Category Archives: David B. Coe

Monday Musings: For One Night, Magic and Light Beat Out Doom and Gloom

Forty-one years ago, after an emotionally difficult sophomore year in college, I took a job as a camp counselor at a sleep away camp in rural Pennsylvania. I didn’t want to go home, and I didn’t want to stay in Providence, and I thought a summer of working and living and playing with kids would be good for me. It was, mostly. But that’s not what this post is about.

All the counselors at the camp had two essential duties. First, they were bunk counselors, living with and taking care of kids in a given age group. I was assigned to a bunk of twelve-year-old boys, who, I learned, straddle the line between “kid” and “teen,” ping-ponging from angelic to demonic and back again with breathtaking agility. And second, counselors had a specialty that they taught throughout the summer. I was an avid birdwatcher and nature enthusiast even then, so I was the nature counselor. As it happens, my fellow bunk counselor and I were both named David. He had been at the camp for several years, so he was “Old Dave” and I was “New Dave.” And my colleague in the outdoor program was also named David, so he and I were “Camping Dave” and “Nature Dave.” (It didn’t seem to bother anyone — well, except me — that I didn’t like being called “Dave” then any more than I do now.)

Near the end of the summer, Camping Dave and I organized a sleep-out for any kid or counselor who cared to join us, so that we could watch the peak of the annual Perseid meteor shower. Our plan was to have the kids sleep out on the huge soccer/baseball field, cook s’mores, watch shooting stars, and stay up past their usual bedtimes. Sounds great, right?

Except things didn’t go according to plan.

They went far, far better than we hoped.

Because that night there was a northern lights display that lit up the night sky up and down the eastern part of the United States. My brother was camping in Vermont that same night, and he saw it too. The kids thought it was very cool, though I don’t think they understood how special it was to see what they were seeing. A few were disappointed that the weird, curtains of light in the sky made it impossible to see shooting stars.

Dave and I, and the other counselors who were with us, were thrilled. Most of us had never seen the northern lights before. The glow in the sky was mostly green that night, at least it appeared so from where we were, and it danced and flickered and shimmered for hours before fading well after midnight. To this day, my memories of that night remain vivid and joyful. Before this past Friday night, it was the only time in my life when I saw the aurora borealis.

Aurora Borealis, May 10, 2024, photo by David B. Coe
Aurora Borealis, May 10, 2024, photo by David B. Coe

Friday night, found me in Tennessee rather than Pennsylvania, and yet, in a testament to the power of this year’s solar event, Friday’s display was every bit as spectacular as that first one so many years ago. And yet . . . .

We got our first hint of the possibility of unusually widespread aurora sightings a couple of weeks ago. Astronomers reported an increase in solar flare activity that they thought would soon peak at historic levels. On Friday itself, when the first of the huge flares occurred, scientists again noted that this could mean unusual aurora occurrences.

But those predictions were buried in news reports of quite a different nature. Most of the news outlets neglected to focus on what turned out to be a wondrously beautiful event that linked people all over the globe. Instead, most articles warned of what the sunspot activity and solar wind might do to communications satellites, electric grids, internet providers, and other parts of the electronic infrastructure on which we depend. And hey, I get it. Media outlets and the governmental and scientific institutions to which they turn for information when stuff like this happens don’t want to be caught off guard. They don’t want to be blamed for the dislocations caused by foreseeable problems. So they emphasize the expected bad news and downplay anything that might detract attention from those dire potential consequences.

As it happens, though, the few disruptions caused by Friday’s solar flares turned out to be minor. The real story turned out to be the phenomenal views of auroras enjoyed by people around the world in areas for which such sightings are usually quite rare.

Look, no one who knows me would ever confuse me for a Pollyanna. I am a lifelong pessimist. I am Mister Doom-and-Gloom. I am Eeyore. But Friday night was amazing, a night I will remember for the rest of my life. And I wonder how many people missed their chance to experience it because news of what was going to occur wound up buried in stories about terrible troubles that never materialized. Probably a lot. Which is too bad. Because the collective joy shared, across continents and oceans, by strangers who were fortunate enough to see the auroras, both borealis and australis, was an inspiring, albeit temporary antidote to the doom and gloom that confronts us on a daily basis.

I hope you were among the fortunate who saw the display.

Have a great week.

Wednesday Fun!: Our Trip to Italy in Words and Photos

The Forum in Rome. Photo by David B. Coe
The Forum in Rome. Photo by David B. Coe

Nancy and I are recently back from three and a half weeks in Italy, a marvelous trip that took us to Rome, Venice, Lucca (in north Tuscany), San Quirico d’Orcia (in south Tuscany), Florence, Orvieto (in Umbria), and finally back to Rome for a couple of nights before our flight back to the States. It sounds like a whirlwind, but really it wasn’t. We had plenty of time in most places (a person could spend six weeks each in Florence and Rome, and still not see everything . . .), and did a good deal of our in-country traveling by train, which reduced the stress of getting around considerably. (The one exception was Tuscany, where we rented a car for six days, enabling us to visit several small, mountaintop medieval cities that aren’t served by the train system.)

