Welcome to the World in Z-Flat Major, a collection of thoughts, experiences, and occasional insanity...

A Better Place 

*Originally posted on March 13, 2019

My dad died last Monday, March 4th. He was 92, and had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer this past summer. Due to the low success rate of treating that particular type of cancer, along with his age, he decided against chemo or radiation. He wanted to enjoy the remaining time he had left, and not spend it sick from treatments. He made it all the way through the holidays and into the new year with barely any symptoms, even as blood tests indicated the cancer was progressing. While hospitalized in February, the doctor said the CT scan showed it had spread to his liver, and after a few days, he was released to go home under the care of Hospice. We all expected he still had at least a few more weeks, but on March 4, he passed away suddenly and quickly, surrounded by family (including some from out of town who had come to visit and were getting ready to leave that day). I had the incredible privilege of being by his side as he left this world. 

I could go on and on and list all the ways my dad was blessed, both in life and in death. He made it into his nineties, and had survived a couple of small heart attacks, from which he had bounced back. While he did have the heart issues, his health was otherwise generally great throughout his life. He and my mom were married for 59 years, and enjoyed many memories together. My dad was a happy-go-lucky, physically small guy with a huge heart and smile to match.   

When I think of all he saw in his ninety-two years, it blows my mind. He was born in New York City, almost three years before the stock market crash of 1929 that signaled the start of the Great Depression. A huge baseball and hockey fan, he grew up watching many legends in those sports, along with notable figures of the big band era. Dad served in the Navy in the final year of World War II, and after Duke University, went on to follow in the footsteps of his father and began a career in the financial district of Wall Street. He and my mom were married in 1960, and eventually moved to Rhode Island, where all things Yankees and Rangers transformed into Red Sox and Bruins for Dad. In later years, he often enjoyed going to Florida during spring training. He also had the opportunity to travel to many places, including a six week post-war European adventure with a good friend of his during the 1950s. I could certainly go on and on here, and turn this post into a book with all the stories. 

My dad wasn't perfect. Like each of us, he struggled with his own unique challenges and weaknesses. But he truly loved and cared for his family. One treasure I'll always have is a collection of encouraging notes and letters he gave me during a particularly difficult season in my life during my late teens and early twenties. Though it was something I had to work through and that no words or actions from another person could fix, he tried nonetheless. 

Over the years, I've seen friends and family lose their dads at much younger ages. In 1993, my friend David's father died suddenly at the age of 69. Another high school friend lost her dad when he was in his fifties and died suddenly one day while playing golf. Both uncles on my mom's side of the family died around 70 from cancer. My church music ministry has exposed me to many situations where I played for countless funeral services related to all sorts of tragic and terrible situations, including a fifteen-year-old girl who was hit by a school bus and more than one occasion of young people who died in car accidents. 

As the years went on, I knew this day would one day come. I wondered if I was being selfish in some way. I mean, after all, I got to have my dad around for way longer than many people do. Isn't it considered "normal" to lose someone who's elderly? I tried like crazy to encourage him and to make it so he wouldn't be afraid of his approaching death. 

For someone who's been involved in church music ministry for most of his life, I'm not necessarily very "religious" in the sense of beliefs, dogma, and rubrics. I don't believe there's one specific path to God that is exclusively the right one while all others are wrong. I believe there's elements of truth in all spiritual traditions, and I'm very much on a personal quest and path of learning more. But I wholeheartedly believe there's so much more to us than our lives in this physical body here on earth. I do a lot of reading and a great deal of searching, and all the things I've read from so many diverse perspectives, along with the experiences people from all walks of life have had, have left me sensing there's so much beyond what we know. The one thing that seems impossible to me is that this life could be one big random coincidence. I tried to share all this with my dad. But I wonder if, somehow, he was pretty much totally at peace and it was myself I was trying to prepare... 

In more contemplative moments, I've thought about how there must be a reason and purpose for this physical experience on earth. But as I watched Dad dying those final weeks, I went through times of being absolutely pissed off at God - for making my dad go through that, as well as other people I've lost, and for all the heartache, hurt, and illness people everywhere experience. I know religious people would say things like it's not God doing that - it's because humanity is imperfect or fallen or whatever. But when a sports team loses a bunch of games, or a company does poorly, it's not the players or employees who take the ultimate blame - it's the coach, or the CEO. So I was like, "ya know what? God's supposed to be in charge. So the buck stops there." I've thought and said a lot more colorful things than I'm writing here. If there really is such a thing as a life review in God's presence, it's gonna make for an interesting conversation between myself and the Almighty. 

