Summer in the City (Different)

•July 30, 2019 • Leave a Comment

tempIf your neck’s feeling dirty and gritty and the sidewalk is hotter than a match head, you know you’re experiencing summer in the city in all its glory. Assuming grit and hot feet are glorious. I know plenty of people extol the virtues of summer (even ol’ John Sebastian saw the flip side, when you find that special someone and meet on the rooftop), but summer has always been my least-favorite season. That’s still true, though at least now I’m spending my summers in Santa Fe, and not mired in the heat and humidity of my previous homes, Connecticut and Chicago.

beach

Yeah, I’ll pass.

I’ve never quite understood the appeal of a season that can leave you dripping sweat at any hour of the day, if you’re not lucky enough to have central air or if you actually have to set food outside at some point. Of course, my bias is magnified because I’m not a beach person (potential risk of melanoma? Sand in everything? Jellyfish stings? Getting cramps and drowning, just as your mother warned you about? No thanks, bub). But unless you live at the beach, the cooler temperatures and soothing water can’t provide constant relief. Hence, the need to deal with summer where you spend most of your time, which for me means my home.

I know neither Chicago nor CT will rival the Deep South or truly tropical regions for life-draining humidity, but the heat waves that can stretch on for days and recur throughout the summer are bad enough. And then we have the other joy of those climes—the mosquito onslaught. Yes, there’s nothing like lying in bed in the middle of the night, hearing that telltale buzz, and debating whether to hunt the little sucker down before it feasts or wait for it to alight and then smack it good. Or, as in one CT town I lived in, there’s nothing like hearing the sound of that familiar truck coming down the street, a sure sign of summer—the whooshing made by the insecticide sprayed all around. That’s one truck the kiddies won’t be chasing.

Aside from the natural challenges summer has presented in the past, I think my associating the season with some of my most awful moments doesn’t put it in a good light. There was August 1988, when I came home from surgery and sat in the apartment in the midst of a heat wave. Even better was the summer of 2010—my wife had just left me, I was prone to spontaneous crying jags while curled up on the floor, bedbugs had invaded the home, the humidity was oppressive,  and the temperature inside never went below the upper 80s. Fun times.

railyard

Summer in Santa Fe means tons o’ outdoor music.

My emotional health of late has been almost as precarious as it was in that last summer from hell. But this time there is one big difference: I’m spending it in Santa Fe. Now, our little city is far from perfect, but as I tell anyone who doesn’t walk away as I once again sing its praises, Santa Fe has some sweet weather. Let’s start with the biggie for the summertime: no humidity. When dewpoints in New England soar to those sticky and energy-sucking 70s, we’re rarely seeing anything above the still-comfortable mid-50s (and yes, it is the dewpoint, not the relative humidity, that tells us how sticky things are). And as far as mosquitoes—I can sit in my backyard well past sunset and there’s nary a skeeter in sight. In almost eight years, I’ve never gotten one bite.

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The end of another beautiful Santa Fe day.

I was thinking about all of this as I sat out the other evening on my insect-free patio, listening to music and watching birds taking their last day’s turn at the feeder. An evening after a day when I was outside enjoying temps in the mid-80s, a light breeze, and a big, beautiful sky. Yes, the monsoon rains can sometimes put a damper on activities, and the hail can ravage farmers’ fields. But not often. Not enough to dissuade me from thinking that if I have to endure summers somewhere, this is not a bad place to be.  Even if I won’t have someone meeting me on the rooftop.

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Norway to Go

•July 1, 2019 • Leave a Comment

I was recently rereading the journal I kept during an amazing two-week trip to Norway. It’s always interesting to go back and see how you documented something in the moment, and how your memory after the fact—

Wait a minute. Who am I kidding? That’s a lie.

IMG_1930aNot the two-weeks-in-Norway part. That’s true, and I have some of the pictures here to prove it. No, it’s the journal part. Somehow, a person who makes his living as a writer and who, for more than 10 years, has routinely set down observations on life and love and every little thing that pops into his head in this and other blogs, did not write a word during the Norwegian adventure. And I’m not sure why. It’s especially surprising because on two previous trips to Europe, both taken decades ago, I kept journals that I still have, and that I do reread from time to time. They record observations of what I saw and the people I met, and on more than one occasion, they served as a form of therapy as I worked through teenage and young adulthood angst. Even on short trips around New England or to Montreal, I’ve jotted down random musings, as much as a way to pass time alone in restaurants and hotels as to impart any profound thoughts.

So why nothing this time? I dunno.

IMG_2425aIMG_2396aMaybe it’s because I was just enjoying the moments as they unfolded and the company I was with. I’m not sure if I’ve mentioned my traveling companion before here at C?WC? We’ll just refer to her by her alias, the Professor. We have traveled together before, and traveled well, but never for so long a trip and one so far from home. The good news: We are still friends (we survived our one kerfuffle, one I take full blame for). And I reckon we will travel together again, if the opportunity arises. But no, the Professor was not the reason for my journal-less journey.

Maybe I set aside the pen this trip because I was so focused on taking pictures. Or because my handwriting keeps getting worse and it’s not practical to haul out the laptop everywhere to jot down a few random notes (though I did plenty of blogging on one well-documented trip, the Cruise from Hell).

No, I think the simple truth is, I needed a vacation from writing. From even thinking in the writer’s mindset (which for me means constantly writing in my head about this and that, and then eventually putting some of it down on paper). And maybe, as much as it’s difficult to admit, as I approach—gulp—60 and having spent most of my adult life writing for either money or self-reflection (sometimes more successfully than others, on both counts…), I’m just burnt out. Or, to paraphrase the singing Germans during Madeline Kahn’s big number in Blazing Saddles, “Don’t you know I’m pooped?”).

IMG_2391aSo, for the Norway trip, all I have are memories, not the thoughts and impressions noted in the moment, and that’s ok. Some random observations: It is a beautiful country. Well, duh, that’s what drew me there in the first place. The cruise through the fjords was all that I hoped it would be, even if I did whine at times about the lack of sun. But we knew what to expect weather-wise, and we actually enjoyed being bundled up on deck snapping away at the scenery, the wind so strong at times it blew you around the corner. Then there was the midnight sun, as the first three days at sea were above the Arctic Circle. But even with the perpetual light, it was hard to stay awake for our midnight calls at several ports.

