Saturday, December 2, 2017

The elephant in the room

At a time when evidence is mounting that the sitting president colluded with a hostile foreign power to try to swing the election in his favor (and also that the sitting president is a delusional narcissist whose very presence in the Oval Office could endanger the whole world), one would think that it would be a time for our congressional representatives to take a step back from efforts to pass said president's favored legislation and instead focus on the crisis of governance in the executive branch.

Instead, our GOP Congress is rushing forward with efforts to pass one of the worst pieces of legislation in the history of this country.

Last night, in a total mockery of legislative diligence that would make our Founding Fathers weep, the Senate passed a tax reform bill that was being written and rewritten by corporate lobbyists in the hours leading up to its passing so that it's literally impossible for the senators voting for the bill to have known all of what is in it. But we know enough to know that what's in it is very bad. Corporations and the ultra-wealthy will get massive tax breaks, and millions of middle class families will ultimately end up paying more in taxes to partially offset those massive tax breaks. That's unprecedented in the history of our country - cutting taxes on the very fortunate while simultaneously raising them on the less fortunate. The bill also threatens to destroy the country's health insurance marketplace. It's also projected to add more than a trillion dollars to the federal deficit, proving once and for all that the idea of the GOP as a "fiscally conservative" party is a total sham and concerns over our debt expressed by GOP lawmakers past, present, and future should never be acknowledged as serious.

One of the most telling aspects of just how terrible this bill is is the provision to tax graduate students' tuition waivers as income, which would result in grad students' taxes increasing by several hundred percent. I was a grad student for many years. The stipend a grad student receives for doing research and/or TAing is basically just enough to get by without having to go into debt. It's not a lavish lifestyle. Creating a huge financial disincentive for people to go into research is the exact opposite of what you'd want to do if you want to encourage innovation in this country, which the GOP falsely claims will result from huge corporate tax cuts.

The public isn't being fooled by this scam. Recent polling shows only about one third of the country supports the bill. People are generally opposed to it because they've correctly concluded that it benefits the wealthy and doesn't benefit anyone else. So what does it say about our country and its political system that one political party is so hellbent on passing a plan that is not only terrible (no credible nonpartisan analysis suggests the benefits of the plan will outweigh the harm it causes) but that is also hated by voters?

Sadly, Republicans have realized that they no longer have any reason to try to win over a majority of the public. Donald Trump was elected president despite losing the popular vote. That's because the Electoral College gives disproportionate weight to voters in states with small populations, and voters in states with small populations are disproportionately white and disproportionately Republican-leaning compared to the country as a whole. The same logic applies to the makeup of the Senate, where a voter in Wyoming has about 67 times as much influence on the legislative process of that body as a voter in California. The House of Representatives is massively gerrymandered toward the GOP such that Democrats could win the aggregate national popular vote for House seats by several percentage points and still fail to gain a majority in number of representatives. Plus, in many states Republicans have engaged in massive voter supression efforts targeting demographic groups that tend to vote Democratic, further stacking the deck in the GOP's favor. (To be clear, in-person voter fraud that voter ID laws are supposedly intended to prevent is a virtually nonexistent problem; such laws would be solutions in search of a problem unless one recognized that the actual "problem" from the GOP's point of view is "minorities voting.")

What it all comes down to is that we have a two-party system, and one of those two parties no longer has any inclination toward trying to do things that will benefit most of their constituents. Sure, the influence of corporate money on both political parties is a huge problem, but the Democrats have to try to strike a balance between helping their donors and helping their voters. The Republicans can now focus almost entirely on trying to help their donors, and then count on the heavily tilted electoral landscape plus the powerful influence of right-wing media sources on the minority of voters who make up their base to help keep them in power.

Political moderates, influenced both by news media coverage and by a natural human desire to see the truth as being in the middle, like to blame problems in Washington on "both sides." And I'm by no means saying all or even most of our Democratic elected officials are doing a great job. But the elephant in the room today is the fact that, in our two-party system, one of those two parties has become completely bankrupt both morally and intellectually, and we cannot move forward as a country until that party loses power and is purged of this intellectual and moral bankruptcy. The GOP Congress's continued enabling of Trump and its passing of this horrific tax bill have proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that the modern GOP is a toxic force in our country. The problem is not just Trump. The problem is the Republican Party itself.

I continue to speak up about these things because I care too much to stay silent, but I also feel like I'm largely preaching to the choir. I have little interaction with people of significantly different political views. All my friends who I see regularly already hate Trump and the GOP. It's interesting, because I never made any effort at filtering who I befriended by their political views; it just kind of worked out that way. My job finds me working in a biology research lab, so you aren't going to find a lot of conservatives in a place like that either.

I guess the only people I'm really close with whose political views don't largely align with my own are my parents. I'm so relieved, though, that despite voting Republican more often than not during my lifetime, my parents fully recognize the awfulness of Trump. But as I said, this goes way beyond the awfulness of one man. I hope that people like my parents are waking up to the fact that the GOP itself, not just Trump, is a threat to our country. And that people like my parents, whose circle of friends and acquaintances is not nearly as one-sided politically as my own, are trying to influence the people around them whose views may be less rigid. And to all my friends, I hope that you'll continue to speak out on these issues with people you know both of similar and different political stripes, and make sure you and everyone you know get out to vote next fall. Our country is in bad shape at this moment, and if we can't muster up a mass movement against the party of Trump in the 2018 elections, things are only going to get worse.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

It's a leap of faith


Almost three months ago, I mentioned toward the end of a post about my adventures in Washington, Idaho, and Montana that the week had concluded with me flying home to Cleveland and seeing a Michelle Branch concert at the Grog Shop. "I plan to write about this in an upcoming post," I wrote. Now I'm finally getting around to it, although some parts of the post will be quite different from what I expected!

I got into Michelle Branch when I was in college. It's really interesting to me now how at the time, I had no music by female lead vocalists in my collection. Today the music I listen to is roughly evenly split between male and female lead vocals, but my tastes were different back then. It wasn't that I had a dislike for female singers, though. I just wasn't exposed to them very much in the rock radio I had listened to in middle and high school, and I think there was also a factor at work that society trains boys to avoid "girly" things. (Another "girly" thing that society trains boys to avoid is openly expressing our feelings, which I am glad I have been able to overcome in the last few years.) When I started listening to Michelle Branch her music was something of a "guilty pleasure," I think both because she was a woman and because it was pop music. (The whole concept of certain types of music being "guilty pleasures" is also very interesting to me.)

Anyway, I was pretty into Michelle Branch for a little while. She was even something of a celebrity crush for me, partly aided by the fact that she was born less than two weeks after I was in 1983. The fact that she was a celebrity crush for me greatly amuses me now due to the fact that she is engaged to Black Keys drummer Patrick Carney, who also plays in her band, and Carney is apparently my celebrity doppelganger because several times over the years total strangers have asked me if I've ever been told I look like him. Given the fact that The Black Keys are from Akron, I've wondered if any of those people were secretly wondering if I actually was him.

Patrick Carney and Michelle Branch

Before Michelle Branch gained mainstream success, she released an independent album called Broken Bracelet which I bought after getting into her more popular music. There was one song on the album I especially loved, "Leap of Faith," a beautiful acoustic number about making the leap to fully trust in another person to be your partner in life, that one person you know will always be there for you.


