Death with Dignity

In just over a year, my mother-in-law has lost both of her parents. They were wonderful people and we all miss them. My wife’s grandfather died first, last year, not long after the lockdown started. It was sudden, but not a surprise either. He’d been declining steadily over the past few years. He fell at home and just never recovered.

After he passed, my wife’s grandma moved up and lived about 20 feet away from my in-laws. She seemed to be doing very well for a little while, apart from the deep sadness of losing her husband of over 50 years.

Over the winter, though, we noticed a change in her breathing. A labor and raspiness that wasn’t there before. Early in the spring, she had a scan and her cancer was back. The doctor gave her a couple of months, even with treatment.

She chose not to pursue treatment. People choose not to receive treatment for all sorts of reasons. Some people want to pursue naturopathic methods until it’s too late1. Others don’t seek treatment out of denial. Some want death on their own terms2. But Marlene Vittitow’s reason was different. When I think about it, I can’t help feeling fortunate to have known her in this life.

She took a few days before making her decision. She preferred not to go through treatment again. She’d done that years before, and she knew just how awful it was. And it wouldn’t do anything more than delay the inevitable. So, she met with her pastor to discuss it. Her main concern wasn’t about pain avoidance or even for more time with family. She was most concerned about if she should pursue treatment, so she might have time for even one more opportunity to share the gospel.

Hers was a life so well spent that she felt no need to fight to extend it. And so, it ended peacefully at 8:03 on 16 July 2021. My wife was able to be there, gathered around with her family, as she passed on to be with her Savior.


In “The Death of Ivan Ilych” Leo Tolstoy describes the horror with which Ivan Ilych faces the realization of his impending death. He is tormented by the question of if his life was a good life.

’Maybe I did not live as I ought to have done,’ it suddenly occurred to him. ‘But how could that be, when I did everything properly?’

The Death of Ivan Ilych

Grandma Vittitow’s life was, in many ways, “proper,” but not in the successful, esteemed-among-humanity sort of way. Instead, she lived a life of quiet faithfulness.

The growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.

George Eliot, Middlemarch

She was always the first to point attention, and thanks, back to God, where it belonged, in any and every situation. But especially so when she was the recipient of praise. Hers was a “faithful, hidden life.” But her tomb will not go unvisited.

Permission to Breathe

A little while back, I posted about my commitment to posting on this blog. But it’s been a couple of weeks and I haven’t posted. I haven’t abandoned my blog, though. I have been working through a lot that’s been going on over the past few weeks, and I needed to scale back on what I was doing. There simply wasn’t enough time in the day to take care of everything.

Normally, I would have felt guilty about stepping back from some tasks and commitments, but this time I chose to reframe how I thought about it.

For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:
a time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;
a time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up;
a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
a time to seek, and a time to lose;
a time to keep, and a time to cast away;
a time to tear, and a time to sew;
a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
a time to love, and a time to hate;
a time for war, and a time for peace.

— Ecclesiastes 3:1-8 (ESV)

I still stand by my commitment, but I’m beginning to learn what the Preacher in Ecclesiastes might have meant. Sometimes it is a time to refrain. When it’s time to refrain, it’s actually worse to try to push on. For my own mental and physical health, I took a little while to refrain. But I’m coming back.

I’ll write more again soon.

Keeping Quotes

When I was a young man, I started writing down quotes that I found interesting, inspiring, or funny. I think I was probably inspired by a book my grandpa published when I was twelve, 1001 Great Stories and Quotes. It’s a habit I’ve kept up over the years, though with waxing and waning consistency. When I hear or read something that sparks my interest, I try to record it for future reference.

If a man empties his purse into his head, no man can take it away from him. An investment in knowledge always pays the best interest.

— Benjamin Franklin, “Poor Richard’s Almanack”

After a year or so, I started keeping the quotes in a notebook dedicated to the purpose. I found it was much easier to reference them there than to sort through my regular journals or loose-leaf notes to find the quote I wanted. I didn’t order or arrange them in any way, other than the order in which I discovered them. This has had its benefits and its detriments.

I love quotations because it is a joy to find thoughts one might have, beautifully expressed with much authority by someone recognized wiser than oneself.

