complaint box

A few weeks ago, someone who has always been near to me expressed her general feelings about my declining health. It just doesn’t seem right, and it’s difficult not to be bitter. I understand these perspectives, especially things not seeming right. Not yet. Too bad it’s not up to me.

Bitterness is probably also normal, especially in her position. Anyone close to the situation certainly has the right to work through bitterness and grieve any way they need to.

Is it odd that I truly have no bitterness? No anger. No major regrets. The physical discomforts definitely drain, putting out various fires as we still attempt to tackle the primary problem. That frustration and tolerating those painful moments is what puts me in “poor spirits.” In those moments, it’s nearly impossible to think about anything else.

Where would I even direct anger and bitterness? Not-god, the formless void? The ever expanding entropy is not exactly looking for feedback, including anything near the notion of fairness. To expect anything at all is logically inconsistent.

Would I be disappointed by something like karma or vibes? To me, these have always sounded like a fuzzy disguise for the notion of an omniscient, unfathomable great judge and provider of values and justice that will one day redeem things. But it’s chasing the feels and benefits with no real accountability, service or sacrifice, which rings true of nothing in life.

What about the great “I’m Not Sure?” Agnosticism has always held some appeal to me. I mean, there are mysteries in life and especially in death, things that we truly cannot know or are not meant to know. Recognizing and admitting our human limits to knowing is a humble and simply honest position. I think we have to admit that many of the faithful, despite our best efforts, do put God in a bit of a box of our times and culture. Where there is a little mystery we fill it by pretending to know things that may simply not be for us to know.

But a few steps down the road of agnosticism begins to feel like a gift from the dollar store. You sacrifice the notion of some ultimate truth (which may not be entirely knowable to us, but does exist) and comfort of the soul for some flimsy intellectual comforts. There’s nothing at all worth hanging your hat on, meaningful for the stuff of life. This is certainly not Love. I don’t imagine history ever has or will turn on truly selfless, courageous acts of service done in the name of “Well-I’m-Not-Sure.”

That leaves God. Abiding. Loving with a peace that is not at all of this world. Yes. I have had (and usually hold) that peace! I try to trust these words and meditate on them while also still fighting this disease like hell. I think God would have me do both.

I wasn’t bitter at God just a short time ago when all-out launching into mid air and landing with my toes in the grass after a productive and fulfilling day of work. Far more joyous than that, I wasn’t blaming God as I had the blessing of five healthy children, a (to me) dream home to raise them in, and 20 years of marriage to the most beautiful person I have ever known. I’ve never complained to God about my loving parents, extended family, background, and being truly blessed with so many friends and even neighbors, and oh so many adventures.

I wasn’t raising my fist to God then. And I’m not about to now.

Lent Reflection 6 – when i watch too much tv

Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

Matthew 5

With a relatively recent lack of energy or enthusiasm for doing much, the TV has unfortunately been blaring again. The March Madness college basketball tournament also has something to do with this ; ) This means that I’m hearing a lot of ads again. They are all commercials for cars and trucks, to normalize getting or leasing a new vehicle every six months. They are ads for cell phone companies, insurance, and gambling apps, to get us locked-in and loyal for a long-term relationship. The rest are for food, which until very recently, I would often fall for if it wasn’t 7:45 and I already ate plenty.

This is simply where my head is today. The intention is not to bring the guilt or shame, although upon rereading this, it sounds like a bit like a lecture. Maybe you need to “hear it,” or maybe not. Forgive me if it’s a bit off the rails. None of these ideas are run by an editorial team. And feel free to close the window, of course.

Is the Pennsylvania Lottery mascot Gus not the most annoying creature invented? Why did they give him a shrill, nearly painful voice? Why do they make him a bit creepy with the ladies? His motto, and apparently that of the PA Lottery system, is “Keep on Scratchin.” Seriously? Scratching is one of our most compulsive and primal actions, and rarely a good thing. It usually indicates some type of unhealthy condition, medication side effect, or parasitic feeding with possible transfer of bacteria and viruses.

Consider typical patterns of behavior and addiction- compulsive, primal, unwell, feeding mostly off the compromised or unknowing. I suppose the motto makes complete sense of the Reverse Robin Hood reasoning that mostly feeds off the poor and gives to some of the rich, their middle class admins, and yeah, “older Pennsylvanians” to save face.

Then there are the fairly sudden onset “bookie apps.” Their numbers look to be proliferating and we can now conveniently lose without getting off the couch. The old adage should still apply.

“Look around the room. If you don’t see a sucker, then you ARE the sucker.”

Of course the ads are targeting a younger, tech savvy but life inexperienced audience. That’s…fine? But what’s deceptive and almost hilarious is the authoritative and matter-of-fact tone by which every one of these ads speak of not gambling for some fun and entertainment, but for profit.

“Make it rain!!” [cash]

“Now you’re winning with the King of Sportsbooks.”

Oh. I see.

I haven’t participated but very lightly in Big Gambling and not for around 20 years. Yet somehow, I know so many stories of friends, acquaintances, and clients of losing big.

