On watching loved ones die, close-up

I’ve watched two people die close up. “In-the-room-with-them” close-up.

My father died in 1998, from a form of lung cancer. The last hours of his life, he sounded like the gurgling of a drip coffee maker. He gurgled himself to death. I think they call that the “death rattle”. Fortunately hospice was there to give him some morphine through that experience. I repeated to myself then, “the wages of sin is death”.

Some years later, I watched my wife die. Her death was quicker and much more merciful. She apparently had a heart attack as the result of overworking herself digging up some old yucca plants. I’ve written about that extensively.

I’m now watching my mother die in slow motion from Alzheimer’s. I had written “Alzheimer’s disease”, but I changed my mind on that. It’s not a “disease”. It’s not caused by bacteria or viruses. It seems to be something environmental.

On Monday, she will go into a nursing home. We’re not sure how much of her is even still alive.

Her body walks around for sure. In that regard, she’s like one of the “walkers” from “The Walking Dead”. She just has this urge to walk. Maybe it’s because, while she was losing herself, I walked with her every day. But over time, her knees and other things started to hurt. She lost her balance easily. She fell a number of times. So I stopped walking with her.

But now when she walks, she has a destination. We have hired an outside caregiver who lives up the street, and my mom just wants to walk to see her care giver.

The problem is, she does this at odd hours. The middle of the day. The middle of the night. She also walks in the snow, without shoes or coat. She is incontinent and cannot control her bowels. She has made big messes in public.

She cannot speak a complete sentence. I see her every day, yet she does not know whether I am her father or her husband or her son. I remind her, “I’m your number one baby boy. You slept on the floor in the hospital when I had pneumonia as a baby. I’m here for you”. She at least knows this.

And yet she is incredibly inventive getting out of the house. It’s amazing how inventive she is in getting out, given how much of everything else she has lost. We’ve locked entrances and exits. Alarmed them. She tears out the alarms, and she evades locks and bolts.

Whenever someone is not with her, day or night, she will try to get out of the house, wandering the streets. The police have been called.

She has lived in the same house for 60 years. She has sat in the same chair, watching TV, and it is all set up just the way she set it up years ago, when my father died. We first noticed something was wrong when we saw her driving her car on Lebanon Church Road with the driver’s side door flapping open.

She has been quite independent over the years, but now, she will sit in her chair, look you in the eye, and say, “will you take me home?”

She is 82. Both of her parents spent their last years in nursing homes; her father died at age 87, her mother died at 81. Both with dementia. She resisted her mother’s path. Her mother was overweight, had bad knees, and was in a wheelchair long before she was in a nursing home.

So over the years, my mom had bariatric surgery, lost a lot of weight, and was extremely active in church and in her community of friends. I personally have hoped never to put her in a nursing home.

But our efforts have failed and have given way to the inevitability. On Monday, we’ll be taking her to her new home. We can’t care for her 24 hours a day. We don’t know if she’ll understand, or if she’ll protest, or if she’ll feel at home in a community of other people.

We don’t know if she has died already. In some sense, we are all “the walking dead”. Maybe that is part of the appeal of that TV show. But we have a great hope. ”For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

The Bible says, “If the dead are not raised, let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.”

It was the writer of Ecclesiastes who said, “There is nothing better for a man than to eat and drink and tell himself that his labor is good. This also I have seen that it is from the hand of God”.

Every one of us will follow this path. It is with great thankfulness that we are able to realize, “it is from the hand of God”.

There is only one hope in the face of it. But it is a great hope: “in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am persuaded that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor any other created thing will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

“Little John” (me)

It seems that some people don’t think twice about religion. I have never been that kind of person. Like the Psalmist, I have always been inclined to say,

“The heavens declare the glory of God,
and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.
Day to day pours out speech,
and night to night reveals knowledge.”

(Psalm 19:1-2, ESV)

Anchored in this understanding of God and his easy willingness to reveal Himself, my own religious path took me into and out of Roman Catholicism a couple of times, eventually to leave it for good. Investigating the truth claims of both sides of the Protestant/Catholic divide has been the defining intellectual struggle of my life.

I grew up in West Mifflin, a small borough in western Pennsylvania near Pittsburgh. Thanks to the popularity of the Steelers football team, Pittsburgh is widely known as the Steel City, and its reputation for being a world-class center for steel production is well-deserved.

In turn, Pittsburgh has been dependent on the small towns and communities along its rivers. In the late 19th and earliest 20th centuries, the rivers provided a means of transportation for bringing coal and iron ore in, and shipping steel out.

People from the region made steel in a dozen or more communities south of the city that ran along the Mononghahela River, including the small towns of Elizabeth, Clairton, Glassport, McKeesport, Duquesne, Braddock, Homestead, and others.

