Sunday, March 7, 2021

The most difficult month of my life

This is the second part of the saga, where for a 10-day period, we weren't sure how long I had to live.  

When we last left off, my oncologist at University of Minnesota had performed a flow cytometry which resulted in ruling out leukemia.  They speculated that the interferon medication which I take for my recurrent respiratory papillomatosis had inexplicably reduced my white and red blood counts and my platelets.  So we planned to skip two more interferon treatments and test my blood again with expectation that my counts would rebound to their normal baselines.  

The CBC results on Tuesday, February 23rd did not show any improvement.  So the next step was to see a hematologist as soon as possible.  There was something causing my anemia and thrombocytopenia and my oncologist wanted to get the expert opinion of someone who specializes in diseases of the blood and blood components.  

Two days later I was back at University of Minnesota.  It was now Thursday, February 25th.  

My hematologist informed me that on the latest blood analysis, there were 15% of "other" cells appearing in the manual differential.  The "other" were classified as abnormal lymphocytes, which are immature forms of the cells which get released from the bone marrow into the circulation.  If 20% or more of the blood cells in your bone marrow are immature, you may be diagnosed with Acute Myeloid Leukemia (AML).  Treatment for AML involves multiple rounds of intensive chemotherapy.  It may go to into remission, but there is a chance it returns and while further chemotherapy treatment is possible, it likely will not be effective.  At that point, options are reduced to stem cell (bone marrow) transplant or clinical trials.  

Patients with the most lethal form of AML typically survive for only four to six months after diagnosis, even with aggressive chemotherapy.  The 5-year survival rate for people 20 and older with AML is about 25%.   I was within 5% of the level in which AML is diagnosed.  

Earlier results showed some levels of abnormal cells -- this is why the flow cytometry was performed in the first place.  But this was the first time that they showed up in this measurable amount.  To confirm the suspicious of AML, the next step was to conduct a bone marrow biopsy. 

After getting the news, I was frozen with fear. Before leaving the hospital I had to sit down as I needed a minute for everything to sink in.  I sat there for a solid 20 minutes before I was able to go to the parking lot and drive home.    

Six (long) days later I was back at University of Minnesota.  It was now Wednesday March 3rd. 

Bone marrow has a fluid portion and a more solid portion. In bone marrow aspiration, a needle is used to withdraw a sample of the fluid portion. In bone marrow biopsy, a needle is used to withdraw a sample of the solid portion.  The bone marrow fluid and tissue sample are usually collected from the top ridge of the back of a hipbone.  They first start by numbing the area, then they make a small incision in the skin of your lower back and insert a hollow needle through the outer bone into the marrow to collect the liquid, then a larger needle is used to collect a sample of the tissue.  Since I am young(er) and a (former) runner, my bones were very hard.  

With a lot of pressure to puncture the outer bone, the solid portion of the marrow was extracted.  However, when they performed the aspiration, it resulted in a "dry tap" which means they were unable to get any liquid out.  They tried several times in different places but were unsuccessful  A dry tap occurs only about 3% of the time, of which 92% of the time results in some form of pathology, which could be leukemia  So here I was, still days away from having the formal results, and we were already trending the wrong direction.  Fortunately, they were able to extra enough solid portion for the analysis. 

The procedure only took about an hour and I liken it to getting a tattoo where you are filled with adrenaline that eventually wears off and you crash.  For the next 36 hours it felt like I had a spike in my lower back.  When Rachel changed the dressing she said that it looked like I had a hole drilled into my back.  The hematologist said that it could take three to five days for result to come back.  More waiting.

We did have some positive news that came from the CBC which was performed before biopsy.  My lymphocytes were back up and my blood showed no "other" cells.  My basophils, eosinophils, monocytes and neutrophils were all in the low range of normal.  My platelets were at 105, which was a major improvement from the 86 they were at back on February 2nd when this whole ordeal began.  And my RBC was 4.06 -- still below the normal range but up from 3.6 a month earlier.  We tried to reserve our judgement until the biopsy results came in, but with no "other" cells showing up, maybe leukemia would once again be off the table. 

On Friday, March 5th we heading south in the late afternoon, driving toward Des Moines, Iowa where we were going to pick up our new beagle puppy early the next morning.  It was the 22nd anniversary of the day I left Michigan Tech as a electrical engineering graduate.  We had Fiina and Luna in the back of the Rover with us.  While listening to the Cubs preseason game against the Cleveland Indians, I saw a notification on my phone from the University of Minnesota medical app.  With a deep breath, I picked up my phone and opened the message. 

You know how there are some moments in your life that you will never forget where you were when you got certain news?  This was one of them.  We were in Story City, Iowa.  How fitting.

FINAL DIAGNOSIS:
Bone marrow, left posterior iliac crest, decalcified trephine biopsy, aspirate clot, touch imprint, and peripheral blood smear shows nincrease in myeloid blastsno abnormal myeloid blast, no aberrant immunophenotype on T cells, no morphologic or immunophenotypic evidence of hematolymphoid neoplasm with rare lymphoid aggregates, not diagnostic of lymphoma

It's not leukemia.  For the 2nd time. 

I handed the phone to Rachel for her to read the results and confirm.  It's not leukemia.  While I still wanted to be able to read the results again for myself, we both took a deep sigh of relief.  A little while later while at a rest stop, my hematologist called to confirm that the biopsy and aspiration looked normal.  She still did not know what caused the abnormal counts and appearance of immature cells, but it definitely was not a result of AML.  

We can positively, definitely say, without a shadow of a doubt, I do not have leukemia at this very moment in time.  Apparently I just had to drive to Iowa to find out. 

All of my doctors (my hematologist, my oncologist, my endocrinologist and my otolaryngologist) will meet early next week, but they all believe that this was caused by my continued use of interferon.  Since interferon alfa is a type of targeted cancer drug, patients usually don't take it for extended periods of time (like I have).  So the long term effects aren't really known.

So what is next?  If this was caused by my interferon, which I need for my RRP, does that mean we go back to having surgery every 6 weeks?  We certainly hope not.  I should find out in the next week if I am eligible for another clinical trial at NIH with Dr. Clint Allen.  As part of the trial, I would have to stop taking interferon anyway, and travel to Bethesda, MD where a trial vaccine would be administered.  We are hopeful that this is the answer, the cure, and we won't ever have to take interferon ever again.  

We thought that we might be writing the epilogue of my life story, but it turns out there are still many more chapters to be written.  

My wife Rachel has stood with me from the very beginning.  Even when faced with the worst, she said that we would face it together.  I will never be alone in this fight, no matter what comes next. 

You shoot me down but I won't fall, I am titanium.  

Sunday, February 14, 2021

Fight like hell

Four years ago was a turning point for me when I began a lifetime battle to fight for my life.  

Two weeks ago, I thought that I might have finally lost the war.

As chronicled in The Battle Wages On, the last hope for treatment of the incurable virus (Recurrent Respiratory Papillomatosis) plaguing my esophagus and lungs was a weekly injection of Interferon Alfa-2B.  This drug is administered in the form of a weekly subcutaneous injection.  

In one study, 70% (46 of 60) of patients had a response (35% had a complete response and 40% had a  partial response).  In my own case, for the 2 years before taking interferon I was having full sedation surgery every 6.77 weeks to have the virus removed.  Since starting the drug protocol 4 years ago, I have averaged surgery every 13.86 weeks and in the last two years the average has increased to 19.17 weeks.  

While these would be considered positive results, they do not come without a price.  Not only has the drug not prevented the spread of the virus into my lungs, I also have to deal with the side effects.  The most common side effects of interferon with severe expression include:   

  • Anemia, a condition in which you lack enough healthy red blood cells to carry adequate oxygen to your body's tissues and organs.
  • Thrombocytopenia, a condition in which your bone marrow makes too few blood platelets used for clotting. 
  • Leukopenia, a condition in which there is a decrease in disease-fighting (white blood) cells in your blood.

