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Wednesday, October 6, 2010

You Never Know

There's that moment when the blur comes into focus.  There's the instant all the noise in your head quiets.  There's the proverbial switch that gets flipped - the light bulb goes on.

Isn't it interesting (but not necessarily worthwhile) to look back at a time when you were so sure of how something in your life was going to go and realize now just how wrong you were.  You thought you'd be with her (or him) forever.  You thought you found what it was that you wanted to do for the rest of your life.    You thought this was going to be the last job you ever had.  You were certain that if you just did A, B, and C that X, Y, and Z would follow.  We often trot out the phrase, "you never know," only to eschew our own advice when we want to believe something.  We want it to be as we believe it will be so badly that we forget that it never is, can never be.

In May of 1996 I'd just finished my master's degree in education.  After the graduation ceremony and celebratory meal, I finished loading all of my worldly possessions into the small U-Haul trailer hitched to my 1991 Toyota Corolla.  I was moving to Portland, Maine.  This is where I thought my life would unfold.  My girlfriend was from Maine and had an exciting job at a successful advertising agency near the Old Port.  We rented an apartment in a cool old building on the Western Promenade.  We got a cat.

At 25 years of age, I felt sure I was on a course toward adulthood.  I could see it in my mind's eye.  I got on well with my girlfriend's parents and siblings.  They had a nice farmhouse not far from the city and a four season condo in Bridgton.  We played tennis, swam in the lake, went for hikes and skied in the winter.  My girlfriend's mom was an enthusiastic and talented cook.  When we'd go over to their house for Sunday dinners, the smell of tomatoes, garlic and onions made my knees buckle in epicurious anticipation.  Before the food touched my tongue, I could already taste it.  I could taste it as surely as I thought I could see my future in my crystal ball.

As I envisioned it, my girlfriend and I would get engaged, marry, have children.  We'd go to Acadia and Mt. Katahdin.  Having already spent a Christmas with their family, I could imagine all of us, with our spouses and children, sitting around the tree, drinking hot cocoa spiked with peppermint schnapps.  They were a musical family.  Their father would cajole the kids into trotting out their high school instruments to play carols.  And my family adored my girlfriend as well. When she came to our Passover celebration with her winsome smile and good humor she charmed the room. 

I knew, too, that I'd be a great teacher - the one the kids would love, respect, and admire.  They'd hang on my every wise word, laugh at my every witticism, and come to me for sage advice.  With my teaching career already determined, I thought I'd find time to write that great American novel on the side.  My girlfriend was a young star at her agency; she'd already been assigned to big clients, been shipped to Chile for work.  There wasn't much that wasn't right in our world.  Until the day there wasn't anything that was right.

I spent the summer of 1996 in Portland reveling in a future already clear in my mind.  We decorated our Western Promenade apartment and went on weekend excursions.  I saw these as steps toward a certain path.  I worked that summer giving guided bus tours of Portland and used my free time to send out scores of applications to area high schools.  It was just a matter of time, I knew, before all the pieces fell into place.  It was just a matter of time.

June soon became July and August came just as swiftly.  But along with late summer's humidity, a certain coolness could be felt at 48 Western Promenade.  There was a new curtness in my girlfriend's voice that portended ill-fortunes.  I hoped against hope that it would be short-lived, that it was a phase.  It wasn't long, however, before I had to ask,  "What's going on?"  

I could see the anguish in her eyes.  She had something to say that she knew would hurt me.  She knew it would be painful, just as it was painful for her to have come to the realization.  She unburdened her conscience, released a torrent of pent up feelings.  She cared for me, but....there was no other way to say it, she didn't want us to remain together.  It hurt.  I didn't feel betrayed; she hadn't betrayed me, she had only remained true to herself.  As much as it stung, I could not fault her for listening to her conscience.  When we moved in together, she felt sure it was what she wanted; it simply wasn't how she felt now.  

I wept on my pillow and felt the pain of our breakup.  But as much as I felt sadness over our breakup, I know much of it had more to do with the loss of the life I had so vividly anticipated.  All of it was gone in that instant.  All that never was could never be.  The image frames in my mind melted away like celluloid too close to the hot projector lamp.  The door to that future didn't just close, it evaporated completely, like a horrible magic trick.

*     *     *     *     *

The next weekend I picked up a Sunday Boston Globe help wanted section (In the mid 1990s it was still possible to find a job in an actual newspaper).  I hadn't even glanced at any opportunities outside of Maine before then.  Why would I have?  There was an ad for English teachers on Cape Cod.  Having spent weeks and summers there, I began the application process.  I submitted my credentials.  Unlike the lack of response I'd had from a single school in Maine, I got a call the very next week to come in for an interview.

