Thursday, July 5, 2018

In the blink of an eye

Last week on Tuesday afternoon I got an email at work informing Cleveland Clinic employees that there had been a serious automobile crash at the intersection of Carnegie and E. 105th and it was causing traffic delays in the area of the Clinic campus. At the end of the afternoon I left work and, as I do every work day, walked across that intersection on the way to my parking garage. There I saw two very damaged vehicles. I also saw that traffic on Carnegie was very backed up.

I walked the rest of the way to the garage, took the elevator to the roof (the 9th level of the garage), and was surprised and dismayed by the sight that greeted me as I completed the walk to my car. Cars waiting to exit the garage were backed up all the way to the roof! I'd never seen anything like it. After I got into my car it soon became apparent that the line of cars was basically not moving at all. I began to wonder how long it would take me to get out of the garage. A half hour? An hour? And I began to feel very irritated.

Looking at the faces of the other drivers I could see from my vantage point, it was clear I was not alone in feeling irritated.

But then a thought came to me. I was going to be delayed in leaving work. It was annoying, but it wasn't anything more than annoying. It was a very minor inconvenience in the grand scheme of things. There was no reason for me to let it ruin my day. The people who were in that crash? Their days had really been ruined. A delay in leaving work was really not that big a deal. I put some calming music on my car stereo and basically just chilled out for the rest of the wait, which ended up being a little more than half an hour in length.

Not surprisingly, I observed that a lot of the other drivers were not nearly as chill. There were some angry faces and gestures when people disagreed on whose turn in line it was. Of course, we all see this all the time on our journeys by automobile.

I later learned that a 49 year old woman had been killed in the crash. The crash was caused by a man speeding and running a red light.

Later last week, Karyn had a scary incident when she was driving and had to swerve to avoid someone who was... speeding and running a red light. She related to me how the driver had been going at least 50 mph in a 35 zone and had sped through the intersection seconds after the light had changed to green in Karyn's direction.

It really puts things in perspective, doesn't it? Maybe we shouldn't let being stuck in traffic bother us so much. It could be a lot worse.

And it occurred to me that there's a connection. We've created this society where the ability to speedily get from point A to point B in an automobile often takes precedence over almost everything else. And so we feel entitled to that ability to speedily get from point A to point B in our automobiles. And so when something interferes with that ability we tend to get frustrated and angry. And so also some among us feel so entitled to that ability to speedily get from point A to point B that we take risks and skirt or ignore rules - and horrific injuries and deaths are the result.

It's absolutely crazy if you really think about it. Automobiles are deadly weapons. And so many people are so neglectful of the responsibility that should come with operating such a deadly weapon. A human life is an incredibly precious thing. How could saving a few seconds on your commute possibly be worth risking ending a life?

I've seen many times, in gun control arguments, that when someone in favor of stricter gun control brings up the fact that guns kill over 30,000 people per year in the United States, someone will counter with that fact that cars also kill over 30,000 people per year, so should we have car control, they ask rhetorically?

The obvious response is that those deaths are an unfortunate side effect of the primary purpose of cars, transportation, whereas causing death is the primary purpose of a gun. But over the last few years I've become inclined to say that actually yes, we do need better car control.

It's absurd the extent to which our society has prioritized fast automobile travel over so many other things that are so much more important. We know for a fact that faster speeds lead to more deaths, and yet we keep raising speed limits on highways. We know that we could make our roads safer with speeding and red light cameras, and yet here in Cleveland we've done away with those cameras. We know that SUVs are much more likely to kill pedestrians than are normal cars, and yet bigger and deadlier SUVs continue to increase their share of the auto market. (I want to give a shout out to my friend Angie Schmitt who has done a lot to raise my, and hopefully a lot of other people's, awareness on these issues with her writing on the website StreetBlog - here's a good post about SUVs, for example.)

Not to mention texting while driving...

What can we do about all this? Raising awareness can only do so much. There's probably some element of human nature that causes that impatience in traffic that most of feel, but it's something that has undoubtedly been amplified by the structure of the society in which we live, a structure that was created by choices people made over the years. The way things are is not the way things have to be. A functional society does not require over 30,000 traffic-related deaths per year. If commercial airline travel was as dangerous as automobile travel, the airlines would go out of business because people would be too afraid to get on planes. And yet with cars we just take it for granted.

A woman died next to my workplace last week because someone flouted the responsibility of handling an automobile and it was barely a blip in the news because it happens all the time. Something to think about the next time you feel annoyed about being stuck in traffic.

Monday, June 18, 2018

Memory/The way it was before

It's not often that you get the chance to see your two favorite bands in concert on consecutive days. It's certainly never happened to me before. Last week not only did it happen, but it happened coincident with my and Cara's wedding anniversary.

June 12, the seventh anniversary of our wedding, brought Typhoon to the Beachland Ballroom, my favorite music venue and one where I have so many wonderful memories. It was another amazing show by Typhoon, a band that I have written so much about recently that there's no need to really review the show itself. But I did want to mention some things that lead singer Kyle Morton said both during the show and during our conversation after it.

At one point in between songs, Kyle talked about how new album Offerings (which I just blogged about) is centered around the theme of memory. He said the album describes a worst case scenario of total memory loss, but also that Kyle had become interested in exploring the topic in part due to things he sees happening in society. We seem to be losing our memories, he said. Although he did not directly mention Donald Trump, his remarks made it clear he was alluding to the horrifying way that events in this country today are echoing events from the past and how we as a culture seem to have learned nothing from that past.

He also brought up how (in a not unrelated way) people today seem to have such short attention spans, and tied this to the omnipresent phone screens that we often seem unable to go more than a few minutes without looking at. This is something I've thought a lot about myself. Just as one example, when I was a kid, when I watched sports on TV I didn't feel a need to have something else besides the game on TV to hold my attention. Now when I watch sports on TV I'm often constantly glancing back and forth between my phone screen and the TV screen because my brain rebels at just focusing on one thing for an extended period of time. Of course the TV is just another "screen" and in the past TVs were cited as a cause for shortened attention spans, so these issues aren't novel to the smartphone era. But I do think there has been a major acceleration over the course of my lifetime and the effects, both on individual people's minds and on society's collective consciousness, are in many ways alarming.

Kyle encouraged us not to get too caught up in the digital world of phones and the Internet and to be sure to give attention to real connections with real people and with the real world. Now, I know as well as anyone that the Internet, when used in certain ways, can greatly bolster those real connections - after all, not only did I meet Cara via an online game, but online messaging was the primary way we got to know each other, as we lived in different cities. So context matters, and I'm certainly not saying that online interactions should be completely shunned. But at the same time, it's important to not get trapped in that online world, many aspects of which are designed to give our brains instant gratification but not genuine long term fulfillment. There are so many things in the real physical world - a beautiful day outside, a friend with whom we're conversing, a concert we're attending, a delicious meal we're consuming - that merit our full attention and are cheapened if that attention is constantly split with that little screen in our hand.

