Chuck

My friend Chuck died two years ago today and I’ve been thinking about him a lot.

Last week I told another friend of mine that, to my surprise, I am fundamentally an optimist. The friend wasn’t surprised at all. I’ve been thinking about that a lot too.

How could I possibly be an optimist?

And more, how could other people know that?

Sometimes I feel so outwardly negative and rigid. It seems that most people see through all that.

A lot has been written lately about the Dunning-Kruger effect where people who aren’t very competent tend to rate their competence way above where it is. Not only are we bad at something but we’re bad at seeing how bad we are and we end up convincing ourselves that we’re actually pretty good at it.

I wonder if there’s a corresponding effect for optimism.

How many people do we know who have no visible reason to be optimistic and feel good about the state of their world – and yet they do.

They have so little for themselves and yet they cheerfully break what they have in half and offer the bigger half to you.

I know people who belittle such people. They want them to understand how bad off they have things. I love that these people don’t feel that. It’s not that they don’t know their situation – they certainly do. It’s that they see that you need something that they’re able to give and they offer it.

How many people do we know who have way more than they need and should be happy and well adjusted – and yet they aren’t.

They have more than they could ever use in multiple lifetimes and yet they look at the fact that you need something as an indication that you have a character flaw and they offer nothing. Nothing but their scorn and perhaps a lecture.

I’m not saying all poor people are kind and all rich people aren’t. I’m saying that there are people in both camps who aren’t what we might expect.

And there is a vast middle where we have enough to be either way. We have enough and need to stop and appreciate what we have. We need to realize that even if we have what we have because of our hard work and dedication that other people work hard and are dedicated but somehow circumstances favored us. We benefited from more than just things that we could effect.

I think that that makes me an optimist.

The fact that other people help me get to where I need to get is a wonderful thing.

There are, however, people who don’t.

There are people who don’t want you to get more, get better, get ahead, … get.

When I first met Chuck more than thirty years ago I instantly liked him. How could you not. He was smart, talented, quick, and charming. And he was deep. So deep.

I remember big and little things about Chuck then.

He had a tape recorder rigged to a radio in his car that would record “All Things Considered” each day at half speed so that he could get it all on one tape that he would listen to on his way home.

I supplemented some of my on-air work with work in Chuck’s production department. I learned a ton. It was the first time I ever saw a multi-track reel-to-reel recorder. It made it easy to record a commercial with two voices where each voice was recorded separately and then the producer wove it together into a seamless conversation or pitch.

It wasn’t a happy or an easy time for Chuck and he was spiraling down.

At one very specific point he decided enough was enough – it was time to get well.

I watched him climb out of a hole and I realized up until then I’d only known a shadow of the man he was. He was quite something. He was smarter, more talented, quicker, and more sincerely charming than I’d thought. People like that are often shallow. Not Chuck. He really was deep and caring.

There were specific things that triggered Chuck getting better but it was really his love of two women that gave him the strength to do it. Well, at the time it was one woman and a child – but that child was a big part of why he worked so hard to stay better.

And yet, there were people who didn’t want to see him get better.

I don’t know why.

I don’t know what motivates such people.

Maybe they see it as a rejection of the path they’ve chosen.

One of his friends did things that I still see in my mind to this day to tempt Chuck back. When that didn’t work, he set Chuck up to get fired.

In a way, it wasn’t hard. Chuck had a reputation of getting to work later than he should or not being around all the time when he needed to be.

But that was before.

Now Chuck was better. His work ethic was really strong. He not only brought his A game but he was there to bring it. People no longer had to cover for him. He was better.

But better is a process.

People don’t know where you are in that process. You have to earn their trust again. And while you’re earning that trust back they still see you the way you were and so you’re vulnerable to someone exploiting that.

So Chuck lost his job after being better only a little while.

Such a dangerous position to be in.

It’s so easy to say, “well, that didn’t work.”

Chuck didn’t do that.

We’d meet for coffee and he was sending out letters and resumes.

He was turned down for one job that he thought he was perfect for. They just never had someone who did what he did and they didn’t see the value in it. At a lot of stations, one of the on-air talents had the title of Production Director and jocks would produce a few commercials before or after their air shift. Chuck was a full-time Production Director. He could get more out of his air talent and help support the sales staff in ways that would easily justify his salary.

I remember him telling me that.

“Tell them,” I said.

And he did. He responded to their rejection letter with a letter that thanked them but explained to them that they could benefit from hiring him anyway. It told them what a talented person could bring to that position and then emphasized what Chuck could do in the job.

They hired him.

Why am I an optimist?

I watched Chuck at his lowest, bet on himself and climb out.

There were some who tossed ladders into the hole to help him – he still had to find the ladder and climb up to the next level – but the ladders were there.

There are plenty of others who don’t toss in ladders but they don’t get in the way.

There were others who moved the ladders while he wasn’t looking or reached into the hold and grabbed the ladder while he was half way up and pushed it away from the wall it was leaning on to keep Chuck stuck at his current level.

