Thursday, October 19, 2017

Ella Loves Kindergarten

Ella has no talent for evasion. She reveals her emotions without the slightest artifice. Her happiness is so obvious, so transparent. She smiles, laughs, and skips--actually skips--across the room. When she is angry, the emotion is no less obvious, and the source is unmistakable. Often, I catch her glaring, with hooded eyes, at Owen. When angry with her parents, she retreats to the corner and pouts, her anger determining our mood like a bad weather pattern.

Since starting Kindergarten, in September, she has revealed new emotions, most notably a strong sense of self-esteem, obvious in her posture, how she straightens her back and tilts her chin upward when speaking about her lessons: counting and writing and coloring in the lines--oh, the profound importance of coloring in the lines!

I love it. I love everything about her school. I love the principal, Mr. Mac, who visited our house in August to read Ella a story. I love her classroom, with its primary colors, the gleaming metal pegs where she hangs her backpack, the low chairs, the smell of crayons and pencil shavings and books. I love picking her up after school, at late care, when we walk the corridors, poking our heads into classrooms, or the library, or the gym, which smells of decades of sweat. (The school was built in 1969, the year my brother Scott was born).

Ella loves it, too, though she spent the entire summer dreading it. One night in late July, before Mr. Mac had come over and after we had watched Spider-Man 3, she woke around 5:00 AM and padded into our room, crying.

"Mommy," she said, half asleep, "I dreamt of Venom. It was almost as scary as the principal coming to our house!"
But he came. And she survived. And now whenever Mr. Mac sees her, he shouts out, "Ella!"

Recently, when I picked her up on a Friday, after Mr. Mac had shouted across a hallway crowded with kids, "Have a good weekend, Ella," I stopped in my tracks to stare at Ella. She was shaking her head and smiling as she tightened her backpack straps to her chest.

My God, I thought. She is so proud.

I loved it. I loved her. It felt like the best moment of my life.

She looked up at me. "Daddy," she said. "STOP."

She knew what I was thinking--for I have no talent for evasion. In the hallway, surrounded by children, she was embarrassed by her father. And I loved that, too.

Originally posted on Facebook.

Monday, July 3, 2017

Thirteen-years Married

Thirteen-years-ago I married my high school sweetheart. Unreliable online data suggests high school sweethearts account for only 2% of all marriages. And less than 2% of people who marry their high school sweetheart earn a college degree.

That last statistic is significant (to me) for a simple reason: After I graduated high school (a year before Karen), we survived a five-year long-distance relationship. I lived in Bloomsburg. Karen lived in D.C. In a box in our bedroom closet, we keep a testament to this time: hundreds of hand-written letters.

The most difficult period, by far, was our first separation, during the summer of 1995, when Karen traveled to Mexico for six weeks and I entered Bloomsburg's "summer freshman" program. I dormed with Anthony, a football player, a truly unintelligent person, who had yet to discover the bacchanalian freedom most summer freshmen had abused for entire high school careers. Making up for lost time, he boozed nightly and rarely slept. Sleepless and depressed, I abused Tylenol P.M. I drank too much bad beer. I found sleep, though not of the restorative sort. Even then, no torment equaled my summer-long paroxysm of lovesickness.

Jerry Garcia died that summer: August 9. That night, when Jerry’s noodling droned in countless iterations from a hundred dorm room windows, the sound was indistinguishable from the mountain-rich blur of bugs, yet I recall walking across campus, from Shroomin's room to my own, excited for my appointed call to Karen’s host family’s place, and catching a snippet of “Box of Rain.”

Oh, how I hated the Grateful Dead. My feeling was: Good, stay dead. But Karen loved "Box of Rain."

Hearing the snippet was enough: I burst into tears. On the phone, minutes later, we cried together, not for Jerry, but for ourselves, for the lonesomeness of our long-distance call—one of many despairing, lovesick calls which reduced both of us, on any number of humid summer nights, to sobbing.

