Real Heroes

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I tend to be ever the stoic, quietly taking whatever life throws at me. I adjust to circumstances as needed. I’ve learned how to survive over the years without drawing attention to myself. I let emotions run free in the quiet of night inside the privacy of my own mind and then I appear to bravely carry on. It’s a routine that I adopted as a child whenever fears or sorrows threatened to overcome me. It’s not exactly a perfect way of adapting but so far it has worked for me. Still, there have been moments when I had to cry, “Uncle!” or literally lose every sense of calm that I possessed. I learned that it is not just okay to admit to hitting a wall, but quite necessary for survival to know when enough is enough.

The conclusion of 2019 and beginning of 2020 turned into a kind of nightmare beginning with the death of a dear cousin and an aunt and concluding with news that two longtime friends had suffered very serious strokes. During that time I also grieved for a special and dear woman whose favorite aunt lost a battle with cancer. As I pushed on in my usual fashion I watched those closest to my departed family members struggling with the reality of loss while juggling demands from jobs and irritating challenges like broken appliances and even sickness. I observed the loved ones of my hospitalized friends spending long hours at the hospital attempting to keep a spirit of optimism in full view. I witnessed their suffering with a sense of frustration because I had no magic words to soothe their hearts or heal their wounds. Nonetheless I continued moving forward one step at a time.

I put away my Christmas decorations and attempted to find a bit of normalcy in the raging sea around me. I brushed up on some Pre-Calculus so that I might help my grandsons master concepts of trigonometry. I kept writing and writing, one of my favorite forms of therapy. I invited my niece over for tea and went to visit my ninety year old father-in-law and mother-in-law. I found solace at church and falsely began to feel as though I had weathered the emotional storm without no scars. Fortunately my body had other ideas. It set me straight by falling apart quite suddenly and forcing me to stop long enough to consider all that had happened.

My tongue and my lips broke out in sores. My throat and my chest hurt as my sinuses filled with congestion. My head felt as though it would crack open and my teeth seemed on the verge of falling out of my mouth. My knees ached to the point of forcing me to lie down. That’s when I finally faced the pain that had been slowly building in my heart and admitted to myself that I was not made of steel. I was as ordinary as any other human.

Our heroes are all too often characters with superhuman strength. They save lives, are supremely virtuous and seem capable of acts that defy our own abilities. We walk around with wooden smiles in times of distress and pretend that all is well when in reality we want to let out primal screams. If we are truly lucky we find a more real kind of hero, someone willing to admit to their weaknesses and ask for help.

My sweet cousin who had spent weeks watching her mother die was willing to publicly acknowledge her own breaking point. She was not whining but simply stating the fact of her exhaustion, frustration and sadness. Her truth was a kind of gift to the rest of us because she is generally so perfectly put together. Knowing that even an icon like her has moments of profound distress reminded us that being human is a complex venture.

When my friend who lost her aunt proclaimed the depth of her emotional pain it was difficult to hear, but also a beautiful form of trust that those of us who love her would not turn away. She was able to vocalize the feelings that each of us endure at one time or another in the most loving and beautiful way. It was as though she was helping us to know how to react to her loss.

I suppose that there is nothing innately wrong with putting up a brave front when we are in reality ready to fall apart and sometimes it is the only sensible thing to do, but for our own sake and those around us we also need to know when we have to surrender to the feelings bearing down on us. Being brave often means admitting that we are not as unbreakable as we may have thought. Like fine glass each of us has a point of fragility. Knowing when we are approaching that moment and pausing to mend our bodies and minds is a very good thing.

Just as we must put on our own oxygen masks in an emergency on a plane before attempting to help others, so too should we know when we need a break, a hug, a moment to let out our feelings. Sometimes the very bravest thing we might do is to openly face our weaknesses and our fears. That’s what real heroes do.

The Ultimate Reward

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My doctors always ask for an updated family medical history. Mine demonstrates a rather promising line of longevity. The youngest age at which any of my ancestors died of natural causes is eighty two, my paternal grandmother who had colon cancer. She used to always say that everyone in her family died from gut trouble so I suppose that to some extent her fate was almost inevitable. She ignored her own symptoms when they first arose. She was too busy working on her farm to worry about what she saw as trivialities. By the time things got worse she had waited too long to be saved. The doctors tried a few things but ultimately sent her home to die. There was no Medicare back then so her end wiped out my grandfather financially but his only complaint about that was that he had lost his “buddy.”

My mom lasted until the age of eighty four. She had lung cancer no doubt brought on by smoking which she unwittingly did until she was forty. Everyone enjoyed the habit when she was young. It would be decades before smoking was linked to so many diseases. By then the damage to her lungs was already done. Like my grandmother, Mama mostly ignored her symptoms until they became pronounced. Early detection and treatment might have allowed her to reach her mid nineties like her sisters but she had an aversion to doctors and tended to avoid them as much as possible.

