“Stop acting so small. You are the universe in ecstatic motion.” ~Rumi
I slept terribly Sunday night. The Chiefs, a team I’ve supported since Joe Montana was unceremoniously dealt them by the 49ers, had won what I will say without any hint of hyperbole was the best football game I’ve ever seen. I remember thinking with only a few minutes to go in the game that the five-point differential in score meant that there would be no tie, and that I could put my children to bed on time. But in the last two minutes of the game, there were four scores. We were down three with thirteen seconds and seventy-five yards to go, and somehow we ended up winning in over time. I’d love to bore you, dear reader, with the details, but I trust that anyone who actually cares watched the game or at least knows how to find the highlights. It was truly the most spectacular game I’ve ever witnessed.
Joe Montana. I was a huge fan of his as a kid. Despite not being very strong, tall, or fast, I wanted to play quarterback, and my schoolmates teased me by comparing the cleft in my nose to the one in Joe Montana’s chin (both of which, they taunted me, looked like buttocks). But when Joe Montana got hurt, he got traded, and that didn’t sit well with me. In a movie, when the bad guy kills a good guy or a good guy kills a bad guy, I take no umbrage; they both knew the score. It’s when a bad guy kills his partner or a good guy flips that it bothers me, and I mean it really bothers me. Such scenes lodge themselves permanently in my mind and replay themselves in the most inconvenient moments. I get physically ill at the idea of treachery, and I value loyalty above almost any other trait. So when, as a young boy, I perceived that the 49ers had stabbed my hero in the back, I changed from being a 49ers fan to being a Chiefs fan, and I’ve been one ever since. The fact that I now live two and a half hours from KC was not on my mind as a youngster. I only knew that my hero had been betrayed. Two years ago, when my new team beat my old one, I screamed myself hoarse and cried tears of redemption.
Despite being unable to sleep much last night, I set my alarm a littler earlier than usual, 4:45am, so that I could be on the treadmill in time to catch all the highlights from the game. By five, I was bounding along watching Sports Center, reliving the most exciting moments of the game all over again, and getting eight miles in on the treadmill to start my week. By the time I was done, my daughter had come downstairs and greeted me, still wearing the pink Patrick Mahomes jersey I got her. That’s pretty much the best part of every day for me.
Monday was spent largely in conversation with students about Afghanistan. My humanities students eagerly checked out new books and began creating reading maps with which to monitor their progress for the next two weeks; they’ll finish the books by early February and we’ll begin our unit on Cambodia shortly thereafter—though I expect Afghanistan to remain front of mind for the rest of the semester and, hopefully, well beyond.
The world map on my back wall is coming along. It now reads “When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders…” and, every time I look at it, I can hear Elie Wiesel saying those things. I knew Professor Wiesel. He invited me to hear him speak in New York one time and, when I asked, acquiesced to my bringing students. I took twenty-five that first year, and we repeated the trip many times after. I was in California, in the town of Napa, when I learned he had passed from push notifications that came crashing through on my phone. I was on a break from what I was doing at the time, an intensive day-long class that ended with an exam for my level one sommelier certification. Somehow, I pulled myself together and passed despite the shocking news, and afterward I walked six blocks to downtown Napa and sat at the bar of the John Anthony tasting room, still numb. I think of Professor Wiesel often, and I wish I could take my current students to meet him. But, of course, Khaled Hosseini was right—time is the most unforgiving of fires.
Tuesday morning I awoke and ran a mundane five miles on the treadmill at about a 7:50 pace, then did a little core. Running isn’t boring, but like anything else you can make it that way. When I sensed that I was becoming complacent to pound the pavement at the same pace repeatedly, I decided to tinker with my routine. Wednesday, I ran a 5K, increasing my speed each mile until I hit 9.0, a sub-seven mile, far faster than anything I’ve run in competition since high school. I finished in a time of 22:13, diminished somewhat by the reality that the treadmill is an enabler. The speed, however, felt good, I felt good, and it helped shake off the feeling of boredom and repetition. Later in the day, my friend Christa sent me a Facebook post about her church helping to resettle a family of refugees from Afghanistan and it made me smile. It takes a village, sure, but we’ve got one.
