Heros are just like us – only different

His handshake was frail but strong. His eyes piercingly clear but deep. His voice was confident but humble.

In that brief moment I suddenly realized what it means to meet a genuine hero.

Earlier this week I found myself at a Memorial Day ceremony. Admittedly most of us, if asked, couldn’t correctly tell you what the day stands for much beyond a wave of special discount sales or gathering in the backyard for a cookout. This, particularly after my experience, is sad.

The person on the other end of my handshake is an indeed a hero – a man who, when at an age many might still call a boy, helped change the course of history.

At the age of 90-years young, the words of his experiences aboard a PT boat during World War II are spoken through the eyes of the 19-year old who witnessed them.

D-Day June 6, 1944, or the invasion of Normandy, is universally regarding as one of a very small number of dates in history in which the future of mankind was altered.

“Our job,” said the voice of the former teenager on watch that night, “was to clear channels of mines so the boats carrying the troops could safely reach land.”

The night was dark – and the water even darker. Looking for floating mines, painted dark colors to help obscure them from visual detection, was a daunting challenge. Knowing the lives of thousands of young men waiting just offshore were dependent on you successfully accomplishing your mission only added to the pressure on this young teenager.

Earlier in the morning another speaker described how many of these men must’ve felt as they looked out across the water towards the enemy they could not yet see.

“The only way you are going to America, to hurt Americans, is through me.”

These men, particularly those on this day, also knew they could do everything right and not make it through the day.

It is hard for us today to imagine a world in which freedom was on the long end of a losing streak. At the time – in that darkness – the future was truly filled with uncertainty and fear. And in the hearts of each of these troops, weighed the lives of millions of others at home and around the world.

I again find myself again thinking of the man at the other end of our handshake. Over the course of a ten-minutes and a couple hundred words, I see him differently. No longer is he the man his body physically and outwardly projects. While time is making daily withdrawals from his life, he is truly much larger and complex than the physical shell that houses this man and his experiences.

Our hands separate as he introduces himself to a young boy who is staring at small replica model of the very PT boat from which the 19-year old inside of him watched the world change directions in the darkness on that morning in 1944.

Stepping into the background, I watch as others come forward to greet him. And with the grace and humility forged inside of him seventy years ago, he continues to change the world – one handshake at a time.

 

– 30 –

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Artist’s Shadow Underscores Spirit

It took an artist in pain to teach me a new way to look at the world.

My friend is an accomplished photographer. A lifelong photojournalist, he’s captured both beautiful and sobering images through the lens of his personal perspective.

A painter manipulates strokes and colors to create an image from his mind. A writer carefully arranges words in order to best tell a story he hears in his head. A photographer, on the other hand, uses his mind’s eye to mechanically capture what we all can see — but in doing so, revealing a powerful or unique aspect invisible to an untrained eye.

Like I said, my friend is an artist.

Life, as it does, came along and interrupted his journey. If each of us selected a handful of Crayons to accompany us through life, it would be easy to forget we need one name ‘good health.’ One day this particular Crayon began to disappear from my friend’s box – making his days a photojournalist come to a close.

But then again, artists are an odd lot. Just because they can no longer continue their day jobs, their urge to create continues to pulse like a newborn heart. For them, creating is not what they do – it is who they are.

Recently my friend began publishing an interesting series of self-portraits. And like I described earlier, an artist’s talent is many times to be able to reveal something new from what is already staring us in the face. And so began a series self-described as ‘shadow man.’

Most of us are taught to discard an imperfect photo (or anything we create). My friend, however, is creating the cardinal sin of intentionally including his shadow in each and every photo through the series. For most of us, having our shadow peeking into a photo is almost like having our thumb over part of the lens. But to my friend, he is again taking the obvious perception and turning it on its head.

A shadow hand reaching for an object begs us to ask why? Another dark shadow of a man against a colorful backdrop forces us to focus on two potential story lines at once. Again, the artist is showing us something new in the familiar — forcing us to look more deeply into ourselves.

