Happy New Year from New York City, where neither the Coronavirus, incompetent leadership, nor burgeoning crime can kill us. We have been through a lot over the past year and will go through much more before our current pandemic is over. Things may never return to pre-pandemic “normal” again and that’s not all bad.
We will not let the stressful state of our world stop us from listing some priorities for the New Year. Here are what I see as our guiding principles for 2021:
Stay frosty. I am fortunate that I live in a region where facemasks and social distancing are both the law and the social norm. That is fragile even here and even more difficult in areas where anti-maskers/science deniers have a greater dominance. There is no such thing as being too careful about your health when there is a once-in-a-century pandemic happening. Seriously, no matter your political proclivities, do you really feel the urge to be closer to your fellow man right now? I hope not. Keep your distance and wash your hands. Here is your chance to mouth a hearty “fuck you” to half the people you meet behind your fashionable mask. Stick to it because this is not over yet.
Read more poetry. This oft-ignored form of literature is much more diverse than it gets its due. We need poetry and the madness of literary dreamers now more than ever. You could do worse than perusing Impolite Literature or Outlaw Poetry.
Pursue the things you miss most. This pandemic has left us hungry for things that we miss. It’s has shone a big spotlight on things we love and hate. Remember the things you miss the most and chase them with dedicated abandon. I plan on spending more time making music than I have in recent years. I could never tear myself away but having played only two shows in 2020 has left me with a fever for being back playing shows, no matter how small the stage or the crowd. Some people need to be loud. Maybe you rediscovered a passion for painting pumpkins or making weird videos or trying to grow ghost peppers in your garden. Go for it all.
Chasing normal for normal’s sake won’t work. I miss the benefits of the non-pandemic life but working 12-hour days without seeing your family is bullshit, no matter how much money you make. Just because it bears that pre-pandemic shine does not mean it’s Shinola. Some of the stuff that COVID kicked to the curb belongs there. Leave it.
Don’t wait for the pandemic to be over to reach out to family and friends. You do not have to do a Zoom call or a Skype call for everything. Use your telephone the old-fashioned way and call people. You will find it be a refreshing exercise. Convert the tiresome Zoom calls into regular visits; we can build better rituals in the flesh when that becomes possible again.
Order as much takeout as you can eat without becoming obese. Our favorite local diner cannot let us sit inside, so I brought my girls there this morning and we ordered takeout and had a car picnic in our mini van before driving to an aquarium. Those restaurants that are able to stay open are hanging on for dear life. If you can afford to give them your business, please do, and tip generously.
Time is getting shorter for everyone; and we have put enough of our lives on ice. Grab the New Year by the lapels and make it dance with you.
Thanksgiving came and went with still much to be thankful for in New York, at least for my family. While a second or third Coronavirus raged through the city, our immediate family remains healthy and those in our larger family circle that have been ill have recovered.
Everyone in our family has food in their stomach and a roof over their head. Even before COVID-19 rampaged through the world there were billions of people who could not say that much, and that’s getting worse now. I am gainfully employed and have not been sick and have more than enough food; I am thankful.
New York perseveres, but suffers a crisis of confidence. While we were the first place in the U.S. to see widespread COVID infection and death, we were the first to “flatten the curve” with social distancing and masks. Now we’re having a critical relapse with a spike of infections. Schools closed, now are reopening again in a swift reversal of policy. Crime continues to surge.
And all the while, we see thousands of our fellow New Yorkers not taking their own lives seriously. A Hasidic group worked secretly to arrange a large indoor wedding, sans facemasks, and was given a slap-on-the-wrist fine. I go food shopping and see people who can’t wear a facemask properly going about their business in blissful, entitled ignorance.
Yes, we’re not supposed to be judgmental during these difficult times, but this pandemic has revealed just how many of our fellow human beings are unfit to breath the same air.
Having children in a city apartment can be trying during good times; it has been especially trying during this extended pandemic. What we have though is a place we call the secret playground. It’s not really a secret playground, but a little-used playground in a neighboring co-op that we’re not really supposed to use. The old fogeys that run the board where we live did away with the playground for our building years ago, so to use a local playground is to be an automatic scofflaw.
But I take my girls to the secret playground as often as I can. There are rarely other children playing there, so I can let my kids take down their facemasks, if our family is alone. Usually a few residents will walk through on their way to and from their homes, and we’ll put our masks back up as they come through; they are still almost always more than six feet away. It is an oasis that the unseasonably warmer November weather has given us access to and I don’t want to let a single good weather day go to waste as we endure another lockdown.
