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Mothers’ Day 2020

May 10, 2020

Unconditional love. If I could give every person on this planet one gift, it would be the promise that throughout your life, you will be loved, unconditionally. Such a love gives one strength and perseverance. It does not guarantee success, as that depends on our own efforts, our decisions, some luck, and a million other things. But it is a foundation that makes everything in life a little easier. I wish we all felt it. Today is Mother’s Day, a days that reminds me that in my life, I have been twice blessed with unconditional love.

We all need it. I know I do. These COVID-19 times are stressful for all of us. For me, it seems like all of the decisions we are making are pleasing just about half of the people that I serve. And believe me, I hear it when people are not happy. People ask me how I am able to handle criticism, and I give them two reasons: First, I know in my heart that I make the best decisions I can after listening to people from all sides and researching as time allows. Second, I know that no matter what slings and arrows I endure in those times, I will be going home to my wife Jill, who loves me unconditionally. Such love gives me incredible strength. I will be OK because I have the power of unconditional love behind me. Jill and I have been married for almost 19 years. She is Dawson’s mom and Ryan’s’ step mom, and she loves us all fiercely, beautifully, and unconditionally. The three of us all know we are extraordinarily fortunate to have such a life-long gift in our lives.

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Jill and Dawson on the Little Red River in Arkansas (2007)

I’ve been the beneficiary of this gift of unconditional love all of my life from my mother. My mom is beautiful and healthy at the ripe old age of 49. I know. It’s a bit odd and practically a miracle that my 49-year-old mom could be the mother of a 58-year-old son. But mothers achieve miracles all the time. The two of us laugh about this Einsteinian miracle of time, as I regularly remind her of how our unique age disparity. How old you are in your own head is one of the Jedi mind tricks that define how you lead your life. My 29-year-old son Ryan always gives me a hard time for me thinking I’m still in my late 30s. Actually, he loves it and we both agree it’s the only way to live. My mom will always be young and beautiful.

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Mom with Pat and me (1964)

But when people ask me about my mom, her eternal youth and beauty are not the first things I comment on. The first thing I always say is, “My mom is the definition of unconditional love.” My friends hear that and say to me, “It’s a good thing, because only a mom like that could love you.” Hilarious. But it’s true. All four of her children would say the same thing. And even though I’m clearly her favorite, the other three falsely believe that they are. And we all worship our mother.

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Martha, Mike, Mom, Bill, and Pat (1974)

My mom has inspired me my whole life. She was the valedictorian of her high school class, but was not encouraged to go to college. She went to a two-year college, became a secretary, met my dad, got married, and gave birth to me when she was 21. Pat, Martha, and Bill were all born in the next four years. Four unruly children a little more 5 years apart. She was a stay-at-home mom, and took care of everything – the house, our sports, keeping track of our school, hearing from teachers about our misbehaviors, fixing our injuries (including taking me to the doctor after my friend Kenny threw a bamboo spear through my ear), and doing her best to discipline us. Her best weapon was, “Don’t make me tell your father.” But she did once wash my mouth out with soap, using a bar of soap and a toothbrush, for a verbal indiscretion I allegedly used. (She feels guilty about it now, so I bring it up whenever I can.) On top of all of that, she is a spectacular cook. We ate wonderful food in our home, and she is the source of and inspiration for my love of cooking today.

When I was in high school, my mom decided she wanted to get a college degree. She enrolled in UALR (University of Arkansas Little Rock) and studied to be a music major. Through my high school years, she was my study buddy at night. We did our homework together. As I watched all that my mom did, taking care of everyone, practicing piano, reading and completing her homework assignments, studying German, and going to class, I felt a little less sorry for myself. She was actually choosing to do this! How did I show my appreciation? This will show you what a classy son I was. Quite a few times, when we were both studying as the midnight hour approached, I would let her overhear me complaining about having to type out my essay, bemoaning my own slow typing speed. She would look up, and say, “Let me type that for you Michael!” And she, with her still super speedy typing skills, would whip out that paper in no time, without the ugliness from the rolls of correction tape I would have used, and smile as she gave the pristine pages to me. She was dog tired, and she did that with a smile and then a goodnight kiss.

I watched her finish all of her classes, practice her piano music for thousands of hours, then overcome her nervousness to perform a stunning senior recital. All of us beamed with pride as we watched her graduate from UALR, summa cum laude. Just like she did in high school, she finished at the top of her class. It was inspirational then, and it still is today.

She’s not perfect. She may be a bit gullible. OK, she’s really, really gullible, and my siblings and I got away with a few things in high school because she would believe almost any story we gave her. Now, when we all get together, we will tell her stories about things we did that she did not know about, and she will say, “What? But you said . . .” We laugh and say, “Yeah mom . . . Sorry about that.” She shakes her head and laughs. We all survived and it worked out.

My mom lives back in Arkansas still, and we talk every week. I was planning to visit back in April, but like all of us, those travel plans have been delayed. So, we just keep talking. We talk about her piano playing, which she still does, volunteering to play at senior centers. She sends me photos of her beautiful garden that she still tends. I bug her about the daily walks that I ask her to do, and she tells me how she just can’t find the time in her day to fit those in. We laugh and discuss the challenges that we face each week. She’s very proud of her teacher-principal-superintendent-husband-father son, but she’d be proud of me no matter what. What I do is far less important than the simple fact that she loves her son.

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Mom and Ryan playing and singing together

When I give her a hard time for something, she will still say, “You know. I can still take you over my knee for saying such things.” I know, Mom. I can still taste that soap. (She will feel guilty when she reads that – mission accomplished!) But way more than that, I feel the gift and the strength of her unconditional love every day. It’s in my soul and helps me face every day with positive energy and a desire to make a difference each and every day. I am eternally grateful for that gift.

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Thanksgiving (2017)

Happy Mother’s Day and thank you to my mom, to Jill, and to all of the amazing moms who give give all of us the powerful and life-changing gift of unconditional love.

This post was copied from drmdmatthews.com.

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On Ladybugs and Dogs

It may have been the most thoughtless senior prank I ever experienced.

