Category Archives: Health

When Human Lives Collide

“Half my life ago, I killed a girl.”

That’s how author Darin Strauss begins his confessional autobiography, Half A Life. In this magnificent book, Strauss, who was already a best-selling, award-winning author of three novels, including Chang and Eng about the famous conjoined twins, decides to tell his own story. It’s a tragic, yet redemptive tale in which Strauss finds a way to see the past in a different light and in doing so sheds much of the guilt and self-doubt that he’s been carrying around for more than two decades.

Half A Life is a profoundly personal story of an accident in which a teen-aged cyclist veers into traffic and is struck by the car Strauss was driving, causing a collision which takes the young woman’s life and leaves Strauss with nothing but questions, guilt and self-doubt. But what makes this book so evocative is the author’s ability to remember and recall the “tic-by-tic second” sequence of events that happened one fateful day long ago and followed Strauss for the next two decades. Strauss is not afraid to detail every horrifying, guilty-ridden, grieving moment and the myriad ways the accident continued to haunt him. Half A Life is a courageous recollection of a tragic accident, rendered in an intimate and fearless fashion by the man behind the wheel.

Half A Life begins where it must begin — at the scene of the collision, with a detailed description of every move, thought and emotion. Strauss recounts the tentative moment in which he emerged from the windshield-cracked car, walked over to the side of the road and peered into the “lifeless” eyes of Celine Zilke’s, her body twisted like a ragdoll on the street:

“The eyes were open, but her gaze seemed to extend only an inch or so. The openness that does not project out is the image I have of death: everything present, nothing there. She lay on the warm macadam in oblique angles-arms bent out and up, foot settled under the knee. In the skin between her eyebrows there was a small, imprinted purple horseshoe of blood.”

Strauss takes the reader along with him on a seemingly never ending string of events; the distraught visit to the police station, the author’s unsteady attendance at Celine’s funeral and Strauss’ awkward return to classes. Darin Strauss recalls the wildly insensitive and inappropriate comments made to him by classmates and family members in the wake of the accident. He remembers with vivid recall his interaction with the victims family and how he was told that he would now have to live not one, but two lives, in Celine’s absence. Throughout “Half A Life” Strauss’ inner voice resonates and with each mile marker he passes he remembers new doubts, questions and uncertainties.

As if his own shame and irresolution isn’t enough, Strauss also relates the endless litigation brought by the victim’s family, including mortifying court appearances in which he is asked questions like, “Were you drunk?,” or “With five other cars around, why did she swerve into your car?”, and perhaps the most incredulous, “How far did her body fly?”

Strauss writes:

“Through all this, there was the courthouse threat of financial devastation — a thief taking up ominous position outside every job, every apartment, rubbing his hands together. Everything could at any moment be taken away…to keep Celine with me forever.”

When the author goes to college he remembers not knowing who to trust or whether to tell new friends and lovers about the accident. Years later, Strauss writes of the absurd tension and embarrassment of attending his 10-year high school reunion, all of it a haze of embarrassed baldness and pot bellies. The author enters therapy (doesn’t help), gets married (helps tremendously), and has some kids (helps some more). In the end, Strauss finally takes an emotional journey during which he experiences an essential epiphany of self-knowledge.

“Half A Life” is a somber reflection by Darin Strauss into how we are all connected to one another, yet at the same time, still seperate and apart. It is a redemptive realization rendered in a series of almost poetic pondering and exquisite beauty. Half A Life demonstrates this great writer’s ability to finally make sense of an event which for so long made no sense.

But more than anything, Half A Life, is a heartfelt confession in which the author allows himself a healthy dose of long-deprived self-forgiveness.

Director Tom Shadyak

Meanwhile, in the fascinating new documentary, “I Am,” Director Tom Shadyak came himself to understand how all living things are intrinsically connected to one another, after he was involved in a near fatal cycling accident.

Shadyak, is best known for being behind the camera for nearly a half-dozen wildly successful, albeit lightweight slapstick comedies. Films like Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, Liar Liar, and The Nutty Professor. Not necessarily highbrow material. But every thing’s different in I Am. Shadyak narrates this hopeful documentary that he says he conceived while recovering from the cycling accident that almost killed him. He says that during this period he began asking himself more serious questions like, “What’s wrong with the world” and “What can I do to make it better?”

Shadyak says he realized during his convalescence that problems like poverty, hunger, and war (to name just a few) needed to be addressed soon or else our species would be doomed. So he set out to ask experts around the world, people like Desmond Tutu, the late historian and sociologist Howard Zinn and linguist, philosopher and political theorist Noam Chomsky, as well as many other scientists, physicists and big thinkers the big question: How do we leave our quest for greed and excess behind and replace them with lives spent improving the planet Earth and its inhabitants?

Shadyak quickly found, as expected, that there are no easy answers, but in I Am he takes us around the world to ponder things like, maybe there are limits to how much we need, perhaps less actually is more and perchance the whole quest for more, more, more is a giant lie. Shadyak portrays isolated, indigenous people sharing and helping each other (oh, what a concept,) as do just about every species of living things. The now enlightened Shadyak illustrates that most breeds of animals behave on a model of what is called “consensus thinking”: in other words, the majority decides. For example, if the majority of a flock of birds decide to fly in one direction, then they all fly in that direction.

