In, But Not Of
“You know, the weird thing about both your parents being dead is it means that you’re next. I mean, you know, obviously it’s not like there’s a wait list for dying. Any one of us could get run over by a Snapchatting teen at any moment. And you would think that knowing that would make us more adventurous, and kind, and forgiving. But it makes us small, and stupid, and petty.”
My favorite place in the world is our pool. I love to sit beside it, surrounded by lustrous woods lining the sloping mountain just beyond the fence. These moments revitalize my worn body and soul in the bright sun. I catch up on the reading that I never get to do given the demands of life. It’s great to have the family around too, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t crave those times when it is solitary.
The pool is also the one part of our beautiful old farmhouse that I’ve made my own since we moved here three years ago. I invested in rebuilding the pool tile and coping as our first major home improvement project. This summer, I spent many hours in the hot summer sun varnishing the enormous fence surrounding the pool area, devoting what must have been a full workweek of downtime to transforming it from appearing old and weathered to new and vibrant.
Standing in the opposite corner from this peace, beauty, and tranquility, weighing in at 40 pounds in the purple pull ups, is my four year old daughter. She is smart, funny, and beautiful, and she also has autism. Part of her autism presents as an interest in patterns and repetitive behavior, and one of her favorite repetitive behaviors this summer has been throwing big rocks in the pool.
Now the rocks are a menace to the pool’s operating system, including the vacuum. Let me acknowledge up front that this is not that big a deal. Still, if I didn’t address them regularly, if I let them wait a day or two, something that I love would be damaged. The rocks represent a disturbance of the peace, and in a person prone to anxiety, a barrier to ever reaching a steady state where all the building blocks that make up our lives are in order and we can move forward.
So as soon Samantha throws in some rocks, I dive in to pull them out. And when I don’t dive in immediately, I’m thinking about when I will do it. And after I’ve removed all the rocks, I’m worried about the next time she is going to throw in the rocks. A peaceful retreat became about clearing rocks..
2020 has been the dynamite that has sent rocks crashing through all our tranquil retreats. This virus is a crushing avalanche of rocks. It has taken hundreds of thousands of lives, caused permanent health damage to so many more, forced us all into quarantine, and wrecked our economy.
The rocks tumbling down around us also represent the crumbling worlds we have built to give us comfort. An existentialist would call these worlds of essence, the seemingly sturdy but ultimately ethereal fictions we create to shield us during the darkest and loneliest moments of existence. When everything we have and all that we value in the world is stripped away and all that remains is rubble of the worlds we built before, who are we? For me, this virus has destroyed the illusion that I am not truly and terrifyingly alone in the world.
Dime Store Existentialism
Existentialism is a philosophical movement that considers what human existence actually means, and its lack of meaning and comical absurdity when the illusions we use to comfort ourselves are stripped away. Often, a tragedy individual or collective will force a reckoning with the cruelty of existence. For many, including me, the time of the pandemic, including the loss of a second parent, has focused that journey.
Kierkegaard wrote that “the crowd is untruth.” The crowd in this case means public life and all that we associate with it- the restaurants, the bars, the theaters, the sporting events, the churches — all of the things that bring us together. These are the worlds of essence that existentialists talk about that protect us from facing the truth of ourselves as an individual.
The time of COVID-19 has stripped away those worlds of essence. Through a time of struggle and suffering, we have all faced psychological and philosophical mountains to climb that the world has traditionally asked us to ignore. Through my own trek up those mountains, I’ve been struggling to reconcile two competing values that have informed my entire life: empathy and accountability. Through my experiences during this time, I’ve reflected on both, the tensions between them, and perhaps have come closer to finding a path to reconcile them.
Some less charitable readers might react to this piece and ask, “Who the hell cares what you have to say about this universal experience of ours?” More eloquent writers tackle it daily. Richer and more impactful experiences happen every moment. Why bother writing this many words about yourself? I can’t deny those points. But maybe someday a grandchild or great grandchild of mine will be curious how his or her family fared in this most challenging year, and they’ll at least have some contemporary historical record. And they’ll maybe look back in shock at everything that I got wrong, but at least they’ll know that I was wrestling with getting it right every moment.
Also, it has seemed like our family has faced a disproportionate number of blows these past few months. And sometimes that can be self pity but other times it can be objective truth. We’ve faced illness, the loss of a parent, a child with special needs that could have gone unmet, all in a place that still feels unfamiliar and alienating.
All of these things that used to surround before the virus helped to distract from the hard parts of life. The unrelenting pace of work. The monster in the White House. Sick family members. Developmental challenges in a child. But even more than these challenges, the fun events that went away were a world that I- that we- had created. It wasn’t there without us making it. And the pandemic was stripping that essence away and leaving only the cold reality of existence.
