Tag Archives: David B. Coe

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 . . . .

Monday Musings: The Power of Dates, the Power of Memory

Alex Today is the 22nd of January. It’s been exactly three months since our older daughter passed away.

I didn’t used to care about the 22nd of any month (my apologies to those with a birthday on one 22nd or another — nothing personal). Now, I can’t help but notice every one.

I have a head for dates. Maybe it’s a byproduct of having been trained as a historian; I don’t know. Many, many years ago, on a June 5th in the 1980s, I think, my father told me that day was the anniversary of his first date with my mom. I have remembered this ever since, and on that day, I find myself thinking of them, of how cute they were together, of the different silly ways they expressed their love.

Some in our family have made things a little easier in the date-remembering regard. My grandmother on my father’s side, who adored my mother 99% of the time, died on my mom’s birthday. Coincidence? Perhaps. A final act of passive aggression from a mother-in-law? Also possible. And so maybe it wasn’t all that surprising that my mother died on the birthday of my brother’s wife, whom she adored. Yeah, that coincidence thing is looking a little less likely now, isn’t it . . . ?

I know — I’m bouncing all over in this post. I started off with a very somber remembrance of my lost, beloved daughter, and now I’m cracking wise about mothers-in-law. Grief and humor. To my mind, we can’t survive the former without the latter. And, the fact is, speaking as a creator, while death is often tragic, it can also be a wonderful source for cathartic humor. Have you ever seen the Chuckles-the-Clown funeral episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show? If not, do yourself a favor and watch it. Brilliant stuff.

As I said before, I have a mind for dates. But we also live in a society that remembers. December 7, 1941. November 22, 1963. September 11, 2001. Specific dates insinuate themselves into our lives, taking on significance in a variety of ways. Birthdays of family and friends, wedding anniversaries, days of loss, days of joy. I made the mistake once, when setting up my LinkedIn account, of choosing a date on which I began my writing career. I don’t know if it’s the right one. The site asked, I remembered the month and year, and so I threw in a day. Now, I get flooded with work anniversary notifications from LinkedIn on a date that has absolutely no significance for me.

At times, if, say, I’m on a highway and I see an accident by the side of the road, I can’t help but think that, for the people involved, this will forever after be “the day of the accident.” A weird way of thinking, I suppose. It’s my writer brain. There is a story there, a spiral leading to the crash, and then continuing beyond it into the aftermath. The accident might have been the result of random chance occurrences, but we are creatures of narrative, and it’s quite possible that in the minds of the accident victims, those random occurrences will, in hindsight, rightly or wrongly, be seen as a storyline of interconnected events.

Sometimes events become confused by perspective. I remember the day (and time) on which Alex informed us of her cancer diagnosis. But she actually needed a couple of days after that fateful conversation with her oncologist before she could tell Nancy and me. So the actual date of the diagnosis itself is not the day I remember. It doesn’t matter in any way. And yet, the dates themselves, and the very existence of that small gap, carries significance. It is a symptom of her fierce independence and her desire, even under those extraordinary circumstances, to protect us, to deliver this painful news with her composure intact, so that she could put on a brave face and thus cushion the blow a little.

Dates tell a story.

I have no greater point. Not really. I call these posts musings for a reason. It’s the 22nd, and this is what I’m pondering today.

I will close on a more positive note, however, and in doing so will echo my father. Of course I remember my wedding anniversary, and the anniversary of Nancy and my engagement. But I also recall, and always remark upon, the anniversary of our first date. Sort of. We had two first dates, as it happened. The first didn’t take. The second one, the one that counts, was February 24, 1989. Yes, there’s a story there as well. Another time, perhaps.

Have a great week.

Monday Musings: The Hypothetical Musings of a Hypothetical Stoner, Offered Hypothetically…

This will come as a surprise to none of you, but I was a stoner when I was in high school. And college. And for a good part of graduate school. I am fine with revealing this, because, while I am not a lawyer, I am pretty certain that the statute of limitations has long since run out on my youthful indiscretions. Although . . . . Okay, I checked and I’m good. Turns out being old is good for something.

