Aspiring to Greatness

As I watched the closing ceremonies of the Olympics, I found myself considering the concept of greatness. There is much to be inspired by at the Olympics, with its multinational, multicultural, made-for-TV story lines — a brief moment (albeit purely symbolic) of international unity. And whether it is me simply succumbing to the schmaltzy, over-the-top production values or a genuine response to the power of the human spirit, I always exit the Olympics wondering “What if?”

What if I worked as hard as these athletes to accomplish a goal – any goal? What could I accomplish?

What if we could all put aside our differences and focus instead on our similarities (which are far greater in number)? What could we accomplish? As a country. As a people.

Yes, I am aware I am a bit intoxicated by the images of the youthful exuberance of the athletes prancing to a soundtrack of Lennon’s “Imagine” and Bob Costas’s precisely engineered narrative. But the Olympics are undeniably powerful to most of us.

I suspect their power is, at its core, the product of sense memory. As I watched my children reenact their favorite Olympic events over the course of the last two weeks, I remembered the feelings of excitement I experienced when watching the Olympics as a child. I suppose the feelings of melancholy I inevitably experience at this point of each Olympics stems from the knowledge both that I let those childhood dreams fade with each closing ceremony and that I am in the distinct majority in that lapse.

Most of us do little to carry that inspiration forward beyond the closing ceremonies, and as a parent I often wonder how I might fan those flames in my children. It matters not to me what type of greatness they hope to achieve or that they achieve it. It matters only that they possess within themselves sufficient hope to fuel a dream. And it is exceedingly difficult for me to reconcile that wish with the fact that most of us adults have set those dreams aside.

I think most of us at some point aspire to greatness, but those dreams get extinguished at a certain age. Maybe it is a function of the paralyzing practicality of adulthood (after all, dreams rarely come true) or the realities of age (many dreams do, of course have an expiration date — we can safely say that Usain Bolt need not fear my shadow in the 100 meter), but I fear that we have entered an era of limited aspirations — a sort of golden age of mediocrity.

There is no more embarrassing example of this race to average than the current presidential campaign playing out on a world stage between two men — who by virtually all accounts have been blessed with exceptional intelligence, who have experienced success at levels enjoyed by very few, and who have the potential to impact millions upon millions of lives — seemingly hell-bent on using as much of the basest and least productive political trickery they can imagine. They and their multitude of advisors know that trickery is easier and more effective than genuine debate when you have a populace that demands nothing more sophisticated.

We apply the same abysmal standards to our children, our schools, our celebrities (Snookie anyone?), and seemingly everything else. It is time to stop settling . . . to become inspired . . . to aspire to greatness. And this is why we watched the Olympics with our children. My children are just now beginning to consider their possibilities, and I refuse to allow them to become indoctrinated by the dogma of the unexceptional.

While I am unlikely to ever hoist a medal at the Olympics, watching them makes me want to be a better father. A better husband (can you hear my wife shout, “hallelujah!”). A better friend. And therein lies the power of the Olympic games. The power to inspire. The power to remind us of the potential within us all. If nothing else, it is a temporary distraction from the daily onslaught of mediocrity. Maybe the Olympic games aren’t your thing, but I hope that you will find inspiration wherever it exists for you and very deliberately nurture it.

I know I will.

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Don’t Amitte Diem Either

© 2011 A. Krauss

As I write this post, hundreds of thousands of people have read Glennon Melton’s post “Don’t Carpe Diem,” and a good number of them have shared, liked or otherwise publicized that post.  For good reason.  Ms. Melton’s post was well written and poignant and, most importantly, it resonated with a decent-sized chunk of the population.  For those who haven’t read the post and aren’t interested in doing so now, the point was simply that parents are often made to feel as if they are doing something wrong if they don’t enjoy every moment of parenthood.  When I talk about parenting, I almost always find myself saying, “We’re loving every minute of it!”  I then immediately launch into a clarifying monologue about how we’re not actually loving every minute of it.  At the moment our kids are 2.5 and nearly 5.  It would be tempting to describe the 2.5 year old’s mood swings as borderline psychotic, but I fear that would be offensive to schizophrenics and people with bipolar disorder.  And the five year old?  Well, let’s just say she’s independent and strong-willed — attributes I like to think are indicative of her exceptional intelligence.  So, when Ms. Melton voiced the thought that no parent actually enjoys every moment, parents of young children across the globe raised a collective, “AMEN!”

However, I really wish she had found another name for her post.  (Then again, every time I see someone reaching MuchAdo because they’ve searched for “she put what up where” — which happens WAY more frequently than you might imagine — I question my own naming prowess.)  No doubt many of those thousands and thousands of readers will forget the underlying premise of her post — the need to stop and enjoy the truly great moments that come with parenthood and lose the guilt over the feelings of annoyance, or irritability, or outright rage that come with the many less-than-great moments — and simply walk away with the notion that not seizing the day really resonated with them.

