Twenty

I started keeping a journal in 1990, at the age of 17. It was one of the best things I ever did. Keeping a journal where I put my honest thoughts down on paper has allowed me a lot of introspection and self-analysis over the years. Every time I start to feel stuck in my life, frustrated, or lost, it always helps me to go back through the years, remind myself of mistakes and bad judgments, recognize the patterns and habits that led to happiness and success, and also recognize the patterns and habits that lead to hard times and disappointment.

On my 20th birthday, I decided to write down everything I’d learned at 20 years old. I kept that habit every birthday after, reflecting on things that I’d learned that year. I‘ve decided to revisit them and share some of my favorites. These are unedited, as they were written on the night of that birthday. I like the snapshot they provide of who I was that year.

I guess the best place to start is the first one…

TWENTY ~ 1993

Twenty years lay behind me,

over as quick as they did start

And the things I’ve learned, so many in number

weigh cluttered in my head and my heart

 

I learned no relationship is final until

you’ve made that promising vow of eternal love

That the truest friends are the ones you know

are rooted in God above.

 

I learned that until you question everything

you’ll never truly grow

‘Cause people won’t tell you the sides of things

that they really don’t want you to know.

 

I learned that men who claim to be men of God

will stab in the back their fellow man

But those who live like God is in their hearts,

don’t need to remind you of where they stand.

 

I learned that friends don’t stay close

if you make no effort to stay in touch

And friends who are true are those who can understand you

without you having to say very much.

 

I learned that the heart of a child is magic, truly magic

for it sees others with unblemished eyes

It looks at people heart to heart with an innocence

our society kills so slowly we don’t recognize

 

I learned that a brother or sister is the greatest gift

a best friend to be cherished to the end

And anyone can be a physical parent, but it takes a special

person to be a parent and a friend.

 

I learned that love is a dangerous emotion

and an even more dangerous word

But when it’s true and sincere, “I love you”

is the sweetest sound ever heard

 

I learned that an angry tongue is razor sharp

and its wounds are slow to heal,

That one should always follow his heart if

he thinks that the calling is real.

 

I learned that the things of modern society

are petty, unimportant and small

And getting out into wide open nature

is the greatest drug of all

 

I learned to choose my battles wisely, because

some private beliefs should stay just that.

There’s no need to force an argument jut because

someone is not where you’re at.

 

I learned that what government says is right and wrong

isn’t necessarily what God had in mind

We’ve tarnished the gifts that he’s given us so badly

that their true purposes are hard to find.

 

I learned that the perfect girl wears no bows, little make-up

and chooses clothes for comfort not name

She is content with herself and who she is,

and isn’t caught up in the “glamour girl” game.

 

I learned that money is merely paper and metal,

and it’s not what measures a man’s worth

Who a man is is defined by his heart and

the love that he spreads to this earth

 

I learned that my body is a gift from above

and I owe it to myself to take care of it

It’s not egotistical, it’s self respect to keep it healthy

and to keep it fit.

 

I learned when I die I want to have earned every single

belief that I ever had.

I want to be my own man, but I know I’ll be proud

if I grow up to be like my dad.

 

I learn that time, it goes by very quickly,

so grab each day and make it your own.

Strive to make each day that comes around

the most important you’ve ever known.

 

I learned that life is precious and sweet,

and should be cherished with all of my heart.

Because here I sit with twenty years passed

over as quickly as they did start.

 

 

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Change

In my first entry on this blog, I promised (or challenged) myself to write on it regularly and get back to the writing habit I had in my 20’s and early 30’s. Since this is my fourth post since that inaugural attempt two years ago, I think it’s safe to say that I wasn’t true to that. Time to recommit.

One of the easiest ways to kick-start my habit is to practice what I preach with my students. As a 10th and 11th grade English teacher, I make my kids keep a blog for a grade. I give them weekly prompts to write about and encourage them to go to their friends’ blogs, read one another’s words, and comment on them. It’s my attempt to get them writing regularly, and reading their posts gives me insight into the way their minds work beyond what I can see in the classroom. I’ve decided that when I feel stuck, the best bet is to just look at the prompts I give them and challenge myself to do the same.

Recently I asked my kids to write about a band or musical artist who has touched or influenced their lives in a special way. It didn’t have to necessarily be their favorite artist, just someone they like whose music has had an impact on them.

I could write this about a lot of artists. Music is a big part of my life. Here’s a photo of my music room at my house.

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I love to play music, listen to music, see live music, etc. I could write all day about my “Holy Trinity” of artists – Tom Petty, The Black Crowes, and The Foo Fighters. These are bands that I fall back on regularly when I want music to touch a mood I’m having, lift me up, keep me company, or motivate me. They’re the bands that I want to tattoo on my body.

