An ambulance gave me a ride to the Emergency Room yesterday.
My second ride of the year. For those of you that have been reading from the beginning of this blog adventure you know about the first. This one was different, and the same. Different because of the cause, but the same because of the questions.
I have been adding to my life’s recovery by experimenting with yoga and meditation with some interesting results. Slowing things down in the mind is something I have rarely been able to accomplish, but that is why we practice. My life has taken many twists and turns; at times I’ve been cruising in the left lane while other times I’ve dumped myself on the side of the road.
There were a string of bad breaks. I had two dear friends die within a year and a half of each other when I was a teenager. My parents split up a few years after that and just a few more years later my father died. Looking back on those days I spent far too much time feeling bad for myself while it was others that were taking the brunt of the pain.
Loss of such significant magnitude while I was struggling for my own identity was hard to handle. And it is fair to say I didn’t handle it very well. I pissed a lot of people off. At times I have drank too much, at times I have worked too much, but most of all I cared too little. Your suffering, I believe, is essentially your own because that is the way we make it.
The inability to move on and find peace with myself after these events resulted in being stuck in neutral for a long time. Imagine a record (vinyl is cool again) just skipping and you are unable to get to the next verse. Over and over again, the same hiccup, but then a (Sun)ie comes along, picks up the needle and begins to let the next song play.
Every so often a record comes along that goes deep and speaks to me, almost as if it was written FOR me. It comes to me at the perfect time. When I needed a lyric to guide me or a melody to get me moving. Its happened before and I cherish every one of them even if they exit the rotation. Bob has done it the most (and never leaves the rotation), seemingly recording albums just for me; first with Highway 61 Revisited and then a half dozen more times; Neil did it with Everybody Knows This is Nowhere which prompted me to write my first book and Warren did it with Excitable Boy, when I was already a man. More recently, Beck and The Black Keys have stopped me in my tracks with their, well, tracks (sorry).
So when I was given Nathaniel Rateliff’s Falling Faster Than You Can Run I got a sharp feeling that I was on to something. It seemed as if I was told a secret and the music was mine for as long as I needed it. So the day after my latest not so free ride to the ER I bundled up and walked my neighborhood with the album playing and just breathed, watched and smiled.
Rateliff’s writing, his voice, and his almost spiritual understanding of my situation is something that is hard to explain. As I stepped around a path I have walked a hundred times I wasn’t sure if I was seeing new things or seeing old things differently. With his words in my ears my mind was quiet, and my mind always struggles to quiet.
A few weeks ago I took my first formal yoga class, last week I started a meditation program and both I am sure have assisted in cooling my mind, but music has been with me far longer than these two latest life tools, but the new ones make for a pretty useful box. Lyrics (or at least how I hear them on the record) from Mr. Rateliff are in italics.
..this wound is going to cancel me out..
People ask me how often to I think about my open heart surgery, and I tell them everytime I see the 10 inch scar on my chest. In reality it is more frequent than that, but how I think about my scars has changed. I’ve taken the scars and regrets of my youth and dropped them behind me the way you would your coat when you come in from the cold. Wounds don’t have to hold you back, and in fact they can propel you toward things you never knew you were capable of, like climbing Vermont’s tallest mountain seven months after having your heart stopped, completing a 14-mile trail jog in 90 degree heat or simply doing an hour of cardio in the same gym where the day before you dropped and were sent to the ER (I did all three of those).
..and you never know what is buried there unless you dig around..
Exploring yourself can be just as scary as a summiting a mountain or a joining an expedition into the heart of the Amazon. Meditation and yoga have only begun to dig under my skin and root around the depths of my soul. In that exploration I have found understanding and acceptance, the latter wasn’t easy. Shovels can take on many forms; books, sneakers, albums or even a stranger, and you can use them all to dig around your soul and toss the dirt aside.
..well I got pain, and I’m going to salt it now..
Pain was something I just got used to. It was always there and while uncomfortable at least it was reliable. Busted body, bruised psyche and battered vision were real things, but I see now they are only temporary. You can always come back after a fall, the sooner I quit licking my wounds the sooner I was able to cherish the moment, and then let that moment go and prepare for the next one.
..it took hours just to find the words..
I’m an overthinker. The tangents of my stories have tangents. I know this and I realize that rarely does figure eight speech result in a coherent lesson. The first thing yoga taught me was awareness, and meditation has broadened that awareness to a level that I have never achieved, and I’m just a beginner. Stories are great, and I have told my share and always will, but understanding the time and place for them has added to my efficiency and my listeners enjoyment for sure.
..the heart just won’t quit..
My heart could have given up. After being smacked around for decades only to have been stopped during surgery while a machine handled its duties I wouldn’t have blamed it if it never started again. There are times when we have all had enough. Times of pain, confusion, fear, hatred, times when you want to stop. But my heart started again, and it did so on its own. There is nothing stopping any one of us from starting again, just wake up and take that first breath.
..this space, has a name, that you can’t, put fame to it at all..
I love all the changes happening in my life. It’s exciting and makes for a fuller experience. Tea has replaced alcohol, cigar walks are now hikes, reading and writing have purpose, almost nothing is mindless.