Rome, looking toward St. Peter's Basilica. Photo by David B. Coe
Rome, looking toward St. Peter’s Basilica. Photo by David B. Coe
Piazza di San Marco and St. Mark's Basilica, Venice. Photo by David B. Coe
Piazza di San Marco and St. Mark’s Basilica, Venice. Photo by David B. Coe

Faced now with the prospect of summarizing our trip for this post, I am a bit overwhelmed. We saw and did so much. Much of it falls into one of three or four categories — we walked A LOT; we ate A LOT and drank a bit as well; we saw many of the Sights That One Sees In Italy; and we hung out with friends in Florence, where two couples we know and love were on extended work-related stays.

The Grand Canal, Venice. Photo by David B. Coe
The Grand Canal, Venice. Photo by David B. Coe
Venice. Photo by David B. Coe
Venice. Photo by David B. Coe

No matter where Nancy and I go on any trip, we wind up walking long distances. We feel that the best way to get to know a place is to explore it on foot, and as it happens, many of Italy’s cities lend themselves to this sort of exploration. Sometimes we walked with destinations in mind. Our first two days, when we were in Italy and still struggling with a little jet lag, we walked from our accommodations to the Colosseum and to Vatican city. After visiting those sights, we walked some more, looking for places to eat, stopping in at interesting shops or at yet another gorgeous cathedral from the 1400s. When we moved to Venice, we walked even more. What a gorgeous city! Every turn, every new lane or alley leads to another canal, another beautiful foot bridge, another view of a gondola or some other boat. It is a playground for light and shadow, for color and reflection, and for any who fancy themselves photographers.

Apennine Mountains above Lucca. Photo by David B. Coe
Apennine Mountains above Lucca. Photo by David B. Coe
The view from Pienza. Photo by David B. Coe
The view from Pienza. Photo by David B. Coe

While we were in Lucca, we found a hike that took us high into the Central Apennine Mountains. It was, in a word, spectacular. We had a perfect day — clear, breezy, cool — and were afforded incredible mountain vistas and equally beautiful views down toward ancient Tuscan mountain villages. The trail itself was a little rough, but still, it was a memorable morning. Tuscany in general was amazing. We stopped in San Gimignano, Montepulciano, Siena, Pienza, and Montalcino, where we enjoyed a fabulous wine-tasting and lunch at the Poggio Rubino Winery. Each of these cities was breathtaking and steeped in history. If we go back to Italy at some point, I think I could spend another week in Tuscany and never grow tired of the landscape, the food, the wine, the people. We had a similar experience in Orvieto, in the neighboring region of Umbria. Also stunningly beautiful, also rich in history, cuisine, and winemaking.

Orvieto, Umbria. Photo by David B. Coe
Orvieto, Umbria. Photo by David B. Coe

Florence as a city offers a compromise of sorts between Venice and Rome. Venice, as I said, is visually captivating. But there is an emptiness to it beyond the beauty and the tourist culture, which is ubiquitous. It felt at times as if, without the shops and restaurants and tourism industry, the city would simply cease to exist. Rome, on the other hand, is so huge as to be overwhelming. There is a tourist core to the city — in the old sections around the Roman ruins and various museums and duomos. But there is also Vatican City. There is a vast, thriving fashion industry. And there is as well a bustling urban center, with business and industry, contemporary culture, and everything else one might expect a world capitol to have.

Florence skyline and Duomo from Boboli Gardens. Photo by David B. Coe
Florence skyline and Duomo from Boboli Gardens. Photo by David B. Coe

Florence is, in many ways, as beautiful as Venice and as historically and culturally rich as Rome. But it offers more than Venice on a scale that is more welcoming than Rome. And for us it was doubly special, because of the friends we had there. These were two couples from utterly disparate parts of our lives. But they both happened to be there at the same time, and, it turns out, they got along really well. So much fun!! We had companions for so many of our meals, several of our sightseeing ventures, and even a couple of shopping sprees. While in Florence, Nancy and I also took a cooking class, which was great. We learned a ton and made by hand, without any sort of machine, our own pasta, which we then ate with sauces prepared as we watched by a master chef.

