Coping during COVID-19 wave one

During normal times, I consume a lot of research. I enjoy dissecting not just the result, but how the analysts got to their answers. What biases can I find? What assumptions could we remove, to create a different, perhaps better study? Playful puzzling of questions and answers made science fun when I was science-ing. It makes work fun in my current kind of working.

But I learned about myself, that when times aren’t normal, I consume research voraciously. In unhealthy ways. I read all day, and most of the night. I take notes obsessively and maintain a bibliography.

Like, in case a friend asks me what I think, I can cite my sources kind of bibliography? Yes. That. And also so I can go back if new information emerges, compare the two, and either merge them or discard one.

Looks (and smells, frankly) a bit like informational OCD.

Readers from the back in the days when blogging was a thing and when I rather enjoyed making it one of my things, may recall that I’ve observed this behavior veering from curious learner to compulsive data-gulper through my life, and that have one way of coping: write a paper synthesizing the research, calling out the flaws and gaps, proposing new research or fresh insights.

Some people eat their feelings. I cram them into densely-researched think pieces. In effect, I try to nerd my way out of fear and sadness. Nerding feels better than feeling big feelings.

Unsurprisingly, the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19 has burrowed into my brain, and planted a need to understand, to source, to cite, to compare, to interrogate, and to adjudicate data. I researched myself into a ball the past few weeks, until I remembered to solve paralysis by letting myself process the possible scenarios, unknowns, inflection points that would change the landscape.

And I delivered (to a group at work) a document that lays out what we know, what we don’t, what it means, and what to plan for.

So now I’m sitting, exhausted, with a headache, not doing anything. The boys are with their dad, so the house is still. My list of projects is too long, too boring, too adult, and will likely go untouched. Multitudes of unwatched shows and movies aren’t compelling. Birds outside are loudly and defiantly proclaiming that THIS virus, at least, isn’t their fault, and that they fully intend to continue nesting in the house’s eves. Good for them.  Steve the hamster sounds as though he’s secretly snacking, but refuses to emerge even when I sing him a new, heretofore unreleased song about being a hamster who comes out to play in the day. The cats are catting. Who knows where they are, unless they REALLY NEED LOVE RIGHT NOW FOR 30 SECONDS and then go away to wherever it is that they ignore me 99.98% of the time. The neighbors, and their dogs and cats and kids and partners, are all inside. My friends are on my phone. My family is on my phone. I’ve muted my phone.

This phase of our life, suspended and upside down, has made me uneasy in waves of hope and of loneliness. Whether it’s temporary or part of a new normal – it’s unnerving. None of the joys or sadness feels normal, and it’s all vaguely nauseating.

The community has come together in sweet ways, offering each other help, and trading in rare goods (I dropped decaf whole beans on the porch of a neighbor last week; someone else brought us raisins when we realized out oatmeal:raisin ratio was, honestly,  unacceptable this early in a pandemic). Yet the intentional social ties people are weaving to ameliorating the physical distancing has come together in ways that are annoying, including trying to schedule online school and online birthday parties and online drinking. Blerg. If life isn’t normal, I don’t want to make a fake normal. I don’t want to conference call meals. I don’t want to pretend anything is going to be okay.

I want to get through this, ideally in about eight hours of sleep, and then just be goddamned done.

The people around me are getting grumpy, too. Neighborhood walks that, in weeks one and two of the lockdown were replete with smiles and 6 feet of distance have become much less friendly. No smiles. 12 feet of distance. Walking heads down and faster. Most people seem bothered, scared, and tired, and are potentially having as hard a time as I am with some part of the emotional toll of distancing.

I did feel better about potential outcomes for most of humanity once I’d contextualized everything, and gotten it out of my head and onto paper. But that doesn’t mean the prospects are good. Hospitalizations and deaths, economic shut down, waves of infections and ICU admissions, industries collapsing, people out of work and hungry, ill people unable to get treatment, marginalized populations in prisons, homeless encampments, retirement homes, and immigration centers essentially abandoned much too quickly for a society that claims to be civilized. Why did I feel better about humanity’s outcomes? Because the unknown is more scary, even that what’s going on. Spreadsheeting my way out of panic is ludicrous. But it helped.

A little.

What we’re going through now (and let me state the obvious that entering week four at home is quite different from states that are at different stages) is not a few weeks’ or months’ worth of massive life changes. This is generation-defining, things-will-never-be-the-same, two years of pervasive lows and fewer highs.

And I’m not sure how to cope next. Because unlike the other times I’ve spun myself in circles of data consumption and methodological-moral-superiority, we’re still in it. This crisis, this trauma, isn’t over. This isn’t a fire that rips through our community and leaves us to rebuild in its wake. This isn’t a car crash or friend’s death that marks a moment of trauma that changes a small circle of people, creating a touchstone and memory that colors with months and years. This isn’t the loss of someone that spurs a stronger community than before. Those are all moments in time, and reactions afterwards.

This is still going.

And going.

I don’t know that more research is going to help. And I don’t know if writing addenda every two weeks will do anything at all. And going for a walk just doesn’t seem as though it’ll solve anything.

I don’t know what to do or where to go from here. I don’t think many of us do. None of the answers are wrong, I know. We’re just doing our best. So caulk around the tub or go back to bed…doesn’t matter in the long term. Handle some of the paperwork, file stuff, move the living room furniture around…doesn’t do much to stave off panic or stoke hope. So I’m not going to try.

