Good Fathers are the Ultimate Safety Net.

This is my latest column in the Greenville News, published Father’s Day. Dads, we’re relevant at every point in our lives as fathers!  And even beyond…

http://www.greenvilleonline.com/story/opinion/2017/06/16/good-fathers-ultimate-safety-net/381733001/

This Father’s Day is a good time to remember that we fathers sometimes drive you kids crazy. We hover. We give unsolicited advice and undesired help. We say things like, ‘nothing good happens after midnight,’ or ‘please be careful out there!’ We view your love interests with suspicion, even if we greet them kindly.
Sometimes, we load your car with stuff you don’t want. A box of tools we think you might need or food you used to love (even if you don’t anymore). We keep your things for the sake of nostalgia, long after you have forgotten them.
We try to intervene when you’re in trouble; by calling your teacher or posting your bail. We would stand in front of you if you were being attacked by a bear or insulted by a stranger.
We are hard-wired to teach and protect you. We want you to succeed and be independent. But this desire lives in dynamic tension with our deep, aching hope that you will still need us all your lives.
For all of this and more, you should love and honor your father today. He has worried about you, hoped or prayed for you and provided for you for years. The slightest hug and kiss, the minimal ‘thank you’ note, the kind word of genuine appreciation, these are our paternal treasures.
But dear fathers, let me now reassure you that you are always relevant to your young. This is obvious when they are small, and bring you cards scribbled in crayon, clamber onto your lap for comfort in a storm, or hug you to ‘pop your head off.’ When they cling to your hand in crowds, ask you to read puzzle books for hours, or say ‘I love you big more.’
Over time it’s harder to know. The children become busy shedding their old selves, and some of their old emotional displays, so that leaving is easier. But you are always in their hearts.
You see, brothers, even when the toys are packed away, the videos taken, the photos saved, the tassels moved, the rings exchanged, the cars packed for leaving, the apartments and colleges and careers and deployments accomplished, you fathers, all of us fathers, still have things to do.
We can model love by showing them that our love for them is not contingent on their presence, their gifts, their cards; even their acknowledgment. This is love, that persists and simmers even when it is ignored, and is ever ready to rise up like a hot fire in times of need.
We can stay with their mothers. We can show them that marriage is about raising children, but also more than that. That the love that made them is the love that remains. That as long as we live, we are a unit; mom and dad, deeply in love with one another and with our progeny.
We can show them the power of purpose. That whether in work or retirement, life has meaning and joy, especially in service. That age need not be empty or dull. We can work, and volunteer, and give ourselves for the good of others so that they learn the lesson by watching, and one day emulate us.
We can give them, in our words and actions, the powers of a personal faith so that they can deal with loss, struggle, mistakes and suffering long after we exit stage left. And so they know that in a great, wide universe that there is meaning, forgiveness and redemption.
Finally, as regards our inevitable exits, we can show our children what it means to grow weak, and sick, and then to die, with grace and honor. This is the last lesson we can model for them, but one of the most vital. We can teach them, if we believe it, that there is reason for hope beyond this life, and reason to live this life well to the end. Others, who do not believe, can teach them that to look back on the good of their lives, and to know that their love and memory will live on in the lives of others they have touched.
In so doing, we not only teach them, we protect them from terror and despair when life’s final darkness passes over.
Children, love the old man and remind him of his importance. But dear old men, dear fathers, never for a second think that you no longer matter. You matter to the end and beyond.

A Wedding is the Portal to the Mystery of Marriage

Congratulations Meg and Tyler!

This past weekend we celebrated the wedding of our dear friends Tyler Jordan and Meg McCall.  It was an event filled with the the grace of  God, expressed in a truly perfect Spring evening, in the love of parents, friends and the blessed couple.  It was conducted in all the glorious, meticulous yet casual elegance of the South Carolina coast.  All of our children were in the wedding party (along with many other wonderful folks). I was privileged to be able to deliver this short reflection at the wedding.  Thanks to Meg and Tyler for including me!

A wedding is a beautiful thing. It is a celebration, and in life’s troubles we celebrate too little. At a wedding we smile, and cry. We laugh and dance, we eat and drink and send a new couple on their way into life. A wedding is an event where others witness and affirm our vows, in order that others may help hold us to our promises. Wedding ceremonies are much valued in our time, and we spend great amounts of time and treasure to make weddings beautiful and memorable, to make wedding dreams come true.

However, despite its beauty and wonder, the wedding is not an end in itself. It is a gateway which serves to fuse two into one. When a man and woman walk through that gateway, through that portal, they enter into a beautiful mystery.

Beyond the vows, the veil, the ring and the kiss lies previously unseen, unknown garden of their common life together. That life is a new creation waiting to be unveiled and explored, shaped and molded hour by hour, day by day, year by year over a lifetime. In so doing they are living in the spirit and tradition of Adam and Eve all over again.

St. Paul says that this is a great mystery. In Ephesians 5:31-32 he says, after a profound explanation of the relationship of husband and wife, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh. This is a profound mystery, but I am talking about Christ and the church.’ We’ll circle back to that last bit in a moment.