On Sunday, January 31st I started coughing up deep red, bloody mucus. Not just once but about a dozen times over the course of the entire day -- something I have never done before.  So I made an appointment to see my ENT the very next day, suspecting it could be an upper respiratory infection, or bronchitis.

A direct laryngoscopy showed that the virus was growing back with some irritation and redness in a mass in my trachea.  While this could have produced the bloody mucus, my doctor also ordered bloodwork and a CT scan of my chest.  Before I started taking interferon, my baseline for white blood cells was low, but this was reduced further as a side effect of the weekly injections.  The labs on this day showed the same, but for the first time ever my red blood cells were low, as were my platelets.  And the CT scan showed that I had a slightly enlarged spleen.  

I had taken my interferon on the same morning as the bloodwork so there was a chance that the labs were just showing the side effects of the interferon.  But there was also a chance that I had leukemia.

Leukemia.  

More specifically, acute myelogenous leukemia (AML) is a cancer of the blood and bone marrow.  The word "acute" denotes the disease's rapid progression.  The sixth-leading cause of cancer deaths has a  five-year survival rate of 65%, meaning 1 in 3 people will not make it to the five-year mark.  The median age of diagnosis being 66.  I just turned 45 in November,

Fast forward a week and we had more labs drawn, which showed very similar results.  Low WBC, low RBC, low platelets and there were rare small atypical looking lymphocytes with distinct nucleoli and rare form with irregular nucleus is seen, also a rare immature - appearing cells suspicious for a blast is seen.  

In the case of AML, there is an overproduction of abnormal myeloblasts. These cells are unable to develop further into mature white blood cells.  And I had some suspicious looking blasts in my test results.  

Now the thoughts of leukemia loomed even larger. 

Leukemia.

The next step was to conduct a flow cytometry which can identify the type of cells in a blood sample, including types of cancer cells based on either the presence or the absence of certain protein markers (antigens) on a cell’s surface.  For the second time in two days, it was back to the hospital for more blood draw.  With low blood pressure, taking 7 vials of blood took much longer than what it normally does.  

Finally on February 12th, twelve days and twelve sleepless nights after my first symptom, I got the test results.

There is no immunophenotypic evidence of non-Hodgkin lymphoma, lymphoid leukemia, or high grade myeloid neoplasm.  No aberrant immunophenotype on T cells.  CD34 positive blasts are rare to absent.

I had to read this sentence about a dozen times and had to Google all of the terms to make sure I fully understood what it said.  My oncologist further translated this to:

The flow cytometry was reassuring. It's pretty clear you don't have leukemia.  I think this is largely driven by interferon.

I don't have leukemia.   Deep sigh of relief. 

Our next course of action is to hold the interferon treatments for a while and then retest labs.  If my numbers bounce back, then we know it is the medication.  If they don't, then we are back to square one.  But let's say that it is the interferon that is causing my low counts... but I need the medication to slow the growth of the RRP virus.  This is known as a catch-22.  Are the benefits of the drug more than the side effects they produce? 

When the weight of the world feels like it is bearing down on you, it makes it very difficult to keep fighting.  For the first time in my life I can understand why some people give up.  When faced with the possibility of having leukemia, part of me wanted to just accept it.  It was very frightening.

But more of me wanted to fight.

At the 2014 Espy awards, Stuart Scott famously said, "So, live. Live. Fight like hell. And when you get too tired to fight then lay down and rest and let somebody else fight for you. That's also very, very important. I can't do this "don't give up" thing all by myself."  

My wife Rachel has stood with me from the very beginning.  Even when faced with the worst, she said that we would face it together.  I will never be alone in this fight, no matter what comes next. 

You shoot me down but I won't fall, I am titanium.  

Wednesday, December 23, 2020

Top 30 Christmas Songs of All Time

Christmas has always been very meaningful to me.  From my earliest memories of our family gatherings to more recent times watching Rachel cut a balsam tree down and dragging it through the snow for the family to decorate and every memory in between -- this is my favorite time of the year.  

For a few years I have been contemplating building a list of my favorite Christmas songs but it was not until this year that I took the time to put pen to paper.  What better than a global pandemic to conduct research for such an endeavor!  And thus my project of listing out the top Christmas songs of all time was born.  


But what defines a Christmas song?  It is not merely a religious song that you could hear on any given Sunday in a Catholic church.  For this list, it is defined as any song that features the word Christmas, appears in a Christmas movie, makes reference to Santa Claus or is about the a true meaning a Christmas -- the birth of Jesus!

Once I had the definition clear in my head, then I needed to figure out which Christmas songs appealed to me the most.  The basic question I kept asking myself was 'which songs could I listen to on repeat if I were 16 years old again bagging groceries at Econo Foods for a 9 hour shift in December and Christmas songs were on endless repeat?'  

That doesn't mean that the list only contains classical Christmas songs, or even those created before my grocery bagging career started in 1991.  This is an all encompassing list ranging from the 16th century until present day. 

Here is what I what I came up with.  Read on and see if you agree. 

30. Feliz Navidad by Jose Feliciano - This festive song is a Christmas mainstay but had it's ranking hurt by its repetitive nature.  There are only 20 unique words sang over and over for 3 minutes.  

29. Do They Know It's Christmas? by Band Aid - An often forgotten collaboration from 1984 included such stars as Phil Collins, Boy George, Sting, George Michael and others raised $24 million for starving children in Ethiopia.

28. Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town by Bruce Springsteen - The Boss recorded the live version of this Haven Gillespie song just 17 days after I was born in 1975 and still today it receives the most airplay of all renditions.

27. Wonderful Christmastime by Paul McCartney - This original Christmas song was recorded by McCartney as part of his solo career in 1979 after the final album from Wings was released but the synthesizer 

26. God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen by MercyMe - Dating back to the 1700's, this song is also known as Tidings of Comfort and Joy and makes the list with a version by MercyMe from their 2005 album The Christmas Sessions, 

25. Blue Christmas by Elvis - First rerecorded in 1948, this song was made famous in 1957 when the King recorded it for his 1957 Christmas album. 

24. I'll Be Home for Christmas by Bing Crosby - Recorded in 1943, this classic Christmas song features a soldier writing a letter to his family from overseas during World War II that he will be home for Christmas, if only in his dreams.

23. Believe by Josh Groban - From the Polar Express soundtrack, this song reached the top of the Billboard adult contemporary chart and received a Grammy in 2006 for best song written for a motion picture

22. Hark the Herald Sing by Rebecca St. James - This is modern take of the song from the early 18th century appears on the Unexpected Gifts: 12 New Sounds Of Christmas album from 2006.

21. A Mad Russian's Christmas by Trans-Siberian Orchestra - This song is literally impossible to describe as it includes everything from a soft intro to a crazed paced piano and rock guitar riff with everything in between. 

The Top 20

20. Linus and Lucy by Vince Guaraldi - This song from the American jazz pianist gained popularity in 1965 as part of the Charlie Brown Christmas special. 

19. This Christmas Time by Samantha Hooey - This song was featured in a 2017 Hallmark Christmas movie entitled Christmas Next Door.

18. Mele Kalikimaka by Bing Crosby - From the Hawaiian phrase meaning "Merry Christmas," this song was recorded in 1949 and was featured prominently in a Clark Griswold dream sequence during the 1989 movie National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation.

17. Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree by Brenda Lee - Recorded in 1958 by Lee when she was only 13 years old, most people today associate this song with the 1990 movie Home Alone during a scene when Kevin (McCallister) stages a holiday party to help ward off burglars. 

16. Please Come Home for Christmas by Eagles - This song from 1960 has been covered by many artists including Bon Jovi and Martina McBride but the best version was the Eagles cover in 1978,

15. Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas by Judy Garland - This song was written for the 1944 musical Meet Me in St. Louis and made the American Film Institute top 100 songs of the last 100 years.

