On the town in Turin

by the Night Writer

We didn’t get to see Turin (Torino) at its best as the week we were there it was pretty overcast and drizzly. Still, you can see the “old bones”, so to speak, of the history and culture here. The one-time capital of Italy under the Savoys, Turin is chock-full of churches, towers, museums and galleries, both above and below ground (see the earlier post about the Pietro Micca museum). One of the neatest things, though, is just to get out in the city on a Sunday afternoon where it seems everyone is on the Via Roma, Via Garabaldi and Via Po like middle-aged teens at the (outdoor) Mall.

Turin is also where we stayed in the 3 bedroom penthouse apartment – the nicest of all the places we stayed (and we’ve stayed in some nice ones). The apartment was through the Home-Swap organization we joined prior to the trip, and not an Airbnb location. The woman who owns the apartment is a book translator and in addition to an elevator that came right to the apartment’s foyer, a Nespresso machine, two bathrooms with showers, the place was full of shelves and stacks of books. We never met the owner, but we felt as if we knew her! The master bath also had a balcony that was high enough for us to see multiple fireworks displays across the city on New Years’s Eve.

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This is the Piazza Vittorio at the end of the Via Po, framing the Chiesa Gran Madre di Dio just across the River Po. The Via Po is is one of the four main streets in Turin (Torino) and leads from the Piazza Castello (the central square of Turin) down to the river. The Via Po features covered colonnades on both sides of the street all the way to the Vittorio; shops, restaurants and bookstores line both colonnades.

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The Garden and Fountain of the Angels at the Piazza Solferino in Turin. It wasn’t a particularly good day to stroll in a garden or past fountains.

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Duke Ferdinand of Savoy, in the Piazza Solferino. It’s not the greatest photo or most compelling image, but I liked the way the colors played off of each other.

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Vorpal blades and manxome foes – Part 4: snicker-snack

And, as in uffish thought he stood,

The Jabberwork, with eyes of flame,

Came whiffling through the tulgey wood,

And burbled as it came!

I had followed the Jabberwock’s trail through the wood and knew I was reaching some resolution. As I paused uffishly I thought back over some of the lessons and spiritual perspectives I had gained in the past year. Each was neat and useful by itself, but I also saw how those lessons had prepared me for this test. Last February, for example, I watched 18″ of snow fall on the Minneapolis airport while hoping my flight to Phoenix, and to the conference I’d been organizing for eight months, would be able to take off. Actually, I was doing more than hoping, I was praying. I even had some specific ideas of what kind of miracles needed to take place. Ultimately, rather than stress out as each hour brought a few more inches of snow,  I left it in God’s hands, focusing on the objective — getting to Phoenix — and leaving the rest to Him. It turned out that my plane was the last one to take off before the airport was closed, and that we also picked up a huge tailwind en route that cut nearly an hour off of the flying time.

I thought I’d learned a great lesson back then about trusting outcomes to God, but it turned out that February was just a practice test for November of this year as I weighed options for dealing with my cancer. I won’t go into all the possible treatments and their respective drawbacks here as this information already fills several medical journals and dedicated websites. I did seek out medical opinions, though. My original urologist was all in favor of doing open surgery. Oddly enough, he happened to be a surgeon. I also wanted to see a radiation oncologist, however, because I’d heard some good things about radiation treatment, especially the newer, focused-beam radiation that didn’t require as many treatments.

One of the services my company offers to our health-plan clients is up-to-date data on centers of excellence for various treatments. According to our team, the U of Minnesota and the Mayo Clinic are the premiere facilities for prostate cancer treatment in this area, and since the Mayo isn’t part of my insurance company’s network, I went to see a radiation oncologist at the U. He looked over my charts and talked to me about some options. “Your problem,” he said, “and it’s a good problem, is that you have too many options to choose from because of your relatively young age, overall health and your longer life expectancy. Too many men when we see them have other health issues besides the cancer and we are limited in the kinds of treatment we can do that won’t be a greater risk to them than the cancer itself.” I asked him, if he were me, what treatment he would have, expecting him to recommend his own specialty.

“If it were me,” he said, “I’d have the Da Vinci robotic surgery.”