This topography was totally foreign to Bethany, a west-coast girl, when she landed here.

Image 5: West Mifflin and surrounding local areas

On a map, the Monongahela (or “Mon”) River bends in a backward “S” shape, with the lower portion of the backward “S” protruding westward on the map, opposite Glassport and McKeesport, which nestled inside of the river to the east. Then further north, the river curved back east to encircle Duquesne, West Mifflin, and Homestead. West Mifflin sits almost in the form of a sideways “figure 8” on the west side of that upper curve in the river.

So as the steel mill communities grew after World War II, and outgrew their own municipal boundaries, lots of people who worked in the steel mills along the river, moved up over the hills into West Mifflin. It was a bit farther away from the economic activity and less densely populated than the little steel towns, but the homes were newer. The people who lived there came from various communities, and it was a real melting pot of people and nationalities from the region.

Image 6:West Mifflin, near the Allegheny County Airport, where I grew up.

The borough was incorporated in 1947. It had been mostly unincorporated farmland before that, not part of any municipality. It was also home to one of the first commercial airports in the country — the Allegheny County Airport, in 1931, and it had ample business and shopping areas nearby.

The main east-west road through the area, Lebanon Church Road, was named after the Lebanon Presbyterian Church, which had been a landmark since its establishment 1776. It was a hilly terrain, and the road had ample twists and turns.

As a cross-street to Lebanon Church Road, Camp Hollow Road extends straight south from the Airport driveway and curves down the hill and winds through the hollows down to the Monongahela river and to the city of Clairton.

My father, born in 1928, grew up on a farm in rural western Pennsylvania during the depression, where his family were coal miners from Slovakia. He was the youngest of three brothers, with seven sisters. He was number nine of the 10 kids in the family. Though he was too young for military service during World War II, an older brother of his was a genuine war hero who had parachuted behind enemy lines in Eastern Europe for the OSS, a precursor of the CIA.

Eventually my dad found a job as a “wiring diagram designer” for the Union Switch and Signal company, which designed railroad crossings for many of the major railroads in the area. He served in Korea, where he was wounded.

He was a natural artist. As a young man, he could draw Woody Woodpecker almost perfectly by hand, from memory, and his job at “the Switch” was simply creating the blueprints out of drawings produced by the engineers.

His job was stressful for him, not because of kind of work that he did, but because of the people around him, and the tense work situations brought about by union rules. In my father’s case, he had started at “the Switch” about a month before another guy – we’ll call him Fisher. For some thirty years, Fisher followed my father “up the ladder” at that place, always a month behind, and he harassed my father all the way up.

For years, he worked a 40-hour job, and dinner was on the table precisely at 5:30 every day. Except for when he worked overtime. Then dinner was on the table at 6:30. And Fisher nagged my father every step of the way.

So on Fridays, my father would bring home a case of beer, stash it away in his downstairs refrigerator, and he would sit and brood, drunk, until Monday mornings.

I only learned when I was 27, just before I met Bethany, that he had been married in the early 1950s (“in the Church”) and then quickly divorced, before he met my mom. Knowing how Roman Catholicism viewed marriage in those days, it certainly would have caused him a lot of difficulties.

My mom, born in 1940, grew up in the Hazelwood area of Pittsburgh, in the public housing projects up the hill from the steel mills in Homestead. At the time I was born, she was a recent high school graduate of what was then Cathedral High School, an all-girls Catholic school, located next to St. Paul’s Cathedral, the seat of the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh.

My dad’s younger sister Sue was married in the early 1950s. She and her husband lived in the same housing project where my mom lived, and my dad moved in with them after his divorce. Some time in 1959, he was helping one of his nephews move into the projects up there, and that’s where he met my mom.

My mom and dad were married in August 1959. I was born in January 1960. Let’s just say that a 30-year-old divorced man getting a 19-year-old Catholic girl pregnant out of wedlock caused a bit of a scandal in those days.

By the time I was a year and a half old, my parents had moved to West Mifflin, to a small house not far from the County Airport, just off of Camp Hollow Road. That’s where I grew up and where my mom still lives (as I write this).

Years later, I found out that my parents had secretly gone through the “annulment” process for my father’s first marriage and had gotten married “in the Church”.

As a small child, under the age of two, I was hospitalized several times for bouts of pneumonia. It seemed to run in the family — I had a close aunt and uncle both who seemed to have gone through the same thing.

My earliest memories involve being in that hospital. I remember being in a grey metal crib, which seemed like a cage, and I was inside a clear plastic oxygen tent. Essentially I was inside a box inside of a cage. Maybe this accounts for the sense I have that I don’t want to be bound in any way.

