Emily On Hope

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Hope is the Thing with Feathers

by Emily Dickinson

“Hope” is the thing with feathers

that perches in the soul

and sings the tune without the words

and never stops at all,

And sweetest in the gale is heard;

and sore must be the storm

that could abash the little bird

that kept so many warm.

I’ve heard it in the chillest land

and on the strangest sea,

yet never, in extremity,

it asked a crumb of me.

Only One Dark Cloud On An Otherwise Beautiful South Florida Sunday Afternoon

Fielding Practice

With apologies to my friends in the Northeast and Midwest who, I understand, are suffering through a particularly brutal cold snap, I have to tell you that yesterday was an especially beautiful South Florida “winter” day.  The temperature was in the mid-70’s – with a gentle breeze making it feel slightly cooler.  The sun was shining brightly and the sky was cobalt blue, with only a wisp of white clouds.  It was a magnificent day for the beach, a leisurely stroll, a picnic, a bike ride or, in the case of a young father and his approximately 7 year-old son at the local park where I walk, some fielding and batting practice in anticipation of the start of the little league baseball season.

In fact, the only “dark cloud” was my having to endure the conduct of that dad towards his son for the few minutes I passed within ear shot of the baseball field where they were “practicing” in each of my 10 laps around the park.  I have to tell you, I have a fair amount of experience coaching little leaguers and that boy was an incredibly gifted ballplayer for such a young man, but you would never have known it from the harsh criticism that even the most improbable of catches elicited from his dad.  Diving one-handed catches:  “Use two hands!!!”  Lunging snags of hard hit ground balls: “Get in front of those!!!”  You can imagine the exchanges when he missed the ball!

Really, dad – are you seriously that clueless??? Do you not have any idea how much damage you’re doing?  I can see it from the sidewalk 100 yards away.  It’s written all over his face.  You’re not teaching him the game, you’re teaching him to hate the game and, way more importantly, you’re teaching him to hate spending time with his dad.  Do you not understand that there’s simply no healthy place for all that criticism to go?  He doesn’t dare challenge your assessment of his efforts and it was fairly apparent from where I was standing that he sure as hell better not cry about it.  And so he swallows it – all of it.  That’s what accounts for the body language you’re not seeing.  Words like that don’t taste good!

Here’s the irony: On one of my trips, “dear ol’ dad” miss-hit three balls in a row – 2 more than the number of flies and ground balls that his son missed consecutively in the entire hour they were at the park!  The balls barely left the barrel of the bat. It was terribly embarrassing – I know, because I’ve hit my share of fielding practice and I’ve done the same thing lots of times.  But no one yelled at me when I did it – and there was no one standing at yesterday’s dad’s elbow to yell at him either, though I fantasized about how much I would have enjoyed seeing him get a dose of his own misguided fatherly medicine. I suspect all that yelling was done years ago by his own dad, at least the expletives muttered under his breath each time he “screwed up” suggested that.

Here’s the bottom line, dad:  90% of the 7 year-olds in South Florida couldn’t have made half the catches your son did, let alone fielded those screaming ground balls with or without two hands and fewer still would’ve even considered getting in front of them.  No, they’re much happier sitting in their living rooms using a joy stick to have animated figures try to make those catches – and do so as sensationally as possible.  Today, you missed many opportunities to express pride in your son – but I didn’t.  That’s why I took time out from my walk to jog through the open gate and help your son retrieve one of those mis-hits you sent screaming 20 feet over his head.  I wanted to tell him that he “was quite a good ballplayer” for someone his age and see him smile at least once before he left the park – which he did, while you weren’t looking!

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A90XZ5GWYKQ

Looking At Results From A Different Perspective – Or Not Looking At Them As The Case May Be

Missed-putt

To the casual observer of the game of golf, the making of a 10 foot putt seems like it should be a rountine task, particularly for a highly-skilled professional.  After all, the putting green is the place where professionals most distinguish themselves from rank amateurs and their fellow competitors.  For the competitive golfer, it is strokes gained or lost on the putting surface that often mean the difference between winning and losing or, in some cases, simply “making the cut” and being able to compete on the weekend.  And yet, as someone who has played dozens of rounds of golf over the years and spectated a few hundred more (mostly watching accomplished players compete), I can assure you that the making of a 10 foot putt is anything but a routine exercise.  In fact, recent statistics indicate that members of the PGA Tour, generally acknowledged to be the finest golfers in the world, make only slightly more than half (i.e., 55.6% to be precise) of all putts between 10 and 15 feet!  How is that possible and, as importantly, how does someone who has chosen to make a living playing golf maintain their sanity knowing that, on most days, they will fail almost half the time at one of the most critical parts of their job?