I showed up, answered the questions of the department head and was soon thereafter led into the principal's office for an impromptu interview with him.  Afterward I was asked to wait in the outer office while they conferred.  The department head came out, sat down, and said, "I've only ever done this once before in my career, but I'd like to make you an offer today."  I accepted.

In the span of two weeks, the life I'd mapped out in Maine had gone from a foregone conclusion to a painful memory.  I'd exchanged my apartment overlooking the Fore River for a basement hovel opposite a boat yard next to Lewis Bay in Hyannis.  From my dark and dank apartment, I could hear the Nantucket ferries coming and going, the safety instructions of the crew blaring loudly into the one window of my cheap abode.  I began school just days after arriving and was jolted by just how disinterested my students were in just about anything I had to say.  I was saddened by how poorly they wrote, demoralized by just how uncritical their minds were, and dismayed by how uninvolved their parents were.  This was not how I'd pictured it at all.  There were exceptions, of course, too few and far between to alter the landscape.

As teachers well know, the school day starts early, far too early.  I woke each morning well before dawn and ate my breakfast in the car.  I taught mostly ungrateful students all day long and spent endless hours correcting and commenting upon ghastly compositions.  I worked hard to construct lesson plans to engage and enlighten.  By the estimation of my colleagues and superiors, I was proving myself a competent and natural teacher.  By my own measurement, I was miserable.  

While I made friends with some colleagues, found some time for my own extracurricular activities, I was lonely even in company.  I made frequent visits to Boston to have fun with my friends, but when Sunday rolled around, I left early so I'd have time for my schoolwork.  Lessons plans, reading papers and reading the books I was teaching all required most of my nights and weekends.  I never took a shortcut in my work, but rarely did I feel rewards I imagined teaching would provide.  

One of my mentors who I co-taught with, a 30 year veteran of the classroom (as well as a veteran of the U.S. Navy) took me under his wing. When I felt most dispirited, Jim would offer some wise words, some perspective.  He was good at what he did, but also a realist.  His experience had taught him how to recognize the truths that cannot be denied.  He knew that it was not always possible to make a reluctant student engage.  He knew that some kids, despite their enthusiasm and attention weren't going to become great students.  He knew that in the summer he'd be happier fishing in the Bass River.  And Jim also knew that winter in S. Yarmouth, Cape Cod for a 25 year-old first year teacher with few close friends or family nearby was not the stuff of postcards from a Wellfleet summer.  I remember what he said to me nearly verbatim, "Dave, when you punch out your timecard at the end of your career, it shouldn't be here."  (Jim is retired from teaching, but is regular columnist for the Cape Cod Times.)

By spring, I'd finally found some rhythm to my days and weeks.  I got the hang of my schedule, grew used to the classroom and its sizable requirements.  I still wasn't extracting much satisfaction from my days, but I was at least conditioned.  It's therefore easy to understand why I was so looking forward to my April vacation.  I'd planned a cross country journey to San Francisco.  My dad had recently moved to Marin County and I had a few close friends who'd settled there after college.  Taking my seat on the airplane, I was giddy with anticipation.  It was like being set free from jail!  I left my schoolwork behind.  The only matter related to school that lingered was the excellent evaluation I'd just received from my department head and the offer to renew my contract for the following year.  I tucked those thoughts into my brain's back pocket and lit out for the coast.

*     *     *     *     *

The weather in San Francisco in spring isn't always guaranteed great, but it was the week I was there.  From the airport, I made my way to the ferry across the bay to Larkspur.  It was a clear day and the views of the Golden Gate, Alcatraz and the San Francisco skyline were breathtaking and intoxicating.  Even San Quentin captured the imagination as the ferry eased into Marin.  My dad and I hiked Mt. Tamalpais, walked Muir Woods, and toured Tiburon and Sausalito.  Later in the week as I shifted accommodations to my friends in the city, I took in the tourist sites:  Fisherman's Wharf, Ghirardelli Sq., Coit Tower, Haight & Ashbury, City Lights bookstore to name a few.  We drove up to Napa and Sonoma and did what you do there (hiccup).  I shunned sleep in favor of revelry.  I filled my every waking moment with the stuff of leisure and adventure.  Knowing that I had but 9 days, inclusive of my flights, I sought to wrest every minute of fun I could from the little time I had.

