Saturday, December 31, 2016

Jeff's search for meaning (or, the year that was)

I recently met and became friends with a 29-year-old widow. It's been a really good thing. As another widow friend of mine (someone significantly older than me but still quite young to have become widowed) said, it's great to talk to someone who "gets it."

After we had talked for a while, my new friend told me that my approach to life made her think of a book called Man's Search For Meaning. I decided to read the book, and after doing so found myself quite flattered that she had said that. Man's Search For Meaning was written by psychiatrist Viktor Frankl, a survivor of Holocaust concentration camps. The first half of the book tells of his experiences in the camps, while the second half lays out his formulation of logotherapy, an approach to psychotherapy based on the idea that the most important desire of humans is not to seek pleasure, but to find meaning in life (the form that this meaning takes can vary from person to person). Frankl wrote of how some people in the camps were able to persevere the horrors that surrounded them by finding meaning in their existence. For some, simply enduring suffering could provide meaning.

A brief aside: writings about the Holocaust seem distressingly timely right now.

I realized that, although I had not previously thought of it in such terms, a lot of what I do in how I choose to live my life, and perhaps especially in my writing, is an attempt to make sure that the lives of both Cara and myself have been and will continue to be meaningful.

Another friend posted today on Facebook asking if people had a blog and if so, "What does having a blog do for you?" With the book I had recently read in mind, I replied, "Helps me search for meaning in this very strange, terrible and wonderful thing called life." (Being honest, I added, "Also, gratification from people complimenting my writing.")

I have always had a strong interest in staying in touch with the history of my life. This interest was strengthened by Cara's death, but it was there long before that. My mom has told me, "You save everything," commenting on the fact that I have a drawer full of things I wrote or made when I was in elementary and middle school and that I also have basically every computer file of mine that I've created since the early '90s. As I've written before, it is a really wonderful thing for me that among those computer files are included all the electronic conversations Cara and I had from when we were first getting to know each other (a time at which the vast majority of our conversations were electronic in nature) all the way up to the last weeks of her life.

The world is a scary place right now, and it seems that this has strengthened even more my desire to connect with the past. When I was at my parents' house for Christmas, I went for a walk around Grandview Heights, the suburb of Columbus in which I grew up. This is something I've done many times over the years, but on this particular walk something was different. I had this strong urge to connect with my childhood in a way that I had never felt before. I went to McKinley Field, where I played youth baseball while in elementary school. I sat for a moment on the bench in the dugout, then walked out onto the field. I stood in the batter's box. I stood on the pitcher's mound. I ran around the bases. All the while I was trying to conjure up memories of doing those same things some 25 years ago. Later in the walk, I went by my old schools. From kindergarten through twelfth grade, all of my schooling happened within the same city block (very conveniently located just a half-mile or so from my parents' house). Kindergarten and first grade were in a little building called the "Annex" located across the playground from the building that housed the elementary and middle schools.

When I was in kindergarten and first grade, that playground was not there; instead, there was a street that now dead-ends on either side of the playground. Those changes had been made by the time I got through middle school. I know this because I have a specific memory from a recess on that playground during middle school. There was a kid, a football player, who liked to bully me and would often try to steal my lunch bag. One time he had my lunch bag and I (at least as skinny back then as I am today) charged across the playground and knocked him to the ground. We both got in trouble (an extreme rarity for me!) and had to sit down on a curb next to the playground for the rest of that recess. More changes have occurred since then. The Annex is no longer used to hold classes, and the elementary/middle school building is now entirely a middle school with the elementary school on the other side of town.

Anyway, although I've walked past those buildings countless times over the years, I can't remember ever before feeling the urge to look into the classroom in which I attended kindergarten. But on this walk, something drew me to that little building, and I peered in through the window into the depths of my past.

The truth is, I retain very few specific, episodic memories from when I was in kindergarten. They've mostly faded away with time. But I very much remember being in that room. The sight of it was a very familiar one.

The reality that the little boy who sat in that classroom some 28 years ago would become the person peering through that window some 28 years later, and in fact is the same person but separated and molded by that passage of time, is so surreal for me to ponder.

Why was I so drawn to those spots from my childhood - my old ballfield, my old school buildings - on this particular visit to my hometown? I'm pretty sure it's because the world today feels like a totally different place than it did just two months ago. And not in a good way. So I cling even more tightly to the past, nostalgically yearning for the happy innocence of my youth. Yet knowing I can never have it back.

The election of Donald Trump to the presidency is without a doubt one of the worst things that has ever happened in my life. The fact that he was selected by only a minority of voters softens the blow a little bit, but the fact that someone who is an open and unapologetic racist and misogynist, and a serial sexual predator (and, let's not forget, completely unqualified for the job), could be elected the leader of the most powerful country in the world is absolutely horrifying. And yes, some will say, people voted for Trump for other reasons, in spite of his racism and misogyny, not because of it.

