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My little town

The city where I was born has produced something truly extraordinary: The Grand Rapids LipDub Video, a ten-minute, single-shot video that travels through downtown as a whole bunch of people take turns lip-synching (and acting out lines from) Don McLean’s “American Pie.” It’s stunningly well-choreographed and executed. And since it was posted on YouTube a couple of weeks ago, it’s been viewed more than two million times.

The project was meant as a response to a top-ten listicle of “America’s Dying Cities” posted on Newsweek.com; Grand Rapids was #10. Considering that any good list of “America’s Dying Publications” would include Newsweek itself, the irony is as thick as frozen molasses.

Newsweek’s editors later disavowed the list, saying that it appeared on their website as part of a “content-sharing” arrangement with other websites. Way to abdicate your editorial responsibility. 

This video made me proud and happy, and more than a little bit surprised. I didn’t think they had it in them. In my mind, Grand Rapids was a stuffy, conservative, whitebread place; the buckle of the West Michigan Bible Belt, full of devout, humorless Calvinists.

TV weatherman Bill Steffen, one of the many lipdubbers

A little background. I was born in Grand Rapids. My family lived there until 1965, when we moved to the suburbs of Detroit.  I was 11 at the time.

Not long after we left town, KMart moved in and sparked a controversy over its plan to open on Sunday, which no sizable retailer had ever dared to do. Horrors! One of the leaders of the anti-KMart movement was the pastor of my family’s church in Grand Rapids. 

It’s certainly true that Grand Rapids has more than its share of humorless Calvinists. But my childhood experience was extremely narrow. I lived about two blocks away from my school. The church was just down the block. My friends all lived nearby. In fact, our neighborhood was so full of children that we filled out our own Little League team. (The team was really good; I sucked.)

My family didn’t go out much. I was hardly aware of the city’s pockets of poverty, or its significant population of blacks and Hispanics. We were insular, and I was insulated.

Jump ahead three decades. For most of the 1990s, I was an air personality at Michigan Radio, a public radio service with stations in Ann Arbor, Flint, and Grand Rapids. On several occasions, I covered stories in Grand Rapids. It was only then that I got a taste of the city’s diversity and complexity. I saw poverty; I saw great creativity. There was a substantial gay community near the heart of the city. There were plenty of neat stores and restaurants.

Still, I only got a small sample. It didn’t really prepare me for the experience of seeing my hometown do something truly epic. The Grand Rapids LipDub Video certainly qualifies.

And after it rains

There’s a rainbow

And all of the colors are black.

It’s not that the colors aren’t there

It’s just imagination they lack. 

…Nothing but the dead and dying back in my little town. 

— Paul Simon

For most of my adult life, I would have gleefully applied these lyrics to the Grand Rapids I thought I knew. Now? Not so much.

The lack of color or imagination was as much mine as my hometown’s. I don’t really blame myself; in my childhood, I didn’t experience much of the place. And I think it’s not uncommon for a child — at least, for a child with conscientious parents who are good providers — to see only a small slice of the world. But my lingering disregard for Grand Rapids was built on a faulty foundation. And I couldn’t be happier for my hometown to prove me wrong.

I shouldn’t be surprised, really. Over the last ten years, I’ve explored the stories and experiences of people from all walks of life, from communities large and small. One of the chief lessons I’ve learned is that anywhere you look, you will find  interesting people doing interesting things. Grand Rapids is a big, bustling, complicated place.

And to be fair to myself, it’s gotten bigger, more diverse, and much more open since I left more than 45 years ago. Nobody’s leading a charge to reinstate Sunday closings, for sure. 

We should bear this in mind when we dismiss a community, a city, or an entire region by invoking Paul Simon’s words. Or Gertrude Stein’s remark about her hometown of Oakland, California: “There is no there there.”

A remark that is almost universally misapplied. It’s taken as a rebuke of a community without heart or soul. But she was writing about a return visit after a three-decade absence, when she found that her house and the familiar landmarks of her neighborhood had passed into history. It was meant as a personal observation: for her, specifically, “there” was gone.  

In fact, there is a “there” everywhere. There are people living, striving, and creating. Doing good and doing evil. Triumphing, failing, surviving, overcoming. There is texture, depth, and complexity. There are stories worth telling, and people trying to tell them.