The topic of memory and memory loss also hits close to home because I've become increasingly aware of changes in my own cognitive function and ability to remember things since last fall. My brain doesn't seem to work quite as well as it used to. This has multiple aspects, I've noticed. When I think back over my life going back to October, especially the first few months of that period, there's a certain haziness to the memories, a sort of mental fog. As well, I feel I've become somewhat absentminded about everyday tasks and things I'm doing and should be doing. There's a well known phenomenon that can be referred to as "widow brain" - but the interesting thing is I don't feel like these effects happened nearly as much after Cara's death as they did after the breakup last fall. So perhaps that breakup triggered a sort of delayed onset widow brain by compounding on my previous trauma. I don't want to overstate this - I don't feel like I'm losing my mind or anything like that, and overall I think my brain still works well. And I also think things have improved compared to a few months ago. But still, this has all been very noticeable to me.

Trauma affects our ability to remember things. And not remembering things (see: the parallels between Trump and the rises of past fascist dictators that so many seem willfully ignorant of) can help bring on more traumas. Not a good feedback loop.

On a happier note now, the show, as I said, was excellent, and I again got to talk to Kyle afterwards, and he (like his wife Danielle, of the band Wild Ones, in Toronto) was so genuinely pleased to get to see me and talk with me again. I'm very moved by that. I told Kyle about how it was my wedding anniversary, and he, like me, was startled by the odd coincidence. I also mentioned having gotten to see the Decemberists on the anniversary of Cara's death this year. Kyle said something that I really liked, something along the lines of, "We're all mortal. We're all going to go sooner or later. But when someone you love dies, I think a part of that person does live on in the people who loved them. And I think you can especially see that when those sorts of coincidences happen." I like that attitude!

The Typhoon show was a perfect way to mark my and Cara's anniversary. The day after found me driving to Detroit, having decided I didn't want to pass up the opportunity to see Okkervil River - especially considering that back on that wonderful weekend in June 2011, on the day before the wedding, Cara and I attended an Okkervil River concert in Columbus. So there was a nice parallelism there, and it was one I unintentionally added to. The concert in Detroit was at El Club in Mexicantown, and given that I was in Mexicantown I naturally decided to go to an authentic taqueria for dinner - and as my tacos were served to me, it suddenly struck me that Cara and I had had a taco truck cater our wedding rehearsal dinner. So not only was I replicating the night before our wedding by going to an Okkervil River concert, I was replicating it by having tacos for dinner and then going to an Okkervil River concert! I laughed at the realization. (Oh, and the tacos, at Taqueria El Rey, were delicious.)

El Club is a cool little venue that I'd been to once previously. It was in January of this year, and it was to see Typhoon (obsesssed much?). In retrospect I'm so glad that I went to that show, because on the same trip I visited my great friends Adam and Jackie in Ann Arbor, and then in April Jackie's mother Carol, a wonderful person who had lived with MS for decades, passed away. So that Typhoon show resulted in me getting to see Carol one last time, and I'm grateful for that. There's another interesting parallel there. In January 2015 Cara and I visited Adam and Jackie (and their two young boys and Carol), and then Cara passed away in April 2015, and I became especially glad we had made that trip, just as I became especially glad I made the January 2018 trip after the April 2018 passing of Carol.

The show this week was my eleventh time seeing Okkervil River in concert. It was my fourth time since Cara's death. Each of the three previous post-Cara's death concerts, I realized, had been unusual in some way, distinctly different from a "normal" Okkervil River show. The show in 2015 was for the tenth anniversary of the album Black Sheep Boy and featured (rather than a normal setlist) that album and the accompanying EP Black Sheep Boy Appendix played in their entireties. The show in 2016 was in support of the album Away, and after it I blogged about what a totally different experience that show was. The setlist largely consisted of songs from Away, which is a very different album from any other by the band, and on top of that, "every single non-Away song in the main set was a very heavily reworked version of the original song." And the show in 2017 featured a stripped down, three person, acoustic version of the band, playing an all requests setlist (and that show included probably the most emotional moment for me at any show ever when Will Sheff said "This is a very special request for Jeff McManus" and played a song I had described in my request as being linked to a special memory of my late wife).

So all three of those shows had been major divergences from what I'd think of as a "normal" Okkervil River concert. At the 2016 Away tour show, I wondered if the approach Will was taking to his music at that show would become the new norm going forward, and if perhaps I'd never again experience a "normal" Okkervil River show. I keyed in on a lyric from the last song played at that show, "Black": "It'll never be the way it was before," and I wrote these words:

Perhaps Okkervil River shows will never be the way they were before. Very certainly, my life will never be the way it was before. Before Cara got lung cancer and then died of it. But I will always carry that past with me. And the future? It can still be pretty great.

It's eerie now, looking back, that just weeks later another "It'll never be the way it was before" moment happened and at the time I wasn't even a bit concerned about it because I just didn't think it was going to happen. I'm referring, of course, to Donald Trump's election to the presidency. I realize that I keep going back to Trump even in posts that are mainly about non-political topics, but it's hard to overstate just how much the ongoing crisis in this country has affected me and my view of the world. And I'm a privileged white guy who hasn't even been directly affected by it in any significant way. There are so many people who unfortunately can't say that. It's a collective trauma that's happening to all of us and even if we do turn things back around, there are going to be scars that will remain for as long as this country exists. And there's a part of me that fears our country, as we know it, won't exist anymore in the not so distant future. Trump clearly wants to be a dictator, and although he isn't one at this point in time, our Republican elected officials have so far collectively shown basically no willingness to meaningfully stand up to his corruption and abuses. So what if he just refuses to leave office, and the Republicans just go along with it? I don't see that as the most likely outcome, but I can't discount the possibility. So this is probably another appropriate time to say: make sure everyone you know gets out and votes in November.

This blog entry that is centered around two concerts at which I had fantastic times sure has some unhappy little asides in it!

Anyway, it turned out that my idea that Okkervil River shows might never be the way they were before did not actually come to pass. This show, finally, for the first time for me in almost five years, was an Okkervil River show the way it was before. The band played a set full of songs both from excellent new album In the Rainbow Rain and from most of the other albums in their catalog, and while there were some interesting variations thrown in on the older songs they were generally much more faithful interpretations of the original versions, and the band had so much energy, and for 90 minutes it really did feel like old times again and it was so great and I had so much fun and I kind of just wanted that show to never end! Seriously, it was magical!