Flash forward several years. I started dating Cara on November 4, 2006, and for the one month anniversary of that first date I made her a mixtape and accompanying very heartfelt letter and mailed them to her. "Leap of Faith" was one of the songs on that mixtape, and became one of the most special to both of us.

Here's the full tracklist of the mixtape with some brief explanations of the songs.

1. Pearl Jam - "Black"
A live recording from the Pearl Jam concert I attended in May of that year, when I called Cara during "Black" so she could listen to it, the first of many times over the years that I did this at concerts.
2. The Decemberists - "Angel, Won't You Call Me?"
This was a reference to our calling each other on the phone, something we joked about in the early days of our friendship, which I've discussed in my blog posts about the game Psychobabble in which we met.
3. Say Hi To Your Mom - "Let's Talk About Spaceships"
4. Neko Case - "That Teenage Feeling"
Referring to how young and innocent our love felt.
5. Goodmorning Valentine - "She Comes Saturday"
This song is by a local band I was very into at the time, with the title a reference to the excitement I felt leading up to Cara's first visit to Cleveland, on Saturday, November 4.
6. Michelle Branch - "Leap of Faith"
7. The Beatles - "I Want to Hold Your Hand"
The moment we first held hands was so special that years later we both, independently of each other, referenced it in the vows we wrote for our wedding.
8. Ben Kweller - "Thirteen"
See "That Teenage Feeling."
9. Death Cab For Cutie - "We Looked Like Giants"
10. Petra Haden - "God Only Knows"
A beautiful solo a cappella cover of the Beach Boys song.
11. Okkervil River - "Seas Too Far to Reach"
This is the song that was announced as "a very special request for Jeff McManus" at the Okkervil River "rarities and requests" show I attended this past summer, Okkervil River frontman Will Sheff having heard the story of Cara and me.

Thanks to my propensity for saving everything, including old AIM chatlogs, I am able today to look at the conversation Cara and I had upon her receiving the mixtape and letter in the mail and listening to the mixtape. I'll share a choice quote from Cara: "This is by far the sweetest thing anyone has ever done for me."

I didn't listen to Michelle Branch a whole lot in the ensuing years, but some time after Cara's death, something inspired me to go back to her music, and I found some of it had taken on very impactful new meanings. For example, her hit song "Breathe" with these lyrics:

If I just breathe
Let it fill the space between
I'll know everything is alright

Song lyrics referencing lungs and/or breathing have always stood out to me since Cara was diagnosed with lung cancer. These particular lyrics reminded me of how Cara described the feeling of taking a breath, and one of her lungs only partially filling up, due to her illness. And then after her treatment was really working for a while, her lungs could once more fill all the way. And for that brief but wonderful time it almost seemed like everything was alright.

There's also the song "Goodbye to You," a breakup song, but I've noticed that many breakup songs contain lyrics that could easily apply to a loved one's death.

Earlier this year Michelle Branch's music took on yet more meaning to me when I listened to her song "Everywhere," and I realized that the lyric "I recognize the way you make me feel" was such an accurate summation of how I felt about EB.

I was very surprised when I saw that Michelle Branch would be playing a show at the Grog Shop, a small venue I've been a frequent patron of over the years. Given all the meaning her music has had to me, I decided it was a show I shouldn't miss. And it was a very good show. She played a good mix of songs from her new album along with her most popular songs from many years ago. The older songs definitely sounded different from the versions you might remember hearing on the radio. They were more rocky, less poppy, and Michelle's vocals were taken down in pitch. The very last time she sang "'Cause you're everywhere to me" in "Everywhere" she took it up to the old high notes, which was a cool little moment. All in all, it was a great night and a great way to wrap up an incredible week. And it's so surreal to look back at that week and think about what has happened in my life since then.

Sometimes you take a leap of faith and someone else takes a leap of faith with you and it works out beautifully.

Sometimes it doesn't.

My getting to know EB felt like an accelerated version of my getting to know Cara, so I'm hopeful that this period of time can be like an accelerated version of the aftermath of my losing Cara. It's become very clear to me that being alone is not for me. I actually began to feel a strong desire to start dating within only four months of Cara's death, but because I had never dated anyone other than Cara, it wasn't easy at first for me to actually go out and try to make that happen. Then, by the time I had worked my way up to being ready to do that, other issues appeared in my life that were much more pressing concerns. When I was so depressed that winter, my being alone made things even worse, but my depression made it basically impossible for me to try to change the fact that I was alone. So there was a considerable delay between when I first felt ready to try dating, and when I actually did try.

I've realized now that the best way to keep myself from being sad all the time is to put myself out there again and hop back into the dating pool, so I'm doing that. It doesn't mean I'm "over" my losses. I don't think I'll ever be completely "over" them (this is most certainly true in the case of Cara, at the very least) but I think I'm pretty good at compartmentalizing my grief and not letting it prevent me from enjoying the companionship of someone else. It may be a while before I'm truly able to take that leap of faith again, but I think I will eventually. I hope I find the right person to take it with me.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Of heartaches and headaches

One day in March 2014 I got a headache. As I usually do when I get a headache, I took some ibuprofen, but it had no effect. The next day, I got the same headache. The day after, the same headache. After this had continued for a week or two, I went to the student health clinic. While being examined, one question I was asked was whether I was experiencing a lot of stress. I answered that I was very busy working on my PhD thesis, and also that my wife had lung cancer. So I suppose I was experiencing a lot of stress.

As has happened with many chronic pain issues I've experienced, I ended up seeing multiple different doctors, and no definitive cause for the pain was identified, nor was any effective treatment found. Eventually, months later, the headaches just started to bother me less, and eventually mostly went away. Within those months, though, I did at times experience some pretty awful pain.

One day that I remember in particular was April 29. (Other significant events that have occurred on the 29th of April in the years since: Cara's funeral and my first date with EB. Huh.) Cara, my dad, and I went to an Arcade Fire concert at the Schottenstein Center in Columbus. The band encouraged concertgoers to dress up in formal attire or costumes for the dates on that tour, and I fondly remember Cara dressing in this wild getup:


I also fondly remember how much Cara and my dad enjoyed the concert, but the truth was, I had an excruciating headache that evening and it mostly ruined my own ability to enjoy the concert.

There was one good thing that came out of me getting those chronic headaches, though. The multitude of chronic pain issues I've experienced can broadly be divided into two categories: pain related to sports injuries (knee, ankle, and hip) and pain not related to sports injuries (everything else). When the main form of pain I'm experiencing is from the first category, it limits the types and amounts of exercise I can do without the pain getting too bad. When the main form of pain I'm experiencing is from the second category, exercising a lot generally helps me feel better. To help manage my headaches, I started running more, and I ended up running more in the year 2014 than I have in any other year since 2009, which was basically the last year of my serious running career due to an accumulation of multiple injuries. It was still a minuscule amount by my old standards (I ran about 120 miles in the entire year, with my peak for a single month being about 30; in the year 2004 I ran about 2100 miles), but I discovered that even on that relatively tiny volume I could get into pretty good shape. Not able to run nearly as fast as I once had, but able to run faster than the vast majority of participants in a typical road race. Cara had always been my biggest fan and that year, in what would be the last year of her life, she got to see me participate in a 5k road race in which I finished second place the day before my graduation, and then in August during my family's annual Adirondacks vacation in my first and only triathlon. She was very proud of me, as these screenshots from her Facebook attest.




