Letting go of Invulnerability

I’m still struggling with vulnerability not equating to weakness. Intellectually, I can say, “Okay, fine. I get this.” But accepting it, internalizing it, is a whole other matter. I’m trying to understand why I have equated the two words and not thought about them critically. I think I am going to start by blaming Star Trek (The Original Series, ST:TOS).

From ST:TOS “The Enemy Within” airing October 6, 1966.  (Okay, so I would have been a few months short of five, so I might not have seen or understood the original broadcast. But, I have seen it multiple times since, of course.)

KIRK: Yes, I’ll make an announcement to the entire crew, tell them what happened. It’s a good crew. They deserve to know.
SPOCK: Captain, no disrespect intended, but you must surely realise you can’t announce the full truth to the crew. You’re the Captain of this ship. You haven’t the right to be vulnerable in the eyes of the crew. You can’t afford the luxury of being anything less than perfect. If you do, they lose faith, and you lose command.
KIRK: Yes, I do know that, Mister Spock. What I don’t know is why I forgot that just now. Mister Spock, if you see me slipping again, your orders, your orders are to tell me.
SPOCK: Understood, Captain.

So, all of us growing up holding Captain James T. Kirk as our masculine model got kind of screwed. Of course, this is not news. Kirk was hardly the best role model. He played fast and loose with the rules, he was cute too often where seriousness was expected, and was always putting himself and the ship at risk by being part of the landing party. WTF? When do ship captains do the dirty work? Why are all the senior officers leaving the damn ship all the time? One of the Jesuits I worked with Saint Louis University would rant about these issues whenever you gave him opening. He had a point. He also had the same gripes about Star Trek: The Next Generation but was generally most irate about ST:TOS. (Star Trek: Deep Space 9 he was happy with.) While there is an argument that a leader should be out in front, setting the example, if you study American military leadership, only the lowest level leaders, Infantry team leaders and occasionally squad leaders are in the lead. Personally, I like the idea of the leader being hands-on and first to danger, but that doesn’t make it the most rational choice.

Anyhow. Some might notice some similarities in behaviour between me and Kirk. All I can say is that it wasn’t intentional. Consider also this from Casablanca:

Rick: I don’t want to shoot you…but I will if you take one more step.
Renault: Under the circumstances, I will sit down.
Rick:  Keep your hands on the table.
Renault:I wonder if you realize what this means.
Rick: I do. We’ve got time to discuss that later.
Renault:Call off your watchdogs, you said.
Rick: Just the same, call the airport and let me hear you tell them.
Rick: And remember, this gun is pointed right at your heart.
Renault: That is my least vulnerable spot.

In both places, “vulnerable” really does seem to mean weakness. One might argue that Captain Renault is saying his heart is not “susceptible to physical or emotional attack or harm” (see this definition, which lists “weak” as a synonym) but at pointblank range with no body armor, that is demonstrably false. Of course, he’s really saying he is not emotionally vulnerable and therefore not physically vulnerable if his heart is the target. He is quite capable heartlessness as is demonstrated earlier in the movie as he preys on young women in search of exit visas to leave Casablanca. It’s a nice, casual throw-away line to reinforce an image of invulnerability.

But Shakespeare is more clear in  “Macbeth”:

“Thou losest labour:
As easy mayst thou the intrenchant air
With thy keen sword impress as make me bleed:
Let fall thy blade on vulnerable crests;
I bear a charmed life, which must not yield,
To one of woman born.”

I get this. To be vulnerable is to be unprotected. And therein lies the rub, to be unprotected just seems, well, weak. Isn’t that the mythos of the American West and modern open-carry laws? “God didn’t make men equal, Colonel Colt did.” To be armed is to be strong, to be invulnerable, not weak, to replace weakness with a weapon.

Springsteen creates the image of youthful invulnerability in “It’s Hard to be a Saint in the City.”

I had skin like leather and the diamond-hard look of a cobra
I was born blue and weathered but I burst just like a supernova
I could walk like Brando right into the sun
Then dance just like a Casanova
With my blackjack and jacket and hair slicked sweet
Silver star studs on my duds like a Harley in heat
When I strut down the street I could feel it’s heartbeat
The sisters fell back and said “Don’t that man look pretty”
The cripple on the corner cried out “Nickels for your pity”
Them gasoline boys downtown sure talk gritty
It’s so hard to be a saint in the city

The hell of it is that at I times I still feel this way. I’m too old and ungainly, but I feel it. There are times I am just walking and I feel it. I feel strong, upright and unbent by life, feeling the movement of my body and relishing in its ease and comfort. Especially now as I am lighter and growing more fit again. It’s a powerful feeling. I feel good and these lyrics are too often there I as I walk. I feel good. Strong. Invulnerable.

