Sunday, November 22, 2009

Learning from those who know

"The more I learn the less I know."

When you’re a teenager, few if anyone can tell you much. After all, there’s little in this world you don’t know. And fortunately for mankind, this knowledge is passed on from generation to generation as my two teenagers remind me weekly how much I don't 'get it'.

I recall one time when I was the ripe old age of 17 telling my dad, ‘I feel like I’ve really got a good grasp on life and know what’s what.’ He just looked at me and didn’t say a word. Looking back his response was brilliant as there was obviously no words needed at that incredibly stupid moment.

One of my favorite Mark Twain muses is the one where he states, ‘When I was 17, my dad was so dumb I could hardly stand to be in the room with him. And in four years time, I was amazed at how much he’d learned’. This certainly applied to me.

Being a teenager with hormones running a muck, fitting in is about as high on the chart as it gets. And what you wear is imperative to this all important aspect of finding your way. No matter whether its school, after school, weekend, evening, athletic, ski, basketball, etc., what’s on your back, legs and feet is not taken lightly. All must fit and be the latest that everyone else is wearing…no trail blazing here as that would be very very ‘un-cool’.

I had returned from a must shopping spree at the University Book Store and procured a pair of white cotton gym shorts with really cool blue University of Washington logo on the front lower part of the right leg. They were the bomb as all the cool guys in PE had a pair and I was not about to be left on the sidelines waiting to be picked for sides without mine. I even bought a pair of matching blue with white logo. I was cool.

They went straight in the wash to give them that 'non new' look. Then straight to the dryer. I couldn’t wait to pack these babies off to school the next day and rock in PE!

When I returned home from gadding about, my mom was busy doing her afternoon ironing. Hot on the board were MY shorts. I looked in dismay and yelled, ‘What on Earth are YOU Doing?’ Ironing my shorts! As she looked incredulously at me and a bit bewildered, she passed the steaming hot iron across the most sacred of sacred, the blue etched on University of Washington logo. What appeared on the face of those shorts after this quick pass was a blue smear splotch. I went ballistic!

The exact words that escaped my mouth are not known. Just that my rampage was such that it brought my dear mother to tears. I felt a bit raunchy for my outburst and ruining my mother’s day, but not enough to keep the verbal assault abated. I stormed off with ruined shorts in hand and the expectation of next day disappointment hanging over head.

That evening as I came in the family room, my dad was in his casual chair with accustomed Seattle Times opened across his lap. We exchanged some pleasantries and how each others day had been. He then asked what had transpired to upset my mother so much. Being filled with righteous behavior, I began to spew out my take on the disaster that had taken place a few hours earlier. I felt I had made a very good case, so much so that Perry Mason himself would have approved. The only cross examination proffered was a question to how much the shorts cost. I promptly told him, five dollars with a sense of indignant pride.

Once the diatribe concluded, my dad calmly leaned forward in his chair, reached in his back pocket, pulled out his wallet and extracted a crumpled up five dollar bill. In hand, he stretched his arm my way and said, ‘Here son, here’s five dollars. Go upstairs and make your mother cry again, and it’s yours. After all, that’s worth five bucks isn’t it?’

In this moment, I realized that even a brilliant teenager was put to the intellectual test. The feeling of being a complete schmuck permeated my adolescent self with nothing left on the table to say…I was completely outmatched and took my life’s learning punishment with shame.

Living your life every day as though you have cancer will most likely keep moments like this from ever occurring. Perhaps, but maybe not. Being all knowing at such an early age might even get in the way. But let’s hope and pray it doesn’t.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Believing in Miracles

A few years and a score ago, my family experienced a Christmas as no prior. It was to be the first Christmas without my Grandmother, Opal. My mom’s mom, she was an angel who walked the earth and Christmas wasn’t Christmas without her bigger than life presence amongst the family order.

Throughout my childhood, I could always count on her to BE the holidays. When we walked in her house, the smell of the season permeated the air; evergreen from the freshly cut tree, scented candles, pumpkin & mince pies, gingerbread, roast, biscuits, and the balance of the scents of their warm and friendly manor filled the air. It was the most glorious time of year for a youth with all the dreams of what was to come buzzing around the room and between my ears. One could barely sit still with anticipation and I would trade fifteen circus days for one Christmas at Nanny’s.

