Sunday, June 28, 2015

First and For Most

I was recently asked to speak at an upcoming event about my first time. I responded with my first time doing what... they said that was up to me... they were warned that you know I'm a typical male so they should be more specific but still left it open... This may well be the last speaking invitation I ever get ;)...

But at the risk of anyone whose coming to it knowing in advance, it'll be about my first kisses which were wonderful and horrible. She clearly had more experience than I did and it lasted all of a second and then someone got our attention and two teenagers were too shy to acknowledge anything. I didn't know at the time but because of an unexpected move, I would never see her again.  It would be months before the second one and the second girl, who would be my first girlfriend (and if anyone's wondering how romantic I get, I still use the way she put together my initials when I was 14 to this very day). After trying to kiss her, she looked up and said, you don't do this very often do you? I tried to be witty and said, "teach me."

The speech itself is actually at Livestrong and I am going to be reflecting a little bit of the approach I've taken since the cancer diagnosis which perhaps for too long was taking opportunities as if they were the last time. Has there been wisdom in that? I think some of course but as I sit here and wake up to some of the things that have been turned off, I can only wonder if perhaps a slight tune up would have been to keep the tune of first time because your first time at anything may well be your last time but if you only go in with your lifetime, you want to do your best but you're obviously not paying attention to the ways a future time could get better. 

And so June is about to wrap up and I'm thinking about some really cool stuff. It's only the second time ever in my life I've done 5 races in one month and the first time I've ever I've won 3 of them (which is 2 more than I'd won in all the other months of this year combined)! Well let me back up a little because while coming in first is cool (I am competitive), exactly 2 of those races were on the calendar not too long ago. An inaugural Voices Against Brain Cancer race in New Jersey which started it all, my first race and function as ARC president. Those were great and then I
got to go AT&T stadium, my first time in the New Cowboys stadium (yes I am a Cowboys fan and proud of it!). Just walking into the building and realizing that my first time there was exciting but realizing that it wasn't a spectator, it was as an athlete. We got to run through locker rooms and all the way to the top of the stairs, we crossed the 50 yard line star as athletes getting obstacles done (though not being chased down by gigantic NFL players). I saw some new obstacles and got them done (though we were being put on the big screen and of course the one time I made it was when I failed an obstacle and had to do burpees). Then I went back and cheered on the family and friends that were doing the course (does that make me a Dallas Cowboys cheerleader? Wanting and Dallas Cowboys cheerleader has gone through my mind before but wanting to be one wasn't how those usually go through my head).

The kids course has gotten cooler obstacle. But speaking of that, that was my  my favorite part of the weekend. I've gotten lots of family to join different races and a few friends but the friend I've had continuously for the longest time, since I was 8 and she was 9 came and did her first Spartan and then our kids, our kids did the race together at 8 and 10. Talk about circle of life stuff! Someone gave me a kilt once upon a time and I combined it with compression socks joking to Kiana about how this was how much skin you should be showing when wearing a skirt, a joke that luckily she doesn't yet understand. Still it was father's day weekend and my mom was there and would come to start the summer off with us and I'm not sure it could have been better.

But the firsts of the month things continued, there is this word game that Kiana has got me playing and I let her know that unlike running which I do next to her that there will be some things I never let her beat me at until she actually does it (she'll be learning chess this summer). On this word game, I thought it'd be a while, it was less than a month since we started playing and she beat me 3 times in a row! I mean I let her win ;).

And they happen with the position that I took as ARC president, I may be biased but I like to think the one I'm a part of is the best ARC board ever but as we get new things done or bigger things done, I think and say to them and to myself, "we're just getting started." And the nobility with which they are working hard as volunteers show that they know how to put other people first. So we have made some first time partnerships and tried to renew ones. It's a long way to go and some factors are out of our control but we had a great first month and did I mention we're just getting started.

And then on my first race ever on a driveway that I'd biked on, I'd been meaning to do one but the two I had in mine gotten cancelled because of all the rain, I went to one unexpectedly because another event I was going to had gotten rained out. And in my 4th race of the month, I took first place, first time I've ever won 2 races in one month since college which was done by my friend Kate who won the women's division for her second w of the month.. And because it's on a course that is 1.6 miles and we do two loops, it was actually a 3.2 race which I've been working a little more on speed after the calf healed and the long distance stuff was out of season and it was faster than the two 3.1 races I've done this month! I wasn't in the lead till the second half but it was pretty cool to get the W...

