Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Looking into the past

This weekend I began downloading some old analog camcorder tapes.

My mother-in-law Betty is nearing her Final Passage,
and I want to make a DVD for her,
to remind her of the good times,
when her husband and daughter were still with us,
happy and full of energy and wit.

Now they are both gone,
and Betty lingers in her nursing home,
unable to walk due to a hip injury,
awaiting her time.

Leukemia took Nancy in the spring of 2003,
and John passed in October 2006.

I first met Nancy's parents and friends in 1994
on the occasion of their 50th wedding anniversary in Kokomo, IN.
I carried my camcorder around all weekend
to record my first meeting with all these people
whom I knew would become part of my new family.

Later I recorded John's 80th birthday,
and in 1997 I interviewed him about his life.

It is remarkable to see these old images
and also to view myself at an earlier time,
before I had left behind a long career and a lifetime of friends
to start a new life in Tennessee.

I hear my voice and see my face in these old tapes
and wonder how I have changed.
I see the ponytail and the earring,
the slender and taut features
and compare them with the older man
who now stares back at me from the mirror.

I remember how I felt old then,
maybe a little too old (48) to be changing my life
in such fundamental ways.

But I plunged ahead anyway,
following a new life path
that has brought me to this day.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Ambushed by sorrow

Tonight as I was packing for a trip, I poked around in the closet.
I noticed a little wooden box in the back of an upper shelf

and decided to see what was in it.
The top was brightly decorated.

Then I recalled its origin.
Nancy and I bought it in 1994 during a honeymoon vacation in Jamaica.

I opened it,
and inside
I had placed
the contents
of her wallet

after leukemia took her in 2003.

In the bottom were our wedding rings.

Sorrow had ambushed me.

Tears did not flow,
but their wells were stirred.

These thoughts do not trouble me constantly,
but sometimes,
and when least expected,
sorrow will alight
if only for a moment.

As I age,
I find that life
finds more ways
to remind me
of its brevity.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

My interesting life

I have lived a very interesting and full life.
Actually several lives.

My first life began with a normal childhood.

Born February 1946 at the leading edge of the Baby Boom.
Raised in the Northern Virginia suburbs of Washington, DC.

Graduated from William & Mary in 1968 with a BA in Psychology.

Married my high school sweetheart the day before college graduation.

Short Navy career, then 29 years with the Telephone Company. (This is my mom telling me how to run the company)

Raised two wonderful children

Who are each raising two wonderful children of their own.

Took piano lessons from age six to 16.

Thus began a parallel life,
That of a musician.

Here I am with The Cavaliers, JEB Stuart High School's stage band.

Began playing in bands at age 15.

Played lots of private parties in high school.

Here's the first page from the song book of "The Redlighters, my first high school rock band.

Here I am (2nd from left) with The Shades, featured in The Washington Star Weekender in 1964, my senior year of high school.

Played through college at frat parties, earning spending money.

Here I am with The Strangers at our first paying gig during our Freshman year at William & Mary.

And here I am playing our last job.

Played in “Inner Light,” a highly successful agency band from 1973-77
Including one year of Fridays and Saturdays at the Olney Inn from 8:30 to midnight,
Then a contract with Washington Talent the following year
Lots of weddings, bar-mitzvahs, bat-mitzvahs and country club parties.

All tuxedo gigs.

Yes, ruffled shirts and all.
My trademark was a leather top hat.

Here I am in action with guitarist Jerry Kozelsky looking on in amusement.

We played Jimmy Carter’s Election Night celebration at the Statler-Hilton in Washington, DC before 3,000 people and two national TV networks . With less than a week’s notice, we managed to learn the Jimmy Carter theme song and perform it together perfectly the first time on stage.

Eleven fallow years from 1977-88.

Passion was rekindled in 1988 after sitting in with the house band while on vacation at the Outer Banks of North Carolina.

Auditioned for a classic rock band immediately after returning from the beach.

Became the leader.

The band became “Mirage.”

