According to this Ed Koren cartoon in the New Yorker, my sixties could be a decade of wisdom. I’ll take that. The medical appointments, not so much. But I have six years to go.

When I turned fifty in the pandemic, I wasn’t able to start the new decade with a birthday bash and a new theme like I did when I turned 30 (my decade of writing) and 40 (my decade of narrative). I didn’t really know what that theme would be, though. Instead, I spent the last few years sailing high with a new job and the anticipation of a new house but also struggling to get out of the bottom of a barrel of lifelong, bottled-up emotions.

Last summer, though, I committed myself to a practice of mindfulness and to more deeply knowing myself and my loved ones. I sat down on a therapist’s couch and learned to listen to my feelings. I started each day with pre-dawn meditation on the new porch. I called my brothers and my parents and my friends and leaned into those conversations. (One of my friends told me he’d long recognized I had managed conversations like an interview, rarely sharing anything personal or showing vulnerability. He’s my career coach now, and helping a better me show up.)

Throughout these years, Sunday soccer has kept me healthy and likewise helped me grow. One morning last fall, I hustled just a bit less intensely than usual, and that minor adjustment made a major difference. I had the ball at my feet, dribbling confidently, going to the goal, aware of the defender, and I held the ball a moment longer than usual, then saw the narrow opening and I shot for a goal. That moment of clarity lingered with me for weeks.

That day, too, I actually recognized something I’d missed in nearly 10 years with these guys — they were having fun. They were joyful, exclaiming in one language or another (most Sundays there are men from five continents on the pitch) about each good pass or trap or goal.

These lessons, I realized, had illuminated an important theme: listening. Looking back through more than 20 years of blog posts, I see that I’ve been yearning for a deeper listening for most of my life. (A key part of the Voices of Duke Health project as the listening booth.) It’s a perfect them for my fifties, and all the rest of my days.

So, then, an update on the themes of my decades: Live in my 20s. Write in my 30s. Tell stories in my 40s. Listen in my 50s.

And the career coaching has me looking ahead to my sixties and a possible them that might resurrect the long table concept I once explored: I imagine myself at the dining table with family and friends, deep in conversation, telling and listening to stories, smiling in fun and clarity.



Keep growing

“Keep asking for help and accepting it when you can. And if you keep on doing that, you’ll always moving towards better,” says Leslie Higgins to the Diamond Dogs men’s support group in the great show Ted Lasso.

This past year for me has been full of Ted Lasso, and The Bear, and Drops of God, and other shows and books and podcasts and conversations that have helped me move towards better.

I have outlined a few blog posts to write about this personal growth and the deeper relationships that are developing through this. For more than two decades, I’ve blogged to chronicle my activities and to record my observations. Over these past six months, as I have asked for help in new and recurring ways, I have learned to listen better and feel more. I am moving slower but towards better.



Where I traveled in 2022

On the What I’m doing now, I give a snapshot of the activities at home, work, on the soccer pitch, and in the air. I’m moving this 2022 travelogue to it’s own post so I can bring Now up to date.

I was lucky to travel much in 2022.

We spent the holidays in Hawaii, took a short trip in March to visit my brothers in Austin, enjoyed a spring break return to the west end of St. Croix, and celebrated Oliver’s birthday in New York City. Later, Oliver and I had the best father-son day on Block Island. Then Erin and I went west for a cruise to Alaska, and good friends from Chapel Hill hosted us at their beach house on the glorious Outer Banks. We took Malia to D.C. and then returned for AU Family Weekend. Oliver and I took a boys trip back to Austin in December to spend time with my brother Nick and his family. Erin and the girls went to Cabo San Lucas and swam with a whale shark.



Modus operandi

At work this week, I met with my manager and my communications team for one-on-one mid-year performance reviews (Duke is on a July-to-June fiscal year). It’s been a productive and positive first six months for the DCRI Research Communications & Engagement Department, and the RADx-UP team I manage. I am grateful for this job, the professional and supportive group around me, and the meaningful work that fills each day.

