My Eulogy For My Grandmother

This is the text of my eulogy for my grandmother, Ruth Ronald, who passed away last Thursday at the age of 94. She was my last surviving grandparent, having outlived her husband by 54 years, and my other grandparents for nearly 30 years. She touched a lot of lives, and I’m just starting to grapple with the size of the hole in my own life created by her passing. I hope my words are worthy of her memory.

Good morning. I’m John, the oldest of Ruth’s eight grandchildren, and father of two of her nine great-grandchildren.

My job today is to talk to you about my grandmother and her life, but I don’t think a dry recitation of the facts and particulars can do justice to her memory. What tells you more about a person: where they were born, lived, worked, raised their family? Those are important, sure, because as you’ll hear, being a Minnesotan did indeed help make Grandma who she was. But these bits can only sketch the outlines of the portrait of a person.

To know someone, well enough to remember them, you need to know what they loved. And that’s what I’m going to share with you today, a few of the things Grandma loved.

There is a line in The Princess Bride in which Inigo Montoya, the character played by Mandy Patinkin in the movie, says “I shall explain – no. Wait. That will take too long. I shall sum up.” So this list, or any list like this, for a person who spent ninety-four years on this Earth is going to be incomplete. I’m sure I’ve missed some things. But I feel confident these were some of the ones closest to her heart.

Grandma loved to travel. Some of my earliest memories I have of her revolve around the presents she brought for my sister Karen and I from her trips. Because when you’re little, it’s all about the loot, right? Her passport had stamps from all over, Spain to Columbia, Poland in the ‘80s, cruises in the Baltic and trips to New Zealand, and other places besides. She didn’t neglect the US, either. I’m hard-pressed to name a state she didn’t at least pass through. Larry, I’m sure, can regale you with tales of some of those road trips. The fact that one of her nicknames within the family was “Sidetrip Grandma” might give you a clue about how trips with her might go.

Grandma loved the Redskins, win or lose. She was still following them this fall. I remember well from the year I lived with her while I was in college, seeing her in her recliner in the den, under her afghan, watching the games on Sunday or Monday night. I think it’s fair to say she’d have a few choice words for Dan Snyder and how he’s run things, delivered in that “more in sorrow than in anger” tone that marked her as a Minnesotan. But two things that could make her happy on a Sunday, the Redskins winning or the Cowboys losing.

Grandma loved teaching, and she poured herself into that work for more than 20 years. She taught here at St. Catherine’s and then in Montgomery County. She taught elementary school, mostly third and fourth grade as I recall, and frequently classes for gifted and talented students. I really believe that what she found fulfilling about it was unlocking young minds, and giving those kids the knowledge and the structure they’d need to continue to explore knowledge, and the world. She was a curious person herself, and there’s no one more curious than children, and I think she enjoyed taking them on those journeys of discovery.

And she did love children, though that upper Midwest reserve meant she was rarely expressive about it. And it’s definitely true that her love for kids was sometimes tempered by her love for order, because children are pretty much entropy incarnate. And we won’t even talk about teenagers. Oh, she loved them still, but they did try her.

Speaking of order: you may have heard the expression, “You can have it done your way, or have it done for you.” Well, that wasn’t the case where Grandma was concerned. If you were doing it for her, you were doing it her way. Or you’d do it over until you did it her way. Or you waited until she wasn’t around and just presented results. Which had better be up to snuff, or you were doing it over anyway.

Grandma loved telling stories, and especially in the last ten years or so I noticed she more and more frequently shared stories from her childhood and youth. One evening when my daughter Alexa and I were at dinner with her, she regaled us with the tale about how she and her little friends used to play in her grandfather’s bakery. Until the day they mixed up the sugar and the salt, which led to a bad batch of bread, and then lead to a battalion of outraged Polish housewives descending on her grandfather. She told stories about growing up in Minneapolis, and living in Hawaii, stories from the places she’d visited and things her students had done. And, of course, stories about her family.

