Firearms, Fear, and Mental Health

A bullet hole in your wall is never a good sign, unless you look at it right. Not acknowledging it is foolhardy, obsessing over it is debilitating. These sides of the teeter totter must be balanced when the hole is really there. What to do when it’s not…well, that’s what this is about.

Firecrackers and rifle rounds, these are the sounds of my childhood. In an early exercise of modifying childish behaviors, my mother had me light a full box of kitchen matches one at a time and let them burn down to my fingertips. It was supposed to cure me of playing with matches. I was three. My brother Eric, who was ten at the time, told me decades later that the look on my face said mom miscalculated. She didn’t cure me. She made me. I remain a functional pyromaniac to this day.

So, perhaps it’s not surprising that fear and firearms aren’t coupled in my psyche. What firearms I have, I own out of prudence, not paranoia. I’ve been on the wrong side of a gun (you can read about that here). I have also used firearms to procure food. For any who have not ventured into the woods and come out with meat to feed their families, you’ve missed something in life. Politicians and popular culture make apologetic room for the American firearm fascination with lip service to the sport of hunting. Watching children eat meat you harvested isn’t sport. It is a central reality of man stretching back for millennia. It is the same reality that caused men to take up arms and defend their home and person. Making it about the weapon misses the point.

Supporting the Second Amendment in its original frame calls for intellectual honesty regarding its consequences. Malice, negligence, and accidents are a reality. Years ago, I was in charge of a waste hauling operation that could see up to sixty trucks on the road at any given time. We functioned under the mandate of a zero-accident policy. The policy was understandable, admirable even. But there were those among us who held to the philosophy of it being possible. To be fair, it was possible—simply so. All I had to do was ground the fleet. No movement, no accidents. No guns, no death and maiming by firearms.

A bullet above my daughter’s headboard. Wounded sheetrock in my boy’s room. The former resulted from a neighbor in emotional distress and contemplating suicide. The later, a negligent discharge from a guest who knew better. Nobody died. I repeat, nobody died. This is where fear and mental health enter the picture.

The spirit of man is invested with the capacity, the drive even, to dream. We were created with the ability to see the impossible, to call out things that are not and strive to make them be. The same mechanism that got us to the moon lets us stress about near misses as if they were catastrophes.

In life, I’ve found stressing over non-events isn’t just a waste of energy, it’s also debilitating to mental health. A near miss is a near miss. Going into adrenal hyperdrive at that moment is understandable and desirable. Carrying the fight-or-flight past a reasonable calming period is self-destructive.

Worse than being wrapped in the trauma of a near miss is the upset over possible catastrophe when the near miss never happened. This is what happens when we imagine what someone might have done to or said about us and we get upset as if they did. Call it delusional trauma, pain caused by the ghosts of our own imagination. When we trade the wonder of imagining what could be for the fear and regret of what may have been, we are poorer for it.

Holes in walls, happened. People dead, didn’t. In both instances, my mind was fully capable—without any prompting from me—to envision a new reality in light of the non-event of catastrophic loss. I had a choice at that point. I could imagine the tragedy of a lost child and allow my limbic system to light up as if it had already happened or admit it didn’t happen and behave accordingly. One would leave me toxic, the other thankful. A bullet hole in your wall is never a good sign, unless you look at it right. The holes in my walls were evidence of God’s protection in grace in the face of the carelessness of others. When I think of them that way, I stay in a much healthier head space.

My Top Ten+ Reads of 2020 (… and 2019)

Have a Barnes & Nobel gift card burning a hole in your pocket? Did some kind soul gift you with Amazon cash? Still suffering under arbitrary shut downs and curfews imposed by power hungry governors? Have a trusty library card you need to put to use? I can help.

This year(s)’ list features thrillers (real and imaginary), histories, philosophy, psychology, grammars, devotionals, and writing how-tos. My picks were curated from 52 works by 35 authors and include books read in 2019 since I didn’t publish a top-ten last year.[1] Listed in the order they were read; I trust the suggestions lead you to your next reading enjoyment. Cheers, and Happy New Year!

Wedge: from Pearl Harbor to 9/11, How the Secret War Between the FBI and CIA Has Endangered National Security by Mark Rieblin

The more I read on the CIA, the more concerned I become for our country. Either they have pulled off the best disinformation campaign about their capabilities (or incompetence) or they are one of the most inefficient foreign intelligence services in the developed world. Wedge is a scathing indictment of CIA’s incompetence, of the absurdity of splitting domestic security from foreign intelligence and counterintelligence, and the danger of bureaucratic turf wars. Of particular interest to me was the continual highlighting of the difference between law enforcement mentality (FBI, “arrest the spy”) and intelligence mentality (CIA, watch the spy, develop the spy, turn the spy). Wedge reads like a real-life thriller, which it is.

Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA by Tim Weiner

Any report or publication delving into the history and truth behind a covert agency always leaves me wondering how much of the full story the author got and what is the potential of the work itself being a brilliant exercise in disinformation. Legacy of Ashes left me with only small twinges of doubt. Tim Weiner’s due diligence, exercised over decades as a journalist, comes through on every page of this extraordinary book. Factual and non-fiction, it reads like a top-notch political/espionage thriller. For those worried about the intrusions of spying in the digital age, read this book. I trust that like me; you leave this exposé with the expectant hope that our government has gotten better at intelligence that keeps a free society free.

Woe Is I: The Grammarphobe’s Guide to Better English in Plain English by Patricia T. O’Conner

Originally published in 1996, I read the 2019 Updated and Expanded Fourth Edition. In O’Conner’s own words, “Woe Is I is a survival guide for intelligent people who probably have never diagrammed a sentence and never will.” Concise, witty, and practical, one need not be a grammar nerd to enjoy this book. But if you happen to be a grammar nerd, it is sure to please.

As the title itself implies, correct isn’t always right. English is a living language and constructions that may satisfy the purist can do violence to our ears. O’Conner devotes an entire chapter to old rules that need to be put to rest (“The house of grammar has many rooms,” she writes, “and some of them are haunted”) and enforced conventions that were never rules to begin with. The chapter is as liberating as it is enlightening.

This work has taken its rightful place on my writer’s reference shelf. O’Conner’s final chapter, “Saying Is Believing: How to Write What You Mean,” is a toolbox for anyone desiring to improve their craft.

Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art by Madeleine L’Engle

Only 224 pages long, I nevertheless opted to chew it slowly over the course of six weeks. More than just a commentary on the creation of Christian art, it is a contemplative devotional examining the deep impacts of our faith in our lives. Walking on Water, if you’ll pardon the pun, is a deep well. I rarely read a book without pen in hand, particularly a non-fiction book (even if it is written by one whose primary art is the writing of fiction). But this book was loaned to me. Its owner had already left her own annotations, which added to the richness of the read. I believe any artist with an open mind could benefit from this book. That said, the creative who walks in faith with Christ stands to benefit the most from L’Engle’s insights. The book is encouraging and challenging both on what it means to create good art and what it means to walk with Jesus across the lake of life.

On Desperate Ground: The Epic Story of Chosin Reservoir—the Greatest Battle of the Korean War by Hampton Sides

A harrowing read that moved me to tears more than once. The bravery and endurance of the men Sides highlights is inspiring. The lead up to the battle is a Greek tragedy. The generals and officers on the ground dutifully followed orders from self-referencing brass all the while knowing they were heading into the desperate ground of Chosin. General Smith stands as the central protagonist whose primary antagonist, in my view, was MacArthur and his subordinates. Sides says of Smith, “fifty-six years old, was a cerebral, soft-spoken man whose habits seemed atypical of a gung-ho Marine.” Two of my favorite quotes about General Oliver Prince Smith that Sides catalogs are: “[Gen. Smith was] a professional killer, employed in a hard trade: tenacious, cunning, resourceful, cold, cynical, and tough.” (p. 11) and “said one Marine, ‘I’d follow him to hell because I know he’d get me out.’” (p. 326).