Sometime next year, we will hopefully begin adapting to a post-COVID world, and some things we will want to stay the same. I’m not alone in hoping that the world remains one where we’re given more personal space and take extra steps to reduce indoor crowds and make spaces safer, with better ventilation and more protections. These are good ideas outside of pandemics.
And therein lies the appeal of the secret playground: it is a respite from the current world and a model for how to best rebuild when we emerge from our currently dismal state. We cannot live in a bubble world, but we can look at our better adaptations of today to keep our joy and our priorities in line with where we need to be.
This year has seen the departure of some great musicians: Little Richard, Charlie Daniels, Neil Peart from Rush, Frankie Banali of Quiet Riot and W.A.S.P., Fleetwood Mac cofounder Peter Green, Power Trip lead singer Riley Gale, the list goes on.
Walter Lure’s passing is a loss that hits home for music fans, especially punk rock fans. Lure was one of the founders of The Heartbreakers, the band led by former New York Dolls Guitarist Johnny Thunders. The Heartbreakers were immensely influential in shaping punk rock. Lure helped write many of the band’s most famous songs and was part of the vanguard that brought punk rock to the world. After the Heartbreakers, he continued to play and record music with his own band, The Waldos. His musical virtuosity extended beyond his own groups as well. If you ever hear a guitar solo on a Ramones record, chances are Walter Lure is playing it. He was the one holding things down and singing lead vocals oftentimes when Johnny Thunders, addled by drug use, would nod off on stage.
Lure struggled with his own addiction, and recounted in an interview that an arrest for buying drugs on his lunch break and almost losing his job was what finally drove him to beat his habit. He worked in the financial world, running large clearing operations, and eventually retiring in 2015 from Neuberger Berman.
“The funny bit was that back in the 90s when I was in charge of all those people on the job, a lot of them would come to my shows and laugh at the fact that their boss was playing punk rock music onstage. My clothes closet had all my work suits and ties on one side and the other side had all the beat-up stage clothes. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde here you are!”
And here is another way in which Walter Lure continues to inspire so many musicians. The rock stars you see on the covers of magazines are an exceedingly small percentage of the people who are out there playing music every night. Most musicians who make music don’t make money at it and have to hold down day jobs to keep a roof over their head. Walter Lure was a big enough musician that if this were a just world, he would have had mansions all over the world, but he held down a day job and continued to make great music.
My band Blackout Shoppers got to play with The Waldos in the basement of CBGB’s 13, which was part of CBGB’s but not the more famous main stage. Walter Lure had played that main stage plenty of times and would later be one of the last acts to play when CB’s shut down a few years later.
He would have had every right to carry a massive rock star ego or bristle at the idea playing on a small stage in a basement with a bunch of unknown bands, but there was none of that from him. He showed up with his band and rocked, playing lots of the famous punk rock songs he helped write. He gladly took pictures with people who wanted to and hung around and chatted with everyone afterwards. He stayed true to the punk ethos to his dying day.
One of my friends whose band was on that same show commented, “We all got to play with Walter Lure, how lucky were we all??”
The world was lucky to have Walter Lure making music for so long. RIP and thank you Waldo.
Life during this pandemic has taken on a negative pattern. I wake up, I work 12+ hours at home, I have dinner, put the kids to bed, watch an hour of TV (usually Ozark now), and then go to bed. I’m too tired and demoralized to do much productive, and maybe that’s OK right now. My goal is to get through the pandemic without me or any of my family getting sick and remain gainfully employed during the biggest economic downturn since the Great Depression.
On a weekly family Zoom call, we were going around discussing the extremely negative state of affairs in the world, when one of my cousins interjected, requesting that we share at least one piece of good news.
Good news is:
I have a job. I know too many people out of work to complain about my job. I’m gainfully employed, and layoffs are not on the horizon for me any time soon. And sometimes you must remember that any night you can go to bed with a roof over your head and food in your stomach, you are ahead of the game.
My family is healthy. Every sniffle and sneeze make me fearful that we may be stricken with the Coronavirus, and right now one of my daughters has a fever and I am terrified, but we’ve been doing everything right. We have been disinfecting, washing our hands, and staying inside.
There is still plenty of food. While the lack of cleaning products in the stores is alarming, there is still plenty of food despite panic-buying that has set in. Food distribution is being disrupted by the outbreak, and that is getting worse in some cases, but there is no reason for anyone in the U.S. to go hungry, there never is.
This causes us to think. I was on a call with people at work and one of the participants mentioned that he had had dinner with his family every night for three weeks and remarked at how rare and unusual this is. He didn’t seem to realize how seriously wrong this painted the previous status-quo. The Coronavirus pandemic has pulled back the curtain on just how unacceptable “normal” had become.