Here Paul uses the Greek word Musterion, which means ‘a mystery that can be revealed or discovered through God’s revelation.’

The mystery of marriage is not ineffable, because God who created it is constantly teaching us through it. It is not beyond comprehension. It does, however, require that we be committed in order that we understand its riches and metaphor. It cannot be approached tentatively, with one foot in to test the water, but all in, with all our hearts.

To comprehend the mystery of marriage we can only cross the portal, and in faith and hope and love leap headfirst into the unknown. And it is an unknown.

Dating and courting and all the time we spend together before the vows are exchanged are critical. They help us to learn who it is that we can indeed spend a lifetime loving. But something different and mystical happens when we take the plunge of matrimony. Suddenly, the world takes on a different light in the power and energy of the fusion of two into one.

Through the mystery of marriage, through the great unknown garden of life together, we learn small things. That our beloved is beautiful to us first thing in the morning and last thing at night. That our beloved is a human with frailties, failings and annoying habits, but that they are no worse than our own. We wonder, at times, why they stay with us; at others why we stay with them. And then we all laugh at the fact that we both ask the same questions.

We learn that the one we committed ourselves to is cherished and precious like nothing we ever grasped or imagined.

We learn to be humble and thankful in times of joy and gracious and hopeful in times of suffering. We learn the mystery that those words, so often spoken about richer or poor, sickness and health, take on very real meaning in the hot forging fires of life.

We learn that whatever else may fall apart, whatever else may evaporate before our eyes, whatever trials life visits upon us, if we are together we can endure.

Marriage is the first place where we perhaps truly understand what it means to love someone so much we would rather see ourselves suffer or die than have it happen to our partner.

It is hard to impress upon the young, but in a marriage properly tended, in our own small Garden of Eden, love only grows deeper and wider with every passing year, every financial struggle, every wrinkle, every illness, every success and every day, or night, spent together.

Ultimately we find that looks and wealth come and go, but as we are made more and more into one, the greatest gift is their hand in ours, their warm body sleeping next to our own. This is an ageless, timeless blessing.

This is part of the mystery. The discovery that love is not contingent. That it is not contingent on youth or beauty, success or power. That it simply grows; possibly deepest in trouble, despite how we all hate to pass through it.

Over the years and decades, we become mysteriously intertwined. We are made one by our vows, but we are transformed into one by time, by shared stories, by shared goals and struggles, by neurochemistry… for all we know by genetics as each physiology impacts the other.

If you doubt me, ask those people you know who have loved long and well. It is hard to put into words, but in marriage, in time, the things we thought valuable and desirable fade away, and we desire our beloved above nearly all.

So much so that we cannot fathom, especially in youth, the phrase ‘tell death do we part.’

But that’s where the mystery delves deeper and more wonderful. What we are learning in the mystery of marriage, as wonder after wonder reveal themselves, is that our marriage is a microcosm of the love of Christ for the church.

It teaches us to love unconditionally as he does. It teaches us to love without fail, with no term limits or expiration date. It teaches us to love when we are wounded and when we are hopeful. It teaches us to forgive and love more and more. And it teaches us that all of this is an end, THE end, in itself. We do not love for meals or laundry, for support or company. We love because in love we reach God.

And there is one more thing. This love of Christ for the church will carry us beyond. The painful mystery of separation in this life is not in our power to overcome. But it is in his power. And that is the promise.

Our love for our spouse will be interrupted one day. But it will go on for all eternity in the Kingdom of God as every tear is dried and every sorrow comforted. And in that place we will see the kind of love for all that we in our mortality took a lifetime to learn for only one.

A mystery indeed.

And today, we are witnesses as the story of wonder and mystery begins once again in these two young lives about to become one..

So let there be joy and laughter in all our hearts as we witness things far beyond our comprehension and realize that mystery is all around us today.

Sports Impairment and My Southern Man-Card

 

This is my column in today’s Herald-Dispatch.  My hometown newspaper in Huntington, WV!

http://www.herald-dispatch.com/opinion/edwin-leap-don-t-worry-you-won-t-lose-your/article_3706dd19-3472-520d-856d-09e3580d3886.html

It’s a terrible confession to make as a Southern male, but here it goes. I don’t care a lick about sports; not leagues, not high school, not college not pro. It feels liberating to say so. I figured I might as well be honest about it, because I’m forever confronting the reality of my sports-impairment in various and sundry ways.
One way my dilemma arises is I’m standing in the check-out line at a store, wearing my WVU t-shirt when another customer asks what I think of the Mountaineer’s chances this year. I usually make some sort of generally non-committal remark about how ‘I sure HOPE they do better this year!’ Which means that at some point in the distant future, if they manage to win a championship, I’ll have to be more careful and say ‘well, if LAST year was any indication this should be a good one!’ I try not to make eye-contact. It’s too uncomfortable.
What I usually want to explain, but never bother, is that I wear the shirt because I grew up and went to school there. And it was awesome and I have wonderful memories (same reason I wear my Marshall shirt). But it’s hard to stop a die-hard sports fan and say, ‘well, the truth is I really didn’t have time for sports because I was studying a great deal, but I’m proud I graduated!’ That makes people go to the next checkout line and shake their heads.
I’ve noticed the same thing at church. I remember finding myself in deacon’s meetings with little to contribute to the discussion at zero dark thirty Sunday morning. As everyone made the rounds of the previous day’s games, it was ‘Ed, Marshall did well yesterday didn’t they!’ ‘Sure did…(I guess).’ I put my head down, ate my biscuits and gravy and (since I live in South Carolina) I just let the orange or garnet wave pass over.