But he kept climbing.

And even while he was still in the hole himself. Even when he didn’t have enough for himself. He looked at what he had and offered others half.

Chuck took years off of work to write mysteries. Well he was going to write one but he kept writing and ended up with six.

I read them and sent him feedback. He’d rewrite. He’d rewrite again. I don’t know how many other people were reading and sending him feedback. We’d meet for lunch or coffee now and then to talk about his writing. He’d mention the other readers.

We continued to meet – not often enough – once he went back to work in radio. We met while he fought brain cancer. Definitely not often enough.

I think about that a lot too.

I don’t always toss ladders into a hole to help. I don’t always offer half. Sometimes I just don’t get in the way.

I don’t know if that’s enough.

A lot of my friends didn’t vote for president in the last election (please don’t post comments that make this into a political post – it’s not).

My point is that I have berated them for not taking a stand.

One of these two people will be president – you need to take a stand.

One of my friends said that he thinks he has more clarity and impartiality because he didn’t vote.

I raise this because I wonder if that’s me on those times I don’t toss someone a ladder when I can. I’m letting them stay in that hole by not taking any action. I’m trusting that someone else will come along and do the right thing.

You can’t help everybody. But not every ladder is the same. A ladder can be as little as a phone call or a text.

But what if you offer that ladder and your friend doesn’t use it?

That’s up to you.

I saw a wonderful presentation in Berlin and at Yosemite by a woman who gave one example of software that represents the point of view of a depressed person. In each situation it presents all of the options that we have and yet as a person gets more and more depressed it crosses off more of these options with a red line.

The depressed person doesn’t see that this option exists. You as an outsider can see it as clear as day but they can’t  see that it’s truly available to them. They can’t see any options.

So what if you offer a ladder and your friend doesn’t us it?

That’s up to you.

You didn’t even need to offer the ladder. No judging from me on that. So long as you didn’t hide their ladder, I’m good.

You offered the ladder and have done way more than most.

Sometimes – not always and not when it just means you’ll be stuck in that same hole – sometimes you need to help them understand that they can use that ladder. You have to help them get on it.

At his lowest, Chuck didn’t see the ladders. Then something specific changed.

He saw the ladders.

He saw that he was surrounded by people offering him ladders and telling him to use it.

He still had to get to the ladders. He still had to climb them. As the ground shifted and he found the hole he was in was deeper than he thought, he had to look for things that could be used as ladders.

And once he was out, he knew he could conquer everything.

For so many years Chuck believed he would conquer brain cancer.

I loved that about him.

Those last years of his life weren’t easy but how much harder would they have been if he wasn’t an optimist. And if he didn’t have so many friends with ladders – even ladders he couldn’t use anymore. And if he didn’t still have those two women in his life.

Thank you, Chuck.

Published in: on May 21, 2017 at 1:31 pm  Comments (1)  

Raisin Bran

The menu evolved over the years but Kim always asked for pear crepes for her Mother’s Day breakfast.

Cooking opens so many sense memories. It’s not just the smells. It’s the repeated actions of years gone by that transports me back to another time I stood at the stove making this same breakfast.

Maggie helped me at that first Mother’s Day meal. She was one and a half and quite mobile. I brought her down to the kitchen, gave her her breakfast, and assembled the ingredients.

I let her out of her high chair when she was done eating and she wandered around watching me.

My sister called to wish Kim a happy first Mother’s Day.

Kim hadn’t come downstairs yet.

Jill and I talked for a bit and then I said, “wait a minute. Where’s Maggie.”

I saw her and told Jill I had to go.

Maggie had taken the carton of a dozen eggs to the back door. The back door was open but the screen door was closed. We kept the glass part of the screen door up all year or Tara, our dog at the time., would poke her head through the screen.

Maggie was standing and laughing as she took egg after egg out of the carton and smashed it on the back window and watched it run down the glass.

I scooped her up, washed her off and cleaned up the egg mess.

The crepes wouldn’t have as many eggs in them as the recipe called for.

That was the last time Maggie would help me in the kitchen.

I thought of that moment years later when I was once again making crepes for Kim on Mother’s Day. I turned my back for a moment to get the coffee started when I heard a lapping sound. Annabelle, our current dog, had climbed up on a chair and had her head in the batter.

I scooped up the batter. Annabelle licked the remnants off of her nose. I wet a paper towel and cleaned her off a bit.

Do I pitch the batter and start over again?

No – it’s going to get cooked.

If we were having company over I would have. But it was just for us.

That was the last time Annabelle would help me in the kitchen.

The morning begins with me mixing the batter and setting it aside to rest. Mark Bittman has a section of his cookbook devoted to pancake variations. In it he rails against the need for instant pancake mixes – he’s right. It’s so easy to make pancake or crepe batter and so that’s where my morning starts.

I grab a medium bowl and put it and the beater attachments in the freezer to cool them down.

I peel and slice the pears and put a twelve inch sautée pan on the heat. I throw in a stick of butter. The butter melts, foams a little, and browns. I add the pears. Every once in a while I give the pan a quick jerk to toss the pears and cook them evenly.