I'm glad I got to do those races and that Cara got to watch me. That might not have happened if I hadn't been suffering from chronic headaches that year. I guess it's one of those "when life gives you lemons" situations.

By the way, one day in December of that year I went for a perfectly ordinary run and for reasons that remain a mystery to me my left hip started hurting a lot, and ever since then I've been able to do practically zero distance running without incurring significant hip pain. I've still been able to enjoy other activities like hiking and riding bikes, but in recent months I gained new motivation to try to work my way toward being able to do some quantity of distance running in the future. The reason for this was that EB's daughter (whose name and images I have been asked to remove from my posts for future privacy concerns, which I understand and respect) and I loved running with each other. Oh my god, it absolutely breaks my heart to think about the excited way she would exclaim, "C'mon, Jeffy!" and take off running...

So what this post has been leading up to is that one night early last week, a very restless night in bed, I suddenly felt a familiar pain in my forehead. I eventually got to sleep. The next morning, the headache returned. And it has every day since. It hasn't gotten into the "excruciating pain" zone (something I hope will continue to be true) but it has been the most irritating physical pain I've experienced in a while, which is unfortunate.

My mom has theorized that my chronic pain issues have been closely related to emotional trauma I've experienced. I have been skeptical of this, because looking over the whole history of chronic pain issues I've experienced, there is no real correlation between the timing of them and the timing of emotionally traumatic events. (There is definitely a connection between emotional and physical pain, in that when you are experiencing both, they feed back onto each other, and your perception of both becomes worse, but it doesn't necessarily follow that the physical pain was initially caused by emotional pain.) For this particular issue, I am now convinced of the causative relationship. I have learned in the last two years that at least some of my pain issues have been related to excess muscle tension. Perhaps this is another case of that, and perhaps a face that is frequently wearing distressed and sad expressions has more muscle tension.

Well, it's another challenge.

There is still part of me when I write things like this that worries I'm trying to throw a pity party for myself and I shouldn't complain so much because I know there are a lot of people who have worse problems in their lives and aren't as visible about them. But it does help me to write about and share these issues. At a very basic level, when I'm intensely focused on writing something, it's a distraction from pain. I also think that working through these issues in writing helps me to better understand what I'm experiencing. And I also think that sharing them with everyone makes me feel less alone.

As well, I'd like to think that it could be good for other people who may be experiencing similar things to read someone else's writing about such experiences. My friend Deena (website/blog here), a wonderful person, is very open about mental health issues she's experienced and continues to experience and is a tremendous advocate for mental health awareness, and I've seen a lot of people express gratitude to her for speaking out. It's not easy to open up like that, and if you aren't able to, that doesn't mean there's something wrong with you. But if you are able to, I think it's a very good thing to do.

Monday, November 6, 2017

Wait for the light to come back on

The first time I saw the band Typhoon live, September 21, 2013, was about four weeks after I found out that Cara had cancer.

Yesterday I saw Typhoon for the fourth time. It was about four weeks after... well, you know. Funny how the timing of that worked out.

Shortly after Cara died, I wrote a blog post entitled Typhoon lyrics that make me think of Cara. In it I described the special meaning the band's music had taken on to me during Cara's battle with lung cancer. Typhoon's songs are largely inspired by lead singer Kyle Morton's near death experience from Lyme disease and the continuing effects of that disease on his life. Lyrics pondering our mortality and place in the universe backed by lushly orchestrated, complex folk-rock arrangements that are alternately raucous and tender make for really moving stuff. As I watched my wife be ravaged by a horrible disease and yet continue to face the world with an indomitable spirit, Typhoon's music spoke directly into my soul. Now, two and a half years since I wrote that blog post, the Portland, Oregon-based indie rock band has become even more meaningful to me. I find it a good opportunity to reflect back on the four times I've seen the band live (and the one time I was going to see them but then didn't) and the important events that were going on in my life at each of those points in time.

By total coincidence, I started listening to Typhoon at about the same time Cara was diagnosed. Earlier that summer I had noticed the band on the upcoming events calendar at my favorite music venue, the Beachland Ballroom and Tavern, and thought they looked interesting. By the time September 21 rolled around, Cara had been hospitalized, diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer, released from the hospital after a roughly one-week stay, then hospitalized again due to a buildup of fluid around her lungs that required surgery, and released again after another week. It was a total whirlwind and I was an emotional wreck. I remember standing in the packed Beachland Tavern and gawking at the eleven members of the band as they packed themselves and their instruments onto that tiny stage. And then the awe-inspiring performance, and me hearing lyrics like Count down the time that you have left, in a jar try to catch try and capture it and wondering to myself how much time Cara had left.

In the six months that followed between that show and my next Typhoon concert (on March 29, 2014), Cara's health took another even more dramatic downturn, but then miraculously turned around thanks to a clinical trial drug she started taking. Looking back at Cara's Facebook, I marvel at the things that were going on that week. On March 28 Cara rode in the Critical Mass bike ride for the first time since before her diagnosis. "I am slow. Holy shit, am I slow now," she wrote. "As I crept up the Lorain-Carnegie bridge I was reminded of how very slow I am. It's going to take some time to pick up speed again - my legs were on fire the whole time tonight but I would not change a damn thing about the ride. I've missed riding my bike."


Cara also posted that week about her "scanxiety" over her upcoming scans at the hospital. The scans, as it turned out, contained very good news, giving Cara considerable hope (and even me a more guarded hope) that her disease could be beaten.

On March 29, the day of the concert, Cara and I went to the West Side Market together, an outing we enjoyed many times over the years. That evening a massive snow storm hit Cleveland. I braved treacherous streets to make the drive to the Beachland for a show there was no way I was going to miss. Having still been new to Typhoon the first time I saw them, in the months since their music had captured my soul. I never told Cara just how much Typhoon meant to me, because explaining how would have meant explaining to her my constant thoughts of the possibility of her dying. I remember standing in the crowded Beachland Ballroom (the larger of two rooms at the venue; the band's audience had expanded considerably over those six months) and tears forming in my eyes as the opening notes of "Artificial Light" began Typhoon's set.

The first opening band that night was another Portland-based indie band called Wild Ones. That's an important part of this story, but the reason why would not become evident until a year and a half later. So I'll get back to that.

For my third Typhoon concert, I traveled to Ann Arbor, Michigan on September 6, 2014. At this point in time, Cara was receiving traditional chemotherapy, the clinical trial drug having lost effectiveness at controlling some of her cancer several months earlier. That scan in late March ended up being the best scan news we ever got. But Cara was still hopeful, and her positive attitude helped carry me. I had dinner with my good friends Adam and Jackie at their house in Ann Arbor that evening. Cara was not interested in going to the concert (she rarely felt up to going to concerts during her treatment), but would have liked to join me in visiting our friends, except that she was actually working at her job on that Saturday! I had a nice visit with Adam and Jackie, enjoyed another amazing Typhoon concert, and then drove the three hours back to Cleveland to get back to my Cara very late at night.

