Lucky To Be Alive

No, I didn’t almost just get hit by a car; nor did I have a head-on collision with an eight – although those things have happened to me in the past.

Nope, today was one of those rare days when I could really appreciate the moment in which I found myself – what I was doing, how I was feeling; everything about my physical, mental and emotional being felt just right. No regrets about anything in the near or distant past, and no worries about the imminent future or farther down the road.

It happened about half-way through a blissful 10-mile row around mid-day today, after I had made the turn near the Watertown dam on the Charles River, and was moving nicely downstream amidst flat water, cool crisp fall air and the beginnings of foliage season in the Boston area.

I hadn’t rowed since Friday and therefore missed Saturday’s 2 x Head-of-the-Charles workout. It was a deliberate decision, as the Green Mountain race last weekend, combined with some tough workouts during the week’s coaching sessions had left my back feeling sore on the right side. In any case, as a result of the time off , I felt pretty rusty and tired after pushing off of the dock at Riverside. I only planned to row steady state, however, as tomorrow is coaching day and, with only two weeks left until the Head of the Charles, this will be our last really tough week.

As usual, I continued to focus on technique, especially my finish, which has needed a major overhaul for years (see “way back on the layback” blog). Essentially, I have too much layback. I think it has improved somewhat – at least my ability to keep it in the front of my mind during pieces has improved – and I’m finding that when I get tired, which would be the time in past years when I’d start to slouch and dump into the bow, I’m now able to focus more on the technique of finishing properly. I don’t know if I’m actually doing it, but I am focusing on it, and it seems to help. I keep hearing Coach Milos’s voice saying “sit up at the finish John…sit up…that’s it John…” Not yelling and criticizing, but observing and encouraging me when I’m at my most tired.

I arrived at the final upstream stretch of the river before the u-turn at Watertown, having rounded the final bend and leaving the Newton Yacht Club behind. The boat just felt good. I felt good. I upped the pressure a bit and everything just zinged along. The water was like glass, and, rather than obsessing about the finish, I was finally able to focus on the catch, trying to get my blades in right at the end of the recovery, gently plunking them in before I grabbed the water and moved everything through the drive. It felt like it was working…the boat sang along the glassy water and the extra effort I put in (about 75% pressure) made me feel like I was doing some things right. It was an amazing, almost effortless feeling, and I not only felt lucky to be a rower, I felt lucky to be alive.

 

The Rowingfest That Is Masters Nationals

Last weekend, USRowing, the governing body for the sport in the United States, from Olympians on down, hosted the Masters National Championships, a four-day extravaganza. It was, yet again, the largest regatta USRowing had ever organized. To borrow from their website, the regatta featured “rowers ranging in age from 21-89 competing for national titles in 199 events…Amongst those in attendance [were] 145 clubs from 36 states, eight Canadian clubs and an unaffiliated competitor from Mexico. The international crews [were] included in the 2,013 competitors but [were] not eligible for national titles.” They pick a different city every year, and this year it was held in Worcester, Massachusetts. I live in Cambridge, so essentially it was held in my back yard.

A friend asked me yesterday if I had fun over the long racing weekend. I paused. I could not answer in the affirmative. To just say I had fun would be so understated as to be meaningless. And besides, fun is not the first thing that springs to mind. Four days of hard racing is a tremendous expense of mental and physical energy combined with endless emotional ups and downs. No matter how much I might say, “Yeah, I’m just doing it for fun – it’s a training stepping stone for me for the fall head season… I just started training in July, so I’m just going to row some events and have a good time…” No matter how many times I said that (and I did) in the days leading up to the regatta, when I got there, my mindset changed. I wanted to do as well as possible, and my mindset switched gears into “racing mode,” which isn’t a whole lot of fun to be around – for me or anyone else.

Whatever my training, I feel somehow entitled to be rewarded for killing myself many times over a four-day period. And yet, I am aware of the realities – this thing brings people out of the woodwork, and I know who a lot of them are. I know they are faster than I am. I know that getting a medal isn’t easy – at all. It’s a weird dichotomy that messes with me every time. There’s something in every competitor that gets fired up about a race. Michael Phelps famously said that it’s not so much that he wants to win, it’s that he absolutely hates to lose. My friend Paige Fader Divoli put it differently a few years ago, after I lamented, shortly after a disappointing race, that it seems so unfair to give everything you have, mentally and physically, and to come up short. “It just seems fundamentally wrong,” I said. “Yeah,” she agreed. “That’s why losing SUCKS.”

