At a coffee shop waiting to meet a person, I heard someone else say my name. It was a guy I worked with when I was in college and he was in high school. We always got along, helped by a shared fondness for Springsteen's Tunnel Of Love and singing while we were supposed to be stocking shelves, filling propane tanks, cleaning, or helping customers with plumbing questions. I felt myself open into a smile and reached to shake his hand.

We talked like semi-old men. I asked about his girls, and he said that he had just been telling one of them about our old boss. I said, I've seen him around town a couple times. I didn't mention his red baseball hat that marks him as exactly the kind of man he was and always will be. I just said I'd seen him.

"He's still alive?" my friend asked, feigning shock. I nodded and admitted that I had avoided conversation. I hadn't even waved. He hadn't seem to recognize me or chose to act as though he hadn't.

My friend said he had told his girl about maybe the one bit of wisdom our boss had ever knowingly imparted to anyone.

It was back when my friend was walking around the store in untied work boots, clunking and scuffing along as was the style then (and maybe now too). Our boss called from his office, come in here. My friend went, expecting to be told to clean out the shed, vacuum the housewares section, or restock the pesticides, but no, our boss said, _don't let me hear you scuffing your boots like that. You sound lazy."

Our old boss had been wrong about many things, but both my friend and I agreed if you sound lazy, you might as well be lazy, and then forget about you.

When I taught kids who were all but labeled stupid, I told them to try and sound smart. If you sound smart, people may think you're smart, and that's almost as good because it gets you in with smart people which makes you smarter. On the flip-side, if your go-to words are fuck, nigga, and bitch, you sound anything but smart and the world will gladly treat you as such.

I heard arguments for the culture of those words, but they're the same arguments for scuffing boots. No matter what, these things project our identity and are how others project identities onto us.

My friend and I smiled at the story. The person I was meeting arrived. I shook my friend's hand again and he went on his way. The person I met had the feeling I was more capable than I really am. I've projected confidence. After our meeting, I walked out of the shop and across the street, my shoes tight against my feet, not scuffing even a little.

Why Do This?

After a few months off, I've come back here and it feels good. That should be enough, right? But of course I discount that feeling and overthink and worry that I should build a bigger audience, find ways to make this blog more important (whatever that means), and find some larger meaning. I've been writing regularly since 1987. I was going to say writing seriously, but that sounds like I've made a career and also sets off alarms about building something else instead of accepting what I'm already doing.

Whatever my worries, every so often someone reminds me why I do this, what effect I'm having. Last night it was a friend from college who had been catching up on my postings. He was reading "Learning Is Messy", a piece I wrote in July after leaving teaching but still being very much in a teacher's mindset. I was also stuck installing a damn doorbell. My friend thought it one of my funnier and more publishable pieces.

It felt good to hear the compliments — I'm a sucker for such things — but here's the thing that's really good: I got a clear reminder that writing connects me with people I love and need. It helps me meet new people. It reconnects me with those I would otherwise lose. Just last week, an old friend subscribed to the newsletter and though we didn't talk, it was like seeing her smile from across the room, across years. Lovely stuff, that.

The reason to do this — and by this I mean anything worth doing — is that it's good and leads to good things. That should be obvious, but I need to be reminded every so often. If you do too, then that's something mre reason to do this. I might as well write on.

For The Greater Good

John Tumino does good work and is kind. He runs In My Father's Kitchen and spoke Thursday morning about Hire Ground which helps homeless people earn money by working. The real mission, he said, is getting people to the point where they're ready to change. Paid work, good food, fresh socks, real friendship, all of these are just the means to getting people to that point.

I believe in kindness. National news is largely bad, almost hopeless, but I still believe in kindness. This morning I worked out what kindness means to me.

Kindness is dependent on caring for our neighbors, especially those less fortunate, and understanding that almost everyone is less fortunate. We make our lives better through making other lives better.

Greed, thinking mostly of ourselves, is a path to misery. Doubt that? Think greed pays? Then just try to imagine the fraction of a man in the White House ever being happy. I've never seen a more miserable creature. In my kinder moments, I pity him. The rest of the time I have other feelings about him.

Even some of his stuff might turn out good, but being kind means doing good deliberately. John Tumino does that with In My Father's Kitchen. My wife does that working with pre-school teachers, kids, and their families. You likely do that raising children and caring for aging parents. Real kindness is the result of our choices.

Sometimes doing good is draining, tiring, and seems hopeless. Yet, we still know it is good. That's why we keep doing it.

That's also why I'm not hopeless yet. I believe in kindness because the alternative is a road to suicide and because I see kindness in my world, especially in my immediate vicinity. I'm shown kindness too often not to believe.

Does kindness win in the end? Maybe, but that's a foolish question. There is no winning nor any end. We continue living together, understanding and helping one another as best we can, and standing in opposition to the politics of greed.

Go buy some pasta sauce. Invite people to dinner. Keep believing and being kind. Do it for the greater good.

Cool & Uncool

Do you have a steady boyfriend
Cause honey I've been watching you
I hear you're mad about Brubeck
I like your eyes, I like him too
He's an artist, a pioneer
We've got to have some music on the new frontier
—Donald Fagen, "New Frontier"

I've finished prepping dinner after bringing laundry upstairs for my wife to hang. On the speakers I'm playing the Dave Brubeck Quartet's Jazz Impressions Of Eurasia playing and there is nothing at all cool about any of this.

Back when I taught high school (all of four months ago), kids asked why I didn't wear a Gucci belt, Jordans, or whatever else they thought was cool. One kid said, "I don't know how you freaking stand being so uncool, man." (He didn't say "freaking" or "man," but the two words he used, while cool to those kids, are things I'm purging from my life).

I smiled. This was a pretty smart kid, the kind I liked and most of why I was still teaching. He smiled a little too, knowing I was about to try and teach him something. I said, "here's the best thing about getting old: you stop worrying about being cool." He nodded, then schooled me: "Yeah, you're old, but you were never cool, were you?" Touché.

I'm fifty-one and really like the classic Dave Brubeck Quartet: Desmond, Wright, Morello, and Brubeck improvising over whatever time signature no one else used. It's called cool jazz but not because the people still listening to it are cool. The cool folks are digging the newly unearthed Coltrane, the weirdly wondrous Ornette Coleman, neglected Jessica Williams, and every Miles Davis album except maybe Kind Of Blue. Look at my record collection and the largest section has Brubeck down each spine. So uncool.

That kid kind of understood. Most didn't, but he was cool in the ways that really matter. The ways I still want to be cool. He was a little bit open to things. He could be taught. He could learn. He could come to understand. He sure as hell wasn't going to listen to Brubeck and I bet wherever he is now, he's wearing a Gucci belt that isn't doing a damn thing to hold up his pants. He's cool that way too.

Me, I'm not even close. But I'm cool with that.