Survivor’s Remorse

Yep, that's about right.

Yep, that’s about right.

A year later, it turns out I’m going to live. At least for awhile (give or take the potential of getting smushed by a bus). Now what?

They say there are stages of grief. I probably experienced a portion of them all over the last 12 months following my cancer diagnosis. Denial and Isolation? Hell yeah. Anger? Absolutely. Bargaining? Kinda sorta. Depression? Sure, why not. Acceptance? Well, four out of five ain’t bad, right?

I named this navel gazing, insightful. narcissistic, self-absorbed site “A Blog Called Quest” because a: I didn’t have a better idea. Actually, there is no B. It’s just A. Well, A and the fact that these guys remain the greatest hip-hop group of all-time. So much for truth in advertising. It’s definitely a blog. A quest? Hmmm. Depends on your definition of the word. I could have called it “obvious midlife crisis hastened a bit by unlikely diagnosis of disease that sounds way scarier than it actually is” but the URL was just a little too long.

So what now? After 10 cycles of chemo (and two more to go by September) I’m as healthy as I’ve been since before my kids were born.I went back for a maintenance cycle last month. I’ve had oil changes that were more emotional. My disease isn’t the first thing I think about in the morning or the last thing I think about at night. Call it the upside of arrogance. I never worried that this thing would get me, even as I see others in the handful of Facebook groups I’ve joined struggle to repair their lives as the medicine that’s given me a second chance wreaks havoc with their own immune systems.

The default line here is I should be thankful, right?

A year ago I couldn’t climb the stairs in my house without thinking I was having a heart attack. Now if I do less than an hour on the treadmill or the sorority girl (note, that nickname came from a female cousin in law) errr elliptical machine I get cranky. I’m thinking about a 5K in a couple of weeks (my first race in a decade) and can’t wait until I become one of “those guys” who take their bike riding waaaaay too seriously sometime later this spring even if the truth is I typically get lapped by kids on tricycles.

I would love to sit here and tell you that I’ve figured it out, that I’ve figured me out. Yet I’m no closer now than I was the day my oncologist told me “Hey, you’ve got a rare form of incurable cancer but you’re going to be fine.” He was absolutely right of course, but reconciling two drastically different notions has been maddening.

Cancer got my father at 59. My brother-in-law at 35. Dad built houses. Bill was a teacher (and a good one). There is no explanation for what happened. How a non-smoker can be struck down in his prime by lung cancer is something I’m never going to figure out. How esophageal cancer turned a 6-foot-6, 230-pound titan into a graying, frail old man in six months is terrifying.

My experience has been far different. I’ve joked repeatedly that I have “JV” cancer. Most people think it’s me just being modest (important: as much as I try, modesty isn’t really my thing). I’ve sat in chairs next to folks nearing the end. I’ve watched the nurses come out wearing the blue scrubs with the chemo bags and tenderly administer it. I get four shots to the stomach and a four-hour drip of a drug that is basically little more than a reminder to my white blood cells to get to work and start kicking cancer’s ass.

It’s hard not to think about why I was spared. Why is my life more valuable than any those facing far more dire circumstances. It’s like watching a disaster movie where the entire planet is wiped out but hey, the protagonist is gonna live so really, everything is gonna be OK.

I wish I could tell you I’ve found my purpose. Lord knows I’ve been searching for one. If the last year has taught me anything, it’s that I have spent far too much of the first half of my life screwing around. And yet old habits die hard. I still play video games. I still obsess over what my professional contemporaries are doing (and just as importantly, what I’m NOT doing.) I still stare at my phone way too much, and while I’m becoming more of a grownup on Twitter, I’m still not exactly a paragon of responsible tweeting.

My smart friend Nancy (disclaimer, while this happens to be her name this is also a blatant ripoff of this guy’s work) says repeatedly “You had cancer, not a lobotomy.” Sometimes I’d almost prefer the latter (and my incredibly patient wife would agree). Far too often over the last year I’ve sounded like every politician who has ever promised “change” (no offense Mr. President) only to discover the mechanisms of democracy make progress a difficult and sometimes ugly slog (I’m looking at you Indiana).

