Wednesday, May 28, 2008

"This Is It, Joel."

Last night, I dreamt that Katie needed the aerial off of our old Focus. I wrote the whole thing out as soon as I woke up, but I still couldn’t remember enough to make much sense of it. In the dream it was winter but not cold. I felt a kind of gnawing panic at our interaction, which involved basically standing in a parking lot long enough for me to jimmy the joint of the aerial and hand it to Katie. According to my notes, Katie was impressed by my ingenuity and gave me a big hug, and when I hugged her back my fingers stretched the whole around her back. So, maybe my dream took place in a Michael Gondry movie. I woke suddenly, realized I was in Indy, and felt weirded out enough to get up, write for a while, make a first cup of coffee. After a couple of hours, I crawled back into bed and slept through the late morning, and when I woke up again, I had forgotten I’d had the dream at all until I saw it written out on the computer screen.

Last Sunday, I drove up to the nature preserve. When we spread Katie’s ashes last July, I didn’t realize that when I turned over the box, the ashes would fall out all in one magnificent clump, which they did. The moment turned out to be an endearing and memorable one, as Judy then invited everyone to come forward and take turns scooping handfuls and scattering them further into the preserve. Eleven months on, I can still spot the spaces where some of the piles hardened on the topsoil. On Sunday, I spent a good while trying to break down the clumps into dirt. They were like concrete on top but surprisingly soft underneath. I sat down next to the path and figured I’d zone out a while, listening to iTunes and thinking about Katie, when Sara McKelvey called on the cell phone. She had read on the blog that I was going back to Romania for a visit, and so was calling to ask if I had indeed lost my mind.

I was trying to explain to the Chicago doctor last night that the timing of my being in the preserve and receiving Sara’s phone call at the exact moment of my sitting down was remarkable for me. I used the phrase “a religious experience” to try to convey the sense of complete shock (and, okay, awe) that accompanied my answering her call. I remember only checking who was calling because Judy and I had been playing phone tag. I don’t want to drag Sara much further into my blog world, so I’ll just say that it was wonderful to hear her voice, and to talk through some of the thoughts and feelings related to Katie’s death and its anniversary, as well as to explain to her that I won't be making the trip to Bucharest after all: too much, too soon, even for something I want very much to do. It's just not the right time.

Warren Zevon chronicles misfortune with more sincerity and honesty than most songwriters (and, for that matter, poets). “The French Inhaler,” “Searching for a Heart,” and “Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner” are among the best of many unusual songs written and performed by this former student of Stravinsky and devotee of F. Scott Fitzgerald. Kelly put “Dirty Life and Times” on a mix she sent along last July. I would walk around town feeling oddly hopeful whenever I heard the first two lines of that song: “Some days I feel like my shadow’s casting me. / Some days the sun don’t shine.” The song is from The Wind, an album that Zevon wrote and recorded after being diagnosed with terminal cancer in 2003. At the time, he refused treatment, fearing it would incapacitate him too greatly to appreciate what little life he had left to live; instead, he went into the studio and got to work. I like two other songs from that album very much, the headlong-tumbling-into-oblivion “Disorder in the House” and the elegiac “Keep Me In Your Heart.” I was listening to the latter this afternoon, driving back from teaching at IUPUI. It’s a song that means a lot to me, that makes me feel very happy and very sad, and that reminds me of Katie, although I get all self-conscious whenever I put it on. Like running through a blizzard with no clothes on, you gotta really want to feel it to listen to that song, and then you’ve got no one to blame but yourself when you catch cold.

Katie being taken away has forced many of us to be different people, to rearrange our various interdependencies, and to be dependent sometimes on people we might never otherwise have needed (or wanted to need). I believe that this restructuring for more complexity is a kind of blessing, that if there has to be a net change in the balance of things, then it’s toward the positive. The last memory (framed, hysterically, by the dysfunctional back-and-forth of David Cross and Jane Addams) to get erased in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is the moment that Joel and Clementine meet, at a barbecue among mutual friends on the beaches of Montauk, NJ. Having spent the entire movie witnessing his memory being wiped clean (in reverse chronological order) of their relationship (as revenge for her having previously done the same), Clementine meta-reminds Joel that their knowing each other is about to be lost, and they agree to try to enjoy the moment of undoing. But even this doesn’t quite work out: Joel keeps doubling back to the insecurities he felt the first time through, and wishing he had acted differently, while Clementine barrels forward, impressive and oblivious.

