Twice the Vacation of High School!
Christmas vacation came as a relief when it came, for as I wrote earlier, studying the Theology of Grace had been the most difficult thinking I'd ever done. And the great thing was: I was now a college student again: instead of two weeks of vacation right before finals, which was totally insane as a teacher, horrible for the students, and half of which I spent grade Julian of Norwich essays, I was now going to get a month of vacation after finishing a semester, the way it was intended to be. I was looking forward to a bit of a break from the focus and the stress of the final paper-writing drive. I made it over to my Mom's place outside of Madison and got away from the focus, but not the stress. A few days into my visit, when I was going to be going off for the day with fellow theologians Kari-Shane Davis and John Jones to Minnesota to Loome's Theological Booksellers in Stillwater, Minnesota, I was awoken early in the morning by my Mother who informed me that she thought that she might be having a heart attack. I got her sitting down quickly and agreed with her that what she was describing did not sound like the stomach problem that she thought she'd been having. I was deeply relieved and impressed when the paramedics arrived at our door within seven minutes of making the phone call. Mom was second-guessing herself and by the time we got to the hospital felt quite a bit better and quite a bit more embarrassed. But her EKG showed some stuff that made the cardiac specialist want to take a very close look and we discovered by the afternoon that her rear coronary artery was 95% blocked. As soon as it was discovered, they immediately cleared it, leaving Mum rather shocked that she'd had heart disease all this time. After a night in the hospital, the end result was that she came home and had to stay home doing no work for a week. This meant that we got much more time to hang out than we'd hoped, which was quite alright. I caught Mom up on several movies that I thought she'd enjoy, like the stylish remakes of Ocean's 11 and The Thomas Crown Affair, and we saw new ones together, like The Shipping News. Grandma Sweeney, who'd moved out of her apartment at age 94 earlier in the year and into an assisted living facility was a bit shocked to hear that her young daughter had had such trouble, but like the rest of us, was delighted to hear that all was well.
I then went down to visit my dad with much less drama, but far greater pain as I took it upon myself to try to teach him how to use my old computer, which I'd given him after getting my new iMac for grad school. I think it was actually the toughest teaching I've ever had to try to do, because I kept having to tear down all sorts of assumptions I didn't realize that I'd been making. Trying to explain emailing to someone who's never used a mouse before is taking things too fast. Still, after a couple of days, we got him going, although I have to confess that that didn't last too long after I'd left.... Tough going.
I then had to rush back up to Milwaukee to attend the wedding of Mike Dougherty and Michelle Ruggaber at the Gesu on Marquette's campus. It is, of course, always great fun to watch your friends get married--especially if they're marrying each other! The reception was a party of the most excellent sort: lots and lots of people to hang with. Highlights included watching Steve Baxa assign guys to dance with his completely-hyped fiance Jennifer Wiger so that he could keep talking to people, quiet conversation with Rhegan Hyppio (who had picked up Jen Sushinsky's work in the Dominican Republic after Jen left--small world,eh?), and catching up with the bride's cousin and cantor who turned out to be Bridget Nelson from my first year of Folk Choir.
Then I was off to spend the rest of the week with Fleming in Indy. I finally got to see TrestleTree in action, and we caught up on lots of face-to-face talk over good food. We got to hang with Jean Casmir, too, and the time down there culminated in going over to spend a long evening with Kim and Alyson Ware (after having dinner with a bunch of ND students on an urban plunge, which included St. Joe alum Jon McCrea). I had met Kim the previous summer when she attended a retreat I was helping Kevin staff, and this was my first time over at their house and meeting Alyson, although I'd been hearing about the family ever since Kevin met them after moving to Indianapolis. At the Ware's we had good talk, good wine and then good music as Kevin and I played sang for the ladies well into the morning hours, with particularly good versions of "Victoria" and "On My Way," if I recall correctly. Those are my favourite kind of times.
On the way back from Indy, I stopped by for an afternoon in South Bend where I spent the afternoon with former Hi-Lite Editor-in-Chief Katie Ellgass at Lula's talking school, books, and life and just generally catching up. Then I had a very welcome dinner at the Mandarin House with Philosophers Justin Searle, Anna Piontek, and Trina Paris before heading over to Searle's house for a meeting of the Philosophy Club, which I gathered had been suffering for lack of teacher participation since McCurry and I had left. That didn't stop the conversation from being engaging that night, though, as the talk ranged from Existentialism to the metaphysical basis for morality. Mostly it was just a relief and a pleasure to see all the students again--and even meet a few new ones--because I'd really missed interacting with them, as happy as I'd been to not having teaching duties with Professor Coffey this year (since he doesn't have to teach undergraduates).
After that, it was back up to Milwaukee where we were hosted to a good solid party at Mike and Michelle's new place to celebrate their marriage in more casual surroundings. Libations flowed and extraordinary things were heard, especially after the philosopher Larry Masek introduced us to an odd and absurdly entertaining game called "Silent Football," which had the side benefit (for him) of making the rest of us treat him rather like a god for the game's duration. So we got to catch up and hear the news about Mike and Michelle's honeymoon, and just generally plot for the new semester. The usual stuff, I guess, but it's nice to have "usual stuff." We also began to look ahead to the wedding of the next pair from our circle (not counting Jen and Steve, because she had graduated with her M.A. in Philosophy and was now back in Minnesota preparing for the wedding), which was the May wedding of Dan and Christine. Fortunately for them, they'd decided not to try to get married within three months of getting engaged in the fall, (which would have placed it about right in the middle of the party) and they were just starting to get a feel for how intricate the planning of the wedding was going to be.