The exact opposite of what I am trying to accomplish. Sigh.

I keep trying to find a mindset that encompasses vulnerability that also allows me to feel good. I don’t know about the rest of you, but this is a bit of a challenge for me. I don’t particularly like even the idea of feeling vulnerable, let alone being vulnerable.

I found this blog post that is based on the TED talk by Brené Brown on the Power of Vulnerability that I have referenced before.  The author has extracted five points from Brown’s talk that make sense: be real; act with no guarantees; ask for help;  get rejected; and embrace negative emotions. I’m not very good with any of these. Depending on the context, being real is not always a problem, but in many circumstances, I’m too often playing a role and withholding some part of myself. For work, this is probably generally appropriate. At home and in the community, probably not. Asking for help is not particularly easy, especially since I enjoy problem-solving, but mostly I don’t like admitting I can’t do something, that I don’t know something and can’t find it, or that, worst of all, I actually need help (shudder).

The good thing is that I have found that when I actually ask for help, and then accept it, things actually get better. A big thank you to Laura Gogia who pushed me on this regarding an upcoming chapter being published this spring where she became my incredibly talented co-author. While I have noted improvement and it has gotten easier to ask for help, it is a challenge to change years of behavior. It is also uncomfortable to move away from the comfort of the illusion of invulnerability.

Embracing negative emotions is also a bloody challenge. Actually, embracing emotions at all is my challenge. Ignoring them, granting them  only passing acknowledgement, or processing them as anger, has been too much of my life. It’s hard, but I am trying to open myself to the moment and the emotions that are part of each moment.  Each day I  am trying a little more to let go of invulnerability.
















One Success

This past weekend we moved our youngest son to Massachusetts to be with the woman with whom he has fallen in love. She has a good job, life, and her family there, and Zach felt free enough, root-less enough, to go there to a start a life with her. When he announced his pending move on Facebook he said, “After living in VA for 17 years I never felt like this was truly home for me. As hard as it may be at times to move so far from my parents I’m looking forward to this next chapter in my life with you Kristen. In just a few short days I’ll be moving to Massachusetts for a fresh start with the woman I love and an opportunity to create a place with her that I can call ‘home’.

His mother was a bit upset about this. I pointed out the number of times that we have moved, that this is the third state we have lived in, and that we have moved at least twice in each state. His time in Virginia includes college and living on his own in a couple of places. Settled is not something he has been. Thus, making the decision to move 700 miles away was not such a big deal for him.

Zach is just about everything I hoped he would be growing up, save that he’s not much of a rebel against authority. He practices a bit of rebellion every day, but it is rebellion against the mundane trivia of laziness and incompetence that he encounters. He doesn’t tolerate stupid very well either. Given these things, he is a loud, confrontational rebel against unqualified authority, which exists in great quantity today. Maybe this is really what I wanted.

He got far less attention as young child than he deserved or probably needed. He could self-manage from a young age and so we let him. His older brother consumed our time and our lives. Zach is a bit embittered by that experience and still carries a lot of the anger he developed, Melinda suffers from PTSD, and the scars I have run deep. Someday I may write about that experience, but it won’t be easy to do nor pleasant to read. Raising schizophrenic child rarely has a happy ending.  Despite the family dynamics of chaos and stress, Zach is very much a success.


Zach, 9, at Dinosaur National Monument

The trip to Massachusetts was anything but uneventful. Just about an hour into the trip we had to flip the kayaks (13 foot long plastic sails) that were mounted on the top of Zach’s jeep. With tops facing outward, they were catching way too much wind. Shortly after lunch, Zach led us on a wrong turn that put us on a two-lane road up a snowy, icy mountain – not the ideal route for the 4,000lb U-Haul  rolling brick I was towing for him. Just hours later in Pennsylvania we came upon traffic at a dead stop on the highway. Zach took the adjacent exit and Kristen texted “Got off.” We stayed on the highway, not knowing she meant “get”  until later. It was just as well, as they had a pretty crazy route that was wicked enough for them and not suited for a car towing a rolling brick. Eventually we got rolling again, passing the two crashed semis, and then our driver-side wiper blade broke. Time lost finding a replacement, getting further behind them.