IMG_2079aThis was not a typical cruise, which I was ready for and which I thought would appeal to the Professor. The Trollfjord is one of about a dozen ships operated by Hurtigruten. They sail up and down Norway’s coast, dropping off mail to tiny seaside towns, and Norwegians use the ships as a form of transportation between the islands that dot the coast and mainland ports. The ships ferry cars as well. There’s no casino on board, no entertainment to speak of, except for what you bring along. We played a lot of cards and enjoyed watching two DVDs that we bought used in a Salvation Army story in Kirkenes, our port of departure. We read, too, but mostly we just soaked up the scenery of snow-covered mountains packed tight against the water.

IMG_1728aIMG_2117aWe explored a bit on land as well, starting and ending the trip in Oslo, spending almost two days in Bergen, and taking a side excursion to the town of Flam, where I stayed in my first International Youth Hostel in more than 30 years. We weren’t packed ten to a room, as in one memorable stay at the hostel in Sete, France, but you still needed a token for a shower and towels were not included in the room rate. Did the experience make we want to backpack my way across the continent again? Nah. But for one night, it was fine. Our other land accommodations were through Airbnb, and all were great. No hassles with the hosts, clean, affordable, and close to city centers without feeling touristy.

As far as food—well, it’s never easy being a vegan on the road. The ship did offer a vegan meal at dinner, and there was plenty to eat at the daytime meals, if the offerings did get a little repetitive. The Professor had her first taste of reindeer meat—there will not be a second—and we both skipped the last dinner to get a veggie burger in the ship’s café. For me, the most memorable meals were Ethiopian in Bergen; pizza at a little place in Oslo run by two Italians; street vendor vegan pad Thai; and the simple-but-filling pasta we cooked at one of our Airbnbs.

Were there mishaps? Would it be an adventure without mishaps? But they were tiny ones—a forgotten rain jacket, getting slipped a bank note no longer in circulation, some rude tourists (let’s retire the saying “Ugly American,” because some of the antics on the ship proved that Germans and Scandinavians can be just as ugly. But they were the exception, by far).

I can’t say I came away with any great insights into the Norwegian character or polis. I knew beforehand that the country’s great wealth comes from both taxes and dividends derived from North Sea oil and gas, which you can read about here. The Norwegians have this odd little concept of using that wealth to benefit the country. Yet, while Norway is famed for its social safety net, you can still find beggars in Oslo, as in any other big city. And I saw something in Bergen I had never seen before: a woman squatting to pee in the middle of sidewalk (at least I think that was all she was doing…).

IMG_2338aBut this trip wasn’t about sociological observation and comparison, for god’s sake. It was a vacation—the first real one for me in a long time. An exploration of a new place filled with beautiful sites. An adventure. Though with a touch of home; I was struck by the ubiquity of English and its use as the lingua franca—it’s how the Chinese guy in front of me at the hostel checked in, and it’s how workers from different countries communicated in restaurants and bars. It certainly made life easier for us, especially since the only Norwegian I mastered was takk (thank you). And I will note that if you go to Norway and enjoy beer or wine, as the Professor and I do, bone up on where and when liquor is sold. The regulations are tight. And the prices are eye-popping.

I love traveling. I would go to a different country every year, if I could afford it. I’ve traveled alone and I’ve traveled with friends and spouses. Hell, I’ve even traveled with my mother. It’s better to have a companion, I think, which I’ve written about here before. You create shared memories that you’ll never forget. Even if you don’t have a travel journal to prompt them.

The Memory Tree

•December 20, 2018 • 4 Comments

And so the ritual began. There was no tree farm this year, no trudging out into the snow, saw in hand, to cut down the one that had the right shape and height. That had stopped years before, even before his father died, the one who knew how to use the saw much better than he could, but who didn’t really have an eye for what made the perfect tree. Or perhaps the patience to find it. And so, most of the last ones his father had brought home looked like the droopy specimen in the Charlie Brown Christmas special. Maybe, he always thought, Dad just felt sorry for them.

So, no, no cutting. Just a quick stop at the makeshift mercado off the old highway, with the new highway below, and the snow-laced Jemez Mountains in the distance. Yes, a quick stop, because the first tree he saw would do the trick: tall, mostly full, with patches of white from the unexpected dusting that had come the night before. He could already see how he could maneuver it in the house to hide the bald spots and scrawnier limbs. And the price was right: less than what he had paid for smaller trees in the past. He hated to think about the money, but it had been that kind of year.

At home, he struggled a bit to get the tree into its stand, but then, it was upright, and ready for decorating. Ah, the decorations—each its own little bit of memory. But first, some water for the tree and—ah, crap. Something gave way, or his perception of the tree’s balance in the stand was hideously off. It crashed to the ground, sending water everywhere—boiling water, because his first love from decades ago had told him that the heat opened up the sealed bottom, sealed after the cut that brought the tree down, and the heat would open it up again, so it could take in the water it needed to survive in the home. If a cut tree can be said to survive. Was the boiling water theory true? He had never bothered to check. But he remembered it, and repeated it, long after the relationship ended.

The tumbling tree brought back another memory, of waking up one morning years past and seeing the fully decorated tree on the ground, fragments of glass ornaments dotting the red brick flooring like remnants of an earlier snow. Was it the cat? No, too easy to blame her, and over the years, she had been surprisingly uninterested in the green pyramids he had dragged inside. It was the balance, he knew—he had not been careful about the balance.

He would not repeat that this year. The first ornament would not go up until he was sure the tree was secure. As much as he could be sure anything could be secure. Which led to this: the memory of another past love taking out a box of ornaments—yes, his ornaments, the ones he had collected—and dropping it. More shattered glass. It was an accident of course, and a good reminder of the impermanence of things. And relationships. He thought there would be many more Christmases with her. He wondered what hers would be like this year, some 2,000 miles away.

