faith, MS

The Book of PsalMS

The Friday before Thanksgiving last year, I (Erin) headed home after school to shower so I could be decidedly less sweaty and a bit more put-together before driving up to Columbus for my friend Kelly’s rehearsal dinner. I had the honor of being a reader in her wedding. There will be great irony in the fact that I was a reader later. Wait for it.

Anyway, I was showering and doing the things one does when one bathes (on occasion, from time to time — can I get an AMEN!) when all of a sudden I felt an intense pain in my left eye. I didn’t think too much of it — sometimes I move my eyes too quickly and I feel like I’ve strained them too much. The pain goes away. Life moves on.

But this time the eye pain didn’t go away. In fact, it stayed the whole weekend. At the rehearsal dinner I had a splitting headache. Like a migraine on a bender, the Beast of All Headaches. I didn’t sleep much that night.

The next morning, the eye pain and headache were still there. Big bummer. On top of that, my left eye was blurry and my sight a bit dimmed. Colors were less bright, more sepia. Major bummer. I took some ibuprofen which didn’t help. I asked the wedding coordinator (my beloved friend Emily) to make sure the page with scripture printed on it was extra-large, as I was unsure how well I’d be able to read. The weekend went on, my eyesight, headache, and pain got worse. Two best friends became husband and wife in a beautiful ceremony of which I’m grateful to have played a small part.

On our way back to Cincinnati, I called my eye doctor, the wonderful and gracious Dr. Tom Ritter, and left a message: “I’m not sure if this constitutes an emergency or not, but I’m having a really hard time seeing out of my left eye and it hurts a lot. Sorry to bug you on a Sunday.”

Dr. Ritter called me back within ten minutes and told me to meet him at the office ON A SUNDAY. He suspected optic neuritis, an inflammation of the optic nerve, but recommended I see an eye specialist the next day to confirm and explore my eye a little more. He said the words “multiple sclerosis” — this was the first time I heard them spoken aloud. Dr. Ritter said not to freak out, but that there was a relationship (what a quaint word, right?) between optic neuritis and multiple sclerosis.

Dr. Golnik, my eye specialist, confirmed Dr. Ritter’s suspicions, again mentioned the relationship between MS and optic neuritis, and ordered an MRI. I started three days of intravenous steroids to reduce the eye inflammation and hasten my visual recovery. IV steroids mean business. Upside: My eyesight recovered! (Mainly — it was still a tad blurry and “underexposed.”) Downside: Steroids cause insomnia! For a while I was getting one to two hours of sleep a night.

Three MRIs later, I received an official diagnosis of multiple sclerosis on December 18, 2014. Ben and I had about a month between my spontaneous loss of vision in November and the diagnosis, but it still took us by surprise. It’s devastating in the sense that everything changes in the blink of an eye (terrible pun intended) — our plans for a third baby changed, fear crept into our heads, the future seemed on shaky ground. But we believe in a good God who is good all the time, even when life hands you a sucky sandwich, or rotten lemonade, or whatever terrible food metaphor you want to use.

I started treatment (officially called a disease modifying therapy — there is no cure and my treatment won’t stop the disease, only postpone its quickening) in early February. Three times a week, I give myself a shot. These shots won’t be effective until August — they take six months to work, so in the meantime, I’m still unprotected. I had another attack over spring break when I started to experience double-vision again. I gave it some time to work itself out, but started another round of IV steroids four weeks later. Same story: the steroids corrected the double-vision, but my sight was still blurry, still underexposed. More insomnia.

Since November (and even before), I’ve had occasional tingling and numbness, two other hallmark symptoms of MS. When my body temperature rises, the vision in my left eye decreases and my extremities sometimes get tingly and numb. Each day, my left eye is a big question mark. I try to remain grateful for the many blessings in my life regardless of how I feel or what my body is doing that day. And there have been loads of blessings: my family (immediate, nuclear, near and far); my two sweet boys and Ben; my incredible friends; the hundreds, perhaps thousands of prayers spoken and thought on my behalf; my team of doctors, nurses, and assistants; the blessing of restored vision in going from darkness to light; a perfectly timed word from a friend; watching Sam eat the first ripe strawberries from our garden. I could go on.

And of course, some days are terrifying, like when I let my mind consider the worst case scenario “what ifs.” Or the day my whole body felt numb and tingly, like it had soaked in an ice bath for too long. Then the next day comes and it’s back to normal.

