I’m a Horrible Person

I hate to admit it– it probably means I’m a horrible person– but I’m having fun. I’m enjoying the coronapocalypse. Just a little.

Yes, I feel a bit guilty for enjoying this as much as I am. I also know the enjoyment will fade the longer this goes on.

I feel bad for people who are really hurting and suffering. I feel awful for those who have lost loved ones. I have empathy for those who are scared. But this is the sort of thing I thrive on– at least for a while. It’s what I’ve prepared for… for decades.

Plus, I’ve been doing all I can for many years to tell people to prepare for this sort of thing. If they refused to listen…

I consider this a practice run for a real breakdown. I’m taking notes so I’ll be even more prepared next time. Yeah, I know every event will be different, but I still plan on learning from this one.

I’m doing what I can to keep my family members safe and healthy. Nothing is guaranteed, obviously. But that’s the case every day. I’ve had the rug pulled out from under me before.

My parents, who didn’t take the virus at all seriously at first– have gone into full-blown quarantine lock-down mode. I drop supplies and their mail for them in their garage and they go get it after I’ve left. I’m wondering if they are decontaminating it. As long as the electricity flows they aren’t going to be running out of food for a very long time, having multiple freezers and refrigerators. And quite the pantry, as well. I enjoy doing what I can to help them. My mom is sewing masks for the family and my dad is watching Hallmark Channel Christmas movies that he has recorded, I suspect they are both kind of enjoying this, too.

I’m fine on food and supplies for a long time– even if I couldn’t buy anything new. But I can, even though the food aisles have gone eerily empty. People might not be able to buy what they wanted, but there is something available. My yard– and every other yard in town– is chock full of edible “weeds”. No one will starve unless they choose to.

I’m taking long daily walks around town (as long a walk as I can take in this town– I zig-zag a lot) in the sun and fresh air.

Money has gotten tighter– your donations and subscriptions have become even more important than in the past (I also know some of you are probably losing income, too). I will get through this one way or another. Except in the unlikely event that the virus gets me– which I highly doubt it can.

I feel as though I am in my element– which is rare. I might as well have fun while I can.

Are any of you as awful as I am? Feel free to judge me.

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Helping the “Homeless”

All the cries to “solve the homelessness problem”, especially by using political government, fall flat with me. It’s not that I’m heartless. I’ve even been homeless myself, so I should have empathy. But I also have experience with homeless people.

Years ago I met a homeless guy named Paul. He was nice enough, but it was clear he wasn’t “all there”. He had left his home in Kentucky and traveled in his car (I’m assuming it was his) to western Colorado. There he spent the nights in his car, which he kept parked in the back-country, and walked into town almost every day.

He told me tales of his affair with a ghost back in Kentucky, and told me he left home because his parents wanted to have him committed to a mental hospital. I could see their point.

I did what I could to help him. I taught him some survival skills I thought might help. I gave him a hatchet that had been mine since I was a teen and also gave him some candles and other things I thought he might benefit from. I gave him food a few times.

Paul liked to hang out in my store and visit. I did sometimes get tired of him– my enthusiasm for socializing can get used up pretty quick in any situation that’s not karaoke. He often smelled bad– but he did bathe at campgrounds from time to time.

The worst thing (for me) he did was hit on women who would come into my store– right in front of their husbands. I told him he had to stop this or he couldn’t come in my store anymore; he was driving away what few customers I had. This made him angry and he said he would come smash my front window that night. I had a few overnight armed vigils in the back of the store but he never acted on this threat. And soon enough, he acted like he forgot this had ever happened.

That summer, the sidewalk in front of the store was being torn out and replaced and I found an old horseshoe in the dirt under the concrete. I put it on display in my store. He became very interested in this horseshoe and wanted to take it to his car and let it “speak” to him overnight. So I let him.

He came back the next day with stories of what the horseshoe had “shown” him. He even wrote an account of some of this– minus the darkest parts about dismembered bodies in steel barrels– on a notepad I had given him. (See the scans at the bottom of the page.) He just told me those parts but didn’t include them in the written account for some reason.

But he became convinced the horseshoe was cursed and that was the reason my store wasn’t flourishing. Its presence was the problem.

He said I had to get rid of the cursed horseshoe before something horrible happened to me. To humor him I tossed it.

Oddly, things didn’t improve.

He told me one day that Fall that he was moving to Utah. He packed up his car, I contributed some gas money, and he took off. I thought that was the end of that.

