A picture is worth a thousand words.

Some pictures tell thousands of stories.  

Yesterday I experienced a profound, overwhelming and visceral grief while visiting an outdoor art installation here in DC. 

Suzanne Brennan Firstenberg’s installation “In America How Could This Happen…” plants a small white flag for every person who has died of Covid-19 in the US.

Relatives can write names of loved ones on the flag, or Firstenberg will do it for you.

Walking this awful field in the twilight yesterday I cried and cried for people I never met and their families who I will never know. Flags of multiple family members who died are planted together. It is a devastating physical representation of the ongoing pandemic.

My husband and I stopped to thank the artist as she was diligently walking her installation, re-staking fallen flags and picking up trash that visitors have left. She was grateful that we stopped to visit. She shared how some of the people who have been denied the rituals of grieving are finding some solace by planting a flag and honoring all who died.

We thanked her again.

Art is one of the super powers of civilization. It has the ability to transcend, and to unify, and to speak even more than those thousand words about our humanity.

If you can, visit this art installation before November 30 and let the dead speak.

picture of number of dead from covid-19
The artist updates the number every morning

flag for Kenneth bridewellflag for Terry bridwell

grandpa norman

As I get ever closer to my 50th birthday its seems every where I look there is a list of something I should be paying attention to like “15 Things You Should Do Before You’re 50”, or “The 9 Things Our 40’s Taught Us”, “5 Important Medical Tests for Women Over 50”.

The worst for me are the “bucket lists” that supposedly help you organize your experiences or strive to live your best life: “10 Places to Visit Before You Die”, “Inspiration to Feel Fully Alive”, or “Once in a Lifetime Meals”.

The idea of creating any kind of bucket list fills me with a panicky anxiety. I have enough tasks to take care of without a “Life” To-Do list.

So instead I decided to create a list of “Things That I Do Even Though I Fail To Get Any Better at Doing Them”. Here they are in no particular order:

1) Dance. Love to dance, poor sense of rhythm, almost total inability to follow choreography. Don’t care.

2) Shoot pool. Never have improved beyond the highly advanced stage of no longer knocking the cue ball on the floor when I attempt to break. Any shots I make are random accidents. I celebrate this.

3) Tell jokes. Again the timing thing. One liners and witty repartee are more my speed but I tell jokes that I think are funny even if no one else thinks they are when I get done with them. Unfortunately, I think I have passed this trait on to my daughter.

4) Sing. I love to sing. It makes me happy. I sing loudly. I sing off key. I don’t think ability should dictate who is allowed to sing. So there.

5) Play backgammon. Don’t know why I never have figured out the strategy for this game, but it’s still fun.

6) Take pictures. I can’t seem remember to think about composition, contrast or perspective when I take a picture. I just go all “Ohh, pretty!” Click, click, click. I wish I knew what I was doing, but that doesn’t stop me from happily snapping away at trees and clouds and my kid.

I know as soon as I hit publish I’ll probably think of half a dozen more things to add to the list, but that’s the nature of list making. I plan to do a series of lists commemorating my now five decades of winning, losing, learning, failing and all the crisp, crunchy bits scraped from the sides that make everything so flavorful.

I can start with “3 Things I’ll Never Do Again Under Any Circumstances”, and “7 People I Regret Spending So Much Time with in My 20’s”. So much potential.

Would love to know whats on your list.




Yesterday I got news that a child of an acquaintance of mine had committed suicide. He was 37.

To lose a child is unimaginable. To lose someone you love by their own hand, is incomprehensible.

My heart is breaking for her even as I know that I cannot know what she is going through. In a few hours I will attend the funeral and already my chest hurts knowing I will see in her face unfathomable pain. What can I say to her to acknowledge the rending of her life into a new before and after because her child died? I am sorry for your loss is not large enough for any death, but it’s what we say. Because we don’t know what to say.

No words can be adequate, so I will do what I can.

I will bear witness to her grief. And grieve with her.

I will ask people to click on the photo below to learn about suicide prevention & coping with loss. My ignorance is complete. The least I can do is understand this half of her tragedy and hope I never need the information.