I had booked a redeye flight back from San Francisco to Boston that last Saturday night.  For my last adventure, a large group of us - old friends and new - went out to a chic dinner in the Mission neighborhood.  Earlier that day, I'd been at Pier 39 overlooking San Francisco Bay, eating, drinking and reveling.  It was my last day and I was intent on savoring, if not imbibing every last drop of California sunshine.  At dinner around a large circular table, the cocktails and jokes went round.  I was having a lot of fun, but I was also somewhat aware that I had a flight to catch.  Though I knew I had to go, my sense of time was failing.  After much procrastination, I finally asked my friend sitting next to me what time I had to leave to make sure I caught my flight.  She asked to see my ticket and when I produced it, her eyes widened,  "NOW!"  she howled.

My heart raced as I duck-duck-goosed my way around the table, giving kisses and hugs.  I dashed to my friend's car to grab my suitcase as she hailed me a taxi.  I barked my instructions to the driver and soon realized I had zero cash in my wallet.  I asked the driver to stop at an ATM, putting further at risk the likelihood of making the flight.  The driver sensed my apprehension and when he asked what time my flight left, he found another gear in that taxi.  We weaved through traffic, pissed off innumerable drivers, and pulled up to the Delta gates with but moments spare.  This being the pre 9/11 era, I was able to quickly check my bags at the curb and make my way through security with relative speed.  I focused, albeit with great intoxication, on finding my gate.  And once I found the gate and made my way down the jetway to the plane, I called upon my few remaining senses to zone in on locating my assigned seat.  I had the kind of tunnel vision of a mind both self-conscious of being drunk while trying to appear sober.  I honed in on my seat, only vaguely aware that the plane was not especially full.

I fell down in my seat next to, if not partly on, a couple.  I am sure it wasn't graceful for I had exhausted the little gross motor control I had in just getting down the aisle.  I exhaled a mighty sigh of relief and couldn't help, I'm sure, but breathe vodka fumes on my neighbors.  I slurred to them as clearly as I could, "I'll probably be able to find another seat once we get going."  I said this to them forgetting that I was surely the last person to board and in that moment wholly unaware that we were literally about the only passengers on the plane.  As I finally took a half moment to scan the cabin and realize how odd it must have been for them to have a drunken 20-something year-old kid plop down nearly on top of them on an empty plane, I sheepishly offered, "Maybe I'll just move now."  They never said a word to me as I skulked away to an empty row in the rear of the plane.

To say I slept the first leg of the flight to Atlanta would be to imply I had some choice in the matter.  I was unconscious.  I passed out before the plane even took off and felt nothing of the landing either.  It was only when they turned on the cabin lights after we arrived at a complete stop at the gate that I realized we'd even left San Francisco.  I endured a pounding headache and the parched mouth of a desert dust storm on the flight leg to Boston.  My friend, Chris, picked me up and took me to the IHOP in Brighton.  From there we went to his apartment where I'd left my car.  It was a typical rainy April New England day.  The air was bone-chilling, the skies dark and depressing.  In other words, it was the perfect meteorological complement to both my mood and physical condition.

As I drove down Rt. 3 toward the Cape and cataloged the work that lay waiting for the remainder of my Sunday (term papers to read; lesson plans to finalize; chapters to read), my stomach began to knot.  It wasn't the hangover or IHOP that caused my innards to twist - and it wasn't the prospect of hours of schoolwork, either.  I drove through Weymouth, Hanover, Pembroke and Kingston, I began to clearly see the months ahead.  I saw a summer of fun in Wellfleet, free of the monotony of the school year.  I felt, viscerally, the ebb of that summer and the lack of enthusiasm I'd have for September's arrival.  I projected the undulating emotions of the academic year, saw the long hours wielding chalk and a red pen.  And I felt certain that when next April came, I'd head out to San Francisco.  I'd fill my vacation week with laughter and adventure.  I'd book a redeye flight home so that I'd maximize every possible minute of the vacation.  I'd arrive back in Boston on a cold and rainy day, get picked up by Chris, and we'd go to IHOP so I could wistfully regale him with the tales of my escapades.  And then I'd drive to South Yarmouth with a gnawing pit in my gut.  As I drove Capeward, somewhere between Plymouth and Barnstable, the light bulb went on.  

I arrived at 26 Arlington Street, South Yarmouth, Massachusetts by midday.  I unpacked my school work and dutifully fulfilled my teaching responsibilities.  Exhausted by nightfall, I turned in early and rose the next day before the sun.  When I met with my department head later that day, I solemnly told her that, no, I would not be renewing my contract; I would not be returning to teach there the next year.