The Reformation of America by Karla Perry

On a scale from populist-pablum to serious-think, Karla Perry lands squarely on the latter. A serious thinker, Perry presents her case in The Reformation of America in a way that demands the honest reader to think seriously. Through multiple historical examples, she unflinchingly demonstrates what can be accomplished in the uplifting of a nation when believers in Jesus become disciples of Christ and follow through on His order in the Great Commission to “make disciples of all nations.” Along with providing encouraging examples of cultural redemption, Perry also drags some embarrassing skeletons out of the Church’s closet (e.g., “secularism is a Christian heresy.”) The Reformation of America is not a cozy read intended to simply reaffirm many present-day Evangelical suppositions. It is a well written overview of the biblical formation of America, where the Church went wrong, and how we must work to reform our nation into a disciple of Christ.

Gosnell: The Untold Story of America’s most Prolific Serial Killer by Ann McElhinney and Phelim McAleer

Warning: this is not a bedtime story! McElhinney and McAleer are documentary filmmakers and Gosnell is their first book. For a first time out, and understanding their intent, it is a sterling performance. Print journalists would have written it differently. A novelist would have taken away from Kermitt Gosnell’s banality and pedestrian greed and focused on his misogynistic tendencies and perverse joy in infanticide. As is, this is a horrific read which in many ways was harder for me emotionally than all the holocaust studies I’ve read. If you think you know about pro-choice or pro-life, you need to read this book.

Murder Your Darlings: And other Gentle Writing Advice from Aristotle to Zinsser by Roy Peter Clark

Murder Your Darlings is a metabook, a tome on books about the craft. Clark’s passion to continue developing as a writer has fed his life’s work of being “America’s writing coach.” In this work, he highlights some of the primary lessons he’s gleaned from the writing books on his shelf. Organized in six parts, each addressing a specific aspect of the craft and the writer’s life, it is informative and inspirational. As to the titular advice, Clark writes “A way to murder your darlings is to identify ‘false color’ in your work, also known as overwriting…Too many vivid words bump into one another, competing for attention. Apply this test: which of these words is more interesting or important? Murder the rest.” In the final section, which is on mission and purpose, he offers this quote from Kurt Vonnegut, “Practicing any art―be it painting, music, dance, literature, or whatever―is not a way to make money or become famous. It’s a way to make your soul grow.”

10 Stupid things Women Do to Mess Up Their Lives by Dr. Laura Schlessinger

In my life, I’ve encountered numerous women who have saddled themselves with losers. It never made sense to me how otherwise intelligent, self-supporting, and attractive women would stay with drug users, alcoholics, cheaters, and abusers. Though Schlessinger’s work provides numerous insights as to how this happens, the phenomenon still leaves me scratching my head. I like Dr. Laura. My wife is a bona fide fan. She bought this one and the one on stupid guys for our young adult children to read—just in case. Schlessinger is always a healthy dose of common sense and blunt-nosed candidness. Written in the mid-1990s, its worth is evidenced by its relevance and applicability a quarter of a century later. It’s not pop-psychology. It is great life advice for getting out of horrible situations, or better yet, avoiding them all together.

Rise and Kill First: The Secret History of Israel’s Targeted Assassinations by Ronen Bergman (translated by Ronnie Hope)

Hands down, Rise and Kill First is the best spy thriller I have ever read and it is truth, not fiction. Bergman’s unflinching history of the shadow realm of Israel is a tour de force and speaks of the author’s discipline, commitment, and courage. In an age inundated with overt biased reporting, Bergman is evenhanded without hiding his own sensibilities. In framing a history that encompasses early 20th century Zionism to the modern state of Israel as of 2015 with Meir Dagan―a man who “had a serious malfunction in his fear mechanism” (p.128) and whose great specialty according to Ariel Sharon was “separating a terrorist from his head” (p.708)―the author shows both the necessity of deadly force and its ultimate inability to solve the situation. For anyone truly interested in understanding the Middle East conflict, Rise and Kill First is an essential read.

The Practice: Shipping Creative Work by Seth Godin

Packed with powerful one-liners, The Practice was a shot in the arm to my creative efforts. Efforts―not channeling, not magic, not the muse―are essential to the practice, to showing up and being on the hook. As a writer, the section “No Such Thing as Writer’s Block” was particularly affirming. I am tempted to plunk down numerous memorable lines, but I will only mark two here. For a long time, I have sought to help people who were angst-filled because they just wanted to do what they loved. I have found that knowing how to love what you do is the better life skill. Godin encapsulates this idea with the following lines: “Do what you love” is for amateurs. “Love what you do” is the mantra for professionals. (p.22)

Psychology of Intelligence Analysis by Richard J. Heuer, Jr.

I came across this title in the conclusion of Christopher Andrew’s The Secret World: A History of Intelligence. Recruited to the CIA in the early 1950s, Heuer is a veteran Cold Warrior who spent the first 24 years of his career working with the Directorate of Operations before moving into the Directorate of Intelligence. This work is a text book, the kind of reading one would do in a CIA class room. As such, it offers a real view into the world of intelligence. But its value and application go far deeper. Only three chapters in, I found myself texting my former boss that I had found his next business read.

Heuer’s work, though tailored to the intelligence analysts’ world, deals with the cognitive limitations we all have and how to work around them. Heuer begins with a review of our mental machinery, how our brains work and memories are built, then provides tools for thinking. He shows how more information doesn’t necessarily make analysis better and can actually be counter-productive, then lays out objective means for structuring analytical problems. Lest you think this is all cloak and dagger stuff, his analysis matrix provides a quantifiable means to arrive at the best car buy choice.

Heuer’s advice to intelligence analysts is equally applicable to problem solvers and creatives regardless the enterprise or the art: “Talking about mindsets, or creativity, or even just openness to new information is really talking about spinning new links and new paths through the web of memory.”

Auschwitz: A Doctor’s Eyewitness Account by Dr. Miklos Nyiszli

Dr. Nyiszli, a Hungarian Jew, wound up being the coroner of Auschwitz working directly for Dr. Josef Mengele. Nyiszli offers a front-row seat to the gates of the crematorium and beyond. I endeavor to write a paragraph or two in my reading journal after finishing a book. My note on this book was only three words: gruesome horror story. Though Communist regimes have murdered millions more than Hitler’s Germany, the rational and methods of the Nazi industrial murder machine sets it apart as a deeper form of evil. Let us never forget.

A Top Ten+ list would be incomplete without a fiction section. The fiction authors I read in the 2019-2020 timeframe include J. R. R. Tolkien, Lee Child, Scott Turrow, Adrian J. Walker, Michael Connelly, James S. A. Corey, and Craig Johnson.

Michael Connelly

Michael Connelly is best known for his Harry Bosch novels. Titus Welliver, who plays Bosch in the Amazon Prime series, is the voice actor for the audiobooks. I listened to and read seven Bosch books these last two years. Print or audio, they are a treat. Following is a peak into my reading journal on one of the novels. [Spoiler alert!]

