Bells

I know many are concerned about how I'm doing. For someone so used to blabbing to the world, it's strange that I feel nearly choked when I try to imagine a post on FB.

My mom died yesterday at 1:39 in the afternoon (her time). Almost everyone in her family and Dad's had been to see her in the previous 48 hours. Many were just outside the door. She was surrounded in the room by my brother and sister and my dad. They were holding her hands. I had spoken to her a couple of hours before, telling her I loved her, that she had raised us to be strong and to be strong for each other, that she could go because we were going to be OK. June asked me to tell her about Italy, so I rambled on for awhile about the lemon trees and the orange trees and the olives and the sea. Her breathing then was terrible to hear. Her body was too weak cough, liquid was filling her lungs. She didn't move. When June messaged me to call her later in the evening (I am seven hours ahead), I knew what I would hear.

I'm OK. I slept more deeply and long last night than I have since I left home. Grief doesn't wake me up ten times a night the way fear and anxiety did. I woke up this morning at 9 am to my brother Mark texting me (Viber) that he was finally going to try to sleep (2am CST). At our request, the hospice folks had come and cleared away the bed and the equipment and so the family had kept busy last night putting the house back together. Without her.

Here, I got up, dressed and cooked an egg and toast and ate standing at the window looking at the stone pines. I walked around the courtyard of the apartment complex and threw fallen oranges into the gorge behind. I wanted the tears to come. They didn't.

View from one terrace of the courtyard and Stone Pines (also called Umbrella Pines).

View from one terrace of the courtyard and Stone Pines (also called Umbrella Pines).

I walked down Via Degli Aranci, where I live, East about 3/4 mile to Corso Italia and had an espresso. I stopped in the Deco to buy chicken and pasta for dinner and more power converters (both of mine blew yesterday). In Piazza Tasso, packed with families and old couples strolling around in their Sunday clothes, drinking cappucino at sidewalk tables, the bells of the town went wild for awhile. It was 11 am and every bell in every church (that means hundreds of bells) began to ring violently. I thought maybe carthagenians were swarming the beach. No one else seemed to notice. They rang for five or ten minutes. For an instant, they cut through the numbness and I felt the grief squeezing me, but I walked on and through it.

Even though it was only 11, I thought I might have a drink. One pub in particular, The English Inn, has traditionally catered to american students at Sant'Anna and their faculty. I was introduced to Fabio, the legendary owner, on my first night here. But I hadn't gone in yet on my own. First, because I wanted to be home in the evenings to keep in touch with Tab and my family over wifi. Second, because I feel strange drinking with my students and they are there every night. I wanted a bourbon. I've tried to eat and drink like an italian so far, but I wanted a bourbon or nothing. This early in the day, though, Fabio wasn't there and the woman on duty in the front of the house was not interested in me--families were eating and the dining room was hopping. I sat at the bar (truly, very like an English pub) by myself for a few minutes, then took my shopping bag and went out again.

Next door is a leather goods store where I have been admiring a leather bag since my first night here. I admired it again and, as usual, when I saw the shopkeeper coming to engage, I fled. On Corso Italia, I was thinking of how much easier it would be to keep my phrasebook and maps and sunglasses, etc., in such a bag. Only american men are afraid to carry such bags. We are still afraid of the schoolyard bullies who might call us sissies.

Then I started thinking about my mom's purses. Valises, really. My mom could never have owned one of those tiny sleek black purses stylish women wear. She might have considered putting twelve into the shopping bag she preferred. She could never find anything in her purse without first dumping it out. To read a menu at a restaurant, she would first fill the booth with pieces of folded paper, bottles of lotion, birthday cards, bags of food (and bits of food wrapped in napkins), used kleenex, kleenex packets, gum, cigarette lighters, paperback novels, spiral notebooks, oranges, pens, water bottles, and 40 other unidentifiable things before she could find her reading glasses and read the menu. And then order the same thing she always ordered. It always amused and embarrassed me that her key ring had an enormous stuffed yellow smiley face on it the size of a large hamburger bun. I first thought it was so she could see the keys in those chaotic bags. Now I think the smiley face acted as a sort of buoy--keeping the keys floating near the surface.

