Monday, January 5, 2015

Fight Like Hell and Win

This has been in my notebook to write about for a while, but for obvious, or not so obvious, reasons the time seems right now.

Last year Stuart Scott, long time sports broadcaster best known for his work on ESPN, was awarded with the “Jimmy V Perseverance Award” on ESPNs annual award show, The ESPYS. At the time he received the award, Scott had been battling cancer for seven years. Scott had been in the hospital for more than a week with liver problems and kidney failure prior to him accepting the award. He doubted he would be able to be present to accept the award.

I am not writing about Scott winning the award, nor am I writing about his fight against cancer. What I’ve had on my mind for the better part of six months are the words Scott spoke in his acceptance speech. He talked a lot about his fight against cancer and how he beat it three times just to have it come back again and again. What really struck me though, was how his words apply to living life in general. It occurred to me that his words, his approach to his fight, were no different to how I feel I should be living my life.

You can watch his acceptance speech here, as no amount of quotes, elaboration, or analysis I offer will do his words justice. The words are powerful and inspirational for those battling cancer. Yet, as I mentioned earlier, what I heard and what I felt when these words hit me was how these sentiments could, and should, be applied to everyone living their everyday lives. We do not need to be battling cancer or any other terminal illness and we don’t need to be in the twilight of our lives to adopt these ideas into our daily approach.

“When you die, it doesn’t mean that you lose to cancer. You beat cancer by how you live, why you live, and the manner in which you live.” Scott’s point about death not being the end in which you inevitably lose hit me personally. Anyone who knows me knows that I lost my grandfather to cancer at the beginning of 2012. His loss to me, and my family, is not something that can be quantified or described by mere words. Suffice to say that the impact my grandfather had on my life was a direct result from the way he lived, why he lived, and the manner in which he lived. This can never be replaced and his loss still brings me to tears as the three-year anniversary of his death approaches. I guarantee you that my grandfather did not choose to live his life the way he did because he thought he was fighting a losing battle. He lived his life this way because he was that kind of man. He won long before cancer took him from this world and he continues to win everyday as the people he touched live on. No disease, not even mortality, could defeat this man. His example, and Scott’s words hit me with the realization that none of us will ever win or lose at the finish line. We will win or lose right now with how we choose to live our lives each day. Hyman Michael Novack won. I strive every day to win. The crazy thing about this journey is that we never know when it will be over. It’s not an exam or project we can cram for the night before, just before the due date. We don’t know our due date. We must win now.

Scott went on to say, “So, live. Live! Fight like hell and when you get too tired to fight then lay down and rest and let somebody else fight for you”.  Again, his words refer to his fight against cancer, but the way they apply to our everyday existence is moving. I am a firm believer in the concept that it takes a village to raise a child. In this case, however, the child is all of us as we live our lives as adults and we cannot make this journey alone. In referring to his latest stay in the hospital, Scott said, “I couldn’t fight, but the doctors and nurses could. The people that I love, my friends and family, they could fight. The people I love…did what they always do. They visited. They talked to me. They listened to me. They sat silent sometimes. They loved me”. It doesn’t take much to help someone in his or her fight. As Scott pointed out, sometimes all it takes is to sit silently with someone so they know they are not alone. Other times, we are required to fight for those who can’t. Scott said, “This whole fight is not a solo venture. It is something that requires support”. Sometimes life alone is the battle, other times there will be additional factors that make the battle a little tougher. We cannot expect to get through this journey alone. We have to be willing to fight for ourselves and for others when it’s necessary and, whatever our support system is, we also must be wiling to lay down and rest and let others fight for us if we need them to.

