Reconciling October

When I get overwhelmed with posttraumatic cancer reminders (e.g., beloved family and friends newly diagnosed, an unfamiliar bony ache, the entire month of October), I text Stevie. He gets it. I hope all of us touched with the terror of unbridled mitosis have at least one killer cancer buddy. My Shitty Sorority friends and I have a legion lingering only a few keystrokes away, armed with sympathetic emojis to ease our Pinktober ennui. I was warned that the initial October after diagnosis and treatment would be… a lot. And for me, the first time I was aware of all of the awareness, it was in the aftermath, when I had already acquired implants and more than an inch of hair. Still, I probably became a bit of an asshole.

After a few years, I mellowed and even championed my own boys’ desire to Walk for the Cure. Ever supportive April expensively sponsored swanky evenings at the BCRF Hot Pink Party, where she grabbed my hand with love during the patient stories, and then again later to drag me to the dance floor. A good friend knows you need hand holding for both. Especially in the beginning. Those fancy nights were the only times I felt anything close to accomplishment? pride? relief? Or some mix of those that bolder women must feel when they say they “beat” this disease. I’ll never have that much bravado, no matter how many champagne flutes I’ve drained. The only way we’re ever going to “beat” breast cancer is with research for metastatic disease, and the BCRF is probably the best place for your donations to support scientists actually working (not walking) for answers.

Nearly eight years later, cancer could/should be very much in the rear view mirror. And it would be if there weren’t devastating daily reminders from scars, Tamoxifen… and the entire month of October. Even so, more often text exchanges with Stevie are about marriage, must-see Netflix shows, and why there should be a law mandating teenage boys sit to pee. With two of them in the house alongside a rotating cadre of handymen, electricians, and roofers, I’m occasionally one Chlorox wipe away from losing my trademark sunny disposition. So when the canister reminds me I’m also cleaning for the cure, it’s hard not to get grumpy. It all becomes… a lot. Especially in October.

Next week I’m flying to the Midwest to support one of my favorite people as she starts this journey from diagnosis to healing. My phone is full of hundreds of texts from friends, friends of friends, cousins of friends, dry cleaner’s sister-in-law, babysitter’s bridesmaid, and women of ever-further degrees of separation that become obliterated when I’m asked to be their point person as a breast cancer veteran. Dear friend Emily called it my Cancer Concierge Service, and mostly I am happy to pay forward the support I received years ago from Lisa and Kelli and Hester. There is a call/text at any hour level of intimacy between those of us in the Shitty Sorority. However, this will be the first time I’ll be offering a week-long fluff-your-pillows-and-strip-your-drains on call service.

Maybe because I just came home from Bible study, or because I love to tie these essays up with a bow, I find a bit of grace in having the time to give and a familiarity with this exact disease to help someone I’ve known and admired my entire life. To hold her hand through this. To be her killer cancer buddy. Though I have the personal and surgical experience to be helpful, I’ll be referencing the lessons I learned from those of you who amused, supported, and loved me eight years ago. In this long, dark month when so many essays will instruct us on what not to do or say or expect from our cancer-ed friends, I’m thinking about all of the hilarious, generous, and awesome things done for me. And I’m asking for your best prayers/juju/vibes once again.

This time, for Diane.

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Dreaming of a day we won’t need a breast cancer themed month and can focus on rebranding October to support parents of teenage boys everywhere

Social Mourning… by Steve Safran

This past month, one of my childhood idols died. He was my camp counselor during the late ‘70s at Camp Tel Noar (CTN) in Hampstead, NH. Steve Levy  was everyone’s favorite: smart, funny, and oh-so-cool. I learned a lot from Steve. He brought his music collection to camp and played Led Zep, The Who, The Stones and music otherwise inaccessible to nine year-olds. He taught drama and was one of my first directors, witnessing my transformation into the role of “theater kid” that lasted through college. He would also sneak us leftover Chinese contraband, waking us at midnight for a bull session and cold noodles.

Steve wore a signature necklace. This was no Jewish Star of David or Chai symbol. It was a wrench. When I asked him about it, his four-word reply was a more profound insight into the human condition than any after school special was offering:

“We are all tools.”

Other counselors caught on, and naturally, started wearing wrench necklaces, too. Now they were all tools.

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Steve Levy left CTN and began a professional career in standup comedy and acting. I followed his career with enthusiasm. It’s always a thrill to see someone you know on TV, and better still when it’s your childhood idol. When he had a cameo on “The West Wing,” I nearly lost it.

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From the West Wing: Steve and associate trying to convince Josh Lyman of something or other. 

He was on “Ray Donavan” and “JAG,” too. And then, Steve died of a particularly vicious form of cancer that first took his nose (a legendary nose at that), when he was just 58. You should read his amazingly touching, funny account of his life with nose cancer.

Now. We’ll wait.

I’d been in touch with him, the way you can in the era of emails and social media. But in the past 40 years, I never saw him. Steve lived in LA, and I never made the time. I regret that.