In death, Dad was blessed just like he'd been in life. Here he was, battling one of the most ugly, insidious, painful cancers known to humankind, and he went for most of his illness with barely any symptoms. As the symptoms finally began to grow, he had a quick and graceful exit, surrounded by loved ones. He was never forced to experience the worsening physical conditions that were sure to come. For that, I'm thankful. Maybe that right there was the Divine making its presence known. 

And now, here we are. Just like that, he's moved on to the next experience of his spirit's journey. And now I know what it is to lose a parent. It seems almost impossible to imagine the world without him. Every time I call or stop by their condo, I expect to hear his voice answer the phone, or see him sitting there. It's like this raw, bittersweet heartache. There'll be these moments of peace, where I feel like he's all around us. And then that'll be followed by piercing waves of sadness. In one card I received, there was a quote that read: "yes, your life will not be the same without your Dad...but your life is not the same because of him." I've learned it doesn't matter what age a person is when they die - it still hurts to lose them. Even if you believe they've moved on to something so much greater, the bottom line is, you miss them, and nothing will ever make that go away. 

The night before he passed, he'd gone to bed early. The family members who were visiting went in to say goodnight to him. In the course of that exchange, he told them, "I'm going to a better place." That's a common phrase that's often used to describe moving on from this world. What strikes me, in retrospect, was the timing. Was it coincidence? Or did he somehow know the next day would be the beginning of his new life? I hope and pray I one day get the chance to ask him.


                                                                                                               Robert Joseph Russo
                                                                                                                1/26/1927 - 3/4/2019


2020 Vision 

Happy New Year! 

2020. It sounds like something far off in the future. Except, it isn't. When I was a kid, I used to sometimes think of what year it would be when I was old... I hate to admit it, but we're really getting into those numbers now. I recently heard someone so eloquently describe realizing you're getting old when you find yourself "closer to the graveyard than to the playground." Ahhh! Excuse me for a moment while I go bury my head in the sand...

To summarize in a very primitive nutshell without getting into all the particulars of the field of ophthalmology, 20/20 vision is "really good." It's when you can see very clearly - at least in regard to physical sight. But I couldn't resist the play on words by thinking of "2020 Vision." Like I mentioned, as a kid, I thought of it as some distant date in the future. I imagined all sorts of amazing inventions. Maybe we'd all be flying around in our cars like the Jetsons. Maybe doctors would cure people's ailments by waving a device over them like Dr. McCoy did in the original Star Trek. Maybe there'd be supersonic jets flying across the ocean in an hour, or high-speed rail that went across the United States in a few hours. Maybe cars would run on something other than gasoline. Would we all be living to 200 years old?

While we have made many incredible advances in technology, medicine, etc., if you were to get away from flat screen TVs and computers and drive through many places across the United States and elsewhere, it could easily be mistaken for twenty or thirty years ago (if you didn't notice the absence of pay phones, that is). What happened to the rate of progress that took us from the horse and buggy era of 1900 to the Internet and technological age of today?

How about in your own life? Did you picture yourself being somewhere other than where you are when the calendar hit 2020? Maybe you'd have that dream job with a bursting bank account. Maybe you'd have met that perfect soulmate, and you'd be enjoying life with them in some place you always wanted to live. Maybe you'd have quit that nagging smoking habit, or lost that extra thirty pounds you wanted to shake. Maybe you'd finally be more at peace and filled with all sorts of wisdom. Maybe.

It's often said that you're where you are for a reason. One of the favorite sayings of the "they people" is that "you're exactly where you need to be." Religious people might say you're where God wants you, especially if you open yourself up to His will and plan for your life. Those who aren't necessarily religious but who see a higher spiritual purpose and meaning to life might say that on a deeper level, you chose to be exactly where you are for some specific reason. Both might say that all of our lives are interconnected, and impact each other at specific times and for specific reasons, such as growth or other reasons we may not fully understand until after we move on to the next realm (check out "The Five People You Meet in Heaven" by Mitch Albom). 

