Thursday, April 20, 2017

Another goodbye

The first time that I met Mitters, she didn't like me. In fact, she wouldn't even let me touch her, hissing and growling when I tried to get close.

Incidentally, the first time that I met Mitters, I didn't even know that her name was Mitters.

Cara had told me that her cat, a rather feisty eight-year-old girl at the time, was named Onyx. Onyx Marie Williams, in full. This wasn't exactly untrue, but it wasn't the whole truth, either.

My first visit to Cara's apartment, and hence my first encounter with Mitters, must have come during Thanksgiving weekend in 2006, as that was the first time I visited Columbus after Cara and I started dating. On that visit and on numerous subsequent visits, Cara called her cat Onyx, and I perceived nothing unusual about this. It wasn't until some time later - how much time, I really don't remember - that Cara confessed that "Onyx" was not what she normally called her lady kitty when I wasn't there, and that it in fact felt strange to her to call the cat by that name.

You see, when Cara adopted her cat, Cara was dating a guy who she ended up not liking very much, and that guy, not Cara, was the one who came up with the Onyx moniker. According to Cara, he was mean to young Onyx, once even throwing her across the room. No surprise, then, that Cara didn't continue seeing him. And no surprise that her poor kitty came to dislike strangers, especially strangers of the male variety.

Cara had a thing for coming up with cute, silly names for her cat. (Other examples I recall from over the years include Tomato and Marby.) One such name was Mitters, and it stuck. So eventually Cara confessed to me that she normally called her cat Mitters, not Onyx, but that she had been too embarrassed at first to admit that she called her cat such a silly name!

It's also worth mentioning a snippet of conversation that happened many months before Cara and I started dating. The first time Cara mentioned having a cat to me (in our AOL Instant Messenger chat), I replied, "That's cool that you have a cat, someday I will get a cat of my own, I love them." I was right, of course, but I absolutely could not have imagined that someday Cara's cat would be my cat as well, and Cara herself would be gone.

Cara had Mitters long before I knew Cara, so I did not know Mitters as a young cat, but as a middle-aged cat Mitters could be quite vicious. Oddly, although she seemed to like Cara (for the most part), she saved her truly vicious attacks for Cara, not me. I recall lying in Cara's bed at her old apartment in Columbus, and Cara returning to the bedroom from the bathroom in a darkened apartment, and then a stream of curses erupting as Mitters suddenly sprang from a hiding spot to grab, bite and claw at Cara's legs - occasionally drawing a significant amount of blood. Mitters never did this to me.

I also have fond memories of Mitters sitting on the edge of Cara's bed as the two of us blissfully cuddled with each other.

When Cara and I moved in with each other in June 2009, the biggest source of stress by far was the difficulty in integrating Mitters and my cat Eponine into a single household. Mitters, having lived her first eleven years as the sole cat in the household, was not at all happy about that no longer being the case. There were numerous fights. The worst were the ones that woke us up in the middle of the night. We bought a baby gate and set it up in between the living room and kitchen of our small Little Italy apartment, hoping it would keep the cats separated. This didn't work, of course, because they had no trouble jumping over the gate. Then we decided to keep Eponine shut in her own room at night, the apartment's second bedroom, a room that we basically only ever used as storage for a bunch of random junk plus as Eponine's bedroom (the me of today would have been absolutely horrified at the messy state of that room). This did not save us from being awoken in the middle of the night, because Mitters would loudly attack the closed door of Eponine's bedroom. Then I discovered that if I shut Eponine in the room and put the baby gate in front of the closed door, Mitters would not attack the door.

Non-cat-owners who are reading this are undoubtedly thinking that it sounds completely crazy!

Back in those days, I told Cara that I thought of eleven-year-old Mitters and two-year-old Eponine as "the old lady and the baby." Cara was a bit miffed that I called Mitters old. I can see what she meant. In one more year, Eponine will be as old as Mitters was when I first called Mitters an old lady, and I still think of Eponine as my baby.

Over the years, Mitters mellowed out a lot, although it was a gradual process. It didn't take too long before she grew to tolerate, and then to like, me. (This had already happened before Cara and I moved in together.) Mitters never came to truly like Eponine, but the fights decreased in frequency. When we moved to our next place of residence, late in the year 2012, we no longer had the ability to shut Eponine in a separate room at night. Fortunately, the cats' relationship had improved enough that this was a tolerable situation, although there were still occasional late night clashes that I had to break up.

At that apartment, a sleeping arrangement evolved that continued on to our next home (Cara's last, and the place where I still reside). Cara usually went to bed before me, and Mitters usually joined her in bed, lying down on Cara's side of the bed. After I went to bed later in the night, Eponine would often join me on my side of the bed. The cats were fine both sleeping in the same bed at the same time - as long as they couldn't see each other. Therefore, we arranged pillows in the middle of the bed to create a barrier between our two fur babies.

Things continued like this until April 2015 when Cara was hospitalized just less than one week before her death. Mitters stopped coming to bed, and while Eponine has continued to join me in bed at night, Mitters never went back to sleeping in the bed after Cara was gone. It was the only major change in Mitters's behavior that I noticed. She would often hang out with me on the sofa in the living room, but not in bed.

In her senior years, Mitters became friendly to most people she met, a striking contrast from her behavior when I first encountered her. She was a very sweet old lady. She also lost a great deal of weight. There was more than one time when we thought she was going to die soon, but then she regained her liveliness. I remember thinking about how incredibly sad Cara would feel when Mitters died. I also remember wondering who, after Cara was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer, would be around longer between the two of them. I didn't think it would be Mitters by almost two years.

In February of this year, Mitters turned nineteen years old. Although very skinny, she seemed in great health for such an old lady. Last fall I adopted a kitten, Gavroche, a very rambunctious little guy with a ceaseless desire to play with my two older cats. Neither Mitters nor Eponine had any desire to play with a kitten. Despite being so elderly, it seemed Mitters was better than Eponine at standing up for herself and telling the little guy to back off.