I put a saucepan over the heat and measure in sugar and water.

This might be my favorite part.

I stir to dissolve the sugar then I watch the mixture start to bubble and thicken. It colors just a bit. Straw color. Then darker.

I take it off the heat and add cold cream. There is a horrible noise as the cream hits the hot sugar mix and the water in the cream almost explodes. The cream clots together in to a mass at the bottom of the pan and I start to mix it slowly letting the sugar melt and then incorporate the cream.

A minute later I have a beautiful caramel sauce. I pour it into a serving dish and add a spoon. When it is cooled enough I taste it.

Perfect.

I take the cooled bowl and beaters out of the freezer and add more cream to the bowl with a pinch of sugar. I whip the cream until it has beautiful peaks that hold when I stop the beater.

I put the pears in a third bowl.

Everything is ready except the crepes and the coffee.

I make the coffee while I wash the pans and the beaters and clean the kitchen. I put a nonstick pan on the heat and take the crepe batter out of the refrigerator.

The smell of coffee has signaled to Kim that it’s time to come down.

Each year I look at her and

and what?

It’s hard to explain. … and feel that everything is right in my world.

I start to cook the crepes.

I don’t worry about the first one. It never comes out right. It’s the one where I figure out what temperature the pan needs to be. Sometimes the second one doesn’t come out right either. It doesn’t matter. I set them aside to cool. Once they have cooled off, I tear them into pieces and toss them to Annabelle.

Finally, I make one that looks perfect. I toss it onto a plate and start a second one.

While the second one cooks I add pears and whipped cream to the first. I roll it and then drizzle the caramel sauce over the top. Soon there is a second one next to it.

I take the plate into Kim with a fork and go back to make a third and a fourth for her.

I make and roll mine. I make a stack that Maggie will eat later.

I pour the remaining batter in the pan and make a final crepe for Annabelle.

I clean the pan while it cools.

Nineteen years of pear crepes. I’m sure there’s a metaphor that involves the crepes and whipped cream in the middle and the freshly made caramel sauce on top.

I’m equally sure I don’t want to hear it.

I’m not making crepes this year.

This year I had a bowl of Raisin Bran.

Published in: on May 14, 2017 at 7:19 am  Leave a Comment  

The Menu

Every year for 19 years I made Kim the same thing for Mother’s Day.

She asked for it on our first Mother’s Day and each year asked for it again.

“Our” first Mother’s Day.

I always thought of Mother’s Day as something that Kim and I celebrated together.

I remember our first Mother’s Day and I remember most of the last ten – the ten since Elena died.

Maggie would come down after Kim and I had eaten and she would eat while Kim sat with her and finished her cup of coffee.

But Kim would have eaten already.

She’d come downstairs while I was finishing up.

She’d stand in the dining room and read the card I’d made for her. She’d come in and give me a hug.

“What do you want me to do?” she’d ask.

“Just sit and read the paper and enjoy your cup of coffee,” I’d say.

“Thanks honey,” she’d say.

I’d hand her the coffee with just the right amount of half and half. She’d sit down with the paper. I hated the paper but she liked it so I brought it in for her.

I’d go back to cooking. It was better that she wasn’t in the kitchen – I had so many pans and bowls in use. Even though I cleaned everything up, she rolled her eyes at how many things I used when I cook.

I’d prepare her plate and bring it out.

“Don’t wait,” I’d say.

“That’s ok,” she’d say.

“No really,  mine will be a while – eat while it’s warm.”

I’d stand there to make sure she did.

“How is it,” I’d ask.

“Really good,” she’d say.

I’d go back to cooking. The next two would be hers as well.

“What about you?” she’d ask.

“I’ll eat, but you might as well eat these.”

Mother’s Day was one of our favorite holidays. A morning we would spend together. A meal I would prepare for Kim and enjoy by watching how much she loved what I made her.

After Elena died, Mother’s Day was about both life and death.

The separation between the time that we spent together and the time when Maggie joined us was like a division between us observing the day with memories of our dead daughter and celebrating with our living one.

I can’t imagine Mother’s Day without Kim.

Kim was something special before she was a mom but she just became so much more amazing once she had children.

We spent a long time discussing whether or not we wanted to have children. For a long time Kim wasn’t sure.

That’s still so hard for me to believe – she was such a great mother. She didn’t lose herself in her children. She was still a great wife, friend, co-worker, neighbor, … all the things that combined to make her who she was. She didn’t lose herself in her children – she brought all those parts of her to being a mom.

I can’t imagine Mother’s Day without Kim.

I suppose if I stop and think about it, I still can’t imagine any day without Kim.

I suppose if I stop and think some more I realize that I still don’t live a day without Kim.

She’s not here. I don’t talk to her. More importantly, I don’t think she talks to me. But her memories are everywhere.

This weekend is going to suck and there’s nothing you can do about it.

If you try to be nice to me about it, I’m likely to snap at you.