And stories leads me to books, because books were one of those things she loved fiercely. You only had to look in the den to see the packed shelves, or talk with her for any length of time to know she was a reader. She read broadly and in some areas, deeply. Vacations could be measured in how many books were read, and sometimes by how many books were acquired. If you needed a gift idea for her, a book was often a good choice. And books were one of the ways I connected with her most, because it was a passion we shared, and the question “What are you reading?” is one she always had an answer for, and she loved talking about books. She was still reading, and reading as widely as she could, until very recently. In fact, while she was at the rehab center, she pressed a book on Alexa and I, asking us to read it to see if we could make sense of it, because she thought it was just silly. Alexa rose to the challenge and it proved to be a time travel romance, which it’s safe to say wasn’t Grandma’s preferred genre. Uncharacteristically, she’d only made it through chapter four before pressing it on us.

Grandma loved her faith, and this church and parish, of which she was a member for more than fifty years. If a Saturday visit stretched over into Sunday, you were trekking up the hill to go to Mass. The tradition in our family for many years was to come to Grandma’s house for Christmas Eve, and often we stayed for the late Mass. Many of her oldest and dearest friendships were formed in this parish. She taught at the school, and she was a member of clubs and organizations here for many years. She wasn’t overly dogmatic in her faith, but she was true to it to the end.

She loved her independence, and she fought hard to retain what she could as her physical capabilities diminished. It is certainly true that as the years went on, the true extent of that independence declined. But at the core of that drive was a determination to meet the challenges of her life on her own terms. You did what you needed to, she once said to me, or at least you did what you could, and you kept doing it as long as you could manage to. You could call it stubbornness, and you might not be wrong; but I call it determination, and determination was as clear a mark of Grandma’s character as her intellectual curiosity.

But most of all, Grandma loved her family: her children, the grandchildren and great-grand-children, her parents and siblings, her aunts and uncles and cousins. She always wanted to know how the far-flung members of the clan were doing, and she was the go-to person if you had questions about that yourself. No birthday or other milestone went unmarked, and she could, and would, recite with fierce pride the achievements of her kin. And that kinship wasn’t solely that of blood, because if you brought someone new into the family, they became hers as well. She love most having them around her, not just for holidays or birthdays or special occasions, but for whenever it was possible to gather. And you knew, without fail, that if there was a meal, then grace would be said, and after the prayer she would say “And we are thankful that we’re all together,” or words to that effect.

And here we are, together, because of our love for her, and for each other. Grandma, you may be gone, but I know each one of us carries a piece of you with us, now, and ever after.

35 Years Under Oath

On September 22nd, 1982, my dad drove me to the AAFES Station, the enlistment center at which I’d signed up for delayed entry back in April that year, and dropped me off. I had joined the US Army, signing up to for MOS 19D – nineteen delta, in Army parlance – a Cavalry Scout. I’d also volunteered for Airborne training and, upon completing that, was to join the 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg.

I’d never been in a plane until the day I flew from Baltimore to Louisville for Basic, and I’d already volunteered to jump out of planes. People tell me they understand me better when they know that bit of my history.

But before I left Baltimore, I stood in a room with a number of other young people – I don’t remember how many anymore, it was probably twenty or so – and took the Oath of Enlistment:

“I, John Francis Appel, do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; and that I will obey the orders of the President of the United States and the orders of the officers appointed over me, according to regulations and the Uniform Code of Military Justice.” Being an atheist, I left out the “So help me God” bit at the end, which you’re allowed to do.

(And don’t ever let anyone tell you there are no atheists in foxholes. I was hardly the only one when I served, and there’s plenty serving today.)

Basic and AIT were tough, no doubt about it. I injured my left knee in the second full week of Basic, which put me on crutches for about a week, and limited some of my physical training for a week or so after that. It hurt, sometimes badly, right up until we got a break for Christmas and I went home on leave for a couple weeks. It still bothers me occasionally today.

But I finished, if not in a particularly distinguished fashion. I went on to Fort Benning for Airborne School, and after some difficulties there, got my wings and headed to Fort Bragg and the 82nd.

