The Casual Display of SSN

I was home today because it was Veterans Day and I went up to the attic today to fetch our son’s rocking horse, Daylight.

Daylight is 26 years old and shows his age. His mane is half gone, his tail completely gone. His foot pegs are dog-chewed  on the ends. He needs badly to be curried and Spruced-up a bit (despite being Yellow Pine) because in June he will be pressed into service for a second generation.


While in the attic and sorting through a few boxes (a tribute to my ADHD) I ran across the folders with my collection of diplomas and awards from my time in the Army. I thought about tweeting photographs of some as an acknowledgement of my time in service….until I realized that all but two of had my name and Social Security Number.


And then I started to about all the officers and NCOs I knew with such certificates, diplomas, and awards, framed and proudly displayed on their “I Love Me Wall.”

In the 1980s our use of the SSN was downright casual. In the Army, we used them for everything. When I was the company NBC (nuclear, biological, chemical warfare defense) NCO for the company, I knew most of the guys’ SSNs by heart since they were printed on the assignment tags for each of the protective masks. The SSN was everywhere, except when we used roster numbers (basic training, air assault school, for example).

My dog tags had my name, religious preference, blood-type, and yes, my SSN. Of course, it was logical to use the SSN. It is of course, a federal number, and so why create and issue a new number to keep track of people in a federal organization? And this was likely at the core of thinking that every other organization started relying on use of the SSN. If someone has already issued an ID number to an individual, and that ID has some assurances of being uniquely assigned, and has the imprimatur of the federal government, why use anything else?

I guess it is a good thing that identity fraud was much less a problem when I was young. Or at least a different kind of problem. It was easy enough to fake an identity just by saying you were someone else and it surprisingly easy to get valid a copy of someone else’s birth certificate. It’s much harder now. It’s almost impossible, even as a grandparent to get a grandchild’s birth certificate without a half-dozen signatures.

On the other hand, it really hasn’t been all the long since the Commonwealth banned printing SSNs on envelopes, or IDs. Without looking it up, it seems like it has only been about 15 years. The thing is really this. We just now starting to figure out privacy, its protection, how data connect to an individual, and how an individual connects to the data-oriented world. While we are doing this, while we are trying to protect our ID numbers of various and sundry issuances, there are scores or hundreds of data scientists working out ways to connect us to our data without those ID numbers.

I’m beginning to wonder if real privacy is little more than an illusion and a misplaced belief that we actually know the organizations that know who we are.

Catching up

I hadn’t realized it had been six weeks since I last wrote anything. Huh.

I’ve been busy.

First, we saw Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper in “A Star is Born.” That was the movie that Streisand and Kristofferson should have made. Not only was it incredibly watchable, it was much more believable. There were so many times while watching I thought they were just throwing shade at that unwatchable movie, implicitly saying, “See? You could have done this.”

So, all the busy-ness? I have been pushing through design and development work of a new website, along with building a complete content management system to support it. Often my best work (because of fewer interruptions) occurs late evenings and on into the night. There have also been pieces of this effort that were embedded and now part of the current live site of which I am particularly proud, with some additional modifications underway. Another month or two to finish this off completely.

I have been working to balance the need/desire to do this work with regular self-care routines – I’m almost terrified at the prospect of going back to way my life (and weight) was. To do this, some things have fallen off, like writing, others have shifted around. Life has otherwise stayed much the same, while still managing to increase the intensity of my weight-training significantly.

Life is good.

At the end of September I was in Little Rock, Arkansas as part of a panel discussion on  statewide longitudinal data systems, sharing our experiences in Virginia. I’ve been meaning to write up my thoughts from that day, but haven’t taken the time yet to do so. So I will note the primary theme here as nudge to give it a fuller treatment.

“What most Chief Data Officers and Data Governance people get wrong is this. Control. They make the mistake time and time again that Data Governance is all about control. Controlling access. Controlling definition. Controlling use.

This is wrong because control is very often an illusion, especially when it comes to data. No matter what agreements you enjoin and sign, at some point you give up anything resembling control and can only hope and/or trust that the other party (parties)  live up to their side of the agreement.

