Monday, December 31, 2012

Wanted: A Hero

"A hero is no braver than an ordinary man, but he is brave five minutes longer." (Ralph Waldo Emerson)

What makes someone a "hero"?

That question floated into my head this afternoon, and has been peskily bobbing around my mind until I finally sat down and decided to give it some thought.  Not what I would've planned to write about for my final blog of the year, but it seemed timely... more on that, perhaps, later.

Contrary to what we learn as little kids, watching the Saturday cartoons, heroes don't come from another planet.  They don't wear really cool costumes, or carry fancy weapons or tool belts, or have super secret hideouts.  They aren't summoned by special "Bat-phones", beacons, whistles, or calls.

The heroes in the real world, yesterday, today, and always, have been real people.  Just like you and I.  No better, no worse.  Perhaps indistinguishable from all the rest of us, until that one moment.  The moment when darkness descends.  When someone's suffering is seen.  When hope and endurance seem to fade.   When the moment calls for action.

In moments like this, big and small, heroes appear in our lives.  And what makes them heroic is their willingness to express four timeless characteristics; to be willing to "be" these things in the moment of crisis, instead of "being themselves".

1.  A Hero is Bold.

"A ship is safe in harbor, but that's not what ships are for." (William G.T. Shedd)

  • They act when others hesitate.  They step forward instead of stepping back.  They say "I can" or "I'll try" instead of "I can't" or "Don't ask me".  A hero grabs your hand and says "Follow me", instead of whispering "I'll go, if you go".
2.  A Hero is Courageous.

"One man with courage makes a majority." (Andrew Jackson)
  • They aren't afraid to act alone.  They're willing, in the moment that it's needed, to stand for what they know is true, despite the odds, and not knowing their chances of success.  They act despite the fact that they themselves are scared in that moment too.  But they decide that there's something more important to them in that moment than what fear is offering them.  
3.  A Hero is Determined.

"...Hold on; hold fast; hold out.  Patience is genius." (Georges Louis LeClerc)
  • They persist.  They are patient.  They have stamina.  They are optimistic and are willing do whatever it takes to accomplish their goal.  They don't take "No" for an answer.  Their faith is not something that is a belief; a wish.  It is a true understanding, born of the humble knowing that there is something greater than them that they're willing to serve.
4.  A Hero is Altruistic

"A fellow who does things that count, doesn't usually stop to count them." (Albert Einstein)
  • In being willing to do all of the above, the hero agrees to make a sacrifice; to do what's best for another before doing what's best for themselves.  They are generous.  They are kind.  They give their best without seeking reward or recognition, usually saying "You would have done the same for me".
Some say the world today needs more heroes.  But that leaves the world wondering where they'll come from; merely hoping one might magically appear.  And being disappointed when they don't.

I say the world needs more people to act heroically.  To find the small moments, as well as in crises, to be the expression of one of these characteristics.  It doesn't take any great strength or ability.  It doesn't require a thought or a plan.  It simply requires a single act.  Stepping towards someone instead of away.  Remembering that we are one, not separate.  A hero isn't something you become; it's something you do.  It's something anyone can do.

So why am I thinking so much about heroes today?  Well, today I needed a hero.  I faced an unknown pain today and needed help.  For once, the one who thought he was strong and the protector needed strength and assistance.  And lucky for him, a hero stepped forward.
  • Someone who acted boldly and said "I'll take you wherever you need to go."
  • Someone who was courageous; who time and again did what needed to be done despite being scared
  • Someone who was determined; a real warrior in pushing on until an answer was found.
  • Someone who made a sacrifice, saying "You do the same for me all the time"
Who was my hero?

My hero today
I'm lucky to be married to a super woman.

Thank you, Sweetie.  Thank you for helping me and being both my "help-mate" as well as my soulmate.  You are my greatest Pearl.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Five Books That Surprised Me

"Books are a uniquely portable magic." (Stephen King)

Earlier in the year, I wrote an entry called "Five Books That Taught Me", and I always meant to write a follow-up to that entry.  As I said then, I've always loved to read - a love fostered by my parent's love of reading and the large library of books they've collected over the years.

