Letters from a life lost

Catherine Friesen, New York, December 2009. We turned her Spanish Harlem apartment into a makeshift studio for headshots for her grad school application. She styled her own hair.

Catherine Friesen, New York, December 2009. We turned her Spanish Harlem apartment into a makeshift studio for headshots for her grad school application. She styled her own hair.

Four years ago, after a dear friend died of cancer, I combed through letters she had written to me two decades earlier, when we were in college and sometimes dating and both of us were trying to figure out how to become adults. I chose about 20 letters—some typed, some illustrated on colored paper, some with beads or feathers—that I thought captured her young personality without being uncomfortably personal.

Catherine was an actor. She died less than a year after completing her MFA from the University of South Carolina. She was also a New Yorker, having left her native Indiana in 1998 to become a building superintendent, school administrator, baker and a good many other things in NYC. Most of all, she was a gentle soul. She noticed small things—the curl of a leaf, the expression on a squirrel—and seemed to speak for all creatures as they would want to be represented.

Catherine didn't want to be treated differently because she was dying, and so she told few people she had cancer. Most of her USC classmates didn't know. She also guarded her legacy, destroying garbage bags of personal detritus in the last weeks of her life. And her desire to live was almost delusional—she insisted up until days before her death that the end was not yet near. Many of her friends didn't get a chance to see her before was gone.

I wanted to send a package of letters to her best friend (fittingly living in St. Catharines, Ontario). But before I stuck it in the mail, I thought I should scan everything, just in case.

It turned out to be unnecessary. The letters arrived in St. Catharines, were hungrily read, and came back. The box sat on my desk, unopened, for weeks.

Then a strange thing happened: they disappeared. They left on the same night my old wedding ring slipped its chain on my bureau. My housemate had a drug relapse and robbed his own home, taking a stereo, jewelry, laptop, bicycle—and apparently, for some reason, Catherine's letters.

It took a couple weeks for police to arrest the culprit (eventually they got video footage of his using my credit card at an ATM and in a taxi) and in that time I initiated a couple awkward conversations with him about the value of what I had lost, without ever indicating I knew who might have taken it. He never tipped his hand.

Insurance covered the wedding band and Discover refunded the credit card charges, but the letters never resurfaced. Eventually, I decided that Catherine herself might have inspired the theft to stamp out one last record of her adolescence.

She apparently didn't know about the digital files. 

Catherine Friesen, Milwaukee, December 2013. This is the last photo I took of her, on the site of her last role, Hamlet.

Catherine Friesen, Milwaukee, December 2013. This is the last photo I took of her, on the site of her last role, Hamlet.

Morgan Library, New York, December 2015. Exactly two years later, I was startled to find this alternate ending to  A Farewell to Arms  enlarged on the wall of a Hemingway exhibit.

Morgan Library, New York, December 2015. Exactly two years later, I was startled to find this alternate ending to A Farewell to Arms enlarged on the wall of a Hemingway exhibit.

How UX helped me sort my head

Last month my girlfriend and I sat down for a little old-fashioned card sorting.

Card sorting is a low-tech research method that helps user experience (UX) designers figure out how an app or website should be organized. They find people who would be likely to use that website, hand each one a stack of cards with page titles from the site, and watch as the testers arrange the cards into categories. Then they ask them to name each category.

When the research goes well, designers learn something new about how web visitors might think. Perhaps not everyone will look for tomatoes on the fruit menu, or expect to see motorcycles when they click “bikes.”

Unfortunately Michelle and I weren’t sorting web pages. We were sorting my life.

I had woken up at 4 am with my head full of things.

  • There were practical things, like “What do I need to do today?” and “How can I mow the lawn without mowing dog poo?”
  • There were personal things like “I am easily overstimulated” and “Teenagers make me nervous.”
  • I’m eight months into a full-blown job/housing/relationship conversion (read: mid-life crisis), so there were lists of potential careers, ideas about how to choose a career, and soaring life-purpose queries like “What inspires me?”
  • Because it was 4 a.m., there were also terse metaphysical questions like “What matters?”

“That’s a lot of things,” said Michelle when she came over at 10:00.

I handed her a stack of cards.

The next half-hour was, by turns, intriguing, humbling and clarifying. Michelle grouped some of my cards neatly into the categories I imagined, but others she had no idea what to do with. Two collections received new titles, “Positive self-image” and “Negative self-image.” Several categories were combined.

It turns out that making an exhaustive inventory of all the thoughts in your head — and then exposing the messy catalog to an editor you trust — is a great way to get perspective on your inner life.

