Join us for PurpleStride 2022!

What can I tell you about my wife Wendy that you don’t already know? Maybe you don’t know her, in which case I can tell you a lot. I would start with this: Wendy works very hard on behalf of other people. When she moved to Boston 30 years ago, one of the first things she did was start delivering meals to people suffering from AIDS. She has labored tirelessly for our son Jay, who because of his autism, needs a lot of support and is unable to advocate for his own needs. She has worked very hard to support our friends the Haganis who immigrated here from Iran several years ago. They have become a second family, and for Wendy helping them isn’t a cause or a charity or a web page. It’s just helping family. She has helped people at our church, and through our church, as leader of the Mission and Outreach committee, she has managed charitable outlays to dozens of groups.

Wendy has something inside her that makes her want to help people. But she also has something less welcome inside her. That thing is pancreatic cancer.

I am tempted at this point to say things about life not being fair, but I’ll spare you that digression. We all know life and fairness aren’t well acquainted, and you certainly have your own examples of unfairness closer to home. But this is the one that’s close to home for me. Here is this person who lives in my house, who works so hard to help others, and this strange growth in her gut is threatening to kill her. I want to stop it. I bet you want to stop it too. But it’s very expensive even to try to stop it. I’m sorry to bring up money, but there you are. Stopping diseases is an expensive business, and there’s no getting around it.

So this is the part you knew was coming: the appeal. To read this far, given that you knew an appeal was coming, can only mean that you, like me, care for Wendy. Maybe you didn’t know much about her when you started reading, but now you do. And you know that this disease affects not only my wife, but millions of others. People who have the disease. People who love and depend on people who have the disease. A contribution might help Wendy. But it will definitely limit the suffering for many others. And it might move us a little closer to ending the dire outcomes of this disease for millions out into the unseen future. Who knows? Your dollar might make all the difference. It’s worth a try. Wendy’s worth it. I promise.

I make this appeal in the name of PurpleStride, a PanCan fundraising walk that will happen on April 30th. You can make a donation on my page or on Wendy’s page. And if you’re in Boston on April 30th, come walk with us!

A Good Documentary: Return to Space

I recently watched the movie Return to Space. It’s a documentary about the first commercial mission to launch humans to the International Space Station. That flight was a big deal because it was the first time since the Space Shuttle was retired that we’d launched humans to orbit from American soil.

I started by watching the trailer, and I thought, “This looks pretty good.” So I read more and learned that it was directed by Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Vasarhelyi. This is the same team that made Free Solo, the documentary about Alex Honnold climbing El Capitan. They made another film that I recommend, The Rescue, about the divers who rescued the Thai soccer team that was trapped in an underwater cave. But the first film I saw by Chin was Meru, which was about mountain climbing in the Himalayas.

In fact, Jimmy Chin was one of the climbers in the movie. So he knows climbing and he understands how climbers think. He knows the kinds of questions that are sensible to ask a climber, and the kinds of questions that are stupid to ask a climber. Climbers, like divers and pilots, learn to suppress their emotions, because emotional outbursts can be deadly. Because of this, they can come across as flat or robotic. How on earth do these people manage the incredible stresses on them? Most mainstream portrayals of people in these roles feel a need to make this emotional stress legible to the lay public. Their fictionalizations show pilots monologuing with un-pilot-like drama because otherwise it comes across as unbelievable. But that drama, those emotions, weren’t there in the cockpit. To find the emotion heart of the story, you need to understand where to look. You need the right tools. Chin and Vasarhelyi have those tools. This is what Tom Wolfe did this so well in his book The Right Stuff: getting inside a pilot’s brain. Emotions are displaced in time and space from the dramatic event. Often the crucial decisions are made months or years in advance. The important actions are taken in training sessions. The revealing conversations are made with children and spouses. Chin finds ways to pick apart these complex stories. There’s very little music, none of it bombastic. Properly portrayed, the dramatic events at the center of the film can then speak for themselves.

Apollo astronaut Michael Collins once remarked that, by temperament and by training, astronauts are not emotional. He went on, “I think a future flight should include a poet, a priest and a philosopher… we might get a much better idea of what we saw.” It might be a while before we send a poet into space, but Chin and Vasarhelyi are already coaxing poetry out of those who have been there.

What’s On TV?

Do you watch much TV these days? As I ask the question, I realize how dated it sounds. There used to be one object in your house with a screen. It was called a television, and at any given time you were either watching it or not watching it.

I’m sure my story is not unusual for people of my age. When I got home from school I would watch old cartoons and sitcom re-runs (Bugs Bunny, Andy Griffith, Gilligan’s Island, Hogan’s Heroes). After dinner, my father would switch on the national news (always NBC). After that, there would be a few hours of prime time entertainment courtesy of the three major networks.

“We don’t have a TV” used to be a faux-careless bragging point, much like mentioning your most recent marathon time. It was easy to throw it into a conversation, a virtue signal for the brown-rice and Birkenstocks set. “Hill Street Blues? That’s a TV show, right? We don’t have a TV at our house. Also, my kids will get into a much better college than your kids.”

If it was too much of a stretch to say you didn’t own a TV, there was a fallback position: “We do have a TV, but we only watch documentaries.” The full version goes like this: “I have a disassembled black and white TV in a box under the bed. When there’s science documentary I want the kids to see, I rebuild the set for one night and then tear it down when the show is over. Also, my kids will get into a much better college than your kids.”

Now people are watching less and less TV, but still spending loads of time looking at screens. Distributing bragging rights and shame is so much more complex! For instance, I can say in all honesty that I cancelled my cable subscription two years ago, and I might go for weeks without turning on my TV. But it’s a misleading statement. I subscribe to multiple non-cable sources of video content (Netflix, Amazon, AppleTV). I watch a lot of YouTube videos. And even though I have a nice TV on my living room wall, for some reason I prefer to watch shows and sporting events on the iPad in my lap.

Everything has to be qualified more carefully. Abstinence humble-bragging requires more specificity. “I don’t have a TV and I never use any of my screens to look at any content that could qualify as the kind of thing that used to be on TV. Although, come on, of course I look at the cat videos that friends send me.”

True abstinence from screen time seems almost like an impossibility now. You’re more likely to feel shame or envy these days because your friends are much better curators and reviewers of high-quality binge-watching than you. “I don’t often binge watch, but when I do, it’s an award-winning drama series. And after it’s over, I unplug the cable and groom my alpacas. Also, my kids will get into a much better college than your kids.”

TV is dead. Long live TV!