I’m not trying to be a snob, please understand. In my childhood I just wasn’t formally taught anything about athletics. Admittedly, my dad built a basketball court for me in the back yard. All the neighborhood kids and I had a great time there at all hours of the day and evening. But the rules were not exactly formally enforced. It was as much social time as athleticism. I also learned a little about football in the front yard. Specifically, I learned that ‘touch’ can be widely interpreted. I realized that lying on my back gasping for air one day, looking up at the fading blue sky.
I remember once around sixth or seventh grade that I went to the mother of one of my more athletically inclined friends and asked about joining a basketball league. She was kind, in a ‘bless your heart’ sort of way, and said we might be able to cram on the rules but it wasn’t looking good. Age 12 and I was already too old to start. I got the message and moved on without looking back.
Instead I filled my days with walks in the woods, turning over rocks in the creek for crawdads, seining for minnows, riding horses with my grandfather, shooting arrows into bales of straw, carrying my BB gun everywhere, shooting bigger guns whenever the opportunity afforded itself and generally acting like a joyous junior barbarian. Those became my preferred activities, until I discovered martial arts, then girlfriend, in high school.
My wife Jan grew up with brothers playing football. If I don’t understand a game that’s on, I just ask her and she guides me through. Two of my children attend Clemson University, and the other two are also fans, which is great. But they didn’t get it from me. Just recently they were all talking about the season and daughter Elysa said, with surprise, ‘why look at us, talking about sports like a normal family!’
I have great respect for all those devoted to their teams, who can quote stats like chapter and verse of scripture. May your team get all of the touchdowns, field-goals, runs and everything else it needs. But to all those who never got it, who never fell in love with sports, it’s alright. You aren’t alone.
Do your thing. You aren’t less of a Southerner or less of a man. And when the discussion turns to yesterday’s contest, learn to smile, nod and just say this: ‘that was some game!’

Happy Veteran’s Day, Pop

Happy Veteran’s Day Dad!

 

first cav

I want to take a minute and honor my dad, the Rev. Keith Leap.  I have a pretty keen memory, and it reaches far into my past.  So one of my earliest memories is of my dad taking me fishing the day before he shipped out to Vietnam.  Dad was a company clerk with the 1st Cavalry Division, Airmobile.  He was in country in 1968.  There, he was in constant peril from small arms fire, rocket and mortar attacks and all the other endless ways that a war zone can end one’s life.  He was young, and thin as a rail. I can see the photos in my mind, although I don’t have any of them. But what I remember vividly is that day fishing at Twin Lakes in Huntington, WV.  I seem to recall that it was foggy, and that because I was three, most of our fishing consisted of me dropping a line into the grassy shallows next to our feet.  We never caught anything. We’re both, quite frankly, pretty abysmal outdoorsmen.  But he took the time before leaving.  That sticks. When he returned, thank God, he was posted at Fort Monroe in Hampton, VA.  We lived there a time and I loved the military feel of the place.  I remember the commissary, where there were dioramas of POWs in fake grass huts over the freezer section.  And I remember the PX, where (in that time in history) a boy could find the coolest toy guns ever, from toy belt fed machine guns to toy bazookas.  We took our guns seriously back then! I had a little uniform, with a 1st Cavalry unit patch and my name.  It was the old olive drab, and I had a helmet and a wood and steel bolt-action toy rifle with a real fake bullet in the breach.  I was the baddest of the bad!  But only because I was trying to emulate my hero. I have had an adventurous life.  I have flown to car crash scenes in a medical helicopter.  I have opened the chests of those with wounds to the heart. I have traveled the world, and I have been a consultant on WMD for the DoD.  I have married and loved a dream of a woman, and raised four children to be his grandchildren.  And yet, so much of my adventure was my attempt to equal my father’s courage and service. I was in the Air National Guard for a number of years.  I was a flight surgeon, in fact, with an F-16 squadron in Indiana.  And on the night that Desert Storm began, I was rocking babies in the nursery, an intern desperately frustrated that there was an honest to God war and I couldn’t be there.  Not that war is good.  But a man wants to match his father.  When veterans stand in church, I am always a little slow to stand.  My service cost me so little.  His could well have cost his life.  That’s why we went fishing that misty WV morning, a day so full of  import that a boy little more than a toddler still remembers it at 51. Dad ultimately became a much beloved pastor, now retired.  War did not end for him, it just became the war for the soul of man, the war eternal, of which our temporal and frequent outbreaks of international blood-letting are merely the consequence.  And for that I honor him as well.  Having been a church attending Christian for most of my adult life, I suspect that enemy fire is easier to bear than the bitter attitudes, stubbornness and outright cruelty that can emanate from so-called Christian church members. So here’s to you, Pop.  Happy Veteran’s Day. Veteran of war, veteran of fatherhood, faithful husband, committed pastor and longtime lover of Foghorn Leghorn. I say, I say, I say, You da’ man! Love you, Ed

