Thursday, March 27, 2008

An Unwanted Journey: Day 0853 - My Final Four

This evening my wife mentioned to me that tomorrow marks exactly two years since my surgery for colorectal cancer. So much has happened since then - post-surgical complications that left me in hospital for almost a month, chemotherapy, another tumour board, further tests and worries, one discharge from the cancer centre followed by more treatment and finally another discharge. That was followed in short order by being laid off work, looking for another job and rebounding with an excellent career move with a fantastic company.

I'm one of the lucky ones. I'm still here. Sure, there are scars and days when I deeply wish my physical problems would just disappear, nights when I wish I could just sleep through several hours without trips to the washroom. But I'm working and making a tangible contribution in my career. My family life is very good; in fact, my wife and I are getting ready to celebrate 35 years of married life and we have two grown sons who make us proud every day.

In fact, I was just re-reading the blog entry on my An Unwanted Journey thread that my eldest son wrote on my behalf two years ago after my surgery. He did a great job. Both my sons impress me regularly with their maturity, good humour, and knowledge. I love being with them. On most days, I think they really enjoy my company too. I know I'm an old fart by comparison to them, looking forward as they are to further post-secondary education and careers, and me often looking back trying to recall what it was like to be their age when the world was so much slower and simpler.

As I sit here writing on my notebook computer, I'm watching this year's Sweet Sixteen games. Two years ago, as I rolled into surgery, we were waiting for the Final Four games to begin on April 1st. Then, as now, we watch some of the most exciting games in all televised sports - young men with their whole lives stretching out in front of them, young men not that different from my two sons. Then, I wasn't sure what kind of future, if any, lay before me. Part of the worry was simply that I wanted to be around with my wife to see that future unfold for my sons.

Today, I have reason to be optimistic and to think that I just may be around long enough to see my scars fade and my sons continue to move into an exciting future. Nothing should be taken for granted, whether it be in the NCAA March Madness or in life in general. But is it ever sweet to be here right now with my life partner and my two sons. This Final Four is the best of all.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

March Madness 2008 - Round 1 Upsets

I'm feeling just a little tired. It's actually a bit of a struggle to catch anywhere close to 64 games in 2 days and remember something significant about any particular game.

That's why running a March Madness pool works well for me. I can concentrate less on remembering particulars of specific games and more on how my family, friends, colleagues and I are doing in the overall prediction race.

As of slightly after midnight last night, I had fallen from my position atop the pool standings to a more modest tie for 6th place. Not that it makes much of a difference overall, since each accurately predicted game point accumulation doubles with each round. Today's and tomorrow's games will see quite a bit of movement in the pool standings.

There were some minor upsets during the first round - Arkansas beating Indiana and Texas A&M beating BYU. I actually got burned in those 8th and 9th ranked games in 3 out of 4 predictions. But what really surprised me (even though you know ahead of time that there will be upsets) was 4th-ranked Connecticut falling to 13th-ranked San Diego, 5th-ranked Drake falling to 12th-ranked Western Kentucky, 7th-ranked Gonzaga falling to 10th-ranked Davidson (but Stephen Curry's performance was the highlight of the tournament thus far for me), 6th-ranked USC falling to 11th-ranked Kansas State, 4th-ranked Vanderbilt falling to 13th-ranked Sienna, and 5th-ranked Clemson falling to 12-ranked Villanova. That's 6 major upsets!

Then there were the close calls, like 2nd-ranked Duke squeaking by 15th-ranked Belmont by a point.

Viewing and remembering games will be a little easier now that we're into round 2 of March Madness...not a lot, just a little easier. At least some of the games won't be scheduled at roughly the same time.

So now, I prepare for another two weekend days with the TV on, a couple notebook computers close by (one for the on demand VIP streaming video and another to do a little real work) and wondering how my long-suffering wife will put up with nothing but NCAA hoops.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

March Madness 2008 - Selection Sunday

Well it's time again. Just twenty minutes until the NCAA March Madness team selection meeting begins.

