I Have Become my Middle School Assistant Assistant Principal

First, let me get it out of the way in saying that I have the utmost respect for Mr. (Matt?) Mitchell and in this piece I mean him no harm. If there is any “shade” being thrown here it is all internally focused. You, dear reader, will also note that I am unsure of Mr. Mitchell’s first name. These are recollections from more than 30 years ago. All the more interesting that I have now become my Middle School Assistant Assistant Principle some 30 years on.

I have talked about Scioto County before; my birthplace in the Appalachian foothills in the Ohio River Valley. I love my home, so it is with perfect clarity that I see it for what it is: steeped in tradition, conservative, protestant, hard-working but not ambitious, provincial, suspicious of outsiders, rural, local, and individualistic. With two feet in the Midwest, but leaning hard to the American South, our people put practicality about 30 feet higher on the priority list than presentation.

My wife and I noted this on our last trip to Europe in which we sailed up and down the Douro River in Portugal. Even Europe’s squalor is classy. Old homes lay in ruin along the Douro, but all that is left is the timeless stonework. It looks like a Led Zeppelin album cover, mystical and legendary. No plastic flapping in the wind, no garbage strewn about. That cruise could never happen on the mighty Ohio River. Both the Douro and the Ohio are working rivers, but the scenery is not comparable. On the Ohio, manufactured homes with blue tarp serving as replacement shingles and plastic flapping from windows mar the otherwise picturesque greenery. I have digressed.

However, this practicality-over-presentation is exactly the point I want to illustrate. Mr. Mitchell held the position of Assistant Assistant Principal. Yes I know that sounds weird. This was the time when corporal punishment was still common in public schools. I am pretty sure that Assistant Assistant Principal was the school’s way of not calling Mr. Mitchell the “Corporal Punisher.” Mr. Mitchell was a HUGE man. A former football player, it was clear that he lived for the former glory. He was a coach on the all-important middle school football team. The only thing more important in the community than this team was the high school football team. Mr. Mitchell dressed like a coach. Every day. Polyester coach’s pants, white socks, all black training shoes that could be used for refereeing, coaching, or – in many cases around Scioto County – comfortable office shoes. On hot days, he would swap out the coach’s pants for coach’s shorts: same polyester cut with double snaps at the waist, just cut above the knee to display calf muscles that could (and probably did) move automobiles.

As I dressed for work this morning, I slipped into my pro-golfer branded “Traveling Pants.” It was my wife and better half who pointed out that these are essentially the same as the 1980’s polyester coach’s pants. And yes of course, to help protect my feet from the day-to-day pounding I give them while running, climbing, biking, etc. I have paired my Traveling Pants with all black trainers. I don’t wear my all-black athletic shoes all day at the office, but I wear them to- and from- the office for comfort and to protect my office shoes from the often harsh Ohio elements. Practical. So this morning, I paused in front of the full length mirror to offer one last check before heading out the door and confirmed it. I have become my middle school Assistant Assistant Principal, only much less imposing.

Why I Hate Home Improvement

You read that right. I hate home improvement. Yes, yes, I enjoy watching The Property Brothers and Chip & Joanna just like everyone else. But when it comes to actually doing home improvement, I find that every project takes twice as long and costs twice as much as the most conservative estimates. Not only that, this latest “simple” repair nearly broke me.

The Role Model

My father-in-law is my role model. In his early 70’s, he is fitter than most through brute force of effort. His goal is to walk 10 miles a day, and unless he’s got some project going on, he does it. Jimmy, as he is known by those close to him, also goes to the gym. He has perhaps the calmest demeanor I’ve ever seen, and this from a man who survived the front lines as an infantryman in Vietnam. He is also quite handy. A now retired electrician, Jimmy makes short work of plenty of home improvement projects. I can only aspire to such great heights.

The Problem

This past weekend, Jimmy came to visit to watch our youngest play in his baseball tournament. He got to our house while we weren’t home and discovered the half-bath ceiling vent had stopped working. I had heard the motor begin to whine over the past few weeks but I figured I’d let it completely die before replacing it. Springing into action, Jimmy quickly disassembled the offending fan and performed some diagnostics. He reported, “I got the fan spinning again, but the motor is fried. Just take it to Lowe’s and tell them you need a replacement motor.” Simple, right?

The Project

Not even close. I went to Lowe’s and found the “right” motor. Only it didn’t turn out that way. It was the exact opposite of everything that I needed. Mounting screws on the wrong side, shaft spinning the wrong way, it was made to be right side up and I needed upside down. I could take it back, but this was all they had. Then I’m off searching for another motor on the internet and the experts at the hardware store knew this one was right for me. What would Jimmy do? Jimmy would take it and the previous motor apart, change the mounting screws and make other minor adjustments to make it work. So let’s get started!