“I called my big sister…the other day. Why? Because I needed to cry. It’s that simple.” “Come give [me] a hug, because I need one.” Scott shared these emotions to help illustrate how he uses his village of support to help in his fight. What strikes me is how necessary these emotions, and the willingness to share them, are.  I’m a big, tall, former cop with a shaved head and beard. Obviously, I am a rock, a fortress of strength and confidence totally devoid of the need to cry or the desire to ask for a hug. If you truly know me, you know this is not the case. Perhaps this is what society would expect all of us to believe, assumptions based on appearance and stereotypes. I cried leaving home after Christmas, again. I spent a lot of good, quality time with my grandma and I was sad when I left her house. I hugged my dogs, cried, and told them I loved them. I called my mom to tell her I love her before I left. I gave Danielle extras hug and kisses and told her I love her multiple times at the airport. I cried twice while writing this piece. And, you know what? That’s OK. I am not a weak person because I cry. I am not a weak person because I like to hug my dogs, or because I miss my family. I find strength in hugging my dogs and in the energy they share with me. I find comfort in calling my mom before leaving on a long trip. I enjoy spending time with my grandma and sharing moments with her. I miss Danielle and the partnership her and I share. I am a stronger person, and in my opinion, a richer person for having these warriors on my side. Scott helped illustrate the need for this kind of emotional support and he helped show that it is OK to have this need and to ask for it to be fulfilled. We must be emotionally healthy to win. We must be OK with showing and sharing our emotions with one another and we must be open to allow others to be comfortable sharing with us. It is the only way to win.

A video showed Scott meeting a man who is also battling cancer. While sharing a hug and some tears with this man, Scott said, “Do what you want to do. Hang in there brother”. Later, while accepting his award, Scott also mentioned his oldest daughter who was unable to attend the presentation. Understanding his daughter’s circumstances, he told her it was OK that she wasn’t there and said, “I love you. You go do you”. I’ve written before about the importance of being able to focus on doing what it is that makes you happy. Sometimes it will be difficult. Sometimes it will go against everything that seems acceptable and wise to those around you. If we have something that we must pursue, or somewhere we must go, it’s OK. Go do you. We also must be willing to allow those around us to be themselves and pursue what it is that makes them happy, even when it doesn’t fit into our idea of what is correct or acceptable. We must allow ourselves, and those around us, to be happy and to pursue the things we are called to do. This will allow us to win and to help others win as well.

“Fighting is winning, not quitting…just laying down and crying a pity party for myself, that to me, is the only way to lose.” It is really easy for us to focus on the negative or bad things that have happened to us, or that go on around us. By focusing our attention and energy on those negative things, we are allowing the negativity to win. If we allow other things to win, we cannot win. By giving up and not fighting through the challenges we face, we allow these things, or people, to take control of our lives. We should focus on battling through the challenges and focusing on the positive things we have. It is hard, because sometimes it seems there is nothing but struggle. There is always something we can be thankful for, however, and that should be our area of focus. As long as we take control of our lives, fight, and never give up, we will win.

Finally, Scott touched on a concept that is hard to grasp in today's society. He said, “It’s not about being the best. It’s about working hard”. We may never have the best career, live in the best house, or drive the best car and that’s OK. Those are just things anyway and, in the end, they don’t really matter. We may not always be the most successful and we most certainly will fail. That is a part of life. Success is a hard thing to measure, as it often times means different things to different people.  And, so, being the best is a hard thing to measure. As long as we continue to work hard and strive to be better, we will always be right where we are supposed to be. 

A while back, I started using a phrase I made up when talking to Danielle. I haven’t used it for a while, but I think I’ll start again. Instead of telling Danielle to have a good day, I started encouraging her to have a better day. The idea was simple. If we could focus on working to improve each and every day, the negative stuff and difficulties of yesterday could not linger. Additionally, we could improve on the good things already happening in our lives. It might have gone like this:

“How was your day yesterday?”

“Not so good. I (insert difficulty, illness, or problem here) today.”

“I’m sorry. I hope you have a better day today.”

It could also go like this:

“How was your day yesterday?”

“It was good. I (insert success or good feeling here).”

“Great! I hope you have an even better day today.”

Instead of just wishing someone a good day, we can encourage each other to have a better day. No matter what yesterday looked like, we can always have a better day today. Instead of saying, “Have a good day”, I say, “Have a better day”.

I had gone away from this for whatever reason. Scott’s quotes and outlook on life helped me remember a few things:

  1.  Have a better day. Focus on today, not the past or the future.
  2. Work hard and never give up on yourself, your dreams, or others. Support one another when they ask for it and be willing to ask for it when you need it.
  3. Allow yourself to feel. Don’t be afraid to share your emotions with others, or allow them to share theirs with you.
  4. Stay true to yourself and follow your dreams, wherever they may take you.
  5. Fight like hell and win every day.

