Sunday, July 30, 2017

Life is what happens while we're making plans

As I sit in a seaside condo on Florida's Gulf Coast where I've joined EB and Allie for their annual beach getaway, I continue to marvel at all the remarkable events that have unfolded this year.

Not the least of which, the eight-day period from Thursday, July 20 through Thursday, July 27 contained within it three of the most meaningful concert experiences of my entire life.

The first of the three was the tenth(!!) time that I've seen my favorite band Okkervil River perform live, but this one was the most special of them all. I remember well how ecstatic I was when the announcement was made that Will Sheff's band would be embarking on a very limited "rarities and requests" tour, performing in intimate settings as an acoustic trio, and one stop on the tour would be in Columbus, Ohio at the Rumba Cafe. I have written many, many times about the significance of Okkervil River to my and Cara's relationship so I won't rehash too much of that here. But it's important to note that my previous time seeing them, last October in Pittsburgh, was the first time I ever got to talk to Will Sheff, and I told him there about Cara and about how we had seen Okkervil River together in Columbus both shortly before we started dating and also, in an amazing coincidence, on the night before our wedding.

The way the rarities and requests tour worked was that Will asked people to post their requests on the Facebook event pages for each particular show so that he could create setlists composed of those requests. My message, far more personal than those most other people posted, went as follows:
I would be absolutely thrilled to hear "Seas Too Far To Reach." Many years ago when I had recently started dating my (late) wife I was super into the album Down the River of Golden Dreams and that song in particular makes me think of those times - I actually put it on a mixtape for her three months after we started dating. Also "Listening to Otis Redding at Home During Christmas" would be wonderful; I have a thing for songs that evoke feelings of nostalgia and that's one of the best.
Will started out the show by himself with his acoustic guitar, then over the next two songs brought out, one by one, the upright bassist and lead guitarist who rounded out this incarnation of Okkervil River as a trio. At the beginning of each song, Will said, "This is for..." followed by the name of a person who had requested that particular song on Facebook. "Listening to Otis Redding..." appeared early in the show, but dedicated to someone else who had requested it, not to me. It was the first time I had ever seen the song performed and it was utterly magical. The lyrics about returning to one's childhood home at Christmas time and thinking about your past, and about the future you once thought you might have, are so evocative and strike such a chord with me, even more now than when I first fell in love with the song.

The whole concert was a magical experience. I was also overjoyed to hear "The Velocity of Saul at the Time of His Conversion," another first-time live experience for me and another of my favorite songs from Down the River of Golden Dreams.

As the show continued, my hopes and expectations that I would hear "Seas Too Far To Reach" and that it would be dedicated to me grew. And then Will, his voice quavering with emotion, said, "This is a very special request for Jeff McManus." My parents, who I asked to go to the show with me not because they're Okkervil River fans (they haven't listened to the band much) but rather because I wanted them to be able to share what was likely to be a very moving experience with great personal meaning, both reached out to touch me. And then I was plunged into one of the most emotional musical experiences of my life. The whole time I thought of Cara and was filled with an incredible nostalgic mixture of joy and sorrow.

All in all, the Okkervil River rarities and requests show was probably the single most meaningful concert experience of my life. After the show I again got to talk with Will Sheff, more briefly this time. I was delighted when I overheard the young man talking to him immediately before me say, "Thank you so much for playing 'Seas Too Far To Reach'" and explain how meaningful the song was to him as well.

When it was my turn, I began to say, "I also wanted to thank you for playing that song."

"You're Jeff, right?" Will interrupted.

He remembered me, I thought, awed. WILL SHEFF remembered who I was, without me even reminding him! I was nearly as moved then as at the playing of my requested song. The fact that I, by sharing with him my and Cara's story and the impact he had had on my life, had in turn clearly had an impact on his life - on one of my most admired people in the whole world - was so powerful.

I also told Will that I thought he'd like to know I had found love again, and he seemed genuinely extremely grateful that I had shared the news with him.

It was an incredible experience. And it was just the beginning.