Being productive has historically been one of my things. I pull myself out of bed with ‘should,’ and checklists. And we can set aside for later whether that was ridiculous, denial of mortality, distract-oneself-from-existential-dread-level coping, more adulting than human-ing. Later. Bigger fish to fry, and whatnot.

More to the point: if productive isn’t a thing that I either want or need, for now, and calculating odds and modeling potential options is kind of done, for now, what to do?

That’s why I came here.

I write. To think, to connect, to process, to be. I write to think and connect and process.

I did. And I do. And I think I will.

Harbinger of Terminal Disease

I don’t want to worry anyone, but I spontaneously started singing a Phil Collins song today.

And that probably means I’m dying.

Look, I don’t think there’s anything inherently toxic about Phil Collins. Anyone raised in the 80s has a few lyrics shelved in their prefrontal cortex that are bound to dislodge at odd times.

And I don’t have any problem with spontaneous singing. I sing when I’m happy, bored, angry…I don’t need a plan to sing. I just do it.

But washing dishes in the dark (kids in bed, too lazy to turn on a light, because ew, why would I want to see all that yuck if my only job is to scrape and shove in the dishwasher?) means an almost meditative zen state of flow.

And having Phil Collins arise at just that moment probably means I have a cold coming on. Or spinal meningitis. Or the flu. Or a brain tumor.

Just saying. Brain tumors aren’t funny. And neither is having Phil Collins stuck in my head.

And then falling out of my mouth.

(“Against All Odds”; thanks for asking. And I mean that sarcastically. Because I had eight bars of verse looping for a long time, until I considered blogging this catastrophe. I realized I had to push further into the song to ascertain the title. And now the chorus is looping. Incessantly. Against my will. Probably a tumor.)

Where do I post this?

Dear Jay,

I miss you. I pick up the phone to text you at least once a week. There are so many things I want to tell you. Of course I want to tell you that I’m sad you died. But we covered that when you were alive. We were both sorry, and we had absolutely no say in the matter. So we both moved on, toward love and life and enjoying the time you had. I’ve mentioned I feel terrifically guilty for continuing on, right? No, of course I didn’t. Because when the cancer got bad and you learned the pain of how many people avoid death by avoiding their dying friend, you told me that you wanted us all to live and tell you about it and just act as though you were still the same. Because right up to the end, you were the same.

So let’s pretend, just for a while, okay?

We’re writing new software for the office. Can you believe it? What is that dreadful program…twenty years old? I’m hoping we get it done during the summer so the transition is easy. But speaking of uneasy transitions, we were having trouble with part of the old version last week and it dawned on me I didn’t have to struggle. “I’ll just call Jay,” I said out loud. And then I cracked wide open and I just sobbed. In front of everyone, with no way to make it polite or pretty or decent. I just lost my shit. I can’t call you. That is a stupid and horrible fact. And still true, no matter how much I hate it. But I do hate it.

I saw your kids a couple of weeks ago. So sweet. You know they’re sweet, but I want to remind you. I love hanging out with them. Your oldest is retreating into herself, which we predicted. She’s so unsure of herself right now, which is about her age not about missing you, it seems; but she’s strong and fierce and she’ll start to own her power soon enough. I worked with her on math and kept pointing out how well she does when she settles down and believes in herself. And she does. That’s you, right there: she believes in herself. Your life is looking pretty successful, right? Minus the whole death thing, you win at life.

You know, I should apologize for being seethingly angry at your funeral. It wasn’t really my fault, though: not one of those people at your memorial was you. And I came to celebrate you and talk with you and be with you. But there were hundreds of people, and nobody knew what you know or talked the way you talk or thought the way you might think. Jerks. It was lovely, if you’re into that kind of thing. I’ll take our backyard talks over a lovely memorial any day of the week, but I don’t get to choose.

Let’s see, what else…Spouse and I finally settled down into a quiet space where we could talk, and we both agreed we need to try being apart. It’s been much better since we agreed to separate. He’s kinder and funnier. I’m more calm and accommodating. The stuff you and I talked about with the kids has gotten better. I just wish to god I could have told you all this before you died. You knew. I knew. We both said out loud we knew. But we all thought it would be another five years, at least, so he and I could see if we could make it better.  Nope. Maybe your death got me to that calm, quiet place where I could see the forest despite the trees, but I don’t think so. Either way, we decided a couple of days after you died. Either my timing sucks or yours does. Since you’re not here to defend yourself, I’m saying it’s you.

So I’m rearranging my life now. It’s nice, and it’s scary. It’s sad. I’ll bet you know what I changed first. I’ll bet you know both of the things I changed first. Who cares about closets or couches, right? I rearranged the kitchen and the books.

I completely redesigned the fridge and cabinets, and tossed all the spices I hated. And it still doesn’t feel like enough. I might get new spatulas. Will that make things feel better? They work just fine, but they just seem sad and old and past their prime to me. Spatulas as metaphors. What a dork. You know those mugs we loved? I kept only those four, and donated all the others. More room in life when you get rid of what you don’t want, right? Right. I packed away all the wedding photos but left the family photos so the boys know that everybody in our family is welcome. He is welcome. He just doesn’t live here. Was that weird after your divorce? You aren’t  married, but you see your co-parent all the time? I am wildly uncomfortable, but I kind of like it. I like not being cut off from a part of my old life and I like seeing them happy with him. I don’t like the in between of having him over so much. I’d like a couple of weeks genuinely solo. But that’s silly because it’s not good for anybody else.