The Last Week of Normal Life
Prior to this year, the worlds I’d created were strong as marble. Friends brought tremendous comfort in the face of bleak reality. I miss telling them about my week in person, sharing the latest milestones in my family life, getting their guidance on the latest challenges at work, and reminiscing about all the times we’d gathered before. Tony Soprano said that “remember when” was the lowest form of communication, but he was wrong. Remembrances are rituals, things we return to as often as possible to fortify us and forge our sense of community. For me, these gatherings have often been at sporting events, most often Georgetown basketball games, or at two favorite bars: the Tombs and the Fox and the Hounds.
The week before the pandemic shut down our lives was a big one for my favorite rituals- watching the Georgetown Hoyas with friends.
What were these Georgetown Hoyas to me? In college, they established a sense of community. After college, during the Esherick years, they taught me sports angst. During the early JT3 years, they brought me a sense of hope and renewal. In the late JT3 years and Ewing era, the feeling went from cynicism to a gallows humor about a proud tradition potentially forever lost.
On Saturday, March 7th, the family and I made what I never expected would be my final trip of the year to the only place where I feel comfortable. We took a road trip to Washington, D.C. so I could attend the Hoyas game against long-time rival and, more recently, bullying big brother, Villanova. Georgetown’s season crashed and burned long before this game after it lost four players to transfers in the middle of the season. But this was Senior Day, and we would honor Jagan Mosely who, despite not making an NCAA tournament once during his four years on campus, represented everything we loved about Georgetown basketball- hard work, dedication, resilience, and decency. It was a beautiful ceremony, and Georgetown rose to the occasion on the court, as they beat Villanova fair and square, only to have the referees absolutely steal the game in the final seconds.
Maybe I’m so paralyzed by all the losses over the years, but the official result didn’t really bother me. It’s possible I already sensed what was coming, as reports from around the world of the pandemic continued to dominate the news and our economy began to crumble before our eyes. But on this Saturday, my closest friends, their families, and my family would gather at the Tombs, seated at the “Chimes” table, and enjoy a great meal and the best company. A ritual was fulfilled.
The Last Sporting Event in America
Despite how much they’d crush me, I wasn’t done with Georgetown basketball for the season yet. I planned to attend the Big East tournament in New York City. Georgetown was playing in what amounts to the JV bracket on Wednesday night but a win would mean a matchup with the top seed Thursday at noon. This was just four days after the game in D.C., but New York City was a very different experience. People avoided brushing up against each other with acrobatic pivots in a slightly less crowded Penn Station. The fans at Madison Square Garden embraced social distancing before it was cool by leaving plenty of empty seats between customers, even if that was more about the poor quality of basketball than epidemiology.
Georgetown was winning the whole game, and then they weren’t. Rival St. Johns went on a 23–0 run to end the game and the Hoyas lost. It would be the final sporting event I would watch until baseball returned in July. My friend Judd and I wondered if we had risked our lives for bad basketball. I went back to the hotel room I’d booked for the night and the stories came rolling in on the night that I believe truly changed the world. Tom Hanks and his wife had contracted the virus. NBA players had too, and their season was being suspended. March Madness was being cancelled. Suddenly, the severity of what we were all facing hit me. The last place I wanted to be was in New York City, so I made an expensive but entirely worthwhile investment in a rideshare and headed back to Mendham. The next morning, I would head out to make one of the largest grocery store runs of my life, and then our families’ quarantine would begin.
But what did any of it mean? In a day, sports would be gone for months. In fact, we attended the final fan-allowed sporting event in New York City in 2020. So would plays, and movies, and concerts. Happy hours and group dinners, verboten. A pick up basketball game, not a possibility. That new softball team I planned to join, or my son’s t-ball league? Canceled.
In the coming weeks, I would lose my mother, we’d face health scares, I’d be denied the opportunity to even reflect on these events given the pace of work, and the only thing that brought me out was the rebirth of some of my favorite rituals in a new form.
Mourning Alone, But With Everyone
On the way back from our D.C. trip, we stopped at my mother’s nursing home in New Brunswick. We knew my mother was in serious decline; I had authorized hospice care just a few weeks earlier. But typical of her resilience, my mother showed no outward signs of an imminent decline. She wasn’t eating, which was a proof to the doctors that her organs were in decline. But when we visited her that Sunday afternoon, she was very much herself in this final chapter of her life: gregarious, effusive with compliments, and warm, but also deeply repetitive in her inquiries and lines of discussion, and very forgetful. Nothing unusual for someone of her age.
I had spent the better part of the past decade caring for my mother, the last in a series of caretakers throughout her life that had started with her parents, became the Church when she was a nun, and finally led to my father. I was occasionally amazed that she managed to live 89 comfortable years on this planet while rarely ever having to manage any bills herself.
If my tone betrays a note of bitterness, I’m guilty of it. Our relationship was entirely reversed in that final decade and a half, with me as caretaker and her not providing anything that resembled parental care. And that would all be fine, I suppose, were it not for the manner in which her mean streak grew in the 21st century. We are both strong willed so it was natural to butt heads, but her rejoinders would cross the line wildly, dagger-like utterances that will never go away in my heart and mind, no matter how they were intended. The sharp metal jab of “I wish you were never born.” The cold steel cut of “Your father would be so disappointed in you.”
