My siblings and I were part of two families from the same parents. Let me explain what I mean. The first four were born in the early 1950s. My little sister and I came more than a decade later. David, the oldest, was the patriarch of the kids. Barbara turned twelve years old a couple of months after I was born. Patty was born eighteen months after Barbara. Steve, the youngest of my four older siblings and the baby of my parents “first” family, was born a year after Patty. He’s older than I am by nine years. My little sister Sisi and I make up my parents’ “second” family. According to our older siblings, she and I had it easy. Oh well. Lucky for me and Sisi.
Dad gave us the lifelong love of reading, learning, and listening to music. The tight shelf space in my parents’ bedroom was stacked with paperbacks and periodicals. Every edition of National Geographic magazine published since the mid-1950s was displayed on a homemade shelf for all to see. In the dining room, he had the record player and cassette player in a place of prominence, surrounded by albums that included Tex-Mex, mariachi, other genres of Mexican music, and the standards—Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and Nat King Cole. He came home from work every day shortly after 5:00 p.m. with the evening edition of the San Jose Mercury News tucked under his arm. We had to be prepared at dinner to be peppered with questions about the day’s world and local events. When we gathered around the kitchen table for the holidays as adults, he would sit at the counter looking into the kitchen with a highball of whiskey and water in hand. Without warning, Dad would make a controversial philosophical or political statement. He sat back with a mischievous grin and watched his educated kids flare up in heated debate.
Mom, on the other hand, was the epitome of the warm and loving maternal parent. She taught us about unconditional love, faith, compassion, and perseverance. Even during the last days before her death in 2003, she remained strong in her convictions and her belief that every day being alive is a good day. While any indiscretion on our part would be met with Dad’s scowls and rebukes, Mom reacted with gentle counsel and loving support, urging us to do better the next time. She was our biggest cheerleader, encouraging us to be the best we could be. After all those years of watching me play sports, I’m not sure if Mom really understood the complexities of the games, but I do know that she cheered every time it looked like I did something good. Every morning, she reminded us that the day would be good. As long as the sun came up and God gave us another day, all would be well. After each meal, she insisted that we say, “Thank you, God,” and she encouraged us to pray “Our Father” before bedtime.
The first 27 years of my life were marked and influenced by events in and around my parents’ modest house on 48 Viewmont Avenue in east San Jose. The neighborhood was a classic working-class community of small houses on small lots with neatly mowed lawns and little flower gardens. The development of houses was on the edge of the east side of town that once thrived with orchards. Just a short walk a few blocks away was the Alum Rock Village, a row of mom and pop markets, a liquor store, bakery, hair salon, barbershop, and assorted small businesses that included a feed and fuel that served the remnants of a bygone agricultural community.
Like our family, our neighbors were also in pursuit of the American Dream. Breadwinners provided for their families by working as electricians, landscapers, construction workers, and machine shop operators. The women worked mostly at the canneries and supplemented the family’s income by cleaning houses, providing child care, or caring for seniors. The neighborhood around Viewmont Avenue was like a small town on the fringes of a growing city. For me, it had everything I needed and wanted. I felt happy, safe, and comfortable there. It was home.
My oldest sister Barbara said later in life that “we had an idyllic upbringing on Viewmont Avenue. Mom and dad created a cocoon that protected us from all of the bad things in the world.” My parents made sure that school was a priority and provided me and my siblings with the opportunity to participate in extracurricular activities. The girls participated in swimming, cheerleading, color guard, and Girl Scouts. It was Little League, Boy Scouts, and Pop Warner football for the boys. That was the life of the 1950s and 1960s television genre that dad yearned for after listening to the stories about growing up American from his friends in the navy.
The protective shell my parents built kept the bad influences out by keeping us away from people or situations that could be harmful. When they hosted family parties, a long night of hard-drinking could lead to tense conditions that had the potential to end up in a fight. Mom quietly ushered us away from the party to our bedrooms to keep us sheltered from the unfolding drama. They also worked to protect us from the evils of the outside world. When I was in elementary school, I walked home past some older cool-looking kids hanging out under the trees at the back fence of campus. Sometimes they waved me over to join them. My parents warned that under no circumstance should I ever venture out to the fence. As I got older, I realized that the boys were sniffing glue and paint to get high. Many of those kids didn’t get through high school. A few of them joined gangs and either died violently or found a permanent home in prison.
