Sundays With Gary

Sundays With Gary

“A life defined by love will not seek to protect itself or justify itself.  It will be content to be itself and to give itself away with abandon…. love never judges.  Love simply announces that the person you are, nor the deeds you have done, have erected a barrier which the power of this invincible presence cannot overcome.”. Bishop John Spong.

In 1997, journalist Mitch Albom wrote a heart-warming chronicle of the final months he spent with his college professor and mentor, Morrie Schwartz, who was dying of ALS. Many of us, like Albom -a reporter whose world view had been hardened by a career exposed to life’s harsh inequities, were moved by the valuable life lessons tutored from a 78 year old sociology professor who had dedicated a lifetime of service to shaping young minds.  In the process of imparting his final vita dictata to Mitch, he touched the world.

Morrie’s favorite saying from WH Auden was emphatic: we must “love each other or perish.” In the book, Albom is slowly resuscitated to see the world for its possibilities instead of its limitations, and in his personal resurrection, we find hope. We are blessed if we are fortunate enough to find a Morrie Schwartz – a selfless mentor whose life exemplifies the simple truths that “love conquers all” and that “fear and faith cannot not possibly coexist in the same space.”

New Canaan possessed for a brief and magical time our own Morrie Schwartz in the physical and spiritual being of Pastor Gary Wilburn. Diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) – a form of Lou Gehrig’s disease, Gary stepped down from a dozen year tenure as pastor of New Canaan’s Presbyterian church in 2008.

While his body was beginning to succumb to the debilitating symptoms of his disease, he and his wife Bev, sharpened their resolve and focused on the gift of life – moving to a remote town in Baja Mexico to be closer to family, praise every day and to race time to craft a handbook of living in the form of a trilogy of books. His first two books, The God I Don’t Believe In : Charting A New Course for Christianity and Lot’s of Hope pushed us to reclaim the essential message of Jesus and to embrace the power of hope to change a broken world. Gary’s third and final book – Lots Of Love – is an urgent and loving testimonial to the simple but fundamental building blocks of our human and spiritual DNA – that “love is the beginning and the end of our journey.”

Gary and Bev Wilburn’s triumphs and setbacks are faithfully chronicled by Bev on a website called Caring Bridge that reaches across time zones and distance to bond friends and family of those living with chronic illness.  With Bev as the family air traffic controller, Gary redirects every ounce of his physical being as an author – a celestial cartographer and guide — tracking our human journey as spiritual beings and interpreting along the way the simple divinity that swirls around us.

In a time of great fear and uncertainty, we need these clerics, shamans, priests, and holy persons in our lives to help interpret the deeper meaning of our existence. “Lots of Love” achieves spiritual interpretation the way Stephen Hawking fashioned a less complicated lens to the cosmos in his brilliant book, A Brief History of The Universe.   How ironic that these extraordinary insights should come from two men whose bodies conspire each day to rob them of their ability to teach us.

Pastor Wilburn understands that society is, by nature, cynical with self-interest but also believes unquestionably in the divine flickering in us like a candle hidden under a bushel basket.  Our life’s mission is to discover our potential as change agents in a world through the simple act of loving.  Gary guides us the way a naturalist might walk us along a gentle mountain path, pointing out the beauty and genius of simple acts of kindness and beckons us to be certain we inhale the rich pine scented humanity that comes from our compassion, humor and values that bind us all as families and communities.

Gary chronicles and celebrates the undeniable goodness of people and relates vignette after vignette of countless acts of love, gratitude and faith – whether it is in the simple act of passengers giving up their seats at Christmas so an overbooked flight can make room for soldiers trying to get home on leave from Iraq, to the half century romantic story of Nate and Theo, a New Canaan couple whose lives and deaths proved as remarkable a testament to inexorable love as any parable.

Each day physical life may conspire to ebb out of Gary’s body but his spirit flows through his pen and his glorious fight to bring us all a message of hope at the holiday season. Lots of Love is an ornament to be hung on every tree, a candle to be lit on the last night of Hanukkah, an Eid prayer at Ramadan and a strand of lights at the new moon of Diwali.

Gary’s message at these holidays is captured in the haunted words of the great social reformer, Charles Dickens and the miraculous self-revelation of George Bailey in “Its A Wonderful Life”. Lots of Love walks us across a shattered mosque in Iraq and points out the angels that flit around us each day – our eyes not completely adjusted to see these selfless spirits in the bright light of their kindness.

