Tuesday, September 28, 2010

More Irrelevant Pictures of Beaches and Birds

My father died two weeks ago. I was at the opera, of all places, when it happened V. (formerly b&c) and I had gone to see Un Ballo en Maschera at the Kennedy Center. I had, as usual, slept through much of the first act and was looking forward to a period of post-nap wakefulness for the final two acts when I noticed people using their iPhones. I was so shocked by the possibility of AT&T reception in the Kennedy Center that I pulled my own phone out, and I saw that I had three messages: one from my mother, one from my sister, and one from my brother. "Well, shit," I thought.

The official causes of death were listed as prostate cancer and renal failure. He had not had too much pain until the very last days, and on the one hand, it is very good that he didn't linger. On the other hand, of course, it sucks that he's dead. I have a little bit of distance on it now, and it appears to be true that time heals. On the other hand, time is also what kills us all.

We had a memorial service for him the following Sunday afternoon, at his church in Bradenton. My sister sang, beautifully, and I marveled at her composure. My mother had asked me whether I'd like to sing, and I told her my voice was wrecked from the crying. My sister told me, "I'm an Army wife. We learn to process things quickly."

My brother, my sister, and I had all been to see him within two weeks of his death, and I think that we had all pre-grieved to some extent. That may have been helpful. Or not. At the very least, we all knew it was coming soon.

I spoke at the service, and I had to speak slowly, so as to be only a moderately weepy mess. It was one of those things that I did because I figured I would regret it later if I didn't. I had made sure to tell my father certain things for the same reason. Grief is enough to get through without piling on regret. I also thought that speaking would honor my father's memory and that it might be therapeutic for me. I was right, I think.

This is what I said:

My father spent a lot of time with us when we were young: he was very active in our church and he taught Sunday school; he helped coach our little league teams; he took us camping all over the country. But what I remember most from my early childhood is what a hard, hard worker he was, and sometimes when I was lucky, he would get a call from a store during the weekend, and he'd take me with him. We'd get in his big truck, which was full of all sorts of mysterious tools and equipment, and we'd drive a ways, and he'd fix the problem, and then we'd come home. It was awesome. My father always tried, very patiently, to explain what he was doing, but I was pretty young, and I didn't have his mechanical aptitude, so I didn't really understand. But even then, it was apparent to me just how conscientious and competent he was at his work and how respected he was by the store managers and other people he worked with. They knew that if he showed up, the problem was going to be solved.

I think I was about twenty and home from college one winter when my father was out on a call and suffered a severe injury that ended his career and subjected him to years of painful surgeries. For a long time he had trouble walking. I can't help thinking how difficult it must have been for someone so active to have had something that he liked doing and was so good at just taken away from him. But I never once heard him complain about it. And over the past year, I never once heard him complain about cancer or his other medical problems, either.

The only way I can understand my father's cheerfulness and peace and gratitude in the face of such adversity is to think that the only two things that Dad really loved -- the only two things that really mattered to him -- were God and family. I think he must have felt that if he still had God and his family, he still had everything that was important to him.

I guess that every little kid thinks that his dad is the best dad in the world. Over the years, I've learned from talking to a lot of people that a painful part of growing up is coming to the realization that your father isn't everything that you thought he was, that he has shortcomings as a parent. That was something I never had to deal with. On the one or two occasions when -- with great provocation -- my father got mad at me, he later came and apologized to me for having lost his temper. That was a great lesson for me.

My father was always such a kind and caring and supportive and just such a good man that I always have known, and always will know, that he was the best Dad anyone could have. And I am extremely grateful for that, and for him.

After the ceremony, my brother thanked me for having spoken and said, "I couldn't have gotten any of that out today."

I think I have learned a few things from all of this. I doubt any of them are especially insightful or even remotely original, but I'm going to write them down anyway.

It is acceptable, and even therapeutic, to cry in public, but you want to choose your venues carefully, if you can. I do not have such an exaggerated sense of dignity that I'm embarrassed about crying when I have good cause, but it can make other people uncomfortable if they don't know you, because they have no idea how to respond. V. offered to take me home after the second act of the opera, but I figured I would rather sit through the third act because you can cry in a dark theater and no one will notice. Also, crying at the final act of an opera is highly appropriate because someone's almost certainly dying on stage, either dramatically or vocally. I also wept copiously during a portion of choir practice that week, when we were singing something either very sensitive or a little bit sappy, depending on your point of view.

It is also a good idea to spend some time alone with your grief. I went into the office for a couple of hours on the day after my father died, and it was a big mistake. Everything was so recent and raw that the slightest expression of condolence was enough to set me off. I ended up closing my office door and taking care of what I needed to do in order to be out of the office for a few days, then escaping. It would have been better to call my boss, explain the situation to him, and then come in late at night for a few hours when nobody was around.

Moping is another appropriate form of grieving. I had a couple of days off where there wasn't much for me to do but make airline and hotel reservations and the occasional familial phone call. It was really better for me to sit around the house and not have to worry about retaining my composure and watch crappy TV than to try to go out and do something.

Distraction is good, too. YFU was with me the night after my father died, and we were both pretty tender, so I took her to her favorite Chinese restaurant. Then we went to see Scott Pilgrim v. the World. I was reminded of the time when I was still undivorced but freshly separated and out, and I fell in love with a man for the very first time, and he broke my heart, and after three or four days of unrelieved moping, I walked into a movie theater and saw Notting Hill and for two hours did not think once about my sad situation. Ever since, I have not been able to think ill of Julia Roberts (not that I am aware of any particular reason she has given me to). Similarly, I have no idea whether Scott Pilgrim v. the World is a good movie (I suspect it may be), but it was terrific at that moment. I did still manage to find Michael Cera annoying, however.

Talking about the person who died is especially helpful. It's also hard, but most effective therapies are not easy. It's a good idea to start with little things you remember, and to start with the people who are closest to you, so you feel safe. Over time, it has become easier to talk about Dad with people whom I don't know all that well but who want to offer condolences. Those things were impossible to hear in the immediate aftermath, but the more I've discussed it, the easier it's gotten, and the less painful everything has felt. Besides, people want to be remembered, especially if you remember them fondly.

All of the traditional things that people do are helpful, too. When I was younger, I really didn't much see the point of a funeral or memorial service. (I still don't see the point of an open casket service. Ugh.) And I thought that all that sitting around and eating was pointless. But being with your family and friends is both comforting and therapeutic. And to eat you have to cook, which gives you something easy to do. I spent a lot of time in the kitchen with my sister, and I found it immensely comforting. Hearing other people say kind words about my father at the service only reinforced what I already knew, but that reinforcement was balm.

Mourning is not a time for discipline and denial. If you want to take a thirty-minute shower, go ahead. Eat the cake and the ice cream and don't beat yourself up about it. When we were in Florida, a bunch of us took a trip to an outlet mall, nominally to get a few things that YFU and EFU needed for the memorial service. I ended up buying them a bunch of other things, too. Buying things or eating things or long showers don't heal your grief. Time heals your grief, and you're just buying time, and that is OK. Your normal responsibilities and self-denial will come back soon enough.

Similarly, you don't want to deny anyone else their comforts. When I talked to my mother late on the night my father had died, she told me that my father had been "called home" and that "God had finally finished polishing his crown." I spent a lot of time when I was in Florida having to smile in the face of evangelical Christianity at its most aggressive. Any number of people wanted to pray with me, and I let them. The prayers themselves don't make me feel better, but the intention behind them do, mostly. I actually took great comfort from listening to and singing the very Christian music at the memorial service, even though when the minister gave the call to salvation (as my father had requested; I did not respond: sorry, Dad), I thought to myself that it was all horse shit. The only time any of the religiosity bothered me was when it got exclusive. As I was explaining to the girls in the car after the service, I think it's great when Christians derive comfort from their religion. It's their insistence of evangelicals that everyone else is going to hell that bugs me. The mixture of "God is love" and "God will send you to burn in a fiery pit for all eternity" is really not helpful. Right after the service, EFU wanted to stop at a store to pick something up. There had been a brief, intense downpour during the service, and there was a rainbow as we drove up to the store, then another downpour. I drove up to the awning and let the girls out, then went and parked and waited for the rain to stop or lessen, and I thought about the rainbow and the story of Noah, and I thought, "Yeah, God destroyed almost all of humanity, but he sent us this pretty rainbow, so we're square, right?" I was angry for a minute, but it's hard to stay mad at somebody you don't believe in.

