Friday, March 28, 2008

The Leap Home

I’m reaching that point in the semester when a few bold students feel comfortable asking personal questions. How old are you? Where do you live? Do you have kids? Last fall, I deflected these questions but this spring I’m kind of on the fence. Since I know I’m leaving this summer, why not tell people about my situation? And then, why share anything at all?

Sam Beckett used to handle these situations so well. The Quantum Leaper, not the playwright. Growing up, I loved that show. That the eponymous main character middle-browed an existential can of worms fraught with epic contradictions was lost on me (I’m pretty sure they teach both at university these days). I just wanted to leap: into the body of a journeyman pitcher with one last no-hitter in him, or a Mississippi bigot treating black and white patients during the civil rights era, or once, we learned at the end, into the neighborhood where little Stevie King witnessed deranged clowns, possessed clowns, and rabid dogs (turns out Al was the devil himself messing with Sam!). One episode, in particular, stands out in my mind. Sam leaps into a beautiful woman dealing with sexual harassment in the workplace, and to truly mess with his boss’s mind, describes the anxiety of male pubescent “self-discovery” with particular relish (what fun, to watch that one with Mom and Dad).

But the thing I really dug about Sam Beckett was his capacity for deflection. Sam could simultaneously flub his way through his current incarnation, all the while keeping his personal goal intact: if he got this one right, the next leap might just be the leap home.

When Katie was alive, nary a conversation unfolded into which I didn’t drop some combination of the following: my wife, our cats, the apartment, her family, our nieces and nephews, we, us, etc. I wore marriage on my sleeve in much the same manner, I suppose, that I displayed my own teenage heart. Look at me! Notice me! Except this time, it was: Hey, guess what? I’m married! To this cool woman named Katie! Who does all sorts of amazing things and hey, really likes me! I write poems and did you know: our wedding was at a barn in Indiana!

Teaching in Romania, such details were a regular feature of the back-and-forth. Being a foreigner made me exotic, so colleagues and students were curious to know details. At the same time, a foreigner, I was a permanent outsider; no matter what I said, at the end of the day, I was still that really tall American listening to his iPod on his walk to school. The last week of the semester, in June 2006, Katie and I had my book club students over for dinner, and I remember thinking how strange it felt suddenly to shift the playing field from classroom to living room. I wondered what had gone through my own teacher’s minds, on similar occasions, when I’d visited their homes.

Last week, at IUPUI, a colleague stopped by my classroom to congratulate me on the Stegner (and to ask if I still planned to teach summer semester). Thus, it was out there. Moving to California, to Stanford, not teaching next fall. In office hours that week, a student asked, “So, what will your wife do in California?”

Yesterday evening, I took off my wedding band, found Katie’s, placed both on a $7.98 hypoallergenic chain that Chloe and I found in Wal-Mart, and put it around my neck. It feels good against my chest, and a little more protected, less insistent and eager-to-be-inquired-upon. If you wear a wedding band, you invite questions about your spouse, right? Walking past the clothing section, Chloe looked up at me and said, “John, you could use some color in your life.” As is our custom, she then punched me on my arm. She’s leaning into her punches these days, not setting them up so much, and consequently they hurt a lot more. When we got home, I washed out the short-sleeve shirts I brought back from Romania and this morning, as I sit in Atlanta-Hartsfield airport, waiting out the connection to West Palm Beach, where I’ll be celebrating my Mom’s…39th…birthday in Stuart, FL with the family, I’m sporting a good hayseed look: Cubs hat, checked short-sleeve oxford, faded blue jeans, tennis shoes.

When I told Joe last night about the rings and wardrobe change, he said, “Well, I’m not comfortable commenting on the former, but with the latter you know, it’s a good thing. That whole black thing wasn’t working with your complexion. People would see you coming, pale skin with black t-shirt, and think, is he a minister? A serial killer? Is he going to talk to me about Jesus or cut me into pieces? Tough call. So, you know, the wardrobe change is a good thing.”

