It’s April and we’re at Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, just outside Li Jiang in southwestern China. Jade Dragon is at the very eastern tip of the Himalayans, and it looks like it: stark, black rock dusted with snow, alternately hidden by clouds and glaring in bright sunlight. Even from a distance, it’s forboding.
But we’re not looking at it from a distance. No. We’re up on the mountain, all five of us, in the clouds, shivering in our fleece as we walk through a pine woods to a clearing where we should—if the clouds lift—be able to get a close up look at the rocky peaks. It’s snowing, which is something of a shock after a year in Hong Kong—but it’s also gloriously refreshing: the air on Jade Dragon Snow Mountain is pure as water, the smell of pine just strong enough to clear your head, the snowflakes just heavy enough that you can hear them pat-pat as they hit the ground. Ellen and I are loving it.
The kids, on the other hand . . .
The annoying thing is that we did this—chose this activity, coming up this mountain—from a list of possible ways to spend the day specifically because we thought the kids would enjoy it. Two months earlier, we’d visited Ping’an in the Giongxi province, and as we’d hiked through the terraced rice paddies stretching up the karst mountains, Will had turned to me and said, “You know what, Dad? This is the best thing we’ve done this whole year.”
Well okay then: if it worked in February, why not it in April? “Take a cable car to a mountain meadow to see locals performing regional dances,” is what the brochure said. What could be better than that?
Well, a lot. Or so it appeared. Almost from the moment we’d started walking, Will had complained about the cold. Jamie had wanted to be held. And Lucy had just been—well, not her usual chipper self (turned out she would spend most of the night puking—as would I—but we didn’t know that, then).
“Come on, you guys!” Ellen or I call every eleven seconds or so, like speed-smoking cheerleaders. “Isn’t this great? Isn’t it beautiful?”
“Ehh,” Will says.
“Carry me!” Jamie demands.
“Urp,” Lucy, um, urps.
“Little turds,” I say to Ellen.
“Maybe it’s the altitude.”
“More like the attitude.”
But she’s probably right: LiJiang itself is well over a 1,000 feet, and we’ve climbed at least twice that first in the bus and then in the cable car.
But never mind. We trudge on. Eventually we see a clearing through the trees and feel a fresh breeze blowing across our foreheads. To the right are a number of small buildings—a food kiosk, bathrooms, and a long wooden walkway made of pine beams stripped of their bark. Hanging from every square centimeter of this last structure are woven prayer tokens—bell-shaped baskets with wooden tags dangling below, inscribed with the wishes of the person who’d bought it and hung it there. Dongba, the script of the Na’xi people, is one of the last hieroglyphic languages still in use, and many of the tokens are inscribed with simple characters: water, sun, children.
“Is this a natural meadow?” I say to our guide.
He’s a young man, a Pumi, with a nose like a dorsal fin, and he gives a small blush when I ask this question.
“No,” he says, “it used to be a lake. But they drained it.”
A bit of a smile, a bit of a shrug. “It used to be for suicide. Couples would come here, you know—when they were forbidden to marry? And they would throw themselves in.”
I glance at Ellen. Neither of us says anything for a minute as we walk on, dragging the three kids along. Then I see her shoulders begin to shake, just a little bit. And then mine are too, just tremors at first, but in a matter of seconds I’m trying so hard not to laugh that I actually hiccup.
We make a lap around the meadow. There’s a couple there in traditional western wedding attire, having their pictures taken in middle of the field. The boy is heavy, mildly spoiled looking in that one-child policy way you often see in male youths. The girl is gorgeous: tall, with black-blue hair and a regal air that intimidates me, even a moment later when, as she lifts her skirts to trek back to the muddy trail, I catch a glimpse of Nike trainers.
The kids race ahead, anxious to complete the circuit, get back to the cable cars, get the heck out of here.
Ellen and I, though, we linger: above us, a broad face of the mountain, deep and black as water, keeps flashing its sharp face our way, taunting us, promising to show us something really spectacular if only we’ll stick around long enough to see these clouds lift.
So we drag our feet. Enjoying the crisp cold, the wet air that seems to promise more snow, the sense of being someplace we’ll never be again, someplace that most westerners never get to—or at least, most westerners hailing from semi-rural Virginia. At one point we stop, lean our shoulders together, hold a camera at arm’s length, snap a photo of the two of us laughing. I can smell Ellen’s hair in the cool air, the sharp scent of her shampoo, the slight smell of incense from a museum we’d visited earlier that day. It’s nice, and I squeeze her a bit closer, feeling her presence through our two layers of fleece.
