Wednesday, July 30, 2008

"Writer's Life" Essay in Marginalia

Last spring, Beth Staples, the managing editor of Hayden's Ferry Review and Marginalia, asked me to write an essay for the "Writer's Life" feature of Marginalia, the magazine of the Virginia G. Piper Center for Creative Writing (who also publishes HFR) at Arizona State University.

She had read through this blog and the KMF website, and was excited at the opportunity to spread the word about KMF to the Center's 5,000+ mailing list. She said I could write about KMF, grief, or writing, some combination therein, and/or anything else. The essay that I came up with is published here, in the current Fall 2008 issue.

This essay is a really great opportunity to tell new folks about KMF. You might send Beth a big shout-out of gratitude via email, if the mood strikes you.

On a personal level, I am very proud of the essay that I wrote. I am honored that I was asked to write it. It would mean a lot to me if you would read it when you get a chance. Again, here's that link.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Sermon on the Mound

Tonight, I watched again the best movie I’ve seen in a long, long while: Goran Dukic’s Wristcutters: A Love Story. Adapted from a novella by the amazing Etgar Kerret, Kneller’s Happy Campers, Wristcutters is the kind of movie that you watch, then sort of recalibrate your internal scale for rating all the other movies that you already like. I love this movie for so many reasons, maybe most of all for the offhand way in which it presents an alternate reality in which good friends casually, regularly perform small miracles. Holding fish and turning them different colors. Floating lit matches up to the sky, where they turn into stars. Broken headlights finally, inexplicably made to work. The premise of the movie is that suicide victims arrive to a world populated by other suicide victims, where, to paraphrase the main character, “Everything’s the same…just a little worse.” Did I mention that, at heart, it’s an existential road-trip romantic comedy?

Following the volatile month or so leading up to Katie’s death anniversary, manic creative output gave way to a period of calm non-productivity. I lost my writing mojo. So, I settled into a steady routine of hanging out with the LaPlantes, biking a lot, and watching Battlestar Galactica. I’m neither thinner nor especially savvy about the true nature of the Cylons, but I have had a nice July. Last week, we made a trip with neighbors to King’s Island in Cincinnati, where Emma, Chloe, some of the older neighborhood kids, and I rode as many roller coasters as we could fit into the day. Ed and I took Chloe and Chase to see a Reds game. Michelle, Kayla, Hannah, John and Judy came down for a visit this week. Kayla and I met up in Merrillville and made the drive down to Indy together, alternating favorite songs on our iPods. Today, Beth and I went to Taste, for the best fries and garlic/basil aioli in the entire universe, after which Emma, Chloe, and I dueled Slash to an extended draw in Guitar Hero III (Emma finally bested him, winning a duet on “Welcome to the Jungle”). It now seems inevitable that my move to San Francisco will involve the immediate acquisition of a Nintendo Wii, so that I can keep up my long-distance virtual chops via the Wii gaming network.

In the summer of 2006, I fulfilled the last of my course requirements for my MFA degree at FIU by taking the dreaded cross-genre workshop, with John Dufrense (whose new novel is getting rave reviews). It was pretty great. The best story I wrote that summer was “Sermon on the Mound,” in which Jesus comes back to Earth as a Cubs pitcher, only to have his battery mate, Judas Iscariot, throw the big game against the Cardinals. I stole the title from my friend Eric, a fellow Desh PCV. On our daily walks to the Mymensingh NAPE, during training, we used to brainstorm premises for bad baseball movies yet to be made. His version of “Sermon on the Mound” featured Jesus in a classic pitcher’s pose, wearing Yankee pinstripes, with mischievous eyes peeking out over the webbing of the mitt. My favorite, “Most Valuable Primate” (“There’s no rule in this book that says a monkey can’t play third base!”) turned out to have already been made. Twice.

I had an English teacher in high school who used to tell us that there wasn’t a man in America who wouldn’t start to tear up watching the last six minutes of Field of Dreams. I watched that movie over and over as a kid, but the part I always liked best was when Doc “Moonlight” Graham steps forward and saves a kid’s life, only to learn that he can’t cross back onto the playing field. Today is the 25th anniversary of the Pine Tar Incident, in which my boyhood hero, George Brett, went bezerk following a viciously unjust ruling by big city rubes on the take from George Steinbrenner, masquerading as baseball “umpires.” After a long and accomplished career, it seems Brett may forever be remembered by some as the guy who went nuts over the pine tar. Better, I guess, than being remembered as the guy who missed a World Series game because of hemorrhoids. As a kid, before I really understood the game, I remember committing to memory the stats of the Royals with the most unusual names: Onix Concepcion, Buddy Biancalana, ”The Mad Hungarian” Al Hrabosky. Looking back at the online stats databases, I’m surprised at how short many of their careers were, even by baseball standards. Then, a year seemed like an enormous expanse of time, broken down over 162 games too full of meaningful minutiae to sum up in averages and performance indicators. Even now, I’m surprised how many of the basic facts I misremember or have filed away under the wrong season, position, acquisition, squad.