As a former high school principal, I don’t love senior pranks. Usually, very little thought goes into them, and they end up being destructive, damaging, or time consuming. Occasionally though — and I mean very occasionally —  a group of seniors pulls off a truly clever idea that is not at all destructive, damaging, or time consuming. A few years ago, seniors brought their pets to school. It brought a lot of smiles to campus, and some students declared it the best day ever. My mistake was not saying it was a one-time only event, which I had to say when the next year’s students tried to do the same thing. Clever one year, and inconvenient after that. I know that with my cat allergies, I would not like Bring Your Cat to School Day. But we all know the cats wouldn’t like it either.

During my time as a high school principal, the second-best senior prank was when some students, with inside help, moved my entire office, desk, chairs, bookshelves, everything, into the quad. I “had to” work outside the whole day, holding meetings in the bright sun, and making a spectacle of it all.

But the best prank was when a group of seniors spent months deconstructing a Volkswagen Beetle and then one night rebuilt and secured it around the flagpole in the quad. When I came to work, students and employees were admiring a VW Bug in Malibu High School colors with the campus flagpole rising through the middle of it. It was awesome, and I let it stay there for a week. And when I asked the students to take it down and leave the quad in perfect condition, they did just that. Spectacular.

Back to the thoughtless prank. Some seniors at Santa Monica High School had released about 200,000 ladybugs on campus. I’m not sure that was the number, but that was the rumor. It was a lot. Ladybugs blanketed several hallways and just didn’t know what to do. I’m sure there were rose bushes all around town that would have loved them, and local aphids should have been fearful, but instead the ladybugs were just clogging up the hallways, getting stepped on by people trying to leave the building, and eventually being removed by custodians. It was a needless loss of life for some beautiful and extremely useful creatures, and I hated it. In the course of helping to deal with the prank, I mentioned to one of the office assistants that my then-five-year-old son loved ladybugs, and he would have hated to see this. As I was leaving, the assistant gave me an emptied plastic liter bottle, punched with air holes, containing about 50 ladybugs to give to Dawson. Her unsolicited act of kindness gave me the only smile I had that afternoon, and I am still grateful.

When I came home, Dawson came outside to greet me and I gave him the bottle-o-bugs. He looked at it with big eyes, then looked at me and said these now famous words: “Thanks, Dad. I finally have a pet.

Oh boy.

Dawson had been bugging us for a while for a dog, but he’s such an easy-going kid, that he figured lady bugs must be the next best thing. I turned to Jill and said, “It’s time to get a dog.”

That weekend we went to the local animal shelter and spotted a Pekingese that someone had dropped off at the pound’s front gate. We saw her as she was being taken out of her cage for the first time and walked around. There’s a Kenny Chesney song about his adopted dog, where he sings, “Lying there like a lost string of pearls.”  It’s a perfect line for a beautiful abandoned dog. Dawson and Jill fell in love, I quickly gave up any hope of looking the least bit masculine as I walked this white fluff ball through the neighborhood, and Penelope (Penny) was ours. That was October 18, 2008.

Last Saturday, exactly 11 and one half years later, our Penny died of old age in our arms.

Those of you who have lost beloved pets know that in these deaths you lose a family member and a friend. It hurts.

But it was a great run.

There’s a touching book called The Art of Racing in the Rain, by Garth Stein. The movie is OK, but the book is special. It features the relationship between the main character, Denny, and his dog Enzo. Their close friendship is almost human in nature, and the dog understands emotions, illness, auto racing, and the meaning of the universe. I don’t think Penny understood any of those things, but she was still a wonderful dog. More from Enzo later.

Pets have been a great source of companionship during this COVID-19 era. There are plenty of Facebook posts about dogs tired of walks and belly rubs, of happy dogs, or dogs imploring their humans to go back to work. I Zoom regularly with two colleagues, one of whom has a dog always begging to get picked up so he can co-Zoom from her lap, and another who has a cat who lurks behind her, ready to attack, like Cato in the Pink Panther movies.  Our pets and companions, intelligent, loving, or diabolically crazy, make our lives so much more full, which is particularly reassuring while we are spending so much time at home with plenty to worry about.

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We adopted Penny when she was four or five, when Dawson was also four or five. They grew up together. She slept at the foot of Dawson’s bed, they played together in their younger years, and when they were older, you could usually find her lying on a soft pillow next to Dawson as he sat at the computer. She didn’t need much: a little food, occasionally with some cheese mixed in, clean water, access to the back yard, and short bursts of companionship. She spent most of her time just looking for a soft place to sit, close to us, but not too close. We called her a cat-dog. She liked us, but didn’t need us, except when she did. We loved her in spite of or because of all of that.

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“Dogs’ lives are too short. Their only fault really.” I found that quote from Agnes Turnbull, and I couldn’t agree more.

I have never spent more time at home than in the past few weeks. Never. One of the gifts of that time was getting to spend so much time with Penny in what turned out to be her final weeks with us. All of us being with her at 3 a.m. when she breathed her last breath was powerful and emotional. She knew she was loved, and though I was not ready, I believe she was.

Back to our dog philosopher hero Enzo, who philosophized, as only dogs can do, “To live every day as if it had been stolen from death, that is how I would like to live. To feel the joy of life, … to separate oneself from the burden, the angst, the anguish that we all encounter every day. To say I am alive, I am wonderful, I am. I am. That is something to aspire to.

I am convinced that many of us, when it comes to the pursuit of happiness, are our own worst enemies. We humans overthink things, and the more leisure time we have, the more we overthink our lives. We should learn from our dogs.

One last quote from Enzo the wise sage/dog: “That which is around me does not affect my mood; my mood affects that which is around me.”

We are living in the midst a very challenging time. If we can take the time to step back from our challenges, feel the joy of life, and seek to improve the moods of those around us, that’s good stuff.

Thank you, Penny, for making our moods better every day of your 12 years with us.

May all of your animal friends, dogs, cats, horses, and even ladybugs, past, present, and future, ease your burdens and bring smiles to your faces throughout your lives.

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This post was originally posted on www.drmdmatthews.com on April 25, 2020.