“Would you go to the Mayo for the procedure? I see where they are pretty proud of their state-of-the-art robotic technology.”

“If it were me,” he said, “I’d be more interested in WHO was doing the cutting, rather than the tool he was using.”

“So, who would you have do it?”

“The Chair of our Urology Department is one of the best there is at this, and he’s done thousands of the procedure. ”

So, a day later, I was meeting with Dr. Konety and various members of his team to go over the procedure in greater detail. Not only were they both professional and friendly (not that easy to find), they had room in the schedule to operate on me before the year was out, saving me from having to incur another large deductible when paying for this. I was very interested in everything they had to say, but I also wanted to leave room for a miraculous outcome. I said I would likely have the surgery, but I would like another PSA test first to further confirm my condition. Unfortunately, it turned out that you have to allow a couple of months after a biopsy before you can get an accurate PSA since the biopsy “angries up” the prostate and distorts the test results. It wouldn’t be possible to get this done yet this year.

On the other hand, however, the U is participating with the Mayo Clinic in a trial of a pre-surgery Magnetic Resonance Spectography technique using a 3 Tesla magnetic probe that is twice as powerful as what is typically used. This version of the MRS delivers high-resolution images that, along with a dye injected into my body, would give them a precise picture of where the cancer was, how much there was and if it had spread before they even began the surgery.

I thought back to when my oldest daughter was five and broke her arm. When we came back to the doctor for a check-up 10 days after her soft cast had been placed on her they ended up x-raying her arm two more times because they couldn’t find any sign of a break. That is, not only was there no break, but there was no sign of the callusing that typically accompanies a healed bone.

“Hmmm,” I said to my present-day care team.

“There will be no cost to you if you participate in the study,” they said.

“Sign me up,” I said. The peace I had been holding out for settled around me. My thought was that I’d have the MRS, and if it should turn out that they could no longer see any cancer, then great! If the cancer was still there, I’d go through with the robotic procedure and eradicate the tumor sooner rather than later. The scan was scheduled for Dec. 6, and the surgery for Dec. 8, which meant we wouldn’t get the results of the scan until right before the surgery. The hardest part of the scan was spending an hour and a half in the MRI machine. I’m not claustrophobic, but I was glad that they didn’t need to put my head in the tube for the scanning. Another fun thing is that you have to stay absolutely still when the scanner is passing over you since movement blurs the images. This wasn’t a problem with the first battery of scans, but then it came time to inject the dye into my system. The dye went in through an IV in my right arm, and I could feel the warm sensation as it moved up my arm, then into my neck and face on its way to other parts. When it got to my lips, the warm sensation turned into a strong tingle…and then it got to my nose and I suddenly had a strong urge to sneeze. I resisted as long as I could but ultimately gave in to three, racking sneezes. Fortunately this was only a minor disruption for the scanner.

The day of the surgery arrived quickly and I started that morning by going out for coffee with the Reverend Mother and Tiger Lilly. Somehow or another, coffee counts as a clear liquid which was all I was permitted to have prior to the surgery.  After coffee we went home and I checked some emails and Facebook to kill time until leaving for the hospital. Despite the impending surgery and the enforced fasting, I was still at peace, even looking forward to either receiving a miracle or getting the surgery over with. While on Facebook I came across a status report from my brother alerting everyone that I was undergoing cancer surgery and requesting prayers. It was a welcome request that touched my heart — but also my funnybone, which is part calcium but mostly Monty Python.

I quickly added a comment to my brother’s update: “I feel happy! I think I’ll go for a walk!”

To which my two daughters, located in two different states, responded nearly simultaneously with virtually the same retort: “You’re not fooling anyone, you’ll be stone dead in a minute.”

Ah, the innumerable joys of raising one’s children properly, though it may have caused a few people who didn’t have the proper context to raise their eyebrows and perhaps their concern.

Once at the hospital they put me in the pre-op area in a room with a big curtain across the  front. I was told to undress and put on the hospital gown (equipped with a heat source, I kid you not) and pull the curtain back when I was ready. When I did so there were four people in scrubs and caps standing just outside, talking. The sound of the curtain caused them to turn at look at me. I looked back at them. We stayed that way for a couple of moments. “Elvis has left the building,” I said. They moved on.

