Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Congratulations, and Good Luck

Kevin Coolidge

It’s graduation time. Congratulations and good luck. You’re going to need it, because it’s all down hill from here. Some of your worse days lie ahead. No job, few prospects. Sure, you can debate the finer points of free will versus determinism, but I’m in a hurry and I want you to make sure you give me the right order. Your mom wanted you to be a doctor or a lawyer, and meet a nice girl. Your dad worked overtime so he wouldn’t have to tie his flies on the dining room table. No, you had to see the world. Backpack through Europe, and move into the basement. Welcome to the real world.

I hate commencement speeches…enthusiastic, inspiring, and boring. I don’t even remember the speaker at my graduation, or the extraordinary tidbits of wisdom imparted. I know graduation is supposed to be a happy event. You are young and ripe with promise. You are the future. I just thought you should know that future is going to hold periods of grinding self-doubt and failure.

I might have remembered my speaker if he was as refreshingly honest as Charles Wheelan. Charles teaches economics at Dartmouth College and is the author of the best-selling Naked Economics. One of his first jobs out of college was writing speeches for the governor of Maine. So when asked to give a speech during Commencement weekend at Dartmouth College in June of 2011, he was determined not to give a saccharine, conventional graduation-type speech.

But what to say? Commencement is a time of excitement and promise, but also anxiety and self-doubt. There were things that Charles had wished someone had told him, and that gave him the insight he needed to write the speech. He would tell the Class of 2011 what he wished someone had told the Class of 1988. Some unconventional advice that he hoped would prepare them for the rough patches ahead.

From that idea, a speech was born: Five Things No Commencement Speaker Has Ever Said. Among those things were assurance that the time spent in fraternity basements was well spent. No he doesn’t mean the drinking games, but the time you spent playing intramural sports, or just lounging with friends on an autumn day. Sure, there was work you could be doing—and there always will be. That is the point.

A speaker is supposed to tell you to aspire to greatness. But Charles wants to make sure that first you don’t use your prodigious talents to mess the world up, because we have plenty of smart people doing that already. He reminds us that “changing the world” also includes things like designing sub-prime mortgages that people won’t understand. Sometimes you don’t need to cure cancer; just don’t spread it.

You don’t have to be great. Just be solid. Don’t worry about what you aren’t certain you can deliver. Focus on doing what you know you can. If you are in business, trying to be great will make you avoid risk. If you are in politics, trying to be great will make you resistant to compromise.

Being great involves a little luck and being consistent. You can’t make it happen by working more or trying harder. Of course, the irony is that the less you think about being great, the more likely it is to happen. And if it doesn’t, there’s nothing wrong with being solid.

Charles speech was well received, and when the transcript of the speech began bouncing around the Internet, he realized that the themes he had touched upon struck a chord. His speech became the book 10 ½ Things No Commencement Speaker Has Ever Said. It’s not the greatest book ever written, but it’s good advice, funny, and solid, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Good luck and congratulations to the Class of 2012…

Congratulations? Or good luck? Why not both? Email me at from_my_shelf@yahoo.com Miss a past column? You can catch up at http://frommyshelf.blogspot.com Hobo the cat graduated from the school of hard knocks and you can read his story in “Hobo Finds A Home” Yeah, there can be rough patches, doesn’t mean there can’t be a happy ending…

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

The Children’s Poet

Kevin Coolidge

I lie in bed. The wind howls. I feel the cold, dark breath of it. I cannot sleep. I toss aside my soft, warm blanket, and step on something cold and hard. I swear silently, so I don’t wake my wife. She’s wrestled with sleep and finally lost. I bend to retrieve a small, metal car. I can’t stop the tears. I can’t erase the memories. There will be no sleep for me tonight. Perhaps, not for a very long time…

Depression, anxiety, lack of sleep--losing a child is a horrific experience no parent should have to face. You don’t get over the loss. You may never accept it, but you may find ways to cope with it the best you can.

During one sleepless night when a mourning father needed to finish a poem for a publishing deadline, he drew upon that grief. He then wrote the poignant and moving poem called Little Boy Blue.

The poem told the story of a father longing for his little son who had died. The verses contained remembrances of his lost children, his own lost childhood, his lost parents, and even his own toys from childhood that his absentee-father had sent him for Christmas.

The rusted toy soldier and dusty little toy dog soon became universal symbols for anyone mourning a lost child, and more than any other poem, Little Boy Blue helped establish the father as a respected poet and a significant American writer of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. That grieving father was Eugene Field.

