Letting go of the living

During the last six years, I have been forced to confront the collapsing health of my family. Not by coincidence, my reflections on these changes and death itself led me to writers like Viktor Frankl and branches of thinking such as Existentialism and the Greek and Roman school of philosophy known as Stoicism.

The Stoic philosophers from ancient Greece and Rome provide a roadmap that remains remarkably relevant today. The most famous ancient stoics—Epictetus, Seneca, Marcus Aurelius—did not focus on abstractions. Rather, they wrote about the most pressing realities of life and issues of what define us and how we live each day.

At this point in my own life’s journey, I found comfort in old ideas that embraced questions about death. As Seneca wrote, “A man cannot live well if he knows not how to die well.” Stoic ideas helped me think about how all of us can prepare ourselves for misfortune and navigate through the worst possible events, in order to confront what inevitably lies ahead.

My journey, with my family, was now one confronting inevitable loss. This chapter of my life story, with my family, will perhaps soon end in the death of the remaining two members of my nuclear family—my mother and sister.

Losing my Mom

My father died in 1985, when I was 20, and I can scarcely remember him as a person. He was an alcoholic and unimportant in my life. I unfortunately lost my mother more than six years ago, but this loss is ongoing.

In 2013, she was diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s disease. The illness has been especially cruel to her husband, my stepfather, who saw his intimate partner and best friend of 30 years slowly lose her mental abilities and her ability to function as an independent adult. I have observed her slow decay, mostly during short visits and on phone calls that always got worse with each week, month, and then year.

My mother changed from being someone with a razor-sharp mind and who loved crosswords to a woman who could no longer remember the names or even faces of her neighbors and family.

On this last trip to St. Louis in September 2019, we were alone. I asked her, “Who am I?” She gave me a long look with that blank stare, created by the destruction of her neurons and the accumulation of amyloid plaques in her brain. She replied with my stepfather’s name. I said, “No, mom, it’s your son, Rudy.” She didn’t reply. She then asked me a question she had asked half a dozen times earlier in the last 15 minutes.

I have spent these last six years flying back and forth from Seattle and then Portland to her home in the St. Louis area. My trips were motivated by personal concern for her and her husband caregiver and a sense of duty to help as her son.

I have shed tears. I have felt anguish. I have gnashed my teeth. I have cursed scores of times to myself as I walked alone after work, daylight or dark. I have felt powerless. I have felt my desires for my own dreams bend and be extinguished, just so I could be there for her, albeit from afar.

When I read about my friends’ lives, involving travel or a life where the future is filled with promise, I compare it to my stepdad’s world. His involves non-stop and constant care for my mom.

I have, in the end, simply abandoned thoughts of vacation and time alone that don’t involve flying halfway across the continent, so I can spend time with her. On past trips we have held hands and took walks. We could even squeeze in visits to the St. Louis Art Museum and Missouri Botanical Garden. Even those stopped on my last trip.

On this trip, like the ones before, she asked me questions she had asked dozens of times before: Where do you live? Why do you live n Portland? Why won’t you live here? Do you have a girlfriend?

My mom often chastised me, saying, that’s too far away, you should be closer, even when she has no idea who I am or that she even had a son.

Losing my Sister

During these last six years, and for at least a decade earlier, I have also watched my sister slowly spiral out of control.

She has battled addiction, obesity, mental health issues, a long spell of homelessness, and finally the collapse of her body. Her obesity finally made it nearly impossible for her to walk. After living on the mean streets of St. Louis for months, and then in an unsanitary drug house in a very unsafe St. Louis neighborhood, she rebounded with the help of my mom and stepdad. My sister found a low-paying but stable job with Missouri’s welfare office.

Yet each visit, from 2000 on, turned into a portrait in loss. By the last time I saw her in January 2019, just before she had a heart-attack, she was out of her job, living in squalid conditions alone, and having no contact with anyone or any person except a former drug addict neighbor in a poor south St. Louis suburb.

Each time I came, her apartment looked dirtier and more cluttered and chaotic. I am choosing not to share the details. They are too depressing and also private.

Finally, in July 2019, she called for first responders who discovered her collapsed on her apartment floor, unable to walk. She had deep and open pressure ulcers and was immediately taken the emergency room at Barnes-Jewish Hospital in St. Louis. From there the hospital managers and social workers placed her in skilled nursing facility in the city that accepted Medicaid eligible patients. She moved into the facility that month and has been bedbound and no longer able to walk.

Her new home is a facility for indigent patients, all eligible for Medicaid-paid care. The population is a mix of mostly older African Americans and fewer whites. When I visited in September 2019, more than half appeared bedbound. Patients with mental illnesses wandered the halls, without interference from staff. The front door was coded, and no one but staff could get out without the punch key.