Will Sheff is the sole songwriter for Okkervil River and he's actually been for a while now the only original member still in the band; he's gone through a lot of lineup changes over the years, and while the shows have always been fantastic, at times they've felt more like a group of musicians performing Will Sheff's music rather than a performance by a band, if that makes sense. But the current lineup is just clicking in an incredible way and at times I felt like I was transported back to, say, the Pepper Jack Cafe in Hamilton, Ontario on Cara's birthday in 2007. And it's really special how music can do that. Life as a whole is never going to be "the way it was before," but it's nice, for a little while, to be able to recapture that feeling. I think the fact that it had been so long since I had seen a "normal" Okkervil River show made this one all the more special. The last previous "normal" show was also the last time I saw Okkervil River with Cara - at the Beachland in 2013 just about a month after she was diagnosed with lung cancer. At that show she sat right in front of the stage in a wheelchair and she reveled in the fact that she had enough lung capacity to sing along with those familiar songs. After the show she was handed from the stage a setlist from the show, written on a paper plate, and that plate remains on display in my living room. At the show the other day I was able to obtain another such souvenir.

I drove home from Detroit after the show and, although I did not get home until about 3 am, I was so amped up and giddy from the show that I had not the least bit of trouble staying awake - I didn't even feel the need to stop for a caffeinated beverage, as I typically would on such a late night trip. And then, just as I was pulling into the garage, what band's music came onto the college radio station I had playing?

Yep, Okkervil River. Naturally I sat in my car and listened to (and sang along with) the whole song ("The Latest Toughs" from 2005 masterpiece Black Sheep Boy). Another one of those funny, weird little coincidences and a perfect way to cap off a thrilling and emotional two days.

Sunday, June 10, 2018

Typhoon - Offerings

One week after Cara died, I published a post on my blog called Typhoon lyrics that make me think of Cara. It ended a long hiatus; I hadn't posted anything on my blog in over one and a half years, covering most of the time since Cara's diagnosis with lung cancer. That post was a pivotal moment in my life. Prior to that, I was a person who did little sharing of my innermost thoughts and feelings. My blog posts were largely descriptive, usually about concerts I went to or other adventures Cara and I went on together, and while I did describe the feelings those experiences evoked in me, I avoided (both in my blog and in my conversations with friends and family) any truly in depth discussions of my life and the challenges contained therein. After Cara died, that all changed.

Now, as a concert approaches on my and Cara's wedding anniversary by the band whose music has most helped carry me through my wife's sickness and death and my own life in the aftermath of all that, I find it a good time to share some thoughts on the spectacular album Typhoon released earlier this year.

Typhoon's 2013 album White Lighter, released on August 20, 2013 - that is, the same week Cara was hospitalized leading to her lung cancer diagnosis - wormed its way into my heart and soul like no other album ever had with its gorgeous songs about life and death and pain and striving to "be good" in the face of all that pain. I realized a long time ago that the lyrical content of a song or album does not have to appeal to me in order for me to greatly enjoy that piece of music, but when both the music itself and the words accompanying it really speak to me, that's usually what elevates music to a truly special place in my heart. Kyle Morton's lyrics spoke to me in a way no one else's ever had. Typhoon's music is so personal to me now that there's no way I could even attempt to write something that approached an unbiased review of a Typhoon album. If you haven't experienced the things I have, the music won't have the same meaning to you. There's nothing wrong with that. At the same time, there's definitely something universal in Kyle's writing.

The long-awaited followup to White Lighter, a 70 minute double LP entitled Offerings, arrived this January.

The album, fourteen tracks in length, is made up of three "movements" - Floodplains, Flood, and Reckoning, along with the one song coda dubbed Afterparty. The first movement, Floodplains, was released by Typhoon as a preview of the upcoming album on October 25 of last year. Floodplains, and therefore Offerings as a whole, begins with an ominous spoken word intro:

"Listen. Of all the things you are about to lose, this will be the most painful."

When I first heard those words, I was in the wake of another extraordinarily painful loss. As White Lighter had before it, Offerings immediately began to worm its way into my heart and soul.

At the Typhoon show I attended in Detroit earlier this year, Kyle remarked at one point, "We're a rock band now." The new album does tend more to the rock side of the "indie folk-rock" that is probably the best summary of Typhoon's genre. The orchestral flourishes are a little pared down (although lovely string parts still accent a number of the songs); there's a little more emphasis on electric guitar. There are still delicate moments interspersed with stirring crescendos. It's a fitting evolution of Typhoon's sound but not an extreme departure. What makes Offerings more ambitious is its symphonic nature – multiple self-contained movements together making up a larger cohesive album, with little motifs, both musical and lyrical, that show up repeatedly and help tie the whole thing together. I love Typhoon's sound, but again, it's the lyrics that really elevate the work for me, so let's once more talk about some of the lyrics that stand out.

The new album continues the theme of reckoning with one's mortality, but now with a special emphasis on the concept of memory, and how we try to hold on to memory in the terrifying face of inevitable death. In Kyle Morton's own words from the email newsletter announcement of the album:

It's a record from the perspective of a mind losing its memory at precisely the same time the world is willfully forgetting its history. The urgent question becomes: without casualty, without structures of meaning, without essential features of rational thought, is there anything that can save us from violence / oblivion?

With no past and no future, there is only suffocating, annihilating present, looping on and on ad infinitum (to me, one plausible definition of hell) and the best you can hope for is that somewhere in the void there exists some small, irreducible certainty—a fragment, a kernel, something—that you may have the good future to stumble upon before it's all over.

As you may have noticed if you know me well, I am a person who places enormous value on staying in touch with and keeping alive significant past events from my own history. Coupled with my own intimate experience with death and loss, this again is an album that seems like it could have been written specifically for me.

The first song on Offerings, “Wake,” poses a question: “My life one brief unbroken loop – goes round and round with nothing left to hold onto. But if there's nothing, if there's nothing, then what's that song that keeps hounding me?” And over the course of the album this topic is explored from multiple angles. How do we find something, something of real value, something of enduring meaning, onto which we can hold?

The subject matter is often very dark and unsettling. From “Rorschach” (track two): “And I'm trying to stay sane – meanwhile, the river of forgetfulness starts spilling the banks.” From “Empiricist” (track three): “Empty room. Cast about for a familiar object. Because my body needs coordinates to move. In the dark. Range of motion shrivels all around me. All my nightmares I am slowly being cocooned.”

