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About Bright Moments

Sean MurphyPlease Talk about Me When I’m Gone is a memoir about love, loss, grief and recovery.

It’s also a memoir about dialogue: a dialogue with my mother, a dialogue with myself and my memories, and a dialogue with the reader.

In telling my mother’s (and my family’s) story, I recall the many things we knew and, importantly, what we did not know. We became experts on how to deal with the day-to-day urgencies of a terminal cancer patient; what we didn’t know was the wealth of resources available to us: organizations and individuals who can help. [Read more…]

Brooklyn, 2014: Words & Music, New-School Style

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May 29, 2014.

It was billed as a throwback to the old Beatnik days, minus the bongos and clove cigarettes.

As such, New York City was a mandatory locale; Brooklyn made it perfect.

Gratitude to The Tea Lounge for accommodating us.

 

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On the bill: “Author” Sean Murphy, guitarists Jon Madof and Aram Bajakian and drummer/percussionist Mathias Kunzli.

I’ve enjoyed and respected these three musicians for many years. I’ve written about them before (check it out HERE, HERE, HERE and HERE) and I’ll write about them again.

And even if this was a one-off event (which I certainly hope it won’t be) this was an extraordinary opportunity to share the stage with these brilliant artists.

I had high expectations and can honestly say that they were all surpassed, on creative, personal and spiritual levels.

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Regarding the video below, my goal was (and still is) to edit it out into more bite-sized, viewer-friendly bits. But for now, here it is as it went down, two hours of words, music, improvisation and the sound of many, many coffee drinks being made.

For those who wish to proceed directly to the spoken passages (or, the smart people who wish to proceed directly to the improvised music), here is a rough guide to help you navigate.

0:00-4:50 — Stage setting

4:51-6:10 — Introductions

6:11-10:58 — First reading (“Please Talk about Me When I’m Gone”)

10:59-14:11 — Second Reading (“Conversation”)

14:12-23:40 — First Improvisation

23:41-28:30 –Third Reading (Poem: “As Opposed to Prayer”)

28:31-35:05 — Fourth Reading/Improvisation (Short Story: “Waiting Room”)

35:06-41:12 — Second Improvisation

41:12-46:41 — Fifth Reading (“Bright Moments”)

46:42-50:02 — Third Improvisation

50:03-53:42 — Sixth Reading (“Sanctuary”)

53:53-56:14 — Fourth Improvisation

56:17-1:03.53 — Seventh Reading (“Not To Mention A Nice Life”)

1:03.54-1:09.05 — Fifth Improvisation

1:09.06-1:12.12 — Eighth Reading (“Drinking”)

1:12.13-1:23.00 — Sixth Improvisation

1:23.01-1:32.45 — Ninth Reading (“Good Neighbors/Newark Airport, 1980″)

1:32.46-1:46.16 — Seventh Improvisation

1:46.17-1:52.06 — (“Golfing Buddies”)

1:52.07-1:57.28 — Eighth Improvisation

Some Thoughts on 5Ks, Colon Cancer, Charity and the Redemption of Friends

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I ran my first 5K last Sunday.

Anyone who knows anything about me will likely have two reactions, in this order. One: no chance. Two: anything is now officially possible, not excluding world peace.

I’m here to tell you, it happened. And now that my body has finally stopped aching, I can talk about the experience.

First and foremost: I had the type of epiphany one might expect or at least hope for during a state of heightened consciousness. Mine was simple: I’m not a runner and never will be.

And yet. I’ve already signed up to run another 5K. Soon (as in: less than two weeks soon).

Have I gone insane?

No, I have found a way to get more involved with fundraising and awareness. As anyone who follows my blog or has attended one of my readings will know, I’ve made an effort to engage with cancer-related organizations. Indeed, every one of my readings doubled as a fundraiser, and I am thrilled to have raised a few thousand dollars for some very worthy folks, including Hospice of the Piedmont and The Lombardi Cancer Center.

It was, in fact, while speaking at The Lombardi Center’s annual cancer symposium in December that I met the leadership team from Chris4Life. In short order, I happily associated myself with this incredible group of people and am donating books that they can sell, with all profits going directly to the organization. I also look forward to reading/speaking at future events, and doing pretty much anything I can to endorse and assist their work.

Which brings us to the 5K. Every spring Chris4Life sponsors the Scope it Out 5k. Everything about this event is special: the participants, the volunteers, the locale (the run occurs in downtown D.C.) and, of course, the cause. I had modest aspirations, both in terms of the funds I could solicit and completing this race, at least without walking. Against my own most optimistic projections, I did in fact complete the race (an 11-minute mile pace; I’m not going to threaten any Olympians but this is respectable, I reckon, for a 43 year old non-runner), and much more importantly, I raised over $4.5K.

This spectacular amount is entirely due to the generosity and support of my unbelievable network of friends and family. Period. It became almost ludicrous, watching the donations pour in, a stream of solidarity one dollar at a time. And while every penny counts and it’s not appropriate to name names, suffice it to say that some folks truly went above and beyond: I was humbled to the point of being staggered by the generosity on display.

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And this gets to the heart of why I wrote the memoir, why I hope to share it with as many people as possible, and how I’ve (mostly) been able to turn my despair at losing a beloved mother so young into an outlet for positive action. Annually, I have the same message to share on New Year’s Eve, and I’ll repeat it here: Don’t be cynical: find a charity you can feel good about supporting, endorse the efforts of our great artists, tell your parents you love them, appreciate –and savor– the friends who always have your back. Be good to strangers and be better to yourself: you deserve it.

There are myriad reasons I’ll never resort to cynicism; life is too short and there are too many good people and reasons to remain engaged, active and positive. But seeing the marker on my website climb to $7,080 raised means two things: my goal of $10,000 by end of 2014 seems suddenly reasonable, and doable, and that I can’t—and won’t—stop here.

And so: more action, more fundraising, more…running.

Speaking of the run, I was too focused on putting one foot in front of the other to think about much, but of course many things ran through my mind as I busied myself running. Foremost, what I was there for: my mother’s memory, certainly, but also the other people we’ve lost. And the people who are presently fighting for their lives. And for the amazing people who have literally dedicated their lives to eradicating cancer, or at least fighting it more effectively, more efficiently. The doctors, oncologists, nurses, scientists, and especially the folks who felt the call: the people who work with Hospice or at organizations like Chris4Life. Raising money, getting out of bed early on a Sunday and running a few miles seems, truly, like the least one can do.

