Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Veterans Day...still relevant after all these years

The first time I was at all conscious of Veterans’ Day, I was actually still on active duty. The ship made a port call in Boston and I had driven the command’s van from our home port of Norfolk up the coast with a couple of crew members who were required to stay behind a couple of extra days. The 11th of the month was actually on a Saturday evening, so a couple of buddies, against all sane advice, decided to venture out into the one place we were all told not to go: The Combat Zone – essentially Boston’s red light district as I remember it. Why I consented to go is still a mystery to me.  Perhaps I was still just too young, impressionable, and wanting to fit in. While I wasn’t into carousing that evening, I do remember my compadrés trying to get free drinks since it was Veterans’ Day. Suffice it to say, they paid full price for their libations and their stack of ones was duly depleted by midnight.
Today, it seems like rather than we veterans trying to get a deal, it’s the retailers who are trying to draw us in and get our business. Thankfully, there are a number of restaurateurs and retailers who not only want our ongoing business, but are willing to pony up a free meal or discount to say as much. As a vet, myself, I’m grateful for people like these who aren’t just all talk. I do make it a point to say, “thanks” and I do write letters to recognize the good people do. After all, it’s too easy to complain and I see a lot of good in the world that all too often goes overlooked.
That said, there still is a lot of work yet to be done.
It would be very easy to rant about our continued involvement in South Asia, but it would be equally easy to question a lot of things about our defense spending. The role of US foreign policy isn’t something that is easily quantified in a post-Cold War world and crawling around a politician's mind to divine intent is better left to those who are  fluent in double-speak and innuendo! Diplomacy and policy are complicated as it is ,but its execution too often gets lost in translation as we see played out on the font pages of our favorite news rag. The United States has made a lot of commitments and despite a few diplomatic mis-steps, I think it's fair to say that our soldiers, sailors, and Marines will almost always be impeccable stewards of a sterling American reputation. If only we could get Washington on board on that same reputation, we'd have a winning combination!
When the Vietnam War was hot and heavy, we as a country were glued to the TV. Walter Cronkite read casualty counts as almost personal and I can remember being shushed out of the room as the footage showing that last helicopter left the US embassy's rooftop played on the CBS Evening News. It was tense and it was real and as our veterans came home to the country that not only drafted them for service, but as well subjected them to horrors that we can only glibly imagine through Hollywood’s filter. Yet, they were unbelievably spat upon and derided. Some still bear unseen scars and others just dropped off the grid.
Thankfully, we’re finally acknowledging our failure as a society to these returning veterans and trying to atone for some serious abuse to those veterans, but the political climate and bureaucracy in tending to these very real wounds is abysmally slow and the will to make things happen just isn’t there. Helping veterans makes for a great sound bite when it’s getting a WWII vet in a wheel chair into the memorial in Washington, DC, but getting a strapping doe-eyed 20-something mental health care after seeing his buddy vaporize in front of him isn’t so glamorous. Call it “shell shock,” “battle fatigue,” or now “Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome,” it’s the same and it’s debilitating. And we need to ensure our returning Iraq and Afghanistan veterans don’t suffer the same abuses and neglect our Vietnam servicemen and women did.
When requests for help from the Veteran’s Administration go on for months on end, especially from someone in dire need, that’s clearly unacceptable; when politicians use veterans for a photo op to make them look like they’re the solution instead of the problem, that’s unconscionable; when we, as a people, write off those who have the role of defending us to a sound bite or statistic, we’re kidding ourselves that we’re safe. We may not have Walter Cronkite tearing up on national news, but each death is still a person with family and friends. It's still very personal.
Now, let me say as a veteran myself, that I’m not suggesting that anyone owes me anything at all. I’m speaking from a vantage of witnessing relatives, friends, and fellow veterans at the VA hospitals where I’ve received treatment for leukemia. The vast majority of us are well-adjusted, despite our bumps, bruises, and illnesses, but when mistakes are made or when someone falls through the cracks, it's more than a bureaucratic screw-up...it’s a life and the rules are not the same as yours or mine. I’m not talking about the cardboard signs held by people claiming to be homeless vets on the side of the road and I honestly question the veracity of most of these anyway. I’m not even challenging the patriotism of the magnetic yellow ribbons on the back of vehicles (at least not today). I am pointing out that homelessness, substance abuse, and suicide are all the very real side effects of war service and we must, must, must never stop getting these people the help they need to return to the life they left and love.

More often than not, a vet just needs to be with another vet. There's just an unspoken understanding, a common language and a pride that is really hard to break through when crisis is at hand. Whether it's to regale each other with "sea stories," share common experiences, commiserate, or share a drink, the camaraderie that the military wrought is a bond unbreakable and despite the difference in the particular armed force we served, once we're a vet, the differences all melt away and we're all on the same team.

Here are some resources I stand behind. I know they will help and they are starting points where you can point veterans, contribute, or volunteer. Certainly, you can do your own search should you be so inclined.

From the Veterans Administrations for returning OEF/OIF veterans; for homeless veterans. When I'm at the VA asking specifically about these issues, I get answers because these particular issues have gnawed at me.  The VA may have its due criticisms, but they're doing what they can with limited resources to help our homeless and returning vets.
The American Legion - Simply veterans helping veterans...something I can get my head around. I am a member.
Veterans of Foreign Wars - To foster camaraderie among United States veterans of overseas conflicts. To serve our veterans, the military, and our communities. To advocate on behalf of all veterans. I see these people at the VA helping all the time.

Wounded Warrior Project - To raise awareness and enlist the public's aid for the needs of injured service members; to help injured service members aid and assist each other; to provide unique, direct programs and services to meet the needs of injured service members. I have contributed and would like to continue so with charity bicycle rides. You'll hear more about these people from me. They have my respect.