Now the tears were coming. I stepped into a narrow alley with no people (even narrow alleys are likely to be crowded in Sorrento) and turned my back to the street. I leaned against the wall and let it out just a little. If mom had been here, she would have 150 kleenex to offer me and I could have opened it up. But she's not, so I wept a little and then took a deep breath.

Me being alone and far away when she died is not what I feared. My friends and family support me even from the other side of the planet. Me not being one of the people holding her hand is what I could not bear. Probably, I'm lucky I was spared the awful sound and sight of her body's struggle. They will hear that sound in their dreams. But I wanted to share her life--every last bit of it--feel it in my hand. I wanted her to feel me with her, not hear my voice on the phone.

By now, I really needed some kleenex. I went back to Corso Italia and turned and climbed Via Sersale through the ancient gate of the city and back to my apartment. But first, I went back and bought the goddamned bag.

Voted-out, not fouled-out

union pic

Clock photo by Nina Weinstein

Although last week's vote was devastating for many of us, few can deny that the faculty spoke decisively in an election that had a higher turnout (95%) than any faculty election in recent memory. It may seem like cold comfort to union supporters, but I really do believe that we can be proud of the positive campaign we waged--in forums and on the listserv, we refused to make accusations, ascribe hidden motives, or question the character/abilities of our opponents. Instead, we tried to direct the conversation towards what a union could accomplish for faculty and for PSU, and to respond to questions/accusations (even when the answer was ignored and the question repeated many times).

In the last weeks of the campaign, the organizing committee assumed the attacks and accusations ("secret agendas," "retaliation" and the constant refrain that excluding contract faculty from the bargaining was somehow "dirty politics") of the most vocal anti-unionists would only resonate with those of like-mind and would either fall flat with undecided faculty or possibly even nudge a few in our direction (and, anecdotally, we did hear from three or four who were persuaded to vote YES in reaction to those tactics). In fact, we assumed that even responding to some of the most outlandish claims would make us seem as vehement (and thus irrational) as those most vocal opponents. However, if we lost as many supporters in the final weeks as it appears, we may have been wrong on both counts.

From the beginning, we certainly knew we would lose if we failed to convince our colleagues that a faculty union was right for PSU. Had the debate centered more on the merits, necessity and efficacy of unions, I suspect the loss would sit easier on many of us--we made our best case, they made their best case, faculty weighed both and decided. But that is where the takeaways from the election are unclear -- at least for me:
  • if we believe that our colleagues voted against a union in spite of the differences in tone and focus, then perhaps we need to rethink our position.
  • if, as seems to be the case, their tactics did persuade faculty who had otherwise been open to considering a union... well, how are we to react to that?
Forming a faculty union will not happen--at least not in the near-term. Rehashing what we might have done differently is useful, to a point, but only if we have the distance and perspective to question every assumption we made (and the assumptions we may be making in hindsight). That doesn't mean we can't work to make positive change, though. If we are up to it, perhaps our real challenge is finding a way to raise the level of discourse among faculty.

I had a long (and restorative) conversation with a friend who teaches at Eastern Kentucky last night. He pointed out that such tactics (even obviously fallacious tactics), and susceptibility to those tactics, are not only not rare in university discourse, but they are almost as much the norm here are as they are in the wider society.

The union discussion became mostly ugly. While I didn't exactly lose friends over it, I have less regard for a few than I once did. But attacking (or making insinuations about) the character of opponents isn't new behavior for PSU and we all share some of the blame. Every few years the faculty is called on to make some seemingly important decision: gen ed, four-credits, attendance policy, unionization.... Each time, in the midst of the more intelligent conversation, one faculty member or another rises to argue that they support position-X because they are compassionate towards students (and thus, those who hold any other position are NOT compassionate), or they oppose position-Y "because I, personally, enjoy teaching," (and thus, those who hold any other position do NOT enjoy teaching). When we simply move on to the next speaker and allow such manipulations to pass without remark we are complicit in what amounts to a discourse foul. When enough of those fouls pile up, we lose the ability to have real debate, much less dialectic (a concept that was, ironically, much invoked early in the union discussion, but mentioned more rarely when anti-union folks developed an offensive strategy).

If just one of us chooses to confront colleagues when red cardthey commit such fouls, they will almost certainly be dismissed as a sort of crank. But if enough of us make it a point to call out fallacies when we see them...well, we'll probably still be ignored by many, but we may actually create a PSU culture that encourages more colleagues to argue the merit of ideas...and to question those who rely on emotional manipulation.