Completing my part for the review of each of my teammates went faster this time around because of a new routine that I started us on in September. Now, at the end of the month, I ask each person to update a “work notes” file to record the highlights and kudos that can help our managers track our performance (RCE has a very detailed set of performance goals) and accurately rate our work at the end of the year.

This is your reminder to document your work and any relevant feedback. Be succinct.

  1. What were your primary activities this month?
  2. What projects, products, or events did you complete this month?
  3. What feedback did you receive from colleagues, peers, managers, or others?
  4. What insights about your work did you get?
  5. What did you do for your personal well being and your career development?
  6. What are your primary activities for the month ahead?
  7. What issues, challenges, or opportunities do you need to talk to your supervisor or team about?

Having this information for the last few months made it much easier for me to write my self-evaluation and to focus my feedback on the successes of each person. I hear from my fellow managers that they have adopted and adapted the work notes for their teams, too. Our work at DCRI is so fast paced that having this routine reminds us to jot down notes about our activities, insights, and feedback as they happen. I hope we keep it up and refine the habit.

I was inspired by Dave Winer to start this work-notes routine. Dave details progress on his development projects with his notes outlines; for example, here’s the Change Notes for Drummer. Dave also has a ritual to post the OPML archive of his blog each month. I’m glad I was able to find a way to put those two ideas together.

Now I think I will add work notes to my list of effective styles of communication

A rule and a tool

In the process of talking through those mid-year reviews and sharing my approach to project management and communications support, I came upon a second addition to make to that list of styles.

In my graduate studies—science and medical journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill—I learned the rule “You can’t explain what you don’t understand.” I recite that rule to myself daily, and also use it as a reason to ask the operations team for clarity on what they need from our communications team. When I better understand the new program or initiative, I draft a fact sheet and communications plan. Basicially, it’s the five Ws (and an H) that I learned as a young journalist though reordered to what, why, and who to define the project and followed by a plan for how and when we’ll communicate the result.

That’s my rule and a tool, I told a colleague, recommending that she build on them to create her own methods. I’ll be watching her work notes in the months ahead to see what she develops.



Testing MarsEdit

This is another micropost with MarsEdit to see how it flows through to my Textpattern blog. First attempt had a blank body.

Yep, I have to open the post in MarsEdit and republish for the body to show up on my blog.

I’m sure I’ll be able to figure it out. Probably just a setting to select.



Que gran partido

Two exciting matches today at the World Cup. I was so happy to see the Netherlands tie the game in regular time, but bummed they lost at penalty kicks.



Plum good, says UNESCO

I vaguely knew that UNESCO celebrates the cultures and practices of peoples and places around the globe, but I’ve never taken the time to look over the agency’s list of ‘intangible cultural heritage’ until today. My friend, Bora, sent me a link to a news item reporting that šljivovica (we call it slivovitz) has been added to the UNESCO list, so I went looking for confirmation and I found my way to the official entry here: Social practices and knowledge related to the preparation and use of the traditional plum spirit – šljivovica.

To get to that page, I glanced through the other items added this year by the Intergovernmental Committee for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage. It’s a fascinating list that includes crafting and playing the oud, beekeeping in Slovenia, Holy Week in Guatemala and festivals related to the journey of the Holy family in Egypt, the popular folk song of Algeria called Raï, harissa and Cuban light rum and the French baguette. You can travel the world just by scrolling through those entries. Human culture and art and cuisine is just awesome.

Tonight I’m going to toast UNESCO and humanity with a bit of plum brandy. I have half a dozen bottles to choose from – backyard distilled Serbian šljivovica that Bora’s brought back in his luggage, a Romanian version a neighbor once gave me, a version made in Oregon, or the bottle of Yebiga rakija I bought at a liquor store in Georgetown. Bora was here just last Saturday afternoon; I made oven-roasted chicken shawarma (NYTimes recipe) and we sat at the dinner table, ate a meal and sipped the very good rakija, and talked until dark.