I know this is true. But somehow, I have to keep learning it over and over again. This time, I learned it about my own birthplace by, of all things, watching a YouTube video.

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Gone

Well, our pet rabbit Thumper has died. For those just tuning in (click the “Pets and Animals” category to read earlier posts), Thumper was diagnosed with cancer in late February. Two fibrosarcomas, just behind and just in front of his right front leg.  Treatment is highly invasive and unlikely to produce lasting results, so we didn’t pursue it.

The tumors grew quickly, although they did not (as far as we know) spread to other parts of his body. About a month ago, we began giving him pain medication every day. I’d pick him up in the evening, give him the liquid medicine by syringe into his mouth (no needles), and let him sit on my lap for as long as he liked. Which was basically as long as I let him — two, three, four hours. He’d never been much of a lap bunny before, but it had become the only place he was really comfortable.

A while later, the vet added a second pain medicine to the mix. This was in pill form, and each dose was 1/4 of a pill. I’d split the pill, take a piece, pound it into dust with a meat tenderizer, mix it with water, and put it in a syringe.

The medication obviously helped. He’d get really relaxed afterward. Conversely, he’d clearly be in some discomfort beforehand. So I split the medicine into two daily doses, morning and evening. And I’d let him sit on my lap each time, for as long as my schedule would allow. Some days, I was spending five or six hours with Thumper on my lap.

Which explains my recent absence from these precincts. A lot of my time, and a lot of my mental and emotional energy, went into my voluntary duties as a rabbit hospice provider. This may seem extreme, but (a) Thumper was a loved, valued and respected member of our household, and (b) we feel that by owning a pet, we’ve assumed responsibility for its well-being. We wanted to give him the best possible quality of life in his final weeks and days.

Thumper, keeping his right leg off the ground.

In the last month, the tumors enveloped his right front leg. He stopped putting any weight on it. He was still capable of moving around, but he did it less and less. In the last couple of weeks, he rarely ventured very far from his home base, the east end of the sun porch. His appetite diminished, and he lost a lot of weight. We had many discussions about euthanasia. Because rabbits try to hide any weakness, it can be hard to discern the right moment.

His final decline was quick and mercifully short.  The last three or four days, his appetite was practically nonexistent; if we offered him a piece of greenery or a treat, he’d munch it slowly. Otherwise, he ate little or nothing.

On the evening of May 25, his breathing was obviously labored and difficult. For the first time, he just couldn’t get comfortable on my lap. He actually tried to jump off the chair — we managed to support his descent, and he hopped away onto the sun porch. One last burst of energy, as it turned out.

The end was obviously near; we half expected that he would die overnight. In fact, he was still there in the morning. But he was limp and listless, and still having trouble breathing. It was time to call the vet and make an appointment for euthanasia.

I picked him up for the morning medication. He did seem to relax on my lap, and I kept him there until I had to leave for an appointment. When I returned home, I went into my office and did a little work. Then I went upstairs to check on him, and found him dead. He died sometime around noon on Thursday, May 26. We called the vet to cancel the appointment; I wrapped him in a towel, put him in a cardboard box, and put the box in the basement, where it’s cooler.

Then I went on a cleaning jag. He had two large cardboard boxes where he liked to sleep and hang out; I broke them down and put them in the recycle bin. I emptied and cleaned his litter boxes and food bowls. I took down the big metal hutch that contained his litter boxes and freely-available timothy hay, brought it outside, and hosed it down.  And I mopped the floor. Took me most of the afternoon.

That night, when Evan got home, we buried Thumper in our yard. It was a very rainy night; we had to stop a couple of times when the rain got really heavy. We laid him to rest, shoveled the soil on top of him, and covered the spot with several large heavy rocks. (We’re out in the country, and the rocks will prevent scavengers from digging up the site.)

So. Goodbye, Thumper. You were a proud, dignified rabbit who filled our house with personality, cuteness, and fur. We’re sorry you went so soon, but we’re grateful to have had you for almost six years.