I suppose we need to differentiate the above two scenarios from throwing $20 into the March Madness Tournament picks, wagering a few bucks with the kids over the Super Bowl, or hanging out at guys poker night, eating pizza, coming out up or down $20 or $50. You have to admit this is far different than doubling down to “parlay UConn with the over,” or despite the clear evidence, playing “lucky numbers” fifty or one hundred and fifty times per year.

Somewhere around thirty percent of the population simply does not gamble in lotteries, apps, and casinos. It’s altogether off their radar or they simply don’t enjoy it. This group should probably not claim the moral high ground. That would be like commending your pet hamster for not believing false doctrines.

Somewhere around forty percent of the population gambles occasionally, on average ten days per year. They may know that including every single winner great and small, they will lose close to $.40 for every dollar they spend. But they gamble for fun and can afford it to the extent they do. They mostly know when to fold ’em, walk away, or run.

The remaining ~30% who gamble the most (on average 24 days per year) are poor, largely minorities, and often addicts. They may be well aware of the math behind all of this, and do not give a rip. It goes on year in and year out, with little to nothing mentioned in these woke times. Those who were trapped in this and somehow by Gods grace pulled away from it can absolutely claim moral high ground.

I have read that rich people care and think about money far more than anyone. In my experience, that’s not the case. I don’t personally know any of the ultra rich. But the many well-off people and families who I do know are also some of the most humble and generous folks around, including one luxury car salesman. For some of them, it is literally their job to think about money. All of them have worked extremely hard and made sacrifices over many years, and I fault none of them for their position. Please hold the comments about “Rich Dicks,” as if they’re all the same. Are there not dicks of every race, creed, and socioeconomic status?

I’m not going to jump into privileged backgrounds that allowed for opportunities. Though I believe this is undeniably real for many of us, it’s not relevant to this discussion.

And that’s where this is going. Having great wealth or means without having accumulated the life- and various other skills that lead to wealth is unsustainable on many levels. In that case, “Mo’ money, mo’ problems.” is absolutely true. In the same way that The State taking advantage of the most susceptible is wrong and the opposite of Christ-like (or unnatural, if you prefer), hitting it big is the same, much less the great, irresistible allure of hitting it big that the more powerful often use for leverage.

“Big Gambling” is a lose-lose-…lose, very much unmeek proposition. It’s like cigarettes’ or asbestos or other ideas from decades ago that seemed like a good idea at the time, but have long been proven to not really be good for anyone.

So according to my argument, there may be some kind of narrow ground between “well off and generous” and “ultra rich and powerful.” In the grand scheme of all times and people, the far majority of those reading this will fall into one of these groups.

“Truly I tell you, it is hard for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven.  Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished…Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” 

– Matthew 19

I don’t really know, but I doubt Jesus wants all of us to give everything away. I suppose he may be using hyperbole, or obvious and exaggerated overstatement, to intentionally shock those listening and drive home a point. Or who knows, maybe Gods people will pass through only after witnessing the miracle of a shrunk-to-scale camel or greatly expanded needle.

Have I become poor by trying to live gently, peacefully, and generously rather than boisterous, greedy, or contentious? What am I doing with my time and resources?

My resources are unfortunately quite limited at the moment. But over the years I have posed the question to some of the teen- and twentysomethings who I worked with, as well as my own kids. I often don’t know the answer, other than the fact that being a Professional Videogamer or Cellphone User/Consumer is probably not in their calling. Bickering online over subject matter that is best left to more intimate, in-person conversation over some tea, coffee, or a drink is probably not the best use of an adults time.

With this entry, I may be running the risk of exactly that!

According to the state lottery, 27 cents of every dollar spent on tickets goes into the state lottery fund. This is allegedly helping older Pennsylvanians. And some does. But the lottery contributes a significant amount to funding Medicaid, which only .035% of elderly Pennsylvanians have. The other 73 cents goes to “prizes and lottery administration costs.” 

During 2019, the PA Lottery reported sales of more than $4.2 billion. It paid out prizes of $2.7 billion, and it reported paying out more than $1 billion in benefits. That leaves somewhere around 500 million dollars for admin costs.

The study concludes that “increased levels of lottery play are linked with certain subgroups in the U.S. population — males, blacks, Native Americans, and those who live in disadvantaged neighborhoods.”

Lent Reflection 5 -an ounce of faith & green

It’s almost St. Patrick’s day, the day we are to remember and celebrate the Patron Saint of Ireland. Most years, March 17th is a day where I call my parents and subtly harass my father.

“Are you wearing something green today? Well then, what are you doing to celebrate St. Patrick?”

This inevitably causes him to recognize the ruse, prompting him to ramble on with feigned (?) grumblings about the overstated fame of St. Patrick and do we really need a national holiday and why doesn’t everyone go to the bars at nine in the morning to celebrate a St. Stanislaus Day?

This year I come armed. I’ve been learning some Irish history for my “seasonal” reading, taking in an entire two books on the topic.

In the past, I did learn the basics on Stanislaus, patron saint of Poland. He was murdered around 1080, literally at the hands of the king of Poland, for repeatedly calling him out on unjust wars, negligence, and immoral acts against his own people. Stanislaus life and death may be good to remember and dwell on, especially in these times. Who knows exactly how far his influence reached and continues to effect the course of history?