Grateful Dead bearAs I say, if you know me, you probably don’t find this surprising. I have spoken and written about my love of the Grateful Dead, my experiences shivering outside on cold nights, in the dark of Providence, Rhode Island winters, waiting at the Providence Civic Center for Dead tickets to go on sale. People don’t do that unless they have already done damage to their prefrontal cortex. I could tell additional stories. It is possible that I (and select others) was (were) high during at least one musical performance that we gave while in college. I might remember playing Cat Stevens’s hit “Wild World” and literally watching my digital dexterity degrade over the course of the song.

I did other, stupider things while high as well. I don’t feel any great need to share them with you. I have been, for many years now, a respected figure in the realm of fantasy literature. I see no need to undermine that standing by telling you about the summer when I was a counselor at a sleep-away camp, and how a colleague and I, soaring (figuratively) at about 30,000 feet, were found by the camp’s owner raiding the main kitchen at about 10:00 at night. My friend, too high to engage with Mike, the aforementioned owner, went about making his sandwich, leaving it to me to try and keep us from getting fired. Mike asked what we had been up to that night. (We were both off duty for the night — in all seriousness, we would NEVER have been high while responsible for the well-being of our campers. We were young and stupid and careless, but not THAT stupid and definitely not THAT careless.) Before I could answer, I realized that Mike had turned his attention to my friend. I did the same. My friend was now trying to put mustard on his sandwich, but had forgotten to open the spout at the top. And he was squeezing the bottle really hard. Until the top literally blew off the bottle, skittered across the table, and fell onto the floor, leaving a deluge of yellow mustard pooling on what had been, I’m sure, a sandwich with great potential. I turned back to Mike, and managed to say with a straight face, “Not much. Just hanging out.”

It wasn’t all fun and silliness. Nearly forty years ago, I was cited for possession by a California state trooper. I won’t go into the details except to say the following: 1) I was with my brother, Jim, who was never a user; 2) I was completely unable to lie to the cop — my cheek started twitching at the mere thought of it, proving once and for all that I had no future in politics — and so I just admitted I was carrying. I also made sure the trooper knew that Jim didn’t smoke and had no idea I had any weed with me; 3) under California law, possession for personal use was equivalent to a traffic ticket. I paid a fine and that was it. Things would have been much worse for me in pretty much any other state; and 4) I got a great story out of it.

I mentioned up front that I smoked pot through only part of grad school. I stopped not long after I started dating Nancy, because she wasn’t really into it. That said, the last time I got high I did so with her, at a Dead concert she and I went to with friends who gave us the tickets as a wedding present. That was in June 1991.

Why am I sharing all of this with you? Well, it is possible, in theory, that I might have recently started getting high again. If this were the case, it would be something I was doing VERY infrequently. But it would also, in theory, be something I was enjoying, sort of like visiting an old haunt for the first time in years. If any of this were true, I might be able to tell you that today’s pot is NOTHING like the stuff I allegedly smoked as a youngster. It is WAY stronger. I mean wow! (Hypothetically speaking.) A person who had in fact started smoking again (just a very, very little bit) would know this from personal experience, from the hazed memories of what once was and from theoretical knowledge of what might now hypothetically be. Got that?

In any case, all of this might or might not be something I’ve been musing about recently. I hope you have a great week.

Monday Musings: The Emotional Challenge of Writing

Whenever I work with writers who are at the outsets of their careers — whether I’m editing their work for freelance or for an anthology, or teaching them in a workshop, or just talking shop on a convention panel — I try to stress the importance of delving deeply into emotion when telling our stories. There are so many elements that make a book or story effective. We want to create fascinating worlds, imbue those worlds with breathtaking magical systems or mind-bending imagined technologies, and give those worlds rich, complex histories, cultures, and religions. And, of course, we want our plots to be twisty, unpredictable, fun, and, ultimately, deeply satisfying.

