Further and Close

The Potomac River breaching the park to the bench.

It starts just below my breastbone. It’s very localized, in my chest. It’s a time when I recognize my heart is a muscle. It tightens.

Heat radiates from that beating muscle down toward my tensing stomach. And I feel my throat close a bit. My nose begins to swell and my eyes itch. Almost itch.

I fight back with a deep breath and it all subsides, just before it spills over into tears.

It happens again and again today. From the first reminder on a screen in my hand, through interviews on news shows and sprinkled liberally in football coverage.

Over and over I push it aside. I struggle through. I feel the hurt. Of watching the towers fall again and again. Seeing the smoke from the pentagon over and over. Listening to the reading of the names. Names of those lost, the innocent and the brave. Even after fifteen years, it still cuts. It still shocks. It still hurts.

In remembrance of all that was lost that day. And our search for peace.


No Sense

Photo of 13th and H St. at 10:55 a.m. on January 4th, 1931

Her hair was strawberry blonde, more strawberry than blonde. When you looked closely, you saw that she came that way. No off color at the ends. No reverse skunk dark roots. No center part outlined with silver or white.

She had a thick head of hair and bangs flew from her face. Although her cut was not high fashion, the ends weren’t split. Somebody might say she was a ginger with her freckled face and arms, but she wasn’t that fair and her skin held a tan just fine.

Her lips were moving, and she was only wordless in that she wasn’t making a sound, but she was most definitely forming words. Her face was more than sun kissed. Maybe a bit weather worn, too.

Her back was to the building and behind her was an unopened bottle of orange juice and an extra large cup from Chick-fil-A, or Five Guys or some other red writing on a white logo’ed joint. In front of her was a medium sized, clear plastic cup with a ring of green leaves that identified this as recyclable plastic. Maybe it wasn’t even plastic. It could be a corn product. The cup in front of her was about a foot from her mouth making the shapes of words. There was green inside the cup as well as bordering the cup. The green was paper money.

Back to her hair, it wasn’t dirty. It wasn’t matted. It wasn’t higgledy-piggledy. But it wasn’t fresh from the salon, either. Her eyes were closed and the teeth behind her moving lips were a little oversized, but there. She was wearing a dress and black hose. Not sheer hose, but tights. The tights were ripped and ran. The toes on her left foot, the one on top, were exposed. Her right foot, the one on the bottom, was almost completely bereft of cover. There was a thread that looped between two of her toes that kept the rest of the stocking on her leg.

She had no shoes. No shoes on her feet. No shoes near her feet. No shoes near her head. No shoes next to the unopened juice. She didn’t have a bag. Not a purse. Not a backpack. Not a garbage bag. Not a thin plastic bag from the Walgreens.

She was more than asleep. More like passed out. She was sprawled on the sidewalk in the mid afternoon on a busy corner in the business district. She was on her right side with her hands near her chest, her legs pulled up slightly. Her nearly bare feet pointed toward the White House.

It wasn’t unusual for people to sleep on the sidewalk or to ask for money or to live on the streets downtown. But she didn’t look like that. She looked different. Like she was either a new transplant or someone who was lost or someone who was dumped.

A few people paused as they walked by her, looking to see if she was breathing, wondering if she was okay. At least two called to have someone check in on her. This is because as one was describing the woman and her location to the emergency dispatch, Engine 16 was in the intersection, making a left turn. The firefighters stepped out of the big red truck.

The one on the phone told dispatch that someone was here, hung up and felt water welling in eyesockets. She turned her head to the sky and said a prayer, hoping that something was there to catch it.

Don’t Be Mad With Science

Trinity College Library in Dublin. A spiral staircase to the books.

Cancer is an awful scourge that makes people we love suffer. The rat-bastard disease rips people we love out of our lives. Stupid cancer makes people into angels when we aren’t ready to let them go, when we should be with them. Nobody likes cancer. It makes people worried. And sad. And mad. And scared.

Charlatans and money grubbers who prey on the fears and hopes of people with cancer–and I’m including family and almost-family as having cancer because cancer is a “we” disease–those cons suck almost as much as cancer sucks. Maybe more.