After Michelle left, I threw out whole stacks of cards. I wasn’t really interested in running a photography business, I decided — just in being a photographer. Similarly, I didn’t want to apply for work I merely knew how to do or that would somehow be good for the world — I wanted a job that was fun.

Over the next few days, the discarding expanded to other piles. I abandoned a project to use 300 film slides from my days as a visual artist. I dispatched books (Ulysses, 1001 Spanish Verbs) that, after a decade of disuse, provided more discouragement than inspiration. I deleted social media accounts. I converted favorite t-shirts into favorite cleaning rags. I even considered jettisoning a collection of 100 small bagged and labeled objects found on city sidewalks — but after acquiring a Domino and a wooden play block in one week, I decided that collection still has potential.

Not everybody is overwhelmed by options like I am. And it’s difficult to measure how much this one exercise loosened my mental logjam. But (and perhaps I should have seen this coming) it did make me think seriously about UX design.

Early May was Tech Week in Philadelphia, and I attended a couple of design events. A few days later I went to the website for General Assembly — purveyor of tech bootcamps in 15 cities — and now find myself headed to New York for a 10-week UX design immersive.


Want a rigorous reshuffle of your mental space? Try card sorting your life, and let me know how it turns out.


  1. Get a pack of at least 100 index cards — or if that seems too pretty, chop up scrap paper. There should be nothing precious about putting marks on these papers.
  2. Find a place that you won’t be disturbed for at least an hour.
  3. Write down everything that pops into your head, even if it seems ridiculous, petty or self-conscious. Don’t try to categorize — just write.
  4. Fill all 100 cards. At least.


  1. Find someone you trust. Ask if they would help you with an organization exercise.
  2. Reassure them that you are not testing them (or their friendship!) and that there are no wrong answers.
  3. Ask your friend to think aloud while sorting, and ask them questions about decisions they make that interest you.
  4. Provide blank cards so they can provide their own category labels.
  5. Don’t try to explain yourself or the cards. Prepare yourself to hear things that may be surprising, awkward or even offensive. Remember: your friend isn’t passing judgment on your humanity — they’re just sorting cards.
  6. Take notes on anything that catches your interest.

Three short scenes from the 23

The woman who announces herself as the Singing Candy Lady walks straight to me, puts her box of Snickers, M&Ms, KitKats and Skittles in my lap and sings, "Buy my funky candy," like Wild Cherry. She includes the "white boy" lyric (she appears African American and I am the lightest-skinned person on the bus), but stops short of singing that I should eat her candy until I die. I don't buy any candy. She gets off the bus.

A middle-aged man making his way down the crowded aisle seems well-groomed and physically healthy, but he cries out, "Oh God, oh God, somebody help me," then lies down on the raised aisle in the back of the bus, ringed by eight seated passengers. Everyone looks at him. Nobody knows him. After a minute he gets up as if nothing happened, moves to the front of the bus.

It has been raining and windy all day. As we pass the Wayne Junction train station, a transformer explodes on the electric lines half a block away. I resist the urge to follow the blinding blue light, and turn as a cascade of sparks fall on the street. There is a man on his phone a few seats away from me. He is laughing. "Oh man, this fucking bus," he says. We all get out at the Broad Street subway line.

The Loft, Lancaster, Pa.

One of my treasured Lancaster dining moments was the evening that four of us were dropping an absurd amount of money on some nearly-deserving farm-to-table fare at John J. Jeffries restaurant in Lancaster, and the waiter was going on about how their red velvet cake is colored the authentic way—with beet juice—and after he left the couple beside us turned to our table and said conspiratorially, “The food is so much better at The Loft.”

Okay, look: they’re entitled to their opinion. But they’re wrong.

John J. Jeffries is the place that serves an amazing Korean-influenced small plate they call “Jim Bim Bop,” with spicy pork, rice, kimchi, seasonal vegetables, chili paste, sesame ginger soy sauce and a fried egg.

The Loft is a restaurant where you get a small vat of soft butter to go with your hard dinner roll, and just in case that weren’t enough processed fat, an equal bowl of sour cream with chives.

The Loft’s website says it’s “poised to be a contender for one of the country’s top restaurants.”

Is it a typo? Do they mean county? C’mon folks—we don’t live in Trumpville. Just because you're brazen enough to say something outrageous doesn’t make it true.

The Loft was hot before Molly’s Pub was hot before Character’s Pub was hot. What’s the connection? Former owners George Centini and Gary Hufford. I don’t know what they’re doing now, but I bet it’s hot. 