I spent four years in the Regular Army all told, going from Fort Bragg to Fort Hood in ’84. Sergeant’s stripes came in 1985. Leaving the Regular Army in July of 1986 – two months early courtesy the Graham-Rudman budget cutting bill – I spent a year in the Army Reserves in the Operations shop of a reserve Special Forces group. (I’m always careful to say that I served in the 11th SFG but was never a Green Beret. There’s another story there.) In 1987 I switched over to the MD National Guard and back to being a cavalry scout, and in July 1988, I took off my uniform for the last time.

When Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990 I briefly looked into re-enlisting, but was told pretty firmly that I would almost certainly be sent to Korea to free up a currently-serving guy to go to the desert. That was the last time I considered going back into the Army.

Next year, 2018, will mark 30 years since I became a civilian. But probably surprises non one who knows me well that in many ways, I still consider myself bound by that oath I took as a skinny teenager back in ’82.

My military service was a formative period of my life; not one event, but a big string of them over those four years full-time and two part-time. It’s hard to count the number of roads not taken and possible alternate Johns populating the multiverse from the choices I made during that time. But while I’m not the same person I was in 1982, or even ’88, there can be no doubt that the core of the man I am today was formed in the days I wore “Uncle Sam Ain’t Released Me Yet” on my chest.

I have a deep and abiding affection for the US Army, and the 82nd Airborne in particular, and most especially with my fellow paratroopers and cav scouts, past and present.

But that affection is tempered by what I truly believe is the over-veneration of those in uniform. A free and democratic society should not place blind and unblinking faith in those under arms, for what history has shown us again and again is that that path leads to authoritarianism. Those who bear force and exert power over life and death in the name of the nation must be held accountable, and I believe, should welcome that. I fear the infiltration of our Armed Forces by people who want to bring about an authoritarian state – or at least would be willing to stand aside as one was created.

And everyone’s heard the saying “When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” One doesn’t need to look too hard at recent history to recognize that the answer to our issues in the world can’t always come from the barrel of a gun, or the weapons bay of a stealth bomber, or the launch tubes of a guided missile cruiser. After one of the terrorist bombings in Paris a friend posted a cartoon of a Godzilla-sized GI wading the Atlantic, rifle held overhead, saying “Hang on, we’re coming.” That bothered me greatly, because we have more to offer the world than our soldiers, more than our prowess at violence and ability to project at least some bit of our power to damn near any spot on the planet. We can’t solve all the worlds problems by shooting them. It’s entirely the wrong solution to many of them.

And yet: I am proud of my service. I am proud of the Army, while recognizing its many imperfections, for despite those it has so often done the long, hard, dirty work that needed doing, without the flash and glory-seeking of some of the other branches. (I’m looking at you, Marines.)

I’m not certain how else I’m going to mark this day, besides this post. It’s a working Friday, so I’ll go to the gym. My day job hours will be spent as a protector of a different sort, in information risk management. I’m deep in the draft of a new book, so I’ll most likely stop somewhere to write before I go home. Since it’s Friday I might head over to the pirate bar for a glass or two of rum before calling it a night.

But I’m sure at some point I’ll think back on that skinny, nervous kid with the big glasses who had no idea what was going to happen, and marvel at how his life has turned out so far.

Wait, it’s the end of February?