This will end. We’ll look back on this time and be glad we got through it. This won’t be forever, though hopefully some lessons from it will be.
Fear of a second wave
We are better off staying indoors on lockdown weeks longer than we need rather than risk opening up too early. There is a quest to “go back to normal” because of the economic and psychological impact of this isolation. But reopening things too early without enough available tests and before we’ve gotten through the pandemic means risking a dangerous second wave of the pandemic, which would make things worse.
The closest historical guide we have to what we are experiencing with COVID-19 is the Spanish Flu of more than 100 years ago. The deadliest time of that flu was the second wave of the pandemic in the fall of 1918.
Small protests to reopen in the midst of this crisis earned rightful derision, especially as some protests appeared to circle and block hospitals. The image of medical professionals counter-protesting in traffic in Denver will be a lasting one to remind us that even as much of the world has come together, there were a small minority of pandemic flat-Earthers who pathetically strutted around with weapons and exposed themselves and others to disease.
Too many people are not taking this crisis seriously. The Spanish Flu of 1918 had its naysayers as well, and they felt morally justified in endangering public health. History consistently condemns people who think they know better than the leading scientists of their day; you can’t eliminate these people because hubris and stupidity cannot be killed.
I plan to live long enough to remind my grandchildren how we had such fools in these times too, and how we survived and thrived.
In New York City, the epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic in the U.S., life is slowly adjusting to a new, temporary normal that is at once both dreadful and mundane.
What is cruelest about this epidemic is that it keeps us from one another in times of great need and hardship, when the embrace of a loved one is needed most. This past week our family lost a cousin, Greg O’Rourke, to cancer. His brothers and sisters had to take turns visiting him, as visitors are restricted due to this outbreak. One sibling had to wait outside the hospital while the other went in to spend time with him; he passed away during one of these transitions. They will have to take turns visiting his graveside at his burial, and the family will hold a mass and visitation sometime later this year.
Today my wife went to a virtual Shiva using Zoom. Her friend’s husband quickly succumbed to COVID-19; he was hospitalized on Sunday and died Thursday. Doctors were so busy treating his illness it took them a while to notice he had broken his hip when he collapsed at home.
As a family we have not been outside for nearly a month, and I am going out only late at night to buy groceries when we need them. I spoke with a friend of mine who is a history professor. He has spent his career studying biological warfare and pandemics. He said I was doing the right thing, that one can’t be too careful or too paranoid at a time like this. I take some comfort in this, also in that if we had left the city, we may have been going from the frying pan to the fire.
The way to prevent illness is very basic: Stay home, only leave home if you need to, stay six feet away from people when you do, wash your hands, and don’t touch your face.
We’ve all become painfully aware of how often we touch our faces. It’s an awareness that will stay with us when this is over.
This pandemic is of an historic magnitude on par with the Great Depression—some experts predict unemployment could rise as high as 20%, levels not seen since that time. Also, the Depression ushered in a new alignment of a more active government. The U.S. response to the COVID-19 outbreak runs the gamut from bumbled and patchwork to murderously incompetent. There needs to be a reckoning for this, both here and abroad.
And this crisis comes with a reordering of priorities. We’re talking to friends more, staying in touch with family over the phone or through online chat services because we don’t know when we’ll get the chance to meet again in person. We want to check in with people to make sure they are not forgotten, if there is a way to help. People are getting together to hold benefits, help friends in need; it’s what is most important now.
Some of us are working from home but would rather be doing something that really helps the world; and business as usual, while paying the bills, seems ludicrously clueless and shallow right now.
It’s absurd to get stressed out about work at a time when people are dying of disease outside your door, but I manage to do it somehow. I find myself getting angry over stupid stuff at work. I’ll judge myself harshly for that later.
My family now has a regularly scheduled Zoom conference call on Saturday night, and I use my corporate Zoom account. Will I get fired for that? I don’t care.
New York’s death toll is down, but we’re still in the thick of infection. We’ll keep making plans of all the things we’ll get to do again once this passes. In the meantime, we put our heads down and forge ahead, getting through another day, another week…
January 4, 2010 is the day I mark has having had my last drink of alcohol. It might have been a day or two earlier than but four is a lucky number for me and I decided to set that as the date. This past Jan. 4 marks a decade since I’ve had a drink.
The time went by quickly. Since 2010 a lot has happened. I got married and had children. I left journalism and “went over to the dark side” of public relations. Could I have done those things if I had still been drinking? I don’t know.
I am confident that stopping drinking was the right thing for me, but quitting drinking was not some massive and sudden wonderful change. There’s no magic transformation that turns someone instantaneously from a pathetic drunk to a charming success. All of life’s frustrations are still there, and the warm confidence that comes with drinking is now gone.
