writing

The People in My Neighborhood: In Memoriam, Chris Hondros

I’m still pretty shaken up by the death of Getty Images photographer Chris Hondros.

When I met him, I was a fairly good way through my short-lived freelance editorial career, and, arguably, at the peak of it. I was a contributing editor for Hooked on the Outdoors magazine, about a half-year away from getting hired on to work in advertising sales, and I was loving every minute of it.

It was early fall of 2000, and I pitched a story to the now-defunct Hooked about the surfing scene in New Jersey. I called it “Surfing the Right Coast.” My editor John liked it enough that he sent me to cover it as a feature and assigned an up-and-coming photographer named Chris Hondros to cover it with me. Chris was already working with Getty at the time, and I picked him up just outside of his Varick street offices. He was in a sueded brown blazer, jeans, and loafers, and I thought, “Oh boy, is this guy going to be okay?”

Chris was more than okay. He scooted here and there, huge lenses strapped all over, and ended up taking some awesome photos of the surfing competition that was taking place. Perhaps most important to me, he took some beautiful portraits that, when they appeared on the thick glossy stock that Hooked used, popped from the page and pinned down the wistful, evocative feel of a surfing competition that would always remain on the outskirts of the surf scene no matter how many top competitors it turned out, and no matter how much environmentalism was at heart.

Fluffy stuff, for sure, especially when compared to the conflicts that Chris would eventually go on to cover. Chris also shot some photos of me later, for a short essay I wrote on my fear of sharks and the surfing lesson that took place the same day as the surf competition. Of course I’ll treasure those. I remember seeing them in the magazine and thinking to myself, “That looks just like me, and it’s exactly the way I’d want a photo of me in a magazine to appear.”

That was Chris, in a nutshell. He was a student of individuals, and he captured them exactly as they were doing or saying the things that were their very essences.

We became friends that day, and saw each other quite a few times after we’d filed the story.

Last night, while I was struggling to find some peace with the fact that Chris has essentially been murdered (he was hit by an RPG while covering the Libyan conflict), I remembered something else: Chris was present at my 26th birthday party at the Half King. It was, in part, such a memorable event because of the photos Chris took that night with my rinky dinky point-and-shoot film Kodak, a cheap model I picked up at Rite Aid in Queens. I took a lot of pictures that year, and I took that stupid camera wherever I went. Chris was one of the first to arrive, and I remember him picking it up and turning it over in his hand, twice, looking bemused.

After he was done inspecting it, he held the thing above his head and shot ten, twelve good photos of the party from above, and then he got up on a stool, kneeling, and shot some more. They were wonderful photographs. Chris wasn’t an event photographer by any means. But I do remember getting those photos back, and loving almost every single one of them.

Of course, he’s not in any of them. But then again, that wasn’t what he was about, was it?

Later that year, my then-boyfriend and I went to celebrate New Year’s with Chris and his friends. At the time, Chris was living smack in the middle of Times Square, on 43rd street. We went up to the roof to celebrate. It’s the best vantage point I ever have had of Times Square, and the closest I ever want to get to the heaving mass of humanity that is the NYE celebration there. I’ve often thought of how wonderful it was to spend NYE in Chris’ company, and I wrote the scene of that party into my first novel attempt later.

We saw each other after that, well into the new year (2001, it would have been). We spent not a few evenings at bars in each others’ company, slugging back beer and the occasional whiskey, I think, although I may have fabricated the whiskey part of it.

These are my scraps of memory then: a few time-stamped photographs; some e-mails lost in the ether; memories of his voice over the line and across a couple of bar tables, the friendly brown eyes and raised eyebrows–“Tell Uncle Chris about it,” coquettishly–the constantly scruffy face, and that damned jacket he wore when I first met him, the one that made an appearance everywhere, it seemed.

My memories are nowhere near the events and images that made him famous later on. You won’t find our little article on his web page; and he probably didn’t think of me much over the past few years, nor did I think of him all that much, except for when I came across his byline, which was, okay, frequent, and always with the thrill that he’d gone from what we did together to this life. Always there was a frisson of worry and a silent wish that he’d stay safe.

These are the things I remember. I am honored to have shared a byline with him. Happy he graced my life. Infinitely sad that he won’t be around for me to look up when I get a wild hair, dial the number that lived in my Rolodex for years, gathering dust. Maybe I’d hear the warm voice again.

