Doing Justice While Covering the Bases

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Last week I wrote about dealing with first-world concerns: parenting a beautiful child in a beautiful home in one of the most beautiful places on earth (Hawaii) while working at a wonderful job and trying to squeeze in enough time for my husband, playing the bassoon, writing essays and poems, and training for a marathon.

Poor, poor pitiful me!

While I understand completely that about 95 of the population of this good world would love to trade places with me, I still haven’t quite shaken this week thoughts that come into my mind that I’m perhaps not quite the parent or husband I want to be; that I could be cleaning the house more and make better meals for my family; that my lips get tired too easily after practicing the bassoon for half an hour or that my legs wish for a break after five miles of training; that I’m not writing the poems fast enough that are in my head; that I wish I could give even more to a job I love even though I work during the day, in the evenings, on weekends.

Oh what to do!

I know how lucky I am. I just want to do more. Billie Jean King once said that for all her success she savored the day when she felt she had played the perfect tennis match and that is why she stayed on tour for so many years. I asked her once if she had come close to perfection. She smiled and took the next question at the press conference. She kept playing. I think without saying anything she gave me great advice!

Covering the Bases

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How many of us reach that point of the year where we’re treading water, covering the bases, making check marks on a list, but still secretly hope for more?!

I’m in one of those month-long stretches right now. Four months to be exact.

Don’t get me wrong. I have a gorgeous daughter, born with an extra chromosome, who has defied expectations her entire life. But I still know I need to put in the hours to guide her with assignments she receives from wonderful teachers at a college prep school.

I have a job I love in philanthropy. But to do it well, I need to stay on task during the day and sometimes on evenings and weekends at least until early January, actually most of the year.

We live in a glorious home. But I’m a neatnik who sees dust, dirty dishes, or a chair out of place and feels relief after I’ve quenched my thirst for a tidy universe.

I’m also a husband who understands a marriage takes work, a bassoonist who is aware when he is skimping on practicing, a marathoner who wishes to put in a few more miles, and a poet and essayist who sometimes can’t wait to create.

Of course these are first-world concerns. I’m beyond lucky to have them. I could be sitting alone not sharing these thoughts with anyone far away from the unspeakably beautiful mountains of Hawaii and the ocean that surrounds us.

I just need to remind myself of this every day for the next several months and hold others in the Light who are not as fortunate.

Lifelong Pursuits

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When I watched the stunning US Open final today between Emma Raducanu and Leylah Fernandez, all I could think of was how lucky they are to have the right people guide them to such a moment in their young lives. Having a great team, mentors, and role models make it possible for talent to emerge. I hope Emma and Leylah stay as grounded as they appear to be with their new fame and fortune. Their lives will never be the same, and I pray that they will continue to love everything about tennis for many, many more decades. The sport is so lucky to have them.

I’ve been lucky to have poetry and prose writing, mainly essays and human-interest stories, as companions for a long time. But that’s only been possible because of my teachers, mentors, and role models who now include my husband and two wonderful editors who take time and interest in my poems and essays. One of the editors corresponded with me this week, and each time she suggested a few tweaks for my latest essay, it was much better. I even was able to talk with her about faith which I think is essential to any worthwhile endeavor, especially when it sometimes can be solitary like writing, training for a marathon, or improving as a tennis player.

I’m still thrilled, after all these years, when my writing is published! I tell my young daughter to focus on the joy of doing something, and that recognition for the pursuit is icing on the cake.

But I quietly love seeing my daughter go after rewards and put in the effort to achieve them. I doubt she will actually ever play in US Open finals, but I pray that she’ll continue to have her own moments of glory that will always give her encouragement even when she doesn’t win.

Waiting to Leave

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The title of this post hints at something ominous, but I’m in a pretty good place in my job, my marriage, and in fatherhood although I’m a long ways from perfection.

And always mindful, especially during the pandemic, to take nothing for granted!

All the title means is that two pieces of writing, a poem and an essay, finally left my head after decades.

The poem is about a scene from my early childhood. I’ve been processing this hour of my life for around 50 years. Some hours are more “weighty” (to use a Quaker term) than others.

The essay includes a scene from my first job after college, and that, no surprise, also took place decades ago.

Could they have been written sooner? Probably, but they weren’t ready.