There are many of us who share camp memories of him or were genuine fans outside of the world of CTN, and it made me start to wonder about our collective mourning on line. People may share sad news tragically close to home on Facebook, but more often you’ll see a nostalgia thread after their favorite pop star passes. Something about social media makes us share the fact that we saw David Bowie on the Glass Spider tour… and also that one time at Whole Foods. That’s not necessarily deliberate; social media asks, “What are you thinking?” If you’re upset about something, that’s what you’re thinking. It’s a new kind of grief: Social Mourning.

Steve’s death reminds me of another loss that still stings– the murder of my friend Stu Meltzer on 9/11. If you follow me on social media, you’ve seen my yearly tributes. I want to share the karaoke-style tapes we made in 1990. I want keep his memory alive. I still miss him. But every year I also wonder if I am making this about me. Am I benefitting from unwarranted sympathy every September 11th? It’s Stu’s family that mourns most deeply. Does my public display of bereavement, however genuine, take a piece of that? Who am I to write about loss when they lost so much more? I’m simply one of the hundreds of people who mourn for Stu. Or… maybe our Social Mourning allows all of us to feel that closeness in our grief, even for just a moment as we blow on our morning coffees and scroll through our screens.

I’m going to surprise the heck out of Churchy Girl Britt now and turn to Judaism for a moment. I do this because I genuinely appreciate the Jewish rules on mourning. Among the most important is the concept of Yahrtzeit. Literally, it means “time of year” but really it means “time of one year.” Jews are instructed to recognize these sad anniversaries. There is even a candle involved, though I have yet to light one outside of the rare blackout.

(My Jewish friends may fault my Yahrtzeit candle usage, but I figure the Almighty’s cool with it, since His first act was to create light.)

In addition to the candlelit remembrances, it’s also standard protocol to go to Sabbath services the week of the Yahrzeit. I have never done this with any frequency, and I really loved my grandparents. But I will post about Stu every year, and write a blog remembering my favorite camp counselor. Is social media the new Yahrzeit

What are our intentions when we share our grief on line? What are we saying when we lament the loss of someone we only ever saw at Whole Foods? Or mourn someone we haven’t seen (in person) in more than 40 years? Are we pulling focus to ourselves to share our grief? Or are we compelled to tell the crowd “Look! I’m sad David Bowie’s dead, too!” for fear someone will take you to task for not posting “Heroes?”

I don’t know.

I’m a tool.

News Without Noise…by Steve Safran

Remember what it was like to get the daily news back before it was terrifying or held in your very hand? Before the wrong combination of likes or dislikes or posts or comments could brand you as UNCLEAN for billions to mock or deride, even though you might have only accidentally landed on cut/paste/post while searching for car keys or spare change? Remember when an essay masking as “news” couldn’t be immediately discounted by snopes.com, or when journalism itself was a noble profession assumed to be grounded in a search for truth?

This is my life right now, and I completely enjoy it.

There’s very little I like about Life Without Screens, mind you. My DVR is bloated with episodes I’ve missed, and is now groaning with repeats of shows gone by. My fault. I never envisioned a two-month hiatus from must-see TV. But I am actually improving: up to about an hour of screen time a day now, nearly as much allotted to a well behaved first grader. While moving video will still hurl me into dizzy fits and land me back in my bedroom cave, to Britt’s enormous relief, I’m not sending badly-typed copy either.

I broke my typewriter. And this wasn’t in a fit of frustration. I really meant well, and threaded a c.1930s style ribbon quite expertly, I thought. But maybe not so expertly since all of the keys to the left of “V” now strike the paper in concert, sticking there like so many commuters stopped at a locked turnstile. I may be excellent at fixing electronics, but I’m a hopeless handyman.

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What I have discovered in my forced vacation from screens is the news. A journalist discovering news? Yes. The news that lured me into this field in 1992 is back, at least the way I consume it. I have an Amazon Echo (“Alexa? What’s the news?”) which gives me frequent national and local updates from NPR and WBUR. I read honest to God newspapers when I can tolerate the light. I discuss current events with Kim and kind friends who have been coming by to visit. It’s 1989 up in here.

I’m a digital media guy, and I wouldn’t like to live this way forever. I’d prefer to get news from a variety of sources around the world. Due respect to our city’s newspapers, but I prefer many different points of view. And I’ve always been the social media guru, traveling from station to station to lecture the importance of a strong social media presence. Photophobia kept me, until this past Sunday, from more than a minute in the light without severe pain. But one glance at a simple news story after a two week break, and I was reminded why I don’t read Facebook comment threads anymore.

