September

The summer of 1996 was the last summer before I left high school. I was about to be a senior, the top of the social pyramid. I had been elected to student government. I had tons of friends in different cliques, I had a car, I was living in Southern California, and I was almost never home – I had trips planned to Indianapolis for the General Assembly of the Unitarian Universalist church, then a trip to Europe for three weeks, then summer camp for the Pacific Southwest branch of the UUs, then a different, national summer camp for the UUs. In between, I would be doing laundry and relaxing. It was going to be amazing.

At the end of August, I flew into Oregon, and was picked up in Portland with some other kids and driven to the campgrounds. Next to me on the bus was a kid named Zach Zalac, who would become my best friend for the week, and who I am still in touch with. He was from Michigan, which I knew little about, but he had a huge crush on a girl who lived near him and who I had met at General Assembly, Maryli Secrest…or was it the other way around? Did she have a huge crush on him? No, he had a crush on her, and wasn’t sure if she liked him, and it seemed like a miracle that I knew them both, although later, it wouldn’t seem that strange at all. Anyway, I didn’t mediate; I was thinking too much about the future, about college applications, about elections, about politics.

(One day that spring, I came home from school and was in the kitchen with my mom. I sat on the counter while she was cooking, and said, “Mom, I…I have something to tell you.”

“What?”

“I…I…

“I think I am a Republican.”

She stopped cooking and turned slowly toward me.

“What makes you think that?”

“I just think they have a better plan to deal with the core economic challenges in America than the Democrats do.”

“Well, you’ll have to talk to your father when he comes home.” And she didn’t talk to me for a few hours.

I ended up going to local campaign events, and put Bob Dole and Alan Keyes bumper stickers on my car; my mother was so embarrassed that she made me park in the garage, with the door down, so that the neighbors wouldn’t see. Being a conservative was the only way to truly rebel in my family.)

At some point that week, Zach got up the courage to ask me: had I ever seen a palm tree? Of course, I replied; I had one in my back yard. Was it real? Yes. Mind blown. He had never seen one, and actually secretly thought that they had been created just for movies, to be magical and untouchable and to make people marvel. There was a place, I said, in Riverside, where the road is lined by palm trees – miles and miles of straight lines waving in the wind. I invited him to come see it for himself. I don’t know if he ever did.

But at this summer camp, every camper was put into a different group for the week, and every group had a different activity – sort of like a course, a project. My group was the Sweat Lodge group. A Native Chief from Idaho had driven over, and he took maybe eight or ten of us for the week, teaching us about Native American traditions, and the importance of the sweat lodges in his culture. Then, we built one – gathering long sticks, laying them into a teepee-shape, covering them with woven blankets he had brought in his pickup truck. We dug a hole in the middle, in the ground, then collected smooth river stones and heated them in a fire for a full day, piling wood on whenever it threatened to get anything less than white hot. A friend of the Chief’s had driven across the state just to tend the fire and then serve the lodge; on the last day of camp, we all filed in, burning white sage, and the friend brought in glowing rocks with a pitchfork, dropping them in the hole. The chief would sprinkle water on them with a pine branch, the steam would rise, we would sweat. At the end, we stumbled down the hill, stripping off our clothes and swimming naked in the stream.

I didn’t realize how lucky I had been; apparently it was the most over-subscribed workshop of the camp, and other campers began to petition the Chief to do an extra session for them. After enough pressure, he agreed to do an extra sweat lodge that night, the last night of the camp. There was only one hitch: his assistant, the guy who had driven over to tend the fire, had to go back home, and the Chief had nobody to tend the fire for him. It was the last night of camp, too; everyone was hoping for a last-night fling, or just to stay up with friends until their flight the next day, fueled by porridge and coffee and fruit and whatever else we could scrounge from the kitchen, running around and having fun.

So he came to me and quietly explained the situation: he would do the lodge for the other campers, but only if I agreed to be his assistant.

I said yes, immediately. We shook hands. And then we started the fire.

Lodge started at midnight; it took that long to get the rocks hot. He led the campers in; I stayed next to the fire, and every time I heard the signal, I would dig into the fire, get a rock, shake off the embers and ash, and carry it carefully into the lodge, placing it into the hole, then return. Lodge lasted hours – three? Four? Five? – and I was exhausted – I had been cleansed in the earlier one, then had a day of fun, and was now struggling to stay awake. Once, I almost dropped the rock onto a camper. But just once. And almost.

Suddenly a dog came tearing out of the woods toward the fire. Just writing that, my right side became covered with goose pimples and I shuddered. The dog ran around the fire, then jumped into it; immediately, as one might expect, there was an explosion of sparks, and, as one wouldn’t expect, a giant red bird flew out of the fire and disappeared.

