Monday, January 8, 2018

Relativity

One day not long ago I was driving home and approaching a radar speed sign that I often drive past. The sign informed me that I was going about 28 or 29 mph. Near the sign, a large truck was sitting on the opposite side of the road. The truck began to move. As the truck and I passed each other, the speed shown on the radar sign momentarily jumped to 40 mph and began flashing in an indication that I was excessively above the speed limit, although my actual speed had not changed. I quickly realized what had happened. Apparently (and I had not previously been aware of this) radar speed signs measure the speed of an oncoming vehicle relative to the "speed" of a stationary background, and the radar detector had temporarily confused the slowly moving rear surface of the truck for a stationary background, and thus my 28 mph speed relative to the negative 12 mph of the truck (negative because it was moving away from the detector) became 40 mph.

This little anecdote might be less interesting to most people than it is to me, but I share it because it's an analogy for an important concept in life. Happiness is often dependent on relative, not absolute, levels of well-being. This applies to societies, in which people cannot help but compare their own lives to those of their neighbors. It also applies within the life of an individual. How you are doing compared to how you were doing last week, last month, or last year might be a lot more important to your happiness than how you are doing in some absolute sense. If your quality of life is a +28 on whatever arbitrary scale we're using, but not long ago it was a -12, that relative value of +40 could result in you being extra happy.

I wrote this in a blog post at the end of the year 2016:
As 2016 draws to a close, it's become a cliche to remark on how horrible a year it was. Trump's election being a large part of that, but for many other reasons as well. So it's kind of funny for me, while fully recognizing and acknowledging the reasons that 2016 was horrible, to realize that 2016 - on a personal level - was overall one of the best years of my entire life.
The biggest reason this was true was that at the beginning of 2016 I was at pretty much the lowest point of my whole life, and then I came out from that, and by mid-spring got to the point where my life was at least "not bad," and then by early summer to the point where my life was actually pretty darn good, and then it continued to be that way. June 2016 was a landmark month in my life for at least two reasons: the Cavs won the NBA Finals and I bought and started riding my mountain bike. June 2016 was also the beginning of what I now realize was the longest period of mostly uninterrupted genuine happiness if not of my whole life then at least since my childhood. Later that year there were a couple of very distressing incidents (my friend Shelli being hit by a reckless driver and nearly killed while riding her bicycle in Montana, and Donald Trump being elected president) that temporarily caused significant downturns in my mood, but all in all, from June 2016 through September 2017 there were 16 straight months where for the entire duration I could honestly say about my own life, "Life is Good."

For the last three months now, although there have been good things, all in all I have not been able to say that. And just as being happy after being very unhappy magnifies the happiness, being unhappy after being very happy magnifies the unhappiness.

My life has been marked by sudden drastic changes in a number of ways. One way that has become a repeated pattern is drastic changes in my level of physical activity. Ever since I was young, athletic pursuits have been a huge passion of mine. In high school, although I excelled academically, I took much more pride in my distance running accomplishments. After my collegiate running career was over, the volume of running I did dramatically decreased because of chronic injuries. A few years later, to battle a different sort of chronic pain I found that doing a lot of running was the best medicine, so in 2009 I found myself more physically active than I had been in years. Another drastic downturn came that fall after I ran my first and only marathon and caused awful and long-lasting ankle tendinitis in the process. And a pelvic fracture in a cycling accident the following May took me down even farther from my heights of fitness.

For the next few years I wasn't sedentary, but I was fairly limited due to these and other injuries. And then in the fall of 2015, I once more found myself in a situation where I was in horrible chronic pain and I had to do a huge amount of exercise to even begin to keep it under control.

This time, still not able to do much distance running, I found new forms of exercise that I enjoyed and soon fell in love with. First playing basketball, something I had done very little of since childhood. And then, the following summer, mountain biking. I've come to love both playing basketball and riding my mountain bike with nearly the same passion I had for running cross country. The year 2016 was by far my most physically active year since 2009, and that was definitely a major contributing factor to it being one of the best years of my life.

I feel like the last few years have been a repeated process of my life falling apart and me putting it back together again. Last summer, around the end of June or beginning of July, a left hip issue that I have had for several years now (and is probably related to one or both of my past pelvic fractures) got significantly worse again. I didn't recognize it at the time, but that was actually in a way the first step in my life falling back apart. After playing basketball several times a week with no serious interruptions for more than a year, I abruptly stopped. This was no fun at all. I've realized that being a basketball player has become a part of my identity, of how I view myself, in a similar way as being a distance runner. It was so great to go, over the course of all those months, from being the awkward nerdy guy who could rebound well but not do a whole lot else to someone who was known and respected by most of the regulars at the gym. Around the same time as I stopped playing basketball, I also mostly stopped riding my bikes, for a little while. I was in a lot of pain and suddenly not very active and under ordinary circumstances it would not have been a very happy time in my life. But these weren't ordinary circumstances. I had something totally new and totally wonderful in my life and that was forming a parental bond with an extraordinary child. And with that in the picture, all the ordinary problems of my life were greatly diminished in their impact.

That, of course, is no longer in the picture.

Fortunately I did discover later in the summer that I was still able to ride my bikes. Riding would often make the pain feel a little worse at first, but it wasn't a lasting change, and many times after I was done with a ride - later that day or the next day - the pain would actually be somewhat better than its baseline level. So I did continue my cycling pursuits, and got to do a lot of fun mountain biking in particular, really improving my skills in that discipline which has been very rewarding.