The Crossing by Michael Connelly (audio book)

The Bosch novels deliver on entertainment, mystery, and rich characters. The title comes from the search of “the crossing,” where perpetrator and victim intersect. Bosch is hired by his half-brother Mickey Haller as an investigator on a murder. It turns out to be all about the watch. It leads Harry to two bent cops who kill to cover their trail. It was a hoot to hear Titus Welliver do Mickey’s character in a manner that seemed to channel Matthew McConoughey. I enjoy Welliver’s work on the TV show, but have a higher degree of respect for his acting on his nuance as a voice over talent. Superb.

James S. A. Corey

James S. A. Corey is the pen name for Daniel Abraham and Ty Frank, who write the Expanse series of science-fiction novels. Expanse is space opera with grit. The authors say they wanted to fill in that gap in the genre between humans inhabiting the stars and how they colonized the solar system. All that and vomit zombies. It’s not Orson Scott Card or Frank Herbert. Which is good, because Card and Herbert did their own thing well. So do Abraham and Frank. I recently finished the third book in the series. Below is the note from my reading journal.

Abaddon’s Gate by James S. A. Corey

The authors deliver yet again. Expanse has all the grit of realpolitik and messiness of flawed humans along with the epic stretches and stakes of science fiction. This book gets bonus points from me for grappling with theological issues that arise in the face of alien life and the potential to colonize the stars. The duelers in this debate are Hector Cortez (a Catholic priest or Anglican minister or just a televangelist?) and Anna Volovodov, a Methodist minister. The following bit of dialogue between these two hints at more serious considerations—deep dialogue for science fiction:

“So many stars,” she said. “Some of them might be ours someday.”

“I wonder,” Hector replied, his voice low and sad. “I wonder if we should have them. God gave man the Earth. He never promised him the stars. I wonder if He’ll follow us out there.”

Anna squeezed his hand again, and then let it go. “The God I believe in is bigger than all of this. Nothing we ever learn can be an attack on Him as long as that’s true.”

Never mind that the conversation happens between a televangelist who is more political animal than religious leader and a Methodist minister that is in a same sex marriage, the words are evidence of the authors’ familiarity with Christian theology.

Another line from Rev. Dr. Anna reminds me of questions and considerations debated in my family when I was young. Faced with alien life and the fact that it had stolen from and killed humans, “all things we would consider sins if we were doing them,” she says, then adds:

“Does that mean they’re fallen? Did Christ die for them too?”

Here’s the thing, this is not Christian fiction. But the authors’ raise these questions in a way that isn’t heavy handed, that serves the plot, and is a serious theological question if one is a Christian and happens to believe in alien life.[2]

Craig Johnson

Craig Johnson is the writer of the Longmire Mysteries. I’ve read ten so far. Johnson’s prose is captivating, poetic, and profound. If you’ve seen the Netflix show, you’ve met a Walt Longmire, but you haven’t met the Walt Longmire or Henry Standing Bear or Victoria Moretti, for that matter. Written in first person perspective from Walt’s point of view, the reader is in the main character’s head for the whole ride. And what a ride it is. For great writing and true escape, it’s hard to top Craig Johnson.


[1] I was all set to do it, but New Year’s Day 2019 landed hard and I wrote the poem “Red” instead.

[2] Which, for the record, I don’t. Mankind is a unique creation of God that sinned against its Creator and for which His Son died to redeem and resurrected to justify.

Cancer Survivor 2.0: Transitions

“You were dying.” I seem to get that a lot, and by “a lot” I mean more than once. Once is enough, right? The first time around, it revolved around the cancer itself.[1] This time, it had to do with the aftereffects of the treatment.[2] I was well out of the woods, the base-of-tongue tumor a good five-plus years in my life’s rearview mirror. But I wasn’t well. “Glad to see you made it in,” the doctor said when the test results came in. “Because looking at these numbers, I don’t know how you’re still walking around.”

“He’s been grumpier than usual,” Heidi, my wife, told the receptionist after I dropped the clipboard with the new patient form down on the counter in frustration and told Heidi she could fill it out. It was a rude, inexcusable, over-the-top reaction to her matter-of-fact observation that my handwriting was illegible. It was March 8, 2019. Grumpiness earned me a doctor’s visit. Hopefully, that says something about my regular demeanor.

Without controversy, 2020 has been crazy. But the crazy for me started well before the pandemic and violent protests of this historic year. In retrospect, the cause of my condition should have been obvious. All the symptoms lined up, I just never assembled them for the same crime. If I had, I might have agreed to see the endocrinologist when I could still manage to keep my cool.

Suspect No. 1: High Cholesterol

My previous employer offered yearly wellness checks, part of which was a basic blood test to measure cholesterol levels for heart disease risk. In June 2016, my total cholesterol level (TCL) was 311 mg/dL (less than 200 is the desired range). We made some adjustments to my diet, substantially decreasing the large daily dose of raw eggs that were a major component of my protein shakes. Two years later, my TCL had climbed to 390, nearly double the healthy range.

The result made no sense. From 2016 to 2018, I lost weight—two pounds, to be exact, but decrease is decrease. I carried 171 pounds on my 5’ 11” frame with considerable ease. It wasn’t the food, so I blamed cortisol, the body’s stress-response hormone implicated in high cholesterol levels. Not that I “felt” stressed, mind you. But my body has always been a faithful witness to what my soul ignores.

Suspect No. 2: Peripheral Neuropathy

I wear gloves in summer and make a point to push my legs to their limit because Cisplatin, the chemotherapy drug I was given as part of my cancer treatment, did a number on my nerves. Walking was difficult during the initial recovery phase. Cold hands and numbness in my feet persist. Chemocare.com lists peripheral neuropathy as a less common but serious side effect from the drug and notes that “neurologic effects may be irreversible.”[3] Nothing to see here, folks. Move along.

Suspect No. 3: Depression

Depressed? Who, me? No way.

I was sad. In early 2018, after seven accolade-filled years of managing the hauling operations for my former employer, they gave my post to someone better suited to their executive succession plan.

I was lonely. Work moved me from my central-hub office that I affectionately named The Fish Bowl, to an office in a practically abandoned suite at the back of the maintenance shop I called The Cave, where I toiled away—a manager on hold with only contracts to supervise.

I was grieving. My brother Eric passed away on New Year’s Day, 2019.

Suspect No. 4: Fatigue

As a hauling manager, I regularly worked 10 to 11-hour days, five days a week. When they changed my post and I became effectively a manager without portfolio for close to six months, I still put in over forty-five hours a week on average. In August of 2018, I began managing our main recycling facility. 55-hour work weeks were not uncommon. I walked five miles a day doing the job. Then came the weekend when I studied, preached, and wrote. Yep, I was tired. I had reason to be.

Suspect No. 5: Emotional Lability

I didn’t see this suspect, my family did. Emotional lability is the psychological term for rapid and often exaggerated changes in mood where strong feelings such as uncontrollable crying or heightened irritability—hello, grumpiness—occur. I wasn’t irritable. I was focused. And if I cried at the drop of a hat, it was because it reminded me of my brother. At least, that’s what I told myself. My family told me I was grumpy. It wasn’t until I was getting better that they told me I was dying on them.

It’s late August 2013, before the chemo, before the radiation. The professionals reviewed the treatment protocol with all its promises and potential pitfalls. I listened. Heidi took notes. The chance of the treatment not working was low, the possibility of coming through unscathed nil. We knew at the start that the radiation would bombard my thyroid gland on its mission to destroy the cancer cells on my tongue and in my lymph nodes. Once I could eat again, we folded in a natural thyroid supplement into my protein shakes. As the years ticked by, the level of supplementation increased. If I missed a dose, I had a sense of crashing. I should have stopped. Instead, I fell into my default of pushing through.