Interior of the Duomo di Siena. Photo by David B. Coe
Interior of the Duomo di Siena. Photo by David B. Coe

As I said earlier, it’s so difficult to do justice to a trip of this length in a single post. But I have tried. I would offer a few other quick tidbits. We saw many, many duomos, cathedrals, county churches, etc. We saw Saint Peter’s Basilica and the Sistine Chapel. But I think our favorite was the Duomo di Siena, the interior of which was mind-blowing. One of the best things we did was attend a glass-blowing demonstration at the Murano Glass Factory in Venice. Extremely cool. We had so many terrific meals and tried so many new foods. My personal favorite was the pappardelle al ragù di cinghiale that I had several times in Tuscany. This is a broad ribbon of fresh pasta with a sauce made with wild boar — a traditional Tuscan recipe. Incredible. We also discovered the joys of Campari, Aperol, and other Amaro liqueurs. Campari, which is sweet at first with a strongly bitter finish, is the chief ingredient in a Negroni (equal parts gin, Campari, and sweet vermouth). Aperol is sweeter and less bitter, and is best known as the chief ingredient in an Aperol Spritz (Aperol and Prosecco). We drank a lot of both. And we fell in love with Brunello wines — delicious reds that are deeper and smoother in flavor than any wine I’d ever had before.

Nancy enjoying an Aperol Spritz.
Nancy enjoying an Aperol Spritz.
Me and my Negroni, my Negroni and me....
Me and my Negroni, my Negroni and me….

Hope you enjoy the photos!

Monday Blues: The Hardest Birthday

Yes, another post about our daughter and our loss. A part of me shies from this, wonders if I have written about her too much. “Write something upbeat,” I tell myself. “Something funny, something — anything — that isn’t about grief.” But we are grieving. Still. It’s been six months since we lost Alex. A bit more, actually. It seems like so long. It seems like nothing. And that is what my therapist tells me — that really six months is nothing. We remain at the very outset of a long journey, one that will be part of our daily existence for the rest of our lives.

So, yes, another post about our daughter.

As it happens, we are, generally, doing pretty well. We recently returned from three weeks in Italy (photos to come later this week), where we had an incredible time walking, learning, eating and drinking, seeing friends, and managing to live in the moment. We have more travel coming later this year. We have family and friends to see, weddings to attend, things to anticipate and enjoy. We have work to do, which also remains a balm.

But today, none of that matters.

Today, Alex would have — should have — turned 29 years old.

Today, I am shattered glass. Today, I am leaden skies and unrelenting rain. Today, I am a father bereft.

Tomorrow will be better. I know that. Next year will be a little easier. And the year after that more so. Today is the hardest day.

I understand all of this. But none of it makes this day any easier. As you read this, I will be off doing . . . something. Birdwatching, perhaps. Playing with my camera. Walking. Later, maybe, I will play some music. Mostly, I will be thinking of my darling girl.

I have nothing more to say, I’m afraid. I have no wisdom to offer. No deep words or insights. Today is a day to be endured, to be gotten through. I am simply doing the best I can.

Be kind to one another. Tell the people you love how you feel about them.

Monday Musings: It ALWAYS Feels Good To Finish a Book

I could have ended this post at the title. That really is the point. I have been writing fiction for close to thirty years. I have finished more than thirty novels and as many pieces of short fiction, and yes, each time I complete the first draft of any story, it feels great. Kind of like completing a good workout or reaching the summit on a lengthy hike.

So, what is this new, just-completed novel about?

Well, I can’t really tell you that. I am co-writing with someone — a person of some celebrity who came up with the story concept but left much of the writing to me. Someone who, I will be honest, paid me rather well. And someone who, for now, would rather I said less than more about the story, the book, and our partnership.

I’m fine with that, but it does mean that I can’t answer questions. I’m sorry to keep secrets. Really.

I can tell you that finishing this particular book has felt better than most. In part, that is a consequence of all that my family and I have been through. I finished a novella for Joshua Palmatier at Zombies Need Brains earlier this year, and I’m pleased with how that came out. But this more recent project felt big when I started it. I didn’t know if I was up for writing a full novel.

And it is always a challenge to write in someone else’s world, bringing to life someone else’s characters and plot lines. (As it happens, the Zombie Need Brains story was written in a shared universe, so both of the things I’ve worked on this year have been not entirely my own.) On the one hand, when writing in someone else’s sandbox, I want to honor the creative vision of the person or people who conceived of the world and characters. I feel a sense of responsibility to the original idea and source material (in this case, a script). At the same time, though, I also NEED to feel some ownership in the project. I want to have a creative stake in what I’m writing. Otherwise, the work has no emotional or artistic appeal, and my writing winds up sounding flat.

As many of you know, about fifteen years ago, I wrote the novelization of a script for a major motion picture (I would rather not be more specific . . .). It was a difficult and, frankly, unpleasant process, in large part because I was given no freedom to create. I had to stick to the exact dialogue and narrative presented in the script. I could do some internal monologue, but that was all. This new project was VERY different. My co-writer gave me a good deal of freedom to write the story as I thought it should be written. As this person pointed, movies and their books are often very different. They were fine with that being the case here.

As a result, the book proved to be a great way for me to work my way back into writing after last year. A good deal of the emotional content was already spelled out in the original source material, meaning I didn’t have to do a deep dive into my own emotional world, which I am not yet ready to do. But I could add in some new content, some different characters, some different points of view. And in so doing, I could put my own creative stamp on the finished product. Which I did, quite well, I believe. The resulting story really is a collaboration, a blending of artistic visions.

