Sunday, December 16, 2012

Connecticut: An engineering response (sort of).

I guess a reaction from me about the Connecticut shooting was inevitable. my only hope is to apply logic, and not emotion to this situation. Emotions have their place, but here, I believe, is not it.

I'm not here to question who, or what, or why. I'm here to add logic, and process to the discussion. I'm not going to try and tell you what to think, I'm going to ask you to consider what I have to say, and hopefully include it in your discussions.

Point of entry.

How did the attacker get into the school? I'm not asking this question flippantly, or accusingly. There is a very serious set of implications associated with this. First of all, I have heard several reports that the school was locked from the inside to control outside access. Having working security at public schools myself, I find this highly likely and relatively easy to accomplish.

Understand, there are a lot of really good reasons to lock doors at a school, even before you talk about something horrid like a shooting. Not the least of which is just general durability; exterior doors take a lot of punishment on a day to day basis, so something durable is important. Also, when dealing with the safety and custody of children, it just makes sense to control who has access to the building. With custody disputes, divorces, and other things now an accepted reality in this country, public schools need to take reasonable measures  to regulate who gets into the school, especially elementary school students.

Its obvious that in Connecticut, the guy got in. My question is “how?” Did he kick the door open? Was he let in? Did someone leave a door unlocked? Was there a door that was always left open?

I don't know any of this, and I'm not pretending to. Also, I don't think the answers to any of those questions absolve the gunmen of his crimes, or incriminate anyone else for the same.

That being said, if something was amiss, or if somewhat was done deliberately that was exploited to grant entry for him, we need to look at that and learn. We need to say to ourselves, “maybe we should lock the doors at school,” for example. Doors that can be locked on one side, and allow free exit in an emergency are standard on almost all public schools theses days, I'm not talking about an added cost, just properly using what is there.

No, I don't know of any school with a bullet proof door, but how long do you think it would take someone to shoot out the glass, knock it out of the way, and then open the door? Maybe a minute, maybe more, but that's time to lock other doors, and call law enforcement. No, locking a door would not have stopped the shooting outright, but it might well have reshaped the course of events, even if only a little.


I'm probably going to make people angry with this, but it is what it is.

I've heard two news reports so far that said the school did lock down when the shooting started. Classrooms were locked, doors barricaded, people hid. As sickening as it might be to say this, from what I have heard, such procedures are the reason that we only have 29 deaths. We won't know for sure for months, but the police, with the help of a likely army of specialists, will go over this aspect of the event in detail, and will probably make a formal report to the local school district and the sheriff sometime next year.

But my point here isn't to say what should, or shouldn't have happened, but to look at what did, and look at what we might do differently in the future.

And let me say again, based on what I have heard... lives were saved through the lock-down. Yes, we lost many, but many, many more are still with us. In event's like this, we don’t' talk about failure and success in absolutes, we talk about what worked, and what didn't, and what we can do differently going forward.

The Weapons:

I certainly have my opinions about guns, but here, I am going to honestly try and keep those out of the conversation. As an engineer, I need to evaluate facts.

Basic reports right now (barely three days after the shooting) are talking about four sidearms and a long-arm (rifle) with conflicting reports as to which were used and which weren't.

In short, the sidearms have been particularly identified as Sig, or Glock type weapons. Both are reputable, high quality sidearms, with magazine capacities ranging between 10 and 19 rounds, depending on the model or type in question. So far, all of the pistols in question have been called 9 mm, which is not unlikely. I myself carry a 9mm, and it is an effective and inexpensive round.

Knowing what I do about both the Glock and the Sig series of pistols, I can say that the technology behind them is nothing new. They are well made, and high end, but their fundamental working principle dates back to the short-recoil action of the American model 1911 pistol, which is over a century old. This basic engineering design is used internationally in civilian, military and law enforcement roles every day. The vast majority of civilian sidearms in the United States today are likely very, very similar to the designs of the Glock and Sig pistols in their basic function.

Also, one last fact, with four pistols recovered, even if each weapon were only carrying 10 rounds (the maximum capacity under the “assault weapons ban” of the 1990s) the assailant would still have had 40 rounds of ammunition available to him without having to reload.

The “AR-15” type rifle at the scene bares a little more explaining. First, the “A” in AR does not stand for “assault”. It stands for ArmaLite, the name of the company to first design the rifle that would become the M-16 for the military. The corporate designation was AR-15, an abbreviation of “ArmaLite Rifle (model)- 15” Now, I don't know anything about the specific weapon recovered at the scene of the crime, but I can say that the AR-15 “family” of weapons (which includes clones built by countless companies) are .223 caliber rifles sold for hunting, competitive shooting and personal protection all across the United States. Their are models available with 3-round-burst and / or full automatic settings, but these require a class 3 license issued by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. 

My point here is that I don't want people looking at the letters “AR-15” and automatically thinking of a fully automatic, fully “militarized” killing machine. This is a dependable, versatile firing platform with lots of options associated with it. Before we say anything about the one in Connecticut, lets wait and see what it could do, couldn't do, and what it did do, if anything at all.

A little bit of history for you. Take this for what it's worth, if anything.

You are going to hear the words “assault rifle” in the future. Regardless of if the rifle in Connecticut was used, the subject comes up frequently, and almost always after a shooting related crime.

“Assault rifle” is not, as some would say, a media-invented term, nor was it coined by the US military. The fact of the matter was that the concept was first created by the German army in 1944 with the invention and deployment of the StG 44 rifle. This was the first weapon in the world that would give the individual soldier the ability to accurately fire a rifle round, and then switch to a fully automatic fire setting in a controllable, lightweight platform. The Germans called it the Sturmgewehr, or “storm rifle”. In this case “storm” being used in the sense of 'storming the ramparts”. The term was translated to the native languages of each nation that later adopted the concept from themselves, “assault” being the selected term in the United States.