Evan has already talked about adopting another rabbit. I’m inclined to wait a while, which she understands. Providing bunny hospice was a draining, rewarding, deeply sad and joyful experience. I wouldn’t have missed it for anything. But I’m not quite ready to welcome another rabbit into our family.

My evening with Jules

During my years hosting The Front Porch  on New Hampshire Public Radio, I had a lot of unique experiences. Too many, really; I was far too busy to appreciate them at the time. And now, when I think back on some of them, I’m fairly amazed at some of the things that I got to do.

Early Olitski: "Cleopatra Flesh," 1962

One of those was a public interview with Jules Olitski, an artist who had been prominent in American art since the 1960s. In his later years (he died in 2007 at the age of 84), he lived on an island in New Hampshire’s Lake Winnipesaukee. By then, he had become somewhat unfashionable; he’d committed the sin of introducing elements of realism into his formerly abstract work. Not that he gave a damn, as far as I could tell.

In the fall of 2003, the Thorne-Sagendorph Gallery at Keene State College hosted a ten-year retrospective exhibit of Olitski’s recent work. The Gallery wanted him to do an event around the exhibit’s opening; he agreed to a public interview. And the Gallery asked me to do it.

Now, I don’t know much at all about art. But before I do interviews, I try to learn as much as I can about my subjects and their work. So I read whatever I could about Olitski, his life, his art, and his place in the contemporary art scene. And I prepared a list of questions.

Not that I ever expect an interview to go according to plan; the purpose of the list is to provide a general shape and storyline for an interview. I usually find myself adding questions, pursuing unexpected lines, and shuffling things around. But the list ensures that I will cover the important stuff. And it’s a binky, a security blanket, something to fall back on when the mind goes blank. 

Later Olitski: "Luminous Dawn," 1997

The interview was held in a lecture hall near the Gallery. A respectable crowd was on hand. I delivered a brief introduction, and then Olitski joined me on stage. His body was somewhat worn down by his years on Earth, many of them difficult; but I could tell that inside, he was tough as nails.

I asked the first question — I have no idea what it was — and he went off. He made no pretense of addressing my question, instead delivering a lengthy monologue about his childhood. It was brutally honest, and his early years had been pretty brutal.

After some time had passed — maybe ten minutes — I tried to ask another question. He brushed it off, and continued talking.

This went on and on. In the course of almost an hour, I may have asked two or three of my carefully prepared questions. And I don’t think he answered one of them. It was one of the most uncomfortable hours of my professional life; I was trying to do my job, conducting a public interview, and my guest was having none of it. He had things he wanted to say, and no well-intentioned interviewer was going to stop him. His primary subject: his own life, particularly his life before he became “Jules Olitski, Renowned Artist.”

I surmise that he needed me, but not as an interviewer. He wanted to deliver his message without pressure of a solo lecture; he wanted someone to serve as a sounding board and a buffer between him and the audience. 

During the event, I thought I was a complete failure. I tried desperately to keep up, to make the occasional interjection (and hence justify my presence), without much success.

Afterward, everyone went to the Gallery for a reception. I could barely bring myself to attend. I was drained, crushed, and prepared for an avalanche of criticism.

Funny thing. I got quite a few compliments — for staying quiet and letting Olitski have his way. A couple of people chided me for interrupting too much.

The audience had seen the true nature of the event. I was, naturally, too wrapped up in trying to do my job to see it at the time: Jules Olitski was doing something very important: exploring and explaining himself — himself, the person, not The Artist.

It was an intensely meaningful hour for him, and for those in attendance: a glimpse into the heart of a man who’d endured more than his share of trouble and had accomplished great things; but who was still, at least in part, that very troubled Russian emigre child, a stranger in a strange land, growing up in a loveless family. He’d wanted to let that child come out and be seen, and I — in spite of myself and my professional inclinations — had helped him do this thing.

It was an absolutely awful hour, and it is one of my very favorite memories.

The event was recorded. We edited it down for broadcast, with me providing a bit of narration. The program can be heard at NHPR’s online archive. 

Insomnia caused by awareness of a sleep disorder

Can’t sleep. Fourth night in a row. Seriously glazed during the day, and inconveniently at peak alertness after midnight. So here I am blogging at 2 a.m.

