A letterman

by the Night Writer

The clinic called today. My 6-week post-op ultra-sensitive PSA test results were in. The percentage of Prostate Specific Antigen in my blood stream clocked in at less than 0.01%; in other words, the nurse said, “undetectable.” Of course, that’s what we were expecting following the surgery, but it was good to hear none the less.

That’s a very good thing, but I couldn’t help thinking about being in Indianapolis two weeks ago for the funeral of my uncle Carl who had succumbed to lung cancer. Despite the occasion, it was good to see my cousins again, their kids, and experience a family gathering in the style of that branch of clan. Despite their grief, my cousins each expressed their relief that I had come out of my bout healthy. That was good to hear, but it also made me feel kind of odd given what they had been going through.

After Indianapolis the services moved to Missouri where another batch of family and friends gathered for a visitation and the interment. Here I received another bundle of well-wishes including many from people I barely knew, which felt more than a little awkward I can tell you. I said to my brother, “Geez, does everyone in town know what I had surgery for?”

“Well,” he said, “when you’re on the prayer chain at five or six churches the word does tend to get around.”

In the last six months since I received the first call from my doctor I’ve experienced a lot of emotions; fear, anger, love, joy, and even laughter. And now I could add one more to the list: ambivalence.

Yes, technically, it was a life or death situation, but then so is crossing the street. My cancer had appeared almost unnoticed, had been diagnosed, treated and blown to oblivion with barely an outward sign on my body. My recovery has been going extremely well, with even the dreaded side effects of incontinence and impotence rebounding quickly in a matter of weeks when I had been told to expect it to take months at least. When my aunt, a nurse, congratulated me on being “a cancer survivor”, I cocked my head and told her I felt as if I was receiving an honor I hadn’t earned. “Nonsense,” she said. “You had major surgery. You had something that kills people. You probably shouldn’t have been able to drive down here so soon after all that. You should be proud.”

“I guess I am,” I said, “but it almost feels as if I’m in high school and just earned my letter jacket even though I barely played. It is like I should only get a little “C” on my jacket instead of a big one.”  She laughed at that, patted my shoulder, said, “Don’t worry. You’ve earned it.”

I know I have been blessed. While I’d just as soon not have had cancer, I’ll happily accept this outcome compared to the alternative. There have been inconveniences, sure, but I honestly, deeply,  thank God and his steady hand that I haven’t endured the rigors and indignities of chemo, haven’t seen my medical expenses break into the five- or six-figures, haven’t had to see the worried looks from those around me whenever I’ve had a coughing fit. It might all even seem like it was a dream but for the red scars on my belly, though even now I can feel the skin smoothing out under my fingers.

I am a cancer survivor.

I’ll take it.


Related posts: 

Vorpal blades and manxome foes, Part 1 – ‘Twas brillig

Vorpal blades and manxome foes, Part 2 – Jubjubs and frumious bandersnatches 

Vorpal blades and manxome foes, Part 3 – Tumtums and other trees

Vorpal blades and manxome foes, Part 4 – Snicker-snack


Thug-lite on the LRT

by the Night Writer

It was 6:30ish last Tuesday night, and a group of us seasoned LRT riders were waiting at a downtown stop, poised at the place on the platform  where we knew the doors would open when a train came. When the train arrived a couple of hoodied kids who looked to be about 15 years old barged the queue for the door, even blocking a couple of people who were trying to disembark. As it so happens, these gentlemen were black, though I’ve seen this behavior from many of the youthful riders regardless of color.

The two guys sat across the aisle from each other in some forward-facing seats and the other riders seemed content to give them space, choosing other seats. They didn’t concern me too much, though, and they were sitting in my favorite section, away from the cold drafts that come in when the train doors open, so I took a seat kitty-corner facing one of them, against the window. I pulled out my iPad to do some reading and the kid starts asking me about it – what model, what can it do, etc. He asked how much it cost. I told it him, “a lot”. He pressed, I responded with the same. He asked again and I gave him a ballpark. Then he said, “I bet you’d be upset if someone took it from you.”