Typhoon's music continued to be there for me for the remainder of the roller coaster that was Cara's treatment for and eventual succumbing to lung cancer. And then, after keeping all those thoughts and feelings about their music and what it meant to me all to myself for those many months, just a week after she died I wrote that blog post. And that was the beginning of a massive transformation I underwent as a result of my experience with Cara, a transformation from a very reserved person who rarely shared his innermost feelings with others into someone who finds sharing of those feelings with the world a vital way to cope with and work through the enormous weight of my life experiences. I guess when I have one person with whom I can share everything, and then I don't have that, the result is that there are some things I want to share with everyone.

Later in 2015, Typhoon announced they'd be playing a special tenth anniversary concert in Portland that December. I decided that I would go.

On September 29, I saw Wild Ones (here's where that band, or specifically one of its members, takes on significance) play a show in Cleveland. It was, in fact, exactly one and a half years since the last time I saw Typhoon in Cleveland, which is extra funny because my friends Tom and Jeff were at both of those shows, and Tom's birthday is March 29 whereas Jeff's is September 29. At the show I got to talk to the band and mentioned having seen them open for Typhoon and how I was a big Typhoon fan too. They said they were also big Typhoon fans, as well as friends of the members of Typhoon.

Not long after, I was in Washington DC for a conference and I happened to notice that Wild Ones were playing a show there on a night I had free. I thought it would be fun and funny to go see them again and so I did, wearing my Typhoon t-shirt. After they played I went to the merch table to chat and Danielle Sullivan, the band's lead singer, looked at my shirt and said, "Hey, nice shirt," and then as she looked at my face, recognition dawned and she exclaimed, "You came to see us again!"

I explained how I was in town for a conference, and then decided that since she was a friend of Typhoon I'd like to talk to her about what Typhoon's music meant to me. So I did, and she seemed very moved by my words. I also asked her what Kyle (Typhoon's lead singer), was like in person, as he is someone I greatly admire. I remember she smiled a bemused smile and said, "He's probably the very best person I know."


So imagine my surprise when some months later I saw a news update from Typhoon, and it included in it the little fact that Kyle and Danielle were getting married!!

I realized that all the things I had been telling her, about all the personal meaning Typhoon's music had to me - it was even more personally meaningful to her. It was a powerful realization.

At that show in DC I also mentioned to Danielle that I was planning to go to the Typhoon show in December. She said she'd be there and maybe she would see me.

I ended up not going to that show.

It was only a few weeks after the Wild Ones show in DC that a horrific recurrence of an old chronic pain issue began and I became very depressed. As the Typhoon show approached, I debated whether I would still go, because I was worried my pain would prevent me from enjoying the trip. I was beginning to make some progress at combating the pain by engaging in large quantities of vigorous exercise. I decided I would go, although I still had reservations. Then, a few days before the trip, I badly strained a leg muscle while playing basketball, putting me on crutches, and also preventing me from exercising while the injury healed, causing my pain and depression to worsen again. I canceled the trip and it was one of the very lowest moments of my entire life.

As controlling my pain became the topmost priority in my life, Typhoon's music took on even more meaning to me, as I could relate to much of the content not only in relation to Cara's battle with cancer, but also in relation to my own health issues. The lyrics of "Common Sentiments," in particular, spoke to me:

When am I gonna feel better?
When am I gonna feel better?

When am I gonna feel better?
I have been patient for a long time now

And the haunting climax of the song, a repeating and building chorus:

I will be good though my body be broken...

In the year that followed, my life turned completely around for the better. On September 18, 2016, inspired by thoughts of everything I had overcome and how Typhoon's music had been there for me through it all, I drew the cover art for the band's phenomenal album White Lighter, along with a personally meaningful song lyric, at the Cleveland Museum of Art's annual chalk festival:


On the same day, not long after I completed that drawing, my good friend Shelli was hit by a car and nearly killed while riding her bicycle in Montana. It was another one of the most emotionally traumatic events I've experienced in my personal life, and my drawing quickly took on additional symbolic meaning to me.

Now moving on to this year: had it continued on the course of the first nine months, 2017 looked like it was going to be the best year of my entire life. A few months ago Typhoon, who have not toured since 2014, announced another tenth anniversary show in Portland, this for the anniversary of their record label Tender Loving Empire. Again, I decided I'd go to the show.

Again, in between my making plans to go to Portland for a Typhoon show, and the actual date of the show, something really bad happened to me.

This time I did not cancel the trip.

I arrived in Portland on November 4, which just happened to be the eleventh anniversary of my first date with Cara. In tribute to her, I went to Voodoo Doughnut - Cara talked many times about how she'd like to visit Portland, and how Voodoo Doughnut was a Portland destination she'd like to experience. She never did get to go.


For the first part of the trip I was mostly feeling despondent. The chilly, gloomy weather did not help. The forecast for November 5, the day of the concert, showed a lot of rain. But that morning, the forecast had completely changed. Although still not at all warm, it turned out to be quite a nice day. A nice day for a long walk. As I began the walk, I was still feeling pretty down. I walked a big loop of streets and trails that took me through lush Pacific Northwest forests, the majestic Hoyt Arboretum, and the beautiful Japanese Garden.

at the arboretum

On the way back into downtown, in much better spirits than I had been that morning, I also stopped at a record store and then to grab some pizza. That night, I walked to and from the concert venue (1.5 miles each way). All told, I probably walked at least 13 miles on the day, and there really is something to be said for the ability of exercise to help one's mood.

When I was out to dinner before the concert the most amazing thing happened. I was sitting at the bar of the restaurant, finishing up my dinner, and then I glanced over at a table not far from me, and... Is that Kyle Morton?

I wasn't sure. The Typhoon frontman isn't particularly notable in physical appearance. But then I looked to the woman sitting next to him, and it was definitely Danielle. They were sitting with three other people who I think were family. I finished off my food. They looked to be ordering theirs. I guessed that Danielle would probably remember me from two years ago because in retrospect it had been a meaningful conversation for both of us, so I thought, What the heck, I'll go say hi.

Danielle did remember me. I got to talk briefly to both her and Kyle (who I had not previously met). I told Kyle about what his music meant to me, and he, too, seemed very moved. I also told the story about my talking to Danielle and asking her what Kyle was like in person, and what she had said in response, which they both clearly enjoyed hearing. I received hugs from both. I left the restaurant smiling and laughing to myself and thinking something I've thought many times in the last few years: Wow, I have a pretty amazing life.

The Typhoon show (which also featured excellent opening sets by Jared Mees and Loch Lomond) was another magical experience. It was actually the first show Typhoon had played since that show in 2015 that I was going to go to and then didn't, and at the same venue, Revolution Hall, to boot. Kyle commented on this and how it seemed, being up there on that stage again, almost like they had been frozen in time for the last two years. This led me to contemplate my life over those two years, and how the position I'm in now is in many ways similar but also in many ways different to two years ago.


Numerous moments in the band's songs hit me as usual, some in the same ways as before and some in new ways. (From "Hunger and Thirst": It occurs to me that I have spent my whole life just starting over.) During the show, I also enjoyed observing the reactions the people around me had to the music. Live music can be a very spiritual experience, and that's true for Typhoon more than for most artists. One woman I noticed seemed to be utterly captivated and near tears during one of the songs. And if I positioned my head just right, I could catch glimpses of Danielle gazing up at her husband.

