27 August 2010

Death at my heels, like a basset hound.

(Charlie Meador, Robert's Western World, June 2010)

It was two weeks ago to this day that I received the phone call. We had lost our dear friend Charlie to a tragic car wreck. In the late hours of that Friday night, my friend Trey phoned me to inform me of the tragedy. And just like that, years and years of heaviness came rushing to the surface. At first, I thought it was some sick joke. Then, I refused to believe. And finally, in the early morning hours of Saturday I came to accept the fact that this incredible young man was gone. Gone, just like that. Gone, in the most unexpected of ways.

"And one of these days I'll be left with nothing but memories and no time, So I better get accustomed, 'Cause I got a lot, Lord, I got a lotta losin', Bye and Bye..." - Monsters of Folk

My reaction to the loss of Charlie was anything but subtle. What further complicated the matter was how well I knew Charlie. Here is the thing, I knew him for such a short time. Charlie and my friend, Trey, came to visit me here in Nashville at the beginning of June for three days. Trey, an ex-student of mine, had plotted a journey for the summer to travel and make a documentary on artists. When Trey told me about his trip, I offered a place to stay. Back in 2006 or 2007, when Trey was one of my students, he was one of the quietest students I had. After the fact, we became good friends-- albeit mostly through email. He is someone I can always count on for a great conversation about Woody Allen, movies, music, or life happenings. So, when he accepted my offer to house him during his documentary tour, I was thrilled.

About a week before arriving, Trey informed me his friend Charlie would be accompanying him. I was excited and nervous. While Trey and I had become good friends, we had never really interacted with one another outside of the classroom. I wondered, will it be awkward? Will he be as quiet as he was in the classroom? And I wondered, what will Charlie be like?

Once Trey and Charlie arrived, I realized we would have fantastic time. Trey was not the quiet young man that I remembered and Charlie...well, Charlie is the type of person who can talk to anyone and makes everyone feel comfortable. We found ourselves laughing hysterically within the first few moments, as Charlie comically recounted their experiences in Memphis and the other places they had traveled.

My plan for our two nights were to spend one night going to Lower Broadway showing them the honky tonks and one night visiting East Nashville.

That Thursday evening, my friend Art came over and the four of us made our way to Lower Broadway. We visited Robert's Western World where we picked out a pair of cowboy boots for all four of us. Then The Stage where we drank cheap beer and Art became the most beautiful bachelorette in all of the land. We sat out on the grass at the Riverfront Park and talked. We tried to ride the bull at Cadillac Ranch, which unfortunately was closed. Instead, we talked about having Art become the impromptu bull; however, instead, we all walked out of the bar as "sad bulls." Then, we finished our evening at The Wheel, where a lovely woman came to our table. She shared her drink with me, made us all sing along to some song about being a "redneck woman" (including yelling loudly the "hell yeah" parts in unison), and took quite a liking to Charlie and his flannel Western shirt. We finished the evening back at my apartment with Mud Tugs, an entire container of Hummus, and a viewing of a Dianetics video that Charlie and Trey had picked up during their journey. We laughed until the early morning hours, while Art and I screamed about the lack of structural arguments in the video.

On Friday, Trey and Charlie took off on their own to find needed supplies for the video camera. When they returned back to the house, they informed me they had the fortunate experience of visiting Rhino Books and McKays. I remember them showing me all their lucky finds, but perhaps most memorably, they had found a book that explains to children what is happening to their bodies during puberty. We spent most of the afternoon listening to Charlie read to us from the book, while trying to contain our laughter. Sitting here now, I can still glance over at the couch and see Charlie sitting there reading to us all about how we shouldn't be ashamed and how everyone develops differently.

That evening, I had decided I'd like to take Trey and Charlie out to dinner and drinks at the Holland House, then attend a show at the 5 Spot. We were joined by Art, Ashley (Archer), my neighbor Ashley (Ludman), Jonathan, and Becky. We laughed, ate, drank, read our name definitions from Urban Dictionary, talked about both Becky and I's upcoming trips to the Caribbean, and discussed the documentary. Afterwards, we made our way to the 5 Spot, where we brooded about love and sad music. Towards the end of the evening, we decided to walk over to Art's house for a short bit before catching a cab back to my apartment.