I pushed through projects. In March 2018, I published Wind, Water, and Fire, a book about the Holy Spirit. As soon as it launched, I began writing Love Everlasting: A Practical Theology of Time, which I published in March 2020. In the same time frame, I started writing Valley of Wolves, the sequel to Gypsy Spy.

I pushed through work. In August of 2018, I assumed active management of our community’s largest post-consumer recycling facility. I had managed a small materials recovery facility and transfer station in the early years of my waste management career. Taking on this plant was like going from a go-cart to a high-mileage Ferrari. The workers and machinery required direct attention. I jumped into the fray at full-throttle. The post was nominally an office job. I was the general manager of a multimillion-dollar operation. I wasn’t in the office much. Flesh and blood, metal and grease are more my style.

I pushed through play. I went on business trips; nice trips to San Diego and Orlando, company funded and wife accompanied. I attended writing conferences that we turned into family vacations. Slowing down is something I am still learning to do.

While preparing for this post, I came across a line of dialogue I had jotted down in my idea journal. It’s dated May 22, 2018. I didn’t assign a character to it and can’t be certain of its inspiration. Did I overhear someone say it? Did I read it somewhere else? Was it just part of one of those conversations that fictional players have a tendency to whisper in my head? Maybe it was just my Freudian slip showing.

“Too many folks hurry about like they was rushin’ to die.”

You think?

We met with the endocrinologist. He ordered the blood work and told us he would see us a couple of weeks after the results came in. I went in for the blood draw on the last Monday in March 2019. That Thursday, the 28th, held the typical whirlwind of activity during which I either ignored my cell phone or couldn’t hear it ring (recycling plants are noisy). I walked up to the main office and the receptionist told me I needed to call home—now. “The results are in,” Heidi said. “The doctor wants to see you today.” Today? What happened to two weeks?

I like to think of myself as brave, but let’s be honest. Once you’ve been a recipient of a deadly medical diagnosis, a busy doctor saying you need to come in immediately is terrifying. My boss’s face when I told him I had to go didn’t help much. He was still a bit traumatized from watching me go through treatment. “You gave us a pretty good scare there, Nik,” he told me once. For a reserved man, his confession exposed much. He looked at me wide-eyed. “Good luck.”

They led Heidi and me into the exam room. We knew our places. She sat in the chair. I perched on the exam table. We waited. We wondered. We prayed. The doctor came in, report in hand. He looked at it, he looked at me. “Glad to see you made it in. Because looking at these numbers,” he lifted the sheet of paper, “I don’t know how you’re still walking around.”

He had ordered a thyroid panel. They checked my blood for T3 (triiodothyronine) and T4 (thyroxine), which are produced by the thyroid and TSH (thyroid stimulating hormone) which is released by the pituitary gland when it thinks the thyroid needs some encouragement. My T3 and T4 levels were nowhere near the low end of the reference range. And my TSH?

“I don’t know,” I said. “I’m still working over fifty hours a week. I probably walk five miles a day going through the different plants.”

“Well, let me put in perspective for you. Most of my patients, if their TSH level is at 10, are in my office demanding that I do something. At 12, they are barely functioning. Yours is at 72.75.”

Measured in microunits per milliliter, the sweet spot for the TSH level is 1.8. My pituitary gland was on overdrive trying to wake up my radiation exhausted thyroid. I was in full-blown hypothyroidism, symptoms of which include high cholesterol, peripheral neuropathy, depression, fatigue, emotional lability, and weight gain.

What, weight gain? Wait a minute! I was a full-grown male, average weight for my height with a body mass index of 24 which was thankfully inside the normal range. Funny how we can use one fact to deny that a part of us is dying.

“It was like it took everything for you just to hang on,” Heidi told me. “We were watching you. You were gray. You didn’t look well. You snapped at us. You were dying.” She got me to the doc. My mother was a nurse. Dodging medical diagnosis was a habit I learned early in life. Heidi saved mine. Again.

Medicine is a practice. Over the course of the next several months, the doctor increased the daily dosage level of my thyroid medicine. The good news: I was getting better. The bad news: the edge on my emotional lability took a while to dull. Generally diplomatic to a fault, I had become increasingly frank with my boss and with ownership. I jotted a note in my journal after a particularly trying meeting with them in early August 2019.

“The false satisfaction in blame never resolves the problem.”

It all came to head a couple of weeks later during a staff meeting filled with brass in which I made statements and presented information that painted upper management into a corner. Speaking truth to power is never without risk. Doing it on edge can bring sudden life transitions.

After 12 years of a job I often described as “a joy ride,” my employer and I had an amicable parting of ways. I left the world of a thousand spinning plates to return to the trade of an office furniture installer—a hybrid of mix of carpenter, mechanic, assembly line worker, and logistician. It’s difficult to measure the load you are carrying until you put it down on the scale. I never fully appreciated the level of tension I was under until my employer released me. I breathe easier now.

I had blood work done at the end of August 2019. Treatment was working. My total cholesterol was down to 170, a 56% drop from its highwater mark and inside the normal range. My T3 and T4 levels were normal. My TSH was at 1.31, which made the doc happy happy. I was less grumpy. And my weight? Apparently, I was overweight at 171 pounds. When I was 18, fresh out of high school, I might have weighed 152 pounds soaking wet. I am fifty-five. In my current job, I walk about seven miles a day, some of it on my knees and much of it carrying or pushing freight. The hours are reasonable, the stress negligible. If I stick with eating five times a day, I manage to keep 150 pounds on my 5’ 11” frame.

If you had sat down with me seven years ago and on the tail of hearing from the medical professionals all the true horrors of the treatment I had signed on for and said, “After all this is done, you are going to be a better man than you were in your 20s.” I would have laughed. And cried. My thirty-year-old self was in much worse shape than the twenty-year-old version and I had added a lot of mileage since then. But my Father is the Creator of the heavens and the Earth. My God is the Redeemer. In His hands, nothing goes to waste. He makes all things good. He is the master of transition and transformation. Just keep holding His hand. Everything is going to be okay.

[1] In case you missed it, you can read about it in “Dealing with a Death Sentence.”
[2] I shared about my treatment experience in the post “Pizza Night: Milestone on Recovery Road.”
[3] http://chemocare.com/chemotherapy/drug-info/cisplatin.aspx accessed August 29, 2020.

Red

It has been a year
And still, I cannot speak.
The wound too raw,
The flesh too weak.

It is not hopeless grief,
But it is sorrow nonetheless.
When giants fall,
How is this midget to rest?

You taught me to walk,
Carried my weight
Across planes, through valleys,
Up hills and mountains
And over the oceans.

You saw me in the forge,
Tempered me in the waters.
You honed my edge,
And were ever my buckler.

Pilgrims we were together,
I now more than ever.
The mighty sleep,
The weak press on.

Tell our brothers
All they missed.
Tell our mother
She was truly blessed.

We wait for the removal
Of the torn veil,
When Heaven is all
And there be no hell.

Let us build houses
From everlasting wood,
And rejoice in the Savior
Who said we could.

Let us hike through
The healed land.
Let Larums roar,
Hand in hand.

My Top Ten Reads of 2018

Though writing occupied much of my time in 2018 (two book publications, sixty-eight blog posts, and 13,000 words into my next novel) I still managed to read through 37 books with a good mix of fiction and non-fiction covering diverse topics. How did I get through 37 tomes? I supplemented my regular reading with listening to audiobooks on my commute to work.

I would have preferred to provide the list in January instead of March, but this year got off on a difficult foot and I am still struggling to regain my stride. Below are my top ten of the bunch in the order I read or listened to them. Any that spark you interest is well worth your time to read.