What’s next for me professionally?

I’m not sure yet. Nancy and I have some travel planned for this year, as well as some long-deferred work on the house and yard. And so I think I will probably take a little break from writing fiction while we tend to other parts of our lives. But that is not to say I don’t have ideas for new stories. I do. I have Thieftaker ideas, I have an old series that I still intend to reissue sometime fairly soon, I even have Fearsson ideas. And I have ideas for stories in universes not-yet-created-or-explored. So, stay tuned.

And thank you for your patience.

Have a great week.

Monday Musings: How Am I? Well, It’s Complicated…

Back in November, just a few weeks after the death of our older daughter, I wrote of the difficulty I regularly encountered answering the question, “How are you doing?” At the time, my emotional state was a moving target. I didn’t know how I was doing. Not day-to-day, not hour-to-hour. I was as changeable as mountain weather, as fragile as ancient parchment, as vulnerable as a newborn. I was all over the place.

David and daughter AlexIt has now been nearly five months since we lost Alex. I still get the same question — and to be clear, I don’t mind being asked. Not at all. It’s just that I still don’t know how to answer. My friends tell me that five months is nothing, that there is no reason I should have a handle on my emotions already. My therapist says the same. I suppose I should listen to all of them. But I grow impatient with myself. I make my living with words and with emotions. The core of my art is conveying the emotional state of my point of view characters. It’s practically the definition of what a fiction writer does.

And I cannot manage to put into words what I am feeling. Worse, I can’t even explain it to myself. I had a birthday this past week. And birthdays, holidays — those can be tough when grief is fresh. I will always miss hearing from Alex on my birthday, but this was the first one without her, and the sense of loss was particularly keen. (Alex’s birthday is in early May, and already I dread its approach.) But I also had a good day. I had wonderful conversations with family and friends, a lovely dinner with Nancy. And yes, I had comforting memories of conversations with Alex on previous birthdays.

How was I doing that day? I have no idea. Great. Terrible. Okay. Not so well.

I wrote about grief just after New Year’s. Actually, I’ve written about grief a lot in the past year, but in that post in particular I wrote in praise of grief. “We grieve because we have loved,” I said. “We grieve because we remember. And while the ache of our grief dulls and lessens with time, we never stop grieving. Nor would we want to.” I hold to that still. But neither do we want to become mired in our grief. Is that what’s happening to me? I don’t know. Helpful, right? Maybe now you’re starting to grok my frustration.

In the older post I mentioned in the opening graph, I worried about those moments — fairly frequent — when I felt numb. At times more recently, I have felt as though I am emerging from that numbness. And then I’ll find myself back there again, and I’ll have no idea how I got there or when it happened. Memories still ambush me, surprising me with their vividness, stealing my breath, leaving me unable to do much of anything. No, I don’t want to stop grieving. Except when I do. Because, yes, there are times when I wish I didn’t have to grieve at all, when I’m just so tired of feeling this way, whatever “this way” might be. And then another memory warms me, brings a smile, reminding me that grieving really is better than forgetting.

I don’t think the problem is that I haven’t made any progress. I’m not sure there’s a “problem” at all. As I say, friends, family, and people who should know tell me my state of mind is pretty normal for what is an extraordinary circumstance. And then they remind as well of what I already know: There is no “normal” for something like this.

The point of all this? Well, one point is, please don’t stop asking how I’m doing. Really. I appreciate the love and concern behind the question. And the other point is, when I answer with a shrug and an “I’m not really sure,” know that I’m not being evasive. I’m being honest.

Finally, the greater point is that the answer to “How am I doing?” is as complicated and long as a novel, as a relationship, as a parent’s love for his child. I am doing all right, except on those days when I’m not. I am getting work done, except for those times when I can’t. I am eating well, exercising, taking care of myself, letting Nancy take care of me, and doing my best to take care of her. I am not curled up at the bottom of an empty bourbon bottle. I am not spending eighteen hours a day in bed. I am not paralyzed with loss and sadness. But neither am I the embodiment of emotional health. If I was, I think I’d have cause to be worried.

How am I?

I’m okay, thank you for caring. How are you?

Monday Musings Potpourri: Travel, Music, Soccer

I’ve taken a couple of weeks off from the blog recently — a week here, a week there. When I came back to the blog after all that happened last year, I chose to do so on my own terms. All things being equal, I would like to post something every week. But I don’t want these essays to become a burden, something I dread doing. And so when I have nothing to say, I keep my virtual mouth shut (a notion I would love to impart to more than a few public figures). And when life gets in the way, I don’t fight it. You all have been incredibly generous with your support and patience. I no longer worry that if I slack off for a week or two there’ll be no one here when I come back. Thank you for that.