He was a good man, a good friend, whenever I called. My work is better because of his work. Here is Chris’ web site. I hear he has a son, a 3-year-old. Maybe one day I will bring by the clips, show little Hondros the faces his father captured before he his work launched him onto the world stage as an important voice in conflict photography.

Or maybe I’ll just keep it to myself. For now, here are the pages of our work together. I will miss you, Chris. Thank you for sharing the byline.

UPDATE:
In lieu of flowers, the loved ones of Chris Hondros kindly request donations be made to The Chris Hondros Fund. This fund will provide scholarships for aspiring photojournalists and raise awareness of issues surrounding conflict photography.
The Chris Hondros Fund
c/o Christina Piaia
50 Bridge Street #414
Brooklyn, New York 11201

Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

The 30-Day Experiment: How’d It Go?

About a month ago, I told you all that I was going to do five things for 30 days straight. So, what were the results?
Here:

  1. Drink a glass of water every morning: 100%
  2. Make our bed every morning: 100%*
  3. Write a one-page diary entry longhand every day: 93%
  4. Go to the gym or do something physically strenuous every day: 76%
  5. Read at least the headlines of one entire section of the newspaper that arrives at my door each morning: 0%

So what now? Well, let’s look at why I picked these five items to begin with.

The water thing was about the fact that I woke up dehydrated every morning. That and the making-the-bed thing were also both about establishing a mini-routine that would help me to feel more organized in the morning. (Somehow, brushing my teeth, washing my face, and making coffee wasn’t enough of a routine.) And then, it’s kind of nice to walk by the bedroom and not see a rumpled mass of sheets and blankets every time I go past it.

Numbers 3, 4, and 5 are all about things I badly want in my life but hadn’t found the focus for previously. To be more specific, I’m more organized when I can take five or 10 minutes each night to jot down what happened during the day, and clear my mind of any extraneous garbage that might disturb my sleep, like pissiness over the way a meeting went, or the way a friend’s been treating me, or the way I’ve been treating a friend.

Working out every day was sort of a physical experiment. How long could I keep that up for without a break? And what would it do to my body?

Reading the newspaper was about being a better citizen of the world. And about cutting down on waste. Every day that I do read the newspaper, I find something I care about, something of interest.

So. Here are my conclusions.

1&2. I like starting the day with a little automatic movement and routine. I’ll keep these habits and probably build on them. In the last week of the experiment I started getting up at 6:30 with Jim and walking to the train station, where he catches his shuttle to work. Sprocket got an extra two miles–and I got an extra-early start to the day, which meant I could knock off earlier and not feel guilty if I was sitting in a beam of sunlight, reading, at 4PM.

3. I liked bookending my day with a focused task like this. It was nice to recap the day. There was a time when I wondered how people could fit everything they thought into one day, or even half a page.

really? merely a page for a day? yes, but not with restrictions like this. Photo: Levenger

But I could see how it would be soothing, to know that you only had to get to the end of the page and then you could stop or go on. And, unlike my previous practice of making lists for the next day each night, this freer form allowed me room to rant if I wanted to. I still like the night-before list. Good way to ensure that everything’s out of mind and safely on paper where you won’t forget it. But you can’t rant, or worry, or muse, on a list. You can with a nice blank sheet.

I used to do stuff like this all the time. What happened?

4. I have a love-hate affair with fitness. I’ve raced in countless events and even done Ironman. So what’s my block? I still don’t know, but I believe I am closer to solving the puzzle with these 30 days. I kept up the streak for 12 days straight. And then I had to travel one day, and that sort of screwed the pooch. But do you know what? I was so much stronger for the day off. I know, DUH, right?

Still, my experiment reinforced the need for balance. I love being outdoors, and often, a walk in the woods is so much more rejuvenating than a session on the Cybex. And then, friends also make everything so much better. Towards the end of my 30 days, some friends signed up for a June triathlon. I tagged along. Getting outside with friends reminded me how important it is to have people to train with, and folks to egg you on.

Linda, me and Jim on North County Trail

Then, too, it’s been very wintry here, so the days I was tempted to go outside were limited. I’m still not sure what I want to do with this, but now that it’s spring (although it’s snowed here for the past two days, or sleeted), my options will include many more outdoors miles. Either way, I’m stronger for this past month. In total I skipped seven days out of the 30, two of those for illness, two for travel, and three cos I was just plain lazy and couldn’t be arsed.

