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A Walk Beneath the Great Trees

“…it is clear that the runway no longer reaches a far horizon.”

February 8, 2017   I love trees. “Together we will walk beneath the great trees” is tattooed on my left arm. It is from our wedding vows. The marriage is great. The arm is failing. The bad arm is also part of this story. But back to trees. It is February 2017 and I am in Big Basin Redwood Park to see some giants. I am new to the park and discover that some  groves are deep within. They are found on an 11-mile circuit. This is a fair hike for someone who has a dysfunctional left leg.

Bad arm, bad leg, bad hand, bad balance. The neurologists are still reserved in their assessment. Until symptoms emerge more clearly they are calling this mess Motor Neuron Disease. ALS is “possible”. Other neuro-muscular ailments are also considered. It is likely a condition that is untreatable and incurable. One Neurologist kindly suggested that I avoid the web pages. No finite answers but good counsel.

The decline is as steady as my old Timex. I don’t see change through days, weeks, or even months. But when I roll back a year the decline is clear as day. A year ago, I would be down that trail. But today, I have a decision. Do I take the eleven-mile trek? The disquieting sense of constraint is fed by physical fallibility. The liberating freedom to plunge forward, burning the fuel of strength, resolve, and skill is fading into a gray apprehension. Now I am on the slippery slope. Optimism always overshadowed fear. But now, optimism has to be tempered with judgement. Where is the sweet spot?

I take the hike. I feel great and it should have been easy. Instead, the weather created an epic, unforeseen maze of challenges. It was the winter of drought-breaking rain. The trail, hugging steep hillsides,  was washed away in places. Many a naked traverse crossed a 60-degree slope of loose stone and soil. Small plants and tufts of grass provide tenuous handholds. It’s a long way down. The saturated ground caused a number of trees to fall. (A fallen redwood is no small obstacle.) A bridge was askew. Each obstacle was a test. I was mud-covered and afraid. After seven miles I turned back, opting to deal with known problems. Ultimately, it was a challenging fourteen-mile hike. Taking stock, I feel strong but recognize a growing set of limitations. And fear lingered as though atomized behind my eyes.

For the first time, it is clear that the runway no longer reaches a far horizon. A simple walk might be a blessing in a year.  A transition plan is needed. This plan could be a collection of journeys. Taken together, they will enable a great letting go, a sense that I’ve done what can be done. It is the journey to a realm of no regrets.

The context to this journey is deeply personal. It is a new consciousness nurtured by physical reduction.  Mindfulness takes center stage. Guiding values are clarified: independence, compassion, doggedness, optimism, reverence. These values will sustain me. But they also have to grow for the journey beyond this journey.

I have a comfort in ignoring advice, refuting medicine, and testing limits. I am pretty adept at assessing risk, predicting problems, devising workarounds and enduring some hardship. But I do this through my own filters, experiences and values. I anticipate the reservations of others. Ultimately, I form a response, “Why the hell not?”

My last “good year” beckons. I consider my physical loves: mountain-biking, hiking, paddling, and camping. These interests interweave into mountains, rivers, forests, grasslands, lakes. There will be a series of trips. Each will be an exploration, a contemplation, and a physical stretch. Most of all, these journeys will feed the medicine of memories.

 

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It Went Swimmingly

In 1964 the Phillies almost won the pennant. The Beatles
interrupted our love of doo-wop and oldies. And I lost a
monumental battle with my mother that turned out to be an epic
win for both. This doesn’t happen often when intransigent
factions go to battle.


This was also the first year that we didn’t summer over at Lake
Sunapee. To ease the transition and keep kids out of mom’s hair,
Dad acquired a membership to Brookside Swim Club. This was
essentially a country club without a golf course, tennis courts,
booze, food, and social hierarchy. It was a place where idle
children got into a bit of trouble and this was a growing problem.
My mother’s solution was enrollment for the swimming team.
There was no consultation.


There was a bitter standoff until dad was enlisted to her cause.
Battle over. At least he tried to apply reason. It didn’t help that
my brother Ken made fun of me. He called me a name that was
thrillingly inappropriate. At 16 he felt entitled to use language
like that.


The first day of practice was an awakening. Our coach was a
gentle soul who taught special ed. My Mom clearly had enlisted
him as a co-conspirator. His warm welcome was the tell. With
greetings out of the way, practice started. Within two minutes I
was puking in the locker room. Soon, a small legion of boys
joined me. Apparently, this was the norm for first day of
swimming.


I was placed in my age group of 12-year-olds. Most of them wore
racing suits multiple sizes too large. I was wearing denim-like
baggies that reached my knees. They held about 15 pounds of
water-weight. It was not a group that looked like future
Olympians.