Walking on the beach is always good. I guess I've mentioned that before. We were set to fly back on Monday afternoon (I managed to get all three of us on the same flight to Baltimore, and then I got EFU a connecting flight on to Manchester. It was good to be together as much as possible.), so I got up early Monday morning and drove out to the beach for a brief walk. I only had a half hour, but it was really nice to be on the beach when the sun was low and the people were few and the birds were numerous. It seemed like a good opportunity to cast some grief off into wide open spaces. Moping, weeping, talking, spending time with family, diversion, self-indulgence, walking on the beach. Grief is a big thing: you have to throw anything and everything at it that might work.

Kind words, from any source, are especially helpful. It is amazing how sympathetic people can be and how even the simplest form of condolence can help you to feel better. Especially the condolences of people who've been through the same thing. I'm very grateful for all the kindness that I've received, and I hope that the entire experience will make me more mindful of the grief and suffering of others, and that I'll do what I can to lessen someone else's grief, however slightly, when the opportunity arises.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Life and Death in Bradenton

I had taken the last week in August off, it being the only week during the summer that YFU didn't have full with summer school. (She had decided to take Geometry in the summer before high school so she wouldn't have to take it during high school. I had warned her that her classmates would likely be people who were taking it a second time as a result of having failed it, but she didn't care. She found the class ridiculously easy, and enjoyed spending time with people for whom academics are not a priority, so I guess it really was good education.) We spent a few days doing things locally, but I thought we had better take a trip to Florida to see my parents. My father had gone into a rehab facility for physical therapy and general care when my mother was no longer able to take care of him, and though he had sounded fully alert in the earlier part of the summer, two side trips from the nursing home to the hospital (one for a MRSA, the second for acute anemia and a possible UTI) had left him weak and occasionally delusional, though his mental faculties had returned whenever he'd been given a transfusion. His cancer, and its treatment, have taken erratic turns, and I worried that if we didn't go right then, we might not see him again.

We flew down Wednesday morning, picked up the rental car, and drove to my parents' house to say hello to my mother, then we headed over to the hospital, where he'd been for four or five days.

My father was barely recognizable; in fact, when I got to his room, I had to check the admissions bracelet on his wrist to be sure that the withered old man sleeping in the hospital bed was Dad. I had known for more than a year that he was dying, but what I had known before, I suddenly felt. It was the first acutely painful moment of a trip that was full of them.

As gently as I could, I woke him up, and he was very glad to see us, though it was a few minutes before he realized that YFU was there, even though I'd told him immediately. His nurse told us that he had recently had a Percocet and likely wouldn't be able to stay awake long. I sat next to his bed and talked to him and tried not to cry whenever he was awake. After about forty-five minutes, we got back in the rental car and returned to the house to see Mom.

My mother refuses to accept my father's illness, or at least his frailty. She gets angry when he doesn't answer the phone in his hospital room, and when I reminded her that he was too week even to feed himself, she says that he just isn't trying. Her short temper is difficult to accept, even when I think how much harder all this must be for her than it is for me. I only see my father a few times a year, and I'm devastated by his illness. She has spent the last sixty years with him, and who knows how she'll fare alone? YFU, on the other hand, seemed mostly unfazed by my father's frailty and ghostly appearance. But she never really knew the man I knew and probably can't understand how insubstantial a shadow of his former self he's become. It was not especially difficult for me when my grandparents died, and if I'm fortunate enough to have grandchildren, I reckon it won't be all that hard on them when I go.

By the time we returned to the house, it was nearly 6, and my mother had dinner ready. We were all tired, but it was a pleasant enough meal. I cleaned up the dishes afterward, and my mother went to answer email. YFU and I watched TV for a while and played with my mother's Shih Tzu. In the past, I have not especially appreciated the breed, as its appearance seems to bespeak a certain amount of fussiness not entirely unassociated with gay men. We were with my mother when she acquired this particular dog, as a puppy, and we had lobbied for Spike as a name. She had settled on Otis, which seemed like it would do nothing to counteract any fussy tendencies. Fortunately, however, Spike's hair had been cut short, giving him much less of a Shih Tzu look. He was also very friendly, especially with me. I found it comforting throughout our visit to play with a small animal.

My mother joined us and began to tell me about my aunt B., who is my mother's youngest sister. She lives alone in Orlando, having become estranged from her own children during her husband's final illness -- cancer, again -- last year. I do not understand the details, but apparently when he died, he managed to leave her without any funds or survivor's benefits, and now she is angry. I have not seen aunt B. in a number of years, but if memory serves, she was never very far from angry. My mother tells me that aunt B. has decided to take up Internet dating, in the hopes of finding men who will take her to dinner without demanding sex. Apparently, the endeavor is not going so well: her first date arrived at her house and suggested that they have sex first "to get it over with," and when my aunt demurred, he informed her that he had already taken a pill, to which she replied, "Then I guess you're going to be walking funny, and I'm going to laugh at you." To his credit, perhaps, he took her to dinner anyway, but she has not heard from him since. I suggest that -- personality not being my aunt's strongest suit -- she might want to loosen up on the dinner-only position, and my mother explains that my aunt is self-conscious about her body. I suggest leaving the lights off. My mother says that she'll pass the suggestion along, and it sounds like a joke but probably isn't.

Before going to bed, my mother tells me that my aunt N.'s first husband recently passed away. Cancer, again. I have not seen him in probably forty years, and the only memory I have of him is that in his and my aunt's house, he had pictures of himself in full Klan regalia. Apparently, he was very abusive towards my aunt, though only when he was drunk, so: all the time. My aunt N.'s second husband died ten years ago. I don't recall of what.

On Thursday morning, we sleep late, and when we get up, my mother has already gone to the hospital to visit Dad, so I take YFU out for a late breakfast. My mother returns from the hospital and makes some phone calls about getting my father -- who has received his transfusion and does not have a UTI -- back to the nursing home. Then she takes us to the cemetery where her and my father's ashes will sit after they're dead. It is a nice enough place, I suppose, though perhaps nicer when it's not August and there haven't been recent thunderstorms dumping inches of rain. There is still a lot of room for ashes and markers, but I suppose dying people are never really in short supply.

There are several receptacle/display options, including these sort of mini-wall crypts where, apparently, they drill a hole in the marble, put the ash container and ashes in, and then cover the hole over with a plaque. And perhaps a marble plug under the plaque: I didn't think to ask about the particulars. The wall crypts are very efficient, being able to handle the ashes of perhaps one hundred or more people in something not much bigger than a modest-sized display at a trade show.

The ashes of my great aunt, who died this summer, and her two daughters, rest in or beneath a family bench, upon which is also carved the name and year of birth of my great uncle. He is a man of noted parsimony, and it is a bit surprising that he was willing to pay a separate engraving fee to have his own year of death engraved after the fact. Perhaps he has resigned himself to the notion that you can't take it with you, but I would have expected him to have a target date (perhaps 2030: he is only 85, and it is unlikely that either Jehovah or Lucifer is particularly eager to have him) engraved and and figure that it was close enough. Sadly, he will be the last of his family to die, and it is unlikely that many people will visit his family ashes bench after he passes -- unless it's to gloat, but who would bother?. My great aunt was an especially vibrant person, even well into her eighties, and even after the deaths of both her daughters. I think that as bad as it is to have a father dying, it must be far worse to lose a child. I suppose that must be the gold standard of grief, worse even than a messy divorce, which, in turn, is worse than losing a beloved parent. So far, anyway.