One funny little anecdote from the Okkervil River show - after the band played "The Next Four Months" (a song about drug use) my dad remarked, "That was pretty depressing." Silently, I laughed, thinking in particular of how Cara would have reacted, and how she had enjoyed over the years recounting the story of my dad going with my sister to an Andrew Bird concert Cara and I also attended and afterwards saying, "I liked some of that, but some of it was just noise."

Which brings me to the second of the three concerts for this post. On Tuesday, July 25, Cara's mother Joyce came up from Columbus and joined me in seeing Andrew Bird perform at Cain Park not far from my house in Cleveland Heights. This was oh so special for multiple reasons. Andrew Bird was Cara's favorite musician. We saw him together four times (Cara wrote a wonderful review of one of those shows). Joyce has an iPod we gave her with lots of our favorite music on it, so she's listened to a lot of Andrew Bird and knows how much meaning that music had to Cara, her only child. Last year I tried to get Joyce to come up to Cleveland for an Andrew Bird show but she decided she wasn't up for the trip. This time she decided to go for it, and for the first time since Cara's death she came up to Cleveland to see me. Making the occasion even more notable, July 25 was the second anniversary of Joyce's mother's death.

Bird put on a stellar performance as usual. His wizardry with his violin and loop pedals and his astounding talent for whistling have to be experienced in person to be believed. I was thrilled when he played "Why," for I remembered well the passionate feelings Cara had described that song evoking in her. Cain Park was a beautiful setting with perfect weather for an outdoor show.

The final song of the night was "Tables and Chairs," a whimsical number about societal collapse. Before playing the song, from 2005's Andrew Bird & the Mysterious Production of Eggs, Bird remarked that it was interesting when old songs you had written years ago took on new meaning, and said that he would be changing some of the lyrics. Among them, he changed the line "Don't you worry about the atmosphere" to say that he is worried about the atmosphere.


But it was another magical night. Joyce was so grateful to me for having her up to visit and for taking her to the concert, which she said she enjoyed very, very much, and also that she was thinking of both her mother and Cara whole time.

While the Okkervil River rarities and requests show was probably my most meaningful concert experience and going to see Andrew Bird with my mother-in-law was also up there, the final show of the three, Piebald at the Grog Shop this past Thursday, was quite simply one of the most fun concerts I've ever attended.

The Okkervil River and Piebald shows were announced quite close to each other, early this year, and both announcements made me similarly amazed and excited. Piebald was the first band I ever saw perform at the Grog Shop, one of my favorite local concert venues. That show was in October 2005, shortly after I had gotten into going to live shows. It was an unforgettable experience. I saw Piebald several more times over the next two years, but then they broke up in 2007. After that I never expected I'd ever get to enjoy one of their live shows again.

Last year, the band regrouped; somehow I missed the news until the Grog Shop show was announced. And then I could hardly wait for the chance to relive some of the most fun times of my young adulthood.

Piebald's music is high energy, emo-tinged rock with witty lyrics you can't resist belting out together with lead singer Travis Shettel and a room full of other excited fans. (With a few appropriately timed fist pumps thrown in for good measure!) The band also played a brief acoustic set that afternoon at Wax Bodega, a record store in Lakewood, which I left work for a little while to see because when else would I ever get that opportunity? Between that rather laid back acoustic performance and the raucous powerhouse of a performance that followed it that night, the band played all twelve songs from their classic 2002 album We Are the Only Friends We Have, delighting me and the rest of the audience. Cara liked Piebald too, although she never saw them live. I have a memory of her choosing that album to play in the car on an early morning drive to a cycling event. It's great pump-up music. Piebald also played quite a few of the best songs from 1999's If It Weren't for Venetian Blinds, It Would Be Curtains for Us All, mostly eschewing the rest of their catalog. At both the Okkervil River and Piebald shows it was such a wonderful experience to be in a small room full of people who were long-time fans like me, with similar appreciation and enthusiasm for the music being performed for us. At the quieter Okkervil River show, this mostly manifested in enthusiastic applause and whoops after songs and astonished exclamations at the revelation of each rarity within the setlist. At the Piebald show the atmosphere was more that of a party, everyone moving to the music and screaming out those familiar choruses. Each experience was special and wonderful in its own way.

