I quit my job.

Today is my official last day at my current job, a position that has given me incredible experience, educational advancement, challenges for personal growth, and colleagues who have become my friends. And really good pay to boot! I went to college to be an English teacher, but after graduating I quickly realized I wasn’t ready for a high school classroom. (I would have been eaten alive, and I don’t mean by zombies.) So I went to college, part 2, to be a person who studies literature and puts off getting a real job a little longer. During my first year in grad school, I was a graduate student assistant, which those of you who have done anything similar know essentially means a hard-working, poorly-compensated instructor. (But we wouldn’t trade that experience for the world!) During that year, I realized that I enjoyed teaching college students–they were a little bit more mature and motivated than high school students, and I only had to see them 1-3 times per week, for about an hour at a time!

During my second year in grad school, though, I accepted a full-time staff position in the Graduate Writing Center. I took it because I was flattered to be offered it (by my thesis chair, to whom I owe both my career path for the past 10 years and my interest in Victorian literature) and because the pay and working conditions sounded better. I started as the instructor for a graduate-level basic writing course (I was teaching grad students before I had finished my master’s—talk about imposter syndrome!); two years later, I became the director of the Graduate Writing Center, and eventually I became the director of nearly all of our university’s tutoring services. I had never intended to go into writing center work (which is a field of its own, a vibrant and growing one), but I professionalized myself into the field: reading the major journals, attending conferences, getting involved in organizations, and learning to speak the writing center language. All along, though, I was still thinking of myself as a teacher, picking up courses even though my eventual faculty contract didn’t require me to teach (even though this made me crazy busy) and trying to stay current in the fields I would be teaching. When it came time to get my Ph.D., I didn’t go for a degree in writing center studies, nor even composition, but literature and criticism. The degree wasn’t practical for my job, but it was practical for the career in teaching that I still believed I would have.

As time went by, I received advancement opportunities, leadership experience, and pay increases for which I was (and still am) grateful. But trying to have both my administrative career and a teaching career on the side was making me crazy, and often it was my “real” job as the tutoring center director that suffered. I knew I should give something up, but while the classes were where my passion truly lay, the administrative work was where most of my pay and all of my benefits came from. And, let me be clear, I didn’t hate that work. It just wasn’t what I wanted to be doing for the rest of my life.

So a couple of years ago, I started applying for jobs elsewhere–not just in other schools, but in other states, where I could hit “reboot” on my life, reassessing things that were cluttering up my schedule and my mental space–not just professionally, but personally. And just last month, I received a job offer that would allow me to do so, and I took it. For the first time in my academic career, I won’t be a director of anything; I’ll just be a plain professor (well, associate professor). And I’m very happy about that.

I’m not sure what this will mean for my plans to rebrand this as a Hufflepuff leadership blog, since I won’t be in a leadership position anymore except insofar that all teachers are leaders in a sense. I’m thinking about making it more of a (sometimes Hufflepuff) emotional intelligence blog, which is basically what it has been recently. I’d still like to use my fictional characters Patrick Weasley and Becky Weasley, and maybe even Sam Larson, who appeared last week. As always, I am open to your suggestions.

As Bilbo Baggins once said (in the movie The Hobbit; please don’t hate me for quoting it), “I’m going on an adventure!” I’m glad you, my readers, will be adventuring with me.

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What do you do with the mad that you feel?

The title of this post is the title of a song by Mr. Fred Rogers. Last Friday, I wrote about two important lessons I learned from Mr. Rogers. Today, I would like to write about another lesson he taught: It’s okay to express your feelings, even if they’re not the “good feeling” immortalized in the closing song of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. But because I’ve never, personally, had trouble expressing my feelings, I’m going to talk about this issue in the voice of one of my fictional characters, Sam Larson, who appears in my zombie apocalypse work in progress. Here’s what Sam has to say:

I had a weird childhood. I was an only child; I didn’t have any relatives who were close (in proximity or in relationship), and I didn’t have a really good friend until high school. My mom was deeply depressed; it wouldn’t be much of an exaggeration to say that she spent most of my childhood in a catatonic state. My dad did a remarkable job raising me, considering the circumstances, but he wasn’t much of a talker to begin with, and he especially avoided talking about feelings. (His own father had been a silent northern Minnesota farmer. I didn’t know my grandfather well, but “silent” is definitely the right word for him.) My dad’s typical response to sadness, anger, or any other negative emotion in himself was to eat something, watch TV, or go to sleep, and I learned the same behavior from him.