Rather than opening the show like at previous Typhoon shows I'd attended, "Artificial Light" was the final song of this performance. There's a particular part of the song that has always made me think of Cara ever since I first heard it:

I woke up in the morning
To a pale light tangled in your hair
And I never wake before you
But this time I caught you sleeping there
Yes, you are my sunlight
You are my last breath of air
I would try to hold it
I would try to keep the moment
Like a photograph of the sunset
Like a little kid with a bug net
Like a dying man, I swear

As Kyle went into these lines, his eyes turned meaningfully toward Danielle, something a casual observer wouldn't have noticed but that was obvious to me. The loving way they looked at each other in that moment was such a beautiful thing.

And I also must mention the moment in the show when Kyle looked to me, and said, "I want to give a shout-out to our friend Jeff who came here all the way from Cleveland, Ohio! I see you out there!"

Kyle Morton of Typhoon and Will Sheff of Okkervil River are my two most admired music artists and two of my most admired people period, and in the last few months I've gotten special shout-outs from both of them at their shows. How many people get to say something like that?

Between the great walk, and getting to talk to Danielle and Kyle, and the wonderful Typhoon show, as I walked back to my hotel I realized that it had truly been one of the most amazing days of my entire life.

That doesn't mean everything in my life is okay now. Far from it. But wow, what a great thing to happen at a time when I really needed it.

Thursday, November 2, 2017

Post mortem

I've seen a number of posts on online support groups for widows in which people complain about incidents when someone says they can relate to being widowed because they are divorced.

I can understand the frustration. There are obviously distinct differences between being divorced and being widowed. But there are also similarities. You thought you'd be spending the rest of your life with a certain special someone, and now that turns out not to be true, and you have to adjust to your new life.

I wouldn't advise that people use the "I can relate; I went through a divorce" line when trying to console widows. It's much better to simply provide a sincere offer of friendship and of being there for the person in any way you can. But on the other side, I think that widows who do hear that line should try to be a little more understanding and less judgmental.

A lot of those posts seem to have an undertone of "How dare you trivialize my loss by comparing it to being divorced?" But the truth is, the end of a relationship for reasons other than death can be as painful as the end of a relationship due to death. Unless someone has been both widowed and divorced, they can't really say which, if either, is worse, and even then it would of course only apply to their own specific set of circumstances.

On October 9, a date that will likely go alongside April 24 in my personal list of significant milestone dates, I was completely blindsided when EB told me she thought we should break up. I was quickly reminded of two previous events in my life: Cara's diagnosis with lung cancer, and Cara's death. Cara's diagnosis with lung cancer was incredibly shocking and horrific... but at least she was still there and still my partner in life and we could both be there to support each other as best we could. Cara's death was incredibly painful and sad... but at least I had had a considerable amount of time to prepare myself for the possibility of that tragedy unfolding.

This breakup wasn't even a divorce, obviously, because EB and I weren't married, nor were we even officially engaged, but we had both expressed to each other numerous times that we intended to spend our lives together. From my point of view, this came completely out of nowhere, and it feels like EB suddenly became a different person and that my EB, the EB I knew and loved, died. So I quickly came to feel that this sudden loss of a life partner, and that constant presence of love and support and friendship, might be even more painful than Cara's diagnosis or Cara's death. I also thought, maybe it's just the initial shock, and I won't feel the same after more time goes by. But now, several weeks out and as finality has settled in, I'm pretty sure I do still feel that way.

There is, of course, another factor here that was not a part of my loss of Cara.

I have come to love [redacted] as if she were my own child. That's something that EB went out of her way to encourage throughout the course of our relationship. I don't say that because I want to make EB look bad, and I debated whether I should include that line at all in this post, but my purpose in writing this blog is to give people a real and raw insight into my life, the good and the bad. It helps me for other people to know "how I really feel," and I'm hopeful that it could be beneficial to other people as well. And I've come to realize that my loving [redacted] like a child of my own, encouraged by EB, is probably the single most pertinent point one must understand in order to understand the trauma I'm now experiencing. Because I haven't just lost a life partner. I also feel like I've lost a child, and taking the two losses together, like I've lost a family. It's really awful. Every time I see a young child, I'm reminded of [redacted], and it tears at my heart.

Making the whole thing even more painful is that it does all come in the aftermath of my previous devastating loss of Cara, and after all my hard fought efforts to rebuild my life through my grief over Cara and through everything else I've been through since then. And yet another way in which this loss could be more painful is that I am able to look back fondly on all my wonderful memories of Cara without those memories being tainted in any way by what happened after. That's not the case here.

I'm sure everyone is wondering what happened. I don't feel it's my place to publicly go into great detail, but I feel comfortable sharing that EB said she realized she just wasn't ready for this and she might never be ready. Hey, being a widow isn't easy. I certainly know that myself. I feel bad for EB. I also feel bad for me. I feel bad for everyone involved!

Almost two years ago, in a blog post about my experiences with chronic pain that I wrote during a horrific recurrence of one particular chronic pain condition that began about half a year after Cara's death, I wrote, "I think a lot of people have been pretty amazed at how well I've seemed to handle [my loss of Cara]. That I was able to do so well is, I think, in large part due to the great example that Cara set in how to deal with tremendous adversity. But I think it's also partly because the aftermath of Cara's death was, in fact, not the worst period of time that I've experienced in my life."

Well, here's another entry for my personal list of "things that have happened to me that are more painful than my wife dying of cancer." It's unique, though, in that it's the only entry on that list that is not an episode of severe chronic pain. And I should remind myself that this breakup, like Cara's death, is not the most painful thing I've experienced.

I'll close this entry by mentioning that the morning after the breakup, another remarkably unlikely and bizarre coincidence joined the long list of unlikely and bizarre coincidences that have happened in my life. When I was backing my car out of my driveway, the song "All Your Favorite Bands" by the band Dawes came on the radio. EB and I went to a Dawes concert for our first date. I consider this coincidence particularly unlikely because it was the only time since (at the very least) that first date that I have heard Dawes on the radio. I know this because I would undoubtedly have made note of any other such occurrence. It was another one of those moments that would have seemed utterly contrived and hokey had it happened in a movie, except that it really happened in my real life. Lyrics selection from the song:

I hope that life without a chaperone is what you thought it’d be
I hope your brother’s El Camino runs forever
I hope the world sees the same person that you’ve always been to me
And may all your favorite bands stay together

My favorite band was EB, [redacted], and Jeffy.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

"I love everyone in the world" (The wonderful heart of a child)

We were all sitting around my parents' dining table - me, EB, [redacted], my mom, my dad, my brother, and my aunt - and were digging into a delicious steak dinner when little [redacted] piped up to point out that "We forgot to say a blessing!"

When asked if she would like to do the honors, [redacted] began, "Dear God, thank you for Jeffy, and Mommy, and..." and she proceeded to give thanks for each person sitting around the table, and also for the food we were eating, but it was something else she said in the midst of giving thanks that really stood out.

"I love everyone in the world."

The more I have gotten to know [redacted], the more amazed and inspired I am by what a big heart resides inside that precious four-and-a-half-year-old girl.