But now, with it being winter, going out on a bike ride is not something I'd much enjoy. And unfortunately I have still not been able to comfortably resume playing basketball at anywhere near my normal levels. So in the repeating cycle of drastic changes in physical activity levels that have marked my adult life, the last few months have seen another drastic downturn. With what else has happened, this is an especially bad time for that. Exercise can have a great effect on mood. But for it to really work well, it has to be exercise that I enjoy. Going for a run? A bike ride? Playing basketball? When I'm able to do any of these things, they work wonderfully. Pedaling a stationary bike? That's not nearly as effective, because it's exceptionally boring. I did go to an indoor bike park for the first time recently and rode my mountain bike around in there for a couple of hours, and that was great fun. I'll have to go back.

I have been doing physical therapy for my hip since the summer. It seemed to help at first, but then things plateaued. In the last few weeks the pain has gotten worse again and I don't know why. It's very frustrating. I hope my doctor can figure something out but I'm not especially optimistic based on past experiences. At the same time, I don't expect things will be like this forever.

I realized some time ago that effective pain management was the most important thing in my life. Now I realize this can be divided into multiple parts: 1. Decreasing my pain. 2. Decreasing the limitations pain places on my ability to enjoy physical activity. 3. Coping with the psychological effects of being in pain. 4. Coping with the psychological effects of diminished physical capabilities. At any given time one or another of these might become paramount in importance, but all four have been the story of my life for a long time, and that will undoubtedly continue. And whereas much of the pain in my life has been due to losses I've suffered that have been totally outside my control, these are things that I would like to think I do have some control over. Don't get me wrong, my life right now is not completely horrible; there are a lot of good things, but there's also a lot of room for improvement, and I need to try to prioritize the ways in which I can attain that improvement.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Swirly

A really wonderful person recently came into my life.

On our first date, we met at a bar at about 8 pm on a Friday evening. Five amazing conversation-filled hours later, we finally emerged into the night, having both enthusiastically agreed that we should see each other again soon. We shared a goodnight kiss before each departing in our cars.

She isn't a widow, but she is someone who, like me, has experienced a great deal of pain in her life. And like me, she has been very open about sharing her pain through writing. She really has a way with words.

One word that she likes is "swirly" - to describe the feeling one gets in the early stages of dating someone special. I know the feeling well. At the beginnings of my previous relationships I felt swirly all the time.

In the immediate aftermath of this recent first date, I felt swirly. But in the ensuing days, as we continued to see each other more, that swirly feeling wasn't there all the time. It was there some of the time, but other times I didn't feel swirly at all.

When you meet someone really great, you're supposed to feel swirly all the time. Or so my previous experiences had taught me. So I began to question things. Maybe I wasn't even ready to date again, I thought.

And sometimes when I was with her, there was this weird feeling of tension in my mind. Cognitive dissonance, I think, from being with someone who wasn't the someone I was expecting to spend my life with.

I've seen widows describe such things in regards to their attempts to resume dating after losing their spouses. Somehow my loss of Cara never caused this to happen to me, at least not to nearly the same extent. But then, there was a much longer interval between that loss and my entering the dating world.

I decided I should give it some time. My pain was so deep and so recent that there was no way I could just jump right into feeling constantly swirly. But I did really enjoy spending time with this new person, so why not see how it developed?

I began to suspect very soon after the breakup that, in the long run, I would miss my ex's daughter a lot more than I would miss my ex. As more time goes by, it becomes very clear that that suspicion was correct.

About a week ago the new Someone in my life suggested we watch the recent live action Beauty and the Beast movie starring Emma Watson. It was clear to her that I had some hesitation about agreeing. So I explained to her why that was. I have an association between Beauty and the Beast and an extremely emotional incident involving my ex's daughter. I told her the whole story. By the end of it I was quite upset.

I'm well past the point of feeling awkward over talking about Cara with someone I'm dating. Someone who was bothered by the fact that I still love and sometimes want to talk about my late wife would obviously not be the right person for me. Talking to someone I'm dating now about how much I miss the daughter of a still very much alive woman who I was dating only a few months ago? That, on the other hand, does feel a little weird to me. But this new Someone is an incredibly caring person with a wonderful heart and she reacted with nothing but kindness and sympathy.

We've continued to spend more and more time together, and although the pain of my losses is not even close to gone, the cognitive dissonance is receding. I like to remind myself that my brain is constantly rewiring. My mental processes will be different tomorrow from what they are today. I will continue to adapt to the new reality of my life. I'm questioning things less. I'm living in the here and now and more and more I'm finding myself able to enjoy it. I'm not in any position to make long-term plans for my life, but I've found something wonderful for the present and maybe, maybe even for the future.

With each passing day, I feel a little more swirly.

Saturday, December 2, 2017

The elephant in the room

At a time when evidence is mounting that the sitting president colluded with a hostile foreign power to try to swing the election in his favor (and also that the sitting president is a delusional narcissist whose very presence in the Oval Office could endanger the whole world), one would think that it would be a time for our congressional representatives to take a step back from efforts to pass said president's favored legislation and instead focus on the crisis of governance in the executive branch.

Instead, our GOP Congress is rushing forward with efforts to pass one of the worst pieces of legislation in the history of this country.

Last night, in a total mockery of legislative diligence that would make our Founding Fathers weep, the Senate passed a tax reform bill that was being written and rewritten by corporate lobbyists in the hours leading up to its passing so that it's literally impossible for the senators voting for the bill to have known all of what is in it. But we know enough to know that what's in it is very bad. Corporations and the ultra-wealthy will get massive tax breaks, and millions of middle class families will ultimately end up paying more in taxes to partially offset those massive tax breaks. That's unprecedented in the history of our country - cutting taxes on the very fortunate while simultaneously raising them on the less fortunate. The bill also threatens to destroy the country's health insurance marketplace. It's also projected to add more than a trillion dollars to the federal deficit, proving once and for all that the idea of the GOP as a "fiscally conservative" party is a total sham and concerns over our debt expressed by GOP lawmakers past, present, and future should never be acknowledged as serious.

