Author Archive: murfmonkey

The Death of Ivan Ilyich & Confessions by Leo Tolstoy

I’m trying to read 50 books this year and this book is number 5.

Flannery O’Connor once commented about her audience: “My audience are the people who think God is dead. . . . To the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures.”

I thought of Flannery O’Connor as I was reading “The Death of Ivan Ilyich” because in this short novel, Leo Tolstoy is going to hold us by the scruff of the neck and force us to face the reality of (our own) death. Ivan Ilyich is a normal Russian guy, who has a normal Russian life, until in middle age he gets cancer. During the cancer his life falls apart. His wife and daughter are basically annoyed with him because his illness is getting in the way of their lives. After his diagnosis Ivan sits down to explain things to his wife. Tolstoy writes:

“His wife listened, but in the middle of his account his daughter came in wearing a hat: she and her mother were going out. She sat down for a moment to listen to this boring stuff but she couldn’t stand it for long, and her mother didn’t listen to the end.”


Ivan is confronted–we may say slapped in the face–with his own mortality. Tolstoy:

“All his life the example of a syllogism he had studied in Kiesewetter’s logic–Caius is a man, men are mortal, therefore Caius is mortal–had seemed to be true only in relation to Caius the man, man in general, and it was quite justified, but he wasn’t Caius and he wasn’t man in general, and he had always been something quite, quite special apart from all other beings.”

Ivan has a general belief in death, but when applied to him specifically, he does not like the idea at all. Quite contemporary, Ivan turns out to be, for our culture is one that seeks to hide death and run from it as best we can. Leo Tolstoy is not going to allow us to run. He is going to force us to confront our own mortality.

We see it in Ivan’s plaintive cry as he gets ever nearer to death, suffering in deep and never ending pain: “There’s no explanation! Torment, death…Why?”

Why indeed.

The end is oddly hopeful, although Tolstoy doesn’t belabor the hope. I guess he wants us to figure it out for ourselves.

The second half of this book is Tolstoy’s own writing on his discovery of the meaning of life and it’s a good companion to Ivan Ilyich. Tolstoy will basically answer the questions that he has raised (but not really answered) in Ivan Ilyich. Tolstoy eventually became a follower of Jesus because he could see no other logical explanation of any ultimate meaning in life.

He writes: “I understood the truth I later found in the Gospels, that people loved darkness rather than light because their actions were evil.”

Tolstoy begins what he calls “a search for God,” he writes: “This search did not come out of my way of thinking–it was even directly opposed to it–but it came out of my heart.”


2017 My Top Ten Songs on Spotify


Spotify tells me that these are the ten songs I listened to the most in 2017, I suspect they are correct:

  1. Mention of Your Name
  2. Memorial – Ike Ndolo
  3. The One My Soul Loves – Josh Lavender
  4. I Won’t Let You Go – Switchfoot (with Lauren Daigle)
  5. He Shall Reign Forevemore – Essential Worship
  6. The Ruins – Jonathan Thulin, Moriah Peters
  7. Cornerstone – Coffey Anderson
  8. O Rock Eternal – Erik Nieder
  9. The Story I Tell – Micah Tyler
  10. Heart Like You – Love & The Outcome

Thanksgiving [On the Road…as Usual, but Maui!]

20161126_092543Well, if you have to be on the road for Thanksgiving, it may as well be in Maui, which is a lot better than Michigan, at least in November.  We got to stay at a truly stunning resort out on the northwest section of the island [for 24 hours!]. Since it was Hawaii, the weather was gorgeous, sunny and warm.

If you work for the airlines you’re going to be working a lot of holidays; most of them if you’re junior in the particular seat you occupy, which I happen to be.  In 26 years flying for the airlines I’ve been off on Thanksgiving maybe two or three times, and the same goes for Christmas.  I’m mostly on the road around the holidays.

This has made for some interesting holiday trips, and by interesting I mean sad, pathetic, and lonely.  I once spent Christmas at a Holiday Inn in West Palm Beach and I SWEAR the only people in the whole place were the six airline crew members and one actual employee who manned the front desk.  Do you think there was any food anywhere?  There was not, inside the hotel or outside, everything was closed.  We had to eat from vending machines until we left for the airport at 3 pm on Christmas Day.  This was not a fun Christmas.

