April 27, 2023

The sea has been my life’s central line of consistency, a colorful ally in my stumble through day-to-day existence. From my lifelong hobby, scuba diving, to my first real job as a Navy A-6 Intruder aircraft carrier pilot, to where I choose to live in the present, the ocean’s influence on my life has been nothing short of prodigious.

Growing up in Greece, I basked in the revelation of the unknown, mesmerized by the ocean’s enigmatic obscurity. I spent hundreds of hours spearfishing, seesawing between the excitement of the hunt and the abject terror of that first kick beyond the visible bottom, fresh adolescent eyes waiting for a jaw-snapping creature to hurtle up from the darkness. This confluence of daring and a child’s baseless fear still drives me to that place today, fully engaged in the moment and experiencing life unfiltered.

While military flight training appealed to my adolescent mind, the notion of launching from a ship thousands of miles out to sea—with nowhere else to land—compelled me to join the Navy. Called blue water operations, or “ops,” the lack of choices in an emergency could terrify to incapacity or elicit the inspired audacity to snap to and embrace the worst-case scenario. The sea was my ham-fisted ally, ready to kill in a monstrous hug, a friend who, despite her unforgiving nature, would back me up as long as I gave the day everything I had and, if need be, more.

Only by traveling outside routine can an experience be meaningful. Without risk or suffering, life’s journey will inevitably fall short. Avoiding regret at the end of life requires authenticity, the courageous revocation of everything life offers in a split-second decision to do things the hard way, not for a different outcome but because this is where truth resides, lying naked, exposed at the razor’s edge of control.

Parkinson’s disease is undoubtedly the most positive development in my life. It challenges me with wild ferocity, never letting up, forcing me to respond from beyond my comfort zone daily. Approaching life with the same tenacious determination, not to beat the ailment, but to fight through pain’s distraction, is a harsh but accurate description of true freedom. I don’t know why we suffer, but I am confident that accepting the experience as neither good nor bad, but just as something that is, provides the space to revel in the esoteric freedom of unknowing.

The ocean is raw and unrefined, an intemperate partner to retain for life’s journey. There is no societal stigma or complex cultural etiquette on the seas. One is free to be. Listen to the waves break with your heart and feel your way to clarity. Go for it.

Born a Pisces, Poseidon has always been my god.



A friend of the strangest sort

Astros, Peloponnesus Peninsula, Greece, 1976.

Gently kicking face down on the surface, I breathe deeply from the plastic snorkel with disciplined practice while following the shadowy school of giant fish on the bottom. The water is clear, but the ninety-foot depth hosts a confusing array of thermoclines. These sharp drops in water temperature create subtle obscurations to visibility, wavy zones of disparate water densities.

My 14-year-old mind tries to process a plan for the impending free dive and return to the surface. How will I know when I’ve overstayed my single breath welcome? Will I even reach the bottom? And if I do, is my speargun powerful enough to kill such huge fish? The deepest that I’ve been before today is just sixty feet.

A moment later and any indecisiveness is gone as I take a final deep breath and rapidly pike my legs up, waiting until my fins are entirely submerged before I start to kick. With speargun extended forward to streamline my form, I rely on my powerful thigh muscles to push me toward the bottom.

I savor the frontier feel of jeopardizing it all for an enigmatic prize. My sole companion on this new adventure is a novel sensation—fear. I am profoundly alone. It is just me, the fish, and the sea. I pass sixty feet without hesitation, ignoring the awful sensation of lungs already craving air, a clear and imminent warning that I’ve gone too far, that I am beyond redemption’s range…

As the incident’s physical sensations pass through me almost half a century later, the abject terror is fresh and eerily sweet, much like the out-of-control feeling of a Parkinson’s brain fog. It is a familiar, time-honored fear—a friend of the strangest sort—that joins my downward plunge, still feeling utterly alone and craving air, in a great circle of reflective mastery.

My father

My father died several years ago at age 87 after a meaningful life. He lived overseas and traveled extensively, including a three-year stint in the navy as a ship’s navigator and many years teaching in Athens, Greece, and Damascus, Syria.

He volunteered tirelessly for civil rights, including marching—and getting arrested—at Selma. He exercised civil disobedience for racial justice many more times back home in New York, including more arrests and the occasional sleepless nights as he stood guard on our back porch with a baseball bat in response to death threats to our family.

My father lived to be humble in victory. Through his example, I learned not to be easily intimidated by the strong when defending the weak and always to leave a bully a way out that he might save face and learn. Bullies were people, too; he would remind me.

My father was no stranger to physicality. A former college football lineman who declined a tryout with the Green Bay Packers, he had the foresight to recognize that intelligence was a more lasting weapon. An Ivy-league undergraduate, he held a Harvard master’s degree and a completed fellowship at Northwestern. After raising four children with my mother, the two clocked in over sixty years of marriage.

I learned from him the meaning of service to others and the honesty of righteous commitment.

My father was a passionate teacher, bringing history to life and positively impacting the lives of countless students. When he died, the family received condolences from around the world. One prior student flew in from London upon learning of his illness to thank him personally for changing his life through his teaching. He and another former student, who had driven four hours to visit, presented a 15-minute recording of testimonials from former students who were grateful to my father. It had been over 20 years since they were in my father’s class. Three days later, my father passed.

I strive to do my best because of my father. He taught me to be curious, never accept the status quo blindly, and ask hard questions.

Our family camped in a rickety VW bus throughout Greece—our home during the 1970s—and Europe while my father taught me about the world. In later years, we disagreed about much, often arguing loudly into the early morning hours as the conversations inevitably transitioned to politics, our clashes usually producing more heat than light. He eventually won me over to his point of view. The long nights of argument always ended the same, with soulful hugs of loving authenticity.

My father taught me to be true to myself and always do the right thing in his reserved New England manner, especially if nobody was watching.

Dad, you are still a great teacher. I love you and miss you greatly.

On parenting: the rare mercy of vague memory

There are no perfect parents. Parenting is an impossible task lasting as long as you breathe life completed on someone else’s timeline; a thankless job with all the world acting as critics. How you were raised is your only practical guide, comparing decisions made thirty, forty, fifty years ago that were so different in context that any similarities undoubtedly reside as coincidences of a vivid imagination.

There are few consistencies, zero really, although the exhausted parent’s mind desperately searches for warm corroboration even as the heart screams out in warning. “Yes” is almost always the wrong answer.

Saying “no” to your child is impossibly difficult. The parent enters the compact—whether made with a two or a twenty-year-old—trusting only intuition and meager experience to lead to an answer that might be understood in time but will more likely be used to lash out in an outgrown tantrum of protest.

Saying yes, particularly as money is concerned, is the easiest chore imaginable, ironically leaving the parent stewing in an unresolved doubt that will likely require future intervention to correct.

The only simple part of being a parent is expressing the unconditional love that comes with the job: honest and authentic, life-long love that transcends the most-thorny of conflicts or hate-filled words.

As parents age, life displays rare mercy through vague memory: the happy times are remembered while far more difficult ones slowly recede from reality. At least if one is fortunate enough to live that long.

Above all, parenting is about living your own life with all the mistakes and heartache that this world brings. To watch an adult son or daughter make a questionable decision is right up there with saying “no,” the awful nexus of dream versus nightmare for all involved.

There is no greater hardship than watching a child suffer. There is no greater parental responsibility than letting a grown child go. The enlightened freedom from this strongest of life’s attachments can be unbearably painful, an acute act of overlooked love dancing amid drama’s lengthening shadows into perpetuity.