In The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion notes that, in the U.S. in the 20th Century, long-held ideas about grief were suddenly upended and replaced with radically different ones. Previously, grieving was a task to undertake and complete, publicly, competently, and sensitively, as family members and neighbors died in childbirth, of fever, from untreatable diseases, during influenza pandemics. She cites an English anthropologist who notes, in 1965, that the trend became “to treat mourning as morbid self-indulgence, and to give social admiration to the bereaved who hide their grief so fully that no one would guess anything had happened.” Reading this passage, I thought of the Nigerian mother, whose son I tutored all last year. When I told her about Katie, she offered her condolences, then told me how she would never have guessed the loss; how, if I lived in Nigeria, she wouldn’t be able to avoid it. Didion notes, ironically, that Emily Post’s 1922 guide to etiquette offers a sensible and thorough guide to dealing with the bereaved, in a way that many books today do not.

There’s a great article in today’s New York Times, in which film critic A.O. Scott asks, “How Many Superheroes Does It Take To Tire A Genre? Having seen the three mostly very good movies that inform this premise—Hancock, Iron Man, and The Dark Knight—I found myself agreeing with Scott’s idea that “a hero at the height of his powers is a few panels removed from mortal danger,” and that subsequent superhero movies might only reinforce the current thinking, that this summer is the peak of what the genre can accomplish. It’s like that idea at the end of David Lehman’s The Last Avant-Garde, that the mid-to-late twentieth century New York School of poets, in institutionalizing their rejection of the last formal traditions of writing poetry, made it impossible for future generations of poets to be avant-garde: no rules left to define oneself, individually or collectively, against.

I’d like to think that writing-wise I’m just in a temporary rut, a kind of lull, with this not writing about Katie’s death, grief, etc. Certainly, there are other things to appreciate right now. It’s ironic, though, because for all of the fear and anxiety I’ve felt about this last year—which has at least kept the memories and situation vivid and real for me—any movement now away from those overwhelming feelings sometimes feels like a movement away from Katie. Really, I think that what I need right now is to figure out a new kind of tone for the writing, a wholesale shift that makes the turning back feel new and fresh. I’ll leave you with an example, from another media, of what I think I mean. Here’s a clip from the middle of Wristcutters, in which the three heroes arrive to a kind of desert colony in the middle of nowhere, and meet the de facto leader, played by Tom Waits, who gives an unusual, great speech:

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

KMF Update

In the last few months, The Katie Memorial Foundation (KMF) has made much progress on many fronts, as we pursue our mission, “to create and support educational and service opportunities in the international field of public health.” I'm excited about the work we're doing, and the direction in which we are headed, with some new things--and many specific details--coming together as we look ahead to the late summer. So, I wanted to post on the blog a general update. Here goes!

1. The 2008 KMF Fun Run will be held on Saturday, October 25, 2008 at 9am, in the Sun Lake Forest Preserve in Lake Villa, IL. The 5K event will feature a running event, a walking event, a kids run event, and some KMF-related post-race activities. Participants will receive a race packet and KMF t-shirt. Cost is $20 for the 5K Run, and $10 for the Kids Run event. Online pre-registration for the event, at the KMF website will begin September 1, 2008. We are hoping to solicit volunteers to work the event, so send us an email if you'd like to help out!

2. This fall, the KMF Small Grants Project will award several grants (max. $350 each), to elementary, middle, and high school teachers who develop classroom curriculum related to the international field of public health and/or the field of human service. The application packet will be available online at the KMF website beginning August 15th. I'd be happy to send out individual copies of the packet, so please send us an email if you'd like to see it earlier.

3. The KMF Crafting Project is now online, via Etsy, selling the crafts and artwork (bags, jewelry, cards, prints, general artwork) of independent artists to benefit KMF. Feel free to pass along the website to friends, family, strangers, etc.

4. We’ve redesigned our website, to include new features (including a photos section) and expanded KMF-related content (KMF Small Grants, KMF 5K Run/Walk, The Katie Evans Memorial Scholarship, a Shout-Outs page).