The brain is a savvy and fickle organ. It protects us, I think, more than we realize, in so many creative ways, allowing us to get through a lot that might otherwise fry the circuitry. Last summer, I would sit down, put on some sad music, think about Katie, cry a lot, and try to write. Like working out, I needed to feel like I could quantify grief in very definite terms: 2 hours today, 105 minutes yesterday, etc. It was the right thing for me, but I always felt very self-conscious about the ritual, how it was so intentional an experience of grief, which I always thought should be more organic. Now, I understand that it was what I could handle: a lot of flicking the switch on and off. In Antioch, last July, someone said to me, kindly, “In a couple of years, you’ll be able to say her name without crying,” and I remember thinking, “Oh yeah, watch this: Katie, Katie, Katie, Katie, Katie, Katie.”

I need to believe that there is continuity to life, not that things happen for a reason, but that something happens next, and that sometimes that next thing in the sequence is good. Last night, Emma asked me to field her volleyball serves. In the backyard, she worked her overhands from the property line near where Chloe, Beth, and Ed planted a garden last weekend. It had just rained, so the grass was wet, there was a late spring chill in the air, and everything smelled like clean earth. I remember thinking that I didn’t want to try to do too much, just grab the serve and toss it back over the net, which we did until it got too dark. I got to thinking of Katie, and how the first reason I get to be here at all is because of her. It felt like as much of a theology as I could handle in the moment, sad and happy, poignant and understated, simple and eternally complicated. I know that being a good person doesn’t make life any easier, but being alive at least makes it possible to bear witness.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Ill Communication

Sometimes when we’re out running errands Chloe will insist that I turn on the song with the really loud guitar, and we’ll cruise the West side of Carmel, Indiana, rattling the windows with the sattelitic downbeats of the Beastie Boys’ “Sabotage.” I’m not sure that Chloe really likes the song, rather just the idea that we’re doing something vaguely inappropriate, disruptive, and, well, loud. I’m happy to bring a little Adam Horowitz into anyone’s life: to cultivate the kind of silliness that, at the beginning of youth, one either embraces whole-heartedly or decides is, like, so lame (are you Capable or Gloria Ronsen?). Along with some of the best rhymes (Chachi and Joni / macaroni, flavor to spare / derriere) this side of Cole Porter, the Beastie Boys are the de facto court jesters of hip for white kids born sometime around 1977. They don’t always make sense, and it can be a bit of a struggle to tease out the exact words, but it sounds good, and when you’re rolling with your 10-year-old niece, that’s not such a bad trade-off.

My first-ever mix tape was a white and red TDK, ninety minutes of songs I did not understand and, at first, generally disliked. My sister, then a freshman at Boston University, witnessing full-on one Thanksgiving my extended Kenny G/Les Miserable obsession, sent along a broad-spectrum curative of indie-label rock. The Cure, Special Beat, Jane’s Addiction, The Smiths, Living Colour (early stuff), The Sugarcubes. It sounded like nothing I’d ever heard. I was fourteen and, thankfully, curious enough to spend that winter trying to figure out what I had been missing. If the music of Morrisey and Perry Ferrel did nothing for me, the unusual language that filled these songs really got me, and so I learned a new way to listen to music. Where, indeed, were the flip-flop-busted surfers with pepper-sunlit noses, the bucktooth girls of Luxembourg, the kings of the court who shake and bake all takers? I also learned early on a trick that serves me well to this day: when in a creative rut, consult an expert (or Big Sister).

