Tuesday, January 29, 2008

No Trollies, No Rice

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.

Monday, January 21, 2008

New Poem

Triptych: Seven Months

1. Therapy

I don't know how I feel
close to you I mean
I talk about it

all the time I say
silence ashes meadow
I say what now

what's the point
what should I know for sure
seven years or thirty

years alone
how to live alone
what the hell is enough

the doc says time
and I say time
to find a new doc

I make a little joke
time's up next week maybe
we can talk about it a little more

2. Here Comes A Regular

Leaflet guy, whatever your intentions,
don’t you fear these squat trucks fashioned from tanks?
Don’t you know they hate your army boots?
The woman with the heavy coat crossing behind you,
to avoid the mid-day sun
folds her newspaper into a cap.
She knows who is arriving late to the bars this afternoon,
which blossoms will upend the cracked pavement.
First the glass, then the leaves that pass, then comes the snow.
So particular, these mysteries of waiting for spring,
like an airplane, to begin again its departures.

3. Seven Months

Silent branches,
no moonlight this winter.

Playing board games,
brewing coffee—
outside, too much winter.

Black tree, green apple—
new tattoo,
same old winter.

Autumn, then winter—
empty branches overhanging
empty train tracks.

Chrysalis of wildflowers
in the winter soil—

(note: source of title for #2)

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

The Katie Evans Memorial Scholarship (Will Happen)

Much like the current presidential campaigns (haha), we have streamlined and reorganized the effort behind Katie’s scholarship at FIU, and come up with a good solution for funding, administering, and distributing the scholarship in time for the upcoming March 7th event.

The Katie Evans Memorial Scholarship will award a plaque and a one-time stipend of $1,500 for the purpose of supplementing the personal and professional expenses of a Robert Stempel School of Public Health at FIU graduate student whose personal character, experiences, and commitment to work in the international field of public health invoke Katie’s spirit, life, and work.

Application materials are available for download in the above box (note: I used Sribd to embed the application materials on the blog--click on the print tool on the top right corner of the box above to print the application materials).

Applications will be accepted presently through February 22, 2008. Among five finalists, the scholarship recipient will be selected and recognized at the March 7th event. For this first year, the scholarship is being privately funded and administered.

Many of you have asked about donating money for the scholarship, or have attempted to donate previously for the scholarship. If you are interested to make a donation, please consider doing so once we have made a decision about how best to fund and administer the scholarship for the future. Long-term planning for the scholarship will begin after March 7th, and I will post details on this blog about how best to be involved as we make that decision.

Songs That Definitely Didn't Accompany Our Entrance

In the quest to determine which song we entered the reception to, I've had a good time thinking about which song it wasn't. Here's my top ten.

1. "Sexbomb (Disco Peppermint Mix)" by Tom Jones
2. "The Boxer" by Simon and Garfunkel
3. "White Wedding" by Billy Idol
4. "Atomic Dog" by George Clinton
5. "Crying" by Roy Orbison
6. "The Flintstones Theme Song"
7. "Candy Shop" by 50 Cent
8. "Taxi" by Harry Chapin
9. "A Little Respect" by Erasure
10. "Psycho Killer" by Talking Heads

Any I missed?

Friday, January 4, 2008

Back West

Strange what fires the emotions these days.

The last few weeks I've been more active, done more random things, talked with more strangers, spent more waking time engaged with the world, than at any time since Katie's death. I have a bigger belly, stiffer frame, and persistent head cold to show for it. Hanging out with Don in New Hampshire, I remembered how, when we were in the Peace Corps together, he told me that, good or bad, he felt more alive in Bangladesh than he did the previous decade or so teaching in suburban Boston. Christmas with the Mayers found me leading a morning pilates session, then absolutely numb to the world and miserable, then watching Spinal Tap and writing a bunch. What a great group of folks to be around. Christmas came on the 23rd because everyone figured the skiing would be the least good that day. Don and I stuck to walking on dirt roads, staying away from the woods, eating good meals and drinking some of his home-brewed Barkley Beer Ale. Don went to bed around 8:30 every night and I joined whoever was downstairs around 10am each day. Some good low-key hanging out, a lot of rapid-fire humor, and a welcoming and fun bunch.

New Year's I checked out for the first half of the night, then went to some friends' house and played board games as the ball dropped. Man, did I forget, or just ignore until the 31st, the great New Year's of years past, what a big holiday it was for us, always, and that made for a pretty morose day. The turning point for New Year's was flipping through the channels and finding, on TNT, Ric Flair wrestling Triple H with his career on the line. Flair came through, but only after I spent some good time on the phone debriefing the extended wrestling lexicon with that Samuel Johnson of the Mat himself, Mike Creeden. Some tweener potatoed Flair but we lifers kayfabed Triple 's job on the Nature Boy. So he did, and so I got up off that great big couch, said good night to Mike, put on my walking shoes, and Balderdashed into the first hour of 2008. Good night, good luck, good riddance to a year divided right down the middle, great then awful.

I brought some well-honed bowling and billiards skills to the Windy City, after five days on the road with Ben Hubbard, but around midnight on the 30th Dave Cashman got hot, knocked down 191 points worth of pins to my 189, and still I swear the guy felt bad for winning yet again. In general it's been great to reconnect with old friends. Ben and I hit the Pez Museum in Easton PA and the Crayola Factory just down the road, but our best times where those we ended up in a diner or a bar in a small town off some state road, talking up our beloved Windy City, Warren Zevon, the pros and cons of studying creative writing at the undergraduate level. Ben took notes the whole time and has the names. There was the woman at the bar near Shanksville who looked up at us as the bartender told us flat-out, "I don't know you," and offered to rack a few as she talked about her deadbeat ex and her son the football team captain. The toothless, well-gutted codger who walked up and said "Man, S&%t-cago, I f$(%ing hate that place!" The guy flirting with the mother of four at the diner nearby, who hated both Bruce Springsteen and Jackson Browne. The 181-machine-strong pinball dealer in Akron, who said that "Twister" and "Tommy" were the biggest sellers because they threaded that pinball needle of game-a-bility and quality of design. Eileen's Diner where there never was an Eileen, it was just called that because, well, the building's always leaned a little to the left.

Exhausted, excited, coasting on adrenaline, I arrived to Jeff and Sheila's feeling like I had come back to the Ordinary World. It was good to wander around Navy Pier with Sheila and the boys, to take in the post-holiday holiday wonderland, everything covered in blue twinkle lights, Glass Tiger and The Bodeans blaring over the enormous ferris wheel. Who knew you had to be five to ice skate? Aidan and I rode down the up escalator a few times, but it didn't quite take the edge off. Next year will be a good year for lacing up the skates. This year, Sheila snagged a last-minute babysitter and we hit some of the old spots. Cafe Iberico's sangria is as good as it ever was. Jeff, Sheila, Ben, and I played some spades, and Ben was a capable fourth, even with some big, flannel-lined shoes to fill. Ben, Jeff, and I went up to the nature preserve on New Year's Day and spent some good time there together. I always feel so good once I'm walking on that path.

The whole trip back west, I kept telling Ben, half joking, half serious, that we should drive all the way west to Iowa in one shot and get there in time for the caucuses. Those emotions, they sure got stirred up watching Barack's acceptance in Iowa, and because those emotions got stirred up I hopped on and have blogged myself well past the alloted time. There are bags to unpack, syllabi to review, letters and cards to open, etc. But if you get a chance, I think the video below is pretty great.