My grandmother brought me a large toy metal car, which had metal parts and some gears that made some real engine sounds. I remember the nurses taking it away from me because it possibly could have created sparks, not a good thing in an oxygen tent.

The crib was in a large open ward, with a couple of cribs at my end, and maybe about 10 or 12 beds in the large open room. My mother tells me that she slept on the floor while I was in the hospital, and that seems to have been a possibility, given the austere nature of that ward.

I got over the pneumonia, and because of my birth date in January, I was able to start Kindergarten at age four. By age seven, I received the appropriate second-grade sacraments — “first confession” and “first holy communion”.

Image 7: The author, at age seven.

During those years, I had a great grandmother who was an immigrant from Slovakia, whom I saw regularly. She barely spoke English, but the one thing she repeatedly told me was, “you good boy Jahnny”. And that went along with and reinforced my religious training as a young Catholic. You have to be good to get into heaven.

My father was something of weekend alcoholic. He was socially awkward, and he was hard on me at times. While I was very young, I frequently wet the bed at night.

Back then, I had recurring dreams, and maybe they reflected my hospital experiences? Women dressed in white would enter and exit from the room. They would just show up and take care of different things around me, and then they would disappear. Were they nurses? Angels?

I also have memories from the third grade on, maybe, of having had a crush on different girls over the years. I have been in love with many different names at many different times. Some of these crushes lasted for years. I never knew most of these girls. They were very pretty, and I was too shy ever to talk with any of them. They were all crushes from afar.

Only one of these, Donna, coincided with an actual friendship. My younger sister was a Brownie, and my mom would help chaperone the Girl Scouts on roller skating trips. I would go skating with them, and Donna and I would hold hands as we skated around the rink. I believe I ruined that friendship with the help of a rascally neighbor of hers (from our class) and also my own thoughtlessness, joking around.

In my middle school years, I was an odd but relatively normal kid. I won a math contest in sixth grade. I acted in plays, and I was a manager for the basketball team in eighth grade, which meant I swept floors in the locker room and collected up the basketballs and put them away after practice.

I played chess in high school, and our chess team won a state championship.

During my high school years, there were some girls who were “Born Again Christians”. The phrase was popularized during the presidential campaign of 1976, when Jimmy Carter identified himself as “Born Again”. I had no idea what that meant. But it seemed like a good thing, and if there were another level, so to speak, to which we could aspire on the road to God, I wanted to know about it.

On days when we had substitute teachers, a group of us with religious interests of different kinds would all talk about it. Lisa, one of the Born Again girls whose last name started with “B” always sat near me in classes. She and I would talk about religion, and others would join in the discussion.

A close Baptist friend of mine, a very smart Methodist, and an atheist who was also a student of Nazi Germany, all joined these discussions from time to time. I represented the Roman Catholic side in those talks, and of course, I had the big ammo:

“Thou art Peter, and on This Rock I will build my Catholic Church” (Matthew 16:18).

There’s nothing like being boastful while quoting wrong information. I literally thought Jesus had said “I will build my Catholic Church”, but of course the word “Catholic” in there was an interpolation by my mom, who, as a pre-Vatican II Catholic High School graduate, often repeated it that way.

I was one of 12 students in my graduating class who made it through all 12 years of CCD – the Catholic version of Sunday School for public school students.

Often, during high school, Lisa, the Born Again girl would give me different religious tracts, which I read and considered.

One thing that was very clarifying for me was a chart showing the gap between God and man, and the way that the cross of Christ bridged that gap. This was the Biblical Gospel message, pure and simple. God created man. Man sinned and broke fellowship. Christ’s death and resurrection restored that fellowship. And we were free to avail ourselves of that fellowship. We just had to ask for it.

Another tract featured a part of a sermon by John Wesley, in which he preached, “Ye must be born again”. It was based on the passage from the Gospel of John:

Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.”

Nicodemus said to him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?”

Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’” (John 3:3-7).

By the time I was graduated from high school in 1977, I was fully engaged in a personal religious quest. Two things, which seem connected, were in play. “What is it to be ‘Born Again’?” and “Where does the Roman Catholic Church fit into this?”

After all, if the Roman Catholic Church were actually what it says it is (and it says it is the channel of all grace in the world), then how could it miss something as fundamental as a blessing that goes with “being Born Again”? 

A parish priest of mine later said that “you were ‘born again’ at baptism”. But that logic doesn’t quite follow, as I learned.

I didn’t know it at the time, but my questions were at the heart of the contentions at the time of the Reformation.

While most of my peers were growing up in a world of “sex, drugs, and rock and roll”, as they would say in the late 70s, I was looking for the meaning of life. The quest to find it would be my form of teenage rebellion.

