Image by Mike McCaffrey
It’s been a long time. So, first I’ll ask: are you well? What’s changed for you since I last wrote? (Um, maybe keep that answer brief, if you choose to reply.) And the last is the most unusual one, although maybe it should not be so unusual from now on: Have you lost anyone?
My sister died on April 13, 2020. She was 45 years old, and we lived in the same house. (She may have died very late on April 12, but based on when she went to bed that night, we’re pretty sure it was April 12.)
April 12th was Easter Sunday; April 13th, Easter Monday. Easter Monday is a Catholic day of obligation in many places and a holiday in Canada and most of Europe. In Poland, young women run by while onlookers slap their legs with the branches of pussy willows, which is supposed to keep them beautiful and fertile. Ireland’s tradition feels more appropriate, not least since my father’s parents emigrated to the United States from Ireland: it’s a day of mourning to commemorate the hundreds of people who died in the Easter Uprising of 1916.
It is strange to talk about hundreds of deaths commemorated by an entire nation and a large part of its diaspora when thousands of people are dying one day after the next with very little commemoration at all. At least 1513 people died of COVID-19 in the United States on April 13, 2020, and my sister was one of them. (Undercounting, the lack of tests, and other conditions mean we’ll never know the true number.) She first reported symptoms on April 11 (Holy Saturday) and visited a nearby urgent care clinic to be tested; she was told her symptoms were not serious enough to warrant a test. She may have had more luck at an emergency room, but she had been laid off from her job and lost her health insurance, and didn’t want to take up space (or risk contracting COVID or wait all day) if she wasn’t truly sick. On Easter Sunday, she said she felt fine. By dawn on Easter Monday, she had suffered a pulmonary embolism and died.
So when I ask, “have you lost somebody?”, you can know that I have lost someone too. My only sister, the woman who raised me, the person I spoke to as an equal (at least generationally) every day. The rest of my family has survived, but we have lost everything that was at our center. Kelly was the sun. Her light can still be seen from far away by the people who loved her, but in the years to come, there will not be any more.
This doesn’t explain why I stopped writing last August, but it explains part of why I have not written you until now.
Not all of this is going to be about Amazon. If that’s all you care about, skip to the end.
You may remember that late last spring, I shut down this newsletter for a short time so I could have surgery to replace my right shoulder and recover from that surgery. I’ll tell that story in a little more detail now, since a surprising number of readers are new, and it also touches on why I began this newsletter in the first place.
In 2009, I suffered a traumatic brain injury. One of the effects of this injury is that I also have epilepsy. I didn’t have my first seizure until 2011, and for the next year and a half, my neurologists believed that that seizure was caused by a drug interaction. I was diagnosed with epilepsy and the big BD, brain damage, in 2012, after another seizure. This also limits what other medications I can take. If you’ve ever wondered why I don’t live in New York or San Francisco, or why I don’t seem to stay in staff jobs as long as my best work suggests I perhaps might, well, many things have factored in, but my health has been the most decisive.
In 2014, I had a seizure, fell out of bed, and broke my shoulder. This was a relatively straightforward break, was fixed through surgery with a long screw (complete with washer), and healed relatively quickly and well. Despite not being prescribed seizure medication at that time (it’s a bit of a mystery why not), I didn’t have another seizure until January 2019, when I had several.
During the first, I injured my right shoulder again. This fracture was not so simple. I had broken the arm bone and damaged the socket and soft tissues. I didn’t know this until later, because while I was at the emergency room to treat my shoulder, I had another seizure and went into cardiac arrest. I didn’t know I had gone into cardiac arrest either, but when I was told that a team of doctors and nurses had climbed all over me trying to save my life, while I was not fully conscious but doing my best to fight them off, I said, “well, that explains why I feel like shit.”
My sister told me that the nurses gave me a nickname while they were wrestling with me after my heart restarted. I believe it was “Paul Bunyan,” but my parents no longer remember, and my sister is not available to ask.
For the rest of my stay in the hospital, my doctors and nurses focused mostly on my heart, lungs, and blood pressure, and didn’t pay much attention to my shoulder. And I thought: I need to do something else. I need to do something new. And I began to plan this newsletter.
I started out using dictation software and editing with one hand. But my shoulder remained a problem. I really shouldn’t have been typing, but Amazon news was coming so fast — Abandoning HQ2 in New York! Antitrust pressure! Bezos gets divorced! — I decided to try anyway. And it almost worked. The newsletter was getting very popular. People even liked my weird idea of asking subscribers for support, but making the newsletter free for everyone anyways. I wasn’t sure it would work, but I knew I wanted to try it.
The trouble was, my shoulder didn’t care, and neither did the health care system. My injury baffled one orthopedic surgeon I saw, who after many appointments and different kinds of imaging, finally referred me to a specialist who did total shoulder replacements. (Technically, what I had done is a total reverse shoulder replacement, which sounds like I’m getting my old shoulder back but really just means the arrangement of the artificial ball and socket are switched.)