This is not like us. In no way is this like us: we don’t usually take those kinds of cuddly pictures—hell, we don’t usually cuddle, period. And we don’t usually laugh and linger and get all smoochy-faced when our kids are tired and grumpy, racing on ahead and threatening to disappear into the woods where we might never see them again.
I can’t emphasize this enough: we don’t do this. We have never, that I can think of in the ten years that we’ve had children, placed our own pleasures as a couple ahead of their desires.
Back when I was a kid, my parents used to drag me along to confirmation retreats for ninth-grade students. This is a concept, I know, that may be unfamiliar to some of you, so allow me to explain: twice each year—once in October and once in March—my Lutheran minister dad and several of his church staff drove a busload of 15-year-olds to a Bible camp in northern Wisconsin where there was a huge retreat center. We’d spend the whole weekend there, my brother and I and the other staff brats, basically screwing around, playing ping-pong in the cinderblock basement, stealing Cokes when our mom's weren't looking, and hiking down to the lake to skip stones.
The ninth-graders, though, they would have discussions and mini-bible studies and sing camp songs and pop popcorn and play Frisbee and sled down the hill and go on treasure hunts and listen to records and munch Cheetohs and watch whatever crappy movie the staff had rented for the weekend (I remember, and I’m not making this up, at least one showing of The Corpse Grinders, detailing the exploits of a cat-food company that took corpses and . . . well, I’m sure you can fill in the rest).
For some of you, I know, this sounds like pure hell, and fair enough—there are plenty of churches and plenty of religions that could turn a warm, fun, community-building weekend in an amazing rural setting into a nightmare. My sense, though, from my ten years as a tag-a-long and my two stints when I was myself a ninth grader—was that these were pretty amazing weekends. Up north and in the woods, everyone got away from the usual middle-school cliques, the posturing, the constant low-grade Columbinesque bullying that goes on most of the time when folks are in that not-quite-kids but not-quite-adults stage. I remember very clearly coming away from those weekends feeling both better about myself and my place in the world, and about my classmates, even the ones who usually drove me nuts.
The problem, of course, was that it only took a few hours wandering the halls of Woodrow Wilson Junior High to make this feeling go away. My father referred to this phenomenon as “Coming down from the mountain.” He was referring, I’ve no doubt, to some biblical thing—Moses or the Easter Bunny or some such business—but even if I didn’t fully get the allusion, I understood what he meant. It's like in the movie Breakfast Club (my generation's The Graduate) where the geeky guy played by Anthony Michael Hall gets all snotty-faced ad teary-eyed, asking his new-found friends what’ll happen on Monday—will they acknowledge him at all, or just walk on by? (Hmmm . . . that sounds vaguely like a song . . . )
Molly Ringwald’s character is blunt in her reply, directed mainly at Emilio Estevez: “If Ryan came walking up to you in the hall on Monday, what would you do? I mean, picture this, you’re there with all the sports . . . you know exactly what you’d do. You’d say hi to him, and when he left you’d cut him up so that you’re friends didn’t think that you really liked him.”
In other words, it’s one thing to be on the mountain, up there with God or Buddha or Ally Sheedy before she got kind of freaky: on the mountain, everything is holy, everything is pure, and we’re at our best, our most divine.
Coming down from the mountain, on the other hand . . .
There are some things you should know. Actually, you shouldn't know them, because they're none of you're damn business, but they help this story make sense, so I'm going to tell them to you anyway, just as long as you promise never to mention to Ellen that I told you, okay?
We've had some bad years.
A little background: Ellen and I met in 1989, on the first day of TA training in the English MA program at Iowa State. We spent two years in glorious Ames, Iowa, struggling daily not to kiss ourselves for sheer boredom, then moved together to Columbus, Ohio—another dazzling Midwestern city—where I started a Ph.D. program.
That last bit is important: where I started a Ph.D. program. Ellen liked grad school well enough. She wasn't crazy about the teaching part, but thrived on the ideas part. But five to seven years more of grad school, followed by a career in academia? It just wasn't part of her long-term plan.