The cause of my sleeplessness? I became aware that I have a sleep disorder. Severe obstructive sleep apnea, to be precise.  Take it away, National Institutes of Health…

Sleep apnea (AP-ne-ah) is a common disorder in which you have one or more pauses in breathing or shallow breaths while you sleep. Breathing pauses can last from a few seconds to minutes. They often occur 5 to 30 times or more an hour. Typically, normal breathing then starts again, sometimes with a loud snort or choking sound.

Sleep apnea usually is a chronic (ongoing) condition that disrupts your sleep. You often move out of deep sleep and into light sleep when your breathing pauses or becomes shallow. This results in poor sleep quality that makes you tired during the day. Sleep apnea is one of the leading causes of excessive daytime sleepiness.

… The most common type of sleep apnea is obstructive sleep apnea. This most often means that the airway has collapsed or is blocked during sleep. The blockage may cause shallow breathing or breathing pauses.

“Poor sleep quality” is the immediate effect of sleep apnea. If untreated, it can also raise the risk of high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, weight gain, and diabetes, among other happy consequences.

I have all the major risk factors for sleep apnea: I’m male, in my 50s, and overweight. And for some time, my wife has been aware of nighttime interruptions in my breathing. Which is kind of a scary thing to witness, yes?

So my doctor sent me off for a sleep study, which was the subject of a previous whiny blogpost. And earlier this week, he gave me the bad news.

There are two primary treatments for OSA: surgery on the soft palate, and the wearing of a lovely item called a CPAP (pron. SEA-pap), short for “Continuous Positive Airway Pressure.” It keeps the airway open by gently pumping air into your nose. And I cannot imagine being able to sleep while wearing one of these contraptions. I had enough trouble with a simple cannula during the sleep study; how in the world will I sleep with a plastic mask affixed to my head?

Ahhh, so comfy.

Nonetheless, sometime soon I’m going back to the sleep clinic to be fitted for… my very own CPAP. (There’s a nice title for a children’s book. What with our epidemic levels of childhood obesity, there must be a potential market of youthful apneics out there.)  My doctor assured me that CPAPs make a huge difference, and that people get used to them fairly quickly. I stifled a bitter laugh.

That night, I found myself in the unusual position of being fully aware of a normally automatic bodily process — sleep. I worried about having to sleep with a CPAP. I hated myself for being overweight and, hence, being the moral agent of my own problems. And most disturbingly, I wondered exactly what would happen when I fell asleep.

In the comfortable, well-protected existence of an upper-middle-class American, it’s extremely rare that you have a chance to stare directly into the abyss. Not actually being in the abyss, mind you; just getting a creepy sense of what it would be like if the foundations of your life were suddenly absent. Well, on Monday night, I felt that way about sleep: it was a mystery, a fog, an unknown country. With the obvious consequence: I didn’t fall asleep, at least not until about four in the morning.

That sense of the abyss has not stayed with me, but a vague uneasiness returns whenever I try to sleep. And I’m foggy, cranky, and unproductive during the day.

And oh boy, am I not looking forward to what comes next. Maybe my very own CPAP will be a revelation: the absence of apnea will be such a blessed relief that I’ll scarcely be aware of the big plastic doohickey clamped to my skull. I’ll be rested, alert, productive, energetic, and generally free of the medical condition that has blocked me from realizing my potential.

On the other hand, maybe I’ll be so obsessed with the CPAP that I won’t sleep at all. And I’ll have to choose between letting the apnea go untreated, or letting a surgeon carve up the back of my throat.

Five things that make absolutely no sense

Here’s a handful of brief rants on five aspects of American society that are broadly accepted, but that are really absurd, ridiculous, and counterproductive. We would be better off without these things. (At some point in the future, I may write full-length posts about some or all of these subjects… but for the time being, just a few shots across the bow.)

— The two-party system. It limits choice, it discourages voter participation, it is artificial and anti-democratic and serves only the interests of those at the top. It suppresses new ideas by forcing them to the margins of political discourse. It is not a democracy or a republic; it is an oligarchy. It allows a small number of people to maintain a grip on political power.

