Have to vs. Get to

smoking car

(Photo by Stevan Sheets)

I don’t have any words of wisdom or otherwise for you today about writing. I’m sorry for that; as the deadline approaches I have for the last couple of days been ferrying my younger daughter to THE Ohio State University for orientation. She is in a unique position, given that she completed her high school credits in two years and has acquired enough college credits that she is midway through her sophomore year of higher learning. Because of her tender age (17), however, she must go through orientation, stay in a dorm for a year, etc. I have been thinking in terms of “Well, we have to do this” and “we have to do that” in association with jumping through the many hoops that college enrollment involves. And it is totally wrong. We don’t HAVE to do it; we GET to do it. If I might, please let me explain.

What I am about to relate to you occurred some two decades ago. “Cell phones” were known as car phones and while I had one not everyone did. I was driving into downtown Columbus on the freeway one morning and saw a disabled vehicle on the side of the road, smoking like a jazz musician. I slowed down and as I passed it I saw a younger Asian man standing in front of it, peering at the engine, which was all but on fire. I pulled over, backed up a bit, and walked back to the car. I looked at the engine, which appeared to be a total wreck, and asked him if I could call someone for him. He replied, “No…but could you please drive me to school?” I laughed and replied, “Sure! Why not?”

I learned that the young man, who introduced himself as “Jack,” was a student at Columbus State Community College, which offers two year associate degrees. Jack had quite a story to tell. His parents were from South Vietnam, part of the horde of the poor souls who watched from the rooftop of the U.S. embassy as the helicopters took off without them. When the new government took over, the punishment meted out to those who collaborated with the United States was swift and sure: their children were not permitted to go to school. That’s no education at all, my friends: no reading, no writing, no arithmetic. Jack’s parents taught their children in secret how to do these subversive things while waiting their turn to emigrate from Vietnam and legally immigrate to the United States. Newly landed in Columbus, Jack was working two jobs while pursuing a degree in engineering, and his brother was doing the same thing. Their parents worked at three jobs — each — to keep things together. They were all happy to be somewhere where they could work and make money and be allowed to go to school. In Jack’s mind, he didn’t have to go to school; he got to go school. And he got to work not just one but two jobs. His cup wasn’t half full; it was overflowing with good and wonderful things. I wound up not only taking Jack to school but also driving him to work later that day and then picking him up and driving him around for the next few days until his car somehow got fixed. I didn’t have to; I got to. It was a privilege to help him.

I haven’t seen Jack since then, but I have never forgotten him. I especially remember him when confronted with a task that is frustrating or tedious or time-consuming, such as mowing the lawn with someone similar to a Reel Rollers which I hear are high-quality from a friend or maintaining the car or shopping for groceries, or struggling to come up with new writing ideas or, yeah, writing a king size check for college tuition. It’s easy to forget that there are folks who don’t have a yard to mow, or a car to take care of, or a place where they can shop for ANYTHING, or were on the wrong side of a war and don’t get to learn. I don’t have to do anything; I’m lucky. I GET to do them.

Thank you for the life lesson, Jack. I hope you are well.

29 thoughts on “Have to vs. Get to

  1. This is a lovely heartwarming story. We should be grateful every day for the freedoms we enjoy. And kudos to you for stopping and helping a stranded citizen.

    • Thank you Nancy. Re: stopping and helping…I went through a dark period in my life where I learned that those horizontal lines on the back window of my automobile were there to keep my hands warm as I pushed it off the road following multiple mechanical breakdowns. I would not be here typing right now if not for the kindness of strangers. I’m just paying back.

  2. “His cup wasn’t half full; it was overflowing with good and wonderful things.”

    Wow~ I had (and took) an opportunity to say almost this exact same thing earlier this week~! (Cue Twilight Zone music…)

    I heard someone in a presentation say the difference between the person who sees the glass half-full and one who sees it half- empty is former sees the level rising and is usually willing to share; while the latter sees it dropping and fears he won’t have enough.

    (Of course there are the engineering types who see a portable liquid containment device that’s twice as big as it should be).


    All that to say ~ I’m a “half-full” kinda person, (though some will say I’m completely full of it, but that’s another story for another time).


  3. Thank you, Joe.

    I don’t know what other writers have in front of their eyes when they look up from the computer screen or from their writing, but I have an oil painting of two small Rwanden boys walking along a dirt road arm in arm. I bought it to remind me that I am very fortunate relative to most people in the world.

    Not that I should need anything that close to me, when all around me and in the daily news, if I open my eyes, I can see misfortune, but the two boys who have found friendship while living in the midst of strife and starvation spur me to take another stab at recalcitrant text or to ‘eat my frog’ when I’m procrastinating for any reason.

