After dark

The past few days, apropos of nothing, I’ve had Thelonious Monk’s “Round Midnight” playing in my head. It’s an unlikely earworm: I don’t often listen to jazz, and I can’t remember the last time I heard Monk or anyone else play this particular tune. But its somber strains seem especially apt on these late November days when darkness falls early. By six o’clock, it’s dark as midnight, and the melancholy mood of late night descends early and lingers long.

After dark

On these late November days when it’s long-dark by dinnertime, I find myself peering into strangers’ windows as I drive past, attracted to their isolated but brightly-lit domestic scenes: a woman setting a table, a man playing table-tennis with an unseen opponent, a couple curled up on a couch, watching television. What goes on behind closed doors doesn’t concern me for most of the year, but in late November, even a glimpse of domestic warmth seen through strangers’ windows is cheering: a spot of encouragement in a dark time. And true to the logic of dreams, my inner DJ has chosen “Round Midnight” as the appropriate soundtrack for these dark days

View from the Skywalk Observatory

This year for Thanksgiving, J and I had dinner at the Top of the Hub, located on the 52nd floor of the Prudential Center in downtown Boston. Before we sat down to dinner, we strolled around the Skywalk Observatory, which offers a 360-degree bird’s eye view of Boston, Cambridge, and the outlying suburbs.

Pumpkin creme brulee

Life really does come into perspective when you see it from above, passing pedestrians and looming landmarks looking equally small and inconsequential. “Look at that guy trying to parallel park,” one woman whispered to her husband, and yes, directly below us there was an unfortunately-angled car trying unsuccessfully to squeeze into a parking spot on Boylston Street.

Top of the Hub after dark

At street level, trying to park in downtown Boston is a Big Deal; from 50 stories up, it’s the stuff of comedy. Sometimes all it takes to see your life from another perspective is an elevator ride and a taste of pumpkin creme brulee from 50 stories up.

Fashion design display

This afternoon, I finished reading Elizabeth Gilbert’s new book about creativity, Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear. I ended up liking the book more in the end than I did in the beginning: early portions of the book where Gilbert emphasizes the mystical nature of creativity, with ideas floating in the ether just waiting for an artist to claim them, left me cold, but I resonated with those sections of the book where she describes the more mundane characteristics of a creative life.

Fashion display

I agree with Gilbert when she talks about the need to press on with undying commitment regardless of whether one’s creative endeavors seem to be bearing fruit: creativity, after all, is about doing, not judging. Writing, drawing, dancing, and other creative endeavors are enjoyable whether you do them well or not, so don’t worry about who’s watching while you do them. Creativity is something you do because the doing is intrinsically worth it: once you’ve been writing, drawing, or dancing for a while, you realize that you write, draw, or dance simply because these are the things that feed your soul.

Fashion design display

Gilbert rips to shreds the myth of the suffering artist, calling it out for its tendency to excuse bad and unhealthy behavior. Creativity, Gilbert suggests, isn’t about suffering: it’s about following your creative impulses with a sense of playful joy. Instead of worrying whether your work is meaningful, profound, or profitable, you continue doing it because the actual Doing It brings you satisfaction. Even in the face of rejection, criticism, or failure, you follow your curiosity because there’s honestly nothing else you’d rather be doing.

Fashion design display

Gilbert’s encouragements on this point seemed particularly apt because we live in an age that is perpetually starved for joy. So much of what we see on the news and in social media is inspired by hate, insecurity, and exclusion: by a desire to be seen as Right while everyone else is Wrong. In a world filled with so many attempts to get rich quick, so many attacks and insults, and so many pleas for attention and adulation, the only true antidote is joy: the seemingly frivolous things that creatives do for pure playful pleasure. This is why videos of children dancing or kittens cuddling go viral so quickly, attracting umpteen views and re-views. Deep down, we want to experience the joy that comes from doing something purely, with one’s whole-heart, and for its own reward.

Head to head

There’s a scene in the movie Stranger Than Fiction that chokes me up no matter how many times I see it. Will Ferrell plays Harold Crick, an IRS agent whose boring existence is turned upside down when he discovers his life is being narrated by best-selling author Karen Eiffel, played to perfection by Emma Thompson. Because Eiffel lets Crick read the manuscript of his (doomed) life, Crick knows exactly how his story ends: he’ll die on his way to work, jumping in front of a bus to save the life of a young boy.