I can see Gary Wilburn every night in my minds eye.  He is resting in his motorized chair, silhouetted against a tangerine and blood red sunset praising every minute of a warm, Baja afternoon.  Bev is nearby, a soft constant breeze and beloved companion.   He smiles and rests – a spiritual being on a human journey.  He considers the gifts and challenges that he has been presented in a life advising and leading affluent and underserved communities. He is at peace.

I call him my Captain and miss him every day that he has been away.  He taught his congregation to listen, to seek to understand, to probe for the truth and yes, occasionally cry with outrage when a serially flawed society fails to make unconditional love its ultimate priority.  He urges us with labored breath that it is through this door of love that we can discover joy, spiritual connection with a power greater than ourselves and rise to heights as humans never thought possible – buoyed by the sheer weightlessness of seeking truth and justice.

Gary has discovered his one thing and shared it with us.  He offers up in Lots Of Love an antidote to anyone whose life is ruled more by fear than faith and who has yet to extricate themselves from the cat’s cradle snares of life’s material traps.

As he would often share with his loving but recidivist and reluctant congregation, “these three things remain: Faith, Hope and Love. But the greatest of these is Love.” (1 Corinthians 13)

Screwtape 2009

“Prosperity knits a man to the World. He feels that is ‘finding his place in it,’ while really it is finding its place in him. His increasing reputation, his widening circle of acquaintances, his sense of importance, the growing pressure of absorbing and agreeable work, build up in him a sense of really being at home on Earth, which is just what we want. You will notice that the young are generally less unwilling to die than the middle-aged and the old.” The Screwtape Letters, CS Lewis

In 1942, CS Lewis penned the Screwtape Letters – a fictional correspondence between a senior demon, Screwtape and his nephew, an apprentice tempter named Wormwood. The letters chronicle the advice and counsel that the elder demon provides to his willing associate to help him corrupt a mortal Englishman known only as ” the Patient”.  In the correspondence between the two demons, God is simply referred to as “The Enemy” and Satan as “Our Father Below.” Character is a sin and sin is character. Wormwood’s task is straightforward:  Lead the Patient, by whatever means necessary, away from The Enemy and to eternal damnation. Lewis’ creative narrative is timeless and gives clever context to the temptations that erode our morality and the strong temporal winds that conspire to blow us off the straight and narrow path.  While Lewis was a Christian, his allegory transcends any denomination in focusing humorously on our common fragility as human souls.  His demons have spent centuries examining man – attempting to exploit our weaknesses, especially our propensity to not learn from the past.

While Wormwood seeks to trick and trap the Patient into great sins and spectacular moral missteps, Screwtape is constantly counseling endurance and vigilence. A demon’s job, not unlike a lion resting near a herd of gazelles, is to be patient, hanging back in the shade, waiting for an opportunity to confuse, distract or separate his prey from the rest of the herd. Damnation, it seems, is best achieved through separating one’s prey from The Enemy and from others within his community who might seek to protect him.  Hell, after all, at its’ most fundamental level, is separation from The Enemy. Spiritual decline starts imperceptibly through self pity and self indulgence.  We are, in Screwtape’s view, toads that can be cooked to death by merely bringing the water of self interest to a gradual boil.  If you make things too hot, too quickly, he cautions Wormwood, the patient will leap from the cauldron and escape.

In 1942, Anglican England was  less concerned about politically correctness around issues such as the separation of church and state.  Britain was infinitely more preoccupied with physical survival against the Nazi war machine. Mid-twentieth century  society still enforced tighter guardrails around morality, religion and social conformity. As war raged in deserts, mountains and at sea, there was a battle for the soul of man that flashed every moment of a person’s life.  Lewis’ Great Deceiver sought to exploit the fear that permeated the corners of every community. He dispatched his minions to cultivate new values – a morality of selfish pleasure, self seeking and self interest. As one reviewer opined, “Wormwood and Screwtape live in a peculiarly morally reversed world, where individual benefit and greed are seen as good and neither demon is capable of acknowledging true human virtue when he sees it.”

What advice might Screwtape proffer to a more seasoned Wormwood in 2009? Would he be pleased with the state of our society? What kind of exchange might we intercept between the experienced corrupter of men send via his blackberry to his brash novitiate tempter?

Screwtape12@Diablo.org: Greetings from Venezuela, dear Wormwood.  I regret not bearing witness to your coming of age across the great green Atlantic. While I am nostalgic for the mist and slow moral decay of England, I do enjoy the turbulence of Central and South America. With such poverty, despotism and half the population under 20 years old, this is fertile ground for multinational corporations to exploit the poor, political fundamentalism and a great cup of inexpensive coffee. The closer you get to the Equator, it seems the hotter it gets – literally and figuratively. This is where all the action is. How goes your new assignment, nephew?

