Friday, July 29th 2005

How am I holding up?
posted @ 1:10 pm in [ ]
In response to the twin eulogies I wrote for my late father-in-law, I have had a number of kind, concerned queries as to how I’m doing with all this death business. I’m okay, thanks (although I practically got anally probed by the TSA on my way out to Jersey). It still kinda seems to me like Pops is just on a long trip somewhere, even though I’ve been to the funeral and I even have a few of his shirts. And yes, everyone liked the eulogy, although I’m not sure they’d tell me if they thought it sucked.

I think part of the fact that it doesn’t seem quite real yet is that I didn’t see Pops a whole lot as part of my everyday routine, so it’s just starting to feel like he’s really missing. More than that, though, I think it has to do with the fact that the services and what-not were so very, well, Protestant. In my November 2004 archives, I talked about Protestant vs. Catholic funeral smackdown, and expressed my opinion that if there is one thing Catholicism really does well, it’s funerals. Protestant funerals have always seemed somewhat sterile to me, and while Pops’ funeral was very nice, and I appreciated everyone who came to it, and I am emphatically not criticizing it, that brand of Protestant civility and lack of, I don’t know, organic-ness maybe?, just didn’t offer the same closure that I’m accustomed to with family funerals. I lost it a little bit at the very end of reading my eulogy, but it wasn’t cathartic. I never saw the body, so Pops could still be away on a trip. Nobody cried so hard they couldn’t talk. There wasn’t any burial. It was certainly among the most pleasant funerals I’ve ever been to, though. Folks really did seem to want to hold to the idea of celebrating the life rather than mourning the death, which everyone claims they want and then nobody can actually do it, so that was kind of nice.

One of my friends who was there IS Catholic, and she was upset and crying at the service and not afraid to let go of it all, which I personally appreciated. The general sentiment, though, seemed to be more that of “there, there, don’t cry” than “g’head, let it all out.” I think when grief comes, it should be allowed to wash over you–that holding it off just makes it stay longer and come out harder, like a stain that’s allowed to set. Catholicism certainly has its hangups, but embracing and letting go of grief is not among them. What if I don’t want to soldier bravely on? What if I just want to lose it and be done with it? I guess what I’m saying is that I think all this WASP-y thoughtful politeness is kind of hindering my grieving process. I guess that’s how I am right now.

Thursday, July 21st 2005

So what about the real one?
posted @ 8:01 pm in [ ]
I’ve been asked to post the real eulogy once it’s finished, so here it is. This is a sneak preview–I’m going to read it, if I can, tomorrow.

Suburban Paul Bunyan

I first met Pops (as he corrected me the first time I tried to call him “Mister Spohn”) in June of 1992. I had been dating his son for just six weeks then, and we were mad about each other. Pops was a big, affable friendly guy, and I liked him instantly. When I returned home to the Boston area, I told my best friend and roommate, Lisa, about him. I must have imparted some of my sense of wonder and delight with him, because she commented, “Oh, he’s like a suburban Paul Bunyan!”

That Pops was the stuff of legends is not news to anyone here. His warmth, larger-than-life personality, vivaciousness, and generosity delighted us all, and sometimes even made our dreams come true. I think about what the stories of the Suburban Paul Bunyan should be like, and I hope you can help me think of more. So far I have:

Pops would walk Babe, the big blue Springer Spaniel, early in the morning while it was still dark. The sun, just peeping up over the horizon, knew it was time to start shining when it saw Pops was up. The sun, too, found him welcoming as we all did. Pops didn’t just transform plastic into Brie–anyone can do that. He did every fun thing right and every important thing well. Nobody ever left his house hungry or sad.

Pops could pack a car, a station wagon, a logging sledge, a moped, or a pair of roller skates so it would hold anything Lewis and Clark might have needed. He could also drive great distances, across many states, enduring traffic, Kansas heat, 40 dogs and 50 children (46 of which I understand were my husband).

A fine advice giver and parent, Pops used yellow legal pads the size of bedsheets to communicate his clever ideas and lay out a plan. He would use a Uniball pen the size of a telephone pole–Uniball made them especially for him. His plans were still always concise–he just wrote mighty big.

A giant of tremendous appetites, Pops could eat 100 flapjacks for dinner and would squeeze a maple tree flat to get syrup. One time Pops went to Paris for a job interview, and he brought back all the cheese in France. Sometimes when his wife was out of town, Pops could even eat 500 Taco Bell burritos in one sitting. When he fished–and he did love to fish–he wouldn’t go home until he caught enough fish to fill a schoolbus, and he threw back any fish that were under 100 pounds.