I was awake. The chief called for more rocks – I have no idea how long it went after that, or how many rocks I brought in, and then the campers stumbled out, and the chief came over to talk. I told him what I had seen, and it seemed like that was what he had expected to happen when he asked me to help.

He explained that the dog was actually a jackal, and the bird was a phoenix; most people had one spirit animal, but it seemed I had two. We drank water, covered the fire with dirt, took down the lodge. None of the other campers stuck around to help, but I thought it just made my time with him that much more special. Then I went to sleep – no last-night flings, no drinking maple syrup in shots to get a string of sugar rushes. By the time we had closing circle that morning, he had been on the road for hours.

Later, I learned that jackals are native to Europe and Africa; why would he have said the dog was a jackal, specifically? Maybe he meant a coyote? No – he wouldn’t have made that mistake.

September began with my first international work trip ever. Berlin. Or, rather, Potsdam. We arrived on Monday, early afternoon, and started on site visits; in the evening, we walked through town. I took a cue from Tim Ferriss and decided to buy razor blades and toothpaste from a local store, to learn something and navigate the city; it took three tries, but finally, I got to a pharmacy and got blades, Colgate, and cheap German wine. We had a huge German dinner in a beer garden, then walked back to the hotel; I wrote a letter, then drank the wine and slept. The next morning, early, I was up to run through Sansoucci, past kids going to school, gardeners watering the lawns, other runners. We worked all day, then I met up with Austin; I had last seen him in Berlin in 2016, and he seems to have gotten younger in the intervening six years. We ate Georgian food – not nearly as good as what we have in Edinburgh – and drank beer in the streets, and I was somehow up the next morning again to run Sansoucci, every step of every palace, and then get a flight back.

And then the queen died.

She died in Scotland, as was apparently her wish, and laid “at rest” at St. Giles. I am not a great monarchist. Maybe it is being American, or just being in the 21st Century, but something strikes me as profoundly absurd about investing a family with political roles, at least without any sort of vetting for suitability. I like the older Kennedy generation, for example, but they at least stood for election, rather than inheriting their roles. The younger, anti-vaxxer one didn’t make any headway; he was blocked by the ballot. In the UK, there is an entire industry built up around protecting this single family, and many peoples’ livelihoods depend on the family members succeeding, and the sentiment cascades down, it seems, to members of the public.

(There is a lesson here: make it in others’ seeming best interests to give you power.)

So I was not profoundly moved to hear of her death. However, when we learned that her body would be on view in Edinburgh, then would move on to London, and these two cities would be the only places the coffin could be viewed, I…got FOMO. It was my chance to do something that lots of people around the world wanted to do, but couldn’t; I could see her, and many other British people, for whom it would have been a profoundly moving experience, would never have the chance. Shouldn’t I take advantage of that? Shouldn’t I at least do what I could to be part of this “momentous” and “once in a lifetime” occasion?

So Alice and I made plans: I would take the morning off. The night before, I would go after the boys had gone to bed, and I would wait in line for my wristband, and then I would go through. It would only take what, two hours? Then, Alice would get up and go at 5 a.m., and I would look after Daniel until she got back. We would have the rest of the morning to recuperate.

So that night, I waited for the boys to get to sleep, got on khakis and a wool sweater and a jacket, and walked down to the Meadows – a large park where people were going to line up for tickets. When I got there, the line was snaking along every conceivable path; everything was orderly, but far from somber. I got the distinct impression that many people were mildly interested in paying their respects, but there were lots of people like me who just wanted to participate, to be part of the experience. People were drinking, and there was a group of fire jugglers, the kind that take over prime grassy space at a rave and then don’t let anyone else come around them.

And then the waiting. The family behind me – parents and two teenage girls – left after about two hours; it was 10:30, and they had a long drive home, and their conversations dragged on until, silently, they all just walked away. I had a Kindle, but I didn’t get it out; we were constantly shuffling forward, and the light messed with my eyes so I was worried about bumping into people. After the family left, I waited for two-and-a-half more hours in front of two old friends who apparently hadn’t seen each other in several years, but who had decided to come together to view the body – they talked about old friends who had gotten into legal trouble, or financial difficulties, and failed marriages, and about their spouses’ cooking, and their children, and how offended they both were that their friends had held a reunion without them at a pub and hadn’t invited them because the friends knew these two wouldn’t come, and of course they wouldn’t have gone but still, until I wasn’t sure whether the cold or the conversation was more difficult to endure at midnight. Finally, at 12:30, we got to the wristband station; then, they said it would probably be about three more hours before we got to the church.