So last Wednesday, I donned my smile and my cavalier attitude and headed for the lovely city of Worcester (pronounced “Wuhster” by locals, and “Wuhstah” by REAL locals). My boat securely cartopped, I headed west on the Pike a day early. I was my typical pre-regatta mood of total elation, excitement and anticipation. I was so fired up, in fact, that I had agreed to help out a friend who was renting her boat to someone from Colorado. My friend couldn’t row due to injury, so she asked if I would cartop her single scull along with mine. Sure, I thought – I’m going there anyway…what’s another boat on my car? It seemed the nice karmic thing to do.

Fear and loathing in Worcester, MA

I arrived in Wuhstah and immediately tensed up as I approached the throngs of cars, trailers, people and, above all, police who swarmed the area. There was nowhere to park. There was some vague direction of going to the such & such many miles up the road, but I don’t work that way. I get as close as possible, unload my stuff, try to get a prime spot for my boat and then take care of my car. I had an “in” at the hospital across the street and could park in the employee lot, so I figured I’d be all set. Nevertheless, I decided to be a good doobee and follow directions. I drove a few miles down the road, found nothing except a residential neighborhood, and said, screw it, I’m going back. I found a spot kind of close to the parking lot and unloaded my boat. I walked it a good ways to the rowing area and put it in a decent spot. Then I went back and walked more tons of stuff – oars, rigger, etc. – to the spot. All the while I was on the phone with the Colorado woman to try and meet to take care of her boat. It seemed much harder than it should have been. I was getting impatient, as my time to row the course was now dwindling, and that had been a primary goal of getting to Worcester on Wednesday afternoon. I then noticed that many cars seemed to be in the parking lot and were unloading single sculls. I thought, hell, if they can do it, why can’t I? This was the first in a line of irrational mistakes that would soon follow. I noticed an opening to the lot, which actually was the exit point. A cop was manning the station, but he was turned the other way and seemed occupied. I gunned it to try to sneak by him. I heard him say “Hey!” but kept going. I drove by a DCR guy in a pickup truck, who also said “Hey,” but I pretended not to hear him either. I got to the spot to unload the Colorado single, but as we were untying it, I saw the cop walking toward me. Ugh, I thought. Here we go. As he arrived, the boat was completely untied and the slings were ready. The couple from Colorado – Hans and Mary Jane (MJ) – was there. The cop said, ok, you have just done several illegal things, and now you’re in a lot that’s only for trailers. I tried to say, “but I saw other cars unloading singles here…” He would have none of it. He said, tie this boat down and take it to the single/double dropoff. I looked around and there were singles and doubles everywhere – why couldn’t we just put it in the slings and call it a day? No way, he said. I sheepishly agreed, and he walked away. This seemed totally unfair. The boat was here. The slings were here. Yes I had done some things wrong, but why couldn’t we just take it off the car and put it in the slings – a 10-second operation? It was crazy.

Then another irrational, race-mode decision crossed my now thoroughly jumbled brain waves. “Screw it,” I said to Hans. “Let’s just take this thing off and I’ll get my car out of here.” So we did, and I frantically got in my car to get it the hell out of there. Just then, Bob “Crazy Bob” Eldridge approached me, screaming, “John!! Don’t you know you’re NOT SUPPOSED TO PARK YOUR SINGLE IN THIS LOT!!??” I screamed back, “Bob!! Stop @#$!-ing screaming at me! I’m running from a %*!-ing cop who’s chasing me down!!” Ugh. I parked the car on the street, where I thought the cop might not see it. While I was doing that, he returned and saw MJ’s single, unloaded and in the slings – a direct violation of his order. He was now really pissed and he let Hans know it. I then played a cat-and-mouse game with him, as he went from directing traffic to walking around, trying to hunt me down. I felt like a fugitive and a complete idiot, but I still hoped to avoid trouble. I jumped into my single and rowed the course, during which time I hoped the cop would go home and forget all about it. Yeah right.

After I returned, I was tying my single onto its slings and getting ready to leave. The cop walked up to me. I knew I was in for it and would own up to everything. It was time to be a stand-up guy. I respect cops a great deal – I always ask myself, “Would I want to do that job?” He asked for my license and registration, and I said they were in the car. He then asked me for all my personal information – name, address, SS#, phone number, etc. I humbly gave him everything. He said he was going to write me a ticket for driving to endanger and disobeying a police officer. Gulp. I took it, sorrowfully, now feeling really stupid. This is what happens to me when I’m in race mode, I thought. I just don’t think clearly. He said I would have to appear in court in Worcester to determine what would happen. I didn’t know what that meant, but I knew it wasn’t good. I walked back to my car with a dark, stormy cloud over my head, like Charlie Brown returning from the kite-eating tree. AAAAhhhhhhh.