In the end, I don’t think this is sustainable. I’m not suggesting the contracts, agreements, MOUs should disappear, because they can’t – they meet a legal need while defining a necessary framework for engagement. Instead I think data governance should focus on the single principle of ‘respect.’ We need to ensure that there is a culture of respect towards the data, towards its use, and most importantly, a constant respect for and of the people the data represent. Too often it seems folks talk about protecting privacy and confidentiality as compliance ritual instead of as a matter of respect. This has to change if we are going to have meaningful data governance and meaningful protections of individuals with a use of data that drives positive change and saely gives voice to those at the margins or those without a voice.”

A star is born, but no

A young colleague was telling me about their efforts to watch the 1976 remake of “Star is Born” with Kris Kristofferson and Barbra Streisand in preparation for the fourth movie of this title with Bradley Cooper and Lady GaGa. They were struggling with it. It felt disjointed and didn’t make much sense to them.

I had to admit that I avoided watching it for 42 years. After talking about some possible reasons why it might not make much sense, I decided to watch it. To see if it was as bad as I thought I recalled hearing that it was. Some movies I find to be completely unwatchable. “Barbarella” is one of those. I first tried watching it a two or three decades ago and gave up in less than 10 minutes. I tried again recently and could only make it 26 minutes before deciding it wasn’t even worth having on in the background.

“A Star is Born” is not quite that bad. Not quite. The thing is it is so locked in the 1970s that I am not sure it is the least bit accessible to someone in their early 20s.

The whole mansion scene feels like the 1978 Joe Walsh song “Life’s Been Good to Me.”
I have a mansion but forget the price
Ain’t never been there, they tell me it’s nice
I live in hotels, tear out the walls
I have accountants, pay for it all

from Wikipedia:

“Life’s Been Good” is a song by Joe Walsh, which first appeared on the soundtrack to the film FM. The original eight-minute version was released on Walsh’s album But Seriously, Folks…, and an edited 4 1/2 minute single version peaked at #12 on the US Billboard Hot 100,[1] remaining his biggest solo hit.

In the song, Walsh satirically reflects on the antics and excess of the era’s rock stars, with nods to Keith Moon and others: “I live in hotels/Tear out the walls”, and “My Maserati does one-eighty-five/I lost my licence, now I don’t drive”. The Maserati that Walsh himself owned at the time was a 1964 5000 GT model, and while fast, could only manage 170mph with tall gearing.[2]

The 1979 Rolling Stone Record Guide called it “riotous”, and “(maybe) the most important statement on rock stardom anyone has made in the late Seventies”.

The spray painting of her name was interesting because he not only did it in cursive, but backwards, from right to left, without seeming to think about what he’s doing.

Pushing her practice session to the point that she did well enough when she got a little bit of “righteous anger” is an overused vehicle that even in 1976 I would have felt it was stale.

Also, the improbability of an audience that came to see Kristofferson’s character perform overwhelmingly like her pre-disco-white-woman-sings-watered-down-soul-with-permed-afro is so unbelievable. This is even referenced within the movie when the two are about to go on tour and their manager convinces him that they don’t share the same audiences and he should stay back.

I also just don’t buy Kristofferson’s character’s skills with earth-moving machinery and building and adobe home in the desert. Basically, there are two many requirements for the suspension of disbelief. That and the “old guy tries to save himself with a young woman’s love” theme probably doesn’t need to ever be revisited.

And two-thirds of the way through it, I think I’m done. If I’m going to watch a bad movie, I want to be really bad and for it know it is bad. Like “Zombeavers” or “Galaxina” (which made Dorothy R. Stratton a star, however briefly and is far better than “Barbarella.).

Reasons to Believe

I was driving home, listening to the radio, and the usual thing starts happening. My mind wanders through connections suggested by the lyrics.

Seen a man standin’ over a dead dog lyin’ by the highway in a ditch 
He’s lookin’ down kinda puzzled pokin’ that dog with a stick 
Got his car door flung open he’s standin’ out on highway 31 
Like if he stood there long enough that dog’d get up and run 
Struck me kinda funny seem kinda funny sir to me 
Still at the end of every hard day people find some reason to believe

-Bruce Springsteen, “Reason to Believe”

“Highway 31?” sounds like “Highway 41.”