That means I’m way past due for a check-in about various goings-on. For this post, I’ll avoid the toxic spill fire much of the world has become.
Ben and I have been studying HEMA, Historic European Martial Arts – in our case, medieval German longsword – since August. We’ve now graduated from the “Beginners” group at our club, the Mid-Atlantic Society for Historical Swordsmanship (MASHS), and train with our much more experienced fellow practitioners. It’s fair to say we’re reaching the phase in which we don’t suck all the time, though we’re still pretty rank newbies.
This has turned out to be incredibly fun for both of us, and not just because Ben gets to hit me in the head with a sword once a week. (We wear pretty substantial safety gear when we train: chest protectors, canvas tunics, fencing masks with back-of-the-head-covers, forearm protection, and heavy plastic-shell gloves.) It’s been a long time since I’ve attempted any martial arts training. 30 years, in fact! But there’s something incredible about learning to fight with swords. Our latest investment is a pair of Regenyei steel feders, or training swords. These are what we primarily train with now that we’ve moved into “beginning intermediate” status. I’ve also built a pell, a training target we can use at home – outside, anyway, as swinging a 4-foot sword inside the house isn’t practical.
On the writing front, I plowed through the third revision of The Frozen Past in November and December. This was a major revision involving a significant restructuring of the novel. The word count ultimately dropped by about 4k words, but due to the amount I cut, I wound up writing tens of thousands of new words. Some of these were entirely new scenes; others came from major re-writing of existing scenes. This draft was critiqued by the wonderful members of our newly-formed writing group, the “Maryland Space Opera Collective”, or MD-SPOC. One of my Viable Paradise classmates also read and critiqued it for me. I’m now into heavy revision mode, which looks a lot like drafting mode. This means I pretty much spend weekday evenings, much of Saturday, and part of Sunday either downstairs on my desktop or somewhere else, typically a Panera, hunched over a keyboard.
The third draft of The Frozen Past fixed the majority of the big issues, but there’s still a rather thorny set of problems with two characters in particular. Since these are my protagonist/PoV character, and one of his primary antagonists, that’s kind of a big deal. Getting enough information about the antagonist’s motivations and history into the book is proving tricky, and I’ve resorted to gender-flipping this character as a brain hack to help. This seems to be working; it’s letting me approach this person as if they were an entirely new character. This seems to be the biggest single problem remaining in the book.
Once I’m done fixing up the antagonist, my protagonist is next up for adjustment. One issue’s already been fixed in the text, though I need to touch up some later references to it. The other problem is that he seems not suspicious enough for some readers. I’m fixing that a couple of ways. One’s a little more indirect: certain events, Bad Things, actively look malicious right now. They’re going to be throttled back in their depiction so they appear less so – more accidental or coincidental. That should mean I don’t have to tweak the actual character as much.
While I have a punch list of other tweaks, nothing else seems to require as much careful handling as these two items. Time will tell if I’ve got that right! I’m basically a month behind where I wanted to be with this for various reasons, but with if I can put the work in, I think I can have my shoppable draft ready sometime in March.
After taking stock of various factors, Michelle and I decided to put aside our tentative plans to visit Helsinki and London this summer. This trip was intended to combine attending WorldCon 75 (Helsinki) and a celebration of our 25th anniversary. Instead, I’m going to be attending four science fiction conventions this year, with Michelle coming to two of them. May brings the Nebula Award weekend & conference in Pittsburgh, along with Balticon over Memorial Day weekend. In June I’m headed to Fourth Street Fantasy in Minneapolis, which is shaping up to be a reunion of sorts for Viable Paradise 20 folks. In July, Michelle and I will head to New England to celebrate our anniversary and cap that with attendance at ReaderCon in the Boston area.
There’s been a big uptick in political activism in the Appel household. I may say more about this later, but suffice to say that by the end of this week, every member of the household will have participated in at least one protest. At least three of us have our congressional reps on speed-dial, and we’ve lately added the Governor and other state & county officials to the list. We’re not neglecting snail-mail either.
Folks who know me well have likely noticed one big absence: gaming. I have put all the tabletop games I was running on hiatus – Traveller back before my surgery, with Honor + Intrigue and The One Ring going dark in November. While I’m going to be joining a weekly short-term exploratory game at Games & Stuff in March, it’s likely going to be a little while before I’m going to have the brain cycles to actually run another game. I’ve also pulled back from all the gaming conventions I’d been attending, though I’m going to continue to support the Charm City Game Day and hopefully TridentCon. I’ll need to get back into some kind of tabletop game… but won’t be thinking about that until after this revision is done.
I’ll be trying to post things more regularly here. Coming up later this week will be a quick review of some of my recent reading. Until then, be excellent to each other, and #resist.

