Tuesday, August 24, 2010


Along time ago, I put on a cloak that I thought I was supposed to wear. I was a young man of seventeen, so perhaps that excuses or explains things. Since then, my definition of manliness has changed an awful lot. The combined gifts of fatherhood, loss, love, marriage, friendship, and a bit of maturity all conspired to make it all but impossible for me to wear just one guise. It (manliness...) is, if I were to quantify it now, richer, gentler, less sure, complex. As a teenager, however, I thought differently. In my view, being a man was a role with a narrow sets of attributes; tough, simple, linear. Looking back, I was following a cliche, not modeled by any real man but constructed by movies, rock stars, and athletes. I was not philosophical about my persona; I just simply became a jock. At the time, my other choices were band dork, D & D geek, or nerd. Jock seemed, frankly, the best - safest? - choice. I wore my mantle proudly, figuratively and literally. So you can visualize it, imagine a lanky kid with growing muscles, wearing cut-off sweats (80's short) and my local football team's practice jersey. If that doesn't paint it clearly, how about Larry Bird, just shorter? A real man's man, no? Oh, yeah, add a puffy mullet haircut, too. I practiced flexing in the mirror, for crying out loud.

And then unexpectedly and against my wishes, I found myself on a dock by a lake, nestled in the deep woods of New Hampshire, looking up at a night sky peppered with millions and millions of stars. I was sitting next to another young man (maybe 20) who I had already pigeon-holed into a fifth unnamed category, quantified by traits like eccentric, feminine, artistic, intellectual, light-hearted. In other words, about as opposite from what I was trying to be as could be imagined. Steve was, in short, not a man's man, and thus I didn't want to have anything to do with him. But circumstances out of my control put the prototypical meat head in close proximity with ... with ... this random, odd, undefinable guy. I was quite sure this night, leading a bunch of little kids on camping trip, was going to be hell.

As the night wore on, I unexpectedly found myself dropping my judgements and preconceptions he told outrageously funny jokes and recounted summers past full of pranks and misadventures. He casually about talked about girls he had crushes on, love affairs and broken hearts, good sex and bad sex. He talked about being an A student while causing all sorts of mayhem in high school and college. He wasn't shy about the fact that he couldn't fix a car engine, never played sports, or that he didn't really give a shit about being popular. Without mocking me, he made it really clear that what he thought was cool was what he decided was cool.

As the night progressed, I began to realize this guy I'd decided was a total freak was post-cool; at the time I thought he had changed before my eyes. In hindsight, he didn't change at all. In the span of a few hours, my trajectory had changed just a degree or two. It was me who changed, or opened up, or grew up. Or at least started to be a real man. That is, a man who thought. I didn't change overnight and had lots of growing to do, but my path that night changed irrevocably. Frankly, the journey continues, but I started it that early summer night.

And I remember most clearly the moment I laid the cloak aside. As he talked about his life, I began to share a bit about the inner me. The inner me that was unsure, a boy who felt unimportant, a child who was scared by a big, big world. I'm not sure of my exact words, but Steve grew quiet for a minute or so. Then he directed my attention to the stars. He said that we, as humans, are staggeringly small in the universe's scheme of things. We all are, ultimately, tiny and insignificant in comparison to any one of the billions of stars. As he paused to think, I could feel a deep sense of cold dread seep into my soul; was he indeed saying I was as unimportant as I felt? But then Steve changed the direction of his observation, with this simple idea; what if you are kind to just one or two other people? What if that kindness lifts them up, so that they feel hopeful or happy or stronger, and they in turn pass that optimism onto two more people. Pretty soon, a lot of people - a really large group of people - may be a bit happier, kinder, gentler. What kind of power does that give you? How small are you, really?

In that one moment, under the veil of the night sky, the world I knew became infinitely more rich and exciting. This simple statement of hopeful goodness gave me a new, powerful philosophy to call my own. Either consciously or unconsciously, Steve had applied his own axiom to a young, scared boy, and in that small window of shared time and conversation, changed my life. And I still go back to the dock, traveling back through time, and hear the water lapping against the pilings, and smell the woodsmoke, and feel the warm summer breeze. And I see the stars, the infinite expanse of the universe splayed across the horizon, and I feel so, so small. Yet, strangely, I feel free.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Hero vs. Celebrity

James Bradley wrote, in Flags of Our Fathers, that "Today the word 'hero' has been diminished, confused with 'celebrity.' ... Celebrities seek fame. They take action to get attention... Heroes are heroes because they have risked something to help others." I got to thinking about his words as I finished his book last night, having also recently watched an ABC Good Morning America clip showing U.S. servicemen and servicewomen reuniting with family and friends. Mr. Bradley puts it down well enough for me not to try to rewrite it in my own words.