News has become, in large measure, a kernel of truth surrounded by outer shells of noise. The networks are all the same:

CNN: TRUMP SAYS A THING, COULD END HIS PRESIDENCY

FOX NEWS: TRUMP SAYS A THING, HILLARY STILL NOT IN JAIL

MSNBC: TRUMP SAYS A THING, HERE’S A MEANDERING HOUR THAT WILL NOT MAKE IT ANY CLEARER IF IT’S A THING AT ALL

I love digital media. But I have to tell you, it’s like I’ve been chasing a runaway ticker tape for 20 years, and I finally just get to linger over some clean copy in Courier. Take my advice. This summer, even for a few days or a whole week, do this:

Go dark.

 

In the Dark… by Steve Safran

For the past two weeks, I have been living in a Hell that feels especially designed for me. The staff at Dante’s Fitting Punishments were inspired when they green-lit this one for Stevie: I can’t look at a screen without getting sick. Yes, your faithful computer-addicted correspondent, status updater, and occasional blogger is writing this on a 1936 Royal Portable typewriter, fitted with an ancient ribbon that makes this draft a bit of a challenge to read, and more than a pain in the ass for Britt to transcribe.

A fortnight without screens has been—forgive me, for “fortnight” and this pun—an eye-opener. Make no mistake, this isn’t one of those Author Unplugs and Discovers Life essays. No, I’m way behind on a lot of important work. Among other pressing tasks like taxes, kid graduation, and wedding planning, there is a softball team to organize. Not that there’s any danger we’ll ever play, with incessant nor-easters making fools of our Opening Day.

I have, however, rediscovered books—the bound and print kind!

Side note, on the 1936 Royal Portable, typing that exclamation point required period, backspace, apostrophe. With an economy of keys, a capital “I” subs in for a number one. And though this trusty, 30lb “word processor” inside of its carrying case was the war correspondent laptop of its day, it would easily topple a tippy Starbucks table. If I want to write, I’m stuck right here at home.

Luckily, I can tolerate sound and I’m searching through the free audio plays at archive.com, though I need to have my faithful fiancée or son Simon queue up “Henry V” for me. Any more than a quick glance at a screen makes me dizzy and initiates instant, blinding headaches. I can only use them briefly, in the dark, with the “Night Shift” setting that takes out the blue light.

Part of the reason I’m sharing (typing) this is to query others about similar experiences. This is scary. I’m worried. The doctors I’ve consulted have ruled out the terrifying possibilities I might find on WebMD if I could look at a damn screen, but they have no diagnosis yet. Until they do, I feel like an outcast, alone in the dark, bumbling through a non-screen life in an all-screen world. And as much as I love my loyal 1936 Royal Portable, I really miss my Mac.

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My “laptop,” the I936 Royal Portable

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fifty and Fine with It… by Steve Safran

I’m 50.

This will mean very little to you. Your Facebook feed is full of people who can’t believe how old they are, how old their kids are, and how time flies. You can’t believe you’re older? He can’t believe his daughter’s starting kindergarten. Apparently, none of us get how time works.

But believe me, it has happened. I’m 50.

Here’s a summary of my forties: Divorced, cancer, failing eyesight, impaired hearing, relentless back and nerve pain, job losses, and I shut down my own company.

But here’s another summary of my forties: Two kids in college, employed, healthy family, great summers, travel, and… I’m engaged.

A friend emailed and asked me “What have you learned?” Well, plenty. I’m comfortable telling you: the older I get, the less I know. Honestly, that’s a great feeling.

When you’re a teenager, you have an answer for everything. At least, that’s what the adults told me. “You have an answer for everything!” they yelled. I thought that was a good thing. Shouldn’t you have an answer? But as I’ve gotten older, I realize I don’t have the answers. My previous answers were, in fact, bullshit. I was bullshitting people and was damn good at it. I am quick enough to hold court on any topic for about 30 seconds, and simultaneously afraid people will find out I have no idea what I’m talking about. Dad still thinks I should have gone into law, but history has proven this quality was perfect for many years spent working in TV.

Now, at the ripe age of 50, I don’t bullshit. If I don’t know the answer, I say, “I don’t know.” It’s liberating. I also don’t care that I don’t know. Scratch that– I love when I don’t know, especially if it’s an interesting question. It gives me the opportunity to do a little Google research and learn something new. We live in a time I’m calling “The Great Overconfidence.” Everyone has an answer for everything. But they’re bullshitting, too. When the Supreme Court lays out its decision, suddenly everyone is a legal scholar. When scientists make a discovery, everyone with a Twitter account has a Ph.D. in Science-y Things. Too many people are sure they have the hot take on everything from broth diets to Oprah’s Presidential fitness. Me? I’m happy to learn from experts.

At 50, I’m confident and comfortable enough to say “no.” That peer pressure thing? We’re done. Guilt trips for no-shows or last-minute cancellations are for your 30s and 40s. If I don’t want to do something, I don’t do it. And I love that my friends are all of the same mind. Can’t make it to the party? Fine. Just don’t feel like coming? You don’t need an excuse. We’ll catch you at the next one.

