23 Jul

Life lessons for the superhero apprentice

“Superhero in Training” in Main Line Today (August 2010).

At 4 years old, my son has just one problem in life, and it plagues him night after night. Lying in bed, a never-ending debate runs through his mind over which superhero he should be when he gets big.

Batman, Superman, Spider-Man, the Incredible Hulk. Even Plastic Man remains a viable option. Each, after all, is unique, offering a child endless possibilities in the way of costumes, superpowers, weapons, vehicles and villains.

I may not be a superhero, but as a parent, I hope I’m providing him with the lessons he needs to become one. Here are six that were handed down to me:

Superhero Lesson #1: Superheroes aren’t perfect. Sometimes they crash—and it’s not always the cape’s fault. Or the villain’s fault. Or anybody’s fault, really. Things just happen. Superheroes don’t waste time blaming. If they crash, they brush it off and get back into the air.

Superhero Lesson #2: Always trust your Spidey sense. If you’re ever unsure about a situation, it’s best to follow your gut. It could be what superhero move you need to make to capture the villain. It could be what to say to someone who is upset with you. Or it could be whether or not you should do something someone is asking you to do. Not sure what to do? Follow your Spidey sense. It’s why superheroes have it, and it’s usually right. With a little practice, and a lot of faith, you’ll learn to trust it.

Superhero Lesson #3: Visualization. To be successful in anything, first be successful in your mind. Visualize yourself making contact with that baseball before you even step up to the plate. Picture every moment of the event. Your hands gripping the bat. Your legs balanced and ready to step forward into the pitch. The crack of the bat as the ball flies through the air. Your legs darting out of the batter’s box as you sprint along the base paths. First picture it in your mind, and your body will know what to do when the time comes to face that first curve ball.

Superhero Lesson #4: When you hear a screaming ambulance racing down the street—be it close by or far off in the distance—take a second and say a little prayer for whoever is in need. Superheroes can’t be in all places at all times, but their prayers can be.

Superhero Lesson #5: Choose your words carefully. Most mere mortals assume that the greatest of superhero powers come from radioactive accidents, genetic mutation, or intergalactic immigration. The truth of the matter is, superheroes master the most common and yet most difficult skills first. Chief among these skills is one’s ability to choose words carefully. For example, certain words should not be uttered by any superhero. These include the words “never,” “can’t,” and “I give up.” Other examples include words such as “hate” and “kill.”

Just the same, there are certain words in the vocabularies of all superheroes that should be said now and again, and sometimes these are even more difficult to master. Examples that fall into this category include the words “help” and “I don’t know.” The thing is, superheroes can’t do everything on their own, and they don’t know everything there is to know. Superheroes are aware of this imperfect quality, no matter how super they may be. Choose your words, and the words you choose not to use, very carefully.

Superhero Lesson #6: Gratitude. If there’s one thing superheroes do well, it’s appreciating how lucky they are. After all, it’s not everyone that can fly, sling webs, or turn green with bulging muscles when danger looms. Superheroes are lucky, and they know it. That’s why they end each day with a prayer of thanks. So as you lay in bed at night, eyes closed and ready to recharge your body for another day of saving the world, spend a few minutes thinking about everything you’re thankful for. God. Your family. Your friends. Your home. Anyone and anything that made your day better. This is one of the most important exercises a superhero can do, and like all exercise, it makes you even stronger.

I look over at my son, fast asleep, and say a prayer of gratitude for this little superhero-in-training. My dream is that he achieves his. I say a prayer too for the superhero who shared these lessons with me – my father. Though he may be gone, he lives on. After all, superheroes are immortal.

03 Jul

One stamp at a time

“The Great Letter Revival Movement” in the Harrisburg Patriot-News (July 3, 2010).

An unspoken, hopeful moment in my day, and I daresay in most people’s, occurs with the simple act of reaching into the mailbox. Somewhere deep in our subconscious is a deep longing for a pleasant surprise to begin or end the day — something entirely unexpected — a letter.

That hidden expectation is tucked away so deep that we recognize it only when it is fulfilled, when and if that time ever arrives.

For most of us, reaching into the mailbox reveals much the same: a Clipper magazine with advertisements, some unwanted credit card solicitations, a “Have you seen us?” postcard about missing children and perhaps the remaining bill or two that isn’t delivered online.

What a lonely and unfulfilling mailbox. It is a sad commentary on the way we live our lives.

And no, I’m not talking technology here. E-mail and online technologies are tremendous assets to the enhancement of modern communication. For someone who avoids talking on the phone, e-mail often is a wonderful — and many times — quicker substitution. Technology, however, is not killing the letter.

The culprit is us: Our hectic lives and packed calendars, our to-do lists and the race to accomplish as much as we can before night’s end. In other words, our priorities.

I daresay we’re entering an age where the art of writing a letter is quickly vanishing. Sure, a card will occasionally show up in our mailbox, but Hallmark leaves a bit to be desired as do the boasting year-in-review letters sent in bulk during the Christmas season. If we don’t engage in letter-writing today, do we really think the next generation will take the time to sit down and write a letter?

I must first disclose that I am partial to letters.

When my oldest brother spent his first summer at the shore and then lived away at college, I started writing him letters. As someone who enjoyed writing, it was a good opportunity to learn the craft of writing and find new ways to poke fun at my brother at the same time. At age 12, it was a wonderful discovery for me. More than two decades have passed, with hundreds of letters in the mix, and I credit the letter (and its often unfortunate recipients) with teaching me how to write.

The letter is a challenge to write, primarily because you must wrestle yourself away from the activities of the day, sit down and contemplate. Yes, get away. Yes, sit down. Yes, contemplate. It means putting things aside and recognizing the importance of reflecting on one’s life and one’s relationship with another. Not only is this important, it is central to healthy living and meaningful relationships.

If you were to take the time to sit down and write a letter, to whom would you write? Your father or mother? Sister or brother? Spouse or child? Uncle or friend? Now imagine that person reaching into his or her mailbox next week and discovering among the pile of circulars and catalogs an old-fashioned stamped letter. From you!

Shared experiences are the buds that begin any relationship. Our memory of those experiences, and our shared reflection and commentary on them, help those buds grow. Letters have the power to enter deeper and more fully into a relationship — even if it is a letter to a spouse or child you live with day in and day out. It is in moments of reflection and in opening ourselves to others that we come to truly engage in communication.

A challenge, then: Participate in the Great Letter Revival Movement. No, it doesn’t exist yet, but with your participation it can become a reality. Take the time to write a letter to that friend or family member and see what comes of it.

If you’re feeling timid, simply clip this article and include it with the letter so as to avoid appearing the eccentric weirdo who one day randomly chooses to write a friend.

Who knows where the Great Letter Revival Movement will take us. Lives could be changed, relationships deepened and mailboxes brought to life.

All it takes is a little time, a little courage and 44 cents.