The Complication

I don’t have the tools to change the mounting screws. The previous motor’s mounting screws were simple hex heads, whereas the new one requires a star head driver. The drivers are cheap and I will probably need them in the future so I decided to go get them. It was the weekend and traffic was bad. The hardware store is on the bike path, so I decided to mount up and ride over to pick up the tools. Why not channel my inner Jimmy and get some exercise while home improving? This decision would prove painful.

The Crash

I made it to the service road without incident. Checking behind me for traffic as I turned into the parking lot, I started to crank down on my pedals to get up to the building and find a spot to put my bike. Right then I hit a bump. I hit it with my front tire which caused me to lurch forward and when my back tire hit, it lifted my back wheel off the ground. The next few split seconds played out in slow, teeth-gnashing motion as I attempted to shift my body weight backwards and pull on the back brake handle to slow down. Best I can tell, shifting my hand on the grip caused me to lose control of the front because the front wheel turned and I went toppling over the handle bars in a heap. I lay on the hot asphalt for a moment taking stock. Bruised and a little bloody, nothing seemed to be broken at the moment, so I got up to finish the job. I’m sure I looked a mess as I limped around the hardware store with a road-scarred shirt and shorts grimacing from the new aches and pains.

The Conclusion

The new exact-opposite vent fan motor cost me about $20. The new tools cost me $14. However, when I add in the new bicycle seat since mine was busted in the crash, my additional cost goes up to $32 – more than double the cost. Had the motor been correct, I could have replaced it in about 25 minutes. After changing the mounting screws, reversing the armature, having to use the bushings from the old fan motor because of the upside down mount, and three attempts before getting it right, I had nearly 3 hours of labor in this “simple” project – more than 6X the time. As I write this, I am still finding new bruises from the bike crash. I hate home improvement.

In Pursuit of Zero

We have two kids in college at the moment. One is finishing up, the other is taking off from her first year like a rocket, jumping from Freshman to Junior by way of a full load and a summer semester abroad in Ireland. Having had children early in life by modern metropolitan standards, I didn’t have time or the extra funds to save for college. However, I hold firm to the commitment that my children should not come out of college saddled with debt, so… yours truly is paying for college. As I watch the student debt totals climb, I begin to get uneasy. I know I can pay it off in a reasonable time, but I do not like owing money. The only logical conclusion is to reduce spending in order to funnel more money towards the debt. Hence, “in pursuit of zero.”

Having read up, watched movies, and listened to podcasts on the topic of minimalism, I am wise in the ways. There is a mental shift that has to take place in order to buy less. We get settled into our routines like morning coffee at Dunkin Donuts (yes, this part of America runs on Dunkin), grabbing a bite at the cafe for lunch, or closing out a long work week at happy hour with friends. All of a sudden not doing those things when your income level hasn’t changed feels a bit like punishment. I also find that I tend to buy things whimsically – especially when life isn’t going as expected. Frustrations at work? Oh, I think I’ll work on my upper body and core strength with a new set of gymnastic rings for the garage. To be fair, I do use my new toys. But in reality, I don’t need them.

So it is with essentially no fanfare that this weekend I kick off a fresh pursuit of zero. I’ll start with some analysis of where I’ve been spending my money – this is always a hoot. From there I’ll look for opportunities to reduce subscriptions and then set ground rules for spending like: “No takeout coffee.” Even if I can free up an extra $50 a month to redirect toward paying down debt, I’ll call it a win. While I won’t post exact dollar figures here, I’ll check back in in a future post to report any progress.

On a related note, I find that Cait Flanders’ The Year of Less is the best book on moving toward frugal living. What I thought would be an exercise in throwing stuff out and setting rules about shopping a la Marie Kondo turned into a deep analysis of the factors that drove Cait’s consumerist behavior. While I don’t have much in common with Cait, I applauded her candor and honesty, which inspired me to get out of some of my own mental ruts associated with spending.

Cheers!

When Suffering, Smile

So let’s get started with all the appropriate waivers: I’m not a doctor, I don’t play one on TV, seek professional medical or psychological help if you’re feeling an emergency situation, 9 out of 10 dentists probably do not recommend this, call your mother, and my dog ate my homework. That being said, the past several days have been rough. I haven’t felt exactly ill, but I certainly have not felt well. Pile on the work, add a dash of extra stuff to do around the house, and there we have it: a sour mental state.

My wife and better half has even lovingly told me over the past few days, “You’re very abrupt.” I think she used the term ‘mic drop’ in there somewhere, but she made the point. When we kicked off the day yesterday (Monday), I would say I had a full case of the blues. I was contemplating not going to work, which for me, is a serious matter. I actually sat down for a little while and did not move. I felt the pull of inertia rooting me to the spot. After several moments of staring at the fan which was blowing air into my face in front of me, a quote popped into my head, “When you’re really suffering, you have to smile.” “What a dumb thing to say,” I mentally responded to the quote.

