Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Of Melons and Melancholy

I bought a melon today at the good produce store.  It reminded me of Lori.  Not because of the shape of the melon or it was her favorite kind or anything like that.  Rather, it reminded me of a whole series of experiences that we shared around food.  I suppose this is on my mind because my birthday is approaching and one of our first Philly dates was for my birthday.  We had just moved to Philly and had been married less than a year.  My brother Michael drove us to Fork so Lori and I could share a bottle of wine and take a cab home.   I ordered a beet salad as an appetizer.  Lori was disgusted.  Then the beets arrived.  There were sunburst beets and red beets.  They'd been grilled and then lightly marinated.  The colors popped catching her artist's eye. 

"What are those?" she asked.

"They're beets."  I said.

"I've never seen beets like that," she said somewhat mystified.

"Have you only ever had canned beets?"  I asked.  She nodded.  "Try one."

Beets became a staple part of our diet.  We roasted them at holidays and did them on the grill in the summer.  There were more food adventures.   She claimed she didn't like fruit, but had rarely had good, in-season ripe ones. "That's what a peach is supposed to taste like?"  "These are blueberries?"   Late summer, Jersey tomatoes ruined her on anything but cherry tomatoes for the rest of the year.  She sometimes had trouble laying off the wrong season fruits or picking out good melons.  "You can't buy clementines until Thanksgiving and they won't be good after President's Day."  I'd tell her.  Since she did the food shopping, this would come up a lot. 

Beyond food, I shared so much of myself with Lori.  She bought what she thought was a Native American rug at a yard sale (it was maybe Amish?) and so I taught her how to identify good Navajo rugs.  She designed her engagement and wedding rings, but I found the jeweler and the stones before hand, knowing that she would never want a diamond once she knew there were purple sapphires out there. 

And yet. 

There was so much from her I didn't learn.  I'm struggling with understanding how credit reports work (mine was good, than briefly bad, and is now good again?).  I'm terrible at hiring people to do work on the house.  I have no idea how to decorate or organize the kitchen.  I still struggle to understand art.  And so often when I asked her about these things, she gave me only surface details.  With every tricky real estate deal, I'd try to pry for information, not about the deal per se, but about the techniques she used to persuade someone to buy (or not to buy) a house.  She couldn't explain how she knew how to get to places from other places the fastest way (I often can only get to a place from a certain other place.  For example, there are some places I can only get to from home or from school so if I am someplace else I have to go to one of those places first before I can get to the place I want to go.) 

She usually picked out my clothes, but didn't teach me the principles of dressing.  So I'm starting to forget what the pre-approved outfit combinations were, and I'm thinking my clothing might be very interesting this year.  Conversely, I've gotten very good at getting help in stores now.  The downside is, I'm an easy mark.  Just ask the two(!) salespeople that helped me in Clark's over the weekend. 

There's so much Lori had to teach me and that I wanted to know about her.  These days, that's what I'm missing most.  I still miss the little things we did together.  But what pains me most is all the things we didn't get a chance to do, that we will never do.  That's when I miss her the most now. 

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

First Day of School

It was almost normal.  Clothes were laid out the night before.  Lunches were made in the morning.  We have to get to school early because the construction project means there is very little parking. 

Syllabi were handed out.  Course websites were logged into.  History of Violence got their traditional scary first reading.  AP explored the American Yawp textbook (your tax dollars at work!). 

Advisees were met with; summers were discussed, assignment books were handed out. 

It was all so normal.  I was a little scary when I needed to be, funny because I can't help it. 

It's going to be a good year. 

Sunday, August 5, 2018

Summer Play List

Most of these were campfire songs.  Some were just in my head.

This is a new standard for campfire:

This next one is a Gulch original: 
It's been stuck in my head since I got back.  For the record, I've only ever been to the 49er once, and it's where I met Doug Monroy (emeritus, Colorado College) for the first time.  He never let me forget it.

This was on my mind all summer though it's not something we sing:

And,  of course, I played this a lot:

And this one: 


I didn't play this one much, but I sure thought about it a ton:  

And I played this one a lot, but I don't think anybody knew what I was playing (plus on the lap dulcimer I have to cheat on some of the chords):

(Yes, I know the Lucinda Williams is the original and probably better version.  I like what I like and MCC brings the passion to the vocals).

And this one, too.  These last three I mostly played by myself, alone for all the obvious reasons.

And of course, every campfire ended with this: 

Saturday, August 4, 2018

An Unabashed Love Letter to My Summer Colleagues

Dear Cottonwood Gulch Staff,
I would write you all individually, but I cannot and then what should be public would be private.  And while I don't praise often, when I do, I do so loudly and proudly.

Thank you.

Thank you for beginning to give me my life back.  I'm not saying this summer was easy.  To be in one of the places I love best without the person I love most was incredibly difficult.  Of all the many gifts the Gulch has given me, Lori was always the best.  To be there without her when she was alive was hard, to be there now was beyond difficult.   Nearly every inch of your 500 plus acres has a memory of her etched in my mind.   There were nights when I cried on a bare rock between the staff cabins D and E.  There were moments were I thought this idea was a terrible mistake.