Piebald has a lot of music that can thematically be summed up as saying "life is too short so enjoy it while you can." I fondly remember rocking out to their song "Still We Let It Choke Us" as a twenty-two year old enjoying my first Grog Shop experience. Today, at thirty-four, and appropriately enough enjoying a beach vacation as I write this, the lyrics still resonate:
Well, life is a bitch
And life is a beach
You've got the sun and the sand and your suit all within your reach
Take off the tie
What a sick day
We've gone to build castles in sand and go swimming,
It's time for our play
To the barricades
We'll take them by storm
Days fade to weeks, fade to months, fade to years
And there's not that much more. [note: this is followed by a blistering guitar solo of an outro]
It was fun to feel "young again" for a night, but I wouldn't trade the life I have now for the one I had then!

Sunday, July 2, 2017

Of cats and Alliecats

As EB, Allie, and I drove to the Shaker Square Farmer's Market on Saturday morning (pictured above: Allie eating a delicious strawberry lemon popsicle that the three of us shared at said market) one of the sweetest and most touching things ever happened.

Two weeks before, during Allie's first and EB's second visit to Cleveland, I had mentioned to them something that Cara had often said to our two cats Mitters and Eponine to try to discourage them from the altercations they frequently got into: "No fights, and no bites." (Today I also have two cats. Eponine remains one of them, but the older Mitters passed away three months ago. Last fall I adopted a very rambunctious kitten who I named Gavroche, now a still very rambunctious one-year-old. So clashes between cats remain an issue in my household.) I didn't place any special emphasis on the story; it was just a nice little anecdote that seemed relevant when I brought it up. So I was astonished and moved nearly to tears when, out of the blue, two weeks later, Allie said, "Hey remember that thing Cara used to say? No fights, and no... scratch?"

At four years old, Allie would undoubtedly have no way of fully comprehending just how touched I was by what she had just said, but EB understood perfectly, and I exchanged knowing looks with her. "That's really close," I told Allie. "It was actually 'no fights, and no bites.'"And I delved into a brief explanation of how it was a funny phrase because the words "fights" and "bites" rhyme with each other - rhyming words being a concept in which Allie has recently taken interest.

Allie took this to heart, and later that day she was repeatedly heard to exclaim, "Gavvy [Gavroche's nickname], no fights, and no bites!"

Seeing Allie and my two cats become acquainted with each other has been a very interesting experience. EB and Allie have a dog named Beazy and used to have a cat, originally EB's husband Todd's cat, named Firenze, but like Allie's daddy, her kitty cat passed away when she was a baby. She once told me that she hopes they can get another kitty some day. I smiled at this.

My cats, on the other hand, had no prior experience with a child of Allie's age.

(Above: Eponine. Below: Gavroche. Both these pictures were taken less than an hour after Mitters passed away. I was in a very sentimental mood.)

Eponine is one of the nicest and most sociable cats I have ever known, and as far as I can remember has always wanted to be friends with every person she has met. But she had never before met a wild four-year-old. On Allie's first visit to Cleveland, Allie very quickly and enthusiastically approached Eponine - and Eponine was terrified. For the whole rest of that weekend, Eponine acted nothing like her normal self. All cats have their typical spots where they like to hang out. That weekend, Eponine mostly abandoned her normal spots, instead opting for other locations that would decrease her visibility.

Gavvy, on the other hand, knows little fear. The little guy reacted in a quite different way to being startled. I came home from work on that first Friday to hear that Gavvy had bitten Allie. I asked if Allie had done anything before he bit her, to which she answered no. EB, on the other hand, explained that Allie had sat down next to Gavvy and had then, inadvertently but quite suddenly, brushed against him, to which Gavvy had reacted by swiping at Allie. (It was a scratch, not a bite, EB believed - and only a very minor scratch; fortunately I had trimmed Gavvy's claws the day before.)

We explained to Allie that kitty cats should be handled with care - even friendly cats like Eponine and Gavvy don't like it if you approach them in a sudden and unpredictable manner.

By the end of that first weekend, Allie had improved in her behavior around the cats. Eponine was still quite frightened of this strange new creature who had invaded her domain, but she quickly got over it after EB and Allie's departure.

