20 March 2007

The Mundane, the Profound, and the Avuncular

Several years ago, during my initial visit to Kate's place back in Iowa City, one of the first things I noticed was a large, framed photograph of a weary-looking older guy sitting in front of a weathered red barn. It was a striking picture, actually, with long, late-afternoon shadows stretching through the frame and the dark silhouette of a cow in the foreground. Before I could even ask, Kate explained that the man was her great-uncle Lewis, and that the barn was on the cattle ranch where he'd lived. The photo itself, she told me, was taken by her uncle David, who -- along with her aunt Kathleen and two cousins -- still lived on the ranch, just outside the small river town of Rio Vista, California. "They are the absolute coolest uncle and aunt you could ever imagine," she gushed, and went on to tell me how much she loved visiting there and spending time with that part of her family.

A year or two later I finally got to see for myself when Kate and I traveled out there to stay on the ranch for a few days, and I'll be damned if it wasn't true -- David and Kathleen really were that cool. Not only that, but the picture of uncle Lewis wasn't a fluke, either. David was a seriously gifted photographer, and the walls of their home were covered with photos he'd taken of things as mundane as life on the ranch and as profoundly beautiful as some of the forests and mountains and landscapes he was so fond of. And on top of everything, he loved baseball! He coached little league in town, and went with his family to big league games in San Francisco. (And even if I didn't fully appreciate what it meant to be a Giants fan, what did I care? It wasn't as if he liked the Yankees or anything.) Anyway, the point is that Kate was right. I quickly found myself feeling a little envious of her and her cousins, and wishing I was part of their family. This feeling soon passed, however, since Kathleen and David made me feel so instantly welcome it was as if I was family already and had been visiting the ranch all along. It was beautiful out there, too, with rolling hills and eucalyptus trees and clear dark nights with what seemed like millions of stars. I didn't want to leave.

Kate and I spent a couple of days there again just this past December, the highlight of which was a slideshow that David had spent the afternoon putting together. He'd set up the projector in the small, unheated poolhouse, and the sixteen or eighteen of us that had gathered at the ranch for the holidays bundled ourselves up and sat out there on that cold, clear, starry night and watched the images of him, Kathleen, and their friends in what were clearly younger days, hiking and camping in some of the most magnificent places I'd ever seen. There were the men, bushy-bearded and sunburned, climbing up some impossibly steep canyon wall in one slide; there was Kathleen edging along some narrow, crumbling ledge while smiling serenely in the next. I'd grown up in New Jersey, and was only vaguely aware that such places even existed. It was all just so incredibly... cool. Every once in a while Kate nudged me and arched an eyebrow knowingly, as if to say, "see?" All I could do was nod in complete and utter agreement.

Just two weeks ago, David died in an automobile accident. Kate called me from work with the news, then came home early and cried all night. In the five years I've known her I'd never seen her like this, and her first and only impulse was get out to the ranch as soon as possible and to be with Kathleen and her cousins. We booked a flight and were on our way to California a day and a half later. Kate spent a lot of time helping out around the house, and we met dozens of Kathleen and David's friends. I learned more about David, too -- more about his wilderness adventures, his photography, about what an enormous impact he'd made on so many people. And we went to the memorial service last Tuesday, which was held at Egbert Field, Rio Vista's little league diamond. It was the only place big enough to hold the hundreds of people that showed up. There, I learned even more about the ways he'd touched the people in his life, and heard his friend Andy tell a story about him that was one of the funniest things I'd ever heard. (Andy also put together a photo tribute to David which you can see here.)

Only two weeks earlier, my younger sister Mel and her husband Rob out in California had their first child, a little boy they named Nathan. Since our annual travel budget is pretty limited, and since we would already be nearby anyway, it seemed only natural that Kate and I also spend a couple of days seeing my newest nephew, and so we arranged to spend a day or two with them at either end of the trip. It turned out that Nathan was just as precious and adorable as Mel had claimed, and despite my nervousness about him wriggling free or breaking in my arms, she let me hold him for a few minutes. He was so tiny, so fragile, so beautiful! (I brought earplugs, of course, reasoning that at least one person in the house ought to get some sleep.)

But bookending something as sorrowful as David's memorial with something as joyful as seeing little Nathan felt vaguely inappropriate, the juxtaposition unsettling. After all, these elemental but opposing forces -- birth and death, the only two things any of us can ever really count on! -- are phenomena at once so mundane as to be banal yet so deeply profound that attempts to make sense of them lie at the root of almost every human religious impulse. I found myself looking for explanations, for ways to reconcile how our lives could be framed at once by such happiness and such grief, how they could even coexist. Needless to say, I didn't come up with anything. Plenty of individuals far smarter, and any number of writers far more eloquent than I'll ever be have pondered these things for whole lifetimes and still come up short, so I'm not going to pretend that I have anything to add.

After some reflection, though, I realized that my desire to comprehend these things was misguided in the first place. The intensity of the sorrow and loss felt by David's family and the pure maternal joy that fills Mel every time she looks at her new son are experiences that I will never know, nor probably ever even understand. Anything I'd try to write about these things would ultimately ring hollow. Eventually, however, I realized that what I could do is to endeavor to always remember the importance of family, to cherish time spent with them, and to hope that someday, one of my own nephews or nieces might be able to say to someone -- perhaps even their own future mate -- "hey, I've got this really great uncle that you've got to meet." Sure, I know I'll never be half as cool as David (and probably much less than that, given the deficit I'm starting out with), but it's something I can certainly work at and aspire to. And maybe, just maybe, in my own little way, I might be able to pass along to them some tiny spark, some momentary glimpse of the warmth and humor and generosity of spirit that David evinced, the depths of which I was only at the very beginning of understanding myself.

