We Can Be Heroes

Man, Compartmentalize Thyself

Sometime ago, my wife came home and was aghast when she looked at the chaos in the kitchen where I was trying to: 

  • Chop vegetables and
  • Grate Cheese and
  • Feed the pets and 
  • Clean an iron skillet  and 
  • Empty the  dishwasher (while dirtying more dishes) ….

All this was happening while I tried to  stay informed about current events by watching a news show replay on YouTube….not that many moments after scrambling to pick up the kid from school.

I was visibly stressed as I communicated all the things that I was trying to do and that I was doing them “all at once at once.”

I added a comment, “I’m not Superman.”

She replied “You don’t have to be, though it would help if you became better at….”

I thought she  was going to end with “multi-tasking” and was already preparing my response, “You know, that multitasking, isn’t really something that humans can do, because…”

But she said, “…compartmentalizing.” That stopped me in my tracks. 

There is much  truth to that. While I am capable of strong focus under many circumstances, life is full of circumstances are that are less than favorable.

The world is so full of distractions, that even when we plan to be distraction-free, life finds a way to distract us find us. Phones ring, kids cry, solicitors knock at your door (CAN’T THEY READ THE “NO SOLICITING” SIGN?!?).

In my case, things can get particularly silly, if I am trying to complete several home-related tasks for myself, or my family and they are without a stringent deadline, if there is a deadline at all.

Sprinkle in some work-related pursuits, and some unexpected pet mishaps, and soon my life can look like this:

Trash on Kitchen Floor

“Who’s a Good Girl?”



In this scenario it becomes way too easy switch to a different task, if the task at hand becomes even a little bit frustrating. “I’ll get back to this later.”

It doesn’t take long before there are several tasks that I will get back “later,” with each task stealing focus from the others, such that none of them get done well, if they get done at all.

Space-Time

Not long after the observation by my wife, I read astronaut Scott Kelly’s biography. Kelly, famously spent 520 days aboard the International Space Station. There are so many notable things about about the book and Kelly’s career, but it was his mention of the importance of compartmentalization that struck a chord with me.

Kelly described how he often has no choice, but to compartmentalize.

Astronauts’ days are scheduled at a particularly granular level. Each and every day is planned for them in incredible detail. There is usually not that much flexibility in their day, and if there is unplanned task, it is rather likely it is due to a critical equipment failure that requires expeditious repair.

Given my description of the chaotic kitchen scene, you might find this surprising, but I think I’d be pretty good at astronauting. In space there are few choices but to compartmentalize. If you are called upon to repair the carbon dioxide scrubber for the space station’s ventilation system, then you can’t  let anything in the cosmos distract you.

“I Am Not Superman”

After making the decision to write this blog post, I ensured that I had allotted sufficient time and sat down in space where I wouldn’t get distracted. 

Of course, I got distracted, because I am not Superman. 

Though I didn’t mind distraction  so much because it’s helpful to loosen the compartment boundaries while I’m brainstorming. Once I began to think about space travel, it wasn’t long until I started thinking about, Star Trek.

This made me think of my youth. Naturally, that led me to think of sports and superheroes: 

Actions Figures, Superman, and Hockey Star Bobby Orr Scuffline

Boxers vs. Briefs
(Hockey Star Bobby Orr and Superman)

Few things (other than spacemen) have brought me greater joy in my life than comic books did when I was young. Before I collected them, my older brother did.

After I stopped, my younger brother started buying them. They were always in the house.

Men of Steal

DC and Marvel, the two largest comics companies, have a long history of “borrowing” character ideas from each other. There is much written about who stole what from whom.

There is also a lot of internal sampling within the companies. For example, there are several characters in the DC universe that have a very similar superpowers portfolio as Superman (a reminder we’ve already established that I am not Superman). 

Some examples:

  • Supergirl, who is a cousin of Superman, and like him,  was born on Krypton. She has identical set of superpowers.

  • Wonder Woman  is invulnerable and has super strength, speed, and stamina.

  • Shazam possesses the powers of six gods from Greek and Roman mythology. The sum total of all the powers from these is gods is roughly equivalent to Superman.