And yet. 

The longer my month of work went on, the more eager I was to get up in the morning.  Not because the nights were almost endless and awful, which they were especially at the beginning, but because each day brought a new discovery and a new piece of learning.  There were rattlesnakes to catch and relocate, dishes to wash, trucks to clean, a library to organize, buildings to sweep.  Hard work is a good tonic for grief and you gave me plenty of the former.

But having a sense of purpose is also a tonic for grief.  I've been going through the motions these last months, keeping my shit together not because I wanted to, but because I had to.  I've been getting out of bed out of a sense of obligation, not out of a sense of purpose.  I re-found some of that purpose thanks to you all.  Your energy and enthusiasm for taking young people on intellectual adventures, for discovering the wild around them and in them, and for making them think about themselves and the world reawakened something in me.

There is a certain un-realness to an intentional community.  The routines and rituals I've been performing (some since 1979!) come so easily they were like a comfort blanket.  The ring of bells for wake up and meals, the grind of details, the slog of mealtime announcements, of the after-dinner meeting, and the knowledge that every night would end with a campfire and Desert Silvery Blue.  These were certainties.  And yet, it's so hard to translate them back to real life.  I may rename our chore chart "details," and Weber has already announced that we will do dishes "rendezvous" style wherein each person will clean their own plate and place it in the dishwasher but back here in Philadelphia it feels like the Gulch is Oz and I am Dorothy awakening from her dream.

But I think it is the other way around.  The Gulch is built intentionally toward a specific end.  Each of us took on a role, or several, and we were united in purpose.  Intention creates meaning; meaning gives purpose.  This is the lesson I learned this summer.  All along, these last thirty years or so, I'd always imagined that summer camp was the fake world or the escape from reality.  I was wrong.  All this time, I'd traveled outside the cave* and returned to the world of shadows not realizing I'd seen the sun.

So the lesson here is to live my life more intentionally now on.  I have to build this thing, my household, from the ground up.  The kids and I have a few weeks to figure it out.  I have no idea what the final result will be, but having finally seen the sun and recognized it for what it is, I finally feel ready to begin anew.

At the beginning of the summer, I asked New Mexico to heal me.  I should have known, that couldn't happen.  But the Gulch, you all,  came through for me in ways I didn't expect.  It showed me a way to heal myself.  Let the healing begin. Thank you. 

If you've been reading along these last few months please consider making a donation to the Cottonwood Gulch Foundation.   This link takes you to their capital campaign fund to renovate the mess hall and showers. 

*Yes, it's a Plato reference, but so was the Wizard of Oz and you let that slide, get over it. 

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Travel Day


I’m flying to Albuquerque.  Because New Mexico is my happy place.  Because keeping busy is better than not keeping busy.  Because I don’t want to clean my house.  Because I keep finding bits of Lori’s clothing and not wanting to throw them away. 


I’m flying to Albuquerque and I’m rehearsing in my mind what to say to people when I get there.  There will be a lot of people, people who care about me, people who asked me to come to help me heal, and they will all say the same thing.  “How are you?  No really how are you?”  It’s a well-meaning question asked by well-meaning people concerned for my well-being.   A lot of people ask me this question.  I have a lot of stock responses: 

“Hanging in there.”  This one is true in a very non-committal way.  It’s a confession. “Hey,” it says,  “I’m here.  I showered this morning.  I drank coffee.  I got some sleep. I’m going through the motions. Little victories, right?” 

“I’m just tryna to live my life.”  This something the kids at school say.  I adore it. “I am trying to live my life,” it declaims, “but I am not actually succeeding at living it.  I’m doing a pale imitation of living.  I’m hanging in the shadow world having been kicked out of the world of sunlight and forms and I can’t find the path back. But in the meantime, I’ll do all those things I used to do back in the sunlight world, just pale imitations of them.” 

“Today is a good day.”  I have been practicing this one.  I cannot make it sound convincing yet. 

And yet, as I was rehearsing in my mind and practicing responses it kept coming out wrong.  Instead of the above, I got “Don’t ask questions you don’t want answered.”  or “How the fuck do you think I am?”  or “I just spent a plane ride trying to cry discretely behind my hat like I was sleeping and the sobbing was just the plane vibrations, so I’m kind of dehydrated actually.”   


I’m flying to Albuquerque because New Mexico is my happy place except it wasn’t always.  It was a lonely place, too.  It was my happy place when I visited and when I finally moved there it wasn’t at all like when I visited.  I was sad and lonely and reading files about fatal mine accidents and carrying around the stories of dead miners and the families they left behind.  And for the first time in forever I was relationship-free and I was bad at being single, and just when I was getting ready to leave New Mexico with a bad taste in my mouth, I met Lori and all my faith in the Land of Enchantment was restored as Lori enchanted me.  


I’m flying to Albuquerque.  C’mon, New Mexico.  Pull off one more enchantment for me.  I’m counting on you.

