One of my new work cohorts encouraged me to take an Enneagram test to see where my personality fits on the spectrum of such things. I signed up on Truity and paid $19.99 to get the full results. The outcomes were interesting, with all my best qualities and flaws laid out in black and white.
Somewhere late in the PDF, which is replete with graphs and charts about personality and life traits, I noticed a quote highlighted in the headline of this article. “True strength comes from the courage to be vulnerable.” I sat there a minute and thought: “That’s exactly what I meant by calling my book “The Right Kind of Pride.”
The Right Kind of Pride is precisely that: the consistent action of taking pride in the willingness and courage to be vulnerable.
As for that book, I’m pretty sure that some people are scared or uncomfortable about reading a book about cancer survivorship. But it’s not JUST about that. The eighty-plus blogs I compiled speak to the the value of authenticity in all situations.
Here’s the basic fact: All of us must be survivors of one kind or another. Plus, none of us gets out of this world alive. All I can say is that when it comes to getting through the tough things in life, vulnerability is truly powerful.
Over eight years of caregiving that was the principal way that I found hope and support.
Originally, I oversaw my mother’s journey through lymphoma and pancreatic cancer, followed by a stroke and finally hospice. Her passage left me in charge of caregiving for my father Stewart Cudworth, a stroke victim from 2002. I would remain his caregiver through his passing in 2015 at 89 years of age.
That all began in 2005, the same year that my wife was diagnosed with Stage IIC ovarian cancer. Immediately I was graced by an offer of support from the preschool director and her team of teachers at the school where my late wife Linda taught. For the next eight years, those people and many others (thank God) were willing to help us through the ups and downs of cancer treatments, including surgeries and recovery, chemotherapy, prodigious drugs and side effects, and emotional challenges deeper than we’d ever imagined possible. We’d make it through one segment of treatment to remission only to have the cancer return. That progressed with rapidity like the sound of a ping-pong ball as it taps out from its original dropped height.
During all that time I blogged to our caregiving support group about the blessings and challenges we experienced, and things we learned along the way. Those blogs formed the bulk of the book I wrote titled The Right Kind of Pride. Then I wrote a prologue and epilogue, including A Goofball’s Guide to Grief. Because I am. A goofball.
But I also kept a personal journal for thoughts that were not ready for public consumption at the time. I’d actually forgotten about those words until recently when I opened up a thick journal given to me by my mother-in-law for my July birthday in 2012.
I’d been thrown out of work earlier that year by an employer who fired me the day after they learned my wife had cancer. So I was freelancing and trying to cover everything from COBRA insurance costs to the daily costs of living. Fortunately, I was able to find bits and pieces of work to tide us through, all while dealing with the difficult fact that Linda’s health was decreasing in quality. She started having seizures in the fall of 2012, and then we discovered a brain tumor that required surgery, radiation and steroids to treat, and after that, things got really tough.
At that point in February of 2013, I landed a new job and was trying to do my best at it. But the daily challenges of helping her through were significant. By February 11, it was even tough for her to get around. “Linda sleeping on the couch upstairs,” I wrote in the journal. “Chuck is on the Ottoman, leaning on my leg until a few minutes ago. Following me around all day. Linda improved a bit, for a while anyway. Big day tomorrow. Meeting Dr. Ferris and Dr. Dolan.”
We made it to the appointment with the medical oncologist Dr. Ferris. But things didn’t go all that well. She could barely stand to lie on the table, and the doctor pulled me aside and made a calm recommendation of palliative care going forward. I knew what that meant. And besides, Linda was too exhausted from gut swelling and fatigue to make the trip from Warrenville to Advocate Lutheran General to see the physician that treated her so well from the outset. I could barely get her home.
I wrote in the journal on February 14, Valentine’s Day 2013, “Well, my objective with this journal is to focus on constructive thoughts rather than destructive, which so many other journals in this house seem to have been. In a constructive fashion, therefore, it is still important, most important, to acknowledge that Linda Mues Cudworth––or Linda Ann––is in the process of dying. She has been a most wonderful wife all these 28 years, and wants to continue if only she could. But her cancer is catching up with our dreams of going places together and doing things. We had both promised to get to Glacier this year––together, if her health would allow it. Now it seems more likely she will be gone, the earthly part of her that I so love anyway. Our relationship has gotten richer these past 8 years. Richer than money and wealth combined. Our mutual failings and weaknesses have fallen away. She has told me that she loves me and I believe her now. I have told her that I love her and she knows it now. Our wedding vows have been fulfilled; for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health, till death do us part.”
Reading those words again nine years after she passed away on March 26, 2013, gives me both sadness and satisfaction. We did the best we could all through those years. “Sunrises and sunsets still await,” I continued writing in the journal that February. “And spring as well. Hurts so much to know that she may not be with me. So soon. So sudden. Yet we have lived well together, the best we know how. I love you Linda. I always will. God Bless your kind and spirited heart. Forever.”
The promise of vulnerability
It would still be weeks before the end of her life came. But we opened our lives at that point, trying to bring our children and family, friends, and associates into the sphere of vulnerability. If you absorb nothing else from these words, please embrace the truth that “true strength comes from the courage to be vulnerable.” We lived that reality and I can promise you that while things don’t always happen or end how you’d like or expect, the courage to be vulnerable is one of the most valuable human traits of all. It expands all the good things that life has to give.
It’s fascinating to study yourself objectively through a test like Enneagram. It’s a valuable thing to learn what emotions and character traits drive you from within, and how that translates to life and relationships. And it’s the core of who we are that matters. Letting others see that in you can be a wonderfully empowering force in life.
Linda Cudworth passed away on March 26, 2013. While appreciating her life, I am grateful for the things life and love continues to bring.
The day after Christmas in 2012, my wife Linda and I were scheduled to meet with a neurologist at the Central Dupage Cancer Treatment Center. We managed to have Christmas together with her family that year even though her father passed away that winter. He’d had a heart attack while sawing up a giant oak in his own backyard, Following that incident, he developed dangerous swelling in his legs that ultimately led to kidney failure.
All that fall, we teetered back and forth between hope and reality for my father-n-law. He did kidney dialysis, and it seemed to work, but swelling kept coming back.