All I can say from being a veteran and a beneficiary of the VA health services, I am deeply appreciative of those who are involved in making a difference. The medical staff at both VA facilities I've been seen are compassionate and genuine and the volunteers that have brought in books, service animals, or just visited made a world of difference...and so can you. It doesn't take a lot of time or effort, just a little time and some heart. So many people don't have the support network I do and could truly benefit from your smile and attention.

You don't have to have the answers when it comes to solving veteran problems, but you can help and you don't have to do it on Veterans Day any more than you have to wait until Thanksgiving to lend a hand to the local food shelf or wait until Christmas to buy for an underprivileged family. The need is 24/7/365.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Golden Scars

At a low point in my life, someone very dear to me shared a little quip that, under the wrong circumstances, might be misconstrued as glib or insensitive. Yet the words were true because they carried the import of experience. She told me something to the effect that “Scars are beautiful because they prove that you heal.” Lately, those scars have a twinge to them much the same way people who have broken bones will tell you that certain weather will induce aching in the same areas as the break. I think the aching I feel is because I missed the mark again. It’s not like I missed the lesson from the first blunder…I got closer to getting it right, but I ended up hurting someone else in the process, something that heaps hurt upon hurt.

I find it ironic and infuriating that these circumstances make me want to be surrounded by people and at the same time left alone. Having been a tad under the weather as of late, the scales tipped in solitude’s direction. So I’ve had a lot of time to myself to ruminate in my own self-imposed ‘time-out.’ In my quiet times, thoughts either tend to spin out of control until they implode on themselves or they resolve into a core idea that has been chugging in the back of my brain for a long time. During these times of clarity, I get physically weary, emotionally fragile, and just plain spent. Suffice it to say, it doesn’t take much for a movie, a song, or nothing in particular to bring that familiar lump to my throat and I’m again finding myself wanting to be simultaneously with people to lean on and alone to ‘get it out of my system.’ Yet, the real thing that that pushed through lately is that it’s not that I want to be around people, but that I want to be around people who have a scar or two.

You know you’ve been around someone with scars because they come off as wise beyond their years; they impress you as authentic, and their encouragement doesn’t have a pitch at the end. Their time with you is truly selfless. Their smiles seem to communicate more than their words, yet they don’t let you simply vent without some sort of accountability attached—you can kvetch all you want, but be prepared to do something about it! These are the people I truly treasure.  Admittedly, as much as I wouldn’t complain about having a chiseled physique, a wrinkle-free face with gleaming white, straight teeth, and all the high-dollar toys, the people who typically have those things aren’t the ones who make me feel whole. The kind of person with scars doesn’t tell you what to do, how to do it, or heap guilt upon you for not doing it, but rather is there for you when you make the same mistake over and again, when you feel like you’ve fallen for the last time and don’t have the strength to stand back up, let alone, sit…but their enigmatic smile is there and they have a hand outstretched when you are able to finally muster enough strength to roll over and get your face out of the cold, fetid mud. The real kicker is that someone with one of these scars will probably not call attention to it; they may not admit to having one. And they’re the ones that lift you to their shoulders to publicly cheer you when you get it right.

No, the people who have the innate ability to put me back together are typically those who have been folded, spindled, and mutilated a time or two and rather than having let circumstances beat them into some pink slime, they have been refined into something beautiful yet malleable; and inexplicably, they find a way to become part of you. The best way to explain that kind of selflessness is in the Japanese art of Kintsugi—using gold to fill in the cracks in a piece of pottery and thus restoring the piece. The piece isn’t without blemish of course, but the original break now becomes beautiful. Its scar has, indeed become a beautiful thing, and has in effect made the original piece worth much more. I find that to be the case in my own life and in those who have survived emotional and physical ordeals.  After all, the old proverb, “Smooth seas do not skillful sailors make,” didn’t come about without a few storms or shipwrecks.
These people are all around us and they don’t typically stand out, but their examples do. Their courage isn’t the kind of thing that makes Hollywood movies, but rather the scorn of the self-righteous. They are the recovering alcoholics; they are the young women, caught in flagrante delicto, overcome shame and raise the child with great grace and dignity; they are the awkward gay kids who push past the bullies and get their degrees and decent jobs, even after being kicked out of their fundamentalist parents’ home; and they’re the people like you and me, who just made a wrong decision that had long-term consequences or even just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time and performed the great alchemy of turning sour grapes into vintage wine!

Healing is a miracle, and never more so than when you feel like you’re going it alone. But the great gift of healing is a beautiful mark left behind to remind everyone that you have become the miracle and now the agent for healing in someone else. That empathy born from your own pain is a powerful thing, but even more so is the wisdom of knowing what to do with it and when to let it rise up within you. It’s risky, it’s sometimes painful, and it’s often awkward, yet to the one who is broken, you are to them priceless, immeasurably beautiful, and permanently part of their beautiful scar…you are golden and restore someone to wholeness.

I encourage you to reflect back to the golden people in your own life and let them know how you are whole because of their gift to you.
This posting was originally published January 13, 2013. I've split my writing into different blogs: Opinion, The Leukemia Chronicles, and other Freelance Writing

Unlike Anything

Crossing the finish line after more than 500 miles. What an exhilarating feeling!