When [redacted] meets someone new, she is usually very shy at first. But it doesn't take long for that shyness to pass. And when a new person comes into her life and treats her with love, she returns that love many times over. She makes sure that person knows how loved they are. She'll spontaneously launch herself at friends or family members to give them ferociously intense hugs. (Recently she did this while I wasn't looking and knocked me onto my back from my seated position on the floor!) EB is the most frequent target of [redacted]'s affections (I adore [redacted]'s random proclamations of "I love you, Mama!") but [redacted] is always sure to spread the love around. When we were leaving my parents' house after our Labor Day weekend visit, [redacted] gave each person there a drawing she had made that weekend. On the back of mine, she wrote my name and her name and drew several hearts around them. This has become a common practice for her and it's so incredibly sweet.

[redacted]'s caring spirit is not limited to people she knows. One of the most amazing things that happened over the weekend came in the bounce house that had been rented for the annual block party on the street where I grew up. [redacted] spent a lot of time jumping around in the bounce house and it was a joy for me to see her joy. My favorite part, though, was her interaction with a younger boy who ventured into the bounce house that was mostly occupied by larger (5-8-ish) children. Some of the play was pretty wild, and some tears were shed after collisions, although no serious injuries occurred. Realizing that the risk was greatest for the smallest child there, [redacted] immediately took it upon herself to watch after the little boy. She gave him gentle guidance to be careful in the bounce house. She kept an eye on him when he was in there. She helped him up when he fell. After one fall (not a serious one), she reached out to him and with love and concern in her voice said the sweetest, most adorable thing: "Are you all right, little fella?"

Although the number of people in the world is far too large for [redacted] to grasp, I fully believe her when she says that she loves everyone in the world. Love comes easily to young children. It's much more natural than hate. [redacted], though, stands out with her huge capacity for caring and love and affection. One thing that I have been so struck by in my time with [redacted] is the amazing sponge-like quality of young children's minds and the way they take in everything they see and experience and reflect that back into the world. [redacted]'s bigheartedness is a tremendous affirmation of what a wonderful person EB is, for EB has been by far the largest influence on [redacted], and [redacted] would not have such a loving nature if she had not had a great example to follow.

We should all consider this when we spend time with children. It breaks my heart to think of the children who are growing up in households where a person who mocks the disabled, brags about grabbing women by the pussy, and dehumanizes immigrants (to name just a few items from a depressingly long list) is considered someone to be admired. Love comes more naturally to children than hate, but if they are inundated with demonstrations of hate, that's going to be hard to overcome. As much as we can, we need to demonstrate love and compassion to all the children we meet, whether they are our own or strangers. Every significant interaction with a child is a powerful opportunity to help shape what sort of person that child becomes.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Many travels, little rest

At the Travelers' Rest music festival I recently attended with EB in Missoula, Montana, I found myself pondering alternate realities.

If I had never met EB, I would likely have been at the festival by myself. I'm sure that I still would have had a great time. Going back much farther in time to another branch point between alternate realities, if Cara had never gotten cancer, there's a good chance I would have been at the festival with her.

It's interesting to think about these things, but I'm glad to say that the reality I inhabit is mostly a happy one.

When indie folk/rock band The Decemberists (whose lead singer Colin Meloy hails from Missoula) announced they were hosting a two-day music festival at the Big Sky Brewing Amphitheater in Montana's largest city, headlining both days and bringing in a great supporting lineup, it was an easy decision for me to go. I've been a Decemberists fan for many years. I had previously seen the band on four occasions, and each one was a very memorable experience. The first time I saw them was in October 2005 at the Odeon in Cleveland; I had just recently gotten into concertgoing and it was one of the most fun shows yet. The second came in November 2006 at the Agora in Cleveland. It was less than a week after I started dating Cara, and during the show, I called her when the band played "Red Right Ankle" so she could listen.

The third time I saw the Decemberists live was memorable for negative reasons. The April 23, 2011 show was on the indoor stage at the LC Pavilion in Columbus; Cara attended with me, but because the audience was so annoyingly chatty she got fed up and left halfway through the band's set. I didn't leave, but the chattiness put a big damper on the experience for me too. I remember well exiting the venue to find Cara waiting for me outside. I mentioned this experience, contrasting it to the much smaller but much more attentive audience at the Rural Alberta Advantage show I attended the next night, in a blog post. That RAA show was on April 24, 2011 - that is, exactly four years before Cara's death. It's so surreal to look back on things that occurred on those significant dates before they were significant dates.

I also reviewed the Decemberists show Cara and I attended at Nautica Pavilion in July of that year, the month after we got married. That was another very memorable show but in this case for a wonderful reason - the giant cargo ship that coincidentally floated down the Cuyahoga River behind the venue's stage in perfect timing with "The Mariner's Revenge Song" was surreal and awesome and left me giddy.

When I bought my ticket for Travelers' Rest (named for the nearby historic site where Lewis and Clark camped on their expedition), EB and I were already online friends, but were not yet dating. I'm delighted that things proceeded in the way they did, that I was able to procure a second ticket some time later via StubHub, and that the two of us were able to time our travels so that we met up at Midway Airport in Chicago on the evening of Friday, August 11 and then proceeded together to Spokane, Washington - the beginning of one of the most exciting weeks of my entire life.

The following day we drove to Missoula, stopping for lunch in the little town of Wallace, Idaho, where the annual Accordion Jubilee happened to be taking place, kicking off a wonderful weekend of musical festivities!

Montana is known as the Big Sky State, but as we drove on we noticed that the sky was not "big" at all; visibility was quite limited due to a thick haze created by recent forest fires in the area. When we arrived at the amphitheater, the sky was very strange. At times the sun, a bright orange circle, was visible through the haze, but other than that, the sky was all a monochrome gray, and none of the mountains that one would normally see from that vantage point were visible. It was like being enclosed in some sort of eerie dome, and I remarked to EB that I thought the atmosphere felt apocalyptic. Like outside of our little dome, the world could have ended and we wouldn't know.

Although of course our phones could be used to verify that the rest of the world was intact.

And of course current events, which many of the festival's artists gave brief mention to, also helped provide that apocalyptic flavor.

The festival was a nice way to escape - well, mostly escape - from that disturbing reality.

The Decemberists closed off the proceedings on both nights with absolutely stellar sets, repeating no songs between the two setlists. As a longtime fan of the band it was an absolute thrill, a wonderful selection of highlights from their large and varied catalog. Several of the songs ("Red Right Ankle" among them) recalled poignant memories of me and Cara. I became very emotional on multiple occasions, and was glad that I had EB there to lean on.

I was overjoyed when the band closed the first night with "The Tain," an epic (single track with five different movements in 18+ minutes) EP that they released in 2004. It's what one might call a "deep cut" from the band's catalog, not one that most casual fans would know. You see, at that show that Cara left early in disgust, the band opened the show with "The Tain," and Cara and I were initially excited, but quickly became exasperated and infuriated as most of the people around us loudly carried on with their conversations and made it nigh impossible for us to enjoy the band's performance. Now I was in an amphitheater full of true Decemberists fans and everyone was there to watch the band play. That makes the concertgoing experience so much better, and I thought of how thrilled Cara would have been to finally see "The Tain" performed in a proper environment.

