These stories talk about personal heroes in our lives.
Heroes inspire. Their actions motivate us to do more. Their qualities compel us to become better. Our heroes change our lives.
These stories talk about personal heroes in our lives.
Heroes inspire. Their actions motivate us to do more. Their qualities compel us to become better. Our heroes change our lives.
By Valerie McCarthy
I think we all - rightly so - have different definitions for a hero. I define a hero as someone who inspires me to be better and leaves a lasting, positive impact on me. My heroes seem to magically drop in, sprinkle life-changing dust on me, and then move on in their lives.
As a kid, it was my dad who seemed to have it all: drive, smarts, integrity and love… He was my hero and I wanted to grow up just like him. Thank goodness, he is still with us. And even with a fading memory, he is providing me with a guiding light.
In high school it was my tennis coach and my English teacher - both who pushed me further than I ever would on my own. In my twenties, it was Steve Jobs who thought differently, kept fighting for perfection, and changed our lives forever. In my thirties, it was a good friend who found the strength to run triathlons while she was fighting lupus, all while holding a great job and always being there for her friends.
My current hero is my step mom. She is an incredibly bright, high-energy (sometimes borderline loud), social and loving person. But what makes her a hero to me is what she is sacrificing to take care of my dad, who often can’t remember his last sentence or where the refrigerator is. I sit here on the other side of the country caught up in my own life and career that I think is so important, while she has changed her world - stopped her life in many ways - to be there for Dad. She married Dad when Dad had all of his faculties. She never saw this coming. But she found a way to make love the first priority and, as a result, the strength to do what it takes to care for him. Stimulating intellectual thought over speaker’s club and bridge gatherings are now too few and far between for her. Alone quiet time is gone. She now goes through life thinking for two when it is hard enough to think for one. She makes a huge effort, time and time again, to bring me and my siblings together with Dad - when we are not even her real family. She is exhausted but she keeps going. She keeps sacrificing. She is my hero.
Rarely do I recognize my heroes at the time that they sprinkle their dust on me. I didn’t in the case of my dad, my coach, my teacher. I was too caught up in my own world to understand what they were giving - which in these personal cases makes their impact and influence even more heroic. And I didn’t recognize my step mom when she entered into my life fifteen years ago shortly after the passing of my mom. She was simply a new friend who came with the unfortunate privilege of criticising everything from my clothes to my men to my running. But in the case of my step mom, her love is winning me over, as love should and usually does. And thankfully I am awakening to her heroism sooner than I have in the past. I can attempt to properly recognize and thank her for what I consider heroic choices. And I can try to channel her dust to make me a better person, and particularly a better daughter.
By Danie D. Taylor
"Well who's your hero?"
Apparently that's the easiest way to render me speechless. Or at least it was. I appear before you today with an answer, a genuine answer that came to me as a suggestion from the person who asked me the offending question in the first place. I have a hero. Sort of. I'm still wrapping my head aroud the concept. But so far, it feels right. So I'm going with it.
It's an odd feeling to not have a hero. I imagine it feels something like realizing you don't have a belly button. Everyone else has one. They don't need them, but they have them. And even though you've done alright without it, you feel like they feel like you're lacking something intrinsically human.
I pride myself on practicality. I like to be level headed and approach everything with a skeptical eye, even things that are abundantly positive. I was once told I was going on a free cruise and replied with someting akin to "cool, what's the fine print?" I don't emote. I rarely gush. I'm neutral to the point of confusion. I feel like it's not in my nature to consider anyone a hero, because heroes tend to be people.
People are fallible. They will disappoint you. They will try to succeed with intentions where actions fall short. (Yes, I had an extra helping of cynical today.)
The bottom line is that I had trouble reconciling life experiences with my idea of a hero. In my mind, a hero provides inspiration to reach a goal as well as the techniques to achieve that goal. Heroes - like superheroes - have strict moral codes and are unwavering in their convictions. Optimus Prime was determined to protect the autobots because it was the right thing to do. Optimus was my first hero. I was a kid and he was a cartoon.
But it turns out I wasn't too far off the mark.
No. Cartoons weren't the answer. Kids were.
