What do you do when the monster that killed your father comes for you?


In 1994, when I was 13, a monster killed my grandpa. It was my first close encounter with death and the mourning that can bring. Wait, you say, monsters don’t exist! As a child your mother lovingly reassured you that there weren’t any monsters under your bed or hiding in your closet. But, au contraire, monsters do exist, we’ve merely given them different names.

The monster that took my grandpa came in February of 1994. Doctors found the monster hiding (see, we know monsters hide!) — in his head. Subsequent tests revealed that the monster had a name: glioblastoma multiforme. This brain tumor is the most aggressive and has been called “the terminator.” Prognosis for this tumor is bleak, with only 3 to 5% of patients surviving greater than 5 years. Without treatment, the patient usually only lives for 3 months. In 1994, radiation therapy wasn’t yet available in the US, but a new treatment Boron Neutron Capture Therapy was available in Japan. Somehow, they were able to send my grandfather to Japan, my Japanese-speaking uncle accompanied him, to undergo Boron Neutron Capture Therapy.

In Boron Neutron Capture Therapy (BNCT), the patient is injected with boron. Tumors have a propensity to absorb the boron. The brain is then subjected to radiation bombardment of neutrons from a nuclear reactor. The boron preferrentially absorbs the neutrons which causes a release of high-energy particles resulting in a biologically destructive nuclear reaction. At the time, in order to increase the success of the radiation therapy, a portion of my grandpa’s skull was temporarily removed and he lay in the radiation treatment room with the nuclear reactor for 8 to 10 hours. The doctors were confident that the treatment would work. But despite the chemotherapy pills and the radiation that they threw at it, the monster came back. By September of that same year, the monster took him away. He was 64.

Glioblastoma multiforme is a scary monster. If cancer is the emperor of all maladies, then glioblastoma multiforme is Napoleon or Alexander the Great — the biggest, baddest of all the emperors of all maladies. What makes this monster scary is that it lives within your brain — within the very organ that most people equate with the essence of their self. Neurological maladies are, in my mind the worst exactly for this reason, it is more difficult to separate the disease and its effects from oneself — simply because it attacks the thinking, feeling, and functioning control center — the brain. It’s also such a scary monster because it methodically kills you. It kills you by essentially squishing your brain from the inside out. The cancer cells grow competing out the healthy cells, increasing the intracranial pressure, and eventually shutting down the nearest functions to the tumor’s epicenter. As it grows outward, more and more functions are lost. This is how it took my granpda. At first he lost his ability to move around on his own, then he lost his ability to speak, and then he lost his life.

Fast forward to late 2015, that same uncle of mine, who accompanied my grandfather, as a source of support, on his last-ditch, miracle hope of BNCT in Japan, meets this same monster this time it’s knocking on his door. And what do you do when you meet your father’s killer and it’s a monster that lives inside your own head? I’m reminded of this line from The Princess Bride:

Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.

Except that last line isn’t meant for the monster, it’s meant for yourself. Now, I’m not facing the monster myself, but I imagine these are some of the things going through my uncle’s mind.

Prepare to die.

Given a prognosis of glioblastoma multiforme I imagine that thus begins an internal struggle between a hope for being one of the 3–5% of survivors and a resignation of acceptance of the daunting probabilities. Seen in one perspective a terminal illness could be a blessing in that it allows one to prepare to die and face death with greater certainty and less surprise. I may be wrong, but I think that the sooner one is able to pass through the stages of grief: denial, anger, depression, bargaining, and arrive at a peaceful acceptance of either good or bad outcomes, the sooner one can be fully present in enjoying their remainder be that months or years. My guess is that my uncle takes comfort in that his “days are known and (his) years shall not be numbered less.” No one gets out of here alive, perhaps one silver lining of this particular monster is that you have time to take your “last dance,” to take family pictures, to live intentionally and deliberately what may be your last moments. At what point do you start thinking, “This is my last ____ fill in the blank”? Given the chance to prepare to die, you put the finishing touches on the legacy you hope to leave behind. Perhaps you take time to live out a few remaining dreams on that bucket list. Maybe, like Tim McGraw sings, you decide:

I went sky divin’,
I went rocky mountain climbin’,
I went 2.7 seconds on a bull named Fumanchu.
And I loved deeper,
And I spoke sweeter,
And I gave forgiveness I’ve been denying,
And he said someday I hope you get the chance,
To live like you were dyin’.