My uncle Darrell Leap; a mensch among menschen…

My Uncle Darrell Ivan Leap recently passed on to glory.  Let me set the stage for you:  Darrell accomplished much in his 78 years on earth.  He was raised, with my father Keith and my uncle Karl, in rural West Virginia, on a small family farm.  From humble beginnings he became a well educated world traveler.  He served for a time in the US  Navy, doing oceanographic mapping of the Persian Gulf.  He was an expert in hydrogeology, ground water, and worked on some of the Nevada nuclear weapons test sites,analyzing the effects of blasts on underground water.  The Navy never left him, and he loved recounting stories of it.  He was  a professor emeritus of geology at Purdue University and a consultant to communities on the effects of toxic waste.  He sang in Bach Chorales, played the piano, composed and published music and always loved working with tools.  Appalachia never left him; so much so that in the end my dear aunt, his wife Myra, helped him take online tours of his hometown and environs. The following is the tribute I wrote for him. I was unable to attend his funeral.  (Unfortunately, emergency medicine is job where schedules are difficult to change.  More on that in another post.)  This was read by the pastor who gave the service.

 

I remember Uncle Darrell from very early in my childhood.  Darrell was a kind of mythic

figure to me.  He was always off on an adventure and he always brought interesting things back to show me

at Grandma Leap’s house, on Grapevine Road in Huntington, WV.  I still have Maracas and an African letter opener he

gave to me many years ago.  I recall a time when he came home and was completely exhausted from travel, but we stayed

up as long as he could keep his eyes open, putting together a model engine in the dim, small kitchen in

Grandma’s house.  He represented many things to me as a child:  courage, learning, the exotic and the

benefits of hard academic work.  ‘Take more math,’ was his endless mantra.  Sorry Darrell, it just didn’t

click.  More on that later.

 

One of my favorite things of all was to sit and listen, quietly, while my dad, Keith, Darrell and

Karl (of blessed memory as well) would sit and discuss their memories, or world events.  I just wanted

to be like them.  Strong and capable, men among men.  Menschen, in Yiddish; men of of honor and

integrity.  Together they ever inspired to greatness.

 

Fast forward and I was on summer break after my junior year in high school when Darrell took

me on a field trip with his geology students from Purdue.  He brought me to Indiana where we prepped

for the trip.  Then, for two wonderful weeks of 16-year-old freedom, I was among college students in

hotels and dorms, wandering alone around the wilds of Montana while they worked on projects and

I tried to avoid rattlesnakes, and ate Vienna Sausages alone on hillsides over rushing streams.  Heaven

must look a little like that; at least to a boy.

 

Life moved on.  Darrell married the love of his life, Myra, my treasured Aunt.  I found a girl,

Jan, and we were married.  Darrell and Myra were always welcoming to Jan as my wife, and to us as a

couple.  And when, in due course, children were born to us, they were always excited for our new

additions, always curious and encouraging.

 

As the children have grown into near adulthood, Darrell remained a figure who loomed large in

their lives.  He gave them his collected recollections and genealogical material, with which to anchor

themselves in time, place and history. And he always asked them about their interests, or was leading them

into his. We still have rock hammers and hand lenses he and Myra sent.  Darrell’s life, whether as Naval

officer, researcher on nuclear test sites or academic has always inspired my three sons and one

daughter.  I recall going over some photos once and our daughter Elysa said:  ‘Is there anything else

incredible he did you haven’t told me about?’  In fact, our youngest son, Elijah, has made it his life’s

work to exceed Darrell in mathematics, and has always been terrified that he wouldn’t be able to take

differential equations and thus at least match his great-uncle.  Darrell’s status as a professor emeritus

fills Elijah with awe, as an aspiring academic himself.  And don’t get me started on the harpsichord

Darrell built, which all of my children find fascinating, but especially our very musical son, Seth.  Sam,

Seth, Elijah and Elysa viewed their great-uncle Darrell as an inspiration and a joy, and always looked

forward to visits with him; he was a story teller, like all Appalachians, and he loved sharing them with

us.

 

Perhaps one of our best memories of Darrell was the time, several years ago, when we met

Myra and him at their cabin in Colorado.  It was a brief time of hikes and meals and board games,

when we slept in the cool mountain air after the generator shut off the power and there was perfect

darkness.  Maybe he liked to pretend he was a pioneer. We all certainly loved the experience.