 

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On Writing

“I have raised an illiterate son.”

Those were the words my dad spoke to me as a 17-year-old, as I was filling out my Harvard application. Harvard required that we list all the books we had read during high school, and left plenty of room on the paper application to fill in lots and lots of books. I only really had the books I had been required to read in school, and there were acres of space left on that part of the application. I didn’t think Harvard wanted to hear about Great Linebackers of the NFL, and Great Quarterbacks of the AFL, or even Strange But True Football Stories. So, I left a lot of blank space and disappointed my Dad. Apparently, Harvard wasn’t impressed either. Oh well. I left high school as a decent reader and writer, and since then, I have tried continuously to get better. I still don’t read as much as my dad does, but I know my dad considers me to be at least semi-literate now, and every week we discuss books and recommend new finds to each other. Jill wonders if my dad’s comment is the reason I keep an annotated bibliography now. Maybe.

I think I have written more in the past five weeks than at any time since I finished my dissertation. But I’ve actually enjoyed this writing. It’s allowed me to reflect on how I evolved from my high school writing self to the writer I am today. I did not get here alone. I had mentors who inspired and guided me along the way.

I’ll begin with my father. If I had a nickel for every time he said, “I wish people in this world could just write a simple, clear, declarative sentence,” I’d have a hundred bucks at least. And I could at least do that when I left high school. But he was also a writing model for me. When I went to college, and phone calls were too expensive to make, I could count on getting a letter every day from my dad. Every day. Sometimes typed, often written in his left-handed scrawl. It was great either way. I did not write back as often as he would have liked. One time, he sent me a typed letter with fill-in-the-blank spaces, and asked me to fill it out, put it in the stamped addressed envelope, and mail it back to him. The letter went:

Dear Dad,

I am doing ____________.

The weather here is ____________.

One thing I did today was __________________.

Love,

Mike

Hilarious.

In December of every year, my dad sends all of his children a summary of quotes from his favorite books and articles that he read during the year. He’s still a role model and a writing mentor.

The first teacher in my life who truly took an interest in my writing and served as a writing mentor was my advisor in college, Dr. Alexander George. I’ve mentioned him before. As an International Relations major, I felt fortunate to take two classes on the Soviet Union from Professor George. He was the first person to pull me into his office solely to discuss my writing. He called me “a diamond in the rough” in terms of my writing. For those of you familiar with the Disney version of Aladdin, the person who was called a “diamond in the rough” in that movie was also called a “street rat.” Coincidence? He worked with me on going beyond the simple, declarative sentence and actually varying my sentence structure, and he asked me to work to interest my reader. He was one of the foremost researchers in the world, and he took time to help out a street rat. I was fortunate to have his honest and kind mentorship.

My next mentor did not come around for a few decades after that. I call her a Person Who Has Never Applied for a Job. I also call her one of my closest friends. I met Pat Cairns in 1993 when I became principal at Malibu High School. She was an English teacher, and she was really good at her job. So I made her quit it. I hired her as a Vice Principal (without interviewing her) and we worked together for years. She and I also team taught an AP US History/AP English 11 course, and we were quite the team. She later became an elementary principal (again without applying for the job), and that’s when she started to mentor me in writing. She wrote weekly letters to her elementary parents, and I read them faithfully. They were funny, touching, personal, insightful, and perfectly written stories for her community. They were self-deprecating, and they often bared her soul. They were courageous, as good writing often is. You put things out there that most people would keep private. It takes more time than you possibly have, and you always wish you had more. I know how busy she was as a principal, yet she found the time. She remains one of my greatest mentors, and I value all the conversations we had about her weekly letters and about life. By the way, she is also Dawson’s godmother, and she has lived next door to us since 2001. Her house burned down in last year’s fires, and she has not yet moved back. The lemon tree that stood between our houses stopped her burning, collapsing wall from hitting our house, saving our home from total destruction. I still steal lemons from that tree regularly, and when I enjoy those lemons, I am overwhelmed with gratitude for my friend and mentor, and it pains me still that I can’t walk over and visit her or even just wave at her as she tends to her beautiful roses. One day soon I hope.

I’ve never met my next mentor. I write him emails every once in a while, as I think we have a lot in common. He probably thinks of me as a creepy and annoying fan. Maybe he’s right. Chris Erskine is a columnist for the LA Times. The LA Times is a real newspaper, doing its best to stay alive. I’m a subscriber, and if you live in LA and you’ve read this far, you should be too. Click here to do just that. Chris Erskine represents the common family man in LA, and he writes about the beauty, humor, sadness, and craziness of his family, the Dodgers, good friends, and the Los Angeles community. Like Pat Cairns, he bares his soul. He recently shared the crushing losses of his older son and his beloved wife. I can’t tell you how many times I have laughed out loud or actually cried reading his columns. And he is the king of having at least one perfect sentence in every column, one that reminds you of what writers aspire to be. His courage, wit, humor, and appreciation of every aspect of daily life inspire me, and he’s a mentor without even knowing it. I feel like I know him and that he’s a friend. (That’s me being creepy again, isn’t it?) I’m not as courageous as he is. I have started a list of topics to write about, but I’m nowhere near courageous enough to write about them yet. It’s like Derek Zoolander’s Magnum look – I shouldn’t even be talking about it. I’m nowhere near ready.

Finally, I have mentors who care enough about me to take the time to review what I write. My best friends and closest colleagues aren’t much into sugar coating. They tell it like it is, and I thrive on that. As a school superintendent, I send out a lot of writing. Pressing the “send” button on an email going to 10,000 people is always a nerve-wracking experience. I’ve seen a meme of a sweating finger lingering over a “Send” button, and that’s how I feel every time I send out a bulk email or publish a blog post. I feel fortunate to have people in my life very willing to closely read what I have written and correct and critique it before I push that Send button. They will never get me to overcome my fear of the semi-colon, but they are an incredible resource for me. I value their friendship, and I have become a better writer through their critiques.