And that was just the first summer. Anyways: Here's to high school sweethearts! This image was taken last week in New Orleans, at the back of a streetcar. We were on our way to the Garden District to get drunk and eat tacos.

Originally posted on Facebook.

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

On the GOP's New "Healthcare" Plan

Of my various pre-existing conditions, type-1 diabetes is the most cost-intensive. In the GOP's new plan, my state can either continue the Obama-era protections for pre-existing conditions or place me (and others like me) into a "high-risk pool," as a way to separate me from healthy people, who can then enjoy lower premiums.

Here's what Andrew Gurman, the president of the American Medical Association, has to say about high-risk pools:

"Prior to the enactment of the Affordable Care Act, 35 states operated high-risk pools, and they were not a panacea for Americans with pre-existing medical conditions. The history of high-risk pools demonstrates that Americans with pre-existing conditions will be stuck in second-class health care coverage -- if they are able to obtain coverage at all."

Without coverage, I will pay out-of-pocket at least $500 per month in insulin and testing supplies alone. With insurance, under the new plan, my costs may be--what?

Trump said on Monday: "It will be every bit as good on pre-existing conditions as Obamacare."

Yet nearly every publication I have read, with the exception of The Wall Street Journal, disputes this fact. The Journal's opinion, contrary to the president of the American Medical Association, is that "high-risk pools are a fairer and more equitable solution."

Yet The Journal's editorial misstates the amount of money available to states for these pools as a "$100 billion." The real number is $8 billion, which is woefully inadequate according to nearly every healthcare expert. (Please correct me if I'm misreading this).

Implicit (to me) in so much of the debate about healthcare is that there must be "winners and losers," as if the health of other human beings is a game.

Also implicit is the notion that sick people do not "deserve" to pay the same premiums as healthy people--after all, why are we sick? I've actually seen this argument made against people with diabetes. What can I say? If you know me, you know I fight every single day to be healthy. And yet, I have several chronic illnesses--so, inevitably, on any given day, I lose my fight. That is the nature of chronic illness.

So what do I deserve as human being who requires care? Do I deserve the label (and attendant costs) of "high risk"? Or do I deserve to pay the same premium as my "healthy" friends?

Health care is not political. We all deserve health care. When we create distinctions between the sick and the healthy, we fail to recognize each other's humanity.

And just to say: I am not posting this picture of my infant son and me to be gratuitous or attract undue attention to my post. The point of the picture, to me, is simple: Healthcare is about caring for those who need it. And some require more care than others.

Originally posted on Facebook.

Monday, January 23, 2017

Invisible Illness

I talk and write about illness often, so I'm hesitant to say--with the lingo--that I have an "invisible" illness. And frankly, I'm not one to hide my illness. I lance my finger in front of friends and colleagues. I jab a needle into my gut wherever: a restaurant, a crowded street.

What I do hide is my day-to-day symptoms. At any hour, on any day, I might feel vertigo, bewildering fatigue, pain. I often have a headache. I rarely feel balanced. My symptoms stand opposed to the person I want to be, so I try to appear healthy, for hours each day, until I return home, when Karen, just home herself after a long day, suffers the burden of my efforts. I can be silent, mean. She's receptive, but not sympathetic. After all, she too suffers an "invisible" illness.

So we have an implicit understanding. We move on, ignoring our symptoms for days, weeks, months. We attend all the events. We host countless dinners. We welcome the world to our home. We do this, we tell ourselves, for life, for our children. We go on and on—until life makes us stop.

Two weeks ago, I woke with a pain in my chest. I thought of Uncle Dean, whose own heart troubles began in a similar way: one morning, a pain in the chest. The feeling, and the thought, were impossible to ignore. I could not take a deep breath. I tried, but some mechanism blocked me.