There were signs that Mitters was slowing down. Something she often did over the years was jump up onto the bathroom sink and meow, asking for the faucet to be turned on so she could drink from it. Last year she started to fail on occasion when trying to make the jump, which was very cute but a little sad to see. I kept a box of cat litter next to the counter and she learned that she could climb up onto the box and then jump to the sink from there. Eventually she stopped doing even this. Still, in some way it almost seemed like Mitters would be around forever.

Of course, this was not to be.

In late March, Mitters stopped eating her normal food. This had happened before; usually she would get over it within a few days so I didn't think much of it at first. Eventually I decided to feed her wet food (I normally feed my cats only dry food) and she went crazy for it. A couple of times Mitters and Eponine were eating from the same dish of wet food at the same time, their two little black heads touching, and it was so precious and I wished so badly that Cara could see it, because it had never happened before.

But after a few days, Mitters lost interest in even the wet food.

On the morning of Friday, March 31, I woke up to find Mitters lying on the kitchen floor just looking incredibly weak and tired. Suddenly it was evident to me that she might have very little time left on this Earth. I stayed with her for a little while, afraid she might be gone at any moment, before deciding that her passing wasn't likely to be that imminent and going to the pet store where I bought some liquid cat formula. Mitters did perk up some when presented with this and did lap up some of it, but still not very much. I called the vet and explained what was going on and said I was reluctant to bring her in because she hated going to the vet - on past visits she became so upset that she had to be sedated before the vet could even examine her, and I didn't want to put her through that in her weakened state. The vet's office said that they couldn't give me any recommendation without seeing Mitters in person, and that they wouldn't do sedation, and perhaps would be able to examine her without it because of how weak she was.

This turned out to be true. Mitters was much better behaved than on any previous vet visit. (During my time with her, at least; Cara had told me that Mitters didn't mind going to the vet as a kitten but suddenly came to hate it after being spayed.) The vet told me that Mitters was clearly sick, but exactly what was wrong couldn't be determined without more extensive testing. They gave me three options - Mitters could be hospitalized (which would be very expensive and might not result in any long-term improvement, especially given her advanced age), Mitters could be injected with some pain and nausea medication and sent home where I'd monitor her condition over the weekend (and they warned that Mitters might not make it through the weekend), or Mitters could be euthanized then and there.

I cried there in the vet's office as I explained how Mitters had been my wife's cat before I knew my wife, and my wife had died of lung cancer almost two years ago. I knew that losing Mitters would be like losing a part of Cara. I wasn't ready to say goodbye to her. I also knew that the hospitalization option didn't really make sense. So I decided to take Mitters home.

During that weekend, I found myself nearly unable to leave Mitters's side. On Friday night I got a burger for dinner and, sitting on my sofa, watching basketball with Mitters lying beside me, I presented her a small bite. She gladly accepted it. Mitters was always persistent in her efforts to steal bites of "people food" when Cara and I were eating, and burgers were among her favorites. That bite of hamburger on that Friday night was the last solid food Mitters consumed.

On Saturday and Sunday, Mitters gradually became weaker and weaker. Not knowing how much longer she'd be around, I could hardly bring myself to leave the house. I only did so to get take-out meals from restaurants in my neighborhood and for a very short (15 minutes tops) bike ride on a beautiful Sunday afternoon. Although it was very sad to see Mitters in that state, it was also very special to me to get to spend all that time with her.

A realization struck me. When Cara died, it all happened so fast that I wasn't aware of how imminent her death was until the last few hours of her life. As a result, I did not spend as much time with her in those last few days as I could have. She died at 4:15 am on Friday, April 24, 2015. The previous morning, less than 24 hours before her passing, I actually went to work (my job is conveniently located on the same hospital campus at which Cara was hospitalized), although I didn't work the whole day. Although it was something I rarely thought about consciously, I realized that I had regrets about not having spent more time with Cara.

By spending as much time as I could with Mitters, I was actually atoning for that in a way. It was remarkably therapeutic. On Friday, Saturday, and Sunday night, I did not even sleep in my bed so that I could be closer to Mitters. I alternated sleeping on the sofa and on the floor (wrapped up in the comforter that I removed from the bed) depending on Mitters's preferences, so that I could be near her.

There were many times that weekend that I cried, much more than I had in quite some time. Crying itself can be therapeutic.

I honestly didn't expect Mitters to hang around as long as she did. It was like the opposite of Cara, whose final deterioration and passing happened with shocking rapidity. On Sunday night, due to the sorry state of my dear old lady kitty (who was basically just lying down all the time, very rarely moving, and with labored breathing), I decided that if she was still alive the following morning I would call the vet to schedule euthanasia. I did so on Monday morning, making an appointment for late in the afternoon. Secretly I hoped that Mitters would pass at home. And she did, on the dining room floor (where she had collapsed after abruptly jumping down from the sofa and then starting to walk with very shaky legs), at around noon.

I recently read an article about "the widowhood effect" written by someone else who lost a spouse to cancer in her 30s. One passage particularly stuck with me:
A palliative-care doctor once told me that we die cell by cell until enough cells succumb that we cross over a line. But if you are watching the person you love the most die, you track their breaths, not cells. When someone is dying, their breath slows. Ever-widening gaps form between the end of the exhale and the beginning of the next inhale. In that space, you, the watcher, wait to find out if the unimaginable has happened. You don’t know if this breath is the last one, or if there is another to come. You only know it’s the last breath when it’s too late to go back and tell them you love them one final time.
Reading that took me back to being in that hospital room with Cara and watching her breathe her last breaths.

When Mitters passed, it was, again, just like that description.

Another poignant detail I recall from the last minutes of her life: those who have owned cats will undoubtedly be familiar with the kneading motion that cats sometimes make with their forepaws. Many cats will knead soft surfaces such as pillows, or a beloved human's chest. As young kittens, cats knead in order to stimulate production of milk by their mothers. I remember Cara saying that kneading (or "making muffins," as she called it) was a "nostalgia thing" for cats. And as Mitters lay there on the floor, breathing her last breaths, I briefly noticed her graying little forepaws moving in that familiar "muffining" motion.

