I Love My Kids, But . . .

(Originally posted on the Huffington Post.)

Tom GerdyTony Deyo is a friend who is crazy enough that he gave up a teaching job to pursue a career in the world of standup comedy. He is also fortunate enough to have married a wonderful woman who accepts the path he has chosen. I am sure that means she is a bit crazy as well, but it works for them.

One of Tony’s bits on stage involved the fact that many of their friends were having children. He talked about a line he has heard repeatedly from friends who were new dads. When discussing their kids, the dads say, “Tony, I love my kids, but…,” followed by a heavy sigh. If you have ever been a parent, I am sure you understand that statement. What troubled Tony is that his friends have never finished that sentence. Continue reading

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Theodor Geisel Was Right

(Originally posted on the Huffington Post. You can read more of Tom Gerdy’s work for the Huffington Post here.)

When adults talk of “wonders of the world,” they often refer to the Seven Wonders. If you have ever spent time walking on a beach or in the garden with a four-year-old, I hope you paid attention as the child pointed out some of the seven million wonders of the world. The eyes of young children have an amazing glow. From a child’s perception, everything is new, everything is exciting, and everything is possible. Sadly, somewhere along the journey, many of us lose that glow in our eyes. We no longer see the beauty of the one little broken shell on the beach. We look right past that caterpillar crawling or butterfly that has landed in the garden.

As we age, we sometimes gain wisdom to appreciate and help improve what is around us, but that is not always the case. Far too often, age comes along, and we miss much of the magic of life. Too much knowledge and experience can confuse us. We become cautious and fearful of the possible negative outcomes of our actions. The negativity causes us to lose the glow and the belief that anything is possible. The two words what if switch focus from possibilities to the possibility of failure. We stop thinking we can make a difference. We stop thinking we can change the world.

The next time you think about giving up trying to make a difference, I ask you to go to the words of Theodor Geisel, quoted as saying, “Sometimes, the questions are complicated, and the answers are simple.” Theodor Geisel was a brilliant man who never lost that glow. He spent his life viewing the world from childlike eyes. The result was that he helped many people smile. The world is a happier and brighter place because of Theodor.

While he was helping people smile, he never stopped believing that he could make a difference. Theodor was a writer who while making people smile also made statements about the challenges in the world. Through his writings, he spoke out on such topics as racial equality, fascism, the arms race, and materialism. He continued to believe that he could change the world.

I ask you not to lose the glow as you grow older. Don’t let the complicated world frustrate you, don’t let the confusing world blind you, and don’t ever give up trying to make a difference. The answers are often right in front of you. With the eyes of a child, we can change the world. As a call to action, I give you some additional words by Theodor that reflect his very familiar rhyming style.

“Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”

I forgot to mention that most of you have read Theodor’s works dozens of times. You probably know him by a different name — Dr. Seuss.

Volunteering: Selflessness or Selfishness?

(Originally posted on the Huffington Post on May 7, 2013. You can read more of Tom Gerdy’s work for the Huffington Post here.)

I recently made a trip to New Jersey with a few friends from Virginia. It wasn’t a vacation, and it wasn’t a business trip. It wasn’t a trip planned so we could visit New York City. It wasn’t a trip to Atlantic City and the Jersey Shore to gamble or walk “The Boards.” It wasn’t a trip to sample the fine cuisine of North Jersey. Although I have to admit this adventure included a trip to White Castle, a stop for a hot dawg with chili at my favorite grill, and one breakfast that involved Taylor Ham pork roll (it’s a Jersey thing) at a bagel joint. This trip was to volunteer with Habitat For Humanity.

I have spent many hours over the past twenty-five years volunteering with Habitat For Humanity. As a carpenter and a believer in reaching out to those around me, it is a perfect fit. This Habitat Road Trip had an added special feature. On this trip, we would be working with the students from the high school I attended. Not only would I have fun building with the other volunteers, but all my wonderful childhood memories would also surround me.