14. A Holly Jolly Christmas by Burl Ives - This song appeared in the 1964 Christmas special, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer that also featured Burl Ives as the narrator.

13. Mary, Did You Know? by Cimorelli - Written in 1984, this modern a cappella version is best described as haunting.

12. Christmas Eve / Sarajevo by Trans-Siberian Orchestra - This powerful and fast paced acoustic Christmas song features their take on 1914 Ukrainian folk song Carol of the Bells.

11. Joy to the World by Faith Hill - First published over 300 years ago, this song has many versions with the best coming from Faith Hill in 2008.

The Top 10

10. Angels We Have Heard on High by Chris Tomlin - This Christmas song about the birth of Jesus is sung to the hymn Gloria, with this version recorded for the 2009 album Glory in the Highest.

9. White Christmas by Bing Crosby - Released in 1942, this is the best selling single of all time (50 million), which is ahead of Elton John's Candle in the Wind 1997 by a whopping 17 million!

8. Boughs of Holly by Trans-Siberian Orchestra - This is a modern rock take of the 16th century Welsh song Deck the Halls.

7. Silent Night by Michael BublĂ© - Witten in the early 1800's in Austria, this song was made most popular by Bing Crosby as the 4th best selling single of all time, but the BublĂ© version is the rendition that makes this list. 

6. It's The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year by Andy Williams - From 1964, this song about typical Christmas traditions makes reference to Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol with the lyrics "telling of scary ghost stories."

5. Let it Snow, Let it Snow, Let it Snow by Dean Martin - Though first released in 1957 by Frank Sinatra, the (better) version that makes this list is by Dean Martin from 1959.

4. O Come, All Ye Faithful - Chris Tomlin - This song was translated into English from the original Latin lyrics in the mid 1700's and has been covered many times. 

3. Christmas Canon by Trans-Siberian Orchestra - From their 1998 album The Christmas Attic, this song features a children's choir and is one of the best selling Christmas songs of all time.  

2. Let it be Christmas by Alan Jackson - From the 2002 album of the same name, this song features lyrics promoting the notion that the feeling of the Christmas season should continue throughout the entire year. 

And the #1 Christmas Song of all Time is... 

1. It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas by Perry Como - This song from 1951 celebrates a simpler time when Christmas decorations appeared in front windows of department stores.

Missed: 

Wednesday, December 16, 2020

2020 Christmas Movie Challenge

Last year I watched a Christmas movie on November 6th.  

I immediately felt full of the Christmas spirit and wanted that feeling of joy and hope to continue.  So I watched another Christmas movie.  And another and another and so on and so forth.  Thus the 50 Christmas Movies in 50 Days Challenge was born!  The plan was to average watching a Christmas movie once a day for a span of 50 days that would culminate with watching A Christmas Story on Christmas Day.  

2020 has been a year where normal is not normal as we are living during a time of pandemic.  So many people started putting up Christmas decorations earlier than ever before because they were looking to embrace that same joyous holiday feeling during a year that has been filled mostly with despair. 

So how could I improve upon last years challenge?  Not that bigger is always better, but the definition of a challenge is that it should be, well, challenging.  Without a notion of a plan, I watched my first Christmas movie on October 27th.  Quickly I realized that it was exactly 60 days until Christmas.  And thus the 60 Christmas Movies in 60 Days challenge was born.
Last year I just one simple rule -- that I had to watch 50 Christmas movies in 50 days -- no more, no less.  This year I expanded on that with just one more rule, which is more of a guideline.  I want to try to not be more than 2 movies ahead (or behind) schedule.  The rationale was that this was not about binge watching eight or 10 movies in a weekend and lapsing until the following weekend.  This is because I want to embody the season on a daily basis, not in mass quantities and then lapse back into despondency or gloom for days at a time.

Last year I was scouring Netflix, Amazon Prime and Hulu and toward the end of the challenge the quality of movies was very poor.  This year the quality of movies vastly improved as I invested in the frndly app which includes the Hallmark family of channels. 

What are some observations for what comprises a Hallmark Christmas movie?  It will contain 3 or more of the following scenarios.
  • A successful business person working in the big city returns home and stays there to work
  • Someone rediscovers the Christmas spirit after having a reason to be swear it off 
  • A single parent who had shied away from love, finds it again
  • A famous country movie star returns to their home town incognito 
  • Some sort of festival, parade, fund raiser or holiday event needs to be planned and there is likely only a matter of weeks to pull it all off
  • A kiss happens between the two main characters in the final 30 seconds of the movie, though they may have attempted to kiss earlier only to be interrupted 
  • A struggling small business in financial hardship is saved just in time for Christmas
  • A young 30 something person is up for a promotion that they are far from qualified for at that age
  • There is a snow storm that forces people to remain in town for longer than planned
  • Will be filmed in Canada, but have a plot that includes New York City + (Vermont, Tennessee or Montana)
  • Will feature a former child star, a soap opera actress or someone who has appeared on How I Met Your Mother or an extra on CSI including Candace Cameron-Bure, Lacy Chabert, Sarah Lancaster, Erin Cahill, Brooke D'Orsay, Ashley Williams, Brooke Nevin, Erin Krakow,  or Rachel Boston
  • There will be plenty of hot cocoa drank and seldom will there be alcohol 
  • It will only take (as many as) 12 days to fall in love, spanning the 12 days of Christmas
  • Either a snow man or a snow angel will be made
  • There will be a Christmas tree lighting ceremony
  • There will be an inn or lodge that may be in financial hardship, be passed down in the family or have other sentimental value
  • There will be a man who looks just like Santa Claus and may even serve as Santa for the town this season and you are lead to believe he is the real Santa but will mysteriously vanish on Christmas Eve, assumedly heading back to the North Pole to deliver presents
  • Son inherits fathers company and either struggles to find himself in his fathers successful shadow or must pass a series of challenges to prove he is worthy of taking over.
  • With their relationship in the budding stage, the lead female will uncharacteristically become clumsy and fall into the arms of the lead male and create an awkward moment in which they both realize that they are falling in love with each other and should kiss, but are preempted by the females former love interest.  
Additions from collaboration with Gina DeMuro Zeafla
  • There will be a misunderstanding approximately 20 minutes before the end of the movie which pulls the two love interests apart, leaving little time for the reconciliation and falling in love at the final scene.
  • The frequent “impossibly beautiful but stubborn daughter trying to save her family’s farm or small shop from bankruptcy, only to be annoyed by the rich business man who came to most-likely develop the land.”
  • Handsome widower with permanent 5-o’clock shadow and one bitter 11 year old daughter learns to love again after perky corporate climber is forced to come to small town to sell the family bed and breakfast after the death of her estranged father.
List of Movies Watched (so far)
  1. Day 1: Oct-27 Christmas in Evergreen: Tidings of Joy
  2. Day 2: Oct-28 Christmas in Evergreen
  3. Day 3: Oct-29 Chateau Christmas
  4. Day 4: Oct-30 'Tis the Season for Love
  5. Day 5: Oct-31 Christmas in Evergreen: Letters to Santa
  6. Day 5: Oct-31 Christmas Scavenger Hunt
  7. Day 6: Nov-01 Christmas Tree Lane
  8. Day 8: Nov-03 Nostalgic Christmas
  9. Day 8: Nov-03 A Blue Ridge Mountain Christmas
  10. Day 10: Nov-05 Rocky Mountain Christmas
  11. Day 11: Nov-06 Fir Crazy
  12. Day 11: Nov-06 On the Twelfth Day of Christmas
  13. Day 12: Nov-07 It’s Christmas, Eve
  14. Day 12: Nov-07 Small Town Christmas
  15. Day 13: Nov-08 A Merry Christmas Match
  16. Day 13: Nov-08 Never Kiss a Man in a Christmas Sweater
  17. Day 14: Nov-09 Christmas in Love
  18. Day 15: Nov-10 Most Wonderful Time of the Year
  19. Day 17: Nov-12 Christmas at the Plaza
  20. Day 18: Nov-13 Christmas Connection
  21. Day 18: Nov-13 A Cookie Cutter Christmas
  22. Day 20: Nov-15 Miss Christmas
  23. Day 23: Nov-18 A Timeless Christmas
  24. Day 24: Nov-19 A Godwink Christmas
  25. Day 25: Nov-20 A Wish for Christmas
  26. Day 25: Nov-20 A Christmas in Tennessee
  27. Day 26: Nov-21 Christmas On Ice
  28. Day 26: Nov-21 Feliz NaviDAD
  29. Day 27: Nov-22 A Royal Christmas
  30. Day 27: Nov-22 Let it Snow
  31. Day 28: Nov-23 Christmas In Vienna
  32. Day 31: Nov-26 The Christmas Cure
  33. Day 33: Nov-28: Just in Time for Christmas
  34. Day 34: Nov-29: With Love, Christmas
  35. Day 34: Nov-29: Return to Christmas Creek
  36. Day 34: Nov-29: Holidate
  37. Day 35: Nov-30: Christmas Made to Order
  38. Day 37: Dec-2: Christmas Homecoming
  39. Day 38: Dec-3: Check Inn to Christmas
  40. Day 39: Dec-4: Northern Lights of Christmas
  41. Day 40: Dec-5: Sharing Christmas
  42. Day 41: Dec-6: Sleigh Bells Ring
  43. Day 42: Dec-7: Two Turtle Doves
  44. Day 44: Dec-9: A Godwink Christmas: Second Chance, First Love
  45. Day 45: Dec-10: Enchanted Christmas 
  46. Day 47: Dec-12: A Godwink Christmas: Meant for Love
  47. Day 47: Dec-12: Christmas Next Door
  48. Day 48: Dec-13: Christmas On My Mind
  49. Day 48: Dec-13: Christmas Incorporated
  50. Day 48: Dec-13: Time For Us to Come Home for Christmas 
  51. Day 51: Dec-16: Unlocking Christmas 
  52. Day 52: Dec-17: Sense, Sensibility & Snowmen
  53. Day 53: Dec-18: The Sweetest Christmas 
  54. Day 54: Dec-19: Christmas Waltz
  55. Day 55: Dec-20: Christmas Land
  56. Day 57: Dec 22: The Mistletoe Secret
  57. Day 58: Dec 23: Christmas Under the Stars
  58. Day 59: Dec 24: Project Christmas Wish
  59. Day 59: Dec 24: The Family Stone
  60. Day 60: Dec-25: A Christmas Story