Parts of this process are nice. It’s nice to feel happy. Really. I had forgotten. And I know most people are expecting me to be troubled and sad and overwhelmed. But it feels quite good to breathe. I’m eating better, I’m sleeping better, and I’m more relaxed. Because that giant weight lifted off my family. Not just off me. Off the whole family. It feels as though a secret is out and everything is better. Did you feel that way when you came out? Or when you split up?

Even the books are now more honest. They’re not all grouped by literary period, because I’ve pulled those that I still haven’t finished (or even started) and put them on their own shelves. The unread, the Next, the “as soon as I have time” sit on their own shelves, begging to be noticed. Not posturing as part of a cluster as they would in a bookstore, hoping some day I’ll remember my intense need to read them. This is my house and these are my books, and I want the unread to remind me of what’s left to come, in a big ol’ honest FUTURE shelf. Two, really. I know you left a lot of unread books. I’m glad that was only sad to you for a little while, until you moved into that “between two worlds and unconcerned with earthly nonsense” phase.

But a few threads of silver lining the cloud don’t make the whole process of unraveling my marriage any easier. I’m overwhelmed by all the “what comes next”s and the “what have we done”s and the “what if we’re wrong”s . I wish I could ask you about how it went for you when you split up. I keep remembering what you said, though. The divorce is not even going to be a speck on the fabric of what forms your kids. Your death will be the defining event, bar none. I feel so dwarfed by the magnitude of that statement. I’m so sorry for you and A and the kids. I’m so grateful for my family. A family spread across two households doesn’t matter. Nobody’s dying. We win!


Your manuscript is still in my desk. Your number is still on my phone. I actually closed my facebook account because they posted a message to me last week. “Jay misses you. Write on his wall!” I said a few really bad words at the computer, closed it, and went to rearrange the DVDs. There aren’t very many, but it made me smile to shift them around. They used to sit in simple his/hers piles. Now they’re John-Hughes/not-John-Hughes piles.

Jay misses me, eh algorithm? Well, he might, but I doubt it. Jay’s dead. Jay doesn’t miss me one-millionth as much as I miss him. Jay has moved on to something completely different. I’m here struggling to remember that change is good and a given in life. Most changes are good, if you find the right way to look at them. And my life now is better. And it’s going to keep heading in that direction, except when it doesn’t. Life: messy, and rarely easy.

Messy and rarely easy. Like your life, and like your death. I know those last weeks were horrible, and I’m glad you died, if only because it stopped the hurt and the sadness and the waiting. I hope your afterlife is going well. Maybe write me back, if you have a chance. It would be nice to hear from you. The past few months have been harder because I can’t talk to you. So bust out all your other-worldly tricks and give me a shout. Even if you think getting new spatulas is a bad idea.



Death is amazing to watch.

I went last night to visit a friend who has faced, fought, accepted, and been taken over by cancer. Two weeks ago he was still saying that he was happy when he was awake, and that his social calendar was packed because “all this dying stuff is hectic.” Soon, though, his texts grew less coherent. I went to visit and he said that he wasn’t happy when awake any more. As he withdrew into his body’s processes, life was not fun or joyful or interesting anymore. It was a painful chore and he was desperately frustrated at being sick and in pain and feeling terrible for four years.

Over the weekend he started hallucinating, wandering, and terrifying his family. He didn’t make sense, he couldn’t understand, and he wasn’t safe. The hospice nurses came and monitored his meds until he settled. So what I visited two days later was the mostly-dreaming, mostly-gone version of my friend. He looked relatively healthy, and had the same adorable, shiny red cheeks and red beard he was so proud of. There wasn’t much left to his body, but his face was still his face. And as he writhed and settled and writhed again, it looked as though he had a terrible flu and was feverish but would recover.

I sat with him and tried to talk. I rubbed his wandering legs, trying at once to reassure him and to encourage his dream of walking somewhere. I’m rarely at a loss for words, but I’m not well versed in what you say to someone who can’t reply, who doesn’t care about most of the world anymore, and who is almost across a threshold that our culture goes to excessive lengths to avoid.

I wasn’t worried about saying anything wrong. And I wasn’t worried about trying to comfort him. I just wanted to talk the way we usually talk if only so he felt normal for a moment or two.

I talked about his kids and what kind of people they might be as adults. He made faces like he was talking. I talked about how Spring has walloped us, even after a month of warm and sunny, with that flawless Berkeley wall of sunshine and wisteria and star jasmine that makes me feel like a honeybee skittering around telling colleagues about the best pollen sources. He winced. I asked about the garden: what his wife might plant and whether he was glad he’d done all that work to build their raised beds. He kicked as though he were walking.

I told him about a school project my son had done, and how adorable it was. He grew agitated. I asked if he wanted quiet. I guessed from his relaxing that he did. He rested fitfully and I watched.

His breathing is surprisingly smooth for someone with a lung tumor so large it forces his ribs aside and creates an A cup on one side of his chest. Weird. About five inches above his mastectomy scar.