USWorm@Diablo.org: Uncle, I was delighted to get your card and photographs.  How did you get Hugo Chavez to pose in women’s clothing? I am off to a very good start since being reassigned to America from England last September.  The October financial meltdown was perfect brimstone from Our Father Below. Everyone is afraid and as you have so often lectured, fear and faith cannot occupy the same space.  As people get more paranoid over their material circumstances, they become myopic to the needs of others.  Self centered fear is tinder dry hope and I spend most of my day as a spiritual arsonist setting little fires – destroying peace of mind – releasing carcinogenic defects of character to sicken and weaken Patients.  People become selfish, irritable and discontent.  They blame others. They fight, hoard, hate and best of all, worry only about themselves.  It’s a beautiful thing, really. Yours, Worm

Screwtape12@Diablo.org: What a plum assignment! You even have cable TV and an economic crisis. Is it true what they say that 90% of Americans believe in the Enemy but they gratefully think it is politically incorrect to mention him or talk of him? I have trouble in some of these more religious Latin American countries as the churches are constantly sending mixed messages to my target audience. I try to convince those less fortunate that The Enemy has abandoned them and that religion is an opiate designed to medicate them in their dire circumstances – but the power of hope and faith is strong. I suggest working through reality television, the internet, violent video games, fashion magazines and the music industry.  Keep casting shadows, Screwtape.

USWorm@Diablo.org: Uncle, I am doing my best to create unrest playing politics. I learned from you the art of hedging and playing both sides. I have started a non profit group called America First which I use as a shell to promote scandalous anti-liberal propaganda.  I also fund another group called Government for The People where I try to discredit conservatives and moderates who might interfere with the massive expansion of social programs.  Fortunately, most Americans have short attention spans and can only handle 144 words at a time.  Thus, the creation of Twitter and decline of print media. It’s much easier to undermine a nation with an entrenched two party system.  I particularly like to discredit Blue Dogs and non-profit groups who preach being of service.

Everyone thinks the freshman President is an agent of Our Father Below but the fact is, he won’t even take our suggestions.  Even we are uncertain where he stands. It’s amusing and exciting  to not be able to find anyone who will admit voting for him.  I am constantly whispering in potential Patients’ ears about how the President is going to ruin the country. I haven’t seen this kind of angst and animosity since Neville Chamberlain gave his “Peace in our time” speech. Warmly, Worm

Screwtape12@Diablo.org:  My brave and noble acolyte, remember the key to social decomposition is a multiplicity of factions and fundamentalism. You must create suspicion, self centered fear and doubt.  Focus your Patients on what they do not have and what may be denied to them. If someone looks they might do the right thing, cast doubts about their own circumstances.  Use the media to promote the notion that the world is a hopelessly screwed up cat’s cradle of self interest and we have to get whatever we can out of it.  Make everyone think they are on their own. It’s a cold world out there – well, except down here in Sweatville.  Have you read Sarah Palin’s new book? Our Father Below was clearly the first angel to “go rogue”. Perhaps we should recruit her? Would she recognize you if you joined her husband’s snowmobiling team?  Respectfully, Screwtape

USWorm@Diablo.org: Uncle, I have not read her musings.  I have already signed her ex-son-in-law to a kiss and tell book deal. It will actually be written in comic book format as he has a low IQ and nothing to say – a perfect recruit! I may leave a few copies of her book on Barney Frank’s doorsteps for giggles – although I think Barney would rather read Levi’s book.  I listen to rap, hip-hop and have force my posse to watch MSNBC and Fox each night to grasp the polar extremes.  I preprogrammed one patient’s TV to an infomercial channel that promises him $ 10,000 a week from buying and selling houses using sub-prime loans and government money.  I have corrupted Patients through infomercials – urging them to clean their colons, quit their jobs,  become day traders and on-line poker players.  (I usually let them win a few hands at PokerStars.com and suddenly they have mortgaged the house thinking they are Phil Ivey). I am a huge fan of transfats, high fructose corn syrup and sugar. What better way to displease The Enemy than helping hawk junk food to kids and obese adults.  Have you ever seen a morbidly obese person try to tie their shoes? – G2G, Worm