Practice actually went well. With my stomach empty, I
hammered out the laps. It seemed to get easier for me while my
12-year-old brethren lagged further behind. I was discovering a
small, unknown gift.


After practice everyone hung around. I was surprised by the
attention of older swimmers. Even the girls praised my effort.
This was a completely new experience. For the first time in my
athletic experience I had a sense of belonging.

I also discovered another 12-year-old who was a phenomenal
swimmer. He was so good that he trained with the 17 and under
group. His name was Jimmy. He was not just a great swimmer.
Jimmy’s brother was a Green Beret and drove a Plymouth
Barracuda. In our world this was highest status.


Jimmy and I would form the backend of a very interesting
medley relay team. The kids leading off with backstroke and
breaststroke were reluctant, sluggish participants. By the time
Jimmy launched the butterfly leg the team would be a length of
the pool behind. By the time I hit the water the advantage would
be cut in half. The mission was clear.


As a 12 year old, I wasn’t very self-aware. I didn’t see myself as a
small kid gifted with power, endurance, and a bundle of
fast-twitch neurons. I just saw the water, the lane markers, and
the kid 10 yards ahead of me. It was better to be the hunter than
the hunted.


Swim meets could feel endless. Apparently, this erratic relay
team created a few moments of improbable drama. Parents and
swimmers would all be standing by the time Jimmy hit the water.
You could hear them screaming as he closed in on the wall. And
then I quit hearing anything at all.


Our coach described my swimming style as a moving splash.
Others said I looked like a madman chopping wood. Call it what
you will, it was pretty fast for a 12 year old. More often than not,
I caught that kid ahead of me. For just a moment I was a star.
This was an unexpected and unique experience. I believe that my
mom enjoyed it even more than me.

Now, I only dream of swimming. But the dream is reocurring. I swim in a lake of gin-clear water. My stroke is long, loose, and languid. No more wood chopping. And no hurry. It’s not a race, just a dream.

Manners Matter


My dear late mother was a stickler for decorum, manners,
and good form. This philosophy served her well. She was an
aspirational child of the Pennsylvania coal country. Later in life,
she punched well out of her social weight-class and traveled in
pretty lofty circles. She wished the same for her brood. For the
most part, the brood couldn’t have cared less. As with most
things regarding my mother–son relationship, this became a
battle of wills.


Rule number one, elbows off the table. Rule number two, thank
you notes will be sent within a week of receiving a gift. This
almost took the joy out of Christmas and birthdays. Naturally,
my rebellion took the form of a work-around.


Thank you notes were framed by a mental template. Here goes:
Dear Aunt Carol, thank you for the money. It will be saved for
college. It snowed last night but not very much. Did it snow by
your place in Brooklyn? I can’t wait until next Christmas when
you come to Pennsylvania again. Well, mom wants me to go to
bed. Goodbye, Love your favorite nephew, Ricky


Of course, I was seething and would’ve preferred writing:
Dear Aunt Carol, what the f***k can I do with a lousy dollar? Dad
says that you are so tight that you squeak when you walk. It
snowed last night. It was just enough to make snowballs. I hit a
bread truck and a police car. I hope that it snowed enough in
Brooklyn to cover the needles and dog crap. Mom hopes that you
don’t visit next Christmas. She says that all you do is complain..
Well, mom wants me to sign off . I can’t wait for next Christmas.
Maybe you’ll bring me a five-spot. It will be our little secret. I
won’t tell my brothers. Goodbye. Love your favorite nephew, Ricky

As I got older, these little white lies mutated to a variant form.
When picking up a date for a first time, a vanguard of parents
and younger siblings awaited. The father invariably would
inquire about my “folks”. This was code for, “are you worthy of
my daughter? I noticed that you pulled up in a six-year-old
station wagon.”


I would answer, “my mom is an artist and my dad works in
publishing in the city”. If you broke the code, the message was
“my mom is a bored housewife who takes painting lessons at the
YMCA. My dad sells advertising space by telling dirty jokes to
guys at three Martini lunches.”. To his credit, Dad didn’t drink.
But he sure sold lots of advertising space. And his jokes were
screamingly funny. You wouldn’t tell them today.


Lack of sincerity coupled with a nuanced approach to the truth
reduced my sense of genuine self. It was easier to create the
artifice than confront my true standing in relation to others.
This lack of self awareness was a growing problem. I was
becoming a world-class jerk.