Two Saturday afternoons ago, I was riding down Pacific Coast Highway through some of the most beautiful and affluent coastal cities in Southern California, pushing through the final miles of the 11th AIDS LifeCycle toward the Veteran’s Center in Los Angeles.  During the previous six days, I had been pedaling from before sun-up to late in the afternoon, pressing the envelope of my own physical endurance and riding an emotional roller coaster ranging from elation to inexplicable feelings of empathy and grief for people I didn’t know. What kind of event could have drawn such an experience that crashes all borders and invades the spiritual? What had I gotten myself into, indeed!

The AIDS LifeCycle is an event that raises money for the San Francisco AIDS Foundation and the LA Gay and Lesbian Center’s Jeffrey Goodman Special Care Clinic. Both beneficiaries focus on providing state of the art medical care as well as basic needs for those afflicted with HIV and AIDS. Some of their research and treatment protocols push well beyond California and are adopted across the country and worldwide. Bypassing the statistics and the emotional manipulation one might expect from a fundraiser, I was put face-to-face with this thing called HIV. There was a face to the disease that transcended race, gender, sexual orientation, creed, and social status. There were people who told their stories, simply and authentically and that eliminated any need for trying to play on one’s heart strings. This was real and it proved beyond any doubt that what we were doing in raising money and awareness was saving lives. And it was instilling a sense of profound gratitude that made it progressively easier over the course of the ride, to push past any discomfort.

I did say easier, but by no means easy.  Determination and attitude will only get you so far, albeit quite some distance.  It still took a lot of personal dedication to the physical training to be able to ride a bicycle over 500 miles during the course of a week and I can personally attest to feeling not just a little saddle sore to accompany some aching knees and shoulders, numb hands, and tired-as-hell legs and feet! I can also attest to the extreme fatigue from pushing oneself this hard. But I will tell you that not since earning my naval aviator wings, have I ever felt so incredibly and completely delighted and genuinely satisfied in achieving something. And while there’s certainly a sense of accomplishment, there’s a selflessness that transcends achievement and pushes the ego aside to take center stage and joins each and every participant to a fellowship of sorts. It’s the kind of mysterious relationship that evokes tears for no apparent reason and makes even the most reserved person gush with enthusiasm. There may be some merit in the comment of someone very close to me, “It was a religious experience for you.” Bear in mind, I am not a religious person.

The LifeCycle Experience

So, what was it actually like then? Anyone who knows me at all will know that my personal life has pretty much revolved around getting ready for this event for the past several months.  My Saturdays were spent training and many evenings spent emailing and on facebook, working on fundraising. When it came down to the wire, fundraising was done, travel arrangements were made, and my bicycle was shipped to San Francisco. And then it was a matter of the challenge of packing and wrapping up the details to be out of pocket for seven days without the electronic conveniences that make up our 21st century lives. Well, I must admit to having my iPhone with me and charged up thanks to a solar charger and an external battery. No laptop, no TV, no NPR for seven days was a bit of a throwback to 20 years ago, but it really does give you an appreciation for having so much at your disposal. My rolling North Face bag was stuffed to the gills with seven sets of cycling gear (“kit”), camping gear, a toiletry bag, and a couple of outfits to wear in camp at night.  I also had a carry-on bag that included things like my helmet.  It was tight, but manageable.  Besides, I figured I’d have a good amount actually on the bike each day, so it would fit.  I also had a pack of postcards that I had planned on writing to my supporters to thank them from the road. What’s that they say about the ‘best of intentions?’ Yeah, yeah…I still have that pack and stamps virtually untouched but for two I actually did write out.  One of the pieces of sage advice was to leave all that at home because by the time you get in each night, all you want to do is shower, eat, and go to sleep.  Noted…and validated by this independent examiner.

When the alarm clock went off on Saturday, June 2, I was both exhausted from the early hour and excited to actually begin the trek I had been planning all this time. I made it to the sleepy little Orange County airport a good 90 minutes prior to my flight, knowing that the lines were practically nil, let alone before dawn on a weekend. And that was true for every airline except the one I was flying. Thankfully, I made it through the airline queue in time to breeze through the nonexistent security line which was oddly at the other end of the airport. The short flight to San Francisco had me arriving in time to get my baggage and hit the BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit for those of you who have never been to San Francisco) toward Daly City where the orientation process was scheduled to start at 10:00 am. I had a notion of dropping my luggage off at the hotel in downtown San Francisco and then riding back out to orientation, but found I was headed through Daly City anyway and decided to get off and store the luggage where I would be spending the day. No sooner had I gotten off at the BART station, I saw a line of taxis and decided to have them haul my luggage for me and get me directly to the Cow Palace, where the orientation was taking place and where the ride would originate the next day. Now, we’ve all heard the jokes about cabbies being foreigners and not understanding English, but those stories are well…probably based in truth. I went to the front of the queue and the cabbie took my luggage and put it in the trunk and I asked him to get me to the Cow Palace since I had no idea where it was.  He nodded and drove off and as we’re moving, started punching in details in his Garmin GPS unit on the windshield.  Yes, the bells started going off. I said, “Hey, that’s cheating.” He said that he had just gotten to San Francisco about a week ago from Yemen through his thick accent. I had him stop the cab and gave him the address and to put in his GPS. At least this way, I know he wouldn’t be taking me for the proverbial ride but rather taking me to the real place! He re-started his meter and we were off. Pulling off the freeway, I was relieved to see my teammates coming off a different line of the BART from the opposite direction and had him stop the cab.  I knew I would be with people who knew what was going on and if we all got lost, it would be together. But, these guys were, for the most part, veterans of the event.  We transferred to a bus and arrived at the Cow Palace about 20 minutes later en masse wearing orange knit beanies with silk leaves coming from the top.  These bright orange knit caps helped us find each other amid the teeming masses and they identified us as “Team OC." Yes, orange caps, Orange County…you made the connection!
At the Cow Palace just before Opening Ceremonies
The Cow Palace is a huge arena, the kind of place that is great for housing those teeming masses I was referring to (and part of!) and it was there we began standing in the many lines that would be much of our existence for the next week.  We began with a safety presentation that spanned the rules of the road and went through what we could expect on the route.  We also were reminded why we were there. “Nothing is more important than safety” was drilled into our cerebral cortex more than a few times and the message, “It’s a ride, not a race” capped off our time together as we met a few past participants sharing pieces of advice from their experiences. It put everything into perspective as we moved into another area to officially check-in, register, and get tent assignments. I was surprised at how organized things were and just how smoothly the whole process worked.  To have over 2,200 cyclists and 550 support crew (“roadies”) shuffle through without mayhem was an administrative marvel. Getting our gear from point A to point B and feeding us all would be a logistical miracle, yet the finesse with which it happened was truly amazing.
I got reacquainted with my bicycle that had made it unharmed from Orange County and pumped up my tires so I wouldn’t have to worry about it in the early morning, retrieved my baggage, and reversed the route with my orange-capped teammates to the hotel where I could enjoy a real mattress for a few hours that night.  We celebrated the beginning of our adventure together that evening at a nice Italian restaurant called Bocce, eating plenty of carbs, and having a fun walk back to our hotel through Chinatown.