I worked with a group of kids once, in the mountains of Mexicio. I was 15 and I was volunteering at an orphanage as part of a mission project. I admit my motivation wasn't entirely pure. I wanted to go to Mexico without my parents and speak Spanish. Working with the kids was basically the price of admission.
I found myself confused in a matter of days.
The kids had nothing. They lived at the mercy of the church in run down faclities with limited supplies. They were grouped by age for school. They were cared for, and probably loved on a level that would be insignificant to people raised by parents.
But the kids were also really happy.
They teased and laughed and played and were just good kids. I couldn't understand it. I was a teenaged girl. Happiness without possessions was incomprehensible. These kids were discarded - at least one was literally found in a dumpster. They were old enough to know their situation wasn't typical. And yet they laughed every day. They had faith. They prayed. They believed in their own potential and made the best of the situation they'd been dealt.
They were the first to make me question social justice. I remember telling our priest that their lives weren't fair when compared to mine. I looked for their anger, but was afraid to stir it by asking about it. No one would have expected them to be happy. But they were anyway. Those kids inspired me to really look at how people around me were living. Orphans showed me that faith was enough to ensure survival. They worked to be good Christians, despite the socioeconomic chips stacked against them.
As an adult defining a hero, these kids fit the bill.
I have no doubt they changed my life. When it was time to go, a little girl named Sarai said "dame algo para recordarte." "Give me something to remember." I had nothing. We went down there to work, and probably to grow, and I had no trinkets that I could have left behind. This girl who had very little asked me for anything I could give and I had nothing. In that moment, I was another disappointment.
But I doubt she ever saw it that way.
By Dese'Rae L. Stage
I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 2004. I'd been misdiagnosed with depression years before, and fed a steady stream of antidepressants which did nothing but kill my sex drive and make me tired and even more depressed than when I started out. And I'd been cutting myself for nearly a decade.
I'd moved to Tennessee to be with the girl who was my first passionate love. It was one of those whirlwind romances, but it was volatile too.
We went through the textbook progression of domestic abuse. First there were the threats, then she started pushing me, then hitting me in places only visible beneath my clothes, and then it stopped mattering. No holds barred.
I'd give ultimatum after ultimatum, but I never followed through on leaving.
In late 2005, it got so bad that I bought a bottle of vodka and planned to drink myself into oblivion before I got into my car to drive myself off of whatever bridge I could find. The thing that saved me that night was that she came home before I thought she would.
The fights lessened in intensity for awhile after that. I was just about to graduate with a degree in psychology. I was waiting tables, had a full course load, and spent the entire fall applying to PhD programs. I kept myself busy, but my illness was getting worse, too. I had crappy insurance and no idea how to manage my symptoms.
The fights got worse again, and I started hitting back this time. Even though it was in self-defense, it made me feel like the scum of the earth.
So when I found out she was cheating on me, I—understandably—didn't take it well. We were clearly at some critical juncture, and I didn't know how to live with her, but I didn't think I could live without her.
We'd break up and get back together in this maddening cycle, and I'd come home and sit on the porch, crying and listening to the trains go by on the tracks behind our house. I remember writing in my journal, “I DON'T. KNOW HOW. TO DO THIS,” over and over in block letters. My heart was hurting and my mind was hurting. Everything felt freaking impossible and it seemed to me that it'd be a lot easier to die. I remember berating myself for not having the balls to lay down on those train tracks.
So I guess it was no big surprise when I did finally try to kill myself. That night, she didn't come home, even though I begged her to. But she did call the police.
I remember them pounding on the door (it sounded like gunshots) and barging into my house. I was so hysterical I couldn't answer them when they asked my name. I had the wherewithal to call my mom, who gave them my information. When they put her back on the phone with me, she told me to go willingly. She told me to get myself out of that hospital as quickly as possible, to lie if I had to. She reminded me that having mental health issues on my records could ruin my chances of getting a job.
I remember the quiet of the ambulance ride. My next memory is of lying in the hospital bed and the nurse giving me a tetanus shot. Then drawing my blood. I told her I was terrified of needles, which she disregarded. As she filled the vials with my blood, she laid them on my stomach one by one. That still seems like one of the cruelest things anyone could do in such a situation. After that, I lied my way through the psych eval, swore that I wasn't suicidal, and I was free, just like that.
