Some lessons last a lifetime.

Today would have been the 100th birthday of my grandfather Alan “Papa” Gilbert. Although he passed away in 2006, he was my most meaningful mentor and his influence on my life remains a constant source of inspiration. To celebrate his life I have shared the short story below; I first wrote it for his 80th birthday in 1995 and have revised and reflected on it many times since.

While I was aware of the impact of his insight when he first shared it, I more fully understand its importance and relevance to my life as an adult. I hope my sharing this story inspires you to positively influence others and appreciate individuals who have helped shape you into the person you have — and still can — become.


The morning sun yawned above the foothills, revealing the reservoir below, as Papa and I descended the wooden staircase towards the water’s edge. Stubborn fog, which had tightly held the surface of the water, melted away into daybreak.

“What a beautiful day,” Papa said as he bounded down the stairs like a child on Christmas Day.

We then walked along a narrow dirt pathway and, after a few short paces,  discovered our canoe: 15 feet of green fiberglass and aluminum. But for Papa, it was perfection. I watched as he gleefully approached the vessel and attempted to release it from the chains restraining it.

“How did I manage to do this?” Papa said, frustrated with the intricate web of chain links in which he had wrapped the boat a month earlier.

“Do you need a hand, Mr. Houdini?” I inquired. “Or shall I call you a nurse?”

“I stage one breakout and suddenly I’m a criminal,” Papa joked.

A few years earlier Papa had an allergic reaction to medication while in the hospital. It was so severe that seconds after receiving the dosage, he became the Incredible Hulk. Highly agitated, he attempted to forcibly extricate himself from his bed to the great surprise of his nurse who quickly summoned backup.

Within minutes, four additional nurses were trying to sedate him.  With all other options exhausted, they confined him within a restraining jacket, which was then anchored to the bed.

When Papa awoke later that day – in a much calmer state – he took issue with his restraints. So, he successfully liberated himself using brains over brawn. When the floor nurse returned to check on him, she discovered the discarded restraints and deserted bed. By the time she returned to the room with a search party, Papa had returned and was resting comfortably in the bed.

With the defeated device dangling from his fingers and a grin that would put the Cheshire cat to shame, Papa calmly inquired, “Were you looking for me?” Even with clipped wings, Papa found ways to fly.

“Let’s go!” Papa exclaimed after unfurling the lock and chain.

Me and Papa in 1976

We squatted next to the canoe and grabbed onto the edges. Papa positioned himself towards the front of the canoe, while I awaited his instruction at the stern. I stretched briefly and inhaled the rejuvenating air that surrounded me.

“One, two, three!” Papa said. “Up she goes.”

With the craft elevated over our heads we began walking towards the dock. Small pieces of gravel crackled beneath our feet as the weight of the canoe traveled through our bodies and into the ground on which we walked.

Beads of sweat amassed on my forehead like troops awaiting the signal to advance into battle. The pace of my breathing increased dramatically.  My arms quivered as they strained to balance the weight.

Looking ahead, I saw that, despite his advanced age, Papa was in great condition. Biceps the size of grapefruits rippled underneath his shirt while he easily supported his end of the canoe – and a portion of mine I suspected.

Maintaining Papa’s quick saunter was challenging. His vigor and vitality often masked his years just as his mature wisdom serves as an odd counterpart to his progressive ideas. Wiping the sweat from my forehead with an elevated shoulder, I persisted.

“Are things all right back there? You’re awfully quiet.”

“I’m just trying to keep up with you!”

“I disagree. You’ve been pushing me this whole time!”

Within a few minutes we arrived at the end of the dock and our two-man army came to a halt. I felt the wooden platform rock slowly beneath me as I tried to maintain my balance.

Firmly grasping the metal rails of the canoe I awaited the next command like a soldier at inspection. The aluminum lip burrowed into my shoulder and my arms slackened. I ignored the pain and glanced at Papa for inspiration.

“Up and over!” he instructed.

Following his lead, I slowly lifted the craft over my head and – in unison with Papa – gently placed the green fiberglass hull into the murky water. I seated myself in front, allowing Papa the helm, an honor he earned long ago during a family canoeing trip on  the Russian River.

After recovering our spinning canoe from a whirlpool with the calm and command of Odysseus, Papa heroically rescued several other craft from the same fate.  Papa was my personal hero: strong, gentle, humorous, sensitive, reliable, generous. Adjectives cannot adequately define who this man was and what he meant to me.