To me, it felt like a madhouse from the Victorian era, with staff unconcerned with the patient wards in their care or visitors from the streets who could walk in the facility without even signing in.

No staff member required me to present my ID or sign in. So I could wander the facility without interference, startled that no one cared who I was. In one of the community rooms, I saw silent, elderly, and sick patients gaze blankly at their television. Others sat in the courtyard, silent and hunched over. Still others in their rooms lay silent, with their televisions blaring reality shows and their faces staring blankly at the blue light. I imagined this was like hundreds of others similar facilities nationwide.

My sister looked like she had aged 10 years. She had lost one of her front top teeth. She had a bad rash and dirty, unkempt hair. She remained unable to walk.

The hardest part of my trip was visiting my sister’s cluttered, dirty apartment that had long gone to hell. Amid the clutter that littered each room, I found evidence of her past life. I located her diaries she had kept from the time she was in her 20s, still with dreams of living a good life, even as it was slowly going sideways from her substance-abuse problems. I found her jewelry she made as a hobby for years, as her mobility began to decline and her world closed in on her.

I spent about two hours finding all of her legal documents and her writings. That was my plan from the start. I put those in a pink plastic tub and filled another with her nicest dresses, pants, and shirts, even though I knew she likely would never wear them again.

We had a falling out when I refused to help her rent a storage locker to put her stuff. She cried, feeling betrayed. I knew from all I had seen she would not leave this place or another. She still believed she could walk again and live on her own with her public assistance.

On my last morning in St. Louis, I visited her room again. Her roommate, who is in her 30s and likely had a mental health disorder, was there. I held my sister’s hand and said I was happy I had come to see her. She looked at me, and said, “I love you.” I responded the way I always had in the past, with a smile.

I then left her room and found one of the young, African-American nurses dressed in purple scrubs. She smiled, punched the code, and the door opened. I walked out into the fresh-smelling fall morning and the sunshine on a beautiful St. Louis day. It was time to catch my flight and leave behind this warehouse for the infirmed.

A stoic response to disasters in places called ‘home’

Scene from the devastation of the Campfire in Paradise, California, taken by the LA Times.

In the span of one month, two cities where I have lived and worked during the last 25 years have been struck by disasters.

The sobering thought that my fate can determined by factors completely out of my control has left me pondering how I am living my life and if I am living it the way I should. Those thoughts have also turned me to the writings of Stoic philosophers from 2,000 years ago, who wisely pondered the best course for living life and confronting misfortune.

The Stoics painfully remind all of us that bad luck is part of our shared human existence, as inevitable as death itself.

“You could leave life right now,” wrote the former Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius, a frequently quoted Stoic, influenced by earlier Greek thinkers. “Let that determine what you do and say and think.”

So what would it be like if my life ended tomorrow and all I had were today to life it? What if I confronted calamity and had to start from scratch?

In November, these thoughts were not abstract mind games, but deeply personal stories I watched from afar on my computer and through conversations with friends and relatives who witnessed these large natural disasters. They also forced me to have deep periods of reflection about my life and the years I have to live it.

Paradise destroyed: a fire engulfs my former home city in California

This photo by Josh Edelson of AFPGetty Images, captures the devastation of the fire the first day it broke out in Paradise.

On Nov. 8, a wildfire ripped through the lower Sierra foothills above Chico, California and nearly completely destroyed the city of Paradise, just up the hill.

I used to live and work in Paradise as a reporter for the Paradise Post in late 1993 and early 1994. As of Nov. 26, California authorities report the blaze that destroyed more than 13,000 homes and many businesses in the hillside city. The conflagration had killed 88 people, with 203 confirmed missing. Many believe the number of unaccounted residents who failed to escape the inferno is much higher. Media report the entire town of 26,000 persons had to evacuate, and nearly all were left homeless.

A photo by the Mercury News shows an aerial view of the fire’s nearly total devastation of all homes.

When I worked as a reporter there, I frequently covered how vulnerable the community was to this very type of catastrophe that incinerated it in less than 24 hours.

There are only two ways out of town when that terrible moment came, and residents were forced to flee with almost no notice only to find themselves stuck in a traffic jam and then having to flee on foot if they were able-bodied and could do so. My cousin, who was working for a field surveying team and who went in five days after the blaze, described what he saw as a war zone. He was sure many cars he saw burned out had scorched, human remains of those caught in the fire’s path. I felt tremendous grief for strangers I did not know. I also kept wondering, what if that had been me.

