Hope in the Time of COVID – What is Life All About

Enjoying a few moments of freedom from COVID on Pebble Beach

“Be still before the Lord and wait patiently for him; fret not yourself over the one who prospers in his way” ~ Psalm 37:7

***

On May 20, 1976, an amusement park located just 30 minutes from home opened to much community fanfare. Marriott’s Great America had roller coasters and other thrill rides. The park’s advertisement boasted “lavish musical shows, parades, marching bands, street performers, and even a circus.” It was the most exciting thing to happen in Santa Clara County during my childhood.

Everybody had gone to Great America that summer 45 years ago. My teammates at little league practice were stunned when I told them that I hadn’t been there yet. I’ll never forget the way I felt when the coach, acting very much like a 12 year-old instead of a wise leader, laughed and rhetorically asked, “you’ve never been to Great America?” I suffered from FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out) that day, decades before venture capitalist Patrick McGinnis came up with the term.

I ultimately got the chance to experience the excitement of Great America with a neighborhood friend. I think it was the next summer. Growing up, my family had everything we needed, but extras depended on household cash on hand. I’m sure my dad finally let me go when he had enough money for me to pay for what I needed to enjoy the experience. Needless to say, the word need was defined by my dad. There would be no souvenirs for me.

My mom used to say that things happen cuando Dios quiere (in God’s time). Her belief was the rule when I was a kid because there was no other choice. Following a triumphant return to college, I had my own beliefs and sought to manage my own timetable vowing to never miss anything that could make me happy. Ambition and anxious energy controlled my life. I foolishly figured that there would be no FOMO for me if I just didn’t miss anything.

My fear of being excluded from personal or professional opportunities was real. I made a commitment to be at every family gathering, business meeting, social get-together, and community event. It would not be unusual to work late into the night on the east coast and take an early flight home to attend Sandra and the girls’ school activities. That strategy didn’t work out very well for my health in the long run. Of course, that’s another story. 

Surviving a massive heart attack, 10 years of heart failure, 17 months connected to an artificial heart pump, and a heart transplant have all but eliminated FOMO from my psyche. Faith, selfless family love, reading the works of ancient wisemen, and psychotherapy have put life’s “wanna do’s” in perspective. My understanding of “wants” vs. “needs” is stronger than ever (see: https://esereport.com/2021/07/15/desire-isnt-our-friend-what-is-life-all-about/).

Unfortunately, for people who have compromised immune systems, the Pandemic of 2020 isn’t close to being over. According to a Johns Hopkins University study, nearly 15 million Americans are “unlikely to mount strong immune responses to COVID-19 vaccines.” That includes patients with organ transplants and chronic medical conditions or autoimmune diseases, such as diabetes, HIV, cancer, lupus, multiple sclerosis, and rheumatoid arthritis. 

Doctors at Johns Hopkins confirmed that the vaccine “isn’t sufficient to enable [people vulnerable to infections] to dispense with masks, physical distancing and other safety measures.” My immune system has been further weakened by intensive IV treatments to fight off heart rejection (see: https://esereport.com/2021/07/05/finding-meaning-what-is-life-all-about/). That means that Sandra and I still have to shelter-in-place and be extra careful about social interaction.

Sandra is fortunate to continue working from home, but she misses the camaraderie of the office and the professional interaction that comes with her work. I recently presented a virtual workshop on networking and I’m currently preparing for virtual civic engagement seminars. Speaking with groups online isn’t the same as being in a room. It’s really hard to exchange ideas with people when I don’t get feedback or can’t see facial expressions and body language.

This reality is a perfect breeding ground for FOMO. Since the lifting of restrictions, we’ve missed many experiences that would be otherwise normal for us to participate in. This spring, we stood outside of a church while the rest of the family mourned the passing of a beloved uncle inside. We’ve missed college graduations for my godson and our niece, a memorial service for a cousin, our oldest compadres’ anniversary dinner, and numerous family gatherings. 

At times, it feels as though we are on a deserted island watching family and friends enjoy vacations, gatherings, ball games, parties, and the trappings of a “normal” life. Sandra is a beacon of strength and an apostle of God’s love as she remains laser-focused on protecting me from a potentially fatal infection. It pains us to let loved ones know that we won’t gather unless protective 2020 CDC guidelines are in place, including the recommended period of quarantine.

With more warm days ahead and the holidays right around the corner, many more of these celebrations are still to come if COVID doesn’t mount a nasty comeback. Does all of this cause us sorrow and regret? Of course it does. But we have faith in what St. Paul the Apostle teaches in his letter to the Romans where he tells us “to rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope.”

It’s been a long time since the FOMO demons have entered my consciousness. More than a year into the COVID pandemic hasn’t changed that, especially since everyone was in the same boat throughout 2020. There was nothing going on to miss. For most people, the pandemic is over now. Masks have been tossed aside, large public events are back, and families and friends are playing catch-up by getting together like there’s no tomorrow.

Are we envious of others who get to enjoy the fruits of their sacrifices from last year’s isolation? It’s hard not to be. Sandra has always turned to her strong faith in tough times. My long journey with heart disease and the hardships that we’ve weathered have taught me to trust in God. We’re comforted by the wisdom of Psalm 37:7 and try to genuinely cheer for family and friends who can celebrate freedom from the pandemic. Like my mom used to say, our chance to join them will come in God’s time.

For months, the transplant team has suggested that we take a getaway from the seclusion of our house and the drudgery of regular outings to the doctor’s office and lab. We took a drive to Carmel to spend a day at the beach where we gleefully ripped off our masks to walk along a secluded section of the seashore right below the scenic and historic Pebble Beach Golf Links.

At the end of the beach, I listened to the ocean water lap against the rocky shoreline where we sat and reflected on how blessed we were to be there. To be sure, it wasn’t the same as drinking Jack and Cokes at a resort with friends or dancing in our compadres patio while sounds of familiar and cheerful voices echoed in the background.

Missing from the moment was FOMO itself. Watching people in the distance prancing in the water gave me hope that life will march on as long as I take care of myself and Sandra is by my side. As COVID and sure to follow restrictions try to creep their way back into our lives, people will no doubt be unhappy and downhearted. We have to keep in mind that as a community we survived the 2020 surge. If need be, we can do it again

As Sandra and I made our way back to the car, we spotted a couple of young women sitting on the sand enjoying the sight and sound of waves crashing onto the beach. We asked them to take a photo of us to commemorate our joyful day. Before reached the busy parking lot, we slung on face masks and returned to the real world of sacrifice and discipline. There was nothing to fear. The serenity of Carmel assured me that there is hope in the time of COVID. 

Desire Isn’t Our Friend – What is Life All About?

Pacing the sideline at the James Lick Invitational Tournament – 1988

2nd Noble Truth of Buddhism: The root of all suffering is desire.