Passaic Valley High School is in Little Falls, New Jersey. Little Falls is a pretty little town about fourteen miles west of the Lincoln Tunnel. Partly because of its proximity to New York, this little town of just over 14,000 people has a very culturally diverse population. Towns close to such big cities also often operate at an accelerated pace. Little Falls is no exception.

The plan for this event was to help 125 high school students from various backgrounds build a wall system for a Habitat Home. The walls would be temporarily erected on the front lawn of the high school. After standing proud and tall on the front lawn of the high school for a week or two, they would then be moved about thirty miles west to another small town, Budd Lake.

In the near future, a group of volunteers will again travel to New Jersey to help build most of the home over a weekend with some volunteers from Budd Lake. The result will be that many people who don’t even know one another will join hands to create a home that a good family will then buy from Habitat. The joining of hands and hearts is a big part of what creates the magic at Habitat For Humanity events.

The school and the students took a break from the fast pace to help make a difference that Saturday morning. The school canceled the team’s softball practice because they understood the magnitude of what would happen on the front lawn that day. When I welcomed the students, I discussed that our society often connects happiness with money. I tried to explain to the students that the easiest way to achieve happiness is reaching out and giving someone a hand-up. I told the group that gathered early that Saturday morning, if you help those around you, happiness will chase you and tackle you.

I have found great wisdom in the words “the best way to become rich is to give.” There were many bent nails, sore muscles, splinters, and blisters, but the huge grins on these volunteers’ faces completely overshadowed those things. The smiles at the end of the day seemed to indicate that many students understood that early-morning message and “felt that feeling.”

I am not shy, and my personality has made me comfortable as a vocal cheerleader for Habitat For Humanity. Because of that, I have been publicly thanked and recognized quite often for my volunteer efforts. Those words of thanks and public recognition are one of the few things that ever cause me to feel embarrassed. My wife says I should feel embarrassed many other times, but let’s not go there.

I recently read an article by someone who volunteered with Habitat and discussed similar feelings. People often see volunteerism as a selfless act. I feel guilty when people thank me for volunteering because it is anything but a selfless act. It is quite selfish. I have never been able to give as much as I have received by reaching out. I have worked around countless other volunteers who feel the same way. At the end of the day, you can see that you have moved the world one step. It is difficult to feel much better.

My volunteer work with Habitat also has included many blessings. It puts my challenges in the proper perspective. It helps my heart grow. It clears my head. It allows me to associate with some wonderful people. It helps me keep my priorities in order. It helps me sleep better at night. It gives me hope for the future, and it makes me grin in a major way. This partial list is why I am embarrassed when people talk about my selflessness.

So, why have I taken the time to confess this to the world? If you already understand this conflict of terms, you have already given of yourself. Please continue to do so. If you have yet to experience this feeling, I ask you to give it a shot. Please reach out to someone who needs a hand-up. If you attempt such selflessness, it comes with a warning. You might end up feeling good all over and just a bit selfish.

“Cheap Funeral and a Good Party”: An Amazing Final Gift

(Originally posted on the Huffington Post. You can read more of Tom Gerdy’s work for the Huffington Post here.)

The derecho was unkind to our town of Lynchburg, Va., on the night of June 30, 2012. The 80-mile-an-hour straight-line winds tore trees out of the ground and dropped them on top of houses in almost every neighborhood. Most of the city was without power. However, I was about to discover that damaged homes and lack of electricity were just the beginning of my challenges that week.

I am a building contractor, and I was inspecting a neighbor’s tree-damaged home the next day when I got the call from my sister in New Jersey. She told me they were taking my 87-year-old mother to the hospital because “she just doesn’t look good.” Late that afternoon, I got the call we all dread. The doctor said my mother’s lungs were about done, and we had better get there.

My wife and I quickly packed and got on the road for the 430-mile trip from our current home in Virginia to our old stomping grounds in northern New Jersey. Dreading what I figured we had in store for us made the trip seem longer than usual. We arrived in the middle of the night, and my mother was resting peacefully. The reports were that she might even make it out of intensive care in a day or two. It was a great relief, and we all thought this might not be the end.