I read and read as a boy.  I remember reading classics like The Red Badge of Courage, The Call of the Wild, Tom Sawyer, Treasure Island, all of Sherlock Holmes' mysteries, and Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.  I even lost my first job as a teenager due to reading!  When I was 16, I was hired to work at a local plant nursery.  I had to ride my bike 4 miles to get there and the work was wet and dirty; I didn't like it.  So, for a week, I left home with my lunch, pedaled until I got to a big fir tree a half mile from home, and then sat there underneath the tree all day, reading William Shirer's The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich (yes, I was that kind of a nerd!).  I wasn't happy with getting fired for not showing up (especially because it disappointed my mother a lot!), but I did enjoy myself reading.

So today I thought I'd write about books I've read that surprised me.  These books were unexpected "jewels":  ones I had no idea I'd enjoy as much as I did.  Ones that made an impression on me.  Here we go!

1.  Seabiscuit:  An American Legend, by Laura Hillenbrand

  • This book came out in 2001, and friends recommended it to me, but I avoided reading it thinking, "What's exciting about a horse story?".  Boy, was I wrong!  Ms. Hillenbrand's breakthrough book is actually the story of 4 individuals whose lives intersect during the Great Depression in the United States:  Charles Howard, a California millionaire determined to make West Coast horse racing a big attraction; Red Pollard, the hard luck jockey that Howard hires to ride for him; Tom Smith, the laconic trainer whose unorthodox techniques prove so effective, and a horse that everyone thought was too small and destined to be a loser.  Together in 1937-38, these underdogs thrilled millions of Americans with their comeback victories, both on the track and off.  Hillenbrand's account of Seabiscuit's legendary victory over War Admiral in a match race on November 1, 1938 is spine-tingling!  I was introduced to a piece of American history that I had never heard of before, and I've rarely read something so inspiring.  It was the first book I recommended to Deborah, and she loved it too!
2.  Eat, Pray, Love:  One Woman's Search for Everything Across Italy, India, and Indonesia, by Elizabeth Gilbert

  • I don't remember why I picked this book up in 2007 or 2008.  I'm not usually one who would read a "chick book" (though my wife does say I'm a "sensitive kind of guy"!), but I'm glad I read this one.  Gilbert tells her story of self discovery after her divorce and the deep depression she fell into afterwards.  She travels to three countries - Italy, India, and Indonesia - and in each places renews and refreshes a different part of herself through immersing herself in the colorful cultures there.  In Italy, she revels in all things physical:  food, drink, and "La Dolce Vita";  In India, she visits an Indian ashram for 3 months, and explores her spiritual self; In Indonesia on the island of Bali, she learns to find a balance between worldly enjoyment and divine transcendence - and even falls in love, again.  Her account of her experiences was funny, thoughtful, and poignant.  I'll never forget her portrayal of Depression and Loneliness as two "detectives":  a "good cop, bad cop" team that trail her in Italy.  She wrote:  "Then they frisk me.  They empty my pockets of any joy I had been carrying there.  Depression even confiscates my identity...Then Loneliness starts interrogating me.  He asks me why I am all by myself tonight, yet again...why I can't get my act together...asks where I think I'll end up in my old age...I try to shake these two goons, but they keep following me....I don't want to let them in, but I know Depression has a billy club, so there's no stopping him..."  A powerful and talented writer!
3.  River of Doubt:  Theodore Roosevelt's Darkest Journey, by Candice Millard

  • I read this this past summer.  I hadn't ever read anything about Theodore Roosevelt, but I thought I knew all there was to know about him, having taught about him in my U.S. History classes for years.  Ms. Millard's book, though, told the riveting story of a trip Roosevelt took in 1913-14 into central Brazil after his failed attempt to be re-elected President in 1912.  Roosevelt wanted to restore his confidence through the challenge of mapping an uncharted river, the Rio da Duvida ("River of Doubt"), with his son Kermit, and the famous Brazillian explorer Candido Rondon.  The expedition endures a number of setbacks and challenges - some are surprises, some because of human error - and Roosevelt almost dies!  There is murder and intrigue, and in the end, when Roosevelt returns home, some even doubted his discovery!  This book, like Seabiscuit, surprised me because it taught me about a piece of history that I had never known before.
4.  Lucky Man: A Memoir, by Michael J. Fox

