Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The Kamp Klutz Award

In the seventh grade, I went to Boy Scout Camp and won the "Kamp Klutz Award" (Art merit badge). It was a one-time award created by the head nurse to acknowledge my general lack of skills in nature. My first day there, I broke a finger after an awkward fall (Bugling). Two days later, I sliced through another finger on the same hand while whittling a kind of pointy square (Wood Carving). All week (Water Sports), I had to wrap my injured hand in a big plastic bag, which was then taped at the wrist and which, despite these precautions, I had to hold high above the water-line to prevent infection or a bad-set (Medicine). At the end of camp, the various Boy Scout awards were given out--"best camper," "most manly," etc.--and then the nurse came forward to present a two-by-four with five tongue depressors stuck into the wood (Humor), one wrapped in gauze and the other splinted (Emergency Preparedness), which I remember accepting with a smile (Photography), because I didn’t want to be rude and not find the joke funny (Personal Management).

This weekend, Cait and I went camping with some friends at Butano State Park. It was my first time camping since the Kamp Klutz experience, and my first as an adult.  I had spent a fair amount of time these last few weeks talking with the Chicago doc about going back into nature, the thought of which generally freaked me out (Cait picked a site free of bears, which helped considerably). In the end, I was surprised by how ordinary the experience was; mostly, I worried that, not having camped before, I would mis-set the tent poles or collect water from the wrong place. Here, again, I pretty much deferred to Cait, who did most of the heavy lifting. Driving back to the city, we went over my pro/con list of the general camping experience, which went something like, pro: making fire, going for a long hike, eating s'mores, sleeping in a tent, and con: sleeping on the ground, peeing in the middle of the night, mud. Which means, I think, that we’ll go camping again.

This weekend, there was a fair amount of incidental gallows humor about bears, dying in the woods, wrong turns, lions, tigers, etc., which makes sense. Hiking and camping are activities that take place in the messy exact intersection of human encroachment and natural habitats. The bear is definitely a kind of talisman for California, and I’m not just cribbing the Chicago doc when I say that it makes sense that, historically, Californians have made their peace with bears through the manipulation of symbols. Negotiating the social/public spaces around bears and bear conversations isn’t any more unusual than the social/public space around camping and, for that matter, nature. I don’t know if it’s therapy, or time, or being loved by Cait and so having someone right there as I do these things again, but areas in life that felt sort of roped-off after Katie’s death feel open again. Sometimes I feel guilty about enjoying those things, but I don’t feel afraid.

Recently, I’ve noticed that I tell stories from my life with Katie in the first-person singular (“when I lived in Miami” or, “I got these cats five years ago in Chicago”). I don’t do this to omit Katie from my life, but rather because being widowed seems such a huge trump card to drop into the middle of an anecdote. Saying instead, “When my wife who died tragically and I were living in Miami, I ate a lot of Cuban food” or “My wife who I was dating at the time but is now dead got these cats five years ago from a co-worker brought them home” seems messy, while saying “My first wife” seems to invite speculation or further discussion that, eventually, leads to more awkward phrasing and explaining. Being widowed in such unusual circumstances, I think, only sort of magnifies this effect, and I don't feel like it's my place to insist that information onto other people.  Still, I feel weird about not mentioning Katie in those moments.  Recently, a socially-lubricated graduate student started giving me advice about being marriage, and a friend stepped in to change the subject. My general reaction was to feel bad for the friend--he was trying so hard to turn things around--until, sure enough, the subject changed.

Last month, KMF gave out this year’s Katie Evans Memorial Scholarships to two graduate students. Among more than 250 applicants, we found two exceptional candidates who will do good work. That we were able to give out two larger, national scholarships versus last year’s more modest, FIU-only scholarship bodes well for the future. I’m proud of how KMF is growing, and that so many smart, caring people are working really hard to make it a success. It’s also pretty great that so many people, nationwide, working in public health now associate Katie’s name with a great opportunity to pursue their own ambitions and dreams across the globe. Calling this year’s two recipients was a wonderful, if bittersweet experience; Anamarie had warned me that it might be so (she’d called all of the finalists to confirm their eligibility). I was especially touched by how one of the recipients spoke extensively about how Katie’s story inspired her, that she felt a connection to Katie when reading about her on the KMF website.

Things in my life seem to be settling into new and positive patterns. I don’t know what it means to want KMF to be the primary channel of how I publicly honor Katie’s presence in my life, anymore than I know how to manage hiking, camping, negotiating conversations about bears or marriage, or deciding the right way to talk about aspects of our life together. So much seems to depend on action and doing things conscientiously, rather than trying to work them out in advance. Baseball season begins next week, and with it commences much prognostication that seems to favor my beloved Cubs. I have no idea how the season will actually work out, though I think we stand a good chance. I like that old baseball adage: every team wins 54 and loses 54, so it’s the other 54 games you have to worry about.  


Cait said...

um, excuse me, "peeing in the middle of the night" was actually on your pro list.
so there.

Marcus said...


I think I would be the exact same way (not that I have any idea what it feels like) about not wanting to throw that trump card in the middle of anecdote. But then again people will find out sooner or later, and it will only make them care for you more.

chloe said...

I had a pretty bad camp experience. I went to camp Tecumseh with my grade and it was pouring rain when we did the most miserable "camp activity". we had to climb this huge hill and collect all these bugs. We were climbing the hill and I kept sliding down and then grabbing tree roots. After a little while one of the dads offered to carry me. I declined.

Kelly Luce said...

i did a three day backpacking trip in midsummer once, and realized upon returning to the parking lot that i had only peed one time the whole three days.

hmmm...on a different level, i get that "trump card" feeling when people ask about my experience in japan. you have to gauge how far people want to go when they unintentionally probe deep waters. and if you talk about it then you're responsible for their shock or whatever as they face this thing that is familiar to you but brand new to them...