squirrel moments

Chronicling my roadtrip to record the history of Notre Dame . . . and what's more Notre Dame than squirrels?

Thursday, February 21, 2008

The End of the Road

Ok, last post. As I write this, I'm in my bed at my parents' house, wearing eight layers of clothing and tucked under five blankets. And flannel sheets. I will be looking for my electric blanket tomorrow, and hopefully that will allow me to cut down on layers, because I am seriously having trouble moving my arms (ala Randy in A Christmas Story), and my knee-high soccer socks under my leggings are cutting off the circulation to my calves. It's good to be home.

I've been on a break for the past few weeks visiting friends in the Northeast and cramming in as many Oscar nominees as possible before this Sunday. Many of you know my obsession with going to the movies, and I haven't been able to indulge that much on this trip, so it's been a very pleasant and relaxing break. This week I'll be preparing to meet with the powers that be and determine what happens to all the amazing interviews I've collected. I'm really excited about listening to them and getting to work editing all of them.

I just got back this afternoon, and it is great to see my family here again after nearly five months. My mom made me my favorite dinner, my dad brought Stephen over from ND for dinner, and Pete told me that when I go out tomorrow, he's planning to "melt all the doorknobs so I can't get back in." Ah, there's no place like home. Really, though, isn't he creative? Most people would change the locks, but Pete's version is so much more interesting, and certainly more visually compelling.

I also came back to a whole lot of mail. Like, a folder full. My mom has been diligently saving every scrap of paper anyone has sent me over the past four months. Some of it's pretty useless—1099s, free credit cards with "Your Name Here" on the front—but a lot of it is from people I've met on this trip. And I hope you won't mistake my meaning when I say that I'd forgotten about these people. They are very important to me, and I think about them all the time, as I do all of my friends. I reflect on the things we talked about, and I think about them and how they live their lives, and I remember them when I see something they'd like...but I guess people are recalled to you differently when you're holding a physical letter from them in your hand and reading their current news. I think probably I won't realize the full impact they've had on my life for awhile, but right now, I feel really grateful to them for all their generosity, and I'm honored that they shared their stories with me. I know that sounds unbelievably trite, but those are the only English words I know to describe it. And I gave up swearing for Lent, which includes swearing for emphasis. Otherwise, I'd be emphasizing everything.

When people ask me about this trip, it's hard for me just to start talking about it or describing it in general terms. Every day, every city, every home, every interview was different. In my mind it's a mosaic of all these little moments, like this guy giving me his map of Yellowstone and telling me best places to go; and my friend's mom buying me postcards because she didn't think I'd have time to get them myself; and another guy telling me he's dying of cancer and he's not afraid; and believing him; and seeing the sun come up on my first day in Minneapolis; and trying to reheat rice at my brother's apartment without a microwave; and reading Frog and Toad Are Friends to a room full of third graders. And that's just off the top of my head. It's a weird hodgepodge, I know, but that's how I see it in my mind at this point.

I appreciate all the support many of you reading this have given me over the past six months. I'll save the Academy Award speech, but now I know what they mean when they say they couldn't have done it without (insert 50 names here). I suppose I could list you all, since there is no music here, but this is the worldwide web, susceptible to all kinds of readership, so I'll avoid naming names. I'll also avoid naming places and plans for now, partly for the reason I just stated but also because they're not all final. I've got a few things worked out for the next couple of months, and those of you are interested in knowing about that may email me at your leisure. In any case, thanks for reading this!

Last stop

Sorry for the long hiatus...thanks to everyone who's been sending along kind comments about this blog, but the fact is that I enjoy doing stuff more than writing about it. So I'll write up the last part of the trip, and then do a brief wrap-up.