My maternal grandmother lived until she was eighty eight years old. She never left her home aside from an occasion when her appendix burst and she had to be rushed to the hospital by ambulance. She recovered from that scare with no problem and lived quietly and happily without ever stepping a foot from her property. Without regular medical care it was inevitable that something would overtake her as she aged otherwise I suspect that she may have lived as long as the three of her daughters who made it past ninety.

My paternal grandfather made it well past one hundred before things began to fall apart. We became so accustomed to his constant presence that it was shocking when he actually died. He had seemed to be somehow immortal as each year passed leaving him as spry as he had always been.

Since I’ve had problems with my gastric system for many years I suspect that my paternal grandmother’s prediction that gut trouble will one day take me down is fairly accurate. I’ve regularly visited a gastroenterologist since I was in my forties so I’ve managed to control any problems and keep them rather minor. Barring accidents or the unexpected I may actually follow in the footsteps of my grandfather and my mother’s three sisters. That means that I have a good shot at being around for another twenty five or thirty years.

It boggles my mind to think in those terms. I realize that my grandchildren will be middle aged if I make it that long and my daughters will be numbered among the elderly. I worry a bit about my potential for being a burden on them. They are quite loving and would be appalled to think that I have such concerns but I know full well how difficult it can be to care for an aging parent who can no longer live independently. It becomes a tremendously demanding task financially, physically and emotionally.

I am in awe of individuals who care for an elderly parent. I’ve watched friends and cousins devote untold hours to the task. They rarely complain but I witness how tired and stressful the job is for them. A lingering illness in a loved one takes its toll on everyone. I find that nobody wants to do that to their children but sometimes they outlast even their sons and daughters just as my grandfather did. Extreme old age can be lonely.

Life is uncertain. None of us know when our time here will end. I’d like to think that when I finally reach those final days that I will be as courageous and undemanding as my mother and grandmothers were. All three of them made us feel that they were comfortable with the thought of leaving this earth just as God had planned it for them. They gave us a beautiful gift of calm and certainty that they were ready. Somehow their deaths became celebrations of their lives.

I have been a somewhat competitive person for most of my life. I must admit that I do like to win and be noticed and honored. I’ve received a few awards here and there. I find that the joy in receiving them is somewhat fleeting. Life is a series of challenges and if the focus is always on excelling beyond others, it can become tiresome and meaningless. In the end the great joy of living is found in fulfilling a purpose, no matter how humble that may be. It is about loving and doing for others and using the talents that each of us have to one extent or another.

In spite of what Yoda advises there is greatness in trying. If every person tried to be the best versions of themselves our world would be even more wonderful than it already is. We make a mark on this earth not through fame or fortune or achievement but by the manner in which we treat the people who come our way. Each of us will be remembered by individuals whose hearts we have touched. There is no better reward than that.

What We Need

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There were horrid things happening across the globe before I was born. There were horrid things happening across the globe when I was a child and a teen. I have witnessed horrid things happening as a young adult and now that I am in my seventies I still see horrid things happening both near and far. For a cockeyed optimist like myself it can be quite distressing to admit that there is something in our human natures that is sometimes violent and cruel. I always wanted to believe that mankind has been slowly evolving into a better version of itself, and I still think that is indeed true, but sadly it is such a slow process that it’s difficult to define the progress at times.

On a more personal level I see goodness in each of my friends and family members, people striving even sacrificing to be kind, loving, wise. Each individual has small moments of imperfection but on the whole they are grand examples of what mankind might aspire to be. They give me hope for the population at large because I do not believe that they are the aberrations, but rather that it is in the hateful and violent members of society that we find the outliers. Normal is good, abnormal is an unusual data point removed from the cluster of morality that defines most of the people in the world.

There are those who believe that the current times are somehow worse than other eras, but I would urge them to more carefully and thoughtfully study history because there is little that is actually new in the ways of our relationships and our politics. People have been lead astray by demagogues and tyrants for all time whether it be in a family, a friendship, a neighborhood, a town, a state or a nation. You would think that we would be more circumspect given all of the information about past troubles that we have, but in truth most of us are busy taking care of ourselves and those that we love. We tend to only have time to react rather than to reflect. Besides, with so many ideas and ideologies being thrown at us at once it is daunting to determine what is actually best. Instead history has often been a vast experiment of trial and error with some decisions enhancing mankind and others being dangerously abysmal failures. All too often hindsight becomes our teacher.

We can indeed learn from past mistakes but even then it’s important to realize that we are different from our ancestors. Times continually change and we are influenced heavily by our environments, what we love and what we fear or even hate. Making choices that will affect us and the people around us can be a gamble. Because each person on earth is unique there is no one size fits all way of educating or governing and yet we try even as we know that it is impossible to exactly meet everyone’s needs. Someone always seems to feel left out, abandoned either by family or nation. Such is the conundrum of our human attempts to make sense of the world and the reason why it is so difficult to enact solutions to the problems that plague us.