Enough of all that—time to decorate! The Christmas songs went on, a beer popped open, the lights wrapped the branches, then the careful placement began.  Matching each ornament’s size and weight to the peculiarities of this tree. Nothing too low, in case this was the year the cat’s curiosity was piqued. Nothing too heavy on the outer limbs. Trying to put the shiny ones near the tiny white lights, and making sure the favorite ornaments got a place of honor.

This was when the flood of memories erupted. He remembered where and when he bought so many of them: on trips, at craft fairs, at small shops selling local goods. Then there were the ones that were presents—some from friends and family, most from women from the past. Many of them featuring cats doing “cutesy” things. Christmas kitsch. And he loved them all

Then, of course, there were the ones he had inherited, the ones that used to hang on his family’s tree when Christmas meant a break from school and hopefully some sledding and, yes, usually some disappointment because his friends always seemed to have more impressive hauls. Because forget the lessons in catechism class—he knew Christmas was all about the presents. And his grandmother’s ravioli. No matter what else was on the menu, from antipasto to the Torrone candies, it was the ravioli that mattered. That made it Christmas.

Over the years, he learned, finally, that it wasn’t really about the presents. Of course, as he left his religion behind, it wasn’t about Christ, either. No, he liked to think of it in terms of the pagan aspects—bringing a piece of nature into the house to get us through the darkest days of the year, remind us that that the sun will shine brightly again. Or some such. And it was about celebrating tradition. Some things from the Christmases past remained. He made ravioli every year. “Made”—well, not like his grandmother had, rolling out the dough using the biggest rolling pin he had ever seen, maybe the biggest in existence, and filling each tiny pasta pillow with a meaty concoction he learned only later contained venison (or so he was told). He bought his ravioli. And, naturally, it always stirred the memories, though it was never quite good enough. But the sauce was homemade, that he could do, simmering for hours on the stove. He hoped each year he would have someone he could share that tradition with, the Christmas ravioli. Since the inadvertent ornament breaker had left his life, it was always a crapshoot.

treeBut in a relationship or not, surrounded by friends or family or not, the tree always went up. The ornaments came out, found their perfect spot, and he was happy. At the end of each night, in those weeks when the tree stood so tall—he loved his living room with the 10-foot ceiling!—he turned off all the lights in the house. The tiny white bulbs glowed, and as he took off his glasses, they acquired a pleasing, fuzzy edge. Still, he could see well enough to pick out the ornaments he loved best: a hand-painted, modern rendering of Mimbres art, done by a Native American artist he met at an art show; another local creation, with the couple from American Gothic rendered as smiling Dio de los Muertos figures; his own Christmas band, with ornaments of drums, and horns and a mini Gibson guitar; the prancing horse constructed out of pipe cleaners, a crafty creation made by a talented friend. And capping it off was the tin star he had made, the tree topper he had sought for so long.  It looked like it had been executed by a fourth grader with dexterity issues, but he didn’t care—he had made it, and it made him smile.

This year, admiring the tree each night had been a somewhat melancholy endeavor. He was alone. It had been a tough year. He was—shit!—getting older and often didn’t like it. But the tree reminded him that the year was almost over, and it would be standing as the New Year began. The New Year offered hope. And whatever happened, he would have another tree next Christmas. A new tree, with old memories strewn about it.

Carol and the Castle

•May 1, 2018 • 2 Comments

Not again.

Not another old friend gone too soon.

Shit.

Although in this case, unlike the last time I wrote on this subject, “old friend” might not be the proper description. I had seen Carol only once in decades, briefly in the parking lot of a Hartford grocery story. Truthfully, as I’ve thought over the past week about her and our brief history together many years ago, I don’t know if it really happened or if I just imagined it. Maybe everything I know of her after high school was filtered through my sister, who had known Carol since elementary school. Some, what, 50 years? She, my sister, was the one really shaken by Carol’s death, even though she knew it was inevitable, after Carol got the diagnosis of lung cancer. Stage IV.

Carol never smoked.

It was too painful and untimely an end for someone as sweet and kind and warm-hearted as Carol. That much I know is not a false memory. That I experienced first hand during the time we spent together so long ago.

For some reason,  I always think it was 8th grade when we really connected–8th for me, 11th for her. Though given her history with my sister, we probably crossed paths earlier, in school, or at one of my sister’s sleepovers. Why she and her friends put up with the bratty little brother at those affairs, I don’t know, but I have vivid memories of taking part in the “levitation” game and the other activities that went on.

So, whether through school or something else, Carol and I had our conversations. About what? No clue. What did a 13-year-old have to say to an “older woman”? I remember mostly her laugh and long hair and a shyness that belied a sly sense of humor.

IMG_0264 (2)Over the years, even if I didn’t see Carol or hear much about how her life unfolded, I thought of her often. How could I not, with the castle sitting on my dresser, always, no matter where I lived, holding  my spare change. The castle that Carol had made for me. Now, she could have just made it as a lark in an art class and then decided it would make a nice little present for her friend’s little brother, but there was nothing random about that gift. Because in the bottom, before she fired it, she had etched, “To Miguelito, luv Me.”

Miguelito. Only she called me that. I liked that, that she cared enough to give me a nickname only she used. As far as “luv,” well, that’s just something people write at the end of letters, or maybe on the bottom of clay castles they intend to give as gifts. It doesn’t really mean anything, right?

I don’t remember how long after Carol gave me the castle that my sister told me this: Carol had had a crush on me, the bratty younger brother. WTF? My gangly 13-year old smart-ass essence had somehow stirred something in her? How could this happen? And why didn’t I know then? Not like the infatuation would have necessarily led to anything. But still…

Over the years, I learned about Carol’s hearing difficulties, her efforts to overcome them, her desire to help others with similar problems. I knew she had stayed in the vicinity of our hometown. I saw, if that parking-lot chance meeting really happened, that she was still tall and thin and a little shy. In her obituary,  I read about her love of animals, especially cats. I realized she was someone I would have loved to stay in touch with, even if she hadn’t had a crush on me. Even if I still didn’t have the castle.