At everyone of these races, I've gone out with friends and family, people I love cause that's my style, the best style. And my ARC vice president and friend Elaine, she was celebrating her birthday by doing a trail race, Captain Karl's Pedernales Falls. It was my first one so I signed up for the 10k, she was doing the 30k. We actually had 8 people from our running group out there and all of them finished and 5 of them places with Elaine taking the women's 30k division and 7th over all. I would win the 10k but I wasn't in the lead till the second half. If you're wondering who I was trailing and who came in second place over all by less than a minute, it was a 14 year old high school girl! She's already one of those girls that doesn't chase boys... She passes them. It's very different to race on trails but it was kind of cool to get my feet wet with a win (literally got my feet wet, we had to run through a lake that had overflowed to the lake because of all the rain).

If you'd told me June 1st that I would have been doing 5 races by the end of the month, I might have believed you. If you had told me I was going to win 3 of them, I would have laughed at you. Still there's this lady from church who I affectionally called church lady who introduced me to a song Afterlife, one that has never made a race playlist but will make one soon. I've been listening to it a bit more... with lines that I am perhaps only starting to put together:

Living like you're dying isn't living at all
Give me your cold hands put them on my heart
Raise a glass to everyone who thinks
They'll never make it through this life
To live a brand-new start

We're going to live tonight cause there's no tomorrow
cause we're the afterlife.

So I've woken up in ambulances, I still have cancer all of which were unexpected. And there are things I should and will do with precautions because of that. And while I will probably still take some things as my last time (will I ever get to do any of those races again, who knows?) I will also take them as my first time because on your first time you're excited, enthusiastic and trying to do your best but still trying to learn. For me, for the most part, I try to put the people I'm grateful for first. I don't want to be like cancer which lives primarily for itself. And it hasn't always been entirely consistent but life has been kind to me where my first marathon with a stroller turned into what it did, my month with the most wins was to share life with people I care about. So perhaps the way what I've called life part II, what that song has labeled after life has worked out because has been so kind is because the universe balances itself with putting others first most of the time. After all, if you don't believe me, ask about that girl who I first kissed, I still smile at the memory 20 years later.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

The Happiness of Pursuit

One of those great declarations says that we are all created equal and are endowed with certain unalienable rights, among them life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. While waiting to show up to get MRI results, well,  I have no question how alien it feels to have someone else be the one who has a better idea of what my brain currently looks like. It certainly doesn't feel right that it seems that someone else has the liberty to more accurately interpret what's going on with something that could threaten my life which could certainly affect my happiness.

It is perhaps that reason, that OCD wants to have some say in this disease that I always take a copy of the CD home. After the last MRI, I was given a new Mac computer for Christmas which I've loved but on that day I despised it. Well let me take it back a step and say I was amused to realize my MRI was on national running day. I personally think everyday should be nationally acclaimed for running but as is my typical custom I ran home from the MRI. I always say I'm not sure if I'm running to or from something but that day, well that day I knew I was running from a machine I hate to a home I love. And then when I went to look at my CD, to pretend like I knew how to read it, there was a notice on it that, unlike in windows, it doesn't just automatically work. In fact it said this does not work on Mac's so for the first time in years... I didn't get to see my MRI before hearing the doctor's interpretation. 

The time between the test and the results the clock seems to be a lot slower but we did what we could. Kiana did her own run on national running day. And then we went to a concert in the park where on the last school night Kiana might have gotten permission to stay out later than usual and to bed well past normal time (shh don't tell anyone). 

And then Thursday June 4th when I would find out the results, I tried to find ways to stay distracted through the morning. It was my little brother's birthday so I started remembering funny memories like when we went camping and his head was on fire which I reminded him privately by posting it on facebook (if he was wittier he might have retorted with at least my fire was outside my skull but he's probably too kind to say that on MRI results day). Then I showed up to awards assembly where Kiana was one of a vast minority of students who had perfect attendance. I can't say I am not super proud of this since I'm the one who walks her to school almost every single day and because it sends a message I hope to always encourage, you can't make any difference without showing up. 