Screwtape12@Diablo.org: LOL. I am off to tour the Amazon this weekend and drop in on President Lula in Brazillia. He is hosting Ahmadinejad from Iran. We have done such a good job in Sao Paolo, it is too dangerous even for a demon.  I had two pitchforks stolen from the valet’s closet last trip.  The Enemy still lurks in the shadows of the slums and in despicable do-gooder groups. However, they can only do so much   Antipathy toward and from the US is creating new enemies and shutting down critical channels of communication and financing. Your admiring uncle, Screwtape

USWorm@Diablo.org:  Uncle, I do worry about the Christmas season.  There’s a lot of regression in America this time of year.  People become aware of one another’s circumstances.  There’s less self pity.  The Enemy seems to go on the offensive every December.  It seems like every January First, we regress back to square one. Worried, Worm

Screwtape12@Diablo.org: Don’t forget the tried and true New Year’s recipe for creating distance between the Enemy and his Patients.  For women, the “3 Ms”: men, muffins and Mastercard.  If you can get them into bad relationships, eating to medicate feelings and mindlessly shopping, it will surely lead to a negative loop of behavior that will drive greater self loathing.  Our Father Below loves self loathing.  For men, the “3 Ws”:  women, wealth and worth.  Once men start to feel sorry for themselves or believe that they are their masters of their own destinies, they self destruct. It is beautiful to watch.  They have affairs, indulge, posture, and wallow in self pity.  They have less time to parent, lead in their communities or carry the Enemy’s message to others.

Christmas is a tricky time but like rich fudge, its sugar high eventually wears off. G2G. Hugo is about to nationalize the food industry and then we are off to Kabul for a two week vacation in the Pashtun.  Can’t wait. Your loving uncle, Screwtape.

Meet The Parents

Meet The Parents

Home is where you can say anything you like cause nobody listens to you anyway. ~Author Unknown

Thanksgiving is the front end of a month long holiday banquet of expectations. When children are young, we work to create traditions that will serve as important family touchstones. As children get older, Thanksgiving is a time of transition with sentimental hope yielding to the inevitable realities of change. Often a mother’s only desire is for one more year as a family unit. That dreaded Thanksgiving finally arrives on a cold wind where someone is absent – lost to new in-laws or competing priorities.

For the mother of four boys, the holidays were a losing battle fought with an unseen enemy – – the mother of the new “serious” girlfriend. My mom had always accepted us as wayward Tomcats yet we always seemed to find our way back home slipping in through the backdoor with massive appetites, dirty laundry and an unspoken need to be wrapped in holiday affection.

The girls that seemed to come and go like purple jacaranda blossoms, suddenly made repeat appearances. Her boys were transforming under the relentless company of these “serious “ girlfriends – dressing well, arriving on time and bathing regularly. She was actual excited to be rescued from this male planet so completely devoid of estrogen. Yet, the changes left her melancholy. Somewhere along the way, the holidays had changed. She was now slowly opening her family to new people, new traditions and at times, coming up second as the place to be.

It had been this way for a while with her teens. Those that were still living at home could not wait to move out. They disappeared like spooks into the night but they always appeared the next morning. One morning a bed was empty – then, another. With three empty chairs this Thanksgiving, there would be too much food and too many memories.

She grudgingly accepted that she must now share her sons with the “competition”. Love and the approval of potential future in-laws were too powerful a force to overcome. She loathed the emasculated October phone call that tiptoed toward the inevitable excuse – – a stuttering son dropping that he would not be coming home this year but instead be spending it with Carole in Princeton or Brooke in Colorado.

My father was delighted with the absence of competition for food, the family room TV or shower hot water. Like a prisoner marking hard time, he had been awaiting liberation for years. There were no more missing shirts, fugitive pairs of underwear or car left with a mere 1/12 of a tank of gas. The idea of a full turkey dinner with only three mouths to feed (my younger brother was still at home but he had perfected the art of total invisibility) was as appetizing as pecan pie. On the other hand, the idea of his castle being filled with young women – – suppressing his ability to swear, forcing him to go last through the food line and dress up for dinner, was annoying to him. He worked hard and finally the holidays meant hardly working. As he hugged my mother and reassured her that it would be a “ just like old times ”, she rolled her eyes longing for the chaos of a full house.

