The Walnut-sized Gland Step 3

Dear gentle readers: Please note that this post contains details some may consider graphic or extremely personal. I am going to discuss a form of erectile dysfunction treatment. (Hint: It’s not a pill.) Do I need to reveal this part of my personal journey? Probably not. So… If post-radical prostatectomy ED isn’t something you need to know about, you may want to turn away now. If you read on, hang on to your britches.

Pfizer received FDA approval for their little blue pill almost exactly 20 years ago—March 1998. Since then, the treatment of erectile dysfunction (ED) has become a multi-billion dollar a year industry. Given the hyper-sexualized state of our society, you may not have imagined that there were so many flaccid penises. But it’s true. Here’s the problem: these companies are raking in this wad of cash nearly by accident. Most ED pills are vasodilators—formulated to treat pulmonary hypertension. In clinical trials, though, something unexpected happened. The results, um, raised the possibility that sildenafil citrate might have a much firmer market.

The human penis contains three, let’s call them spongy, sets of tissue: the left and right corpora cavernosa (together, the corpus cavernosum), and the corpus spongiosum. Among the many things that happen as a result of male sexual response, the smooth muscle in the arteries of the penis relaxes and lets blood flow into this tissue. By and large, this is the basis for an erection. In some men, the arteries that feed this tissue may not function well. Their nerves tell the smooth muscle to relax. It does. But blood flow into the penis can’t keep ahead of the chemical events that naturally diminish the erection. Drugs like sildenafil and tadalafil help alleviate that condition. In most cases, it’s budda-bing budda-boom, off to the races.

That’s the simple explanation. But, to understand why these drugs won’t alleviate all forms of ED, we have to get a little further out into the weeds. So here we go.

We can think of the particular smooth muscle in the penis as a valve that operates normally closed. Send an electrical signal to the solenoid on that valve, and it opens. When the signal stops, the valve closes again. In this case, the electrical signal is coming from a pair of nerve bundles, the cavernosal nerves. These, though, do not control the smooth muscle directly. Smoth muscle is, by definition, fibrous and involuntary. Rather, they release nitric oxide (NO2). The NO2 starts a reaction the chemical result of which is cyclic guanosine monophosphate (cGMP). It’s the cGMP that relaxes the muscle. Now, contrary to most male thinking, you don’t want a permanent erection. So, your body sees to it that cGMP gets hydrolyzed back into an inactive state by an enzyme called PDE5. So. . . cGMP opens the valves. PDE5 scrubs the cGMP and the valve closes.

If your arteries can’t let enough blood into the penis to maintain an erection, you could do a number of things. You could thin the blood. Systemic—and dangerous. You could increase blood pressure. Even more dangerous. You could increase NO2. But, maintaining higher NO2 levels would be protracted, not short term. Or you could block the PDE5. This is simple, predictable and short term. So that’s what sildenafil citrate does.

This is all well and good if the underlying cause of your ED is vascular. But for a sizable swath of men—and I must shyly raise my hand to be included in this group—the underlying cause is nerve damage. And that’s where Pfizer stumbling onto their little blue pill does no good. Somebody may be writing songs about them. But to me they are just a blind squirrel. Congratulations on finding that nut!

You see, the cavernosal nerves, in that complex cascade of events that lead to sex, can only release NO2 if they respond to whatever is triggering them. Damage them or traumatize them, and they do not respond. In that case, there is nothing for Viagra to do. And this is where ED treatment gets a little rocky. Or, I guess I should say, a little less rocky.

As I mentioned in previous posts, I opted for what I view as the gold standard for prostate cancer treatment: a radical prostatectomy. In my case, it was a robotically-assisted laparoscopic radical prostatectomy using nerve-sparing technology. It was also done at the hands of a competent, extraordinarily experienced urologist.

By definition, a radical prostatectomy removes the entire prostate. If your prostate cancer has not jumped ship, metastasized is the medical term, poof! you are cured. And, with the entire walnut-sized gland out to be sliced and diced, it’s easy to biopsy, easy to tell if the cancer is contained.

