Radical Caring for Online News: A Call to Confront Two Disappointing Decades of Stagnation

I’ve worked in the web since the summer of 2000, when I was paid $400 to build a site for a local farm (RIP, Microsoft FrontPage). Fast forward two decades to 2020, and I’m still waiting for online news to break free of stagnation and innovate to improve its delivery and experience for the good of its content and our lives as readers.

Back then, I obsessed over the early days of online news, as I built a website for my school newspaper while obsessively watching how msnbc.com, Slate.com, and other early digital sites invented a new medium of storytelling and communication. Since then, I’ve had a blog in the early days of that format, helped other bloggers launch and grow their sites, written for various publications, and for the past fifteen years have worked in the agency space, for the last 7+ made my living helping publishers of all shapes and sizes (and many others plan) and go to market with a wide range of digital experiences.

Sadly, nearly two decades later, I think online news is still a vastly under utilized communication medium. Put more directly, I think online news and storytelling has broadly failed to live up to its potential, and has spent the past two decades in a state of stagnation, missed opportunity, and ultimately disappointment.

This post isn’t about some of the tropes like “news sites are all click-bait” or “why is news biased” — those are well-trodden to the point of cliche. I’m talking about some less obvious and much more fundamental missed opportunities for an entire medium.

When people love something and see its innate potential, they want the best for it. Fewer people are willing to give “tough love” to someone or something to help it reach its potential. I don’t want online news to exist simply as a utility. I want it to be additive to the experience of our lives.

In 2001, I was inspired by many exciting and emerging examples of how things might play out. The aforementioned slate.com was publishing the intelligence and perspective of a smart magazine at the pace of a website (and doing it with personality); meanwhile, strategists like hypergene were publishing novel ideas of how to “Amazon the news” ls for how news could be created and consumed on the new medium of the web (yes, that screenshot is effectively what Amazon product pages looked like in 2001) and helping to chart new experiences and mode.

In Hypergene’s view at the time, individual stories would be atomic elements (much like products on an e-commerce site) that served as the nucleus for a wide range of related metadata such as stats, related upcoming events, and related content. Those same stories would be linked together by themes in ways more novel and useful than what we know today as categories or tags; perhaps most importantly, stories could be chained together to help viewers understand a broader and deeper context around a particular larger view.

While some of the concepts suggested in that single Hypergene example linked above have been realized — and other novel ideas have found there way into digital news here and there — I’m still shocked and disappointed at the broad and persistent lack of “me-tooism” and sheer lack of innovation in online news across the board.

Here are my three chief complaints, along with ideas on how to improve each:

News Section Front UX is far too bound to literal interpretations of its forefather, the printed newspaper.

While I understood and agreed with early online news designs in the early 2000’s that literally copied the design patterns of its printed newspaper counterparts, I fully expected those design patterns to evolve as publishers came to unburden themselves from the past and understand how best to present news online.

Instead, two decades later, we’re still largely dealing with the same design patterns, which to me don’t amount to much more than a confusing mash of content presented with little to no visual hierarchy — particularly past the “top story”, most sites simply resort to large “link dumps” that offer visitors nothing other than “Hey, just look around for yourself” as a navigation paradigm. As an example, check out the homepage of cnn.com and tell me that you find this a pleasing, engaging experience as a reader:

There’s a bit of an exception for nytimes.com, which intentionally and more literally copies the printed paper metaphor, though ironically they do it with more white space and readability than any competitor I’ve found.

How could this experience be improved?

  • News sites should be far more willing to experiment with both alternative layouts and navigational experiences. For example, publishers could be far more opinionated about content hierarchy at the risk of not being all things to all people; navigation could be far more interactive and context-sensitive; section fronts could and should function as “related” satellites with more individuality. In a well-designed home, the kitchen and bedroom serve different functions yet still share a unifying aesthetic.
  • Publisher’s digital product teams should empower if not outright direct their UX and technical teams to experiment with new paradigms rather than enabling navel-gazing focus on technical tooling, leading or allowing them to lapse into copying other sites, or simply forcing their teams be “always be playing catch-up” and therefore unable to innovate. That said, that last item is used far more as an excuse than most would like to admit: most true innovators don’t need significant resources and in fact are often marked by how much they do can do creatively with little at hand.