About 82 miles from his new home, his beloved Jeep broke down. He stopped, called me, we talked, he started checking spark plug wiring, and called our mechanic friend. Ten o’clock on a Friday night, temps in the low teens, and winds blowing around 40 miles an hour. He’s told he can probably limp on in if he takes it easy, listening to only five of six cylinders firing. Sometime after midnight he makes it, a little over an hour ahead of us.

Zach was stressed. He told me later, “Kristen got to see all of me that night. The entire range of who I am. From relaxed to the most intense I get.” He tends to function well under pressure, but the stress can eat at him for awhile. But he was ready. We’ve done so many road trips, we are at home on the road. Melinda I talked about our move to Oregon in ’94. We rented a U-Haul truck and auto trailer for my little pick-up and she drove her Nissan. James rode with her and Zach road with me in  “that big noisy truck.” We had adventures on that trip. Zach loved riding in that truck and it is probably why he loves trucks so much now. As he thinks about perhaps replacing his Jeep, he has noticed a used Ford F250 with a snowplow at a little dealer near his new home. “Dad, it is just about perfect. I think the backseat might be cramped, but it will be big enough for a carseat or two.” He’s thinking ahead and comfortable with the future.

The picture above is from a trip the summer before we moved to Oregon. A three thousand mile loop from Keizer, OR to Joplin, MO. We visited Crater Lake, Dinosaur National Monument,  the Cottonwood Pass,  Santa Fe, St. Louis, the Field of Dreams (Iowa), Rushmore, Crazy Horse, Devil’s Tower, Yellowstone, Grand Coulee, Multnomah Falls. And a bunch of places with unfamiliar names. It was a glorious trip for the three of us, camping in some beautiful places. Nine year-old Zach loved that trip. Camping at Devil’s Tower under a full moon was pretty cool.

Camping. Zach and I have done a lot of that. Between Scouts and our personal trips, we have almost a year of camping, since his first camping trip at the age of two. Road trips two and from the camping sites (or fishing or hunting) where invariably Zach would spend the return passed out in the passenger seat. I have lots of pictures like the one below of him sleeping spanning eight or nine years. I included them in a photo album I made for him and Kristen at Christmas.


Zach is my son, my golf partner, fishing buddy, and an all-around good guy to have around. I’m going to miss him terribly, but I am so damn happy for him. And so very proud.

Even with memories like this:

Me: A colleague in DC is telling people, including the Governor and our Secretary of Ed that I am a “National Treasure.”

Zach: (without missing a beat) “Why, because you are old as dirt and hard to find?”

Yep. I’m gonna miss him.

Finding my inner fascist of self-care

On December 2, 2016 I began making some decisions about changing my life. For a number of reasons, it was quite an extraordinary day, but I am going to focus initially on one aspect – deciding to engage in a complete lifestyle nutrition change.

The years of being a caregiver and working full-time had gotten me to a pretty dark place. My weight had started to spiral out of control again last year. I wasn’t walking enough, save to play golf. I had given up hiking and backpacking because they made my wife nervous (me, out in the woods alone where something bad could happen) and because I couldn’t be away from her and out of touch all day, let alone multiple days. I quit trying to run again after brain surgery because any exertion triggers coughing and for a few years it was uncontrollable. I kind of gave up on being healthy.

Truthfully, this was not just the outcomes of the medical events of 2010. Nor of the buildup to surgery as my running and weight-training up through 2005 began to fall off, likely due, in part, to the compressing of my brainstem by the tumor. It was a pattern of my life that was reproduced far too many times. Finding relative fitness, slacking, decline, with a variance in weight of quite literally a hundred pounds.

Of course now, I am middle-aged white male, so that doesn’t really matter. It is kind of expected at certain levels.

What was missing each time was a commitment to ongoing self-care and engaging the self-discipline to do so. Then again, I don’t think ever actually decided to engage in self-care. I think my decisions were along the lines of “I will do this thing and take it as far as I can, and do the basics I need to support it.” For example, when I was running, or more accurately attempting to run, marathons and ultramarathons, I did not engage in enough of the solid background work necessary to to sustain the effort. I also didn’t do anything to change my diet or fundamentally change my approach to health, or even get enough sleep. I simply tried to put the hours and miles into my existing life without changing much else. This is not a recipe for success.