One of the most telling aspects of just how terrible this bill is is the provision to tax graduate students' tuition waivers as income, which would result in grad students' taxes increasing by several hundred percent. I was a grad student for many years. The stipend a grad student receives for doing research and/or TAing is basically just enough to get by without having to go into debt. It's not a lavish lifestyle. Creating a huge financial disincentive for people to go into research is the exact opposite of what you'd want to do if you want to encourage innovation in this country, which the GOP falsely claims will result from huge corporate tax cuts.

The public isn't being fooled by this scam. Recent polling shows only about one third of the country supports the bill. People are generally opposed to it because they've correctly concluded that it benefits the wealthy and doesn't benefit anyone else. So what does it say about our country and its political system that one political party is so hellbent on passing a plan that is not only terrible (no credible nonpartisan analysis suggests the benefits of the plan will outweigh the harm it causes) but that is also hated by voters?

Sadly, Republicans have realized that they no longer have any reason to try to win over a majority of the public. Donald Trump was elected president despite losing the popular vote. That's because the Electoral College gives disproportionate weight to voters in states with small populations, and voters in states with small populations are disproportionately white and disproportionately Republican-leaning compared to the country as a whole. The same logic applies to the makeup of the Senate, where a voter in Wyoming has about 67 times as much influence on the legislative process of that body as a voter in California. The House of Representatives is massively gerrymandered toward the GOP such that Democrats could win the aggregate national popular vote for House seats by several percentage points and still fail to gain a majority in number of representatives. Plus, in many states Republicans have engaged in massive voter supression efforts targeting demographic groups that tend to vote Democratic, further stacking the deck in the GOP's favor. (To be clear, in-person voter fraud that voter ID laws are supposedly intended to prevent is a virtually nonexistent problem; such laws would be solutions in search of a problem unless one recognized that the actual "problem" from the GOP's point of view is "minorities voting.")

What it all comes down to is that we have a two-party system, and one of those two parties no longer has any inclination toward trying to do things that will benefit most of their constituents. Sure, the influence of corporate money on both political parties is a huge problem, but the Democrats have to try to strike a balance between helping their donors and helping their voters. The Republicans can now focus almost entirely on trying to help their donors, and then count on the heavily tilted electoral landscape plus the powerful influence of right-wing media sources on the minority of voters who make up their base to help keep them in power.

Political moderates, influenced both by news media coverage and by a natural human desire to see the truth as being in the middle, like to blame problems in Washington on "both sides." And I'm by no means saying all or even most of our Democratic elected officials are doing a great job. But the elephant in the room today is the fact that, in our two-party system, one of those two parties has become completely bankrupt both morally and intellectually, and we cannot move forward as a country until that party loses power and is purged of this intellectual and moral bankruptcy. The GOP Congress's continued enabling of Trump and its passing of this horrific tax bill have proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that the modern GOP is a toxic force in our country. The problem is not just Trump. The problem is the Republican Party itself.

I continue to speak up about these things because I care too much to stay silent, but I also feel like I'm largely preaching to the choir. I have little interaction with people of significantly different political views. All my friends who I see regularly already hate Trump and the GOP. It's interesting, because I never made any effort at filtering who I befriended by their political views; it just kind of worked out that way. My job finds me working in a biology research lab, so you aren't going to find a lot of conservatives in a place like that either.

I guess the only people I'm really close with whose political views don't largely align with my own are my parents. I'm so relieved, though, that despite voting Republican more often than not during my lifetime, my parents fully recognize the awfulness of Trump. But as I said, this goes way beyond the awfulness of one man. I hope that people like my parents are waking up to the fact that the GOP itself, not just Trump, is a threat to our country. And that people like my parents, whose circle of friends and acquaintances is not nearly as one-sided politically as my own, are trying to influence the people around them whose views may be less rigid. And to all my friends, I hope that you'll continue to speak out on these issues with people you know both of similar and different political stripes, and make sure you and everyone you know get out to vote next fall. Our country is in bad shape at this moment, and if we can't muster up a mass movement against the party of Trump in the 2018 elections, things are only going to get worse.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

It's a leap of faith


Almost three months ago, I mentioned toward the end of a post about my adventures in Washington, Idaho, and Montana that the week had concluded with me flying home to Cleveland and seeing a Michelle Branch concert at the Grog Shop. "I plan to write about this in an upcoming post," I wrote. Now I'm finally getting around to it, although some parts of the post will be quite different from what I expected!

I got into Michelle Branch when I was in college. It's really interesting to me now how at the time, I had no music by female lead vocalists in my collection. Today the music I listen to is roughly evenly split between male and female lead vocals, but my tastes were different back then. It wasn't that I had a dislike for female singers, though. I just wasn't exposed to them very much in the rock radio I had listened to in middle and high school, and I think there was also a factor at work that society trains boys to avoid "girly" things. (Another "girly" thing that society trains boys to avoid is openly expressing our feelings, which I am glad I have been able to overcome in the last few years.) When I started listening to Michelle Branch her music was something of a "guilty pleasure," I think both because she was a woman and because it was pop music. (The whole concept of certain types of music being "guilty pleasures" is also very interesting to me.)

Anyway, I was pretty into Michelle Branch for a little while. She was even something of a celebrity crush for me, partly aided by the fact that she was born less than two weeks after I was in 1983. The fact that she was a celebrity crush for me greatly amuses me now due to the fact that she is engaged to Black Keys drummer Patrick Carney, who also plays in her band, and Carney is apparently my celebrity doppelganger because several times over the years total strangers have asked me if I've ever been told I look like him. Given the fact that The Black Keys are from Akron, I've wondered if any of those people were secretly wondering if I actually was him.