I get told all the time that I’m being too hard on myself. That what I’m going through is completely natural, that I need to give myself a break. And I get it. Yet when I’m sitting there undergoing treatment and I see people who would likely switch places with me in an instant, it’s hard not to feel like every second when you waste not maximizing your life is a complete waste of everyone’s time.

There was a blissful stretch last summer where I really did unplug. I focused on my health and my family. I took time off work. I stayed out of the bubble I had lived in for far too long.

Then my numbers started ticking up. I felt my strength return. And the bubble returned, version 2.0. And I realized how incredibly fortunate I am. At my core though, it only made the issues I’ve struggled with for years seem only more urgent.

Every day I deal with intensified expectations. I want to be the best father. The best husband. The best writer. The best son. The best brother. The best (insert whatever I’m doing at a given moment). Every damn day. I can say unequivocally I am a better person than I was five years ago. At the same time that pursuit has made my awareness of my own shortcomings only more acute.

God didn’t spare me so I could win the Stanley Cup on my Playstation one more time. (At least, I’m figuring he didn’t). Trying to figure out what to do with the 40ish years I have left is perplexing. My greatest gift as a writer is my ability to get a handle on people. Whether it’s the best gymnast in the world or the kid at the end of the bench. I can ask the right questions, talk to the right people. And yet I’m no closer to getting the gears in my head straight than I was a year ago. Or five years ago. Or 20.

At least now, though, I’m trying. My family is in the process of joining a church, something my wife and kids have somehow taken faster to than I have. I’m trying to break out of my comfort zone by volunteering for a non-profit. I might not save the world. Not all of it anyway. But I will do my part if it freaking kills me.

Which, thankfully, blessedly it won’t. Not anytime soon at least.

Cancer might not be the best thing that ever happened to me, but it might be among the most important. To fully embrace my life, first I had to realize I might lose it. What a world. What a ride. The quest continues.

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SCOREBOARD

scoreboard

Every pickup basketball game has “That Guy.” Never the best player (who can’t bothered to be bothered) nor the worst (who is too busy working his ass off to notice or at the very least admit it out loud), “that guy” is the guy who has decided long before he took the court that he’s going to keep score.

After every basket or possession, he’s calling it out. Quick to correct those who have it wrong. Repeating it ad nauseum _ particularly especially when his team is winning _ to serve as a reminder that there must be a sense of place in the universe and (with god’s grace and a couple of 3-pointers) his team’s place is on top, not yours.

I am that guy. I have always been that guy from the day my dad paved part of our backyard and turned it into a 20 x 20 court with one of those upper-end glass backboards in hopes that I would use it to become the kind of player that made him a pretty good junior college forward (before life got in the way) and my uncle an even better one at Penn State (before being 20 got in the way).

While I loved to play, genetics and a decided lack of ability relegated the idea of me making a last-second shot for the Washington Bullets to the goings-on inside my head. I topped out at 5-11, a good seven inches shorter than my dad (and if we’re being honest here, a deck of cards shorter than my little sister). I made up for my lack of height by having no talent whatsoever other than the confidence to jack up any shot from anywhere no matter the circumstances.

We’ll pause here to give anyone who has ever played with me a chance to avoid vertigo while they finish vigorously nodding their head.

But dammit, I could add and subtract. Maybe it was simply a byproduct of all those imaginary games I would hold when noone was around, the ones where Jeff Malone or John Stockton or whoever I wanted to be on a given day was always open from 15-feet as the buzzer sounded. And yep, you can bet I was “fouled” if for some ungodly reason that shot had the temerity to clang off the rim.

It was my court. I figured it was my job to keep order. I can’t tell you I did it on purpose, but hey, nobody stopped me. Looking back, it’s hard to not laugh. During those countless afternoons spent honing a shooting stroke that still stops by every now then at 40 (and hopefully sticks around until 80) I was a walking/talking/jump-shot heaving abacus.

