Sunday, November 11, 2012

On Walking to School

There are certain beautiful simplicities to small town life, certain Norman Rockwell moments that make the deprivations of living in small town Virginia—e.g., the lack of a good Thai restaurant—seem unimportant.
Walking your kids to school is one of these. 
Which is kind of stupid, of course, because people who live in big cities also walk their kids to school, albeit in a less loving way that us small town, “Real America,” folks.  But that’s okay.  We know they love their children too, in their own gritty, heroin-addicted way. 
But it’s also kind of stupid to argue that these walks to school are idyllic because, to be frank, there are moments when our morning strolls to Waddell Elementary would make Norman Rockwell spit peas through his nose. 
Case in point:  the first thing we do every morning as we stroll to school is cross the street.  This wouldn’t be that big of a deal, except that our street is really really busy, at least by Lexington standards.  Seriously, there are days where I’ll sit out on our front porch and count the cars buzzing past.  Not infrequently, in the course of a mere ten minutes, I’ll see eight, maybe nine vehicles stream by.  I mean:  who knew there were so many cars?
Even worse than the heavy traffic, though, is the speed at which these cars go by.  To understand what I mean by this, it helps to know that at the very heart of Lexington is a single intersection consisting of two very narrow roads.  Head downtown at the wrong time, when too many cars are trying to make left turns or there’s a delivery truck outside one of the half-dozen boutiques downtown, and you’re liable to sit through two or three rotations of the stoplight at the corner of Main and Nelson.
Consequently, anyone looking to get to the southwestern corner of town and the country roads beyond will veer left before they hit this stop-and-go quagmire and cruise swiftly through some of the neighborhood streets on the edge of downtown. 
Streets that, in case it isn’t already obvious, go past my house. 
Which isn’t a big deal.  I get the whole shortcut thing.  Life is short, after all, no point spending any more time than necessary in our cars. 
But even so, these streets are narrow and sometimes the visibility is poor:  an oddly-parked SUV or a tall hedge and the next thing you know you’re plowing into the side of some old lady’s Gremlin.  I can’t tell you the number of times we’ve driven past the corner of Houston and Taylor and spotted freshly-cut glass strewn across the pavement. 
And oh, by the way, have I mentioned that people live on these narrow streets, behind those tall hedges and oddly-placed pickup trucks?  People with kids? 
Stated simply:  you have your right to your shortcut.  And I have the right to throw a rake at your car when you go past my house topping forty. 
Just kidding, of course.  I would never do that.  That would be incredibly immature. 
No, actually, what I do is scream, “SLOW DOWN YOU %#$@ JERK!” at every harried school mom, every pick-up driving handy man, every—I’m not ashamed to admit it—city cop who dares to hit the accelerator in hopes of the catching that green at the end of our block.   I want to make sure you can see this clearly:  you’re running late and you still need to drop your kids off at school before heading to work.  So you take a right onto Houston, heading south/southwest.  And about half-way down the block you suddenly see a very large man—roughly, say, the size of a moderately-small Bigfoot—waving his fist at you, face twisted into an obscenity-filled snarl as he points to the traffic sign posted on the telephone pole at the end of his driveway reading SPEED LIMIT:  25.  I don’t have any actual data on this, but I wouldn’t be at all surprised if I’ve actually caused some people to transfer their kids to different schools rather than to have to drive by my house at eight in the morning. 
In my own defense, I do this not out of some abstract sense of principle; rather, I do it out of fear for the lives of my children and all of the other children walking down that street.  I’m not kidding.  Just this morning we were standing at the bottom of the drive, waiting to cross, when a black SUV with Texas plates (this means college kid, I know) came barreling by, doing well over thirty-five.  And get this:  as she passed, the driver didn’t even have her hands on the wheel.  No, she was putting her hair into a pony tale.  While—and I’m not making this up—talking on a cell phone scrunched between chin and shoulder.  I’m not an idiot:  in a situation like that, I’m well aware there’s very little chance she’d notice the forty-three inch high and the fifty-two inch high obstacles in the road before they bumped beneath her tires.  And even if she did, with her hands off the wheel like that and going at that speed down such a narrow street, there’s very little she could do to stop.
I take some comfort in knowing that I’m not the only one who acts like this.  My friend Pat, who lives just around the corner on Taylor where the situation is even worse, has been known to wave at cars as if to offer a friendly greeting, and then, when they slow down and unroll their windows, smile pleasantly and growl “Slow down!”  And there’s a couple in town, a very progressive, peaceful-minded pair with several kids, a firm belief in holistic medicine and vegetarian dining and a close connection with the Quaker faith, who take great pleasure in rolling a child’s red rubber ball in front of speeding cars on their street just to see the drivers hit the brakes and freak out. 
Not to say that there aren’t some dangers in this sort of behavior.  Last spring the kids and I were strolling toward the corner when I heard a car accelerating down the street, clearly trying to make the green light.  Turning, I could see that this Honda was buzzing—buzzing—at top speed, desperate to save a whole seventeen seconds by not having to wait.  Generally when I’m with the kids, I try to keep myself under control, but this particular time (I’ll blame the caffeine), before I knew it I’d opened my mouth and hollered “SLOW DOWN!”
Which was unfortunate.  Because she didn’t make the light.  Which meant that, when the kids and I reached the corner, she was still sitting there, window down, waiting for me. 
“I was going twenty-five,” she said. 
“No you weren’t.”  I go twenty-five.  Twenty-five is a crawl.  I know what twenty-five looks like.
“Yes, I was.”
“Nope.”
“Who,” she said, “do you think you are.  I know my rights.  I was coasting.”
“You were accelerating.”  I could feel my face turning red.  “I could hear your engine picking up speed.”  The kids were standing beside me, watching.  The crossing guard was on the other side of the street, also listening.  Nothing like acting like a jerk in front of a total stranger you get to see every day for nine months of the year.
“$#@& you,” she said, blowing smoke out her window.  
“Not a problem,” I said, sounding much cooler than I felt.  I’m a bad enough parent as it is, without picking a fight in front of my kids, in public, no less.  “I’ll just give your license number to”—and then I named a local cop that everyone knew—“and let him sort it out.”
She swore again—even though, I assume, her kids were in the car.  Then the light turned green, and she accelerated through.  I crossed, my forehead burning—not an insubstantial act, I might point out, as my forehead is so big it basically requires the Peshtigo fire to burn that sucker.
The guard—a young, friendly looking woman with dark hair and glasses—tried to meet my eye as we crossed, but I kept my head down, pink with shame.  Who was I to try to control the world?  Did I think I was so special that I could make everyone bend to my will?
Then, when I got to the other side, the guard said to me, “She comes by here every morning, going so fast she can barely make the turn.  Most mornings she almost knocks me off the curb.”