News sites miss significant opportunities to provide true context and narrative

Nearly as soon as the notion of the flat HTML-based website graduated to the database-powered CMS (content management system) paradigm where all content is comprised of discrete elements (title, content, author, links, categories, dates, etc), news sites should’ve expanded exponentially in terms of their presentation, organization, filtering, and most importantly, relationships between content by theme, category, topic, people, and infinite other connections.

Instead, an overwhelming percentage of digital news articles still exist in an exceedingly simple “title – content” paradigm, with the only hints of metadata “embedded” directly within the “content blob”. WordPress, the world’s most popular CMS (and equally if not more popular within the digital news space) has taken steps in that direction with its “block editor” but I’d still love to see even bolder “breaking” of the title-content model in favor of discrete “chunks” of content.

Perhaps worse, most digital news sites have half-hearted attempts at “related content” that are dumb at best, with base-level technology powering the related content and motives often aligned to increasing traffic over providing meaningful context to readers.

How could this experience be improved?

This type of flexibility could’ve created sites where individual articles could be chained together to chart and tell an entire higher-level narrative of a story in a much more connected manner, with added context provided by not just the chaining of the stories themselves but in terms of related metadata such as relevant dates, links, related stories, and added info such as Wikipedia links and much more.

Imagine being able to follow the entire arc of a story like the rise of COVID-19, or a favorite team’s season, or anything else imaginable, with a news site providing both the atomic elements (stories), as well as the big picture connections that tie each story together into an overall narrative. Add in adjacent data and related links, and you can imagine a world in which readers can zoom in or out of a story fluidly and at their own discretion, able to grok the information they’re seeking at whatever level that makes sense.

Coming late to a story that is confusing or fascinating? Roll back to previous articles or use helpful pointers from the news site to help you find which key stories or related elements can help you catch up. Already a big fan, and just need today’s development? Let valuable, non-invasive personalization (see below) help you pick up where you left off.

Yes, there are sites like Vox that aim to “explain the news” with small nuggets of text or articles that provide a dumbed-down summary of a given topic; that is still only a single “slice of time” perspective and doesn’t at all draw on the amazing cache of discrete chunks of content already available to news producers who simply need to have the vision to build out these larger narratives for readers. Worse, there are zero meaningful innovations in the presentation of current-day “explainers”, leaving much on the table in terms of opportunities to engage visitors.

News organizations could even add in commentary and talking heads at the “narrative” layer, delivering “value added” perspective for their own anchors, shows, and related brands.

The Hypergene paper I mentioned above lays this out more eloquently in 2001 than news sites are doing today; other organizations such as Intercom’s four-year-old Why Cards are The Future of the Web article have also described a similar vision wherein content is unmoored from its surprisingly static state as an “article” and freed to be mixed more dynamically while still retaining clear connections to a human-relevant source.

While Intercom’s 2016 article was right about the modular / component-based nature that many CMS tools are moving in, it still envisions a world out-of-reach for most news sites whose atomic element is “the article” by itself without much content other than a generic category like “Sports”, “Business”, or “Arts”.

The concept of “Personalization” is a nearly complete failure.

If you’d watched the recently-concluded third season of HBO’s Westworld, you might be terrified about a near-future where a single company knows everything about you and can use that information in coordinated, scary ways.

If that worries you, trust me, publishers are light years away from the sophistication and coordination needed to realize that type of dystopian future. Most of what passes for “personalization” today amounts to either a basic amount of reshuffling of articles on a page if you’re logged in, or worse, is delivered only via advertisements that rely on extensive, sluggish connections to third-party services like Facebook that are already under regulatory and market pressure to remove the foundational elements of their system as online privacy becomes increasingly valuable to consumers and regulators.

So, instead of personalization that delivers both the content you like today combined with what you might be interested in tomorrow, you now receive personalization in the form of an increasingly supply of “trackers” that slow down the performance of sites while doing little more than collecting your personal data to be sold and delivering targeted advertisements to you.

If that’s not explicitly clear: Yes, web publishers wasted a generation of potentially valuable innovation around “personalization” on trying to show you better ads, only to slow down sites and self-sabotage the market in the process. And as anybody who has bought a bed or refrigerator only to be shown ads for that same product for months already knows: the system didn’t even work. Now it’s being torn apart from the inside by tech companies like Apple and Google’s Chrome, who are clamping down on the same technology that enabled that type of cross-site tracking and ad personalization to begin with.

