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.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017


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.