Not much has changed. While I technically don’t get paid to keep score (though I do anyway most nights) I am paid to tell you who won, who lost _ and perhaps most importantly _ what it all means. Some days, I’m pretty good at it. Some days I stare at the screen waiting for inspiration to strike and _ when it doesn’t _ pluck my right eyebrow furiously and hope I can “fool’em again” as the great Jim Murray used to say.

If only the scoreboard fixating was limited to my work. And that’s the problem. I have too often turned every part of my life into some kind of endless track meet. I can tell you my weight without getting on a scale within a pound or two (and no matter how high or low the number, it’s never low enough). I haven’t balanced a checkbook in years but I know what the balance in my account is within a buck or two (and no matter how high or low the number, it’s never high enough). I can tell you who has done the last five loads of laundry, who called who last in (insert relationship here), and who sent me a note on Facebook on my last birthday and who skipped.

The funny thing about this is, I’m losing. I’ve been losing for as long as I can remember. The blessings bestowed upon me are so countless it would make most people puke. Every problem I have is a #firstworldproblem. And I’d include my cancer on that list. This week the FDA approved the use of a drug that could turn something I worried would eventually kill me a year ago into something that requires one silly pill a day. (Downside: this means playing the “but I have cancer” card to win any argument I’m losing may be coming to an end).

I have treated every single aspect of my life like a game. I read the wire to see which of my colleagues is writing what, who is traveling where and wondering why I’m not. I read both newspapers in my town and send texts/twitter shoutouts when I see something I like while at the same time wondering how I could (or have) done it better even if in many cases that’s probably not true.

It’s even worse in my house. For too long I viewed my marriage like a competition. I kept mental tabs on who was doing what/when. If I cleaned the litter box a half-dozen times before my wife got to it, I made damn sure to passive-aggressively let her know. (“Oh, you know where the litter box is? I thought you’d forgotten” stupid stuff like that).

I am the player who – with his team down 30 points in the last minute – drills a 3 and hoists his arms in the air. You know, kind of like this:

The irony _ even on the days I want to admit it or not _ is that I am down. Big time. And yet I create scenarios that allow me to find a category in which I somehow have an advantage. I have known my wife for nearly 14 years and she has devoted herself to me selflessly and relentlessly, sometimes against her better judgement. She does not need to keep score _ hell, it probably has never even occurred to her to try _ because this isn’t some contest. This is life. There is no scoreboard. There is only the day to day. How we live and who and what we devote our lives to is what matters.

It’s a lesson that I have spent the last four years trying to beat into my head, with mixed results. Parenting has taught me a lot (actually, it’s taught me just about everything) by forcing me (at long last) to grow the *%# up. I see my two kids every morning and wonder how some schlub like me has managed not to screw them up yet.

This is usually the point where I would throw in a “but there’s time” in order to get a laugh. But there are still moments when that obsessive competitiveness seeps out and finds its way into my son through some strange osmosis. He’s 5 1/2 and he absolutely hates to lose. It doesn’t matter if it’s a video game or a race around the house or brushing his teeth, he absolutely cannot come in second (and heaven help you if he comes in third). I have used that drive as a motivator when he doesn’t want to do a chore or get dressed, often pitting himself against his sister in a sprint to see who can finish what task first.

This morning it led to tears, my 3 yo crying because her brother tugged on her arm in the scramble to reach the top of the steps so they can finish a mad dash to get dressed. The moment soon passed, but they are becoming a bit more frequent than I would like.

I have no idea how to change it and I’ll admit I’m probably not quite ready. I played pickup hoops on Wednesday night. The first game I happened to be guarding a friend of mine. He got the ball. A small skirmish that may have resembled defense ensued. He called a foul and I immediately became a fourth-grader, making a joke about his height and disrespecting the call. What an idiot. While the call was debatable, my immediate reaction was not. It was dumb. And I’m getting too old to do the same dumb stuff I’ve done for the last 40 years.

I imagine I could start by trying to set a better example, to take some TNT to the ever-counting scoreboard in my head _ the one that reads “Will 2, Life 1” with “Dude, when are you gonna stop doing that and realize you’re one lucky bastard and just get on with it” scrawled beneath it like some sort of advertising sign _ blow the thing up.

