Category Archives: Life

On Daring, Winning, and Losing

Originally posted on LinkedIn (February 5, 2015).

I did not know of Henry Worsley before last week, but it’s been difficult to get him out of my mind since. He died on January 24, just 30 miles short of his goal but after traversing more than 900 miles of Antarctica on foot, seeking to honor his inspiration, famed explorer Ernest Shackleton. Worsley was much more than an explorer, it turns out. He was a philanthropist, raising money for wounded soldiers. He was also himself a combat-decorated warrior, rising to the elite of the British special forces and spending a career on the knife’s edge.

Days after his passing, NASA observed a day of remembrance for their own explorers, the astronauts lost in the 1967 Apollo launchpad fire and on shuttles Columbia and Challenger. As someone who has always looked up, I was moved and impacted by the memories. I was there when Challenger launched on an earlier mission in 1983, carrying another explorer, Sally Ride, the first American woman in space.

A few weeks before Worsley’s passing, musician, actor and artist David Bowie left us.  It’s hard to define where my love of space—and my love of words—ends and where Bowie’s music begins. It’s equally hard to imagine that in a lifetime of writing, I’ll ever be able to create something that sums up living as well as the final verse of my favorite Bowie song:

And love dares you to care for the people on the edge of the night /
And love dares you to change our way of caring about ourselves /
This is our last dance. This is ourselves. Under pressure.

There is not much logically tying Worsley, the astronauts and Bowie together. There is no peer comparison to them, and I’m not trying to equate a rock star, astronauts and a warrior. They each can stand on their own merits. We are poorer for the loss of all.

However, while there’s not an equality between them, I think there actually is a connection of sorts, and it’s from the motto of Worsley’s unit, the Special Air Service.

Qui audet adipiscitur. Latin for “Who Dares Wins.”

I first heard the expression in college, coming out of a shell, finding myself. I thought it was fascinating and true. It fit where I was in my life, and over the decades, not a week goes by when I don’t think it. I’ve passed it along to friends who have asked me for advice on everything from coming out to dating to careers to life decisions. Some of them have passed it on to others. I have tried to apply it to my professional life wherever possible.  I’ve been blessed to work in environments that encouraged daring.

Life—actual experiences, not the day-to-day drudgery that makes days turn into weeks turn into months turn into years turn into decades while you blink—is about daring, isn’t it? Daring to cross that mountain, sail beyond the horizon, try something new when other things have failed, take that leap. Life is dangerous, scary. It’s easier to rest, take it easy, copy others, be part of the crowd, and we all have to do some of that some of the time. Daring is hard work. No one can do it ceaselessly or should do it thoughtlessly.

The astronauts dared, volunteering to place themselves in danger to launch into the heavens above, taking humanity’s dreams with them.

David Bowie dared, never taking the safe route in his art, always being just a little different, willing to reinvent himself, not often taking the easy path his fame and wealth could have allowed.

Clearly, Worsley dared. His whole life was “leaning forward,” running to the sound of the guns, sacrificing all for others.

Who dares wins.

Except, of course, sometimes you don’t. Sometimes, the daring causes you to be blind, short-sighted, stupid, and arrogant (or is it the other way around?). Sometimes you make that leap you shouldn’t. And people—at the very least, you—get hurt by your actions. Or worse.

Defining “wins” in terms of “accomplishing what you set out to do,” actually, you quite often don’t win. You quite often lose. But that isn’t the point, nor does it mean that you stop daring. It means you reevaluate your actions and goals, what you did, what drove it, how you can fix the harm done, and how or if you can move ahead. You are in debt to the experience and everything that got you to where you were and are, and thankful that you can even have those thoughts. You win through the learning, if you choose to.

And you move on. One ski ahead of the other, because the alternative sounds much worse.

You dare yourself. As Bowie said, you are then, in turn, dared to care about everything.

This is our last dance. Who dares wins.

 

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Space and time on Isle au Haut

Astronomy is, among other things, the study of history. The light from the stars of the Big Dipper, that most ordinary of formations, take most of a human lifetime to reach us. The Andromeda Galaxy’s glow we see tonight left 2.5 million years ago, when man’s distant cousins were barely using stone tools on Earth. As we look up at the heavens, we watch history arrive at our small outpost.

The stars tell a human history, too. Mankind has used them for practical, spiritual and recreational purposes since our earliest days.