It’s not all “I don’t know” and “no,” though. I’m a (slightly) less cynical middle-ager; I just know what I like. But these days, I’m more inclined to try new experiences. Fiancée Kim will come up with a “pop-up vacation” idea, and we just go. The kids are older now, so we have that flexibility—another perk of this aging thing. Seeing my three kids mature into young adults is an absolute joy. I raised them all the same, but they’re three distinctly different personalities. I love that about them. At 50, I appreciate them even more for being the unique beings they’ve become.

Perhaps the biggest secret is that I’m a squishy sentimentalist. As I age, I get squishier. The truth is, I really hated being a kid. I wasn’t good at it. I was one of those “old for his years” kids. I’ve been 50 for a long time. It’s just that the calendar finally caught up with me.

Funny to think now that I dreaded turning 40, when I’m really looking forward to my fifties. I’m getting married in July. The next few years are filled with graduations and other great milestones. Eventually, because time insists upon marching on, even Britt will turn 50 and that will be fantastic. (For her friends, I mean, because there will be a Prosecco party, for sure.)  I may even become a grandparent in the next 10 years. (No pressure, kids.) By 2028, I fully expect to look back on my fifties with pride.

Not that I’m rushing to get there. Those things are really far away, and also right around the corner. Seriously, I can’t believe I’ll be turning 60 in 10 years…

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Stevie, in his “old for his years” suit.

 

Luceo non uro

My middle name is Mewhinney. I’ve always loved it. No one is named Mewhinney. Except me. I’m @mewhinney! And of my dearest, closest, oldest friends, I’m still Mewhinney. I was named after Laura May Mewhinney, who Stockton family lore touts as tiny, adorable, and beloved. Growing up, I assumed all sorts of other stuff about her. Mewhinney is definitely a gal who winks. She’ll slip you candy from a stash in her handbag (and definitely calls it her handbag); she embroiders, drinks gin, and wears dresses with tiny floral patterns. Mewhinney gets all freckly in the sun and never leaves the house without a treat for the neighborhood dogs. Is any of this true? No idea. But this is where my mind goes: always to the pretty stuff.

There’s plenty of ugly stuff in the world right now. Possibly in response, Bernie and I recently left the TV off, turned on Corey Hart Radio on Pandora (highly recommend), shared a bottle of Fume Blanc, and appreciated the genius of Richard Marx. It was restorative. At our respective laptops, Bernie edited research papers and I traded song lyrics with Facebook buddies. The kids were in and out of the room wrestling and giggling and farting and being that awesome mix of adorable/irritating/lovable/gross that is The Teenage Boy. They know all the words to Take on Me and Teddy’s don’t… don’t you want me, well, it’s a parenting perk for sure.

I still unabashedly like Facebook, but I’ve seen at least a dozen friends (threaten to or actually) delete their accounts this week. The incessant onslaught of political HEY-DID-YOU-SEE-THIS posts– what David Brooks aptly describes as “the hyperventilating media”– are literally “trumping” funny quips about toddlers, car repair woes, and check-ins at Shake Shack in our timelines. If you’re like me, you’re sort of jonesing for the good ole days of Throwback Thursday bar mitzvah Polaroids and family-in-ponchos at Niagara Falls. I know it seems like the end of days, but I honestly miss discussions about Tooth Fairy handouts and your latest excuses for drinking on a school night.

But being apolitical is a political stance!

I read this on Twitter every day. Those folks aren’t closing up shop on social media and actually seem to be plowing forward with an increasing number of no, really, I, really, really, really hate him sentiments with funny/angry/poignant/unrelenting tweets. Certainly there are legitimate fears about our political leaders, but is social media hand wringing– or worse, trolling and fighting—is that activism? I’m not sure. Sharing info on how to contact your representatives and where to meet to march, that’s valuable politicking. But me? I’d still rather read your date night yelp review of the new movie theater. I’m Mewhinney!

Trump might be the Death of Facebook as we bore each other to tears with shared outrage. Brodie asked, “Is everyone going to pissed off all of the time for the next four years?” God, I hope not. The children are watching, indeed.

Here’s what I am noticing.

Out in the real world where we stand at deli counters and tip the delivery guy and chat up the waiter—out there, face to face, I feel like we are being nicer to each other. Have you found yourself smiling at a stranger over the lemons and limes, letting the Prius merge into your lane with a you-first wave, or making a more deliberate attempt to exchange even short pleasantries with your fellow line-standers? Are you trying to make fewer assumptions, or better ones, about the people around you… by talking to them? Have you paid for a coffee behind you, or thrown an extra quarter in an overdue meter just ‘cuz? These are the things I have seen.