But let’s go back to that nerve-sparing part. Your prostate is packed into your pelvis like an iPhone chip. Basically, when it comes out, some stuff is coming with it. The surgeon’s goal is not to cut or cauterize anything that can’t eventually return to normal. So, with nerve-sparing technology, the surgeon uses some electrical impulses to map key nerves and the robot ‘learns’ those locations so these can be avoided. Of course this includes the cavernosal nerves. The problem is that, as the cavernosal nerves branch off of the pelvic plexus on their way to the corpus cavernosum they attach tendrils to the prostate gland.

More specifically these tendrils are attached to a sheath on the surface of the prostate. So easy-peasy then, right? Just peel up that sheath and the cavernosal nerves stay intact. Well, yeah, except that peeling that sheath without tearing it is likened to peeling wet tissue paper from your kitchen counter without tearing it. We have to take the term ‘nerve-sparing technology’ with a grain of salt here. The reality is that there is going to be trauma to the cavernosal nerves. That means there is going to be some ED. How bad will it be? And for how long? Well, it’s a bit like the urinary incontinence that comes with a radical prostatectomy: it depends.

Diaper jokes aside, it depends because it’s an individual thing. This starts before surgery. A lab manager that once worked for me always said: “Good. Cheap. Fast. Pick two.” In the case of prostate cancer your choices are longevity, continence, and sexual function. Yep, it’s the age-old live/fuck conundrum.

I was only 60 when I had my surgery. And I have to admit that fucking still ranked pretty high on my to-do list. But, at 60, untreated prostate cancer probably wasn’t going to let me get to 80. My cells simply haven’t slowed that much. And other treatments were going to have to be aggressive enough to also cause ED. So out comes the walnut-sized gland. In pre-operative discussions with the urologist, my wife and I picked longevity and continence over erectile function. (She picked longevity; I picked continence.) We weren’t worried. I’ve hiked to the Old Baldy summit plenty of times. But I don’t always take the Old Baldy Trail. Sometimes I take the Super Trail. Or the Florida Canyon Trail. Or the Gardener Canyon Trail. There are lots of ways to peak. Some just take a little more patience.

So I accepted ED as at least a temporary result of the surgery. In part this was because all data suggested that ED resulting from a robotically-assisted laparoscopic radical prostatectomy using nerve-sparing technology at the hands of a competent, extraordinarily experienced urologist would be temporary at best.

How temporary? Well, that depends on the other individual thing: the exact location of those nerve bundles. Essentially, I had given the surgeon permission to cut them if need be to meet my first two goals. Some obviously needed to be cut. How many God only knows. Now we can only wait and see.

The point is that I’ll probably be able to screw, bang, fuck, bump uglies, knock boots, churn butter, or slam like a dunny door in a gale again someday. Just not today. Meanwhile, there is one slight problem. The spongy tissue in the penis can, without use, become less spongy. The tissue atrophies. I can put up with a year or two of impotence. But total loss of my erectile tissue is not an option. Unfortunately, most of the therapies for getting blood into that tissue are just plain bad. Some require injections. Some require surgery. Some require implants. No. No. And no thank you.

And then there is the vacuum pump. I know. There was that day you were a little curious. So you went to that web site. And in the game of whack-a-mole that started with the pop-up ads, you swear you saw claims that your masculinity could be, um, enhanced with a vacuum pump. It probably can’t. But, as it turns out, getting blood into the penis using a vacuum is an age-old remedy.

Rather than trying to find those old pop-up ads again, I talked to my urologist. His practice works with a company called University Compounding Pharmacy. They have reps who sell the Pos T Vac pump. Long story short, the UCP rep did a good job of making it seem a lot less weird. My wife did a good job of making it seem a lot less weird. So off we went.

If you are still reading, you have one more chance to turn back.

No matter what I say next, I recommend you consider a vacuum device if you end up with ED resulting from a radical prostatectomy. As it turns out, those nocturnal erections you get are important. It’s a bit of biological housekeeping. Maintaining a healthy corpus cavernosum depends on having blood flow into it on a regular basis. The penis vacuum makes it easy to emulate exactly that.