Alas, you are here to honor him in has passage.  I am not, because my work in the emergency

room will not allow me to leave. I will blame Darrell for encouraging my academic life.  (You can

laugh now.)

 

When I told my first-born, Samuel, that Darrell had died, he texted back:  ‘Don’t worry Papa,

you’ll see him again.’  Indeed.  I am confident that I will see him in glory; but I will have to seek him

out among heavenly mountain rock faces, or in the choirs angelic, or as he walks along with Bach and

discusses music.  And he will be vibrant and whole as always.  And forever.

Uncle Darrell was a man among men.  And he lived life fully; the physical life, the life of the

mind, the life of family, the life of faith, and in his love for Myra, in the life of the heart.

I will miss him.  But I will look forward to our reunion. As I hope all of you will.

Thank you.

Edwin

The World Saw What Heroism Looks Like

This is my column in today’s Greenville News.  Go forth and be heroes.

http://www.greenvilleonline.com/story/opinion/contributors/2015/08/29/world-got-see-heroism-looks-like/71330336/

Last week, a Moroccan immigrant was on a train traveling from Amsterdam to Paris. He was armed with an AK-47 rifle, a Luger handgun, hundreds of rounds of ammunition and a box-cutter. A French passenger, three young Americans (one active duty Airman, one National Guard soldier fresh from Afghanistan and their civilian friend) as well as a 60-year-old Briton saved untold lives when they deduced that the heavily armed individual in their train car probably wasn’t out for a day of target shooting.

So, forming a committee they deliberated about the best course of action. They issued surveys to the other passengers on the train to make sure that they were in line with current cultural, political and economic trends. They posted their thoughts to Twitter and Facebook and took a short class on tolerance.

Finally, they contemplated their European privilege, and the ways in which they might well have personally caused the obviously oppressed and disaffected individual to want aerate the passengers with 7.62 x 39 mm ammunition and filet them with a razor blade.

No, I’m just kidding. The five rushed him, tackled him, disarmed him, beat him with his own rifle, John Wayne style and choked him unconscious. They then left him hog-tied, after which he was arrested and the injured heroes given medical treatment for the serious wounds they incurred.

Subsequently, the French media asked everyone to be concerned about the feelings of the poor terrorist, who was not at all responsible for his actions and who was just holding the weapons ‘for some guy.’ The men who attacked the unfortunate rifle bearer were held and their motivations questioned by gendarmes who consider Americans uncouth and barbaric. Charges were filed for disturbing the peace and for handling unlicensed illegal firearms (disarming someone is no excuse to touch a gun).

Nope, still kidding. The same week it happened, French President Hollande presented these heroic gentlemen with the Legion of Honour, the highest French award for heroism. I suspect that the five have been gulping down free champagne and dancing with hot French girls, even as their knees occasionally go week with the realization that they were each about one trigger-pull from eternity. But that’s what heroism looks like. And God knows the world could use some more of it.

During the tragic, fatal shooting at the recruiting station in Chattanooga over the summer, one or two active duty members returned fire with with personal weapons. There were serious discussions about the legality and propriety of this action and the Navy commander of the site may still face disciplinary action. Personally, I believe he deserves praise and honor. If he did shoot back, he did the right thing, at the right moment, when there was no time to ask for permission or contemplate the larger implications of the action.

We live in a difficult, troubled world. I believe that all free people should be able to protect themselves, because the police and military (God bless them) can’t be everywhere. Only when predators do not know who will resist, do not know who is armed or prepared, will they have reason for pause. But the issue for our time is far more than terrorism.

It is too often the belief that regular citizens should not be expected to protect the endangered, rescue the imperiled, contribute to the needy, feed the hungry, fight evil with force, free the slaves, educate the illiterate. That only through the inefficiency of government and the relative anemia of our own favorite politicians is good accomplished. But this is merely moral sloth; little more than the transfer of our own human duty to other agents (who care far less about our own problems than we), in order to assuage our guilt.

Most of us will never see, much less assault, a terrorist. However there is other heroism to be accomplished. We can give to the needy, comfort the hurting, educate and feed the children, visit the aged. On our own dime, and on our own time. It requires only the personal decision to act and the courage to sacrifice time and resources. Well, that’s not entirely true. We have to take time out from screaming at each other online and actually do something other than hoping for the next politician or election to make our ideological dreams come true or our wallets fat.

Ultimately, heroism comes in many incredible forms. But to act heroically we need (as the King said) ‘a little less talk and a lot more action.’

Learning to Love Freedom

I have to admit that I’ve become a bit of a freedom junkie.  As a native West Virginian, there’s this desire, deep inside, to be unfettered.  When I was a child I expressed it by wandering all day long through the hills and valleys around my home.  No phone, of course, and no radio.  No way to contact, or be contacted by, anyone else.  I remember being about 13 or 14 when my dad let me go off into the woods with my single-barreled shotgun to hunt.  I never shot anything.  But I was free.