I did finish both marathons I entered, with respectable times for my size and level of training, and finished four ultramarathons, but the latter were with some terribly slow times. And it was never easy, nor quite as enjoyable as it might have been.

Going back to last December. My wife had nagged me to got a weight-loss clinic she was working with and was giving her some success. I had managed a set of changes in the spring to lose twenty pounds and kept that off, but I was stuck. So I gave in, figuring that maybe the behavioral modification coaching and accountability would succeed where I had not done so by myself. I am trying hard not to be overly self-critical in relaying all this, it is simply what was. I made the choices I made even though I knew most were suboptimal. I was practicing invulnerability to all things. Brené Brown talks about the price of invulnerability here, and yes, I paid that price, several times over.

During intake we talked about lifestyle, diet, and my weight goal. I was told my goal might be too extreme as I would end up “really skinny.” Well, no. That had been my normal weight for a few years at least and I was not skinny then . The only time I was really skinny past the age of 18 was at the end of basic training and that was thirty pounds less than my goal.  We also discussed coffee at length. Or at least they tried to do so.

When asked how much coffee and soda I consumed, I told them. In explicit detail. I could have answered “four or five cups” and been completely truthful as to the nature of the containers. The number of ounces (40 to 48) they found somewhat disturbing. And then there was the (diet) soda. Add two or three 20 oz bottles.

“Could you cut down to say two eight ounce cups of coffee and a soda only every other day?”

“I probably could, but I am not interested in doing so. How about I just drop soda and we don’t talk about my love of coffee ever again? I’m serious about this.”

That day I went cold turkey on a lifelong soda habit. I also gave up putting any milk or cream in my coffee, and booze.  I gave up all manner of alcoholic beverages. And butter. And a host of other things. I’ve changed what I eat, how I eat, and how I think about eating (albeit to a lesser degree than the other changes). As important (and successful) as these changes have been, fifteen weeks later, they are not the most important changes. What they are is a result of making prioritization of self-care a lifestyle choice.

Choosing to truly engage in self-care is the hardest thing I have done and that is, quite honestly, saying a lot. I’ve done a lot of hard things, some I never wish to do again nor wish that anyone else should ever experience. (Raising a schizophrenic child is a miserably devastating experience.) But making the decision to self-care after years of being a caregiver seems not only remarkably selfish, but scary. I know how to take care of others, but myself? Not so much. File this effort under “responsible selfishness.”

Some weeks ago I wrote about Fascism and the Caregiver. It turns out that for me, at least, I had to find and engage that inner fascist of mine and charge him with my own care. I needed to learn to practice that type of control over my own behavior, my own needs, without beating myself up. I had to redefine my environment to enact that control to make change a little easier. I also had to let that inner fascist also control my inner critic. I had to let my physical, emotional, and mental wellness take primacy in my life for the first time in decades.

It’s working. Slowly, it’s working. I’m losing weight at an appropriate pace, although I am admittedly impatient, but I have already had to replace most of my daily wardrobe. I’m feeling better; and I think I am also generally kinder and gentler on a daily basis than I was before, but that would not take much. Each day I think about the self-care I am engaged in, I study a bit on self-care, I meditate some, and I try let each new change happen when I am ready.

Self-care can be tough. Silencing the inner critic who seems to think I have better things to do, like be productive and not be still, or better yet, not spend an hour or more on the exercise bike trying to beat Super Mario Kart 8 (actually ends being a fantastic workout). I can selfishly set aside time to do these things. It is the responsible thing to do.  The inner critic is wrong. These are the things that need to be done and the inner fascist has permission to commence beatings on the critic until morale improves.



adequacy and its opposite

The truth is that you make me feel inadequate. All of you who read this blog and that I interact with regularly on Twitter and elsewhere. It’s a bit like graduate school all over again with my split high school experience and experience in an almost-open enrollment state college education. I spent the first two years of high school in Purcellville, VA preparing for the vocational program in printing. While I took the regular curriculum, I also took lots of shop, as in each and every semester, and at least one time, twice in a semester. Because this was a rural high school in the foothills of Blue Ridge Mountains, there was an entire vocational agriculture focused sequence in shop classes.