— Marlene Dietrich

One of the fun little bits is to go through them and see them in the order I wrote them down. Since I remember roughly when I wrote some of them, I can estimate about what time in my life that particular quote seemed important. As I now begin the process of transferring them to a new, more durable notebook, I am careful to keep them in the same order and to not remove any of them; even if I find them silly or unimportant now. When I look back later, it is almost a sort of diary or journal to see the things that struck me as important or deep as a teenager. It’s enjoyable to get an indirect peek back into my mind at those stages.

Contrariwise, the most annoying thing is probably that, with no organizing structure, it is difficult to find a specific quote. If I know the exact quote I am looking for, I have no real way to find it quickly unless I can remember when I first encountered it. It also has the downside of not being able to find related quotes easily. If quotes were grouped by topic, I would be able to look up one quote about, let’s say, quotations and there would be other quotes about quotations nearby. Instead, with them lacking any arrangement other than by date of discovery, it can certainly be annoying when I know exactly what I’m looking for. In order to navigate right to what I want, I would need to know roughly when I wrote it down and roughly the order of all the other quotes.

I hate quotations. Tell me what you know.

— Ralph Waldo Emerson

But this is also its greatest strength, in my opinion. Since I am forced to skim through everything to find what I want, I am constantly experiencing the joy of rediscovery as I find quotes I had copied down and forgotten about. The joy of serendipity more than outweighs the inconveniences in finding what I wanted.

It seems to me that we often make things too easy on ourselves. For a while, I used an app on my phone to collect and organize my quotes. It was really nice and I loved it. When the app died, I was upset at first, but I’m really grateful now. It had made finding the exact quote I wanted so easy that I had completely lost the serendipitous discovery. As a result, I ended up returning to the same handful of quotes because those were the ones that came to memory. Since switching back to a physical notebook, I have lost count of the number of times I’ve been looking for a quote and stopped because I ran into a quote I had completely forgotten about; which spoke to me more in the moment than the quote for which I started searching.

This experience is worth too much to me. I want to go back to a system where I can find my saved quotes more readily, but I worry that it will cost too much.

This leads me to my current decision. As a mentioned above, I found that the notebook in which I kept my collection of quotes was beginning to fall apart, so I’ve started transferring all the quotes in their exact original order into a new notebook. But, as I build out my PKM (Personal Knowledge Management. More on this in the future…) in Obsidian, I really want to put my quotes in there as well. I can cross-link them and index and tag them to tease out how the ideas and concepts interrelate. But I’m hesitant to do that because I feel it would be better not to lose that serendipitous re-discovery.

But, I suppose the beauty of a digital system is that if I find that I am not using the notebook to rediscover what I had loved and forgotten, I can always delete the digital notes and force myself back.

Doctor StrangeVirus or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the COVID-19 Pandemic

COVID-19

On Halloween 2020 my wife was getting ready to visit her sister in Idaho who was going through an awful divorce and I began to feel a tickle in my throat. I knew it wasn’t COVID because I had been so careful; I never went anywhere without my mask, I hadn’t been around anyone who had it, and I washed my hands religiously whenever I returned home.

Since my wife was flying, though, I went to get tested first thing the next day just to be safe.

SARS 2 CORONAVIRUS NCOV-19: POSITIVE

I woke up to the above message on my phone the next morning. Delightful.

COVID was awful. The body aches were no joke and the brain fog was debilitating. But the strangest part of it was waking up a few days in and having no sense of taste.

I had lost my sense of smell as a teenager. I suspect it is psychosomatic, since the last thing I can remember smelling before losing it was the overpowering smell of death as I climbed under a neighbor’s porch to retrieve a cat that had died a few weeks before in the midwestern summer heat. The stench was all-consuming as my face was inches from the rotting corpse. I think at that point my brain decided that smells were, perhaps, just not worth the trouble. I retained a few smells that I could detect, smoke, fouled diapers, and bacon. Beyond that, it was as if my brain said, “I’ll let you know if it’s important, otherwise let’s not worry about that anymore.”