Meanwhile, Linda was experiencing an series of seizures. We thought they were a side effect from yet another set of chemotherapy treatments. In any case, it was scary stuff. We’d be out for a gentle walk and her body would start to tremor and shake, but she refused to give up her love of movement and being out in the sunshine.
A combined team of oncologists from Central-Dupage hospital and our longtime gynecological oncologist Dr. James Dolan conferred on her condition. Finally a test was ordered to check the condition of her brain. On December 26, we found out the disturbing news. The ovarian cancer that had afflicted her since 2005 had reached her brain.
“It’s not supposed to be able to breach the blood-brain border,” an oncologist told us. “But here we are.”
We sat together facing yet another shock on December 26, 2012.
It had been a long and difficult year. Back in March, I’d been fired from my job the day after the company learned that she had cancer. We’d kept her cancer a private matter when I started the job, but I finally had to tell them when it came roaring back late that winter. I knew that she’d require more attention with driving her to appointments, staying with her through chemotherapy and taking care of her in between treatments.
Granted, we had a wonderful caregiving team built up around us, but there are always some things that only the immediate family can handle, especially in a life-threatening situation. So I explained our situation in simple terms to the company where I worked, and they promised us support. That was on a Monday, but by Tuesday morning they came forward with an accusation that I’d breached company policy by posting an image of the work I’d done for a client on my personal website. When I walked into work that day, I came face to face the owner, an HR director and a lawyer equipped with all kinds of documents telling me that I’d somehow put the company’s reputation at risk.
No consideration was offered for the stress I might have been under, or how that situation might have affected my judgment. I was out the door and soon forced to pay $2000 a month in COBRA premiums to hang onto medical insurance. All because the owner was frightened that my wife’s condition might increase the company’s insurance premiums.
I appealed the case to the Unemployment system and was blown out of the water by the judge holding the teleconference. He introduced all the evidence the company presented and disallowed everything that I’d provided in relation to the case. I was railroaded, in other words, by a labor-sympathetic judge. Even my best friend, a labor law attorney, was disgusted by the outcome.
But rather than dwell in that space forever, I chose to reach out to that owner in subsequent years and we talked about all that had happened. Forgiveness took place.
But that didn’t help us in the near term.
That summer we struggled to make bills, and sat together praying one night that I’d find a freelance job to cover the $3500 we needed to make ends meet. That next morning an envelope arrived through our front door. It was stuffed with $3700. We hadn’t spoken to anyone about our situation. Other money from our church came our way as well. We hung on, kept her treatments going, but the cancer was relentless. By fall, a tumor was discovered next to her colon. If it could not be removed, the whole colon would need to come out. Then she’d need a colostomy operation. I admit that I was not looking forward to that outcome.
The gynecological oncologist did miracles in the surgery room and my selfish prayers were answered. And then, the day my wife got out of the hospital after surgery, we drove straight to the hospital where her father lay dying.
As if that had not been enough challenges to face in 2012, I was still recovering from a bike accident that happened earlier that fall. In September I was cycling in a rare weekend getaway with friends while my wife staye back home to spendtime with her family. During the ride, I was cruising down a long hill at 40 mph when a case of bike wobble set in. I crashed in dramatic fashion, flying off the bike and tumbling down and embankment where I lay in shock with a broken collar bone. My friends didn’t know where I’d gone. One of them was ahead of me by fifty yards and the other had not yet crested the hill when I crashed. So I got help from a band of other cyclists who called for an ambulance. I wound up in a tiny Wisconsin hospital in Dodgeville. They pumped me full of Vicodin until someone finally reached the wife of one of my friends. She’s a nurse, and she came to gather me up for the trip back to our campsite.
All that time, my wife was at her parent’s house having yet another seizure. My daughter begged her to go to the hospital, but in typical fashion, wife refused. When the call came that I’d been in a bad bike crash my daughter was in the center of all sorts of trauma. A dying grandfather, a mother shaking to death from cancer, and a father now injured badly after a bike accident.
The effects of trauma
We tend to take these traumas too much for granted in our lives, but they do have long-term effects. We grieve, but perhaps we do not fully process what’s gone on. We move out of that emotional space, but probably not all the way. We deal with what we can in the moment, but life has its demands. So we trundle on. Not fully healed, yet not terminally damaged. If we’re lucky.
During the late stages of my wife’s life, my son was working in New York City. He had to deal with all this strange news from afar. “Do I need to come home?” he asked. It was hard to tell him everything that was going on. It was even harder to figure out what expect of him. My wife said, “Tell Evan I’m fine. I don’t want him to worry.”
My daughter was finally off at college after two+ years of coursework at a community college. She was doing amazing things in her communications studies, even doing live spots on public radio that summer. Her mother was so proud and amazed. We’d sit close to my Mac listening to the live stream and she’d turn to me and go, “That’s Emily!?” Hearing our daughter work professionally on the radio was a welcome joy.
Dealing with the options
But the events of that year kept overwhelming us. And that brings us back to that moment in the cancer treatment center when we found out that my wife’s cancer had moved into her brain. “Here’s what we can do,” the neurologist told us. “We can go in through the top of the head and excise it. Then we’ll apply radiation.”
We sat there thinking about those options. My wife did not have to think long. “Yes,” she said with resolve. And she smiled, “I mean, why not?”
Why not, indeed. We’d been through multiple surgeries, countless rounds of chemotherapy and many times, we got back to some form of ‘new normal.’ But this felt different to me. I looked over at her and smiled. She gave a thumbs up sign when she was ready to go.
So we came back for the treatment. They didn’t even have to shave her head. She’d lost her hair several times over through treatments, and this time her hair had not come back at all. She stripped off her wig and they began the process of affixing a stabilizing unit to her skull. It consisted of a circular metal band with screws that would be used to hold her head completely still. She posed for a couple quick selfies using the Photo Booth application in my little black Mac Laptop, and off she went.
The treatment worked. They captured and killed the cancer in her brain. The seizures stopped. They gave her a steroid prescription to deal with the swelling caused by the surgery and radiation. From there it was off to the races. Those steroids turned her into a Survival Machine. Her personality became magnified. She cleaned and cooked and sat up writing lesson plans for the preschool classes she taught. But as the steroids added up in her system, her sense of judgment disappeared. She spent money we didn’t have. One night she researched a new car, and that next day, we drove to the Subaru dealership and bought it. I wasn’t sure if she was getting money from her parents or what, but I sensed that something final was happening, and decided to go with the flow.