Once, I was interviewing a couple of politicians (one from “each party,” natch). The notion of third parties and independent candidates came up, and I suggested that these entities are completely sidelined by the two-party system. One of the politicians replied that, of course, anybody is free to run for any office anytime. And I said, “And they win about as often as Hell freezes over.” He didn’t have an answer.

— Intercollegiate football. The tiniest fig leaf of amateurism is stretched to the breaking point, in a futile effort to mask the thoroughly professional nature of Division I college football. (At some institutions you can add men’s basketball and hockey as well, but no other sport is so big, bold, and blatant as football.) Colleges and universities do all sorts of ridiculous things to promote the fiction that football enhances the mission of the institution. They produce reams of rules to preserve the sport’s fiction of purity, and enforce them erratically.

It’s argued that big-time football makes money to support “minor” sports. But  that’s not true: Most colleges and universities lose money on football. It’s a very expensive sport. Competing at the highest level requires massive spending on facilities, staff, and travel. (One small example: Bill Martin, Athletic Director at Michigan, has said that the school actually saved money by failing to qualify for a bowl game the last two years.)

It’s argued that football raises an institution’s profile and attracts donor support. That may or may not be true; I don’t see the finances or reputations of Northwestern or Cornell or Vanderbilt or Cal-Berkeley suffering, at all, by their lack of gridiron prowess. I do see institutions spending a whole lot of money in hopes of joining the Big Boys. And I see distinguished educators making fools of themselves (take a bow, Gordon Gee) as they desperately try to keep that fig leaf in place.

Homo Economicus. A theoretical construct that underpins major streams of economic thought, and a complete absurdity. The basic idea is that people are rational and self-interested creatures who make decisions based on their financial interests.

Well, look at yourself, or at any person you know. How often do you make decisions based solely (or even mostly) on financial interest? Is that how you choose your friends or your spouse? Is that why you have children? Or decide where to live, or what career to pursue? Or what to eat for dinner? If you’re anything like me, the primary factors are things like happiness, security, and comfort.

Now, even economists who are critical of the H.Econ. idea still say it’s a useful tool for building economic theory. Well, maybe, but I think it leads to bad ideas and bad policies.

Take, for example, the notion of “the opportunity society.” This phrase was used by George W. Bush in arguing for partial privatization of Social Security, and is now being used by those calling for the privatization of Medicare. They say they want to remove the giant hand of government, and allow each of us to pursue our maximum benefit in the free market.

Problem is, with opportunity comes responsibility. I don’t want to have to make all those choices. I don’t want to have to be H. Econ, to constantly have an eye on finances, to spend much of my life reading the fine print and trying to outwit bankers, brokers, and insurers in order to be successful and secure. To me, that is absolutely NOT the pursuit of happiness.

I want a social safety net. I want a guaranteed Social Security benefit, even if it’s not the highest possible rate of return. I want guaranteed Medicare waiting for me when I retire, not a voucher and a hearty push into the insurance marketplace. I gladly trade some of my freedoms in return for security.

And I would hate to live in a world populated by H. Econ. 

–The rules of attraction. There are many paths to happiness in human relationships. For me, as it happens, the path is heterosexual monogamy. I like having a life partner with whom I feel comfortable, accepted and secure. Among many, many other things, it actually promotes a richer, more rewarding sex life: there’s no anxiety, you’ve had plenty of practice, and you know each other’s likes and dislikes.

For others, satisfaction may mean a series of relationships, or multiple relationships at the same time. And that’s fine, as long as nobody is getting hurt.

Okay, so here’s the crazy part. As a society, we trumpet the ideal of lifetime monogamy. Families are the foundation of a good society, the best way to raise children, the soundest basis for personal fulfillment. But at the same time, our culture is chock full of negative messages about this ideal.

And I don’t mean rappers rhyming about their ho’s, or hippies preaching free love. I’m talking about the heart of mainstream culture: comic strips, sitcoms, TV ads, the memes of everyday discourse. (There’s a current ad for Klondike bars, in which a man has to endure listening to his wife for FIVE SECONDS before he gets his ice cream. The horror!)

Everywhere there are messages that familiarity breeds contempt, or at least numbness. That the longer a couple is together, the more bored and alienated they become. That love is a blinding flash of bells, hearts, and singing birdies that inevitably fades with time. And that sex is better if there’s an element of novelty, mystery, or even danger about it.

