life as understood

by jeff carr, master of the arts, -------------------------------------------------------------------------- presumably from a couch


as a little child

courtesy of Jeff |

Once when I was seven or eight or nine, my parents had me sleep in my baby sister's room on Christmas Eve. Maybe it was my idea. Either way, we kids were to be together on that most special of nights, perhaps for solidarity, as we weren't allowed to leave the room until morning. At that point in my life (as with most of my childhood), my official best friend was the cat, so she was included as well. I'm sure I had picked out and wrapped at least one present for her and left it under the tree--a present she would brush by indifferently as she slinked under the branches to drink from the base. I hope I had picked out a present for my sister as well, but I'm less certain about that.

Back then, in the early '90s, the cat and I were at the outset of a years-long struggle over sleeping arrangements. I wanted her to spend the night curled up on my bed with me, which she sometimes did, but usually she roamed in and out and all over. This Christmas Eve we had to be together, though--a family--so when she took off after an hour or two, I followed her downstairs. When I appeared in the basement doorway around midnight, my parents looked surprised. The light was on and they were wrapping presents. When they saw me and hustled me back to bed, I seem to remember an added measure of urgency, as though I had really caught them off-guard, but maybe that's just hindsight. I didn't think anything of it, and we never spoke of the matter again. I'm not sure to what degree I believed in Santa at the time, but this potentially traumatic incident didn't affect it either way. Why wouldn't they be wrapping presents at night?

That might have been the year I got a Magic 8-ball and an LA Dodgers hat. I didn't care about the team, but my friend Andrew had the hat, and I thought it was cool. I told Santa I wanted those things, and I also told my parents. When I received them on Christmas morning, I didn't have to know the source. I didn't want to.

A few years later, we got an artificial tree, and we had to put a bowl of water underneath it, because the cat expected a drink. Around this time, almost every year, my parents started telling me the same thing: "you're growing up now, so you probably won't get as many presents this year." They said that when I graduated high school, got back from Russia, and got married, though I never noticed a sharp decline. Some boxes were always marked "from Santa" and some were explicity from my parents, and though the distinction was fuzzy, it was always respected. In fact, it still is. For all I know, some obese old saint will stumble out of the fireplace later tonight and leave everything I need. It's never been proven otherwise to me, and that's how I like it. I still don't want to know. My parents' silence on the matter may be their all-time greatest Christmas gift to me, to allow me to be more innocent than I am, at least for one morning a year.

Before bed tonight, I gathered a few little things and placed them in a stocking for Adam: a pacifier, a pair of blue baby shoes that belonged to me, and a piece of ribbon and a paper cup, which he'll like more than his educational toys from Barnes & Noble. I thought for sure that this year, the first year of fatherhood, the unmagical truth would finally be exposed, but it hasn't been yet. Even though I filled my son's stocking, I will never know for sure who filled mine. Some boxes will say "from Santa" and we'll smile knowingly. And I'll thank my parents, but not for the presents.


in defense of Utah

courtesy of Jeff |

Listen up, because there's a good chance I'm never going to say this again in public.

Utah is a cool place.

And you thought you knew me. This all started Sunday afternoon during a leisurely Sunday drive Sarah and I took through the south end of the Salt Lake Valley, rolling between mountains, temples, and new housing developments. As we began our return to her parents' house, the conversation turned to a familiar topic: the question of where to spend our lives together.

Sarah moved to Utah when she was eight, and loves it as one should love her home. I came in college, not intending to stay long, but after five years, I became softened by something that often skirts cursory conversations about the Beehive State: nuanced reality.

You see, for me, growing up near the state but not in it, Utahns were the annoying neighbors and perpetual joke-butts. Stereotypes, of course, ran rampant. Since before I can remember, it's been a place constantly derided by friends, family, and others who have spent many years there and elsewhere. I myself even participated in this action on occasion, tossing the term "Utard" around more than I'm comfortable admitting now.

(For a full and proper context, please see my landmark June 2009 posting "Striving to Improve Idaho/Utah Relations.")

Actually, many people jab at Utah from inside and out, but it's important to note that nearly 100 percent of the derision is directed solely at its residents. No one really speaks ill of Utah's cities, which tend to be clean and modern, or its natural wonder, which is extraordinary. A hefty portion of the derision comes from Mormons from other states, but that's not the issue here.

The issue is this. I live a couple states away now, and when I tell people I'm from Idaho, I get a wide variety of reactions--potatoes, skiing, fishing, neo-Nazis, BSU football, hicks, corn (for those confusing it with Iowa)--and this is good. Variety and reality, out of which a friendly conversation may ensue. But try to tell someone you've come from Utah, and the initial reaction is the same every single time. It's remarkable. All 2.8 million people, including the 1.2 million who are active Mormons and the 1.6 million who are not, are painted with the exact same brush. I've watched it countless times--in a split-second, the person looks you up and down and almost nods a little, then gives a distinct look that says they immediately know everything about you. Say no more. You're from Utah. I've heard about you.