Cancer is indiscriminate. It doesn’t select hosts based on age, gender, race, religion, income, social status or whether you prefer the Yankees or the Red Sox. The predators actually do focus on the victims. The saddest. The most fearful. Those who are desperate. Maybe they are worse than cancer. They have intention.

I read a NYT piece about drug companies that are selling their wares directly to sick people. The author of the article was triggered by the sunny promises of a better cancer through, in this case, immunotherapy. I get how gutted the surviving spouse felt by seeing the skewed promises of a therapy that might help a little. Or maybe not at all. And to the grieving family, I am so very sorry for their loss and the “cheery” reminder of their anguish via a TV commercial during a sporting event.

I am in riotous agreement that the direct to patient marketing of drugs is ugly. It sells us solutions that many of us do not have the ability to evaluate. And it interrupts the relationship with caregivers.

When I was diagnosed with cancer, people who knew me well, and some who knew me less well, would nod and smile and opine about my internet research learning all the ins and outs of the disease and the treatment. I couldn’t share the nod. Instead I shook my head.

Like my two weeks on the internet would make me know more than a board certified oncologist and otolaryngologist who were professors at the medical school? I dunno. Didn’t make sense to me. I made the decision that my medical team was as good as I could get, given the hand I was dealt.

I decided to trust the experts.

Now, if I thought they were bozos, I would not. But then why would they be my doctors? I live in a major city. I have choices–including five major cancer treatment centers. My guys were smart, compassionate and great communicators. They presented options. I asked a bunch of questions. The Spouse asked plenty. Even the Big Guy chimed in. I quickly made a choice of treatment that made sense. This was really hard because the cancer made no sense, making the sense-making itself inimical.  And dammit, Jim, I’m DocThink not Doctor of Medicine. I studied as best I could, and then selected their recommendation. I threw in with them.

For me, it turned out okay. For my friend K, it didn’t. For my friend T, it did. For my other K friend, we’re thinking it will. For my MIL, no. For my Dad, yes (it wasn’t C that took him). For M, yup. I’m sure that you can add your own set of initials to the tally.

But here’s my thing. Looking at the comments on the NYT post disparaging the blood-sucking, players-of-people’s-worst-fears-for-money drug companies, there is a significant thread of people hating ANY cancer treatment. Chemo = bad. Radiation = criminal. Surgery = butchery. Immunotherapy = mumbo jumbo.

But these therapies have worked for many of us. Either getting rid of the shitty cancer, or giving people time in months or years with their families. I am terrified that people will reject the expertise of people–doctors, nurses, scientists–who are trained and committed to curing or, if that’s not possible, ameliorating cancer.

My doc told me that he had three goals for my treatment. 1. Keeping me alive. 2. Ensuring the best quality of life. 3. Making me look as good as possible. In that order. He did all three. He presented me a novel treatment that would not have been in the internet results. But he had a robot and he wasn’t afraid to use it. And I believed in him, as he believed in me.

The science and the practitioners aren’t the bad guys. They’re not perfect. They’re the first responders, fighting the terrorism of cancer with us. Not against us. Let’s call out anyone who’s taking advantage of us, but let’s not put a single blanket of shame on the entire medical profession. We can trust science, and verify as well as we can. And may the odds be ever in your favor.

Hand Out

A pile of coins in somebodies hand.

Today I was thinking of the day that I quit my canvassing job. It was my summer job, and I couldn’t do it another day.

The day was sultry, like today. So hot that, when you walked, bugs would touch down on your skin for a salty drink of sweat. So dank that, even early in the evening, the sky flirted heavily with the on dark its wet edges. The breeze, if you could call it that, was more like the exhaling of a dragon. After it ate a bag of nacho cheese Doritos. It’s nothing except nasty.

But when you’re dropped off in tonight’s territory, you ignore that. It doesn’t make sense to be angry with the outside since you’ll be there for the next four or five hours. You have doors to knock on. You have a smile and a riff to give to the person on the other side of that door. Heat madness has no value.