  • This book surprised me because I've never been much for reading biographies or memoirs, especially of Hollywood types.  So again, I'm not sure why I picked this up this past August.  But Fox proved to be a thoughtful and honest writer.  He tells the story of his life growing up in Canada, moving to Hollywood to pursue his dream of being an actor, reaching the pinnacle of fame at 30, only to discover that he had Parkinson's disease:  an incurable, degenerative disease that ultimately changed his life.  I enjoyed how funny and honest, and at times, self-deprecating, Fox was about his fame and his life and his own vices.  I agree wholeheartedly with what one reviewer said about this book:  This readable, witty autobiography reminds you why it was generally a pleasure to watch Fox onscreen: he's a nice guy with an edge, and you don't have to feel embarrassed about" liking him."   I especially liked the credit that Fox gives to his family, especially his wife, for helping him face the challenges he now faces, and for helping him grow.  He is indeed a "lucky man".
5.  Wild:  From Lost To Found on The Pacific Crest Trail, by Cheryl Strayed

  • I think this book was like Eat, Pray, Love to me:  recommended by Oprah, a story written by a woman traveling after a devastating loss (in Strayed's case, the death of her mother), looking to find herself.  Why would I want to read that kind of story again?  But I enjoyed it!  Strayed's memoir of her 1100 mile solo trek along the Pacific Crest Trail was engaging just in the fact that I couldn't imagine a woman doing this all by herself:  especially a woman who had NEVER hiked in her life!  Strayed vividly, humorously, and honestly recounts all of her challenges (her 80+ pound backpack she nicknames "Monster"), her joys, the pleasures and terrors of her journey, and all that she discovers.  She faces down rattlesnakes, black bears; she survives losing her shoes; endures intense desert heat and record snowfalls; meets and makes friends along the trail, and survives scary encounters with unsavory men.  I enjoyed the fact that even though I haven't ever hiked the Pacific Crest Trail, I recognized many of the places she described (especially her stay for a few days in Ashland, just down the road!).  Deborah and I both loved this book, and hope to hike a part of this famed trail (just for a day!), inspired by Strayed's book.
Five books that surprised me.  I keep hoping I'll find another Pearl like these!

"The worth of a book is to be measured by what you can carry away from it." (James Bryce)

Friday, December 28, 2012

A Lunch Date

"We should look for someone to eat and drink with before looking for something to eat and drink." (Epicurus)

I thought I'd try a new type of entry today.  I was reading a book on blogging last week, (tips on what to write and how to attract an audience, etc.) and it suggested that you come up with a couple of ideas for regular, recurring entries you write.  This way you'd have something to fall back on when you want to write something, but all you do is stare at the blank page (happens to me a lot!)

This is inspired by something I saw on a blog I follow, written by a young chef, called "Eat, Live, Run".  Occasionally she writes what she calls "Virtual Coffee Dates":  entries where she chats, as if you and her were sitting, having coffee together - shooting the breeze. (Here's a link to her blog, if you're interested)

"Eat, Live, Run - Celebrating Life One Crumb At a Time"

I'm calling this "A Lunch Date".  I'm not much of a coffee date kind of guy (I think that's more a female thing?).  But I could see myself inviting you over to lunch.  I'd fix us something, and while I'm bustling around the kitchen, we'd talk, and then continue over a nice lunch.  Lunch dates seem like such a luxury to me after 30 years of rushing through lunches at school!  Throw in the fact that I love to cook, and there you go - a perfect chance to visit!  Plus it'll give me a chance to write from a different perspective - more conversational, more informal.

So let's start!  First, what are we having for lunch?  It's a cold, gray day today, so I'm fixing a classic lunch - a favorite of just about every "red blooded American".  Grilled cheese sandwiches and vegetable soup!