Because cats and dogs typically live for a number of years approximating the time it takes for a human being to journey from childhood to adulthood, the death of a beloved childhood pet can be a sort of preparation for losing a beloved human relation. It was not so for me, as I had no childhood pets. The first truly major loss I suffered was the hardest one there is, the loss of a beloved spouse. Rather than being preparation for such a loss, the loss of Mitters was a recapitulation of that loss. It was a very painful experience. But it was also a very special experience. I will always cherish getting to spend those last few days with Mitters.

(I will say that losing a pet is not the same thing as losing a person. Sad as I was, it did not take me long to recover to my normal happy self.)

Several hours after she passed away, I took Mitters to the vet for cremation. I plan to scatter her ashes on Cara's grave, something that Cara's mother suggested.

In addition to the name "Mitters," there was something else about Mitters that Cara, for many many years (far more, in fact) felt too self-conscious to reveal to me. Cara told me many times over the years how she had a special song that she had made up and would sing to Mitters. The lyrics of the song were not in English or any other human language, but were nonsense words that Cara had made up. According to Cara, Mitters liked the song and showed signs of recognition when Cara sang it to her. Although Cara told me about this many times, she could never bring herself to actually sing the song in front of me because she felt embarrassed. But finally, just once, in the last few months of Cara's life, she did sing the song in front of me. I wonder if Cara sensed that she might not be around much longer and hoped that, in the event that sad outcome came to be, I could carry on singing the song to Mitters. Sadly, I do not remember the song, and now that Cara and Mitters are both gone, no one on this Earth remembers it.

I'd like to think that, somewhere, Cara is singing that song to Mitters now.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017


Progress, from the Latin progressus, can be defined as "a movement toward a goal or to a further or higher stage." The word generally has positive connotations. If we hear that progress is being made in the fight against cancer, for instance, we regard this as a good thing.

A synonym for progress is progression.

Many people, myself most definitely included, associate the word "progression" with cancer, and in that context, progression, unlike progress, is a decidedly negative term.

(Note: this interesting relationship between the words progress and progression was put into my mind by a widow friend I've been having some very interesting discussions with. It's good to have people like that to talk to, other people who really "get it.")

Earlier today, I saw in my Twitter feed an article from the Journal of Clinical Oncology with an amazing result that brought me to the verge of tears.

The title of the article is Three-Year Follow-Up of an Alectinib Phase I/II Study in ALK-Positive Non–Small-Cell Lung Cancer: AF-001JP. You can see the whole thing yourself at that link if you feel up to wading through dense scientific prose. Here, I'll provide an explanation and summary of the key findings and how they relate to my dearly departed wife.

Alectinib is something I'm very familiar with. It's a drug that Cara took for about six months, from late 2013 to mid 2014, as part of a clinical trial. The article is also about a clinical trial of alectinib, but a different one from that in which Cara was enrolled.

Alectinib is an inhibitor of the ALK protein; a rearrangement of the gene encoding that protein is what drove the growth of Cara's lung cancer (hence, "ALK-positive.") The first FDA-approved ALK inhibitor drug was called crizotinib. That was the first drug Cara received after being diagnosed. As I wrote in a previous blog entry, "Being a scientist, I had naturally looked up research articles about crizotinib, and had seen that, in the clinical trial, the median progression-free survival [and there's that word - progression] was about 8 months longer with crizotinib than with traditional chemotherapy. This meant that the typical outcome for someone taking crizotinib was that they would gain about 8 months in which their disease would be under control, but ultimately they would still die of lung cancer."

For Cara, progression on crizotinib occurred after only two months. Bad luck, much worse than average. Why? We'll never know. But after crizotinib stopped working, and after Cara underwent a surgery that brought her back from near death's door by draining a massive accumulation of fluid from around her heart, and after her condition stabilized, she started a clinical trial for alectinib, a newer ALK inhibitor drug. The title of that clinical trial was An open-label, non-randomized, multicenter phase I/II trial of RO5424802 given orally to non-small cell lung cancer patients who have ALK mutation and failed crizotinib treatment. As you can see from the title, it was a trial specifically for people who had already taken crizotinib and for whom crizotinib had stopped working.

I've just looked up the results of that trial for the first time on the website. The median progression-free survival is listed as 7.5 months. So again, Cara did worse than the average patient, but not to as great an extent.

To summarize, the typical outcome for someone who was diagnosed with ALK-positive lung cancer, put on crizotinib until it failed, and then put on alectinib until it failed, would be that within a year and a half, both drugs would have stopped working, and then it would be time to move on to still other treatments. Until ultimately (in most cases) all treatments fail and death occurs.

That's still significant progress from the previous status quo. I remember well, after being told that it looked like Cara had lung cancer, sitting there in the hospital's surgery waiting area and looking up lung cancer survival statistics on my laptop, and reading that the median life expectancy for someone diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer was only 8 months. Cara lasted 20 months. If not for the heroic work of research scientists in discovering the ALK driver mutation and developing treatments targeting it, that probably would have been less than 8.

But now, given all that background information, let's return to the article that so shook me today. The study in that article was of alectinib as a first-line ALK inhibitor - that is, the patients had not previously received crizotinib or any other ALK inhibitor. And here's the thing - cancer that has evolved to become resistant to crizotinib, even if it's not yet resistant to alectinib, could very well be closer to developing that resistance. So the median progression-free survival in the study of alectinib for ALK-inhibitor-naive patients?

At the three-year followup point, it had not yet been reached.

62% of the patients had not had disease progression after three years. 78% of patients were still alive after three years.

Cara was diagnosed three years and seven months ago. The two-year anniversary of her death is fast approaching.

