Joseph E Bird

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the race

I rounded the corner, my legs sluggish, my body tired, and I was content to finish the run at a reasonable, non-challenging pace. It was hot and muggy and I hadn’t slept well the night before and work at the office and work at home had taken a toll on me and so, yes, I was content to finish the run at a reasonable, non-challenging pace. And then I rounded the corner.

I saw her walking across the street ahead of me, dressed in workout tights and a t-shirt, probably coming from the health club. She walked in front of another building and I lost sight of her.

You may begin judging. Why did I notice her?

  1. She appeared to be athletic and as a runner, I tend to notice others involved in athletic endeavors.
  2. I practice situational awareness and notice everybody in my immediate vicinity.
  3. I am a man and she was a woman and I am an example of toxic masculinity.

So again I turned the corner, and there she was, about twenty yards ahead of me, and she started to run. No, she wasn’t running from me; she hadn’t even seen me.

She’s twenty yards ahead and I see she’s not thin and lithe, doesn’t have that classic runner’s body. Judge me again. What is a runner’s body, Joe?

A couple of year ago I was out on a run and heard footsteps behind me and before I knew it, I was being passed by a squat, muscular guy who looked more like a weightlifter than a runner. But he was more of a runner than I was. So, sure, I admit that judging this woman by her build was not too smart. Still, I had no doubt that I was going to pass her very quickly, even with my tired, sluggish legs.

I should point out that this was happening along a busy street, a common running route in my town. So even if she knew I was behind her (and she didn’t) she wouldn’t have felt threatened. I was just another runner.

Off I go, picking up the pace a little. But I wasn’t closing the distance between us. Twenty yards became thirty. Thirty-five. Forty. She was leaving me in the dust.

So I eased up and resigned myself to the fact that she was probably thirty years younger than me and I was tired and so what if she’s faster.

No, I didn’t do that. I picked up my pace even more.

Still, she widened the gap. Maybe I should just lay back. Admit defeat.

Of course not. I pressed harder. Longer, quicker strides.

I was keeping pace now, but not closing the gap. My breathing was fast and hard, my heart pounding.

A slight uphill rise, followed by a downhill, where I used gravity to my advantage. I was getting closer, ever so slightly. When the road flattened, I kept my downhill pace. I was gaining on her.

But I didn’t know how long I could keep it up. A larger hill loomed ahead. Maybe she would slow. Even though I was dead tired and I couldn’t get enough air in my lungs, I was determined.

Why? What’s the purpose of this personal quest?

  1. It’s that toxic masculinity again. I have to prove that I’m a man.
  2. My ego is out of control and even at my age, I refuse to admit I’ve lost a few steps.
  3. Even though I have no desire to say more than hello as I pass her, I can’t help but think that she’ll be impressed by this ageless wonder running like a man half his age.
  4. Maybe I’m just a dork.

I was definitely closing the gap, but it’s a slow and painful process. If she picks up the pace even a little, I’m done. But I’ll keep pressing as long as I can.

And then she pivots and turns around, running toward me. I raise my hand in the understated runner’s wave. She doesn’t acknowledge me. She passes, and just like that, the race is over.

She wins. I lose.

I hit the hill I was dreading and I’m thankful I can slow down. And when I slow, I feel so tired that I wonder how I ran as fast as I did for as long as I did. Another half mile at an old man’s pace and my run is finished.

I sat down on the curb, sweat burning my eyes, a puddle forming on the concrete. And I started to ask the questions. The answers? All of the above.

Judge me as you will.

Huntington’s Disease

It’s been described as having ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease), Parkinson’s, and Alzheimer’s simultaneously.  There is no cure and the disease is fatal.

According to the Huntington’s Disease Society of America, there are currently 30,000 symptomatic Americans.  That’s less than 0.01 percent of the population.  But if you or a loved-one has Huntington’s, that’s a meaningless statistic.

My family has no first-hand experience with Huntington’s.  The wife of a former associate pastor at our church was my introduction to the illness.  When they came to our church, she was in the middle-to-late stages of the disease.  She was still able to walk and engage in conversation, though it was sometimes difficult to understand what she was saying.  Her symptoms at the time included chorea – involuntary and unpredictable body movements that affected her upper body, arms, and face.  Over the course of a few short years, her symptoms worsened.  Soon she was unable to walk and required a wheelchair.  Then a nursing home.  After a year or so there, she passed away peacefully.