Thursday I had taken the day off for a few appointments, not least one with my doctor to have blood work done. In addition to Charcot Marie Tooth, mild though it seems at times to be in my case, I have high cholesterol and a family history of cancer, both of which I blame on my grandparents. In the former case, it’s a point of pride: my grandparents on my dad’s side were ranchers, and on my mom’s they were farmers, and I have an affinity for medium-rare red meat that borders on obsession. The latter issue, of course, is less fun to think about, and helps to put the receding hairline which my grandfathers also likely passed down to me into perspective. Hopefully my blood work comes back as I would hope. I exercise a lot, and I’ve taken to eating quite a bit of garlic, lots of vegetables, and loosely counting calories. I guess we’ll see.
I was sluggish getting going that morning, and by the time I did managed only three miles before I had to go get ready for my first appointment. In between appointments two and three, however, I found an hour to squeeze a second run of the day in, and added five miles to my daily total to bring it up to eight. On that second run, I paused to take a photograph of a massive hawk that was perched in a tree over the trail. She did me the favor of taking flight right as I paused to shoot her, and I got a nice photograph of her gliding down over me on her way to another branch where pesky runners weren’t stopping to whip out their iPhones.
Come Friday at 4:46AM, TJ texted to say that his child had him up all night and that he wouldn’t make it for our planned run. I remember that stage of parenting, and I don’t miss it, so it was easy to forgive him. Instead of heading out into the seven-degree weather as we had planned, however, I rediscovered the weights in our home gym for a while before hopping on the treadmill to run six miles.
We spent much of the morning in my classes talking about a Tennessee school board banning Art Spiegelman’s Maus, and the emails and texts and tweets were coming in hot from former students of mine over the past eighteen years of teaching the book. I reminded my students that there were thirty copies of The Complete Maus in my room for them to do with as they pleased. In my other classes, we watched a documentary on Afghanistan, a Frontline piece called “Leaving Afghanistan” in which a journalist interviews Taliban militants shortly before the American troop withdrawal. My seniors were riveted to it, a gratifying feeling, and had much to say when it was over. On Wednesday, I had felt like a terrible teacher for my lack of patience and general ill temperament. On Friday, after a day of sleeping in and resting, I was much better at the job which I have always regarded less as work and more as a calling. In a brief reverie, I found myself lamenting the current state of education; on the way home another piece on NPR about the teacher shortage, and a story about a teacher skipping her uncle’s funeral because she couldn’t get a substitute teacher for her classes. I don’t know how to help people see this, but we’re one generation away from being an illiterate society of people who can’t think for themselves if we don’t put a stop to the exodus. Then again, as I think back on 10-0 vote to ban a masterwork of Holocaust literature just this past week…maybe that’s the point. As I told my students earlier that day, power structures do one thing exceptionally well, and that’s maintain themselves. The message to me seems clear: Don’t teach kids to think; they might realize how much better the world could be.
I awoke to no alarm on Saturday a little before four in the morning and decided I’d sit in my big chair in the living room and write. The living room makes us look like hoarders right now, piled willy-nilly with boxes full of random glassware, totes full of food, random assortments of old mail, piles of books, a bag full of cabinet handles. Our family of four eats at a too-small kitchen island in front of the piano, with a pie table set next to it for serving, and we have an odd assortment of my little rocking chair from when I was a child, a stool, a high-backed oak and leather chair from the dining room set, and a couch surrounding the round coffee table in front of the hearth so we can play games at it. The kitchen, what’s left of it, is taped off with plastic to help control the dust from the construction. We refinanced out house to a fifteen-year mortgage, dramatically increasing our payment but reducing our interest rate while allowing us to pull equity out of it which we promptly signed over to a contractor in exchange for a new kitchen. So far, the demolition went well. Then the electric came in at three times the estimate, and the plumbing came in at five times the estimate. We’re getting nervous about our ability to pay for this project, but with an empty cavern for a kitchen we see no choice but to proceed.