Both industrious and civic-minded, Pops raised entire buildings at his son’s prep school in Amish barn-raising fashion in a single morning. Then in the afternoon he built the railroad that went near it. He left the nearest stop a mile and a half away, though, so if he decided to visit the school by train, he could get a little walk in, of say, 15 or 20 steps. When he went to Zoning Board meetings in Summit, people’s houses spontaneously made themselves more attractive and inviting before breakfast. Nobody knows how.

A man of true financial acumen, Pops graduated from Harvard Business School and revolutionized the way benefits were packaged within companies. He even knew exactly how escrow worked. None of that part is an exaggeration, but I think it’s no less impressive.

What I have to do now is keep the legend alive for my children, who won’t get to meet their grandfather. Maybe I’ll tell them the face they see in the moon is his.

Saturday, July 16th 2005

My Main Literary Man, Raymond Chandler
posted @ 4:04 pm in [ ]
From time to time, my writing students ask me what I like to read, and what I think is good. I love Raymond Chandler’s stuff. For those of you not familiar with his work, he wrote detective novels set in L.A. in the 40s and 50s. He had a gritty yet beautiful style, with incredible description–definitely art. A lot of folks tried to copy him, but to my mind, nobody else ever got close. Most remarkable was his process: if nothing happened on a particular page, he’d wad it up, throw it out, and start a new page. It took him forever to write his books, but the description is incredibly tight and there is SO much going on there.

This is the first chapter of Farewell My Lovely, ca. 1940. If you can forgive his lack of political correctness (it was 1940, after all), an incredible opening to a book. I use it sometimes for rich description assignments.

It was one of the mixed blocks over on Central Avenue. I had just come out of a three-chair barber shop where an agency thought a relief barber named Dimitrios Aleidis might be working. It was a small matter. His wife said she was willing to spend a little money to have him come home.

I never found him, but Mrs. Aleidis never paid me either. It was a warm day, almost the end of March, and I stood outside the barber shop looking up at the jutting neon sign of a second floor dine and dice emporium called Florian’s. A man was looking up at the sign too. He was looking up at the dusty windows with a sort of ecstatic fixity of expression, like a hunky immigrant catching his first sight of the Statue of Liberty. He was a big man but not more than six feet five inches tall and not wider than a beer truck. He was about ten feet away from me. His arms hung loose at his sides and a forgotten cigar smoked behind his enormous fingers.

Slim quiet men passed up and down the street and stared at him with darting, side glances. He was worth looking at. He wore a shaggy borsalino hat, a rough gray sports coat with white golf balls on it for buttons, a brown shirt, a yellow tie, pleated gray flannel slacks and alligator shoes with white explosions on the toes. From his outer breast pocket cascaded a show handkerchief of the same brilliant yellow as his tie. There were a couple of colored feathers tucked into the band of his hat, but he didn’t really need them. Even on Central Avenue, not the quietest dressed street in the world, he looked about as inconspicuous as a tarantula on a slice of angel food.

His skin was pale and he needed a shave. He would always need a shave. He had curly black hair and heavy eyebrows that almost met over his thick nose. His ears were small and neat for a man of that size and his eyes had a shine close to tears that gray eyes often seem to have. He stood like a statue, and after a long time he smiled.

He moved slowly across the sidewalk to the double swinging doors which shut off the stairs to the second floor. He pushed them open, cast a cool expressionless glance up and down the street, and moved inside. If he had been a smaller man and more quietly dressed, I might have thought he was going to pull a stick-up. But not in those clothes, and not with that hat, and that frame.

The doors swung back outwards and almost settled to a stop. Before they had entirely stopped moving they opened again, violently, outwards. Something sailed across the sidewalk and landed in the gutter between two parked cars. It landed on its hands and knees and made a high keening noise like a cornered rat. It got up slowly, retrieved a hat and stepped back onto the sidewalk. It was a thin, narrow-shouldered brown youth in a lilac colored suit and a carnation. It had slick black hair. It kept its mouth open and whined for a moment. People stared at it vaguely. Then it settled its hat jauntily, sidled over to the wall and walked silently splayfooted off along the block.

Silence. Traffic resumed. I walked along to the double doors and stood in front of them. They were motionless now. It wasn’t any of my business. So I pushed them open and looked in.