We once rolled into Columbus, Ohio, [if memory serves this was a Holiday Inn also, I am sensing a pattern here] on Thanksgiving Day at about 6pmish.  They actually had a full holiday meal for the few, pathetic travelers holiday guests.  Sweet!  Finally, an actual Thanksgiving feast!  We quickly changed and headed down to the excellent meal only to find out that the restaurant closed at 6.  Instead I got to have another gourmet dinner consisting of Skittles from the vending machine.20161125_060504

I once had a Christmas trip in which I took off for Amsterdam on Christmas Eve.  The trip lasted 12 days.  I think it went to Amsterdam then to Philadelphia, back to Amsterdam, on to Mumbai, India, and back to Amsterdam.  On the morning of day 12 [going home day, Yippee!] we got a call from crew schedules saying, “we’re going to have to send you on a side trip to Delhi.”  Our 12 day trip ended up lasting 16 days.  I left on the 24th of December and got home on the 9th of January [fortunately for me, I have a longsuffering wife]. This was not a fun Christmas OR New Year.

The way we got our kids to actually buy in to Dad being gone every Christmas was to make sure that Christmas always took place before the 25th.  Usually it was whatever day was my last one home before my Christmas trip, somewhere between the 21st and 24th.  I’m sure our neighbors saw the pile of torn up Christmas wrapping paper and assorted boxes in our trash on the 23rd or 24th every year and told themselves, “there they go again, just couldn’t way until Christmas.”

I don’t like working the holidays, but I’m not ever going to complain about it.  There are so many good benefits of working for the airlines [fly pretty much anywhere for free], that working Thanksgiving/Christmas/New Year’s/Easter/Memorial Day/Independence Day/etc. is a small price to pay.

Bloody Jack

So I picked up this book on Audible because the narrator, Katherine Kellgren, won the best female narrator on Audible in 2016.  At the time I had not heard of the Bloody Jack series, nor had I heard Katherine Kellgren read an audio book. I said to myself, “what the heck, at least the narration will be good if she woBloody Jack cover.jpegn an award for it, and the book cover certainly looks interesting.”  Wow, wow, wow!  Katherine Kellgren is simply amazing.

I like to read books, lots and lots of books, and I’ve had an Audible membership for about two years now and cranked through about 25 or 30 books each year just listening to them.  I’ve discovered that there are some books that are just made to be read out loud and the Bloody Jack Series is one of them.

There are multiple voices in each of the 12 Bloody Jack books [I’m into number 6 now], and by multiple, I’m talking 20 or 30 per book! So far I have not heard Ms. Kellgren repeat a voice. You have to listen to her read to fully understand her talent in voices, English, Cockney, American, Irish, French, Jamaican, etc., she does them all and does them well and believably and BOTH men’s and women’s voices.  I often listen to her read and just shake my head going, “how does she do this?”

Imagine that someone gives you two pages of dialogue with 10 voices total and tells you to read those two pages switching effortlessly between the ten voices and making them all different and accurate to their respective characters.  Ms. Kellgren does all this, makes it sound easy and sings too!

Here’s the thing, the story is engaging also.  The books follow the adventures of Mary “Jacky” Faber as she cuts a swath [she begins by enlisting as a ship’s boy on a Royal Navy ship] through three [so far] countries, constantly getting herself into and back out of trouble and all the while entertaining those around her because you know, “I am a bit of a show off.”

While these books look like they might be for children, they really are not, probably teen and above because of the subject matter, but do get them in audio format and be amazed at the story and the sheer talent of Katherine Kellgren.  You won’t be disappointed.


sdWe had a night flight from Detroit to San Diego that arrived into San Diego at about 10pm.  Landing in San Diego is always a challenge because there is high terrain on the approach corridor.  We have to fly a steeper than normal glide path on descent to stay at a safe distance from the terrain, and to keep from doing a touch and go off of the parking deck immediately adjacent to the runway [why they allowed the parking deck to be built there baffles me].

