Blue Monday

I hope ya'll had a great holiday weekend. We celebrated with my brother-in-law and two nephews who flew down from New York. Friday, after walking eighteen holes I joined them and the rest of the extended family for dinner. Afterwards, the boys went outside for some hoops. Despite the fact that I was tired and wearing flip-flops, I could not resist the siren song of the bouncing ball. Per usual, I got buckets. Am I proud that I dunked* on my sixteen year old, yankee nephew? No…yes. Cancer or not, stop looking at my lemonade!

I wouldn’t say that I lived a sheltered life as a young man, but I had a singular focus that kept me away from the social scene. Basketball was my jealous mistress. While my peers were sneaking beers, partying, and dating, I was in the gym or on the playground. When my serious balling days were over, I (erroneously) felt like I had some catching up to do.  

During the mid-90’s, clubbing was my favorite pastime I enjoyed the odd trip to the club. Nightlife was a microcosm of the elements I thought I missed. Of course, I would eventually find that there is more to life than alcohol, girls, and music. Needless to say, a club is not a great place to learn the responsible consumption of alcohol. Similarly, it is not an ideal place to find a healthy or long-term relationship with a member of the opposite sex. Those lessons on booze and girls were hard learned, but at least the music was good.

The 90’s also saw the rise of ecstasy as the drug of choice for the club-goer. While the drug was never really my thing, I knew a lot of folks who did partake. One of the side effects of the drug is the so-called “Blue Monday”. Two or three days after taking the drug, some users experience a period of depression- a drug hangover if you will. If Friday and Saturday are the typical party nights, then they are followed by Blue Monday and Suicide Tuesday. (Worthy of note: Blue Monday, a club classic by New Order, is one of my top five favorite songs of all time).

Speaking of Mondays and drugs that make you feel bad, let's talk chemo. (Whew. All of that for a segue.) Before all this went down, I didn’t know very much about chemotherapy.  In fact, I knew nothing other than it was used to treat cancer, it caused nausea, and it caused ones hair to fall out. A couple of months later, I know a bit more, but I’m still no expert. I now know that they mix different cocktails (mmm, cocktails) to treat different forms of cancer. I know that different chemicals have different side effects and that these can change depending on dosage and on the patient. I’ve also discovered that the severity of a prescribed cocktail and the severity of a cancer are not necessarily related to one another. Lastly, I have learned that it doesn’t always make you lose your appetite or your hair.

My first two chemo cycles are in the books. Each three-week cycle consists of two weeks of treatment followed by a week off. The treatment takes the form a six-hour IV session. I got differing opinions from the various doctors and nurses about how my particular cocktail would affect me. Everyone seemed to agree that I would be very fatigued. Opinions were split on whether or not I would lose my hair. In a perverse way, the treatment room is like my new club (I've taken to calling it Club Christian). I roll in (fashionably late), get pumped full of liquid drugs, put my headphones on and listen to music. I even have young ladies hitting on me (ok, the nurses checking on me probably doesn’t qualify, but humor me). 

Over the past six-weeks I’ve gone back to work full-time and resumed my typical household duties. I’ve played basketball a few times, played golf many times, and ventured to the gym sporadically. The treatment hasn't really slowed me down at all. The effects of the chemo, however, are cumulative. The doctors told that me that I would feel the side effects a little bit more each week. This has indeed proven to be the case. Of late I have felt myself flagging a bit in the afternoons. The chemo makes me tired, and when I’m tired I get pissy. Accordingly, I have a favor to ask: if you ever hear me complain about the effects of my chemo, please slap the ever-loving mess out of me.

On the Mondays that I have treatment, I share the room with around a dozen other patients. To generalize, my comrades appear to be a bit weaker and most of them have lost their hair. Clearly, some of them are undergoing very harsh treatments. Seeing these folks getting wrecked by these chemicals makes me feel incredibly small for uttering the words “I’m tired”. While I don’t know everyone’s story, it’s appears that as far as the chemo goes, I have it easier than anyone in there. This makes me feel guilty- and if not guilty, a least a bit awkward. Every Monday morning I bee-bop into the treatment room, the picture of health- chipper, robust, and with a head full** of hair (and while we’re at it: tall, handsome, and charming…or something like that). That doesn't seem fair. But of course, none of this is fair.

This is yet another example of just how well life has treated me. Even when diagnosed with an advanced cancer, I feel great, look great, and my treatment is tolerable. When I say I'm living the dream, this is what I'm talking about.