..some songs we can sing and never mean, some songs leave a ring..
Friends can fade in and out of your life just like songs. They can show up in unexpected places like hearing Nirvana in a department store or Rita King coming out of an elevator in Memphis, and they can disappear without notice like most people on the Outer Cape do at this time every year or my copy of Petty’s “Wildflowers,” which haunts me to this day. I don’t waste time on why they came or even why they left, I use what they can show me or what they have graciously already taught me.
..there is always distance between a shout and a whistle..
My father yelled a lot. He also smiled, hugged, encouraged, assisted, cheered up, taught, believed and loved a lot. I often focused on the shouting; I don’t do that anymore, ever. I just remember the whistles.
..I don’t want to brag, but we made it out of here alive..
When my heart began to beat again it was as if someone flipped the record and dropped the needle on a new side. The unreleased, super secret basement recordings that were often rumored but are now starting to circulate among enthusiasts. Welcome.
..when I hit the ground, I’m gonna laugh out loud, gonna lay there awhile, and stare at the clouds..
Being present in every moment is a challenge, but a challenge with untapped rewards. An awareness, a captivation, a dream while awake, walking with a purpose and running with determination. I’m not looking for the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow anymore, the rainbow is the pot of gold.
It’s simple, but it’s not easy. Thank you for being here with me.
I love the outdoors. Despite that affection I am bad at the outdoors, really bad. A long time ago at a newspaper far far away I was encouraged to pen a quarterly column on my trials with nature. The “Absentminded Outdoorsman” appeared only a few times before that newspaper and I parted ways, but it was both a fun and educational piece of my past.
Since completing cardiac rehab I have been left up to my own devices with regards to exercise. Having survived emergency open heart surgery and living with heart disease is a heavy load. So when I mapped out the road the recovery hiking was going to be essential. Hiking, for me, has proven to be the most effective exercise for my overall health. But as you all know, hiking takes place outdoors.
Over the last five months I’ve been traipsing up and down the Berkshires and have become intimately familiar with the Appalachian Trail. A ton of people hike, close to 50 million a year in the United States, and I am glad to say I am one of them. But sometimes I should have stayed home.
There are two things I can directly point to that have fostered my recovery and they are my vegan diet and hiking the trails. But just as there have been a few missteps becoming a vegan (that Field Roast “meat” still makes me gag) there have been several false starts and bumps on the road during my hiking time.
I grew up in the suburbs. We never went hiking. Our outdoor activities included playing baseball and basketball with neighborhood kids or just riding our bikes around our relatively safe from predators village. I’ve take many walks in the woods during my adult life but never really embraced hiking.
Let’s start with the biggest issue. I get lost. All. The. Time. It is truly amazing in this day and age with GPS and all the gadgets on the market that I get lost hiking on a marked trail in the middle of New England. Marked yes, but it’s not like driving down I-95 outside of Rowland, North Carolina with countless billboards keeping you focused on the rapidly approaching South of the Border ridiculousness. These are little markings on trees. Sometimes they are blue, sometimes they are yellow, the Appalachian Trail markings are white. They are usually faded, not at eye level, and often times painted on rocks or branches that have withered away and died.
Not a week goes by where I don’t find myself standing amongst the trees wondering where the trail went. Followed by five minutes of turning around before looking at the sun for guidance it never gives which leads into a slow attempt at retracing my steps, which, after spinning around a half a dozen times isn’t easy. Usually by dumb luck or some astonishing resurgence of my damaged frontal lobe I find my way back to the trail where more fun things happen.
Take one of my more recent trips on the Appalachian Trail near Beartown State Forest. After cruising through my first three miles I happened upon a little sign made by a fellow hiker alerting us to a wasp nest up ahead. I have seen these signs before and I remember thinking to myself what a nice gesture, the sign read, “WASP Nest, 30 yards on your left,” so I continued at a measured pace looking up at the trees for the invaders.
What the sign did not say was that the nest was, you guessed it, on the ground. I found out the painful way while stepping next to the hive and unleashing an army of angry bees that chased me a quarter mile down the trail. Ripping off my shirt, losing my hat as I protected my face and grunting through stings I managed to eventually go beyond where the pests were willing to travel.
“Son of a bitch,” I said out loud before wandering off the trail and making my way back to the car, defeated, but only temporarily. It took me two days before I got back on the trails, and when I did I saw my first bear while hiking. A freaking bear. Needless to say I took some more time off after that. But I eventually went back and have loved every minute of it.
There is so much to love about getting outside and hiking. The sheer high you get from breathing the clean air, breaking a sweat and feeling your thighs scream as you head up an incline have broken up a bad mood and kept me going for hours upon hours in delirious happiness. But there is something even better than the landscapes or the mountain views and that is the people. The hikers you meet on the trail are the nicest people on the planet. I’m serious, I have lived and worked in a ton of places, I have volunteered, I have traveled the country, and hands down the people I have met on the trails are the best.
It could be the kind of person that is drawn to the pure beauty of the mountains or it could be the mountains that turn people into the living presence of Mr. Rodgers but whatever it is the reality can not be denied.