At 48 Viewmont Avenue, we had a clear code of conduct and value system from which we were expected to manage our lives. Dad was no nonsense and no frills. He taught us, through counsel and by way of example, to work hard, play by the rules, and have respect for ourselves and others. There was no variation from this formula. Any lack of respect and decorum, especially in public, would immediately lead to a non-verbal response. Dad stared at us with a stern look and furrowed brow followed by pursed lips, closed eyes, and a slow shake of the head in disapproval.
The sky was clear and the weather was in the low 50s, a typical crisp November night in San Jose, California. That night and early the next morning wouldn’t be ordinary at all for my mom and dad. They raced through the night in their two-toned orange and white 1955 Mercury on northbound U.S. Highway 101. Not saying a word to each other, both wondered how they were going to make ends meet now that another mouth to feed would soon be added to the family.
Mom and Dad grew up in poor single-mother households. Now with a family of their own, they were just getting by. They lived check to check on dad’s postal worker salary and mom’s odd jobs cleaning houses and working in the canneries. The little creature in her belly causing her so much pain and discomfort would be their fifth child. The proud parents-to-be were excited and happy as the Mercury pulled into the hospital parking lot.
Dad jumped out of the car to walk mom into the emergency room. Wearing a camel colored coat and carrying a small overnight bag, she waddled up the steps to the hospital and breathlessly slumped herself onto a waiting wheelchair. As was the custom in that era, nurses rushed my mom into the maternity room to await the doctor who would deliver the baby and told my dad to wait outside. Hospital volunteers showed him the way to the waiting room to join other nervous, expectant fathers who were smoking up a storm as they paced the floor.
In the delivery room all was going well. When the baby was finally born, the doctor gently gave the newborn the obligatory slap on the backside and waited for the familiar wails of a new life catching its breath for the first time. The doctor cut the umbilical cord and the nurses wiped the baby clean before swaddling it and allowing my tired, but happy, mom to cuddle her baby for the first time. As the doctor completed one last check of vital signs, the baby slipped out of his arms and banged its face against the metal railing of the bed. A nurse broke the baby’s fall and prevented a disastrous accident. The baby screamed in pain as the nurses and doctors worked to stop the bleeding that had emerged from the baby’s face. Luckily, that scary incident only resulted in a small scar at the tip of the newborn’s nose.
That baby with the cut on his nose was me, born on November 6, 1963, at 5:25 AM at Sequoia Hospital in Redwood City, California. I was the third García boy, 19 inches long, 7.2 pounds, with dark brown eyes, and lots of thick dark hair. My parents were excited and relieved, especially after the brief scare in the delivery room. That little scar at the tip of my nose would forever find a special place in my mom’s heart.
At home, my brothers and sisters, David 12, Barbara 11, Patty 10, and Steve 9, were still asleep unaware of what happened earlier that morning. When dad burst through the front door of his modest house on 48 Viewmont Avenue in east San Jose, his four older children suddenly woke up and rushed to meet him to hear the good news.
He stood at the counter that separated the kitchen from the dining room and excitedly told his kids about “Eddie’s” chubby cheeks and thick black hair, and how he slipped, and cut his nose. After a few minutes of taking questions, my dad turned to the heavy black phone sitting on the counter and started dialing to call everyone he knew.
When I was a kid, mom taught us to say, “thank you God, and thank you mom” after breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Of course, I understood why I was thanking mom. She cooked the meals. The reason for thanking God never really dawned on me. I thought it was a ritual like everything else about church: sitting and standing at the appropriate times, praying the “Our Father,” taking Communion, and reciting responses after the priest gave a blessing. For mom, the words had deep meaning. Through the course of any given day, you could hear her say, “si Dios quiere” (God willing), “gracias a Dios” (thank God), and “Dios te bendiga” (God bless you). These expressions of devotion were part of every discussion she had with someone. They weren’t mere clichés to her. She was patient, understanding, and thoughtful no matter the situation, good or bad. Mom was a woman who put herself in God’s hands.
As I grew older and more financially secure, I started to notice the beautiful simplicity of her life. I found time to visit her in the morning on the way to work almost every Friday. I loved to see her eyes brighten and her smile broaden when she opened the door. A warm hug greeted me before she escorted me to the kitchen to fix a plate of papas (fried potatoes), two over-easy eggs, a cup of coffee, and warm tortillas. Mom loved to hear about my week and shared news about my brothers and sisters. Her children and grandchildren were her prized “possessions.” When my siblings and I bought “nice” homes and filled them with “nice things” (her words), she beamed with pride. When she passed away, she had the same round kitchen table, simple living room furniture, basic dinette, and plain bedroom set that I remember as a boy. She appreciated every bit of it. I never heard her yearn for more or complain about what she didn’t have.
