Thoughts At Large

Passionate thoughts on random topics

Intolerant

Orwell warning

At fifty years of age, having now buried my father and father-in-law due to lung cancer, and caring every day for my wife as she suffers the effects of breast cancer, and having just learned of the cancer diagnosis of another friend, I find my tolerance for what I call “manufactured drama,” those ultimately insignificant (or moderately annoying at most) parts of life rapidly subsiding.

I find it hard to believe that there are those among us who have not been touched by cancer’s reach or violence’s wound or any of the other catastrophic events we usually associate with prioritizing life’s other goals and worries in a hurry, but I am told they exist and society seems to function as if it were so. In fact, society not only seems to function as if it were this way, but it seems that these escapees dictate the course of public discourse, politics, religion, entertainment, sport, in short, lead society as a whole. How can this be?

We live in a society where, while 90% of climatologists not only agree that global warming is real, but that humans are a significant cause of the rising temperatures, and yet a United States Senator can stand in the well of the Senate with a snowball in February and claim that as proof that global warming is a hoax. When the House of Representatives can pass legislation prohibiting those same expert climatologists from presenting testimony in favor of House members standing on their soapbox, clutching their bible denying global warming, evolution, homosexuality, a woman’s right to her own body, and any other matter they choose with a 14% approval rating but with a 95% reelection rate.

We live in a society where we are addicted to fossil fuels and any attempt to move away from them is met with skepticism and outright contempt. Wind energy is deemed too inefficient, solar energy is deemed too expensive. Hydrogen fuel cell technology doesn’t exist to the point of viability yet. Hydroelectric energy, nuclear energy? Old and dangerous. And who deems it so? The ossified and incentivized. The only source of energy we are told we can readily “enjoy” is coal and oil. Just run that Keystone pipeline down from Canada to the Gulf. There will be thousands of new jobs. Well, temporary jobs. Thirty-five to 50 permanent jobs, but we’ll forget that part. Don’t read the fine print, America. In fact, don’t read anything at all. As usual. Ah, but there’s “clean” burning coal now! And “clean” burning diesel engines! Problem solved, go back to watching the Kardashians, America. Who will The Bachelor pick? Where did Honey Boo Boo go?

And that is the problem. We allow ourselves to be manipulated, misdirected. It is the obfuscation, the sleight of hand that lulls us into concern for our favorite sports team or the comings and goings of the latest person famous for being famous that allows us to ignore those larger issues. We watch a never ending series of awards shows on television. To the point where if we watch the Oscars and the Emmys, we will see the Oscars beat out the Grammys at the Emmys for Best Variety show. When does the celebrity sit and watch the awards show for best gardener? Why do we allow this? Because we’ve allowed the unaffected to dictate the agenda. We have allowed the simpleminded to lead the vacant; we have allowed those with one agenda item to lead all of us down their primrose path and away from what matters because it is easier for us, faster for us, cheaper for us, and allows us not to have to do that hardest of all things – think. Shame on us.

The NFL satiates the American male’s need for machismo. It is why pickup trucks are the number one selling vehicle in America. It satisfies the easy, fast, cheap manhood we have abdicated. We embrace half of the Second Amendment, hug our guns instead of our children, grow beards instead of tomatoes, ignore what concussions do to our children and heroes, turn a blind eye to a billion dollar, tax-exempt industry which ignores domestic abuse, turn an even blinder eye to the athletes cast aside who do not hit the NFL lottery and are left broken, broke and uneducated, and we call it sport.

We preach tolerance in our churches but forget those teachings as soon as we pass through the doors. Our politicians stand up at rallies clamoring for religious freedom in an effort to quash other’s religious inroads because what they really intend is Christian freedom, Christian law. In fact, the “tolerance” being taught, the politician’s speech, the political correctness of the 1990’s has been bastardized now into code. Political correctness is now nothing but code words. We don’t say black. We say thug. Both sides somehow claim to be fighting against a “war on women.” One side is correct. How did this come to be? Because we allowed it. Because it is easier for us to let someone else to think for us. Because we don’t read. Orwell would be horrified to know how right he was.

And so, I am left intolerant of those I should educate or pity. Intolerant of the dead eyes in the expressionless people of Wal-Mart. Intolerant of the manipulative politicians beating war drums for Eisenhower’s feared military industrial complex who must continue to churn out “product,” needed or not because Wall Street demands dividends even if enemy combatants do not yet exist. Intolerant of gun fanatics clutching their arsenals, crying over nonexistent government tyranny and confiscation and patriotically accepting the 30,000 we bury every year in the name of “freedom.” Intolerant of the ignorant who remain so in an age when information is so readily available. I am intolerant of those exorcized by the minutia because they are incapable of handling (or wholly unaware of) the important.