But let’s face it. Once you have one, you are going to want to use that erection to have sex. It’s not necessary. To be clear, it is absolutely possible to have an orgasm without an erection. And as for your partner, well, like I said there are lots of ways to the summit. But you will still want to. I get it. If you are old enough to have prostate cancer, that hard-on probably has some sentimental value.

So, since you are heading down that road anyway, I’ll tell you now that a vacuum induced erection takes some getting used to. Unless you are Christian Gray, sex and mechanical devices just don’t seem to go together. And of course, the erection you get from the device doesn’t hang around on its own. You have to keep the blood in your penis with a support ring—essentially pinching off the dorsal vein. To grasp how this affects the look, feel and texture of your penis, wrap a rubber band around one finger about halfway toward the tip. After a minute notice the difference between the skin before and after the band. So… it feels different. And, of course, the support ring can’t keep your dorsal vein completely pinched off. So you can dally a bit on the preliminaries. But not too long. In fact, no matter how well the dorsal is clamped, you have no more than 30 minutes to get to the point. Otherwise you risk doing the very type of damage you bought the pump to avoid.

The other thing—and this is hard to describe—is that it seems like the support ring interferes with the suspensory ligament. This makes the penis seem less like a beam attached to a column and more like universal joint attached to nothing. And, and this is probably starting to sound negative, you’ll probably have some loss of sensation. These two things combine to make it tough to know the angle of your dangle. Like a mortar team needs a spotter, your partner is going to have to let you know when you have things landing where they should.

Oh, one more thing. Don’t think you can show up for the big dance the first time you use your device. This is not a big deal. One reason you want the device is to maintain the health of your corpus cavernosum. You’ll be using it more often than you have sex. So use it a few times before you put a ring on it. That will give you a chance to get the hang of it. And to figure out how to fit a mechanical device into your lovemaking.

If there is an upside—as if having sex using your very own penis isn’t enough—those old-time pop up ads are partly correct. While there is no evidence that the effects are permanent, the vacuum can allow your corpus cavernosum to fill beyond its usual, um, capacity. (Or maybe it’s just my age becoming more evident.) If that proves true for you too, enjoy!

That said, great device. No drugs. No implants. No surgery. No side affects. You can use it at will. And, once those cavernous nerves start to heal, you could use it in conjunction with sildenafil, tadalafil, vardenafil, udenafil, avanafil or the vasodilator of your choice until they heal completely.

Thanks for sticking with me. I know that’s a pretty deep dive into the chemistry of sex. And we only touched on what happens in the pudendum. When you get into the brain, serotonin, dopamine and testosterone produce a whole other sexual chemistry. And ED has an impact on those. In fact, ED can trigger a bit of a chemical downward spiral.

That’s why I give Pfizer no props. It’s bad enough that they think the little woman wants to cuddle with me after the Sunday game. She doesn’t. She wants to discuss why the Steelers didn’t create a penalty so that Boswell could get a better angle on that last second field goal. But its even worse that their constant advertisement of the little blue pill has reshaped the sexual landscape as much or more as The Pill. In this post, I use the term erectile dysfunction. But outside the medical field that term didn’t exist two decades ago. You were impotent. Well, now you can’t be impotent in America. And that’s a problem. Because some of us are. But we live in a world where the problem is solved. All couples now saunter, in gorgeous high-key lighting, toward beautifully paired clawfoot tubs. There is nothing more to discuss. Except that outside the realm of PDE5 inhibitors, impotence is still a lonely, depressing place. And there is no pill for that.

(Hopefully, any other posts about that walnut-sized gland will be shorter and less revelatory. I’m going to dabble with nitric oxide supplements—more specifically L-arginine. I might also delve into the relationship between testosterone, serotonin and dopamine. If anything turns up as a result of it, I’ll let you know. Meanwhile, if you would like a super-deep dive into the vascular and innervation functions of the penis, click here.)


My Dad

My father died last week.

Though his dying was sudden, it was not unexpected. But … expected or not, there was no way to be ready for the news, no way to prepare for the finality. Bit by bit, my tendrils into the past loosen and I can see it all start to slip away.

