Tuesday, July 5, 2016

On Grief

"The movies make emotions look so strong and real, whereas when things really do happen to you, it's like watching television – you don't feel anything. Right when I was being shot and ever since, I knew that I was watching television. The channels switch, but it's all television." - Andy Warhol

Last night, I cried myself to sleep. I shuddered and sobbed myself a headache to wake up to in the morning. I haven't cried like that for a long time. But I was alone in my brother's house and there was no one around to gloss over my grief for.

The winter of my fifth grade year, my grandfather Art died. He used to call on the telephone all the time, and then suddenly his voice was gone. My dad got on a plane to LA to go pack up Art's stuff and clean out his old apartment. We skipped Christmas that year. I didn't talk to anyone about what had happened.

A couple weeks later, Geoffrey Dickhaut's grandpa died. He got a call during the middle of the school day. The whole class sat in a circle on the floor while Geoff cried. We listened to him, and comforted him. And I felt a stinging in my eyes and hardness in my throat because Geoff could talk about his loss when I couldn't talk about mine. I never did place what the difference between us was.

Last year my brother was diagnosed with cancer. At first we thought it was pancreatic cancer, he called in November to tell me he thought he had "lived a good life." There was a chance it was a different type of cancer that had simply migrated into his pancreas. We'd find out in a few weeks. My thumbs were kept busy then  scrolling through forums of pancreatic cancer survivors the way some people scroll through Instagram - Whipple surgery. Six months chemotherapy. Five years remission. Life prolonged. Cancer free. I had accepted the worst, but still wanted to find hope in that situation.

 As you can imagine we all breathed a heavy sigh of relief when it turned out to be metastasized testicular cancer instead - a few months of chemotherapy to get through, but the survival rates for testicular cancer are extraordinary. I didn't think we were facing death anymore - just bleomyscin injections that caused spiked fevers and platinum running through his veins. A few months of treatment and he'd have his beard back.

I cried sometimes during those months too. I cried for James' narrowing frame, jaundiced skin and hairless head. I cried on my way home from a family gathering because James had yelled at me, and he had sounded like my father did while we were growing up. I didn't stop crying until he called to say he was so so sorry and explained that the treatments made him irritable. When I cried during those months I felt weak and unjustified - he was going to be okay. In my mind people were only allowed to cry if they were suffering more.

Even now, despite the persistence of his tumor with fingers wrapped around an artery in his liver, the chances of him surviving are in our favor. A portion of James' tumor was unaffected by the cycles of chemotherapy in Utah, and he has since relocated to a specialized cancer treatment facility in Houston, Texas. At MD Anderson, James receives stem cell transfusions to bolster the strength of his immune system. It's a Captain America kind of medicine - he can now endure doses of chemotherapy so high that they would otherwise kill him. Cancer is such a bizarre ailment to treat - as one is supposedly recovering they only show signs of growing more ill. It's a matter of one poison winning over the other.

James called me while I was in Germany on a study abroad to ask if I would be able to come out with him to Texas for the few weeks before his family could join him there. I, standing on a sidewalk in Berlin a few feet away from a Donner stand, agreed. Between James' cancer and my sister's manic-depressive disorder wreaking havoc this year, I feel like I'm playing a bit part in a Mexican Telanova. In June I acted as caregiver and companion. I cleaned up bodily fluids, adjusted pillows, kept track of medications, watched too much Netflix, drove to the ER at four in the morning and spent days and days sitting in hospital rooms listening to a symphony of beeping machines.

I'm back in Utah now, and James' wife, kids and our mother are out in Texas playing caregivers. I returned to stay at the Goldberg's house to take care of it while they're gone. It's in American Fork, three towns over from my home in Provo where I work, go to school and all my friends live. The distance and loneliness didn't hit until last night. The week before had been a flurry of overtime work hours, graveyard shifts and my father and brother Stephen briefly sweeping through town on a cross country move.

There were a lot of little things that built up to last night's tears, very little of it had to do with James at all. I felt emotionally exhausted after having my father here, who failed to meet my expectations of a parent's visitation. I felt physically exhausted too after a busy week at work in which I had mostly one am to noon shifts. And it felt surreal to be stepping back into my familiar life in Utah after two months of traveling.