But while the life of Stanislaus was largely isolated to eastern Europe, we have the life and times of Patrick, who lived in the year ~400. Born into wealth and an identity both Roman and British, he would later sacrifice these to live in poverty for thirty or more years while traveling through a harsh third world country full of Celtic barbarians.

You could say these were relatively isolated western European events until you learn that this work was critical, and barely in time, for the people of Ireland to form their own identity, become somewhat literate and Catholic and highly value the Scriptures. When the rest of Europe was burning and reshuffling after the fall of Rome, western Christianity and much of the literature of the ancient Greeks and Romans only survived the middle ages by (sometimes literally) clinging to the hidden away rocks and caves of the Irish countryside. From what I understand, Patrick’s founding work, leading to the Irish Monastic Scribes who were determined to make copies of all they could get their hands on, would nearly single-handedly “save” western civilization.

I suppose dad has to admit that all Americans have the right to celebrate St. Patrick’s day. Okay, shamrocks to help explain the divine mystery of God three-in-one Holy Trinity. But the green beer and milkshakes, leprechauns and pointy hats? Of course legends will continue to flourish. I would not at all be surprised if, in a few hundred years, the legend of Jebediah Springfield driving all the snakes out of Springfield will be crossed and confused with St. Patrick’s day. For years, many hardcore Simpsons fans have celebrated May 10th as Snake Whackin’ Day.

Isaiah 55:8-9 is often quoted or partially misquoted, sometimes flippantly and often without much context, to provide some kind of answer in the midst of loss, hardship, or suffering.

For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the LORD. “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.

From my current perspective, sitting in at least some degree of constant discomfort and uncertainty, I do find comfort in this. Sure, I will freely admit that I accept and meditate on these ancient words based on faith. But having some basic knowledge of historical lessons, like the loss and suffering of St. Patrick for something exponentially greater, also helps (at least for me).

-The loss and suffering associated with destruction of Solomon’s temple around 600 BCE was immense. But the scattering of the Hebrews and gradual accommodation into the Greek speaking Mediterranean world would cause the Old Testament to be more valued and translated into Greek before the time of Jesus (and later the apostles) message to the gentiles (all people). “The Way” would not have been prepared without the gentiles having the Scriptures in their language.

-The life and especially martyrdom of all the apostles against terrible odds; The life and death of St. Patrick, the first human being in the history of the world known to publicly speak out against slavery; The transformation of Dietrich Bonhoeffers anti-Jewish -theology- into strong, far reaching anti-Nazism -action- that would cost him his life. And the examples of many MANY others through the ages.

-The reformation to provide the needed reform and long-term checks and balances to the numerous mishandlings of the “one Holy Catholic and apostolic church.” It would be the worst thing ever and then essential to the life of the church and original message of Jesus.

-In the founding of the United States, the process “…by which there would be no established church, but all would be equally entitled to the free exercise of religion, according to the dictates of their conscience.” Most churchy Americans of the day knew this was the worst thing ever. The newly formed nation would quickly go to hell in a handbasket. Only, it didn’t. This “anti establishment” directly resulted in the flourishing that is now known as the First Great Awakening.

-Those who knew “Gods Word” but did not understand it in spirit used the Bible in their arguments to keep slavery. Abolition of slavery would clearly be to the destruction of both church and state. Unfortunately we’re still dealing with this 150 years later. The only real hope for understanding, reconciliation and mutual respect may be those who know Scripture in word and in spirit. At this point I’m truly doubtful that we can somehow legislate away the real mess much less the pissing wars so readily encouraged by the left and right media.

Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good;

    his love endures forever.

Let the redeemed tell their story—

-Psalm 107

These examples come to mind at the moment while thinking historically, with so much I do not know or understand. Don’t you ever wonder if redemption of all pain and suffering, misunderstandings and corruption is a real thing, or just a nice Sunday school idea? I mean, I still don’t even know if I really prefer to shave with an electric or stick razor, much less these type of weighty and often unanswerable questions. I’m definitely dealing with quite a mess of my own right now. It’s not like any of us are some kind of tortured martyrs. But the affliction does often cause me to hope and pray there is -and will be- some type of greater good coming from this life.

Of course we’re all going through some degree of pain and uncertainty, if not now, then in the past or future. Of this I’m certain. May HOPE in the love of God be our unstoppable force coming against those immovable objects. And may our life testimony be a great light given off in that collision.

“It is possible to be brave – to expect every day…to be murdered, betrayed, enslaved, whatever may come my way, and yet be a man of peace and at peace, a man without desire to harm, a man in whom the sharp fear of death has been smoothed away.”

-St. Patrick, quoted by Thomas Cahill in How the Irish Saved Civilization

Lent reflection 4 – hellbender graves reach skyward

And forgive us our trespasses, ..

-Matthew 5

This short story from my youth has been transported over from a simple post that I initially placed on Facebook. Here it is copied.

——- For much of childhood, my dad and his brothers would often take me fishing. Uncle —— (who is otherwise a good dude and now, -35 years later, is far more conservationist) caught a HUGE Helllbender in Indian Creek, Fayett county. He was not certain how aggressive it may be, and apparently didn’t want to find out or otherwise mess with it. After all, common water snakes similarly grow huge and are highly aggressive with a bite that carries bacteria and an anticoagulant that leaves you trickling blood for hours.