There are other advantages to alectinib. Unlike crizotinib, it can cross the blood-brain barrier and treat brain metastases. Cara, like many lung cancer patients, developed metastases in her brain, and had to undergo radiation therapy for them. (Fortunately, they never grew large enough to significantly affect her quality of life - although the steroids she took to reduce swelling while undergoing the radiation therapy had some nasty side effects. I remember being woken by her crying in pain from horrible cramping in her calves.) As well, although the specific side effects of specific drugs vary from patient to patient, in Cara's case (and I know she wasn't alone in this) alectinib had by far the least adverse side effects of any of the treatments she received. Alectinib was so effective (until a small spot of disease on her liver evolved to become resistant to it) and its side effects so minimal that for a little while it seemed Cara was almost back to her normal self!

I write all this in the hopes that it will be educational, that people will gain a little bit better understanding of what goes into the fight against cancer, both from the patient perspective and the research scientist perspective. I also write in the hopes of persuading. Cancer research is so important. Great progress has been made in our efforts to control disease progression, but we have a long, long way to go.

What can you do, today, to help?

I'll suggest two things.

One: help promote lung cancer awareness and research funding. One way to do this is to sign up for and/or donate to Team Cara in the Breathe Deep Cleveland event that Cara helped found before she passed away. I've written before about the shocking statistics for lung cancer research: it only gets about 1/15 the federal research funding per patient death as breast cancer research. This needs to change.

Two (and sadly, this is probably far more important right now): speak out in any way you can against Trump's proposed budget and its massive cuts to the NIH. Call your elected officials, write letters to the editor, tell your friends. Use personal examples. This article that just came out is one perfect example of the importance of funding medical research. If such research was better funded, the critical discoveries might have been made sooner, and Cara might still be alive. Conversely, if more cuts are made, a lot of potentially life-saving studies will be shut down. Let's not let that happen.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Kicking cancer's ass

"Kicking cancer's ass." I'm sure most of you have heard the expression. After Cara was diagnosed, people would talk about how she was going to "kick cancer's ass." It's kind of a weird expression. As if cancer is some sentient being, and as if simply by fighting hard enough, someone with cancer can defeat it.

Of course, that's not true. Cara didn't die because she didn't fight hard enough. How hard you fight has very little to do with whether or not cancer will kill you. (Which isn't to say that how hard Cara fought was not a very beautiful and meaningful thing. It was! It will continue to inspire me for the rest of my life.) Cara died because of simple biology. Out-of-control Darwinian evolution of a small mass of cells in her body that eventually spread to become something much larger and more destructive. For reasons we are not near fully understanding, the response to treatment of those malignant cells, even those that we've identified through the tremendous, decades-long work of countless scientists and doctors as having the same driver mutations, varies widely from person to person. Some people have much better luck than Cara did. It's not because she didn't fight as hard to "kick cancer's ass."

I've also seen people use the expression when they talk about participating in charity events (especially those involving strenuous athletic pursuits) to raise money for the struggle against cancer. Events like the Pan Ohio Hope Ride, a four-day, 328-mile bike ride to raise money for the American Cancer Society. 

The Pan Ohio Hope Ride's Facebook profile picture - a picture of my dear friend Shelli Snyder!

Another such charity event (although one requiring much less exertion on the part of its participants) that is very near and dear to my heart is Breathe Deep Cleveland, a 5k fun run and walk to benefit lung cancer awareness and research funding that Cara founded before she passed away.

These events are great. The battle against cancer is one in which we need all the help we can get. Every dollar raised has the potential to positively affect someone's life.

We've come a long, long way in our understanding of this horrible disease. We know vastly more about the underlying biology than we did a hundred, fifty, or even (especially when it comes to certain specific genetic abnormalities) ten years ago. This helps us devise better treatments. It also helps us better understand the underlying causes - why people get cancer in the first place. There's a whole lot we still don't know, but we've made great strides in the fight against cancer.

Sadly, today, in this country, there is a concerted effort underway to reverse much of that progress.

Republicans in Congress are trying to pass the "American Health Care Act" - their replacement for the Affordable Care Act. The Congressional Budget Office has estimated that this act would result in a whopping 24 million Americans losing health insurance compared to current law. Don't trust that number? Think it's "fake news"? The White House estimated an even bigger loss - 26 million.

It's pretty simple - if you get cancer, and you have health insurance, your odds are going to be a lot better than if you don't. If you can afford medical treatment, your outcomes will tend to be better than if you can't. If Cara didn't have health insurance when she was diagnosed, she would have died a lot sooner. The same is true for many terminal cancer patients. And there are many other cancer patients who have had their lives saved by medical treatments. If the AHCA passes, there are going to be a lot more people who have to make the horrifying choice between bankrupting their families or giving up on their treatments.

There's more.

The White House recently released their budget proposal, which cuts funding to most of the government programs that are vital in our shared efforts to (I have to say it) Make America Great. Two items in particular are especially relevant to the fight against cancer. A nearly 20% cut is proposed in the budget to the NIH, which provides an enormous amount of the funding for medical research in this country.

Without NIH-funded research efforts, I can say without any doubt that Cara would have died much sooner after her cancer diagnosis than she did. It was because I saw firsthand the benefits of cancer research that I decided to enter the field myself after obtaining my PhD in Biology.

The other highly pertinent and disturbing item in the proposed budget?  A greater than 30% cut to the EPA.

That is something that should horrify everyone who breathes air and drinks water.

(That is, everyone. Duh.)

Although there's still a lot we don't understand, we've come a long way in our knowledge of what causes people to get cancer. Probably the most widely recognized such causative link is that between cigarette smoking and lung cancer. Of course, it's not a one-to-one link; Cara didn't smoke. But we all know that years of smoking increase the chances someone will get cancer. That's because the toxins in cigarette smoke damage DNA in cells and make it more likely that those cells' genetic programs will go awry and lead to uncontrolled malignant growth.

Cigarette smoke is far from the only toxin that can do such damage.