While the family matriarch was navigating the martyred stages of an empty nester, my brothers and I were being blown to the four corners of the state to “meet the parents.” I had heard from my brothers of strange customs and odd in-laws. These stories were usually pried from them over threat of death as they were now walking on the slippery slope toward permanent domestication. My future spouse was born in Britain to a highly intelligent, engaged Scot/Brit mother and a kind, cerebral English father. Being a provincial West Coast American, I assumed a trip to their home would be the equivalent of visiting one’s grandmother – a more mature but familiar culture where colorful people spoke like Charles Dickens characters and the holidays were one grand protracted celebration of life. Being a Brit, my future spouse gave me no advance cultural training other than her penchant to drink copious cups of tea and to spread butter on top of butter.

The introductions were difficult as I realized that she had not informed them that her new “friend” was indeed a serious replacement for an old boyfriend with whom her parents had been quite fond. This disappointment was poorly disguised by my future mother-in-law but completely lost on her dad. The small talk was painful with minutes like dog years. The matriarch was not happy with this changeling boyfriend. Meanwhile, her father was still trying to understand why someone my size had never played rugby.

A phone call from her sister thankfully broke the social stalemate.

As we walked to the garden, I conceded that her parents despised me. “I might as well be French.” I shared with desperation. She looked surprised. “ Oh, no. They really like you.”

I tried to help in the kitchen but was ushered out to the foyer where an ancient television sat silent and neglected. “What games are on?” I yelled across an open family room. “Oh, we don’t watch much television except PBS – you know “Upstairs, Downstairs”, “The Avengers” and “Rumpole of the Bailey” – – we do like the Dallas Cowboys !”. At the mention of the Cowboys I perked up. There was hope.

An ancient animal resembling a flea market mink suddenly leapt up onto the sofa and proceeded to wrap her tail around my head. The rhythmic purring could not perfume the smell. It was the odor of recently deceased road-kill. Yet, this escapee from the “Pet Sematary” was quite alive. Within moments, I descended into a wheezing fit of sneezes as the zombie cat followed me and would jump into my lap whenever I would sit. I loathed cats but I did not want to reveal this ugly parochial side of my personality. “ Oh, looook. Molly likes you.” my girlfriend smiled as she happily set the dinner table and winked.

An appetizer of cheese and crackers appeared with what looked like a dark dollop of animal feces and cloudy tangerine orange jam with paprika adorning the middle of the tray. I was starving – but the dark, chunky mass had already started to spread and had touched several of the cheese wedges and crackers. My expression betrayed my ignorance. “It’s Branston Pickle and Major Grey’s chutney’” she said urging me to the inedible offering. “ We put it on everything. It’s great. Here taste this.” She shoved the wheat biscuit with dark chunky jelly and cheddar cheese into my mouth before I could create an excuse. I gagged.

It was like this all afternoon. Since Thanksgiving is hardly a British tradition – the holiday gave them the opportunity to combine the best parts of old and new culinary traditions. I was confronted with my lifetime nemesis – brussel sprouts – as well as a bizarre concoction of white onions, milk, flour and garlic known as “white sauce.” In this sea of alien side dishes, the traditional entrees appeared – all originally accentuated with the spices of a foreign cook’s cultured hand. All eyes were on me as I devoured everything put in front of me.

The salad presented innocently enough with onions, tomato and sliced cucumber. However, I soon bit into a massive clove of garlic. I hesitated, smiling with my mouth closed. No one noticed my discomfort as I slowly chewed. I assumed this “Eating Of The Giant Raw Garlic Clove” was a Dunn family tradition. I was honored and ill. My eyes were beginning to water and my throat began to burn. I tried to speak for a moment but was unable to utter a sound. Chasing the clove with tons of water, I was relieved temporarily– only to turn a salad leaf and find another even more monstrous clove lurking below.

I closed my eyes and bit into it. Tears flowing down my face.

“ Oh, my,” my future mother in law blurted. “ I am so embarrassed. I usually rub the bowl with cloves of garlic before putting in the salad but I thought I had removed them. You poor boy, don’t have to eat those…”

Gratefully, I put the massive white herb down and became the object of modest admiration for taking on the monster garlic. Even my future brother in law, the tough outdoorsman, was impressed. Later that evening, as I was helping clean the dishes, my future mother in law was more relaxed and it was clear that we had crossed the Rubicon together.

As I related the story later that evening to my parents – wishing them Happy Thanksgiving, my mom laughed a deep chuckle and there was a small pause on the phone.

“You’re still coming for Christmas Eve right? “

“Yes, mom and I am bringing Caroline if that is ok.”

“Oh, yes. We’d love it! Won’t we Miles?”

I could not hear my father’s response but I could just see him wincing and thinking. “Damn, there go my leftovers.”