I ran into my friend Trevor, who needed a ride back across the bridge, asked for a tie-on strap, and had several other requests. I could barely acknowledge him, let alone help him out. I mumbled something about being in trouble with a cop and not being able to help him at the moment. I walked away, down the road, thinking… Good Lord. This is not good. I was really worried about what would happen, so I decided to go back to the cop and ask him, as humbly as possible, what the consequences would be. I found him and we started talking. I said I wasn’t making any excuses – I just wanted to know what would happen. He said, well, that will be up to the court. I sighed. I then began to try to explain my position, which was weak at best. He then gave me his position. I drove into the exit-only part of the lot, which was forbidden to cars anyway, and was driving too fast. I ignored both him and the park ranger. But, he was willing to forgive all of that if I would just take the boat out of the lot and bring it to the dropoff designated for singles and doubles. But I didn’t. I deliberately disobeyed his order, and then, in words that hit me harder than anything to that point, he said, “You hid from me like a coward.” Wow. That hurt, but I couldn’t disagree. My only defense was, look, I agree with you on everything up to getting the boat to this spot, where it was untied and ready for the slings. At that point, why couldn’t we just put it in the slings? I told him how I had walked back and forth with the other boat, rigger, and everything else; that I was meeting people from Colorado; that I had driven up the road a few miles trying to find the single/double dropoff lot and was unable to do so. That I had tried to do the right thing, only to get impatient and frustrated and end up doing many wrong things. He said, yes, everyone, all day long, has a story like this. They all want to be the exception. They’re all coming from all over the place with lots of equipment. I agreed and said, yet again, how sorry I was and how I understood how frustrating and annoying it must be for him to have to deal with this stuff all day long (I was, it seemed, the straw that broke the camel’s back that day). I just nodded and said, “You’re right. I feel like an idiot.”

He then said something interesting. I think he respected me at least a little bit for owning up to everything and for understanding his situation. He said, “Ok, why don’t you come talk to me tomorrow about this. I might be in a different frame of mind. No promises.” I said, ok. Thank you very much. I will. I drove home thinking, Good God Almighty. Why did I come to this damn regatta in the first place if I can’t even handle dropping my boat off?

The next morning I had my first heat for the quad at 11:15 AM. On the way to the course, I stopped at Dunkin Donuts and got the officer an iced coffee with cream, no sugar, and a glazed donut. I grabbed a few sugars just in case. As I drove down Lake Avenue, there he was, at his post in front of the trailer lot in the morning heat and humidity. I pulled up and said, with a smile, “Hi. I’m looking for a police officer. He’s a really nice guy.” He laughed and held out his hand to shake mine. “You’re all set, John,” he said. “I checked you out. You’re all set.” I said thank you so much many times and then held out the coffee and donut. I said, “I promise this is not a bribe, but I thought you might want an iced coffee and a donut.” He said, no, I can’t drink that stuff, but thanks a lot. I apologized again and thanked him. He said, “No problem, John. You’re a gentleman. You’re all set.” I smiled and said, “Well, I was a total asshole yesterday, but thank you for saying that.” He laughed. It was all good.

For the remainder of the regatta, I saw him several times. His name was John. He had a Polish last name, a friendly face, and sincere blue eyes. He was a really good guy and a good cop. Every time I saw him, I’d stop to say hello and see how things were going. I’d make a joke, like, “If any of these clowns give you a hard time, let me know – I’ll kick their ass!” He always laughed. It was a good lesson learned on not screwing up and always owning up.

Racing recap

There’s no need for a stroke-by-stroke account of my races, but some highlights are helpful, at least for me, to recount. I rowed in four events – a C (age 43-49) quad on Thursday, a D (age 50-54) light single on Friday, a D heavy double on Saturday and a D club quad on Sunday. I carefully spaced my events out to only have one event per day. I’ve done these masters nationals regattas before, and it’s easy to get sucked into racing the maximum six events in four days. But if you do that, and you have heats and finals for every event, you’re talking 12 races in four days. For me personally, that’s just insanity. I’d rather trade the ego trip of getting a medal for that of being asked to be in a boat because “we really need you because you’re so awesome!” or whatever compliment might come my way. I’ve learned the hard way that racing as a complete burnout doesn’t make much sense.

