Sunday, October 20, 2013

Escape


My final deployment as a naval officer involved circumnavigating the South American continent. As the sole aviator on a destroyer squadron staff, I was responsible for all air operations, diplomatic clearances, and scheduling among the flotilla of ships that were part of a series of naval exercises called UNITAS. I was embarked with the commodore in the flagship USS Moosbrugger, a Spruance class destroyer, then home ported in Mayport, FL.

USS Moosbrugger - DD 980. This was the flagship I was embarked in during my last deployment in 1998.

Corcavado Mountain with "Sugarloaf" in the background.
 
These "favela" shanties dot the countryside around Rio
One of the first ports we visited was Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Naturally, a group of us took a cab up the Corcavado mountain with its iconic Chriso Redentor statue. After taking the requisite tourist pictures, we headed back down to wander around the waterfront to see if we’d actually see another icon – the girl from Ipanema! Well, there were probably a lot. What struck me was not the beach, but the scenery on the way down. The juxtaposition from the famed statue and what was on the road was something that has kept with me all these years. Crammed on the verdant mountain that is the foundation for this whitened statue is Rio’s also-famed favelas – a sprawling corrugated tin shanty town. At the time, even more amazing was that among these tin shacks were huge 8’ satellite dishes everywhere. As someone who works with electrical contracting and engineering, I can’t fathom the safety issues between the rainforest, the metal shacks, and these oversized dishes!
Riding by in the air-conditioned cab, the vision of desperation to escape that kind of squalor has never left me.

Fast forward 15 years.

The favelas still cover Rio and I’m sure there are some holdout gargantuan satellite dishes although miniaturization has, without a doubt, changed what the favela landscape looks like, not unlike our own here in the States. There are the smaller dishes dotting the Southern side of some homes, but we're pretty much wireless, so most public places here are filled with people so tuned into their personal electronic spaces they’re practically oblivious to the people sitting next to them. People get together and they spend more time looking at their phone for the latest status update and text than each other.
 
Last Sunday I read a rather disturbing op-ed piece in the Seattle Times by Leonard Pitts, Jr. that drove that point home. It would have been funny, “except that somebody died,” he wrote. A 30 year-old passenger on a San Francisco light rail train had a .45 caliber pistol and like some Saturday Night Live skit gone awry, pulled the gun out and pointed it across the aisle, put it back, pulling it out several times. But no one notices! Why? Because they’re too wrapped up in their smart phones, iPads, and computers to pay attention that the guy next to them has a lethal weapon out. Now, we’re talking about a crowded commuter train here, but everyone is too engrossed in Facebook, Tweets, and Angry Birds. According to police, Pitts continues, the gunman shot a 20 year-old college student exiting the train.

That got people’s attention.

If anything, it reinforced something that leukemia has proven beyond any shadow of a doubt to me: technology has trained us to look for connection, but the human spirit – and I must add the physical body – won’t be satisfied by its electronic placebo. I’ve been pretty vocal about how grateful I am for such a good support network I have in my family and friends. That, in addition to being in good physical shape before this all went down has made a tremendous difference in my recovery. I certainly wouldn’t have built up the network for such an occasion as this, but it’s investing in people that made it possible, to be sure.
The really great thing about all this is that it emphasized who my friends really were as opposed to acquaintances. That’s not a bad thing, of course. Friendship takes some time to cultivate while being an acquaintance is easy and effortless. Friendship requires investment of time and emotion while being an acquaintance can be a no-strings attached relationship. But friendship has so many long-term rewards.
The other thing leukemia has shown me is that escape is futile. The guy brandishing the .45 was figuratively sitting next to me and I sure didn’t see the gun pointing at me. I’m just as guilty as all of those commuters on the train and just like the college student exiting the train, I got nailed by a bullet to the back of the head with “acute myeloid leukemia” written on it and landed in the hospital. So, for the better part of the year, I’ve been dealing with something I cannot escape, regardless of the electronics I log on to every day. Blind dumb luck, I guess?
The irony of leukemia is that it has brought me closer to my friends and family and I have been using electronics to keep in touch with acquaintances to possibly turn those loose relationships into friendships. I honestly didn’t see that one coming. Mostly, I was and am still expecting some sort of internal refocusing. After all, this is far from over. But like anything, the proverbial paralysis of analysis is something I’ve stumbled on before and I think I don’t want to go back there. I’m actually pretty good with letting the dust settle on life’s heavy lessons here and enjoying simply being alive. Those lessons I’ve learned so far through this aren’t going away any time soon and I have no desire to escape them.

Yeah, I’m still human and no doubt, I’d like to escape my frail body right now and head off to Hawaii to soak in the tropics (Yes, good doctors, nurses and Mom, I’ll be compliant and wearing appropriate clothing and my SPF 50+ sunscreen! I ain’t doin’ this again!), but I’ve still got a lot of work to do to be ready to truly enjoy it.

Those afflicted with Hanson’s Disease (aka leprosy) and some form of diabetes yearn to have the sensation of pain and on more than an insignificant number of occasions, I’ve had to embrace the pain, not because I’m a masochist, but because it is a gift to remind us that we live and struggle…and we triumph over it. And we not only survive, but we thrive. To do less is stagnation which ultimately leads to decay and death. I’m not ready to go there. There’ll be a time, but not today. Not today.

For today, I’m working on rehabilitating my muscles slowly and deliberately on my own and working lock-step with my medical team to make sure I’m healing internally and based on everything I’m hearing, things are thankfully moving along well.

Thank you for keeping with me on this very long process. No one plans on cancer, but neither does one plan on being a friend. It’s all better life through all kinds of chemistry, right?

Be well (please!), stay strong, and as always, much love to you all.

Today’s music from The Newsboys – Something Beautiful
I wanna start it over
I wanna start again
I want a new beginning
One without an end


I feel it inside
Calling out to me


It’s a voice that whispers my name
Its a kiss without any shame
Something beautiful, yeah, yeah


Like a song that stirs in my head
Singing love will take us where
Something's beautiful


I’ve heard it in the silence
Seen it on a face
I’ve felt it in a long hour
Like a sweet embrace


I know this is true
It's calling out to me


It’s a voice that whispers my name
It's a kiss without any shame
Something beautiful, yeah, yeah


Like a song that stirs in my head
Singing love will take us where
Something's beautiful


It’s the child on her wedding day
It’s the daddy that gives her away
Something beautiful, yeah, yeah


When we laugh so hard, we cry
Oh, the love between you and I
Something beautiful


It’s a voice that whispers my name
It’s a kiss without any shame
Something beautiful, yeah, yeah


Like a song that stirs in my head
Singing love will take us where
Something's beautiful


It’s the child on her wedding day
It’s the daddy that gives her away
Something beautiful


When we laugh so hard, we cry
Yes, the love between you and I
Something beautiful
Something beautiful