Love Does: Discover a Secretly Incredible Life in an Ordinary World by Bob Goff

With story after story filled with Christ’s love and how transforming it is to actually follow Jesus instead of just stalking Him, this book is an inspiration and challenge all wrapped up in one. Its child’s-faith outlook stands on a firm biblical foundation. The author’s audacity to live as a change agent in response to God’s love has led him up an elevator hauling a 4×8-foot Valentine’s Day Card and down to the depths of dungeons to liberate incarcerated and enslaved children.

Profound statements abound throughout the work and Goff’s writing and observations gave my red pen a work out as I found myself underlining section after section. A couple of my favorites: “I used to be afraid of failing at something that really mattered to me, but now I’m more afraid of succeeding at things that don’t matter.” (p.25); and, “Love is a do thing. It’s an energy that has to be dissipated.” (p.48). Say yes and read this book!

The Unseen Realm: Recovering the Supernatural Worldview of the Bible by Michael S. Heiser

Exciting, affirming, and challenging, Heiser’s work is both approachable and technical. An academic work superbly written and assembled for the general public, it offers compelling evidence to continually hold in mind the reality that we live in both a supernatural and material world. The epic tale of the revelation of God’s manifold wisdom through the church to the principalities and powers of the world is fleshed out in ways that are startling. The consistency of Scripture in presenting these ideas inspires awe for the Author of the Bible and appreciation for His human agents. As one who has consistently held to the idea that the Old Testament is the New Testament concealed and the New Testament is the Old Testament revealed, it is eye-opening to read a work that follows the precept that the Old Testament is what informs and supplies the New Testament writers with their ideas, theology, and metaphors.

Favorite quotes: “My conscience wouldn’t let me ignore my own Bible in order to retain the theology with which I was comfortable.”

“There’s no need to camouflage what the Hebrew text says. People shouldn’t be protected from the Bible.”

The Black Widow (audiobook) by Daniel Silva

I may need to actually read Daniel Silva! George Guidall’s performance was exquisite. Silva uses repetition to great effect. His description of Gideon standing with his hand to his chin, his head tilted slightly to the side becomes a refrain that makes you familiar with the character and comfortable with the writer. It is nearly poetic in its use.

(Spoiler Alert!)

The bad guy getting away and the entire operation not bringing any of the desired fruit was a letdown. It may be Silva’s attempt at realism. Regardless, the entire tale maintained suspense and the resolutions hinted at provided some satisfaction of closure. It was a great listen.

Fair Play: The Moral Dilemmas of Spying by James Olson

James Olson spent his entire career in the Directorate of Operations of the Central Intelligence Agency and is a former Chief of CIA Counterintelligence. His book is an excellent resource for those serious about the practical and ethical challenges inherent in espionage. Well written, informative, and full of insights from multiple sectors. The Spying 101 notes alone are worth the purchase price of the book. They contain a treasure trove for espionage writers and enthusiasts.

Shared Sorrows: A Gypsy Family Remembers the Holocaust by Toby Sonneman

I expected an informative read when I purchased this book. I received much more than I bargained for. Sonneman’s collaboration with Rosa Mettbach not only highlights the little known Great Devouring of the Gypsies under the Nazis, it also delves deeply into the burdens of bitterness, the betrayal of humanity, and the need for forgiveness. Studded throughout with exemplary scholarship, it retains its personal touch and avoids falling into dry academic “objectivity.”

Beautifully written, deeply personal, comprehensive, and unflinching in its description of the horrors of the Holocaust, it is a must read for those who want to learn about the Gypsy experience under the Nazi’s from the recollections of those who survived it.

Tripping over the Truth: How the Metabolic Theory of Cancer is Overturning one of Medicine’s most Entrenched Paradigms by Travis Christofferson, MS

As a cancer—and a cancer treatment—survivor, this book was a revelation. Had I been told in my original consultations that chemotherapy came from an accidental exposure of sailors to mustard gas and what they wanted to put through my veins was mustard gas’s cousin, I may have investigated alternative therapies more thoroughly. But by then, I was hurting and scared.

Early in the 20th century, Otto Warburg developed a workable metabolic theory of cancer that has recently gained momentum as the chasers of singular, or even manageable, DNA mutation causers have run into dead end after dead end at the death of millions, the misery of millions more, and the cost of billions. Warburg’s succinct thesis is below. This book is the history of that insight and its promise and implications nearly one hundred years later. If you have cancer or have a loved one battling it, read this book before the mustard gas begins dripping into the veins.

“Cancer, above all diseases, has countless secondary causes. But even for cancer, there is only one prime cause. Summarized in a few words, the cause of cancer is the replacement of the respiration of oxygen in normal body cells by a fermentation of sugars.” Otto H. Warburg

Story Trumps Structure by Steven James

Steven James is a national bestselling novelist whose pulse-pounding thrillers continue to gain wide critical acclaim and a growing fan base.[1] I had the pleasure of attending a couple of his workshops at a writers’ conference. I would consider this book to be the text book for his presentations.

Encouraging and challenging, this unique how-to tome had me stretched from, “I can do this” to “why did I ever think I could write?” Enjoyable to read and a valuable reference manual, it will sit on my writer’s reference shelf with my Roy Peter Clark books, dictionaries, and style manuals. Thank you, Steven James, for generously sharing your tools of the trade!

Man Without a Face by Markus Wolf

The victors of war write different histories than the vanquished. Markus Wolf was a Cold Warrior par excellence who perforated the West with strategically placed agents for nearly 30 years. While our side’s modus operandi relied on buying treason, Wolf managed to recruit ideologues who believed in the Communist cause. He enjoyed a prime advantage in his career. He was a German spying on Germans. His biography adds flesh and blood to the dreary concrete of the GDR’s surveillance state. A professional intelligence officer even in revealing his own life, the book is a far cry from a tell-all tome. But what is told is well worth reading.

Enemies: A History of the FBI by Tim Weiner

Hoover’s FBI was first and foremost an intelligence gathering organization. His agents acquired information in the traditional espionage fashion: break ins, black bag jobs, and wire taps—lots of wire taps. J. Edgar Hoover hated Communists and Communism and considered them both to be the most pressing threats to the American way. He was willing to violate the rule of law to make sure that Moscow couldn’t gain traction in the United States. Enemies carries the reader from those early days to the tragedy of 9/11 and all the successes and failures along the way. Paced like a political thriller, Tim Weiner’s history of the FBI is a highly enjoyable and informative read.

The Midnight Line (audiobook) by Lee Child

Absolute mind candy and pure entertainment, but then …

I thought the writing almost simplistic, until I found out that Lee Child was actually the pen name for James D. Grant, a British novelist with a background in TV production. He nails Americanisms in his novels. What I first considered simplistic is actually minimalist. He allows the reader to fill in blanks. Small towns USA are his canvas. He paints in details at will. He uses repetition in his writing for rhythm to drive the story forward and it works. Want a great escape? Forget Tom Cruise. Read the real Jack Reacher.

[1] https://www.amazon.com/Steven-James/e/B001IU0RQS, accessed March 23, 2019.

Closer than Cousins

“Did you turn out the lights when you left that place?” my brother Eric was fond of asking me. It was a standing gag between us. He is number four. I am number seven. Once I saw the light of day, they not only shut out the lights, they removed the mold. My mother could have no children after me.

