Retirement, a time to pause, enjoy, reflect and plan the future

The first three days of my retirement from teaching at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism I slept until 9 am and lollygagged around the house until about 11.

I felt guilty and pained. It felt like I was reneging on my commitments. Except I didn’t have any commitments!

My wife says I have done a better job “learning to be retired” in the last several days. I am completely unsure what that actually means so it is obvious I have a long way to go.

I retired once before, in 2002 and that one didn’t take.

It is apparent to me that like everything else retirement means different things to different people. I have a busy six months of national and world travel planned with lots of time reserved for grandkids, kids and brand new adventures with my wife. Yet, when that subsides I do not plan on climbing into a hammock with lemonade and bon bons. There is simply no way I can shut my mind off and withdraw.

I am going to be open to any and all possibilities, but I especially want to explore where my writing might take me. I have some specific book-length projects in mind, but by the time I sit down to a keyboard those concepts may morph several times. I think I have some important things to say. Finding the vehicles and style to say them are still a bit mysterious to me.

Where this blog fits is one of the key questions I need to reflect on for the next several months. It is obvious to anyone who has been following that my output has diminished. I could blame that on a hectic final semester with two new courses and one new mode of presentation. I could blame it on a reluctance to weigh in on certain topics because they struck me as too political. That all obfuscates the real reason which is that my mission became foggy.

When I started this blog in August of 2014 I had just lost my wife of 39 years and I was on the precipice of launching a book, “Some People Even Take Them Home,” A Disabled Dad, A Down Syndrome Son and Our Journey to Acceptance.

My passion was great and my mission was clear and simple: Offer insight into grief and the experience of disability. I pray I provided wisdom. You never get past either of those experiences, but the role of these posts became murkier as I found new love and married.

I am certain I will never run out of opinions, but over the next several months I want to think carefully about the mission of this blog and about who might care about my thoughts. The direction of my major writing projects will definitely have a major influence on whether and how I continue this blog.

I would love to hear your thoughts about what has worked over the last two years and what hasn’t. And, if you have thoughts about where I should take this blog from here I’d like to hear that too.

Until I weigh in again, be kind to each other.

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

Text of Tim McGuire’s Convocation speech to Cronkite School class of 2016

Here, for the sake of posterity and easy reference is the actual text of my Convocation Speech to the Cronkite School’s class of 2016. The video of the speech can be found  here.

 

Thank you for that delightful introduction Dean Callahan.

Students, parents, spouses, relatives, friends and faculty.

I am incredibly grateful for being invited to the podium tonight.

The class of 2016 is among my all-time favorites at the Cronkite School. There is a boatload of talent in this class. 

“One day Alice came to a fork in the road and saw a Cheshire cat in a tree.  “Which road do I take,” she asked.

His response was a question, “Where do you want to go?”

I don’t know,” Alice said.

The cat responded, “Then it doesn’t matter.”  

I had written a convocation speech about a bunch of life lessons, but then a number of personal encounters began speaking to me, until one day I came across Lewis Carroll’s profound insight about the fork in the road.

A few weeks ago an undergrad sat in my office and asked me if I thought an MBA was a good idea for him. Without hesitation I asked, “Do you want to be a businessman?”

The young man got the old “deer in the headlights” look and said he was unsure. He hadn’t really thought of that. People had told him an MBA could lead to a very secure and stable life.

I feared the young man was ready to ignore his own personal hopes and dreams, and pursue a path he thought would make others happy.

Suddenly I felt like the Cheshire cat and it didn’t matter to Alice what she did. I desperately wanted the young man to focus on what he WANTS  to do, not on what somebody THINKS he should do.

Understand that our life on this blue marble is short, too damned short to spend it doing stuff we are not passionate about.

You are on the precipice of a new life. If you wish, you may focus on the prudent and the stable. You may make the secure and safe route your refuge.

But please, please don’t.

What do you want to do more than anything in the world? What do you dream of doing that would make you incredibly happy?

Tonight, I want to exhort you to pursue your dream.  Dream big! Aim for the impossible. Start that company. Do something incredibly noble for mankind. Change the world. Develop that zany wild idea. Move to that fascinating place. Go big. Go really BIG.

The only way to go really big is by taking risks. No, don’t take risks by texting while walking across First Street, and not by drinking every beer for sale on Mill Avenue. I am talking about life risks that bounce you out of the comfortable. I am talking about taking risks where there are no guarantees of success and even huge possibilities that you won’t meet your goal.

A few weeks ago in my office, I delivered this same message to one of tonight’s graduates. He looked at me with lots of skepticism and said, “What if I fail?”

Then you fail. And you pick yourself up and you take some more swings. That’s the way life works.