I made my way from Raleigh to Washington, DC, stopping along the way for a delightful visit with a couple of friends in Charlottesville, VA. In case you've never been (I hadn't really), Virginia is completely gorgeous, and it was a really fun drive because Sibyl, for some reason unknown to me (when is her reasoning ever known to me?!) decided we'd take the back roads, which wind through the beautiful hills of VA. I met up with my friend/former neighbor/fellow Saltie Jesse Dukes, who is doing some cool work for a program in association with UVA's station, as well as some great freelance pieces (check out his work at http://www.jessedukes.com). He was doing a bit of volunteer consulting with a group of high-school kids who interviewed elderly people in their community and are putting together multimedia pieces using their interviews and photos. So I helped with that for about 10 minutes, and then we went for tea, just like in the old days in our neighborhood on Vesper Street. I also got to catch up (briefly) with my old roommate-for-a-summer Jenaro, so it was a very Vesper-y afternoon. It was a very pleasant afternoon, despite the cloudy weather.

And then I drove into DC, where I stayed with my friend Rebecca and her roommate Jeanne. And the whirlwind began. From the time I hit the city to the day I left, it was a blur of parties, museums, family, old friends and a few new friends, plus a lot of work. Every time I thought I was about to do my final interview, someone else would call back, or reschedule, or strongly recommend a friend...and each one was better than the next, so I couldn't very well say no.

Most of my interview subjects in DC were veterans and former government employees, so they had a lot of interesting historical-type stories. I got to talk to a 96-year-old man who met the King of England and Gen. Patton during World War II. When I asked if he was there when Patton slapped the kid from Mishawaka (thank you, Fr. Blantz's American History class), he told me that he wasn't, but if he had been, he would have slapped the general right back and damn the consequences. I also talked to a guy who used to work in defense intelligence about the fall of the Berlin Wall, and a guy who worked in nuclear regulation about the prospects of nuclear energy with regard to the new green trend. Really cool stuff.

I also ended up spending a lot of time in Arlington National Cemetery. I had to go take some photos for the project, and then some of Rebecca's friends invited me to go with them...I should explain that Rebecca and my brother David who lives in DC were both on the road a bit for work while I was in town, and the result was that I got my own bed and spent far less time in bars than I usually do when I visit DC. I also ended up spending a lot of time with Rebecca's friends, I think because I was staying at her place and we look enough alike that I was a suitable substitute for the week. A little weird, but they were fun. In any case, how often do you get a call asking, "Are you up for an afternoon of solemn contemplation of our nation's great heroes?"—or something to that effect. And it was really cool to tour the cemetery with people who actually knew some of the history. Turns out, Arlington National Cemetery is located on what was Robert E. Lee's estate. Actually, it was his wife's estate—Mrs. Lee was a descendant of George Washington. So when they evacuated during the Civil War (the Lee estate overlooks DC, and thus was a strategic location for the Union), she took with her many family heirlooms that had belonged to Washington. Then one of the Union generals decided to make sure the Lees could never return to the estate by burying fallen soldiers (and sometimes the limbs of amputees) in Mrs. Lee's rose garden. What a story. The writers on Desperate Housewives wish they could come up with something so deliciously vindictive.

I also got to spend some time at the Air and Space Museum, the Portrait Gallery, the Hirshhorn and a few other hot spots on the mall. Yea, free museums! Definitely the best thing about Washington. You know, if you're not into government.

I have to admit, though, it was a little tough getting around the city. I am declaring Washington, DC the most difficult city I've had to drive in, for a number of reasons. Apparently the city was purposely designed to confuse invaders and give the U.S. military clear access to shooting at them. Right, except that I'm guessing invaders will carefully study a map beforehand and do a few dry runs before battle. Whereas your casual visitor to the city may or may not have studied their route from home to wherever it is they are going quite that diligently, let alone trying to execute it in real time. Add in a bunch of lost tourists, a few insane cabbies, and a dozen or so "because we feel like it" road blocks, and I found myself just kind of hoping I didn't hit anything when I left the house.

But all in all, I had a fantastic time in Washington, and though I was sad to wrap up my interviews, it was nice to end with a really strong bunch.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

What's the difference?

Last week I stayed in Raleigh with my Uncle Joe, Aunt Melanie and their four kids, Heather (13), Caitlin (9), Anthony (5), and Thomas, almost 3. I did do a few interviews, but honestly, my trip to Raleigh was mostly social, with a bit of pampering mixed in. Heather and Caitlin gave me a facial and a pedicure the first morning I was there before I was declared fit to leave the house. I turned down the manicure because I don't like wearing nail polish, but as the week went on, I was tempted to reconsider as I developed a blister on my thumb from playing Super Mario Brothers. And a sore arm from all the Wii bowling, basketball, and air hockey. Did I mention the Raleigh Freddosos have a game room?