My own truth is this; there are very few true heroes. And this is okay. There are more than few truly good, generous, caring, humble people out there. So, they are virtuous. And let me be clear, we need the virtuous as much as the heroic. Both categories deserve the most credit and honor, although those truly virtuous or truly heroic would most likely share whatever credit they are due, which is ironically evidence of virtue. And as bonus, probably true. In my experience, both heroes and the virtuous needed others' love or camaraderie to stay afloat. They encouraged others to serve, thus amplifying their own efforts. And often, they were materially supported by others as they, in turn, served those same folks and society at large.

As I mentioned, we need virtue. We can all seek to be virtuous and achieve it in some humble measure. We can all serve our fellow citizens. We don't all have great courage, nor do we -- if we are lucky -- find ourselves in situations where personal courage is required. If we do find ourselves in danger or moral crisis, we are best served by simply serving our pursuit of virtue.

While we all can seek virtue, seeking heroism is contradictory. Seeking heroism is reckless, although being heroic isn't. You just don't seek it, nor do you know if you have it. Simply put, seeking virtue thrusts some of us, unwittingly, into heroism. We should honor heroes for their courage, while perhaps highlighting their basic service and pursuit of virtue equally.

Mr. Bradley's father was virtuous by choice and action. He was, by his own admission, heroic by accident. He wanted to be remembered for the latter, and he didn't particularly care for or about the latter. We could do worse than to follow his ideal.

Fabric Rent Assunder

If we are lucky, we are helped by those around us in the pursuit of weaving a rich, colorful nurturing cloth which we can wrap around for comfort, peace, warmth, and rest. If we are wise, we hug it tight in the coldest weather, and we tend it when storm clouds are distant rumblings. We repair it frayed edges with careful, gentle stitches, adding patches, a new border, sewing small tears without too much worry about the small ridges or scars our handicraft leave behind.

When I started out, mine was a simple blanket, small, light, brightly colored. As I grew, so did my blanket, looking less singular and more like a quilt. Our mother took care of it for me, darning holes with unconditional love, sewing her spirit and love into our lives with each stitch. As I grew older, the tapestry became richer, more complex. Samples from other's blankets were added to mine, bound forever, irrevocably. Some were great fields of blue and gold, others tartan or fleece, denim and nylon. Others, small and nearly insignificant, dark with moody blacks and grays. They served as borders between greater colors, never more than humble accents. My quilt became less of just me, even as it became more indelibly mine. It became ours as it became mine, woven with shared pieces of friends and family. And it was strongly made.

Along the way, our mother taught me to thread a needle, to handle a box stitch. Nothing fancy for me, but enough to make my own repairs or to add a little patch of color that caught my eye. The gift of the blanket from my mother, and later her teachings and guidance, gave my more than just myself, infinitely more than I could have created with my own hands. With her love, I became part of my own tapestry, adding, mending, designing. Her gift remains beyond calculation.

The seamstress is gone now, her wise hands stilled, her own majestic tapestry folded and stored safely in the cedar chest. Her lessons, those she could share, have been taught and I can simply look to my own quilt if I need to remember. I run my hands over the cloth, feeling its varied textures. My eyes wander over its landscape, startled by the seemingly randomness of the squares of my quilt. I alone now care for my tapestry, doing my best to keep the fabric clean, adding new scraps here and there, never pulling out sheers to trim away a worn, tired corner. Although I have learned to snip a bit of mine away, giving it happily to others who sew their own now. And in return, they unknowingly give to me small new squares to add to my ever-changing quilt.

And look closely! You still can see my clumsy, incomplete stitching along the great rent she left upon departing. I can't quite pull the edges of the rip all the way closed, and that incompleteness seems to be right, or at least alright.