And yet, I cannot. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn said, “It’s an universal law– intolerance is the first sign of an inadequate education. An ill-educated person behaves with arrogant impatience, whereas truly profound education breeds humility.” My parents raised me to think. Education is my religion. I will try to remain humble because I know I am not alone. I will try to always learn. I will always continue reading. As those of us in the gun violence prevention movement, with whom I am so honored to surround myself so frequently say, I choose love. Intolerance is too heavy a burden. But so, too, is silence. I love my wife, my children, and my world too much.

I Hate Cancer

inhofe snowI am so sick of cancer. I have seen it eat away, like rust or termites, healthy individual’s lives, and the lives and futures of their families and friends. Whether it happens slowly over a long period of years or quickly over a few months; whether it is painful or pain-free, the wasting, the consumption, the evaporation of dreams and promises to one another, the snatching away of future weddings, graduations, births, celebrations of all kinds, extinguished like so many candles, this insidious disease remains unchecked despite science’s best efforts.

At a time when politicians throw snowballs on the floor of the United States Senate to convince us that global warming is a hoax (while prohibiting experts from testifying!), when those who deny evolution control the purse strings of the country’s science foundations, millions of people continue to suffer because we continue to lump 300 unique diseases into a single category and call them all “cancer.”

There will always be competing interests, but perhaps it would be best for our infrastructure priorities to be funded based on input from the nation’s most respected civil engineers and our most pressing medical priorities to be funded by input from our nation’s most respected physicians. Senator Inhofe holding a snowball in February proves nothing more than it is February, and in February one is likely to find snow in D.C.. Who would he have on the Appropriations Committee on cancer funding, Dr. Seuss?

Doubt and About

sharing

I seem to be suffering from a philosophical breach between the correlation of the concepts of equality, fairness, and justice.

Equality, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is “The state of being equal, especially in status, rights, or opportunities.”

Likewise, fairness is defined as, “Treatment of people equally without favoritism or discrimination.”

And justice is defined as, “The quality of being fair and reasonable.”

It has always been my belief that these three ideas are interchangeable and, indeed, their very definitions weave the three words between themselves. The concept of heads and tails played out in words.

Ah, but life, they say, isn’t fair. In fact, William Goodman even went so far as to say that, “Life isn’t fair. It’s just fairer than death, that’s all.” I can think of nothing so completely inaccurate! Is there anything fairer than death? Is not death the greatest equalizer of all? Jim Morrison may have said it best when he said, “No one here gets out alive.”

But does that mean that life must be unfair? Our parents teach us to be fair to our siblings. Our teachers urge us to be fair to our classmates. The concept of sports is based on the rules of fairness. But as adults, we see fairness fade into a utopian panacea of equality we strive for but which few believe can be achieved which is itself then distilled into the feeble concept of justice we settle for and call law? Fairness is bastardized into law and laws are created by a political system that few trust. So then the answer is yes, life is unfair, unequal and unjust.

And so far, we have only touched on that which man can control. Nature is even less concerned with fairness. Here, biology, astronomy and the rest of the sciences are even less concerned with fairness and more concerned with physics and laws which pay no mind to humans or human suffering. The mechanisms of cancer in the human body, despite our best efforts, still march to orders little understood by medicine and unconcerned by fairness, wishes, or prayer. Cosmic gasses coalesce according to galactic influence, forming stars which burn, explode, collapse and die – again, all without concern for mankind’s wishes or prayers.

Ultimately, do we do our children a disservice when we tell them to treat each other fairly? Are we setting them up to become fodder for those less concerned with equality; leaving them to the sieve we call law, knowing too it is manipulated by the same usurpers who discard equality for their own benefit? And if so, what happens to society?

Governments, economies, races, religions or sexes, whenever we try to label an entire group we get into trouble. The United States is not a democracy; it is a constitutional republic on paper (with oligarchic underpinnings). There is no such thing as a purely socialist economy just as there is no such thing as a purely capitalist economy. A purely socialist economy will always fail because individual people are greedy. A capitalistic economy will only survive if it convinces the masses that they are all capitalists and not simply feeding the greediest at the top. And so labeling situations as purely fair or unfair for our children sets the expectation that, as adults, neutrality is the norm and justice is equality. Perhaps we are better off calling it what it is: building the flock.