No offense, but you’re not enough and the nice things you have to say aren’t enough. They will just annoy me.

You know what will annoy me more? If you ask me how I’m doing.

I’m already not doing very well.

It’s going to be Mother’s Day and I’m very grateful that my mother and Kim’s mother are still alive and doing well.

But Maggie’s mother isn’t.

At some point my focus on Mother’s Day shifted from my mother to my wife in her role as mother.

Kim and I celebrated Mother’s Day together. And this year we won’t.

I considered making the same meal I’ve made for nineteen years. But that was the meal I made for Kim. And Kim won’t be here.

It’s like the life has gone out of Mother’s Day.

My breakfast will just sit there and get cold.

Published in: on May 11, 2017 at 8:29 am  Leave a Comment  

The Little Things

The kitchen sink dripped for eight weeks.

Probably more.

It got to be so that if you pulled the handle just so you could get it to stop leaking long enough for you to leave the room.

By the time you got back it was leaking again.

I’m not very handy.

I always felt bad about that.

Kim never made me feel bad about it. She never used to say “my dad could fix that” or “my brother could fix that” or even “my mom could fix that.”

Even though they could.

Actually, she did say that – but she meant, we could just call them.

Her dad, her brother, and her mom never made me feel bad that I wasn’t very handy. They are all really good at those things.

But it meant that I often felt I had to do these things myself. These things that I’m not good at. Because I’m not handy.

Elena and Maggie used to marvel at how the toilet works. When I had to replace the fill valve in the toilet it was more of a show than a repair.

And so we asked Kim’s brother if he could come over and look at the sink while I was traveling.

When I got back after six weeks of back to back to back travel, the sink was still leaking.

After two weeks of being home, I got up this weekend and watched a video about fixing leaky kitchen sinks.

I figured I could do this. It didn’t look as if you had to be that handy.

So I took off the handle and the piece that covers the place where the hot and cold water turn into a single stream. I pried up the washer and the plastic piece that steers the handle to only go into positions it should go.

I put the plastic piece and the washer in my pocket and headed for the hardware store.

Oh – I left out the part where I turned off the hot and cold water to the sink before I did any of this. I’m not handy but I’m not stupid. I’ve done this before.

I got the part for $3.77 and put everything back together. I turned the water back on and the leak was more pronounced.

Sigh.

I texted two friends to see if they had any ideas. One suggested that there might be some sort of a deposit that was keeping the washer from making a tight seal.

I turned the water back off and took everything apart and gave it a good scrub. I looked at how the faucet works. It’s really kind of clever.

“I gave it a shot,” I thought. “I’ll get up tomorrow and get a replacement faucet and install it.”

But something nagged at me.

The next morning when I woke up it occurred to me that now the leak was hot water only.

How could only the hot water be making its way through this new seal.

It couldn’t.

There must be other washers.

I know – you realized that a long time ago – but I’m not very handy.

So, I got up Sunday morning and let the dog out, turned the water off, and took the faucet apart again.

Aha. There were two more washers. One where the hot water comes in and one where the cold water comes in. The hot water one looked pretty worn.

I pried them and their springs out of the holes.

“If this doesn’t work,” I thought, “I could always get a new faucet.”

The hardware store didn’t open until 10 on Sunday. I roasted coffee and hung outside with the dog. At quarter til 10 I put the little pieces in my pocket and headed to the hardware store.

Two days in a row. I’m a regular.

They’re going to make me buy a whole kit this time.

But no. The same guy that waited on me the day before looked at the pieces I showed him. I reminded him that yesterday he’d looked at the pieces and figured it was a Delta faucet. This time he took a second look and handed me the replacement parts. $3.77.

I was so excited.

I went home and put the spring inside the washer for the hot water and pressed it into place. I did the same on the cold side.

I reassembled the faucet – by now I was getting pretty good at this. One of the upsides to not being very handy is you get a fair amount of practice because you don’t really fix anything on the first try.

I turned the water on and tested the faucet.

No leak.

I think that’s amazing. These three tiny rubber parts that almost no one sees and no one notices. These tiny parts had combined to make the sink work the way it should. How many of these tiny pieces keep our lives together without us ever noticing.

So cool.

I said there was no leak. That’s not quite true.

There was no leak upstairs. The sink was now working great.

Downstairs where I’d been turning the water off and on to the kitchen, there was a slow leak.

It seems to have stopped on its own.

I hope it stays that way.

I’m not very handy.

 

Published in: on May 9, 2017 at 1:40 pm  Leave a Comment  

Run for the Roses

Kim loved the Derby.

She loved all of the triple crown races but it started with the Kentucky Derby.

That’s where she’d do her research.

She’d read up on the horses and jockeys. She’d reacquaint herself with owners’ and trainers’ names and prepare for the short season.

She loved the Preakness because that was the race to see if the horse that won the Derby could repeat.

She loved the Belmont because by then she knew the characters and was tuning in for a series finale. There was always drama. Would the winner of the Derby and Preakness win the triple crown? If the winners of the Derby and Preakness were different horses and entered in the Belmont, would this third race settle something?