And while it’s worked for me, the non-drinking life is not for everyone. I think even people who have problems with drugs or alcohol don’t necessarily have to quit completely. There’s a middle ground that most of the world can navigate. One of the signs that I needed to stop drinking was when I was bowled over at my ability to have only one single beer at a punk rock show I went to. I caught myself as I was glowing in a self-congratulatory mood on the walk to the subway from Trash Bar—uh, actually, this is what most of the world is able to pull off every day!
Quitting drinking wasn’t something I did on a whim or at the spur of the moment. I had been thinking about it for a long time. I had taken long breaks from drinking, sometimes as long as three months at a time, to show myself that I could do it. When I first quit, I only gave myself the goal of stopping drinking for one year. Only after one year without alcohol did I decide to officially bid goodbye to the drinking life.
The drinking life had been a fun one. I’d be the worst kind of hypocrite to rage against drinking since I was an absolute maniac with booze for the better part of two decades. I have good memories from those times and made many great friends over rounds of drinks, I can’t just throw all of that away. I can still be around people who drink; I just don’t. I won’t create a new identity or try to reconfigure my entire life because I don’t drink any more – that would truly be giving alcohol power that it doesn’t deserve.
But it got to the point of not being fun anymore. I would ponder and plan out how I was going to approach a night of drinking and then all my well-intentioned plans of moderation would go right out the window. I was tired of waking up with long gaps in my memory, incredibly hung over, and realizing I had spent twice the amount of money I wanted to. I had no one to be angry at but myself, and my weekend mornings regularly began with waking up to this miserable, impotent rage.
There were some moments that stand out in my decision but thankfully no major disasters. I miraculously never got arrested for drunk driving while in college, no major bar fights or major accidents litter my beer-fueled past. But slowly the magic of the alcohol began to wear thin and not work as well anymore. And all the things I felt I need to drink to enjoy—dating women, going to concerts, playing music, reveling in the creative act that drives us to joyful madness—these were all things I was supposed to be enjoying anyway, and if I needed to be drunk to enjoy them, maybe I was on the wrong path.
So I went ahead and quit drinking on my own, though I did read a book that was helpful in my first year of not drinking. Drinking, A Love Story by Caroline Knapp is an impressive memoir and I highly recommend it if you are questioning your drinking. A lot of what she described as signs of having real drinking problems was very recognizable, and it provided the well-researched bulwark that helped me decide that I was on the right path in putting booze aside.
In her book, Knapp quits drinking after joining Alcoholics Anonymous, and the Alcoholics Anonymous route is one I decided to avoid at all costs. Alcoholics Anonymous wallows in pathetic victimology and peddles its soft-core religion incessantly. Furthermore, many people I know who joined AA have come back to drinking. If AA is the only alternative to drinking yourself to death, have at it, but the success rate is low and its philosophy teaches weakness.
The past 10 years have been filled with a lot of ups and downs, and I’m glad that I experienced them without the hazy filter of alcohol, which for me had become a sad crutch. If the magic dies, don’t be afraid to move on. If I can do it, so can you.
In early March of 2000, I found my way from Ozone Park to Sunnyside, Queens, for the inaugural St. Pat’s for All Parade. The parade was unique because it welcomed LGBT groups to participate. Most other St. Patrick’s parades at the time did not.
It was the first St. Patrick’s parade I marched in, representing a human rights group that monitored the contentious marching season in the North of Ireland. The parade included many of the standard Irish groups and local politicians but also featured an LGBT marching band, a traditional Korean dance troupe, and other organizations that are not strange in Queens but do stand out in a St Patrick’s Day parade. The parade gathered news coverage (Hillary Clinton was there, running for Senate) and a few religious protesters upset that St. Patrick’s name was being use to make friendly with the gays.
During the march, I noticed a Catholic priest in a brown robe shaking hands with people aside the parade route. Oh no, I thought to myself, what litany of lies did the parade organizers tell this poor priest to get him here? He’s going to have a heart attack when he sees the gay marching band.
But that priest did not have a heart attack upon seeing the gay marching band. The priest was Father Mychal Judge.
Father Judge is most famous for being the New York Fire Department chaplain who perished in the September 11 attacks; he is listed as the first official casualty of that day. But long before his untimely death, Father Judge was a bridge between the multitudes of New York communities. At a time of increasing hostility between the Catholic Church’s leadership and LGBT groups, he made it part of his mission to minister to gays and lesbians and people with AIDS. He was dedicated to helping the homeless and people suffering drug and alcohol addiction, and he led a peace mission in Ireland. Few others would have been able to shake hands with cross-wielding protesters and break bread with a gay marching band on that same morning in Queens.