Okay, so that doesn’t make the walk to school sound like so much fun.  But it is.  I swear it is.  In a goal-oriented, rush-and-ready world, there’s something about taking twenty minutes a day just to be with your kids, under the blue sky and out in the fresh air, that appeals to the Mr. Rogers in all of us. 
Except, of course, about that bit about fresh air.  Because right after we cross Main St., we go past a retirement home, this huge colonial affair right on the corner.  Now, I've no doubt that this place is a fine, fine retirement home:  From everything I’ve heard, the staff there are great and they really care about and take care of their residents.  On any given morning, as we stroll by, the scent of pancakes fresh off the griddle will waft through the morning air, half-tempting us to turn around and go back home in order to mix up a batch or two of our own, complete with hot maple syrup.
Of course, on other given days, particularly early in the week—garbage pickup is on Mondays—we’ll be greeted with the tasty smell of week-old trash. 
“Ew,” Lucy will say.  “What’s that?”
“Urmph,” Jamie will say through the hands pinching his nose and covering his mouth. 
“I don’t know,” I’ll say.  “Spanish rice, maybe?  Polenta?”
“It looks like barf!”
“Urmph,” Jamie will say again, sounding vaguely more gagier, if that’s even a word in any language other than French. 
“It’s just garbage,” I’ll say, as we step around or across the mass of half-rotten foodstuff stretching across the sidewalk, over the curb, and into the street.  “The bag must have broken.”
“Well they should clean it up!” says Lucy, sounding self-righteous as all get out (I wonder where she got that from, hmmm?). 
But she’s right, of course:  they should.  And sometimes they do—indeed, most of the time they do.  But a lot of the time they don’t.  So for the next two or three days, morning and afternoon, we’ll get to see the decaying process in action, as the aforementioned foodstuff goes from yellow to brown to gray to whatever color rotting gelatin is . . .
The pity, of course, is there are plenty of days where we go past this retirement home without any sign of garbage whatsoever.  And of course, on those days, we never stop and think about how nice it is of the staff or the garbagemen or whoever’s responsible for getting the bins and bags from the shelter under the stairs safely into the back of the garbage truck did such a good job of not leaving half of it strewn across the sidewalk.  And I will admit that part of me feels incredibly guilty for naming the name of this particular establishment in this context as—as I’ve already said—I’m sure the people who work there work very hard and try their very best. 
But seriously?  Clean up your garbage.

Okay, so that doesn’t sound very nice either.  I’m not kidding, though:  I love walking the kids to school, really I do, so much so that we go on foot even in the dead of winter when—by Virginia standards, at least— it’s really cold outside. 
The next block is the really pleasant part, past nice houses with well-groomed lawns.  Dr. Bill’s house is on the left and every so often I see him and wave, and next to his house is Charlie and Fiona’s, who painted their house blue just like we did (did you know that only Yankees paint their houses blue?).  On the right there’s the house that we almost bought with the nice spaniel and after that the brick house with the weird mustard trim.  This section of the walk also has the walls—low cement borders that trim the slope of the lawns from the sidewalk.  Just as Lucy did and Will before her, Jamie delights in climbing up and walking along these walls.  As recently as last year, when he was still in pre-school, he would submit to my holding his hand while he did it, just so that I could pretend I was keeping him safe.  Now, though, he refuses.  We go past my favorite house in the entire town, a two-story asymmetrical affair with a high front porch graced by a curving set of brick stairs on either side.  After that is the Beebe place, then the place owned by the Pumpkin Seeds lady (a funky shop downtown), that has, strangely, political signs for both mayoral candidates out front. 
And now we’re at the second crossing.  Here, the guard is an elderly gentleman who, for some reason, we suspect used to be a policeman.  We’ll still be twenty yards from the intersection and already he’ll be out there stopping traffic, which can be a bit of a problem since Jamie is arguably the slowest person on earth.  I’m not sure why this is:  his legs aren’t particularly short, and he’s got plenty of energy, particularly, say, when we’re at church or attending someone’s funeral.  Nonetheless, on these walks to school, when the guard steps out into the street and raises his sign in front of eight minivans full of anxious parents even though we’re still a quarter mile away, Jamie slows down to a craw.  And I do mean crawl, all but getting down on his hands and knees and imitating an inchworm. 
“Come on,” I’ll say to him before glancing at the crossing guard, the line of vehicles. 
Step. 
Step. 
“Jamie,” I’ll say, loudly.  A face or two will lean forward, peering out of their windscreens. 
Step. 
Step. 
Oh geeze, he’s bending down to look at something! 
“Jamie!”
The crossing guard will be looking at him now, peering over the top of his wire-rimmed glasses.  Lucy will already be on the other side of the intersection, skipping down the hill.  Some dude in a Jeep Cherokee will be poking his front fender around the edge of the line, estimating his chances of making a left turn and jumping the line without getting arrested so that he can get to work on time. 
Step. 
“Oh my god!” I’ll want to scream, feeling like we’re on display, like our family’s own little dysfunctional mechanics—can you say passive aggressive?—are on display for the whole world to see. 
Because they are. 
And I’m not kidding. 
Maybe a year-and-a-half ago, Jamie woke up and decided he wanted to wear Will’s old dragon Halloween costume for the day.  So he pulled it on, came down the stairs, ate his breakfast, and padded out the door with the rest of us to walk to school, all the while cloaked in a full-body green and purple dragon outfit complete with wings.
Later that morning I was strolling through the door of the YMCA when one of the women in front of me said, “Oh my god, I saw the funniest thing this morning:  I was driving downtown when I got stopped by the crossing guard and there in the street was a little boy all dressed up in a dinosaur costume.”
I considered pointing out that most dinosaur’s don’t have wings—none of them, in fact—but at the last second I bit my tongue.   Probably best not to advertise to the whole world the fact that it was my kid who backed up her commute every morning. 