So what does all this have to do with COVID-19? This stay-at-home era leaves us more time than ever for reflection, and there is no better way to force yourself to reflect than to have to clarify your thoughts through writing. Writing these blog posts has helped me to better understand what I’m feeling in these days. On top of that, there is so much that I can’t do in this era, so to have something new that I’m motivated to work on is energizing. I wake up early in the morning on a day where I know I’m going to write, and I jump out of bed eager to start. (Yes – I am a jump-out-of-bed person, no apologies.) Writing also creates an opportunity to appreciate and express gratitude for all that we have and for all of the people who have helped us along the way. I hope you have had mentors in your life who helped you with one skill or another. Writing even a quick email or note to them (my Dad would be happy to make a template for you!) could be a wonderful thing for both of you. And finally, what better legacy can you leave in life than actually being a mentor yourself? It’s not easy. My main job as a teacher was using history as a means of coaching and mentoring students to be better writers. However you mentor, it requires finding time that you don’t have. It means sometimes stopping, slowing down, and giving your undivided attention to helping someone else. It’s a good time to be a mentor. Now more than ever, it’s the personal connections that matter the most.

This blog post was originally posted on www.drmdmatthews.com.

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Flow

I’m a big fan of reading. But I have found that reading various news feeds on my iPad, computer or iPhone, while informative, does absolutely nothing to calm my soul. In fact, as I get pulled into the various rabbit holes courtesy of social media, I find myself actually feeling more stress – it’s not relaxing! But books – that’s a whole other matter. Books I can get lost in. And sometimes, especially in times like these, it’s nice to get lost.

I remember when I got my first iPad back in 2010. I downloaded the Kindle app, and I was re-reading one of my favorite books, The Power of Now, by Eckhart TolleI remember coming across a passage describing the concept of “flow.” I looked up the concept using the web browser on the iPad, and saw that the book most people referred to about flow was Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi’s Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. So, I bought it right then and there, read it, then came back to The Power of Now. I felt like I was living inside of a library, but I never had to leave my house. Besides the fact that the books weren’t free like they are in our marvelous public libraries, it was amazing!

I remember back in college I had a job doing research for Dr. Alexander George, one of the preeminent Soviet Union scholars in the world. He would ask me to get books from the Hoover Library, which was a giant tower located at the heart of the campus, filled with papers and books. For a lowlife student like me, there was no wandering of the halls in the Hoover Library. You went in, politely requested the book from the people on the bottom floor, and came back later to pick it up. Just 26 years later, the Kindle was changing all of that, where the even most obscure books are usually at our fingertips. Amazing.

Anyway, back to flow. Czikszentmihalyi (click here to see how to pronounce)wrote, “I developed a theory of optimal experience based on the concept of flow—the state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience itself is so enjoyable that people will do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it.” What a concept. He believes that humans are highly distractible as a modern species. “Contrary to what we tend to assume, the normal state of the mind is chaos.” As someone who can be distracted (squirrel!), it feels good that I’m maybe not that different from most people. Czikszentmihalyi believes that flow is not easily achieved. “Anyone who has experienced flow knows that the deep enjoyment it provides requires an equal degree of disciplined concentration.” If you’d rather hear him than read the book, he gave a great Ted Talk where he goes into detail about the kinds of experiences that can create flow for different individuals. These intrinsically rewarding flow experiences present a high level of challenge, for which we must have the requisite level of skill.  It’s yet another Ted Talk worth listening to.

My friend Ali from Beach Cities Health District (BCHD) was one of the first subscribers to this blog feed. She recently suggested that one of my next blogs should be on this concept of flow. I spoke about flow at a BCHD event, and she and I have had many conversations about it since then. We do a lot of work together on how we can promote happier, less stressed, and more fulfilled students and adults in our community. That work, and the concept of flow seem particularly relevant now, in a time when chaos seems to be all around us.

There is a big difference between downtime and flow. Downtime is time spent tuning out, pulling back, or turning off. There’s nothing wrong with downtime! Highly enjoyable downtime for me is time spent watching sports on TV, watching West Wing or Ugly Delicious on Netflix, playing Catan, Cribbage or Mah Johngg with Jill, or other casual events that are highly enjoyable, but require neither advanced skills nor full concentration. My mind can wander during these downtime activities, and sometimes I even multi-task (don’t tell Jill!).

But to achieve flow, you have to concentrate. You have to focus. It is temporary and can be fleeting. I think a lot about my pursuit of experiences where I can achieve flow. All of us have different ways of getting there. Other than reading, which I described above, here are some of my favorite flow-inspiring activities:

  • Problem solving. Anything at work where I am truly problem-solving can get me into a state of flow. This can be researching on my own, but more often it is putting heads together (or these days, Zooming together) with my colleagues, spending time fully devoted to moving towards a solution.
  • I still love teaching. I occasionally teach graduate level courses as an adjunct professor with Cal State Long Beach. I will walk into a 6 PM course that will last over three hours, saying to myself, “Why did I ever agree to do this? I’m exhausted, I want to get home, and I have a zillion things that need to get done.” When I walk out at 9:30, I am saying to myself, “That was spectacular! I loved every minute, I’m energized, and I can’t believe the time flew that quickly!” That is flow.
  • I lose myself in cooking whenever I can. I cook for my family, and I have catered for over 100. I cook in my indoor kitchen and my outdoor kitchen. I love learning and talking about cooking with friends who are amazing cooks, and time flies when I’m in the kitchen. I keep my recipes on a website to share with friends and family. Cooking is not downtime. It requires concentration, planning, organization, and (bonus) it can be done well with a glass of wine in your hand.
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Getting ready to smoke a turkey on the Big Green Egg!
  • Three days a week at 5:30 AM (maybe 5:33), I jump into the beautiful LMU pool and swim hard for one hour alongside swimmers who swim at a similar pace to me. Coach Bonnie or Clay gives us organized workouts and push us. When I swim on my own, I’ll swim 1500 yards at a decent pace and get out. My mind is wandering and I enjoy it, but it’s not flow. When I’m coached, I swim at least two miles, I am pushed to move faster, and I’m competing with Wayne, Cat, Karl, Nader, Kelly, Shauna, or whomever is in the lane next to me. While we swim, there is no time to let my mind wander. This is a battle. There is strategy. There are winners and losers. And when it’s over or between swims, there’s good natured banter to be had. I love it, and in normal times, I lose myself in it for one hour three days a week.
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OK – So this was from a pool in Hawaii – Not LMU. A-flow-ha!