Internet sleuthing led me to a Mewhinney family crest emblazoned with luceo non uro. Shine, not burn. I love that. Few things other than cardio or cut-and-paste-if-you-care cancer memes can tempt me to write angrily. I also don’t trust most reposted articles, preferring to read the opinions of smart lawyers who have a sober handle on precedent, our men and women of the cloth (of all ilk) who devote their lives to assuaging fears of earthly things, and Steve. But when I’m existentially and emotionally exhausted with world news, it’s a fun breather to scroll through the selfie stick snaps of your high school reunion. More than ever we need the silly things, the pretty things, and I hope that sort of sharing doesn’t die because our President is profoundly (and daily) uncouth. Even so, I guess there’s always Richard Marx, right there, waiting for me.

Luceo non uro. Share the good things, the pretty things, too. The children are watching.

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Go ahead. Try to resist the uro gaze of Richard Marx.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO STEVIE… by Britt

When Kim suggested we fete Stevie for an unexpected 49th birthday surprise, I was ALL IN. I bet most of us are double booked for any Saturday during the holi-daze, but this is one of the few things I actually wanted to do. Can’t think of many better things than joining a gaggle of Lovers of Steve to raise a glass in his honor.

That event prompted me to go back—way back—through hundreds of Facebook messages where Stevie and I became buddies. Reading these silly essays over the past five (FIVE!) years, one might assume Stevie and I have been besties since the ‘80s. But we weren’t. Back in college, I was only loosely connected to Steve. He was the popular older boy, wickedly smart and funny, a writer for Trinity Tripod, and “in” with all of the pretty, talented people. I’m sure I hardly registered on his radar in the ‘90s. I was a younger, dorky Biology major with Sally Jesse Raphael frames and no fake ID. I would never be game show cool.

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Remember Remote Control? Stevie was on it, and won.

But by 2008, I was a stay at home Brookline mommy with 3- and 4-year old boys. One day my gorgeous, Swedish babysitter set up a Facebook account to message her for gigs. Email was for, like, old people, Ingrid said. Within months, the Facebook algorithm matched Stevie with me, and once we learned we sort of knew each other, lived only a few miles apart, and had similarly inappropriate things to say to each other on line, it was instant friendship.

Three years later our text messaging and occasional in person catch-ups became something deeper. I got breast cancer. Stevie was divorcing and then… dating. There was much to discuss. Reading through those old Facebook exchanges I can feel the comedic relief Steve was sending me through the interspaces. Surrounded by stifling, helpful, baffling, wonderful, and hilarious Asian relatives, I maintained sanity trading short messages with Steve that still make me giggle. I swear he suffered through at least one date with a crazy woman merely to provide stories for my amusement. Bald, poisoned, mutilated, and badgered by relatives insisting I eat papaya soup, I retreated to my bedroom and laptop to laugh with Stevie. This little exchange was about a woman we nicknamed “Chinatown.” That thread is too racy for even this crowd… but here’s a sample.

SS:  Black leather jacket or peacoat?











BL:  It’s fucking cold and leather is trying too hard.











SS: Agreed











BL:  And you don’t want her to think you’re one of those guys that is always hot and sweating. Wear a jaunty scarf. We like those, too.




 We, meaning me. And it’s optional.











SS:  I don’t like this online thing– I’d much rather a reference from you: “He’s a little hairy and out of shape, but worth it.”









 I don’t do jaunty scarfs. Do I need to get one? What color/style?

BL:  Forget the scarf. I’ll get it for you.




 She is welcome to message me any time on Friday. I have no biopsies planned. And I will totally vouch for your worthiness.




 And who wouldn’t take to heart the words of a hot, dying girl?










 SS: “My friend and shiksa goddess Britt has cancer, but is more focused on me. As it should be.”











 BL: Too much? I’m not dying. Really. But you can use it to get into Chinatown.











 
SS:  I can work up a tear. You would have wanted it that way.











BL:  But if my Komen fight can get you laid, then you’re coming to Church with me on Sunday.











SS:  If I can get laid after LUNCH, I am accepting Jesus as my Lord, Savior and King.

We didn’t realize this was the start of our back and forth blogging at the time, but I quickly recognized Steve’s appearances in my comments were just as popular as my on line posts. So did he. This message preceded one of our first shared writing ventures that was featured by WordPress and continues to be circulated.

SS:  The blog keeps getting better. I think you should invite guest bloggers. I think I should be one. Because I always try to make things about me. And I’m pretty fucking funny.

I agreed heartily. Still do.

Last year, in a devastating show of solidarity and commitment to the blog and our friendship, Stevie got cancer. The mutilating surgery, go bald kind. Seriously, Stevie… this was above and beyond. As a veteran, I had an arsenal of right things to say. I had experience, expertise, and empathy. But I was angry and sad and scared and terrified. Fuck cancer and the rogue cells and fates that choose its victims. To date Steve has written funny and poignant essays about love, loss, life, death… and, you know, marshmallow fluff.

And now our friendship is the stuff of books and movies and really something that we are too lazy to actually capitalize on. We’ll tackle that in 2017. But tonight, celebrating the eve of his 50th year on the planet, knowing he is marinating in love and friendship, I want to tell the world (or at least our limited readership) that I love him dearly and think somehow ours is the most special friendship. And I’ll bet many of us feel exactly like this—that we have a particularly funny and fantastic friendship with Steve that is unmatched. Thank you for making me feel special by inviting me to be a part of your weird and wonderful world.