As for me, it certainly has changed me. An admittedly grumpy personality that has been a little on edge this year, heart failure can do that, I have turned a corner and I am so glad I did. A month or so ago, halfway into a 10-mile hike I decided to pick up the pace. For some reason I felt a few months of hiking qualified me as a trail runner, it didn’t. As I careened through a swampy area equipped with old wooden boards masquerading as the trail I looked up and lost my way, crashing forward and landing on my left arm and chest. Yes, the chest still recovering from open heart surgery. Don’t try that, one of the reasons I am going through all of this is so you all don’t have to. And yes, it felt awesome.
After shaking my head and slowly rising to continue my trek I noticed the blood on my knee. It wasn’t a gunshot wound or anything but it was a good one and when taking blood thinners I knew it wasn’t going to clot while out here in the wilderness. About a mile or so after the crash I felt something odd on my wrist so I pulled back my sleeve and saw what looked like a golf ball lodged in my forearm. Nice. I slowly pulled my sleeve back over the grotesque lump on my arm and pretended I didn’t see it.
Between the blood, the sweat and the golf ball I was pretty spent, but I kept going and with about a mile left in my hike I stumbled upon a fellow hiker lounging under a giant old tree that is probably famous being so old and in New England and all, but its shade was enough to be cool in my book.
Now in my old life, after hurting myself to the extent that I had I would have given this hippy hiking character a dirty look if I even acknowledged him at all. But instead of the dark Kevin showing his face I grabbed a spot next to him and offered him some of my orange, which I expertly peeled with one hand.
He declined and offered me some granola. I said thanks but I was super excited about my orange. He grinned.
“Nice day, eh?” he said.
“Damn right.” I replied.
These trails can turn a smartass into Santa Claus. The mountains, I find, always win. Getting outside has given me time to think while at the same time keeping my heart happy and my belly shrinking. Racking up small victories, in many ways, is better, and more fulfilling than one large one.
Just because you aren’t the best at something doesn't mean you shouldn’t try. Doubt creeps into my mind while looking to get back into the working world after this time away to recover from my heart issues. You get a lot of advice and encouragement but when it comes down to it you have to be the one to take the leap.
There is a sense of overwhelming fear when you consider trying a completely new industry or discipline but if you look at it as a challenge and embrace the excitement of trying something new that can help.
In many ways I feel like I have two lives, one before January 13th, and one after, and most of us don’t get to have that so there are not too many templates to follow. You have to do your research and find something you are passionate about because you have the rare experience of being on the cusp of the abyss, only to return to the light, and it’s what you do in the light that matters, darkness is for another place, another time.
Neil Young has always been able to reduce me to rubble. The dozen or so shows of his that I have been lucky enough to witness have always included moments of pure joy, absolute sadness and utter bewilderment, sometimes all during the same song.
It happened again last weekend at Farm Aid. After all but disappearing from touring for a year and canceling every major appearance, most of us weren’t sure if Uncle Neil would even show up for the landmark concert event that raises money and awareness for family farms.
Neil has always seemed to do exactly want he wants, when he wants and for how long he wants. During the course of the afternoon, bookended by my wife and brother, we had hours of engagements with concert goers wandering into our tent to learn about the great work of Lundberg Family Farms. The music lineup was strong. Great performances from Jack Johnson, Sheryl Crow, Nathaniel Rateliff, the Avett Brothers, Dave Matthews, Lukas Nelson and much more had people moving all day long. But as the sun fell and the stars appeared, we all found our spots to prepare for whatever Neil was going to give us.
The man came out like a gunfighter ripping through a Rocky Mountain town, shifted to a grandfather telling stories as kin crawled around his feet and left us like a rocket reaching for something greater still.
I’ve tried to explain what happens to me while attending a concert like that before and my descriptions have never seemed just. But my wife, seeing Neil for the first time, nailed it just hours after the old man left the stage.
“It’s as if you go on a ride,” she told me.
Thinking back to the hour of music Neil gave us, she was spot on. From the first notes to the final applause, I was in another place. I immediately thought of my favorite words of wisdom from Hunter Thompson, “Buy the ticket, take the ride.”
Our conversation led us down the alleys of the last eight months, focusing on my near death experience, surgery and current recovery, and before I knew it she gave me the better advice than I’ve ever gotten from Neil or Hunter.
“The ride is important, but you need to know when to get off.”
So as Neil barked right at me with lines such as, “You must have a heart of steel,” “I still can’t remember how, or when I lost my way,” “You see us together, chasing the moonlight,” “Take my eyes from what they’ve seen, take my head and change my mind,” “That’s how we kept what we gave away,” “I’ve crossed the ocean for a heart of gold,” “There’s somewhere safer where the feelings stay,” and “Got fuel to burn, got roads to drive,” I stood in quiet reflection of a life completely changed by the events of this past January.
It was fitting my brother stood next to my wife during the show, as they stood together so many times during my surgery, and supporting each other during my time in the ICU when just being able to swallow a glass of water was considered something to cheer about.
Through the surgeries, the recovery, the rehab, the first steps and the lasting memories, I took us all for a ride. I got in over my head, but it was too late to turn back, and so we went. So as Neil walked off the stage left, bringing a chapter of my life full circle, I think it’s high time I followed him.