5. Oh, my newspaper. my beloved newspaper. I can’t give this up. I get so much out of it when I do sit down to it. But it almost never happens. Must approach this with renewed vigor. Maybe with looser parameters. But at which point do I abandon ship and just go to e-version? This would make me cry, by the way. I once had a nightmare about giving up the newspaper. Yes, really.

There are varying opinions on how long it takes a habit to form. One article I found said 21 days; another said 68! My take is that the habits you form are the ones that truly, deep down, do something for you.

I have a new challenge for myself. This one is just because I’m curious. Starting today, I will write down everything I eat each day. Will I calorie count? Maybe. I *am* curious.

Here’s the takeaway from my 30-day experiment.

*I don’t seem to be in danger of letting exercise either run my life or escape from it entirely. I’ll just keep doing what I’m doing.

*So, too, for the glass of water, the making of the bed, and the daily longhand diary.

*I’m giving the newspaper another crack. I’m just not willing to give up the feel of it.

And here’s what I’ve consumed today, so far:

(2) eggs in (1) tblsp corn oil + 1/2 c salsa

(2) cups coffee w (2) tabls half and half

(2) packets emergen-C w 16 oz. water.

Are you bored yet?

Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

Kickstart My Heart, Part II

So. While I was headed down to the gym earlier tonight (at 10:30! What a joke!) I was struck with the most certain terrifying thought that if I didn’t write down all of the wedding weekend festivities, I’d just…forget.
I mean, hey, we all say things like, “It was a night we’d never forget,” but…well, a girl gets old. Stuff falls out and between the cracks. And besides, I want to share this with peeps who weren’t able to go.
So I’ll give you the rundown of the weekend now. But in the interest of space and your own sanity, I’ll save the rumination for later. There’s a lot to think about.
Got that? Boring timeline now; potentially boring reflections later.
Okay. So when last we left this blog, it was Wednesday afternoon and Lara and I were picking up Ms. Jody. We collected a bizarrely baggage-less girl, and although gullible me just shrugged when Jody waved her small carryon backpack at me and said, cheerfully, “dress and shoes, that’s all I need!” it proved to be that the airline had lost Jody’s luggage.
So we spent part of the trip out of Vegas trying to find mobile phone spots in which Jody could bark at the airline, trying to figure out when her luggage was going to get to Death Valley. We had a minor detour during which we stopped at WalMart and Michael’s to pick up some odds and ends*, and then it was finally, finally off to Death Valley. We checked into our individual rooms, said hi to Jim and Scott and Nichole (Jim’s best man and our officiant, respectively), and then, delight of delights, got a text that Peter was already at the resort, family in tow.
We met Peter for drinks and some light eats at the Corkscrew Salon, and then hot-footed it back to my suite to put together gift bags. This included some small disappointments: The letters I’d had the resort print out came out in a different, decidedly non-1920s font, despite my spending some time having chosen a specific look, and I forgot to add the location of the post-race BBQ to said letter, so Jody spent some precious time and energy writing the location on each of the 52 gift bags. Nuts. This might be why the scene in our room looked like this:

[photo: Jody]
In the end, though, everything looked OK.
photo: cousin Rachel, wicked w a camera
It felt a little bit surreal. I’ve never undertaken such a large-scale “craft” job, unless you count the time I made all those bracelets for Terry, and that was just with Jim helping. This time, having two of my closest friends nearby, felt strange, especially with Kim Kardashian yammering in the background. I still don’t know why Lara chose that channel. But I said I wouldn’t ruminate.
Okay. So. The next morning we gathered for breakfast and then showed Lara and Roj (he’d arrived earlier that morning) and Jody around the ceremony and reception site, and then, with Scott and Nichole and our friends Kathy and Jeff in tow, we finally set off a little after lunchtime for a trip to the nearest sites available to us, Badwater Basin, the Artist’s Palette, and…something I can’t remember right now. Oh, right, the Natural Bridge.
Here’s Badwater.

Photo: Lara


Yes, yes, that’s me and Roj tasting the water. I daresay, I think my plank is better than Roj’s, although I will confess I had a dangerous time of actually getting up from the dip that was required if I was going to taste the wine of the desert.
Here, I like this photo:

Photo: Lara


And here’s a photo from Lara’s camera of our group. Lookit all the friends!