“Off we go,” Papa explained as we pushed away from the dock.

“Into the wild blue yonder,” I added.

“Right-o,” he said.

Silence engulfed us, save the soft splash of the paddles stroking the water. We didn’t speak, words were unnecessary. Though void of sound, our time was full of meaning. Papa was always more of a friend and colleague to me than a grandfather. As a child, he was my favorite playmate. During adolescence, he was my ping-pong partner. When I became an adult, he was my confidant.

When I became a parent, he reprised his earlier role and became a playmate to my son, Jacob, who embodies Papa’s kindness. My younger son, Max, was born six months before Papa passed away. While he never met Papa personally he possesses his joie de vivre; adventure is his middle name!

Forever my protector, Papa always appeared when I needed a shoulder to cry on or an arm to lift me up. He was always very giving of himself, his abilities, and often, his well-being. Papa had an innate ability to understand people and bring them joy.

When World War II involved America, Papa was 26 years old. Although newly married with a promising life ahead of him, Papa volunteered to fight. Sacrificing his own future for the survival of his nation, Papa answered the call of a country in need.

Fortunately, his military service well suited his personality: he was captain of “The Biscuit Bomber,” an Army Air-Corps C-47 Skytrain as part of the Troop Carrier Command. Based in New Guinea, Papa logged nearly 3,500 hours flying missions throughout the South Pacific. During three years of service in this unarmed aircraft, Papa continually risked his life to ensure the survival of others.

Alan

One particularly poignant situation occurred when he was transporting Japanese prisoners of war who were under guard by Australian soldiers. Midway through the flight he heard a commotion in the cargo area. Upon investigating the situation he found the Australian soldiers trying to extract the gold teeth from the Japanese soldiers’ mouths.

Incensed, he pulled out his sidearm and aimed it at the Australian soldiers, instructing them that the POWs were his responsibility and he would not tolerate them being harmed or harassed in any way. The Australian soldiers acquiesced. In the bleak circumstance of war, Papa shed some humanity. Had he been a fighter pilot his stories may have been more exciting, but they would have been less meaningful.

Anyone can kill. It takes someone special to sustain life.

One of the most important lessons I’ve learned from him was to always help someone in need, even if doing so was inconvenient or promises no recognition. Considering all he did for me, I can attest to the power of this philosophy.

If only everyone were as kind and generous as Papa, perhaps the world would be a more positive place. Sadly, I have found that, more often than not, people are less like Papa than they are like him.

Nevertheless, I strive to live in the same sincere and sensible way as he did, although he was often too agreeable to the demands of other people. Despite his incredible generosity to others, he often gave away too much of himself to make others happy.

The one unintentional lesson I learned from him is that if you give too much of yourself to others you can lose yourself in the process. As a result, I often felt he was a bit unfulfilled, yet, admirably, he never said as much. I appreciate his fortitude in this regard, but often wonder what might have been for him, had he embraced his promising potential.

After World War II he could have enjoyed a lucrative career as an airline pilot. The plane he flew during the war, the C-47, was the military version of the very popular DC-3, which was widely used in commercial aviation after the war (many are still flying and being used commercially).

papa_new_guinea_motorcycle_square

He would have easily been hired by any of the airlines and enjoyed a rewarding and meaningful career. Instead he chose — though I often feel he was pressured — to stay close to home. Whereas he could have been flying the friendly skies, he commuted every day from New Jersey to New York and managed a dry cleaning store. He did this for many years until my Dad hired him to work for his company.

While I admire his fortitude as a father and grandfather,  I often wonder if he was truly content as a man? After he died my family discovered that he had been taking rides with a local private pilot in a small twin engine plane. Some dreams never die, I suppose, and I am glad he never fully deserted his dream to keep flying.

I can also say that while he never made $400 an hour to turn a phrase, $1,000 a day trading stocks, or $10,000 a week as a professional musician, he was richer in character and wealthier in spirit than any one of those people could ever hope to be. Money and material possessions can never replace integrity, humanity, and authenticity.

Although he never accumulated a huge fortune, Papa contributed more to the world than most people I have known in my life and, presumably, will come to know in the future. He also never felt the need to elevate his ego by trying to make others feel inferior.