But actually while I was there I learned a new game, which has become one of my favorites. (My family will understand when I say it's in the same vain as Pete's old joke game—"why did the calendar chase the priest?", etc.) The new game was developed by my cousin Anthony, and it's called "What's the Difference?" Here's an example:

Anthony: Katie, what's the difference between a table and a raisin?

Me: You put plates on a table, but not on a raisin.

Anthony: No, you eat a raisin, but you don't eat a table.

Me: You got me again. Man, you're good at this. So Thomas, what's the difference between a lampshade and my forehead?

As you can probably guess, this can go on for awhile, and it's always wildly entertaining. And speaking of entertaining, Uncle Joe, Caitlin and I got to go see Anthony play some basketball...fortunately, I don't have to eff the ineffable here—the local news crew did a bit of filming at the previous week's game, so you can watch for yourself (Anthony is #3 on the Celtics, who are in yellow):

This was only the second time I've ever been to North Carolina, which is silly, because some of my favorite people live there. I got to spend a day touring Duke with my friend Sheryl, who is just now wrapping up her oral exams and getting ready to dazzle the theological world with her dissertation. And I went down to Southern Pines for an interview and got to see my friend Rebecca's parents, who took me out to lunch and then sent me over to their house so I could get some work down while they were at work, and then made me a home-cooked dinner. The best part of this, aside from their very pleasant company, was calling Rebecca from her childhood home to tell her I was going through all of her stuff.

I had such a good time I didn't want to leave North Carolina, but all good things must come to an end. In fact, this entire trip is coming to an end soon. As I write this, I am in Washington, DC, where I will conclude my interviews for the project and my always belated blog entries. I will continue up the coast when I'm done, but just for a break, and hopefully I'll have time to procrastinate individual correspondence again.

Monday, January 21, 2008


It's four hours from Jensen Beach to Jacksonville, four hours from Jacksonville to Charleston, and four hours from Charleston to Raleigh. And last week I discovered that there's nothing longer than a four-hour drive. Two hours, and you're practically there before you had a chance to switch out your CD. Eight hours, and you go into it prepared for a day-long trip. But I haven't quite mastered the psychological prep needed for the Four...you think it's going to be short and easy, but then you get hungry, and you have to stop for gas, etc. It's the worst, because when you've only got two more hours to go, you get this feeling like you just cannot go on. On three out of the four four-hour drives on this entire trip, I have needed to stop at a rest area and take a power-nap in my car. I'm a little concerned about the Raleigh-to-DC trip awaiting me this weekend...

In any case, after a couple of interviews in Jacksonville last Wednesday, I set out for Charleston, SC. It was my first-ever trip to South Carolina, and hopefully not my last. I stayed with my friends Griff and Kara; Griff was editor of Scholastic our senior year at ND, and he and Kara have been dating since we graduated. They moved from northern Indiana outside of South Bend to Charleston just in time to put me up for a few nights. Of course, this will probably complicate hosting their annual summertime tailgate, when a group of our classmates, mostly Midwest-based, descend upon their house for a weekend of burgers, beer, and a tape of one of ND's great victories from the previous season. On the other hand, maybe this is a good year to skip that tradition...

As ill-fortune and the Verizon network/Motorola conspiracy would have it (that's for another blog entry), I was not able to do an interview in Charleston as planned. But the upside was that I had plenty of time to sleep in and then explore downtown Charleston with Griff. Charleston was absolutely charming—it's right on the ocean, it's brimming with history, the houses are all painted bright colors, and I hear that in springtime, the world seems to be dripping with wisteria vines and azaleas. Not that I read the guidebook or anything. Even in the cold drizzle, Griff and I spent a very enjoyable afternoon taking photos and rambling around town, and at one point, I turned to him and said, "Wow, Griff, this place is super-adorable!" And though he laughed, he agreed that it's true. In the evening, Kara met us for sushi and the three of us sampled some local brews before heading home, where Griff and I stayed up until 2 in the morning talking about my trip, his recent 6-week backpacking trip through Ireland, and the joys of getting 8 hours of sleep.