At the end of the day, though, the key to a successful story, at least in my opinion, thirty novels and nearly as many years into my career, is character. Every other element of our storytelling can be perfect, but if our characters are flat and our readers don’t connect with them, we can’t consider our narratives successful. On the other hand, imperfections in our world building and our prose and even our plotting can be overcome with believable, memorable, relatable character work.

And I would argue that successful character work demands that we tap into the emotions of the people about whom we’re writing (even if they’re not technically “people”). Emotion is a writer’s bread and butter. Emotion is how we connect with readers, how our readers come to love (or hate) our characters, how our characters give meaning and purpose to our narratives. Emotion is everything. Without it, we might as well be writing shopping lists, or relating our stories in bullet points.

Why am I telling you this? Many of you aren’t writers, and probably don’t care about the craft of writing. And those of you who are writers have probably heard me talk about this stuff before. As I said at the outset, these are points I make at every opportunity, because I deem them so important to the success of any story.

Infusing our prose with emotion, capturing and portraying the feelings of our characters, using emotion as a tool to propel our plots — all of these things are really hard to do well. Writers spend entire careers perfecting the techniques. But sometimes — for me right now — it can be an overwhelming challenge simply to mine our own emotions so that we can draw upon them in our writing.

“Write what you know,” writers are often told. As a writer of fantasy, I approach this bit of wisdom with a healthy dose of skepticism. If all of us ONLY wrote what we “know” the literary world would be a drab, boring place. But “write what you know” does have some relevance for emotional writing. All of us have felt anger and contentment, fear and resolve, love and hate, sadness and joy. We are emotional creatures. And by drawing on our own emotional experiences and memories, we can bring authenticity and power to the emotions we impart to our characters.

The problem is, sometimes we don’t want to go there.

The Chalice War: Sword, by David B. CoeIn the last year, I have written two pieces of original short fiction. That’s it. I haven’t written a novel since I finished The Chalice War: Sword, late in 2022. I have recently started work on a tie-in project (I can’t really say more than that, right now), a novel. It is coming slowly, and because I am essentially playing in someone else’s world, the emotions I’ll be mining are somewhat removed from my own. I spent the first half of last year doing a bunch of editing, for myself and for others, figuring that when those projects were through, I would dive into a new book of my own.

Then our older daughter’s health took a dramatic turn for the worse, and that was pretty much it. I couldn’t write fiction anymore. I didn’t want to write fiction anymore. Because my entire existence outside of writing was about pain and grief and loss, and the last thing I wanted to do was a deep dive into my own feelings for the purpose of bringing life to new characters.

Now, a couple of things. First, fear not — this is NOT a permanent condition. I will write again, books and stories both. I have ideas I want to explore and projects I want to complete. I’m just not ready yet. And second, notice I said, “I couldn’t write FICTION anymore.” I did not stop writing; I have not stopped being a writer. Not entirely. I am writing posts again, and I have been journaling all this time. I have also been writing to friends. In all of this writing, I am processing and prodding. I may not be willing to delve deeply into my emotional world at this time, but I’m not ignoring it completely. I’m being careful. The way we might favor a twisted knee or avoid contact with a bruise on one side.

Because I am bruised, wounded. And I am far from alone in this regard. Lots of you write with and through emotional pain all the time. Which, I suppose, brings me to my final, larger point. Another thing writers are told constantly is to write as much as possible. “Professional writers write.” I’ve said this myself. And it’s true. But it doesn’t mean we can or should always be forcing ourselves to work on the next thing we want to sell. At times, we need to write for our own purposes. At times, we write not to make money, but to survive, to heal, to find peace. At times, we can only ask so much of ourselves.

This is such a time for me. As much as I would like to be “productive” again (whatever that means) I’m simply not there yet. Emotional writing may be our professional currency, but it’s not always possible. Admitting that, honoring that, is a step toward healing.

Have a great week.

Happy New Year and a Musings Post Celebrating Grief (Yep!)

For years now, I have written New Year’s posts, often more than one per holiday. In December, I have often taken stock of the year that’s ending, evaluating my accomplishments, examining my disappointments, trying to make sense of an entire trip around the sun in 800 to 1,000 words. And then, early in January, I usually write another post, establishing goals and expressing hopes for the year to come.

