Monday, August 19, 2013

The Snows of Kilamanjaro

When I was a freshman in college, in 1979, I had to read Hemingway's "The Snows of Kilamanjaro" for an English class. To be honest, the book made no impact with me. The random flow of the narrator's memories as he dies didn't register with me.

A few months ago, I was revisiting the story in my head, and realized that I now get, at the age of 52, what I didn't get when I was 18.

Twenty years ago this summer, I got the news that I was going to become a parent. It was not expected-- I had broken off a relationship with the woman a few weeks before-- nor particularly desired. I felt like I would be a shitty parent, and I had other plans. In fact, I had planned to spent that summer, the summer of 1993, working only one job (I usually worked 2) and try to figure out the next couple of steps in my life.

Back in my younger days, I used to hang out at the Gingerman Tavern here in Chicago with a guy named Michael. He was one of the nicest and most interesting people I've met in my life. He used to have a tagline on his email, one that's been attributed to a number of people, "Do you want to make God laugh? Tell him your plans." Truer words were never spoken. The following spring, in 1994, my son was born. I took to parenthood like a fish to water. I just fell in love with parenting, and in particular, this little pip of a guy who was now my responsibility for at least 18 years.

I ended up splitting with his mother, but shared custody of him. I was married and divorced twice, and finally tried marriage a third time, this time with a woman who already had a child. My stepdaughter and I hit it off pretty quickly, partly because her birth father doesn't seem to quite get the hang of parenting.

My son is home for his summer break from college for a few more days. My daughter is on a college tour today with my wife. It really hit me this morning-- our journey raising children is nearly done.

I had the realization recently that I now get Hemingway's book. There are a million little memories from a lifetime that come flooding back with a moment's reflection.

The picture to the right, of my kids riding bicycles together is one of them. I've done a lot of things in my life, good and bad. I've gotten four college degrees, loved some wonderful women, made some great friendships-- but one of the most important things I think I've ever done is taught two kids how to ride a bicycle.

I'll never forget seeing my son take his first steps. It was at a party we had for his first birthday. I was still living with his mother; both families were at the party. For a couple of weeks, he'd been walking holding onto furniture. He was sitting in the middle of the living room, when he suddenly stood up and walked over to one of his grandmothers (I cannot, for the life of me, remember if it was her mother or mine).

I got my stepdaughter when she was 8, so I missed the first words, first steps, etc. Our first moment, when we realized that we were going to get on just fine, was, ironically, when I was dropping her off for a visit with her birth father. I had my Ipod plugged into the car stereo, and the Ramones' "I Wanna Be Sedated" came on. She waited a minute before she went into her father's house in order to sing the song along with me; it was one of her favorites, and mine. Another time, when I was picking her up from school, Jim Carroll's song "People Who Died" came up on the shuffle. We sang along to it then, and always do when it comes up on either of our Ipods or on satellite radio. We're just sentimental that way...

Other moments from a couple of childhoods that are stored in my memory: my son walking around with an enormous stuffed "Jimmy Neutron."  My daughter asking about the possibility bats flying out of a lighting fixture in her bedroom. My son spending the better part of an afternoon looking for secret passageways in our home. Taking both of them to see Ursula Bielski, who writes about Chicago ghost stories. My son's Little League games. Every play I've seen my daughter perform in. Dozens of Monopoly and Settlers of Catan games.

But beyond the big stuff, there are a thousand little memories with each of them. As I've watched them grow into intelligent, capable and interesting adults, I've come to realize that they'll remember bits and pieces of their childhoods, but a lot of it will be locked up solely in the recesses of my memory. And when I take my leave, those memories will go away with me. Like with Hemingway's adventurer in the book, those memories will pass like ghosts before me until they and I fade. Such is the ephemeral, sad and beautiful truth of our existence. 

The Snows of Kilamanjaro

Tuesday, August 06, 2013

The Picky Ones At the Buffet

Back in April, my wife and I had a chance to take a weekend trip. Even after selling back a bunch of PTO time, I still had a lot of vacation time left (we accumulate it very quickly in my job). Since starting my nursing job, I have regularly worked 50, 60, even 70 hour weeks. The overtime has been great, helping us retire debts left over from when I was in school, and my wife was unexpectedly unemployed. It has allowed me to pay for my son's college, and to do some nice things for my family. But my wife realized that four years of school while maintaining a full time job, then two years of crazy hours at work had left our relationship fraying at the edges. We needed some time together.