Now, if I could do that -- well, that would be very cool, indeed.

Here are a few pictures from the ranch. Spring, obviously, had arrived.

portrait of dog with tractor

azevedo ranch

flower, azevedo ranch, california

cattle, azevedo ranch

wheelbarrow, azevedo ranch

19 March 2007

On Running (or Not)

No, I'm still not running, though I have to admit I'm getting kind of itchy of late. Thankfully, any temptation to hit the road has been tempered by the craptacular local weather (last Friday featured something like sixteen non-stop hours of sleet), which is keeping me safely indoors and hard at work on the dissertation. This is probably a good thing, too, since my legs have been persistently refusing to heal on any kind of timely schedule. To be honest, I'm starting to get worried. My trip to Iowa City got pushed back to the beginning of April, so I'll visit the doctor while I'm out there and hopefully figure out what the problem is. I'm not quite sure how this happened, but besides meeting with my advisor, spending some quality time at the University library, and going to the doctor, it looks like this trip will also include some 17th-century opera and -- thanks to my pal Nat up in Racine, Wisconsin (who just picked up some super-cheap tickets on eBay) -- a Cubs-Brewers game in Milwaukee. Funny how these things work out.

But in the spirit of honesty, I probably ought to admit that even when I resume running, I'll most likely cut back substantially on the mileage, maybe doing one or two runs a week towards the "every street in Brooklyn" thing. Seriously, besides doing a number on my legs this whole endeavor has been a lot more time-consuming than it might seem at first glance (the record-keeping and map-related stuff alone probably took an hour and a half per run), and Kate's not going to support me forever. I've been making steady progress with my writing over the last two months, and I really need to keep the momentum going.

Does this mean I'm throwing in the towel? No, not yet. But maybe it'd be best to put things officially on hiatus for the time being -- that would at least free me from having to write these humiliating little explanations every couple of weeks. Sure, I'd like to finish what I've started, even if it takes a lot longer than originally planned. But when it comes right down to it, I'd still rather be "that guy who ran half of Brooklyn and finished his dissertation" than "that guy who ran all of Brooklyn" and didn't.

Oh, and since I mentioned my advisor, I should also mention Through Deaf Eyes, a documentary about Deaf history and culture which features interviews with him. It premiers Wednesday, March 21 on PBS stations nationwide (check your local listings, of course).

And, just for old time's sake, here are a few more photos from the Runs Brooklyn archives:

warehouse, greenpoint

advertising, floyd bennett field
Floyd Bennett Field

cafe, bay ridge
Bay Ridge

A Little More on the 1964 World's Fair

In a recent post ("recent" being a somewhat relative term here), I reported on a trip Kate and I took to the Queens Museum of Art to see one-third of the new Robert Moses exhibit, after which we looked at a few of the structures left over from the 1964-65 World's Fair. Interestingly enough, my dad, John, had begun systematically digitizing old family slides going back to the early 1960s, and was easily able to locate some images from a 1964 excursion he'd taken to the fair with my mother and her parents. Some of his photos (especially those taken from atop the observation towers) offer a terrific view of the fairgrounds, so I thought I'd post a few of the pictures here in case anyone's interested. (Just to reiterate, though: these photos were taken by my dad, not me. I wouldn't even come onto the scene for another year and a half.) Anyway, the fair itself sure seemed like a weird enough place -- part amusement park, part corporate showroom, and part post-imperial sideshow.

1964 world's fair 2
Here's the Jordan pavillion in the "International Area." I'm not quite sure why it's shaped that way or what, if anything, it has to do with the nation of Jordan, but visitors could sample middle-eastern food and take in performances by "Arab dancers" and "military pipers." I'm assuming the picture was taken from the Sky Ride.

1964 world's fair 1
Here's a view to the northwest, taken from the observation towers. That's the unisphere in the back, of course, while the circular structures to the left are part of the Africa Pavillion, described in the official guidebook as "a hut-village on stilts" that featured "wild animals, tribal dancers, and a tree-hut restaurant." Uh huh. And to the right is the Greece Pavillion, in which a "sound-and-light show dramatizes Greek contributions to Western thought." Whoa. What would Socrates do?

1964 world's fair 3
This is a view to the east, looking out over part of the "Industrial Area." The circular body of water at the back is the "Pool of Industry," which housed the "Fountain of the Planets." This was the site of a nightly water-jet-and-colored-light show, which apparently featured fireworks and music including "The Ride of the Valkyries," "Ol' Man River," and the University of Wisconsin fight song. No, really! The white building beyond is the Bell System pavillion, and the structure to the right with the arching canopy is the pavillion where visitors could watch "To Be Alive," an 18-minute film presentation dedicated to the "joys shared by all living people." The pavillion's sponsor? Johnson Wax. Of course!

this explains a lot... (1967)Finally, since we're on the photo-fueled nostalgia kick, here's a picture of me and my dad from late 1967. In retrospect, this could actually explain a lot.

Oh, and the picture at the top is of the Astral Fountain, a little south of the unisphere.