His wife came in and smiled at me. I told her how agitated he seemed. “Pain meds,” she said, “are due.” She talked to him and asked about his pain. “Does it hurt?” she said in a regular voice into his ear. “Yes,” he mouthed. “Is that a yes? Yes. It hurts. Hang on, baby.” She told him about each medication before she placed the tiny veterinary syringe in his mouth. I gave my cat morphine with an identical plastic syringe last year. Now the morphine is for my friend, with whom I can no longer share anything. No calls, no texts, no visits. He is mostly gone and that is permanent and that is normal and that isn’t strange but it’s unfolding rightnowrighthere. A few other meds, including the one she warned him would taste gross. He made an angry face and kicked at that one. I rubbed his legs.

He began wiggling and wincing. She asked if he hurt. He tried to say something but made no sound and his lips seemed only to say, “vipp.” She asked if his back hurt. He looked as though he’d cry. His back has been terribly painful since the lung surgery that required removing three ribs, 5cm of chest wall, and a baseball-sized tumor. The one the first oncologist missed while treating the rectal tumor, both of which grew because two physicians in a row misdiagnosed him.

“Do you want to roll on your side?” He nodded. We took the sheet and maneuvered him onto his side. It seemed to help. I pulled him over as hard as I could while she jammed a large pillow behind him. Only nurses know how firm and decisively you have to handle an adult patient. Most of us know only nursing teenie tiny newborns with no muscle tone who are relatively easy to position, reposition, and relocate, even if they’re just as hard to understand as an adult who can no longer speak. Getting a full-grown man into position takes so much oomph it seems rough, but I worked to seem just as competent as his wife. Repositioned, he settled a bit. She asked him if that was better, rubbed his shoulder, kissed him repeatedly across the face.

We talked with him a while, and he seemed to settle.

So we went downstairs to let him sleep. Two hours later, I left with a smile, a hole in a deep part of me, and three bags full of empty food containers from mutual friends who’ve cooked for the family over the past two months.

On the midnight drive home I thought about my kids. I thought about his kids. I thought about logistics and seeing their family often. I thought about work and geography and weather and Crimea. I thought of car crashes and cancer and bombings. I thought of gummy bears and law school and literature PhDs.

I can’t tell you that watching my friend die week by week has made me more aware of how lucky we all are to be alive. I’ve had my fair share of close calls, of fire and car crashes and cancer and earthquake, and I’m not one to take the day for granted. But I think more about how a fair percentage of the world’s population wouldn’t consider themselves lucky to be alive. Starvation and illness and lack of clean water and tyranny and abuse and slavery and rape…we all live. And we all die. And none of death is fair or fun, and none of it’s predictable. The fact that my friend is dying way too young is also a part of life. And often, it feels as though none of life itself is directable. There’s a fundamental lack of control to being human that belies most of what we tell ourselves about choice and free will and possibility.

But then there’s love. And there’s a thoughtful couple facing death together. An open, honest, loving family that does their best and makes it work and grieves together and hopes together and plans together and fights together and mourns alone and together and alone again. There is grace in watching a woman love her partner fiercely and love their kids fiercely and stumble and get up and get more fierce…and do it all day every single day for YEARS.

How we die is a microcosm of how we live. And those who panic and claw the walls of their death-bed die in fear. And those who dream of all the wonderful moments of their lives, hallucinate huge family gatherings where those linked by affection for each other cuddle babies and encourage children and jovially engage  each other? They die bathed in the disintegrating brain that is full of good memories and love and joy. When all that crumbles into their body, really, it’s rather sweet to watch. Dreamy sleep eating, incoherent laughing, planning joyful events with beloved touchstones.

Which way will we go? Will our dreams at death’s threshold be painted with the vivid memories of happy, communal gatherings with good food and joyful moments? Or will our death be a nightmare of fear and regret and longing?

Death is interesting to watch. Why does our culture teach us not to dare?

Live Like Jay

We don’t get many slumber parties as adults. It’s not every day that grownups get to talk openly and honestly about life, just curled up next to a friend, shifting now and then to get a better look at each other’s eyes as we ask or answer probing questions. One reclining and responding easily and thoughtfully, one lying belly-down on a pillow and making almost constant eye contact, pausing occasionally to find the best way to say things. Pause for a sip of soda, pause for a bathroom break. Then talk some more. About dreams, kids, plans.

I did this as a teenager with one of the few people on the planet who understood me and accepted me for who I was. It’s rare that adults take that kind of time to connect, and more rare that we’re willing to.

Maybe it’s because my friend is dying that we spend our time together this way. And I don’t just mean because he doesn’t get out of bed much anymore. Perhaps because we knew it might be the last time we’d talk together that we were more open and honest.

Or, more accurately, maybe because he’s dying we fast forwarded through of every possible conversation. Talk of work covered the short-term and long-term in about two sentences. Discussion of marriages spanned breadth and depth within a minute.

“How are your kids?” moved quickly beyond this week’s antics to directly answer the implied “and how do you think they’ll handle becoming adults without you?”

“How are you?” skipped the annoying niceties of “fine” to a frank, detailed discussion of what meds are working, which aren’t, which tumor hurts, and where the bed sores will likely start when he’s no longer able to get up and down.

