh at people with delusions of grandeur, while those who have some talent but just aren’t quite good enough tug at our heartstrings. Why?

Because we’ve all been there. We all have something we feel we’re really good at, and once a few people reinforce that feeling, your ego starts to swell. Then you begin to feel that you’re more talented, smarter, better than anyone else (at least anyone else you know) at what you do, and this gives you a right to criticize others. “Oh, your guacamole is good, but did you use any cilantro? I always mash it in with the avocados”… You may not even realize you’re doing it, and if people don’t call you on it, you’ll have no reason to change your behavior.

But one day, the reality check hits and you realize that you’re not as good as you thought. You may have been valedictorian of your high school, but then you go to a college where everyone was valedictorian. You discover that growing from good to great requires effort. It happened to me. For years I was told how smart I was and how well I wrote, especially essays. It got me to a point where my essays became lectures, talking at my readers, not to them, and sometimes even talking down to them. On the spectrum between engaging, thoughtful writer and pompous ass, I skidded dangerously close to the latter.

blogging posterIt took my own personal version of the Idol judges to say: you’re good, but you’re not doing your best, because you think you can get by on your talent alone. No one will be interested in what you have to say when you think you’re interesting by default. If you imply that your mind is a Ferrari and your readers are Fords, no one will want to drive alongside you. In the end, it doesn’t matter how fast you can go if no one likes the scenery along the way. With the Idol contestants, all the raw singing talent in the world won’t help if you don’t know how to entertain an audience. It’s no different as a writer.

It’s a struggle to check the ego and turn on the empathy. But that’s what I’m trying to do; stop writing about me, me, me and find ways to make you, the reader, not only interested in what I write, but wanting to read it. It’s very general advice to anyone who wants to be a successful blogger, or ever be a published writer (not that I know anything about that!): write, stop, read it out loud, and ask yourself: why would someone want to read this? I had to do that with this post. In its first draft, it went on and on about the 13th anniversary of registering my domain name and my limited success of living up to that name. I’ve written the same post, in slightly different versions, a dozen times over the years. Not only was it not new, it didn’t say anything to relate to readers.

If you sing a song, write a poem, cook them dinner, etc., most people will be nice and tell you it was good. It’s in our social training and usually it’s the right thing to do. But if you’re trying to improve at something, you need to be open to constructive criticism. More importantly, you need someone you trust who will give it to you. I’m blessed to have a friend who does. Sometimes all you need to strengthen talent is a little taste of humility.

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