  • Mon-El lives in the 30th century (perhaps ” ‘will’ live” is more appropriate) where he is a member of The Legion of Superheroes. His powers are so similar to the Man of Steel, Superman once believed him to be a relative.

  • Ultra Boy is another member of the Legion that has all of same powers as Superman/Supergirl with an interesting limitation (more on that coming).

Here are Mon-El and Ultra Boy to introduce themselves:

 

I Am Ultra Boy

Yes, Ultra Boy has all the same powers of Superman and Supergirl.  But….he can only use one power at a time.

One. Power. At. A. Time

I remember a comic book scene years ago, where a villain, disguised as one his allies, asked  Ultra Boy to lift an object that weighed several tons. The affable Ultra Boy switched off his invulnerability to activate his super strength.

At that point, BAM! The bad guy, conked him with a metal bar rendering him unconscious. 

Ultra Boy’s weakness isn’t Kryptonite. It’s multi-tasking.

Ultra Boy is all of us.

We all sometimes  try to do too much at once,;things we’re good at, things we’re learning, things we’ve  planned for, and unexpected things at the same time. I  don’t do that very well. Because I’m not Superman (Supergirl, Shazam…).

But I can be a pretty convincing Ultra Boy. 

  • I have the strength to carry bins full of Christmas decorations to the basement, OR wrestle a large office chair from the backseat of a tiny car. 

  • With my super-vision I can spot a turd–that a 7-lb dog left  n the carpet–from several yards away, to avoid stepping in it, OR  I can  view a webinar on the couch and say “I’ll clean it up later,  I ain’t got time for that shit right now.”

  • I am fast enough to chase down a cat, who has the evil intent to scratch furniture, OR  to write a response to a recruiter. 

  • My stamina is great  enough to shovel snow  or  clean an entire kitchen, (and occasionally a cluttered garage, etc.)

I can do all those things. I just can’t do them all at once, or any two of them at once, for that matter. 

We can all be heroes. Even if we have to occasionally become vulnerable to use our other powers. 

Epilogue

This post took an extraordinary amount of time to write because I was listening to a lengthy news story on the radio.

I have seen the enemy and it is multitasking. Though I will defeat this villain, for I am Ultra Boy.

 

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Forever Young

Up, Up, and Away!

Like just about all of you, I’ve been in a constant, sporadic, focused, distracted, elucidating, confusing,  exhilarating, and exhausting state of reflection.

That is, the moments of reflection when  I’m not consumed with ennui and staring off into space, while eating a stick of butter.

Recently, I spent a few moments trying to connect myself  with good thoughts. Usually this means thinking of past events, rather than contemplating the future.

Reflections of the past feel like historical research, while thinking of future events seem more like trying to write fiction. Frankly, it’s not too hard to imagine a dystopian novel, based on current events alone.

Of course, my thoughts raced toward  superheroes. Because…why wouldn’t they?

It’s difficult to convey how much I loved superheroes as a child. The Batman TV series, comic books, Saturday morning cartoons…brought so much joy into my young life.

When adults asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I’d often answer “I want to make comic books.” I wasn’t good at drawing, or coloring as a child…but lack of artistic skills didn’t seem like a barrier.

Though when I was 9, I played my first “real sport” (Little League baseball), and was a slightly better at playing third base  than I was at art.

It would be a stretch to say that I  was good at it. Though it was fulfilling enough that I had a new obsession.

Lack of talent didn’t feel like a barrier in this context, either. Suddenly, it  seemed obvious  that my adult life would be difficult in the sense only  that I would have to choose which sport I would play professionally…”when I grow up.”

Shortly thereafter  I stopped buying comic books, preferring to spend my money on baseball cards, and occasionally  Wacky Packages.

Though my brother, four years younger, became interested in comics, so I continued to read them, while I publicly scoffed at such “kid stuff.”

He has never stopped buying them, so there were always fresh titles in the house when we both still lived at our parents’ home.

All Grown Up

Nearly 16 years ago (my only child) son arrived, and felt like I might have finally grown up, but didn’t play a professional sport, or do anything cool like make comic books.  On some levels, being a grown up was a bit of a letdown.

My son eventually started to love  comic books when he was young, though used to regularly  come home with fistfuls of SpongeBob magazines while only occasionally grabbing a Superman, or Thor title.