All of this is expected, since we’ve never been shy about the ups and downs of our lives. But some of the moments surprised me because they were so casual. No tears, no shyness. Very clear “I’m glad I know you and I’m glad I saw you today” exchanges that were everything soap-opera death-bed moments are not.

On screen, people make every talk with a dying person seem like a dramatic moment fraught with the most intense human emotions. But in real life, when a friend is almost four years past a cancer diagnosis, discussions aren’t heart-wrenching, sob-inducing epic battles for truth and meaning. There is no portentous music when a friend asks you, “Why can’t I just die? I’m ready. I haven’t felt good in years and years, I’ve said my goodbyes and I’ve done them well, I’ve learned a ton and found grace and moved beyond this world already, so why can’t I just die?”

And there’s no emotional, poignant swallow or gasp or lighting change.

You just answer.

“I don’t know why you can’t just die.  I don’t know. I personally don’t believe that you only get to go if you learn enough, because plenty of people die without learning much at all. And you’ve learned a lot, but that doesn’t mean you’re on hold for something else. I think it just means your body isn’t done yet. Your spirit might be, your mind might be. Your heart might be. But you have no control over what your body does. If you did, this cancer wouldn’t have taken hold. If we could get our bodies to do what we wanted, life would be a whole lot different. So would death. But we get no say. I’m sorry that you don’t.”

There was no fade into another scene after that. No swell of music and dramatic pause for tear-slicked eyelashes. Just mutual shrugs. We talked a bit more about what we believe. Then we talked about our kids again. From the beginning of our relationship, our talk has been about our children, with brief tangents for partners, food, work, and friends. But mostly, children.

His daughter wonders if he’ll live until her birthday. Three weeks.

He hopes not. Because he wants her to grieve and then begin the rest of her life unfettered by his passage out of this world.

I mentioned that her birthday will still be affected by his death, whether it’s recent or impending, so he should do what he needs to do.

His son wonders if he’ll live until the Muppet Movie. A week.


Again, do what you need to do.

I’m a big fan of drama. I want life epic and grand and meaningful. I want something big in every scene.  Especially now. My friends have to leave each other: one on this side of the Great Divide and one on the other. I can’t help them bridge that gap, and it can’t get anymore meaningful that it already is. It’s not about me and it’s not about grand gestures. Life at its most important is powerful and moving and deeply meaningful without aphorisms or orchestral music or pithy goodbyes or garments rent and torn.

All that is for the movies. My friend is not dying in the movies. He’s dying with his family, in his house, surrounded by the goodwill of 99.9% of every person he ever met. That’s the real in this. Real is lying on the bed near him tonight, answering and asking. We listened to each other. We smiled. We made plans.

It probably wasn’t our last conversation. But it was as high-school-slumber-party-with-your-dear-friend as final-days conversations go, and I think that’s about as cinematic as life—and death—gets.

Is that manic or depressive?

Today felt good. I think. I’m not sure.  I either interacted with the world in a deeply engaged way or I’m developing nervous tics to handle stress. Or both.

It's not bipolar. It's chimera!

It’s not bipolar. It’s chimera!

Butter and I dropped Peanut at school and went for a walk in the rain. I felt sunshine through the thin, grey, stacked clouds that snotted on us all day. Butter clung to me in the backpack, randomly snuggly today in ways that Almost Four resists in its developmental Need to Be Independent and Competent and Separate.

I liked it.

We wandered through the throngs of difference in downtown Berkeley—old and young, punk and granola, homeless and wealthy, tidy and filthy. I bought my little guy a bagel and a homeless woman some orange juice. I helped my Butterbean understand when he pointed out a man’s brightly colored, patchwork pocketed pants that no, those weren’t dirty and old pants, those are art. The young man wearing those carefully-crafted and well-worn pants (and the shirt with the large hole and the many face piercings and the giant chip on his shoulder) smiled at me and thanked me. I explained quietly to Butter that we can always talk later about what we see, but that talking about how somebody looks isn’t polite because it might make them feel bad even if we’re just curious. Then the impeccably-groomed college student getting Butter his bagel asked if I was aware that I had a small child on my back and I made them both laugh by trying to look behind me, asking, “Where?! Where?!” with great concern.

I carried my little carbohydrate fiend past a police barricade because I never saw it, focused instead on humanity today, making eye contact and noticing how simultaneously disjointed and alive the city felt. A stocky  man with a small face moved into my path and gently gestured, “stop, head back, cross, and go around” as he told me softly that the street was closed and he’d prefer that I please head back to an intersection and cross. I barely noticed his neon yellow vest and police uniform but I clearly saw his shiny apple cheeks and his wide brown eyes. I spun around and headed back, passing the barricade I’d missed. A few feet away from the barrier an unshaven man dressed all in black slumped into a corner and ran his hand through his unwashed grey hair as he said to me, “dead person.”

I looked at him and he looked at his fingernails.


And I thought about that choice of words. Not “body.” Person. I thought about that reality and the half a block of thick public concrete and red curbs and parking meters and tall, caged trees blocked off for private police use. I noticed that the homeless were clustered in groups of four on every corner for blocks in both directions. This might have been a suicide or a homicide but was likely the routine expiration of a homeless neighbor from exposure or malnutrition or unresolved medical issues.

