How is it that they cannot walk,
When slower speed is wanted,
Can play all day and jump and climb,
On into night undaunted. 

Bounding to and fro with mirth,
While chasing wind and rain,
Grubbing, digging, wrestling too,
Impervious to pain.

But task them with some simple thing,
Then comes a sudden crash,
Aching backs and swollen tongues,
With joint-pain and a rash.

Bathroom breaks that take an hour,
Drinks that last all day,
Just anything to slow the pace, 
Because it isn't play.


There is a kind of tired,
That resting can't assuage,
Not caused by sweat and labor,
Nor a product of great age.

Oft it creeps in slowly,
Caused by labors of the mind,
When truths compete as valid,
But no resolution find.

They grind against each other,
Then life adds in some grit,
Of reason, hope and longing,
That block and warp the fit;

Which erstwhile might be forming,
Were the process left alone,
To smooth the roughened edges,
Like a knife against the hone.

And form a polished surface,
Where the two can both reside,
Supporting one another, 
Standing stronger side by side.

But friction over zealous calls,
For effort hard and long,
To overcome the sticking points,
A glue that's thick and strong.

Competing hopes and hardened facts,
Pull and push and block,
Each in it's own direction,
'Till it stops, an unwound clock.

With such grit to clog the gears,
The truths are ground to dust,
And leave back no remainder, 
In which to hope or trust.

Snake Oil – Thoughts on Temporal Hope

Where do you turn when hope seems lost?

Several years ago, a friend of mine shared his thoughts on this topic.  Jim was probably one of the happiest and kindest men I had ever met.  His whole life had been dedicated to the cheerful service of others, and he was beloved by a great many as a result.   Unfortunately, tragedy doesn’t seem to respect these kinds of distinctions, and struck Jim and his family rather abruptly and harshly.   Several months before the exchange around which this article is based, Jim and his wife Helen had traveled to Europe for the 60th anniversary of D-Day.  While there, Jim started to experience pain in his leg that wouldn’t go away and didn’t seem correlated to what he had been doing (exercising for example).

Upon returning to the United States, Jim was informed that he had a cancerous tumor in his hip.  Because of the nature of the tumor they would have to amputate his leg and remove part of his pelvis.  He was also facing rounds of Chemotherapy.  He would certainly never run again and would never walk without crutches.  I know many people who would have been crushed under this weight and become bitter and angry.  However, Jim being Jim, he faced this challenge wonderfully.  Nurses would argue over who got to attend him, and I don’t think I ever saw him angry, upset, or even outwardly depressed throughout the surgery, recovery, and extensive rehab.

As if this weren’t enough, while Jim was recovering from surgery Helen was diagnosed with ovarian cancer.  Unlike Jim’s, Helen’s cancer was inoperable and had metastasized to other parts of her body.   She was facing intense chemotherapy with bleak prospects.  Over the course of her treatment she became progressively weaker and weaker.  After several rounds of treatment it became clear that the cancer was going to win it’s battle.  Modern science had done what it could, and the disease was going to take her life.

Jim and Helen both had great faith, and understood that life and family don’t end in death.  It provided great comfort to both of them to know that regardless of the outcome they were sealed together for eternity.  While it helped to have this perspective, human nature fears the separation of death, and Jim was inwardly struggling greatly with the looming loss of his wife of over thirty years.   The prospect of even a temporary separation in death was terrifying.

It was about at this point when Jim and I talked together while attending a church activity.  I was substantially younger than he and looked up to him as a mentor, so I took every opportunity I could to hear what was on his mind.  It was during this exchange that I first got a look into the sadness inside of him at that point, and some insight into some of what I would face later on.

I’m not sure how it came into the conversation, but Jim (who’s language was always above reproach) lamented the “scheisters hawking hope in a bottle.”  This was the strongest language I’d ever heard come from Jim, and it was said in the church cultural-hall to boot.  I was somewhat stunned.  It turns out he had recently been targeted by countless miracle cures courtesy of some variety of e-mail list he had been added to.  In normal conditions he would have deleted every one of them without thought, but at this point he was out of hope.  Helen was in the end-stages of her fight with the cancers inside her and was losing.