We all want our children to succeed, but by engraining fairness into their moral and ethical DNA we are setting them up for economic failure, casting them out into the sea as chum for those sharks concerned with neither equality nor justice; acquiescing to our “better angels,” knowing that our children will be less “successful” but people we can call fair, equal and just.

And so they too will question the definitions of fairness, equality and justice as they struggle through life, seeing those less just than themselves achieve more than they and those more deserving struggle with less, as disease and misfortune picks off their beloved without warning or justification and the bigoted and ignorant thrive. The circle of an unfair life. But you can’t take it with you.

many wearing rapiers are afraid of goose-quills

A gun is not a religion. It is not a family member. It cannot vote. It is made, by humans, for humans, to kill (sometimes humans).

Yesterday, cloaked in the delusion that their special deity had his tender feelings bruised by a cartoon, three gunmen (sorry NRA, they are gunmen) slaughtered 12 other human beings for having the audacity to write and draw; for expressing an opinion with humor. A gun is not a religion.

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Ceci n’est pas une religion.

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This is not a religion.

And yet, twelve people are now dead because they drew cartoons, poked fun at people (all people) and made people stop, think and laugh. Think about that.

And before you think, well, that’s militant European Islamic extremism for you! Remember that 282 people are shot every day in America in murders, assaults, suicides, suicide attempts, accidents and police actions. Eighty six die, including 8 children and teens. Every day.  If you’re curious what a typical day looks like, you can read about it here. Twelve were gunned down in Paris yesterday in a terrorist attack at a magazine and the world stopped.  Here in America, whether it is due to religion, domestic violence, depression, suicide, economic pressure or any other pressure, easy access to a firearm causes twelve deaths every 3 hours and 20 minutes.

Four years ago today, U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords and 18 others were shot in Tucson, AZ when a gunman opened fire. Six people were killed, including nine year old Christina Taylor Green, who had been born on September 11, 2001; a precious life bookended by tragedy.

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A gun is not a family member.

“But we must have guns because that socialist emperor Obummer is coming for our guns and we must be able to fight back a tyrannical government.” Yes, in the six years, Obama has been President, he has confiscated exactly zero guns while the paranoia machine that is the NRA, mouthpiece of the gun manufacturers has conjured up explosive gun sales growth based of this mythology. Who’s the sucker? And yet, there are still those, especially in the Texas open carry “movement” who, because they are “true patriots” and “love this country so much” are determined to overthrow their beloved country because democracy moves too slowly. I kid you not.

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A gun cannot vote.

So, keep your gun, in fact, keep your religion. Give me my family and friends; leave me to my paper and pens.

Aaron’s Wishes for 2015

December 18, 2014

Hello. My name is Aaron. I am six years old. I am a second grade student in Miss Vasquez’s second grade class at John F. Kennedy Elementary School. Our class has been cutting out newspaper headlines all year and last week we had to go up to the board with each headline and put it under one of the headings we had created. When we were done, we had many headings, but only a few had lots of headlines under them. The heading with the most headlines under it was Fear. Under this heading we had headlines like Ebola, the shooting in Ferguson, the chokehold death in New York City, the police protests, the midterm elections, the open carry marches in Texas and the Bundy ranch standoff.


December 29, 2014

Fear is a paralyzing emotion and emotions are amazing things, but they cannot be the sole basis upon which decisions are made. For example, my mother’s grief often manifests itself in her binge eating, and while it may feel good enough in the moment, I’m sure you will agree that a pint of Ben and Jerry’s Phish Food does not a meal make. Nor does letting a dozen casseroles spoil in the refrigerator because she’s “not hungry” qualify as taking care of herself.

My wishes for 2015 are for fear to give way to reason, for paranoia to give way to compassion and for hatred to give way to understanding. These are my wishes because I am six years old and I will always be six years old. I will always be six years old because our neighbor gave in to fear and bought a gun and accidentally shot at his daughter when she came home late last week. Thankfully, he missed her, but there is a hole in my head where my right eye used to be and tomorrow morning Mommy will bury me.

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Susan Sontag, in Illness as Metaphor suggests that we refrain from anthropomorphizing cancer as tuberculosis was in the 19th century. It is simply a disease, linked neither to melancholy nor passion. However, it is increasingly difficult for the patient or caregiver to remain impartial to a disease which exhibits human characteristics such as changing tactics (mutation) and exhibiting a single-minded determination (death).

As I write this, I am fifteen days out from the death of my father from lung cancer, 15 years out from the death of my father-in-law from lung cancer, locked in a pitch battle with a second primary soft tissue sarcoma in my dog and engaged daily in a barbaric fight to the death with my wife’s breast cancer. Cancer sucks.