Later I was encumbered in some ways by college, medical school and residency.  But when my wife and I moved to South Carolina, and ended up in our rural, hilltop log-house, I rediscovered the deep inner peace of freedom.  Our family roams at will through the woods around our home, the state forest across the road.  On July 4th and New Year’s Eve we set off fireworks as long as we want.  On Halloween our bon-fire roars high as the tree-tops.

We throw clay-pigeons over the back yard and shoot them; we have lost untold arrows in the woods, and have behaved like barbarians for years, simply for the joy of doing what we wanted to do.  Our five dogs and three cats collude in our freedom, and have furry smiles as we sling dinner scraps over the back deck into their un-caged, happy mouths.

In 2005, my wife and I discovered a kind of liberty that we had never imagined.  We began to homeschool.  That adventure liberated us from the constraints of state-determined schedules, curricula and ideology.  It allowed us delicious, lavish time together, whether the kids were playing in the pool while rehearsing Latin declensions with my wife, or traveling to the Grand Canyon during the off-season.  We were unencumbered, and while the children learned much and learned well, we had precious little oversight to pester or constrain our wild, free time together, when we rolled about in our fragrant love for one another.  If we had known how it would be all along, we would have started homeschooling much earlier.

Two years ago, I found more freedom.  I took the plunge, left my partnership of 20 years and Jan and I started a small corporation, LeapMedicine.  I began working as an independent contractor.  I worked where, and when, I wanted.  I still do.  If I don’t want to work a holiday, I don’t.  If I want to work, I do.  If I work a shift and don’t like it, I don’t go back once my committed shifts are over.

There are costs to freedom.   It’s magnificent but unpredictable.  The cost of owning a business is sometimes daunting in America today, although I wish I had done it sooner.  There are others.  We recently tried to refinance our mortgage.  We discovered, to our chagrin, that large companies want people in communities of boxes.  You can refinance a house in a subdivision.  But a log house on a hilltop is unnerving to banks and lenders.  It isn’t the same as everyone else.  It’s less predictable, and understandably.  It may not sell.  Only so many people are comfortable away from the crowd, away from the comfort of commonality.

Indeed, we are nationally obsessed with being members of a herd.  Ask a kid in school if it’s OK to be different, the way every kid book with a quirky penguin and a sad skunk says it is.  It isn’t.  There’s a price, and it’s paid in bullying or marginalization.  Maybe it’s good training, because the same dynamic certainly exists in the world of adults.  Try saying the wrong thing, wearing the wrong emblem, believing in something unpopular, standing for a viewpoint on principle not popularity.

Bullying just takes different forms; like social media campaigns, or lawsuits.  Being marginalized means ridicule by a professor, lack of promotion by a boss, firing by a corporation.  America, the land of the free, doesn’t really like freedom these days.  Freedom means you might hurt someone’s feelings, crush their fragile self-esteem, say something shocking.  Freedom of ideas is a beautiful dream, but the kids on the adult playground of modern thought are like the bullies from our childhood, dressed up in suits, with law degrees and political offices; and with the same fragile sense of self the old bullies had.  But they have more power to punish the free, more power to torment the outlier.  Fortunately, truly free people relish their freedom so much that they become hardened to the ways of bullies and go on living in joy and liberty.

I set out to write this as an homage to homeschooling.  But as so often happens, I discovered that homeschooling, and even business ownership, are merely some of the sweet fruits of an attitude, of a decision, to be free.  It was what made America, once upon a time, a great country.  It’s what real Americans long for, live for and are willing to defend and die to preserve.

I hope that my children, and their children and all the rest can remain free.  I hope that they can thumb their collective noses at those who silence, subjugate, manipulate and ridicule those who just want to live and be left alone.  I hope they take their children on trips and walk away from unnecessary constraints.  I hope that they forge new ways to be free and remake this nation.

Freedom.  Take every step necessary to preserve yours, and your children’s.  Because once it is surrendered it does not return easily.

And once enjoyed, perhaps the most addictive thing in all the world.

Marriage is a work of art and a labor of love.

This column is dedicated to my lovely wife Jan, as tomorrow is our 25th Anniversary!

 

When we look at beautiful houses, or breathtaking historical structures like the Pyramids or the Mt. Rushmore, we are in awe of the craftsmanship, the beauty. Sometimes it seems that they simply fell from the sky, magnificent as they are, and suddenly occupied the spaces before us. It is inconceivable that the field, the mountain, the lot was once empty, once the domain of small creatures and weeds. It is unimaginable that the thing that rises before our eyes was once stone sleeping in the arms of the mountain, wrenched free by untold thousands; or that the lovely shapes of a beautiful home are made by wood that grew in the forest and was assembled in noise, and dust and sweat by builders.

Just so, when I look at older couples, I am in awe. I meet them all the time. ‘We’ve been married 55 years doctor! It has been a great life so far!’ They touch their hands together, smile and dote. The movements of their eyes, the laughter, the instant grasp of communication, it all seems so natural. As if, from the moment they met, the connection was made. The carousel switched on and springing to life in the darkness, full of music and color.