I’ve bought a lot of tickets in my life and have taken a lot of rides. This year was tough, and the next ride will be just as hard. It’s a difficult thing to move on. To shed the uncertainty of recovery and focus on timeless living. I’ve learned so much in the last eight months and feel as if I am more prepared to handle what comes my way than ever before.
When your heart is in another man’s hands there are things you must acquiesce to. You become exposed to a life outside of your own, for reasons beyond your understanding. You are changed in a very profound way that becomes part of what you carry. Putting the pieces back together is just the beginning. Decide what to be, and go be it.
To start again. To smile again. To laugh again. To dream again. To believe again.
As the grandpappy of Farm Aid sung to me as the show closed, “I woke up still not dead again today,” making me grin from ear to ear. The reports of both my and Willie's death have been somewhat exaggerated. We are still here and still being heard, and that is all that matters.
When you go through a near death experience there are several ways you can choose to celebrate your survival. Everyone is different but I believe it is important to celebrate recovery and the success you have during your road back to health and happiness. I’m not advocating that everyone gets a trophy or that one should pat themselves on the back and blow up social media after every breath they take, but if you lose the ability to smile after an achievement, why bother getting off the couch in the first place?
Years ago I was sitting in a barber shop when the man in the barber’s chair started crying. The barber, a friend of mine for years, looked at me and shrugged and kept cutting the man’s hair. After a minute or so the man wiped his tears away and they finished their business with nothing more than a few kind words. But upon paying my friend asked his customer if everything was okay, on the off chance his barber skills had diminished to the point of causing a customer to cry. The man explained that it was the first time he got a voluntary haircut since being diagnosed with cancer. My friend, always with a clever comeback, was speechless. The man went on to explain how he lost his hair during treatment, but that it had started to grow back and he wanted to come in for a trim, and how it made him feel nice to be able to do things on his own terms instead of being ruled by his disease, as he had for so many years.
I stood up, partly because it was my turn for the barber’s chair but I couldn’t stop staring that the man’s hair. It looked nice, and the first thing I thought was how it was fuller and thicker than my own, leading me to make an awkward joke about him having more hair that I had despite being twice my age and, you know, having cancer and all.
After shaking off the terrible joke I asked the man how he was planning on celebrating. He looked at me sideways, and said he was just going home and would probably watch television. My buddy was already walking toward the door of his shop and before I could say anything he flipped the open sign around, killed the lights and grabbed the man’s coat
The man looked at me and told him that we were celebrating.
“It’s not a big deal,” I remember him saying to me.
“Yes it is, let’s go.”
Not having a clue where we going I asked the man about some others things he hadn’t been able to do since his diagnosis. He told us a few stories and eventually explained to us how the treatments damaged his taste buds and he was afraid some of his favorite foods would never taste the same.
We ended up treating the guy to his favorite lunch (fish and chips) and some ice cream before parting ways. I never saw the man again but his image pops into my head every now and then when I think about the challenges we all face in life and how if we don’t stop to taste the victories we will be left only with a bitter taste of defeat day after day.
There is a hike a short drive from our house called Race Brook Falls. It’s short but extremely intense due to its incline and rocky surface. It eventually meets up with the Appalachian Trail where you can head north or south and enjoy amazing views and some additional challenging terrain.
Last November my wife and I set out to hike this trail after I had read about it in a trail guide. The weather was perfect as we made our way up the trail, my health, as we all have since found out, was far from perfect. I didn’t feel great during most of the hike and about halfway up the mountain I quit. I found a rock and sat myself down while my wife continued. A few hikers passed me while I waited on my rock, I tried to smile at them but the disappointment in my brain pushed my gaze toward the ground.
Since my recovery I have gone on longer hikes, even ones to higher elevations, but we haven’t returned to Race Brook Falls until yesterday. I took a deep breath and headed up the trail, again, with my wife leading the way. The trail eases you in the first quarter mile before it goes straight up, and up, and then up a little more.
It was just over seven months since my open heart surgery when we passed the rock I used as a bench, I pointed it out to my wife, we both paused, gave each other a look and a grin and kept moving, me leading the way this time. At the point where I had called it quits last November I was just getting warmed up now.
We made it to the top in one piece and cruised downhill without any major injury. Our celebration took the form of hugs at the trailhead and I indulged in a giant bowl of grapes that night. Not exactly how my old self would have celebrated but just as satisfying and more likely to guarantee future celebrations.
I have moments like this all the time. And I sincerely hope that you do as well. Your challenges may differ from mine. They could be work related, or relationship related, or just plain old complications brought on by one of life’s many mysterious. But whatever it is, you deserve to bask in your own personal glory when those challenges are met.
Keep setting goals, and when you reach them, set more. Get out of the passenger seat and change the narrative. When you do, the grapes will taste extraordinary, I promise.
Every once and awhile, during my youth bouncing around Catholic schools, our teacher would inform us that we had a take home test to do regarding some topic we were currently studying.
You could feel the emotions in the classroom as those words circled our wooden desks and danced above our neatly cropped hair and pressed collared shirts.