For reasons that will be apparent to those who know me, I am reluctant to attempt any of that this year. The year that has just passed was the worst of my life, a year of tragic loss and emotional devastation. And the year now beginning? Honestly, I don’t know what to hope for, or what to expect. The truth is no full year is entirely good or bad. There were moments of joy and laughter in 2023, just as even the “best” years of my life have included intervals of sadness and anger and dissatisfaction. New Year’s is a convenient time to take stock, but our lives don’t divide into neat units according to the calendar.

So, why am I writing anything at all right now?

In part, I suppose, because I believe it is time for me to start blogging again. I don’t really feel like it. But I don’t feel like doing much of anything, and that is no way to live. I also have no intention of making every week’s post about despair and mourning, and so I guess I think there will be value in having to look beyond my immediate emotions for reasons to write and for subjects for my essays.

Today, though, with your indulgence, I will take the opportunity to write about grief. It’s been only a bit over two months since we lost our older daughter to cancer. We are still deep in the grieving process (to the degree that this can even be termed “a process”), and we will be for some time. I find it hard to imagine an end to this grief. Which is not to say that I don’t believe I can be happy ever again, or that I can’t laugh or enjoy life or take pleasure in family and friendships, hobbies and travel, the work that I love and the colleagues I treasure. Grief isn’t linear. As I have said before, having dealt with grief a fair amount in my life, I don’t believe it lends itself to division into convenient stages. Yes, it changes and evolves as we confront our emotions. Yes, it is tempered and softened by the passage of time. But it is different for each of us. And it changes with each loss we suffer.

What I have learned most about grief is that it is good. Yep, you read that right. Grief is good.

Loss sucks. I would not wish on anyone the emotional pain I have experienced over the past few months — hell, the past three years (almost), since Alex’s cancer diagnosis. The crater in my life left by her death can never, ever be filled. But my grief speaks to the depth of my feelings for her. That crater is commensurate in size with the joy she brought me, the joy she brought all of us. We grieve because we have loved; 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. Because we never want to let go of that love and we never want to forget.

Grief is catharsis. Grief reminds us that while our beloved is gone, we are still alive, which is what she would want. Alex would not want us to be crippled by our grief, but I can tell you with utmost confidence that if we didn’t grieve at all, she would be thoroughly pissed off. Grief helps us place in perspective the importance of the one we’ve lost, and it also allows us to shape the way our memories of her, our love for her, will influence the rest of our lives.

There was a great deal of talk after the pandemic about what our society’s “new normal” would look like. I am having similar conversations these days with my family and friends, as well as my therapist, trying to figure out what my new normal and that of my family will look like. Our lives will never be the same. How could they be? But we can decide what life without Alex will be like, and our grief can help us create that new reality.

What did I admire most about my daughter? Her courage. Her resilience. Her spirit and her determination, even before she got sick, to live her life with zeal and joy and curiosity. And already I know that I want to be more like her in the years I have left. What a gift! A legacy, born of love, honed by loss, given voice within my heart and mind by the memory of my darling girl.

Already, Nancy, Erin, and I have spent time together sharing our recollections, laughing at things she said and did, imagining what she might say in response to some new situation, or how she might respond to something in the news or on TV or in a song. She continues to be a presence for all of us, as she should. Someday, perhaps, Nancy and I will be grandparents, and if/when we are, Alex will be the stuff of legend for Erin’s kids. Tales of her exploits — her bravery, her wit, her intelligence, her beauty, and, yes, even her foibles — will be an essential element of their upbringing. And so she will live on.

No one wants to grieve. As I said, loss sucks. But our grief is something to be embraced, something that gives back even more than it takes.

I wish you a wonderful 2024, filled with love and laughter.

Checking In and Saying Thanks

It’s been a little over three weeks since Alex, our older daughter, lost her two and a half year battle with cancer. It feels like more. It feels like less.