So, within six months, the deaths of two women from my past. We are at that age, hmm? I know several female friends who have had cancer in recent years, and another is currently dealing with it. The prognosis is good, but it is still an ordeal. And with all this, I think about my own wrestling with the Big C, thirty years ago this summer. For me, it was an easy pin, but when stray pains arise and don’t quit, I have to wonder…

One thing I’ve thought about a lot lately is cherishing the people I love. I don’t always say it to them, but I know I should. And for the ones who pass out of my life for whatever reason, I cherish the memories. I wish I could have said it again to her, but this will have to do: Thanks for the castle, Carol. It will always be on my dresser, holding my spare change.

 

Going Solo

•July 24, 2017 • Leave a Comment

I love to travel.

I have mixed feelings about traveling alone.

And there was a time, more than 20 years ago, when I wondered how much traveling of any kind I was going to do. Panic attacks that came while driving—usually but not always over steep bridges—left me questioning where I could go by car, especially alone. (At least the two times I had attacks with someone else with me, I could pull over and let them take the wheel). And one attack in Boston while simply walking over a bridge made me wonder if I was creeping into a sheltered life defined by agoraphobia. Not a pleasant prospect for someone who had some of the most memorable times of his life in Europe and the Caribbean.

Then there was the flying problem. After the second of those European jaunts in 1983, as the anxiety about many things—mostly untimely death—began to build, I flew exactly once in thirteen years—Hartford to Chicago. I do no recall how I managed on that trip, though I assume alcohol was involved.

Finally, in 1996, I made a decision: There was too much of the world I still wanted—needed—to see, and I couldn’t let my travel-related phobias limit me. So, on one 10-day trip, I confronted my bridge fears by driving solo to Chicago to visit family. Then, from there I flew to New Mexico (I had met a friendly doctor who had no trouble prescribing drugs to address my flying fears. Thank god for her and lorazepam). Despite some sweaty palms and a pounding heart a few times along the way, I survived the trip, and I have not looked back as far as tackling any travel adventure. Only time and, of course, money,  place restraints on them.

Still…while I learned I could travel alone, I increasingly realized I didn’t want to. I wanted a travel buddy, preferably a female who was also the love of my life, to share the hardships and the inanity and the beauty and the memories that are all part of travel. And in 1998, I thought I had met her.

Faithful readers of C?WC? know many of the ups and downs of the subsequent 12 years. Suffice to say, whatever struggles we had (and there must have been a few or the second phase of the Crisis wouldn’t have been kicked off with yet another divorce hmm?), we traveled a lot. And we traveled well, I always thought, except for the Cruise from Hell, well documented and often referred to here.

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A Frank Lloyd Wright house we explored on one of those Midwest excursions.

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Lovely Budapest

We did short jaunts to Montreal and Toronto; we explored different parts of the Midwest when we lived in Chicago; we cruised several times before the Demon Sailing and had a blast; even before our marriage, we spent a week in Brussels, drinking beer, eating chocolate, seeing art, and struggling to listen to UConn’s first NCAA tournament win on a short-wave radio I bought on the trip just for that purpose; much later, we set off for Prague and Budapest, each of us studying one of the foreign tongues so we would not be complete Ugly Americans (and I think we pulled it off). I imagined even more trips together, wherever and whenever the mood struck, because we had no kids, flexible schedules (well, me more than her), and a desire to absorb all the art and history we could around the world.

 

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Taos sunset, pre-divorce, solo.

We still traveled solo too, her taking a vacation here or there by herself, me traveling for work. My anxieties had almost completely faded, and going alone was less and less of an issue for me. For her, I think, it was a foreshadowing of the time alone she craved. And not just for a week here or there. And when the split came, she stunned me when she said she was “done traveling.” Events since then have shown she just meant done doing it with me.

 

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Iceland–an incredible solo trip.

 

So, seven years into flying solo all the time, if you will, I’m once again mostly a solitary traveler. I’ve almost completely done away with the lorazepam, and I can juggle my overpacked luggage while going to the men’s room (boy, having someone to watch your gear is a real plus of traveling with someone). As far as pairing up for a road trip: There was one trek back East with a New Mexican girlfriend, but that was a meet-the-family kind of thing, not an adventure. With the most recent ex, we did not travel well together—symptomatic of the problems that constantly plagued us and ultimately drove us apart. Ironically, I travel much better now with a close female friend, but alas, we will only be friends. That’s a story for another day.

 

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This weekend–still exploring NM.

 

This weekend I took one of my many short, solo trips around New Mexico. There are benefits to going alone. I stop when I want to take pictures, do everything at my own pace. But I still crave that female travel buddy who is also my partner, the person I can share laughs with as we recount odd roadside attractions (“it’s just a big hole in the ground”) and our own travel silliness (beware the Eagles vortex of western New Mexico). Someone who will share my excitement as we plan our next adventure, for many years to come. But until then, there’s this trip to London I’d like to take next spring…

 

Birthday Blues

•March 10, 2015 • 2 Comments

Happy birthday to me, happy birthday to me, happ-

OK, so the actual day, the infamous Ides, is not quite here. Don’t some people celebrate birthday weeks these days? I mean, why not just an endless string of festive events and nights out with friends and celebrations leading up to that special day?

Yeah, trying to get back to my fighting weight...

Yeah, trying to get back to my fighting weight…

Well, maybe some people do. But as I look over the social calendar for this birthday week, I see…nada. Unless you count that thrice-weekly torture some people call my exercise class (meant to try to alleviate sciatic pain that has had me wincing for several months now, not to try to recapture the fitness of my youth. There was none, remember?). And no, I don’t count that. So what else is there? Maybe a movie, solo, one night. And in the one highlight, a trip to ABQ on Saturday to see a play, once again sans accompaniment. Then on Sunday, the special day in question? A birthday repast that I will prepare by myself, for myself alone.

Oh, boo hoo.

I stress the solitary nature of this year’s celebration because it’s really hitting me in the face as I confront this milestone (or semi, anyway; the ol’ double nickel). It will be the fourth birthday I’ve had here in Santa Fe, the second alone. It didn’t have to be alone, of course, if I had not ended my most recent relationship almost three months back, but staying in an ill-fated coupling just to have a date on your birthday (or Valentine’s or Christmas or Arbor Day, choose the special occasion of your preference) is plain wrong. Definitely worse than just sucking it up and spending the day alone.

