“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.

Hey Tim, Let’s Grab a Beer

(This is a look back to September, 2017. Clearly, not a reflection on current activities. Alas….)

As a beer guy, no hops-quest can be too obscure or time-consuming. Naturally, an article labeled the “Napa Valley of Beer” screamed for attention. These brewers were clustered in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont. (More screaming) At the same time, an inventive soul mapped a brewery route that became known as the Vermont Gravel Growler Tour. The convergence was too perfect. Add Tim to the mix and a plan spins up.

Day OneWhen you are out of Schlitz… In Montpelier, I mount up and attempt to roll. It is easy to think of Charles Lindberg watching the end of the runway while coaxing his overloaded plane into the air. Meanwhile, Tim’s carbon fiber bike seems to lift off with ease.

I quickly convince Tim to stay on the main road for the first leg of the trip. The only hills are bridges over I-89. This is shaping up to be a great trip. The rain is holding off. We are making good time and our first beer awaits. We arrived at Prohibition Pig, a great stop in the Town of Waterbury.

Now fortified with Schlitz, (really!) and smoky chili, we head for the Little River Campground and scored a lakefront lean-to. Better yet, there are modern washrooms and hot showers. Let it rain. We were warm, relatively dry and supplied with good local beers. In total, a portentous start.

Day Two – A pattern emerges – How quickly the ledger shifts. The climb out of Little River hit 20%, way beyond rideable. I pushed and tugged over a series of wet climbs. After a couple of false summits, we hit the top and rode a ridgeline. Now the trail  was bisected by surging waterfalls, arched by deep forest and ended with miles of downhill on well-tended gravel. Tough but satisfying. We got back on pavement with slight bits of blue overhead and our Brewery just minutes away. Alas, the brewery (nameless) was a letdown. Tim and I were of equal thought. Let’s move on.

Once again, Tim graciously changed the route to bypass more climbs and stay on pavement. By 6:00 I was sipping my new favorite beer, Mosaic IPA, at the Lost Nation Brewery. A beer garden was attached to the brewery. Great beer, cool servers, blasting music, fine burgers. This is fitting into the holy grail. Our evening rest was dry and warm, at a roadside motel less than a mile from Lost Nation. Our bikes and camping gear fitted nicely in our snug room. Sodden gear was dried and Ben & Jerry provided the bedtime snack.

Day Three – The hills before Hill Farmstead – In Vermont the word “hill” inserted into a road name has an understated, yet ominous meaning. Today’s ride has about ten roads with the “H” word. Still, good cheer all around at the start of the first climb.

By the second climb, good cheer evaporates. Fortunately, the humid, foggy weather also dissipates. The transition to decent weather forestalls the deterioration of my personal climate. By climb four I am toast. The rest of the world is taking a morning coffee break. I’m in the realm of lost hope.

We approach Craftsbury with another ridge looming. There is good news. According to Tim, there is a tunnel ahead. (Wow, I got snookered.) And the countryside is Vermont lovely. A stop at the Craftsbury General Store reminds me that community is centered around these wobbly, never-in-a hurry, creaky floored, paint-peeled, crammed to the gills markets. Great food is prepared, local guys in Carharts offer advice, and the sun burst through. Bring it. I am renewed.

A mile from Craftsbury, on Ketchum Hill Road, I crack. The next 5 hills are pushes. There is a formula. At about 12% gradient I can longer overcome gravity clutching at the over-loaded bike. I push. At about 16%, I step out of my wet shoes. Contemplations while pushing:

  1. These roads are gravel because paving equipment couldn’t work these steeps
  2. That fuckin’ Tim is in much better shape than me. Where did he go?
  3. Do I really need all this shit in my panniers?
  4. It is possible that I might die here

And so on…

I catch up to Tim at the top of yet another hill. The sun slants across a row of ridges. Corn is growing into the road’s shoulder. Grazing cows are uninterested by bicycles. Tim announces one mile to Hill Farmstead. It is downhill. How quickly the tide reverses. I’m all in. In fifteen minutes, I’m in the sample room. Hill delivers. The beer exceeds expectation. This is the authentic Vermont brewery experience. The brew house is modern but in its original location. The brewers are flannelled and bearded and samples are free. (And dispensed by smiling women, also in flannel) Yes, the end to a perfect day.

Day Four – Capitulation and triumph – Tim kindly modifies the route. Again. We ride the final thirty-six miles on pavement. This route is north to south. My heart wanted the gravel. My brain said pavement. We churned through the miles. After bumping through the commercial clutter of East Montpelier the car came into sight. I looked for the girl holding my yellow jersey.

Day Five – The post-mortem – I previewed maps and elevation profiles. And I even gave my bike a quick tune-up the night before departure. (When my front derailleur wouldn’t shift while approaching an epic headwall, Tim reminded me of “the cardinal rule”. Always shake down your adjustments. I added another cardinal rule. Know your limits.)