“You can’t always get what you want. But if you try sometimes, you might get what you need.” ~ Mick Jagger & Keith Richards

***

I was in the 6th grade the first time my dad took me to the James Lick high school Invitational Basketball Tournament. It was a neighborhood institution that kicked off the holiday season. The gym was packed. I was mesmerized watching players run back and forth in a choreographed ballet to the soundtrack of basketball shoes squeaking on the polished maple floor. Cheerleaders jumped, chanted, twirled, and fired up the crowd. The whole scene was intoxicating.

I’ll never forget the excitement I felt watching the winning team cut down the nets as a souvenir and seeing the all-tournament team clutching trophies at center court as the crowd cheered. From then on, one of my dreams was to play in the tournament. I looked forward to someday standing on a ladder to snip a little piece of the net as a champion and imagined holding an all-tournament player trophy of my own.

Six years later, I had my chance. As a senior at James Lick, I was co-captain and starting shooting guard for the varsity basketball team. We won our first game on opening night. I had a good game and earned a top 10 spot on the all-tournament vote tally. So far so good. For the first time in my life, I understood what it meant to want something really bad. My stomach churned with excitement and anticipation.

After the game, a bunch of students celebrated the victory at the neighborhood Round Table Pizza. My teammates and I walked into the place like conquering heroes. On the way home, my friend lost control of his car and crashed it head-on into a telephone pole. A few hours later, I was sitting in the Kaiser emergency room as a doctor stitched the deep cut on my forehead. My dad looked at me with his signature furrowed brow of disapproval.

The doctor said no to basketball for a week. I was miserable the next day at school and the day after. It felt like my dog had died all over again. I suffered sitting on the bench wearing jeans and a letterman jacket watching my team lose the next two games. Something that I had wanted since the 6th grade went up in smoke right before my eyes. There would be no nets to cut down, no all-tourney trophy to hold at mid-court, no cheering crowd.

Eight years later, I had another chance. I was pacing the sidelines in my second season as the head varsity basketball coach at my high school alma mater. My team was playing in the championship game of the tournament. I wanted to win that game so much that I could taste the silk net that we would cut down when the game was over. The other team had different plans. At the end of the first half, it was still a close game, and then it wasn’t. We lost by a wide margin.

My insides literally ached from disappointment. I couldn’t sleep and barely nibbled at mealtime. Each time I walked into the gym in the weeks after the tournament, I second-guessed my losing game plan and rehashed the visual of that car coming face-to-face with an immovable object 8 years earlier. Wanting high school basketball glory had been so intense that the letdown was brutal.

Looking back on the events of 1980 and 1988 seems so quaint now. My intellectual journey of spiritual and philosophical discovery has opened my eyes about what causes so much pain and suffering in our personal lives. Throughout history, sacred texts, philosophers, and psychologists have told us that temptations and cravings are sure paths to unhappiness and sorrow. 

According to Hebrews 2:18 “he himself has suffered when tempted.” While sitting under the Bodhi tree, the Buddha realized that desire leads to suffering. Roman philosopher Marcus Aurelius put it bluntly, “If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it.” Swiss psychologist Carl Jung said, “Desire without forethinking gains much but keeps nothing, therefore his desire is the source of constant disappointment.” The bottom line is that desire isn’t our friend.

Even though we have 2,500 years of wisdom to turn to, we keep making ourselves miserable. I was so tempted by the romantic illusion of cutting down the net in front of a cheering crowd as coach and making the all-tourney team as a player that my craving to achieve these desires was more powerful than the game itself. In the end, the pain and suffering I brought upon myself wasn’t caused by the game. It came down to not getting what I wanted.

Read that paragraph again.

It’s an eye-opening realization that’s worthy of deep reflection. Was I distraught because we lost the game or because I wanted to win so desperately? Those two thoughts might sound the same, but they’re different. Looking back on many of the darkest emotional chapters of my life, I’ve come to accept the universally recognized philosophical truism that desire and temptation cause suffering.

Last year’s Covid pandemic is a perfect example of this belief. Nearly every conversation with friends and family shifted to frustration, impatience, and unhappiness about having to wear masks and not being able to have a “normal” life. The desire to see friends, go to a restaurant, visit loved ones in the hospital was overwhelming. The CDC reported that “40% of U.S.adults reported struggling with mental health or substance abuse” last summer

As the classic Rolling Stones song goes, “You can’t always get what you want. But if you try sometimes, you might get what you need.” We tied ourselves in knots over things we wanted to do, but we needed to stay alive and out of the hospital. Most people who tried to follow the guidelines are still here. Can you imagine how less complicated life would’ve been if we accepted the restrictions without the emotional damage we inflicted on ourselves? 

Does that mean we shouldn’t have desires or want things? Do I want to live my life without having to focus on transplant issues on a daily basis? Do I want to drink lots of beer and have a bunch of Mark’s hot dogs? Do I want to walk my daughters down the aisle? Do I want to live long enough to spoil grandchildren? The answers to these questions are yes, yes, yes, and hell yeah! The reality is that God commanded the first 2 wants and He will dictate the last 2 as well. 

If I had my way – which I’ve clearly learned that I don’t – I would eliminate the word want from my vocabulary. When the thought pops into my head, I try hard to think it through before I say it, even to myself. Life is a tough gig. If these very smart dead guys are to be believed, we bring emotional pain onto ourselves. I’m giving them the benefit of the doubt. 

There’s a story that’s often attributed to the Buddha that shows up in all kinds of inspirational and feel-good memes. There’s like a 99.9% chance that he never uttered these words. Whoever said it brings clarity to what I tried to say in the last 1,100 words or so. Take some time to think about it. It just might give you a different perspective when desire takes over your mind, heart, and soul.

***

A man asked Gautama Buddha, “I want happiness.

Buddha said, “First remove I, that’s ego, then remove want, that’s desire.

“See now you are left with happiness.”

Finding Meaning – What is Life All About?

“To live is to suffer, to survive is to find some meaning in the suffering.” ~ Friedrich Nietzsche, 18th Century German Philosopher

***

June 27, 2021 – 2:12 PMKaiser Santa Clara Medical Center, Room 3365

A little more than 72 hours before I started writing this post, I was at home making a bowl of oatmeal and blueberries to start the morning. Life was settling down after a physically and mentally challenging year. The hardest days of my heart transplant recovery were behind me. Walking 4-plus miles everyday, doing light strength exercises a few times each week, and working on a couple of mentoring opportunities filled my time.

After enjoying a few spoonfuls of the creamy and fruity breakfast, a phone call I had expected from the heart transplant clinic came in. I was waiting for the results of a quarterly blood test that determines if the medicine needed to protect my heart from rejection was working. Usually, the test results are good and the call is a quick 2-3 minute chat about staying the course. This time was different. 

The 30 minute conversation began with the nurse practitioner telling me to report to the hospital as soon as possible to be admitted. My body’s immune system was preparing to wage a battle against my heart to reject it. This is the most common cause of death for transplant recipients.  Just like that, the wave of comfort, peace, and happiness that I had been riding for a while came violently crashing down on the shore of uncertainty. 