# # #

Bethany: First Impressions of Aberdeen Proving Ground

Following up on my previous blog post, I’m starting now into Bethany’s journals and letters that began AFTER she received her transfer orders, to a unit that was headed to Iraq (February 2003).

Bethany was to be stationed at the Aberdeen Proving Ground. If I recall, Bethany and I did a whole bunch of shopping for things she thought she might need, everything from underwear to cigarettes.

She picked up a journal as well. In this journal, at least the first page is missing (there is a small scrap left over in the spiral binding), then about four pages of Arabic consonants which she was practicing. Her words below are in italics, and my comments are interspersed in the normal typeface.

Dear Johnny Feb 4 / Tue 03

I was up at 4:30 am, [yesterday?] showering & ironing my uniform & out the door. I did most of the financial & legal stations for processing. It was a low stress day. I greatly appreciated the thoughtless duties. I answered a bunch of medical problems for Soldiers & helped in the supply room. I did everything but office work.

After I talked with you I had a beer & went to bed. I wished that I could have had a six pack. I’ve also been studing [sic] the Arabic alphabet. So far I’ve memorized 6 consonants. Whoopee, huh?

12:30 pm my roomate came in late like gang-busters. She woke me up from a sound sleep banging & rustling around with out any care for someone who may be sleeping. And she didn’t seem to care that she was disturbing anyone. So now I’m up wide awake at 1:30, 2 am.

I’ve got the following highlighted (with a yellow highlighter). I would only have read this (journal) after she was already deployed to Iraq.

I was looking at the unit’s roster. I was trying to personally organize the duties in my minds eye. I was trying to understand people & their duties. As I studied it & realized everyones duties I noticed that not only am I listed as a 71L I’m also lowest on the list. Most if the Itel [intelligence] are 96Bs, and I’m not sure what they are, but they’re tops on the roster’s list.

I’m so worried that I’m going to have to do shit work for a year.

Keep in mind that I was horrified by the turn of events of the past three weeks or so – from the family day “re-enlistment” to the cutting of the “involuntary transfer” orders a week later, through the shopping trip for supplies for basically a year, to dropping her off at the Aberdeen Proving Ground, and what (it seemed to me) was a very long drive home.

Each time we visited her, then (and we saw her on several occasions), it was thought that she could deploy, and it might be the last time we’d see her.

Later, after I’d had some time to talk with some folks and begin piecing things together, it became a sticking point between her and me. The MOS “71L” basically was her oldest job classification, as a secretary. She told me of a time when she was in the Reserve for the first time, around 1980, and her unit was on Bivouac, and she had to carry a typewriter around with her, to do the unit’s official paperwork.

Now she was being called to be a secretary again – something she knew precious little about. This was important, because as I went up the chain of command (talking first to chaplains, as she had requested, and then to JAG officers), the story line was, “she’s a highly qualified soldier, and she was chosen via a computer match for her skills, and for the needs of the unit”. A female two-star General (actually up her chain of command) told me this personally.

A day later to my amazement I realized that my roommate is not SGT (Smith) but she’s really a Warrent Officer and Chief of a section. I did an immediate about face in my attitude & tried to filter the air for the warm fuzzies.

Tues Feb 18/03

I just finished church services 1600 with a Pentecostal Soldier & Pastor & cried my eyes out.

Before church I was not happy about the way my day was going. I couldn’t get breakfast because the chow hall was closed because of the snow and then the bus left us and I had to walk to the unit without my jacket which I had left at the unit the day before. So I was in a miserable state.

Before one of my training classes a soldier brought me some lunch form the “Chow Hall” I was very moved that this Old Man Soldier went out of his tired way for me.

At Church Services the Pentecostal Pastor read to us from Romans 10: something about along race that Paul was in & how we were in a long race also. And that we’re to receive a “crown not corruptible.” It was a nice service. This time I went because I wanted too, not to get out of a duty. I wanted God to take away this war but if he can’t I’d like him to stay with me & help me to do the right thing when I have to. Most of all I want him to bless my husband & babies & take care of them and not let them hurt for me and I want my absence to work for the good. Maybe he can make it good for you Johnny.

Of course this last paragraph reminds one of the scene from Daniel 3:17-18, where Daniel and his companions were commanded to worship the golden image, or face the fire, and Daniel’s refusal and explanation: “If it be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the furnace of blazing fire; and He will deliver us out of your hand, O king. But even if He does not, let it be known to you, O king, that we are not going to serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up.”

She carried this attitude toward life, which matured as she grew older, and it was a wonderful and challenging thing to watch.

# # #

“It’s really an incredible life that we’re living and you should write about it”

Hello. If you know anything about me, you know that my wife Bethany died more than six years ago now. I’ve had a hard time with her death, especially at first, and for a long time, but the grief mostly has passed. I still have those moments, however.