When my mother and stepfather divorced during my sophomore year, I made the decision to move to Missouri to live with my father and stepmother. Vo-tech was pretty much taken off the table and I was enrolled into the college prep track. Fortunately, I wasn’t actually behind in terms of classes and experiences. But I also hadn’t really been intellectually challenged and my reading list was on the non-classical side. Dad and Teresa had thoughtfully provided me a reading list, in the form of a shelf of carefully selected books. Unfortunately, I only read about half the shelf and most of what I left unread were the Western Civilization canon. This may be a good thing in that I am not overly-steeped in just one sliver of the world’s thought and philosophy.

College was no different. Entering as a physics and math double major, and adding a military science minor through ROTC,  I drifted through the English and literature courses the first year, with the required history, doing enough to get by. Usually at the last moment. In other words, quite a number of late nights spent over an electric Smith-Corona typewriter.

When I returned to college after my sabbatical in the Army, I was much more interested in the arts and humanities. And social science. Picking up the required political science and sociology courses would have life-changing had I taken sociology sooner. As it was, I was too deep into learning to paint and craft jewelry to seriously consider changing majors.

So, why do I feel inadequate? Too often I spend time googling stuff I think I should know from philosophy, learning theory, and communication. It reminds of the doctoral program and my fellow students in the public policy program talking about all these damn philosophers that I primarily knew from Monty Python‘s Philosophers Song and a bunch of silly stuff that really didn’t seem relevant to urban development, policy analysis, and all the quantitative stuff we did. It wasn’t silly, but I just didn’t have the time to add all that stuff my to reading pile while being an occasional husband and the father of two young boys with special needs.

I did notice that my fellow students didn’t really seem to know how to do much of anything outside the classroom or library. After three years in the Army and four in the Army Reserve, plus two years running a museum frame shop, I could do stuff. Not to mention all those shop classes in high school. So, I figured I would just learn to do anything and everything of interest, because as much as I liked the intellectual life, the required readings were enough and I can’t always sit still.

Besides, I could always say, “What, you can’t do this? Oh, okay. Go back to talking.” (Not really a nice person focused on building relationships.)

This was the beginning of my life’s journey into counter-dependency, with a focus on the omnipotence aspect. Leastways, it is what I am calling the beginning. It’s not the source, but probably about the time I started weaponizing competence. The Wikipedia entry is pretty horrifying to my mind, but it also represents the extreme or full manifestation:

Counterdependency is the state of refusal of attachment, the denial of personal need and dependency, and may extend to the omnipotence and refusal of dialogue found in destructive narcissism, for example. (Wikipedia)

I mean, I’m not that bad. Unfortunately, I can see who I am in both links, especially the first one with its multiple bullet points:

Then there is the inner world of a counterdependent. With a childhood that often left them to fend for themselves emotional (see causes, below) a counterdependent can have a tumultuous mind, including:

  • being oversensitive to criticism of others even as they often criticise
  • often hard on themselves, hate making mistakes
  • suffer an inner soundtrack of intense self-criticism
  • don’t relax easily
  • can experience shame if they feel needy
  • see vulnerability as weakness
  • secretly suffer feelings of loneliness and emptiness
  • might have difficulty remembering childhood

Source: http://www.harleytherapy.co.uk/counselling/what-is-counterdependency.htm#ixzz4aPpCs3G2

Yeah, a number of these ring true.  The whole concept of “vulnerability as weakness” uhmm, well, yeah, that’s the just kind of confusing, right? To be vulnerable is to be capable of being wounded and isn’t that a form of weakness? Well, I guess not, at least as far as Merriam-Webster defines weakness, but shucks, it’s the way I always did, or at least one way I did. A friend had shared this link of Brené Brown’s TED Talk on The Power of Vulnerability  and I found it quite helpful in understanding what vulnerability means and how it can be a good thing as it allows one to be open and to begin to truly connect with others. It was after listening to that talk that my writing on this blog began to change away from the obscurities of my humor to trying to make a connection with readers. (And by the way, in case it has not occurred to you yet, this post is taking a huge step into the abyss of vulnerability. It will be hard to pull the trigger and publish it.)

Back to inadequacy. I have spent much of my life camouflaging my feelings of inadequacy with super-competence across a range of activities. I have tried to learn to do anything and everything I want. Along the way I learned that there are things I am not particularly good at it, things I don’t think I will ever be good at. On the other hand, when I became an art major my father’s response was “An art major? Tod, you’ve never shown any talent or ability!”  Completely true. Did not stop me at all, nor did it keep me from being successful as an art major (“Outstanding Art Student, 1988”), and I produced some good work.