So, I didn’t even notice the loss of smell. But the loss of taste was immediately apparent and quite shocking. The day after I lost it, I was sitting at my desk in my study working. Next to me, I had my morning coffee, a glass of room temperature water and a glass of cold orange juice. The only way to tell them apart was the temperature and consistency. If it was cold and pulpy it could only be the orange juice, if it was hot, it must be the coffee. But there was absolutely no difference in taste. There was no taste at all. Before I lost it, I expected that everything would just taste like water. But it turns out that water does have a taste, and even that taste had gone. It’s hard to describe how disorienting that actually was.

As with so many others, I did get pretty sick. I had body aches and extreme fatigue to the point that climbing the stairs required near herculean effort. My wife also was very ill at the same time, and how we managed to keep our children alive was a wonder. Some days all we managed was to throw a frozen pizza in the oven and go back to lay on the couch.

I am fortunate enough, being a programmer, that I could actually work almost all the way through fighting COVID-19. I did have to take one sick day through the whole ordeal. That day I found myself gasping for breath at my desk. The mere act of sitting in my chair left me winded, feeling as if I had run a marathon.

However, the worst part of the disease, for me, was the brain fog. I think that fog was probably the best word to describe it that I could think of. It was such a strange phenomenon; it wasn’t just my thoughts that seemed foggy, but even physical sensations felt indistinct and confusing. I even caught myself staring at the blinking cursor on my screen

console.log('

unsure of what I was doing and why I would want to log output to the console there. Was I debugging? What was I debugging? What did I hope to learn from that output?

Part of me wonders if that might be what an amnesiac feels as he tries to regain himself. Slowly, it started to fade. It faded, but it didn’t go away. I found myself relying on my notes more and more, but I also found that when I would try to take notes, I would touch the pen to paper but not know how to summarize the salient points. This continued on for months.

As the brain fog continued over those months, my mental health deteriorated. I tried to get out and walk every day on my lunch hour to stimulate my mind and body, but it didn’t make a difference. I was getting more and more depressed. My ability to evaluate the events in my life was completely skewed, but the irony was that even with the brain fog, I felt like I had never thought more clearly. I couldn’t remember anything and struggled to reason through my work sometimes, but when it came to understanding the trajectory of my life; I felt like I was crystal clear.

Finally, in March my wife convinced me to speak with my doctor who was quite concerned for me. We spoke for a long time about my health concerns, and she told me just how concerned she was for my mental health. The doctor wanted me to exercise more and to eat healthier, and we spoke about some herbal supplements I could take. She had me schedule a follow-up call after a month to see if I had improved and if I hadn’t, she was going to prescribe something more.

This is why I am thankful for what I experienced through COVID-19 and the pandemic. I don’t mean to belittle anyone’s pain by saying that. I understand how terrible it has been for everyone, and I appreciate the deep pain of those who lost loved ones to this awful disease. But, I say I’m grateful for the things I learned from my experience because it forced me to make needed changes.

For years, I had made excuses to not exercise, or justified eating too much junk, not eating the salad and staying up too late. My weight had crept up, my mood had slowly trended downward, and my stamina had decreased. But since the declines were gradual over a long time, I hardly noticed. When I had some minor lingering effects after COVID (and I know that others had it much worse) it brought all of those other issues out in the open. To get back to myself after COVID I would need to address the other health issues I had been ignoring.

I bought a bike

My wife, also, was working on making some changes to her fitness and overall health. She bought a hybrid bicycle, so I bought one too. I thought it would be fun to bike with her; maybe that would be enough to get me to exercise.

At first, going five miles (around eight km) was a stretch. It was difficult and I came back sore. Then I found I was getting less sore. Then I could go seven miles (roughly 11 km); then ten. I left one Saturday morning and got on the trail, intending to go around 8 miles (almost 13 km) total, but instead I went 8 miles before turning around. It felt good. I wasn’t better yet, but my depression was lessening, and my general mood was rising. Even my insomnia was starting to go away.

I found that I loved cycling. I loved everything about it. I love the beauty of riding nature trails and seeing the deer and birds and turtles and toads. I love exploring new trails and routes and visiting places I’ve only ever driven by; sometimes stopping to look closer just because I can. I love the speed and that feeling of effortless tension when the gearing is just right.