My two brothers arrived that morning as well. We had our work cut out for us because, as we dealt with our mother’s challenges, our 89-year-old father was in a rehab center recovering from a fall. We visited him that morning, and he was critical. I am not talking about his health. He was critical of everything, including the nurses, the doctors, the food, and the facility. We thought that was a good sign because complaining is a right we earn for living a long life. We took all the griping as a sign that our father was getting better. We left his bedside and went to visit our mother who seemed to be doing better as well.

Unfortunately, we were wrong about both our mother and our father. This was the beginning of the end for them both. We got the call the next morning that our father was being rushed from the rehab center to the hospital because his kidneys had given up. By the time we got to the hospital, he was in a coma. Two days later, on the morning of July 4, he died.

I don’t mean to make light of our father’s death, but laughter sometimes helps you through the toughest times. Standing at our father’s deathbed shortly after he died, I called the funeral home where previous arrangements had been made for them to be cremated. It was the morning of July 4, and I think I caught the funeral director offguard. When I asked him to come to the hospital to pick up our father, his response was, “Did he pass?” It was one of the funniest things I had heard in ages. I only wish I hadn’t been tired and a bit stressed. The best response would have been, “No, but we don’t want to wait until the last minute.”

After dealing with the funeral home and the hospital, we drove the 15 miles or so to the hospital where our mother was in intensive care. She asked how her husband of 64 years was doing, and we gave her the news. It was a painful moment for everyone, but we soon started to talk about wonderful memories, and we laughed much more than we cried.

I decided that, with the family gathered like this, it was time to ask my mother what I had wanted to ask for many years. “Mom, I was always your favorite, wasn’t I?” My mother took her frail little arm from under the covers and gave me a thumbs-down as she rolled her eyes. My mother loved to tease. At least, I think she was teasing.

We spent four or five hours with my mother on July 4. Just a few hours earlier, we had been at our father’s deathbed. My mother had trouble talking at that point, so she wrote notes to us. Although we still had some hope, we knew the end was getting close as she penned her final messages to us. The first was “Go get beer and pizza on me.” The second was “I was lucky to have all of you.” As we got ready to leave the hospital, my mother gave us her last gift. She wrote the words I will remember forever, “Cheap funeral and good party.” She was telling us her job was done, and it was all right. Her message was not to mourn, but to celebrate.

We got the call just before midnight at my sister’s home on July 4, as we celebrated my father’s life with a big meal and many toasts. My sister got off the phone and said we needed to get to the hospital. My mother was no longer responsive when we got there, and two hours later, she died — 16 hours after our father had died. I made my second call to the funeral home in less than 24 hours. His response was not as funny.

We honored my mother’s last request. Several weeks after their deaths, we honored our parents with a service at the church our mother attended for about 50 years. That evening, we had a party, and a few hundred people joined us to celebrate their lives.

I will always be grateful for our mother’s last request and gift. It gave mourning a back seat to celebrating the many lessons and gifts my parents gave us. I hope when my time comes, my children will celebrate my life in a big way. I want to go on record that I want Jimmy Buffett to play at that party.

For Sale: Very Large, Slightly Damaged Country

(Originally posted on the Huffington Post. You can read more of Tom Gerdy’s work for the Huffington Post here.)

As a small businessman struggling in this challenging economy, I spent much time in 2012 trying to figure out what would help start America on a path back to economic stability, international prominence, and worldwide respect. After many months of agonizing internal debate, all data and market research pointed to only one way to deal with this situation — we need to cut our losses and sell.

I started to think that we should put an ad on eBay. eBay’s electronic marketing system seems to have proved undoubtedly that there is a market for anything, including virginity. However, as I rethought my strategy for fixing America, I realized that not even eBay could find a buyer for a country with so many problems, so much damage, and a frightening amount of unrest among the citizens. It would take a marketing superstar to find someone interested in buying the United States, and P. T. Barnum is dead. At this point in our history, I am certain the country would be listed in realtor’s terms as a “fixer-upper” or a “handyman special.”