I suppose, for this birthday, I could have put some effort into rounding up one or two of my friends here to do SOMETHING on or around the special day. But my heart just wasn’t into planning my own party, even something small scale. No, easier to wallow in self-pity, eh?

Of course, the worst thing about the impending birthday is not the thought of being alone. No, it’s that whole, you know, getting older thing. And being alone.

Yes, still living...

Yes, still living…

...in a place I love.

…in a place I love.

I try to think back to earlier decades. Did I imagine what my life would be at 55? And if so, was this it? Living in a place I love, yes, but so far from my closest friends and my family, struggling year to year to make a decent living, and facing these quickly passing middle-age years without someone by my side. Well, I’m sure there were times when I didn’t even think I’d be breathing at 55, let alone lamenting whatever sad state my life had taken. But in those more optimistic times spent contemplating my possible longevity, I didn’t think this birthday would find me feeling so isolated.

If you want to say it’s my own fault, because I couldn’t make past relationships work, or I don’t feel able to take the initiative now to cultivate more friendships, let alone a relationship—ok. And if you want to say, “Grow up, finally, Burgan, and accept the givens of aging, of approaching the inevitable end, and stop feeling so damn sorry for yourself,” say it and I will nod in agreement.

And if you say all that, and maybe throw in a little slap to the side of the head while sneering with disgust, I will not rebuke you. Maybe that’s what I need right now, more than a relationship, more than companionship, on my birthday. But I can’t help wondering: would having the latter help me frame the approaching birthday in a better way?

Moot point now, I reckon. The reality is that this is my fate on this birthday week. And I can either ratchet up the wallowing or I can take a higher road. I can pledge to make myself the best damned birthday meal ever (homemade spaghetti sauce over vegan raviolis, and homemade pecan pie for dessert—a repeat of my Christmas feast), and enjoy that play the night before, and maybe call all those friends I haven’t talked to in a while, rather than waiting to see if any will contact me on the 15th. Yeah, getting older and being alone does suck. But it still beats the alternative. And it might give me the needed impetus to make sure number 56 turns out a little better. My choice, right? Go ahead, say it. Just don’t slap me too hard on the side of the head.

The Many Santa Fes

•February 22, 2015 • Leave a Comment

The longer you live in a place, the more you see its different sides. I suppose that’s an obvious truism, but one that also rests on how much you throw yourself into various social strata and subcultures. Me, being basically a boring kind of guy, I’ve only immersed myself in a few, and the rest I just observe from the sidelines.

Last night I tasted two of those somewhat self-contained worlds, as I went from the rarefied air of academia, courtesy of St. John’s College, to the wild and wooly music-and-booze scene that is the Cowgirl on any weekend night. Over the past three-plus years, I’ve spent more time at the latter than the former, I must admit, but last night—most likely because I was flying solo—I felt more comfortable at the college.

Scenes from last year's

Scenes from last year’s

Jazz on the Hill

Jazz on the Hill

St. John’s, our St. John’s, is an offshoot of the original that was founded in Annapolis more than 300 years ago. Its curriculum is built around the “Great Books” of Western Civilization; students read and intensely discuss (I imagine, since I’ve never sat in on a class) everything from Plato and Ptolemy to Kierkegaard and Schrodinger. Students also take ancient Greek and modern French. The emphasis, not surprisingly, is on critical thinking and the clear expression of ideas—the epitome of liberal arts education. It’s the anti-Scott Walker curriculum, and I’m glad we have a St. John’s here, even if I don’t take full advantage of the programs it offers the community (excluding the Jazz on the Hill concert series, which is a great way to spend a summer evening). And in a nod to Asia, the Santa Fe campus offers a master’s in Eastern Classics, an even more practical academic pursuit (and one I would love to take, though the part about learning Sanskrit, I don’t know…).

I went to the school last night to hear a talk about Abraham Lincoln, and yes, I know, that’s a mighty exciting way to spend a Friday night. Being single, poor, and a history nerd will do that to you. I hope to write about the talk itself on my other blog, over at my “professional” website.

I walked in the student center and saw two guys playing chess, which I know happens at UConn and other state schools all the time on the weekends. Tying into the emphasis on classics, there were Greek sayings on the walls, and even Greek numerals on the clocks. Outside the lecture hall, coffee and tea was available for anyone who wanted it (hey, why not, when undergraduate tuition comes in at a little over $47k). Inside the hall, the audience seemed to be mostly faculty and students, though there may have been a few other townies. When the guest lecturer walked in, the folks who know the ritual stood up, as a sign of respect. Not wanting to be the rube, I followed suit, and we repeated the gesture at the conclusion as well.

Sitting in the hall of this pretty exclusive private college, I couldn’t help but think: Santa Fe has some of the greatest intellectual resources you could imagine for a city of 80,000 people plopped into the high desert with no “major” university in site. It’s the home of the Santa Fe Institute, which attracts scholars from around the world, and the almost-equally powerhouse School of Advanced Research. And with the Los Alamos National Laboratory a major employer for the region, an impressive array of research scientists live and retire in the region.

But then, you step back and look at the attitude toward and success with local public education, and you shake your head. The state, by some accounts, ranks dead last in education, a product of, this newcomer believes, deep poverty and a general attitude among parts of the population that education is not that important. Throw in the difficulties kids from different backgrounds—Hispanic, Native American—have in a system that has trouble meeting their needs, and you have the reality that Santa Fe represents in a microcosm—well-educated pockets of people side-by-side with lots of folks who never even graduated high school (not surprising when the functional illiteracy rate is almost 50%!).

Thinking about this educational divide, I remembered conversations I’d had with people—Anglos—who had been here longer than I had. Santa Fe is a small city, more like a town, and certain social and cultural classes never really cross over. You have visual artists and the wealthy people who patronize them. Rich Anglos who come here to retire, art patrons or not. Classical musical folk, Americana folk, folk folk. The Hispanos whose roots go back hundreds of years and who still shape local politics and recent Central American immigrants who keep the expensive, I mean NYC-prices expensive, restaurants humming. Real cowboys, wannabe cowboys, aging hippies, next-generation hippies, New Agers and body practitioners of every stripe. Working artists, artists who work at other jobs, hobby artists, and every thing in between. And don’t forget the fairly large gay and lesbian population.