So I watched a lot of TV, and a wide variety of it, as a child. One day in the summer when I was 11, when my mom was feeling okay enough to come out in the living room but not enough to make recommendations or strictures about what I should be watching, she and I ended up sitting through the first two Godfather movies, which took pretty much all day with the commercials. I still consider those brilliant films, but I shudder to think of the messages about being a man that I was probably absorbing unconsciously while watching them at such a tender age!

On the other end of the spectrum, I watched a lot of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, even after I was probably way too old for it. I was fascinated by this man and his friends (mostly puppets), whose response to feeling mad or confused or out of place was not to eat a plate of chips and dip but to tell someone else about the feeling, perhaps in the form of a song. I think one reason that my dad tried to avoid feelings is that he equated emotion with drama (maybe he, too, had watched the Godfather movies as a boy!). But in Mr. Rogers’ neighborhood, you could talk about your feelings in a calm, rational way, knowing that it was normal to have them and that the person you told wasn’t going to start screaming at you.

When I was a younger kid, I used to have trouble identifying my emotions. I might say that I was hungry when really I was lonely and wanted to spend time with my dad. That’s not unusual; it takes a while for children to develop emotional intelligence (though I think that whenever I would have an overwhelming, generic “bad feeling,” it was probably my depression, which I now believe I had even then). Mr. Rogers also helped me learn how to label my emotions so that I could then deal with them appropriately.

By the time I reached high school, I was still an odd, quiet kid, and, yes, I was clinically depressed, which is a different story. But I had learned that if I felt worried about my mom, or embarrassed because I liked to draw or because I was the biggest kid in my class, or mad at my dad for not talking about his feelings, I wasn’t experiencing something wrong or weird; I was just feeling like a human.

If I am a kind and gentle man today, which I hope I am, I certainly owe some of that to my dad, but I owe a lot of it to Mr. Rogers. And if I’m a man who’s cool with talking about his feelings, which I know I am–well, counseling has helped, but I owe that to Mr. Rogers too.

It’s such a good feeling

I celebrated the Fourth of July by watching a documentary about an American icon: Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, the story of Fred Rogers (Mr. Rogers, from here on, since it feels really weird to call him by his first name). I remember watching Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood as a young child, and I enjoyed Idlewild Park’s (in Ligonier, PA) Neighborhood of Make-Believe trolley ride as an older child and even a teenager, but not until now have I understood the depth of what Mr. Rogers was trying to do through his show. I want to write about two aspects of the film that struck me in hopes that you, too, will see him as more than a geek who talked to puppets.

love and acceptance

There’s a clip in the documentary, which I know is not in context and may not represent the real tenor of the conversation, of some smug news commentators calling Mr. Rogers “evil” and blaming him for the sense of entitlement that is supposedly so pervasive among the younger generations today, because he told children they were special without having to try to be special. I’m not entirely convinced that Generations X, Y, and Z are really as entitled as conventional wisdom would have it, but that’s another topic. What I want to focus on is this: How could you look at Mr. Rogers’ sweet face and call him evil??? No, that’s not what I meant to say. Here’s my more objective argument: Those who blame Mr. Rogers for causing children to feel entitled weren’t really listening to his message. A message that led to entitlement would go something like this: “You are the best at everything you care to attempt. You deserve for the world to give you whatever you want.”

But that’s not what Mr. Rogers told children. He never talked about being “the best” because he didn’t believe life was a competition. He did tell children they were lovable and acceptable no matter what. There’s a clip in the documentary of Daniel Striped Tiger asking Lady Aberlin if there’s something wrong with him because he is different from everyone else. Lady Aberlin doesn’t say, “Well, of course you’re different because you’re better than everybody else.” In the song she sings to Daniel in response, she uses the simple word fine, saying something like, “I like you fine just the way you are.” Telling kids they are “fine” doesn’t lead to entitlement; it leads to security, which is essential to basic human development. If a person feels secure, accepted, and loved, that person is free to love others, live a moral and responsible life, and try to make the world a better place. Mr. Rogers talked about those things too.

And he never claimed that the world would give children whatever they wanted. He talked about the truth that the world is a hard place. He did episodes on death, divorce, and difficult current events. He also talked about how making mistakes is part of life, and how that’s okay. There’s a wonderful clip in the documentary of Mr. Rogers trying to stand up on a pogo stick. I don’t think he ever got on that blasted thing! But he didn’t berate himself; he just said, “This is hard!” and kept trying.

make-believe vs. real

There was a part in the documentary that was strange to me at first. It seems that Mr. Rogers got upset about the rash of children getting killed or injured by attempting to fly off a roof like Superman. He got so upset, in fact, that after he had briefly walked away from Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood to work on other projects, he decided to return to the show and do a whole week on the pretend-ness of superheroes. My first reaction was that he was over-reacting. Kids know the difference between reality and fantasy, right? But the youngest children, who were always Mr. Rogers’ main audience, don’t necessarily know that yet–hence the Superman accidents.