Pass me the detonator. it’s time, don’t ya think? At least, after this one last game …

Hey, Rome (and the eventual deconstruction of my ego) wasn’t built in a day.

A little new school for this space, but hey, times change:

Roots

The Burgh2

This was not supposed to be the place. Too many hills. Too many unironic moustaches. Too many roads to nowhere. Oh, and too much black and gold. Way, way too much for a kid who grew up in the D.C suburbs and spent each spring of his childhood watching Mario Lemieux and his buddies crush the dreams of the guys wearing red, white and blue (you know, the colors of America, not some industrialized wasteland).

I never wanted planned to live in Pittsburgh. Let’s just get that out there. My college buddies and I would drive up a couple times a semester when we were at WVU 20 years ago, going to games and charging beers to a Discover card I ended up not paying off until I was nearly 30. (Note to kids: I don’t care how cool that free T-shirt those credit card dudes are offering in front of the student union looks, pass on it until your annual W-2 hits at least five digits).

Back then Pittsburgh was the big city. Then my world got bigger. Larger. More complicated. I graduated and my horizons expanded. I needed a job. The location didn’t matter, just the opportunity to see my name in print and tell everybody how good I am live the dream.

One problem: by wanting to be from anywhere, I ended up being from nowhere.

When I tell people where I went to school, they assume I’m from West Virginia. I immediately correct them and tell them I’m from Maryland, as if being from West Virginia is something to be ashamed of when the fact is most of the truly great people I’ve met in my life are from the place where montani semper liberi. When people hear I’m from Maryland, they assume I identify with Baltimore. I make sure to correct them and tell them I grew up 30 minutes from the White House regardless of my stance on the NFL’s team’s nickname.

The truth is I’m from a town without a center. There is no main street in Waldorf, MD. The most unique things about it _ slot machines and tobacco barns _ are long gone. There’s a liquor store, a bank and a fast-foot place on every corner, but there no there there. That doesn’t make it the seventh circle of hell, but the truth is my memories and fondness of it are tied to the people, not the place.

My adult life has been little more than a series of itinerant phases: 4 1/2 years in Morgantown (sorry about that extra semester mom and dad, I was just too damn lazy), 2-plus at my first job in Easton, MD (where I didn’t have nearly as much fun as I should have), a half-dozen more in southwest Florida (where I became ridiculously tan, incredibly fit and professionally challenged but also terribly broke) and another six in Louisville, KY.

It’s telling _ and not in a good way _ that I hardly keep in touch with anybody from those stops. I adore Motown but I’ve only been there a handful of times in the generation since I left. My first boss remains an inspiration but we’ve spoken maybe four times since I hooked up the small UHaul trailer to my Jeep Cherokee and sprinted for the Gulf of Mexico in July, 1999. I met my wife in Florida. We were married in paradise in June, 2005 then bolted for the Bluegrass (sight unseen, I might add) five months after we made it legal.

Louisville is tricky. We bought a home there (still sort of for sale, if you’re looking!), had our children there and where I might have been happy if I’d allowed myself to be. I couldn’t. It wasn’t enough. The job. The house. The life. I spent so much time fixating on what came next I didn’t bother to make a real investment personally or professionally. I became claustrophobic and did everything in my power to sabotage any chance at developing a meaningful, lasting relationship with an area that had warmly accepted me even as I daydreamed about where I’d end up next.

When the opportunity in Pittsburgh popped up, it took me five seconds to apply and three months sweating out the decision even though the truth is I wasn’t running to something as much as I was running away from the notion of truly settling down. It was only when I accepted the job that I bothered to look down. I’d grown roots in Louisville. Real ones. Mortgage. Kids. Did I mention mortgage? Yet I pressed on anyway, determined Pittsburgh would offer salvation and a needed fresh start. The truth is, the fact it was Pittsburgh was merely incidental. It could have been Sydney or Sheboygan. It was a step up, a step away, another notch on a bedpost becoming ever more crowded and ever more meaningless.