The phrase that Horace coined has nothing to do with loving every moment in life, but rather embracing life — recognizing and enjoying the abundant wonderful moments and not mortgaging the present in hope of the future.  Life is complicated.  Most of us work hard, and are always working toward something.  It is far too easy to focus on those goals and lose the moment.  We focus on careers in order to create a better future for our children, but often at the expense of the moments we could be enjoying now.  We become hyper-focused on parenting — making sure our children know right from wrong, that they shouldn’t speak to strangers, that they should speak to strangers when Mommy and Daddy tell them to, that cursing is something Daddy shouldn’t have done but did anyway, etc. — often sacrificing the bonding moments for the teaching moments.  Of course, the teaching moments are important, and any parent who abandons the teaching moments whenever a bonding moment is to be had will soon regret that choice.

But each of us should strive to recognize and internalize each of life’s many golden moments and bask in that pretty light.  This year will mark the 27th anniversary of my mother’s death and the 38th anniversary of my father’s.  Being faced at an early age with the impermanence of life may have been the greatest gift my parents ever gave me.  I am acutely aware — often to my detriment — that life is a series of peaks and valleys.  When I find myself on the mountaintop, I try with every ounce of resolve I am able to muster to enjoy the view because I know it won’t last forever.  I often fail.  I often overcorrect — wondering why my time on the mountaintop has lasted as long as it has and fretting over when I will be plunged into the valley again.  But rarely a day passes when I don’t thank God for the many blessings I have been given.

That, to me, is the essence of carpe diem.  Don’t pretend to enjoy every moment, but make sure you enjoy all the moments that matter.  Oh, and stop cursing in front of your children.

Community Organizing . . . Kinda Like Obama, but Not Really

When I started MuchAdo, I gave absolutely no thought to a MuchAdo community.  At that time, the only “community” I envisioned  on MuchAdo was sitting across the room from me doing a crossword puzzle.  It turns out that there are a decent number of you reading MuchAdo (well, a decent number compared to one), and the best part of this experience, by far, has been the (mostly) kind words from people reading my silly posts.  Well, that, and reading the search terms that sometimes land people on MuchAdo.  (Suffice it to say I am second guessing my decision to name a post “She Put What Where?!?“)

So, in the name of community building, I’ve added some options for folks who are interested in following MuchAdo.  Just click on the “Instant Happiness” button (you’ll see it if you’re logged in to your WordPress account) or enter your e-mail address on the right side of the page (if you’re not logged in or don’t have a WordPress account).  Plus, if you like what you’ve been reading, I’d love for you to share MuchAdo with others.  It has been somewhat shocking to me how many complete strangers have found MuchAdo and stuck around to read a bunch of posts (especially when they were looking for something MuchAdo clearly isn’t offering).  If you want to refer readers to the site, you can give them the address (http://muchado.me) or click on the Facebook, Twitter or Press This buttons at the end of each post. 

Finally, feel free to leave comments on the site.  I’ve gotten a lot of feedback outside of the site, but it would be great to see more comments on MuchAdo.  Something tells me the MuchAdo readers (seriously, I’m pretty sure there’s more than one) will enjoy interacting.  Something also tells me that I may regret encouraging this behavior, but isn’t that what the internet is all about — making regrettable decisions for the whole world to see?

Thanks for reading.  I’ve really enjoyed this whole blogging experience and look forward to hearing more from you, the MuchAdo community!

A Few of My (Least) Favorite Things . . . (Part 2)

Dear Passenger Behind Me in the Parking Lot,

Hey, I’m just writing to make sure you’re not upset with me.  It seems you may have misunderstood my intentions this afternoon.  I assure you that I meant no harm as I backed up to let another driver pull out of her space.  It seems that your boyfriend/husband/friend was in a hurry to get somewhere.  No doubt there was a snow emergency that could only be resolved by a Jeep Grand Cherokee plow.  I’ll admit that I’ve never seen a Jeep Grand Cherokee with a plow attached, so it may be that I violated some Soccer Mom Plowing Association’s code of conduct in my attempt to be gracious to another driver.  If so, I am deeply sorry.

But clearly I did something to upset you.   I thought it was nice of your boyfriend/husband/friend to abandon his attempt to pass me once he recognized that doing so might slightly inconvenience the poor woman pulling out of her space. No doubt when you drive a plow, you become acutely aware of the positives and negatives of driving your plow into the side of a car.  I’m assuming the negatives outweigh the positives, but I’ll admit that is just a guess.  Now, you might be worried that I was irritated by the fact that you stopped in a way that prohibited me from backing up further, but the truth is, the woman backing out had plenty of room to perform a 14 point turn.  And anyway, what’s life without a few challenges, right!

However, when you got out of the Grocery Getter Plow and called me an “a$$hole,” it occurred to me that you may have been upset.  I want you to know that I did not take it personally.  As I said, I’m quite sure I did something wrong.  Could it be that the woman I was letting out drives a Subaru Forrester with a plow attached?  Oh my, I certainly hope I didn’t give your arch plowing enemy a head start!  By the way, if you are at all worried that I am upset, do not give it a second thought.  In fact, I was quite happy for you.  Based on the way you tottered out of the cab of the “plow” and back in again, it looked as if you got quite a cardiovascular workout (not to mention the increased heart rate you were probably experiencing from the apparent anger), and I think the medical experts will come to the conclusion some day that that’s a good thing. So good for you on getting a leg up (slowly, but that’s OK) on that one.  And if you are at all concerned that your boyfriend/husband/friend was at all mortified by your behavior, I say, “Pshaw!”  I would guess a little guy like that is quite literally incapable of escaping the thought that he has been given more than he could ever have prayed for with a girlfriend/wife/friend like you!