A heart transplant isn’t a cure, it’s a way to live longer and improve the quality of life. It’s so easy to think that a transplant is just a few snip snips, put in the new heart, a couple of stitch stitches and the patient is good to go back to a “normal” life. In reality, it’s a daily grind of staying on top of anti-rejection meds, eating healthy food, exercising, and keeping regular cardiologist appointments. Infection, rejection, and other calamities wait in the wings.

The good news is that the transplant team caught the rejection before it damaged my heart and put a plan in place to fight it. I will get high doses of steroids, a dialysis-like treatment to clean antibodies out of my system, and an infusion of proteins. The bad news is that I have to be in the hospital for at least 11 days to complete the treatment 

That means wearing one of those light blue cotton gowns with an open back for 11 days. That means sleepless nights in a tiny hospital bed for 11 days. That means lousy-tasting food for 11 days. That means hearing the monitors and the sounds of sickness in the hallways for 11 days. That means getting poked to draw blood a few times every day for 11 days. That means not knowing what will happen next for 11 days. 

Lying alone in the dark as a monitor beeps and displays a green line dancing to the heart’s rhythm, I surf social media to see people preparing for 4th of July festivities and frolicking in Cabo, Lake Tahoe, and fun places near and far. Watching people celebrate their freedom from Covid’s loneliness, sadness, and hopelessness plays havoc on the psyche, especially one with an uncertain future. In the darkness of the hospital room, my mind wanders from bemoaning my misfortune to digging deep into the soul to reflect on the meaning of life.

During the height of the pandemic, people were upset that they couldn’t have a normal life. Not being able to go to dinner with friends, visit family, enjoy a ballgame, and much more caused widespread suffering for many people. I thought about St. Paul the Apostle languishing in a Roman prison for years and writing about hope, faith, and love. It reminded me that being a slave to our desires isn’t the pathway to personal peace.

Almost 2,000 years ago, Roman philosopher Marcus Aurelius wondered if there was more to life than just “marrying, raising children, getting sick, dying, waging war, throwing parties, doing business, complaining about their own lives.” Sounds familiar, right? That’s what most of us live for. Is life all about sipping a glass of wine in Napa Valley at a posh resort and posting pics on social media to escape the drudgery of daily existence? 

Or is it about surviving “to find some meaning in the suffering,” as German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche said. Over the past 11 days, I’ve had a lot of time to think about Nietzche’s perspective. Since there was no damage to my heart, I feel good and energetic. I had to find some way to cope with the fact that 11 days of restricted confinement was my fate on the very weekend that Americans declared independence from Covid restrictions.

Here’s the thing: Just because I felt good when I arrived at the hospital doesn’t mean that all is good. Antibodies were assembling the troops to attack my heart. There was no time to take the holiday week off. It was time to call on my own troops to fight yet another battle. Medically, doctors immediately began executing their plan. Mentally, I was resolved to stay in the moment, use skills I learned in psychotherapy, and put into practice my understanding of Stoic philosophy. It was game on!

Marcus Aurelius also wrote that, “the obstacle on the path becomes the way.” He meant that we must face and work through life’s challenges instead of complaining about them. My diseased and now transplanted heart is the obstacle in my life. Working with it is the way. I decided that I’ll try to have fun while in the hospital. Sandra has been here everyday. The girls trade off being here with her. It’s just like being at home with my family, just not so comfortable.

From the healthcare aides to the nurses, cleaning crew, and nutrition staff, I tried to get to know each member of the hospital team that came into the room. They’re from Nigeria, Kenya, Taiwan, China, the Philippines, Yugoslavia, and a few from the east side. We talked about politics, hoops, family, their home countries, and empathized together with the victims of the collapsed building in Florida. 

Believe it or not, this hospital stay has been a rich experience. Have I come any closer to understanding what life is all about? Not a chance. But, I’m learning that taking each moment for what it is and enduring tough times with a little sunshine goes a long way. I’m becoming more convinced that doing fun things from time to time only serves to temporarily soothe the suffering of everyday problems. I truly found meaning in what could have been 11 days of suffering.

July 5, 2021 – 10:36 AMKaiser Santa Clara Medical Center, Room 3365

My cardiologist just left the room. She’s part of a great team of amazing doctors that have cared for me for more than a decade. The news is good. The last of the treatments will be complete by late afternoon and I’ll be discharged later in the evening. I’ll need to do additional blood tests to determine if the plan to rid my body of the heart rejection demons was successful. Until the results come in, I’ll get back to my home routine and just take it a moment at a time. 

What is Life All About? – Talk It Out!

“An unexamined life is not worth living.” ~ Socrates, Ancient Greek philosopher, 469-399 BCE

***

What is life all about? 20th century French philosopher Albert Camus half-jokingly said, “The literal meaning of life is whatever you’re doing that prevents you from killing yourself.”

I never really thought about it until about a few months ago. Prior to a health crisis, my philosophy was pretty simple: work hard to take care of my family, enjoy life’s pleasures whenever possible, and try to make a little difference in the lives of others. Over the course of 11 years, these activities were gradually becoming harder to do and ultimately ceased to exist. I suddenly found myself busy doing nothing. What’s a once ambitious man with a Type A personality to do?  

I went on a mission to search for meaning somewhere in the tangled clutter that represents broad swaths of my life. When I was a little boy – maybe 8 or 9 years old – I remember eavesdropping on my mom and her comadre from across the street talking about a woman who left her husband and kids to “find herself.” From the looks on their faces it was pretty clear that they were confused and scornful at such a thought. 

They questioned the idea that finding oneself was even a thing. That’s just for gringas who can’t handle life, they agreed with a judgemental tone. The comadres stood with crossed arms and furrowed brows asking each other how a woman could even think of leaving her children, not to mention the repulsive possibility of a potential stepmother coming into the picture. The moral of their discussion was pretty clear to my formative mind. Life isn’t fair. Deal with it.

I always wondered if my mom had dreams. She never mentioned anything, but then again women of her generation and social class weren’t allowed to express their personal aspirations. I’m sure that my mom truly believed that her purpose in life was to serve her husband and children, a role she mastered selflessly. Mom also believed that the only way to calm fears, anxiety, depression or dissatisfaction was to pray and leave it to God. 

Throughout my spiritual journey, I discovered the power of prayer and the comforting reassurance of “leaving it in God’s hands.” My relationship with God has been the guiding light that helps me endure the darkest days. But, I’ve also learned that prayer alone doesn’t tame uneasy thoughts of doom, uncertainty, and regret. 

In addition to a connection with God, spiritual wellness includes a balanced diet, exercise, hobbies, healthy fun, and openness to psychotherapy. Therapy is something many people won’t talk about. The CDC recently reported that over 90% of Americans have never received counseling from a professional. Psychology Today reported that the high cost of therapy and stigma about mental health keep people from considering a therapist. 

According to the CDC, only 26% of Americans have a diagnosed mental disorder. An American Psychological Association study, however, noted that 77% of Americans say that they’re stressed out. It’s a fact of life that all of us feel sad, angry, hurt, confused, etc. at one time or another. Unfortunately, social stain attached to the word “crazy” prevents an open public conversation about requiring mental health coverage as part of insurance plans. 