Ultimately, he made the most of his life and, in doing so, helped others make the most of theirs. Papa’s unique approach to life provided me with many priceless lessons. One of those lessons took place that day at the reservoir: spending time with someone special is worth more than anything that person could purchase for you. Although, that doesn’t mean letting that same someone cook for you had no allure!

“How would you like it if we head home and I make you some Belgian waffles?” Papa asked, breaking the silence and inviting me out of my introspection and into the present.

“You just said the magic words!” I exclaimed as we made our way back towards the dock. Like the canoe, Belgian waffles had been one of Papa’s trademarks. Whenever I stayed over with him, he would whip up a batch of waffles covered in whipped cream and strawberries.

As we approached the dock, just before we reached out to pull ourselves in, Papa said something that surprised me:

“I think next month you should take the helm.”

“Are you sure?”

“Absolutely. But only if you feel ready.”

I briefly considered his offer.

“I certainly do,” I asserted. “After all, I had you for a teacher!”

Déjà blue — or seeing red?

With the 2013 NFL Season now upon us (and today being the New England Patriots‘ first game) I felt compelled to look back at how the team did last year and discuss how they might fare this season. My big question: will their good or bad history repeat itself?

As you might recall — or, if you’re a Pats fan, as you might like to forget — last season the team lost their first home opener in 10 years to the Arizona Cardinals. This after having looked like the class of the NFL the week before when they handily beat the Tennessee Titans on the road.

It was an awkward reminder of their most recent Super Bowl loss, which in itself was a bizarre replay of the one they had lost four years earlier. Lately, being a Patriots fan has some striking similarities to the date made famous by Punxsutawney Phil: Groundhog Day.

As a Patriots fan, the proximity of the Groundhog Day holiday and the 1993 movie of the same name to the Super Bowl has a unique significance: Just like how in the movie the same day happens over and over again, on Sunday, February 5, 2012 the Patriots fell to the New York Giants in Super Bowl 46 — their second championship loss to the same team in four years.

Although disheartening, the Patriots’ Super Bowl 46 loss was nowhere near as gut wrenching as their Super Bowl 42 loss to the Giants. That failure also ended the Patriots’ quest for a perfect 19-0 season.

While emotionally I wanted the Patriots to win Super Bowl 46, rationally, I had my concerns throughout the season as the team somehow stayed alive with a patchwork defense and an inconsistent offense.

Despite being disappointed by the Patriots’ inability to bring home a fourth Lombardi Trophy, I realized failure presents pathways to personal progress and, in response, devised the seven introspective insights below — one for each of the New England Patriots Super Bowl appearances:

1. Expectations Undermine Attitude:  When you feel entitled to something, that expectation creates an assumption that you will get it because you “deserve” it. Generally, when this occurs, you become complacent and assume the outcome is inevitable. This is a recipe for disaster.

During their (almost) perfect season, despite claims of “humble pie,” there seemed to be an expectation that the Patriots would win Super Bowl XLII and make NFL history. Brady was even dismissive in response to then New York Giants wide receiver Plaxico Burress’ prediction that the Patriots would lose 17-23.

Ironically, the Patriots would actually only score 14 points in their 14-17 loss to the Giants (though they did score 17 points in Super Bowl XLVI, but once again the Giants outscored them with 21 points — cue sad trombone).

2. Junkyards Don’t Always Make Juggernauts: No team has done more with less than the New England Patriots. Since the beginnings of their dynasty, the Patriots built from the draft and reformed players like Corey Dillon and Randy Moss who had lost their way with other teams.

Former Patriots Director of Player Personnel Scott Pioli is famously quoted as saying “we’re building a team, not collecting talent.” This is a philosophy similar to that portrayed in the recent Brad Pitt film Moneyball (affiliate link) which is ardently embraced by head coach Bill Belichick.

While this Moneyball inspired approach might’ve brought the Patriots success, two successive Super Bowl losses and a string of post-season upsets call that into question. Realistically, Moneyball never lead to any World Series wins for Billy Bean’s Oakland A’s.

The Patriots are notorious for collecting picks in each year’s NFL Draft, but then “trading down” with other teams to pick later and pay their players less. Notably, in an article titled The Clutch Enigma: Tom Brady the author argues “It’s not that Brady has lost his ‘clutchness,’ it’s simply that the Patriots’ teams (namely the defenses) have gotten worse, and Brady has become the focal point.”