Jody and Lara and Roj and I went back to the Inn, where Jody and I went to sit by the pool and chatted up the race director, and then we ended up deciding that it was a good time to head up to the bar with Lara. The text messages started coming in then; Jen and Ken; Kara Andersen, and Jim stopped by, and I know there were one or two others, but I cannot remember now.**
Dan and Audrey arrived then, and we had drinks up in my room, and then eventually my parents and my brother and sister-in-law pulled in, and after getting them all settled in, we went out to dinner down at the Ranch, where we ran into a whole bunch of other friends, like Ed and Kathleen and Peggy and Amalia and some other people*** and it began to sink in just a little bit that everyone was gathered here for a reason.
It was a most delicious sensation. But I digress.
The next day was race day. We got up and dragged ourselves down to race start, where, oh! joy of joys! My parents AND Kara’s were waiting, to take pictures of the race start, and we heard that Lara had indeed decided to undertake the marathon with Jody and Jim’s brother Jon and his trainer TJ. The half-marathoners were me, Roj, Kathy, Jeff, Kara, Rachel, Ed, Kathleen, Peter, and Dustin. And Jim decided he was going to do the 10K. Here’s this lovely lovely race photo!

Kathleen and I ran almost all the way together. I’m sure I was holding her back, but by mile ten my hamstring was seriously jacked up and I told Kath to go on. We had a nice run together, anyway, and I enjoyed the company and stopping to take photos and the scenery and all of it. I do love that race.
I came in nowhere near where I wanted my time, but there’s not a whole lot you can do about crap training.
Roj won his age group, and Jody won her age group in the marathon, and and and … well.
After that, we stumbled back to the hotel and did stuff I can’t remember, like…ummmmm. Gosh. I really don’t know. This is awful. I know I was with Jim. Maybe we were looking for my parents. Maybe we hung out with my brother? Maybe we hung out by the pool again. Or maybe I went down to the Ranch to hang out with Jody. No, that’s not right, cos I was back at the Inn in time for rehearsal.
Yes, rehearsal!!
Here was our wedding site, pretty much:

Photo: Alan


If you look real closely you can see all the chairs set up for the ceremony in the upper right hand corner of the photo.
So rehearsal happened, and then there was a post-race BBQ where there was a ton of roasting and a ton of laughs and just some really good times and apparently the cameras didn’t come out until, at 8PM, it got windy and we all repaired to the bar at the Ranch.
Oh. My.
It was crazy buffoonery and there was rather too much drinking for the night before a wedding, but hey, what the heck. You only live once.
Jim went to stay in another room (why? why? I will never understand this), so when I woke up hungover then next morning at 5:45, having been awakened by the howling whistling wind, I totally freaked out. And I called Jim.**** This is the problem with outdoor weddings, you see. Things could Go Wrong.
Well, they didn’t go wrong. The wind died down, we took our pre-wedding photos, which included a little bit of this:

Photo: Nichole Donje


and some of this:

Photo: Scott Allinson


and finally some of this:

and then we went back to the Inn and put our feet up for a wee bit, and then there was a ceremony and some vows and then there was this:

Photo: Matt Siber

Photo: Scott Allinson


And then there was an Epic Fricken Party with the best friends in the world and a pretty good after-party, and that’s all I have to say about that for now, cos this post is SO LONG.
But I will risk a bit of rumination and just say here that it was one of the two best weekends of my life, for a few reasons. One, everyone who was there mattered. Really, really mattered. And two, it was the best ever for its normalcy. Think about it: We had drinks and dinner, we ran a race; we had a post-race BBQ, and then we had a big event and everyone went home happy.
This is the way every weekend should be.
Next post, some Deep Thoughts. Well…some thoughts, anyway.

*these included some gift bags and an item of clothing which I will er, reflect on later.
**See? How awful is that? I’ve already started to forget! If someone out there is reading this and was there, could you remind me?
***Seriously, brain is for shit.
****It would have been so much easier if we had been together, so I could have just pounced on him and yelled, “MAKE IT STOP!” instead of doing it over the phone.

Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

A brief intermission and a public announcement

Aside from the basics off eating breathing, drinking water, I’ve never done anything for 30 days straight. Not in my recent memory, anyway, and not anything that I’ve known would be good for me. Maybe in my angsty college years I kept a daily diary for 30 days straight, but that’s hardly a challenge when you’re angsty all the time.
So, inspired by an acquaintance and a fellow writer, I’m challenging myself to do a few things over the next month, the next 30 days. They are things that have eluded me, and although I’m not up to challenging myself to doing something every day for a year, like the kid in Brenda’s story did, I think I can manage a scant month’s worth of time. And who knows? Maybe that month will lead to a year. But let’s not get ahead of myself. Here’s my list. I invite you all to either check in with me or make up a list of your own. Leave your lists in the comments below, if you like.