Next up: the Anchorage 7.0 earthquake

With the Campfire blaze in Paradise just contained after Thanksgiving, I witnessed yet another natural disaster in another city where I lived, Anchorage, Alaska.

This image was shared globally the morning of the Anchorage earthquake, on Nov. 30.

At around 8:35 a.m. Alaska time, on Thursday, Nov. 30, a massive 7.0 temblor shook the Cook Inlet region, including Alaska’s most populous city. The epicenter was 8.5 miles from downtown Anchorage, where I worked for six years at the Consulate of Canada. My home was just 1 mile away, built on soil that I had learned was likely prone to liquefaction during a major earthquake. I immediately thought of who might be in that apartment now and if they were OK.

The KTVA newsroom was heavily damaged by the temblor; this shot was taken shortly after the first earthquake, and many more aftershocks followed.

Like many, I was glued to the footage of roadways broken apart like twigs, cellphone videos of buildings shaking as if  freight trains were plowing through them, and the terror and panic in people’s voices as the feared their lives would end at those very moments.

I began seeing messages on Facebook, where colleagues had checked in to tell their family and friends they were alive and well. I contacted Alaskans I knew out-of-state, and as far away as Tacoma, Maryland, and Hawaii. All reported damage to their homes, but not to the ones they loved.

A shot of the Seward Highway, south of Anchorage, after the temblor. The highway was closed due to landslides and damage.

I wrote this to share with my colleagues: “I just heard from an Anchorage friend how powerful the quake was. Power is out for her/home. She described the house shaking like it was dancing on stilts. Reportedly 911 in Anchorage is operational. The good news for Anchorage is people plan for this, they have a world-class emergency ops center, a robust plan, and a major military base next-door that can also provide logistical support, which happened during the Good Friday Earthquake in ’64, one of the biggest ever in North America.”

My other concerns in life today seemed completely inconsequential to these distant human connections.

CNN fed video from the destroyed newsroom of KTVA and covered the many breaking stories of schools closing and some homes having small fires. NBC compiled video footage as well, showing how people reacted in their homes, at school, on roadways, and at the Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport. The New York Times compiled a summary shared with me by my Alaska friends.

Remarkably no one appears to have died, even with more than 15 aftershocks, according to CNN, some as strong as 5.8 on the Richter scale.

The Municipality of Anchorage was reporting more than 10,000 without power, which can be a severe and life-threatening hazard, with temperatures of wintry Alaska at 20 Fahrenheit and colder this time of year. It is remarkable there weren’t gas line explosions or other fires sparked by downed lines and combustible materials being ignited in many damaged structures.

Critical facilities like airports were damaged during the initial temblor.

The earthquake’s effects will be lasting. There likely is severe structural damage to countless buildings and homes. It is not clear if the critical infrastructure, like the Port of Alaska, where most food supplies are delivered by container ship from Tacoma, has any significant damage. The airport was reportedly operating by the end of the day. It had sustained damaged like many other pieces of critical infrastructure.

Later in the day, I shared this with friends on my Facebook feed: “Sending all of my Alaska friends goods thoughts as you recover and deal with aftershocks. I have every one of you in my thoughts, even if we haven’t spoken in years!”

As I was writing this short summary, a friend who I have not seen in years took time to reply to my email earlier in the day that expressed my concern for her and her family. Her words capture of the meaning of these tragedies poignantly: “The upside of the earthquake is hearing from old friends. … I went to Victoria yesterday for a long weekend. My husband … was at home. The house is a mess, but there appears to be no structural damage and the utilities are all working (many people in Anchorage have no power so we are lucky.”

The Anchorage area experienced damage to many roads and buildings.

All of my friends who were there or away report the exact same response. When I chimed in with comments that may have seemed flippant that I was simply happy they were alive, they did not turn to sarcasm. They gave me a thumbs up and seemed genuinely positive they were able to enjoy another day alive with the ones they loved. They were cleaning up and, I imagine, counting their blessings.

Making sense of misfortune and using that opportunity wisely

As I look back at this month, the theme connecting me to the tragedies impacting thousands in my former communities is that our lives, and all we plan for them, may be incredibly temporal exercises in futility. A single day and a single event can change anything. Perhaps that’s why the Stoics from two millennia ago urged their peers to contemplate purposeful living in the moment, focused on living virtuously and with the full power of one’s mental energies.

Ryan Holiday, a writer and promoter of Stoicism who I follow online, runs a website called the Daily Stoic.

A section of his writings seems particularly meaningful to me today as I exchanged my short, but touching emails with friends who I care about but no longer see or share words with.