In his last homily, delivered the day before he was killed at the World Trade Center, he spoke to firefighters in The Bronx. He spoke about the unpredictable nature of life and how everyone has their part to play, that each one of us has a place.
“That’s the way it is. Good days. And bad days. Up days. Down days. Sad days. Happy days. But never a boring day on this job. You do what God has called you to do. You show up. You put one foot in front of another. You get on the rig and you go out and you do the job – which is a mystery. And a surprise. You have no idea when you get on that rig. No matter how big the call. No matter how small. You have no idea what God is calling you to. But he needs you. He needs me. He needs all of us.”
September is freshly ended and with it, most of the commemorations of the September 11 attacks. One of the best traditions, the Stephen Siller Foundation Tunnel to Towers 5k, is held the last Sunday in September.
On a rainy October evening, I was making my way home from midtown after a long workday. A fire engine was driving down the street and was stuck at an intersection of 6th Ave. and 31st Street. Despite having the right of way, the firefighter at the wheel waved pedestrians across.
I discovered I was crossing Father Mychal F. Judge Street, a segment of West 31st that runs past his church, St. Francis of Assisi. It was named in his honor in 2002. FDNY Engine 1/Ladder 24 station is nearby. It would have been disrespectful to ignore the sign and continue on with the regular rush of the afternoon commute. I stepped out of people’s way and took a photo of the sign.
There are few New Yorkers who represent the resiliency and humanity of our city the way Father Mychal Judge did. His sacrifice has special meaning for firefighters and those who lost loved ones in the September 11th attacks, but the life he lived symbolizes the best of us and serves as an inspiration the world over. It always will.
The occasion of one’s birthday is always a time, however brief, for reflection and taking stock of where you are. This past weekend saw the start of my 46th year on this Earth, and I have a lot to be happy about and celebrate but it’s also the start of a comeback.
There is always room to improve and make better. If you’re not striving for something better at all times, then things fall into disrepair and a sad, atrophying stasis. The search, the striving is the goal and the state of being everyone needs. Merely getting by doesn’t cut it.
That’s not to say you shouldn’t enjoy some time to relax and be grateful for what you have, but if you’re not happy about something, then change is a must.
And like everyone else, there are things I am not happy about. I am very lucky in that I have my health and a lucid mind and can get a start on turning things around. But things have been in a bit of a rut: I go to work, I come home and eat and put kids to bed, I answer more work emails and fall asleep trying to get something done. I wake up early the next day and do it again.
One glimmer of light in all this is creativity. If I can get something creative done, I can have some peace of mind, and right now I am preparing for a show at the end of October.
Having young children and seeing how quick life can move can be both terrifying and encouraging. It seems like just yesterday I was welcoming the first of our children into the world; the older of our kids will be five in January and they are well versed in navigating the parental politics of our household for their own advantage.
But seeing how fast life moves doesn’t just mean that our youthful days are left in the dust, it means we can create new things for ourselves quickly as well. Less than a decade ago I was living alone with not many prospects for career advancement or a family life. Now I have three children and a well-established career in public relations. In a few years, I can be in a different place; the pace of change is fast, which means we can put ourselves on a better path quickly.
So often we look back on things with regret, and I’ve been as guilty of that as anyone. We will always, and I can tell you million times of how true this is: we will always regret the things we don’t do more than the things we do.
So no matter where you are or how bad things seem or how off the rails the life you imaged is, don’t worry or spend too much time looking back on past mistakes. Start doing things to set things right again. You won’t be sorry. It’s never too late.
Go for it.
If hell exists, it borrows heavily from New York City in the summertime. The unescapable humid heat that is magnified on the sidewalks and amplified in the subways, the crowded aggravation of our crumbling infrastructure, and the general unrest that foments rage where there might normally be annoyance or resignation, are the central ingredients of our sulphuric summer stew.
New York goes into its Independence Day holiday in the midst of one of its heat waves. The general state of the country only adds to the humid misery, with half the country protesting and demonizing the other half at light-speed intervals, new Internet outrages generated almost by the hour. It’s a dizzying spiral downward in civil discourse that fuels a blanket disgust made more maddening by temperatures that bake an already exhausted brain.
This work week is interrupted by our Independence Day holiday on July 4. Imagine putting up with all the outrages of national politics today but without air conditioning and in wool clothes, and you’ll see why the colonies revolted. In New York City today, our country’s divided politics are writ large across the city. People who once enjoyed vibrant conversation on the state of affairs skip such conversations; it doesn’t pay to engage in civil discourse, even on a personal level.
