Friday, June 27, 2008

Shiny Happy People

On Monday, we gathered in the nature preserve to acknowledge the one-year anniversary of Katie’s death. Everyone brought something to share. There were cartwheels, sing-alongs, banners, letters, a Sumerian poem (in translation), and herbal tea. The event was understated and full of love, witnessed by family and friends, a very Katie experience. Kayla has posted some nice pictures on her blog.

I finished reading Rob Sheffield’s Love Is A Mix Tape last night. This book is just amazing, fantastic, honest, especially his writing and thinking about being a young widow (from Ch. 13, “How I Got That Look,” through to the end). I’m glad that it took me so long to read this book, at least, in part, because many of the conclusions he arrives at felt very familiar. Either Rob Sheffield is a kindred soul or the things that young widows decide about grief and senseless death tend to be of a kind. Maybe both statements are true. He mentions, toward the end of the book, how in the eight years after his wife, Renee, died of a pulmonary embolism, he has met another young male widow exactly once, at a random party in New York City. Toward the end of the book, he laments the short and long-term life changes that Renee has not witnessed: all of the songs that Renee would like but will never hear; the eclipsing of mix tapes by mix CDs; the panic attacks, withdrawal, and not sleeping; the disappearance of powerful women from radio music; the contrast between the 90s and the current decade. I like best his extended riff on the word “widower,” a word toward which I have felt no small amount of hostility these last twelve months:

“Widow” was bad enough. widow, widower, widowest. Widow’s walk, widow’s weeds. Grieving, merry, professional, peak, golf, grass, black. When copyeditors at the magazine need to cut a word at the end of a paragraph because it wastes a whole line, they call it a widow. But “widower” has that nagging “er” to remind you that you’re not a bereaved spouse, but a failed husband. You failed your wife by not saving her, or not dying along with her or before her. You’re a widow with an asterisk. (p.161)

Recently, I read this interview/conversation between Ben Gibbard and Mark Kozelek, in which Kozelek talks about Katy, his ex-girlfriend and muse (his word), who died several years ago from cancer. Kozelek says that it’s a day-to-day challenge, deciding now how much he explains his new writing about Katy to fans and strangers who do and do not know his story. Kozelek has a beautiful ballad on his new album, “Moorestown,” that I’ve been listening to a lot, which captures that sense of how grief is often just finding a way to live simultaneously within old and new moments. This morning, I was writing a poem and I stopped when I got to this line, “Even the days have started repeating themselves.” A friend warned me recently that the second year isn’t any easier, that the second birthday, holiday, anniversary, etc., all tend to be as miserable as the first. I’m sure that that’s true, but right now I’m taking a little solace in feeling like getting through the first year is something.

In June, I downloaded from iTunes all of these happy, daffy songs, full of optimism and ecstasy, including “Shiny Happy People” by REM, which until recently I had assumed was all about, well, sparkly contented individuals. Then I watched the video again, read a little online. Turns out Michael Stipe kept the song off of REM’s Greatest Hits compilation because the song had become so wildly popular and misunderstood as a feel-good anthem, as to obscure the original intention of the song, which was to criticize the tendency of pop media propaganda to gloss over basic flaws in political institutions. The origin of the phrase “Shiny Happy People Holding Hands” is adapted from a Chinese propaganda poster from the early 90s, just after the Tiananmen Square Massacre, upon which Stipe meant the song as a kind of commentary. All the same, AOL Music ranked it the wussiest of the 111 Wussiest Songs of All Time, noting that “the finished product was no trenchant political statement from a human-rights warrior exercising the power of his celebrity. Instead, it was an anthemic lobotomy, precisely the kind of pop puffery the band meant to skewer.”

I like the video, and I get it, but I definitely needed more context, and to be at a different place in life (it came out when I was 14), to get it. REM’s appearance on Sesame Street, singing “Furry Happy Monsters” also works for me, both as a song about understanding feelings and as a gentle commentary on what other, lesser kid-positive media sometimes encourages. I’m posting both videos below.


Cool Trivia Note: The female vocal in “Furry Happy Monsters” is sung by Stephanie D’Abruzzo, who originated the role of Kate Monster in the Broadway production of Avenue Q!