On the one hand, I miss her terribly. On the other hand, she would have been horrified by the way that political and cultural events have rolled out over the years since she died.

If you’ve seen this page in the past, maybe you remember that I was hoping and indeed trying to write about her. I have started and stopped at multiple points: the grief was too hard to deal with; there was so much information to have to remember and compile; I stopped at one point, after a very long and concerted effort to try and contact book agents.

I’m at it again, and to this point, I’ve got roughly 95,000 words and 270 pages. Those are rough estimates, because I’m doing different things in different documents, and I know that some editing will be required to put these things together.

So far, I’ve written the beginning of the book and the end of the book – this latter part consisting of things that I learned about her only AFTER she died. I did this by going through all of the papers that she had carried around our whole life together. I hate to brag, but I really trusted her with all the things that she had told me about herself, and I did not snoop into her personal papers at all, with one small exception.

That one small exception was while she was gone in Iraq. I took those papers out of the garbage bag in which she had been storing them, and I collated them and put them into order. Then I put them in the attic and never looked at them again.

Among other things, she was a hoarder. This not only included “stuff”, but “papers”. Memories, really. She kept every paystub, every movie and concert ticket, every card or letter she received, every set of orders, every train or plane ticket … you get the idea.

But there is an exception to this, as well. Some of these papers and other things were damaged. At one point, we lived in an old wood frame house, and she kept these things stashed in a crawl space – “in the dirt” – next to the steps down into a musty old basement. I couldn’t stand up straight in that basement, it was so short and dark and musty, so I rarely went down there. But we kept washer and dryer and other things down there, and she did laundry down there for our young and growing family for four years, from 1995 through the end of 1997, when we were forced to move out.

Old and musty as this house was, (and probably moldy, too), the years we spent there were for her, the best years of our lives together. Prior to that, we struggled financially, and we moved a lot from apartment to apartment. After that came another couple of moves and then 9/11/2001. That event really did change “everything” for us.

But while we lived in that old house, for her, it was heaven on earth, with love, family, wonderful friendships, and a white picket fence. She was a young wife, the young and pretty mom of (up to that point) four little boys who loved and obeyed her. She was not only the matriarch of our family, but she had been adopted into the family of some of our neighbors – as large and rambunctious and loving a group of people as anyone could hope to get to know.

Those good times didn’t last, though we tried to hang onto them. We had to move away, and then Bethany went into the army.

I’m transcribing her journals now, and I’ve come to a point at which she describes her reasons for and her doubts about that period of her life. It was a letter that she wrote to me, in November 2002, just as she was finishing up her training as a medic. I haven’t read this letter for some time now, but revisiting it is really a priceless experience. It really brings both her inner strength and her inner troubles back to me in a very moving way.

I’ll be posting some more of these thoughts of hers from time to time. If you find misspellings or grammatical errors below, I’ve tried to be as faithful to her own words as I could be.

Let me know what you think.

Nov 8, 10:30 am

I’m outside on field training. I’m pretty nervous because I’ve been made Pltoon Sergent for [illegible]. We’re on reconisonce right now trying to bet to our BN station without getting shot or blown up. I’m in charge of 10 soldiers & I don’t want to do anything stupid to trouble or to get “killed”. A “killed” will take you out.

Sat Nov 9 / 02 12:20 pm

I’ve learned about Nathaniel’s bad grades. I hope this is the worst that can happen while I try * finish this course. So far when I get home I’m going to have my work cut out for me getting things back in order.

8 pm.

I went shopping today and bought goodies for the kids & our neighbor’s kids too. The days are too slow for me. I’m sure that they’re to slow for you too. I can’t believe how long 4 months are when your so miserable.

One night a long time ago before I left for the army I couldn’t sleep. So I turned on the T.V. while you were sleeping. A program on the Travel Channel showed all about San Antonio & the river walk. I remember watching all about it thinking then that I hope we’ll all like it. And I had hoped that we would all get to see it while I was going through school. I am so surprised about how it all worked out.

I’ve come to the Riverwalk twice since I’ve been here and I haven’t enjoyed one minute of it. I only came here to get away from the base because it’s so ugly there & I’m miserable here without you all. I also worry about the balance of my family while I’m away.

I’ve found a little Texas bar that I feel comfortable at for a little while. I’m going to drink a couple of beers & write to you and then go back to my bunk soon.