Diagnosed mental illness isn’t the only reason to seek counseling. My first experience with mental health was on the heels of my mom’s passing in 2004. I was crushed and felt lost. A therapist helped me understand the seemingly unbearable pain. Within a few months, I was able to manage the suffering caused by my mom’s death. Once I determined that the healing process was complete, it was time to move on with my life, or so I thought.

Sixteen years later, while curled up in a fetal position, I felt empty and discouraged after transplant surgery. I again sought therapy. This time I found the courage to also ask the transplant team therapist for help with general anxiety, a demoralizing condition that has hounded me since my early 20s. My stomach churns constantly as if something is wrong. My mind begins searching for a reason for the unease and predictably conjures negative thoughts (the Boo Voice). 

Stinging life setbacks re-enter my consciousness. Feeling defeated by a self-perceived wasted life empowers my Boo Voice. Well-intentioned advice from others to “just get over it” is like putting a BandAid on a broken leg. Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis and therapy wrote that, “unexpressed emotions will never die. They are buried alive and will come forth later in uglier ways.” More suffering and sorrow are sure to follow. That’s where therapy comes in.

I decided to give Socrates’ philosophy a chance and began to examine my life by talking it out. Sigmund Freud’s mentor called it the “talking cure.” I shared with my therapist the good, bad, and ugly of my personal history with unvarnished honesty. The process revealed things that I never wanted to acknowledge before. Now I’m learning how to peacefully and confidently live with the Boo Voice.

Taking that final step to bare my soul with a therapist has changed my life. It unlocked the shackles that kept my brain strapped to fear, worry, and failure. The hard part was the first step, putting the key into the cuffs that kept my mind closed. On one hand, I could hear my mom and her comadre telling me to give my worries to God, not a psychiatrist. On the other hand, faith assured me that God sent the therapist to help Him help me.

Psychotherapy isn’t only for people with severe mental illness. We all have daily troubles. We all have things from somewhere in our past that cause suffering and lead to unwise decisions and actions. After many hours of sharing my inner thoughts, reading, and reflecting, I’m beginning to learn about who I am. I realized that my mom and her comadre were wrong.

Finding oneself isn’t only for gringas who can’t handle life on their own. It’s for anyone who seeks to find meaning in their lives. A faithful look into the past is the gateway to finding that truth. Honesty is the key. Any conversation with a therapist that resembles a rosy social media type lifestyle won’t work.

I’m at peace with myself as I write. I know that the Boo Voice is lurking around every corner waiting to be emboldened by anxiety. I plan to ride this wave of tranquility until it inevitably crashes onto the shore. That’s just life. Working with my therapist has given me insight into the anxious corners of my mind and provided me with the tools to face any and all storms that aim to disrupt the calm.

Seven years ago, I set out to share a message of gratitude and hope by writing about my battle with heart failure and the spiritual awakening that followed. I didn’t expect that I would also go on an eye-opening, sometimes painful, and ultimately liberating journey of self-discovery. 

By no means do I have the answer to a question that has been a mystery to humankind for thousands of years. Despite that obvious reality, I’ll share my thoughts on the meaning of life in a series of new blog posts called, What is Life All About? I hope that the series stimulates your mind and encourages you to think about what life means to you.

Oh yeah…one last thing. I’ve learned to accept, appreciate, and actually enjoy being busy doing nothing.

One Year Later 💗 What I’ve Learned

Today is my first heartiversary with Idaho! If you don’t know Idaho, you can meet him here: https://esereport.com/2020/08/21/idaho-finds-a-home-%f0%9f%92%97/.

To commemorate this special day, I want to share what I’ve learned over the past 365 days.

****

What I’ve Learned*

EDDIE GARCIA

Heart Transplant Recipient, 57, San Jose, California

****

Organ donors are the perfect example of God’s love. May He bless Idaho’s family.

“And these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.” ~ 1 Corinthians 13:13 

Love is a tricky thing and a word with many meanings. The best kind of love is agape (God’s love), an ancient Greek word that means giving of yourself for the sake of others.

Sandra, Marisa, and Erica are the loves of my life. They’re my heroes too.

Eating bad food, pushing myself to the limit, working hard, playing hard, partying hard, and thriving on stress was fun, but NOT a very healthy way to live.

A lot of guys my age think that they don’t need to get an annual physical or go to the doctor when something doesn’t feel right. Staying on top of things and following doctors’ orders are better than being in the ICU.

Doctors speak in Doctor. Keep asking questions until you really understand what they’re saying, then do what they tell you to do. They’re smarter than you and everyone around you.

Argentine poet and philosopher Jorge Luis Borges wrote that “the future is inevitable and precise, but it may not occur. God lurks in the gaps.” Ain’t that the truth!

I’m not afraid to die. The way I see it: The worst case scenario is also the best case scenario. Death is a ticket to heaven.

“It is also written: Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” ~ Matthew 4:7

I think I tried to test Him one time too many. The lesson is clear. Don’t mess with God.

Heart transplant is not a cure, it’s a way to keep living longer.  Meds, doc appointments, blood tests, and biopsies are for a lifetime.

No, I cant eat and drink anything I want.

Transplant surgeons literally cut your heart out to make room for in a new one. It’s a total shock to your body, like being hit by a speeding 18-wheel tractor-trailer truck.

ICU Delirium sucks. It’s a brain dysfunction in critically sick patients that causes confusion and weird hallucinations based on reality. 

I hope you never have to meet Rich Ha or John McArthur. If you do, just know that you’re in great hands.

You know what also sucks. Having a tube shoved down your throat to keep you alive or seeing a loved one go through that.

People who refuse to wear masks and won’t get the Covid vaccine because “the government can’t tell me what to do” are just plain dumb. Sorry not sorry.  

Heart transplant recovery messes with your mind, body, and spirit. It’s no different than the daily grind of life, just way more intense. 

It’s so important – actually critical – to develop relationships with healthcare providers. The amazing and skilled heart transplant and cardiac care teams at Kaiser Santa Clara Medical Center are like family.

Sharlene Madanes and Sarah Parnow are superstars!

Unhealthy core beliefs that go unrecognized and unchecked can cause lasting damage if not confronted. When your inner Boo Voice exploits your core beliefs, pain and suffering are right around the corner.

Living and working at full speed because “there are places to go, people to see, things to do” was one of my mottos. I damn near worked myself to death. 

Transplant recovery and my Boo Voice almost talked me into doing that again. Almost…

Mental health gets a bad rap. It’s one of society’s core beliefs that belongs in the dustbin of history.

The 1st Noble Truth of Buddhism is that life is full of suffering and unhappiness. The 2nd Noble Truth states that desire, attachment, and selfishness cause suffering and unhappiness. 

I know that I’ll never be the same. I miss the hustle and bustle of the executive suite, the rough and tumble of political battles, and the thrill of center stage. But then, I kinda don’t miss it. 