My favorite memory of Dad might be at Meadow Run. Back in the hills, anything smaller than a river is a creek or a run. One is the same as the other. Meadow is a run. Anyway, Meadow Run once formed a property line for some friends of ours: Boss and Gladys Bryner.

If you were going to write a story about mountain people displaced by progress, you could fictionalize it. Or, you could just write about Boss and Gladys. Boss was small and tough. He had quick eyes that seemed to take in everything at once. He could shoot a carp through the eye with a .22 rifle. I saw him do it. Gladys was ample and loud. She had a great recipe for collard greens. And she could play the accordion. I can still hear her do it. They lived an unassuming life in a house that seemed more like a cabin. It was half-buried in a hillside, surrounded by old trees. The front wall probably saw sunshine only during the leafless winters.

Anytime you visited Boss and Gladys, you could dig up fossils in the shale outcropping beside the cabin. Or you could make friends with all the glass-eyed taxidermy critters inside. (I always made it a point to do that.) Or you could sit on the fenders of a … Well, I don’t remember now. It might have been a 1954 Hudson Hornet. Or a 1949 DeSoto 4-door. But it sat on the sunny side of an unpainted wooden shed. And you could sit on the fenders.

The other thing you could do is walk down a grown-over dirt road, past hemlocks and fiddlehead ferns to Meadow Run. At the time I was still a stranger to blue water and I loved going down to the creek. Any creek. But Meadow Run was special.

Some mountain streams have stony bottoms. Some cobbled bottoms. Some pebbly bottoms. All mountain streams have gradient. Meadow Run has precipitous gradient. And it tumbles steeply downhill over almost pure bedrock. Homewood Sandstone. So, everywhere are channels, plunge pools, and waterfalls. It was great fun to ride down the channels, like a water slide, into a deep swimming hole. Best of all, Meadow Run did all of that without caring a whit about the changes it must have seen coming.

Eventually the dark rumors that chunks of land around Ohiopyle were going to be taken over for a state park proved true. Eminent domain and all that. Boss and Gladys were uprooted and ended up in a cove even further back in the hills. The cabin was eventually dismantled by the state. A hazard to the tourists don’t ya know. As part of a trail system, the park built a paved parking lot just off Dinner Bell Road. Now you could walk down what we thought of as Boss and Gladys’ driveway, then down the grown-over road, past the same shady hemlocks, to the creek.

I went there pretty often. It was a great place to play. So you could imagine I continued to think of Meadow Run as our creek even after the park took over.

One day, most of the family, including my dad, decided to drive up into the mountains and spend the day at Meadow Run one more time. For my dad, this was unusual. Not that he didn’t like the woods. The woods just meant something different to him. For the longest time there was a pile of wormy chestnut boards at my grandfather’s place on Brush Creek Road. The pile was there because, for much of the time my dad was a teenager, my grandfather ran a small sawmill. The saw was powered by a T-head, straight-four engine from a Stutz Bearcat. I know that because this seemed to be a point of pride among my dad and uncles.

Anyway, the mighty American chestnut became blighted by an Asian exotic in 1904. By the start of World War One nearly every single chestnut tree in the Appalachians was dead. Beetles burrowed into the still standing deadwood. Even in that state, chestnut was tough. It was still being harvested. The bore holes simply made it a much sought after decorative wood. So my grandfather cut, sawed and rough planed wormy chestnut. Hence the pile of boards.

So my dad probably worked in the woods more than he played in the woods. In fact work is mostly what I remember my parents doing. I grew up not knowing that people didn’t know how to do things. We had baseboard heating installed in the house on Bitner Road. (Think small, up-to-date versions of the old cast iron radiators.) A contractor arrived to run the piping and install the heaters. But that is the only thing I remember being done for my parents. They did gardening, carpentry and woodworking, roofing, auto mechanics. They did their own taxes. They built sheds and fences. When the pipe from the spring failed, they trenched and laid the new pipe. For years after the 1973 Arab Oil Embargo, they cut, split, and corded their own firewood—for a wood stove they installed themselves. The baseboard heaters from the oil furnace went silent for a time.