The morning after I watched the film, I started thinking about this in a new light. I thought about how much I’ve always appreciated the fact that my parents never told me that Santa Claus was real. Santa was always just a fun story in our house. I know that millions of children every year lose their faith in Santa Claus and grow up to be well-adjusted adults, but I know what a sensitive little kid I was, and I think that if I had gone through that experience, I may have had some serious confusion and even issues with trusting my parents. So I’m thankful that while my parents always encouraged me to use my imagination, they made a clear distinction between what’s real and what’s make-believe, just like Mr. Rogers did. After all, as someone in the documentary pointed out, Mr. Rogers himself never appeared at King Friday’s castle or X the Owl’s tree. His home in the real world (leaving aside the fact that it was on a set in a studio) was separate from the world of make-believe.

And Mr. Rogers showed us that we don’t have to escape into fantasy to find delight; the real world may be a hard and sometimes scary place, but it’s also a wonderful place, where you can visit a pencil factory, bounce on a pogo stick (if you can get on it!), and cool off your feet in a pool on a hot day. In fact, I think maybe one reason I get so much joy out of the simple acts of getting the mail and feeding fish is that I watched Mr. Rogers do those things every single day–with a smile. Maybe this is what he was talking about when he sang, at the end of every episode, “It’s such a good feeling to know you’re alive.”

Next week, I want to write about one more lesson that Mr. Rogers taught, but I’m going to do it in the voice of one of my characters.

 

activities that are surprisingly fulfilling to do alone

You won’t believe #3! (just kidding–that was me making fun of clickbait)

  1. Hiking. I have recently become fond of solo hiking. This past Saturday morning, I hiked Sharp Top, a popular local peak, as my quarterly three-hour “solitude retreat.” I enjoyed the experience very much, partly because it was early in the morning (I got to the summit at 8:00 and stayed up there for about half an hour), which meant that there was still mist hovering below the nearby ridges and a cool breeze blowing. But a large part of my enjoyment consisted in being alone, except for the few people I saw along the way. When I hike alone, I can set my own pace, and I’m more aware of my surroundings, which is good not only for practical reasons (I can pay attention to where I’m setting my feet) but also for more esoteric ones (I can hear the different bird calls in the woods). I can also stay at the summit for as long or short a time as I want, without having to take the obligatory group photos. Don’t get me wrong; I love hiking in pairs and groups, but if you’ve never thought of hiking as a solo activity, perhaps it’s time to consider it. Two words of caution: 1. Choose a hike where you won’t get lost (Sharp Top is pretty foolproof, though I did accidentally take the bus shelter path instead of the main hiking trail the first time I hiked it alone–duh), and 2. MAKE SURE SOMEBODY KNOWS WHERE YOU ARE GOING. If you don’t think that second piece of advice is important, watch 127 Hours.
  2. And that’s a great segue into my second item: Going to the movies. Think about it: You’re not going to be chatting during the movie anyway, at least I certainly hope not. So why not go alone? That way, you don’t have to feel obligated to share your Sno-Caps or Cherry Coke. And it’s dark, so nobody is going to be looking at you thinking, “Look at that sad person who couldn’t find anybody to go to the movies with.” And even if it weren’t dark, nobody would be thinking that anyway. The only bummer about going to the movies alone is that you don’t have anyone to rehash the film with afterward, but if it’s something you’re pretty sure only you will enjoy, it’s better to go by yourself than to go with someone negative. And if it’s a movie you know others in your circle will be watching eventually, seeing it alone gives you some time to contemplate it before discussing it– a bonus for introverts.
  3. Eating out. Okay, this is one I’m still dipping my feet into. I have not yet eaten at a full-service restaurant (i.e. with a waiter) by myself. If you have, I’d love to hear about your experience. Also, I haven’t gotten to the point of being able to just sit there and enjoy the food without reading a book or looking busy on my phone. But I’m sure there’s value in giving my full attention to what I’m eating, just as there’s value in giving my full attention to my surroundings while hiking. Normally I’m a big advocate for sharing food with other people, and I know that solo eating often has negative causes (e.g. loneliness) and negative effects (e.g. overeating), but I think it can be a good thing if done mindfully. Even in public!

