A Letter to My Son on His Graduation Day: On Being a Good Man

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Tim McGraw’s “Humble and Kind”

Dear Son,

Didn’t we both think this day was never going to come? But here it is, and I am entirely unprepared for all the feelings.

Of course, we both know your graduation means the end of an era.

It’s the end of sack lunches and marching band.

It’s the end of school dances and football games.

It’s the end of me signing your report cards.

It’s the end of my making you eat your vegetables.

(Side note: it’s also the end of my paying for your car insurance. I’ve been meaning to tell you).

It’s also a marvelous beginning.

I am so very proud of you, not just because of your academic accomplishments, but your character. You are kind, sometimes to a fault, and you’re always the first to ask how you can help someone.

This is rare, not just for your generation, but for the world we live in.

We live in a world that says:

“Me first.”

“How can I get what’s coming to me?”

“I deserve the best.”

“Look at me! Here I am, being awesome again!”

It’s difficult to rise above these urges.

As you leave high school behind and move to greater things, don’t for a second underestimate your power in this world.

Power begins with choices.

You’ll be making your own decisions about your career, your love life, and what kind of person you want to become. Yes, I know you think you’re all finished growing up, but believe me when I tell you, this is only the beginning.

Because you’ve managed to overcome much of this “me first” mentality, many will try to take advantage. Please don’t let them. It’s difficult to balance kindness and self-respect, but it must be mastered. It is part of loving yourself and embracing maturity.

Another part of maturity is responsibility. We hear so much about what it means to “be a man.” Many inflate masculinity to the point it becomes vulgar: a caricature of itself. They point to their conquests as a mark of manhood. They brag about pushups and athletic prowess over intelligence and sensitivity.

I’ve known many weak men, many selfish men, many corrupt and vulgar men, and a few truly good men.

Do your best to fall into that last category.

I know your dad has been a positive role model to you, and you are fortunate to have him. You were also lucky enough to have known your Papa, my daddy, for a few short years (not nearly, nearly enough). You’ve also been fortunate to have met good men in the form of family, teachers, coaches, and pastors. But, before you leave my nest, I want to make sure you hear this from a woman’s perspective.

On Being a Good Man

A good man knows when to apologize. He knows when to own up to his mistakes. He knows when to dig in, and when to let go.

A good man also knows how to treat a lady. It’s not just opening doors, although that is a good start. He is a good listener, even when the topic is not personally interesting. He knows how to be authentic, true. He loves when she is unlovable. He takes up for her even when she doesn’t deserve it. He is on her side.

He is intelligent enough to listen to other’s opinions, understanding how and when  to disagree respectfully and without insult, but he is also able to not internalize the negativity.

A good man knows how to help others, not just when he will receive accolades, but even when he knows helping will not benefit his own agenda. He helps others when they are too proud to ask. He helps others who don’t know how to ask. He does not expect or demand to be “paid back.”

A good man lets his moral code guide him. He listens to his conscience. He doesn’t cheat others or himself. He doesn’t lie to others or himself. He never steals from others; he only takes what he earns or is given freely. This goes for money, time, or love.

Speaking of love: a good man doesn’t force his intentions, agenda, or affections on anyone else. A good man doesn’t have to try too hard to be loved. He knows what “no” means, and he respects the word and the connotations behind it. He never pushes his advantage. In this way, he earns love and loyalty. When you become a husband, your heart becomes one with another. If you treat your wife as if she is part of you, most of the time you will do the right thing, though nobody is perfect.

When you are on your own in this world, you will be tempted in every way. A good man knows when he is in over his head, and when to look away or walk away. He knows when he’s crossed the line and when to ask for forgiveness. He’s not too proud to admit he’s failed, and he’s not afraid to dust himself off after falling.

A good man is not afraid to love with his whole heart. He understands to love this way is to open his heart for potential pain. He will almost certainly suffer, because it’s difficult to go against the grain of this world. He doesn’t let the hurt scar him, because he sees the good in others and gravitates toward this goodness. To display courage doesn’t mean you haven’t been wounded. It just means you have determined to not allow these wounds to  be fatal.