I bore my responsibility, on top of a pressure-filled career and a young family, despite those insults. And it was a burden that I bore entirely alone. My father would never say a bad word about her, but in her toughest moments, after she’d attacked me and him and he took it yet again, he’d exchange a look with me that made me know that he understood. My father and I chose different paths in dealing with the challenges she presented; I will never know whose path was better.
My mother had a good heart and her goal was to bring good into the world. But she also hurt people a lot, and perhaps she hurt the person who did the most for her more than anybody. And that will probably sting forever. If my grieving seemed subdued over these past few months, this is all a big reason why. So, yes, for me, the inevitable beatification of this complex person was yet another blow, especially when those celebrating her without a hint of nuance were as aware of her dark complexities as I was.
One of the hardest parts is where this leaves my children. My mother was not healthy enough to be much of a grandparent to either of them, at least in the sense of either taking a load off of us as parents or spoiling them on occasion. But her loss is nonetheless a stark reminder that my children will grow up as I did for most of my life- with only one grandparent. It’s a further reminder that the choices of one generation impact the later ones. Having children late in life sets off a multi-generational cycle of overworked, overpressured thirtysomething and fortysomething parents facing care responsibilities for young children and older parents at the same time.
My mother and I viewed our relationship through very different prisms these past ten years. What was in her mind, of course, was a lifetime of love and sacrifices. I could never remember, just as Rocco and Samantha will never remember from me, the years of complete self-sacrifice that occur in raising a young child.
What I could see were the darker moments, the ones I’m not fully ready to discuss from earlier in my life, but also the garden variety cruelty that my mother so often displayed over the last decade of her life.
On that day of our final visit, much of the world remained so ordinary. We visited as we always did. Rocco complained about it, and Samantha’s attention span was limited, and my mother repeated the same three talking points over and over. We left and drove home. She was ill, and we knew in theory that the end was near, but that was an ending that still seemed far away. Everything became much different soon after.
An Empty Bench
We started our quarantine with a major scare. Melissa came down with a very scary illness that caused intense coughing and lung pain. You, like I, would think she had COVID-19.The tests concluded she did not, so the mystery deepens. But whatever the illness was, the fear of COVID-19 in our own home only added to the gloom and uncertainty of this time. In particular, what if Melissa did have the virus, and I were to catch it from her, and we were both to become very sick? Who would care for our children? The hypothetical wasn’t that remote, as a 45 year old high school classmate died of the virus in March while his wife was hospitalized with it. Again, the absence of grandparents left us feeling particularly alone in the world. And even though we have the best friends in the world, and they would certainly step up heroically in this situation, it’s not a risk or sacrifice I’d ever willingly impose on them.
Beyond the practical considerations, this looming threat cut right to the existential realities of this time. My partner could die any day. I could die any day. When the distractions are gone- the dinners out, the work happy hours, the night at the theater, the Yankee game- we are left with the looming vulnerability and brevity of our own existence. I had built a schedule for 2020 that promised tons of distractions from these realities. The big kickoff was a Disney cruise around the Caribbean, but the year also brought plans for Yankee games, Broadway plays, milestone dinners, summer stadium concerts, and that was just the formal plan. There would surely be fun nights out and other distractions. Suddenly they were all gone. And what was left behind? Existential dread. For the faithful, not even religious services were available to serve as comfort. No wonder so many wanted this to end so quickly- it wasn’t just the economic hardship or boredom or whatever else- it was having to stare at the very real demons that lurk in the shadows behind the illuminating lights of distraction.
A Dizzying Spell at Work
One weekend in August, I treated myself to a large mint chocolate chip ice cream cone. As I licked the cone, I was fastidiously conscious of preventing the ice cream from dripping off the waffle cone onto the floor. I spent more time worried about keeping the cone neat and tidy than I did enjoying its deliciousness. And it was certain that I’d later loathe myself for the indulgence despite my unwillingness to fully experience the decadent joy.
Such is the way with my anxiety. It often produces remarkable efficiency and enviable results, but it leaves me something of a mess. And when things are actually out of control crazy, it can lead to a very challenging reality. Such was my work experience in those late spring days of 2020.
Work served as a 12 hour a day, overwhelming source of stress, anxiety, and challenges throughout the pandemic. I work with many wonderful people and a handful of challenging people, and the pandemic only made the wonderful people shine even more while amplifying the worst qualities of the challenging ones. For some people, work slowed down, or sadly disappeared, during the pandemic. For that reason, I’m loath to complain about being too busy- I’m very lucky to have secure, good paying work, and I know it. And I would never want to leave the impression that this applied in any way to my legal colleagues. I have never worked with a finer group than the legal organization at my current job. Still, the behavior of others utterly dismayed me.
I also learned something about myself, though.