At any rate, if there is lousy weather, a lot of rain and/or wind, it can be a pretty challenging approach.  Fortunately for us, it was a stunningly gorgeous evening as we descended into San Diego.  We could see the lights of the city from beyond the coastal mountains as well as the lights of El Centro to the south and Los Angeles to the northwest.  Flying on nights like this hardly seems like a job at all, more like a present that is to be absorbed and appreciated.

When I woke up in the morning, I went for a run along San Diego Bay and got to this park just as the sun was rising. Sometimes I wonder why I live in Michigan…

At about this same time, this song came up on my playlist:

You can’t buy mornings like this at any price, they are just a gift.

The One Man – Andrew Gross

Imagine that there is one man who is vital to the development of the nuclear bomb…and he is a prisoner in Auschwitz.  What to do…

Mr. Gross writes about just such a scenario in his book The One Man.  I suppose it is somewhat plausible historically because Niels Bohr who was a central figure in the Manhattan Project himself barely escaped the Nazis [his mother was a Jew].

With the help of a Polish escapee, the United States concocts a plan to drop him by parachute near to Auschwitz and have him infiltrate the death camp and rescue Ivan Mendl, the scientist crucial to the development of the nuclear bomb.  Infiltrating Auschwitz is also plausible because someone actually did during the war.

Mr. Gross does an excellent job of ratcheting up the suspense due to several plot twists, such an excellent job that he kept me up until midnight last night finishing the book.  A very good book.

Alone on the Wall

Alex Honnold is a world renowned rock climber.  He is mainly known for his free solo climbs of very large rock faces like Half Dome in Yosemite.  When I say “free solo climb,” I mean that he climbs major walls…alone…with no rope in case he falls.  Just the thought of this is sheer terror.

He has written a book about his life called Alone on the Wall. It’s a fascinating book if you are at all interested in climbing.  Yosemite, where he has done many of his most famous climbs,  is one of my favorite spots so I listened (audio version of the book) through the book in a couple of days.  Mr. Honnold is impressive, dedicated, and admirable, although he really cannot explain why he does what he does.  What drives a man to risk so much for the sake of being able to say that he climbed a huge wall by himself without ropes?  I cannot say, and neither, at the end of the day, can Mr. Honnold.  Sure, he will tell you why he does it, but none of it makes much sense, which I suppose is ultimately the point.  He is doing things that no one in the world has ever tried and succeeding because he can and because he wants to, this seems sufficient for him.

The problem is that, sooner or later, he will probably fall and die like so many other climbers who have come before him and taken major risks.  All of his friends are afraid this will happen, mainly because they understand the risks better than we landlubbers do.

In one of the memorable parts of the book a lady asks him how he feels when he sees himself on camera free soloing these huge walls, Mr. Honnold’s answer: “My hands get clammy.”

At any rate, he is a fascinating [and to all accounts kind and intelligent] person and the book is well worth reading.

Red-Eye: SEA to DTW

A red-eye flight is pretty much any flight on the back side of the clock that lands in the morning and leaves the passengers and flight crew with, you know, red eyes.  For me that means mostly either a flight from the west coast back to somewhere in the east, or a flight to Europe.  Most of our flights to Europe leave in the evening and land somewhere around daybreak or an hour or two later.  These are definite red-eye flights.

Sunday night we pushed back from SEA at 10.30 [on time, yippee!! You are welcome, dear passengers.] and headed off to the east for Detroit.  We flew along the top of the country until Wisconsin where we began angling southeast toward the arrival into Detroit.

Flying the back side of the clock is a lot different than day or evening flying.  There are only a limited number of red-eyes heading back east and a commensurate number of air traffic controllers working.  Consequently, the normal radio chatter that you hear on most other flights is not present at night.  There are long stretches of silence because there just aren’t that many flights that need instructions from air traffic control.  Sometimes the radio is so silent that you begin to wonder if you flew out of the controller’s airspace and he forgot to switch you to a new radio frequency.  This occasionally happens but air traffic can usually hunt you down fairly swiftly courtesy of emergency radio.  This is a dedicated emergency frequency that everyone monitors while they are airborne.  If  air traffic loses us on one frequency they can usually find us on the emergency frequency.