*On a 9.5’ rim, don’t get excited.

**Of course, it’s not a full as it used to be, but in this context it’s close enough.

For this weeks chemo soundtrack, I'm all over the club tracks I loved in the 90's. I can't possibly list all of my favorite songs, but here is a representative sample by Saint Ettienne, Utah Saints, Faithless, and New Order. Is it a coincidence that they're all English? Probably not.


The Victory Lap

When all of this went down, a dear friend who is going through a similar situation gave me a warning: “Be ready, people will say stupid things to you.” I understood what he was getting at, but I didn’t truly understand until this week. I was engaged in a text conversation about my situation with someone close to me. They let fly with this little jewel: “It’s like getting a bad haircut, except it's in a nightmare and you can’t wake up.” Why, yes. Yes. That’s exactly what it’s like. Stage four cancer that you’re not supposed to survive is like getting a bad haircut. Moving swiftly on…

Am I bitter? In a word, yes. A decade ago when triathlon was my passion, I had to travel all over creation to find races. The closest official Ironman? The urbane and cosmopolitan Panama City Beach. Fast forward to 2015- CHATTANOOGA HAS ITS OWN OFFICIAL IRONMAN EVENT! (two, in fact). How damned lucky are these current Chattanoogan triathletes? Let me stop before I enter crotchety old man territory (when I was your age, I had to race uphill, both ways, in the snow…) This weekend, our fair city hosted a half-Ironman event. If you thought that I would let the occasion pass without mention of my previous exploits in triathlon and Ironman, you are obviously mistaken.

I'll mercifully spare you the re-telling of my full Ironman story. But in training for that race, I did a half IM in Clermont, Florida – a race nicknamed “The Intimidator”. Toughest race I ever had. If you're racing in a place where the hills have nicknames, you're in trouble. The memorable story of the race, however, was the finish line. Just after crossing, I grabbed a water, got a hug from a D, and turned around to quite a surprise. There he stood, my boyhood idol, Dominique Wilkins. What a coincidence that at the completion of what was probably my greatest athletic achievement to that point, my hero was at the finish line waiting for me. Cosmic coincidence.

2001, the first time I met Mr. Wilkins.
As the race was winding down yesterday, I had the great pleasure of addressing the current Leadership Tennessee class. The class is made up of VIPs from across our great state, and we were hosting one of their five class retreats. Before I spoke about the role of place in the rebirth of our city, I opened with a story about the place in which we were assembled.

Renaissance Commons in Bluffview is a very special place for me despite the fact that I had only been in that room once before. Sixteen years ago to the month, I was there for a cocktail reception. Having just moved to the city, I was participating in Chattanooga Insight- a Chamber-sponsored program for recent transplants. I showed up not knowing a soul, grabbed my nametag and surveyed the room. I immediately noticed a stunning young lady across the room and made a mental note to introduce myself at some point. But first things first, I made my way to the bar. I noticed out of the corner of my eye that the young lady was headed that way as well. This being an open bar I thought it would be the perfect opportunity to offer to buy her a drink. We neared the bar and just before I could open my mouth, she turned on her heels, a ray of sunlight beamed through the cut glass window catching the corner of her green eyes, and she asked if she could buy me a drink. Little did she know that sixteen years later she would still be buying drinks for me. I was literally delivering Sunday’s presentation from the exact spot that I met my wife years before. Returning to that place at this point in my life was another cosmic coincidence.

Where the magic happened.
I appreciated the opportunity to bring things full circle. In fact, it feels like these “cosmic coincidences” are increasingly occurring. I find myself asking, are these indeed merely coincidences, or part of a higher and grander scheme? Am I being the given the opportunity for a victory lap?

I’m fascinated by the way in which humans use their ability to discern pattern to make sense of their experience. Depending on one’s perspective, we see either coincidence or magic. Some see a confluence of events as part of the grand scheme of the universe. Those with imagination can weave fantastic stories from the seemingly unrelated or innocuous (see Dan Brown’s career). But is it more true to say that “the universe is a magical place”, or “with a little imagination the universe is a magical place”? If you go in search of the magic are you not more likely to find it?

The "victory lap" is a beautiful notion. Who wouldn’t want a few months before their passing to revisit special friends and special places? Who wouldn’t relish that time to put their affairs in order? Who wouldn’t want one last spin around the track. Who wouldn’t want to take a victory lap before checking out?