On day two, an early to mid afternoon rain shower (very welcome in an area experiencing a drought) cleared out some of the haze. A brief heavier rainfall accompanied our arrival to the venue, but it quickly subsided, and weather conditions were quite nice for the rest of the day. I asked EB if she would be up for going to stand in the pit for some of the highlight performances, the Decemberists included (on the first night we stayed on the lawn). She was all for it. I have to say, it really drove home to me how much difference it makes to be up close and personal to performing artists. That's something I usually try to do at shows, but for some strange reason, I had always been rather far away from the stage at every previous Decemberists show I'd attended. The first night of Travelers' Rest was magical, but being close to the stage and surrounded by other fans who were as passionate as me took the second night to a whole nother joyous level. Best of all was the raucous encore, featuring "The Chimbley Sweep" and "The Mariner's Revenge Song" and taking me back to that very first Decemberists show I attended almost twelve years ago when the same two songs were performed in the encore!


Before playing the fan favorite "Mariner's Revenge Song," Colin Meloy always provides (undoubtedly familiar to most members of this particular audience) instructions that, at the appropriate time in the song, band member Chris Funk will give a signal, and then we audience members will all scream at the top of our lungs as if we are being devoured by a giant whale. And then, before the song begins, we practice. Funk holds his arms out and brings them together to mime a giant set of jaws closing. We all scream. This was old hat for me, but EB had never experienced it before. It was fun to see her have that experience.

As the band started up the jaunty intro to the epic revenge tune from their classic 2005 album Picaresque (my introduction to the band), I thought of all the previous times I'd seen the song performed. That included, in fact, every previous Decemberists concert I'd been to, except the previous night's. Best of all was that magical experience at my last Decemberists concert with Cara. Emotions surged inside me.

When the appropriate time came, EB and I joined in with the rest of the exuberant throng in a chorus of high-pitched screaming. And then the whale came out on stage.


(I was very in the moment and did not feel like taking my phone out for a picture; this is from another Decemberists show and I found it on a blog called I Just Read About That.)

EB reacted audibly in surprise and disbelief, and I loved her reaction, because I could remember oh those many years ago when I myself first laid eyes on a similar sight at my first Decemberists concert.

As the song reached its conclusion, the whale was actually crowdsurfed, adding a wonderful extra bit of whimsy to an already wonderful experience. All in all, it was quite easily one of the best concerts I've ever attended.

The trip to the festival would have been worth it for the two Decemberists performances alone, but the rest of the lineup provided several additional highlights. The secondary headlining artists (performing before the Decemberists on days one and two, respectively), The Head and the Heart and Belle and Sebastian, are two other bands whose music I've enjoyed for many years. Belle and Sebastian were meaningful not only to me and Cara but to EB and Todd as well. This was EB's first time seeing them live, and I was so happy she could have that experience. The Head and the Heart's performance made me very emotional in a way I hadn't anticipated, but it made sense. The only previous time I had seen them, they opened for the Decemberists at that spectacular last Decemberists show with Cara. I realized that I strongly associate the music from their first album with that summer of 2011, the summer when I got married, which was the happiest time in my life (now joined by the last few months!).

Julien Baker, the first main stage artist on day two, also gave a mesmerizing performance. Just one small woman by herself with her guitar, she was dwarfed by the huge stage on which she stood, but her powerful voice easily filled up the space. At one point between songs she remarked on how she was "so grateful" to be there. I shared the sentiment.


The Travelers' Rest festival was an experience I'm glad to say I'll always carry with me, but it was also just the beginning of an incredible week.

EB and I had been planning to find a hike to do on Monday somewhere between Missoula and Spokane (she was flying out of Spokane very early Tuesday morning), but on Sunday night EB suggested we make a day trip up to Glacier National Park, where she had been once with her family as a teenager. I was initially skeptical of the idea because of the huge amount of extra driving it would involve relative to the amount of time we'd be at the park, but she talked me into it, and I'm glad she did. We went on a great hike to Avalanche Lake. Early in the hike we passed a gorge with stunningly clear water rushing through picturesque rock walls that had been carved out and smoothed by the water over many millennia.




What awaited us at the end point of the out-and-back trail was far more stunning; in fact, I told EB it was "one of the most amazing things I've seen in my life."


This picture really doesn't do the sight justice, but it's the best I have. Something about the way those three thin waterfalls traversed their way down that massive rock face and the sheer scale of it all and the colors and the clear, cold water (which we couldn't resist "resting our toesies in" as EB and [redacted] like to say) was so captivating. We lingered there for some time as a cool, light rain fell onto the otherwise pristine lake surface and onto our heads. Once more, like at the festival, I felt very grateful to be there in that moment.

We returned to our rental car but did not yet begin the long drive to Spokane. Instead we continued farther into the park, along the unbelievably scenic "Going-to-the-Sun Road," retracing a route EB had traveled many years ago.

She told me that she liked traveling with me to places she had been before. I remarked that we had not yet traveled together to any places I had previously traveled - but then added that, although not a geographic location, going to a Decemberists concert had been like going to a place I had been before!

After reaching a visitor center by the continental divide, we got out, looked around, bought a couple of souvenirs for [redacted], and took stock of our situation. We had a long, long drive ahead of us. We would be reaching Spokane very late. I thought perhaps it had been crazy of us to attempt such a trip. Perhaps it was. But I'm glad we did it.

We reached Spokane after 11 pm (despite gaining an hour from the change in time zones) and EB's flight was at 6 am the next morning. (Hence the title of this blog post!) While EB would be flying back to Nashville, I had much more driving in store. Tuesday found me spending another 6 hours in the car as I drove to Mt. Rainier National Park to join my family. Several spectacular vistas along the way made the long drive anything but monotonous.





The last of these pictures is Mt. Rainier, the anchor point of the park that was my destination. I remember my jaw dropped at each of these sights. The American West really is full of awe-inspiring natural beauty in a way that is not quite true of the part of the country where I've lived my whole life (not that we don't have a lot of wonderful outdoors around here!).

More spectacular hiking awaited me at Rainier.



After a too short stay, my very busy visit to the Northwest concluded with a trip to Seattle to visit my friend Shelli Snyder who was struck by a car while riding her bicycle across the country last year and nearly died.

In fact, EB and I drove past the site of the crash, near Glacier National Park. A Bike Cleveland "Watch For Bikes, Save A Life" sign still stands next to the road there.

It was the first time I'd seen Shelli in several months and it was a very emotional visit. The fact that she survived and all the progress that she's made are wonderful. At the same time, I was deeply saddened at the very difficult reality she and her loved ones continue to face. And I felt newly infuriated at the person who had, in one careless moment, forever altered and nearly ended my friend's life.

When someone gets cancer, like Cara or Todd, it's often for reasons we can't fully understand or control. And we have to make the best of an awful situation, but we also know sometimes that's the way life is, and perhaps nothing could have been done to prevent it.

When a reckless driver strikes an innocent passerby like Shelli and nearly kills her, that's something that could very easily have been prevented if that driver had just been paying adequate attention to their surroundings. Such incidents happen all too often and only seem to be increasing in frequency. Operating a motor vehicle is an awesome responsibility and it's a responsibility that most people don't fully appreciate. A motor vehicle traveling at high speed is a deadly weapon. One careless moment can do irreversible damage. Please, please, please, make sure you do not take that awesome responsibility lightly, and speak up to influence those around you to do the same.

I spent the second half of Thursday and all of Friday with Shelli. Saturday found me catching a flight home to Cleveland that, although not as early as EB's Tuesday morning departure, was quite early itself. I didn't want to get home too late because I had a concert to go to that night - Michelle Branch at the Grog Shop. It was a concert I was very much looking forward to, as Michelle Branch's music is meaningful to me in ways that involve both Cara and EB. (I plan to write about this in an upcoming post.)