Bust believed to be a copy of Roman Stoic Seneca

To introduce newcomers to this school of thought, Holiday provides learning lessons. His first essay concerns misfortune. He quotes the famous Roman stoic Seneca, and then offers some sage advice and urges his readers to consider the Stoic virtue of practicing misfortune as a tool to strengthen one’s capacity to focus on what really matters:

“It is in times of security that the spirit should be preparing itself for difficult times; while fortune is bestowing favors on it is then is the time for it to be strengthened against her rebuffs.” -Seneca

Seneca … suggested that we ought to set aside a certain number of days each month to practice poverty. Take a little food, wear your worst clothes, get away from the comfort of your home and bed. Put yourself face to face with want, he said, you’ll ask yourself “Is this what I used to dread?”

It’s important to remember that this is an exercise and not a rhetorical device. He doesn’t mean “think about” misfortune, he means live it. Comfort is the worst kind of slavery because you’re always afraid that something or someone will take it away. But if you cannot just anticipate but practice misfortune, then chance loses its ability to disrupt your life.

Montaigne was fond of an ancient drinking game where the members took turns holding up a painting of a corpse inside a coffin and cheered “Drink and be merry for when you’re dead you will look like this.”

Confronting the void, with a friend

In the more than the three decades since I graduated from college in Portland, I have maintained a good friendship with classmate of mine. He now lives in southern California. I have been visiting him periodically in Utah and there now for nearly 30 years.

Rudy Owens, on the far left, and my friend are among this group of Reed College students shown here in 1987, in front of the Reed College Library.

As we have aged together, we have encountered different and also similar challenges. I stayed single. I moved to more locations. He got married,  got divorced, raised his daughter, became a river guide, succeeded professionally in a grander way than me, and always stayed true to his curious, creative self.

Though we were raised in very different circumstances—him in a Jewish family in the West, and me in a Lutheran family with a single mother in the Midwest—we had more in common than I would have thought possible when we first got to know each other at our college library steps on long evenings.

Last night we caught up on the phone. I was sharing my feelings of loss concerning people I am close too, including my mother. She is still mostly well, but her issues are ones I will not share in detail here. My friend also shared stories of his mother, who has passed away.

Taken in 2014 in southern California during one of the greatest trips of my life.

During that call, we experienced a moment of understanding that transcended our distance of nearly 1,500 miles and the time we have spent not seeing each other in person the past few years. I learned things about him I did not know. I also shared things about myself I seldom share with others.

I am by nature private and stoic, and I have learned how to control my negative emotions and also my public displays of sadness or anger. I also realized during our talk about life and its inevitable end with death that my embrace of existentialism has given me the ability to confront these challenges I face more clearly.

I told my friend that in suffering, we really can find purpose and meaning. And whatever I did as a result of these circumstances, I would be making choices to respond to the challenges before me.  Those actions would be mine alone, and freely chosen. I was mostly telling myself these points, as I considered those actions yet to come with my mum.

That is pure Viktor Frankl. But it is also how I can face up to what is inevitable on the road ahead. I shared these thoughts with my friend, and he listened in the right way. He did not need to do much other than let me know he listened.

Mostly, I felt relieved to know I could unload to a friend and share my fears and also my resolve. Facing the world alone is not easy for anyone. Maybe it will be easier because I will have friends there to listen when the moment of the void arrives in full force.

The joys of a new bicycle

My new Surly Pacer

My new Surly Pacer in sparkleboogie blue

Buying a bike is always one of my rare guilty pleasures. I am not wealthy by American standards, nor do I have lots of disposable income to spare on an item that can range from $700 through several thousand dollars. So I have bought less than a half-dozen new bikes in my entire life. I have bought a couple of used bikes, but those lack the snap, crackle, and pop of a new bike.

Last Friday, I just picked up my new Surly Pacer road bike. It was the last 2014 model in the country, according to the store. The color is sparkleboogie blue. I like that name, but it is really like a baby or Carolina blue. The Pacer has a great reputation for being a no-nonsense machine that delivers a quality experience without the fru-fru and showiness of composite bikes or designer bikes that are all about displays of wealth and conspicuous consumption.

Surly understands the market I represent and, well, I might have fallen for some of their marketing language: “The current zeitgeist of road bicycles and road bicycling generally tends to overlook things that are not screaming for attention like a spoiled child, and the Pacer is a bit of a loner.  Pacer likes to put in the big miles and hang out in the country, way out in the country. Pacer cares not about the weather. It remains indifferent mile after mile, you just provide the propulsion and Pacer will handle the rest.”

1510_I-Love-BIKE-480-new

Yes indeed, I love to bike.