I climbed up on the gurney and got myself situated as a nurse hooked up the heater to my gown. The Reverend Mother came in about then and we talked a bit while we waited for the surgeon to come in for his pre-op visit. My wife wanted to know if I needed anything, so I asked her to pull my iPad out of my briefcase next to my clothes and read Psalm 139 to me (they’d already tucked my glasses away). She did, slowly, and in the process we both got a little misty. Not because we were sad or afraid but because we were moved by the compassion God shows to us.

Dr. Konety arrived with the scans from the MRS taken two days before. The cancer was there, occupying about 10% of my prostate. We reviewed the images (very clear!) and he told us that it appeared that the cancer was completely contained and hadn’t spread to neighboring areas. He discussed the procedure and I signed the final authorization to go through with the surgery. My wife stepped away and the anesthesiologist came in and told me what he was going to do throughout the surgery, which would take about four hours. He started a little drip to help me relax (I already had a couple of IVs in me) and then my wife returned. I looked at the anesthesiolgist and said, “Are you sure you’re doing this right? I think I just saw an angel.”

One, two! One, two! And through and through!

The vorpal blade went snicker-snack

He left it dead and with its head

He went galumphing back.

After that I remember nothing until I opened my eyes and did, indeed, see angels: Tiger Lilly and the Reverend Mother hovering over me. I was in the recovery area and they were only allowed a few moments in which to see me because it was nearly 10 p.m. and the area was about to close. My wife told me that Dr. Konety had already talked to them to say the procedure had gone very well and everything was exactly how it looked in the scans once they got inside. They were all but certain they had found all the cancer and gotten it out, along with the prostate, lymph nodes and seminal vesicles while completely sparing the nerves. That was great news, but I was finding it a little hard to believe that I had been unconscious; I knew why I was there and what was supposed to have happened, but it bothered me that I couldn’t remember going into the OR. Apparently, though, I can be rather amusing when coming out from under general anesthetic.

I passed a relatively uneventful night back in my double room. I was comfortable and restful though of course the nurse kept coming in regularly to check my signs and take me for short walks around the all but deserted nurses station. I even scored a couple of popsicles, which tasted fabulous. They ended up keeping me in the hospital until early evening, meaning I spent about 32 hours there from the time I checked in until I checked out. The Da Vinci robotic process calls for only a handful of small incisions in order to insert the various cameras, vorpal blades, lights and other necessities. I also had a new, three-inch scar running vertically from above my navel, from which they had removed the Jabberwock’s head as well as the rest of it’s ugly parts, along with some things that I had been using but wouldn’t be anymore.

12 days after the surgery I went in for a post-op exam. My recovery had been going very well; I hadn’t needed the Percocet they sent me home with (Tylenol worked fine) and I’d even made it out of the house for a couple of events, including serving about 30 pounds of ham at our Inside Outfitters Christmas breakfast. (It was a good thing I’d passed on the opportunityto deliver the message that morning, though!). On December 20th I met with a new doctor who examined me and told me that the post-op pathology report completely confirmed that there was no cancer in any of the other tissues they took out of me which means there is virtually no chance (they’ll never bring themselves to say “no chance”) of prostate cancer still being inside me. I’ll go through a series of quarterly, extra-sensitive PSA tests to confirm this over the next year but I’m galumphing around, convinced the beast is dead and I’ve made it out of the tulgey wood.

Since then I have been making steady progress in my recovery. I’m having to relearn some things but it looks as if it is all coming back to me. Not that I was that concerned once I had found my peace. In fact, I’ve heard over and over from the staff, my nurse consultant from my insurance company and from folks involved in my physical therapy about how well I’m doing and how remarkable my attitude has been.