As the Germans used it, an assault rifle was able to fire in single-shot and fully automatic mode. The United States later developed the AR-15 with included a 3-round-burst as an intermediary option. No one has ever set down a legal, or ethical definition of what an assault rifle is specifically supposed to encompass. And the question of what is an assault rifle is even further complicated by the fact that the US military itself removed the automatic setting on their rifles in the late 70s through the mid 90s before giving it back to their troops.

Weather or not you call something an “assault rifle” is your decision, I honestly have no stance on the subject in this post. But I do ask that when you talk about rifles, you understand what the implications are of using the word, and also asking yourself if the weapon you are talking about actually lives up to those abilities.

Backing up a few steps, I wanted to close the weapon's portion of this with one more point.

Again, with the information we have on hand, it looks like all of the weapons involved were legally purchased and owned by the assailant's mother, who was reportedly his first victim that day. I know nothing about the home, the living situation, the family dynamic or the personalities involved. However, another common question that is asked with these types of situations (and rightfully so) is how did the attacker get the weapons. In this case, we (at least partially) know that much, and it looks like the first law broken there was when he took the life of the gun owner.

“I could have stopped it”

I'm going to deviate from my purely logical, engineering goal for a moment here, but I feel this is still important to say.

Within hours of the news breaking, my Facebook feed was flooded with people saying “I could have stopped it if I were there with my gun”.

Honestly, I am skeptical of that.

You would have been another civilian, with another gun, in another hallway, in the midst of a firefight. We don't know what the hallways looked like, what don't know if there was chaos, or terrified calm, we don't know if there was some semblance of order, or if madness took over. But what I can tell you if that if you, or anyone had gone out in the hall, you would just been another target, another person with a gun for everyone else to sort out, evaluate and device if you are friend or foe.

That's not to say you would not have stopped this. But you also might have gotten hurt or killed yourself. You might have hesitated at the wrong moment, asking yourself “is he on my side?” when you saw a familiar face with a gun in hand, only to be answered with a hail of gunfire. Or you might have acted as best you could, taking the shot you had, with the evidence you had... only to have killed a fellow “sheepdog” trying to do the same thing you were doing.

Members of police SWAT teams, as well as military counter-terrorism and special operations units train daily to make those split second decisions. Whole thought processes have been programed into muscle memory with them so that they can react in a fraction of the time that your or I could to a threat. They have weapons and ammunition meant to engage people at close rage with extreme accuracy. They have armor and shields that are meant to buy them that extra second of time they might need make the life-or-death call of weather or not to pull the trigger on a target.

They do this every day, for a living. And most of the time, they do it well.

Chances are, you don't.

Now, I'm not saying that an armed teacher doesn't have merit. Hunkered down in your classroom, you would have the option to drawn down on and kill anyone who tried to force their way in. There would be time to hear him coming, time to aim, time to shout warning, time to take cover. Tactically, a man with a pistol hidden in a room is the type of nightmare that a fully equipped SWAT team dreads going after. It is ground of your choosing, on your terms. The odds are heavily in your favor.

Personally, I believe that allowing teachers with concealed carry permits to have their weapons on school grounds is an argument that should be discussed further.

But my point here is that the knee-jerk, heroic image of a fellow teacher storming out into the hallway, concealed weapon in hand, to actively track down and stop a school shooter is unrealistic.

“Where were the police?”

Now, I am NOT, in any way shape for form, accusing, or even implying that the law enforcement agencies of the town were lax in their duties in any way.

That being said, we need to look at where they were, where they weren't, how long it took them to respond to the situation, and then ask ourselves “could they have changed the course of events” and if so, “how?”

And I don't ask that first question lightly. Not knowing anything about the details of the shooting right now, I honestly don't know if a cop could have done anything to have stopped the shooting. As a former armed security office myself, I am fully aware of how fast things can happen. There were many times in my four year career where a fight or argument was started, blows were thrown, and then it was over and people walked away in a matter of seconds. By the time I got there, the people left were spectators who knew little more than I did.

And I'm NOT saying that is the case here, I don't know. I just want to steer away from the knee-jerk mindset that says “a cop is at the school; everything will be fine”. There have been several incidents where police officers were forced to retreat to cover when outgunned by a more aggressive opponent with better positioning. Even having a cop on site might not have stopped this.

But we can look at the facts, ask logical questions, and make logical, factual decisions about how to go forward.

Okay, I'm done.

No, I didn't answer any questions, or at least I didn't try to, anyway. 

No, I didn't say we needed to train every teacher how to soot.

And no, I didn't say we needed to get rid of guns outright.

What I am saying is that if we don't look at this objectively in the days, weeks and months to come, we stand to loose valuable, factual information that might well serve to stop something like this from happening again, or at least help to.

But if we don't stop, if we don't look, if we don't put our emotions aside just for a little bit and think about this logically, then we run the very real risk of not learning anything. In that environment, we degenerate back to two camps; one screaming to "Save our children", and another shouting back, just as loud, “come and take them from out cold dead hands!

Realistically, I don't think we really win either way there.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012


I'm thankful.

And I'm thankful for a lot of things.

You might not think so at first glance, but there is more to this story than the first page. 

This year, I spent Wednesday night, Thanksgiving, the following Friday, Saturday, and most of Sunday in the hospital. A good portion of that (including Thanksgiving day itself) I was ravaged with fevers that were besting 102.5 all too regularly. The spikes were accompanied by body aches, mind-warping headaches, shivers, and nausea.

Aside from a few visits, I was without access to my family for most of the stay. Part of the issue a matter of scheduling, partly a matter of there were times where I just wasn't fit to have guests.

I was supposed to cook the Turkey this year, and had prepped a ten pound bird in an apple cider, lemon juice, and cinnamon marinade. That obviously wasn't happening.

I spent three of the four days completely unsure if I would even make it out of the hospital in time for work on Monday, (sick time aside, I take pride in my work, and letting cases go untouched is a hassle for others when someone isn't there).

There were times where the pain and the body aches were so bad that I just wanted to curl up and cry.