The easy answer, of course, is to not let this bother me. First of all, I'm not from Utah, and secondly, the majority of Utahns don't seem to let the profiling and essential condescension hinder their ridiculously high quality of life. Who knows if we'll ever move back here or not, but if we decide to, I might have to do a little maturing in order to fit in, considering my upbringing.

That, and I'd have to stop using my turn signal. Zing! I'm sorry, I know. Sort of sends a mixed message about the place.

Well, hey.


talking, but with revision

courtesy of Jeff |

By now, you must have noticed it. Of course you have. This blog, you've said, doesn't have a theme, a brand, an essence. It's alternately witty and sappy, trivial and overblown, and pretty much every entry is too long. If you hadn't noticed it, don't feel bad. I noticed it a long time ago, but I never did anything about it. That's probably worse.

Why is it that we blog, again? Remind me. For me, maybe my writing voice is the voice I wish was my speaking voice. Maybe it's because I no longer keep a journal. Maybe I just want to be heard. But some of the world's most annoying people are those who just want to be heard. Yes, it's not the most ignoble of desires, but it spawns some bad stuff. Either way, there are something like 13 million blogs out there (made it up), so no one's really getting heard anyway.

I remember remarking to my friend Blaine once in an Indian restaurant in a gas station that I thought that writing, for me, represented the most likely opportunity for me to make a real "mark on the world" or something like that. I'm pretty sure I still believe that, but I don't know if I care anymore. Writing for me, I think, represents the thing that makes me feel the best, the most productive. That's what it is. And when someone might stumble in the door and read it on accident, it forces some degree of accountability.

This next three weeks might represent the longest vacation I'll have until I retire, assuming I find a job someday. So here's this: I'm going to do my best to write here at least two or three times a week until winter quarter starts and we'll see what comes out of it. Maybe I'll figure out why it is I do this, and what form future postings might take. It might suck for a bit (see "Searching for Teen Wolf" or this entry), but I have hope for a brighter future.


on instananeous aging, and its effects

courtesy of Jeff |

When I lived in Russia, I became witness to a fascinating phenomenon which I like to call "babafication" (бабафикация). That's pronounced BOB-ification, from the word babushka (бабушка), which is one of the two Russian words you already know. Babafication describes the process by which this

becomes this.
Notable is the rate at which this process occurs among Russian women. The above change represents something like a week or two tops, during which time the women must stay inside their apartments, because to my knowledge, no one has ever witnessed this transition, or in fact, any true middle ground between the two varieties of women. On a side note, it is unknown whether or not a similar process applies to Russian men, since there are no Russian men over 55.

Over the years, I've conducted a long, informal study on both sides of the Pacific, and I have my theories about why Russians age the way they do. That's not the point here. What fascinates me is the fact that babafication is much more than just a dizzying natural metamorphosis. Much of it appears to be, to some degree, voluntary.

* * *

Adam watches from his stroller as the tiger sharks swim overhead. He doesn't watch closely. I want him to, but he's still too young to appreciate such a sight. I watch for him, hoping he'll get a sense, through me, that he's witnessing something special.

When we talk about Adam's future, snapshots flash of a young man my age, but without any clear distinguishing features. It's nearly impossible for me to picture my son in any state other than baby, and yet, he'll move on eventually. I stroke his tiny fingers as he grasps one of mine, and it floors me to think that these very same fingers will be big someday, and will belong to a man who goes on dates, gets promoted, and grows crippled, hunched over with the weight of the world. I can't equate the baby with the man, or even older child, that he'll become. I can't equate myself with either my past or my future, either. These fingers can't be the same ones. It doesn't make sense.

* * *

Those that have spent time in Russia know that being a babushka entails much more than just being old. Babushki (pl.) possess enormous cultural importance in the motherland, and have for centuries. They are the consummate representation of the past, the stubborn link to a folkloric time on the steppe that, without them, may have vanished generations ago. Babushki somehow embody the in-born instinct of the Russian soul--not 60 but suddenly 600 years old, complete with all the wisdom, reserve, and longing tediously gathered over such a span.

The universal babushka wardrobe, conversely, can be assembled almost instantaneously. It's as rigid as the bristles on the crooked brooms they scrape with. Regardless of the season, the standard-issue outdoor babushka get-up begins with several layers of multicolored sweaters and dresses peering out from under a drab, scratchy overcoat, and accompanied by a scarf, felt boots, and the shawls that have come to symbolize them almost as a distinct race.

The question I've wondered for years is this: when do babushki decide it's time to don the uniform? What spark causes them to set out shopping for felt boots? And do they hunch and snort on the way to the boot market, or does that not happen until the bus ride home? The differences between Maria Sharapova and the axe-wielding matriarch are enormous, but the time gap is razor thin--comicially so. One day, one direction, the next day, another. Generations, states of mind separated so clearly, it may as well be law.

* * *

Deeper down in the Aquarium by the Bay, after the tiger sharks, a man peers into a tank. He wears a red 49ers cap and has a red 49ers tattoo on his right bicep, which is visible thanks to the manual removal of the sleeves from his red 49ers shirt. The physical characteristics of his face escape me, but what I see on his face will remain etched in my mind for many days. As he puts his hands on the rail and looks into the blue, I think I witness the exact moment he advances a generation and becomes old. Maybe this moment has lasted a month or two for him, or maybe I truly am beholding a once-in-a-lifetime realization. Either way, I've never seen a face bearing two opposing forces--the young and the old--in such desperate struggle. He is carefree and immature and then suddenly wizened. Suddenly it's no longer ok to wear a sleeveless shirt to the aquarium. Now he'll be embarrassed when he leaves.