Of course, the challenge is to not to be seduced by a beautiful notion. The victory lap theory is obviously based on the premise of an imminent demise.  That’s a premise that I’m not willing to accept just yet. In any event, the question is moot. Should the timing of my demise, be it this year or this decade, really influence anything? Whether it’s coincidence or by grand scheme, are these experiences any more or less special?

Whoa boy. I have inadvertently waded deeply into existential waters, and I’m clearly in over my head (I am far more comfy in the shallow end of the philosopher pool). I’ll try to get back on firmer footing next week. Until then, ya'll be good.



Last week I thanked The Good Lord for allowing me to see the long-awaited removal of a derelict barge from our riverfront. I also half-jokingly wondered whether or not I would live to see the completion of a rather slowly progressing build in the Southside. That line of thought got me wondering just what else I might live to see. Let the record show that I will be royally pissed if I do not get to see the this, this, and another one of these... (what can I say, I’m greedy)

To reset the table, I’m currently two months into my supposed “year to live”, I have a tumor in my abdomen that’s bigger than a golf ball, and I’m on my second cycle of chemotherapy. We don’t know if the chemo is working or not, but I’m handling it like a champ (knock on wood). I’ve been up in the gym just working on my fitness, I hit the links a few times, and I’ve been dominating nine-year-olds on the basketball court. I get a bit drowsy from time to time, but I don’t let it slow me down. I’m back at work and my days are filled with various and sundry meetings and professional tasks.

Life, for the moment, is weird. Our family has resumed the typical routine- boys are in school, D and I are working, and we spend the rest of our lives at a soccer practice or tournament. While life has been turned on its head, everything is “normal”. If I could hit the pause button and live the rest of my life as things are right now, I gladly would. Unfortunately, the pause button is not an option. To be fair, that’s not an option for you either. None of us are guaranteed tomorrow. Tumor or no tumor, there is only the opportunity to fill our days with love and life.

I’ve never been particular bothered with leaving a legacy or a lasting monument to my time on this earth. Faced with my own mortality, however, I am driven by one question for the future. It is a question of legacy, and it is this:  What kind of world am I going to leave for Keith Richards?

Friends and Strangers

Apologies to my fellow Phi Lou Gehrig, but I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth. The amount of love I’ve received over the past few weeks is beyond description. This, however, is less a testament to my lovability than it is my great fortune in befriending people with big hearts. I cannot begin to thank everyone who has sent prayers and positive vibes. I want ya’ll to know that I appreciate every text, email, call, smoke signal, telegram, and instant message and consider your friendship a gift.

I don’t have a large family of blood relations. Those of us who are still around are spread about and don’t see too much of each other. Accordingly, I was most excited to get a letter from my second cousin this week. It was very sweet, and I am grateful for her thoughts and prayers. She told me that she and her friends are praying for me “by name” (it’s a southern thing). She also shared my situation with a friend, which has resulted in me being a prayer focus of a bible study group at Rocky Bluff Baptist Church in Polkville, Mississippi. While the family has deep roots in rural Mississippi (I wrote a post about it a while back), I can't say I know anyone in Polkville. There are a number of prayer groups in a number of communities praying for me, and maybe it’s not fair to single one out. That said, the idea of a group of folks in Smith County, Mississippi praying for a stranger in Chattanooga just makes me smile.

While we’re on the topic of prayer

As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, I don’t believe in praying for outcomes. If you believe in God, you believe in something bigger than yourself. It follows that God has a better idea of the big picture than you do. I think it’s small to pray for your team to win, or to hit the lottery, or for that matter to be healed*. Those events fit into your vision for a plan, not necessarily God’s. I am of the opinion that the prayer should be for the strength and character to respond to any situation in a way that reflects positively on our faith. If you are wont to pray, I humbly request that you focus less on my health and more on strength for all of the people that are impacted by the situation (with special attention on my boys). And while you're at it, spare a few words for our friend Keith Richards.

*Disclaimer: I cannot vouch for the scriptural accuracy of my position.

This week's chemo listen: I wore out Alt-J, gave a nod to Mr. Richards, and revisited Nirvana.


More Than A Feeling

Well, let’s just say that I’m thankful that The Good Lord let me live long enough to see this. What remains to be seen is if he will deem fit for me to live to see the completion of this. (sorry boys, you know I love you. I couldn't resist)

After the week in Houston, I was on the road again. While my time receiving cancer treatment in Texas was surreal, this past week represented a return to routine. Over the past few weeks I have jumped back in the saddle and returned to work. While most of my life’s work has been in the Scenic City, I have for the last few years made monthly visits to work on projects in Iowa. Last week marked the first visit since my diagnosis.