Flow sometimes comes in many other forms for me – bicycling, golf, hiking, playing music, and – I hate to admit it – in channeling Marie Kondo and decluttering my life. I do love those activities, but I’m not as skilled in them as I am cooking and swimming, so the state of flow can be a little more difficult to attain.

One of the most difficult things for me in this COVID-19 time is that many of my favorite flow-inducing activities are now unavailable. Channeling Adam Ant, “Can’t swim, can’t golf, what do you do?” Well, I’m biking more, cooking A LOT (though only for my family), and, in this very new and still mostly unknown world of distance learning, doing a whole lot of problem-solving at work.

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Jill and I biking the Malibu Coast last weekend.

The state of flow is worth seeking every day, or at least several times a week. Sometimes, we think we are too tired to do the work, but the reward is worth it. We can’t spend our lives in it, but we can make the effort to make sure it is a part of our lives. The key is finding a few experiences that you love, and committing to improving and becoming skilled enough to perform at flow-attaining levels. Regularly experiencing life where you are so immersed in what you are doing that time ceases to exist is a spectacular way to relieve stress and feel like we are making the most of our brief time on this planet.

Go for it.

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On Teams

As I have made these COVID-19 posts on Facebook, and I as tentatively enter the world of “social distance media,” I have heard from so many people from different chapters of my life. I have been fortunate in my 58 years of existence to have been a member of many amazing and magical teams. Sometimes the situation and the people just gel to create magical moments during a lifetime. I’ve had so many. My family, which has grown and changed over the years, has always been an amazing team. As my very funny and lovely mother-in-law says, my family “puts the fun in dysfunctional.” My 6th grade basketball team. My graduating class of 1980 at Catholic High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, which still has amazing bonds. My freshman dorm-mates at Stanford. My small eclectic group of friends from my year in West Berlin in 1982-83. My first teaching job in San Lorenzo. My vice principal experience at Lodi High School. My principal experience at Malibu High School. My close-knit neighbors who are an incredible part of my life. My wacky 5:30 AM masters swimming group at LMU. And my colleagues in my current job as Superintendent in Manhattan Beach. That’s a lot! All of those were amazing teams who added magical, supportive, fun-filled, and meaningful elements to my life.

I’m not sure how great teams get created. I’ve read a lot about it. If you read the annotated bibliography I’ve been keeping for the last 10 years, you’ll see a lot of books about creating and sustaining great teams. For me, part of it comes with not being afraid to start over. I’ve left many jobs that I absolutely loved to start a new job with different challenges. Part of creating a team comes from having a meaningful job to do, and surrounding myself with colleagues who are just as committed as I am to getting that job done right. Part of it comes from my love of laughter, and enjoying being around those who foster it. Finally, I think teams are created when people create spaces in the day, week, or year for downtime and an opportunity to breathe. Keith Urban, one of the hardest working entertainers in the world, sings a song called “Wasted Time,” where he has the line, “Ain’t it funny how the best days of my life was all that wasted time.” When I would spend a morning biking with my friend Will Carey, he would usually say he had, “Nothing to do, and all day to do it.” All you need is purpose, laughter, and time, and  . . . the right people.

I could write a blog post about each of the teams I mentioned above. None of them would do justice to the special nature of each, but it is nice to reflect. I’ll write today on my first teaching job, my five years of teaching History at San Lorenzo High School, where I was a part of two beautiful teams: my amazing, creative, and laughter-filled group of colleagues, and my spectacular and inspirational students.

San Lorenzo is a small suburb in Northern California, located at the intersection of the 880 and 238 freeways, just south of Oakland. (If you’re wondering why we Californians use freeway numbers and roads to describe where something is, watch the not-so-flattering series, The Californians, from Saturday Night Live). I was hired to work there two days before the school year started, as getting a job as a history teacher was not easy back in 1985. I taught four different courses in four different classrooms all over the campus. I asked for a lot of help with those four courses, and I met a lot of people as I pushed my cart around the campus between classes. And I started learning how to teach.

I look just the same today!

Let’s be clear. Teaching is hard. It’s awesome, but it is really, really difficult to be a good teacher. My first three years of teaching were some of the most challenging and most rewarding of my life. I had lesson plans that totally bombed, late nights trying to figure out what and how to teach the next day, stacks of grading that never seemed to get done, new classroom management challenges every day in class, and a wide variety of failures and successes. But it got better. And the main reason it improved was because of the afternoons I would spend with my fellow teachers and colleagues, lamenting our failures and telling stories that made us laugh. A few of us even started a band, The Underpaid, that performed at some union events and served as the pit band for that year’s San Lorenzo High School musical, Grease. We worked together, struggled to find ways to help our students, worked out together, played together, laughed together, and together accomplished great things for the students of San Lorenzo. This was an amazing team. The beauty, love, and laughter of this team has stayed with me to do this day, and I am still grateful for each person who contributed to that magical era in my life.

What we lacked in talent, we made up for in enthusiasm!

But it wasn’t just the teachers. I loved my students as well. They were patient with me (most of the time) as I learned how to teach. They put up with my crazy ideas for teaching, like when I taught the American Revolution from the perspective of the Vietnam War and the Apartheid Movement. They were talented and smart, and I enjoyed seeing all that they brought to the table. SLZHS did not send many students directly to four-year colleges. The main recruiters on campus were the local community college and the US military. Those can be great options for students, but one of my primary goals for my students was and continues to be maximizing their options for their futures. In an effort to get more students to feel ready for four-year college, I started the first-ever Advanced Placement course in our district, and I began teaching AP US History in 1988. Those next two years of teaching created one of my favorite teams in my life, as I moved up with the students the next year, teaching AP Government and Economics.

