Friday, May 13, 2011

The Unstoppable Juggleknob

A few years ago, my dad sent me a mailing from the Republican National Committee. He included a brief note explaining how he almost tore it up before he realized the “John Evans” addressed was probably me, and surely I did not want to miss any upcoming RNC member events. Of course, the mailing was for my dad, who once confided that he would consider voting for Obama for president, but only if Frank Sinatra called him personally and asked for his support. My dad, born John M. Evans, goes by Mike. His father, John G. Evans, went by Johnny, because his father went by John. Four generations down the pike, the name has come full circle to me, the third child, the baby of the family, though not the John Evans who would receive an RNC mailing (my friend Bill might say that every “John Evan”s will eventually receive the RNC mailing, but I hold out hope). I distinguish my name with my middle initial, John W. Evans, the W. inherited from my maternal grandfather, William Botz. My dad receives most of his mail to his legal name, although for a while, when I lived in my parents’ home, it came to J. Michael Evans.

Cait and I didn’t think too hard about giving Walt my name. I like the name, John. I’m happy to share it with four generations of Evans men. I may be inclined to choose it for a different child, if that happens, down the road. We did give Walt two middle names, Michael and Robert, for his grandfathers. Walter Evans, my paternal grandfather’s younger brother, inspires a good amount of family lore, although I never met him. We also liked the nod to Walt Whitman. According to the Social Security administration website, “Walt” has placed no higher than the 943rd most popular baby name for either gender in any of the last 100 years. Probably, this means the resurgence has either already begun or is just around the corner. So far, we’ve met a Whit (son of another poet) and a Walter in parents’ group, but no other monosyllabic Walt’s.

KMF (The Katie Memorial Foundation) had a conference call last night to decide whether to attend this year’s APHA conference in Washington, DC, and present in the Exhibit Hall. In a larger sense, we have been trying to figure out what the “next step” will be for the organization. In the last four years, we’ve done steady fundraising, clarified and focused our mission and vision, and grown all of our programs. Our board and volunteer base are growing and active, and by the end of 2011, we will have awarded three times as many scholarships and grants this year as compared with any previous year. What started as an annual interest to come together, remember Katie, and recognize a single FIU graduate student in her honor, has now become a full-blown national effort to identify, support, and recognize “future Katies.” There are so many ways to improve and sustain what we do, to extend and improve our outreach efforts, to involve still more people—Cait, Cait’s sister Gen, and Katie’s stepbrother all came on board this year, and are active in KMF—and yet, at the end of the day, we all pursue KMF as one avocation outside of our daily lives and routines, impressed and maybe a bit shocked that we’ve become what we are.

Two nights ago, I came home from my office a little after midnight. Cait and Walt are gone to Los Angeles for three days, to visit family. With no family obligation to rush home to after a reading, I went back to my office and got to work on a large stack of outstanding tasks: grading papers, lesson planning, sending our student emails, setting my syllabus and course texts to teach at EPGY this summer, putting together a new batch of submissions, applying for a grant that supports working artists who are parents. Next thing I knew, it was 11pm; how had that happened? A colleague, also just leaving, stopped by my office and we chatted a bit. I am used to working late at night, usually after Walt has gone to bed, then Cait, but it was refreshing to have a big block of silent, uninterrupted time, in a big, bright room, with nowhere in particular to go.

Walking across campus, toward home, I came upon what could only be described as well-lit adventures; late-night joggers, a glow-in-the-dark Frisbee toss, skateboarders videotaping each other on the stone planters in front of the chapel. The whole campus is lit-up in concentric circles that just overlap. I thought of that essay by Tanizaki, where he talks about the Western preference for bright light, and all of its suggestions of progress; of course, James Franco is adapting the essay into a short film. I got home, turned on all of the lights, and stayed up another few hours, listening to Johnny Cash’s 1971 cover of “I’ll Fly Away,” from his eponymous television show, revising a couple of poems that seemed to get a little better. I didn’t have to teach the next day, or get up with Walt. What did it matter, really, when I went to bed or woke up?

My goodness, Johnny Cash looks good in 1971. Strong, handsome, sturdy. I thought of that anecdote about how he used to walk around parties in the mid-60s, drunk or stoned, introducing Vivian as “my first wife,” and probably feeling slick as hell. What a jerk. By then, of course, he was touring with the Carter Family and carrying on, or trying his best to carry on, with June Carter. And yet, look at what he became. Even if it’s only partially true, I like the idea that Johnny Cash turned his life around through the love of a good woman, the bible, and a sense that a second chance might be his last. But my goodness, isn’t that corny? A little too tidy? By all accounts a devoted husband and devout Christian, didn’t Cash really alternate long periods of sobriety and insobriety for the rest of his life? End up in rehab a few times, join The Highwaymen? And why do I care, anyway, about Johnny Cash’s personal life, so long as the music is good?

I have been writing essays recently. I find myself remembering and understanding aspects of my life and Katie’s death that don’t otherwise always come to mind. This is helpful, in the sense that I think there are set narratives in my mind which are tidy enough for polite conversations but maybe gloss over the complexities of actual human experience. But then I wonder: how much explanation is enough? Don’t we inevitably set our minds to a certain version of events and then move forward with our lives? In his essay, “Elegiac,” Stanly Plumly says that grief is the most straightforward of our emotions, but is also the one most easily twisted by irony. I think the manipulations might happen indiscriminately, even by proxy. One challenge of writing in an elegaic mode is that the focus resists any kind of narrative continuity. It’s like capturing a cat under a blanket; odds are that 9 out of 10 times you’ll lift up the blanket and the sucker will wriggle free. But, of course, you eventually have to lift up the blanket, or what was the point of working so hard in the first place?

The title of this post comes from a fantastic throwaway moment during the season finale of Community. Rallying the Greendale community to deny City College their paintball conquest of the campus (don’t ask), Troy implores them to oppose the “unstoppable juggleknob” in any way they can. “Juggernaut,” Abed instantly corrects him. I suppose I like that joke because it is goofy and incidental, a mix of dead-on parody (Troy is trying so hard to inspire!) and silly wordplay. I have blogged before about my favorite shows—Friday Night Lights, Lost, Battlestar Galactica, The Office, Veronica Mars—going or headed off the air in the last couple of years. Community is the refreshing if lonely exception, an instant keeper, the one-armed Rajon Rondo to a television universe of scrub Heat benchwarmers. One of the best things about Community is it’s associative aspect, its capacity to import and then discard whole aspects of the zeitgeist, episode to episode, all the while nurturing meaningful characters and relationships that we genuinely care about. It can be hard to nail down Community because it is so sharp, smart, and quick, but I do enjoy trying to keep up.

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