4:00 am came early and I said good-bye to that lovely, comfortable mattress, donning the familiar, spandex armor that leaves embarrassingly little to the imagination. For those of us north of 40 and losing the battle of the bulge, it’s simply an admission of age. What can I say? I like to eat…and cycling makes you hungry! Alas, I digress. The Cow Palace was filled to overflowing with enthusiastic riders and roadies. This was really happening. Opening ceremonies was a mixture of elation and somber reminder of why we ride and it proved that AIDS is no respecter of age, orientation, gender, or race.  Once again, a familiar lump in my throat forced its way up as a veteran rider told the story of why she rode.  She relived the horror of finding out her mother was HIV-positive and given a terminal diagnosis, but was rescued from the literal brink of death thanks to the anti-retroviral drug cocktails…and then she introduced her to us as she was in the audience having lived over 20 years after that near-death experience…and to top it off, she was volunteering as a roadie. The arena broke into deafening cheers and applause and suffice it to say, her mother was an instant celebrity! It wouldn’t be the last time my emotions went on a roller coaster ride during the week. Lorri Jean, executive director of the LA Gay & Lesbian Center, a veteran rider herself, declared the ride open and the mass of humanity that is the LifeCycle surged toward the bicycle storage area to take to the streets of San Francisco amid more ear-splitting cheers. And so we were off!

Each day brought its own unique rewards and challenges, its own special circumstances that made it memorable. Day 1, apart from being exciting simply because it was the beginning of our trek down the coast was wonderful in that some of the most beautiful scenery I’ve ever seen was something I could smell and reach out and touch rather than see from a postcard or a coffee table book.  Our route took us out of the city to the coast and through a beautiful winding (and uphill) road through the forest to Half Moon Bay and then down to Santa Cruz.  Along this route, we were given some tail winds to blow us in toward the end of the day and I was not just a little surprised to see I had hit 48.6 miles per hour going down a hill, my fastest speed ever on two wheels.  I have no desire to reach 50 by the way. I usually pedal along between 15 and 20 on the flat surface with no wind, so this was extraordinary. Pulling into Santa Cruz after more than 80 miles was rewarding and a learning experience. Our baggage was sent ahead and awaited our arrival along with a tent that we pitched at a precise location on a grid amid a sea of identical temporary abodes. Oh, and then we could go shower, which was, in and of itself, another unique experience.  Having spent many years in the military, adapting to the environment is second nature, but finding where everything happens to be is always the challenge.  Our showers were essentially semi-trailers that were outfitted into semi-private shower stalls.  We always had hot water and a bank of sinks stood outside each trailer for shaving, brushing teeth, and restoring our unruly manes to human looking after a severe case of helmet head. There were about eight of these trailers and there never seemed to be much of a wait, if at all. They were separated out by gender and even “gender neutral” for those who were either in transition or for those who just wanted to get cleaned up and unfettered by modesty, I guess. Not surprisingly, there was never an issue about shower facilities.

The "Quad Buster"

As much as the weather was simply gorgeous on day 1, it turned south as we did.  Riding through strawberry fields, I couldn’t get the Beatles out of my mind…strawberry fields forever…because that’s what it looked like. And the aroma wafting off the fields was amazing! It was absolutely wonderful. One of the many people cheering us on held out strawberries for us to grab along the way and I have to say they were the sweetest and best tasting berries I have ever had.  I am totally spoiled now for the taste of a fresh strawberry. After the first pit stop, things started to cool down and there was a bit of a mist, which gave way to rain and wind and from what I heard, hail in some areas. By the time I got to the second stop, it was downright cold and all I could do to keep warm was get back on the bike and pedal.  Boy, was I regretting taking my rain gear out of my suitcase. The Weather Channel had no forecast of rain all week…yeah, right! Oh, by the way, 30% should translate as “pack your rain gear, boy!” By the time I pulled into the lunch pit at mile 48, it was really cold and I was met with the vision of space blankets everywhere.  The medical tent was in front of me as I arrived and the first thing I saw was someone totally wrapped up in silver Mylar.
I got my lunch and sat down under the eaves of an outbuilding and shivered while I ate. I decided to wait out the storm before heading on the remaining 60 miles, but before I could even finish lunch, the event coordinators closed the route. Some 1400 of us were all freezing together and it looked like we would be bused to the next stop in King City. Many were covered in the Mylar and others had trash bags keeping them somewhat dry.  I can thank my teammates for keeping me from getting downright hypothermic. Never had a group hug felt so good…and I think it’s fair to say that we were all keeping each other warm like some hive of killer bees!  At some point we were able to get into the student center of the community college across the street and dry out a bit.  And never one to miss an opportunity, the Mylar became the stuff of fashion! And never did the shower feel so good as it did that evening! And never was I so impressed at the quick logistics of getting so many people taken care of and to have no griping about the arrangements. We were all in it together.