Hmmm, hmmm...good!
What would we talk about while I'm stirring the soup and slicing the bread, and then sitting down to eat?
Let's see...
  • "How was your Christmas?"  I had a very nice - very different kind of Christmas than usual.  Christmas has usually meant a big family gathering at my parents' house in Scholls ("The Ranch").  A long drive there and back for me and Deborah; tons of siblings and offspring; lots of tradition; loud and boisterous; something we've been doing for almost 50 years.  But this year Deborah and I couldn't go.  So we had a quiet, simple Christmas Eve to ourselves.  We went out to dinner; we saw a movie.  We came home and opened our presents for each other in our "jammies".  It was a very intimate and warm celebration.  I enjoyed it!  For once, it felt like "my" Christmas - not a "Schnorenberg" Christmas.  Sooner or later, Christmas at the Ranch will come to an end when my parents pass.  Learning how to enjoy the day in a new way was refreshing.
  • "Get any good gifts?"  Oh yeah!  My wife spoiled me!  She gave me the new Amazon Kindle Fire HD! I've been a giddy little boy for the last two days, playing with this magical device!  Surf the Web, play games, watch videos, check email, play music.  The only thing I haven't really done yet?  Read a book on it!  But the Fire wasn't my favorite gift.  The gift that she gave me that touched my heart (made me cry) was a pretty glass jar with a cork top that she called a "Year's Reflection Jar".  Along with the jar, she gave me some nice note paper.  Over the next 365 days, she invited me (and her) to write down anything that makes us happy or inspires us, and then stick it in the jar.  Next Christmas, we'll empty the jar and read to each other all that we remembered.  What a wonderful, touching idea!  Perfect for the "sentimental historian" that I am!  I love how she knows me so well!
  • "You're still looking pretty good!"  Yeah, but I've put on a few pounds this last month:  not enough exercising as it got colder (and I got busier at school), and enjoying a few more treats.  Bad combination.  Here's something that bugs me.  Why is putting on 5 pounds so effortless??  I don't even notice doing it.  But losing those same 5 pounds?  Definitely takes blood, sweat, and tears!  Something about "nature's math" just doesn't add up here! (especially as I've "aged")  Oh well, I'm back at the gym - working at regaining my "schoolboy" figure.  
I'm not quite as "perfect" as Calvin!
  • Go see the movie "Life of Pi"!  Deborah and I loved it!  We both read the book a few years ago.  It was amazing seeing this story of an Indian boy shipwrecked at sea, alone in a boat with a tiger named Richard Parker come to life!  It was uplifting; it was inspiring and spiritual.  The cinematography took you to a whole new world.  And the ending left us chattering all the way home!

I love this quote from the book...don't know if I remember it from the movie.

"The world isn't just the way it is.  It's how we understand it, no?  And in understanding something, we bring something to it, no?  Doesn't that make life a story?" (Yann Martel)

Time to clear away the dishes...what will we have for dessert?  My favorite cookie, Snickerdoodles, and tea.

And as we ate our buttery, cinnamony, crinkly cookies and sipped our tea, I would probably tell you how much I enjoy having another week off before heading back to school.  I love puttering around the house, and taking care of my wife (since she has to work still most days)

But I know when the New Year begins, and it's officially 2013, the fact that I'll be retiring in 6 months will become more real and concrete than it has been so far.    And that will be both exciting and uncomfortable.  I'm excited about what that means:  all the new possibilities, new changes in my life, etc.  But I know there'll also be some discomfort and worries:  What will the future bring?  What do I do now after having done something else for 30 years?

But that's life.  I read this quote and liked it.

"Continuity gives us roots; change gives us branches, letting us stretch and grow, and reach new heights." (Pauline Kezer)

I'm ready to sprout a few new branches.  That'll be something to write about in the future.

Thanks for coming over!  No, don't worry about the dishes - I got 'em!  Look forward to our next lunch date!

Friday, December 21, 2012

Twenty Six Eternal Candles

"What good is the warmth of the summer without the cold of winter to give it sweetness?" (John Steinbeck)

Today is the Winter Solstice; the shortest day of the year and the longest night.  Slowly, the light has been retreating and darkness advancing, as winter has once again enveloped the world.

And darkness has come this year in more than just a figurative and seasonal sense.  Our country...I...have been in shock and mourning over a tragedy at a small school in Connecticut a week ago.  Evil, dark and full of itself came, and 26 bright lights:  young and innocent, loving and dedicated - were snuffed out.  Coldly.  Suddenly.  Gone.

A season, normally filled with light and joy at this time - a remembrance of birth, now seemed empty.  Cold.  Lifeless. Dark.

But then I remembered this quote from Mahatma Gandhi.

“When I despair, I remember that all through history the ways of truth and love have always won. There have been tyrants and murderers, and for a time, they can seem invincible, but in the end, they always fall. Think of it--always.” 

And it led me to think about all that I know is still good about this world.  Those things that fill my world with beauty; with a sense of wonder, gratitude, magic, and most importantly, love.

Here are 26 of those things; one for each of the bright lights doused.