I wasn’t a good canvasser. Not like those well-trained, almost Disney Channel canvassers I see on the streets of D.C.  No. I was an old school canvasser. It was so old school that the goal for a 21 year old woman walking in an unknown neighborhood alone was to get into the house of a stranger to make friends enough that they gave you money. I only got grabbed on my ass once. I was never bit by a dog.

I wasn’t a good canvasser and my wages proved that. You only got salary if you made quota. Quota was the amount of money you were tasked with raising. You needed to make quota all week to make salary. I never did that. I probably should have been fired with my low take. I made quota maybe 4 nights over the summer. But I got paid out a percentage of my take. That was enough to pay for my sublet, utilities, french fries and beer. It was summer.

People with more experience than me always loved the nights when your territory had curvy streets. That meant more income. But to me it was just doors opened by glassy-eyed housewives who would let me prattle on about energy costs, and then when I did my ask they’d say that their husbands weren’t home. And that they didn’t make decisions, not even a $10 or $25 donation, without him. I found myself humming Mother’s Little Helper as I dejectedly stepped off the porch and walked back down their long driveways. It took me a while to realize that their vacant interest was more vacant than interested.

The last week I canvassed we were in Dearborn. The second day of the week I, as usual, wasn’t doing great. People weren’t home, the ones that were weren’t interested, and, honestly, I wasn’t good enough to get their interest. I hated asking for money. This one house, though, had a pair of teachers behind the brick facade. They invited me in. It was the money shot, getting in the house. The idea was if you were in, they’d write a check.

The wife-teacher offered me lemonade. I joined her and the husband-teacher on their back patio, sitting at a crackled-glass topped table, underneath a sun shading umbrella. I spent thirty or forty-five minutes talking about energy, jobs, cars and education in metro-Detroit. The sun was just starting to sink as they offered me a beer. It was a cold Michelob on a dripping night. I was totally screwing up, I should have been to more houses. But instead I shared progressive political thoughts with my hosts. I was too friendly with them to ask for a check, but he wrote one for $15 anyway. That plus the other $15 I canvassed meant that I wasn’t making quota. Again.

The next night, a Wednesday, we were a little further west. Away from the city. I was doing poorly, as was my way. I was discouraged. I’m sure I was looking sultry. Without any sexy. The house in front of me wasn’t huge, but it looked pricier than yesterday’s neighborhood. There were four late-model cars in the driveway, including a shiny new red Cadillac. I rang the bell. I could see into the house through the screen door. No response. I looked to my right at the thousands and thousands of dollars worth of almost new cars in the driveway and rang the bell again. A woman spilled down from upstairs, her silky kimono-y robe streaming behind her as it was still wrapped around her. She had auburn hair that framed her face in a soft Liz Taylor kind of bouffant. She listened to my pitch with great interest and said, “I’m sorry I can’t help. I was just laid off.” And she looked at me blankly, and I realized that she had been blank the entire time.

Thursday night we were in Dearborn Heights. It was the end of the week because we didn’t knock on doors on Fridays. The streets were laid out in a strict grid. This was not a place for me to make up for my week’s failures. The houses were still brick, but were closer to the sidewalk. The heavy concrete porches were reached by climbing five steps and were fortified by brick and mortar. I half-heartedly knocked on doors and pressed doorbells for the first thirty minutes of my shift. It wasn’t unusual that most people weren’t home yet. I plodded on. The houses were mirrors of each other. One had the door on the right side of the porch, and the next on the left side. I met her at her house which had a right-sided porch.

She seemed like a grandma, the stooped woman who answered the door. She lived with her son who was at work. She had a slight accent, and I am going to say eastern European, but that could be because that was the accent of my own grandmother. But she was much younger than my grandma. Maybe not too much older than my mother, but she had lived hard. But well. And with pride.

I almost didn’t go through my spiel with her. I didn’t think I would get anywhere, but she asked me a set of engaging questions and I realized that I was unfairly dismissing her. Not as a donor, but as a person. She was interested in the energy issues and asked me to explain the regulatory process. I think that she was more curious than interested, and I know that she was more lonely than curious. We sat on the top stoop of her porch. Again, the sun started to set. I needed to move on and thanked her. She asked me why I was there. I told her that I was raising money in the neighborhood. She looked at me in the eyes and held up her finger so that I would wait. She disappeared into her house and returned in a few minutes. She had a pile of coins in her hand.