Yes, that is the kind of biker I am.

I also always feel like a kid when I ride a bike, so a new bike is having two kid pleasures at once. I feel particularly good about this bike because I delayed gratification for more than a year, as I debated the merits of spending $1,250 (bike alone) for a material object.

Really, this is about consumption. It is an absurd amount of money for a thing, which mainly is about exercise and fun. This amount of money is also equivalent to twice the annual income of a resident of Malawi or Afghanistan. For billions of people, literally, this type of object must seem like a frivolous waste. It does not generate income. It does not carry goods to the market. It cannot carry your family members like bikes in Africa and India I have seen.

Me and My Strada

That is me longing miles on my old Novara Strada, a very reliable bike that has brought me great pleasure.

But for the moment, I will let that all go, and just go for a ride.

This bike replaces a road bike I bought from REI in 1991. That was a Novara Strada, and at the time it cost me about $650. It still works just fine, though some parts are ready to collapse and die. Really, it was time to say adios to a good friend. It has logged thousands of wonderful miles in great places, from Alaska to North Carolina to California to Oregon and Washington.

I would say my new bike at best performs about 15 percent better. That is not a big margin, and it may not even justify the extravagance. But the bike for me represents a gift to myself for having completed some big life projects and tasks that took a number of years. I could not afford the reward when I wanted it the most. Rewards are critically important, to mark accomplishments and celebrate change. Hoping this change brings many great adventures with friends and celebrating the joys of being a kid, pedaling as fast as I can, smiling as wide as my mouth will allow.

Reflecting on tragedy and making hard choices in life

Earlier in 2014, one of my high school classmates, Jeremy Nemerov, was murdered at the U.S. Penitentiary in Leavenworth, Kan. Nemerov was reportedly killed almost as soon as he arrived for allegedly being a “snitch,” according to some reports. I have no idea if that is true or not.

The Facebook page photograph of Jeremy Nemerov,  who was murdered in a federal prison while serving a drug sentence (a non-violent crime).

The Facebook page photograph of Jeremy Nemerov, who was murdered in a federal prison while serving a drug sentence (a non-violent crime).

He was clearly a victim of violent crime for serving time on a non-violent drug offense–the type of charges that are filling our nation’s prisons and bankrupting all forms of government. Nemerov was also, by all definitions, a drug addict, according to confessionals that were written about him on his still bizarrely functioning Facebook page. Addiction, in the end, ultimately led him to a trail that ended in a violent death in the worst possible place. (This story paints a bleak picture of his lifelong battles with drugs.)

I really did not know him well, and in the end not at all. I remember him from high school, mostly as a person who had amazing gifts bestowed upon him by luck and birth. First, he was born in the richest country on earth. He was from a racial group that has some of the best health and education outcomes in our country. His father, Howard Nemerov, was a former celebrated poet and Washington University professor. His aunt was famous photographer Diane Arbus.

He lived in a big, comfortable nice house in a nice neighborhood, and he also drove a Porsche given to him as a gift by his family during his teens. And still, he got trapped by drugs and personal choices he made every day of his life, just like the rest of us.

As someone who believes that we all are responsible for our life choices, regardless of our circumstances, I am not one who is feeling great anguish, but mostly because he was not my friend nor a family member. However, I have seen drugs and alcohol destroy all kinds of people, some close to me, and have seen drugs victimize too many innocent and better people who pick up the pieces left by the abusers and addicts or even who die sometimes violently at their hands.

At some point in life, all of us will confront hard choices, even demons. We ultimately will be measured by our actions, even if circumstances are cruelly unfair, particularly for those who were not born with the incredible gifts Nemerov got dealt early in life.

One of Nemerov’s peers, someone I also knew decades ago, wrote a remembrance of him, focussing on Nemerov’s addictions and his own failures to intervene on a road trip with Nemerov when both were 15: “If I could go back in time, I would have spent those four weeks trying to warn Jeremy of his budding demons.
… I will focus on the amazing boy that I knew in the 80’s.”

Viktor Frankl two years after he was released from German captivity, which helped him develop ideas to provide meaning in life, captured in his book Man's Search for Meaning.

Viktor Frankl two years after he was released from German captivity, which helped him develop ideas to provide meaning in life, captured in his book Man’s Search for Meaning.

None of us can go back in time. What we can do is focus on our lives in the moment, daily, and respond the best we can. I am choosing to spend my energies focussing on those who are working to help others and themselves. When it comes to those with addictions, I believe the person who ultimately will make a change is the person who really has the ultimate power–the person making the choices with life’s often unfair hand.

As one of my favorite thinkers, Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl, noted: “Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”