I am an extremely fortunate man as the first 25 years of my life, I never experienced a Christmas without her divine presence mingled with all the holiday fixings. None the less my 26th, was not to be the same. We had lost her earlier that year to cancer and now the magical season of the glow and magic was dark and forlorn.

Nanny wasn’t more than five foot nothing and tipped the scale damp a bit over a hundred. Pound for pound, I would put her up against anyone I knew when it came to working manual labor around a house. She was a twister on steroids. My Great uncle used to say, just put a broom in her hand and she’ll be happy. He couldn’t have been more right. The only time she set still during the day was to watch ‘her’ show, General Hospital. Audrey & Steve Hardy we’re the order of the day when three pm struck and no matter what was in the wash or on the counter, it could wait. General Hospital was sacred.

When it came to kids or wildlife, she had no peer when it came to care giving. I recall as a young child visiting Nanny & Bill’s home in Tacoma, them taking in a neighbor girl who was younger than me for the day. She was home with the ‘babysitter’ and had found her way to my grandparents home and be on the receiving end of warm milk and cookies. She then slept for the better part of the afternoon much to my grandparents dismay as the sitter never once sought her out. They were besides themselves and thought the sitter, mother, father, aunt, uncle and whoever else might remotely be in charge, should be incarcerated for neglect.

My grandmother fed the squirrels, Stellar Jays, neighbors animals, and anything else with feathers or fur that happened into the yard. She even had a pet crow for crying out loud. Fed him every day at the same time as you could set your watch by his arrival.

About the only thing that didn’t belong in this world as far as Nanny was concerned was a snake, slug or mouse. Other than that, all was part of Gods and her world and she would do whatever it took to ensure they made it to another day with a full belly.

Getting back to the holiday season and the gingerbread memories, were her special gifts. I’ve told you the aforementioned, but now I’m referring to the ones we unwrapped. There was always something no matter what the year that was so incredibly special, you couldn’t anticipate. It was always perfect and fit with every passing year as a sweater or jacket you had sought out but could never find. It was truly a special gift of hers and I never figured out exactly how she ‘knew’ exactly what would bring the ahh moment when nestled around the tree. It was truly truly a special gift on oh so many fronts.

This Christmas though would be different. There would be no smells, joy and laughter, mince and pumpkin pies, waiting anxiously by the tree for Nanny to finish up the dishes and appear, or that special gift. It was as though the air was completely sucked out of the world and I was completely alone for the first time in my life.

My parents had made other plans this year and were going to be away. My sister lived in California and was staying put. It was unspoken amongst us but it was the loudest din imaginable with a resounding scream of we can’t be together as it would just be too incredibly painful to attempt the unimaginable. A Christmas without Nanny.

To compound matters, I was travelling for work a considerable amount leading up to the holiday break. I recall vividly flying into Seattle the last few days before Christmas looking out the window at the black and lifeless city. It was the most empty feeling I had ever experienced. I prayed the plane would never land as I couldn’t bear the thought of walking in the cold and damp to my empty car and driving home to a listless and holiday free house.

Before leaving Los Angeles, I had the where with all to go to the cash machine and withdraw my Christmas gift money as I had yet to make a single purchase. Again, prolonging the inevitable and avoiding all aspects of the season to its final and unbearable moment. For this one action, I felt good as I knew with all of the emotion stirring, the fewer activities required once I got home, the better.

As I approached my dark and empty house, I stopped at the mail box and gathered a weeks worth of holiday mail. It was stuffed with every imaginable flyer to gobble up the cash I had previously garnered. An absolute mess was strewn upon my the kitchen table as well as the contents from my travel pockets. I went to bed, closed my eyes and pretended the hurt wasn’t real.

The next morning I set out to do my shopping and attempt to put myself in the holiday spirit. It was short lived. I couldn’t find the cash I had procured the day prior to streamline my shopping efforts. I literally tore the house apart looking for it. Under the cushions of every seat, every room, every pocket, the washer, dryer, I even looked in the oven. No cash, it was not to be found. I screamed at the utter top of my lungs in frustration and still, no cash fell from the sky. I was toast and only proved to add insult to injury as I headed out and shortened my list and scaled back.