* * *

I have to admit I'm not sure what all this means, these two approaches to aging. Maybe Russian women have it figured out, and they can pinpoint when this transformational moment will come, and thus mentally prepare for the instinctual migration to the felt boot market. Why fight it like so many western women attempt to? To me, the idea of a foreordained babafication ritual seems more graceful than the forced metamorphosis I see at the aquarium. It also seems possible that the anticipation and cultural expectation contribute to the babushki aging so quickly all at once, though.

Back in Russia, tangled up in these very questions, I also looked into the possibility that babushki are, in fact, a distinct race, and that they're born in their present form, just slightly smaller. It almost makes more sense.

I hope Adam stays tiny forever.


searching for teen wolf

courtesy of Jeff |

For quite a while now, possibly my entire life, I've been trying to be awesome. I mean, most of us have. We know the actually awesome people are the ones that don't have to try, but that doesn't stop us. It just forces us to be sneakier -- to cover our tracks so it doesn't look like we're trying so hard.

Since among my generation, Facebook is the ultimate medium by which awesomeness is not only conveyed, but oftentimes created (and destroyed), I have naturally spent careful hours over the past years tweaking my Facebook profile in calculated efforts to elevate my own stature. The ultimate goal of this, of course, is that in the event of a time warp in which we're all transplanted back to high school, I'll have a greater immunity from dorkitude than I did the first time around.

The Facebook profiles of awesome people are often characterized by extreme terseness -- they don't say much. One might conclude that this technique lends an air of mysteriousness to the subject, which we all know is attractive. More importantly, and not unrelated, is that the technique of virtual anti-verbosity lends the impression that one spends little time on Facebook, which is, of course, the equivalent of "not trying." See how this works? In the Facebook realm, as in literature, economy of words equals awesomeness. Ergo, my own profile tweakings almost always take the form of trimming the fat.

Trimming the fat used to be easy to do on the sly. Every so often, I'd log on, delete an unnecessary line or two, and the casual viewer was none the wiser. Much to my dismay, however, I discovered yesterday that Facebook has changed things up. Now not only does it publish on my wall every tweak I make, but it has removed the "remove" option, which means each tweak now enters permanent public record as a damning testament to my repeated attempts at awesomeness augmentation, a heinous crime.

In the context of the "wistful" or "pensive period" that has defined my recent thoughts, yesterday's debilitating revelation seemed destined to cast me deeper into the stagnant tidepool of unawesomeness. Then something else happened which may prove to reverse my fortunes entirely: I watched that shining beacon of modern cinema, 1985's Teen Wolf.

In the film, young Scott Howard seeks fervently after awesomeness, and due to an unexplained genetic anomaly, not only does he find it, but in his words, it "lands on [his] face." After the happy event, the remainder of the film is an unabashed chronicling of his awesomeness, as sampled in the following clip: here it is in Spanish (this level of awesomeness requires no translation).

The lesson here is clear. If an awesomeness of this gut-wrenching magnitude is achievable for one who wanted it as publicly as did Scott Howard, it might be achievable even for me. Not that he hasn't set the bar high. Until I'm doing backflips on top of a moving truck that bears my likeness, I may never know whether or not I've arrived at a commensurate level of awesome. I also have the added disadvantage of being subject to logical transitions, a backstory, and a plot without holes, none of which burdened young Scott.

More importantly, the wistful period is over. It may have made for more vogue, publishable memoir, but heaven knows that's not awesome.


периферия / the periphery

courtesy of Jeff |

Note: Sarah says my writings have been "angsty" lately. I'm not sure about that. I suspect if future anthropologists were to discover this link and hold my blog up as a standard of human achievement in early 21st century literature, the last few posts may be considered to constitute my "wistful" or "pensive" period. It's what's in my heart. So sue me.

Last weekend, at Half Moon Bay, Adam saw the ocean for the first time. The pumpkin festival had the highway choked for many miles around, but once we actually arrived at the beach, it was nearly empty. Only after exiting the car, which we parked at the edge of the cliff, did the sandy postcard beach below, with no people, present itself.

I came to California to get closer to Siberia, which has been whispering past my ear since before I can remember. Even as I stepped cautiously to the cliff overlooking the ocean, my body, like a magnet, oriented itself 45 degrees to the north. The unifying capacity of oceans is remarkable. Even thousands of miles away, it felt like it was just over the horizon.

Just as with oceans, the concept of distance is hard to grasp within Siberia as well. Such vast emptiness plays tricks on the mind, especially when you step past the last house in town and find yourself on the periphery. The next Siberian city, after all, is considered "close" when it only takes an overnight train to get there. I can recall countless instances looking north, especially from the taiga forests outside Ulan-Ude and Novosibirsk, thinking that if I could just walk straight in that direction, I could reach the Arctic Ocean, hundreds of miles away, without encountering a soul. Of course, I'd never survive the trip. I could just soon walk across the ocean.