I really just don’t have the slightest clue what it means to be a widow in any public sense of the word. Not that there needs to be a “public sense” of the word, but if I’m honest with myself, and I try to be, I wonder, “Who know?” “Who can figure it out?” I know that Katie would have no expectation that I don said wardrobe—she would probably think, okay it’s what he has to do, but you know, it draws a little attention. Katie’s ability to lose and recover rings, much like hundred dollar bills and signed checks, is well-documented. My favorite example of the latter is when we moved from the place on Deming to Agatite in Chicago, and Katie found her post-Peace Corps compensation check (we earned $220 per month of service) under the sofa. Point being, I was the one in the relationship who assigned/s tremendous value to public symbols and the compulsive accounting of things.

I’ve compiled recently an iTunes playlist of songs I want to learn on the guitar. I know about 3,000 first verses to songs, and can pick up the chords easy enough, but kind of lose my way with the lyrics somewhere around the bridge. A few songs stick out, because they remind me of Katie: “Brian Wilson” by the Barenaked Ladies, “Ohio” by Damien Jurado, “The Wind” by Cat Stevens, “Joy” by Lucinda Williams. The night before I flew back from Bucharest to Chicago, I spent a couple of hours compiling a massive playlist of “Katie Visitation” songs. My thought was to program the music for Katie’s memorial service in Antioch, song by song.

I like structure. I value order. Every morning, I wake up and make a parmesan cheese Eggbeaters omellette with barbecue sauce and a carafe of half-caffeinated coffee. In the evening, before I got to bed, I set aside some time to review the day’s writing. Before dinner, I do Jennifer Kries’ pilates DVD. When Ben and I took our road trip across Pennsylvania, one evening he looked at me and said, “You know, I always thought you were the laid-back one and I was the neurotic one, but it’s really kind of the opposite, isn’t it?”

Every few episodes, they’d show Scott Bakula “inside the machine,” leaping around, talking to Dean Stockwell, which basically involved both men standing in front of a kind of enormous static-ball, wearing silver-and-blue jumpsuits. No matter how nattily-dressed, we knew that, really, Sam was clad in the same nondescript futuristic get-up; the period clothing was just what the non-leapers saw. Grief, I guess, really is something that you do alone, at your own speed, in whatever way works. What made Sam Beckett so cool wasn’t that he could leap everywhere—anyone getting into that machine could do the same—it was how, wherever he went, whatever riches and advantages his temporary self inherited, he just wanted to leap home to his wife. Of course, we, the viewers, knew that, as long as we kept watching, they’d keep making episodes and he wouldn’t actually ever make it back. I’m pretty sure that’s how the series ended: he leapt home, saw his wife, pulled a Rocket Man, turned around and went back to doing good all over the space-time continuum. Seems as good an analogy as any (if, oh, just a tad self-indulgent) for living with loss. Any ideas on where I might find a XXL (50XL) men’s spandex jumpsuit?


Anonymous said...

Color is good, spandex is bad, grief is both.

Fen said...

if you think having students in the living room is odd, you should try having random students come to your place for cheering up and love advice. I've been completely terrorizing roxana and ilinca for the past few years.
Or driving to the seaside and finding a 14-year-old me hitchhiking.

And color does wonders, yes.

Anonymous said...

John, you make it all so real.
Question for anonymous #1 comment:
Where's the "good" in grief?
No, I'm not being sarcastic. I think it's a profound statement - I just can't find the "good" in grief.


Stephanie said...

quantum physics...existential questions...altering your persona...all this is well and good, but barbecue sauce, Parmesan cheese and fake eggs? really?

Anonymous said...

Hi John,
Scott was been in a spandex we could see and as a collective know was there; you are in a "spandex" made up of all your family, friends, friends of family and friends. It has been there and will be there to hold you as you travel through your space-time continuum.
Glad to see you in color.
Love, Mom

KATE EVANS said...

I found you when searching for who the newest Stegner fellows are ... and I was oddly brought to someone with my last name whose wife had a name almost mine exactly...and I'm so moved by your story and your poetry, and I just wanted to tell you that. Writing about the bewilderments of loss and grief and all the numbness and insanity and everything else that goes with it is a gift, so thank you.
Kate Evans