He realed it in until around 10 feet remained in the line, and aggressively whipped the Hellbender back and forth, trying to dislodge the hook. I was thinking, “Whoa, let me get my net. We’ll take it home to my fish tank or put it in the pond.” A boy that age does not think about the fact that he too knew nothing about these creatures, and it did appear…nasty. Nor do you think about the practicality of putting a nearly two foot long living creature into a 15 gallon aquarium, or the requirement of properly transporting an animal that probably requires clean and cold water with high oxygen levels. Oh, and there’s no way you tell uncle — something like that when he’s down to business. He simply does not suffer frogs or turtles or rare, poorly understand water hell demons, or anything other than a trout.

When the herkyjerks didn’t work, he dragged it over some rocks and roots to a nearby boulder, bashed its head off a rock, then stepped on the neck so it would die quickly. Now twenty feet or so away with net in hand, I stood frozen and jaw-dropped for what seemed like 20 minutes.

“Damn that thing is ugly. No wonder they call them Hellbenders, huh Bobby.”

Over the next few years I unsuccessfully searched for one of the mysterious creatures…or demons-? I wished to hook one on my fishing line, just like uncle. I will admit to hoping that if such good fortune would strike, it would be much smaller.

Ten years or so later, I finally did come across a much less intimidating Hellbender living in a small tributary of Slipper Rock Creek. I examined it for thirty seconds or so before tossing it back. It was harmless, with an appearance young in years yet ancient, of another era.

This sad reminder was written yesterday, a Friday during Lent. In some faith traditions, this is supposed to be a day of quiet prayer, reflection, and fasting. This is the time of year where I often did spend an hour on Fridays standing beside that same uncle during 5:00 Mass.

Some current friends who are historians by profession have often reminded me that historical figures should not be morally judged by modern standards. The events in this story are historical. They occurred (only?) 35 years ago, and my uncle and I are not exactly historical figures. But I ask that you would extend that grace to us. He held a Masters Degree in Education from the Indiana University of PA. Hellbenders and certain degrees of environmental conservation were on the radar of no one outside of Environmental Science majors and fringe specialists.

In those days, I learned some Scriptural things, a few liturgical things, and otherwise payed -some- attention during Mass. But “Church” was honestly more of a serious, highly valuable session of Forced Internal Quiet, passing time, mind wandering, and even some self reflection. And standing beside Uncle in church, surely there was a small spark of dissonance inside my small developing mind. I knew how we lived, mostly good but not all, what I thought and wished, and how pitifully short it all fell of the Glorious standard.

More on that in an upcoming post. But for now I’m thinking about the irony of the fact that Hellbender graves reach skyward. We have unrolled the tombstone on these and many other things ancient and priceless. Hellbenders need pristine water and larger rocks to thrive. Their habitat in lower elevations was destroyed long ago through various development. Now, their final retreat to deep forest under tree and rock cover are threatened, mostly through innocent messing with the rocks. Oh, I’ve done my share of that through critter searches, dam building, and other tomfoolery.

There’s also the irony of Cairns, the somewhat popular and fun stacking of big rocks under small ones to create a stalagmite-like pillar right in the creek bed. It’s like playing with big legos, or a more creative Jenga. I’ve also read of it being viewed as a type of spiritual practice, this gathering and shaping of odd shapes and sizes into a work of perfect balance and harmony. 🤦‍♂️🤦‍♂️🤦‍♂️

The even greater irony is our own blaring unawareness, recklessness, and even ravenous ways of everyday living that lead to the loss of some of our most spectacular sources of beauty, wonder, and our very own long term well being, spiritual, physical, and otherwise. No church building can fully capture and contain this sanctuary.

I don’t know exactly how far we should go, or at this point need to go in making everyday sacrifices of convenience. There is absolutely a point where the tail wags the dog. Some kind of guilt lecture is truly not my point here. But I know that most of us have our basic necessities far more than met. May we at least carry on with awareness, humility, and a measure of restraint. There are about a million and one small and large helpful, truly sacrificial things we can do beyond cutting back on sweets or not eating meat on Fridays. May we put thought to it and find a way to make it part of our very own quiet spiritual practice.

That is why it has been written:

”Wake up, sleeper

Rise up from the dead

And Christ will shine among you!”

-Ephesians 5

lent reflection 3 – family system

I appreciate the latest Progressive Insurance commercials that portray a professional hopelessly attempting to teach a handful of middle-aged clients How To Not Become Your Parents. Here are a few examples.

“Do we really need a live, laugh, and love sign? No, we don’t.”

(At a restaurant) “We don’t need to tell the waitress our name.”

(Outside a grocery store) “We see it, we all see it. Yes, he has blue hair. We don’t have to say anything.”

My parents are not guilty of these particular crimes. But they definitely have their own twists. And I’ve seen plenty of this type of thing over the years in friends, aunts and uncles, and especially in working with 50- and now 60-something clients. I prefer not to use the term “Boomer” because it seems a bit derogatory. I’ve met far too many sharp, selfless people in that age bracket.