Friday, June 29, 2018

Happy-Sad Birthday to You

Dear Lori,

         If this were any year like the previous 20 or so, we'd right now be making elaborate birthday plans.  You loved celebrating your birthday.  You loved cake, and candles, and you always had to celebrate on the actual day of your birthday.  Even when events conspired against you, you embraced your birthday with a big bear hug.  Like the time we were driving back from Myrtle Beach on your birthday and you were so grumpy, but you got so excited when the kids and I persuaded the guy at the Maryland rest-stop to announce your birthday over the loudspeaker.  Other years, you and I ran off to Atlantic City for a night of excellent food and silly gambling and no kids.  Maybe it was because there were so many other birthdays in your family so close to yours that you held it special. 
        I'm trying to make this one special.  We will do a double birthday celebration, yours and your moms.  She and I are going to Jansen, where we had our last anniversary dinner.  We're taking my mom along in case the two of us get too grim.  Meanwhile Weber and his babysitter are having birthday cake for you - red velvet from Frosted Fox - and he's blowing out the candles.  I'm trying to emphasize the positive, here,  but that's not easy.
        Earlier this month, Lenny won two awards at the Baccalaureate Assembly.  In the days before, she and I were at each other more than usual and immediately after instead of savoring her accomplishments we screamed at each other in the car.  We realized later, of course, that we were both angry that you weren't there to see her success.   We couldn't really enjoy her moment.
       So I'm striving for a new emotional mode.  I'm calling it "happy-sad."  I'm striving to keep the two contradictory ideas in my head at the same time, to embrace both the happiness of a particular moment and the sadness of your not being there to share in it.  I haven't gotten there yet, and Lord knows I'm a long way from anything that resembles happy for any sustained amounts of time.  But in the meantime, I'll settle for happy-sad. 

You're in my heart now and always.


Sunday, May 27, 2018

Race Day

When you marry someone from Indianapolis, the auto-racing comes with the marriage.  I didn't really get it at first.  Cars went in circles, sometimes there was a crash, sometimes someone got hurt, eventually somebody won.  It seemed silly and wasteful.  But not watching the race wasn't optional, and there was cold fried chicken involved and cold beverages.  And so I started watching auto racing. 

And it turned out auto racing is fascinating.  Auto racing is largely about trade-offs between three factors:  speed, handling, and fuel mileage.  Add to one aspect of the car and you almost always negatively impact the other two.  A car that is fast on the straights will burn fuel and handle like crap in the corners.  If you manage to avoid the wall you'll have to pit too long or too frequently and you'll lose track possession.  Fix the handling by adding downforce to the car and you go slower.  If your car runs lean, which is racing lingo for gets good gas mileage, you won't have enough power to pass people.  You won't be fast.  Race teams are constantly calculating how to balance these three factors, all of which change depending on how much weight is in the car, where it's distributed within the car, the temperature of the track, and the condition of the tires.  And of course there is the talent of the driver to consider, and the rest of the team as well.  The number of races lost in the pits is, basically, all of them.  Races are not just about who is the fastest but which team makes the fewest mistakes.  This is especially true in open wheel racing which is incredibly unforgiving of even the smallest errors.  And small errors can have terrible consequences.   I was driving in the car listening to a race on the radio when three spectators were killed in Michigan.  I remember when Alex Zanardi lost his legs in a wreck.  Dan Wheldon, Justin Wilson, and from Nascar, Dale Earnheardt Senior all lost their lives on the track.  And yet, I still watched. 

Lori and I watched a lot of racing over the years.  At one point, I would could a whole weekend  watching racing.  I watched trucks, and motorcycles, and IRL and CART and NASCAR.  AS the kids got older we had less time and Lori worked most weekends but we still always watched the 500.  And so, I got fried chicken and cheese, and melon with prosciutto, and cole slaw and shrimp and good olives.  I picked up Lori's mom.  We watched the opening ceremonies.  I missed Jim Neighbors singing "Back Home Again in Indiana."  We'd had a running joke that Nabors had died years ago, and that it was actually an animatronic robot performing the iconic song. 

We ate and watched and when my daughter texted "poor Helio" when Castroneves crashed out I felt like Lori would have been happy.

Drivers take terrible risks when the get in the car.  In today's race, Justin Wilson's brother, Stefan Wilson, raced and had the lead.  I used to have no idea how race car drivers did it.  How they woke up in the morning and went to work knowing that today was the day they might die.  But I think I know a little bit about how it feels to be Stefan Wilson.   During the race I walked back to the laundry room, back to where Lori died just two weeks before Jim Nabors passed in November.  Every day I wake up, and I don't get into a race car, but I still carefully calculate the risks.  What will I do today that will make my life easier, will make life better for my kids, will make Lori's mom's life a little better?  And why does doing one of those things seem to take away from the other two so often?  And more importantly, having been hurt so badly her passing, how do I keep my heart open to all those passing through my life:  my students, my colleagues, my friends?  How do I continue to give to them, to love them, to take risks for them when I know that they can be ripped away from me.  Stefan Wilson raced today to help raise awareness for organ donation.  He made meaning from his brother's death.  I guess that's why he gets in the car to race.  I'm still figuring out why I get in the car each day, I just know I'm doing it.