The steroid effect
Toward the end of February, she could no longer handle teaching at the preschool she loved. Her spaciness increased, and it frankly put the children at risk. I collaborated with her director to ease her out of the position. That was absolutely necessary. Yet despite our efforts to be kind, something in her broke the day that she learned she could no longer teach.
Once the steroid prescription was eased, her body and mind fell slowly back to a normal state. That was when I knew that she would not live much longer. The stress and fatigue of eight years of cancer survivorhood wore her out. During one of our last visits with the oncologist before bringing her home for palliative care, she was too damned tired to even get off the treatment room table. I spoke quietly with the oncologist that day. She was kind. And honest. And earnest. “Take care of her,” she told me.
Linda Mues Cudworth passed away peacefully in our home in March of 2013. My son and daughter were together with me that night. It is both a blessing and a strange truth to be present when someone you love that much passes into eternity.
We’ve all gone through gyrations in the wake of her passing. My son suffered through depression and a period of addiction. He’s emerged with a will not just to survive, but to help others process their mental health in constructive ways.
My daughter was just coming into her own as a young woman when my wife passed way. In many ways, that left a void in her that is hard, if not impossible, to completely heal. Every year, she recognizes more of her mother in herself, and the pain of losing her mom keeps turning over. Those are legitimate feelings. I know other women that have lost their mothers. I wish at times they could all talk with my daughter.
As for me, I’m not sure that I fully processed all that happened that year, or perhaps the many years before. During my wife’s eight years of cancer survivorship, I was also the primary caregiver for my father after my mother passed away from pancreatic cancer in 2005. That was the same year that my wife Linda was diagnosed with ovarian cancer.
My father lived another four years after Linda died, and I did my best to take care of him. After my wife’s passing, I admit that what I wanted most was to be free of the constant pain and fear involved in caregiving. But there was still a job to do.
During the eight years of caring for her, I’d been on and off supportive medications such as Lorazepam to help me deal with the anxiety of caregiving. It did its trick as needed, but some of that stress sinks deep into your soul.
I recall trying to ride my bike with friends during that period. I’d be out on a fifty or sixty mile ride with them, but when it came time to ride hard or compete, as cyclists love to do, I often did not have the will to keep up. I’m pretty sure that what I experienced was an active sort of post-traumatic stress disorder. Not the kind that comes from being in a war, or witnessing a murder, but the kind that comes from not being able to deal with personal shocks over and over.
As a form of therapy, I started blogging to our caregiving group to communicate some of the feelings I had about the things we were going through. Much of that was quite positive, and I’m proud that we found ways to find blessings and hope in all that trauma. That’s the right kind of pride. This blog is an echo of all that.
But this year, when December 26 rolled around, I realized it’s been ten years since that strange day when we found out that the cancer had moved into her brain. Once we knew the cause of her seizures, it explained quite a bit about what was going on with her body
But it also brought on conflicted feelings in my mind. Should I hope for her to continue going through the stress and pain of cancer survivorship? At that point, I began to grieve in real time. I understood that I no longer wanted to see her go through the awful stuff. The sickness. The numb feet and hands. The fear. The trauma of surgeries. The loss of life quality. Giving up the things she loved to do. None of that is ever what I wanted for her. It certainly wasn’t what she wanted. Some part of me was relieved when the pain was over. Through faith and reason and love of life, I began to move on.
For these reasons, I got ahead of most of the people in my life by recognizing that she was not going to make it through the year in 2013. I didn’t know how long it would be before she died, but I knew for certain that it would happen. Even her doctors were astounded at the job she’d done for so long in staying alive.
That’s not the kind of news that people want to hear from the primary caregiver, so I kept it to myself. Perhaps that was a mistake of some sort. But my wife had plowed through so many obstacles during her years as a cancer survivor that none of us could imagine it coming to an end. She was so tough about staying alive it did not make sense to question her. She surely showed us all what it means to love life. She loved her children fiercely, almost to a fault at times.
So we didn’t make end-of-life elaborate plans. We were so occupied with keeping her alive that we never discussed what to do when she died. But earlier in life, we’d talked about cremation, so that’s what we did. Her ashes rest under a grave marker next to her father in the Lutheran cemetery in Addison where she grew up. That town was the place where she attended the church gradeschool, then moved on to Addision High School. She graduated Magna cum laude from Northern Illinois University.
We met in October of 1981 and she lived until March of 2013. In all, we had a great life together; full of family, friends and most of all, our children.
She also loved her garden so much that it’s hard to describe the satisfaction she got from her green craft. She’d sit in our LL Bean Adirondack chairs staring at her garden with a glass of wine, or a margarita, or one of her strong gin and tonics in her hand, and just enjoy.
Perhaps that’s why I moved on quickly from the trauma of her last year of life. That’s not how I wanted to remember her.
I chose to remember her cherishing the work she loved. She also told a close friend, the preschool director who served as our close caregiver for all those eight years, that she knew I’d date if she ever passed on. But that friend waited a full year to share that quiet bit of insight with me. I thanked her for waiting. We all need to make decisions on our own terms. I’m grateful to have had a wonderful life with my late wife.
I’m also enormously grateful to have found love again.
Life is often complicated, and even the people closest to you have a hard time understanding the reasoning or motives behind some of the decisions we make or the changes and impacts that come with them.
Ten years on from December 26, I hope that people gain from reading this and find ways to embrace life even in the face of trauma, and even if life turns out different from what they expected.
It’s indeed a strange thing to go from the traditional joys of a December 25th to facing moments when the world itself seems to shift underneath your feet. Sometimes the best thing to do is to keep those feet moving, to find traction in the things we do and love every day. And please, let’s forgive ourselves for wishing the world would just stand still now and then. Take some time. Look at your garden, whatever that means in your life. It is the work of your life.
Yesterday one of the most famous drummers in the world died. Rolling Stones member Charlie Watts passed away at the age of eighty.
Drumming is an occupation that I could never do. Nor am I much of a guitar player. Which is why I write instead. I know how to play a keyboard because we learned to use a typewriter in high school.
