Monday, April 3, 2017

Closing the Chapter

I am still having a lot of difficulty wrapping my head around the notion that I am merely hours (not days, weeks, months or years at this point… only hours) away from turning 30 years of age. My 20s were… an experience. As I close this chapter, I find it appropriate to reflect on what was, how it brought me to what is, and preview where I want to be. A disclaimer: I am going to be brutally hard on myself here. Maybe that’s not the best thing, but I always believe in being honest with myself and with you, the reader.

I am not going to look back on my twenties as favorably as I would have liked. Too often this decade felt more like a blooper reel than a highlight reel. It was dotted with magnificent failures and missteps. I know the dangers associated with dwelling on the past, but some things never leave you. I think of the letter I got from a girl telling me all the reasons she wouldn’t date me when I was 20 and not getting served at 21 when I visited the ice cream shop where she worked. I think of getting stood up in Florida and losing my wallet hours later when I was 22. At 23, I fell in love for the first time, only for the girl I loved to pick the other guy in the triangle. At 24, one of my best friends from childhood basically told me I hadn’t done anything worth being proud of at that point. At 26, my boss thought so little of me that she waited until the day before the school year started to tell me I was laid off. At 27, she told me that she wished she could hang me. At 28, I lost a job despite receiving favorable performance reviews due to some shifts, and the powers that be couldn’t be bothered to even try to bring me back. At 29, I nearly had the breakdown I narrowly avoided at 21 and 28 and obsessed over someone who couldn’t be bothered to care if I was still on this planet, let alone anything deeper than that.

I lost a lot in my 20s with very little to show for it. Friends moved away and moved on me. Other friends and acquaintances passed away way too young. I lost one of the few extended family members who truly understood me. I was passed over for countless jobs and opportunities. I felt like I was unknowingly cast as “good, but not good enough”. Maybe I’ve deserved everything I have received. Perhaps there was a step in the process I missed. Maybe things came too easy for me when I was young, and my 20s were my comeuppance.

I don’t want this post to be entirely doom and gloom. There were some successes over the course of the past ten years. The person I am today is crafted directly in the image of who I always wanted to be. The way I talk, dress, and look all took a while to come together, but I am pleased that it finally did. My interests had to be given time to be cultivated, and while some might look at me as an odd amalgam of interests, I am passionate about a number of things all across the spectrum ranging from the important to the absurd. I am comfortable in my own skin and don’t turn away from who I see in the mirror. I finished college and grad school with measurable success, and while my career has not necessarily taken the trajectory I had hoped, I can take a measure of pride in what I have accomplished in the classroom, both as a teacher and as a student.

I entered my twenties with one eye looking forward but the other eye firmly focused on the paths I had already traveled. As the decade progressed, I improved on averting my gaze from the past and focusing more on the present and the future. For so long, I idolized the past. I desperately wanted to find a way to go back to a simpler time. Those days are over, and it is not healthy to dwell on them. Stone is an afterthought these days, as are many other places from my younger years. It is okay to visit these memories from time to time, but I no longer have the desire to dwell on them for any period of time.

As I enter my 30s, I am admittedly struggling with some degree of fear and uncertainty. The older I get, the more I have to accept the notion that some of my dreams may never come to fruition. With each day that passes, my chances of becoming WWE Champion drastically diminish. The longer I stay in education, the likelihood that I will become wealthy becomes lower and lower. Things I thought would have happened by now (the marriage, the house, the family, etc.) have yet to come to fruition, and I have to be content whether they happen or not. There's a girl who has become my best friend, and I love her very much. It might never be anything past friendship. I have to be okay with however it ends. I’m probably not going to have the good fortune of having my girlfriend plan an elaborate marriage proposal to me (as one of my childhood friends did) or complain about inept coworkers and translate that into a hefty raise (as another childhood friend did), but I have to be okay.

I don’t know what’s coming next, but I have to believe that the many battles I have conquered have prepared me for what is to come. I don’t know that I’ll ever get the things I want, but I have a good feeling that no matter what, I’m going to be okay.