I didn’t take it as a threat. The two kids together might have weighed as much as I do and the train had too many people on it, and we were too deep into the car, for a good snatch and run (which apparently have been a recurring problem on the LRT); I’d have had him by the hoodie within two steps. My sense was he was trying to have some fun playing with the mind of what he took to be an uptight white guy, so looking him in the eye – as I had been doing in the rest of our conversation – and in my same tone of voice  I told the kid that I wouldn’t get too excited, I’d simply activate the tracking app on the Pad and call the police and have them go get it for me.

The kid said, “What if the guy sold it?” I said he’d have to move fast because the last story I read in the paper about someone using the tracker to recover an iPad the police had arrived at the address with the Pad in about an hour. He then wanted to know if the police would give it back to me. “They would,” I said, “but maybe not until after the trial.”

That seemed to put an end to the conversation so I went back to reading. Shortly after that the kid put his feet, wet and dripping from the snow, on the seat next to me. Now this selfish behavior (also observed in young people of all colors) is a pet peeve of mine though I usually keep quiet about it. Since the kid had already engaged me in conversation, though,  and I wasn’t going to be intimidated, I said in a friendly tone, “Hey, what about the next person that wants to sit in that seat?” He gave me the blank face, tilted his head to one side and shrugged his shoulders. “What if the next person to sit in the seat turned out to be you?” Same shrug.

At the very next stop a couple of black women in their 30s boarded with children and made for where we were seated. One saw the slop on the seat and made a disgusted noise and moved on. I looked at the kid, and he had his head down, staring at his feet. At Lake St. they got off. I kept a grip on my Pad and then watched their reflections in the window out of the corner of my eye as they reached the platform. I figured there’d be some parting shot so I wasn’t surprised when I saw the kid draw back his fist to hit my window as he went by. If he thought he’d get me to jump he was, again, disappointed.

She was a black-haired beauty with big, dark eyes

by the Night Writer

Just in time for Thanksgiving, the real Bob Seger is now on iTunes in epic fashion, rolling me away with a 26-song collection entitled “Ultimate Hits: Rock and Roll Never Forgets” for just $9.99. And just like Bob when he climbed out of his Corvette to watch the long train roll by in the classic video, I’ve had some time to think about his music and my life.

I liked Seger well enough when I was growing up but I wasn’t necessarily a huge fan. Perhaps it was easy to take him for granted because he was so ubiquitous.  It seemed as if he always had a song on the charts and playing in the background of most of my memories from my teens and into my 30s. They were songs of wheels and women, of loving and leaving, and of doing whatever it takes to have a good time that became an American bushido of masculinity for an era. The style was gritty but not too deep and it was a match made in Marketing when Chevy hitched it’s truck line to the Detroit-born and bred Seger’s “Like a Rock” hit, almost turning the song into a parody of itself. It did sell a lot of quarter- and half-ton trucks, though, and Seger sold a million tons of records as Americans found a certain resonance, real or hoped-for, in the words and images.

Yeah, I could picture myself taking a look down that westbound road and making a choice to get up with the sun and be gone with the wind all the way to Katmandu (but not to Fire Lake); of being rock hard and hard-rocking, and thinking that while I wasn’t good-looking I wasn’t shy and wasn’t afraid to look a girl in they eye, even if they all wanted to change me

Somehow it seems like yesterday, but it was long ago.

Because somewhere along the line I wanted to change, needed to change, and met the woman who could do that, the woman I could love and never leave, the one who still causes me to sit up at night marveling at the traces she’s left on my soul.

And those, my friends, are the memories that truly make me a wealthy soul. And I still believe in my dreams.

 For my money, “Like a Rock”  is one of the most creative and well-crafted music videos of all time. Though Seger was in his 40s when the video was released, it resonates more for me in my 50s. 