I do often notice becoming my dad in certain ways. It seems inevitable. I’ve talked to the TV when watching professional athletes make basic juvenile errors, calling them “clowns” and “teaching” my kids that physical errors will always be part of the game, but mental errors just shouldn’t happen at the professional level. I often catch myself watching the History Channel and reading books with titles like the Original Trails and Roads of the Ohio River Valley. I saw a few of my teenage clients smirk when I told their group, “You’re only running two of these at full speed, so don’t loaf.” There are plenty more quirks that my kids could tell you about.

Mom and dad are mostly healthy, and I usually check the “No family history” box. Somehow, it only recently sank in that both of my grandfathers had been diagnosed with cancer, though cancer itself did not directly cause their demise. This has possibly eluded me because both of their issues were absolutely due to lifestyle factors, whereas mine is not (that I know of).

It was a blessing to spend a fair amount of my childhood with my grandparents. But both granddads smoked for the majority of their lives, drank fairly heavily for a time, and over the years one of them gradually lost control of his body mass. He carried a stressful daily workload all the way to the iconic PPG building always included in pictures of the Pittsburgh skyline. One of my worst childhood memories is my parents yelling his name in a terrified voice that I never heard them use before. He completely lost consciousness, I assume due to some kind of carotid artery issue. For a minute I thought that he died right there at our dining room table.

To say that everyone loved both of my granddads is a huge understatement. And you could say that a traumatic event like that described above is unfortunate in the life of a ~7 year-old. But due to witnessing this and a handful of other experiences such as a lifetime of nonsense yo-yo dieting, nobody has ever had to lecture me on temperance in food and drink. To this day I have not smoked a single thing, sure, by the grace of God. And this undoubtedly saved me some aggravation over the years. But health-wise, it doesn’t seem to have worked out as planned. Life seems to have no such straight laced formulas.

Sometimes when I’m sleepless during the night, I sit on the ottoman leaning forward with my head down, elbows propped on knees. I stare out the window or into the floor, sometimes praying and often just thinking. Where did I see this before? It’s not like some kind of never-invented behavior. But it is the exact posture that my grandfather would assume, sitting at the picnic table on his back patio late at night, staring at nowhere, usually while slowly eating something like pistachios and smoking a cigarette. And there were a few times of witnessing my other grandfather on a bent knee beside his bed. He was alone, silent and still. This was unlike anything I had previously seen; not in the house of worship or on street corners, to be seen by others…

Progressive Insurance is right. Our families obviously influence us for the better and worse, probably far beyond our own comprehension. Science has taught us that it’s not all nature or nurture, but both. And it’s the stories of our family history, our memories, and insight given from above that help us make even a little sense from any of it.

lent reflection 2 – envirostewardism

One of the kids suggested that we watch, or re-watch, one of the films in the Jurassic World series. Someone here found a relatively new Jurassic World short film (posted below), and suddenly most of us are on a renewed full fledge dinosaur kick.

This reflection is not meant to be about the gross inaccuracies of the dinosaur timeline, DNA recombination, and more. The films are Hollywood fun and for the most part highly entertaining. They do make me think, some…

All of the films force you to renew the wonder of what it would be like to walk among these living monsters. The short film especially seems to somewhat realistically attempt to portray dinosaurs as a part of contemporary society.

I think, if Dinosaurs really did come later, or last long enough to somehow share the earth with humans, they certainly would not be threatening our current camp-outs and roadways. Assuredly, we would have wiped them out long ago, probably by 1800. The large and most dangerous ones would have been taken out, maybe led off cliffs like the great Buffalo Jumps created by the Native Americans. We would gradually weaken their ability to thrive through intentional and unintentional encroachment on their habitat. A few hundred years later, the last of the small chicken-like species in the far reaches of the jungles would have been eliminated on the grounds of being technically dangerous, or hunted for game and the satisfaction of “bagging a monster.”

I’ve been warned by real live historians to resist the urge to judge historical figures, or really anyone of a different era, by modern standards. So I will not come to conclusions here about what rotten stewards we have been**. But I think the consideration, for now, should be how we can get more people to even think about good stewardship in this time where everything is, or becomes, automatically highjacked into a politically charged issue.

I think there are answers out there. But they require a lot of awareness, ingenuity, and like everything else, plain old sacrifice. I don’t think that we were ever meant to “have it all.” Not as a species, and especially not as individuals.

**I once had a patient who was a fascinating elderly geology professor. He formerly taught at both state- and private colleges, and he collected fossils, arrowheads, and minerals since he was eight. I visited he and his wife at home once, and he STILL grew animated showing me his smallish house literally packed with tidy and professional case displays.

Once at the office, he explained to me how he was often requested to give two talks. The presentations were titled with “environmentalism” or “good stewardship” depending on the audience. But they were the same talk, and very well received by both audiences, so long as he used their preferred vernacular.

Man is a finnicky species, for sure.

Lord, save us, indeed.

lent reflection 1 – dust

“Dostoevsky (great Russian author 1821-81) paid a special visit to the Museum of Art in Basel to see a painting “Christ Taken Down From the Cross,” by Hans Holbein. The painting overwhelmed Dostoevsky, and he stopped in front of it, stricken… On his agitated face was the sort of expression I had often noted during the first moments of an epileptic seizure. I quietly took my husbands arm, led him to another room and made him sit down on a bench…Christ had to be a man like others in order to die for them. He truly was a man.”

