Ordinary Heroes

Earlier this week, you meet a hero, Vera. You don’t know it, and you won’t remember. You’re too young. Hopefully, you’ll meet heroes when you’re old enough to remember.

The hero you met is our neighbor Barry. He’s lived in our neighborhood for 35 years. Ours is a new house. The builder tore down an old house and cleared the lot to build our house. We didn’t live in the area and have never met anyone who lived where our house now stands. But Barry did.

In fact, Barry rescued them. His neighbors’ house (where ours now stands) was on fire. The homeowners were elderly. Barry went into the burning house and carried each one out over his shoulder.

A policeman arrived. Barry told him that it was possible there were kids in the house because grandkids (like you!) frequently stayed over. The policeman said he was trained to avoid dangers. He wasn’t about to enter a burning building. So Barry went back in. There were no kids.

Barry’s retired now. He’s concerned how the community is changing. All the changes and rapid growth are unsettling. So much has changed. So many people have moved away or died.

Nowadays, he volunteers at a local church to give himself something to do. He also likes attending to his yard and landscaping. He seems happy. And pretty ordinary, in a good sort of way.

Of course, Barry’s anything but ordinary; he’s extraordinary. He risked his own life to save the lives of others.

“Hero” is an overused word these days. In its overuse, it has been diminished. When you meet people like Barry, the word reclaims its roots and regains its strength.

Heroes come in different varieties, of course. And each of us probably has a slightly different meaning we ascribe to the word.

In my lexicon, it connotes courage. Bravery. Sacrifice. Caring about something else, or someone else, enough to risk something you hold dear. Perhaps even your life.

Sometimes we cast sculptures of our heroes. Or put their names on a wall. Sometimes, we don’t do anything. Sometimes, they’re not even noticed.

No one can strive to become a hero. That would be antithetical to the very concept. That would be putting yourself first.

People become heroes when circumstances confront them that call for a choice. Sometimes they have time to think about it. Sometimes, as with Barry, they must decide on the spot.

None of us should strive to be a hero. But I think perhaps each of us should strive to become the kind of person who, when presented by such circumstances, would make the right choice.

Marrying the Right Person

I don’t know if you’ll marry anyone, Vera. But if you do, think about it.

One of the keys to a happy life is avoiding big mistakes. Marrying the wrong person can be one of the biggest mistakes you could possibly make. So, naturally, try not to get it wrong.

I was lucky. I stumbled into a great marriage. Well, perhaps it wasn’t entirely a stumble. I wasn’t nearly as smart when I was 16 (when I started dating your grandmother) as I thought I was — or at 21 when I married your grandmother — but I was smart enough to marry up. That’s my first suggestion: marry up.

Your grandmother was and is smarter than me. And a better person in almost — no, in every — respect. That’s what I mean by marrying up.

Your great grandmother probably also would tell you to marry into a good family. I used to scoff as such advice, but, frankly, experience has proved my mother right more often than not. You’ll be marrying not only a spouse but marrying into a family. Never underestimate the power of genetics. Or engrained familial dysfunctionality. In short, be sure the family passes muster.

That’s about all I could come up with, so now I’m turning to two guys from the investment world who are two of the wisest people I’ve encountered (by reading and listening, not personally): Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger. Here is some of what they’ve said about the keys to a good marriage:

“If you really want a marriage that will last, look for someone with low expectations.”

“Make sure your spouse has the same thoughts on the same big things.” I’m not totally sold on this one, mainly because James Carville (ardent Democrat) and Mary Matalin (Republican operative turned Libertarian) seem so happy together. But it’s probably best to err on the side of caution. I have to admit, I don’t think I could live with anyone who thought Donald Trump was a decent human being or remotely fit to be president. Or who thought Roberto Clemente wasn’t God’s gift to Pittsburgh (hell, to all of humanity) and one of the greatest ballplayers to ever play the game.

“Don’t marry someone to change them.” I’ve seen people try to change their spouses over the years. I can’t recall it ever working out well.

“Don’t keep score.” (Thank goodness your grandmother heeded this advice.)

“Look for someone who will love you unconditionally.” Come to think of it, I’m not sure that anything else is truly love.

“Marry someone who is a better person than you are.” (I did!) Warren takes it even further: “Always associate with people who are better than you.”

“Choose a spouse who believes in you.” And why would you be tempted to marry anyone who doesn’t? I don’t know, but it happens.

I could go one, but you get the point: it’s an important decision. Perhaps the most important of your life. Treat it as such.

Oh, I left out one important criterion: choose someone your pap-pap likes.

 

I Hope You Will Be Treated Unfairly

“From time to time in the years to come, I hope you will be treated unfairly, so that you will come to know the value of justice.

I hope that you will suffer betrayal, because that will teach you the importance of loyalty.

Sorry to say, but I hope you will be lonely from time to time, so that you don’t take friends for granted.

I wish you bad luck, again from time to time, so you will be conscious of the role of chance in life, and understand that your success is not completely deserved, and that the failure of others is not completely, deserved, either.