The interment bench strikes me as an odd choice: people stand at graves, they kneel at graves, and occasionally someone comes to dance on a grave, but who sits on a grave, let alone on the grave of an entire deceased family? The wall crypt is perhaps slightly less odd, but my mother seems a bit unsettled at the notion of not having any control over whom she's buried next to. There are a great many people (both individuals and types of people) whom my mother would deem objectionable in this regard, but she seems to care less and less about this sort of thing as time goes by. She does care about being cremated, however. I was a bit surprised at her choice (less so at my father's agreeing to it since he defers to her in almost everything, and he may feel fortunate that he's one of the few people she is willing to be interred next to; let us hope she doesn't change her mind), but she explained to me that it's because she doesn't want anything crawling in and out of her eye sockets after she's dead. I guess it isn't particularly surprising that people choose their personal disposal options based on what they fear least.

After the cemetery visit, I send YFU off shopping with Mom, so I can go see Dad by myself. He is, over all, a little more alert, but still very wilted. When I get there, he's sitting in his recliner, with his uneaten lunch on a tray in front of him. He isn't able to feed himself, so I feed him as much of his lunch as he can eat, which isn't all that much, really. We start with the lemon meringue pie because, well, why not? Helping him eat gives me something productive to do, which is good, but yet another reminder of his overall state of helplessness is hard to take. He wants to get back into his bed, and a nurse, a nurse's aide, and an orderly move him from his recliner and check the dressing on his back.

After they leave, I pull up a chair and sit next to him. What he likes most is having his hand held and his head stroked. He keeps saying, over and over, "That feels so good." He is so grateful. He has worked so hard for everything and has had much misfortune and pain in his life, but it takes so little to make him happy. I wish I were ever as good as he has always been.

He seems like he's falling asleep, and I want to do something else for him, and the only thing I can think of is a hymn. I'm too shaky to sing, but I hum a couple of verses of "Precious Lord," which -- aside from not being a hymn he's really used to -- makes me feel at first ridiculously self-conscious, but he is obviously appreciating it, and I am glad that I can do something, but it just gets harder and harder the longer I hum. It is not so good, strategically, to bring music into a situation when I'm already just barely holding back tears. Clearly, I can handle a little more emotional trauma if it makes Dad feel better, but when I get to the end of the second verse, he starts to speak, and I can tell he is about to tell me how good hearing the music makes him feel, and I know that I am about to dissolve into a puddle of saline when we are interrupted by the arrival of his urologist and the nurse.

My dad had seen the urologist (inappropriately, I couldn't help noticing how cute the doctor was; alas) just a few weeks before, but after examining my father, he is visibly affected by how much weaker Dad looks. I try not to think about his reaction. I sit with my father another fifteen minutes, stroking his head and hearing him say "That feels so good," until he falls asleep. I go out to the car and cry behind my sunglasses, thinking of the urologist's reaction. And everything else.

When I return to my parent's house, I am very unsettled, and I want the solace of wide open spaces, for which nothing is better than the sea. It is late in the day, and no one else wants to go, so I make the drive alone. The beach is nearly empty, and I find a parking space immediately after turning off the highway. I have not packed any beach-appropriate footwear, so I take off my trainers and socks and carry them with me as I walk in and out of the water.

I don't have much time, and I end up walking only two jetties down. Standing on the first jetty is a group of impossibly young and attractive men who appear to be university students from Germany. They are likely not thinking about death. I watch the birds and stop to pick up a shell fragment, then stand there, slowly sinking ankle deep into the sand as the waves move in and out. There is a nice breeze, and the sun is low, and it's the first time Florida hasn't seemed oppressively hot and damp.

I would have liked to stay there longer, but I reckon that while you can never get too much of the ocean -- if you lived there, being on the beach every day for hours would still be helpful -- it takes not very long to get just enough. In any case, I feel better. The expansive vast, the water, the birds, the sand, the people, they all merge together into something like the collective unconscious which is the closest thing I have to god. I am grateful to have it for comfort. And I am grateful that Dad gets comfort from a personal god.

Sadly, a personal god makes no sense to me in a context of monotheism. For that matter, it doesn't make any sense in a context of ordinary polytheism. I think it requires massive multitheism at a level even greater than the most massive of massive multiplayer role playing games, which is something that I shouldn't say, given that I don't really understand the whole MMORPG concept, let alone its scale, but I can really only get behind a personal god concept if I posit a personal god for each fundamental unit of the universe. And I don't mean a sort of typical animism, like "there is god in this rock," because while that's certainly among the best practical attempts at massive multitheism, it doesn't go nearly far enough. Sadly, I don't even know what the fundamental unit is. In the past, I suppose we might have posited a god for each atom and then a god for each proton, neutron, or electron, but I feel confident that we've gone further in and farther down, even though I don't know where we are now. Quarks? Strings? Something more detailed than that? I used to fear that my unwillingness and/or inability to keep up with happenings on the frontiers of science would be enough for the faculty of my undergraduate institution to pull my bachelor of science degree, but if that hasn't happened yet, it isn't likely to. Anyway, let's just say, for the sake of willful ignorance, that the fundamental unit is a string; in that case, I'm prepared to accept, if not exactly believe, that each string has its own personal deity. I have no idea how many strings are in, say, an atom of carbon, and an attempt to find out has left me a) with a headache and b) wondering whether the question is even meaningful, let alone answerable, but let's say the number is, well, a lot. So that the number of strings in a small stone would be, well, a whole lot. And for anything out of the ordinary, anything supernatural, anything divine to happen, you need consensus among the various deities associated with each string of each atom of that rock. This is, perhaps, similar to the concept of Brownian motion [you should discount all of this, or at least the specific terms, based on how little attention I actually paid during my Freshman physics classes] and the rather insane odds that if a physics professor standing in front of a classroom dropped a tennis ball, all (or enough) of the subatomic particles in the tennis ball would move up at the same time thereby counteracting gravity and causing the tennis ball to go up rather than down. I do not remember the odds, but I have seen physics lecturers write the odds on the blackboard and then drop a tennis ball. And it did, in fact, go up, but only after it fell and bounced, which, I am given to understand, is the result of simple mechanics, rather than Brownian motion. Anyway, if we posit massive multitheism, we have to go even farther and figure that the stone lying there on the beach will not throw itself unless we can get the deity of every string within the stone to agree to this action, and given the animosities that cannot help arising among absolute rulers of itty bitty kingdoms, the probability is quite low indeed. This would certainly explain inertia.

That evening, my mother wants to take us to dinner, so we get in the car and drive up Route 70 a couple of exits to the Anna Maria Oyster Bar. My mother fears that we might have trouble getting a table at 8:30 on a Friday night, but I tell her that since it is in fact a Thursday night, the point is probably moot. And, in fact, the restaurant is mostly empty.

Because I want to show my support for the local economy after the Deepwater Horizon incident, I order fried Gulf shrimp. I have not ordered fried shrimp in many years, since there are almost always more tempting items on a seafood menu, but I recall that when I was a child, we would often visit my grandparents in the Norfolk area, and many of these trips would include a stop at a restaurant whose name momentarily escapes me, and I invariably ordered fried shrimp, which seemed like the biggest treat in the world when I was ten. I mention this to my mother, and she tells me that the restaurant closed down many years ago, something I already knew because she we have had the same conversation before, more than once, though without the fried shrimp angle. When I visit my parents, I can sometimes go hours without hearing anything I haven't heard at least three times before. When I was younger, I found this annoying, but these days it's a little bit comforting.