And even as I ran with my sister and her family (by each other’s side, once again, as it’s been from the beginning) and some beloved friends, it filled me with a pride and sense of accomplishment. I have somehow managed to live a sufficiently purposeful life and have been lucky enough to surround myself with remarkable human beings. I know that has made all the difference. As I ran, I thought of the people who had taken the time to support my cause, the people who have read—and responded—to my memoir, the people who encourage me and offer me solace and inspiration. In his poem “Ulysses” Alfred Lord Tennyson wrote “I am a part of all that I have met.” You feel that when you reflect on your life, and if you’re fortunate, you are far greater a person having so many others helping comprise what you hope to become.

In my memoir I recall the difference it made, seeing so many of these people there during the darkest days:

Looking out, all my familiar faces: my father, my sister, her husband, my nephew and niece, the two aunts—my mother’s sisters—who had been with us for those awful, awe-inspiring final two weeks, and behind them the confidantes, colleagues, childhood friends, grown-up acquaintances, friends’ parents, and all the less recognizable faces I hadn’t seen in so many years. This is the closest we come to witnessing our own funerals. The same people there to support us, smile and cry with us, becoming part of the moments that become memories; an event that connects us and brings us closer, no matter how far away or disparate our lives might otherwise be.

Looking out at my family and understanding that they helped shape me, that I wouldn’t change anything even if I could. We learn to put away childish things and earn the chances we’ve been given, the responsibility to carry on the work that has already been done on our behalves. Equal parts fate and good fortune, we look at those familiar faces and understand what they have done, and what we need to do.

This past year has solidified a sense of purpose with a sense of urgency. I want to do more, because it’s the least I can do. When I think of all the gentle and gracious souls that surround me (and live on, inside me) I’m reminded, yet again, of what I’ve done, and what I need to do.

Interview at Book Club Reading List

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Author Interview – Sean Murphy

What inspired you to write this book?

When my mother died in 2002 at the age of fifty-nine, I found myself both shattered and honored to have been a witness. In order to live and to keep her memory alive, I needed to make sense of her death.

I knew I would inevitably write about her, but I wasn’t certain what form the material would take. Eventually I realized it could be –it had to be– a memoir. The result is Please Talk about Me When I’m Gone.

The antagonist of this particular tale is cancer, but implicit in the narrative is an appreciation that a struggle with illness -and the ways it can unite or disintegrate families— is a true story for too many people. It can be a horror story or a ghost story, a love story and a real-life fairy tale, where memory and devotion are capable of outlasting death.

The memoir unfolds in a range of voices —first person, second person, third— from the points of view of a mother, a father, a son. The story of one woman’s life and death is interpolated with meditations on the causes and effects of alienation and empathy, faith and friendship, and the cultivation of an artistic sensibility. The whole is an examination —and interrogation— of sickness, grief, love, and remembrance.

My ultimate goal is to promote awareness, and I am working closely with cancer-affiliated groups and charities to raise funds. My experience has reinforced a belief that nobody should (or need to) go through this alone: if my memoir builds solidarity and empowers anyone who finds themselves in a similar situation, I know I’m honoring my mother’s memory in a way she would advocate.

What topics in your book or background do you think book clubs would find interesting?

The topic of death (in general) and losing a loved one (in particular) are ones that many people, for many reasons, are unwilling or ill-equipped to grapple with. This memoir, in addition to telling the story of my mother’s life and how that experience shaped me, also interrogates issues of existence, lessons learned from dealing with a terminally ill patient, and suggestions for how I’d advise someone, based on my experience, to avoid mistakes we made, or understand things we wish we had known. By discussing this, I think everyone benefits. My experience thus far visiting book clubs has resulted in very useful, occasionally emotional, discussion.

Tell us about your career outside of writing and how it influenced your writing.

I’ve been publishing fiction, reviews (music, movie, book, food), and essays on the technology industry for almost twenty years. I blog at bullmurph.com and write regularly for PopMatters. My background in academia prepared me to use a love of art to ask questions (of myself, about the world) that enhance our ability to understand existence, and each other. Inevitably, a love of experiences and things: food, drink, sports, conversation, the outdoors, and the solitude required to think and write, all influence, and inform the things I write.

Describe your style of writing.

I would say I try to use an economic style to increase the emotional import, while allowing the reader to react and color the writing with their own feelings and impressions. This memoir uses very short chapters and shifts back and forth in time to give an accurate approximation of how memory works, particularly when dealing with grief. Although it’s a very personal story, I sought to write in a way that respectfully deals with universal themes in ways that any reader can, and will, understand and relate to.

Which authors have inspired you?

Too many to list, but I’ve been inspired and influenced by Poe, Melville, Flannery O’Connor, Milan Kundera, Kurt Vonnegut, Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, Keats, Shelley and Bukowski. Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried is one of the more important books in my life, and I regularly revisit Catch 22, Invisible Man, The Picture of Dorian Gray, and anything by Orwell.

 

Please Talk about Me When I’m Gone: A Primer

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          i. Encomium

  August 30, 2002. I thought: Everything that is good about me is because of my mother.

I was in a church for the first time in forever. The church where I served its first-ever mass as an altar boy. The church where I received the Sacrament of Confirmation. The church where my parents celebrated their twenty-fifth wedding anniversary. The church where my sister was married. The church where I almost got married.

My father said: Obviously you’ll deliver the eulogy.

Question: How will I get through it?

How did you get through it, friends and family asked.

Answer: I don’t know.

It had been half a lifetime since I’d experienced this vantage point. Standing on the altar, looking down at a church filled with somber, expectant faces. All those years as an altar boy, hearing the words and receiving the ritual on its austere terms, the practiced movements and mannerisms that sought to convey the meaning—and purpose—of existence in sixty minutes or less. Carefully studying the priest who presided over the congregation, routinely looking up at those stained glass images that looked down at us, filling the room with an inexpressible piety and approbation.