We owe it ourselves, and to each other, to fight like hell and win everyday. We may be fighting for ourselves, or we may be fighting for others who are unable or too tired to fight. Either way, we should fight, win, and have a better day, everyday.

PS - Stuart Scott died today at the age of 49. He won a long time ago.


Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Keep Your Edges

Here we go again. I’m off on another international adventure. This time, however, I am without my partner in crime. I am tackling this part of the journey on my own, without Danielle. For too many reasons to cover here, Danielle staying home is what makes the most sense for us right now. And, for the record, we are good, perhaps better and stronger together than we’ve ever been. Although, I know there are still those out there who doubt this reality and question our decision to be apart.

Starting this journey alone has been harder than I expected. I am reminded of just how difficult this lifestyle is, especially now that I am going at it alone. I am reminded how hard it is to leave the comfort of -normal life-, along with the support system that goes with it. Let’s be honest. Danielle is not my partner in crime. She is my partner in life and the decision to spend more than a year living half way across the world from her is not an easy one. Similarly, it has not been easy to pick up and leave the support system of our friends and family as we have moved around since we’ve been married.

These moves require us to step far outside the comfort of the perceived -norm-. In doing so, we risk everything. We risk the stability of consistent work and benefits, and all of the comforts that come with that lifestyle. Perhaps most of all, we risk the perception of failure as we make change after change. You see, for every decision we make that falls outside of what is perceived as normal, the scrutiny to succeed seems to intensify. Many may ask, “If it is so difficult, why do you do it? Why would you choose to leave your friends and family behind to gallivant around the word if you don’t like it?” The answer is simple. We do like it. In fact we love it. However, these decisions don’t come without costs.

Every time we decide to make a change, move away, or to live apart, we face countless challenges. There are the obvious challenges of wondering when the next job will come, or if our savings will last long enough to allow for the much-needed rest between jobs. There’s the difficulty of living apart for extended periods of time. There’s also the difficulty of living abroad and living within a different culture. These challenges are to be expected and many may argue that some of these challenges are part of the appeal. I would have to agree with this sentiment, at least in part. The other challenges we face are less obvious and not often understood. One of these is guilt.

Over the past 8 years, since we moved away from -home- we, in part or together, have missed no less than three weddings, nine births, four deaths, and countless graduations, promotions, commencements and various other ceremonies of growth and accomplishment. We’ve missed ball games, recitals, parties, holidays and, most of all; we’ve lost valuable time with our loved ones. The realization of these losses is where our guilt comes from. We will never be able to get this time back and we feel guilty about it. This is why when we ARE home, we do our best to see as many people as possible and spend as much quality time with them as we can. We drive across town and across states in an effort to maximize our time. Unfortunately, there is never enough time and we can never spend enough time with everyone we want to. Sometimes we are reminded, not always in a nice way, that we are not around enough and our decisions are scrutinized. Again, the questions come; “If the lifestyle is hard, you feel guilty about not being around, and admittedly you want to spend more time with loved ones, why do you leave all of the time?”

The answer to this question is simple; we have edges. We have edges that prevent us from comfortably fitting into to molds that are created by others’ expectations. If you try and force a square peg into a round hole, you will eventually get it to fit. With enough pressure and coercion, the square peg will fit, but only after the corners are shaved off. The peg fits now, but it is incomplete. Its edges, the things that make this peg unique, the things that make this peg whole, are now gone. Yes, the peg now fits, but its existence is now less than what it was intended to be. It was forced to fit into a time and place where it cannot truly be whole. This is how I feel Danielle and I are.

We have edges. Everyone has edges. When we are expected to fit into places that do not allow us to keep our edges, we are not complete. We are not able to feel fulfilled in the life we are living unless we are allowed to keep our edges. All we have ever done was try and make the best decisions we could for our lives with the information we have available at the time. 