I don’t like fish. The smell repulses me, the taste makes me nauseous, the sight of it is utterly unappetizing to me. For most of my life, I thought the day would come when I would need to learn to tolerate fish. It might be a professional dinner, or a social occasion, or some other meaningful moment when I would have no choice but to eat and enjoy fish. And this looming uncertain moment filled me with dread and anxiety. What if I gagged? What if I just couldn’t do it?
Now I’m 45 and I’m confident I will be able to make it my whole life without ever again eating fish. It’s who I am, and I’m empowered to make my own choices for myself, and I don’t have to pretend to like something that I don’t enjoy. And if someone thinks less of me because of that, it’s their loss.
I am trying to feel the same way about the other quirks of my personality. I feel passionately about people being honest at work and about people not being smarmy and condescending. And I especially hate people who bark orders or bully others and aren’t willing to step up to any responsibilities themselves. When people behave in these ways, it makes it difficult for me and anyone else to work with them.
I used to think my reactions to these types was a bug in my programming. Surely I was the one who needed to adjust. But I’ve come to realize that I’m entitled to a workplace defined by candor, honesty, mutual respect, and decency towards each other, and when I don’t find those qualities, I have the right and responsibility to push back against the bad actors. We have Trump now because not enough people pushed back against his narcissism, malevolence, and bullying when he could be stopped. I will always push back against the mini-Trumps I encounter.
More broadly, this time has also made me think about institutions, and how we judge their worth. The strength of the United States government’s institutions could not truly be evaluated until they faced the stress test of the Trump criminal syndicate, and the results sure aren’t encouraging. Also, any institution or entity might celebrate certain high-minded values, but if it doesn’t earn those values in the trenches every day, the words are nothing more than marketing smarm. Again, if you want to be respected, be accountable to your values. If you aren’t, you’ll never convince anyone who is a part of your institution to do anything more than go through the motions.
Sally Saharko, 1931–2020
My last conversation with my mother was short, and one-sided. The staff at her nursing home had kindly offered the option of FaceTime to families after the facility was shut down to outside parties. The hospice team and her usual medical team had made clear that the end was near, and they began the comfort treatments that marked her transition. Under normal circumstances, I would be spending those last hours by her side at the facility. These were of course the most abnormal of circumstances. I suppose I could have fought my way into the facility and successfully said goodbye in person. But my decision not to have that fight- partially altruistic, partially selfish- was the right one, I think. In the coming weeks, we’d learn that there were dozens of cases among staff and patients at the facility.
Many have written eloquently about loss during the COVID pandemic. I have appreciated the distinction that has been drawn between losing someone due to COVID and losing someone for some other reason during COVID. Falling into the latter category is isolating. My mother’s name won’t appear on the front page of the New York Times and no one will include her in any form as part of the history of this time. That is rightly reserved to the victims of this particular crisis. But it isn’t just that she lost out on some place in history that she surely would have enjoyed; it’s that she was denied the basic celebration of her life that she would have wanted.
Certainly, that will come someday. At first, we thought we would look to thread the needle between the end of the first wave and any potential second wave by doing it some time in the fall. Now, it’s apparent that it won’t be safe until 2021, so we will hopefully gather then, unless Trump wins and the country is in literal and figurative flames. But this chapter is never really closed until that happens. I also wind my way through dealing with her estate. After a lifetime of smart saving, due to the extraordinary costs of end of life care (and even with my monthly supplementing of her income), my parents’ estate will just about break even, with nothing to hand down to heirs.
Being parentless is not what I expected. As I noted above, since my father’s death, I have been a caretaker for my mother, and she has not played any parent role in my life. In fact, I was just happy when I’d make it through the day without her yelling at me during some of those rougher years. I didn’t expect to feel this incredible void. Probably part of it is being denied the wake and funeral for my mother, but it’s more than that. Surprisingly, I’ve mostly found myself missing my father more than I had in years.
I started to focus deeply on how he lived these oh so challenging years of work and parenting young children. I have wondered repeatedly: what were the mid-life years like for my father? As many of you know, my father was married to Jean and that’s my sister’s mother. She died tragically very early, but even before her death, she had numerous struggles that forced my father into the role of primary parent. He never told me- his time with his first wife was always this box locked away from us, partially out of respect for my mother, probably to avoid confusing me in my early years. But I never truly understood what I was missing until it was no longer possible to have it. I remember that, when I was cleaning out the basement in my childhood home after my father’s death, I found some pictures of my father and Jean out in the city. His face was filled with joy. How I’d love to have learned more about their courtship, and the sadness he felt upon her passing, and he found a strength to try again with my mother.
On the darker side, what was it like to be a father with a young daughter, multiple jobs, and an ailing wife? How did he make it through those years? What choices did he make that left him so physically vulnerable that he suffered a massive heart attack just after I was born? How did he find the resilience to go on when life seemed overwhelming? I don’t have the answer to those questions. At least my children will know what I was thinking and feeling, even if I’m not around to tell them myself.