I was scheduled to fly through Minneapolis with an hour-and-a-half layover, but after my plane in Seattle taxied out to the runway, we were informed that there was a problem with one of the doors and we would be returning to the gate.

I cringed, remembering how the previous time I had been flying home to Cleveland with plans to see a concert that night, I had ended up missing the concert because of extreme flight delays.

It seemed to take forever, but finally we departed Seattle, and I was relieved to realize that I would be (just barely) making my next flight. As I exited the plane in Minneapolis, I was expecting to have to make a rushed journey through the terminal. I was not at all expecting what actually happened. Stepping off the plane and into the tunnel, I noticed a man in a suit holding a board with my and another passenger's names on it. He led us down a stairway, onto the tarmac - and toward a waiting Porsche, in which he drove us to our next plane!

What a way to cap off a week full of adventures.

The concert that night was great, but as I said, I'll cover that in another post.

Monday brought more excitement with the solar eclipse. It was thrilling to see the eclipse here in Cleveland, reminding me very much of the 1994 solar eclipse I saw as a child in Columbus. After seeing pictures from people who got to experience totality, though, I found myself wishing I had extended my travels through Monday to be able to see the total eclipse myself. (Even if it would have meant missing the Michelle Branch concert, because I'm sure I'll get another opportunity to see Michelle Branch before my next opportunity to see a total solar eclipse.) I had thought it would be too much traveling, with all the other traveling I've done not only last week but the rest of this summer. I now think (as my and EB's day trip to Glacier showed!) that there is rarely such thing as too much traveling when the traveling involves such wonderful adventures.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Fair and balanced?

I returned home yesterday from a wonderful week of vacation, but while I was away I could not help but to feel more and more troubled by events unfolding in our country. Most shocking was Donald Trump essentially taking a "both sides are to blame" stance after violence broke out at a white supremacist rally and a white supremacist drove his car into a crowd of counter-protesters, murdering a young woman.

That Donald Trump is a racist is a well-established fact (even Paul Ryan had to admit Trump had made the "textbook example of a racist comment" when Trump, last year, said that a judge's Mexican heritage made him unqualified to hear a case involving fraud at Trump University), but this was a new low. One would think that even if someone who sympathized with white supremacists managed to become president, they would keep those sympathies quiet. Trump is so far outside the bounds of normal that perhaps nothing should be considered shocking. Trump's attempt to blame both sides for the violence, though, highlights a problem plaguing modern political discourse. I'd describe it as the problem of false equivalency, or "both-sides-ism."

When there are two sides in a debate, it's easy to assume that the truth must be somewhere in the middle. Easy, and also intellectually lazy. Often the truth is nowhere near the middle. When you have a group of people marching in favor of white supremacy, and another group of people opposing them, there can never be a moral equivalency between those two groups, regardless of the exact details of how physical violence broke out. By waving Confederate and Nazi flags, white supremacists are implicitly calling for the violent subjugation of African-Americans and Jews. There is no such thing as a "peaceful" white supremacist demonstration.

The truth is not in the middle.

That's something that most people can see in this situation, but there are many other situations where the same principle applies. I've fallen into the both-sides-ism trap before. I remember in 2003 when massive protests occurred against the Bush administration's disastrous and immoral invasion of Iraq. One day, protesters blocked traffic at my school. I don't know for sure whether the war is justified, but on the other hand the protesters are kind of annoying, I thought. The truth is probably somewhere in the middle. I cringe looking back on it, at what a naive idiot I was.

The both-sides-ism phenomenon is exemplified by the pervasive influence of the Fox News channel and its long-time "fair and balanced" slogan on our society.

It used to be that most Americans got their TV news from either NBC, CBS, or ABC, and everyone who consumed TV news was getting the same general information. There were large differences in political opinions, but most people mostly agreed on the basic facts of what was going on in the news. In the 1990s, media options began to diversify. Prominent right-wing media figures realized it would be greatly profitable if they could convince their consumers that all other media outlets were the "liberal media" and could not be trusted. And eventually we reached the point we're at today.

It's probably a safe assumption that very few if any readers of this blog entry are big Donald Trump fans. Thinking that Trump is a bad president, I'd contend, is something that does not require one to hold any particular set of political beliefs. Conservatives should abhor Trump just as much as liberals do. The man is utterly self-serving and incompetent at executing the duties of the presidency; even if you're a party-line Republican voter it shouldn't be hard to see that.

A national poll released by Suffolk University at the end of June revealed an incredibly striking phenomenon if one dug into the crosstabs: one of the questions asked was what source of TV news respondents considered most trustworthy. Of respondents who answered Fox News, Trump had an 89% approval rating. Of respondents who answered any other TV station, Trump had an 18% approval rating.

Saying that Donald Trump is doing a good job as president is a claim I'd consider to be on a similar level as saying that the sun revolves around the Earth. It's just not supportable. For a long time, many people have contended that Fox News is a dedicated propaganda outlet that convinces its viewers to believe falsehoods. The results of this survey are the best evidence I've seen to support this notion.  There truly are two Americas. There's the America of Fox News viewers, and there's the America of everyone else. Only one of those two groups of people is inhabiting something that resembles reality.

And yet, even if political moderates (who largely disapprove of Trump) recognize that Fox News has a heavy right-wing bias, Fox News has still succeeded in poisoning the well when it comes to how those moderates view the political debate. Because people tend to think that the truth is in the middle. So they think there's the Fox News side, and there's the "liberal media" side, and the truth is in the middle.

The truth doesn't have to be in the middle. Whatever the biases of other mainstream media sources (biases, I might add, that can go in many directions), they aren't dedicated propaganda outlets. Fox News is.

Let me remind you again that 89% of Fox News viewers approve of the job Donald Trump is doing as president. It's hard to fathom of what sort of garbage would have to go into someone's mind for "Donald Trump = good president" to come out.

Furthermore, both-sides-ism has come to plague the non-Fox media - Trump was the most unqualified and scandal-ridden candidate in history, so mainstream media sources, not wanting to appear "biased," made Hillary Clinton's single (and utterly benign in comparison) scandal over her email servers the most covered story of the campaign, and thus helped Trump win.

If there are two sides to a debate, and one side is the Fox News side, you're more likely to arrive at the correct outcome if you disregard the Fox News side than if you assume the truth is in the middle. This applies to almost every issue, not just the question of whether Donald Trump is doing a good job. (Is Black Lives Matter a "hate group"? No, it's not. Is human-caused climate change a problem? Yes, it is. Are tax cuts for the wealthy good economic stimulus? No, they aren't. These are all questions that have correct answers. The truth is not in the middle.)

This media polarization is going to continue to be a big problem going forward. Solving the problem is much trickier than identifying the problem. Hopefully having to suffer through the shame of having an unabashed racist in the Oval Office will at least help more people wake up to the problem. In the short term, to mitigate the damage we're going to have to keep pressure up on our other elected officials and we're going to have to turn out in massive numbers in the 2018 election.

Recognize the both-sides-ism trap when you or others may be falling into it. And don't stay silent in the face of hatred. None of us can afford that now.

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 [redacted] 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.

Sobering.

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!