Mom genuinely believed that to live a happy and fulfilling life, one has to be truly thankful for all that God has provided. My guess is that she had a happy and fulfilling life. The struggles of living and the heartbreak of losing loved ones didn’t deter her from being grateful. She didn’t know her father. She grieved when she lost my grandma, dad, and older sister. She wasn’t surrounded with “nice things.” She never visited the places she dreamed about. Nevertheless, she was truly thankful for what she had and appreciated every day of life God gave to her.
Faith is a powerful ride-or-die partner to have by your side, especially while riding the roller coaster we call life. I’ve been on quite a ride myself, most of it without the guardrails of faith and gratitude. The highs and lows and twists and turns of my story resemble a wild ride on the Giant Dipper, a whitewashed wooden 1920s era roller coaster with bright red tracks that dominates the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. When I was a kid, we used to simply call it “The Roller Coaster.” Getting on The Roller Coaster was my all-time favorite thing to do every time my family went to Santa Cruz, which is about a 45-minute drive from where I grew up.
On June 7, 2010, Sandra and I were approaching our 20th wedding anniversary, our two daughters were healthy and happy, and I had achieved success in my career. It felt like being on top of the world. Like the Giant Dipper’s next move after reaching its climactic peak, my life would soon make an abrupt and furious downward turn and plummet toward its lowest depths. That summer, I embarked on a quest to understand faith the way my mom understood it.
“Of all the virtues we can learn, no trait is more useful, more essential for survival, and more likely to improve the quality of life than the ability to transform adversity into an enjoyable challenge.” ~ Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Hungarian-American Psychologist and Author
January 22, 2022 ~ Telling stories has always been part of my nature. English teachers at James Lick High School gave me a strong foundation. At San Jose State University, my historical research and methods professor hammered home the point that writing is a craft that requires hard work and dedication. With infectious enthusiasm, her lectures inspired me to understand that every word, every phrase, every punctuation mark can make a story come to life. I was hooked.
Needless to say, I love to write. On Saturday, I was going through my ritual of preparing for the San Francisco 49ers vs. the Green Bay Packers playoff game. A pair of old worn jeans, vintage Jeff Garcia jersey, snapback baseball cap, Niners socks: CHECK. Game day snack menu: CHECK. Watching CNN, and chatting with Sandra and Marisa as the hours and minutes slowly ticked by: CHECK. Then, out of nowhere, the writing bug hit me.
Game preparations came to an abrupt end! When it’s time to write, I gotta write. Inspired by Professor Erma Eichhorn, I lovingly caress every word, every phrase, every punctuation mark in my effort to bring life to my thoughts. Sitting behind the laptop puts me in a Zen-like state. Nothing else seems to matter. Luckily, I finished before kickoff. I was fully present and excited when the Niners won with a last-second field goal!
April 10, 2018 ~ The Oak Grove High School gym was packed. Seated in chairs placed on the floor were some 200 East Side Union High School District Latino and Latina students being honored for academic achievement. Another 1,000 or so parents, family members, and friends filled the cavernous space. Even though I no longer served on the school board, the event organizers invited me to be the keynote speaker.
Public speaking is something I enjoy doing. Like writing, I found my passion for making speeches in college. The oral communications professor was an amazing communicator himself. With clarity and precision, he taught the importance of organization and speaking without notes. Perhaps his best advice was to speak from the heart once a structured outline is in place. During senior year, I sharpened those skills by tutoring freshmen students in his public speaking course.
When I stepped up to the mic at the East Side awards ceremony, my prepared outline was seared into my mind. The purpose of my remarks was to inspire students to embrace their dreams and work hard to achieve them. Thinking back to when I was their age as an East Side student, I put myself in their shoes. With laser focus, I talked for about 15 minutes. It was as if no one else was in that gym but me and each student. All went quiet in my mind until applause signaled the end.