Then that wait which always seems endless ended with results that the MRI was still stable. Nothing had gotten better,
nothing had gotten worse. There was one thing that had never been there before which was fluid but apparently the body sometimes wants to fill empty spaces with water so the doctor said that unless I am getting really bad headaches, it's nothing to worry about. I am a constant pain in the ass but there have been no headaches. And then the guy who I've seen twice so far this year let me know we're going to take some space and not see each other again till December :). Actually, when we last met, he was telling me about some new studies and progress that was being made that could be dramatic but this time he didn't share anything like that. He simply said at one point "Maybe you'll be one of the lucky ones who this never grows on." He's never said anything remotely close to that and I have no idea what prompted it but perhaps my roommate who had gone with me caught it better than anyone because he immediately texted it to me. We would talk about the Boston marathon and upcoming races and events. There's many reasons I trust this brilliant mind but it's because despite being quirky enough to become a brain specialist and to wear bowties (bowties are cool; I've started wearing them since I met him), the reason he's a good doctor in my book is because he's a good human at sharing and receiving humanity. 

And somehow breathing easier I headed back to Kiana's end of year party at school where the girl had ended the last quarter of the school year with straight A's and improved behavior assessments. I hope she holds on to these skills and realizes that success is a marathon not a sprint. I don't know if there will be any more stroller races but she's done enough of her own races now to where I hope she goes from being pushed, to being besides her to doing things on her own in due time and that's the parallel I hope goes along with all of my parenting and when all the pursuits become entirely her own.

But before I knew the results, I knew that no matter what they were I was flying out the day after them to head to the east coast once again to help out with a couple of cancer causes. I got to be part of the inaugural team Livestrong marathon (first time I qualified for Boston), part of the inaugural Brain Power 5k (first race I'd won since college), the inaugural head for the cure 5k (first race Kiana won her age group) and now I got to once again join Voice's Against Brain Cancer. Their 8k in Central park in 2013 was the first and only one of 3 times I've ran faster with a stroller than without. I actually had not done a 5k on my own since the previous September when I won the brain power 5k and while I've kept running, I am well aware that the fast twitch muscles are different and hoping they worked. I couldn't resist starting the playlist with a song from Jersey Boys which feels the way  my life is on the good days, which is most days, that it was just too good be true. And while I've never prayed to beat cancer, figuring that there's plenty people who deserve God's attention more, I know there's been plenty of people who have done it for me and of course as I ran around there, I thanked God I was alive.

I don't usually write on the boards, not really thinking there are not adequate words evenn as a guy who talks and writes
too much. But I know that the first race I did with that was with Brian Conley who has passed away from brain cancer just a few weeks ago so in my head, in my heart I'd be running for Team Conley wearing my Duke gear, reminding me of where our paths had first crossed. It helped to start the race with a text from his wife to kick ass and take names. I gunned out with conviction, smiling at the guy who said since it was Jersey he'd bet $500 that I'd win it. I did win so I felt like I'd gotten the kicking ass part right. Fortunately, I was also given the privilege of introducing and announcing the courage award winners. Two years ago I was one of the recipients of that and I felt both fit and unworthy to be the one giving them in 2015. Each person had great stories like the person who put off surgery with multiple seizures to graduate college which was a long time and a lot of effort. There was a writer who did a great job of encapsulating her story and echoing those of others.. It was a tough moment for me to give one to a widow of someone who had passed away who had been at the first event I was at. It gives you perspective and I couldn't do anything but give her a hug. So I didn't take enough names but I certainly felt the honor of recognizing some good ones. I don't know where or what they'll do with those medals but I hope, I hope they serve as a reminder that there is a community that supports them, a gentle nudge like when someone puts soft fingers on your back because they don't know quite what to say but want to remind you they care immensely. Being surrounded and meeting people who were affected by brain tumors, winning a 5k and handing them awards. I'm not sure there was a better way to spend national cancer survivors day. 