The next morning, after a blissful 8 hours, I drove four hours to my uncle's house in Raleigh, stopping, of course, for a quick nap along the way.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Break, family, and the recurrence of Jimmy Johnson

Sorry, I'm a little behind these days (again!) I'll try to catch up a bit...

You know that feeling when you've taken a break so long that you forget what day of the week it is? Yes. It was a long break down in Jensen Beach...two weeks of watching movies, watching football, playing games, making pasta, eating out, shopping, and visiting with old family friends. It also worked out that while I was in town, my dad and his siblings all came down to celebrate my uncle's 60th birthday. It made for a full house, but it was great to see everyone. I think my favorite part of the break was spending one-on-one time with None, my dear 89-year-old grandmother.

I think I mentioned None briefly in the last post, but I should take a little time here and explain why she is the best grandmother ever. First of all, she is the sweetest, most kind woman in the world. For real, sometimes she's so sweet that I wonder if we're even related. The children's choir at Christmas Mass literally brought her to tears. But don't let the sweet exterior fool you: She's tough as nails, and she always gets what she wants. Fortunately, she wants good things! She rarely has an unkind word for anyone, so when she does, it's simultaneously scathing and hilarious. She generally saves her vitriol for politicians—Bush is referred to as that "arrogant jerk who keeps sending our boys to die", and when the political commercials air during Wheel of Fortune, it's, "Oh, him again?" But one morning over breakfast, much to my surprise, she really let Jimmy Johnson have it. We were talking about the Dolphins' disastrous season, and None was saying that my Uncle Joe had once introduced her to Dan Marino, who was "such a nice young man," but that she had never liked...what was his name? Johnny Johnson? Jimmy Johnson. Her exact words were: "I feel terrible saying this, but just the look of him, as soon as I saw him I thought to myself, 'That guy looks like a jerk!'" I swear, this was without any prompting from me! None also uses all kinds of old-fashioned expressions that crack me up. My personal favorites are, "Well, I'll be a monkey's uncle!" and "Holy cats!" She also refers to her group of friends as "the girls," which I think is really cute. And this is totally selfish, but now that I'm not in Florida I miss the constant affirmation. Everything I do at None's house is "beautiful" and "precious," and everything I wear, including sweatpants and old T-shirts, is "darling." Plus, she always tells me that she's praying for me and thinking of me and everyone in our family, and it's true. And then she wonders why I'm happy to take her grocery shopping or make tea for her. I mean, come on.

But after two weeks of hanging out with the fam, it was time to get back to work. And it felt good to be busy again for awhile, although I'll confess (and you might be able to tell by how long it's taken me to update my blog) that it's been hard to get back to normal and be on top of things. Fortunately, the people I interview are still interesting, so my work hasn't suffered too much. I talked to some great older and younger guys about their memories of bedchecks, the War, cancer, imminent death, and the advent of color TV. Among other things.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

"The unexamined life...": A Philosophical Blog Reflection

I'd like to begin by dedicating this post to my father, who taught me that a single nitpicking remark can break through a seemingly immovable writer's block.

In this blog posting, I will improve my blog, and in so doing attempt to improve myself, by writing in the style of an academic philosopher. I will accomplish this in three ways: Firstly, I will be sure that the title of the post includes both a quote and a colon. Secondly, I will structure the posting in such a way that I will tell the reader what I am going to do, do it, and then explain what I just did. And finally, I will use a more academic vocabulary, using words such as "therefore" and "thus" more frequently. This also will entail abstaining from the use of slang, contractions, unnecessary adverbs, and unorthodox punctuation, colloquial though it may be.

In this post, I will describe for you several observations I made on my 12-hour drive from New Orleans to my grandmother's* house in Jensen Beach, Fla. These observations are a sign of inadequacies in modes of thinking and communicating through advertising and art.