So she followed me. This is key. Because five years later, newly-minted Ph.D. in hand, I was offered a job in sexy Salem, Virginia, home of, well . . .nothing really, other than a minor-league baseball team, a handful of mediocre pizza joints, and the college that hired me.
And a funny thing happened: given the choice between following me yet again to an amazingly peculiarly non-descript place that definitely wasn't Paris, and . . . well, not following me to not-Paris, Ellen chose the latter, deciding to go to New York and work for a large university press there. Part of her decision was purely practical: she's a university press editor, and there weren't any university presses in Roanoke so why move somewhere with me that she couldn't work?
Part of her decision was romantic, in the non-lovey-dovey meaning of the word: I mean, who wouldn't want to live in New York City, given the chance?
And part of it was principle: she'd already followed me once to a city where she knew no one; she hadn't been raised by adventurous parents, she hadn't gone to an extremely progressive college, she hadn't studied feminist theory and literature and drama, she hadn't done any of these things so that she could become the sort of person who just followed someone else from place to place for absolutely no reason.
Which is fair enough.
I know that.
Know. Meaning, "to be cognizant or aware of a fact or a specific piece of information."
Which, of course, if different from understand, meaning "to comprehend the nature and significance of." Not to mention different from feel, which means "undergo an emotional sensation or be in a particular state of mind."
So this is the part I'm going to gloss over, because: a) it wasn't really the best part of our relationship; b) it really wasn't the best part of my life; and c) like I said, it's not really any of your business.
Suffice to say it sucked. Oh sure, it was cool in some ways: we got to roam the streets of New York together every sixth week or so, alternating with visits to the Blue Ridge Mountains. But basically? Seriously? It sucked.
For me, at least.
I can't remember if it's something I read somewhere or something someone told me or just something I've always intuited, but pretty much from the day I was born I've known that, frankly and despite all the Hollywood stereotypes to the contrary, women are very often happier—and arguably better off—not being stuck in some house with some man.
Men, on the other hand, at least in my experience and again contrary to societal impressions—are really pretty dependent upon other people. Simply put, we just don't like being alone. We're too stupid, too shallow, and too scared of our own thoughts to be comfortable with an empty house and nothing to distract us.
Ellen and I were married by a man named Lowell Erdahl, who, years before, had confirmed Ellen and was one of the few clergy she trusted, which is kind of funny given that both her father and mine are ordained ministers. Lowell wanted to spend some time with us before the wedding, so one rainy day in the fall of 1992 we traipsed to his office in St. Paul and sat down for a conversation. One of the things I remember from that meeting was Lowell’s theory that there isn’t a single honeymoon—that, to the contrary, marriages wax and wane, that there are lots of okay times, yeah, and lots of bad times, but there are also times in a marriage—even, say, 18 years into it—when a couple will almost be back in that giddy, happy, just fresh off the hay-wagon kind of love.
Why do I mention this?
Not because Hong Kong was one long honeymoon, that’s for sure. It wasn’t. It was great, yes, and adventurous, yes, and scintillating on an hourly basis, yes. But it was also hard. Besides the basic logistical things—getting the kids to school, getting the groceries, wading chin deep through a language that’s way too complicated—there were emotional things: short-tempered moments, intense negotiations about who gets to exercise when, or who gets to go out and wander while the other stays home with Jamie, or who should do the dishes.
And I’ll be honest with you: I wasn’t the best partner a lot of the time. Partially this was work related: Hong Kong faculty are government employees. What this means, in practical terms, is that they keep very careful track of their hours: on the left side of my institutional home page was a small meter that kept track of exactly how many personal days I had accumulated thus far during the year. Halfway through the year, my institution asked me to take on additional, non-consultative responsibilities, essentially becoming an employee of the university. Once I did that, I felt obliged to act like a real employee, being more careful about my hours—going earlier, staying longer, taking fewer days off.
Additionally, though, I wasn’t the best partner because I also spent a lot of time writing. A LOT of time: every night after the kids went to bed—and this includes many Fridays and Saturdays—I would pour myself a glass of wine, grab a handful of chocolates, and go and sit on the couch with my laptop. And write. And write. And write—sometimes as many as nine or ten pages in a single evening. Writing was my way of coping with everything that was going on around me, with all of the new experiences, with the challenges at work, with the fact that every time I walked out the door—EVERY SINGLE TIME—I saw something or did something or ate something that was completely new and unexpected. Writing helped me make sense of all of this, helped me keep my head on more or less straight.