And I love the feeling of being healthy again. I’m healthier now than I ever have been, and I know I wouldn’t be now if I hadn’t been sick. I would have continued on in a slow, hardly noticeable decline. Each year a little more irritable than the one before, needing to buy new clothes every few years as my waistline gradually increased.

But now I need to replace much of my wardrobe because after dropping around 35 pounds (ca. 16 kg) this year. And I am happier and more present than I have been in years. I feel recharged spending time with my kids and want to spend more time with them instead of seeking alone time. My productivity has gone up at work too. I still have to work through problems that seem difficult, but I don’t feel like I’m forgetting the basics anymore. I feel like I’m back. And, obviously to you, I’m writing again. I’m writing out of an intrinsic desire to write rather than a feeling of duty. So many things had become a task to be completed just so I wouldn’t have to feel guilty about not doing them, but I’m actually finding enjoyment in them again, and I’m really thankful for that. God is good.

Changes

Photo by Michal Balog on Unsplash. https://unsplash.com/@mikbutcher
Photo by Michal Balog on Unsplash. https://unsplash.com/@mikbutcher

The past 9 months have been full of changes. I received a promotion, adopted a daughter, remodeled a bathroom and a kitchen and accepted a new position at another company. And there are more changes coming in the next couple of months, selling the house and moving across the country.

Back around Thanksgiving I was promoted at work from a Configuration Engineer to a Developer III. My friend and coworker John was also promoted from UNIX Administrator to Developer III to work on the tools. The promotions were to enable us to focus all of our efforts on the disaster recovery tool suite we had built. I felt very honored to receive that promotion. Being a full time developer has been a dream of mine for a long time.

In January, after a year and a half in foster care, we finally were able to adopt Penny. It was an amazing and emotional experience to have this little girl who we have loved and taken care of every day since she came home from the hospital become our actual daughter. I might write a separate post on that later. It was just incredible.

We also decided to sell our house and so we began some much needed remodeling of the bathroom and kitchen.

And finally, I accepted a developer position in the Chicago suburbs. This means I had to leave my job, which I’ve loved. It also means we will have to move across the country once we sell the house.

My last day at Expeditors was yesterday (17 May 2019). It was a hard day emotionally. I’ve never left a job that I loved that much and I had no complaints, no reason I wanted to leave other than I’d accepted this new job.

That said, I am really excited to start my new job remotely on Monday! I’m excited to be working with the people I’ll be working with at my new company. It’s going to be awesome.

And I’m excited to see what this new chapter of our lives holds as we move back to the midwest. I can’t wait until we sell the house and move. We will do a cross country road trip as a family and it will be so fun to show my kids that much of America.

That’s all for now. I’ll update you all soon.

Ideation

As I tried to come up with an idea for this month’s blog post I started thinking about ideas themselves. Where do they come from and how? In short, how does ideation happen? I want to think grand and lofty thoughts, so how do I do that?

I think we are all familiar with the phenomenon of the spark of inspiration. It comes unexpectedly and often at the time when we are least prepared to accept it. For me it always seems to come with my hands are wet, so I can neither write nor type. We can help steer these ideas, I propose. We are not slave to their whims. While what I suggest may not guarantee the thoughts and ideas we want they will be more likely to arise.

That spark of inspiration stems from the subconscious, and we know from experience that we have some influence in the subconscious feedback loop. If you are foolish, like me, you have discovered that indulging in the horror genre before bed has a certain, somewhat predictable, effect on your sleep. Even mundane things we’ve dealt with during the day we may find echoed in our sleep.

Our ideas are similarly informed and influenced by the things to which we expose ourselves. So, my challenge to myself and to you is to figure out the kind of thoughts you want to think. Because the oddity of it is that thought begets thought and idea. What you think about becomes what you are more likely to think about. Once you have decided the thoughts and ideas that you wish to have take an honest appraisal of the things you read and watch and listen to as well as the conversations you have. Are they consistent with the ideas you desire? If not, perhaps it is time to make a change. For me it is going to mean less television, most of the shows I watch are just mindless escapist shows, and more reading, especially classics (I just started Oliver Twist) and my Bible and books on theology. What would it look like for you?

Good luck!