Both were stretches for me as a writer. I searched for the right words to describe emotions I felt as a child whose world was his parents’ and grandparents’ homes, as young man, barely in his 20s, fearless in a big city but plenty vulnerable, and finally, as a middle-aged guy trying to make sense of what those scenes meant or mean now.

I’ve never been someone who takes his writing through many drafts. I’ve been lucky to have great teachers and editors, including my mother whose home was filled with books and magazines. She guided, as a high school teacher, students who went on to win national awards. She helped me learn to be my own best critic although now I also lean on my very patient husband and have a wonderful editor who reviews my essay submissions.

My newest poems and essays pretty much go through four or five drafts, a few even seven or eight. As I get older, I’ve realized how much I gain when I strive for the best words possible for where I am as a writer now.

My full-time job isn’t writing although poetry informs everything I do. I work in philanthropy, and I’m a dad and husband (and a lapsed bassoonist and weekend marathoner). Before my busiest time of year at work, which is from September through early January, my daughter starting a new school, and training for another marathon, I wanted the poem and essay to leave my head. I called out to them, spoke to them when I was in the shower or cooking.

Finally they were ready to go. It was a thrill to meet them in their new form. If they are published, I’ll share them with all of you.

Keep visiting those ideas that may be in your heads. Write, paint, or compose music to process them. In some ways, they are lifelong friends.

Leaps of Faith

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It’s hard to be brave when each new day brings a report of a record number of COVID infections, especially when you have an 11-year-old child born with an extra chromosome who is unable to be vaccinated.

Fortunately, I am able to work from home, and my beautiful, smart daughter began 6th grade yesterday in our living room, identifying countries in Europe, finding joy in multiplying by 11, and writing an essay about Venus and Serena Williams.

I am asking her to be brave when I take in the news and she asks questions about when the pandemic will end. I ask her to be patient when she wonders when she will see her classmates. I ask her find joy when we take walks in beautiful cemeteries in Hawaii, far away from people, many of whom are not wearing masks. I ask her to keep learning and yearning, to be tenacious.

And then I follow a maxim I have always believed in: if you ask someone to do something, be willing to do it yourself.

So today I spoke (virtually) at a school assembly about lifelong friends which for me have been poetry, tennis, and the bassoon. I actually played the bassoon a little, the first time in too many years to count that I played in front of dozens of people!

When I was in my 30s, I discovered the joys of running marathons, and took a leap of faith by believing the most beautiful person I ever met might actually start a relationship with me. We’ve now been married for almost 20 years.

But back to those first loves: I’ve been lucky that they are still with me, that there are few things better than hitting a great forehand, than striving for more with a new poem, than breathing a sigh of relief after playing an instrument in front of an audience and having it go pretty well.

In some ways I’ve played it safe in life, especially during the AIDS epidemic, and even well into middle age I still like gold stars now and then. But I don’t need as many as I used to because poetry, tennis, and music brought me a deep reservoir of rewards: great friends I met on the tennis court or in orchestras or at poetry readings; scholarships and opportunities to see the world; and encouragement and companionship from great teachers, including members of my own family, especially my mother who loves poetry.

It can be terrifying during a pandemic to try something new or to return to a friend or interest one hasn’t visited in a while. But if done safely, the rewards are so worthwhile, long-lasting, and about as eternal as eternal can be.

Measuring Up

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I sometimes wonder if I’ve been an overachiever or an underachiever.

I graduated with a dual degree from college when I was 20. After one year of working for an attorney for the German consulate, I received a prestigious scholarship. Two years later, I worked in an embassy.

At this point, with a promising start early in life, I had all kinds of opportunities for advanced degrees. Over the next several years, I took a dozen classes for three different Master programs, none of which I ever completed. I wish I could combine all the classes (translating, theology, foreign language teaching) into one category!

I won many national poetry awards as a teenager, later studied under two world-class poets, and have never stopped writing poetry. Although my poems have been published in magazines and anthologies and shown in exhibits, I’ve yet to write an entire book of poetry with a unifying theme.

I’ve followed sports since I was a kid, especially tennis, and was a contributing editor for two years for a tennis publication (a part-time job while I was holding down two full-time jobs), but I never became a dedicated sports journalist.

I’ve completed 31 marathons, but my fastest time is 3:40 and that was long ago!

I’ve resumed bassoon lessons after a multi-year lapse, but I haven’t played in an orchestra since I was a teenager.