Mirage played clubs in Northern Virginia for 3 ½ years,
Putting my daughter through two years of

In 1992 I got to play the blues with future FCC Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein at Blues Week in Elkins, WV.

First marriage fell apart in 1994 after 26 years.

New marriage to Nancy in 1995;

New life began in 1998.

Retired from my white collar job after 29 years,
Sold my parents’ estate,

Stuck a pin in a map and decided to move to Nashville

to invent a new life
Away from the shadow of my first life.

By the spring of 1999 I was on tour

With the best band I had ever played with, “Ashley & Alexia.”
The dream I had nourished for decades had been realized.

But art won’t pay the bills,
So after nine months of searching,

In June 2000 I landed a white collar job in state government.

Leukemia claimed Nancy.
It started on her birthday in 2002
And ended one year later.
And so also ended that life of mine.

Suzanne ushered in yet another new life.
We met via an Internet dating service,
She had also lost two spouses as had I.
The first to divorce,
The second to death.

We’ve made our new lives together since then.

And yes, I still play in bands.
Here I am in 2003 (2nd from right) with Ben Byler & The Rest, a classic rock band.

What lessons have I learned?

Exercise, eat right, make love and play music as often as possible,
Because life is short,
And it’s our job to enjoy it while it lasts.

And for my interesting life I am thankful this Thanksgiving.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Veterans Day

Yesterday was Veterans Day.

I am a veteran of the Vietnam War,
in which 50,000 of my generation gave their lives.

All of us had to deal with it somehow.

I graduated from college in 1968, the year of the Tet Offensive.
Men of my age were drafted in huge numbers,
and to avoid that fate I applied for admission to Naval Officer Candidate School.
I was accepted, so six weeks after college graduation I showed up in Newport, RI
to begin a grueling 4 1/2 months that would qualify me to lead men into battle, read navigation charts and fire torpedoes.

Lady Luck was on my side, however.

Upon graduation, I was assigned to the job of Assistant Legal Officer at the Little Creek Amphibious Base in Norfolk, VA. I prepared cases for Captain's Mast (a.k.a. Article 15), prosecuted Special Courts Martial and conducted investigations. So in the spring of 1969 I returned to Newport, this time to live in an apartment off base with my wife while attending legal classes on base. In six weeks' time I learned all I needed to know about the rules of evidence and procedures for carrying out military justice.

So no bullets whizzed by my head.
I never had to live in a tent or even go to sea.
My wife and I lived in an apartment only ten minutes from my office.

What's more, after only eleven and a half months' commissioned service,
the Navy informed me that I had three choices:
1. Go to sea immediately;
2. Transfer from Naval Reserve to regular Navy (which meant going to sea);
3. Leave active duty.

And so with only six weeks' notice,
I found myself looking for a civilian career.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

On life and the veil

On Halloween I felt moved to write a post about Nancy's death, starting with her diagnosis of leukemia in the spring of 2002 and ending with her death a year later.

Yesterday wifie told me that according to ancient pagan lore,

the veil between this world and the next reaches its thinnest point around Halloween.

So I wonder...

What exactly is the nature of this veil?
What does it mean to be alive or dead?
What is the nature of the life force?
What is spirit?

Where does it come from, and where does it go?

Is life a river?

Does life flow through us?

The food we eat, the air we breathe.
We become Earth, and it becomes us
in a continuous fluid,
the river of life.

Then life is like a song,
forever creating itself in the perpetual Now,
always coming into and out of existence.

The two components of life:
1. Instructions (DNA)
2. Force (energy)

Instructions assemble and shape the force.

And so the hamburger I eat becomes me;

and through the process of eating, drinking and breathing,
I become one with the earth;
it becomes one with me,
and so my apartness from the earth is an illusion.

The force itself is life.
And so life continues on.

DNA shapes the Force.
Gives it a personality,
a fingerprint,
a face.

DNA enables the continuation of life threads,
which individually weave together
into the rich tapestry which is
the diversity of life,
the sea of forms,
that each arose and continue to arise from the earth itself.

DNA is the principle of organization.