Monday, December 7, 2020

Topps Living Set Chicago Cubs Team

I will be the first to admit that when they initially rolled out in 2018, I was not a fan of the Topps Living Set.  I think that stems from my overall dislike of baseball card companies these days that print cards of former (non active) players mixed into the regular issue sets.  I guess I am more of a traditionalist where the checklist was comprised of active players and maybe a  manager card from the 80's.  

While my opinion has not changed on current cards, I do also understand that the purpose of the Living Set IS to have a mix of players from all generations.  So I decided to start a PSA 10 set of my favorite team, the Chicago Cubs especially since the rookie card of Nico Hoerner was in the set and he is one of my two favorite current Cubs.

Building this set is not to get rich or to turn a profit.  It’s purely for the love of the sport and my team.  And to remind myself that collecting cards should be fun and bring joy to my life which I’ve noticed that waiting for the next Cubs player to be released has done. 

I don't have numbers for percentages of how frequently modern cards get graded as Gem Mint 10.  But for the Topps Baseball Living Set from 2018 to 2020, of the 84,716 (61,948 + 19,826 + 2,942) cards received by PSA for grading, 57,042 (40,755 + 14,064 + 2,223) have come back as PSA 10.  That is 67.33% or 2 out of every 3 cards subbed on average have graded Gem Mint 10.  So building a PSA 10 run should not be that difficult but it will still be a fun project with no end. 

My only suggestion would be that I would like to see a voting process where fans could determine that players from each team who would get a card.  That would help to avoid the Brandon Morrow's of the world being included before Mark Grace and Ron Santos. 

Chicago Cubs Checklist (with print runs) last updated March 11, 2021

2018
  • ✓ 5 Ian Happ (PR=3,042) 
  • ✓ 30 Brandon Morrow (PR=5,585) 
  • ✓ 64 Ryne Sandberg (PR=7,212)
  • ✓ 67 Anthony Rizzo (PR=5,568) 
  • ✓ 83 David Bote RC (PR=5,345) 
  • ✓ 103 Javier Baez (PR=4,499) 
2019
  • ✓ 127 Kris Bryant (PR=5,361)
  • ✓ 210 Jason Heyward (PR=2,573)
  • ✓ 217 Ernie Banks (PR=5,406)
  • ✓ 266 Kyle Hendricks (PR=2,074) 
2020
  • ✓ 310 Nico Hoerner RC (PR=3,523)
  • 323 Willson Contreras (PR=2,052) 
  • 352 Alec Mills (PR=1,886)  
2021
  • TBD
My current PSA 10 collection.

           

Sunday, November 1, 2020

Best Rock Band



Let's talk about what this is, and what it is not. 

This is an effort to mathematically determine the "best" rock band of my early childhood, which spans from the late 1970's through the entire decade of the 1980's. 

For this challenge, I selected 15 top mainstream bands, and each were allowed to submit their 10 best songs.  All 150 songs were then ranked best to worst through a process of continuing to split the segmented list into halves.  Note that rock bands are allowed to sing (love) ballads and some have been included in their top 10 songs and are judged by their overall quality, not as a pure rock song.

Exclusions (not meeting the inclusion guidelines)
  1. Excluded from this list are bands that were more pop than rock.
  2. Single artists are omitted who fail to meet the criteria of being a band
  3. Bands that could not compile a list of 10 competitive songs were excluded, even if they had several power anthems.
An included band then received two scores:
  • Total score for all of their songs which represents the overall dominance of the band to have multiple hits
  • Total score for a bands top 3 songs which represents the power of band to have mega hits 
Scores for each category were ranked and summed to produce the overall order of best rock band. Yes, I understand that these two categories are mathematically correlated (the top 3 is part of the top 10) but this is how I chose to represent longevity while giving points for substantially big hits.  I understand that this was a mathematical effort but that it still contains a large amount of subjectivity with how I selected the bands, the songs and ranking of the songs.  Life is not perfect. 

The best part about my list, is that it is my list.  While you may appreciate what I have assembled, you will likely disagree somewhere along the way.  The uniqueness of each person in this world is one of the many things that fascinates me. It's what makes lists of this nature, so much fun.

Going into this project I also had speculated how the results may look and have noted that as a preblog ranking.  So, enjoy the results and feel free to debate.