A week or two later I saw a very scruffy-looking guy crossing the street and thought it looked like Paul. It was him and he was soon in my shop again. He was dirtier and smellier than ever before. It turned out he had driven almost to the Utah line, but then turned up the interstate and headed toward Denver, and then his car had stopped running. I don’t know if he was out of gas or if it broke down. He didn’t stick around to see, but started walking back “home”. That was over 130 miles, and maybe a lot more, depending on how far he’d gone on the interstate. He abandoned all his possessions there in his car on the side of the interstate, never to be seen again.

He said he’d gotten one ride– an insistent cop had picked him up on the west side of one of the very few towns along his route and dropped him off on the east side of town so he could continue his journey. He refused all other rides along the way, and slept in the grass beside the highway every night.

His feet were sore, and now he had no place to sleep at night. A preacher friend of mine happened to come in the store about this time and heard the story. He offered to have the town’s ministerial alliance pay for a hotel room. Paul refused, saying he wouldn’t accept anything from them because he didn’t know them. The preacher said, “but that’s what we do– help people who need help”. Paul was having none of it and my preacher friend finally went on his way.

So, instead of a nice hotel room, Paul started spending the nights in a porta-potty at the construction site of the new school. It was now late November, with the temperatures falling well below freezing, and often dipping below zero. I gave him a few candles for warmth.

I began to see less of him, usually only every few days or so.

Around this time there were reports of homes in that area being entered during the night– their toilets being used and food being eaten. Only one homeowner caught a glimpse of someone fitting Paul’s description walking away from their house. It was in the paper and I suspected it was him, but I never found out for sure.

Not long after that, Paul decided to go see if there were more opportunities for “the homeless” in Denver, and he somehow got a bus ticket and left, and I never saw him again.

One result of this experience is that it kind of made me skeptical about the homeless. Yes, he was only one example (although there have been others I’ve met who were very similar). But homelessness isn’t about a lack of homes. Paul had a home and he left. He had opportunities to be housed, he rejected the offers. He was a beggar and didn’t want anything to jeopardize his chosen lifestyle.

At least I don’t believe he was an addict; his mental issues were burdensome enough.

I know most (or all) of the beggars here locally are the same way. Their signs say they are stranded and need gas money, but they live in houses. Here. And have for years. Stranded? Where do they imagine they are going?

I was homeless for a time several years ago. But I didn’t sleep on the streets (I slept in the woods) and I didn’t get handouts or steal from anyone. I kept my job and worked to get myself out of that situation. But I also wasn’t addicted or mentally ill (some might disagree on that last point, though).

It doesn’t bother me if people choose to give to the homeless, but I know it’s not going to fix anything. Nor would building houses for them. They generally have issues beyond what those things can solve. Paul was a case in point.

Below, for posterity, are scans of Paul’s “horseshoe visions”.

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Rights as a Human Construct

Are rights a human construct? Yes, obviously. As are ethics and empathy and many other things humans value to some degree. You might see those constructs expressed in similar ways in some other animals, especially among the Great Apes, but they only truly reach their human form in humans.

Rights are a human construct in that they only matter between humans, or between humans and something humans want to treat in a human-like way.

Rights don’t exist apart from sentient beings. They only exist within the brain, while still having consequences, with regard to interactions between those bearing the brains, in the physical world. The Universe doesn’t have rights or respect rights otherwise.

A rock will never respect anything’s “rights”, nor will a mosquito. The rock has no consciousness or will (free or otherwise) and a mosquito just does what it must to survive long enough to reproduce– it doesn’t concern itself with anyone else.

Being a construct doesn’t mean rights are imaginary. They are real– at least when you are speaking of human interactions. Life doesn’t turn out well if you don’t respect the rights of others at least a little bit. If you didn’t, you’d be worse than the worst psychopath, and you wouldn’t survive long. You’d be everyone’s enemy and everyone would be doing all they could to end you.

So, rights are a useful construct. And as long as I’m dealing with other humans (or creatures I want to treat humanely) I will respect rights and will expect mine to be respected by other humans as well.

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Yes, Parents Are Capable of Choosing How Their Children Should Be Educated

At the heart of debates around education freedom and school choice is the subtle but sinister sentiment that parents can’t be trusted. They are too busy, too poor, or too ignorant to make the right decisions for their kids, and others know better how to raise and educate children. Never mind that parents have successfully cared for and educated their children for millennia, ensuring the ongoing survival and continued success of our species.