Musicians in general amaze me. People that “think in music” impress me with their ability to translate ordered notes into nuanced sound. At one point in life I could read music and played the clarinet. I hated the instrument and gave it up along with piano lessons. The allure of sports was much more appealing to me. It produced more excitement, for one thing.
I only picked up playing music again in my late forties. Even then, my role was a simple rhythm guitarist playing in a church Praise Band. The music was nothing special. Much of it was maudlin and overwrought. I just had fun getting up there every week to play and sometimes sing with the band.
We had several drummers over the years I played in the church band. Each had a different style. Some were more ornate and loved to fill songs with a flourish or two. Others concentrated on a steady beat, and my guitar strumming helped with that too.
My closest relationship with a good drummer was a fellow fraternity member in college. His name was Mark, and I heard him play the drums one night in a rock band performing at a pub and was astounded at his natural ability and complex style of playing. Like most drummers, he didn’t have a high opinion of his abilities. He clearly loved to play, but most of the musicians I’ve met in life, especially drummers, know there’s always someone that can play better than they do.
That made his abilities all the more fantastic to me. I mean, if he was that good, and he knew that there were many people better than him, the world is absolutely an infinite place!
That Thing You Do!
One of my favorite movies is the Tom Hanks production “That Thing You Do!” It’s a lighthearted look at the rise and dissolution of a late 60s rock band picked up by a record label when their hit song takes off and rises up the charts. The central character is the drummer recruited from his father’s appliance store to do a one-time gig at a local music contest. His favorite style of music is jazz, so the rock tempo is nothing hard for him. Only he takes off drumming a little fast during the contest, and the band has to immediately adapt. The crowd goes wild and they’re on their way.
It’s the sound! The beat! His happy mistake takes them places they never dreamed possible. Of course, it’s all too good to last. But who among us would turn down such a thrillride?
By contrast, I watched the movie Whiplash a few years back. The movie studies the life of a talented drummer and his unforgivingly critical mentor played by J.K. Simmons. I watched that film in near terror as the young protege is challenged to his limits. There’s even an attempt to embarrass and crush the kid’s spirit through the portal of jazz brilliance that he’s ultimately forced to enter.
That level of pressure and demanding expertise is hard to imagine for most of us. If the scene above does not make you tense in some way, perhaps you have no nerves at all. You should get that checked.
What I’m sharing here is that it takes enormous dedication and the right kind of pride to get good at something like drumming. To get really good requires total dedication. Even obsession.
Which is why, in many respects, it is better for most of us to pursue the things we’re relatively decent at rather than launch off into some endeavor for which we’re really ill-suited. For me, that would be drumming. I’d try it if pressed as a challenge, but I’ve tried keeping the beat with both hands and feet and frankly, it doesn’t work.
Ringo: once and always a Starr
A few years back when I learned that Ringo Starr was not the only Beatle that could play the drums, I was a bit put off by the idea that Paul or John sat in on certain songs. I’d read so much about how Ringo was one of the world’s greatest drummers, and that The Beatles would not have achieved so much without him.
Then I thought about all the solo albums Paul put out, including his first McCartney LP with Macca playing all the instruments, not just the bass and drums. After that, nothing really bothered me about who was playing drums on Back In the USSR or the Ballad of John and Yoko. The fact that other Beatles could play more than one instrument only made them all the more brilliant in my eyes.
What still amazes me, and always will, is how some people can process all that rhythm and physicality into song, especially drummers. It’s a mystery to me, and it always will be.
So I know that I could never be a drummer because I 1) don’t have the talent for it and 2) could never stick with it to get good. <<rimshot>>
Russians that rock
So I’ll leave you with a couple more links to explore. These are YouTube videos of the band Leonid & Friends playing songs by Chicago. They’re all Russians, some of whom don’t speak English, yet they recreate the music of one of the greatest rock bands of all time with such fidelity it will amaze you. All of these people are amazing musicians, and I’ve seen them live twice now. They are incredible. You should subscribe to their channel.
But pay particular attention to the drummer in this band. His playing is so superb even Chicago’s original members are amazed by him. Now that’s the right kind of pride.
People nearing my age often retire. Some run their career course and it makes absolute sense to cash in and cease working in the conventional sense. Others plan wisely and have the financial resources to allow them to quit working and do what they want with the rest of their lives. I’m glad for all those who achieve those milestones. They’ve typically earned them.
Yet I’m also glad for people that choose not to retire at a given age. While the age of 55-65 is often the traditional age for retirement, there is nothing that says you have to quit working at that stage. Our current President of the United States, Joe Biden, is 78 years old. The masterful Bob Dylan just turned 80. Many great artists work even into their 90s. What’s the damn rush to quit working?
Still, the pressures to do so can be daunting. I know a sales executive, now retired, who could not find employment after his company consolidated departments and he wound up on the outside. He’s living now in Arizona, and enjoying it. But at first he was hurt by the sense that he was no longer valued in a working way.
Those are challenging emotions for people at any age, and losing your job or needing to step back from employment is often a solid blow to the ego. So much of our identity is tied to our working life.
There is also the sense of “earning a living.” During my peak earning years I found myself out of work several times during caregiving for my late wife. At several times during eight years of caregiving she needed me home to take care of her through surgeries, chemotherapy treatments and recovery periods of both physical and mental consequence. The timing was seldom convenient to long-term success or building the perception of a steady-growth career. Each time I peaked in income, rising from $80K to $100K, cancer whacked us with a recurrence, and it was hard for her to work as well.
It felt like starting at Square One during each of those comebacks. Sometimes the return to work involved taking lower-paying jobs that were closer to home during periods of cancer caregiving. I won’t claim that I was a perfect employee during those periods of change, either. During those eight years, I was also principal caregiver to a father who was a stroke victim. The dual demands were daunting.
Yet I still managed considerable successes that included winning large accounts, earning national awards in public relations and marketing, and building a literacy project that served more than 375,000 families. But my failures included forgetting meetings, allowing the occasional typo to slip through, and trying too hard to protect my job by posting a sample of client work to my personal website. I was under enormous stress in the moment and didn’t think that decision through. It led to my dismissal just a day after I’d revealed to the company that my wife was a cancer patient. They brought in a lawyer to protect their interests in that circumstance after they’d promised to support us no matter what. It was hard not to consider that a cheap shot.