The problem is, sometimes — often actually — I want to write, but I have no idea what about. Today is such a day. I would like this post to go somewhere. I’d like an idea to spark in my head and carry me along. I’m still waiting . . . .

It’s a musings post, and my mind is going in a lot of directions right now.

Recent travels:

We are just back from a week-long journey to Mexico City, where we attended the wedding of my nephew to the charming, brilliant, beautiful love of his life. We took part in a wonderful weekend of festivities that included a terrific Sunday afternoon with just the two extended families. Great food, the best mezcal I’ve ever had, a lovely setting, fun conversations, lots of laughter. At one point, I was speaking with the bride’s father, who brought up the old saying (apparently as common in Mexican society as in our own) that we can choose our friends, but our families are ours whether we want them or not. And weren’t we all so fortunate that both families were so great and got along so well? A laudable sentiment, and truly fitting.

Part of the Diego Rivera mural, Mexico City
Part of the Diego Rivera mural, National Palace, Mexico City

Nancy and I were struck again and again by the kindness and generosity of everyone we met in Mexico City. Our Spanish is not very good at all. But people were patient and went out of their way to help us. And we were fortunate to have so many memorable meals, as well as fascinating visits to the Museo Nacional de Antropologia and to the National Palace with its magnificent murals painted by Diego Rivera. My brother and I got in a fun day of birdwatching at the botanical garden of the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México. A great visit.

Musical Explorations:

I have remarked before that Nancy and I are fairly new to the world of TV streaming. Until just about a year and a half ago, we were still suffering with satellite internet, which was too slow and too limited in terms of bandwidth to allow us to watch all the shows garnering raves from our friends. Well, the same was true of music. My listening was pretty much limited to the music I had on CDs, which I had uploaded to my computer and phone. This year, finally, I subscribed to a music streaming service and I have been exploring artists about whom I had been curious, or to whom I had been introduced by friends and family. (Looking at you, Erin!)

Like who? you ask. Well, as I write this, I am listening to Zac Brown Band, whose music I have come to love. Rockin’ Country music with terrific vocals and a great instrumental sound. Zac Brown plays Taylor guitars, so I was first introduced to his stuff by their promotional materials. And then Erin played a bunch of his songs for me. Now I am hooked.

Lots of friends had told me about Jason Isbell, and I own and love Southeastern, a haunting, powerful album. Now, I’m working my way through the rest of his catalogue, which is excellent as well.

Australian guitar virtuoso Tommy Emmanuel plays an eclectic blend of country, blues, rock, folk, and oldies, and because he’s so good, everyone wants to play with him, so you can find him doing duets with a who’s who of musical royalty. Some of the music is instrumental. Some has vocals. All of it is enormous fun.

Soccer:

Yeah, I know. I’ve written about this before. But Nancy and I are deep into this year’s Premier League (England) season, which is shaping up to be one for the ages. In recent years, one team has dominated, or, if fans are fortunate, two teams have fought for the season title. This year, with ten matches left on everyone’s schedule, three teams, Arsenal, Liverpool, and Manchester City are locked in a super-close battle that seems destined to come down to the final week of the campaign. This weekend, Liverpool and Man City played a thrilling, taut, brilliant match that ended in a 1-1 tie.

Yes, I’m sure that sounds like a contradiction — a thrilling 1-1 tie? How can that be? Trust me, it can. End-to-end action, inspired defense, a few moments of almost inconceivable luck that left both of us speechless, and beautiful, precise play throughout. Americans love offense. I get that. That’s why pro football has become something more like flag football than the defense-heavy sport I remember from my youth. It’s why baseball is now all about home runs. But part of the appeal of soccer is that every goal is precious. A single score can change the complexion of everything happening on the pitch. And in a match as important as this weekend’s Liverpool-Man City fixture, each scoring opportunity was crucial. What fun. Can’t wait for next week!

So, yeah. A bit of travel, a bit of music, a bit of sport. Nothing earth-shattering. And that’s okay. There’s lots of really dire, important stuff happening in the world. I’ll get back to those topics at some point. Or not. But sometimes we need to stop and enjoy the little stuff.

Be well, and be kind to one another.

Monday Musings: Old Dog, New Trick

It has long been said that canines of a certain age are incapable of mastering new tricks. As a proverbial long-in-the-tooth pooch myself, I thought it might be amusing to test the cliché. And, as it happens, I have a great excuse to do so, which I will explain in just a moment. So, this old dog is doing more than just chase his tail.

Not so very long from now, Nancy and I will be heading to Italy for a few weeks. There, we will spend time in Rome, Venice, Florence, and the Tuscan and Umbrian countrysides. This was a trip we had hoped to take to celebrate big birthdays that we both endured survived celebrated back in 2022/2023. Events intervened. But we are finally going this year, and we are very excited.

In preparation for the trip, we are both learning Italian on our phones using DuoLingo.