So my dad didn’t play much. He did, though, occasionally do things we thought were fun. My brother and I found a wooden airplane propeller at my grandfather’s place. (My dad didn’t seem surprised. It turns out that he and my uncles had carved it.) We decided to build an airplane. My father patiently cut the ribs and spars for us from the siding of a barn recently torn down. Then, when it became obvious that my brother and I had no idea how to put those together, he finished a small two-seater single-wing just for us.

Once, I ate enough oatmeal to send in Quaker Oats box tops for an O scale Lionel train. My dad laid the track out on plywood and added casters so that we could roll it under the bed. Then he modeled yard towers and other things from Manila folders to add to the realism.

We didn’t have sleds one winter. But I discovered that we could slide down the hill on plastic garbage bags. Tobaggining we called it. I had a 35mm camera by then. So we have a black-and-white photo of Dad, my dad, zipping down the hill, the background in a blur.

So mostly he worked. And sometimes he played. And on that day we played in Meadow Run.

We had the place to ourselves. Most of the tourists used the natural water slides just up from the bridge on the main road. Those were easier to get to. Bigger. Faster. We weren’t looking for a thrill. We just wanted to hang out in the mountains. We just wanted some time to hear the breeze sough through the hemlocks. We could ride the water slide, swim in the plunge pool, or just sit on the warm sandstone watching sunlight dappling the water. My dad, of course, didn’t get in the water. He never wore a pair of shorts. Never. He—once—rafted the Youghiogheny with us in the same green cotton twill work pants he always wore. Our day at Meadow Run was no exception.

But he did wade the creek with us, his pants carefully rolled up to just below his knees. We went slowly upstream—not far, a quarter-mile or so. We waded where we could, sauntered over the bedrock where we couldn’t. Dad seemed relaxed. Just like he knew the names of the trees crowding the creek banks, he knew the names of minnows in the water. But more to the point was the look on his face. He knew those things. But you could see in his eyes that the knowing came from farther in the past. And that in the breeze and the sunshine and the rushing water, he was living in that past. For the longest time he had the hint of a smile on his face.

So that is my favorite memory of my father: strolling in the sunshine, wading in Meadow Run, pants rolled up, boots in hand—dressed for work, but having fun—smiling.

Years later, the movie A River Runs Through It quoted the writer Norman McLean. He said:

Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world’s great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs.”

Those words hadn’t quite echoed through my head before they reminded me of that day with Dad. But I wasn’t sure why at the time. Maybe it was that smile on his face—like he was hearing words from under the rocks. Who could say?

I think I know now. Dad is off for his journey through the cosmos. If it is to work in the woods, or lounge by a creek, we can never know. But, yes, all things do merge into one. I see that now. Now I too am haunted by waters.

Godspeed, Dad.

The Walnut-Sized Gland Step 2

I mentioned my prostate a few months ago—a walnut-sized gland, tucked under the male bladder. You’d think, by its choke-hold on your urethra, that it is hanging over empty space, like Luke desperately gripping the Cloud City maintenance walkway. It is not. It is packed in like an iPhone chip.

Sometimes that grip is the problem. Prostates get old, they get irritated, they swell. They wake old men up at night, unable to vent their bladder. But mostly they are very quiet. Even when they become cancerous. Prostate cancer arrives with no warnings, no symptoms. It is insidious enough to have become the leading solid organ cancer; insidious enough to become one of the leading causes of cancer deaths among men.

And that’s where packed in like an iPhone chip becomes a problem. Surgery is one way to fight back against a cancerous prostate. Think Darth deli slicing—and presumably cauterizing—Luke’s wrist. While Luke simply dropped away at the Bespin gravitational constant, the packed-in prostate only comes out with other stuff attached. Part of your urethra, for example. And a few key nerves. As you might guess from their neighborhood, these nerves control urinary continence and sexual response.

In fact, urinary incontinence is a common post-surgical complication with a radical prostatectomy. I was pretty lucky in that regard. I could almost whiz at will right off the bat. And any problems got rapidly better. Five months in, an occasional drop gets through the faucet. But, hey, at 61 I was headed toward some leaky plumbing anyway. So I can’t really complain.