Each individual is a branch of the vine of life,
and as such exists on a continuum of forms,
each deriving its individuality from a unique combination
of the elements from which its parents were themselves formed.

I am my parents,
or rather a node on the vine from which they arose.
There is nothing of me that wasn't also present in my parents' DNA.

And so although the form of me is unique,
the elements of design (DNA)
and the life force that animates these elements
are only borrowed from the earth.

I am reminded of something Nancy said during her last days of life.
I asked her what she thought would happen to her when she died.
She gestured toward the woods behind our house and replied,
"I will become one with the trees and birds out there,"
and so she asked that her ashes be spread in our woods.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

A death in the family

Today is Halloween.
It is a day to laugh at death.

I am acquainted with death,
for it has visited my household.

I do not laugh at death,
but neither do I fear it.

It was April 2002, the week before Nancy’s 50th birthday.
We had reserved a cabin in east Tennessee for her birthday weekend.
We had tickets to “Stomp” at the Tennessee Performing Arts Center in Nashville.

But she had been feeling weak, faint upon arising from sitting down and out of breath with the slightest exertion.
She had a number of bruises.
A routine eye exam showed some broken blood vessels in her retinas, which the optometrist attributed to high blood pressure.
But her blood pressure had been under control for years with medication.

So we decided it was time for a physical exam to find out what was wrong.
Her doctor examined her and found nothing obviously wrong.
Blood was drawn and sent off for analysis.

The next morning my office phone rang.
It was Nancy.
The doctor’s office had received the results of her blood tests.
The doctor said, “Go immediately to the hospital.”
Her platelet count was 17 thousand (normal is 150 thousand to 400 thousand).

I went home immediately.
We packed an overnight bag and drove directly to St. Thomas Hospital.

The Japanese cherry tree in our front garden was just starting to bloom.
The birds were singing.
Spring was in the air.

That afternoon she endured the first of five bone marrow biopsies.
It is not a pleasant procedure.
The doctor inserts a long needle deep into the hip to extract bone marrow.
It was her fiftieth birthday.
The next day the oncologist shared the bad news: She had Acute Myelogenous Leukemia (AML), which is one of the deadliest forms of leukemia. She would die within weeks if chemotherapy was not started immediately.

Thus began a long and difficult journey, the last one we would take.

After 102 days in the hospital and three rounds of chemotherapy, she finally achieved remission.
I spent those nights on a narrow, uncomfortable cot beside her bed.

But we made a living room out of her hospital room.
I brought items from home, including VCR, stereo, boom box and CDs;
rented movies for her to watch;
got take-out from nearby restaurants to give her a break from hospital food.

Remission was finally achieved after three rounds of chemo.
Then six months of “normal” life.
A vacation to Hot Springs, Arkansas.
A visit to her first great-niece in Kokomo, IN
She sang “His Eye is on The Sparrow” at church for Thanksgiving
with me accompanying her on piano.

Her monthly blood tests were normal until March 21, 2003.

Then we heard the doctor utter the dreaded word, Relapse.

She was tired.
The doctors said her chances were slim.
So we went home to await death.

Spring was in the air once again.
The cherry tree was blooming once again.
The birds sang once again.

I sipped my morning coffee on the front porch,
listening to the birds
along with the sounds of Nancy’s breathing through the baby monitor.

Death came at 6:15 p.m. on April 28, 2003, eleven days after her fifty-first birthday.

What did I learn?

Life is short,
so you’d better enjoy it while you can.

Blood saves lives, so donate if you are healthy.
Nancy used 153 units of blood (100 units of red cells and 53 units of platelets) during her treatment.

Love conquers all.
Although death defeated Nancy’s body, it did not defeat our love.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Gene Pool

"The very idea of a gene pool has no meaning if there is no sex. 'Gene Pool'
is a persuasive metaphor because the genes of a sexual population
are being continually mixed and diffused, as if in a liquid.
Bring in the time dimension, and the pool becomes a river,
flowing through geological time..."

-Richard Dawkins,
The Ancestor's Tale , page 432

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Quiet Sunday morning

7:50 a.m.