What would you do differently if you knew when your time would come, or at least knew with greater probabilities? You’d prepare yourself, your loved ones, and you’d love and would soak up each present moment for who knew how long you’d be able to enjoy today, much less tomorrow? This reminds me of my favorite poem by Edmund Vance Cooke.

How did you die?

Did you tackle that trouble that came your way
With a resolute heart and cheerful?
Or hide your face from the light of day
With a craven soul and fearful?
Oh, a trouble’s a ton, or a trouble’s an ounce,
Or a trouble is what you make it,
And it isn’t the fact that you’re hurt that counts,
But only how did you take it?

You are beaten to earth? Well, well, what’s that?
Come up with a smiling face.
It’s nothing against you to fall down flat,
But to lie there — that’s disgrace.
The harder you’re thrown, why the higher you bounce;
Be proud of your blackened eye!
It isn’t the fact that you’re licked that counts,
It’s how did you fight — and why?

And though you be done to the death, what then?
If you battled the best you could,
If you played your part in the world of men,
Why, the Critic will call it good.
Death comes with a crawl, or comes with a pounce,
And whether he’s slow or spry,
It isn’t the fact that you’re dead that counts,
But only how did you die?

So if fate throws a knuckleball your way and the monster that killed your father comes knocking at your door, take heart, give love, have faith, be present, be grateful for the chance to say your goodbyes, and open the door and tell it with a smile, “Hello. My name is _____. You killed my father. I’m prepared to die.” And who knows, perhaps as that monster walks you through death’s door with his arm around your shoulder you come to realize that that’s not death’s arm around your shoulder at all. That’s not the monster walking beside you into the light. And so you smile even more and put your arm around the waist of your father and walk into the light.

Love you Uncle G!

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If this resonates or aligns with you, check out my blog and share this with your friends who might feel the same way. Best! Justin.


Dad, does the moon like me?

On cultivating wonderment


I am lucky enough to be the parent who gets to drive my 4-year-old son to preschool every morning. When we’ve successfully put him down at a decent hour the night before, he can be quite alert on our morning drives to school and he can be rather talkative. Which I love. Sometimes he tells me about what he’s built with his Legos. Other times he asks when the next time will be that he can borrow my cell phone to play Minion Rush. All the time it’s with that heartwarming 4-year-old accent of his, mixed in with voweled diphthongs that lengthen even the shortest words. That’s my boy. 🙂


One morning, after a full moon, the moon was clearly visible in the morning sky. I pointed it out to him. As we continued to drive, he noticed that the moon appeared to “follow” us — it basically stayed in the same spot in the sky as we drove along. “Dad, the moon’s following me…. Dad, does the moon like me?” My son clearly thought that the moon was following him and that therefore it only made sense that the moon liked him. At that moment I had a decision to make, I could explain to my son that the moon really wasn’t following us at all it just appears that way because the moon is 238,900 miles away and that at that distance, the angle between where we are and the moon would change so negligibly that it would only appear that the moon was following us; or I could lie, agree with him, and not shatter this adorable sense of self-Ptolemaic importance, somewhat like Calvin’s dad in these Calvin and Hobbes Comics.

Encourage hypothesis before telling how it is

I wonder if in our efforts to parent or to teach we resort too quickly to an explanation of “how it is.”

I wonder if we should be encouraging more hypothesis and exploration on how it could be, letting them think it over in an environment where even the craziest, most illogical hypothesis wouldn’t be ridiculed, prior to presenting the voice of the experts. I took piano lessons for 10 years throughout elementary and high school, and I learned to play the music on the page. But I never learned how to create my own music or how to improvise without notes on the page, and I wonder if with encouragement to explore the notes without a written expert opinion on a sheet of music, I might have been introduced to a world where my piano played not only the music that others had created and written down, but my own music that wasn’t yet written down.