Okay, a few things. DuoLingo is hardly a rigorous way to approach learning a language. We know this. There are other ways we might have gone about learning Italian had we more time and fewer things on our collective plate. But I have a deadline, she has work to get done, and we wanted to make this fun, as well as useful. And fun it is.

I took years and years of French when I was in junior high and high school, and I was a competent if unspectacular student of the language. I never really mastered French, but I learned a lot, and could probably have stumbled my way through a simplistic and stilted conversation with a patient, generous native speaker of the language. Sadly, as it turns out, these are somewhat hard to find . . . .

More to the point, though, I never enjoyed French class. This was my own fault. I was lazy, and languages take work and patience and more work. My teachers were, all of them, good at their jobs, although there was one, who I had my sophomore year in high school, who merits detailed mention. I won’t give her name, but I will say this: Our class met right after lunch, and she was reputed to be a bit of a tippler who apparently built up quite a thirst during her morning classes. As a result, after imbibing enjoying her lunch, she would return to the classroom in an alcohol-induced temper, and with her accent rendered nearly impenetrable by her “meal.” For some reason, she liked me, which is good, because otherwise I would have gotten the grade I deserved . . . .

DuoLingo works for me because it gamifies the process. Like a hamster batting at a lever and being given little food pellets by way of reward, I do my language exercises, getting my little dopamine rush from the “ding-ding!”s of my phone and the treasure chests of virtual gems the app gives me periodically. Am I learning Italian? Um . . . sure. I’m picking up words that I might need in restaurants and bars and stores and hotels. I can say, “Salve! Piacere!” which means, “Hello! It’s nice to meet you!” I can say “thanks” and “your welcome,” “good morning” and “good evening,” “I’d like the chicken” and “I need the bathroom.”

No, that’s not much, but Nancy and I are still learning (she is ahead of me, having started earlier), and more to the point (and in all seriousness), we think part of the importance of this is making the effort, not being the infamous “ugly Americans,” who just show up in a country expecting everyone else to speak English to make them comfortable. We want to be able to show that we have cared enough to learn something about the country, including how to make ourselves understood there. Yes, we will absolutely need help from English-speakers in Italy, but we won’t be helpless, and we won’t be assuming it’s the job of every person there to accommodate us.

So that’s my new trick. Not bad, right? Not great, but not bad.

I will close with this story that my father used to love to tell. Years and years ago, he and my mom traveled to Italy, starting their trip in Rome, as Nancy and I will do. My father had picked up a few words of Italian somewhere. From a book? From someone he knew in New York City? From a TV show? Who can say? But he had convinced himself that he could fake his way through a conversation in the language. He and Mom were trying to find some tourist site — a museum or something — and he approached an Italian police officer on the street and asked the man how to find the museum, using his best broken Italian. The officer eyed him for a moment, and then said, in flawless English, “Three blocks down and make a right; you can’t miss it.”

My father and mother laughed. And so did the police officer. Which, ultimately, is the point.

Have a great week.

Monday Musings: Jon Stewart’s Return and Progressive Politics — Time For Our Side To Grow Up

You know what, fellow progressives, Joe Biden is a terrific source of humor. Did he point out that Biden is old? Of course he did! Know why? Because Joe Biden IS old!! Really old!

Nine years after leaving The Daily Show to pursue other projects in both show biz and politics (including Congressional passage of the 9/11 first responders’ health bill), Boomer superstar Jon Stewart returned to the Comedy Central news desk this past week to begin a run of Monday night appearances that will continue through the election season. Stewart’s progressive fans, including me, had long looked forward to such a reprise of his most famous entertainment gig. Many of us lamented his departure from the show in 2015, believing the country needed him — desperately — to turn his particular brand of rapier-sharp snark against Donald Trump and the MAGA political movement. His return in 2024, with Trump likely to be on the November ballot again, has seemed to come in the very nick of time.

Therefore, I was surprised, to say the least, when I read accounts of Monday’s re-debut that accused Stewart of unfairly and unnecessarily attacking Joe Biden and engaging in damaging “bothsidesism” that threatened to do more harm than good. Yes, I forgot to watch, and I forgot to record the episode; as I’m sure Jon would be the first to say, getting older sucks sometimes. But I watched the entire show a bit later in the week. And I would like to share my thoughts.

Let me begin by saying this: As a huge fan of The Daily Show during Stewart’s tenure, I was, on more than a few occasions, pissed off by his willingness to turn his wit against politicians and causes I supported. No one watching Stewart could ever doubt that his politics were firmly to the (far) left of center. I loved that about him. But he has never been a strict partisan. He was and is a satirist first. No one is immune from his barbs. And, reluctantly sometimes, I loved that about him as well. Wherever he sees something funny, something worth lampooning, he is willing to go there, as any world-class entertainer should be.