5. KMF has been very lucky to benefit from the time and expertise of talented professionals, whose volunteered time and excellent work has greatly accelerated our learning curve, while helping us clear no small number of legal and logistical hurdles. If you get a chance, please check out our KMF Shout-Outs page, acknowledging some of these great individuals!

6. During the 2008-2009 school year, KMF will again award the Katie Evans Memorial Scholarship at the Stempel School of Public Health at Florida International University, Katie’s alma mater, to benefit a public health graduate student doing post-graduation work in the international field of public health.

KMF has been so excited to see such a positive response to our initial public appeal for support. After learning more about our initial program of activities, mission and vision, and Katie’s life and work, please consider supporting our work by making a donation.

Feel free to send us an email if you have any questions, concerns, etc., about KMF. We look forward to hearing from you. Thanks for your continuing support and encouragement!

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Five Birthdays

July 1, 2001 (Tangail, Bangladesh)

The morning of my second birthday in the Desh, Babul and I go to the meat market and choose the goat we want to cook. I have withdrawn several 500 taka notes from the bank. I hand across seven crisp, purple, over-sized bills, then watch the merchant butcher the animal and cube the meat. I don’t remember what we do with the organ meat; probably, Babul passes it along to one of his brothers. We make our way, via rickshaw, to the spice market. I buy several kilograms of long-grained rice, salt, turmeric, cumin, cardamom, cinnamon, oil, potatoes, onions, garlic, chilies. Babul borrows a giant cooking vat from his neighbor. At the video store, we pick up Evolution, just available on bootleg. Babul makes a fire behind his house and starts cooking the meat. I watch the movie and drink Tang. Babul’s kids and I fill cardboard boxes with oily rice, goat meat, raw onion, and green chili. Rachel and Eric come to town, although Eric gets stuck in Dhaka and doesn't make it up until the following morning. At the party, everyone takes a boxed dinner. We eat in the open room/balcony of my hostel. The wife of a local politician, who I tutor in English, brings a gold chain and several bolts of silk fabric. It is a very extravagant gift. Kartik, the art instructor, paints my portrait. The staff of the school gives me a few nice batik button-down shirts. The next morning, Eric, Rachel, and I leave for the forest. A few weeks later, I meet Katie at a British guest house in Saidpur. We are the only guests that weekend. As a birthday present, she brings the fixings to make a spaghetti dinner. We drink a box of red wine. When Katie would tell this story, she would always mention that I insisted that night on having ground cinnamon for the sauce, so she had gone out at some random hour of the night—out of the air-conditioning, away from the seclusion, the bideshi shell of a guest house—and bought about a nickel’s worth of cinnamon.


July 1, 2004 (Islamorada, FL)

For our honeymoon, Katie and I get PADI-certified in the Florida Keys. We spend five days in the Keys and a week in Miami, staying at a hotel, then with Sheila’s godfather and his family. Three days into our scuba coursework, Katie makes a reservation at Pierre’s, a five-star restaurant in Islamorada. Exhausted from two dives, we nap all afternoon and watch “About A Boy” on HBO. That evening, we put on our nicest clothes and make our way to the restaurant. I remember the menu pretty well. Katie: coconut curry soup, mesclun salad with goat cheese and vinegar, redfish with some spicy rub and small potatoes. Me: lobster bisque, heritage tomatoes with basil and mozzarella, ahi tuna served blue. It is the only restaurant we will ever visit by ourselves that employs a sommelier. We take the cork and label home, but I don’t remember the name of the wine. After dinner, we walk out to the bandstand by the beach, where a guy with a guitar is singing John Prine songs, “Angel From Montgomery” and “All The Best,” (two Katie favorites, especially the latter) as well as a few Leonard Cohen covers. Earlier that week, Katie hears “The Great Compromise” while driving to the grocery store, which she finds really amusing, given that it is our honeymoon. Having maxed out our food budget—recently unemployed, headed to graduate school—the rest of the week, we eat rice and beans, and fried plantains, take-out style from a small Cuban grocery near the dive shop. Certified, Katie decides she is not a big fan of scuba diving, and we only dive once more together, that following Thanksgiving, when Judy and John come down to Miami for a visit.


