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Saturday, May 10, 2014

The gift of a legacy.....

  My cousin Tami recently wrote a very good article about our grandfather James Allen and the impact he had as an educator and mentor. Because we lived so close to Tapiola, where he was the principal of John A. Doelle school, I was lucky enough to spend many weekends with my grandfather and grandmother so I thought I would share a few memories. Excellent article, by the way Tami, well done.
  James Allen was what every educator should strive to be. He didn't talk about theories, he lived them, he practiced them, he took them out of the faculty lounges and into the classrooms. His belief was that a child had the ability to excel at something, it was his job to find out what that was. Every student meant something to him, not a grade, but a young person on his way to becoming an adult. It wasn't about passing his kids, that's what he called them, his kids, onto the next grade or level. It was about preparing them to be productive members of society. He took ownership over the success of his students, it was personal.
  During my childhood, the lessons I learned from James Allen were imparted to me without me even realizing it till much later in life. Part of his employment was a house next to the school with an acre of land. When I see an acre of land I think of a lot of lawn mowing. My grandfather saw a hot lunch program that could provide most of it's own food. Every spring he would till the soil with me trailing behind, throwing the largest rocks out of the garden. Once I grew to a suitable height it was my job to till and he would kick the rocks away. Because of the arthritis that had ravaged his body for many years, he was more than happy to pass the torch. My first row of tilling basically made a perfect S in the soil. The crop circles in that Mel Gibson movie were straighter than my first pass. He looked at me and said, "Now we have a starting point."
  Spring was spent planting and summer was for weeding and watering. He would walk along side me and ask me questions about the soil, the plants, math questions, science questions and history questions. When I didn't know the answer he challenged me to think about it. Sometimes he would ask 'why' when I would give the correct answer. It wasn't always enough to know the answer, he wanted the reason, or reasoning, behind the answer. These days they call it critical thinking but to grandpa it was just thinking. He would light up with pride when I could tell him how I came up with the conclusion. Even at the dinner table or sitting on the sofa, the questions and lessons never stopped. I got to go to class every minute of the day we were together and it was wonderful. He knew how to make me want to learn without me ever being aware of it.
  But he was so much more than information. He would constantly praise me in ways that were different. One of my pet nicknames from my father was 'motor mouth' ( a well earned moniker). On a Sunday afternoon when my parents came to pick me up I was chattering about all the things we had done that weekend when my dad held up his hand indicating he had heard enough for the moment. When I had all my stuff packed up and hugged grandpa good bye he whispered in my ear, "You have a gift for communicating, don't ever let it leave." I will never forget those words if I live to a hundred years old. That is what a legacy does for you.
  The last time I saw my grandfather was Christmas day in 1979. The following spring I moved to Texas and didn't come home for a few years. He passed away while I was in Texas and when my dad called I took the news like a typical Finn. Because I was young and broke I never made it home for the service. Truth be told, I wouldn't have come if I was filthy rich. It broke my heart. Growing up like most kids, my heroes were sports figures. Men who could throw a fastball, catch a football or shoot a hockey puck were my idols. But by the time he had passed I was beginning to realize that the real heroes in my life were people like my grandfather. You can add my grandmother and both my parents to that list. With age comes wisdom, finally.
  It is no surprise all the teachers and educators that Tami documented so well came from the tree of James Allen. He was an inspiration to almost everyone he met. I have often wondered why the one grandchild who spent so much time with him never went into education. Maybe it was his encouragement to follow my dreams, not his, but mine. Maybe my legacy is supposed to be different. With the advent of Facebook I see so many people who worked for and with me go on to be very successful. Many of my customers who became good friends have gone on to do great things despite going through tough times. Perhaps in some strange sort of way I may have helped some of them. It isn't the same type of legacy but maybe it's mine.
  We all leave some sort of legacy. James Keast Allen left a great one, we all should be so fortunate.

Till next.....

Thursday, May 8, 2014

"The luckiest thing that ever happened.....