My father was a gambler down in Georgia
He wound up on the wrong end of a gun
And I was born in the back seat of a Greyhound bus
Rollin’ down highway forty-one

-Richard Betts, “Ramblin’ Man”

..which then takes me to ..

Oh God said to Abraham, “Kill me a son”
Abe says, “Man, you must be puttin’ me on”
God say, “No.” Abe say, “What?”
God say, “You can do what you want Abe, but
The next time you see me comin’ you better run”
Well Abe says, “Where do you want this killin’ done?”
God says, “Out on Highway 61”

-Bob Dylan, “Highway 61 Revisited”

Highway 61 runs from Duluth, MN all the way to New Orleans, and at the junction of 61 and 49 in Mississippi is the crossroad where Robert Johnson was said to have sold his soul to the devil for talent and fame. The story that is the basis for the easily forgettable Ralph Machio movie, “Crossroads.”


On Highway 61 in Mississippi, is the town of Panther Burn, which I only know because of this scene in “Blues Brothers 2000” as it allegedly takes place five miles north.


My second favorite song from Blues Brothers 2000 (favorite being “Ghostriders in the Sky”) is Blues Traveler “Maybe I’m Wrong.”

I want to show you that anything is possible
I want to show you that your wildest dreams can come true
And I swear someday I’m gonna figure out how to do just that
But until then, I guess trying is all I can do
Maybe I’m wrong thinking you want something better
Maybe I’m wrong thinking you got no problem making it through the night
Maybe I’m wrong about every little thing I’m talking about
Maybe I’m wrong, but just maybe, maybe I’m right

-John C. Popper, “Maybe I’m Wrong”

and then as “Reason to Believe” is finishing, I connect to the other song of the same name

If I listened long enough to you
I’d find a way to believe that it’s all true
Knowing that you lied straight faced while I cried
Still I look to find a reason to believe

Someone like you makes it hard to live
Without somebody else
Someone like you makes it easy to give
Never thinking of myself

-Tim Hardin, “Reason to Believe”

And then another song plays, and a new cascade of thought might begin.

Trade in these Wings for Some Wheels

When I first really heard Springsteen’s  “Thunder Road” I thought it strictly an anthem for the disaffected and despairing youth of the tail-end of the car culture that began in the 50s and ended in the late 70s. I didn’t think about it in those terms, I just knew it spoke to me in much the way that “Born to Run” did. I spent my late teens on Main Street, cruising, listening to music, talking with other cruisers, and occasionally racing.  While it wasn’t “American Graffiti,” it also wasn’t that far off.  Both of these songs speak to the idea of escape and holding onto love, the same as Meat Loaf’s epic “Bat Out of Hell” and The Animal’s “We’ve Got to Get Out of this Place.”

(This is all starting to go in a different direction than I intended. Who’s in control here?)

There’s a natural linking of these songs: teenage angst and experience. Once “Bat Out of Hell” is mentioned, it’s natural to think of the much better known song from that album of the same name, “Paradise by the Dashboard Lights” which fits naturally between “Only the Good Die Young” (Billy Joel) and the Springsteen’s “The River.” Young love, young lust, and the costs (everlasting torment, pregnancy, and marriage (or is that redundant?)). There are other songs that fit here, but these are all tied to my youth, its soundtrack, so to speak.  All of these songs were created about the same moment of time.  “The “Born to Run” album was released in 1975,  Billy Joel’s “The Stranger” and “Bat Out of Hell” were both released in 1977. “The River” was released in 1980. The movie “American Graffitti” was released in 1973. It all seems to fit together in that decade.

“Born to Run” is full of energy. It’s a restless song, full of the unbridled and unbounded energy of youth. It’s the endless American road trip.