“A take home test,” I remember grinning ever so slightly as I repeated my teacher’s words. I could see my less than focused friends sit up straight and smile as if our teacher said ice cream would be served in place of Latin class. And there was always the pouting faces of the few girls sitting in the front row, upset that the rest of us would actually have the chance to compete with their high scores.
It occurred to me that most of our adult life is a take home test. With information available in an instant to most of us there is no excuse for not knowing the answers to most questions, especially if those questions are important to you.
“How long do I roast vegetables?”
“How does the Electoral College work?”
“Is Ted Cruz the Zodiac Killer?”
“When is Christmas this year?”
“Is Mister T dead?”
Those and billions of questions can be answered with a few clicks and few minutes of your time.
Two weeks ago I had the pleasure of attending Wanderlust Festival at Stratton Mountain as a representative for Lundberg Family Farms. During the four-day event we handed out samples of rice products made by some extraordinary people out on the left coast.
During my time there I bumped into Jessica Murnane on her way through Stratton Village. She stopped at our tent and we were able to talk for a few minutes. Jessica was at Wanderlust as a presenter. She had just published a book and was sharing some of her knowledge to some of the folks in Vermont looking to find their “true north” (festival phrase, not mine).
Jessica’s book, One Part Plant is a great place to start for those of you interested in making positive changes to your health and well being, but are not ready to go head over your plant based heels like I did.
Since being let out of the house after my bypass and subsequent stint in cardiac rehab I come across folks I share my story with. It doesn’t happen every day, in fact I can go weeks without mentioning what happened to me. For the most part my health reports stay in the family. Shared by those closest to me and those that we with me during the darker days, and now of course, to all of you reading my blog.
Every once and awhile I talk about it to a stranger. And on that day in Vermont Jessica was that stranger. Having done this a few times I can tell you it’s all in the eyes. There is a way someone looks at you that you feel at ease sharing your story and then listening to their response. These few people that I have been lucky to come across during my recovery have had a huge impact, it is as if they understand me even though we were strangers nine minutes prior.
I quickly learned that Jessica had her own health issues, which she details in her book, that led her to seek out new ways to nurture her body. What she was able to accomplish by changing her diet and lifestyle was extraordinary and she is a gifted role model for anyone looking to improve their well being and live a healthier lifestyle.
So after our brief encounter ended I got back to professing to the Wanderlust crowd about the benefits of the many Lundberg products. Just as I was saying to myself, “Remember to go buy that One Part Plant book,” Jessica glided by and handed me a copy. A simple act of kindness that I think about often and try to do a better job of incorporating into my life.
Speaking of incorporating things, don’t think I have forgotten about you and your take home test. As I continue my recovery I am constantly learning new things. Reading countless articles, blogs and journals, watching documentaries on health, yes, I will be coming for your milk and eggs soon enough, and discussing big ideas with smart people have me focused on improving my life more than ever.
But I need to do better. We all do. So back to our test. As for me, I need to push myself to improve my body. Every pound I lose is weight off my heart. I just passed the six month post surgery time and even though I hear about all the progress I am making it is not enough. I am still too heavy and my portion sizes are too large. That will be my test.
I am going to increase my exercise and cut my portions, and to keep me honest you will see new tabs on this site that will bring you to my diet and exercise experiences (I’ll still keep this spot as a longer form space). Perhaps we can share a recipe or three and help each other with some good home exercise routines in between updates from the Appalachian Trail.
As for you. Your test is to follow in Jessica’s footprints and add one plant based meal to your daily meal intake. It’s far easier than it sounds and if you need Jessica’s book for help I am sure you can find a link to buy it on her site http://www.jessicamurnane.com/ or let me know and you can borrow my copy. One plant based meal a day. It is a small step that will have a big impact on your body.
And for extra credit. Don’t think I forgot about extra credit. Another favorite phrase of mine from my schoolboy days. I always loved extra credit questions, they gave me hope in a hopeless world of Algebra equations.
For extra credit, take a half dozen or so of the food items you use most often and look at their ingredients. Write down the words you don’t recognize and look those words up. Once you do that ask yourself this questions. Why am I eating that?
Good luck on your tests everyone. I hope you are learning as much as I am. If you are struggling to find an answer or two, take a deep breathe and look around. The answers are usually right in front of you.
Despite my amazing wife being a certified yoga instructor, I have never taken a class. To her immense credit, she never pushed me to take one, until a month ago.
She had been hired to teach some classes for a group staying at the hotel I was working at and wanted to use me to brush up on her skills. She has a reputation for being great with beginners so having the ultimate beginner as a student would be good for both of us.
I pretended to get lost on my way to our guest room and showed up late to my first class. I was immediately sent back to our bedroom to change. Strike one.
After finding some acceptable yoga outfit I returned. There was weird music on and a strange what I thought may be weed smell coming from behind my perfectly dressed yoga teacher, but I persisted. After complaining about the color of my mat (strike two) we got started.