Before I left the hospital that night, I promised myself one thing: I was going to find a way to stop hurting myself.
I was interested in psychology because I wanted to understand what drives people to want to die, and how to prevent it. I'd been dealing with depression and self-injury since my freshman year of high school, and I'd already lost a friend to suicide. So, suicide was a topic I cared deeply about, even before it became a shame-filled memory of my own.
The problem was that, nearly every time I brought up the possibility of studying suicide to faculty members, the door would get slammed in my face. It was almost always: "You'll need to wait for grad school for that. The topic is too sensitive for an undergrad to be taking on." It didn't make any sense to me. Suicide isn't a pretty topic, but someone's got to pay attention to it.
It's not that I got turned away by 2 or 3 professors, either. I moved a lot because I fell in love a lot, so I attended 5 undergraduate institutions and I heard the word "NO" frequently.
The exception was Dr. Dula at my alma mater, East Tennessee State. He ran the Applied Psychology Lab, and he had this long hair that went down his back, but he wore a tie every day to teach. He was different. He'd been in construction for a long time before he decided to pursue an education, and you could see that real world experience in his approach to academia. He ran his lab in such a way that anyone who was motivated enough could be doing research, and on any topic. He wasn't uptight, and he wasn't afraid of suicide.
My experience in Dr. Dula's lab shored me up. It made me think that maybe I could do the work I wanted to.
I ended up getting into a Ph.D. program back home in Miami. I knew who I wanted my advisor to be off the bat. I remember walking down the hall on the way to my first meeting with him and how nervous I was. I also remember how he shot me down. He said, "You know, maybe you should just work with some of my archival data on alcohol use in adolescents."
And that was when I knew it wouldn't work.
The nature of bipolar disorder is a constant cycle of depression and mania. You can't get out of bed for weeks or months. And then, suddenly, you can fly. You've got all these ideas. You talk too fast, you never sleep, you're invincible, and you're no stranger to drunken nights and one night stands. After my suicide attempt, I decided I would handle my mental health without medication—finding the right cocktail is more of an art than a science, and I was tired of it—but that left me vulnerable to the whims of my broken brain.
So, there was the depression. The lack of support in my program was crushing. I was still dealing with the breakup. I'd moved back to Miami for grad school, which I never really wanted to do, but I thought it would be nice to be closer to my family again. In the fall of that year, I lost one of my best friends. Maybe you can guess how.
And then there was the mania. One of the symptoms of a bipolar mania is reckless spending, and I had all this loan money just sitting in my bank account. So I bought a camera. I traveled to all the cities I'd wanted to see. and while all of this was happening, I fell in love with two things: NYC and that damn camera. I took it everywhere.
Another symptom of bipolar mania is taking risks without any consideration of the consequences. So, by spring, I gave up on the program. I decided to quit and move to New York.
I packed my car and started driving. I went to a Tori Amos concert one night a couple of months after I got here and made a friend who got me a job with a record label. Music became my life.
I started going to shows several nights a week, and I always took my camera. I really learned about photography by shooting musicians. Subjects are constantly moving and the light changes every few seconds. You never know what to expect and you learn quickly.
I did this for about three years before I started to figure out why it didn't feel fulfilling to me. I'd photographed and met most of my heroes. I had cool kid cred, but I wanted to be doing something GOOD, something that would change the world in some small way. I was raised on the philosophy that you can do anything if you set your mind to it, and New York was proving that it was possible.
I immediately returned to the thing I'd thought I would have to give up. I realized I could use my camera to achieve what I failed to achieve through science.
I did some research. I Googled "suicide survivor," and what I found was people who had lost someone they loved, not people like me, who had tried to die and lived instead. People who were confused about what happened next, who felt so much shame that they couldn't talk about what had happened to them, people who felt misunderstood and alone.
There were no resources for attempt survivors. I decided that this was where I would focus my efforts.
What I learned was that most peer support groups for what we're now calling "loss survivors" exclude attempt survivors—there's a lot of anger and confusion there. If you've never felt a true depression, or that kind of despair with the tunnel vision that tricks you into believing that the people you love would be better off without you, it's a hard thing to wrap your head around.