Halfway to LA!
Day 3 brought the first of the monumental hills with a name. The “Quad-Buster” was a steep hill about eight miles into the day’s ride and it was the proving ground that showed my training had put me in good stead. I can’t say that I did it in style, but I made it. Likewise, day 4 held the infamous “Evil Twins,” a different kind of hill that wasn’t as steep, but a much longer climb and misled one to think it was conquered only to find a second peak hiding a few miles farther, hence the name. But it climaxed with a spectacular view of the Pacific and the official half-way mark of the ride and a lovely 13-mile downhill stretch. And there was much rejoicing! Day 5 brought a much needed day of comic relief that came not only in the form of a comedian at dinner, but as well the much loved “red dress” day.  The sight of a red ribbon going on for miles is truly awesome to behold and that was the original vision for it, but many have taken things literally and wear a red dress…and I must say some people should not wear dresses! Everything from spectacular evening gowns to sun dresses to costumes was seen.  I, being the more modest guy, just wore red cycling gear and called it good. Maybe next year, I’ll go halfway and wear a kilt with a red tartan. I should add here that day 5 was not the only day for creative wardrobe.  One team of six riders (two women and four rather burly men) had a great costume every day.  One day they all dressed as Dolly Parton. The guys pulling off a platinum wig and DDD bust balloons with their dark facial hair made for a great and indelible image! Another day, they were the wandering gnomes. Still another, a few were dressed as chickens and others as Colonel Sanders in pursuit. There were some dressed as oompa loompas of the Willy Wonka story. There was no lack of imagination! 

Day 6 brought us in to Ventura where we camped by the beach and held a candle-light vigil. It was one of the most moving experiences I’ve ever participated in and yet, not a word was spoken.  The sight of 3,000 candles created a surreal image of unity that flowed with passion and yet really showed the fragility of life and light. The vigil was ended with the extinguishing of the flames in the surf and the movement of the light toward the water was absolutely breathtaking and tragic at the same time. The way the flames flowed with the people and then went out was beyond words. And of course, day 7 brought both the sadness that our world that was described as a great big ‘bubble of love’ was about to be popped as the event came to a close and we went on about our lives. We wound our way down Pacific Coast Highway through some of the most exclusive and expensive real estate in the world and then we saw the sign that proclaimed we had entered the city of angels and it was beyond obvious that we had so many, many angels in our midst. It seemed fitting to end here. Team OC gathered at a Starbucks about a mile out from the Veteran’s Center where we would finish and rode in as one. Crossing that line that marked the end of more than 500 miles was a feeling that once again brought those tears as I pumped my fist in the air with thousands of people welcoming me and my fellow riders into the park. For the first time, my knees felt weak, but not from having pedaled so far, but from something else that I couldn’t describe and in the arms of so many teammates, we all just wept until we didn’t. We all had carried each other at some point, but it was time to just be (after making sure we had enough water of course!).
So ended the grand adventure amid thousands of my fellow riders and roadies, family and friends. It was not just a little overwhelming to be enveloped in so much love, to see so many smiles, to hear so much laughter, to be part of something so, so much bigger than oneself, and to know that we all made a difference in the lives of someone else. When I consider how many people gave financially and how many more gave words of encouragement, I’m awestruck at the magnitude of it all. It’s one thing to recount the highlights of a seven-day trip that was so utterly overflowing with…with stuff and junk and indescribable other things I can’t put words to, but it’s entirely another to be part of it, to experience the ineffable. 
My gratitude is genuine and my heart sincere when I simply say, “thank you” to the many, many people whom have given of themselves in whatever amount and in whatever fashion to make this possible, to my fellow teammates of Team OC who are now part of my extended family, to the thousands of riders, roadies, staff, and behind-the-scenes people who made ALC happen. You’re all awesome. I hope you know that…you’re all heroes.
This posting was originally published June 27, 2012. I've split my writing into different blogs: Opinion, The Leukemia Chronicles, and other Freelance Writing

In Memoriam

Joseph Stead Jacobson was born May 6, 1913. I found out yesterday that he was a 13-pound baby! The picture I have of him as a child shows him with curly blond hair and a bit of a cleft in his chin that followed him where the blond didn’t. What I knew of his early years was rather sparse, relayed through stories from my grandmother, my mom, and aunt as we looked through old photos and of course, the slide shows.

My grandpa has always taken lots of pictures and put his world travels onto slides. I can remember so many evenings after a Sunday dinner when he would break out the slide projector and screen and when I got old enough, I got to advance the slides. While in the Navy, I was on leave and brought out my young family to Utah. He put together a show for us and I saw for the first time in my life that I belonged – not because I was in some of the photos, but because I bore an uncanny resemblance to somebody in the family in a photo taken decades earlier.  My wife at the time saw it first.  She gasped, “You look just like your grandpa.” And sure enough, I did…or do. And as he passed peacefully this morning, I feel like a part of me has gone away. In a real way, it keeps his memory in the forefront every time I look into the mirror, even if I don’t have the cleft in my chin and my hair is only blond-ish. His turned rather dark.