In China, rates of lung (and other) cancer have skyrocketed. This is a direct result of rapid industrialization without the protections the EPA affords us here leading to a dramatic increase in pollution. In less than a decade, rates of lung cancer in Beijing rose more than fifty percent. We've all seen the images of the horrendously smoggy Chinese capital city.

Without government-mandated environmental protections, things would look much the same in major American cities.

But surely, you might say, even with a 30% cut to the EPA, we won't let things get that bad here. And that might be true. Still, it's a simple equation. More exposure to environmental toxins = higher rates of cancer. That's just a fact.

In the war between humanity and cancer, Donald Trump has staked his position firmly on the pro-cancer side. And any Republican elected officials who support these budgetary and health care proposals have likewise staked their positions just as firmly on the pro-cancer side.

Doing charity events like the Pan Ohio Hope Ride and Breathe Deep Cleveland is great. We have a good time with friends and we raise money for a good cause. But as much as that makes us feel good about ourselves, the sad reality is that Donald Trump and the Republican Party are setting out to do far more harm in the fight to save people's lives from cancer than all the good that will be done by all of the participants in all of those charity events.

Right now, if we want to kick cancer's ass, we have to kick Donald Trump's ass.

Monday, February 20, 2017

This is the last time. Are you sad?

Last summer, I started a series of posts about the online word game Psychobabble in which Cara and I met, and that, as our friendship grew, we increasingly used to flirt with each other via sentences we made in the game.

First Psychobbable post (Note: this post includes an explanation of how the game worked. Since it's been so long since my previous post on the topic, it's probably worth including a very brief refresher here. The game was based on magnetic fridge poetry, and in each round, players in a room of up to twelve had one minute to pick some words from a set of around 60-70 tiles and arrange them into a sentence. Then all the sentences were displayed and players voted for their favorites.)

Second Psychobabble post

I intended it to be a three-part series, and now I'm finally getting around to writing the third part, which covers July and August 2006 including the first trip we ever took together, an event that was shortly followed by the end of the game Psychobabble. As before, I'll be posting screenshots of sentences, sometimes with corresponding in-game chat, along with my explanations of the sentences. And as I said in the previous post, "I will remind everyone again that she and I never collaborated on sentence making; every single time that we made sentences that went with each other it was a case of us being on the same mental wavelength by thinking of the same inside jokes or, in certain cases, by some bizarre coincidence."

Now, back to the sentences.

July 9
As shown in my previous post, we really liked to make sentences about going on walks together.

July 10
"Fishing" - as in fishing for compliments from each other - was something we often accused each other of, and made jokes about, in our online chats.

July 11
Cara and I decided that we were going to travel together to Washington, D.C. in early August to see a show by our favorite band, Ozma. This sentence by Cara celebrates our decision to go!

July 13
Cara's sentence was foreshadowing of numerous future walks on which we would hold each other's hands. My sentence is a reference to the fact that I had recently sent her a short video clip of me playing the piano (specifically, a snippet of the Ozma song "Gameover").

July 23
Here we both made sentences referencing the fact that Cara worked at a company called Garden City Group.

Our two sentences both referencing the Ozma song "You Know the Story" go together nicely.

July 29
Cara's sentence is about the fact that she liked a lot of the music I listened to. My sentence teasingly insinuates that Cara liked music we considered bad such as "In the End" by Linkin Park and "My Immortal" by Evanescence.

August 1
My sentence here kind of amazes me. As I talked about in my previous blog posts about Psychobabble, it's one that could plausibly be "just a sentence," but I have no doubt that in my mind when I made it was the fact that I had never been on a real date (something I had not directly told Cara!) and that if Cara and I went out on a date she would therefore be "my first date." Which did, of course, happen, but not until a little over three months after I made this sentence!

August 2
And here's one from Cara that could be "just a sentence" but was undoubtedly actually about her hopes that I did in fact "like her" (as more than a friend).

This was shortly before our trip to D.C. My sentence is obviously about the fact we were going to a show there. Although we were going primarily so that we could see Ozma, they were actually not headlining the show but rather opening for The Rentals (another band we liked), so that's what Cara's sentence is about.

"Speedy speed boy" is something Cara had called me in reference to my being a runner.

August 4
After we returned from D.C., we learned the dismaying news that Popcap, the company that ran Psychobabble, had announced they would soon be shutting the game down. My sentence is about this, with a classic Garden Fight reference. I should also mention that of the two people who voted for my sentence, one was (of course) Cara, and the other was... Cara's mother! But I didn't know that at the time. Actually, a while before Cara had told me that her mother played Psychobabble, but I thought Cara was joking, and when it became clear I thought she was joking, Cara decided to play it off as if she had been joking rather than continue to try to convince me. It wasn't until years later that I learned the truth.

Just days before we went to D.C., I broke my arm after falling down while running, which meant that Cara had to do all the driving on the trip. Here's Cara with a rather cruel (and hilarious!) sentence about my injury.

Another sentence by Cara about her hopes that I was into her.

A great sentence by Cara about the imminent demise of our favorite pastime.

August 7
While on our trip, we saw a sign for "Forks of Cheat," a winery in Morgantown, West Virginia. We thought this name was very funny. I love Cara's sentence referencing it.

Cara's sentence is about the fact that we had slept in the same hotel room in D.C. (but in different beds!).

August 8
In retrospect, my sentence is kind of cruel considering how apparent it was Cara had a crush on me and how uncertain she was of whether I felt the same way about her! Good thing it ended up not being Cara's imagination! Her sentence is a reference to the bowling outing that was the first time we got together in person.

One of the highlights of the trip was the fact that in the car, I read aloud to Cara Cretaceous Park, the sequel to Jurassic Park that my best childhood friend and I wrote in fifth grade. (In August 2015 I created an annotated version of Cretaceous Park and it can be found in this blog post.) This led to a lot of laughter on both our parts. The funniest thing to us was the absurd repetition of the phrase '"Run!" shouted Alan.'