On Thursday, we had a solid heat in tough competition. We rowed a composite quad, with Trevor DeKoekkek from Atlanta, David Gray and Jeff Brock from Narragansett, and me representing my beloved Riverside. In the final, we came in third, good for a bronze medal. There were definitely some heavyweight all stars in the other quads, and they were younger as well, so as a lightweight 52-year-old, I felt good to get a bronze out of that event.

Friday was the big day, because it was Single Day. For any sculler, the single is it. It’s the one that matters most for obvious reasons: it’s just you, and only you. There are no excuses. You are putting yourself on the line and you either reap the reward by yourself or suffer the indignity by yourself. It’s a great test, and one that I relish. However, in the grand litany of excuses that make their way through the conversations at masters nationals every year, one of the good ones this year was something along the lines of, “There’s no question, the C and D categories are the toughest of ALL categories here. The B [36-42] is nothing…” I have no idea how true that was based on results and times (which can’t really be compared due to variable wind conditions from race to race), but it sounded nice, as I was a D lightweight.

In this single event I had no such excuses. It was a lightweight race in my age group. I knew some of the guys and knew I would have a tough time medaling. The best I had ever done in the single was a bronze in the light C group way back in 2005, when masters nationals were last held in Worcester. Crazy Bob edged me out by about a second, maybe two.

I was as ready as I could be at the start, knowing I had a fast rower named Pietra, from Potomac, in my heat. I didn’t know anyone else, but I knew that Joe Paduda, also from Potomac, was in the other heat, and he was also fast. There was a skinny old guy from Duluth, Minnesota next to me, but he didn’t look all that intimidating (another great racing lesson is that you can never, ever, judge from looks). I took off with a nice start and was in the front of the pack during the first 500, but Duluth was hanging right with me about a half a length back. Pietra, way over in the far lane to my right, was about a length ahead. It was top 3 to qualify. The three of us moved away from the pack in the second 500, but Duluth began to pass me, much to my disappointment. My legs felt tired, which was kind of demoralizing. I just didn’t feel very strong. The boat felt heavy. I struggled to keep up, but he moved a few lengths ahead by the finish. I came in third and was very tired at the end – much more so than I wanted to be in a heat. I had qualified, but it was pretty exhausting, and that did not make me happy at all. I got to the dock in a pretty crappy mood, and as I went to pull my boat out of the water, the stern wouldn’t come out – like there was a massive weight in it. I pulled the plug and unscrewed the round hatch on the deck and it was chock full of water – maybe a few gallons or more poured out. I still could barely lift the boat even as it was emptying the water out. This turn of events really pissed me off, as it meant I had a serious leak which could jeopardize my final. I studied the hull and determined that the leak had to be coming from the skeg. I so did not want to deal with it. In my foggy mindset of post-race exhaustion, I didn’t think clearly of trying to do a temporary fix so I could race in the final. There were certainly plenty of people at the race course who could have helped me, but I didn’t want to hurt the boat. I also felt that I wouldn’t medal based on the heat times, but I didn’t factor in the fact that my time may well have been faster if I weren’t dragging the anchor of water down the course with me. So I scratched the final and felt absolutely awful about it. The ultimate personal humiliation. No matter what others thought, I knew that I wasn’t happy with the decision; but it seemed the lesser of many evils at the time. Looking back, I kind of wish I had tried some electrical tape or something that wouldn’t hurt the boat, but such is life. It’s just a race, and I was more concerned about making sure my boat was properly fixed. Decision made, time to move on.

In the double the next day, my partner David Gray and I were matched against some serious heavyweights, including Greg Benning and Greg Walker from Cambridge, Jon Grant and Tom Darling from Cambridge, and Tom Bohrer and Mike Cataldo from Union. The latter double was in our heat. I know these guys and felt they would absolutely destroy us, but to my surprise we finished a close second to them in the heat, only half a second back. I was blown away by this result. Then, looking at the times, I noticed that the top four boats from both heats were within about one second of each other. The final was sure to be a classic “barn burner.” But in the final, Dave and I just didn’t have it and fell back to a disappointing 5th place. It was sad, but such is life in racing. You do the best you can and sometimes things don’t work out. Above all, you get what you deserve based on what you brought to the party in that given race. Learning NOT to make excuses is one of the best, and hardest lessons of racing.