All of which should make abundantly clear the fact that, in a small town, even simple things like walking the kids to school requires a peculiar set of negotiations.  But just in case I haven’t made myself entirely clear, consider:
Once we get to the bottom of the hill and I give the kids a hug (Lucy always reciprocates, but Jamie plays hard to get, especially when I shout “I’m a pony!” and try to lick his face), I’ll turn around and head home. 
Complicating things, though, is the fact that, whereas on the way to school we’d had our back to the constant stream of cars heading toward drop-off, now I’m heading into traffic.  Which means, for all practical purposes, that I’m now required to acknowledge the existence of the rest of humanity.  That’s right:  now I have to wave. 
Or nod.  Or do that little chin thing.  Or whatever.  But the fact is, even more than before, I’m now on display, and how I act has consequences.  Miss a small smile or a friendly lift of the fingers from steering wheel on a Tuesday and by Friday I’ll have people stopping me in the cereal aisle at Kroger, saying things like, “Are you okay?  Brad from the hardware store said he saw you walking down the street in a really bad mood.  What’s going on?”  Or:  “Are you mad at Tina?  Because I was getting a haircut just yesterday and she said she nodded to you on the way to school and you just frowned.  She’s been crying all week.”  Or:  “Colonel Valasquez has been looking for you; he says he’s going to challenge you to a duel of pistols at sunrise.”
It doesn’t help that, walking home, the sun is in my eyes, meaning it’s hard to tell who’s in what car.  Is that green Honda Pat’s, or does it belong to someone else?  Is that Stacey in the big black SUV or someone I’ve never met before who now thinks I’m a weirdo?  Because it’s a wicked cycle, you see:  if they wave at me, I’m obliged to wave back, even if I’ve no idea who the heck they are, and if I wave at them, they’re now obliged to wave at me, even if they don’t me from Adam’s second cousin.  After all, they don’t want to find themselves in the aisles of Kroger suddenly being informed by their friends that they’ve ticked off that fat Big Foot guy who throws rakes at cars.
I could, of course, simply wave at every car that goes by.  This seems like the perfect solution—it’s a small town after all, and chances are we’ll meet each other sooner or later.  So why not start the process sooner rather than later?  Well because, to be frank, despite all of my obvious flaws and my general comfort with those flaws being out there for the whole world to see (I’m a memoirist, after all), despite my reputation for being slightly south of the norm, despite my general willingness to engage in self-deprecating humor, I really really really don’t want to be known as “The crazy guy who waves at all the cars.” 

That said, here’s the thing I haven’t mentioned:  seven years ago, when we started these walks, I would push Lucy in the stroller as we took Will to school.  And then, on the way home, she and I would chat as we took our time going up the hill, as we nodded to the chatty crossing guard, as we passed the Pumpkin Seeds lady’s house, as we went past my favorite house and Fiona and Charlie’s house and Dr. Bill’s house, up past the molding food on the sidewalk outside the Mayfair, across the street and down Houston to our own house.  We’d talk about flowers and the clouds and what Lucy wanted for Christmas and what Hong Kong would be like when we went there. 
And then, when Lucy became old enough and started to go to school, I would push Jamie in the stroller, and then on the way home he and I would talk about Thomas the Tank Engine and Miss Margoth his pre-school teacher, and he would want to stop and see the spiders and we’d both laugh and hold our noses as we passed the nursing home.  And he would collect sticks and rocks, and when we got home he’d stoop and go under the porch by the back door and put them in a pile with the rest of the sticks and rocks that he’d collected on the previous days walking home from dropping Lucy and Will off. 
And now?  Will doesn’t go to Waddell anymore and he doesn’t walk to school.  Instead he bikes or takes a ride to the middle school on the other side of Nelson Street. 
And now?  When I turn back to go up the hill?  Jamie stays behind in Miss Kendall’s kindergarten class, and I walk home alone, my hands in my pockets and my head down and no one to talk to.  And I think about how my days are numbered for these walks to school, how in less than three years Lucy will be in the middle school as well, and it’ll just be Jamie and me strolling to Waddell.  And then, three years after that, Jamie will be in the middle school.  And then there won’t be any more walks to school, and I’ll just get in my car after breakfast and drive the fifty minutes to work, trying not to get annoyed at the corner where the crossing guard holds up her stop sign and keeps us all waiting through a green light as a parade of small children in orange and blue Cavalier jackets and green and gold mittens that their grandmothers knit for them, waddle across the street. 
And thinking about this?  Call me a joker, call me a fool, call me a sentimental old Big Foot who’s mourning a loss that’s still years away.  But then?  I have to have to fight hard to keep myself from raising my hand and waving at every car that goes by. 




Oh, sure, they look cute, but man can they be pokey when you're in a hurry!



Wednesday, August 22, 2012

A Brief Introduction to Lexington, Virginia--some of which is actually true . . .