20 Things I Learned in My 20s

Blog posts consisting entirely of lists are admittedly lazy. However, I do have a less lazy and more thoughtful post coming this evening as well, and the material in this post would not fit well within that post.

My 20s were not as fruitful a decade as I would have wished or even prognosticated, yet I still learned a number of lessons. I would say the decade as a whole could be chalked up to a learning experience. Here are 20 lessons I learned (in no particular order).

1. Degrees from institutions of higher learning do not make you “smarter”. However, they do open doors.
2. It’s okay to fail. In fact, it is better to fail magnificently than it is to never even attempt to succeed.
3. The separation is in the preparation. It is easier to succeed when you have a plan.
4. However, there are some things for which you simply cannot plan. Adapt and adjust, or get lost in the shuffle.
5. As your age grows, so does the percentage of things that you realize are out of your control.
6. Many opportunities unfortunately cannot be earned. They are either given or they are not, often times seemingly without rhyme or reason.
7. People are going to move on without you. You are going to move on from some people. This is not done with malice but is rather a byproduct of different growth trajectories.
8. If you are so desperate for something, you can interpret virtually anything as a “sign” that thing is meant to happen. Stop searching for signs. Just live.
9. A goal changed is not a goal failed. Do not pursue a goal you for which no longer have a passion simply out of stubbornness. Roll with the curves.
10. Many timelines are good in theory only. The greater the importance you place on timelines, the more disappointed you will be with your life.
11. Attack your job with ferocity while you are at work. As soon as you walk out the door to end your day, leave it alone until you walk back in the following day.
12. Death is the only door that ever truly remains closed. All other doors can be reopened with enough patience and/or persistence.
13. Be generous with the things that mean the most to you. It is no great feat to show generosity with the things that matter little to you. Give of your best fruits.
14. Everything is impossible until it is possible. When it becomes possible, it can no longer be impossible.
15. Be careful to not fall into the trap of seeing others for who we want them to be or believe they can eventually become whilst losing sight of who they actually are.
16. Seeking the advice of a number of people does not ensure that the situation for which you are seeking advice will end favorably. It does, however, ensure that a significant number of people are aware of your business (and can use it against you later).
17. The greatest thing you can invest in is people. The returns far surpass any monetary value.
18. It is important to remember that love not only is a challenge but also that love is dynamic and not static. It requires your greatest effort and your greatest care.
19. Both the power and finesse approaches have their merits. It takes great discernment to know which approach is most appropriate in a given situation.
20. Happiness is not always there for the taking, but contentment is. More often than not, you will not have what you want. You can always make the decision to want what you have.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

The Lasting Legacy of Liv & Maddie

As a twentysomething male, I am about as far removed from the Disney Channel’s target demographic as anyone. Yet, I still have a soft spot in my heart for the network. Some of it definitely stems from nostalgia. It also helps to be aware of some shows on the network to stay relevant with my students (who, as middle schoolers, are most certainly within Disney’s target demographic).

I rediscovered the network a few years ago thanks to nostalgia. My curiosity of Girl Meets World and how true a successor it would be to Boy Meets World (THE show of my childhood) drew me to the network. While I always enjoyed GMW (and still feel that show was pulled long before its expiration date), another show truly grabbed my attention and captured my imagination.

Liv & Maddie tells the story of twin sisters (both played by Dove Cameron), their two brothers, and their navigation through adolescence with laughs galore. Despite the lighthearted tone the show often takes, the show handles issues such as gender roles, gender inequality, and misogyny. As a teacher, I know all too well that these are issues that our young ladies face on a regular basis. Feminism is not an easy subject to tackle, whether in conversation or portrayed on television. Liv & Maddie shows young girls and boys that the best way to fight inequality is to take action. When a principal threatened to make budget cuts to the girls basketball program, the girls raise funds of their own to convince the principal to take them seriously. When a chauvinistic producer believes that girls cannot possibly be interested in STEM, the girls build a car that outpaces that of the boys (the addition of the Val character in Season 4 also went a long way toward showing that girls can be passionate about STEM as well).

In a world run by social media and embracing debate, it is commonplace for hostility to reign. Liv & Maddie demonstrates that the best way to exact lasting change is by taking action and by simply having a conversation. When action is taken, it is always done in a productive rather than destructive matter. Even the bullies are never humiliated.