Few people today know anything about Eugene Field, the poet or the man, or the stories behind his poems. In The Doorstep Orphan: Eugene Field and a Trilogy of His Best Loved Poems, written by Dr. Jean A. Lukesh, we get an examination of Field’s short life, as well as an image of the man, the poet, and the loving father.

He often idealized childhood, as his own was filled with tragedy and insecurity. Field was born in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1850. He was the second of six children, but four of his brothers and sisters died in infancy. In 1856, when he was just six and his brother Roswell was five, their mother and their new baby sister both died. His father was prominent lawyer and never remarried. He loved his sons but could spend very little time with them. He sent them to be with guardians, passed along for someone else to raise, essentially a “doorstep orphan”.

It’s ironic that this “doorstep orphan” became the beloved poet of childhood. His poems were filled with his own memories and feelings, and if you know his poems, you know the man. You may remember pieces of his poems from your own childhood, and even a century later they still sing to the hearts of readers. I too remember. I remember standing on the Green in Wellsboro Pennsylvania, listening to the gurgle of a fountain, and imagining sailing off in a wooden shoe on a wave of dew…

The gingham dog? Or the calico cat? Email me at from_my_shelf@yahoo.com and let me know. Miss a past column? Read them all at http://frommyshelf.blogspot.com Hobo favors the calico cat, because his best friend Gypsy is a real life calico…

What Do You Want to Do Before You Die?

Kevin Coolidge

The only thing certain in life may be death and taxes, but I don’t have to die every year. Yes, time to write Uncle Sam a check. What would I do with that money? Pay down my mortgage? Paint my bathroom? Sensible, practical and boring…why not take guitar lessons so I can play a searing rendition of the Star Spangled Banner, or visit the Yukon, so I can prospect for gold and wrestle grizzlies? I might have to pay taxes every year, but one of these years, it will be my last.

That’s right. I’m going to die. It might not be tomorrow, or next year, or it may be this week, which would be terribly inconvenient. I’m booked solid, and taking a dirt nap is not on the list. I’m a busy guy, but sometimes I stop and ask myself, “what do I really want to do before I die?”

Things need done. The garage needs cleaned, and bills need paid, but if I were to die tomorrow, would it really matter if the refrigerator was defrosted? The pace of life can drag us down and rob us of ambition. Maybe you have settled for mediocrity when what you really want is to shine, if only for a moment.

If nothing were impossible, what would you do? Rappel down Mount Rushmore? Fall in love again? Host Saturday Night Live? Dreaming can be fun, but dreams can seem too hard, too distant, and just too damn impossible. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed. It’s easy to be buried.

Four friends felt lost and detached. Wanting more out of life, but not knowing where to look. Their search clouded by reality television, advertising overload, and political sound bites. Where were they supposed to look? They couldn’t just talk about the things they wanted to do. It was time to take action. They decided they actually had to do these things.

“Kiss Rachel McAdams, lead a parade, throw a first pitch at a major league baseball game….” They made a list of 100 things to do before they died, and began the journey to uncover their buried lives. For each item knocked off the list, they promised to help a stranger experience something they had long dreamed of—a way to balance the karma equation. All they needed was a name…The Buried Life.

After a summer of hard work and scrounging, it was time to take to the road. Kissing the Stanley Cup, riding a bull, sending a message in a bottle—each new accomplishment came with the intoxicating rush that made them believe anything was possible. Helping hand out chicken wings, giving a cab driver the rush of skydiving, and getting some kids to a rock concert. It was the first time they had truly helped someone and it felt good.

More than seventy-five items later, Jonnie Penn, Dave Lingwood, Duncan Penn, and Ben Nemtin have helped strangers, given speeches, visited schools, and raised enough money from sponsors to travel six thousand miles. If four guys with a list, a ’77 Dodge Coachman RV, and passion can make it this far, imagine what we could accomplish together? What do you want to do before you die? You can read about The Buried Life, their adventures, and how many of the people they have met have answered that question in What Do You Want To Do Before You Die? Or you can grab a shovel. Dig deep. Get inspired. Make your list, and live your dreams…

Go gentle into the good night? Or rage against the dying of the light? Email me at frommyshelf@epix.net and let me know. Miss a past column? You still have time to catch up at http://frommyshelf.blogspot.com before the final curtain call. Hobo wants to hit the New York Times bestseller list! Help make his dream come true: buy ‘Hobo Finds a Home’…