For me, AP US History has always been a course that uses US History to teach students how to think and write. And, boy, did those students write. Every Monday, they had to turn in five to six essays, each one of which took at least 30 minutes of writing, and much more time reading, researching, and thinking. By the time I finished teaching my last AP US History course in 2004, I had reduced that load by 50%, and it was still a lot. The students loved and hated the challenge. I gave out my home phone number for students to call me. Half the calls were just about dealing with stress. But as we learned together, we all fell in love with our hard-working group. The students supported each other. Our class days had a lot of lecturing (too much, now that I look back on it), but tons of time for laughter, support, and conversation. We had evening review sessions, and Saturday morning review sessions. We became a team.

This experience shaped what I believe teaching should be about. Teaching at its best is like coaching. When a player fails to do what a coach expects of him or her, a good coach does not simply cut the player from the team or put him or her on the bench for the rest of the season. The quality coach insists that it be done again, and offers different pieces of advice, refusing to rest until the job is done right. Because the team will not succeed unless each player can do their job successfully. Good teaching should be done the same way. My goal as a teacher was to coach students and help them continue improving until they reached their potential. And my goal was always to believe in my students and to have extraordinarily high expectations for them.

This team of students exceeded all of my expectations. Most passed the AP exam, and all of them were ready for college. They went to all kinds of colleges, from Cal State Hayward (now CSU East Bay) to UC Berkeley to Stanford, and so many of them are successful. They are teachers, IT professionals, high school principals, immigration attorneys, researchers, business owners, and successful parents, and so many of them are still very good friends with each other. One of the students even said nice things about me when I took the job here in MBUSD! They remain one of the most successful teams I have ever been a part of, and I love them all for what they added to my life.

So thank you to all of my friends, colleagues, and students from San Lorenzo High School. And thank you to all of my teammates from throughout my life. I hope that we all can keep building new teams as we go through life. During this incredible COVID-19 time, I already see, similar to what happened after 9/11, communities and neighborhoods bonding and teaming a little more closely. Maybe this can be one of the first ever crises that actually teams the entire planet a little more closely. Through pain and suffering, a greater good often emerges. Let’s all do what we can to build our own teams, be open to joining future and unknown teams, and see what joy and purpose it can bring us.

This was originally posted on www.drdmatthews.com

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Gregory, Move Over! Why Not The Jillean Calendar?

Over the years, whether you are aware of it or not, we have all lived and suffered through the problems with our Gregorian Calendar. While it suffices, it has major issues that don’t need to exist. What are some of those issues, you ask?

  • How many days does a month have? We spend time teaching this in our schools, using our knuckles to figure it out, and yet it slows us all down. 28, 29, 30, 31? It does not have to be that hard.
  • Holidays. No one likes a holiday that is not attached to a weekend. It leads to less productivity, and less enjoyment. Having Independence Day be on a Thursday means that Friday is not going to be a productive day in the workplace across our fine nation. That can be fixed.
  • Figuring out what date falls on what day of the week. It changes everyyear. Again, it does not have to be that way. This might put the calendar people out of business, but people can still buy their cat calendars if they want to.
  • Beauty and symmetry. A year around the sun is 365.24 days around the sun. So it needs to be 365 days most of the time, 366 every four years or so, and skip a leap year every hundred years to go from 365.25 to 365.24. And I think we need to keep weeks, as they provide rhythm to our lives. But the months provide no beauty or symmetry. The calendar keeps us guessing. That too can be fixed.

So what do we do? Clearly a new calendar is needed to address those issues. My Jillean calendar addresses all of the issues above. Let’s review its tenets:

  • We like our traditional months, whose names are based on Roman gods, leaders, numbers or festivals. Let’s not disturb everything! There’s no need to change the names of the twelve that exist.
  • Let’s keep the week as it exists too. Sunday and Monday (Sun and Moon, a tradition started by the Babylonians), Tuesday is for an Anglo-Saxon god of war, and Wednesday through Saturday are all named for Roman gods. Makes sense to keep all of that, right?
  • But . . . 12 months just does not work. Let’s make it a super fun 13, and make every month have exactly 28 days, or exactly 4 weeks.
  • And let’s add a new month at the end, Jilliember, and make it 4 weeks as well. Here’s the math – 13 months times 28 days equals 364 days.
  • And where do we get the extra day? Make the day after New Year’s Eve a non-day. It’s not a day of the week. I’m calling it Day Zero, as a tribute to Mayan and Hindu cultures, and as a beautiful pausing point after ending the old year and before beginning the new year.
  • And let’s make all national holidays be a Friday or a Monday.

What does it look like? Take a look for yourself!

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Lawnmowers and Snowplows

When I was a high school principal, a parent of a senior came up to me and asked, “Did you really tell my son he should turn down his college admission offers and go be a professional musician instead?” I smiled and said that yes, that was my advice to him. She shook her head and said she had not believed her son when he told her. Part of my advice may have been because in my next life I’d love to be a professional musician, but most of it was based on my knowledge of him, his abilities, and his dreams. We both laugh about it now, as that choice has worked out pretty well for him. Phew!

My point is, there are many paths to a successful adulthood, and college, particularly the name of the college, is not the only determinant of our children’s future success. Two of my friends who I would call extraordinarily successful did not go to college at all. And there is ample evidence that, for people who go to college, the name of the college they attend has little to nothing to do with their future success (see Frank Bruni’s – Where You Go is Not Who You’ll Be; Challenge Success White Paper – Why College Engagement Matters More that Selectivity). As Jason Gay stated in a recent Wall Street Journal article, “College is college – some schools have more to offer than others, but in your life, you’re going to meet plenty of useless dingbats who went to the most distinguished colleges in the country. You’ll also encounter wizards who barely went to school at all.”