And in the end, maybe THAT's one way to improve faculty engagement in governance -- more people may be more willing to do more work on more ideas if they are less likely to have their character attacked in the process.

Mysterious Sound in my neighborhood...

At about 1 am, I was working out in the screen porch when I heard a strange noise coming from the woods. At first, thought it was odd, but I assumed it would go away. It didn't. Eventually I grabbed one of the school's H4N digital recorders and when out in the front yard to record it. I took Irie.

I recorded about 12 minutes total. I removed the first few minutes of me fumbling with doors and the drone of the window fan in our bedroom above. I also cut out twenty seconds between the last cry and Irie beginning to woof. Then I cut out another full minute from the last sound Irie makes to me telling her to come in. I ran a noise reducer over the whole things to cut out my breathing and the sound of me peeing my pants.

Baby bear calling it's mother? Heron-monkey-from-Hell? Bigfoot? Forest spirit? Drunken crow?

bear cub?

$@*&%@#! Spring Break Miracle

I thought I would put my Journalism midterm on Blackboard (our "online classroom environment")  so students could cut and paste from the fact lists in the questions into their lead rewrites. The web portal, MyPlymouth, crashed and we spent 15 minutes trying to get all but one student logged in. Finally, I had to throw in the towel and make a take-home exam.

What are the lessons I can take from this?

A. Since you can't trust technology you should make a backup exam - in other words, do twice the work ahead of time or do the twice the work after the fact.

B. It's not ITS's fault the servers crashed. Even though the classroom has 20 computers, the system was never designed to allow more than four people to logon at the same time. I should have the other students wait in their seats until the first four are done.

C. One person's Spring Break miracle is another person's March 30 nightmare or -- since the take home exam will be an essay exam--the WHOLE CLASS'S March 30 nightmare.

D. Why bother to kick the ball, Charlie Brown?

Update: Things Are Looking Up

Sorry I haven't updated in more than a week. It's been so overwhelming that every time I sat down to sum up, I felt like I had more questions than answers. Things are looking up, for the most part, so here's the news:

The House

The house is pretty much gutted now. On the second floor, they removed the wood floor in the hallway; the sheetrock in the hallway, the girls' bathroom, and the exercise room; they are pulling up the carpet in the girls' rooms, the exercise room, and Tab's office; they are taking out the tile floor in the girls' bathroom. Essentially, every room up there except the master suite has been reduced to bare studs and subfloor. On the first floor, they pulled up all of the oak floors in the dining room, living room, and hallway; they're pulling up the floor tile in the kitchen and guest bath; they removed the sheetrock and ceilings in the dining room, living room, guest bath and part of the kitchen, they pulled up the carpet in my office. They will be replacing the treads on the staircase. Additionally, all of the built in bookshelves, the murphy bed, etc. from all rooms except the master suite and the family room have been removed to be refinished--that goes for many of the kitchen cabinets, too. They're also replacing the kitchen countertop and the vanity in the girls' bathroom.Eventually, they will have to refinish the oak floors in the family room, too. All of our belongings (except clothing and a few odds and ends we stored in the master closet) are packed away in storage or being refinished at the furniture medic or tested at the electronics restoration place.

When all is said and done, in three months, we'll have new carpets and oak floors in most of the house. They will paint every wall in the house. Plus, we'll have new tile floors in two bathrooms and in the kitchen and a new countertop in the kitchen.

We'll also have a new furnace--though that cost is on us since it was just a coincidence that the disaster happened to reveal that our furnace was on it's last legs.

Much of the wiring that was not damaged by the water will have to be replaced since the demolition revealed that it had been chewed in several places by mice. That cost is on us, too.

We chose to go with State Farm's preferred contractor for the rebuild. They're not local 🙁 but they have an excellent reputation and they guarantee their work (and that of all their subcontractors) for FIVE years! We should be ironing out details very soon on particulars like pain colors, tile choices, etc. The reconstruction is supposed to take two to three months. We fully expect it to take a little longer.