I didn't know what I'd be doing next.  I now know that I couldn't have known it even if I thought I did.  All I knew then was that the pit in my gut was gone and I felt more happy not knowing then I'd ever felt being sure of what was to come.

Friday, October 1, 2010

The Chronicles, No. 4

Did I tell you I'm in another play?  I have small roles (yes, two different characters in the same play), but the commitment to the effort - and the rehearsal schedule is much the same as it was for The Foreigner.  I am enjoying the creative process as well as the camaraderie. The play is Arthur Miller's The Crucible.  Whereas The Foreigner was a comedic farce, The Crucible is anything but.  Written by Miller in the 1950s, The Crucible sought to highlight the hypocrisy of McCarthyism.  If you're local, the play will be performed at the Bradley Playhouse the last two weekends of October.

Did I tell you that our B&B project is most likely being put on hold?  It's taken the better part of the last year to gather all the information we needed to make an informed decision.  The crux of the matter is that the revenue we can reasonably predict isn't sufficient enough to cover the amount of debt we'd have to assume.  And while we could make a go of it and even have a decent chance of overcoming obstacles, we'd rather be conservative and not jeopardize the prospect of retaining the Farm for years and generations to come.  The plan now is to investigate small renovations that can be done to get us onto the property.  Stay tuned.

Did I tell you about the headstone we're in the process of getting for Leo?  Linda and I met with a local grave marker company a week or two ago.  We're going to put a marker in the small, ancient cemetery here in Pomfret where many of Linda's family's ancestors are buried.  The cemetery is so tiny and full that there are few actual procedures for putting in a new gravestone.  Because we just have ashes and not body to bury, we're able to put our marker in without having to get special permission.  We're grateful that we'll have a place to see Leonardo Mathewson Ring's name, glad to have him with family, and glad to recognize him in some form of permanence, even if his physical presence with us was short.  We miss him everyday, feel his absence and yet in that absence his presence is perhaps stronger.

Did I tell you that Max moved up to pre-school?  He turns three in November and continues to be a bottomless source of joy and amazement.  I'll spare you the cloying doting of an adoring father, except to say he's a constant wonder and a blessing beyond words.  The only thing we desire for him is a sibling.  Unfortunately that's not such an easy prospect.  Pregnancy, while possible, isn't something we can count on and adoption is expensive.  This said, we're trying to get our heads around undertaking the latter.  We'll need help and asking for it doesn't come easy.  But not asking means not receiving.

And what about that running?  I am still at it, but I do admit to a recent bout of laziness.  I got sick a few weeks ago and then some unseasonable humidity deterred me from making a swift return.  I am not concerned that I'll remain sidelined.  I get too much from it to remain idle.  And I'm still an avid Five Finger/Minimalist footwear guy.  In recent months, I've noticed more and more discussion about the practice.  Friends of mine who were skeptics are now donning the freaky feet, reveling, childlike, in the sensation of the ground beneath their soles.

Quiet Corner living is, well, quiet and still.  When we moved here from Salem, Massachusetts, we had our reservations, but with each passing month, and now a year's worth of seasons, we can confidently express just how happy we are to have made the move.  I am still in the hunt for a job that meets both our financial needs and my personal set of values, but thanks to Linda, we're keeping our heads, perhaps even our shoulders above water.

I haven't been writing much lately and I wish I had something that could serve as an excuse.  I did a lot of 'talking' over the last year or so.  Sometimes I'd sit down to write and feel that I'd already said what I was thinking.  I didn't want to bore readers with what I felt was simply a rehashing of things already said.  I felt sensitive that much of what I wrote felt as if I was making judgements about how others chose to live their lives.  Frankly, I didn't want to hear myself think anymore.  Which brings me to my last thought.

There's been enough upheaval in my life in the past years to cause me to take stock.  I've experienced loss on many fronts (a child, a job, a condo, a good credit score) and yet I feel as though I've gained much more than I've 'lost' through the experience.  In my efforts to make sense of things, I've embraced some Buddhist philosophies.  (I am not a practicing Buddhist, nor do I represent that I have anything close to a deep understanding of the practice.)  What I read about the nature of suffering, the laws of impermanence, and the mighty and dangerous ego resonates deeply.  When I watch my mind and can see the ego focusing on past regrets or future fantasy, I feel more equipped to recognize what's happening in those thoughts and more swiftly I'm able return to the present.  When I drive, I try to just drive.  When I wash the dishes I try to just wash the dishes.  You may not be surprised by how incredibly difficult it is just to be wholly present.