40

40Today I turn 40. Things I’ve learned over my four decades:

  • Prostate exams aren’t comfortable in the slightest, but they’re a cotton-candy-coated breeze compared to what it must feel like to give birth.
  • Hell is outliving a child.
  • You can’t run away from who you are, or who you’re meant to be.
  • Christmas isn’t fun until you have kids.
  • A lot of what they teach you in high school is less than useless.
  • Sadly, some little boys don’t have their growth spurts until college.
  • You do only live once — that’s why it’s imperative you not do stupid shit.
  • Much of adulthood is extended improv.
  • You have to choose to outgrow your fears.
  • A leap of faith doesn’t always bring immediate resolution.
  • People who don’t believe the same things you do make good friends but lousy spouses.
  • Just because someone is older it doesn’t mean they’re smarter.
  • Accountants, doctors, and repairmen are more important than anyone ever admits.
  • Your gums bleed because the hygienist keeps poking it with a sharp metal stick. All the flossing in the world ain’t gonna fix that.
  • For a great many of us, the world proved much larger than we were led to believe.
  • The highest level of human fear is felt by the parent of a sick child.
  • The second highest level is felt by a parent attempting to potty train a child.
  • Live together all you want beforehand, it still won’t prepare you for marriage.
  • Every parent does it differently than their parents did.
  • Pure love is a toddler’s unprompted hug. Second place is how a baby smells after a bath.
  • If you stop feeding the online jerks, they eventually go away. Works well with pets, too.
  • The most amazing club in the coolest city with the most beautiful people is not one tenth as awesome as a warm bed on a cold day while snuggling with your family.
  • The path of least resistance is often the path of largest regrets.
  • It is never – and I mean never – too late to chase a dream or your God-given purpose.
  • Fashion changes. Style morphs. Elegance and class are timeless.
  • It’s possible to say “Yes sir” and still be a jerk.
  • You will disappoint people. Make sure to pick the right ones.
  • Watching someone die is hard.
  • If you live with integrity, you will have to face difficult decisions. You will also come out better for having made them.
  • God did not have pastoring as part of my long-term plan.
  • It is possible to write a letter so strongly worded that a Fortune 500 company executive has his assistant call you to apologize.
  • It’s also possible to write a strongly worded letter without sounding like a reality-show refugee, and more impressive.
  • Seasons of life apply to people as well as circumstances.
  • You will never regret learning to cook well.
  • Some of the sharpest, most interesting people are the ones your younger self thought unworthy of your time.
  • If you pray to marry an intelligent, wise, caring, gorgeous, SEC grad who was once a cheerleader, you may just get more than you bargained for. In all the best ways possible.
  • If you worry that you’ll struggle to be a good dad, have nothing in common with a daughter, or fail miserably as a father to a son, you will be so happy to be proven wrong.
  • For all the hype, 40 isn’t so bad.

When the Magic of Christmas Dies

PARENT WARNING: This blog post is for parents only. Do not read this where your kids can see it. Don’t read it out loud to them, either (not that you would, but I’m trying to be thorough). In fact, bookmark this post and read it after the kids go to bed.

 

Christmas magic died for my daughter yesterday afternoon. It was an accident. Her little brother, looking for a stray sock, stumbled upon the hiding place where I’d stashed his Christmas gift. Being the innocent six year-old that he is, Jon didn’t understand why there was an Xbox tucked away in my bedroom. I told him it was mine and he needed to leave it alone. He said, “Cool! Maybe we’ll both get an Xbox for Christmas!” and then proceeded to go on as if nothing were out of the normal.

Ella, however, looked dead at me and I knew.

*****

This story really begins about two years ago when Ella got off the bus with a pained look on her face. She sidled up to me, slipped her tiny hand into mine, and said she wanted to ask me something.

“Sure,” I said.

“Promise you won’t get mad?” she asked.

“I promise.”

“My friend on the bus said there’s no such thing as Santa Claus. She says it’s just your mom and dad putting presents on the tree and moving the Elf around the house.”

My heart stopped. Ella looked up at me, her green eyes glinting.

“Is that true, daddy?”

*****

I’ll never forget those eyes, especially since they reappeared yesterday afternoon. The hurt. The sadness. The betrayal. It was too much to deal with, so I hustled the kids off to the kitchen and fixed them a treat — brownie sundaes — hoping to just let the uncomfortable moment pass. Jon was fine with it. Ella was not.

So I talked it over with Rachel. We knew we were going to have to tell Ella the truth, but Rachel was adamant that we not blow things up for Jon. It was going to be awkward.