I’ll love you with all the madness in my soul
Someday girl I don’t know when were gonna get to that place
Where we really want to go and well walk in the sun
But till then tramps like us baby we were born to run

We’re just going to go, and keep going, until we find our Promised Land, that place where we’ll walk in the sun. It’s gloriously triumphant, despite a complete lack of anything to be triumphant about it. The triumph is simply that of being young. “We can make our future, it’s not too late.” In his lyrics, Springsteen promises a madly passionate love, escape from the darkness, and endless movement (and thus, newness).

When I was in high school and college, “Thunder Road” seemed clearly a song about people my age because of the line in the final stanza, “Your graduation gown lies in rags at their feet” I always felt that date-stamped the song. I listen to it now and I wonder, at least I want to wonder, could this be song that also looks back at youth? An old man looking back and saying to his wife, “it’s not too late for us.” He sees the look she gives and says,

So you’re scared and you’re thinking that maybe we ain’t that young anymore
Show a little faith, there’s magic in the night
You ain’t a beauty but, hey, you’re alright
Oh, and that’s alright with me

It’s something that reminds me of “Pink Houses” by John Mellencamp.

And there’s a woman in the kitchen cleaning’ up evening slop
And he looks at her and says:
“Hey darling, I can remember when you could stop a clock”

Far from sweetly romantic, and maybe brutally honest, neither seem to be the type of line to spark a night of passion. Which is where the stories in these songs diverge. “Thunder Road” has much more in common with “Only the Good Die Young.”

You can hide ‘neath your covers and study your pain
Make crosses from your lovers, throw roses in the rain
Waste your summer praying in vain
For a savior to rise from these streets
Well now, I ain’t no hero, that’s understood
All the redemption I can offer, girl, is beneath this dirty hood
With a chance to make it good somehow
Hey, what else can we do now?

(Thunder Road)


Come out Virginia, don’t let ’em wait
You Catholic girls start much too late
Aw but sooner or later it comes down to faith
Oh I might as well be the one
Well, they showed you a statue, told you to pray
They built you a temple and locked you away
Aw, but they never told you the price that you pay
For things that you might have done

(Only the Good Die Young)

I hear these songs regularly as they fit on a variety of playlists. It sometimes surprises me that the various algorithms (e.g. Amazon Music) put these songs together. It works though, and I think it is right. I don’t think it is sound of the songs, maybe it is simply the time they came out, but with a channel focused around a specific artist with a body of work that spans decades, that seems a bit of a stretch. The commonality of themes,the parallels are pretty clear – a boy trying to talk a girl into sex. “Thunder Road” differs  in that redemption is offered, albeit an ersatz redemption. Is it possible the algorithms can work at that level, to identify abstract themes from song lyrics?

If so, it would be pretty cool and I think I am going to trade in wings for wheels and get on out of here. It’s probably much simpler than that. Time, place, genre of the artists, all gets grouped together and spit out. Or, with Amazon, it’s simply based on purchasing records – people who bought this artist’s music also bought music from these artists. That’s kind of cool as well, as it means there might be a few more people like me, as far as musical interests go.

Now the season’s over and I feel it getting cold
I wish I could take you to some sandy beach where we’d never grow old
Ah but baby you know that’s just jive
But tonight’s bustin’ open and I’m alive
Oh do (baby) what you can to make me feel like a man
But this 442’s gonna overheat
Make up your mind girl, I gotta get her back out on the street
I know you’re lonely like me, oh so don’t fake it
And maybe I can’t lay the stars at your feet
But I got this old car and she’s pretty tough to beat
There’s plenty of room in my front seat
Oh if you think you can make it, climb in (so christine climb in)
This is town full of losers and baby I was born to win

-Bruce Springsteen, “Wings for Wheels” (what later became “Thunder Road”)


Family stories

Family stories are resurfacing. I told one yesterday that I had forgotten for many years. It’s about the creases in my ears.

If you look at the picture of my ear, you can see that there is a crease. This is the story of that crease.


Bat Ears run in my family.

Bat Ears as in ears like a giant bat.

My maternal grandfather had ears like this. In fact, we never were allowed to watch “Dumbo” as children because his ears. As the firstborn, Mom did not want me to have bat ears, so the first few years of my life were spent with silver dollars taped to my ears to hold them down and reshape, much like trimming a Doberman’s ears and putting toilet paper rolls over the ears to help them stand up.

