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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.


– 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.

Memorial Day

– Topher Endress

As today is Memorial Day, I thought it would be pertinent to write a post about the Armed Service members of our country.  Naturally, this is a bit of a dicey issue, as so many of the men I am writing to are on track to be highly involved with the military throughout the rest of their lives.  Add in the fact that half of my friends think I’m a bleeding-heart liberal (while ironically, the other half think I’m a conservative nut-job), and this post suddenly becomes a potential firestorm of misunderstood words and angry backlash.  Luckily, I think my point in this post will be accepted by both bleeding-hearts and nut-jobs alike.

So, typically on Memorial Day, I’m told by a variety of pundits through my t.v. that I should be honoring our current and former military.  And I do know several people currently serving overseas (including the ‘hot zones,’ if you will), and several who did see combat (including family members), so at first it seems like a no brainer.  But this weekend, I got to thinking, “Is honoring our military valid if you do not support military efforts?  Should you in good conscious honor someone who is dedicated to doing work that you do not necessarily affirm?”  Not to say that I personally stand against our military, but many in the country question much, if not all, of our policies.   Are they truly participating in Memorial Day?  Should they be participating?  Would honoring current soldiers violate their personal beliefs and make them liars?

As I’ve thought about how to approach the holiday, I’ve come to a conclusion – the characteristics held as ideals by our armed services are by-in-large worthy of anyone’s honor, regardless of political beliefs, personal beliefs or affiliation.  These characteristics are being made manifest by those who are serving and are still present in those who have served in the past.  Ideals like bravery and self-sacrifice are incredibly powerful and should  not be lightly discarded.  However, one could not simply say that the military itself deserves the laudations of every citizen, regardless of the necessary role it plays in fostering these positive characteristics.  The military is a collection of individuals, and I do not believe that I could possibly honor a mere system, especially considering that I do not believe most people (myself included) can give a blanket affirmation of any given system that is so large and plays so many roles.  It is infeasible to assume that most Americans support every single action taken by the Armed Services, but it is my personal belief that Memorial Day should be recognized to honor every single person with the Armed Services.

Memorial Day reminds us not to honor a system or a series of numbers.  Don’t spend today paying homage to the 416,800 servicemen who died in WW2, or the 1.3 million on active duty.  Spend today instead recognizing that each of our branches and each of those giant numbers are filled with people.  Regardless of your personal thoughts on our military strategy, if we can affirm the inherent worth of each person then we can also recognize the incredible sacrifice and hardship placed on each of those 1.3 million.  I don’t need to support every war to support every soldier.  I don’t need to love the system to love the sacrifice.  And don’t assume that supporting the military equates to honoring the people within it.  Today, put aside any political cares.  Drop the liberalism, drop the conservatism.  Forget party lines.  These are men and women.  Remember that each of them is a person and that they have worth.  They are working actively within their belief that what they do makes the world a better place.  I don’t care who you vote for, that’s worth honoring.

Happy Memorial Day to everyone.  And thank you to all of you willing to sacrifice so much for what you believe in.

70 Day Challenge from Nalu!

– Nalu Camanse

This is not so much a blog as it is a personal challenge that I am pushing towards all of you who are reading this.  For the next 10 weeks as many of you know, I will be back at home in the great state of Hawaii.  That’s 70 days, 24 hours, 100,800 minutes, and 6,048,000 seconds of my life on an island.  Yes, yes I know many of you feel so bad for me.  This though for me was a very tough choice to make given the factors that are currently coming at me full speed ahead.  For example, real life starts after graduation on December 16, student loans repayments start coming in, and the never ending bills upon bills upon bills start knocking on your door.  All of this requires a great job, in a place that you will hopefully enjoy.  For me that is the west coast, hopefully southern California.  Now I know your sitting there thinking what does any of this have to do with this 70 day challenge?  Well, if I am going to spend my summer in Maui instead of working more directly with my future goals, I know I need to be using my time wisely.  I am challenging myself and all of you to beat the previous day’s achievements every day.  You know what you’ve accomplished and are the sole determinant who knows if you won the next day.  I am  doing it and will be keeping a log of it throughout the summer.  Heck it doesn’t have to just be throughout the summer, this could be something that you integrate into your everyday life.  So, what are you waiting for, get started!  Good Luck!

How to Give Advice Like a Man

– Topher Endress

I have found some steps that I think allow us to be able to give advice like men.  It is something that we should all learn, because men of character will be looked to for advice in other people’s lives.  This may not be comprehensive or scientific, but I think it is a start.

A) Determine if you should really give them advice

  1. Ask yourself if the person in question actually wants advice (Protip: if it is a woman, chances are she just wants you to listen.  Refrain from trying to immediately fix all of her problems)
  2. Ask yourself if the person actually needs the advice you want to give.
  3. Ask yourself if you are really the best person to give that advice.
  4. Ask yourself how you know that the advice is right.