She was fortunate in that she had a husband who loved her unconditionally and was by her side until the end.  I don’t really know what his life was like as the primary caregiver, but I have no doubt that it was unimaginably challenging on so many levels.  He leaned on his faith, as did she, with the knowledge that though in this life she was broken, in the next she would be made whole.

In my novel Heather Girl, Heather Roth has Huntington’s Disease.  I didn’t start out to write a novel about someone with Huntington’s.  My intent was to tell the story of a young woman with challenges, one of which was how she was dealing with a serious health issue.  As the story unfolded, I learned that Heather’s mother had Huntington’s.  It’s hereditary.  If one of your parent’s had Huntington’s, there’s a 50-50 chance that you will have it. As my story begins, Heather is becoming symptomatic.  And she knows where it leads.  There are other complications in her life and because her family is fractured, she doesn’t have the best support system.  She doesn’t always act reasonably and her decisions are not always the best.  But this story is fiction.

In real life, the effects of Huntington’s, like the disease itself, are varied.  Some, like the wife of our pastor, have love and support all the way.  For others, it’s a long, lonely journey.  If you know a family living with Huntington’s, you can be a friend.  Little things can help.  A Frosty from Wendy’s is always a treat and good for those with difficulty swallowing.  A bowl of soup for caregivers on a cold, winter’s day will mean more than you realize.  And a sympathetic ear is always appreciated.

Even if you have perfect health – and nobody I know has perfect health – life can be hard.  Be a friend, lend a hand, and help someone find hope in the compassion that we can all offer.

margaritaville is not for everyone

nibbling on sponge cake
watching the sun bake

Sure, that’s one way to go.

His plan was to resign as Vice President of the largest engineering firm in the state and start his own company.

Then came the unexpected diagnosis: cancer.  The prognosis was not good.

He could have stayed put.  He had good insurance, made good money.  He would have the support of the entire company as he started his fight for life.  It would have been the easier path.  But Harvey Chapman seldom chose the easier path.

He left anyway.  He started the company from a spare bedroom in his house.

He landed a couple of projects and quickly hired some help.  It was hard, grueling work with long hours.  Add chemotherapy to the mix.

One evening he was going to an interview for another project, his young employee driving as he sat in the passenger seat going over his presentation notes.

“Pull over,” he said.

On the shoulder of the road, he opened his door and vomited.  After a couple of minutes, he put himself back in order and closed the door.

“Let’s go.”

They got the project.

It would go on like that for twelve years.  More treatments.  Bone marrow transplants.  Experimental procedures.  The company grew.  He bought a historic building and renovated it to house his thirty-some employees.  He ran 15-mile road races.  He got married.  At times he would feel great; other times he was kicking death away.   But he was always looking for the next challenge.

He pushed his employees hard.  Starting a company from the ground floor is no easy thing and he needed people to be committed.  But there was more to it than that.  He saw their potential.  He saw that they could do great things if they made the right choices.  As he had.

Not that he never made mistakes.  But the one choice he made over and over again that was always the right choice, was to live life above the common.  To choose, not necessarily the easy path, but the right path.  To sacrifice the moment’s pleasure, for the promise of a future with meaning.  He went through the Air Force flight training.  He didn’t have to.  He flew C-130s for the Air National Guard, even while he was running his company.  He didn’t have to.  He gave his employees generous bonuses and cared for their families.  He didn’t have to.

Cancer eventually won.  That was 22 years ago.  The company he started still bears his name.

I don’t know what his last thoughts were, but I know he had to be content.  It sounds cliche to say he fought to the end, but he did.  And not so he could go sip margaritas on a beach somewhere.  No, if he would have rebounded again, he would have been back at work, ready for the next challenge.

Ready to again live life above the common.





rock and roll


This, my friends, is Tucker Boulder Park in Davis, West Virginia. It’s a modest little park. Just a bunch of rocks, you might say.  The smaller boulders are natural stones found in the area. The larger ones within the rubber mulched area are manufactured climbing boulders made by a company called Entre Prises in Oregon. Their purpose is to provide recreational opportunities for people in the area.

Now if you know the Canaan Valley area of West Virginia at all, you know there a lots of places for serious climbers to climb real rocks. Seneca Rocks, for example, is about an hour away.

So you might think Tucker Boulder Park is just a little playground. Well, it is, sort of. I was there a couple of weeks ago and there were several serious climbers attempting to climb the large boulder. I asked why they were there and not on a real rock.

“It’s a playground for climbers,” one of them told me. “And it’s a good way to get a workout and practice climbing.”