The word Queer is one I have not used in a very long time. When I was in middle and high school we (meaning the girls) used it as a pejorative for anything “odd”. In hindsight the “oddness” was easily translatable to outside the heterosexual norm. Haven’t thought about that in years.

The association I have with Queer now, which only came to the surface because I was taking a SafeZone training at work, has to do with AIDS activism from the 1980’s and 90’s. HIV/AIDS was a new and ugly scourge. A death sentence.

In those days I was in the midst of activists and performance artists raising awareness, fighting against stigma and ignorance. I wore a Silence = Death pin, marched at PRIDE and knew people flying to France for experimental drugs they could not get here. And they are no longer here.

Now I know HIV positive people who are continuing to live their lives and Queer means something different. Far from the NEA Four days, the word Queer is being reclaimed in Queer Theory and Queer Studies.

I wonder how much the early activism is forgotten in the face of progress? I hope it remains part of the narrative as we continue to fight for legal rights in the face of counter legislation advocating discrimination.

I would love to direct a staged reading of the play Bent somewhere locally. I think its time to remember.

So we don’t forget.


My Dad died December 2, 1992. He was 62. He had cancer and treatments and it all seemed to happen very fast. The space of a year from diagnosis to the end. Or at least that’s how I remember it.

While my mother’s death anniversary makes me melancholy, each year the anniversary of my dads death makes me reflect on all that’s happened since he died. Big things like he never met my husband or child, and little things like he would have loved the world of gadgets we live in now.

For some reason I find myself measuring my adult life against his at a similar age. Getting married, having a child, buying and selling a house, burying my parents and brother, changing jobs, achieving  professional success – that’s where I am, where was he when he was 48?

It would have been 1978 and I would have been 13. A different world.

I don’t think I knew my father very well. I never understood what he did for a living until I was an adult (he was a systems analyst.) But then he wasn’t much for sharing personal stories from the past.

I learned more about him after my mom died and we had to sort out the house. I found he performed in plays in high school, was in the marching band, and, from his war ration books, discovered he either grew 5 inches between 1941 and 1942 or someone measured wrong.

Fragments and bits to weave into my memories.

This photo I happened across in an envelope in the attic shows my dad around age 10 or 11 with his sister Susie, and his brother Jack on the right. They look a bit grim, but maybe that’s just the posing. Although I swear that was the only expression I ever saw on my Uncle Jack’s face when I knew him.

Still when I look closely I can imagine my Dad’s grin lurking around the corner of his mouth in this photo. Or maybe that’s just my memory of a smile.

Till next year.

James, Sue and Jack Shaffer 1940?

Once upon a time I had a physical address book.

When someone moved I drew a line through their old address and phone & wrote in the new one. It was a physical history of my friends migrations and permutations. Some names changed, some changed back, some fell away so that last known address would be highly unlikely to connect with the intended recipient.

Now all of my contacts are in my phone which is so smart it occasionally adds extra, unnecessary fields for phone numbers. I think its mad that I sync with multiple computers so it throws a hissy every now and then. The other really useful thing about the electronic contacts is that it allows me to put names with phone numbers so no one can sneak up on me twice when I don’t recognize their phone number.

A down side of the electronic contacts is that searches can bring up names of friends and family who have died if you haven’t deleted them. I don’t delete them.

I’ve kept my moms phone number, among others, even though I’d never forget the only phone number my parents ever had. When they bought the house in the early 60’s they got one of the new phone numbers using the seven numbers, which replaced the MELrose-1 that the rest of the street still had. The neighborhood pizza parlor never updated the Mel-1 of their original sign. Last time I saw it was the early 90’s because its near my moms church. I wonder if its still there. 

I’m not sure when I should delete the contact info from my phone when people die. I think part of the problem is that I have to literally press a button that says Delete Contact, and then it asks me “Are you sure? This cannot be undone.”

I know it can’t be undone. That’s why I’m afraid to lose this random little reminder.

This isn’t my address book, its my birthday book. A different way of remembering people.

This is an amalgam post because I can’t settle my mind.

In my usual overanlyzing of my own behavior I have been musing on my usage of Reply All vs Reply. These are all social situations, not business, where of course there is a whole protocol for Reply and Reply All. Maybe that’s the problem, we need Miss Manners to weigh in on usage.