Though the drive was enjoyable, I found myself getting a little bored after nine hours. To alleviate my boredom, therefore, I started using the seek function on my radio in hopes of discovering something interesting. Thus I was able to hear many ridiculous Christmas commercials to which I might otherwise have remained oblivious. Among the most ridiculous was one that began, "Surprise your pet this holiday season with a gift from PetSmart!" Now, this statement raises a number of questions for the intelligent listener: How can one surprise one's pet in any way other than jumping out from behind something? And even in such instances, do pets experience what we call "surprise" in the same way humans do? Is there perhaps a hierarchy of intelligence and emotional range among species that function as pets in human households, such that a gift might surprise larger mammals (e.g., cats and dogs) and birds, but would mean nothing to smaller mammals (e.g., mice and guinea pigs), amphibians, reptiles, fish, etc. Or maybe rather than separating them by species, one should instead look at the pets on an individual basis, as it is easily observed that some cats are more intelligent than others, and the same with dogs, and so forth. Furthermore, outside of changes in temperature and precipitation, are pets even aware of seasons, holiday or otherwise? Admittedly, my knowledge of biology and animal psychology is insufficient to answer these questions, but that is not the task of this post. I am simply noting that this ad unwittingly raises many questions, thus distracting from its true end, i.e., convincing the listener to buy pet supplies.

Another ad suffering from a similar problem was one for some sort of medication (I cannot remember which), that concluded by telling its listeners that if they still had questions about whether this medicine is right for them, they should "ask someone logical, like [their] healthcare professional." As I said, I cannot even remember the pharmaceutical being advertised, perhaps because I was so distracted by this last line. The advertiser seems to be saying that anyone logical will be able to provide me with information about this product and its implications for my health. I find this irksome because they are implying that (1) I, the listener, am not logical, and (2) a logician can prescribe medication just as well as a physician (in which case again I must not be logical, because it would likely be much cheaper to consult a logician.) In addition, I am not entirely convinced that a healthcare professional needs to be logical in order to be effective. Again, I am not trying to answer these questions. I am just pointing out that this ad was ineffective and even insulting to the intelligent listener. This is an especially unfortunate communication error, given the potential importance of the product.

Finally, I observed with some horror a billboard announcing the upcoming sequel to a film that was itself a sequel to two film series: Alien vs. Predator — Requiem (AVPR). I find the concept of this film problematic. As a general rule of thumb, sequels should be produced either to answer remaining questions from the original film or to develop new facets of characters or ideas that have peaked an audience's interest. For AVPR, however, it is necessarily impossible for either to be the case. The very title of the original movie indicates that it was a battle to the death between the alien from the Alien series and the predator from the Predator films. Presumably, one of them won, in which case there is no need to revisit the original, or else it was a draw, but then what audience would be interested in watching them fight again? I suppose there is a third alternative, which would be that the humans involved somehow won. This seems unlikely, given the sort of audience the producers are trying to attract, but even if that were the outcome, it seems that the obliteration of both lead characters precludes a sequel. I suppose this entire discussion is moot, because the film has already been produced and, as of my writing this, released to poor reviews, but the question remains: Why?

Thus, my twelve-hour drive to Florida occasioned a variety of observations that yielded a number of unanswered questions regarding geography, biology, medical science, language, and art. While I cannot answer those questions, I believe that their existence is significant, in that it points to the inadequacy of existing methods of thinking and communicating.

In this blog posting, I have attempted to improve my blog, and by extension, myself, by writing in the style of an academic philosopher. I structured the posting in such a way that I explained to the reader what I was going to do, did it, and then explained what I just did. I use a more academic vocabulary, using words such as "therefore," "thus," and "hence" with more frequency than in previous posts. In addition, I abstained from the use of slang, contractions, unnecessary adverbs, and unorthodox punctuation.

In conclusion, I would like to apologize to anyone reading this who has taken offense at my blog's stylistic inadequacies. I know there's little I can do to mitigate the suffering I have caused, but perhaps I can prevent further distress by suggesting that you find other reading materials to provide amusement and information. I've heard the Summa Theologiae is a fantastic read...but I have a feeling you're already reading it.**

*Henceforth on this blog, I will refer to my grandmother as None, (pronounced no-nah) in accordance with our family appellation.
**I love you, Dad!

