Finding Normal

“I realized today why I kept having panic attacks last week,” she said, leaning back in her chair and setting her headphones on the desk.

Being an utterly rational person in complete control of his emotions, like all Real American Men who don’t need “feelings” or medication, he downed a shot of whiskey and took a deep drag from a CBD vape flavored with testosterone and diesel fuel. Fixing her with a condescending eye, he growled, “What exactly upset your delicate womanly nature, little lady?”

“I realized that nothing had gone wrong in our lives for almost a month… and I was panicking because I don’t remember the last time that happened.”

The man of the house was so shocked by this revelation that he promptly fell out of his startup surplus Aeron chair, hit his head, and woke up in the looking glass world of a 2020 where everything didn’t go to hell.

This exact change didn’t actually happen, but the essence of it was conveyed by a friend’s Facebook post a few weeks ago and I have to tell you that it hit me right in the feels.

It’s been a long time since I wasn’t dealing with a crisis of some sort, and I’m having to learn how to be a parent, partner, and individual in a context not defined by disasters.

Three years ago my marriage was beginning to come apart, after years of me privately straining to keep it together. Then Alli was nearly killed by a horse and the subsequent year was largely defined by helping her recover and learn to deal with the physical and mental effects of traumatic brain injury. Just as we were beginning to find our balance as a family, we were hit by the double haymaker of COVID and Rich’s ALS diagnosis.

While the last three years have been some of the happiest of my life, they have also been defined by repeated small-scale disasters.

And I think that’s why I’m struggling to settle these days. Struggling to write, to read, to play video games. Finding it difficult to go for a walk in the forest and listen to the twitter of birdcalls and rustling of breeze through the trees.

I just know that there has to be another disaster coming.




There was a simplicity to the world a year ago. We had all gone into lockdown, believing that everyone would do their part and America would be able to whip COVID-19 within six weeks. We played on TikTok, baked bread with friends over Zoom, and watched relaxing YouTube videos in which people with soothing voices exhorted us to find peace as the world fell apart. Maybe… just maybe… if we all worked together and did our best, the world would re-emerge as a better place filled with more loving people, except for those few clowns like Joe Exotic who would provide entertainment for the rest of us.

That isn’t exactly how things turned out.

But I’m having to believe that, perhaps, on a a smaller and more intimate scale, I can make that happen in my own life.

I can take care of these kids that have come into my life. Help them with Scouts. Watch movies with them. Take them on walks in the forest. Go kayaking on warm mornings and watch the glassy water split on either side of our boats, ripples trailing away until they lap gently against the shoreline.

I can talk about movies with James and my friends back south. Help Alli and Barb with fixing up the house. Slowly work on writing projects and get my damn YouTube off the ground one little video at a time.

There is no instant solution to finding peace or fixing the world, but we can take small steps each day. We can take each day, each hour, as a fresh opportunity to find joy.

We can slow down.

Friends will come and go. Oil pipelines will shut down. Toilet paper will be out of stock.

But I have the blessing that the pandemic didn’t destroy my livelihood. I am moderately healthy and have enough of a safety net that I don’t need to fear starvation or bankruptcy or homelessness.

If I take the time to consider the lilies of the field and breathe deep the breath of this big blue world, and know that I don’t have to make a dent in the universe as long as I am helping the people around me… it will all be okay.

Journal Maryland

for the birds

Last summer Walker and one of his buddies helped me install a new nesting platform at the end of the dock. We used a large, plastic and metal shipping pallet, braced with 2x4s and secured with long screws and rope.

All fall and winter the new platform sat empty, waiting for a new nesting season to come around. Winds gusted through the pallet. Waves battered the piling. Cold gripped the plastic and wood and metal, causing them to creak and groan as they contracted at different rates.

And still it held until finally, about a month ago, the ospreys returned and began building a new nest atop the platform.