On the “Benefit of the Doubt”

Photo by Andy Holmes on Unsplash https://unsplash.com/@andyjh07
Photo by Andy Holmes on Unsplash https://unsplash.com/@andyjh07

Having four kids at home, I find myself having to constantly explain to them the concept of giving the benefit of the doubt. The result of which is that the idea has become very near and dear to me. I see so many conflicts that could have been avoided if those involved understood it.

We like to think that we are good at understanding our motivations (that’s a post for another day). And because we think ourselves good at judging our motivations we justify to ourselves when we are mean or rude, inadvertently or as a side-effect of our actions.

We also are limited to viewing the world through our own eyes. As a result, we are not often privy to the appearance of our actions as seen by others. If you’ve ever watched a candid video of yourself you know what I mean. You watch yourself saying the words you remember, but your body language, your stance seem off. You remember feeling compassion during the conversation but in the video you seem almost aggressive.

It is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to judge another person’s intent, and without understanding intent it is seldom fair to judge another’s actions. And yet, our level of offense is so closely tied to the perceived intent. You see someone cut in front of you in line and feel she was trying to disrespect you, or someone doesn’t respond to you and you assume he is giving you the cold shoulder. (Both may have completely innocent, albeit boring, explanations.) The point is this, seldom will you find one person being intentionally malicious toward another person, unless in retaliation for some previous injustice, real, perceived, or otherwise.

There is an old maxim that states that one should never attribute to malice that which can adequately be explained by ignorance. I think that is very wise. The truth is that, while as individuals we can occasionally be intentionally cruel, most people don’t like to be. Rather, we are all the heroes and heroines of our own stories. There is a sort of philosophy in Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game that to truly understand someone is to love him the way he love himself. So try, the next time someone causes you some injury to view the whole event from the other’s perspective. Try to understand and see how your emotions change. Try to see that person as she sees herself and to love her as she loves herself. Let that love lead you to share the most important thing in this life, the love of Jesus, who sees every intention and died to take our place.

What I learned from NaNoWriMo

This year I had wanted to write 30,000 words in the month of November. I’ve failed horribly this year. But in some ways, I’ve succeeded.

I have indeed written more this month than I usually would. I have written a few thousand words (many in letters) and I’ve remembered how much I like to write, so in those ways it’s been successful.

Especially since my goal at the start was not as much about word count as it was about building a habit of writing and a desire to do it. (Though I suppose the goal itself testifies to the pre-existence of the desire).

But what have I learned from it?

One of the things I’ve learned is that as much as I want to, I can’t write at a computer. The words don’t flow the same on a keyboard and I will always find myself distracted by a “just check”. I’ll set aside the writing for a moment, but never pick it up again. Instead I much prefer older, more elegant analog tools. A nice pen and good paper.

For myself, I think I also equate writing and thinking. It’s how I reason things out.

If I don’t write something down I won’t move past it. I will keep thinking the same thought over and over. Not like a stuck record, but more like a nagging reminder of an unfinished task; an incomplete thought.

And since I am able to write so much more effectively on a notebook or loose paper than on a computer I think I’ve started to view a notebook as a thinking tool. While I think of a computer or iPad as a distraction, an entertainment tool. The computer is an idea generator, being exposed to other people’s thoughts and ideas through their own writing, videos or podcasts. The notebook is where I flesh out my own thoughts on these ideas with which I would not otherwise have contact.

Beyond just utility, though, I’ve found that I take far less pleasure from writing at a computer than I do with a fountain pen on nice, heavy paper. And the pleasure I derive from pen and paper is a big motivator to return to writing once I’ve started, and to start in the first place.

I’ve also decided to try out a Baronfig notebook. I’ve been using Moleskine for a few years and I may go back to them, but I’ve heard great things about Baron Fig paper and the shorter wider proportions of the notebook intrigue me. Plus, they are attractive notebooks and cheaper than Moleskine.

NaNoWriMo

Photo by Patrick Fore on Unsplash https://unsplash.com/@patrickian4
Photo by Patrick Fore on Unsplash https://unsplash.com/@patrickian4

November is NaNoWriMo. While I don’t have a plan to write a novel, I do aspire to write more. I enjoy writing and I think it’s important for helping me learn, think and improve myself. But, as evidenced by this blog I’m not very consistent in it. I really want to improve my consistency in writing.