“Nothing is permanent. Everything is subject to change. Being is always becoming.” ~ Buddha

I confronted my Boo Voice and finally acknowledged to myself that I made a meaningful contribution to this world and still have a little more to give.

I was in a line the other day that wrapped around the building to get my second Covid vaccine. A woman jumped out of her car fumbling with her smartphone and rushing to the front door of the clinic only to be told to get in line. I started to judge her in my mind because she looked so silly, but that used to be me at one time.

“Let’s take it nice and easy…nice and easy gets it done every time.” ~ Frank Sinatra, Nice N Easy, 1960

It soothes the soul to go for a walk just to go for a walk.

To my fellow 40 and 50 somethings: Don’t be fuddy duddys. Listen to your kids’ music. You can thank me later.

Aristotle, Plato, Marcus Aurelius, Siddhartha Gautama, St. Paul the Apostle, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Friedrich Nietzsche, Mohandas Gandhi, Jean-Paul Sartre, and C.S. Lewis were smart motherfuckers!

Taking a long hot shower without a Left Ventricular Assist Device is pure pleasure.

Nothing is more important than right now.

I’m still a dreamer and hopeless romantic who sees silver linings through rose colored glasses.

I’m still money from the free throw line!

“It ain’t over till it’s over.” ~ Yogi Berra, Hall of Fame Baseball Player and Manager

****

*The format of today’s post is inspired by a popular column in Esquire Magazine. Cal Fussman’s interview of Muhammed Ali is my all-time favorite. Check it out: https://www.esquire.com/sports/interviews/a1948/esq0104-jan-fighters/#:~:text=God%20will%20not%20place%20a,%2C%20it%20doesn’t%20hurt

The Boo Voice

The travieso trying to wiggle away from my big sister Barbara around 1967

In my last post, I wrote about the obstacles that make life extra challenging in 2021. Coronavirus, isolation, family Covid fatigue, and every day problems make for a seemingly unbearable existence. I posed a question: Are the things that make us feel awful real or is suffering all in our minds? I wrote that the mind is a major cause of our pain and that there has to be something more than temporary distractions to help us deal with sorrow. 

You can read the last post by going to this link: https://esereport.com/2021/02/08/its-all-in-your-mind/ 

Seventeen years ago, I had my first exposure to the possibility that “it’s all in my mind.”  I was running up the stairs at the Long Beach Convention Center and suddenly felt like I couldn’t catch my breath. The weird sensation went away in about 10 minutes. It happened again a few weeks later. I was on a flight that was making a smooth descent into San Antonio International Airport when, out of nowhere, I had a hard time breathing. 

I was only 40 years old at the time and in fairly good shape. I made an appointment with my doctor anyway because of family history of heart disease. In the clinic, the doctor covered all of the bases – extensive blood work at the lab, an EKG, echocardiogram, and cardiac stress test. He chuckled because I was on the treadmill jogging and chatting at the same time without losing my breath. Someone with heart disease wouldn’t be able do that.

Tests confirmed that there was nothing wrong with my heart. The doctor speculated that something else could be causing the feeling of being out of breath and referred me to a psychologist. The thought of going to a therapist didn’t register in my east side Mexican American working-class brain. We didn’t do therapy. Like Dave Chappele once joked, “psychologists were for upper middle-class white people. The rest of us had liquor stores.” 

My dad used to say that putting all your energy into work when life gets hard was the answer to the blues. That’s what I did after my mom died, but it wasn’t working so well for me. I went along with my doctor’s recommendation. I figured that I had nothing to lose. During our first meeting, the therapist described how heart attack symptoms are similar to those of a panic attack caused by anxiety. 

Rather than actually losing oxygen, the mind tricks the body into thinking that it’s out of breath. It was hard to wrap my mind around what I heard, but I kept going with it. Several sessions later, the therapist’s diagnosis was generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) triggered by my mom’s passing a year earlier. The condition impacts only 3.1% of Americans. Depression can go hand in hand with anxiety.

According to mental health advocates, GAD is “chronic, exaggerated worry and tension that is unfounded or much more severe than the normal anxiety most people experience.” The Mayo Clinic says that GAD is caused by a “complex interaction of biological and environmental factors.” What that means is that anxiety is partly caused by chemicals in the body that aren’t working correctly and partly caused by something negative that happens to us. 

I was a happy-go-lucky kid, There wasn’t a tree I wouldn’t climb or a fence I wouldn’t jump over. My mom used to say that I could be a little bit travieso (loosely translated as “naughty”). When I was about 10 years old, I wrecked my bike and scratched myself up pretty good riding downhill on a trail I wasn’t allowed to be on. My mom didn’t know about the details of that accident until 25 years later when my brothers, sisters, and I were sharing stories about youthful shenanigans .

Despite being somewhat of a daredevil, I had a tendency to worry, overthink, and overreact. It could be anything. I would lose sleep the night before a spelling test in elementary school worried about flunking. In high school, I couldn’t concentrate in class on gameday because I worried about making a mistake that would embarrass the team and school. Those bad things never happened. Nothing triggered those thoughts.

When mom passed away, I felt like a helium balloon floating aimlessly and untethered to the real world. She was my safe harbor when the winds of life’s storms howled. She was my biggest cheerleader. With mom gone, I worried incessantly about everything. This perfect storm of biological and environmental factors led to the therapist’s diagnosis. 

He recommended a combination of medication, therapy, and group mindfulness classes designed to address the chemical and triggering elements of anxiety. Given everything I understood about what the doctor told me, it made sense to me. I decided to give the proposed treatment my all. Within a few months, I was back on track building a life with my family and working on a career. I graduated from mocking psychology to being a therapy advocate.

The more I understood about anxiety’s causes, effects, and solutions, the more I wanted to learn how to manage it. The short story about unreasonable worry is fear of the unknown. An anxious mind comes to conclusions (usually doom and gloom) in the absence of verified information. As the old saying goes, anxiety makes mountains out of molehills. I refer to unwarranted thoughts that swirl in my mind as the “Boo Voice.” 

The therapist and mindfulness classes from 2004 prepared me for the most turbulent decade of my life. For 10 years, unknown life and death health situations hovered over me like a black cloud. Staying in the moment and consistent dialogue with doctors prevented my mind from escaping to unhelpful places. After heart transplant, my Boo Voice and I engaged in brutal battles. Using the same formula from 2004 has played a major role in my recovery.  

At some level, whether diagnosed with anxiety or not, we all have a Boo Voice. Everyone has different triggers. During these uncertain times, worry consumes most of our days. Will family members get sick and die? Will our kids lose out in their education? Will the vaccine work? When will life get back to normal? On top of all that, we still have to deal with the little daily annoyances that can ruin our days. 

How can we keep our Boo Voices from getting the best of us? Try this 3-part strategy. It helps me get through the toughest of times.

  1. Communication

The best option is a therapist, support group, spiritual advisor, or journal (all 4 is most effective). If these don’t fit your budget or comfort level, your significant other or bestie will work. The downside is that those close to you have skin in the game, so they’re not optimal. The most important thing is to talk it out.