Tom Petty has been a constant in my life since high school. My parents loved Tom. My first serious girlfriend loved Tom. I taught myself to play guitar listening to Tom. I’ve seen him in concert five times, know every word to every song, and can play along with almost all of them on guitar. I think he’s the greatest songwriter of his generation, and a rebel who changed the music industry for the good of the fans.

The Black Crowes were one of the first bands I embraced as mine. Something about their debut album (which was the first CD I ever purchased back when that was a “new” cutting edge technology) grabbed me and lived in my CD player for months. I was a teenage metal head, but they came along and managed to blend heavy rock with soul and blues in a way I’d never heard. I decided at 16 that this was my favorite band, and I’ve never abandoned them. I’ve bought every album they’ve ever released the day it came out. (My favorite is probably Croweology, but that might be cheating because it’s really just 21 acoustic versions of most of their best songs). I’ve caught every tour they’ve had that came through Texas. I’m sad that they’ve broken up and aren’t touring any more, and I anxiously await their reunion.

The Foo Fighters were a later find, a band I became obsessed with in my 30’s. Dave Grohl seems like the coolest guy in music, someone who would be genuinely fun to hang out with. Even CNN apparently agrees with me. He’s like a music geek fan that made it big, living out the fantasy we all have of getting to play with all of the legends and idols every rock fan has. He’s probably the greatest rock drummer alive, yet he sings and plays guitar in his band instead of playing drums. He seems funny, generous, and kind, and every story I’ve ever read about him seems to back that up. My wife calls him my “man crush,” and I can’t convincingly argue with her. Seeing The Foo Fighters in concert is one of my bucket list items that I’ve yet to fulfill. Someday.

I could write about The Beatles, Cat Stevens, Pearl Jam (another bucket list must see),  or Led Zeppelin – artists that got me through difficult times and opened my mind to new ideas during those formative late teen/early 20’s years. I could write about the guitar genius of Stevie Ray Vaughan, the religious experience of watching The Band in their film The Last Waltz, the timeless simplicity of Willie Nelson, the spiritual catharsis I get from Bob Marley, or the lyrical brilliance of Bob Dylan, who just got announced today as a winner of a Nobel Prize for Literature!

I could write about Bob Schneider, another one of my all-time favorites who never has had the national success that he deserves, but that’s largely because he doesn’t seem to seek it. He’s carved out a space in Texas (especially around the Austin area) of loyal fans who go to his shows to see which incarnation will show up. He has the big-band horn sound of playing with his group The Scabs, filled with raunchy fun songs set to expert funk musicianship. He has the Texas Blue Grass Massacre which plays most of his solo songs with a fun bluegrass twist. He can play a solo show with just him and a looping pedal that feels like the most intimate, relaxed vibe filled with humor, longing, sadness, and joy, sometimes in the same song. He can bring his full rock band and take the crowd on a three hour party. He can bring guitar virtuoso Mitch Watkins along for a two-man acoustic experience that is almost spiritual in its craftsmanship and skill. Any time I go to Austin, I look to see if Bob is playing. I’ve lost count of how many shows I’ve seen. He sells a flash drive after every show of that performance recorded live. I always tell myself “I’m gonna save money; I’m not gonna buy the show this time.” I always buy it. If you’ve never heard Bob, do yourself a favor and get on YouTube now. You can thank me later. Start here…

However, the band I want to go into detail about the most here is Blind Melon. To many people, they’re a footnote of 90’s era alt-rock, another band with a lead singer who OD’d on drugs, and a one-hit wonder. Most people remember “No Rain” with the video of the dancing Bee Girl that was an MTV staple in 1993. But a recent string of emails and conversations with an old, dear friend has made me go back to those years in my mind, and I’ve found myself pulling up Blind Melon on my iPod and listening to them a lot again lately.

My first taste of Blind Melon came while I was in college living with my best friend G__. We only lived together for about six months, but it was six months that probably changed my life more than any other period, for reasons way too long to go into here. That’s for another blog. Anyhow, I was at a bar one night, talking to a freshman I had just met, when she mentioned that she had won tickets earlier that night for a Lenny Kravitz concert the next day in The Woodlands. She didn’t even know who Lenny Kravitz was. G___ and I were obsessed with Lenny Kravitz at that point. We had a large poster of him in our living room, and his music was often the soundtrack in the background of our long, rambling, conversations about religion, quantum physics, new-age philosophy, our childhoods, our parents, love, women, loneliness…. I tried, without being too obvious, to let her know how much I loved Lenny Kravitz. She eventually caught on to what I was hinting at and invited me to go with her. G___ decided to join us, in the hopes of being able to buy a ticket from a scalper at the venue. This probably disappointed her because she immediately became a third wheel in what she undoubtedly assumed was a date. I didn’t care. G___ and I were gonna see Lenny together. I’m not proud to say it, but I used her for the tickets that weekend, and I never called her back afterwards. Not everything we do in college is honorable.