The first question is relatively easy to answer.  In fact, one need not look beyond the “geometry” of the task to appreciate its inherent difficulty (i.e., the player wielding the putter is being asked to put a ball that weighs only 1.62 ounces, is 1.68″ in diameter and has between 300 and 500 dimples stamped on its surface into a hole – 10 feet away – that is only 4.25″ inches in diameter.  Add to that, the fact that: (1) the game is played outdoors and, therefore, is subject to the elements (e.g., wind, rain, hot, cold, etc.); and (2) the ball is traveling over a living, breathing, often uneven surface (i.e., grass) that frequently is not very well-manicured; and the task takes on an even higher degree of difficulty.  Indeed, all it takes is a subtle, often imperceptible undulation in the terrain, a footprint left behind by an earlier competitor, a few erratic blades of grass, a spike mark or a hole that is not properly cut and an otherwise perfectly struck putt will have no chance of going in the hole.  Simply put:  There a number of reasons a 10 foot putt can fail to find its way to the bottom of its intended target (i.e., the hole) that have little, if anything to do with the technical skill of the person doing the putting.  These aren’t “excuses” they’re objectively verifiable facts.

Which brings us to the second question, a question that is just as “easy” to answer, but far more difficult to put into action and one that, I believe, has profound implications in our daily lives: How does someone get out of bed in the morning, let alone continue to give 110% 100 percent of the time knowing that they are likely to fail at what they are setting out to do nearly half the time they do it?  There’s only one way to do that and not lose your mind: You can’t focus on the result.  Stated otherwise, you have to recognize that the only piece of the puzzle you have any control over is “the stroke itself.” Once the ball leaves the face of the putter, it is completely outside of your control – you can’t “make it” go in the hole. The minute you become fixated on the result and allow it, rather than the proficiency and grace with which you executed the stroke, to serve as the ultimate barometer of your competency as a player or, worse yet, define you, you’ve set foot on a very slippery slope.  Golfers who realize and implement this truth derive considerably more pleasure out of what is an incredibly challenging game and tend to “make a lot more 10 foot putts” – and we will too, albeit putts of a more human kind.

Because, truth be told, the “answer” to both parts of the question we asked earlier is the same.  The reason professionals only make roughly half of the 10 foot putts they attempt and the reason they are able to live with themselves notwithstanding that high degree of “failure” has as much to do with the living, breathing thing that resides in the 6” between their ears as it does the innumerable variables that they will never control and that will always exist in the 10 feet between them and the hole.  And so it is with us and the metaphorical holes we aim at every day.  Ideally, our mind should serve a co-partner, if not a zealous personal cheerleader as we traverse the fairways of our lives and confront one double-breaking 10 foot putt after another.  However, simply having it remain neutral (i.e., not get in the way of our instincts) would be a significant step in the right direction for most of us.  What we can’t afford is for it to add to our challenges, through negative self-talk, needless anxiety, defeatism and a fixation on outcomes.  In the end, we have to care more about how we’re swinging, than we do about where the ball ultimately will end up – and we have to keep swinging with the expectation that eventually the ball will find its way to the hole!

But, don’t just take another golfer’s word for it, take a caddy’s:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fhHoPARnCn4

Taking One Sometimes Joyful, Often Painstaking, But Always Purposeful Step After Another

One Step At A Time

If you watch sports often and long enough, you are almost certain to see a performance that, prior to its occurrence, seemed beyond the realm of human possibility. Roger Bannister’s first sub-4 minute mile (3 minutes 59.4 seconds) run at the Iffley Road Track Club, in Oxford, England on May 6, 1954 would certainly fall into that category, as would Bob Beamon’s world record long jump of 29′, 2 1/2″ at the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City; Mark Spitz’ 7 gold medals at the 1972 Summer Olympics; Jason Lezak’s 46.06 split in the anchor leg of the Men’s 4 x 100 Freestyle Relay at the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics; a badly dehydrated, flu-ridden Michael Jordan’s epic 38 point, 7 rebound, 5 assist, 3 steal and 1 blocked shot performance in the Chicago Bulls’ must-win Game 5 victory over the Utah Jazz in the 1997 NBA Finals; Wilt Chamberlain’s 100 point single game performance in the Philadelphia Warriors’ 169–147 win over the New York Knicks on March 2, 1962; Bob Feller’s 18 strike-out gem in an October 2, 1938 game between his Cleveland Indians and the Detroit Tigers; Tiger Woods’ 12 shot margin of victory at the 1997 Masters; and David Duval’s final round 59 at the 1999 Bob Hope Desert Classic; to name just a few.