Not all good men will be fathers. Although I hope this gift comes to you when you are ready; it might not. Nature makes no sense regarding who she lets father a child.

Some men want to be dads more than anything, and for whatever cosmic reason cannot.

Some men father children who should not be allowed to take care of a houseplant.

Many men are given charge of children but don’t know (or choose not to) to guide them. It’s really not that difficult to be a good father. You just need to show up and take care of business. You love with your whole heart. You do what it takes to pay the bills and put food on the table. Nobody is perfect; you will make many mistakes, but if you love your kids that is what they will remember. Anyway, I’m getting ahead of myself.

In a few days, you’ll walk across that stage, and you’ll move the tassel, signifying the end of childhood and the beginning of adulthood. You’ll leave childhood behind and take on adult responsibilities. You will make mistakes. you’ll fall and get up again. You will encounter great joy and indescribable pain. You will love.  You will lose: sometimes big and sometimes small. Some losses will be devastating–people you love. This, my son, is enough to make us want to give up.

I wish I could protect you from this, but I cannot.

I know you. You will, as Maya Angelou says, rise. You will stumble, and maybe fall again. But when you stand–you will run. You will fly.

You will not just fly–you will soar.

You’ll make your mark on this world.

The world has been changed by many men, both good and evil.

You will strive for the good, the pure, the authentic.

And you will be a good man.

 

 

 

 

6 Must-Have School Supplies if You Want to Stay out of Jail and Not Commit Felonies

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I’m with you–it’s a bit of a bummer to take an innocent trip to the grocery store in search of my favorite Ben & Jerry’s Cherry Garcia ice cream only to have my eyes assaulted by school supplies in July. Assaulted: like a super violent Quentin Tarantino movie assaulted. Like a green polyester pantsuit assaulted. Like seeing your elderly neighbor’s thong when she’s gardening BY NO FAULT OF YOUR OWN assaulted. A part of me loves the smell of new pencils and choosing pastel-colored markers, but it has to be on my own time, and that’s not in EARLY MAY, MR. WALMART.

I know the C.E.O. of Walmart is not really named Mr. Walmart. I just put that in to be funny. Sorry if you are personally affiliated with the Waltons in any way. Please tell them I said hello.

Of course, most schools put out lists of what your kid needs, but as a teacher and a mom of three, I’m going to add a few things to your list to make your life a bit easier.

  1. A good set of quality, comfortable ear buds–for you and your kid. One of my kids has a touch of ADD, and it helps immensely to have ear buds plugged into the computer to silence the everyday sounds of the dog barking, the dryer spinning, computer games in the background, you get it. If you can afford sound-canceling ear buds, take my recommendation and BUY THEM FOR YOU. You won’t be sorry. Also, there are many “concentration” apps available, proven to heighten your attention span. Sleep Sounds can slide between concentration to relaxation depending on the binaural beats you choose. It helps me as a doctoral student to  block out conversations around me so I can finish my thrilling statistics assignment. It works, people
  2. Extra freezer packs for lunches. You can’t get too many of these. Nate was at marching practice and a kid became a bit overheated, so Nate took an extra from his lunch and put it on the kid’s forehead and back of his neck. I’m not sure if it smelled like ham or not, but it did the trick.
  3. Extra poster board and craft stuff. Maybe this has never happened to you. Maybe you live in a perfect, Everybody Loves Raymond kind of world where your kid never tells you at 8:00 that he has a project depicting the history of the German people due the next day that’s worth 2/3 of his grade. Lucky you. I perform the sign of the cross and bid you a good day. If it does happen, though, you are ready. You have two or three different poster boards, markers, scissors, glue, pictures of the German people (ok, you’re on your own for that one) and lots of coffee. If nothing else, buy lots of coffee.
  4. A stack of cheap magazines. Maybe this has never happened to you. Maybe in your perfect, Modern Family life, you’ve never had a kid announce that she needs to create a collage that represents “Joy” for her art class and all you have sitting around are Walking Dead graphic novels. Just in case, have a stack of women’s magazines (you can collect these for almost nothing at the Salvation Army or MeeMaw Jan’s coffee table. Come on, if Burt Reynolds is on the cover, she’s probably not gonna miss it.
  5. An extra printer cartridge and paper. If you don’t have a printer, get one. It’s a lifesaver. Unless you just love going out in the rain to your office to print off your kid’s Of Mice and Men essay at 1:00 in the morning, then that’s up to you. For the rest of us, I’d rather just print it off in the kitchen like a regular person. Sorry if you’re a weirdo.
  6. Try to buy all your kid’s English novels at the beginning of the semester. I’m sure this would never happen to you, in your perfect Breaking Bad life (wait, bad example). I’m sure your kid would always remember two weeks in advance that his teacher was assigning All Quiet on the Western Front, and the two of you could happily make a trip to Barnes and Noble, where there are three versions of the book to choose from, and you could buy your copy, all the time laughing and joking and drinking coffee and hot cocoa at the Starbucks inside the store and feeling proud of your kid’s planning and even admire his adorable grin.