This year, I'll be administering a company pool. But I won't have much work to do (that's right - a lazy admin; but I'm an official member of group run by my friend and colleague Rodney Buike, an IT Pro Advisor with Microsoft Canada anyway, so what would you expect?) since the pool mechanics will be managed on a web site (

In my humble opinion, there is no sporting tournament as consistently exciting as the NCAA March Madness men's basketball. Even so, it's sometimes a little difficult keeping up with all the teams, all the coaches, all the players, not to mention the history, the upsets, the continual switching between games on TV, and so on. But that's part of the reason why it's madness.

This year, the game I'd most like to see is the Best of the Big Ten Wisconsin against Memphis (currently ranked 8th and 1st - at least before the selection meeting). One of the best vignettes I've seen was about a young boy with leukemia, named Max Bass, and his basketball hero on the Wisconsin Badgers, Michael Flowers, both of whom sport the number 22 on their team jerseys. The vignette isn't yet available online, but the buzzer beater in which Michael Flowers got the winning 3-pointer to beat Texas - and which he dedicated to Max - is available here.

I've also signed up for the March Madness VIP pass on, specifically the NCAA March Madness On Demand. I should warn you, right now it's over 80% full for the free VIP registration. Today, all you get is historical highlights since it's only Selection Sunday. But during the tournament, and for the first time in history, you'll have access to all 63 games in streaming video, as well as recaps, highlights, etc.

Let the excitement begin.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Life to the Max

Max has been a part of our sons' lives for their entire memory. They were both young enough that they can't really remember a time without him around the house, greeting them at the door each day, playing and chasing them around the house, begging to be walked or let outside to do his business...just there, always there.

Last night, we had to say good-bye to Max. I've never had to do this before either, so it was a new and unwelcome experience for the entire family. We had booked an appointment at the animal hospital and then, with teary eyes, took him in for a final good-bye.

More tears, more hugs, more good-byes...and then it was over.

The veterinary staff were very sensitive and understanding, but with something like this, there isn't much somebody else can do to mitigate the grief. We'll get paw prints in about a week's time to give to our sons, and of course, we'll keep the collar and leash for ourselves, but the bottom line is that our beloved dog Max is gone.

We'll miss him.

Saturday, March 08, 2008

An Unwanted Journey: Day 0834 - Via

Monday, a colleague and I took Via Rail to Toronto for a day-long meeting. Compared to travelling by car during typical Toronto rush-hour traffic, the train was a relaxing, even pleasant, experience. We could read, chat, prepare for the meeting, work on meeting follow-up activities, even simply pause and watch the scenery go by.

We talked about the experience of travelling by train with our children. For me, it's been quite a while since my wife and I took our two sons for an excursion from Kitchener to Toronto by rail. But the memory is a good one. If I remember correctly, we went from one train experience to disembarking at Union Station to a meal in a nearby restaurant and then on to the subway to visit the Royal Ontario Museum, yet another brand new experience for the boys, this time on a subterranean track.

All of which got me thinking about taking the train from Barrie to Toronto with my grandmother many years ago and to other occasions at the home of my other grandparents who lived near the rail line that used to wrap around Kempenfelt Bay. I would sometimes be invited to stay at their home overnight on a weekend, laying awake at night listening to the sound of freight and passenger trains rumbling by within a quarter mile of the bedroom.

There is definitely a romance in riding the rails.

On another occasion this week, a colleague and I were talking about charities for children and I mentioned what I thought was a worthy candidate for corporate giving - the James Fund for Neuroblastoma Research at Sick Kids Hospital in Toronto. I conveyed how I had corresponded with one of the founders of the fund, Syd Birrell, the father to James Birrell in whose memory the fund is named and the author of a book which I read during my own treatment for colorectal cancer in 2006, Ya Can't Let Cancer Ruin Your Day: The James Emails.