15. Bob Seger & the Silver Bullet Band - A Detroit based artist, Bob Seger was part of several groups before putting together the Silver Bullet Band in 1973.  Their songs deal with things that the everyday, blue collar worker can relate to.  Most of their mega fame came in a 4-record span from 1976 to 1982 with ten top 25 hits.  In total, Seger would have 7 studio albums with the Silver Bullet Band, with the most recent release coming in 2017.  Their last big hit would be a chart topper as Shakedown from Beverly Hills Cop would peak at #1.  Seger is one of the world's best selling artists of all time, with record sales in excess of 75 million and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2004.  Preblog rank: 15

14. Chicago - Chicago was formed fittingly in Chicago in 1967, originally going by the Chicago Transit Authority.  With a wide range of members over the years, they have released 37 albums over the last 6 decades.  Of this total, 11 would reach the top 10 in the US and amazingly four #1 albums in a row in the mid 1970's.  Along with album success, they have had 31 singles that reached the top 10 in the US and three that reached the top.  While they did have success before my childhood, they still reigned supreme well throughout the entire decade of the 1980's.  They have sold 40 million albums and were inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2016.   They are second only to The Beach Boys in Billboard singles among American bands and have had 20 top ten hits, including 3 number ones.  Preblog rank: 7

13. Aerosmith - Formed in Boston in 1970, this band would grow into enormous fame, being billed as the America's Greatest Rock and Roll Band.   Lead vocalist Steven Tyler is pop icon for his energy on stage as well as his sense of fashion. Along with Joe Perry, Tom Hamilton, Joey Kramer and Brad Whitford, Aerosmith have released 15 albums between 1973 and 2012 and own two number one albums with Get and Grip in 1993 and Nine Lives in 1997.  With eight top 10 singles, it took them until 1998 to reach their only US #1 single with I Don't Want to Miss a Thing from the Armageddon soundtrack.  Pump stands as their most successful album with three top 10's with Love in an Elevator, Janie's Got a Gun and What It Takes.  They have been on 34 tours including a current residency in Las Vegas. They were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2001. Preblog rank: 9

12. Motley Crue - Formed in Los Angeles in 1981, the peak of the Crue coincided with the big-hair-glam-rock-era of the latter part of the decade.  With 9 studio albums and 34 tours, they are part of the 100 million album sales club.  They may only have had 4 hits in the US top 25, they had more success with nine top 10 Billboard albums.  Their biggest hit song would come in 1989 with Dr. Feelgood, which was certified as gold.  They would put on an amazing live show, featuring such firsts as an elevated, rotating drum set where drummer Tommy Lee would play upside down.  They have had several break up and reunions with the most recent reunion coming in 2018. The band recently recorded new material for the Netflix rockumentary The Dirt.  They were set to co-headline a tour with Def Leppard in 2020 before COVID-19.  Preblog rank: 3

11. Queen - A British rock band formed in 1970, Queen was fronted by Freddie Mercury.   With some initial success in the late 70's, they would go on to be one of the biggest stadium rock bands of the 1980s, which was highlighted by an epic performance at Live Aid in 1985.  Queen has over 200 million record sales and where inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2001.  All 15 of their studio albums have gone gold or platinum with 7 of them reaching number 1 in the UK.   They have had 21 top 10 singles in the UK, including three number ones. Their biggest hit was Bohemian Rhapsody which went to number one twice; 1975 and 1991.  Sadly, the band lost their lead singer Mercury in 1991 at age 45 due to complications from AIDS.  Preblog rank: 10

10. Journey - Formed in San Francisco in 1973, this band would go on to be ultra successful after hiring lead vocalist Steve Perry in 1978.  They would take a hiatus from 1987 to the mid 90's before making a comeback with their last album featuring Perry in 1995, who would have to leave the band a few years later with health issues.  Journey would produce 14 studio albums, including 3 albums that made the US top 10 and have a single chart topper with Escape in 1981.  With 14 top 25 hits, they never had a #1 single, finishing as high as #2 with Open Arms that held that position in the charts for six weeks. Journey was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame with the class of 2017.  The current version of Journey still tours and features a front font man Filipino singer Arnel Pineda, who was found on YouTube and sounds amazingly like Perry.  Preblog rank: 4

9. Heart - Formed in 1970 in Seattle as White Heart, this band would turn into the one we know in 1973 when sisters Ann and Nancy Wilson took center stage sharing lead vocals.  The band has had 16 studio albums including 4 that would be top 5 in the US from 1980 to 1990.  They did have a string of three albums in a row that peaked at #1 (Heart in 1985), #2 (Bad Animals in 1987) and #3 Brigade combining to be 15x platinum in sales.  They never really had that much singles success as they only had eight top 10 singles, but did have two 1's in 1986 (These Dreams) and 1987 (Alone).  With over 35 million records sold worldwide, they were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2013.  Preblog rank: 14

8. Van Halen - Formed in California in 1972, Van Halen would go on to have success with two different lead singers from David Lee Roth to Sammy Hagar and back to David Lee Roth.  The Roth Years had a little more pop to their sound while with Hagar on lead vocals it would be more true rock.  Overall they have 12 studio albums which have sold 56 million copies in the US, which ranks them in the top 20 of all time.  Amazingly their last 11 albums have reached the top 6 in the US, with four in a row going to the top from 1986 to 1995 with Sammy Hagar. Like Heart, Van Halen had more album success than single success as they only had two top 5 hits, one with David Lee Roth (#1 Jump in 1983) and one with Sammy Hagar (#3 Why Can't This be Love in 1986).  Anecdotally, most people consider their best album to be 1984 which went diamond, but only peaked at #2 on the charts because it was up against Michael Jackson's Thriller which spent a record 37 weeks at number one on the Billboard 200.  The world lost a great guitarist -- maybe one of the best ever -- recently with the passing of Eddie Van Halen.  He was only 65 years old and fought a long battle with throat cancer.  The band was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2007.  Preblog rank: 13

7. Bon Jovi - With their famous roots in New Jersey, Bon Jovi was officially formed in 1983 and rose to fame during the MTV generation.  They would go on to sell 100 million albums and continue to be a household name today.  Their 15th studio album is expected to be released later this year, of which 11 reached the top 10 and six were chart toppers.   They have had equal success singles with 10 top 10's and four #1's ("You Give Love a Bad Name" and "Livin' on a Prayer" in 1986, "Bad Medicine" in 1988 and "I'll Be There for You" in 1989).  They have not had a top 100 charted hit since 2009 but their popularity is still there as proven by the $250M their 2013 tour grossed.  They were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2018.  Preblog rank: 5

6. Metallica - Labeled as a heavy metal band, Metallica was formed in 1981 in Los Angeles by James Hetfield Lars Ulrich.  With 10 studio albums over the last 40 years, they have sold over 125 million albums worldwide.  Their last six albums have all gone to number one and are all platinum or multi-platinum in sales.  They are 35th on the list of best selling music artists of all time.  Being heavy metal, they never had any luck on the Billboard Hot 100 list but did have 10 number ones on the Mainstream Rock chart.  They have won nine Grammy Awards and were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2009.  Preblog rank: 6

5. Poison - Formed in 1983 in Pennsylvania by Brett Michaels, Bobby Dall and Rikki Rocket, Poison would rise to immediate stardom with their first studio album in August of 1986.  Though releasing 7 total studio albums, it was on the power of their first three (Look What the Cat Dragged, Open Up and Say... Ahh! and Flesh & Blood) that they would have most of their success over a four year period.  All three albums reached at least 3× Platinum in the US and were all in the top 3 of the US charts.  Based mostly on the strength of those three albums, the band has managed to sell 45 million records worldwide.  They also had major success with singles, posting eight top 15 marks in the charts, including a single number one in 1988 with Every Rose Has Its Thorn.  They reach this level in our ranking on the pure strength of a small number of monster hits that carried the rest of their entries.  Ironically their second highest chart placing single, Unskinny Bop (#3 in 1990) is considered one the bands worst songs.  Little known tidbit that when looking for a guitarist in 1985, Poison auditioned Slash (Guns 'N Roses) but selected C.C. DeVille instead.  Preblog rank: 11

4. AC/DC - Formed in Sydney Australia in 1973 by two Scottish-born brothers, AC/DC has been rocking for almost 50 years with new material currently underway.  Though they have had several lineup changes, including a brief period where Axl Rose replaced Malcolm Young who was forced into retirement due to early-onset dementia, the AC/DC heavy metal brand remains strong.  They have sold more than 200 million records worldwide with 17 studio albums, scoring 8 US top 10's and two number one albums (For Those About to Rock We Salute You in 1981 and Black Ice 37 years later).  Back in Black has sold 50 million copies worldwide, making it the highest-selling album by any band. They have also had success with singles, posting 14 top 10's and four times their singles have topped the charts in the US.  AC/DC was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2003.  Preblog rank: 8.