For the next week I sulked. The only break in the sulking was to rampage the house one more time in a fit of rage trying my dam nest to locate my lost funds. I knew they had to be there somewhere as I didn’t lose things, let alone money and I knew I had it when I walked in the house when I came home from my trip.

I sat in the chair in the living room staring out the window when suddenly I was filled with rage. I leapt from my chair, throwing the cushion against the wall and cursing God at the top of my lungs for being so unjust! How could He not only take the most beautiful person of this world, a living angel, in the most painful and excruciating way but heap the pain and despair upon me at this most sensitive time of year. And on top, not even my special gift…‘I hate YOU God Dammit, I HATE YOU!’ I cried. My rage transcended into sorrow and I wept uncontrollably for what seemed to be forever.

A knock appeared at door and snapped me to consciousness. I walked by the window, looked out and saw a dilapidated Volkswagon Bug in the driveway. It had no front fenders, was two toned (as in primer gray & yellow) and was missing a passenger side window. It was replaced with saran wrap.

When I opened the door, before me stood a young man in his late twenties, unshaven, long dirty blonde hair, holes in his jeans and a long sleeved long underwear undershirt with the sleeves rolled up. I looked at him with disdain as I had no idea what this guy wanted from me but whatever it was, I was certain I wasn’t interested. I barked behind the screen door, “Yes, may I help you?” He looked me straight in the eye with his dark sunken lids, reached in his pocket and pulled out my cash that I had been seeking the past week. He simply stated, “Did you really want to throw this away? I’m your garbage man and I found this in your garbage. I thought you might want it.”

For the most part I was speechless but I did have the wherewithal to offer him a reward for returning it. The nameless person looked at me deeply, smiled and said, “No, my reward is being able to return this to you.” And he walked to his car, started it up, and puttered away. I never saw him again.

The next few hours I spent on my knees begging God for forgiveness. I realized in that time I had so little faith in HIM I was ashamed. I knew better but in my moment of agony forgot all the goodness that I had learned over the years. A true miracle had presented itself and I couldn’t help but believe my grandmother played a huge part in creation and lobbying with God. She had sent me my gift.

Miracles are all around us every day. All we have to do is be open to them and allow them to be recognized. According to the doctors, I’m not supposed to be here writing this story. That’s a miracle in and of itself. Living your life as though you have cancer will open your eyes to such occurrences.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Are you Missing it?

If you live in the lower 48, I believe there are few things in life as exciting as fresh fallen snow. I remember as a four year old making my way downstairs from our North Seattle home to fetch my dad the morning paper. Upon opening the door that early December day I was surprised beyond words by the precious little tufts of white floating to their final destination.

My immediate reaction being to bolt back up the stairs to tear into my sleeping sisters room and scream at the top of my lungs that it was ‘SNOWING’. She being tired of my pranks and calling wolf, rolled over, pulled her pillow over her head and grunted, ‘Go away, you’re annoying’. In my glee, I continued to prompt an excited response and attempt to motivate her to rise, get dressed, and come see for herself. She continued her abjection to my assertions and stated, ‘There’s no way it’s snowing. It’s way too warm and it wasn’t snowing last night when we went to bed’. Of which I replied, well then I’m not sure exactly what it’s doing but it’s falling from the sky and there’s lots of it…and it’s white! She got up.

Perhaps I’m presumptuous in stating the entire 48 feeling the excitement of snow as those in Buffalo, Minneapolis, Cleveland or Denver, may not share my enthusiasm. But if you’re from and or living in Seattle, snow in the city is a BIG deal. If you’re a skeptic, all one need do is turn on the local news with even the remote prospect snow is on the horizon; you’d think that Jesus himself had sent a press release on his eminent arrival.

When the fallen snow reaches a depth of one inch (or less), you can count on Jim Forman of KING 5 news to be perched at the base of Queen Anne Hill donned in parka, stocking cap, and gloves, sensationalizing the event with his chirping quips, “The best advice is, IF you don’t need to go out…DON’T. Live from lower Queen Anne, I’m Jim Forman’. It’s a joke but it does sell advertising and after all, when it comes to local news, what else is there. I digress.