Give me steam

Peter Gabriel’s Us is playing on the bluetooth speaker, filling the house with his songs of love and yearning. Anytime I play this album means I must be feeling lonely. It’s just me and Tilly, the golden retriever, in the house on this day after Thanksgiving. Erin, Anna, Malia, and Oliver are in Cleveland along with most of the other Shaughnessy clan while I stayed back to keep an eye on the house under construction, to play soccer, and, yes, to watch the World Cup.

(I blogged about Us here and here, and this early post explains my first lonely but memorable moments with the World Cup.)

Friends Kelly and Andrew invited me to their home for the big meal yesterday; I contributed a sour cherry pie (see it here). I came home to the empty house and watched Philadelphia, the AIDS-era movie with Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington (the soundtrack includes a Peter Gabriel song).

This solitude has been relaxing, and today between World Cup matches I’ll slowly make my way through a list of tasks and chores that I’ve been meaning to get to for months. I like the clean calm and slowed momentum of the days, but damn do I miss my family and their chaotic, kinetic energy.



It should be zero

Last week, Oliver was diagnosed with a fractured bone in his foot, so I have been driving him to his school. Usually we’re listening to the SiriusXM soccer talk show or U2X music station for the short drive, but this morning I tuned to WUNC. As we pulled up the hill and the school property, the hourly NPR news update came on (NPR News: 10-25-2022 8AM EDT).

“The shooting at the St. Louis school was the fortieth this year,” said the reporter at the very moment I turned the car into the drop-off lane and the school resource officer — the armed police offer who is at the school every day — came into sight.

I noticed this intersection of news and relative safety, and I knew Oliver was beside me and listening, and I recognized it was a moment to say something meaningful, but I did not know what to say and a moment later we were stopped and Oliver was getting out of the car, grabbing his notebook case and his saxophone and he was closing the door just as I uttered, weakly, “Have a good day.”

I want to live in a world where soccer highlights and rock-n-roll hits don’t have to give way to tragedy and insanity.

I want to live in a country where there are zero school shootings ever.



Writing spaces

Colum McCann is one of my favorite authors, and back in 2013 the New York Times published an interview with him about his commitment to ‘radical empathy.’ I’ve remembered that for the photo that shows McCann sitting on his cushioned makeshift seat in a tight space between two walls.

Now that we’re midway in building this new house, I need to decide what’s going to be in my work space in a wide hallway between our bedroom and Erin’s front office. My space has a tall, fixed window that looks west to the forest. I’ll have a desk, bookshelves, maybe some cabinets to store supplies and file papers. I’m also trying to figure out how a bench might fit (I’m sitting on the plywood floor at the moment, my back resting agains a 2×4 wall stud).

McCann is a brilliant writer, and I’m no McCann. Whatever I end up with in this space, I know that it is routine, focus, writing and rewriting, that matters. I’m excited for this writing ahead.



Checked, mate?

I started reading this New Yorker feature about Mladen Solomun, “the d.j. who keeps Ibiza dancing.” Then I came upon this:

Bor, the tour manager, oversees what he calls “booth politics,” and any infraction of the unwritten code can lead to ejection. The truly elect are invited to take an occasional shot of tequila with Solomun. The brand on his rider is Clase Azul Reposado, which the club brings in specifically for him. Solomun sometimes drinks more than thirty shots of tequila during a night at the decks, with no visible change in his sobriety.

Come on. The vaunted New Yorker fact checkers must have been out to lunch for that graph. Thirty shots is a lot of alcohol!

Alex Frater once told me that his article was so closely checked that the editor called an entomologist to confirm the number of ants he could have stepped on (I wrote about that here, one of my favorite posts from my Coconut Wireless blog).

On the other hand, maybe the current fact checkers did confirm with a 30-shot lunch.