I walked into the kitchen and sat down next to Ella. Jon was across from us, his back to the living room. Ella grabbed my hand. I took a deep breath. She looked at me. I looked at her. Her eyes were so sad.

And all I could do was laugh.

I know. I suck as a father. I’m used to it by now.

I laughed because Ella never let go of that question the little girl put into her mind two years ago: Is Santa real? For the last couple of Christmases, doubt has been an ever-present part of our festivities. Ella wasn’t belligerent about it or anything, but she would just have these moments when her brain would circle back around to the issue. And every time she would ask me or Rachel about the reality of Santa’s existence, we would patiently (and sometimes impatiently) explain that yes, Santa was real.

Last year, we actually softened it and said that as long as she believed Santa was real, that was all that mattered. And that seemed good enough for Ella. If nothing else, she trusted her mom and dad.

And that’s why I laughed: the absurdity of the entire situation simply overwhelmed me, and my response to absurdity is laughter. My daughter, who might just be the single greatest detective alive, finally had the confirmation she needed. Her long-held suspicion was true: mom and dad were behind the jolly fat man.

*****

To Ella’s credit, she ate her sundae and didn’t say a word. When she was finished, she got up and went to her room. I had to get ready for my company’s Christmas party, so Jon followed me to hang out and Rachel went to check on Ella.

She was laying on her bed, crying. Not because Santa wasn’t real, but because her childhood was over. Rachel sat down next to her and stroked her hair, and Ella wept over the death of a part of her childhood. The magic of Santa, of the Elf on the Shelf, of the lights and the tree and everything else was now exposed to the cold reality. Ella lifted her head, put it in Rachel’s lap, and sobbed.

“I just don’t want to grow up,” she said through tears.

My wife is a brilliant and godly woman. And God gave her the wisdom in that moment to explain to Ella about what Santa really means. How he’s a symbol for hope and good. How he inspires people to be generous and kind. How he creates a magic that we, as her parents, didn’t want to rob her of because there is so precious little magic in the world. Especially as adults. Rachel shared how Christ is really the focus of Christmas, but in a world that has gone cold to the message of Jesus, Santa is the best that some people can do.

“We’ve seen people who grew up without the magic of Christmas,” Rachel told her. “And we didn’t want that for you. We wanted you to have the memory as something precious to hold on to.”

Ella wiped her face and looked at Rachel, and folks, there is a God in heaven and he moves in our lives, because at that moment Rachel said Ella’s face changed. The tears went away and a wide and astonished wonder took its place.

Ella looked at Rachel and said, “If there’s no Santa, that means you and daddy have been the ones giving all of my expensive gifts for Christmas.”

What had been a moment of devastation was suddenly a moment of comprehension. It was a sudden shift in Ella’s worldview: in a moment, she was flooded with gratitude for everything Santa had given her, because she finally understood where it all came from.

“It was you,” she said.

Rachel explained to Ella how we manage to make Christmas fun, how we work hard to afford the gifts that her and Jon ask for. Ella thanked Rachel and gave her a big hug. It was a moment I missed, but one that moved me when Rachel shared it.

*****

I would be lying if I said I wasn’t conflicted. There’s a huge part of me that is absolutely devastated that Ella knows the truth. There’s an equally huge part of me that is glad to be done with the charade, if only because it means Ella won’t go through this season grilling me like Jack McCoy.

(Ella, being a smart little girl, quickly pieced together the truth about the Easter Bunny and Tooth Fairy, so we had to own up to our roles there. We actually got a good laugh about the Tooth Fairy because Rachel and I both despise that ritual).

But there’s something missing now that she knows the truth. Ella woke up this morning still a little sad. After all, she has to keep the secret for another couple of years because Jon still believes. We’ve also made it clear that she’s not to spoil things for others the way that one little girl did for her. Ella, because she is kind and generous and full of light, has agreed to hold the line and let other kids keep the magic a bit longer.

I mentioned yesterday that it was strange moving deeper into adulthood. So many things for which you’re not prepared, things which no one can really warn you about because they’re too busy being surprised themselves. Some days it seems like the plainest truth is we’re all just making it up as we go along, hoping we get it right, hoping no one suffers much when we don’t.

There are things we do to try and make the world a little bit better place, and some times those very nice things bring with them a price tag of sadness when they go away. The question, then, is whether or not the magic is worth the cost. It’s still early for me, but I’m thinking I know what my answer is.

Yes.