There's something about being on the periphery that's really mystifying. It's impossible not to notice it. In Siberia, of course, that's everywhere. That's all Siberia is--the very edge of a gigantic abyss, as dark and cold and inhospitable as the surface of the moon, and just as far. It's incredible. I guess the ocean's the closest thing we have around here.

I wanted to explain all that to Adam, and I will someday, after he's older. Hopefully I can show him in person, so he can feel it too. All I told him last weekend is, "Adam, this is the ocean. Isn't it beautiful?" And then I pointed north, and said "that's where Siberia is." I think I may have said a couple more things, certainly kissed him on top of the head, and then after we took a picture, we returned to the car. Hopefully we'll be back soon.


the revision process

courtesy of Jeff |

This post isn't necessarily about writing.

Stanford University is a stunningly grand place. I'll give you a second to look up photos of campus, which won't do it justice. The colonnades that surround each building on the main quad, for example, could never be captured in anything less than mural form. The corridors stretch seemingly for miles, remarkably unpeopled, enveloping a walker in a space that deftly reverberates with quality and tradition, even as the California sun sends in waves of warm vitality. The physical plant makes me want to be a better student now and a better citizen in the future.

It's a good thing, too, because some of the coursework so far has done just the opposite. It's not Stanford's fault. In fact, much of what has exasperated me thus far have been direct products of older and colder schools farther east, where the academy was born. A week and a day into graduate school, I'm starting to completely reconsider my one-time aspirations to become a professor.

This is big. A few weeks ago around a bonfire back in Utah, Sarah and I sat with two other young couples, friends of ours, answering questions about our spouses. It was a sort of Newlywed Game without points or explicit consequences. The question was posed: "What is your spouse's #1 interest, in one word?" Sarah looked at me, and didn't even hesitate before saying "academia." I took minor issue with that characterization, suggesting that "universities" or "college" might more appropriately engulf the athletic, administrative, and image aspects which interest me as well. Plus, Sarah is rightfully cynical about much that spews forth from the academy's highest windows. The point remains, though, that despite my admitted lack of career direction, academia has long been my default, so to speak. It has always made sense for me.

The cause of the university is something worth believing in--don't get me wrong--but over the past week and a day, I've been reminded of the limitations of certain high-minded academic pursuits. In fact, couple of my classes have already presented me with lectures and readings that seem to alienate intentionally. One professor, who just received his PhD last year from Oxford, presented everything in such a pedantic and arrogant manner that I ended up dropping his class and enrolling instead in another subject that hardly interests me at all. The most frustrating (and possibly appropriate) part is that the really alienating lectures, books, and journal articles are invariably about things that matter the very least. Some things in history, anthropology, and literature matter--in my opinion, the vast majority of things. Just not everyone focuses on those.

I, for one, cannot fault a person who wishes to spend his or her career ensconsed in the machinations of one little-known literary critic or in the semantics of how we should define a specific subculture. Critical thinking is good. But I suppose if I'm learning anything in grad school thus far it's that I want to use this critical thinking, this knowledge for accomplishing something real--for creating something real--in whatever sphere that may be.

In search of a much-needed break, we took a day trip to Monterey and Salinas on Saturday, where almost all of John Steinbeck's novels are set. We also toured the home where he was born, grew up, and wrote The Red Pony and Tortilla Flat. Next came the National Steinbeck Center, an impressive museum, especially considering that it's dedicated to the life and works of one brilliant, but by all accounts normal, man. In stark contrast to my feelings for my coursework, I was nearly brought to tears several times wandering through the exhibition hall, gaping at the beautiful stories that have touched so many lives, including my own. Especially striking was a quote from the writer which I had read before, explaining his motive behind East of Eden, the best book I've ever read:

"I am choosing to write this book to my sons. They are little boys now and they will never know what they came from through me, unless I tell them."

That is a worthy cause.

Whatever it is I end up doing, I hereby vow to create (or at least attempt), and create (or at least attempt) with purpose. Getting paid for that can be tricky, but if a position opens up for Nobel Prize-winning writer, let me know. Meanwhile, I may be on the hunt for an alternate future.



courtesy of Jeff |

Two things happened over the past few months that have caused me to take a greater interest in my heritage. These are they:
1) my son was born, and his name is my name too.
2) Sarah and I made the decision to leave the great Eastern Idaho/Northern Utah region where my family has lived for generations. And as I admittedly take great stock in geography and how it defines people, I've been particularly desirous to take in as much of my beloved region as I can--the region that has shaped me so profoundly. In fact, all summer long, I've been wanting to take a heritage tour, a la my favorite movie, Everything is Illuminated.

The realization of said tour has taken place only slowly, in meandering steps that haven't left deep impressions. For some reason, I've purposefully been treading lightly. The hunt for the farmhouse in Kimberly, Idaho where my grandmother grew up with her homesteading Danish parents hit an anti-climax when my dad's weird cousin, the current inhabitant, didn't invite us in. I didn't push for it. I also lived literally across the street from my other grandmother's childhood home in Logan, Utah, for nearly two years without ever venturing in.

