Take Heart

March 14, 2019

Every so often I read applications for a scholarship to Vanderbilt Law School, the same scholarship I received back in 1980. Our little selection committee is given 9 or 10 pre-selected files and is asked to rank the applicants who made this cut. There are no particular criteria for our rankings because all of these pre-selected applicants have outstanding academic backgrounds. We simply pour over them and see which appeal to us.

The exercise brings out a range of emotion in me. I am humbled by their academic achievement at this point in their lives. They are frequently multi-lingual, well versed in both science and literature, technology savvy, perfectionist in their pursuits, all in contrast to my relatively inconsistent efforts and results.

I am further humbled by their out of classroom endeavors, their empathy in action for the less fortunate, their overcoming their own broken families or their poverty, and their awareness of their own privilege.

I envy their being at the starting line of a race I have already run. They are understandably ignorant, blessedly ignorant, of many of the challenges and pitfalls ahead, and they are confident that they will overcome whatever stands in their way, not knowing that they will invariably suffer irremediable losses.

I am grateful to have survived what they are facing with as much joy and satisfaction as I have experienced, notwithstanding the pain and loss.

I am amused by their bullshit, their efforts to create in print a persona that is beyond even the amazing beings that they are and will become. That persona will take some serious hits, and I hope it will survive, refined and hardened in refiner’s fire.

I am inspired by their belief that they can change a world that stubbornly resists all such efforts.

Spring is coming, and with it another generation with the best of aspirations and amazing talents.

If you have been reading about the privileged gaining access to elite academic institutions through the “side door,” take heart. There are thousands of young people out there of fine character, hard working, brilliant, compassionate, and determined. 

The Nursing Home Visit

March 7, 2019

We are at one of our regular visits of my 89 year old mother-in-law on the dementia floor. My mother-in law’s brain functions only marginally. There are occasional smiles and coherent statements scattered among streams of broken-consciousness ramblings, including bits of old rhymes and random utterances of names and places. Words looking for thoughts, which usually refuse to materialize. Her caregiver, a tough but sweet, wiry old bird, a bleached blond with tattooed arms, tells us about  her experience with the “camera up the butt looking for polps” and the troublesome cat lady living next door to her, causing her teenagers to go out one night in the midst of partying to go cat hunting with garbage bags. They were not successful.  No literary skill would be necessary to fashion a short story about her life; one would only need to sit back and take notes. She dotes on my mother-in-law with tough love, coaxing, cajoling, and barking orders, as the situation requires. Love, not expressed, is apparent in action.

Time’s relativity is demonstrated here, as time slows to a crawl, sometimes stopping altogether. It may be “five o’clock somewhere,” but here it is always the same: time out of time. Here live T.S. Eliot’s whimper and his staccato stuttering, searching for meaning in dry landscapes. 

Lent


March 5, 2019

Lent (beginning tomorrow) calls us to the suffering of Jesus in the wilderness for 40 days and nights and asks us to prepare for rebirth. The story may well be mythological, which in no way diminishes its truth and its power. Like we tend to do with Christmas and Easter, we tend to trivialize Lent, ignoring the opportunity to confront our own wildernesses and to prepare for rebirth.

I just finished a book by Richard Rohr called “Breathing Under Water: Spirituality and the Twelve Steps.” Although the twelve step program is not tied to any particular religion, Rohr recognizes the AA twelve step program as a way to chart a Christian journey, which I think in many ways parallels the four noble truths and the eightfold path of Buddhism. I want to write more on that someday. 

Step four of the twelve step program is “[make] a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.” Rohr says this step requires detachment from our “stage mask” to see ourselves truthfully and fully. Lent at its best involves letting go of our false self-images, our delusions of separateness, superiority, and unworthiness. Under the mask, in the wilderness, we come face to face with our sin and our divinity. The devil is there, and so is God. There are no distractions, which we desperately cling to and crave.

I will try to experience some bit of this journey as a Lenten experience. Pointing out the journey is a far cry from having the courage to undertake it.

Watching the (Cancer) River Flow

February 25, 2019

I try to find moments of stasis to give medical updates, but flux continues to be the new normal, so I’ll go ahead and give an update even though certainty is a distant memory and everything I say may change.