If this has really happened to anyone reading this blog I want you to come down to Tyler so I can punch you in your veneered teeth.

Just in case it happens the other way: It’s 10:00 at night, you’re in your pj’s watching Gilmore Girls reruns, finishing a tiny glass of wine while coloring in your “De-Stress and Color Fuzzy Animals” coloring book and your kid casually strolls into the living room, coming up behind you on the couch when you didn’t notice and says “MOM” in your hair and you almost pee your pants and then he tells you he needs a copy of the Gutenberg Bible for class tomorrow or else he’s going to fail, well then you’re both screwed. Because Barnes and Noble does NOT have a copy, and apparently the only copy is in a traveling exhibit in Turkey guarded by six 300 pound men with no sense of humor and so you’re going to end up printing all 3,000 pages off on your printer (you bought that, right? No?)  violating international copyright laws and hoping and praying you’re not arrested because you’re not built for prison life.You don’t even stomach Quinton Tarantino movies very well.

Do us all a favor. Buy the books.

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On Blackberry Dump Cake, Stats, and Goodbyes

Last Friday, I went to Lindale, Texas to meet my bestie Rachel to work on Statistics homework. I’m not gonna lie: it’s soul-crushing and brain-melting, enough to cause some students over 40 (me) to question their sanity for doing this in the first place. I mean, for most people, a master’s degree would be plenty. Not me! Nope.

Finding a place to do our homework together has been…challenging to say the least. If we work at my house, then we risk being constantly annoyed by my dog who thinks my only reason for existence is to play “fetch the cheeseburger toy” for hours. She’s very…persistent. If we go to Rachel’s, where she has small children, then she feels like she should have a babysitter so we’re less distracted. Not that stats are not fascinating. But there’s definitely a risk. Cute kids? Definitely distracting, because cuteness, and it doesn’t take much to make a person choose to play with kids over doing spirit-squishing homework.

Last week, we met at Collins Bakery, which I must say is quite a little jewel. Coffee, wi-fi, and pie…what’s not to love?

In front of the bakery, some nice folks were selling juicy peaches, red, ripe tomatoes, and blackberries bursting with purple-black color. I went a little nuts. I love produce stands, and they are one of my favorite things about summer–perfect for 4th of July celebrations.

My girls, who are grownups and have their own apartments (and dogs) come over every week to see me, and to encourage this I cook for them. So that if they’re ever sitting at home in their A/C watching The Walking Dead and feel the least bit reluctant to cash it all in for the Texas Summer Inferno to come over, they will decide it’s worth it because Mom cooks the most delicious concoctions, and let’s face it, there’s a lot of Ramen noodle dinners over there.

Last night, they stayed over, which meant a lot to me, because they are both moving in just a few weeks. Not down the street, or to a town nearby, but several hours away. Like a day trip, spend the night, kind of distance.

Mama’s having a hard time with this, y’all.

I’m so very proud of both of them for graduating from college and finding jobs in their fields and everything. That’s what I wanted for them from the beginning–that they would be able to do what they love and not have to spend their adulthood working at crap jobs like I did just to make ends meet. Now, they won’t have to.