A while back, I live-tweeted an episode and expressed my surprise that Todd Stetson never got his comeuppance. To my surprise, one of the show’s creators, John D. Beck noticed the tweet and replied “Because it wasn’t about Todd. You can’t change how someone else feels. You can only change how you feel about yourself”. That one tweet perfectly encapsulates the message of Liv & Maddie.

In fifty years or so, when someone on one of those sites decides to do a retrospective of Disney Channel shows and ranks them, it is my sincerest belief that Liv & Maddie should be ranked at the top. It didn’t have the gimmickry of Wizards of Waverly Place or the constant promotion of K.C. Undercover. It didn’t need it. Dove Cameron never got the level of hype of Miley, Selena, Hilary, or Zendaya, but that doesn’t change the fact that she is perhaps the finest leading lady (times 2!) and best role model that a young girl could have. Whether she was portraying teen actress/pop star Liv or alpha female Maddie, Dove showed the importance of confidence and empathy in every line she spoke. In a world that feels the increasing need to be “edgy”, Liv & Maddie thrived by being the exact opposite. It was a cute show full of wholesome values. It empowered young people to be comfortable with who they were, to change the conversation, to believe in themselves, and to support their friends and family.

While Liv & Maddie may be done, its message and spirit will live on. Cheers to all for a job well done!

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

On Wellness and Motivation

With my 30th birthday less than a month away (!), now is probably a better time than ever to get as much of my life, the story of my first 30 years, out there. It is important to me know and share where I have been and use it as a vehicle to drive me toward where I eventually want to be.

I spent the last two posts talking at moderate length about my resolve. I have to be honest to myself and to anyone who reads my writing and admit that much of my resolve is born out of the fact that I am rarely (if ever) content with myself. I always feel as if I have something to prove, whether to my peers, love interests, family, or myself.

If you know me even remotely or follow me on any sort of social media, you know how important the gym has been to my 20s. I’ve used the gym as a conduit to lose weight (twice), to gain strength and endurance, and to simply feel good about myself. At this point in my fitness journey, I go to the gym 11 times a week for 5 cardio and 6 weightlifting sessions. I would love to say that I always did it for me, but that is not the case.

For the record, I do not mention any individual or experience in this post with the intent of demonizing anyone of putting them down. I just have to give perspective. In 2008, I lost 62 pounds because a girl wrote me a letter telling me all the reasons she would never date me, my appearance being one. I almost literally worked myself to the bone that summer in the hopes it would impress her. It did not. That did not lessen any of what I accomplished, but it let the wind out of my sails a bit.
Growing up, I always had to hear my grandfather talk about how much “tougher” and “stronger” his granddaughters were compared to the grandsons. It stung, but at least I had company in my weakness in my male cousin. A year or two ago, that changed. My cousin changed his diet and workout regimen and drastically changed his body type. When I heard my grandfather mention it once, I thought it was just a conversation piece, but after it was mentioned at least a dozen times in the year that followed, it began to grate on me. Here I was working out regularly, having completed two marathons, and I still felt as though my accomplishments were ignored. I would be lying if I said that the change in my workouts toward building more muscle was not brought on by this.

Over the past year, I have seen my body transform (albeit not at the rate I would prefer). I have found myself with the ability to lift significantly more than I could lift even six months ago. Yet that still does not feel enough. Some days I am pleased with my progress, while other days I view myself as a scrawny twerp in comparison to some of the guys at the gym.

For the longest time, I shied away from free weights because I did not feel “worthy” of being in that section of the gym. I had to get over those fears. As I continue in relentless pursuit of my goals, I have learned two lessons.

Lesson 1: Don’t do it for or because of anyone else.
I lost weight for a girl. I started lifting more because of comments that got under my skin. Those are awful reasons to do anything. It’s not about anyone else. You can work relentlessly to try to impress someone else, but honestly, whether or not they are impressed is out of your control. Don’t place your success or self-worth on the shoulders of someone else. Be happy with yourself. If you’re not happy with where you are, do something about it, but do not do it simply for the attention or affection of another.