Much has been written about the demise of the conventional mix tape, but no piece quite as honest or bittersweet as Love is a Mix Tape, Rob Sheffield’s 2007 memoir about his wife, Renee, who died suddenly of a pulmonary embolism in her late twenties. Beth recommended it to me last July, and I’ve been reading it in stops and starts since. I like this book. It’s honest and heartfelt. Sheffield (now a senior editor at Rolling Stone) catalogues song after song from tapes he finds in his apartment, teasing out significant and insignificant events from the course of their eight years together. In the demise of the Feelies and Pavement, Sheffield locates a kind of wistfulness for anything beautiful eclipsing its moment, which dovetails nicely with his remembering Renee. Like a good mix tape, he suggests much of the raw background in connecting major moments; in literally transcribing side after side of cassettes, Sheffield pieces together the minutiae of a life well-loved and lived.

Toward the end of the first act of Avenue Q, Princeton gives Kate Monster a mix tape and she tries to figure out what to make of their relationship based on the playlist: “You’ve Got a Friend,” “The Theme from Friends,” “That’s What Friends Are For,” followed by “I Am The Walrus,” “Fat-Bottomed Girls,” and “Yellow Submarine.” Love doesn’t really conquer all at the end of the show, but that’s sort of the point of a musical like “Avenue Q”: forego the big answers and instead try to get to the heart of the right questions. It’s the anti-Les Miserables, one of whose show-stoppers (about Fantine’s conception and the perils of loving swarthy longshoremen), “I Dreamed a Dream,” is the first song I ever committed wholly to memory. Not unlike song-to-must-memorize #2, “The Humpty Dance,” it still rattles around my mind and pops up at the most unlikely of times, when it always feels a little cool and a little strange to bust out every last word.

One Christmas, Sheila asked me to mix her up a bunch of CDs, and that next spring as Aidan made his move into the world, we’d listen to the mixes while playing spades in Jeff and Sheila’s kitchen. They were house-bound with the new kid, which meant we saw each other many Friday nights, to drink wine, order in Thai, and play spades. Sheila and I always paired off against Katie and Jeff, and while our hearts were pure and full of good intention, rare was the night we’d make it to 500 first. Now when I play cards, I insist on partnering with Sheila, and it feels like a nice, subtle nod to good Chicago days. Katie and I could play together, but it was always a heck of a lot more fun to lay them down against each other.

Romania had great chocolates: 74% dark, with blueberry, strawberry, or lemon; roasted hazelnut in bittersweet cocoa; mint or toffee chips in chocolate thin as compact discs. In our apartment, I’d keep chocolate bars everywhere, and slowly make my way through them with my morning coffee, trying to get going on the day’s writing. Next week, I’m flying with Ben to Bucharest, where we will attend the end-of-year festivities at Georges Cosbuc High School, where I taught when Katie and I lived there. In addition to offering some much-needed emotional support, Ben will be realizing, in a way, Katie’s 30th birthday gift to me from last year. Shortly before she died, she had arranged for Ben to fly from Jerusalem (where he was interning) to Bucharest for a long weekend. Ben never made the trip, but the whole day that Katie died, she took special pleasure in teasing me about the gift: what could it be, why couldn’t I figure it out (here’s the clue: it’s something you haven’t seen in a long while but you think about all the time), what could I love so much that has nothing to do with TV or chocolate or poetry?

I’m looking forward to the visit. I have no idea what it will be like, but I think there will be a lot of good there: good people, former students, old friends, and then all the landmarks of the favorite year of my life. I have this idea that I want to make a giant tour of the city with Ben, to try to narrate to the uninitiated the unremarkable aspects of daily living that caused me to barrel head-long into loving the new city and living there with Katie. I remember on Katie’s first day in Bucharest she sent me an email in the middle of the night that said something like, “Yeah, so I’m pretty sure I’m done with international travel after this stop.” It was gray, cold, and she was wandering among some Communist-era construction that, even in it is heyday, no doubt left much to the imagination. My first day in Bucharest, Katie met me at the airport and we walked all the way around Titan Lake, then drank some sweet dark Silva beers in the beer garden where a few months later we sat trying to figure out whether she should take this full-time gig with IOCC.

