Jim Chastain (Jimmy to his long-time friends) was born in Tahlequah, Oklahoma on December 9, 1963 to Jim and Sharon Chastain. He grew up in Bartlesville, Oklahoma and attended Sooner High School. He did his undergraduate work at Oklahoma State University (where he met his future wife) before going to law school at the University of Oklahoma. After he received his law degree in 1989, Jim worked for two legal firms before becoming an attorney for the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals in 1997.
Jim Chastain and LeAnn Sims were married on July 25, 1987. LeAnn earned a Masters Degree in Mathematics at Oklahoma University and taught for a while on the college level. Then she became a math teacher at an Oklahoma middle school. According to News Oklahoma, LeAnn is very popular among her students. She coaches the school math team, which she led to victory at the state championships in 2009, and LeAnn also received the 2009 Maggie Parker Award. (Photo at right by John Clanton, The Oklahoman; used with permission.)
Jim and LeAnn have two children, Madison (Maddye) and Ford. Maddye is a competitive swimmer and is interested in art and multimedia; she currently attends college in California. Ford developed a strong interest in music, about which more is said below.
Jim was a religious person, but not necessarily in the most traditional ways. He and his wife were very active in their Baptist church, and at one point Jim even served as a deacon. They later attended an independent church and were again very involved. Jim expressed faith in God, but was sometimes disturbed by more aggressive, overly pious Christians, especially those who insist that true faith provides total health in believers. Among the important things in Jim's life were family, friends, and books. He was a heavy reader of books from his childhood and began writing poetry in junior high school. As an adult, writing was even more important to him.
Jim is a multi-faceted writer with poetry, newspaper articles, film reviews, cancer blogs, and a book about his cancer experience to his credit (see review below). His best known work, I Survived Cancer, But Never Won the Tour de France, (2006) was listed among the Top Ten Nonfiction books of 2006 in the Austin Chronicle. It deals with his life with cancer and includes a poem after each chapter. A companion book is scheduled for release in the spring of 2010.
Jim has two books of poetry: Like Some First Human Being (2006) and Antidotes and Home Remedies (2008), which was a finalist for the 2009 Oklahoma Book Award. In addition, his poetry has appeared in periodicals such as World Literature Today, Oklahoma Today, and Blood and Thunder. He did numerous readings around Oklahoma and was friends with most of Oklahoma's top poets.
Jim also wrote feature articles for the award-winning Oklahoma Gazette newspaper and was a film critic for The Norman Transcript and The Edmond Sun for more than a decade. His film reviews also appeared in The Enid News and Eagle and The Briefcase. In a strong year, Jim published about 100 film reviews. See list in Rotten Tomatoes. He is a founding member of the Oklahoma Film Critics' Circle.
See two video interviews about his books at his website under BOOKS.
Jim's son, Ford Chastain, has quite a reputation, especially in the Oklahoma City area, for starting a preteen band. Ford began taking guitar lessons at eight years old and talked his friends, Troy Cheshier and Jay Harp, into taking lessons as well. Troy became a guitarist and Jay a bass player. Along with drummer Ryan Southerland, they formed the pre-teen band Refuje. Refuje played some of the best venues in Oklahoma, including Dfest, Opening Night, Toby Keith's, The Opolis, Festival of the Arts, the Norman Music Festival, and Midsummer Night's Fair. The group has a CD titled Sightless. Refuje's manager was Jim Chastain. After five years of success, the group dissolved in July of 2008. Ford pursued a solo musical path for a time, but then joined the band Stardeath and White Dwarfs, where he plays guitar and keyboards and does some backup vocals. Stardeath and White Dwarfs is currently on tour across the U.S.
In 2005 Ford received the honor of second place in a K-5 poetry contest for his poem, Best Friend. Ford is a vegetarian. See a Refuje video and listen to some of Ford's solo music at Jim's website under STORE.
One can get a sense of Jim's personality and activity by visiting his website Jim Chastain.com. At one point in his memoir, Jim confesses to being a melancholy. He explains briefly the four personality types often used to describe people-choleric, sanguine, phlegmatic, and melancholy. He uses this as a backdrop to discuss some of the darker points in his mental state during his fight with cancer.
Turning to his web site, one sees confirmation of his self-described melancholic temperament. Who else but a melancholy would create a list of their picks for the top 100 books of all time? A sanguine might respond to the idea with a friendly laugh. A phlegmatic might nod with understanding. But neither would be tempted to write such a list. A choleric would certainly do it if it was an assignment, and even if an instructor gave a six-month deadline the choleric might complete the assignment on the first day. But as a melancholy myself, I doubt that Jim completed his list in one day or even a few days, 'Am I sure this book ranks #78 and not #79?' Such projects require much thought and introspection; these are the characteristics of a melancholy. Then there is Jim's list of the 500 strongest memories from his life, which he mentions in his blog but does not enumerate, though he does provide thirty-two memories on his website under ODDS & ENDS.