The Reply All that I’m fussing over is when it seems like the person wants to be noticed for their reply. That they are clever, or compassionate or properly outraged/impressed. I always feel like it takes away from the message to have others witness it, makes it smaller somehow. But then maybe the “All” think that I don’t care if they don’t see my reply. Making me “not a nice person”. So then I am back to the beginning – who is the message about? Me or the recipient? And am I not using the Reply All so I can feel morally superior? I think I need a massage, which, believe it or not, follows perfectly logically from the previous paragraph.

I feel like I have been extra jumbled what with the bombings in Boston, the ricin letters in DC and now the fertilizer plant explosion, because we are facing death much closer to home right now. A beloved great Aunt, who has a lived a full 93 years, suffered a stroke and is entering hospice.

Processing death, and the fear of death and dying, has moved from the abstract to the concrete and the number of years you have had with the person never seems to matter.

The cause of death is birth is a phrase my husband and I said to our daughter when she was small and her grandfather died. It’s not any consolation but it is a means of allowing the truth of death to exist as par of life rather than as something hidden. I don’t know if the idea helped explain, or if she even remembers, I’ll have to ask her.

The point is that the charming, still beautiful, and beloved Great Aunt will die. We will grieve, we will miss her, but we will not forget her. And people who are anonymous (to us) will be killed by random violence, and we will decide, again, if we will live in fear, or just live.

In the midst of this I will continue to analyze my behavior in excruciating detail. We all have our coping mechanisms. Mine is just a little weirder than yours.

I made a mistake the other day of responding to a Tweet about the Sandy Hook school shooting. Got a flurry of replies and personal messages from folks saying things like “quit living in fantasy land”, “gun laws don’t work” and “I protect my children with a Glock”. Continue reading

My friend is grieving.

A young person enrolled in her program has died. His fellow students, the staff and instructors are all struggling to understand. Death, as always, brings more questions than answers.

How can this be true? How can someone so young (23) and full of promise be dead? How can someone my age die so suddenly? How can someone younger than my child be gone? Why? What happened? What was the cause? What could have been done? What should I have done?

As a parent, my mind refuses to fully comprehend what his family is going through.

Last night my friend said she was going home to bake some “Cookie Love” to bring to the memorial the students were having for their classmate this afternoon. Baking some love when someone is grieving seems to be a necessary step. I don’t know any culture that doesn’t bring food or expect the grief stricken to be unable to cook or even want to feed themselves. So we comfort with a casserole dish, and give hugs with sugar and chocolate.

My personal stages of grief usually include Baking, followed by Cleaning, Drinking, Laughing, and more Baking. It may not be Kubler-Ross, but its a system. Probably a distinctly female system if I analyze it, but I don’t feel up to it at the moment.

Baking makes me happy because its optional. No one needs it. Its not like cooking which you have to do to survive, so its an act of free will. A slice of love, a box of like or a tray of feel better soon. No strings attached. I hope my friend can feel how the love she baked into those cookies feeds those grieving students (and herself).

The school shooting in Chardon is tragic.

I cannot imagine what it is like to be a parent of murdered child. Or a student who no longer feels safe at school. Or a teacher with a double burden of personal safety and protecting their students. I cannot imagine.

I have heart clenching terror when I put myself in their shoes, but I would not insult them by believing that I can know what its like.

I grew up around violence and with lots of kids who experienced “broken homes” similar to that of the shooter. That violence was mostly directed inward – to the self, to relatives, to girlfriends. Even street violence has some logic to it. Robbery, gang fighting, drug wars. This modern, execution style violence has no logic that I can follow.

A unifying fact that cannot be denied is the use of guns to commit these crimes. The NRA and gun enthusiasts will begin their howling about how “guns don’t kill people, people kill people” even before the victims are buried. The arguments that a person bent on violence will use any weapon (“knife, bat or words”) so blaming guns is illogical, is specious until there is evidence of a “mass stabbing” at a school.

The truth is people with guns kill people.

Handguns are like no other weapon. Their only purpose is to kill people. Whether you call the person you are killing an intruder, an enemy or a classmate, the purpose of the handgun is to kill people. How is the access to guns not part of the problem? How does restricting handguns and assault weapons infringe on the right to bear arms or hunt? This is not what the 2nd amendment is about.