It's nice and peaceful here this morning.
Sun's on the rise,

birds are busy at the feeders,

cat wants attention,

I want to dream.

The world seems full of stuff for me to do.
Hang towel racks, caulk, learn songs.
And yet right now, in this time and place,
stillness seems to beckon me to be silent,
to observe
and not act.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

Great night of backyard jamming

Last night wifie and I attended a backyard birthday party that included some musical jamming with some people we had seen in a band Thursday night. I bought their CD and learned the songs this morning, which impressed them and enabled me to show off my piano skills.

Unlike most piano players, I prefer to play in a group and almost never play solo. I thrive on the exchange of energy that happens when people make music together.

I handed out keyboard business cards to several of the musicians I jammed with. One said he would call me to do some studio work on a CD that he is producing for another one of the players who was there tonight. We played several of the songs tonight, which everyone enjoyed immensely.

I really like energizing this part of my soul. This may or may not lead to money, but it's something I must do to stay healthy and in balance.

This is my antidote for the ladder.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

The end of the ladder

Men often define themselves in terms of their achievements.
The ladder is a traditional metaphor for their climb.
Career accomplishments measure success and define worth.

This imagery begins in childhood.
For Baby Boomers like me
raised by children of the Great Depression,
the message was clear:
“Study hard in order to gain admission to a good college;
otherwise you will be condemned to a life of manual labor.”

Got good enough high school grades
for William & Mary.
Achieved a “C” average there
while investing real passion into playing piano with a rock & roll band.

After a Navy stint during Vietnam,
began career with the Telephone Company in 1969,
starting as Assistant Manager;
making a living by wits;
achieving one promotion in 29 years.

Married high school sweetheart;
raised a boy and a girl.
Straddled two professional worlds:
one playing music on weekends,
the other 9 to 5 in telephony.
One paid the bills;
the other nourished the soul.

Kids leave the nest 1992;
First marriage collapses 1994;
Last parent dies 1996;
Take early retirement 1998,
Ssell everything;
Move to Nashville with 2nd wife;
Play piano full-time for a year and a half,
Tour the country in 1999
with six other people in a 1991 Econoline van at age 53.
Write a book about the experience.

Money runs low later that year;
nine-month job search ends with state job in 2000.

Second wife contracts leukemia in 2002
and dies a year later.

Meet third wife online;
she moves from Memphis to Nashville.

Time marches on.
Now seven years into second career;
four and a half to go until final retirement.

What is there to learn by looking back?
Was good father & husband;
Raised children;
Supported family;
Survived losses;
Made courageous choices
and mistakes too.

Now four wonderful grandchildren.
Great relationship with son;
hope for reconciliation with daughter.

Health good;
mind sharp;
piano skills good as ever.

The ladder comes to an end.
Soon no more rungs to climb.
Not that many rungs were ever climbed anyway.
Never really believed in the ladder;
the stuff you can measure in this way is the most trivial.

Maybe this is the lesson.

Life is complicated and messy.
It is lived one day at a time.
Not for the future
nor for the past.

Only the Now.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Straight but not narrow

A few months ago wifie put this sticker on the bumper of our van.

Upon returning to our car in a parking lot this weekend, we discovered this note on our windshield.

So by the simple act of announcing our acceptance, a lesbian couple now knows that there are straight people out there who support them. Our little bumper sticker must have shone as a beacon of hope and sanity.

There is so much fear and hatred in the world
that those of us who dare to love unafraid
often feel overwhelmed.
But in the end,
love must overcome hate
if humanity is to survive.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007


Sanity usually feels solid as rock,
but sometimes it feels like a thin ledge.
One mis-step and plunge into nothingness.

But those times don't last long.

Sometimes this world
is a lonely place.

My sister is facing thyroid surgery,
but now heart issues have surfaced.

My wife faces multiple health issues.

If this is a movie,
I want to get my hands around the screenwriter's neck.

And so it is with the ebb and flow of life.
Emotions tumble from high to low,
then back to high again,
stealing with them the illusion of control.