Freedom is a word with many meanings. Taken too far it can lead to trouble. Constricted too much it creates hostility. The key to a healthy person and society is providing just the right dose of fairness which may mean that the balance will sometimes seem unequal. Even within families a wise parent understands that no two children are identical, not even twins. So too it is with societies that attempt to be fair and just. It is difficult to know the best course of action.

As a school administrator I learned that some of my teachers wanted to be free to be themselves without much direction while others actually desired to have precise sets of rules by which to guide themselves. The trick in working with them involved crafting individual plans that took their specific needs into account. Allowing for differences sometimes created tensions because there were always those who insisted that everyone had to be treated exactly the same. The trouble with that logic is that it does not consider our human uniqueness and sounds good until it is executed in a real situation.

I find myself becoming increasingly disturbed by the urge of various forces to make us all think and act the same. We become enraged when we witness someone deviating from the thoughts and actions that we find the most appropriate. We harangue or shame those who disagree with us in the false hope that we might force them into submission to our way of looking at the world. Such has become a national pastime with celebrities being lauded or ostracized based on what they believe. In truth it is a kind of nationalized bullying that we need to abandon. We should be extremely careful that we are not ruining people’s reputations based solely on a desire to force agreement to our individual thoughts about how things should be. 

Propaganda and unwillingness to allow freedom of speech is growing all around us. Such efforts to control beliefs has been tried throughout history but it has never worked. We should be wary of those who would insist on conformity and resistance to divergent ideas. Right now we have people on both the far left and far right attempting to shut down our freedoms. What we need is for those who treasure liberty to lead by example which means acknowledging that we must make more efforts to consider the needs of each voice, not just our own. We must curb the outrage and find ways to understand and respect the very natures of our humanity. In doing so we might find the common ground that we both desire and need. As long as we keep censoring one another we will escape from the current cycle of outrage.

Play Ball

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When someone that you love gets into some trouble it is such a horrible feeling, a combination of sorrow, disappointment, anger, confusion. Such an event elicits a desire to rant along with a determination to protect. It involves so many mixed emotions that often make little sense. It induces anxieties and maybe even sleepless nights. Negativity mixed with love for the offender makes for difficult days. Somehow in the long run there is always a way to muddle through.

So it is for me in learning that my Houston Astros have been accused and found guilty of cheating. Their supposed crime is sign stealing during their run to the World Series in 2017. As though the city of Houston has not lost enough through floods and and disappointing football teams, now our hometown heroes have been branded with the scarlet letter of cheating and insinuations that our glorious victory was tainted. It is a stunning accusation that Major League Baseball seems to think has been proven beyond enough doubt to garner severe penalties for the team, including a stiff fine and suspensions of the Manager and General Manager. Now there is an asterisk on all that they have accomplished and a doubt that they would have been champions without cheating.

The team is in a state of turmoil since the General Manager and Manager have been fired. It’s lost one of its best pitchers to the New York Yankees whose pockets are so deep that they are able to buy whatever they want, and the fans are feeling mixed emotions. Some insist that sign stealing is a national pastime that every team does and others think that the whole scandal is a black spot on a city that works hard to be good. It remains to be seen how it will all play out in the end, but I suspect that the road ahead will be difficult for everyone, but not impossible. It’s one of those situations when opportunities to learn from mistakes will either be heeded or not. The team can grow from the experience and continue to thrive or it can ignore what has happened and suffer hard times ahead.

I’m a believer in redemption. We are an imperfect lot that makes mistakes continually throughout our lifetimes. Without forgiveness we would be doomed, but the consequences of our choices matter. So the Astros need to pay their dues and then move on like the champions that I believe they really are. I still have great faith in the team. I don’t believe that they needed any kind of sign stealing to win which makes the so called infraction doubly hard to bear.

In all honesty I still can’t imagine that the scheme actually worked all that well. It would have taken a rapid response for someone to see the sign picked up by the camera and then bang a signal on a garbage can before the pitch was actually thrown. It sounds a bit far fetched to me to think that such a thing happened on a regular basis and it certainly didn’t happen when the team was out of town. I also wonder how something like that was kept silent for so long. People always talk and surely if it was really as rampant as supposed there would have been more than one whistleblower. I still have my doubts and wonder if it’s more a matter of sour grapes. Whatever the case it’s the lingering doubt that will always overshadow everything those incredible athletes achieved.

I will always love my Astros. I’ve watched them in a makeshift stadium and the Astrodome. I’ve seen the days of Nolan Ryan and the Killer B’s. I’ve heard my mother’s radio tuned to every game for years and even witnessed her watching them on the day she died. She was their number one fan and I know that she would never turn her back on them no matter how much they disappointed her. I hope the present day fans will be as loyal. As a city we need to show them that we’ve got their backs but also that we expect them to be more circumspect in the things they do.