And they were aware—the police and the acquaintances. And I was now vaguely aware, but not really. And my preschooler was not aware. That’s true of much of life, isn’t it, that there’s a spectrum of connection and awareness. The circle of those you know and the wider circle of those you know less well overlap the circles of awareness borne of age and experience. Exposed lives versus sheltered lives versus young lives? That’s not the right way to define awareness. Because we know a homeless family with two small children. Do their kids know all the things these homeless adults do? Probably not. Are they witness to the street version of life or the child version of life or something in between?

My friend’s impending death won’t attract yellow police tape or the private use of a public space or gawking passersby. But his friends are gathered, too, communing. Huddled in support, not on street corners and not out of curiosity.

Today was a process of going, not unlike other days. Movement, journey, development. The day progressed and everything with a heartbeat did, too, whether the breathing and blinking felt like progress or not. And for some reason my progress today involved connection. Looking into eyes, gently touching arms as I passed, smiling. And asking questions. I stopped to ask the work crew what their truck was called (never seen a drilling rig with a mud rotor and never knew soil samples were taken this way). I asked the Goodwill clerk why they don’t sell baby gates to keep kittens out of handi-accessible bathrooms and whether she had enough help keeping the store as nice as she does (liability, and no, but she’s glad I noticed how hard she works). I asked the security guard outside Bank of America if there was actually any threat to BofA or if they were still making a statement about the lengthy Occupy Wall Street protests (not allowed to talk about security issues but have a nice day). I asked my back-bound lump of Butter what he thought about the varied art we saw in store windows.

I talked to my son who was still patiently snuggling me and his bagel, four miles into the walk, about the typewriter store and the traffic patterns and the balloon animals we were going to make when we got home.

Maybe constant verbal patter is my shield. Maybe what keeps me from noticing the dead persons and dying persons is nervous chatter. Perhaps I’m particularly engaged today because I’m anxious.

But what’s there to be anxious about? Death and homelessness and illness and loneliness and the thin threads that keep us from becoming unrecognizable to ourselves?

Well, that’s just silly. Why should that make me nervous?

Allow me to leave you with today’s soothing balloon giraffes.


If those freakishly disproportionate bubble creatures don’t fix existential panic, I don’t know what will.

Midlife realities

When I marked the new year in 2012, I was excited about having a whole year in which to contemplate turning forty. There is so much excitement and hope in that number, I thought. I planned for several months how I would celebrate and what intentional shift of priorities I could orchestrate to begin the second half of my life.

I remember my mom’s friends celebrating her fortieth with black balloons and over-the-hill nonsense. Baby Boomers are not known for either perspective or subtlety and over-the-hill parties were very chic. Also the life expectancy was much lower back then and people really thought that 40 was more than halfway to dead.

Now, we are told by dreadful checkout-line magazines and gerontologists alike: fifty is the new forty.

Well I happily anticipated forty, hoping with the milestone that I’d get my life together, get a few more adorable grey hairs, and finally think of myself as adult. I thought a midlife crisis was impossible for me, not just because of this delightfully plucky attitude, but because I have at least three midlife crises a year, and my brain must certainly have hit all the low points of existential crisis by now.

What I didn’t foresee about 40, what I didn’t appreciate about midlife until I got there, is this: the inescapable and rude reality is forty isn’t about goals and perspective and living your best life for the rest of your life.

Forty is about everyone around you slowly dying.

Parents. Friends. Colleagues. The people I care about are having surgeries and tumors and divorces and memorials, not babies and graduations and new jobs. The downward slide of forty isn’t about “oh, boo-hoo I’m not vital anymore.” That’s ridiculous. The reason behind many midlife crises, I’m now finding, is that forty seems tips life from waxing to waning.

We all know mortality as a fundamental truth of the human condition. But we don’t know it as intimately as we will. I remember when my grandparents were in their seventies. Three of four died.  And their friends died. And to me, in my twenties, that was something that old people did.

And they do. Don’t get me wrong. Old people do, in fact, die.

But the shock of forty was that grandparents aren’t the reason we’re at funerals any more. Parents are dying. Contemporaries are dying. Forty is a slap in the face that says, “Guess what? There is very little distance any more between you, those you love, and death. We’re going to fall off this cliff together, and soon.”

Forty is about certainty and camaraderie falling away as one by one the people we know intimately, not the loved ones removed by several generations but the people we need and enjoy and talk to every day, get divorced and sick and sad and angry and, eventually, dead.

Forty means everyone gets dead? Certainly that’s not what I’m saying, and not just because it’s grammatically clunky.  There are still graduations and births and marriages and joy and life left in life after forty.

But we’re not having those moments. We’re watching younger generations have those moments. We’re bystanders. We’re wise, knowing, grey, and wonderful. And we’re attending other people’s joys while engaging in our contemporaries’ decline.

It’s a long march, this life. And there’s a sharp turn at forty after which we must choose to constantly pivot one way to support those we love as they struggle and age and die, then the other to watch those we love grow and become adults and choose their own way and then age and die.

Being the sandwich generation makes it sound as though we’re smothered and gooey and limited on two sides. The reality is much more like standing at the top of the diving platform. To one side there are people climbing and progressing and anticipating. To the other there is an exhilarating plunge into darkness. Forty is standing on that high dive and looking right then left then right then left thenrightthenleftthenrightthenleft and knowing there is limited time to choose. There is no option of climbing back down. The only choices are to enjoy the leap or to clench everything and hit way too hard.