When my was about 10 we made a trip to the local Comic Con convention . I had never been to this event before, so didn’t know what I was in for.

It was way  larger than I expected.

In the beginning, I was enchanted by all the merchandise. Some of it was vintage, some of it was newer; therefore I toggled between “I had that!” and “I wish they made that when I was a kid.”

Soon, I reached  point  of diminishing returns where my time invested wasn’t receiving a payoff in enjoyment.

I had been through most of the merchandise stands, and my rate of “I had that” moments was declining.

The comic book art became tedious after a couple of hours of countless renderings  of superheroes, and many characters I didn’t recognize.

I began whining (to myself) and mouthing the words, “Can we go home, yet?”

My son kept finding things that interested him: The Jeep from Jurassic Park, and other large-vehicle exhibits and other gadgetry. Things I was never all that into.

As I slow-shuffled, with slumped shoulders, to the next aisle in the exhibit hall. I heard a voice call out to get my attention,

I turned to see an elderly man, clad in a baseball cap that said “WW II Veteran”, and a shirt, or coat, that was composed of comic book covers.

I saw that Wonder Woman was standing next to him. It made me smile.

Couple at ComicCon Booth

The Bellmans

The moment, I made eye contact, he began his pitch, “I was the ORIGINAL  Captain America artist….”

I marveled (pun intended) at  his New York-flavored voice. It was as though I was in the presence of a performer  (perhaps Mike Meyers from SNL Days)  doing an impression of a vintage Borscht-Belt comedian.

“Stan Lee used to work for ME!” he continued.

He kept talking as people came up and asked about his artwork.  He would be diverted  for a few moments, and his wife would ring up the sale of his illustrations, then resumed his “origin story” without missing a beat. His enthusiasm never wavered.

I learned that his name was Allen Bellman, and that Wonder Woman’s ” secret identity was Roz Bellman.

I chatted with them for several minutes, pausing periodically as fans came to get poster art signed. Talking with, and watching, and hearing  them was pure pleasure.

My son picked out this illustration by Bellman, after I explained to him about “The Invaders”.

Drawing of Marvel Superhereos: Sub Mariner, Captain America, and The Human Torch

The Invaders

The kid  was still pretty shy at the time, so he didn’t interact with the Bellmans that much, but shot a big grin at them, and called out “Thank you!” when Bellman signed the poster.

I think he felt like he’d won the lottery.

Update

A few moments after recalling my years-ago encounter with the Bellmans, I found out that Allen Bellman had died at the age of 95.

It’s hard to describe how much fun it was to spend a few minutes with these people–total strangers, who treated me like a I was lifelong friend.

These were two  people who totally embraced “Do what you love. Love what you do.” philosophy.

And they offer proof that even when you reach adulthood, you don’t have to grow up.

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Rhodes Scholar

Play Ball!

Today (March 26, 2020) would have been Opening Day in Major League Baseball. Though it has been postponed for obvious reasons.

Despite my youthful obsession with baseball (and my preternatural ability to remember inconsequential details that you mere mortals cannot) the only Opening Day performance I can recall is this one:

Tuffy Rhodes had spent parts of five seasons with major league teams, hitting a total 5 home runs prior 1994.

In the 1994 opening game, he hit 3 home runs in single game. Suddenly, he was the most in-demand player in fantasy leagues, based on three swings of the bat.

Based on just a few data points (1 game, and 3 home runs), there where many who concluded that Rhodes had been an elite-level player, or was on the hottest of hitting streaks.

Neither turned out to be true. Rhodes, hit eight home runs that season and never hit another in a big league-game.

He finished with 13 home runs for his Major League  career. That’s 742 home runs behind Hank Aaron. 

The Syndrome

Sports writers coined a term, Tuffy Rhodes Syndrome, to describe  the rush to judgement about a player’s future success based on recently-occurring successful performance.

Tuffy Rhodes Syndrome is a form of recency bias.  

“Recency bias” is the phenomenon of a person most easily remembering something that has happened recently, compared to remembering something that may have occurred a while back. ”

Recency bias has always affected decisions in all aspects of life. It’s a small matter if a fantasy league team owner acquires a mediocre player, because the player had one good game.