The next morning I flew out to DC. It was an interesting reflection to go from Voices Against Brain Cancer to One Voice Against Cancer. E pluribus unum, from many one, is an idea shared a lot in the US government. And so to arrive from an agenda that's very specific to brain tumors to one that was about cancer in general felt fitting. Almost 50 organizations had joined hands that day. There was a lot to learn about appropriations, about the fact that government cancer research used to give grants to 1 in 3 trials, now it's 1 in 7. The funding for the cancer institute has not kept up with inflation and even when NHI has gotten additional funding it has not received it in proportion. We would meet with each of our state Senator's and House representatives. I'd love to tell you I met a bunch of bigwigs but while some delegations did ours would meet with representatives of representatives. I didn't know how long those meetings would go so I did my workout that morning at the hotel gym at 6 am. There were plenty of the One Voice Against Cancer folks already plenty of sweaty so it reminded me that while we are against a disease, I think most (all) of us were there pro health. My partner in crime was someone who had done this 3 times and was far more polished which I appreciated. She mentioned she appreciated my conversational approach but when you're a rookie that's the only approach you can really take. Each meeting felt better than the one before both in how we were presenting and how it was being received... Perhaps that's no coincidence. But I took each of their cards and they wanted follow up and well they're going to get it. 

This is DC and things don't happy too quickly. Generally speaking long lasting things occur fast and certainly not in government. Still when all my meeting were done, I took in a few of the memorials in a very quick walk before heading to the airport. I caught the new MLK memorial (a man who I've blogged about before) that said out of a mountain of despair, a stone of hope. The cause he fought for was obviously different but it was intriguing that a guy who fought for so long to move things now was encased in a very solid way. This is perhaps the way some great change often happens, that active pursuit that if you do it happily even if it doesn't have the, will become something far more stable.

Still, in a recent crossfit workout, it was the first time I had done a team one with racing. My team was never in the lead but I kept helping in as many ways as I could. My Pr's are always in races where there's someone not too far from me ahead and not too far behind, the happiness of pursuit. This was the first time like that in crossfit and it was my favorite workout (it might have helped that while we didn't win we passed some people before the finish). Some of the people in Jersey, in DC while it was their first time for that organization or that event had done things like this before. Our ongoing pursuit had achieved things happily along the way but not nearly enough so we had to keep going. 

But in the middle of all this, I got to be in one of those homes where there seems to be so much love that you almost feel like it's your own home. It was one of those places that has optimism written in magnets and things on the wall and in the spirit that seems to just be in the air left over by people living and loving there. They had a magnet that said count your blessings everyday. While I appreciate the sentiment, after a few days like this, writing this blog where I realize each paragraph could have been it's own entry and this is just a way to encapsulate them in more diary format because they are so worth remember. So counting my blessings, I couldn't help but think there's no way I'll ever do that, I don't have that kind of time and I'm not sure I can count that high. But I'll keep happily pursuing them for the community and I dare dream that we will keep finding that's growing far faster and better than anything negative ever could. 

Monday, June 1, 2015

The Pleasure of Nightmares

Alfred Hitchhock said a very strange or perhaps very appropriate thing in regards to his movies, "Give them pleasure, the same pleasure they get from waking up from a nightmare." This is an interesting part of the human psychology that in simple frankness I don't quite understand enough to participate in. I don't watch horror movies or thrillers, I don't get on scary rides in theme parks not quite grasping the fun in a controlled scary but ultimately relatively safe choice. Now in case anyone thinks that's being too critical of people engage in those choices it may just show that people who chase their thrills that way are more intelligent than me since I've jumped out of a plane, off bridges, cliffsides. Like the runners shirt which says my sport is your sports punishment... perhaps those who enjoy the challenge of a whooping all like to get our spankings in different ways...

But I've finally actually figured out what my stress to MRI level indicator is I think... On the MRI's when most of my life is as settled as it can be, I am relatively calm until the day of or the day before. This is why I slept fine the night before brain surgery... I'd gotten things "in order" by putting off brain surgery to run a marathon, qualifying for Boston, I'd had some great meals with some good friends and put things in financial order for my daughter in case anything went wrong. In a stoic mind, losing the emotional human attachments will happen sometime regardless so I was trying to take that in stride. And every MRI since then my sleep patterns are related to how much I've got going and how clean my relationships are... it is why I often disconnect from people right before them.