I’d like to think that my life with Katie, as recorded on this blog, is a kind of metaphorical mix tape of geography and personal connections, highlighting the aspects of a life we made together, but right now it feels more like finding the complete recordings somewhere at a garage sale: I’ve got to get down to the basement one of these days and go through it piece by piece. This Friday it will be eleven months and next month it’s a year. When the breeze comes in silently to this room in suburban Indianapolis I sometimes think I smell petrol or pretzels baking below, and I remember climbing under covers when the apartment would finally cool down in the middle of the night. For me, tonight, the song for those nights would be “Catch” by The Cure, and I’d put it on repeat, but really that’s my song for my own memories. Katie would have preferred a couple of rag dolls on sticks, something by the Judds or Randy Travis, or maybe just They Might Be Giants: “Don’t Let’s Start.”

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

New Poem


Black as blackberries, sweet as hokum, solitary
as one atom waiting to level the parallels.
Powering the countryside and wasting nothing.
We hiked for three days and when we came to a clearing
the old power station reached its hourglass through the earth,
humming immense, irreverent, irradiant cylinders.
Rain streaked the cement for so much neglect:
a machine that will never work
as intended. It will never do so many things.
Migration rolls the sky like summer wheat;
the tops of trees bright as signal flags.
All memory is the beating of wings
not quite catching the stubborn tectonic tumblers.
How it is a blessing to love anything with ambivalence.
Tonight, the moon: full of nothing in particular.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

I Hope Everyone Sings...

Today is Katie and I's anniversary. We would have been married for four years.

Katie was an exceptional spit player. I know this because the first week we arrived to Dhaka, in 2000, I lost several consecutive games of spit to Katie. We were winding down a long day of Peace Corps training, drinking beer and playing cards at a guest house. I know that during one hand she played with one hand behind her back, and still won, well, handily. The story goes that I then accused her of cheating at this card game that involves, essentially, picking up and putting down cards as fast as you can. I’m a little fuzzy on the details. Finally, I stormed out of the room. Not that I wasn't making much of an impression. Katie had long before made up her mind that I was a little too loud, maybe just a tad arrogant, worth knocking down a peg or two.

Off to site, we ran into each other a good amount in Dhaka: at in-services, around the bus junctions, on a quick weekend break for some steak and beer at the American Club. I remember thinking at the time that Katie and I sure hugged it out a lot. That summer, to get away from her site, Katie jumped on a bus and made a day-trip to Tangail. At my PTI, we sang “It’s A Small World” and worked out some choreography that was a big hit. We walked into town and went to lunch at the Chinese restaurant, one of only two air-conditioned buildings in the district. Our performance and long walk set off the rumor at my school and in town that I was married. My superintendent at the time was from Munshiganj district, Katie’s site, and that fall I made a visit with her to Katie’s digs, witnessing firsthand the challenging circumstances of her site, where a protracted gang war eventually forced Katie’s relocation to the much nicer Rangpur.

About a year later, we all came to Dhaka to attend the post-swearing-in festivities for the new crop of volunteers. Our country director threw a big party that night at his house, and amid a lot of revelry, Katie and I danced a few songs together. She asked me, “John Evans, how come we don’t spend more time together?” and I, aloof, said, “Gosh, Katie, I think it’s because you can’t stand being around me for more than a few hours.” That June, on a fifteen-hour bus ride back from a training at Cox’s Bazaar, we sat together and embarked upon an epic conversation about family, home, college—the sort of early-twenties debriefing that makes quite an impression. The next night, we went to a screening of “What Lies Beneath” at someone’s house, then dinner at the top of the Iqval Tower (tallest building in Dhaka!), which shows how I still had a lot to learn about what did and did not impress Katie.

I offer all of this because maybe, in retrospect, certain moments were big, flashing “don’t you see what’s coming!” sign-posts to our eventual relationship. I’m not so sure. It reminds me of that idea, from Kierkegaard, how at the end of a life you look back and the events seem arranged in a sequence like a well-plotted novel. I have so many good memories of our time in Bangladesh together, and they all have a kind of halcyon almost-summer-camp glow in my mind that is pretty typical of Peace Corps romances. I don’t know that either of us took things too seriously, initially; knowing Katie now—and maybe you can back me up here—that very come-what-may attitude was probably what kept me in the picture those first few months. Whatever the context, by the time we had been evacuated from Bangladesh and relocated to Bangkok, in October 2001, we were making plans to travel throughout Asia together, and to eventually, tentatively, settle in Chicago.