So instead of utilizing the explosive growth of technology to at least partly reward readers with tailored experiences that could adapt as the relationship between publisher and reader deepened, publishers now rely on account creation and login, a process that has innate friction and yet still manages to provide little to no value.

How could this experience be improved?

Assuming its not too late, publishers could do a number of things to try and reverse the tide of failed personalization:

  • Band together to demand better, performance-centric standards from ad partners (before regulators dismantle much of the power under the entire online advertising ecosystem itself);
  • Given how much of digital media has a “follow the leader” mentality, more middle and even smaller-scale publishers should be willing to make experimentation more a part of corporate digital media culture, at least trying to build meaningful engagement with visitors via engaging content and reduced ad units starts to gain momentum and convince risk-averse publishers that it can bear fruit with patience (and that there isn’t much alternative);
  • Speaking of, be willing to experiment with some of the increasingly lower-cost, lower-bar subscription and engagement platforms such as Pico and others that are starting to commoditize subscription tools and genuinely give more willing publishers some powerful tools;
  • Start doing more giving to readers in terms of value-adds to daily life (not in the form of “freebies”, but meaningful and in-depth news content) and less taking (cut Taboola, janky/slow ad units, and intrusive app modals) so that reader trust starts to turn more fully in their favor;
  • In line with the above, be willing to deliver “personalization at scale” by going deeper into local / regional / niche-specific news and competing less on commodity and click-bait;
  • Use the aforementioned rise in affordable, powerful reader engagement tools and platforms to examine audience data and shift to a “responding to reader interest” model rather than a “we know what’s best” or “navel-gazing” approach to covering topics.

Conclusion

To be clear, online news is by no means dead, though it is by-and-large in zombie mode, with a stunning and embarrassing lack of creativity, innovation, and excitement around the content, and more pressingly, the mode of delivery of that content, from the overall structure of news websites to the individual experience of articles to how they are tied together with the richness, context, and history that news organizations are uniquely suited to deliver.

With a fascinating series of recent events providing rich soil for major media, niche publications, and citizen journalists alike, there should be no better time for digital media to rise to the occasion with experiences that equal the importance of its content. As admirable as this new age of both quantity and depth of journalism is, online news needs to get down from its capital-J Journalism high-horse and play significant catch-up if it wants to continue to be a relevant institution not just in American life, but in American lives.

Some favorite quotes – a running list

Inspired by chatting in a work Slack channel, l’m taking my list of favorite quotes and making them public, starting with a couple that I think of often. Similar to my running list of comedians I’ve seen, I’ll try to remember to keep this updated as I add new ones to the list. For now, these are in no particular order, though my favorite quotes are generally at the top of the list.

A photo of Buddhist monk Thich That Hahn

Happiness is available. Please help yourself to it.

Thich Nhat Hahn
A photo of Soren Kierkegaard

I see it all perfectly; there are two possible situations – one can either do this or that. My honest opinion and my friendly advice is this: do it or do not do it – you will regret both.

Soren Kierkegaard

Genius without education is like silver in the mine.

Benjamin Franklin

Last updated March 24, 2020

Vote Yes on Orono School Bond

You may have heard that Orono is holding a vote on this coming Tuesday, June 11th to pass a bond in support of some long-overdue upgrades to our crumbling schools. As a proud Orono resident with two children in our schools, I was fortunate to have a role as one of the community representatives in the planning process leading up to the bond.

Now that we’re getting close to the vote, I’ve been having some great conversations with Orono folks about the vote, and I’ve heard from some people who are considering voting against these upgrades because of the tax impact.

While I think these upgrades to our schools are essential and the tax burden is more than reasonable, I do agree with some of my neighbors: Orono taxes are high. Not just politically: in a way that keeps more of the next generation of great citizens out of our town, makes it increasingly harder for people on fixed or lower incomes to remain here, and comes up enough from enough people that it is worth confronting.

Sadly, our taxes are so high that smart and caring people are considering voting against a detailed, comprehensive plan to fix our schools. A plan that was carefully assembled over many months, with multiple opportunities for public input, to be as focused and as economic as possible. A plan that set out from the start to be as economical as possible by only recommended half of the upgrades deemed most essential by construction experts and community members who attended forums and meetings.