Periodically I would be called on to serve a wedding and less frequently a funeral. Weddings were preferable for both obvious and selfish reasons: happy events, pretty women, and typically a few extra dollars for my time. The funerals were, in practically every sense, the opposite. I’d only been to one funeral before becoming an altar boy, and while I’d been old enough, at ten, to remember it, I mostly recalled how surreal it was to see my grandmother in an open casket, and the way my mother, her siblings, and their father wept; not being able to console them or fully grasp the depth of my own sorrow.

“Listen to the words,” my father had told me, sensing my ambivalence before I prepared, at age twelve, for my first funeral mass. “It’s actually a very beautiful service.” I listened to him, and I listened to the words. I listened to everything, then. The passages and prayers—some familiar, some not—were carefully chosen, and went a considerable way toward impressing upon my adolescent mind how communal, and inevitable, this rite of passage was for everyone who drew breath. Someday each of us will watch a loved one die, and eventually all of us will pass on from here to there. That’s where the meaning of the words—and whether or not you believed them—came into play. I believed the words; I believed everything, then.

She said: I’ll never leave you.

Neither of us realized, then, that in addition to comforting me—like she always did—she was also preparing me for this moment.

She knew what it was like to leave. How, she must have wondered, did I end up here? First in the dry expanse of Arizona, and later just outside the nation’s capital, while the rest of her family—brothers and sisters and all those nieces, nephews, brothers-in-law and sisters-in-law—remained just outside Boston. All the questions she learned not to ask. Or, rather, she came to realize there are no good answers for. And more, if we’re lucky in life, we don’t need to ask after a while.

Looking out, all my familiar faces: my father, my sister, her husband, my nephew and niece, the two aunts—my mother’s sisters—who had been with us for those awful, awe-inspiring final two weeks, and behind them the confidantes, colleagues, childhood friends, grown-up acquaintances, friends’ parents, and all the less recognizable faces I hadn’t seen in so many years. This is the closest we come to witnessing our own funerals. The same people there to support us, smile and cry with us, becoming part of the moments that become memories; an event that connects us and brings us closer, no matter how far away or disparate our lives might otherwise be.

Looking out at my family and understanding that they helped shape me, that I wouldn’t change anything even if I could. We learn to put away childish things and earn the chances we’ve been given, the responsibility to carry on the work that has already been done on our behalves. Equal parts fate and good fortune, we look at those familiar faces and understand what they have done, and what we need to do.

I think: Everything that is good about me is because of my mother.

 

            ii. Q&A

Question: What would you do differently?

Answer: Nothing.

True answer: Everything.

Truest answer: I don’t know.

***

            If the death of a loved one provides the ultimate answer it also prompts all sorts of questions.

The universal ones, for starters: When will I die? How will I die? Why do we die? The personal ones: What will I remember? What might I regret? And ultimately the question that could define the rest of your life: What would I do differently?

            What would you do differently?

I’ve never asked my sister this question. She did everything she could, and in many ways she did more than any of us. She worked the Internet like it was a convention and introduced herself to every article she could find. She obsessively sought all the inside information she could uncover, even if so many short cuts to insight led to locked doors and dead-ends.

(Our mother had been left with the unyielding aftershock of sorrow. When her own mother died everything happened too quickly, without time to facilitate any sort of strategy. She and her six siblings hardly had time to react, much less regret what could have transpired; they never knew what hit them. The cancer that took their mother was like an anonymous assassin: before anyone could look for faces or fingerprints the crime scene was already in the past tense.)

            What could we have done differently?

We knew what we were up against, yet still had no idea how little we knew. “If this were ten years ago I would send you on your way,” the surgeon said after the first operation, in ’97. “But knowing what we know now, I’m recommending a round of chemotherapy. Let’s blast your system so the cancer doesn’t have a chance to come back.”

We wouldn’t worry about what we could have done (we thought). We did it.

The cancer came back, of course. A second, successful surgery in 2000 didn’t give us false hope and couldn’t lull us into a false sense of security. This time the surgeon advised radiation followed by chemotherapy, and we knew we were doing all we could do.

            Do you think it’s going to come back?

That was the question my sister asked me, in July 2001, just before my mother returned for her annual checkup. “No,” I told her, truthfully. “She looks good, she feels healthy, we did everything we could do.”

This is what I said to my sister, and to myself. They caught it before it spread—again—and then her system got the chemical scrub, again. What possible chance was there that it could find another foothold?

The cancer came back, of course. A third, not entirely successful surgery in 2001 left us no chance to kid ourselves. The prognosis was ugly but not impossible: she was still ready to fight and we would back her up as far down that road as we could go.

            Do you think it will ever go away?

That’s the question none of us ever asked. We knew it was in there and we knew it wasn’t going anywhere. But it could be stalled, it could shrink, it could, hopefully, be managed. There were clinical trials to consider, reasons to think positive thoughts, and always the chance that a miracle might occur.

Here’s the thing: what you don’t know will hurt you, whether it involves cancer or used cars. Here’s another thing: my sister learned more about cancer, symptoms, treatments, and clinical trials in a little over a year than most people could—or could want to—learn in a lifetime. One of my good friends is an oncologist, another has been a hospice nurse. We also lived in an era where the click of a mouse could uncover more detail than a thousand old medical journals. And still, looking back, it’s disconcerting how little we knew, how little we still know, how much more we could learn, and how awful it would be if we were ever obliged to do so.

So: we can’t change what we couldn’t do, or know, or ask, or say. And we collectively recognize, and accept, that all the information in the world may have done next to nothing to change what happened to my mother. We knew enough, and were fortunate enough, to sign her up for some experimental treatments after that third surgery in 2001. The fact that they ultimately proved unsuccessful (too little, too late?) doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have explored those options; perhaps we could have explored other ones as well.

            What could you have done differently?

This is the question we were never able to ask the assorted surgeons, doctors, and administrators. And what would they say, if we had? What could they say?

            How much more time does she have?

This is the question we asked, as directly as possible, always leaving enough room—for the doctors, for ourselves—to avoid predictions that might be too true or come too soon. The surgeons told us, depending on the way you hear the words (especially in hindsight), as little as they could get away with, or as much as they dared, while steering us as far as possible from an answer we would figure out on our own, eventually.

 

       iii. Calculus

    My grief has made me, against all previous likelihood, into a half-assed mathematician. Numbers were never my bag, and I’ve got the report cards to prove it. And yet, ever since 2002, I find myself going over similar calculations, repeatedly.