My fried shrimp are very good, and completely free of any sort of petroleum product or taste, though they have clearly been cooked in oil of another sort. My mother also has the fried Gulf shrimp, which she can not finish. YFU struggles to choose between the popcorn shrimp and the garlic Alfredo until she realizes that the garlic Alfredo can be ordered with shrimp added. She enjoys the shrimp, but she does not much care for the Alfredo. I was surprised, as Alfredo is something that is very easy to get right, or at least right enough, but when I take a forkful of her entree, I realize that the sauce is really just a bechamel to which has been added some roasted garlic and half-hearted cheese. Fortunately, YFU is not one to whine over gustatory disappointments. I should be at least notionally outraged at the restaurants' playing bait-and-switch with Alfredo, but it is not something that I ever ate as a child, and there are more pressing matters demanding my worry.

Friday morning, we are greeted with the news that my father is being moved from the hospital back to the nursing home. He would rather be there than anywhere else at this time. A couple of months ago, he was ready to relocate to Texas to live with or at least near my sister, who would have been happy to have him, but he has given up on all that. As far as I can tell, he has pretty much given up on everything, which seems to me an entirely rational and reasonable response to the situation. A year ago he was in hospice care, and then he fought back with some chemo, and now I wonder whether he thinks the exercise was worthwhile, but of course I can't answer that. I already feel guilty enough because I don't think it was worthwhile; besides, I know he would say that it was. When he was better enough to be released from hospice, he credited God with healing him. I also know better than to say that God did rather an incomplete job of it. I am reminded of an interview I heard on NPR with a noted rabbi who had said that you can't really look at the universe without concluding that there are limits either to God's power or to his compassion. The rabbi felt that it was easier to believe that God was not omnipotent, but that belief is not an option for my father. I wonder whether he's troubled by God's lack of compassion. It is another thing that would be pointless to answer him. I want only for him to have peace, which he may have now and will certainly have soon.

There is some difficulty arranging the transport, so we have to wait until the afternoon to see him in the nursing home. My mother tells me that when, in her words, she gets to be too much trouble to handle, she wants us (her children) to put her somewhere where she isn't too much trouble. "Oh boy," I think to myself, "something else to look forward to." We're worried about making our flight on time, so we pack and put our luggage in the rental car before we head over to the nursing home.

When we get there, Dad is obviously happy to be back in his old room, and happy to see us, as well. We talk for a while, and various medical personnel come in to evaluate him and order him something to eat. My mother arrives a bit later and feeds him some of the fruit plate they've brought him. He likes the pineapple.

It is very crowded in the room -- I have to perch on a wheelchair -- and my mother's combination of solicitation and impatience is unsettling to me, but he seems not to notice it. We are there for not much more than an hour before it's time to leave to go back to the airport. It seems probable to me that I won't see him again, but I have already said everything that needed to be said back when I was sure that he could hear it, so I kiss him and tell him that I love him, and we say goodbye to Mom and leave the building.

Unfortunate weather had been our constant companion on this trip. Severe thunderstorms in Tampa had kept the plane grounded in Baltimore on Wednesday, and we were an hour late getting there. The rain had come down so hard during the drive to Mom's that I missed the exit. We had to wait for a slowing in the downpour to get out of the car at the hospital the first day, and when the rain finally let up, the humidity was crushing.

On Friday, the day seems fine, but as we got closer, on the long drive to the airport, the sky gets grayer, and there's lightning. The departures screen tells us the flight is still on time, but this turns out to be a lie. The plane has not even begun offloading its passengers from the previous flight when our scheduled departure time arrives. Once in the cabin, the pilot assures us that the weather is fine -- in Baltimore. And, indeed, most of the way there. Of course, the weather is always fine when you're above the clouds.

On the flight home, YFU reads Life of Pi, her summer reading assignment, which must be finished by Monday morning. She was reading it on the way down, while I slept and then read a few pages of Gravity's Rainbow, which had become my reading material for captive situations. I somehow left my copy on the southward flight when we deplaned. It's true I was a bit groggy, and anxious about the delay, but it's hard not to read more into my abandonment of Pynchon. How long will I keep trying? Surely I should just give up and read some Hardy instead. Thomas, that is, not the Boys.

Throughout the trip, I noticed frequently how mature YFU has become, both in looks and demeanor. My parents noticed it as well, my father exclaiming when she told him, on our first visit to the hospital, that she'd be starting high school in a few days. Seeing my dying father with my maturing daughter, and I thought of the ending of Metamorphosis:
While they amused themselves in this way, it struck Mr. and Mrs. Samsa, almost at the same moment, as they looked at their daughter, who was getting more animated all the time, how she had blossomed recently, in spite of all the troubles which had made her cheeks pale, into a beautiful and voluptuous young woman. Growing more silent and almost unconsciously understanding each other in their glances, they thought that the time was now at hand to seek out a good honest man for her. And it was something of a confirmation of their new dreams and good intentions when at the end of their journey their daughter stood up first and stretched her young body.

There is at least some sense of continuation to go along with the grief. Knowing this helps me bear what cannot help but be borne.

Inevitably, I think about the accelerating passage of time: no one knows where it goes. YFU is still young enough for a year to seem like a long time. I have known at least since college that time is a fugitive, but what I knew then, I feel now. My mother told me that my father wanted to live longer than his own father, who died a few months short of his own 78th birthday. My father's 79th birthday was today, so I suppose he succeeded, though it seems not to be the sort of thing that he'd care much about. My grandfather died nearly 30 years ago, and that seems like much longer ago than yesterday, but during the discussion of burial places, my mother mentioned that her mother had been dead a dozen years, and even though in the time since I've come out, gotten divorced, and had and lost a partner, it seems that there's hardly been time for a loaf of bread to go stale. YFU will be in and out of college before I know it. On the flight back, she leans her head on my shoulder while she reads, and -- yet again -- it's nearly more than I can bear; still, it's wonderful.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Works in Progress

It's tempting to say that getting my home the way I want it is taking a long time because I'm trying to balance the desire to get things just so with the desire to be able to entertain people, and that might be true, but it ignores the much larger considerations: a) I'm really not that picky, and b) I'm lazy. Or I have other priorities: take your pick. Regardless, I have been making some progress, and the areas of progress include a couple of things that I built myself.

Despite having done my best to cull the herd before moving, and despite the losses suffered in the basement flood of '09, I still have some books, where "some books" means more than most people but a shockingly small proportion of what I used to own. Still, they needed to be housed, and rather than give yet more of my money to Ikea (which probably doesn't need it as much as I do), I thought I would build something.

The idea of something other than more bookshelf holding up one's bookshelves is not original to me, of course. In college, I had planks of wood layered with cinderblocks. Immediately after college, I had the same thing, when more affluent people had moved along to glass bricks. Glass bricks still make a great, albeit costly, support, of course, but the last time I was living on my own (maybe six years ago), I decided to try other things for supports. I considered all manner of options before arriving at bottles. The environmental and aesthetic benefits of bottles are fairly obvious, but I was also glad to have an excuse to buy expensive seltzer water.

Back in the day, I used Blu Italy bottles, and they were very pretty, but not long after I bought this house, I happened to find myself in a Costco in Northern Virginia, and I came home with a case of Acqua Panna, a very tasty Italian water that comes in very attractive bottles. I regularly purchase, mostly for EFU's benefit, Pellegrino, and between a case of the AP and two cases of Pellegrino, I had plenty of bottles.

The construction on these shelves is extremely simple, but it still took a while, and only got finished when I decided that I really did like the look of unfinished wood, after all. I'm sure I'll find another use for the quart of stain and the quart of clear acrylic, though.

Aside from the bottles, the only things necessary to build these shelves are some wood planks, a dowel, and wood glue. I originally wanted a tight-fitting dowel, so I purchased a dowel just slightly larger than the inside diameter of the bottleneck. And then I began to sand, and I sanded, and I sanded, and I sanded, and I went back to Home Depot, and I bought a dowel just slightly smaller than the inside of the bottleneck, and I came home, and I cut, and I marked, and I glued. The planks are six feet long and ten inches wide. I wanted the ends of the shelves to stagger somewhat, so I glued a pair of dowel pieces four inches from one end and twelve inches from the other end of each plank. I flipped half of the planks around when the glue was dry. Then I yelled for YFU, and together we started assembling the shelves. Alas, I was a bottle short for the plan I wanted, so I had to regroup, and then I had to reassemble the shelves when no one else was around. That part was a bit dicey because the shelves, which are extremely stable once loaded with books, give the impression of wanting to jump when they're empty. But I persevered, and I soon had six shelves together, without major incident. At least until I put the books on, at which point it became clear that I needed another bottle in the middle of each shelf, to counter bowing. But that was pretty easy to do, and I soon had a set of bookshelves that I'm very fond of.