She took my hand into her small hand and passed the coins. “This was for the paper-boy, but I want you to take it.” I didn’t want to, but I wanted less to insult her, this woman who was so engaged with me, who was so kind, who was so generous. I thanked her with all of my heart and walked back to my rendezvous point. My pickup wasn’t for ninety minutes.

I sat down on the curb and lit a cigarette. I decided right then that I was done. I couldn’t take the paperboy money from the working poor anymore. And I couldn’t extract money from the Cadillac lady.

I saw in that week the generosity of those who have little. People who will share what they have. Because they know what it’s like to do a day’s work. They respect your work as they do their own. They give what they can.

I think about being embraced by that woman on that muggy day and in that oppressive week. I think about her giving from her heart. I think about the woman running down the stairs in her billowy robe.  I remember who I am, and who I wish to be. And I remember to put my hand out, to help when I can.



an eye. staring at you.

She flipped her hands through her blond bob and flicked the ends of her hair away from her head in a practiced way. No. It wasn’t practiced. It was a little bit of a tic, the unfurling of the hair, but she flipped her wrist so her hair would fall comfortably toward her chin. She wasn’t flipping out.

She was done with that flipping out.

Her dress was the best turquoise that she could wear. This was significant because turquoise, aqua and many blues all suited her. Her silver and light stone necklace had three tiers but was somehow a light accessory despite all the layers. There was a silver “coin” that drew down that last tier without being heavy. The baubles were luminous, not hefty.

Actually, everything about her was light. Even the lines around her eyes, which were etched by years of quick smiles, were hairlines. Not the crevices that dragged her eyes into her cheeks that dropped into her chin last year. She had no surgery, but her face was lifted.

But there were the twinkles. The ones that reflected from the mirror at the back of the bar and flickered from her eyes. The light that bounced off the shiny, polished wooden bar–it must be from a spotlight shining from the tall ceiling–hit the side of her coupe glass and shone from her ready smile. The smile wasn’t a refresh. It’s always been fast and friendly. But it’s funny how her internal glow made her teeth brighter. And the lines on her face disappear.

She floated just a little bit above her barstool. More like a hover than a transcendental experience. It was part of her lightness.

She realized that people liked her, appreciated her, found her compelling, and maybe, some of them, found her sexy. She was amazed, and then felt righteous, that others felt her value. She had no conceit. She just did. And what she did was good.

She left the dark behind her.  She pulled her anchor out from the cold sea and set sail toward the infinite horizon, following the infinite dawn. She was wrapped in the light.

Sizing Up

Castle gate and wall. Imposing, no?

When I was a wee Doc we lived in The Old House. The house wasn’t especially old, but we called it The Old House to differentiate it from The New House. We moved to the new house just before My Older Sibling started kindergarten.

The New House was fully and completely new. It stood on what had been a part of a good-sized dairy farm that was subdivided into new blocks of varying sizes with twisty roads, half circles and a few cul-de-sacs. There were two very tall and very impressive trees. They were like Ents. The rest of the greenery was new sod and very young, very slow growing trees. When I left for college they barely provided shade.

The Old House, on the other hand, was surrounded by big old trees in the front and in the back. Indeed, the entire street was protected by limbs stretching and trying to touch their brethren across the street. Dappled gold and bursts of saffron would sneak through the small breaks in the big green canopy like specks of amber in hazel eyes. Closing my own, I can still see it, and feel it.

There were two very frightening things on the street with The Old House. First, the bees.

We were terrified of the bees. Someone told us that if they saw you move, they’d come after you and sting you. They were huge bees, the size of golf balls. No. Tennis balls. They would buzz back and forth among the flowers of the old lady down the street. We called her grandma. Her flowers were lovely, except for the bees that hung in front of the flowers. They looked like they were on wires that someone would occasionally move–either a small jerky up and down motion or a smoother left to right. We would spy them and very carefully, silently and slowly, holding our breaths, walk past grandma’s house.