Jim had always been the  kind of person to calmly and rationally work through a problem rather than make an emotional decision.  Logic worked pretty well for him and was his default mode of operations.  However, he explained to me that there comes a point when almost all hope is gone, when the doctors are out of options, when they look you in the face and tell you they will try to make your loved-one as comfortable as possible while they are suffering and being slowly wrenched away from you, that rationality goes out the window and you cling to any kind of hope you can find.  The comment about the scheisters hawking hope was an expression of the cognitive dissonance he felt between the knowledge that this kind of hope was fruitless and the need to have ANY kind of hope.

At one level, he knew the miracle cures being offered were little more than distilled water sold by unscrupulous pain profiteers.  He knew there was no real chance these cures would work.  Were someone to ask his advice he would unreservedly counsel them to save their money.  However, when it came to his wife and the seemingly hopeless situation they faced, he told me “There comes a point where it doesn’t matter anymore.  You cling to false hope because it’s the only hope you have left.”

He said this with unspeakable sadness – sadness for the loss of his leg and lifestyle, sadness for the existence of conscious-free con-men who prey upon and exploit the grief and frailty of those in pain, and above all sadness for the impending loss of his wife.  I thought I understood him.   I didn’t then, at least not completely.

Since that time, I’ve had the opportunity to see the concern in a doctor’s face as he struggles to understand what’s wrong with your loved-one and searches for anything that will make it better.  I’ve felt the inexpressible anguish and utter helplessness I believe can only be felt by someone watching their life’s companion slip away.  I’ve come to understand what Jim meant.

There does come a point where it doesn’t matter if something has any real hope of working or not.  You do it because it’s the only thing you can do, and doing nothing is unbearable.  You buy the exquisitely expensive snake oil and mortgage your financial future because you can’t cope with the prospect of a future alone with the nagging fear you could have done more.  You set aside the logic, reason, education, science, and evidence you have spent a lifetime cultivating for voodoo and witchcraft.  It doesn’t feel good, in fact it hurts mentally and is itself a source of sadness, but it’s better than doing nothing – your only alternative.

In my case, a miracle happened and I was granted a reprieve.  Liz is still here by my side, but the prospect of a relapse is real.  As much as I hate the idea of magic potions and snake oil, I have to admit that I spend a fair bit of money on it.  It grates on me, grinds against me, pulls me off balance, but it happens anyway because as uncomfortable as I am with the status-quo, I am more uncomfortable with the alternative.  It truly doesn’t matter anymore if it works or not.  Sometimes hope is the only real product that comes with hope-in-a-bottle, and I guess sometimes that’s enough.

Snake Oil

My patented and perfect cure
Is worth it's weight in gold
Composed of extracts much more pure
Than ever have been sold.

The larva from a tse-tse fly
In tincture with exotic salt
Applied just right to tired eye
Will heal a ghastly fault. 

Pure essence of a tiger's blood 
To strengthen timid hearts 
And extract of a cobra's bile 
Rebuild your weaker parts.

Fix your ills in just one dose 
Or ten, or maybe more 
A dose a day for just six weeks 
Will heal an ulcered sore. 

Taken for six hundred days 
While drifting out at sea 
Will Harmonize your Feng and Shui 
And balance inner Chi 

It's mixed and formed and shaped just so 
Near crystal power packs 
With charging magnets down below 
On active ion stacks. 

Our hydro-hyperpathic bath
Distils the precious dew
While eastern shamans watch the pot
That holds our magic brew.

But give no heed to chemists claims
There's nothing in the mix
My product is much too refined
For clumsy science tricks. 

Doctor's too may call it fake
Say claims are way off track 
But then they'll say 'bout anything
To keep you coming back