On Wonder

I love this quote by Author Sieglinde de Francesca:

“The child experiences the world through wonderment with amazement, awe & curiosity. It is amazement that captivates the child, awe that opens the child, & curiosity that draws the child further into an ever fascinating world. Wonderment is the first step to learning. Wonder-filled education inspires creative thinking, engages the heart & enlivens the spirit.”

Or this one by poet and essayist Diane Ackerman:

“Wonder is the heaviest element on the periodic table. Even a tiny fleck of it stops time.”

Wonder and curiousity are opposites of apathy and depression. Cultivate wonder and curiousity and you’ll chase away apathy and depression.

My Answer

And so as time was stopped as my son wondered at the moon following us, I did my best to respond in a truthful way that wouldn’t shatter his sense of wonder: “The moon is SO far away that it looks like it is following us…. And, yes, the moon does like you. Daddy loves you, too.”

Be a kid. Believe in wonder. Cultivate awe. Take time to bask in moments of wonderment. Life is short, smell the roses, and every once in a while, even if just for a magical moment, believe that the moon shines and follows you around just because it likes you.

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If this resonates or aligns with you, please subscribe to my blog and share this with your friends who might share this same resonation and alignment. Best! Justin.

4 reasons you should tap your maple trees

IMG_1427.JPGFor Ohio winters, this year has been relatively mild. In fact, this year was the earliest since 1980 that maple tree tapping season occurred. Maple sap flows best when temperatures are above freezing during the day and below freezing at night. Here are four reasons why you should consider putting a spile in the sugar maple in your backyard.

1) It increases your lumberjack cred.

Facial hair is in. Google “facial hair fad” and bunches of articles come up talking about the “beard boom.” Facial hair has been shown to make you appear more masculine and attractive. Tapping your maple trees is masculine and will bring out your inner Paul Bunyan. Tapping maple trees was our ancestors’ trip to the candy store — tapping maple trees puts you that much more in touch with your primitive side.

2) Maple sap is nature’s vitamin water

If you haven’t tried maple sap straight from the tree, put that one on your bucket list. Maple sap contains 16 times the potassium and 37 times the calcium and nearly 4 times the amount of magnesium in spring water. Maple sap has been shown, in mice, to improve osteoporosis-like symptoms, to prevent gastric ulcer formation, to lower blood pressure, to mitigate hangovers, to support the immune system, and to supply antioxidants. Oh, and did I mention that it tastes great too?

3) Boiling down the maple syrup: if you do most of it outside it’s an excuse to play with fire; if you do it inside, on the stove, WITH A VENT FAN, it heats your home.

Ever wonder why real maple syrup is so expensive? I’m not talking about the fake maple syrup that is just sugar or high fructose corn syrup with maple flavoring. (You know what they say about how you get fake maple syrup — tap a telephone pole.) I’m talking about real life grade A or B maple syrup. In 2012 over 6 million gallons of maple syrup was stolen from a Canadian stockpile. You may have thought, gee, that’s stupid — someone really wants some pancakes — except when you consider that maple syrup sells for $37/gallon which brings the the total value of that stolen maple syrup to about $18 million — leading this to be called the Great Maple Syrup Heist. Part of the reason why maple syrup is this expensive, is because of the time and fuel that it takes to boil off the water to concentrate the natural sugar content of the sap. Sap is about 2% sugar and it roughly takes 40 gallons of maple sap boiled down to make 1 gallon of maple syrup. Build a big fire and grab an old pot and boil the water off outside — this is an excuse to get outside in the winter and build a fire! Be safe, but let out your inner pyro just a little bit 🙂 Once you’ve boiled off most the water bring it inside to finish it off.

