A Realization

April 26, 2019  At some point, all men have the, “oh my God, I’m becoming just like my father” experience. This was always a reach for me as my dad was a handsome, assertive, gregarious, big-boned fella. He brimmed with confidence and thrived on the attention that he catalyzed. Compared to me, a real stretch on all counts.

Dad lived to 90 and his last couple years were not easy for those around him. He was an only child and the product of the male-centric 40s and 50s. Demanding shit was simply a cultural reflex, as natural as breathing. And it seemingly occurred as often. I was frequently the demandee.

It was tough to observe his physical decline. He became both skeletal and bloated at the same time. Rapid movement was never his forte. But now, in decline, every movement became ponderous.  As his reluctant hand servant, my patience was tested. Inner dialog skewed towards: “Damn, I don’t have all day”. “Com’n lift your feet”. “Geez, you can’t open a storm window?”

And justice is served once again. Now I’m the human glacier. Muscles recede and bones become prominent. Feet swell and take on strange hues.  It is easier to shiver then get to my feet and close a window.  I’m light on the spiritual divide but awake to the possibilities of divine retribution. What goes around, comes around. It feels like a flock of crows pecking at my unworthy soul.  I could have been nicer.

Yeah, I’ve evolved. At 66 years old I’m comparable to my father at 90. Turning into my dad is not all bad. He maintained his high good humor. And he was courageous in confronting endings. His rearview mirror focused on a life lived well. There was nothing but high notes.  He was always optimistic while assessing his covey of very average children. We were viewed through a prism of notable achievement.  And he loved his wife, our mother, dearly and without reservation. He used this anchor point to navigate painful currents. And most of all, no regrets.

Alright then, turning into my dad might just work out. Ultimately, he was simply a nice guy – the bringer of jokes, the provider of a good word, and completely in love with those around him. Perhaps I can flip the script. It is not too late to navigate by the compass points of grace, kindness, optimism, and humor. I might even learn to ask for a little help.

Walkin’

Jan. 28, 2019  In baseball, I was the walk master, a profane runt with an oversized uniform held up with safety pins. The coach’s pack of Chesterfields was larger than my strike zone. My strategy was simple. Grip the oversized Eddie Matthews bat, crouch down and wait for the inevitable walk. My teammates would be chanting, “walks as good as it hit, walks as good as it hit”. The opposition would scream, “Swing batter batter, batter, batter, batter. Swing batterbatterbatterbatter”. They got into it. I once heard an opposing coach say “swing the fucking bat”. I didn’t care. A free pass got me on base where I could antagonize all the infielders as I scuffled around to eventually score.

I started walking sometime in 1953. My mother was understated with the accolades. There weren’t miniature caps, gowns and Instagrams in those days. Mom realized that my mobility was not a good thing for her household.

I walked everywhere. We lived on a looping drive. Neighbors were visited on a candy begging route. There was a small commerce strip nearby. By six years old I was nicking quarters and heading over to the Mario’s Bakery for crème doughnuts.   At 4:00 one morning, I walked to the A&P store and stole a watermelon from the pile kept outside.  Just a 10-year-old lugging a stolen melon in the dawning of the day.

I ran away at eleven. Actually, I walked away. With my mom’s oversight, I loaded a small suitcase with some socks. I walked into the woods, sat on the suitcase and waited to be retrieved. Darkness arrived and I walked home. There was no warm welcome.

I walked to Trenton, New Jersey to buy a pair of Converse All-Stars when I was twelve. Ten miles round-trip through neighborhoods where you only dared look at the gum stuck to the sidewalk. Why ask permission when you can just give yourself a free pass?

Life has been defined by great walks. I walked the Grand Canyon to the Colorado River four times. I walked down the aisle with Allison and I would do it again every day. On a frigid January weekend, I walked up Mount Jefferson with my friend Tim. The ice was thick and blue, dotted with scarlet bits of moss. We used crampons and ice axes for grip and stability. Walking on steep ice was the most improbable and liberating experience of my life.

When my car wouldn’t start I walked. When I was troubled or angry I walked. When snow fell like a hissing blanket I walked. I walked with backpacks, suitcases, and torn shopping bags. I once walked a mile across a sagebrush flat with three 10 foot sections of drilling rod on my shoulder. Gnats bombed my face and filled my ears and nostrils. I never put that hot iron down.