Farolitos

Farolitos

Zozobra

Zozobra

Now, is it fair to say that all these classes of people never overlap? Of course not. But the events at which you see people of all ages and ethnicities and personal interests rubbing shoulders, at least from my admittedly limited experience, is not large. Maybe Zozobra, our annual burning of a moaning giant puppet, or the farolito stroll on Christmas Eve, but not a lot else.

Which brings me to the Cowgirl, where I ended up after the lecture. I won’t say it transcends all the local divisions, but the contrast between the scene there—live music, booze and conversation flowing, people dancing—and the staid lecture hall was pretty stark. The Cowgirl is sorta funky, sorta kitschy, but there’s music every night and lots of beer—albeit overpriced—on tap. Hippies come, bikers come, music fans come, families come, tourists come. Anglos, Hispanics, and Indians come, and I recently brought some gay friends from out of town. No one feels out of place, and there are certainly no airs. It has some of the “anybody can fit in” ethos that I think attracts so many different people to Santa Fe, for a visit or a lifetime. Me, I’ll be doing something in between, while trying to figure out which of the many “tribes” I can comfortably call my own while I’m here.

Return of the Son of C?WC?, Part II

•January 6, 2015 • 2 Comments

It’s time.

Yes, just as the undead know the proper moment when to arise from their graves, and film producers know they have a small window of opportunity to make money on a sequel of their mediocre movie, I realize the time has come to resurrect Crisis? What Crisis?

Look for: pictures of Santa Fe!

Look for: pictures of Santa Fe!

The reasons are myriad. For one, I can no longer post to the blog I created when I moved to Santa Fe a little over three years ago, thanks to some quirk in my WordPress account that I can’t figure out. And the new blog I can post to, I’m reserving for serious-minded (relatively speaking) work-related posts, since it’s part of my “professional” website. Perhaps most important, the time is right for this resuscitation because I am once again in crisis and need an outlet to explore the nuances of my neuroses, anxieties, and often-bizarre thoughts (yeah, it’s cheaper than therapy, though I still have that too…). Though some things have changed. My stereo is way better, with the addition of new speakers and a receiver to go with the turntable I bought a few years ago. I own my home. And I struggle to survive as a freelancer like I never did before–another source of current insecurities.

As the loyal readers of C?WC? will recall (all six of you),  my initial virtual musings started more than six years ago, when I was living in Chicago, happily — more or less — married, and facing an impending move back to my home state of CT, largely against my will. On top of that, I was experiencing in various ways a midlife crisis, though one devoid of extramarital affairs, overpriced, overpowered cars, or male cosmetic surgery. As midlife crises go, it was pretty tame and mostly internal.

Now, with 55 rapidly approaching, I can no longer refer to a midlife crisis; hell, I am not even middle aged. I am on the downward slide, baby, ain’t no denying it. Yet, crises remain. At times they even become magnified and multiply. I am not one of those lucky people who, through their faith or therapy or New Age beliefs, have come to peace with aging and dreams unrealized and impending death. No, I am, still, an adolescent in adult’s clothing, a writer with little faith in his talents, a male unable to fully comprehend the women I choose as partners.

The original C?WC? took an unexpected turn about 18 months in when it became the chronicle of a marriage dissolution unforetold, though perhaps, in hindsight, an inescapable one. And as much as that unwanted divorce reduced me to tears and stirred fears and conjured up all forms of grief, it did lead to some good blog posts, if I say so myself. I mostly avoided diatribes against the ex and managed to find humor, and perhaps even poignancy at times. At least I like to think so (the Alaska blogs, from the Cruise from Hell, were particularly memorable; here’s a sample).

Given that past, I doubt anyone will be surprised to read that part two of the online explorations of an aging writer’s angst once again reflects relationship troubles. The second of my post-divorce relationships has recently ended, though not without real effort to keep it going. In the end, the too-frequent conflicts outweighed, for me, the love we did share in calmer moments. I have a hunch future efforts to secure another relationship, or the frustrations encountered while attempting same, will come under scrutiny here at C?WC? 2.0. And surely provide chuckles for all those lucky enough to be my age and happily involved and free from the demands of dating when your years are running out.

And pictures of  my travels!

And pictures of my travels!

One downside of that recently ended relationship was my not devoting as much time as I would have liked to my personal writing. Hell, I didn’t even write one post on my incredible trip to Iceland, or other excursions both near and far. Now, I have the time for those posts and ones on myriad other subjects. They will be personal, as C?WC? has always been, they will reflect my fears and doubts, but I hope they will not be too bleak. And maybe they will even offer some levity—to me at least, if not my readers.

Does the world need this iteration of that original blog? Did the world need 29 different Godzilla movies? OK, that’s hubris on my part, thinking I can match the entertainment value of even the worst of the Godzilla movies (perhaps Godzilla Against Mechagodzilla, the 2002 version?). Of course the world does not need this blog or my random thoughts. Luckily for me, the world has no say in it. But I will strive to provide something of interest as the new crisis unfolds.

Enough Talk

•October 9, 2018 • Leave a Comment

twain

The weathermen (as opposed to Weathermen).

It was a resident of the city of my birth, Charles Dudley Warner, who most likely said, “Everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it.” The quote is sometimes attributed to Mark Twain, Dudley’s good friend, though there is no proof of that, and there’s seemingly more evidence that it came from Warner’s pen. And the assertion that Twain coined another famous weather quote—“If you don’t like the weather in New England, wait a few minutes”—is also suspect, if this website is right.

One thing, though, is clear: The people of Hartford think about the weather. A lot. Maybe it’s because of the variety and unpredictability of it there, as alluded to in the second quote. Maybe it’s because polite, well-bred New Englanders should not talk publicly about sensitive topics, and the weather is safe. Or maybe because whoever you are and wherever you live, there is this constant in life: every day, you will wake up to some kind of weather, and there’s a chance it could affect your plans. Or your survival.