My mother’s loss also made me wrestle with one of the questions most frequently in my mind during this time, that being the line between empathy and accountability. I thought about it in the global context. Could Donald Trump have become anyone other than who he is given his father’s cruelty, and do I owe him some empathy as a result of that despite the daily horror show he brings into the world? (I’ve concluded that’s a hard no.) Similarly, how much of my mother’s behavior was a result of the life she was given and her own mental challenges, and do I owe her empathy for the struggles she faced rather than demanding accountability for her cruel behavior as a result?
It seems to be a sliding scale. The more that I hold my mother accountable, the more at peace I am with myself. The more that I feel empathy for my mother, the more confused and ill at ease I feel. Judging my mother brings certainty and closure. Finding the shades of grey in her story- acknowledging that she did love me deeply- leaves me to grapple with the mysteries of our relationship more and more. I am guessing I will ping pong back and forth over the decades.
Some day, Rocco and Samantha will reach a moment to judge me as well. I don’t ask for their empathy. I ask for them to judge me however will work best for them to lead healthy, happy, successful lives. If I’ve been a barrier to that path, I hope they will hold me accountable.
Struggles for All, Especially for Those with Special Needs
I mentioned earlier that our four year old daughter has autism. She was diagnosed very early, and she’s been receiving an extensive battery of treatments even before the diagnosis. ABA therapy. Speech therapy. Physical therapy.Music therapy. Horse therapy. I’m impossibly lucky to work for a company that provides me with great health benefits that made all these treatments possible, but they also required significant financial sacrifice on our part.
With the emergence of COVID, all of those therapies vanished or were greatly diminished for months. We, and largely Melissa, would be responsible for ensuring that Samantha continued her cognitive growth during this time.
If this wasn’t complicated enough, Samantha has also struggled for her whole life with eczema, skin allergies, and whatever else remains undiagnosed that has left her constantly dealing with rashes and itchy discomfort.
It is hard work being her parent. And it’s not nearly as hard for me as it is for Melissa. Samantha demands constant attention. Before the pandemic, the attention was broken up through her days at ABA school and her time in speech and physical therapy. But COVID also took those away, turning Melissa into a parent/therapist/counselor aide. The day consistently started at 5 a.m. with screaming. Her short attention span means ping ponging from task to task. Her inability to express those constant wants leads to tantrums. Every day is exhausting.
Samantha’s needs affect everyone else of course. Melissa is perpetually exhausted, physically and emotionally. Rocco is left with the short end of the stick in terms of parental attention. I fare the best as I am in my office working, but the reverberations hit me as well of course as the contagion of these challenges spreads in the air.
The hardest part of it all is the loneliness. No one close to us has faced a similar journey, and thus as kind as they are and as hard as they might try, they could never understand the realities of daily life. Rocks in the pool are just one of a hundred things that happen every day that test our patience and deny us any individual freedom. You don’t plan for a child to still be in diapers when she is 4.
So you face it alone, except for the people in your immediate family who are also strained beyond recognition by the challenge. There are no days off, no comforting hugs, no sudden drop bys to cover while you take a break for self care. We have no grandparents to help, and we never have. The pandemic and my mother’s recent death haven’t changed that, they just brought it into starker relief. This is never going to get easier, so build your resilience to face it or get crushed in the rubble.
A Budget Fight
Our school system is considered one of the strongest in the nation. Our elementary school received a blue ribbon designation. During the pandemic, Rocco’s curriculum was vibrant and complete, with my only complaint being that it was maybe too complete given the challenges of distance education. Nonetheless, the school system is the crown jewel of this town and the reason we moved here.
We haven’t made many friends in town, particularly me, and even many we thought we’d made last year proved entirely situational. So when one of our true new friends reached out and asked one of us to speak in favor of the Board’s proposed budget, it was a no brainer that we would do so. A coalition of my least favorite people in town coalesced around opposing a small increase in the budget, which amounted to no more than the cost of a weekly cup of coffee for million dollar homeowners in this town. Although I wasn’t deeply acquainted with the facts in dispute, it was clear enough that the school administration and Board of Education were in the right, and the rich anti-budget cranks were in the wrong. Then those cranks decided to do us a big favor.
We found the letter on Facebook. It had been distributed to some residents, naturally not including us. The letter was intended as a call to action against the school board budget, but it was so poorly crafted as to be a parody. The letter alluded to nefarious forces in the administration and on the Board conspiring to take their money away. As ridiculous as that sounded, it couldn’t possibly match perhaps the most ridiculous line that I’ve ever read in a piece of persuasive writing, and I’ve read Ben Shapiro’s writing! The author actually said- and I swear I’m not making this up- that the success of our school district was not due to the teachers and schools themselves but to the wildly successful parents who gave birth to these children. Just a remarkable assertion, at the nexus of narcissism, easily demonstrated falsity, and blinding arrogance.
Inspired, I got to writing. My remarks couldn’t help but focus on the letter. When your opponents give you a gift like that, you have to use it. But my larger themes were about trusting in expertise and respecting the fact that in a civil society, some initiatives will directly benefit you and others will not, but the greater good and public interest should be the ultimate goal. I was pleased with how it turned out, but I figured that was the end of it. I continued receiving feedback even weeks later about it. When you believe in something, stand up for it- you might find that the benefits of doing so rebound to your benefit in the discovery of allies that you never had before.