We’re funny that way. And by “funny,” I mean crazy, schizo, self-defeating. Lots of couples have long, fulfilling, sexy lifetimes together. Personally, I think it’s a great way to live, and I heartily recommend it — assuming, of course, that you have the right partner.

But if we, as a society, really want to promote long-term relationships and stable families, why do we think, talk, and act as if such a relationship is basically a prison sentence?

— Constitutional inerrancy. Which is how I refer to the principle of “originalism” — the idea that questions of law and policy must be decided according to the original intent of the Constitution.

In and of itself, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But too often it is taken to extremes, and the Constitution is seen the same way as the Bible: as a pure, untainted gift from God. (I don’t understand why Evangelical Christians can’t see this for the heresy it is.)

Sure, it’s very attractive to choose a single object or belief that seems to make the world a simpler and fairer place. But it just ain’t true. The Constitution provides a process for its own amendment; could there be a more obvious sign that the Founders didn’t see it as perfect? And which Constitution should we choose: the first one, that didn’t include the Bill of Rights and did include slavery? Where exactly do we draw the line?

And, of course, there’s a fundamental problem with the idea of One True Original Intent: we all, no matter how well-intentioned, see things through the prism of our own experiences. Absolute originalism is an unachievable state; it is impossible to truly know, at a remove of two centuries, what the Founders intended or how they would interpret their own words in our modern world. Indeed, if you brought a handful of Founders back to life and asked them a question about law or policy, you’d get a healthy debate, not a harmonious choral assertion of capital-T Truth.

Just call me the Human Hospice

Living day-to-day with our rabbit Thumper. He’s not movin’ around much. Still eating his greens, but not much appetite for dry food. It’s hard to tell whether he’s in pain; rabbits, being a prey species, are really good at hiding infirmity. But I’m certain there’s significant discomfort if not outright pain.

The best, and worst, part of it: holding him on my lap for two or three hours at a time.

Most pet rabbits really don’t like to be picked up or controlled; I think it sets off species memories of predator attacks. For most of his life, Thumper would deign to be held once in a while. If I tried to catch him too often, he’d go into “Lagomorph Evader” mode. Almost impossible to catch.

Now, I have to catch him once a day to give him pain medication. And, in order to make it at least somewhat enjoyable, I let him sit on my lap as long as he wants. Last night, that was three hours. He settles down into a seemingly boneless blob of bunny, stretched over the curve of my thigh. I pet his head most of the time; he really likes that.

This takes up a lot of time. But if I can ease his passage to the Rainbow Bridge, it’s well worth it.

CancerBun

Took our pet rabbit to the vet yesterday. Two months ago, we learned that Thumper had a couple of tumors,

Under the dining table: one of his favorite hangouts

directly in front of and behind his right front leg. The vet told us that there really aren’t any good treatment options, and that he might have weeks or months to live.

Well, recently he’s been clearly favoring his right front leg. In fact, he does a lot less hopping than he used to. So I made a vet appointment. And the news was not quite as bad as it could have been, but not great either.

The tumors have grown substantially, and are impeding his leg. Probably causing him some pain. It’s most likely a fibrosarcoma, a malignant tumor of the connective tissue. These tumors are aggressive and grow quickly. Treatments are extreme; you have to get all of the tumor to have any hope of success. The preferred option is amputation, followed by chemical treatments that can cause significant side-effects.

But wait, there’s more: a recurrence rate of nearly 70% within one year of surgery.

Not an attractive option.

The vet prescribed pain medication, which we’re giving him every day. We plan to let Thumper live as long as he seems to have any quality of life. At this point, “weeks” seems more likely than “months.” But we’ll see.

Yesterday, I gave him his first dose of the medication. I picked him up (which he hates) and put him on my lap (which he likes). After getting the medicine (which he really hates), he settled down and laid on my lap for a good two and a half hours. Given his weakened state, I think he enjoys the warmth and comfort.

We had the same experience with a previous pet rabbit, Granola. He had a very long life and a long slow decline. Near the end, sitting on my lap was about the only thing he truly enjoyed. I spent many hours letting him lie there and petting him. It was a sad, joyous, traumatic, intense experience. And now, here we are again.