We forget that there were times when those charming people struggled. When he thought she was crazy, and she thought he was lazy and all of their parents wrung their hands in worry and folded them in prayer for the young couple. There were times when they had no money and others when they had no time. And there was sickness and struggle and exhaustion as surely as there was health and joy and adventure. A marriage is an edifice that rises up with great, and endless, effort. The construction of one entity from two is no small thing, and while the words are said as covenant, the building process may last a lifetime, even if it looks perfect to the casual passerby.

This week is our anniversary, Jan’s and mine together. On May 26, 1990, we were young and in love, we were nervous and excited and we walked down the church aisle. She was one year out of graduate school and I was one week out of medical school. We were a little crazy and a little thrilled. Before us lay a move to a new city, and the beginning of new jobs for both. We were, to use the above analogy, an empty field, full of building materials. It was for God, and our own love and effort, to make the structure; to make a family, a temple of good things, a unity to care for one another and survive and thrive in the world.

Anyone who knew us well during those early days would say that the construction was, at times, a messy business. There was romance and argument, conflict and communion. There were days and nights apart due to work and there were amazing trips together which united us. Like a house rising from the dust, we took shape. Later, in time, the house was ‘in the dry,’ and it was a matter of decorating and beautifying the marriage; the comfortable, well furnished rooms with trust and comfort and hope and laughter, and then to bring children and turn them loose inside it.

Our marriage has lasted this quarter century and grown better and more beautiful every single day. I would not trade it for anything, nor her for anyone. We belong together. We have become, in every way, our perfect match. (A thing, young couples, that is seldom discovered but usually made.) Oh, we still have work to do. A room to add, a wall to paint, a rough edge to sand. But all in all, the whole thing is simply magnificent. Time and effort, God and devotion will do that.

And to anyone out there wondering why they don’t have it yet, I say this: don’t put down the tools until you’re satisfied. Keep learning and growing and adding and building. And before you know it, you’ll step back and realize that the marriage you built looks perfect to everyone else. And you can smile at each other because you know that there are secret flaws. But that they don’t matter a bit because even they help hold the thing together, stick and stone, heart and soul.

So happy anniversary to my Wild Irish Rose! Thank you working with me all these years to get it right.

South Appalachian Yoga…a craze to follow!

Jan, my very fit and lovely wife invited me to do some Yoga this morning. I elected to focus in relaxation techniques in the bed as she worked out. (Guys, what’s better than watching your wife do Yoga?) Yes, yes, I know I need to exercise. And I do exercise. Sometimes. But Yoga? Well I don’t think my ancestors (or I) were meant for it. It simply hurts too much. I rarely hurt my muscles lying in bed, you see. But as I listened to the smooth, silky voice of the instructor Jan was streaming on her i-Pad, I imagined something. I imagined the wonders of Southern Appalachian Yoga!

Stand with your feet one shoulder width (or muffin-top) apart. Now, reach up to the sky! This is called lighter at the Skynard concert. Slowly wave your lighter back and forth. Watch your balance and try not to capsize. Now, reach slowly down, down and pick up your imaginary burger. Hold it in front of you at arm’s length. It’s a Triple. Feel the weight. Put the burger down. Pull up your pants; nobody behind you needs to see that.

Legs two muffin-tops apart, now sit on your ATV. This is called ‘riding the trail.’ Grasp the handlebar. Work your wrist muscles as you drive down the trail in your mind. You hit a limb. Lie down on your back, arms and legs out. This is called ‘911.’ Relax and check every limb for injury. Breath deeply and contemplate this: did I take the roast out of the oven?

Roll over. Imagine the rifle in your hands; breath quietly as you sight that enormous eight pointer. This position is called ‘opening day.’ Good shot. Stand up. Reach behind you into the cooler, stretching for the beer to celebrate that shot! Reach for two; Bubba wants one as well. Hand it to him. He’s sitting on the ground.

Now, lie down again. Raise your back and hiss. This is called ‘copperhead at dawn.’ Bite your friend for good measure. Roll quickly onto your back and hold hands and legs in the air, with your mouth open and tongue out.

Then tip to one side, holding the position. This is called ‘road kill.’ Lie there a while and think about lunch. Or dinner. Stand up and take an Advil. You’ll be in shape in no time at all! Reward yourself with fried chicken. That’s Yoga!

Be proud of returning to the fire, doctors

This is my column in the October Emergency Medicine News.  ‘No matter how hot it gets, doctors, be proud of returning to the fire.’

(Who knew that blacksmithing and medicine had so much in common?)

http://journals.lww.com/em-news/Fulltext/2013/10000/Second_Opinion__No_Matter_How_Hot_It_Gets,_Be.6.aspx

 

When I want to clear away the chaos and confusion of medicine, I walk down the worn path in our back-yard (followed by children, dogs, cats and deer). At the end of the path is the shop, which the kids and I helped a friend to build for us. We helped set the foundations and nailed the floor; we raised walls and put in roof trusses.