Fundamentally, I had to relearn gratitude. Instead of, “what is in
it for me”; I had to comprehend the motivation behind the
offering. In most cases, it was simple goodness. The offerings of
others came from a place of generosity. Next, I had to discover
language that would convey appreciation. In the beginning I
would joke. Example: “Thanks for the nice sweater. It will be a
winner at Ugly Sweater Day.” You are correct, I was a complete
ass-hole. But at least I was trying.


Eventually, I learned that language matters. It would be just as
easy to say, “Thanks for the sweater. It looks warm and is a very
thoughtful gift.” There was no need to hide behind a wise-guy
persona. Just acknowledge the generosity behind the action. But
this is an act of vulnerability, a statement that others are needed
in my life. For some reason, this was a wide river to cross.


Fortunately, I have made that crossing. Aside from sneezing and
farting I am totally dependent on others. In other words, my
vulnerability is total. And my gratitude to for the support and
kindness of others is also total.


If Aunt Carol was alive now, I would say “I am glad that you
shared Christmas with us. It is a long trip from Brooklyn and the
subway and train rides must have been tough. There is no need
for a gift, I’m just glad you are here.”


I’m finally learning.

Grab a Syringe, it’s Time to Eat

I have a feeding tube sticking out of my mid-section. It might
be dinner, but it is not a dinner table topic. I only bring this up
because this device requires a bit of care. And like everything else
in my life, this chore falls Allison’s way.


I’m merely a passenger on the ALS excursion. Allison is the pilot,
ground crew, and flight attendant. It is not what she signed up
for back in ‘05. Imagine a wedding officiant who saw the future
with perfect clarity. “Do you, Allison, promise to love, cherish,
and obey, in sickness and in health… and by the way, deal with a
feeding tube?” Woulda been a short ceremony. But the keg of
Sam Adams would have been all mine.

And trust me, the feeding tube is easy when compared to other
things.

Bedtime includes: meds inserted into open mouth and taken
with thickened liquids; squeezing out toothpaste and measuring
mouthwash; cleaning out the resulting messy sink; placing
pillow “just so” behind my head; setting the pillow for my left
arm (don’t ask); rearranging my shirt collar; cushioning my feet
with sheepskin pads (once again, don’t ask); folding a down
comforter in half and wrapping me burrito style; plugging in my
power chair charger; and sealing the deal with a heartfelt
good-night kiss. At least once a week, something feels a bit
out-of-place. The reset button is pressed and the ritual is
repeated. Not a word of complaint. And another kiss.


That is just bedtime. The morning includes coffee-making,
breakfast, a snack for mid-day, feeding tube check, body wipe
down (there’s a pad for that), clothes changing (imagine a
squirming, helpless, 190 lb. infant), a shave, and a heartfelt kiss.
Then out the door, bound for work.


A couple of weeks ago, I committed myself to a “5-Ask Friday”. I
retired that plan about five minutes after Allison arose. There is a
tsunami of small requests in addition to the daily routines. I drop
things. And spill things. I choke on food, snot bubbles from my
nose, my shoulder itches, and my phone dies. It all calls for
attention. I am not as patient as I should be.

I can still feed myself. Somewhat. Allison feigns indifference
when I cough while eating. She pretends not to notice the spray
of food, or the galaxy of debris on my bib. The dogs notice and
post up expectedly, like a fifth wheel on my power chair. They
will be disappointed when all meals are tube fed. I will too when
that day comes. Food has been an enduring pleasure as other
enjoyments have fallen away. There is no zest to Nestle Nutrene.
It is just nourishment.

My power chair is a menacing beast. Just imagine a Skid-Steer
Bobcat without the bucket. Allison does not comment upon the
scuff marks, splintered woodwork, and broken door latches. For
now, I am self-propelled. One less burden.


We have a Ford Transit van with a wheelchair lift. It is a fussy
piece of gear. Allison is the lift whisperer. Once I wheel into
place, she stows the lift and hooks the four corners of the chair
to retracting straps. They hold me in place around curves or
during sudden braking. The process is reversed when we go to
the grocery store, the pharmacy, the liquor store…


During our motoring trips I offer many helpful driving tips. It
would be tempting for Allison to “forget” to clip me in at some
point. When I go into backseat driving mode, she could stand on
the brakes and turn me into rocket-man. For the price of a
windshield she could drive in peace. Who could blame her?

Allison and I have only one point of contention. (Two, if you
count Thai Fish Sauce.) That is optimal room temperature. She
prefers 55 degrees. Anything more causes her to resemble a mid-July parishioner in an Alabama Baptist church. Her favorite
show is found on the National Geographic Channel. It is “Life
Below Zero”.