And there were times where I was so frustrated with all of the unanswered questions, and I was seething mad, and without anyone or anything to point my anger at.

But I am still thankful.

I'm thankful for every nurse and nurses aid who tended to me day in and day out.
I'm thankful for the doctors who answered pages and phone calls, day and night, as my situation developed.
I'm thankful for the Technician who was called at 1 in the morning, Thanksgiving day, to scan my leg and try and size up the mess I was in.

I'm grateful that even though I wasn't there, my family and my visiting parents were able to have Thanksgiving together with my in-laws, and that my son was able to spend outrageous amounts of time being spoiled rotten by my father.

I'm thankful that my mother was able to cook the turkey per my instructions  including making a cider/turkey drippings gravy that was a smash hit. 

Despite how little I did see them, my family was there for me, supporting me when I needed it, even from afar. 

I'm grateful because I survived cancer, and even though the scar tissue of that even will change my life forever, so too has the exposure to some of the most remarkable people I have ever met.

I could be mad, and there are a few things that I am rightfully upset about.

But in the end, I choose to be thankful, but I have been given more than has been taken from me by far.  

Monday, October 8, 2012

At the ready.

I'll admit it, I've been on something of a survivalist kick these past few days. Not that I'm currently making my escape plan for the fall of the civilized world, but the video some of these types put out are actually very interesting, both in a good, and a weird way.

First of all, I've been watching a lot of stuff by Sootch00. I don't know too much about his politics, aside from being a strong 2nd amendment supporter, but his dedication to "just being ready" is actually impressive. Its one thing to say 'what if the civilized world comes to an end tomorrow?", but it's another thing entirely to come up with some reasonable steps to take for the unlikely eventuality.

TNP, or The Nutnfancy Project, is a little less about survivalist and more about gear and firearms reviews with a very healthy dose of civic responsibility included. Despite what they have in common, I think what is more striking about Scootch and TNP's reviews are their differences in philosophy about general preparedness.

And I've just started watching ManePrepper's channel. This man is a no-shit, this-is-how-it-is, this-is-how-you-do-it perspective of crisis situations from a man with a military background to back up his statements.

The three of these men, something of  a random cross section of the "prepper" society, as it were, are just fascinating to watch for me. It would be easy to call them paranoid, but I don't think they are. I think that these are people who see preparations as a personal responsibility, just like putting on your seat belt before putting the car in drive. Weather or not the massive disasters they are planning for ever happen, I don't think any of them want the US to call into anarchy, their just more pessimistic about it's prospects than I am.

None the less, some of the vocabulary I have been exposed to is actually rather useful, and quite helpful for me, someone who is used to thinking things out, sometimes a little too much.

"Preppers": the modern evolution of the survivalists movement.

WROL: Without Rule of Law. I know that sounds a little out-there, but the aftermath of Katrina more or less silenced the silenced the last credible elements of society that were dismissive of how destructive people can be without authority to reign them in. The bottom line is that when civilization falls, even locally, and even for short periods of time, all hell can break loose.

Get-home-bag: This is the "what happens if I'm stranded?" kit that a lot of people put together and throw in the back of their car.

Bug-out-bag: This is the "I have to drop everything NOW and find safety" kit. Also called a 72-hour bag, it's meant to get an able-bodied person out of dodge for three (or more) days so that they can find a better situation, or make one for themselves.

EDC: Every Day Carry. It really is what it says and usually not much more, though there are some weapons or "prepper" connotations to the word.

All of that being said, there is a very real reason I am looking at this community right now. And no, I'm not about to start packing a 35 pound "Bug out bag" and looking over my shoulder for hidden federal agents. The reason is that these people do bring an important point of conversation to the social table; they are willing to ask "what if?" where a lot of others don't

Now, understand, we can very easily "what if" ourselves into paranoia and a stress related heart attack. But That extreme is no worse that going through life saying "I'll just stop by the gas station and pick that up" or "I'll hit Walmart later on"and having absolutely no idea what to do if that possibility was suddenly taken away.

Now, let me be clear, if society fell tomorrow  or if we were invaded, or if a plague broke out, I doubt that I could afford or fit enough supplies in a bag to make a major difference in the grand scheme of things.


What if I got a flat tire? -  I've already been down that road, and circumstances being what they were, I wound up dropping $20 in clean whites and toiletries for one night.

What if the car broke down? - Been here too, and let me tell you, help isn't as fast as you might like when its late and you're not completely sure of where you are. Just having a flashlight and a first aid kit was enough to keep my blood pressure down one time.

What if I had to walk in the rain? - Sure, I may not melt when I'm wet, but with the weather getting cold, sickness, fatigue or even shock (and possibly death) are the potential consequences of I'm not ready for what mother nature has in stock for me.

These, and a lot of other questions are what has prompted me to to add a few more things to my bag.

I went ahead and got a hydration pack for the previously mentioned bag. It was made for it, and it only cost ten bucks. It may seem a little over the top, but I figured with Oklahoma heat being what it is, if I am stuck, the ability to dodge into a restaurant or gas station and load up on two liters of water is worth ten bucks. Also, I'm actually thinking about getting some long hikes in in the later months of this year.

Thermal Underwear: Speaking of cold, I had to be out in our fine state's idea of a brisk autumn. Bottom line, I've seen, first hand, how fast a person can let cold enough to take them off their feet. I now have a clean pair of thermals sealed in a Ziploc in my bag right now in case I have to change into something warmer.

Camp towel. This one is a duel purpose item. First of all, the bag in't huge, and I do walk every day, meaning I need to shower. This thing is small enough to jam into my toiletries kit, less than a tenth the size of my normal towel, so space alone is worth it.

But... there is also the very real issue of getting wet when its dangerous. like I said before, cold and wet can be dangerous or even lethal. The ability to dive into a bathroom, or even under a tree and dry off before changing could make the different between simple discomfort or serious illness or injury.