1. I will go the gym or do something physically strenuous every single day.
2. I will write a diary entry in longhand every day. It only has to be a page, but it can be more than that.
3. I will start each day with a glass of water.
4. I will make our bed each morning.
5. I will read at least the headlines of the first section of the newspaper that arrives each morning at my door and often goes straight to the recycling bin.

Okay, that’s my list. Now I’ve told you all, and I have no excuses, really. Some of these things are so simple! Who knows? Maybe this will be the start of something great.

Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

Kickstart My Heart

Last night, one of the students in the class I’m teaching on the essay wrote about one of the moments that she’ll never forget in her life. She relived the two days leading up to her wedding, and how special they were, in part because of her father’s cancer’s remission and the homespun nature of her wedding. These things combined allowed her to experience her father as if they were just leading casual normal lives, instead of prepping for a major life event on the heels of a narrow scrape with death.

Her recounting prompted me to recount my own wedding week, although I’m not one to air things like planning details and information on color choices and whatnot. After all, Jim and I have been together for so many years; it seemed almost a superfluous task, to tell everyone we know and love that we’re  together and committed. It’s hardly a newsflash.

But that’s another story, another argument, and the fact is, when we set out to plan this event, we did it with the full knowledge that what we were planning was an event to honor our friends and family, and the role they’ve played in our lives. What we got was so much more than that, and so quintessentially us, that I fear we’ll never be able to plan a better event.

The whole thing started, as do so many, with a sporting event. I’d run the Death Valley Marathon two years ago, and been rapidly enamoured of the place and of the event; it’s a low-key gig with no starting gun, no big finish banner, no TV coverage. The landscape is ridiculously gorgeous, the entire venue, indeed, perfect, and we wanted all of our nearest and dearest to experience it.

So we planned our wedding around the race and around the Furnace Creek Inn and Ranch.

Lemme tell you, there is something tangibly delicious about sharing something you love with people you know will appreciate it. As always, there was some worry, because Hello! Death Valley?? Even the name is off-putting. But whatever.

Wedding week started off with insanity. I didn’t know if I’d make my flight out because of a massive storm that was brewing and threatening to cancel a ton of flights, so I left twelve hours early. That was interesting in and of itself, and if I needed any more proof that Jim’s practice of making lists was the way to go, well, let’s just say that if I hadn’t made the list, I’d probably have forgotten everything that mattered. It turns out I didn’t forget anything–quite the reverse! I had so much stuff that we couldn’t find one or two things.

I got into Vegas, where Jim was already spending time with Scott, his best man, only three hours late. Not bad. Crashed into bed and slept for a whole three hours before I had to get up for a 7AM conference call; then went back to bed. Vegas was CHILLY. So not cool. I mean, cool, but not in the way I wanted.

Jim left the next morning to get to Death Valley, and I was left with a nice quiet day with which to wander around our hotel, get to know it, book appointments and hunt down various needs, and then, after an hour or two of work, Lara arrived. Oh, joy!! We’re in touch quite a bit via things like chat and Twitter, but we only get to see each other once a year, so it was nice nice to have her in person. Our suite at the Hard Rock had a wet bar and some nice stereo system, so we chilled with a beer, and then, just as Lara was needing to really get to sleep (it was 4 AM UK time), we went out for dinner.

There is something really heartbreaking about watching a friend fall asleep in her salad. We each had a margarita and then crashed into bed at around 9:15. Yes, yes, we did.

And if that doesn’t sound very Vegas to you, guess what we did the next morning? We ordered room service, admired the view of the parking lot from our hotel room, finally tottered off to our manicure appointments, and then spent the rest of the day in the strip malls looking for things like craft supplies and outlet malls.

We did, however, find a gorgeous dress for Lara and a really cool top for me, and then it was back to our suite for a quick change and a civilised glass of wine, and then off to see “O” at the Bellagio. Dinner later at Noodles, and then back to our suite again, where we sat up and chatted until midnight.

How lovely!

