This week, just one year ago, I woke up, still tired from a restless sleep, but excited and focused on the tasks at hand. I had been at my new job for 10 weeks and learned a great deal. Settling in for the winter meant it was time to focus on implementing new policies and procedures, taking my experience and applying it to the knowledge I had gained during many hours of guest service, and staff meetings at a venerable New England resort and conference center.
I was excited for the prospects of working with my fellow managers to reenergize the inn and help usher in a new era of memories for our staff and guests; as you may have guessed by now, those plans never got off the ground.
Instead of my year revolving around banquet event orders, holiday menus, room service issues and mothers of brides, it centered on items such as atherosclerosis (I can finally spell it but still can’t pronounce it), rehabilitation, medication, heart rates and hiking.
I have worked just two months this year; yet I have never been richer.
I had my heart stop and life supported by machines; yet I have never been happier.
I have changed a great deal in one year, but do not fear; I’m still weird, I still drive some people crazy and I most certainly still believe that every answer is somewhere blowing in the wind.
Looking back is helpful at times, which is why this blog exists and why I have decided to try my hand at writing a memoir based on this fateful year of my life. But even more important than reflecting on the past is focusing on the future, which is where signing up for trail races, looking for new types of careers, and experimenting with seitan come into play.
While we take care of the past and future in the pages of our lives and with notes on our calendars, the most important lesson I have learned this year has to do neither with our past lives or our future selves.
The lesson is as elusive as a shooting star, and just as explosive. Be present in the moment. This moment, right now, because there is nothing else as important. For me it is as simple and as challenging as being aware of my breath.
To be fully engaged with yourself and the subjects you seek is not easy. It takes a great deal of patience and practice. I have always had a large amount of the former, only now have I devoted real time to the latter.
By truly living in the moment, I have been able to understand things that had previously been afterthoughts or pipe dreams. Being honest with myself was a rough realization. People use the term, “the truth hurts” often but it has been my experience that they are rarely referring to themselves when they turn that phrase.
Sitting alone in my hospital room during my stay at Vassar one year ago, I had more time to think than is humanly safe or psychologically recommended. Drastic times call for drastic measures was a phrase I said to myself many of those nights lying awake in my bed. But as I look back one year later, was it all really that drastic? What have I done? Have I accomplished anything?
Is living in a way that promotes increased kindness and compassion really that drastic of a lifestyle change? Maybe it is, maybe it’s not. I only know that it feels right, and that I have not regretted anything I have done since waking up after open heart surgery.
That statement is so mind boggling that I have re-read it 11 times since I wrote it. From a life full of false starts and pointless daydreaming to a year void of regrets; it is a progression that I can’t understand, but one that I respect and feel fortunate to have awakened for and experienced.
On this anniversary I won’t preach about making your days matter or living life to the fullest because you all already know those things. You won’t get any witty sayings or Bob Dylan quotes because I have already given you far too many of those.
I just came here today to say thank you. Thank you all for everything you have done for me and to me this year. Your constant kindness is something that I cherish more than you can possibly know.
Now let’s get going, we have another whole year ahead for hair-brained schemes to hatch, smiles to uncover, kind words to share and helping hands to offer.
I’ll be waiting on the other side of the road, see you there.
Even by conservative estimations, 2017 was an eventful year in my life.
I brushed past death and was touched by greatness. I learned a myriad of new tricks, but had to be patient while relearning simple tasks mastered long ago. I learned more about myself this year than I had during the previous 40, and fell in love about 200 different times, with the same woman.
I never considered myself strong. For decades I would marvel at the feats of others, a curious wallflower that used the fear of nothing whatsoever to justify an existence on the sidelines.
When my heart attacked me in January my body went into survival mode, but at the time I don’t think my mind and spirit were up for the challenge. I was weak of mind while years of sadness had bruised my soul past the point of caring, and everything was finally catching up to me.
I’ve been asked countless times from the people around me why I didn’t seem nervous as the walls were closing in around me during those hours leading up to my open heart surgery. We all want to live, but a large part of me felt that I deserved whatever fate was to befall me, and that if I had died it would be a fitting end for a life not well lived. I would soon discover just how strong the human is and just how fluid fate can be.