Frankly, it was enough for me to grasp things generally, until I found out about Russian Settlement. I knew I had to see it, touch it, breathe it in.

Nobody seems to know whether or not the hundred or so clannish religious outcasts from Russia who settled in Park Valley, Utah in 1914 had a name for their town. Like the village itself, the specifics are lost to history. Driven out by the rising Bolsheviks, they came first to California, and then became uneasy there following another incidence of persecution. Upon seeing a brochure for cheap land in which to "invest dimes and reap dollars" in Utah's far northwest corner, the troops picked up and re-settled. This photo, which I took last week, is probably exactly what they saw: nothing. 96 years later, the whole area remains empty--too wild to tame. Eventually, the poor band of Russians couldn't sustain themselves any longer and abandoned their desert settlement in 1918, just over three years after arriving in the supposedly lush valley.

As I wandered the dusty field where the town once stood, handling shards of bright purple glass and rusty rectangular cans, I wondered at the reasons that these people so quickly entered the realm of the forgotten. My grandfather, born in the valley in 1921, remembers the history, but he's one of only a handful, I suspect. It doesn't help that the area is ridiculously, romantically remote--seven miles on unmarked dirt roads to a town which in 2010 still boasts neither gas station nor cell phone reception. Limited grocery shopping and small doctors' offices are still an hour to two hours away.

What struck me more than anything was that, besides the remoteness, the main reason we don't remember Russian Settlement is that they didn't die, didn't eat each other like the Donners. As I surveyed the only existing "structure" of the town, a tiny picket-fenced cemetery with two graves--sisters--I realized that nobody else died. Though the harsh land so much as drove them away, only two out of a hundred people didn't make the long trek back to California, a remarkable feat for that time period. Their experiment failed, but they made a decision and conceded before things got really bad. History, it seems, doesn't shine upon societies that fail untragically.

After surveying the scene and its artifacts, I took a few more pictures of the dry landscape and turned the newly filthy Honda Civic back the other way toward the dirt "road" on which we arrived. By lingering at Russian Settlement, I delayed our own emigration to California for nearly two hours, but to me it was well worth it. The region may be behind me now, but as I've begun to introduce myself to others here on the coast, it seems a more palpable part of me than ever. I will be back to settle the arid land someday, I promise.


on chasing dreams, and their fluid natures

courtesy of Jeff |

Maybe this is what growing up is.

Tomorrow is my last day of work. Eight more hours in the PR office of my small-town alma mater, standing up for the little guy, like Jimmy Stewart. Already I embellish it with the twisted goggles of retrospect.

Tomorrow, and then it's over--the projects, the relationships, the sense of accomplishment. Then it's off to the big time, paradise, and the chance that Jimmy Stewart, at least in the Christmas movie, never got. At most, my upcoming master's program is literally a lifelong dream come true for me. At the very least, it's the first obvious step in the direction where I think my dreams are, or at least where they've always been. I can't be any more specific than that. I don't know where this master's will lead me, and that's fine.

When people ask me, as one of my favorite professors did a couple days ago, where it is that I'm headed, my spiel invariably includes the admission that beyond this next year, I don't know. "I just know what I love," I say, "and we'll see what happens." Adults like that, I've noticed. When I tell them I'm blindly chasing a childhood dream, they smile in a way that lets me know they didn't. They would have, but something came up. At first, I assumed they envied me, and maybe some still do, but lately I've been thinking that smile stands for some secret I haven't fully learned yet, like that dreams change. That dreams, like the people who project them, can grow up.

I've never wanted to stay in this town forever, or even very long. And yet right now, remaining alongside friends and working to bring my small-town alma mater the glory it deserves sounds incredibly attractive. I won't stay, of course. After tomorrow, I'll do the smart thing and move on, seize the opportunity I've been given. I'd be a fool not to, and don't get me wrong, it'll be great. But I've just now been wondering if I've finally stumbled onto the secret realization all the adults made long ago by virtue of necessity or practicality--that secret behind the smile--that hitting the big time isn't all that important. Maybe living in this out-of-the-way town performing a low-profile, but fulfilling job could make me just as happy, if not actually happier than fulfilling the grand aspirations of my youth.

I'll miss this job. But who knows, maybe it wouldn't have been as good without an expiration date. It's easy to get into a rut when you're in it for the long haul, or so I've observed. In large part, being new and unabashed and having an excuse for not noticing obstacles is what afforded me any degree of success I may have won. Of course, the success has been largely theoretical pomp and circumstance. I'm immensely proud of the work I've performed in this job, but I have virtually nothing to show for it. Random contributions made to a number of non-lifesaving projects that aren't even finished yet.

Maybe they will be eventually, though. And maybe something I did will be of use even further down the road. If not, that's probably fine. I never imagined that my first job after graduation would be with one of my favorite organizations on the planet, and I never thought I could get paid for having so much fun. Utah State University and its fine people have done more for me than I could ever possibly do for it. And the Utah State University I know would be very pleased to hear that. And I guess that's just it.