-Found in A Third Testament by Malcom Muggeridge

“From dust you came and to dust you shall return.” Genesis 3:19

The 30-100 Challenge

At the end of 2020, I was feeling decent and regaining some ground after some significant setbacks last fall. I wanted some type of challenge or short project to keep me busy indoors through part of the winter.

I had considered Dan John’s 10,000 swing challenge (500 kettlebell swings per day for 20 days), but decided against it. First, I think swings are good as part of a fitness plan. But I’m just not THAT into them, like, 10,000 into them. Second, swings are more for the purpose of developing some lower body power and total body conditioning. But I wanted more total body work, and hoped to put some muscle back on.

A few other known challenge type protocols were considered, but most of them were for absolute beginners and focused on weight loss, or they were drastic overkill in sets and reps meant for twentysomething cyborgs.

So I created my own challenge. Who’s the real Slim Shady on this stuff, anyway ; )? I wanted it to be a challenge but possible based mostly on effort. It needed to be safe (low injury potential), simple, and require very little equipment. What I came up with sounded good, but with the council of none there is folly. Er, something like that. So I group texted the idea to five of my more egg-headed training friends, asking them for any feedback, suggested adjustments, warnings, etc. There was little feedback, but a fairly unanimous “Count me in!”

I had planned on rolling this challenge into my own exercise programming repertoire to prescribe for others. But it would be the 2.0 version, with revisions past the experimental stage. I hadn’t planned on telling or encouraging anyone to do this until after the Beta test. I realized this is not rocket surgery, but I just didn’t want to advise or encourage something I’m not informed on. Thirty days nearly in a row -of just about any physical activity- is unknown territory for me and most of us. But before I knew it, there were friends of friends, wives, even some girlfriends, parents, and cousins joining in.

What is the 30-100 Challenge?

It’s 100 REPS PER DAY FOR 30 DAYS

The Movements:

10 Backward lunges (each leg),

20 pull-ups,

30 deep squats,

and 40 push ups.

The lunges and squats are completed while holding a moderate resistance, suggested between 20 and 35 lbs for women and 30-75 pounds for men. I used a 55-pound kettlebell. The resistance (or object) does not change for the duration of the challenge. Yes, by the end you will have completed 1200 push ups, 900 squats, 600 pull-ups, and 600 backward lunges (300 on each leg).

Sets/Reps:

The exercises may be broken down into any set/rep scheme and order that you want, with as much rest as you need, so long as you get the 100 reps in. Again, the movements do not have to be done consecutive or “unbroken.” Each training day -should- demand around 15 minutes of your time, give or take, depending on your level of fitness.

Recovery Days:

You are to take off one day per week, finishing the 30 training days in approximately 5 weeks. But if you really need more recovery days, you are encouraged to take them without missing two consecutive days.

Additional Work:

Weight Gain- The serious strength athletes (even the recreational ones) should consider doing some heavy resistance training two days per week, with their program being abbreviated both in total exercises and sets, and finishing with the 30-100 protocol. For example, if I could, on Tuesdays I would throw in some low rep sets of bench press and farmer walks. On Saturdays I would include landmine shoulder presses and relatively heavy low rep split squats before doing the 30-100 protocol. Oh, and eat a lot of mostly healthy calories!

Weight Loss- On three to four days per week, before doing the protocol, do some light floor based work like “Pointer Dogs,” and crawling, and after doing the protocol, take a brisk 15-30 minute walk. Sometimes, shorten the walk to 10 minutes and carry the resistance with you, alternating hands. Oh, and eat mostly healthy foods in amounts just slightly below your baseline caloric needs.

Scaling Back:

For the squat, go a little shallower than a full squat if you must. *Sit back to lightly tap your rear to a step stool or ottoman etc in order to make sure you are using your hips and thighs, not just your knees. For the pull-up, band assistance is allowed. *One of the best ways to get really good at unassisted pull-ups is to jump up to the bar/tree limb/rafter/etc, and lower yourself down slowly. For the push-ups, knee push ups (formerly known as “girl push ups” are not allowed. If you must, scale back the pushup by going only half way down to the floor (partial ROM). Remember, you can break a set of 20 into 4 sets of 5 reps if you must! *And in all push-ups, be sure to keep the abs tight in order to keep your lower back from arching.

What was it like?

Day 4 felt about like day 24. The squats were the most difficult part for me and others that I heard from. Every time I reached five consecutive days, it felt as if I were rolling around on two flat tires. Each training day took me between 12 and 20 minutes, depending on how much I pushed the envelope. This endurance component was the most challenging aspect for me, as I’m anemic and have very poor “wind” no matter the activity.

I tried on various orders and set/rep schemes of the exercises. But the resorted to most looked like: 10 pullups immediately followed by 5 lunges each leg, short rest, and repeat. Then 10 deep squats followed by 20 push ups, repeat, and finish with a third set of 10 squats.

