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Paul Newman, Bill and Ted and Yoda Walk into a Bar…

– Topher Endress

“Be excellent to each other.” – Bill (and Abraham Lincoln), Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure

“Do. Or do not. There is no try.” – Yoda, The Empire Strikes Back

“Show me a good loser and I’ll show you a loser.” – Paul Newman, Whenever he felt like it.

These quotes all have some common themes.  First, they are iconic.  Second, they posit harsh dichotomies about a particular way to live life.  I happen to think this second theme is not just important, but the entire reason that Phi Kappa Tau exists, so I would like to explore it in this post.  Since we all just celebrated Paul Newman’s birthday (or at least, you should have), I feel that it is appropriate to explore it within the context of Brother Newman’s life.

When I see these quotes, it is easy to immediately disagree with them.  Yoda and Paul’s especially.  After all, of course you can try.  It is commonly remarked that it takes 10000 hours of practice to become a master in a given skill and all of those hours are spent trying.  So how on Earth are we to take Yoda’s anti-feel good, proto-Ayn Rand koan?  And the quote on losers from Brother Newman – of course there are good losers and bad losers!  A good loser learns from their loss, they accept the defeat graciously and they don’t find cause to lose faith in themselves or hate their opponent.  So all these movie stars are just wrong, right?  Wrong.

I’m going to put something out there.  It may not be received well (or it may be, but frankly it is human nature to disagree with it and even I on some levels disagree with what I’m writing).  Here it is: There is no such thing as being a ‘pretty good guy.’  You are either a man of exemplary character, or you are not good enough.  That is a bold statement.  It destroys the concept of an ‘average.’  It can readily be taken in so many terrible directions that it should probably not be said.  But it must be.  Let’s look at Paul’s life to see what this looks like.

Paul Newman.  Brother in Phi.  Movie star.  One of the biggest names in American celebrity culture in all of history.  Race car driver.  Served in the Navy in the Battle of Okinawa.  Created a successful line of food products.  Plus, he looked like this:

Ok, I swooned when I first saw this too.

Your mothers just fainted.

This man was on top of the world for a good chunk of his life.  He was by all accounts successful in multiple areas of life, had the fame and fortune of Hollywood and was beloved by women everywhere for his conventional good looks.  But Brother Newman did not stop with being incredibly successful.  To be a man of exemplary character, Paul Newman realized that he had to go beyond what the world would deem “enough.”

Last year, over 50,000 children and families were impacted by a life-giving camp system aimed at allowing kids with serious illnesses the chance to reclaim the childhood that disease had tried to strip away.  SeriousFun (formerly Hole in  the Wall) was started by Paul Newman in 1988, though he did not need anything else to add to his resumé to be considered a legend by any standard.  According to the most reliable source I know (read: Wikipedia), he started it with the aim that no child should have to compromise their childhood because of a serious illness.  What do you see when you look to the history of SeriousFun?  You see philanthropy.  You see commitment.  You see character.  What you don’t see is a man who has decided that he is good enough to stop.

When you allow yourself to think about your role in the world with words like “merely,” “above average,” “decent” and/or “pretty good,” you allow an opportunity to significantly impact the people around you in a positive way slip away.  We should always be excellent to each other – from our family and our brothers to our schools and our communities.  And don’t think that just because Alex Winter (who didn’t quite reach the same level of fame as his counterpart, Keanu Reeves) said it, the deeper meaning of that statement is lessened at all.  We are called not be good to each other, not to be ok with each other, not to be decent to each other, but the be excellent.  I promise you there is a difference.  To be excellent to the people around you will drastically impact their lives.  Doing it halfway doesn’t cut it – you will not change lives by being the “pretty good.”  Brother Newman was excellent to children with serious illnesses, and their lives were changed forever by it.  Who can you be excellent to today, and how might it impact them?

Likewise, the actions you take should be done with a balls-to-the-wall, fierce passion that is befitting of a true Man of Character.  This means that the actions you take should be worthwhile in and of themselves – no one cares if you go all out to win Mario Kart.  But the old adage, anything worth doing is worth doing well, rings true in Yoda’s words.  To try is to attempt to do something.  You can try to do anything, but it doesn’t mean that you are really striving towards anything at all.  Trying is a way of hedging your bets, of preemptively guarding yourself for the loss you might take – and being guarded is a surefire way to sabotage yourself.  To do is to actually push towards the real goal; whether the world determines you to have failed or succeeded, you have either done or done not.  And while failure can hurt, it is the kind of hurt that tells you that your actions at least mattered.  Doing is never a failure because your actions had an impact on the world, whether you hit your stated goal or not.  True failure is not missing the mark, true failure is wasting your time by doing nothing.

Any religion that is worth its salt would ask its adherents to give themselves over fully to the beliefs and actions that come with it.  No minister, rabbi, iman, priest, monk, or any other religious leader would tell you that being “pretty good” is the way to be.  If you believe in something, you should dive in head first and be enveloped by it.  If you want to be a man, jump in and build up your character every single day.  Do not be content to merely exist – you have a presence that should be felt by the world around you.  Either you do it or you don’t.