Certainly, though, there are thoughts that go through your head when you hear you have cancer, and foremost among these is that this might be the end of the line. I knew the statistics said 33,000 men a year die from prostate cancer, but I also knew that a huge multiple of that number die with prostate cancer every year. That is, the cancer is typically slow-growing and when you reach a certain age something else is likely to get you before the cancer does. Still, the word is definitely a mortal knock on the door marked “Exit.” Once I got out of my brief fear/pity experience I had little room or time for negative thoughts, but I did allow myself a little time one afternoon to think about whether I felt cheated — or felt that I had cheated — in my life. I was a little surprised to discover that, in fact, I was pretty content. Oh, there are things that I still want to do, and some of them are rather big, but I also knew I had loved well and been well-loved. When I considered my legacy — my daughters — I knew that if I had accomplished nothing other than playing my part in setting them on a path of faith and accomplishment then my life was an unqualified success, and I believe that is indeed the case. Once I had settled it for myself that I could, indeed, die happy then I was able to set morbid thoughts of mortality aside.

Granted, at some point I will die, and I’ve spent no little amount of time thinking about the process I went through and how my faith manifested itself. I know I was blessed, but I also know many people feel themselves cursed or abandoned as they go through something like this. I know there are those with faith who endure endless complications and pain, and even die from this. Does God love me and not them?

I can’t accept that. I don’t believe that the plans God has for me are any more special than what He has in mind for anyone else. It has been my good luck, if you want to call it that, that I have been able to pick up a few extra glimmers of revelation that have helped me, but even these little flashes only show me how much I still have to comprehend. There are things in the natural, such as getting cancer, that still seem almost unreal to me. At the same time, elements of the supernatural have never seemed more real to me than they do now. I know that I still get in my own way too much of the time when trying to get a handle on some of these things, but I have seen that even when I trip myself up, someone is there to catch me.

“And has thou slain the Jabberwock?

Come to my arms, my beamish boy!

O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!”

He chortled in his joy.

‘Twas brillig and the slithy toves

Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;

All mimsy were the borogoves,

And the mome raths outgrabe.

 

Related:

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

The Letterman

 

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

 by the Night Writer

He took his vorpal sword in hand,

long-time the manxome foe he sought –

So rested he by the Tumtum tree,

And stood awhile in thought.

Most people who know me would likely say that I’m a pretty positive guy, strong in my faith. I’ve experienced many miracles in my life, including healing,  and I’ve learned to wield the “sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God” (Eph. 6:17). I’ve been blessed to have been used to pray and heal others, including a couple of dramatic cases, one of which was a true matter of life and death.  In fact, thinking back on it now, I can say that there are two people alive today because God used me to pray; once to open a barren womb and once to stop the effects of a massive stroke. Those are stories for another time, because I also have to say that despite these experiences, I found myself feeling low and more than a little alone after the Jabberwock announced, “Game on.”

The lowest point actually came between the time I had the biopsy done and when I got the results. It was a Friday night and I made the mistake of entertaining the jubjubs and bandersnatches late at night before going to bed. One of the factoids I came across was that if left untreated, prostate cancer metastasizes easily into the lymph nodes and into the bones, especially in the lower back and hips, and once into the bones is often fatal. My father ultimately died of lymphoma, detected via a bone biopsy,  and the very reason I had gone in for a physical in the first place was because I’d had chronic pain in my lower back and hips for a year that just never seemed to go completely away.

When I read that, well past my bedtime, I suddenly pictured cancer having got into my bones and lymphatic system because I had ignored the pain for so long. It was a fitful night, to say the least and I was not a jolly and well-rested fellow on Saturday morning. As I prayed scriptures of peace and healing that morning something strange happened. It was as if I dozed off for a few minutes where I was seated, which wouldn’t have been unusual given the lack of sleep and my stress level. The thing is, when I “came to” I was at once at peace. I had the definite sense that I had been somewhere else for a few minutes, but I had no recollection of where or what had been said, only that my attitude was completely changed. And as I went about my morning I started to think of reasons — some pretty obvious unless you’re trying to think clearly after midnight — why the pain in my legs and hips couldn’t have been bone related. As the day went on, my outlook continued to brighten, perhaps because I was such a clever fellow.