Life is trial and error. What we call failure is the father of scores of inventions and countless success stories. Either Cinderella or Babe Ruth, really, both are credited, said  “Never let the fear of striking out keep you from playing the game”

If you do strike out simply pick yourself up, be smarter, and go again!

In February I had a conversation with a wonderful student in this class. He has a REALLY big dream. Only a very few Americans will achieve his dream. He will need genuine skill, some damn good luck and a ton of determination.

With all the passion I could muster, I said, “go for it, Ace.” I told him to take a 10 year shot at achieving his goal. I told him to believe in himself and don’t accept those people who try to beat him down and diminish him. If he doesn’t achieve his goal in 10 years he will be richer for trying and his next steps will be much clearer.

A few weeks later I talked to another wonderful student in this class who has decided she wants to get a job overseas. She is determined to live out her adventure and is networking like crazy to find a job worthy of her considerable Cronkite skills.

I burst with pride over her courage, her inventiveness and her commitment. She will do great things because she thinks big and smart. She is not being foolish about any of this. Cleverness underlies her risk-taking.

But then I asked the killer question: “What do your folks think about this?” She smiled a smile as big as all outdoors, and said ‘my dad is incredibly excited and my mom wishes I’d stay home.”

But then she quickly added, “but Mom knows it’s my decision and she is coaching herself to be okay with it.”

God bless both Mom and Dad. They are both standing very tall in my estimation.

A few weeks ago I talked with a well-educated, successful man who told me about his son who plays football at a small college. The son’s dream is to be a football coach. My friend knows about the concussion studies and the dangers of football and he dearly wishes his son was not playing football. He would have loved to have just said no!

Then the man looked at me and shrugged and said “but it’s the boy’s dream.” That is parental courage!

Parents, embrace your student’s dream. Push them to dare to be bold. Encourage those ideas you might think are really crazy. Be proud that you raised students who are independent, bold and adventurous. Don’t look down your nose at their dream, lock onto their dream enthusiastically.

Students, tonight you become adults, your life is yours to lead. Your success, your failure is on you and only you. It’s not mommy or daddy’s fault if you don’t soar. It is yours. The richness and joy you find in life is about you and your commitment to transcend all the challenges.

Let me share with you a few lines from a wonderful poem by Pablo Neruda

You start dying slowly
If you do not change your life when you are not satisfied with your job, or with your love,
If you do not risk what is safe for the uncertain,
If you do not go after a dream,
If you do not allow yourself,
At least once in your lifetime,
To run away from sensible advice

Don’t worry about being sensible.  Don’t worry about what others think you ought to do. Don’t be modest in your goals. Don’t hide your passion. Change the world. Take risks and go really big.

I am convinced that if you dream big and push to meet those dreams and if you understand that you and only you are responsible and accountable for making a good life, then one day you will be able to stand back and declare, TOUCHDOWN!

Let’s see if the second retirement takes

I retired as Editor of the Star Tribune in Minneapolis in summer of 2002. It didn’t take.

I wrote a syndicated column, facilitated and spoke to groups about ethics, spirituality and work for about three years. I also did a couple of visiting professor gigs at Davidson College and Washington and Lee University.

I also had plenty of time to play and relax. I found that I didn’t miss the action of editing a daily newspaper and I  didn’t miss the power either. What I found I missed was the sense of belonging to something. In 2005, when Dean Chris Callahan of the just-formed Walter Cronkite School of Journalism at Arizona State University offered me an endowed chair to teach the business of journalism and ethics I accepted it immediately.

And, I have belonged to something very special ever since I accepted the job. Callahan has built a remarkable journalism school and I have had an incredible ride on his bus. Students teach me every day, faculty make me laugh and make me smarter and the thrill of belonging to a journalism school that has emerged as one of the best in the country has been a fantastic adventure.

Last week Dean Callahan, in a much-too-gracious note, acknowledged my May retirement from the school. Steve Buttry had nice things to say too.

A lot of people are asking why now? The clear implication is that University teaching is a pretty cushy gig and why would I give it up. The answer is not a quick soundbite but it starts with the fact that this is not a cushy job.  If you do teaching right, and I think I do, it is hard work. It’s nothing like the pressure of running a newspaper, but it is not easy.

Further, I think retirement is an outdated word. It is defined as “the action of fact of leaving one’s job and ceasing to work.” Yes, I know some people who seem to do pretty well at ceasing to work. I  don’t think I will be one. Certainly my new bride, Candace, and I, already have two major trips planned along with several small ones. Time to just kick back is an important part of my decision.

At the same time I have some things I want to write that have just been too difficult with my teaching responsibilities. Both my wife and I are also investigating ways to give back to society too.

But at root of my retirement decision at 67 years old is my overriding emotion since my wife Jean died in 2014. “Seize the freaking day!”