  1. Meditation – Mindfulness

This is another concept that didn’t fit into my boyhood worldview. Taking mindfulness classes in 2004 and studying Buddhist principles for 10 years changed my mind. Meditation is really hard to do, but worth it. It helps you focus and calm the mind. A great tool is the Calm App. It’s about $70 a year to subscribe. The first year is free for Kaiser members.

  1. Pursue a Healthy Passion

Alcohol, drugs, food, sex, parties, and other guilty pleasures are quick, but temporary bandaids for the Boo Voice. When you remove the bandage, the cut is usually deeper. I’m not preaching. I get it. I’ve never been threatened by a good time. Healthy is the key word. I love writing, reading, and mentoring others. Find your healthy passion and do it.

Like everything worthwhile in life, what I just laid out is not easy. It takes hard work and dedicated commitment. I wish I could say that I’ve conquered my Boo Voice once and for all. Of course, I haven’t. Most likely I will battle it for the rest of my life because of biology. Medication helps with that part.

Fortunately, you most likely don’t have generalized anxiety disorder. Events and circumstances are the cause of worry and depression. I work hard on my 3-part strategy to manage the environmental causes of anxiety everyday and it makes my life so much better. You can do it too. Give it a try. It takes time. Be patient. I’m on year 17 working with this strategy and life continues to get better every day.

It’s All in Your Mind

Mom and Dad circa 1966

“You have power over your mind – not outside events.” – Marcus Aurelius, 1st-Century Roman Emperor and Philosopher

***

Imagine for a minute that you’ve been transported to the mid to late 1960s. Standing at an elegant bar is a handsome, well-groomed man with the subtle scent of English Leather cologne on him. He’s wearing a slim-cut black suit, crisp white shirt, dark tie, and black shoes polished to a soft sheen. He casually leans against the bar with his right forearm on the varnished oak countertop with a drink in his right hand.

Deep in thought, the gentleman takes a slow drag of a cigarette held between his left index and middle fingers as it softly sits on his pursed lips. He squints through the smoke looking into an empty space while he’s deep in thought. Any number of things that complicate his life could be swirling in his mind. Frank Sinatra, you say? Dean Martin, perhaps? Or could it be Don Draper? 

The answer is none of the above. The image is how I remember my dad when I was about 4 or 5 years old. He looked like the quintessential man of the 60s, especially when he dressed up. My dad worked at the post office, so he didn’t usually wear a suit and tie. I think he owned 2 suits, 1 black and 1 charcoal, for special occasions. His normal dress code was a pair of slacks, a button up long sleeve shirt, and always shined dress shoes.

Family and close friends called my dad Lico. He was smart and read regularly, even though I’m not quite sure he ever graduated from high school. He served on an aircraft carrier in the United States Navy during WWII. He was articulate and charming, armed with a quick wit and a smile that could light up a room. He was also stubborn, sarcastic, and uncompromising. His condescending words and facial expressions of disapproval cut deeper than any spanking.

In many ways, my dad was a man of his times. He worked hard to provide for his family and unabashedly believed in traditional gender and parent/child roles. In his world, the man was king of his castle. Dad’s word was final, no discussion, no debate, no nonsense. He was a classic rugged-individualist who believed that no one – NO ONE – was responsible for his own success or failure other than himself. 

In other ways, he was way ahead of his time, especially for a Mexican American father in those days. He didn’t want his children to work in “traditional” Latino jobs. He encouraged us to read, explore, and get a college education. He thought deeply and could be philosophical about the ways of the universe. Understanding that life was unpredictable and unforgiving, he always had a thoughtful response in any situation. He expressed these thoughts through what I call Licoisms

He had a treasure trove of these sayings. Some of my favorites include: “we’ll cross that bridge when we get to it” (be patient), “it’s easier said than done” (don’t take anything for granted), and “get off of your high horse” (show humility). “It’s all in your mind” was my least favorite Licoism when I was a kid. Every time I thought life was unfair and looked for sympathy, that was his response.

When I was about 12 years old, I remember getting ready for a backyard party. It was a blistering hot day, and I was expected to wear slacks and a button up shirt because my dad’s relatives were going to be there. I complained endlessly to my mom about the heat. I wanted to wear shorts and a t-shirt. She empathized with me, but still told me I would have to take it up with my dad. Well, I knew that wasn’t going to fly.

Nevertheless, before guests started to arrive, I worked up the courage to ask him if he felt hot wearing long sleeves and dress pants. He turned and looked at me with his trademark sarcastic smirk. I braced myself for what I expected would be a flurry of cutting Licoisms flying my way. He asked if I knew what the temperature was outside. At least 100, I guessed. He followed up by saying, “it doesn’t matter what I wear, it’s still 100 degrees. The heat is all in your mind, mijo.”

As the years passed by, I began to appreciate the saying. After spending a summer in the ICU, it came in handy. My body lost all muscle function from being in a coma and lying on a bed for about 70 days. I couldn’t even lift a finger. Doctors said strength would return with rehabilitation. It sounded impossible. Although he had been gone for 15 years, I heard Lico’s voice telling me, “it’s all in your mind, mijo.”

Let’s face it. Let’s be real. Life isn’t easy. The past year serves to remind us of that. The pandemic, political division, isolation, the summer fires, smokey skies, and on and on. Added to all of that was the grind of daily life. Throughout my personal life, I’ve had my share of struggles. There was that hot summer day in 1975, the passing of my mom, dad, and a sister, a health crisis, and yeah, that every day stuff. 

Did those things not happen? Yes, they did. Was it all in my and our minds? Of course not. It’s life’s way of saying that nature is in charge. We all experience unfortunate events and phenomena. They’re circumstances that aren’t within anyone’s power to control. Can they harm us? The short answer is it depends. Marcus Aurelius tells us that we have power over our own minds and not much more. That’s what my dad meant by, “it’s all in your mind.”

I don’t know where he came up with that pearl of wisdom. I’m sure life experiences, his intellectual curiosity, and catchphrases from his Depression Era generation all contributed to his thinking. Did he read the ancient philosophers? Maybe, maybe not. I wouldn’t be surprised if he did. One thing for sure is that he understood that suffering is mostly caused by our own thoughts, not by the chaos that surrounds us.

Although my dad was a wise man, he didn’t have the answer on how to tame the anguish that churns in our minds. His solution? There wasn’t much that a cigarette and a highball glass full of V.O whiskey and water on the rocks couldn’t resolve. I don’t think that worked for him. I’m pretty sure he suffered from depression and anxiety. I’ve followed a similar path, also with little success. Other people use the same strategy with food, shopping, sex, drugs, etc.

Whether it’s fear of an uncertain future or the inconvenience of kids learning from home because of a pandemic, life sucks if we allow the craziness around us to find a home in our consciousness. A plan to achieve long-term inner peace and some kind of happiness shouldn’t have to depend on any of the sensually pleasing distractions that temporarily relieve our pain. There has to be a better way to deal with nature’s whims. 