On Allie's just concluded second visit to Cleveland, things between her and the cats went much, much better. As EB and I like to say, "Like sea slugs, we are capable of learning." ("We," in this case, could refer to both humans and felines.) Allie knew to approach the cats slowly and purposefully rather than rapidly and unpredictably. This time around, Eponine showed no signs of the terror she had expressed two weeks ago. She even let Allie pet her with no other humans in the immediate vicinity, and clearly enjoyed it. Allie was quite proud of her accomplishment.

While Eponine's fear of Allie mostly disappeared, Allie's fear of Gavvy was still present, but she's learning how to behave around the little fellow to avoid his scratches (none of which occurred this time, although there were several times Allie thought Gavvy was about to scratch her), and even called Gavvy a "sweet kitty" (echoing EB's description) when I held Gavvy and let Allie give him a goodbye pet.

Amusingly, Allie seems to default to thinking of cats as girls, and despite our many, many corrections, still usually refers to Gavvy with feminine pronouns.

Another amusing incident occurred the other day when I, from another room, heard a frightened shriek from Allie and quickly entered the dining room to investigate. Allie and Gavvy were standing a few feet apart from each other in a little standoff. But Allie's fear quickly turned to excitement. "Gavvy jumped at me like a hero!" she exclaimed, laughing. And after this, Allie decided she wanted to be like Gavvy and "jump like a hero" herself. For the rest of the visit, she performed many such "hero jumps" (which to her meant jumping off of a chair to the floor) herself.

What a sweet, sweet girl. Perhaps some day in the future I'll try to explain to her how much it meant to me when she brought up that story about Cara and then imitated Cara's spoken instructions to a cat. Allie is definitely wise beyond her years. I think even now she'd have some capacity for understanding the importance, but I'll wait. I'm sure it's a memory that will always stick with me.

And now a few more adorable stories about Allie from this visit that aren't related to cats but are very much worth sharing.

The three of us went to the Stone Oven bakery near my house most days of the visit. Allie has developed a thing for the bakery's dinosaur cookies. On one morning she said that she wanted a green dinosaur cookie and told the girl behind the counter this, but then said she had changed her mind and actually wanted a yellow dinosaur cookie. On the walk back to my house Allie explained her reasoning. "I remembered that yellow used to be one of my favorite colors, so I thought I'd like to have that cookie." Apparently four-year-olds can be influenced by feelings of nostalgia!

At the farmer's market, on a wet morning following a night of heavy rainfall, Allie discovered that she enjoyed standing under trees and shaking low hanging branches to give herself little "showers." She'd stand under a tree for several minutes doing this until EB told her it was time to move on, after which Allie would tell us she had to go find the next shower. Her hair was quite wet by the end of our visit to the market. Allie provided a great deal of entertainment to several of the market vendors that morning.

On Saturday night we had my friend Jessiye over for dinner, as well as a delicious holiday-themed blueberry pie that Allie helped me make using fresh berries from the market.

After dinner EB and Jessiye were talking and Allie and I were coloring with crayons. Allie decided that we were going to draw dinosaurs and frogs, so we did. After completing some drawings, I remarked (very truthfully) that I was much better at drawing dinosaurs than I was at drawing frogs.

"Am I much better at drawing frogs than drawing dinosaurs?" Allie asked.

"It looks like you're pretty good at both," I replied.

Allie pondered this for a moment, then produced a priceless response. "I'm good at things."

No argument here!

Friday, June 2, 2017

The wonderful mind of a child, or, "A drink that is orange"

The mind of a four-year-old is one of the most fascinating things there is.

A newborn baby, as much as he or she is beloved by the parents and other relatives, is not someone with whom you can have a conversation. A newborn responds to stimuli in a similar way to how lesser animals respond to stimuli, and likely has little ability to engage in abstract thought. Somehow, over the next few years, an incredible developmental process occurs, integrating both intrinsic biological cues and extrinsic cues from the people and things in the environment and from all the human culture that has developed over the millennia, and that newborn's relatively simple mind turns into something that is capable of a vast array of very complex thought processes.