The first race was slightly longer than the second and slightly shorter than the third.

Kim would start the morning by reading the paper to check in on the condition of the field and to make her selection.

She’d pour us each a cup of coffee and come into the living room with the sports section to look over the field one more time.

She smile and start singing Dan Fogelberg’s “Run for the Roses.”

I loved Kim but she really couldn’t sing. She couldn’t carry a tune and she couldn’t always  remember the words. She knew the words to this one and would put down my coffee and hold her hand in front of her mouth like a microphone and sing –

“And it’s run for the roses
As fast as you can
You fate is delivered
(Something Something) at hand.”

“Something, something?” I’d ask.

“Yeah,” she’d smile.

Then she’d open the paper and study the horses.

“Who do you like?” I’d ask.

And she’d tell me. Sometimes it was for a good reason and sometimes it was just for the name of the horse.

This year I think she’d choose “Irish War Cry” but I could also see it being “Thunder Snow” since both Maggie and Elena had “Snow” in their Chinese names.

She’d pick up her imaginary microphone and sing,

“It’s breeding and it’s training
And it’s something unknown
That drives you
And carries you home”

Then she’d ask, “who are you choosing?”

She’d hold the microphone out to me as if interviewing me.

I’d have looked at the list because I knew the question was coming. We each had to have a horse before post time. I know nothing about horse racing but might recognize a jockey or a stable or a name might catch my fancy.

On years that I was traveling on Derby Day we would have this discussion over the phone.

The race always seems to start way later than I remember and last way shorter. The coverage begins hours before with feel-good stories about owners, trainers, and jockeys so that we are emotionally involved.

Some years Kim would watch all of the coverage. Most years she’d be in the back yard gardening and come in around six with plenty of time to go before they were off.

One year Kim, Maggie, and I were at Disney World for a meeting that I was invited to. We ate dinner and still had time to take the monorail back to our hotel room to see the race. We watched the replay a couple of times and then headed out to another park.

It feels weird that this event that Kim loved just goes on.

These things that mean so much to us don’t know anything about us.

I’ll watch in an hour – I listen to Dan Fogelberg sing his hit. The tune is a bit different than Kim’s and he knows all of his lyrics.

It turns out, it’s not “Something, Something,” it’s,

“Your fate is delivered
Your moment’s at hand
It’s the chance of a lifetime
In a lifetime of chance
And it’s high time you joined
In the dance”

I look at Kimmy’s picture and play that part over again.

It’s about the Derby and it’s not about the Derby.

It’s about these three minutes once a year where we watch a group of three year olds run around a track.

And it’s not.

It’s about those many times that can pass us by if we let them in this lifetime of chance.

It’s a reminder to join in the dance.

Published in: on May 6, 2017 at 4:52 pm  Leave a Comment  

That’s Not Why

Our first born didn’t make Kim a mother and me a father.

It was our other daughter.

Our eldest child.

Maggie made Kim a mom and me a dad.

There’s a Mother’s Day meme going around asking questions about your first born.

There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s wonderful to remember your first born.

My first mother’s day card to Kim (purportedly from Maggie) made that clear in a way too crude for me to share here. Let’s just say the line that made Kim smile was the one that rhymed with the one about Maggie coming from China.

Mother’s Day is coming up and I expect it to be a very difficult weekend.

I stopped at Juma yesterday for a cup of coffee and to do some work. I started to lay my stuff down on a table when I noticed the table next to me had an open laptop on it. I looked to move when a woman turned around from the table beyond the laptop to tell me it was hers.

I looked around for another table and she reached over and moved her laptop.

I was kind of surprised. I don’t know what I’d assumed of her but it didn’t feel like it was going to be that easy.

She was sitting with two other women.

One of them called over to me, “didn’t you used to have a beard?”

My beard comes and goes but I think she meant, “when I knew you, didn’t you have a beard?”

I nodded.

“Aren’t you Elena’s dad?” she asked.

I smiled. “I am.”

I can’t tell you how happy that question makes me feel.

I am Elena’s dad.

I am Maggie’s dad.

I am Kim’s husband.

The fact that Elena and Kim are dead doesn’t mean that I’m not.

I walked over to their table. The woman that called me over introduced herself and said she was a Boulevard family. Her kids had gone to Boulevard school for their elementary education like my kids.

The woman across from her – not the woman with the laptop – also introduced herself. Her son had been in Elena’s class.

“He had Mrs. Chung too.”

“We loved Mrs. Chung,” I told her. “Maggie had her for first grade too – but she was Miss Shorter then.”

The woman told me a story of Elena that ended with Elena telling her how much she loved mashed potatoes.

Elena was our first born.

I will always be Elena’s dad.

But Elena isn’t who made me a dad – Maggie did.

Published in: on May 4, 2017 at 1:25 pm  Comments (1)  

Sand and Stone

Kim’s grave is still so new that you can see the cut around the patch of grass they removed and replaced when they dug the hole.

