My commencement speech to the graduating class of Basis Chandler

On May 23, 2017 I delivered this commencement speech to the graduating class of  Basis Chandler, a charter school populated by impressively high achieving students. It is a speech specifically geared to that graduating class, but I hope there may be a few provocative thoughts for all.

Graduates, parents, relatives, faculty, friends of the school and friends of the graduates.

Bless me Class of 2017, I am angry. I am angry at what we have become in this country.

I am angry that unfeeling airlines are tossing families off airplanes because they can’t figure out how to move their own staff around the country.

I am angry that loud, irrational pundits, on the right and the left are spouting outrageous vitriol with no regard for facts or sensitivity.

And, I am angry when callous congressmen say things like, ”Nobody dies because they don’t have health care.”

I am angry because it seems compassion is dying. Heather Figallo, the Customer Experience and Innovation chief of Southwest Airlines recently said in a private conference, “the clinical definition of compassion is I feel another’s suffering and I have the ability to alleviate it.”

This country used to care about the least of our brethren, now, not so much. So many people seem to care about nothing beyond themselves. Everything is focused on me, me, me. Self-interest dominates our thinking.

And even worse, so many people seem to be drawing into themselves. Several times in the last several weeks I have heard people say, “The world’s problems are too big, I can’t affect them so I don’t care.”

That is absolute rubbish. It may well be true that you can’t figure out what to do about North Korea, or health care or race relations, but each one of us can make a difference in this world if we look out and not in.

We can commit random acts of kindness. We can put together bags of food for the homeless. We can clean up the park. We can do countless things to make our world better and each kind act we do changes attitudes about those big issues.

As I prepared for tonight’s speech my anger started to subside and my normal positive peachy-keen attitude started to reappear because of this very graduating class.

You see, about three months ago I sat down with six of the graduates who are in the hall tonight. It was a delightful and educational conversation. It became apparent that this class is incredibly bright, completely driven and precociously attuned to critical thinking. But you all knew that.

Something bigger caught me by surprise. I asked the students what they would talk about if they were giving the graduation speech. To a person, those graduating seniors said they would discuss the remarkable four years they have spent with their classmates. They talked of their camaraderie, their empathy for each other and the genuine bonding they have experienced despite the built-in diversity of this school.

I admit my first reaction to that universally held belief of the students was a bit of disdain. I am not a nostalgic fellow. I think wishing for yesterday is a futile and even phony search akin to dreaming of rainbow stew.

However, as I reflected, I started to think about the students’ desire to celebrate their close-knit class in the context of history. I love history that teaches. My favorite author is a man named Steven Johnson who studies history to understand what is worth replicating in innovation and creativity. His brilliance illuminates new paths forward.

When these students told me of their bond with other students, their cherished memories of coming together to learn and achieve and their recognition that each person has value, they were telling me that the most important thing they have learned at Chandler Basis was the power of community.

That lesson can save our fragmented society and guarantee individual and professional success.

Community is what we are lacking in America today and yet Community is what those students were valuing so deeply.

The students who talked to me spoke of how the gauntlet of high school at an academically challenging place was so much easier because students were close. Students worried about one another. Students easily moved from one group to another because the differences were small.

It was obvious to me the students felt incredibly supported by faculty and parents. It was just as obvious these particular students trusted other students because everybody is smart and everybody has basic confidence in their own abilities.

I believe, based on the students I talked to, that the Basis Chandler class of 2017 has learned the fundamentals of real community.

In real community, the group interest triumphs over individual interest.

In real community, the shared struggle creates an unbreakable bond outsiders cannot break.

In real community members find joy and victory only when everyone succeeds.

In real community the individual does well, but not at the expense of others, all boats can rise when my boat rises.

It is truly remarkable that a graduating class has discovered such a strong sense of community. It is a treasure beyond words.

Abraham Lincoln closed his inaugural address with these words which should speak volumes to us today: “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory will swell when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

My charge to you is simple and clear. Leave tonight and pursue that same sense of community in the world you are going to encounter.

Don’t make it all about you. Make it about us.

Use the community building skills you have learned in the class of 2017 to build small, powerful communities wherever you go. Communities that will show compassion for those who struggle. Communities that truly make a difference because of the common bonds the community embraces.

Treasure your four years here at Basis Chandler Basis but never, never forget the power of community you learned here.

Let the better angels of your nature flourish.

 

Only we are going to fix our problems, one volunteer at a time

We all know bad stuff and good stuff happens to people. But our reactions to those things often differ.

Many people live their lives in gratitude for all the good things they have.  Other people tend to downplay the good things in their life and constantly lust for more. And there are people who have a great deal, clamor for more and are convinced they are smarter, better looking and more talented than the people who have less. Barry Switzer and Jim Hightower are credited with saying “He was born on third base and thinks he hit a triple.” I always credit that quote to my youngest brother, David, but the point is many view good things as something they earned.

