Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Wonder by Wonder

'A man grows most tired while standing still' -Chinese proverb

I've never had a bucket list. Don't get me wrong; I have a list of things I want to do while I am alive but it's much like my daily to do list that I write out each morning. It is a rare day that I accomplish it all because I like to reach high, what many have called over reaching. So on my life list it is long and ridiculous that most people don't think it's possible to get it done in a lifetime... I am not one of those people though it's not something I would wager much money on.

But I am sitting here, adjusting from switching night to day and then back in 8 days time and it's messing with my sleep. Kiana just got back from her first world wonder and my last and final one, the Great Wall of China. Maybe it's the time change and a restless night, maybe it's the surrealism but somewhere I am wondering if someone should just pinch me, maybe with chopsticks.

It actually came together ridiculously easily, using up the frequent flyer miles from the last few years to get there for under $100 a ticket. I had good company, Troy an executor of my will who I've been friends with over a decade, a guy who was there at the hospital shortly after my daughter was born, a guy who was there at the hospital shortly after the seizure before we even knew I had a tumor. There was my girlfriend, Elaine, appropriately enough a Chinese girl in the first time I've ever visited a country where I had no clue of the language nor had enough base to translate it (reading and writing 5 languages has helped in other countries) in our last trip together before she moves in. And there was Kiana, my 10 year old daughter getting to use a passport over a decade earlier than I had to cross to the other side of the world. My grandparents and parents were bold for  crossing a river to give us potential for a better future. Looks like so far, there's at least one measurable area where we keep echoing each other's boldness but perhaps the echo is one of those that gets louder not just fades into a whisper.

We didn't start at the Great Wall or Beijing in fact. We started at Shanghai running along the most modern city in the country. Jet lag/time change whatever you want to call it led to a 3 am run not too long after arrival while everyone else slept. Like most of my Facebook pictures which don't describe what's being shown with any great context or history, there was something about taking in the city just on its own, knowing that even though you were getting more details later, often beauty and structure can stand on its own merits, gorgeous even without quite adequate light. The Leon in me noticed there were often Lion statues.

When the official tours happened later I would get a little more context. I actually had noticed that they often came in similar pairs but there was an interesting difference, one was standing on a ball and the other had their paw over a cub. I would learn from our tour guide that this was a depiction of a lion family in the Chinese mind. The male lion was holding the ball as a way to show dominion and supremacy. The one holding the cub was the
female representing her raising the cub and thus the nurturing side of the culture. For over 6 years now, I've had a medical restriction keeping me from playing soccer. Like the marathon I would finish my last league before quitting (went out as co-ed champions). All this time I thought it was because my doctors were trying to be careful with head contact because of the seizures. Halfway around the world and over half a decade later, I realized that while it wasn't in a cookie, the universe had been kind enough to let me know my fortune was to let much of my supremacy go and that the strength of my legs and arms was to nurture that cub.

A few other pieces of the puzzle called my life came
together.  I was walking around with my bag that has 8 #8 bibs on it. Father's day was originally celebrated in China on 8/8 because it can be shortened to 'ba ba' which appropriately enough sounds like the informal word for father, an equivalent of daddy. It's things like this almost make me believe my life is scripted. But here I was on my way to my 8th world wonder and Kiana's first one in a country that highlighted the number 8 previously as father's day. It also sounds similar to fortune or luck and honestly the first day much less the rest of just trying to capture a bit of the way Kiana sees the world, or the other side of it, there may be people who are more fortunate or lucky than me, but I don't know or have heard of any of them.

We caught some of the magnificent culture and history but we also caught just some of the local things. We ate at places where we were the only foreigners. We took late night walks, played games in parks the the locals were playing. I was proud of the fact that I got exercise almost everyday, including a stair workout with Kiana overlooking a river. Yep I was proud of all that and then I saw a 70 year old doing things I couldn't even do when I was a teenager. Kiana jumped on the monkey bars after seeing that and made the other adults on the trip feel almost as inadequate.