My father was 73. My father in law was 59. I am 49. My father knew me for roughly 67% of his life, but I knew him for 100% of mine, all 18,172 days. I have been without him now for 15 days and my world has changed. The pain he endured, the pain my mother, brother, sister and I witnessed will forever reside in our brains as white hot, searing agony. Good memories will rise to replace those created in the final few months as the thoughts that race to the forefront of our minds when we think of him, but the cruel experience of watching him die can never be erased. I smile when I think of my father-in-law now, but just as quickly recall the chaos in my mind as I realized what was happening at the end (and whether I could have/should have done something different to help). Likewise, my mind wanders to dark places when I think of the future for my wife and puppy. What will it look like? Will I be better prepared? Does it matter?

I was fortunate enough to give the eulogy at my father’s funeral. It was a rambling recollection designed to please the audience and summarize a life while ignoring the injustice of the occasion or the misery he endured. I include it here:

DNA is passed down from one generation to the next. Stirred together with our experiences and memories, we become individuals. But DNA is the foundation, the framework, upon which the individual is built.

My father had an amazing memory, a trait which was not passed into my DNA. My sister got that gene. She, like he, can tell you about the time in June of 1974 when the hibachi flamed up on the patio from too much lighter fluid. They would go on, “It was a Saturday afternoon, and it was slightly overcast and humid. I remember it was humid because the hamburger buns were sticking together. Mom was wearing red slacks with a white top, and Fisk was out for the year after tearing up his knee in Cleveland the day before.”

 It always amazed me what he could remember when we talked. Especially about baseball.  Especially about when I played baseball. What I remember about my baseball career was that I stopped growing too soon and pitchers learned how to throw a curve. But Dad could pull details from specific games, including the weather, from out of nowhere. “Do you remember that day? You probably don’t. It was HOT! We were playing a double header in Warwick. You went 1-4 in the first game and we had gone through all of our pitchers to eek out a win. We had nobody left for the second game. You doubled in your fist at bat, ripped one down the right field line off of so-and-so, who went to such-and-such college later on. You don’t remember that?” What a memory.

 Ovid said, “Dripping water hollows out stone, not through force but through persistence.” Having my father as my baseball coach, especially as my skills waned, but as his intensity increased, was a recipe for conflict at home. Trust me.  Fortunately, my brother had the strong arm of a pitcher which I did not and my father had the opportunity to teach a rising star and enjoyed his career as I transitioned to college, the workforce, marriage to an amazing woman and beginning a family. But it is the mark of a good parent and softened memories that when he recalled my baseball games in later years, he only recalled (to me) the ones in which I had performed well.

Memories and DNA combine in fantastical ways. It amazes me how a family can experience something together and one or two members can have that event stick with them forever while the rest of the family has it wash over them and out of their minds forever like a wave on the beach. I remember one time we were in Oneonta, NY. I couldn’t have been more than 12 at the time. We were accompanying Dad on a recruiting trip and sitting in a little pizza shop. Jan, what was the name of it? Mama Nina’s, right. A song came on the radio, a simple tune, just piano at the beginning and my father seemed to float away. He said, “When I die, I want this played at my funeral.” It was Colour My World by Chicago. I don’t know why I remember that, or if he even remembered saying it, but I was listening to it on my iPhone when my brother called to tell me Dad was gone.

Dad was a man of contradictions.

He lived on an island but hated bridges. In fact, funny story. My brother, mother, father and I went to Cincinnati to see a Reds game in 1990. We stayed in a hotel across the Ohio River in Kentucky. The stadium was literally right across the river. You took a foot bridge across the river directly into the stadium. We walked out of the hotel, down the street and up to the bridge. Now understand, my dad was a lifelong Reds fan who had waited 50 years and travelled 827 miles to see them play, only to find himself frozen at the base of the footbridge, unable to make the final ¼ mile walk into the stadium. Slowly, we were able to talk him into making the trek and we saw the game. Of course, I can’t remember if they won or lost, but for this occasion, I like to remember that they won.

He loved living on the coast and yet I never remember him going to the beach and he never showed any interest in boats.

He hated war and the military industrial complex and yet worked at NUSC and lived in a Navy town.

He espoused peace and yet was himself quite combative.

 He loved driving but hated cars.

 He loved baseball and hated the Red Sox, although I think what he hated was the typical Red Sox fan, who knew only of the Sox and nothing about any other team; patronage without understanding, loving a local team rather than the nation’s game.