My point is, Seattleites are forewarned and if we were to receive half of the snow storms the local meteorologists forecast, we’d receive more snow than the North pole. It’s that ridiculous. But as I say, it boosts ratings and thus revenue.

When my kids were seven & eight respectively, we received one of those wonderful winter storms. The conditions were perfect the night before and one could see the dull gray sheet of cloud cover roll in from the west and anyone with any Seattle heritage, knew exactly what was in store. The temperatures were sub freezing and not remotely affected by the warmth the cloud cover many times presents.

With the impending storm, the kids were excited as only kids can be at the prospect of playing in the snow with the bonus of having school cancelled. It doesn’t get much better when you’re single digits and able to maneuver a sled all by yourself.

That night, I got on the computer and sent mail to my employees and informed them to not attempt to make their way to the office. Seattle comes to a complete standstill with even the slightest amount of white on its roads and what would be a normal commute of 20 – 30 minutes can easily turn into a four or five hour affair. With everyone with laptops, it was a no brainer as we could still function without being physically in our collective offices.

The next morning we awakened to a blanket of pure delight; 4 – 5 inches of untracked velvety white stuff. As far as the eye can see.

The kids wolfed down their breakfast while their mother struggled to pull coats, boots, hats and gloves over their excitement. The sense of urgency filled the room and expanded to every corner of the room. Boom, they were out the door with shouts of joy and sleds in hand.

We were fortunate on snow days as we lived at the bottom of a dead-end street with a very short but steep hill at the end of our long setback driveway. It was the perfect run for kids their age as one didn’t need to walk too terribly far or long and still be able to experience an amazingly fast ride. But it was steep and even at a young age, a dozen treks in 5 inches of snow with snow gear and sled in tow up that hill was a meaningful workout.

My wife summoned me out the door that morning to share the experience of all that was good; family, snow, kids, dogs, & the joy that all that brings. I was still in my night clothes and told her I’d be ‘right’ out but wanted to check email first to make sure nothing was on fire.

I found my way into the home office on the opposite side of the house and proceeded to read and respond to several dozen emails that had materialized in my inbox over night. About an hour into it, my wife appeared in the door with snow and sweat and a smile and said, ‘Are you coming? The kids are having a ball and you’re missing a great time.’ I told her I’d be right out and sunk my head back into my screen and keyboard and continued upon my merry way.

Some more time transpired and once again, Jennifer popped her snowclad self in the door. This time a bit more agitated and imploring that I need to get out from behind my computer, get dressed and get outside. Fifteen or so more minutes and I found my way downstairs to sift through the closet full of snow clothes.

Finally I appeared on the scene only to find exhausted, wet, soaked kids with red rosy cheeks. They were done and the snow that had been so pristine had taken on a different sheen. It was beginning to rain and the freshness of the early morning had begun to melt into the afternoon.

As the kids made their way to the house to warm themselves with hot chocolate, my wife looked over her shoulder back at me as she followed the kids in and quietly said, ‘You missed it’. I stood there by myself with the kids sleds in hand while the rain dripped off of my nose.

It brings me great sadness to recount this moment on so many fronts I don’t know where to start. And to chronicle it for posterity sake, only serves to deepen the crevasse I feel in my heart. I champion myself as someone who spends little time contemplating the past as I believe there’s nothing we can do to change it and as such a waste of energy. Regrets, I have few. None the less, this memory has haunted me more times than I care to admit. I remember telling myself, we’ll do it next year, it’ll happen then. Unfortunately, next year didn’t come as the kids were older and the snow didn’t appear. I missed it.

If you were to ask me and offer me a million dollars to recant what was so important to spend the morning sitting in front of my computer in lieu of sledding with my kids, I’d come up empty. Blank, couldn’t tell you. Yet I’ve been able to recount that morning with the sights, smells and memories with the clarity as if it happened this very day. So what does that say? What is important? Pounding out your email or sledding with your kids on a once in a lifetime moment? Hmmm, does it take a PHD in psychology to answer that one.

One realization I can say for certain is if I would have had cancer when it snowed that glorious day with the kids running around my feet, I can without question tell you I would have been amongst them the entire time. No questions asked. No emails returned. No excuses given nor expected.