A Son’s Dream, A Father’s Fear

IMG_4643The other day my son announced his intention to launch himself into space on a one-way journey to explore the galaxy. As his father, I should be used to him making grand, above-his-age statements (he’s only 6), but hearing my first grader calmly state his dream to die in space threw me off a bit.

He was so calm when he told me his idea.

“I want to build the ‘100th Horizon’ which would be a spaceship big enough to hold me and other people, and we would fly to the end of our galaxy learning about space. We would even fly past Pluto and other ice planets.”

“But it would take you years to get to the end of our galaxy,” I countered. “Mommy and I might be dead before you would come home.”

“I know that,” he said. “Me and my friends would all probably die in space, but that’s okay. It would just put me closer to heaven, so I could see you faster after I die.”

I’ll admit–that choked me up. But it was what he said next that floored me. I asked him why he would want to fly off on a one-way journey into space. This is what he said:

“Because I want to give my life to help people. We would have better knowledge if I flew into space.”

I wasn’t prepared for that answer. My wife and I have taken great pains to instill in our children a love and compassion for others, and we’ve always gone out of our way to encourage our children’s natural interests. My daughter, Ella, loves to dance and sing, so we’ve enrolled her in dance classes and helped her audition for school musicals. Jon loves science and playing drums, so we signed him up for drum lessons and try to fuel his thirst for knowledge.

Rachel and I both grew up in cultures that encouraged dreams, but weren’t so quick to encourage acting on them. We don’t want our kids to grow up like that; we want them to dream AND act, to be intentional with how they live their lives.

In short, we’ve never squashed their dreams. Despite what you might think, this is a challenging position to maintain.

As a parent, you want what’s best for your kid, but sometimes what’s best for them absolutely kills you on the inside. Hearing Jon so fearlessly announce that his dream was to launch himself on a suicide mission for the betterment of mankind made me want to throw up. In fact, on my insides, I could feel the fear rising up. My mental list-maker went into overdrive, concocting as many reasons why he SHOULDN’T go into space as I possibly could.

But I didn’t breathe a word of that to him. The only allowance I gave my fears was to mention to Jon that if he went to the end of the galaxy, it would make me sad because I would never see him again. Given how much my son loves me, even that was probably too much, an unfair emotional manipulation perpetrated on a child by an adult.

But Jon’s response was not only perfect, it was completely Jon: I’ll just be that much closer to heaven, so I’ll see you sooner.

Even now, I want to cry typing that out. It’s such a beautiful statement: I will live my dreams, but I will always love and think of you.

As a parent, could I ask for more?

Sometimes, I worry that I will transfer my fear issues on to my kids. I see Ella hesitate when walking into a room full of people she doesn’t know, and I wonder if I caused that. I see Jon have a meltdown because he hurts himself while playing, and I wonder if I’ve somehow bred weakness into him.

But then my children say and do things that amaze me, and remind me of what my actual end goal is as a parent.

My job as their dad is to raise them to be healthy, functional adults capable of living a life of meaning and joy. That means allowing them to experience and learn things as a child that cause me great fear.

I would rather be the one who feels the ugly, paralyzing fear. I would rather live through their childhood years worrying and fretting over things than pass that anxiety on to them. I want them to emerge from my home with a sense of wonder and courage, a belief in themselves and their talents that propels them to do things much greater than anyone could imagine.

My son wants to launch himself into the uncharted ends of space on a one-way trip to broaden humanity’s understanding of the universe we call home. As a dad, the idea makes me want to curl up into a ball and cry for a couple of days. But it also makes me proud of my son, proud of the man he will one day become, regardless of whether or not he actually makes it into space.

So, as his dad, I’m going to do the only thing I can: I’m going to bust my butt to introduce him to people who can expand his knowledge. I know some folks who know some folks, so I’m going to set up some lunches where Jon can interview an astronaut or astronomer. I’m going to take him back to the Space Center in Huntsville, AL, and maybe send him to Space Camp one summer.

I’m going to do everything I can to encourage my son to be all he can be, because that’s what is best for him as a person, and what’s best for me as a dad.

And if he actually achieves his dream, it might just be what’s best for mankind, too.

Moving Beyond “Standard” In Our Schools

The only thing standardized testing accomplishes is producing standard students. The world needs exceptional students, not standard.

This thought has been on my mind all day. It came to me while my wife and I were talking about our kids this morning, and getting them ready to go back to school.

See, we’ve been lazy. We’ve spent the summer focusing on things like fun, making memories, and just enjoying time with our children in general. Now that school is almost upon us, we’re trying to get the kids back into the academic swing of things because we don’t want them to be behind before school even gets started. In fact, NPR ran a story yesterday on closing the summer gap, and all of this has got me thinking:

It really sucks that kids have to be such slaves to the test.

