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Sharing and holidays

Sitting in my recliner and pondering the events of the day, our doorbell rang. We have been besieged with deliveries from somewhere or another, so I assumed that it was yet another courier. But to my joy and surprise, it was a neighbor delivering a collection of holiday cookies. We had seen this neighbor before when he approached us in our driveway, introduced himself and welcomed us to the neighborhood.

The cookies were festive, tasty and decorated in glittery tissue paper with red acorns that were painted to look like trees. Reflecting on the gesture, I was touched and enchanted.

Isn’t it sad that a neighbor who shares holiday cookies comes as a remarkable surprise? Have we become so isolated and unfriendly that seeing someone going to the trouble of bringing a treat is shocking? When we were a society of small towns, people sharing the lives of their community members and generally living as villagers, this gift would be customary, not surprising.

With further reflection, I confirmed my intent to reciprocate although the gift was clearly offered with no expectation of anything in return. Both for the sake of extending good cheer and for telling neighbors how much I treasure their spirits, cookie baking is in my near future.

Thankfully, I have no intention of dismissing cordial treatment from those around me. The store personnel will receive thank you and holiday greetings as they are dispensed, I will open doors, relinquish parking spaces and tell as many veterans as possible that we appreciate their service. My most sincere hope is that I will never become too old or cynical not to value gestures of kindness and sincerity.

Many signs of neighborhood geniality suggest to me that our society is not in decline.  A promise that I will fulfill is to continue finding methods by which I can cherish and salute my fellow man. Shalom.

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Veterans Day

There are basically two types of people. People who accomplish things, and people who claim to have accomplished things. The first group is less crowded. Mark Twain

Each year at Veterans Day, I begin to think about the gratitude that many people and I share for those who have served and continue to serve our country in the context of military service. This quote from Mark Twain reminds me of those in that esteemed category.

From the beginning of our country through the present, our safety and security have been preserved and ensured by those who have committed to the branches of our military. No matter what the role, wartime or peacetime, armed forces personnel have often made the ultimate sacrifice of their lives to make certain that their families and ours will enjoy all of the freedoms that our country has established and perpetuated.

Does that mean that those who do not or did not serve in the armed forces accomplished nothing worthwhile? Certainly not. Both inside and outside of our government, many thousands of people have contributed to the preservation of this country and its citizens. Whether you have delivered mail. contributed to the aerospace program, taught our children, served in our courtrooms or countless other roles, you have completed work that has built and nurtured our society.

Those who claim to have accomplished things are probably those who have accomplished least. My experience suggests that the true heroes and distinguished citizens rarely need to or want to publicize their achievements.

Thank you to the veterans who have dedicated their lives and careers to making this country strong, safe and secure. Thank you to all the rest of our great nation’s citizens who daily complete countless actions of wisdom, bravery and selflessness, all of which combine to make our country the epitome of virtue that it is. Shalom.

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Growing up in Chicago, we had a pretty specific and limited definition regarding neighbors. Anyone who lived within a one or two block radius of our home was a neighbor, conferring elite status to those residents.

Sadly, it seems that when we are most in need of neighbors and the closeness or camaraderie that this designation suggests, we find people who are resolute about staying separate. It surprised me to have three of the people on our block stop to ask our destination and travel plans. Beyond that, everyone kept a respectable distance.

This lack of neighboring was altogether apparent several days ago when I stopped to buy gas. My debit card was stuck in the reader and no matter what I did, I couldn’t release it. Walking into the station, I asked someone who was arranging candy to provide some assistance. He snarled at me, saying that he didn’t work there, to ask one of the employees. That employee reluctantly came to my rescue, exchanging absolutely no conversation with me.

Would it have been difficult for this stranger to assist by walking outside to release my card? It might have cost him a minute or two. But he was disinterested and seemed offended that I would ask.

We can see more examples of this around us. Walking into a store the other day, I saw a lady struggling with a large box while three or four shoppers walked past her. I held the door for her and it diminished me in absolutely no way. Have we become so immune to the needs of others or the sense of doing good deeds that we are afraid to ask if someone needs help? When I asked a wheelchair-bound lady if she needed assistance with her groceries, she looked at me as if I were an apparition and gracefully declined.

No matter what our political climate, suspicions about the intentions of others or the sense of being too busy, being a good neighbor is inherent to our American citizenship. Abandoning this trait, we insult that citizenship and the care of others. Shalom.

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Outside the eye of the hurricane

If you’re watching the waters rise, anticipating the loss of everything material, no other thoughts occur. To the millions observing your tragedy, the inability to provide hands-on help produces a thousand questions.

How can we join in the rescue efforts?

What do you need most?

How will our contributions be distributed?

Can we come to the area and participate in taking survivors to safety?

The sense of helplessness was not exclusive to the hurricane path. The nation and the world added its tears to the already swollen rivers, streets and buildings.