That doesn't make it okay.

If you're willing to overlook how your candidate utterly dehumanizes vast sections of the population, that's not a whole lot better than being openly supportive of that dehumanization.

And let's not be naive. There are a lot of people - I won't try to estimate what percentage, but a lot - who were drawn to Trump in large part because of the racism and sexism.

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. Why?

Fittingly for New Year's Eve, I'll count down the top ten reasons.

10. I got to spend a lot of great time with friends and family, and made a lot of new friends along the way!

9. I was adopted by this very crazy but very adorable little fellow!

Gavroche joins my two lady kitties Eponine and Mitters, and I'm very glad to have all three in my household. I especially cherish all the time I have with Mitters, who was Cara's cat long before I knew Cara, and who will be 19 years old in less than two months.

8. I took up a new hobby in mountain biking and totally fell in love with it! Riding the trails is something I'm missing a lot during these winter months.

7. I've greatly enjoyed playing pickup basketball at the fitness center at work, and over the course of the year I've gone from being pretty good at rebounding but pretty bad at everything else to being able to hold my own in most aspects of the game (while still being best known as a ferocious rebounder - opposing players who are guarding me and aren't familiar with my game are often warned by their teammates, "You have to box him out.").

6. I had a really wonderful family vacation in the Adirondacks, and best of all, I finally climbed the highest peak there, Mt. Marcy, something I'd hoped to someday do for most of my life. It was probably my favorite hike ever!

5. I also had an amazing time visiting my aunt Jeri and cousins Chelsea and Calyn in California! It was especially great that I got to spend so much time with Chelsea and, despite us having spent very little time together in the past (they are actually blood relatives to Cara, not to me, and plus they live across the country), it instantly felt like Chelsea and I had been great friends our whole lives! And I also got to meet my online friend Deana, a lovely person who first befriended Cara through the online lung cancer social media community.

4. Anyone who knows me knows that going to concerts is a huge part of my life, and 2016 was undoubtedly the best year for concerts of my whole life! Some of the top highlights were Florence + the Machine, Temple of the Dog, Daughter, Explosions in the Sky, Okkervil River, Nada Surf, Lucius, Bruce Springsteen, and Madi Diaz, and there were so many other great shows too!

3. The Cleveland Cavaliers won the NBA championship after coming back from a 3-1 deficit to the greatest regular season team of all time in the Finals, ending Cleveland's 52-year title drought in one of the most dramatic events in sports history, and I was in downtown Cleveland with my good friend Fiona when it happened! One of the best days of my life!

2. Shelli Snyder is still with us and is making great strides in her long road to recovery.

Enough said.

Well, I guess I should add that the events surrounding Shelli's crash are another example of how good things can follow from a tragedy. Just as I learned so much about life from watching my wife live with and then die from cancer, I made and strengthened many friendships and was drawn much more into the wonderful Cleveland cycling community by that horrible incident some three months ago in Montana.

And the top reason why 2016 was a good year for me...

1. The first three months of the year were pretty bad for me. Quite bad, in fact. For the reasons why, feel free to refer to this post from last December. But then things began to improve. Improve a lot. Don't get me wrong, I'm not pain-free and probably never will be, but for the majority of the year I've been at a point where chronic pain is not preventing me from enjoying life. There have been plenty of other times in all my years with chronic pain that that has also been true, but this is the first time ever that my seeking out of health care actually directly led to an improvement in my condition, rather than it failing to help and then things eventually changing for reasons that often seemed largely random. As a consequence, I feel more in control of my life than I have at any point in more than a decade!

There are a lot of good reasons for the world at large to look at 2016 as a bad year, but the sad reality is that there's a good chance things are going to get a lot worse, and in the future we'll look back on 2016 nostalgically. Whether or not this is true, it's important for us to always cherish the good things we do have, and the friends and family who play such a large part in making life worth living.

One way to find meaning in life is to work to make the world a better place. That's something you can find meaning in whether or not that work is successful. Unfortunately, there are times when we have to work really hard simply to try to prevent things from getting worse. Now is one such time. There are a lot of scary things on the horizon. One ties directly to my number one reason that 2016 was good. I was able to receive health care that resulted in my life going from basically terrible to pretty darn good. Being able to receive needed health care is so, so important and is something that should be denied to no one in any prosperous society. We have made a lot of progress in expanding access to health care, and although there are still enormous flaws in our health care system, more people have access to health care now than ever before.

Efforts are underway to reverse that. Because Republicans in Congress value giving bigger tax breaks to Donald Trump literally over people's lives. We all have to do everything we can to stop that from happening.

Happy New Year, everyone.


  1. I really enjoy your blogs....

  2. You mention going to see bands a lot. Do you ever see cover/tribute bands? There's a good David Bowie one playing at the House of Blues on 2/10.