Living in the Real World

Nearly 11 months ago, my world pretty much went home for the duration due to the Great Pandemic. (And what’s so great about it?) As you might imagine, it’s been a pretty quiet place.

Well, except for the virtual theater rehearsals.

And the online choir I just joined.

And the streaming concerts that get Missy so excited.

And being invited to join my church’s vestry this week.

And, and, and, and …

Ok. Weird paradox. I barely leave my house these days. And I’m busier than I’ve ever been. Not just work busy, but life busy.

Somewhere, Clifford Stoll is probably shaking his head in amusement at himself. Again.

Don’t remember Stoll? He had a brief national spotlight in the 1980s after tracking a 75-cent accounting error at the Lawrence Berkley National Laboratory all the way to an East German hacker selling information to Soviet spies. (If you’re curious, that adventure is recounted in a book called The Cuckoo’s Egg.)  In the ‘90s, he again drew national attention with his assertions – first in a magazine article, and then a book called Silicon Snake Oil – that this brave new online world wasn’t all it was cracked up to be and could never live up to what had been promised.

Now there’s a lot that Stoll actually got right. He argued that online education would be easier to promote than to achieve. He noted that as more voices came online, the strength AND weakness of the internet would be that “all voices are heard” – including those of the deceptive, the ill-informed, and the malicious.

But what gets remembered – as we seem to do with any of us, alas – are the misses. The prediction that e-commerce would never get off the ground. That no online database could ever replace the daily newspaper. And that computers, of necessity, would always be a medium of isolation rather than community.


“Wrong? Yep,” Stoll commented publicly 15 years later, adding that “Now, whenever I think I know what’s happening, I temper my thoughts: Might be wrong, Cliff …”

The internet is certainly not a utopia, to be sure. It holds our best and our worst. After all, it was made by humans.

But that’s just it. It is a human world.

We’ve found ways to share our laughter and our anger. We argue and we comfort. We can come together in ways that are radically disturbing or utterly heartwarming.

And yes, we even find ways to sing in choirs and make best friends that we’ve never met in person.

Forget the “virtual” moniker. This is as much a part of the “real world” as any. And if we’ve kept any sanity in the wake of an upside-down year, the outlet this provides may be one big reason why.

We’re still together. Even apart.

I’m not going to argue that it’s perfect. Too many have poor access or no access at all, and that needs to be addressed. And there are still things that I want to do when the pandemic walls come down – perform live theater again, hug a friend, send Missy off on a Friday night out with her friends without worry.

But right here, right now, for all its flaws – this is a world worth having. One that’s let a lot of us keep friends close and possibilities closer. (Even while staying beyond six feet.)

I hope those possibilities live on after the crisis is over. That we continue to realize how strong our connections to each other can be, even when tested.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to get ready for choir practice.

A Break in the Action

Gil leaps into discovery like only an 8-year-old boy can. All the fields lie open –  space, sports, cryptography, music – and he eagerly throws open the door to each new passion, exciting him and his parents alike.

Now my nephew is learning something new. Namely, the breaking point of a human wrist after falling from a moving scooter.

Yeah. Ow.

So, Gil’s left arm now sports a bright red cast. It’s a minor bump on the road of a grade-school summer. After all, it’s hard to play tennis or piano with one hand down. But there’s still robotics, camping, clubs, a steady flow of books … just about everything that doesn’t involve experimenting with how to pop a wheelie. (Ahem.)

This IS the injured kid, right?

Cast or no cast, Gil’s still moving. It’s what he does.

But then, whatever the shocks, life keeps moving. It’s what it does.

Sometimes whether we’re ready for it or not.


You know what I mean. We’ve all been there. The broken places. The moments where life throws up a big stop sign for a moment and says “THIS. THIS is what you will be paying attention to.”

Sometimes we’re lucky. We get the temporary hurts: the broken foot that heals, the smashed-up car that’s insured, the explosive argument that eventually slips into the past.

Sometimes … not so much.

Sometimes it’s a tragedy, whether personal or national, that leaves a hole in the heart that will not go away.

Sometimes it’s the painful calls of your own mind and body, the illnesses that don’t heal, the weights on the soul that just hang.

Sometimes it’s a break in the road. A realization that life is going to be different from this particular point forward, and there’s no way to turn around  and get the old journey back.

Time moves differently in the broken places, or it seems to. Outside, the world flashes past at high speed. But closer in, things just … stop. Time has been condensed into one event that must be lived, one tale that must be told. Sometimes repeatedly.