His opening monologue last Monday continued this laudable tendency. It was, in a word, hilarious. Did he make fun of Joe Biden? Yes! You know what, fellow progressives, Joe Biden is a terrific source of humor. Did he point out that Biden is old? Of course he did! Know why? Because Joe Biden IS old!! Really old! He was older the day he took office than any President has ever been at the END of his Presidency! Biden has always been a gaffe-machine, and this has gotten worse in recent years. He is a comedic gold mine. Asking Stewart to avoid Biden jokes is like asking Gordon Ramsay to eschew salt. Ain’t gonna happen.

But here’s the thing, while Stewart spent less time (this first week) skewering Donald Trump and his MAGAts, he made it very clear from the outset that a) Trump is just about as old as Biden, and is every bit as addled if not more so, and b) while it’s okay to laugh at Biden, come November, our nation’s choice is about much, much more than which candidate is the more dotty. The monologue worked because it was classic Stewart: biting, sardonic, no-holds-barred, and completely on target.

Which brings me to the larger point. As I say, Biden is old. Everyone knows it. Voters are concerned about it. Running away from the issue, making a big deal whenever someone brings it up, attacking long-time progressive allies when they dare to acknowledge it — these things don’t help us at all. We are not going to win the 2024 Presidential election by pretending that Joe Biden is something he’s not, nor are we going to win it by whining whenever anyone makes fun of our guy.

Instead, we win by acknowledging the obvious — Biden may be an elderly man — and then pivoting to the equally obvious and more positive — but he is wise, compassionate, honest, and capable. He has presided over a historical run of job growth; he has tamed the inflation and high gas prices caused by the global pandemic and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine; he has kept the U.S. economy humming while the rest of the Western world struggles through recession; he has stood up to Vladimir Putin AND Xi Jinping AND Ali Khamenei (Iran) AND Kim Jong-il. And he has stood up as well to White Nationalist terrorism here at home. He is a vocal advocate for racial justice, women’s reproductive autonomy, and the reduction of America’s carbon emissions.

Meanwhile, his expected opponent has been indicted 91 times, has been found liable for over $80 million in a civil slander trial brought by a woman he sexually assaulted, and over $350 million in a financial fraud trial in which he was found to have broken multiple state laws. He has promised to allow Russia to attack NATO allies. He has promised to rule as a dictator, jailing opponents, curtailing freedom of the press, and denying political opposition the right to wage protests. He has claimed again and again, without foundation or evidence, that he won the 2020 election, perpetuating a lie that threatens the very fabric of our republic.

I could go on, but by now you get the point. We on the left can make our case for election victory without being hypersensitive snowflakes about Biden’s age. We don’t have to pretend our candidate is more than he actually is. We don’t have to deny reality. That’s the other side’s playbook, and it hasn’t worked in the last three national election cycles. If we stick to the truth, if we present the facts confidently and consistently, we’ll be fine.

So, enjoy Jon Stewart on Monday nights. I have no doubt that he’ll turn his laser wit Trump’s way soon enough. And in the meantime, he’s just really funny.

Have a great week.

Monday Musings: My Mother and My Daughter

Mom and meMy mother would be 102 years old today, which speaks to a) how very old I am, and b) how uncommonly old she was when she and my father had me. I was born at the end of the Baby Boom, when most couples in their early-forties were done having children. Mom always worried that she would be too old to be a good mother to me, whatever that might have meant. She shouldn’t have worried. She was a wonderful mother — caring, involved, just intrusive enough to make me feel loved without being so intrusive that I felt smothered.

I’ve written about her before in this space, touching on her intellect, her curiosity, her love of the arts, her passion for travel, her warmth and humor and beauty and wisdom. We lost her far too early, to a cancer that today’s patients tolerate with relative ease. My father, who worshipped her and shared over fifty years of his life with her, couldn’t survive long without her. Within fifteen months of her death, he was gone, too.

I miss them both every day, and think about them constantly. I have thought for many years that I was too young to lose both parents.

Okay, this is about to get a little strange . . . .

I am not a religious person, and even if I were, my faith does not believe in heaven or an afterlife. Rather, my faith focuses on this life, on doing good deeds and living honorably in our time on this earth.

But since losing our older daughter, I have come to think about such things somewhat differently. I still don’t put stock in notions of heaven and hell. I do choose to believe, though, that even after the body dies, the spirit lives on. Alex was too brilliant a light for a simple illness, no matter how virulent and cruel, to extinguish. For that matter, so were my mother and father; so was my brother.

And so, I choose to believe that Alex is with her grandmother and grandfather now. That my mom and dad, and also my brother Bill, are taking care of her, helping a too-young soul cope with whatever place they are in. Alex never really knew her Gram. She only knew Grampsie as a toddler. She and Uncle Bubba were incredibly close. But they are all family, and they are together now, loving one another, comforting one another.