So Yoda, Bill and Ted, and Paul Newman walk into a bar.  Then they treat the people around them excellently, in a manner that the world has almost forgotten, and then they go out and do great things with an unbridled passion that may or may not be successful, but could never be a true failure.

Who Do You Say that I Am?

– Topher Endress

I don’t know where I first heard the term, but a humblebrag is a statement that someone uses to try to look humble, but really are just bragging.  Imaginative name, I know.  But, though the definition is pretty straight-forward, let me give you an example: “I really struggled with being impatient this weekend.  It was just really hard to stay focused all the time, especially since I was leading a weekend retreat for a group if developmentally handicapped students.”

See, I admit to being impatient, and therefore appear humble. But then I mention in the same breath that I selflessly spent my weekend serving a group of special needs guys.  Thus, a humblebrag.

I don’t really have any reason for bringing up that term other than I wanted to bring up this weekend and couldn’t without inadvertently bragging.  I felt like I could justify it if I called myself out first.

Now that that is out of the way, on to the real story!  I am a fairly new presence in these kids’ lives, and many don’t have great memories skills to begin with.  As such, I had to tell them my name several times throughout the weekend.  And sometimes, when they couldn’t remember and didn’t want to ask, they would make something up. At one point, a guy named Clay decided to go with the nickname, “boss-man.”  I like to think he meant boss as in “that guy is so boss,” and not “that guy is one bossy S.O.B.”

It was a pretty cool nickname for the weekend, but it got me thinking about whatit we are called and we call each other.  This summer, my predominate nickname was “Go 4 (Gopher) Topher,” in part because that is how I was required to answer the walkie and partially because I was constantly running around and doing little tasks for everyone.  Before that, I generally didn’t have a good nickname.  (I was, however, recently called “The Enforcer,” which was a nickname I had always wanted.)  However, it is still interesting how people choose to talk about you.  Maybe I’m just weird, but I notice how people address me.

“Bro” is a popular one.  “Dude” and “man” are obviously popular as well.  But then, they are for pretty much every guy.  But sometimes, one of my good friends will refer to me as his “brother.”  I cannot tell you how much I appreciate when that happens.  Sure, having a cool nickname is fun and often an indicator of a good friendship (right, Baby Bear?), but I would so much rather hear someone call me a brother and actually mean it.

Just think about what those names mean.  Would you rather have a friend call you by some generic moniker, or by something that implies you are family?  Frankly, there is a huge difference in “bro” and “brother.”  If you think I don’t want to have your respect, feel free to ‘bro’ it up.  But if you think that I’d appreciate knowing that we have a bond deeper than mere friendship, try switching over to ‘brother.’  I can promise you that it actually means something.

Dreams Come True

– Ben Leiter

This may seem like a childish thing to say, but it actually happened to me just recently.  Anyone, when they are a kid, always has dreams of becoming something great in their minds: a fireman, a policeman, the President.  My dream ever since starting to play the drum set in eighth grade was to be in a band.  I’m not talking your everyday school concert or marching band or just a volunteer group at a church, but in a genuine band.

My best friend at the time, being quite ambitious, said he would learn guitar, and would make one of his friends learn bass.  Needless to say, that never happened.  I was in high school marching and concert bands all throughout high school, played at my church on Sunday mornings, and found myself quite often just playing drums in my room to songs on my iPod.  I was beginning to think I was stuck in the musical world of an amateur drummer.

About two and a half years ago I met my friend Aaron Milbourn.  He is quite the character, and I was even more ecstatic to find out that he had his own band, Flight of the Fallen, with Tyler McCoskey.  Even before then, I had given up on my dream of being in a band, but I was still excited to meet someone who shared the same passions as me.

About a year ago now, Aaron asked me if I would play djembe for a song on his EP, Unshakeable.  Of course I said yes, and after recording the one song, I set up my drums because he just wanted to jam.  I was beside myself at this point and just had a blast.

Aaron and I really did not talk much until about a month ago because I was busy in school, and he was moving locations due to a job change, which he was now settling into.  However, he called me one night out of the blue, and said, “…me and Ty were talking, and we were wondering if you would want to record drums for our new album.”  His drummer had become busy beforehand and now attends Rose-Hulman, a little far of a drive.  My mouth moved; no words came out.  It was literally a dream come true

I think in this day and age people begin to think too realistically and lose hope for what they had dreamed of becoming.  Philippians 4:13 says, “I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.”  So feel free to dream of what you want to do in life.  There is hope that, one day, someone may just surprise you and your dreams will come true.  Oh, and did I mention that the name of the album I recorded for is ‘There Is Hope’?

Fatherhood

– Topher Endress

It’s probably no surprise to any of you that I want to have kids one day.  I did after all work with high school students throughout all of college, substitute taught middle school kids and even did childcare at my church every now and then.  I spent my summer working with seriously ill kids at camp (if you haven’t applied for a SeriousFun camp in some capacity by now, I am very disappointed).  Even now, I’m tutoring some first graders at a local elementary school.  Not that I’m getting baby crazy, but once you hit mid-20’s and realize that you are good friends with people who procreate, you start to think about what having kids brings to the table.  And thinking about kids makes you realize several things about the importance of framing.