Do you want to know why there are no pictures of our brief time in Vegas? I’m convinced it’s because we were too busy taking advantage of the proximity of good friends. That, and the combination of too many things to do and the need, for me, at least, to preserve the memory in my head and heart rather than on film nullified the desire for photos.

We did room service yet again the next day, quite happy to be lolling about in our big fluffy beds with pillows all around and the weak February sunlight filtering through the screens, meandering from room to room when we felt like it. It was lovely. Really and truly lovely. And then, before we knew it, and after a lot of messy packing on my part, we had just enough time to scoot over to the Bodies exhibit at the Luxor.

So here’s what I’m saying about experience vs. photographic evidence. Obviously, photos are meant as memory aids. Some really skilled photographers can produce evocative evidence of the things that happened. But in some cases, the photo just can’t even come close to the actual experience, and it’s even depressing to think of how do try and capture, at least for a lumpily unskilled sort like me.

Case in point? The Bodies exhibit. Obviously we weren’t allowed to take photos in there. But I’ll never ever forget discovering it with Lara, each pointing out the sheer wonder of the things, and marveling at the beauty and work of some of it. I also will never forget me sniff-sniff-sniffing, faucet-head-o-rama, and Lara going, “Do you want a tissue?” I don’t know why. It was a particularly tender moment, only underscored by the fact that Lara didn’t, in fact, have a tissue to offer.

Eventually we went to go pick up Ms. Jody at the airport. And I’ll leave the rest of the trip for another post, because the rest of my day beckons.

Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

Port-au-Prince to Coupeville: what lies between

It all comes down to left brain versus right brain.
I was shocked at just how exhausted I was coming back from my Master of Fine Arts residency at Whidbey Island. With some reservation, I noted that it might have actually been a more difficult recovery than those following deployment for ShelterBox, and I wondered why.
So I sat down and broke it down. (Okay, not really. What I did was to spend a couple of days mulling it over in my head, and then Gwen Bell posted something about writing 750 words a day for the month of September, so it’s September 1 and now I’m posting my thoughts. Because, you know, it’s useful to have external motivation, so on.)
When I come back from deployment I try and unpack, first thing. Who knows what creepy crawlies are lurking in my baggage? (My return from Taiwan yielded the largest squashed cockroach I’d ever seen in my life.) If I can’t be bothered to do the laundry I leave it all on the balcony.
Then I eat something incredibly indulgent. Ice cream, maybe, or potato chips. Something totally unreasonable to be carrying around in your pack. Soda pop is a good choice.
Then I turn on the boob tube. Typically it’s Turner Classic Movies. If I’m lucky I find some Rock Hudson/Doris Day flick, something I’ve seen before, and then I fall asleep on the couch. Eventually I crawl into bed and sleep for about 10 hours.
When I got back from Whidbey, it was almost all the same actions. Except my brain, my brain was on fricken fire. And that’s when I realized just how different the two events are, even if they share the concept of being on overload for 10 days.
Deployment is 100% action and logistics, all the time. You’re messing around, dealing with people, but not on any level other than cursory. There’s no room for emotion, no room for rumination. You think, you act, you fling tents and boxes and build stuff. Then you go home and crash, maybe process some stuff. That’s all left brain.

Building something like this is all left brain.

Whidbey Island? Whidbey Island was all right brain. Writers get to be writers because we think we have something to say. You spend all nine days at Whidbey immersed in words, your own and others, trying to make your words fit what you’re learning. You meet people that fire up little neurons in your head that then spawn more thoughts. You spend all of your time thinking, thinking, thinking about stuff that might not be immediately connected to your actions of going to class and writing papers, but at some point, some of that stuff starts to sink in, and you get even more excited because you can immediately find some way to apply what you’ve learned to your work.
You spend a lot of time thinking about yourself, and not in a navel-gazing, “what am I about?” kind of way. It’s more like an excavation of the stuff you didn’t remember coming to surface; and then there’s the added layer of worrying those events over; how you can express them in a pleasing manner that leaves room for more thought.
Everyone around you gives you something to think about. Every word out of someone’s mouth has the potential to give you something to work with.
It’s a pretty special nine days.
That’s the other part of why recovery was so hard–that kind of energy is hard to come by. I’ve written about this kind of energy before, where everyone in the room cares about just one end point. It happens in group events, like the AIDS Ride, where it was the end goal to get everyone from point A to point B on any given day. To a lesser extent it happens on deployments, where the whole point of your existence is to make sure people get out of the elements and into shelter, but even in that there are smaller more personal investments at play.
At Whidbey, everyone wants everyone else to publish. At graduation, the chairman of our board of directors said, “Your success is our success.” When only three people are graduating, and there are fewer than 50 people in the room, 35 of which are actual students, you know what? You believe that stuff. Whidbey has invested in you. Its future depends on your success. I believe it.