Lesson 2: You should only ever compare yourself with the person you were yesterday.
I am still guilty of this one. I see guys at the gym who are absolutely jacked and I get frustrated that I am not there yet. I have to remind myself that my journey didn’t start at the same time as theirs, and my journey does not end at the same time as theirs, either. Self-improvement is not a race. Every little bit counts. Focus only on working to be just a little bit better than you were the previous day. Negative comparisons are toxic. Don’t make them. I know this is easier said than done.

I’m not where I want to be yet (both from a physical and motivational standpoint), but I am moving in the right direction. If you’re struggling with anything I mentioned above, just know you’re not alone. Keep at it. I believe in you.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

...Know When to Fold 'Em...

With my 30th birthday less than a month away (!), now is probably a better time than ever to get as much of my life, the story of my first 30 years, out there. It is important to me know and share where I have been and use it as a vehicle to drive me toward where I eventually want to be.

“A blessing that is improperly utilized becomes a curse.”

In yesterday’s post, I reflected on the positive things that have come as a direct result of my resolve. It would not be fair to leave it at that, however. I have always purposed to tell my whole story in my blog. My resolve, while generally a good thing, has been my detriment more times than I care to remember.

When I have a goal or a dream in mind, I see it through until its very end. I will be the first to admit that particular line of thinking has caused me to hold onto things far past their expiration dates. In many of those cases, the very resolve that has led to greatness in other areas has led to heartbreak and heartache in others.

I have spent a significant portion of my life waiting for girls with relatively little to show for it. I spent the majority of high school and a good part of college waiting for Jessica to give me a chance. When it was all said and done, I wasted five years of my life on that and then another 9 years on a friendship that was far weaker than I perceived. I wasn’t even viewed as important enough to see when I was in town. I spent the first half of my 20s waiting for Jannelle to get her life sorted out. It didn’t get me to where I wanted to be, but I was so afraid of giving up too soon that I held on for way too long. I spent nearly three years trying to get Kim to realize I was an awesome dude. Spoilers: It didn’t happen. She finally had to flat-out reject me for me to give up the ghost.

When I was growing up, I had a core group of friends with whom I spent most of my free time. I thought nothing could ever tear us apart. Perhaps I was na├»ve to think that time and distance wouldn’t leave its mark. Perhaps I should have seen the writing on the wall and cultivated another core group of friends while in college or at work. I did not because I believed that I could simply will things into not changing. I was wrong. When they moved away, it was really tough on me. If I had not been so resolute in my desire to keep things the same, I could have averted much of that.

I have spent a lot of time believing that my way was the right way and that if I kept on in the path that I was going, I would get to where I wanted to be by sheer force of will. Sadly, that is unrealistic and a faulty life strategy. As I near 30, I am realizing that my way may not always be the best way. I am learning that resolve is a good thing, but not in all areas. It’s important to know when to hold on, but it is equally as important to know when to move on. Moving on and quitting are not one in the same. In the next chapter of my life, I resolve to be better about my resolve.

Monday, March 6, 2017

Know When to Hold 'Em...

With my 30th birthday less than a month away (!), now is probably a better time than ever to get as much of my life, the story of my first 30 years, out there. It is important to me know and share where I have been and use it as a vehicle to drive me toward where I eventually want to be.

One of the greatest achievements of my 20s occurred in 2012 when I completed my first marathon. To say that it was an arduous task would vastly undersell the difficulty of the task. It was tiring. It was painful. It was accomplished. I no longer run significantly long distances (due to a number of factors but primarily due to the fact that these days I train for different goals), but I look back fondly on what I accomplished.

One factor more than any other propelled me to success in marathon training and running. It was not my vast experience with running. In fact, prior to December 2011 I had never run longer than 2.5 miles in a single run, let alone 26.2 miles. It certainly was not my athletic ability. Instead, it was my resolve. I determined that I was going to run a marathon and would not let anything stand in my way. Through weather, injuries, and other obstacles, still I persisted.