The song that follows, “Algernon,” is one of the most heart-wrenchingly beautiful things I think I've ever encountered, so I want to give it special attention. Whereas much of the album's lyrical content is more abstract in nature, "Algernon" clearly and vividly portrays a little scene from the point of view of a person who has lost much of his essential memory. Having seen this happen to my grandmother, I can relate to the song, and can only imagine that it would be even more moving for someone who has seen it happen to a closer loved one, a parent or spouse or sibling. The picture Morton paints with his lyrics, without ever directly saying what's going on in the song (because the narrator, losing his mind, doesn't know what's going on), is so vivid and captivating and sad. The song begins:

A woman leans in her chair.
Holds her face close to mine.
She's curious, am I comfortable?
Would I care to give it one more try?
She holds the picture up
while she studies my eyes.
I'm trying hard to recall the routine,
but I can't and so I improvise.

The narrator attempts to describe the contents of the picture, and at his attempt, the woman is clearly saddened, but probably not surprised:

A woman shrinks in her chair.
She says the picture's of you.
I have no idea what she's talking about
but I nod my head as if I do.

She goes on, until he interrupts:

I say enough is enough.
You have found me out.
You have called my bluff.
I don't know anything
about this stuff.
I'm just tired
and I'm waiting
for my wife to pick me up.

And the reaction to this:

A woman slouched in her chair
disrupts the silence to say.
The part of you that I love is still in there
even if it doesn't know my name.

Is the woman, slouched in her chair, the narrator's wife for whom he's waiting, but doesn't recognize? That's the obvious reading. And the way that we the listeners know that, and the woman knows that, but the narrator of the song has lost the ability to know that because of his declining cognitive faculties is tremendously powerful to me. (The title of the song “Algernon” is of course a reference to the Daniel Keyes short story “Flowers for Algernon,” another incredibly powerful work with similar themes. I definitely cried when I read the story a couple of years ago in a way that had definitely not happened when I first read it in middle school.)

"Unusual" is another song with lyrics that especially stand out to me, but in a different way from the rest of the album. Whereas most of the rest of the album is more timeless in nature, this song seems to directly describe the horrifyingly strange Trump-as-president reality we now all inhabit.

This brave new world—
It's gonna take some getting used to
The cretin's lips are curled
He swings a wrecking ball around the court room

The song opens, and I immediately think of Trump as the cretin with his lips curled, trying to destroy the rule of law in our country.

It's unusual
Except now it happens all the time

I think of the constant refrains of "this is not normal" from people sharing stories about the crisis that continues to envelop our country, and of how we seem to be growing numb to those refrains, because it now is all happening all the time.

Now the truth is immaterial:
Every teller's got an axe to grind

And here I think of how we seem to be entering a "post-truth" society, in which Donald Trump labels any news he dislikes as "fake," and his followers readily gobble it up, having been conditioned for years by talking heads with axes to grind in preparation for this horrifying moment. And most of those talking heads were probably not intending to create this monster, but now they go along with it, because what else can they do, and because perhaps after so many years of pretending the truth as immaterial, it's become immaterial to them too.

The song could also, I suppose, be interpreted as being simply about an individual person losing his mind and facing the "brave new world" that comes with that loss, and have nothing to do with Donald Trump. That's also striking to me - the world in which we live, with a buffoonish reality TV star playing the role of most powerful man on Earth, is so strange and so wrong and so stupid that just living in that world and being keenly aware of the reality of it is enough to make one question one's sanity. Being sane in an insane world is like, well, being insane. Perhaps we are all collectively losing our minds.

Fun stuff, huh?

It's a very dark album, with moments of hope occasionally shining through (from "Bergeron": "You gotta learn how to live/On an ever shorter tether/But if you're good – even for once/It's written: you'll be good forever"), and then the last song, "Sleep," depicts the last moments of a human life, and the narrator passing into death. "We can all agree it's a mixed bag for the living/Full of sorrow, full of grief" the song begins, and I, listening, nod my head knowingly. But in those last moments the narrator finds the answer to that question posed in the first song, finds something onto which he can hold. "A single thought that could comfort me. Something small, something sweet."

That single thought: "It was once in the spring, you were on the porch, I heard you singing/From inside, sat and listened through the screen."

This is the thought that comforts the narrator as he prepares to leave the world. And then he asks (presumably his wife) to stay, put her "gnarled hands" in his, and then repeats the refrain "Don't let me go to sleep."

Repeats it until it fades away. Until everything fades away. As this happens, little distorted snippets from various moments in the album play, in the familiar way that as we fall asleep, we lose control of our thoughts, and random phrases pop into our heads that we didn't consciously summon, and I can only assume that a dying person might experience something similar in their last moments. Sleep comes to the narrator, and with it, death. And that's the end of the album.

Except that it's actually not quite the end of the album. After a silence, a raucous and joyful hidden track begins, and it clearly depicts the narrator now entering the afterlife, with those who passed before him greeting him and encouraging him to "shed your clothes," "jump the boat," and "join us in the river." It's an interesting decision to include this hidden track. After over an hour of very intense and haunting music that, although occasionally sprinkled with moments of hope and lightness, is largely just overwhelmingly dark, here's this joyous and carefree number that seems almost out of place after everything that came before. The album, I think, would be equally effective with or without the hidden track, but would leave the listener in a different state after the music stopped playing. Perhaps the album ending with the narrator's death would just be too much of a downer.

Either way, though, the overall message I take from Offerings could be summed up as: life is short, uncertain, and in many ways horrifying, and in the face of all that we have to find what comforts we can, and some of the best sources of those comforts are our loved ones and our memories of our loved ones - oh, and also music.

I highly recommend this album and all of Typhoon's music. At the same time I recognize that the circumstances of my life have conspired to give Typhoon's music so much personal meaning to me that most people could never be impacted by it in the same way. Perhaps you have something else that fills a similar role in your life. I'm very grateful to have Typhoon.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

In memoriam

This past April 24, as many reading this already know, marked the third anniversary of Cara's passing. Thanks in part to some fortuitously timed concerts, April 24 and the days leading up to it brought numerous reminders of Cara. They also brought some fantastic time spent with my wonderful girlfriend Karyn.

Earlier this year it was announced that The Decemberists would be playing a show at Cleveland's Agora on April 24. The Decemberists were beloved by both Cara and me and were one of the bands we bonded over in the early stages of our friendship and relationship. In fact, just a few days after Cara and I started dating in November 2006, I saw The Decemberists play at the Agora and during the show I called Cara on the phone so that she (in Columbus) could hear one of the songs. I might have been shocked at such a significant concert occurring on such a significant date except that these sorts of things have happened so much now that my reaction is more just a bemused, Oh, again….