Patrick Carney and Michelle Branch

Before Michelle Branch gained mainstream success, she released an independent album called Broken Bracelet which I bought after getting into her more popular music. There was one song on the album I especially loved, "Leap of Faith," a beautiful acoustic number about making the leap to fully trust in another person to be your partner in life, that one person you know will always be there for you.


Flash forward several years. I started dating Cara on November 4, 2006, and for the one month anniversary of that first date I made her a mixtape and accompanying very heartfelt letter and mailed them to her. "Leap of Faith" was one of the songs on that mixtape, and became one of the most special to both of us.

Here's the full tracklist of the mixtape with some brief explanations of the songs.

1. Pearl Jam - "Black"
A live recording from the Pearl Jam concert I attended in May of that year, when I called Cara during "Black" so she could listen to it, the first of many times over the years that I did this at concerts.
2. The Decemberists - "Angel, Won't You Call Me?"
This was a reference to our calling each other on the phone, something we joked about in the early days of our friendship, which I've discussed in my blog posts about the game Psychobabble in which we met.
3. Say Hi To Your Mom - "Let's Talk About Spaceships"
4. Neko Case - "That Teenage Feeling"
Referring to how young and innocent our love felt.
5. Goodmorning Valentine - "She Comes Saturday"
This song is by a local band I was very into at the time, with the title a reference to the excitement I felt leading up to Cara's first visit to Cleveland, on Saturday, November 4.
6. Michelle Branch - "Leap of Faith"
7. The Beatles - "I Want to Hold Your Hand"
The moment we first held hands was so special that years later we both, independently of each other, referenced it in the vows we wrote for our wedding.
8. Ben Kweller - "Thirteen"
See "That Teenage Feeling."
9. Death Cab For Cutie - "We Looked Like Giants"
10. Petra Haden - "God Only Knows"
A beautiful solo a cappella cover of the Beach Boys song.
11. Okkervil River - "Seas Too Far to Reach"
This is the song that was announced as "a very special request for Jeff McManus" at the Okkervil River "rarities and requests" show I attended this past summer, Okkervil River frontman Will Sheff having heard the story of Cara and me.

Thanks to my propensity for saving everything, including old AIM chatlogs, I am able today to look at the conversation Cara and I had upon her receiving the mixtape and letter in the mail and listening to the mixtape. I'll share a choice quote from Cara: "This is by far the sweetest thing anyone has ever done for me."

I didn't listen to Michelle Branch a whole lot in the ensuing years, but some time after Cara's death, something inspired me to go back to her music, and I found some of it had taken on very impactful new meanings. For example, her hit song "Breathe" with these lyrics:

If I just breathe
Let it fill the space between
I'll know everything is alright

Song lyrics referencing lungs and/or breathing have always stood out to me since Cara was diagnosed with lung cancer. These particular lyrics reminded me of how Cara described the feeling of taking a breath, and one of her lungs only partially filling up, due to her illness. And then after her treatment was really working for a while, her lungs could once more fill all the way. And for that brief but wonderful time it almost seemed like everything was alright.

There's also the song "Goodbye to You," a breakup song, but I've noticed that many breakup songs contain lyrics that could easily apply to a loved one's death.

Earlier this year Michelle Branch's music took on yet more meaning to me when I listened to her song "Everywhere," and I realized that the lyric "I recognize the way you make me feel" was such an accurate summation of how I felt about EB.

I was very surprised when I saw that Michelle Branch would be playing a show at the Grog Shop, a small venue I've been a frequent patron of over the years. Given all the meaning her music has had to me, I decided it was a show I shouldn't miss. And it was a very good show. She played a good mix of songs from her new album along with her most popular songs from many years ago. The older songs definitely sounded different from the versions you might remember hearing on the radio. They were more rocky, less poppy, and Michelle's vocals were taken down in pitch. The very last time she sang "'Cause you're everywhere to me" in "Everywhere" she took it up to the old high notes, which was a cool little moment. All in all, it was a great night and a great way to wrap up an incredible week. And it's so surreal to look back at that week and think about what has happened in my life since then.

Sometimes you take a leap of faith and someone else takes a leap of faith with you and it works out beautifully.

Sometimes it doesn't.

My getting to know EB felt like an accelerated version of my getting to know Cara, so I'm hopeful that this period of time can be like an accelerated version of the aftermath of my losing Cara. It's become very clear to me that being alone is not for me. I actually began to feel a strong desire to start dating within only four months of Cara's death, but because I had never dated anyone other than Cara, it wasn't easy at first for me to actually go out and try to make that happen. Then, by the time I had worked my way up to being ready to do that, other issues appeared in my life that were much more pressing concerns. When I was so depressed that winter, my being alone made things even worse, but my depression made it basically impossible for me to try to change the fact that I was alone. So there was a considerable delay between when I first felt ready to try dating, and when I actually did try.

I've realized now that the best way to keep myself from being sad all the time is to put myself out there again and hop back into the dating pool, so I'm doing that. It doesn't mean I'm "over" my losses. I don't think I'll ever be completely "over" them (this is most certainly true in the case of Cara, at the very least) but I think I'm pretty good at compartmentalizing my grief and not letting it prevent me from enjoying the companionship of someone else. It may be a while before I'm truly able to take that leap of faith again, but I think I will eventually. I hope I find the right person to take it with me.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Of heartaches and headaches

One day in March 2014 I got a headache. As I usually do when I get a headache, I took some ibuprofen, but it had no effect. The next day, I got the same headache. The day after, the same headache. After this had continued for a week or two, I went to the student health clinic. While being examined, one question I was asked was whether I was experiencing a lot of stress. I answered that I was very busy working on my PhD thesis, and also that my wife had lung cancer. So I suppose I was experiencing a lot of stress.