The professional organizations had nothing to say about attempt survivors either, which struck me as odd—if you want to learn about suicide, why not ask the people who tried to kill themselves? You can ask why over and over, but the dead won't answer you. We will.
The few times attempt survivors were asked to lend their voices to the conversation, they did so out of anonymity because of a fear of stigma and shame. Worse, clinicians didn't want attempt survivors canoodling with one another. They thought we were dangerous, and that all we wanted to talk about was the best knot for a noose, or how you should go down the road and not across the tracks.
I finally hit upon my approach: I would have attempt survivors tell me their stories and then I would make a portrait. Full names, faces, no anonymity. People, not statistics.
I wanted to show people what we look like, how we feel, and I wanted to show other attempt survivors that they're not alone. That we're here, and that we shouldn't be ashamed, and that if we speak out, maybe people will start to understand that mental illness is the same as physical illness, maybe people will understand that just because it's in your mind doesn't mean it's worth invalidating.
We have a lot of ideas about what depression or other psychiatric disorders look like, but often they're not based in truth. As I mentioned before, a lot of people don't know what it feels like or even what turns life could take to get you there. And we don't know how to talk about it because it's fucking scary.
I called my project Live Through This and I've been working on it for three and a half years now. At first, it was slow going. I didn't know how to find attempt survivors, so I started posting ads to Craigslist. Often, they would get flagged and taken down, but here and there, I'd find somebody who wanted to share their story. I built a website and started posting a portrait and a story once a week.
In February of last year, I launched a Kickstarter campaign. I wanted to travel to cities around the country and gather stories—New Yorkers are a special bunch, and I don't think we're necessarily representative of what the entire country looks like. I wanted a fair representation of the population.
The support poured in. I raised $23k. The Associated Press covered the project. I was on HuffPost Live and BBC Radio. Attempt survivors from all over the world emailed me wanting to share their stories. I haven't had to post a Craigslist ad since.
I've seen the momentum of the attempt survivor movement continue to grow over the past two years. We're popping up on task forces and starting to be considered when it comes to decisions on policymaking. What I'm seeing now is that the professionals in the field are starting to see that lived experience is worth acknowledging. The very people who were saying no to me years ago are listening now, and I don't even have letters behind my name.
One of the first interviews I did was with a friend of a friend. We both grew up in Miami, maybe a mile from one another. Went to the same elementary school, and even had some of the same teachers at different times, but we never met until we were introduced to one another in NYC. I remember listening and being struck by how her story was so similar to mine. I cried the whole way home because I knew exactly what that pain felt like.
The people I was interviewing knew I was also an attempt survivor, but I hadn't shared my own story yet. I had this idea in my head that doing so would lessen the impact of the project, somehow. But in looking back, that's exactly the point.
Someone, somewhere will find these stories, and they'll see one that parallels their own, and they'll find strength in that. Maybe they'll share their story, or be less afraid to reach out to a friend they're worried about. Maybe they won't be so scared to just talk about it.
Dese'Rae is Founder of Live Through This, a collection of portraits and stories of suicide attempt survivors, as told by those survivors. She was also recently featured in The New York Times, "Suicide Prevention Sheds a Longstanding Taboo: Talking About Attempts."
By Demi Johnson
Today I was asked who is my hero? Why do people ask this? I will answer this in two sentences. People want to know, connect, and understand you better. The human condition loves to hear stories about overcoming odds in a heroic way.
So my hero is someone who begins the heroic task of escaping the negative conditions of life. I see a mother, father, HH Dalai Lama, Nelson Mandela, or Mother Teresa, basically someone who sacrifices to change the world to become better not for them self but others.
Each day I strive to remember to overcome my battle with my own demons, greed, pride, anger, ignorance, and desire. My hero taught me to stay aware of myself and the effects I have control over. To ask why I suffer, cause suffering and to what end. In this way, I have learned my eyes are a mirror because all human experience is the same, just in a different shade.
So who is my hero and how do they overcome the odds? They remind and inspire me each time I see them defy these negative conditions with a kind act, or demonstrate the pain their actions can have on myself and others. My hero is YOU! You're the best teacher!