Like a golf digit that hasn’t healed yet.

Last week the woman from the cemetery called to remind me we need to order a stone.

I know.

I remember how final and official it was when we saw Elena’s stone.

It was beautiful but Kim and I looked at it and thought, “I guess she’s not coming back then.”

It’s not that we didn’t know she was dead but we hadn’t gotten to the point where we understood that that was a permanent condition.

So I haven’t ordered Kim’s stone yet.

I will.

The cut in the grass is starting to heal, When it does we can find Kim’s grave by looking just to the left of Elena’s – but she deserves more.

One of Kim’s friends came over for coffee yesterday. She’d had a vivid dream about Kim.

She said, “I don’t know what dreams mean to you.”

I said, “it’s what they mean to you.”

I love that some part of her felt strongly enough to allow a memory of Kim in and to allow it to tell her a new story about the two of them. I love that so many other people keep Kim alive through these memories.

You can’t put that on a stone.

A stone is just a prompt.

It’s like reading the names of the dead in a service. The names don’t carry much but they may prompt a memory or a musing.

I told Kim’s friend about someone who had reached out to me recently. I didn’t recognize their name so I looked at their photos.

Kim’s friend smiled.

“What?” I asked.

“That’s called ‘creeping’, ” she said.

Then I was creeping.

But as soon as I saw a picture of the person who reached out I knew who they were and was glad to have heard from them.

I’m not good with names. A name isn’t enough. It’s a prompt but I usually remember so many details about you but forget your name.

That’s not good.

The most important words to anyone is their name.

I remember images. I remember stories. I remember actions. I remember emotions.

I’m not good with names.

I was “creeping” the other day and saw a picture that I loved as a monument – it was something you can’t capture in stone.

It started with a picture that a friend posted two pictures. One was of her husband and her mother. I knew Chuck, her husband, for thirty years. Actually, I’d heard stories of her from Chuck for those thirty years and only met her in the last days of his life. She was all that he had described.

The picture was of Chuck when he was in his twenties giving her mom a kiss on the cheek. They are both gone now. The picture was a wonderful monument to the two of them. She’s probably older now than her mom was in that picture.

There are people who engrave pictures on their tombstones – it’s just not something I feel comfortable doing – but I can see where it captures them in a moment.

I loved that picture of her husband and her mom. I’d never met the mom and it was a picture of Chuck when he wasn’t yet the man I’d meet.

To be clear, that wasn’t “creeping”. I was looking at a picture she posted publicly. She invited us to join her in this memory and to bring our own memories.

The second picture she posted was of  a walk she had taken with friends.

Below it was a second picture of the walk that one of her friends had posted. It was the same path but three shadows walked in front of them.

No people in the picture. Just their shadows.

Such a great picture.

This is when I began “creeping”.

I clicked on the link to go to the page of the person who had taken the picture and looked at some of her other pictures.

One of her pictures was of a book that Chuck had written and autographed.

He’d taken time to explore his dream of writing mysteries and had written six books.

He sent me drafts  from time to time and then we’d meet and talk about them.

He’d mention some of his other readers and what they thought of this and that.

Maybe he mentioned this woman.

I don’t know. I’m not good with names.

I do know that it made me smile to see this autographed picture of one of his title pages.

She recently posted a new profile picture. It turned out that it was a picture that Chuck had taken at an Indians game.

This “creeping” hadn’t connected me to this person I didn’t know – it had connected me to my friend two years after his death.

There was one more picture I spent time with before clicking to close the page.

It was on a beach somewhere. There was a heart carved deeply into the wet sand. A red flower lay in the upper right of the heart and a shallow wave covered the top little rounded parts.

I have no idea what the heart was for.

It reminded me of a poetry writing seminar I took in college. We each had to analyze each other’s poems. When it was my turn I remember people explaining what the poet must have meant. I thought, “I didn’t mean any of that.”

And yet.

That’s what my poem meant to them. Their reading of the poem included their thoughts on what my intent was. It took me many years to understand that that’s ok.

So I don’t know what the picture of the heart was for.

I don’t know if she drew it or if she just came upon it and photographed it.

I don’t know if it was just a doodle or if it had deeper meaning.

It could have been about a new love, an old love, or a former love.

I think it was about someone who died.

I think it was about Kim.

“That’s silly,” you say, “she didn’t even know Kim.”

In my reading of the story, she did.

Kim loved the water.

She loved taking of her sandals and walking along the sand next to the water and then wading in.

She loved standing there looking out as far as she could see – to where the water touched the sky.

I loved watching her.

I loved standing beside her.

The heart with the flower was for Kim.

The water was just beginning to blur the top part of the heart.

It’s like when you’re a kid and you build a sand castle and you build it close enough to the water so there can be a moat.

And then the tide comes in and starts to erode your castle. There are those first few moments where you fight against the inevitable and try to save what you’ve built but you know you can’t.

And then you watch it go.

There’s always the story of what happened before the picture and what happened after.