Because I had a broken arm, it was hard for me to open a bottle of water. Cara's sentence is a great reference to this, evoking a scene of her watching me struggle with the bottle and waiting for me to ask for help (she did end up helping me open the bottle). My sentence comes from the fact that certain aspects of our trip were very poorly planned, mainly that we did not pick a dinner location ahead of time, assuming we'd come across something, and then (in those pre-smart-phone days) failing to do so after walking around the National Mall for a while and then taking the Metro to near the 9:30 Club, the concert venue. We were both very hungry, me especially. I ended up buying a bag of chips at a gas station across the street from the 9:30 Club. In the fall of 2015, on a trip in which I went to a concert at another venue in the same area, I discovered that there were actually numerous restaurants just blocks away from where we had been. Oops!

Cara's sentence is another reference to her helping me open my water bottle. My sentence is another reference to Cretaceous Park. 

August 9
Here's another Forks of Cheat reference.

While at my parents' house, I was looking at Cara's pictures from the trip on Flickr, and my mom saw that the name on the Flickr account was Communista, leading my mom to say, "Is... is this person a communist?" (Cara was not a communist.)

I really like this pair of sentences referencing the Ozma song title "Light Years Will Burn."

Aw, what a nice sentence by Cara.

Cara with another Rentals sentence. Me with another "is it flirting or is it just a sentence" sentence.

While I made a sentence about our D.C. trip and Cara made a sentence about hoping to go to another show with me, Jen (SA_shedevil) also made a sentence about Cara and me. She was someone who frequently played Psychobabble with us and who Cara had privately told about her feelings for me. I'm pretty sure I voted for "Your walks are really more than that" thinking that it was Cara's sentence and I don't remember what I thought of it when I saw it was actually Jen's sentence.

I feel like with the game soon ending, Cara was feeling desperate and was making more and more sentences hinting at her feelings for me. Although we did flirt some in our frequent AOL Instant Messenger chats, we were much more flirtatious in our Psychobabble sentences, because there was the plausible deniability factor of "maybe they're just sentences." The game going away would remove this outlet. It makes me wonder if things would have played out any differently, and perhaps sooner, had the game not gone away. My sentence, by the way, is about Cara driving the car on our trip while I controlled the music from the passenger seat.

Cara's sentence references the fact that we took the Green Line on the D.C. Metro. My sentence is a twisted reference, but one that Cara nonetheless got (and loved!), to a rest stop on the way to D.C. that overlooked the Youghiogheny River. (I combined the tiles "Yugo," "-ing," and "-ly" to make something that very vaguely resembled Youghiogheny.) This would be a good place to quote the first paragraph of Cara's wedding vows:
Even before we met, we finished each other's sentences. After we had actually met, I knew I wanted to get to know you better. And as we sat atop a hill overlooking the Youghiogheny River later that year, I knew that I was beginning to fall in love with you.
(Well, I have tears in my eyes now.)

August 10 - the last day of Psychobabble

Awwwww. Cara was going all out on the flirting.

My punny and topical sentence here was very popular.

These are my and Cara's final Psychobabble sentences ever, which we made in the same round. Very fitting.

Despite our incessant flirting in the game, it wasn't until almost three months later, November 4, that we finally revealed our feelings for each other and started dating. The long delay was partly due to the fact that after that trip to D.C., we did not see each other in person for over two months. This next in-person get together was for an Okkervil River concert in Columbus, after which I finally came to the full realization that I did want to give being more than friends with Cara a shot. And the time after that when we saw each other was that fateful November 4, Cara's first of many trips to see me in Cleveland.

Psychobabble was gone forever, but in the months and years to come there were multiple attempts at recreating it by fans of the original game. The best was called Pseudobabble, which we would enjoy playing many times over the years, all the way up to as recently as 2013. Sadly, Pseudobabble eventually died off, and to my knowledge there is no working Psychobabble-like game online today.

It really was amazing the way Cara and I hit it off after meeting through this game and then the way we used the game to create our own unique way of communicating with each other. What a fantastic love story...

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Tender Warriors strive to...

Tenders Warriors
find the courage to be sensitive
 be emotionally vulnerable
be comfortable with & embrace solitude
never compromise their integrity
 be true 
be kind
practice self-acceptance & self-love
give an honest effort
be present
be patient 
be transparent
- Tender Warriors Club manifesto (by Lady Lamb aka Aly Spaltro)

I had a very busy concertgoing end of the week as I saw three shows in two nights. Lady Lamb, touring in support of her new Tender Warriors Club EP, was the second of the three. I think all three shows are worth writing about.

First, on Thursday night, I saw local indie rock band Cloud Nothings play to a sold-out Beachland Ballroom. Going to see Cloud Nothings play at the Beachland was something that had a sort of eerie significance for me. The last time I did that, also on a Thursday night, was on August 22, 2013. That was the night before the day that Cara was admitted to the hospital, leading to her being diagnosed with lung cancer. As I wrote in a blog entry on the three year anniversary of that occasion, "I had a really great time at that Cloud Nothings show, which some of my friends also attended. Looking back, that was the last time that my life was anything resembling normal." So that was certainly on my mind.

As usual, I had great fun seeing Cloud Nothings. Something I've realized at their shows is that I really enjoy a good mosh pit. Moshing, however, is something that almost never occurs at shows by any other band I see regularly, so it's something to look forward to when going to see Cloud Nothings. It's funny, because I remember the first time I encountered a real mosh pit at a show, which was the Ozma reunion show at the Knitting Factory in Hollywood in March 2006. It was too rough for me and I quickly retreated to a less wild part of the crowd. Now I'm 33 years old and may even have been the oldest person in the pit on Thursday, but there's just something really exhilarating about bouncing around and off of other bodies in a mass of unpredictably moving human beings, in time to loud rock music! One of my friends remarked on how I had been in the pit for almost the entire show while he had only joined in for the last song (the always amazingly intense extended version of "Wasted Days" that Cloud Nothings usually close their shows with), and I replied, "It makes me feel alive!" I was going for a laugh but there was a lot of truth in my statement.