Kiana had been given her own international camera to take pictures from her height, her perspective, the things she valued. If a picture is worth a thousand words, she was definitely the most chatty out of everyone in the group. There were different things that stuck out to each of us, some of the best memories ones you couldn't take pictures of or pictures don't do it justice. Some of the deserts and meals, a picture or video can't replicate the unique smell, the different taste, the atmosphere at large or small details. Some of the art at the museums you weren't allowed to have cameras in or at the kung fu show that Kiana was mesmerized when those guys moved with expert timing as fast as lightning.

Due to taking in 3 cities (Shanghai, Xian, Beijing) there was a lot of traveling by foot, plane, train, bike, boat and automobile (Kiana actually loved her first real train ride, an overnight one at that). But of course the moment of going up to the Great Wall, the excuse for the trip was a highlight. We tried foods neither of us had ever had but the moment that we were most nervous was the ski lift heading up there. I honestly wondered why the Great Wall had to be built at all there since it was such a steep mountain that I thought it would have been deterrent enough.

But once you got on that Wall, you realized that the deterrent was the steepness, one purposely built with uneven footing to keep horses from being able to be used on it and for ordinary men to struggle on it. When we got to the very top, our tour guide suggested we go to the left from the lift, that about 90% of customers did that because it was an easier walk. That's all it took for the people I love to choose to go to the right, the path less traveled by. As we headed down what was very steep stairs and ridges, we realized that whatever goes down must come up and if you're struggling with stairs on the way down... It was on our last full day there so we knew that the next day there was going to be plenty of sitting besides I remembered the Chinese proverb I started with here, a man grows most tired by sitting still. Now I've ran to, around or on every single world wonder I've ever been to. So has Kiana :).

We saw lots of different places where people throw coins in to make a prayer or a wish or a hope. Mostly our change in coins was given to people who needed it far more than we will. A couple of those moments just like a couple of the foods she 'got' to try intimidated Kiana but I wanted her to take in the full experience, reminded of what Stevenson said that there are no foreign lands, it is the traveler only who is foreign. There was however one blatant exception to the coin usage, among the wishing well there was one where it was supposed that if you threw it in the center you were gong to have a long life. I've divided my life into Part I, pre cancer and Part II, post cancer. It was on the second shot that the coin landed dead center.  I'm not superstitious but I am a little bit stitious so... here's hoping.

Actually one of the most impressive things we saw was in a Lama Temple a gigantic statute of Maitreya Buddha carved from a single pice of White Sandalwood. Now the Maitreya Buddha is considered the 'future Buddha' and in most artistic depictions he is depicted as sitting, I suppose it's a way of showing he's abiding his time. It warmed my heart to see that the biggest one I've ever seen was portrayed as standing and I dared dream that whoever carved it knew the future of dharma and karma are for those who are standing and ready to go.

For a few years now, to close friends, I've said that I could use a few days that were the opposite of 'Cheers.' I wanted to go to a place where no one knew my name and couldn't care less I came. In a country of over a billion people, I wasn't a cancer guy, just a tourist with a great friend, a great girlfriend, a great daughter. It was a 'wonder-ful' reprieve where I got to be 'cancer' free for a few days, with people who would know me and love me with or without the disease and who I hope we will be part of each other's lives no matter how many years any of us have left. The only reminders were pills I take twice a day, the Livestrong band I choose to constantly wear and the little things I saw where I made connections, great memories made in China. It was a good Sabbatical but the timing of a Sabbatical is after work. I believe it's to reflect on the work, to reconnect with Who and what got you here and to prepare for things that lie ahead. Of course our idea of rest was to be moving all day but I hope Kiana learned a lesson I lived by for a while, forgot for a bit and took me a few years to get back to. Yes, the official World Wonders are part of the past but the number of things I still dream of is ones I couldn't get to in all of a lifetime but I'm going to keep dreaming, not accepting that reality, going to bed with the same dream, the same that I had on the flight home from China after a phenomenal trip, perhaps one that was somewhere in my subconscious even during some dark days and nights of the last few years. Is is the thought that keeps me going, keeps me standing and moving, breathing, writing, living 'what a wonderful thought it is that some of the best days of our lives haven't happened yet."