Organizing the books, of course, was another matter entirely, and the "other European author" section is still horribly disorganized. Also, there are still more books in boxes, so they don't quite all fit, but I got at least 80% of my boxes empty and stored in the basement, so that I can actually walk around my office/library/computer room most of the time now, and that's a good thing.

Speaking of unfurnished furniture, behold my new bed. My old bed, which was due for replacement anyway, broke a couple of weeks ago, and I'm not quite sure exactly how that happened, even though I was there when it happened, and even though there was another witness present. Regardless, I considered my options and decided that the best way to balance economy with a desire to own more power tools was to build my own bed out of 2x4s.

I know nothing about building beds, of course, so I went over to the Instructables site and looked at what they had. And what they had wasn't exactly what I wanted, but I did get some very good advice from someone who had built a similar bed: don't overengineer it. So I made a sketch on a piece of scrap paper, and I headed to Home Depot with EFU and, more importantly, her station wagon, and I came home with a ten-inch miter saw, a sander, a box of screws, an assortment of bolts, and six eight-foot two-by-fours. I took everything to the basement, I measured, I cut, I drilled, I screwed, I swore, I brought partially assembled bed parts upstairs, I drilled and screwed and swore some more, and soon I had a frame upon which to affix the platform slats that I had saved from the prior bed.

The whole thing took about half a day, but I ended up with an extraordinarily sturdy bed. I still need to change out some of the nuts for locknuts, and I misjudged the height somewhat, but having to climb into bed is good exercise, right? Alternatively, in the future, I can always date high jumpers.

In addition to making a bed that is very strong, building my own allowed me to add some uncommon features. For example, at each corner, and in the center foot of the bed, instead of using two regular bolts, I used one regular bolt and one eye bolt. This gives me a place to fasten things to if I ever need to secure something to the bed. Like balloons, for instance. A bed should be a festive place after all.

I get that a bed platform made out of unfinished 2x4s isn't for everyone, but if you don't count the cost of the power tools, which I will use again (I already have projects planned), the cost of the materials for the bed was less than $30. So until I'm ready to spend the money on the bed of my dreams, this one is pretty cool.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Unified Dating Theory

I accidentally ended up on a date a couple of weeks ago. It turned out pretty well, but I feel like inadvertent dating is the sort of rookie error that I should have learned to avoid ten years ago. Still, nobody's perfect, I reckon.

As ever, it is important to define one's terms. There are, as I'm sure many of you are aware, a nearly limitless number of ways in which two men can interact, but for our present purposes, let's consider two broad categories: the social and the sexual. Under the social column (hereinafter column A), we have things like extended conversation, meeting for coffee, catching a movie, and going out for dinner -- all of which are perfectly respectable, and fun, activities. Under the sexual column (aka column B), we have things like holding hands, making out, and, well, this is not the particular venue in which I want to get too graphic, so just use your filthy, filthy minds imaginations. All of these activities are (or at least can and should be) perfectly fun, though they may not all be perfectly respectable. Some people, indeed, have posited an inverse relationship between fun and respectability, but I offer no opinion on that supposition except to say that if it is true, then it is almost certainly also an oversimplification.

Anyway, it's pretty easy to determine which activities go within each group, and in cases where an activity might be considered theoretically ambiguous (you might, for example, give a shoulder massage to someone with either sort of motivation), in practice, you always know what's what. If your activities with a particular person on a particular occasion are purely social, then you're hanging out with a friend. If your activities are purely sexual, then you're hooking up. If your activities are something from column A and something from column B (I believe the column A/column B meme is still reasonably common, but I was unable to find any current examples of the menus from which it springs. Back in the day, if you went to many Chinese restaurants, there was a group dining option where, depending on the number of diners, you chose a certain number of dishes from each column to get a communal meal. It must have made splitting the check easier.), then you're on a date.

And your activities have to be intentionally mixed, which is to say that you can't hook up with someone and then turn it into a date by having a conversation, of whatever length, in the afterglow. Or even in the glow, for that matter. If you invite someone over for horizontal quality time, and you somehow discover a common interest in Dickens, discussing Our Mutual Friend while you're making out doesn't transform the hook-up into anything else.1 Though I suppose you could always go on a date later, and, in fact, you probably should if you happen to run into a fellow Dickens lover, though you might want to keep a close eye on your facsimile edition of The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby.

Anyway, I traded some messages with a guy whom I found on a gay social networking application that is popular with iPhone users. This particular app is dedicated to the pursuit of column B activities, but it mostly manages to annoy me because most of the people who are on there pretend that they're there for column A. I tend to think this posturing exists because a lot of gay men are stupid enough to think that if they post a shirtless picture showing off their flawless torsos but say "Partnered and just looking for friends" in their profile, then their partners are stupid enough to believe them. This is not the case, but whatever: I should really not get started (and I really don't judge on moral grounds; aesthetic considerations are another matter, however). This particular guy claimed to be looking for both columns, not necessarily in the same guy, and while that would normally have made me roll my eyes, he had a sense of humor and a Ph.D., so I was willing to make some allowances. More to the point, he likes to cook, and he lives within walking distance of my house, so -- when he gave no indication whatsoever of any sort of column B interest -- I invited him to my place for dinner. These days, I'm doing my best to keep the columns separated, and while I haven't been entirely successful, I couldn't help figuring that having a food-friendly friend within walking distance would be better than having a random hook-up, it being the sad but undeniable fact that worthwhile -- albeit transitory -- column B companions are in much greater supply than their column A counterparts.

I hate dating, and I'm really bad at it. (These two facts may not be altogether unrelated.) I believe I have said before, only partly in jest, that the best reason to stay in a relationship is that if you become single, you might find yourself dating again at some point. But if I don't know I'm on a date, then I'm fine, so the evening went just swimmingly. I took the guy at his word when he said that he liked to eat, so I made some pickled Szechuan cucumbers as a pre-dinner snack, then for the main course, I cooked some very thick pork chops with mushrooms, rosemary, and red wine; some green beans boiled, shocked in ice water, and sauteed in butter; and a salad of chick peas, black beans, corn, tomatoes, and avocados in a cilantro-lime vinaigrette. Everything was delicious, though, uncharacteristically, the lemon pound cake that I made for dessert would have been borderline dry if it had not been well soaked in lemon syrup.

Anyway, the food was good, wine was consumed, and the conversation was funny and fluid and went into all sorts of subjects that I would never discuss on a date, but, hey, this guy wasn't interested in column B, so why not, right? But at some point, it's getting pretty late, and I'm surprised that he hasn't made noises about it being time to go home, and I'm feeling very content but also very tired and stuffed, and I look up from my plate, and he's giving me this look, and it suddenly occurs to me that a) he wants column B, and b) it's my responsibility to make the first move. At this point, I may have uttered an internal expletive, simply because this was not a situation I was looking to be in. I did realize, however, that in the universe of all possible situations, this was well above the median, and as I am not the sort of person to refuse a tasty bon bon when it is placed before me, I did my duty as a good host. I would say more, but I have always thought that detailed explanations of column B activities on the Internet are horrifically tacky.

I've been pretty good in the past at avoiding inadvertent dating, so I'm thinking this was an isolated incident. Nonetheless, I'm currently undertaking a thorough review of my policies and procedures to avoid this sort of columnar commingling in the future. I understand that a full report is due out in the fall.

1Not that I would know anything about such matters, of course, but if you're going to discuss Our Mutual Friend, shouldn't you do so in the context of a threeway?

