Grief in the Digital Age

1924318_57463667749_6077_nThey say things come in threes. This time, three talented, funny, sweet guys I cared about—all in their early 40s, all musicians—are gone within three months.

I manage a number of social media accounts for my job, so when I check Facebook, I’m genuinely not wasting time at work, usually. But as many know, company pages are often connected to personal ones, so when I logged in at my desk first thing this morning, it was my news feed I saw first.

I picked up my phone to text my husband Peyton about what I had just seen, and it simultaneously rang. He was calling me. We are often synergistic this way. And we both knew and loved these three guys.

Today, we jointly reeled over the news that a mutual college chum—one of my first band mates and a guy who lived with and shared a wall with Peyton during our time at school (through which he often heard Helmet cranked at full volume as late at 3 a.m.)—had succumbed to a particularly aggressive form of lung cancer.

Peyton and I had been shocked when we saw the first Facebook post that Max had been diagnosed, back in June. In between, we had sent him brief notes of encouragement and laughed when he posted the cover of the record Dopesmoker by the band Sleep with the caption, “Chemo music” while receiving treatment, and changed his profile picture to an illustration of an angry-eyed kid with a cigarette dangling from its lips. “Did Max never quit smoking?” we asked the air. “Regardless, shit shit shit.” While it felt like a punch to the gut each time we thought about it, there was so much else to think about.

We weren’t in close contact with Max, and hadn’t physically seen him in probably twenty years. We had that kind of semi-faux connection that Facebook breeds, comforting and easy, real in some ways, but not so real in others, better than nothing, for sure. I had seen photos of his sons, cute twin boys, and clicked “thumbs up” on his occasional posts with real affection, but we hadn’t exchanged more than one line of text in a couple of decades. It was 1992, maybe, when we first held band practice in the basement of Franklin Patterson Hall on the Hampshire College campus with two other classmates, and probably 1993 when we played our last show, calling ourselves Backwash. Classy. In 1994, he and Peyton graduated and went their separate ways.

But when I saw his wife’s post announcing his death on his Facebook page for his friends, and then talked about him with Peyton while crouching uncomfortably on a step outside my shared office space for a modicum of privacy, I fell apart—sobbing in a way that was far from acceptable for a professional setting. I spent more than half an hour in a stall in the women’s room, grabbing fistfuls of the single-ply toilet paper over and over, trying to get my act together, but couldn’t.

I felt especially lucky I work with a bunch of sensitive women when I told them had to go home.

I spent the day crying about Max, and also about Kevin, who died last month, and Jim, who died the month before. I also cried because, Why them and not us? and We’re not old enough for this yet! and What the fuck.

When they each left this life, I hadn’t felt like I could give myself the space. Or maybe I didn’t quite have the energy. Though I’m not usually one to shy away from looking at the dark matter of this life, I had far too many feelings and far too much else logistically to juggle. It was inconvenient. It felt almost wrong feeling so terrible too. Others were so much closer to Max and Kevin and Jim. I went through the familiar feeling of not deserving sadness. But when you ignore these things, they come back and bite. The pile-up was simply too much.

I allowed myself a whiskey at 10 a.m. And another at 10:30. I wanted to be toasting these guys, but instead I was just trying to calm down a little.

Each of their Facebook pages is still up, turned into little digital memorials for our 2016 social media way of life. They contain lots of notes and micro-memories and photographs. When we’re all so spread apart geographically, these virtual spots give us a sort of grave-like place to visit.

It does help a bit, even though it’s weird. To be able to find that old picture of Max and me, back when I had a nose ring and was just learning how to properly sing into a mic, back when he was showing me power chords and we were covering Black Sabbath songs badly and writing some originals badly and having a great time doing it. He’s looking over at me as if I don’t suck, I think. It’s nice. It reminds me who we were.

I go over and “visit” good ol’ Jim and Kevin while I’m online too. I hadn’t seen Jim in quite a while either—though only a couple of years, not 20—and I saw Kevin two days before he died. Still, it feels surreal that they are gone and also not gone due to this channel where fragments of their lives continue on in the Cloud like some kind of Star Trek thing we would never have imagined back in college.

These tiny souvenirs feel quite precious at the moment. The two pictures Max’s wife posted last night, the ones she took before his hair fell out from the chemo—one serious, one smiling—as she said, are a gift.

Another Year Older

Cat-card-2On my 43rd birthday, I woke up and looked in the mirror at my year-older self. I had a new giant, bright red pimple, worthy of a pizza-devouring teenager, the kind even cover-up can’t truly mask. When I went downstairs to fix my lunch, the big, fat avocado I had hoped to eat, one that had the perfect give of ripeness when gently squeezed, once cut, was entirely black inside, like one giant bruise. The new shoes I had bought myself as a present—Danskos that I had splurged on (even through eBay) because they are supposed to be wildly comfortable—were already giving me blisters by the time I got back from walking the dogs. I was, you might say, a little grumpy by then.

But when I arrived at my office, wishing I didn’t have to work, my boss presented me with a box of donuts and a jug of freshly squeezed orange juice. The department had made me a card with a silly graphic of cats and books—knowing I have too many of both, and am probably equally passionate about both. We sat at our big round worktable, usually reserved for meetings and laying out the next magazine, instead eating sticky sweets and licking our fingers and laughing. It was a good take two for the morning.