Friday night brought two shows, both by supremely talented female singer-songwriters. First was Lady Lamb (formerly known as Lady Lamb the Beekeeper) on her "Living Room Tour," a series of intimate, solo acoustic performances. The show was not actually in someone's living room but rather in a back room at the Canopy Collective art gallery, a cool setting nonetheless. This was my third time seeing Lady Lamb and each show has been a very memorable occasion.

The first time, March 29, 2014, I braved a heavy snowstorm to head out to the Beachland Ballroom and see a really spectacular show at which Lady Lamb opened for Typhoon, easily one of the best combinations of two artists at one show that I've ever experienced. In fact, Typhoon's White Lighter and Lady Lamb's Ripely Pine are my top two favorite albums of the year 2013. Also very significant in retrospect was the fact that the first opening artist was the band Wild Ones, a fact that would lead me at another Wild Ones show to having a great conversation about Typhoon and about Cara with Wild Ones' lead singer Danielle Sullivan, who unbeknownst to me at the time was engaged (now married) to Typhoon's lead singer Kyle Morton!

The second time I saw Lady Lamb was at the Grog Shop on July 26, 2015. This was the day after Cara's grandmother Margie passed away, which itself was three months and one day after Cara passed away. Margie was also one of my very favorite people, and in a way her death kind of felt like "Cara's death, part two," so naturally both their losses were heavy on my mind that night as Lady Lamb put on a really amazing performance. Her song "Ten" beautifully concludes with the line, "There's a sweetness in us that lives long past the dust on our eyes once our eyes finally close." And wow, did that hit me in the feels that night.

The show on Friday was a big departure from my previous Lady Lamb concert experiences, because her music normally rocks a lot harder than you'd expect for someone described as a "singer-songwriter." It was great to hear these new takes on some of her songs, and the stripped-down acoustic performances really allowed one to take in her lyrics, which I think are some of the best out there today. She also brings an incredibly expressive voice to the table, one that can quickly go from delicate to full of raw emotion. Aly had two acoustic guitars and a banjo with her, which she switched between and repeatedly tuned in between songs. She said that the change in weather was bad for the instruments and blamed a visit to Florida earlier in the tour. She had a lot of great interaction with the crowd amidst a fantastic selection of songs that included a number of requests.

Before playing the final song of the night (the haunting "We Are Nobody Else" from her new EP), Aly gave a little speech in which she explained how Tender Warriors Club was more than an album to her. She explained how one day she had been talking to a friend on the phone, a friend who was going through a really difficult time and who had spontaneously decided to take a trip to Paris, and she had told her friend that her friend was a "tender warrior." At the time she said it, the phrase didn't have any special significance to Aly, but then it stayed in her head and she started to think about it more and more and it become a sort of life philosophy that is summarized by the "manifesto" (from her website) quoted at the beginning of this post. She said that this had become especially important to her in light of all the scary things going on in the world right now. I was very moved by her words. I thought about all the struggles in my own life, and I thought about Cara and Margie, and when Aly said that she would be at the merch table right after the show and would love to talk to people, I decided I wanted to tell her the story about seeing her the day after Margie died.

After she concluded her speech and before she started playing the last song, I glanced at my phone to check the time, and naturally (because both Margie and Cara, aka Margie's "favorite birthday present", were born on September 22) it was 9:22 pm.

At the conclusion of the show a long line of people formed at the merch table. Fortunately, I had been near the back of the audience and was able to get a spot early in line. When it was my turn to talk to Aly I complimented her on the great performance and then I told her that what she had said about "tender warriors" was very beautiful. I then said that I would like to tell her a little story, and I told her that my wife had died of lung cancer in April 2015, and three months later my wife's grandmother had died, and the day after that was the previous most recent time I had seen Aly perform. And that the line about "There's a sweetness in us that lives long past the dust..." had made me think of my wife and her grandmother.

As is usually true when I tell a musician something like this, she seemed very genuinely appreciative. As I've said before, if an artist (or anyone else) does something that has a real and meaningful impact on your life, and you get an opportunity to tell them, you should take that opportunity! (And now that I think about it, I suppose that's part of being a "tender warrior.")

I went on to tell Aly that music was one of the things that helped me get through hard times in my life. She replied, "Music is one of the only things that helps me."

After I'd finished talking to Aly (as well as buying a record and t-shirt), it was off to the CODA music venue in Tremont for the second show of my Friday evening. There I went to see a local band that has become one of my favorites, Noon. Noon started out as a solo project of Erin Kapferer, who plays the piano and sings. She has since added guitarist Patrick Stefan and cellist Shelby Sangdahl (who is quite a busy performer, contributing to a number of projects including the wonderful Shawn and Shelby and who also played with opening artist Sol Fox on Friday).

I first encountered Noon at the Heights Music Hop in October 2015, a little less than half a year after Cara's death. The music of Noon has also been good to turn to in difficult times. For the combination of being both very sad and very beautiful, it's hard to beat. Noon's first album, 9 Years, was just Erin and her voice and piano. It's a wonderful album. The addition of cello and guitar rounds out Erin's sound really nicely, and most of the songs performed on Friday were from a new album the trio are working on now. I'm looking forward to it a lot. After the show, I went up to Erin to tell her it had been a great show as usual. I guess she's noticed I go to see her a lot because she said I was her "super-fan." (Aww!)

There is a lot of scary news right now. So hooray for great music, and hooray for tender warriors!

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Make America Great

As we all know, Donald Trump campaigned on a promise to "Make America Great Again."

Exactly what was meant by the phrase was left fairly vague, but clearly the slogan implies this: at some point in the past America was a great nation, but today that is no longer true.

This, I think, would be news to all the members of the LGBT community who have, under President Obama, finally received the basic human rights they had previously been denied. Or to the countless citizens of this country with debilitating health conditions who are finally able to get the care they need thanks to the Affordable Care Act. Or to all the women and minorities who have been, at best, second-class citizens for most of this country's history. Okay, let's be honest - for all of this country's history, but to a significantly lesser extent in recent years than for the previous two-plus centuries.