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Life With A View

'From a vantage point high both the mountain and I
Found a world bigger than ourselves
I choose life with a view, give me life with a view
Now that I know otherwise, I choose life with a view' 
-Mike Mennard

With a couple of days, 6 years ago I was waking up from brain surgery. 5 years ago, 1 year to that date, I was once again waking up in an ambulance with a Grand Mal seizure a few days after my first marathon. However between the two I took a trip out to California, to Sonoma and Napa. 4 years and 4 days ago I was winning a marathon in Beaumont TX. For anyone, much less a guy who spends a lot of time essentially keeping an online public journal, I don't spend much time looking back. There are things like why the universe lines up sometimes from being born on 8/8/80 to how it doesn't make sense, how a guy whose never called in sick all of a sudden has two years of medical appointments without a single break from a brain cancer that has no known dietary, genetic, lifestyle or environmental components. But I still hold that there are a few things that if I think about too much, I'll lose the little I have left of my mind but if I don't think about at all, I might well lose my soul.

The last month has been one of those reflective months. Perhaps because I've been helping a friend train for an ironman and long bike rides give you time to think, perhaps because somethings have been so incredibly organically connected that I wonder how it's possible. I joke that some of the realities like World Series, NBA Finals, Super Bowl come back and presidential direction polling have all had unseen before things happens maybe the universe trying to simply realign probability somewhere (If you're unhappy with the results of any of those, of course I'm joking. If you're happy, hey you're welcome). 

Kiana was 3 when it started but is now 10. She hadn’t started school yet and now is running towards middle school. If I look forward 6 years, she’ll be old enough for a driver’s permit. Both of those distances in time seem so far away and yet far too imminently close. The Austin marathon came again and unlike it being the one where I put off brain surgery for and qualified for Boston, or the two that I won the cancer survivor division, I was just part of the people that helped put it together. In complete frankness, there was a calm reassurance in being behind the scenes rather than on the course. That might have been because the weather was so tough that very few people had a good race. Yogi Berra may have well said it best that it’s not the heat, it’s the humility. I just did the 5k during the lull between the start and the half marathoners finisher where despite winning my age group I got seriously sweaty.  

I returned to Sonoma the weekend afterwards, just like I had after my first marathon after surgery. Carrie, someone who was a stranger at the time and is now an angelic friend in my book, was kind enough to provide a place that the view out the window reminds why I always say that Northern California is where God lives and you get a little closer to his view. I lived in that state for 5 years during college and an internship, some formative years (or at least those that as adults we are able to self recognize as formative). I hadn't been there in too long when the brain cancer journey started but it was part of the goodbye tour where I went and saw old friends and college professors and said 'I don't know if the guy going in is the same one going but this one loves you guys.' With rare exceptions I'm still in contact the people I saw on that trip. I went out there and saw some of them again. It was the most gorgeous the area has ever looked and perfect weather the entire time I was out there. But a couple of things like some roads being closed off or some serious damage from the floods after years worth of droughts puts in perspective that sometimes beautiful growth comes from unexpected messes. The fact that in both of the departments that I majored in there was exactly one professor left, both near retirement reminded me that change is life's constant. They both got serious hugs from me. Going to a waterfall I loved in college and seeing that before it was a little more of a technical hike and now it essentially had a carved trail just kept putting things in perspective. I still climbed it in a way that was less than safe and the Bond girl got a few pictures while I didn't realize it and she said she was glad to see me so happy. I was glad to show her some key points of life part I. I went out to that waterfall when I was happy or worried, either way I 'd always walk out more happy than I walked in because as Jimi Hendrix sang my worried seemed so very small out there. 

But the point of the trip was to be part of Huck Cancer, an ultimate tournament raising money for Livestrong. I don't play much anymore but I actually played fairly well that day. The tournament was originally in honor of but now in memory of Eric, an ultimate player who got and died of brain cancer. I spoke about what Livestrong had done briefly for me but couldn't help but thank the ultimate community because of the way it lends itself. I used to travel to play for it like I do for races now and then. Two ultimate players would open homes in Duke for me to stay at during trips there, one I had met in a traveling event, we'd never even lived in the same towns. Other ultimate players flew out to Austin or to Duke from Chicago, California. The ultimate community itself threw a hat tournament to help with my medical bills in Austin and in Toronto, another to raise money for Livestrong in Houston and once I was recovered enough I organized one also to raise money for Livestrong. Ultimate is a game, one I still play once in a while, I'm in fact the head ref of the local professional team. But more importantly it's a community, and to get to play near my college, for Livestrong, while addressing that community, life has been incredibly kind. Of course it was the 8th edition that I made my first appearance at. 