I hear that there may also be some problems with the Red Sox for the same kind of reasons. They are my number three favorite team behind the Astros and the Cubs respectively. I hope that they weather the storm well too, because I have a problem with both the Yankees and the Los Angeles Dodgers and their tendencies to throw around money and accusations to reinforce their teams. There is more to our country than the two coasts and it’s time something were done to make it possible for the little guys to do as well as the big shots. Sports has become all about business and money even in colleges and high schools. Little wonder that there is so much desperation to win at any cost.

Spring is coming and I hope that our Astros know that we love them. It’s a long season and they will need a good attitude to survive the onslaught that will no doubt follow them for a time. If they can keep their heads high and demonstrate the integrity that we know they have, they will survive. Play ball!

      

Stranger Things

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We had spent the day touring plantation homes in Louisiana. We were tired and incredibly hungry but seemingly in the middle of nowhere. Our friend announced that we were near a unique and highly rated restaurant so we eagerly headed toward what we hope would be good food and some much needed rest.

In less than fifteen minutes we were in the parking lot of our intended destination. Even though there was a large crowd inside we got seated at a nice table rather quickly. The menu was quirky but yummy sounding, at least at first. While we all perused the many choices I suddenly lost what had only moments before been a voracious appetite. In fact the mere thought of food made me feel nauseous. As everyone in our party eagerly spoke of the selections they had made I announced that I only wanted some tea. The group looked at me with puzzled expressions and asked if I was feeling well.

I explained that I just didn’t feel well and was afraid of putting anything into my now queasy stomach. I mentioned that I might just be a bit car sick, but in truth I wanted to bolt from the place. Something about it made me quite uneasy. There was no logic whatsoever to my feelings.

The waiter came to our table and took the orders looking obviously puzzled at my request for only a glass of ice tea. As the conversation at our table grew more animated I began to feel as though I was somehow not present. My mind wandered and I had an overwhelming desire to escape to the car, but without a valid explanation for my sudden flight response I instead just sat silently listening to the chatter without really hearing a word.

The food arrived and admittedly looked delicious but I had no desire to try any of it. Once the waiter had placed all of the items on the table he asked if we needed anything else. My friend said that she had a question. She wanted to know what the building had once been because it was obvious that it had been repurposed. To my shock and dismay the helpful server told us that the structure had at one time been part of an expanse of slave quarters. He pointed out that there had no doubt been much misery inside its walls. He admitted that he was glad that it was now a happy place where people enjoyed themselves.

Suddenly I understood why my body and my brain were in such a bizarre state. Somehow I had intuited that I was in an evil place. It was as though I was feeling the spirit of the souls who had been enslaved and tortured there. I had to sip some tea to keep from retching. It felt wrong for us to be so casually eating in what to me had been a house of horrors.

I did not say these things to the people who were with me. I suspected that they would either laugh at my silliness or think me bizarre for having such thoughts. Instead I nursed a growing pain in my gut as I imagined the wretched souls who had been enslaved there. It felt disrespectful to be there under circumstances of being entertained and indulged.

I suppose I must have seemed sulky to my friends. There was no logic to my feelings. It was silly of me to believe that I had somehow sensed the hurt of the people who once lived there and yet how might I explain the physical and mental pain that overtook me? My symptoms were real in spite of their superstitious nature.

I don’t believe in ghosts but I do think that I had some kind of sixth sense regarding the nature of that place. I suppose that there will be those who dismiss my state of mind as just a coincidence related more to being tired than any supernatural experience. I, on the other hand, believe that somehow the spirits of those poor desperate people had somehow permeated the walls so much that a part of my brain that has yet to be defined led me to the conclusion that something terrible happened there.

I am an observant person. Maybe there were clues that sent messages to my subconscious without my realizing it. It may not have been spirits at all but instead just an uncanny ability to notice small details on my part. Perhaps I simply put pieces of a puzzle together without being able to connect the dots well enough to understand what I was seeing. Or, maybe I really did feel something, have a kind of communication with those who had suffered.

Whatever happened left me in a state of profound disturbance. I had spent a day marveling at the immense wealth of people who had seemingly thought that owning another human was acceptable. The foundations of those magnificent homes had been built on the backs of labor from people judged to be unworthy of enjoying their God given right to freedom. My body reacted with a sickening revulsion.

Mankind has the capacity to be both magnificent and horrific. I’d like to believe that we humans continue to learn and evolve toward goodness. I’m saddened whenever I see evidence to the contrary. We have made much progress but it’s up to us to be watchful for signs that we have lost our way. Those monuments to a disturbing way of life will be instructive only if we agree that we must never allow such things to happen again.