Monday, December 7, 2015

Good Grief

Yesterday I had a rough morning. A rough morning for me after a rough week for more people than I can list. I don't know why I woke up sad and angry, but I did and my pissyness effected Jenna and needless to say Mabel didn't have the best morning either.

I stole this from Kris Troyer.
If you see this, let me know if you're mad.
Grief is a funny thing. Last Saturday one of my buddies took his own life. We weren't close, but we were friends. I have hugged him and listened to his personal struggles, but I have also seen him hug and make dozens of lives better for having him in it. I was sad. I was sad to think of his loneliness and pain, I was sad for my friends who loved him and lost him. I was sad for his girlfriend and his family. I was mad too. They often come hand in hand, but in this case I thought of how much pain his pain had caused and will continue to cause those who loved and tried to help him.

Forever. They will be in pain forever. That is sad and that makes me mad, but that is part of life and that's when the best of people also emerges. My friends who knew and loved Adam even more than I did stepped up. They rallied around each other in person and through social media to let the world know how much they loved Adam, how much Adam loved them and how much they loved each other.

Balancing the pain, sadness, anger and love isn't easy, but once it starts sinking in and the warmth replaced the emptiness, acceptance starts and you start to appreciate the best of the individual you lost and those who are still with us... at least I did. I know, all too well, that there is not an assembly line version of grief.

Especially when it comes back into town so quickly.

Now, I have a large family. I've been going to funerals and wakes for a very long time. At points in my life it was hard for me to understand folks my age coping with death for the first time. I'd seen it and been a part of it since I was very young. Each death taught me something, but overall I grew to appreciate that death is part of life, even when it's not fair and it hurts. The hurt didn't always go way quickly, but I understood it more and I tried my best to help others through their grief while understanding my own.

I stole this one too, but it was from Jamie herself
and it had been her profile picture a couple of times
so I'm guessing she liked it.
On Tuesday morning  I learned about Jamie. Less than 4 days after Adam's pain won over the love in his world, Jamie lost to her demons as well. Adam was my buddy and I cared for him and had a lot of love for him, but Jamie was my friend. She has been in and out of our lives the last couple of years dealing with her issues, but she just had dinner at our house. Whereas Adam was moreso a part of the lives of people in my life, Jamie was a part of my life. My family's life. The lives of my  best friends who have made Rochester our home.

This was a new one for me. My brain didn't know how to respond and in a lot of ways it didn't. I had already entered the acceptance phase of my grief when I found out about Jamie and I couldn't help but feel numb. I wanted to cry like I cried for Adam. I wanted to run the gambit again, I know it's for the best, but it just wasn't there. The hurt was there, the thoughts and questions and frustrations, but the feeling wasn't and that made me even more sad.

I held my wife as she cried. I cried with her. I checked in on friends who were closer and offered my support. I read amazing articles on grief and death and depression and pain and I couldn't help but feel like I had skipped a few steps and I started questioning everything again. What was wrong with me? Am I doing enough? Am I supposed to say or do or feel something differently...? I saw people grieving openly for both of my friends and struggling to understand their own and the grief of others. I saw people upset at themselves, at strangers who wanted to share in their grief, at people they didn't feel earned the right to grieve as much as them. I thought I was beyond this and I thought I knew better.

That's when the friends stepped in. I saw these questions, this pain, this sadness, frustration and all the things met with love and hope.

Much like with Dumka, the pictures and the stories started rolling in. Jamie was weird and smart and funny and lively and lovely. The sadness was there, but the celebration won. Getting together, not just on social media, but in person let people smile through their tears. It let people tell stories others hadn't ever heard before. It brought us all closer to Jamie and closer to each other. The same happened for Dumka, but I got to be a part of it for Jamie. My cycle of grief caught up to itself and I started to feel lucky again.

I am lucky to have known and been even a small part of these two extraordinary lives. I am lucky to know people who can love so unconditionally and who want to help even a distant friend get through their tough times. I'm lucky to have people who call me a friend and reach out to me. I'm lucky to hug my kids and ignore the pain while I make goofy voices and faces with them.