Plus, that situation left me with no job and COBRA insurance premium payments of $2000 a month. To say that some of our premium earning years were compromised by cancer struggles is a massive understatement.
So I’ve forgiven myself for not retiring at age 55 when some of my peers managed to do so. But here’s the odd truth about my actual attitude. I’m not eager to retire. In many respects as a writer and content developer, I’ve never been more capable and productive. Quitting now would be a shame, from my perspective. I still enjoy the challenges work provides.
I’ve also been an athlete all my life, and I’ m swimming, riding and running every week. I enjoy the sensations of being fit and active. That aligns with my daily writing, painting or producing creative content across a spectrum of platforms. Perhaps it would be nice to retire, but I feel like I’d still be doing the same things I do now even if I weren’t traditionally “working.”
As for a retirement plan, there is still time to make up the difference and that’s what I plan to do. The other main goal I have in life is to MAKE A DIFFERENCE. That is why a series of books I plan to publish are so important to me.
The first is a book titled Honest-To-Goodness: Helping Christianity Find It’s True Place in the World. It is a treatise on the roots of Christian tradition and how legalism leads so many people astray. It is a collaborative project with a Professor or Religion named Dr. Richard Simon Hanson.
The second is a book titled Nature Is Our Country Club. It is a book about the way golf courses thirty years ago realized there was a better way to manage their properties than pouring chemicals all over the ground and mowing everything in sight. The narrative traces how natural landscaping relates to the world at large, and what the human race needs to do in order to protect the earth on which we all depend.
The third book is Competition’s Son, a biography about life that deals with the effects of competition in all aspects of life; learning, sports, family, relationships, business, religion, success and failure, and emotional conditions ranging from anxiety to joy, from depression to salvation.
The first two books are finished and being prepped for release. My goal is to begin speaking and producing content around those topics going forward. All the while I’ll continue working because I love what I do. I’m glad for those who retire, but I’m also glad for those who don’t.
To me, that’s the Right Kind of Pride. How about you?
I’m driving out to Iowa today to share in the visitation and funeral for a longtime friend, Keith Ellingson. He was a freshman year roommate at Luther College where we were also cross country teammates.
After that, we worked together in college admissions, then parted ways as we got married, raised children and engaged in our careers.
He built a legacy as an excellent coach in track and field and cross country. His worked earned him a place in the Simpson College (IA) Hall of Fame. Dozens of his athletes earned All-American status, and one of his decathletes made the United States Olympic trials, no small accomplishment for a Division III collegiate athlete.
His achievements were many, but he was perhaps proudest of his three daughters, Jessica, Bailey and Catie, all of whom I’ve followed in their careers and family life as well.
Back in 2010, Keith lost his wife Kristi to ovarian cancer. Then in 2013, I lost my wife Linda to the same disease. That was a strange convergence for two longtime friends. Our wives met several times at our college reunions where they quietly shared the challenges of chemotherapy, surgeries and survivorship.
As if that weren’t enough of a rough outcome for my friend Keith, he was later beset by Parkinson’s disease, a condition that muted his physical and social affect. Despite that challenge, he never lost his wry sense of humor or his love of storytelling. Sometimes I had to lean in to hear what he was saying, but it was always worth it. Every. Single. Word.
Then he was diagnosed with a form of Alzheimer’s disease as well. None of this was what I ever expected for him. Throughout his life he was an active athlete and vividly social being. Many times in his presence I was reduced to absolute laughter by his incredibly quick wit. He had a laugh that seemed to say so much as well. It was a welcoming and yet objective sort of laugh. As in, “Can you believe this?”
Over the last year Keith had become more animated, the result perhaps of some medications that worked well. A large group of his friends and former athletes conducted Zoom calls with him, swapping stories… and asking Keith to tell a few of his own. Those calls were akin to the Knights of the Roundtable, sharing old “war stories” of track and field triumphs and failures. We laughed at ourselves some, and Keith laughed along with us.
Along the way his daughters got to know some of us a bit better as well. We exchanged some direct messages, and I was in the process of gathering information to nominate him for Luther College Hall of Fame status when I learned of his passing. He deserves that HOF honor for his work as an athlete, as a coach, and as a longtime supporter of the institution. Even through his struggles with Parkinson’s, he led our class reunions several times, and I did as well. His classmates revered his perseverance, I can assure you.
The time that has passed does indeed make me think about what it means to lose a longtime friend. I think of all those college reunions and can count the years, but it would require more than a few hands these days. Yet I don’t feel old, because having lifelong friends keeps you young in many respects. Those shared experiences are sustaining in the long run. It means something to work together through thick and thin. To offer that call of commiseration when needed. To extend condolences when appropriate.
Then we get back to the business of living.
That’s not always easy. But that’s what it means to lose a longtime friend. It means you can have gratitude for the time shared and even the time apart. They say absence makes the heart grow fonder. Well, with longtime friends it is often the case that once you touch base again, it is like you never left.
The physical Keith is gone. That needs to be said. I’ve been with my mother when she passed away, and my father too. I was by the bedside when my wife died in the company of her two children, and not long before that, her father as well. A few years ago, I lost a longtime friend that had been my baseball coach when I was thirteen years old. He was my running coach in high school and a longtime friend thereafter.
These bonds are important to all of us. One of the interesting products of social media is that people who knew each other from “back then” reconnect and find out they’re friends in new ways. That has redefined how some of our social networks exist and flourish. I consider it a blessing to have met some of my longtime friend’s daughters through Facebook. Now we’ll meet in person today.
The loss of a longtime friend is hard. If I know anything about Keith Ellingson, he would like it if his passing led to emotional support for his daughters and their families. I think of my own daughter Emily and my son Evan, and how much they’ve missed their mom since she passed. In so many ways we are all family, and through that hope we might all find healing. That is the right kind of pride.
And that is what it means to lose a longtime friend.
After our fifty-mile bike ride in the hills of Galena, Illinois, this past Saturday, we awoke Sunday morning to do a long run back home in Illinois.
It turned warm and the long run turned out to be, in my wife’s words, “A lot of ouch.” When we got home she proclaimed that she was going to take a relaxing bath.
She does not do that often. More typically she takes a shower “on the fly” after her morning and afternoon workouts. That’s why her plan for a late-morning bath seemed like a good idea.