A hand I could have sat in came out of the dimness and took hold of my shoulder and squashed it to a pulp. Then the hand moved me through the doors and casually lifted me up a step. The large face looked at me. A deep soft voice said to me, quietly:

“Smokes in here, huh? Tie that for me, pal.”

It was dark in there. It was quiet. From upstairs came vague sounds of humanity, but we were alone on the stairs. The big man stared at me solemnly and went on wrecking my shoulder with his hand.

“A dinge,” he said. “I just thrown him out. You seen me throw him out?”

He let go of my shoulder. The bone didn’t seem to be broken, but the arm was numb.

“It’s that kind of place,” I said, rubbing my shoulder. “What did you expect?”

“Don’t say that, pal,” the big man purred softly, like four tigers after dinner. “Velma used to work here. Little Velma.”

He reached for my shoulder again. I tried to dodge him but he was as fast as a cat. He began to chew my muscles up some more with his iron fingers.

“Yeah,” he said. “Little Velma. I ain’t seen her in eight years. You say this here is a dinge joint?”

I croaked that it was.

He lifted me up two more steps. I wrenched myself loose and tried for a little elbow room. I wasn’t wearing a gun. Looking for Dimitrios Aleidis hadn’t seemed to require it. I doubted if it would do me any good. The big man would probably take it away from me and eat it.

“Go on up and see for yourself,” I said, trying to keep the agony out of my voice.

He let go of me again. He looked at me with a sort of sadness in his gray eyes. “I’m feelin’ good,” he said. “I wouldn’t want anybody to fuss with me. Let’s you and me go on up and maybe nibble a couple.”

“They won’t serve you. I told you it’s a colored joint.”

“I ain’t seen Velma in eight years,” he said in his deep sad voice.

“Eight long years since I said goodby. She ain’t wrote to me in six. But she’ll have a reason. She used to work here. Cute she was. Let’s you and me go on up, huh?”

“All right,” I yelled. “I’ll go up with you. Just lay off carrying me. Let me walk. I’m fine. I’m all grown up. I go to the bathroom alone and everything. Just don’t carry me.”

“Little Velma used to work here,” he said gently. He wasn’t listening to me. We went on up the stairs. He let me walk. My shoulder ached. The back of my neck was wet.

Saturday, July 9th 2005

Out of sorts
posted @ 1:49 pm in [ ]
So I’m just in an irritable mood today, like the universe is all scratchy and chafing. It could be because I started my day by going to a teacher training that I didn’t need and the information from which I likely won’t use, and then drove home through a sea of motor-enabled asshats, using my horn a lot even for me.

People here in Denver are timid about using their horns. I’m not from here, though, and I use mine, like, 10 times on the way to the Safeway. I think people should really use them more. It’s like a language all its own. You have the gentle tap-tap-tap of, “Hey, somebody’s over here. I’m just letting you know because you don’t look like you know that.” Not to be confused with the more insistent “hurry-up” tap, or the full-on lean of, “You’re trying to kill us all and YOU SUCK!” If communication is the entire basis of society, shouldn’t we be using all the means at our disposal for the complex task of cooperating on the roadways?

Besides that, I’m overwhelmed with onerous tasks and the messy house. I need a new summer nightgown, but if I go out to try to get one today, I’m probably either going to spend money we’ll need to, oh, eat and stuff, or I’m going to end up at the police station. So instead, I spruced up the ol’ blog. Got myself something virtual-new, and free. I hope you like it.

Actually, I’m in a crappy mood and everything sucks, so I don’t really care if you like it. I like it. Piss off.

Saturday, July 2nd 2005

Eulogy for Pops
posted @ 1:14 pm in [ ]
I got some sad news yesterday. My father-in-law died of cancer in the late morning. He had been battling melanoma for several months, and while cancer is not a good way to die, it could have been a lot worse. Sometimes it takes years to kill, and its victims end up hooked up to many machines and in a lot of pain, with their quality of life getting worse every day and no way to stop it. Pops was lucid pretty much up until the end, and he died at home with his wife by his side, hooked up to minimal home care stuff. The downward slope was pretty steep for him.

I’m sad, of course, because he was a good guy. I’m also fairly pissed, because he spent his whole life working for a wonderful retirement (he was only 61), which he never got. As I’ve commented to a few of you, where the hell is the complaint window for that?