At the time, reading the book was profoundly difficult for me, but today I picked it up again and read the email in which Syd talks about the Via Rail trip he and James took in early February 2000 from Toronto to Montreal and back again to Cobourg.

The trip that Syd and James took was a true adventure providing them both with a very happy memory for the difficult days that lay ahead for the Birrell family. Via pulled out all the stops on that weekend in order to ensure James had a wonderful memory of riding the rails, visiting the dome car and sleeping in the largest overnight cabin available. It was a great example of corporate sensitivity and engagement.

And it all reminded me that our personal journeys may be wanted or unwanted, romantic or fraught with peril, for business or for pleasure - but often one and the same.

This morning, a good friend and I braved the winter storm, drove to St. Jacobs and spent a couple hours together catching up over a breakfast of typical country fare. We spoke of recent events in our lives, difficulties, successes, and the way ahead. My friend asked me directly,

"Now that you've survived cancer, I notice that you still refer to your 'unwanted journey'. Do you think that's accurate?"

"Well, it's more a matter of keeping the integrity of the thread," I said. "But the truth is that calling the journey unwanted is now tinged more with a sense of unexpected than the crisis and dread I felt when I first used the phrase in November 2005."


The journey now appears more like that word. It's neutral. A way forward. A way through the surrounding landscape.

I had no real control when the journey began. It was out of my hands. Like a child, I didn't really know what to expect. It was, again like a child, something of an adventure. And in hindsight I can see the romance and the lessons learned along the way. Those are all good things I suppose.

Yet no matter what has transpired in the interim, I think the words that inspired me on 25-Nov-2005 apply equally well today in retrospect:

"You will choose courage and hope. Though the journey was unwanted, you will choose the way you face the future and your inner spirit will prevail.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008


Take out of your wasted honor
Every little past frustration
Take all of your so called problems
Better put them in quotations
Say what you need to say (8x)

Walkin like a one man army
Fightin with the shadows in your head
Living out the same old moment
Knowing you’d be better off instead
If you could only
Say what you need to say (8x)

Have no fear for giving in
Have no fear for giving over
You better know that in the end its better to say too much
Than to never to say what you need to say again

Even if your hands are shaking
And your faith is broken
Even as the eyes are closing
Do it with a heart wide open
Say what you need to say (25x)

I don't often write about song lyrics. But if you had to peg me in the musical genres spectrum, it would probably be as a fan of the singer/songwriter. Ever since the day I started singing with some friends in a traveling gospel band in the early 70s and playing along with my bass guitar, I valued the simplicity of a good lyric, a decent melody, and a simple guitar accompaniment. So after a couple years on the bass, I opted to pick up an acoustic guitar and start doing some solo work.

I wasn't a songwriter, but I loved finding those songs which fit naturally with some simple strumming or finger picking and either a six-string or twelve-string acoustic.

Being a somewhat typical boomer, you can probably now predict with some accuracy who and what I like to listen to in the singer/songwriter genre. There wouldn't be a lot of surprises. And I really don't give a damn whether anyone thinks I'm a sentimental old fool, or that I might have some rather simple tastes, or even that I'm predictable. All I know is when someone or something turns my fancy, makes me replay a musical selection, or tweaks some extra listening or occasionally some extra reflection.

John Mayer's music is, as you might expect, something which often fits. I have most of his albums and look forward to his new releases. One which I just downloaded from Apple's iTunes today is Say.

Like so much of his music, I find that Mayer is both accessible and just a bit surprising. He breaks some rules some of the time, rules like don't keep repeating a phrase or don't put the bridge in too early. In Say, he repeats a single phrase eight times over...several times.

"Say what you need to say...say what you need to say...say what you need to say..."

I haven't seen the movie The Bucket List and until this evening I hadn't seen the music video.

But the music and lyrics resonate with me...a lot.

I don't need a personal bucket least not just yet. But I do need to say what I need to say. "Better to say too much than never to say what you need to say." That could be a page right out of my own book. Thank you John Mayer. Thanks so much.