Knowing that my wife wanted to slow down and indulge herself a bit inspired me to move into the background. She did request that I bring her favorite shampoo, conditioner, and deep conditioner to her in the tub. I delivered those and flopped back on our bed to rest my own tired body after an earlier shower.
From my reclined position in bed I could see her head as she ran the whirlpool. She called out: “I’m flexing my toes…They’re really tight.”
I flex my toes that whirlpool tub as well. It feels good to let the jets work out the stiffness in joints. Finally the jets turned off and she took to washing her hair. Her blonde mane darkened as it got wet. Watching her ply her hair with product made me smile. She was due for a stylist appointment before the weekend but it didn’t work out. “So, much, hair,” she observed.
Like many couples, we’ve shared the bath and shower a few times over the years. Those moments of intimacy are blessed connections when the time is right. There are also times when the best thing a husband can do is be the “support crew” for her relaxing bath.
I went downstairs to make breakfast. The vision of her bare body in the tub made me feel a tremendous intimacy that had less to do with sex and more to do with bathing her in my love and respect. A woman deserves that and more.
A number of weeks ago while speaking with a friend who runs the INCubator program for high school students in which I’ve served as a Mentor and Presenter the last five years, we talked about how schools are adapting during the ongoing pandemic.
“A lot of people are out,” he told me. “We need subs.”
I dug into the requirements to become a substitute teacher and learned that people without a teaching degree can register to become a short-term substitute. That means teaching according to the lessons plans provided by the full-time teacher.
It took several days to fill out and submit the paperwork, gather transcripts from college and high school and file it through the Illinois website. Then I needed to register through the county website and get fingerprinted. Finally it was time to fill out the district paperwork.
Much of that signup could be done online. But wanting to put a face with a name and forms, I stopped at district offices to meet briefly with human resource directors. It is always good to become a known quantity.
I was impressed with the relative efficiency of all that registration. The districts I’m serving also have a great way to sign up for substitution assignments.
Middle school subbing
My first days of teaching were in middle school, running physical education classes all day, managing a language arts class and becoming a “floater” as teachers were getting vaccinated and needed someone to oversee class time and assignments.
I’ve spent many hours in classrooms and teaching in other ways over the years. My late wife was a special education teacher for ten years and a preschool teacher for twenty. She asked me to teach her class now and then. My mother was an elementary school teacher for twenty years. I visited her classroom many times to talk about birds, art or other subjects. I’ve also been a guest speaker for the “art people” trained by the Art Institute of Chicago to share art with student at all grades. Some might say teaching is in my blood. Perhaps it should have been my profession. But it’s never too late to start…
My next round of assignments were in an elementary school two miles from our house. At the front desk, a fellow substitute and I met with a teacher and administrator to determine who would take the music or ILP classes that day. ILP stands for Individualized Learning Plans, a term describing students with specific needs. My mother often tutored children in our home that needed individualized learning. She’d tell me, “These are your classmates, and you can go out and play after their lessons, but you need to let them learn while they’re here.” She also told me to keep their tutoring a private matter. “They learn differently than other kids,” she explained.
To some degree, I was one of those kids too. Only late in life did I ascertain that there is a certain amount of attention-deficit disorder at work in my brain. Looking back at my education years, I now recognize patterns of difficulty, obstinance, and outright frustration or failure when it came to certain learning circumstances. I’ve had to work a bit harder than others on certain kinds of tasks, and build discipline and good habits into my routines. I take pride in that now.
I think it can be accurately stated that every human being on earth has some kind of learning disability if a fine enough focus is placed upon it. Some excel at math and stink at English. Others love the social sciences and history while some find it excruciatingly boring.
Individualized Learning Plans
I chose to work with the ILP children earlier this week even though teaching the music class that day seemed like it would have been fun. I’ve played in bands and can sing fairly well, but I knew that past experience in classrooms with special education children would help me help them.
The ILP teacher walked me through the day’s lessons, materials, and tools used by the students to practice and learn. Each child had their own ‘best practices’ to follow. They took pride in pulling out their respective memory cards, books, and speaking devices.
The first boy I worked with was a charming child with Down’s Syndrome. He applied himself with energy for the most part, with only occasional drifting or distraction. His favorite part of the lesson was going through a series of slides depicting people expressing different kinds of emotions. While he did not recognize all the words, some of them were pretty long, he loved working with me to imitate the facial expressions and body language of the kids in the photos. We had a particular laugh at my imitation of the person exhibiting a ‘dubious’ expression. I turned my head to the side and lifted my chin, looking at him out of the corner of my eyes. He came back to the slide several times to coax me into the dubious mode, and we’d laugh all over again.
Then it was time fo reading, and he read me a book about a cat named Puff who liked to hide.He pulled out another book about a Mama Bear gathering berries, nuts and fish for her family. We talked about why the characters liked to do what they were doing.
By then he’d earned his ten stars for progress and I moved his behavior code up to blue from green, a promotion! He’d been good for me. Then he could grab his Chromebook and spend time with Baby Einstein software. He plunked his fingers on the screen to make a pool of faux water send ripples all around. It looked like fun. And gratifying.
Speed it up
The next student on the morning’s schedule was a charming young girl who arrived at class upset about something that had happened on the way to school. She was comforted by the paraprofessional and following a quick hug and a reminder to wear her mask the proper way, she got her stuff put away. When it came time for me to learn with her, she informed me that I was dawdling with the word cards. “Too slow,” she frowned. We sped it up.
Later when I needed help getting another student logged into their Chromebook, she washed her hands first and jumped over to log him in. I thanked her, and she asked, “Are you going to be here tomorrow too?” She was missing her regular teacher, I knew. “Probably not,” I replied. “But I want to thank you for being such a good helper today.”
“I like to help,” she chirped, then hurried to her cubby to prepare for recess and lunch.
Some of the students in class were non-verbal. We worked together on reading. I was quite impressed with their ability to key in words and letters and hear them read aloud by the device. One of the students keyed in the entire first half of the Dr. Suess book Green Eggs and Ham. You know the one: Sam I am. When he finished reading, I hummed a little tune, and he hummed back. I’d noticed that he was singing to himself before class. Why not speak the same language?