Now imagine for a minute that you’ve been transported to a time in the very near future. Covid is still here making family and friends sick, your kids are driving you up the wall because they’re bored at home, your spouse is on your nerves more than usual, and California is in full-blown drought. That’s not even the worst of it. Your company is going belly up and you don’t know from one day to the next if you’ll have a job.

Despite all of that, you don’t feel stressed, sad, frustrated, or angry. You’re not thinking of giving up or murdering your entire family. While driving home in dreadful traffic, you whistle to your favorite song on the radio, rather than flipping the bird to some idiot on the road. You can’t control what’s happening outside of your car. It’s all in your mind. So, you feel calm as you inch through the freeway. 

Is it even possible to feel at peace in this situation? I think it is and I’m intent on discovering the secret. Please keep reading ESEReport.com in the coming weeks and months. I’m going on an adventure to find the answer to inner peace and happiness. I plan to be brutally honest with myself and readers. I’m not sure I’ll get there, but the ride should be fun. I hope you find a few minutes in your hectic day to come along with me.

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The East Side Eddie Report launched in July 2013 to provide readers with a unique viewpoint on community issues from the perspective of someone from the “other side of the tracks.” The content focused on encouraging leadership in the Latino community. In December 2014, ESEReport.com created the “Summer in the Waiting Room” series to chronicle my 10-year battle with heart failure.

That struggle taught me that trusting in something bigger than ourselves can change lives. My passion for telling stories that help and inspire others guides my life journey. As ESEReport.com continues to evolve, the mission is to inspire readers with faith, hope, and love.

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It’s Never Too Late

Ready for another day!

“It ain’t over till it’s over.” ~Yogi Berra, Hall of Fame baseball player and manager

“Ah, nothing is too late until the tired heart ceases to palpitate.” ~Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, American poet

***

My Compa Pancho and I are avid sports fans and we text often when there’s news in the sports world. When legendary baseball player Hank Aaron died recently, I shared a video of a commercial that featured Aaron and Giants slugger Barry Bonds. The TV ad was aired during the year that Bonds was chasing Aaron’s all-time home run record. It was a clever tongue and cheek play on the historic chase.

So far so good, but there’s always a hitch when it comes to something about the Giants. Pancho is a die-hard Dodgers fan. Anytime I mention the Giants, he immediately prepares for hand-to-hand verbal combat and a flurry of shit-talking begins. To be fair to my compa, I do my share of talking shit about the Dodgers. Anyway, I was waiting for him to bring up the same old tired and unproven steroids BS about Bonds.

But that’s not what happened. His response was shocking. Like a ball coming out of left field, Pancho shared with me that a friend from his boyhood neighborhood committed suicide. The friend hanged himself. Not really knowing how to respond, I texted my condolences. Pancho went on to describe how the man’s family was devastated.

The last time Pancho saw his old neighbor was a few years ago. The man was riding a bike and looked skinny, tired, and old. He had struggled with depression and substance abuse for most of his adult life. According to Pancho, he was high on drugs when they ran into each other. After a few minutes of small talk, they went their separate ways. His life came to a tragic and lonely end in a losing battle against mental health, drug, and alcohol problems.

I spent the rest of that evening and most of the next day thinking about Pancho’s old friend. His story brought to mind the never-ending cycle of troubles that complicates our lives and keeps us on a continuous roller coaster of emotional high and lows. Too many times, the ride gets hair-raising and we think it’s too late to bring it back to safe place. It’s easy to give up, but my life story has taught me that no matter how hard life gets, it’s never too late. 

I ran across a poem a while back by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow that was perfect for what I was thinking about. Longfellow, one of America’s greatest poets, wrote the verse in 1875 as the keynote for his 50th college reunion where he read it to a group of 70+ year old classmates. The poem is about the reality that none of us will be able to stop time and it’s never too late to keep learning and growing.

The line that inspired me most from the poem reminds me of a famous quote from Hall of Fame baseball manager Yogi Berra. During the 1973 World Series, Berra was the manager of the New York Mets. The team lost the first 2 games and winning the series looked like a longshot. When reporters asked how he felt about the Mets’ chances after being so far behind, he famously said, “it ain’t over till it’s over.” The Mets went on to win the next 3 games in a row.

These 2 stories can be inspirations for anyone who’s thinking about giving up when life gets too hard. Both anecdotes encourage us to believe that it’s never too late, no matter the situation. At one time or another, all of us have fallen prey to the notion that an opportunity passed us by, with no way to return again. This leads to regret, second-guessing, and fear of not getting another chance. The inevitable next step is to give up.

I’ve always considered myself to be a person ready to take on life’s challenges head on. I didn’t think giving up was in my DNA. That arrogance was crushed during the first month of 1983 when I received a letter from San Jose State University informing me that I didn’t meet the academic requirements to stay enrolled. I flunked out and gave up on myself. 

I spent the next several years, drinking excessively, partying, and soothing my bruised ego in unhealthy ways. Once the hangover from that blurry time cleared up, I started to work my way back into the university. I ran into a mental roadblock almost immediately. During the first semester back at SJSU, I confided in a professor that I thought I was too old to start over, it was too late to earn a degree. His response motivated me and changed my life. 

The professor shrewdly concluded that I would grow older someday with or without a college education. Choose my path forward thoughtfully, he advised. With those wise words, I carried on with my studies and graduated a few years later. I worked tirelessly over the next 2 decades building a life and family with Sandra while developing a meaningful and successful career.

“Ah, nothing is too late; Till the tired heart shall cease to palpitate.” 

Then, for a brief moment many years later, my heart actually ceased to palpitate. While I was sleeping comfortably on a hospital bed in the ICU during the wee hours of the morning on June 17, 2010, my heart went into cardiac arrest literally stopping for a few seconds. A team of doctors, nurses, and cardiac technicians frantically worked to get my heart pumping again. About 1,000 volts of electricity sent through defibrillator paddles did the job.

I had two more chances to give up during the 10 years following the close call. On my 55th birthday in 2018, a surgeon was putting the finishing touches on surgery to place a titanium pump in my heart. My lungs started to swell. It took 5 days of smart medical decision-making by the surgeon and anxious waiting for my family before the doctor closed my chest cavity. I didn’t think I could go through another rigorous rehabilitation. It was too late, I thought. I’ll never be the same. Nevertheless, life continued forward.

Seventeen months later, transplant surgery hit me like a speeding big rig and the meds made a mess of my psyche and emotions. By the third month of a slow and depressing recovery, I convinced myself that I was too old and too weak to come back yet again. Just when I was about to throw in the towel on this latest fight, I took advantage of the resources at my disposal. With God’s grace, an awesome transplant care team, Sandra and the girls’ love, and a little hard work, I marched on.

So, here’s what I’m trying to say. Longfellow and Yogi had it right. It’s never too late. As sure as the sun will rise tomorrow, something will happen to make it a less than perfect day. Your internet service could go down in the middle of an important Zoom meeting, co-workers and/or your boss could get on your last nerve, you could get into an argument at home, your car might break down.