I enjoy a more civilized 72 degrees. Even at that setting, blankets
and sheepskins keep me warm. Allison wraps me in a draft-proof
cocoon during evenings in front of the TV. It is relaxation time
for me while Allison multi-tasks with a few more chores. If I am
lucky, she is folding laundry. And if I am straight-flush lucky,
she is drying sheets and towels. They arrive in my lap hot out of
the dryer, sealed with a kiss.


It must be love.

You’ll Never Walk Alone


Since my earliest recorded history, I have been a sports nut. I
followed both college and professional sports and knew my stuff.
At the very pinnacle of my interest, I could recite lineups from
the World Series going back to the 1950’s. Madison Square
Garden had been a regular haunt. The same for Fenway Park,
Boston Garden, Connie Mack Stadium, Franklin Field, Shea
Stadium, and the Penn Palestra. I had even been to the Moose
Lodge in Trenton New Jersey to watch professional wrestling.
Bobo Brazil performed his famous coco-butt. There was a a
quantity of fake blood. We screamed our approval.

It was only natural that I became a bit loopy about my likes and
dislikes. I scorned golf, hated Texas football, and really loathed
soccer. My cadre of sports geeks felt the same way. No one could
believe that soccer was called football in Europe. That only added
to our disdain. As sports fans, we were ugly Americans.

In 1991, a work assignment took me to the UK. We were opening
a printing plant and I was the training director. The site was in
Bromborough, located in an industrial estate on the River
Mersey. It was just across the water from Liverpool. Yes, that
Liverpool.

On the first day, I met the “lads”. They were all from Liverpool
and didn’t speak English. At least not English that I understood.
But they laughed a lot and I sensed that I could work with them.
At the end of the day, we found our shared language in a nearby
pub.


Over pints, they defined themselves as “Scousers” and spoke in a
dialect unique to Liverpool. By paying attention, it became easier
to understand. Three pints helped. That seemed to be a linguistic
sweet spot. Understanding tapered off quickly from that point.
The lads were big fans of chatting, darts, and football. Less so of
working. Unfortunately, our printing presses were late to arrive.
We covered the basics of graphic arts, set up workstations, and
created our dart throwing area. The earnestness required for the
assignment began to wan. I was becoming a de facto Scouser.

Soccer was a topic of sharp disagreement. They argued for the
speed, finesse, tradition, and blood rivalries. I was unconvinced
but finally agreed to attend a match in Liverpool. They bribed me
with a steak and kidney pie and two points of Whitbread Ale.

On Thursday we received our pre-work. Chants and songs were
traditionally directed at the opposing sides. They changed based
on the opponent. These diddies were imaginative, vulgar, and
hilarious. I grew up a Philadelphia sports fan. Obscene taunts
were old hat.

This was the era of British soccer hooliganism. Getting to the
grounds required a military – type campaign. First, you had to
evade marauding fans of opposing team. An armored personnel
vehicle was in the center of each intersection. Pubs were closed
for miles around. Surprisingly, everyone was quite chipper. That
old Scouser mentality was on full display.


The stands were packed. Seats were incredibly narrow. It didn’t
matter, no one was going to sit. Fans from Coventry were packed
in and surrounded by yellow-jacketed bobbies. This was Yankees
– Red Sox on speed.


Suddenly, things quieted down and music started. It was The
Gerry and the Pacemakers song, “You Will Never Walk Alone”.
Immediately 50,000 voices joined. There was a pulsating ocean
of red banners, flags, and scarfs. No printed lyrics needed. It was
the anthem of Liverpool.


The match was extraordinary. I was surrounded by fans who
were knowledgeable, sober, and vociferous in their hatred for
Coventry. They sang, chanted, and cheered each Liverpool attack.
A missed opportunity evoked a collective moan. They were of a
single voice. Mine was included.


No one left after the final whistle. Players saluted the fans and
exchanged jerseys with the other team. I was struck by the
collective passion of fans, coaches, and players. The lads were
pleased. They had won a transatlantic battle.


A few days later I was at my local pub. Paddy, the innkeeper,
asked about the trip to the match. A number of patrons leaned in
to hear my response. I bought the house a round. How else could
I admit defeat in a room full of Scousers?


I have a new passion for Liverpool FC. They play brilliant football
and the action never stops. The fans chant, wave banners and
hurl taunts at the other side. They still never sit. They’re my
people and I do get a wee bit weepy when they sing our song.

Check it out: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Go-jJlGd1so

Walking the Plank


It might have been the perfect convergence of time and place
–1964 and Pennsylvania – that PE teaches allowed their charges
to beat the crap out of each other. It all took place within the
mayhem of a game called Bombardment.