My initial idea was to try to post every day during November. I like the goal of writing a 50,000 word novel by 11:59 on November 30, but as I said, I have no desire to write a novel right now. I decided to commit myself to writing 50,000 words this month, this is divided up into 1,667 words a day. I realized that 30 posts is way more than I can realistically commit to, and truth be told I probably won’t meet the quota many of the days. Though I will keep track of my progress in Drafts.

Instead of writing a novel, or writing a blog post every day I will commit to writing 50,000 words through the month, divided between my blog, my journal, and random musings. I think my journal will get most of the love, this year. My fifth child was born at the end of October which is oddly, or not, causing me to have to deal with some unresolved issues from when my fourth child, Andrew Paul was stillborn last year. Several of those journal entries I hope will make their way to this blog.

Why I Write

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

Sometimes I need to write to know what I think. My day to day musings are generally disjointed and repetitive. I arrive at a decision or opinion, if I arrive at one at all, on a circuitous and meandering neural path. It can be hard for me to reason through a concept internally. I tend to circle repeatedly through the parts of an idea that are most familiar, or least complicated. Like most, I don’t like cognitive dissonance so I try to avoid it rather than engage in the work of rectifying the discrepancies.

How I Write

To actually work my way through an issue I usually have to sit down and force myself to start writing. My own particular style of thinking via pen isn’t to do mind maps or any sort of organizational scheme that was pushed on me in school. Instead I write prose. I write it out as it comes to my head, trying to capture my thought process as it happens in the form of a narrative. That way I feel like I am able to shape it and control it. I can redirect it forward when it starts to double-back to more familiar and comfortable paradigms. The narrative form leads me forward in much the same way a story pulls the reader along on a journey. The control allows me to face the cognitive dissonance and forge a way through it.

It’s no magic bullet. Sometimes I still don’t get anywhere. Sometimes it takes me several times of writing through something and a scrapping it and starting over before I get to what I want. My Les Misérables article is one of these projects. When I started I wasn’t even quite sure what I was going for. I wrote for a while and chiseled away at my idea until I was able to see what it was. It took me longer than I like to admit to get to something I felt was comprehensible enough to share. I still don’t feel like I’m done, there’s still more there to explore. Maybe I’ll come back to it some day and expand on it.

I also write the way I speak because imagining an audience forces me to clarify and flesh my own mental shorthand. It causes me to document the memories and thoughts that lead me to an opinion so the nuances are not lost when I revisit it. It’s too easy to ignore or gloss over a supporting idea in my head when I’m just thinking. Especially if it’s a feeling from a memory or a feeling gained from an experience, but when I am writing I need to tease it out and get to the deeper meaning. And sometimes judge if it’s worth holding on to or not. Writing it also links the idea more in my head so it isn’t lost in the ether or discarded as an indecipherable scribble on a post-it. But it also often illuminates deeper connections than I suspected or would have found from the simple mental shorthand link in my mind.

Growth

In every endeavor, however small, I choose to grow. I do not want to stagnate. But growth can look very different in various circumstances. In writing I could strive for growth in a quantitative sense. This would just mean turning out more pieces of increasing length until writing is all I do in my spare time. Sometimes this sounds appealing to me, but I don’t think it’s the right goal for me. Not at this time.

My goal is communication. Better communication. My wife will tell you that I am rubbish in an argument. I shutdown and am silent, or I grasp helplessly at phrases that I think for a moment will convey a wealth of meaning but realize the moment they’ve left my lips that instead they’ve undermined or contradicted everything that I meant by them. It’s not just in arguments either, I am a horrible interview. If I haven’t thought through a question ahead of time I will sputter and stall. I have a fast memory, but I am a very slow thinker.

That leads me to the goal of writing. Learning to think faster. Practicing reason and organization of my thoughts so that I need less time to ponder before answering. My goal is to be able to share communicate in the moment with my wife. To learn, through writing, ways to form a thought and then to express it more quickly so that our conversations aren’t back and forth monologues. Wish me luck!