Straps and carabiners: I know, this sounds like I'm going off the deep end for a guy who sits at a desk all day. The truth is, however, that none of the stuff I buy could ever hold my weight, or even the bag's for that matter. All I really have are two clips and two straps to lash stuff like a jacket, or maybe another, smaller pack to it if need be. Its not that I'm planning on anything. I just like to keep my options open.

And going back to the rain comment from before, I added a small poncho to the bag. On top of that are  two Cliff bars to the back compartment, and I condensed down the  first air kit, getting rid of the red box for space sake. Its all still a work in progress, but none the less, I am happy with what I have. In the end, the point, at least for me, isn't to be ready for anything  Its to not be so unprepared for the predictable stuff that I feel like an idiot after the fact.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

My new Bag

So, I decided to so a little building the other day. One of the things I really enjoy about my time as a firefighter and a security officer was the ability to “kit out”, to put all sorts of cool stuff on my person. By the time I was done with my nearly thee year stint as a security guard, I had a really nice mid-range kit for a belt, first air kit, gloves, baton, sidearm, cell phone… like I said… really nice, and it looked sharp too.

Well, this time, I took a lot of that philosophy and applied it to my new life as a commuting computer tech for Dell computers. Granted, in terms of risk, there isn't a   lot of overlap in what I faced as a security guard or a firefighter and what I face now. Still, preparedness is not something one just casts aside.

First of all, I wanted to show you a video. This guy has a ton of stuff on YouTube, and I've probably seen a lot of it, but not most. This video, entitled “bug out bag” is a really good starting point for me in this conversation. Now, let me be clear, I am not building a bug out bag, and I don’t want to. But the logic and the mechanics he puts into this are applicable to other, more “every day” situations.

Again, I'm not trying to copy this, or suggest that anyone else should. But the philosophy of "What do I need for what?" and "What might I need?" is very sound.

A good personal case in point; just the other day I was stuck in Oklahoma city with a flat Tire. Aside from being half an hour late to dinner with friends because of having to put on the spare, I was stuck down there overnight because the tire place didn't have my size tires, and I know far, far better than to put 120 miles (60 home and 60 back to work) on a donut  Since I wouldn't be going home, I had to swing by Wal-Mart and get essentials, just getting underwear, a T-shirt, deodorant and socks was close to $20 by itself.

Now, add to this the fact that I was also wanting to start walking again during my lunch breaks at work. Originally, I took a small bag with a change of clothes, towel and some toiletries. Then, when lunch rolled around, I would grab the bag, walk to the locker room change, take my walk, come back, shower, and then get back to my desk. Add to that the fact that the locker room is about 7 minutes from my desk, and you have a pretty tight hour there. What I wanted to do was have something that I could just grab at my desk, walk, and then come back to the locker rooms and shower.

This is really important for me now, because one of the byproducts of my recent fight with (and victory over) cancer was that I put on some substantial weight, and need to up my activity level so I can get back down to a healthier weight.

The Outdoor products Sports bag.
The back:. 

So, let start with the bag itself; I got an Outdoor Products bag from Wal-Mart. $20.00s, and it even came with a water bottle. The construction looks solid, and I liked the fit. I don’t envision this lasting me years, but it is lasts 24 months I think it will have paid for itself.

The cup (with extra straw)

Now, on to the water bottle, its’ actually pretty cool. Aluminum and plastic, I think it’s about 30oz size. And it even came with an extra straw. All together not bad. I drink out of it at work all the time, and so long as I don't want to put anything hot in it, I should be fine. 

Cell phone/MP3 player holder. 

On, and that little black cell phone case; it didn't come with the bag. I salvaged it off my old laptop bag, its durable as hell, and secures right on the strap like it belongs there. This is actually cool because I like to listen to audiobooks (or Podiobooks) sometimes. 

Drinks pocket

The open mesh pockets on the side hold the water bottle, and whatever else I want. On one side I keep my drink packets and the extra straw. I’m debating expanding my selection a little, maybe even stocking some food there… any suggestions?

"Cool stuff" pocket

The other side is my “cool stuff” pocket. The thumb drives are just useful, and the cord you see there is good for charging my Kindle and my cell phone, from a wall outlet or a computer. So I’m really happy with it. The USB cord there is for my (somewhat old) MP3 player. I used to wear my Leatherman on my belt, and still do at times, but with me in an office chair now, this is actually more comfortable.

Again, I’m thinking of adding to that pocket. They make little “survival” kits all the time, and I’m thinking of looking into those and either getting one or copying it. Nothing too major, but matches, a sewing kit… useful stuff  if I'm ever stuck away from home a few days.

Now, before we get into the back pocket, let me just say I collected most of this stuff while I was dealing with cancer. Chemo screws with your body enough (at least in my case) that you need to be able to take care of even minor cuts quickly, Trust me, they don’t heal on their own some times.
Back pocket
These are the extras left over from my little personal “micro-trauma” kit. The Ziploc is for modularity and to keep them dry.

All told, it’s actually some really useful stuff, but all basic. The syringes on the left are not hypodermic. They are topic, doses of Phenergan gel, a potent anti-nausea drug that save my hide more than a few times when I was on chemo.

The actual “first aid kit” was a Wal-Mart number, but I added a few things. Most notably are the scissors, those are surgical tools I got a hold of; sharp as a razor and tough as steel.  The rest is self-explanatory. I don’t go into the kit that much, but it’s nice to have it on hand, good piece of mind.

Topical Antibiotic
Yeah… this I keep separate and available. I've had too many infected cuts in my life to forget how much an cut hurts when you let it sit all night and build up an infected mass. Never again, I tell you!

I liked the main compartment here because it wasn't segmented out; just one big space for stuff, and lots of stuff at that.

Main pocket... Lots of space.
“What’s with the Ziplocs?” you ask. Well, they are actually serving two purposes. First, they are protecting my backup clothes. If I’m out in the rain, or if something spills on the bag or whatever, I’m not up a creek. Also, cloth likes to compress, but it also likes to expand again. Those bags keep the volume under control in a really good way.