We once got lost on Scottish radio heading from Paris back to Cincinnati.  When Scottish finally found us they gave us quite the tongue-lashing.  We believed that they forgot to switch our frequency and let us fly out of the airspace, but they certainly acted as if it was our fault.  In these post 9/11 days no one likes to be out of radio contact, neither pilots, nor air traffic control and for understandable reasons.

It was a pretty uneventful flight [the kind that pilot’s love].  We did get to see some of the northern lights as we flew, but they were not the spectacular ones where fingers of light stretch from the horizon straight up into the air.  These were just a faint glow low in the northern sky.  Good northern lights from the cockpit are pretty impressive and definitely a memorable event.

We landed in Detroit on a chilly fall morning, 30 minutes early due to some nice tail winds that pushed us across the country extra quickly.

Now for a few days off…


JFK to SEA is one of the longest domestic routes that we fly.  Do it in the fall and winter when the upper level winds are whistling from the west and the flight is even longer.  Get trapped in JFK on a day when they are only departing from one runway because the winds are so strong…a painful 7 hours from push out to wheels chocked in Seattle.

It took us 1.08 from push back to takeoff as we were in a line of about 30 aircraft all waiting to depart from one runway (31L), while JFK also had to land arriving aircraft on the same runway.  I am not a patient man.  This was not fun, and of course a bunch of our passengers missed their connections in Seattle [my apologies, dear passengers, events were beyond my control].

On the upside the first officer and I got to watch the sun set for about 4 of the 7 hours.  Flying east to west we kept chasing the setting sun and the light lingered and lingered and lingered.  The ride was mostly smooth also, so while painful, it was a beautiful 7 hours, well 5.45 hours after we actually, you know, took off from JFK.

Being humans it is easy for us to let the extraordinary [a four hour sunset] become the ordinary when we witness it again and again and again.  Amazing as it seems, we have to remind ourselves to be grateful for nights like these, otherwise we will get distracted from the magnificence that surrounds us at every turn in nature [fall colors!] and become entrapped in a dreary world of our own making.

This reminds me of one of Clyde Kilby’s resolutions: “I shall open my eyes and ears. Once every day I shall simply stare at a tree, a flower, a cloud, or a person. I shall not then be concerned at all to ask what they are but simply be glad that they are. I shall joyfully allow them the mystery of what Lewis calls their “divine, magical, terrifying and ecstatic” existence.”

20161023_102737Someday frankly, this is easier to do than other days.  Today is one of the easy days. The view out my window in Seattle.

Long Way Gone

“Some have been burned. Broken. Left out in the cold. Some are wrestling with painful words spoken over them by someone they love or walking around in chains of their own making. A few are dying inside. Whatever the reason, when you sit down in front of them and say, ‘Let me play a song for you,’ you’re giving them something that no money can buy.”

He looked confused. “What’s that?”


An excerpt from the extraordinary, beautiful, happy, sad, riveting book, Long Way Gone. It’s a book about music, how it touches us “underneath our DNA” and how it plays a central part in one man’s journey from love to the path of a prodigal to loss and then a journey back to grace. Mr. Martin takes up all the worthwhile topics of life: music, loss, love, forgiveness, redemption, and hope.

The father writes to his son [Cooper, aka “Peg”] after his son has broken their relationship in the most public and humiliating way possible:

“Here’s the truth: No matter what happened on the stage tonight, no matter where you went when you drove out of here, no matter where you end up, no matter what happens, what you become, what you gain, what you lose, whether you succeed or fail, stand or fall, no matter what you dip your hands into…no gone is too far gone.

You can always come home..

And when you do, you’ll find me standing right here, arms wide, eyes searching for your return.

I love you. Dad.”

Here is another passage I really enjoyed, a description of Colorado:

“Colorado is like a girl I once knew.  Beautiful in any light.  When the light or angle changes, something new is revealed. Something hidden rises to the surface. In late September and early October, the light in Colorado shifts.  Snow dusts the peaks. The color in the trees has peaked and begun draining out.  Colorado in the fall is a peek into the throne room.  Colorado in winter is majesty defined. A declaration.

When God carved this place with words, He lingered.”

It’s an excellent book, you should read it, and everything else Charles Martin has written.