Let me know if you’ve had experience with any of these solo experiences and/or if there are other activities you enjoy doing alone!

weekend update: leadership edition

Since this is a leadership blog (and one of my summer projects is to rebrand it as such), today I’d like to highlight a few examples of good leadership I witnessed over the weekend.

  • Our commencement speaker at Liberty University was former President Jimmy Carter, and it was one of the best commencement addresses I’d ever heard. I love graduations with all their pomp and ceremony and familial pride, but normally I tune out during the speech. During my own college graduation, I read a book. Maybe it was because I had to hang on his every word or I would have missed what he was saying (President Carter is nearly 94 years old and speaks slowly and quietly), but I was riveted. He didn’t shy away from social issues; his whole address was about the challenges facing our world, and in that sense, it was absolutely a charge to the graduates even though he rarely referred to them directly. But unlike in many other speeches I’ve heard by politicians (including some commencement addresses), Carter didn’t propose himself or his party as the solution to these problems. Knowing that he was speaking to Christians who would understand what he meant, he proposed behaving like Jesus: treating all people as if they have value, walking in humility rather than self-promotion, speaking on behalf of those who can’t speak for themselves. Although it’s been many years since he was president, Carter is still a leader, from heading up an international humanitarian organization to teaching Sunday school in his tiny hometown church. And even though I haven’t followed his career, I know from what I heard on Saturday that he’s a good leader, mainly because he’s a compassionate leader. There were tears streaming down my face (yes, it was raining, but I was also crying) when I heard him talk about the crisis of human trafficking in his home state of Georgia, not only because of the facts he cited but also because I could hear in his voice that he cared. I, too, want to be a leader who cares.
  • I can’t remember the exact quote, but I heard a good leadership statement last night on Talking Dead, when Garrett Dillahunt, the actor who plays the new Fear the Walking Dead character John Dorie, said that he likes characters who don’t feel the need to force themselves into leadership roles or to clamor for attention–who are, in fact, reluctant to lead but will do so if it’s necessary. This brought to my mind a lot of great leadership examples, from George Washington to Rick Grimes.
  • Also last night, I finally went to see Avengers: Infinity War. I have a lot of thoughts, but some of them are spoilers, so I’ll restrict myself to comments about leadership (and also to this: Captain American looks really good with that beard and longer hair. Can I get a witness?). First of all, too many leaders spoil the soup–or something like that. There were too many characters in that movie, period, and that’s a storytelling issue, but if we can suspend our disbelief for a minute and pretend it was a documentary, the more important issue is that there were too many people trying to be leaders. This concept was used for comic potential with Thor (the pirate angel!) and Starlord, and it had more serious consequences in the disagreement between Ironman and Dr. Strange. (We’re using our made-up names, as Spiderman said.) One of the ongoing themes of the Avengers movies is that it’s hard for superheroes to act like sidekicks. But sometimes success requires taking a back seat to someone we may not even like. Second, leadership sometimes requires self-sacrifice. Again, we’ve been exploring this in the Avengers movies ever since Captain America #1, but the concept finally hit critical mass in this one–it almost seemed like this was a competition going on to see who could be the most self-sacrificial. And I’ll stop there, because of spoilers. But I guess my overall point is that if we can keep these two principles in balance–being willing to lay down our lives but also being okay with being the loyal comic relief guy who doesn’t have to, or get to, do anything so dramatic–then we will be good leaders. No capes, masks, or metal suits required.

Puffs!

A week ago, I went to see Puffs, an off-Broadway homage to Harry Potter (but totally unofficial) that was filmed and shown on two nights in selected movie theaters. I am not a theater critic, and I’m certainly not a critic of plays that are filmed and then shown in movie theaters (though this does seem to be an art form–some creative camera work was involved in this one), so I’ll make my remarks from the perspective of a fan.

First, it was amusing to see how the writers bent over backward to avoid using copyrighted names, such as Hogwarts, which they referred to as an unnamed “School of Female Magic and Male Magic,” and Dumbledore, whom they always referred to simply as the headmaster. Other characters, like Cedric Diggory, were called by first name or last name, never both together. In many cases, it was clear that the writers were having fun exploiting the limitations–and, perhaps, gently ridiculing the idea of placing such restrictions on such household names.

