10 years ago I landed…


“For forty years I thought I held a cyclic in my hand when in actuality it was the other way around.”

(From The Sky Behind Me)

                                                                  Illustration: tOm Robbins

Ten years ago today I landed a helicopter for the last time. December 14th 2005 I flew four tours around the island of Kauai, then a fifth… On that 5th tour, I experienced a dizzy spell that took me to a flight surgeon, more doctors than I remember, an FAA medical grounding and to the end of my career in the cockpit. The loss of my flying career led, step by step, to a move from Hawaii to the mainland, the opportunity to be with my father for his final four months and a chance to tie up a few loose ends that I hadn’t realized were loose…or ends. Though I didn’t realize it ten years ago today, as disruptive and painful as it was, that disturbing event in the air above Kauai began a desire in me, and certainly in my spouse, to return to the simpler, gentler and warmer life we’d had on our little island. We’ve always missed what we had there, we just didn’t realize how much. Thus our efforts to replace it by moving to Panama.

About the previous ten years, we learned a lot about ourselves, like how deeply involved we can be when something captures our interest, and demands our attention. Being there for my dad was one of those items. Caring for my father was the privilege of a lifetime, a chance to give back to him after all he’d given me. That by itself was worth giving up a career for.

The grounding held opportunities for my wife and me personally. In my case a chance to finish a long-deferred degree in English at Ohio State. It quickly became one of those dog-with-a-bone efforts. I reenrolled at OSU in the Fall of 2009, haunted the campus every day, dove into classes, did the work (I even made the Dean’s List twice!) and graduated in June 2012. Mariah’s position at OSU’s Ross Heart Hospital allowed her to rediscover work in nursing that captivated her, and it exposed many hundreds of patients to her amazing skills. Together we latched on to the LGBT community, learned of their challenges and were allowed into their midst as they struggled for full equality. June 26th 2015 marked a glorious day in that effort as marriage equality became the law of the land, and we began to ease away from that effort.

In many ways we feel our time in Ohio, and the mandates that brought us here are done. We’ve made many good and wonderful friends—Whole Friends tOm & Sam you’re precious to us, Bertina, you are an inspiration, Cindy will always be the cra-cra na-na, neighbors Natalia & Andre, PK & Peg, our wonderful gay, lesbian & trans crowd with your exotic, marvelous, prideful and sumptuous approach to life and love make us envious. (Where do you get those gloriously goofy but perfect outfits? Too too very very is right).

I’ve been able to pursue my writing jones. No one knows why writers write. It’s a question that comes along all the time: “Why do you write?” Here’s the real question: “Why do you breathe?” Supercilious? I suppose, but this writing obsession is not something I can explain, so leave me alone to pursue it. “Why do you doctor?” Why do you Lawyer?” Why do you Indian Chief?” Writing is my stab at immortality, my statue in the park. I write because I can, and because I must.

So what am I working on? I thought you’d never ask. These blog posts, of course, my explanation to myself and others why I’m about to pack up and schlep off to Panama. Also, I’m about to publish another memoir. The Plowman and The Pilot is about my father and me and our respective choices: his life of hard, plodding, dirty, undervalued and often unsavory physical labor; mine pursuing an ethereal, romantic, notable and technically demanding life in the clean and clear air. It’s also a tribute from me to him, a thank you card to my greatest generation dad from his boomer-baby son that’s long overdue—the thank you, not the son. I also have in the works my epic piece of writing, my magnum opus if you will. Waiting For Willie Pete is a helicopter novel of Vietnam, but it’s much more than that; it’s also about our martial, militaristic society, about war and its corrosive effects, about the bravado of young men who climb into cockpits to show their courage and manage to fool themselves and their peers much of the time how brave they are; it’s about the hubris of national leaders who send those young men off to the wars that they refuse to engage in themselves. It’s Matterhorn meets Moby Dick; it’s what happens when men obsess over white whales. Also, it’s a damned good story with ripping drama and exotically lavish characters one meets only in the pages of books about those wars.

Ten years ago today I landed for the last time. Since then I’ve managed to fly a bit higher and a bit faster than ever. It’s been a great flight, a terrific tour. Now it’s on the to the next mission, and the next…

The High Cost of Leaving


The Empty Nest…Sad? Or..?

In contemplating a move to Panama, it’s inevitable that someone will ask about the children we’ll ‘leave behind.’ In our case that would be three daughters, a grandson and a granddaughter. They’re scattered all over the country—Iowa, Texas, Georgia and we have the usual contact with them on-line, using Facetime, texting, Facebook posts etc. So in our case the leaving behind isn’t so much a drastic, cut-and-run kind of thing but a geographic relocation that shouldn’t be too disruptive, and may even mean better & more frequent access and interaction with them. Here’s Kris Cunningham from The Panama Adventure: ‘ Since we use more video chats now rather than regular phone calls, sometimes I feel like I actually see more of my kids than before.’

