Life in its Growing Complexity

I’m returning to the chapter illustrations for Shot Across the River Styx this week. Curtesy of Michael Swearingen. I keep linking to Michael’s page. I’ve been told you should include links in blogs. I’m nothing if not hip to this digital age.

I’ve included the illustration for chapter three above. My friend Nick and I used to play Nintendo. And Magic Johnson became a theme in the book. The image above captures my friendship with Nick.

I’ll admit it – returning to Shot Across the River Styx is difficult for me. I guess there’s nothing that really erases the passing of a friend. Death is death. Time passes, yes. Memories grow distant. I’ve made my peace with those memories, but the loss is still a loss. Death is still death.

Death terrifies me, let alone suicide. That’s something of what Shot Across the River Styx is, I guess. A rumination on death and suicide. It isn’t cheery business, but I do my best to write cheerfully. It’s a funny book. Strange.

I’m scared to die. I won’t offer a religious treatise here, but I don’t think death is the end of us. I have hope for more. But I still find the thought of death overwhelming. Even more so now that I have a family. My wife and two boys. I want to be there for them. With them. I’m more invested in this world than I used to be.


I’m not a hypochondriac. (Do you think most hypochondriacs say that?) But I find that, in my late thirties, with the responsibilities of my family, I’m more attuned to my changing body. And I’m not talking about puberty.

My heart was fluttering a few years back. It felt weird. So I kept thinking about it. And then I worried about it. And my fingers started tingling. And then I was in the ER, because I was worrying. They hooked me up to machines.

“You’re fine,” they told me.

“Good,” I said.

I went home to my family.

I noticed a small lump in my back two years ago. It was new.

“Feel this,” I told my friends.

They gagged.

I went to the doctor.

“Am I dying? Is this cancer?”

The doctor looked at me humorously.

“It’s a lipoma.”

“A lipoma?”

“A lipoma.”

“What’s a lipoma?”

“A lump of fat.”

“Am I dying?”

“No. You’re fine.”

I went home to my family.

I’ve noticed another small lump in my stomach a few months ago. I poked at it. It felt the same as the lump on my back. A lipoma? More fat lumps? Cute.

I went to a friend of mine who is a physician’s assistant. They poked at my stomach.

“Am I dying?” I asked.

“You’re fine,” they said.


I was at a conference in the heart of Toronto last weekend. AERA. It’s the mecca for education scholars. 13,000 scholars descended on the city. I spent Saturday presenting, socializing, and being around people. Toronto was overwhelming. I’m an introvert. Saturday was exhausting.

I walked back to the convention center on Sunday. It was a mile and a half from my hotel. I made that walk at least 10 times during the conference. Anyway, I was sitting on the floor on Sunday after another hike. I was surrounded by people. I stood up quickly to FaceTime Katie and my boys. I’m the guy who calls my family 50 times when I’m away. My heart started fluttering as I stood up. My head spun a little.

“Am I dying?” I thought.

I wasn’t. But my changing body was sending signals. I was exhausted.

I returned to my hotel room and spent three hours watching the Toronto Blue Jays lose to the Cleveland Indians. The Blue Jays are not good this year.

I’m not a hypochondriac. But I also know that this body won’t last forever. And I think about that sometimes. Especially when my body annoys me. When my heart flutters and my lipoma’s lipoma. Sometimes it is harder for me to remain rational in this body. I’m only human, after all.


I miss Nick. I miss my mom, too. I don’t dwell on their absence. But they come to me sometimes. I don’t think Nick and mom are gone. But I don’t really know where they are, either. Death is a mystery.

I’ve been trying to write an essay about improvisation with some smart friends over the past few months. The deadline is actually the same time I’ll put this blog up. I really hope we finish. Anyway, I’ve been writing about improv as a practical illustration of a philosophical idea that Elizabeth Grosz described as the incorporeal in her recent book with the same name. See that hip link? Digital. Anyway, Grosz describes the incorporeal as:

“the direction or trajectory that orients a movement of concepts or thought, that constitutes the possibility of a process of understanding, that enables the creation of a philosophy or a work of art as an emergence from and an entwinement with a material order, planets, stars, constellations, nebulae, and so on, beyond us, and a world of objects, things, processes, and events that constitute materiality on earth, with the emergence and evolution of life in its growing complexity” (p. 250). 

Okay, this is a heavy quote to drop on you. For me, this excerpt points to our entanglements with the universe. In other words – whether we like it or not – we are, through our bodies, thoughts, beings, materiality, encounters with difference, etc., emerging with others into a growing complexity. Whether we like it or not. Whether wee noticed it our not. That’s life. I like this idea. Throughout the book she points out ways that people or philosophies either accept and move with this incorporeality or resist and work against it. To my view, improv is really strange. It can, if we participate in it or facilitate it in certain ways, teach us how to work with others to live towards emerging complexity. It might be able to help us learn to be more alive. An improv scene can be an “orientation” that “enables” the “emergence” of “life in its growing complexity.” There’s spiritual as well as practical implications of this idea, to be sure. But I won’t preach at you.

I like the idea that we are always becoming something more. I don’t think that death is the end of this process. Still, I fear death. I fear separation from those I love. My wife. My two boys. I feel sorrow for my current separation from my friend Nick. From Mom. But they’re still sort of around, too. And who knows what happens next? None of us, really. That’s kind of what Shot Across the River Styx was about, I guess.

Maybe this is an anxious blog. Or the ramblings of a hypochondriac. Or maybe it is just the musing of a human being surrounded by an enormous, complicated universe. I like to think I’m still open to the what will emerge from my entwinement with the universe. I like to think I have a long way to go in this body, still. Nick was a part of that entanglement, for sure. He may still be. Life in it’s growing complexity is really complex, man.

I can’t pretend I know more about it than I do.

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