Multiple sclerosis is an immune-mediated disease (some docs say auto-immune, they debate about how to label it) that attacks my nerves, specifically the myelin, the stuff that covers nerves. Sclerosis in Latin means “scar,” so multiple sclerosis literally means multiple scars, which show up on the MRIs of my brain (though thankfully NOT my spine).

So, come August, I’ll be doing something I’ve never done before: bike fifty miles to raise funds and awareness for MS. Ben will be joining me. My team name is psalMS, a name I thought appropriate since the Psalms have been comforting to me as I navigate this “new normal.” For extra nerd-factor, I thought capitalizing the “MS” added punch and incorporated some nerdy wordplay as well.

The Book of Psalms itself is astonishing for its raw honesty. When he was a pastor, Eugene Peterson would often hear from his congregants that, after reading the Psalms, they told him they didn’t “expect this kind of thing in the Bible.” To which he would respond, “Did you think these would be the prayers of nice people? Did you think the psalmists’ language would be polished and polite?” Being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis has stripped away any pretensions of my having a polished and polite faith. As I wrestle with my literal sight, I’m reminded that, by definition, faith is “the substance of things hoped for, the assurance of things not seen.”

books, faith

The Dark Path, David Schickler

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Sitting at Easter Mass at the age of ten, David Schickler recalls listening to his “sweet wife cry while I watch the priest.” His wife’s name is Caitlin Brenner, though Schickler notes that she “hasn’t agreed to marry me yet.” “We rarely talk,” he writes, “but soon she’ll realize that we have each four syllables total in our names and both our last names end with -er. David Schickler. Caitlin Brenner. This means that we shall wed and have four children.”

Caitlin is crying because her cockier spaniel, Gus, died the week before. Schickler is caught between watching her (silently “bombarding her with woo”) and paying attention to the service. Leading Mass is Father Jonas — “young, with jet-black hair and a tan.” Schickler is enraptured with Father Jonas, who is “powerful because he’s a priest, but he’s also just cool.” As Father Jonas raises the wafer for the Eucharist, and Caitlin continues sniffling, young David’s ten-year-old mind tries to hold the two seemingly irreconcilable things in balance. He feels a pull toward the priesthood; he also loves women. “I’m caught between them,” he says simply.

Of all the books we’ve read and not blogged about over the past three years, Schickler’s The Dark Path is our favorite. (Fourth of July Creek is right up there though.) We were already predisposed to like it based on a short story of Schickler’s called “The Smoker.” It appeared in the June 19, 2000 edition of The New Yorker; it chronicled the surprising romantic relationship between a high school English teacher and his star pupil. Yes, this sounds tawdry and scandalous. (And, as two high school English teachers, we can never recommend it to our students. Ever.) The story is anything but. It is surprising, moving, and hilarious. (Read it. Right now. We’ll wait.)

Within a week of the story’s publication, Schickler had a six-figure, two-book contract. The story later appeared in a collection entitled Kissing in Manhattan, an uneven but promising group of tales about characters who lived in or passed through a storied apartment building in Manhattan called The Preemption. Schickler then published a novel, Sweet & Vicious, which featured one of the funniest first page-and-a-halves we’ve ever read before taking familiar thematic elements (crime and a cross-country chase; star-crossed lovers) and putting an offbeat spin on them (Grace McClone, the heroine, is “trying for heaven”; she’s an authentic Christian character who appears to have wandered into the wrong book, until you realize it’s a Schickler novel and just go with it).

The Dark Path is a memoir, and it takes the themes swirling around in Kissing in Manhattan and Sweet & Vicious (love, faith, family, sexual desire, hints of violence) and casts them in a personal light. The Schicklers are a devout Christian family (David has three sisters, and there are hints in his childhood — as when his father catches him dancing in the basement to “Summer Nights” from the Grease soundtrack — that his parents are deeply concerned he might be gay), and although Schickler becomes an altar boy, he feels closest to God on “the dark path” — a spot in the woods, full of shadows, close to his house. “My problem is, I like abiding in darkness,” Schickler writes:

I like the dark path, the low, forever shadows among the trees. For me, God is in that darkness. He’s not a devil, or a tree, or a wood sprite. He’s the Lord, He just happens to be in darkness.