Questionable Parenting Decisions

Sometimes I make parenting decisions that make me wonder whether some day I might find myself saying to the two year old, “Hey, buddy, would you just grab that running chain saw and bring it over here? No, it’s the one next to the super sharp knife.”  Last night’s questionable decision was suggesting that we eat dinner in the family room so the kids could continue to watch the football game. (My judgment may have been a bit clouded by the fact that the kids were actually interested in a football game.  It may have been clouded by the fact that I was interested in the football game.  Most likely it was clouded by the scent of porky deliciousness in the air.)  Approximately 168 iterations of “Stop watching TV and eat!” and 33 floor-bound pieces of carnitas and corn later, it was clear this was a questionable parenting decision.  (OK, it was clear long before that.)  It may not be as bad as that whole running chainsaw thing, but it’s a step closer than I’d like to be.

A Few of My (Least) Favorite Things . . . (Part 1)

Dear Person in Line in Front of Me at the Grocery Store,

Hi!  Remember me?  I was in line behind you at the grocery store the other day.  I just wanted to commend you for recognizing how important it is to make sure you get some “me time” every day, even if it is in line at the grocery store!  I hope you appreciate that we all did our best not to bother you.  Everyone except that irksome checkout clerk.  I thought it was careless of her to interrupt your meditation with a silly question like, “Paper or plastic?” but I was happy that you didn’t let her bully you into making a hasty decision that would undoubtedly have had a profound impact on the remainder of your day.  And for my part, I thought it was rather clever when I instructed my four year old daughter to “just look at the candy,” so as to not disturb your few moments of revery.  I assure you that was a first for me and for my daughter.  And, yes, I did find it charming that you seemed utterly gobsmacked at the notion that this particular grocer is requiring payment for your items.  There was literally no way to see that coming.  I’ll admit, I was on pins and needles for the several minutes you spent rifling through your pocketbook looking for some form of payment.  (Thankfully, you waited until the cashier had finished ringing your items.  Had you started looking earlier, you may have lost all of that personal time!)  Imagine my relief when you found your checkbook!  Good for you!  Plus, I was happy to know that I have the option of paying for my groceries with a check.  I’m not sure I even have a checkbook anymore, but I like to have options.  Of course, I would need to get a check cashing card like the one you eventually found in that bottomless pocketbook of yours.  (Another few minutes of heart-stopping drama that had me questioning whether I could even take another second of it all!)

Anyway, I thought I would write you this note, because the fact that you were able to collect all of your belongings and carefully place them back into that pocketbook – all the while maintaining the organizational system that allowed you to locate them so expeditiously in the first place – in just under three minutes meant that I had very little time to tell you how I really feel about you.  And trust me when I tell you that I wanted very badly at that moment to tell you how I feel about you.

Pre-School Logic

As we brainstormed about a birthday gift for my wife this morning, my four year old suggested I “put on my thinking cap” and proceeded to tie an imaginary cap on my head. (Evidently, my thinking cap is a bonnet. Not my first choice, style-wise, and I wonder what that style says about my cognitive ability. But I digress.) She then explained how my particular thinking cap works, pointing out that the red button was for when you don’t want to think (nice to know after all these years that my thinking cap has “features”). “Why would you ever use the red button?” I asked her.

The notion that someone might want to shut off their brain had immediately struck me as a particularly silly brand of pre-school logic. But then it hit me how valuable that red button might be. How many moments of insomnia might be wiped off the board if we had a red button? How many pointless arguments could be avoided if we could push the red button and simply check all that baggage we’ve accumulated throughout the years? How many more moments of pure joy might we experience if we only had a big red button? (Watch a child for a few minutes. They push the big red button all the time – while they run in circles, while they jump in place, while they spin, and spin, and spin.)

The older we get, the more we value complex thought – the product of acquired knowledge. We almost always ignore that baggage though. A lifetime of accumulated blind spots — hard-won biases, environmental blinders (ask anyone in Massachusetts if they thought George W. Bush had a snowball’s chance in hell of a second term, and you’ll understand what I mean by “environmental blinders”), the never-ending sense of obligation that comes with adulthood — muddies our thought process as much as it benefits it.

Knowledge and wisdom are two very different things. And it often seems that we let knowledge stand in the way of wisdom. Occam’s razor says that the simplest explanation is usually the correct one. The life of a four year old is one long Occam’s razor. Sure, much of what comes out of their little mouths is nonsense (albeit cute nonsense), but every now and then we ought to hit the red button. There’s some wisdom in those little ones, if only we can get out of our own way to recognize it every now and then.