On the way to the house, Charlie started feeling sick. During the latter half of the trip, he had developed a pretty bad chest cold. On the walk, he started feeling dizzy and had started coughing very badly. As we sat and talked propped up against a building off of Gallatin, we became very concerned about his coughing...and we decided it might be best to make a trip to the emergency room.

So there we were, Charlie, Trey and I at the Vanderbilt emergency room at 2am. They took Charlie back pretty quickly; however, once he had gone back to the doctor, they would only let one of us back at a time. Trey went first. After about 30 minutes, Trey passed off the visitors pass to me saying that Charlie wanted me to come back and sit with him, while Trey called Charlie's parents. I'm not sure how much time passed, but I'll never forget sitting on the hospital bed with Charlie talking for what felt like hours. Luckily, Charlie only had a sinus infection gone bad and needed some medication to ease the congestion and pain.

The next day in the late morning, Trey and Charlie packed. They were scheduled to be in Asheville in the early afternoon for the next leg of their journey. I remember feeling sad that they were leaving. I promised I would come visit them both in Columbia. After the trip, I stayed in touch with Charlie. We joked about the trip. We discussed going to the zoo together. I promised to send him pictures from our last lawn party before I left for Puerto Rico. We shared songs with one another.

Although I knew Charlie for such a short time, I was shattered by the loss of him. A myriad of feelings ran through my mind that night. Charlie was an absolutely wonderful person. I could run through the list of positive adjectives; however, most importantly, Charlie was kind and generous. There are those moments in your life when you meet people by chance that you know are the sort of people you want to keep in your life, regardless of how many hours, days, weeks, or years you know them. They just simply emanate sincerity, in a way that a jaded person, such as myself, appreciates and helps them remember and believe in the good of people. Charlie was one of these people. I had looked forward to getting to know him better. I had looked forward to trying to put together an art show in which both Trey and Charlie could share their work here in Nashville. I had looked forward to more laughter in the future.

Saturday morning, after I heard the news about Charlie, I woke up and for a few short moments, I had forgotten. Then it all came rushing back. It was true. It wasn't a dream. This had really happened. And then the heaviness came. The heaviness from years of loss.

There are few things in this world that can shake me to my core, making me question everything in my life. There are few things that make me want to give up on everything. Losing friends and loved ones to death is that thing for me. The bottom falls out and I stumble through the darkness of the loss. And this wasn't my first experience with loss.

In 1999, I lost Dan, one of my best friends, to a drug overdose. In 2000, I lost my father to MS. In 2001, I lost Joe, an ex-boyfriend, to a brain aneurysm. During those years, it felt like it would never end. In 2002, I sat waiting. Waiting to hear the news. I can always remember the phone calls. Those dreadful phone calls when you feel the earth beneath you sink. When Dan died, my friend Paul called. He left a message, he told me he had some bad news about Dan. I remember the phone call. It was the first time I had lost someone close to me. I dropped the phone while I stood there crying. When my dad died, my mother informed me and I thought about the Christmas present I had planned to buy him. When Joe died, my friend Chip called me. I stood in the middle of the school uniform company store where I worked and sobbed.

Although 2002 was a difficult year to get past, I continued to wait for those phone calls. I was anxious. I felt broken from the loss. But luckily, years begin to pile up. Years passed and no more phone calls arrived. Eventually, I was able to reconcile my own feelings with the losses. That being said, every year on the days that I lost these loved ones, I always remember them. July 30th, December 2nd, and February 1st.

"I keep death on my mind, like a heavy crown...But for the record, I'd come pick you up, We'll head for the ocean, Just say when you've had enough...Let me down slow, just help me go slow, I've been hurrying on. I was poised for greatness, I was down and out. I keep death at my heels, like a basset hound..." -Conor Oberst

Hearing about Charlie and listening to Trey try to navigate his own emotions on our loss brought all of this to the surface. And it was during these conversations with Trey, I knew that I needed to be with him and Charlie's friends and family as everyone said goodbye. And so on the Monday after the loss of Charlie, I drove to the beach in South Carolina.

