I’ve become much more of a book person as I’ve gotten older. Also, notebooks. That would seem quizzical to my younger self that reveled in every new productivity and reading app released on iOS or Android as I combed through blogs, subreddits, and Twitter lists, looking for the latest and greatest note-taking app.
Alas, getting old is interesting.
Screentime is definitely something that’s been on the front of my mind for the last few decades as I’ve welcomed children into this world (including Lily as of August 1!) and young people ranging from 12 to 18 into my classrooms.
I plan to read this book, so I’m using this as a space-saver for myself to return to when I’m done (and in the middle of the school year).
Screentime is a fascinating cultural concept. The amount of “screentime” we actually consume is lower than it’s ever been (no, really). But is the measurement of “time” really what we should be focused on or worried about?
Regardless, my students will still have their devices in the “off” mode, and we’ll focus on the great ideas with our brains, pen/cil, paper, and each other’s voices like we’ll continue to not have devices on during dinners or downstairs time here in our home…
Parents have a hard time when they don’t know something. I’ve written this elsewhere, but I think one of the basic things that underlies a lot of the book bannings and pronoun panics from parent-activists on the far-right is the very simple fact that parents don’t know what their kids do all day. My daughter Maeve is 7, and I volunteered this spring to help with a field trip for her first-grade class. The bus was late, and so I ended up just sitting in her classroom for about 45 minutes while the day went on as usual. Maeve is very talkative, and she loves telling us stories about her day, but it wasn’t until I sat in that classroom that I realized how little I actually knew about what the ordinary beats of that day were like, what the social dynamics were, what kind of job her wonderful teacher — hello, Mr. Diego Fernandez — is tasked with doing.
I decided to take agency and move on from social media this month after the birth of our daughter. It has been a humbling experience to live in these moments of new life made tangible by her awakening. To walk beside Merianna and be present there with her in these moments is something I never want to forget.
Moving on from social media has already been an epiphany for me in so many ways. I’m sure I’ll be reflecting on that in the coming months here.
This post is worthy of your time to read and reflect as you contemplate your next IG Story or TikTok video…
When we satisfy our desire to certify the moment with a Tweet, or a Story, or a text to a friend, or a TikTok video, we sell it short. We reduce the experience to a single, throwaway-able moment, swiped by in a second, and we set the moment free. Even worse, we leave our experience (just born, fragile and fresh) in the hands of others who may not treat it with respect. They might perceive it differently than we do, mock it, minimize it, skew it in our memories, compare it to their own experience, taint it, steal it, rob it of the feelings it initially gave to us in that first, pure moment.
Elizabeth (Lily) was born this afternoon at 2:30 PM in Columbia, SC. She is 7lbs 6oz (I called it exactly) and 50cm (19.7 inches). She and Merianna are doing great and excited for walking this journey of life together with our family, friends, colleagues, and community!
As I always tell my students on Tuesdays, “It’s the Optimistic Day!”
We were gifted a Blackstone griddle recently. I love cooking on cast iron, but I was skeptical about the Blackstone for some reason. It turned out I was wrong. I love cooking on this thing. We made dough into whole wheat pitas yesterday, and it was fantastic!
Recently, I’ve been delving into a philosophy that’s been around for centuries but feels incredibly relevant to our modern times: Stoicism. In particular, I’ve been engrossed in the works of Marcus Aurelius, his ‘Meditations,’ (there are free versions out there on the web, but this Gregory Hayes version is my favorite), and Epictetus with his ‘Discourses (again, there are free versions available on the web that are easy to find, but this is a great version that I use personally).’ It’s been a transformative experience, which I am compelled to share, as it’s begun to significantly shape my perspective on parenting and teaching.
For those unfamiliar, Stoicism is a philosophy founded in Athens in the 3rd century BC but became especially popular in the first couple centuries of the Roman Empire. It teaches the development of self-control and fortitude as a means to overcome destructive emotions. The Stoic does not seek to extinguish feelings but instead transform them with a resolute ‘askēsis‘ that enables a person to develop clear judgment and inner calm.
Marcus Aurelius, a Stoic philosopher and Roman Emperor wrote ‘Meditations’ as a source of personal guidance and self-improvement. It’s a collection of thoughts, musings, and reminders to himself about the virtues he strived to cultivate—patience, humility, and understanding.
One of my favorite quotes from Aurelius is: “The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.” This concept, often summarized as “the obstacle is the way,” has profoundly reframed challenges in my life. As a parent and a teacher, numerous unforeseen obstacles arise. Rather than viewing these as setbacks, I now see them as opportunities for growth and learning—for myself and the young minds I’m shaping.