When a little kid asks you a question, it is usually more than that.  Sure, they may want the answer, but they are also trying to figure out the context of their world.  It’s a commonly repeated statement that kids crave structure – I think this is in part because they don’t have the experience or knowledge to provide any real structure to their own worlds yet.  And so how we, as adults, talk to kids is vastly important.  As they grow, children will learn more and more from the adults around them – directly through education and indirectly through actions and paradigms.  Books are incredible, but until you can pick apart the author’s personality and underlying framework for yourself, there need to be people that will teach you to contextualize your world.

You’re right, this IS a lot of responsibility.  It’s why I don’t want to see kids conceived “accidentally.”    How can you look at something so awe-inspiringly significant and not find it necessary to be at least a tiny bit philosophically prepared?  Most couples I know did this.  They shared a worldview and discussed it with each other.  They talk about what kind of schools to put their kids in.  What kind of churches to raise them in.  What kind of stories to tell them, movies to watch with them, toys to buy them, people to interact with them.  But whether you ever consider exactly how to contextualize their world or what you hope that they learn, you as a parent will color their interpretation of what they see.  Since that is inevitable, I might as well start thinking about the truths of the world that I want my kids to know.

There are several parenting methods and philosophies out there.  I can’t tell you that any one of them isn’t valid for some children, especially not having kids of my own.  It certainly isn’t my place to tell anyone that they aren’t raising their kids the right way.  But, I do think that parenting should, for the most part, be a natural extension of the way the parents think about the world.  To do something other than that seems disingenuous (of course, you have to be adaptable and flexible – I’ve heard that from pretty much every parent I’ve ever met.  Making a few rules that are out of character doesn’t make you a hypocrite at all).  And so, based on my orientation of this world, I had* this thought about raising kids.

One day when my kids worry about the monsters under their beds, the strange things in their closets, the menace of shadows outside their window, I don’t want to be the father that teaches his children that there are no monsters. That nothing can hurt them. That they are safe. No, I want to be the father who teaches his children how to fight back. How to kill their monsters. How to champion their own safety. Because the monsters do exist. There are terrifying truths about our world that children have to learn.  It will be a temptation to protect them.  To keep them from ever finding out about the hurt and brokenness out there.  But it will inevitably find them, just as it found all of us.  Every man knows about the paralyzing fear that can come with discovering one’s own mortality, but every good father knows their child can always be stronger with the right training.  So when I’m called in to check the closet and under the bed for monsters that aren’t there, I’ll be suiting my kids up for battle.  Because one day, my kids will be called into war, to fight real monsters, to battle against bullies and cancer and asking girls out and racism and injustice and learning to drive, and I will know that they will be ready.  HOORAH!

*Much like Mick Jagger’s composition of ‘Satisfaction,’ I dreamed it first, then woke up to write it down.

Keep on keepin’ on

-Baby Bear

Men of Phi Tau, one of my favorite things about being a little religious has to be the comfort I get.  Some people may think this to be a crutch but I believe that if someone hands you a hammer and says “drive in that nail”, I’m probably going to use the hammer.  Whether it be exams or money issues, humans are social creatures, everyone has or needs a little support when things get stressful.  I urge you to find out who your support is whether it be friends, family, a God, or many gods and thank them for getting you through life when it gets to the point of lame times infinity.

I’d like to share with you men my what I personally do when things seem to overwhelm.  It’s a little prayer that I stole from a saint who said it a long time ago.  It’s short, sweet, and nice and I even abridged to where my small attention span can get through it and remember it.

Lord,

grant me the serenity

to accept the things I cannot change,

the courage

to change the things that I can,

and the wisdom

to know the difference.

That’s what gets me through the day.  I’d love if you readers could comment and say what gets you through exam week and the like.

A message about living

– Baby Bear

Men of Phi Tau, I’d like to tell you about something I learned today.  As you all know it’s election day and Americans all over the country are casting ballots trying to decide who will be in charge of leading the free world for the next four years.  I, of course, am away from home today and because of a weird mixture of exams and quizes this week I’m resigned to vote with an absentee ballot.  I put off sending in my registration until the last minute, all the information was available to me but I waited anyway.  It turns out though that what I think is the last minute is much different than what the state of Michigan thinks the last minute is and I missed the deadline.  Now I’m stuck having told many haughty people that I was going to cancel out their votes with mine and not being able to.  The importance of voting varies from place to place and person to person but my family holds it in especially high regard so I can’t tell them I didn’t vote and i definitely can’t tell my roommates and other friends who know how I feel about voting because of the fall out.  Weirdly this bothers be, bothers me quite a bit, thoughts about it keep running through my head and I can’t shake it, what if the state votes the other way by one vote? Things like that, silly but they bother me.  

The moral of the story is, when they say “live without any regrets” they don’t mean go out and do crazy things like bungie jumping and stuff, they mean in your day to day life, avoid things that you’ll regret because however small, you have no idea what will keep you up at night.  And for pete’s sake, I have enough trouble sleeping as it is.