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

New Poem

It's long, and formatted, so I'm uploading it to the blog via From the top bar, click the "yellow circle" button on the left to go to the document on Scribd. com; or, click on the center "iPaper" button for printing and emailing options; or, click the right "rectangle within a rectangle" button to expand the document within your browser (I'm just figuring this out myself).

Read this document on Scribd: Katie Ghazals 36

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Grief Wii

I bought my nifty green Prius last September. I learned last March that I bought the car two weeks before the federal tax rebate for buying hybrids expired. I received only a partial credit, because the quota for Priuses on the road was reached sometime in late 2007. The tax credit was created to encourage Americans to buy fuel-efficient vehicles, but various pressures, anticipated and unanticipated, have worked to make the Prius one of the most ubiquitous cars on the road today. Not only that, but man, you sure see a lot of them on the road.

I bought a Prius for two reasons: I needed reliable wheels (20% of my motivation) and I wanted a brand-new car with lots of bells and whistles that reminded me of Katie (80%). When we bought our Focus in 2006, we briefly looked at Priuses and hybrid Civics, before deciding that they were too expensive, and that the gas mileage trade-off was not significant enough to justify the sticker price differential. In Romania, we used to talk regularly about buying a Prius, as part of a general plan to eventually settle in or near Chicago. I don’t know that we would have actually ever done that. As Judy noted last summer, Katie and I eventually always found a reason to get on the road and move to a new place.

I like the idea of myself as someone who has the freedom to always uproot and relocate, while keeping strong ties in a couple of places. At the same time, much of my identity is wrapped up in traditional ideas of domesticity—settling down, settling in, growing old—that, in theory at least, have always seemed more attractive than being on the move. Any time I hear Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young’s “Our House,” I think of this mix that I made Katie right before she went to Romania for her (then) internship. The mix included a series of songs that I imagined would make the soundtrack of happy Miami domesticity among so much Eastern European relocation. If we never quite got to a place where either of us said “mortgage” or “babies” with much comfort, it was at least part of how we thought about ourselves, individually and together.

Some street toughs stole my wallet and CDs out of the Prius last night. It was in the driveway, I left the doors unlocked, so I left myself exposed. Four other neighbor's cars had items stolen from them, too, including laptops, iPods, and cell phones. Mostly, it’s just a major inconvenience to not have my Cubs wallet-and-money-clip, which is of significant sentimental value. Katie bought it for me in December 2006, as a shout-out to the Cubs and because it is easier to carry Romanian lei (each bill is a different size) with a clip rather than inside of a bi-fold. I want to work up a head of steam about the injustice done to me in Katie’s memory, and the awful timing, but self-pity is self-pity, no matter how you cut it. These things happen, and much worse is happening everywhere, all of the time.

I have been thinking about the night of Katie’s death regularly these last couple of weeks, and feeling no small amount of anxiety about her death anniversary, June 23rd. Katie’s death puts in perspective that old adage about the things you can control and the things you can’t—which is ironic, as Katie absolutely hated The Serenity Prayer. As a second grader, someone bought me a plaque of this prayer, which I have hung up in my various living spaces, before taking it down upon our moving into the apartment in Uptown in 2003. I’m still not sure that I really believe there are things you cannot change. It’s the hardest part of the night of Katie’s death, to think that the whole situation was helpless and hopeless, that there wasn’t something, still, that, had I acted differently, I could have done to change things. This thought runs over and over in my mind, as I replay that evening, and whatever the circumstance, however I categorize it—control freak, obsession, typical grief reaction—it’s a challenge.

I found, in the Romania boxes, a series of postcards that Katie had written from Busteni, and then never mailed, when she visited that same mountaintop in May 2006. It was the beginning of her internship, and I remember talking with her after the trip—her first away from Bucharest—and how she said that we would never need to go back to that city, because it was desolate and unattractive. Last June 23rd, it was neither. The mountainside was in full bloom, after a long thunderstorm. We crossed waterfalls, rope bridges, and patches of fresh berries. There was even a stretch of rock, toward the top, that required us to climb hand over hand with these harnesses. Not dramatic climbing, but exhausting. I remember feeling, at that moment, in addition to intense pain in my arthritic toes, a kind of exhausted wonderment at the long haul up, that we were each separated, one by one, in our various efforts, but also bound by the collective experience of that day.