My daughter went off to New York that weekend to spend some time with her birth father, who normally doesn't spend much time with her, and my son was away at college. My wife had been looking at our options. We both love wine (specifically red wine) and thought of a weekend at one of a number of B and B's in the midwest that are in vineyards. After considering a number of options, she came up with a very cool one: the South Pier Inn, in Duluth, Minnesota. It's a hotel that's right on the canal that leads from Lake Superior to the Duluth harbor.

The canal is traversed by a bridge that is one of only a few "lift" bridges still operating in the country; when one of the thousand-foot ore carriers or other ships enters the harbor, the bridges entire span goes up. It was all amazing-- a huge iron bridge going up in the air as a huge ship passed almost silently by our room-- close enough that I could have thrown a baseball to someone on the ship. I was surprised at how quiet the ships were.

We spent some time in the hotel room drinking wine, chatting and getting to know one another again. We got out, too. We walked over to the little maritime museum nearby, where we saw, among other things, an exhibit on the Edmund Fitzgerald, of the Gordon Lightfoot song fame; it was a frequently docked in the Duluth harbor. We went downtown and visited the Electric Fetus record store, and went to the Minnesota Wine Exchange (yes, even Minnesota has some wonderful wines!)

Later, I thought about how funny it was that we'd have such a good time in a hotel room watching ships and a bridge. I thought about our marriage, relationships in general and remembered an experience I had a couple of lifetimes ago.

Back in the late nineties, I was working at a restaurant owned by Larry T., a longtime friend whom I've worked for a few times over the years. He's a big black bear of a guy-- he grew up on the south side of Chicago, and has been involved in the restaurant business about 40 years. I've worked at three of the places he's owned or co-owned over a period of about 25 years. In this case, I was working at a barbecue place he owned. He had asked me to manage a catering gig. It was an event sponsored by the "Matches" section of the Chicago Reader-- the section for people to meet people. For a set amount, the participants got a "Match" ad, got to ride in a bike ride, then there was a buffet, our part of it, at the end, where folks could meet and greet.

I took Larry's van, with the food and a couple of other employees, out to a lakefront park, where we set up and awaited the riders. Soon, they arrived, and I watched a really interesting thing unfold.

The people dismounted their bicycles, then walked up to the buffet. They began to look over the buffet we were serving. Larry, a brilliant chef, had whipped up a nice assortment of food, mindful to his target crowd; he'd even taken care to make sure there were vegan options.

I'll never forget the fussy looks on the faces of the people as they picked at the food in the chafing dishes. A couple even said "Is this all you have?" I was dumbstruck.

Then, most of them, having found something they could stomach, walked over and sat alone. They made no attempt to talk to any other person at the event. They ate their meal, and wheeled off... alone.

Nearly a decade and a half later, I still think of that day.

Around that time, I married Cynthia, my second wife. We split a few years later over children issues; she wanted kids. I, being seven years older than she, didn't want any more (I had a son from a former girlfriend). I loved her, and sometimes miss her-- we were friends before we dated and married. She was a lovely and unique person. Our circumstances just weren't going to work.

I married again, my current marriage, a few years after that. Ironically, I met her through the Matches in the Chicago Reader. While we had enough things in common to meet-- we're both extroverts, our politics are liberal, we both love red wine, music, etc.-- in the end, we also have some serious differences.  For example, she's somebody who sweats the small stuff. I don't. She frets constantly about what other people think. I don't.

In the relationships I had when I was single, I there was no "type" I dated. The women I was involved with were all over the place-- ethnicity, career, personality. And they all fascinated me. In the end, I realized that there is no "perfect person" or "type" for you; it's all about learning to appreciate the uniqueness of the person you're with and working on the day to day details of making a marriage or relationship work.

Thinking back to the delightful time I had with my wife in Duluth, and looking forward to more good times with her, I also think about those people at that buffet so long ago. They had all that wonderful food, prepared by a genius chef, laid out for them, and it still wasn't good enough. They were surrounded by other people who were expressly looking for a relationship, yet nobody was good enough. I wonder how many of them are still out there, wondering when their custom-made lover is going to magically appear, when there are so many lovely and interesting people all around them.