If you don’t have room to boil it off outside, boil it on the stove in your kitchen — only if you have a good vent fan to help vent out the water vapor, otherwise the excess water vapor given off may damage the walls, ceiling, or paint in your kitchen. Grab a book to read and a spoon to stir the sap/syrup and enjoy the warmth given off as you boil down!

4)Real, HOMEMADE maple syrup tastes INCREDIBLE!

Have you ever had HOMEMADE ice cream? How about HOMEMADE root beer? There’s something amazingly powerful about being responsible for producing or making the food you eat. It’s like eating your pancakes with maple syrup imbued with meaning! It just plain tastes better. Maybe it is the work that you put in to it that enriches the taste, but you can’t beat backyard homemade maple syrup. Nectar of the gods!

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If this resonates or aligns with you, please subscribe to my blog and share this with your friends who might share this same resonation and alignment. Best! Justin.

Rubbernecking Johnny Manziel

Fresh Brewed Tees’ Billy Manziel T-shirt (Twitter.com)

I live in beautiful Northeast Ohio, which for the most part tends to be known for its swing state status, the home of Rock and Roll (at least the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame), and the birthplace of American Football. Yet despite being the cradle of the pigskin, we’re perhaps better known for our crummy football team and the city’s professional sports championship drought. There’s a T-shirt sold here in Cleveland that lists over 2o quarterbacks that the Browns have had since 1999 (that’s a lot!). We go through quarterbacks only slightly faster than we go through our coaches. Here in Cleveland, we pay more former head coaches TO NOT COACH the Browns, than we do TO COACH the Browns. We’ve got to be getting close as a state to changing our motto to: “Next Year…”

Anyway, if you follow the Browns, or even Johnny Manziel, or even let’s say the NFL at all, then you probably have heard about our newest train wreck quarterback. He was a rising star at Texas A&M. They called him Johnny Football. The things he could do running on his feet, scrambling to make plays were fodder for the highlight reels. And then came draft day, and keep in mind that when Kevin Costner made the movie Draft Day–it was set in Cleveland. Draft Day here is like a holiday party where you’ve drunk too much. Everything’s great the day of the party and at the party, but then you wake up the next morning and you’re all hung over. So goes the Draft for Cleveland–everything seems great… and then the season starts and the team figuratively seems to huddle around the toilet occasionally puking all over the place. There’s a reason our football stadium has been dubbed “the factory of sadness.” On Draft Day, two years ago, even though the Johnny Football hype was intense and mock drafts had Johnny being drafted in the top 10, he dropped like a rock. And Cleveland true to form picked up another late first round quarterback. But Johnny was different, he was cocky, he was gonna “wreck the league,” he walked around flashing “show me the money” signs.

But two years later the only thing he’s wrecking is his future and his life. The depths to which Johnny Manziel has gone to feed his addiction, most think its alcohol or drugs, blew up the internet recently. Supposedly benched because of the NFL’s concussion protocol, Johnny Manziel skipped showing up for his concussion evaluation and instead flew to Vegas. But, in order to not be noticed, he donned a blonde wig and sunglasses and went by the name: “Billy” in order to gamble, drink, party. I’m not making this up, it was just too good to be true for all the sports reporters and late night comedy news shows. I don’t know what it is about us human beings and finding satisfaction in watching human train wrecks. I wonder if we find a smug satisfaction in comparing our lives to the absolute mess of train-wrecks and we think, “I may not be famous or making money hand-over-fist like so-and-so, but at least my life or future isn’t like —fill in the blank).”And we feel better than and superior to the train wrecked individual. #winning. But when we do this, are we really, winning?

When I read that Paul Manziel, Johnny’s father, had mentioned that they’d tried to get Johnny to check into and stay in a rehab facility twice over the last week but that Johnny had refused and that his own father felt that unless Johnny can get help he doesn’t think he’ll survive to see is 24th birthday. Johnny Football? #winning?