Back when I was learning to bike, it was also for a fundraiser out in California to support the Texas 4000, a group of 70 something students who bike from Austin to Alaska. I was training for a 100 mile ride back then... Talk about putting it in perspective. It would end up being a necessary skill due to seizures and the bike becoming my car. Yet somehow this year's crew was having a community speaker series for the first time and they were kind enough to invite me. I told the stories that have gotten repeated a few times but they actually wanted a longer q&a because a few had heard me speak before. I gotta tell you between the presentation they gave before I spoke and the questions they had afterwards, if those college students are the near future of where we're going with cancer, there are some sharp intelligent sensitive caring minds tackling it. They're going to be giving presentations all along the way there and I think both them and whoever hears them will be better for it. I'll be riding along their start out of town in the Atlas Ride. I never quite get why I get invited to speak so much but wonder, dream that it's not so much because I can put emphasis on the right words but because I once in a while manage to translate my feelings into words. 

But while I'm in for the ride, I returned to Beaumont the day after I spoke As a few people might have heard, I won a marathon pushing a stroller out there. Without exception, I've returned every year at least once to Beaumont, twice more than once. This was my 4th time at Gusher. When I went out there it was just a road race. Now they have incorporated a 40k bike time trial, a roughneck (a fitness challenge essentially). I couldn't figure out which one to do so me and the Bond girl signed up for all 3. I took 2nd in the half marathon. I had never done a cycling time trial and it was downhill with a tailwind one way and uphill with a headwind the other way... Well let's just say I was dead last among the men in my category and out of the 78 people doing my distance of either gender, I only got beat by 67 of them... I fared about the same in the roughneck though I did win one category, the tire flip. Perhaps because it's in Spartans but more than likely because I have one in my actual backyard. But far more importantly, I saw the people there who had let me into the race, the announcer who had ben there. Some of these guys had been out to the Austin Marathon and I'd had dinner. I am so glad we've kept some of the connection points from this community.  The Bond girl got 4th and a PR on the half but struggled more on the other two. Still, I'm glad that she can handle that singing up for things that show you've got areas to improve on doesn't have to be a drag that you skip out on trying for. 

So 6 years removed from brain surgery, almost 6 and 4 month since the brain cancer journey started. It's no coincidence that while I've gotten to go many places (heading to China next week) that the places I've visited the most are West Texas where my family is, Beaumont, and California where the friends who feel like family are. Many cancer survivors and boy do I understand why, when treatment is done or when it's past enough, they let it be part of the past, something not to look back on. I understand that, I don't celebrate my birthday always joking that I was born, I've gotten over it. But the truth is even while I emphasize my birthday (8/8/80) in many ways I don't remember it and consciously speaking, I didn't learn anything from it. But for me brain cancer, the surgery, that marathon, that 'goodbye' tour even with a damaged memory helped me learn a lot. That was the gestation and birth of Life Part II. As I told the UT kids at my speech last Thursday in response to a question (this was one where the room got awkwardly quiet but I diffused it with a joke), the median survival rate for people without surgery is 4 years, for people with surgery is 7 years. I'm getting close enough to where I dare dream I may end up being above average. But no matter whether or not that's true, there will come a day when I die because we all die. Dr. Seuss day just passed by and this year Kiana decided to wear thneed from the Lorax. In there the Lorax warns about out thneeds and trends and how we use our resources. He acknowledges that inevitable mortality that belongs to us all in a way I appreciate, 'A tree fall the way it leans, be careful which way you lean.' I appreciate the views that my life is giving me and feel like they reflect the right lean. As I have raised Kiana, I've watched her fall while learning to walk, while learning to ride a bicycle, on obstacle courses. The beauty of life is that until one last time you get to keep rising from falls and I hope I keep appreciating all the views.