Often times, our decisions have been met with statements of displeasure and, sometimes, downright anger. The hurtful statements that are sometimes sent our way in an effort to express disapproval are confusing. It seems that unless we stay right where others expect us to, and do exactly what they expect us to do, we are somehow attacking them. I realize that often times these hurtful statements come from a place of pain caused by us leaving and they are not intended to hurt us. However, these statements still hurt, nonetheless.

So, on the night before I left for the airport, as I lay in Danielle’s arms sobbing more than I have in longer than I care to remember, all of this guilt and fear came pouring out. I told her how scared I was to be leaving on my own. When you leave on a strange adventure with your life partner, all of the challenges you will face and all of the losses you may experience seem a bit easier to endure, but this time I would go it alone. The idea of not having her near by to lean on and to support me through all of the difficulty and loss suddenly seemed harder than I ever thought it would be. The idea of not being able to hold her, or to snuggle up with her and my dogs, made me want to stop the sun from coming up the next day. Alas, the sun did come up and Danielle took me to the airport. And, as I broke down in to tears again on the drive to the airport, she helped me realize why everything will be OK, why it always works out for us.

Danielle and I have edges and we want to keep our edges. Acknowledging and embracing our edges is what makes us happy and fulfilled. We have found that when we force ourselves into places that take our edges away, we are not able to truly be happy. With this desire to be happy comes short and long term goals. Sometimes, in order to achieve these goals, we make decisions that often times do not fit into the -norm- of what others expect. In order to keep our edges, we have to work outside of the boxes that society has set up for us. These decisions are risky, they are difficult, and they come at a cost. Danielle helped me remember that this is the best thing for us right now and we have goals. We are constantly working towards these goals and as long as we stay true to ourselves, we will always be OK.

Our efforts to remain who we are and to be happy sometimes puts a strain on our relationships with others. Often times, it seems that others are unable, or unwilling, to recognize that our decisions do not come from a selfish place. These decisions truly come from a desire to remain true to our selves. Unfortunately, we are sometimes attacked for this desire. If only others knew the personal anguish we endure as a result of our own decisions. Anyone who knows me will know that I am extremely hard on myself. I, like many others, am my own worst critic. The guilt of missing important events in my loved ones lives and the fear that the unspeakable could happen while I’m away brings me to tears and gives me nightmares. After enduring all of this self-imposed punishment, being tormented by others for my decisions just doesn’t seem fair.

All I can hope is to do the best I can with what I have been given in this life. I believe that staying true to myself, to the person my loved ones helped create, and making the difficult decisions to live life to the fullest is part of this. Another part is to encourage and help others not to lose their edges. Too often I am witness to others having their edges shaved off little by little over time by discouraging words, or hacked off in one fell swoop by the disapproving and spiteful actions of others. In the end, isn’t it up to each of us to support one another and provide encouragement so we can all keep our edges? Undeniably, as we each strive to live in away that will allow us to be happy, there will be conflicts and differences of opinion. Difficult decisions, like the ones Danielle and I make, are not a personal attack on others, but efforts to be the fullest, most complete humans we can be without having our edges shaved down. Remembering this may help all of us support one another as we all work to keep our edges.

I choose to keep my edges and to help promote others to keep theirs. In doing so, I hope to honor each and every person in my life who has influenced me to be the person I am. These are the friends and family that I consider to be my loved ones. Some I have known for a lifetime and others for only a fraction of that. However, all of my loved ones have contributed to the person I am trying to become. I strive each day to improve on this person and I can only hope that those who are close to me will be proud of my efforts, edges and all.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Operation Puppy Drop

Our first night on the - job - was an interesting one. The same day that Danielle contacted LAPA and got in touch with their contact on the ground here, we found ourselves up late helping care for a litter of pups that were no more than four weeks old.

Danielle contacted LAPA and found out that there was a fellow expat, Natalie, on the ground here that has been helping at a local shelter and with some of the strays in the area. The unfortunate part of this scenario is that Natalie is scheduled to leave on Friday; only two days from the day Danielle learned of this opportunity with LAPA. Danielle’s goal was to meet Natalie and learn as much of what she had been up to with regards to helping the animals, working with the shelter and liaising with LAPA. However, during one of their phone conversations, Danielle heard some commotion and Natalie told Danielle she would have to call her back. Hours later, after things settled down, Danielle learned that 13 puppies had been found. They had just lost their mother and they were homeless.