I’ve been incredibly fortunate to have grown up with grandparents living close by. My memories of my grandpa are indelibly etched into my childhood experiences and it’s fair to say that my academic aptitude and love for the mountains came from time spent with my grandparents. One of my earliest memories was helping my grandpa carry corn out of the field behind their home. The bucket was so heavy and I strained at the load of un-shucked ears. Barbecue after hiking up the trails overlooking the Salt Lake valley in Millcreek Canyon sticks in my mind, but I think the trip that was the most special was a fishing expedition to the North fork of the Duchesne River where I remember catching four good sized trout in less than 30 minutes. Their VW camper was the ticket to adventure and I got to go. As I grew up, I don’t know that anyone was prouder than he, as a career Army officer, that I chose the military life (even if it was the Navy!). While he was part of the aptly-named “Greatest Generation” and a World War II veteran, he never spoke about his battle experience…but a couple of years ago, he let a story slip out about timing artillery rounds to arrive at the right time on the Germans. I do know he suffered from what was then euphemistically called “battle fatigue” or what is called PTSD today. War may be glamorized, but it is hardly glamorous and he bore some rather deep unseen scars. Photos of a uniformed Colonel Jacobson come to memory and a twinge of pride resurges.  When I was disillusioned and feeling like my life was about to crumble, he told me, “There’s the real and the ideal. Our aim in life is to get as close to the ideal as we can without losing the real.”

When my first son was born, my grandpa was there and when we brought the little guy home, the namesake first great grandson became “Little Joe” even though it was his middle name! That little guy is now 6’-3”!

Just as there are no manuals written to teach one how to be a parent, there aren’t any guidebooks on being grandparents. You just rise to the occasion and do what is in front of you. While I was figuring out who I was, my grandpa bore a bit of the brunt of my inner turmoil, yet he graciously took and redirected it and was still there when I walked home feeling like a failure. But if there’s one thing he exemplified, it’s reinvention. He had other careers after he left the military that had him learning and teaching at the same time. Amazingly, he was translating Turkish literature and selling the books on amazon.com well into his 90s, not because he needed the money, but because it was a new challenge.

My last face-to-face conversation with my grandfather was last summer when I was in town for my 30th high school reunion.  Sure, we chatted about family, work, traffic, and the trials of life, but more, he was still as sharp as ever, discussing Tolstoy and Hugo and other classics of literature and their thematic elements. If there’s anything I can learn from Joe Jacobson, it’s that reinvention is not optional, it’s inevitable. The question is simply a matter of how well and how completely to take that transformation. It’s never too late to learn, never too late to give, never too late to love. When I left that August morning, I still got one of those bear hugs I used to get when I was a little guy myself, including the sound effects, albeit with a little less oomph. I’m so very grateful that the last meeting ignored the failures, forgot the hurt, and never mentioned the mistakes but rather embraced the very best and filled us both with a genuine smile and shared lifetime of love.

My grandfather was 99 years old when he passed peacefully out of this life this morning. I’m feeling a bit numb and a bit lost right now and while it hasn’t fully hit me, I’m missing him. I will remember him always as the tough ol’ guy with a bit of a tender side.

Thank you, Grandpa, for your sacrifice for our country and for the gentle but abiding love you gave me and all of us. Be at peace.

This posting was originally published June 11, 2012. I've split my writing into different blogs: Opinion, The Leukemia Chronicles, and other Freelance Writing

It's a Wrap, Folks!

It's hard for me to wrap my head around the fact that after so many hundreds of miles, training is over for the AIDS LifeCycle.  The 545-mile, 7-day event starts in less than a week and I've got my plane ticket, arrangements for the bicycle to be shipped to San Francisco, my team kit, and all the other stuff pretty much ready to go.  Just need to pack...and that's gonna be a challenge.  Imagine camping for seven days, but riding your bicycle all day, every day in between.  There are some early hours and some stinky clothes to deal with, but there are also a lot of memories in the making and at the end of this, some real help to real people.

The training, the social time lost, the fundraising, the aches and pains, and all the other things that go into a monumental event like this, notwithstanding my own age, is all worth it.  My next entry will be after I get back from the event, but you can friend me on Facebook if you want to follow along on my progress...and of course, you can be part of the wonderful group of people pushing me along the way by contributing at www.tofighthiv.org/goto/toddpark


It’s a Wrap, Folks!

It’s official. Training is over and it’s now time to put everything in something the airlines won’t lose and look toward “Day 1” of the AIDS LifeCycle. While I have participated in other long-distance rides that support charitable organizations, the scope of this ride is not only a bit daunting, it’s really amazing. The sheer logistics of getting over 3,000 people from one point to the next every day for a week is an astounding task. And that’s before you factor in things like weather and mechanical breakdowns.

Suffice it to say, I have a lot running through my head.  It’s going to be a Herculean physical feat, to be sure, but I’ve found in the past that once you strip away the distractions of daily routine and the multitude of conveniences and electronic entertainment of modern American life, you come to your core – that person who you really are. You also come to the reason you ride in an event like this. You face your own selfishness and petty limitations and you push past them.  You find that there’s something in you that truly epitomizes that good and noble part of us that cries in rage at injustice, that sheds a tear at suffering, and despite the many abuses of our social safety nets, still perhaps feel a twinge of guilt in ignoring that homeless guy with the sign at the off-ramp.

I’ll be riding for the many people who have contributed and in memory of those who aren’t riding any longer. That is perhaps a bit sobering, but the fact of the matter is that AIDS is not, by any means, over. We still lose far too many people to something that can be treated, if not outright prevented, but we have to talk about the uncomfortable without blame and we have to reach out in compassion instead of judgment. Our society demands that we do at least that.