Epictetus, a formerly enslaved person turned philosopher, taught that our reactions are the only things within our control. He said, “We cannot choose our external circumstances, but we can always choose how we respond to them.” This insight has shifted my approach to parenting. When my child gets upset, I can’t always control the situation causing the distress, but I can control my reaction. I can choose patience, understanding, and compassion.
In the classroom, the Discourses of Epictetus have also inspired me to shift my focus from the outcomes of my students to their effort and growth. This approach aligns perfectly with the Stoic emphasis on controlling what’s within our power. I can’t control the grades my students receive, but I can encourage their resilience, their determination, and their love of learning.
Stoicism, focusing on inner strength, self-control, and accepting what we cannot change, provides a robust framework for navigating life’s challenges. As I continue to study and incorporate these principles into my life, I’m better equipped to respond to the demands of parenting and teaching.
My journey into Stoicism is ongoing, and I’m excited to share more insights as they come. If you’re interested in exploring this philosophy, I recommend starting with ‘Meditations’ by Marcus Aurelius and ‘The Discourses by Epictetus (and pick up Pierre Hadot’s The Inner Citadel if you want a deep-dive). Their wisdom is timeless and, as I’ve found, profoundly applicable to our modern lives.
I’m very particular about my algorithms. Whether it’s Netflix or Disney Plus or (especially) my Spotify account… I don’t have much grace for those who mess with my beloved stats and recommendations.
Music was one of those things that changed my life as a young person and opened my eyes to a wider world of thought and expression. I would lovingly arrange my CD collection weekly by descending order of how much I liked albums or artists as a 14-year-old. That continued into my binders of CDs we all kept in our cars in the late 90s while I was in college.
Of course, Napster and the trading community around bands such as Phish and the Grateful Dead led me to many late-night sessions working on papers and burning CDs on my trusty desktop in the early ‘00s while a grad student at Yale.
Then came the iPod. I had the second generation (yay Firewire!) and had a revelation about the portability of 1,000 songs in my pocket (A THOUSAND!). That also meant that whatever remaining physical media I had quickly became digital and I began to pour money into iTunes. Pandora came into the picture around this time, and I still have a playlist there going back to 2003.
All along the way, I waited for the day I could keep track of what I listened to and track long-term trends beyond what the iTunes interface offered. Then Last.fm launched, and I was beyond excited to have that service finally (complete with API’s and an open RSS feed that I would even tie into a Twitter bot that tweeted out what I was listening to in my house… sadly that broke in 2015). When Spotify finally arrived in the USA from Europe, I jumped on the bandwagon immediately and hooked it up to my Last.fm profile. And so, I’ve had a music catalog of what I’ve been listening to since August 2005.
Way back in 2012, I made a post about this as well. However, the Google Home and Apple HomePods were still a few years off, and my algorithms were protected. I’ve been good about keeping accounts separate and all of our children have their own Disney Plus, Netflix, and especially Spotify profiles.
However, in a moment of weakness, I connected my Spotify account to the Google Home profile that works for the device in our 4-year-old’s bedroom. BECAUSE SHE WANTED TO LISTEN TO PEPPA PIG STORIES. You can glimpse the carnage wrought on my once pristine and full of indie jangle pop Last.fm page documenting my personal music history. After just a week of torment, I now see this in my once-beloved Daily Mix.
And what is this madness on my Spotify dashboard… Grizzley and the Kids?? THE LEGO MOVIE 2 (ok, the movie was good and the ending made me cry)??
I thought about spending a few hours going through my Spotify and Last.fm profile and deleting all the 2,130 plays of Peppa Pig and associated music befouling my algorithm.
But then I stopped. And I laughed. And then I smiled. The story of my 4-year-old and our relationship is also being told here. I’ll never get back this time with her and her resolute love of Peppa Pig Stories or whatever Grizzley and the Kids is. I’ll always have this record of the seven days we got to share something very important to me and hopefully one day to her.
Being a parent means giving so much of yourself in completely unexpected ways. We know that we will have to give our young ones time, money, attention, lessons, sleep, etc. We don’t ever imagine something like a Spotify algorithm or list of songs that seemingly meant so much over the last 20 years could be impacted by a child or given over to them for a week.
But they are, and that’s amazing.
In the giving and sharing of ourselves as parents, we find the real soundtrack of our life and how our selfish wishes or want of specific songs to be played do not always determine that soundtrack.
So thank you to my 4-year-old for the reality check and the lesson she has given me with her songs. And for sharing those with me on my algorithm. Her playlist is amazing. I can’t wait to see how the soundtrack of her life develops and to know I will carry a little snippet of it here.