A trip back in time that made my future

by the Night Writer

The reports last week were that President Obama and his family will be vacationing in historic Colonial Williamsburg, a village that has been preserved as a living museum recognizing the era of our Founding Fathers. Whether any of these Founding Fathers would recognize what their government has become is an open debate. Nevertheless, the mention of Williamsburg in the news caused me to at first casually, and then significantly, remember my own visit there in February of 1980.

I was working at my first job out of college then and my company sent me there for a week long training program. It was a trip back in time, and like time travel itself, seemed almost impossible. To get to Williamsburg from Phoenix I had to catch a 12:30 a.m. red-eye flight out of Sky Harbor, bound for D.C. Of course, it’s almost impossible to traverse the midwest without being sucked into O’Hare in Chicago, were I spent an hour and a half layover. Even D.C. wasn’t the final leg in my air odyssey: I then boarded a small, twin-prop puddle-jumper transport that looked like a pregnant guppy for the hop to Newport News. I remember that the entire backside of the aircraft opened like a drawbridge in order to load and unload luggage, and that when I took my window seat it appeared as if the wing propeller was spinning just 6″ away from my window.

After the “flight” (which felt more like driving the Baja 1000 in a buckboard) I had a final bus ride to get to Williamsburg, arriving at my hotel — one of the restored colonial inns — about 2 p.m. EST, only to find that my room wouldn’t be ready until 3:00 p.m. Whereupon I collapsed onto an overstuffed sofa in front of a large, blazing fireplace which, combined with my fatigue, soon had me stupefied.

Even with such a benumbing start, the week turned out to be very interesting and stimulating and the team I was thrown in with wound up winning honors for the week on our multi-phase communications strategy and presentation. One of my teammates would later that year offer me a position on her staff, a job that required me to move from Phoenix, Arizona to Minneapolis, MN (actually, my first apartment was in Eagan, roughly a mile from where my future wife was living at the time, though we wouldn’t meet for another six years). In the intervening years it had never occurred to me just how significant my trip to Williamsburg turned out to be. In those days I pictured myself moving around every couple of years to different jobs in different cities to find the place where I would eventually settle. I had mental lists of working in places such as Denver and Boston — lists where Minneapolis and St. Paul never appeared. Yet there I was in Williamsburg and as a result of that trip I found myself, in June of ’80, dodging tornadoes on Hwy. 90 through South Dakota and southern Minnesota, heading toward Mary-Tyler-Moore-land and my destiny.

I had no idea that my wife, children and ministry were waiting up ahead for me. Certainly none of those three were high on my list of priorities at the time. It apparently was on Someone’s mind, however, and that Someone was probably laughing at me grumping my way through that red-eye flight, the Chicago lay-over and the queasy puddle-jumper. I may have been asking myself, “Why do I have to go through all of this?”

I certainly wasn’t paying attention when the loving response came: “Because.”

And now I wouldn’t change a thing.


by the Night Writer

I am not a particularly handy man when it comes to fixing things. In fact, I’ve often said of myself that I can do in half-a-day what it takes two men working all-day to undo. Nevertheless, I love going into old-timey hardware stores. There’s something about the faded floors, jumbled shelves and the scent of grease, oil, wood, copper and sweat that is hard-wired (or hard-wared) into my soul and stirs my imagination. The sight of rows of tools and implements made to fit the hand just make me feel useful and like I want to start some kind of project, even though I may only be able to tell you the true function of a mere fraction of these tools. For some reason I never feel this way when I go to Lowe’s or Home Depot, even though most of my “home improvement” shopping is done at these big box stores. Perhaps it’s because somewhere along the line “home improvement centers” replaced “hardware stores”.