Fundraising continues although I will have met the minimum to participate. I have a multitude of thanks and acknowledgements to make but I’m going to save them for after the ride except to say in a general, but heartfelt way that I am appreciative and genuinely humbled by the outpouring of generosity that is allowing me to make a difference for so many others. It’s not too late to become one of the many people who have become heroes in my eyes. Please visit www.tofighthiv.org/goto/toddpark to contribute. Please let me know if there is someone you would like me to ride in honor or memory of. It would be my great privilege to do that for you. If you haven’t already, please include a physical address so I can send greetings from the road.

Warmest Wishes,
Todd Park
Rider #1136

This posting was originally published May 28, 2012. I've split my writing into different blogs: Opinion, The Leukemia Chronicles, and other Freelance Writing

Message Fatigue

A version of my posting below is on my AIDS LifeCycle page.  I struggle with fund-raising because I'm acutely aware of what the topic of money does to people.  I've seen people's faces change in front of my eyes when I bring the topic up. And let's face it, we all really don't like rejection.  Salespeople have the thickest skin of anyone I know, yet I'm sure the numbers of "no's" gets to them at some point. You know what the irony is? As part of my job, I'm asking for people to return money to my clients. The obvious difference is that the people I talk to professionally don't know me. Fundraising involves reaching out to friends...whom I want to keep as friends! The ideal situation for me, of course, would be to ride and have someone else raise the money!  Ah, in a perfect world! 

The thing that comes to mind is "message fatigue." We're hit from all sides and honestly there are so many needs that beg, no scream for our attention. But we have to find the causes that really speak to us. For me, HIV/AIDS isn't something that has affected me directly and I hadn't even known anyone that was affected by the disease until I wrote an article for a magazine about a charity event in Minnesota. I was shocked to find out that I did, in fact, know people, some of which were friends and even one family member.  It's not the only cause I contribute to or get involved with, but riding 545 miles on a bicycle makes it pretty significant.

* * *

Rarely does a day go by where I don’t receive some sort of direct mailing asking me to contribute to a charitable organization.  There are enough genuinely worthy causes amid the misery, famine, disease, poverty, hatred, inequity, political gerrymandering, culture, business proposals, and once-in-a-lifetime opportunities that I regrettably find myself jaded by the hooks, regardless of how really well-crafted they are. The voice in my head keeps saying, “I’ve heard it all before,” yet in my heart, I am at the same time grieved to the core and shaking with rage that humanity can sink to such levels.

Perhaps that’s why I decided to do more than write a check when it came to HIV and AIDS.  No, I’m not living with HIV; no, I’ve never seen the abject suffering first-hand; and no, I’ve never lost anyone I loved to AIDS. But neither can I stand idly by.  I chose to get involved and ride in the AIDS LifeCycle. I don’t care about gender, orientation, or race; and I don’t really care how someone got it. My response is simply to reach out in compassion and this is my way to do it.  For those who have reached out and donated money on my behalf, I’m sincerely grateful.

I’ve made my travel arrangements to get my bicycle and myself up to San Francisco the weekend this shin-dig starts and I have the time off work approved.  This must be happening! The many, many miles on my bicycle, the fundraising, and the mental preparation are all coming together.  I can’t tell you how much it means to have such a number of dedicated supporters backing me on this endeavor.  Physically, it’s the toughest thing I’ll undertake outside of my flight training, which was nearly 20 years ago! Emotionally and mentally, I think I’m there.  The last two long-distance charity rides I did (incidentally, also for HIV/AIDS) had me in the middle of nowhere facing the elements in solitude and that experience broke me down to my core.  It’s both exhilarating and sobering and it really is a spiritual experience because at some point during this trek, one comes to the physical, emotional, and intellectual end.  It’s just you and the bike against the elements…and here there’s no room for self. It reinforces the basic tenet of this ride: It’s not about me.

I’ve said this many times, but it bears repeating: I can’t do this without my supporters. Big thanks to my latest group of heroes who have stepped up and made contributions on my behalf:  fellow members of Tapestry Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Mission Viejo, Marilyn Schroeder, Susan Jagielko, and Beverly Huff, as well as our minister, Jennifer Owen-O’Quill; Naval Academy classmate, Curtis Pearson; and a member of the Midtown Writers’ Group in Minneapolis, Malyssa Woodward.  You all are indeed heroes!

This posting was originally published May 15, 2012. I've split my writing into different blogs: Opinion, The Leukemia Chronicles, and other Freelance Writing

In Praise of Parenthood

In high school, I had to carry around a hard-boiled egg for a week as part of assignment, ostensibly to teach us 17 year-olds that having kids was a full-time job.  We had to carry it with us everywhere – to every class, to the dinner table, to the movies.  The teacher signed the eggs to prevent us from switching out one that had escaped our grasp and some of the girls even made egg-cellent little carriers to show off their ‘kids.’ My nephew recently had a similar assignment.  I think it’s fair to say that eggs have come a long way, baby!  In my mind, the thing looks like a cross between a doll my sister carried around as a toy and something out of a horror flick (no offense intended to my nephew, whom I’m sure thought his kid was the best looking of the bunch).

At the conclusion of the assignment, he had to write out some of the lessons he had learned and I have to say, I was duly impressed, all familial biases aside. The other thing that impressed me was that he was open to more input from us old folks who actually had kids. The eternal class clown in me bandied about the temptation to post something clever on his Facebook page. It runs in the family and my very kind-hearted nephew didn’t sign up for that. But I stood the risk of having it come across as glib, cliché, or downright trite.