But choosing the expat route does send a clear message that we’re ready to live our lives free of the encumbrance that offspring require. No getting around it, kids can be a pain in the tookus, costly, a drain on time, resources and the old cuenta bancaria. Speaking of which, from The Tombseekers Chapter 3: Loving Retirement in Panama, ‘After shopping in David and Boquete, little Berkeley is going to meet her abuelos ‘sin regalos’ (without gifts).’ Showering kids with gifts may no longer be an option. Good thing? Bad thing? From our perspective this is a very good thing. Not only might the kids in question learn to be less materialistic, but they may grow up knowing their abuelo & abuela for who they are, not for the kitsch they schlep on and off the airplane. That also means more $$$ for said abuelos to spend doing what they wish, including traveling on the airplane to spend quality time with the little…er…darlings.

Here are some of the financial facts about what I’ll refer to as the abuelo expat economy: According to the website ‘grandboomers.com,’ ‘There are 56 million Grandparents in the United States. On average $27.5 billion is spent nationwide on grandchildren per year.’ A billion here, a billion there, pretty soon you’re talking about real money, as Senator Everett Dirksen may or may not have said. What does this mean for a potential expat abuelo and/or abuela? Good question. As a survival kit, when the sons and daughters say ‘you’re moving where?’, (between the lines, they’re saying how can you abandon your dear, sweet, cuddly, lovable nietos/nietas this way?) here’s a list of responses that may come in handy:

Mention all that extra disposable income, for one. With the reduced cost of living in Panama, all that abuelo economy cash has to find an outlet somewhere, and Amazon Prime still works from remote locales, or so I’m told. Perhaps that extra cash is headed toward the dear, sweet, huggable nieto’s 529(C)3? Perhaps toward much needed orthodonture for the nieta? Maybe some of that dinero will provide a flight to Panama for a few weeks so the grandkids can give mom & dad some quality time?

And here’s the bigger issue: the self-sufficiency of ones offspring— especially when it involves having them solve their own problems—is beyond gratifying. Yes, the family circle is warm, fulfilling, enriching and affirming. But seeing our adult kids nurture and protect their own kids is proof that our parenting skills worked, even if it means we leave the picture entirely. Which we will do, of course, somewhere way beyond Panama. If the kids leave the nest, we need to as well.

So if you’re contemplating a move to expat-land, be it Panama or anywhere else, don’t be afraid to bid the kids and grandkids adios and get on with your life. An empty nest leaves more room for you, your main squeeze and your next move, wherever it happens to be.

Seeing Boquete everywhere

Last week we were in Iowa City, Iowa visiting family. Now mind you Iowa City is a little berg of likeminded progressive people, but still, we have NEVER seen this before…

We were at a stoplight when By saw this car’s license plate as it turned across in front of us. He practically yelled, “OMG look at that plate!” I said, “Follow it!” We had to know the story (or rather if what we thought we saw was real or just our imagination since we are seeing Boquete everywhere these days). We followed the car into a flower shop parking lot so I thought the plate was a play on the word bouquet.


I put the window down and asked, “What does your license plate mean?” We were both dumbfounded from his response, “Oh it’s a little town in Panama where we owned land.” They have since sold it and we did not get his name. But, yes Virginia, it was real.



FAQ: Panama & Health Care


Health Care Clinic Boquete

One of the first things prospective retirees ask about Panama or any other expat haven concerns healthcare. Today’s blog will be the first in a series to cover this topic in detail. At the outset, I’ll present a disclaimer, and a caution: This is a critical issue, because the age factor dictates a solid, carefree, consistent (even if not cheap) healthcare plan, and anyone considering retirement anywhere needs to dig for all the info they can get. Also, as with many other things about Panama, we’ve found that different folks have far different experiences, so before taking my word as gospel, ask around and do some research. We do not live in Panama (yet) so what’s presented here is what I’ve uncovered.

In no particular order, here’s what people want to know about Panamanian Healthcare:

1—Is it good?

2— Is it cheap?

3— Is it available?

I’ll cover item #1 today.

1— Is healthcare good in Panama? Again, what we’ve heard from numerous sources is that healthcare in Panama is quite good. In fact, some say it’s excellent, even better than that found in the U.S. or Canada. Continue reading “FAQ: Panama & Health Care”