After a moment’s mental searching, I realized where I had heard it. It was advice given during an interview with an ultrarunner – you know, these crazy people who run 50k, 100k, 100 miles, and even more. I don’t remember the exact ultrarunner, but honestly they all say about the same thing. Their point is that unless you’ve really done some serious injury to your body, you can overcome the general suffering (muscle aches, random internal pains, etc.) of hours and hours of continuous movement. Overcoming the suffering starts with the mind – sort of. There are some great books and studies on the market covering this in much greater detail, but in essence the science behind endurance says that action and thought are very much linked. So, smiling for instance, actually lifts our spirits and enables us to endure more. Score one for the long distance running crazies.

Yesterday morning, I smiled. I also dressed more professionally than usual. I didn’t have any important meetings on the day, but the professionalism of the clothes also helped propel me forward. Silly, I know. Here is the funny thing: I had an extremely productive day. I had a breakthrough on a topic that had been weighing me down. I had some new administrivia come up and instead of kicking the can down the road, I faced it head on and came to a nearly immediate solution. On the whole, I’d say that I won the day.

So here is to ‘smiling when suffering,’ ‘faking it until you make it,’ ‘a body in motion stays in motion,’ and all the other conventional wisdom for overcoming a bit of adversity. Wishing you a smile filled, roll-that-rock-up-the-hill kind of a sunshiny day.

The Curiosity of Premonitions

Have you ever had a premonition come true? Have you ever changed your mind on something because of a premonition? I’m generally not one for “woo woo” stuff, but lately I’ve come to trust premonitions more and more.

A few weeks ago, my wife and I left our house while feeling completely in disarray. I don’t mean our house was messy, I mean our internal compasses were swirling. We were headed to the airport for our trip to Portugal and something felt wrong about it to both of us. Neither of us knew what the problem was, but we felt like we were headed for trouble. Did we leave the stove on and the house would burn down while we were gone? Well it turned out we were in for some dissatisfying travel experiences and we’d get a chance to check on that stove.

We got to our local John Glenn International Gateway Airport in our beloved home city and things started quickly going awry. I had neglected to take my camping knife out of my backpack and had it discovered in security. Oops. After going through the explanations and machinations of mailing it back to myself, we moved on toward the gate. But first, a meal. 50 minutes later, we had completed our over-priced mediocre-at-best supper and were ready to make our way to the gate. But not so fast. The texts were coming in: “Your flight has been delayed.” It took about another 90 minutes and three more delays for our flight to go past the point of connection in Washington D.C. and so, just like that, we were cancelled and rebooked on the exact same flight the next day. We had just lost 24 hours in Lisbon.

We called the airline. On hold. We called the travel company. “Talk to the airline,” they said. After an hour of getting no love, we were sent back to baggage claim to wait for another hour to pick up our bags and then to make the drive back home. As I’ve written before, we Don’t Expect Benevolence When Traveling, but this was the pits. While waiting for the bags, I looked at Melanie and said, “Well this explains that bad feeling I had about leaving the house.” She smiled knowingly and simply said, “Me too.”

For the past several nights, I’ve been waking up in the middle of the night to the disturbing thought of my dog getting hurt. Today I figured out why. Today he was scheduled to go to the groomers for a bit of a spa treatment. To say my dog is special kind of doesn’t do him justice. He is the most athletic, active, and intelligent (if not always for his own good) dog I’ve ever known. The last time he was at this place he climbed out of a 6 foot tall fence 3 times before they figured out how to contain him. He’s now 10 years old and hasn’t slowed down a bit. I had the sneaking suspicion that he was going to attempt that same climb and this time get really hurt. And at 10 years old, recovery is not an easy thing. So this time, I trusted my gut and I didn’t let him go. Who knows, maybe I’m going whacko in my middle age. But I just didn’t think it was worth the risk of not trusting my gut for some trimmed nails and a shampooing.

Do you get premonitions? Do you listen or ignore them?

Area Man Just Wants to Work On Golf Game

No, not me. I couldn’t care less about golf. But I love The Onion (Warning: The Onion sometimes mixes in strong language). These Onion-esque headlines run through my head all the time.

This morning, I walked to the store and some young lady in a white SUV came barreling toward the crosswalk when I stepped into it. She stopped with plenty of space, but I couldn’t help but flash a spontaneous headline through my head, “Suburban SUV driver intentionally stops late near crosswalks just to keep pedestrians on their toes.” It is a guilty pleasure.

I think what I love most about The Onion is that it strikes so closely to the essence of human behavior while carrying a wry smile. Not malicious, but certainly not innocent. The original, ah hem… “real?” fake news, articles on The Onion are very short. They remind me of creative prompts in writing class. They prompt just enough interest in a topic and then wrap up without really going anywhere in particular. I suppose we could say it is small talk for introverts.

If you happen to run across me in public and I look as if I’m sharing an inside joke, I probably am. It is just me writing Onion-like headlines in my head as I observe the world around me. And so I’m off. Boldly going, occasionally delusional.