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.  

Monday, March 9, 2009

"I'm pregnant, Jason."

This week's episode of Friday Night Lights (which you can watch online here) showcases everything I love about that show: great writing, exceptional acting, so much heart and so much ambiguity and subterfuge that looks to work out messily.  Beloved by many, many, many (I could keep going) critics, this season is maybe the strongest yet.  Friday Night Lights is the sort of show that you have to watch from Season 1 to really get everything out of it, and yet, if more people don't start watching now, it's headed off the air.  So, a few things I think you'd like regardless of when you pick it up.  There is no better-realized, more nuanced marriage on television than that of Coach and Principal Taylor.   As Slate (also obsessed with the show) points out, a fun parlor game is to decide which of your friends is Joe McCoy (smarmy, pushy, self-serving) and which is Eric Taylor (team-player, passionate, straightforward).  Wherever he goes, at least once an episode, Coach Taylor gives one hell of a rousing, motivational speech.  Give it four minutes of your time and watch two clips below, from the pilot--a scene where Coach Taylor leads an on-field prayer after his star QB Jason Street is paralyzed on-field, then the subsequent hospital visit--and tell me you're not a little hooked.  Trust me: it only gets better.

I broke out my Kosuke Fukudome t-shirt this morning, and wore it while running errands.  In 23 days, the twice-defending N.L. Central Champion Chicago Cubs will begin their 101st campaign to win a World Series.  Seven months of baseball heaven commences, enhanced considerably by Comcast, which carries WGN-Chicago, the channel that televises many of those Cubs games.  Arriving out west last fall, I fell pretty far off the baseball radar.  My lack of attention at such a critical point in the season no doubt contributed in a major way to yet another Cubs decline and I don't intend to let my team down again.  Having addressed the major flaws from last season, the Cubs are well-positioned to roll off the first-ever perfect season in baseball.  Short of that, I'll enjoy every last victory punctuated with a big dose of Steve Goodman.

I decided recently to withdraw from consideration some of the poems that I sent out last fall.  I'm at a crossroads with a few of the months poems that I originally posted on this blog.  They are important, powerful, and meaningful poems for me.  However, I've also started to feel some ambivalence about the sharpness of thinking in those poems.  There is an immediacy and intimacy in those poems, but also a kind of haziness about what grief means or adds up to.  (Disclaimer: the couple of poems that I know are good, about whose quality I feel certain, are still going out.)  I am constantly editing these poems, adding stuff in, taking stuff out, reordering the lines, and I'm not sure what they add up to.  It's a startling moment, creatively, to think that something that made complete sense in one context now feels insufficient.  For me, the most frustrating poems are the ghazals, which I completely love, but which have come back now from some good magazines with the exact same comments: these are strong, beautiful, sad, powerful, but ultimately don't work so well as a group.  So, the next step is to revise the batch, and I have no idea how to start thinking about doing that.  I want the ghazals to find a home in the world, I want them to be what they are, and I want them to be as good as they can be.  And, I'm not sure I can do all three of those things right now.

This morning, the editors at 14 Hills asked, in response to my email requesting they withdraw from consideration poems that I sent last September, "Dear John, What was the name of the poem you submitted?  Cheers, The Editors." I am taking this at face value as a legitimate inability to locate my submission, as opposed to, say, general incompetence, or an indifference or hostility to my work (their guidelines ask you to send such an email in the event that poems are published elsewhere).  It is an interesting thing to send poems out into the ether of the publishing world, and to hope that, eventually, they return with some definitive word of their worth (e.g., "We love these and can't wait to publish them!").  To a poet, few things are so heartbreaking as receiving from a literary magazine or journal a form rejection notice 9-14 months after posting them.  Still, stranger things have happened.  Four years ago, Epicenter accepted for publication the only "topical" poem I had written to date, about Jessica Simpson, Nick Lachey, and the Iraq War, and only recently acknowledged, tactfully, well, actually, we lost your poem and forgot to publish it.  

There is a kind of resilient optimism to living after a tragedy that confuses me.  Instead of waiting for it all to fall apart, I feel alive and vibrant in the moment.  Cait recently started a job and I can't wait for her to get home.  I still turn (imaginary) hand-stands thinking about getting (and having) a Stegner.  I meet Josh at the coffee shop and I'm excited to have a new good friend.  I watch movie trailers for the summer blockbusters, confident that the new Terminator movie can be the best yet.  In The Art of Possibility, a fantastic book, the authors sketch out two models of living, one based on abundance and the other on scarcity. In the former, life is full of inexhaustible potential whose manifestations we can't possibly encompass. In the latter, there is only so much to go around and if you don't lock down yours, someone else will take it away.  Scarcity is seductive because it suggests a kind of injury in things that's hard to deny, while abundance is somewhat scary, because how else do you appreciate things, if not in comparison and exclusion to most everything else?  Still, neither inures one entirely to that jerk in the Audi passing everyone in the bus lane.

It feels like two sides of the same coin: either an encompassing ease with or willed ignorance to the fragility of this world.  It's like that scene from Annie Hall, in which the adolescent Alvy Singer tells the oblivious Dr. Flicker that he's depressed because the universe is expanding, only to have his mother chastise him, "You're in Brooklyn!  Brooklyn is not expanding!"  At the end of last night's Friday Night Lights, Riggins and Street ride in a cab from NYC to a New Jersey suburb, where Street hopes to win back his girlfriend and kid.  Role-playing his speech over and over, Riggins interrupts Street with, "I'm pregnant, Jason," explaining, hey, you have to be prepared if she throws you a curveball.  The moment is funny and breaks the tension of the scene, and also sort of plays up the absurdity of being overly invested in controlling too many aspects of one thing.  Of course, Street succeeds, just as, of course, Street is the actor Scott Porter leaving Friday Night Lights for a big movie career.  As a viewer and fan, I lose interest in Street once he leaves the world of the Dillon Panthers, but his life goes on with its complexity, boredom, successes, failures, whether I witness them each week or not.