Finding your drums

Oliver mentioned again over dinner the other night that he wants to take up the drums. We asked him to focus on his saxophone, but he insisted he is interested in the drums.

At that, we told him all the ways he could show us he had a drummer’s rhythm without us buying an expensive kit that he might use a few times and then forget: he could slap the small djembe we’ve had in our house for 20 years, or he could bang on an overturned plastic pail, or he could even get some bamboo and tap on it with a flip-flop.

I pulled up a YouTube video of Futuna Fatuana to show him how the ni-Vanuatu make music with bamboo and with glass bottles filled to various levels. I once brought that troupe to Paama as part of a music education project I organized. I also paid for the generator to run one night so I could show the students (and their families from the surrounding villages) the video Stomp Out Loud. (In Cleveland, before we set out for the Peace Corps, Erin and I had seen the touring music show Stomp.)

Here’s what I wrote in my Peace Corps Description of Service document (a final report before a volunteer closes out his/her service):

Peace Corps Vanuatu offered a Small Project Assistance grant in 1998 to support Anton’s What A Bang! music education project, which brought a popular “stringband” from Futuna Island to Vaum Junior Secondary School to demonstrate instruments made with local materials (e.g. bamboo, empty Coke bottles, and rubber sandals). To this day students improvise music on handcrafted instruments such as ukulele, tin can drums and bamboo whistles. VJSS has begun to collect and use various musical instruments for music education and class sing-a-longs.

After dinner, Oliver retrieved paint cans and plastic pails fro the shed and made himself a makeshift drum kit in the laundry room. He banged on it for an hour or so and called it a night. The laundry room has been cluttered with the kit for the last few days. After his soccer practice yesterday, we were driving past School of Rock—I mentioned he should take an introductory drum lesson, and he quickly found the company’s website and requested more information.



Happy at work

I’m nearing the second anniversary of my job switch, and I’m happy to report that it’s been a great two years. I’m thoroughly enjoying my work at the Duke Clinical Research Institute on the RADx Underserved Populations project.

Last week, the Duke School of Medicine Magnify (an online news site) featured No More Guessing, a story I wrote about the Pediatrics faculty at DCRI. That group’s growth over the last 15 years is impressive, and my job is directly tied to their success in “running multi-site pediatric clinical trials and … managing major coordinating centers.”



Music and Mockingbird

A roundup of the last couple of weeks:

Erin and I have been rewatching Treme, the series set in post-Katrina New Orleans. Music and musicians are a key thread through the series, and a good reminder of what the city has given to our country.

Treme inspired me to look at the Cat’s Cradle calendar; Anna and I went one Friday to see/hear Blue Cactus at the Cat’s Cradle Back Room.

The next night, the family went to a backyard party at the home of Steve and Rebekah Vaisey. Their daughter, Deliah, has been recording tracks for an upcoming EP, and she performed some of her songs, with her father and brothers backing her up. Find Deliah on Spotify under Delia-h:

After Deliah and her family finished their set—they were very good!—the stage became a karaoke playground; my children sang Sweet Caroline and had everyone up on their feet singing along. Another guest sang Blue Monday, by New Order. On the way home, I told my family about the time I and four buddies performed a dance routine to that hit song. Our routine was choreographed by Danielle Crawford, we were dressed in cheerleader outfits (this was a somewhat-serious spoof of the very popular DeKalb High School girls dance team), and we got a big cheer from the student body in the gym.

Matthew Butterick, a lawyer/designer/coder who designed the fonts I use on this site, occasionally writes (and designs) long, thoughtful, connected essays. His latest is Power, Corruption & Lies and in it he focuses on the album cover designs of New Order. It’s a fascinating read.

Last week, Erin and I went to the Durham Performing Arts Center to see Aaron Sorkin’s adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird. The cast was excellent, and the dialogue crisp, but I still came away unsettled by the story and the reality of racism’s deep, deep roots in this country.