Sunday was the day of redemption, but I was skeptical. Again, our quad in this final-only (thank God no heats – just one race on my last day) was matched against some tough cookies from Cambridge and Narragansett. This was an all-Riverside quad, with some massive strongmen: Andy O’Brien in 3 seat, John Yasaitis in 2, Neal Harrigan (who had won his age group at Crash-B’s) in bow, and skinny ol’ me in stroke seat. You can see just looking at the boat how much bigger these guys are, compared with me. And we needed that heft, as we were dealing with a substantial headwind.

This race was a solid effort – and effort was what did it for us. We had never practiced as a group, and it showed on our blade work. We caught crabs, did a slalom course the whole way down, and generally felt pretty sloppy. But man did we have strength. And our technique must have been good enough, because we finished a very satisfying second to the guys from Cambridge. A lovely little silver medal to end my four-day odyssey in Worcester. I was more than happy with that, and it proved yet again what I’ve learned from many years of these multi-day regattas. If you have a bad day, you can live to race another day and strive for redemption.

Epilogue

So another masters nationals down, with hopefully many more to come. These regattas, and racing in general, are not fun. They are a lot of work. But there’s tremendous satisfaction and enjoyment in doing them, and a lot of that comes from the people you get to know over the years. In my case, I’ve been racing against some of the same people for a dozen years. There’s such pleasure in catching up, talking about old races, strategizing about the regatta at hand and mapping out the rest of the season. Mainly I’m just happy to be in the game. I’m healthy enough to be out there on the course. That’s my mindset when I step back a bit, well after the race is over. In the moment, I’m in the same narrow vacuum in which many of my competitors are living, thinking…how can I do my best; what are the chances of winning; and what do I have to do personally, each moment of each day, to be in the best possible condition to give it my all. It is four days during which you’re focused only on preparing to race, racing, recovering from a race, eating, sleeping, and repeating the cycle. There’s something fundamentally healthy about such an experience. No, it’s not fun. It transcends enjoyment, pushing you to your mental, psychological, emotional and physical limits.

And this is only for the middle-aged hackers among us, of which I’m squarely in the middle. For national teamers and Olympians, it’s a whole ‘nother deal. And of those experiences, I am not qualified to comment. Unfortunately. 🙂

Too much way back in the lay back

Some people have described me as being laid back. Others would strongly dispute this claim. But on one point there is little argument – in my rowing technique, I have wayyyy too much layback at the finish. It’s as though the former great Red Sox radio announcer, Jerry Trupiano, was calling a home run: “Way back! Way back!” Sigh.

For the uninitiated (non-rowers), this means that when I take my blades out of the water, I am leaning too far back from sitting vertically upright. This bad habit has several unfortunate effects: it causes the bow of the boat to plunge into the water, slowing it down; it actually makes it harder to get the blades out of the water (and I’ve crabbed a few times – even in races); it reduces or even eliminates the ability to “send” the boat faster off of the finish, which apparently is the idea (I wouldn’t know); it causes you to be less prepared for a proper recovery, since your body position is all wrong; and it just looks stupid.

Look at this photo from 2003, during one of the Head of the Kevin races:

’03 was a decent year for me – I won a silver medal in the light 2x at club nationals, had a lifetime PR in a Head of the Kevin practice race for the Charles with a time of 18:07 and won the my event in the Head of the Charles. With this layback in a wooden boat. What in the happy holy Hell is THAT all about. I’ll tell you one thing – as I got older and weaker through my latter 40s (I was 43 in this picture), I slowed down. I have two theories: first, my crappy layback was catching up with me big time, and I didn’t have the strength/conditioning to make up for the massive inefficiency at the finish; and second, I was rowing in a King, which is one of the best-designed boats on the planet. It turns on a dime and runs like the wind. I have no idea how Graeme does it. Had I been rowing in a less forgiving Van Dusen or Empacher, I suspect things could have been different. (I now row a Van Dusen Advantage, which I love.)

Now look at how it should be done – this is the final of the 2011 Men’s heavyweight singles at the world championships in Bled, Slovenia.