Then Sunday morning came around and during the praise and worship part of our service I suddenly had a picture in my mind of two trees in the Garden of Eden. One was the tree of life and the other was the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. At that moment I realized that I had been spending all my time swinging from the branches of the wrong tree. I had turned to the knowledge that I had from my work in healthcare, to what I had found on-line and from other resources, and been bounced around pretty good. Not that it was all evil — it is the tree of the knowledge of good and evil after all — but there isn’t any peace in that knowledge, even when I had thought I’d “figured out” the fear that had disquieted me the day before.

I also realized that I while I had had knowledge of the Tree of Life, I had not been drawing on my understanding. That is, while I had been embracing God’s word, I had not been dwelling on His character and on the things He has done in my life.  I had talked earlier in the morning with my pastor about what I had gone through and what I thought I had realized. He was standing near me after I had this revelation so I walked over to him while the music was still playing and with a smile said, “You know, there were two trees in the garden.” He must have understood what I meant because when we moved into a different part of the service he asked me to come up front and handed me a New Living Translation and asked me to read Psalm 139, verses 1 through 18 to the congregation.

O LORD, you have examined my heart and know everything about me. You know when I sit down or stand up. You know my thoughts even when I’m far away. You see me when I travel and when I rest at home. You know everything I do. You know what I am going to say even before I say it, LORD. You go before me and follow me. You place your hand of blessing on my head. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me, too great for me to understand! I can never escape from your Spirit! I can never get away from your presence! If I go up to heaven, you are there; if I go down to the grave, you are there. If I ride the wings of the morning, if I dwell by the farthest oceans, even there your hand will guide me, and your strength will support me. I could ask the darkness to hide me and the light around me to become night—but even in darkness I cannot hide from you. To you the night shines as bright as day. Darkness and light are the same to you. You made all the delicate, inner parts of my body and knit me together in my mother’s womb. Thank you for making me so wonderfully complex! Your workmanship is marvelous—how well I know it. You watched me as I was being formed in utter seclusion, as I was woven together in the dark of the womb. You saw me before I was born. Every day of my life was recorded in your book. Every moment was laid out before a single day had passed. Precious are your thoughts about me, O God. They cannot be numbered! I can’t even count them; they outnumber the grains of sand! And when I wake up, you are still with me!

“That is the Tree of Life, John,” he said when I finished and returned to my seat. From that morning on I no longer had any fear about what was going to happen, even when I received word the following week that the biopsy was positive. I pursued the options that were before me with peace, supported by my wife who said she would agree on any course of action I chose that brought me peace. I smiled when I came across John 16:15, remembering the Tree of Life: “You did not choose Me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit, and that your fruit should remain, that whatever you ask the Father in My name He may give you.”

 

Next: Snicker-snack

 

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

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

by the Night Writer

“Beware the Jabberwock, my son

The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!”

We each have things that we fear. Some of these we’ll name, others are too scary to speak out-loud, or perhaps belong to a black grab-bag of things we don’t want to think about, let alone name. Let’s call the nameless and numberless, “Jabberwock”. Made up of myth, rumor and the darkest corners of our imagination, the Jabberwock is a shape-shifter. At once mysterious and familiar,  its features are indistinct and take different forms with different people, always representing that which lurks just outside the light of the campfire. Perhaps you know it.

That may seem too primeval for our modern era of science and reason. Surely we are past the time of clutching talismans and muttering incantations to protect us now that we have the internet, right?

The name of my Jabberwock floated on its spectral breath after I hung up the phone that evening last summer. Cancer. That beast has stalked my family for generations. Parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins and other relations. My father’s brother has prostate cancer, and my father had it and then  ultimately died of lymphoma. “Beware the Jabberwock, my son.”

I know the jaws that bite, the claws that catch. In the days following the call I would also discover, however,  that the Jabberwock doesn’t hunt alone.

“Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun

The frumious Bandersnatch.”

Leading up to the biopsyI threw myself into research, following Google-trails through tulgey woods and brambles both to bastions of higher learning and to beacons of alternative therapies and secrets.  I set out looking for hope, but for every bright possibility there was twice the discouragement. Much of the information, even from the experts – such as the need for and effectiveness of the PSA test – was even contradictory.