Though recency bias also impacts decisions of great consequence.

We’re going to see a lot of that in coming weeks (perhaps months) as elected leaders, and advisors examine “the numbers” to make decisions about containment and treatment plans during a pandemic.

Even if a decision is made in good faith, and is based on sound data, our overall  situation can change rapidly and often.

With luck, we, and our governing organizations will be agile enough to adapt to new circumstances.

Let’s hope that we can all avoid succumbing to Tuffy Rhodes Syndrome which lead to inappropriate decision based on too few data points.

Good night and good luck.

Epilogue

After reading this post, or if you were already familiar with Tuffy Rhodes, you may have reached some conclusions about his performance, and that he was a mediocre player.

I once made those conclusions myself.

The facts are that he made it to the major league because he excelled in high school and in the minor leagues. I was cut from my school team in 7th grade and  (surprise!) I never tried out for a baseball team again.

Following his Major League career, he was a big-time star in Japan, hitting 462 career home runs, which is 462 more home runs than most of us.

The fact is that he  was a great player, though he never caught on in the Majors.

Tuffy, we all owe you an apology.

 

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We’ll Meet Again

(originally published 3/20/2020, updates on 05/05/2020)


Songs of Hope

A couple of days after the State of Michigan, closed many businesses due to an emergency order, I drove through downtown Grand Rapids, passing endless darkened bars, restaurants, music venues etc.

I was bit surprised by the song that I found myself humming.

We’ll Meet Again was recorded in 1939 by Vera Lynn, and was popular with British soldiers, who were shipping off to a war front, as well as their loved ones awaiting their return. In 1942, the song was recorded by US bandleader Benny Goodman, and featured vocals by Peggy Lee. 

Other than a few times, I hadn’t thought much about the song in decades.

We’ll Meet Again was one of the songs in my mother’s “playlist.” One constant in my youth, and my young adulthood, is that when my mother  folded or ironed clothes, she quietly performed renditions of World War II-era songs. Sometimes she seemed happy, often she didn’t.

My mom had a rotten childhood (orphaned during the Great Depression for starters..) and a stressful adulthood ( a military wife with 6 kids).

I remember a particularly difficult stretch when both my father and brother (15 years my senior) were in Vietnam. There were a couple of times when television shows were interrupted by a war-related  announcement from President Johnson or President Nixon.

In these cases, she had no patience for anything but pin-dropping silence from the kids at home.  Our unambiguous orders: “Shut the hell up!”

Even during this period she frequently hummed, or sang from the playlist (usually Lynn’s White Cliffs of Dover, or I’ll Be Seeing You) when she was feeling depressed or angry while she folded clothes.

Occasionally she hummed/sang an upbeat version of  We’ll Meet Again when she was in better spirits.

I realized many years later why my mother  clung to those songs. They gave her hope. Her early childhood didn’t give her many reasons to be hopeful.

In her early adulthood her brothers were deployed to Europe during the War , and boyfriend Bob (aka my father), shipped off to the South Pacific, while she installed clutches on military vehicles at an Army base a few miles from her home. 

Being hopeful probably seemed like her best option. 


US Sailor and Wife (Circa 19460

(April 1946)



The day after I’d found myself humming We’ll Meet Again, I recalled that Steven Colbert had used the song in his final broadcast of The Colbert Report. I watched it on YouTube that morning.

I was surprised by how that performance of the  song, by an   ensemble celebrity chorus shook my cynicism loose.

I think I’ve found my weather-the-storm song:

The day after I wrote the original draft of this post, I looked some articles about Vera Lynn, who recorded the original version of We’ll Meet Again.

A strange and wonderful coincidence, is that on that very day (March 20, 2020, Dame Vera Lynn was celebrating her 103rd birthday. 

Here is her performance from the feature film We’ll Meet Again:

 

It was good to learn that  Lynn is still among us, and that the sales of We’ll Meet Again are soaring following Queen Elizabeth’s reference to the song in her speech in April.

Postscript (05/05/2020)

Latest remake of the We’ll Meet Again featuring Dame Lynn and the West End Stars (of London Theatre) recently premiered.  It’s another gem:

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