About 11, I had decided that I wasn’t going to see the queen. I was close enough, though, that I could still get a wristband, slip it off my wrist, and give it to Alice so that she could use it to skip any lines and go straight in when she went a few hours later. Seeing the queen mattered to her, after all, and if it meant she wasn’t waiting for four hours like I had, then that would be worth it to me. So as soon as I got through the wristband area, I walked away. As I felt the contours of the cheap plastic, probing it for any weakness, I remembered that Billy the Kid supposedly had wrists that were larger than his hands, so handcuffs slipped right off – it is funny what stays with you from third-grade book reports. Why did my parents let me read biographies of Billy the Kid in third grade? And suddenly the band popped off. I suddenly felt like I was holding this incredibly valuable, delicate object that could help Alice do something she really wanted to do, and nobody knew of my ability to help. Walking through the streets of Edinburgh, past drunks and students, I guarded it in my pocket like a jewel until it was safely around Alice’s wrist.

She left at 5, and, at 6:30, was back. She had just walked up, got a new wristband without any wait, and went to see the coffin. Forty-five minutes. It took as long to walk there and back as it did to wait in line.

I was resigned to not go; I was exhausted, and there was plenty for me to do otherwise. But I kept feeling like I had given up, that I was missing out, that I would kick myself for years for not going. I mentioned it to Alice, and she encouraged me to go, so I packed a briefcase, in case it took a while and I had to go to work, and walked down again.

This time, I went straight to the front, as she had, and walked through. The people behind me this time was a family from Northern Ireland; they had flown over for the day just to pay their respects. We talked the entire way, and I gave the teenage son tips on how to get into the background of the television cameras that lined the route. Finally, we got to the courtyard of St. Giles; as we moved forward, a line of police officers marched in ahead of us.

The atmosphere was clinical, clean, bright. It felt as if there was no dust inside the space, and that it was incredibly intimate, instead of being in a giant cathedral. The coffin was elevated, and, at each corner, an Archer stood, hands on bow, looking down, like sleeping eagles. At the edges, of the space, in front of columns, police officers stood, looking each person in the eye as they passed. Suddenly we were stopped; four archers marched in. Each went to one corner; the guards lifted their heads, opened their eyes, and moved out a step, immediately replaced by the waiting ones. Then, the police that we had seen moved in and replaced their compatriots. Priests walked up, and “Yea, though I walk” rang out – the only sound other than feet on the stones – and we started walking again.

Then I was outside. I had done it. Tick. I am glad I did it. I don’t know about paying respects – maybe I did? What is it to pay respects? Is it showing up? Waiting? Regardless, it was worth it, just to not feel like I missed out. FOMO avoided.

The only book I finished this month was Means of Ascent, the second in the LBJ series by Robert Caro. I simply cannot recommend this enough – I would rather read about the intricacies of rural Texas politics in the 1940s than pretty much anything right now, and it is no wonder that Caro won so many accolades for his work. Like with his other biographical work, he spends massive amounts of time on other matters other than his main subject, so the reader feels as if Coke Stevenson is as well-covered as LBJ…and that that is critical to understand the entire context of the 1948 election, and power in Texas. Highly, highly recommended.

Daniel and Pops…must now be spoken about in isolation, because Pops is suddenly his own person.

Daniel is going to nursery, and comes home and talks about what he did with his friends – people, children, I don’t know, who have their own lives and parents and ideas and habits. He is picking up games – Chase, for example, which seems to be like Tag, except played by two people – and certain friends are good for certain things; Cassie plays in the sand, for example, but Oliver sings and runs around.

And he is starting to work to manipulate us. The other day, he said he wanted to go to Lidl to get groceries, “And you know what?” he said. “I think it would be a great idea to get a Pain au Raisin. And maybe we can get one for you, too.” He understands more of human psychology; sometimes he gets really excited when we suggest something like going to a playground, but sometimes he furrows his brow, looks really serious, and says, “Hey, yeah! That’s a great idea!” as if it had never occurred to him that going to the ice cream shop might be an opportunity to get ice cream. I suspect he won’t need to read any Dale Carnegie.

Popeye is making his own progress. He is constantly seeking to be engaged, and fusses if he can’t see Daniel playing; he gives out smiles like candy, and is chewing anything he can grab. Oh – and he is grabbing things, using his new ability to roll over to move, and his hand-eye coordination to pass things from one hand to another.

But there is some sibling rivalry coming out. One day, Daniel sat on Popeye; Popeye started crying, and Alice ran in to see what had happened. There was no harm, and it was a complete anomaly, and we suspect it is completely normal, but we have to now be on the lookout for strain. I keep emphasising: we are part of a team, and we are all together. Because Popeye is too young to really pick up on things, too, I feel as if I can continue to emphasize my love for Daniel without negatively impacting Popeye’s perceptions; I can still love them both, and express that love, but I need to be more free with those expressions with Daniel, just to make sure he does not feel threatened. Then, it will be a transition to loving them both, and encouraging that they love each other as well.

Sigh. And so we beat on, boats

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