There are the obvious, inevitable examples. For instance, on August 26, 2004: This is the second anniversary of her death; it is therefore seven years since her first operation. Then, with a combination of improvisation and OCD, other variations ensue: I was twenty-seven at that first operation; my nephew will be twenty-seven when I’m fifty-seven, which is two years younger than my mother was when she died. My mother’s funeral cost about (insert dollar amount here), which would buy (this many) trips to (this place). If we went to the various hospitals and treatment centers approximately fifty times over the course of five years, at roughly fifteen miles per trip, this distance would get you from D.C. to Chicago. We ate in the hospital cafeteria roughly twenty times, or enough to pay 2 percent of one of the cashier’s yearly salary. And so on.

And then this, revisited on a regular basis: If I get diagnosed at fifty-four, like my mother did, that means that effective immediately I have x years and y months to enjoy a cancer-free existence (although those malevolent cells could be coursing through my oblivious veins even as I type). Interestingly, the likes of this last equation—and the scenarios it induces—seldom extend to my old man or my sister. It is, I reckon, disconcerting enough to apply these exercises to myself; it is intolerable (or, at least for now, not possible) to project them onto anyone else.

I can barely balance my checkbook, yet here I am, a poor-man’s Pythagoras, my busy brain co-opting or pre-empting the confusion and consternation cancer yields. And just like the bad old days during Algebra exams, I apprehend much less than I’d like. For example: How might my mother have lived her life if she’d known she was never going to see sixty? How might I have lived? How might I do things differently (i.e., better) if I could know how far off, or how unacceptably close my own death will be?

Once again, it gets back to God, the Prime Mover with an advanced degree in these metaphysical matters. Or at least it prompts a concession to—or yearning for—some immutable force that organizes, if not explains, the mystery of being, as well as the when’s, what’s, and why’s of how we come and where we go.

But every dog has its day, right? Take my dog, for good measure. I knew he was going to die (he died when I was thirty-eight, which was six years after my mother died…). I know I’m going to die. My friends’ children will die. Puppies and kids not even born will have litters and grandchildren who will one day die, and it’s not easy to predict which ones may go before their time because none of us knows how long we’ve got once we get here.

And up there, somewhere, that benevolent, or oblivious, or nonexistent—depending on which courses you’ve taken in life—entity is crunching the numbers and checking His work, using the magic red pen to cross out errors or correct any formulas that are inconsistent with the bigger picture, which itself is an open book, and always a work in progress.

 

iv. Violence

You can’t combat cancer with fists or poetry; you can try with chemicals and prayers, but as it is with most of our earthly affairs, it all comes down to timing and luck.

We thought we were lucky, at first. In many ways, we were, in that the diagnosis was made in time and the initial operation was successful. The cancer hadn’t spread. Ten years ago, the doctor said, I would have sent you on your way. Now, knowing what we know, we’ll do chemotherapy to be on the safe side.

Better safe than sorry, we all agreed.

We got lucky, we said, a year later when no cancer had come back. We were lucky, we said, all through ’98 and ’99, and we entered a new millennium free and clear, the cancer a thing of the past, like the Y2K bug.

A few months later we were back in the hospital. It had come back.

It was, we all agreed, time to fight. What else could we do?

When it returned a third time, in 2001, cancer once again obliged us to circle the wagons, convinced we had no options but to keep fighting, as a family. My sister asked questions, took notes, and worried. My father talked with my mother, lived with her, and ran point regarding decisions, directions, and dealing with the obligations incumbent upon anyone who has repeated the words “till death do us part.” I did my own note-taking, question-asking, and behind-the-scenes improvising. Above all I envisioned the worst, hoped for the best, and lost sleep like it was my job.

During the summer of 2002, when it sometimes felt like the walls were closing in (literally, as anyone who has experienced crisis-induced anxiety can attest), I dropped pounds I didn’t need to lose. I ate some good food and I drank some good drinks, but those miserable months frequently felt like one unappetizing, ill-digested meal. The worst days were when my stomach and mind simultaneously conspired against me: not enough nourishment and too much mental unrest will cause side effects even strangers notice.

Still, I knew what was at stake, and my primary responsibility, I felt, was to keep things as upbeat and optimistic as possible. This was certainly for my mother’s sake, but it was also a fairly pragmatic strategy. What good, I thought, could possibly come from giving up hope, or letting my mother see the insecurity and the dread that on certain days reflected the weather: thick and humid and getting hotter as the afternoons dragged on.

But we all reserved the right to despise this disease that was decimating the woman we loved. It’s not especially difficult to describe, and I suppose it’s not hard to imagine the defensive feelings that boil up when you see someone close to you suffering. The fury, at times, impotently craves an outlet.

My most fervent wish, which at times became an obsession, was to swap places with my mother and take her cancer inside of me. Not in the metaphorical—or even literal—sense of preferring to struggle in another’s place, although there was obviously that. It was not merely instinctual; it was personal. It was not simply a matter of wanting my mother’s agony to cease, though there was clearly that. What I felt was an unappeasable compulsion to engage with this enemy. In short, I wanted to kick cancer’s ass.

This was not a case of reactionary bravado or calculated displacement (though there were elements of both, obviously); this was something I would have given anything to orchestrate. There I was, in the very prime of my life, physically and, perhaps more importantly, mentally; I was as strong spiritually as I’d ever been. I was ready, and ravenous to step into the ring. It was as though I had been working my entire life to prepare for this, to assume this responsibility.

For the first time in my memory, I craved violence. I needed to step in and deal with this bullying motherfucker. I wanted to hit it, chew it, swallow it, spit it out and step on it. I wanted to laugh at it, engage it on its own terms while taking everything it had to offer, and then bury it. I saw it and I wanted it.

Of course I knew the first signs of nausea would take considerable wind out of my sails, and because I recognized it I appreciated it, and that was truly what caused me to crave some semblance of satisfaction. I am more positive of this than anything else in my entire life: if I could have done it I would have, and I would have been ecstatic.