So why in the world do so many of us care so much, stress so much, and do all sorts of things to get our children into the most prestigious college possible? Why would parents risk their integrity, and their children’s integrity, by cheating in the college admissions process? Most of us would never even consider something that extreme, but it does represent the anxiety that plagues many parents and students, especially in a community that values education so highly and that is populated by so many highly successful college educated adults. In the wake of recent events, I have heard several stories of college students and graduates who called their parents and asked them if they pulled strings to get them into college. That’s a heartbreaking question on many levels, and it speaks to the culture that we live in, the pressure we put on ourselves and our children, and our perceptions about the whimsical nature of the college admission process, especially at the most “elite” schools – based not on substance but on luck, or fate, or a thumb on a scale. We have to do something about this. I hope this recent cheating and admissions scandal can be a catalyst and help pull us back from this insanity.

Our message to ourselves and to our kids about college should be simple: It’s going to be OK.

There are a lot of things in parenting that matter way more than where our children go to college. Are we raising children who are hard workers, who can overcome adversity, who are kind, who are passionate about something, who will be good parents and partners and friends, who strive to improve, who are confident in their own self-worth, who are ethical, who are healthy, and who know they are loved?

Julie Lythcott-Haims, who will be speaking at Mira Costa this Sunday afternoon and Monday night (sign up here), writes in her book How to Raise an Adult, “Why did parenting change from preparing our kids for life to protecting them from life, which means they’re not prepared to live life on their own?” I’ve heard this parenting technique called lawnmower parenting – blazing a path in front of our kids so that not a single blade of grass gets in their way. (In the north they call it snowplow parenting. I love southern California!)

And as we have seen, this approach is dangerous not only to children but to their parents as well. Lythcott-Haims adds, “Not only does overparenting hurt our children; it harms us, too. Parents today are scared, not to mention exhausted, anxious, and depressed.” I’ve seen it. It’s real. It doesn’t need to be this way. But it’s not just something we can flip a switch and change.

My youngest son is a sophomore in high school. I find it hard not to ask about his grades, and I don’t like it when his grades are lower than they I think they should be. But I’m working on it. Maybe I write these blog entries to remind myself to practice what I preach. BUT IT’S NOT EASY! I try to focus even more on what he loves to do, his friends, his challenges, and what he’s trying to get better at. Or just to talk about what he loves – movies, food, golf, video games, e-sports, or good things happening in this world.

What’s especially challenging for our parents is that many of us are talking the right talk, but our kids don’t believe it. They have accepted the false elite college premise, and they work each other up about it relentlessly. That’s why cheating is an epidemic in schools today. The cheating in today’s high schools isn’t from the Bluto Blutarsky’s of the world who are trying to improve their 0.00 GPA. They are A and B students wanting all A’s. Challenge Success has written a White Paper on that too – Cheat or Be Cheated – which examines the culture of cheating. Jason Gay adds in his article, “Not everyone cheats. Not everyone cuts corners. There isn’t a diploma in the world more valuable than your integrity – and you can’t buy your integrity back.”

I write this for parents because it starts with us. Although we shake our head when we hear about the parents who paid big money, lied, or cheated to get their children into college, the factors that led to those behaviors are all around us every day. I encourage you to listen to Julie Lythcott-Haims and/or read her book, then talk about it all with your friends and fellow parents. Let’s shut down the lawnmowers and let our children fend more for themselves, practice self-advocacy, overcome problems, and even experience failure.

As for us, you know that we here in MBUSD are working on this too. We are striving to make our schools healthier places for our students. We are making changes to the amount and types of homework we are assigning; we now end the first semester in high school before winter break, allowing for a true break; we have Link Crew and WEB programs, both designed to welcome new students to a school; we cap AP classes for students at four; we have the “office hours” schedule at Mira Costa, making Wednesdays a unique day at the high school; and we are encouraging our students to be mindful in a variety of ways. And we’re still working on it.

We are all in this together.

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OMIT Post #2: In Praise of Marie Kondo

In my Operation Make It Tidy (OMIT) quest, I will share articles and ideas that have given me insight into how to keep the kitchen neat and tidy as I go. To do that, I have to discuss how I came to this point. To those who knew me up to 10 years ago, this would have been a laughable quest. But I have come so far, and the person I can think most for that is Marie Kondo. Here’s how I became a believer and a doer.

One of my great resources that inspires me as a school superintendent is my membership in Consortium 2031, a group of seven school districts all aspiring to be the best they can be. In our spring 2018 meeting in Edina, MN, I was learning at a session on 21st century classrooms. The presenter mentioned a book, The Third Teacher, which focuses on how classroom design can play a major part in helping students learn. The main premise: classrooms should not contain just a lot of really cool stuff and they should not be a ‘shrine’ to the teacher’s interest or passions. Everything in the classroom should be well placed to assist/motivate/inspire/instruct students. There should be nothing extraneous. The presenter mentioned that a major inspiration behind that was Marie Kondo’s famous book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. Famous? I had never heard of it! I bought it and read it that night. (Thank you Amazon Kindle! I have paid you dearly, but I do love reading books when I want to read them).

Some of my takeaways and quotes:

  • “Tidying is just a tool, not the final destination. The true goal should be to establish the lifestyle you want most once your house is put in order.”
  • Discard things when they cease being functional. (Sounds so obvious – but we keep things because we used to love them)
  • “We should be choosing what we want to keep.” The rest is what you need to get rid of.
  • “Take each item in one’s hand and ask: ‘Does this spark joy?’ If it does, keep it. If not, dispose of it.
  • Learning how to fold clothes. Check out Marie’s video on folding clothes. You’ll see – she LOVES this stuff. She talks to her clothes, and to all the things she loves. I use this same technique for dish towels.
  • “Clutter has only two possible causes: too much effort is required to put things away or it is unclear where things belong. Yeah . . . I’ll add a third . . . too lazy or uninterested to keep things decluttered, and, in too much of a hurry to get to the next task.

Our bedrooms, our kitchen, our outdoor kitchen, and our living room are now decluttered and Kondo-fied. Our converted garage/playroom is next. I can see every t-shirt in my t-shirt drawer, and I love all of them. My suits and shirts hanging in my closet now have room to breathe, and there’s nothing I don’t wear often. All of my items with holes in them are gone. (That was hard)

And in our kitchen, everything now has a place. There are no clutter drawers. I can see every spatula/peeler/spoon/pan without having to move something that is on top of it. I found complete sets of measuring spoons and cups, and I gave away many measuring spoon and cup orphans. I bought just a few organizers – like these drawer separators from Amazon, which I love. It’s beautiful!