Since I had those gorgeous berries waiting, I wanted to make something special. Since it was the 4th weekend, and one of the last weekends we will spend together like this ever, I may have cooked up the entire house. For a moment, I could make them a treat, pack it up with some coffee and send it with them to their jobs. For a moment, it felt as if they were still in school and I was making their lunches before band practice.

Just for the briefest of moments.

I made Blackberry Dump Cake with these juicy blackberry babies, and let me tell you–there’s nothing easier than this recipe.

Blackberry Dump Cake

2 cartons fresh blackberries (you can use frozen)

1 box yellow cake mix

1 stick of butter

This is really all there is to it. I couldn’t lie to you. I know you’ll be tempted to add sugar to the blackberries, and you certainly can, because AMERICA, but resist, because this cake mix has about nine bags of sugar in it already. Like a whole sugar cane field worth. But I’m not judging if you want to sprinkle a tiny bit on them.

Melt the butter. Make sure the blackberries are rinsed and there aren’t any leaves or anything in them. Pour the blackberries right into the bottom of the pan.

Next, pour the cake mix, right from the box, on top of the berries.

Lastly, pour the melted butter on top of the cake mix. Try to spread it evenly so the whole top gets wet.

Bake for about 25-35 minutes until the top is brown and bubbly.

Serve to your daughters for breakfast after their last sleepover. Try not to cry thinking about it. Try not to be a blubbering mess.

Why Writers MUST Write

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“We write to taste life twice, in the moment and in retrospect.”
Anaïs Nin

Here’s what a lot of people don’t understand when it comes to being a writer.

The cadence of words, they way they are communicated from keyboard to screen–to us, it’s lovely. It’s a kind of delicate dance with many missteps.

Many people write for fame and glory. Many people fail.

But those of us who write to remember will always have a reason to rejoice.

The recording of life’s seemingly insignificant moments takes them from ordinary to extraordinary. We are the historians.

If I take a moment to write about the surprise snow day when my son was ten, it ties this moment to both our hearts. If I describe his joy as he ran around in the front yard before 7:30 in the morning, glorying in the ease of the wet snow’s ability to form dozens of snow balls, it won’t be forever forgotten. If I mention how I put a coat on over my scrubs and followed him into the yard for a snowball fight under the treehouse, it matters. And, years later, when my boy is no longer small (he’s 6’5″ now) and the treehouse has been long gone, it won’t seem sad, but precious.

If I don’t note the exact day my  baby girl lost her first tooth, who will? Who will give this moment the importance it deserves? And, years from now, when my daughter has gone gray and visits me at the nursing home, how else will I be able to remember? How else might I carve these memories in my heart, press them to my soul?

Memories fail, but the pen does not.

 

 

5 Mistakes College Freshmen Make

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Hello there! It’s your favorite professor! I noticed you signed up for my composition class and that you are a freshman. Welcome! I want you to be successful! I want you to like school! I want you to thirst for that fresh water from the Fountain of Learning!

But–I have my worries. I’ve seen it before. Sadly, many of you (as many as a third of beginning students) will not make it past this semester.Why do some students thrive in the freedom college presents and others simply sink? I have a few theories I want to share with you. Here are 5 students who will probably not survive their first semester of college.