And like everyone else who has had these exact same thoughts, I was mocked by the fact that it’s impossible. Not just the fantasy of some half-assed exorcism, but the inability to do much of anything about cancer. You can’t put your hands on it; you can hardly wrap your mind around it. It humbles us, eventually (inevitably) in terms of how little we actually control despite the ways we create and organize reality with clocks, calendars, words, and games. All the rituals—including faith and love—that we utilize to combat the malevolent indifference of our universe are strategies, not solutions. Cancer reminds us we are ultimately just animals in a world that promises only one outcome, and for the majority of creatures populating this planet existence is cruelly fleet and ruthlessly efficient.

The worst part? You can’t make it personal. Cancer is only an organism, staying alive the only way it knows how. What can we do about that? Make it evil, invest it with the accountability for everything that can’t be reconciled or explained. This is why we created the devil; it’s the central reason so many of us must believe there’s a benign force supervising our affairs. It explains why, with the best intentions, we determine that each misfortune is all part of a larger plan, one we can’t begin to comprehend. When you go from wanting to believe to needing to believe (in something, anything) it’s easier to fathom how faith can quickly lead to violence. This helps explain how—and why—knowledge was scorned or suppressed, and why men of science were burned at the stake.

It’s Nature. It’s natural. It’s our nature.

Cancer reminds us that we’re part of a natural order. Billions of organisms are attacked and invaded each day, all according to the cycle of life and death, the grim ushers in Nature’s play. We are aware of it, we can use fancy jargon to explain it, we may even write poems about it. But we’re pretty much powerless to do anything about it. This doesn’t mean we have to accept it. Depending on how you look at the world, we fight every second of our lives just to live. Each breath we draw defies death; each thought we have outlives oblivion. Each time we give love we are defeating fear and hatred, the twin killers of compassion and connection. When we help others suffer through their final struggle we may be fighting a battle that has already been settled. At the same time, we are solving the ultimate secret of our own existence: we learn how to conquer death by anticipating it—and transcending it. This is the battle we’re all born into, and it’s one we are fortunate to fight as long as we’re able.

 

v. Aftermath

Obviously you’ll deliver the eulogy, my father said. It wasn’t a demand, but it wasn’t a question. Whatever it was, it was the most meaningful thing anyone has ever said to me.

Yes, I said.

Obviously. Or maybe I just nodded.

Of course I would, and without thinking about it (because nobody who is normal thinks things like this), I understood that I’d been preparing all along for this moment.

 

         vi. Every Time I Scribble a Thought with Artistic Intent

  Everything that is good about me is because of my mother.

I’m fortunate, in a sense, to be the type of person who gets more sentimental about the times I read a certain book or heard a particular album than I ever do about holidays. But I’m still human. I still recall the almost breathless inability to accelerate time and make Christmas arrive more quickly. Or the Halloween costumes, Easter candy, or the great Thanksgiving feasts (and the not-so-great family fights that would sometimes ensue). The holidays, as idealized rites of passage, still resonate, but these occasions are incapable of enhancing or obliterating whatever mood I’m already in. As such, the absence of my mother might feel more acute on holidays, but none of these events have been unduly marred during the past decade.

Surprisingly, even the week that presents a triptych of raw remembrance, comprising her birthday (August 23), and the anniversaries of her death (August 26) and funeral (August 30) have been bearable. These have become prospects for celebration, however somber, and I’m mostly able to channel that grief into gratitude for the times she was around, the time I did get to spend with her. Similarly, Mother’s Day is seldom joyful, but it provides an imperative to consider happy events and my relative good fortune—despite what’s obviously lacking, now. It also obliges me to behold my family members and friends who have become admirable mothers themselves, and I’m humbled to see my mother alive in the looks they give their children.

And if I’m ever inclined to stop and consider how corny or manufactured these sentiments may be, I console myself with the awareness of how increasingly corny and manufactured holidays in America have become.

***

            Any time I need to be reminded that I’m one of the lucky ones, I look at the picture taken of me and my mother the day I was born. The pose is not unique; virtually every child has at least one frameable shot of the post-delivery adoring gaze. Or, every child fortunate enough to have been born in a hospital (or home) under safe conditions to a mother who welcomes the moment and, most importantly, is prepared for the moments (and days and years) that will follow. I don’t need to resort to religion or sociology: I can simply consider the circumstances and the infinitesimal odds that I ever made it from my father to my mother in the first place (if you know what I mean).

Who can’t recall asking, on Mother’s Day, why there wasn’t a Kid’s Day? The response was always the same: Every day is Kid’s Day. Most of us who have lived a single hour in the so-called real world have come to register how accurate this tired cliché actually is. Indeed, those of us who were sufficiently well raised didn’t need to wait long for this epiphany to occur. A year or two punching the clock, paying bills, cleaning up one’s own messes—the literal and especially the figurative ones—and generally attaining that independent status we strove so single-mindedly to attain is impetus enough for reflection. Not merely an appraisal of how impossible it would be to repay the investment made, measured in money, time, affection, and approbation, but a recognition of what was truly at stake: the selflessness your parents displayed, putting in all that effort to enable you to become your own person. The best gift a parent can give (you come to understand) is loving you enough to allow you to not be exactly like them, to encourage you to figure out exactly who you are supposed to become.

***

            Holidays have not been intolerable, no more than any other day, especially the bad days when I miss my mother most. As a result, I reckon I’m not the only one who has found that my birthday is the single occasion that can never be the same. Inexorable nostalgic pangs, the pull of biological imperatives, or the simple fact that I’m still human has ensured that the annual recognition of my birth day is imbued with sadness and a heavy longing I don’t feel any other time. If so, it seems a reasonable trade-off: that deep and uncomplicated connection, along with the longing any child can comprehend, signifies that yet another cliché holds true: absence makes the heart grow fonder.

Every time I scribble a thought with artistic intent I’m inspired by the support my mother offered, going back to the days I was a kid with crayons, coloring outside the lines while listening to The Nutcracker Suite. She’ll never be forgotten; in fact, she’ll never be gone. This is what helps and it’s also, at times, what hurts.

***

            How do you get over the loss?

That’s the question I asked a former girlfriend who lost her father when she was a teenager. “You don’t,” she said. Hearing these words, you can acknowledge—and appreciate—the sentiment; you can easily empathize with how inconceivable it is to possibly heal from that kind of heartbreak. But it isn’t until you experience it that you comprehend the inexplicable ways this reality is an inviolable aspect of our existence: it’s worse than you could ever envision, but if you’re one of the lucky ones, it’s also more redemptory than you might have imagined. Mostly, you accept that a day will seldom pass when you don’t think of the one you loved and lost. And more, you wouldn’t have it any other way.