All of this history is easier to see in some places than others.

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Six miles off the coast of Maine is Isle au Haut, a rocky, forested, 12-square-mile piece of heaven. Sparsely occupied in the peak of summer, and even emptier through the brutal Maine winter, it is mostly land that is part of Acadia National Park.

For at least ten thousand years, locals have plied its waters for fish, oysters, crab, bird, lobster and seal. Its prominent hills have likely always been something of a sanctuary from the mainland, providing a lookout that scans dozens of miles and hinting at the origin of its European name: high island.

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Today, that sanctuary is from tourists. The mainland portion of Acadia taxes the patience of even the most nature-minded with its summertime crowds and congestion. Isle au Haut is empty by comparison. There are only five campsites, reserved months in advance. A small number of day hikers join campers on the daily mailboat from Stonington, Maine.

It remains an ideal lookout, of sorts. Isle au Haut, an isolated island off of one of the east coast’s least light-polluted spots, is an exceptional place to observe the heavens. I was thrilled to learn in April that my reservation request for the 2015 season was approved and my preferred dates were available, coinciding with a new moon, the darkest sky and the annual Perseid meteor shower.

My son and I spent our first day on the island hiking and savoring the persistent smell of spruce and ocean. Every trail led to incredible vistas. A nearly cloudless sky gave way to a spectacular sunset just yards from our campsite and promised exceptional astronomical viewing overnight.

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We used the day’s last light to gather, cut and split more firewood and watched the stars appear overhead, one by one. Vega was first, then Altair and Deneb, forming the classic summer triangle. We sat and talked by the fire until light turned to dark. From a passing glance up only an hour after sunset, the heavens  revealed more stars than I’d see on the darkest night at my suburban Connecticut home.

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My son turned in early, so I knocked back the logs in the fire, grabbed a blanket and my binoculars, and sought a flat spot away from the embers’ glow. I rolled up a sweatshirt for a pillow and prepared for nature’s showtime in a near-total darkness unlike any I’d ever experienced.

At home, the quest for dark observing spots leads to absurd machinations, like finding a tree or bush to visually block a streetlight, or shielding the view of the road with a trifold school project board. On Isle au Haut, it involved walking ten steps away from the campsite. My prime observing location was rewarded nearly instantly with an Earth-grazer…an almost horizon-to-horizon Perseid meteor burning up in a long trail of fire and smoke. Then another Perseid. And another.

The sky was glorious. The Milky Way cloud band, stretching up from the south, peaked overhead in Cygnus and extended across the sky. Every passing minute revealed more detail as my eyes acclimated and sky grew darker.

You can see the cloud band in Connecticut when conditions are right; I have faintly observed it along the shoreline, and brighter in the extreme northwest and northeast corners. During the great power outage of October 2011, I saw it from my normally light-polluted front yard. However, it had never looked like this. I could easily discern the Great Rift in Cygnus and the shape and structure of the band. Through binoculars, it showed pinpoints from a sea of stars, so close together it looked like a quilt of light.

Over the course of the next hour, I saw a dozen or more bright Perseids, dozens of satellites, and countless astronomical objects from my mental checklist. The North America nebula? Visible to the naked eye; I had never been able to observe it at home. Messier 101, which I’d only observed in my best telescope as a faint spiral arm? It was a clear fuzzy circle through my binoculars. Andromeda? Larger than I’d ever think I could see it, and vaguely oval-shaped even to my unaided eye.

Typically, I am task-focused when observing; I go out to find specific things. Here, the pure joy was how much I could see when I was looking for nothing.

I had, more than once, considered leaving the binoculars at home for this trip. They are image-stabilized Canons; wonderful optics, but heavy. When you carry on your back all you need to live for a few days, extra weight is judiciously chosen. The binoculars were the perfect tools, allowing for wide, sweeping scans.

Trees to the south blocked my view of the horizon and our galaxy’s dense core, so I put on my red headlamp, grabbed my phone and binoculars and headed off for a short stroll to the rocky waterfront. The tide had rolled in considerably since sunset, and what had been a fairly easy walk in the day was a cautious, slow, slippery, rock-by-rock journey once I cleared the treeline. I hugged the narrow band of shore as it curved to the west, and after climbing over one large rock formation, there it was: Scorpius, Sagittarius and the cloudlike center of our Milky Way, stretching down to the horizon.

