Friday, April 17, 2015

lifelong learning

Yesterday, Massachusetts bestowed a "coach of the year" recognition on my son Angus, who is in his first year of coaching with the high school track team.

Northampton swept the western Massachusetts honors as Angus Fisher won in his first season with the boys team and Brandon Palmer won for his work with the girls squad...
Fisher shared the boys award with Amherst Regional’s David Thompson. Northampton won the state Division 4 title, while Amherst won the state Division 3 title.
Naturally there was applause to be handed out and I did so to the best of my ability, which is limited by the fact that I don't know a hell of a lot about track, but I do know something about my feelings for my son. Whether he makes a life as a track coach or finds another profession or hits the lottery, still I want him to move forward in a way that brings him peace. An award and a newspaper write-up is one small aide in the employment process that so often relies on the applause of others. In its crudest form, perhaps the rule of thumb is, "you wanna eat, you gotta kiss some ass."

As I congratulated my son, I could also feel myself going into a protective dad-realm, the realm where I have some experience from which my children might benefit. It's egotistical, I suppose, but I also think it is part of the parental warp and woof.

What made me edgy was the realm of praise and blame and the desirable nature of leading a life that was not dependent, pro or con, on the applause or catcalls of others. It's dicey. It's difficult. And if you don't address it, it will come up and bite you hard in the ass, I think.

Both in and between the lines, New York Yankees slugger Mickey Mantle (1931-1995) once admitted in a touching interview that the thing he missed most in retirement was the crowd, the throng, the acknowledgment, the overarching agreement, the reassurance, so to speak, of self. How, his words seemed to ask, could he know who he was if someone didn't tell him? And with no one around to tell him....

Not that I think Angus is necessarily going to fall prey to his latest accolade. He knows how to stick his toe in the sand and play the diffident card. "It is what it is," he has said to me on occasion, as if that fortune cookie could cover all bases and smooth out egotistical wrinkles. But of course it's one thing to say "it is what it is" and quite another to actualize it. How is anyone to actualize the wisdom of their lips? My guess is that a lot of hard work and failure is in the offing if anyone is to sidestep the danger of believing their own legend.

Let's get it straight. Success and accolades and applause feel good and seem to assert and support the social connections that being human implies ... yum, yum, yum. Deny this at your own peril, I wanted to tell Angus. Just don't fail to investigate it: Not rely on it, not deny it, just investigate it.

In 2009, airline pilot Sully Sullenberger was hailed as a national hero after he guided his passenger jet to a crash landing in New York's Hudson River. A flock of Canada geese had fouled the engines. All 155 passengers and crew were safely evacuated.

For days after the event, Sullenberger was written about, interviewed and praised ... volubly praised and deservedly so.

But at first, Sullenberger would have none of it. What happened, he said over and over and over again, was just "what we were trained for." He did not want to be burdened with the extraneous and to some extent false label of "hero." Like any sensible man or woman, he did not want to be separated from the rest of humanity, community and shared responsibility. You can hear the same plea from virtually every living recipient of the Medal of Honor, America's highest military award.

No one listened to Sullenberger, so eventually he was forced to investigate further than the praise that fell like raindrops on his life. And what he came up with was surprisingly adult, though still burdensome. "I came to the conclusion that people need heroes," he said approximately.

Yes, it has a yummy component, and yes, that component rests on an unexamined foundation, no matter what the encomiums announce. I can't help but think that praise for an investigative soul boils down, at some point, to hating what you also bask in and love.

If you don't allow it in, it will own you.

If you do allow it, it can likewise own you.

No one likes being a slave to someone or something else.

And it's not as if today's resolution of "it is what it is" will mow down similar weeds as they crop up in the future. Over and over the practice asserts itself ... the acknowledged specialness rising up, enfolding like sunshine and fading away ... leaving recipients gasping like a pod of beached pilot whales.

It's a tough learning curve, but the alternative is to morph into some version of an airhead Hollywood star, believing yourself to be what adoring -- or catcalling -- fans say you are. So delicious and yet, when the bedroom ceiling looks down impassively at 3 a.m., so harrowing.

Yes, it is what it is.

Now cut the it-is-what-it-is bullshit and make it so!


  1. I think it's somewhat human to see yourself as special, and of course it's nice to hear someone else say you're special to them. But when a mob of strangers start saying how special you are, you have to wonder what authority or expertise they bring to make certain of that claim of speciality. Pleased and suspicious may duke it out in a determination of how to feel about it.

    Being on a pedestal separates you from your fellow beings and that is a sad, perhaps scary thing to experience. And understanding that people need heroes, and being willing to shoulder such a burden, thrusts one into a limellight that disallows mistakes and or moments one prefers to keep private, another scary thing to experience. Even if one is able to retire as a hero, someone is likely to think consulting the hero for their opinions or guidance. And this is another blow that can interfere with the safe privacy that life requires of our clay footed existence.

    But i think most heroics are forgotten with the next days news, or relegated to annual celebrations can become less about the hero than the comfort that heroism survives. The hero may become just a face on a body of such hope. Heroism is the only real miracle that can give hope to any and all.

    If a hero can keep their pedestal short enough to step on an off easily there's less of a fall threat. And a hero trying to get on with their life may be tired of hearing about it. I think heroes must struggle to find a way to juggle graciousness with embittered privacy.

    So many feelings to get a handle on. I was accidentally heroic. Glad to have been so fortunate. Thank you for appreciating good deeds, it gives me hope too. Water is wet, thank you.