"Our success depends on you having your nose buried in a book all the time." Uh, okay!!!

Funny, though–before this experience, I’d come to believe that true exhaustion came from hard physical activity. This is the first time I’ve ever been so pooped from just thinking, although I did put in four morning runs during my time at Whidbey.
I think, too, that it was truly an amazing experience to sit up both late and early talking about literature. If I’d had any doubts at all that working with words is what I want to do with the rest of my life, 10 days at Whidbey would have knocked them clear out of the park.

Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

Photos from Whidbey

My first indication that I'm not where I thought I was: a campaign sign on Whidbey Island

Between 11:10 and 12:30 I took my books down to the rocky beach and did homework. If I turned to face away from the ocean, this was my view.

And now, some up-close things I spotted on the beach. First, this cool infinity-shaped whorl on some driftwood.

The beach is mostly rocky. Almost every clustering of rocks is a mini still-life.

Sometimes I was reminded that there is life outside of reading, writing, new friends, and the rocky beach. This piece of driftwood was one such reminder.

Sometimes I spotted other writing students on the beach. Here, Nancy and Steve, on a rock-hunting expedition.

from the building that serves as our classrooms, you can see lots of ships going by. these huge cruise ships were a shock, though.

Fort Casey was built in 1897. Obviously, some of the buildings have disappeared. Ripe for ghost stories!

After my morning run, I met my roommate Cyn on our porch for coffee each morning. This is the view from our porch.

At 7:25 or so Stefon would walk by on his way to breakfast. (Cyn and I opted out.)

Sometimes Robert stopped by for coffee and a chat.

Here's what it felt like.

Some days it was too cold. Then we decamped to living room and pot-bellied stove fire.

We were fed quite well at Whidbey. Dessert every night if we wanted it. I am a sucker for bread pudding. Stefon thinks this is funny.

One evening we decided it would be a good idea to jump into Puget Sound. It must have been about 54 degrees in there. Not bad.

One day, Merone, Cyn and I went into town for lunch. I was enjoying mussels when I looked up and spotted this. I think my first coherent thought was "Oh, gross. Moose drool."

We took the ferry to get off of Whidbey and onto the mainland for the drive home. From left to right, Nancy, Stefon, Jackie, and Mandy. Until January, friends!

Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

The People in My Neighborhood: The Planner

Sometimes, you meet people in one capacity, and you never think that you’ll see them in other capacities. Sometimes our friends are silo’ed. They stay in their individual little places. We call them when we want specific things: I have friends I got out Drinking with; friends I Do Outdoors Stuff with; friends I Eat with, friends I Cook For. I have friends I Shop With, and Movie friends, and then there are the friends I Learn Stuff With.

I am squashily fond of the friends with whom I Chat Deep into the Night With Only a Bottle of Wine to Entertain Us.

My friend Peter the Planner is one of those, but he didn’t start out that. I met Peter in early July of 2002. i remember because this is the same weekend I got together with Jim. We were camping at Round Valley, mountain bike camping; and we packed in and packed out all of our stuff. We led a quick clinic on flats and cables and stuff, and then were off.

I know that Peter had said he was going to meet us somewhere en route. I’d never met the guy before. I was doing some pro bono media work for a non-profit racing association that we were both a part of. At some point on the trail a really sexy bike went by pedaled by a guy with impossibly long legs and perfect riding form–it looked as if his riding was effortless, and I was immediately annoyed–why couldn’t I ride like that?

Hello, Peter. Nice to meet you.

At some point after that we all went to see a movie together; and then we went out to celebrate Karen, Peter’s wife, on her birthday, at a vegetarian joint–was it VP2?–and then we went to a triathlon clinic together, and shortly after that we did a triathlon together, where we off-road people reveled in the three miles of trail run that broke up all of the awful asphalt; we had dinner together that night, and he came out a couple of times to meet me for drinks, and

Then

I

Moved.

To Chicago.

And I began to notice what happens when you leave the right people: They Call You.

And keep track of you. And when you come home, they make every effort to see you.