Most of the guys have little to no layback – it’s all legs, and the finish is perfectly coordinated. The timing is impeccable – when they’re done, they’re done – the oars are out of the water. It’s a marvel for me to watch. Focus especially on Ondrej Synek from the Czech Republic (lane 5). He’s a machine (well, they’re all machines). Interestingly, the guy who won, New Zealand’s Mahe Drysdale, has a little bit of layback. They even comment on it, saying that maybe he’s getting a bit more on his stroke than the rest (Mahe, you are my hero!!). So that gives me some comfort, but not much. He’s the exception, not the rule, and his speed is likely due to a whole host of factors, as is usually the case – that elusive combination of strength, conditioning, guts, mental toughness, etc. that winners possess.

In any case, for me, I know I need to sit up more at the finish and figure this out. 20 years of bad habits are very hard to break. I’m not so worried about the other elements…my catch and recovery seem to be ok. But many a coach over the past few years has been aghast at the inefficient finish that is literally dragging me down. Everyone on the river sees it and several have made comments. Ugh. The truth hurts, but you have to hear it.

So with a new attitude and a new coach at Riverside, not to mention a renewed commitment to actually start TRAINING in 2012, after slacking off most of the year, I hereby commit myself to trying to improve this situation.

Hope springs eternal – especially for masters rowers, the most stubborn and slow-to-change of all.

Why I Don’t Care

Ok maybe that’s a bit strong, but it’s catchy, right?

I do care deeply about many things…perhaps this should be entitled, Why I Don’t Worry.

A friend of mine recently passed away at age 41 of breast cancer. Another died a few years back of a brain tumor. Another in his early 30s just landed in the hospital with a brutal immune system ailment, though it looks like he’ll be okay. And the event that really precipitated this attitude for me: my brother died in November 2006 of a heart problem.

On November 20, 2006, I was just leaving a doctor appointment with an orthopedic guy for a chronic right hamstring injury that had been bothering me for several years. As I pulled out of the garage at Mount Auburn Hospital in Cambridge, my brother Will called me on my cell phone. He was crying, and I had never heard him cry before in my life. “Jay’s dead,” he sobbed. I listened in shock.

Early in the morning on that day in November, about 4:30 AM Denver time, Jay was at his desk in his office downstairs. His wife and two young children, eight and six, were upstairs sleeping. He had been having a hard time sleeping since starting a new business as a hedge fund manager about a year before. Prior to that, he had been a successful portfolio manager for Oppenheimer in New York City, and then after that the chief investment officer for Berger Associates, a mutual fund company that was bought out by Janus. Jay was the superstar of the family, from a success standpoint, even surpassing our dad, who was a senior partner at a large Denver law firm. Jay appeared on Wall Street Week, was a regular on CNBC, and was frequently quoted in the financial press, including a page-one quote in the Wall Street Journal (pre-Murdoch!) on my 40th birthday in July of 2000. He seemed to have it all – charity board memberships, a great golf game, a lovely wife, two gorgeous children and many good friends. He was very bright, compassionate, selfless and had a wonderful sense of humor. He always looked for the good in people and in life generally.

But as he sat there, working at his computer, he was unaware that he had an aneurism in his aorta that had been undetected, despite several visits to the doctor that year in order to get his high blood pressure under control. One by-product of Jay’s career success was that he didn’t take the best care of himself. He was, in many ways, a workaholic.  At 4:30 AM, the aneurism burst and Jay died instantly. His head tilted just to one side, and his eyes were open, indicating virtually no struggle. He was 53 years old.

(I will be 52 this summer.)

In my shock at learning the news, one of my first thoughts was, “What does this mean for me?” Of course that was mixed in with the extreme sadness, loss, worry for his wife and children, for both my parents (I delivered the news to both of them), for my brother Will, who was just 18 months younger than Jay, for my sister, and above all, a numbing feeling of stunned shock.

I was almost upset with myself at this seemingly selfish thought about what it meant for me. But it gnawed at me, and I concluded fairly soon afterward that what it really meant was the age-old truism: life is short. And this was not just some trite cliche. It hit me very profoundly. I was 46 and a half and was not far behind Jay. If he was gone now, I reasoned, my time might not be far behind. And even if not – even if I lived another 50 years, which I fully planned on doing – it would go fast, like the blink of an eye. It was already speeding up. Months clicked by like weeks…years blended in and out, making it harder each year to distinguish one from another. And this was something Jay and I used to talk about – it was he who first introduced me to relative time in the aging process: the fact that, on a relative basis, time really is shorter when you are older, because each unit is a smaller percentage of your entire life. When you’re 10, a year makes up a whopping 10% of your whole life; when you’re 40, it’s only 1/40th. And, no surprise, it seems to go by a lot faster as a result.