Now that you are carefully thought about whether you should be giving this person advice, it is time to…

B) Figure out the best way to say it

  1. If you should be giving them advice, you should be confident.  Not that you are completely right, but that you would act the same way in their shoes.
  2. Ask more questions before giving any answers.  Questions often lead people to the right answers anyway, and they are more likely to take their own advice than yours.
  3. You should work to come up with a solution with the person, not for the person.
  4. Make sure that you have the necessary knowledge of how to implement your advice AND the knowledge of potential consequences.

Congrats for making it this far!  You are now ready to…

C) Give the advice

  1. If they wanted you to control their whole lives, they’d let you know.  Stick to the single topic at hand.
  2. Be strong, but not overbearing.  You cannot control anyone, nor should you.  You have reason to be confident and strong (they came to you, afterall), but you have no reason to be overly forceful.
  3. Be understanding, but don’t pussyfoot.  “Well, maybe, if you thought it might work, it could be possible, maybe, that you might consider something like…” I don’t care what advice they follow that up with – if it isn’t good enough for you to state, it isn’t good enough for me to listen to.
  4. Step back after you are done.  Giving advice means that you are speaking into a situation that you are not directly involved in.  Therefore, any time you give advice you should know to butt out when your part is over.

Hopefully, these 3 steps (and 12 substeps) are helpful to you when giving advice in the future.  If not, I clearly don’t know what else to tell you.

Saturday: The House/Respect as a Defining Value

– Topher Endress

DISCLAIMER: I will not release the name of the chapter we visited, nor will I make any sort of personal attack on the men – our brothers – who we met on our trip.  My intent is simply to explore how we can learn from an existing chapter, including flaws that were apparent for at least the little time we spent with them.  Please do infer anything about whether this is a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ chapter – these are still our brothers, and we owe it to them to love and serve them just as well as anyone in our colony.  That being said…

On our way home, we wanted to connect with one of our chapters across the country.  With a few nearby, we should probably have done this sooner, but it is always cool to get to see a new place.  After calling approximately 6 million numbers, none of which were right, we managed to get a hold of someone who was actually in a chapter near one of our potential routes.  I would like to say that it was a crazy experience, where Doppler and I did things unimaginably awesome that would seem far-fetched even in a National Lampoon movie, but in all honesty, it was pretty vanilla.  Their campus was nice and their house was awesome on the outside – very new and fancy.  The inside wasn’t in great shape, but only because we happened to visit the morning after St. Patty’s Day/Founder’s Day.  Let’s just say that there were several monochromatic drinking receptacles, with the remains of some traditional liquids still in some, scattered festively about.  Overall, I liked their house a lot.  What I didn’t like was what I heard while I was there.

First, there was very little enthusiasm when we showed up.  I’m not saying I wanted a parade, but some acknowledgement that we share a connection that makes us closer than strangers.  When we eventually get a house, PLEASE treat guest with not just respect, but with enthusiasm and excitement.  Brothers are brothers, so despite whether you know them or not, remember that they are essentially family.  But hey, they were probably suffering from “being up too late” the night before, so no biggie.

As we went on the house tour, we stopped by some rooms and had a chat with most of the guys left (they were starting Spring Break).  It was fine talking to them, again, these weren’t bad guys.  But during the conversation, it became apparent that what they were focused on and how they chose to talk around us were different from how we have interpreted our values as Men of Character.  Again, they were being honest, but as a guest, I wasn’t expecting to hear about things like drunken exploits, poor sexual decisions and disagreements with other brothers/national staff.

These are things that happen.  Experiences that our colony has had/will have.  However, these are not the things to be talking about to two people you have just met.  Still, the worst part was in how they interacted with each other.  There was such an obvious lack of respect for each other that at times, I actually felt bad for some of them. It wasn’t just the back-and-forth typical of guys, it was stuff that showed a disregard for the value of their brother.

They also talked down to pledges and freshmen and spoke of making them do things (not hazing – need to stress that) that made them to seem like less than full, valued men.  Let me just say this – yes, younger guys need to learn about the community, rules, values and traditions of the chapter.  However, that does not mean that they need to prove themselves.  No pledge should be expected to clean the house as a way of getting into our chapter.  If they are worthy of getting a bid, they are worthy on their own merit – not because they can take the abuse of the older brothers.  As an alumnus as of May, I will not see our first few pledge classes, but some of you will.  You will need to be the leaders here.  If you have to rely on the younger guys to do the grunt work, you need more humility and a stronger work ethic.  And if you need to ‘test’ them on things like cleaning up on a Saturday morning, maybe you need to learn to choose men of character better.  We should be above things like that.  OK, done with the rant.

Long story short, what I did not see at the other chapter was Respect.  Respect for the organization we are a part of.  Respect for the spirit of brotherhood.  Respect for each individual.  We are young, and still growing.  Going forward, we can progress or we can simply move along.  To move along, we charter and become a typical fraternity.  To progress, we show the world that Men of Character value respect.  Because if you can’t show someone else respect, what are you telling them about yourself?

How can you show someone you already respect how you feel today?  Who do you know that you don’t respect?  How can you work on changing your attitude and/or actions towards them?