One of the most incredible parts? None of us really knows what that developmental process is like, because none of us can remember it.

I will soon be 34 years old. As the years go by, the memories of my past become increasingly distorted and imperfect, but I can still remember quite well what it was like to be, say, an 18-year-old. I remember less well, but still fairly well, what it was like to be a ten-year-old. A six-year-old? That's very hazy, but I still have some idea. But what it's like to be inside the mind of a four-year-old is something I have absolutely no idea about, and the same is true for almost everyone. That doesn't prevent us from recognizing as we interact with four-year-old children, especially with particularly smart four-year-old children, that there are truly amazing things going on inside those little minds. Which is why I've come to view the inner workings of the minds of small children as one of life's great mysteries.

Over Memorial Day weekend I visited EB in Nashville for the second time, and for the first time EB's daughter Allie spent almost the whole weekend with us, as opposed to very limited chunks during my previous visit. Allie is an incredibly bright four-year-old (if you have not already done so, I encourage you to read some of EB's own musings on raising her daughter) and I was constantly filled with a sense of joy and wonder by my interactions with her.

Here's a picture of the two of us waiting in line at Hattie B's, a restaurant known for Nashville's famous hot chicken.

The best of friends, right? It's oh so hard to believe that just four weeks prior, on my first visit to Nashville, we had been at the exact same spot and poor little Allie, having just met me in person, had been cowering behind her mother's legs and talking about how "Jeffy" was "mean" because I had tried to bite her eyes(!!). When prodded by EB to acknowledge something nice I had done, Allie admitted that it had been nice of me to return EB's keychain to her. (I have no idea where she got these ideas about biting eyes and returning keychains!)

Allie quickly warmed up to me (Skype helped - hooray for technology!) and on this visit was eager to spend time with me. The three of us had a fabulous weekend. Here are some more anecdotes about Allie's precious and fascinating behavior.

On Saturday morning we went to Allie's T-ball game. In this version of T-ball, the players have a few chances to hit a real pitch thrown by their coach before the tee is brought out. Allie had never previously gotten a hit from a real pitch. On this morning, she did - not just once, but on both of her at-bats! This was a source of tremendous excitement for us all. Later, while walking to brunch from T-ball, Allie told us how we should tell her aunts and cousins about her amazing feat. "They would like be [she says "like be" rather than "be like" - adorable], 'Allie couldn't do that!'" she said. "And we'll like be, 'she sure did!'"

Also that morning, Allie was being quite stubborn at points on our walks to the neighborhood grocery store and the T-ball game, risking losing her privilege to have an orange soda at brunch. (Spending the whole weekend with her, I got to be exposed to much of the full range of four-year-old behavior. It was a good learning experience.) When told by EB that EB didn't want to hear anything more about orange soda, Allie quickly shifted to asking if she'd be able to have "a drink that is orange." Ah, logic!

There was a very touching moment when Allie asked me why I was wearing a ring. I explained that it was my wedding ring. She asked if it had always been there. I told her no, it used to be on my left hand (one year and one day after Cara's death, I moved it my right hand ring finger). She asked why I moved it, and I said that when you have a ring on your left hand, it's a sign that you're married and therefore not looking for a girlfriend, and some time after Cara died I decided that I did want to look for a new girlfriend. "And then I met your mommy," I concluded.

Allie followed this up by asking how EB and I did meet, a question that EB tackled, jumping into an explanation about how there are Facebook groups for people with various interests.

How does a four-year-old grapple with the fact that her daddy died when she was just one, and she'll never know him except through stories and pictures and videos? But we humans are very good at adapting to different circumstances. For her, that's just the normal way that life is.

The very best part of the weekend was the hiking the three of us did. We went on beautiful hikes on both Sunday and Monday. Monday's was especially wonderful. Early in the hike, little Allie took off running along the trail. She quickly built up a significant lead on her mother and me. I decided, why not, I should start running with her. So I caught up to her and the two of us sped through the woods together, Allie in the lead.

It was about the most amazing feeling in the world.