These historic sports performances (and countless others) have at least two critical ingredients in common. The first, of course, is that the athletes at the center of them plainly had the talent required to accomplish what they did. However, that talent didn’t magically appear overnight. To the contrary, none of these record-breaking achievements would have been possible had the athletes involved not dedicated their lives and invested countless hours to tirelessly, patiently and passionately developing and honing their considerable skills – not to mention overcoming the adversity that inevitably is part of that level of success. The second ingredient is considerably less obvious, but no less critical: precisely because what they were about to accomplish had never been done before not one of the athletes began the events described above with a realistic expectation of the greatness they were about to achieve (e.g., Bob Beamon could not have known that he was about to jump nearly 2 feet farther than any human being had ever jumped, nor could Jason Lezak have stepped to the starting block believing that, at age 33, a veritable relic by competitive swimming standards, he was about to obliterate the record for fastest 100 meter split in history).

Stated otherwise, the seeming impossibility of achieving the result they ultimately did is what enabled each athlete to put the prospect of achieving it out of their mind, which, in turn, allowed them to “stay in the moment” (i.e., to take it one shot, one stroke, one pitch, etc. at a time).  Simply put, they focused on the process and let the result take care of itself.  Perhaps U.S. Olympian Jason Lezak best captured the criticality of this ingredient.  When asked, during a post-race interview, what was going through his mind when he reached the halfway mark of his historic anchor leg and he found himself nearly a full body length (i.e., the sprint swimming equivalent of a small country mile!) behind then 100-meter freestyle world record holder Frenchman Alain Bernard, a swimmer almost 10 years his junior, Lezak replied: “I remember thinking, there’s no way I can catch this guy. I just have to finish this race as fast as I can.” And finish it he did. In fact, he finished it 1.2 seconds faster than he had ever swum a 100 meter anchor leg in his highly-decorated swimming career!

I believe the foregoing principles offer a similar recipe for greatness in our everyday lives and are readily transferable to them.  Regrettably, however, our natural human tendency is to do just the opposite. We focus on the result and lose sight of the vital, indeed indispensable role that the process plays in making the result possible. We fail to recognize that, as supremely talented as those athletes were, none harbored any allusions about being able to accomplish what they ultimately did the first or even the 100th time out of the starting blocks. Rather, they understood that those kinds of achievements would one day be possible only if they were willing to invest the time, energy and single-minded commitment required to lay the foundation for greatness.  We don’t always do that.  We are a mostly impatient lot. We think we have a clear idea of what we want, but we also have a fairly well-defined, albeit distorted sense of when we want it – now (please) and, preferably, with as little effort and hassle as possible! Tomorrow will suffice, I suppose, but only if we absolutely have to wait!  That, of course, is not the path to greatness. That is a path littered with frustration, discouragement, disappointment and, ultimately, a sense of failure.

A few days ago, my friend and fellow blogger, Alison Smela (http://alisonsmela.wordpress.com), summed all this up in 4 simple, but profoundly important and powerful words.  I had written to inquire about how her husband, who recently underwent major shoulder surgery, was progressing with his recovery. She responded: “It’s SLOW, but FOUNDATIONAL.”  Alison knows of where she speaks, having spent a significant portion of her life fighting to recover from not one, but two life-threatening illnesses.  She understands that, when it comes to building a structure of self that will withstand everything in the metaphorical “Big Bad Wolf’s” arsenal, there is only one brick more important than the first one laid and that’s the second . . . and then the third . . . and the fourth.  There’s no “rushing” the process, but much to be gained from it – “historic” results of a much more human kind. Thank you, Alison, for so eloquently reminding me of that!

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NG2zyeVRcbs

Truth Is: There Were Lots Of “Dry Eyes” In The House – Just Not Mine

father and daughter hand in hand

I’ve probably seen all or portions of “The Greatest Game Ever Played” (2005) at least a dozen times – 13 if you count the 11 minutes I spent watching the final scene this past Sunday afternoon. And yet, no matter how often I see it, without exception, tears always begin seeping from my eyes at precisely the same moment. For those of you who haven’t seen it, the movie is based on 19 year-old American amateur, Francis Ouimet’s historic play-off victory over Harry Vardon (“The Stylist”) in the 1913 U.S. Open played at The Country Club in Brookline, Massachusetts.  The victory was most improbable, particularly given Vardon’s iconic status as one of golf’s all-time greats and Ouimet’s pedigree as a poor coal miner’s son, who started caddying at The Country Club at age 9 as a means of earning a few extra dollars to help his immigrant parents make ends meet. And yet, the movie is much more than a story about a 100 year-old golf tournament. Rather, it is a complex, multi-layered tale about dreams abandoned and reclaimed, courage and perseverance, humility and humiliation, confronting and overcoming inner demons and the sustaining power of a mother’s quiet, but no less unconditional love and support.  It also is the story of a fragile and insecure son’s longing for the affection and approval of his emotionally distant and hyper-critical father.