I have been off of my chemotherapy for about two weeks because my blood counts are lower than the hopes of a 2018-19 Vanderbilt basketball fan. The chemotherapy suppresses the counts but holds the cancer at bay. I can’t survive, however, if the counts don’t rise, and they refuse to do so, even though the chemotherapy has been in abeyance. This may mean I am again in relapse (3rd time), or it may mean something else. We’ll find out after my 16th bone marrow biopsy tomorrow. Results will take a week to come back. One never gets comfortable with these waiting periods. It seems like I’ve been in a constant state of waiting for over 2 years.

I am one of a very few patients anywhere on this particular chemotherapy after relapsing post-stem cell transplant. The cancer is likely more resistant to any treatment after a failed stem cell transplant and the massive chemotherapy that preceded it, and this chemotherapy likely will be no match for the cancer.

What next? We will probably be fighting our way to a second stem cell transplant later this year, assuming I have relapsed and assuming I can get back in remission a third time with yet another form of chemotherapy.

I saw an old friend today at the infusion center with cancer, another 60-something lawyer. I reminded him and me that at our ages and given our good fortune concerning spouses, children, and careers, we should spend 5 seconds thinking “why me, God?” and the rest of our lives, however long, thinking “why them?” when we see the people around us, many of whom are young, with children, or not having had a chance to marry or have children or careers. He and I are the lucky ones. I won’t forget that in the months ahead. 

“He not busy being born is busy dying,” wrote Bob Dylan.  I think we can be busy being born even while we may be busy dying.

It’s Not Dark Yet

February 22, 2019

After seemingly countless days of cold rain in a very dreary February, I’m not in a light mood, and my mood is better described (to quote Bob Dylan) as “not dark yet, but getting there.”  I attended yet another funeral this week, a beautiful affair in a stately church filled to capacity with an affluent, attractive crowd, mourning the loss of a sweet, cheerful family man who died of cancer at age 60. He will not see his daughters marry or have children. He will not be a grandfather. He will never experience rest from his years of labor or enjoy the retirement nest egg I assume he saved from his hard work.

This is the fourth death of a close acquaintance of mine under the age of 65 in the past year or so. One introduced me to Sally in 1974 and was in our wedding; one was a law partner for many years; one was a fellow AML sufferer; and the most recent one was my family’s dentist, who cheerfully cared for us for over twenty years.

At the funerals I have been overwhelmed and humbled by the lives of these men.  I know enough about them to believe that the funeral oratories from those who loved them truly reflected who they were.

We easily fall into the mindset that we can begin to worry about our demise sometime in our 80s and not before. Occasional “premature” illnesses and deaths suffered by our family and friends often do not penetrate our imagined invulnerability. Any evidence to the contrary is “fake news” to us, i.e., facts that will not be allowed to interfere with the bubble that we have constructed to live in.

So, when the bubble is inevitably penetrated (in my case by my own illness, where the odds of long survival are, indeed, long), what happens to us and what do we do?

  In my humble opinion:

First, be grateful for what has come before, which is probably much richer and blessed than the day-to- day grind allows us to appreciate. Paul said pray unceasingly; I say be grateful unceasingly (maybe they are the same thing).

Second, ask what can be done with the time we have remaining. Those of us over 60 may have many years left, but those years may include significantly diminished physical and mental capacity. It can come upon us slowly or in the blink of an eye (the broken hip, the stroke, the heart attack). Work is a blessing in our lives, but we can become willing slaves to it, thereby avoiding hard questions about what else we might be spending precious time and energy on. I’ve known men with massive fortunes who are terrified by the thought of ceasing wealth’s accumulation. It may be a joyous experience for some, but it is sometimes a hiding place. I’ve seen other men become stewards of their time and money, devoting what time and money they have to those in need. They seem to be  happy men.

Third, decide whom to be with. We spend much of our time on interactions that do not bring us or anyone else joy or satisfaction, and we forget that we have very important choices to make here, maybe the most important choices that we will make in life’s latter stages. �0�{�

Strange Bedfellows

February 19, 2019

Capitalism and democracy are in a way strange bedfellows. If capitalism results in the aggregation of wealth by a small minority, and a perceived lack of opportunity to a large majority, then the majority in their own self-interest will support the restraint and maybe even the destruction of capitalism. The USA has miraculously danced a dance in which the majority has enjoyed, or at least believed in, the benefits of capitalism. Our post-WWII economy provided unimaginable economic benefits to a generation and to its offspring, but thirty years before that,  capitalism was rescued by “socialist” legislation embodied in FDR’s New Deal. That legislation continues to be something without which capitalism could not survive. It is unlikely that the USA will ever again enjoy that disproportionate economic prosperity; what brought it about was a perfect (and horrible) confluence of forces that no one expects to experience again.