As you can see, it worked. I ended up with nice ears fitting tightly to my forehead. Unfortunately, the number of preschool fights I got into because of the other kids making fun of me, despite being a head taller than everyone, was a  cause of concern with to my parents. Also, my ears never grew nearly as large as was typical of the Bat Ears of the Marshall family.

When the first sister was born, she had small ears and so they skipped the silver dollars. She was the lucky one, which might be why she became what our father called, “the Daughter of One’s Dreams,” in his retirement speech. Or she just a middle child that needed to overcompensate.

The second sister though, poor girl. She inherited the the Bat Ears and they didn’t realize it in time for the silver dollar trick. She’s had to wear long hair all her life, in part to soften the noise of the wind blowing past those huge things. She was fortunate to be cross-eyed and need glasses early on, so that helped distract from the ears. Sadly, the styles available for glasses, especially for children, in the 1960s left very much to be desired.

Of course, some of this nonsense. But this is a story that was passed around for years. Occasionally forgotten, but it resurfaces once in awhile. I do remember my maternal grandparents joking about silver dollars on my ears as I stared at those giant Dumbo-like ears of my grandfather.


in search of the promised land

Conspiracy theories abound and I think they always have. The Web allows greater proliferation and spread of conspiracy theories in a way that they flow like water and fill up the empty spaces. But why does this happen?

Some time ago, a pundit or comedian, I can’t remember who it was, made the observation that conspiracy theories are attractive to the religious because conspiracies take the randomness of the universe out of the equation. For example, people who are horrified by the idea that their God would allow a classroom of first-graders to be shot to death find inordinate comfort in the idea that it is a conspiracy of their own government.  After all, believing in the conspiracy, or just accepting it as a possible explanation, avoids having to confront some very hard, very possible realities.

  1. God allows random/evil stuff to happen, stuff that just makes no sense.
  2. If God does have a plan, clearly some of the details are really unpleasant.
  3. The universe doesn’t think you are special.
  4. You, or someone you care about, could be next.

I think it is the last one that really gets people. Dealing with mortality is hard enough as you age. Accepting randomness as part of life is hard. It is uncomfortable. We create narratives to protect us from the random. We tell each other, “everything happens for a reason,” or “it’s all part of God’s plan.” It’s comforting to believe there is a plan, even if we don’t know what it is, or even it’s purpose. Because it is God’s plan, we can tell ourselves that we don’t know the plan because we don’t need to know it. God loves us, and so the plan must be in our best interests. Well, at least for some of us. I notice a lot of people see their God as being rather exclusive. God tends to look a lot like them and has a lot of rules. Kind of like joining a country club in the 1950s or Augusta National today.

He pulls a prayer book out of his sleeping bag
Preacher lights up a butt and he takes a drag
Waiting for when the last shall be first and the first shall be last
In a cardboard box ‘neath the underpass
You got a one-way ticket to the promised land
You got a hole in your belly and a gun in your hand
Sleeping on a pillow of solid rock
Bathing in the city’s aqueduct

–Bruce Springsteen, “The Ghost of Tom Joad”

There’s also the idea from Matthew 20:16 that the last shall be first from the parable likening the Kingdom of Heaven to a vineyard. This verse is most often interpreted as saying that those who answer the call to obey receive the same benefits of heaven, regardless of when they heed the call. In other words, you get the same ticket to heaven if you wait as long as possible (particularly in terms of your comfort with risk) as you do if you heed the call as soon as you hear it. A more cynical understanding might be make sure you understand what you signed up for and the terms of the contract.

10 But when the first came, they supposed that they should have received more; and they likewise received every man a penny.11 And when they had received it, they murmured against the goodman of the house,12 Saying, These last have wrought but one hour, and thou hast made them equal unto us, which have borne the burden and heat of the day.13 But he answered one of them, and said, Friend, I do thee no wrong: didst not thou agree with me for a penny?