Distrust of Parents

As economist Richard Ebeling writes in the introduction to Sheldon Richman’s book Separating School & State:

The parent has been viewed—and still is viewed—as a backward and harmful influence in the formative years of the child’s upbringing, an influence that must be corrected for and replaced by the “enlightened” professional teacher who has been trained, appointed, and funded by the state.

We see this distrust of parents play out in a number of policy areas, including most recently with the implementation of universal government preschool for four-year-olds (and increasingly three-year-olds) in cities like New York and Washington, DC, and in academic reports arguing for “Cradle to Kindergarten” government interventions. These efforts are nearly always framed as helping parents, taking the burden off of low- and middle-income families, and addressing inequality and achievement gaps. But the message is clear: parents, and especially disadvantaged parents, can’t be expected to effectively raise their children and see to their education without the government’s help.

Some researchers say this outright. In an article published in this week’s Washington Post about alleged summer learning loss among schoolchildren, Kelly Chandler-Olcott suggests that to fix the problem, we need to stop expecting parents to nurture their children during the summer months and instead rely on experts to do it for them. She writes:

Also troubling is the assumption that families, not educators, should promote learning in specialized areas such as mathematics, reading and science. Although families from all walks of life promote varied kinds of learning in everyday life, most parents lack preparation to address academic subjects, and their year-round obligations don’t end just because school is out for their offspring.

This is during the summertime, mind you, when parents have long been responsible for the care of their children. Apparently now the academic crisis is so dire, particularly for low-income children, and parents’ “year-round obligations” are so huge, that we should entrust others to do throughout the summer months what seemingly didn’t work well during the academic year. As I wrote at NPR, we need to ask ourselves if kids can so quickly forget during summertime what they purportedly learned during the school year, did they ever really learn it at all? And if “most parents lack preparation to address academic subjects,” then what does that say about the education they received through public schooling?

“Perennial Force” of Parenthood

The idea that parents get in the way of children’s education and can halt their flourishing is nothing new. As he was designing the architecture for compulsory mass schooling in the 19th century, Horace Mann argued that education was too important to be left to parents’ discretion. He explained that strong parental bonds are obstacles to children’s and society’s development, writing in his fourth lecture on education in 1840:

Nature supplies a perennial force, unexhausted, inexhaustible, re-appearing whenever and wherever the parental relation exists. We, then, who are engaged in the sacred cause of education, are entitled to look upon all parents as having given hostages to our cause.

Mann goes on to say that “just as soon as we can make them see the true relation in which they and their children stand to this cause, they will become advocates for its advancement,” supporting the complete shift in control of education from the family to the state. It’s for the good of all, Mann said—except for parents like him who homeschooled his own children while mandating forced schooling for others.

The solution is for parents to push back against creeping government control of education and child-rearing. Don’t be wooed by the siren song of feigned empathy for your burdens of work and family. Don’t be convinced of the false belief that you are incapable of caring for your children and determining how, where, and with whom they should be educated. Don’t let your “inexhaustible” parental instincts be weakened by government guardians who think they know what is best for your child. Demand freedom and choice.

Parents are powerful. They are not perfect, and they do fail, but they are more perfect and fail much less than state agents and government bureaucracies intoxicated by authority and ego. They should take back control of their children’s education by advocating for parental choice and resisting efforts to undermine their innate capacity to care for their children’s well-being.

Place trust in the “perennial force” of parenthood, even when—or perhaps especially when—others distrust it.

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Late Bloomers and the Benefits of Delayed Success

At a dinner party several years ago, a woman and I chatted about education and parenthood. I had just met her and when I told her about our unschooling approach to education that prioritizes self-directed learning, she was visibly perplexed. “Don’t you worry about outcomes?” she asked. Yes, I replied. I want my children to be highly literate and numerate, to live a meaningful life tied to their interests and talents, and to have a strong sense of personal agency. “Well,” she responded, “for my kids, it might as well be either the Ivy League or jail.” She was only half-kidding.

A Social Obsession with Early Accomplishments

The recent college admissions bribery scandal shows the lengths that some affluent parents will go to make sure their children get into elite colleges. But it’s not just wealthy parents who are worried about their child’s early success and college and career prospects. In his new book, Late Bloomers: The Power of Patience in a World Obsessed with Early Achievement, longtime Forbes publisher, Rich Karlgaard, writes about our societal obsession with early accomplishment and its potentially negative impact on both individuals and communities. He writes:

What I suggest is that parents, schools, employers, the media, and consumers of media are now crazily overcelebrating early achievement as the best kind of achievement or even the only kind. We do so at the cost of shaming the late bloomer and thus shortchanging people and society.