In the throes of a glorious project undertaken by myself and a friend and colleague to pin down and improve our university's public image, it was discovered that people just plain love it here. Many could get better pay and more prestige at other institutions, but they stay because they believe in what they do, and with whom. Their dreams grew up. Now I'm feeling the growing pains to the point that sacrificing my own dreams in order to remain here and at the poverty line sounds enticing.

But we've established that I'm averse to change. And while most would probably say Jimmy Stewart had to stay home to be who he was, maybe that's not true. Maybe he could have seen the world, come back, and used his experiences to make his hometown a better place. Win-win. Since Capra didn't have an alternate ending up his sleeve, one can only guess.

We'll see what happens.


a frame through which to see

courtesy of Jeff |

In the basement of my parents' home, there is a room called "the bat cave." It is so named for its proclivity to perfect darkness. There's not so much as a digital clock to light the pillowcase in soft fluorescent green. Pitch black. It's the ideal guest room for breakfast haters. And right now it's filled with junk. My junk.

In less than a month, we're moving to California, placing my parents' home at a considerable distance for who knows how long. So when we stayed there this past weekend, I spent some time in the bat cave, sorting through box after box of old memories.

This practice of sorting through past personal relics is something we all do from time to time, most often with the noble objective (as was mine) of throwing things away. After all, that's what you do with old junk that piles up in the guest room. What if some weary Elijah needs to stay there for the first time in years? I'm not saying this sacrifice of past knowledge in favor of future uncertainty is wrong. It's just hard for me.

From a young age, I've had a difficult time throwing things away--toys, papers, anything that has specific days, places, or people attached. I assume it's lethophobia, the fear of forgetting, which must loom large in me. I've been blessed with an unusually sharp memory, but even the most vivid stories and sensations from the past generally only surface with the help of some physical cue. And as bizarrely painful as it can be to sort through my own joyful youth, I crave those stories and sensations. I love to remember. I imagine I'm no different than many in that respect. It's human to, once in a while, go through old drawers, closets, boxes of physical cues. The ironic thing, of course, is that we only acknowledge these cues, these artifacts, when laden with the task of thinning out their ranks. But are these memories really only useful to us when we're consciously cycling through them, deciding which ones to destroy? Which ones no longer represent whom we want to be?

A couple of months ago, while doing research on organizational culture for a project at work, I came across a scholarly article on non-verbal symbols which communicate subconsciously to employees and customers. The article served its purposes well, but it also surprised me with a line that turned out to be much more profound than was possibly intended. It hasn't left my mind since. It said, "there is no looking without a frame through which to see."

One of the first lessons taught in English class is on point of view. Truth, we learn, is relative to the speaker. And yet, this lesson is easily forgotten when discussing politics, religion, even sports. Each of us sees through his own completely unique frame--a frame that colors everything we observe in life, and each of our opinions.

So as I sat cross-legged on the blue carpet of the bat cave, surrounded by my boxes of memories and experiences, it came to me that these relics are probably the clearest physical representation on the planet of who I am as a person. These relics--unwittingly collected and created over 25 years--constitute the most palpable, graspable frame I have, the explanation of who I am today, and why.

And yet, even realizing that, I remained successful in my initial task to find things to throw away. I threw away old sweaters, cards my friend made me in elementary school, and page after page of scribbles demonstrating my near-clinical obsession with the Utah Jazz and the NBA. I made the conscious decision that the memories connected with those artifacts were not worth precious bat cave space. Those experiences will remain part of my frame forever, I suspect, but without the physical reminders, any hope of connecting those pasts with any particular present may be lost. For whatever reason, that was evidence I was willing to destroy. I did not throw away a Valentine's Day card from my 5-year-old sister calling me, in crooked handwriting, her best friend.

If I disappear, and those boxes are all that remain to draw sense out of a complex human life, I want that to be part of it. Maybe by keeping it, that card and its happy association will assume a slightly larger percentage of the frame through which I see as well. I suppose there's some sense of hope in the idea that we can shape and refine our own frames over time, whether or not that action is accomplished by choosing what and what not to throw away.

I suppose this long, over-thought musing on throwing things away demonstrates pretty well why I'm so bad at it. Despite all this soul-searching, I admit it's probably indeed best not to think about it too much, or else nothing will ever get thrown away and the bat cave will stand as a giant, faceless shrine to my laziness and/or sentimentality instead of whatever I'd like it to be. I guess there's always a balance.


thou mayest

courtesy of Jeff |

"In uncertainty I am certain that underneath their topmost layers of frailty men want to be good and want to be loved." -John Steinbeck, from East of Eden

I've never had a favorite book before. As both an English major and one who enjoys literary references in everyday conversation a little too much, I've been asked that question a lot: what's my favorite book. The trouble with me is that I like almost everything I read, thanks to a habit of being quite discerning. There are very few risky choices in my queue.

I could go on, but nobody wants to hear my thoughts on literature. Besides, my thoughts, despite having received a fine formal education in the subject, are rarely based on much. I still can't describe what I love about O'Connor or Faulkner, or now, Steinbeck, even after all the scholarly articles. I just do.