Do people even notice that there a two-page pull out section in the paper today advertising handguns for sale at Fin & Feather? Camo and deer blinds I get, two solid pages of handguns (.38 specials etc.) ranging in price from $150 – $1,500, I don’t get. Why is this acceptable?

I hope in the months to come the media coverage does not focus on those people who vociferously proclaim they will now buy and carry their own handgun in order to feel safe. None of those students who were shot in the back or the back of the head, had any chance to defend themselves.

Knowing one more person owns a gun does not make me feel safe.

One of my favorite things is for someone to tell me how I feel. I am fascinated that a seemingly casual acquaintance can express with absolute certainty what I am feeling because we have had similar experiences. Rather than a window into my soul, it invariably provides a window into theirs.

Seeing as it is “Heart Disease Month” there has been an explosion of posters and information about the signs of heart attacks in women where I work out. This morning I foolishly added to an ongoing conversation on the topic saying that women don’t necessarily experience the classic chest and arm pain. I say foolish because one comment means I am no longer entitled to my silent, focused workout and must now respond to questions.

I told them I had watched my mother have three heart attacks and never have any arm pain. She thought it was heartburn that made her sweat and look ashen. I told them how she refused an ambulance, or even a visit to the emergency room, and insisted on going to her doctors office to get checked out

It went on this way for a while with everyone sharing all the details of all the heart attacks that have affected them. As I was leaving a women approached me and asked if my mother had “learned her lesson and started to exercise and eat right”. I said, No, in fact she’s dead.

She pushed on about people feeling better once they change their habits and I said I am sure she is feeling much better now that she is dead.

And she pushed again, how did she die, was it the heart attack. Finally I told her, and the others eavesdropping, that it was not a wake up call for her.
My mother had three heart attacks and continued to smoke.
She had breast cancer and continued to smoke.
She had a stroke and continued to smoke.
Then she had another heart attack that put her in the hospital and finally killed her.

After this somewhat brutal recitation, the woman, who I have now dubbed The Root Canal in tribute to her raw nerve, proceeds to tell me how much I miss my mother, how it feels like it was yesterday, how I have never gotten over her death. I was flabbergasted.

Somewhere in this crazy was the narrative of what happened between her and her mother and I suddenly felt sorry for her. I told her she was right, you never stop missing your mother. I was certain of it.

I could have just as easily called this post “Doublespeak” or “Having your cake and eating it too”, but I am too irritated to be literary or historical right now.

I was listening a report on the Massey Big Branch mine settlement and a US Attorney said “Its a corporation. It’s not a life, it’s not a being. It can’t go to jail”.

I beg to differ. Corporations are just people you can’t touch.

Corporate Personhood has been a legal status for a long time in the US and the definition was stretched last year by the Supreme Court to show that corporate political donations are protected free speech (see First Amendment, Bill of Rights). The same free speech the West Virgina miners had access to before they died.

So which is it? Is the corporation a person with rights and protections, or an amorphous “thing” that can’t be punished. I am not a lawyer, nor do I play one on TV, but I can appreciate Justice Stevens dissent on the ruling that fertilized the seed that turned into the Occupy Movement. Thats campaign finance reform in case the last sentence was too obtuse.

“At bottom, the Court’s opinion is thus a rejection of the common sense of the American people, who have recognized a need to prevent corporations from undermining self government since the founding, and who have fought against the distinctive corrupting potential of corporate electioneering since the days of Theodore Roosevelt. It is a strange time to repudiate that common sense. While American democracy is imperfect, few outside the majority of this Court would have thought its flaws included a dearth of corporate money in politics.” (Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, 558)

There is no amount of money that will satisfy the families of the dead miners. Corporations think in dollars, so Massey skimped on safety, people died and they pay a fine. That’s no kind of justice.

It is a strange time indeed.

My dad died 19 years ago today.

I thought of him as I walked to work and saw a mason repairing a curb & sidewalk. My father worked as a mason for many years along side my grandfather. He also spent those years in night school learning to be a computer programmer so he could get off his knees and into a white shirt.

While he never managed to finish a college degree, he was able to get into the computer field and put on a tie. He happily worked in an office for the rest of his life.