I last saw Pops back in March, when he was in the hospital for a little bit. Because the melanoma filled his bones, they were breaking easily. He went in to get a pin put in his broken arm and try to treat one of the larger tumors in his spine. He was in good spirits, very much himself, and accepting of the present, but perhaps still fighting the future. I talked to him a week or so ago on the phone, too. At that point, he had lesions on his brain (for which he would undergo some radiation treatments, which were ultimately unsuccessful) and had a hard time finding the words for what he wanted to say. Still, it was very clear that he was still in there. As frustrating as it was for such an intelligent and socially affable person not to be able to communicate as he wanted, I was glad he was himself right up until the end.

When I was visiting in March, my mother-in-law asked if I would say something at the funeral. I knew immediately what story I wanted to tell about Pops, and also that I probably shouldn’t there. So I’m telling it here.

First, a little background. I first met Pops in June of 1992. I had been dating his son for about 6 weeks, and we were mad about each other. We were on our way to spend a long weekend with friends at a friend’s family’s lake cottage. Pops (as I was corrected when I tried to call him Mr. Spohn) was a big, generous, friendly guy, kind of like a sophisticated, six-foot-five Newfoundland. He always treated me like a daughter rather than an in-law, and we got along well. A fellow Harvey, I think he appreciated the way I thought about stuff.

During one visit, Pops told me about how the neighbors had been giving them a hard time. Pops and Moms had Springer Spaniels, and had even bred and raised some. The grande dame of their small pack was an obedient, gentle Springer named Bridget. Her son, Geoffrey, also stayed with them (although all Bridget’s other, I think, 18 puppies, went to good, and undoubtedly fashionable, homes–I believe the mayor had one, as did several other leading folks in town). He was a large, handsome gent who was smarter than he let on, so occasionally difficult, but generally a good guy. Bridget, though, was very good. She was friendly, and didn’t make trouble, noise, or crap where she wasn’t supposed to, and she always came when she was called. Bridget occasionally would be out in the yard, and hop just over the wall into the neighbors’ yard while following interesting scents. She would generally hop back over, never strayed well into the yard, and never paused there for long, but the neighbors would be on the phone yelling at my mother-in-law about it within seconds–often long after Bridget was back where she should have been, making the neighbors look, well, crazy. Earlier that day, the neighbor lady had been so irate and nasty that my mother-in-law felt the need to hang up and was even close to tears. It was too bad–they had once been pretty good friends.

Some things about all this bothered me. First, Bridget wasn’t doing any harm. She was just sniffing, and she didn’t understand too much about property lines, because she was A DOG. I could understand it if she was leaving her yard to crap on theirs, dig it up, or otherwise wreck it, or if she tarried too long, took the run of the place, or hassled other animals who lived there, but that wasn’t the case. Second, screaming and swearing at people for such an infraction is, well, needlessly crappy. Finally, these people had a gigantic yard–3 or 4 acres at least, all grass–which they never, ever stepped on. Something about the bourgeois hoarding and obnoxious behavior really got to me. I had an idea.

“You know what would be really fun? You could fling a bunch of dog biscuits all over that lawn,” I suggested. “Lots of different kinds of critters like those. Dogs, raccoons, deer…” Pops silently looked thoughtful for a few moments, then fished in his pocket. He slapped a $50 down on the table with a grin and said, “Do it.”

So my new husband and his sister and I went to PetSmart and got as many biscuits as fifty bucks would buy. I think it was 3 20-pound boxes, but they might have been 25s. We put on dark clothing and waited for nightfall. When it came, we quietly hummed the theme to “Mission Impossible” and took our guerilla weapons to the perimeter of the property. We approached it from a few different perfectly legal, non-trespassing angles, and after a few biscuits we gave to the house dogs, we hucked something like 60 pounds of dog biscuits–more than Bridget even weighed–onto that vast expanse of lawn. We all had pretty good arms, so we got some decent distribution. We reported our success to Pops, who really relished it.

In the morning, when Pops returned from walking the dogs around the neighborhood, he was noticibly bemused and chuckling. He had been walking the dogs along the street the neighbors’ property fronted onto, and reported multiple choruses of such comments as, “Trixie, NO! Come back!” and dozens of curious squirrels and birds dotting the yard, a few of which were being chased by errant pets with some sort of attention deficit disorder. It was deeply satisfying for the entire household–and for the many critters who teamed up to eat or abscond with 60 pounds of dog biscuits. Plus, it was funny and nobody got hurt. I consider it one of our finer collaborations.

When Pops became ill, that neighbor ended up being very helpful and kind. They more than made up. Still, I can’t tell this story at the funeral–they might be there.

In memory of Andrew Gerald Spohn
April 10, 1944 - July 1, 2005