Please don’t tell me that there is plenty of life left after forty. I know that. I’m genuinely happy with the priority shifts I architected before my milestone birthday, the progress I’m making toward goals, the willingness with which I’m ditching expectations and emotional detritus from my life, and the care I’m showing friends and family who are sick or dying. Of course there’s time left for some of us. Lots, in fact.

Somehow I thought rounding that corner of forty would make me grownup.

It did. But not in the way I’d hoped for.

Now that I have glimpsed the reality of growing up, I am watching through tiny cracks between my fingers as we all slide, slowly at first and then more quickly, to the craggy rocks and alligators and piranha and icy waters below.


Batkid’s Mom

Oh how I cried today following the escapades of the miraculous little boy whose leukemia is in remission and who asked the Make a Wish Foundation to make him Batman.


San Francisco complied in muthafugging spades, y’all. Told they could make a dream come true, the best city in the world said, “oh, we can do better than that.” The red carpet was rolled out for the caped crusader, and his family watched as more than 12,000 of our desperately kind residents played along and cheered for mocked up superhero situations.


The Department of Justice joined in. The FBI. The S.F. Giants. The President of the United States. All cheering for a boy who pretend-saved the city, because we all knew that he actually made it through a terrible, life-threatening disease.

And in every photo, I sobbed at two particular images: his family and the crowds.

I started crying when I saw Batkid’s brother, dressed as Robin, because leukemia is hard on siblings, too. Like all major illness it puts parents in a precarious position of needing to give one child 150% and needing to find another 100% for the healthy sibling. So I cried for Batkid’s brother, whom I’m positive is loved and doted upon, but who also went through family turmoil with that leukemia.

I wept for Batkid’s father. The guy who wanted to be Batman all along, to have superpowers and carry his family away from the pain and the fear and the chemo and the private life lived publicly in a hospital. I cried for how powerless they probably felt during the whole, terrible, awful ordeal. And for how fear probably creeps in at night, reminding both of the adults that remission is a wonderful but terrifying word.

And how I sobbed for Batkid’s mother. Just as powerless as dad and just as hopeful for a superhero miracle. Full of love and fear and anger and hope and exhaustion and sadness from the moment of diagnosis. Oh, I can’t imagine. Batkid was diagnosed with leukemia at 20 months and just finished his last round of chemo. One single minute of your child with cancer is too much. Even one minute of waiting for test results and waiting for donors and waiting as hospital takes blood from your kid to tell you if he’s going to live is just too many minutes. One is far too many for anyone to endure. So I cried for Batkid’s mom and for all the moms.

And I cried for our friend who went through a similar diagnosis and terrifying year of medical upheaval, too. And who now has a wonderful, healthy family and for whom I can’t even articulate my joy and sorrow and pride because it’s all just too big.

Yes, it’s glorious that a whole city put aside business to cheer for a child. We have heard so much of bickering and governments paralyzed with petulance, death and destruction and famine and global weather catastrophes…it was heavenly to just cheer. And cheer and cheer and cheer for a classic triumph of good over evil.

But damn I cried for Batkid’s mother and father and brother. And for him. I cried for Miles. I’m so glad Make a Wish executed this amazing feat. I’m so proud of San Francisco for transforming from a warm, welcoming city to the model of compassion and heart. I’m so thrilled for Miles and his family that he’s healthy.

I’m just so grateful for something to cheer for.

Go donate to Make a Wish. And to the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. And to the typhoon victims. And contribute to every bit of kindness you can in this world, because gawd it was nice to have Batkid Day today.

When you’re down and troubled

Are you weary after the past week? Between Boston, Texas, Washington, and Watertown, I’m weary. And deeply sad.

Last Monday I vowed I would not use my phone at all. My son and I played all morning, and the phone rang. It was my mom, calling to tell me about the breaking news.

I couldn’t stop reading news on my phone. Text messages and Twitter and The Globe; I spent more minutes than I’d like to admit ignoring my child at the playground so I could scan through the news, cry, and scan through again. It wasn’t in vain, though. When a dad at the playground saw me crying he asked if I was reading about Boston. I told him I was. He said his brother was a volunteer at the finish line and that nobody could get a hold of him. I checked my Twitter feed and gave that sweet neighbor (who was doing a damned fine job of calmly and mindfully playing with his son while he wondered about his brother) the number to call and the Google site to check for his brother’s name. I let him use my phone because his had no service.

Then the breaking news of West, Texas. I saw the tragic story on Twitter before the television announced breaking news. My heart stopped when the Breaking News silence stopped whatever trivial crap we were watching, and I said aloud to Spouse, “Please, gods, no more breaking news.” I had already gasped at the Tweets and told him what they knew about the explosion in Texas, so we were sad and scared but not shocked. Until we saw the video of the blast. I’m so sorry for your pain and fear and losses, West, Texas.

Then Thursday, just before bed, after fuming very vocally about the disgusting cowardice of the United States legislature where representatives are supposed to vote, not just avoid taking a stand one way or the other, I checked Twitter. Manhunt in Boston. Young police officer dead. Chase and gunfight on a Watertown street I’ve been on dozens of times and that I still associate with love and peace. I stayed up almost all night watching reporters talk about the scared people near my improv and stand-up comedy home at MIT, the scared people right near a dear friend’s former house, and scared people all over the town whose hearts had broken a few days before.