Why do we like Schickler (and in particular, The Dark Path) so much? Because we feel like we’ve been on the dark path with him. Our road to faith is not, like the vocabulary of Father Anselm in The Dark Path (who uses words like “nifty” and “dilly”) “scrubbed too clean.” Schickler deploys profanity well; his memoir crackles with curse words, which counterbalance the spiritual themes and make them more approachable, less preachy. Schickler says, “As a writer, I’ll never be a Sunday-morning kind of guy. For whatever reasons, I am good at writing only about Saturday night things, about guns and screwing and liquor and murder and laughter and desperate kissing.” We like Saturday night stories that still locate Sunday morning themes. So Schickler is our guy on that front.

Likewise, Schickler’s ability to write humorously and honestly about matters of faith is what makes The Dark Path so winning. When a choir member wears “an alarmingly yellow dress,” Schickler writes that “she is so yellow, I can’t pray.” The usher, Mr. Bonticello, wears a robin’s-egg-blue suit which disturbs Schickler “because the color is too weak and too lame to have anything to do with God.” When Schickler wins a Religion Award in eighth grade, one of his friends signs his yearbook, Nice Going, Jesus Tard!

On his journey to live a godly life as well as love women, Schickler inevitably stumbles and sins and has his heart broken. (He also does some breaking of his own.) His is the story of a sinner who is unafraid to lay it all out on the table, even to laugh at some of the most excruciating moments. There’s a dance contest toward the end of the memoir which could be straight out of Silver Linings Playbook, and like that film, it manages uplift and sentimentality without being cheesy or cloying. Also like the film, The Dark Path nails a happy ending that feels hard-won — unexpected, but deserved.

parenthood

Conversations That Did And Did Not Happen During My Son’s First Major League Baseball Game

The Pittsburgh Pirates games that I (Ben) attended with my dad back in the 1980s have taken on mythical status in my memory. Every summer, starting when I was around seven, we drove to Pittsburgh on the first weekend of August and caught the Saturday night and Sunday matinee games at Three Rivers Stadium. The Pirates of the mid-to-late 80s (think Tony Pena, Johnny Ray, Bill Madlock and Jose DeLeon, who had a 2-19 record in 1985) were abysmal, a far cry from the “We Are Family” champs of 1979 (and this indelible picture of Dave Parker from 1980) and years away from the Killer B’s (Barry Bonds and Bobby Bonilla, though Jay Bell and Sid Bream were honorary members) and the great 1990-1992 teams. But that didn’t matter. I was going to baseball games with my dad. They remain some of my best memories with him.

On Sunday, I took Sam (a few months shy of five) to his first major league game at Great American Ballpark, where the Reds hosted the Giants. The following are conversations that did and did not happen during our father-son outing. See if you can guess which is which!

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BEN: “Son, you may not realize this now, but in thirty years time you may very well look back on this afternoon and think to yourself, ‘That was maybe the best day of my life.'”

SAM: “Father, I have no doubt as to your wisdom or the veracity of that statement. [looks up admiringly] You’re the best dad. Ever.”

—–

BEN: “No, we are not paying six dollars for a hot dog when you didn’t eat the lunch I made you before we left.”

SAM: “But I really want a hot dog!”

BEN: “Oh, ok. One hot dog, please.”

SAM: “And a popcorn!”

BEN [sighs]: “And a popcorn. Also a bottled water please.”

ATTENDANT: “That will be eighty-six dollars.”

—–

BEN: “Son, look at these seats! What a great view! And take a deep breath. Do you smell that? The fresh cut grass. Summer just around the corner. That distinct whiff of ozone right before a thunderstorm that will entail a thirty minute rain delay which sends us running under the bleachers and during which you will not comment repeatedly on how boring this is.”

SAM: “Yes, I can smell that too. You are wise, father.”

—–

BEN: “You see the players in the red uniforms? We’re rooting for them. They’re the Cincinnati Reds.”

SAM: “Who are the other players?”

BEN: “Those are the Giants.”

SAM: “They’re not very big.”

BEN: “No they’re not.”

—–

BEN: “Now, son, in this situation I don’t think Heston will give Billy Hamilton much to hit because first base is open and the pitcher is due up next.”

SAM: “True, father, except that DeSclafani is definitely coming out after this inning since his slider hasn’t been working for him and the Giants have already lit him up for six runs. So I’m sure Bryan Price is going to pinch hit for him.”

BEN: “An astute point, son. I have raised you well.”

—–

BEN: “See those smokestacks out there in center field? When a Reds player hits a home run, they shoot fireworks out of them!”

SAM: “But you said someone just hit a home run. Why weren’t there any fireworks?”

