Saturday, May 11, 2013

OUTDOOR LIFE INTERVIEW Part 1 of 3


I’m proud to say the May 2013 issue of Outdoor Life magazine includes a short piece about me in the “My Outdoor Life” section. The editor, Andrew McKean, “interviewed” me by emailing a list of questions, which I answered in writing. We covered much more than Andrew was able to publish in the half-page article, so I’ll put up my lengthy answers here in three posts.


Hunting with Andrew McKean in Montana, November 2011.

Q: You grew up hunting in your home state of Pennsylvania. What species did you cut your teeth on?
A: As a young kid I loved fishing and observing nature, but I had a late start hunting. In the eighth grade I began running a short trapline for muskrat, opossum and raccoon. At 15 I started hunting small game such as doves, rabbits and pheasants, but I especially enjoyed hunting squirrels—and I still do.

Q: Tell me about your life in Brazil. What prompted your move there, and tell me about your writing and editing work. What titles did you work for and what positions did you hold? How did you manage to produce content from another continent? Were you able to continue to hunt from your Rio base?
A: While working on my master’s degree in educational media at Temple University in Philadelphia, I met a classmate named Ligia and we eventually got married. When Ligia completed her Ph.D. in 1990, we moved to her hometown: Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Ligia continued her career as a university professor while I found freelance work as an English tutor, translator, photographer and videographer. I also began submitting articles—in Portuguese—to a Brazilian fishing magazine called Trofeu Pesca.
In 1995 Trofeu Pesca hired me as a full-time writer/photographer, a position that let me travel and fish throughout Brazil. A year later I left that job to begin publishing my own fishing magazine, in Portuguese, entitled Pescando. My many roles there included publisher, editor, photographer, marketing manager—heck, I even delivered bundles of magazines to sell at local tackle shops.

Ligia in a cover photo I took in 1996

In 1998 I received an offer I couldn’t refuse when Doug Olander, editor in chief of Sport Fishing magazine, invited me to move to Orlando, Florida, and join his staff as associate editor. Ligia, who has always encouraged me to pursue my dreams, gave her wholehearted support. I accepted the job, we made the move, and by early 2000 I’d been promoted to editor.

One of my Sport Fishing covers

In 2001 Ligia said she’d like to move back to Rio to help care for her aging parents, and I readily agreed. I resigned my position, we moved back to Brazil, and I spent the next 18 months freelancing for American and Brazilian fishing magazines.
In 2003 Sport Fishing rehired me as senior editor with the agreement that I’d work out of my home in Rio. I was responsible for writing several regular departments (Gear Guide, Game Plan) and one or two feature articles per issue, as well as editing freelancers’ submissions and proofreading my fellow editors’ work. Although I live in Brazil, I could produce content for our predominantly American readership because I traveled often to attend trade shows and cover destinations in the US, Caribbean and Central America.
Hunting took a back seat during this phase of my life. There’s no legal hunting to speak of in Brazil, and from 1990 to 1998 I couldn’t afford to travel internationally just to hunt. In 1995 a Brazilian friend asked me, “What do you miss most about the States? The food? Your family?”
I answered, “I miss the leaf-loam smell of a hardwood ridge mixing with the aroma of burnt gunpowder on a crisp October morning.” The puzzled look on his face told me that no matter how I tried to explain, he’d never understand.
From 1998 to 2001, when I lived in Florida, my work at Sport Fishing kept me too busy to go hunting. But don’t cry for me: “Busy” means I was living the dream, traveling to the world’s premier saltwater fishing destinations, from Alaska to the Azores. And our condo had lakefront access, so I did a lot of bass fishing in the evenings and on weekends.
My hunting bug emerged from hibernation after Ligia and I moved back to Rio in 2001. I was traveling to the States four or five times per year, so I started tweaking my itineraries to allow quick side trips to get together with friends and hunt small game in Pennsylvania, waterfowl in Maryland or hogs in Florida.
I “discovered” Argentina in 2004 when I visited Brazil’s neighbor to hunt doves. The outfitter told me about his country’s big-game hunting, and I returned in April 2005 to take my first red stag and a puma in La Pampa. I was thrilled to find hunting opportunities close to home (4-hr flight vs 10 to the US), but then—on to the next question.