Karlgaard is clear in saying there is nothing inherently wrong with early achievement. Indeed, we are all better off thanks to the inventions of young entrepreneurs like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs who both dropped out of college years ago to pursue their revolutionary technology companies. The downside is that now we often look to early markers of a narrow definition of success as defining a person’s worth.

How children perform at school, what kind of test scores they get, what college they get into at 18 become sought-after signals of accomplishment. Karlgaard suggests several problems with this outlook, including marginalizing highly-talented young people who may not perform well in conventional schooling and grow up with a sense of being less than their peers. He writes:

When so many people believe they are inferior based on a few narrow measurements made when they were children, society as a whole suffers.

Mounting Pressure During Childhood

More troubling is the mounting pressure on parents and children to begin this trail of achievement in preschool, depriving children of freedom and play in the name of academic rigor and triggering skyrocketing rates of adolescent anxiety, depression, and suicide. Karlgaard writes:

Excessively promoting the primacy of early measurable achievement—grades, test scores, glamour job, money, celebrity—conceals a dark flipside: If we or our kids don’t knock our SATs out of the park, gain admittance to a top-ten university, reinvent an industry, or land our first job at a cool company that’s changing the world, we’ve somehow failed and are destined to be also-rans for the rest of our lives.

Karlgaard explains that this “societal madness for early achievement” can be damaging to many children and young people. They may appear successful on the outside, but on the inside, many are hurting. He writes:

Early bloomers are in the headlines, but are they succeeding as much as the media lead us to believe? In fact, many early bloomers are suffering terribly. The pressure to achieve early success led to three student suicides in the 2014–15 school year at Gunn High School, a public school in Palo Alto, California, three miles from the elite Stanford University campus. All were good students striving for early achievement. By March in the same school year, forty-two Gunn students had been hospitalized or treated for suicidal thoughts.

Fortunately, Late Bloomers offers a dose of sanity for those of us who question the increasingly standardized, test-driven schooling model that can fuel a toxic early achievement culture, while also encouraging all of us that it’s never too late to pursue a passion, build a business, or change the world.

Late Bloomers

A late bloomer himself, Karlgaard had a hunch that there was great value in peaking later in life. His book is an extensively researched work that blends the latest findings in neuroscience and psychology with profiles of inspiring late bloomers to show that the push toward early achievement and career success may be unnecessary at best and harmful at worst.

While research shows that individuals on average have rapid brain functioning and memory skills in their 20s, it’s in their 30s and 40s that strong executive functioning skills, empathy, and level-headedness kick in, and wisdom really emerges after 50. These more mature qualities can be critical in helping late bloomers to launch new, successful endeavors and enterprises.

A primary characteristic of late bloomers is curiosity which, Karlgaard argues, is abundant in young children and is steadily eroded through what he calls “America’s early-blooming conveyor belt.” Late bloomers seem to hold on to their curiosity despite societal efforts to weaken it. They are seekers and explorers who aren’t afraid to experiment.

Quitting Your Way to Success

They also aren’t afraid to quit. Late bloomers tend to reject the myth that “winners never quit and quitters never win,” recognizing the opportunity lost when we spend our time in a job or activity that isn’t serving us well and that may distract us from pursuing our true talents. Karlgaard explains the importance of quitting to success:

As part of our obsession with early achievement, we’ve turned quitting into a pejorative, an insult that cuts straight to our sense of self-worth. And that’s not just unfair, it’s destructive. In a drive to suppress individuality and reinforce cultural norms, society has turned one of the most effective tools for self-discovery into a proverbial four-letter word.

Ultimately, Karlgaard’s Late Bloomers book is a refreshing reminder that it’s okay to slow down and move through life at our own pace, following our own pathway. Don’t let the societal conveyor belt of preschool-to-college-to-career achievement drown out your talents or derail your potential. Know that it’s never too late to begin or to peak, and that there is often great value that comes with time. Karlgaard concludes:

If we’re not forced to conform to standard timetables for success, we can—and will—bloom on our own schedules. And we can do it with a deeper sense of mission and a greater feeling of contentment.

This is sage advice, both for us to take and to give to our children.

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The 11 Life Lessons It Turns Out I’ve Taught My Six Kids

On my 46th birthday recently, my (mostly adult) kids wrote out a list of lessons I’d taught each of them in their lives so far. Each wrote their own list, and my wife Eva sweetly put them together in a notebook.

As I read through them, I felt like crying. It’s so incredibly touching that they appreciate what I’ve been trying to pass on to them, things I’ve been learning and want them to understand.