 

The memoir, now available in Kindle format (at a limited time price of $2.99) is available at AMAZON.

Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One Before*

Let me tell you a story.

It involves a white male born in a steadily prospering town to a slowly prospering family. His father, the first in his Irish family to attend college, like his wife, was raised Catholic.

This young boy played soccer, listened to music, read any book he could get his eyes on and went to a public school amongst kids whose names he could not always pronounce.

He served, faithfully, as an altar boy and developed a profound appreciation—and respect—for tradition and ritual, a lingering humility regarding forces and impulses larger and not entirely conceivable.

He was, and remains, comfortable with how much he does not know, as a visitor on a planet that expands outward each second, into infinity.

He was encouraged by parents who, more than once, reassured him that his curiosity would never dissipate so long as his capacity for learning did not abate.

He talked, listened and learned.

Looking back, the habits and routines inculcated inside his impressionable mind served as a foundation for who he’d become: flawed, tolerant, empathetic, insatiable, in love with the gift of life.

The pursuit of higher education, even as it necessarily exposed him to classes, books and teachers that ardently challenged—and often contradicted—many of the precepts he was once instructed to emulate, was a priority. It was the gradual, not always painless process of understanding the ways he could not, and should not share his parents’ perspectives in every matter that secured the respect for them he solidified as an increasingly independent adult.

The exposure to religion and the example set by his mother and father ingrained an acute solidarity with underdogs and the dispossessed. The charities he has supported (HERE, HERE, HERE and HERE) reflect the causes and crises he endorses and decries.

He appraised the often enigmatic, occasionally debilitating specter of depression that stalked relatives on either side like a demented daemon; this condition a wind-whipped and sun-scorched flag planted deep alongside his family tree, a genetic calling card he has had, at times, a more than casual acquaintance with, obliging him to check himself lest he wreck himself.

Too much eyewitness to illness drove him to learn more than he might have cared to know about cancer, leukemia, and the various, run-of-the-mill maladies that all the doctors and dollars in the world can’t completely shield us from. This cognizance, coupled with an ineradicable conscience forged on altars and inside confessionals, further amplified an appreciation of how fortunate anyone is to be born in a first world country. To be born a healthy white male a blessing, just as being alive at all is an obligation—at once sacred and secular—to interrogate, expand, live: to abhor the self-indulgence of ennui and cultivate antidotes to quiet desperation—by any means necessary. To explore the creative impulse he could never fully fathom or explain, and expedite that dialogue (with himself, with others) by writing down those thoughts, images, feelings and fears; sharing them, so that as soon as they escape their frail human vessel they are free, without any power to scare or sabotage. To express emotions, allowing the heart to breathe and the mind to swim, the body a humble temple unto itself: a self-portrait of a work perpetually in progress. To encourage these sensations inside oneself so that they might awaken feelings in someone else, some not yet born and others alive but no longer living.

*So here’s the part where I address you, gentle reader.

First off, thanks for reading this blog. I resisted the blog thing for years because so many of the ones I read were either uninspired or a public airing of dirty (or worse, boring) personal laundry. Diaries and journals are kept in bedside drawers for a reason: they are an act of catharsis, celebration or introspection –or, at least, interrogation– that is best kept private. Remember when they used to actually come with locks on them? Do they still do that? Do they still make diaries anymore? Maybe I’m just old school. Here’s how I put it back in 2009 when I first considered the fact that I had, in fact, become one of those people who could use the word blog as a verb. Over five years later (this blog commenced in November, 2008) I think the sentiment still applies:

Blogs are, or can be, like diaries.

Except that diaries, by nature, are private. Which begs the question: do people who blog censor or soften the observations, complaints or critiques that in other times would exist inside a document designed to remain unread by others? (Or more to the point, should they?) To be certain, only a few years ago, thoughts like the ones I’m about to express would have been safely ensconced inside a journal, not read by anyone else, even including myself (I don’t often return to old journals, hopefully because I’m too busy living in the here and now). And for whatever it’s worth, I am humble enough to know that modest numbers of people visit this blog, and I have enough sense (or self-respect) to instinctively acknowledge that nobody is well served by overly earnest airing of personal trivia.

Put another way, I don’t begrudge anyone else documenting every last detail of their existences (no matter how mundane or mawkish); I simply remain uninterested in reading about it. In that regard, blogs are self-regulating: if you don’t write things that others will find interesting, you won’t have an audience. And who cares anyway? In that regard, blogs are like diaries: people post on them because they want to, or need to, and the concept of friends or strangers reading their innermost thoughts won’t necessarily hamper their willingness to compose. Still, only the sensation-seekers looking for notoriety (usually the already famous, and even those folks have a shelf-life of about six months) go out of their way to wax solipsistic in a public forum.

All that being said, I was already publishing regular thoughts on music, movies and literature (alongside the occasional sociopolitical soap-boxery) at PopMatters –a site I encourage you to check out– so keeping a blog was not unlike working out: it was a way to keep in shape, mentally, and push myself to put thoughts in a semi-coherent form for a public forum. This is an endeavor that obliges you to edit with extreme prejudice: once you’ve written something that goes into the electronic universe, it stays written. I’m mostly delighted to consider that I’ve written a great deal of material that otherwise would have been lost to e-mails, conversations or that creative impulse killer, apathy. We should all do our best to remain allergic to apathy, because we owe it to ourselves and the world. Obviously.

Anyway, I was eventually humbled to acknowledge that the next formal project I’d been preparing to tackle, as a novel, could –and should– be a non-fiction piece. Indeed, once I realized this (after several years of false starts, frustration and best intentions), I wished it had occurred to me sooner. And it was then that it dawned on me that I likely would not have been able to conceive of writing a memoir if I had not been blogging. Non-fiction and personal essays were not foreign territory, but a sustained examination of life and how it’s lived (including death and how to live through it when it rocks your world) turns out to be the best real-time training for getting one’s mind –and pen– around a full-length, unfettered attempt to make sense out of deeply, if not profoundly personal things. And then you realize (you are always realizing as you write, or think, or talk) that a great many of these matters are universal: we all wonder who we are, where we’re going and where our loved ones may or may not go when they are no longer here. It not only seems possible, but oddly appropriate to embrace the audacity of putting it out there, so to speak. Best intentions clash against execution and at a certain point it’s out of your hands: other people will determine if the work in question works. It is at once intimidating and liberating, the way it should be for anyone who puts words on paper.