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

The Blogger Is Present

If you stare long enough into the 3-D glasses, the 3-D glasses stare into you.
I heard, via my online knowledge base, about the Marina Abramović thing (installation, performance, exhibit, whatever) at MoMA, and I thought it was silly. I am not really a visually oriented person, I don't follow the art world, I don't read the New York Times, my knowledge of performance art begins and ends with Laurie Anderson (I used to own a number of her records, on vinyl, and I saw her in performance in Boston back in the 1980s: it was a fun show.), and if the OKB hadn't mentioned her thing (presence, staring, whatever) at MoMA, I would surely not have been aware of it, much less taken the time (ok, three seconds) to formulate the opinion that it was silly.

For those of you similarly provincial and ignorant of the performance art world, The Artist is Present works like this: Marina Abramović wears a long dress and sits in a chair. Someone sits down opposite her. They stare at each other until the other person decides to leave or the museum closes. Then, unless the museum closes, another person takes the place opposite Ms. Abramović. Sometimes one or both of them cries. Nobody speaks. And that was it. It went on for seventy-two days.

I likely would not have taken more than the aforementioned three seconds to consider the whole shebang if someone hadn't pointed me to a Flickr set containing a picture of each and every person who sat opposite the artist. They are some seriously great photographs. (There is also one photo of the artist for each day that she sat, but those pictures don't do so much for me.) And it is apparent that the vast majority of these people didn't find the thing (installation, bench warming, ogling, whatever) at MoMA silly in the least.

I did a modicum of reading and discovered just how serious many of the attendees were about participating. In order to sit, people had to wait in a line, often for hours, without any assurance that they would ever get a turn. Some of them had to wait on line several days before getting to sit. And many of them appear to have been genuinely moved by the experience, which raises (but does not beg) the questions: if someone has a profound experience in response to something that's silly, does that make the experience any less profound? Does it make the stimulus any less silly?

The answer to both questions is no.

Having looked at hundreds of pictures, I'm unable to question the intensity of the experience for the majority of the attendees. There are, of course, some exceptions, probably beginning with the people who came to sit multiple times. Most notable among these was one guy who was there over and over again and sat, on one occasion, for the entire day. The people on line must have been livid, and, indeed, he has a couple of e-stalkers in the Flickr comments to his pictures. I'm sure most of these people (especially this woman, who sat about a dozen times) would claim that they returned again because of the intensity of the experience, but it appears that most of the multiples were performance artists. For example, I counted four different sittings forTehching Hsieh. I didn't know anything about Tehching Hsieh, either, before I saw him in the Flickr set, but the "Works" section in his Wikipedia entry makes me giggle. Or perhaps snort derisively, I really can't decide which. Four sittings really wasn't that many, and I only include the pictures because I think he's cute. (Yeah, whatever: like you never had an e-crush on an age-inappropriate performance artist.)

Anyway, despite the presence of people who were likely there, at least in part, to further their own agendas, it's clear that many people had a sincerely moving experience as part of the Marina Abramović thing (inertia, revelation, dust collecting, celebration, whatever) at MoMA, and I would be the last to deny them that experience. It seems to me entirely reasonable to wonder how much of the experience's movingness was due to the hype around the event and/or the long amount of time standing in line, combined with the desire to find meaning and/or the desire to see the emperor's new clothes, but none of that makes the experience less real if the participant perceived it as real, and moving.

But let's face it: it's still just some chick in a long dress sitting in one place and staring at people for hours on end (and, one presumes, being compensated for doing it). It's silly. I have honestly not bothered to go into all the reasons people will claim that it's not silly, but I can rattle a couple of likely candidates off: the Presence should be considered in the context of Marina Abramović's entire body of work, the Presence creates a unique opportunity to explore the relationship between the observer and the observed, and the Presence creates a response in the participants that gives the performance a sort of reciprocal value. I just don't buy any of these arguments. Talented artists, of all sorts, create crap stuff every day. Shakespeare wrote Timon of Athens and Titus Andronicus, neither of which are worth performing (though, sadly, they occasionally still are performed) simply because he also wrote King Lear.

As for the audience-based arguments, well, let's just say that if you can have a profound experience staring at someone who stares back at you, you can have an equally profound experience staring at a blank wall, or a mirror, or a stained glass window. Especially a stained glass window, because what the people who stand on line to sit across from Marina Abramović are doing is, essentially, worshipping. I would go so far as to guess that a majority of the attendees are atheists and reject the notion of a higher being, but they are merely replacing one god with another. They are worshipping at the altar of art, and Marina Abramović is their idol. Or their Pope, depending on where you want to go with the metaphor.

For the record, I believe that everyone believes in something, whether they acknowledge it or not, and art is as good a thing to believe in as any, and perhaps better than most. I just probably wouldn't choose this particular so-called art, and I certainly wouldn't think that standing in line to stare at Ms. Abramović is any different than kneeling in a church, praying to the Blessed Virgin (or to whomever). They're both pretty much equally silly: it's just that one of them has had a couple of centuries to build a following and the other had twelve weeks or so at MoMA. I'm sure that, given enough time, Marina Abramović could build a much larger following, and get her own recognition as a church, along with the concomitant tax benefits.

None of this outrages me, particularly. I know that a significant number of people feel abused by organized religion and despise it in all forms, but once you realize that everyone worships something (even if it's just a vague notion of humanism, which is probably what I believe in: I can't be bothered to figure out exactly what I believe in), it's maybe more appropriate to be amused than angry, except perhaps when a particular religion and/or its devotees have done you harm or are trying to do you harm. (One supposes that a similarly high proportion of the sitters support gay marriage, something that can't be said for most of the kneelers.)

Anyway, the photographs are great. I liked them so much that I wanted many of them on my walls, which are still rather barer than they ought to be, so I downloaded bunches of them to see what I could do with them. As it happens, the pictures are very nearly square (787x783 pixels; cropping them to a 4x6 or 5x7 picture ruins them, to my eye), and Costco will do an 8x8 print for about a buck and a half, which is pretty cheap. But I didn't realize that option was available at first, and I also wanted a larger array of the photos, so I used Gimp to arrange twenty-four of the photos into a 4x6 set and sent the very large resulting file to Costco to print out as a 20x30 poster. My previous experience with Costco poster printing had not been entirely great, but I figured that might be because I'd used files that did not have sufficient resolution. And, indeed, the large photo array that I sent came out perfectly. I could not be happier with it, and it's going to look great on my living room wall, once I figure out just how I want to hang it. It cost $8.99, plus tax, which really is a price that just can't be beat. I also got a number of 4x6 prints of the same file (at thirteen cents a print!), so that I can use them as postcards.

You will notice a certain theme among the photos that I chose for the poster. When I showed the picture to my OKB, one of them asked me "Why glasses? And don't say 'Why not?'" Sadly, I didn't really have a better answer for him than that I just liked the way it looked, but I'm sure that if I were to worship at the altar of art, I would come up with something about how it was a comment on the nature of perception. Just like the photo at the top of this entry, which shows my everyday eyeglasses opposite some 3-D glasses that I picked up at a viewing of Avatar, sitting on top of my bed. The piece of lint in between them represents man's inhumanity to man.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Dads and Grads

It's been a couple of weeks now since I went to New England to attend EFU's commencement from a small liberal arts college in Vermont. How small is it? Well, during the two days I was there, I probably heard fifty times that EFU's graduating class of 85 was the biggest graduating class ever. This proud announcement was almost always coupled with a warning: the graduation ceremony would be commensurately long. Long graduation ceremonies, it appears, are taxing on the students, faculty, and staff; on proud parents, not so much.