How good a workout?  Here’s some perspective.  The smaller boulder is eight feet tall. The larger boulder is twelve feet, which doesn’t sound that bad. The different colored knobby things on the boulders are handholds.  They can be moved and adjusted, creating different routes.

view from bottom

For example, if you follow the pink handholds, you’re on an easy route. The pink ones are easy to grip and stand on, and the route up is pretty much vertical.


Then there are routes that are not so easy.  Like this:


Notice that the wall is no longer vertical. To even attempt this takes tremendous upper body strength.

I was at the park yesterday and spent about an hour climbing.

First I went up the easy route on the large boulder. Not too bad, though it takes some agility. Then I went up the small boulder.  About the same.

Then I thought I’d try to circumnavigate the small boulder. It took me a couple of tries but I was able to do it. That’s when my arms and legs started feeling it, which surprised me because I work hard to stay in shape. At the end of my second trip around I was sweating and breathing hard.

I tried the same thing on the large boulder. On the vertical stretches, I was fine, but as the boulder leaned out over my head, I was useless. I managed to climb a little bit, but I fell several times. Thank goodness for the rubber mulch. And when I finished, I was pretty well whipped.

I have some friends who do real climbing. I already had great respect for those who have the nerve to climb up the side of a cliff without manufactured handholds. There’s no way I’m going to try that. Now I have even more respect, knowing the physical effort the sport requires. I left with raw fingers and scraped knees.

And I can’t wait to do it again.





More miles to go.

shoes 1 for web

Looks like my running days are over.

I first said that probably twenty-five years ago. I was struggling to finish the Charleston Distance Run, a grueling 15-miler. I had run the race several times before and done fairly well for an amateur runner. Not this time. At about the 12 mile mark I was so beat, I questioned why I was putting myself through it. Being as competitive (prideful?) as I am, I didn’t want to run if I couldn’t be constantly improving.

Looks like my running days are over.

I haven’t run the Distance Run since, but I shelved my pride and kept running.

Then about 15 years ago my orthopedist said I had a condition called spondylolisthesis. Bad back. He told me to quit running.

Looks like my running days are over, for real.

I started sleeping in on Saturdays, but I wanted to stay in shape.  I found an old video from the 80s and started doing step aerobics. Then Tae Bo with Billy Blanks.  I did this for maybe three years. But I missed running.

I started out slowly. Not even a mile on my first run. Kept adding a little bit each time. I was soon running about three miles every other day. I wasn’t running like I used to, but I was running. And no back pain.

So of course I kept adding miles. Then hills. Then speed work. I ran a few races and actually won my age division a couple of times, which, really, is nothing to brag about. At my age, just showing up for the race almost assures you of a trophy. And if I can manage to knock out the guy with the walker ahead of me, then I win.

So I kept running. Then came the knee pain. I tried running through it but it only got worse. I laid off for a couple of days. When I tried again, the pain was almost unbearable. I did what you’re supposed to do. Ice and pain relievers. Nothing helped.

Looks like my running days are over.

I went back to step aerobics. After a couple of weeks, I tried the treadmill. The pain was still there.

More aerobics.

After about four weeks, I tried the treadmill again.  No pain for a quarter mile.

More aerobics. Treadmill. Half mile.

Aerobics. Treadmill. One mile.

And then I was out on the road again.

That was a year ago. Yesterday I did about four miles of hills and speed work.

I’m sure some other ailments will pop up. I’ve had hamstring problems. Foot problems. But I take it easy for a few days and then I’m back at it.

Here’s what I’ve learned from running:

The body is very resilient.  Sure, there may be a time when my running days are really over. But it won’t be for lack of trying.

Be patient. Be positive. Be persistent.


Real life.

From Amos Mallard. I told you he had a story to tell.


I married early. I knew it would be her because of how we were with each other, conspiratorial and effortless. She sat on my knee at a party and kissed me near an open window and there, framed by billowing curtains, we decided to be together. I don’t remember all of that time. I was happy. Rented suit, top hat and wedding gown, a week in Sicily we couldn’t afford and then married life. I wanted to be an artist but I’d stopped believing art was useful and I wasn’t much of a painter. I worked as a photographer for a time but it made me bitter because I wanted to tell stories not photograph children and weddings. She wanted me to just pick something and do it, but I couldn’t. So I walked up and down Bennetts Hill until one of the agencies took pity on me and sent me to a Health Centre; a depressing one storey building clad in pitched lumber in a deprived part of the city.