Blind Melon was the opening act that night. They came out, and lead singer Shannon Hoon was in a ratty old dress, running all over the stage, climbing the stacks of amps and monitors, swinging from the rafters, and acting like the manic, wild, energetic showman that he was. The band never missed a beat, and though I didn’t know one song, I was hooked on the sound. By the time they closed with their big hit “No Rain” the crowd was going crazy. G___ turned to me and said, “Just watch. In two months that will be our favorite band.”

He was right. We went out and bought the CD the next day, stuck it in our carousel 5-disc changer (which probably included Lenny Kravitz, Cat Stevens, a Beatles CD, Pearl Jam or Fugazi) and it lived there for several months. The band’s psychedelic mix of New Orleans swampy funk, jam-band guitar noodling, blues, and hard rock, won me over instantly.

But it wasn’t until I started to listen to the lyrics that the band really grabbed me. G___ and I were living together as near-refugees, fleeing a split that had occurred in the Church of Christ where we’d grown up and first met. Our friendship had been born in Bible studies and weekend youth group retreats, and we had always formed a bond through discussions of faith and spirituality. When our church split up, it was a case of old-school, hard-line Church of Christ vs. new, modern, more progressive ideas. G___’s family was firmly entrenched on one side of that battle. My family was on the other. And like so many of the kids in our tight-knit youth group, we felt caught in the middle. By the time we moved in together, we were so disillusioned with the animosity and anger we had seen from the adults in our church that we were both ready to turn our backs on everything that we had held sacred. Together, the two young men who had been leading teen worships, delving into the Bible with all of our hearts and souls, were ready to try anything BUT Christianity. We read about Native American religions. We listened to NPR. We smoked pot and drank alcohol. We read about Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, and even began to talk about the dreaded “A” word… atheism.

Shannon Hoon’s lyrics told me I’d found a kindred spirit. On songs like “Tones of Home”, “Holy Man”, “Dear Ol’ Dad”, “Deserted”, “Seed to a Tree”, and “Sleepyhouse”, I heard the voice of a man who had grown disillusioned with the beliefs of his youth. I heard a man longing for something different while still mourning the loss of everything that had grounded him as a child. I heard my story.

But it was the song “Change” that grabbed me in a place deep down in my soul and never let go. Here are the lyrics…

I don’t feel the suns comin’ out today
It’s staying in, it’s gonna find another way.
As I sit here in this misery,I don’t
think I’ll ever, no no, see the sun from here.

And oh as I fade away,
they’ll all look at me and say, and they’ll say,
“Hey look at him! I’ll never live that way.”
But that’s okay,
They’re just afraid to change.

When you feel life ain’t worth living
you’ve got to stand up and
Take a look around you, then a look way up to the sky.
And when your deepest thoughts are broken,
keep on dreaming boy, cause when you stop dreamin’ it’s time to die.

And as we all play parts of tomorrow,
In some ways we’ll work and other ways we’ll play.
But I know we all can’t stay here forever,
so I want to write my words on the face of today.
And then they’ll paint it.

And oh as I fade away,
they’ll all look at me and they’ll say,
“Hey look at him and where he is these days.”
When life is hard, you have to change.

These words hit me hard. I was at a point in my life where I could feel myself changing spiritually, emotionally, and even physically. As someone who’d been raised my whole life to believe that even THINKING the Bible might not be 100% right meant burning in HELL forever, I was scared to death of the doubt and questioning that had begun swirling in my brain. But here was Shannon Hoon telling me that it was okay, that the people who judged me or shunned me were just afraid of change. He was daring me to keep on dreaming. He was telling me that when I felt like giving up, that’s when I most needed to stand up instead. I had no idea how much I would need these lessons in the coming months.