That evening, a group of people congregated at the beach house of Trey's family. We gathered together Big Chill-style and drank, played games, and talked about Charlie. The mood was light that evening. We shared funny stories about Charlie. And we all passed out, perhaps not completely prepared for what the morning would bring.

The morning of the funeral, I woke up in a place I didn't recognize. As my eyes opened, scanning the room, I realized I was in the beach house, I remember thinking, "Fuck. It is true. Charlie is gone. Now we say goodbye." We piled into cars and made our way to Georgetown for the funeral. On the way to the funeral in my rental car, I played the song I was listening to when Trey told me the neww--as loud as possible. I thought about Charlie. I thought about Trey. I thought about his family and friends.

The last song they played at his funeral, after everyone had said goodbye, was Hallelujah by Leonard Cohen. As a young woman played her guitar and sang this song, we walked out of the church in tears and embraces.

I left quickly after after saying goodbye to Trey, Kyle, and Chelsea. I needed to have my own time on the road, alone, to say goodbye. In ways it felt like saying goodbye to not only Charlie, but all of those people I have lost in my life.

I know Charlie is missed by all of those that loved him. I know he will be remembered. I know he will be honored for the wonderful life he led and his kindness and generosity. I can only hope that Trey, when he feels ready, will take the fabulous memories and footage of that summer trip and make something beautiful to honor Charlie, for all of us that knew him. Whether it was for a short time, a long time, or whether he simply passed through our lives quickly and left an impression.

We will miss you Charlie Meador, always. Thank you for the time we spent and...well, the laughter. Hell yeah, mi companero.

11 August 2010

Food and the single graduate student

One of the most difficult things about being both single and a graduate student has to be food. When I first started graduate school at Vanderbilt, although I was in a relationship, I found that my eating habits suffered. While working late into the evening, I discovered that taking time out to not only eat, but also cook, seemed like a major disruption of running code and statistics. Most of the time, I'd find myself making a quick sandwich or grabbing something out of a can to heat up quickly and eat while still pouring over several articles that needed to be completed by morning. After the dissolution of my relationship, I discovered that my eating habits declined even more. Cooking for one person was considerably difficult for me, unless of course I planned to eat that same meal for an entire week. No, I'm not a huge fan of leftovers. And so, eventually I gave up. I started eating more sandwiches and more single items for an entire meal and even some nights, I simply snacked on pickles and cheese while working. Worse even, I found myself frequenting fast food restaurants, which as a vegetarian means very limited (and often unhealthy) choices.

Luckily in the last year, I started making more dates with friends for weekly meals. I would spend all week looking forward to my weekly date with Amada, where we would pick a restaurant we haven't previously visited to take time out from work to enjoy one another's company and some delicious food. Unfortunately these only happened once a week-- and now I recognize that Amada's departure from Nashville to San Diego equals the end of our weekly dining experiences. But that being said (now weeping uncontrollably), there was something lovely about just taking the time out from everything to enjoy a meal with a great friend.

This summer, I had official roommates. Not a boyfriend roommate, but actual real roommates. The last roommates I had were Eric and Laurie in Charlotte back in 2001/2002 and before that Charlotte and Mandy in Boone back in 1997/1998. I was a little anxious at the prospect of sharing common space with three other people, but as most of you already know-- it turned out to be one of the best things for me. And among my best experiences were our family dinners.

Before arriving, I had assumed I would be purchasing my own food to prepare alone. However, I discovered very quickly how important family dinners were to my new family in Puerto Rico. Magaly did most of the cooking because she is amazing at it-- though of course, Jorell cooked some lovely meals too and Mario helped flip some pancakes every so often. Additionally, once food was being prepared, I found that everyone congregated in the kitchen. The four of us would stand around in the hot kitchen and talk and laugh while the food was prepared. We all pitched in to help set the table for dinner and to clean up after dinner, though I think Mario might be a little sad that the household dishwasher is gone. Needless to say, we did this most evenings. Even the evenings when I had hours of work in writing up field notes and transferring and backing up data collected from the day. I remember Magaly saying to me once, "I know that we all have a lot of work to do tonight, but I think we should all take a break to have dinner together. It is important to share at least one meal a day with someone."