As has happened with many chronic pain issues I've experienced, I ended up seeing multiple different doctors, and no definitive cause for the pain was identified, nor was any effective treatment found. Eventually, months later, the headaches just started to bother me less, and eventually mostly went away. Within those months, though, I did at times experience some pretty awful pain.

One day that I remember in particular was April 29. (Other significant events that have occurred on the 29th of April in the years since: Cara's funeral and my first date with EB. Huh.) Cara, my dad, and I went to an Arcade Fire concert at the Schottenstein Center in Columbus. The band encouraged concertgoers to dress up in formal attire or costumes for the dates on that tour, and I fondly remember Cara dressing in this wild getup:


I also fondly remember how much Cara and my dad enjoyed the concert, but the truth was, I had an excruciating headache that evening and it mostly ruined my own ability to enjoy the concert.

There was one good thing that came out of me getting those chronic headaches, though. The multitude of chronic pain issues I've experienced can broadly be divided into two categories: pain related to sports injuries (knee, ankle, and hip) and pain not related to sports injuries (everything else). When the main form of pain I'm experiencing is from the first category, it limits the types and amounts of exercise I can do without the pain getting too bad. When the main form of pain I'm experiencing is from the second category, exercising a lot generally helps me feel better. To help manage my headaches, I started running more, and I ended up running more in the year 2014 than I have in any other year since 2009, which was basically the last year of my serious running career due to an accumulation of multiple injuries. It was still a minuscule amount by my old standards (I ran about 120 miles in the entire year, with my peak for a single month being about 30; in the year 2004 I ran about 2100 miles), but I discovered that even on that relatively tiny volume I could get into pretty good shape. Not able to run nearly as fast as I once had, but able to run faster than the vast majority of participants in a typical road race. Cara had always been my biggest fan and that year, in what would be the last year of her life, she got to see me participate in a 5k road race in which I finished second place the day before my graduation, and then in August during my family's annual Adirondacks vacation in my first and only triathlon. She was very proud of me, as these screenshots from her Facebook attest.




I'm glad I got to do those races and that Cara got to watch me. That might not have happened if I hadn't been suffering from chronic headaches that year. I guess it's one of those "when life gives you lemons" situations.

By the way, one day in December of that year I went for a perfectly ordinary run and for reasons that remain a mystery to me my left hip started hurting a lot, and ever since then I've been able to do practically zero distance running without incurring significant hip pain. I've still been able to enjoy other activities like hiking and riding bikes, but in recent months I gained new motivation to try to work my way toward being able to do some quantity of distance running in the future. The reason for this was that EB's daughter (whose name and images I have been asked to remove from my posts for future privacy concerns, which I understand and respect) and I loved running with each other. Oh my god, it absolutely breaks my heart to think about the excited way she would exclaim, "C'mon, Jeffy!" and take off running...

So what this post has been leading up to is that one night early last week, a very restless night in bed, I suddenly felt a familiar pain in my forehead. I eventually got to sleep. The next morning, the headache returned. And it has every day since. It hasn't gotten into the "excruciating pain" zone (something I hope will continue to be true) but it has been the most irritating physical pain I've experienced in a while, which is unfortunate.

My mom has theorized that my chronic pain issues have been closely related to emotional trauma I've experienced. I have been skeptical of this, because looking over the whole history of chronic pain issues I've experienced, there is no real correlation between the timing of them and the timing of emotionally traumatic events. (There is definitely a connection between emotional and physical pain, in that when you are experiencing both, they feed back onto each other, and your perception of both becomes worse, but it doesn't necessarily follow that the physical pain was initially caused by emotional pain.) For this particular issue, I am now convinced of the causative relationship. I have learned in the last two years that at least some of my pain issues have been related to excess muscle tension. Perhaps this is another case of that, and perhaps a face that is frequently wearing distressed and sad expressions has more muscle tension.

Well, it's another challenge.

There is still part of me when I write things like this that worries I'm trying to throw a pity party for myself and I shouldn't complain so much because I know there are a lot of people who have worse problems in their lives and aren't as visible about them. But it does help me to write about and share these issues. At a very basic level, when I'm intensely focused on writing something, it's a distraction from pain. I also think that working through these issues in writing helps me to better understand what I'm experiencing. And I also think that sharing them with everyone makes me feel less alone.

As well, I'd like to think that it could be good for other people who may be experiencing similar things to read someone else's writing about such experiences. My friend Deena (website/blog here), a wonderful person, is very open about mental health issues she's experienced and continues to experience and is a tremendous advocate for mental health awareness, and I've seen a lot of people express gratitude to her for speaking out. It's not easy to open up like that, and if you aren't able to, that doesn't mean there's something wrong with you. But if you are able to, I think it's a very good thing to do.

Monday, November 6, 2017

Wait for the light to come back on

The first time I saw the band Typhoon live, September 21, 2013, was about four weeks after I found out that Cara had cancer.

Yesterday I saw Typhoon for the fourth time. It was about four weeks after... well, you know. Funny how the timing of that worked out.

Shortly after Cara died, I wrote a blog post entitled Typhoon lyrics that make me think of Cara. In it I described the special meaning the band's music had taken on to me during Cara's battle with lung cancer. Typhoon's songs are largely inspired by lead singer Kyle Morton's near death experience from Lyme disease and the continuing effects of that disease on his life. Lyrics pondering our mortality and place in the universe backed by lushly orchestrated, complex folk-rock arrangements that are alternately raucous and tender make for really moving stuff. As I watched my wife be ravaged by a horrible disease and yet continue to face the world with an indomitable spirit, Typhoon's music spoke directly into my soul. Now, two and a half years since I wrote that blog post, the Portland, Oregon-based indie rock band has become even more meaningful to me. I find it a good opportunity to reflect back on the four times I've seen the band live (and the one time I was going to see them but then didn't) and the important events that were going on in my life at each of those points in time.