The Wilderness, Tod Massa, 1989

Along the way I have learned plumbing, cabinetry, furniture-making, general wood frame construction, roofing, welding, electrical work, a dozen programming languages, homebrewing, soapmaking, cheesemaking, golf, flatwater and ocean kayaking, shooting (sport and otherwise), automotive work (something I am not good at, especially major automotive work), lightweight (not quite ultralight) backpacking, sewing, tailoring, hair coloring, luthering (something else I am not good at), banjo, farming, including raising small critters and poultry, and all sorts of things that pull combinations of these skills together (such as building a highly efficient fermentation chamber with heating and refrigeration). You could drop me off in the middle of nowhere and I would probably be just fine because I can even make my own tools.

It’s a bit addictive. One can start filling on the odds and ends of time with doing stuff and learning stuff and keep human engagement to a minimum. It’s kind of pleasant. But I am not supposed to say that as I need to think more positively about human engagement and relationships. It is hard to change a lifetime of thinking.

These days I am shedding. I am taking careful inventory of the stuff I have and the things I want to do and I am working to reduce those to two or three things that I will do regularly. Everything else is being sold, donated, or held to be given to Zach when he has the space.

See, I don’t feel like there is much I do really well, so I will focus a bit more on the things I continue to do. More importantly, I will focus more on building, strengthening relationships through openness and vulnerability. This will be hard work for me as it is much easier to hide behind doing things. Working with dangerous objects in my hands is a good way to avoid talking in any depth. I will screw up along the way, so please be patient and forgiving. I know that I will screw up because I have made a lifetime’s work of failing at stuff just to keep learning and keep trying, and to justify the ongoing internal self-criticism. (Wow. That just occurred to me. What a self-perpetuating cycle!)

A final thought. When I was thinking through some of these things the other day, I put on my public policy hat and wondered if anyone had thought to view relationships through the lens of Herbert Simon’s theory of “satisficing” which is to accept a non-optimal solution in favor of forgoing the cost and effort of pursuing the optimal solution. Sure enough, the Google Gods return a variety of answers on the first page from Psychology Today article and prior versions of the same that refer back to a 2002 study. The authors makes satisficing sound to be the ideal model for relationships. It’s an interesting line to pursue in another post and it recalls what a co-worker once said, “Employees are like stepchildren – they may not be the children you want, but they are the children you have at the moment.” (Fortunately, that person has not been a co-worker for many years.)

That’s the story of my inadequacy. This is being vulnerable. There’s not actually anything wrong with being able to do lots of things. The problem is when the doing gets in the way of being and gets in the way of relationships. So, I will try to do less, and be more.


expectations and playlists

Actual conversation a few years ago between me and my son. The youngest grandelf was somewhat plaintive about his struggles with his Color Nook.

“Wow, there is nothing quite so pitiful as a seven-year-old complaining that he can’t connect to the wi-fi,” I said.

“Yeah, what did I have at that age, an Etch-a-Sketch? What did you have, a stick? And some dirt to draw in?”

“Yeah, something like that.” 

Technology is like this. It creates expectations, especially when it is meant to be easy to use. We become accustomed to it and then get frustrated when it fail us. Our frustration is not just with its failure, but with the void it leaves in our lives. To a boy of seven whose life often revolves around the content delivered via high-tech tablet, the inability to connect to the network to receive more content, creates a painful emptiness.

That’s the nice thing about just having a stick and a patch of dirt – it’s pretty easy to go find another stick. Or just use your finger. Its when things are special, when they have potential to be all-consuming, that the void becomes seemingly limitless. That void is hungry and wants to be filled. It aches. It screams for attention, like a nameless thing shrieking “Feed me” endlessly into the night.

And then there’s my playlist.

The last few days I have not been listening to satellite radio in the car, but to a collection of what I *thought* was a great collection of songs for driving. Instead, especially when played in alphabetic order, it begins to sound pretty dark. Dark like a bruise full of purple, black, a little bit of green, and streaks of gold. Sad and angry music, even when it’s uptempo. Music that spans decades and a half-dozen genres that I think are generally closely related and overlapping. Break-up songs (No Souvenirs). Songs about moving on. Fighting  (Ballroom Blitz), drinking (I’m Gonna Hire a Wino), and fornicating songs (I was Made for Loving You). Love songs for the pure (If I were a Carpenter) and not-so-pure of heart (Secret), or slightly ironic (Alyson). Or just songs of pure macho assholery (That’s What You Get for Loving Me). I’ve begun to wonder if much of it is all too dark together, creating and reinforcing an inner darkness and sarcasm in what I’m told was once a sunny and cheerful disposition.