Periodically, Allie would stop and look back along the trail, peering through the trees until she spotted EB walking behind us. "Let's start running again!" she would cry. The hike was four miles long, and I was astonished at the fact that Allie, just four years old, was actually running for the majority of the first two miles. After this, she took several little spills and wanted to be carried by EB for a while in her carrier. But falling down did not do much to dampen her enthusiasm for the outing. She's a remarkably resilient little girl, and after most of the falls was eager to get right back up and keep going. "I'm okay, I'm okay!" she exclaimed to EB. "It was the root's fault!"

Our trail running time was also opportunity for more interesting conversations. At one point, Allie was telling me about something EB had told her, and I said, "Well, that's probably true, because your mommy is pretty smart."

I was taken aback by Allie's response. "But I'm smarter, right?" And she went on to explain how she always gets things right in school, etc.

I had to ponder for a moment how to reply to that one! "Well, I think actually you're both really smart, and it would be hard to say who's smarter," I eventually said, which seemed to satisfy her, but who knows what she was really thinking when I told her that?

EB has been marveling for some time at the amazing things Allie says and does, and now I get to as well. I asked my mom if, when I was that age, she and my dad found themselves marveling at how smart I was. She said yes, definitely, but that she didn't have specific stories to tell. I guess that's part of the reason for EB and me to do this sort of writing - so that we will have specific stories! I'm sure you'll all be hearing more about the adventures of EB, Allie, and Jeff in the months and years to come.

Friday, May 19, 2017

This is, by an even wider margin, the least likely thing that has ever happened

Over the years - especially the last few - I've enjoyed cataloging the various strange and unlikely coincidences that have happened to me in my life. The list of these coincidences has grown at an accelerating rate in the time since Cara's diagnosis and death, sometimes even making me tempted to question the nature of reality. Bizarre coincidences that have happened to Cara and me - ranging from Cara correctly predicting her bib number (666) at a cycling tour to me randomly hearing the minor '90s alt-rock hit "Here's Where the Story Ends" on two separate occasions on the day of Cara's calling hours - were the theme of the blog post This is, by a wide margin, the least likely thing that has ever happened that I wrote last year in February. I later described several other remarkable coincidences, all of them related to the timing of significant concerts, in my November 4 blog post.

The latter post was both an account of my first date with Cara and a review of the first show of the first, and last, Temple of the Dog tour that I attended on the tenth anniversary of that first date. I say "and last" because yesterday brought the news that Temple of the Dog's lead singer Chris Cornell, best known for his band Soundgarden, committed suicide the previous night, after a Soundgarden show in Detroit, at the age of 52. I was shocked and deeply saddened at the news, perhaps more so than by any other celebrity death in my lifetime. Cornell was an amazing talent and his music really meant a lot to me. It's so sad when someone with so much to offer the world feels that he no longer wants to be a part of the world and acts on those feelings. I've certainly experienced depression myself, but never suicidal impulses. There's so much about the workings of the human brain that remains such a mystery. But help is out there. When you're depressed, it often makes it harder to seek out that help. That's one of the awful things about depression. I'm not judging Cornell, because I have no idea what he was going through, but I wish deeply that he could have found the help he needed to get out of that dark place, just as I wish that for everyone dealing with similar feelings. Don't give up on getting better. Do everything you can to find that help. It's worth the effort.

(Speaking of the mysterious workings of the human brain, last night I had a dream in which I was going to a therapy session, and in my dream Chris Cornell was my therapist, and I realized he wouldn't be there because he had died. That's one to ponder for a while.)

In happier news...

Something truly amazing has happened to me. Along with it have come several more astonishingly unlikely coincidences, and since I so enjoy doing so, I decided to write about them.

On March 2 I was sitting at my desk at work when a message popped up on Facebook Messenger from someone I did not know. "Hi, I'm EB," read the message. "How long have you been part of the "Young, Widowed and Dating" group? I've just joined the group. I lost my husband Todd to brain cancer in 2014."

(It should be noted, amusingly in retrospect, that the full title of the Facebook group is "SUPPORT GROUP: Young, Widowed & Dating - Not Dating Site" - that is, the purpose of the group is explicitly not for members to solicit dates with other members.)