  to me was that I was born in America." That answer was given by Howard Schultz, who runs Starbucks, when he was asked if he was superstitious. It sounded like an answer someone who was born with a silver spoon in their mouth would say. Why wouldn't he say that? He is so wealthy that no member of his family will ever have to work again. I'm sure he has homes all over the world, nice cars and lives better than most of us ever will. He is probably just another example of the ultra rich who got that way by the hard work of other people who are paid far less, don't get health care or stock in the company. Except that he isn't. If you don't believe the American Dream is possible anymore than you don't know Howard Schultz.
  Howard grew up poor in a tough part of Brooklyn, New York. The housing project he lived wouldn't be featured in Better Homes and Gardens. Like a lot of kids in that situation he found sports a good way to stay out of trouble. He was good enough to get a football scholarship that allowed him to be the first family member to attend college. He packed his bags and headed to Northern Michigan University. I can only imagine the culture shock that came with that move.
  Northern Michigan University is located in the town of my birth, Marquette. It sits in the middle of the southern shore of Lake Superior and gets really cold in the winter. Fortunately the winter only last from October to April so he probably enjoyed the first three weeks of school every year. There are no 'mean streets' in Marquette unless you count the bars on First Street where Yoopers and Canadians might fight over their favorite hockey teams. Not exactly the Bloods and Crypts throwing down over a turf war. I'm sure the weather contributed greatly to his appreciation for coffee that served him well later in life.
  After graduation he kicked around a couple of jobs and ran into the owners of Starbucks. He ended up buying part of the company and the name Starbucks (They kept Peets Coffee&Tea) and changed the company. Even if you work part time you can get health insurance. You get stock options. They donate huge amounts of money to many different charitable groups. They seem to be a company that truly understands the American Dream that Howard Schultz represents. But how many more people still believe it?
  This post isn't meant to sing the praises of Starbucks. When I heard his quote the first thought that crossed my mind was if anyone else still felt that way. My generation grew up being taught about the greatness of America. There was a pride that we were the best country in the world. Not perfect, but we were pretty good. The war had ended in Vietnam and even though there was a growing number of people who thought we were an evil, imperialist nation, the number was still a small minority. To understand why we felt this way, you have to understand that the people teaching us were still part of the greatest generation. They had lived through WWII, part of the great depression and the cold war. Patriotism wasn't an ideology, it was a way of life brought about by experience. They had witnessed the rest of the world and realized that upon comparison, we were the greatest country on Earth. They were part of it, not a theory about it.
  For all the people who are under the age of thirty, what have they seen? The first Gulf War, 9/11, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Along with those events they have been told that it was all about oil, our religion, our freedom, our sins and a host of other reasons why we suck. I'm not saying we shouldn't have vigorous debate about our country but the drumbeat has been endless for decades. How about the hyper reaction of the other side of the spectrum? If you have ever listened to talk radio or some shows on Fox news you would be convinced that the half of the country who votes democrat wants to take us straight to Stalin like communism. Republicans want to starve kids and poison people with dirty air and water. Really? Does anyone really think that because someone has a different point of view, they want to harm everyone else?
  The main problem, the way I see it, is that Washington and the media (liberal and conservative) don't represent most of us in the country. We still think this country is the best on Earth. We could find common ground on some of the issues Washington seems unable or willing to. We don't think our neighbor is the spawn of Satan because we disagree on politics. Do the people in Washington have any idea what we think anymore? Listen to them talk about each other and you realize very quickly that they care much more about retaining their power than they do governing by the will of the people. The media knows the more mud that gets thrown around the higher the ratings. Negative press gets higher ratings so we expect them to report only the very worst stories they can find. Most of us are the same proud Americans we have always been.
  So while another election draws closer and the ads run endlessly telling you how candidates should be in jail instead of running for office, take a deep breath and remember you live in the greatest country on Earth. Every day you wake up you have already won the lottery. I love debating politics but I never have been ignorant enough to think that people who disagree with me are any less patriotic or less intelligent than I am. They just have a different opinions on certain issues. Don't let Washington or the media fool you into thinking your friends and neighbors are stupid, hateful or fundamentally different than you. We are all Americans.

Till next.....

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

The best way to keep your pride in check.....

 The most effective way to remain humble that I have found is to subject yourself to the annual garage sale. We live in a community that decides one Saturday every year to allow all the residents to sell priceless items that have been accumulated over time to other residents (and every one else who speaks Spanish) through the time honored tradition of a garage sale. It's a big deal. People prepare their displays on Friday hoping it doesn't rain overnight because they want to be ready at daylight. And normally the first customer arrives well before then, somewhere between the delivery of the morning paper and the first cup of coffee.
  Now is when the humility begins in earnest. Sure, you may have paid a couple of hundred dollars for that suit that doesn't quite fit anymore but in the world of the weekend Fred Sanford crowd it's worth about $5 cash. Your grandmother gave you a silver serving tray that is priceless, well not quite, it will fetch you a dollar. That lifelong dream of finally getting in great shape has been gathering dust in the form of a Bowflex or some other do-it-yourself fitness machine may have cost you an arm and a leg but garage sale value runs about 10 bucks if you find the right motivated buyer. Furniture is one of those things you buy with an emotional attachment, memories may be contained in that leather sofa but you need to get over it. Sure you made payments all the way through the last decade to buy it but you're going to get less than $20 to get it off your driveway. It doesn't take long to realize that what you thought was great isn't worth all that much.
  But the true self esteem kick in the crotch comes in the form of negotiation. How can you think you have succeeded in life when an elderly lady staggers out of her 1971 Buick and tells you that 50 cents is too much for that painting you drop a hundred bucks on last year? Or when that stainless steel cookware that brought you such joy when you bought it is reduced to $4 because the couple that just bought them negotiated like they were on Shark Tank? I've actually had someone offer me one dollar for some shirts I was selling. Nice dress shirts that had brand names. Not a dollar per shirt mind you, five shirts for a dollar. Sold them right along with what was left of my pride at this point. Factoring in the gas I didn't use going to Goodwill, winner.
  I really think it's time to change this into a new reality show, Garage Swap. We take a couple in the suburbs and switch their garage with another couple who lives in another country. How cool would that be? Get rid of all your junk and get a surprise from somewhere around the world. I wonder if the Chinese have the same crap in their garage? Probably not because they built all the crap and sold it to us in the first place. Can you imagine the thrill someone in Darfur might get when they opened the door and found the refrigerator in my garage? Sure once they found out it needed electricity to work (even then it was broke) the joy would evaporate quicker than a fallen dictator but a little happiness is better than none. I know someone Siberia would do cartwheels or at least snow angels when they found the lawn mower and leaf blower. This idea can't be any worse than the Real Housewives of where ever the hell they find crazy people.
  Everybody has gone through at least one garage sale in their life. Hopefully one was enough for you to realize the value of a tax deduction is greater than the $20 you will garner while finding out that you and your stuff just ain't all that. Keep your stuff in the garage and feel good about yourself, it's worth the money.

Till next.....