Seven siblings would be the number of us for twenty-seven years. Then we lost John, the second born. Eric and I dug his grave together. Fifteen years later, Timothy would follow. He was number six. We had lost our second line bookends. A decade would pass before Michael, number three in the lineup, would enter his rest with our Lord. That left us at four. On New Year’s Day, 2019, Eric Larum ended his pilgrimage on this earth. The center sibling is gone. Now we are only three: the eldest and the youngest and the wonder woman in between.

In this world of broken lives and blended families, I suppose “were you close?” is a fair question to be asked when you tell a colleague that your brother died. Fair or not, I still stumbled in my answer. Was I close to my brother Eric? Too close to explain. Too close to discuss. Too tender to touch. Too raw to reach. Too painful to manage more than a subdued yes.

When we were growing up, the term “blended family” hadn’t been coined yet, which is fine because it falls far short of describing our reality. Gloria’s brood wasn’t blended. We were welded, fused together in the heat of fierce family love and tragedy. The seams and scars were all there, but they left no steps or halves in their wake. We were brothers and sister. Never mind that the older three called my father Uncle John. Never mind that the next two called my father Dad and their father Pop. Never mind that my closest cousins were my brother and sister and my oldest brothers had a different last name. Blood was blood. That was that.

Mom married young and had three sons: Ronald, John, and Michael. Her first marriage was short in number of years, but long considering the circumstances. All the boys were still under ten when she divorced her first husband. Then she met the Larums—Jim and John in particular. John noticed her first, but Jim was faster on his feet and got the first dance.

pop and dad
Jim (Pop) & John (Dad) Larum 

James Patrick Larum, the youngest brother of the Larum clan, was a gregarious soul by all accounts. Mother said he never met a stranger. I only know snippets of him, bits of stories told by his widow and siblings. He was the life of a party, the man to have on a hunt, the capable woodsman, a good dancer, a wise soul, a troubled soldier, a courageous man. He loved his wife. He loved his children, all five, even though only two of them were from his loins, Eric and Barbara.

Mom and Pop were only married for five years. Except for how it ended, from mother’s accounting I always gathered that they were happy years. On a camping trip near a lake, Jim drowned while rescuing Eric, then three, who had gone into the water to be with his older brothers. The tragedy left an indelible mark on the entire family, but I suspect it scarred Eric most of all.

Jim was the seventh of seven. My father, John Harold Larum, was number six. My Aunt Katy tells me that when my father announced he was going to marry Gloria, their brother’s widow; she asked him, “Why would you marry her?” “Because I saw her first,” he said.

They wed in my Uncle Glennon’s church. They had two boys, Timothy and me. Mom’s second Larum marriage lasted three times and change longer than the first. My father died when I was thirteen. To my oldest brothers, dad would always be Uncle John. For Eric, Barbara, Timothy, and me, he was always Dad. Pop was the name reserved for Jim.

For better or worse, fathers impart identity. Growing up, much was made of Timothy looking like my father. I never thought I favored him much in appearance, however much I mirrored him in heart. I am my father’s son, no doubt. But Tim was the one that most looked like him. Folks at times would think us twins. I never saw it that way. Tim looked like Dad. Everybody said so. Me? I looked like … well, I always thought I looked like Eric.

I remember the day I proudly presented my first driver’s license to my mother. When a child looks or acts like a living parent, recognition of the fact usually elicits endearment or positive commentary. When the parent is dead, the child’s resemblance touches a different emotional core. It’s difficult to avoid the spook factor. I handed Mom my license. She looked at the picture and then at me. She paled, brushed by an unexpected specter. “You look like Jim,” she said. I was used to her reactions, negative and positive, when I behaved like my father. It was a familiar dance, spook factor and all. But reminding her of the husband she buried before she married my father proved too spooky even for her.

Were Eric and I close? Mom thought I looked like Pop, a man who drowned and subsequently made my birth possible. Eric’s tragedy, my legacy. We were cousins like few others. We were brothers from the same mother.

Father’s impart identity, siblings stamp character. Hugs and blows, heart-shares and arguments shape and augment the wet clay. The farther down one is in the birth order, the more one is shaped by siblings than parents. I am the youngest of seven. Eric was number four, square in the middle, pivot man between two fathers and three older brothers and granted by God to play the lead out man for the other three Larum kids.

When I started kindergarten, it was Eric who walked me there. I was five, he was twelve. He wasn’t insensitive to my needs or age, but he didn’t allow his sensitivity to impact his stride. He would walk me there, but I had to keep up. My normal walking pace remains fast to this day, forty-eight years later.

I recall a night when I was fifteen walking home from work after closing the kitchen down near the midnight hour. Out of the dark and some distance behind, a voice bellowed my name. It was my brother Timothy hoofing his way home from parts unknown. The street was poorly lit and I had been nearly two blocks ahead of him. “How did you know it was me?” I asked him. He laughed. “Brother, I would know that walk anywhere.” How close were Eric and I? He gave me my walk.

When I was six and Eric was thirteen, we walked from Michigan to New York to catch a plane to Spain. Mom and Dad were with us, as were Timothy and Barbara. We hiked for three weeks at least. Memory tells me my pack weighed twenty pounds. Not too bad for a six-year-old, but Eric’s pack held the canned goods. He was always Big Brother.

He left home not long after our return from Spain in 1976. I was eleven. He was eighteen. I wouldn’t see him again for another five years. The occasion of our reunion was my brother Timothy’s high school graduation in San Jose, California. My mother, step-father, and I had ridden the road from Arkansas to be there.

A lot happens to an eleven-year-old’s body in five years. Last Eric had seen me, I didn’t reach his shoulders. Now he looked up at me, sixteen and filling out. He smiled. We hugged. He held me out at arm’s length, a hand on the side of each of my shoulders, open-palmed. “Well, you may be taller than me now,” he said and lifted me off my feet, “but I’m still your big brother.” It was never in doubt. To this day I remain amazed by his feat. Men who can do don’t brag. Eric was never a braggart.

He came back to Arkansas for a short stint when I was in my senior year of high school. He joined me and my buds on my best friend’s farm for a bon fire evening. Eric was seven when I was born. At twenty-four, he had no qualms about hanging out with his baby brother. Years couldn’t estrange us. He was perfectly content with extended periods of solitude and equally comfortable in a crowd of people. He never had to be the center of attention. But he was hard to miss. When we arrived at the site, my high school friends and I gathered branches and twigs for the fire. Eric came out of the woods with a tree trunk across his back. If you wanted a real bon fire, Eric was the Viking to invite.

I moved to Virginia. I met Heidi. We married and had children. Born on the Pacific coast, I was now making a life on the Atlantic seaboard. My siblings and I were scattered, but I was the outlier hanging on the eastern edge of America. I landed a contract to install office furniture overseas and invited Eric out to join me. We assembled desks by the hundreds in Naples, Italy. We climbed Vesuvius, walked on the ancient streets of Pompeii, and sipped cappuccinos together in Capri. We built cubicles together in Rota, Spain and pool tables at Oceana Naval Base in Virginia Beach.

vesuvio 1-26-97 crop
Eric and me on Vesuvius – 1997

We ended up working together for nearly five years. He lived with us, sharing a room with my older boys. In some ways, they were reliving my childhood. I gained a love of reading, crafting, and working through osmosis from my brother. My sons would soak it in from their uncle.

Working with Eric was poetry in motion, a sibling synergy I will treasure all of my days. Each anticipated the other’s moves. We could communicate with a glance, pass tools and material to each other like a dance, swap whole jokes with just a punch line, and roar together in shared joy as the rest of the crew just shook their heads. He used to tell me his friends in Spain always wondered how he could have worked for his younger brother. “I tell them I loved working with you. It was no problem for me. At work, you were the boss. At home, I was the older brother.” Proud men put on airs. Eric was a humble soul. He poured out love.