Case in point. Those two bags pack down really small, but what you’re looking at here is a decent “around the house” outfit If I’m at some one else’s home. I wouldn't want to do a job interview in that, but at least I have a fresh outfit that protects  my modesty.

Toiletries. Simple stuff, really, but enough to mean the difference between “just making it” and being presentable at work the next morning. Now that I am growing my hair out again, I’ll probably need a small bottle of shampoo in the next month or two, and a shaving kit as well.

Oh! One last pocket.  Right now, that is actually kept clear of stuff. But again, if I’m at work and in my office chair, I can drop my keys in there, or some loose change. Also, when I’m showering I tend to empty my pockets into it as a middle point between old pants and new ones. Its not huge, but it will hold everything in all of my pockets, so I am not complaining.

As for the remaining volume, that’s what I call "working space". Right now I can fit another clean set of whites, a fresh shirt and a large towel in there without maxing it out. This is perfect for a change after my walks. If I were going somewhere else, I image I could fit a lot in there lunch, my camera, some books… whatever. Like I said, its not a small space.

And as for comfort, I’m really not complain. I wear it for my walks, and walk about 1.3 miles each day and it isn't unpleasant to wear, even loaded down. I guess mine weighs in at about 15 pounds with everything in it.  I didn't get everything at once... but I think everything in there (less the clothes) probably adds up to $100, give or take. But that list was cobbled together over a few years too. 

As for the whole thing, it’s still a work in progress, and will change as my life changes. I’m thinking about finding someone with a vacuum sealer and putting the chance in clothes into  one of those bags. Iit could probably cut the volume down by a third if I did that. Like I said, I’m also thinking about a small ‘survival kit” for one of the pockets, just for piece of mind. And I definitely want to take that drink pouch and maybe make it into a little micro eatery/snack bar.

Thoughts? Suggestions? Feedback?

Thursday, September 27, 2012


I just wanted to sit down and… I guess vent a little. The dust of the proverbial storm of the last five months of my life hasn't even fully settled yet, but still, there are some things that I think are worth talking about.

The diagnosis:
I can’t tell you how many people have told me that my internist should have caught the lump in my leg when it was smaller. Usually these are people who don’t know me that well, and who really don’t know my doctor at all. The bottom line is that we did catch it, and we caught it in time. It took both of us, me to notice the lump, and him to diagnose it. In the end, finding it sooner would have helped, but not really changed anything.

The people:
Yeah, half of this bloody mess is more about everyone else than me. I’m not saying that resentfully, just as an observation. And on that thought, here are some observations for you.

1.       Less than half an hour after my first FB post stating that I had cancer, my FB adds and (one of) my e-mail address were flooded with advertisements for “miracle” cancer treatments, “real” cures, “alternative” therapies, and coupons for clinics in Mexico, Latin America and Europe. The torrent didn’t end until I put Ad Blocker back on my browser. The scary thing is that it took less than half an hour for close to 100 quacks to try and get their word in. I can’t help but think of what that type of influx of information would do to someone who hadn’t already had a long talk with his doctor.
2.       In less than a week, my other in-boxes were flooded with direct e-mails from actual people I know. To be fair, they were all well-intentioned, and all honestly worried about my well being. But none the less, I was provided with close to 50 websites talking about everything from Laetrile, to cancer-fighting foods, to links to local acupuncturists.
a.       Some of the information was provided with a “this worked for me, just take a look” attitude. This is wonderful, I am glad to learn from personal experiences, and had this done on any longer, I might well have looked up some of the herbalists or acupuncturists I have heard about to help me deal with the chemo.
b.      Some, however, came with explicit messages of “whatever you do, don’t trust your doctor”… and lots of links followed on short order. When a scientifically minded man is fighting for his life is not the time to question his core principles. Those people are no longer connected to my Facebook, my Google +, or my instant messages.
                                                               i.      In short, and in very much a modern sense, I don’t talk to them anymore.

3.       And then… we have the ones that you don’t want to be next to in a crisis. I had one mother of a friend whom I told “I was diagnosed with cancer, and I start treatments net week”. However, what she heard was “I have inoperable cancer”, and proceeded to flood her (adult) child with “helpful” information to pass along to me. Took about a week to decide how to handle that little mess.
4.       And then… we have everyone else.
a.       The supervisor who looked at me and said: “you do what you have to, I’ll take care of the scheduling”
b.      The coworker who laughed and said “and you’ll kick it’s ass like every other challenge you've gotten”.
c.       The child (and daughter of a good friend) who looked at me when I told her and said “what’s cancer?”
d.      I pinged one co-worker with the following conversation

Me: I have some news for you, since it will became obvious in the next few weeks.
Him: What, you’re pregnant? Ha ha…
Me: Actually… I was diagnosed with cancer last week. I’ll be starting chemo soon.

[looooong pause]

Him: Now I feel like a total douche for saying that.
Me: he he… why do you thing I phrased it the way I did? ;-)

[another looooong pause]

Him: Well played.

e.      I can’t tell you how many people I have had to explain chemotherapy, cancer, and even some basic anatomy to. It’s not that I mind, but when I realize how few people don’t understand the basics of biology (“mitosis” was a completely alien term to a lot of people), I really had to wonder.
f.        I had one random woman at church walk up to me in the beginning and say “you’ll be fine, you know that?” I asked how she was so sure, and she pointed to herself and said “Stage four, four times, and I’m still here.”
g.       I’ve had eight people that I can name tell me that I have been “an inspiration”, “heroic”, “stoic”, and/or “aw inspiring” through this whole process. I’m still not sure how to take all that. I know it’s all said with good intents, but for me, the times they were talking about are some of the roughest in my life.