The Decemberists' show was not the only April 24 show in Cleveland by a band I like. Wild Ones (also, incidentally, hailing from Portland) played the Beachland Tavern that night. The significance of that band to me comes not from their music having any role in my relationship with Cara, but rather from the fact that their lead singer Danielle Sullivan is married to Kyle Morton, the lead singer of Typhoon, one of my very favorite bands and the band whose music I most associate with Cara's courageous struggle with lung cancer and with her death. I've blogged before about my experiences meeting Danielle and then later running into Danielle and Kyle at dinner before the Typhoon show I attended in Portland last fall. Oh yeah, and coming up on June 12, my and Cara's wedding anniversary, is a Typhoon show at the Beachland Ballroom. There's an odd sort of symmetry, I think, to the fact that the band whose music I associate with my wife's death is playing at the Beachland on our wedding anniversary, and the band whose lead singer is the wife of that band's lead singer played at the Beachland on the anniversary of my wife's death. (Did you follow that sentence? It was admittedly a bit convoluted.) It all seems rather strange, but as I often remind myself, evolution did cause our brains to become very good at finding patterns in randomness.

To get back to the main thread of this post, with both The Decemberists and Wild Ones playing in Cleveland on April 24, I could not go to both shows. So I decided to take a trip to Toronto to see Wild Ones there on April 22, and Karyn joined me.


After a long and cold winter, Karyn and I were thrilled by the sunny skies and mild temperatures that greeted us in Ontario's capital. We arrived on a Saturday afternoon, and with the concert on Sunday night, we made great use of our opportunity to explore a city where I'd previously spent very little time. We found a nice deal online for the Fairmont Royal York (Queen Elizabeth II's choice for accommodations in Toronto) and we both declared it probably the nicest hotel in which we'd ever stayed. The main lobby was stunning:

We found many things to enjoy in Toronto, from delicious poutine to a gigantic Sephora store to scrumptious vegan treats at a bakery owned by a friend of Karyn's to a fabulous public transit system (we marveled at the fact that on the weekend the two of us, in addition to up to four youths for those traveling with families, could ride the subways, street cars, and buses all over the city on a single day pass costing just $12.50 Canadian - currently $9.65 U.S.). One of the highlights of the trip was a visit to Spadina House, an old house-turned-museum showcasing what life was like for a well-to-do family in 1920s Toronto. The fascinating glimpse into the past was made even more enjoyable by the family in our tour group with three young girls, the older two of whom provided numerous adorable and insightful questions and observations that our tour guide, a lanky young Canadian man, handled wonderfully. I highly recommend Spadina House as a site to visit during a trip to Toronto.

The concert was at The Baby G, a neat little venue that we had no trouble accessing via public transit. Before the first band went on I went to the restroom - and was stunned by the sight that greeted me amongst the graffiti on the wall.

The symbol pictured here, a muted post horn symbol from Thomas Pynchon's novel The Crying of Lot 49, is the same symbol that Cara had tattooed in the middle of her upper back. ("W.A.S.T.E." stands for "We Await Silent Tristero's Empire" and is from the same book; the muted post horn is the symbol of the shadowy W.A.S.T.E. organization in the book.) Cara got the tattoo, her first, near the beginning of our friendship and I remember her showing it to me when we went to a movie together in the summer of 2006, and me saying that it was cool but I didn't think I'd ever get a tattoo myself (wrong!). On that weekend when thoughts of Cara were already so much with me I was astonished and shaken by that familiar symbol showing up on that wall.

The concert was quite good. I enjoy Wild Ones' music a lot, but probably not enough that I would have traveled to Toronto to see them on the basis of their music alone. My having become friends with Danielle (and Kyle, although he wasn't there) was a larger part of my motivation for making the trip. Somehow their story has, to me, threaded its way into my own life story and it's something I find very special. I got to talk to Danielle after the show and she was very glad to see me again and we had a nice little chat.

Another odd coincidence occurred to me as I was in the middle of writing this post. The first time that I talked to Danielle at a show was on September 29, 2015, five months and five days after Cara's death. This most recent time was on April 22, 2018, five months and five days after another significant date - November 17, 2017, or my and Karyn's first date. Well, I'm certainly in a very different place in my life now than I was in the fall of 2015. It also occurs to me with my huge list of weird coincidences that I'm a scientist and a big part of what has brought me success in my research is that I am good at looking at data and noticing patterns. When you look at enough data (i.e., all the events that make up a life) and you have a tendency to look for patterns, patterns are going to emerge from randomness and a lot of them won't actually mean anything. But I enjoy noticing those patterns!
Nanaimo Bars

The day after the concert, Karyn and I left Toronto, but before returning to the States there was a stop I wanted to make near Hamilton, Ontario. It was a stop linked to significant memories from my past in more than one way. In the summer of 2008, Cara and I traveled to Hamilton to attend the farewell show of one of our favorite bands, A Northern Chorus. I blogged about the show at the time and I still consider it my favorite show I've ever attended. The day after the show we visited a local landmark called the Devil's Punch Bowl, an interesting waterfall and rock formation, and on the way to the Punch Bowl we happened upon a neat little market (Punch Bowl Market and Bakery). Among the baked goods there were several varieties of Nanaimo bars, a Canadian dessert specialty. Upon seeing the Nanaimo bars I was instantly reminded of a social studies project in sixth grade called the International Fair for which each member of the class presented on a different country, and part of the project was making a food from that country, and my mom and I made Nanaimo bars for my presentation about Canada. On that day in 2008 I bought a Nanaimo bar and then took it to the Devil's Punch Bowl and enjoyed snacking on it at the overlook. That trip was a very special memory for me and for years I had wanted to go there again, so I could hardly pass up the opportunity. And I was glad to have Karyn join me. The two of us stopped at the market and I bought the same type of Nanaimo bar and then Karyn indulged me in my request to recreate a series of photos of me eating a Nanaimo bar at the Devil's Punch Bowl.

After this recent trip to the Punch Bowl, I asked my mom if she had the recipe we had used, and she did still have it, and sent me a copy as well as a little story about how she had gotten the recipe at a cooking class she attended with a neighbor. I greatly enjoyed reading my mom's hand-written notes on the recipe page and imagining her writing those notes so many years ago.

And just as the flavor of that Nanaimo bar I ate almost ten years ago was familiar in a very nostalgic way, the flavor of the Nanaimo bar I ate last month was doubly familiar and even more nostalgia-inducing.

April 24

Various people have said that they know April 24 must be a hard day for me. I actually don't think it's an exceptionally hard day. I think people might think it would be because for most people who knew Cara, they would be thinking about her a lot more on the anniversary of her death than they would on most other days. And they would therefore be missing her a lot more than normal. But I think about Cara a lot every day, so while April 24 does carry some extra emotions, the extent to which that's true is likely smaller for me than for a lot of other people.