Our Living Situation

State Farm has been taking good care of us. We've been living at the Common Man Inn for a week now and will remain here until Friday. It's a pretty posh hotel for these parts and we have been pretty spoiled for the last week. At the same time, even with one room for us and one for the kids, it gets pretty old living in a hotel. Tonight we met with a local guy who owns a FABULOUS house up on Texas Hill Road. He agreed to rent the house to us for three months (and more if we need it). It's a gorgeous place--a giant log home with views of Plymouth Mountain on one side and a view clear up to the notch on another. We move in Friday. What's more, the place is fully furnished (even pots and pans and dishes), so we don't have to go down to Manchester to dig our stuff out of storage. We can't wait to get there and cook for ourselves for a change.

We're all doing fine. Maya has had some rough days (she feels very much adrift), and Tab and I worry about how much this will cost in the end, but by and large we're all just rolling with it. It could have been worse: we could have been uninsured, or insured by a lousy company. As it happens, we're feeling very well cared-for.

Many thanks to all who have written or commented or called...I'm sorry I haven't gotten back to most of you. The day to day details have been pretty daunting up this point. Our friends have really gone out of their way to support us--inviting us over for home-cooked meals, to offering rides for the kids, temporarily adopting the cat, and my friend Phil, in particular has spent hours serving as technical advisor, ambassador from the world of contractors, and part-time project manager. I owe that guy a beer... I owe a LOT of you a beer.

This summer, we'll have a big BBQ at our new house and we'll try to dish out some payback. You'll have to take your shoes off, though...new floors don't you know.

And your banjo too

And my banjo, autographed by Del McCoury, did not escape either. This photo doesn't show it too well, but the steam warped the head of the banjo pot (the "skin") right away. In a few days, the neck and head will probably warp too.

Bye bye banjo

Bye bye banjo

The House on Soggy Lane

Just as finals were winding down (and grading was reaching the fever pitch) the heating pipes on part of the second floor froze up. It took a team of plumbers four days to get the heat back on (and they informed us along the way that our wonderful TARM dual-fuel furnace--it's got a HEMI--was a piece of junk on it's last legs). The final bill came to several thousand, but no worries--we were fully insured (minus a $1000 deductible) and anyway it could have been worse. At least the pipes hadn't burst and flooded the house, collapsing ceilings, ruining walls and our hardwood floors, and generally damaging or destroying our furniture and belongings. At least that hadn't happened.

And then it did.

We got back from our Christmas trip to Illinois on the 31st of December. On New Year's Day, we opened our gifts to each other at home, then packed the car to drive north to visit Tab's folks in Littleton. Since the weather was turning nasty, we planned to spend the night rather than drive back down through Franconia Notch (a treacherous pass in the winter time).

When we got home at noon on the 2nd, I opened the door to a wall of hot steam and the sound of cascading water. I cursed, Tab began to cry, and Maya went into a full-fledged panic attack. Steam had condensed on every surface, every possession on the first floor. Our kitchen floor was a puddle of hot water. The dining room was destroyed. And so on.

The dining room/sauna

The dining room/sauna

The kitchen ceilings in the steam

The kitchen ceilings in the steam

Within 15 seconds, I had the camera and was taking pictures while Tab contacted our team of plumbers and our insurance agent, however the steam was so bad that the camera fogged up. This was typical of the first pictures I took.

When the steam had cleared (some 30 or so minutes later), this is what it looked like (see below).

flood 016

flood 014

flood 050

The family room with all of the furniture we could salvage crammed into it and one of Service Master's industrial dehumidifiers in the background

The family room with all of the furniture we could salvage crammed into it and one of Service Master's industrial dehumidifiers in the background

We have wonderful friends, though. Within 20 minutes, Cathie, Liz, Jeanette, and Phil were there to help us move furniture and china and other belongings from the wettest parts of the house to the driest parts. Later that night, Robin, Phil, Ruby, and Cathie came back with pizzas and made us eat and offered to take Maya home for a sleepover (she happily accepted--Brianna had long since fled to her best friend Devon's house). Also, I should say that our plumbing team was there within minutes of our call and they did a great job of stopping the leak, fixing the broken pipes, and even tearing up some of the saturated carpets and throwing them out of the second story windows.