Three Months Post-op

I had my three-month post-op visit with my surgeon yesterday. Well, really with his nurse practitioner, who is most excellent in her own right.

My overall milestones are pretty good: I’m down to 308 pounds & change from 396+ in April, and 362 the day I walked into the hospital on July 6th. I’m on track with my various medications and supplements, and so far there’s only two things in my blood work they want to keep an eye on. I’m hitting my protein and fluid goals every day, as well as exercise. My time at Viable Paradise excepted I’m sticking to the 1200 calories or less per day that I need to meet or exceed my goals.

Three months in, I’m finding some things are still pretty easy to conform with, while others are tricky. Eating out is definitely a challenge; even when I can find something properly healthy on the menu, American portion sizes mean I’m still lucky to eat half of what I’m served. Avoiding fried foods makes eating at some places challenging. And for any occasion, I need to either get something that holds up as leftovers, or be prepared to leave half my plate untouched.

There aren’t too many things I don’t tolerate. Unfortunately, bread is one of them. I don’t have the kind of reaction to it that someone with a bypass would from sugary or greasy foods, but I’m definitely uncomfortable if I have more bread than the hunk you get with chili at Panera. Ditto for pasta. Which is a shame, because I really, really like bread. Note that this extends to anything bread-like, such as pizza. I guess it’s a good thing I’ve always liked thin-crust pizza!

The most important lesson I’ve learned so far is to listen to my body. Paying attention to the “I’m full” signal is hugely critical. Believe me, when I don’t, I know that I’ve screwed up.

The weight loss hasn’t been on a continuous slope, and it can sometimes be frustrating to do everything right for a week and end at the same weight I began. Those weeks are usually followed by a 7-10 day period rapid weight loss. The net result is that I’m ahead of the 10 pounds per month rate at which most patients lose, so I have to keep reminding myself of how far I’ve come.

I think the rest of the family has gotten used to our new normal, which includes Michelle, Alexa and Ben eating something different than I do. But we’ve been trying some things lately that everyone can partake of. That’s a work in progress.

In the end, it’s pretty clear having the sleeve gastrectomy was the right decision for me.

Next check in at the six month mark in January.

“Call it Your 2.0, Your Rebirth, Whatever”

And many thanks to Vienna Teng’s “Level Up” for the title here.

Updating this has been infrequent at best, but I’m trying to get into a more regular habit of blogging. I have a few things lined up for the coming weeks, but I thought I’d start out quickly recapping the big changes going on in my bit of the world at the moment. Because boy, howdy, at lot is happening in a short time.

Today’s topic: I had bariatric surgery in early July. This was a decision long in the making, and a long process preceded the surgery itself. I’d finally determined that it was a necessary step for me in combating my obesity. After kicking the process off in October, I made my way through the many preliminaries over the next 7 months, finally getting to the point of scheduling my procedure (a sleeve gastrectomy) in April. Two more months of prep and I entered Hopkins Bayview on July 6th for what turned out to be three days – right on track.

My recovery has been almost completely complication-free, and weight is coming off at a steady clip. I’m still in a transitional phase, diet-wise, having only recently graduated from “I can eat it if it’s on the list and I can blend it” to soft foods – all in small amounts. This week I’m finally back at work and trying to adjust that routine to meet my current requirements. I’m still pretty early in my journey, but being more than 60 pounds down from my peak weight, and nearly 30 since my surgery, I can see things working.

I cannot recommend the program at Johns Hopkins Bayview highly enough. The attention both before my procedure, the care in the hospital, and the follow-up care have all been top-notch. The program really seeks to find what works best and communicates that to their patients. The medical teams and support staff – nutrition, psych, insurance coordinators, and everyone else there – are fabulous.

Everyone who struggles with obesity has to find their own path in dealing with it. I’d tried a number of other weight loss measures in the past. Surgery was, in the end, the right path for me.