Miraculously, the team traded up in the 2012 draft to select Alabama linebacker Dont’a Hightower. In Week 1 of the 2012 season Hightower and rookie Defensive End Chandler Jones demonstrated the potential immediate impact a top tier player can offer.

Certainly signing high profile players is no guarantee: see Albert Haynesworth and Chad Ochocinco — and also consider former Baltimore Ravens Coach Brian Billick’s warning “…each free agent should come with a warning label stamped to his chest. What should that label say? Buyer beware.” At the same time, asking players to continually do more with less is more of a weakness than a strength.

Fortunately, the 2013 Patriots rookie class is off to an impressive start, adding youth and optimism to the team — so maybe this year’s draft will bear championship fruit.

3. Win or Lose, Players Get Paid: As a fan of a sports team, there is a good chance you are more emotionally invested in the success or failure of your teams than the payers. As Los Angeles Times columnist Bill Plashke pointedly explains in his February 9, 2012 article For the pro athlete, it’s just a job, “The players don’t care as much as you do.”

Even Chad Ochocinco — with his abysmal record with the Patriots of 15 receptions for 276 yards and one touchdown — was still paid (I am reluctant to say earned) a base salary of $6,000,000 for tweeting and updating his Facebook status all season instead of contributing to the team!

And, if you’re curious how much your favorite player gets paid, have a look at this interactive infographic that lets you see the 2013-2014 season salaries of each NFL player, by team and position. I’ve set it to Pats on both sides, because if I don’t it defaults to Ravens and Broncos (shudder). Make it rain!

So, since playing is a job for the athletes, does it really make sense to so heavily invest ourselves emotionally in their performance?

4. Failure is a Launchpad for Learning: When failure occurs, it is human nature to look for a reason — a scapegoat — to explain why that which was never considered possible has now become reality.

Arguing over whose fault it was is relatively meaningless: in my opinion you can win a game on one dramatic play, but losing a game is the result of an accumulation of errors.

This occurred after the Patriots’ loss in Super Bowl 46, where pundits pondered whether Wes Welker dropped what could have been a game winning catch or if Tom Brady threw an inaccurate ball. The argument can be made that consistency kills competition, and the Giants were the more consistent team that day.

This is not easy to do, but the upside is excellent if you can turn adversity into opportunity. Regardless of the reasons for failure, if you treat it as a learning experience, you never really lose — at least philosophically; I realize they keep score in sporting events!

5. Family — not Football — Comes First: I was most concerned about my younger son, Maxwhen the Patriots lost Super Bowl 46. When he went to sleep just before half-time, the Patriots were rolling.  The next morning he awoke to reality, but he just brushed it off  and was on to his next adventure.

He took their loss to the Ravens in last season’s AFC Championship Game harder (likely because he watched it unfold in real time), but again by morning the sunrise had dried away the tears.

It’s amazing what adults can learn from kids if we pay attention. It’s also amazing what a good night’s sleep can do!

Poignantly, following the Patriots, Bruins, Celtics and Red Sox — the teams my Dad grew up with — was a way for me to maintain a connection with him even during a long period when we were estranged.

Having that unique shared interest with Max (my older son, Jacob, has little interest in sports), creates a similarly compelling connection.

Talking about Boston sports teams with him and having been able to attend a Red Sox/Dodgers game last month is priceless Father/Son time.  A trip to Foxboro is in our future.

Notably, in a touching Los Angeles Times article published four days after Super Bowl 46, Chris Paul shares lessons on the importance of family in his life — in a very similar way as I wrote about my maternal grandfather, Papa.

6. Being with Friends Lessens a Loss: The next best thing to family are friends, and through a mutual love — or is it obsession? — of the Patriots I’ve found my way to a great group whom I would have otherwise never known.

Me watching the Patriots at TGI Fridays with AnnetteBoth virtually (via Facebook or a fan message board) and personally (at TGI Fridays or an equivalent place to watch a game), I’ve connected with a network of fans who are also friends.

Many of them have been there for me during challenging times and moments of celebration as well.

I’ve spent Thanksgiving with some of them and shared my first time watching a Patriots game with my younger son, Max, with the same “football friends.”

While I hope to never watch the Patriots lose another Super Bowl, watching it happen at the home of my friends Tom and Coni made the loss less significant because my friendship with them and their family is so significant.

7. There’s Always Next Year: Many Patriots fans didn’t expect the 2012 team to get as far as they did; so any of the wins after the regular season felt a bit like bonus content on a Blu-ray DVD. Despite that, it was hard not to get caught up in the moment and start believing (but see “Expectations Undermine Attitude” above).