Ultimately, however, the Greatest Game is the story of a young man’s quest to prove (to himself and his dad) that which, on some level, he always believed to be true about himself, but was never quite sure, namely that he had a gift and, as it would turn out, an unquenchable desire to pursue it for all the world to see.  In the movie, those themes (and the full spectrum of emotions surrounding them) converge on the final green as Ouimet stands over a 4-foot putt to win the Open. But it is the moments that follow the making of that putt that always strike a chord somewhere deep within me.  In the midst of the celebration of his victory, with Ouimet lifted high on the shoulders of his new army of adoring fans, a weather-beaten hand stretches out from the crowd to offer a dollar of congratulations – the 1913 equivalent of a “high five” – and a thumbs up.  It belongs to Ouimet’s father, who unbeknownst to his wife and son had taken the day off from his work in the mines to see his son’s remarkable achievement (and his earlier stated assurances: “I can do this dad – I’m good at it!” come to fruition). That’s the moment – the moment when Ouimet achieves the only “victory” he ever really wanted: capturing his father’s heart and admiration. In the end, I believe it is the crowning life achievement that every child (young and old) longs for either with their dad, their mom or both – at least I know I did.

Sunday, I realized my tears flow from envy and the realization that I spent a considerable portion of my life searching and longing for that metaphorical outstretched hand – from my dad, my mom, a lover, a friend, anyone really who not only “saw” what I’ve always believed to be true about “me” (that I too had gifts), but who was willing, without my having to so actively solicit their attention, to fully embrace and enthusiastically encourage me to share those gifts with others – someone I could trust to show me to myself (http://tinyurl.com/a9tdsco).

http://tinyurl.com/pvg7wmn

A Miracle – 25 Years In The Making (And, Thankfully, Still Counting!)

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Dear Ashley,

I wonder . . .

I wonder if you know how very grateful mom and I are to simply be able to write these words: Happy 25th Birthday, Ashley!

There were times, not so long ago (many, in fact), when doctors cautioned we might never get the chance to see your 21st. But then, they didn’t really know (or fully understand) you, did they, Ash?

They underestimated your courage, the resiliency of your spirit, your determination (dare I say it, your stubbornness?) and, ultimately, in spite of all you have endured, your desire to live.

Because you proved them “wrong,” it is those of us who love you who have the most reason to celebrate today. We are the recipients of the greatest gift this birthday has to offer – you!

Wishing you a happy day!

With All Our Love,

Dad & Mom

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C0Y2-9QUJnk

“Tough Love”

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I’ve always been intrigued, in a negative way, by the concept of “tough love.”  The practice apparently traces its roots to Bill Milliken’s 1968 book by the same name. Its premise seems to be that if those who care the most about the object of the “tough love” simply withhold their affection long enough or, more specifically, make the giving of it conditional on their loved one’s strict compliance with various unilaterally-imposed terms eventually the one relegated to leper status will “see the light” and begin behaving in precisely the way and manner their loved ones deem appropriate and/or acceptable. I’m quite certain there is plenty of anecdotal evidence to support the wisdom and effectiveness of this practice, though, candidly, I’ve never been entirely sure how one goes about pinpointing the true impetus for change in the complex emotional, medical and psychological circumstances where “tough love” customarily is employed. However, I’m equally certain there are just as many instances where those on “tough love’s” receiving end have quite literally gone to their graves feeling even more isolated and alone than they were when their struggles began.

The truth is, I don’t put much stock in “tough love.” Instead, I believe the Guy hanging on the Cross dedicated his life to trying to convince us, in word and action, that the purest form of love, the love all of us should aspire to and seek to emulate, the love that has the greatest power to transform, is love that is unconditional and sacrificial.  Frankly, from where I’m sitting, that kind of love is “tough” enough without our having to find ways to make it even tougher.  If that weren’t the case (i.e., if what He came to advocate was “tough love”), I’m pretty confident He never would have found his way to the Cross and that most, if not all of us, given our own imperfections, would still be waiting to experience, rather than basking in the warmth of His unconditional and merciful love.  Don’t get me wrong, I’ll be the first to admit that it’s extremely difficult (perhaps even impossible) to love this way, particularly when the person we are called to love is in a place that seemingly won’t allow love in.  But, in my mind, the answer is not to withdraw our love, to make it conditional, to wash our hands of the situation or, worse yet, to give up on our loved one completely – all under the guise of “tough love.” Rather, I believe it is to re-double our efforts and love more.

Eventually, that kind of love either will prevail or it won’t.  If it doesn’t, the likelihood is there was no way of prevailing.  Either way, however, the lover will be at peace in the knowledge that they did everything they could and everything they were called to do for their lovee – and that’s at least where I want to be at the end of the day.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3YnfCH7LNcM