Breaking news.
All night.
The heartwrenching, terrifying, “Dear Heavens, let everyone be okay” kind. The kind it’s so important to watch that the next day doesn’t feel like tired. It doesn’t feel like anything but shellshock.

It helped a bit to read things like this from The Onion.

But something really helped me last week, as I read and sobbed and wiped my eyes so I could read more.

Mr. Rogers helped me.

Before I read the lovely, hopeful letter from Patton Oswalt, someone in my feed Retweeted a quote from Mr. Rogers, “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.'”

And thus began my effort all week to look for the helpers.

Like this guy.

And these guys

And the thousands who opened their homes to sad, scared runners

And even these guys

So in honor of Mr. Rogers, my good friend and neighbor Mr. Rogers, I’m going to spend this week being kind to every I see, and teaching my kids about the helpers.

(Below are some more, upbeat, old school Mr. Rogers for you. If you’re anything like me, watch one or two alone first, so you can cry big old fat tears for the really good people in this world.)

PBS Kids’ full episodes of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood


As a former Boston resident and partner to a frequent Boston marathoner, I’m devastated tonight. My thoughts are with those who were injured, their families, Boston residents, selfless first responders, and members of the running community. I don’t even know what to say to them, except “Tell us what you need. It’s yours.”

I don’t understand why someone would murder and maim people who build a loving community, who celebrate a great city and a historical event, who want nothing more than to be and do their best.

But I’m getting mired in the pain and the ugly and the fear. So I want to step back for a moment to something that has always bothered me about the way in which we discuss tragedy.

Please, please understand this comes from a soulful place of love, empathy, and concern. I am not being sarcastic, I’m not joking, and I’m not in any way minimizing.


Why do we react so much more intensely when the dead include children? Reports keep singling out the injury reports of children and the death of a child as though killing a child is worse than killing an adult.

Is it? Are we actually assigning children more worth than adults?

I know that I was affected at a much more visceral level hearing that one of the dead was so young. So heartbreakingly young.

But the other people who died were much younger than they were supposed to die, too.

Believe me, I find the details of those children treated for major injuries horrifying. I’m a mother. The thought of any children being hurt in any way actually keeps me awake at night. I am sick at the thought of a child hurt in a bomb blast.

But I’m just as sick to think of someone’s father being hurt in a bomb blast. Someone’s sister. Someone’s boyfriend. Someone’s mentor, sponsor, lover, friend, colleague…I’m sick about every person hurt, every limb removed, every death.


But I’m asking, in terms of our use of rhetoric, our telling of stories, our accepted morality that says it’s worse to intentionally hurt a child: why do we focus on the children?

I understand completely why it’s not okay to hurt people, and why it’s reprehensible to hurt a child. But if we’re talking mass casualties, if we’re talking bomb blast that kills indiscriminately, why do we focus on the dead child more intensely than the other dead people?

Children don’t know the extent to which some evil really creeps; they don’t know Holocaust or slavery or war or torture. They don’t know. So their early end is somehow more horrible? I feel that, but I don’t understand it logically.

Is it because children are innocent? Most citizens of most countries around the world, it seems to me, are pretty innocent. (But wait, my heart says, children are way more innocent.)

Is it because children have their whole lives ahead of them? Most marathoners and their family and friends, it seems to me, have a whole lot of life left, too. (But wait, my head reminds me, children have more life left.)

Is it because children are so desperately loved? Most fathers, mothers, sisters, brothers, wives, husbands, girlfriends, boyfriends, friends, aunts, uncles…you get the picture…it seems to me, are pretty dearly loved, too. (But wait, whispers my soul, children are loved more completely and unconditionally. I hope.)

Is it because children can’t protect themselves? Most people moving past or standing near a hidden bomb, it seems to me, can’t protect themselves, which is, of course, the point to the horrible, disgusting people who did this.

Is it because there is a greater shock value to a child’s injuries and death? I swear I’m not trying to be cynical, but do reporters focus on the bomb shrapnel in boys and girls because we’re all so horrified that we keep reading? Tell the story of a runner, of a bystander, but really push hard on the story of a child because that story makes us gasp out loud? Maybe. I did gasp out loud for that eight-year-old.


Is it because children aren’t supposed to die? Is that the core of this? That with each year of life we’re getting closer to dying, but that it’s just horrifically, stomach-turningly shocking to hear that an eight-year-old was killed?

Or, say, 26 first graders?

I don’t understand the disgusting malice that would make someone build, plant, and detonate a bomb. I don’t. I don’t understand the sociopathology that would make someone disregard human or animal life. I don’t. I don’t understand where we’re supposed to go from here, as a nation and as world citizens. I don’t understand how people all over the world deal with frequent deadly attacks.

And I don’t understand why it’s an eight-year-old’s murder at a sporting event is so much worse than an adult’s murder at a sporting event.

But there’s a little piece of me that feels that it is.

It’s not fair to the families of the injured and dead in a terrible tragedy, and I hate saying it for the illogic it suggests, but I’m pretty sure injured and killed children wrench more than anything else. A child’s life is not worth more than anyone else’s. But somehow their death cuts more deeply.

I think.

What do you say?