Back in 2000 when Ellen and I found out she was pregnant, we had a conversation about what we were going to do.  At the time, we were living approximately 105 miles apart, with Ellen in Charlottesville and me in Roanoke.  It was a very short discussion:
“Do you want to give up your job?”
“No.  Do you?”
“No.”
The only option, then, was to choose a spot halfway between the two locations and begin a double commute.  The only question was, where?
Again the conversation was short:
“Do you want to live in the country?”
“No.  Do you?”
That option gone, the only reasonable location was Lexington, Virginia, an historic town more-or-less equidistance from Charlottesville and Roanoke.  Once or twice when we were living apart, we’d make a date on a week night and meet in Lexington for dinner, trying out different restaurants, getting a feel for the town.  We weren’t impressed.  The place was small.  Very small.  Like, drive through end to end in six minutes small.  Like, notice a car from out of town because it stands out small.  And the restaurants weren’t that good:  there was the fancy place in town, where the waiters stood in their white shirts, hands behind their backs over white linen table clothes.  Only the food was just . . . okay.  Then there was the diner on the edge of town.  Even the salad was bad.  And I don’t mean kind of bad; I mean, we can’t eat this, we need to leave and go to Hardee’s bad. 
But it was either Lexington or someplace where your rental home came with a John Deere tractor and a gun rack in the dining room, at least one of which I refuse to live with (hint:  JD tractors are made in Iowa, home of my undergraduate alma mater and one of my favorite states ever).  So Lexington it was. 
It didn’t help that Ellen is a big city person.  Prior to living in Charlottesville, which was a necessity given her job, she’d spent several years in New York City, on the busy west side, taking the subway to work, doing carry out Chinese every third night, clubbing with Boy George and the former members of Oasis, waking up at noon in the dingy alley way behind a meat cutter, head full of cotton and a tattoo reading “Jesus was my meth dealer” bleeding on her forearm. 
Okay, not really, but you get the point:  whereas I’d grown up in a small town in Wisconsin visiting my grandparents in an even smaller town (think, drive from end to end in sixty seconds) that I absolutely loved, Ellen moved from one large metropolitan area to another, including Portland Oregon, L.A., Oxford, England, Minneapolis, and New York City.  Lexington for me was a step up.  Lexington for Ellen was a . . . well, nightmare is a strong word, so let’s just say that it wasn’t her idea of paradise. 
But such was life.  She was pregnant, neither of us was quitting our jobs, and both of us were afraid of cows.  So Lexington it was.
We weren’t willing to commit completely, of course, so we kept our house in Roanoke, renting it to a good friend with a cleanliness fetish, at the same time that we shopped for a nice apartment in Lexington.  We eventually found one on the edge of town and moved in the August before Will was born.  As is usually the case in situations where none of the persons moving actually wants to move and one of the persons moving is five months pregnant, the move was stressful and tiring.  Finally, though, we got the house more or less in order, took the dog out to go to the bathroom, locked all the doors, and crawled into bed. 
In order to make sense of this next bit, it helps to know that we have a king size bed.  And when I say “a bed” what I actually mean is “a yacht that two people sleep on”—it’s just that big.  These days, all five of us can crawl into that thing and drift into la-la land without touching each other.  Back then, when it was just Ellen and I, we could go for days in that bed without even knowing there was someone else on the other side. 
This is important for you to know, because not long after we turned out the lights that night, exhausted and a little depressed from the day’s move, I felt the bed begin to shake.  Not mightily mind you—no earthquake or anything like that—but a shaking nonetheless, just the light flutter of a body trembling on the other side of our runway-sized mattress. 
“Hey,” I said into the darkness.  I considered sending up a flare, but decided against it—no point in losing our deposit on the first night. 
The quavering continued. 
“Hey,” I said again.  I reached a hand into the darkness, groping until I found Ellen’s shoulder.  It was shaking.  Fiercely.  Poor thing I thought, and scooted across the sheets.  Must be the hormones, I thought, the move, all this change, everything. 
“Hey,” I said, again, holding Ellen close in my arms.  Her shoulders rattled against me.  “Shh . . .” I said.  “It’ll be okay.  Seriously.”
The shaking deepened and then she burst out laughing.  “I swear—“ she gasped, “I swear—.”  She had to take a deep breath.  I pulled back a little, trying to figure out what was going on. 
“I swear,” she said, laughing so hard she could hardly breathe.  “I swear I just heard a cow moo.”