Are you missing it? If you are, please take a moment and begin living your life as though you have cancer.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Making for an Extraordinary Day!

My close friend and life / accountability coach (June) and I have started the first of what we expect to be several life experience books. The title for the first has yet to be defined but is focused on identifying the small (and not so small) things that make for an extraordinary day.

Recently I reached out to my extended sphere of influence to ask them five things that would make their day ‘extraordinary’. What an interesting experiment this turned out to be as the answers not only shed an amazing insight from the individuals who responded but the amount of replies neared 80%. Clearly this struck a chord as I’ve not received 80% of anything for so long it’s beyond comprehension.

Before I requested the input, in a stream of consciousness, I wrote out approximately 100 items that I felt would make for an extraordinary day. All were items in my control; giving my kids an extra hug, telling them how much they mean to me, talking to a complete stranger, giving (them) a non solicited compliment, writing a story, getting a facial, sending snail mail to a friend expressing my feelings for them, going to Costco, etc. All was a great exercise and by the way is something I refer to anytime I’m feeling a bit on the dark side of the moon.

Having taken the time to write these self fulfilling prophecies down and give them a sprinkling of meaningful consideration, the next day I set out to see exactly how impactful my thoughts would make for an extraordinary experience. An outing to Costco was eminent as I was need of several household necessities that only Costco has been able to satisfy for the past several years. Off I went. And as I stated on my list, a visit to Costco makes for an extraordinary day. Call me simple (and maybe a bit sick) but I must say, I love the experience as it’s my favorite place on the planet to shop. And I’m not a shopper!

As I was strolling the aisles, I was very cognizant of all the people, sights and sounds around me. More than I can ever recall. I was on the lookout for people to talk to, see new items on the shelf, find something pleasant to observe, say hello, or just give a passerby a warm and hearty smile from a happy and content fellow Costco shopper. I filled my cart with the provisions I sought as well as a few items I absolutely didn’t need (this felt really good and Costco loves these shoppers).

When it came time to check-out, I decided to get into the line that was the longest / people with the most ‘stuff’ in their cart. That way I figured I would prolong the experience of having an extraordinary day. As I approached the counter, I noticed the young woman behind the register wearing matching eye shadow to compliment her pink and white striped blouse. You could tell this was part of her routine and was an obvious aspect in her day in which she took great pride; the pink blending perfectly into the white and vice versa.

I complimented her on her eye shadow and how she was so perfectly color coordinated. This simple gesture absolutely lit her up like a Christmas tree from ear to ear (as well as the lady who was working side by side ‘boxing’ up the goods). The latter stated, ‘She’s always like that; everyday she coordinates. Look @ her shoes!’ They both beamed and the checker told me ‘YOU JUST MADE MY DAY’ and ‘Could I come through her check stand every day and asked if I’d be back tomorrow?’

Imagine that, eye shadow! Is it really that easy to make your day ‘extraordinary’?

Next on my agenda, it was prime time for a facial. Again, for me, one makes for a day extraordinaire. I strutted off to my favorite pedicure spot in my immediate locale and decided I’d give them a shot at a facial. This was a first on that front as the shop is designed primarily for nails (but does advertise the additional spa services).

The shop is worked entirely by women; mostly Philippine & Vietnamese. All in their 20's and early 30's, work 10 - 12 hour days 6 days a week. And I mean WORK. One client after another mostly doing nails and pedicure's. And of course they have to commute an hour or so each way as they cannot afford to live close in.

The girl who gave me my facial didn't know tips from toes let alone a face. She happens to be crippled (my guess polio). She's very sweet, does her utmost best, but as I say, wouldn’t know a professional facial if it reached up and bit her in the ass. Because of her handicap she has to exert more effort than the others as its very hard for her to maneuver between the tables, chairs and the nail carts dragging her non working leg. It’s always nice to see the others pitch in wherever possible to help her in a tight space. This is a subconscious act from all participants with never a spoken word or sign of contempt.

As I laid there uncomfortably having facial massacre, I made the conscientious decision to focus on her doing her level headed best to ensure an enjoyable experience and NOT on her inability to perform the job. She asked several times throughout my comfort zone and what if anything more she might do to make it so. Bless her heart, she wanted so much to make the experience pleasurable.