The other common post-surgical complication is sex. More precisely, the inability to have it. And you’d think that might be from a lack of seminal fluid. In its quiet unassuming life under the bladder, the prostate produces seminal fluid, that protein that carries sperm down your urethra to form ejaculate. Gone now, and with the vas deferens also cut by the surgeon, there is no ejaculate. But that is not the problem. It is quite possible to have a dry orgasm.

No, the problem is in those key nerves that get cut. Some control blood flow into the corpora cavernosa. They are the last switch on the track that sends the erection locomotive into the station.

Nerve-sparing technology—especially when used with robotic laparoscopic surgery—is meant to leave some of these intact. But that is not always possible. Exactly where the nerves are located is one issue. But exactly how close the surgeon must cut to the margins of the prostate is another. In my case, the primary goal was being alive 15 years from now. The secondary goal was to be able to pee when I wanted. Sex was third. That might sound strange, I know. But, like I said, I’m 61. I only know one way to live. I know one way to pee. But when it comes to sex, I know more than one way to skin a cat.

So, my prostate came out in its entirety, like it never existed. With it came bits of those key nerves. Now traumatized into a trance, they no longer signal my penis to pay attention to the world around it.

Rooting the waltnut-sized gland out completely means it was also possible to completely dissect it. (Along with some of the lymph nodes in my groin.) The resulting chopping and grinding revealed that the cancer had not spread to the margins of the prostate. Which means it had most likely not spread.

That’s good news. Barring other cancers, car accidents, a massive stroke, stray bullets, ebola, pit bull attacks, a repeat of the Spanish influenza—or whatever ancient evil virus is being released from the melting permafrost—I might actually be alive 15 years from now. To be sure, I’ll get semi-annual PSA tests for a few years. And not just any PSA test. A normal PSA test looks for that prostate specific antigen in parts per milliliter. To get serious, they test me now in parts per nanoliter. I went back to the surgeon yesterday to hear the results of the first such test since surgery. Mine was a statistical zero. Not a trace of that antigen, peculiar to prostate cancer, was found in my blood. So, yay!

Me and the doctor are very happy with our primary goal. We are pretty happy with our secondary goal. My urinary control is not perfect. But it’s close enough.

The tertiary goal needs some tweaking. The problem with being 61 is that you are only 61. Not getting an erection at 81 might fall into the category of the coffee maker being on the fritz. At 61, you are not really ready to hang up your jersey. What to do? Sildenafil—or tadalafil, vardenafil, udenafil, and avanafil—only works if your nerves are able to signal for blood flow. With no blood flow at all, vasodilators are out. We could simply wait for the nerves to regenerate. You know, skin the cat some other way for awhile. But nerves regrow slowly. It may take years after a radical prostatectomy to be able to have a spontaneous erection. The problem is, that after a protracted period without blood going into the erectile tissue, the tissue starts to deteriorate. The sponge gets less spongy. (Yes, wives, that nocturnal erection your husband gets isn’t just because he’s oversexed. It’s partly biological housekeeping.) Apparently this deterioration can happen in months let alone years. So waiting too long ensures some damage will be done.

So we’re off on a new adventure. The scars are healing. The plumbing is as tight as can be expected. My PSA level is exactly where I hoped it would be. Now, my wife and I get to select an ED treatment. It’s not exactly the stuff of dreams. But, it’s the next chapter in our little saga about a walnut-size gland.

Cocoraque and a Blood Moon

This morning, the setting full moon is eclipsed by our planet’s shadow. A blood moon. It will rise tonight as a blue moon. And a super moon. Blood moons. Super moons. Blue moons. Snow moons. What does it all mean?

I don’t know. But delving into the meanings of things got me thinking about a visit I made to the Cocoraque Petroglyphs. I had avoided going there for over 25 years. But eventually, I needed to see for myself if these mysterious images are a collective enigmatic message. They are. And though many of the stones have been carted away wholesale, I think I pieced together an interpretation from what remains.