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In the Shade of Valor

In the Shade of Valor

Valor is a gift. Those having it never know for sure whether they have it until the test comes. And those having it in one test never know for sure if they will have it when the next test comes. – Carl Sandburg

London’s Imperial War Museum is at once a memorial, a museum and a monument to the tragedies and triumphs of war. Prior to WWII, the sun never set on the British Empire and imperial England sacrificed generations of young men to protect its colonial interests around the globe.  Once the makers of history, the British are now expert as curators of the past. Yet, it is through preserving history and traditions that nations might avoid the snares and quagmires that ultimately bring them to their knees.

The museum covers several floors and features unique exhibits that offer a covert peek into the history of espionage, the terrifying experience of enduring the Blitz in a civilian bomb shelter in 1940 London and a 30 foot trench line along the Somme in the First World War – a four year apocalypse that claimed 21 million lives and ushered in a period of modern conflict that Winston Churchill called, “the woe and ruin of the terrible twentieth century. The jagged scars from centuries of warfare are everywhere as you bear witness to the arrogance of governments, the folly of generals and the uncommon valor of men, women and children who shouldered the savagery of warfare as it ripped from their lives any semblance of civility, humanity or hope.

I always return to the exhibit on those who won the Victoria Cross – –  Britain’s highest medal of valor. As you read these vignettes and solemnly gaze upon the ancient sepia photos of ordinary faces, you are struck by the extraordinary capacity that every person has within them for great strength and bravery.  The exhibit poses questions that creep like dark shadows – whispering and taunting with the self-examining question, “what would I do?”

The questions provoke deep introspection: “What made Private William McFadzean throw himself across a store of smoldering grenades in a muddy WWI Somme trench, saving seven men in his unit?”

“Why did medical doctor Noel Chavasse tragically insist on returning to the front line to rescue more men after already winning one Victoria Cross?”

“How did Private Johnson Beharry’s belief that he would never die affect him? What was it that that made him repeatedly expose himself to enemy fire in Iraq that enabled him to rescue his commanding officer and 20 other men?”

I have never forgotten these stories and upon returning to a US that was at war, I followed the extraordinary challenges and feats of our volunteer army fighting two wars in the rugged desolation of tribal Afghanistan and across the scorched sand and hostility of an unstable Iraq.  As these distant acts of valor echo like acoustic shadows, we conduct our daily lives and go about our personal business living under a tree of valor whose great shade is cast by those who sacrifice so much.

As I follow the lives and deaths of American service men and women and learn their stories of heartache, loss, courage and valor, they seem to be all bonded by a similar and extraordinary sense of community, duty and unconditional love for one another.  These uncompromising core values serve as a rather ironic backdrop amidst this chaos and fear of war – – fear that might otherwise drive an instinct for self preservation and self interest.

Valor is a soldier’s refusal to abandon a wounded comrade in the face of overwhelming odds. It is the courage of a mother caring for a critically injured son or daughter who has returned home unable to care for himself.  It is a three tour of duty vet reenlisting to return to a vortex of chaos for the sake of not wanting to leave his buddies behind.

In reading the stories of Americans who have won the Medal of Honor – our nation’s highest award for valor – there is no genetic or social marker that can predict which person will rise up to commit extraordinary acts of courage and sacrifice. Take for example the story of Army Specialist Ross A. McGinnis who was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor in ceremonies this week in the Pennsylvania Medal of Honor Memorial in Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Grove at the state Capitol Complex.

“McGinnis, of Knox in Clarion County, was killed Dec. 4, 2006, in Baghdad, Iraq, when he threw his body on a fragmentation grenade that insurgents threw into the Humvee he was riding in, saving the lives of four other soldiers riding in the truck. “ Ross McGinnis was 19 years old.

Just north in rural Massachusetts, Jared Monti grew up to become a citizen soldier.  He was a generous kid who once purchased a Christmas tree for a single mother who could not afford holiday decorations for her children.  Another story details, “But even that ( Monti’s generosity ) pales in comparison to what young Monti did on June 21, 2006, in the rugged northeast corner of Afghanistan near Pakistan. According to a Pentagon account and CNN interviews with soldiers who were there, Sgt. Monti was leading a small patrol that was ambushed by dozens of Taliban fighters. As rocket propelled grenades flew past his head, Monti got on the radio to call for backup. Sgt. Clifford Baird was on the other end of the line. In between his calls for help, Monti was using his own rifle to engage the enemy. Suddenly he noticed that a young private named Brian Bradbury was badly wounded, unable to move, desperately exposed to enemy fire. Another sergeant said he would run out and try to save Bradbury, but Sgt. Derek James heard Monti say no.