Perhaps most critically I Am reveals to viewers how problems like war, hunger, and poverty are merely symptoms of a much larger endemic problem, whose solution is not competition and capatalism but cooperation. Shadyak uses his own sense of fun and humor, his curiosity, and his masterful storytelling abilities to portray the simple mystery and magic of our universe – a universe which we can either learn to work in concert with or be seperated from through extinction?

The message for all who see this remarkable film is that the answers to all of these complex questions which will define our future are within us all and it is up to us to recognize our basic connection to all living things. Shadyac shows how his own journey has transformed him into a new and better man, who has given up his expensive, wasteful and ultimately destructive lifestyle.

The films shows, in the end, that the real answer to the question is:

(For more information visit the films web site:

(Special thanks to the beautiful Janet Graham for her assistance and inspiration with this blog.)

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Filed under Books, Films, Health, movies

Prayers Needed For Chuck Graham

I’d like to dedicate today’s blog entry to one of the greatest guys I’ve ever been fortunate enough to meet in my 50 years on the planet. His name is Chuck Graham and, as I type this tonight, he’s battling for his life in a hospital in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Chuck is my beautiful fiancee Janet’s brother and he’s battling from brain cancer. He was admitted to the hospital last week because of pneumonia. He’s a very sick man, but miracles do happen. It’s a crying, awful shame that he’s suffering so much in his long and valiant fight with cancer, but all we can you – all anyone can do, is to pray.

Chuck is an engineer and owns his own multi-million dollar company in North Carolina. He’s hands down the smartest guy I’ve ever met, not just when it comes to engineering which is mostly over my head, but simply when it comes to life. He is smart and sharp about everyday things and could figure out in minutes things that would take you and I much longer to decipher. For example, last Christmas he assembled a magnificent model railroad village in his living room, while entertaining his guests, cooking, attending to the needs of his family which included a wife and two beautiful girls, on in high school and the other in college. I watched him multi-task and marveled at the genius of a great mind that he possesses.

Chuck was born and raised in the sleepy, Dayton area community of Centerville, Ohio. It was a wonderful place to grow up with it’s myriad of similar aged children, always friends to find and things to do. And Chuck, with his charisma and charm, always had plenty of friends. Even the neighbors thought he was the greatest.

I was amazed by this the very first time I met Chuck. It was on Christmas Day of 2008 and Janet had invited me to Chuck’s home outside Charlotte, North Carolina to celebrate Christmas. That night he had what was billed as a “small gathering.” In no time, his house was filled with nearly a hundred friends and neighbors, along with the warm glow that always comes when you are surrounded by the ones you love and who love you. Everybody always wanted to talk to Chuck and Chuck tried his best to oblige, mingling with the Christmas visitors.

Chuck is like a magnet who attracts attention and light. He always has an interesting story and a great sense of humor to go with it. He’s just plain fun to be around. Even then Chuck is not feeling well from his treatments you’d never know it. I never once heard him complain. Complaining and belly-aching is not in Chuck’s nature. Living is.

When it came time for college, Chuck chose the school that dominates his home state, Ohio State. And once, Chuck became an Ohio State Buckeye through and through. As recently as last season he was excited about attending Ohio State football games and typically he’d bring along his wife and parents, Charlie and Evelyn. When he couldn’t be there in person, Chuck will also watch the games at home, hanging on every point scored. His brilliant mind knows all the players on both sides of the field and all their statistics. Just another example of his genius.

I can’t remember the first time that Janet told me that Chuck is battling cancer, but it’s been several years. It first metastasized in his throat, and facial glands. This always made for great discomfort for Chuck. But this wonderful, loving man continues to fight like a prize-fighter. Through countless rounds of chemotherapy and radiation, leaving Chuck with vicious, blinding, head-pounding headaches and other side effects, his wit and friendliness remains. Chuck has taken everything he’s been given with great bravery and courage.

A short time ago, Chuck lost his hair, a common side effect and continued having a difficult time eating. I would send Chuck emails trying to try to cheer him up. But in recent months, I noticed that his responses were growing briefer. I’m certain it was all he could do to go through his email.

Here’s a picture of Chuck and his family last Christmas.

Last week, Janet and I got word that Chuck was in the hospital with pneumonia. His lovely daughter Kelly posted a one word message on her Facebook account. It said: “Pray.”

And that’s what I’m asking all of you to do. Janet and her family are being incredibly strong in the face of all of this. I am doing my best to be strong and to help Janet through this incredibly hard time. All we can do is pray for Chuck. Pray for a miracle. Pray that he’s not suffering too much. Pray that God will show some mercy and help Chuck.

As my father used to say, when he was dying, it ain’t over till they throw roses on you. So let’s pray for a miracle, for they do happen and I’ve seen living proof.

Please pray that Chuck isn’t suffering and that the doctors are keeping him comfortable. Pray that the doctors can make him better again. Just please pray…pray…pray.

On behalf of Janet, her family and Chuck’s family, I thank you.