BEN: “Because that was Hunter Pence. He plays for the Giants.”

SAM: “Oh. Why does that man over there keep yelling?”

BEN: “Well, he really wants the Reds to win.”

SAM: “But why does he keep yelling?”

BEN: “I guess he’s just an angry person.”

SAM: “Who’s he yelling at?”

BEN: “Bryan Price. Isn’t this fun? What a great day for a baseball game!”

SAM: “Can I have more popcorn?”

—–

BEN: “Son, rooting for the hometown baseball team is part of what it means to be a Vore man. Your mother may not understand this — she prefers those effete European sports like soccer — and she will probably never take you to a baseball stadium, as she would rather, given the choice, be tormented by an eagle tearing at her liver each and every night whilst she is tied to a rock by adamanite chains than sit through nine innings of a baseball game. Now whether you become a Reds fan or follow in the footsteps of your father and cheer on the Pirates, I leave that up to you. Do you understand what I am saying, son? This is a rite of passage, and you are in that liminal state between youth and adulthood — between being a boy and becoming a man. What is transpiring now, as the Reds come to bat in the bottom of the fourth inning down six runs to five and Yusmeiro Petit faces the top of the Reds lineup, is something that transcends the temporal and reaches for the eternal. Do you grasp this son?”

SAM: “Yes, father. Does this also mean I’m old enough to drink a Miller Lite from that passing vendor?”

BEN: “Not when it’s eight-fifty a pop, absolutely not.”

—–

BEN: “Well, this is fun. Who’s having fun?”

SAM: “I need to go to the bathroom.”

BEN: “You’ve gone twice in the last twenty minutes!”

SAM: “But I need to GO.”

BEN: “Can you hold it until the end of the inning?”

SAM: “Is that when the game’s over?”

BEN: “No, that’s when the fourth inning is over.”

SAM: “I’m ready to go home.”

BEN: “If we hang around you might get to see some fireworks!”

SAM: “Home.”

BEN: “You don’t want to stay a little longer?”

SAM: “Can I have another hot dog?”

BEN: “All right, we’re leaving.”

reds

music

Thoughts On Growing Old, Attending Music Concerts, And Three Years of Silence.

“When is the last time we saw Wilco?” Erin asked on our drive downtown last week. We were going to the Taft to see Jeff Tweedy and crew. It had been nine years.

“I think it’s been nine years,” Ben said.

“It has not been nine years,” Erin replied.

“I’m afraid it has.”

Nine years ago, Wilco played Tall Stacks in Cincinnati. That fall show — October the 7th, 2006 — was two years after A Ghost is Born had been released, and less than a year before Sky Blue Sky would come out. Wilco has since released two more full-length albums, while Jeff Tweedy and his son, Spencer, collaborated on a project (under the moniker “Tweedy”) called Sukierae. Nine years.

And just like that, we felt old. The last concert we attended was also at the Taft, when Ryan Adams played three years ago. THREE. YEARS. AGO. (That was so long ago it was when we were still blogging on a regular basis.) When did we get old? When did we stop going to concerts? Why did we stop blogging? (There are multiple answers to that one, life being the primary reason.) And, perhaps the question that sums up all of the other ones: When had we secretly entered middle age?

These thoughts played through our heads as we sat in the nose bleed seats (another sign we’re not in our twenties: we were relieved it was a sit-down concert) while Wilco revisited a catalog spanning twenty years now. We sang along with “Heavy Metal Drummer” and “I Got You (At The End Of The Century),” thinking of what those songs meant to us when we first heard them in college or just-out-of-it. Our first meeting was helped, in part, by a Wilco sticker on Ben’s Nalgene bottle … a bottle Erin spotted at camp, thirteen years ago, before she connected it to the owner; before a certain inconvenient boyfriend was out of the picture; and before we both settled in Nashville and decided, sure, let’s get engaged and figure this thing out as we go.

The more recent songs — “Art of Almost,” or “Born Alone” (notably, the band played nothing off of “Wilco (The Album)” — “not many of these songs seem destined for the Wilco canon” we wrote back in 2009) — we listened to politely, enjoying them respectfully if not with the same ardor as we did the early stuff. It was during these songs that our attention drifted and we looked around at the audience, wondering how much the people in the seats around us — mostly white, mostly adult, vaguely hipster-ish (or post-hipsterish) — were a reflection on us. How does a rock band age gracefully? How does anyone age gracefully?