I woke up sad and angry and I struggled through the day. It was there all day long, even when I laid in bed at the end of the night. I'm lucky for this pain. This is good. This is a testament to the lives of Jamie Shea and Adam Dumka. This is a testament to my Aunt Fern and Steve's Dad and my Grampa and Aunt Dawn and Uncle Bob and August Lindell and Stephen Schantz and Paul Brewer and everyone else who has ever left this world and forced us to grow and grieve and learn. I'm a better friend because of grief. I'm a better person because of loss. I'm going to be a better dad because of sadness.

It's different for all of us, this pain and this path, but I've decided that my lesson is in love. Lessons don't always come easy. Neither does love.

But looking for these things, a lesson or the love, in the worst situations makes everything better. Everything does not happen for a reason, but that doesn't mean you can't find a silver lining in a shitty situation. There's no road-map to grief and even these stages I've been talking about are subjective. Live through the worst times and be with those who are gracious enough to let you. Try to smile and remember the best, but cry and be sad when you need to. Most importantly keep loving and keep living. Never stop.

I'll miss you Jamie. I'll miss you Adam. We're all better for having you as long as we did.

These pictures are also stolen,
but I think they're both beautiful and I hope nobody is angry with me.

Friday, March 6, 2015

The Best Neighbors in the World - An Ode to Guy and Ronnie (Or why I support local business)

I grew up in a small neighborhood in a small town.

To put it into perspective I graduated with 85 people and we had one of the largest graduating classes. My best friend lived across the street from me and his parents were friends with my parents. When we did projects on our house, they were there. When they did, we were. So on and so forth.

Growing up in a small town, especially when you grow up far from frivolous spending and means, being a good neighbor is sort of second nature. My folks were always helping out one of the neighbors or they were helping us. Mr. Dorman, who lived next door, had the best garden around and almost every morning in harvest season we would find a small pile of fresh vegetables on our deck. He never said a word about it.

I don't think anyone ever said a word about it, yet that's how I was raised and that's how I've always tried to treat people. I should really bold and underline and italicize try because I'm far from perfect and I've been a real piece of s-h-i-t from time to time. Overall, both personally and professionally, I like helping people and I'm happy to do it. It's how I approach customer service, it's how I approach friendship and it's what I tell Mabel all the time.

I just want you to be nice.
There are a million of these things right on the internet.

Having lived in Boston for a few years and then living here in Rochester, some of the neighborliness went away. I don't think it's necessarily second nature and sometimes it's good to be reminded that it should be. We really should slow down once in a while and when we do we realize a lot about the world around us. In the immortal words of Ferris Bueller:

ferris bueller's day off get over here gif
Nope, not the one I was looking for.
Here it is!

How cool is that guy?
Not all that glitters is gold, Mathew Broderick accidentally killed a couple people in Ireland one time
I think I got off track somewhere. Classic me!

So back to the task at hand. Living in the city makes it easy to move through life and focus on what you need to focus on. We bought our house almost three years ago now and when we did we inherited a couple neighbors we had already heard great things about. They were friends of friends and even the people who used to own the house told us how great they were.

Those folks are Guy and Ronnie

They are, in fact, that cute in person as well.
From day one Guy and Ronnie have been amazing. They take friendly to a new level and write the book on sincerity. This has all flooded through my head because today, while I was at work, Jenna was trying to take Mabel to one of her toddler gym classes. On her way out she got stuck in our driveway. 

I will now go one a 12 page diatribe about the weather this winter... no I won't, but I could.

Man, this is going to be a great blog because I can not think straight and I hate it already, it's not doing them justice at all, but that's bound to lead to literary gold!

Back to it... again. 

Jenna called and told me she was stuck so I started packing up and coming home to help her get out. Halfway to the door she said Guy had come out to help her. 

I drove home anyways to clear out the driveway so she could get back in. By the time I had gotten home Guy and Ronnie had already gotten Jenna out of the driveway and were breaking the ice and shoveling so she would be able to get back in. There was no question, no need to ask, it's just who they are.

This is far from the first time they have helped us and been the most amazing of people. Between borrowed tools, big projects, little projects and just general presence and concern, Guy and Ronnie have reminded me and taught me what it is to be a neighbor and a friend. Most notably, though I won't get too deep into it because it makes me cry, when Mabel got sick and had to be rushed to the hospital the day after her first birthday, it was Guy and Ronnie who saved Jenna and me (mostly me, I was a disaster). Above and beyond doesn't even begin to cover it and when you thank them they are quick to say, that's what friends or that's what neighbors are for. Thank Christ for friends and neighbors like them. 