Saturday, January 5, 2008

Mansion camping in New Orleans

On my last day in Texas, I had an interview down in Galveston, and from there I left for New Orleans. It was one of the most fun drives of this whole trip. One of the guys I interviewed earlier in the week had told me about this back way I could take through rural Louisiana. AND I got to take a car ferry on the Gulf of Mexico from Galveston to another little town. It was really cool, and quite entertaining to hear Sibyl tell me to "board the ferry." Then she got upset when it went a little off course, and I have to say it was nice to hear her recalculate without feeling responsible. AND I actually found a post office out off of this two-lane county road in bayou country, which is a big deal, because I am always looking for post offices on this trip, and there it was, in this little two-street town. AND the postal lady called me "sugar baby," and I managed not to laugh out loud until I was back in the car. All in all, a good day.

While in New Orleans, I stayed with my friend Jessica, who used to live around the corner from me in Portland. She and her friend Grant were in town for the month housesitting for her grandmother for the month and watching Raffles, the incredibly mellow Great Dane. The two of them were also working on putting together a brief film documentary about the current housing/homelessness situation in New Orleans. I was really happy to see Jessica, and I'd never met Grant before, but upon learning my name he immediately offered me a drink, so I knew we'd get along just fine. And we did for the most part, though all week we had an intense competition going to see who could be the best house guest. Anyway, the three of us Yankees decided to pretend we were native Southerners by drinking bourbon out on the porch of our Garden District mansion, and Grant announced his new name for our lifestyle: mansion camping. Works for me. We were joined a little later by one of Jessica's friends from college and my friend Dallas, a carpenter who moved to New Orleans from Portland about a year ago.

We spent the next few days listening to great live music, touring the city, joining impromptu street parades, and playing "Katrina paparazzi," photographing storm damage in various neighborhoods. I've seen a lot about the storm damage on the news and heard it on the radio, but it was really incredible to see it there in person. To give you an idea: In the middle of a halfway-rebuilt neighborhood, we saw one house that was basically a shell. The outer walls were up, but there was no roof, and the front door was hanging off the hinges, so you could see that on the inside it was stripped down to the studs. But there was still a mailbox next to the front door, and the mailman had delivered that week's JC Penney ad. (Neither snow, nor rain, nor the fact that a house is uninhabited...)

That kind of sums up my impression New Orleans. Overall, I loved the city, the music, the old houses with their amazing gardens, the atmosphere...I had a fantastic time there, but there's this sense that...well, that there is no sense. There's this wildness to it that is at once appealing and appalling. I don't really know how to put that into words, but there's my attempt.

My interviews in New Orleans were amazing. Obviously, people had pretty incredible stories about Katrina, but more than that, I was blown away by their attitude about it, which was basically, well, nothing worse than that's going to happen. My last interview was with a guy named Mike Read at his office in downtown New Orleans. His daughter Lauren was in my class at ND, though we didn't know each other, but two years she had complications after surgery, and she is now a quadriplegic. At first, they thought she'd be in a vegetative state for the rest of her life, and they even pulled the plug a couple of times, but she survived. She's come a long way, and she still can't talk, but she can understand what is going on around her. She was in the hospital when Katrina hit, and through a series of miracles, she survived and was evacuated, after the hospital lost power, water, etc. And he tells me this harrowing story of her evacuation and everything they went through, and then he tells me that they're so glad it happened. While I was picking my jaw up off the floor, he explained that the doctors and nurses in Baton Rouge told them about new treatments for Lauren, and they actually hired one of the nurses to come care for her at their home four days a week. I'm leaving out most of the details, but it was an incredible interview. I packed up my gear, and then we stood at the window in his office watching a protest in front of City Hall turn into a riot.

That's all I'm going to write about New Orleans. I'm currently suffering from a Christmas cookie-induced writer's block, and I just can't see putting all of the bizarre, amazing things that happened there into coherent sentences.