Let me tell you about my children

Are you running yet? That is the typical response when someone talks about their kids.

I was never “that guy” who had a stack of pics to roll out like playing cards if someone asked if I had a family (this is before cell phones and uploaded photos of course). I would be happy to talk about them to someone really interested but I have always believed that people are really not interested, it’s just something to say, like “how are you today? “Trust me they don’t really want to know.

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My children are older now and I don’t have to deal with that anymore. But now I want to talk about them to anyone who will listen.

If this past year has taught me anything, it is that life’s meaning is not in the size of your house, your stock portfolio or how nice your car is. After being reduced to an unemployed, sick man with too much time on his hands I have come to value accomplishments as the measure of a man. To do this I had to contemplate the meaning of a real accomplishment. Here is what I came up with.

I worked at a restaurant for a long time. A family business where I met my wife. I rose to the top of the food chain in the kitchen to a manager, where I was responsible for thousands of meals. To be real, however, my only real accomplishment was establishing high standards that led to a reputation as a hard-working perfectionist.

I sold cars for many years. Aside from consistently meeting or exceeding goals for sales and satisfaction, my only real accomplishment was the testimonials of customers that left with a different, better impression of my much-maligned industry after they met me. They used words like nice, accessible, professional and my favorite “has integrity.”

I worked as a Collections and Liquidations (repo) manager for many years. I developed systems, reduced overall losses, and increased profitability for the entire ten years that I was there. I was considered the best in my industry. Despite that, my only real accomplishment was that I helped a lot of people. People who were struggling, confused how things worked and needed someone to talk to who would really listen. I was the person that worked with them and I know that at the end of the day I made a difference in someone’s life.

Nothing else I have done matters…except my children. I really accomplished something there.

My children are awesome. At 21, 20, 18 and 15 I have four decent, sarcastic, hardworking and nice kids. They are good citizens. Charitable, kind-hearted, polite to all, respectful of the elderly and authority figures and did I say nice? I am a truly blessed man. While I wasn’t able to afford a massive house, a car for each of them on their 18th birthday and a trust fund, I was able to give them a decent childhood despite constant financial hardship. We went to Disney, we went camping, they played sports and I spent every minute of daylight and energy that I had to throw the football, fling the frisbee or wrestle on the lawn. Fighting the clock, all the while knowing that they were going to grow up too fast.

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I was able to walk the line between parent and friend, being accessible while still in position to leverage the “Dad card” when necessary. They weren’t afraid to tell me things. I never shielded them from life, instead, I told them how the world really is. My girls dressed as Disney princesses once, but today they aren’t the types to wait around for a man to solve their problems. My boys aren’t fighters, but they knew enough to punch the school bully back and he would leave you alone. And if someone messed with their sisters, well watch out is all I can say. The other lessons they learned from me were unfortunate. They learned the value of saving money by seeing their family home auctioned off. They learned the value of hard work when I lost 6 months of work to illness and the older 2 had to get jobs in High School. They learned about sacrifice when they realized that I had tried to leave a terrible marriage ten years previous, but stayed because they deserved to have their father around. And finally, they learned that life is not all sunshine and rainbows when their mother and I finally split up after 21 years of marriage. Amazingly, they are all thriving. Strong, resilient, versatile and not expecting a damn thing from anyone.

That is truly an accomplishment.

So let me tell you about my kids. Despite all of my shortcomings, they were able to retain all of the good things, rise above the bad and cause person after person to tell me how great my kids are. Thank you, I say. If I were to die tomorrow, they are indeed my real contribution to the world. My legacy.

Ego, Omelette’s and getting along

I had the pleasure of doing a charity breakfast Saturday morning. It is one of the commitments I always make sure to keep each year. It is a combined effort between a local church and my Masonic lodge. It is a Santa Breakfast where families come for a nice breakfast and a picture with Santa Clause. I have worked the Omelette station for the last 3 years.

I have fun cooking, joking with the kids, messing with the parents and I meet new people every year. I really enjoy it, and I was asked back after the first year due to my entertainment value. Omelette stations are like fireworks. For some reason, people can’t get enough of watching someone make one. People “ooooh” and “aaaaahhh” as it develops. They want to talk about it with you, tell you how they “could never do it” and “would end up with scrambled eggs.” Some even ask if they can watch, as if I would send them away until it’s ready. It is so incredibly easy for me, I have over 20 years of cooking experience. A saute’ pan is like an extension of my right arm. Which enables me to “bring it” on the big finale…the flip. It is so easy to do but people love it.

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This year my usual partner in eggs didn’t make it. I was asked to work with the Minister’s son. Eli is a tall, smart, good-looking kid who claimed to know how to make an omelette. He made the first one for a lovely old woman and she was delighted. He was very pleased with himself. I thought it was awful. Not in a mean way but he could do so much better. Then came my turn to make one. When I was done, flip and all, I realized that I was being watched by a whole bunch of people. Eli looked at me and said: “I want mine to look like that”. I showed him by walking him through the next 2 that he made. They were better but not good. Finally, he said, “I like making them my way.” I assured him that it was fine. It’s a church breakfast, who cares. Then I saw a chance for a teachable moment.

“Eli, at 21 have you learned everything you are going to learn? Or are you going to be open to new ideas? Because every day that you are not learning something from someone is a wasted day.” He smiled and silently acknowledged that I was right.

The next few were a collaboration and he picked it up fast. We also had fun doing it. By the end of the breakfast he was putting out some nice looking and tasty food, and he was smiling. He even pulled off “the flip” a few times. At the end of the breakfast, his Dad Kevin came over and told Eli how well he did. Eli punched me in the arm and said: “I owe it to the master here”. After Kevin left I said: “you had a little ego at first didn’t you?”