Part II:
Subtitle A: Or why I support local business

This obviously got me thinking about much more than how great it is to have neighbors who help you out in a pinch. I thought a lot about growing up in that neighborhood. I started thinking a lot about just how it helped develop me as an individual and how that neighborly inclination has led me down my path. Is it a direct correlation? I have no idea, I was never very good at research. But, then I started to think about Guy and Ronnie again. Guy is a ridiculously talented musician and generally handy guy who also happens to be a Rochester City Firefighter. Ronnie is brilliant and multi-talented and happens to be one of the proprietors of the best god damn food truck in all the land, Le Petit Poutine.
It's even better than it looks.

I see how hard Guy and Ronnie each work in and out of their chosen occupations. Their focus is almost always on whomever they are trying to help. In life, at home, at work, probably when they're singing in their cars driving around. Some might call it good customer service, but if we're being honest they are just good people. 

That's why small businesses are amazing. The majority of the individuals who decide they're going to take the risk of starting/owning/operating a small business don't do it because they're going to get super rich right away and definitely not because it easy. They probably won't and it certainly isn't. The ones who last, the ones that leave a mark are all run by people who care about people. They've found a way to incorporate their general amazingly welcoming, loving, supportive selves into an industry that is not forgiving. 

There is a small shop, in NYC it would be called a bodega, right around the corner from me on Winton Rd across from Main, run by a husband and his wife. They have four kids running around all the time too. They are the nicest people in the world. Every time you go in they are so happy to see you. They also happen to have a killer craft beer selection and all of you should be going there way more often. I should too, to be honest. It's a tough business and I hope they make it. It's strange to root for the owner of corner store, but I am because they've made me feel welcome and they deserve it. 

I work at Marshall Street Bar and Grill part time. The owners, my friends Don and Kelly, are just smart people who know what people want and try to give it to them. Everyone thinks they are Don's best friend because Don makes everyone feel like they are his best friend. That's just who he is. They keep coming back. Kelly is out in the community constantly representing the bar and making connections. People love her. That's just who she is. She has learned and grown through Marshall Street and Marshall Street keeps getting better and better in another really tough business.
Shameless plug for Marshall Street.

The Moral of this Story

Good neighbors are good people.
Good people start good local stores.
Local stores enhance and give back to the community.
Be a good neighbor and support your community.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

I hang out with college kids for a living

Two weeks ago I was talking to my boss (he's great, this isn't about him). We were talking about changes to a seminar we run together for all first year students. It's nothing new in higher ed, but it is becoming seemingly more difficult to find a curriculum that lands with students. We were chatting, going back and forth, when I made a comment about getting older and how it's going to keep getting harder to identify with students and for students to identify with me.

I said it very casually and off the cuff, but I haven't stopped thinking about it since.

Some background:

The title of this post, "I hang out with college kids for a living" is exactly how I used to describe my job to friends and family. (Filling this out on tax forms is also very strange.) In all honestly, that's why I got into higher education. As an over-involved college student I was good at connecting with my peers and helping people get what they needed out of a team/event/experience/class etc.

Law school plans were out. Higher Ed was in. I wanted to be an orientation leader for the rest of my life. I wanted to feel those connections and see the look of relief in a parent or a students eyes every time I got to answer their questions. It's an incredibly selfish aspect of the call to service. I wanted to help people during this trying and confusing time, but I wanted to do it more because I was good at it and because it made me feel good to make them feel good. Still, it was easy and I didn't have to work too hard to do it well.

That's not a humble brag, it's actually a pretty damning self reflection on the first few years of my career:
I relied much more on my personality and ability to connect with people than I did on my work ethic or knowledge of the subject matter. I made people feel welcomed and valued, but I didn't have to do much in order to make that happen.

I should have.
Who would trust a guy who shaved his head in the hallway, only wore free shirts, had that goatee (look close), wore any rubber-band he found on the ground? Everyone. That's who. Everyone trusted me. Isn't Nickel adorable, by the way?