The break period more-or-less ended (I may be fudging the dates a bit) with the visit of one of my best friends from high school: Tim Stouffer. This was kind of extra-ordinary in that Tim and I had had a huge falling-out at the end of high school and had hardly spoken since January of 1987, other than a few times when we'd tripped across one another back in Oregon, Illinois in our college days. This had remained unchanged until the stunning evening in April of 1997 when I suddenly got a phone call from Tim apologizing after all these years for what he'd done. He'd been moving away from his Christianity towards the end of high school just as I'd been embracing it, and he said that he'd thrown me out with that. But now he was married to a fine Christian woman and his life had really come around. I was rather stunned and I remember speaking about the event to my students the next day. I didn't really know what to do with that conversation, as Tim was in the Boundary Waters of Minnesota now and the likelihood of our encountering one another was pretty removed. But I called him, maybe a year later, and that was the way of it for a few years. But a few years ago, I started getting email copies of the column that Tim wrote for his local newspaper (on the side of his job in an outfitting company) and that proved to be a medium for more frequent communication. Now I was in Milwaukee and Tim (along with his wife Jennifer and their two children, Simon and Lucy) were going to be in Milwaukee too as Tim had to review proofs for his magazine's catalog at their printer's, just outside of the city.
So this turned out to be the first time Tim and were going to spend time together socially in 15 years! I was a bit bemused by the notion, and that things would work out in ways so unforeseen. Tim's take was a bit different, as I read in the draft for a column he wrote a few weeks later, which I reproduce here illegally and without permission.
I'm writing this from my old stomping grounds where it is nearly cold enough to freeze tears before they hit the ground so I'm sure the bitter bite of old man winter is causing people to cry ice cubes at home in Ely. Looking out the window here in the suburbs of Chicago, winter has more the look of cold, mean betrayal. The lack of snow whispers of fall and indeed, the grass has that lusty green and brown look of early spring. Five seconds outside without a hat, though, and I've soon learned the error of my ways.It really was kind of an astonishing day. We were spending the afternoon talking while the kids romped around the children's museum downtown, and then suddenly our two or three hours were up and it seemed we'd barely begun, so they asked me to come on out to dinner with them and the fellow Tim was working with down here on the catalog. Dinner in some place with a kind of old mining ambiance turned into conversation by the pool and then, after the kids were asleep, conversation well into the morning. Jen was able to join us when the kids were down, as she'd been running interference for Tim and letting us try to grab as much time together as we could, and with her there, Tim and I were able to try to weave her a mutual picture of our past and of the strange silence that had dominated so much of it. I fell asleep in their hotel suite and by the time I made it back to our apartment, our two hours had turned into 23. And the cool thing of it was that that huge gap of silence, where the thread of friendship seemed to have been lost, didn't matter at all. That night I was talking with Jen and Tim as deeply and honestly as I've ever been able to talk with friends in earnest conversation, and that shows me just how true their friendship is. It was an experience, and a foreshadowing, of resurrection.
A few days ago we hooked up with an old friend from high school and grade school. As I picked Mike Novak up from his apartment in Milwaukee on the campus of Marquette I had a lump in my throat. It wasn't just because I'm not the best at following obvious road directions, or that I'd driven around his building and circled his block three times. It was because I was remembering playing Adventure on his old ATARI and borrowing his Star Trek books by Diane Duane and I remembered suddenly and desperately that our wonderfully simple childhood friendship had met with the long and bitter winter challenge of high school. I had not seen my friend for a very long time.
Ticking off the years since we'd spent more than five minutes together took me round the fingers of my left hand three times as well and even as I went round and round the horn I could sense he'd done the math in his head in a micro second. It's not that I couldn't, it's just that I chose not to. Like the way I somehow choose not to understand the navigational significance of North, South, East and West and prefer to give and follow directions with left and right, up and down. Mike and I, of course, are different. That's what makes our friendship great.
As we talked about things and had the chance to interact with the rest of my family and people around us I discovered why he loved teaching so much. It comes natural to him, and he is very good at it. I remember how, as kids, he would patiently go over the rules of a game he knew inside and out, teaching me even then. I saw in my friend the kid who I had admired for his bright mind, wonderful toys, intriging comic collection, bizarre sense of bravado and burgeoning faith. I also saw the mature teacher who could listen with as much energy as he could lend to discussion and who, as the hours of conversation continued on, had never given up on our friendship. I saw in my friend, much like myself, a person challenged by the beauty and grace of the word of God.
For a few hours I could've closed my eyes and we might have been transported back to Mike's house on fifth street in Oregon. I remember the first night I stayed overnight at that house, one of his hamsters or gerbils got out of their cage and ended up in my sleeping bag. I woke up in the middle of the night dreaming that I was being attacked by his chameleon lizard only to find a maliceous little ball of fur scratching away at my arm. God knows that was a long time ago. Insignificant and odd to be writing about perhaps, but as integral to who I am today as the events that strained our friendship late in high school.
With the passage of time, old wounds heal, however deep, and the winters of life seem less harsh and more beautiful. Be true to your friends, folks. My relationships today with mine have more to do with our mutual friendship with Christ than my own paltry efforts.