Ellen, meanwhile, would slog away at the family blog, posting the hundreds of pictures that she’d taken to let our families know what we were up to. And she’d do the laundry (something, in my defense, that she refuses to let me help with), and she’d do the dishes. This last was the worst: we only had six bowls, six plates, six forks and six knives. So if we wanted to eat breakfast the next day, one or the other of us would have to wash and dry dishes every night. I intended to help with this, really I did. But sometimes I offered, then got caught in a particularly difficult passage and wouldn’t get around to it soon enough so Ellen would just do it. And other times I’d get the dishes done, then get distracted with some idea, rushing into the living room to get it down before I forgot—and Ellen would go in and dry the damn things.
We have a “Birthday Club” in Virginia, a group of four couples that celebrates each of our birthdays, going out for dinner and giving each other gifts. One of our number is a genius at finding or having made message shirts that capture perfectly our personalities (one of mine says “Just shut the hell up!”). When we got back, we all gathered for a belated celebration of Ellen’s and my birthdays. Ellen’s gift from Ross? A black T-shirt with the white logo “Blog Widow.”
But, of course, there were amazing times as well. And one of the amazing times was up on that mountain, the cold wet flakes brushing our faces, that black wet face of rock towering over us, that feeling of being somewhere special, of seeing something amazing, of just—I dunno—being alive.
And there was this:
Early in June, a Fulbright colleague at another university mentioned to me that a German university outside of Hamburg was looking for an experienced general education coordinator.
“Really?” I said.
He nodded. "And it looks good. They seem to know what they're talking about."
That next morning, back at the flat, I logged into the Chronicle of Higher Education and punched in “Germany” and “General Education.”
And there it was: XYZ university in northern Europe had received a grant from the European Union to experiment with an alternative to Germany’s fairly strict, career-oriented educational system. And yes, they were hiring. In fact, not only did they need someone to oversee the GE program—something I’d been doing for years—they also needed someone to work with writing and general education—bringing my area of specialty into play.
Now I don’t want you to think this was a slam dunk decision for me, one of those easy “But of course!” moments. Just applying for a job like this would mean a ton of work at the very time we were trying to relish our last days in Hong Kong. And if I got an offer (and in the end, I didn’t, not even close) then moving to Germany would mean giving up a lot of security, tenure and a good job and good friends in one of the nicest small towns in America.
But even so . . . Germany!
“Ellen?” I called, my voice cracking. “Can you come here for a second?”
I heard her coming down the hall, talking to Lucy as she passed the kids' bedroom. Outside the office, she paused for a second, peering in at me. The last time I’d called her to my computer, my voice wavering, it was to announce that her father had died.
“Yes?” she said.
“Look at this.”
She came to the desk, glanced over my shoulder.
“Holy crap,” she said after a second, substituting an old, much-beloved Anglo-Saxon word for “crap.”
I looked at her. She leaned in closer, peering at the screen. Then she bent over, fingers clicking over the keyboard. Opening a new tab, she Googled the town, then hit image. Pictures of an old-style German city cluttered the screen: narrow cobblestone streets with brick houses pressed against the walkway; an open square surrounded by brick-arched building and narrow turrets with flags flapping overhead; a strange kind of castle-looking thing with two fat towers, one on each side.
“Wow,” she said.
“I know.” I was actually shaking. “What do you think?”
She read the ad again. “It fits you perfectly.”
Straightening, she gave me a look. “It would devastate the kids.”
I nodded. It was true: they were more than ready to get back to Virginia, more than ready to be back in their own rooms, play with their own friends.
Neither of us spoke for a long moment. Then I said again, “What do you think?”
“We have to try.”
“Absolutely. A chance like this—you can’t let it go by.”
I looked back at the computer, considered, nodded my head.
“Right?” she said.
“Okay then!" She gave me a quick pat on the shoulder, then a little squeeze, a ripple of electricity passing through my shirt. "Hop to it, buddy! You’ve got a lot of work to do.”
I grunted, swung my chair back to the computer, reached for a pen. She gave me that little squeeze again, then left the room, calling to Jamie as she went back down the hall.
God I love her.