Oddly right now, it is a sign of some very good things in my life that I've got going that I am not sleeping well the last few days before an MRI. I woke up to a horrible nightmare about how it going bad would damage both the relationships I'm working on and the projects I'm working on Saturday morning. My next few races are 5k's and Spartan sprints so I don't need to be doing any long runs but on a whim I woke up and went to meet with the Ship of Fools and ran 17 miles, the longest I've ran since Boston with every step of the way at varying speeds with some of the great friends I've made there. Then I went to breakfast with them and later that day we played poker. I've long said running is my therapy and how far I run and how long I run tells you just how bad I need therapy but it was very helpful. Still, at breakfast it was great to hear stories about what's going on in people's life as well as some guidance and suggestion on the office I've been in for less than two weeks, the president of the Austin Runner's club. I may have suggested to the people I'm working with most closely on this, the new Board, that shy of their president this was the best board ever... they continue to demonstrate that and impressed me to be thankful to be working with them. For perspective and because different presidents and boards have had different approaches, I have been reading through thousands of emails left in the official email. I've gotten to see people who were there before me as they reached out asking for guidance or offering to volunteer. It was amusing moments to see how some of them are leaders now or working in the running industry or have qualified for Boston since or were wondering if they would ever be able to run a marathon and have done a few since. It was intriguing to see the way people I've had conversations with since remember things as opposed to how they saw it in the present. But perhaps my favorite one was one where the new IT guy said to the new president that her email was now set up and how the new president was so attractive. They are engaged now :). I won poker that night against some of those running friends, some due to a little bit of skill and some just to the luck of the way the cards come out.

Yet, with an MRI coming up, and thinking about the odds,  it did not help to wake up Sunday morning to read the news of the Vice President's son Beau Biden had just passed away from brain cancer. I've seen stories of people with far better characters, far more money, far more influence get this and pass from it. Somewhere I feel guilt in standing with it because of the ones who are better men than I've ever been and it serves as an odd reminder of the fact that this does not discriminate in any form shape or manner. Because I live in a highly political town, I've gone to hear political candidates of both parties speak here in Austin and gotten to shake hands with a few (I voted for
Pedro). Joe Biden, whatever you may think of his politics and family always is more important that politics in my book, I was impressed with if for no other reason that I was really far back in the line and he still sat and talked to us for a few minutes. Perhaps the best thing I've heard in the news that Joe Biden says is parents know they're a success when their kids turn out better than them. I honestly can't imagine many things harder than a parent burying their children but I think Kiana's so far well ahed of me on the curve and I hope she finds a way to keep it up long after she's buried me.

It is these types of things why I am headed to the inaugural race of Voices Against Brain Cancer in New Jersey this Sunday and heading the next day to DC for an annual day of meeting with lawmakers put on by the American Cancer society, one voice against cancer. This may have affected my memory and languages skills but not enough to silence my voice to stand on its own or be part of the choir.

So I will keep trying to do what's right as best as I know how... it's been raining a lot here. There was a tree I blogged about once, one that I thought had died and had come back to life. (Tells you something about my life analogies or attention span that every single tree in my front yard has gotten blogged about). This same tree got struck by lightning over the storm and now is one branch sticking out of the branch. Like when it originally started growing back, I smile every time I see this thing holding onto life. When it rains Kiana still wants to play in it and go to the river and hang from branches. And perhaps even nature itself wants to remind me I have a heart because I found both a leaf and a rock with a heart on the same day recently.

So while there are nightmares about the MRI 48 hours from now and as always between Monday morning and Tuesday when I sit becomes a very long day.... I've got some good things scheduled to stay busy and happy between the two.  There are people, both those who have been through it and those who haven't who tell me not to worry about the MRI, that everything's going to be fine. With some cancer patients, myself included, one wonders if heading into an MRI with that attitude is naivete, denial, or optimism... The honest truth is I hate that machine, I hate being in it because it is the strongest reminder of how I learned I had brain cancer and a procedure where you're just laying on your back in a machine all by yourself. The noises don't bother me, just the inability to be able to do anything. I never quite know how to feel or what to think and have even fallen asleep in there. Perhaps though, because I have some new goals on the horizon, it's time to go into that machine with the dream that there will come a time where both that machine and I will be put out of commission and it isn't a race I would mind if the machine got finished first and I was way behind.

So I'm probably never signing up for Hitchhock's pleasure of waking up from nightmares voluntarily. But I will keep having good dreams. Jonas Salk, the guy who invented the polio vaccine (perhaps entirely appropriately since it's now being modified to fight brain cancer) said something that I like a lot more. He said "I have had dreams and I have had nightmares and I overcame the nightmares because of my dreams." Just getting through the MRI whether or not its stable isn't going to be quite enough; I'll try to head out of there to do good things. Because I'm competitive, my pleasure won't come from merely waking up from my nightmares but rather from beating them with my dreams.