Aa soon as we passed her property line we’d explode like a pinball out of the chute to our friend’s porch to play. I remember a bunch of cement steps to her porch. It was dark and cool, likely from one of those ancient elms. I don’t remember what we played, though. I think we launched ourselves off the steps.

The other terror was another neighbor’s dog. It would bark in a vicious manner. It was very loud. It’d throw itself against the fence to try and break through while full of snarl and howl to intimidate us as we walked by. And that monstrous dog was on the other side of the street. He really didn’t have to go to all that trouble. We weren’t allowed to cross the street.

One day I was walking back home by myself and the dog was banging against the fence. I was spying for bees and looking back over my shoulder across the street to see him break through. There was no worry and creeping past the bees. I took off as fast as I could to my house. The dog was gaining on me as I ran up the driveway through our open gate. I used all my strength to push the chain link gate closed, and it latched just as Cujo bashed into it. I lay on the ground for a second, catching my breath and watching the insane tirade of the evil dog. Worried he’d force himself through my barrier, I ran around the side of the house to the door and pushed my way to safety.

I was four when we moved. I don’t remember going back to The Old House for a long time.

The next time I saw the house, I was with my Dad. He was visiting our old neighbor, who was his best friend. It was maybe ten years later. I walked up our old driveway to the astonishing fence that saved me from that demon dog. Really, the fence wasn’t as astonishing as I was astonished. The gate that I remember breathlessly dragging to save myself from that ferocious canine wasn’t much more than two-feet tall. It would barely keep out a Jack Russell Terrier. So the dog that was chasing me was not a mastiff. Makes sense. Everything was bigger when I was smaller. I had a good chuckle.

I remembered this fence today. It came to me as I was thinking about fear. What are we afraid of? Do we let the objects of our fears grow huge before us? Or do we take a closer look and see them for what they are? Do we keep the images we had when we were most afraid, or do we gain perspective over time? Can we apply new knowledge to dissect and examine our experience and use that understanding to grow? Or do we stay stuck in that moment of terror, never to lift our heads again?


A sandwich wrapped in paper.

She stood balancing with one foot in the street with her other, mostly sensible, pump on the curb. The door on her silver Honda was swung wide, but she wasn’t in a hurry.

She was pulling the two halves of a sandwich apart. The sandwich maker clearly didn’t cut it clean through. It was wrapped well, and the paper was protecting the meal from the cold wind.

It’s the second day of Spring, but Winter is not quite ready to let go.

The man was there in his usual spot on the bench. He was in the neon orange snow pants and neon orange jacket. He doesn’t wear this gear every day and the pants only on especially cold days. Usually he just wears a hat, but today his cragged face–one of a not old man but a man who has lived old–was framed by the orange wimple of the hood pulled tight, framing around his face.

He looked up at the woman fighting with the sandwich, his head slightly tilted back with a beatific smile. It’s unusual for him to engage like this. Sometimes he interacts with people imagined, sometimes real. It’s not unlikely that his language is punctuated with hard words spoken sharply. Not today, though. Today he’s wearing a smile of a sweet child happy with his people.

Maybe the woman is his daughter, or his sister or a friend from before. Maybe she is just a kind stranger, and he is reflecting that kindness. Perhaps she was splitting that sandwich and they were going to eat together.

Setting Sail on the S.S. Crapper

shipwreck in Australia

Dammit people! Have you not yet figured out how the internet works?

Let me break it down for you. You tell your “woe is me” story publicly–like for example on Medium or on Facebook where you post to 1,327 “friends” and friends of their friends so it’s pretty public–and people crap on you. That’s what happens.

Also some people will reach out to you as if you are a beautiful and fragile flower. Those people then crap on the people crapping on you. And then the initial crappers pay back.

Yes, your personal misery become a crapfest all because you see yourself as a writer speaking truth to power or speaking your own truth. You’re patient zero on a crapfest of your own making.

I have pathos for you. Really, on a personal level, I do. I know you are going through something and you want to get it off your chest.

Getting it off your chest in a most public forum, however, is NOT a solution. It might be a step in getting to a solution. It may–and I say may in the most improbable sense of the word–be a work of art.