In the meantime, all the restaurants they started float on like week-old helium balloons. You won’t die from eating there; you might even have a good time. But you probably don’t want to proclaim their culinary merits outside of Cracker Barrel.




Scenes from the XH—part 2

The bus is mostly empty. A man is on his cell phone in a sideways-facing seat. He is of the generation that forgets he doesn’t need to shout his call across time and space.

MAN: So you got three of them, huh? And all with a bow and arrow. But this time will be with a gun.

Listen, you still make any of that deer jerky?

If I send you some money, will you send me some of that deer jerky and uh, uh—what other kinds of deer products you make?

Breakfast sausage. Will you send me some of your deer jerky and your deer sausage? I'm going to get some money next week—I'm going to get some money next week and I'm gonna Western Union it to you.

That's what I can do—I can send you a cheesesteak. Which you want, a cheesesteak or a—uh—uh—hoagie?

I can send you a cheesesteak or a—uh—a hoagie.

No, I'm gonna overnight it to you.

Yeah, so I'm going to send you the cheesesteak when I send you the money, and I'm going to call you and tell you I'm sending it.

I can put anything you want on it. So this is what I want you to do. I want you to text me your address, and text me what you want on it, and text me John's number.

And when you call any of your brothers and sisters, give them my number, and tell them that Jimmy—he's doing alright.


The end of waiting

Regretfully today is the last day of Advent, the waiting for the coming of the Messiah.

I say regretfully because the manufactured elation of Christmas never seems to resonate with the real joy—or the real misery—of the world I live in.

On the first Sunday of Advent I attended East Chestnut Street Mennonite Church in Lancaster, Pa., to hear the first sermon by their new associate pastor, Samantha Lioi.

She spoke from Psalm 25: “To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul,... for you I wait all day long. Be mindful of your mercy, O Lord, and of your steadfast love...”

“Soul” in that translation, she said, comes from the Hebrew word glossed nefesh which means “all of me, the deepest me.” “Wait” is drawn from words for twist or stretch—it’s the image of “a strong cord bearing the tension of the waiting.” “Mercy” comes from raham, a word for womb, “like the tenderness of a mother for a child she has carried in her own body.”

So the poet represents a period of unreasonable tension, hanging on a wire and bargaining with God to remember the reasons s/he should be allowed to live.

This is the world I inhabit. Christmas exists, but in little patches. It has not gone viral. Tomorrow, while opening presents or attending mass, most of me and most of the people I see will remain in Advent, waiting.

  • We wait for a time when “Black lives matter” precisely because “all lives matter.”
  • We wait for Christians to stand up for love and stand down violence.
  • We wait for health coverage that prevents illness.
  • We wait for governments to spend more on education than incarceration.
  • We wait for employers to value people enough that employees can come to work healthy and well-fed.

Guilt is stupid. I will not avoid celebrating because bad things exist.

But I do want to be honest with myself: there’s a lot of Advent in the world, and no amount of tinsel is going to cover it up.

The lesson taught by Ebenezer Scrooge and George Bailey and the Grinch is that Christmas is not tinsel—it’s a contagion. Tomorrow I celebrate as an act of insurrection. And in the coming weeks I will work to inject Christmas into as much of this Advent-laden life as I can manage.

Twelve days of Christmas are not enough.


Scenes from the XH—part 1

After 20 years of riding public transportation, I witnessed my first bus fight last night on the XH coming from Philadelphia's Broad Street subway line. It erupted between two men standing by the back door and expanded to a two-on-one brawl that ranged from one side of the bus to the other and continued for a full minute.

I had a front-row seat immediately behind the back door. I couldn't hear the fight develop because there was plexiglass between me and the door, but according to my seatmate on the aisle, the smaller guy asked what the larger guy was looking at, then said he was going to mess the larger man up, then made a motion like he was going to pull something out of his own bag. The larger man hit him preemptively.

“It's a public bus,” the woman beside me said during the spirited spectator commentary following the fight. “People are going to look where they're going to look. He was just defending himself.”

”No, he brought it on himself,” said a middle-aged man sitting on a sideways seat directly across from the door. “None of that needed to happen.”

Beside him was a woman with a toddler in a stroller who slept through the whole thing. When 500 pounds of men began lunging from one side of the bus to the other, half a dozen onlookers rose up in protest—“There's a baby!”

But what really seemed to stop the fight was a pointed comment by the petite 20-something beside me. “You can't go two on one,” she interrupted. “That's not fair.”