I’m dreading it. And looking forward to it.

Mr. Reaper’s Neighborhood

Just got back from a singularly draining trip to my home state of Michigan. Not that the state was the problem; I still like being there, and suspect that I may wind up living there again someday. No, the problem was a constant series of high-stress visits to parents who are nearing the end of their lives. At the risk of being melodramatic, it seemed like everywhere I went, the shadow of Mr. Reaper was with me.

A bit of background: I was born in 1954 in Grand Rapids, Michigan. My family moved to the Detroit suburbs in 1965. I went off to the University of Michigan in 1974, and my parents divorced the following year. Both remarried; my mother’s husband died quite a few years ago. Mom’s now in her early 80s, and Dad is in his mid-80s.

My wife Evan lived in the Detroit suburbs and went to U-M, which is where we met. Her mother died in the mid-1980s, and her father (aged 93) is still living in the old family house.

Evan and I moved to New England in the year 2000. In the last couple of years, each of our surviving three parents has had at least one major health crisis.

We’d planned a mid-April visit to Michigan because our fathers share the same birthdate: April 13. I was scheduled to arrive on Tuesday April 12, and Evan was to follow on Friday.

When I got there, Evan’s father had been admitted to the hospital on the eve of his birthday with a significant kidney ailment. So, in lieu of the happy birthday dinner we’d hoped to have, he and I shared a small cake supplied by the hospital. (Do they bill insurance for that, I wonder?…) At the time, he faced an uncertain prognosis; they didn’t yet know what was wrong with his kidneys, and whether it was treatable.

(By now, we’ve learned that he does have a treatable kidney disease. With any luck, he should have a good recovery. But recovery itself is a difficult process for anyone in their 90s.)

I also visited my father on April 13. He’s pretty much housebound at this point, mainly because of a minor brain injury he suffered last summer. It left him with significant aphasia; he can’t really communicate clearly, and we don’t really know exactly how much he understands — and retains — what is said to him.

And I, being basically a verbal person, have a lot of trouble being with him. It’s hard to try to converse, when you don’t understand most of what he says. And he doesn’t understand why.

As for my mom, she’s in pretty good shape for someone in her early 80s. But she’s obviously playing the back nine (as they say in golf). She’s physically and mentally capable, but it’s getting harder for her to initiate and complete projects. On the other hand, of course, her life is likely to be shorter and unhappier if she doesn’t maintain some level of activity that satisfies her mentally and creatively.

Usually, I can be somewhat helpful during my visits. But this time, my energy and attention were stretched pretty thin, and I wasn’t much help for her. Which made me feel more guilt and frustration.

So our visit was a constant whirl of (a) driving all over southeast Michigan, from Ann Arbor to the western and northern suburbs of Detroit and to the hospital in downtown Detroit, and (b) having brief, unsatisfying interactions with our aging parents.

We’ve always known these days were in our future. But now they are here. Two of our three living parents are in poor enough health that a significant illness (or death) could happen anytime. And my mother, while in good health, is two years removed from major surgery that left her in a weakened state for several months.

We live in Vermont, 800 miles away. And in the past two years, there have been four occasions when one of our parents has been hospitalized for a major health problem. It’s tough, it’s guilt-inducing, and there is no way to do things much better.

And then I came home. And there, on our sun porch, was good ol’ Mr. Reaper’s shadow.

I’ve posted a couple of entries on this blog about our pet rabbit, Thumper. Earlier this year, we found out that he has cancer. Two tumors on, or just under, the skin near his right front leg. Possibly more, but those two were plenty bad enough. Might have days, might have weeks or months to live.

Well, he’s taken a turn for the worse. His activity level is a lot lower than it was before I went to Michigan. He’s hopping with a limp, which probably means the tumors are impeding his leg. I’m taking him to the vet tomorrow, and we’ll see what she says. I’m prepared for anything, up to and including a recommendation of euthanasia. Not that I’m prepared to actually put him down, but there’s a chance the vet will suggest it.

I realize that there are several billion people on the planet with worse problems than mine. But the weight of the world, of life and death, of love and loss, is hanging heavily on me these days.