I was also told by other friends on the island how important having meals together can be. My friend Carlos explained to me how necessary it is for everyone to join together in the kitchen during the meal preparation. It was a moment when the entire family could come together and share and enjoy one another's company. And perhaps more importantly, the meals were not quickly enjoyed, but rather even after finishing our meal, we would sit for longer--together.

Before leaving Puerto Rico, I thought one of the things I would miss the most would be the experience of just taking a few hours out of my day to share a meal. I feared that as the semester would begin, I would revert back to my old bad habits of pickles and cheese, alone...and furthermore, as a student, entire days when I don't leave my apartment, but rather sit in front of a computer or a book or a statistical program. Being a graduate student, particularly as you move into your final few years, becomes more and more isolating. You sequester yourself with more time thinking and reading and writing and less time spent with others. It can be incredibly difficult...and for those of us that live alone, it can be downright alienating. You start to feel the walls of your apartment or home grow thicker and it makes it more and more difficult to leave the house and go out into the world. Trust me, there have been weeks, I've only left the apartment once or twice. My main communication with the world has been my daily phone call to my mother or texting and chatting with friends online.

So, upon arriving back home, I was pleased to find out the graduate students in my department were planning a monthly pot-luck. We can all come together with different food items and share a meal. In addition, I've decided with a couple of friends to schedule a weekly meal-- either out to eat or in our homes. And lastly, I decided with my lovely neighbors-- Ashley and Michelle-- to have what we now refer to as the "trifecta family dinner" on a weekly basis.

Tonight we had the first "trifecta family dinner." We prepared food, though separately at this juncture (next time we'll also have to cook together!) and all joined together in my apartment for a variety of food items. We had a tofu curry and jasmine rice prepared by Ashley and Michelle and I prepared fresh lima beans from the local Farmers Market and a fruit salad of fresh pineapple and pears. Ashley brought us Bitch Bubbly champagne and some elderflower. We sat around the table for a couple of hours, eating, talking, and listening to music. And you know what? It was absolutely fantastic. After spending a full day of scheduling ASA meetings and working on grant reports and thinking about finishing my thesis and continuing to work on my book chapter...I had spent the entire day inside. I hadn't spoken to one human face to face all day. I say human, because given my sequestered inside predicament, I had plenty of foul words to say to my cats today. Dinner made me feel connected. It made me realize how it is okay to take time out from a busy schedule to share your time, food, and life with others. Actually, it isn't even just "okay," it is necessary.

And so now, I shall start to think about what I'll prepare for the next "trifecta family dinner," while scheduling dinners with those others in Nashville I consider my family. I'll never forget the family dinners I had with my family in Puerto Rico, nor the delicious food that Magaly (and Jorell and Mario) prepared. And I thank them for reminding me of how important it is to come together over a meal. Abrazos, mi panas.

Family Dinners

04 August 2010

The Final Two Weeks: Entrevistas, Piquetes, Pranks, and Pictures to Prove...

My final two weeks in Puerto Rico were...both amargo and dulce. As I loaded up two and three interviews a day on campus, accompanied by attending piquetes, I felt the exhaustion of field research-- particularly as your research unfolds in the process. Scheduling, interviewing, documenting piquetes, typing up field notes, and making new contacts consumed most of my fifth week. And while I have left plenty unexplored and work to continue when I return, I felt I captured tons of data that now stares at me anxiously as I begin the task of uncovering additional themes and transcribing hours and hours of interviews. I must thank my participants and contacts on the island who were incredibly generous with their time and information. It is with great hope and anticipation that I will be able to produce research and writing on these activists, artists, and the UPR movement that will accurately capture the essence of what I experienced.

While I had hoped to spend my last week relaxing, I found myself still scheduling interviews while simultaneously trying to meet with friends I made on the island during my short, short time visiting. It was necessary for me to bid farewell to all those individuals that made my time on the island so very lovely. So, in an attempt to capture the beauty of the last few days...here are some of the events that unfolded...

1) Going with Rafael Bernabe to Old San Juan to have dinner with Cesar Ayala and his lovely wife in their beautiful apartment, drinking coco chichaito with them after dinner, and running through the rain to El Batey to enjoy the jukebox with a few more drinks. (And learning that the those that can really hold their drinks on the island are the professors).