‘I remember him saying that Bradbury was his guy, so he was going to be the one to go get him back and bring him back to us,’ says James.

But with bullets flying, Monti had to take cover. He ran out a second time, but the enemy fire got more intense, so he stopped and yelled for help. Risking his life yet again, he then ran out a third time to try to save Bradbury. ‘We knew he was going to get Bradbury — then we all kind of heard him scream,’ recalls James.

Monti was mortally wounded and knew he was dying. ‘He said the Lord’s Prayer and he said, Tell my family I love them.  Inspired, his squadron beat back the enemy, thanks in part to the backup that Monti had calmly called for earlier.”

In his proud hometown of Raynham, Mass, his name adorns streets, memorials and dedications.  His valor casts a long shadow across the woods and greenbelt that border this little New England town.

While most of us cling to our own mortality and are driven by an innate self interest, there are men and women out there – in the dry, arid valleys of the Pashtun, in naked convoys moving along perilous roads in the Anbar Province and thousands of other heroes stationed across the world who subordinate themselves and the needs of their families to keep our nation safe and to prosecute the foreign policies of our nation.  As the old poem laments, their’s is not to question why, their’s is but to do and die.”

As we hear these stories, we shake our heads in disbelief and peer into the abyss of our own souls and wonder how we would respond in the face of our mortality. The valor of those who serve us in our military should never be  forgotten. On Veterans Day, we must honor every soldier and their families – with perhaps our greatest gift being to know them, remember them, support them, and rise up to cast our own shadows – – not those of darker wooded self interest but brighter evergreen illuminations sparked by our capacity to embrace Duty, Honor, Country, Service, Sacrifice and Heroism.

On The Street Where You Live

Charlie Brown kisses the Little Red-Haired Girl.
Image via Wikipedia

On The Street Where You Live

I have often walked down this street before;

But the pavement always stayed beneath my feet before.

All at once am I, several stories high.

Knowing I’m on the street where you live.

Are there lilac trees in the heart of town?

Can you hear a lark in any other part of town?

Does enchantment pour out of ev’ry door?

No, it’s just on the street where you live!

And oh! The towering feeling

Just to know somehow you are near.

The overpowering feeling

That any second you may suddenly appear!

People stop and stare. They don’t bother me.

For there’s no where else on earth that I would rather be.

Let the time go by, I won’t care if I

Can be here on the street where you live.

Lerner and Lowe, My Fair Lady

Autumn leaves.  Cool, misty evenings under ethereal Friday-night lights. It is a consuming, timeless soap opera whose episodes may never be forgotten by its actors. Adolescence is a four-season sport and rose-colored romance is in full October bloom.  It begins in September with new faces and the slow, steady march toward maturity.  A sudden annual collision with the opposite sex brings conflicting signals, fleeting hookups, unrequited crushes and heart wrenching breakups.  It is a time of football stand cheers and under the bleachers tears. A three-symbol text message can be a weapon of mass destruction or a winning lottery ticket.

The first crush has been finally given a clinical designation by the pharmaceutical industry – HATO1 (Heart Ache, Total Obsession number 1). HATO1 has been confirmed by the Center for Disease Control to be more virulent and permanently damaging than its highly communicable cousin H1N1.  The delirium alone can linger longer and its effects may be felt over an entire lifetime.

Yet, the age of the Internet and cellular phones has spawned a virtual form of romance that has reduced the art of puppy love.  We have faded from adolescent courtship – – the mood music of a thousand notes passed in class, and a proxy courtship where vicarious messengers and best friends confirmed the terms of your first steady relationship.  Romance is now a massive roving gang of polygamous boys and girls speaking in text, sound bites and cyber encounters that are mistaken for substantive interactions.  Kids believe they are “going out” with someone simply based upon how many hours they have logged speaking on Ichat.  It is now possible to date and actually never see your beloved’s lower torso.

Some time ago, one of my children came into dinner and declared to the family that he was now going out with “Girlfriend 1”.  We asked him when this all came about.

“We were Ichatting,” he said cockily.

We spent the next half hour teasing him and theorizing on where his new relationship might go.  He might actually have to see her – in person.  A half an hour later, he came back into the kitchen and declared they had broken up.  “What happened,” I asked.  “Things got too complicated. We’re both ok with it. ” I laughed and asked him which of them was getting the dog.  He gave me his classic “ you are an odd man” leer and left the room.