Because that’s what this boils down to, really. Kids are being tested in the fall, the winter, and the spring, all because we’ve decided that measuring their retention levels is the most precise method of determining their learning capacities.

The truly crappy part is, it’s not working so well. According to a report from the BBC, the United States ranks 28th (tied with Italy) in world education rankings. That’s not as bad as two years ago, when the US ranked 36th in the world.

I feel strongly about this issue because, for two years, I taught an adjunct class for Grayson High School students. It was a social sciences class that focused on world religions and philosophy, and what I quickly discovered was how woefully unprepared my students were for a lifetime of critical thinking.

Of course, no one likes to be made to think. As George Bernard Shaw once said, “Few people think more than two or three times a year. I have made an international reputation for myself simply by thinking once or twice a week.”

But that wasn’t true of the kids I taught. I had some of the smartest, most capable kids the school could throw at me, and yet many of them weren’t skilled in thinking their own thoughts. They were exceptional a parroting back to me whatever I said, but when pressed for their own insights, most struggled to come up with anything to say.

Now, you might be saying, “Well, duh – they’re only teenagers.”

And to that I reply, “You must not have teens of your own or ever remember being a teenager.”

Because if there’s one thing that’s true about teenagers, it’s that they have opinions. On everything. Often very strong ones. But you most likely hear those opinions outside of the classroom, because individuality in thought isn’t often on the agenda in class. And why is that?

Because teachers have to teach to the test. They don’t have the time to teach kids to think, critically or otherwise, because we’ve tied their hands. Their job security, their salaries, even their professional reputations are directly connected to how well their students perform on a stupid test. I’m convinced most teachers would like to try and do things differently, but we’ve stacked the deck too much against them. Survival depends on getting kids ready for the test.

Now, about here is where I should go off the rails and call for all standardized testing to be banned. I should bang my angry fists on the table and decry the evil test-taking machine that has consumed public education, all while calling for a return to “the good old days”.

Except we need to test kids. Progress that can’t be measured isn’t progress.

So what do we need to do? For starters, I think we need fewer standardized tests. I can’t remember the entire alphabet soup that kids have to face–CRCT, ITBS, COGAT, CIA, OMG–but we’re cramming more tests in to the exclusion of other things.

If we could back off the number of tests, then there would be time and space in the day for teachers to inspire kids, identify their unique traits and encourage them to develop their gifts.

You know, the stuff teachers are gifted at doing.

And if teachers could do that, then we’d see a dramatic shift in the kids. More creativity. More individual growth. Connections would get made between disciplines, ideas would spark out of seemingly unrelated things; heck, we might even see an improvement in student behavior because the days wouldn’t seem quite so pointless.

But we have the system we have, right? I know that for the foreseeable future, my children will have to prepare themselves to take an endless battery of examinations that will determine their future while not necessarily preparing them for it. That’s why my wife and I work hard to supplement their school education with other types of education.

Like a summer spent on things like fun, making memories, and just enjoying time being children in general.

What do you think, parents? Where do you stand on the standardized test? What would you like to see change in the school system?

Sound off in the comments below, or on my Facebook page.

Surprised

This week I’m participating in Seth Godin’s #YourTurnChallenge. My goal is to blog everyday this week (Mon-Sun) here on my site as well as on the challenge’s official Tumblr blog. Here’s my Day 6 submission.

There have been relatively few times when I’ve surprised myself. In fact, the only one that comes to mind is finding the strength to speak at my daughter’s funeral. She was stillborn 5 days after her due date. I was a wreck.

It wasn’t supposed to happen to me and my wife.

Yet there we were: a tiny pink coffin, a tiny baby girl, and hundreds of people gathered at the graveside.

I cleared my throat and spoke. I don’t remember any of it. All I remember were the hot, unstoppable tears that rolled down my face as I addressed my grieving wife; my stunned parents and in-laws; the pained faces of people from my church. I spoke from my heart, where raw pain collided with faith.

And in five minutes it was over. I watched as the men from the funeral home lowered my daughter into the ground. I watched as the dirt fell atop her casket. I watched until my daughter was nothing more than a memory.

The next day, I got up. And then I did the same thing the day after that. And the day after that.

I’ve repeated that process for almost 10 years now.

My wife and I have two children now. We take them to visit their sister’s grave every year on the anniversary of her birth/death. We sing happy birthday. We give her fresh flowers. And we walk away holding hands, knowing how precious life is.

Sometimes, the most surprising things are the simplest.