There's an argument that, in actuality, America was never great. It's based on the undeniably true premise that our nation was built on a foundation of slavery and genocide. And the argument goes that, for the whole history of the USA up through the present, forces of discrimination and oppression have been so integral to this country that it could never truly be called a great nation.

Of course, all nations have checkered pasts, and presents. One could argue that there is no such thing as a great nation. There are, though, a lot of genuinely very good things about the United States of America. Among them, this nation has long been considered the leader of the free world, and there are legitimate reasons to call it that.

Sadly, with the ascension of Donald Trump to the presidency, that claim must be (temporarily, one hopes) abandoned. No nation whose chief executive kowtows to the brutal dictator of Russia can be called "leader of the free world."

For a long time, the right wing in this country has liked to bandy about accusations of Democrats being un-American, for reasons such as opposition to President Bush's disastrous Iraq war. These accusations have almost always been unfounded. In perhaps the most ironic example yet, Bill O'Reilly said that efforts to delegitimize Trump's presidency "border on sedition."

Donald Trump rose to prominence in the modern Republican Party thanks to a completely baseless and shamelessly racist attack on the legitimacy of Barack Obama's presidency.

Today, for the first time in living memory, accusations of one's political opponents being un-American are perfectly justified: Donald Trump, as evidenced by (among other things) his sucking up to Vladimir Putin and his attitude toward the First Amendment, is un-American, and so are other elected officials too spineless to stand up against Trump.

Although it feels like beating a dead horse, I'd like to list a few of the other more egregious examples of why it's a national disgrace that Donald Trump is our president:

Trump broke from a decades long bipartisan tradition by refusing to release his tax returns. We already know that Trump has massive conflicts of interest (a fact that should set off alarm bells by itself), but without his tax returns, we have no way of knowing the full extent of those conflicts. Furthermore, Trump's only real claim to being qualified for the presidency was that he is supposedly a successful businessman - but without records of his finances, it's impossible to know whether Trump, who came into wealth via his father, can even be legitimately described as a successful businessman.

Trump has a long history of unabashed racism. One of the most obvious examples is when he said that American-born Judge Gonzalo Curiel was not qualified to rule on the Trump University fraud trial because of Curiel's Mexican heritage. Republican Speaker of the House Paul Ryan even had to admit what Trump said was the "textbook example of a racist comment."

Trump is almost undoubtedly a serial sexual assaulter. He was caught on tape bragging about committing sexual assault, and then over a dozen women came forward to corroborate what Trump had said, with some of the women having their claims corroborated by still other people. So there's basically no reason to doubt Trump is guilty of this heinous crime. By electing him in spite of this, our country essentially re-victimized millions upon millions of sexual assault survivors who have to live with that trauma every day, and also sent the message loud and clear to potential future perpetrators of sexual assault that they'll be able to get away with it. This is absolutely horrific and disgusting.

Any one of those things alone should by itself be reason enough to disqualify Trump from the presidency. I doubt that any die-hard Trump supporters are reading this, but I'd love to hear an argument why these are not utterly shameful behaviors and why it is okay to support someone who has done these things for the presidency. (I did get into a little Facebook argument shortly before the election with someone who said that the timing of the sexual assault accusations was suspicious and therefore the women should not be believed, oh and also that because in the tape Trump said women let him do it, that meant what Trump described was not sexual assault. Also, that the women's claims would have been believable if they had gone to the police immediately after the incidents. Vomit. Please educate yourself on how society and the legal system treat sexual assault victims, and stop putting forth arguments that perpetuate rape culture.)

Now that Trump has taken office, the depressing news seems to arrive by the minute. One of the most disturbing items is the Trump administration's putting forth the idea of "alternative facts."  First over something as trivial as inauguration crowd sizes, but it's undoubtedly a sign of things to come, and it's a classic tactic of fascist governments straight out of 1984.

The one thing giving me hope is the knowledge that Trump and his supporters are clearly a minority in the country. The massive turnout for the Women's March on Saturday was a striking statement of this. Unfortunately, we have a broken political system that has allowed a party with support from a minority of voters to take complete control of our government. Trump lost by millions of votes nationwide but is now our president. At the same time, gerrymandering of House districts and the vastly disproportionate power given to residents of small states in the Senate have massively stacked the deck against the Democratic Party in Congress. Add to this Republican voter suppression efforts, which are only going to get worse in the years to come (Trump's repeated and blatant lie about millions of illegal votes being cast in the election is a clear signal of this), and the idea that we live in a representative democracy is becoming more and more of a fantasy. This should be disturbing to anyone regardless of their political views.

Donald Trump and the Republicans in Congress are a rogue political force taking advantage of a broken system to push forward a deeply unpopular agenda that will harm almost everyone in this country other than the very wealthy. The way I see it, there are two potential outcomes to this situation that are both quite plausible. One potential outcome is that Trump will serve as a wake up call to the populace, spurring a new era of political activism and a massive resistance movement that will do the best it can to mitigate the damage over the next four years, and then seize the reins and start moving things toward a brighter future. Another potential outcome is that Trump and the Republicans in Congress will largely get their way and America will go into a sad decline from which we won't truly recover for decades, if ever.

The fight to make America great is on, and whether you believe we'd be making America great again, or making America great for the first time, it's a fight that can only be won if we all stand up and do our parts to resist Donald Trump and his cronies. And that includes those of you who have normally voted Republican in the past and are now ashamed and disgusted by what Donald Trump is doing to your party and to our country. You have to hold your Republican elected officials' feet to the fire, and if those officials don't stand up against Trump's abuses, as much as it might pain you you have to turn out for Democratic candidates in 2018 and 2020. (I myself find much to complain about with the Democratic Party, but we have a two-party system and that's not something that's going to change in the immediate future.)

This isn't a right vs. left partisan battle. It's a battle between fascism and anti-fascism. One of the great things America has done in the past is resisting the forces of fascism. And now we have to do it again.