So I pondered for the next several months, after the finality of the funeral and the ensuing digestion of his death working its way through my psyche. I had been a great worrier for most of my life, struggling, craving, yearning, wanting to be “great” (yet having no idea how to get to that elusive goal), worrying about how I would pay the bills, fearful of a great many things, both in my career and personal life. In my career, which took up most of my worrying capacity, I had spent most of my time since college trying to figure it out (in addition to Jay’s success, I had two cousins were were famous ballerinas in the New York City Ballet).

But after this, I suddenly no longer cared. Jay worked, and strived, and worked, and strived, and…dropped dead at 53. But that’s what he wanted to do…that’s what drove him. So it was okay. But he wasn’t ready to go – of that I’m quite sure. He would have wanted to continue being a loving husband to his wife and especially to watch his girls grow up. He would have wanted to continue the close relationship with his son from his first marriage, watching him graduate from college and move onto a successful career.

During my long, tedious and overly litigious (not my choice…it just turned out that way) divorce process, I experienced a tremendous amount of anxiety, anger and stress. I thought I was done with it after Jay died, but again, I worried about what would become of me, now that I was financially decimated. This, in addition to the emotional aspect, which, as I recently described to a friend, reduces you to a wrecked blob of frayed nerves, quivering on the floor (ok maybe that’s a bit much, but it’s a fun image, yes?).

So after all that, and learning how to deal with it (hello, meditation!), I have reached a state where I feel virtually impenetrable. There’s just not a whole lot that can rattle my cage anymore. When your number is up, it’s up, as I have seen with Jay and so many others. Not a whole lot you can do about it, so why worry? As for the rest, you can always rebuild; money is just money…it can be made and lost many times over in a lifetime – it’s so not worth worrying about. As a good friend said to me when I was worried about losing my job due to corporate restructuring (I did lose it), “Do you have enough money for today?”

“Yes.”

“Then you have enough money.”

“But what if I lose my job??”

“You’ll get another f-ing job!!”

The infamous slogan of Alfred E. Neumann, Mad magazine’s iconic frontman, was “What, me worry?” It’s not such a bad one to live by. Take care of the things that matter. And don’t worry, because it won’t do any good.

Life After College

Chapter 17 of my memoir, work in progress….

I consider that my post-college phase officially began after the teaching internship at St. Paul’s School, in the late summer/fall of 1983. Since I knew that I had the internship in hand during the remainder of my spring semester at Hampshire College, I really didn’t worry about what would happen after it ended. Again, I just hoped that something magical would transpire to take me to the next step.

In reality, I landed with a thud, and a frightening one at that. I was fortunate to have family in the area – in particular, my Aunt Emily and Uncle Bill, who lived in West Newton, a suburb outside of Boston. Uncle Bill was my mom’s younger brother – the one who went to Harvard, was a Baker Scholar at Harvard B-School, and was then a successful corporate gypsy in the oil industry. He started out in the Philippines, before grad school, working for Chemical Bank. After the two-year stint in business school, he moved to London to work for Conoco. After a few years in the UK, the oil giant sent him and his family packing to Hamburg, Germany and then Houston, Texas. For a staid New Englander, married to a former University of Illinois Homecoming Queen who had lots of allergies, Houston was about as close to Hell as they could have possibly imagined. But he was high up in the organization, and they survived for five years. My favorite Houston story came from my cousin Bill, who was born in the Philippines, raised in London, Hamburg and Houston, and attended St. Paul’s School, as did his father, uncle, and grandfather. One of Bill’s close friends was the cousin of Dusty Hill, the legendary bass player and vocalist for the rock band ZZ Top. Bill spent Christmas dinner at their house, with Dusty at the end of the table, beard, rock clothing, and the whole bit. The family was a stuffy upper-crust Houston clan, and they did not necessarily approve of what Dusty did for a living, but… “He made a lot of money, so it was okay.” I’ve never quite gotten the image of that Christmas dinner out of my head, which is a good thing.

So Aunt Emily and Uncle Bill, who would become my surrogate parents throughout my 20s and 30s, offered to let me live with them in West Newton for the final three weeks of the summer, and I would have that time to find a job and an apartment in the Boston area. Aunt Emily was on the Cape at the family compound in Bass River, and Uncle Bill was working, so I had their enormous and imposing Victorian house to myself for that period. I was still driving my dad’s 1971 Chevy Nova, which he had given to me in the fall of 1981 with over 100,000 miles on it, and which I then drove across the country by myself.