He, like my son, Cameron, loved a debate and found the lack of one far worse than solitude, for in solitude he always had a book to read. Cicero said, “If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need.” I think Dad would add my mother and a dog to that phrase, but you get the point.

We debated many things, even the seemingly taboo subjects of politics and religion. Without knowing he had formulated it, I heard him, I think in a veiled attempt to convince me rather than himself, rephrase Pascal’s 1660 gambit on the existence of God, which states that as the reason to believe, “If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing. Wager, then, without hesitation that He is.”

Of course Pascal, sounding like something my father would also say, said, “I would prefer an intelligent hell to a stupid paradise.”

He, like my daughter Samantha, loved art and found music in paintings and rainbows in music. He sought out the educated and never stopped learning, taking online courses on art and art history.

He loved words and the art of writing, finding them transcendent building blocks capable of being combined to create immense power and compelling depth. Shakespeare, in Romeo and Juliet, wrote of death:

“When he shall die, Take him and cut him out in little stars, And he will make the face of heaven so fine That all the world will be in love with night And pay no worship to the garish sun.”

Samuel Butler said, “Life is like giving a concert on the violin while learning to play the instrument.”  How often do I wish there was a manual to life and that the pitfalls of error could be written out of existence. But experiences cannot be bequeathed; we all must fail while trying in order to grow. Parents try, but children don’t tend to listen. Oscar Wilde said, “Children begin by loving their parents; as they grow older they judge them; sometimes they forgive them.” I believe we grow up when we have to, some earlier, some later; rarely does it coincide with the calendar or a birthday.

To my mother, let me say that you are stronger than you think you and far more capable. These past few months have shown me a fortitude and strength that I mistakenly thought you only exhibited in the protected shadow of Dad. Now I know that you will be alright. You have over 50 years of memories and children who love you and friends who embrace you. Remember what Langston Hughes wrote,

“To some people Love is given, To others Only Heaven.”

Helen Keller wrote, “Death is no more than passing from one room into another. But there’s a difference for me, you know. Because in that other room I shall be able to see.”  Dad is no longer in pain and only time, like Ovid’s dripping water, will soften the sharp painful edges, the memories we share of his final months. Eventually, the good times will replace the bad in our dreams and these memories will fuse with our shared DNA and we will remember that we are his and he lives on in us.

 At the cemetery chapel, a good friend read a poem my father had written in 1986 to my mother. In it, in a quite linear manner, he describes their life together. Nowhere in those verses is there a reference to pain or cancer. Life’s narrative does not include the intrusion of a malevolent entity determined to rob us of the future for which we have done everything we can to prepare. Everything we can do, but blind to the suicidal mutation bent on our destruction.

Here is his poem:

My Choice

I’m not good at tennis, but I think the game’s swell

It’s when I first met her, I remember it well

A distance away, a casual glance

My head met my toes, my heart did a dance.

 

My casual glance turned into a stare

She knew I was looking but just didn’t care

When finally we met, I looked at her eyes

Seeing rivers and oceans, and bluebirds and skies.

 

Even bluer than sky on a bright sun kissed day

No clouds cross her path, blue eyes turn them away

Only earthly tears of joy should flow from those eyes

If I’m her life partner, I’ll tell her no lies.

 

As I got to know her, I applauded my choice

As she spoke in whispers, I adored her soft voice

Her hair was quite long, with curls at the end

Please don’t break my heart, I fear it won’t mend.

We went many places, we did many things

Time spent together was time sprouting wings

I envisioned forever, and tomorrow today

Instead she just dropped me, I can’t have my way.

 

We went out with others but it wasn’t the same

Was it a test, or some sort of a game

When I see her with others, do I speak, do I care

Please give me a nod, just a sign you still care

 

Maybe fate or just luck, or whatever it’s been

We got back together, hold my breath, count to ten

Circle the calendar, a date not to forget

We’ll live life together, we’ll share what we get

 

The years started passing, to college to nursing

Precious moments together, just sweet talk, no cursing

We tied the old knot in our junior year

All brand new to us, you’ll love it, my dear

 

A child or two, maybe three with some luck

A house and a car, and some baseballs to duck

Life’s experiences we’ll share, gardens together we’ll tend

I’ll tuck in the doggie with her dearest friend

 

But most of all for this selfish old me

Her companionship, warmth, and of course, a hot tea.

She bore three children, mostly gentle like her

She much prefers them to diamonds and fur.

 

She nursed and bathed them, showed comfort and passion

All treated the same, her love she won’t ration

With mental alertness, fine health they enjoyed

Their values time honored, with no moral void

 

Years slipped away, they end with a song

Children still with us, but won’t be for long

Adults they’ve become, to us they’re the best

They’ll find their own forest to build their own nest.