Somewhere between being put to sleep before surgery and waking up half a day later I saw something. It wasn’t a bright light or a figure calling me home. It was an old fashioned photo album using my brain as the projector and my eyelids as the screen. The pictures started flipping and I could see myself in various stages of youth. Some images I recognized because they were actual pictures I have seen in photo albums my mother has, but others were moving images of actual memories. The album went forward, speeding up and slowing down as it traveled through my life.
I recognized myself as a young boy, plodding around while my mother chased after me. I saw clips of my brother and sister, pictures of my father holding me and even our beloved golden retrievers. It went on from there and included images of me growing up, and getting sad. The older I seemed in the photos the sadder I looked, but I saw my wedding day and the image of my wife in her dress standing before me and I smiled. I’m not sure if I was smiling on the outside, but I felt warm and happy on the inside despite the trauma and after effects of open heart surgery. After the image of my wife faded the album flipped through a few blank pages and that was it. It was gone.
As I approach the year anniversary of those events I am blessed, and cursed with so many moments to reflect on and emotions to understand. The one concept I keep returning to is being grateful, and not just for surviving the surgery because that, as I have found out this year, was the easy part.
I am grateful for starting over, even if the prospects of such an act frighten the mind. Everything has changed, so much so that I don’t recognize myself sometimes. I want to try new things and experience everything, so why, during countless occasions this year have I found myself paralyzed on my couch; sitting with feet firmly on the ground, hands on my knees, staring at nothing?
During a session in cardiac rehab one of my fellow patients informed us all of a new study that she had read in a medical journal about the life expectancy of cabbages. I can’t remember her name, but that vegetable moniker was a favorite of hers, and for those that are lost as I was it comes from Coronary Artery Bypass Graft (CABG) surgery, the one she and I had in common. She read with excitement from an article stating that survivors of the kind of surgery we had could expect to live about 17 more years. I’ll never forget the look on her face when she realized what she just told me. Now for her, in her mid-70’s, that news was terrific. Almost two decades of playing with grandkids, going to plays at Shakespeare and Company and tending to her garden were in front of her, but for me?
That walk home from cardiac rehab was rough. I sat on the couch for hours, wondering what the point of all of this was if I was just going to die young anyway. I reflected on those thoughts for a long time and that is where things started to change.
I thought about our first meeting with Doctor Shahani, my surgeon, when he told me how most men my age and with my arteries rarely make it to the hospital, alive. I remembered hearing about all the people that hung out with my family in the waiting room at the hospital, many never even being able to see me because I was resting or undergoing a procedure, and how after just a few weeks of cardiac rehab I was exercising for an hour without giving up or passing out.
Not long after that revelation from my fellow heart patient I had another revelation and it went something like this, “I’ve already beat the odds, and I have a lot of people helping me, what the hell do I care about what some dopey medical journal says?”
I graduated cardiac rehab on a great note, using the elliptical machine for the entire session and down to 222 pounds (from 238) to go along with stable blood pressure numbers. From there I hit hiking trails, reached a few mountain peaks and joined a gym.
There are still rough days. The internal struggle that plays on my mind after my most essential organ fails remains an extraordinary leap of faith. I can’t see inside my arteries and I have no idea if the lifestyle changes I have made are helping me. I only know how I feel and what I believe.
I have not wavered from my vegan diet and cannot imagine a scenario where I would. The amount of exercise I am doing on a weekly basis is something I have not approached since I was a teenager and the effect it has on my outlook and mood is astonishing, which is why, after being carted off to the ER in my third week at the gym I made sure to return the next night and exercise, even for just a few minutes.
There will always be the unknown. Fear of pushing my body too far and being taken to the ER again or worse, but not allowing my body to regress into its old form and my mind to retreat to a space of sadness and weakness instead of strength and love trumps everything.
In a year full of so many ups and downs everything becomes ups when you look at them from the ground. Some have referred to what I went through as tragic; they’ve called it a disease, lamented the fact of how I am so young or just nodded and wished me luck.
What happened to me this year was a gift. An amazing experience of enlightenment and understanding and one that I will cherish for the rest of my days, no matter how many of them are left. I am grateful for this year, and truly grateful for this life I get to lead.
Oh, and those blank pages I saw during my operational drug induced haze? One can interpret them to mean my life doesn’t have much left to it or the blank pages are waiting to be filled in with new memories. But when all is said and done, it only matters how I fill my back pages.
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.