This week we will get through our work week, hoping it will be easier with so many people using the holiday for vacation. The trains will be a little less crowded, the traffic a little lighter and the sidewalks will be blazing hot but not quite as mobbed. Tourists will walk downtown past where George Washington was inaugurated (New York City was America’s first capital).
Sometimes, even though I appreciate air conditioning, I have a moment when I leave a heavily air conditioned building and feel a sense of relief and satisfaction at feeling the blanket of humid heat cover me when I step outside. It is good to feel the real world on your skin, to embrace reality no matter how unpleasant, because that’s what we are destined to do.
That is part of our story. New York gives its residents all four seasons at full blast. You will be hot, you will be cold, you will feel the full force of nature’s fury and blessings, sometimes within the same month. On the first day of Spring, New York City had a snowstorm. I would have gladly endured many more if it meant we would be spared the stifling heat of the summer months, but I knew better than to think we’d have such a lucky trade.
The crucible of summer in New York makes for stronger New Yorkers and spurs our innovation, our creativity, and our own more quiet revolution. Some of us will “embrace the suck” as the military puts it, and barrel through the overheated times with a gimlet eye towards the future.
Our destiny means we move through this overheated season with a desire to embrace the heat, to dive into the fevered truth that others work hard to avoid or shout down. The hot weather will pass, and we cannot huddle in the air conditioning forever. We have nothing to do but have pride in ourselves as New Yorkers and live summer to the fullest.
This past weekend I had several hours alone with my three children. Normally we have full family outings on the weekend but it helps keep our family healthy if my wife gets a break from being around children for at least a few hours each week.
There was a Twist & Sprout festival at the Queens Botanical Garden and I decided this would be a good place to take our three daughters. We had been there last year and it was a good time with plenty to offer the kids.
After getting my girls out of the van and dropping off some compost, we set off to explore the festival. Arriving at the Queens Botanical Garden with my daughters is like being a celebrity’s date at an award’s ceremony. Because they are there at least twice a week for the Forest Explorers program, my girls know a lot of the people who work there. One of the teachers at the program recently graduated college and gave my girls big hugs. Other employees waved hello to us from their zooming golf carts or from arts & crafts tables.
There was a puppet show and the puppeteer was the mother of another one of the students at the Forest Explorers program. Other parents stopped to chat with me; they recognized my daughters and asked where my wife was. It was all very friendly, but I was definitely a stranger among them. I was appreciated for bringing my girls there. No doubt they are the better life of the party.
While I pride myself on being a good Dad, the point was driven home that for most hours in the week, I am largely absent from my daughters’ lives. I am out the door to catch a 6:30 a.m. bus in the morning and with afternoon rush-hour traffic I am usually not home before 7 p.m. It is dinner time soon after I arrive home and time for bed soon after that. The weekends are when I try to catch up and cram a lot of living into two days before the cycle starts up again, at least on most weekends (sometimes I have to work on the weekends).
Since 2014 I have been my children’s +1. In theory I could show up at a family gathering without them, but I’d face an extremely disappointed crowd. There’s no substitute for adorable young children.
Case in point: my reception at the Queens Botanical Garden was warm and embracing, which would not have been the case if I had shown up on my own. No one would have treated me poorly, but no one would have known who I was or given me a second glance. When fantastic little girls are your posse, you are a 100% winner wherever you go.
Our children are better versions of ourselves, bright and new to the world with endless possibilities in front of them. When we’re well received based on being with them, it reflects their position in the world and how they’re being raised.
We’re doing something right.
I was at a conference for work where people were going to be talking about important things that could affect my job, the line of business I work for, and the company I work for. I had to be there for certain speaking panels and a regulator’s speech. I had to take copious notes and report on what was said. I needed to be there to talk to any journalists that might be asking questions of our company’s executives.
I work in corporate communications. I like to think I’m good at my job, or at least have a good work ethic and honestly try to do my best. It was after lunch and I was loading up on coffee to make sure I stayed alert. Since I had consumed enough caffeine to give an elephant a heart attack, I really wanted to try to get to the restroom between two panels that I had to be present for.
To my luck, the program at the conference added an extra speaker between these sessions and I saw this as my chance to head to the bathroom. As the conference organizers asked us to stay for this speech, I was darting out of the conference room to get to the men’s room.
Outside the auditorium, closed-circuit televisions were broadcasting what was happening inside, and I saw that I had walked out on a young teenager who was recovering from a horrible form of cancer. People in the lobby watched the young man on television recount his struggle to live a normal life while fighting a horrible disease.