There are many thoughts on my mind right now. One of them is about spending 6 days out in the field playing the role of a combat medic. I just talked to a few soldiers that came back from the field! They all told me how hard it was. I wisht hat I had the confidence that I had when I first started this personal mission. All the medical studies were so hard. There were so many times that I didn’t think that I was going to make it. Plus my age is hindering my mind’s thinking. I’m sure I can do this for a couple of years but I really don’t knowhow long that I have left physically. I’m always so sore & a little slow at everything. It’s wonderful to get through the obstycles [sic] with out having my own heart attack

The most demanding of all my thoughts are about you & the kids. I would really enjoy this work & the struggle if all you guys were here with me. How can one enjoy a career & family together? That’s a big thought that I’d like to have come together for peace of heart & mind. The last ten years of my life have been family & babies.

It’s really an incredible life that we’re living and you should write about it. I do believe that God has been the lead of us. When I remember that axis I get peace inside & feel at ease. But situations around me unnerve me and make me loose my confidence. Plus I believe the evil one plagues me. I’m always wanting to do the right thing but situations happen & I could not act in or react perfectly. I’m always being tested! I always worry that I failed to make, or arise to be the woman to meet the strom. That hurts me deeply.

I so want to do good things for the world and then I realize that I’m so inadequate. When is enough really enough? I always knock & I don’t receive an answer. How about you? When I get to this frenzy & can’t think anymore I stop thinking and just do. I just do the next of what ever is required with out thought, letting everything fall into place with the belief that God is moving then. We start or move events we can’t control everything that comes with the momentum.

I have to tell you right now that I love you and I thankyou very much for letting me do this. I’d never get to try this challenge if it weren’t for you. You’re my backbone. I’ve never had anyone before you that loved me like you do to the point of letting me grow. Growing & learning are such gifts that haven’t any price. I’ve learned that one thing when helping others. One must always give as much as they can for someone to learn. It comes with that phrase “teach a man to fish.” You really do good work for God then.

9 pm.

I’ve tried to write you a letter with my most pressing thoughts & feelings while trying to relax. I’m getting ready for the climax of my military escapade. If I get to do more later then so be it. But if I don’t I know that I’ve done my very best with what we could expend & taste now.

I miss you & love you. To me I’ve spent the last hour with you while I was writing to you. You were here with me the whole time. I hope when I come home you’ll love me as I imagine that you do.

# # #

God, Life, Politics, and Business

I’ve used the phrase, “God, Life, Politics, and Business”, as the topic of this blog for years. These are the four things that have shaped my life, in descending order.

People recently have told me that I’m too far consumed with politics. Well, of course, this is a political season, and much is at stake. There is a difference with being “consumed” with something and having passion for it.

It’s not so much that I have passion on the outside. I’m very quiet on the outside. But you could say that I’m an example of the proverb, “still waters run deep”.

My personal passion has run all through the four elements here, at various times – passion for things of God, in much of my public writing; passion for life (see my writings about my wife, for example); passion for seeing “the right thing” done in politics – avoidance of criminal behavior, and a strong desire not to see criminal misbehavior rewarded; and of course, business, because this is how one makes a living.

Perhaps I would have more and better “physical things” in my life if I had paid more attention to being passionate in business rather than any of the other three.

But I’ve listed these things in this order of priority, for a reason.

God is the ultimate reality. I was impressed many years ago reading Francis Schaeffer, who said something to the effect that, there can only be two possible beginnings, one that is “personal”, and one that is “impersonal”. Either God is there, or there is nothing there. Personal, or impersonal.

Either “God created”, or somehow there was big bang + time + chance, and that is the story of how everything got here. In the event of the first, the existence of a personal God explains the existence of personhood. It has taken a conscious mind to create conscious minds.

Regarding life, well, here we are. Those of us who are here, have it. Those of us who are not here – my beloved wife: much abused, much loved, passionate, somewhat crazy – if God exists, then she exists still. If God does not exist, she no longer exists.

Politics. We are in a political season. Ultimately it matters because it shapes the lives we may have.

And business. Man was created for work. To work in the prelapsarian garden. Thanks to the fall, work kind of sucks.

We are all in the thick of all these things. In 21st century America, these types of questions are at the forefront of public discussions (or they are censored) everywhere.

God. Life. Politics. Business.

“The Texas Method” as a means of driving continuing strength gains

Rippetoe Programming Potential for the Senior Athlete
Note that the senior athlete faces
diminishing returns with age

Today was the first day that I transitioned from my old 4-day schedule to the new 3-day “Texas Method”. I saw a Mark Rippetoe video somewhere, and just in an informal interview Q&A format, he said “the Texas Method will kill you”.

I’m not interested in being killed by any means, but I am interested in training progression. That’s particularly important at my age (57), as I’m looking for ways to continue to make training progression towards a “Tough Mudder” run later this year.

For now, I’m at a point at which I’ve completed a fairly intensive training schedule, WHILE AT THE SAME TIME having worked through some nagging injury problems (in my case, a knee and a shoulder). I’m feeling really good, on top of having lifted some personal records last week.