Ouch, can you imagine reading that coming from your father? The sad thing is that it was pretty obvious that it was said from a place of concern and love for his son. My heart goes out to the Manziel family. How sad to seemingly have all the opportunity in the world, to be a huge sensation with a star rising with an exponential trajectory, only two years later to have completely destroyed his value and reversed his trajectory so that now instead of going nearly straight up, its headed nearly straight down. And that’s just from a career perspective. Based on what Paul Manziel said the family isn’t worried about Johnny’s career in football (which is pretty much over)–they are worried about his life!

So what does the average American feel about this? Does he/she sit back in smug satisfaction over another human being nose diving into the ground? Are we made any more successful, any happier when more people around us fail or make a mess of their lives? No, of course not, it is only in comparison that we feel this way–when we are proud. C.S. Lewis said, “Pride gets no pleasure out of having something, only out of having more of it than the next man. … It is the comparison that makes you proud: the pleasure of being above the rest.” When human train wrecks seem to be bent on running their lives into the ground, let’s not jump on their backs in an attempt to lift ourselves higher. This only causes us all to sink deeper together into the mud. Let’s put on our empathy and feel for the sadness and struggle these human beings are enduring and causing.

As we cruise down the highways of life and come upon the wrecks on the side of the road, as we rubberneck and look at the devastation, if we can, let’s do like Meghan Vogel did,  a high school runner who when a competitor fell near the end of the race in front of her, stopped and carried her competitor across the finish-line, and if that’s not practical let’s at least extend our hearts out in empathy to feel for the victims of the wrecks — both themselves and their loved ones.

Here’s to hoping that Johnny makes it well beyond his 24th birthday, let’s hope he has many more “Next Years”–just maybe not as our quarterback.

Share your voice, even if it’s just in words

sound-856770_960_720Welcome. Well, come and comment and read. You are just in time, and just in case you have the time, I have brought the words.

I remember reading in the introduction of a Spanish dictionary a phrase that roughly translated to “our language is only limited by the extent of our memory and the rest the dictionary may supply”; however, what came to my mind when I read this was — your mind is only limited by your words. We can expand the limits of our minds by increasing our vocabularies and I believe by increasing the quality of the words, the ideas, the stories that we listen to and read.

I believe that by etching the ideas and thoughts that float through our minds and constraining them to the written word can make those ideas more real. This process cements what we have written and allows us to more fully understand the width, the depth, and breadth of the ideas and concepts. Writing can be a form of meditation almost, it can empty our minds so that our thoughts can be more fully examined in the light of day. This is one reason why I have chosen to write. I write for myself, because doing so is part therapy. I write because I have a voice and I believe that perhaps in sharing my words not only will I benefit, but perhaps some others may find value. But what do I write about? What could I possibly share that others would enjoy taking the time toread? We live in an attention-deficit world — what new video, podcast, show, article is the hot thing? There one minute, gone the next. Everyone trying to go viral, clamoring: NOTICE ME! NOTICE ME! As though one’s value or importance could be measured by the number of followers he had, the number of likes, comments, retweets or shares a post generated. What can I bring to that? Me. My voice. My words. Because no one else’s words have been filtered through my brain, tweaked and influenced by my experiences, softened by the empathies of my struggles. And by extension, what can you bring? You. Your voice. But perhaps where your voice lives isn’t words on a page, perhaps your voice is conveyed in the notes of a song, or through the love of a mom. No one else’s voice is your voice. Like Jonathan Fields’ Good Life Project Creed (http://www.goodlifeproject.com/creed/) reads “Don’t try to be different, own the fact that you already are.” So speak up! Share it. If Adele could only sing in a forest with no one else around to hear, she’d still sing, even if it was only to get the music out of her. At least she herself would hear it. I like how Henry Van Dyke put it, “Use the talents you possess, for the woods would be very silent if no birds sang except the best.” Remember the adage, don’t die with your music still within you.

And so I write. So welcome to my “must,” to my words, to my voice. Perhaps I am the only one who heard it. But, just in case I’m not, then you were just in time, so please pass on my words. My name is Justin and this is Just In Words.