Blessings on us all.

Mamma Mia! That’s-a beeg-a pizza pie!

A relatively short and inconsequential post here, but… what the heck is it with takeout pizza boxes here in central Vermont?  Is there a law mandating the presence of a cartoon Italian chef with a big twirly mustache, Brylcreemed hair, a gravity-defying toque, usually making that hand-kissy A-OK motion that signifies the finest of Italian cuisine? And is almost certainly named Luigi, Guido, or Giuseppe? And instantly activates your Tarantella Napoletana mindworm.

Well, actually, there’s at least one local pizzeria that doesn’t have Chef Luigi on its takeout boxes: Al Portico. And as you might have guessed, it’s owned by a real authentic Italian-American, Angelo Caserta. Who doesn’t have a big twirly mustache or greasy hair or a chef’s hat, and doesn’t do the hand-kissy thing when he serves a pizza.

Which brings me to The First Law of Takeout Pizza Boxes: The use of Chef Luigi cartoons is directly proportional to a pizzeria’s distance from significant Italian-American populations, and inversely proportional to a community’s ethnic diversity.

p.s. I’ve pondered this phenomenon every time I’ve gotten a takeout pizza in a Chef Luigi box. Here’s the one I got last night. Which, as it happens, isn’t just any old generic Chef Luigi; this was done by the Master of the Medium himself, the late Gill Fox (wiki). Fox was a jack-of-all-trades cartoonist who worked in just about every aspect of the business: newspaper strips, superhero comics, political cartooning, animation, commercial illustration. And as his obituary revealed, his most lasting contribution was the Chef Luigi-type character. There’s something for the ol’ tombstone.

Ironically enough, this box used to contain a "Mexican Pizza."

Welcome to Fox News. Here’s your fright wig, face paint and floppy shoes.

A quick word of advice to mainstream journalists: Stay away from the Fox News Channel. I don’t care how much they pay you, or how much your employer values the exposure; it’s not worth having to wear Rupert Murdoch’s clown suit in public.

          On a recent weeknight, FNC anchor Bret Baier was hosting “The Lightning Round,” a fixture of his daily show, “Special Report.” “Lightning” is a panel discussion of the day’s news from a (cough) variety of viewpoints. On this day, representing the right, we have Stephen Hayes of The Weekly Standard, a conservative magazine. Also representing the right, we have syndicated columnist Charles Krauthammer.

          And representing everybody else, we have Karen Tumulty, national political correspondent for the Washington Post.

          What was that FNC slogan again? “Fair and balanced”? Two right-wing opinionators are somehow “balanced” by one mainstream journalist?

          And no, this is not an unusual occurrence. NPR’s media reporter David Folkenflik recently reviewed six months’ worth of Baier’s panels, and found that this is par for the course: a typical panel featured two conservative commentators and one reporter from a mainstream, non-ideological news outlet.

           The reporter, FYI, is the one in the clown suit.

          You may think that’s a bit harsh. But I’m here to tell you that by taking part in FNC’s right-leaning panels, mainstream journalists are sacrificing their reputations and undercutting their credibility. They are unwittingly providing evidence for FNC’s fundamental assertion: that the mainstream media lean seriously to the left, and that FNC is a necessary antidote.

          Look at the dynamics of a panel featuring Hayes, Krauthammer and Tumulty. Hayes and Krauthammer are trumpeting their right-wing views. Tumulty is the only one who expresses any other viewpoint. As the discussion tacks relentlessly to the right, she is the only one pulling it back toward the center. She has become, whether she means to or not, the voice of the left.

          As this dynamic is repeated over time, FNC viewers see mainstream journalists in one role, and only one role: representative of the left wing. Which reinforces FNC’s claims that the mainstream media are captives of the left, and that their (supposedly objective) journalists are barely-closeted liberals.  

          In the short term, the exposure helps reporters and their employers. But the publicity comes at a terrible cost: their own credibility and that of their entire profession.

          So I say to Karen Tumulty, and to NPR’s Mara Liasson, and to any other mainstream journalist who has responded to FNC’s siren song: Stop. Take off the wig and floppy shoes. Walk away. If not for your own sake, then for whatever remains of the honor and dignity of journalism.