I needed that feedback, too. Because every day I was feeling less and less connected to the world. We came out hard and fast in this community running for office, and we made a lot of enemies in the process, both due to the inevitability of competition and to my own unwillingness to let things go. But the hope was always that meaningful friendships would balance out those animosities. I was finding that wasn’t the case. I was settling into a place where I had no friends and didn’t feel welcome at any social events in town because one of my many enemies might be there. One particularly mean-spirited local leader felt no shame in poisoning people against us with lies in one breath and then seeking to aid her own ambitions through our hard work in the next. This didn’t seem like a way to live the next twenty years of my life.
What a 12 months in this new town of ours. We’d joined the local Democrats to make friends, and ended up making tons of enemies. We spent last year knocking on thousands of doors, and now we were shut in, all the doors closed. My resentment towards the town only grew and grew. How could they elect an objectively monstrous human being like Thurston/Salmon Pants over our team? Why had my team abandoned us so completely, choosing power over decency? It made me feel completely alienated. The privilege here is so overpowering, it shocks the conscience daily. But my alienation only heightened my loneliness, and something needed to change before I fell apart.
Zoom Zoom Zoom
Terrifying illness, immediate family death, overwhelming workloads, and a world in a state of deep sadness and anxiety. All of that was cancelled out by yet another proof that I have the best friends in the world. Whether it was work friends stepping up to schedule happy hours and send me food, or my dear overlapping but distinct friends from Georgetown checking in on me multiple times a week, or my friends from Columbia getting the members of the band from whom I’m not estranged together to chat, I was bombarded by the gift of friendship. I’ve made no secret of the fact that I had certain expectations when I moved back to New Jersey. I thought I would slide right back into the social life I left behind when I left for law school in 2005. That has been one of the most resounding miscalculations and disappointments of my life. Since we moved back up here, I’ve been completely starting from scratch. I have some amazing coworkers, and I’ve made some great local friends, but it’s been a real struggle. Suddenly, social lives became wholly virtual. There would not be a happy hour that no one would think to invite me to because I lived 240 miles away. I was now back on the invite list, spending time with the people that meant the most to me in the world. And Good Lord, it was fun. The work days were bad, and my heart was sad, and there was a lot of mad in there as well, but all of these folks made me happy. Heck, I even reconnected in a close way with friends who had drifted for no reason other than the vagaries of geography and only so many hours in the day.
For a while, I was zooming four or five nights a week. This gave me the idea to recreate the experience at my favorite DC bar with many of my closest friends. Nights at this favorite bar of mine were always eclectic. I started going there in 1997 when I worked on the Hill and worked right on the border between Dupont and the U Street corridor. The Fox offered cheap drinks and ample indoor and outdoor seating. I can count on one hand the number of times that I’ve had to stand there. It figured in so many of my greatest post-college memories and then, when I returned for law school, I evangelized about the spot to a whole new generation of friends. And the Fox was there in my darkest and brightest moments, a simple, some might say dismal backdrop for the joys of living in a big city in your twenties and thirties.
One of the joys of the Fox in those later years was the mix of people I’d see there. You might see three friends from Georgetown, a handful from law school, a group from the law firm, some federal government colleagues. They all mixed and mixed well. Well, except for that one guy who hated it, but he turned out to be an asshole. So many great, hazy memories. I missed it.
So what better time to try and recreate it? And it worked. I started the evening out by the pool, as if I were on the deck at the Fox, with current coworkers. Slowly others mingled in, including my first ever attendee from my high school! (Goodness, I wish we’d been closer when I went through that experience the first time.) As the night wore on, people filtered in and out and by the end of the night, the only thing that stopped the momentum was me reaching a level of drunkenness that made me know it was time to say goodnight. But instead of stumbling into a cab on 17th Street, I closed the Zoom session and stumbled up the stairs. So much easier.
The End of the Beginning
In many ways, that Fox Zoom night was the end of what I’ll think of as the first phase of the COVID experience. The numbers started to turn in New York and New Jersey, and our excellent leaders cautiously began reopening things. In other areas of the country that were less affected, things opened up dramatically. Work receded from daily crisis mode to some level of normalcy. I had seemingly blocked my mother’s death from my mind.
Just as the cold and gloomy nature of this time began to recede, suddenly we were on fire. The racism that is the original sin and defining characteristic of this country took its place at the center of our national conversation following the brutal murder of George Floyd. We as privileged white people who comfort ourselves by reciting our commitment to equality and empathy also have an incredible amount of work to do. I can’t say that I’ve processed what that work will always mean but I do know there are four things I can and must do. First, I must work hard in the community to promote change and opportunity. Whether it’s pro bono or volunteer work, or other actions, I must get involved. There is value when you devote your most precious resource- time- to efforts. Second, I will continue to work for political change in this country. Trumpism began with a racist conspiracy and it remains a coalition of the worst among us- racists and white supremacists, and the casual institutional racists who don’t truly care either way as long as their bank accounts continue to grow. The movement must not only be defeated, it must be destroyed. Third, I need to challenge my own implicit biases. They exist. How am I ensuring that I am not allowing them to influence the way I live and work? Constant self-examination is necessary, and regular conversations should be occurring.