By total coincidence, I started listening to Typhoon at about the same time Cara was diagnosed. Earlier that summer I had noticed the band on the upcoming events calendar at my favorite music venue, the Beachland Ballroom and Tavern, and thought they looked interesting. By the time September 21 rolled around, Cara had been hospitalized, diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer, released from the hospital after a roughly one-week stay, then hospitalized again due to a buildup of fluid around her lungs that required surgery, and released again after another week. It was a total whirlwind and I was an emotional wreck. I remember standing in the packed Beachland Tavern and gawking at the eleven members of the band as they packed themselves and their instruments onto that tiny stage. And then the awe-inspiring performance, and me hearing lyrics like Count down the time that you have left, in a jar try to catch try and capture it and wondering to myself how much time Cara had left.

In the six months that followed between that show and my next Typhoon concert (on March 29, 2014), Cara's health took another even more dramatic downturn, but then miraculously turned around thanks to a clinical trial drug she started taking. Looking back at Cara's Facebook, I marvel at the things that were going on that week. On March 28 Cara rode in the Critical Mass bike ride for the first time since before her diagnosis. "I am slow. Holy shit, am I slow now," she wrote. "As I crept up the Lorain-Carnegie bridge I was reminded of how very slow I am. It's going to take some time to pick up speed again - my legs were on fire the whole time tonight but I would not change a damn thing about the ride. I've missed riding my bike."


Cara also posted that week about her "scanxiety" over her upcoming scans at the hospital. The scans, as it turned out, contained very good news, giving Cara considerable hope (and even me a more guarded hope) that her disease could be beaten.

On March 29, the day of the concert, Cara and I went to the West Side Market together, an outing we enjoyed many times over the years. That evening a massive snow storm hit Cleveland. I braved treacherous streets to make the drive to the Beachland for a show there was no way I was going to miss. Having still been new to Typhoon the first time I saw them, in the months since their music had captured my soul. I never told Cara just how much Typhoon meant to me, because explaining how would have meant explaining to her my constant thoughts of the possibility of her dying. I remember standing in the crowded Beachland Ballroom (the larger of two rooms at the venue; the band's audience had expanded considerably over those six months) and tears forming in my eyes as the opening notes of "Artificial Light" began Typhoon's set.

The first opening band that night was another Portland-based indie band called Wild Ones. That's an important part of this story, but the reason why would not become evident until a year and a half later. So I'll get back to that.

For my third Typhoon concert, I traveled to Ann Arbor, Michigan on September 6, 2014. At this point in time, Cara was receiving traditional chemotherapy, the clinical trial drug having lost effectiveness at controlling some of her cancer several months earlier. That scan in late March ended up being the best scan news we ever got. But Cara was still hopeful, and her positive attitude helped carry me. I had dinner with my good friends Adam and Jackie at their house in Ann Arbor that evening. Cara was not interested in going to the concert (she rarely felt up to going to concerts during her treatment), but would have liked to join me in visiting our friends, except that she was actually working at her job on that Saturday! I had a nice visit with Adam and Jackie, enjoyed another amazing Typhoon concert, and then drove the three hours back to Cleveland to get back to my Cara very late at night.

Typhoon's music continued to be there for me for the remainder of the roller coaster that was Cara's treatment for and eventual succumbing to lung cancer. And then, after keeping all those thoughts and feelings about their music and what it meant to me all to myself for those many months, just a week after she died I wrote that blog post. And that was the beginning of a massive transformation I underwent as a result of my experience with Cara, a transformation from a very reserved person who rarely shared his innermost feelings with others into someone who finds sharing of those feelings with the world a vital way to cope with and work through the enormous weight of my life experiences. I guess when I have one person with whom I can share everything, and then I don't have that, the result is that there are some things I want to share with everyone.

Later in 2015, Typhoon announced they'd be playing a special tenth anniversary concert in Portland that December. I decided that I would go.

On September 29, I saw Wild Ones (here's where that band, or specifically one of its members, takes on significance) play a show in Cleveland. It was, in fact, exactly one and a half years since the last time I saw Typhoon in Cleveland, which is extra funny because my friends Tom and Jeff were at both of those shows, and Tom's birthday is March 29 whereas Jeff's is September 29. At the show I got to talk to the band and mentioned having seen them open for Typhoon and how I was a big Typhoon fan too. They said they were also big Typhoon fans, as well as friends of the members of Typhoon.

Not long after, I was in Washington DC for a conference and I happened to notice that Wild Ones were playing a show there on a night I had free. I thought it would be fun and funny to go see them again and so I did, wearing my Typhoon t-shirt. After they played I went to the merch table to chat and Danielle Sullivan, the band's lead singer, looked at my shirt and said, "Hey, nice shirt," and then as she looked at my face, recognition dawned and she exclaimed, "You came to see us again!"

I explained how I was in town for a conference, and then decided that since she was a friend of Typhoon I'd like to talk to her about what Typhoon's music meant to me. So I did, and she seemed very moved by my words. I also asked her what Kyle (Typhoon's lead singer), was like in person, as he is someone I greatly admire. I remember she smiled a bemused smile and said, "He's probably the very best person I know."


So imagine my surprise when some months later I saw a news update from Typhoon, and it included in it the little fact that Kyle and Danielle were getting married!!

I realized that all the things I had been telling her, about all the personal meaning Typhoon's music had to me - it was even more personally meaningful to her. It was a powerful realization.

At that show in DC I also mentioned to Danielle that I was planning to go to the Typhoon show in December. She said she'd be there and maybe she would see me.