March 30, 2010 ~ A Republican multi-millionaire tech executive named Steve Poizner scheduled a campaign event at Mt. Pleasant High School to announce the publication of his book, Mount Pleasant: My Journey from Creating a Billion-Dollar Company to Teaching at a Struggling Public High School. The book is about his experience teaching one class for one semester at the school. It was a vehicle to launch his education reform campaign.
As president of the East Side Union High School District board, I sent a letter to Poizner prohibiting him from visiting Mt. Pleasant for campaign purposes, citing California law. The book was filled with negative stereotypes about Latino kids and students in general from the east side. The community was in an uproar and planned to protest the candidate’s scheduled book signing later in the evening.
There was a mix of tension and anticipation outside of Barnes & Noble bookstore in Eastridge Mall. About 100 students, staff, and community members gathered there to take a stand against the book and its author. As Poizner approached the side entrance to the store, I asked him to justify his critical portrayal of our students. Unimpressed by his meaningless campaign talking points, I listened intently anyway, unaware of news reporters that crowded around us.
Hungarian American psychologist and author Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi could have described my state of mind in all three examples above as a “Flow State.” In his book, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, he introduces the theory that “flow” is a mental state in which a person is fully focused on an activity with “energy, full involvement, and enjoyment.” Athletes call this being in a zone. Forty Niners kicker Robbie Gould was in a zone when he made a high pressure field goal to win the game on Saturday.
Flow can be an antidote to anxiety and boredom. According to Csikszentmihalyi, it’s also a secret to happiness. He wrote, “The best moments in our lives are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times. The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.” It can be anything that you’re passionate about. That’s when we’re happiest, his research shows.
I’ve written extensively on this blog about my 10-year struggle with heart failure and my emotional challenges related to post-transplant life. I’m pretty sure I was in a zone throughout the heart failure years. I was hyper-focused on eating a low fat low salt diet, taking medication as prescribed, and exercising no matter how tired I was. Despite the all-consuming nature of living with heart failure, I can say that I was pretty content during that time.
Transplant recovery and Covid isolation have been especially hard for me. My state of mind thrives on social interaction and withers in seclusion. When doing activities like those shared above, I’m definitely in a zone and in good spirits. Finding my flow has been elusive for at least two years. That’s been frustrating and dispiriting. Doing research, jotting down stories, and thinking about this post just might be the inspiration I’m looking for.
I find joy in writing, public speaking, and fighting for causes that are important to me. What better way to find my flow again than to do just that? In the coming weeks, I plan to finish writing the manuscript of my memoir, Summer in the Waiting Room: Faith, Hope, Love. The story is about how a heart attack, modern medicine, and faith in God converge to nourish an amazing spiritual journey. I hope to speak to individuals, small gatherings, and large groups about causes that matter to me: heart disease, faith, hope, and love.
I’ll move forward on this project much wiser. I no longer have the insatiable hunger to be “successful.” I’ve learned that working myself to the brink of death isn’t noble. Writing my story has taken more than seven years. Each word, each phrase, each sentence has been massaged with love, patience, and care. My goal for the Summer in the Waiting Room project is simple. I hope to educate readers about heart failure and inspire them to give faith a chance.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi believed that anyone can achieve flow. He said that, “inducing flow is about the balance between the level of skill and the size of the challenge at hand.” It’s important to note that flow isn’t about work. It’s doing something that you’re passionate about. Go ahead, find your flow. It just might decrease your anxiety, free you from boredom, and help you discover happiness.
To read about the Steve Poizner incident, see the April 1, 2010 Los Angeles Times article below:
We also glory in our sufferings, because we realize that suffering develops perseverance, and perseverance produces character, and character produces hope. ~ Romans 5:3-4
Thus there are three things that endure: faith, hope, and love, and the greatest of these is love. ~ 1 Corinthians 13:13
Candidate Bill Clinton only received 2.8% of the vote in Iowa when he ran for the Democratic nomination for president in 1992. After polls showed that he was way behind in the New Hampshire primary election, he came back to win second place there. He confidently styled himself “The Comeback Kid.” He went on to win the nomination and the presidency in one of the biggest political comebacks in history.
By no stretch of anyone’s imagination am I like Bill Clinton. Nevertheless, I’ve had a few comebacks of my own. After flunking out of college in 1983, I returned to make the Dean’s List when I graduated in 1994. Following a school board election defeat in 2008, I was appointed as a school district trustee and elected board president in 2010. A severe health crisis that summer put me into the ICU and weakened my body so much that I couldn’t sit up, stand, or walk when I woke up from an induced coma. I triumphantly strolled into my house 106 days later.