On the bright side, the team “almost” won the Super Bowl with marginal talent in key positions. Tom Brady and Bill Belichick remain a powerful pair and, if they can finally add a deep threat receiver (or two) and actually field some quality defensive backs, who knows — they could make an eighth trip to the Super Bowl this season.

Rookie receiver Kenbrell Thompkins already seems to have the makings of the next Randy Moss — let’s hope without the drama. Perhaps there is hope for #85 to rise from the ashes of Ochocinco? [Update after the game: put that hope on hold — with a dash of optimism]

Imagine if I liked the Chicago Cubs or any team in Cleveland?!  I’d really feel a sense of déjà vu like  former Major League Baseball first baseman Keith Hernandez in the short video below:

In Conclusion

To summarize the seven points above:

  1. Expectations Undermine Attitude
  2. Junkyards Don’t Always Make Juggernauts
  3. Win or Lose, Players Get Paid
  4. Failure is a Launchpad for Learning
  5. Family — Not Football — Comes First
  6. Being with Friends Lessens a Loss
  7. There’s Always Next Year

Given all the insights above, the one remaining question: should the Patriots replace Tom Brady with Punxatawney Phil? More importantly, will the Patriots return to — and, if they do, win — the Super Bowl this year?

  • January 19, 2014 Update: One game away from returning to the Super Bowl; a good run for a team with so many injuries and off-field issues. I am proud of what the Pats were able to do with the limited resources they had. And, of course, there’s always next year!

Just a few hours after I took this picture on April 14, 2009 events transpired that would forever change my life.Two years ago yesterday I posted my last blog post.  A week later, I found myself (to paraphrase Buddy Holly) “learning the game.” A month later, an unexpected discovery revealed I was the one who had been gamed.

Without revealing too many details, this discovery delivered an exceptionally financially and emotionally expensive education on all sorts of dichotomies:

  • conditional love vs. unconditional love
  • co-parenting vs. parental alienation
  • espoused ethics vs. ethics-in-use
  • fact vs. fiction
  • faithful friendships vs. false friendships
  • honesty vs. dishonesty
  • legal ethics vs. legal procedures
  • moral certainty vs. moral relativism

I had previously assumed the events and behaviors I witnessed only happened in Desperate Housewives, LA LawLifetime Movie Network films, soap operas and The Twilight Zone. While you’re at it throw in some Benny Hill Show and Beverly Hills, 90210.

Despite my natural inclination to find the humor in my recent adventures, there is a very serious tone to it all. Given my profession as a teacher and trainer, these past two years have revealed to me an important nugget of knowledge that I express as follows:

‎”The toughest, but truest lessons we learn don’t come from a book; they come from the people, places, and predicaments in our lives.”

Sometimes those lessons involve heartache and sleepless nights, but hopefully we emerge as more complete individuals. Trying times can reveal the worst of people, yet they can also reveal the benevolence of others. It quickly becomes clear who you can trust and who really cares about you when you are in your time of greatest need.

I am endeavoring to move forward from my experience and leave behind me the distractions and drama that filled the past two years of my life.

With storm clouds clearing, I am looking ahead to a positive new future on a wide open ride of life! While I won’t use the word grateful, I do feel that these past two years helped me to grow and mature in ways that would not have happened otherwise. My recent experience  is a tool with which I will build an exceptional new life.

I will also remain deeply involved with the two most important parts of my past life who are also the center of my present and future life: my sons Jacob and Max.

On a practical level, my “enrollment” in this endeavor has prevented me from updating this blog as frequently as I would have liked while also impacting my plans to pursue a PhD as I had originally planned.

I am reminded of the following words by Langston Hughes:

“What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up Like a raisin in the sun? Or fester like a sore– And then run? Does it stink like rotten meat? Or crust and sugar over– like a syrupy sweet? Maybe it just sags like a heavy load. Or does it explode?”

I refuse to let my PhD dream “dry up, fester, stink, get crusty, sag or explode.” Quite the opposite: once the dust settles I will focus forward on a doctoral program that will provide me with the skills to produce research while ensuring my success as college professor

Likewise, I will begin posting to this blog again.  It might take a few posts to get the rust out but I look forward to once again actively engaging in an educational and informational dialog.

Onward and upward!