The puppies’ mother was one of the many strays that are being fed by staff in the Olympic Park. All of the venues have at least one dog running around that has stolen the hearts of the staff working there. So, as can be expected, the strays mill around the staff areas waiting for handouts and, of course, a little bit of love. The night prior to these puppies being discovered, the mother was fed by some of the staff. The next day, the mother was found dead, just a couple of meters from the litter. Based on the condition of the mother, and the fact that she was seen alive the night before, it is speculated that she finally succumbed to exhaustion and any other ailment that might affect a stray mother of 13 puppies. The circumstances do not suggest this dog was poisoned, as many people have feared may be happening in Sochi. It appears this is just another tragic story of a stray dog living in poor conditions and giving her life as she tries to care for her young family. No one was aware of the litter prior to her discovery and the puppies were only found due to the high pitched squeals coming from a nearby drainage ditch. The hungry cries were the only thing that alerted the mourning staff members of the pups existence. One staff member saw the mom lying down and he thought she was sleeping. He was the same staff that had fed her the night before. When he went to greet her and give her a little snack, he realized she wasn’t sleeping. Then, he heard the pleading yelps of 13 very young, very hungry pups.

All this occurred while Danielle was trying to arrange to meet the only person who could show her the ropes to help LAPA on the ground, in Sochi. After I returned home from work, Danielle finally heard back from Natalie, who may hold the key to us finally being able to be actively involved in the solution to the Sochi stray problem. Danielle learned that a commercial kennel had agreed with LAPA to house, and care for, all 13 puppies while homes were found for them all. We agreed to go and meet the puppies, take photos of them and document their color and sex details so we can share the information on a couple of Russian language pet sites we are familiar with. So, Danielle and I had our first job, - officially - helping the Sochi strays.

We arrived to Olympic Park prepared to offer that the puppies stay at our flat with us until the kennel representatives could come pick up the puppies the next day. The kennel is 50 km away, up a winding mountain road. It is not an easy trek and the last information we had was that the kennel could not pick up the puppies until the next day. Natalie had already resigned herself to sleeping in the office with the puppies overnight. She is staying at a hotel and could not take the puppies there. Furthermore, the puppies were so young and hungry, they needed to be fed every three hours or so. So, it made sense that we would offer to take the puppies overnight so no one had to stay overnight in the office.

However, we learned that the kennel was already on their way and would be to Olympic Park about an hour after we arrived. So, in addition to cataloguing the puppies’ sex, colors and photographs, we helped with the feeding that was due around the same time as we arrived. It took a while, but we worked out a system of bottle feeding a milk and vitamin mixture, coupled with some baby food that probably wasn’t the best thing to be given to very young pups, but was better than nothing. The milk and vitamin mixture, which turned out to be the best thing for the little guys, was picked up and prepared by Natalie’s colleague, Nastya. Together, the four of us fed the puppies, provided water to them and then cleaned them up the best we could. If you have never tried to feed baby food to 13, four week old puppies, you have no idea how messy it can be. Then, we photographed them all and prepared them for their transport to the kennel. Most of the pups were voracious eaters and quite strong; both physically and in imposing their will on everyone. There is no question that those little guys and girls will be just fine, especially now that they are being cared for by veterinary doctors at the kennel. However, there were two little ones that we are not so sure about. They ate passively, but not a lot. They were very lethargic and were physically quite a bit smaller than their brothers and sisters. We kept them separate, holding them most of the time, in an effort to keep them warm and to provide a little extra TLC. We handed them over to the vets from the kennel in decent shape. However, there was concern by all that these two just may not make it.

Either way, as I said, our first night on the - job - was fun and rewarding. But, it was only a small portion of the work. The kennel the puppies are staying at is a commercial kennel. It costs a lot of money for these pups to stay there and receive the treatment they will need in the coming weeks. In addition to this, 13 loving homes must be found that are ready to add a special Olympic puppy to their families. Our first night was about three hours of messy feeding, cuddly puppy breath and nose snuggles. But, there is still a lot more work for this group and for all the others that we will come across over the next couple of months.

#SochiStrays     #PartoftheSolution