For those that dismiss the idea of Jesus the Socialist, they should perhaps pay more attention to this passage. This text though is all about creating a structure to defend against the random. Promising us a place that is ours. Not only that is ours, but that is also elevated from our current position, or that we at least don’t lose anything from our current lot. If our positions in life, or the afterlife, are clearly ordained, we are then protected from the random.

We also create systems meant to protect us from the random. Insurance is a good example. Life, health, casualty, property, all are met to protect us from hurt of random events, since they can’t be completely prevented. Government and bureaucracies fulfill the same purpose. They are an attempt to create orderliness in a disordered world, to create areas of safety. They are also intended to punish those acting outside the intended order. Punishing the random, as ridiculous as it is since it actually has no ability to act a deterrent to the random, apparently feels good.

We’re all searching for a Promised Land, even if the maker of the promise is different. Even if it is ourselves. We look for a place to be ourselves, to feel safe and, quite often, superior. Clinging to conspiracies that eliminate the random, that protect us from having to confront our shortcomings, allows us to hold on to our vision of a Promised Land.  It’s easy to like the idea that deep state conspiracy exists, especially when the contrary point of view is that our own choices lead to the negative outcomes for self and others. If there is a conspiracy, clearly I am not to blame, others are.

And I drove a Challenger down Route 9 through the dead ends and all the bad scenes
And when the promise was broken, I cashed in a few of my own dreams

I won big once and I hit the coast, oh but somehow I paid the big cost
Inside I felt like I was carrying the broken spirits of all the other ones who lost
When the promise is broken you go on living, but it steals something from down in your soul
Like when the truth is spoken and it don’t make no difference, something in your heart turns cold
Thunder Road, for the lost lovers and all the fixed games
Thunder Road, for the tires rushing by in the rain
Thunder Road, remember what me and Billy we’d always say
Thunder Road, we were gonna take it all then threw it all away

-Bruce Springsteen, “The Promise”

For many, it seems it is much easier to believe the conspiracy than to accept the responsibility for your own choices.

Three Songs One Night

It’s been too long since the last time I wrote something and I am feeling it. On the other hand, there really hasn’t been anything to drive me to write.

But I listened to three songs in a row the other night. They weren’t out of the ordinary for my usual playlists, but they did fall in an order that made sense, particularly in the context of a discussion with a friend.

“A friend of mine thought he had beat esophageal cancer, and now a couple years later, he has a brain tumor that’s cancerous. It’s spreading. He’s going in for surgery and treatment (chemo, radiation). I don’t think I could do it unless the odds were really good. What about you? You’ve been through brain surgery, would you go through all that pain and sickness again, or chemo?”

“In a heartbeat, unless it is was pretty clearly pointless.”

“Really. I’m struggling with the idea of even seeing him right after surgery.”

“Do you want to see what I looked like? I’ve got pictures.”

Here I am, the day after surgery, February 14, 2010. More tubes than you can shake a stick at. Next to that is me just a few weeks ago on my way to Orlando. It is amazing, is it not?

Yeah, it will be a long time before I am ready to think about giving up. I remember there was pain, I remember there was sickness, I remember there was weakness. What I don’t remember is any of these things. I only remember they were present and part of life. Because of that, these things don’t scare me. I will never look forward to them by any means, but for now, they don’t scare me.

These were the three songs I heard that night:

There is something compelling about “Hallelujah” whether it’s an argument with God, a song of broken love, or something in between. The lyrics go out of their way to to say everything but ask “Why?” And it is because it just doesn’t matter. Things happen. Too many things happen without explanation, certainly without good explanation. I found one source claims Cohen described the song thus:”It explains that many kinds of hallelujahs do exist, and all the perfect and broken hallelujahs have equal value.” I think this is much the same way that the 300 or so covers of the song all have equal value, but probably none sound anything like the bootleg recording of the live performance by Bob Dylan.

When Johnny Cash covered the Nine-Inch Nails’ song “Hurt,” it was a new creation. Cash interpreted the song into a discourse of aging, failure of the body, and the memories of sin and failed intentions.