It's not Don Quixote or Ulysses or even Grapes of Wrath, according to most critics. All I know is that I feel more about this novel than any book I've ever read. I finished it last night at 1:00, and spent the better part of the next hour shaking with praise as I read and re-read passages to myself. It's the book I'd want to write, if I was of Nobel caliber and if it hadn't been done already. It's beautiful, simple, and clear. Steinbeck said "I think everything else I have written has been, in a sense, practice for this." And I find myself now in awe and envy over a career so well spent.

Product endorsements, even book reviews, aren't usually my thing around here, and I won't tell everyone to read it. It may not do for others what it did, and may yet do, for me. That's how literature works. But I'm proud to join fellow book people who have long claimed profound experiences with certain novels. Maybe not all of them are full of it.


a plan for replenishing the earth

courtesy of Jeff |

When something so poignant happens like you become a father, you're not really sure what to write about. This has been my dilemma for the past two and a half months. I could say it's because I'm busy, and I am, but that's not it. Honestly, I've just been struggling to figure out how to place these past 10 weeks into some sort of readable perspective, for myself as much as anyone else. And while I feel no closer to any real conclusions, I feel as though it's time to try, and fake it.

Maybe that's all any of us ever do anyway.

I watched Adam come out--literally watched it happen. And I didn't faint or become nauseous. He just slipped out, after a bitter struggle, and then he looked each of us, his parents, in the eyes before being pulled into a room in the NICU for 16 days. We lived there at the hospital with him, and each night after work--once I went back to work--I boxed up a few things from our little apartment where we'd lived almost our entire married life together, just the two of us. The morning I drove Sarah to the hospital in labor was the last time she saw it before it was gutted.

He was a month early, but really more like a year or two. And the more I talk to people, the more I realize how common that is. In fact, almost every pregnancy I've heard of recently is a year or two too early. I never realized how many of us, the population of earth, made surprise entrances, but it seems to be the case, and maybe entire human race owes its existence to it. Maybe I just know the wrong people.

It's strange that so many of us fear it, as I did, because it's such an incredible thing. People always say it is, but nobody seems to believe them, or else they wouldn't be so surprised when it happens. He's a little squirt who gets us up in the middle of the night and doesn't mop or anything, but we don't care. I don't care. I would do anything to keep him from sadness. I know I go to work and offer the customary responses: "oh, you know, good except for the lack of sleep." But I don't really mean that. It's just what people say for some reason, because we've decided that this most universal of shared human experiences should include that touch of cynicism, as if the pure elation is somehow embarrassing. What I honestly feel, even if my bloodshot eyes don't show it, is this: "things literally couldn't be better."


the corner office

courtesy of Jeff |

Room 206 in the Public Relations and Marketing Office on campus might have the best view in the entire gorgeous valley I live in. Since I began occupying said office two months ago, I've actually been approached by a number of colleagues from other buildings who say they've always coveted it. I'll have to get a camera in there as proof, but for now, these probably-copyrighted images will have to do.

When I sit at my computer, in the office's southwest corner, this is what I see, without moving. The left photo represents the view from my left window, only I'm much closer to the historic tower than this.

Appropriately, the right photo represents the view from my right window, also without moving from my computer. It's even better in real life right now, since the mountains are still snow-capped, and the sky, lately, has been bluer. Truly, the sights, and everything about this job and this office, have been pleasures to greet me each day upon arriving in 206.

The truth is that I've been living a professional fantasy life at work for the the past two months. I fell into this wonderful station when a colleague of mine left on maternity leave, and I rose like a spirit from the basement to occupy a place that was never really mine. Over the course of the past nine weeks, though, I've successfully deluded myself into believing that it truly was mine. I printed off a picture of Sarah and taped it over the two tow-headed boys in the frame. I filled it with my music, held meetings, and answered the phone authoritatively. Hello, this is Jeff. I did her job and mine, and did it well.

I almost forgot this day would come. My boss informed me that Maren is returning from maternity leave early, on the 17th. One final week in the corner office, and then the dream is dead.

All along I've known I didn't earn it, such a coveted place, but I worked as though I had. And as I drift back down from whence I came, the basement will likely feel all the more dark, sterile, and lonely, even than it did before. In fact, my former office is no longer available, so I'll finish up my last three months at the blessed place in either the conference room or the kitchen--far from the heights I achieved in my mind, and from the people who held me up in my finest hour simply by treating me as though I belonged.

This final week in the corner office will be a somber one. Who knows how long it will be until I regain such a position. Maybe it'll never happen again. So you'll forgive me if I work longer hours this week. If it's any consolation, you can stop by and see me anytime. I like to be pictured this way.


a husband's take on bedrest

courtesy of Jeff |

Yesterday was a month since Sarah took her last step. Well, that's a bit of an exaggeration, I guess. She walks back and forth from the bed to the couch to the bathroom quite a few times a day. And we have doctor appointments every Monday. And we go on wheelchair walks around the block once in a while, and even went to Walmart a couple weeks ago and put her on one of those little carts. It was fun. But the whole thing has certainly been taxing, even for me, and it can't compare to how she feels. But my wife is bedresting like a champion, and has already absolutely saved our son's life. She is a literal hero, and I miss being able to bask in her standing shadow. I find I really look forward to Mondays because we get to be out together for a few minutes, even if it is just the hospital.