I came home to an empty house last night and even though I had a phone full of contacts, there was no one that I felt like I could call. Just as often as my dad has fallen short, James has been there to pick up the slack. During my time at BYU whenever I have been overwhelming stressed out, I've called James. He'd drive down to Provo and pick me up. I'd stay up late perched on the end of his and Nicole's bed and they'd give me practical and grounding advice. I'd spend the night in their guest room, and wake up to my nephews jumping on me the next morning. I'd go back to Provo with Nicole on her way to work. I remember one night after I went down to the guest room to sleep, James came down dressed up in the giraffe costume he'd worn at Halloween and started dancing. He's done that kind of thing since I was a kid. I would get upset and storm off to my room, and he would come in and be a goof. I'd laugh so much I'd forget to be mad.

That's when I really started crying. I cried because I was alone in the Goldberg's house and I couldn't even call James. It's my turn to be goofy and reassuring. I cried myself asleep because I felt an immediate kind of grief, not in losing someone forever but in things being different and disorienting right now. 

Thursday, February 4, 2016


I smelled popcorn on Thursday while I was in the engineering building - all heat and air and too much salt. It triggered flashbacks to the woodshop class I took last semester. I realized that more than the aroma of wood shavings or the acrid scent of Wilcox oil finish, popcorn is the scent of woodworking to me.

My professor, Dr. C (who knew you could get a PhD in tech ed), would make popcorn on our workdays and during open labs. As the symphony of whirring blades and droning machinery commenced, Dr. C would go back to the storage area to pull out a cast iron skillet, seasoning and a big metal bowl to put the popcorn in when it was done. He even had these neat little bags on his desk with “Hot and Delicious Popcorn” printed on them in a cheery red font. The bags reminded me of the kind you get at a carnivals or the state fair – cheap thin paper that the oil soaks through in spots. They also remind me of barf bags on an airline, tucked in the mesh pocket in front of you, ready for when you start feeling sick. I don’t think I’ve ever been more stressed out by a class.
I have this memory of laying on the grass with my friend Jared on a lazy August evening right after I moved out to Utah and right before the start of my freshman year. I was picking at the grass compulsively while he was on his back next to me with an arm flung behind his head. I recall our conversation going like this:
“I’d be terrible at computer science,” I said (which was his major), “I don’t understand computers at all.” I tend to be like that about a lot of things – convinced I will be terrible at something because I’ve never done it before, because I don’t already know how. I could have said the same thing about wood working before the class.
Jared was quiet for a minute then he propped himself up on his elbows, looking at me, “How good are you at flying helicopters?”
“I dunno, I’ve never flown a helicopter before.”
“Hm…” he said, falling back onto the grass, “and have you coded before?” He had caught me in my own logical fallacy. 
It turns out there is whole body of work published about the assumption that you’ll be bad at something you’ve never tried. Psychologist Carol Dweck refers to it as having a ‘fixed mindset’. I read a lot of her research when I took a psychology class in high school. And since I’m trying to figure out why the smell of popcorn has my cortisol levels running so high, I quickly looked up a few of her articles and skimmed through them again. 
In a fixed mindset students believe that their basic abilities – intelligence, talent, athleticism – are all immutable. They have a certain amount and that’s that, so their goal becomes to look smart all the time and never look stupid.
In woodshop there is no appearance of competency. It’s a skills class, not an academic class where I can sit back and be a warm body. I remember when I was taking calculus in high school I would avoid asking questions because I felt I would be perceived as stupid. Everyone around me was sitting silently too, a clear indicator to me that they understood what I was missing. Meeting up with classmates in the evenings to study at together at Caribou coffee, it became evident that all of us had been playing the same game. We were all high-achieving, disciplined kids who had been praised for our ‘intelligence’ our whole lives. We all sat confused and lost and silent in class together because we couldn’t bear the appearance of ignorance. I guess it comes down to the interpretation of a question – is asking questions seizing an opportunity for growth or a sad revelation of your inferiority?
There was no way to hide my ignorance when I was learning to use a table saw under the amused observation of my peers. Peers which consisted mostly of male TechEd majors who wear Carharrt, the brand of the blue collar working man, like it’s a lifestyle. The first time I ran a board through a table saw I went so slowly that the blade burned the edge of the wood, leaving deep red marks. Everyone could smell the smoke. The process of experiential, tactile learning made it painfully obvious that the mere appearance of knowledge is worthless. You either know what you’re doing or you don’t. There’s no bullshit, no fluffing out papers to make them reach the page requirement or anything else sly like that. In woodworking you have to make precise cuts, and sand down boards to exact thicknesses. Any error in craftsmanship is evident in the final object.
I don't know if having a fixed mindset is really as much about believing your skills are unchanging as it is about being haunted by fear that people will discover you as a fraud. In my mind, I imagined this nightmarish situation in which Dr. C turned to me and would say, "you're not good at this. Why are you here?"
I guess maybe it all comes back to something that my friend Molly recently brought up in a phone call during finals week - entertaining the notion that we may not be at college to be perfect, but rather, to learn. 