I wear this crown of thorns
Upon my liar’s chair
Full of broken thoughts
I cannot repair
Beneath the stain of time
The feelings disappear
You are someone else
I am still right here

My inner world remains unchanged, but everything else changes, including you.  I stay locked within my own head, I see out through my eyes as I always did, why do you look at me so strangely, why don’t you see me at all? At this writing, I am 56, and I don’t feel it. Most days I still feel like I am 20 years younger. What is this aging stuff? I can still do anything, right? (Maybe not.)

If I could start again
A million miles away
I would keep myself
I would find a way

And as “Hurt” ends with these lyrics the music also ends in a crashing finale, the transition to “Absolute Beginners” begins with a swirling escape hinting at something exotic. I’ve loved this song since it came out so many years ago. It’s a great love song, one that works over and over again.

Nothing much could happen
Nothing we can’t shake
Oh we’re absolute beginners
With nothing much at stake
As long as you’re still smiling
There’s nothing more I need
I absolutely love you
But we’re absolute beginners
But if my love is your love
We’re certain to succeed

These lyrics are about beginnings and hope. Ostensibly the song is about being a beginner at love, but isn’t that true each time you fall in love anew? Or at least it feels that way. “Absolute Beginners” gives us the sense of hope that had faded in “Hurt” and returns us to a point of saying “Hallelujah” once again.

It’s a hell of loop. I have to wonder at the algorithm that created it. I don’t remember which Amazon music channel it was on, but I am pretty sure it was the Leonard Cohen channel. Sometimes, just sometimes, I am stunned at how good these sequences are. Most times, not so much. Perhaps though it is just randomization that happened to fall that way on a specific day.

Like what usually happens in life.

Music like this keeps me going when the world seems too much. It reminds me there is no reason to give up while I still have energy to draw a breath, or to get up in the morning. Energy to take a stand.

The Privilege of Self-Care

A friend and colleague shared a tweet with me last week that pointed out a simple truth that there is a certain amount of privilege associated with self-care. In this case, it was the privilege of knowing you need care, what kind of care, and having the resources to do something about it.

“Why do I rally against the rhetoric of self help in academia? It isn’t because it doesn’t work for those with stress or mild anxiety or any other condition, it’s because it puts the responsibility to stay well and get better on those who are too unwell to participate.”

I’ve written before about self-care as capitalist plot, and it is. Capitalism doesn’t care all that much for individuals, save as how they can be leveraged to produce wealth for other individuals. Pushing us all to self-care is along the same lines of creating self-repairing, self-correcting machinery to reduce costs in producing widgets. After all, if a machine is self-repairing, it doesn’t need technicians and mechanics to support it.

Of course, there really is no argument (as far as I can tell you) that self-care is a personally good thing to do. It is definitely a private good and in your best interest. Self-care does take resources, it does take privilege. If nothing else, it takes the privilege to be able to stop and breathe, to stop activities that add no value or are harmful.

When one is suffering from depression, anxiety, chronic pain, or other disabling condition it is next to impossible to self-care your way to a better space. You need help identifying your situation, your needs, and a way to get those needs met. I certainly needed those things.  Having someone point out my depression, the way I was ignoring it, and what I could do about it, made all the difference. I still needed to act on that information, which I did, and I needed the resources (medical care, insurance, counseling) whcih I had. So I got better.

Unfortunately many people don’t have those resources, including a friend or colleague that helps them to identify their problem or needs. That’s why self-care is so often for those with privielege. We need to create systems where everybody has access to the tools, information, and support they need to perform self-care. We can’t just preach about it or write about it and tell people to just do good self-care.

In fact, I would make the point that good self-care is a collaborative effort since it relies on the support and/or input of others. For this reason, we should being about self-care of the community. How do we take care of all of us, by taking care of ourselves through taking care of others? It seems delightfully mutually supportive and cyclical. The only problem is that we would have to give up all the divisions among us that we love to cherish, shout about, and chew on in deep, dark thoughts that are really antithetical to good self-care.





It was nothing at all

We didn’t really know each other, Melinda and I. She was a student worker in my father’s departmental office. A mutual friend was having a small birthday party at a local bar and that was where things began. We wound up dancing together until quite late. That first dance was to Heart’s “It was nothing at all.”