You don’t always see the root of a problem. Like a gathering storm, a problem picks up energy while its future victim goes about his business. The energy is fed by bad decisions. Start with baseless optimism (again). Continue with under training. Close the deal with overloading.

It is easy to be cavalier on a thirty mile training ride. I set the trap of “I got this” while conquering our local hills on an unloaded bike. I missed the real truth. This trip was a reach. I now see it differently. Faulty neurology has bonded around a new set of safer ideals. And I owe my cheerful, accommodating friend a great big solid. Sadly, it won’t be on a bike. But Tim will always grab a beer.


Our Outback

July 14, 2018   We live on 3/4 of an acre, a postage stamp in this forested, rural corner of NH. Still, the land is interesting, falling away about a dozen feet, front to back. A fine little brook flows through brush and fern. Alders throw their wet feet into a marshy spot. The lot was overgrown with the good intentions of a previous owner. Tangles of beach rose and barberry choked a slope. Hundreds of small stones were placed in a mysterious labyrinth.  Weedy pines spread deep shade. There was more moss than grass. It was a mess. And a mess of possibilities.

The labyrinth seemed weird. We were on full alert while peeling up the stones. Sure enough, a gnome-like neighbor inserted a steam of protests. More angry glares while removing thickets of invasive plants. She was back as the blight of pine trees was removed, (a blessing was placed on each as burly loggers stood aside). Back again when roofers removed a tree wrecking both foundation and shingles. And back once more, stopping a 20-ton excavator when the septic was renovated.

Counterbalancing these removals was a small galaxy of insertions. Tons of rocks were hucked and laid up into terraced walls. The understory beneath the pines was thinned and groomed to become a robust little oak-maple forest. The pine logs were milled into planks and beams. These were stirred up with leftover stones to build a backyard shed with fireplace. Each wall had a distinctive Adirondack style. The work, of course, was surveyed through squinty gnome-vision. An ancient, pointed walking stick punctuated the earth to confirm these inspections.

Years passed and nature blended the edges of this landscape into a warm, disordered harmony. Moss grew on rocks, vines climbed on walls, and ferns found amenable edges.  Nature also started to soften my own edges. Objects got dropped, tools dulled, and small tasks were postponed. The yard whispered “manana” and I listened.

Something I now consider – perhaps my gnome-neighbor had a point. Maybe the labyrinth, pines, and overgrown shrubs had harmony in their rooted connectedness. Did I disturb something ancient and primal? Did I design and witness my own cycle of ending, new beginning, maturation, and inevitable decline?

I leave this place with questions and recollections. Some of my own roots remain in this soil. There are no regrets. But I may advise the new owner to consult with her neighbor before planning changes. I’m part of this place now and I bet she will defend this spirit.

Going Over the Falls

July 10, 2018   Back when I was tumbling about on the corporate hamster wheel, going over the numbers was the endless, (and at times, mind-numbing), process of seeking improvement. In football, coaches love going over the playbook. They use this exercise to recode the instinctual mind. Developing a conditioned response becomes the goal.

I fall a lot and would like to fall less. Going over the falls is a means to analyze these many tumbles and develop a better response. It is an essential preventive exercise because: 1. Falling fucking hurts; 2. It is very hard to get up so it is inconvenient and embarrassing; 3. Eventually, I will take the “big one” and get seriously injured.

There are patterns within this unruly condition. The left leg is a club, loosely following a ponderous, ground-scraping arc. My CPU hums behind a fog of distraction. Cadence, the pattern of “left-right, left-right, left-right” that drives human propulsion has become “right-now what?”, “right-now what?”, “right-what the fuck is going on?”

And here is the problem. The Amygdala (primitive brain) is the first line of defense, selecting “flight or flee” when presented with danger. My Amygdala chooses “freeze”, an unwelcome middle ground. In other words, I’m going down. It is one of those Looney Tunes moments. My body becomes a plank. Eyes open wide, with “oh” on the left orb and “shit” on the right. A puff of dust rises on contact. This is what I learn when going over the falls.

There is a back story. My friend Greg taught me quite a bit about whitewater canoeing. “Beware the horizon” was a key lesson. A downstream horizon line could mean a waterfall. It is an unknown and it can wreck you, especially when a chart is not handy. This chartless exploration is my current life. Untold horizons lurk ahead. Some are just riffles, others might be the falls. But the sun still washes the rock and Mergansers will forever fish beneath a canopy of firs. I just cinch my vest and rise up to read the water.

Day Wasting

June 28, 2019   It’s 7:15 AM. Two black dogs, eyes peering, nest in the shadows of the sofa. Allison is off to work. Ethan is off to work. Times and Globe are read. Seething restlessness meets implacable stillness. The day lies ahead and there is no plan. No hikes, no bikes, no paddles. No mowing, no weeding, no planting. No strength, no balance, no resolve. Appliances hum, birds murmur, floors creak. Emails answered, calendars checked, bills paid.

It’s 8:00 AM. The dogs stir and plans form. The list: 1. Buy stamps, 2. Defrost a chuck roast, 3. List the seized-up lawn tractor on Craig’s List, 4. Close the bedroom blinds so my nap will be cool, 5. Write about all this shit that I am about to do.