Sometimes my daily work seems important,
but sometimes it seems like meaningless drudgery.

Life stretches out longer behind than ahead.
So much time was and is wasted,
but who's to say what's wasted and what isn't?

In the end no one judges you,
except yourself.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007


My XM is playing "Why" by Annie Lennox.

That song brings back to mind the summer of '94.
It was a summer of confusion and hope,
Love lost and love found,
The closing out of old parts of my life
and the opening of doors to a new life.

My wife of 26 years and I decided to divorce that spring.
It was the Tuesday after Easter.

It happens to lots of us.

Only days later I reconnected with Nancy, whom I had first met in 1991.
She was still single,
living in New Jersey.

After a glorious week in Jamaica
we spent the summer traversing the New Jersey Turnpike from DC to NJ
to spend glorious weekends floating on a sea of love.

I never knew New Jersey could be so beautiful.

Finding love again after all those years.

Nancy had the CD of "Diva" by Annie Lennox,
which I copied onto cassette tape to play in my aged Volvo on my 4-hour trips back & forth.

Hearing those songs now returns part of me to that place and time.

It seems like so long ago,
and yet sometimes it seems just like yesterday.

Leukemia took Nancy in April 2003.

Suzanne came into my life two months later,
bringing her own symphonies into my heart.

I know that now is now,
and then was then.

But when I hear those songs,
I can feel a certain moisture
gathering in my eyes.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Rotator cuff surgery

Wifie had rotator cuff surgery to repair a torn tendon in her left shoulder last Thursday. Here's a picture of the inside of a shoulder so you can see where the rotator cuff is.

It's amazing what medical science can do! The surgery is completely arthroscopic; she was left with only five small incisions that healed rapidly. But of course the major work was inside the shoulder, and that's where her pain is centered right now. The surgeon explained that they actually fill the shoulder with water to do the surgery. Water flows continuously into and out of the area, flushing out bits of bone and damaged tendon as the surgeon cuts them out and repairs the tendon.
I've been the Head Nurse around our house this past week, administering pain killers on schedule, shopping, cooking, cleaning and providing patient entertainment.

This morning I drove wifie to her first Physical Therapy appointment. The Physical Therapist was impressed with how well she is doing only a week after surgery.
He told us that the rotator cuff repair requires the most extensive rehabilitation of any joint-type repair. It may take a year or more to completely restore the shoulder to full functionality.
The shoulder is a remarkable part of our anatomy, enabling us to move our arm through a wide range of motions. But like most of our body parts, we don't realize how much we depend on them until something goes wrong.

Monday, June 11, 2007


I took these pictures early the other morning on our deck.

Monday, June 04, 2007

Travelogue of our trip west

Our flight from Nashville to Denver left on Friday, May 25, arriving about 7:40 p.m. We spent that night with my cousin in Littleton.

On Saturday morning we arose to delicious Costa Rican coffee and a visit with my cousin's energetic doggies Hays and Didi before leaving for a delightful breakfast at the Sunrise Sunset Cafe, then we headed south to Colorado Springs, where we met a friend and her friendly and energetic Boston Terriers with whom we spent the next two nights. That afternoon we toured the Garden of the Gods.
Sunday we took off on Rt. 115 to Royal Gorge, the highest suspension bridge (1,053 ft.) in the U.S. over the Arkansas River
before following the Arkansas River valley up to Salida and continuing to Buena Vista. After that we took off eastward across a beautiful mountain plateau toward Cripple Creek through South Park (yes, there is a South Park), then north on Rt. 67 to Divide before heading back to Colorado Springs.

On Monday we drove north for a delightful visit with friends in Lakewood before taking off west to Central City, where in 1999 I had played two weeks in a country rock band at Harvey's Wagon Wheel casino. We drove back to the Interstate and continued westward to U.S. 40, on which we crossed the continental divide at Berthoud Pass (elevation 11,307) . We continued westward on U.S. 40 to Rt. 34, which becomes Trail Ridge Road through Rocky Mountain National Park. The road had been opened for the season less than a week before. Once again we crossed the continental divide, this time going from west to east at Milner Pass (Elevation 10,759 ft.) . At these elevations us flatlanders can really get exhausted after just a few paces. We eventually reached Estes Park, then continued to the Interstate and our lodging in Wellington, CO.