  1. Students who don’t understand financial aid. This is a huge problem, especially among first generation college students. The FAFSA (the federal financial aid form) is long and complicated, and it’s difficult the first couple of times. The solution: ask for assistance from your financial aid office, or better yet, from someone who has filled out this hellish thing. It’s really important to get it right the first time. Best case scenario if you make a mistake: you have to submit a correction and then wait approximately 100 years for the government to correct it. When you’re waiting to pay for classes, every day counts. Don’t fill it out half-heartedly.
  2. Students who are unprepared for the amount of study time needed. Many students simply do not set aside enough time to complete assignments and to study. College is NOT high school–most students can’t simply absorb the information in one sitting. Good students know that each class needs prep time, study time, and homework time. It’s a lot of time. This is just how it is.
  3. Students who are late or miss too much class and get behind. For the first time, Mama isn’t there to wake you up–it’s all up to you.Sometimes, that bed is so comfortable, so inviting–and before you know it, class time is over. Missing even one hour of valuable instruction can be enough to cause you to be behind for weeks–even the whole semester. I tell my students to think of college as a JOB. Not just any job, but a job they care about. You wouldn’t be late or miss work because in the real world, you would be fired and out the door.
  4. Students who don’t understand social graces. Many students who wouldn’t dream of being rude to their pastor or auntie don’t think twice about sending a rude email or texting through class. Manners matter, and impressing your professor with being polite and respectful might mean a letter of recommendation later on when you’re competing for a job, internship or scholarship. People matter.
  5. Students who don’t talk to peers or the professor. As social media explodes, our world is becoming increasingly isolated. Many students don’t want to leave their comfort zone and talk to their fellow students. They don’t want to open up to their professor when they are struggling with the material. Instead, they suffer in silence and quietly give up. They stop attending and fail or drop. It’s sad! I force my students to talk the first day of class. I make them introduce one fellow student, and I have them  exhange contact information with their neighbor. I pair them up frequently so they get used to one another. Studies show that successful students network. They work together. They form study groups.

I’m really glad you’re in my class. Put your phone away and look me in the eye. Let me help you get used to academic writing, surviving in college, and how to interact with others. Welcome to college! Let’s do this!

 

When Your Son Asks: Remembering Our Deliverance

Mancub at age 10 sleeping on the way home from Arkansas.

I want my kids to remember me with a soft kind of fondness–that perfect balance of light and hope, discipline and humor, friendship and love. A warm and fuzzy mama–but at the same time tough as the lady who delivers our mail. Have you seen her? She can bench 400 pounds, I know it!

I want my kids to think of me as a good example, someone they want to imitate.

One problem: I’m far from perfect. I screw up fairly often. At least as much as Donald Trump says offensive stuff on TV. I mean well, but …

I was reading through Exodus (actually, that’s inaccurate. I’m so lazy I have somebody else read Exodus to me, on an app. Because there’s an app for that). Anyway, this scripture refers to the story of the deliverance of the Israelites from Egypt. I just love the first sentence.

14 “In days to come, when your son asks you, ‘What does this mean?’ say to him, ‘With a mighty hand the Lord brought us out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. 15 When Pharaoh stubbornly refused to let us go, the Lord killed the firstborn of both people and animals in Egypt. This is why I sacrifice to the Lord the first male offspring of every womb and redeem each of my firstborn sons.’16 And it will be like a sign on your hand and a symbol on your forehead that the Lord brought us out of Egypt with his mighty hand.”

When your son asks you, “What does this mean?”… how well we know this feeling, mamas. How well we know that frightening reality that somebody put us in charge of these precious human beings as IF WE WERE GROWNUPS. Grownups with answers. Grownups who hold those memories in the palm of their hand.

Sometimes, I sweat bullets when my son asks me questions. They used to be so easy.

“Hey Mom. How do you make instant oatmeal?”

“Hey Mom. Can you watch me go down the slide?”

“Mom. Mom. Mom. Mom. Why doesn’t the dog eat at the table with us?”

Lately, the questions are much more hard core.

“Mom, how does God feel about transgender people?” (This one’s easy: LOVE)

“Mom, I think my friend is in trouble. Can we help?”

“Mom, why does God let bad things happen?”

I don’t know all the answers. But I don’t ignore the questions. We look it up. We talk about it. I want to be the one, along with my husband, that is able to answer those “What does this mean?” questions.

In this verse, God is instructing the Israelites in the importance of remembrance. There’s no way these children, or grandchildren, or great-grandchildren, will ever know the sound of the cries of Egypt as they woke to find their firstborn children dead. It’s just too horrific. Over 400 years of slavery, of the Pharaoh killing the baby boys–the Jewish mothers hiding their babies, shushing their cries.