The four houses were called Brave, Smart, Snake, and Puff, and the story focused on the Puffs, the house that has the least interaction with Mr. Potter in the canonical story, which meant that this house was the perfect vehicle for exploring the experience of a non-famous, non-chosen student who’s just trying to get through school with decent grades. The protagonist was Wayne, an American kid who ends up at the school by a series of unlikely events, probably fulfilling a fantasy of the writers themselves. I should point out here that the actors were all adults, which says a lot about the intended audience. I think the goals of this play were to make long-time Harry Potter nerds squeal with recognition at the inside jokes, to aim a little irreverence at a sacred cow (without becoming cynical or nasty, although some of the jokes were definitely for a “mature audience”), and to provide a bit of vindication for the Hufflepuffs. The childlike wonder of magic was not really a focus.

The play was only about 90 minutes long, and the seven books provided its organizational structure, so in this sense, it reminded me of a parodic play called Potted Potter that I saw a few years ago. (A lot of the humor came from the forced brevity, kind of like in the popular Complete Works of William Shakespeare Abridged.) The plot stuck to events that happen in the books, except in one (ultimately rather anticlimactic) plotline involving the Death-Eater mother of Wayne’s friend Megan. The play is best enjoyed as sketch comedy rather than as a full narrative arc, although it does have a climax: the Battle of Hogwarts, as seen from the Puff perspective. I don’t want to give away spoilers here in case the filmed version ever comes out on DVD, but I will say that the until-now underrated contribution of the Hufflepuffs in this battle, recently pointed out by J. K. Rowling (wait–am I allowed to say her name?), was given its due here. I thought there were some tonal infelicities in this last segment of the play (i.e. some stuff that was played for laughs that I didn’t think should have been), but the writers redeemed themselves with a heartwarming scene between Wayne and the headmaster, which in itself was a vindication (since in the books, it’s only Harry who gets to process things one-on-one with Dumbledore).

As a Hufflepuff, I enjoyed Puffs; I think I would have enjoyed it even if I were a Brave, a Smart, or a Snake. I also realized that I switched between past and present tense in this post. I hope you didn’t notice.

Monday miscellany

Here are some quick takes for your reading pleasure. Consider it professional development (after all, this is a leadership blog, right?).

  1. You know you have a serious problem when you start sorting the Corleone family into Hogwarts houses. I started thinking about this a couple of weeks ago when I was considering how to pitch a Hufflepuff leadership book idea to someone who seemed unfamiliar with Harry Potter but had used a Godfather analogy in his presentation. Then I went down a rabbit hole. I sorted Vito and his three sons (his blood sons; sorry, Tom Hagen–I think you’re a Muggle), and, conveniently, there’s one for each house. Michael, I knew immediately, is a Slytherin; he’s quiet and sneaky and always assumes his way is the right way. His dad, Vito, is also very intelligent but, generally speaking, using his genius for good; he’s a Ravenclaw. Sonny is a Gryffindor because he has a good heart but mistakenly believes he can solve everything with his fists. And I put Fredo in Hufflepuff because he just wants everybody to be happy. Obviously, I’m dealing in broad strokes here; I’m just making a fun comparison, not trying to say anything profound about either universe, so please don’t pick a fight with me about the oversimplified way I defined the houses.
  2. If you want a more perceptive analysis of what the houses mean, check out this post that our Slytherin correspondent shared with me over the weekend. Lots to think about here.
  3. I watched the first two Lord of the Rings movies over the weekend (extended version, of course), so I want to take a couple of minutes to wax eloquent about one of my favorite honorary Hufflepuffs, Samwise Gamgee. Yes, I guess Gryffindor could make an argument to claim him too (he’s brave and a little impulsive), but a Gryffindor’s not writing this post. 😉 And besides, Sam is the quintessence of loyalty. You really see it in The Two Towers when Sam and Frodo are following Gollum through the wilderness. About 95% percent of the time, Sam thinks Frodo is making bad choices (and Sam is right, I would add). And he says so. But he never leaves, and that’s not only or primarily because he agrees with the abstract cause of Frodo’s overall quest, but because he cares about Frodo. A truly loyal friend doesn’t stop being your friend because you’re making bad decisions; a truly loyal friend realizes that when you’re making bad decisions, you need a friend more than at any other time. Sam also functions as Frodo’s connection to reality. Even fairly early in the quest, Frodo needs Sam to tell him to do basic things like eating and sleeping. And as the journey goes on and the Ring’s increasing pull causes Frodo to fade out of the physical world and nearly become pure spirit, it’s almost as if Sam becomes Frodo’s body, fighting off Shelob and the orcs, and, in the end, carrying Frodo when he is powerless even to move. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: I’ll know my life has truly been fulfilled if I can say that I’ve had and that I’ve been a friend like Samwise Gamgee.

Well, there you have it. Consider your professional development for this week done.