I ended up not going to that show.

It was only a few weeks after the Wild Ones show in DC that a horrific recurrence of an old chronic pain issue began and I became very depressed. As the Typhoon show approached, I debated whether I would still go, because I was worried my pain would prevent me from enjoying the trip. I was beginning to make some progress at combating the pain by engaging in large quantities of vigorous exercise. I decided I would go, although I still had reservations. Then, a few days before the trip, I badly strained a leg muscle while playing basketball, putting me on crutches, and also preventing me from exercising while the injury healed, causing my pain and depression to worsen again. I canceled the trip and it was one of the very lowest moments of my entire life.

As controlling my pain became the topmost priority in my life, Typhoon's music took on even more meaning to me, as I could relate to much of the content not only in relation to Cara's battle with cancer, but also in relation to my own health issues. The lyrics of "Common Sentiments," in particular, spoke to me:

When am I gonna feel better?
When am I gonna feel better?

When am I gonna feel better?
I have been patient for a long time now

And the haunting climax of the song, a repeating and building chorus:

I will be good though my body be broken...

In the year that followed, my life turned completely around for the better. On September 18, 2016, inspired by thoughts of everything I had overcome and how Typhoon's music had been there for me through it all, I drew the cover art for the band's phenomenal album White Lighter, along with a personally meaningful song lyric, at the Cleveland Museum of Art's annual chalk festival:


On the same day, not long after I completed that drawing, my good friend Shelli was hit by a car and nearly killed while riding her bicycle in Montana. It was another one of the most emotionally traumatic events I've experienced in my personal life, and my drawing quickly took on additional symbolic meaning to me.

Now moving on to this year: had it continued on the course of the first nine months, 2017 looked like it was going to be the best year of my entire life. A few months ago Typhoon, who have not toured since 2014, announced another tenth anniversary show in Portland, this for the anniversary of their record label Tender Loving Empire. Again, I decided I'd go to the show.

Again, in between my making plans to go to Portland for a Typhoon show, and the actual date of the show, something really bad happened to me.

This time I did not cancel the trip.

I arrived in Portland on November 4, which just happened to be the eleventh anniversary of my first date with Cara. In tribute to her, I went to Voodoo Doughnut - Cara talked many times about how she'd like to visit Portland, and how Voodoo Doughnut was a Portland destination she'd like to experience. She never did get to go.


For the first part of the trip I was mostly feeling despondent. The chilly, gloomy weather did not help. The forecast for November 5, the day of the concert, showed a lot of rain. But that morning, the forecast had completely changed. Although still not at all warm, it turned out to be quite a nice day. A nice day for a long walk. As I began the walk, I was still feeling pretty down. I walked a big loop of streets and trails that took me through lush Pacific Northwest forests, the majestic Hoyt Arboretum, and the beautiful Japanese Garden.

at the arboretum

On the way back into downtown, in much better spirits than I had been that morning, I also stopped at a record store and then to grab some pizza. That night, I walked to and from the concert venue (1.5 miles each way). All told, I probably walked at least 13 miles on the day, and there really is something to be said for the ability of exercise to help one's mood.

When I was out to dinner before the concert the most amazing thing happened. I was sitting at the bar of the restaurant, finishing up my dinner, and then I glanced over at a table not far from me, and... Is that Kyle Morton?

I wasn't sure. The Typhoon frontman isn't particularly notable in physical appearance. But then I looked to the woman sitting next to him, and it was definitely Danielle. They were sitting with three other people who I think were family. I finished off my food. They looked to be ordering theirs. I guessed that Danielle would probably remember me from two years ago because in retrospect it had been a meaningful conversation for both of us, so I thought, What the heck, I'll go say hi.

Danielle did remember me. I got to talk briefly to both her and Kyle (who I had not previously met). I told Kyle about what his music meant to me, and he, too, seemed very moved. I also told the story about my talking to Danielle and asking her what Kyle was like in person, and what she had said in response, which they both clearly enjoyed hearing. I received hugs from both. I left the restaurant smiling and laughing to myself and thinking something I've thought many times in the last few years: Wow, I have a pretty amazing life.

The Typhoon show (which also featured excellent opening sets by Jared Mees and Loch Lomond) was another magical experience. It was actually the first show Typhoon had played since that show in 2015 that I was going to go to and then didn't, and at the same venue, Revolution Hall, to boot. Kyle commented on this and how it seemed, being up there on that stage again, almost like they had been frozen in time for the last two years. This led me to contemplate my life over those two years, and how the position I'm in now is in many ways similar but also in many ways different to two years ago.


Numerous moments in the band's songs hit me as usual, some in the same ways as before and some in new ways. (From "Hunger and Thirst": It occurs to me that I have spent my whole life just starting over.) During the show, I also enjoyed observing the reactions the people around me had to the music. Live music can be a very spiritual experience, and that's true for Typhoon more than for most artists. One woman I noticed seemed to be utterly captivated and near tears during one of the songs. And if I positioned my head just right, I could catch glimpses of Danielle gazing up at her husband.

Rather than opening the show like at previous Typhoon shows I'd attended, "Artificial Light" was the final song of this performance. There's a particular part of the song that has always made me think of Cara ever since I first heard it:

I woke up in the morning
To a pale light tangled in your hair
And I never wake before you
But this time I caught you sleeping there
Yes, you are my sunlight
You are my last breath of air
I would try to hold it
I would try to keep the moment
Like a photograph of the sunset
Like a little kid with a bug net
Like a dying man, I swear

As Kyle went into these lines, his eyes turned meaningfully toward Danielle, something a casual observer wouldn't have noticed but that was obvious to me. The loving way they looked at each other in that moment was such a beautiful thing.