Already anxious, it was impossible for me to respond reasonably. I plunged into the woes: frustration, sadness, worry. For a few hours on a Tuesday, I was dying. I now admit I was suffering an “anxiety attack,” as my doctor called it—a diagnosis I had, at first, denied. I was certain I was experiencing Dean’s illness. Over fifteen years, I had learned to manage my chronic illnesses, yet these symptoms felt acute, and somehow the opposite of “invisible.” As I went about my life, I thought everyone could see—or worse, feel—my anxiety.

Oh, I thought, this is not the person I want to be. But since everyone could see, I thought, I might as well speak. So I started talking to people—at the grocery store; at the Y. One morning, some self-interested impulse made me confess my anxiety on Twitter. Friends responded with encouraging words. One friend wrote in a message: “Seth, I have suffered anxiety for years. My suggestion: find a picture of Owen and Ella. Look at it until the darkness passes.” And so I did exactly that. Whenever I felt anxious, I looked at this picture of Owen and Ella.

What I learned from talking and sharing, I think, is that many people suffer from “invisible” woes—and many, like me, do not share for fear of seeming vulnerable or self-interested. Oh, but how sharing healed! Even the simplest of words helped me feel less desolate, less afraid. Since then, the pain has subsided, my breathing has calmed. The darkness has passed. Be well, friends. If you feel a need to share, I'm here with open ears.

Originally posted on Facebook

Thursday, November 17, 2016

This Too Shall Pass

Around the time Ella was born, I heard a similar sentiment from many older parents--parents of teens, twenty-somethings, even grandparents: "Enjoy it now. Before you know, she'll be thirteen."

I enjoyed Ella, when I could, but really I just lived life. Day after day: writing, working, cooking. Each morning, I stepped outside to the same world of air and sun and sky, all the old things. Each evening, I drove home under the same stars and moon, so ancient and familiar--and consequently, so unremarkable. When I was away from home, my longing for Ella and Karen drove me to tears. At home, though, thrust into my duties, I balked. Changing diapers. Washing dishes. On my hands and knees, scrubbing the floor. I was filled, at the worst possible moments, with resentment.

This is not my life, I thought. I longed to be writing. Of course, we filled our lives with friends and family, the routine of love and food that sustains me. And yes, I was stunned by the speedy pace. Days, months, and years lapsed without my consent. We moved into our first house. Owen was born. Ella became a little girl. Karen and I learned to forgive--and so, to love--in new ways.

When something terrible happens, we comfort ourselves by saying, "This too shall pass." To be honest with ourselves, though, we know the same applies to the best of life. The birth of a son. The elated, drunken spree. The summer's first ocean plunge. Each fall, Thanksgiving. The winter pleasure of a merino wool sweater. Each spring, the poppies. This, too. This, too.

So I try. At my best, I enjoy it now. I let my children's reverence for the moment, for simple old things, sweep me up into that joyful realm of irresponsibility and glee. "Look, Daddy," Ella says. "A rock! A leaf!" "It's just a rock," I say. "It's just a leaf." But when I pick her up from daycare, I notice her cubbie crammed with rocks, with leaves of different colors: orange, red, brown. There's something going on here, I think. Something important. So I help her gather her treasures in a bag.

Now, as I sit writing, the bag is next to me, at once a pile of refuse and my child's miracle. Friends, Thanksgiving is a week away. I hope you find the time--and space--to slow down. I've never been the type to extol wisdom, but to echo the old ones: "Enjoy it now." I know I'm going to try my hardest. I also know: This too shall pass. All of it.

Originally posted on Facebook.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

How to Parent in a Way That Feels Honest and Humane?

Stepping out today, I grabbed the only available umbrella: Ella's beloved Hello Kitty "brella." Candies and fruits! Gum drops and donuts! Swirled ice cream! French macarons! Looking up, into Hello Kitty's deceptively innocuous face, I felt the sheer, saccharine horror of "cuteness," at least as it's peddled to little girls these days--I felt the cuteness, and embraced it, as my life.