The fifth child was the most challenging for me to teach. Instead I tried to learn from her. Her autism gives her a keen energy and a need to jump up now and then. She engaged in some massively dreamy stares at times. I thought about her parents and how much they must want their child to learn on her own terms.
We read two books together and my instructions were to ask her to speak clearly, well above a whisper. She did fine with that, but ultimately felt like she’d had enough and pulled out a sheet of paper to repeatedly “knuckle” a symbol in the middle of the sheet. She wanted something specific to happen, but I could not tell what it was. One cannot learn everything a student needs or wants in one session. We do our best, and move along.
Toward the end of our fifteen minute session, she broke free from all of that and leaned toward me to study my face or simply break the tension of having someone new in her presence. It felt to me like she had three strong signals going through her brain, competing for space. I don’t know if that’s an accurate description of how autism works, but I could relate to that, and perhaps that’s what counts.
The teachers who work with these students have the knowledge, compassion, and commitment to help children learn despite their supposed limitations. That’s all that any of us can do. Keep on learning. That’s the Right Kind of Pride.
Black History month
I closed out the day teaching a class of first graders about Ruby Bridges, the American civil rights activist whose brave story of being the first student to desegregate a Southern school was read aloud in a video we watched together. I paused the video to ask the children how they would feel in Ruby’s place. We also looked at a painting of Ruby walking to school in the company of federal agents. That tomato smashed against the wall held so much symbolism.
That story has taken on greater meaning in the last year with civil unrest unfolding around the rights of Black Americans that have been threatened or killed by police, chased down by vigilantes or otherwise abused by institutional racism in the United States of America.
I looked around at the kids in that class. They were the same age as Ruby Bridges, six years old, when she dared to learn in the face of massive bigotry that unfortunately, has not dissipated in the country where she continues her work in civil rights. Some lessons take so long to learn, while some people just refuse to learn them.
That’s not what I saw in the eyes of the children in class that day. It is a gift to be present for that.
I recall so strongly one of the moments I heard this song during that period of my life. I’d spent three hard days and nights in the hospital after one of my wife’s many surgeries. She was beat up from the procedure and facing chemotherapy. Due to my work obligations, my mother-in-law spent the first night with her. When I arrived to take over, she warned me that the chair provided for hospital guests was far from comfortable. In recline position it bent backwards, forcing anyone trying to rest in the device to sleep like a dying dolphin.
On top of that, the nurses rolled in and out checking on her every hour. The machines beeped and the pumps pulsed. Doctors slipped in without warning. She’d greet them with a look of hope in her eyes that broke my heart. Was the cancer gone? Again?
Oh simple thing, where have you gone? I’m getting old and I need something to rely on So tell me when you’re gonna let me in I’m getting tired and I need somewhere to begin
At that point my wife and I had been married for nearly twenty years. All she wanted was to be free of the disease, to work in her garden and teach her precious preschoolers. She wanted to love her children without fear of leaving them. She wanted to live.
I came across a fallen tree I felt the branches of it looking at me Is this the place we used to love? Is this the place that I’ve been dreaming of?
After three days I needed to get back home and check on things around the house. She would spend two more days in the hospital watched by friends who volunteered to stay with her. I climbed into our car, leaving behind a wife still trying to fart to prove that her digestive tract was back in working order. It’s true: the things that stink about living are the things that keep us alive.
I drove back home through the black night on wet streets thinking “Why does she have to go through this? Is it worth it?”
And if you have a minute, why don’t we go Talk about it somewhere only we know? This could be the end of everything So why don’t we go somewhere only we know?
I recall falling into a rage of sobbing tears that night. Felt guilt over being free of the hospital and driving back home while she lay there hooked up to drips of painkiller and antibiotics and fluids. Her blue eyes still twinkled through the haze of hospital dreams.
We were years into cancer survivorship by that point.
My strategy to cope with caregiving duties for my wife and my father, a stroke victim, was to work through a series of lyrical albums by Andrew Bird and Indie group CDs that my daughter compiled from her catalog.
Then I dug deep into the Beck catalog, so deep I thought I’d never come out. Then came Modest Mouse, Regina Spector, the quirkier the better. On and on the music played as I clung to jobs trying to take care of everything, protect our insurance and keep the money coming in. Always the money. The goddamned money.
That’s why I let myself cry so hard in the car this week. This strange, hard year has affected us all in strange, hard ways. For a moment, I needed to be weak and vulnerable, to let it all out, and admit that life has been hard in some ways. This was a deserving burst of grief.
It is also important to say that I have found love again with a woman I appreciate and respect. We are also meant to be together. But there is great value in remembering all those you love, wherever they are. It doesn’t last forever, you know, this thing we call life.
Perhaps you’ll be moved to sing along when a song like this one comes along. Allow yourself a bit of deserving burst of grief in these times.
Oh, this could be the end of everything So why don’t we go somewhere only we know? Somewhere only we know Somewhere only we know
As Year 2020 grinds to a close, we can agree that we everyone has shared in the difficulty of a manic year. The pandemic disrupted all aspects of life and normalcy, and people are grieving loss and pain at many levels. The active symbol of that grief is the face masks we’re wearing to keep the pandemic from getting even worse than it already is.
Some people resist wearing face masks, claiming it is an impingement on their freedom. The reality is that wearing masks in public is an act of respect for the health of others and for ourselves.
The irony is that so many people seem determined to deny that reality.
Spreading disease––knowingly or unknowingly––is the least acceptable option in a civilized society. Wearing a mask is not a restriction of freedom, it promotes it. If more (even all) people wear masks in public we’ll all have greater freedom as long as this pandemic lasts.
All societies depend on etiquette to protect lives and get along in a civilized manner. The basic rule of driving on the Right side of the road in the United States is an excellent example of people agreeing that social order depends on predictable behavior to govern safety and protect lives. In other parts of the world, people drive on the Left side of the road.
Being required to drive on the Right or Left side of the road isn’t an impingement upon freedom. It is a guide designed to provide greater freedom for all. The same holds true with wearing masks during a pandemic. These are not political demands. They are practical measures designed to keep people safe.
The threat of getting sick and dying during this pandemic is real. More than 330,000 Americans have died from infection. The numbers continue to climb, and America’s infection and death rates are devastatingly real, as bad as anywhere on earth. But why?