The basic game was simple. Two teams of thirty 7th and
8th-grade boys confronted each other on a basketball court.
Around 20 under-inflated gym balls were divvied out. On the
whistle, we started hurtling balls at each other. Get hit and your
out. Catch a ball and a team mate could re-enter the game. We all
loved Bombardment.

Time out for a demographic note. There is a significant
biological difference between 14 year olds and 12 year olds. Some
of the older kids were grown fucking men. There was also a
dividing line between the athletes and the rest of us. In our Jr.
HS, wrestlers and football players were kings. These boys could
get away with anything. The PE teachers also coached football
and wrestling.

We also had a subgroup called the “hard guys”. They wore flashy
clothes featuring long shirt collars. These boys were older,
having been held back multiple times. They were just biding time
until they got a girl pregnant and grabbed a job tending a
blast-furnace at US Steel. We were in deathly fear.

Back to the game. Our gym teachers added a small wrinkle to the
rules. If you shot a basket on the opposing side, all the kids on
the bench were released. We called this a jail-break. But, not
easy. To make shot it was necessary to cross mid-court. This was
called “walking the plank”. Defenders could do anything to stop
you. Anything at all.

In Bombardment, I had a strategy called “hang back”. The balls
really hurt. By staying on the backline, thrown balls had lost
most of their steam. It was a strategy of self-preservation.
One day the strategy backfired. I was the last boy standing on my
side. All the balls had been expended by the other team. There
were 10 minutes left in the period. And the gym teachers didn’t
like me because I ran track. In their eyes, not a sport.

Some of my benched team mates were chanting, “walk the
fucking plank”. (Yes, this was allowed. They were wrestlers.) I
picked up a ball and started running. A wall of boys formed at
mid-court. I was going to die.

Just before the first boy landed a haymaker on my chest, I flung
the ball before going down beneath a wave of punches and kicks.
Soon, the wall started moving. It was a jailbreak. The ball went
in! A wild fracas ensued. Kids were fighting and scores were
being settled. The intensity levels even alarmed the PE teachers.
I watched it all from the backline. My safe spot.

Later that year, I hit puberty. I grew 7 inches and added 30
pounds. The PE teachers noticed. I pledged football for the
upcoming season. But I never had an athletic moment like the
day I walked the plank.

In Person Voting

There is a last time for everything. In my case, the list of “last time for ….” is a lot longer than the list, “I still can ….”.

Not that I am keeping track.

This is my last time voting in a national election. Why would I waste this grand ceremony in the anonymity of an absentee ballot? That would be too easy. And too dangerous for the nation.

In the last presidential election I was in Bloomington, Indiana and dutifully voted before I left. On election night, we gathered in an upscale watering hole to watch the returns. The race was surprisingly tight. Even in a liberal university town, there were many raucous cheers for the other candidate. My preferred candidate lost and I took full responsibility. Voting by absentee ballot put the big juju on Hilary Clinton. Yes, I am to blame.

This was not the first time a selfish decision caused widespread pain. I watched the Red Sox in both game six and seven of the 1986 World Series. They lost both potentially deciding games . It was the same for game seven in 1975. I resolved never to watch a deciding series game involving the Red Sox. And they won in 2004, 2007, 2013, and 2018. My TV was black each time. You are welcome, Sox fans.

The 2020 presidential election is a pretty big deal. Nevertheless, there was a big temptation to vote by absentee ballot. But this is my time for atonement. Allison showered me up, shaved me up, dressed me up, and loaded me up. Come to think of it, she even filled out my ballot. No sense leaving anything to chance. My fingers were a bit wobbly and my eyes a bit teary. But my vote counted. I certainly want no regrets about this one.

I hope Joe and Kamala thank me someday. They should thank Allison as well.

You’ll Never Walk Alone

Since my earliest recorded history, I have been a sports nut. I followed both college and professional sports and knew my stuff. At the very pinnacle of my interest, I could recite lineups from the World Series going back to the 1950’s. Madison Square Garden had been a regular haunt. The same for Fenway Park, Boston Garden, Connie Mack Stadium, Franklin Field, Shea Stadium, and the Penn Palestra. I had even been to the Moose Lodge in Trenton New Jersey to watch professional wrestling. Bobo Brazil performed his famous coco-butt. There was a a quantity of fake blood. We screamed our approval.

It was only natural that I became a bit loopy about my likes and dislikes. I scorned golf, hated Texas football, and really loathed soccer. My cadre of sports geeks felt the same way. No one could believe that soccer was called football in Europe. That only added to our disdain. As sports fans, we were ugly Americans.