By Josh Leskar
I use the word, hero too liberally. When someone goes out of their way to do me a huge favor, I’ll offer them this sort of you-saved-the-day form of appreciation. “Heroic!” “You’re a hero!” After all, who doesn’t want to be recognized as ahero?
However, when I truly reflect on the marks of a hero, I begin to see very clear qualities: a hero is a person who is selfless, who puts him- or herself before others, who is kind, generous, brave and inspiring. But most of all, a hero is a person who, even at his or her personal worst, when everything is going wrong, still manages to be a shining beacon for others to be not only better, but the best version of themselves that they can possibly become.
I thrive on the inspiration of those around me, and throughout my life, I have been fortunate enough to have role models I consider heroes. Both my mother and my father have always been heroes to me – inspiring me to follow my passions, keeping me grounded and realistic, leading by example and supporting my decisions to the fullest. My sister has been a heroine as well, paving so much of the way for me as I attempt to follow in her footsteps. My best friend Kevin is one of the hardest-working men I have ever met in my entire life, and I aspire to match his focus and commitment every single day.
Most recently, I consider a man named Murray Shepard to be my hero. Murray, my father’s business partner, has been through more hardship in the past decade or-so than anyone should experience in a lifetime. On New Year’s Day in 2003, Murray lost his wife to a brain tumor, with which she had been fighting for years. In 2009, he found out his sister needed a kidney transplant. And just recently in 2012, he was diagnosed with myelodysplastic lymphoma (MDL), requiring an intense round of bone marrow transplants.
Yet not once did we see him falter. He not only persevered in every instance, he stepped up to go above any beyond what anyone could have expected. With a heart of gold, he began raising money for the Florida Brain Tumor Association and started a 5k run in Michelle’s memory. Upon finding out he was a match for his sister, he immediately proceeded to donate his own kidney without a second thought, despite his own health issues. And now, with a glowing spirit and a will of steel, is fighting through the MDL with nothing short of a positive attitude.
All the while, he continues to work hard as an attorney and to be a father to his wonderful daughter, a loving husband to his second wife, and as a friend everyone around him. If you didn’t know it, he would just be a regular, normal man.
But he isn’t, and that’s what makes him my hero.
By Clifford Collio
My hero is the classic choice: My Dad. From my perspective, my father’s dedication to his family and the positive attitude he lived by are nothing short of admirable.
He grew up in a rural part of Ilocos Sur, in the Philippines. With little education, my father knew that he could only help his parents and siblings have a better life outside of his small town, and outside the country. So when Maui County, Hawaii recruited Filipinos to work in the pineapple fields following World War II, my father left everything behind for the sake of his family. During a year of hard labor, my father sent as much money back home as he could. After that, he left Maui to see if O’ahu held better prospects.
My father felt he had a responsibility to send money back to those he loved in the Philippines. As a result, for years he worked as many as three jobs at one time. By the time I came into the world, he was working only two jobs, one as a chef at a naval officer’s club in Waikiki.
I didn’t see much of him. Two jobs still meant six days a week. I remember my father coming home in the middle of the afternoon after I was done with school. We would chat a bit while I did my homework but soon enough he would begin prepping food for dinner. Never a complaint out of his mouth – not about work, not about having to cook more when he got home – he just did what he felt he needed to do to be a good Father.
In fact, I have no recollection of my dad saying anything ill of anyone. He was able to find the positive in every situation and in every person he came into contact with. People respected that.
It’s been about 7 years since my father passed away. I’ve missed him every day since, and every day I do my best to live by the same codes and values he stood for in life. Perhaps someday I’ll be the same kind of hero to someone else that he is to me.
By Melissa Cronin
The snow fell at a slant, the brisk wind chafing my face, as my father held my arm, and guided me to the car. My head felt empty, hollow, like a scooped-out pumpkin. “I’m sorry,” Dad. “I didn’t mean to …”
“We just need to get you to the hospital,” he said.