Certainly the little boy in this picture did not have a dark and sarcastic interior. But, clearly those girls flanking him did.

But I spent some more time listening to the playlist and looking at it. While I might not be at a one-to-one to ratio of sad/angry songs to happy/peaceful songs, there is a good mix, maybe about four-to-one. Of course, it is a matter of perspective. When Zach was young, he thought Jimmy Buffett’s Come Monday was a horribly sad song but like Dylan’s Tangled Up In Blue, it always makes me feel good, as do Bob Seger’s Travelin’ Man/Beautiful Loser and Jackson Brown’s The Naked Ride Home (of course, I know a couple of true stories on that theme). Of course, some songs confuse the hell out of people, like Green Day’s Good Riddance or Rupert Holmes Escape, both of which are more familiarly known by “The Time of Your Life” and “The Pina Colada Song” respectively. Darkly cheerful and upbeat, but breaking up and cheating songs that seem like they belong together. Or darkly upbeat and triumphant like Kelly Clarkson’s Since U Been Gone and Bring on the Dancing Horses by Echo & Bunnymen.

I like the dark though. Johnny Cash’s cover of Hurt still amazes me.

So, while I was thinking I need to lighten up my music drastically, I’m now thinking it needs only tweaking and better balance. I’m not giving up any Tom Waits (Tom Traubert’s Blues), Johnny Cash (Sunday Morning Coming Down), Merle Haggard (Mama Tried),  or Steppenwolf (Snowblind Friend) and certainly not Bat out of Hell.

We’ll see  – it is full speed ahead, because I Can’t Drive 55 and if you ride with me, be prepared for We’re Not Gonna Take It to be followed by Rock Lobster and Pretty in Pink or Picture or Dead Skunk. Or Dwight Yoakam’s cover of Purple Rain.

There’s just no telling other than alphabetically, we’ll end with Ziggy Stardust and if it’s a roadtrip, Born to Run is likely to blasted at least twice.

Yeah, upon further review, I’m fine with all this. It’s good music.

Tinnitus and Morning Coffee

For seven years now, since the remnant of my left auditory nerve was destroyed through the surgical approach to remove my tumor, I have had tinnitus.

 Tinnitus is the perception of sound when no actual external noise is present. While it is commonly referred to as “ringing in the ears,” tinnitus can manifest many different perceptions of sound, including buzzing, hissing, whistling, swooshing, and clicking. In some rare cases, tinnitus patients report hearing music. Tinnitus can be both an acute (temporary) condition or a chronic (ongoing) health malady.

Source: American Tinnitus Association

I constantly “hear” a generally steady, high-pitched tone on the left side, where it is not possible to hear. The brain, my brain, is expecting input and in the absence of such creates synthetic input. The sound can be maddening. I’ve read of people being driven to suicidal ideation because of it. It can be all-encompassing if you allow it.

I have dealt with through noise and other inputs. Mainly constant music or TV as wallpaper. Combining this with some mental tricks, such as not discussing tinnitus, not naming it or admitting its presence, I can ignore it. Writing about it is somewhat painful as it is a constant acknowledgement of its presence. However, over the last several weeks I have been experimenting with quiet.

As I work to change my approach to life, something I will perhaps write about next year, I have been trying to add meditation and stillness into daily living.

It ain’t easy.

I haven’t liked being still for a long time. Even less, I haven’t liked not having input, lots and lots of input. When the Web came along, I said, “Yes, this is what I have been waiting for. This matches how I think.” When smartphones came along, it was even moreso. It was Star Trek that way it should have been. Constant streams of input, Twitter, Facebook, email, added to music and video, not only met my craving for information, but drowned out to the noise in my head. That constant whine with fuzzy overtones, and unpatterned changes in frequency, could be kept at abeyance.

But attempting to meditate, “Oh. That NOISE. That unending, unpleasant, NOISE.”