From the premature age of nine, I was dazzled with girls.  Having watched way too many old movies, I was consumed with the idea of having a larger than life, epic romance.  But as is often the cruel fate of nature and the Gods, I was not proportioned correctly, wore hand me down clothes that did not fit (they were too tight) and had the head the size of a pumpkin. I was Charlie Brown perpetually courting the “little red-haired girl.” Like the animated anti-hero, my heart was also oversized.  My inability to attract the opposite sex – except for an equally corpulent buck toothed girl named Martha –did not deter me from playing Cyrano to many of my more swarthy friends – advising them in the nuances of romance.

I offered tips on how to avoid such relationship killers as pregnant telephone pauses (always make notes of everything you want to say). I counseled on how to avoid being labeled a poor kisser (I had never kissed anyone myself but endorsed the use of Spearmint Binaca).  I picked out a cheap jeweler where one could purchase a talisman of affection (always have your St Christopher medallion and chain ready to give her as a token of going steady). I shared verbatim my brother’s strategy of feigned indifference – -always walk by her class looking straight ahead.  It makes you look like you can take her or leave her, and always observe the 48-hour rule of not calling back after a successful call. Having watched two savvy older brothers navigate the treacherous straits of romance, I dreamed of becoming the greatest mariner d’ amour yet.  Now, if only I had a boat and could find some water.

Each back to school September I would fall in love with the new girl who just moved to town.  Perhaps, this new recruit would see beyond my XXL hat size, cement calves and famine immune figure. Perhaps, I was a born too late. In Medieval times, girls would have chased me as only a scion of a family fortune would be prosperous enough to possess his own love handles.  The thin were not in.

In days before they clinically defined my actions as “stalking ” and my crush as an”obsession”, I would lather up with my father’s Hai Karate or English Lavender cologne and mount my trusty ten speed to ride up and down my love’s street, hoping to see and be seen. In retrospect, I am quite certain that inside their new home, between boxes and echoing chaos, an amused mother was peering out of a drape-less window, ” Holly, who is that boy outside that keeps riding his bike in front of our house? ” A magnificent 10-year-old brunette girl with waist length ponytails – a Cindy Crawford in waiting, would glance outside. “Oh, that’s some boy in my class. He must live nearby.”

An irritated father enters the rug-less living room lugging a box of books and glances out the window. ” Who’s the fat kid.”? His wife punches him in the ribs and he winces.

” It’s cute, Tim.  Holly already has an admirer.”

That entire exchange was pretty much the kiss of death.  Once parents acknowledged you favorably, you were toast. I was the super polite kid that the moms always thought was “cute” but the girls clearly saw as “endorsed” which removed any forbidden fruit allure.  Girls liked the rogues and boys who were so distracted by sports and activities that they did not even notice they were involved with the girl. Years ago when my daughter declared she was ” going out” with a boy.  I asked, “Does he know it?”

I was persistent and would find ways to be in the neighborhood. I just wanted to catch a glimpse of her long brown hair, see her smile and hear her funny laugh. At school she would not look at me and was always protected by a gauntlet of giggling, acerbic girls. It was agony – this crush – a thick lump of aching coal glowing in my chest day and night. Invariably, l would abandon every one of my own rules and frighten the poor girl into the arms of a more indifferent boy.

Later in high school, nature and genetics would thankfully stretch me and re-contour me into a baseball and basketball player.  Yet, in a strange way, I never wanted to forget that chubby lothario on his bike – doing figure eight turns, hoping to catch a glimpse of his girl.  You can never really forget it for somehow it’s memory makes you feel more alive.

It’s a Thursday night and I am now picking up my son from football.  He suggests I drive home along an unfamiliar route. He is mute – a virtual CIA agent – offering very little information on why I need to take this circuitous route home. “ Just do it, dad,” he hisses.  I comply knowing something is up.  “Ok, slow down,,” he demands absentmindedly from the passenger seat.  We cruise silently by a large house – windows illuminated and people moving across a dining room clearing dishes.  He takes out his cell phone and text messages with the speed of a court stenographer.“

It’s dark and wet.  Mustard and sienna stained leaves litter the edges of the rural road. The boy looks up and glances one more time toward the friendly colonial lit up like a jack-o-lantern. For a moment, I spy the silhouette of a young girl at the window.

“Ok, let’s go.”

“ What was that all about? “ I ask.

“ Nothin’.  Let’s get home.”

I suddenly recall that ancient ache and realize this must be the street where she lives.