As a father, there are few things more meaningful than to see how you’ve helped your kids through your example and talks over the years. We have a mixed family of 6 kids, aging from 13 years old to 26 years, and all of them are wonderful human beings.

It turns out, there were some lessons that all or most of the kids put on their list, which I’m going to share with you here. These lessons they had in common made me wonder if these were the more powerful lessons, or if they were simply the ones I talked about the most. 🙂

So here they are, roughly ordered in how frequently they showed up on my kids’ lists:

  1. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes, and it’s okay to fail. This was tied (with the next one) as the most common lesson on their lists — it made all their lists, I think. I really love that this lesson hit home with them.
  2. Have empathy & try to see things from others’ perspectives. This was the other lesson on all their lists, and again, it’s beautiful that they all took this to heart. I’ve tried to show them this through my actions, though of course I’m not at all perfect.
  3. Push out of your comfort zone. This is another one I’ve tried to teach by example, from running several marathons and an ultramarathon to doing things that scare me, like speaking on stage or writing books. This lesson is so important to me that
  4. Don’t spend more than you have. This is such a simple idea, but one that is rarely followed. I’m glad my kids are starting out with this mindset — live within your means, save as much as you can.
  5. Appreciate what you have & enjoy where you are right now. I love this one. It’s something that I try to embody, but also remind them when they are thinking about what they don’t have. Each time we’re stuck in complaint, it’s an opportunity to wake up to the beauty that’s in front of us.
  6. Sadness is a part of life, and there’s nothing wrong with feeling it. Despite what I said in the previous item, it’s OK to feel sadness, pain, grief, frustration, anxiety, anger. In fact, most of us never want to feel those things, so we’ll do whatever we can to ignore them or get away from the feelings. Instead, I try to actually feel those things, as an experience. It teaches me about struggle — if we’re not willing to face our own struggles, how can we be there for others when they struggle?
  7. Don’t give up just because something gets hard. As new adults, our four oldest kids are facing various struggles in new ways. This is part of growth, of course, but struggles never feel good. My job as dad has been to encourage them not to give up just because it’s hard — to keep going, and to use the struggle to grow.
  8. But don’t overwork yourself. That said, I’m not a fan of overwork. I believe the brain doesn’t function well if you keep studying or working past the point of exhaustion, so I try to teach them about taking breaks, resting, going outside and moving.
  9. It’s okay to be weird in public. Have fun. I’m not sure why several of them had this on the list — they must have learned to be weird from someone else? OK, in truth, they might have gotten it from my tendency to dance and skip with them while we’re out walking around in a city, or to encourage us all to do weird things as a group, no matter what other people might think.
  10. Your reality is a reflection of the narrative you tell yourself.
  11. Make people laugh. It makes their day brighter.

I love my kids with all my heart, and it has been a privilege to be their dad. I take 10% of the credit and give the rest to their moms, grandparents, and themselves.

Btw, you can read Chloe’s full list in her blog post.

Also … from them, I’ve learned some lessons that are just as important:

  • Kids deserve to be heard, to be listened to, to be respected. I started out as a dad with the idea that what I say goes, and they just need to listen to me! But over the years, I’ve learned to listen to them, and treat them as I’d want to be treated.
  • Kids have tender hearts that hurt when you aren’t kind to them. As a young dad, my frustrations and insecurities led me to angry bursts of scolding, yelling, spanking. I’ve grown since then, but more importantly, I’ve learned to see the tenderness of their hearts, and how it hurts to be yelled at by someone they trust and love so much. I am much more gentle with those hearts these days.
  • I should relax and not take myself so seriously. Whenever I think too much of myself, my kids humble me. Whenever I get too serious, my kids laugh at me. I love that playful reminder to loosen up.
  • Dads are goofy, dorky, uncool. And that’s how we should be. I sometimes harbor the notion that I can be a “cool” dad. When I try to break out newish slang or reference a meme, my kids will tease me about it. When I break out a joke or pun that I think is hilarious, they’ll laugh while rolling my eyes and calling it a “dad joke.” So I’ve learned just to embrace my uncoolness, and be myself with them.
  • All they need is love. There are lots of things to stress out about as parents, and nowadays we tend to obsess about getting everything right with our kids. But really, we’re stressing about it too much. All the details are just details — there’s only one thing that really matters. They want you to love them. And to receive their love. That’s all. Feed them, clothe them, shelter them, educate them, sure … but beyond that, they just want you to love them. Drop everything that gets in the way of that and let it come out as simply and clearly as you can.

Thank you, my loves.

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