The scene that inevitably gets me teary eyed shows Crick enjoying his last night on earth. Instead of sharing his ominous knowledge of what will happen the next day, Crick enjoys an otherwise ordinary night eating dinner and watching TV with his girlfriend, Ana Pascal (played by Maggie Gyllenhaal). Instead of causing Pascal to worry about the inevitable, Crick quietly savors the simple pleasures he learned to appreciate only after he learned his days are numbered.


This morning I made a euthanasia appointment for Groucho the cat: tomorrow morning, J and I will hold Groucho in our lap while our vet puts him quietly to sleep. Monday’s trip to the vet didn’t reveal anything clearly treatable, and Groucho continues to lose weight at an alarming rate, his bones jutting this way and that out of his thinning fur. Like Harold Crick, J and I know how Groucho’s story ends, and we see no need to delay the inevitable.


Tonight is Groucho’s last night on earth, and I’ll follow our usual Tuesday routine, cleaning his and Nina’s litter box and then sitting on the loveseat to give Groucho his daily petting and head-scratches. Groucho has learned to jump onto my lap after I’ve cleaned his litter box, but he won’t know why tonight I’ll be weeping. Instead, he’ll purr under my caresses as he always does, without the burden of knowing what tomorrow brings.

Free to a good home

When I was a kid, my Mom encouraged me to weed through my toys before Christmas. Reasoning I’d have more room for Santa to bring me new toys if I gave away some of my old ones, I’d set aside the toys I no longer played with, and my Mom would take these to Goodwill so other children could enjoy them.


Kids in Newton seem to do something similar, but instead of bagging up old toys to take to Goodwill or the Salvation Army, parents leave these toys out on the curb for any interested neighbor or passerby to claim: a grassroots form of curbside recycling where everything eventually finds a new, appreciative home.


Groucho the cat is dying. He was diagnosed with small cell lymphoma in July of 2013, and for more than two years he responded well to chemotherapy. (The picture above is from January, 2013, six months before his diagnosis.) Recently, though, Groucho has been losing weight for no reason, and J and I are bracing ourselves for the worst. We know from past experience with other pets how this story ends.

Groucho closeup

Last week J and I took Groucho for his usual oncology checkup, and tomorrow I’m taking him for a follow-up ultrasound and X-ray. If his cancer is no longer controlled by the chemotherapy we’ve been giving him, there are other, stronger drugs we can try…but if there is something else causing his weight loss–something that hasn’t shown up at his previous ultrasounds and checkups–there isn’t much more we can do.

I’ve written before about the lessons you learn when you live with an old dog, but I’ve never written about the experience of living with a dying pet. When you live with an animal you know is dying, you constantly monitor that animal’s behavior and demeanor in an attempt to judge their quality of life. When faced with the Big Decision of whether and when to euthanize, you have two opposing factors to consider. On the one hand, how great is the animal’s suffering; on the other, what (simple) pleasures does the pet still seem to enjoy?

Groucho in morning light

Last week, we were heartened that Groucho was still eating, still basking on a sunny windowsill, and still looking forward to his morning petting, trotting over and hopping into my lap when I sat down after cleaning his and Nina's litter box. This morning, however, Groucho was noticeably listless and indifferent, getting up and walking around when I came into the room with fresh food, but not hopping into my lap. Instead, he walked around aimlessly for a bit before settling himself to meditate on his paws, marshaling his energy for a long day of napping.

Groucho in the window

Tomorrow’s vet visit will be momentous, as J and I will learn from the ultrasound and X-ray results whether there is anything more we can do to improve the quality of Groucho’s remaining days. J and I know from past experience that there’s no sense prolonging a pet’s life if that lengthened life isn’t a comfortable, dignified one. But before you make the final decision to say goodbye, first you want to be sure you’ve explored all possible options.

Outside the ICA

In New England in late November, you don’t have to stay out late to stay out after dark. When we arrived at the Institute of Contemporary Art a little after 3 pm, the sun was already setting, and by the time we left at closing time two hours later, it was completely dark.

Underpass on A Street

In New England in late November, you silently give thanks for any light that brightens your path, whether it comes from candles lit in windows, colorful displays lit in shop windows, or delicate strings of tiny blue Christmas lights strung beneath an otherwise ordinary underpass.


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