As 2021 comes to a close, I’ve been reflecting on the challenges of the past two years. A successful heart transplant quickly morphed into a grueling contest of wills between self-confidence and self-doubt. Faith strengthened by my spiritual journey, and wisdom gained from reading philosophy and participating in therapy have taught me how to manage the uncertainty that lurks in the recesses of my mind.
As my psyche continues to wage war against itself, I’m comforted by the fact that I now have the tools to regulate the forces of doubt and rally the power of confidence. As 20th-century French philosopher Albert Camus put it, “In the depth of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer.” With that said, a question that keeps rolling through my mind is: Do I have another comeback left in me?
Ongoing issues with organ rejection, Covid isolation caused by immunosuppressive meds, and continuous conflict in my mind could be barriers to a successful revival. Roman emperor and philosopher Marcus Aurelius gave us a solution for that. He wisely advised, “What stands in the way becomes the way.” Despite his wise words, I haven’t given much thought to what another comeback looks like. Until now.
I’ve never been a fan of New Year’s resolutions. They start off as lofty and mostly unattainable goals that end up in a pile of empty promises. Many years ago, I participated in a corporate executive leadership program and learned how to craft a personal vision and mission statement. Since its objectives are measurable and achievable, I update my personal vision and mission every New Year’s Eve. I have a plan and I’m ready to take on 2022 with gusto.
2022 Personal Vision and Mission Statements
My vision is to live a full life as a post-heart transplant patient.
My mission is to nourish my soul, body, and mind on a daily basis.
Read the Gospel and say prayers of gratitude every day
Practice mindfulness and meditate every morning
Communicate with family and friends on a regular basis
Maintain a heart healthy diet
Drink 4 liters of water per day
Exercise a minimum of 5 times per week
Publish my memoir Summer in the Waiting Room
Write a post on ESEReport.com every month
Read something of substance every day
To be sure, I’ve endured a whole bunch of pain during the past decade or so. Suffering became a way of life for me by mid- 2021. Trying to make sense of my new world continues to test me in every way possible. St. Paul the Apostle teaches that suffering ultimately leads to hope in Romans 5:3-4 and his words in 1 Corinthians 13:13 give me confidence that faith, hope, and love will carry the day.
My objectives might not look realistic on paper, but I’ve been doing many of the activities on the list haphazardly for the past few months. Perhaps publishing Summer in the Waiting Room will complete a comeback. Maybe that’s a superficial way to measure success. Maybe not. Who knows? I know this much. Heart rejection or no rejection, Covid isolation or no isolation, confidence or doubt, I’m committed to taking it one day at a time. I won’t let anything stand in the way of a meaningful year. Whatever does will become the way. With faith, hope, and love, I just may be the Comeback Kid in 2022.
The opposite of “never enough” isn’t abundance or more than you could ever imagine. The opposite of scarcity is “enough.” ~Brené Brown, Social Work Professor and Researcher
I’ve been going through a bonafide, real deal, legit, no joke existential crisis. I can’t count the number of times throughout the past year and a half that I’ve seriously questioned my existence. It all started on April 16, 2020. That’s the day I received the miracle of a heart transplant. It was about a month into COVID lockdown. That one-two punch nearly knocked me out emotionally.
The COVID restrictions/transplant combo pushed me to the sidelines for the first time in my life. Physically and medically recovering from transplant surgery kept me from doing much for about nine months. Immunosuppressant meds to protect my new heart from rejection has locked me up in COVID prison since. Before all of this, I dreamed a little bigger and worked a little harder anytime mediocrity and inferiority demons began seeping into my consciousness.
Since work and community leadership aren’t at my disposal anymore, I’ve fallen into a deep and dark funk of unworthiness. I question my place in this world at least a few times a week. Strengthening my faith, reading philosophy, and working with a psychologist are helping me weather the storm raging in my mind. A glimmer of clarity opened up when my therapist introduced me to Brené Brown’s groundbreaking research about scarcity and “never enough.”
Every person reading this post knows what I’m talking about. There is so much pressure to be perfect. The best partner. The best parent. The best child. The best sibling. The best breadwinner. The best friend. Meeting one of those standards is a tall order. Meeting all of them is impossible. Yet, here we are trying to do just that. Social media has made trying the impossible excruciatingly painful. Not good enough for this. Not good enough for that. Sound familiar? Whatever it is we aspire to, it’s never enough.