In the emergency room, yellow lights flickered, and urgent voices blared from overhead intercoms: “Code Blue, room twenty-three. Anesthesia to room fifteen.” My fingers and toes were numb and my skin was pale like wax from lack of nutrition. Lying on a hard stretcher, wearing a hospital gown as thin as parchment, I thought I might die, and that it was too late for the doctors to help me.
It was January 1985, the year I turned eighteen, when mini-skirts were the hottest trend, and Tab was the soda of choice for young girls with the goal of weighing eighty pounds. I wanted to erase the previous few months, when I ate only the minimum amount of calories per day to keep my heart beating: an apple and yogurt, a pita pocket and half a cup of non-fat cottage cheese. Now, I could barely get out of bed or walk to the bathroom without someone holding me up. My father was frightened. So was I.
What had I done to my body? I had washed down my denial of my illness with diet soda, not only Tab, but Fresca, too. But artificial sweeteners were not enough to rub away from my memory the words my doctor had spoken six months earlier when he sat opposite me at his cherry lacquered desk, his black pupils fixed on me: “You have what’s called Anorexia Nervosa.” I had heard of Anorexia – another girl, a gymnast who I went to high school with, walked through the hallways in baggy jeans and an oversized sweatshirt, rumors of Anorexia turning heads as she passed. At the time, I had wondered why she didn’t wear clothes that fit her. I looked away from my doctor’s unflinching stare and gazed at a watercolor painting on the wall of a hillside carpeted in storybook green, and sunflowers reaching toward an orange sun. I wanted to hide in that painting, behind a sunflower.
In the emergency room, I lay on the stretcher, shivering, waiting for the doctor to see me. My pulse thumped in my temples and my breath quickened as I wondered what my father was thinking while he sat in the waiting room: he’s pacing the linoleum, mumbling, ‘I need to get back to the office. Why can’t she just eat? What’s the big deal?’ I wanted to leap off the stretcher, run back home, crawl beneath the blankets, and pretend I had never inconvenienced my father.
After a nurse stuck a needle in my arm, three times, to take my blood, and another nurse stuck me three more times to get an IV into my shrunken veins, I was told I would be admitted to the hospital. The nurses weighed me every day, facing me backwards, so I wouldn’t see the numbers on the scale. They told me if I didn’t eat everything on my plate – the fistful of scrambled eggs, the one slice of toast, and the banana – they’d insert a feeding tube into my nose, down into my stomach, and fill me with Ensure. If my blood pressure was too low, they did not allow me to get out of bed. I had to pee into a bedpan.
I don’t remember if my father visited me, the entire ten days I was hospitalized.
The nurses empathetically listened to me tell them I could not eat any more after a mouthful of rice or a bites of chicken. After three months of eating only three to four hundred calories a day, I quickly became full. But I believed they could not possibly understand my fear of gaining weight. What if I gained fifty, one hundred pounds?
After I returned home, I felt misunderstood when my father raised his fist at me at the dinner table, yelling, “Don’t eat! I don’t care anymore!”
But when I recall my jutting shoulders and hip-bones, my brittle hair and sunken cheeks, and the constant dizziness due to my dangerously low blood pressure and heart rate, I know that if my father had not left his office on that wintery day to drive me to the emergency room, I would have died. He cared, but was probably frustrated by his own lack of understanding.
In the months following my hospitalization, I saw a psychiatrist, and a nutritionist, but struggled to gain weight. I fought against what my body needed in pursuit of an artificial image. I documented every calorie I ate and eventually memorized caloric contents of a variety of foods. I chewed my food until it was pulverized, as if that would reduce the calories entering my body. At meal times with family, I claimed I had a stomachache. In school, I ate in the guidance counselor’s office, because I thought everyone else was staring at me in the cafeteria. I thought about the gymnast, and now understood why she wore baggy clothes: she didn’t want anyone to see her protruding bones because people might ask her why she was so skinny? Then she’d have to try and explain something she didn’t quite understand herself. What would I tell my classmates if they asked me why I would not take off my jacket? “I’m just cold.”
As the years progressed, I formed relationships with men who criticized me for either folding the towels or cutting an onion the “wrong” way. Eventually, I met a man who listened to me, allowed me to be me. He encouraged me to nourish my body, and helped me understand what it meant to eat healthy: to taste each morsel I put into my mouth, to savor the salt of an oyster, the spice of chili, the sweetness of corn.