I’ve always found myself stuck between having the things I enjoy—books to read, wine to drink, expensive running shoes, a nice house—and knowing how much good my money can do in the world. This kitchen, for example, could easily end up costing us a hundred thousand dollars, enough money to have purchased a modest house for someone to live in. I recognize that Americans tend to think of celebrities and billionaire investors (like the one who lives ten or so blocks from us, the “Oracle of Omaha”) as rich, and yet I’ll never forget the former student of mine, turned history teacher, turned attorney, who pointed out one time at a high school Bible study that if you live at the poverty line in the United States, you’re among the top nine percent of the wealthiest people in the world. I know that statistic is misleading in many ways, and that those at the poverty line in the US have very real needs that we are very capable of addressing as a society if we were to alter our approach, and yet it reminds me as well that I am not at the poverty line, that I am taking a vacation on a beach over spring break, that I often turn down lucrative writing contracts because I feel I’m too busy, and that I’m planning a trip for Sonja and my ten year anniversary that includes a few nights in Paris, a few nights in Champagne, and a Mediterranean cruise from Rome to Athens. What if we didn’t do those things and just gave the money to people who need it? I often ask myself this question, though it amounts to little more than a thought exercise. The reality is, of course, that I’m far too selfish ever to give up my Napa Cabs and overseas vacations. I don’t think I’m required to feel guilty for enjoying my own life, and yet if I’m being entirely candid, I often do. These were the thoughts playing around in my mind as I wrote in our cluttered, lonely living room on Friday morning, sipping at a French press of coffee, dreaming about my run later on that day.
That run came around ten thirty in the morning. By then, the temperature had risen to nearly thirty degrees, though it promised to get into the fifties by the afternoon, and I was cognizant of the fact that this week I had yet to log a run in the double-digit miles, though my hips and knees felt as if perhaps that weren’t the case. I set out with a goal of ten miles in mind, which would bring my total for the week to a comparatively modest forty, but when I got to the corner of Leavenworth and Forty-Second, I decided to cross Leavenworth and run past the Med Center into Blackstone, elongated my run somewhat. By the time I had finished, I’d run twelve miles and it was warming up significantly. Forty-two miles for the week: not fifty, but not bad. I got home and Sonja made the family paninis and tomato soup for lunch, and I had a glass of sparkling wine—to replenish my sugars after a long run, of course.
With twelve miles under my belt on Saturday, I had run 176 mils so far in January of 2022. Compare that with last year, and I hadn’t run 176 miles until the eighth of March. I’m running well, and I’m feeling well too. I should raise that glass of wine to the hope of longevity and to remaining free of injury and illness this year.
Saturday afternoon, we took the kids to a play at The Rose Theater. The Rose is a real gift to our community, and Sonja took ballet there as a girl. Our children aren’t old enough or calm enough to be taken to Broadway yet, but the Rose is a family theater and a noisy kid being escorted to the hallway to calm down isn’t the disruptive embarrassment there that it would be during Hamilton. On the way into the theater, however, I was given an amazing gift.
On our drive downtown, we had released a mouse, caught in a live trap during the construction in our house this past week. Titus had named him Scabbers after Ron’s rat in Harry Potter, and I had briefly entertained the idea of domesticating the creature. Instead, on the way to the theater, we drove past a park and stopped to let Scabbers out. The trap was stuck for a moment, but with a stick we got it open. He moved timidly past my fingers, then bounded away across a patch of snow and up into a small stand of coniferous trees. It was but a tiny act of decency, and yet in our position we could either have taken life or spared it, and in that moment that tiny act seemed to me to reverberate around the universe. I think I used to make such choices with a far greater degree of regularity, and I wondered what had happened to me as I’d gotten older.