So I say to you: if you’re upset with our tax burden, you won’t solve that by voting against fixes that we desperately need to keep our schools from becoming uninhabitable.

You won’t solve our tax burden by preventing us from fixing the broken ceiling tiles, exposed wiring, temporary classrooms, and unsafe / insecure entrances.

You won’t solve our tax burden by preventing our state championship winning track team and our legendary football team from being able to play their games at a home field.

You won’t solve our tax burden by preventing our five-straight state championship show choir teams from performing in a lunchroom for the next 20 years.

Sadly, if you vote against this plan, you solve nothing.

Our schools are only getting worse, and they’re getting worse quickly. Our kids will continue to suffer with substandard, embarrassing, and dangerous facilities.

The next time we need repairs and improvements, the same work will only cost more.

People who might move here will be turned away by the condition of our school facilities.

And our tax burden will still be unsustainable.

Orono neighbors: I urge you to vote in support of the bond on Tuesday, June 11. Let’s put out students and our town first, and make up for years of overdue upgrades right now.

When that is done, we can work together as a community to address our tax burden.

I’ll be right there with you.

Pitching in the Shirtsleeves


My Mother died a little over a year ago, so this will be my 41st Mother’s Day, and my first one without her.

We’ve all lost someone: a Mom, a brother, a friend; that’s the way of the world. So we all know the excruciating loneliness of the calls that aren’t coming, the happy memory that can fill you with effortless pride and bitter anger at the same time. The guilt at what we didn’t say, didn’t do, or the photos we didn’t take.

We usually meet these things from a distance when we’re too young to lose people ourselves, so we feel them in waves of loss around us. As we get older, there are fewer surprises in loss except when it happens to you, and what you find along the way that you never heard mentioned.  

The long road of loss becomes familiar as we get older, so I try to be open to the surprises, to let them happen, and not be afraid of them or avoid them. They’re a way to look backward and forward at the same time, they’re both learning about and remembering who you’ve lost. They’re a rest stop on the endless road.

Last week my wife Heidi and I were playing cribbage and listening to the Red Sox on a radio so old we had to turn it up to the highest volume just to hear it. Joe Castiglione started calling Sox games 36 years ago, when I was four. Before every game was televised, and even on the weekends when we could watch them on TV38, our house was a radio broadcast house. My mom, ironing and listening to Joe and Ken, falling asleep to the games, turning up the radio to hear it when she worked outside in the garden. I’ve heard his voice a thousand times, in the foreground and background, and my Mom is nearby for most of them. When we were reading her last wishes, it was right there in her handwriting. She left me her collection of baseball books, including the pride of her collection, one signed by Joe himself.

Then I paused as the game came back to the foreground, and I heard Joe make an errant comment, one of the millions he’s said over 5,000 games when you both need to fill the air and want to paint a picture of the action for your listeners, as they’re sitting playing cards or ironing.

Rodriguez, pitching in the shirtsleeves tonight.”

Here was one of those surprises, one that sent my surroundings backward into infinity, that cut across time and took me off the road and onto a rest stop. While that single random phrase is one I’ve heard many times across many games, enough for it to be familiar, it surprised me how quickly I was transported. I was inside a small house on a Friday night in spring with the windows open, sitting at a campground, riding in the backseat. Listening to an announcer paint the story of the game, with my Mom nearby, or far away but at least available for a call.

I was with my Mom, and not just with her habit of listening to the radio. I was with her innocence, her natural and unaffected embrace of habits and small joys. The attitude that she used to make the most of her time here. What we do in the long light of summers when we don’t think we’re doing anything.

I don’t know if she would ever have sat me down to tell me this. It just became true over time, enough to come back through a single sentence, one of a million, from between the crackling of an old radio on a clear night.

I wouldn’t have come across it if I wasn’t open to the surprises.


Many of the things we think we learn from observing loss end up being at least little bit wrong, and the deals we make we can’t always follow through on. After we lose a loved one, no matter how much we regret, we’re not always going to appreciate every moment. We still forget to take more photos, we still say something we don’t mean, and we still miss a chance to give a hug.