The “Texas Method” breaks down your training blocks into one-week intervals. You’ll do a very heavy “volume day” (five sets of five at maybe 80% of your PR) on a Monday, followed by a “recovery day” (some percentage of your Monday volume), followed by a Friday “intensity day” session where you attempt one set of five at another personal record (PR).

I don’t know how long I’ll be able to keep up this pace, but I’m going to try it.  I want to continue to challenge myself as much as possible as I move forward, and again, the switch from a four-day workout schedule to a three-day schedule was to allow for three days of cardio interspersed. I’m feeling very strong and healthy right now, but there is a need for me to beef up my endurance.

The reality of growing older is that your physical potential diminishes. The chart nearby reflects some measure of a chart that I posted earlier, from the authors of “Younger Next Year”. By pushing now for that increase in strength performance, I hope to be able (with an eye toward avoiding injury) to move all the lines a bit further north.

Figuring Out a Program

Practical Programming for Strength Training
Practical Programming for Strength Training

Today’s the last workout of a program that I outlined earlier – four days a week alternating two each of the “big four” compound barbell lifts (squat, deadlift, overhead press, and bench press). Each of these is one of the “big four” because it works the body as more or less a complete system (as in the case of the overhead press, in which the whole body is “pressed” into service one way or another), or at least, a collection of systems. Working this program has enabled me to work around some injuries, while still enabling me to reach a number of personal bests.

Not merely are the muscles exercised, but the nervous system (“neuromuscular” aspects of training), the circulatory system, and even the skeletal system. Yes, even bones are strengthened with heavy weightlifting. Younger folks may not care, but this can be quite a marvelous thing for someone who’s tending toward osteoporosis, for example.

My own understanding of “programming” has gone through several evolutions. When I first joined the gym, I was gainfully employed, and so I hired a trainer. He was a young guy, a very caring guy. He looked at me, sized up some of my weaknesses, and put together a program based on pairing certain exercises like a dumbbell press and dumbbell rows, curls and tricep extensions, leg presses and hamstring curls. Things like that. In all, I had 10 exercises, for which I had to do three sets, three days a week. This gave me a good foundation for what was to follow. Later this was modified a bit, but still using the same principles.

But I’ve got some sons who work out, and their advice all along was “Dad, you’ve got to do the Stronglifts 5×5 program”. Totally different “principles”. The 5×5 program is a young man’s program – you start off light, and progressively add weight to the big four (the author of the program adds a fifth exercise to round it out, “barbell rows”, but this isn’t one of the big four). You work five sets of five for each exercise, broken up three days a week again, adding five or 10 lbs to the bar each workout. This works fine up to a point, and it enables you to make what others call “novice gains” – you gain the greatest amount of strength right after you first start lifting, because your body really “has the most room to grow”.

Maybe I didn’t read far enough into the fine print, but after you’ve realized all of these “novice gains”, your start to plateau. I didn’t know what to do with those plateaus. I began to think something was wrong with me!

Now, there’s no shortage of advice – including bad advice – on the internet. I muddled around for a few months, but eventually I came across Mark Rippetoe’s “Practical Programming for Strength Training”. This is a gem of a book for a lot of reasons, but it isolated a couple of problems I needed to solve.

A solution … is to train each lift heavy and each lift light during the week.

This is, he says, “especially true for older lifters who may have a more difficult time with recovery”. (As the saying goes, “you don’t get strong from lifting heavy weights; you get strong by recovering from lifting heavy weights”.)

Without going into detail, it’s an intermediate-level program that’s designed to enable you to break through the plateaus, while still focusing on strength. I put a two-day-a-week version of this into practice some time last September (I was starting a job with a very long commute), upping it to four days a week in December (changing jobs and working from home).

I have been able to make significant gains on this program, while still not spending more than 45 minutes in the gym each of those days (very helpful for work days).
But now, as I transition to training for a “Tough Mudder” competition in September, I’m looking for ways to continue to work on strength training, while enhancing my cardiovascular conditioning. I don’t yet have all the details worked out, but the rough outlines are becoming clearer.

Tough Mudder 2017

My kids have talked me into running in the local Tough Mudder race, to be held September 9, 2017 at a course near Slippery Rock, PA. I’m 57 years old and widowed. I started weight training in October 2015, following the death of my wife in June that year. At the time, I wanted to lose my belly, and to focus some energy on a physical activity that I’d be able to maintain. The high school track was closing for the winter, and I wanted to try to stay active.

The gym was offering a one-time special, and it was right next to the grocery store that I always shop at, and so I thought I’d go for it. In almost a year and a half of working out, I’ve lost much of the belly, I’ve made great gains in my overall strength, and I feel better physically than I have in a long time.