5.       As I have learned in the past, “modern medicine” is  a mixed bag, with no single  profession or skill-set completely good or bad.
a.       All of my doctors were good this time around, sure, some of them were a little rough around the edges, but I don’t’ ask for diplomats, just professionals.
                                                               i.      My general practitioner, who has now had the pleasure of finding two major medical problems with me, and more or less rushing me out the door to get the help I need. The man is good at what he does, and right now I am looking forward to seeing him and having him say “there’s nothing wrong with him.
                                                             ii.      My surgeon: who biopsied the largest tumor and who called me the following Friday and broke the news to me. She’s been steadfast in her support, and nearly predatory in her advocacy on my behalf.
                                                            iii.      To my two oncologists (changed horse mid-race), you’re work is usually thankless, and I don’t imagine you are ever far from news of someone dying. Still, you were there every time, doing the job, hoping for the best, and honestly telling me “this is just going to suck, I’m sorry”… Thanks.
                                                           iv.      To the Ultrasound tech who did theorigionall ultrasound, assisted in the ultrasound-guided needle biopsy, and who did my echocardiogram… Your calm demeanor, conversation, and charisma were a calm in the middle of a storm that I needed. Thanks.
                                                             v.      Oncological nurses who managed my treatment in two cities over four months. They advocated for me, stood up for me, and went to bat for me when others did not take a moment to put a human face on a decision.
                                                           vi.      The fifty or so strangers who applauded the day I randomly announced to the waiting room “I’d cured.”
b.      Outside of the that…
                                                               i.      Everyone at Highland Park United Methodist Church banned together and prayed for me,  offering support and best wishes, and as far as I’m concerned, it all worked.
                                                             ii.      My friends in the SCA mustered behind me from the word go, offering encouragement, help, best wishes and worried looks all where appropriate. The SCA has been a second family for many years now, and this time that family banned together.

All told, I consider myself lucky. Know too many people who have beat cancer, and too many more who didn’t. As much as some people might want to say I beat it because of this attitude or that personality trait, the truth of the mater is what by the end, I was holding on by my fingertips, wondering how much longer I could keep it all together.

I think the best ending for this was my son’s reaction when he got home from school and I told him the news. He jumped up in the air, shouted “Yeay!” and then stopped and added “Can I play on the PlayStation now?”

Friday, July 13, 2012

A hot start (Epic week, part 1)

It's hard to decide where this story goes. It's as much about my friends and my family as it is about my medical condition, not to mention the SCA and all of the relationships I have formed there. This isn't a story of what went wrong, so much as what went right, and for what reasons. And still more, this is a story about adapting to change, overcoming the unexpected, and triumph in the face of adversity. My week didn't start on a Saturday, a Sunday or even a Monday. No, this story starts on a Wednesday, July the 4th, 2012 to be exact. I had the day off of work, just  like about 90% of the country, and we had afternoon plans with friends. I woke up late that morning, an indulgence I don't normally get with a job schedule that traditionally has me up at 4:30 in the morning.  I lumbered into the shower sometime after ten that morning, letting the ready supply of hot water wake me up.  I've found that showers are now down to about 5 minutes of running water thanks to the fact that I don't have hair to wash. An interesting tidbit of fact, that's all.

Just after three, my wife, son and our best friend loaded up in my buttercup yellow Aveo and headed off to the newly acquired home of Lord Lucas and his wife Adelaide.  Lucas and I met in the SCA several years before, and one of his more notable achievement is succeeding me as the champion bard for the Barony of Wiesenfeuer (Oklahoma city chapter of the SCA) before moving on to win the title of Kingdom bard not long after. A stout fireplug of man, Lucas had moved from Norman to Tulsa following a job a few years back, and that same pursuit brought him to the upper edge of Stillwater just a few weeks ago now. They had finished moving in just in time to celebrate Independence Day. They invited us up to their new place to enjoy an afternoon of conversation, grilled hamburgers, home made desserts and swimming before heading back south to watch the Stillwater fireworks.

The day itself was wonderful. I honestly hadn't had a chance to spend that much time with Lucas and his family before, so it was a wonderful chance to really get to know them. My son, Thomas, got along smashingly well with Lucas's  4-year-old, who in turn was ecstatic about having someone roughly his own age to play with.  The day went on beautifully, with everyone glad  to see everyone else, and all of us making plans for future encounters. All told, it was a good experience.

The fireworks that night were great, we were close enough that you could feel every "thud" and "crack" of the show. They wrapped up just after nine, and we wound up pulling out of there closer to ten after waiting for all the traffic to file out of the way.

When my wife and I got home, we realized that things weren't going to go as planned. I opened the door, and what should have been a wave of cold air from a climate controlled house was every bit as stale and sticky and hot as what we had been out for the fireworks. The AC had gone out, and we were looking at a long, hot night. The night was miserable for me, I slept on three towels to try and keep the perspiration away from my skin. It was a loosing battle for me. I took a cold shower the next morning, trying to pull as much heat off of my body as I could.  I normally have Thursday through Saturday off of work as it was, so with the 4th as a paid Holiday I had four days off to de-stress and decompress from work.  As it was, one of those was going to be spent dealing with a hot house and a bad AC unit during the first weeks of July.

The repair tech arrived the next day, we’d been through this before with the unit and I knew what numbers to call and who to talk to.  I had spent a good portion of the day working in my home office (a desk in the bedroom) on my writing and a few e-mails. When the heat became too much, I grabbed my car keys and made a b-line to IHOP. I'm not overly thrilled with their food, but the Stillwater location is a favorite haunt of college students, so another body in there using their wireless connection and nursing down a water didn't even raise an eyebrow. 

This year has been good to me in terms of writing. Ever since NaNoWriMo of last year, I have been on a bit of a tear with my latest creation, a contemporary drama/romance that was inspired by an off handed comment my wife made about maybe writing something in the ninja vs samurai genre. I beat Nano last year, and late on actually finished the book, which I have since revised three times and ultimately turned over to my wife for editing. Since then, I jumped on the sequel and  have been plugging along ever since, albeit slowly.
So, that was more or less what I was in the middle of when I got a call from my wife saying the tech had made it. By the time I got home, the tech had made a grim pronouncement; the compressor had died, and the only way to fix it was to replace it outright.