That was in 2000.  Now, twelve years later, we still live in Lexington.  A couple times while we were in Hong Kong this or that administrator would probe gently, trying to see if we were interested in making our stay there more of a long-term thing (this isn’t that surprising:  the universities there are growing rapidly and desperate for faculty), but we never took the bait.  And since we’ve been back, we’ve talked a lot:  what sort of job offer or location or opportunity would lead us to pack up and move away forever?   What would cause us to leave Lexington? 
The answer:  very little.  Excepting an offer from the Sorbonne (not bleedin’ likely), or someplace renowned for its food—say, Tuscany or Toledo—chances are we’ll die in Lexington and get buried in our backyard, which sounds kind of creepy until you know that our land abuts a cemetery—and likely sounds creepy even then.
So what is this magical place that snares would be transients?  What is this Shangri-la that turns us all into lotus eaters—and worse, that causes us literary types to mix their metaphors? 
Sit back, and I’ll tell you:
Lexington, Virginia, population 7,000, more or less, is the county seat of Rockbridge County, population 36,000, more or less.  The county goes back approximately 200 years, and though wikipedia will tell you it was founded to shorten travel distances to the nearest courthouse, the truth is the county was created after a group of pissed off white settlers killed an Indian chief they believed was stealing their cattle and then selling it back to them.  Afraid that the people in distant Richmond would look upon this sort of wholesale slaughter of the natives as a criminal act of murder—probably because it was—the Rockbridge area residents very quickly established their own county, built their own courthouse, held their own trial and—surprise!—found themselves innocent of all charges. 
Which is a metaphor for something, I’m sure, likely involving genital herpes.  
Lexington itself was first settled in 1778 and named after Lexington, Mass. following the revolutionary war battle.  The town finally became incorporated in 1841 and grew steadily, feeding off of the timber industry, the advent of the railroad, and its proximity to the Great Wagon Road, which ran the length of the Shenandoah Valley, in which Lexington is located. 
Several things make Lexington distinctive:  first and foremost, it’s home to two nationally recognized colleges, Washington and Lee University and the Virginia Military Institute.  For better or for worse, these two schools shape the city:  go downtown on any weekend night and you’re bound to run into VMI cadets in their dress whites; forget to make a reservation for your favorite restaurant in early November and you’re liable to discover that every seating has been taken up by students being wined and dined on parents weekend.  Student rentals dot most neighborhoods, and real estate prices are inflated by the influx of faculty and artificially low mortgage rates sponsored by colleges desperate to keep Harvard-educated professors in a town the size of a moderately cramped parking garage. 
Not that I’m bitter or anything. 
The other thing that’s distinctive about LexVegas is that it’s purrty.  I’m not saying it this to make fun of southern accents—some of my best friends are southerners, and so are my kids—but because it’s just the appropriate way to say it:  Lexington isn’t pretty, it’s purrty, warm and soft and shockingly green, just like, um . . . your, uh . . . green cat. 
Anyway.
But damn, it is:  pretty that is, or purrty, or whatever.  Unlike Salem, fifty miles down the road and named after another Massachusetts town albeit one known less for a courageous battle than for burning human beings alive, Lexington has managed to keep much of its olde towne charme.  Most of the downtown sidewalks are glazed brick and a lot of the buildings have been standing since the late nineteenth century.  Away from downtown you’ll find tree-lined streets full of antiquated wood-framed houses, hardly a brick ranch or McMansion in sight.  It’s the kind of town where kids walk to school with their friends, where on the 4th of July they have a bicycle parade down Main St. full of boys and girls on streamer-covered bikes, the sort of place where Sons of the Confederacy march proudly any damn day they want, waving that symbol of lost history, the stars and bars of the confederate battle flag . . .
Uh . . .
Forget I mentioned that . . .
Actually, that’s not true:  as of last October, the SoC—just one letter away from . . . again, forget I mentioned it—the SoC is no longer allowed to fly their flags from the town’s poles to commemorate the South’s efforts in “War of Northern Aggression,” a phrase that is not used ironically (by some—indeed, by many) down here.
Which relates, I suppose, to two rather more complicated components of life in the Lex:  first, it is very much a place that is steeped in confederate history.  It is, after all, Washington and Lee University, and no matter how you slice it, that last bit isn’t named after someone by the first name of Peggy.  Indeed, good old Bobby Lee is actually buried in Lexington, on the W&L campus, in the Lee Chapel.  Which is a chapel.  You know.  A sort of religious building?  Where you worship God?  Or gods, as it turns out.  And if you think I’m kidding, then feel free to glance in and see what they have where the alter should be. 
Hint:  it looks an awful lot like a confederate general carved in marble . . .
In addition, Thomas Jonathan Jackson—he of Stonewall fame—is also buried in Lexington, or at least most of him is as I’m not sure what they did with the arm that his—ahem—own men shot off.  Old Stonewall is actually buried in my backyard—or in the cemetery next to my property at least.  Indeed, I can almost see his statue—which portrays him with both arms standing tall and facing to the (surprise!) south—from my desk as I write these very words.  Stroll by his monument on any given day and you’ll notice a half-dozen lemons strewed about the grass:  among TJ’s many quirks was his belief that sucking lemons made a man stronger.  Pity it didn’t make him glow in the dark, because maybe then he wouldn’t have gotten shot.  By his own men, have I mentioned that? 
Indeed, the southern history here runs deep enough that when they were considering shutting down the confederate museum in Richmond, Lexington was mentioned as a possible alternative site.  That the museum wasn’t actually moved here perhaps points to the second complicating factor that needs to be mentioned when we discuss Lexington:  namely, that the town itself isn’t really representative of the deep south—or even the moderately shallow south. 
Allow me to explain by telling yet another one of my short but stupid stories:  a little over a year ago I was invited to a party where I didn’t know a lot of people.  Generally in situations like this I drink too much and make a pass at my hostess, leaving only when the police show up and chase me through the woods.  This particular evening, though, I was well behaved (my hostess was a former karate instructor) and more or less sober.   At one point I was introduced to a guy in his late forties with long, graying hair, workman’s hands, a loud laugh that was infectious.  When he asked me what I did, I told him I was a professor but that I was currently on sabbatical writing a book.  He gave that laugh of his and said, “Rockbridge County:  where half the people have written a book and the other half have never read one.”
It was a harsh comment—funny as hell, but harsh.  And like most funny as hell but harsh jokes, it had more than a bit of truth in it.  In this case, I think, it made an exaggerated claim that pointed to a real fact:  half the county—mainly, the people who live in Lexington, are over-educated geeks like yours truly; the other half (who actually read plenty of books) are . . . well:  not. 
On some levels this is a political thing:  every other year, our congressional district regularly elects a carpet-bagging mind/soul vacuum, largely because the Republican county wipes out the Democratic city. 
And as is the case generally in the US these days, the political is social:  not only do the town and county vote in very different ways, they live very different lives—or at least generally.  The county embraces rural life, is not afraid of guns, and tends to engage in the life of the mind without getting obsessed about it.  The city folk generally pride themselves on being cosmopolitan (e.g., being able to distinguish good Thai food from bad, good single malt scotch from cheap), tend to keep even water guns away from their kids, and argue strongly that there’s nothing wrong with being intellectual, that, indeed, the country would be a much better place if people would start to pay attention to what they’re thinking and why they’re thinking it and whether or not what they’re thinking is actually true. 
But again, I need to say this:  generally.  Because the fact of the matter is that:  a) the minute I make generalizations like this, I start to think of exceptions; and b) I generally like to be honest about the complexities of these things, particularly when: a) it’s a small town and I’m easy to find; and b) the people I might offend likely have guns. 
But more, I think, I really don’t have any interest in arguing that a town full of wealthy folks, academics, and wealthy academics is necessarily better than folks who know how to fix a tractor—or the other way around.  Rather, the point I’m trying to make, finally—FINALLY!—is that Lexington, Virginia doesn’t fit the stereotypes—accurate and inaccurate—of south central Virginia.  It’s its own place, its own weird place, full of anomalies. 
And that’s why we like it. 
And that’s why I’m going to write about it from now on.
And that, at least, is the truth. 




Friday, August 10, 2012

My Own Private Kitchen

A little travel/food piece I wrote for Roads and Kingdoms, all about the best private kitchen in Hong Kong.

Feel free to read about it here!


Wednesday, July 11, 2012

What Remains


In less than a week, it’ll be almost two years since we returned to the States.  A lot has happened in that time:  lost teeth, piano lessons, graduations from preschool and fifth grade, karate, piano recitals, some pretty major home renovations.  At times it’s easy to forget that there ever was a Hong Kong year, we’re so buried in the heres-and-nows of Virginia.   Which means at times it’s easy to think that none of it mattered, that we shouldn’t even have bothered. 
But still . . .
Here’s a short list of what, two years on, remains from that year:

1) There are, of course, the objects:  the Hong Kong flags hanging in the kids’ rooms, the tin wind-up toys Jamie got for his birthday when we were in Vietnam.  There’s the red salad bowl made of finely-grained wood, the fancy brushed steel flashdrive I received as a party favor at one of the conferences I attended.  I still have my nice suit from the tailor down in Central, and Ellen has two or three skirts and a few shirts from Hoi An.  Over our mantel is a fancy porcelain carving of gold fish swimming around a lotus plant, and opposite it hang a pair of paintings from Hanoi and Xi’an, respectively.  We also have a neatly embroidered baby carrier over one bookshelf, not too far from a trio of fantastical paintings from Bali showing brightly colored dancing beasts and magical women. 

I’m pleased to note that my beautiful, six-million dollar hand sewn rug from Beijing is still beautiful, and worth every damn penny, thank you very much.  This bears mention, because just after I bought it I was one of the guys on the trip—a Canadian whose family had just joined for the day—was teasing me about spending so much money.

“What you should do,” he said, “is buy a stop watch.  Then when you get home you can time yourself whenever you stop and look at the rug.  That way you’ll know how much all of this cost you per minute.”

Jerk.

For what it’s worth, not a day goes by—okay, not a week goes by . . . okay, not a month goes by where I don’t pause, look at that rug, and say, “Dang.  That’s purty.”

As all of this probably makes clear, we bought a lot of souvenirs when we were in Asia.  Enough to decorate the entire house, actually, so that, stepping into our living room before actually meeting us, you’d assume “Hanstedt” was some sort of weird name from an obscure ethnic group in China. 