The non-religious, non-spiritual, non-lofty thinkers might say you're where you are simply because of the choices you made in the past. But the positive lining in that can of worms is that if the past could affect today so powerfully, then you can make choices today to lead to the tomorrow you want to experience.

Honestly, while I might be able to share these possibilities and give this encouragement to others, when it comes to my own life, I tend to struggle with this stuff. I often have a hard time letting go to God's will, or my soul's purpose and spiritual growth. I'm more than happy to beat myself up about some of yesterday's choices. I tend to overlook some of the small, important things I may be doing right now, instead focusing on my own visions of where I should be at this point in time. So, if you're in that boat, I'm probably the guy sitting next to you, furiously rowing to get somewhere. If you've moved beyond that type of thinking, and are truly at peace and enjoying every step of your journey, than I commend you.

I'm not saying it's bad to have dreams and goals. Those are great to motivate us. But maybe sometimes we get too caught up in them and lose sight of the big picture. Christina, my wife, who has an uncanny ability to know what's going on inside my head, serves as a voice of logic and reason in my life. Trust me, that's not always comfortable or warm and fuzzy! She'll often point out the times when I tend to get so wrapped up in where I want to be that I overlook the present moment. Many well-known thinkers from both the religious and spiritual persuasion, as well as more secular ones, have often spoke of the importance of being in the now. I'm blessed to have such a loving, insightful wise thinker for a life partner! Haha and someone to whack me over the head with the proverbial two-by-four when I need it.

So my 2020 vision, my New Year's resolution, is to try and enjoy the journey a bit more. I need to stop selfishly getting caught up on however I define success and try to see the bigger picture. I need to try to be more present in the moment. It would also help to make good choices that lead to awesome tomorrows. Most of all, I need to be more trusting of the Divine plan and how all the pieces of the puzzle may fit together in ways I can't see right now.

What about you? What's your 2020 vision? If your life isn't exactly where you thought it would be by now, or if you feel like you somehow failed in the pursuit of your dreams and goals, take it easy on yourself. Take a breath. Enjoy where you're at. Try and laugh more. Never stop shooting for the stars and pursuing your hopes and dreams. Set realistic goals along the way, and work to meet them. Most of all, enjoy the journey!

If, however, you find you need to sneak out back to take a hit off the pipe of Type A, success-on-my-terms-or-no-terms-at-all-and-the-frantic-obsessing-and-striving-to-get-there that comes with it, chances are you'll find me out there doing the same thing. Just give me a heads up if you see Christina heading my way carrying a two-by-four....  

Why Z-flat Major? 

*This entry was originally written and posted on October 12, 2018*

Why Z-flat Major? What does that even mean? Anyone who has the slightest familiarity with music theory knows the musical alphabet only goes as far as the letter G, and then returns to A. There's no pitches or keys designated by H, I, or any other letter beyond G. There are such things as quarter tones. But Z-flat? That's not something we recognize as a musical classification or anything that exists. Which is exactly the reason I chose that name for this section of the site. 

I'm not a person who always likes to "color within the lines." I ask a lot of "what ifs," and have since I was a little kid. I don't always look at the world around me in the conventional norm. I wonder why it is the way it is, and often consider the possibility that maybe things aren't really what we've been taught and conditioned to think they are. I'm sure plenty of people ponder this type of stuff. Heck, if not, the movie The Matrix wouldn't have been so popular. However, if you think about such topics to any extent, they have the potential to become very weighty and possibly upsetting. For this reason, many, if not most people tend to probably dismiss these types of questions and thoughts on the grounds that they don't have anything constructive to do with "real, everyday life." I've often thought I'd be better off if I did that also. 

But unfortunately, or maybe fortunately, it seems like I was wired to question, seek, and wonder. And endlessly observe. And question, seek, and wonder some more. Seeing a pattern here? Maybe if I lived in ancient Greece, I'd be one of those dudes walking around in white robes and spending my days sitting by a fountain and pondering the meaning of life. Yep, in case you haven't figured it out yet, I'm kind of quirky. For all these reasons, I determined the term "Z-Flat Major" to be a good fit. Hang around here long enough and maybe you too will start to experience things in that key!