For me, the experience of grief is pretty much that day’s hike. Absurd and unsatisfying questions, the wrong questions, run through my mind constantly, as do some immediate and equally unsatisfying answers. Am I going to make it? (Sure looks like it—you were just playing Mario Kart with Chase an hour ago.) Why does it hurt so much? (It would suck more if it didn’t.) What does it all mean? (Why does it have to mean anything? How does a can opener work?) Then, the things you can ask people for don’t really do much to help with the central challenge of just withstanding and trusting that it will probably get better in a while. Ask someone for water, get a fresh pair of socks, put on some sun screen, take a rest—but ultimately, you gotta keep going up and no one can really help you do that (and, hey, no one’s going to carry a 6’6”, 250lb. man very far). Your feet hurt because you have arthritis, and anyway feet hurt when you hike. Everything makes a kind of logical sense, but intuitively is incredibly unsatisfying. The best that friends and family can offer is support, patience, and just a really wide margin of error—all of which I really need at the moment.

I read once where grief is a marathon, you gotta train for it and train for it, and then it still kicks your ass. That seems about right. I was going back and forth on whether to say something to the police officer this morning about the wallet. We were talking about my Barack Obama bumper sticker; he was a political science major in college, and a fellow election buff, and we got to talking about who his union would end up endorsing and why (“Man, this is Carmel. They’ll back McCain!”). It was enough of a connection that I felt okay mentioning that the wallet had sentimental value, that Katie had given it to me, and that if it turns up it would mean a lot to get it back, in whatever condition. He said they’d do their best, and mentioned that, in all likelihood, the kids who were stealing stuff out of cars had probably dumped the wallet elsewhere in the yard or neighborhood—that my best bet to recover it was just to do a careful search of the surrounding area, which Chloe and Beth immediately offered to do, while I left, already an hour late, to teach my last full week of classes at IUPUI.

Sunday, June 8, 2008


I took my bike out of storage last week and have been riding it around Carmel in an effort to get myself into reasonable aerobic shape. I haven’t been sleeping well the last few weeks, more so than usual, and so I figure that some physical exhaustion might also help me to wind down better the evenings. Reclaiming said bike required a lot of unpacking. My Giant Yukon had been shipped to Bucharest in 2006, ridden twice in 2007, and then shipped in 2008 to Indianapolis, where it sat in storage for several months, wrapped in brown packing paper, cardboard, and tape. It fared well for all of the travel. The people at the bike shop said it was in good condition, didn’t need any work, and so I should ride it around for the summer and bring it back in if anything doesn’t seem right. So far so good.

There is something positively adolescent about donning a t-shirt, cargo shorts, and helmet, and setting out across the suburbs for a long ride. Fountains of Wayne plays on the mental soundtrack. The setting and associations suggest an oversized BMX dirt bike. I think this is why so many of my fellow adult male cyclists wear spandex (often with Italian racing endorsements patched across the body, and up and down the thighs). One rarely mistakes a middle-aged man in neon yellow and black Lycra, hunched forward and aerodynamically sipping water from a fluted plastic bladder, for a teenager. This is one difference I notice between living in the Midwest (which I’ve done most of my life) and visiting the Bay Area (which I’ve done twice). In the Midwest, there are fairly rigid ideas of fashion, which fall within reasonably conventional patterns of identity: hip mom, slacker dad, disaffected teenager, cyclist, etc. When we lived in Miami, I prided myself on wearing a “Transplanted Midwesterner” daily regimen of canvas shorts or linen drawstring pants, running shoes, a solid-colored t-shirt and a Cubs hat. In photos, the outfit suggests something between “Margaritaville!” and “Hey, I just got married—I’m gonna let myself go!” but at the time it seemed like a conscious rejection of high-end Miami fashion whatever. I guess you can take the boy out of Kansas, but the Kansas follows you wherever you shop.