That's how it went for a long time. Too long. I spent almost six years at Newbury College. I made some great friends, great connections and helped a lot of students by merely being there for them. There were some students who inspired me and I stepped up for them, but in general I phoned it in and relied on people liking me to get the job done. My half ass was often more noticeable than others' full ass, so I got by pretty well, often with praise I craved, but I know I didn't deserve.

The move to SUNY Geneseo changed that. I was learning new things. I was pushed to make a plan for my future. The initial question I was asked by my boss during our first meeting was,
What do you want to get out of this job and where do you want to be in five years?
I eventually got thick glasses and started to part my hair on the side to prove it.
Skinny tie helped.
I answered that I wanted to be a director again. At the time I had no idea what that meant. I think I wanted to be in charge for the sake of the praise and the autonomy my ego needed. Still, in spite of myself, I started to accomplish the things I didn't know I wanted. I still relied on connecting with students, but I used that to make my program better, not to make me look better. I got better. Far from perfect, but I got better.

Fast forward to now, my time here at Nazareth College. I still feel a connection with many of my students. I love working with first years and teaching that class because I still believe I have something to offer the students. I'm 14 years older than most of them, but I can still identify the points of reference they need to connect with or the missing link they're searching for.

When I mentioned connecting and identifying with our students to my boss I originally thought it was just getting older. I mean, I am. That's the truth, but the more I thought of it, it wasn't the reason. I started to ask why. I've spent a lot of (enough of) my life dissecting old terrible decision and accepting others for theirs, hopefully we all have (we haven't). In light of this, I don't know if I've ever critically thought about my personal connection to my work outside of: I'm good with people and I'm good with college students.

I hope I am, I mean I think I am. I think those things are true, but it's different now. When I took my new job almost a year ago, I gave up a caseload of 72 students. One-on-one academic counselling connections that filled up my schedule along with about 120 peer tutors, a summer welcome team, and a committee for advising the tutors. I was worried I was going to miss the connection, so I was excited to teach my first year courses. I'm glad I did. My students still say they like me and they can relate to me and it still makes me happy, but, if it makes sense, I don't care anymore. I care that they're happy and successful. If making real connections with them leads to that: bonus! The difference is I used to need them to like me. I used to want so badly to be the cool guy everyone could count on, at work and in my real life. In some ways I was (I just deleted a diatribe about what it means to be cool), but it was shallow and in many ways superficial.

Sad Keanu is just thinking about life man.
Life and sandwiches.
Things are different now. What, at first, was a scary notion that I wasn't going to be relevant or connected for my students anymore turned into a serious bit of self reflection and realization. Again, this is funny because I encourage my students to do this stuff all the time, yet here we are, life epiphanies coming from heeding my own advice to others. Having my students feel connected to me helps me do my job, but I no longer need it. I'm good at my job, or I'm at least trying to be good at my job, because of the work I put into it. I try to look at my programs from what the students need, even if they don't know it. I can't look at my programs from the lense of what I needed when I was their age any longer. I had no idea what I needed when I was that age.

So what does this all mean and how does it help any of us. Well I don't know if it does. It helps me. It helps me a lot actually. I know I have felt like I was doing good work at Naz since I got here, but I guess I know what that means a little more now. My work isn't for the praise or my advancement, like it had been for so much of my adult life, it's for the students. They don't need to need me, but I know they need the programs I'm offering; even if they don't. They don't need my help because it's me, they need my help because the programs I'm running are designed to benefit them and make their college life better. This is what's going to to lead to the praise and advancement I still crave. I've decided it's okay to want something, but needing something can really mess a guy up when it's not really needed at all. No more of that. I work hard because I like working hard. I'm good at my job because of that hard work.

We all need to grow and adapt through life. It's the most obvious thing in the world, so why is it so hard to do? We jump to point out when others are making choices based on settling and comfort, but we're blind when we're doing it ourselves. There is nothing wrong with getting comfortable as long as you know things are bound to change and you are ready for that. It's going to happen soon and it will always happen. We need to keep pushing, we need to keep learning, we need to keep reflecting and asking why. We can do it in our jammies or on our couch with a beer and friends, but we need to do it.

When you ask me what I do now, I still don't know how to answer, but it's something more straight forward.

I'm a dad, that's pretty great. In my downtime I'm the director of a student support center.