My brain has the notorious habit of never slowing down. Even when my body is stopped stone cold my thoughts never cease. Having a quiet mind is important for any yoga practice or meditation so this was not an easy hour for me. Factor in that my sternum is still healing and the severed nerves in my chest are slowly returning to life the getting in and out of many of these yoga poses was painful, which I am told yoga is not meant to be.
I kept at it. And my teacher was with me every step of the way. Her direction was focused yet gentle and there were a few times where I thought I was close to “getting it.” At one point she asked me to lengthen my head. In spite of my impulse to question the logic of that request I tried to head butt the ceiling, and she seemed pleased with my effort.
About half way through my first yoga class, after some sweat broke, some confusing sounding poses and a handful of moments of clarity, something strange happened.
I was standing, in the middle of a pose that could have been a tree, or a warrior, or a war hero named after a tree, when my wife walked behind me and leaned toward my head and offered some teacher to student encouragement.
The minute her whisper ended every nerve in my body rushed toward the surface. The feeling was surreal and my eyes began to water. I shut my eyes and a few tears were pushed from my lids and crawled down my cheeks.
I was caught off guard and tried to pull myself together and listen to my teacher’s next instructions. I got through the class and really enjoyed it and felt I learned something from it. But I could not shake that feeling and spent awhile trying to figure out where it came from and why it happened.
To me it was a beautiful moment, and a moment that may have never happened if things took a left turn instead of a right one back in January. During those days filled with uncertainty and insanity, my wife was always there. She didn’t just hold my hand and wipe my forehead. She was able to read my mind, articulate my feelings to my doctors when I couldn’t find the words myself. There is no way I could have survived that disaster without her. In fact, and I told her this during my time in CTICU, that if it wasn’t for her, I would died just the way my father had. Young, scared, and alone on the floor of my apartment.
Those feelings can push a person to do odd things. Like take a yoga class and break into tears during said class. But that is what I did. And it makes more sense than ever. The emotions were derived not just from my love toward my wife, but for a sense that these moments may have never happened. And if that moment never happened, how many others amazing moments would I have missed if I went away that week in January.
Take a minute to look around during the good moments. Let them wander around your head and your arms and take a snapshot with your brain before moving on to the next one. Think about why you are doing what you are doing, and please, for the love of life and your yoga teacher, don’t forget to breathe.
A few years ago I sent a friend of mine a text message to see if we could get together and talk about some business ideas I had been knocking around my brain. His reply was frightening.
“My sous chef is leaving for a week, how about you come work in the kitchen with me and we can talk while we work?”
I replied yes almost immediately, and then a pit formed in my stomach just as fast. I have spent some time in kitchens before that summer of 2015, but this was not your average kitchen. This was the best restaurant on Cape Cod, and quite possibly the best in all of New England. A seasonal place on the water which hosted two seatings per night that presented a local menu over seven courses that changed every day.
My fear only intensified during my drive up to Wellfleet for my first day. I was just hoping that I didn’t single handedly ruin my friend’s reputation in the span of a week. I had torn the muscle on my right wrist the week before while working on an oyster grant so overall I wasn’t wandering into Chef Michael Ceraldi’s kitchen in the best frame of mind or body.
I walked slowly from the parking lot to the back entrance of the restaurant, hoping against hope that the power had gone out or they just decided to skip this week of service, thus sparing me from slicing my thumb open, burning the kitchen down, or worse.
Just as I walked into the kitchen my friend smiled at me. Michael has this grin that is both devilish and disarming. He showed me the kitchen which was the same size as the kitchen of my condo, seriously.
“Where is the rest of it,” I asked.
“This is it,” Michael answered.
To realize that this place was nailing a pair of seven course dinners for 40 or more people every night from a kitchen the size of a farm table was stunning to me. Then I learned how they did it, and it was awesome.
“What’s the menu for tonight?” I asked.
“Hmm, not sure yet,” Michael answered.
This being two hours before service would scare most people, but not this merry band of kitchen wizards that I was now a part of. We prepped some items, I went out to harvest some sea grass, a local character came in and we bought his wild mushrooms, and just when I started to get into a groove Michael’s amazing wife summoned everyone out to the front of the house to go over the wine pairings for each course.
“You all are nuts, you know that right?”
“I almost forgot,” Michael pulled me aside ignoring my declaration of his sanity, “The Boston Globe is coming this week so, you know, try and smile.”
We ate together, talked about the menu, and then got to work.
I stuck to shucking oysters, cooking some of the seafood items, washing dishes, preparing for upcoming courses, reminding Michael that we had a gluten allergy at table six, and just generally trying to stay out of everyone’s way.
By the end of the week I was exhausted, the pain in my wrist wouldn't allow me to hold on to anything tightly, which I believe I still owe the man a few plates that I dropped, and we ended the week with a few drinks and some reflection. We never did talk about my business ideas, and we didn’t need to as the education I received that week was more than I could have hoped for when I sent that initial text message.
I thought of my week at Ceraldi the other night when I made pasta from scratch for the first time. I watched Michael do it a few times, and we had been given a very nice pasta maker for a wedding gift that was still in the box so I decided to give it a try.
Things are a bit different now. My bypass surgery has led me to a vegan diet so as I made my dough I imagined Michael and every other old school Italian in my family tree rolling their eyes at me with my egg replacers and tofurky sausage in my tomato sauce.