I enjoy meeting new people, so I responded to EB's message, and we had a very nice chat. Soon, our chats became a regular thing. We became fast friends. As the weeks went by, I began to realize that meeting EB, it just kinda reminded me of, well, meeting Cara. Yet EB lives in Nashville, and I was already dating someone in Cleveland who I liked, so I wasn't intent on pursuing a relationship with EB. It was nice to have someone to discuss the whole "young, widowed, and dating" thing with, though - someone else who really "got it." We both enjoyed sharing some of our dating adventures with each other. We also both enjoyed reading each other's blogs. These glimpses into the inner workings of each other's hearts and minds definitely helped draw us to each other.

Early in April, the woman I was dating and I had a discussion about our future and basically both agreed that, although we really liked each other and enjoyed spending time together, it probably wasn't going to become a serious long-term relationship. We are still friends, for which I'm grateful. It's actually pretty wild to me that, because I had never dated anyone before Cara, this is the first time ever that I've been dating someone for a while, and then ceased to be romantically involved with her, but she's still alive. So I'm definitely glad to still be friends!

Already, even before this conversation, I had been starting to wonder if EB was a better match, but I was reluctant to give up a pretty good thing here in Cleveland for a maybe in Nashville. Now I felt no such reservations - and I had suspected since very early in our friendship that EB might be interested in me - so I went ahead and asked her out. And obviously, as I wouldn't be writing this post otherwise, she said yes! We made plans for me to visit Nashville on the last weekend of April. And it was then that the coincidences began to pile up once more, in shocking fashion.

Shortly after we agreed to try being "more than friends" I was "Facebook stalking" EB and I noticed that she was friends with someone with whom I had three mutual friends - EB, and two other people. Intrigued by this, I looked at this friend's profile. The two other mutual friends were both involved in Cara's lung cancer charity event Breathe Deep Cleveland. I quickly realized that this person who was somehow friends with EB was the niece of one of the lead local organizers of the event and had come from Nashville to the event and led a Zumba warmup before the walk/run. I decided I had to ask EB how she knew her. Imagine my surprise when, on the same day, EB said that she had an amazing story for me!

EB has a four-year-old daughter named Allie. Allie has a nanny. EB was talking to her nanny about me, and when the nanny asked to see a picture of me, EB showed her this picture:

"Is... is he wearing an Afternoon Naps shirt?" Allie's nanny asked.

Afternoon Naps were a local Cleveland band that Cara and I loved. We became friends with the two lead members of the band, Tom and Leia, who even attended our wedding. It turned out that Allie's nanny used to live in Cleveland - and had dated Tom - and had helped design the t-shirt I'm wearing in that picture. Oh, and that picture was taken when Cara and I were in Pittsburgh for a Belle and Sebastian concert at which we saw some of our friends including Tom and Leia - and Allie's nanny was also at that concert.

I was completely flabbergasted at this story. And then I asked EB how she knew the other friend of hers with whom I had a personal connection, the one I had discovered.

EB started laughing.

That other friend? Allie's preschool teacher.

So despite the two of us never having lived anywhere near each other, we share not just one, but two astonishingly unlikely personal connections. And we had each, independently, discovered one of the two connections, and had simultaneously been looking forward to sharing them with each other! We have both spent a lot of time just marveling over these connections and at how our lives came to intersect.

Those weren't the only weird coincidences that happened in April.

At one point in one of our conversations EB asked me what my middle name was. "Michael," I replied, to her surprise, for Michael was also her late husband Todd's middle name. I reasoned with her that this wasn't that strange because Michael is an extremely common name. Then I found out that Allie's middle name is Elaine, given to her because it's EB's mother-in-law's middle name. It's also my mother-in-law's middle name. So okay, those two middle name coincidences taken together? Pretty strange.

Another astonishing coincidence happened in the middle of the month when I received a sympathy card from the vet's office for the recent death of Cara's cat Mitters. When I opened the card, I realized that the text on the inside was very familiar. It was the same text on the cards that were handed out at Cara's funeral. I immediately had to go and find one of those cards. I placed them side by side, verifying that the words were identical.

Then I flipped to the fronts of the cards, and it hit me.