I stopped for a minute to listen, feeling like the worst kind of corporate monster for walking out on the most heartfelt talk of the entire event. But nature, and my need to be back in time to take notes on the next panel, called, and I continued with my plan and made it back to the auditorium with just enough time to not miss the required discussion.
Cody Strong for a Cure is a charitable organization that helps support children with cancer and their families and raises money to fund research into pediatric cancer. I missed a brief talk by the inspiration for the charity, Will Cody, who is thankfully in remission after being diagnosed with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia two years ago.
After priding myself on having good priorities and not being blinded to the truly important things in life, I had become the indifferent monster I had always despised. I consoled myself in that I had already donated to the charity raffle at the event, using all my raffle tickets on the prize for a free trip to a Rangers game (I didn’t win).
There are times when life gives you a punch in the gut that reveals how unimportant so much of what we think about is, and our carefully tended self image comes crashing to the floor in a jumble of jagged shards. This was one of those times. No matter what was said or done at the conference that affected my job or the company I work for, none of it amounts to jack shit compared with a child stricken with a terrifying illness.
I stayed up late that night typing up my notes for work, and I have no idea how many people read them. One of my colleagues said I did a great job with them, but they will always be stained with a dark self-knowledge. At some point in our lives, we see a side of ourselves that we despise.
It was the mid-1980s and my brother and I were visiting my mother in Yonkers and going to the Westchester County Fair. She lived within walking distance to Yonkers Raceway where the fair was held every year. But this particular Saturday night my mother and I left the fair early so I could watch the movie Beverly Hills Cop on cable television.
We ran through the crowds at the fair and down the quieter streets off of Central Avenue to get to the house where my mother’s apartment was. We made it just in time.
There’s a point in the film where Eddie Murphy’s character makes fun of the way someone says “banana in the tailpipe” that I found uproariously funny. I perhaps laughed harder than I had every laughed before.
From that time forward, if I was taking life too seriously or my mother wanted me to smile in a photograph she would whisper “banana in the tailpipe” and despite my efforts at serious, curmudgeonly dignity I would eventually smile. She had long ago decided that life, even at its most solemn moments, should be met with a certain levity. When I danced with her at my wedding and she looked as if she might be overcome with emotion, I got to tell her “banana in the tailpipe,” to keep the occasion’s needed levity.
My mother was a theater person and that’s how she and my father met. My brother and I are proud to be descended from theater folk on both sides of our family. My mother’s life was an extension of her love for life upon the stage. For her life was a grand performance where she relished every part she played and interpreted each role in her own unique way. She lived life with the expectation of celebration and a disdain for conventions that would get in the way.
When I learned my mother had ovarian cancer, I was hopeful. They were doing surgery, and that’s a sign of hope for ovarian cancer, which is often detected very late. I started planning the victory party early. We would do the T.E.A.L. 5k Run and Walk and have cool t-shirts made up about my mother making cancer her bitch. We’d enjoy a jack-o-lantern show every year from then on out to make up for the one she missed when she first became ill. Things would go back to normal, I was sure of it.
I made the mistake that is so common; I thought I had more time. I thought that my mother would be able to see her grandchildren at least once more, that I could say goodbye to her in some organized way that would leave me with no lingering regrets. I didn’t know that the last time I saw her or spoke with her would be the last time. I don’t really remember the conversation that well. She told me she didn’t have long to live and I believed her, but I left that conversation thinking we had a few more weeks or even months. Two days later I got a call from my stepfather informing me that my mother had passed away the night before.
If there is one moment in time with my mother that I could somehow freeze or replay forever, it would be the moment I went to the waiting room at the hospital after our first two girls were born, and seeing my Mom as a grandmother for the first time. I don’t know if I ever saw her happier than at that moment. I had made her dream of becoming a grandmother come true and she had years of happiness ahead of her as a Grandma.
While I mourn my mother’s loss and regret all that we have lost with her, I’m comforted by the fact that our older girls were gifted with very early memories of her and saw her almost every week of their lives until she was diagnosed.
A few weeks ago, we held a memorial service for my mother at Bear Mountain. Bear Mountain was a popular place for us to meet up and it was the last place I saw my mother. Friends and family from all over came to remember how my Mom had held a special place in their lives. I had a few prepared remarks that I kept brief, and signed off with this:
“My mother did not believe in funerals or being memorialized with an engraved stone. She left it up to us, her family and wider family of friends, with the lives we live and the love we share, to create her monument. We thank you for joining us in this.”
New York City is such an intense and captivating force that New Yorkers must all leave their beloved Gotham from time to time for areas more peaceful and serene, places where the air is cooler and the pace of things slower. City life is an immense trade-off. We have the greatest art and culture in the world but must endure great hardships, annoyances, and inconveniences. It’s this crucible that makes our standards so high and our quest for excellence so unforgiving.