This seemed most efficient. But any way that I shook it, at completion I had to sit down or even lay on the floor for a bit and listen to music or a podcast. I’m certain this aspect of the difficulty had far more to do with being an anemic 45 year old fighting stage 4 cancer than it had to do with the actual workout. My slightly younger and in-their-prime friends would regularly finish between 4 and 10 minutes, depending on how much they pushed it!

In case anyone is wondering, the current best time stands at 3:41, by Cort Hutchinson.

Reflection

The program took me close to 6 weeks (rather than the planned 5) to complete. In the last few weeks, I needed a few extra recovery days. By the end of 30 sessions, I was more than ready to be finished. The mental grind of seeing all 30 days through was consistently reported by my friends as well. But hey, that’s why “they” call it a CHALLENGE and not a long-term sustainable training program!

So nobody is allowed to say “Well that’s easy” until they see all 30 days through ; )

At one point, probably toward the end of week three, I had noticeably gained some weight where I wanted through my back, shoulders, and legs. I had been eating with that intent, although some others doing the program (and probably eating less horse-like) reported that they lost some weight (body mass). I -think- it’s safe to assume that in both instances, our body compositions changed for the better. That’s a big piece of the “Why?” to doing it in the first place.

When I came up with the idea, I was feeling good, slowly ramping up my work (physical therapy and training) hours and total activity level. The bad news is that toward the end of, and especially after completing the program, I started feeling significantly more ill. I’ve been at this now for over a year, and know how quickly your body can turn on you.

My appetite tanked due to feeling a mild but constant nausea, lightheadedness, and even some dizziness. My hands and face literally broke out in blisters and I had very inconsistent, brief but severe stomach pain that I called “Roundhouse to the Gut.” I quickly lost the weight that I had gained. But in my current state of health, a net of zero rather than taking a loss can be rather good news.

The oncologist is almost certain that these symptoms are the side effects of one of my medications rather than due to the primary disease. It’s time to cut back some, and hopefully settle on a less toxic dose of that drug – that is still effective in treatment – . This journey is like being on a see-saw with a bully. Up, up, up, slam.

Since altering the regimen only a few days ago, I do feel some subjective improvement.

THANKS FOR READING!

ten eighteen twenty-one

It has been a rollercoasterhell of a year. I simply cannot think of a more accurate way to describe the year which was obviously difficult, and mostly not fun. Amy, the kids and I have so much to be thankful for, and 2020 has given us an awareness of this. Surprising, grateful, humbling, painful awareness. Overall this is a good thing.

Thank you for so much love and support. The past year was certainly not all rainbows and lollipops for you, either. And yet so many found time, energy, finances, patience, and many, many thoughts and words of prayer to lift us up. We literally could not have done it without you. I bite my bottom lip and cover my eyes, lean forehead on an open hand (and other lame strategies). But the tears still come. Your generosity has honestly brought me to tears far more than everything else that occurred in 2020.

It will do me well to remember that despite all this, the year did have a strong finish. Yes, it’s some good news for this update! There are still many caveats and unknowns, but I cannot think of a simpler, more accurate way to describe it.

After some communication and scheduling issues, I finally had the chance to see Dr. Reninger to review the results of the most recent CT scan from early December. Scanxiety is real; always looms over you in the mild purgatory between the actual procedure and the moment when a professional sits in front of you to explain the details. Sure, you can log into the chart and read the radiologist report for yourself. But it’s not a good idea. We have been burnt by that, both ways (thinking results are good when they’re actually pretty brutal, and the opposite). We should know better.

You don’t need to hear the gritty test details. Besides, seeing the report in writing still makes me cringe hard. But tumors are DOWN across the board. They’re even significantly down, which is “remarkable progress” given where I started and at the time of the test, having only ~8 weeks of immunotherapy.

Since I’m experiencing only relatively minor side effects, the plan, for now, is to stay the course. When a certain routine or drug combination has the number on an aggressive cancer, you don’t fix what ‘ain’t’ broke. Feeling tired and cold most of the time, bloody noses and random blisters on the back of your hands are nothing when you’ve been through GemCis and FolFox chemo protocols, with unrelenting painful bone metastases in the time between them.

Only a few months ago, the small end table near where I sit in the living room was overflowing with safety cap, translucent brown prescription medicine bottles. It was a full-time job keeping track of what should be taken and when. The other day I glanced over and realized that only two of those remain. If you allow me a decent sit, I will still probably pull a grandpa Simpson on you. I guess sleep is partly how you fund a revved immune system for a major, around-the-clock war campaign.

And what was that? Did I just hear the “R” word? Because it sounded a lot to me like the doc just said the word.

“Remission.”

To paraphrase:

“Maybe you’ll be one of those. …The more recent data shows that a patient who makes it a year on immunotherapy has a better chance of successful management and long-term remission.”

From the beginning, I have felt genuine respect and care from a number of professionals specializing in the field of cancer and cancer research. They have been immensely helpful, patient, and greatly encouraging. But not one of them have given me false hope, or spoke of “long-term” anything. I don’t know, but suspect this is because 1) they truly cannot tell how I’ll respond over the mid- to long-term course of a given treatment and 2) the prospects are generally not good. Healthcare providers know, but patients rarely understand, that sometimes the prognosis truly is not worth talking much about.