3. Foreigner - This British–American rock band was originally formed in 1976 between London and New York City.  Another band that has had changing members over time, only Mick Jones remains from the original Foreigner lineup.  They have released 9 studio albums between 1979 and 2009, with their first five albums reaching the Billboard top 5.  Their 4th album, named 4, was their only LP to reach number 1, but at 6x platinum, ranks only behind Double Vision which is 7x platinum.  Worldwide they have sold more than 80 million records.  They have had 13 top 25 singles and reached #1 in the US with "I Want to Know What Love Is" in 1984.  They still have not been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, something that seems to baffle a lot of people.  Preblog rank: 12

2. Guns N' Roses - The newest of all bands making the list, Guns N' Roses was formed in 1985 as a hard rock band from Los Angeles.  They hit the ground running with their debut album, Appetite for Destruction (1987) that would go on to sell 18 million copies (18x platinum) and still rank as the 7th most sales of a single album in history.  With only 6 studio albums (2 of which were released simultaneously) they don't have the most content, but all their albums have reached at least the top 4.  They have topped the charts twice (Use Your Illusion II was at #2 because Use Your Illusion I was #1).  Overall they have over 100 million in album sales.  Being hard rock, their singles did not have the same success as their album sales, but they still have six top 10 singles.  People argue that if they had released Welcome to the Jungle first, that they would have had two more top singles as "It's So Easy" and "Mr. Brownstone" (UK Only) were released first.  "Sweet Child o' Mine" would be the bands only #1 hit, coming in 1988.   GNR was the ultimate stadium rock concert band as they played hundreds of shows with their album tours.   The light shined very brightly for this band, but was short lived as they could never reproduce the success of Illusion and Slash would leave the band in the mid 90's.  Fans thought that the differences were too great to ever see GNR together again but were rewarded as GNR got back together for the Not in this Lifetime tour in 2016.  The tour wrapped as the third-highest-grossing tour of all time with sales over $500 million dollars.  They were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2012 in their first year of eligibility.  Preblog rank: 1

1. Def Leppard - Sitting on top of the list as Best Rock Band is Def Leppard.  This British band was formed in 1977 in Sheffield, England.  With only moderate success of their first two albums in the UK, it was High 'n' Dry,  their third album and hit "Bringin' On the Heartbreak" that gave them a presence in the United States to the MTV generation.  But the explosion of popularity for Def Leppard came with the release of Pyromania in 1983.  The album would peak at #2 (behind Thriller) but would sell ten million copies.  The album would have four top 10 singles including two charter toppers in a row with rock anthems Photograph and Rock of Ages.  Their follow up release, Hysteria, would have even more success as it did reach #1 and would go 12x Platinum in sales.  The album took three years to hit stores as the band was also dealing with Rick Allen’s accident that resulted in the loss of his left arm.  Woman, Animal, Love Bites, Rocket, Armageddon It and the title track Hysteria all charted in the top 10, but it was Pour Some Sugar On Me that would become the hit that most people would remember them by.  Their 5th album Adrenalize would also rise to the top of the charts in 1992 proving their sustained success.  To date, they have five #1 singles, two #1 albums and have sold more than 100 million records worldwide.  They are one of only five rock bands with two  studio albums selling more than ten million copies each in the US.  They were finally inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2019.  Preblog rank: 2

Post script
  • After compiling the list I realize that I overlooked Huey Lewis and the News and Duran Duran.  
  • I did miss a few Aerosmith singles in my research that may have made their top 10 but would not have moved the needle on their overall ranking, which included Livin' on the Edge and Amazing
  • You will see that I have omitted The Eagles and Kiss, who had the majority of their popularity prior to 1980.
  • The Police probably should have been considered.  
  • My perception was that U2 had more success in the 90's and were not included in this research, even though later realizing that Joshua Tree was released in 1987 and Rattle and Hum in 1988.  This does not change the fact that I don't like U2.  Remember it is my list.   
  • I only a single band was removed after the initial analysis as their score was so far below the nearest band and that was REO Speedwagon.
Individual Song Rankings 

1. Pour Some Sugar on Me - Def Leppard
2. You Could Be Mine - Guns N’ Roses
3. Wherever I May Roam - Metallica
4. You Give Love a Bad Name - Bon Jovi
5. You Shook Me All Night Long - AC/DC
6. Don't Stop Believin' - Journey
7. Nothin' But A Good Time - Poison
8. Kickstart My Heart - Motley Crue
9. Jump - Van Halen
10. Juke Box Hero - Foreigner

11. Livin' On A Prayer - Bon Jovi
12. Thunderstruck - AC/DC
13. Welcome to the Jungle - Guns N’ Roses
14. Rock of Ages - Def Leppard
15. Dude (Looks Like A Lady) - Aerosmith
16. Urgent - Foreigner
17. Talk Dirty To Me - Poison
18. Dr. Feelgood - Motley Crue
19. Enter Sandman - Metallica
20. Never - Heart

21. Photograph - Def Leppard
22. Head Games - Foreigner
23. Foolin' - Def Leppard
24. Nightrain - Guns N’ Roses
25. Back in Black - AC/DC
26. Bohemian Rhapsody - Queen
27. Stranded - Heart
28. Ride The Wind - Poison
29. Separate Ways - Journey
30. Hot for Teacher - Van Halen

31. Cold As Ice - Foreigner
32. Mr. Brownstone - Guns N’ Roses
33. Look Away - Chicago
34. Rocket - Def Leppard
35. Radio Ga Ga - Queen
36. Love In An Elevator - Aerosmith
37. Turn the Page - Bob Seger & the Silver Bullet Band
38. It’s So Easy - Guns N’ Roses
39. When It's Love - Van Halen
40. Fallen Angel - Poison

41. Bringin' On the Heartbreak - Def Leppard
42. Money Talks - AC/DC
43. Double Vision - Foreigner
44. Alone - Heart
45. Paradise City - Guns N’ Roses
46. Wanted Dead Or Alive - Bon Jovi
47. I Want it All - Queen
48. Whiskey in the Jar - Metallica
49. Any Way You Want It - Journey
50. Turn The Page - Metallica

51. Every Rose Has Its Thorn - Poison
52. Almost Paradise - Heart
53. Hells Bells - AC/DC
54. The Unforgiven - Metallica
55. We Can Last Forever - Chicago
56. Animal - Def Leppard
57. Panama - Van Halen
58. Under Pressure - Queen
59. Feels Like the First Time - Foreigner
60. You're The Inspiration - Chicago

61. Highway to Hell - AC/DC
62. Against the Wind - Bob Seger & the Silver Bullet Band
63. We Will Rock You - Queen
64. I Don't Wanna Live Without Your Love - Chicago
65. Sweet Emotion - Aerosmith
66. Why Can't This be Love - Van Halen
67. I Want to Know What Love Is - Foreigner
68. Wheel in the Sky - Journey
69. I Don't Want To Miss A Thing - Aerosmith
70. Blaze Of Glory - Bon Jovi

71. I Want Action - Poison
72. Until It Sleeps - Metallica
73. Open Arms - Journey
74. You'll Accompany Me - Bob Seger & the Silver Bullet Band
75. Will You Still Love Me? - Chicago
76. Girls, Girls, Girls - Motley Crue
77. Another One Bites The Dust - Queen
78. Sweet Child O' Mine - Guns N’ Roses
79. Hollywood Nights - Bob Seger & the Silver Bullet Band
80. For Those About to Rock (We Salute You) - AC/DC