We held our wedding at an apple orchard in Hobart, Indiana, in a newly-renovated barn with a big finished loft. We chose May 8th because the apple blossoms would be in full-bloom, and sure enough, they were. We designed a ceremony that relied heavily on the musical and reading-selection talents of family and friends. Our wedding party was comprised of the nieces, Jeff, Ed, and Wayne Botz. Sarah and Jason (who now does the KMF website) made our invitations and set up the sound system. There were fresh-baked cookies and hay rides after the ceremony, and our photographer circulated and took a bunch of random shots that still make for a nice non-sequential chronicle of the day’s events. The meal was buffet-style, a do-it-yourself burritos gig with homemade guacamole and salsa, a keg of Leinenkugel’s, and a giant vat of sangria. Among several favorite memories, I remember Bill Briggs shaking everyone’s hand and generally ingratiating himself to a bunch of friends and family he’d never seen before; Eric Greene, just before midnight, filling up a Seven-Up two-liter bottle with sangria, then running out onto the dance floor because Sir Mix-A-Lot was starting up; the LaPlante family band adapting “Sweet Violets” for a mid-reception performance.

For our first dance, Katie and I went back and forth between Bob Dylan’s “Forever Young,” Neil Diamond’s “Forever in Blue Jeans,” and Shonen Knife’s cover of “On Top of the World,” settling, finally, on Willie Nelson’s “Valentine,” as a kind of post-ironic nod to our mutual suspicion of February 14th. When I hear “Valentine” now, I think of our wedding; a mix that Katie and I made a couple of months before the wedding, for when we drove out to Oregon to visit graduate schools; teaching in North Carolina the summer before I went to the Peace Corps, when I first heard the whole “Across the Borderline” album. Recently, I heard this NPR interview with Willie Nelson, where he said that mid-career he had mostly stopped writing songs because “so many of them were so damned sad.” I like Willie because you always get the feelings he’s not completely bought into some of his hokum, that he’s holding back a little in his red bandana, aerated guitar, and white sneakers.

So we danced to Willie. We wanted to keep the Dylan, so our closing song was “Forever Young.” We printed the lyrics on the program and encouraged everyone to sing along. I try to think back now and remember what it was that made me want to include a sing-along (it definitely wasn’t Katie’s decision), beyond the fact that, hey, I like sing-alongs. Fortunately, it worked. At the time, though, I just remember thinking, “I hope everyone sings and it’s not weird, I hope everyone sings and it’s not weird…”

Monday, May 5, 2008

Fancy Kicks

I am in Cambridge this morning, wrapping up a weekend visit with my friend Don (he came down from Vermont) that bookended my attending another friend’s wedding in Boston on Saturday. Don’s sister, Ellen, lives in Cambridge, so I’ve yet again (to paraphrase a distant relative) ridden the Mayer family coattails well past their end. Ellen and her family came up to New Hampshire last Christmas, and it’s been good to see them here: lots of irreverent humor, good Ethiopian eats, and easygoing company. Don’s nephew, Nick, graduates from high school in a few weeks, and he will take the next year off before heading to Reed College in Portland, Oregon. Hopefully Portland and San Francisco make for a nice 2008 or 2009 Don West-coast swing. Don flew out for our wedding in 2004 and for Katie’s services last June, but these are my first trip(s) back East to his stomping grounds, and they’ve been good ones.

Don and I were sitting in Darwin’s coffee shop yesterday, surrounded by students from Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, listening to Leo Kottke on the overhead speakers, drinking organic coffee and eating expensive sandwiches , and I thought, Yep, this is exactly what people who inherently distrust Cambridge imagine Cambridge must be. The wedding I attended the previous night was at the Boston Harbor Hotel, a swanky affair, lots of good food, drink, music, toasts, and fellowship. I came to town with my nifty black suit, and after checking out the place the previous night (I got a last-minute invite to the rehearsal dinner), upgraded my footwear at a boutique near the Cambridge T. It was the first time in memory that I did not wear either my Steve Madden bowling shoes (purchased in 2002, for Eric and Naomi’s wedding) or black-and-white Doc Marten’s (2004, our wedding) to a formal event, and I felt both more comfortable and more compromised in my fancy kicks: I looked like everyone else, so I fit in, and yet I couldn’t help thinking that, had I attended the reception with Katie, I wouldn’t have thought twice about my fashion.