Then there were the treatment options, should the biopsy come back positive. I read up on all the options, from the least intrusive to the most radical and the good things about each option would sound really good, but the bad things that went along with each sounded really bad. It looked as if there were no way out of the box I was in that didn’t have significant risks and ongoing quality of life issues. I would start my day in prayer and find peace, only to be taunted by Jubjub birds and having that peace leached away by frumious Bandersnatches with every mouse-click during the day.

And the biopsy came back positive.

Next: Of Tum-tums and other trees

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

Vorpal blades and manxome foes, Part 1 – ’twas brillig

by the Night Writer

‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves Did gyre and gimble in the wabe; All mimsy were the borogoves, And the mome raths outgrabe.

It was late evening on a late summer’s day and golden light still shone through the windows like a warm embrace. I’d worked late and was eating a belated supper my wife had left in the oven for me when the phone rang.

“John, it’s Dr. P-. How are you doing?”

“Well, I thought I was doing pretty well but since you’re calling me at home late on a weeknight I’m guessing you’re not calling to ask me my ideas on how to solve the Twins’ bullpen issues.”

“Ahhh…heh…no. I’ve been going over your tests from your physical and wanted to share the results with you.”

“Ohhhh-kay.”

Dr. P- proceeded to tell me that my blood pressure was terrific, my cholesterol was so low that it barely registered on the chart, and that my triglycerides were a bit high but not unmanageable.

“Then there’s your PSA,” he said, “do you know what that is?”

“Prostate Specific Antigen,” I said. “My father had prostate cancer so I’m familiar with the PSA test.”

“Ah, your father, yes. Um, well, your PSA level is 8.6, which wouldn’t be high for a man in his 70s, but for someone your age…”

“53.”

“Yes, for someone 53, the PSA should be 3.5 or lower.”

“So….”

“So I’d like to schedule you for a biopsy with a urologist so we can investigate this a bit more and decide if anything needs to be done.”

“Ohhh-kay.”

We discussed further details and I put down the phone. Still sitting at the dinner peninsula in our kitchen I looked out the window into our front yard. Ash, poplar and maple were still glowing in the setting sun, though perhaps the light was a bit darker now. The windows were open and I could hear children, a lawn mower, distant traffic … and the  susurrant burbling  of a beast sliding through the shrubberies of Eden.

Beware the Jabberwock, my son The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!

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 The Letterman

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. 

 

10 years ago, and 10 years on

by the Night Writer

Ten years ago I wasn’t blogging, but I was writing. On Sunday, September 16 I published the first essay below –  “When the Towers Fall” – in the monthly handout I prepared for our men’s ministry at church. It was based on my observations of the past few days and the role of faith and biblical understanding in those circumstances. A month later I followed up with a second essay, taking off from the words of a certain televangelist to examine the nature and purpose of judgment. I share these two essays below for a picture of that time. Later this week I’ll come back and share how I think things have – or haven’ t – changed for me and my nation in the intervening years.

When the Towers Fall

Ultimately, America’s secular façade crumbled even before its material symbols collapsed. I first turned on my radio – and heard the first words regarding Tuesday’s disaster – moments before the second tower was struck. The voices of the national news team were already urging Americans to pray for the safety of those involved. It sounded almost glib at first, but as the unreal became real and the horror increased by the minute, the references became more heartfelt, even desperate.

As our true helplessness and vulnerability became apparent, the call to pray was in every report and every story. And pray we did: alone, with our families, and in special services and vigils that themselves became news. All of this flying in the face of a culture and media that has said for years that faith and divine intervention are, at best, inappropriate if not impossible. It must have been like discovering that the kooky old aunt you’ve been keeping in the attic is the only one who knows where the family silver is buried.

But which is the true picture of America? Are we a secular society that merely pays lip service to faith when a crisis looms, or are we a nation of quiet faithful who allow ourselves to be cowed by society until circumstances give us a chance to break out? I know how our attackers would describe us.

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The reason for grandchildren

by the Night Writer

Down among the reeds and rushes
A baby boy was found
His eyes as clear as centuries
His silky hair was brown

Never been lonely
Never been lied to
Never had to scuffle in fear
Nothing denied to
Born at the instant
The church bells chime
And the whole world whispering
Born at the right time

Our pastor likes to say, “God gives you children so that you can grow up.” The point is that your thinking changes when you realize the long-term responsibility you have, and your behavior (hopefully) changes when you start to recognize your less admirable traits showing up in your children. Unless, of course, you don’t mind your child turning into a despicable evil genius.