In 1991, a work assignment took me to the UK. We were opening a printing plant and I was the training director. The site was in Bromborough, located in an industrial estate on the River Mersey. It was just across the water from Liverpool. Yes, that Liverpool.

On the first day, I met the “lads”. They were all from Liverpool and didn’t speak English. At least not English that I understood. But they laughed a lot and I sensed that I could work with them. At the end of the day, we found our shared language in a nearby pub.

Over pints, they defined themselves as “Scousers” and spoke in a dialect unique to Liverpool. By paying attention, it became easier to understand. Three pints helped. That seemed to be a linguistic sweet spot. Understanding tapered off quickly from that point.

The lads were big fans of chatting, darts, and football. Less so of working. Unfortunately, our printing presses were late to arrive. We covered the basics of graphic arts, set up workstations, and created our dart throwing area. The earnestness required for the assignment began to wan. I was becoming a de facto Scouser.

Soccer was a topic of sharp disagreement. They argued for the speed, finesse, tradition, and blood rivalries. I was unconvinced but finally agreed to attend a match in Liverpool. They bribed me with a steak and kidney pie and two points of Whitbread Ale.

On Thursday we received our pre-work. Chants and songs were traditionally directed at the opposing sides. They changed based on the opponent. These diddies were imaginative, vulgar, and hilarious. I grew up a Philadelphia sports fan. Obscene taunts were old hat.

This was the era of British soccer hooliganism. Getting to the grounds required a military – type campaign. First, you had to evade marauding fans from the of opposing team. An armored personnel vehicle was in the center of each intersection. Pubs were closed for miles around. Surprisingly, everyone was quite chipper. That old Scouser mentality was on full display.

The stands were packed. Seats were incredibly narrow. It didn’t matter, no one was going to sit. Fans from Coventry were packed in and surrounded by yellow-jacketed bobbies. This was Yankees – Red Sox on speed.

Suddenly, things quieted down and music started. It was The Gerry and the Pacemakers song, “You Will Never Walk Alone”. Immediately 50,000 invoices joined. There was a pulsating ocean of red banners, flags, and scarfs. No printed lyrics needed. It was the anthem of Liverpool.

The match was extraordinary. I was surrounded by fans who were knowledgeable, sober, and vociferous in their hatred for Coventry. They sang, chanted, and cheered each Liverpool attack. A missed opportunity evoked a collective moan. They were of a single voice. Mine was included.

No one left after the final whistle. Players saluted the fans and exchanged jerseys with the other team. I was struck by the collective passion of fans, coaches, and players. The lads were pleased. They had won a transatlantic battle.

A few days later I was at my local pub. Paddy, the innkeeper, asked about the trip to the match. A number of patrons leaned in to hear my response. I bought the house a round. How else could I admit defeat in a room full of Scousers?

I have a new passion for Liverpool FC. They play brilliant football and the action never stops. The fans chant, wave banners and hurl taunts at the other side. They still never sit. They’re my people and I do get a wee bit weepy when they sing our song.

I wish the lads could see me now.

Copy and paste in your browser: https://video.search.yahoo.com/yhs/search?fr=yhs-domaindev-st_emea&hsimp=yhs-st_emea&hspart=domaindev&p=you%27ll+never+walk+alone+liverpool+fc#id=1&vid=413d3f4ff24451314b2744dbc1d23ed4&action=click

2 – Wheel Drive

Our 21st birthday is considered a red-letter event. It is alleged to be the transitional pause in the continuum of child to adult. Memories of my twenty-first birthday included an abscessed tooth and a hangover. But 21 reversed becomes 12. That was my red-letter year. As with everything regarding my childhood, perspective is required.

For starters, I transitioned from the Hardy Boys to John Steinbeck, held hands with a girl, and entered an uncomfortable relationship with puberty. A ferocious bad temper finally became an asset. I started at linebacker on a midget football team. It was the dawn of political awareness. I rocked a Barry Goldwater button for several weeks after his crushing defeat to LBJ. Politics or sports; I knew how to support a loser.

This was the year that I became a true bicyclist. It started with a trip to a bicycle shop in Trenton, New Jersey. I picked out a black Schwinn Typhoon. My father peeled 26 bucks from his ever-present wad of cash and the bike was mine. It had balloon tires and coaster brakes. (My brother Ken had an English 3-speed. I didn’t care. He was always more sophisticated.) The Typhoon was perfect for me. It was durable and could accommodate a basket. It was my freedom machine.