A good friend of mine observed this in an email when he learned of my decision: “It’s interesting, because when Jean was ill you said you were on a retirement trajectory. After her death you said you’d never retire. Now you’re back to the plan. I guess work’s relevance is dependent on what else we have in our lives and our sense of options, huh?”

My friend is a bright intuitive guy and he nailed it. I had no intention of retiring if I didn’t have someone I loved in my life. Now that I do, I want to make sure we maximize every single day we have together. My wife Candace’s brain aneurysm reminded me, as if I needed a reminder, that nothing is guaranteed health wise. We don’t know how much time we have. I am sorry I didn’t do this for and with Jean and I don’t want to err again.

My delightful Candace and I have a lot of laughing to do. I want to make plenty of time for that.

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

 

One Starfish at a time is sometimes the right path

Last week I did a speech about the importance of scholarships at the Walter Cronkite School at Arizona State University. I closed the short speech with a story I heard years ago at a United Way motivational meeting. The version I told went like this:

I often worry that my scholarship isn’t big enough to help all the students I would like to help.

But then I am reminded of the story of the man walking along the beach. In the far distance he is mystified by a man who is repeatedly throwing something back into the sea.

As he approached, the man realized the guy was throwing Starfish who had been beached on the sand, back into the ocean.

“What in God’s name are you doing man? There are millions of Starfish up here. You can’t possibly save them all.”

As the guy reached down for another Starfish he said, “No, I can’t, but for this Starfish, I am making all the difference.”

A prominent man came up after the speech and asked me where it came from. A little Wikipedia research indicated The Star Thrower” (or starfish story”) is part of a 16-page essay of the same name by Loren Eisley (1907–1977), published in 1969 in The Unexpected Universe.

I have probably used that story in speeches more than 100 times in the 20 or so years since I heard it, yet it has haunted me for the last week. It carries such a wonderful, powerful message. So many of us get discouraged when we can’t fix all the problems right now. We can feel so inadequate in the face of our personal problems, much less the challenges that confront the country and the world. Yet one act of kindness, one meaningful conversation, one mentor-ship or 10 bucks might change the course of events for someone.

One day last week a delightfully sincere student approached me to thank me for an unconventional class lecture I delivered. I had worried a lot about that lecture. I had chosen to deliver the lecture even though I knew many students might not find a lot of meaning in it.

After the kind student’s remarks I realized once again that you are never going to please all the people all the time. But in this case I profoundly affected that student and I am just fine with that. Sometimes deeply touching one person is better than having minimal impact on the many.

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

 

What if there were a magic pill that cured Down syndrome?

A friend of mine here at the Walter Cronkite School at Arizona State University sent me this thought-provoking story about the deaf subculture. She is very smart and obviously saw the moral and ethical disability conundrums that are wrapped up in a frighteningly untidy ball here.

The story discusses the controversy and cultural issues raised by the increasing availability of cochlear implants which many in the deaf community fear will destroy the deaf subculture. The story points out that many deaf people are passionate about their culture and many are critical of people who choose hearing over living a soundless life with sign language.

I really can’t discuss that phenomenon because I am not deaf nor do I have a deaf family member. I can’t imagine being unable to hear the sounds of the earth and the workplace, but most of us can’t imagine dealing with a different disability.

Where the debate inevitably takes me is to Down syndrome. In my book,  Some People Even Take Them Home” A Disabled Dad, A Down Syndrome Son and Our Journey To Acceptance I write in the acknowledgements section of the book: “I have no intention of entering the hot button arena of abortion, but I can say unequivocally that I believe our world would be an inferior place if there were no Down syndrome children. The pursuit of the perfect baby would deprive our world of real joys and triumphs.”

Believing that aborting all children with Down syndrome is wrong and would diminish our society is a ridiculously easy place to stand. People with Down syndrome, like my 35-year-old son Jason, do deeply enrich our world just as deaf people do. I ardently believe all diversity makes our world richer and gives it genuine texture that can be celebrated.

But, for argument’s sake, let’s say there was a pill that immediately fixed Down syndrome. And, what if, like the cochlear implant, there was some chance it wouldn’t work. Would I hang on to my diversity argument or would I move mountains to get that pill for Jason to allow him a chance to live a more normal life?

Again, for me, I’d step all over people to get Jason that pill and the “Down syndrome culture” be damned. Certainly our society would lose something important, but how could I possibly deny Jason all the joys that come with normal intelligence?

One of the arguments of people who oppose cochlear implants is that it implies deaf people need to be fixed and they resent that. That argument bothers me because a lot of us have twisted limbs, cancer or a score of other maladies that get “fixed.”

I cannot walk in anybody else’s shoes and I don’t have a deep understanding of the deaf subculture or cochlear implants so I will never criticize anyone in that community, but if I could fix Jason’s Down syndrome with a pill you would see nothing but a blur.

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