On Jim's website, one will find biography, poetry, observations and more. Jim's books and Ford's music are also available there.
Jim was diagnosed with a cancer (malignant fibrous hystiocytoma) in August 2001 at the age of 37. He had surgery at the M. D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas followed by six weeks of radiation therapy and was told there was a 90% chance the cancer would never return. However, in October 2002, the cancer did return, proving itself to be aggressive, and Jim underwent another surgery along with radiation treatment. In November 2003, the cancer appeared again, and his entire triceps muscle was removed from his right arm. It was during this time that he completed his cancer memoir, I Survived Cancer But Never Won the Tour de France. (Photo at right by John Clanton, The Oklahoman; used with permission.)
When the cancer came back in August 2004, his arm was amputated at the shoulder; the choice was described as being between the loss of an arm or the loss of life. The amputation was obviously very traumatic, but being a humorist, he later posted on his website the Top Ten Advantages of Being a One-Armed Man (under ODDS & ENDS). Examples are #5 No longer feeling conflicted when asked to clap in religious settings, and #3 After the speaker says, "all in favor, raise your right hand," no one ever knows how I voted. He also began writing material for another book to be titled I Survived an Amputation but Never Became the Bionic Man, or possibly A Farewell to Arm.
Even this was not the last of his cancer. In the summer of 2007, Jim began to have difficulty breathing after exertion and had his doctor examine him. After three years of being cancer free, another cancer had developed in his colon and metastasized into his liver and lungs. The prognosis: the disease was terminal--Jim had months to live. Now he was on chemotherapy. He lived for more than a year, but it was a time of walking through the valley of the shadow of death.
The Oklahoman spoke with Jim about working with the newspaper to follow his progress. He agreed, and newspaper writer Ken Raymond and photojournalist John Clanton became his partners in telling the story at www.newsok.com/jimchastain called Life is Real, Writing the Final Chapters. The story includes a blog at Life is Real maintained by Jim during his last year. Perhaps the best way to read the blog is to begin at the beginning and read to the end. The blog is more reflective than his book of memoirs and tends to deal more with serious and practical stories and is less focused on humor, but remember: this is Jim Chastain, so be prepared to laugh and cry.
Many people appreciate the blog very much, but because of the somber subject matter others are uncomfortable. Jim understood this; he once wrote in his blog, No matter how hard I try, I simply can't escape the underlying sadness of what we're doing here. No matter what particular spin I put on it, the truth is we are writing about extremely painful things. He continues, it's a challenge, a true writer's dilemma, to find the right balance between staying positive and telling it like it is. In the blog, Jim sometimes tells interesting stories from his childhood and youth like: When I was a kid, I used to pretend my life was a movie and the whole world was watching. That may sound self-centered, but as I recall it was just a kid's game of make believe. To keep the "movie" from being too boring, I had to crank up the action.
Toward the end of the year, Jim's blogs became a bit less frequent. On November 17, 2009, Jim wrote, I received good news today. It was in a fortune cookie from Pei Wei."You will move to a wonderful new home within the year." I'm thinking the reference was about heaven, because we have no plans to move anywhere and our home here on earth is already wonderful. And I have to admit, this heavenly news came as quite a relief. Up till then, I'd figured I was pretty much on the bubble. His next blog was almost a month later on December 13, I'm still alive, but my health has really been slipping in the last two months. Hope to get some posts out soon, but I rarely feel like writing. It was his last post. On December 24, 2009, after more than eight years of ups and downs, Jim died from his cancer on Christmas Eve, two weeks after his forty-sixth birthday. The blog is still valuable to read, but even if you do not read the blog you may wish to see a series of short video vignettes.
Jim wrote this poem to be read at his funeral. It was printed in the funeral bulletin and reprinted by Charlotte Lankard in her NEWSOK blog.
I'd been wanting to write a poem that says goodbye, but spares readers from the melodrama of poems that say goodbye.
This resulted in writer's block, for the thought that these might be the actual words that would someday be read at my funeral made me creatively constipated.
Because how does one say goodbye to the wife who stood by you all those years for no good reason except that she's dependable, longsuffering and true?
Or to the beautiful daughter who always made you laugh, who went out of her way to hug you every time, every single time, you really needed it?
Or to the son, who was so often the buddy you needed, who laughed at your lame jokes, who "gets" you, who was oh-so gifted as a songwriter?
Or to the former family, who'd already lost so much? Or to all those friends who'd touched your life, who chose to hang in there through thick and thin?
You see the problem here? Melodrama seems inevitable. So I've settled upon a poem that's about trying to write a poem that says goodbye.
And I'll finish it the only way I know how, with a funny story: I began this poem on the toilet, having ingested too much iron, and I finished it on the loveseat,
looking out upon a cold, blustery day, with the sweetest of all dogs curled up by my feet and the fattest of all cats sitting on my lap, purring.
The Norman Transcript ran a funeral report excerpted here. The full report can be read at The Norman Transcript . See also Jim's Havenbrook obituary.