    Now back to the luxury of writing fiction!

    • Sheryl, you hit the nail square when you spoke of the luxury of writing fiction. Sure. it’s frustrating, but it’s done in a climate controlled environment surrounded by creature comforts as opposed to, say, digging a ditch (or worse) by hand or directing traffic in a rainstorm. Thanks for the reminder.

  4. Thank you! Since we are presently in the midst of some family angst, it is good to be reminded to keep seeing the glass half full. And I loved the extension of the analogy to the levels rising or falling. I will endeavour to always remember now that my half full glass is rising.

    • Julie, good luck with the family situation. I am blessed with a boring one, that is, one without drama. It’s wonderful. Thanks for stopping by.

  5. Nice, Sweet Joseph. Thank you for this touching post. A great reminder. Have a good weekend, my fine friend. I GET TO move into my new house on Tuesday, My glass is definitely brimming over.

    • Good afternoon, Jordan. Thanks for taking a minute to stop by and comment. I miss you terribly, my dear friend. Enjoy your new home…and on Tuesday I GET TO relax because you were sweet and didn’t ask me to help you move! Thank you thank you thank you!

        • I don’t drink, but you’re right. We wouldn’t get anything done, at least without adult supervision.

  6. Wonderful story, Joe. Timely for me, because I spent the better part of the week in the hospital, hAving some strange symptoms sorted out. There was no room available in the main hospital, so I spent most of the time in the noisy, chaotic ER. I was feeling tragic about my situation until I went down the hall at one point and noticed that many people were camped out on gurneys in the hallways. I at least had a private room, a curtain and door that could be closed, and a call button to summon immediate assistance. When I returned to my room, I realized I was one of the lucky ones, and stopped whining about my situation.

    • Aaah, gee, Kathryn, I hope that you got things sorted out in short order and are well and happy. I tell people generally that if they truly believe they have problems they should spend a half hour in the lobby of a children’s hospital just watching the parents. Need I say more? Anyway, please let us know your status when and if you’re inclined. Thanks!

      • Back home now and on the mend, thanks, Joe! And you’re right–spending a long stretch in a busy trauma center ER certainly put my small issues in perspective. Plus, it made me more aware than ever of how wonderful and heroic first responders are. That includes fire fighters, police, hospital workers–all of them do so much service for the public, day in and day out. I’m amazed by how cheerful and upbeat they can remain while doing such stressful work.

        • Kathryn, that’s great news. Hope things continue on that upward trajectory for you. And thanks for the props to the first responders. Where would we be without them?

  7. Joe,

    Good afternoon. I’m not surprised that you are a “glass half-full” kind of guy. I remember a certain attorney reviewing a couple book contracts for me last year, and only charging me half of what he should have. Thanks!

    Great story. Great example of paying it forward.

    Unfortunately I tend to be a glass half-empty person way too much of the time, and I have no reason to be such a person. So I needed your pep talk. Thanks!

    Hope all the college preparations go well at THE Ohio State University. Congratulations.

    On the subject of paying it forward, Jodie Renner, former blogger on this site, is working at putting together an anthology of short stories to raise money for a children’s charity – Save the Children. Anyone wanting to participate should check out her blog http://jodierennerediting.blogspot.com/ for more details.

    Thanks for a great post. And HAPPY FATHER’S DAY. You have the privilege of paying college tuition.

    • Aw, Steve, you’re welcome, and thank you for all that you do on a daily (and hourly) basis. And Happy Father’s Day to you and to all of our other dads out there as well. And yes, I get to pay college tuition, and for my daughter, it is a privilege, indeed. She is an amazing and wonderful child. Who I have just thoroughly embarrassed, I’m sure.

      Thank you for the 411 about Jodie’s anthology. Everyone: please check out the link that Steve was kind enough to provide.

      • Thanks for the inspirational post, Joe! And thanks to Steve for the heads-up about my project to help Asian children working in factories, and to you for recommending TKZers check it out! 🙂

  8. Happy Dad’s Day, Joe. Thanks for the nice story. I’d bet a bundle Jack is doing well somewhere.

    • Thank you Kris! And yeah, I bet Jack is tearing it up someone. He sure earned it.

  9. “smoking like a jazz musician.” Love that line and the story about Jack. Congrautlations on your smart daugher, who gets to go to college.

    • Thank you Elaine! Funny thing is…my daughter…gets it. She has a love of learning that one doesn’t encounter too often. And she is a nice person, too. I’ve seen her go out of her way to make someone’s day better. We are soooooo lucky.

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