I rode everywhere. It was a 7 1/2 mile round-trip to Brookside Swim Club. I made that trip at least twice a day. A McDonald’s opened nearby. Burgers were $0.15. Living large took a buck. And I was flush with money due to the hardest job I ever had. With my Schwinn, I became a paperboy. My route was a winding 5 mile circuit. It was not easy. In the winter, the sun set at 5 o’clock. I normally got home at 6 o’clock. That is one hour in the darkness at rush hour. No lights, no helmet, and no parent driver. How did I survive?

For high school graduation I received a Schwinn Varsity 10-speed. This was my commuter bike. I had a life-guarding gig several towns away. It was a 15 mile round-trip in heavy suburban traffic. I road like a maniac. Eighteen-year-olds ride with a sense of immortality.

At age 35, the triathlon bug grabbed hold. I was back on the bike, this time peddling with a mindless sense of purpose. Once again, I rode everywhere. Back-and-forth to work, training rides over local hilltops, and to secluded ponds for a swim. After a mile in the water it was back on the bike. For all the speed and purpose something was lacking. The pure joy from the Typhoon days was absent.

Somewhere around 1990, mountain biking hit the scene. I was on fat tires once again. This was a return to boyhood. Trails were discovered and mud holes were tested. With 21 speeds, no hill was unassailable. The sport required bloodletting, bike-breaking and getting lost. It fit my spirit.

No…. It redefined my spirit.

I entered my first race in 1998. I won the novice class. Within a few years, racing started taking over my life. I was pretty successful racing against other older fellows. It was during an ambulance ride that a realization of identity emerged. First and foremost, I was a cyclist. The ambulance trip was attributable to a heart attack. The identity realization was fleeting.

Riding took a mellower form. Mastering technical rock piles, slimy roots, and tight trails were forms of expression. Buying new gear was part of the same game.

Then I started falling.

Suddenly, muscles didn’t have the old giddy-up. Now I was landing on the rock piles I used to clear. It was a mystery until it wasn’t. I had ALS. My immune system was attacking my motor-neurons with the same intensity that I attacked hills. But the nasty fuckers were relentless.

Biking remained my salvation. Nimble, high-tech machines were traded for stable riding “fatties”. Allison and I rode the Northeast Kingdom. My friend Tim and I went on an epic bike-camping trip in Vermont. My grandson Wyatt and I camped and rode around Glacier Park. I left my bike behind when I headed back east. It was over.

1964 – 2017. RIP, bicycling.

But, hey. My wheel chair is pretty agile. I still have some moves.

I Wasn’t Expecting That

About 1983… Our modest home was on a street of modest homes. The street was short and steep. It crested just past the home of our neighbor, Mr. Fish. Beyond that, homes were newer and Laurel street became Winter St. One side of the hill (ours) was working class. The other side was middle class.

Our larger neighborhood was defined by steep hills and ravines. There was a hodgepodge of streets. Some terminated suddenly while others fed into main roads. The elementary school was about half a mile away. Navigation skill and sweat equity were required to reach the school. In this era, neighborhood kids were expected to walk to school.

Our daughter Lyndsay was six years old. It is an age where kids start to assert some independence. Lyndsay was pretty far advanced on that spectrum. This wasn’t by choice, she lived in a household defined by the frenetic schedules of working parents. And, admittedly, my parenting style was defined by the phrase “benign neglect”. (In my defense, my mom’s parenting style would be labeled “complete neglect”.)

It is late August and Lyndsay is being readied for the start of her schooling. There are a few new outfits that don’t include Oshkosh overalls. And of course there is an oversized backpack. The biggest challenge is prepping the walk to school. We practice this a couple of times, emphasizing safety and key landmarks. Then we anxiously await. Naturally, there is some concern about the walking commute.

The first day arrives. All over town parents take the morning off. Lyndsay is dressed and on deck early. She patiently allows her mom to wage war on her tangled hair. Her Strawberry Shortcake lunchbox is packed. It is swallowed up inside her massive backpack. All is ready.

Together, we navigate the front steps. We walk together up the steep hill and both parents pause in the shade of our lovely maple tree. This is the release point. Lindsay keeps walking and crests the hill in front of Mr. Fish’s house. She quickly disappears without a backward glance or wave. I wasn’t expecting that.

About 1985…. In a perfect world I would’ve been a baseball catcher. Catchers had the coolest gear, wore their hat backwards, and often were covered with dirt. They gabbed casually with other players and it didn’t matter if they were so-so hitters. This dream expired by the age of 12.