There was more laughter than tears as the life of Norman author, poet and attorney Jim Chastain was remembered, in just the way he wanted, in a packed sanctuary Tuesday afternoon at McFarlin Memorial United Methodist Church. The 46-year-old long-time Norman Transcript movie critic died peacefully in his sleep Dec. 24, after a long battle with cancer.
"He wanted this to be a time of celebration, not something sad or somber," said Dr. Lavonn Brown, who officiated the service. And it was…His Delta Tau Delta fraternity "big brother" and long-time friend Don Greiner said when Chastain was president of the fraternity, he had a unique response to pledges. "Jimmy Chastain and I don't care," Greiner remembers Chastain singing to one pledge to the tune of "Jimmy Crack Corn."
"We got in the habit of calling poems when we saw them," [poet Nathan] Brown said. For example, on one road trip, the pair spotted an obese male hitchhiker without a shirt or shoes and chugging a gallon of milk, all while he had his thumb out. Chastain immediately claimed the hitchhiker as a subject of a poem. And he couldn't resist poking fun at Brown in the process.
Chastain is survived by his wife LeAnn; daughter, Maddye; son, Ford; parents, Jim and Sharon Chastain; sister and brother-in-law, Lori and Terry Bigby; sister, Cindy Crosslin; grandmother, Ruth Wolfe; grandfather, H.N. Towry, in-laws, Louise and Garold DeWitt and Terry and Kathy Sims; and brother-in-law, Terry Sims.
Jim wrote in June 2009,
When cancer first struck in 2001, our savings took a big hit, to put it mildly. Before long we were charging the bulk of our trips to Houston to credit cards. When those balances became too large, we took out a second mortgage. And then, when the credit cards started escalating again, we sold our house, using the equity to pay off old bills.
But some dear friends stepped in and set up a family/medical account with a local bank. Whenever LeAnn participated in a run, [they] sent out letters to friends, telling them about the account and requesting donations. That account has saved us. For even though we have good insurance, the medical account has provided that extra cushion we need whenever insurance has paid all it is required to pay. As a result, our credit cards balances are stable, and we have at least some sense of financial normalcy.
Since Jim's passing, the fund is now called the Jim Chastain Memorial Fund. Memorial contributions can be made to the fund at First Bank and Trust in Norman, Oklahoma. Contributions go toward a college fund for Jim's two children. If you are interested in donating, you can write a check to The Chastain Family Medical Fund and mail it to First Bank & Trust Company of Norman, P.O. Box 721450, Norman, OK 73070. Or you can use the PayPal donate button located at the end of the CONTACT page at JimChastain.com.
Chastain Central first became aware of Jim through a December 2006 Norman Transcript news article regarding the publication of his book of cancer memoirs. As I begin this review, let me say that I too am a cancer survivor. Like Jim's, my cancer is somewhat rare (Multiple Myeloma), and I travel two hours each way to Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa, a center specializing in my type of cancer. In this regard, I am more fortunate than Jim, who had to drive seven hours one way to his facility in Houston.
This book is a mixture of humor and serious reflection on the solemn subject of cancer. It made me laugh in many places, and it also made me cry, especially in the story about Anna. Each topical chapter is followed by original poetry by Jim himself. Though our cancers are different, many of the experiences Jim relates remind me of my own journey with cancer so far. I say 'so far', because even though I am in remission, and therefore a cancer survivor, some cancers have a nasty way of returning. This is why Jim says his book title is somewhat misleading, but he felt no one would be interested in a book called I May Soon Die of Cancer, and the Tour de France Isn't on my Radar Screen.
In my journey with cancer, I have read many informational books about the mysterious disease called Multiple Myeloma, which I had never heard of before I was diagnosed in September 2006. But I had not read any books by cancer survivors until Jim Chastain's book. This insightful book was definitely worth reading, even though I read it, not because it dealt with cancer, but because it was written by a Chastain (I read a lot of Chastain books).
I Survived Cancer but Never Won the Tour de France is filled with humor. Jim knows how to see humor in difficult situations and also how to deliver the stories. Some of the stories that stand out most for me are the volleyball game (related to the poem quoted above), the manage a trios, and the MRI. Perhaps you will choose different ones. But Jim also discusses significant issues that relate to cancer patients and their families, such as spiritual growth, despair and depression, cancer statistics, bringing important things of life into sharper focus, and dealing with well-meaning, but overzealous, friends who promote nutritional remedies or faith healing over medical treatment.
I Survived Cancer but Never Won the Tour de France is 175 pages of thought-provoking inspiration. I recommend it without reservation to anyone dealing with cancer in themselves or someone important to them. Some may be put off by Jim's light-hearted approach at times, but I believe that if we can laugh at cancer, it cannot defeat our spirit. Jim's book points the way. It is available from Jim's website (under STORE), Amazon.com, and many local stores. For numerous short reviews, see Jim's website under BUZZ.