As I reflect on my life to this point, there are a number things of which I am proud (and, admittedly, a number of things I would prefer to forget). One of the character traits of which I am most proud is that resolve, that mental toughness, that refusal to quit. I can honestly say that I would not be where I am today were it not for that mental toughness.

I know I have mentioned it on a number of occasions, but it bears repeating that my professional journey has been anything but linear. My teaching career started as a substitute teacher. While I was fortunate to live with my parents (which helped to avert any potential financial crisis as a result of my very sporadic employment), it was still difficult to keep going when dozens of doors slammed in my face. By the time the summer of 2012 came around, my parents told me to start thinking of alternative plans for my life because it was getting to a point that I could not wait much longer. Still, I believed. I was patient, and by the end of that summer I had my first full time teaching position.

Nearly a year to the day of finally receiving that first teaching job, I found out that I was one of a number of teachers who were laid off to start the school year. Something in my heart told me that I still belonged at that school, so I did everything I could to be the first teacher that was brought back. What I did not know at the time is that my resolve to return to AAA Academy would result in me working for free for a number of months. I did exactly that because I believed that in the end, I would be where I wanted to be. It took over three months, but I got my job and old classroom back. When I realized that it was time to move on from the school, I had to endure a number of closed doors and near misses before getting to where I wanted to be. If I had simply given up due to past experience and the weight of prior failure, I never would have gotten this far in my career.

The more I reflect on my resolve and patience, I think of the doors that have opened as a result. There are friendships that bloomed that never would have been possible if I had simply walked away at the first sign of trouble. There are people I never would have met in person, things I never would have done, and places I never would have visited were it not for this stubborn desire to persist. I have always operated under the principle that if I give up now, I might be giving up just a moment too soon. The idea of not waiting long enough is one that has driven me to the path of patience and persistence, and I would not be where I am today were it not for it.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Floating Between Possibility and Impossibility: A Brave New World

Everything is impossible until it is possible. Once something becomes possible, it can no longer be impossible.

When I was younger, so many things seemed so far away. Dreams, hopes, goals… so many of them seemed exponentially easier to conceptualize than to actually materialize, yet I always believed that they would come at some point. They just had to come. Much has changed in a short amount of time. We live in an age in which my Chicago Cubs are your reigning World Series champions and my Seahawks are a perennial powerhouse (and have won a Super Bowl). We live in a time when Day at the Fair actually releases new music. We live in a time when a reality television star with no experience can be elected president of the United States (okay, they can’t all be good things).

The world in which we live seems to be showing us that anything is possible, yet there is this strange dichotomy that makes it seem as if some things have never been more impossible. For all the grief that “millennials” receive from their older and “wiser” counterparts, the fact of the matter is that the deck is stacked higher than it has ever been. Good jobs and nice houses are not just there for the taking. It is significantly easier to collect debt than it is to collect experience. Many places do not want to hire someone without experience, but heaven forbid that person has too much experience. They price themselves right out of that job!

I had to scratch and claw for years to get to where I am now. I paid my dues as a substitute teacher for three years. There were years that fewer than 50 social studies jobs posted in the state of Illinois for the entire year! When I finally received a full time job offer, it was in an alternative school setting. It was a high stress, low pay environment. I paid my dues there for another three years. When I finally received a full time job offer at a public school, it was a bait and switch and was not the position for which I interviewed. Even so, it was a better opportunity than where I had been working. When I FINALLY got that full time social studies teaching position, it was not quite ideal, but it was what I had worked so long to obtain. That is what personally bothers me about some of the older generation railing on mine. They have no concept of the fact that I spent the better part of a decade fighting for something that was readily available to their generation immediately upon college graduation. I stand on the doorstep of 30, and I am where I wish I would have been at the age of 23. That frustrates me at times, but I am thankful that I am here at 29 instead of 39.

We live in a world that is so frustratingly dreary at times, but for some strange reason I am still filled with hope. This madness… it *has* to turn around. It just does. There are too many people working too hard to make things happen. While I do not always agree with the methods or the motives, I will always support those who make an effort. Fear, doubt, and loathing do not make things happen. Actions do. We truly do live in a world of boundless possibilities. We just have to work a little harder to realize these possibilities.