It’s 10:00. The dogs aren’t interested in World Cup Soccer on Telemundo. Then a goal.     G-O-O-O-O-A-A-A-A-L-L-L-L-L-L-L!!!! at 120 Db’s. They actually move. I’m inspired to shift the roast to a sunny spot on the counter.

It’s 12:00. Lunchtime. How can I kick-up a grilled cheese so that it is different from yesterday’s grilled cheese? I add some green chilies and pub cheese. Dogs are on high alert, now staring at me from the begging post by the refrigerator. I discover another World Cup soccer match.

It’s 2:00. What the hell, Craig’s List blew up. There are thirty replies for a free lawn tractor. Playing God, I choose the lucky winner. I release the hounds. They wander the edges of the backyard and signify “enough”. They return to the sofa.

It’s 2:15. The roast is seared and placed on a low braise. Carrots, mushrooms, garlic added. I can’t find the bay leaves. Somewhat depleted, I lie down for a quick nap.

It’s 4:30. Well, hell. That was a long nap. And the kitchen is a mess. Allison is arriving soon. To quote this wonderful mate, “Momma don’t like no mess”. I get busy.

It’s 5:45. Allison arrives, asking about my day. “Pretty busy”, I claim. On tomorrow’s list, “buy stamps” is still number 1.

Voices in my head

June 10, 2018   

(Dissolve to a grubby conference room with 80’s era furniture)

Inner me: “Hey, Rick, c’mon in. Get the door, will ya?”

Me: “…Jeez, what’s up? I just have a minute…”

Inner me: “I just have to say it, you are kinda struggling. You fell what, three times last week? That tumble on the backsteps…..  looked nasty”

Me: “Not as bad as it looked. Those steps are a bit of a hazard for everyone”.

Inner me: “Hey, I’ll give you that. But what’s the fuckin deal on not getting up? If not for that Irish guy you might still be jammed behind the propane tank”.

Me: “Seriously, I’m letting go a bit and learning to let folks help me out. He was there, so why the hell not”.

Inner me: “Fine. Fine.   So, I was watching you at Midway Airport. Not pretty. It took you about 20 minutes to get to your gate at the end of concourse B. And what is up with you and those moving walkways? Are they that fucking hard to get on and off?”.

Me: “Gimme some credit. That was a long day. And I mighta been dehydrated. And you‘ve said a million times that Midway sucks. Christ a’ mighty, you think traveling is easy these days?”

Inner me: “Never said it was. But, hey, out of the fifty million people at Midway that night, you were the slowest. And you might wanna tuck that shirt. That look doesn’t up your game.

By the way, quite the stunt you pulled with Aunt Katie’s walker. You don’t think I see that shit? You were trying it out, weren’t you? And you did notice that Aunt Katie almost fell over while you were motoring around with her walker. For fuck’s sake, she’s 90, you know”

Me: “What am I supposed to do, just throw it in the trunk. I only went around the car a coupla times because I thought it was locked.”

Inner me: “Yeah, yeah. Nothing new here, you have all the answers. Fine. Do one thing for me, will ya? Just walk across the room. And no cane or grabbing on to things. And let’s see you pick up that left foot. (Pause…)  You can’t do it, can you? Time to look in the mirror and get real, my friend. Just fuckin’ let go a bit. Know what I mean?”

Me: “Yeah, yeah…. Hey, I gotta go. Shit to do, always shit to do.

It’s not getting easier, you know”.

Last Call

June 6, 2019   My perfect Manhattan includes a bottom shelf rye, a top shelf vermouth and a brandy-infused cherry. Clear ice, proper stirring, and only a rocks glass. No compromises allowed. It is possible that I think too much about this cocktail.

I was in Flagstaff Arizona, at Monsoons, a dive on old Rte. 66. The 2 o’clock sun barreled through the door. It made the grimy bar gleam like polished copper. I was drinking Pete’s Wicked Ale with my friend Greg while we plotted a river trip. It was the most perfect beer of my life. It is possible that I think too much about that beer.

My friend Allison and I were in Kulpsville PA. We had dented a bottle of vodka. I looked at Allison and then the depleted bottle. I proclaimed, “We are professional grade”.  My friend and I were married two years later. Still my best friend. And I can’t possibly think too much about that cocktail.

Pouring a drink onto to my fractious motor neurons is like bringing a cask of tequila to a frat party. The results are unpredictable but you know things will get out of hand. And frat boys recover more quickly than one with a disordered neuromuscular system. The anticipation of a good drink has been replaced by the understanding of consequence. After a single drink, it takes 36 hours to fully recover and regain sketchy equilibrium. A. Single. Drink. This is the danger zone. Stumbles are likely, words are slurred and sleep is ragged. The price is too high. The perfect Manhattan, beers in glowy afternoons, and evening cocktails with Allison become stuff of memory. I’m no longer professional grade. And it is possible that I will think too much about this.