As the waters receded, we were partially reassured by the heroic efforts of so many from infinite sources. We watched the boats, helicopters and everyday people who combined forces to make many differences in large and small ways.

While your recovery will require years, patience and more dollars than most of us can imagine, we have not disappeared. As we provide homes to your lonely pets, dollars to Red Cross and provisions to your shelters, you remain in our wishes and prayers.

Never hesitate to call on us for any needs you may have, material or otherwise. The only support that you won’t receive is that which you fail to request.

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There is something about being part of a team that makes it a uniquely demanding and often gratifying experience. While I’m not referring specifically to sports teams, they may and often do share some of the qualities that non-athletic teams derive from group experiences.

From the top, I’m not referring to all of the “Hoorah” or knuckle-bumping that you may associate with many collaborations. It’s not about paying dues, wearing the right hoodie or doing the team mantra. More importantly, it’s about being with and around people who care about your success and personal growth.

This all occurs to me as one who has recently rejoined a business organization. The experience of doing so has been quite a surprise. People whom I had forgotten were remembering me. Those whom I had not met were interested in knowing more about me and what goes on in my brain.

Clearly, none of that puts money in the bank, cleans my garage or gets me better gas mileage. But I’m beginning to believe that folks of all flavors are enriched by belonging to something. It creates camaraderie, stimulating human interaction and often, the sense of community predicated on shared priorities.

For those who seek becoming enhanced by the emotional or psychological benefits of being part of an association, do whatever is necessary to move forward. The only true requirement is that you believe in the philosophy or objectives of that collection of participants.

Tutor some kids. Teach financial literacy to elementary school youngsters. Spend some time serving meals at a homeless shelter. Work for your political party. Dedicate volunteer hours to a local nursing home. These have all been in my past and provided more gratification than any paycheck. No matter what you choose to do, the process of proceeding toward something with others will be worthwhile. Your presence will inevitably and definitively improve that ensemble while you are benefitting yourself. Shalom.

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A better world

One of the best realizations that I’ve had recently is associated with one of the most unpleasant tasks I’ve had to face. The task is packing, discarding and generally downsizing for a relocation. On the very upside is the fact that by reducing the number of my possessions, I have been able to create significant value to my world. It was not by intention but is still a joyous consequence.

Here’s how it works. By being somewhat organized, I could be methodical and decisive about the disposition of many items. Our local public library (yes, I believe in the indescribable value of libraries) has a program that accepts donations and resells books to the community. The chances of rereading most of my books were miniscule and I happily delivered at least ten boxes of books to those who can read and appreciate them at a low cost.

The same phenomenon occurred with clothing. Because I hope that the climate to which we are moving will be much less severe than that of Colorado, I had bags and bags of clothing. They were too large, too small, too thick or something else that made them obsolete. And so, it was with immense pleasure that we dispatched at least twenty bags of clothing and household goods to Goodwill.

Finally, we had collected at least twenty pairs of glasses or sunglasses over the years and remembered that a number of local opticians had programs to refurbish and distribute discarded eyeglasses to those who couldn’t afford them. After a few unsuccessful delivery attempts, we discovered a company whose representative appeared to be truly appreciative to have the glasses.

None of these are huge or valiant acts. But when I began to think about the total number of items that we recirculated, I realized that we all have the means to touch the lives of hundreds with very few actions. My journey will be punctuated by a trip to the foodbank with items that we can’t or won’t transport. With that, I suggest that you either clean your pantry or buy several extra cans of food on your next shopping trip. There can never be too many acts of kindness in our world. Shalom.

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One life

This morning delivered the news that someone was shot to death approximately two miles from my home. His name was not disclosed, and the event was reported before the weather and baseball scores, with the same amount of air time as they required.

To be sure, the loss of any life is sad news. My greater concern, however, is that such occasions have become so routine and common that we cease to notice or care.

Murders of high-profile, visible citizens are reported ad nauseum. We can easily recollect many, complete with ugly court scenes, declarations of innocence and so on. At the same time, we are inundated with news reports of those celebrities who have indulged in behaviors that compromise others such as sexual harassment.

Am I suggesting that we either shouldn’t report these crimes or that we should deliver extensive and detailed coverage of every murder? No, in both cases.

But somewhere we are falling short as a society if we fail to attach value to every life. Perhaps the news can be dispatched with the parenthetical of expressing condolences to the family involved for their loss. Maybe the answer is to humanize the victim – Mr. Blank was thirty-five years old, a resident of this city and is survived by a wife and two kids. He was a veteran who has been employed at the ABC Company as a pipefitter.

Let’s back up a bit. Without engaging in a second amendment debate, I wonder if it might be useful to add a note about the weapons involved. If this killing was the consequence of an illegally-secured handgun, it’s appropriate to say so. Let’s make it a social conscience lesson. Likewise, if the perpetrator was legally licensed for the possession of this weapon, so be it.