There is a lesson here. Why are we all so easily convinced the imperfect needs to be deposited in the trash? Is conventional wisdom – the collective agreement of how thing are or should be – our enemy? If so, what else are we missing in life? Who knows what else is hidden from our view in plain sight?

His series of photos has changed me. Today it is not unusual for me to find myself looking at my shadow. Where once I considered it a useless image projected behind me, I now see it as its own entity and dimension – another color in the spectrum of images.

My friend, although in pain, continues to create. His shadow, although has always his silent companion in life, is now awake. His shadow, is now his surrogate voice, helping us see the unseen.

But for me, my shadow is something more – a reminder of my friend, his difficult journey, and how the spirit of an artist can never be silenced.

 

– 30 –

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Band Performs Time Travel Trick

They say you can never go back in time – but last week I discovered I could buy a pretty good piece for about $40.

A friend and I were visiting a nearby town when I ran across the listing for a band playing in a small club around the corner. Well, just not any band – one who I’d paid good money to see perform in one of those “epic arena shows” while I was a college student.

In contrast, next weekend my friend’s son graduates from college. In my house, we’ve one out of college and another wrapping up her first year. My friend and I are age-qualified for AARP, losing the battle against grey hair, and freely share the contents of a bottle of ibuprofen like we might’ve once split a six-pack of beer. We are, quiet simply, getting older.

What, I wondered, could be these guy’s secrets to still touring?

With a quick payment via’ a smartphone, we soon found ourselves standing in the general admission line outside a small building on the south side of town.

As the doors opened, however, the screams and pushing from the concerts I remembered was noticeably absent. As a matter of fact, several of us offered polite apologies as we bumped into each other or routinely held doors for the person behind us. This was, to say the least, not the crowd of my youth.

As always, a newly minted band did a quick performance to warm up the crowd. Looking at the lead singer dance around the stage, the thought crossed my mind that when she found out who she was opening for she probably had to text her parents to find out who they were.

Finally the main attraction hits the stage – at a bit after 8 PM. Apparently even aging rock stars need to get to bed earlier these days.

With my fingers dancing across my phone, I discover one of the lead singers is sixty-seven years young. The drummer, the one with salt and pepper hair, is his son. I wondered if taking off my glasses might be the best way to see the past more clearly.

Scrolling through the music downloaded on my phone, the album art comes up from their best-selling album. The faces on the cover are unrecognizable – but in all fairness, so am I.

Rock shows from the bands of my youth have always been about the art of illusion. Big stages, towering speakers, and rolling walls of fog. The music, well, that was many times secondary.

Looking around the space the size of modest convenience store, I turned away from the stage. Lights flashed behind me, illuminating the faces of those around me while the music vibrated against my back. For a moment, regardless of age, we were all time travelers. Outside the dark building most of us had mortgages, standing prescription orders at the local drug store, and retirement accounts. But inside – through the fog of both theater and memories – we were all young again.

Truth be told, the band put on a really great show. But I now recognize they were doing a performance with a much different goal in mind than those of my youth.

They say you can never relive your past…but it is amazing what $40 can do.

 

– 30 –

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cancer Deals New Hand In Life

My new friend went in for a cholesterol check and came out with cancer.

“Yeah, strange deal,” he said. “Went in to see the doctor for an routine update on my cholesterol numbers and he asks me if cancer runs in my family.”

Life, it seems, was shuffling the cards on my friend.

“After a quick check he sends me off to a specialist and suddenly I’ve got aggressive prostate cancer.”

This entire conversation is occurring as my new friend and I are cycling along city streets with a group of others. His eyes are bright, his voice strong. Thick black glasses frame a face of someone in perfect health. Amazingly, he might just have his brush with cancer in his rear view mirror.

“Gotta say though, this whole deal changed how I look at life.”

A musician by trade – and heart – you’d never know a short while ago he was looking for a way back to normal. A successful artist with several albums behind him and now doing independent music, he’s discovering life through a new set of lenses.