Seriously, we’ve pretty much decided we can never live abroad again simply because we don’t have any rooms left to decorate.  That, or we’ll just have to buy a second house next time we return to the States. 

That said, the objects we actually notice—the ones that make us pause for just a millisecond, our hearts suddenly warmer than they were before—aren’t necessarily the expensive ones, or even the big ones:  there’s the silk embroidery of a lotus flower on the wall by the front door, for instance, almost an afterthought when we were in a small shop in Vietnam, but now something that I’ll pause and . . . just look at for maybe half a minute every other day or so.  Or the small wooden plates next to the cookbooks, thrown in with the aforementioned salad bowl and a half-dozen other things we got in a shop near our hotel.   They’re beautiful—one green, one red, one natural wood color, the grain showing in all of them—and they catch my eye almost every day when I walk into the kitchen. 

Or when Lucy comes down in the morning for breakfast, and she’s wearing her blue and white sport uniform from the international school.  Mornings where that happens, both Ellen and I will pause, watching her make her way to the table.  Sometimes we’ll look at each other and grin, sometimes we won’t, just watching her, both of us smiling, the little red Norwegian flag flashing on her shorts—and we’ll know it was all real. 

2)  Then there are the memories. 

Some of them are prompted:  the first Christmas we were home, for instance, we made photo albums for each of the kids.  For Will and Lucy, this meant culling their nearly 5,000 pictures (each) down to 400 or so that we put in separate albums, customizing each one to reflect the experiences of the child, what they valued, what they’d want to remember.  For Jamie this meant picking at random from Ellen’s thousands of pics, trying to choose images that would somehow capture key moments for a little guy who was barely half-way through his third year when we returned.

We gave the albums to them on Christmas eve, halfway through the present opening.  For twenty minutes everything stopped.  All three heads were bowed, all three pairs of hands were flipping the pages, flipping, flipping, scanning from side to side, taking it all in. 

“Look!  Will!  Remember?” and then Lucy would point to picture of the bird market and tell a story.

“Hey, look!  Remember?” and then Will would hold the book up so we could all see a picture of the kitten we found in a park in Shanghai. 

“Look!  Remember?” Jamie would then holler, and hold up a picture of a—what was that?  A cat turd?  A dead bird?  Hard to tell.  Not really even sure that he knows . . .

But a lot of the memories are unprompted.  We’ll be sitting at the table eating dinner, and out of the blue Lucy will say, “Remember the time Jamie shook his fist at a monk?”  And we’ll burst out laughing.  Then Will will say, “Remember when he ate his dinner so fast that he threw up?”  And we’ll laugh again.  Then Ellen or I will say, “Remember how Eldon use to love playing with Jamie, how he would come over and shake his fists at him and Jamie would shake his back and the two of them would keep doing it until they burst out laughing?”  And we’ll laugh again, even louder.  And it will go on like that for ten minutes maybe twenty, sometimes half an hour:  “Remember?’  “Remember?”  “Remember?” 

3)   And then there’s something else, something that’s harder to explain: 

I see it when Will and Lucy come home from school, and I find them in Will’s bedroom, their heads together, lost in some game they’ve made up, involving marbles, beads, or three kinds of glue and miniature Leggos.   

And I see it sometimes on Saturday mornings, when Jamie is fussing about some thing or another and later I’ll notice that he’s turned quiet, and discover him in his room, being read to by his older brother.

And I see it on nights when Ellen is gone or out with her friends, and instead of cuddling with all of the kids separately, I’ll stretch out on the big bed in our room and the four of us will lay there, telling stories about the day, about school, about burping and farting, and our friend Lilianna who talks in funny voices.   

And I’ll see it sometimes when we go on a trip, a short trip to Charlottesville, maybe, and I’ll give them a heads-up when it’s five minutes until departure, then we’ll all climb in the car, no fussing, no complaining, just a sense of, “This is who we are.  This is what we do.”

I’m not sure how to describe it, really.  But it’s very real.  It’s like a river that’s cleared, all the dirt and debris settling to the bottom, firming down into sediment that will be solid for years to come, leaving everything above clean and pure.  It’s as though we’re utterly content with ourselves, with who we are as a family.  And with our place in the world. 

That’s what it’s like.  That’s what remains. 

  