The paradox of time dictates that it must be true (and so it is) that my own college graduation happened a lifetime ago but that the intervening years have passed in the blink of an eye, and it was not so hard to remember my own commencement, which I would gladly have slept through, but which I attended to please my own proud parents. (EFU, similarly, would just as soon have spent the morning sleeping, but the similarities end there: I took a leave of absence during college and so took six years to finish up, and I only managed a respectable GPA -- we had a different term for it, as we did for everything -- by pulling straight As on every course in the two semesters following my return; EFU graduated in three years, and with honors. My parents' pride was based largely in cluelessness.) As you might expect, all that nostalgia combined with all that pride made for something of an emotional weekend, and, indeed, even now I can write about it only with some difficulty.

YFU -- who preferred to wield her iPod in my car rather than face the uncertain musical choices of her mother and stepfather -- rode with me to and from Vermont. I had taken Friday off and had meant to pick her up right after school and head north, but I had slept late, possibly due to having stayed up later than absolutely necessary the night before, and then had woken to the realization that my lawn was not likely to cut itself, so I had gone to the Home Depot and purchased a lawn mower. I brought it home, assembled it, and proceeded to nearly destroy it before sorting things out, but then the afternoon was nearly gone, and I had still to pack, and, well, it is too late to make a long story short, but we left the house a little before 7, stopping at an entirely nondescript motel in an entirely nondescript town in Connecticut (which some people have uncharitably described as a nondescript state, but I reckon that any state that has ever been represented by Joe Lieberman has already suffered enough), sometime around 3 the next morning.

After breakfast, we continued northward, and shortly after noon, we met up with EFU, and, lo, there was much rejoicing. Well, I rejoiced: EFU, having worked like a fiend to finish her thesis before the submission deadline, was enjoying some well-deserved sluggishness. (Almost literally: I was tempted to poor salt on her.) She roused herself at the mention of lunch, however, so we ate at a local diner and then headed into Brattleboro.

Brattleboro is an exceptionally charming small town, especially the southern part, which houses several used book stores and a great number of small gift shops with prices that seem unburdened by such trifling considerations as supply and demand. It is really just the sort of place where one would expect New England liberal arts-type liberals to congregate. I wondered momentarily why it is that I don't spend more time in such places, but I decided not to think about it, as there were other things to do. I thought instead that the town's policy to put its parking citations in pink envelopes was charming but perhaps incongruous.

We walked around town for a while, and I allowed both YFU and EFU to make small purchases at one of the less overpriced gift shops before we went to one of the used book stores. I recalled briefly just how many hours I used to spend in used book stores when I lived in the Boston area, and when (of course) I was much younger, but that sort of reflection rarely leads to anything good, and there were, after all, other things to be done, so I allowed myself only fifteen minutes and one purchase.

We had still not checked into our accommodations for the weekend. I was not planning to spend any significant amount of time in my room, which, as it turned out, I would be sharing with YFU, so I had gone to one of the nearly innumerable Internet travel sites and found what seemed like a very good rate on a room at a chain motel. The travel site likely didn't know that the Ramada was also hosting the Vermont gun show this weekend. The situation gave me a bit of pause, especially since the gun showroom was located immediately adjacent to the bar, but I had already and non-refundably paid for the room and, again, was not expecting to spend much time there, so we checked into the room, which was clean and otherwise unremarkable. As we were walking down the hallway, past the gun show, EFU noted, "Northern Brattleboro is very different from Southern Brattleboro." Indeed.

We had to be at the college around 4 for a trustees' reception for graduating seniors and their families, so we set off in the car. The college itself is located in a neighboring town that is so small as to seem to not quite exist, the town hall and some signage notwithstanding. The drive there is very pretty, especially in mid-May, when there are lilacs everywhere. And the college itself is very pretty, though at the same time it bears rather a strong resemblance to a summer camp.

In general, I would have no interest in attending a trustees' reception, and certainly neither EFU nor YFU would want to do so when they could be sleeping or reading (respectively), but in this particular case one of (and the youngest, apparently by a significant margin) the college's trustees turned out to be an online acquaintance whom I have known without ever having met for nearly ten years, off and on, so I had someone to talk to. I was loath to monopolize his time, but he apparently felt under no obligation to mingle, and I had no interest in making small talk with people who were virtual as well as actual strangers, so I spent a very pleasant hour chatting with him. Not surprisingly, he has a great deal of affection for the college, though he thought that it could use some cosmetic work. I told him that I found it entirely charming, though large parts of it could certainly pass for the sort of place where J.D. Salinger might hide from society. He told me that it doubles as a music camp during the summer.

EFU did not want to attend the community dinner that followed the reception (Because she's graduating in three years, most of her friends are juniors, and she doesn't feel that much of a kinship with her classmates. She told me that, not having wanted to make small talk, she arrived late to the senior dinner and had had to take the only seat remaining, next to the president of the college.), and my trustee friend told me that we would not be missing anything by skipping it. My ex-wife and her husband arrived right at the end of the reception and wanted to take EFU to meet her advisor. EFU didn't think her advisor would be in his office and wanted to go back to her cabin and then to dinner, so I said that I would meet her at the car in fifteen minutes. I took the opportunity to spend some time with the lilacs, of which I am inordinately fond, though much more so when they are on the tree than in any other context.

Fifteen minutes stretched to an hour, and I struggled a bit to maintain good humor, as I suspected that the delay was largely due to something my ex-wife wanted to do. It later turned out that the group had made its way to the library where my ex-wife had taken the opportunity to use the college's computers to spend nearly an hour reading her sister's website. This struck me as unnecessary. Fortunately, I still had the lilacs to look at. I also spent a significant amount of time listening to and watching some very colorful birds who refused to be photographed.

When the girls finally showed up, with apologies, we all returned to EFU's cabin. It was something of a mess, even though EFU had already spent a considerable amount of time packing. It seemed that the other four or five residents had not been similarly industrious. We headed back towards Brattleboro, to a restaurant of EFU's choosing. It was a sort of pan-Asian establishment that served a large number of highly sweetened and dangerously alcoholic beverages in pleasantly kitschy ceramic vessels. The food was very good, though. The decor relied heavily on pandas, provoking a discussion as to whether the panda is, indeed, a bear. My ex-wife was sure that it wasn't, but I was able to pull out my iPhone and consult the Internet, which had the twin benefits of making YFU complain about my iPhone boasting and proving my ex-wife incorrect on a matter of zoology.

I very much wanted to avoid being late to the ceremony the next day, as we had been warned that seating would be available on a first-come-first-served basis, so YFU and I turned in early. We got up on time the next morning and had a large and pleasant breakfast at another diner-type establishment near the motel, and then we set off for the college. I may have overestimated the amount of time we would need to get dressed and eat.

Fortunately, YFU had brought a GameBoy, and I had had the foresight, at breakfast, to download a game to my iPhone, cell phone service being spotty at best out in the wilds (EFU had spent much of the past several weeks having her sleep interrupted by a black bear who was showing an unhealthy level of interest in her cabin's trash) of Vermont. I spent the next forty-five minutes launching Angry Birds as the hall filled up.

Once the ceremony started, of course, I couldn't play any more games, so I had a lot of time to think. This was not so much true in the beginning, when there were a number of very good speeches, but the reason I had been repeatedly warned about the length of the ceremony is that when each student receives his or her neatly printed and enfoldered explanation as to why the diplomas are not yet ready, the president or the dean reads not only his or her name, but also a considerable amount of additional information about his or her field of study and thesis/project. It takes about thirty to forty-five seconds per graduate. The ways in which EFU and I are alike begin with our last names; unsurprisingly, the class was graduated alphabetically, which meant that EFU was the penultimate recipient of a bachelor's degree.

It is always a dangerous situation when I have a lot of time to think, and the danger is particularly compounded when so much nostalgia is wafting about. And things were only made worse by the excellent speeches. I could not help remembering my own graduation, or at least bits of it. From the whole day, I remember three bits distinctly: during the procession, my much-loved boss was standing next to the sidewalk watching us go by and gave me a flower; our graduation speaker was Lee Iacocca, whose commencement address was a sort of paean to protectionism; and when it was my turn to get my diploma (which, let's give MIT efficiency some credit, was my actual diploma), President Paul Gray had trouble picking mine out of the pile, and when I pointed to my name and said, "That's me," he had some trouble grasping the concept, and I very nearly had to fight for it before he realized it was indeed mine. That was the only conversation I ever had with him, by the way.