So, I put attempts at meditating aside. I’ve spent weeks now just sitting with that first cup of coffee in morning. No more talking heads on the idiot box. No obsessing over inputs from the smartphone or PC. No music. Just me, my coffee, my tinnitus, and morning sounds of traffic from the highway, and the birds. It’s finally becoming comfortable. Meditation might be more possible now (or perhaps it is actually happening). The only times  I had been comfortable with this quiet and coffee had been camping or backpacking. Each morning after a long day’s hike, just stretching and preparing for the day with a cup of coffee while the surrounding forest transitions from nightsound to daysound was always nice. It’s starting to feel that way in the house.

In the long-term this pairing is something I will have to get comfortable with, tinnitus and me. It’s not going to leave, and my hearing on the right side is degrading noticeably, so I can easily see a day where the only sounds I hear are the imaginary and synthetic sounds of a brain looking for input.


Seven years of asymmetry

So, I was inspired by this post by my talented friend and colleague, Laura (@GoogleGuacamole). It is about using selfies and avatars as a form of reflection. I’m not particularly big on selfies for a variety of reasons and deciding to do this was difficult. As I reflect on the last seven years (Monday the 13th was the seventh anniversary since 32 hours of brain surgery), I am aware of how much has changed, and how much my well-being has improved.

Picture 1.jpg

June 19, 2009

The first photo is from 2009.  Before surgery, before I realized I was going deaf on the left side. Before the grandelves and their mother and partner moved in for the second time and I still had studio space.

The next picture is February 2010, two days before surgery began. Zach and I shaved our heads together in solidarity. I didn’t actually need to shave my head because they didn’t need much real estate to work with to cut into my head. It was a really more of a statement that “I am ready for this.” I remember watching “True Grit” (the original) the night before, taking inspiration from it. Particularly the lines, “I call that bold talk for a one-eyed fat man!” “Fill your hand, you son of a bitch!” That segment of Rooster charging across a meadow ringed  with aspens was on a near-continuous loop when the US Marshall History Exhibit was on display in the museum at the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial (Gateway Arch) the summer I worked there.


February 10, 2010



This next photo is four weeks post-surgery.  The entire left-side of my face was paralyzed, including the left vocal cord. Some muscle tone has returned to the left side of my face. At rest, I no longer looked like a victim of a severe stroke. When I tried to speak, it was a whole other matter. You can see the droop on the left side, that I tried hide with the mustache. My left eye was not working well either, I had bad double vision and working at the computer was only possible for short periods until an OT put tape over part of the left lens of my glasses to begin retraining my eye until the opthamologist started using an adhesive prism. It was five days later that I created, and felt, the first twitch in my cheek.It was at this point that I often scared small children when walking in the neighborhood with my taped-up sunglasses, cane, and an uncontrollable drool.

Picture 22.jpg

March 12, 2010

Now, it’s almost year post-surgery in the next photograph. I am just about to go in to schedule a fourth procedure on my left vocal fold, something a little bit more permanent when I begin to realize that my voice is returning. I look pretty normal (for me) here, but the asymmetry is clear, just not as pronounced.

Picture 46.jpg

February 2, 2011

The photo below was taken for the article in Bloomberg Businessweek about our first release of the reports on the post-completion wages of graduates. It’s notable because out of the dozens of photos taken, it naturally focuses on the right side of my face. The normal side.


December 2012

Next, a short from a fall day in Georgetown in 2013. The asymmetry is there, but usually unnoticed by most, save for the way the facial hair grows. Or if someone watches me eat as the left eye closes uncontrollably. Also, there were tough periods of hemifacial spasms across the left cheek in 2012 and 2013. They are still around, just not as painful, unless someone or something makes me laugh a lot. Sometimes smiling does in fact make my face ache.


October 16, 2013

And finally, skipping ahead, because if I am bored of looking at pictures of me, I’m assuming anyone else reading this is also bored. Weight loss and the continued spasms and nerve issues have created pronounced asymmetry in the lines of my face. If I were to shave, you would see that I now have a dimple that I never had before.


January 2017


Fortunately, I am old enough that looks don’t matter as much. I see this lack of symmetry in my face when I look in the mirror, and what I see is survival. Although, “survival” might be too strong a word. “Onward-ness” seems closer. I see the asymmetry and I know it is me. I know that I did not stop moving forward. The things that continue to be a problem will always be a problem (swallowing, a never-ending  cough, the need to finger sweep my cheek, no tears on the left side), but these are tiny problems in the scale of things. Moving onward is good. It is what I am all about.