But rest assured… I changed her Google Home device’s default music service option to Apple Music since I don’t care about that algorithm. She can totally take Apple Music 🙂
When I was a boy, I was always jealous of my friends who had fathers with a career. Whether it was a tobacco salesman at one of the many warehouses in our small rural town at the time, or whether it was the local attorney or Lance Truck delivery guy… there was something I felt prestigious about having a career with a “real job” attached to your identity. My dad was on track to be an architect before he went to work for himself. I just recently stole a notebook of his drawings from that time before I was born (sorry, Dad). He would mention buildings or features that he designed in his earlier career path as we drove past them on the way to yet another car dealership in the area. We’ve never discussed it, but I always wondered what it would be like to have a dad with a formal career.
Dad has always been the entrepreneurial type and I can’t count the number of other side ventures he’s been involved with to go along with his main profession as a car wholesaler. He’s carried a leather briefcase for most of his life, and I used to sneak extra copies of his evolving business cards to put in my briefcase (which I, unfortunately, didn’t realize was not considered a cool fashion accessory during the first few days of Middle School).
But yet, he created his own job. As did his father. As did my Great Grand Father. Probably further back on down the line if I go check our family history file. There’s something about growing up in a small rural town of just a couple thousand people that makes you create your own path, whether that’s politically or theologically… or career-wise. Our town was full of women and men who were self-starters and “worked for themselves.”
God Helps Those Who Help Themselves could be on the official seal of Mullins, SC.
Perhaps that’s why I coveted a dad with a career in a fancy office building that he’d go off to in a white shirt and tie every morning after we ate corn flakes and he asked me how I liked my teacher and how the homework was going as he read the folded up paper at the breakfast table. Instead, I would see my dad often during the day in his mobile office. That’s what I called his truck. It was always full of papers and industry figures on cars and random tools or car parts. He’d drive up at 11 am or 2 pm or 4 pm while I was outside playing basketball in our yard. We’d exchange quick hello’s then go about our day. He’d drive off again after and I’d see him a few hours later. Dad would also travel to cities with exotic sounding names like Charleston or Savannah or Lumberton or Atlanta. I’d find the cities in our copy of The World Book and try to guess how far they were from Mullins. While he was on these trips, I would often stay up late drawing the logo for the business I was going to create in a big office building in a big town somewhere (hopefully Chicago so that I could go see the Cubs play when things weren’t too busy). I still have a notebook from childhood with a few of those drawings and designs for the invisible company. It was going to be called Harrelson Agency and the logo was a fancy “H” that I lifted from a crystal glass that was in the China cabinet that I wasn’t supposed to ever dare touch (I did).
After I left Mullins for college (where I got to fly on planes and travel overseas) and then graduate school (in another part of the country, even), I moved to Columbia. I had the option to go back home and teach there (in an alternate universe, there’s a very happy and inspired 40 years old AP US History Teacher Sam doing his thing), but we chose Columbia. I ended up in the classroom for a while but was tempted away by what I had always sought… a job in an office.
I stumbled into the marketing agency building here in Columbia on my first day not knowing much of anything about the real profession of marketing. I was good with computers and had a pretty quick wit, so I guess that was good enough to land the job in 2002. I loved the job and the connections I was making with people all around the world even if I was just writing email copy or begging advertisers for money. I bought a home. I had a steady paycheck with a beautiful girlfriend and a dog and I wore a white shirt and tie to work every day. Living the dream, I thought.
Then as the months went by, I started realizing I should be getting more money. I was “Sam Harrelson” after all. I was important to the company. I should get at least a commission on these big deals I was landing, right? I was 25 and knew everything.
I even considered becoming a registered Republican. As those thoughts entered my mind, I quickly realized it was time for my next career step. That’s what a career is, right? It’s a series of vertical movements until you hit a “Chief” position where there’s no one to tell you what to do. So I made vertical moves over the next few years until I realized enough was … well … enough. And I walked away from the office job with the white shirt and tie. I walked away from that career. I ended up back in a classroom.
Teaching wasn’t just a job for me. It was and is my true passion. I don’t know why. Some people love jumping out of airplanes. Some people love selling makeup. I love teaching. I’ll teach anything (just give me an hour to brush up beforehand). My partner has become accustomed to my dinner table mini-lessons on the newest star formation in the Orion constellation or how Egyptian mummification techniques changed rapidly in the late Ptolemaic period, or why 2 Samuel’s depiction of Uriah is so damning today. She handles me with grace.