These past few days have found me on Long Beach Island, New Jersey, a beautiful beach community that is best visited after Labor Day, when the summer season is considered officially over. Plenty of other people have had this idea also. So the island is not a ghost town but can look that way at times if you turn down one of the quieter streets. The restaurants are starting to board up for the fall and winter or have at least cut down their summer hours.
Long Beach Island is one long excuse to sit and marvel at the beach and ocean. It is a thin, string-bean like island that is geared towards renting to or selling to people coming here for the summer. It floods easily and the oncoming series of hurricanes that are lined up to punch the United States now are on the top of everyone’s mind.
While this end-of-summer escape is welcome, the travails of life remain. This time of year especially, the days around September 11, are times when we are reminded about the fleeting nature of our very existence and the fact that life commands us to enjoy every moment.
This awareness does not all have to come in tragic form. I formed a habit of quickly taking photos of the sand castles I help my children build, because before long one of my daughters will crush them quickly without hesitation. She is not yet four years old yet she is a destroyer of worlds. She has not yet grasped the value of leaving something behind that is beautiful in part because of its vulnerability. It is more fun for her to feel that collapse of the cool, wet sand under her feet.
Long Beach Island is a place where you will miss out if you don’t take the time to walk along the beach at night and enjoy the light of the moon reflecting on the ocean. It is where the best thing to do is to sit on the sand under an umbrella and attempt to clear your mind of everything. The beauty of the landscape belies the chaotic, violent, and tragic nature of our lives, which is why we seek to surround ourselves with beauty as much as possible. The world will hand us enough ugly all our lives.
In a few days my family will return to New York City, which has now been rebuilding for more than 16 years since the September 11 attacks. A whole new generation of New Yorkers are alive who did not know life before that day. Our responsibility, among many, is to give this generation an appreciation of all that we have given them as family and all that we have built as a people, because it could very easily not be here tomorrow.
Nine years ago, I met some of my family at the airport and took to the skies to get to Madison, Wisconsin. The occasion was my aunt Alice’s wedding to Dave Siewert. The wedding was outdoors in the summer. Despite it being one of the hottest days of the year, it was a breezy and pleasant afternoon and everyone had a great time.
Because they lived far away, we didn’t get to see Alice and Dave very often, so whenever they were in town it was a special event. When they were visiting for the holidays, a group of us met in midtown Manhattan the day after Christmas so Alice could take Dave to a Broadway show. Normally I avoid the heavily tourist parts of midtown like the plague, and even more so around the holidays, but my Aunt Alice is no ordinary visitor, and this is where she wanted to take Dave.
A few years ago Dave was diagnosed with esophageal cancer and not given more than a few months to live. It was a raw deal by any measure. He and Alice had already had their share of medical woes together including heart disease and a previous bout with cancer.
He lived years longer than his doctors expected, and he didn’t waste a minute of time. Dave refused to let his diagnosis define his life other than to spur him on to live more of it. He and Alice headed west and went on some epic road adventures.
Family and friends followed Alice and Dave’s adventures through social media. They posted their amazing photos of the places they visited and Alice wrote wonderful accounts of their time together. The last time I saw him, which was, sadly, at a family funeral, he appeared in good spirits. He had grown his hair out long. Doctors had told him his hair would fall out from the chemotherapy but it hadn’t yet.
The medical news didn’t get better. There were multiple setbacks with treatments that didn’t work or that had to be stopped. But Alice and Dave continued to travel and enjoy the beauty of the American West. They would take a weeklong trip and then be back for treatment before hitting the road again.
This past weekend, family scrambled to get flights to Madison, Wisconsin for Dave’s memorial service. The family tracked his health through Alice and when it looked like things were nearing an end, some of my aunts caught the first flights they could to be there.
While he had been in deteriorating health, Dave never stopped living. He was getting out and about and riding his bike whenever he could. He faced death with a grace, dignity and determination that serves as a great example to the rest of us.
It is easy to talk about death and the brave ways you want to face it. We often think of it in terms of facing a violent threat or hurtling headlong to a dramatic end. It’s impossible to know how we’re going to really face death, because it usually confronts us in a quiet doctor’s office or in front of people who know us and all our faults and frailties.
Dave showed us that even though we can’t control when and how we will die, our end can be one of our own making if we have the courage to do so.
I count among my many good fortunes having a strong family that is fast to mobilize for one another in times of need. Dave has kept us to a very high standard and demonstrated how to live life with unlimited strength. With his love of life and ability to face death with unimaginable courage, Dave Siewert made my family better, and we owe him a debt of gratitude.