His voice pattern breaks as we begin climbing a hill surrounded by thick, overhanging trees.

“Kind of makes you put things into perspective. Forces you to ask yourself what do I enjoy in life?”

For him, it provided an opportunity for transformation.

“I figured I could be depressed or use it to inspire me,” he said.

As we continued our ride, he spoke of his love for life, music, and a woman in his life.

“I care very much for her,” he said, his emotions leaking into his words.

While life is generally unpredictable, it is most predictable in the fact of how it will periodically place us at the fork of road and invite us to uncomfortably reexamine ourselves. What makes us tick, what makes us happy, and how do we want to get there? The entire process, surprisingly, many times yields a newfound clarity for those facing these moments.

The impetus can be cancer, but it can also be a loss of a loved one or change in employment. Life is always fluid with plenty of opportunities for us to reevaluate ourselves — inviting us to focus on what really matter to us most. The challenge is, however, to have the courage to go through the many times unpleasant self-examination and come out stronger and with an increased clarity of our personal purpose.

The incline begins to flatten as we approach the crest of the hill, revealing a spacious area ahead. As we turn to the west the sun begins to drop beneath the tree line, illuminating the sky in warm hues of red and orange. The world, from this vantage point is beautiful.

My new friend smiles easily as we pedal along. Secretly, I envy what he is seeing. While I know we are both riding in the same direction, I know he is seeing a much different world, one of clarity, one of value, and one where he will never again carelessly spend a moment of his life.

 

– 30 –

 

Empty words reflect wasted opportunities

“So,” said the voice on the other end of the phone, “how are you doing these days?”

We all use this phrase as a placeholder – a few moments at the front of a conversation to help us gather a breath and get our mental footing. Both parties recognize it for this purpose and generally begin formulating their next set of words as the other is repeating a narrow range of socially acceptable responses.

“Fine,” I replied. “Things are good on this end. Same with you I trust?”

And after a few neutral exchanges of well-worn phrases, both parties are off to the races to discuss the real reason one reached out to the other in the first place.

But what if we really meant it? What if this was the meaning of our call and not simply a throwaway string of words? What if we, as a society, really cared?

With my dad continuing to age, I think about this more and more often. His heath, although good for his age, is always one or two incidents from me having to make a decision about his future. Now when I reach out to him, those well-used words are the reason for the call and not about how his local baseball team might have fared the night before. The ‘how are you doing’ is now the reason for the call, not the proverbial on-ramp leading to our main conversation.

What if we practiced this with strangers? What if we were actively looking for ways to help others in need? Wouldn’t that be an act of love?

Sometimes I’ll see someone in a coffee shop staring blankly into the invisible space floating a few feet ahead. With their hands wrapped around a cup of coffee, it is as if they a playing a movie only they can see. And for most of us, it does not take a trained psychologist to spot someone in pain.

Each time I wonder what is the best thing to do? Do I stop by as say hello or toss out a cheerful phrase to interrupt the sequence of images they are dwelling upon? Or, do they just want to be left alone?

One of the most interesting aspects of aging is discovering who you really are. On the front end of our arc, most of us tend to be following a playbook of some sort – one reflecting what the larger society expects from us in whatever role we choose to play. How to dress, words to use, choices to take. We in effect, neutralize our emotions in exchange for memorizing actions and phrases.

But with each year I find these artificial skins peeling away to reveal the real me – the one I’d probably partly suppressed or did not know enough to listen to in the first place.

So today when I strike up a conversation, I find myself increasingly interested in the first thirty seconds of dialogue. It is as if the further I move along the arc of life, the less I am interested in the useless noise of pointless conversation and instead increasingly interested in the lives of those around me.

Maybe this is a natural progression of life – one of those beautiful rewards you only discover over time. But if so, I am convinced the world would be better a better place if we didn’t have to wait so long to get there.

 

– 30 –