People who deal with bad things often accept that bad stuff happens and they just need to roll with the punches. Others need to blame someone such as God, their rotten parents and/or the government. Those carping complainers shake their fists at this cruel world and fault everyone except themselves. Just this past weekend I said some reckless, insensitive things to a couple of close friends. There were no excuses to be had. I was a jerk plain and simple. I apologized in a text and will rely on forgiveness and our longtime friendship to heal the problem. People who can’t own their screw ups  fail to accept the truth. As my insightful wife, Candace, declares so eloquently, “our troubles are usually an inside job.”

I recently read an article that contended that a tremendous number of Americans believe authoritarian behavior is the answer to our challenges. The author wrote, “Authoritarianism, by which I mean Americans’ inclination to authoritarian behavior. When political scientists use the term authoritarianism, we are not talking about dictatorships but about a worldview. People who score high on the authoritarian scale value conformity and order, protect social norms, and are wary of outsiders. And when authoritarians feel threatened, they support aggressive leaders and policies.”

That frightens me. I like some order as much as the next guy, but I do not believe our problems are caused by a vengeful God, parents or the government. I believe some people live dangerous lifestyles, don’t pursue enough education, refuse to embrace technology, but mostly I believe good things happen in this world and bad things happen, just because. To quote Forrest Gump “It happens.”

I especially refuse to believe that there is some giant hand in the sky or a  commanding government that can erode civic liberties and fix everything. I am reminded of a great ongoing Saturday Night Live bit performed by Kenan Thompson during the Great Recession several years ago. Thompson would rant and rave at some invisible force he called “they”  and scream “Fix It, Fix it, Fix it.” Nobody ever appeared from the ether to “fix it.”

I reject fear, authoritarianism and hate as viable “fixes” to our country’s problems. I subscribe to Gandhi’s famous admonition,If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change.” That has been popularized as “Be the change you want to see in the world,” and it is the only way we can improve things.

My wife Candace was so distraught over the refugee ban this weekend she went to church and sponsored a Mexican child for more more money than was asked. She took action to change the world for the better. Two of my dear friends volunteer for that program, Casa Franciscana Outreach at our church. They give countless hours to a program the improves the lot of people in Guaymas Mexico. Another friend of mine has spent years finding guardians for struggling children in his small Michigan town. Another friend spends hours sitting with and talking with hospice patients to relieve the burdens of their loving caregivers.

I, and you, know thousands of people like these who don’t rail at the condition of the world, or blame God or the government. They do something themselves to fix our society.

All of us pulling together to extinguish fear and hate strikes me as a better solution to whatever ails us.

 

 

I still don’t like cats but the journey with Clawd and Clementine teaches me a lot

My Dad hated cats. My early love of boxing and my life-long dislike of cats was clearly learned behavior at my Dad’s knee.

When my daughter married a man with a cat I was horrified. Things failed to improve when I met said cat and his successor cat. My dislike for the species catus is legendary. On my late wife’s deathbed she overheard a hospice worker ask me if we had any pets. When I replied “Hell no, I hate pets,” my sarcastic-to-the-end wife told my daughter, “There is no way he can divorce me now, let’s talk cat.” Actually, Jean had never been that anxious for a cat, but the line was funny and demonstrates how much my dislike of cats is rooted in my family’s culture.

The astute among you have more than an inkling of where this is going. Late last year a woman I had been friends with at the Minneapolis Star Tribune contacted me to offer sympathy upon my wife’s death. We had been good work friends in Minneapolis, but not such good friends that I knew she was a cat person.

As we rekindled our friendship and that friendship showed the potential of something much more, Candace  made it clear she had two cats. She credited the cats with getting her through her own grief when her husband, David, died late in 2011. It was abundantly clear that if the relationship had any future at all, the cats were going to be a part of that future. To this moment, the thing that impresses my daughter Tracy the most about my marriage to Candace Hadley McGuire is that the cats were not a deal breaker.

Now, this is a real-life story and not a fairy tale, so I am not going to come before you to testify I fell madly in love with Clawd and Clementine. I still don’t really like them and I get terribly antsy when they jump up on my bed. In my heart of hearts, I believe they are plotting against me. And yet, I have developed a genuine appreciation for the two felines and for Candace’s love for them.

I swear the cats often seem to talk to Candace and she talks back! A year ago I would have scoffed mightily at the notion that the three of them communicate in any way. Now I am not so sure.

The other day I grabbed for a tie on a tie hanger in our closet and I dropped it. As I reached for the tie on the floor I grabbed some cat. After my record leap in the air I realized I had discovered Clementine’ top-secret hiding place that neither I, nor Candace, knew about. Cut to a day later when Clementine was whining incessantly to Candace. Candace was almost at her wit’s end when she followed the cat into our bedroom and realized that the closet door to Clementine’s secret hiding place was closed. Candace opened it and all was well. That impresses the heck out of someone who has always believed cats were incapable of communication.

Clementine does not seem well and that has made Candace very sad because she believes she is about to lose her long-time companion and savior. And anything that makes my lovely new wife sad, makes me sad. A year ago I would have been sympathetic but not very empathetic. That has changed.

Don’t hold your breath for me to become a cat lover, but by opening my mind and watching the incredible bond between two cats and an extremely intelligent woman I think I finally get it. After a lifetime of closing my mind, I understand that it just might be possible that the creatures really do relate to humans on a deep and important level that demands respect and even a little awe.