Over the course of 8 years as a professional teacher, I taught 11th grade American literature, 8th-grade science, 8th-grade robotics, 8th-grade algebra, 7th-grade pre-algebra, 7th-grade science, 7th grade US History, 7th grade English, and 6th-grade Design Tech along with many summer camp courses. I worked with students to launch a balloon into space (well, upper atmosphere… close enough) and we made the TV news and front page of the local paper. The students had a copy framed for me, and it still hangs on my “office” wall (more on that in a second). I just knew I was going to be a teacher forever.
Then as the years went by, I started realizing that I should be getting more money. I was “Sam Harrelson” after all (Well, “Mr. H”). I was important to the school. I should be getting at least a moderate pay bump for all the exposure and social media likes and parent involvement I was generating, right? I was 32 and knew everything.
So I walked away from the classroom with the coffee mugs and bow ties. I walked away from that career. I ended up back in my bedroom.
For the last 8 years, I’ve been carving this Harrelson Agency thing out of marble. Michelangelo might have seen the David in a block of marble that had laid neglected for 26 years in the yard of a Cathedral, but I certainly didn’t have the same privilege with the 26-year-old career block that has been sitting in the corner of my mind. Sculpting this company and this life from that block of hard stone has caused me much psychological and physical and emotional and relationship strife. It’s only now, 8 years after I started chipping, that I realize what I’ve done to myself and what Harrelson Agency has done to me. You could call it the male impetus for chasing “The Great White Whale” or the Concord Fallacy, but I’m not giving it up just yet even though it remains a difficult beast to direct and has fits of starts and stops and continuous bucking. We’re conjoined now. I’ve engendered it with life and meaning and kicking it out of the Garden is not a practical resolution to this creation.
I realize, as a Pirate Looks at 40, that I have become very much like my dad. I don’t have a typical office. My truck is my mobile office. I carry a leather briefcase. I’m consistently changing my business card designs. I’m at home during random times of the day, and I get to spend a good deal of time with my children and partner. It’s a good job if you can get it.
Yet, I’ll still put on a white shirt and pair of slacks just to go work at the dining room table or my makeshift office here in our bedroom, which makes no sense. I’m always pulled back to that childhood fear of being a man without a career and when I look at my 10-year-old daughter I wonder now if she has the same thoughts I do. “My mom is a doctor, but what in the hell do I tell people my dad does? Play on the internet all day?” I hope I’m not causing her that anxiety as I work on this marble block. My tools have gotten better, and I have a better sense of how to chip and strike and know when to walk away and leave the block for a day to give us both rest as I work on it and it works on me. I hope she understands that I’m doing this intentionally for her and her sister and her brother and our family.
There’s a Coldplay song (I’m not a Coldplay fan if you’re wondering) titled “The Scientist” that has always pulled my heartstrings. Willie Nelson did an excellent cover of it a few years back and I prefer his version but that’s irrelevant. Having gone through a divorce and having lost people close to me in death, the song of loss and hurt resonates deeply. One of the lines that will pop up in the ever playing jukebox that is my head is:
No one said it was easy. No one said it would be so hard.
It was a constant partner to me during the divorce and during hard times with Harrelson Agency. I wish my dad would have warned me. Maybe he did, and I’m just now hearing him.
Harrelson Agency has grown every year in client base and income. Now it’s growing in offerings and direction (more on that in a second). Despite that, I’ve tried to walk away from this career a few times. I’ve flirted with a big job in an office high rise downtown with a parking garage and a hierarchical ladder for climbing. I’ve flirted with going back into the classroom. None of those dalliances amounted to me leaving this block behind though. I realize now that what I’ve always been looking for has been right there in the notebook that I created while wondering what my dad was doing. Living in Columbia now and having many friends and acquaintances in the “professional class” here has only ratcheted up that anxiety of not “having a career.” I get asked “So what do you do?” weekly as I’m introduced to parents at our son’s school or meetups or church. “Oh, Communications and PR. Who are you with?” To which I answer “Myself.” I need to start answering “Harrelson Agency… up and coming PR agency here in town. Heard of them?” Imposter syndrome is real, y’all.
What I’ve realized is that Harrelson Agency continues to shift from being a pure “marketing agency” into more of a public relations and communications firm. Marketing is a part of that to be sure, but most of our newer clients don’t need a website or a social media plan and are looking for real strategy and real communications help. We all thought Public Relations as a “career” (more on that in a second) was dead as a doornail in 2005 as the social web was just beginning to flourish and everyone could be their own PR rep.