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

On Korea, Fear, and Harry Chapin



It’s easy to forget that traveling is kind of scary.  When we’re sitting at home, booking those tickets, we’re thinking about the dazzling quality of the sun in those foreign places, the exotic foods, the colorful markets, the peculiar interactions with locals that we’ll collect and bring home to narrate over the dinner table at parties so we can make our friends jealous. 
What’s absent from these visions is what it’s like to finally get through immigration, to gather your bags, and to step out into the airport concourse of a country we’ve never been to before, where we barely know the language, where the customs may be nearly impossible to comprehend, and where even the very air has not just a different smell but a different quality to it—to get through all of this, experience all of this, and then think “Now what?”
Part of the reason I like traveling with Ellen is that she’s very good at those first moments, very good at relishing the strangeness and moving us forward.  When I’m on my own though, particularly after I’ve had a long flight—and let’s face it:  from the States, everything is a long flight—I generally feel mildly nauseous and slightly feverish, with a weird granular taste in my mouth. 
Case in point:  I flew into Korea the other day (and boy are my arms—oh, never mind), never having been there before.  This sounds stupid, I know, but I was surprised by how different it was.  I anticipated a Hong Kong kind of place—basically clean, basically modern, only with more open spaces and more fermented cabbage.  After all, Korea is Asia’s “success story,” the little country that could, with a solid economy, an educated work force, and all the modern amenities.  And all my friends had told me what a great place it was:  “It’s like Toledo,” one of the other Fulbrighters said, “only with more Asians.  And, you know:  fermented cabbage.”
What I saw, though, on the bus-ride in from the airport looked more like Vietnam than post-industrial Hong Kong:  a dusty gray sky, semi-dilapidated houses, stooped-over women working in rice paddies.  
It was late when I arrived, so that first evening I ventured only a stone’s throw from hotel, strolling down a brightly lit alley to one of those little restaurants where you grill your meat at the table under an industrial-strength ventilator hose, then wrap it in a lettuce leaf with some coleslaw type stuff and fermented cabbage, eating it sideways like a sloppy but tasty Korean taco.  Which sounds great.  And it was, except for the fact that this was clearly meant to be a social activity.  Not only was my table round and large enough to seat a small baseball team, it was surrounded by other tables, all of them filled with laughing families and gangs of friends.  Needless to say, I was tired and dirty and a little depressed and feeling sorry for myself, so I compensated by eating my way through half of a cabbage-stuffed cow and the hind quarters of a barbequed pig.
I had the next day free.  Instead of racing out the door though, a la Ellen, I slept in late, ate breakfast, and found myself lingering in my hotel room.  I checked my e-mail, tried to negotiate some end-of-year financial complications with the Roanoke Review, posted something meaningless on Face Book, browsed the pages of a few friends.  I looked up a couple key phrases in Korean—hello, thank you, how much?, and please get your fermented cabbage out of my air space—then checked my e-mail again, just in case someone had written me something from the United States in the middle of the night in the last three minutes.  Nothing.  I packed my backpack, counted my cash, checked my e-mail.  Sighed.  Looked around the room, trying to find something else that needed to be done.  When nothing presented itself, I checked my e-mail, went to the bathroom, checked my e-mail and dragged myself out the door, heading toward the nearest subway line.
It didn’t help that the train smelled vaguely farty (this happens, I’m sure, in a country that prides itself on fermented cabbage).  I sighed, pushed some kid out of a seat, and settled in the next few stops.   Emerging into the station, I was confronted with twelve different options for possible exits.  I glanced at my map.  I wanted the Namara--something  market.  That’s not the actual name of the market, of course.  It has more letters and no dashes at the end, but the fact of the matter is every time I looked down at the map, then glanced up at the directions board, I promptly forgot the second two-thirds of the word.  Korean is weird, I decided, more like German or Russian, with all those letters and vowels:  I mean, Kamsamnida?  What kind of language requires half a sentence just to say thank you?  I longed for Hong Kong and Cantonese, and those two character-, two-syllable phrases:  Cho san!  Ngoi Sai!
I gave up.   Even with all the letters, I couldn’t find Namara—something market anywhere.  Sighing, I trudged up to street level and spent fifteen minutes poking attractive women with my finger, trying to get them to take pity on me and point me in the direction of the market, or at the very least to take me home and feed me fermented cabbage. 
When that didn’t work, I stopped a grubby old man selling what looked like frozen turkeys out of the trunk of his car, who immediately pointed me in the right direction.  “Walk that way,” he said, nodding toward a tall building with a seven-story portrait of Marilyn Monroe on the side.  “Behind that.” 
I walked.  It was hot, and it was noisy, and it was dusty.  And I wasn’t even sure why I was going to the market.  I’d been to Asian markets before, of course, plenty of them, and it wasn’t like this one was going to be any different.   Shouldn’t I be doing something more meaningful, like going to a museum, or visiting a Unesco site, or eating fermented cabbage?  Certainly, that’s what Ellen would have done, especially if she only had one day in a foreign country.  Of course, Ellen also would have researched the country before she flew there, buying a book or two and a map, and spending at least an evening on the internet trying to get a feel for things.  Me?  I’d spent every evening the week before stuffing my face at various Hong Kong restaurants and drinking beers with Joe.  Now that’s what I call traveling.
Once in the market, I felt a little better.  It was Asia in all its glorious chaos:  stalls filled with soccer jerseys and nonsensical t-shirts—Korea Legend Start Here! 2010—tables covered with brass trinkets and nylon socks.  At one point I saw a woman in a long dress trying on underwear—pulling them up under her skirt, then peeling them back down again before trying on another pair.  There was a vendor frying something doughy looking in a vat of sputtering oil—fermented cabbage donuts?—and a quiet looking lady selling long braids of bread dusted with sugar.  Those were good, and I would know, because I had six. 
When sugared bread lady finally shooed me off, I went in search of gifts for the kids.  Noah, the son of a friend, had been adopted from Korea several years ago and his mother had asked me to get him some souvenirs.  I picked up a little baby opium pipe and a set of nail-spiked numchucks, plus a couple of T-shirts:  “Number One Hot Korea Bad-Ass”; “You My Lady; Me Your Pimple,” that sort of thing.  Eventually I wandered down into a lower level and discovered an entire bazaar of sorts, booth after booth of homemade jewelry, K-pop CDs, foam padded bras, glasses, camping equipment, freeze-dried noodle pots.  I picked up a few more trinkets, wandered a bit more, then made my way back up to street level.
Drifting a long, I found a small diner, maybe seven feet wide and twenty feet deep, glass fronted.  On the door was small advertisement:  Noodle Mussels!  Spicy or Mild!  The place looked clean enough and the owner was a nice looking guy in glasses, so I stepped in and was escorted to a table at the back. 
“You look?” he said, gesturing toward some pictures on the wall.
“Just mussels.”
“Enh?”
I pointed at the table beside mine, where two girls were piling shells on a plate.  “Mussels.”
He nodded and went off.  I sat down, took a deep breath.  An older woman with curly hair brought me a pitcher of water and a cup, then returned with a fork.  I waved it away, drawing metal chopsticks from the container on the table.  She nodded, smiled, pretending to be impressed.  I drank, and a few minutes later she returned with a small plate of kim chi—fermented cabbage.  It was good.  I drank some more and ate some more, and started to feel more at ease. 
Well, almost.  Suddenly, I felt a prickle of unease:  the sign outside had said mussels with noodles either spicy or mild.  I definitely wanted spicy.  I stood up and looked at the bowls of the young women at the next table.  Their broth was clear.  Could that mean . . . ?  I glanced at the pictures on the wall:  on the left were mussels spicy.  The liquid was red.  Further along, on the right, were mussels mild.  Clear. 
Damn. 
I glanced at the pictures again, then sat down.  I rubbed my face once, took a drink of water, shook my head.  It didn’t matter.  Mussels were mussels.  Besides, who knew how hot the spicy ones were?  No one wants to get sick on their first trip to Korea. 
I took another sip of water, then looked around.  It was a small place, just six table.  The walls were tiled and the tables laminated, the kind of restaurant you could hose down at the end of the day and then let drip dry overnight.  Even the pictures on the wall were covered in plastic. 
I caught the eye of a heavyset woman sitting at a table at the bottom of the stairs.  She was looking at me, frowning.  Then she looked at the pictures on the wall, looked at me again, and twisted in her chair, saying something in Korean.  The waitress, the one with the curly hair, glanced my way, then came over to the table. 
“Yes?”
“Nothing,” I said.  “It’s okay.”
She smiled again, indulgently, then padded back to the kitchen or whatever it was by the door.  I blushed, then glanced at the woman who’d called her over. She met my gaze.  I smiled a little, and nodded.  She also smiled, just a little, and nodded back.

