I was in San Francisco this weekend, ostensibly to see John Rambo, although in the end I just ended up hanging out with friends. Actually I flew to San Francisco to see some old friends I hadn’t seen since Antioch, mostly Peace Corps people, although a good assortment of other folks, too. The email momentum last week suggested an inevitable viewing of the new Rambo pic, but reality trumped irony, and the weekend became a good mix of tourist activities, long walks, and good meals, as well as an especially epic throwdown of Scene-It! Rare and wonderful are the friends who can alternate full drama and self-effacement with each won square (much less tolerate it). My airline cancelled my flight back to Indianapolis, so I got an evening re-route through Phoenix and arrived home this morning around 2:30am, before turning back around and teaching my full day at IUPUI. The benefit of a longer reroute is that I sketched out two new poems, between naps (the in-flight movie was The Nanny Diaries).
I went to summer camps from 6th to 8th grade, either sports- or boy-scout oriented, and was generally miserable at them. I was a sensitive kid with questionable athletic potential who preferred to spend his free time alone in his dorm room chewing Tropical Fruit flavored Tums, listening to Wilson Philips, and banging on the wall to keep the racket down already. At least the second half of that sentence is true. I can sum up my boy scout experiences by naming the award invented for me that last year, the Kamp Klutz Award (five tongue dispensers stuck in wood, three surgically wrapped (one at the ER) for three separate merit-badge-related finger maladies). At the end-of-camp ceremony, I stood for a group picture with the Eagle Scouts and a kid who lived for three days in the woods without speaking or supplies. He didn’t even get an award.
When I think of “summer camp” as an adjective, I hyper-romanticize the amazing experiences that other kids surely had in those few precious weeks away from reality: sacks hackeyed, bonfires smores’d, long slow dances with pretty girls who’d always had a thing for husky guys who wheeze when they’re nervous. Katie used to joke that she peaked socially in middle school, that from 6th-8th grade she was as universally popular and confidently aggressive as she could ever remember. Cross-country, I think, was the downfall, or maybe she just outgrew it. She loved to tell how at the end of year banquet her freshman year, the coach gave Katie a stuffed animal because, following Ed, she had some big shoes to fill.
I’ve never seen the stuffed animal, but I remember the time that Katie ran the Antioch Fourth of July Run For Freedom. I had been training for about a year, running on the lakefill and slowly building my miles and speeding up my pace. Katie ran many of those loops with me, but would often stop for a minute or two at a time, then catch up to me. She didn’t have a training log or wick-away running outfit, so I should have seen it as a sign. That July, we stood on the line together and I said, with no small amount of confidence, that I was going to really open it up (exact words) on the course and I’d cheer her on the way in. So I set off, ran really hard, lost my wind, got it together again, and with the finish line a couple hundred yards ahead, heard over my shoulder, “Come on, John! You’re almost there!” with an enthusiasm undiminished by a variety of gestures and grunts as she repeated it, again, passing me at the chute. It happened again at the Indy Sprint Triathlon, and probably would have continued except that some ankle and knee pain knocked Katie out of marathon training for that fall. Finally, I had found an insurmountable distance!
I like insurmountable distances, or at least the illusion that what I’m doing is at a safe distance from whatever else might be going on. These last couple months, when I’ve traveled to a new city, I’ve mapped out a strategy for moving there, scoping the neighborhoods I’d frequent and cafes that would come, in time, to feel like my own. I haven’t lived in Chicago for four years now, but can still think of my places, Katie’s places, our places (and that ultimate category: cool secret places I only know about because I am Ben Hubbard’s friend). One thing I liked about Bucharest was that, no matter how often we visited a place, it never really felt like ours. There, it was the walking that was so amazing, working out a series of personal landmarks, independent of the city’s, to find my way back to school, Katie’s work, or the apartment.
I feel like wherever I live next is going to involve a lot of uncomfortable silence (even with Chet in toe) and navigation. There was something so satisfying, for example, about going for a big walk by myself all day, then coming back and telling Katie about the sites, or even walking together all day, talking, and then zoning out in front of whatever Hollywood import was playing at the cinema that week. Much of my future discovery will require me to be both Peter Hessler and Terry Gross. I very much miss how Katie would sort of roll her eyes at my accumulating Ceausescu trivia. Maybe it’s a skill I’ve needed to cultivate for a while, anyhow.
In the meantime, I am way behind on the LaPlante family goings-on. I saw Chloe’s new retainer this morning, checked Emma and Beth’s blogs this afternoon, and have to grab Ed and get out to “There Will Be Blood” before it leaves the theaters. With the March 7th event coming up, I feel like February will be a good time to dig in, hunker down, and enjoy the Indiana scene.
Indiana scene. Peace Corps. Ben. Summer Camp. Ceausescu. I feel like I’m developing a kind of in-crowd vernacular to describe my life, and then letting each of these words get bigger and bigger with meaning. It can be really comforting. I was thinking, on the Phoenix flight, how “Antioch,” among friends and family who attended Katie’s funeral, now means:
Antioch(IL) n. : Katie’s birthplace, where much of her extended family still lives (or nearby); where the nature preserve is located the next time we/you/I want to go back there; remember how cool it was when Judy invited everyone to share in the spreading of the ashes and then when Don hugged the group; it was sunny that day and warm and really quiet in a peaceful way; a terrible and terrifying circle of grief and catharsis; so that if we just say the name we can then also say, “Yeah”; it was weird, right, because we were all thinking about Craig’s death in January, too; yes the priest did forget to mention John in his sermon but did you hear about the telephone call that Sheila’s mom made the next week; Bill Briggs wearing vice-presidential cufflinks; John Denver; that Romanian archbishop dressed all in black; bacon in every dish in the church basement; thank you thank you thank you for being there; that last night at the bar was so surreal but I felt like well we really might survive this if we drink the whole bottle of whiskey and I play every song I know on the guitar.
That would probably work, with some revision, as a prose poem. So, make that 3 poems in 24 hours, on 4 hours sleep. On days like this, Katie would often just work through the night, go into the office, come home around 5pm and collapse into sheer delusional-wonderful-uninterruptable sleep, like she had accomplished exactly what she needed to and she’d get back to you on the rest in the morning. I’m programmed the exact opposite: keep the momentum, adrenalize, more coffee, do one more thing. Maybe it’s two good categories for this weekend’s festivities: Marcus bidding early and polite goodbyes after a couple drinks; Cait last-calling the sing-along at 3am; Eric still excited to watch “The Lives of Others”; Naomi exhausted and full of love for all of that enthusiasm; Kelly who knew most of the words to the Paul Westerberg song; Ben, then Cait sitting up full of patience and sympathy at the end of long nights; two days straight that Ben missed the next BART back to Berkeley.
Hopefully, tonight, I will rally Ed to head out to the movies.