 

Alone we will be, but two as in one

Let’s visit the children and watch their kids run

Would we do it again, in a minute, no warning

Let’s repeat it again, let’s start in the morning.

 

Dare I guess at our future, can you put time on fade

Will we grow old together, is it too soon too late

Are hours elapsing, do minutes have minds

Can we set back the sunsets, must they always unwind

 

Philosophers ask where does time really go

Not sure of the answer, I don’t really know

If the answer’s discovered, please allot me some more

To spend more of it with the girl I adore

 

The end may come sooner than you or I know

It’s not fair I’ll answer, my joy turns to woe

But how few you have known been as lucky as us

To have been at the station, have caught the right bus

 

Eternity closer, I’ll meet her there too

I’ll bypass the clouds, I’ll follow the blue

We’ll thank the dear Lord for our beautiful marriage

And roll through the Gates in Heaven’s best carriage

 

Thanks for making us mates in our earthly endeavors

We juggled the balls, we pulled all life’s levers

The poem is ended, I’ll feed you no malarkey

Thanks for the short time with Ellen Frances Sharkey

 – March 13, 1986

Forgive me this downbeat missive. We will rally again, circle the wagons, do what we have to do, but time is finite and pain seemingly eternal.

Inhuman

PainPublilius Syrus in the first century B.C. wrote “when Fortune flatters, she does it to betray.” Plutarch reinterpreted this as “I see the cure is not worth the pain.” Somewhere over the past two thousand plus years we have lost the connection between humanity and the humane.

Setting religion aside and ignoring the politics and ethics of Dr. Kevorkian, it is, none the less, barbaric how we treat our loved ones at the end of their lives.

We have somehow bridged the moral abyss with compassion for our beloved pets by “humanely” putting our beloved pets out of their senseless misery, ending their meaningless pain, answering their pleading eyes with the selfless, heartrending compassion of euthanasia.

We have somehow sanitized capital punishment of the worst criminals from fatal and barbaric corporal punishment to a “humane” (although still debatably barbaric) dream-like sleep out of existence.

And yet, we allow our loved ones to face “natural” death filled with a fear, pain and confusion making anything that happened at Abu Ghraib look like Walt Disney World.

This suffering is multifaceted. Of course, there is the physical pain, which is no better controlled today than it was 50 years ago. The opioids still rule as the best we have to offer. The problem is that they are systemic, meaning that they travel throughout the entire body. If the pain is in the hip, the hip gets the morphine, but so, too, do the little finger, the ear lobe and the brain. The result is that the little finger and ear lobe are no better or worse, the hip suffers an incomplete relief of pain and the brain suffers the confusion, paranoia, nausea and narcolepsy unnecessary to treatment. This is the best medicine has to offer in 2014? The other suffering it brings is to the family members who must endure watching the physical suffering of those they love hampered by the incomplete relief of pain. Meaningless suffering is the worst kind. Love of another means the willingness to shoulder their burden. The helplessness felt by the family member watching their loved one jerk in pain or crying out as they try to move them or comfort them is an indelible stain on their soul.

The suicidal mission of cancer adds to the frustration. Bent on destroying its host, even at its own annihilation, cancer never rests. To paraphrase Siddhartha Mukherjee from his book The Emperor of All Maladies, cancer cuts the brake lines of some cells and jams the gas pedals of others, stopping the natural cell regulation process and sending the cancer cells into a proliferating frenzy steamrolling every other cell in its path. In his or her clearer moments, so too, the cancer patient undergoes a civil war; one side, engrained in all of us, pulls us to live, to continue fighting, while another force, armed with logic, understanding and ultimately love, forces the patient to begin facing the inevitable truth with no regrets and peace.

In his book Man’s Search for Meaning, concentration camp survivor and psychologist Victor Frankl describes inmates of the camps as surviving long stretches if they could find meaning in their suffering.  Some held on to the hope of outlasting the Nazis and returning to their loved ones (should any of them have survived), others found peace looking up at the sky and imagining conversations with their loved ones wherever they might then have been. Life was worth living if they held a kernel of meaning in their suffering.

I have searched and considered and yet find no meaning in the suffering loved ones endure at the end of their lives given the current state of medicine. Pain is pain and on a scale of 1 to 10, anything above a 1 means the medical field has failed. The root word of both humane and humanity is human, from the Latin humanus. However, we reserve those words for our treatment of pets and prisoners, not our loved ones. For them, and for ourselves, it is inhuman what we put them through, for them and for us it is nothing short of torture.