I’ve mentioned before how offensive it is to tell someone to “move on” after a loss of any kind, how you don’t just discard grief or pain or emptiness like a worn-out T-shirt. But there’s another side to it, too.

Namely, that you don’t have to feel guilty for being happy.

We’re good at that, you know. We find ourselves re-entering time and letting ourselves forget for a moment – to laugh, to enjoy, to marvel – and then feel bad because we know the cause of the hurt hasn’t gone away. As though we’re betraying a memory, or getting distracted from a crucial issue that needs our focus.

I’ll say it simply. It’s OK.

It’s OK to not think about hurting all the time.

It’s OK to enjoy things again.

It’s OK to  let other things into your life.

You’re not doing anything wrong.

Yes, we all need time apart. We all need time to heal. We all need to acknowledge the hurts, however that has to happen.

But it’s OK to look out from there if you feel like it. To see. To do. To live. To let light shine on the broken places.

As a friend observed, that’s how you make mosaics.


Gil’s cast will be off before we know it. Soon, he’ll be more unstoppable than ever, full-speed ahead, charging into all that life has to offer.

But then, his motion never really stopped. It just changed direction for a while. That’s a useful thing to remember.

Along with being really, really careful about those wheelies.

Free Period

Leave it to Margaret Thatcher to throw two worlds into a tizzy on her death.

Certain things happen when a famous person dies, and the former British prime minister was no exception. Long-prepared obituaries were hurried into print; long-readied speeches were given and commented on.

And in the universe of Twitter, the 140-character announcements flew around the world. One chosen “hashtag” got to the point, labeling the announcement “Now Thatcher is Dead.” Or, in Twitterese, #nowthatcherisdead.

All at once, the British found entertainment fans in mourning with them. You see, spaced differently, the post could also be read: Now That Cher is Dead.

What a difference one period makes.

Cher isn’t dead, of course. (At least, not so anyone can tell.) And the error, I suppose, can pass into the history of great publishing errors, along with the misprinted Bible that declared “Thou shalt commit adultery,” or the dictionary that accidentally coined the word “Dord” for density, when it meant that density could be abbreviated as “D or d.”

But I think the tale of Cher’s fictional demise actually points to something important. Pauses mean something. However small.

I get reminded of that a lot with Missy.

Missy, for those of you who joined us late, is my wife’s young aunt, a developmentally disabled adult whom we began caring for two years ago. In that time, Heather and I have done a lot of things with her: a regular reading night, an occasional art night, trips to the bowling alley and the softball diamond, moments of listening to music at Missy-volume (i.e, loud enough to stun passing blue jays).

But there have also been plenty of days and nights when the agenda included – well, nothing in particular. When Missy simply sat in the window watching the world go by, or rocked in an armchair with her mind wandering, her hands absently busy with a puzzle ball.

A precious emptiness of time. Silent, and blessed.

Other reminders come now that I’ve started walking more again. When you’re walking just for the sake of walking, there’s not a lot to do but concentrate on the act itself and the surrounding neighborhood. (Well, there’s the iPod or smart phone option, but that way can lie traffic accidents and dates with open manholes.) Areas that had flickered by at 30 miles per hour now acquire texture and detail and barking dogs; a mind busy with a hundred frantic details has a chance to slow down and become aware of its contents – or maybe just to settle to peace and be.

We don’t do that a lot these days. If we ever did.

The idea’s there, of course. Most major faiths teach the value of a day set aside for rest, or of time set apart for contemplation and meditation. More secular minds have noted the value of quiet in terms of their own, whether in noting the health problems that arise from too little sleep, or the economic value of vacation days and sick time in keeping an employee sharp and ready.

And yet, we continue to fill and fill and fill, as though laziness would send us to the principal’s office. Even our vacations are sometimes constant activity, a need to experience everything, lest something unique get away. (And that’s leaving aside the folks who bring their cell phones with them, of course.)

There’s nothing wrong with doing. There can be plenty that’s wonderful in discovering new things, or creating new accomplishments. I’m not arguing otherwise. But a life without pause, like sentences without a period, can run into chaos and confusion.

Even fields need to lie fallow for a while, to recover their strength.

It’s a hard habit to acquire. Frustrating, even, at times. Sitting back and watching Missy watch the world, it’s easy to think at first of the things I could be doing. And then, all at once, I realize 30 minutes has gone by, the things are still there – and both of us feel pretty good.

Maybe the old ad company hit on something when they talked about “the pause that refreshes.”

Take a moment to think about it. Take several. That’s what they’re there for.

If you like the idea, if you find it helps, pass it along. Take some time to share.

Just … don’t take the time to Cher instead.

The poor woman’s suffered enough as it is.