I thought about this yesterday after reading that my local hardware store, Langula’s, is closing after 96 years and three-generations of being in business. I first wandered into Langula’s some 10 years or so ago because I needed my mower blades sharpened and they were the only place around that still did that on site, while you waited. The owner of the shop, Gary, usually did the sharpening himself, ensconced in his grungy workshop at the back of the store where you had to step down into an area  delineated by the original foundations of his grandparent’s store. Gary’s a phlegmatic guy, not much of a talker, but he can find parts and tell you how to use them. Sometimes I’d watch as he’d run the blades along the grinder in a shower of yellow sparks but usually I’d wander around the main part of the store, hefting this tool or running my hands over that piece of equipment. Somehow it all reminded me of when I was a boy and my grandfather would take me around with him when he’d go to visit his many friends who were fuel oil jobbers and mechanics. I remember their twill work pants, Eisenhower jackets and their billed caps with the ear-flaps on the side … and always the smell of petroleum. Okay, it wasn’t frankincense, but these men with their look and jargon seemed to me to be part of some esoteric priesthood of arcane knowledge.

If not a priesthood, it was certainly at least a club. My grandfather would tell me stories of a hardware store in his home town that was run by a couple of friends, one of whom had some talent as an artist. The men in town would congregate at the hardware store and drink coffee from mugs hand-painted for each man by the owner, usually in a risque manner. The men always left their cups in the back of the store, never to be seen by the casual public and definitely never by the wives or women-folk.

Another old hardware store that did things its own way was on Payne Avenue when I lived on the east side of St. Paul. It looked as if it could have been the model for a Norman Rockwell calendar. Hell, I think it probably still had a Norman Rockwell calendar on the wall from 1957. The aisles were narrow and things stacked on the upper shelves seemed to lean over my head like tree branches in an arbor, while the hardwood floor running down each aisle was worn into a smooth trench by generations of work-boots shuffling along, making it all feel as if I was in a tunnel. The haphazard clutter of odds and ends led me to suggest to the clerk helping me that it must be fun to do the annual inventory. “Never happens,” he replied. “When the old man dies, they’re just going to burn the place down and start over.”

Langula’s doesn’t have quite as much “character” as that place, and Gary never offered me a customized coffee mug, but the store is still a true, funky, living artifact of another time, complete with a shop cat that lounges about the place and often naps on the counter next to the cash register. Whenever I’d take a deep breath it seemed as if I could still smell the ghosts in their work-clothes. My grandfather and his friends all passed on long ago and the hardware stores they would have felt at home in are dying out, too. After nearly 100 years in the same location, this coming weekend will likely be the last for Langula’s.

I plan to drop in, browse the aisles, breathe deeply. I’m sure they’ve got something there I need.

For Your Christmas List: Your Chance to “Let Love In”

by the Night Writer

About 16 years ago this month two little girls stood on stage with their Sunday-school classmates and sang “A Whale in the Manger” and other Christmas carols for an adoring public. One of those little girls was my daughter, the Mall Diva, and the other was her best friend, Casii (pronounced “Casey”) Stephan. The two of them would eventually partner as singers and songwriters and do a handful of public performances before little things like the Diva’s married life got in the way. Casii continued to hone her skills as a singer, a lyricist and composer however and even contributed a song to the soundtrack of the recently released movie “A Christmas Snow” (more about this movie in a later post). She also attracted the attention of a local music producer who helped her create a four-song EP that was released last week.

casii-stephan-cd-let-love-in-storeThe EP, Let Love In, features a mix of up-tempo pop songs and soulful ballads that showcase Casii’s luminous talents in the hopes of garnering wider attention in the industry. You don’t have to wait for Casii to be “discovered”, however, in order to discover her yourself. As of today all four songs from the EP — as well as her song “My Sweetest Dream” from the movie soundtrack — are available on both iTunes and Amazon to sample and to download, or you can contact her through her website to get the EP itself on CD.

Casii has always blown us away, even in her younger days when her big, big voice in a little body hardly required a microphone to fill the room when she sang. Maturity has brought depth and control to her voice as she sings with passion and nuance while also showing that she’s a top-notch songwriter and musician. It has been so much fun to watch her bloom over the years and I’m looking forward to her further development and success in the future. Be sure to take advantage of this early opportunity to witness the emergence of an exciting new talent!