That is really not a lot to remember from a day that's meant to be momentous, and as I was sitting in the audience at EFU's graduation, listening to the senior class speaker, I couldn't help thinking that none of his classmates would forget who had spoken or what (generally) he had said. It was a very thoughtful speech with one paragraph that went just far enough astray to give my daughter and her friends something to joke about and remember, probably at least until their fiftieth reunion.

I experienced something very like longing during the main commencement address. The speaker was a local poet. She is, apparently, quite successful as a poet, though neither I nor my trustee friend had ever heard of her (but then, I could probably not name a single living poet: oh, the shame), and she spoke with great intensity and speed. Her speech included an exegesis of a well-known Frost poem ("After Apple Picking") and ended with a new, as yet unpublished, poem of her own, and it was so good and so moving that when it -- and her speech -- was over, I stood to applaud. (Days later, when I was home, I downloaded the recording of the ceremony and played the reading of that poem over and over so that I could transcribe it and have it, though I should certainly buy the book when it comes out.)

During the nearly endless reading of names and information that followed, I thought about the notion of private failure, which is a notion that I likely cadged from a years-ago short story in the New Yorker. It's the idea that successful, or even relatively successful, people reserve a measure of regret for the less remunerative road not taken1. It was hard not to compare the profundity and presence of this poet, whose name I do not recall, with the inanity of Mr. Iacocca. Lee Iacocca was, when I graduated, a big deal, and I'm sure that most of the graduating class, and nearly all of their parents, were impressed to have him as a commencement speaker. But he had surely given the same address, with minor modifications, numerous other times, and he just as surely had not written it himself.

I couldn't help wondering, briefly, what would have happened if I had known about and considered a liberal arts education when I was in high school. I lived in a mostly upper middle class neighborhood, but my own family was solidly blue collar, and I had no guidance about applying to college. I ended up at MIT through a series of accidents, followed by a hard sell from the admissions office, and I certainly don't regret having gone there, but I couldn't help wondering whether, if I'd spent four years in the woods reading poetry, I mightn't have been among the bored faculty, wearing a set of robes instead of a jacket.

The question, of course, is always: at what cost? It's intellectually dishonest to pick and choose aspects of your life and think how they might be different if you'd done something differently twenty-five years ago. I can't posit the existence of a more engaging career without recognizing that the increased self-awareness that would have come with that option would likely have precluded having a family. Isn't there a line from Sundays in the Park with George about how the only things that have lasting value are children and art? I'm no artist.

It is possible to consider having made different choices and still having had a family, but every child is unique, and a product of a unique combination of sperm, egg, time, place, and history, and it is really no less unthinkable to me to consider having different children than it is to consider having none at all.

But all of that is the intellectual response to the intellectual longing for a life I never knew and would not choose in place of the one I have. There was no emotional longing for anything other than what is already mine, and the primary emotions of the day were joy, and pride. At least for me: I think EFU was mostly just feeling relief. I beamed as she nearly ran across the stage, as if she wanted to be sure that she got her tassel shifted before someone changed his or her mind.

EFU is always impatient to be moving on, so after we made a brief appearance at the reception, where her thesis advisor and one of her other examiners told me that EFU had truly earned her honors, we went back to her cabin and filled up my car, which EFU had instructed me to have as empty as possible. I had complied with her wishes, as I do whenever and insofar as possible, and soon the car was loaded down, leaving only room for YFU and I in the front seat. We left the college early in the afternoon and were safely restored to home and our quotidian existences before bedtime.

1I have little patience for people who take Mr. Frost's poem in vain, and the next time anyone is tempted to set himself up as some sort of paragon of nonconformity by saying that he took the less traveled path, I hope that he will go and actually read the text of the poem. All it is really saying is that choosing between two nearly identical options will have profound and unforeseeable consequences. It's basically a poetic realization of chaos theory and the scientific notion of sensitivity to initial conditions.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Lost in Translation

I spent much of this past weekend visiting a friend who owns a place in Rehoboth. He was there with his partner, who was recovering from shoulder surgery, and another friend of his whom I once found impossibly cute, but who now is merely possibly cute and so serves as a reminder that time and tide wait for no man.

I did not actually see any tide while I was there, the Delaware beaches not being among my favorite things. Also not among my favorite things are crowds, traffic, or shopping, so I typically only visit this friend, whom I have known for a good many years, only once during the summer and perhaps two or three times in the off season.

In any case, the weekend was mostly unremarkable. I got in very late Friday night because b&c and I had tickets to see American Buffalo at Studio Theatre. I didn't end up leaving Bethesda until nearly eleven, and then I stopped three times, mostly for caffeine, but also for gas and to put some air in one tire. I am a big fan of making the drive to Rehoboth very late at night, so long as I don't actually fall asleep at the wheel. There is a grittiness to the wee-hours combination of caffeine and fatigue that I find compelling, and the long empty roads through flat fields reminds me of trips to the Norfolk area to visit my grandparents when I was a small child and the Interstate highway system wasn't what it is today.

The last thing I did with my friends was to go to breakfast on Sunday morning, at Crystal Restaurant, an eating establishment that specializes in breakfast and lunch and is very popular with an orientationally diverse clientele. I was on my third cup of coffee and had just started into my blueberry pancakes, when my friend John picked up one of the lucite advertising stands sitting on the table and said, "Look at this! They're going to start serving dinner." There followed a discussion of the likelihood of Crystal being a good dinner place (it had, apparently, not done so well in the past), but I was intrigued by the advertisement itself:

I picked it up, stared for a moment, and then said, "Oh, look. Kristallnacht. There's a good idea." Two of my three breakfast companions didn't know what Kristallnacht was, and the third just shrugged. I was tempted to launch into a those-who-do-not-learn-the-lessons-of-history-are-doomed-to-repeat-them rant, but I didn't because a) I don't really believe that saying, except perhaps as it's applied to history classes, and b) I didn't want my pancakes to get cold.

We were done with breakfast before eleven, and I had packed my car before we had set out, so that when we got back to the house, I had only to say my goodbyes and head off. Under usual circumstances, I would have been home well before 2pm, but as it happens, I had -- just before leaving the office Friday night for dinner and the play with b&c -- downloaded my first iPhone app, a social networking application designed specifically for gay men, and whose name is derived from a word that is used as, among many other things, a New England regional term for a submarine sandwich. I have in the past pooh-poohed this app -- not least because it's misspelled, but also because I didn't have an iPhone -- as a non-productive time sink, but while marveling at its very existence and widespread use did eat up a not inconsiderable amount of time (and battery life!) over the weekend, it did not turn out to be entirely non-productive: several different gentlemen contacted me over the weekend, when I was not really in a position to make or receive social visits, so upon saying goodbye to my friends, I did pay a call on one of them and was thus delayed by about two hours.

When I finally got home (having had to stop and pick up YFU and some groceries) I noticed that another tree was in full bloom.

It's very pretty, and it has a pleasant, though not especially pronounced, scent.

Later in the evening, I had an opportunity to ponder the nature of online social networking when I turned on the same application and noticed that (unlike in Rehoboth where the expense tends to encourage a more mature and moneyed crowd, almost all the men who showed up on my iPhone as being within 1.5 miles of me were a) extremely attractive, and b) roughly half my age. Often less than half my age. Alas.

Well, it was fun while it lasted, and, especially given the relatively small amount of time I put into it, it was a lot more effective, and a lot less annoying, than Facebook, which I have -- beginning some time ago -- abandoned until such point as I can figure out a compelling reason to keep up with people who didn't especially like me in high school. Currently, I approve all friend requests but don't otherwise visit my page. Which may or may not be reflective of how I behaved in high school. My memories are a bit fuzzy.