Processing A Hoax

A few months ago, my wife was taking our daughter for a walk in her stroller and accidentally left the garage door open. When she returned, the door in the garage that led into our house was also open. She couldn’t find her house keys, car keys and wallet — which usually hung on a hook just inside that strangely ajar interior garage door. It was freaky.

She made sure no one was in the house, retraced her steps, and tore the house apart looking for the keys and wallet. Since there had been quite a few recent incidents of people stealing unlocked cars and intruding into unlocked homes in the middle of the night — even in our very safe neighborhood — we decided to file a police report. The cops recommended that, if we couldn’t find the keys, we change the locks the next day. As an added precaution, we ended up sleeping at my parents’ house that night. My wife got the locks changed the next morning, but soon after doing so, she found the keys under a random flap on my daughter’s stroller. All turned out to be OK, but not without some tense moments of losing all sense of security that we had moments earlier completely taken for granted.

This story played out on a grander scale today at Northwestern University, my beloved alma mater. The stakes were obviously much higher: Evanston police received a call from someone claiming to have killed his girlfriend in a Northwestern graduate residence building. Northwestern’s emergency communications protocol swung into action, sending texts and making calls to all students, faculty and staff to alert them of the situation and urging them to take cover in a safe place.

It was more than an hour before the official “All Clear” message was released, and the incident was revealed to be a hoax. The call had come from somewhere near Rockford and the woman referenced was unharmed and in no danger, according to police. While this is probably the best possible outcome for a harrowing situation like this, the incident still caused a university-wide panic.

While for many people following the news, this was simply a moment of relief from “what might have been,” to me it was so much more than that.

Having studied and worked at Northwestern for more than 13 years, this was the equivalent of a home invasion for me. I also spent six years working in the office tasked with handling emergency communications (and was there for some tough stuff), which made receiving the news of today’s events particularly jarring.

I had just turned my phone back on after landing in Dallas on my way back to Chicago, when it immediately blew up with text message. Several other former University Relations coworkers were trading what little details were available via text and pondering what must be happening at our former office in these moments. Another former coworker and a fellow alum were sending me several tweets related to the situation.

Most importantly, my Mom texted me to say that my youngest brother — a current junior — was not on campus when the alert went out and was safe.

Scanning my Facebook and Twitter feeds — filled with posts from students I had taught and staff and faculty I had worked with — painted a horrifying picture of the terror that gripped the place that was my home as a student for 5 years and as a staff member for 8 years. There’s a photo of 18 students huddled on the floor of a professor’s tiny office. There’s a photo of a classroom door with all of the chairs and desks stacked against the door. There are accounts of students running to closets and other hidden away areas of the student center upon receiving the emergency alerts.

While the shooting might have been a hoax, everything else that happened this afternoon was for real: the emergency texts, the police activity, the chaos, the uncertainty and the immediate coverage of little old Northwestern by national media outlets. It prompted visions of an alternate reality in which NU joined the statistics of all the other recent shootings in schools and public places.

Even though I wasn’t there to experience it in person, I feel that with today’s developments, the long shadow of gun violence in our country has finally touched me on a more personal level. I don’t pretend to have the political answers or perfect gun control policy changes, but something’s got to give. The value of human life is too sacred and our safety is too important for us to allow these kinds of things to happen so easily.

The reason that a hoax had to be taken so seriously today is because current events remind us that this is so often not a hoax. It is our sad new reality — a reality in which I can get on a plane for an hour and land to the news of violence and terror engulfing the people I love in a place that I love.

I’m praying a little bit harder tonight for all of the victims of the many violent incidents that resulted in far more than fear and false alarms. May their pain and loss be a constant reminder to us of the dignity of human life and the need to care for one another.


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The Commencement Address You Didn’t Ask Me For

This weekend marks 10 years since I graduated from Northwestern University with a smile on my face and a bachelor of science in journalism degree in my hand. NU hasn’t asked me to return to deliver the commencement address yet, but I’m going to pretend that they did. Here’s what I would say, 10 years out.
IMG_0575Good morning, Wildcats of the Class of 2015. And congratulations. You’re going to hear that a lot this weekend. You probably already have. Don’t let the phrase become meaningless–you should be proud of what you’ve accomplished and the incredibly select club of which you are now a part. It doesn’t make you better than anyone, but it does make you potentially more powerful by society’s standards, and therefore more indebted to everyone who has helped you to achieve this distinction.

You’ve worked hard to earn your sweaty place in that cap and gown on that plastic chair on this football field. You worked hard to get into this school. You’ve probably worked hard your entire life. But if you want your string of nearly uninterrupted successes to continue, you’re about to work a whole lot harder. I think what everyone should actually be saying to you is, “Congratulations…your move.”

The Oregon Trail of your life has led you to this moment. You forded the river, you avoided dysentery and you made it to Oregon. What are you going to do now that you’re here? Open a general store? Sell your remaining cattle? Head back to Independence, Missouri? (I think that option is called graduate school.) No matter your next move, the pre-determined trail has ended. You outgrew the map and now you have to draw a new one…or at least fumble around in the general direction of where you want to go. Trust me, general direction fumbling still trumps straight up aimless wandering.

