Exercising Is Important For Heart Health
I’m now exercising four or five times a week. This compares with about two times a week in the year leading up to my heart attack. COVID had something to do with the lighter exercise schedule — public pools in San Francisco were closed for much of the pandemic. But I also let work get in the way of workouts.
During the first half of the year, I was juggling about 25 different projects and professional commitments. This craziness wasn’t about an oppressive boss. In fact, in December, 2020, I left my previous corporate job for the life of a “solo-preneur.” Nor was my full plate about trying to put food on the table for my family. In the first half of the year, I was able to arrange ongoing gigs with a half-dozen paying clients.
Happily, financial insecurity wasn’t straining my heart. But like a kid in a candy store, I kept saying yes to yummy opportunities.
By stuffing my face, I grew stressed. I often worked well into the evening as well as weekend days to keep up with emails, meetings and deadlines.
As soon as the heart attack hit, I realized the ridiculousness of my packed Google calendar. I chopped my activities down by half. This included stepping down from the board of a treasured organization, the Berrett-Koehler Authors group, and dropping out of a promising gathering of advocates for a better masculinity.
But the health scare scared me straight when it comes to integrating work and life. If I wanted to live, I needed to work less.
Keeping My Cool As A Parent
And I needed to parent less. Or less intensely.
Because when I think of the biggest strains on my heart and psyche over the past year, they had to do with how I showed up as a dad. Blew up is more accurate. I lost my cool a number of times in parenting my 18 — year-old son, Julius, and 16-year-old daughter, Skyla. These tantrums were not in proportion to the behavior of my teens. They are both great kids, and have made mostly great, healthy choices in a challenging landscape facing young people.
But a tough year and a half triggered my temper as a dad. First there was COVID and keeping my kids safe. Especially Julius. Right before the pandemic set in, Julius got a job at a local ice-cream parlour. I did not feel good about him working there in the early days of COVID, when not much was known about the virus and how it spread.
The fact that “Cream” was declared an “essential business” drove me mad — do we really need hand-made ice cream sandwiches during a public health crisis?! Julius and I had multiple battles over whether he could continue working as an ice-cream scoop. Eventually we compromised, with pledges for him to wear an N-95 mask for much of 2020. Still, there were many heated arguments — with me overheating more than he did.
Then there were driving lessons. Because Julius was slow to get his driver’s permit, Rowena and I taught both kids to drive at the same time over the past year. This tapped into my worst fears of catastrophe, literally at every turn of our Honda Fit. The streets of San Francisco have been rated as the second-worst in America to drive in (after Detroit). It’s not just hills that makes driving here hard. It’s the large number of underserved, mentally ill people in our city who can act erratically and the many, varied other vehicles that zip around our roads.
More than once, I yelled at Julius and Skyla about potential hazards — an alarming tone that didn’t help so much as exacerbate the situation.
Anxiety Over My Children’s Safety
Apart from the driving lessons, there was navigating the two teens’ push for more independence. I didn’t feel comfortable going to sleep before Julius in particular came home after hanging out with friends at night. Since we let him stay out until midnight or 1 a.m., that meant a fair amount of anxiety over his safety.
Julius picked excellent friends, has great values and has stayed out of trouble. But he likes to wander in ways that have worried me at times.
Especially the time he pulled his “Alcatraz” escape. One night this year, I somehow woke up at 4 a.m. with an impulse to check on him. I quietly walked to his loft bed and peered in. At first, all seemed good — his shape under the covers. Then I noticed something odd about that shape.
No he didn’t. Yes he did.
He used a body-length pillow to make it seem he was in bed. He wasn’t home. I called his cellphone. No answer. I wish I remained as calm as Rowena when I woke her up. Instead, I became apoplectic. Screwed my face up worse than my dad ever did. I hissed and bellowed in rage.
Finally, we reached Julius at 6 a.m. He’d been taking photos on Twin Peaks — the highest point in San Francisco. And then met up with his girlfriend at dawn to watch the sunrise. Rowena and I picked him up, gave him a talking-to and grounded him for a spell. Ultimately, it was innocent-enough stuff compared to the trouble teens can get into. But I wouldn’t be surprised if I sent my coronary artery into a spasm during those pre-dawn hours of fear and anger.
So I’m determined to loosen the dad reins. The heart and anxiety attacks reminded me that parenting is so much about letting go. I was stuck in a highly controlling version of fatherhood more appropriate for 12- and 13-year-olds than fairly mature teenagers.
I’ve been going to bed even with Julius out with pals. And with some deep breathing, I’m mostly shutting up when he and Skyla drive the car.
In general, I’m trying to grow into the “potted plant” version of parentingthat’s proven effective for teens. Teenagers want and benefit from the presence of a parent. But they’d rather have you stay quiet. Fathering as a ficus tree.
These work and parenting shifts also reflect a more mature, integrated masculinity, I think. If we only align ourselves with arrow energy, we men can work ourselves sick. When our aim and our self-worth are all about achievement and reaching goals, we will all-but kill ourselves climbing the corporate ladder.