81. Bad Medicine - Bon Jovi
82. Shout at the Devil - Motley Crue
83. Sad But True - Metallica
84. Faithfully - Journey
85. What About Love? - Heart
86. Hot Blooded - Foreigner
87. Old Time Rock And Roll - Bob Seger & the Silver Bullet Band
88. Nothing Else Matters - Metallica
89. Let It Rock - Bon Jovi
90. Shakedown - Bob Seger & the Silver Bullet Band

91. We are the Champions - Queen
92. Wild Side - Motley Crue
93. Janie's Got A Gun - Aerosmith
94. I'll Be There For You - Bon Jovi
95. These Dreams - Heart
96. Mainstreet - Bob Seger & the Silver Bullet Band
97. Without You - Motley Crue
98. Women - Def Leppard
99. For Whom The Bell Tolls - Metallica
100. Dream On - Aerosmith

101. Rock and Roll Never Forgets - Bob Seger & the Silver Bullet Band
102. Say You Will - Foreigner
103. November Rain - Guns N’ Roses
104. Barracuda - Heart
105. Poundcake - Van Halen
106. I Won't Forget You - Poison
107. Who Will You Run To - Heart
108. Raise Your Hands - Bon Jovi
109. Hard Habit To Break - Chicago
110. Dreams - Van Halen

111. Same Ol' Situation (S.O.S.) - Motley Crue
112. Waiting for a Girl Like You - Foreigner
113. What It Takes - Aerosmith
114. Shoot to Thrill - AC/DC
115. My Michelle - Guns N’ Roses
116. Right Now - Van Halen
117. Hysteria - Def Leppard
118. You Really Got Me - Van Halen
119. One - Metallica
120. Smokin' in the Boys Room - Motley Crue

121. Runnin' With the Devil - Van Halen
122. Rocket Queen - Guns N’ Roses
123. Living in Sin - Bon Jovi
124. Let There be Rock - AC/DC
125. Walk This Way - Aerosmith
126. Love Bites - Def Leppard
127. Home Sweet Home - Motley Crue
128. Stay The Night - Chicago
129. I'll Be Alright Without You - Journey
130. Something To Believe In - Poison

131. Nothin' At All - Heart
132. Love Me Tomorrow - Chicago
133. Send Her My Love - Journey
134. Like a Rock - Bob Seger & the Silver Bullet Band
135. Don't Go Away Mad (Just Go Away) - Motley Crue
136. Hard To Say I'm Sorry - Chicago
137. Jaded - Aerosmith
138. Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap - AC/DC
139. Amazing - Aerosmith
140. Look What the Cat Dragged In - Poison

141. Crazy Little Thing Called Love - Queen
142. Night Moves - Bob Seger & the Silver Bullet Band
143. Always - Bon Jovi
144. All I Wanna Do Is Make Love To You - Heart
145. Who's Crying Now - Journey
146. Fat Bottomed Girls - Queen
147. Life Goes On - Poison
148. Along Comes A Woman - Chicago
149. Feeling That Way - Journey
150. Somebody to Love - Queen

Monday, October 5, 2020

My Uncle Chuck

To most, you were Charles Mitchem. 

To some, you were Charlie.

To me, you were my Uncle Chuck.

As my Mom's brother, you married my Dad's sister which meant that it always felt like we had a special bond even tighter than just regular family.  I am sure it was the way you treated all the nieces and nephews but you made me feel like I was your favorite.  

Some of my first memories in this world were with you.  I remember that you always had a bag of M&Ms in your pocket for me.  And apparently I had a proclivity of chewing your "coddar."  You see, flannel shirts used to have a plastic piece in the "collar" and apparently when people would pick me up, I would start to chew on the collar of their shirt.  Of course they didn't realize until they put me down that they had a wet collar!  I am sure that I chewed my fair share of your "coddars."

Growing up, the Mitchem's lived on the corner of Emmet and Roseland Street, and the Charette's were just two blocks away on Emmet and Hooper.  As was in the 70's and 80's, family would just drop by and end up staying for a beer or sometimes dinner and the closer they lived the more often you saw them.  Of all my relatives, I probably saw you and Auntie Sandie the most.  

This extended to most major holidays as well.  I could count on seeing you every 4th of July as we hosted the annual backyard - grill out - pool party - badminton match at our house.  Then in late November, Thanksgiving was another mainstay with our close knit family as the Charette-Mitchem's made our way to the north side of Iron Mountain to enjoy turkey with Rocheleau's.  Just a few weeks later, we would be together again as a family for Christmas Eve at our house (well at your house when I was very small) followed by Rocheleau's on Christmas Day.  On Phil's first Christmas at our house we introduced ourselves collectively as the loud family.  

Back when you had to develop a roll of film, pictures were really only taken at major holidays or birthdays, so most of the photos that I have of my childhood, which paint the background of my memories, have you in them.  When I look at the picture of you wearing that hunter orange knit chook folded up with the black whitetail deer circular logo and your blue flannel shirt, along with your epic mustache, it puts me back into that moment of my 10th birthday like it was yesterday.  

While it is not a major holiday for the rest of the world, November 15th is a holiday in Michigan.  That is because it is the opening day of deer (rifle hunting) season.  Your camp was a stone's throw from ours and long before I was old enough to hunt, my Dad would bring me to camp during deer season.  I have so many fond memories of sitting at the table in your camp listening to your stories.  As I got older, I found that the more PBR's that we had, the taller the stories became and the more cards that were dealt off the bottom of the deck.  From the 15th to Thanksgiving, we were either at our camp or yours and while the memories are about as clear as the cigarette smoke that blanketed the ceiling, you were a key part of them. 

Your move to Kentucky while I was in high school meant that we saw less of each other.   It feels like a lot of years, maybe too many, passed in the 1990's when I don't have many memories of you.  Then as you moved to Florida in retirement, followed by my move to Alabama meant that we were no longer two blocks apart like we were once upon a time.  But that didn't mean that you still weren't my favorite uncle. 


We were together for the Christmas in July celebration on the Menominee River in 2004 and apparently had graduated from PBR up to Miller Lite according to this picture.  Your mustache was a thing of the past but your knack for the occasional inappropriate joke or comment was just as strong as ever!  That was what made you, you -- that carefree attitude of saying what was on your mind that could both make people laugh and cringe at the same time but always good natured. 


And I can only the BS that must have been flying here as two brothers shot the shit. 


The last time that we got a chance to see each other in person was in August, 2016.  It was another family gathering at my parents Tiki Bar on the Menominee River.  You never know when it will be the last time you see someone.  This would be ours.  

Eventually your heart, your mind and your spirit were let down by your body, which just could not fight the cancer any longer.  We tried valiantly to get to Florida to say goodbye in person, but it just wasn't meant to be.  From what I've heard, you were full of  stories right up until the very end.  I wouldn't have expected any less.  

If I had been there, I would have simply told you that you will always be my uncle Chuck, whether it is in this world or the next.  Then I would have pulled these out of my pocket and show you that life had come full circle.  

We will do our best to care care for and watch over Auntie Sandie and Missy for you.  Come this deer season I will be wearing my hunter orange chook in your memory and as we throw down the PBRs, we will be telling stories of the many deer seasons of the past.  As the playing cards get thicker with the progression of the night, I will see if I can master dealing from the bottom of the deck in your honor.  

Thursday, September 10, 2020

The Impossible Has Happened

"In the year that has been so improbable, the impossible has happened." - Vin Scully calling Kirk Gibson's pinch-hit walk-off home run for national TV of game 1 of the 1988 World Series.

 

Not long after qualifying for Boston at the 2016 California International Marathon in December, I decided that I was going to focus on my health.  I needed to step away from running, not knowing the effects of the interferon treatment protocol I was about to take to address my recurrent respiratory papillomatosis.  In other words, I retired from competition not knowing if I would ever be able to return, or for that matter, ever run again.  

Then 2017 came and went.  Running got shorter and shorter, slower and slower and less frequent.  