I choose to imagine my mother reveling in the company of this grandchild she only met as an infant, getting to know the intelligent, confident, funny, powerful, courageous young woman she became. I can hear them laughing together. I can imagine them speaking of books and art, travel and good food. They shared so many interests — they would have so much to discuss! I expect they would poke some fun at me. I know Alex would speak glowingly to her — to all of them — of her amazing younger sister, whom neither of my parents ever met.

This is how I choose to mark Mom’s birthday this year. The thought comforts me, even as it stings my eyes and blurs my vision.

Happy birthday, Mom. Take care of Alex for us. I love you.

Monday Musings: The Tyranny of Clocks and Calendars

Many years ago — more than a decade, which boggles my mind just a little — Nancy, Erin, and I went down to Monteverde, Costa Rica, to visit Alex, who was taking the first semester of her junior year in high school at the Cloud Forest School (offering us an early glimpse of the adventuresome nature and wanderlust that would define her too-brief life; she would later spend half of her university sophomore year in Berlin, and all of her junior year in Madrid.)

Our family in Monteverde, Costa Rica, November 2011.
Our family in Monteverde, Costa Rica, November 2011.

Our visit, which coincided with the (U.S.) Thanksgiving holiday, was fun and fascinating, despite near constant rain. We saw a ton of cool birds, ate amazing local foods, went on gorgeous hikes, and, of course, had great family time. We also spent one memorable morning doing a zip line tour of the rain forest. (Yes, I am slowly but surely closing in on today’s topic . . . .) It was a damp, warm day. Rain showers drifted through the area, but the air was still. The zip line course zig-zagged through an extensive, unbroken tract of rain forest.

The longest leg of the zip course was a full kilometer long, and when my turn came to take on that segment of the journey, I’ll admit to being just a little intimidated. That didn’t last long. I climbed into the harness, remembered the lessons we’d been given for slowing and braking, and allowed our guides to launch me.

Costa Rica RainforestWithin moments, I was gliding over lush rain forest, surrounded by a ghostly mist, utterly alone, and, it seemed, in a cocoon of sensation — birds called from the green below me, the air was redolent with the sweet scents of rain and earth and forest decay, mist cooled my face, the green of the damp foliage was so brilliant as to appear unreal. Time fell away. Yes, I was moving. But to this day, I couldn’t tell you how long it took me to float through that segment of the course. It could have been mere seconds. It could have been hours. It didn’t matter. For the purposes of that experience, time meant nothing to me. I had escaped the tyranny of clocks and calendars.

Yes, the tyranny of clocks and calendars.

Human existence has always been governed by the passage of time — the cycle of days, the changing of the seasons, the aging of our bodies. But clocks are relatively new to the human experience and the demand that we live our lives according to timetables, schedules, and deadlines is newer still. Leisure, I would argue, is our attempt to step away from segmented time, whether we are engaging in a favorite hobby, or traveling to some far off land for a vacation. People speak often of “losing track of time.” This can be offered as an excuse, a way to explain a deadline missed or a late arrival to an important meeting. But it can often also be said in a happier context. “I was so absorbed in what I was doing, I totally lost track of the time.” It’s a glorious feeling, one we seek to replicate whenever we can.

Perhaps I am more conscious now of the preciousness of time, the need to enjoy our hours, our days, our years. They are treasures, not to be frittered away carelessly, not to be spent only on things as trivial as work and Zoom calls and chores. Because they can be taken from us without warning. The Beatles had it wrong, I am sorry to say. Money can, in fact, buy us love. But it can’t buy us time.

The four of us used to go to the beach for a week each summer — the North Carolina coast near Wilmington. We would arrive on Saturday afternoon, do a massive grocery shop, claim our rooms in the house (often a fraught process for the girls . . . .), and then go our separate ways until dinner time. I would always head down to the shore and sit watching the surf and birds and the play of golden late-afternoon light on the water. And I would feel the tension draining from my body, being wicked away by the sand. The sweep hand on my watch would lose its power over me, to be replaced by the advance and retreat of the waves. And I would revel in the anticipation of the glorious week to come, during which our days would be measured solely by the ebb and flow of tides and the arc of the sun.

I get this a bit with my daily morning walks. I walk roughly the same track each day, and I know how long it takes me. Even if I stop to look at the occasional hawk or thrush, the duration of the walk doesn’t change very much. And so, I don’t worry about the time. For those few miles, my only task is to walk, and to let my mind go where it will. Some days I think about my daughters, others find me working through plot lines, and still others I spend obsessing over politics or some issue with a friend or family member. And every so often, my mind wanders in ways I can’t anticipate and can barely track.

My point, I suppose, is that we need to escape those temporal tyrants I mentioned earlier. Even if we can’t afford to go on a vacation — because of time constraints or financial ones — and even if we have to measure the breaks we take in minutes or, if we’re fortunate, hours, we can still set aside a small portion of our day to step away from datebooks and timestamps. It’s worth the effort. Just remember to put your Apple watch and cell phone somewhere you can’t see or hear them.

Have a great week, or enjoy a period of time of your own choosing . . . .