And when you lose, as you will from time to time, I hope every now and then your opponent will gloat over your failure. It is a way for you to understand the importance of sportsmanship.

I hope you will be ignored, so you know the importance of listening to others. And I hope you will have just enough pain to learn compassion.

Whether I wish these things or not, they are going to happen, and whether you benefit from them or not will depend upon your ability to see the message in your misfortunes.”

These are the words of the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, John Roberts, delivered this month at the commencement of Cardigan Mountain School.

They speak for themselves.

Place Matters: Today I Became A Hoosier

At the risk of laying claim to a derogatory term, today I embrace Hoosierism. Well, maybe.

What’s inarguable, however, is that, today, I became a Hoosier. We closed on the purchase of a house in Carmel, Indiana this morning.

But part of me knows that I’ve always been and always will be a Pennsylvanian. It’s the land of my and my family’s roots. Every time I think I’ve shaken it, I return home to the Commonwealth to visit friends and relatives and realize it’s not something one can shake. It’s in my bones.

But on the surface, I am now a Hoosier.

I came here after living the past five years in a blue state: Colorado. Indiana is a red state. I take a tiny bit of solace in knowing it’s just a bit less red today than it was yesterday.

Hoosiers are friendly people I’m told. However, I’ve learned over the years that friendly comes in different packages, some more authentic than others. I hope Hoosiers are authentic people. I find authenticity to be far more valuable than friendliness.

Regardless, I am so lucky to be here. We came here to be near you, Vera. That’s the power you possess. Try not to let it go to your head. Or to take advantage of your grandparents.

There are collateral benefits of course. We’re near your parents, too. And nearer to the rest of our family (sans your uncle on the west coast).

And we finally live at a place that’s within walking distance of just about everything we need in life. And we’re a stone’s throw away from a trail that will take us, by bike or foot, to downtown Indy or north into the countryside.

My goal is to burn as little gas as possible. And to walk, hike and bike as much as possible.

So now we go about the business of nurturing place.

Place is something that resides in our subconsciousness more than our consciousness, which is odd considering how important it is.

When I was younger, I didn’t appreciate the importance of place. I lived not in a place but in a cutthroat world — a world of competition, domination, discontent and violence — primarily violence against oneself and one’s soul.

I now think place is paramount.

The place we envision will be an enclave of love, peace and grace. Our home will be your home, Vera. And your parents and uncle’s home. And a home for friends and family to commune. A place to laugh. A place to cry. A place where precious memories are created.

Outside, your grandmother will take the lead in creating a tribute to nature and humanity’s connectedness to the earth. She will play in the dirt, as angels are inclined to do. It will be a place of peace and tranquility. And of beauty. I’m looking forward to seeing it unfold. It will be glorious.

Beyond the borders of what we naively think of as “our property” will be the larger place. My place in that place is yet to be defined. I’m counting on the rhythms of life to show me the way. Some people call it “the hand of God.” I’m no longer sure I believe that. But I don’t disbelieve it either.

I try not to delude myself however. I know that, for many, place is hell. Daily, some are forced to walk into or through the valley of death. It’s hard to create place when confronted by harsh realities.

Perhaps my place will nudge me forward, to hold their hands, to carry their loads, to help create place in the midst of pain and suffering. Perhaps my place will go with me wherever I may go.

Place can do that. Place has incredible power. But only if we allow it. Only if we allow place to thrive and become a living force within us.

On my journey, I have been blessed to live within the beauty and grandeur of Pennsylvania, Virginia, Colorado and, now, Indiana. I have absolutely no idea where my journey may take me in the years yet to be lived. But, for now, I am attending to important work. Holy work. I am allowing place to do its work.

Violence

A U.S. Congressman was shot yesterday. It should go without saying that it’s a tragedy. It always is, when a human being is shot, that is.

Shooting another person is such a barbaric act. Yet it happens every day. It’s confirmation we are not nearly as civilized as we think we are.

There are all kinds of justification for shootings and killings, of course. Personally, I don’t find any of them to be persuasive.

When I was in college, I toured the prison in central Pennsylvania where state-sponsored executions were carried out. Actually, the execution room had been inactive for a while until the Supreme Court could finally resolve the issue, but the room stood ready for action. The electric chair was in the middle of the room. A large exhaust fan was positioned in the ceiling above the chair, ready to suck the fumes from the room as the flesh and organs fried. I wondered how anyone could participate in the intentional, well-planned killing of another human being. I still wonder.

I also wonder why so many people are willing to fight rich people’s wars. That’s what wars usually entail: fighting over resources or other strategic advantages that bear on the ability of rich and powerful people to maintain or build their wealth. It’s said that money is the root of all evil. The older I’ve gotten, the more I’ve come to realize it’s true.

Some people think we need to be armed in order to protect our liberty. Hence, you can walk into a Starbucks in Cheyenne, Wyoming and encounter a customer with an assault rifle slung over his shoulder. Some people simply don’t understand what nurtures and protects liberty. They put too much faith in instruments of death. In the power of violence.