I’m walking less. And it’s not really walking. It’s a hybrid, clawing at chairs and countertops; leaning on walls; and holding on for dear life.  I refer to my walker as “the trusty steed”, like I’m the fucking Lone Ranger.  Others have a three drink limit. I have a three step limit. Assistance is needed beyond that. Within four weeks it will be zero steps. I just know these things. But I have walked enough and seen enough to have little regret. I’m kinda glad I never swung at the pitch. A walk’s as good as a hit.

Dogs and Baseball Heroes Die Too Soon

Nov. 28, 2018  My older brother, normally mean-spirited in the older sibling sort of way, once let me wear his Milwaukee Braves hat. In the style of the day, it had baseball cards stiffening the crown. The bill was folded into a box-like configuration. The older brother wasn’t much of a ballplayer but was particular about style. For a seven-year-old boy, living in a world where baseball was the one and only king, I had an immediate affiliation with the Braves. The wearing of the hat connected me to the world of Spahn, Aaron, Mathews, and Adcock.

Back then, baseball danced across three mediums, radio, television, and imagination. And within our family’s modest lifestyle, television was notably bad. Still, powerful memories formed. Maz circling the bases after hitting the home run that beat the Yankees in 1960. Willie McCovey coming oh-so-close to beating the hated Yankees in the 1962 series. Even in defeat, McCovey was an early hero. Perhaps it was the nickname, “Stretch”. It helped that he also hit a lot of home runs and was generally pictured with Willie Mays. It seemed as though nicknames of this era inspired a level of sub-visual stickiness. You can visualize “Stretch”, “Hammerin’ Hank”, or “Stan the Man”. These pictures were plausible pieces of real estate in a kid’s mind.

In the realm of heroes, much of the messaging was locally controlled. Our knowledge was built from baseball cards, box scores from The Trenton Times, and the arguments of young boys. Celebrity dating, growth hormones, contract disputes, and advanced statistics were not part of the conversation. Our love was pure. There was nothing that could over-ride our imagery.

In life, reality and imagination never really square. The actuarial tables rule with an iron fist and ballplayers age and pass. And so, Willie “Stretch” McCovey died this week. This ignites a contemplation. Is it the passing of the person or the reconnection to the long-dormant memory that force the pause? Perhaps I block the memories of my pre-ALS self. There was a time when I ran, caught, threw, and hit. And in my eleven-year-old mind, I could scoop the low throw just like Stretch McCovey. But I could never hit the long ball. That was the province of heroes. Nov. 1, 2018

“God Bless You”, Sayeth the Agnostic

Oct 13, 2018   The issue of faith has never occupied much mind share, so I guess that makes me faith-agnostic. There was a period of explorations. I tried to engage our hippie youth minister. He seemed more drawn to other teens, the ones with unruly braided hair, frayed bell-bottoms, and strident views about Viet Nam.  I had a collection stoner friends.  We would debate the issue while checking out girls at the beach. (I was a dedicated beer guy, not a stoner.) It was 1969. This discussion co-mingled with the Mets chasing the Cubs and girls not shaving their legs.

The decades pass and I have rumbled along without many contemplations of faith. I recognize the importance of faith to many and am somewhat envious. I’ve even attended a couple of Catholic masses with Allison. The warmth and togetherness was compelling as were the many Catholic rituals. But for me, the foundational piece was missing. Questions were unanswered and evidence was unconvincing.

And now on my journey, I have arrived in Kearney, Nebraska, the exact center of an imaginary string stretching from Boston to San Francisco. It is the heart of the heartland and Nebraskans take issues of the heart very seriously. If you can ignore the wind, this is the place to hobble the landscape with a disability. There is unimaginable kindness and awareness that cuts across all demographics. In Omaha, a Muslim woman in a hajib put down her infant to pick up my cane.  In Grand Island, a burly farm guy moves his mud-spattered truck. He did the calculus and knew my door wouldn’t open enough. The helping hand is always extended. Doors are opened, rental cars delivered, unruly collars adjusted, coffee and cake magically appear. It is a pervasive thoughtfulness that has attained the status of “a blessing”.