I sat at the reception desk behind reinforced glass, opening a slot to take medical notes or give vitamin drops. Mothers brought their children for vaccinations and annual check-ups, few of them spoke English. I spoke to the mothers from Burkina Faso in broken French and used the few Urdu words I’d been taught with everyone else. The children were wild and ragged, failing on every developmental test we administered. Some of them were hopeless cases with addict parents who’d arrive agitated and ferocious. We never turned them away. We didn’t know if we’d see the child again that year. The Health Visitors spent most of their time visiting homes and checking that children were being cared for properly. They brought back sad reports or disease and violence. Sometimes they’d share funny stories of what they’d seen, but mostly it was sad.

My shifts were mundane, hours of boredom punctuated by little bursts of chaos – patients falling through the doors begging for methadone or medication for their toothache.  I sat opposite the reception desk of a Doctors surgery we shared the building with. I’d watch the three receptionists working and they’d watch me. We didn’t speak very often, separated by glass as we were, but occasionally we’d make eye contact. They had it worse than I did, a steady stream of people; colds, fevers, rashes, back pain, chest pain, pain when standing, pain when sitting. They ran their desk with merciless efficiency. They had to. I was much softer, trying to help every lost cause, having my hand patted by relieved mothers who I had promised to intercede for. I suppose I was a bit of an anomaly, young, compassionate and uncorrupted.

The women I worked with were beautiful in a way one only appreciates with age and hindsight. There was Jen, tall with indolent eyes who moved softly about the office, composed as a Hellenic statue and more beautiful. Lina with skin like honey, wide hipped and embracing, laughing all the time, superstitious, effortlessly maternal. Eve, athletic, dark, fierce to strangers but gentle with those she knew, she laughed loudly at my dirty jokes and I’d hear her laughing hours later, repeating the punch line to herself. And Jean. Jean was older than the rest, sinewy from years of cycling. Savagely intelligent. She knew everything and everyone and I tried to pry her stories from her but she would never fully share them. I knew she’d travelled, spoke different languages, I knew she was here because she chose to be and that she was devoted to people. I think she liked me because she saw some of her son in me. Jean was pragmatic. She didn’t mind me reading novels when there was nothing to do and she protected me from the agency, telling them I was needed, that I should receive more money. I still see Jean, cycling or swimming. She is frail, softened by age, I don’t know if she has retired. I can’t imagine her sitting in a chair.

I fell in love with all of these women. I saw how they worked, how they loved, how weary they became fighting their war against hopelessness, a war they couldn’t win but had to fight every day. I loved them for that and they loved me back I think, understanding that I wasn’t supposed to be there and that I wouldn’t stay. They saw that I was gentle with people who needed gentleness and they took me for one of their own.

I remember one of the final days I worked at the Health Centre. I was holding a new-born, just days old. The mother handed her to me and I stroked the downy black hair across her forehead, lulling her to sleep. A car screeched to a halt outside the doors and a frantic looking girl burst in to the centre. I handed the baby back to the mother and tried to ask the girl her what was wrong. She dragged me out to the car and pointed at her grandmother who slumped in the passenger seat, breathing shallow raspy breaths. A heart attack. There was movement around me, panic, but all I could hear were those shallow rasping breaths. I picked the woman up and carried her in to the Doctors office. She was light in my arms, fragile as a bird, the silk of her sari draped loosely about her skeletal frame. As I paused at his office door the woman breathed her last, a long exhalation. The Doctor tried CPR but she was gone. She died in my arms.

That was the closest I had been to death. The finality and simplicity of it surprised me, she was alive one moment and dead the next, life had escaped her and what I held in my arms was nothing, dust, a shell. I washed my hands after everything settled down. I wasn’t sure why. The mother and her baby were still at the desk waiting for me.

It would be too grand to look back and say I saw the worst and best of people while I worked there, but I am different because of the Health Centre. Behind my reinforced glass I watched parts of the journey of life and death; the joy of birth, the exuberance of youth, the struggle of age, the inevitability of death. I watched these little vignettes from my window and I took in as much as I could. I felt trapped at the time, by the low pay, by a job I felt was beneath me, by my pretensions which told me I should be doing something more worthwhile. I still feel that way. I’m discontent and restless.

I went running on Sunday morning, a steady ten miles around the city. Its research for me, I like to get up early so I can stare at the city without anyone else around. I took a detour past the Health Centre. It’s been demolished, replaced with a modern looking church iced in blinding white plaster. I wasn’t sad; it was an ugly and dilapidated building.

If you live in a city long enough you’ll see parts of your history erased. But if you remember those places, you’ll remember who you were while you were there. That’s important. We all need to remember who we were to understand who we are, and who we might become.

Hold fast. AM.

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