Now, when my nine-year old niece is watching television, and she says, “Look at her, she’s fat,” I tell her, “No, she’s actually too skinny.” Or, when I see super-models on the cover of a magazine, with legs like pogo sticks, I write to the publisher emphasizing that they’re poor role models for young girls.
At the same time, when looking in the mirror, I lift up my shirt, run my hand over my somewhat round belly, feel the loose flesh of my forty-seven year old body, and wish it were different – my abs and thighs tighter. But then I remember my husband’s early morning whispers: “You’re beautiful.”
Though I’ve been at a healthy weight for the past several years, I know Anorexia will always be with me, like a faded scar with palpable edges. But I also know not to fight against what my body needs, so I eat – I eat my husband’s homemade chicken pie with whole-wheat crust; his homemade lasagna with whole-wheat noodles; and his homemade chicken soup, thick with carrots, celery, and onions. Once in awhile, I even treat myself to a square of dark chocolate, or a peanut butter smoothie drizzled with maple syrup. I suppose artificial sweeteners are okay for some people, but I no longer have a saccharine image of myself.
Melissa Cronin holds an MFA in creative nonfiction from Vermont College of Fine Arts. She has written for Brevity, Hunger Mountain Journal, and the blog Writerland. Her essay, “Right Foot, Left Foot” received “Special Mention” by Dinty W. Moore, the judge for the 2013 creative nonfiction contest held by Hunger Mountain Journal. Her essay, “Invisible Bruise,” will appear in the June publication of Chicken Soup for The Soul: Recovering from Traumatic Brain Injuries. Melissa lives in South Burlington, VT with her husband, John. In addition to working on a memoir, she writes human-interest stories for a local newspaper. In her spare time, she plays the Irish fiddle and rides her bicycle.
By Collin Sebastian
Cynics bother me. I had never really identified as an optimist until I started identifying as not a pessimist. My struggle with cynicism can best be summed up by the business cliche, “The more time you focus on the problem, the less time you focus on the solution.” It seems like I run into at least a half dozen cynics per week, always ranting about how change is impossible, how our culture is going town the toilet, or how we’re facing our inevitable self-destruction. Invariably, these same people have a holier-than-thou diatribe railing against the corruption of society by the evils of things like Facebook or television.
“Do you remember when people used to read books?” some 20-year-old on the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) will mutter sarcastically. “Facebook is soooooo superficial,” her friend will say in his $200 skinny jeans, wrinkled in a suspiciously perfect asymmetry. “At least Tumblr hasn’t lost its soul…yet."
I usually try to ignore these conversations, but last week, one caught me completely off-guard. The statement was heartbreaking, and although it came from a 20-something, he didn’t fit the profile of someone I’d normally find myself rolling my eyes at. His hair wasn’t styled. He wasn’t wearing anything remotely resembling a blouse. He looked working class - the kind of guy who wrapped his fingers every day around a hammer instead of a mouse. He said to his friend, “The American Dream is dead, man. Just give up on it already.”
The words left his mouth and hit my ears with all the force of his hardest punch. I don’t know why, but my heart sank.
Very few people ever assume this about me, but I’m a first-generation immigrant. I was born in Singapore, and my family moved to the U.S. when I was very young. My parents, like so many other immigrants, wanted their children to get the best possible education: a U.S. education (I can hear some of you being cynical right now. Stop it for five minutes and keep reading).
My parents grew up in abject poverty, but they had been reasonably successful in Singapore - solid middle class by Sing’ standards. For those of you who aren’t familiar, the country controls wealth distribution very tightly, and the schools there are highly, insanely, ridiculously competitive. My parents wanted something different for us, so they packed up our humble life and moved us to the quintessence of the American experience: Portland, Oregon.
One of the first things to understand is that the American dollar pretty much kicks the crap out of most other forms of currency in the globe. When we moved in the '80s, one U.S. dollar was worth two Singapore dollars, so immediately our family’s savings were cut in half. Also, the types of rent controls and assistance programs that we took for granted in Singapore simply didn’t exist in the U.S.