I have been obsessed with weather for most of my life. In elementary school, I sat at our picture window in the living room and just stared as snow fell. Yes, there was that hankering for a day off from school, but even then, I found peace watching the silent accumulation. Though, of course, it’s not always silent, as I learned in the days when I lived by the Connecticut River and took nighttime strolls through winter storms and heard the snow hit the remnants of the corn grown in the meadows flanking the river.

I watched the weather, too, to make sure I would be able to play whatever sport was in season, whether waiting for the school bus, during recess, or in the waning hours of sunlight after school. And in summer, I watched for the storm clouds that rolled in from the west, hoping the rain and lightning and thunder would bring some relief from the oppressive humidity. Sometimes it did. Sometimes the sun returned and the stickiness endured.

It would be a lie to say that I considered meteorology as a career, though I never lost my interest in following weather patterns, looking for signs in the sky—the ring around the moon! Something I haven’t seen in ages—or changes in the air. And I would bet I check the forecast more regularly than most, a habit that has only intensified since moving to the Southwest.

forecast

A recent forecast

I had never experienced ongoing, severe drought until I moved here. If you’ve never lived in a place where getting enough precipitation each year is a crapshoot, you probably don’t realize how much most people, like the folks in Hartford, take water for granted. Now, I do little in the way of “farming” at my abode, but I have become pretty sensitive to my water usage. A rain barrel was one of my first purchases after I bought my house. If you peeked in my shower (after I was out of it, of course), you’d see the five-gallon blue bucket I use to catch the cold water that comes out of the shower head before the hot water kicks in. And in the kitchen, don’t pour a glass of water from the pitcher with the yellow lid. There’s where the water from Callie’s bowl goes when she doesn’t lap up everything I give her, along with other recycled kitchen water.

Do I list these steps of conservation with a holier-than-thou attitude? Of course not. For one, it just makes sense to use water sparingly, as we pay some pretty steep rates for our municipal supply. And for another, I know there are people who take even more steps to conserve. And I bet they keep them up wherever they go, unlike me; when I’m back in CT or visiting a friend in Olympia, another place blessed with plenty of water, those faucets flow, baby. I run the water while I brush my teeth or shave and do not give it a second thought. And the showers? Oh, long, glorious showers! With no bucket in sight.

So, my lifelong interest in the weather has taken a new turn here, as you can see. Especially as I hear the stories from people who have been here much longer than me. What we’re facing is not just the daily changes in the weather, or even variations from one season to the next. We are seemingly experiencing long-term changes that could really threaten how we live here in the Southwest. This year’s drought led several farmers I chat with at the weekly market to say they planted much less this year, because of the water uncertainty. One said it was the worst he had seen in decades, and he wasn’t sure how long he could keep farming. Then there are the people putting AC into their homes. Once, the old timers say, the temperature barely reached 90 during the summer. Now, just in the time I’ve been here, the number of 90-plus days seem to increase each year, and the nights don’t get as cool. I can get by with my one AC window unit—for now.

Just last week, I got another taste of what could be in store for us here. The cottonwood in my front yard did not look healthy. It had dead branches and prematurely yellowing leaves. I called out a tree service. The guy needed about 30 seconds to diagnose it—not enough water. He’d been seeing the same thing all over town. I could maybe save it, with constant watering (there goes that water bill…), but maybe not. The reality was, the guy said, the cottonwoods and aspens need more water and cooler winter temps than they are getting. And the chances of that changing any time soon are not good. A tree expert told this guy that in ten years, most of the cottonwoods could be gone.

After the tree guy left, I bought a soaker hose. We’ll see if I can save my one tree. But how do we save the others, and the rest of the wildlife, and the farmers, who need the water that may or may not return in the same amounts as in the past? And how do we protect us all from the rising temperatures, which mean less snowpack—when the snow does come—and more demand for electricity to power our ACs and changes in when birds migrate and plants thrive?

Forget about talking about the weather. We need more talking about the climate, and doing something about it. But given the recent government thinking—yeah, it’s going to get warmer, but who cares!—I don’t have a lot of hope. For the short term, I’ll just keep shaking my fist at the dark clouds that don’t bring rain (but the forecast said…), and hope for cooler temperatures next summer, and wait for the snow to fall silently outside my window this winter, like it rarely did last year.

 

 

Here’s to Ten More–at Least

•September 18, 2018 • 2 Comments

Ten years today. Ten years, off and on, of trying to figure out what it means to age, to face challenges, to be a writer whose aspirations often exceed his grasp, to be a husband, and then an ex-husband, to endure grief, to forge new relationships, to watch old ones change or fade away.

Long, strange trip, indeed.

And ten years of marking anniversaries of all sorts, just as I’m doing today. Yes, I tend to be a little obsessed about history, my own and the larger world’s. But this is a milestone that shouldn’t go by unnoticed, right? Ten years of writing Crisis? What Crisis?

My faithful readers—all six of you—might recall some of the thoughts in that first post of September 17, 2008. I was facing a mid-life crisis, and I wasn’t being very mature about it. I whined a bit, as I’ve done subsequently. My recently completed self-produced solo show was less than a hit, and I was preparing to leave Chicago, a city I loved, to return to Connecticut. It’s not that the Land of Steady Habits doesn’t have its charms (hey, how can you go wrong with a motto like that, right?), but certain circumstances made me less-than-willing to return to it. And of course there were the many positives about Chicago that I was reluctant to abandon. But my then-wife wanted to go back home, and I, after some hemming and hawing, said OK. And before, we thought, we might make a detour to Alaska. We did make it there, though under much different circumstance than what I had forecast in that inaugural blog post.

One of the many curveballs of the past decade.

So, with my time left in Chicago, I wrote about political and cultural events, trying to add a little reportage, some added value, to what was admittedly mostly self-serving rants and wails. You can see some examples here, here, and here. Then there was the move itself, followed by the joys of buying and owning a home in West Haven, the Riviera of the CT shoreline (I jest, of course).