Just about three years later that memoir regular readers of this blog were already familiar with: Please Talk About Me When I’m Gone, has gone from idea to execution. The continued plan for 2014 is to see this sucker reach an audience beyond the vital Friends & Family network. I will continue to give a healthy portion of profits –and all profits from all public events– to a handful of awesome cancer-oriented charities. (More on that, here: http://seanmurphy.net/please-talk-about-me-when-im-gone/about-memoir/.)

Social networking and word-of-mouth will, naturally, play a hopefully-prominent role in disseminating the project and then who knows what might happen. If you’ve read it, please consider leaving a review at Amazon and/or Goodreads.com –it helps! If you have opinions, advice, connections or cautionary tales, I welcome your thoughts anytime (contact me privately or feel free to put comments below). Simply put, this thing is not going to design, market or endorse itself; if you’ve gleaned anything positive from my writing thus far, you can do me the biggest service by helping my mission become something I could never accomplish on my own. And in the final analysis, that is the secret not only of writing, but of living. Right?

To be continued…

More Bright Moments

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This summer, in an attempt to describe my memoir and the reason(s) I wrote it, this was as succinct but detailed a summary as I could come up with:

When my mother died in 2002 at the age of fifty-nine, I found myself both shattered and honored to have been a witness. In order to live and to keep her memory alive, I needed to make sense of her death.

I knew I would inevitably write about her, but I wasn’t certain what form the material would take. Eventually I realized it could be –it had to be– a memoir. The result is Please Talk about Me When I’m Gone.

The antagonist of this particular tale is cancer, but implicit in the narrative is an appreciation that a struggle with illness—and the ways it can unite or disintegrate families—is a true story for too many people. It can be a horror story or a ghost story, a love story and a real-life fairy tale, where memory and devotion are capable of outlasting death.

My ultimate goal is to raise awareness, and I will be working closely with cancer-affiliated groups and charities to raise funds. My experience has reinforced a belief that nobody should (or need to) go through this alone: if my memoir builds solidarity and empowers anyone who finds themselves in a similar situation, I know I’m honoring my mother’s memory in a way she would advocate.

I’ve been delighted to meet some fascinating people (and hear some of their sad, inspiring and happy stories) these past few months. I’ve also been gratified to work with –and for– some remarkable organizations, like the Lombardi Center @ Georgetown and Hospice of the Piedmont. It was meaningful on several levels to raise money for these groups, and I look forward to doing much more of this in 2014 –and beyond.

With his permission, I’m sharing the message I received this morning from James Avery, the CEO of Hospice of the Piedmont. It speaks volumes about the kind of person he is, the type of organization he represents (much more on that HERE), and why I am dedicated to doing as much as possible to assist them in their work. It also is nice validation that I’ve achieved a portion of what I set out to do. In a year full of bright moments, this is a big one, and one I’ll carry with me for a long time.

If you’ve read the book and want to help, check out these organizations. Consider a donation. Contemplate leaving a review for my memoir @ Amazon and/or Goodreads.com; word-of-mouth is still the most effective method for getting the word out. Tell a friend, buy it as a gift for someone. And above all, stay healthy and have a safe, happy holiday season!

Peace.

—–Original Message—–
From: James Avery
To: Murph <bullmurph@aol.com>
Sent: Thu, Dec 19, 2013 8:44 am
Subject: Thank you! Thank you!

Dear Sean,
I just wanted to thank you for everything you are saying and doing in your book.
Liz Nottingham, one of our incredible board members at Hospice of the Piedmont, bought a bunch of copies and she brought some of them to our hospice board meeting.
I just had to write you. Your book was incredibly honest, insightful, perceptive, touching, and hard-hitting. Not many books do all of those things. I especially loved the pictures, the conversations, the fight, the discussions about faith, the ending etc. Your love for your mother and your honesty made for a poignant story.
I don’t think a single person will be able to read this book and remain the same person – it will compel people to change. The world is a better and happier place because you wrote this book.
I just had to let you know.
I wish for you and your entire family a blessed Christmas and a New Year overflowing with joy, peace, love, and hope,
Jim
James A. Avery, MD, CMD, FACP, FCCP, FAAHPM
Chief Executive Officer, Hospice of the Piedmont
675 Peter Jefferson Parkway, Suite 300
Charlottesville, Virginia 22911

Humanity: Kicking Cancer’s Ass

When the going gets tough, there is always hope.

When hope is hard to come by, humanity can do the trick.

Check this out:

No matter what we are faced with or forced to confront, when even hope seems implausible, we have humanity. Sometimes that can make all the difference.

Strangers can become unwitting angels to someone who is suffering. It’s not something you (or they) can control; it has to do with the formula that occurs when our Biology feels Chemistry and does Physics. We are scared and in need of assurance; we are vulnerable and desperate for consolation. We are people and need to grasp whatever hands might be reaching out in the dark; we are hoping to be saved by that human touch.

*The above excerpt is from my memoir Please Talk about Me When I’m Gone.

Giving Thanks for the Gift That Keeps Giving

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A not particularly famous person once said: It takes a village to raise a child, it takes a forest to write a book, and it takes good friends to spread the word. (Hint: that person is me.)

If you have bought, and read my book,  you have already done more than I could reasonably ask.
However, there are three things you can do TODAY, very quickly and easily, that will help me get the word out beyond the Friends & Family network.
  • Leave a review on Amazon. A few sentences are sufficient, and no pressure; you’re writing a recommendation, not a formal review. Goodreads.com is also an important site, and reviews are even easier there (if desired, the book can just be ranked on a 5 star system).
  • Tell a friend! Put a link to my Amazon page on Facebook and recommend it to your people!
  • Let me know if you belong to—or are aware of any—book clubs. I spoke to a local group last week and it was an amazing experience.
Be on the lookout for the memoir’s release on Kindle, coming soon. It will be rolled out with a specially-priced promotion.
I don’t need a special occasion or an entire month to give thanks for all my good fortune: I remain humbled and use my gratitude as inspiration to do more good. Thanks for helping, and for being in my life.
Cheers!