I can’t know what happened before.

Someone, maybe the photographer, carved a heart and placed a flower for some unknown reason.

I can’t really know what happened after.

I assume the water continued to lap at the heart and crawl it’s way toward the pointy end. The sand shifted and the design was erased. The flower floated up at some point and was carried off to sea.

At some point there’s no evidence that the heart ever existed outside of this picture.

Thank goodness she captured this picture. This monument to a moment.

At some point the grass around Kim’s grave will heal.

I need to order a stone.

 

Published in: on April 30, 2017 at 9:12 am  Leave a Comment  

Context

David Foster Wallace began his famous Kenyon Commencement address with a story about an old fish swimming by two younger fish and asking them, “how’s the water?”

They swim on for a bit before one turns to the other and asks, “what the hell is water?”

Wallace says that “the point of the fish story is merely that the most obvious, important realities are often the ones that are hardest to see and talk about.”

But then Wallace goes on to explore the meaning we bring to the world around us. He tells a story of how a religious man and an atheist see the exact same situation differently and – unlike so many people who tell such stories – Wallace manages not to take sides on who is right – but points to how so many of us are imprisoned by our assumptions and certainties.

The things we are sure of are often wrong.

He points to our experience where we are the center of our own universe.

It takes work to not interpret everything through the lens of self.

The other day I went to see Kim’s cousins newborn son. The baby was happy, healthy, and beautiful and before I knew it hours had gone by. I sat and talked to her and her sister and mom. Her husband had come home from work and sat and talked with us.

It’s hard to describe how easy it is to talk to that family. How you are lifted out of self. They tell stories about themselves and of other people. They share thoughts of little every-day occurrences that often tie seamlessly to bigger themes.

We talked about a friend of mine who is working at the same place as two of them. I told a story of his and the mom nodded. She’d had that exact same reaction to patients at the hospital as he had. And yet, she said, she reminds herself that she doesn’t know what sort of a day that person is having.

We don’t know the context of the person we encounter.

We don’t see the water.

Later in his speech Wallace talks about that part of our lives where we are in a crowded grocery story or driving in traffic. This is not a single occurrence. This drudgery and frustration becomes part of our lives.

If you are the center of your world then you see those people taking too much time choosing an item ahead of you or the people who can’t get their groceries onto the checkout belt fast enough or the person running the register who needs a price check… you see all of these people as just getting in your way.

This is our default. We are the center of the world.

Maybe the person who cut us off isn’t the jerk. Maybe they have needs or circumstances that we just don’t understand.

Maybe they are a jerk.

Maybe they aren’t.

We just don’t know.

Maybe most of them are jerks. But you lose when you look at the world that way.

Not that you should excuse bad behavior. But you get to decide how you see the world. And how you see the world changes how you feel about the world.

He returns to faith and belief. He cautions that what we worship – money, power, intellect, beauty – whatever it is will eat us alive.

We live in a context and build our own demons.

We don’t really know the day that someone else is having.

We don’t really know the context of the world we’re entering when we interact with them.

They seem happy. They seem confident. They seem …

Kim used to say that about celebrities, “he seems so nice.”

I’d smile. I didn’t even challenge her any more. Maybe she was seeing the water that I was missing. I used to make fun of her for that but maybe I was wrong. She was seeing the world she wanted to see. She had no reason to think the celebrity wasn’t nice.

A woman I don’t really know posted something the other day that shook me. I always thought she was happy and confident – and maybe she is. But she posted this.

“Use me up, if you will. But understand that once I’m used up, I’m used up. I’m done. By the same token, I understand that I’ve used up some of the people who most loved me, and they have nothing left for me, and that’s my fault. I’m sorry about that. But I understand that in order to love them. I need to leave them alone.”

Wow.

There’s a story there.

I don’t live anywhere near her but I’m sure there are people in front of me at the grocery store or driving in traffic next to me who are having that sort of a day.

The way I treat them or talk to them can tip them in either direction.

I can’t control how they react to how I treat them. They may be annoyed by a friendly wave or a kind word. I can’t help that. But I can hand them that item they can’t quite reach. I can let them in to my lane even though they were in the wrong lane to turn left.

I can’t know their context but we’re all swimming in the same water.

I can try to notice the water.

 

Published in: on April 29, 2017 at 7:36 am  Comments (1)  

Running

Kim and I travelled together a lot.

Every time I had a chance to present at a conference or teach somewhere interesting I’d ask if she wanted to come with me.

Once Maggie went away to college Kim almost always said “yes”.

She’d apologize that maybe she was coming with me too much.

I told her, and meant it, I always preferred traveling with her than without her.

She was smart and independent and would set off and explore whatever city we were in while I was teaching and then we’d meet up at night or set out on days that I wasn’t teaching and explore together.

The last two years before she died, she almost always said “yes”.

It was like our first year of dating except better – we knew each other inside and out. We would visit new places and revisit places we loved. We would do things on the road we wouldn’t do at home – take hours together for dinner, stop and enjoy a drink in the late afternoon and just sit. It actually drove us to start to do these things at home as well. Our life on the road made our life together at home even better.