Then 2018 arrived.  I was part of a drug trial at the National Institute of Health (NIH) in Washington, DC which was prematurely cancelled.  My condition did not improve.  2018 went.  Running turned into jogging.  

In April 2019 I made it official.  I could no longer run, at any level, and was no longer going to try.  This was a very emotional revelation, when I knew that it was over and there was nothing I could do about it.  Jogging turned into walking.  The months that would follow in 2019 would only solidify the notion that running was something of the past for me.  In December I would require knee surgery to repair a torn meniscus in my right knee.  

Just about when COVID-19 was starting to be a household term in the spring of 2020, I started noticing that I was feeling fatigued more and more.  I was going to bed early, and having to take several naps during the day.  I had zero energy even for normal daily activities, which I attributed to the interferon injections.  Though I had been taking it for three full years at that point, I wondered if it was causing anemia based on my symptoms.  

In parallel, I was having some irregular heart rate issues.  Upon any activity such as going up more than a few stairs or other minor exertion, my heart would begin to beat rapidly and if I did not immediately sit down to recover, would spiral out of control at an insane rate.  In early June, I could run about 10 steps and I would be so out of breath that I would gasp for air.  

I didn't know if I had developed a new arrhythmia or worse, but I knew that I needed to seek medical attention.  When I met with the cardiologist, I knew immediately that something was seriously wrong.  The scale reading showed I was 157 pounds, a weight I had not seen since I was at the height of ultra running in 2014.  Post retirement and as recently as Christmas I had been stable around 172 pounds, so without an increase of exercise or change in diet, there was no GOOD reason why I should drop nearly 10% of my body weight.  My mind raced immediately to some form of aggressive cancer.  Deep sigh. 

After a months worth of tests, I was finally diagnosed with Graves' disease.  The fast and irregular heartbeat, heat intolerance, fatigue, weight loss, light sensitivity and double vision could all be attributed to an autoimmune disorder stemming from the interferon which resulted in my thyroid being hyperactive and accelerating my body's metabolism at an alarming rate.  My TSH was <0.01 mU/L with the normal range being 0.40 - 4.00 mU/L while my T4 was 3.25 ng/dL with a normal range of 0.76 - 1.46 ng/dL.  

But, I had never been so happy to get such bad news.  Though mildly common (about 1 in every 200 people have it) it would be treatable with a single radioiodine therapy that would shock my thyroid into stop producing so much hormone.  It likely would swing too far the other way, and eventually I will have to take daily medication to regulate it back up to normal.  So on July 30, I took the radioactive iodine pill and for 5 days following, was mostly isolated from Rachel and Fiina to limit their radiation exposure.  And I felt REALLY BAD.  The symptoms typically magnify for a few days before they get better and I had a hard time getting out of bed until through the weekend.  I was skeptical if this was actually working for me. 

Then on Sunday August 16, I took Fiina Beagle for our typical weekend long walk -- Lake Harriet, Lake Calhoun and Lake of the Isles.  But something felt, different.  The normal 17-18 minute walking pace was replaced by small sections of running.  It was not very far or very fast, but Fiina and I were jogging toward the end and we averaged under 15 minute miles for the 8 mile three lake loop.

"I don't believe what I just saw!" - Jack Buck calling Kirk Gibson's pinch-hit walk-off home run on national radio for game 1 of the 1988 World Series 

 

And if you saw me, I was running.  
  • Aug 17: The very next day I thought I would try to just run.  And I did, sort of.  4 miles in 43 minutes but stopped to walk 22 times.  At 10:44 pace I still declared it a victory as the last mile was under 10 minutes per mile.  
  • Aug 19 (+2 days): At 6:44am I stepped out the front door and ran 5 kilometers, steady state, no walking.  The benchmark had been set at 31:40 (10:05 pace).  
  • Aug 25 (+8 days) : After a failed steady state run over the weekend that turned into repeats and fartleks, I had my longest stated state run with NO STOPS.  Back to the 4-mile loop fro the previous week, I was a touch slower at 10:50 pace, but was able to hold pace and not walk until the run was over.  This was encouraging as it was 75 degrees and 84% humidity for the 6am start.
  • Aug 27 (+10 days): Back to the 5km time trial, this time breaking the 30-minute mark, running 29:16 on another muggy and warm morning run.  No warm up, just 9's out the door.  
  • Aug 29 (+12 days): With ideal temperatures, I was ready to run in public and headed to Lake Harriet.  I hadn't intended to time trial again so quickly, but in the first mile I was out waaaay to fast and realized that it was on.  I would have splits of 8:13, 8:32, 8:38 and a slow kick for a new TT benchmark of 26:21.  
  • Aug 30 (+13 days): Having gone back and read some of my old books I training, I was ready to try the track again to see what it felt like to run a perceived hard effort, one lap at a time.  So on a Sunday morning, I was out the door by 7am and warmed up over to Minnehaha Academy.  Only recently had I learned how the public gained access to the rubberized track and was excited to try some 400s.  The goal pace based on my 5km time from the day before was around 1:55 per lap (or just over 7:40 pace).  It was harder than I thought it would be for an 8x400m session, but managed splits of 1:55, 1:53, 1:52, 1:51, 1:50, 1:51, 1:49, 1:47 for an average pace of 7:25.  It was a slow cool down back home, but I was beaming with excitement from moderate success on the track, a place I loved to train from back when I used to train.  
  • Sept 3 (+17 days): After a two-day trip back to Huntsville for work which featured some lackluster jogging in soupy 90% humidity, I was back home in Minnesota and ready to stretch out my legs.  Just a short run, but looking for steady state at a pace that felt comfortable.  This turned out to be just over 9 minute miles for 3.5 miles but with only a stop to stretch at the turn, I was left not feeling as gassed as I had been on similar runs.  My legs felt a little heavy but breathing and heart rate were under control.  
  • Sept 4 (+18 days): I went back to the track at Minnehaha Academy with a plan to run the same pace as the week prior, but for slightly longer repeats, 6x600m to be exact.  The temperature was to my liking as I had to put on arm sleeves and gloves in the warm up for the 6:30am start.  I found that right from the start, my 400m splits were faster than last time and I was able to finish up at 2:48, 2:46, 2:44, 2:43, 2:42, 2:40 for a 7:19 average pace.  So in just a week, I was running faster, for longer repeat distances.  I could tell that I had a little bit of acid build up when trying to kick, but overall my legs felt like the turnover was there.  Still in comparison, I once ran a trail 50km race just a tad slower pace, so I am still keeping all of this in perspective.  
  • Sept 5 (+19 days): The next test would be to stretch out the distance a little and slow the pace.  The running paths around Medicine Lake in the northwestern suburbs of the Twin Cities are very quiet, and apparently featured far more rolling hills than I remembered!  Regardless, after a slow warm up mile, I was able to sustain 9:15 pace for the next 7 miles.  I definitely started to feel leg fatigue in the second half and had a few more stops to rest than hoped.  I realize that I bit off more than I could chew as if I was looking for a steady state run I should have targeted a route more in the 5-6 mile range based on my fitness.  
  • Sept 7 (+21 days): On another cool morning, I was out early to run a loop around Bush Lake in the southwestern suburbs.  I had a pace of something in the low 9's in my mind but with an 8:47 first mile I knew that it was ON again!  Mile two was flat, and I cranked out an 8:33 without laboring.  The rollers started next which slowed the pace to 8:40/8:36 for miles 3 and 4 before a steady drop back down to the beach in the 5th mile which I clocked an 8:25.  Total time 43:02 for 8:36 average pace.  

So in the year that was so improbable, the impossible has happened.  I started running again!

I don't know where this goes from here.  All I know is that I am going to enjoy running again and take it day by day.   I am just happy to be able to explore my city or in my travels, afoot at a decent clip.

Maybe there is a race or an ultra run in my distant future.  Maybe.  But not right now.