Being a full decade removed from the cap and gown and plastic chair, I can tell you that I am certainly not an expert cartographer. But in the last 10 years I have at least uncovered a few guiding principles that are now scrawled in the margins of my map. These five principles won’t stop you from making mistakes, but they might get you out of mistakes faster or at least make your mistakes more interesting in the retelling.

Like any advice worth its salt, my first principle comes from the immortal Billy Zane:

1. Make your own luck.

One of the most important things to remember when you get a post-collegiate, Real World job is that no one is actually looking out for you anymore except for you. You might have the nicest boss in the world and the greatest coworkers of all time and the most caring HR representative on the face of the Earth, but ultimately it’s on you to make sure that this job is satisfying your particular needs. Are you over-worked? Are you bored? Do you care about your work? Is your job description growing and your paycheck staying the same? These are questions that only you can answer and situations only you can remedy. Your parents can’t talk to the principal and help you like they did in high school. You can’t just wait out the quarter for the awful class to end like you did in college. You have to take your own bull by its horns. You have to make your own luck.

I’ve held three different jobs over the last 10 years. In two of those three, the bull started running loose in one way or another, but I at least attempted to take it by the horns. If you do that and the bull still isn’t cooperating, maybe it’s time to get a new bull.

2. Find a strong supporting cast

What’s the best thing about a great TV show? Usually the answer is the cast. You can have a great premise and strong writing, but if the cast can’t act or doesn’t work well together, the show is going to flop. You are the lead actor, writer and casting director of your life, so make sure your supporting cast is strong. If someone is hurting the integrity of the show, don’t be afraid to write them out of the next season. At the same time, once you’ve assembled an all-star ensemble, do your part to keep them all together until the series finale.

Just like it said I would on the brochure website, I made lifelong friends in college that I’m still in frequent contact with today. I also made supposedly lifelong friends in college that I rarely hear from and never make time to see. In both cases, I am half of the reason that those relationships are what they are. Friendship is an investment of mutual time and interest. It is also a choice. Make good choices! When faced with the inevitable changes life will throw your way–new jobs, new cities, unexpected challenges–you will realize the importance of the familiar faces who are there to help you…and you will realize that you invited them to stick around. Just remember that they’re only going to be there if you are a strong supporting character in their show, too.

3. Enjoy the wait.

I’ll bet your four years at Northwestern went by in a flash. Mine did. There was always something new and exciting happening to keep things entertaining and make time fly: a student group to join, a new round of classes, another a capella show to attend, meeting new people, winter breaks, spring breaks, summer breaks. It’s a blur.

The Real World doesn’t always work like that. There are long stretches where seemingly nothing is going on and you’re stuck in a rut. Your work feels monotonous. You’re having trouble getting a date. Your Facebook newsfeed (or whatever you kids are into today) is convincing you that everyone else is experiencing the happiness, success and personal fulfillment that you long for. Well, first of all, they’re not. Second of all, things are happening at every moment–things that you have no awareness of–that will change your life forever. Sometimes the time you spend waiting for what you want is directly proportional to the time it takes for you to be ready to get what you want. You can’t land your dream job without the requisite experience. You can’t marry your wife if you’re not secure enough in yourself to be a good husband. The saw needs sharpening, and that’s what the waiting room is for. When the time finally comes, you’ll recognize it and you’ll be fully prepared.

4. Become a Minister of Fun.

As some of the above principles have hinted at, life after college can be challenging, daunting, lonely, perplexing, frustrating and other scary words. It will also be about as much fun as you let it be–another element of your life over which you have vast control. And how do you make your life more fun? By making it more fun for everyone around you. Join your office’s party-planning committee. Bring in Dunkin’ Donuts on your birthday. Decorate your cube for holidays. Start an office softball team. Send a random e-mail to one of those lifelong friends that you haven’t connected with in a while. Plan a surprise birthday party for your brother. Be the fun you want to see in the world.

Incidentally, all of the above suggestions have been tried by yours truly and found to be effective. My life is really fun–and fun is contagious. At least walk around with a smile on your face. People will either smile back or think you know something they don’t. Win-win.

5. Be grateful.

As is customary with most lists, the final principle is the most important and also one of the most difficult. Gratitude is a dying art in the world today. Make sure the road behind you is littered with thank you notes. Like it or not, you didn’t get anywhere by yourself. Remember that supporting cast? You’re always standing on someone else’s shoulders or being carried in someone else’s palm. If you really think you did something completely on your own, kneel down before you go to bed and see if it occurs to you from whom all your blessings are flowing. Another thank you is probably in order. Thank Him for the luck. Thank Him for the cast. Thank Him for the wait. Thank Him for the fun. There’s no such thing as being too thankful.

Well, Class of 2015, thank you for listening. Before you know it, you’ll be 10 years graduated from Northwestern and they won’t be asking you back to give a commencement address. But don’t worry. You can use that time to figure out exactly what you would want to say.

Congratulations…your move!