We weren't going to get air conditioning back anytime soon.

Part of the problem, unlike last year,  was that as grouchy as I was, I was also a lot more uncomfortable than previous hot spells, and having a lot more trouble sleeping. I realized that night that I was slowly slipping towards an honest-to-god case of heat stroke. The problem wasn't just the heat, but the fact that the house was holding it in, and that I wasn't able to get cool and sleep. I didn't put it all together until later, but the one factor that I wasn't accounting for was my chemotherapy, which they said would make me more heat sensitive during the treatment process.

I guess I probably should have seen this coming out of intuition is nothing else. As  a whole, my prognosis with my lymphoma has been excellent ever since I started treatments. Not only are the treatments working, but I am not suffering anywhere nearly as many side effects as I was told I would. It's not easy, mind you, but even on the first week, I wasn' t the lethargic, sick, dead-to-the-world victim they expected me to be. I wasn't cocky about it,  but I was getting used to the idea that Cancer wasn't going to beat the tar out of me. I had a good crew of doctors watching out for me, and a good group of friends rooting me on, I was confident t that the odds were in my favor.

In reality, part of that success story included the air conditioner, which now that it was out of the equation, the odds weren't so stacked anymore, With heat beating me down as the days got hotter, my prospects for a sane, let alone good, weekend off of work were quickly diminishing.  It wasn't like I was afraid of dying, but without any sleep, it was going to be a rough couple of days.

Realizing that the minor issue was going to be a long-haul battle, we all loaded up in the car yet again and retreated to Joseppi's (Local Italian) to enjoy cold drinks and air conditioning while we mapped out the next week.  There, we hatched a general plan that included taking my mother in law up on an offer of refuge from the heat. It wouldn't just be us, however, my family includes four cats and two dogs, including an elderly, but still loving and still determined Great Pyrenees male who was taking the heat even worse than I was.

There were catches to this plan, however. My in-laws live in Tulsa, which was every bit of two hours from my office. Commuting to work would not be an option, I would need a place to stay in Oklahoma city for the work week. Also, that coming Saturday would be the company picnic, where I had hoped to introduce my wife to some of my coworkers. Then, on Sunday I would have to work from home (or somewhere with an internet connection), while my wife ran our son up to his first sleep away summer camp.  Then… we were all supposed to make it to an SCA meeting in Enid… one out west of Stillwater, two hours from Tulsa.

Needless to say the schedule had to be modified. More or less, the SCA was out of the picture. We have a rule in the society that says "Real life comes first", and this was one of those weeks. I asked Meggan about the company picnic, and she gave a firm agreement that she still wanted to go, four hour round trip or not. For her, it was "one of those things you do" for work and a chance to meet cool people. In any event, though, we were agreed that we would go, along with Thomas, and see what Dell had to offer  by way of recreation.

So, all that was left was the evacuation of the house… and let's be clear, it was an evacuation. No, it wasn't quite Saigon, but still there was a lot to do, not a lot of time to do it, and really only one chance to pull it all off. Noah's ark (part 1) pulled out at about noon, as I remember, or there about. Meggan left first, with Herald (the Pyrenees) and three of our cats, as well as our son and all his camp supplies crammed into the van. I pulled out an hour later with Pippin (our troublesome Shiba Inu) and the second most docile but noisy of our cats.

Between Stillwater and Tulsa, we found out that Meggan's uncle was being emergency air lifted from his home near the Arkansas border to St. John's medical center.  My mother-in-law's sister would be driving out,  and two of my wife's cousins would be coming in as well. What had started off as a busy weekend for my mother-in-law (My father-in-law was out of town that weekend) was about to see her out at the epicenter of two family emergencies.

I arrived in the early afternoon, and moved my cargo of animals and my own provisions into the blessed cool of the central Tulsa, two story house.  My  mother-in law was at the hospital already with her sister, waiting for word from the doctor and the rest of the family. My son had commandeered the Nintendo Wii, arguably his favorite activity at my in-law's home, and my wife had set up her computer in the upstairs library. The animals were adjusting in their own way. Herald found a cool spot of tile on the floor and dropped on it comfortably. Pippin just curled up on a small rug and slept. Of the cats, the two sisters were hissing at nearly anything they saw out of spite from how mad they were over the move. The brothers, however, had taken it all in stride and were dealing with it quietly,  more or less.

The last real note of the day was that I called the warranty company and  spoke with an operator about the situation. They had the notes on the system, my phone number and notes from the tech. Once the review department got done with the notes they would order the part, and call me if they needed anything. It was as good as I was going to get on a Friday afternoon. 

All told, we made it to safety, and I don't say that lightly. Only once I was in air conditioning did I realize how hard the heat had hit me, and how beat up I was.  I don't want to dramatize things, but let me be clear, I was on my way to a very bad situation had we not found refuge, not to say anything for our pets. Even my son was looking a little worn out by the time it was all over, and I don't suspect the road trip was really part of it.

But that, I assure you, was only the beginning of our little adventure (more to come)

Friday, June 8, 2012

A conversation with a pharmacist

I walked into the front doors of the Med Ex pharmacy for the first time in my life that Wednesday. What had once been a well regarded Mexican restaurant had been leveled and rebuilt to be the latest addition to the chain of discount drug stores. I wondered as I walked in the door where I was standing in relation to the tables and chairs my family used to frequent, but my thoughts wandered only briefly. I was already tired, more so that I needed to be, and I was already feeling the effects of seven hours worth of chemotherapy working its way through my blood. Drugs with names too long to remember and side effects that sounded more like chemical weapons that anything therapeutic hung in the back of my mind as I made my way to the back of the store.

A college aged tech met me at the counter with a big smile. "How can I help you?"

"Hi, I spoke with a woman just a few minutes ago about a prescription that the Wal-Mart Pharmacy couldn't fill."