Jill is completely on board. It started off as her watching me de-clutter my closet, wondering who had taken over her husband’s body. And now, she’s completely on board. We are on a first name basis with the good people at the Goodwill stores. I have given the book to members of my family – I don’t know if I have any converts yet. Bur it remains the key to my OMIT quest, and I am grateful to Marie Kondo for setting me on this path.

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A Quest: Operation Make it Tidy (OMIT)

I think you all know I love to cook. I have many strengths that help me manage cooking and preparing, whether it be for one or one hundred of our closest friends. I can get everything out on time, at close to the same time, and be proud of everything that I’m serving.

In terms of presentation, I’m a B or B- at best. And I don’t think I have that much more in me than that grade. As an educator, my “growth mindset” part of me scolds this settling, and reminds me that that the only thing stopping me is my lack of desire to get better. Maybe.

But in terms of what needs to be done for clean up, in terms of being a “clean as you go” cook well . . . I ama C-/D+. And I’m not satisfied. Now let’s be clear – that’s a big improvement from where I used to be! I was an impossible F before. Grown men and babies would cry at the mess I left behind. And now, it’s more of a, “Whoa.”

But I can do this. Really. I can do this. I am calling this question . . . “Operation Make It Tidy” or OMIT. Why Tidy? Marie Kondo of course. She’s one of my new heroes and mentors with her life changing, The Magical Art of Tidying Up book. Her basic premise: We have WAY too much stuff. Throw out all the stuff that you do not love. And then, with the much reduced supply of stuff, take care of it, and have a special place for it. No stacking! You should be able to see everything you have. Jill and I have given away so many articles of clothing, books, items, kitchen utensils, trays, and gadgets, and more. We feel so much more in control.

So now, I have to figure out practices and processes to keep our kitchen tidy while I’m cooking. Notice I’m using the word “tidy” and not clean. Cleaning I can do at the end.

David Tarmarkin wrote a very funny and all too honest article that eschews the clean as you go process. Reading that gives me a soft landing place if I’m not successful. But . . . I think I’ll have a happier household if I can make this part of who I am. I’m going for it.

So I’m going to start a series of posts to share articles and ideas that are going to help me in my OMIT quest.

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One More Hill

My dad took up bicycling in the 1970s.  Biking with 10-speed bikes.  No one biked with 10-speed bikes back then!  I was a swimmer, so ever since I was ten years old, I was always in good enough shape to go for a thirty-mile bike ride.  So my Dad would take me.   We’d go on Saturday rides around the great state of Arkansas with other wackos who were part of the biking world back then.  I loved being with my dad, and I liked the bike riding.  But we often went past forty miles, and I will say, I was not always happy when we did.
I have great memories.
  • I remember coming into a country store around lunch time looking for a sandwich.  The store didn’t sell sandwiches, just groceries.  But the owner opened up a loaf of bread and a package of bologna and a bottle of mustard, and charged us for the portion that she used.  Pretty cool.
  • Our family of six (four kids – ages 16 to 11) went biking for three weeks in Ireland, camping half the time and staying in B&Bs half the time.  It was a lifetime experience that warrants its own set of stories.
  • The last time I took a big trip with my Dad was about 20 years ago, when the two of us went biking in the San Juan Islands.  It was a fantastic trip where we camped the entire time.  Once again, my Dad was in better shape than I, but he dragged me along.  That’s us below.
bikingsanjuandad
One of many memories of biking with my dad is one that occurred quite often.  We would be biking in the afternoon of an all-day ride, somewhere in the Ozarks.  The Ozarks are beautiful and certainly not as high or steep as the Rockies or Sierras.  But I will tell you, there is a lot of uphill.  I would be grinding up a hill and ready to take a break, when my dad would say, “Mike.  I promise you.  This is the last hill.”  There is something about hope that gives you strength when you did not think you had it.  I would plow to the top, only to see nothing but hills, hills and more hills on the road ahead.  I would say something angry to my dad, who would say something like, “I said that this is the last big hill.”  OK, it was a lie.  But you know what, it made me get up that hill.  I could have chosen to stop at that time (I’m not sure how I would have gotten home), but I always chose to go on.  Being pushed and pulled towards greatness is an essential ingredient of improving and achieving greatness.
San Juan Islands MDM
Peter Senge called it “Creative Tension.”  Liz Wiseman has her “Rubber Band Theory.”  Steven Covey had it in his goal setting and “saw sharpening” activities.  When we are being pushed to improve, we are at our best.  It’s why people have a personal trainer.  It’s why I swim in a master’s program.  I would be very happy swimming a mile in the pool at my own medium pace.  But for the last 15 months, I have been in a pool with people much faster than I am, where a coach pushes me to swim two miles at paces much faster than I want to.  You know what has happened?  I am stronger and faster.   I now look for the hills on my bike rides and I look forward to swimming difficult sets, because they are beautiful, they are challenging, they are different, and because they make me stronger.
I hope we as educators view things similarly.  Although it is comfortable to keep swimming the same evenly-paced mile or keep biking the same relatively flat and short path, we do our best when we push ourselves, or when we have colleagues or mentors who push us to try new things, or push to improve.  We are better teachers when we do not settle for most of the students learning the material, but we insist on doing what it takes to help allstudents to learn it.  We do better when we treat every lesson as a chance for greatness.  It is why I believe so much in professional development.  We are in the learning business.  If we as teachers are not constantly learning, we are serving our profession poorly. Believe me, I know that teaching is hard.  Teaching is a full time job without adding any time for professional development.  But so is being a doctor.  We have to make time for learning.  We have to push ourselves up the hill.  We are better teachers for it, and more importantly, our students gain tremendously.
And I would say it’s impossible to do it alone.  For me, throughout my life, my father, my mother, my mentors and my coaches have pushed me to being better today than I was yesterday.   And I love it.  And sometimes,when I think I cannot go on, I love that I still choose to believe it when someone says to me, “This is the last hill.”