After that, the day was gravy.  The mussels were good, I picked out another spot I wanted to visit—a neighborhood with old, interesting architecture and a palace with a hidden garden—paid my bill and went out the door.  I found the subway right away, got on the right train, and got out at the right stop.  Ten minutes later I was wandering down glaze cobbled lanes so narrow I could spread my arms and touch the walls on each side.  I got lost a little, but it was a pleasant kind of lost, and when I came out on the other side I could see the palace just up the street. 
Admission cost $8 US, and I spent much of the afternoon just wandering from building to building, taking pictures of the intricate artwork on the ceilings and trim and trying to avoid the heat.  I’d paid to get into the hidden garden, and was a little annoyed when I arrived at the gate and learned that you were only allowed admission as part of a tour.  I like to wander.  I’m good at getting lost, and good at finding food, and good at finding quiet little gardens in cool shady places—like, say, for instance, gardens, particularly hidden gardens—in which to take naps.  This is how I experience countries. 
That said, the tour wasn’t that bad, and would have probably been even better had it been in English.  I left the garden and palace, wandering east, thinking I’d just explore some neighborhoods, see what Seoul was really like, maybe do a little home shopping for when Ellen and I moved here (because Korea was quickly becoming one of my favorite places in the world).  At one point I ducked down into a subway to get under a busy street and discovered a German bakery and coffee shop.  Two lattes and an onion-cheese bread later, I emerged into the late afternoon sun, dazed and happy and in need of larger pants.  I found a pedestrian mall populated by art shops and soap makers and jewelry and picked up seven or eight more souvenirs.  Then I headed back to the hotel and took a shower. 
Dinner that night was at the same restaurant, only this time the other US speaker from the conference was there and we spent the evening talking about family and travels and careers and how mediocre Korean beer was but how we’d have another bottle nonetheless, thank you very much.  I collapsed into bed that night feeling stuffed and content.
The next day the anxiety was back.  It was conference time, and suddenly I was aware of the fact that:  a) I had to give a serious 40-minute talk for which I’d been paid a nice bit of money plus expenses; b) I didn’t know my hosts; c)  I didn’t know anything much about Korean general education; d) I didn’t know anything much about Korea (other than the fermented cabbage thing); and e) I was an idiot. 
Here again, it’s one of those imagination versus reality things.  When you get the e-mail inviting you to speak, all that you can think is, “Cool:  Korea!”  If you give it any more thought than that, it’s probably something vague on the lines of, “Well, I’ve been to Asia before; how hard can it be?”  This ignores the fact, of course, that, though both are in Asia, Hong Kong and Korea are radically different places with radically different cultures.  Not to mention languages.  For while I can more or less get by in Hong Kong with a little bit of Cantonese and a whole lot of English, these only work with people who:  a)  speak Cantonese; or b) speak English.  Which, go figure, doesn’t cover Korea. 
Actually, that’s not entirely true.  Plenty of people speak English in Korea.  Just not as many as in Hong Kong and not quite as well.  And because the only words I knew in Korean were, “Hello,” “How much does this cost?” and “Does it always smell like that?” my ability to grease the social wheels was limited.
Which means that, in reality, I found myself feeling awkward and nervous and amateurish when we met our hosts and drove to the campus where the conference was being held.  Every one was being perfectly nice, of course, but when there’s limited opportunity for small talk and you’re kind of tired and nervous, the awkward seconds feel like awkward minutes and the mild blank glances of strangers feels like glare of disapproval. 
But then the conference began and the talks began, and it became clear that my hosts had a wonderfully organic understanding of the complexities of general education and a real intellectual and emotional investment in its success.  In the afternoon, I gave my talk and nobody booed except for this one little old granny who said I sucked and should be sent back to Yugoslavia, me and my band of baby ducks.  Not surprisingly, the moment I was done I felt a lot better.  Then my new friend from America spoke and the two of us started fielding questions.  Within a matter of minutes the whole room was caught up in an intense conversation about the differences between integration and interdisciplinarity (don’t get me started—I can talk on this for days), about the necessity—or not—for a year of foundational content prior to synthesis and application, about all sorts of things that would really try the patience of those of you who have made it this far in what is already a really long blog post, even on this blog, which is known for really long blog posts. 
It was a great conversation.  It was complex, it was thoughtful, and it was funny.  I loved being teased by the audience, loved it when they pointed out contradictions between what Natalie had said and I had said.  I loved it when there were follow-up questions and debates between audience members.  It was fun.  It was great.  It was extraordinary. 
The conference was followed by a small banquet for the organizers, speakers, and various VIPs.  Again, a little moment of anxiety as I was led to a table and seated as the sole white guy amongst a group of Asians.  But beer was poured and toasts were given and the food was good.  Someone told a story about how the government had offered dignitaries a choice of tickets to various concerts, and everyone had chosen K-Pop—fluffy Korean boy-and-girl band music. We all laughed, and drank more beer and ate more food.  There was more talk about general education and more beer and one lady who’d been slightly critical at the conference sat next to me and made sure the waitress took care of me. 
When that was over, I waddled back up to my room, packed my bags, scheduled a wake up call, and dropped instantly into sleep.   I awoke at dawn the next morning, took a shower, grabbed my bags, and headed down to the lobby where they flagged a cab.  Climbing in and buckling up, I thought about Harry Chapin.  He was killed in a car accident while riding in a cab, after all, and for some reason every time I take a taxi to the airport, I think about him.  Which makes absolutely no sense, of course—he was on his way to a concert, not to the airport—but I always wanted to be a rock star when I was little (e.g., 43), and I suppose I like to think of myself that way whenever I can. 
So I climbed into the cab, and buckled up, and sipped my water and munched on my meal bar, and thought about what would happen if I died right then.  Which is morbid, I know, but I hadn’t had much sleep and I’m kind of a melancholy dude, so this is what happens sometimes.  And what I thought was that if I died, Ellen would be probably kind of sad for a while but would then maybe hook up with that carpenter guy she has the hots for and be pretty much a lot happier for the rest of her life.  And then I thought that if I died on the way to the airport, having just flown to this new country, having spoken at this conference, having been part of this important conversation, having met these people, having eaten all of this amazing food, Ellen would probably tell people that I’d died happy, that I’d died doing the things I most loved doing.
And she would be right.