We promise not to return with much navel-gazing and chin-stroking. We blogged what seems like forever ago because we loved it, and that’s why we want to restart now. But we’re returning a little simpler. The whiff of pretentiousness behind our former title (the Raymond Carver-inspired “What We Blog About When We Blog About Love”) has been replaced with just “Voreblog.” Posts may not be quite as frequent, and there may be less to say now about, oh, what we’ve been reading (since pleasure reading has diminished of late), or what the Utah Jazz should be doing this offseason (answer: acquiring a veteran point guard). But plenty else has happened, and we’ll unspool those things in the coming days and weeks. (And yes, Scooter Thomas is still alive.)

When Wilco launched into “It Dawned On Me,” toward the end of the show, Ben pulled out his smartphone (yes, we own them now!) and recorded it for Sam. On our vacation to South Carolina last year, Sam requested that we listen to this song roughly one hundred and eighty-seven consecutive times. Being parents on an eleven hour road trip, we obliged. He knows it only as “the Wilco song.” (We’ve tried explaining to him that Wilco is a band with many songs; this concept still eludes him.) The day after the concert, I (Ben) showed Sam the video, and he watched it with joy, piecing together that this song he loves could also be performed, in real life, in a dark auditorium where he does not yet have access to go (“Were there kids there?” he asked), and which his parents could now capture on a phone and play for him (or, more accurately, he could play himself, as the four-year-old mind seems perfectly assembled to intuit how smart phone navigation works). He listened to it over and over. When I tucked him in that night, he asked if he could listen one more time. I said sure. He took the phone and huddled up in a ball, his red blankie draped over him as he made a secret fort. The sound of a band I loved played faintly from below the covers. I pictured myself, listening to Wilco for the first time back in 1996, seeing this moment from afar, and wondering, as with so many things in life, how we got here from there.

movies, Nic Cage, television

Nic Cage In The Cage

Regular readers of this blog know that we have a bit of a Nic Cage fixation. “But he does so many bad movies,” our friends say. We readily acknowledge that yes, he does in fact make a lot of bad movies. (Ghost Rider 2 opens this Friday.) But he also makes lots of good movies. He also — and this is what sets him apart in our minds — has the rare ability to make some really good bad movies. (He also makes some really bad bad movies. Like Knowing. And Season of the Witch. And The Wicker Man. But we digress.) The National Treasure movies, just to name two, are terrible, but we will gladly sit down and watch them whenever TNT happens to air them, which seems to be every other weekend.

What we find so compelling about Nic Cage is this tension of opposites. Is he a good actor who chooses bad movies? A bad actor who occasionally makes good ones? A bad actor making bad movies that, like double negatives, somehow turn out good?

We tried to articulate this several years ago in a Nic Cage Cage Match post. Then, last night, “Saturday Night Live” provided this inspired bit of comedy which pretty much summarizes everything we tried to say then:

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These four and a half minutes are a testament to everything we find endearing about Nicolas Cage. May he one day fulfill his dream to appear in every movie ever released and restore honor to his dojo. Clone Nic Cage!

Sam, Scooter Thomas

We Moved.

Being introduced to a new habitat can be a harrowing experience for animals. Take cats, for example. Paws.org notes what a traumatic ordeal moving can be for a feline:

Adjusting to a new home can be a tense and frightening experience for a cat.

Consider your companion’s past experiences. Your kitten may have been recently separated from his mother and litter mates. The kitten or cat has had to cope with the transition of a shelter and the stress of surgery. The adult cat may have been separated from a familiar home and forced to break a bond with human companions or other animals. Now he must adjust again to totally new surroundings.

Not exactly a walk in the park. Our cat, Scooter Thomas, has moved at least four times in his life. We adopted Scooter Thomas when we moved to Cincinnati six years ago. Being the well-adjusted creature that he is, though, we felt certain he would weather our latest move with trademark aplomb.

We were more concerned about how Sam, now eighteen months, would handle the transition. New bedroom. New play area. New bathtub. Friends recommended we keep as many routines in place as possible.

As it turns out, we needn’t have worried about Sam. Any angst over a change in surroundings has been taken out on Scooter Thomas, as evidenced by the photos below.

This is MY HOUSE, Cat. MINE.

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I will crush you with love!

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CRUSHING WITH LOVE.

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Paws.org would not be pleased with this situation.

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Infant-pet tension aside, we’re getting settled in our new place and hope to resume somewhat more routine blogging in the days and weeks to come.