July 1, 2005 (North Miami, FL)

Kelly and Derek are moving out to California that 4th of July weekend, so we offer to host them during their last few days, post-lease, in North Miami. That night, Katie and I order pizza and invite a bunch of FIU people over, including some incoming MFA students. Many of us drink a lot of beer. For dessert, Katie assembles a massive pile of various fresh berries, which, for those of you who don’t know her so well, well, Katie hated all varieties of berry, despised their very existence. How she withstood getting them into such a massive pile is beyond my understanding. She buys several cans of whipped cream. After dessert, we head out to North Beach and sit by the water playing guitar and singing songs. At the time, Kelly, Mike Creeden, and I are in the habit of playing music together, but the only songs we all three know are by the Gin Blossoms, Bob Dylan, John Prine, and John Cougar Mellencamp. We swim in the ocean. At some point, more friends join us. I remember an especially spirited cover of “Little Pink Houses.” On the drive back to our apartment, Jeff calls me on my cell phone and I remember telling him I can’t talk because we are listening to the new John Prine CD, which Katie has given me for my birthday.


July 1, 2006 (Istanbul, Turkey)

When we are planning the details of Katie’s then-internship in Bucharest, she asks me, if I could travel anywhere for my birthday, where would I go? I look over the map and shrug. “Istanbul.” A travel agency in Bucharest offers four-day/three-night tour packages, at every level of amenity. We spread out all of the brochures and spend way too long debating the merits of traveling 2-star versus 3-star. Katie arranges to take the weekend off. The deputy director of operations, visiting from the States, tells Katie that things are looking good for them to offer her a full-time job at the end of the internship. We spend much of the trip debating the pros and cons of taking the positions. Beyond what the job might entail, salary, her taking a job at a level of responsibility several rungs higher than entry-level, post-MPH, we talk out the possibility of living so far away from family, leaving my MFA program a year early, leaving Miami and friends, presumably, for good. On my birthday, we tour Topkapi Palace, walk out on the pier to eat fresh fish sandwiches for lunch, watch England lose a World Cup match while smoking a hookah and drinking draft beers. On our way back through the city, we stop at the Blue Mosque, to sit and watched the Friday evening call to prayer. The call reminds us of living in the Desh, except here it is louder and more frequent, the services more ornate and open to public witness. For dinner, we eat at Hamdi Et Lokantasi, which The Lonely Planet assures us serves the best mezes in Istanbul. Stuffed, sated, we walked back to our hotel, winding various back streets until we come out near Istanbul University, which serves as a kind of landmark for our hotel. At a nearby storefront, we buy a variety of helva to take back to the room, where we watch France win its World Cup semi-final against Brazil.


July 1, 2008 (Indianapolis, IN)

I wake up early, thankful to have slept a dream-less night. I go for my usual 70-odd minute bike loop, listening the whole time to one song, “Did I Tell You.” I have recently discovered Yo La Tengo, whose songs Rob Sheffield featured in the various mixes that introduce the chapters of Love Is A Mix Tape. While biking, I get lost in several Yo La Tengo-themed daydreams: forming a rock band and playing Yo La Tengo covers in bars all over San Francisco; listening to Yo La Tengo as I drive through the Dakota badlands; finding Yo La Tengo on the jukebox at Carol’s, in Chicago, at some past New Year’s throw-down. Coming back into the neighborhood, I pick up the mail. Netflix has sent season 2 of Battlestar Galactica. A local baker delivers a chocolate-chip cookie pie, with a note from my parents, which I enjoy with some Café Istria house blend coffee that Dave and Meghan have mailed. In my room, I fire up the disc and do my pilates routine. The colonials, yet again, barely manage to thwart an incoming Cylon attack. Post-pilates, I sit down to blog about favorite birthdays of the last seven years, and get to feeling pretty sad. Last year, I put the kebash on any birthday acknowledgment at all. This year, it feels good to invite as much conspicuous attention as possible. My door is closed, to keep the cats in. Twice, Chase and Chloe knock, and I tell them I am busy doing pilates but will be out soon enough (the surest way to prevent small children from entering your room unexpectedly is to dangle the prospect of their witnessing your holding, say, downward facing dog or active moving cat in a ratty pair of swim trunks). Sheila calls, I assume, to wish me a happy birthday. I don't pick up. I’ll get back to her later. Chloe and Chase come to the door a third time, this time with Beth, who asks me to let them all in. Annoyed, I put on some clothes and open the door, to find Sheila, Aidan, and Connor down from Chicago for an overnight birthday visit. We play on the swingset, go for a long walk to Starbuck’s, watch Phineas and Ferb. We order pizza, and after Sheila puts the boys down for the night, she and I sit out on the back porch, drinking wine and debriefing the last few weeks. The LaPlantes come back from the last swim meet of the summer, with some friends visiting from Arizona, which makes for 9 visitors in the house for one night. They order more pizza. Sheila and I watch the Cubs playing the Giants, a late game, in San Francisco, until everyone makes their way to bed.