One thing we can do is to be there for the surprises, let them happen, and allow them to show us things. It might come through some color commentary about a pitcher in his groove on a warm night, and it might be to remind us of something that hurts. It might be to show us a memory we’ve relived a million times, while it leaves something behind as it fades away.

Whatever that surprise is, it will be a rest stop on the long drive. And this might be the time it makes us a little wiser, and brings us a little closer to someone, even from impossibly far away.

 

 

Movies 2018

In 2018, I watched 49 movies, two more than in 2017, and slightly less than the average of 51 movies per year that I’ve averaged over the past 10 years. Yes, I track my movie-watching (and my book-reading, calories, sleep, travel, and other things), I enjoy doing it, and I refer back to it often.

Here are some stats from my year in movie watching (view previous years’ here)

2018’s New Movies

Of the 49 movies I watched in 2018, 14 of them — or 29% — were released in 2018, which is the lowest “new movie” total I’ve seen in a year since all the way back in 2012.

That means my 2018 top 10 list isn’t as confident as previous’ years when I had more movies to pick from- that said, I’m happy with this list overall:

  1. A Star Is Born
  2. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-verse
  3. Won’t You Be My Neighbor?
  4. Mission: Impossible – Fallout
  5. Avengers: Infinity War
  6. Game Night
  7. Blockers
  8. A Quiet Place
  9. Ant-Man and The Wasp
  10. Tomb Raider (2018 version)

How and What I Watched

Formats

I watched most (nearly 60%) of movies on a digital format such as Amazon Prime, Plex (my personal media library), Netflix, HBO Now, and iTunes. 30% of my viewing came from theaters, and the rest (just 4 movies) on DVD.

This is a big drop from just 5 years ago, when nearly 25% of my viewing was on DVD/Blu-ray, and only 30% on digital platforms.

Genres

This year, I spent most of my time — roughly 52 hours, or an hour a week — watching action movies, my top genre, beating out comedy without much of a battle. Next was drama, documentary, and thriller with two entries (Get Out and A Quiet Place).

The action genre was boosted not only by my regular November – December rewatches of several Bond movies; it was also enhanced by my watch of the entire five-movie Dirty Harry series, plus 6 of the 14 movies I saw in theaters this year.

Takeaways

  • Clearly, I need to get back into the new movie scene in 2019. I saw 30% fewer new movies in 2018 than my recent yearly average, due in part to a number of personal and professional happenings, and to a lesser extent, decreased interest in what was out there in terms of movies.
  • My Watchlist – (obviously) a running tally of the movies I want to watch – is at an all-time high, and I should either purge that list, or watch some movies from it, or both.
  • I should probably branch out beyond cheesy action movies and catch a few more dramas.
  • On a related note, I feel like the classic romantic comedy needs to come back around in a big way.

Catherine Campbell, 1957-2018

My mother, Cathi Campbell, passed away Monday June 11th 2018. Her obituary will appear in the Bangor Daily News (Maine) and Hartford Courant (Connecticut) on June 13th and 14th 2018, and is also reprinted below.

Catherine Marie Dowd Campbell went to be with the Lord on Monday June 11, 2018, held by her son Jason Clarke and with her beloved husband Peter Campbell by her side. While she struggled with cancer, she did not lose the battle, persevering with her endless strength and willingness to spend every minute happily sharing life with family. She is survived by her son Jason Clarke and wife Heidi, her husband Peter Campbell and his sons Joshua Campbell and wife Michelle and Jared Campbell and wife Tanya, her mother Pauline Dowd, her siblings Dennis Dowd and wife Cheryl, MariAnne Lalama and husband John, David Dowd and wife Paula, and Patricia Dowd. She is also survived by her grandchildren Henry and Annie Clarke, Connor and Mckayla Campbell, and Whitney, Eva, Chase, and Maverick Campbell. Cathi also leaves behind many nieces, nephews, cousins, and members of the extended Dowd and Campbell families, as well as a world of friends.

She is predeceased by her father Gerald Dowd, her parents-in-law, Lorraine and Douglas Campbell, and a special nephew, Paul Lalama.

Cathi was born in Hartford Connecticut in 1957, and spent a happy childhood playing between trees and around the city. She moved to Maine in 1979, where she loved gardening, cross country skiing, making homemade halloween costumes for her son Jason, listening to the Red Sox while ironing, her time as a Cub Scout pack leader, and her life as an aunt, sister-in-law, Mom and wife, as well as a neighbor and friend to so many. Cathi also reached her lifelong goal of graduating college during this time and began her career as a social worker, a true calling where she shared her overflowing support and guidance to many hundreds of people in need of a guardian and champion.