I would walk home every evening
Through the pyramids of light
I would feed myself from silence
Wash it down with empty nights

Then your innocent distractions
Hit me so hard
My emotional reaction
Caught me off guard

It was nothin’ at all (nothin’ at all)
Like anything I had felt before
And it was nothin’ at all (nothin’ at all)
Like I thought, no, it’s so much more

It wasn’t love at first sight, nor was it love at first dance. But something clicked that night, sometime between that dance and a conversation that ended about five in the morning. It grew quickly and, despite some rocky beginnings, has survived 32 years.


Monday I had the eighteenth MRI of my skull since December 31st, 2009. It has been almost exactly two years since the seventeenth. Fortunately, the remains of Bob the Tumor, appears to be stable and hopefully dead or dying, following surgery in 2010 and radiation in 2012.

When discovered, the tumor was about the size of a golf ball, choking the brain stem. How long it had been there is anyone’s guess. With a typical growth rate of of 1-2 millimeters per year and a size around 44mm , the minor mutation to the cell sheath in the meninges could have occurred between 22 and 44 years prior to discovery. Or longer. Or shorter.

It doesn’t really matter though. What does matter, or at least of interest, is that it was a tiny, infinitesimal thing, almost “nothing at all” that eventually changed everything for me.  Slowly and maybe inevitably, this thing grew inside my head, deep into the cerebellopontine angle alongside the brainstem. If the tumor had not extended along the vestibulocochlear nerve destroyed my hearing, we might not have known it until I fell into a coma and perhaps died.

From nothing back to nothing, almost.


Very shortly after my MRI (literally just a few minutes), I saw my neurosurgeon to get the results. (For a great many patients it is not this quick. Too often there is a period of weeks between the MRI and the consult. That’s a long time to ponder the possibility of growth. )  As with any most any medical appointment there is the taking of vital statistics and weighing.  It was pretty cool to see that I had lost exactly 100 pounds since my appointment two years ago.

Losing weight is a series of very small steps. The only big things involved are the decisions to commit to the process and anything you might give up permanently. (I went cold turkey on soda and few other things and haven’t looked back.) Every day is a series of small decisions, almost unnoticeably small, to stick with the program. Most of the changes in weight are likewise small. There’s a need to learn and understand the rhythms of one’s body and how it reacts to food and exercise that helps develop the patience for sustained weight-loss.

There’s a lot of “nothing at all” that seems to exist between occasions of notable progress in the process of losing weight. It’s all trying to do the right things, minimal cheating, and hoping you’ve maintained a daily calorie intake deficit. This is an act of faith and estimation. Faith placed in tools and the work of others and learning to estimate food quantities (unless you carry a scale everywhere) and calorie burn.


When I was recovering from surgery, a friend advised me to stop focusing (and dwelling) on the things I couldn’t do at the time, but all the hundreds of other things I could do. This was helpful advice, especially once I realized that most of things I couldn’t do were made up of small things. Movements that were small, seemingly inconsequential, and that I had never really been aware of before. I just had to work on the small things and perhaps the big things would happen.

It was the same thing when I was going to physical therapy last fall and I was performing facial movement exercises that focused on moving one or two muscles at a time. This was challenging. I never thought about how to sneer before, I just did it. However, trying to sneer on the left side was not happening. After many sessions of trying to activate  a dormant muscle, I still can’t sneer on the left, but I have movement and this movement leads greater plasticity (normalcy).

It’s the little things.

It was late one Friday
He pulled in outta the dark
He was tall and handsome
First she took his order, then she took his heart
They bought a house on the hillside
Where little feet soon would rock
Well from small things Mama, big things one day come

-Bruce Springsteen, From Small Things


We often tell each other,  “Don’t sweat the small stuff.” It’s good advice as far as it goes. Just don’t ignore the small stuff, pay attention to it. Every big thing starts with a little thing, a change, of something that was almost nothing. Kind of like the butterfly effect where the fluttering of a butterfly’s wings can ultimately lead to a tornado around the other side of the world. Or just the cumulative steps that cause you to end up somewhere else.