Filed under Health, My Stories, Profiles

How I Almost Died Sledding At Syracuse University

There’s a steep hill that leads into Oakwood Cemetery next to a dormitory at Syracuse University where we would occasionally sled when I was a student. (What in God’s name was I doing sledding next to a cemetery. I don’t know. You do all kinds of crazy things when you drink terrible beer in college.)

Yes, highly educated students would bundle up in heavy coats, scarfs, mittens and hats and jump onto anything made of plastic for a fast and fun ride down this one hill. The path we would sled down was a good distance from the gravestones and we were always careful not to veer anywhere near the stones or markers embedded in the ground. When I think back now, I realize that I deserve everything that I got.

It had been a average, run of the mill night of partying and bacchanalia at Syracuse that fateful Saturday night in February of 1980. In case you haven’t heard, in addition to producing great scholars, Syracuse also has a reputation as a bit of a party schools. And as all good alums, we were doing our best to uphold that tradition.

I vaguely remember making the rounds to a few different parties, drinking the usual bad beer and then walking back to my dormitory with friends. However, instead of doing the smart thing and continuing to walk into the dorm where I could find comfort and a warm bed, I decided around midnight to check out a group of noisy school mates who were sledding down the aforementioned path.

I was welcomed with a round of hellos and huzzahs, and since I didn’t have my own piece of plastic I was handed one. The idea was to start atop the hill, lay down face first on your belly onto a sheet of plastic. Next you’d give yourself a push and proceed down the slope and then, using your body to direct yourself, veer off to the right until you came to a stop. I did all of this perfectly, until the part where I was supposed to veer off to the right. Instead, I spun out of control and veered to the left – directly into a darn head stone like one of these.

I know, it looks so serene. And in a way it was. But I was in pain. Serious, terrible pain. But I had been lucky, for if I had hit the marker with my head I would not be sitting here typing my blog entry for today. I would be dead. But I guess in my spinning I instead hit the stone with my midsection/side. I stood up and immediately fell down again. I vomited blood. (Never a good sign.) And there I lay for about a minute before my pals noticed I was down and out.

Slightly out of breath, I recounted to them my unpleasant diversion from “the sledding route” and it was quickly determined I needed medical help fast. Thanks to the Syracuse EMTs they were there in a jiff at the top of the hill where my adventure had started.

Now the challenge was for the EMTs, assisted by my buddies, to carry me on a stretcher up a steep hill without dropping me. Well, wouldn’t you know it, they dropped me. Which made my side hurt a great deal more. But into the ambulance I went and if was off to University Hospital Emergency Room – STAT.

Surrounded by several doctors poking me and probing me and doing unspeakable things with their fingers to try and determine my injury. And asking lots and lots of questions.

Had I been drinking?
Yes, a little.

How fast was I going when I hit the headstone?

You get the idea. Finally some not-too-bright intern decided I probably had broken ribs and sent me for x-rays. So there I was on a cot in an empty hallway at about 1:30 in the morning by myself and having an increasingly hard time breathing.

“I need to see a doctor,” I would plead every time somebody walked by. “All the doctors are busy,” I was told.

You see the problem was that I didn’t have broken ribs, I had a ruptured spleen, which was a much bigger deal in 1980 than it is today. I’d show you a picture of a ruptured spleen, but I don’t want to make you sick. It’s disgusting. But a spleen, according to Wikipedia, “is an organ found in virtually all vertebrate animals (me included) with important roles in regard to red blood cells and the immune system.” As I would later find out, a spleen is very important when you’re a child. When you’re an adult, not so much.

But when ruptured, the spleen causes internal bleeding which leads to death. Which I was trying to avoid that night. The chief symptom is shortness of breath, which I definitely had. After what seems today like an eternity, I found a sympathetic nurse who took my blood pressure, called out “Code Red” or something serious sounding and all hell broke loose. People started running, moving my cot into one room and then another. Catheters were being inserted into places where things normally don’t go. I was introduced to a Dr. Mahrburger (You never forget the name of the man who saves your life.) He told me he would have to call my parents to get authorization to do “exploratory surgery,” which basically mean they cut your belly open and see what they find. Once they had that, it was time to count backwards from 100.

100….99…98…lights out.

I guess that’s what it might have looked like. All I know is that good old Dr. Mahrburger, who I later found out had not slept for two days, did a fantastic a job, allowing me to live to tell this tale. The next thing I remember was waking up with all kinds of tubes coming in and out of me. I was so high on Morphine, I didn’t know my name. My parents and my sister Elizabeth had jumped into a car that night and made the 6 hour drive to see me in a haze of opiates. I sorta smiled, picked my head up off the pillow and said “Hi folks” and went back to sleep. God bless them for coming. It was great to see them.

I was in University Hospital for 2 weeks before I was pretty much back to normal, just like this kid only a little older.

I’m fine now except once in a while I get a weird kind of sensation, “spleen envy.” I do have privileges like a special licence plate with a spleen and a marker going through it. So I can park closer to the supermarket. I’m only joking!

Oh,by the way I’ve sworn off sledding…especially on hills next to cemeteries.


Filed under Health, My Stories