Happy Birthday, Stevie.

xoxo

Berlin Can Take It… by Steve Safran

This week in horrible news has Stevie remembering Berlin. His thoughts remind me of how all of us are Boston Strong. Hate never wins. Our hearts are in Berlin (and so many places where horror happens), but Berlin can take it.

It was in Berlin where I apparently ordered a “Coffee with ice from the road, please.”

It was in Berlin where I smoked my first and last e-cigarette. The nicotine still hasn’t come off my face.

It was in Berlin that I leaned casually against a wall where, just a few decades earlier, I would have been shot.

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It was in May 2012, that I visited a friend who was working in Berlin. I’d always wanted to see this legendary city so I finally had an excuse. Newly separated, I traveled alone. It was my first real trip as a single guy. It felt… odd. Berlin. Legendary. Land of spies. Ground Zero of the Cold War. Home base for the Holocaust.

And so, so many places to get beer.

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Berlin is not generally a beautiful city. It can be as ugly as it is fascinating. Certainly, the part that was West Berlin is better looking than the former East Berlin. It’s sort of the difference between Brooklyn and Queens, if Queens had been flattened and been rebuilt out of bad concrete.

There are parts that are beautiful. The Grunewald is Berlin’s equivalent of Central Park, but ten times larger– plus a lake. Wannsee sits on the water here, a beautiful beach and home to the eponymous 1942 conference where the Nazis decided on “The Final Solution to The Jewish Question.” There are contradictions and cognitive dissonances everywhere.

At the Brandenberg Gate, where Ronald Reagan famously challenged Mr. Gorbachev to “tear down this wall,” tourists mingled with street performers dressed, tastelessly, as American and East German soldiers, Darth Vader, Yoda and Mickey Mouse Gone Bad. This is now banned. However, you can still find costumed Fake Soldiers at Checkpoint Charlie, the famous gate that used to separate East and West Berlin.

I danced on Hitler’s grave in Berlin. Really. It’s not marked, but where Hitler was burned on a pyre outside his bunker in April 1945, now sits a small parking lot capable of holding, maybe, 10 cars. Germany didn’t want lots of Neo-Nazis hanging about the place, so they literally paved over history. (OK, almost literally.) My friend and I pulled in. I got out of the car, danced a small jig, and got back in. Good enough.

Berlin is no stranger to horrors, and this week’s is a mere scratch compared to what it’s been through. Still, how awful. How unfair. How absurd and shameful. An attack on Christmas shoppers. It’s beyond the pale. We all agree on that. And we stand, of course, with Berlin. Ich Bin Ein and all that.

But those who are claiming responsibility have nothing to claim. They haven’t accomplished a thing. They murdered people, yes. But they are a mere footnote to a great city’s long and complicated history. They stand for nothing. They may cost Angela Merkel her job, but another chancellor will come along. Berlin and Germany will go on, being a complex, industrious powerhouse.

You want to hurt Berlin?

Try harder. You’ve got nothing on history.

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Tell Me More…tips for holiday harmony by Steve and Britt

 

‘Tis the season to travel great distances, to break bread with our loving families and friends, and to argue with them. It’s a time when we resume our childhood roles, and the oldest brother is suddenly in charge again, even if his little sister is 42. Cousin Larry, the successful businessman with the beautiful family, cannot escape the painful reminder from Aunt Linda that he used to be “so chubby.” Ben’s always late, grandpa drinks too much, that skirt isn’t doing her any favors, oh look at the baby! And inevitably this season, someone is going to bring up…

Politics.

Whoo, boy. Are we in for it or what? I’ve heard, anecdotally, that there are families who have made alternate holiday plans because of the Trump/Hillary divide. Millenials, in particular, don’t want to face Dad and his friends in the aftermath. How can it have gotten this far? When we argue and avoid or fracture our families, we are giving the politicians what they want. Despite what they say, politicians (yes– even yours) need a divided republic. Why? It’s good for business. A unified electorate would kill off one of the parties. That’s bad for both sides.

Why? Well, obviously the losing party still needs support. But the winning party needs an enemy. If it has total support, it doesn’t have a strong opponent to blame when it doesn’t get stuff done. And, be assured, politicians don’t want to get too much done. That hurts their chances of re-election. Whatever they say and do can and will be used against them in the court of public opinion.

When the subject of politics comes up at the Thanksgiving table (and it will), know this to be true: You cannot convince anyone of anything. You cannot win the argument. Blame “cognitive dissonance” and “confirmation bias,” my nominees for TIME magazine’s Things of The Year 2016.