We pulled up in front of the Rose and got rock star parking at a meter less than a hundred feet from the front doors. As we got out, I noticed a man with white hair and two canvas bags planted on the sidewalk, and as I unbuckled Titus I checked my wallet and, finding it empty, asked Sonja if she had any cash. She responded that she did not. As I looked toward the man a second time, however, I realized he had not put himself on the sidewalk merely to rest, nor to ask for money, but rather it seemed that he had fallen. Zooey by then had noticed and rushed to him. Sonja called her off but I, too, was rushing towards him by then. We helped him to his feet, then picked up his bags and handed them to him. He did not respond to my questions about his wellbeing but simply walked off. I rejoined my family and we took a few steps toward the Rose, but when I looked back at the man I saw that he was weaving in his steps, clearly struggling with his bags. “I’ll meet you inside,” I told Sonja, and trotted back to him.
“May I carry your bags sir?” I asked him. He stopped and stared at me. I repeated the question. I feared that perhaps he was in another place, that we weren’t going to be able to sort this out in any meaningful way, but finally he said simply “I’m deaf.” The words were crisp at the edges; I imagine the man, probably in his early seventies, lost his hearing later in his life. I smiled, what I hoped was universal communication, then gestured for his bags and back to myself. He stared at me a moment longer. “Don’t suppose you have a car?” he asked.
I helped the man into the front seat of our little 2008 CRV, with Zooey’s most recent art projects from daycare at his feet, and I placed his bags in the back. “It’s not far,” he told me, but offered no more guidance at the moment. Given his condition and that he was going it on foot, I had to believe him. I signaled my way into traffic and drove slowly. “Turn left here,” he said. I did. One more block. “Here is good,” he told me. I pulled up to the curb in front of some brick apartments, and I got out and grabbed his bags. The man said nothing, but shuffled toward the doors. I drove back to the Rose, got the same parking space, and met my family inside before the play even started. It was but a tiny act of decency, but in that moment that tiny act seemed to me to reverberate around the universe.
I remember once a friend gently chastising me when I didn’t allow them to pick up the check after dinner. “When you do that,” he told me, “you deny the other person the ability to give you a gift. Instead, just say thank you and let them do a nice thing for you.” That stuck with me. He was right. When I grab the check, it’s not to prove some silly point, not to posture, but to do a nice thing. There are a finite number of opportunities each day to do a nice thing, and sometimes that is one of them. I thought about this off and on all night. Inadvertently, of course, that man had done more for me than I had for him. He had presented me the opportunity to do a small good thing, and all I had to do was take it. I have, in my life, missed too many such opportunities, and I easily could have stayed with my family, made sure we got to the play on time, and told myself I’d help the next person if the timing were more convenient. Instead, I played my part, and in so doing accepted the gift that he had given me, even though I recognize of course that he’d rather not have needed my help in the first place. Though I know that the entire world is not about me, I cannot deny that I am the protagonist in my own version of this great play, and the fact remains that his contribution to my life feels to me to be far greater than mine to his.
The play we watched was about an immigrant family, a seven-year-old girl named Carmela whose father we glean from the context is undocumented and has been back in Mexico for a very long time. It’s a touching story, but one that also stirs an anger inside of me. I remember last week, covering for a social studies class, I heard a freshman paraphrase what they had been taught in a thick Spanish accent. “The Cold War was between us and the Russians. The Russians are communists and that’s bad but we’re good and our system works.” I looked at her a moment. “Does our system work for you?” I asked her. She stared back at me, as if she’d never thought to ask that question before.
Saturday night, Sonja made macaroni and cheese in the Instant Pot and I pulled the bratwursts off of the smoker that I had placed inside it earlier in the day, along with some hickory chips. At dinner, Sonja’s phone pinged her. It was a request for the Air BnB. My parents own the house next to ours, and we manage it as a rental for them. It was a month-long request made on behalf of an immigrant family by a local organization—I didn’t know which one but I can narrow it down and it might even be the Refugee Empowerment Center which I’m running all these miles to raise money in support of, though I didn’t recognize the name of the person making the request. I briefly entertained the idea of waiving the costs, but it’s my parents’ house, not mine, and that money isn’t ours to give away. Besides, it’s how my parents pay their mortgage. Excitedly, Sonja accepted the request, then we went back to eating our modest meal at the too-small kitchen island in our living room, with the soundtrack to Six from Broadway playing in the background. I looked over at Sonja. “I hope they’re Afghans,” I said.