The shop sits in an area that was once a garden, but a soil-poor garden that yielded more blackberries, brambles and hornets’ nests than corn or beans.  The best crop of the garden was a treasure trove of arrow-heads and Native-American pottery; what still lies there I can’t imagine, but it is evident to me that someone, some people, camped or lived in what is now my yard a very, very long time ago.  They would be surprised to see my shop.

Under the extended roof at the back of the shop is our smithy.  Years ago, my son Seth asked if he could learn to blacksmith.  He may have been born in the wrong century.  He plays the bag-pipes and banjo and black-smiths.  (And is addicted to science.)  But to condense the narrative, we have.  Well, I should say we’ve learned a bit thanks to our gracious teacher George, the man who cannot seem to feel the heat of the hottest fire.  We don’t really even rise to the level of his apprentices,  but we can build and tend a coal-fire, we can handle a hammer and anvil, we can forge-weld iron, twist iron and curve iron; we can quench the iron and we can do most of it without being burned (very often) by the lemon-yellow and orange colored metal.

When I want to let my mind rest from medicine, I walk down that path and look at the old tools and the old anvil and vise.  I look first for wasps and rattlesnakes, of course. But then I just take it in.  The old colors, the bits of rust, the ordered disorder of a work-place; gravel on the ground, coal in the corner.  It isn’t professional and it isn’t perfect.  But it’s beautiful.

Rarely has a hobby captured my mind like this one.  And seldom has any activity enabled me to slip the bonds of medicine so readily.  From the moment I start the walk, I drift into a different place and time.  And when I start the fire, when the coal burns, the green sulfur clouds the air and blows around me, as I turn the crank of the blower that feeds air to the fire, well from that moment I am meditating.

It can be a hot day or a cold day, but cold days are best; cold days when standing by the fire is a comfort; cold days when it’s so hot there that a t-shirt is enough.  It can be a sunny day or a rainy day.  Rainy days fill our bucket with water from the sky with which to quench hot metal from the earth.  It is mystical.

And taking that metal, cutting it, heating it until it is over 2000 degrees, then shaping it from a mundane round or square stick into a wall-hook, a decorative leaf or even into a new tool, well that’s pure joy.

It’s unlike the emergency room.  It is single-minded.  The interruptions are virtually non-existent; and if they exist, they are laughter and jokes between my sons and me; or gentle arguments about how best to accomplish the task at hand.  Or the warning shout, ‘Hot Iron!’ which reminds us to watch lest we be burnt.

There are mistakes, but they are of small consequence.  Burnt metal can be cut off and thrown on the ground.  Crooked metal can be hammered straight.  An item made poorly can remain as a reminder of what not to do next time.

It’s so unlike the emergency room, where mistakes can be life-ending.  Where danger lies at every turn and if we shouted every danger we would shout for 8 hours.  And yet. There’s the heat and smoke.  There’s the risk of injury.  And there’s the shaping of something.  The transformation of something.  Hammer and hot iron and anvil and water; tongs and vise.  The change from what was to what is.  The rescue of an old piece of scrap, a lawn-mower blade, a piece of re-bar and the gift of watching those things have new life.  And the ring of that anvil, made around 1850, that says ‘I’m alive!  I’m alive!  I’m still here and needed!’

They seem connected to me, those two divergent places.  Writers see everything in metaphor and simile. Maybe the heat is metaphor for the pressure and stress of our work in emergency medicine.  Or maybe hammer striking heated metal on anvil is a metaphor for the way we want to shape a new reality; from sickness to health, from injury to healing.  We are blacksmiths of the human body; or red-smiths, maybe, for the blood we see spilled.

I know that as I grow older, I see another metaphor here.  I see my patients like those unshaped bits of iron; of uncertain value and utility, dirty and sometimes abandoned. But I know that in them lies potential; beauty and goodness beneath years of rust and disuse and neglect.  Like the way I put the grinder against my 150+ year-old anvil and when I stopped, it’s rough surface shined like a new platinum ring.

Most of our hobbies, our ‘avocations’ give us insight into our medical work.  Perhaps we choose them for that reason.  Or maybe just for the escape; for the Zen moments of ‘no-mind’ that allow healing and rejuvenation as we work at a thing without feeling as if it is work.

All I know is this.  Medicine seems to be getting more difficult all the time.  And the house of medicine is leaning on our specialty more heavily than ever before.  But whatever your hobbies, let me assure you that we have walked through the smoke and fire, all of us. We have all been ourselves shaped by the fire, hammer and anvil of suffering and struggle.  We have also shaped new realities for the people we have treated and saved.  And most of us keep coming back because we feel a comfort in the artistry that medicine has become; a deep, abiding pride in our craft.

So I say this, friends:  be strong. Do not be afraid of the struggles to come.  Embrace them with joy. Find the peace that comes from artistry well-practiced; for remember, medicine is art.  And however hot it gets, however choked you are by smoke and ash, however tired your limbs, be proud of the skill and strength that brings you back to the fire each day.

Only a few could do it.  And you are numbered among them.

If you’re looking for me, I’ll be down the path, hammer in hand.