Perhaps I got into this spirit. In thanks to the kindness of a shuttle driver I blurted a “God bless you”. The world didn’t stop spinning but I paused in contemplation. “Did I just say that?” And this renews the conversation of faith. Is it hypercritical or unfair to toss around the blessing without having done all of the Christian work? And if God exists, what would he think? Is there a rulebook guiding these behaviors? Faith apparently comes in many flavors and we get to decide. But ultimately, if we receive the blessing of kindness we should have faith in the goodness of humanity. Oct. 13, 2018

Hey, Let Me In

Oct. 11, 2018  Who the hell thinks twice about doorways, those planks of steel, wood, or glass that open in front of us and then seal us off from whatever it is we’ve left behind? Anthropologically, doorways represented safety, barriers to beasts and being intent on harm. Spiritually, Doorways also represent passages, the movement from one state of being to another. Setting all that aside, I have a fucking complaint about doorways. They are designed for the able-bodied. The physics of turning the knob or pushing a bar and then overcoming the weighted inertia of a hinged barrier is largely taken for granted – unless you have destabilized to the point that you are tossed aside by a fair breeze.

Nowhere is this challenge more pronounced than in hotels. Doors are designed as barriers to thugs, fire, and disabled guests. Start with weight. Doors are steel, perhaps concrete filled and hinged to close swiftly and firmly. And they have massive hydraulic closers. Let the Commies drop the big one. You’re safe in the Marriott Courtyard.

Here is the drill. I drop all the shit that I’m carrying and use my dysfunctional hand to insert the key card and hope the various little lights blink green. I slowly turn the densely weighted handle, and lean hard. With luck, I’m halfway in. I quickly toss the key into the room to sustain forward progress. Both hands are needed to deal with all that stuff that I set down during process step number one. With ass wedged against the door, I lean down, grab bags and toss them into the room. But the nasty secret of doors is that back-swing is the true enemy. By now the 300-pound door has ejected me back into the hallway. The key is in the room. Fortunately, I have the walker and can go back to the lobby for another key.

Being in the lobby confers small entitlements. Rewarded with a large box of M&Ms and Strawberry Pop-Tarts, I cycle back to the room and go through the process once more. Door open. Back in with the walker. I wonder; will the door crush the walker as it closes? Lost in this concern, I trip over that bag tossed in thirty minutes earlier. At least I am in the room. And there are no witnesses. Relatively speaking, it’s all pretty good.

And I am in a well-appointed room with unlimited BTUs. I can be warm, safe, and comfortable. I can go to bed as early as I like. And I have a box of M&Ms. I busy myself with small tasks until a decent bedtime hour arrives.  8 o’clock is rest time. I Lay my head on the pillow, offer my nightly incantations to my beloved Allison and journey into the restful fog.

I awake with a start. The room is way too bright. The door is ringed with light. I’m talking “my Lord Jesus is comin’ for me” light. How is such a powerful barrier to people so poorly sealed to light? Fortunately, there are six pillows on the bed and I only need one. I use five pillows, three towels, and a down vest to knock down this crazy light. The effort interrupts my sleep to the extent that I now waste part of the evening writing this foolish blog.

But I don’t have large regrets. I choose this journey and put myself out there to do work that I love. Doorways represent challenge, a small test for a guy that used to run mountains and swim lakes. Someday soon, when I’m confined to small spaces there will be a light remembrance of landing on my ass in room 306 at the Courtyard in Lincoln Nebraska. It will bring a smile.

Take-Offs and Landings

Sept. 18, 2018  I am not a “road warrior”, that troupe of sour-faced travelers who board first, feed like piranhas on bin space, and obsess over costly headsets. I occupy the next lower level, keeping my head down and hopes high. Realistically, I am just a stumbling, lumpen package hoping for passage through the storm. But I am observant and have accrued millions of opinion points. And the journey down my particular rabbit-hole sharpens the eye. Both hassles and conveniences are radically enlarged.