We watched in nervous anticipation, ever afraid that the next storm would blow away their nest as had happened year after year with the previous platform. But it held. The birds twisted their sticks through the crossbars of the pallet, anchoring them securely and building the nest ever higher. As late winter storms gave way to spring winds, the nest remained firmly fixed to the platform.

And now we have new neighbors. They are a bit noisy and have a habit of leaving scraps of sushi scattered on the dock, but they are quite entertaining and seem to be ready to settle down and have a family.

I’m trying to catch a couple more videos of the birds flying around the nest, and then I’ll post the full construction and results video to YouTube in a few days.

Journal Memories

Potato Gun

A couple weeks back I found a mysterious device while cleaning out the basement: A black pistol grip with a red plastic barrel fused to a full-hand trigger.

I found it on Rich’s workbench, amid a pile of electric drills, flashlights, and hammers. It immediately jogged my memory, but I couldn’t quite remember why. Being there in a mess of tools, my mind went to grease gun… low temperature hot glue gun… maybe a broken soldering gun?

I set it aside and forgot about it.

Until yesterday morning, when I went down into the basement to get a screwdriver and saw the mysterious tool again. It sat alone on the workbench, which Barb and Alli had cleared to make room for the plumbers to work… and this time it clicked.

It is a potato gun.

I haven’t thought of potato guns in at least twenty years. I had one when I was Walker’s age and remember blasting through dozens of potatoes as I ran through the Maine woods with my dog.

When I finished laughing at myself for being struck so suddenly by memories, I went to find a potato… it was time to tell everyone in the house what I had found. Or rather, it was time to show them. It didn’t take long for Barb to start laughing as I shot Alli in the chest and she responded by putting a bit of potato between my eyes.

Eventually, Walker got his hands on the potato gun and spent a good while blasting potato bits into the bay… until he heard that his Daddy was coming to visit. Then Walker found a spot behind a bush and proceeded to sit more still than I have ever seen him, waiting patiently to shoot a wad of potato at his father’s knees.

Journal Maryland

Settling In

It’s been a helluva month.

We’ve spent the last few weeks closing up business in Virginia. Packing, cleaning, doing what we could to see friends and family, within reason given the ongoing pandemic and a few spats which emerged when I announced that I was heading north. The whole process was complicated by my car accident, which has left the truck sitting in a repair lot for a month

We’re trying hard to help the kids feel settled, even as we try to find our pace with the new normal. They’re registered for Scouts and have already gone camping once. They have a lair in the basement where they can play video games and watch TV without drawing agro from adults for giggling with their friends on voice chat or watching the same talking dog movies again and again and again and again. We’re currently debating whether Girlchild gets to live in the basement, a fate which literally gives her grandmother shivers at the thought of waking up with a spider cricket on her head, or has to share space with her brother. If Boychild could choose, he would sleep on the daybed in his grandmother’s room, but we aren’t giving him the choice.

I’m settling in, slowly.

Moving has been on my wishlist for years. I love my friends in Tidewater, but the utterly flat suburban sprawl drained a little bit more of my soul with each indistinct Virginia Beach Norfolk Chesapeake Portsmouth intersection. My favorite place in all of Tidewater was Pipsico Scout Reservation, a Scout camp perched on the southern cliffs of the James River. With paths that meandered from the heights of the cliffs down to the tangled cypress swamps, it was a dynamic landscape filled with good memories.

Now I’m in a new landscape, one that is a good bit more varied. We are still living in a swamp, but it’s one which is stable enough for houses to have basements and where we can reach rolling, rocky foothills within twenty minutes.

Girlchild has already declared that she wants to volunteer at the local nature center. Boychild is beginning to make friends at Scouts. We’re still finding our footing up here, and likely will be until James finishes his latest round of business travel and we settle into a rhythm of visiting one another, but things are finally beginning to look up and slow down after nearly two years of life moving too fast.