With the exception of my brother John, all my children have had the blessing of knowing their uncles and aunt. But they grew up with their Tío Eric. I was very young when my family left California, still young when I moved away from home base. My sons and daughters were somewhat isolated from my side of the family until Eric came. Through him, they would taste their grandmother’s cooking, hear their great-grandfather’s laughter, sense their forefather’s craft. He widened their context. He was a gift to us all.

tio-gideon.jpg
Eric with Gideon – 2003

A decade into his life with us in Virginia, he reconnected with the love of his youth, Marisa Mateu. Theirs is a love story written by the hand of God. Eric was always rugged, on the edge of the wild. He pitched a tent once to camp out for the night on a plot of land he and my brother Timothy were buying in Arkansas. He left the camp site six months later. Marisa tamed the lone wolf with love. They had been sweethearts as teenagers, lost contact for thirty years, and reunited through a series of events that began with one of my employees, moved through my best friend in grade school, and culminated with their marriage in 2007. After Jesus, Marisa was the best thing that ever happened to my brother.

bbq marisa and boys
Eric, Patrick, Gideon, me, and Marisa – 2014

Eric lived the last years of his life in Spain, the country that was always home for us. He and Marisa made it possible for my wife and children to see where I grew up and walk the streets I ran on as a child. As a married man with seven children, I am seldom lonely. But being able to be over there with them and my brother made me forever less alone than I was. Eric had a knack for giving gifts that kept on giving.

I have gone long. Eric would say, “Too many notes, Mozart.” I disagree. Were I able to write an entire opera, it would not be enough.

How close were Eric and I? Closer than cousins is an understatement. We shared the womb. We shared a room. We lived together as children and adults. We worshipped together. We worked together. We walked together. “Close” is insufficient to describe the nearness of heart. He was one of the very few people on earth who knew me inside out, forward and back, warts and all, and loved me still.

We both had US passports, but our citizenship is in heaven. He is there with our fathers, our mother, and our brothers in the presence of our Lord. I find comfort in the sure hope that the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, will come and transform this body to be like His glorious body and I will embrace my brother again. Thanks be to God for His unspeakable gift.

 

Senior Discount

I should be grateful. After all, I’ve spent most of my life leveraging the fact that I’ve generally been thought to be older than I am. My mother used to say that I was born old. In my early teens, this was both and advantage and a danger. Suffice it to say that passing for twenty-one when you are fourteen can tempt a young man into territories that actually require twenty-one years of maturity.

Being thought older wasn’t simply a subjective sense of the world’s reaction to me, though that does play into it a bit. I went through a fairly rough patch when I was sixteen (see reference above about a fourteen year old running in young adult circles). My mother worked as a nurse for nearly forty years. She was highly attentive to our physical ailments (so attentive, in fact, that my siblings and I developed the habit of hiding symptoms to avoid her ready needle and syringe). On this occasion, she decided to take steps regarding my mental health. She sent me to a psychologist. He and I chatted. He gave me a battery of personality tests. We met again. “I graphed the results of your tests,” he said, showing me the graph. “You a perfectly normal for a man in his thirties.” He didn’t even crack a smile when he said it. Just the facts, man.

I was in my mid to late twenties when I took my first serious stab at self-employment. Though mowing lawns as a young boy and cleaning windows as an early teen were important lessons in enterprise for me, the concern I entered in my twenties was an entrée into the real world of business. I was closing major deals on a consistent basis and running large projects all over town. I had a birthday. My top customer asked me how old I was. I confessed to just turning twenty-six. “Twenty-six?” he said, incredulous and a bit shaken. “You mean I’ve been doing business with a kid this whole time?” Yep, kind of the story of my life.

I am the youngest of seven children. For most of my life, I’ve kept company with people who are substantially older than I am. For most of my life, I have been “the kid” in the room. Life has shifted. I am learning to walk in new shoes.

I remember when my wife and I met with my ear, nose, and throat oncologist for the first time. After examining me and letting me know I was at stage IV—no worries, I made it through—he went through the treatment protocol. I let him know I was on board. On the way out of the examining room, he reassured me that I had made the right decision. “If you were my father,” he said, “I would be giving you the same treatment.” Okay, he was a young doctor, but he wasn’t that young! I pegged him to be in his mid to late thirties at least.

“His father?” I remember saying to my wife as we walked to the car. “How old does he think I am?”

I am growing used to not being the kid in the room anymore. My eldest will soon be thirty-one. In and of itself, that doesn’t make me old. I have a dear friend who tells me old is when you take your son to the Social Security office to file for his retirement benefits. I am certainly not there, but I am well on the road.

The other night, I took three of my younger kids out to the movies. Two of them are legal adults. They each bought their tickets in turn. When I got to the counter, I was fully prepared to pay the man the full $8.80 admission fee. Imagine my surprise when I only had to pay five dollars and change. I looked at my receipt. It said “Senior.” He hadn’t even asked for ID.

I should have been grateful. After all, I’ve spent most of my life leveraging the fact that I’ve come across older than I am. But I sat through the previews and stewed a while. I am fifty-three, I reasoned, maybe I qualified on my own merits.

When I got home, curiosity got the best of me. I did a search for the senior discount age for Cinemark theaters. According to their FAQ page, anyone 62 years old or older qualifies. All I can say is that it’s not my age, folks, it’s the mileage.

Cancer Five Years Gone

According to babycenter.com, Victoria is the 26th most popular baby name for girls in 2018 so far (#45 overall) and Victor rings in at 214th place for boys. I did a search for the name “Survivor” and received the following pop-up message:

“Sorry, we didn’t find any names that match your criteria.”

Are you surprised? I didn’t think so. After all, have you ever met someone named Survivor? Me neither. The implication of “survivor” is a death narrowly avoided. Victors win; survivors only manage to make it out alive.

I am a cancer survivor. Admitting it is always sobering. Absent intervention, I would have been a statistic, a digit added to the death toll.

In the early months and years after my treatment was complete, I struggled with the “survivor” handle. I wanted to be a cancer victor, not a cancer victim. I eventually had to admit the validity of confessing that I was indeed a cancer survivor. I had made it through the fight, but at a cost. The admission still humbles me, leaves me feeling vulnerable and weak. But admitting weakness is a component of true humility. And humility is strengthens character.

My character is always in need of strengthening.

October 7, 2013 was the day I received my last dose of radiation for base of tongue cancer that had metastasized to the lymph nodes in my throat. The pain didn’t end on that day nor did the disease—the former was waxing, the latter waning—but I chose it as my touchstone because it is the easiest mile marker to read. After treatment, no one wants to say you’re cured. “In remission” is the preferred term. I like it less than “survivor.”

Five years ago I hung the plastic mask that held me down to the radiation table as a trophy on my office wall. I kept it there as I struggled through the severe pain of internal x-ray burns and the queasiness of radiation poisoning as a reminder that God had brought me through and would yet deliver me.

Today, it all seems like a memory from someone else’s life. As I type this, I am eating my dinner—a tasty combo of beef strips, mashed potatoes, and riced cauliflower—and am compelled to remember that not long ago I despaired of ever eating solid food again or of being able to taste any flavors beyond bland and sparky. Memory of the battle is my antidote for ungratefulness. I fail to dose myself far too frequently.

I am not the same man I was before the disease. In many ways, this is a good thing. Compared to the blessings I’ve received in this extended lease of my earthly life, the losses to the cancer and its treatment are minimal. Surviving has benefits to live for.