1.  Sunsets at the ocean's edge.  Proof of the magical effects of God's palette on one's soul.
2.  Our choir at the Life of Learning.  Their music and spirit always lifts me.
3.  Izzy's "Welcome Home!":  Jumping, wagging her tail, our chihuhua's love is wonderfully irrepressible.
4.  Hot soup on a chilly night.  Food for the body, the soul, and the heart...all in one.
5.  Walking in a wet forest.  A quiet pilgrimage among the pines.  There's no better cathedral.
6.  The touch of my wife's hand.  Warm. Strong. Tender. Loving. Sweet.  A gentle reminder that I'm never alone - anymore.
7.  The view from Cape Perpetua on a clear day.  Guaranteed to take your breath away.
8.  A visit from an ex-student.  Always a surprise.  "I just wanted to say Hi", they say.  But deep down, they're really saying, "Thank you for helping me".
9.  The first snow falling.  Silently and gracefully.  A divine blanket that softens and stills the world.
10.  Bright and positive people.  Like my doctor, Heather Kahn.  Compassion and enthusiasm spills out of her - as healing as her advice and skills.
11.  My wife's laugh.  It tickles me; it warms me; its echoes are like sunshine for my heart.
12.  Raindrops on the roof at night.  Gently soothing.  Whispering "All's well.  Close your eyes.  Tomorrow will be fresh and new".
13.  Time spent with my brother Dave.  All too rare.  In him I see so much that is good; as a parent; as a man willing to serve his country; as a friend.  Courage and strength.  Honor and humor.
14.  Fires in a fireplace.  Comfort for my chilly toes;  the flames are always warm and welcoming friends (and they don't mind me fussing over them!)
15.  A mother's love.  I'm twice blessed.  By my own mother's eternal love, sent in her letters; and by witnessing my wife's love for her son, through all the challenges they've shared.  In both cases, the power of such love is breathtaking.
16.  Summer twilight on the hills.  "Golden Time".  Further proof that God's artistry is year round.
17.  Being taught by a good teacher.  One who challenges and inspires.  I'm grateful to have found one in Guy Finley.
18.  People who volunteer.  Like the two little boys who helped me pick up litter in my hallway yesterday.  People who say "Yes" when asked, not "No"; or who just help, without being asked.  Rare jewels.
19.  Michael Buble.  Voices like his have got to be gifts from angels.
20.  My wife in a LBD ('little black dress") and pumps.  Guaranteed to ALWAYS make me stop.  And look. And smile.  Can't help it.  And think, "What a lucky guy I am to be married to her!"
21.  Morning glories.  I love their enthusiasm in the morning.  Wish I could wake and be so bright, so early!
22.  Good neighbors.  Like Dennis and Carol.  Always generous.  Always friendly.  Lucky to know them.
23.  Chocolate cake.  You may think this one is silly, but if you've ever had a bite of a really good piece of dark chocolate cake; moist; rich, smothered in chocolate frosting - you KNOW you've tasted heaven!
24.  People who make the extra effort.  Like my newspaper guy.  Drives up and places my paper next to my garage during the winter when he could easily just chuck it at the end of the driveway.  His thoughtfulness is a nice start to my day.
25.  "I'm sorry.  I made a mistake.  How can I make this right?"  Perhaps the 12 most powerful words in the world.  Saying them myself, or hearing them, has always been redeeming.
26.  My wife's love.  Eternal and ever growing.  Nothing has changed me, or made me a better, stronger, more honest man, more than this.

Why did I write this list?  I guess I did it to remind myself that darkness can never extinguish the Light.  It's impossible.  What's light, bright, and true cannot be dismissed by what is dark.  If ever I believe that's the case, it's because I've forgotten where to look for the Light.  Or I've neglected to act as a reflection of that Light.  

"We are the world we live in. And for every measure of Light we agree to be (embrace, act out, etc.) that is one less measure of darkness that can impress itself into our collective Soul." 
(Guy Finley)

So, on this dark and stormy night, I'm reminded of a timeless Truth.  The birth of something innocent and pure, strong and loving, didn't just happen in a manger outside of Bethlehem 2000 years ago.

It can happen with me.  Today.  If I will remember and act.  To be humble.  Grateful.  Kind.  Compassionate.  Patient.  Loving.

And it can't be vanquished.  Ever.

That's a Christmas Pearl worth remembering.

Buon Natale!  Hyvaa Joulua!  Frohe Weihnachten! 
(and a Merry Christmas to you all, God bless us, everyone!)