Guardian Angel

 

How better to share my grief about the loss of a friend than through a story? After all, isn’t that, ultimately, how we remember those we love who leave us?

Blaine Toshner died this week. He was many things to many people, but he was above all a kind and gentle soul to everyone who had the pleasure of having had encountered him. He sought to brighten everyone’s day with a terrible pun or awful joke, always leaving us with a smile on our face as we left him to face the challenges before us; his simple but always effective gift to each of us. Let me back up.

In 2008, my wife was diagnosed with a very aggressive form of breast cancer, a type with which the doctors in Rhode Island knew little about and even less about how to treat it. Over the course of about six harrowing weeks of tests and pain followed by a string of never ending bad news and poor prognoses, we decided to pick up stakes and move to Houston to seek treatment at the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. Our children, twins, a boy and a girl, were scheduled to begin their freshman year in high school in September. We moved in August, full of doubt and fear. The kids were brave and adjusted well to moving from a school with 800 students in it to one with almost 4,000, from a home they had known since childhood to a rental in Texas and from all of their childhood friends to a town where it was us against the world and an insidious intruder bent on killing their mother.

Lisa and I made a point of attending the open house at school in order to meet with all of the kids’ teachers, specifically to point out the circumstances of our situation and ask that the teachers contact us if they saw the kids’ slipping in school or becoming distracted by events at home. One teacher stood out as having already made an effort to get to know the kids. He was a young English teacher named Blaine Toshner. Everyone seemed to call him Coach. Apparently he was involved with the football team. Apparently, football was a big thing at the high school. I had forgotten that we were in Texas and that some stereotypes are based on fact. We soon learned that he was, in fact, one of the coaches on the high school team. There seemed to be about a dozen coaches on the team, and about a thousand players. Every time we saw him at a game, he would make a point of coming up to us to ask how Lisa was, tell us a terrible joke and gush about how good the kids were.

Blaine was a guardian angel for the kids that year. He was always there for them, never intruding, but always available, always watchful, always concerned, always in touch.

My wife suffered terribly that year. She underwent all manner of treatments:  neoadjuvant chemotherapy, a double mastectomy and radiation. At the end of the school year she was done. She rang the bell at the hospital signifying her completion of treatment, was cleared and we packed our belongings and drove the 2,000 miles back to Rhode Island, glad to leave the nightmare of cancer in Texas, but sad to leave our guardian angel and newfound friends.

The kids’ sophomore year was spent back home in Rhode Island trying to reestablish a “normal” life but under the ever present threat of a recurrence. We lived in three month chunks of time bookmarked by Lisa’s follow-up visits to M.D. Anderson. It was in the spring that we all decided to travel to Houston together for her follow-up that we got word that the cancer had returned in her lungs. We flew home, devastated and depressed, gathered our thoughts and determined that we could no longer be that far away from the hospital. We decided to sell our home in Rhode Island and move to Texas. The emergency department at M.D. Anderson would be 45 minutes away rather than 2,000 miles away. If the cancer was going to be that aggressive, we were going to meet its aggression with overwhelming ferocity.

The kids finished up their sophomore year early, thanks to the kindness of the teachers and administration at home. We flew to Texas and quickly found a small house to buy. We put our home in Rhode Island on the market and I flew home, and with the Herculean effort of many friends, held a mammoth yard sale, selling and giving away so many treasures of our lives that I’m forever grateful that Lisa was not there.

The kids began their junior year of high school back at the same school as their freshman year and once again, Blaine was there, no longer their teacher, but always there as their friend and guardian angel. We saw him less frequently because of this, but stayed in touch. We heard stories of him helping other students and marveled at his boundless compassion. When it came time for the kids to begin the college application process, they looked to one person for referral letters. Blaine wrote them both glowing, personalized letters. Ultimately, both kids chose to attend the University of Texas at Austin, mostly, no doubt because of the proximity to their mother.

In 2010, Blaine’s sister’s and mother visited Texas and he invited us all to lunch. It was a raucous time filled with stories, laughs and new memories I will never, ever forget! I remember that afternoon as a day of muscle pain in my stomach from laughing so hard.

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By this time, Blaine had decided to move back to Wisconsin to take care of his wonderful mother. We chatted on Facebook and he said he looked to me as a role model as having been someone who risked everything to care for someone he loved. I had never thought of our decision to move to Texas as a sacrifice. It was just something we did. Lisa and I have always been ones to circle the wagons when a crisis threatens. We always say we’re going to have the phrase “we do what we have to do” tattooed on our foreheads. Given Blaine’s compassion and boundless energy at reaching out to make sure my children were healthy, the thought of him looking up to me hit me hard. I remember crying when I read his text. He wrote, “I think we find people throughout life who, whether they know it or not, help us make the decisions we know are right but not easy.” How much I think of that now.