The Fall Classic, 25 Years Ago

sean pops gramps

I don’t believe what I just saw!

No one else in the room could believe it, either. Kirk Gibson had, before our eyes and on television, done something so improbable, so historical that we had no choice but to get drunk.

It was something we were developing the typical college freshman’s proficiency for. I was getting good at a lot of things, not all of them necessarily good for me. I’d already become a professional at ordering pizzas late at night and passing out before I could eat them (the reason so many people of a certain age insist that pizza tastes better cold is because they have so much experience eating it that way; they have no other choice). It had only taken a few weeks of American History 101 to understand that maybe I should have been rooting for the Indians in all those old movies. I had discovered, with equal amounts of surprise and delight, that I was not in fact the only person in the world who still listened to bands like King Crimson, Jethro Tull, and Pink Floyd. I had overcome, with impressive ease, the initial guilt I’d felt regarding my official status as a contentedly lapsed Catholic: the more Sunday masses I missed, the less I missed the whole routine. The timing couldn’t have been better, considering I had finally ended an eighteen-year sexual losing streak (Original Sin has no chance against unrestrained orgasms). I had been promoted to the Big Leagues and was doing everything I could to make sure they kept me around. I wanted to be a team player and I was pleased to establish that there was little I wouldn’t do for the team: even if you lost the game it didn’t matter as long as you left it all on the playing field, et cetera. The only thing, in short, that surprised me was how easily surprised I was at how little of life I had actually experienced thus far.

***

My parents hadn’t had the privilege of hearing about most of these wonderful developments, in large part because I hadn’t seen and had hardly spoken to them for half a semester. It wasn’t personal, it was strictly business: I had things to discover and, being a team player, I certainly didn’t want my parents wasting their money on my education.

But it had also been a less-than-peaceful transition, getting to this point. My folks had dealt better with the departure of my sister four years earlier, but at that time I was still around. In some ways, and for obvious and understandable reasons, I became closer to my parents while I was in high school. My relationship with my mother had invariably been present and positive, but it was during those awkward, impressionable mid-teen years that I became particularly close to my old man. Exhibit A: Rather than bemoaning my feeble inability to handle Algebra II, he took it upon himself to tutor me. Each night after dinner we would work through that day’s assignment, and he displayed a patience and proficiency that I’d never witnessed or even imagined. I’d never had previous cause to doubt, for a single second, how much he cared about me, but it was during my junior year, when he helped me fumble through a subject I would forget as soon as I got past it (which must have killed him, a man of math and science, seeing yet another child who possessed so little of his ability or interest in the very disciplines that gave his life purpose and passion), that I heard him say he loved me each night with actions, not words.

I wouldn’t go so far as to imply that we became friends (although he seemed to understand, and appreciate—as a father and a man—the ways my mother and I had bonded over things he didn’t share or espouse), but it was during this time that he became my Pops, and the real foundation, which we would require years later, was firmly established.

It was, then, startling and more than a little painful to witness him acting like such an insufferable prick as I left for college. During those weeks I saw a spiteful silence and intransigence I had never observed, not even during his sporadic periods of silent-treatment toward my mother when they fought.

What’s your problem, I didn’t ask, because I knew he had his reasons and therefore wouldn’t be able to share them. Being a typically self-absorbed eighteen-year-old, it didn’t fully occur to me that he was simply sad to see me go. I understood he wasn’t happy to see me go, nor was I unequivocally happy to leave parents I genuinely loved, and more importantly liked. Having not dealt directly with absence or loss (excepting my grandmother, whom I’d been too young to properly mourn or miss), I was unable to fathom what my departure signified for my father, on theoretical as well as practical levels. He wasn’t just watching his son depart (and apprehending, having been to college himself, the ways in which he was paying large amounts of money to ensure that I grew, changed, and figured out for myself all the ways I was unlikely to emulate him, philosophically as well as practically), he was being confronted with the unpreventable void of a house without children. If this was the first day of the rest of my life, it was the same, only more so, for him.

Still: to have the same man who had been to every single swim meet, soccer game, school function, and rite of passage giving me the cold shoulder was more than slightly disconcerting. Of course, I shouldn’t have been surprised. Earlier that year I’d been in a car accident, during Christmas break, up in Boston. My cousin lost control and slid on black ice into a tree, which greedily ate the (fortunately for us, extensive) front end of the thrice-owned Pontiac he was driving. Fortunately, the injuries were minimal, although uncertainty remained about whether or not I’d broken some ribs. At the hospital they confirmed I had badly bruised them, which disappointed me because I wouldn’t have as good a story to tell. By the time my old man arrived, he was his typically stoic self. “You clowns are lucky,” he said, and I didn’t disagree with him.

The next morning his father, Gramps, came in to check on me. “We’re glad you’re okay,” he said, and I didn’t disagree with him. “Now you know how Darrell Green feels after every Redskins game.” He smiled, and then he got serious: “Your father was very upset when the hospital called. He was really shaken up until they confirmed you were all right.” He said some other things, but I was still trying to imagine a scenario that could ever cause my father to become flustered to the extent that it was noticeable. For a teenager who figured he knew everything, this conversation was an invaluable opportunity to concede that all sorts of things happen that none of us necessarily see. I didn’t need to see my father unnerved and scared on behalf of his son to appreciate how much he loved me, but I was also grateful my grandfather had revealed the way I would never otherwise hear him express, without words, the things he couldn’t always bring himself to say.

***

My roommate came down the hall just as we were cracking open our first beers. He told me I had a phone call. I asked, “Who is it?” “I think it’s your father,” he said.

Reading #2: Winchester Book Gallery

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Winchester Book Gallery: 10/4/13

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The world of work, life, and love changed seismically in the early 2000’s and Sean Murphy’s narrator Byron, like everyone else, has been scrambling to keep up ever since…or wondering whether keeping up is even possible. In Not to Mention a Nice Life, Murphy’s masterful storytelling takes us on an honest, searing, sardonic ride through the decade that wasn’t.

 

-Jeremy Neuner, co-author of The Rise of the Naked Economy

May 22, 2015