I had never lifted weights in my life. No, I don’t count the couple of days I played around in the weight room in 10th grade to be lifting weights. It wasn’t even a weight room – it was more of a crawl space with a weight machine. I have almost zero memory at all of that experience, and therefore it meant nothing.

For a while in my late teens and early 20’s, I was a regular runner. I hit approximately 40 minutes in a 10K race, for comparison purposes. All of my life, I’ve tried to get out and walk, sometimes on a very irregular basis. In recent years, I’ve walked somewhat regularly; I have a couple of four mile routes that are not uncomfortable.

The Tough Mudder race is 11 miles, and it’s chock-full of military-style obstacles. I haven’t even looked into them yet. But watch this space, as I try and break them out.

I’m sure there are some who will want to win this competition. Maybe there’s not such a big emphasis on that – there is a fairly significant emphasis on teamwork. Some will merely want to finish. I’m hoping to do better than that. I’m hoping that with my present level of conditioning, plus the training I’m hoping to do throughout the year, I’ll be able to perform respectably well, and even keep up with some of my sons.

There will be a whole team of Bugays at the race this year – my sons Jeremy (29), Zachary (who will turn 26 on race day), Nathaniel (24), John III (21), and my daughter-in-law Jamie (26). At least, that’s the plan for the moment.

I’ll be keeping track of my training throughout the year on this blog (http://johnbugay.com), as well as my thoughts about the race going forward. I’m not sure how frequently I’ll be writing here, but if you’d like to keep tabs, please subscribe. No, you won’t get a free ebook or a free report of any kind by subscribing. I’m not promising anything free – just maybe a pretty good story of an older guy who’s trying to stay young and keep in shape and have some fun with his kids.

If “personnel is policy” …

john_before_and_after
Very happy about this, and working for better things.

If personnel is policy, then biography matters, and work ethic matters, and character matters. Without going into too much detail at this point, I want to talk about the transformation that I’ve undergone in the last 18 months or so.

The photos nearby tell a bit of the tale. The photo on the left shows me and my belly in July 2014. That was a natural development, the result of being married for almost three decades, raising six kids, working, eating the typical American diet. The photo on the right shows me about a month ago – 20 lbs trimmer, while having added a lot of muscle. (Which means that I lost more than 20 lbs of fat!)

What the photos don’t show is the sorrow and grief I experienced when my wife died in June 2015, and that I experienced for much of the year afterward. I started walking a lot to try to ease the pain – I have always walked a lot – but there was no easing the grief except through time, and even that has its ups and downs.

I joined a gym in October that year. For a while I worked out in the evenings; after a few months, I switched to 5:00 am workouts. There are fewer people in the gym during those times, and it’s easier to stay on a regular schedule.

More recently, I’ve been on a kind of “Younger Next Year” plan – working out or doing some form of walking and jogging six days per week. According to the authors, “six days a week” is the only way (and the best way) to maintain and even improve your quality of life as you enter into your 50’s and beyond.

Nothing comes easy in life, it seems. Still, it is possible to say with Tennyson’s Ulysses:

Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

Methuselah revisited? It’s mainly business.

Google-500-johnbugayMany are familiar with the Biblical account of Methuselah, who lived to be 969 years old (Genesis 5:21-27). Now Google is investing in longevity, and we read, “the biggest percentage of Google Ventures’ assets are now invested in science and, in particular, oncology.”

Bill Maris, the president and managing partner of Google Ventures, said in a recent interview, “If you ask me today, is it possible to live to be 500? The answer is yes.”

Bloomberg goes on to note, however,

Google Ventures has close to $2 billion in assets under management, with stakes in more than 280 startups. Each year, Google gives Maris $300 million in new capital, and this year he’ll have an extra $125 million to invest in a new European fund.

That puts Google Ventures on a financial par with Silicon Valley’s biggest venture firms, which typically put to work $300 million to $500 million a year. According to data compiled by CB Insights, a research firm that tracks venture capital activity, Google Ventures was the fourth-most-active venture firm in the U.S. last year, participating in 87 deals.

A company with $66 billion in annual revenue isn’t doing this for the money. What Google needs is entrepreneurs.

“It needs to know where the puck is heading,” says Robert Peck, an analyst at the investment bank SunTrust Robinson Humphrey, who published a report in February examining Google’s outside investment units, including Google Ventures. “Look at what happened to BlackBerry when it missed the advent of smartphones. And Yahoo! missed Facebook.”

So the investment strategy is still sound by business measures. Even so, the investments are made with more human needs in mind: “There are a lot of billionaires in Silicon Valley, but in the end, we are all heading to the same place,” Maris says. “If given the choice between making a lot of money or finding a way to make people live longer, what do you choose?”