While she's on bedrest, Sarah isn't allowed to cook or clean or ever stand up unnecessarily, so it's been a particularly busy time for me, though we have had some help. In all honesty, though, this experience is probably needed preparation for me prior to becoming a father. In a couple days or months, I'll have my partner back to full strength, but there'll be another little dude running around, and I'll be just as busy and tired as I am now. Forever. The easy life is past.

All this musing, though, brings me to my real point, which is that I made the tastiest omelet ever last night. I should have taken a picture of it--it's seriously the best thing I've created in some time. It was Sarah's idea to make one, because she knows how much I value a good omelet. And then I realized, one at a time, that we currently have in our kitchen every single ingredient necessary for the perfect one: eggs, cheddar, ham, onion, green pepper, garlic, ranch, and Tabasco. It was the perfect storm of omeleteering. On a normal day, we might literally have two of those ingredients, but never could I dream that all eight would occur at once. Man, that was fantastic.

Sweet fancy Moses. I just realized I still have enough of everything to make another one.

Call it a lifelong quest to self-legitimize.

I've never thought of it that way, but I imagine Freud would. Basically, I'm obsessed with place. This obsession manifests itself in spatial things, like how I gravitate to architecture books in Barnes & Noble and how a good percentage of my dreams feature me discovering new rooms in my own house.

Mostly, though, my interest is geographical. I knew the 50 states and their capitals when I was three years old. I still peruse maps whenever the opportunity arises. And above all, I'm fiercely loyal to and proud of my home country, state, and especially city. Actually, this deep love extends to my university, church, and pretty much every other institution that makes me who I am. I defend each of them voraciously. This is where it gets Freudian, I imagine. One could easily say that I'm just attempting to combat an innate sense of inferiority, especially considering that my state, city, university, and church could all be considered backwards by the mainstream public. That's probably a little bit true. At the very least, the obsession is traceable, logical. I love what's mine because it's mine.

And then there's another place: Russia, and more specifically, Siberia. I loved that long before I had a reason--long before I took it as my own. Since I was 11 or 12 years old, I've been inexplicably fascinated. I have theories for how it budded, but nothing obvious comes up. Growing up, I studied the language, geography, history, and culture to the extent I could with limited resources, and then in 2004 I went there. For two glorious years, I lived and served there, and the interest exploded further.

I haven't talked much about Russian things in this venue for some reason, but I probably will now, because I'm about to start a master's program in Russian Studies. I honestly don't know what I'm going to do with the degree yet, but I suppose this mini-opus is my attempt to make verbal sense of all of this. While I may still not know what the future holds, as far as I can tell, professionally speaking, I was put on this earth to study and utilize this very knowledge.

Those who know me well know that this has been a long journey, to which I'm pleased to announce a landmark development. After more than a year of deliberating, applying, waiting, hearing back, and deliberating some more, I have accepted an offer to pursue this degree at

Stanford University.

Sarah and I couldn't be happier about the school, program, people, or location. Plus, they made us an offer we'd be fools to turn down. It's going to be different living in the most populous and popular state in the union, in a huge and cool metro area, and studying at one of the most prestigious universities in the world, but I tell you what, I'm excited. We both are. I won't go so far as to say that this is my moment of legitimacy, but I do feel like this is the beginning of something new, in a more wide-ranging and profound way even than it appears on the surface. We'll keep you posted. Meanwhile, party in California.



courtesy of Jeff |

I need to blog now. I need to blog now because I'm starting full-time work tomorrow, and I'm not necessarily going to have a ton to do just yet. Blog now, no temptation to blog during work tomorrow.

On a related note, does anyone have any ethical concerns with me attempting to scare a pregnant woman into early labor? How about ideas? No, not Sarah. She's got a few months yet. It's a coworker of mine. You see, on the day after I submitted my last grad school application (that was today), I'm beginning full-time, 8:30-5:00 adult work partially because a coworker is leaving on maternity. So this has all worked out rather nicely, actually: same wonderful job in the same great office with the same fun people. Just doubled. Bonus. But here's the thing: though I begin full-time tomorrow, I don't actually get to assume my coworker's responsibilities (or more importantly, move into her awesome corner office) until she actually has the baby. The due date is March 17th, but it really could happen any day. Until it does, though, I'm stuck in the basement for 8 hours a day with 4 hours worth of work.

So again, ideas? No?

I guess I can ride it out for a few more days. Even when she comes back in June, I get to remain at full-time (with a modest pay increase) until we head off to grad school in August. So it really is a pretty sweet deal. Thank goodness for my wonderful office. And say goodbye to the prospect of knocking doors for the U.S. Census for supplemental income.

Snapshot of America. Ha. On the grad school front, though I did just turn in my last application today, I've already heard from three schools. Four more to go. You'll forgive me if I don't discuss the specifics here, for obvious reasons. When we hear from everyone and make a decision, we'll have a nice signing day ceremony or something, and I'll put on a hat. Probably not an authentic hat, though. Probably my Washington Nationals hat with a college-ruled Sharpie logo taped to the front. Hats are expensive.