It’s simple, and symbolic: some people still find the request to wear a mask in public a great affront.
A recent Huffpost story shared the heartbreaking tale of a man battling Covid-19 in the hospital. Days before he was intubated, he wrote his wife a series of messages, including this loving recognition of his mortality:
“If I don’t make it I want you to know that I lived a happy…life with you and would never have traded it for all the riches in the world.”
He also gave his wife a blessing to live a happy life and find love again if he passed away. That is the right kind of pride: Gratitude and selflessness are the two greatest signs of character in this world.
Yet some people don’t get that. Some people thumb their noses at the idea they have to listen to anybody when it comes to wearing masks. They appear determined to hold out due to some selfish sense of tribal pride. “Don’t tread on me?”
The irony in that the same people determined to avoid wearing masks seems so eager to obey the cynical directives uttered by politicians, business moguls and religious public figures eager to exploit the masses for political, financial and personal purposes.
That’s because the wrong kind of pride vanquishes conscience and steers people away from the truth in favor of arrogant, selfish motives.
Bathed in the light of vainglorious cause, the people that claim to hate wearing masks seeks out alternate views of reality to replace those they hope to avoid. There is a massive psychological game being played in American culture in which people that respect others enough to protect them from disease by wearing masks in public are being portrayed as ignorant and sheeplike. That is gaslighting.
The wrong kind of pride encourages people to embrace resentment, greed, and fear over genuine conscience and consideration.
Even religious channels are being used to communicate this alternate view of reality. This brand of corruption is toxic and painful to witness. It encourages people to care only about themselves, or their tribe. That is the exact opposite message of the world’s major religions, all of whom seem to embrace some form of the Golden Rule: Treat others as you would have others treat you.
While most of us mask up and recognize that this pandemic can end if people use common sense and gain enough perspective to know that the suffering will someday end, those who refuse to do so literally separate themselves from the norms of humanity and in the process, bring more suffering upon themselves and others.
That man dying from Covid who wrote loving last words to his wife knew better than everyone the value of life, and love. That is the message more people need to hear; that life is precious, and the right kind of pride is having the humility and respect to care about others.
Last Friday night I sat down to check email one more time before relaxing for the evening. There was a message from a website called FineArtAmerica. A woman named Delinda was writing to inquire about a painting that she owns. This is what she wrote:
Good day, I am inquiring about this magnificent print of yours, titled on back in handwritten notecard, reads: Great Horned Own with Red Phase Ruffed Grouse. 3/5 life size. Curious, it says ’78 perhaps as a date? I can send pics if you need to see it, hoping to get more info about who it may have been commissioned for, or if its just a random print? I love it so much, its so lifelike it scares my cat lol. Thanks in advance, Delinda
The painting was a labor of love a long time ago. It bears similarities to a watercolor by an artist that I admired and emulated. His name was Louis Agassiz Fuertes, one of the greatest bird artists that ever lived. I’d gone to Cornell University Laboratory of Ornithology to study the work of Fuertes and other great bird artists. I did my best to absorb what I could from studying their work close up.
My aspirations were to become as great a bird artist as I could. This particular portrait was a refinement of an earlier study I had done. I also executed an ink drawing of the same pose. But the pose originated from a painting I produced as a freshman in college from a stuffed great horned owl borrowed from the biology lab. That painting copied the mussed up feathers verbatim, a condition that a live owl would never likely allow to happen.
When I showed the 1975 painting to Dr. Lancaster, the Director of Laboratory of Ornithology, he blurted, “That’s some of the finest featherwork I’ve seen.” I took that as a kind compliment. Clearly he saw my potential, but also noted that much further study of birds was in order to become a fully accomplished bird painter.
That I continued to do. But the challenge was finding suitable resources. I’d learned taxidermy in college, but it was illegal to collect and own dead birds of any kind. Still, I collected specimens and kept them in our second freezer for reference. I owned a camera with a 300mm lens but never seemed to get good quality photos to copy. Plus it takes years or genius to absorb and render the “true” lines and forms of birds in the wild.
The years passed and I produced hundreds of paintings of varying quality for patrons public and private. Almost all of those are in the possession of people whose whereabouts I do not know. Occasionally I’ll be contacted by someone who wants to know if I’m still painting. We have a good chat and they send me a picture of the painting they own. That makes me feel good. Someone prizes a bit of my work.
I’ve even gotten calls from strangers who came into possession of one of my paintings. One of them started our phone conversation with a question, “Are you famous?” They’d picked up one of my watercolors at a garage sale of a couple getting a divorce (I remember the couple) and wanted to know if the painting they’d purchased for $25 was worth a bunch of money. “I hate to disappoint you,” I related. “But I’m not famous.”
Last year a friend found one of my paintings at an antique shop in Michigan. They were browsing the store and saw a painting of an eagle that I’d painted long ago. I’d done the work on commission for Robert Van Kampen, a patron who went on to sell his investment company to Xerox for $400 million. He hired me to do a series of hawk paintings when I was 18 years old. Somehow it escaped his estate and has been kicking around antique shops the last forty years.
Last Friday night, I wrote back to my new friend Delinda thanking her for getting in touch with me about the owl painting from ’78. She explained how she came to own it.
“So happy to hear from you! I live in San Diego, ocean beach, and people leave things in alleys all the time. The owl I’m guessing was from someone older who may have passed away. I’ve had it for about 5 years now. It was in an alley for about ten seconds before I grabbed it, others really wanted it too but I won lol. I knew it was special, and would be happy to return to you if you’d like it, or donate to the school or elsewhere that might appreciate it. Otherwise, I will cherish it forever, as I love owls and birds! XO”
I told her that I wanted her to keep it for as long as she wanted it. We agreed that if I get out to visit my son in Venice, California, we’d get together as friends and share a drink by the ocean.
That’s the most an artist can hope for in some ways. That the work builds connections. I’ll not pretend that I became one of the world’s greatest bird artists as I once believed was possible. But I also haven’t quit. These days, with the camera and lens I now own, and ability to collect good reference material, my work has improved and continues to do so.
I may never be a Louis Agassiz Fuertes. No one ever will. But I can be the best Christopher Cudworth that I can be. That’s the art of not being famous. And that’s the right kind of pride.