We hosted a backyard party of our own this weekend to celebrate Malia’s graduation, and we ended the evening with karaoke under our carport. Oliver and his cousin Ginny hogged the microphone but did let me and my friend Jon sing Solsbury Hill.



Ring the bell

Erin and I took a cruise vacation, from Seattle to Alaska and back. We had fun visiting glaciers, hiking along the water, watching for wildlife, and shopping in the towns. We also had one of the best date nights ever. Then we got COVID. But, first, a story from Provence.

Closed for inventory

In 2016, Erin and I celebrated our twentieth-anniversary in France, including a delightful stay in the seaside town of Cassis. On one of our last days there, Erin and I walked from Maison º9 into town and up the hill to Clos Sainte Magdeleine, a winery with beautiful oceanside vineyards that produce delicious white and rosé wines. When we got to the door of the shop, though, a sign announced that it was closed for the week but to pull the metal rod should you need the proprietor. I turned on my heels, disappointed and ready for the walk back.

Erin, better than me in so many ways, reached up and rang the bell. We waited.

A few minutes later, a young woman opened the door, explained that she was busy taking inventory, but she’d be happy to show us in, give a glass of wine, and sell us a few bottles.

Erin proved how good things can come to those who “ring the bell.” Ever since, that’s been the phrase we use in our family conversations to encourage our children to step up and seize the situation (with a knowing nod to my indecision).

Take a cruise

Erin and I have traveled the globe together and with our children, but we long resisted the idea of taking a cruise. There’s no way I wanted to get norovirus or jostle with thousands at the buffet. But as Erin gets closer to her fiftieth birthday, and with only a few states left until she’s visited all 50 of them, she booked a family cruise to Alaska—for summer 2020! COVID canceled that cruise, but the cruise line wouldn’t refund the full fare, so we held onto the credits. When we learned the credits would expire later this year, Erin realized we would be on our own this summer as Anna was in nursing school, Malia would be a camp counselor, and Oliver would be at back-to-back sleep-away camps.

Erin decided to book the cruise, and so off we went on an evening flight to Seattle, unplugging from our work and the new-house project, hoping that Anna and Malia and Oliver would be safe and well for the week. My task had been to arrange a hotel room, but I nearly blew that, realizing a few days before departure that the reservation was off a week. The new reservation I made, correctly, was in the Hyatt Regency Seattle, and we woke on a Sunday morning with a glorious view to Mount Rainier. We enjoyed breakfast (and bought a couple of bottles of wine for the cruise) at Mr. West Café, and then hailed a taxi to the terminal where we joined the queue and eventually found our way to our stateroom on deck eight.

As the Odyssey of the Seas began the long sail north to Alaska, Erin and I enjoyed a champagne toast on our deck. For the next two days at sea, we walked and talked, relaxed in the sauna and steam room, read books, dressed up to go to dinner at the restaurants on board (one night a somewhat-molecular-gastronomy meal, another night good sushi!).

At our first stop, Icy Straight Point, we walked past the cruise companies’ center of activities and on into the village of Hoonah with plans to get lunch at the Fisherman’s Daughter. As we approached a group of Tlingit carvers working on a totem pole, Erin’s phone rang. Back in North Carolina, Oliver was about to be sent home from camp, sick with fevers (a counselor in his cabin left the previous day with COVID, and other campers were leaving with influenza). With reception in and out, Erin managed to make a plan and give instructions to Malia to get him home. We kept walking.

We were passing one home when a woman walked around to her SUV. She was holding an empty white board, her toddler and a German shepherd at her feet. We said hello, and she asked if we had plans for the day.

“I happen to have two spots left on our five o’clock whale watching tour,” she said.

Erin stepped toward her and rang the bell, the woman put down the white board without needing to write a thing, and a little later—after halibut tacos at Fisherman’s Daughter—we were on the Thor Too with the woman’s husband, Joardan, guiding us into the strait in search of whales. Over the next two hours, we observed humpback whales, seals and sea lions, and sea otters. At times the boat drifted silently. We waited, marveling at the scenery, and minutes later the sounds of a whale exhaling nearby would redirect our gaze to see the mist of the whale’s breath floating away, and then the tale flip up and slowly out of sight.