My tolerance and respect for cats is growing, but I still wish they’d stay off my bed!

Tim J McGuire is the author of “Some People Even Take Them Home” A Disabled Dad, A Down Syndrome Son and Our Journey To Acceptance

Serious family illness can teach valuable lessons

I went out on a date with my new wife, Candace, last week. A date may strike you as small beans, but for us, it was a very big deal because since October 2 she has been recovering from difficult brain surgery to clamp off an aneurysm. The surgery was three weeks after our delightful wedding. Recovery has been difficult and painful, complete with double vision.

Everywhere I look these days I seem to find medical crises that create incredible tension and challenge for my friends and their families. Few of us get a pass on major medical issues and my experience with Candace crystallized some important truths that may be helpful for others.

One of the most important ones is that friends standing with you is invigorating and comforting beyond understanding. Four dear friends sat with me during the surgery and one, Gregory,  surprised me by flying to Phoenix from Sacramento just to sit with me. Candace was exuberant to know I had that kind of backing but her friends have flocked to her side too. Flowers and cards have bolstered her day after day. One of her closest friends, Cathy, sent almost daily cards, and some days two cards. We’ve gently joked about her apparent obsession, but at the worst moments of healing, the love vibes behind Cathy’s cards are palpable and sustaining. That kind of support prevents you from crawling into yourself and from dwelling in self-pity.

A second lesson is that it is important to live in the present and not in the past. I was sorely tempted to conflate Candace’s health crises with the fatal health journey of my late wife Jean. I tried to fight against the temptation to relive that experience as I worried about, prayed for and cheered for my dear Candace. It was probably natural to compare and contrast the two experiences but it’s a fool’s game. You cannot possibly equate two different health cases and it only leads to futile worry and stress. Deal with what you have in hand and don’t make it worse.

Another important lesson learned is patience. As far as medicine has come, recovery from serious surgery is just damned hard. Between overcoming the effects of surgery, recovering energy, dealing with serious pain and anxiety over being “normal” again, the convalescence takes a great toll on the patient and yes, the caregiver too. It is easy to say “relax and be patient,” it is much harder to do so. Celebrate small forward steps and keep the big picture of healing in mind.

Perhaps the key lesson during recovery is gratitude. In our case, a doctor discovered the aneurysm when he was looking for the cause of an ear problem. It was fortuitous beyond belief. Then we found out that the aneurysm was very close to bursting when it was clamped. Call it blind luck if you wish, but Candace and I believe there was a Divine hand looking out for her, and for me. Whenever Candace struggles, and my heart bleeds for her, we grab each others hand and remind each other how lucky and blessed we are.

We know Candace and our marriage has caught a big break and we’re thrilled about it. The final lesson to learn is how we can take advantage of our fresh new opportunities by  converting our gratitude into action.

Tim J McGuire is the author of “Some People Even Take Them Home” A Disabled Dad, A Down Syndrome Son and Our Journey To Acceptance

Somebody down the street always has it worse

One morning last week I had terrible trouble buttoning the top button on my dress shirt. My right arm and hand are largely decorative, as opposed to functional, so such simple tasks can be difficult. It may strike you as a silly frustration but for the briefest moment I felt just a little sorry for myself.

As suddenly as that emotion hit me it was replaced by the thought of my friend Jennifer Longdon who struggles with the very genuine difficulties of navigating a wheelchair and the debilitating troubles brought on by a random highway shooter several years ago. Jennifer recounts her challenges often on Facebook and any friend of hers quickly comes to realize the real pain of disability.

I felt foolish for lamenting my trivial challenge when many people like Jennifer know genuine pain and obstacles from hell.

Actually I learned that lesson very early in my life and I tell the story in my book, “Some People Even Take Them Home.”

When I was 11 or so and still in a pediatric ward I contracted an infection and was placed in protective isolation to protect against the dangerous spread of mysterious bacteria to other patients and staff. Everybody who came into my room, from nurses to doctors to Mom, donned surgical robes and masks.

As I wrote in the book: “The desolation and loneliness of that imprisonment were suffocating until two surprising teachers arrived to show me how fortunate I was.

In the room next to me were two young people I never met. They had as profound an effect on me as anyone else in my 64 years. They were two-year-old twin boys and they had been severely burned in a Saginaw, MI house fire. I knew the boys only by their constant and hideous screams. They were critically injured and their skin was obviously gravely tender. I listened to them yell in agony for hours on end. Horrible, piercing cries communicated unbearable torment.”

Even at my tender age I was sharp enough to realize that my own infection was small potatoes. Those boys taught me the true meaning of suffering but I vividly remember the slow dawning of a vital truth.

I have no idea if those little boys survived. I pray they did. What did survive was the belief burned into me that somebody down the street, or around the corner, or in the next hospital room always, always, has it worse than I do. That’s why I try so hard to smile through tough times. I hope those screaming, crying boys have made me more caring and more generous.

A little thing like that damned shirt button serves to remind me how grateful I need to be.

Tim J McGuire is the author of “Some People Even Take Them Home” A Disabled Dad, A Down Syndrome Son and Our Journey To Acceptance