What it IS though, and this is true whether or not you explicitly invite it, is an opportunity for people to engage with you. And call you mean names. And ask why you are lazy, stupid, + all the variants of stupid, playing the victim, selfish, self-entitled, self-absorbed, self-centered, self-everything, unambitious, and/or petty. Some will oddly attack your looks and say you’re fat, ugly, lumpy, disgusting…oh, I could go on, but you’ve already read those attacks. Sorry. And even though it’s about them trolling for reaction and not about you, it still feels mean and painful.

Then there’s the relativist responses. You know, that you don’t have it so bad. That others have it way worse. You are having first world problems. I walked eight miles to school uphill both ways in the snow wearing tires for shoes and with a piece of moldy bread for lunch. And of course, think of the CHILDREN??

So, I do feel for you personally because your dreams aren’t coming true in the way you imagined, that your parents won’t pay for your dream wedding, that your job sucks, that it’s really really hard to be bombarded with messages about having it all when you have baby poop on your suit.

But when you publish it for all to see, expect that not everyone will see it from your point of view. They see it through their own crap-covered glasses.


Adieu 2014

adieu: old french TO GOD

It’s the end of the year, and many have told me to quickly close the door on 2014.

But this has been an extraordinary year. One that is a marker for me. Not because I had a ton of punches on my healthcare loyalty card.

No, extraordinary because I spent a little time in the darkest space I’ve ever been, and a lot of time squinting in the absurd brightness of the lightest spaces.

I dodged the bullets–not through anything but serendipity.

I know that I am lucky, fortunate, blessed, charmed, or whatever you call what happens when you are right on the edge of everything going to hell but then it turns out okay.

I know that it’s not because I am good or that I am bad or that God is taking care of me or that God is rejecting me. I don’t think that you only get what you can handle or that there is a greater purpose.

I also know that I am not in control of what I am dealt. Last, I do know that “it is what it is.” And acknowledging that helps me to mine my experiences for lessons (maybe that is “purpose?”).

Major lessons? The only thing that I can control is how I process and react. The fountain of kindness of my family, friends, neighbors and colleagues is infinite. Asking for and accepting help is more than necessary, it makes me both more humble and more human. Yes, giving is important, but so is being receptive. I learned the real reason why people pray–sometimes it’s the only thing you can do. And, you can’t go wrong if you do things out of love. It won’t guarantee you are right, but motives frame impact.

You know how at the end of the book, the character collapses after bruising battles and wakes up days later asking “how long have I been asleep?” This end of the year has been like that, but without the sleeping part.

Yeah, this has been a bruising year. But it is a year that has been full of amazing–and maybe some unspeakable–lessons.

I am not sorry to see the year end. So, I send you, my friend 2014, with fondness to God. Adieu, 2014.

Thinking The New Year

glass easily half full

I was lucky to click through to a good post by Stowe Boyd on resolving to be the best you. It’s called “Nature or Nurture In Social Networking” [not a compelling title to me], but what makes it important to my thinkings it that it reminds me that we make our own heaven or hell. [Even though he says that we don’t.]

In doing a good job of synthesizing recent research on happiness in social networks, Boyd also points up a few resolution/techniques that can help us (read ME) do something to make ourselves happier. [See this is the irony in him saying that our happiness is not within our own control and then giving some steps that ARE in our control. Still, it works for me.]

  • Resolve to surround yourself with people who are actively involved with activities and behaviors you want to do more of.
  • Avoid people who are involved with activities and behaviors you want to do less of.
  • When in contact with people who want to emulate you, be aware that you have this sort of impact on them. —from Stowe Boyd

I was thinking, is depression contagious? I now recognize that I have spent the last two years living with and loving people with depression. Can this be having an effect on my own natural optimism?

Optimists think that they can fix it. Depression isn’t “fixable” in a traditional pull-yourself-out-of-it kind of way. And when you love somebody, it doesn’t do you any good to resolve to avoid them because their negativity is contagious.

On the other hand, could my optimism help my social network feel more optimistic? I choose to think so–especially since I have no intention of removing the nodes with depression from my network.

Glass definitely half-full. Game on!