Tuesday we drove north to Cheyenne, then east to U.S. 385, which took us northward through western Nebraska to Carhenge, which is a replica of Stonehenge made with cars. Seriously! Rt. 385 eventually took us to our destination for that night, my cousin's 420-acre ranch, RuJoDen, south of Chadron. There we enjoyed a great afternoon that included meeting a baby mule and his mother, petting chickens and making friends with Sandy, the friendly beagle. I got my tennis shoes wet following my cousin across the fields to check on his cows.

Wednesday my cousin accompanied me to Chadron College, where I was able to obtain a copy of my dad's college transcript plus pictures of him in football attire. He attended there from 1931-35 and was the president of the college Democrats (go dad!). Next we headed east to my dad's hometown of Gordon, NE where we spent the afternoon in the archives of the Gordon Journal copying old articles from 1913 (the year of my dad's birth) to 1931-35. I found the listing of his high school graduating class and other interesting articles. One that caught my attention reported on his father taking him to his first semester of college at Creighton University before his father was to serve as a delegate to an international labor convention in Toronto. My grandfather retired as a railroad foreman in the 1950s. After my neck could take no more craning up at the library's antiquated microfilm machine, we took off north through the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation to the Black Hills. Pine Ridge has the notoriety of being the poorest U.S. census tract. We passed by scene after scene of abject rural poverty on the reservation. The GPS device we rented along with our car directed us onto a dirt road leading into Custer National Forest, where we soon came upon a huge bison not 50 feet from the road. After taking pictures, we headed on to an intersection with the Black Hills Wildlife Loop where we saw many other wild creatures. Soon we intersected the Needles Scenic Parkway, which took us through some breathtaking scenery. It was near sunset, so the angle of the sunlight created some spectacular views. We finally made it to our lodging for the night in Hill City, SD.

On Thursday we toured Mt. Rushmore and then the Crazy Horse memorial, which we found to be even more impressive. All of Mt. Rushmore would fit inside Crazy Horse's head; when finished it will be the largest sculpture in the world. Next we drove into Rapid City, where my cousin had reserved a room for us to attend my great-aunt's 100th birthday celebration. Nearly 175 O'Rourkes were present for a delicious dinner honoring this wonderfully spry lady. That evening many of us gathered in the hotel hospitality room to compare genealogies and make new friends.

Friday morning we took off eastward for a lunch at Wall Drug (the world's largest drugstore) before driving the Badlands Loop. Weather alternated between driving rain and brilliant sunshine, creating many dramatic photo opportunities. I should say here that during the week my wife took probably 1,000 or more pictures from the passenger side of our rental car. She's a great photographer! That evening we returned to Rapid City for my aunt's "official" birthday party at the retirement home where she lives. I was prevailed upon to play the piano, which I did to much admiration and applause. Boogie and blues appeals to everyone it seems.

Saturday we drove south through the Black Hills via Hot Springs, south through eastern Wyoming on Rt. 85, passing through places like Lusk and eventually back to Wellington, CO where we spent the night. We passed through some of the most remote places either of us had ever seen. Blue-green sagebrush as far as the eye could see with little or no signs of human habitation save for the long road ahead and behind with no cars in sight. No cell phone coverage either - a good place to have a full tank of gas and good tires! The sweet smell of prairie grass is still in my mind's nose as I type this from my desk in Nashville.

On Sunday we drove south into Denver, purchased a cooler, bubble wrap and tape to pack the wine and other gifts we had purchased on our trip. We returned our rental car having put over 2,000 miles on it. Our plane left at about 7 p.m. and arrived Nashville a little before midnight. After five hours' sleep my alarm told me it was time to begin my work week. It's now almost quitting time, and I surely plan to get to bed early tonight.