Seeing as we are so close to the holidays, I am re-gifting a previous post about my dad.

Went to the wake and funeral for an old friend from the neighborhood today. When its said out loud its capitalized as in “The Neighborhood”.

It was the brother of my childhood friend who dropped dead of a heart attack. Same age as me, heavy smoker, overweight in that ex-football player way, and lots and lots of aggression. The aggression was channeled into his work as a security officer in local corrections, where he not only got to carry a gun, but got to knock heads together for a living. This is a big step up from the other option commonly available to guys from The Neighborhood which is being in the correction facility as a guest of the county or state.

The first step down my rabbit hole was seeing him laid out in a blue plaid shirt and jeans in the open coffin. Being on the other end of corrections he didn’t own a “court coat” (aka sports coat), and only wore a suit when he got married, which means he was buried in the neighborhood uniform. The bottom of the coffin was closed so I can only speculate that he had steel toes on as well.

The next summersault down the rabbit hole of the past was when I was listening to the memorial tributes from his buddies. Rambling stories about how much he loved his guns, and how he was a brawler with a tender heart. He was “warrior called home to God”, a “brother” who will use his strength to hold open the door to heaven. A gentle giant even though three different stories started with “The first time I met him, he chased me and beat me up”.

He never was violent to me. He was my friends little brother, and although he was bigger than all us by the time he was 15, we still picked on him. There was also the fact that he “didn’t hit girls”, he might punch a hole in the wall when we harassed him, but we were in no danger. Sometimes watching men beat on women makes an impression, and in this case it did so he didn’t hit girls.

In the old days parties were always at my friends house because her mom would buy us booze. Her policy was we were going to drink and do drugs anyway, so she wanted is to do it where she could see us. We would each drink a pint every Friday night (I was a Bacardi girl then) and then beer the rest of the weekend. We were 13 years old.

Sitting in the church, remembering this and that, was a WTF moment: we were 13 years old – why was she buying us booze? Anyway our routine of drunken sleepover parties every weekend included my friends mom periodically checking that no one choked on vomit in their sleep.

I was yanked from my interlude during the service by the realization that the guy two pews ahead of pew of me wasn’t drinking coffee but had a spit cup for his chaw.

The funeral ended and I kept my weeping friend company at the front of the church. She was clearly not leaving. People wandered back in to try and comfort her and she introduced me to her “Aunt” saying “She was the best damn stripper there ever was. That was back when you had to be able to dance, none of this bikini and a pole shit.”

I finally got her to leave the church and go into the fellowship hall for the funeral lunch by telling her it was time for Round Two – time to face down the relatives she doesn’t like, shake hands with her brothers pious church friends. She knows that you gotta do what needs to be done. And we did.

Too bad the past can’t be cremated and put in a jar on the mantle. Or scattered in an ocean. Or even buried.

I decided on the perfect song to be played at my funeral – Praise You, by Fatboy Slim. I want it played as everyone is leaving said good-bye event, with supplemental bass speakers and increasing volume until all attendees are driven out the door. Simple, upbeat and encourages folks to dance as they exit. It would be really cool if it could be played from rooftop speakers on the hearse for the drive to the cemetery, but there are probably noise restrictions. And then Three Little Birds played graveside. My life in two songs.

I was never much for planning the perfect wedding daydreams, or playing “how-many-kids-I-will-have-and-what-I-will-name-them”, but I can get into thinking about my funeral party. Probably because I don’t have to do anything except die. No small talk, no food prep, no clean up. With the bonus of not having to come up with the right outfit. And then changing it five times before I leave because its not quite right. A real low-pressure event when all is said and done.

Sometimes I think about what people might say at my funeral, beyond the required social niceties. Will they tell the truth? Will they remember how prickly and difficult I can be? How much I liked to dance? My appreciation for and skillful use of black humor? Will they mention my profound lack of patience for assholery? (BTW anyone caught mouthing cliches like “She didn’t suffer fools gladly” needs to have a drink spilled on them.) What is my “legacy” if I die tomorrow?

The best I can come up with is another song lyric. Lyle Lovett – “She wasn’t good, but she had good intentions.”

Listen to Praise You.