"Ah, yes. That would be our pharmacist. She's with another customer right at the moment" He pointed towards the shelves that dominated the middle of the store and concealed anyone from view. "Can I help you?"

I explained my situation in brief;  a day of chemotherapy that had run long, a list of prescriptions that needed to be filled, and finally arriving at Wal-Mart only to find out that they couldn't fill the most critical of the orders, Phenergan gel, a topical anti-nausea drug any my only hope for keeping my stomach under control for the next few days. I was tired, sore, and more than a little scared. My first round of chemo had led to a week of torturous side effects that I wasn't looking forward to again. I wasn't just scared of the side effects, I was frankly dreading every second that brought me closer to the next morning and the unknown.

The clerk took my insurance card and my information with an understanding nod and a friendly smile. He wasn't just being polite though, I could see in his eyes the want to sympathize, and the need to get the job done. I didn't come there to be felt sorry for, and the best thing he could do was set everything up for the pharmacist's stamp when she got back.

A short time later a girl who didn't look any older than twenty-five and not taller than five foot four emerged from the maze of shelves, clad in a white lab coat. The clerk pointed her at me, and I did my introductions yet again. I was glad for the conversation. Talking took my mind off of the worry I was feeling. Her name was Melissa, and in one well-practiced schpiel I unloaded, yet again, my uncomfortable situation on her shoulders.

She went to work on filling the order at hand, again understanding that her job was the best thing she could do for me. I could see the energy in her eyes, youth doing its best to combat something as ugly as cancer, and frankly doing a good job of it.

Then, with the order halfway filled, I chanced a random idea.

"Actually, I have a question for you."


"One of the nurses today said that my symptoms sound like one of the drugs might be causing my stomach to over produce stomach acids. Do you know of any over the counter drugs that could help me fight that?"

Melissa bit her bottom lip and leveled a worried look at me. "I'd love to help you, but I'm really scared of recommending anything without knowing what medications you're on." She shrugged a silent apology, clearly hating that she had to say that to a man whose only wish at the moment was some measure of comfort in the days to come. But I didn't dare blame her; of course she was cautious, that was her job, that was what she went to school for.  Good intentions didn't amount to anything when someone accidently gave themselves a heart attack or kidney failure because two drugs didn't play well together.

But I wasn't done, and I wasn't about to give up. The devil was in the details, and I had been paying attention.

"What if I could tell you all the drugs they gave me?"

She blinked. "Can you remember all of those names?"

"Sort of. Do you remember the CHOP R treatment protocol?"

She winced again. "Um… maybe? I think we studied it once in pharmacy school."

"That's okay. I think it's on Wikipedia, and I'll recognize the names if you say them."

And then, just like that the process took off. Suddenly we weren't just two strangers with a chance meeting. We were happenstance allies with a goal, a challenge, and  tools to use. For twenty minutes she stood on her side of the counter and I leaned on mine as she went line by line through the list of five drugs and checked them against no less than three different pharmaceutical databases, carefully taking note of any listed conflicts they might have. She read off the lists of medications, and item by item I confirmed each one, remembering the name from many lengthy conversations had about them.

It's easily now to look back and think of that time as boring. But it wasn't. it was fascinating to watch her work. Her hands flew over the keyboard, her lips formed half-spoke words as my ears heard bits and pieces of sentences said to no one. She asked questions, made jokes, we even talked about movies, but the whole time she was still also intently studying her screen like her life depending on it.

Then it hit me, it wasn't her life she was worried about. It was mine.

Eight thirty at night on a Wednesday with clear skies and warm weather, miles from any hospital or ER, and I was looking at someone who's next few decisions could very well ease, or endanger my very life.

"Here, I think I know what you need." She finally said, and lead me to the same shelves that had swallowed her up before my arrival. She didn't just walk up and hand me a box of pills like I had seen elsewhere many times. She pointed out name brands, and generics, discussed the differences and similarities, and even pointed out one drug and said "Whatever you do, don't get that one."


"I didn't see it listed as conflicting with any of your drugs, but it does conflict with a host of other ones. In fact, there's still a big fight going on with the FDA about whether or not it should be over the counter or not. On paper, its technically safe for you to take, but on the off chance you forgot a drug in that list you gave me, I'm just recommending that you play it safe."

"No argument from me." I said. I recalled not a day before  telling a customer  to go ahead and 'play it safe' and spend  an extra seventy-five bucks on an external hard drive. All of his data was on his computer, a backup would help make sure that all of his small business's files didn't vanish with a single hard drive failure.

Now, here was this girl, easily five years my junior, telling me to spend an extra three bucks so that I didn't wind up in the hospital, or worse.

I picked up the recommended items, and the clerk at the pharmacy desk rang me out with a smile and best wishes.

When you study history like I do, specifically military history, one of the most common themes is strangers meeting  for brief moments of time to aid in a common cause. The infantryman from Nebraska who's mission suddenly depends on the cobalt engineer from Pennsylvania. The radioman from some small town in New Jersey who is suddenly the only way for a West Point educated general to finished what he started. The young, the old, the different, the similar. When faced with challenges, those who are willing to accept them will stand side by side, even if only for a moment, and do what they can before the necessary departures have to be made.

That night, Melissa and I stood shoulder to shoulder, and for a brief moment she was my council, my guide in that one moment of my fight against cancer. She did what she was trained to do, and watched me walk out the door, probably no more certain than I was that my next few days would be any better than their counterparts three weeks before.

That was two days ago.

The second dayfollowing my first chemotherapy treatment was hell, with my stomach hell-bent on torturing me beyond reason, and without mercy.

I just got home from work today, after pulling a full shift, and overtime. Full work load with no help or relief given, or asked for. I walked in there armed with the lessons of my first experience, and the advice of a good pharmacist.

And by God, I made it through that day with my head held high, and an honest, earnest, sincere smile on my face.

I'm no longer scared of what tomorrow brings.

In fact, I looking it in the proverbial eye and saying "lets see what you've got!"