The next day, off the ship in Skagway, we climbed into a small helicopter that gently lifted us into the air above the fjord, along the mountaintops, and onto Mead Glacier. For 45 minutes we wandered the glacier with a guide, learning about the river of ice and wandering rocks and dangers of the crevasse. I lay down to sip from the icy meltwater. I thanked Erin a hundred times that day for arranging that excursion. She’d wanted a helicopter ride to rival the ride we got on Paama and this was it.

A third day, in Juneau, with no pre-planned excursions. I’d looked at various ways to get from the dock to Mendenhall Glacier, in the Tongass National Forest, but once again it was Erin who took charge and called a taxi company. Skyler Mazon with Juneau Taxi pulled up in a van a few minutes later. On our way toward the glacier, we were looking at eagles up on the light posts when Skyler pointed to grassy marsh and a black bear, and then another! His excitement at seeing the bears made the day a success in itself. And then we had a few hours to hike in the park, learning about how much the glacier has retreated in the last hundred years. Skyler returned to get us and in Juneau he left us out to walk into Cope Park, a gem of a city park with a rushing river and tall pines.

As the ship sailed away from Juneau, we watched three paragliders soaring high above. One descended sooner than the others, landing on the tidal beach as we passed. A little later, a bald eagle glided by, and then another, and another.

After nearly two days of sailing back south, the ship put in at Victoria, British Columbia, for the shortest of the stops. It was late Sunday afternoon but the place was bustling and beautiful and warm. We dressed up and walked into town for a delicious meal at the Tapa Bar Restaurant (ceviche, shrimp in coconut milk curry, grilled carrots, chile relleno, shopped on our way back toward the dock, and stopped for wine and tiramisu at Il Cove Trattoria. Erin was gorgeous, we were relaxed and having fun, and this was one of the best dates ever, making me damn glad that I’d decided almost instantly to marry Erin when I first met her in college.


In January 2002, Erin and I went on a date to Raleigh to hear Jubilant Sykes sing with the NC Symphony (we’d seen him perform the year before in Cleveland as part of an MLK concert). After the concert in Raleigh, Sykes came to the foyer to meet a few of us who had waited to buy his CD, which I would end up playing for Anna, still an infant at the time, over the next few years.

One of the songs on that album: Ring Dem Bells, an angelic cover of the oh-so-good Ring Them Bells by Bob Dylan.


Back in Seattle early on Monday morning, Erin and I got a taxi to nearby Magnolia Village, where we parked ourselves and our luggage in front of Petit Pierre Bakery. As soon as it opened, we got the delicious pastries (one of the best pain au raisin ever), and sat at our table watching a stream of arriving customers. Soon, Kara Jackson, our fellow Peace Corps volunteer, walked up to join us. Kara is associate professor of education at the University of Washington (her field is math education), and I hadn’t seen her since 1999 in Vanuatu. Later, she and her family would take us on a hike around Seattle’s Seward Park in Lake Washington, and after lunch at their home, Kara took us to the airport.

Then we flew home to North Carolina, where Oliver was recovering from pneumonia. At the airport, as Malia pulled around to get us, we learned that her school trip to Chicago later in the week would be canceled because the hosts there had COVID. That should have been a warning to us, because two days later, Erin and I tested positive for COVID (the same day that President Joe Biden tested positive), and for the next week we were knocked down by the illness; one day, with fever and chills and my body aching about as bad as when I had dengue in Vanuatu.

But now I’m healthy again and back to work and projects around the house, and without the COVID fog I can recall the Alaska vacation and tally all the ways that Erin made that trip so special. More than ever, I am grateful for Erin. We will mark 26 years of marriage on Aug. 10, and I hope to sail through many more with her.

Clos Sainte Magdeleine, Cassis, Provence



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