To combat unrealistic self-imposed expectations, experts suggest making a list of good qualities and accomplishments. Reflecting on it serves as a reminder of one’s value and place in this world. I wrote a poem instead of listing my thoughts. When doubt creeps in, my own words are a safe harbor. I hope my prose inspires you to write your list. Because…#YouAreEnough!
I Am Enough
An idyllic childhood was filled with dreams.
What will I be?
College basketball coach, baseball manager, an important man?
The sky was the limit, they all said.
Life didn’t quite work out that way.
But, I am enough.
Sandra is one of my three loves.
The best husband I set out to be.
Career, politics, working late, and community work filled my days.
Carousing with extended family filled my “free time.”
Handyman, NOT ME! Gardner, NOT ME! Plumber, NO WAY!
Movie night, dinners, dancing, and laughing, YES!
I’m not the best husband, but I’ve done my best.
I am enough.
Marisa and Erica are two of my three loves.
The best father I set out to be.
One-on-one time with each was scarce.
Coached youth sports, advised academic decathlon.
Chaperoned field trips, volunteered in class.
We three love music, books, art, history, and politics.
Inside jokes, Giants, Niners, Warriors too.
I’m not the best father, but I’ve done my best.
I am enough.
The sky was the limit, they all said.
High School Varsity Basketball Coach
High School Junior Varsity Baseball Manager
School Board President, Corporate VP
Big Deal! I fell short of boyhood dreams.
I never “cut down the nets” or raised arms after winning a campaign.
Executive paychecks disappeared when my family needed them most.
“What am I now? What am I now? What if I’m someone I don’t want around?” ~ Harry Styles, 2019
I was sitting on a barstool at the Beer Hut, a dumpy little bar hidden in the corner of a strip mall on the east side. It was a Tuesday or Wednesday night, I think. Maybe it was 1984 or 1985. I don’t know. I’m not too sure because the years between 1982 and 1985 were a blur. For all I know, that hazy memory is a hodgepodge of many drunken weeknights my best friend Rudy and I spent at the Beer Hut and other dives that dotted east San Jose.
Sitting at my left was a grizzled veterano drowning his sorrows while hunched over a bottle of beer and an empty shot glass. To my right stood Rudy. He was bullshitting with the other drunks standing at the bar. As usual, he was making them howl with laughter at one of his many entertaining stories. We had some great times during those days despite the reality that I was numbing the pain of academic and personal failures.
Fast forward some 20 years. As an executive at Comcast, I was mingling with other guests in the Los Altos Hills backyard of some Silicon Valley zillionaire. The occasion was a Democratic Party fundraiser hosted by former President Bill Clinton. Standing on the large lawn offered a birds-eye-view of the majestic San Francisco Bay below. I took my daughter Marisa so she could meet Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi, the House of Representatives Minority Leader.
Already quite the feminist and political animal at the tender age of 11, she was excited about the prospect of meeting the person who would one day become the first woman Speaker of the House. Unlike the foggy memory of that night at the Beer Hut, the Los Altos Hills event is clear as that cloudless fall day. Marisa and I rubbed shoulders with some of the country’s most powerful people. The widescreen view of the bay matched the unlimited possibilities before me.
I’ve told the story about that high-powered backyard event a whole bunch of times. It’s one of the highlights from a career path that I didn’t know existed when growing up on the east side. Until now, it never crossed my mind to share stories of the Beer Hut days with anyone but family and a select few close friends. It was during a time that I drifted from one dead-end job to another while filling my emotional emptiness with meaningless short-term gratification.
That’s nothing to be proud about. I’ve always been ashamed about the shortcomings that litter my lifetime. That’s why I haven’t told that kind of story outside of my intimate circle. Shame is a powerful emotion. Best-selling author and professor Brené Brown describes shame as “that warm feeling that washes over us, making us feel small, flawed, and never good enough.” Yup, I know that feeling. She refers to the inner voice that reminds us of shame as “gremlins.”
Living life at full throttle, ambitious career climbing, and indulging at family parties were my defense against the gremlins. I know that exposing a not-too-flattering characteristic of my personality is risky, especially in such a public forum like this blog. What if people outside of my family circle see me differently? This revelation could potentially lead to embarrassment and more shame. So why am I sharing so much information about myself, and why now?