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A second thought along this line occurred to me the other day: “and God gives you grandchildren so you can mature.” By that I mean the satisfaction that comes from seeing all the things you worked so hard to put into your child manifest itself in and around your grandchild. It’s the pay-off for the blood, sweat, tears and unpopular decisions you made to strengthen your own character as well as your son or daughter’s and it comes when you see how they love and teach their own children in turn, perhaps even with a greater patience and discipline than you yourself possessed at the same stage in your life. It’s at this point that you realize that your hopes for the future are bearing fruit and your work has passed from your hands.

I also realized that the same thing applies not just to the natural children you’ve borne or created, but to the “supernatural” or spiritual children you’ve discipled in the faith. How warm and glorious a feeling it is to see these children living on and sharing the things they’ve learned with others. Whether with natural or supernatural children, this is the point where you are truly overcome with the realization that something of you really is going to live on.

As an aside, this revelation may have germinated with me last week at the Bible study I lead at the Red Wing correctional facility. As it happens, each of the men in the study will be released at some point this year and I was moved to read the short chapter of Isaiah 61:1 to them. The first verse — “the LORD has anointed Me To preach good tidings to the poor; He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted, To proclaim liberty to the captives, And the opening of the prison to those who are bound…” — was what had first caught my attention, but it was the rest of the chapter that was the most powerful because it deals with what can happen for those that receive that word and that liberty. Among these is in verse 3 — “that they may be called trees of righteousness” — and especially verse 9: “Their descendants shall be known among the Gentiles, And their offspring among the people. All who see them shall acknowledge them, That they are the posterity whom the LORD has blessed.”

The mens’ faces were a bit gob-smacked as I challenged them to be those trees and I saw the realization soaking into them of the effect they could have into the next generation and the next in the families they had yet to create. “You have the chance,” I told them, “to have your grandchildren say of you either that ‘Grandpa did 10 to 20’ or that ‘Grandpa was a mighty man of righteousness who was an example to our family and set my feet on the path.'”

And T. added, “Or they could say both.”

As for my own grandson, now five and a half months old, his face often has gobs of different things on it, but it is almost invariably smiling. And why shouldn’t he? He is literally surrounded by people who love him and are happy to see him and quick to want to hold him. As Paul Simon said at the beginning of this post, he’s never been lonely, never been lied to, never had to scuffle for fear or had anything he needs denied to him.  If called upon I would gladly and readily pour everything I am and everything I have into him, but I can relax because I see that my daughter and her husband already know what it is they have to impart. My heart overflows with joy when I watch my grandson or hold him close and at the same time I feel an ache knowing that every day the news brings stories of babies that are resented, cursed and abused.

I look into his eyes, as clear as centuries, and stroke his silky brown hair and think of those born into suffering now and the deprivation they face that goes beyond mere food, clothing and shelter. I think of their lives and future paths leading into captivity and the need for someone, someday, to bring the words of liberty. And I hold my grandson even closer and whisper into his ear, “Born at the right time.”

Hardwared

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.

Running with the storm

by the Night Writer

I’m cruising west on the two-lane County Road 50 heading out of Miesville and making for Hwy. 52. When I had stepped out of King’s Place moment’s before the northern and western skies were luminous despite it being after 9:00 p.m. To the east and south, however, lay Mordor with lines of lightning crackling non-stop between walls of bruised eggplant. I had turned toward the light instead.

Now, ahead of me, the sky is a dingy parfait of blue and pink with gray-brown clouds striated across like a relief-map of the Hebrides archipelago. Appropriately, George Mauer’s “Running With the Storm” shuffles up on the stereo and the piano pounds as rain-drops start to gravel on my rear window. Looking to my right the dark green farm fields hold houses, barns, silos and electrical towers that all seem to glow from within. To my left, the sky looks like an overturned basket of eggs. Still ahead of me, the glowing sky is smaller but even in the face of the inevitable it is not going down without a fight. Not tonight.