Purely arrow parenting, for its part, is about disciplining, controlling and protecting our kids. To some extent, we must do those things as dads. But we fathers also have to release our children into the wider world. We have to trust them and trust the community to care for them. And if we want to be present for kids as well as avoid burning out on the job, we have to temper our time working. We have to make space for connecting with our children.
Combining My Arrow And Circle
There’s that circle again. And now, three and a half months after the heart attack, I’m finding my way to combine arrow and circle.
One way I did so was in sharing a draft of this essay with my father and asking for his blessing to publish it. It felt scary to share that his temper had scared me so much as a child. Part of me — maybe the little boy inside me — worried he’d blow up at me. I needed arrow courage to push past this fear and speak the truth.
I also worried that making myself emotionally vulnerable would backfire. That I might be mocked for surfacing that long-ago hurt — that grown men like me are supposed to be tough enough to handle some childhood frights. I needed circle courage to open myself up to my father about how his anger had caused me anguish.
So I screwed this arrow-and-circle courage to the sticking place and called my dad.
“Pop, I want you to share this essay about my health scare with you,” I told him. “There’s a section that may be hard for you to read. It’s about how your temper scared me as a kid and may have caused anxiety in me later on.”
I held my breath waiting for his response. But it turned out I had nothing to fear.
After a short pause, my dad spoke: “You’re right that I had anger issues. I think they had to do with the fact I went from 0 to 60 in no time when things didn’t work out as I wanted.”
“That’s exactly what I remember, Pop,” I responded, relieved by his response.
In retrospect, I should have realized my dad would handle this conversation well. He’s come a long way from that angry young father — he had me at age 23. In recent years, he’s even reconsidered a host of political and societal issues. And he’s supported my work to reinvent masculinity to widen the ways we can show up as men.
Still, I was surprised by what he said as our conversation continued.
“I can see how my anger would have led to problems for you. I’m sorry.”
I thought my dad might continue speaking, to provide an excuse for his troublesome temper — as human beings so often do when acknowledging a flaw.
But no. Not another word. A pure-hearted, humble apology.
I spoke up, saying that his outbursts may not be the only cause for the anxiety I’ve wrestled with. And then I realized I was called to speak words to honor his:
“I forgive you, Pop.”
The exchange moved me in ways I didn’t expect. Not only was I grateful that my dad didn’t become angry in this exchange, but the fact that he validated my experience proved powerful. It settled something deep in my psyche. A wound kept open by doubts about whether I’d lived through something truly traumatic felt now as if it could close.
I felt loved by my dad, closer to him, and glad that I could ease his conscience. My act of forgiveness also gave me peace of mind. Any lingering anger at him seemed to dissolve.
The email my dad sent the next day, after reading the essay, was icing on this healing cake:
I have no problem with the descriptions of my temper responses. I am sorry I imposed them on you and I thank you for your forgiving me.
I am also happy that I did not have the details of your heart and head trauma. I would have probably suffered from my own anxiety attacks. I am just happy you have largely recovered.
As always, your writing skills are wonderful. I hope this essay is well received.
Love you soooo much.
My dad’s note reminded me that he has been a role model for how to integrate arrow and circle. Over the course of his life, he’s been a championship swimmer, an Army drill sergeant and an innovative, principled businessman. Yet he was willing to put his own career on a backburner to support my mom as she ascended the ranks of Catholic education. He became a “house-husband” — handling the cooking and cleaning as she served roles including superintendent of schools for the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.
Plus, my dad’s habit of calling loved ones “dear” is, well, dear. It is emotionally expressive, as is his signature sign off. All those “o”s in his “love you soooo much” are like the hugs he’s happy to give in person.
By combining arrow and circle and reaching out for my dad’s blessing, I gave him a chance to rise to the occasion. And he did so in a way that has mended both our souls.
The Importance Of Utilizing Masculinity And Feminity
Integrating the masculine and feminine also is behind the most important lesson I’ve drawn from my health scare: Be not afraid.
This statement reflects the best of manly bravery — the kind of courage men have shown on battlefields like Normandy and in less-dramatic cases of standing up to bullies or for noble causes. This is the sacred masculine putting fear aside or piercing it altogether.
But I hear those words of fearlessness in the voice of my mother. Be not afraid. I hear her singing these words in one of my favorite Catholic hymns. Be not afraid. I go before you always. Come follow me, and I will give you rest. A hymn about the undying support of a loving God. This is the connected encouragement of the sacred feminine, promising us we will never be alone.
The truly scary thing, I have learned, is not living fully as a man. Without both arrow and circle we risk both dying early and deadening our lives.
Together, the masculine and feminine have enabled me to feel more alive than ever in the wake of a heart attack and anxiety attack.
And I suspect something similar is true for all men.
We can’t deny half of our humanity. That leaves a gaping hole.
For our bodies, our minds and our souls to heal and thrive, we need to be whole.
We need to be arrow-and-circle men.