Later in life, she made many new friends living in southern Maine, Florida, and then again Connecticut, where she was closer to her parents and siblings. During this time, her love of travel and exploration flourished, as she and Peter visited nearly every state in the country and traveled abroad as avid campers, hikers, cruise-goers, and occasional theme park visitors. Their three-month-long epic cross-country RV trip in 2014 was a truly special experience that enriched their appreciation for the vast range of people and places that only travel can provide.

Through more than 20 years of constant companionship, Cathi and Peter also enjoyed watching the Red Sox and Celtics, baking (with many people receiving their favorite treats at each visit), being members of the East Windsor Rotary, and tending to their RV and garden. They rescued a dog, Libby, who loves to travel with them and was spoiled in the way only they could, and who is heartbroken at the loss of “her Memere”.

While she made the most of life with work, friends, and family, Cathi treasured her life first as Mother and later as a Grandmother more than anything else, known as Memere after her own maternal grandmother. Through countless visits and vacations with all of them, and through thousands of text messages with her first born grandson Henry, she showered all her grandchildren with the brightest light of her soul, telling the world about their every accomplishment, and taking every opportunity to share in their lives. Cathi was a constant fan and supporter of her grandchildren’s many sports, music, and arts activities, attending every performance as photographer, first (and loudest clapper), and watching recordings of their performances until she knew every word, as she did for her own son Jason.

She leaves her grandchildren with her many signature sayings, a genuine love for travel and adventure, and a lifetime of memories to share with their own children and grandchildren.

Services will be Monday June 18th at 11am at the Carmon Funeral Home on Poquonock Avenue in Windsor, Connecticut and later this summer in Anson, Maine, her final resting place, where she will be committed to a burial among fields and trees, a spot fitting for her beauty and love of the outdoors. Those wishing to make a donation may do so to the American Cancer Society online at cancer.org.

Open Letters I wish Taylor Swift would write to Apple

After the rousing success of Taylor Swift’s open letter to Apple last week, it made me think of several other open letters I wish she’d write to Apple:

  • Dear Apple, Please Let Us Uninstall Weather, Watch, and most of your other default apps;
  • Dear Apple, Can We Please Have OS-level integrations With Third-Party Apps Like Chrome and Google Maps?
  • Dear Apple, Did You Really Need to Go And Complicate the Confederate Flag Situation?
  • Dear Apple, Remember Ping? This Letter Isn’t Really Designed To Change Anything :)

Befriending Time

I stood up from my seat in the pew, ready to carry a heavy weight. Could I take a punch? I guess this was as good a time as any to find out. Only it would have to be a wet one, like a kiss, because it was starting to rain.

***

When someone dies, you still need to do the normal things. Like shave, make sure your shirt is wrinkle-free, help your kids get ready for the events of the day. There’s fixing up the daughter’s hair, helping the son with his tie, and you eat a little bit if you’re hungry or you know you’ve been forgetting. Then there are the abnormal things, the new things. Trying to find a way to comfort your mother, who’s just lost her Father. Remembering the last time you saw someone, how they looked. How they looked compared to what you remember them as.

The first time we found out my Grandfather had cancer, we quickly gathered plans to race down and see him. It always amazes me how our small family can create chaos out of quiet, when given the sliver of a chance. This was more than a sliver. It was just after Easter, the time of year that Connecticut is in the full bloom of spring while northern New England is still going rounds with winter, hoping at best for a draw. We escaped the dirty snow banks to flowers on the trees and something like blue in the skies. We were told, rightly or wrongly, that we needed to visit Grandpa because things did not look good. The kids ran around the back yard, we setup lawn chairs, the aunts and uncles gathered. You talk about work when you don’t want to talk about the future.

Four years later, he died. Four years of ups and downs, long nights we could only imagine with all the distance of 300 miles and a half a climate between us and my grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins and friends and neighbors. What did my mother go through in those four years that I could learn from? Not just the fear of driving to the hospital, but the loneliness of driving home, to go to bed, to wake up and go on with their lives the next day, waiting for news.