What are we to do when any given day inevitably turns imperfect? Keep going. Don’t look back. It’s not too late. As long as you heart continues to nourish your body and soul, there’s a chance that whatever is causing your suffering and grief is fixable. Over the next several posts, I plan to get philosophical and share my thoughts on how to overcome challenges big and small.

Until then, keep in mind – just believe – that everything will work out in the end. With faith, hope, and love, “it ain’t over till it’s over.”

***

Here’s the link to Longfellow’s full poem: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/44639/morituri-salutamus-poem-for-the-fiftieth-anniversary-of-the-class-of-1825-in-bowdoin-college

2021 is Here: Now What?

“We must be willing to let go of the life we planned so as to have the life that is waiting for us.” ~Jospeph Campbell, Philosopher and Mythologist

***

The other night, I had a short dream about me and my late father-in-law. He was 81 years old when he passed away a little more than a year ago. We were about 15-20 years younger in the dream. Although Sandra’s dad was small in stature, his work ethic, humility, and quiet strength made him a giant of a man. Few words were needed for him to express approval, disappointment, encouragement, or mischievousness. His eyes and a simple nod of his head spoke volumes.

The dream reminded me of a time in my life that was full of opportunity and professional excitement. I was in my late 30s, confident and a little full of myself. Providing for my family, working my way up the corporate ladder, and serving the community in a variety of ways were priorities. My father-in-law looked like he was in his early 60s, full of life enjoying retirement and the fruits of his labors as a cement mason.

He was from the same region in Mexico where my grandmother spent her childhood. I loved hearing stories about his boyhood and he loved telling them. We also talked about politics, history, and current events, usually while grilling ribs on the barbecue pit or around the dining room table over rounds of Budwiser, Coors Light, or Corona. In the middle of me waxing eloquent about some historical event, he would suggest another round of beers with a simple nod, raised eyebrows, and encouraging eyes. It was his way of asking, “Are you ready?”

Despite these shared interests, we couldn’t be more different on the surface. He was great with his hands and could build or fix anything. I can’t hammer a nail straight into a piece of wood to save my life. He was soft-spoken and I’m outspoken. When he talked, it was mostly in Spanish. English is my language of choice. With a few too many beers under our belts, we would switch languages and howl with laughter at each other’s attempts to tell a funny story. 

Perhaps our biggest difference was in the way we approached life. He was a steady as he goes kind of guy. I’m a dreamer. He worked in concrete construction for over thirty years. I’ve had no less than 5 professions in the same span of time. Throughout my career, each day brought new experiences. Without fail, he awoke before dawn, labored in the elements all day, had dinner with his family, and watched the news and novelas before going to bed.

I admire how he just got it done, day in and day out. He was a prolific cement mason on large industrial projects and especially talented working small side jobs. With perfectionism and creativity, each patio, driveway, sidewalk he did was a work of art. I’m sure he didn’t plan for that life when he was a boy in Sonora, Mexico. Per the old Mexican saying, he took it un dia a la vez – one day at a time.

His story brought to life philosopher and mythologist Joseph Campbell’s classic quote. This kind of philosophical outlook builds resilience and strength. We spend too much time trying to mold our lives into the “perfect” life of meticulously designed happiness. When the inevitable unplanned event happens, we grow uncertain, unhappy, and frustrated. Last year was the perfect example.

2020 started with the optimism of a year befitting a symbolic and symmetrical number. Before the first month was out, we experienced the tip of a global pandemic iceberg. It all went downhill from there. Before long, “Covid Fatigue” had set in. As a society, we opted not to take it un dia a la vez. Any possibility of resilience and strength gave way to vulnerability and weakness. People were uncertain, unhappy, and frustrated.  

Ironically, 2020 was actually a pretty darn good year for me. On January 1, 2020, a titanium pump was still attached to the lower left side of my heart to help my seriously diseased heart circulate blood throughout my body. On April 16, 2020, I had a heart transplant and a new lease on life. By New Year’s Day 2021, I felt physically and mentally stronger than I could ever imagine 365 days earlier.

I paint a rosy picture of a wonderful and blissful year. Of course, that wasn’t the case. It doesn’t account for an extremely difficult transplant recovery. Physical and mental challenges in the aftermath of surgery consumed me so much that it may have been God’s way of protecting me from the darkness of world events. With or without Covid and smoke from devastating fires, I had to shelter in place.

I had the luxury of taking that solitary time to read, think, and reflect. My ancestral and cultural  “one day at a time” belief system started to sink in. We have no power over future or past events. The Lord’s Prayer even tells us to ask God to, “give us this day,” not yesterday, not tomorrow...this day. The pandemic, political nonsense, and fires were out of my control, so why worry about such things.   

2021 is finally here. Now what?

I’m sure that millions of us will resolve to eat better and become physically fit in the new year. Other resolutions probably include things like working toward career advancement, finding love, pursuing a lifelong passion. Then the first week of 2021 came. The optimism that blew air into the 2021 balloon on New Year’s Eve developed a slow leak before we could recover from the 2020 hangover.

Like many of you, I sat stunned, saddened, and angry watching the images on TV of modern-day barbarians sacking the symbol of democracy and freedom. I’m a Mexican American eastside Yankee Doodle Dandy with a deep love and profound respect for the traditions and institutions that secure our American way of life. As my anger grew, my thoughts turned to the spiritual journey that has given faith, hope, and love to my life. 

My anger and sadness began to drift away. I learned the lessons of 2020 well. I had no control over the awful images that came from the Capitol and have zero power over what happens in the days to come. All I have is today. “Give us this day…” I’m resolved to use the remaining 351 days of 2021, a day at a time, to explore ideas that lead to a deeper understanding of life and inner peace. 

That’s just a fancy way of saying that I will look for ways to keep the bullshit that causes emotional pain from taking control of my thoughts. Inspirational memes, superficial feel-good rah rahs, and trendy mindfulness gurus won’t get the job done. It’ll take hard work and dedicated commitment to the craft of learning to understand our world and the universe beyond. God’s prophets, philosophers, and psychologists will be my guides. 

I strongly recommend that everyone also use the remainder of stay-at-home time, however long that may be, to do the same. I urge you to read, think, and reflect instead of fruitlessly looking for ways to fill in empty spaces with diversions that imitate the “good old days” before the pandemic. The worst that can happen is you’ve occupied your time with something that isn’t harmful or unhealthy. The best thing that can happen is that you find the ever so elusive inner peace.

In the dream with my father-in-law, we were at a backyard party. I was chatting with a group of faceless men and he was digging through an ice chest fishing out a couple of beers. He turned around and slowly walked toward me extending his arm offering a can of Bud. He gave me his signature nod with raised eyebrows and encouraging eyes as if to ask, Are you ready?

Rather than asking if I was ready for another drink, I think he came to me in the dream to ask if I was ready for the next stage in my life. I’ve come a long way and I know there’s a long way to go. I have so much to learn. I have more experiences waiting in the wings. I still have room to grow intellectually and spiritually. Am I ready? I think so.