In the summer of 1994 I traveled to Alaska. I had recently started dating F___, the girl who would eventually become my wife, but I was still carrying a torch for my childhood sweetheart, my first kiss A___. Looking back, I realize I wasn’t  really in love with A___ (we hadn’t dated since 7th grade!) but just the idea of her I had created in my mind. She was a vagabond spirit who had fled our church as well, but she didn’t just flee emotionally. She fled physically, all the way to Alaska. She was living up there, in the rugged mountains, isolated from all the pain we’d all felt from our church, and I had convinced myself she was the only right answer for my life. She was the only one who could understand all that the church split had done to me because she lived through it too. As much as I knew I was starting to really fall for F___, I was scared to totally commit to something new. Admitting that I was falling in love with F___ meant embracing a totally different path than the one I’d picked for myself. It meant giving up the control I thought I had over my future and letting something unplanned and unexpected take over me. A___ felt like my way of running away while still holding on to a piece of my past. Even as I boarded the plane, I felt like I was hiding from F___ because she scared me. She represented totally letting go of my past and embracing something totally new. I had not yet used the “L” word with her, even though I could feel it on the tip of my tongue and knew it was real. I had built up A___ as the answer to everything, that one magic pill who could make my life feel right again.

That’s not what happened in Alaska. A___ was dealing with her own struggle, part of which involved a relationship she had started with a much older, very controlling man named John. We were 21/22 years old. John was 43. I could sense right away that he was wrong for her and that he was not a good person. I tried to tell her as much, but she wasn’t hearing it, and it would take her a lot of years to see that. Hers ended up as a beautiful story, but it took a lot of pain for her to get there, and it’s been recent conversations with her about her own journey that have sparked this reminiscence I’m sharing today.

We are still very close friends and she’s still a special part of my heart. But those two weeks in Alaska were painful. Part of me hoped that I’d go up there and she would either come home with me or invite me to stay there with her. Instead, she took me to stay at John’s house as his guest, which I hated. I wanted nothing to do with him, much less to be the grateful house guest I was raised to be when someone opened up their home. A___ gave me her car and sent me off to explore the wilderness on my own. She had put up a wall of her own, and she was not letting me in.

During one of the days that we did spend together, we took a long hike. I don’t remember the mountain we were on. I just remember the view from the top and the talk we had. She told me I would be an amazing man someday. That word, someday, cut me like a knife. What was wrong with the man I was? What was it she wanted me to be that I had not yet become? What if I didn’t want to become a man like John? I was angry. On the way back down the mountain, I reached into my pocket. I had a pocket full of Halls cough drop wrappers. I dropped them on the ground, littering in this pristine wilderness as my angry protest against a world that I no longer saw as beautiful, but just hurtful.

When we got back to John’s house, there was a letter waiting for me. F___ had found out the address where I’d be staying and mailed it the day I left. In it, she told me that she knew I still had a place for A___ in my heart. She told me that all she wanted for me in life was to be happy. If that meant staying in Alaska, then that’s what she wanted. If it meant never speaking to her again, she’d be hurt but would be happy that I’d found peace. I read in that letter unconditional love and acceptance for the man I was, not the man I “could” be. She was telling me everything I’d wanted to hear from A___, but I’d run off to Alaska and left her behind in Texas. Suddenly, I wanted nothing more than to come home.

That night, I sat up all night listening to Blind Melon. Specifically, I listened to “Change” over and over again on repeat.

When you feel life ain’t worth living
you’ve got to stand up and
Take a look around you, then a look way up to the sky.
And when your deepest thoughts are broken,
keep on dreaming boy, cause when you stop dreamin’ it’s time to die…
When life is hard, you have to change.

Those words healed me that night. I was no longer afraid to come home. I was no longer afraid to face the hurt and pain that I’d been hiding from in bongs, beer bottles, isolation and anger. I was ready to come home and be with the woman I loved, and the woman who loved me enough to let me go if that’s what would make me happy. I was ready to change.

I came back to Texas. It took me a while to convince F__ that I was really back. I wasn’t  looking backwards. I wasn’t  thinking about Alaska. I found what I’d been looking for with her. She didn’t buy it at first. I had to fight to prove myself to her. But we’ve been married for 21 years now, our son just moved out to start his freshman year at the University of Texas, and I can honestly say we’re happier than we’ve ever been. This empty nest thing isn’t so bad. Change.

I’ve gone back to that song so many times in my life. Every time I feel like I’m in a rut that I’m scared to get out of. Every time I feel like I’m being pulled to take on a challenge that scares me. Every time I’ve entered a new phase of life…marriage, my 30’s, parenthood, my 40’s, empty nesting. It’s been the song that defines me when I know it’s time to man-up, face my fears, and follow my heart.

It’s one of the five songs I want played while people are hanging out and drinking nice whiskey at my funeral. The other four are “Flower Parts” by Bob Schneider, “Wake Up Time” by Tom Petty, and “Walk” by The Foo Fighters, and “Wiser Time” by the Black Crowes.