Peter and i haven’t done anything athletic together in years. But I know that if we wanted to, we could make it happen.

While I was gone, I learned a lot about Peter:

  • His writing, when he does it, is remarkably evocative of whatever it is he’s feeling at the time. (If you think this is easy, you don’t  know jack, and you need to read more.)
  • His sense of organization is ridiculously good.
  • He is a tangential thinker: His train of thought goes in different directions and then he actually connects the dots, and whatever he’s saying is almost always useful.
  • He knows Stuff. Or knows where to find the answer.
  • He is the right person to talk to when things look grey and confused. Peter will either add some color or sit with you until the cloud passes.

Peter is the planner not only because he works for a major urban-planning think tank, but also because when I am having problems organizing my incredibly disorganized brain and life, I know he can help, and that he will be vested.

I met Peter mountain biking, but our lives revolve around people now. Here is proof:

We go to movies. We go to museums. We have picnics on the High Line together. Sometimes Jim and I get to see Karen, and Peter and Karen’s hilarious and wonderful twins, John and Henry.

Isn’t it nice when someone you thought would only ever fit in one area of your life suddenly spills over into everything else?

Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

The People in My Neighborhood: The Cyclist

I still remember the first time I ever saw Aileen outside of our usual haunts. We were both on the Upper West Side. She had a plastic carrier bag in one hand and was standing in front of a plate-glass window looking at some clothing items. The shop was Clothingline, when they used to have a brick-and-mortar, and I remember standing just near her, wondering if it was the same girl that…

Yep, it was. We exchanged hellos, and then some random platitudes. I can’t remember when we started hanging out after that, or if we actually did. I do know that when we did actually start shooting the shit together, it was in ways that were so far removed from the way we actually met that you might consider it lucky that we met at all.

So enough dancing around the shrubbery–how did we actually meet?

Answer: On bikes, both strong as can be, both confident, both just discovering, I think, what kind of a person extreme competency makes you.

Aileen and I met in 1997, during training for the 1997 Boston-New York AIDS Ride. I did it with my then-boyfriend, who lived in Boston. I was living in New York, and I trained for the thing largely in my living room, on a hydraulic trainer. But I did go on one or two training rides, and it was there that I met Aileen. We would both go on to complete the 1998 AIDS Ride together. Aileen would ride in support of an AIDS Vaccine across Alaska later, and I would ride across Montana in support of the same cause the year following.

Like I say, I’d never seen her in anything other than spandex before the day I saw her standing in front of Clothingline, but I do remember thinking that this woman of bright smile and open demeanor was one to keep track of.

We floated in and out of each others’ lives for years; and then we lost track of each other. Later, we floated back into each others’ orbits, and have known each other through a fair number of birthdays. I have spent two New Years with Aileen. One was a year in the height of my social life, when I had to hit five New Year’s parties, dragging along a boyfriend who wasn’t too keen on all of the shuffling. It was just before Aileen moved to Colorado.

Aileen was, at the time, the coolest person in my immediate circle. She was the quintessential New York girl, the one I wanted to be, with a terrific apartment in Hell’s Kitchen, two cats, her bike stored neatly away. She had a bar at which everyone knew her name. She knew the firemen and the guys who rode Harleys; her hairstylist was her best friend; she introduced me to lots of different people. She played the guitar. Her friends were vastly different from her. She picked up and moved to Colorado, a couple years after I was considering, and eventually not ready to, move to Montana.

Later, she would be a rock in what might be the absolute most confusing time in my life. But I had no way of knowing this. In fact, Aileen has been there through the Married Man, the Cocaine Addict, the Ego-Maniac, and countless friend rotations. (Why do we give our ex-boyfriends capitalized nicknames, but not our ex-friends? Maybe I should start. Well, there’s Dead-to-Me, but that’s about it…)

I also didn’t know, at the time, that Aileen can write. And if now I am eternally frustrated that she doesn’t do more with her writing, I also know that our relationship is indicative of the way I’d like to approach life, and my fragile wish that more of the world will eventually know Aileen’s writing: what’s meant to be eventually will be.

Aileen’s bike is in a corner now, and has been for a little while. It’s a lovely hat-rack. But it’s kept free of dust, and Aileen knows it’s a beautiful machine. She also knows that she’d like to get back on it. Wouldn’t it be nice if, one day, Aileen and I got to ride our bicycles again together?

Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.