I stewed on it a bit.  After all, when someone has glimpsed something about parenting at his age that is beyond the movie stereotype, the response has to be with real time-honored, dare I say it, wisdom. I’ll give this a PG-13 rating for honest content, so if there are sensitivities involved, click the little ‘x’ and watch a YouTube video or something.  No harm, no foul.

So, my numbah one nephew, this is for you.

Marriages don’t always last forever, but once you’re a parent, it’s for a lifetime. When you’re in love, no one thinks about the possibility that there may be circumstances that end that bliss you’re feeling. Hormones rage in torrents through our bodies and we can’t imagine that the one we’re infatuated with could be anything other than our ultimate mate for life. No one else could possibly understand what we’re feeling. But things happen; there will always be misunderstandings that no amount of talking can explain; feelings get hurt; pride takes one in the chin; people split up.  But the kids…what about the kids.

Our family has different kinds of family structures and we’ve all managed to turn out OK. Is one better than another? I won’t go down that path because I was raised by your grandmother who was a single mom during a time when most women weren’t able to find jobs other than teachers, nurses, or something administrative like secretaries, bookkeepers, or clerks.  There’s not a thing wrong with professions like those, but I hope you see that women are capable of pretty much anything men are and quite frankly should be paid equally and more to the point, have the opportunity. The late 60s and early 70s were a rough time for a single mom. When my mom found herself a young 23 year-old divorcee in Salt Lake City, she found herself at the wrong end of a lot of upturned noses and gossip, yet she sacrificed what would otherwise be the best years of one’s life to raise your aunt and me. And she did it with a lot of grace and humor and bills for stuff we broke. And there were a lot of sleepless nights and questions she had to answer and the little league games and the gymnastics lessons and the clothes and the new dining room table that, on the day it was delivered, got bathed in lasagna fresh out of the oven. You grandma wasn’t just about business though. Sure, she found a way to pay the bills and keep us fed and dressed, but we laughed and played and to this day talk about the silly tricks she played on us to keep herself laughing when she just wanted to cry.  Being a parent is a precarious balance of obligation, childlike joy, unconditional love, and self-sacrifice. And growing up in that single parent home, I never lacked for a thing and although I grew up for the most part without a dad, I was equipped to be one myself because of what my mom instilled in me.

As you know, I ended up graduating from an Ivy League school and flying for the Navy.  Your aunt has been married for 17 years and has done so many things both professionally, as a volunteer, and now is a parent herself. And then there’s your own dad. Because he’s here, it shows that you don’t have to have the same blood to be family. Your dad’s dad was my stepdad. One thing my mom said to me about him that has always stuck with me. When they married, he filled the role of my dad even though he didn’t share my bloodline. Your grandmother told him, “You can’t discipline my kids until you love them.” I think he did come to love us and we took to him as well. Your dad came along when I was 13 and as “luck” would have it, found himself also the product of a single parent household when our mom was once again on the wrong end of a divorce.  And then there’s you. Like your dad and I, you understand what a single-parent household is like. You also have the challenge and benefit of a blended family. And then there are my kids, also products of single-parent households.  As far as I can see, we’re all doing all right. Why is that? Because the parents gave it their best and we all loved our children. I think that’s the ultimate answer in what makes the best family: love.  I won’t go on about what love is all about, but if you read between the lines of what I’ve written so far, you can see it has precious little to do with how you feel, but rather what you’re willing to do. 

Four of my five children have grown up and are flying out on their own.  My oldest is a parent herself now and I still scratch my head some times wondering how I could be a grandfather before I’m 50. But the little ones are there and growing into their own little personalities. I can see their mom in their faces…and in their mannerisms. The old “I hope you have kids just like you” is far from a threat. Rather it’s hope that their kids are as beautiful and wonderful as they are. My oldest son is well on his way to being a dad.  He’s dating a beautiful girl and I won’t be surprised when I get the phone call some day soon when he tells me that he’s engaged. Most recently, I danced with my daughter at her wedding and the tears that I had when she was born poured down my face as she rested her head on my chest while everyone looked on. True to form, I tried to make light of it by saying, “Everyone’s looking at us!” but the music played on and we shared the kind of moment only a father can share with his daughter. A lifetime of memories flooded through my mind as I remember the day she was born, her first steps and trying to feed her and her twin sister at the same time, the way she loved books and could read before her older brother, her favorite Disney characters, and before I knew it, she was a young woman talking with me more like a friend than a child. And the guy that tapped me on my shoulder would sweep her off her feet and they would run out the doors together to the waiting car.

It proved to me that despite the circumstances that caused my own divorce, my children would be OK. It was another opportunity for me to forgive myself for my own shortcomings and to extend that same forgiveness to my own father as I’m sure he has beaten himself up about his own first marriage. I think it’s fair to say that your dad has gone through that same sort of self-flagellation and forgiveness as well. But remember what I said?  Being a parent is forever, so although I may have been left alone on the dance floor, figuratively speaking, I was far from alone. Some day, if you choose to be a parent, I know without a doubt you’ll be a good dad. I say that because I see within you the capability to see others, to give, and again most importantly, to love. You already know that.  You already know that changing poopy diapers, and giving up sleep, and foregoing a night out with the guys in order to make the relationship or to stay with the kids so your other half can spend a night out is all part of being a parent.  Being a parent is pretty daunting, it’s a LOT of work, and the work never ends, even when they’re grown. Parenting is a lifetime commitment. But being a parent is pretty cool, too. You can be glad that you have parents who love you.

I have confidence in you. I really do think you’ll make a great dad. You have a great example to learn from.  Just take your time, will ya?

This posting was originally published May 13, 2012. I've split my writing into different blogs: Opinion, The Leukemia Chronicles, and other Freelance Writing