2) Spending countless days on the UPR campus to the point where I begin to feel like a student. And making countless new friends campus-wide, regardless of whether they were in "Beverly Hills" or "Disney" or "Vietnam."

3) More discussions with the family-- is it a fruit, grain, or vegetable? And really trying to crack the dilemma of which came first-- the chicken or the egg.

4) Confusing the biblioteca and liberia with Joel on the phone. "But I'm standing right out front. Where are you?" And Alexandra coming to our rescue as a translator.

5) Sharing sake with Mario and having dinner with the family at Great Taste.

6) Going to Old San Juan with Carlos, Noelia, and Mario. Making new friends. Dancing. Adventures in lip gloss. Hot dogs at 4:00am. Almost making it to the sunrise.

7) Drinking with Joel, Miguel, and Juan at Vidy's in Rio Piedras before Manic Monday.

8) Not going home after Vidy's before Manic Monday at the Cafe.

9) Dancing with Santos at Manic Monday.

10) Waking up in Jorell's car after Manic Monday, confused.

11) Discovering the pictures Jorell took at Manic Monday.

12) Spending Tuesday, after Manic Monday, with Joel.

13) Listening to Jorell and Magaly make fun of me over dinner on Tuesday.

14) Attending my last Anti Sociales show of the trip at Nuestro Son and having a beer bought for me from across the bar.

15) The trip to Barceloneta with Jorell, Miguel and Lukas. Balancing my own frustrations over protest tactics and meeting people from the community of Boca. A man who is fighting to save his house saying to me, "Thank you. Thank you for coming here today."

16) Dinner with Ralph at Cherry Blossom, while laughing hysterically about how you never know what you are gonna get with you unwrap that package.

17) Dinner and drinks with Carlos, while analyzing every character and episode of Mad Men.

18) Spending the entire afternoon and early evening at the beach with Joel, then having dinner at Danny's, and listening to Prince, Janet and The Modern Lovers into the night.

19) My last night out on the town with some of my best friends-- Jorell, Magaly, Mario, Carlos, Noelia, Egie, and Diego at the Cafe, then in Santurce, watching Superaquello at La Respuesta, an impromptu dance party as the bar closed down, meeting El Ochi, drinking and playing dominoes with Mario, Maria, and Diego, going for an early morning swim in my clothes, and waking up covered in sand. And then finding out how Mario spent his morning.

20) Having a final dinner with the family including Egie and Diego at Danny's, while just about everyone complained of headaches and dehydration and poor service. Watching The Onion movie.

21) Playing the "gnome" in the pickles prank on Jorell and capturing most of it on video.

And the next few events were not highlights, as much as soul shattering...I'll never forget saying these goodbyes...

22) Saying goodbye to Magaly Colon before she went to her first day of classes. While I tried to be so tough, when I saw Jorell peak around the corner of the hallway while I hugged Magaly...I broke.

23) Having a last breakfast with Carlos at the French restaurant, wondering why you can't get good Puerto Rican bread in Atlanta, and taking a 6-pack to the beach and planning for my next visit.

24) Meeting Joel at the beach and receiving the thoughtful gifts of a starfruit and an old photograph.

25) Saying goodbye to Jorell and Mario and crying my eyes out-- and the taxi driver saying to me, "I'm so sorry."

26) Losing complete control over my tear ducts while the plane lifted off the island of Puerto Rico.

I couldn't have asked for a more productive and memorable summer. I couldn't have asked for the opportunity to spend it with lovelier or generous people. I couldn't have asked to learn more than I did this past summer in a place so beautiful and complicated all at the same time. I can't help but feel as if my life has changed as a result...in ways I can never quite explain. At least not quite yet. But I thank you all for everything, for inspiring me, and mostly for making me believe again.

Final Two Weeks

Pictures from July 10th to 19th

I know I've been promising these pictures for weeks now, but here you go. Some pictures from piquetes at UPR and some from the 18 Julio general marcha. Enjoy. And final two weeks blog post arriving later tonight. Videos will be posted last.

Puerto Rico July 10 to July 19