 

My red stag and puma in La Pampa, Argentina, April 2005

Q: When were you diagnosed with ALS? Can you describe early symptoms, and the state of your physical and mental health over time?
            A: Physically: My body is going to hell in a hatbox.
Mentally: I’m determined to enjoy the ride.
I had always pursued an active, athletic lifestyle. In June 2005—when I was 43 years old, stood 6 feet four inches, weighed 185 pounds, was working out at the gym four mornings per week and playing several hours of beach volleyball a week—I began having persistent twitching (called fasciculations) in my shoulders. Over the next few months I lost my normal quickness and leaping ability, which made me flub routine plays in volleyball. My arms and legs started seizing up in agonizing cramps. I lost smoothness in my step and my gait became a stilted shuffle. I frequently lost my balance. I consulted a general practioner, who referred me to a neurologist, who conducted many exams over the following months without issuing a clear verdict.
            In September 2005 I lost my balance while crossing the street, took a hard fall, and shattered my right collarbone so badly that the ER doctor asked if I had been thrown from a motorcycle. Despite the pain, my sense of humor remained intact. When the doctor explained that surgery would be necessary to reassemble the bone fragments, I asked if he could install a recoil pad under the skin.
            I began using a walking stick in early 2006. In May 2006, after many more tests, my neurologist diagnosed my condition as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease). This malady destroys nerve cells that control voluntary muscle movement. When they stop receiving signals from nerves, the muscles weaken and gradually wither away. There is no known cure or effective treatment for slowing the disease’s progress.
            Having ALS compares to donning a full-body suit of wet cement. At first your arms and legs feel very heavy. As the cement dries, your limbs stiffen and eventually become immobile. The rate at which ALS progresses varies greatly from one patient to another, but statistics show that most ALS patients die of respiratory failure within two to five years of diagnosis. I feel fortunate; somebody must have dumped slow-drying cement on me because I’m approaching seven years and still have limited use of my legs, arms and hands.
            In late 2006 my balance got so shaky that I needed a four-legged walker. When I brought home the shiny, polished-aluminum walker, the first thing I did was wrap it in camo tape because I knew I’d be using it in the woods.
On a deer hunt in Georgia, November 2006

By early 2008 I was in a wheelchair and my arms had become too weak to raise a rifle. In 2009 I started using a rigid cervical collar because my neck became too weak to hold up my head. My speech has become labored, slurred and difficult to understand.
            As ALS robbed my strength, daily physical tasks became increasingly difficult. We hired two personal aides who trade off in three-day shifts to give me round-the-clock assistance. They help me bathe, dress, eat.
            Mental health…ALS only affects motor neurons, so all my senses still function. Although I can’t lift my arms or stand on my own, I can feel pressure, pain, heat, cold.
            My vision, hearing, sense of smell and, especially, my cognitive processes, are as good as ever. I’m alert and aware of what’s going on around me. And I get kinda cheesed off when strangers think they need to speak to me LOUDLY AND SLOWLY.
Through it all, I’ve maintained a positive attitude. I never let myself fall into the “Why me?” trap. Rather than complaining about my condition, I look for ways to overcome my challenges. I don’t waste time lamenting what I can’t do; I focus on what I’d like to do and find ways to make it happen.
            About a year after my diagnosis I noticed that no matter how much I ad-libbed, ALS insisted on following the script of progressively eroding my muscles. I was fighting what was cruelly destined to be a losing battle. I realized that having ALS is like having a disagreeable roommate in college: You can channel all your energy toward fighting him (which makes life miserable for everyone) or you can make the best of it and learn to live with him. At that point I quit fighting ALS and decided I would live with it as well as I could.
            As a writer, I respect the power of words and avoid negative terminology. I have ALS, but I’m not a victim of the disease. I don’t suffer from ALS. I especially dislike the phrase “confined to a wheelchair.” Confined? My wheelchair gives me freedom! Without it, I’d really be confined, unable to get outside.

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