If ever I had the fear of God in me, it was during those weeks in West Newton. I was stymied, facing the rest of my life and not having a clue what I would do. Everything crashed down on me at once. I wandered around the house, looking at all the impressive memorabilia and artwork that they had collected from their far-flung travels, as well as the imposing Henry Family treasures that adorned their walls, the most impressive being the paintings and artifacts from Captain William Wyman Henry’s infamous travels in the China Trade. Captain Henry was the son of a sea captain, William Henry, who plied the seas in the 1830s. His son, William Wyman, was a captain during the heyday of the U.S. merchant marine: the relatively short period of a few decades (1850s and 60s) before the transcontinental railroad was finished, during which the only way to transport goods from the Eastern Seaboard to the West Coast, particularly, San Francisco, which was booming due to the gold rush, was by ship. So shipbuilders went to work, designing and building the fastest, largest merchant ships that could be built with the technology at hand – primarily, wood, rope and canvas. Donald McKay was among the most renowned designers and builders, with a large shipyard in East Boston. Essentially, the aim was to build the sleekest, fastest hull that would, at the same time, carry as much cargo as possible, and then attach the maximum amount of rigging to attain the greatest sail area, and therefore the greatest speed. McKay and others accomplished exactly that, and sea captains risked life and limb going “round the Horn” (around the tip of South America) to speed goods from Boston and New York, to San Francisco, China, and back. It was literally a race – both for reputation and for commerce – for the captains and their owners. Looking back, it seems a romantic notion, with great wealth being made and life at sea a fantastic journey of adventure. In fact, it was probably a grueling way of life, and the sea captain bore the brunt of the stress. I look at how authoritarianism, self-will, great risk taking and extreme independence runs through my mom’s side of the family, and I have no doubt that it stems from these sea captains – both William Henry and William Wyman Henry. In the early 1800s, William the Elder ran away from the family farm near Topsfield, Massachusetts with his brother John (essentially saying “screw THIS”) to jump aboard ship and learn the sea trade, with both eventually rising to the rank of Captain. His son, William Wyman, followed in his father’s footsteps and became a captain of Clipper Ships, as the fast ships became known by mid-century. His son was William Linzee Henry, who owned his own business – a fat rendering (to make soap) company in Charlestown, Massachusetts – and who purchased the property on Bass River, Cape Cod, in 1896. He and his wife, Florence Gertrude Furbush, had three children, Samuel Eliot, Dorothy __??__, and Andrew Kidder, my mom’s father.

I was intimidated and awestruck as I considered my future in the face of all this family lore surrounding me in this great old house in West Newton. No way I’d ever live up to all this, despite having done well in college and having a name-brand internship under my belt. I was booted from prep school and didn’t attend an Ivy League college. I would never be what I could have been, and I reminded myself of this constantly during these solitary weeks, as I had been doing, off and on, for years. However, I had survived the difficult and aimless period after prep school and was determined to make a go of it. My family’s history of success and achievement did serve as an inspiration, when not intimidating the hell out of me. Unlike my father, for whom failure was almost a foregone conclusion because the expectations were so high that they could never be fulfilled, my Uncle Bill and Aunt Emily were different. They also had the highest of standards, but they also believed in me, and this was a critical difference. It’s also why they played such an important role in my life – they were like parents, but they were not my parents. Though Uncle Bill (also William Linzee Henry) could be the ultimate hard-ass, with his bellowing voice dictating this or that – especially when sailing or at the Cape – he was often rational, kind, helpful, and keenly interested in helping people find practical solutions to their problems. It was heartwarming for me, that this person who I had always felt was so cold and distant, took such a warm and thoughtful interest in me. He was no stranger to life’s difficulties – he too had spent some post-college disillusioned years trying to figure things out – but he pulled himself up and applied himself diligently, and achieved great things. But more to the point, for me, despite my failures, such as getting kicked out of Taft (he was the uncle who was so disappointed), he saw that I had applied myself and recovered, and he and Aunt Emily really believed in me. That confidence, coming from my own distinguished family, was new and different for me, and it helped immeasurably.

With some prodding from a fellow Hampshire Alum who was living in Cambridge – she told me “Yeah, you can get a job as a busboy; all you have to do is apply!” – I got a job at Seaside Restaurant in Faneuil Hall and soon after an apartment in Somerville for $150 a month. I made about $500 a month at the restaurant before taxes, so I was all set. My new life in a new city had begun.