The carousel needed to stop. Any maybe it has, as hard as it was to imagine 3 1/2 years ago when my wife pulled up to the house I’d chosen to rent with a 2-year-old on one arm and an infant slung under the other. She stared at the 32 steps up from the driveway to the front door and shouted “do you (bad word) hate me?”

She wasn’t kidding. Neither am I when I say it wasn’t her that I hated. It was me. Pittsburgh initially was my purgatory, a place I needed to atone. And for the first two-plus years I treated it just like I treated every other mailing address I’d used during my adult life: as a waystation between this stop and the next, wherever it might be.

Juggling a demanding new job while replacing someone who had been an institution for three decades with a family life that included two young children and a wife who wondered how in the world she’d gotten here was a hell of my own creation. I couldn’t stand the town for a good two years, projecting all the anger I felt about my own mistakes onto a city that didn’t give a damn either way.

And maybe that’s why here  _ as odd as it seemed during those first miserable months _ became the perfect place to rebuild. Pittsburgh is welcoming but not charitable. It makes you earn its respect. Maybe that’s because its spent the last 20 years remaking itself after the collapse of the steel industry.

The Pittsburgh in your mind (alright, the Pittsburgh in my mind too) is not the Pittsburgh you imagine. The mills are all but gone. There is a thriving college scene. A dynamic health care industry. A booming energy economy. Hipster neighborhoods. family-friendly cul de sacs and perhaps the prettiest baseball park in the country. There’s an arena where two of the best hockey players in the world go to work 40-plus nights a year, hardly complaining even as their everyday brilliance is taken for granted. There’s a model NFL franchise that rarely makes me check the police blotter. There are parks and bike lanes and dive bars and five-star restaurants.

We ended up buying a house in a suburb east of the city that _ to be honest _ looks an awful lot like a hilly version of my hometown. Chain restaurants and Target. Giant Eagles and a gym. It’s comforting even as we warily planted true roots. We spent the first year basically renting the house from ourselves, unpacking what we could and throwing everything else in the basement. We survived a cancer scare, back surgery (her’s, not mine) and potty-training the world’s most dramatic 3-year-old girl. Over the Christmas break we decided it was time to unpack. We recycled an avalanche of boxes. We tossed a bunch of crap that we’d forgotten we even had. We came upon a trove of pictures from when we were younger, thinner and tanner. We laughed. Then we put them back.

Slowly we are making the house our own. The art on the wall doesn’t favor the past but the promise of the future. Our 5-year-old’s kindergarten’s pic. Our daughter’s beautiful smile. Our fridge is dotted with pics of people — check that, of FRIENDS — we’ve made here. I am trying to emerge from my own self-imposed bubble (the one that’s kept me from investing in anything other than what I see in the mirror) and become a part of the community. Hanging out at my daughter’s daycare. Wrapping presents at my son’s school. Maybe (MAYBE) running a 5k. Maybe (MAYBE) volunteering with the Red Cross. Learning my neighbor’s first AND last names.

I don’t know if we’ll be here forever. But I do know that I’m OK with the idea of that being OK. My son has a Pittsburgh Pirates jersey. He asks me about “the Crosby.” One day during the fall he wondered where his Steelers shirt was (he doesn’t have one yet, but I have a feeling I’m fighting a losing battle). My daughter will attend her first birthday party for a friend early next month. They will grow up Pittsburghers, certified “yinzers.”

And while I can still get lost here at the drop of a hat, while I’m still mystified at why everybody feels the need to slow down entering a tunnel and while I still feel like I have a ways to go before I will no longer be considered an outsider by my peers (a concept that might be in my head at this point than anybody else’s) I have developed an affinity for this place. It has earned my respect. I’m trying to earn its.

As long as it doesn’t require a moustache, I think it’ll work out just fine.

Usually we close with a rap song, but not today. The quality is poor, but this video the Pirates showed the home crowd before Game 3 of the 2013 NLDS gave me chills, and I’m not one to get chills. It’s a tribute to those who had faith in a franchise that for years was lost but found itself after two decades at sea.

Sounds familiar. Sounds awfully damn familiar.