Ella's Hello Kitty Umbrella
Have you ever seen a Magiclip doll? Ella has thirty or more, and on any given evening, long after the wine's gone, I've been called to play the part of Prince Charming or Flynn Rider, to ask Ella's Cinderella or Rapunzel, "Will you marry me?"

Last week's shootings derailed me. I felt pointless and privileged; angry and sad. Mostly I felt anesthetized by a shame that stopped me in my tracks. "What can I do?" I asked myself, again and again.

Writing felt frivolous. I wanted to reach out to my black friends, to say, "I'm with you." But as Roxane Gay wrote in Marie Claire: "Black people do not need allies. We need people to stand up and take on the problems borne of oppression as their own, without remove or distance."

I've been thinking about this. I've been thinking about Roxane's call for white people to "speak up when you hear people making racist jokes. Speak up when you see injustice in action." And of course, I think about how to talk to Ella about all this--how to teach her to "speak up", sincerely, without guilt or a sense of duty--to just do it. It might be too early for that conversation, but recently the sentiment has influenced our conversations.

How to parent in a way that feels honest and humane?

This challenge, like Roxane's, lifts me from my moping, demands something from me. And so I try to take Ella's world seriously. I try to play Magiclips with a sincerity of purpose that matches her own.

Playing, I hope to nurture her voice now, to give her the confidence, now and later, to "speak up" in her way. When called upon, years from now, what will Ella say?

I don't pretend to understand what is required of me as a person, a parent. What I do hope to teach my daughter, though, is to challenge the easy stereotypes, to fight the sort of thinking that denies the experience of difference, and yet, at the same time, to make her life a testament--a celebration--of difference.

Be whoever the fuck you want to be, I hope to teach her. And fight for the rights of others who do not have that privilege.

Originally posted on Facebook

Wednesday, May 25, 2016


Four years ago to the day (more or less; the photo was taken May 26, 2012). Ella was not even three-months-old. I was thirty-five. I'm not sure who has aged more--Ella or me. She's writing letters now, whole names: ELLA, OWEN. She quotes chunks of JAWS. She nails "this shark, swallow you whole." She worries when people call her "beautiful." She doesn't want to be beautiful, not yet. She wants to be "cute." She dresses in clashing patterns. She refuses to tie her hair up. She's "only four," she reminds me.

I'm still wearing a short swimsuit, though not this short. My beard is 50% grey. My prominent nose looks a bit uneven, somehow more flattened and large. And there’s this line, this new line that runs down my left cheek. My skinny man's paunch, I've accepted, is here to stay. It's the wine, I know, two or three glasses a night, sometimes more.

I've just finished writing my memoir--three years in the making. I'm feeling retrospective, elegiac even. I'm remembering life before Ella and Owen. I'm imagining waking in a bright hotel room, wood floors gleaming in the light, wearing a short swimsuit, Karen asleep next to me—both of us free, for one daydream, of the omnipotent hold of our children.

I thought three years of writing about my life might teach me something about life. Perhaps. I've learned I need to love and feel loved by family and friends--that love is all that matters to me. I'm not sure this is a lesson. It feels like narcissism. Maybe saying that is narcissism. Perhaps I should own it.

I'm not especially ambitious, I've learned. I just want to be a good friend, a good son, a good brother, a good nephew, a good uncle, a good dad.

I want my wife, who turns thirty-eight tomorrow, to feel I love her a bit more than anything. I want to be a fabulous husband, though I often fail.

I hope to send my memoir out to the world, though I feel doubtful, just now, after three years of work. You see what I mean? I need people to love; to love me. For three years, I took as my working title a line suggested by my longtime mentor, friend, and boss, Mary Beth: "What is Wrong With Me." After finishing, though, I'm feeling a bit different. "Lucky" feels right to me, now. I suppose that's something I learned, too. However selfish the lesson, I've learned I'm lucky. I try to remember that. I try.

Originally posted on Facebook.