Throughout the day, I received 118 Facebook posts, many emails and a few texts, all from people I really like. It was nice. I had received exactly four old fashioned cards by snail mail, and the people who sent those get gold stars in Heaven (you know who you are!).

I waited all day to see if my brother, Tommy, would remember. Ever since our brother, David, died almost eight years ago, he’s tried. I think. David was the one who always, always remembered, and always, always called. Tommy never used to—but sometimes he does now, as if he is trying to fill in where David left off. But because he’s unpredictable, it almost feels worse than if he never said “Happy Birthday.” Because now I expect it—and a wise person once said, “Expectation is the death of serenity.” It is. Tommy didn’t remember.

I missed my David painfully hard. All day.

I bought myself what I consider an expensive bottle of wine. A $14 J. Lohr Cabernet. Drank it on the porch while I tinkered with the ukulele I received from my husband last birthday, which I have barely played since. Light, pretty tones came off of its strings and floated into the summery air despite my lack of skill.

My husband brought home my favorite pizza since we were too broke to go out. We ate in front of the TV indecorously, as I wanted to, and then followed our kid-like binge with large slices of the homemade lemon cake my mother had sent. This is a totally predictable ritual. Each year, she frets about getting it here on time, worries about what the level of freshness it will be when it arrives, wrings her hands over whether it will be crushed. She always sends it Priority, and it always arrives early, perfectly intact and utterly delicious.

My dad and stepmother, both church choir singers, called and sang “Happy Birthday” to me on my voicemail—with beautiful harmonies. It nearly made me cry.

“Now I want to hear 80s music,” I said to my husband, embracing the regressive tendencies the day had brought out in me. He found a Tom Petty concert on TV and we watched it all the way through. (My first record, incidentally, was Long After Dark. I bought it with my own money when I was nine.)

At the end of the night, I emailed my high school boyfriend, the one who was born on the same day and the same year as me, to say, “I have no idea how we ended up being 43!” We had celebrated our 16th and 17th birthdays together, for crying out loud. While we clearly weren’t meant to be together romantically forever, I’m so happy we are still friends, and I enjoy the ritual of touching base each year on our birthday. I remembered vividly emailing him on our 40th and it seemed impossible that three more years had passed.

This morning, I was pleased to see a message from him. “Well, I guess it doesn’t feel as old as 46. At that point, we’ll be closer to 50 than 40 (yikes),” he wrote in reply. True.

I suddenly wondered nervously if it would feel lightning-fast to get to that landmark, since the time seems to keep speeding up each year. Then I just hoped I would make it. I realize that getting older is a great privilege, and one not afforded to all. To have donuts and songs and kind messages—and even a terrible zit—makes for a decent day of living even if you don’t get everything you wished for.


Book Trailers

Screen Shot 2016-01-21 at 6.51.44 PMToday, while reading my Shelf Awareness e-newsletter, a publishing industry mailer, I was reminded of a literary promotional concept that is wildly intriguing to me, and which I somehow didn’t discover until very recently: the book trailer.

I’m a marketing person by day, and I’m now in a position where I have to conceptualize and direct videos, which is a totally new channel for me. Videos are enormously popular online and are gaining momentum all the time. But I never would have considered the possibility of creating a promotional trailer, just like a movie trailer but for a book, on my own. It’s so odd! Books have no pictures or music like films do. Who says, “Go check out the video for my book on YouTube?” Lots of people, it turns out.

I saw one in the fall for the release of Kristin Hersh’s Don’t Suck, Don’t Die, a book about the musician Vic Chestnutt, and was riveted. She’s a musician first and published author second, so there is fantastic original music by her on it—a song she more than likely wrote about him, in fact—as well as tour photos of them together. I’ve had the good fortune of seeing her play in person many times, and, in recent performances, she’s interspersed her songs with readings from her books. We, the audience, sit around her sipping our beers and listening with as much focus as kindergarteners sitting Indian-style, sucking our thumbs, while riveted by our amazing teacher. So, anyway, I thought maybe this was something of an anomaly. Her book trailer is a lot like a music video, only with quotes from reviewers and a few brief synoptic notes interspersed with the photos.

Screen Shot 2016-01-21 at 6.48.50 PMBut then I watched another one that was linked to Shelf Awareness with simply this introduction: “Book Trailer of the Day: One More Day, a novel by Kelly Simmons.” Enough said. You want to click it and check it out. I did, and I love this one too, even though it’s really different, as different as, say, oh, movie trailers. Hersh’s gives a lot of information about what you’ll read along with the mood music and great pictures. Simmons’ is almost all atmosphere, mysterious to the point of total confusion and/or complete intrigue. Beautifully cinematographic color images are collaged, portraying trees, driving, family photos and lots of baked goods. (What’s that all about?) One question in white text is broken up and overlaid on several screens. Then there are the wonderful reviewers’ quotes.

I think the only thing in common is that both take the opportunity to show the viewer the book cover, which makes a lot of sense, right? As teasers go, I think these are pretty fabulous. And so different from typical print ads or book reviews. They seem genius in this time of online living and attention spans short as gnats.’ Commit just two or three minutes to a fascinating watch, and there you go.

Of course, now I just want to go check out trailers on YouTube, never mind reading the books. Just kidding! Hersh’s was really great and everyone should go buy it right now.

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