For your Christmas list: a book about life, death, kittens and blue angels

by the Night Writer

It turns out that I have a number of very talented friends who have, in the last few months, demonstrated their skills and creativity by publishing books, making award-winning movies and releasing EPs. With Christmas approaching I thought that over the next several days  I’d feature these efforts here with the thought they might make it onto your shopping list.

First up is a book written by best bud from high school. He later went on to become a marine and a motorcycle cop. So, what kind of two-fisted book do you think he wrote?  Would you believe…

kittensplay Turns out my friend Nick and his late wife were very involved with cat rescue organizations for the last several years and he has collected his thoughts, experiences and even some visions into a book that is both an moving account of their experiences and a touching tribute to his wife while offering an interesting vision of what happens to our pets after they die. The book, In Heaven Kittens Play: the Blue Angel and Her Garden of Pets is available from Amazon (including a Kindle version)  and from Nick’s own website.

It’s a very nice read for anyone who’s lost a loved one or a beloved pet, and especially for those who are cat lovers (I’m looking at you, Gino). Nick’s been criss-crossing the country on book tours, signing books and doing radio and TV interviews but we both found ourselves back in our old hometown last summer where we were also able to catch up with our former Creative Writing instructor:

Miz Reed, me and Nick

Miz Reed, me and Nick

If you’re an animal lover, or know one, this book makes a great stocking-stuffer for the holidays.

Shine on you crazy diamond

by the Night Writer

Son@Night and I attended our first Twins game at the new Target Field on Monday. I’d been looking forward to it since we bought the tickets a couple of months ago, and felt some excitement as we approached the stadium, so I was a surprised to find myself feeling a little crabby as we walked in and found our seats. Not that finding our seats was difficult; you get in (and out) of Target Field very easily compared to the Metrodome, though we were caught in a clog on the first concouse by the crowd in front of a concession stand taking advantage of $1 Hot Dog day. My mood was as inexplicable as the Twins’ own run of indifferent play of late. I can’t explain them, but I think my mood was perhaps affected by expectations.

Expectations can be a funny thing. Last week, for example, we took in a town ball game at Jack Ruhr field in Miesville and while my expectations then were pleasant, they weren’t exceedingly high for an amateur game in a small town ballpark. As such, when we got inside the small park I was greatly impressed by the immaculate field and the pride of place demonstrated by the community as well as the general competence demonstrated by the amateur players. The staff inside Target Field were obviously and justifiably proud of their field and the fans moving through the concourse with us also seemed quite happy to be there. Plus, it was another gorgeous night for baseball and the new stadium isn’t just “outdoor baseball” on the field, but open and bright through the concourses as well. Still I found myself casting a critical eye here and there, perhaps because of scale: a ticket and a snack in Miesville ran a little over $5; after buying my ticket and some food at Target Field I was already over $50 for the evening. “Alright, impress me,” I thought as I got myself situated in my seat in the second deck of left field while simultaneously bemoaning that I’d forgotten to bring my hat and the early evening sun was coming over the wall directly into the side of my right eye. Never had that problem at the Dome.

Continue reading

Grandfather’s Day

by the Night Writer

I was moved by the story yesterday of the Mentor, MN man who was killed when he used his own body to protect his 25-year-old daughter from debris during a tornado. The man, Wes Michaels, was the owner of the Cenex station in Mentor and was taking the day off to celebrate his 58th birthday. His daughter was covering for him at the station. When he heard the news reports of severe weather headed their direction he went to his business to check on things and to warn his daughter and their customers. Shortly after arriving he saw the tornado coming right at them, and directed everyone into the business’s walk-in cooler, finally laying himself down on top of his daughter as the tornado hit. She survived with bruises and some stiffness … and an eternal reminder of a father’s love.

It symbolizes for me the ideal of a father literally laying down his life for his child; I’d even imagine that Mr. Michaels didn’t even think twice in the moment but reacted automatically as he would have done if his daughter were five instead of 25. I will even imagine that any father I know would do the same thing, even though we may never come face to face with a tornado. This morning, however, as I spoke to our Inside Outfitters group (consisting mainly of men going through drug and/or chemical rehab at Minnesota Teen Challenge) I wanted them to understand that the willingness to give up your life in a sudden instant is merely a dramatic part of what it means to lay down your life as a father.