Today, our young observe and experience the immense degradation of the environment on a global scale. They do not see the economic opportunity that was available to previous post-WWII generations. They rightfully fear they will not have access to healthcare, no matter how hard they work. Public education, the launch pad for millions into the middle class, is crumbling. Politicians are bought off openly and do the bidding of the wealthy. 

For our capitalist/democratic dance to survive, new steps must always be explored. Labeling something as “socialist” or “capitalist” is almost always unhelpful.

Pretend you are selling capitalism to a younger generation. What are its selling points? What are its weaknesses? What needs to change to sell to the majority? You can’t have the credibility necessary to sell unless you address your weak points. You will not prevail by denigrating your opponents. What have you got?

Ode to Liberal Arts

February 7, 2019

In college I was an English major, but I took courses in virtually every discipline, including a course in international relations. We were required to write a paper, choosing our own topic. I came across a book on the psychological aspects of foreign relations, a topic which my professor allowed me to write on, although he thought it strange.

The topic was fascinating. The book focused on the Korean War. The prevailing theory of world order at the time was the “Domino Theory,” under which nations would fall under the sway of communism like dominos falling in a row, unless the US intervened. The cultural and political differences among these nations and China, perceived to be the great communist threat, were largely ignored, and the whole conflict was seen through this “domino” lens. Reports from good sources that did not comport with this theory were ignored, i.e., facts were not allowed to interfere with the world view of those in charge. Major decisions were made based on significant misunderstandings.

The book’s teaching, that we tend to see things through a certain lens that can obscure the reality before us, was immensely valuable to me in a way that completely transcended international relations or the class I took.

Many years later I became a student of Marcus Borg, a wonderful theologian, and he often spoke of overcoming the lens through which we had come to view Jesus and Christianity. He emphasized starting over in our quest, with new eyes. 

As a lawyer I often had to fight the tendency to form opinions, or case theories, before fully appreciating all of the facts. My case hypothesis could harden into a point of view that made me blind to subsequent facts that challenged my initial conclusions.

What a wonderful gift I had! A liberal arts education that exposed me to ways of thinking, to beauty, to joy, and to the discipline of rigorous thought.

Grand-Parenting

February 1, 2019

Sally and I are finishing a five day tour of duty as caretakers for our grandchildren (a 6 year old girl and a 2 year old boy) at our son and daughter-in-law’s apartment. Our granddaughter is at first grade and after-care during the day and our grandson is in day-care each day until late-afternoon, so this duty should not be very difficult.

Our job began each morning between about 5:30 a.m.-6:00 a.m. when two excited grandchildren scooted into our room, where one or both of us might be, depending on whether the other was back in the grandchildren’s room, having remained after a call to night duty.

Play, diaper changing, washing, and attempts at morning nutrition called us into action, followed by dressing, packing for school, and wrestling with the ever-challenging car seat routine, difficult for old backs on a cold day with a wiggling child. No matter what straightening up we had done the night before, this relatively uneventful morning activity always left the apartment in post-hurricane condition.

When we returned from our respective drop offs, we engaged in clean-up, or one of us did, while the one who pulled night duty headed toward the bed mumbling a bit incoherently. Nap time.

Somehow the day passed quickly, what with cleaning, cooking, and napping, and soon it was retrieval time, which involved another car seat wrestling match for each of us and attempts to make the back seat audio video equipment appease the child until we made it home.

The late afternoon apartment, blissfully silent for a few hours, once again became a maelstrom of activity, with coats, shoes, and backpacks flung hither and yon, appetites demanding immediate appeasement, and a variety of games quickly underway, including Ring around the Rosie, monster, and hide and seek. The rules of engagement were never clear, but there were shrieks of delight that eventually turned teary as energies flagged without warning.

By 8:00 p.m. general exhaustion had set in. Once again, the battlefield was littered with toys, dishes, clothes, towels, and sticky spots. The grandchildren feigned some resistance but sleep mercifully overcame them, and soon after, us. Sometime in the night a child inevitably needed attention, and so it was given.

These are good children, and the challenges are typical.

So what do retired grandparents with no other pressing responsibilities (and with no every day responsibilities for their grandchildren) bring to this life?

Young children sometimes engage in activities with little sense of time or urgency. It can be a beautiful thing, and it is not difficult for a retired grandparent to float in those times without stress or compulsion. There is nothing more important or pressing for the retired grandparent to do.