I like Southwest Airlines. There is no caste system. I receive kindly treatment by all. Pilots go down to the tarmac to retrieve my walker. Flight attendants generally comp my beer. Gate agents smile and chat. Sadly, Southwest’s rivers of passengers and rapid gate turnover has ghettoized its concourses. Midway is the worst. Lines for toilets, lines for food, lines for services. My modest life goal, don’t die in Midway Airport. I imagine the medical examiner waiting in line to process my fermenting carcass.

Sorry to say, Omaha Airport is second world. Blimpies and Taco Bell Express are the high-notes for food. The TSA seem to feel they are guarding the US Consulate in Baghdad. My privates have been caressed more in Omaha than during my singles years in Colorado. Where else but Omaha is there a random screening while in the boarding line? There is good news. It does have a fine bookstore. Nebraskans are engagingly courteous. And the TSA guy gave me a good-humored wink

I wonder if there is a government standard for escalator pitch. Approaching a down escalator, I see the horizon slip away. Do these devices have a safety auto-stop? Are fallen riders turned to ground chuck at the bottom? How does that descending woman carry a child, diaper bag, a large coffee? Whoa! Is she also talking on her phone? These are the questions as I seek an elevator.

The Vladimir Putin award for Insidious Degradation of American Comfort (IDAC) goes to the airline peanut bag industry.  Fifteen peanuts encased in weaponized Mylar, sealed with aircraft grade epoxy. This is a perfect storm for a starving passenger with one useful hand. I’m not alone. The burly guy with the Harley shirt flings his bag to the floor. Delusional with hunger, I notice the fasten seat belt light. Is it a coded message saying “good luck with those fucking peanuts”?

Hands down, Indianapolis is the best travel experience. Wonderful airport, funny shuttle drivers, and nice sidewalks. Rest rooms are best of all. The paper towel machine dispenses the ideal length of towel in a single cycle. (Little things matter when home is all you think about.) And that ignites the big question – when will that engineer tackle the great peanut bag challenge?

A New Set of Wheels

Sept. 1, 2018    A few weeks back, I attained the grand slam of falls, going left, right, forwards, and backwards. My fiercely serious PT wasn’t amused by this story and dimed me to the neurologist. The call to Hanover was taken by the equally serious Neurology Assistant. The Doctor and I might have shared some winks, nods, and chuckles. These two felt empowered to prescribe a walker. A Rubicon is being crossed.  My view: walkers are piloted by the old, the unfit, and the unresolved. In other words, not for me.

The fiercely persistent PT set me up with a house walker. I felt silly, standing there while receiving two minutes of instruction. How hard can this be? For my first journey, I traversed the busy rehab center, maneuvering around patients, equipment, and watchful therapists. I avoided the many mirrors. It was strange to feel safe, upright, and stable. I realized that every lurching step, even with the cane, is an effort focused more on staying on my feet than reaching a destination. The walker solved the problem of safety but incubated a plague of resistant pride.

Midway Airport presented the antidote. My flight arrived at Gate A-16 and I had to connect at B-18. This a long journey. Everyone had a full measure of hurry-up. The river of travelers  parted around me as though I was a stump lodged in a river. I felt vulnerable, urging myself to go faster than I should. My shoulder bag, light when I packed it, banged persistently into my cane and knocked me off stride. Its weight pinged my hips, back, and knees. That walker would be pretty nice right now.  I’m in.

At the medical supply store I got hooked up with my Rollator. (It’s not simply a walker.) While they carved through a forest of paperwork I checked out the other offerings: straddle stools, canes, wheel chairs, support hose, braces. Yup, this my world. Give me one of everything. For now, hold the bed pan.

With the walker jammed in the back of the Golf I plotted my maiden voyage. Somewhere smooth, flat and without judgement. I headed to Wal-Mart. I maneuvered through the aisles nodding to folks in electric carts and wheelchairs while offering a knowing wave to fellow Rollator pilots. I’m amongst my people, the dinged, damaged and infirm. This is a pretty big club at Wal-Mart in Keene NH. And many of these folks weren’t shopping. They were simply in a comfortable place without judgement. Aisle 35 looked to be their farthest horizon. But this script can be flipped. The wide, spinning world can be navigated without judgement if you choose to see it that way. With my Rollerator and a new resolve I’m ready for this larger place. Thanks, Wal-Mart. That was just a fling, I’m moving on. Midway, I’m coming for you.