My last contact with Blaine was this past June. Lisa was turning 50 and as we were away from home and most of our friends, I wanted to put together a slide show of our friends and family holding up a sign wishing her a happy birthday. I sent a message to Blaine asking him for a picture. True to form, he sent a picture, but not of himself. It was a picture of his mother and Jamo punctuated with a joke about him being addicted to the Hokey Pokey but taking charge and turning himself around.

I’ll miss Blaine, but I can never forget him. He was a guardian angel for my children when they needed him most. For that I am forever grateful. People do come into our lives at certain points and they leave their marks, their fingerprints on our souls. If the trajectory of my life is altered, even ever so slightly; if I am more compassionate today than I was yesterday and more tomorrow than today, it’s because Blaine Toshner was a part of my life and will continue to be my guardian angel.

Tipping Point of Possessive Pronouns

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I read Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point when it was first published in 2000. At the time, my children were 6. This past weekend, I attended a gallery opening for my daughter whose work from her summer studying in Tuscany was being displayed along with her peers.

At exactly 6:30 on September 19, 2014 I witnessed a seismic tipping point in my life. You see, at that point, the second sentence of the first paragraph ceased being exclusively true. No longer was she “my” daughter as much as I was “her” father. This shift in possessive pronouns is significant in that it, while it may not have closed out my paternal protectionism (that will ever dissolve), it forced me to acknowledge that my daughter is a fully functioning member of society, a woman upon whom the planet can lean for guidance, joy, art and direction. In short, just what the world needs.

The Romans warned us to “cave ab homine unius libri’ (beware the man of one book). Today we call this epistemic closure. We only talk to those who agree with us. We only read (if we read at all) that with which we already agree. The deafening din in America today of people talking over one another instead of to one another is both disheartening and a recipe for stagnation and anger. Congress is the best example of this. The last congress, the 113th, passed just 108 non-ceremonial laws due to infighting among Republicans and the Tea Party and among Republicans and Democrats. Essentially, the Republican/Tea Party mantra became one of “whatever the President wants, we’re against, consequences be damned.” And that included shutting down the government! We don’t debate one another anymore. We don’t discuss anything or seek common ground. “Compromise” seems to be a naughty word now. Every one is screaming and no one hears anything.

My son wants to grab the world by the throat and drag it gurgling and choking into a rational, logical future. I fear most of the world may need this approach. My daughter will need to lead the rest of the world into that same, better future with art and compassion. They will use different tools, but both will move the world toward the same beautiful, peaceful future. And then I will truly be “their” father, “their” friend, someone who has an autograph from way back when, an autograph in crayon with the “a” written backwards, where the foundation of their genius was still forming and I was a fortunate passenger. I am proud of “my” children. Proud to be “their” father. Excited for their future.

Supernova

Keplers_supernovaPhysics has a concept called the law of conservation of energy, which states that the total amount of energy in a closed system is neither gained nor lost over time, but rather is only transformed from one state to another.

Perhaps this concept is the best way for us to understand and process the news of Robin Williams’ suicide. Consider the sadness, anger, shock and unease we feel to be the explosive energies released from inside the tormented Williams himself, the magnitude of our impact directly proportional to our relationship to the man- immediate family members impacted most severely, friends and extended family members next, neighbors and colleagues next, extending outward to fans and then to those to whom he was known by name only.

Consider, too, how this has impacted you. Are you more sad than angry; more angry than shocked? These are the wavelengths of emotion radiating from the supernova that are Mr. Williams’ inner demons. Bottle all of the sadness we, collectively, feel and that is what he felt. That is mental illness. Compress all of the anger we feel toward him for doing this. That is how angry he was at himself for his perceived failings. That is mental illness. Mental illness is a disease that eats away at the individual as surely as an aphid on a rose bud, but from the inside. The pain is invisible and unforgiving. It is self-perpetuating, feeding on its “success.” When people are at their worst they want help the least and will either hide their pain the best (or not at all).

Remember, the law of conservation of energy states no amount of energy is gained or lost. If he is gone, that anger and sadness is still here and we feel it, not nearly as much as those closest to him, but we feel it. But, if no energy is lost, than so too, must the joy he shared be here. And so, today, go make a goofy face in front of the most important person in the world until they smile, the person in the mirror.

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