And I also must mention the moment in the show when Kyle looked to me, and said, "I want to give a shout-out to our friend Jeff who came here all the way from Cleveland, Ohio! I see you out there!"

Kyle Morton of Typhoon and Will Sheff of Okkervil River are my two most admired music artists and two of my most admired people period, and in the last few months I've gotten special shout-outs from both of them at their shows. How many people get to say something like that?

Between the great walk, and getting to talk to Danielle and Kyle, and the wonderful Typhoon show, as I walked back to my hotel I realized that it had truly been one of the most amazing days of my entire life.

That doesn't mean everything in my life is okay now. Far from it. But wow, what a great thing to happen at a time when I really needed it.

Thursday, November 2, 2017

Post mortem

I've seen a number of posts on online support groups for widows in which people complain about incidents when someone says they can relate to being widowed because they are divorced.

I can understand the frustration. There are obviously distinct differences between being divorced and being widowed. But there are also similarities. You thought you'd be spending the rest of your life with a certain special someone, and now that turns out not to be true, and you have to adjust to your new life.

I wouldn't advise that people use the "I can relate; I went through a divorce" line when trying to console widows. It's much better to simply provide a sincere offer of friendship and of being there for the person in any way you can. But on the other side, I think that widows who do hear that line should try to be a little more understanding and less judgmental.

A lot of those posts seem to have an undertone of "How dare you trivialize my loss by comparing it to being divorced?" But the truth is, the end of a relationship for reasons other than death can be as painful as the end of a relationship due to death. Unless someone has been both widowed and divorced, they can't really say which, if either, is worse, and even then it would of course only apply to their own specific set of circumstances.

On October 9, a date that will likely go alongside April 24 in my personal list of significant milestone dates, I was completely blindsided when EB told me she thought we should break up. I was quickly reminded of two previous events in my life: Cara's diagnosis with lung cancer, and Cara's death. Cara's diagnosis with lung cancer was incredibly shocking and horrific... but at least she was still there and still my partner in life and we could both be there to support each other as best we could. Cara's death was incredibly painful and sad... but at least I had had a considerable amount of time to prepare myself for the possibility of that tragedy unfolding.

This breakup wasn't even a divorce, obviously, because EB and I weren't married, nor were we even officially engaged, but we had both expressed to each other numerous times that we intended to spend our lives together. From my point of view, this came completely out of nowhere, and it feels like EB suddenly became a different person and that my EB, the EB I knew and loved, died. So I quickly came to feel that this sudden loss of a life partner, and that constant presence of love and support and friendship, might be even more painful than Cara's diagnosis or Cara's death. I also thought, maybe it's just the initial shock, and I won't feel the same after more time goes by. But now, several weeks out and as finality has settled in, I'm pretty sure I do still feel that way.

There is, of course, another factor here that was not a part of my loss of Cara.

I have come to love [redacted] as if she were my own child. That's something that EB went out of her way to encourage throughout the course of our relationship. I don't say that because I want to make EB look bad, and I debated whether I should include that line at all in this post, but my purpose in writing this blog is to give people a real and raw insight into my life, the good and the bad. It helps me for other people to know "how I really feel," and I'm hopeful that it could be beneficial to other people as well. And I've come to realize that my loving [redacted] like a child of my own, encouraged by EB, is probably the single most pertinent point one must understand in order to understand the trauma I'm now experiencing. Because I haven't just lost a life partner. I also feel like I've lost a child, and taking the two losses together, like I've lost a family. It's really awful. Every time I see a young child, I'm reminded of [redacted], and it tears at my heart.

Making the whole thing even more painful is that it does all come in the aftermath of my previous devastating loss of Cara, and after all my hard fought efforts to rebuild my life through my grief over Cara and through everything else I've been through since then. And yet another way in which this loss could be more painful is that I am able to look back fondly on all my wonderful memories of Cara without those memories being tainted in any way by what happened after. That's not the case here.

I'm sure everyone is wondering what happened. I don't feel it's my place to publicly go into great detail, but I feel comfortable sharing that EB said she realized she just wasn't ready for this and she might never be ready. Hey, being a widow isn't easy. I certainly know that myself. I feel bad for EB. I also feel bad for me. I feel bad for everyone involved!

Almost two years ago, in a blog post about my experiences with chronic pain that I wrote during a horrific recurrence of one particular chronic pain condition that began about half a year after Cara's death, I wrote, "I think a lot of people have been pretty amazed at how well I've seemed to handle [my loss of Cara]. That I was able to do so well is, I think, in large part due to the great example that Cara set in how to deal with tremendous adversity. But I think it's also partly because the aftermath of Cara's death was, in fact, not the worst period of time that I've experienced in my life."

Well, here's another entry for my personal list of "things that have happened to me that are more painful than my wife dying of cancer." It's unique, though, in that it's the only entry on that list that is not an episode of severe chronic pain. And I should remind myself that this breakup, like Cara's death, is not the most painful thing I've experienced.

I'll close this entry by mentioning that the morning after the breakup, another remarkably unlikely and bizarre coincidence joined the long list of unlikely and bizarre coincidences that have happened in my life. When I was backing my car out of my driveway, the song "All Your Favorite Bands" by the band Dawes came on the radio. EB and I went to a Dawes concert for our first date. I consider this coincidence particularly unlikely because it was the only time since (at the very least) that first date that I have heard Dawes on the radio. I know this because I would undoubtedly have made note of any other such occurrence. It was another one of those moments that would have seemed utterly contrived and hokey had it happened in a movie, except that it really happened in my real life. Lyrics selection from the song:

I hope that life without a chaperone is what you thought it’d be
I hope your brother’s El Camino runs forever
I hope the world sees the same person that you’ve always been to me
And may all your favorite bands stay together

My favorite band was EB, [redacted], and Jeffy.