As I enter the final few weeks of cardiac rehab the thought of leaving the care of the nurses behind and entering the world without medical supervision doesn’t scare me, it excites me. I am looking forward to pushing my limits and seeing what I can accomplish not only in the second half of this year, but for many years to come.
Testing ourselves is how we grow as people. If we live in constant fear of failure we will never accomplish anything and spend our later years lamenting all the chances we didn’t take.
I am grateful for that week at Ceraldi. I am grateful I didn't burn the place down. Grateful that I can now identify a dozen different kinds of fresh herbs (I’ll tell the fennel disaster story some other time) and grateful Michael and I are still friends.
Let someone else take the easy way out. Go scare yourself, I promise it will put a smile on your face.
There certain things we all know to be true. Tried and true pieces of our lives that we can rely on. Some of these we learn when we are young while others appear to us as we weave our way through life.
For the last 15 years I knew that I was allergic to nuts. I wasn’t sure how severe the allergy was or if it included all nuts, but I knew I had a major issue. When I was 25 I ate salmon with a pecan crust and developed symptoms almost immediately.
After that encounter I would have reactions when peanuts were present in a room I was in. A piercing headache in my left temple would always tip me off to a potential issue. My throat would sometimes feel like it was closing and my eyes would bother me. I usually treated myself to some Benadryl and moved on and did my best to avoid nuts and certain oils.
The reality was that not eating nuts didn’t bother me as much as it bothered other people. Friends and relatives were always worried about what to cook when I was around despite my constant pleas to eat what they wanted while I worried about myself. I find the same reaction to my recent adjustment to the world of vegan living.
Well guess what? Accordingly to the fine allergists of Connecticut my tests for nut allergies were all negative. I have no explanation, in fact no one really does, but I am not jumping back into a world chock full of nuts just yet. After all, we process nuts in our stomachs, we don’t prick them in our skin like the allergy test so I could still have a reaction when consumed. Additionally I think we should wait for my ticker to heal a bit more before we go experimenting with peanut surprise.
Point is, never stop asking questions. I believed I was allergic, never questioned it, and it seems as if I was all wrong and could have been enjoying vats of peanut butter sauce for the last decade and a half.
Everyone should be asking questions. Stop taking people’s word for things. Do not settle for “because I said so,” as an answer. Hold people accountable and seek out the truth, whether you like the answer or not, I promise you that you will feel better when you know the truth.
Where has biting your tongue ever gotten you? Exactly, and that is another question.
Asking questions is how we learn. Why has it been a month since my last blog? Good question, now you’re getting it.
As I approach three months since open heart surgery there are more questions than answers. More questions than I had during my time in the hospital. I have the feeling of starting over but not knowing what to expect each time I wake up in the morning.
In the last few weeks we have been up to a lot. I have been working more, we moved to a new town and we have even traveled a few times. It was nice to see some old friends and make some new friends, but overall each of these elements takes its toll.
So as I search for the answers to why my recovery is so exhausting or if I should change my diet or exercise routine I am trying to stay positive, which isn’t always easy.
I feel like I was dealt a bunch of mismatched cards from the deck while my enemy was dealt three aces. But as I keep reading, keep learning and keep trying, those cards talk to me, calm me down and then I notice, I’m one card away from an inside straight.
So I ask for one card to save my craptastic hand, it slides across to the table toward me and I stop it with the heel of my right hand. My thumb and index finger meet at the corner of the card as I set to peal it toward the sky to reveal my fate.
No, not that kind of rehab.
And besides, go set up shop in Intensive Care for a week and see if you can’t shake the urge for a drink or a smoke. Being hooked up to a wall of machines and covered in tubes should be enough to wake most people up to the dangers of excess
My rehab is of the cardiac nature, if you haven’t figured that out yet have another drink, on me. Despite a lifetime spent avoiding places like hospitals and gyms, I was surprisingly calm a few Mondays ago when I walked across a frozen parking lot and up the stairs into a gym, that was located inside a hospital.
The room is basic. Some weights, a few treadmills, one elliptical machine (yes, I knew what that was, I’m not a total idiot), a stationary bike and several other machines that you sit on and, well, I haven’t figured out what those do yet.
There was a small group gathered in the middle of the room when I arrived for my first session. They started to check me out, I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to do and the entire situation started to make me uncomfortable. It was no fault of the three nurses running the program or my fellow patients, but I have always felt like I was on the outside of whatever side there was. Ever since I was a kid I felt that everyone around me was in on some inside joke while I either wasn’t cool enough to be included, or they just thought I wouldn’t be interested so they didn’t bother.
“Good morning, are you the new doctor,” said a sweet voice coming from an older woman that was in the midst of testing her blood sugar.
“Good morning, no ma’am, I’m not a doctor, I’m the new patient,” I answered softly.
You could tell that this particular group and been together for at least a few weeks and I could sense some of them wanted to follow up with more questions. The group of seven was much older than I am, and older people are noisy, but in this medical setting it seems people respect your privacy more than they would at a cocktail party so I figured it would take them a few sessions to resume the interview.