What we realized is that effective communication, especially online, is a job and a career in and of itself no matter the medium. In our current age, we’re able to use artificial intelligence to create audio and video of anyone saying anything we’d like. Our human brains are still tied to our pre-Paleolithic environment and we’re just now beginning to understand how the brain “sees” and “hears” scientifically. But good luck explaining that to an angry Facebook user who saw the video of you saying something you didn’t say, or the angry Twitter person calling you out for a snippet of audio in your voice but not from your mouth. We’re entering dangerous, but exciting, times. I want to be more a part of that conversation as it relates to what I love doing with nonprofits and religious organizations marketing-wise, but also in the political realm. Not a full-on change, but a slight pivot to keep up with the times and my passion and the tools I have on hand to work on this block.
What I’ve realized is that my dad has had a great career that he sculpted himself. I’m proud of him. He is, for all intent and purposes, my role model. I’m still working on this damned marble block, but I’m not letting the cherubim and seraphim have at it just yet with their flaming swords. I’m not condemning it to a life of thistles and thorns. We’re going to make this work, Harrelson Agency, and we’re going to continue to build this career as we hammer it out in the sunshine and in the rain of that cathedral yard.
Running in circles, chasing our tails Coming back as we are
I’ve owned a couple of Apple Watches in the past and always appreciated the design and constant alerts. But after a while, I would look at the Watch on my bedside charger in the morning and think “Do I need to wear you today? Nah.”
So, I’ve been skeptical about the Apple Watch and thought of it as little more than a constant buzzer to keep you tuned in to the latest Trump tweets or emails from Staples. But all that changed recently.
I’m turning 40 this year, and I realize it’s cliche and pretentious to write such things on the internet being a privileged white male who has a relatively comfortable life… but, I wanted to hit 40 in stride and in good shape rather than having a George W. Bush hangover-inspired epiphany after an all-nighter. As a result, I’ve dabbled in diets and moderate exercise and even keeping of track of my steps with Fitbits and an Aria Wifi scale and using MyFitnessPal on my phone(s) over the last year or so. None of those stuck. I’m fickle and it takes a lot for anyone or anything to make their way into my life as a steady constant.
I picked up an Apple Watch Series 3 back in March on a whim (don’t @ me… I acknowledge my privilege as I’ve said and these things are tools I use in my career) not thinking much would come of it. However, Merianna had been saying good things about hers and I was intrigued by the cellular communication since it meant I could take calls, listen to music (with AirPods), and have a number of functionalities without having to carry my phone everywhere. Little did I know it would be those damned rings, not the cell connection, that would win me over.
About a month ago, I really started taking Apple’s Activity app on the Watch and iPhone seriously. I looked at the calendar and realized I only had a few months left to go in my 30’s and I needed to make the most of them. It started innocently enough with occasional jogs around the living room at night to close the Exercise Ring or parking at the far end of the lot on yet another trip to the grocery store or hardware store to get more action on my Move Ring. Then I realized the Stand Ring was actually helping me be more productive as I tend to go down deep rabbit holes with a client site or marketing strategy and I can completely overspend my time budget without noticing it. The Stand Ring has become a sort of egg-timer of “getting things done” as silly as that may sound. Little by little, the rings have crept into the Congress of voices that fill my head and speak very loudly and authoritatively throughout the day and drown out the “but I don’t wanna go for a jog or do another P90x workout!” detractors.
It’s really been something of a revolution in my head.
I’ve always been a sporadic eater and frequently skip breakfast. Merianna has been an amazing partner with her choice of meals and prep work to keep me honest with my food and drink as well as putting up with my late night exercise sessions (potty training a 2.5-year-old and running your own company will severely limit your time to work out during the day, I’ve found but I’m working on that as well). My next goal is to turn those late night sessions into early morning ones.
I would go into a deep dive of which apps I use, but I’ve included a screenshot here at the top of the article and Frederico Viticci has done a much better job outlining his similar experience than I ever could. You should go read this in all of its entirety:
I suppose it’s only natural that a renewed commitment to getting back in shape eventually led me to completely reevaluate the role of the Apple Watch in my life. After just a few months of daily commitment, I’m now at the point where I get irritated if I don’t dedicate at least 30 minutes of my morning to working out. I’m constantly keeping an eye on my rings to make sure I hit all three goals every day, and I’m always thinking of new ways to push for harder workouts and mix them up with different exercises.
I’ll report back in a few months to see how things have progressed. I’m down 10 lbs within a month already just by a few lifestyle changes. I know that pace won’t continue, but my body is giving me positive feedback already with my endurance and mind/body relationship.