“He's my cousin and he owes me money,” one of the fighters paused to say.

“It doesn't matter,” she said, “If you really want to be a man, fight him yourself. I don't know—that's my opinion.”

The Pressroom, Lancaster, Pa.

Lancaster’s Pressroom restaurant is coming into its own. Again.

Outdoor seating in Steinman Park always felt nice, if a little forlorn: a brick courtyard with spotlit trees and water roaring at the far end. But now diners have a real reason to wind down the ramp to the waterfall—alcohol! 

The Park Bar, some two years in the making, opened this summer to nonstop business. Cut into a wall of one of the adjacent Steinman newspaper buildings, the industrial chic niche serves all the drinks and food of the restaurant inside.

Service is slow, but polite. Tables are self-serve, but often available. The food can be hit or miss, even for the same item (e.g. pork belly sliders). 

Yet overall, with a few strategic ventures like the Park Bar, the Pressroom has pivoted from tired, overpriced Fine Dining to a lively, comfortable restaurant with tasty variety. Sunday brunch is served, with a dangerous DIY bloody mary bar. Dinner items like the mahi tacos have flavor that’s easy to eat, even if the soupy contents make them structurally challenged. Live music pops up in the park as well as the front window.

Surrounded by Steinman newspaper buildings, the Pressroom was never a press room. But it was once the nation’s oldest hardware store. With regular tune-ups of the sort we've enjoyed this summer, The Pressroom will keep running on King Street for years to come.





“Good for you,” some people say when I tell them I don’t own a car.

I think they probably mean, “Good for you for saving the world.” But not owning a car actually is good for me. I like not buying, fixing, parking, fueling and paying insurance on a car. I like taking the bus to work—25 minutes to drink coffee, check Facebook and read the news on my phone.

And I like bicycling home. I put my bike on the bus in the morning—because who wants to wake up early to sweat? Then I intentionally miss the bus in the afternoon, giving me great motivation to exercise: I have to get back! While some people race to the gym to spin in place, I spin 12 miles through Lancaster County scenery. It’s the perfect end to a workday—fresh air, sore muscles and time to unwind.

Living without a car is easy in Lancaster. I can quickly walk or bike downtown. Red Rose Transit Authority buses leave punctually, and their new app tracks the location of each bus. Amtrak and Bieber Tourways connect to Philadelphia and New York. Enterprise Rent-A-Car has several convenient locations and, yes, they pick you up.

When I see how stressed and angry drivers get on the road I wonder if they know: cars don’t have to control us. They can be just another way to get around.

Winner, “Dump the Pump” essay contest from Commuter Services of Pennsylvania, 2015


Tomato Pie Cafe, Lititz, Pa.

I couldn’t understand how anyone could tolerate a tomato pie, or why someone would want to squelch her business prospects by naming a cafe after one. Then I tried the tomato pie at the Tomato Pie Cafe in Lititz. Twice: I also ordered it for dessert. It is remarkable.  

For those as lost as I was, let me bear witness: it is a savoury pie. It is not a custard pie (like pumpkin); it has a buttery, herbed crust, a generous melting of oily cheese, big hearty chunks of mild tomato (and sometimes extras like spinach or artichoke), and I suspect some dollops of ricotta. About the only thing bad I can say about it is that, unless you get it right out of the oven, it’s served warm, not hot. And sometimes the juicy innards inevitably sog up the flaky bottom. But this is like faulting Jesus for having a foreign accent. It is a heavenly pie.  

Regal rooibos lattes at Tomato Pie Cafe

Regal rooibos lattes at Tomato Pie Cafe

How appropriate, then, that I have spent several lovely Sundays at the Tomato Pie Cafe, sitting at a high table by the window, or at the counter, in the garden or blinking in the sunlight of the second floor balcony, gazing reverently across the street at the stone buildings beside historic Lititz Springs Park. In addition to sandwiches with beets and breakfast specials with sausage and fennel, or buttermilk quinoa pancakes with whipped sage butter and maple syrup, Tomato Pie Cafe knows how to make a latte. In fact, they will make one with rich red rooibos (ROY-bus) tea that is fragrant and silky and a fraction of the caffeine.  

Brunch is my love language. Few things dismay me more than a lauded local joint with all the trappings of a fancy restaurant (price, decor, attitude) and nondescript food. And few things make me more grateful than wholesome, interesting breakfast options, served with casual consideration in a quirky house. Tomato Pie Cafe wins my (totally unofficial and just now instated) On Orange Restaurant of the Year Award.