Seeing the glyphs surrounded by ironwood was vital to knowing what they say. Ironwood is an evergreen so long lived some individual trees survive for 40 human generations. Other plants seek the nitrogen around its roots. Entire life zones grow under an ironwood’s sheltering canopy. And… ironwood is a monotypic genus–the only one of its kind. Ageless, evergreen, nurturing and monotypic, of course ironwood represents divine female sexual energy: the Creator, the Life Giver.

Cocoraque itself is circular, another symbol of the eternal, save an anomalous lower secondary hill. So the dual peaks are a hierarchical life flow–from the sacred to the supplicant.

And the hundreds of, seemingly pluton, rocks? Born of earth and fire, exposed to wind and rain, they are elemental: the created. They are humans. They are eternal only as a group. Excepting those chosen as prophets they lack divine power or voice. But each rock with a glyph represents a message from a prophet, a manifestation of the divine voice.

So the relationship between the ironwoods around the circular Cocoraque and the glyphs on the individual stones reveals all. The message I have pieced together is this:

A people were here. Now they are gone. They took only what they needed. They did not build. They moved with the rains. But they are gone. Look and learn. The desert is eternal and you are nothing. Your technology will not sustain you. Only the earth will sustain you. Your contempt for her will be your undoing. Make peace with her. Know what is sacred and what is profane. Then live by what you know.

A Quiet Guy

One year ago today my father-in-law died unexpectedly at home. The circumstances were a little overwhelming, so I got no further than a Facebook post. In his memory, I am reposting that here today.

The idea that you can live a life of quiet strength is no longer in vogue. Now it’s about your calling, chasing your muse, living your dreams. All good things, of course. Except that often these things are simply thin veneers for self-indulgence.

John was far from self-indulgent. He just got things done. He didn’t need a stick figure sticker on his minivan for each of his kids—like some combat pilot who’d been shooting down Zeros—to prove he loved his family. He didn’t even need the minivan. He just made sure he paid the mortgage and bought the groceries and the shoes. If there was money left over from raising five kids on a steelworkers wages, it went into making Christmas full and festive or putting a pool in the yard in the summer.

He was a little gruff sometimes. He spoke loudly when he was right, and a little louder when he was wrong. But if you got past that, it was easy to see the twinkle in his eyes, and one corner of his mouth ready to turn up into a smile. Maybe he was a bit like the small house he lived in: a little rough on the exterior, but with a solid foundation and frame.

So he went quietly through life, a steel mill electrician. He’d pick up his lunch pail in the morning and head down the road no matter the weather. Rarely complaining, he slowly built his pension and savings for the day when the wheels of industry were ready to kick him to the curb. He readied himself to live independently when that day came. And that is exactly what he did to the moment he died. I think there is a lot to be said for that.

The great Christian writer Paul once opined that three main things should guide our lives: faith, hope, and love. I’m not sure that John could quote the first letter to the Corinthians. But that’s how he lived his life. Paul said the greatest of the three was love. And Paul was not talking about smothering people with wet kisses, or, as we see so often today, responding to a person’s problems with a smarmy “I’ll pray for you.” Paul was talking about the practical expression of love. I never heard John Kovach say, “I’ll pray for you.” Instead, he just came over to your house and helped you fix your toilet.

It’s shocking that John followed his wife of 63 years into death so soon. Death has been cruel to the Kovach/Adle clan—and especially this past month. I have had enough years on this planet to experience some heartbreak, but have never seen anything like this. But, I once said that good guys should die warm in their beds surrounded by people they love. John came pretty close. He died quickly and painlessly with Kelly’s hand on his shoulder and her looking into his eyes. Since I think she is the sweetest apple to fall from that family tree, I’d be okay with dying the same way.

Kelly overheard her dad praying just a few days before he died. He thanked God for all of the love shown to him these past few very trying months. He prayed to deserve it. And he prayed for the strength to be able to repay it. That’s how unassuming he was. He simply had no idea that he had already paid. He had paid it forward. It was love coming back to him from decades of doing thousands of simple things. We find it easy to see heroes in folks who sacrifice themselves for us all at once. It’s harder to see it in the ones that do it a little bit every single day. So, here’s to the quiet guys. Here’s to the guys who build the stage and then step aside to let the rest of us play on it. Here’s to just getting it done.

Godspeed, John.