People hate being told they are wrong—on line for sure, but especially face-to-face. I know I do. Even if your debater has the absolute best of intentions, being corrected makes you feel smaller. Being told you are wrong sucks, doesn’t it? Trust me when I tell you no one at the Thanksgiving dinner table is going to say “Oh, thank you for disabusing me of that notion.” Nope, they will resent you, and steal the last marshmallow-covered yam.

Try this, instead: listen.

Listen to what your friends and family have to say, whether it’s gun-toting Uncle Pete or your NPR-quoting neighbor. Draw them out. “Tell me more” are the three best words to use in a conversation. They make the person feel important and valued. They should feel valued! And when you cannot handle any more of the tell-me-more, trot this one out: “I hadn’t thought of it that way.” This might be harder to swallow than Grandma Marge’s green bean casserole, but give it a whirl for Thanksgiving’s sake.

“But I hate their candidate and everything that person stands for!” you say (or think really loudly with eye rolling). “Racist! Criminal! Chauvinist! Hypocrite!” OK. What are you trying to accomplish here? This is Thanksgiving, friends. It’s a time to pull a hammie tossing around a football, to fry a turkey in the driveway, to wonder how early is too early for cocktails, and to appreciate the people you love.

Still, you’re entitled to speak your mind. Here, it’s all about framing. I find the best way to get my point across is to acknowledge the other person’s point first. Then build upon it indirectly. Here’s an example:

AUNT IDA: I voted for Donald Trump. I just like him. He speaks his mind and he isn’t just another politician. That Hillary. She was stiff and I never trusted her. That email thing. The Clinton’s are so slippery and dishonest. I like that Trump is going to bring back jobs, so your Cousin Sarah can work again.

YOU: I hear you. Cousin Sarah has had a hard time finding work. But you know, these past couple of months, I’ve been thinking about the marches for women’s rights in the ‘70s. Growing up, you talked about the ERA and it made me realize women weren’t always considered equal to men. I learned that from you, Aunt Ida. I’m worried about how Donald Trump talks about women and the off-hand, demeaning remarks. That kind of talk–how did you handle that when you heard it in the office when you were working?

Aunt Ida is going to give you an earful about how she got pinched on the butt and called “sweetheart”– that’s how it was in her day. She may admit she didn’t like it, in which case you have an opening to talk a little more about the topic. But you have to keep the discussion about her (or Cousin Sarah). You’re not going to change her mind about those emails. But you might be able to personalize the discussion. And she may think a little more about it going forward.

This is how we can disagree without being hostile. This is how we can attempt to respect each other, and get through 8 hours of food prep for 23 minutes of eating without hurt feelings. Half of the voting electorate is not crazy. Sorry. We’re not all “loony liberals” or “crazy Republicans.” We’re not in separate baskets; we’re in this together. We need to give thanks for understanding. We need to reassure each other we still love our family and friends, no matter how they voted, no matter who holds the office. Your ballot choices shouldn’t spell the end of your relationship. Let it be the start of a conversation.

Happy Thanksgiving, friends. Approach this one gently.

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Whether you are hiding in the Target parking lot, dampening opinions with scotch, or pretending to watch football, find some solace with like minded sunny-side-uppers trying to find #ThingsWeAllAgreeOn

 

 

Memes are a Cancer on Cancer… by Britt Lee and Steve Safran

Hey. Hiya. Britt and Steve here. She had breast cancer. He had testicular cancer. And we’d just like to say: STOP THIS:

“Every person has 1000 wishes. A cancer patient only has one wish, to get better. I know that 97% of Facebookers won’t post this as their status, but 3% will. In honor of someone who died, or is fighting cancer – post this for at least one hour….”

Steve:

Seriously. What are you doing? Facebook is where you’re going to take your Stand Against Cancer? And you’re going to do it by posting this trite, ineffective and simplistic post– for one hour?

This is another doozy:

“I deleted a lot of people recently and continue to do so based upon behavior and content! Now I’m watching the one who will have the time to read this post until the end. This is a little test, just to see who reads and who shares without reading! If you have read everything, select “like” and then copy and paste this text on your profile. I know that 97% of you won’t share this, but my friends will be the 3% that do. In honor of someone who died, or is fighting cancer or even had cancer, copy and paste. October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month!”

So, you’re deleting friends if they don’t live up to your reposting challenge? Facebook doesn’t work that way. Not everyone sees everything you’ve posted. It has an algorithm that determines… oh, fuck it. YOU’RE KILLING OFF YOUR FACEBOOK FRIENDS IN THE NAME OF CANCER AND YOU DON’T SEE THE IRONY.

 

Britt:

When I read these posts I want to comment, “I have 1000 wishes, and 999 of them are that you’d stop re-posting this” or “If you truly cared about cancer, you’d employ a colon properly and stop misusing exclamation points.” But I don’t. Once I typed, “This just made my cancer just come back” but immediately deleted it, fearing certain backlash, or scaring my parents. BUT IT WOULD BE SO FUN TO TYPE THAT.