I didn’t know then that the New Crisis was already lurking, and it began to engulf me on Heads Up Day and continued through the summer from hell, and ended with the snowy day in divorce court in January 2011. The legal decree did not end the mental anguish (and at times, there are still lingering emotions about that experience, and the difficult years that preceded it, that are fairly ugly. We will not go there). Those were some bleak times at the Crisis, eh?

But there was hope for redemption of a kind, with the move to the Southwest, the high desert, mountains, and roasting-chile infused air of Santa Fe. Which of course has presented its own problems, but which has also introduced me to incredible natural beauty and some truly wonderful new people. And some theatrical opportunities I probably would not have had elsewhere.

Through the ten years, through the bouts of angst and anger and moments when I was sure I could not endure all life was throwing my way, there have been some redeeming constants. Travel, for one, which has often been the subject of posts here at C?WC? Food, which I haven’t written about lately, but cooking it and eating it, especially with others, has given me increasing pleasure over the years.  Photography, too, with some of the pics—not always technically sound to be sure—gracing these pages. And especially people, the special people in my life; they have often filled my thoughts and then spurred words here. Some of them have been recurring characters; you six might be starting to feel you know them almost as I well as I do. Or, as is often the case, did.

Some random pics from over the years.

Of course, some of the constants have not been so positive. The insecurities. The explorations of loneliness and depression—the latter perhaps not clinical, but no less painful in the moment. The search for deeper meaning through all the shit.

I’ve tried, when possible, to end even the bleakest posts on something of a positive note, look for one tidbit that I can share with my readers and reassure myself with, something that says we can get through our crises, big and small. I do believe that, thanks to my Buddhist tendencies, as ill-formed as they might be, and the desire to find something worthwhile in even the darkest circumstances.

It ain’t always easy.

But, the Fates willing, I’ll keep plugging away at it—the looking for that hint of something positive. And then setting it down here. Writing these posts has been a form of therapy—perhaps at times touched with TMI—a way to stay in touch with far-flung friends and family, a chance to keep writing when I wonder why I bother. If I’ve generated some laughs along the way, so much the better. And tears, too, if they’ve come; I know at times they have while I was writing. Yes, the tears are good. Another sign that we are alive and feeling and hopefully seeking that way to treasure all life has to offer.

Last of the Summer Doldrums

•August 30, 2018 • Leave a Comment

I am doing something unusual. I am sitting down to write a blog post. Once, this was not unusual. Once, I updated C?WC? quite regularly. My record: 31 posts in 31 days. Hell, I even managed to find time to post at a second blog, the long-moribund but much-beloved (by me, anyway) The History Nerd. Back when I thought I could create a brand out of that—before everyone in social media and publishing talked about branding—and make money from it.

Boy, I can be pretty funny some times.

But there is nothing funny about this: I’ve only posted here four times in 2018, and the last post came almost four months ago. What have I been doing since then? Mostly, being depressed. No, I won’t go into the various triggers of that state—some external, some my usual battles with various internal  demons—and no, I’m not looking for sympathy. I mean, all things considered, I know I’m still better off than roughly 98 percent of the world’s population, right? (Not that realizing that eases the pain of depression or emotional struggles of all kinds or physical ailments or the loss of loved ones—just some of the things that can make life shitty even for us privileged. But it does offer some perspective.)

The good news is, I’ve felt the last week or so that I’ve turned some kind of corner. Of course that doesn’t mean that the road beyond that corner doesn’t take me to some unforeseen abyss of despair, but I’m trying to be optimistic here. And more good news is, through this summer from hell, which at times stirred memories of the anguish of the summer of the Impending Marital Dissolution, so well chronicled here at the Crisis (like here and here), I’ve still found things to be grateful for.

Fenway_Park

C’mon guys, don’t screw it up now…

Each night, before turning out the light and pondering just how poorly I’d sleep that night, I scribbled down five of those things, as I’ve been doing for several years. Granted, some nights this summer the items that made the list were not so big, in the grand scheme of things: a Red Sox win,  a work day that didn’t suck, the sandwich I made for dinner. But keeping that practice alive reminded me that life is always worth living no matter how depressed or lonely or self pitying I get.

And there were big things to be grateful for, too, something I remembered as I contemplated two 30-year anniversaries—one recently past, and one soon to be celebrated.

Thirty years ago this month, I was diagnosed with cancer. Hearing that can freak out even the steadiest of souls, but for a 28-year-old prone to anxiety and who seemed in good health, with no reason to think about the Big C, it was a bit of a jolt. The good news is, as you can see, I survived. Of course, luck played a part; it was Stage I of a very treatable form of the cancer and it was caught early. No chemo, short bout of radiation, a few years of follow-up exams, and I was good to go.

weekly reader

Not an actual issue I worked on.

The other big anniversary:  Soon after having my cancer surgery, I started a new job, as an editorial trainee at Weekly Reader. God knows, I needed training, especially when it came to writing about the news for kids. But somehow, I convinced the powers-that-were at WRC that I had some potential. And thank god, I had many experienced co-workers who shared their decades of knowledge.

I stayed six years at Weekly Reader. Among the many things I’m grateful for about that time: my radiation started right as I came on board, and the company’s insurance picked up the cost. I honed my skills well enough to eventually set off as a freelancer—and actually survive at it. And I worked with, hung out with, and in some cases made lasting friendships with some of the greatest people I know. For almost all of those six years (almost…) I went into work knowing I would have fun. I would laugh a lot. And I would get paid to do something I love. How often do we get to say that in our lives?

wrc1

Going-away party, August 1994: Jack Sutcliffe, to my left; the best boss. RIP, Jack.

So, I’m grateful for one more thing: that anniversaries of those two key events in my life will always fall near each other, reminding me how fortunate I’ve been in so many ways. And the Weekly Reader experience in particular helps me remember how many important people have helped shape me (thanks, Jack!), have been there for me during tough times, and have always wanted the best for me. To all the folks who helped me weather this less-than-stellar summer: Thank you, and much love. I’m betting on a better fall. And at least one more blog post in the weeks to come, as another important anniversary nears. Stay tuned.