I had only dreamed of seeing the summer Milky Way from a truly dark sky sight, and it was every bit as spectacular as I’d hoped. Now horizon-to-horizon, the cloud divided the sky in a glowing, white path.

Credit: Christopher Georgia. More information at: http://www.space.com/21146-milky-way-national-park-photo.html

Credit: Christopher Georgia. More information at: http://www.space.com/21146-milky-way-national-park-photo.html

The Milky Way is pivotal in the heritage of cultures worldwide. It’s often described as the path to the gods, and understandably so once seen in its full glory. On the rocks, with waves crashing near me and our galaxy stretched above, it was easy to imagine our ancestors in this same spot, a hundred generations prior to the Europeans, looking up with the same sense of awe as they pulled their boats up high, cooked oysters on the rocky coast and made shelter for the night.

The miles of ocean to the mainland shielded me from any nearby light pollution but also showed its threat. A small glow, probably the town of Rockland, Maine, cluttered one small part of the western horizon. It detracted from the sky only in the sense that I knew what it was.

Photo credit: Jessica Hendelman photography (http://www.jesshendelman.com)

This is NOT Isle au Haut, but IS Acadia, and very representative of the views I had. Photo credit: Jessica Hendelman photography (http://www.jesshendelman.com)

I made my way back to the campsite and returned to my blanket. There was no noise, no light, just near total-darkness and the expanse of heaven overhead. A jet or two passed by on their way to Europe, and satellites crisscrossed the night, mixed in with Perseids, none quite at spectacular as the first I witnessed. Minutes turned to half hours and then hours, and after the third startled awakening from a buzzing insect, I realized it was time for bed. I made my way to my sleeping pad and kept looking to the sky. One last look. No, another. Ok, next satellite, and then I’m done, until one particularly bright satellite caught my attention, flared up a bit and then disappeared. I took it as a sign.

I stretched my hand out to the heavens, outlining it against the cloud band in what must have looked like a feeble attempt to connect, and went to bed.

I slept soundly, a rare thing for me when camping.

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On our last morning on Isle au Haut, we took a short hike over a low ridge, surrounded by wild blueberry bushes that visitors had missed all summer. I asked my son, “If you take your kids here in 30 years, what do you think it will look like?” He thought about it for a few seconds and said, “Well, I think it will look about the same, because it’s a national park.”

That’s the right answer, for all intents and purposes. The trails across this gorgeous island will probably be about the same…maybe rerouted around erosion, or shifted by the crashing of the remorseless ocean.

The fundamentals will remain. The night sky will not.

There will never be another night quite as dark as August 13 and 14, 2015. Stonington and Rockland will always get a little brighter in the distance, one light bulb, grocery and mini golf at a time. Other towns will grow. The spread of humanity, as unwavering as the ocean, will eventually blot out the night. It may never spread fully to Isle au Haut, and it may not even change much in my son’s lifetime, but it will advance. At some point, certainly within a handful of generations, we will cover the sky nearly in full with our light.

We will call it progress, and who can argue with the spread of light, of technology, and of electricity.

That progress does not come without a cost. For all but the last 200 years, what I witnessed on Isle au Haut was all mankind understood the night sky to be. A two-million year shared experience, across cultures and continents, gone in the comparative blink of an eye.

We’ve changed the balance of nature and with it, disconnected ourselves from the glory and magnitude of the heavens. It’s only when you see the night sky in its full expanse that you realize what a tragedy it is that we can—and so thoughtlessly—erase our own history.

The good news is that the history is still plainly visible in the most humble of places if you look, including a small rocky outpost on the surface of another one, both tiny specks in a mighty sea.

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Check Your Sources – Remembering John Breen

John Breen, professor emeritus of journalism. (Courtesy of the Journal Inquirer)

John Breen, professor emeritus of journalism. (Credit: Journal Inquirer)

An icon of my life died this week.

Professor John Breen of the UConn Journalism Department left us far too early but also left a trail of students honoring him in their thoughts and posts.

More than anyone I’ve ever encountered, he taught me to love words. No matter my title or place in life, I will always be a writer deep in my soul. I have struggled to find ways to honor the man. Besides the obvious (there is a scholarship established in his name at the UConn Foundation), I have decided that the natural and right way to do so is through writing.

But first, I need a drink, and so a toast to him—a glass of Irish whiskey—sits beside me.