“Yup.”

“But when you put it aside you learned something right?”

“I sure did, and I’m glad that I met you today.”

“Eli, the pleasure was all mine.”

Ego is in all of us. I maintain that it is as ugly and destructive, and green, as envy. Most of us keep it largely in check, only allowing it to rear its ugly head when our fragility is truly challenged. It comes out at small moments and places as well, like an omelette station. My ego wanted me to make every omelette, to not share the job, to have all of the accolades to myself. But I didn’t, I told the ugly side of me to stay inside and let me handle it.

Ego is not the same as pride. Flashback twenty years. I was driving around town in my convertible mustang with some friends and some jerk I didn’t know pulled up next to me and started making fun of my car. Not me personally, just my car. My friends started jawing with his friends and at the next light, we pulled into the parking lot of a local watering hole.

The way that the kid got out of his car suggested that a fight was pending. He took off his shirt and removed all doubt. Then, comically, he took off his shoes. The door to the bar opened and the people spilled out into the parking lot. I removed my shirt, to his apparent shock I was in a hell of a lot better shape than he was and a lot bigger. I left my shoes on. I saw the look on his face and he quickly caught himself and put his tough guy face on again. My friends were ready but didn’t engage and I became aware that I was to be the one to fight this kid. I didn’t want to but there was a lot of pressure and a lot of eyes on me. I knew that if it got bad I would have back up so I walked, shirtless and determined, towards my nameless foe.

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We squared off. He was talking some kind of smack, I still didn’t even know why he wanted to fight me, but here we were. I circled in a defensive posture, sizing him up for how many skills he might possess. He looked scared and a little drunk. Finally, he made the mistake of telling me in a loud voice, for the crowd’s benefit, that he was going to “kick my ass.”

Again, I didn’t want to fight this kid. I hated fighting. But my ego, or my pride, sure wanted a piece of this kid. Then I heard my dad’s voice in my ear, his familiar saying resonating if you punch an asshole in the mouth he’s still an asshole. I dropped my fists and said “I have a better idea. Why don’t you put your fists down, your shoes on and let’s have a beer instead.”

“You don’t want to fight?” he asked. Looking around for a reaction from the crowd.

“I can, but do I have to?” He shook his head. I watched him put his clothes back on, I buttoned my shirt and nodded towards the door of the pub. We, and our thankful friends parted a sea of disappointed bar patrons and drank for 2 hours. I didn’t make a friend that night but I avoided making an enemy.

I went home that night with my ego in check, and my pride intact.

The Scorpion and the Frog

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The first time I heard the story of the Scorpion and the Frog it stuck like glue. After all, isn’t one of the eternal questions “can man really change?” I wanted to believe that people are capable of change but as I get older I am less confident. I do believe that people can improve, but our demons, our bad habits, are still there.

I used to be an unforgiving prick. I once told an old high school classmate, who had tracked me down (before the age of FB when it was a lot harder) in my early twenties. He had sought me out to apologize for wronging me in HS. He was in step 9, making amends. Despite his great effort and sincerity, my answer was to tell him to go Fuck himself. Not a proud moment. I’m not a hateful guy, in fact, I am generally known as a nice guy. I just have a problem with forgiveness.

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As I got older, and my blood pressure was increasing, I taught myself to let some things go. Part of that was to forgive. It required me to control, not change my nature. Anger, stress, and bitterness are a burden to carry around. It is a weight that affects your body as much as carrying actual weight. I committed to it. Since then I have forgiven people that deserve it, and some that don’t. I have given second chances to people that I normally wouldn’t. It’s the right thing to do. I’m better, and lighter, for it.

A self-aware man is a walking dichotomy. He is two men; the one he is and the one he wants to be. The only way to achieve the second is to improve and refine the first. He needs to recognize his flaws, move past his own ego and change it. This is a great way to ensure a great future. It does not, however, do anything about his past.

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Past behavior is a great descriptor of a man’s nature. Your “nature” is usually defined as your most visible, known attribute. It is what people reflect on at your funeral. “Ahhhh, he was a real genuine guy”, “he was a generous guy”, “she was a kind soul”. My father measured a man’s nature by whether or not someone would or would not “give you the shirt off of his/her back”.  It’s your legacy.

I have become very concerned about my legacy lately. Even though I have twenty +- years left I have had enough reality checks to know that it is not too soon to work on my legacy. It isn’t a tremendous undertaking, I have rectified most of my past mistakes in which I think I may have hurt someone. But I have a few left.

Today, on my way up from a doctor’s appointment I decided to do a pop-in on an old friend who had just bought a business near me. He and I go way back but haven’t spoken in many years because I offended him at his wedding. I brought to his wedding a guest that he warned me would upset his new bride. He was correct on that one. It wasn’t pretty and I took a lot of heat about it. We really haven’t spoken since.

I found his place and I gathered myself in the car before I went in. I found him under the hood of a ’79 Lincoln doing what he does best. I got his attention by cracking a weak joke about a car that I used to bring to him. He recognized me right away and we began to talk. It really never reached friendly, I could tell he wasn’t any happier to see me than a guy selling him a new socket wrench. I didn’t offer the apology today, it wasn’t the right time. I just asked if we can get together sometime for a beer and talk. He gave me a non-committal “sure that sounds great” and excused himself to go back to work. I left.

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He’s still pissed and that’s ok. I’m the first person to tell you that just because someone is willing to be forgiven doesn’t mean someone is ready to forgive him. He probably thinks that I haven’t changed. That my nature is still the hard-charging, screw the consequences type that I was twenty years ago.

There is still time for him to decide if he would let me get on his back for a ride across the river.