The wedding was beautiful. I was glad to attend it. All the same, I was pretty miserable. Conversation was effortful and uninspiring, I only knew the groom, I had no inclination to dance, and no desire to drink after an especially rough evening for me the night before at the rehearsal dinner. I had gone to college with many of the people at the wedding, but had not talked to any of them in a good ten years, so after a few minutes of small talk I felt stuck. Ducking questions like, “Why do you live in Indianapolis?” left me exhausted, and yet how many times could I turn the conversation to mundane pleasantries about painting the rock? The night was kind of summed up neatly in my mind when, around 11pm, a fellow former Wildcat offered a rambling, alcohol-fueled remix of “my condolences”: nice sentiment, nice person, wrong place for me right now in my life.

In the recent, “Deception,” episode of Radiolab, Paul Ekman explains his quest not to tell lies in his personal life. After an uncomfortable dinner party, he tells the host that he’s at a point in his life where he just does not have the time to see his closest friends, much less expand the circle to make new ones. This idea cuts both ways for me: impolite/honest, rude/considerate (as opposed to, “you can’t cook and I don’t like you”), direct, straightforward, and clear. In the last ten months, the new friends that I’ve made are by and large those who empathize with much of what I write here. The family and friends I’ve felt closest to are those who want to connect over the loss of Katie on (more or less) my own terms. It’s pretty me-centric living—what I need to get by, but also setting my experience at the center of everything I do. For example, being at an old friend’s wedding and feeling intensely self-aware, rather than appreciating how my presence there contributes something to the friend’s celebrating the beginning of his marriage.

In the eight years we’ve known each other, I’ve seen Don forgo exactly once his 8:30pm bedtime/4:30am wake-up-and-run daily routine. It was on June 4, 2001, when, after much cajoling, he stayed up to watch the last performance of The B2 Musical Spectacular, Part III, in Cox’s Bazaar. Hanging out now, we miss a good chunk of morning/evening time, even when I adjust my schedule to wake-up at 7 or 8am, but our routines more or less follow from Desh days: big walks, long b.s. sessions, stogies, beer, professional sports. We used to meet up in Dhaka the first couple of months at site to watch NBA playoff action (simulcast live on bootleg Indian cable television at guest houses across the capital), and sure enough, eight years later, here we were, watching the Celtics and Hawks, then the Lakers and Jazz. It was a sign of things to come, I think, when on the short trip from Bangkok to Dhaka, arriving in country in February 2000, we debated the merits of Selena Roberts’ elaborate, metaphor-driven Knicks coverage, then as our plane landed with a passionate whoo-hoo! going up among our fellow Peace Corps trainees, we started an immediate over-under on which people in the group would quit and go home first (our guiding principle, which proved strangely prescient: those who clap the loudest will be the first to crack).

The new over-under for me, around people I don’t know, is do I say something about Katie and if so, when. In most situations, it is nice to know that friends and family do the advance work, that I don’t have to say much at all. I want people to know. I don’t want to tell them. I want Katie’s death to be at the center of my life, but my life as I define it. This anxiety feels of a kind: how to present myself and how much of what I am comes across in the presentation. I know I’ve said it before, but I miss how comfortable around and understood by Katie I felt in the day-to-day. Hanging out at Darwin’s yesterday, I felt a happiness that approached something like relief, to be easing into the old Don-and-John routines, to understand what comes next (and, yes, how to like it). Meghan Cashman told me recently that Katie referred to these exchanges as DSM Time (Damn Sensitive Males Time), and that Katie was always happy to yield this ground to my fellow DSMs. It is funny and wonderful to miss that about Katie. They were not every conversation but they were many of them, the sort of feeling that accompanied me wherever we went, whoever we met, regardless of the footwear.