That I feel the need for a little alcohol-induced ease of mind tells the first part of the story about why John Breen mattered.

He was uncompromising. In the days before Microsoft Word marked all of your errors in red or, even worse, auto-corrected them, John Breen accepted nothing but quality. In one of his classes, he established a rule for assignments: for every typo, you lost a letter grade. Not a circle on your paper. Not a “fix this.” No silver star for “nice try.” He assumed you cared enough about your readers that you wouldn’t insult them. I feared the man and feared my grade. The lesson I carried with me was simple: quality matters. The small things matter. Detail matters.

I partly need the calming drink next to me to even comprehend the act of writing something about John Breen, for I know that this would probably end up with a ‘C’ if he graded it. That a grown man, a professional in matters of writing, can still feel this way should tell you something.

He taught me to be cynical. That’s usually a perjorative word, but I don’t mean it in that sense. Having bombed out of the engineering program, a 19-year-old me found myself in Professor Breen’s Journalism 101 class. On the first day, he told us that to be a reporter, you had to question assumptions.

“If your mother tells you that she loves you, check your sources.”

He said that. He really said that. It’s a remarkably cynical statement, but it is also remarkably true. I don’t think he literally meant that you can’t trust your mother, but the lesson I carried from it is held deeply today.

Question assumptions.

Assume nothing.

Inquire.

Dig deep.

Check your sources.

I know it is the trend today to talk about the decline of a liberal arts education; STEM education will rule the future. There’s some truth to that, I suppose. But can there be a better lesson for life, or a better education (in the philosophical sense of the word), than “check your sources?” With more information available to us than ever, can there be a better requirement for critical thought than “question assumptions?”

Lastly, John Breen taught me the beauty and grace of words. He taught me that my writing will touch people and that there is an awesome responsibility in the act of writing about them. This doesn’t mean that, as a reporter, you should go easy on your subjects. It means you should be fair.

He was a man who seemed to me to be out of place in the modern world, even in 1990. He smoked at his desk. He used a manual typewriter. If he could have worn a fedora with a small piece of paper on the band that read “Press,” he would have. He was more or less straight out of central casting for “All the President’s Men.” With stacks of newspaper everywhere, his office space always seemed to be one poorly thrown cigarette butt from a towering inferno.

I loved that.

The world is worse without John Breen in it. Today’s journalism students—while bright, smart and so capable—are poorer than I was. He last taught me more than two decades ago, but I feel him around me every time I write something.

And although I haven’t spoken to him since the year I graduated UConn, I suddenly miss him.

Leadership in the Snow

Spent the snowy weekend in the woods, working with young people on their leadership skills or, more precisely, watching them learn those skills themselves.  The formal curriculum was the Boy Scouts of America’s Introduction to Leadership Skills for Troops, but the lessons were learned as the groups worked together for the non-formal parts of the day.

And isn’t that exactly right?  Because there are a lot of “leaders” out there who sit through an awful lot of trainings like that (not to mention offer those trainings)!  And there are a lot of MBAs churned out annually. How many are truly leaders, in the sense of being able to work in a team, inspire others, and put the group above self?  Not many.  Not a huge percentage.

But what I saw in this group of 12- to 16-years olds was largely leadership. Like cooking dinner on a propane stove for their small groups, when it was snowing and their hands were cold and the wind was blowing.  Or making sure that the group assumed responsibility for cleaning the site and leaving it better than we found it. How many politicians or CEOs would do that?  Would they even call it leadership?  Would they recognize it?

And why not?  And if we answer that question, have we identified what is wrong with so many of our major societal institutions today?

It didn’t all go well. Some meals were barely meals. Some food was ruined. Some stoves took a long time. Not everyone pulled their weight. Tempers were frayed. Relationships strained.  Part of the lesson.  But, overall, I walked away impressed at what we show when we don’t know what we’re supposed to.  Leadership and integrity come when no one is looking, or when you don’t know enough to care whether someone’s looking.

Just a thought.

Welcome to the new Sponauer.com

While I move my long-suffering and oft-ignored domain to a new platform and reshape its purpose, I would like to welcome you to a new and improved Sponauer.com.

In the Venn Diagram of personal sites, this one will be at the intersection of astronomy, personal notes on life and professional accomplishments.

 

It’s a weird ride, but how can you showcase yourself when you’re not sharing the whole person?

Anyway, buckle up and enjoy. And off we go.