And the angel of the Lord passed over…

There’s no way the children would remember the unreal feeling of freedom. What? We are free? We can go? The feeling (and then, the eventuality) this freedom can’t last– that the Egyptians would change their minds and maybe call for the blood of the Jews to rectify Pharaoh’s hasty decision. The absolute miracle of the Red Sea parting down the middle as thousands of slaves left forever. The smell of the sheep and goats (and all those people) and the heaviness of the hastily packed possessions–the sheer terror and doubt that any of this was real. But they were told to try to make them understand–the importance of storytelling and ritual. Unleavened bread eaten in haste as we planned our escape. This is what it means, Son. This bread–it is a symbol of our deliverance.

I’m fortunate (NOT gonna say #blessed because I HATE that) to have never been in this kind of bind–this kind of slavery. But we all know a type of bondage.

Addictions.

Debt.

Disease.

Abuse.

Pain.

Crippling fear.

Anxiety.

God is not JUST the God of the past. He knows us. He knows you. HE has the answers.

I don’t always know what things mean, but when my son asks me, I’ll tell him.

I’ll tell him that we are free.

 

 

 

 

 

Super Easy Spicy Brisket Chili

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Brisket. At its best, it’s flaky and juicy, falling apart with the mere mention of a fork. At its worst, it’s tough and rubbery.

I know you’ve been told the old-fashioned way to make a brisket: marinating it overnight, baking it for hours at one temperature then changing to another. Slow cooking IS the key to a great brisket, but I don’t have time to sit around babysitting it. I bet you don’t either.

I found a gigantic brisket on sale just after New Year’s–it was crazy cheap, like $1.50 a pound or some such nonsense. I felt like I was the star of a reality show for a minute when I saw the price. Quickly, I took it to the checkout and paid for it as nonchalantly as I could, hardly sweating at all, as not to give away the AWESOME DEAL I WAS GETTING. Once I made it to the parking lot, I was fistpumping like John Bender in “The Breakfast Club.” It felt good.

But what do I do once I bring it home? It was a 20 pound brisket! That’s a lot of beef. I chopped it into six hunks and promptly froze it. Now I just take out a hunk and use it the same way I’d use roast beef or even ground beef. Last night, I made the best chili ever. It’s not hard at all. The crockpot does all the work!

Here’s what you need to make Spicy Brisket Chili–from scratch!

Spicy Brisket Chili

2 pounds brisket

2 Alarm Chili Mix

1 can Hunt’s diced roasted tomatoes

1 2-pound bag of dried pinto beans

2 teaspoons dried garlic

1 can of Coke

1 package Montreal Steak Seasoning

1 tsp. salt

1 tsp. pepper

1 tsp. garlic powder

1 tsp. Ancho chili seasoning blend

1 tsp. bold chipotle seasoning blend

1 package concentrated beef broth

Directions:

After thawing the brisket, put it in the Crock pot. Pour a Coke over it, then dump the steak seasoning on it. Add some salt, pepper and garlic powder/chopped garlic. Turn it on low, and let it cook for at least 7-8 hours.

It’s gonna smell so good. You won’t even believe it.

When it’s all flaky and such, remove it from the crockpot and put it in a storage bag or bowl. Let it refrigerate while you make the beans. Dump out the coke mixture and prepare the dried beans.

Rinse them and put them in the crockpot. Fill it most of the way with water. Put all the 2 Alarm Chili Mix seasonings in the beans. If you’re feeling brave, add a chopped jalapeno. Add the other pepper mixes, salt and spices. Let the beans cook on low for 7-8 hours.

Here’s how the magic happens.

First, take the brisket and heat it for a minute or so on high in the microwave. Cut it into bite-sized pieces and dump it in the beans. Add the canned tomatoes.

Turn the crockpot on high. Cook the chili for about an hour. Good luck keeping your family out of it before it’s reached perfection.

If you don’t want to make your own beans, you can use canned. You can also cook the beans or the brisket overnight in the Crockpot, saving time. You won’t be sorry. I felt like a real cowgirl cook after pulling this off. Those spices sunk into the beans and made the whole house smell like Texas Heaven. Top the chili with a bit of sharp cheddar and sour cream and you won’t believe how good it is.

If (and this is a huge IF) you happen to have leftovers, I recommend making burritos. Can you even imagine how delicious those would be?