We have had celebrations of her life in New York City and in our little home town in Tennessee. Both were crowded and loud and fun. Both were filled with laughter and tears, music and good food, and lots and lots of remembrances of our brilliant, funny, beautiful child. (Yes, she was 28. Still, she will always be our child, our first baby, our darling little girl.) We have been overwhelmed by the love shown us by friends and family near and distant. By the generosity — spiritual, emotional, material — of so many. Cards, gifts, flowers, food, phone calls, and texts. And yes, comments by the hundreds on social media posts. We are humbled and grateful beyond words for every expression of support and sympathy. Thank you a thousand times.

At this point, the celebrations of her life are over. Guests from out of town have left. Erin has gone back home. Nancy is starting to work again, and I am gearing up to do the same. We are, I suppose, stepping back into “normal” life. Except there is nothing normal about it, and in ways that truly matter, in ways that will remain with us for the rest of our lives, it will never really be normal at all, ever again.

How do we navigate this path? I honestly don’t know. It’s a terrible cliché, but I guess we do so one day at a time, one moment at a time, one breath at a time. In and out. Take a step. And breathe again. Rinse, repeat.

It’s a good thought, I suppose. It feels inadequate to the task. Already, in just these few weeks, I have reached for my phone more times than I can count, intending to text Alex, or check for a text from her. I want desperately to hear her voice, to know once again the music of her laughter, to ask her questions about her work, or the new restaurant she’s tried out most recently, or the music she currently has on looped-play. And each time, reality kicks me in the gut.

I watch TV and am shocked by the number of times some character, on-screen or off, is said to have cancer. There is no escaping it. We hear news of a celebrity passing away — cancer again. News of lost children assaults us from all corners of the globe, wars claiming their collateral toll, gun violence here in the States stealing more innocent young lives. These tidings were always awful to hear, but they were abstract in some way. Anonymous. Not anymore. Children are lost. Parents grieve. We are members of a club no parent wants to join.

Alex’s death hit so many people so hard, and in one sense that was a product of her amazing personality, her magnetism. But I am wise enough to understand that there is far more to it than that. The outpouring of love and grief from her friends comes in part from the simple truth that, for many of them, she is the first of their contemporaries to die. Tragedy has breached their generational line far too soon, and they are shell-shocked. The outpouring of love and grief from our friends comes in part from the recognition that this is every parent’s nightmare. Losing one’s child is unthinkable, unimaginable, unendurable. It happens, of course. Too often, actually. That club has more members than we ever knew. Several have reached out to me to say so, and to offer support and guidance. But for so many, our loss is a terrifying echo of their deepest unspoken fear.

Another truth: After Alex’s diagnosis in March of 2021, I found myself imagining the worst all the time. I couldn’t stop myself. Therapy helped some, but not completely. I lived with the constant dread of this ending, with the unrelenting awareness of the odds against her, of the near inevitability of her decline. Unimaginable? Hardly.

These days, I’m often asked, “How are you doing?” I don’t know how to answer. My emotions are in constant flux. At times I feel okay, and I can see a way forward. Other times I feel numb. And still others I am as fragile as spring ice. One wrong step and I’ll shatter. This is normal, I know. Grief is not linear. It can’t be prescribed, and while breaking it down into stages might appear to clarify the maelstrom of feelings raging around me, the construct strikes me as artificial and less than helpful. I know better than to be seduced by those moments when I feel as though I have a handle on my loss. I sense that I will get there eventually, but I’m not there yet, and won’t be for a long time. I also know better than to panic when I feel out of control. That will pass as well.

The numbness, though — that bothers me. I want to feel. I want to weep for my child or laugh at a golden memory. I want to feel pain and love and loss and connection, because those keep my vision of Alex fresh and present. Numbness threatens oblivion. Numbness makes the loss seem complete, irretrievable — and that I don’t want. Not ever. Better to cry every day for the rest of my life than lose my hold on these emotions.

And so I stumble onward, trying to figure it all out, hurting and remembering and loving most of all. I don’t know when I will post again. Soon, I hope. I believe writing this has helped, and I am certain I will have more to write in the days, weeks, and months to come. Thank you for reading. Thank you for your sympathy and friendship, and also for your continued patience and respect of our privacy as we attempt to find our way.