Lately I find myself having troubling daydreams about my mother’s final day. How, even though she faced the fog of death, she must have felt or at least sensed how terribly alone she was in that moment. She had lived her life as a narcissist with communitarian impulses- she gave to others because of how it would reflect on her. Who knows, maybe we all do. But could there be a crueler fate for a person who lived her life that way to outlive all of her siblings, and her husband, and spend her final days in a locked down nursing home that resembled a science fiction movie?
There are twin values that make our world a better place: resilience and empathy. We must be resilient when we face challenges, and the only way to build resilience is in facing those challenges. But we also must view the challenges of others with empathy- not with some hardened sense that their challenges are lesser or that we could handle them better, but with the recognition that you never know what one person is facing and you never know how equipped he or she is to handle it.
The end of the first act of the virus coincided with my 45th birthday. Months ago, we’d talked about throwing a big party; that was obviously out now. But life at this time was creeping back towards some form of normalcy in New Jersey. We’d done our first outside, socially distanced barbecue at a friends house on Independence Day. A close friend visited Mendham on the way home from vacation. We ate our first meal at a restaurant since March on my birthday.
Turning 45 in the midst of all of this left me more melancholic than forty-something birthdays already did. My father died at age 87, my mother at 89. It doesn’t take an actuary to tell you that I am likely in the “and back” portion of the “there and back” race that is life. Of course my life has so many joys- an amazing, loving nuclear family, the best group of friends on the planet, a great job which presents a career’s worth of opportunities ahead. And yet so much feels unsettled- the debt that comes from buying a home that matches your hoped for earning potential rather than your current earnings, challenging, high pressure, never-slowing-down work engagements, too many antagonisms for one grudge-holding man to fight.
July became a time of creeping back towards normality- a first meal out, a first happy hour, the first time hosting friends at the pool, all while following our new rules cautiously and conservatively. But even as we crept towards some sense of life before, there was dread, Dread of a completely unpredictable school year that would begin with making impossible choices. Gloom about the incredibly long, shut in winter that likely awaits us. Utter, abject terror that Trump might win again and deliver the death blow to our republic.
There were undeniably good developments too. My daughter was sleeping later and her verbal skills were exploding. There was even talk of her being ready for kindergarten in a couple of years. Work was going very well. In a time of uncertainty, I felt confident in my ability and my place in the company, and I found myself surrounded by friends and colleagues with deep passion, sincerity, kindness, and conviction.
By the beginning of August, we started facing those challenging signs of the darkness on the edge of town. It would be winter soon enough. Smart health care experts were saying the virus would recur when we moved our lives back inside. The dangers of a contested election and the threat of our country’s first violently contested transfer of power were dangerously real. We delayed economic calamity in the spring, but the Trump administration had failed us and there were no more protections coming. You could almost hear Ned Stark whispering “winter is coming” in the darkness. August presented more moments of joy than any month since the winter- beach trips, visits with friends and family, professional sports- but there was a real sense that these were the last days of disco. September brought the crushing news of the death of Justice Ginsburg, and the fear that the cabal of white nationalist oligarchs that control this country would further cement their hold on power.
This document is now six months old. It seems to me that the next six months will likely be harder than any we’ve experienced. My dominant emotions are anger and sadness. The tribalism of our politics leaves me wondering how I can ever hope to coexist with anyone who supported that monster ever again. This is a bleak time, the bleakest I can recall.
In, But Not Of
“Suddenly, you realize you’ll never have the good relationship you wanted, and as long as they were alive, even though you’d never admit it, part of you, the stupidest goddamn part of you, was still holding on to that chance. And you didn’t even realize it until that chance went away.
My mother is dead, and everything is worse now, because now I know I will never have a mother who looks at me from across a room and says, “BoJack Horseman, I see you.” But I guess it’s good to know. It’s good to know that there is nobody looking out for me, that there never was, and there never will be. No, it’s good to know that I am the only one that I can depend on. And I know that now and it’s good. It’s good that I know that. So… it’s good my mother is dead.”
In government, sometimes an office or commission will be housed within or be connected to a larger agency for administrative ease, even though it is legally independent. This concept is known as being “in, but not of.” In the course of researching this essay, I learned for the first time that this is also a term that certain Christians use to describe their relationship to the world.
I started to think about this bureaucratic organizing principle as a fairly decent analogy for where I find myself right now. I live in a town where I feel completely isolated and alienated from the entire population. I feel disconnected from family. I have wonderful friends but being geographically distant leaves me feeling on the outs. What’s most troubling is that these were all my choices to make.