I’ve worked in philanthropy for many years, and have loved the organizations I’ve been part of. I hope I’ve done my part to advance them. But I’ve never striven to be a high-powered executive. I’m a more low-key kind of guy!

I guess I’m the proverbial turtle who makes it to the finish line. My passions, which now include my husband and daughter, have been with me most of my life, keep me excited and motivated even though I know I’ll never be spectacular at them.

Just reliable … and happy to keep going!

Facing Regrets

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My beautiful digital piano finally went on the fritz this week the very day I had begun teaching my daughter how to play it!

My initial thought was, “No this can’t be true. There must be a way to reverse this happening!”

Guess what? There wasn’t.

A very knowledgeable technician kindly and gently broke the news to me: the piano had survived much longer than it was supposed to, a kind of miracle.

As I processed the loss, I was soothed by his words, but regretted that I had not started piano lessons earlier with my daughter.

At least she learned how to play the C major scale!

Earlier this week I wrote a new poem that had been in my head for nearly a month, waiting to finally come out.

Unusual for me, when it did, I took it through two major and seven minor drafts. I let the poem rest for a day, then decided it was one of the best I had ever written.

Before I thought too hard, I submitted it to a major magazine.

I’m glad I didn’t wait. I might have had regrets.

Lately, I’ve been thinking about my two best friends in college. Ron and I played on the tennis team together. I think we probably both knew we were gay, but in our day it was difficult to admit that. Even without coming out to each other, though, we spent many hours as friends off the court. We celebrated after our wins and sometimes cried gently together after our losses, be the victories or defeats related to tennis or some other part of life.

I graduated early from college, eager to explore the world. I wish I had stayed in touch with Ron, and with the pandemic making me more reflective, I’ve wondered what his life is like now.

My other best friend, Christopher, texted me this week. Soon after I called him. It had been years since we had spoken, but I did not wish to regret not taking the opportunity to catch up. We promised not to wait too long before calling each other the next time.

After Christopher and I spoke, I received a message from a gentleman who was a kind, caring, fun, smart, inspiring friend in the part of my life history after college, my divorce from my wife, my floundering for a long time trying to find a man with whom I could start a family. Scott encouraged me every step of the way. Like Ron, he was always available when I stumbled. Like Christopher, he helped me laugh and not take myself too seriously.

I wish I had been a better friend in return. I have lived with that regret for a long time. I finally wrote Scott and apologized, but it had taken me 12 years to do so.

Fortunately, he accepted my apology. I felt relief and excitement, hope that maybe after all I could resume a part of my life that I had missed.

I’ve started taking bassoon lessons again. I’m trying to be a better husband to the man I’ve been with for 19 years, a more generous father to our glorious daughter, a more giving friend, a writer who takes more risks without regrets.

I am grateful to my family and friends for their patience and not giving out on me like my piano finally did, that I still am excited when a poem can no longer wait to be written, to be able to finish another marathon before my legs go on the fritz, for having a great job, and to be mindful of savoring each new day even during this horrible pandemic.

Of Marathons and Athletes Who Never Give Up

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The Olympics have provided a wonderful albeit temporary escape from the anxiety that finds its way every day of my life these last few weeks as the COVID case numbers reach record heights in Hawaii.

I wish the Olympics could go on forever, although I reckon most people involved with hosting them in Japan will breathe a sigh of relief once they are over.

It has become a tradition that the marathon is the final event of the Olympics. This morning, to put myself in a good frame of mind for the new day, I read an article about Shizo Kanakuri, considered the “father of the marathon” in Japan.

I had never heard of him before.

Shizo was the first athlete from Japan to qualify for the Olympics, and at age 21, traveled thousands of miles in 1912 by train, boat and foot just to compete in the marathon in Stockholm. The train, running through Siberia on its way to Sweden, afforded little opportunity for Shizo to train. When he finally arrived in Stockholm, he was exhausted, unfamiliar with new food, and in a quick hurry to get used to a blistering hot summer.

But he showed up at the start line with the other marathoners, and completed nearly 18 miles.

And then he disappeared.

Perhaps, and I think most likely, Shizo was running hard for his country, was overcome by heat stroke and became disoriented. Having completed 31 marathons in all kinds of conditions, I’ve been there.

In any event, he stepped off the course and was fortunate to be looked after by a farmer and his family. He was fed, given fresh clothes, and a safe place to sleep and process his deep disappointment.

What he did with his disappointment is beyond inspiring.