Friday, January 8, 2016

Love, Home and Forward Motion

When I say “I have never fallen in love” I mean that I’ve never met a boy and fallen in love with him. I grew up with love for my three brothers, a fierce familial love which aches sometimes but is always there. A love that doubles you over in pain when that boy is on the phone after surgery, telling you it’s worse than they thought. And as you watch his skeletal frame entering yet another CT scan you want to take his sickness for him. I have a love that lights my brothers up as they’re talking about that book they just read so all I can see is their brilliance. My love is rooted somewhere in a rest stop in Northern Nebraska, where there was a flash hail storm and Stephen pulled me behind him as he ran to the car, shielding me from the icy pellets. It’s rooted in our home in Columbus, where James read The Dark is Rising out loud to me and Mattathias and I shared a room. A love that does dishes even when it’s their turn and tells them ‘I love you, and it sucks’ ‘I love you but I wish I didn’t’.

I wonder if boy-meets girl love will feel the same, like it’s the strongest pull on you, but just as mundane and taken for granted as the fact that there is gravity on this earth. There is a part of me that pretends I don't care whether or not I ever find out. 


When I say “I don’t go home,” what I mean is home is far and I am poor. I mean that my dad and I get along best when there are at least five states between us. I mean that I think that I liked myself better at 18 than I do at 20, and I’d like the people in my life there to remember me as I was and not as I am. And by that I mean I was 110 pounds and anorexic for most of high school It wasn’t until I left for college that I stopped - I mean, started eating again. I don’t know how to acknowledge that without feeling shame. I don’t want to explain it and I don’t know how to talk about it without letting on that I’m wistful.

 Besides all that, I mean that Utah is my home. I have fallen in love with the landscapes here. I love the red rock of Southern Utah, the way it feels alien to me, like I’m exploring a different planet. I love the forests and lakes in the high Uintas, hiking up streams instead of trails to get from lake to lake. The nights there were so much colder than I’d imagined or prepared for. I love that Rock Canyon is ten minutes from my front door and there are over 400 different climbing routes there. How many of my Saturday mornings have I spent with fingertips on rock. I am still in awe of the salt flats, which seem to be God’s punctuation to this mountainous landscape, like he hit a hard return there and left so much nothingness that it’s justified as a destination. I mean that I don’t go home, I just stay there.


When I say “process and decay are implicit,” I am usually whispering it to myself. I am thinking of the British artist and naturalist Andy Goldsworthy. I am imagining him waking up early on a freezing morning in Cumbria and hiking out to cow pasture. He’s building an arch there out of sheets of ice. And he’s already accepted that this structure he’s labored over will melt shortly in the sun or maybe it will be knocked over by a cow or by the old farmer.

           I say it to myself to let go of permanence. Everything is a work and there is “an intensity about a work at its peak.” It’s easy to slip into looking backwards. To those moments of triumph that are commemorated in memory. For example, I will always remember first the cross country race that I ran personal best in. I will remember heavy limbs, sweat on my body and looking at the 20:07 on the clock at the finish.  It’s not until I remind myself, that I remember the early morning runs and two-a-day workouts which built up to that race. I mean to console myself that I may never run that fast again, nor have the inclination to try. And that’s okay. It’s okay to let cycles of my life spin themselves out as long as I am already caught up in the next one - already laboring over another ice arch. Process, peak and then inevitably, decay.