When I was a first year associate at a very good law firm in DC, I was assigned to a case working for a rising star partner who had clerked at the Supreme Court. Now I graduated from law school with highest honors and found a path to this firm, so I certainly was not lacking credentials. But the first question this partner asked me was who I clerked for.
Now clerking would have been a dream job for me. It’s the path that most elite law school graduates pursue for their first year or two after law school. A chance to think about the law and write draft opinions for judges- what could possibly be better? And again, I had the credentials to get the type of elite clerkship that would shine on my resume for years to come. The problem was that clerkships did not pay well, and my resources were deeply in the negative by my third year of law school. So I didn’t apply to be a clerk after law school and I instead went to work for the firm as a first year associate.
When I told this partner that I hadn’t clerked, her face suddenly went cold, and her lips pursed up as if she’d just chewed a lemon. From that moment forward, I was lesser in her mind. I would never fit in her world. It became one of many worlds I found myself in as a worker, student, or member, but not “of” in the sense of belonging.
This time has been a stark reminder of feeling “in, but not of,” I was the only kid from a working class town in parochial schools from third grade through the end of high school. My social immaturity and moral inflexibility, coupled with my peers unnecessary cruelty, left me feeling alone and isolated. My only refuge was a church youth group, but even there I was the kid from Manville surrounded by what I then perceived as the affluent kids from Hillsborough.
Being “in, but not of” ends up cycling on itself. At Georgetown, with the encouragement of my overly class conscious and paranoid parents, I assumed that I was an outsider as the kid from Manville, and I acted accordingly. It would turn out, of course, that the guys I met at Georgetown were the finest I met in my entire life and the ones that allowed me to grow into the man I am today.
As we’ve discussed, likely at length, the next 15 years represented a reversal of this sense of alienation as I finally found a sense of belonging. In graduate school, I developed a great group of friends. Working in Atlantic City as a journalist, I often felt terribly lonely but I made lifelong friends. Then it was on to Trenton, where I made what seemed at the team to be one of the finest groups of friends I’ve ever made. And from there, law school and Covington- amazing people, great connections. My time at the FCC only solidified- I had a home in Washington, D.C. where I was surrounded by loyal friends from several eras. Life was good.
Then 2015 and 2016 happened. I got the final evidence of what I’d long suspected, that one group of friends that had initially built my confidence as being a part of a community no longer wanted me. And then another group that I valued even more did the same. Worlds of essence crumbling. And then there was Trump’s victory, and the threat of the town being taken over by the worst people on the planet. In fact, a Trump deputy chief of staff and her scumbag lobbyist husband turned my neighborhood into “The Swamp” shortly after the election.
We would be leaving D.C. And somehow we ended up in a town that reignited every insecurity I’d ever had about wealth and status. We had no friends, and no support. I had a great job, and I still do, but that was it.
As I recounted last year in another long-winded essay, we turned to the local Democrats to find like-minded individuals. And we thought we found some. But we also found some deeply mean, back-biting, condescending, patronizing jerks who made me feel more isolated than I ever had before. And the ultimate election result- where the very definition of everything I hate in the world somehow won the election despite how we outworked and outstrategized his arrogant ass in every single way, left me despondent.
The natural instinct was to withdraw from everything related to this town, and then COVID cemented that strategy. So in a time when your neighbors and your community became more important than ever, I didn’t have one.
And now we face the end of the worst year. We have an aspiring autocrat in the White House who will actively cheat to win and may not leave when he loses. His cultists have millions of guns and have been conditioned to hate people like me. The evil geniuses of the right wing over the past 50 years have brought us to this point where a second civil war seems not just a crazy thought, but at least a possibility.
One of the most familiar maxims out there is if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all. Well, a corollary to that is, if you do have something nice to say, you should do everything in your power to say it. I try to live by that. A few weeks ago, a dear friend was kind enough to rely on that maxim to pass along some kind words from an acquaintance who said I was smart, funny, and kind. My initial internal reaction was shock that anyone thought that about me. My second reaction was that I used to believe that about myself. Just three years here, and a long period of frequent disappointing ends to friendships before that, have left me shaken. I’d put my closest friends up against anyone, of course, but they aren’t here, and here has been very unwelcoming to me.
I come to this scary time feeling very alone. I am a man without a community, with friends who aren’t close by, with debts no honest man can pay, with daily demands that would break most, and with the fervent hope that someone just once would look me in the eyes and say, Peter Saharko, I see you, and I see your struggle, and I love you. The last person who did that was my father. He is in my heart, but he is no longer of this world. And so I stand alone.
A Coda About Power
I close with a thought about power. As I type this, the evil Republicans in Washington are demonstrating they will use it ruthlessly, without any regard for norms and decency. On a more local and personal level, I have seen what an aphrodisiac it is for some, and how it has warped their souls. Ultimately, Tolkien’s ring metaphor is the best one. We must do everything we can to keep power from the wicked and to keep power and the thirst for it from turning others wicked. Right now, I feel very alone and powerless. But I know that I need to get back up and fight. And I will.