Shizo wrote in his diary that he felt ashamed but would take his heart’s heavy burden back to Japan, become a better marathoner, and devote the rest of his life to encouraging and coaching thousands of young athletes to believe in themselves and go the extra mile.

He also became a man of mystery. In the days before social media, many people in Sweden and other parts of the world promoted the fable of a runner eternally in search of the finish line.

He actually competed in two more Olympics in 1920 and 1924, and, in 1967 was reunited with the farmer’s family who saved him. He then crossed the finish line in Stockholm.

It took him almost 55 years.

And here I lick my ego wounds if my middle-aged legs take five hours or more to complete 26.2 miles!

I won’t any more.

I will try to live up to the nobility of my new hero, Shizo Kanakuri.

Waiting Out the Wave

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It is believed by some in Hawaii that the Polynesian demigod Maui captured the sun who was then released only after promising to move slower across the sky.

The pandemic has taught me to savor everything in life a bit more: family, friends, work, poetry, music, my faith, running three miles safely outside while my daughter plays nearby instead of 10 on my own to stay in shape.

It has also forced me to appreciate how to wait.

I’m not good at it.

When I was young and entered poetry contests, I became impatient if announcements of winners were delayed.

When I went out on what for me were good dates, I would often have to stop myself from calling right away to find out if the other person felt the same.

I’ve wanted to finish tennis matches before the last point, race through the last mile of marathons when my legs have told me to be more moderate, know how stories end before I’ve read the last page.

And now new waves of the coronavirus are taking over Hawaii where my family and I live, where we have felt pretty safe.

The seven-day positivity rate has taken off.

My own positivity rate is being tested.

It’s been 18 months of many Zoom meetings, of helping my daughter learn remotely, of wanting to taste clean, fresh air, but being a bit afraid to do so, of literally holding my breath many times during the day.

But this morning, running my three miles in the park while my daughter was within my view but alone while trying new moves on an outdoor fitness station, I told myself to look up at the sky and its healing embrace.

Before my family and I left the park, I thanked an elderly couple who had been practicing hula, telling them that I wished to join them some day.

We all smiled through our masks and bowed to each other, and I kept smiling as I rejoined my husband and daughter, grateful for the moment, a little more content to wait.

Staying Fit

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I completed my 31st marathon yesterday.

Fortunately, because of the pandemic, the number of entrants covering 26.2 miles on an official race course was small, and the roads were pretty wide open with few runners going near each other.

It toom more than four and a half hours, and I vomited because I ran the first 14 miles way too fast, then fell around mile 19 and nervously smiled at the cars passing my so if anyone tried to help me and prevent me from finishing I would send the message that I was fine.

Except I wasn’t for a while!

My legs started seizing up and I had that dread feeling that I might not make it to the finish line for the first time ever in all these years of entering marathons.

I called my husband, swallowed a lot of mustard I had carried with me, cried a little, and began a slow shuffle up the final hill until my legs unfroze and I knew I would receive my finisher’s certificate!

So why put myself through this?

In spite of new sunspots on my face and fresh webs of veins on my legs, a personal triumph makes up for the minor slings and arrows one learns to endure as part of life every day.

And I was lucky to share with others on the marathon course their or triumphal moments as they were facing their own challenges!

They, too, battled through doubt and exhaustion to feel like king or queen for a day!

I don’t know, though, how much longer I can keep this up, or perhaps even want to, so for the past year or so I’ve been striving for other ways to enjoy what the brilliant Austrian author Stefan Zweig called Sternstunden!

I’ve been writing more poetry, and have been fortunate to have it included in soon-to-be published magazines and books.

I’ve been spending more time with my daughter and husband who inspire me every waking hour.

I’ve been diving into a new job.

And I’ve been enjoying being a bassoonist again after quite a few several-year pauses!

I woke up yesterday morning, drank my coffee, dressed for the marathon, and for an hour worked with my bassoon teacher, remotely, on improving my rhythm, timing, breathing, and tone.

My family then drove me to the marathon site and I began my miles, focusing on rhythm, timing, and breathing!

When it was over, I thanked my coach, hoping to strike the right tone, posed for a picture with him, and drove home with my family.

I cried in the car, feeling huge relief.

After a bit, I took out the bassoon again, because I’m an idealist, wanting to add to the progress I had made earlier in the day.

Guess what?

I felt a little out of breath!