Katie bought me the bike as a 2004 Christmas present. I had been riding around on her brother Richard’s old Cannondale, which was a great bike, but was also entirely too small for my prodigious frame. We had found these great mountain biking trails in North Miami, right near the FIU campus, where I undertook a daily habit of riding during my mid-afternoon writing breaks. There were only four or five actual trails, but accessing them via short-cut (rather than riding out onto Route 1, heading north a couple of miles, and looping back in at the entrance) was a great adventure: navigating a long gravel trail, passing a State Trooper station, winding through a brief stretch of mangrove, and finally trekking up a short hill, around a fence, and down a longer hill to where the “diamond” trail began. Katie once lent her bike to a guy we knew, who crashed it trying to navigate the diamonds, so I generally steered clear. I wasn’t much for the challenging trails, anyway, instead making the long outer loop, over and over again, until I felt exhausted enough to head home.

I love getting lost in the subdivisions of suburban Indianapolis. They are not nearly as complicated as they seem, which is a plus. Less to wizard out, more reason to sort of trick myself into thinking that I’ve gotten involved in more than I really have. I used to love this about biking Overland Park, KS, and then later, Rye, NY: setting out alongthe well-manicured lawns and impeccable driveways of a new stretch of repeating houses, following block after block as they gradually slope in one direction, then coming out, a mile or so later, right back where I started. Then, as now, it is the illusion of being lost that I can handle much better than the real deal.

Ben and I were walking around Chicago last weekend and we got to talking about how much Katie liked Cat Stevens. We went on for a while, arguing the relative merits of his songs, the incarnation as Yusef Islam, the soundtrack to “Harold and Maude” (also one of Katie’s favorites). We were up in Andersonville, and we tried to make a short-cut east from Clark St., back towards the Lake, when a car coming from the street caused us to jog down a different alley, so that we got turned around. Coming back out to Clark St. we passed a party going on from one of the balconies, four or so stories up. Some rock song ended, there was the usual party chatter, and then, clear as could be, “Moonshadow” started up. I know that it’s not like discussing Berlioz and then hearing the “Symphonie Fantastique”—it’s conceivable that Cat Stevens would be on the playlist for a Chicago shindig—but man was I glad that Ben was there to witness what was, for me, a meaningful synchronicity.

I’ve been cycling through iTunes, trying to find new and/or overlooked songs that remind me of Katie, sort of like a “Greatest Hits Vol. 2” or one of those re-release compilations that got Willie Nelson out of hoc with the IRS. Katie received an iTunes gift certificate at the beginning of last June, and we used it to download “Free To Be You and Me” and “The Judds Greatest Hits.” The former is closely associated, for me, with the memorial services of last July, and of the latter I really only know “Mama He’s Crazy,” which Katie used to play around the apartment. In many of the songs that Katie loved, there is optimism and a heartfelt, if guarded, romanticism, which is quite endearing. I’m thinking of songs like Randy Travis’s “Forever and Ever, Amen,” John Prine’s “All The Best,” Iris Dement’s “Let the Mystery Be,” and Susan Werner’s “Barbed-Wire Boys.”

Last week, I was looking through some boxes that came back from Romania, and I found this Sudoku book where Katie had worked most of the puzzles. Whenever she finished one quickly, or finished a challenging one, she would write all over the puzzle in this exuberant, loping script, things like, “YES! TWO DAYS!” and “FINISHED!!!” She would also write messages around the puzzles, when we were in the apartment, passing them over my way, if I was really caught up in writing, if she was off doing her own thing, if one of us was talking on Skype, etc. Finding those puzzles was like writing a poem and coming upon a really good metaphor for what was great about being married to Katie. It’s one of the great things about writing poetry: you write and write the lines until, eventually, a few clear and precise images (or even one) carry a multitude of meanings. In grief, I’ve found so many extreme moments to settle my mind on—fights or trips, job stress or movie marathons, big nights out or quiet nights in—trying to make sense of a senseless event, trying to understand how one enormous, tragic moment can make sense in the context of the years of a life. Maybe time quiets these louder moments, lets the smaller ones slowly come out. The representation of a life can’t really be the collection of a few anecdotes, any more than it can be one thing we want to see in exclusion of everything else. I used to find finished Sudoku pages torn out of the book, all over the apartment. We even used them for scrap paper.

I came up with this haiku a couple of months ago, which I wanted to use for my “12 Months” poem, but recently I’ve undertaken something I like more, that may or may not bear out by the 23rd. Thank goodness, I guess, for ambitious projects that distract from the day-to-day. Anyway, here's that haiku:

Green apples—

are you fucking kidding me?

Green apples.