In the four and a half years of writing in this space I have shied away from detailing the specifics of my professional work (with the notable exception of the Urban Design Challenge). I will not break that policy in this post. I will say, however, that my relationship with this client and community in Iowa means an awful lot to me. I’m a Chattanooga guy, and my professional fortunes have been inextricably linked to this city. Having worked four solid years in another city, however, is a blessing that has given me a chance to develop a rewarding set of professional and personal relationships. My clients- both the staff and board- are very special people with a passion for making their community better and I love them. My visits to see them follow a familiar routine: a flight out on Tuesday, a day and half of magic on site, and a flight home on Thursday. One of the unexpected delights of the monthly routine, however, is the couple-hour drive from DSM through the cornfields of Southeast Iowa.

Flash back to the early 1990’s: I lived in Montgomery and went to school in Albuquerque. The drive from home to school took about twenty-two hours. On the way out, with pockets lined from working during summer or Christmas, I would split the drive into two days and splurge on a Motel 6 stay in Oklahoma City. On the way back, I was always broke (having dropped my coin on beer and other such things) and I would often drive straight home. As a bona fide introvert, the opportunity to be alone with my thoughts, cassette player, and the American landscape was a little bit of heaven. There was a beauty to the physical transition from home to school. The landscape slowly changes from the pine forests of my home state to the hills of the Ozarks, to the expanses of the southern plains, to the dusty nothingness of west Texas (sorry Amarillo), to the magical panoramas of New Mexico. That drive – time, thought, landscape- facilitated a mental transition from “Home Christian” to “Student Christian”. Those were some of the most cherished days of my year.

My monthly drives in Iowa are just as special. The two hours alone in the rental car are a great treat. The journey does not serve the same transitional and processional purpose, but it is in many ways more special. For the last four years (long before the cancer diagnosis) those drives have been trips down memory lane, and an opportunity to reflect, count my blessings and smile. Music is the catalyst. I maintain strong associations between music and people and events at various points in my life. For two hours I flip channels on Sirius XM and let the music remind me of the good times, the bad times, the special moments, the great experiences, and most of all the extraordinary cast of characters that I have been fortunate enough to know. Those trips down memory lane never fail to put me in a great mood or remind me of just how good I’ve had it.

The other fascinating byproduct of the routine has to do with landscape and the cycle of life. When viewed continually from the same place, the change of landscape over time happens so gradually that it mostly escapes notice. Sure, we are aware of what season it is, but because we are constantly immersed in the environment, it can be difficult to recognize the incremental change. Experiencing the landscape briefly on a monthly basis is enough to maintain the connection with the rhythm of the seasons while providing enough of a break to make the incremental changes noticeable. 

This is corn country. Every month I am treated to a different type of beauty, and can identify the small changes. In January and February the rolling hills (no, its not flat) are bare and stark, save for the snow. In March and April anticipation takes physical form with the preparation of the fields. The  pattern and order of the freshly planted fields of May is a harbinger of things to come. In June, the first green shoots are evidence. July and August see the fields take on progressively different shades of green as the stalks grow. By September the full fields take on an otherworldly hue as the stalks and silks blur in the periphery of the car window. Then there is the abruptness of the harvested fields in October- a stark reminder that the corn isn’t a permanent element in the landscape. The detritus in the November fields, and snows of December signal the winter sleep. The cycle of life as seen through a rental car window.

I could close with the obvious comparison between the cycle of the life of the corn fields and that of each of us. But that angle is formulaic and has been beaten to death (pun intended). Instead, I will share a moment from my drive. I’m not a huge classic rock fan, but I appreciate a good tune. While channel surfing, I caught the first few bars of one of the all-time great road trip songs (one notably ripped off by Nirvana)- More Than a Feeling by Boston.  And there I was- driving through the corn fields, the promise of Spring in the air, sun on my face, wind in my rapidly retreating hair, music cranked, surrounded by friends and family, feeling great despite the chemo. It was a magical mixture of mood, music, and environment. In that moment all the cares in the world evaporated and I felt invincible. As cheesy as it sounds, that is More Than A Feeling.

This week’s chemo listen: Or course, the aforementioned Boston song. As long as we’re going back in time, as I was pulling into the parking lot for treatment this rather appropriate little jewel came on. (If you don’t dance, you have no soul)