Needless to say, the adjustment was hard. My parents, my two sisters, and I lived in a tiny two-bedroom apartment on the poorer side of town. My favorite toy as a four-year-old was my dad’s hammer. I would sit in the middle of the kitchen and take a completely inappropriate level of pleasure in knocking on the floor, or as my angry neighbor referred to it, his, “F’ing ceiling all f’ing day.”
My parents’ life was a story of three steps forward, two steps back, and it was never easy. Both my dad and mom put themselves through night school; my dad getting an Associate of Arts degree in Engineering and my mom the same in nursing. My sisters, 10 and eight years older, respectively, were the first people in my family to graduate a four-year university.
After my dad was laid off from his job, he took whatever work he could to make ends meet. A proud man, he did everything from fixing cars to delivering papers. I remember waking up at 3am, chasing down his car and making him take me on his route. For better or worse, he stole my first tricycle because he couldn’t afford to buy me one, and he used to make my Halloween costumes out of cardboard.
My mom worked the night shift as a trauma nurse and took me to preschool on the bus. She’d come home after a 12-hour shift and somehow still find the energy to make me breakfast in the morning and play with me on her days off. Despite being exhausted, she’d help me with my math homework and teach me to play chess.
They worked incredibly hard. They took a family that, at one point, had a total of $100 in the bank, and through what seemed like sheer force of will, carried us into the upper-middle class.
My parents retired last year - my dad was 64, my mom was 59. They bought themselves this great little house on a lake, 15 years after having put three kids through college, and paying off all their debt. They’ve watched my siblings and me find our dream jobs - jobs that make us happy and pay us more than we probably deserve. They’ve kept us humble and grateful and reminded us that, at least in our family, the American Dream is still alive and well.
As I think about our story, I look back at that guy on the BART and wonder how my family did it. The thing that bothers me so much about his particular cynicism is that I’m afraid he might be right. I’m not sure we could have made it today - is it possible the economic tumult of the '80s and '90s was actually more manageable than today's? The more I think about it, the more I realize how lucky we were (although I hate that term because somehow “luck” implies that my parents didn’t earn everything they have). Maybe timing is a better word? We ran into the right opportunities at the right moments, which was critical to getting us where we are.
My mom, with typical her cryptic Asian prophetic ambiguity, simply answered, "People are luck.” And in true, filial-pious fashion, it made perfect sense to me.
Here’s how I figure it: my parents, my sisters, and I didn’t do this alone. As hard as we’ve all worked in our lives, we all had friends, colleagues, bosses, neighbors, or complete strangers that have helped or hurt us, creating, for all intents and purposes, good or bad luck.
Over the past week, I’ve tried to think about myself as having the power to create luck for those around me. It’s quite a narcissistically delightful way to look at your place in the world, but it’s given me pause on more than a few occasions.
It’s also made me a lot happier. I float around the busy streets of San Francisco imaging myself as this ethereal force, “Luck.” And I imagine a small fraction of the people I encounter might find the strength to persevere a little bit longer if they think that maybe, just maybe, luck is on their side.
The American Dream will always take hard work. It will probably always be a measured dance of three steps forward, two steps back. And although I may not have the power to make people try harder, I take solace that, for those who do continue to give it their all, if the timing’s right, I might be able to create the little bit of good luck they need to make their dreams come true.
By Nuri Hodges
"He combined strength and courage with gentleness, tenderness, and great unselfishness. He would not tolerate [in us children] selfishness or cruelty, idleness, cowardice, or untruthfulness."
Naturalist, cowboy, and 26th President of the United States, Theodore Roosevelt Jr. is my hero. He was a humble and stalwart man who accomplished many things in the face of adversity, while staying true to his beliefs and values. The way he lived his life reflected deeply his compassion for justice and selflessness for his fellow man, animals, and the earth. He left a mark that will not easily be forgotten.
"I was nervous and timid. Yet from reading of the people I admired - ranging from the soldiers of Valley Forge and Morgan's riflemen, to the heroes of my favorite stories - and from hearing of the feats of my southern forefathers and kinsfolk and from knowing my father, I felt a great admiration for men who were fearless and who could hold their own in the world, and I had a great desire to be like them."