I’m looking forward to watching the ospreys hatch their eggs off the dock, repairing the roof of The Mothership, and taking the family for weekend camping trips in the mountains.

It’s time to breathe again.



We all breathe.

From our first incoherent cry to our last rasping breath, we breathe over twenty thousand times each day.

We breathe so often that we take it for granted, until the moments when our breath is taken away.

I thought I knew what it was to have my breath taken away. By love. By art. By exercise. But everything changed this year.

In June of 2020, Allison and I were visiting a friend on the Pennsylvania border when her mother invited her to a surprise lunch. I spent that day helping to homeschool two kids and occasionally losing my breath as I chased them repeatedly around the farmhouse, up the hill to the barn, and around through the winding paths of the nine acres up beyond the chicken yard.

I lost my breath again that afternoon when Allison got James and me onto a conference call to tell us that her father, who had been growing mysteriously weaker for a few months, had been diagnosed with ALS.

“We are moving to Maryland. I need to help take care of him. I want the kids to have memories of him,” she said. No, she insisted. Even as the numbers didn’t line up, jobs interfered, and COVID overshadowed everything, Allison remained steadfast that she needed to be with her parents and the kids needed time with her grandfather, so James and I did what we could to make it happen.

Which is how we came to live part time in The Mothership.

As the weather grew colder and Rich’s health declined, we found ourselves moving from the role of frequently visiting family members to full time caretakers. Allison, especially, did everything she could to lift the load from her mother, who was struggling under the dual roles of nurse and grieving wife. As time went on, I began to take on some of the care as well.

Feeding times. Medications. Breathing machines.

It was the breathing that was the hardest.

ALS destroys muscles and one of the most important muscles in the human body is the diaphragm. Twenty thousand plus times day this muscle pulls and pushes the lungs, forcing air in and out. For Rich, the diaphragm began to weaken within a few months of his diagnosis. Chest muscles. Diaphragm. Throat, tongue, and lips… all began to deteriorate.

When you can’t work your throat or push your lungs to cough, phlegm begins to build up. It burbles in the throat, oozes down into the lungs, and becomes lodged. We’ve all seen the labels on the side of five gallon buckets, warning that infants can drown in a couple inches of water. For the last few months, Rich fought a daily struggle against the tablespoons of mucous which threatened to drown him.

He needed to breathe.

We would try to help using a cough assist machine. If you’ve never seen a cough assist, simply imagine a little white box with a few buttons on the front and a face mask coming to the side on a long hose, not unlike a vacuum cleaner. Twiddle a few settings, press a button, and this hellish Dust Buster forces air down the trachea at sixty miles an hour, forcibly inflating the lungs for about five seconds before slamming into reverse. Then the cough assist literally sucks the air from the patient’s lungs, often pulling with it a wad of thick yellow mucous.



Repeat until they can’t take it anymore or you’ve done twenty breaths, whichever comes first.

Repeat again a few minutes or hours later, depending on how much drawing a breath feels like gargling.

By the end, Rich was using a BiPAP machine for much of the day, essentially treating it as an at-home ventilator. The machine whirred and clicked and hissed all day and night, breathing for him. It made him hard to understand, as every weakened syllable had to be forced from his lips through the storm of air which sustained him.

Eventually only Allison and I could make out what he meant most of the time, and that was just because she has experience talking with elderly folks who struggle to be heard and I have spent years trying to understand the discoherent rambles of adolescents. Still, he often used his few spare breaths to crack jokes. The last one I heard came a few days before the end, when he spent nearly ten minutes blinking and nodding and repeating short phrases as if conveying a terribly important message about his health, until it became clear that he was joking that, yes, he should sleep in his mobility chair so that his wife didn’t smother him with a hug in the middle of the night.

We all laughed, him included… but the thought that sleeping with one’s partner could turn from a joy to a danger was more than a joke.

He used every breath he had.

He fought for each and every one.

Until there was no more breathing to be done.