After an overdue post on April 17th, I realized I couldn’t continue, not even to the end of the next month when I’d finally have surgery. I decided to pause the newsletter for three months, and pause and extend monthly and annual subscriber payments for that period as well, which took a little finagling. I thought I could come back in July, about six weeks after the surgery, and be back to normal.
I was not anywhere near back to normal.
I was still in physical therapy several days a week, always on a shifting schedule. This threw off my research and recovery days, as well as the days I’d set aside to write the Amazon Chronicles and the days I’d set aside to write for Kottke.org.
And I couldn’t really type. I actually hadn’t been medically cleared to type. But my three months were up. And now, what had been difficult was now difficult, painful, and slow, which was intolerable.
I missed self-imposed deadlines. I got frustrated. The news cycle began to slow down. I got depressed. I felt I wasn’t meeting the standards I’d set in the spring. I got angry.
My shoulder wasn’t healing. I ran out of physical therapy days. I was told that it was impossible to truly fix a shoulder that had been that badly damaged, rife with arthritis, and who could even tell how much range of movement I’d even had before the second fracture? I was told I was lucky to have what strength and mobility I still had. I stopped tweeting. I started typing newsletters and emails, now rarer and rarer, with my left hand alone.
My blood pressure was dangerously high from the pain. I took more Advil. It didn’t help with the typing, but I could sleep on days when I tried.
By August 1st, I didn’t know it, but I’d written my last Amazon newsletter until now. Before the end of the month, I’d stopped writing Noticing, the newsletter for Kottke.org, as well.
Now, at the time, I thought that the Amazon newsletter would continue; that I would write it tomorrow, or next Wednesday, or when the news picked up again, when I had a really good idea about something, or when my shoulder felt better. I didn’t have a horizon, or I had too many. I couldn’t announce a shutdown with a firm return date, because I didn’t know if or when I’d be able to come back. It wasn’t until my 40th birthday in November 2019, when I was staying at my brother’s house and struggling to find the time and energy to do research on another week of Amazon stories, even though I hadn’t written a tweet or answered an email in months, that I thought perhaps it wouldn’t continue.
A bunch of people reached out. I don’t think I answered anyone. Some paid subscribers, despite the site being free and the subscription a donation, requested and got their money back. (I thought a lot about Dave Chappelle’s joke about Evel Knievel, but relented. There is a difference, however small, between donating to support a newsletter you’re currently receiving and donating to support a newsletter you’re not.) Some people who wrote angry emails that required me to research whether they even were paid subscribers and then work out some kind of payment system that would refund the money paid to me and not to Substack did not get their money back. Others quietly cancelled their payments, which I perfectly understood. Many more people let their subscriptions, monthly or annual, renew. I did not always know what to do about their money. I did not know why they were paying me. Substack eventually shut down new paid subscriptions, which I thought was for the best.
And then my sister died. And we could not bury her. And the world got even stranger.
My shoulder is not better. I don’t know if it ever will be. I still mostly type with my left hand alone. It’s still painful and tiring and slow.
But otherwise, I am feeling better than I have in a long time. I still have a strong interest in Amazon. And I badly want to fulfill the obligations I’ve made to everyone who continued to support it while it was dormant, and the 300+ accounts who’ve signed up for a free subscription since August 2019 having never received a new newsletter.
This is what I propose.
I’d like to write about one newsletter a week from now until the beginning of March. That’s about the time that most of the people who signed up to be paid members right away will have their annual subscriptions auto-renew. (You should have gotten an email about this back in March or April 2020 and should again this time around.)
I’m not going to write on Christmas or Hannukah, or New Year’s Day or Eve. Everybody’s going to be checking “mark all as read” (in my opinion, digital technology’s greatest innovation) anyway.
On days I can’t type, I will try to do an audio recording instead, or a bit of both. (I’m not calling it a podcast. I am good on the radio, but conceiving, recording, and editing a podcast requires skills I don’t have. At least not yet.)
I still love writing, and love newsletters. And I’m good at them. So I will do my best to make this a written newsletter.
And then in March, we’ll see what happens next. I’m treating this as a new newsletter season, like my friend Robin Sloan suggests, with an end, a goal. Maybe it will work, maybe it won’t. Maybe you’re a member who doesn’t want to pay to support me doing this any more, or don’t want to wait until March, and might prefer helping me at Patreon instead. Maybe you think it’s gauche to be on Substack. (I used to be on the list of top writers here; that list today is very different.)
I’ve changed a lot; you’ve changed a lot; Substack has changed a lot; the world has changed a lot. Even Amazon has changed a lot. All of these things are changing still.
The biggest company in the world has gotten even better. There are other Amazon newsletters you can read; I know I read a lot of them. But I still think there is more to say, more to collect, and more to disperse, and that I will be in a position to say it.
Stick with me a little longer, and I think we can make this work.
And if you’ve lost somebody, almost lost somebody, or are losing somebody now, and you need someone to talk to, I hope I hear from you.