Young children’s moods change faster than Texas weather, shrieks of laughter followed by crying jags. Retired grandparents, not having any longer to deal with adult temperaments, and having developed some knowledge of how to ride out the storm, can be steady and calming amidst the chaos of temperament.

Cooking brings warmth, wonderful aromas, and fun activities into our lives. Retired grandparents have time to cook and to accept “help” from interested grandchildren. 

While the behavior of their children may have adversely affected their self-image as parents and sent them into tailspins, retired grandparents no longer attach themselves to such behaviors and can exude great equanimity, which is a balm to all in their orbit.

To working parents, sleep is like oxygen, and the lack of it is crippling. Retired grandparents, often advanced in years, likely don’t get or need sleep like they used to, and a crying-child-at-night episode is of little concern. There can be a grandparent nap the next day.

What is better in life than knowing that there is someone who is always glad to see you? There is no better candidate for this role than a retired grandparent.

Retired grandparents remember games not involving technology, often silly games, and they are not afraid to be silly playing them.

As I navigate this next chapter, “retired grandparent” is one role I relish. May there be others.

Old Age

January 19, 2019

Probably no society has disdained and denied old age to the extent ours has. We have decided to be young until the day we die, never having acknowledged being old.  At 62 years of age, after fighting leukemia for the past two years, I have become aware of certain things that suggest that I may not be young anymore, to wit:

I have recently begun to enjoy the music of both Chris Stapleton and Sturgill Simpson.  But I cannot remember both of their names at the same time. Sturgill comes to mind, and I can’t remember Chris. Chris comes to mind, and I can’t remember Sturgill. Last night I laid in bed for 30 minutes remembering Sturgill, unable to recall Chris. This morning I remembered Chris, but I could not recall Sturgill.

I used to move from the horizontal position to the vertical in one unconscious movement. Now, there is an interlude, a sitting stage, during which I concentrate on the next move, standing up.

I used to understand what people’s jobs entailed, and I was very interested in careers. Now, I read the NYT business section about jobs/careers, and I don’t understand what the job is or what the person does at the job. 

I once was concerned about how hilly a 60 mile bike ride would be. Now,  I have the same concerns about a 3 mile walk.

Once upon a time a 10 hour workday at the law with a few breaks was routine, followed by a workout at the Y. Now, after 3-4 hours of concentration, my tank is pretty much empty, maybe followed by a nap.

Yoga used to be the routine on days without a workout. Now, it is the workout.

I used to have some enthusiasm, or at least tolerance, for technological advances that “would make our lives easier, richer, more fulfilling.” Now,  every software upgrade makes me angry, adding more complexity and effectively decreasing my ability to function. Of the 6 lines of symbols in the Word task bars, seemingly 100s of symbols, I probably know 8 of them. I don’t want my car to have a full blown computer in the dash, giving me Facebook and Google.  

I once waited with some anticipation for the Sports Illustrated swimsuit addition,  which is issued in the dead of winter and which features pictures of scantily clad, or unclad, women, mostly in warm, gorgeous,  exotic locations. Now, if I do peruse the issue, I see pictures of blank female faces, showing as of yet no real character, in what I think are often raunchy poses.

You too may “not be young” anymore. Ant telltale signs?

Talking About Depression

January 14, 2019

When I was a child, my mother once mentioned the husband of one of her friends who had some mental problem that I am now sure was severe depression. I don’t think my parents’ generation had the language or the willingness to discuss depression, nor did they have many effective, available treatments.

Depression remains a bitch to treat, and what works for a time may not continue to work. There is much trial and error, and often much pain and suffering. It is a terrible disease. I have seen it up close and have become more perceptive about its manifestations.

Although we now have a better ability to talk about depression, and much better treatment is available, we still fall down on both the talking and the treatment.

A few years ago I mentioned to a small church dinner gathering that I had experienced situational (not chronic) depression. Why I shared that I don’t recall. Oversharing? Several years later,  a man who had been at the dinner called me on a weekday afternoon – from a downtown Nashville bridge. He was severely depressed. He extended a hand out to me. I ran down there, and the situation was resolved without tragedy.

I learned this week why he called me. I had discussed depression openly in his presence, and he felt safe calling me. I was not trying to do a public service at that dinner, but I was willing to do what many people, especially men, don’t do.

Depression is one thing (among many) we should discuss, especially at church, where we are in community to sustain each other.