The day got off to a very moving start when, at just about midnight, Karyn posted an eloquent and heartfelt tribute to Cara on Facebook. All the ways that Karyn goes above and beyond to honor Cara, who Karyn never knew in person, really say a lot about the sort of person Karyn is. I'm lucky to have found someone like that.

The evening of April 24 found us going to the Agora and meeting up with some friends who were also greatly anticipating the chance to see the Decemberists live. (Three good friends of mine were there - one had never seen the Decemberists in concert; the other two had, like me, been at that November 2006 Agora show - but long, long before I knew them.) I've blogged about Decemberists shows on multiple occasions in the past and I won't extensively recap the concert, but it was another outstanding show. I had such a fun time. And I was very grateful for my being able to have such a fun time, not only because the concert fell on April 24, but also because for quite a while going back to last October it had been difficult for me to simply "have such a fun time" doing something.

Opening band Tennis provided a retro vibe with their groove-heavy and very danceable songs. I love dancing to music at concerts and it was nice to have someone to do that with!

The Decemberists' set was heavy with songs from their most recent album, I'll Be Your Girl, but also included a good selection from the rest of their catalog. I was stunned and thrilled when they broke out "Grace Cathedral Hill" from their very first album, 2002's Castaways and Cutouts. The new album is "depressing" according to Karyn after I played it for her in the car a couple of months ago. The songs on it are heavily influenced by current events (including the very aptly titled for the Trump presidency "Everything Is Awful") so it's not surprising that it's something of a downer. One selection from the album is "We All Die Young" (actually a very boisterous sounding song) and it did make an appearance in the setlist, and I recall Karyn glancing at me as if she was wondering whether hearing that song on that date would bother me. Nah. You have to have a sense of humor about these things. I chuckled at the appropriateness and gleefully sang along to the chorus with the rest of the crowd. We do all die young, if you think about the timescale of a human life relative to all of history. Some of us die younger than others. That's life.

The show ended, as Decemberists shows usually do, with "The Mariner's Revenge Song," providing all of us in the audience the opportunity to scream in unison as if we were all being swallowed by a gigantic whale. It's always great fun. I thought about all the other times I'd seen the song live, from last August in Montana, to the summer of 2011 when I was with Cara and a huge cargo ship passed on the Cuyahoga River behind the Jacobs Pavilion stage in unbelievably perfect synchronization to the epic nautical song, to the show at the Agora just after I started dating Cara, to my very first time seeing the Decemberists in 2005 at the Odeon when I had just very recently gotten into the whole concert-going thing. The song is usually accompanied by the appearance of some sort of giant whale prop on stage. At this most recent show, for the first time, the prop was a three dimensional, inflatable whale that soared through the air above the audience. We all gawked and laughed in disbelief. It was a perfect way to close the show and a perfect way to mark the passing of another April 24.

Monday, March 12, 2018

The good (guy with a gun), the bad (guy with a gun), and the ugly

In yet another display of mind-boggling ignorance about the world in which we live, Donald Trump suggested last month after the horrific school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida that "maybe they have to put a rating system" for violence in movies.

Of course, such a rating system has been around for many decades. And of course, attempts to blame school shootings on movie or video game violence rather than the easy availability of weapons of mass murder is a tactic that the gun lobby and their enablers wore out in the '90s. But even if there's little evidence that school shooters were driven to murder by viewing violent movies, I do think that movie violence may have skewed some people's ideas in the gun violence debate in a rather different way.

The NRA would famously like us to believe that "the only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is with a good guy with a gun." This idea is nonsense. Stopping the bad guy from getting the gun in the first place would, of course, have stopped the killing before it started. There are also examples of bad guys with guns being stopped by good guys without guns. And there are examples (see Parkland) of "good guys with guns" failing to do anything about bad guys with guns. A few anecdotal examples of good guys with guns actually stopping bad guys with guns don't stop the overwhelming tide of evidence that introducing more guns doesn't make society safer.

Yet many people find this idea of a "good guy with a gun" awfully compelling. And I can't help but think that Hollywood has unintentionally contributed to that problem.

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly is one of my favorite movies. Clint Eastwood's Man With No Name character is the epitome of badassery, coolly taking down bad guys with stunningly quick and precise gunshots. It makes for compelling cinema. I recognize when I'm watching the movie that it's fiction and real life gun violence is much messier and not nearly as precise. Even well trained police officers have shockingly low hit rates in gunfights. But a lot of people seem to think that, in the heat of combat, a "good guy with a gun" could, just like a movie hero (Eastwood's Man character being one of countless examples), calmly dispatch of the bad guy without posing an additional threat to innocent bystanders. And the NRA and gun manufacturers are all too happy to have those people carry on with that misconception.

(A good response to the "only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is with a good guy with a gun" trope that I've seen is "Sounds like the words of someone who's trying to sell two guns.")

Donald Trump and other Republicans are pushing forward with a plan to arm teachers in order to stop school shootings. This is an absolutely terrible idea. I shouldn't have to explain why it's an absolutely terrible idea. If you must read more about why it's an absolutely terrible idea, listen to people better informed than me and look up the opinions of teachers and combat veterans, two occupations that both have great insight into the terribleness of the idea. Trump has laughably claimed, among other things, that teachers with guns would be an effective deterrent to prevent school shootings from happening in the first place. Is he unaware that those who carry out such massacres often have a death wish and it's not uncommon for the incidents to end with the shooter dead anyway? Someone like that would clearly not be deterred by the knowledge that a teacher might be packing heat. The most predictable effect of such a plan would be making the classroom teacher the first victim when a school shooting was initiated.

If the plan to arm teachers actually goes into action as our "solution" to school shootings, it would be good evidence that the United States of America is a failed state. We might as well just pack it up and try to start over.

There are much more sensible ways to reduce the problem of gun violence (that mass shootings at schools and elsewhere are, in reality, only a relatively small portion of). AR-15s and similar weapons have no legitimate use for hunting or for self defense. The only real reasons a civilian would use such a weapon are for practicing at a gun range or for carrying out a mass shooting. People's right to get their rocks off at the gun range do not outweigh other people's rights to go to school, church, a concert, or a movie and not be slaughtered. Beyond banning such weapons, there are other common sense steps supported by a large majority of Americans that would not violate the 2nd Amendment. There is no good reason to oppose universal background checks on the sale of firearms. The only reason to oppose such a policy is if reducing the easiness of obtaining firearms would reduce your profits. Universal background checks should include checking for diagnoses of mental illness, yes, but we shouldn't focus too heavily on mental illness as a scapegoat for our gun violence problems. People diagnosed with mental illnesses commit a small percentage of violent crimes and are much more likely to be the victims than the perpetrators of violence. People diagnosed with mental illnesses should not be allowed to purchase firearms, but that would do more to protect those people themselves from self-administered gunshot wounds than to prevent mass shootings. Other key focuses of background checks should be people who have committed violent felonies and/or domestic violence. Is there anyone who really thinks we should protect the rights of violent criminals and wife beaters to own guns? Seriously?