Not only did both cards have identical words, they also both had double rainbows - not just rainbows, but double rainbows - on the front. At this realization, I just broke down laughing. I just laughed and laughed for several minutes. It was all just too much.

A little more than a week later, I was in Columbus and went to visit my mother-in-law Joyce. I told her all about the exciting developments in my life. For by this point in time, although I had still not yet met EB in person, the two of us had grown very, very close, adding near nightly Skype sessions to our communications (something, I might add, that considerably reduced the potential awkwardness of meeting for the first time in person - hooray for technology!). We were both extremely excited for my trip to Nashville and impatient for it to arrive. I also told Joyce about all the recent weird coincidences. The personal connections EB and I discovered. The middle names. The cards for Mitters and Cara (which I brought to show Joyce in person). "Hey, you up there, are you trying to tell me something?" she said, perhaps only partly in jest, looking up at the sky.

Upon telling Joyce that I would be going to Nashville the following weekend, she said that she would be worried, just as she had worried about Cara going to Cleveland. "It's like that Megafaun song, 'Worried Mind'," she said, referencing a song by a band Cara and I liked. (Joyce has an old iPod that we filled with music for her to enjoy.) She went on to sing a snippet of the song.

And here was one of the very strangest coincidences of all the strange coincidences I've experienced. For out of all the more than 10,000 songs that are on my iPod, the one that I was in the middle of listening to when I arrived at my in-laws' place? It was "Worried Mind." (And no, there's no way Joyce could have heard it playing, because when I pulled up she was inside with the door closed, and the windows of my car were rolled up.)

Driving away afterwards, listening to the rest of the song from where I had left off when I parked, I broke down laughing again.

As I remarked to EB later, sometimes it feels like the whole universe is some weird practical joke being played on me.

But wait, there's more!

April 29 brought my trip to Nashville. The date of the trip has an odd significance. It's not completely coincidental, because I noticed it ahead of time and sort of did it on purpose (which is perhaps weird), but objectively speaking, that weekend did make the most sense for my trip, and the fact that the opportunity even presented itself for things to work out this way is rather wild. Anyway, April 29, 2017 was two years and five days from the day Cara died. And EB was born two years and five days after Cara was born. Therefore, when I met EB in person, she was exactly the same age, to the day, as Cara was when Cara was last alive.

Pretty strange, but I'd like to think of it as a good sign.

The trip went amazingly well, as did EB's first visit to Cleveland two weeks later. Finding true love again after having had it and lost it is... really something. It's hard to put into words. It's probably hard to understand if you haven't experienced it yourself. And I feel like it would be nigh impossible to form a connection of such depth with someone who hasn't experienced the things I have. I feel very lucky right now.

There was one more funny coincidence in Nashville. On my last day there, EB suggested we pick up Allie early from preschool and go have ice cream before I departed. She said there was a really good ice cream place called Jeni's. "Is that the Jeni's that's originally from Columbus, Ohio?" I asked.

"... Oh yeah... it is," EB said, a little embarrassed that she had forgotten, for she knew that I had grown up in Columbus, and she said that the main thing she knew about Columbus was that Jeni's was from there.

It was a real trip to walk into the familiar setting of a Jeni's shop while in a city that was completely new to me. And there in the Jeni's in Nashville I was served ice cream by a woman with a tattoo of the state of Ohio on her forearm. I asked her about it and she explained that she was from Ohio. The tattoo was notable because Cara too had a tattoo of Ohio on her forearm.

In fact, I had just shown a picture of that tattoo to EB earlier that day while telling her the story of my own tattoo, which was done by the same tattoo artist as Cara's Ohio tattoo. Jeni's ice cream was something Cara and I enjoyed many times together, including, most notably, after our wedding, while still decked out in our wedding attire. I'd like to think of that encounter with a woman with an Ohio tattoo in that Nashville Jeni's as a little sign from Cara.

I also love that I can share all these stories with EB without feeling the least bit awkward. Cara and Todd are very much a part of our relationship, and it's a very good thing.

April 2017 was probably, all told, the most amazing month of my life. Life is really weird. Right now, it's really weird in a good way.

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...