There was a weigh in and a check of blood pressure before you hooked yourself up to a heart monitor. The monitor is about the size of a cigarette pack but much heavier and clips to your pants or shirt. There are three wires attached to different parts of your chest via super strong sticky patches. After realizing that I was going to have to bribe my wife to shave my chest, we got to work.
A little warm up, some time on the treadmill, some time on the sitting down machine I have not yet named and that was it. Then we sit around until our heart rate reduces enough that we are safe to enter the outside world.
Just like that, it was over. I drove home that first day wondering if I needed to go back and began talking to myself. “I barely broke a sweat.” “I can do that at home.” “I drove a half hour to walk with a group of seniors? I live in the Berkshires, I can do that anywhere.” I’m not proud of that last thought but I promised honesty when we started this project.
The rehab goes for 12 weeks, so by the time I got home I promised myself to give it two weeks. I am glad I did. The exercise is important. But cardiac rehab is much more than that. I soon learned that this rehab is not just for bypass grafting survivors. After of some conversations at rehab I learned that my fellow patients are in the program for a variety of heart issues. We have a few stent holders, some heart attack survivors, some heart attack at riskers and then there is me.
By virtue of my age and my scars I seem to attract a minor amount of attention and I am starting to be okay with that. Talking about my experience has been a great way to heal and talking to some of these older patients helps me realize once again that I am not alone. It is only one hour three times a week but I already look forward to the rehab sessions more than anything outside of my home life.
It has taken me a few weeks to realize that I am not just rehabbing my heart, I am rehabbing my life, and that is hard to explain to those people in my generation that haven’t had a similar setback. It seems easier to relate to the older people in my rehab, perhaps because they are that much closer to death, or maybe they just listen better, or remember worse. Either way I am glad I get to keep going.
There are going to be good days and there are going to be bad days. But at least I still have days.
It doesn’t have to be bypass surgery. There are many other surgeries, disabilities and special needs that cause us to spend time away from our jobs and the people that make our daily routine so rewarding.
Work is a great source of stimulation, be it physical, emotional or psychological, and we miss it when it is taken away from us. For a child those same feelings occur when they miss a portion of school due to an illness or disability.
In most cases we are not looking for sympathy or special treatment, just a chance to get back what we lost when we were thrown a curveball that we grounded meekly back to the pitcher.
There are big things in this life and there are little things. Each has its place and its level of importance in our daily lives. And for most of us, a large percentage of our daily lives include work or school. The social circle that work creates is a valuable piece to our life balance and the camaraderie we feel as part of a team is something not easily replaced when we are at home healing or in a hospital getting treatment.
When the surgical team finished sewing me up after bypass surgery I wasn’t included in the rounds of fist bumps and high fives. They were my team, but I wasn’t on the team (I’m pretty sure surgeons fist bump, or possibly head butt in celebration of an artery well grafted).
Most people enjoy the aspects of being a team member and the workplace gives them the opportunity for that. You may be the guy at work that knows how to fix the copy machine. Or the lady that always remembers every co-workers birthday and passes around a card for everyone to sign. Those people are special. And when they aren’t around you notice. The company is not going to crumble if they are out sick, but your work day got worse because of their absence. And you can bet they missed work as much as you missed having that special person in your office that always hands you a cup of coffee as you are fading into that afternoon post lunch coma.
The work environment is a microcosm of life. We experience success, failure, joy, pain and a myriad of other emotions that shape us as human beings. We feel pressure and we bask in the sweet candy of success after a job well done. We learn from each other and have the ability to try new things and grow not only as people, but as role models.
Remember this when you go to work. So many of you in my circle of friends and past colleagues, through hard work and determination are in positions to effect change. You have risen to the levels that come along with important titles like Director, Vice President, Partner, or in some cases Owner.
You my friends, can lead this effort to allowing for an easy transition not only back to work for those that have suffered a severe bump in the road, but you can open the doors to a new employee and give an opportunity to someone that has been ignored due to preconceived notions or prejudices from the less evolved.
Don’t be the person that just walks past when you see someone struggling. Please don’t just pass on a prospective employee or client because they don’t act or look like everyone else. Don’t ignore someone that is lost and can’t find their way. Smile, say “good morning” and “thank you,” and so help me if I see you sitting comfortably on a bus, subway or Metro North while a little old lady is standing and losing her balance every time time we brake.
Imagine the impact your acts of kindness and respect to those of us with disabilities will have on your children. You all work so hard to raise your children right and by them witnessing magnanimous acts from their parents will have a lasting effect on everything they do. Real change doesn’t happen overnight but the more goodness they see in you the better chance we all have to help the neighborhood and raise the level of kindness for generations to come.
Our living years are finite, but our actions and impact are not. Work is only one piece of the puzzle but there are lessons between the walls of your office or the great expanses of your business that can change someone’s life, even if you don’t think it will. Step out of your shoes once and awhile and I promise good things will happen.
“A life is not important except in the impact is has on other lives,” said number 42 after his historic career in Brooklyn had come to an end.
The decisions we make, the people we help, will undoubtedly end up impacting more lives than you can possibly imagine.