Let's rid ourselves of the fallacy that the only one who can stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun and let's take the common sense steps to reduce gun violence that have been very effective in other countries.

Oh, and "the ugly" in the title of this post? That refers to the right-wing extremists who have harassed and threatened the Parkland survivors and their families for speaking out against the NRA and in favor of common sense gun control measures. Sadly, most people who act in such a manner are beyond the ability to be reasoned with. The only way to stop them is to continue speaking out and then to organize and get out the vote and boot NRA-owned politicians out of office this November.

This past weekend Karyn and I went to Washington DC and among the sights we saw were the Holocaust Museum and the recently opened National Museum of African American History and Culture. Both contained heart-wrenching examples of what can happen when a group of people dehumanizes another group of people and both were sadly all too relevant to modern American society. At the latter museum, the most moving exhibit was the casket of Emmett Till, the young African-American boy whose brutal murder in 1955 helped galvanize the civil rights movement. It occurred to me that perhaps the Parkland shooting could be a similar catalyst today.

And on a related note, I would be remiss to not mention that, as inspiring as those Parkland students are, it's very telling that the culture at large has been much more receptive to their protests than to those of young Black Lives Matter activists. I am not at all criticizing the March For Our Lives movement, but I am criticizing the society that finds such movements more acceptable when they come from those with lighter skin. If you've reacted more favorably to one movement than the other, I'd suggest you re-examine your biases. And I'm not saying you're a bad person if you've done so. I'm saying you live in a society that bombards you from birth with messages, both subtle and unsubtle, that create cognitive biases against certain groups of people. The best we can all do is make every effort to confront and resist those biases.

Every day it seems we have more depressing news about the state of our nation and world, but I see a lot of hope in our youth, from Parkland to Cleveland to Baltimore to Ferguson. Let's all support those young people striving to make our world a better place and let's all make sure everyone we know gets out to vote this fall and sends a strong message to those who can only envision a future with more and more guns and violence. We can and will do so much better.

Sunday, February 18, 2018


Different people react in very different ways to the loss of a partner. For some, being constantly reminded of their loss is too painful, so they remove reminders from their lives, doing things like taking down photos or moving out from their homes or even moving to different cities. That hasn't been the case for me. After Cara died I put up numerous photos of her on the wall of the living room in our apartment, in view of the sofa where I spend a very large chunk of my at-home, non-sleeping time. The memories do often make me sad, but all in all I find it more comforting than painful to live in the same apartment we shared during the last nine months of her life, and in the city we spent years exploring together and that is full of people and places and things that remind me of her. I'm not saying one approach to coping with loss is superior to the other, more just making an observation. Everyone has to find what works for them. For me? It's keeping Cara a constant part of my life.

Four weeks ago I traveled to Detroit to see another great Typhoon concert. I wrote extensively about Typhoon after seeing them in Portland back in November so this post will not be about the concert. I'm kind of obsessed with the band, so them playing a show on a Saturday night less than a three hour drive from me was good incentive for me to make that drive, but an additional incentive came from the opportunity for me to visit my friends Adam and Jackie in Ann Arbor on the same trip. Adam was the best man in my and Cara's wedding; years before, he was the first of my friends to meet Cara when I called him and he came to the rescue after Cara had taken a spill on a bike ride. He and his wife were great friends to Cara and me for years and have continued to be great friends to me since Cara's death.

It was a funny little coincidence that the Typhoon concert came almost exactly three years after the last trip that I - and Cara - had taken to Michigan. That previous trip was almost exactly three months before Cara's death. Naturally as I sat in Adam and Jackie's living room I thought back to January 2015 when Cara and I were there together.

Incidentally, on that trip we made a stop at the IKEA store in Canton, Michigan, where we bought the rug and four chairs that I have in my dining room. We bought those chairs thinking of how we could have people over for dinner in our spacious new apartment. It turned out that we would do this only a single time - hosting my parents, on Easter Sunday, less than three weeks before Cara's passing. (We still had no clue then that she had so little time left.)

On both the January 2015 trip and a previous trip to Detroit for a Godspeed You! Black Emperor concert in October 2012, Cara and I stayed at a hotel near the airport in Detroit suburb Romulus (a city that lends its name to a beautiful Sufjan Stevens song, I must note), and on both occasions, on the morning of our departure we enjoyed breakfast at local restaurant Romulus House. So as I made my plans for the weekend trip, it occurred to me that I could once more stay at a hotel near the airport (I considered the same one Cara and I had stayed at but decided a cheaper option would suffice - which turned out to be a mistake as I slept poorly due to a rattly heating unit that periodically came on and woke me during the night) and could once more have breakfast at Romulus House.

As I began the familiar drive from the hotel to the restaurant, I recalled that the road that made up most of the route had been very bumpy on our previous visits, and wondered if it had been paved within the last three years. I found that most of it had been paved, but a short stretch remained bumpy in a sort of nostalgia-inducing way. I parked in the familiar parking lot and entered the restaurant and soaked in the familiar sights of the homey little dining room. Thoughts of my visits there with Cara were, of course, with me throughout my meal. One might think that this would result in an overwhelming feeling of sadness. But for me, at least, it really doesn't. I feel sad, yes, but it's a feeling I'm used to and it's not one that consumes me. At the same time, I'm able to think back fondly on my memories of time spent with Cara. It's comforting, in a way, to make tangible connections with those memories. I realized that this has become a habit for me. Making pilgrimages, of a sort, to places connected with significant memories of Cara and me. Of course, I spend almost every day of my life surrounded by memories of Cara, but that's just part of my normal routine now. I realized that the act of traveling to a place I visited with Cara has gained symbolic meaning to me. Going to Romulus House when the opportunity presented itself was something I felt almost obligated to do.

And part of this symbolic act, I also realize, is sharing the experience with others. (I wonder if I would be so drawn to making these pilgrimages if social media did not exist!) So as I sat there, eating breakfast alone, I posted to Facebook a photo of my meal, checking in to Romulus House and writing, "Third time I've been to this restaurant. First time without Cara." I also shared a photo of myself that Cara had taken of me on our first visit to the restaurant.

I started to do this sort of thing not long after Cara's death. The first such "pilgrimage" I came across while scrolling through my Facebook was not a long trip at all. On May 10, 2015, little more than two weeks after Cara's death, I returned for the first time in a while to a place I've been to many, many times over the years, Roxboro Ravine and the site of our engagement:

"This is the view from where Cara was standing when I proposed to her (except it was covered in snow at the time)," I captioned this photo.