In her book Daring Greatly, Brown illustrates how vulnerability is the first step toward developing courage. Her ideas fascinate me, so I’m taking a shot at being vulnerable. She also writes that we can build shame resilience by facing it head on. Rarely have I looked at my years in the emotional wilderness with serious reflection. I was afraid of getting to know myself. I wondered, as Harry Styles asks in his song Falling, “What if I’m someone I don’t want around?”
I had lots of amazing personal and professional achievements in the 2 decades between that blurry night at the Beer Hut and the inspiring day in Los Altos Hills. It didn’t matter. Failure and imposter syndrome gremlins danced around me waiting to strike at the slightest hint of a foul-up. Life took a sharp turn during the decade and a half since Marisa and I rubbed elbows with the high and mighty: a massive heart attack, living with heart failure, and a transplant.
My decade-long winning battle with heart failure and the transplant have been miracles. There’s no other way to say it. One would think that both experiences would naturally lead to a life of gratitude and emotional security. I hear it often. “You must be so grateful.” “It must be nice to be retired and not worry about anything?” Not so fast! When your life is literally turned upside down, emotions and sense of worth are ripe for exploitation while the gremlins giggle with glee on the sidelines poised to attack.
I no longer have the distractions of ambition, a rewarding career, and drink to keep the gremlins at bay. In their place, an amazing spiritual journey came to the rescue. The odyssey started tentatively during the difficult days of recovery after my 2010 health crisis and gradually gained momentum in the decade that followed. In the darkest days after transplant when uncertainty reached its peak, my spiritual journey went into high gear.
Studying ancient Stoic philosophers, exploring diverse spiritual traditions, and learning about the basics of psychology opened the door for me to look at the world in a different way. Practicing vulnerability in therapy inspired me to dig deeper into my mind, soul, and past. Reading the daily Catholic Mass and reflecting on its words, stories, and lessons expanded my understanding of God and strengthened my relationship with Him.
With that said, I get it now…I think…maybe. Here it goes. There are 3 easy steps to living a peaceful and fulfilling life:
(1) Accept what we can’t control.
(2) Have certainty that what happens to us (good or bad) is what God intends to happen.
(3) Give of ourselves for the sake of others.
This is what St. Paul the Apostle meant by “faith, hope, and love.” No matter what life gives or takes away from us, Paul wrote in is First Letter to the Corinthians, “these three remain…But the greatest of these is love.”
It’s not easy to follow Paul’s guidelines. I still haven’t completely accepted my new “normal.” The desire to be active like before the heart attack quietly lurks in the back of my mind. Even though I intellectually understand that whatever happens is part of God’s plan, uncertainty clouds my thoughts from time to time. I try to fulfill St. Paul’s vision of “the greatest of the three” by focusing on my mind, body, and soul to stay healthy for the sake of Sandra and the girls.
Putting into effect what I’ve learned on this spiritual journey is really hard work. With thousands of years of wisdom from philosophers, religious thinkers, and psychoanalysts at my disposal, I make an effort to live one moment at a time. Using Brené Brown’s well-researched advice, I also work on shame resiliency and embracing my shortcomings. Together these ideas and practices bring me a sense of peace.
We all have a lifetime of unwanted baggage heaped on us by things we can’t control. Embarking on a voyage of self-discovery is the first step in unpacking the mess. Give it a try. It’s working for me. I’m getting to know myself better and I’m starting to like what I see. After it’s all said and done, I’m someone I want around for a while. I know that Sandra, the girls, and family and friends would agree.
Oh yeah, one last thing. Through 45 years of friendship, Rudy is still my oldest and best friend. He’s been on his own spiritual journey for much longer than I have been on mine. He’s also a spiritual advisor and has been a comforting presence through every step of my health ups and downs. Although our relationship isn’t based on bad old fashioned fun anymore, we still laugh until our cheeks hurt reminiscing about the party days of the 1980s.
Harry Styles’ song hit me in the gut the first time I heard it. It’s as if he wrote Falling about me circa 1983, or maybe 1985. Who knows? (LOL) Thanks to my daughters for introducing me to his music and expanding my musical world.
Falling, by Harry Styles
My therapist recommended Brené Brown’s book Daring Greatly. It’s one of the best books I’ve read in a long time. Buy it today! It will open your eyes to things you don’t want to see at first. Once they’re open, it just might help you find the path to your journey.
“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.
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.