What about my Grandfather, at the center of it? You’ll need to change your eating habits, try to like new things, have patience forced on you like an icy sidewalk when you fall. The patience of waiting rooms, test results, the patience of waiting to see if a new treatment works or what else it will do to you while you’re trying to battle the larger of two evils.

When I think about those four years, I imagine the patience is tempered by the vast uncertainty of length, like how driving somewhere the first time always seems so long. Do you lose sense of time wondering if today will be a good day, or if this month will bring setbacks, or this season will be filled with promise as the enemy retreats? And come to think of it, did the enemy retreat, or are they regrouping? When you’re a child, time alternates between enemy and friend at different times. Growing up means understanding time, befriending it, ultimately controlling it. The cancer takes that, returns days to weeks, hours to months, removes your ability to predict and balance your present with your future.

Secretly, I didn’t think he’d get well, only manage, with bouts of triumph and resolve, while a steady decline walked on, ignoring his will.

***

He died in February, yet another time of year when Maine is consumed by the darkness and the whiteness of winter, while Connecticut turns the corner. There weren’t quite flowering trees, but the snow had given way to rain and the immeasurable dark skies were now just gray, with a hint of blue.

Me with my Grandfather Gerald Dowd, Christmas 1984.

We were ready. I had a haircut and bought a larger wedding band to fit over my broken finger. My family would immediately notice if I wasn’t wearing a ring, and even a swollen and purple knuckle would not excuse the adoscelent arrogance of not wearing it to such an occasion. Death is one of the reasons we maintain traditions in the first place.

Saturday morning, we were groups of dark suits and dresses, piling into dark cars under deep gray skies. They weren’t showing clear signs of lightening; that took the promise out of our small talk about the weather. Some of those gathered  were handed umbrellas by the funeral attendants, until the umbrellas ran out. My own children had never been to a funeral; never seen my wife and I at our most vulnerable. We would need to expose them to the power of grief and still hold them close enough to not feel alone.

A traditional Catholic mass anchored the solemnity. Even for those people who grew up outside of the church, it provided meaning to our dress and united our quiet solitude. The sermon reminded us that my Grandfather received comfort as dramatically and as surely in the other world as he had been plagued by pain and decline in ours. This peace was possible in his new place because, the priest assured us, “Only the father knows the son,” and “only the son knows the father.” This was religious in intent. Then my uncle got up to deliver the eulogy for his father, gone after a lifetime, and those words meant something even more to me.

***

After a short drive from the church, we gathered at the gravesite. The rain clacked on umbrellas above us, and below the somber quiet followed us from the church. They’d erected a canopy over the grave for the service. My grandmother and aunts and uncles and friends gathered in seats for the military ceremony, honoring my Grandfather’s service in Korea. I stood outside the canopy, listening.

Approaching middle age, I realized I had been wondering, for nearly 30 years, how my Grandfather felt on the long boat ride from Korea back to the United States. I know from stories that he and his friends played cards to relax and pass the time, but what else? What mix of confidence and relief showed itself on the faces and in the words of him and the men next to him? Did he dwell much on the choices that lay before him, as impossibly wide as the ocean? Did he plan out the universe he would co-create, that now stood gathered around him in the cold and wet world he left? You rarely think of something when you’re in the middle of it, even as long as a life.

My wife pulled my daughter closer under her umbrella. Men in uniform moved through traditions. My Grandfather had never been as far away from that boat and its possibilities. No harm could come to him anymore as he stood with the Father, in rest following a lifetime of choices and sentences, lucky and smart, fair and cruel.

My son looked up at me, and I looked back at him. I don’t think you learn how to act at funerals, any more than you learn how to control life. You befriend time, and you carry an umbrella, and when you escape one battlefield, you take a moment to laugh and play cards and maybe you catch a glimpse of the next adventure you’ll have a hand in creating. Then you go towards it, with fear and confidence, invincibility and fragility. Peace and loss.

As my son stared at me standing in the rain, his face moved for a second. I think it was recognition. Then he lifted up his umbrella, stretching to the limits of his reach to place it over my head. I took it from him and held it over both of us. We were out of the rain for the time being, but it was still loud as hell and inches above our heads. He stood close to me to keep out of the cold.

Only the father knows the son, and only the son knows the father.