This was the first time that I’ve heard mention of something tangible and set in the mid- to long-term. I began immunotherapy on 10/18/20. Next October is a ways off and there are by no means any guarantees. But I need to make it past 10/18. It is highly unlikely that we will ever be able to fully put this behind us and go our merry way. But having something to shoot for, and at that point even just a chance is like a gift, or having another birthday!

Of course biological systems and subsystems are no respecters of such cut-and-dry, artificial constructs. But human minds very much are. Things (ideas?) like 10/18/21 are a legitimate tool that we use to gain a little bit of traction on an incomprehensible and profoundly amazing timeline.

Maybe this “goal” is like aiming to get to the end of a rainbow. Or possibly I misheard or misunderstood the doc, and now I’ve etched it in stone and hung it over the mantel. This could all be clarified in less than a half hour with so much as a phone call. But I’m not going to do that. I don’t care. I’m going with it, however much myth and misunderstanding.

It still is truly best to stay in the day. That’s usually all that we here at the Gorinski home can handle. Some days I pursue little more than trying to keep my feet warm. Each day is a blessing, with new mercies every morning. Oh, and also…each day has enough trouble of it’s own.

For now, it feels really nice to also have some kind of long- or even long-ish term base, keeping in mind that nobody has the future pinned down. After all, the future IS uncertain, and the end is always near. ; ) If in the past I forgot that tomorrow is not guaranteed for anyone, now I sure don’t. Sometimes I feel like Scrooge waking from his enlightening evening with the Spirits. I don’t suspect that I was previously a Scrooge. But at this point there is definitely a different perspective and emphasis, for however long it lasts. There’s a new and renewed appreciation of others, and what God has done and is doing.

10/18/21

Let it roll…

Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.  Instead, you ought to say, “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.”

-James (4:14-15) references Ecclesiastes

heavy numbers

It seems that I’ve had a “turning of the corner” in recovery. I’ve been on immunotherapy drugs for just under ten weeks, and the degree of change in that timeframe is difficult to believe. The type of adversity that we navigated in the previous few months will legitimately strengthen you and bring you closer to God. It will also leave you a bit on edge.

I understand that we are supposed to trust, rejoice in the day, and remember Gods promises. “Everything is possible for one who believes,” simple as Matthew 9:23, right?

It has been a year of sincere prayer while under the thumb of an evil disease, combined with simple observation and experience, and reading more than is good for me about the typical course. It all makes it hard to let your guard down. You may fight, and through much discomfort and quality time spent with healthcare professionals in sanitary environments, gradually gain ground. Then suddenly at any moment, the floor drops out.

Drop Towers are a metaphor for dealing with many types of cancer.

So please pardon me doc, friends, family, if I seem a little paranoid. I have previously never been much of a worrier. Sure, there were the kids, the existence of tics, and meetings with the financial advisor. But I never dwelled very long over any of those, much less life’s scratches and dings.

But now…

I recently scratched my own cornea, knew exactly how it happened. Still, for days I swore this was the immunotherapy drugs attacking my vision, as this is a side effect listed for Keytruda. A fairly normal stomach ache was definitely the drugs attacking my large intestine, something specifically mentioned on the Merck commercial.

Sometimes, after 10:00 pm, I’m not just tired and somewhat over-did it for the day. No, it’s…

Confusion, fever, muscle weakness, balance problems, nausea, memory problems, or encephalitis.

…All caused by my medication, of course.

What really puts my mind at ease?

-A good nap.

-Quiet, reflective prayer. Counting my blessings, naming them one-by-one (seriously thought!)

-Reassuring words from my oncology team and friends with serious medical credentials.

-Goofing off with the kids, weight training, or even a good walk with the dog.

In reality, this is not all paranoia. I truly have been brought fairly low. I have experienced mild to fairly debilitating side effects, and that’s not to mention the discomforts and problems associated with the primary disease. I have been made dependent on others in almost as many ways that I’ve been stuck and prodded in the veins.

[Thank you again for pouring out love and support. We literally see you as the hands and feet of “The Lord provides.” But leaning on others this much will always be humbling; always be a bit of a challenge for both Amy and I.]

Remember, the 5-year survival rate for this specific disease is 7%-20%, with the average life expectancy of those on chemotherapy being four to six months. With other drugs, like targeted immunotherapy, the most recent numbers are difficult to pin down. But it looks like that stat goes to a little over 24 months.

Two of three cancer patient, faith filled personal friends, advising me in person and by phone, have passed away in the last few months. 67%, another sobering number in a low-powered study.

I’m younger and otherwise “healthier” than the average person dealing with this, and quite unwilling to consider myself an average. But the heavy reality is that first line chemotherapy helped me for about exactly as long as stated by the numbers. The second-line chemotherapy, known as FOLFOX, shown to generally be effective for around 35% for this diagnosis, did not help at all and only served to set me back.

The immunotherapy is working for now. Praise God! But no matter what, those numbers, they loom. I do pray for a miracle of healing. But I also pray that the numbers are outdated, because the professors and scientists sure seem to know what they’re talking about.

Twenty four months. That means I have about 12 more, eh??

[Slow head turn of denial, sets jaw.]

Lord, have mercy.