Nearly four years ago I poked fun at one of these copy-and-paste Facebook Calls to Care on my cousin’s page. Because he is probably the nicest boy on the planet, and we don’t share oodles of social media contacts, it seemed a safe place to have a small conversation about it. He admitted that 1. He does, actually, care about cancer, 2. He had no idea these sorts of things were already clogging the interspaces, and 3. He felt a little pressure to repost, frankly. Still, I felt kind of shitty about not just letting it go.

Which is crazy! Why should I, a person who actually had cancer, feel guilty about mocking memes that not only trivialize that experience, but also trigger its memory?

 

Steve:

“Guys, we’re just trying to raise awareness.” Good. But you’ve got to know that Britt and I are at Maximum Awareness. We’re at 11. Wanna help? Raise money. Raise a whole lot of money. Give it to programs that treat people with cancer, or better yet, give an unrestricted donation to a hospital that treats all crap diseases. Cancer gets enough PR without your one-hour post, but there’s a lot of other shit that can kill us and it needs research.

Look, I get it. Cancer makes everyone feel helpless. Maybe there is something you can do. So you pray. You go on a walk to raise money. You share your cancer-ed friend’s blog (thanks, guys). These are helpful, kind and loving ways to respond. But, as your formerly cancer-ed Facebook friends, we have to tell you: these memes are mean.

Delete old acquaintances. Thin the herd, by all means. We’re there with you. Why did we agree to “friend” that person we met that one time at… where was it? Crap. Chemo brain. Anyway, delete away. Just don’t do it IN THE NAME OF CANCER.

 

Britt:

Last weekend another re-posted meme splashed across my feeds in honor of Cancer Survivor Day. You know when Cancer Survivor Day is? It’s in fucking June. But since no one knows that, it is assumed that TODAY is Cancer Survivor Day and then every day becomes Cancer Survivor Day. And the irony is that every day for us is Cancer Survivor Day. But thanks for the re-post reminding me you feel exactly one teary emoticon and heart about it.

IT WAS SO FUN TO TYPE THAT.

 

Steve:

Here’s the big problem with these memes: they’re demeaning. The “lost their battle with cancer” language makes us victims. No one is losing a battle. Does a stabbing victim lose a battle with a knife? No. People die of cancer. And we didn’t “win.” We’re in remission (for now). We were treated in a room full of people, and many of them died. The language of “battles” suggests if we won, they lost. Don’t do that to us.

Also: I felt nothing “heroic” about being an adult and having cancer or getting chemo, surgery and radiation. I was not “brave.” I was scared. The heroes are the doctors and nurses and researchers. They dedicate their lives to saving others. They work in the middle of the night, trading time with their own families to clean up our puke. We sit in a chair and get poisons slowly pushed into our blood, because there is no choice. They come to work every day knowing they will meet lots of great, kind and caring people who will die. That’s brave and heroic.

 

Britt:

It wasn’t “heroic” of you to submit to testicular cancer treatment, Stevie. But your writing about it—well, there’s bravery and mask-and-cape stuff in that. And I agree with you about our caregivers. I can’t gush about Maria enough.

Is this too mean, though? I feel like we’re being a bit nasty. And then Darla from accounting posts, “My boobs got me out of a speeding ticket” and I want to rip out all of my new hair.

 

Steve:

What’s with the sexualization of breast cancer? “Save the Ta-Tas!” “Save a Life, Grope your Wife!” Yeah. It’s not funny; it’s sexist. My disease involved a tumor in an actual reproductive organ. But nobody sexualizes testicular cancer. Too bad, really. The jokes about my balls were damn funny.

 

Britt:

You know I’m going to need to wrap this up with a pretty bow, right? How do we land on a we-know-you-care note?

 

Steve:

Do we sound angry? Well, we are. We are angry that this despicable disease upended our lives. We are angry that it required amputating deeply intimate parts of our bodies. We are angry that our kids had to live through it and ask, “Are you going to die?”

And we are angry that all of that gets reduced to a CTRL-C, CTRL-V on Facebook.

But we’re not angry at you. We love you. You want to do the right thing. Perhaps someone you love has or died from cancer. Maybe you’re also a little irritated that a circulating status update is suggesting you don’t care because you won’t surrender your page for an hour of poorly constructed drivel. You don’t have to. You can donate to a charity, volunteer at the chemo ward… or just ask, “Is there anything I can do?”

That’s what helps people with cancer.

 

Britt:

Good advice. Loving. Pithy. True. I once compiled 10 awesome “posts” uttered in real life or typed in messages. They still mean the world to me. And honestly I feel better for having exorcized those feelings– maybe enough to delete my Cancer meme-trolling fake Facebook account. (No, I totally don’t have one of those. No, that would be mean. Nope.)

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If you’ve read this far and aren’t still totally insulted by him, Steve is doing his second annual Movember Foundation fundraiser. He grows a mustache, you donate to help men with testicular and prostate cancer, as well as depression. Donate here!