Just in case we decided to list the country for sale, I did some research so it would be easy to fill in the blanks for the realtor we picked to list it. The U.S. is composed of roughly 3.79 million square miles. The total population as 2012 ended was just more than 315 million people, which means there are only about 84 people per square mile. We have nearly 400 national parks that help preserve our land and our heritage. We have almost 12,500 miles of coastlines with beautiful beaches. There are tens of thousands of lakes and thousands of miles of rivers. Great reserves of natural resources are found from one end of the country to the other. The geography is extremely diverse and beautiful. At this point, I thought maybe we could get a fair dollar for the country. It sounds nice.

Unfortunately, in interest of full disclosure and protection from a future lawsuit, I thought it necessary to list also some slightly damaged and/or broken parts of America. I need to point out the following is only a partial list, and I recommend that any potential buyers do their research to find any other problem areas of the United States.

1. The current political system is a representative democracy. It is not completely broken, but some adjustments are needed. Many elected officials spend so much time trying to keep their jobs that they fail to do their jobs. Partisan politics continues to be used for power instead of for the good of the citizens and the country. Too many elected officials ride that career politician train. Any new owner might want to consider limiting how long people can stay in positions of power.

2. The current tax system is unbalanced in favor of those with money. Deductions and tax shelters favoring the wealthy have allowed billions of dollars to be earned without a dime of taxes paid on those dollars. This out-of-balance system is causing the middle class to shrink and might eventually cause it to disappear. The divide between the top and the bottom of the income spectrum gets wider every day. If we continue on this path, the class separation created will soon make the Grand Canyon look like a minor erosion problem. The result of such a trend could take America back to the conditions that caused a revolution and birth of this country. I recommend any new owner look hard at how the citizens share in the expense of running the joint.

3. The balance sheet for the country is anything but balanced. We are choking on the debt we have created over many decades. We have had open checkbook policies for much too long. If interested in buying, your accountant will have a huge challenge trying to figure out how many expenses were justified. Advise them to take a good look at the small print on the bills passed. Earmarks and pork-barrel legislation still play a large role in the country’s problems, and they should receive much attention.

4. To a degree, we have removed the incentive to achieve from people in need. If you buy, you will need to adjust the system that helps those in need. Much must be done to eliminate a mentality we have created that says the government needs to solve our problems. The government needs to offer a hand up and not a handout. You must again teach people that you can’t climb the ladder of success with your hands in your pockets.

5. In light of recent tragedies, I would be remiss if I did not point out that, per capita, America has a disproportionate number of the world’s firearms. The statistics vary, but there is little doubt that there is a gun for almost every citizen this country. Gun control laws are a piece of the puzzle that must be addressed. Public access to assault weapons, automatic/semi-automatic weapons, high-capacity clips, and armor-piercing ammunition must be addressed. Developing a greater focus on mental health problems must play a role in reducing gun violence as well.

6. The president, vice president, 100 members of the Senate, 435 members of the House, and 15 members of the Cabinet often play childish games of power. Those 552 people are supposed to represent the 315 million citizens. Whoever buys the country will need to find a way to inspire those 315 million to speak out and demand better of those 552. The new owner has to find a way to end the games and manipulation.

As I created these lists of selling points and negatives, the number of negatives I could quickly point out bothered me. However, even though I know many more challenges must be addressed, when it was all said and done, I kept returning to one thought. This country might not have a long history compared with others around the world, but it has a strong one.

Americans have accomplished some wonderful things at home and overseas. Throughout history, when crazy people have threatened the world, Americans have been there to help. We have made advances in the worlds of health and science that have changed the world in wonderful ways. Every time there is a natural disaster or tragedy here or abroad, Americans are there to help ease the pain, and they always have been. We witnessed it again in Connecticut.

When the pressure is on, Americans are ready to reach out and make a difference. When you get down to it, that is where the value is, which is why America is still a good investment. In fact, the people make America priceless. We have some problems, but we will continue to work on them. We have changed our mind. We are not selling.