If you happen to be a cancer survivor like me, I would like to encourage you with a bit of etymology. The word “survive” comes to us from the Late Latin word supervivere, literally to “over live.” I prefer to cast the term another way. We aren’t just survivors, we are Super Alive—alive to grace, alive to the wonder of each new day, alive to love, and alive to give thanks for all we once took for granted.

Impeachment: The mis-State of the Union

What is worse than a conman parading as a statesman? A Supreme Court Justice who believes he is a legislator. What is worse than a Supreme Court Justice who believes he is a senator? A senator who believes he is powerless? What is worse than a senator who believes he is powerless? Constitutional illiteracy.

One paragraph in and I find myself compelled to make several disclosures. I am a lifelong conservative, born into a Republican family and embracing conservatism—which used to be known as liberalism until the term was hijacked by socialists—in my own right after much study and investigation; in other words, I have matured into conservatism to a greater extent than I ever received it from my mother’ milk. I am no Trump fan and never have been. Last but not least, I have unplugged from the political debate since the election as vociferous member of the Right trumpet louder and louder delusions while apparatchiks on the Left appear unable or unwilling to attack their displeasure of the presidential election results with the legitimate tools at their disposal. All seem to have devolved to the level of elementary school name calling and sandbox pushing. Today was a near final straw for me.

Driving home while surfing radio stations in search of at least one decent tune for the ride home, I landed on NPR. The story of the day on All Things Considered was Michael Cohen’s guilty plea on numerous criminal charges in Federal District Court in Manhattan on Tuesday. Mr. Cohen’s plea is troublesome enough as the continual denials of a White House fire by Twitter Trump and the surrounding Trumpsters amid the chocking smoke that surrounds them stretches the extreme limits of legitimacy of the office of the President, let alone the Donald himself. If that wasn’t tragic enough, Senator Chuck Schumer decided to add his proof of personal ignorance (or incompetence, I’ll let the reader decide).

At issue is the coveted Supreme Court, a branch of our government that has gained exponentially more power than the Framers ever intended because our partisan parties would rather bet on the civic complacency or the Constitutional illiteracy of the citizenry than actually exercise their function as balancing powers to preserve our liberties. Today from the Senate floor, Schumer stated:

“It is unseemly for the president of the United States to be picking a Supreme Court justice who could soon be, effectively, a juror in a case involving the president himself. In light of these facts, I believe Chairman Grassley has scheduled a hearing for Judge Kavanaugh too soon and I am calling on him to delay the hearing.”

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, he said this in the Senate. Leaving aside for the moment his reason as why he believes it unseemly, let us constitutionally examine his questioning of a sitting President nominating a Supreme Court justice. Article II, Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution delegates to the President the power to nominate judges of the Supreme Court. It matters not that both parties have grandstanded as to when a sitting president should or should not be able to do so. The law of the land—and we are supposed to be a nation governed by the rule of law—is that the president has this power. If Senator Schumer does not think the nominee appropriate, then he has a constitutional means by which to block it. He needs to convince enough of his colleagues that Judge Kavanaugh is not fit to be a Supreme Court Justice on Mr. Kavanugh’s own merits, not on the grounds of who nominated him. Instead, Senator Schumer takes to the microphone and makes an emotional appeal based on scandal for a delay of a vote he must believe his side will lose. And why doesn’t he want to lose? Because allowing black robes to legislate is easier than actually doing the hard work of drafting sensible laws and guiding them through the process.

Now, let us take in review his ridiculous reason as to why he thinks it unseemly. He thinks that if confirmed, Kavanaugh could be a juror in a case involving the president himself. Unless Schumer has sunk to the level of confusing what the meaning of the word “is” is, a juror is a member of a jury. Judges and Justices are judges, not jurors. Of course, if one is predisposed to allowing constitutional erosion through judicial decision, his confusion might be understandable. But it certainly is not excusable.

Senator Schumer posits this potential as being proximal, a case soon to be under the purview of a Supreme Court Justice. Such a case could only be an impeachment proceeding. And in an impeachment trial, it is the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court who presides as judge and the senators who are the effective jurors in the case.[1] Once again, the Senator has exposed his penchant for granting to the judiciary the power which belongs to the legislative branch alone.

The mis-State of our Union saddens me. I pray that all freedom- loving Americans can remove their Left and Right lenses and read our Constitution in the true light under which it was written and in future elections, vote accordingly. God bless America! Heaven knows we need it.

[1] Article I, Section 3 of the U.S. Constitution.

A Patriot’s Ponderings

Independence Day 2018, I am heading down the highway to pick up my son from work and happen to catch the last bit of an All Things Considered broadcast on NPR. The guest is Sheryl Kaskowitz, author of God Bless America: The Surprising History of an Iconic Song. The point of discussion between the host and Kaskowiz was the different venues and groups in America that had appropriated the song for its message and was capped by an audio snipped of Irving Berlin singing the song. It was an encore broadcast chosen, I suppose, because today is the 100th birthday of the song that is considered our unofficial national anthem. Berlin’s voice and all it evoked was inspirational and set me to thinking.

In our current (and past) political climate, much is made about those in power diverting from the American ideal or the Father’s framing of our nation. Polarized pundits proclaim that they are ruining the country for us and that we cannot let them get away with it. Whatever happened to WE the PEOPLE of the UNITED states? America does not belong to the conservatives or liberals, the left or the right, the religionists or the secularists. As a true monarchist—I owe the reader that disclosure—I believe the United States of America belongs to God Almighty.[1] Its stewardship, however, is the responsibility of us all.

The Preamble of the Constitution should be familiar to us all. “We the People of the United States, in Order to from a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blesssings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.” Constitutional scholars like to point out at times that this is just an introduction and doesn’t hold the weight of law like the body of the work itself. I am not a lawyer or an academic, but if the stated intent of the document doesn’t educate its interpretation, language should be thrown out as an intelligent means of communication. The drumbeat of the Preamble is unity: we, people, union, common, ourselves, our, united.

I remember an appearance of the comedian Paul Reiser on the Tonight Show years ago. He was joking about the shortest length of time possible was the length of a salsa song on the radio before he changed the station. I think I have him beat. The instant a talk radio pundit states that this country has never been as polarized as it is now, my hand moves in a lightning strike to extinguish the noise. The thunder that follows is my fuming over their intentional disregard of our history.

We live in the most politically polarized period of our history? I suppose in their view Tories (the “right” during the Revolution) and the Patriots (the “left” or “liberals” during the Revolution) weren’t polarized. Maybe the talking heads think that hateful half-truths spit across the aisle are more polarizing expressions than congressmen cracking skulls with canes during debates. Perhaps the Blue (the centralizing-of-power nationalists) and the Grey (the libertarian-constitutionalist states-righters) were only out exercising their Second Amendment rights as “sportsmen” and over 600,000 of “We the people” died as a result of unfortunate hunting accidents. Maybe the young men and women dying under our flag in Vietnam didn’t have that much of a different mindset from those burning the same flag on American campuses.

Conflict and debate were the midwives at the birth of our nation. War was its delivery room. As the doctors attendant, the Founders showed their genius in their acknowledgement of the diversity of opinion and the absolute need for unity. They provided to us, their progeny, with a system of governance well-suited to the tasks of maintaining both. I thank God for their accomplishment and pray that our nation remain as a home and bastion of freedom so long as the King should tarry.

In the simple and beautiful words of Irving Berlin:

“God bless America
Land that I love
Stand beside her
And guide her
Through the night with the light from above.”

[1] This may seem contradictory to my prior sentence regarding “religionists,” but in my view religion has much more to do with man than it does with the living God.