We loved our time together on the road but that wasn’t the only reason Kim almost always said “yes”.

Maggie was in college.

One of Kim’s cousins talked to her about her eldest child being away from college and how much she missed him. This was before Maggie went to college. We didn’t have a child in college yet. The cousin told Kim she’d soon see what it’s like for a child to leave the house.

Kim knew.

She came home and told me the story. She hadn’t said anything at the time. What could she say?

She’d thought, that is hard. But

But, your child comes home for holidays.

But, you can go visit your child now and then.

But, you can call or text your child.

But, you can see pictures of your child on Facebook and see what they’re doing.

Our child, Elena, left the house and we had none of that.

So when Maggie went to college our house was suddenly very empty. We were reminded that Elena would have been in the house another three years.

We missed Maggie but she came home for the holidays, we visited her now and then, we called and texted her and we saw pictures of her on Facebook.

Elena was gone.

The house was empty.

And when I traveled, the house was really empty.

So I always asked Kim if she wanted to come with me and Kim almost always said “yes”.

We were running from an empty house.

Since Kim died I don’t travel because I’m running.

What’s the point?

She’s not at home but she’s also not with me on the road.

I miss her wherever I am.

And strangely, that brings me comfort.

Published in: on April 28, 2017 at 6:29 am  Leave a Comment  

The Two Bobs

When I met Kim she was midway through her Masters and working for the two Bobs at Case’s Center for Professional Ethics.

She loved the two Bobs – Bob Clark and Bob Lawry.

We have a painting of a lighthouse hanging in our downstairs bathroom. Kim loved lighthouses – they always reminded her of Bob Clark. He shared that love.

One of my favorite pictures of Kim and me is of us next to a lighthouse in Fort William, Scotland on the edge of a Loch. I don’t know what it was about lighthouses – perhaps it reminded her of the water’s edge. Kim loved being near the water.

The first time I remember seeing Kim was when I was required to attend a session for graduate students who were teaching undergrads. She and Bob Clark ran the event in the Thwing Student Center. There were a ton of us there hearing about what is and isn’t cheating and how students may see the issues differently than we do.

Kim and I wouldn’t meet for many months but I remembered seeing her there. She had a genuine affection for Bob and was there to make sure his message was heard. Bob was trained as a UCC Minister.

I think Bob retired shortly after that because I don’t remember seeing much of him. The other Bob, Bob Lawry was a law professor at CWRU School of Law – but he was a different kind of law professor. Kim said he had the soul of a poet and a brilliant mind.

Mostly, Kim worked in the same building as the math department way across campus from the Law School. Every once in a while she’d have to go over and work in Bob’s office to get something done – but mostly she worked remotely.

The Bobs didn’t care when or where Kim worked as long as she got her work done. She knew what needed to be accomplished and they trusted her to do it. They also encouraged her to start and finish her masters.

When Kim and I were dating she thought it would be fun if we read a book together. Kim was always reading – she read something every day. She read a wide range of books and always had at least one book on her nightstand.

Bob Lawry loved “The Hobbit” and read it each year so at Kim’s insistance we each bought a copy of the book and started to read it.

I’m not a Sci-Fi guy.

In many ways this makes me unusual for my field. So many developers read and watch Science Fiction.

I’m not saying that “The Hobbit” is science fiction, I’m just saying that the same things that kept me from loving science fiction kept me from relating to “The Hobbit”. Enough people love “The Hobbit” that I’m sure that the failing is mine – not the book’s. I’m working on it.

I’d tried to read “The Hobbit” for years. Friends raved about it in high school, others in college, and others (and the same people again and again) in the years since.

So I read “The Hobbit”.

I noticed that Kim had other books beside her bed. That wasn’t really unusual but “The Hobbit” was never on top.

I finished the book and wanted to talk to her about it.

“I didn’t finish it,” she said.

“How far did you get?” I asked.

“When the guy with the big feet went down the hole I kind of stopped,” she said.

“But that was in the very beginning,” I said.

She shrugged.

That was that.

Years and years later there were the movies. Kim, Maggie, and I went with our friends Paul and Sue to see all of the movies. Kim and Maggie won some contest to see one of them in 3D.

I’m sure it’s me not the movie but it just didn’t grab me.

I liked the first one but didn’t get the point of the last two. I’m sure there are metaphors and meanings that I just didn’t see. I may be too shallow for the movies.

I don’t know that it’s relevant but I think I should confess I’ve never seen or read “Game of Thrones” either.

One of Bob’s other favorite books was “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.” Based on our Hobbit experience I never picked it up.

Well that’s not true.

I actually bought it a couple of times but I “Kimmed”. I never got far enough into it to get invested.

The author recently died and so it’s back beside my bed.

There are so many things I miss about Kim – but I’ve decided if she’s not around to read at night then I should.

Published in: on April 25, 2017 at 9:08 am  Comments (1)