As one who will never get used to murders, I want to live in a society that is not blasé about them. My educating includes the message that all lives are special and important. We celebrate all holidays, birthdays and accomplishments. Don’t we send a conflicting message when we say “There was another shooting this morning in our town. The event took place at 2:00 am and the perpetrator is in custody.” Another life is lost. Refuse to be one of those who don’t care. Shalom.

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What is it about fear of consequences that has immense power to change behavior? In the classroom, the outcomes are never truly serious and consist of such things as detention, calls to parents or loss of recess.

But it never fails. If you promise that unacceptable behavior will be followed by an undesirable result, that behavior usually disappears.

Unfortunately, we promise the same types of punishments for those in our society who break the laws. The reasoning is flawed. Sentences are inconsistent and often suspended. If the rewards for positive patterns were visible and formidable, we could reward that behavior and eliminate transgressors.

Some of the car insurance companies have the right idea by sending checks to the insured who are accident free. Having recently watched the Olympics, I observed the few who are celebrated and the thousands who are never mentioned. The same imbalance is true of the NBA, NFL and MLB. They all have a few winners and many more losers.

On any given day, we can count the murders or acts of violence and compare them to the reports of kindness or generosity. Yes, the acts of terror occupy large spaces of news coverage but maybe we’re not working hard enough to recognize and reward kindness, generosity and bravery.

No, I’m not naïve. Yes, I know that negativity is more easily found than positivity, on the streets or in the classroom. But as I reflect, I observe one young man who stubbornly and resolutely stacks the chairs and plugs in all computers at the end of the day, without any expectation for recognition or distinction. Perhaps there is a connection between his behavior and statement that he likes me better than any teacher he’s ever had.

We can all do a better job as educators, parents and the media, at identifying character and actions worth celebrating and duplicating. The possibility exists that these actions will reproduce themselves. Shalom.

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Doing your job

Sometimes doing your job consists of counting to twenty. Other times, it’s a bit more complicated, writing code, building aircraft or debugging a complicated program.

Most of us, I believe, reached adulthood (and later) with the mandate to do our jobs. As I consider it further, however, doing exactly what we really should be doing may have nothing at all to do with occupations or schoolwork.

For instance, after quite a few unrelated positions, I realized that my training and my heart had nothing to do with my paycheck. That’s why, today my function (my job) is to get a kindergartner to do his math instead of sadly sucking three fingers while sitting crouched in a corner.

Many find saving dogs from puppy mills to be their calling. Others find fulfillment in providing food for the homeless in soup kitchens. And there are some who regularly donate blood or plasma simply for the sake of saving lives. Somehow, my guess is that animal and human rescues were usually nowhere in their education or work credentials.

It makes me sad to think about the many millions of people who put in their eight or ten hours per day without ever doing what moves and fulfills them. My mission is never to be urging others to abandon their incomes or careers. In addition to losing my credibility, I’m likely to be considered irresponsible or unrealistic. Thankfully, there are other options.

What do you love to do? What animal cause or human illness strikes a chord with you? If you recognize your melt-away zone, dedicate a day, a weekend or an hour to it. The not-for-profits are always needing committed volunteers. You may not have to journey further than your neighborhood. And if you are extremely timely and the world shines down upon you, one day your love and your job will be the same. Shalom.

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“Your own resolution to succeed is more important than any other.” Abraham Lincoln

Someone for whom I have profound respect, personally and professionally, advised me yesterday that he was busy developing goals for the new year. As I recently posted, I personally eschew resolutions other than the resolution not to make resolutions. However, Mr. Lincoln, as always, motivates me to reflect on success and the goal to achieve it.

If you poll a group of elementary school students on what they want to achieve when they are older, most will immediately mention wealth. This may be due to the demographics of my teaching area, generally a socio-economically depressed zone. However, they also surprise me with the ubiquitous desire to help other people.

And so, I suggest that we can measure success in an endless number of dimensions. While I don’t resolve to make a difference in a specific number of children’s lives, my success is surely measured (daily) on the number of illumination moments I can observe. My conviction (and Mr. Lincoln’s, it seems), is to succeed in those areas where we can all make the greatest amount of difference.

Here are some examples. If your new year determination is to work out and advance your physical well-being, success can and should be launching your exercise routine. Do it once, twice, three times or seven times per week and you have succeeded.

Let’s imagine that you are aspiring to write a book. Does success exist only when you complete the first, second or third draft? Absolutely not! Creating the intent and committing to following through with it constitute success. My observations of people suggest that many fail at their determinations because they equate success and completion.

If you set no goals, objectives or destinations, it’s certain that you won’t reach them. Make them realistic and enable yourself to achieve. You may be surprised to find that winning becomes cumulative. Shalom.