Two weeks later I was in Columbus for Memorial Day weekend and went on a bike ride.

"I went for a bike ride on the Olentangy Bike Trail in Columbus today, the bike path that Cara and I rode together and she rode many more times herself back when she still lived in Columbus. I rode to Antrim Lake, which we went for walks at several times (there is a 1.2 mile path around the lake) and which Cara also went for walks at by herself before she had her bike. It was on the way home from work for her so she sometimes went there after work."

On the same bike ride, I remember, I also made a stop at Cara's old apartment on North High Street. I remember riding my bike up the alley through which I used to drive so many years before, stopping in the little lot at the back of the building, staring at the steps up which I used to walk and at the window of the bedroom in which we used to lie in bed together, and just feeling overwhelmed by it all.

Another significant bike ride came three weeks after that:

"I rode the Sunday in June bike tour in Burton today. Exactly six years ago, Cara and I did Sunday in June - it was my first bike tour and Cara's first bike tour in Cleveland (and also the longest ride Cara had done to that point by a whopping 20 miles). Cara rode 50 miles and I rode 62. Today I rode the same 50 miles Cara did back then. I'm not as fit as I used to be and this was my longest bike ride, by a wide margin, in over five years, but as I always did on bike tours I decided to push the pace rather than do it at a leisurely tempo. Near the end I was very tired, but giving it everything I had on a long uphill, and this might sound terrible but I realized that the sound of my ragged breathing reminded me of Cara on the night she died. As hard as she had once worked to get up big hills and ride fast in time trials, she was working that hard just to get enough oxygen to stay alive. She was the strongest and most courageous person I've ever known, and on this ride today she was with me helping me get up those last hills as fast as I could even as my body screamed for a reprieve."

With this I posted four photos: photos of myself and my new Cara memorial tattoo taken after that day's ride, and photos of Cara and me taken before the 2009 ride.

In August of that year I went to Lake Placid, New York for my family's annual Adirondacks vacation, and I went on a short but very meaningful hike.

"Left: Cara on Cobble Hill in Lake Placid, NY, August 15, 2013, eight days before she was admitted to the hospital with stage IV lung cancer. This was one of her favorite pictures of herself that was ever taken. (You might notice that it is her profile picture, which she set on March 13 this year.) Right: me on Cobble Hill today."

October brought a trip to Washington DC for a conference. The first trip Cara and I ever took together was to DC, to see our favorite band Ozma in August 2006, months before we started dating. I've been to DC many times in my life, and this trip was naturally full of familiar sights, but I went out of my way to revisit certain spots from that first trip with Cara. These particular pictures I did not post to Facebook (had I had a smartphone I might have; I actually decided to give in and get one after returning home from the trip), but here they are now.

This is a picture of the 9:30 Club, where Cara and I saw the Ozma concert. I vividly remembered standing next to that wall with Cara, eating a bag of chips purchased at the convenience store across the street (our trip was rather poorly planned and we failed to find somewhere to get an actual dinner before the concert) and drinking a bottle of juice that Cara helped me open because I had a broken arm.

And on the day of my departure, I met up in Arlington, Virginia with my friend Krista, an online friend of Cara's whose husband passed away from lung cancer just months after Cara did. I seized the opportunity to stop by two other "pilgrimage" sites.

Here's the hotel at which we stayed. I actually went inside too, and, more than nine years after my previous visit, it was so familiar and so surreal.

And here, the Subway at which we ate after checking out of the hotel.

Something just drew me to revisit these places. I feel like I hardly even made a conscious decision to go. It was an irresistible force.

As more time went on, my "pilgrimages" became less frequent, but did not cease. Here's one from November 26, 2016. Less than one month removed from the horror of Donald Trump being elected president, I was feeling more emotionally unsettled than usual, and in such times I tend to cling more tightly to memories of Cara.

"I am at the same Steak 'n Shake that Cara and I (along with our other online friend Jon who neither of us ever saw again in person) went to after going bowling on the night we met in person. I'm not sure but I feel like I'm actually in the same booth and same seat. Or if not the same, then only one booth away. Yep, last time I was here, Cara was sitting across from me."

So this ritual I've created is one of the ways I've kept Cara with me in the months and years since her death. I'm sure I'm not alone in doing something like this. But I wonder how common it is for someone grieving a lost loved one to feel such a strong pull to so many places they previously visited with that loved one.

I'm sure that my visit to Romulus House last month was not the last such trip I'll make.

And more recently, another visit to another (much closer geographically) place from my and Cara's past brought another addition to my long, long list of bizarre coincidences that have happened to me. I was at La Dolce Vita in Little Italy for my friend Rita's 40th birthday. La Dolce Vita is just down the street from the apartment in which Cara and I lived together from 2009 to 2012. Prior to that, Cara lived there by herself after moving from Columbus to Cleveland in September 2008. I recall that on nights Cara and I did not get together, she would sometimes go to La Dolce Vita to drink and hang out (hanging out in bars was not really a "thing" for me back then!).

The Cleveland Cavaliers vs. Minnesota Timberwolves game was on TV at the bar on the night of Rita's party. It was a very exciting game, with LeBron James newly re-energized no doubt by the knowledge that Isaiah Thomas and other players who were dragging the team down were about to be traded away. While watching the game, I recounted to my friend Sam how I recalled watching a particularly memorable Cavs game with Cara in the same establishment years before. It was in May 2009 and the Cavs were playing the Orlando Magic in the playoffs. That game ended with one of the all-time highlights of LeBron's storied career:

And so I told this story to Sam, while watching as the Cavs and T-Wolves went to overtime, and with the game tied and time in OT running down LeBron made a spectacular block, and the Cavs recovered the ball and called timeout with one second left, and then:

LeBron hit a dramatic game-winning buzzer beating jump shot while fading away from the basket and then turned and raced exuberantly toward the other end of the court to celebrate with his exhilarated teammates. It was remarkably reminiscent of that game against Orlando those many years ago (with Cedi Osman taking Anderson Varejao's place as the recipient of a LeBron chest bump) and as the post-game coverage began, the Cavs announcers echoed the thoughts that had already formed in my mind about being reminded of that classic playoff moment.

I went to a place that recalled a specific memory of Cara and me from almost nine years before. I told a friend about that memory. And then an echoing of that specific memory eerily unfolded right before my eyes. It was almost cosmic.

I often seek out memories of Cara. Visiting a place like Romulus House, I feel a sense of awe at the life we had and the life I still have with Cara's spirit helping guide me. When the memories seek me out? That's when the sense of awe is strongest.

Monday, January 8, 2018


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.