Had I continued to focus on her ineptitude, I am certain I would resort myself to having a miserable time and left completely irritated and dissatisfied. But shifting my focus to one of 'let it go' and 'let it be what it is' really opened some doors for me. After all, what could I do @ this point? Get up, walk out, yell, criticize her, and refuse to pay? Yes, I could have chosen any of those alternatives. But in my moment of choice, I asked myself, will any of those options make for an extraordinary day? The resounding answer was I highly doubt it. It certainly wouldn't have made hers.

When she finished, she smiled broadly and asked me 3 questions; did I like the foot massage; did I like the warm hand wrap; did I like the way she massaged under my neck? The answer being a resounding 'YES' as I DID like all those aspects of the hour long treatment. After all, who wouldn't? Having a young, warm, friendly Asian woman rubbing your feet, hands and neck with warm oil doesn't get much better does it? She in fact had made my day ‘extraordinary’.

Life is about choices. We either choose to enjoy it or we choose to complain about it. As I say, had I chose the latter, my day would not have been extraordinary. Shifting my internal focus made it so. With the help of those around me, my eyes have been open to living an extraordinary life every day.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

November 2nd post

I saw my ONCOLOGIST today for my tri-monthly checkup.

Per usual they took blood; looked good (no red-lines); took a chest X-ray and nothing new showed there; and had a long chat about having cancer @ this point in the process. All in all went pretty well. He prescribed an antibiotic to take for the next 7 days for my cold (and stated in the future to just call and they'll prescribe over the phone - he had to cover his entire body with a gown, face shield and gloves to see me - I also was sequestered from the rest of the cancer populace while @ SCCA because of my sniffles / cough; with a mask on - they really don't mess around).

I asked him about any new treatments on the horizon and he was fairly tight-lipped. I asked him about supplements and he said, sure, whatever you want, go for it (with a look of you're wasting your time/$ shone through his eye shield). I asked him about joining a cancer survivor group and he said, 'No' (they had pamphlets on the counter for this through Fred Hutchinson). I asked why and he said he doesn't want me hanging around other cancer patients (thinks they'd bring too much cancer reality to the situation). I told him I am using a life coach these days...he asked 'What's that?' So I told him. He thinks its great. He also wants me to up my Prozac by an extra pill / day. But he stated, he can't tell me that the cancer is not active in my body, just that he can't see it.

As I've stated in the past, I really like this guy. We covered lots of ground today and for the most part he pulls no punches. We went over my X-ray and my last CT in detail. He pointed out the entire thing and explained all that's going on and compared the two. He holds his cards tight to his chest however and really only gives me information that he wants me to have. As in he holds back the full story, I can tell. He does say, the longer I stay cancer free, the better my long term prognosis. That sounds like a 'DUH' statement but what he's saying is, the first 6 months following treatment is the most critical; the next 6 months less so and so on and so forth. It seems they work in 6 month increments for whatever reason. In case anyone lost track, I'm @ month 14. My next scheduled appointment is in January and they'll do another full blown CT.

As a part of our conversation, we got on the topic about death. Renato got somewhat philosophical and shared the history of the worlds philosophers view on existentialism and the contemplation of death and beyond. I told him I wasn't afraid of dying. He didn't believe me and stated, "Everyone is afraid to die." I told him I guess I'm not everyone as I really do not fear dying. After all, we're all going to 'die' sometime and it's up to God to decide when and how. He went on to say what if this is IT and there isn't anything else (thus the fear). If that's the case, then this is IT and we're all going to be in IT. However, I stated to him in no uncertain terms my belief in God and Jesus as our Savior. I'm very comfortable with my frame of mind around God and our Savior and left it as such with him to ponder. He didn't want to go past the what if this is IT and living in a state of being afraid of what if this is IT.

Once again, I want to point out that I believe having cancer has helped me tremendously in my state of mind. Mind you, I'm saying I'm grateful to have cancer and if it were up to me, would never had entered my body. However, I do look at it as a blessing and know that it's God's will and His will be done. That I am very comfortable with and accept in this life as such.