Hug those you love.

Alexis Jordan Berner-Coe, 1995-2023

Alexis J. Berner-CoeThis is the post I never wanted to write. The one I dreaded, the one that was, not so long ago, unthinkable, and, more recently, heartrendingly inevitable.

Our darling older daughter, Alexis Jordan Berner-Coe, has died, after a two and a half year battle with cancer. She was 28 years old.

How do I begin to tell you about her without seeming to be just a grieving father lionizing his lost child? She was extraordinary, but you would expect me to say as much. She was brilliant, but you’d expect me to say that, too. She was kind and generous, articulate and wise, courageous beyond belief and beautiful beyond words. What else could I possibly say? And yet it’s all so true.

She was charismatic. To know her was to want to be her friend, and this was true from the time she was little. She would meet a kid her age, say, on an airplane, or at a park, and within minutes they would be fast friends. Yeah, I know — proud dad. Well, consider this: When Alex was ten, we moved to Australia for a year while Nancy was on sabbatical. We moved there in August and a couple of weeks later she and her younger sister started attending a public elementary school in Wollongong. In December, Alex was elected student president of the school.

She was accomplished and driven and smart as a whip. Of course I would say so. But consider this: She attended NYU and graduated with honors. Not long after she graduated, she found a job with a sound production studio in New York, a company called One Thousand Birds. They hired her as an office assistant. Within six months, she had worked her way into a position as a producer. Three years later she was an Executive Producer and Director of Business Partnerships.

Strong, brave, resolute. Just words. But after Alex’s sophomore year in high school, she did an outdoor program that culminated in a summiting of Mount Rainier. Prior to the trip she had gotten new hiking boots, and we tried to warn her about the importance of breaking them in. But she was 16 and, well that’s really all I need to say, right? Her group leader later told us that in over decade of leading outdoor adventures like this one, he had never seen a worse case of blisters. Her feet were a bloody, ragged mess. But she never complained, never begged out of any activity, and never thought twice about completing the trek to the top of Rainier, some 14,000+ feet above sea level.

She wasn’t perfect. Far from it. She could be stubborn and prickly, self-centered and opinionated, sometimes aggressively so. But her imperfections were, to those of us who knew and loved her, part of her charm, part of what made her Alex, or ABC, as so many people called her.

She was passionate about music and books, movies and art. And she was an eager and adventuresome traveler. She spent half of her junior year in high school in Costa Rica at the Cloud Forest School. She traveled to Berlin for half of her sophomore year in college, and enjoyed being abroad so much that she spent all of her junior year in Madrid. In July of this year, while battling cancer and recovering from her latest treatments, she went to Europe for two weeks. She wasn’t back more than a week before she started making plans for her next trip.

Sadly, she never got to take it.

She faced cancer with the same wisdom, strength, and courage that she brought to every other part of her life. She was first diagnosed back in March 2021, but she had been sick for far longer and the cancer was advanced when at last it was discovered. She was scared, of course, but also resolute in her belief that she could beat the odds. She never allowed herself to identify as a cancer patient. She was, she insisted, the same person she had always been, except she happened to have cancer now. She didn’t give in to despair or self-pity or bitterness. She dealt with her treatments and side-effects with quiet dignity and an uncompromising determination to live on her own terms. She continued to work, to travel, to go to concerts, to see friends and throw parties. Losing her hair bothered her a lot, but she totally rocked her head scarves, which became A Thing. All of this to say that her vivaciousness was absolutely unquenchable.

Losing her leaves a gaping hole in our lives. Nancy, Erin, and I are shattered, especially Erin, who was Alex’s closest friend in the universe and who utterly adored her sister. But all of us know that Alex wouldn’t want us to become mired in our grief. She would want us to celebrate her life and to honor her by living with the same zest and verve she brought to this world during her too brief time here.

And so that is what we intend to do.

Be at peace, Sweetie. We love you to the moon and back.