Blind Melon put out one more studio album after that debut, and released another album of unreleased material after Hoon’s death. They reformed many years later, with a new singer, and they’re still performing again these days. Maybe if I get the chance, I’ll go see ’em for sentimental reasons. But Blind Mellon without Shannon Hoon is like Nirvana without Kurt Cobain, Journey without Steve Perry, Van Halen without David Lee Roth (sorry, Sammy). It’s just not the same.

When Shannon Hoon died in 1995 of an overdose, I cried hard. I’ve been very sad about the death of artists I admired before, but none of them have ever made me actually weep. I wished so bad that he had heard the lesson in his own song that saved my life. Part of me had honestly hoped that I’d get to meet him some day and thank him for that first album and for the words to “Change.” That’ll never happen. “We can’t all stay here forever.” So Shannon, wherever you are, thank you.

Every day, as my kids are walking into my classroom, I have music playing.
Today’s music was “Change.” For Shannon.

“Be true!”

Last week, I asked my AP English III students to take some advice from The Scarlet Letter, which they had just finished reading in class. Near the end of the novel, Hawthorne writes “Be true! Be true! Be true! Show freely to the world, if not your worst, yet some trait whereby the worst may be inferred.” Our challenge to the kids was to do just that. I asked them write about traits or issues which they have that they want to work on. Bravely expose their shortcomings to the world. It would be hypocritical of me to ask that of my students if I’m not willing to do the same, so here goes nothing….
This is not easy or comfortable for me, and that is due largely to my one huge, overriding flaw. I have very low self-esteem, and it is this, which I dislike most about myself, that causes and affects all of my other flaws. My short temper, my laziness, my over-competitiveness, my jealousy of others. I can trace all of these to my low self-esteem.
Without getting into too much psycho-analysis here, this probably goes back to my relationship with my father, though not in the way people usually use that statement. Usually, when an adult male talks about character flaws being connected to “my relationship with my father,” he’s talking about the negative things… fights, unreasonable expectations, absence, emotional distance, abuse, etc. My issues, however, are the exact opposite and stem from one basic image I’ve had of my father since I was a child. He’s too perfect.
My dad was a high school All-American football player who dated the head cheerleader and valedictorian. He literally married the prettiest and smartest girl in school at 18, and they’re still in love 45 years later. He was a successful high school football coach who inspired his athletes and was adored by them. He opened his own successful business, sold it for good money, and opened another one. He was the church deacon whom everyone looked up to. He was a part-time pulpit preacher at the country church where his grandfather had preached. He ran dozens of marathons under a 7-minute mile pace. He rode his bike across Texas. He opened his home to 42 foster kids. He hosted 15 foreign exchange students. He beat cancer. At 65, he can hop on a bike and out-ride most men half his age. My mom always said that if we were in an Indian tribe, my dad would be the chief. He’s the guy other men look to when things go bad. He never laid a hand on me in anger. He never missed an important swim meet, wrestling match, football game, or baseball game. He told me he loved me every day. My adult friends always told me how much they admired him. My female friends always told me how handsome he was. My male friends always admired how strong he was.
How do I live up to that? In my mind, I can’t. As much as I look up to that man, when I look in the mirror all I see is the opposite. I see all the ways in which I don’t feel like I measure up. And this low-self image affects everything. I have a short temper that comes out when I feel like I can’t do something (usually mechanical), which makes me feel stupid. I do endurance sports because my natural inclination is to be lazy, sit on the couch, and eat junk food, but signing up for huge challenges that scare the heck out of me forces me to get out and be active. I hate losing because it makes me feel inadequate. (“Why could that guy do it better than me?”) From board games, to races, to arguments with the people I love the most, I HAVE to win, even if it sometimes means being a jerk to do so. When I see people who make a lot of money and are good with money, I get jealous because I feel like a poor, broke, teacher, afraid to take any real financial risks in life.
Everything I dislike the most about myself, the things I try to hide from the world, are the things that come out when I’m at home, tired, frustrated, sad, stressed from work, worried about bills, etc. And who is the person who sees those sides of me the most? My son. The one person whose opinion I value the most (because I want someone to see me the way I see my dad) is the person who has seen me at my absolute worst. This, of course, leads to me feeling even LESS like the man/father I wish I could be, and that’s the cycle of my life. Compare myself to Dad. Come up short. React in a negative way. Feel like a failure. Compare myself to Dad, again. Come up short, again. React in a negative way, again… etc.
I love my dad. I admire him more than I can say. Having him as a father was the greatest thing a kid could ask for. It’s also the hardest.