Several years ago I wrote an essay on marriage where I suggested that most husbands, if it came down to it, would be willing to take a bullet for their wives. The real question, I said, is “Will you give her the last doughnut?” The point I was getting at is that we need to “die” to ourselves daily by putting aside our selfish interests (and newspapers) to do what is necessary to support our wives. It’s not as romantic as going out in a blaze of glory, but it is more beneficial to long-term happiness. Similarly, what I wanted the men to grasp today is that being a father bears a quite similar obligation; to put aside our self-interests as needed in order to provide a better life for our children. In the case of these men, for example, that means denying our desires or rationalizations to drink or do drugs in order to create a stable environment and so we can “be there” — as opposed to prison — when our children (and wives) need us.

I elaborated a bit on Mr. Michaels’ example, noting how he saw the storm coming, and how he put himself into position to protect his daughter. Similarly, we need to recognize the storms that can come and put ourselves in a position to love, nurture and protect…even if our inclination is do something else. Even if we didn’t receive an example of that ourselves growing up. I know that that is an ideal that my wife and I have tried to live up to for our children, and it has shaped the way we invested our time and spent our money. I can’t say that I’ve never indulged myself or that I’ve been totally self-sacrificing, or that I’ve always been cheerful about the responsibility, but it is an obligation that I recognize as being very real and even tangible.

So, anyway, I shared these thoughts with the men this morning and, as often happens, meditated upon them for myself after I went back to my seat. I did a little check-up to see if I’m still trying to live up to this ideal now that my children are older; now that, in fact, one of my daugthers is about to have a child of her own. And, as it often happens, I was immediately confronted with a situation where I have been harboring my own selfish thoughts and thinking about my own comfort and not about what others needed from me.

As my daughter shared the other day, she is planning on a home birth (which means — since she and Ben are living with us while he finishes his internship and last semester of seminary — my home). She has acquired the necessary accessories and assembled a crack team of her husband, mother, close friends and an experienced mid-wife all ready to swing into action at any moment day or night. For my part, as much as I am eager to see my first grandchild, I don’t want to be anywhere close to the action as the labor takes place and the baby arrives. I was there in person with my wife as our children were born and it was something I wouldn’t have dreamed of missing. The thought of hearing my own daughter’s travail, however, makes me weak in the knees. After all these years of looking out for her, it just seems so counter-intuitive. Of course, I was thinking only of what it meant to me, and not to her. I have said that I wanted to be playing 36 holes of golf while this was going on, or waiting a mile away at Buffalo Wild Wings to get the news and, bless her heart, my daughter has merely nodded and guarded her expression, though I believe I could tell it hurt her to some extent, even though I’ve tried to deny it to myself.

As I confronted this in myself today I knew that my place is here. Not in the same room, but close by, praying, jingling car keys, lifting furniture…just — as I’ve always promised my girls — being there. Even if I’d rather face down a tornado.

Here’s more about Wes Michaels. Sounds like he was a great example in so many ways.

Got me a hard-headed woman

by the Night Writer

This shuffled up today, from the artist formerly known as Cat Stevens…

I’m looking for a hard-headed woman
One who will take me for myself
And if I had my hard-headed woman
I won’t need nobody else, no, no, no
I’m looking for a hard-headed woman,
One who will make me do my best
And if I find my hard-headed woman
I know he rest of my life will be blessed, yes, yes, yes
I know a lot of fancy dancers
People who can glide you on a floor
They move so smooth but have no answers,
When you ask “Why did you come here for?”
I know many fine feathered friends
But their friendliness depends on how you do
They know many sure fired ways
To find out the one who pays and how you do
I’m looking for a hard-headed woman
One who will make me feel so good
And if I find my hard-headed woman,
I know my life will be as it should, yes, yes, yes

I know someone like that.