Our insurance company had us call ServPro to handle the cleanup and recovery. They were rude. They didn't return phone calls. We called State Farm again and asked for someone else. They suggested Service Master. They are saints. They dispatched a team IMMEDIATELY. Paul and Junior showed up and went to work right away--the first thing they did was make sure that we knew we were in good hands--that they were going to clean, remove, strip, assess, pack...everything but cook for us. They were remarkable. They were able to get the two inches of water off of the basement floor and remove the saturated insulation from the basement and dining room ceilings even before they left that night. They were back "with reinforcements" this morning to continue the drying out and to begin the thorough assessment.

And us? We're in a hotel -- one room for Tab and I (and Irie), one for the girls. We've got what clothes we could gather, and books, and DVD players and etc. We're OK.

We're covered. We'll be out of the house for a few months while the place is first stripped to the studs, then rewalled, refloored, re-etc. But for now we're dry and safe.

New Facebook Test Application

I couldn't actually post this ON Facebook because someone might have thought it was aimed at them, specifically.

I'm devising a new FB test application: answer ten questions and it will tell you whether you are narcissistic, vain, self-absorbed, egotistical, conceited, self-important, self-loving, or merely self-admiring.

Question 1:
`Ssup good looking?

that's why all the folks on rocky top get their corn fom a jar

DSC_3838

It was another bittersweet day. More than anything, I regret the things I said and did when Brian and I argued at the end of our trip. With Andrew and Chad's help, I had trimmed the argument scene from the play down to a much faster, much angrier, and much more accurate portrayal of that fight. That Nick and Thomas (and Jen and Jenna) played their roles so splendidly made it that much harder to watch and listen to...take after take.

Then again, they turned in great performances today and we wrapped the shoot on time and on budget (I think).

After we left the set, in ones and twos a few of the crew gathered at Chad and Jen's place. We drank the better part of a quart of moonshine and encouraged Emily to tell us more stories from Breathitt County. I was writing them down when Andrew, feeling the corn liquor, narrowed his eyes a little and drawled across the table, "Boy, when we're talkin' around the shine WE don't take notes."

As eager as I am to see Tab and the girls tonight, it was hard to leave this morning. Jen has been so gracious and generous while I've been squatting in Dylan's room for the past two weeks. And Andrew has become like a brother to me--not just because he FELT this story so strongly, but because I could sit and talk with him for hours.

And especially because Chad and I, who have always shared a loss, have spent the last two weeks handling it again. And because all of us, working together, brought something of them back.

Night for Day

DSC_3623
Today...

Chad and Andrew and Tommy loaded a camera worth more than all of my possessions into a flat-bottomed boat today so they could shoot and shoot and shoot from the water. John and Angela and Ian stood in the water to hold the boats steady and in position.

It was, finally, sunny. Brilliant. Perfect for shooting "day-for-night" with filters and low angles.

At lunch, Emily told the story of one of her mother's elderly patients who, on her very first visit to a hospital, complained to Emily's mother about the food in her hospital room. "There's something wrong with that Kentucky jelly. I tried some on a biscuit and it just tasted terrible."

The news crew canceled out of consideration for the scenes we were shooting today.

One of the interns, a great guy named Kenny, took my camera out in the canoe so I could have a shot of the four cast members out on the dock (in the "wish" scene). I was asked to back his car out of the way of the shot. I told him that if he didn't get my camera in the lake I wouldn't put his car in the lake.

All four of the actors nailed that scene.

Nick (as "Scott") howled as he threw the typewriter out into the lake. Angela and John retrieved it from the water. He threw it again and again.

Jen ("Tab") told me that she once owned a dog that would never come when it was called. Her mother named it "Godot."

Nick had to change clothes for the scene in which he is finally revealed to also be the "narrator". We stood on the dock and talked about his lines. He was covered in mud and I poured lake water on his head and down his back. When we were alone, he asked me what the lines meant, what I really wanted out of my brother. I told him.

Andrew called action and I poured another bowl of lake water on his head and leapt out of the shot. Nick shouted "Swim, Goddammit! Swim!." He screamed it out over the lake. He wept and howled and screamed it again and again and again.

When that was over, Chad and Andrew took a break as DP and Director and came over to sit in the beached canoe with me. You would have thought none of us already knew how this ends.

Also, Jen and I watched a finch landing on a cat tail at the lake's edge. It plucked a wisp from the ragged end and flew off to pad its nest. It kept coming back for more.