I don’t own a gun, Vera. And I suspect I never will. I did borrow one years ago when we lived in Pittsburgh. I was involved in the defense of a client in the trash hauling business, and there had been some assaults and one murder on the fringes of the case. Borrowing the gun was probably an over-reaction, yet when you have a wife and small kids, over-reactions aren’t uncommon. You become very protective.

I returned the gun and haven’t had one in the house anytime since. That said, I’d probably resort to violence in self-defense or in defense of a loved one. But the odds of the need for such action are very, very low.

I’m lucky. For people in my socio-economic status, violence is usually something that lives in the distance. But not all people are so fortunate. It’s just one of the many daily reminders of the role luck and parentage play in one’s life. You’re a very lucky girl, too.

I don’t mean to suggest violence only comes to us in the form of guns. In fact, violence takes many forms. Sometimes it’s delivered by a fist. Or needle. Or mental or emotional assault. Or some act of self-destruction.

Usually (but not always), violence is accompanied by fear, anger, greed, hate or desperation. If we thought and talked more about those things, perhaps there would be less violence.

I wonder if humans will ever develop to the stage of finding violence to be barbaric and unacceptable. That would be nice, but it’s probably just a pipe dream.

In the meantime, the struggle between violence and peace will continue. It’s a struggle that takes place not only in society. It also plays out within every human being’s heart.

Peace be with you, my dear Vera. May love, courage and hope hold violence at bay in your life.

From Mile High To Sea Level

 

For the past five years, I’ve lived a mile above sea level: 5,130 feet to be precise. Living at altitude is different. Blood oxygen levels are lower. Sleep can be impaired (not good for someone with sleep apnea). But you’re closer to the sun, which is out most of the time. And the humidity here, in this semi-arid high plain, is low.

I’ve made no secret of how much I love this place. I wish I’d moved here years ago. I can’t think of a better place to live. Yet today I leave my mile-high home.

There is a lot about this place I’ll miss, but perhaps I’ll miss the skies the most. The two photos were taken at Boulder and Rocky Mountain National Park. I can’t find an adjective to do the Colorado skies justice.

Vera, your grandmother said she’ll miss the mountains the most. I can’t argue with that. Seeing the magnificent Rockies every day is an indescribable blessing, and climbing over them has been an inexperience unlike any other.

But today we leave our mile-high home. Soon, we’ll be living near you. That will make it a very, very special place.

The anticipation of the next excites me. I always look forward to turning the page. So I will travel down to sea level or something close. And as I do, I will turn the page in the book of life.

I don’t know what I’ll find in the next chapter, but I’m sure it will be new and interesting. I like new.

I’m an incredibly fortunate guy, certainly more so than I deserve or have earned. I’ve had the good fortune to spend the past five years in an amazing place. And now I get to spend the next few years in a place that’s even more amazing, because that place is your home.

My life reminds me of a scene from one of my favorite movies, Babette’s Feast. Following the feast, one of the town’s men looked up to the starry sky and remarked, Hallelujah!

Hallelujah indeed!

Perhaps it’s a good time to listen to this.

Moments Where You Feel Something

I lost the capacity to cry for about 10 years, between ages 34 and 44. Didn’t cry when I got divorced or when my mom died. Just forgot how, I think. I’m obsessed with business, am hugely stressed over it and wrap way too much of my identity and self-worth around professional success. But I’ve never cried because of business. And, trust me, there has been good reason several (hundred) times. However, since my mid-forties, something strange: I. Cry. All. The. Time.

Pretty sure it’s a good thing. Sorrowful crying is looking to the past with sadness, or to the future with dread. Crying as a result of happiness is a response to a moment as if it’s eternal; the person is frozen in a blissful, immortalized present. My tears lately (thankfully) have been the latter as I slow down and pursue moments. Moments with friends, moments trying to freeze time with my kids, and (mostly) feeling very in the moment watching movies and TV. At least a third of the episodes of Modern Family get me weepy, and something about being on a plane turns me into a chocolate mess. (Note: do not watch the movie Gleason on a plane.) I also choke up in class more often, in front of 120 kids in their late twenties. I used to feel embarrassed and tell myself I need to keep it together. But as we get older we become more like ourselves, and I’m getting more comfortable with raw emotions and the potential collateral damage. I’ve earned it.

As you get older, and begin to register the finite time we have, you want to freeze time, and have moments where you feel something. Depression isn’t feeling sad, but feeling nothing. Crying, especially in the company of, or thinking about loved ones, feels healthy and joyous. I well up just thinking about it.

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Wouldn’t It Be Great To Live in a World of Intellectual Fallibility?

I was reading a Wall Street Journal article recently about Robert George, a conservative legal scholar at Princeton. It was the last line of the article that spoke volumes. Here’s the concluding paragraph:

Off campus, he values spending time with friends of various political stripes. He says that Prof. [Cornel] West once said to him, “Brother Robby, you and I have got to be the two most misunderstood brothers in the country.” What he has in common with these colleagues, whatever their political disagreements, is “the idea of intellectual fallibility,” he says. “It’s the idea that I have something to learn from people who disagree with me.”

A world of intellectual fallibility. Wouldn’t that be a nice place to live?