By the age of 30 I reconciled my athletic shortcomings. But I could still imagine. One day I was in a catchers crouch in our weedy backyard. Our six-year-old son Nolan was on the pitcher’s mound (imaginary). It was our opening day. There was a bit of snow in shaded corners but the grass was already an improbable green.

I may have sucked at baseball but I embraced its chatter. It was my duty as catcher to irritate the batter (imaginary) and bolster my pitcher. I chanted, “no-hitter, no-hitter, no-hitter”. Nolan started a rather elaborate wind-up. I framed the strike zone with my glove and awaited the pitch.

Play-by-play announcers have many ways of describing a batter fooled by a pitch. My favorite, “he was expecting the local but got the express”. In normal language: the hitter was overwhelmed by the velocity of the pitch. This can happen to backyard catchers as well. The ball arrived with stunning suddenness and landed with a THWACK. The glove didn’t move a millimeter. The umpire (imaginary) paused before shouting, “s-t-t-r-r-i -k -e!”

I was not gifted with baseball talent but knew it when I saw it. Without rising from my crouch, I flipped the ball back to the pitcher. The next five pitches landed in the exact same spot. I wasn’t expecting that.

The signals were pretty clear. My children were on a journey far different than my own. As a child of low aspiration it was easy to edge up to the low expectations of others. Their trajectory would blaze a higher arc. And this required a reconsideration of my parental trajectory. I would have to advance my talents athletically, academically, and socially to support, coach, and lead. Ultimately, I would be reaching my own modest potential by riding along on their bright journeys. I wasn’t expecting that.

Rebel Without a Cause

Oh boy, my mom had some crazy stories about me as a young child. I chose to view these tales as exaggerations or half-truths. After all, I didn’t own a “way-back machine*”. There were only my unreliable memories. So it is impossible to confirm the veracity of her accounts due to a lack of credible witnesses. But isn’t that what makes family lore and legend so provocative?

But I endeavor to know myself and believe life experience shapes identity and behavior. This is counterbalanced by another belief that behavior and identity are also designed into our factory wiring. It is the innate force that arrives alongside our screaming entrance into this world. Call it personality, if you wish.

Mom’s stories started to make sense when viewed through the lens of current understanding. Perhaps these erratic behaviors foreshadowed lifetime patterns. From this perspective, my mom might have been telling some truth. It is not always pretty and the journey of self-exploration does contain some hazards. From a meta-cognitive perspective this mess is the symbolic leftovers of our personal sausage-making.

According to mom, I was off the scale with willfulness. I was also completely nonverbal. Logic, reasoning, and threats were off the table. The poor woman had to either pull me toward, or from, what I was supposed to be doing/not doing. At home this was tedious. In public it was embarrassing. This was the era when Dr. Spock preached reasoning and understanding. Dragging a silent, writhing kid around a department store was bad form. It was definitely in violation of Spock’s gentle edicts.

It turns out that independence – seeking is one of my core values. This set off a power struggle between two epic wills. Neither side could make a case because one participant was nonverbal. Dialogue and argument were removed from the equation. This interferes with the all the rules, written or unwritten, upholding the parent-child compact.

Essentially, I was rebelling. Setting my heels was one form of expression. Another was “acting out”. I was a breaker of things, a hitter, a biter, and a surly observer of our family life. No one could unlock the code. On the spectrum of misbehavior, I was well past the classification of “little rascal”. It was no surprise that affection and attention were not showered upon me. I remained silent.

It kind of worked out. Being independent also meant being an outlier. Just enough people found this intriguing. Eventually little communities of like-minded people would gather. Ideas about books, society, and nature were exchanged. This fostered a form of thinking that placed a high value on independence. It opened up a whole systems perspective. Some people even thought I was smart.

I could think big. But I still didn’t like being told what to do. Essential connection with others never quite bonded. This led me to wonder whether my best life was the one playing out inside my head. Here, Ideas were rich and language was vivid. Somewhere between Neo-cortex and mouth it was all reduced. Perhaps I should have been a lighthouse keeper.

Listening to the river outside the window, I can marvel at the strange symmetry of life. Once again, I am becoming mute. At least I understand why. My never-ending quest for independence is taking a strange turn. Living 24/7 In a wheelchair creates a heavy independence on others. Is not the path I would’ve chosen. But it is the path that I am on.

My life will once again be internal. The jagged edges are finally coming together and I am ready to transition into the quiet. It would be great to share all this with my mom. She didn’t need Dr. Spock after all. I just needed to figure a few things out.

(*) this is an obscure reference to the greatest show ever: “The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show”. A leading character, a brainy dog named Mr. Sherman, traveled through time on his “way-back machine”. You probably had to be there.