As a middle aged heterosexual male I have no interest in going to a butterfly farm. Why would you even farm butterflies? My standard answer if asked, is “I am sorry I cannot go, as much as I would love to, but I am allergic to butterflies.”
So somehow, whether I am in Thailand or Costa Rica, I find myself walking through a butterfly farm. The time I remember most was the Costa Rica trip because I was traveling with my wife and her mother and uncle. We drove up to tour the farm. I try to do one selfless act a day. Actually this is not true, I am honestly so self-centered that as we are walking through the farm and my uncle is dragging himself around because he had just had a stroke, all I am thinking is that I must be getting major karma points for this act. And that in an hour I know we will be back in the hotel where I can get a cool drink and take a swim in the pool.
I know this is shallow when surrounded by so much beauty and I should have felt ashamed, but it did not stop me from obsessing about cocktails and floating on my back. There is some depth to my shallowness!
Years later when I am back in the States, I can’t remember what I drank or what I ate that night, or even what the pool looked like. I do remember my uncle-in-law dragging his one bad leg behind him as he slowly propelled himself forward. He was grabbing life by the throat and not letting go. He knew he would not return here again.
A couple of weeks ago I was back in my hometown with my wife visiting longtime friends, Joy and Mike. Joy has cancer and has lost all her hair. She was wearing a very cute scarf and it wrapped elegantly around her head. We were all curious what bald Joy looked like and asked if she would take if off. There is a vulnerability to a bald head and all I could think about when looking at it was, I wish I had spent more time appreciating the butterflies.
This is the talk I gave at my father-in-laws funeral. I found it on a scrap of paper in my office and had always intended to capture it more permanently. So years later this is what I wrote and I remember I cried when I read it.
“I guess have known Court for about 20 plus years. Jim Harrison the poet once said the “Death steals everything.” And this is true, but for me death also leaves a trail of memories. When I think back on my time with Court I am reminded of a man who loved music and magic, a man who unconditionally accepted me as part of his family. Court always had a smile in his eyes and a joke up his sleeve.
Old age seem to have a way of distilling the true character of a person. Court said that “Growing old was not for the weak or wobbly.” We all confront our own mortality and Court took each step with grace and dignity.
Kindness and affection are the virtues I will remember him by. The dead don’t get the chance to speak at their own funeral, but there are a couple of things I would like to say on behalf of Court to his two daughters. Susie and Jill “I want to thank you for not abandoning me when I grew old. I loved being your father and you were the two best girls a man could have. Thank you for holding my hand when I died and I promise I will never ask you again “What’s up in your camp.””
I finished by reading a poem by Robert Frost
Nothing Gold Can Stay
Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down today.
Nothing gold can stay.
I still have that moment etched inside me, when Court died and standing in that funeral home.
I always ran faster than you
Your feet tried to keep up
Spring arrived yesterday and I saw a duck pushing itself upstream
Autumn will be here tomorrow, so hold me close
My name will be lost in the wind but tethered to your heart
My alarm went off early last week and I woke thinking “What am I going to talk about for my classification talk at Rotary next week?” and then I thought “If you had to bury a body would it be better to use a shovel or a spade and if I choose a shovel then would it be better to use a smaller shovel with the heart shaped end blade or a larger shovel with the blunter blade?”
Then I decided I would also need a tarp to put all the earth on so there wouldn’t be any tell-tale traces of my excavation and that reminded me of the time I went to Home Depot and asked for a tarpaulin and how Home Depot is the only place where my manhood is consistently questioned and often found lacking.
So I asked this dull-eyed young man, who probably majored in hammering in high-school and now wore a grubby orange vest, if they had a tarpaulin. “You want a what?” he said. I repeated myself and said “I would like a tarpaulin please.” I hoped that politeness would inspire understanding and together we would cross this communication gap. He then looked at me as if I was a small child and said “Oh you want a tarp”. And this is what it is like when you are born in America but grow up in New Zealand and come to this country in your early twenties with all your idioms.
I still say “rahnch” and my wife has to whisper “raanch” each time we go through the McDonalds drive- through and I am required to ask for salad dressing.
How did my family end up in New Zealand? It is a genealogical misadventure. My ancestors had the choice of starving to death in Ireland during the potato famine or becoming indentured servants to the English, then traveling halfway across the world in a wooden boat facing all of the perils of the open ocean, only to arrive on the shores of New Zealand with the burden of working off their debt.
I don’t know why it did not occur to them to become indentured servant to the French. You can practically swim across the channel, the food is better and the French have a 30 hour work week and 10 weeks vacation. Servitude in France hardly seems onerous, but they didn’t.
This lack of imagination is why I am the 5th Max Stillwell in a long line of Irish Stillwells. The only naming deviation is a great uncle Patrick.
So I too, found myself at twenty migrating back to the place of my birth, America, where my mother and father twenty years earlier, had applied for and won a grant that allowed them to travel from New Zealand to study in the great state of Illinois which was where I was born. Once their studies were completed, they returned back to New Zealand.
In the states I continued my studies and got an undergraduate degree in mathematics that destines you to a life of “Hey you’re the Math guy why don’t you figure it out” and if you ever make a mistake, it comes with the inevitable “Hey I thought you got your degree in Math”. To which I think silently, yes I did and then start doing a certain kind of math in my head.
You look about 5’ 10”. Weight about 170 lb. I think I could get you in the truck of my car. I calculate that is it about 7 minutes to a secluded place in the woods where I have a shovel and a spade neatly wrapped in a brand new tarp.
See, Math can be fun!
I worked 18 years at a Public Library, starting in the IT department and then rising up through the organization to the executive level. This means that all my practical skills have over time eroded, and I am now highly skilled at sitting in meetings and listening, which is disturbingly similar to what my grandmother does at the nursing home.
We all have our own story: the story that we tell ourselves and the story that we tell others. Stories provide hope and stretch our imagination. Stories reach out to the horizon and allow our minds to wonder and wander freely.
Life ends up being our greatest teacher and I have learned more enrolled in the school of hard knocks that I ever did behind the desk in a classroom.
The public library is the only institute that preserves these stories and understands their value. It guarantees access to all. You do not need a shiny e-reading gadget, a pocket full of money or a high speed connection. What you do need is the ability to read.
I asked a 5 year-old “Why do we need libraries”? I asked a five year-old because I believe that five year- olds are the only ones still capable of telling the truth.
She looked at me and thought for a moment and said:
“Well if you don’t have a book, you can go to the library and get a book.”
And no greater truth has been spoken.
If my ancestors had had access to this information, I could have been a Pierre or a Guy and they could have been gainfully employed lopping off the head of French royalty which munching on a croissant.
So it is 6:30 am and I am just finishing up writing this talk and thinking what else I might share with the group. I have been married to the same wonderful woman for the last 22 years. I have a dog and a cat. I love America and I have lived here now, longer than I lived in New Zealand.
So in ending, I wanted to make this solemn pledge that if I ever do find myself one dark night in the woods burying a body, you can rest assured it will be an Englishman.
Meeting David Sedaris
When meeting a celebrity I am always unsure how I should react. Should I ignore them and let them have their space? genuflect? It is so confusing. I do neither of these things and to my repeated horror I find myself walking up to them and introducing myself as if I am some long lost relative. This is how I met David Sedaris.
He was waiting for an elevator at the Omni Hotel, obviously exhausted from a long trip and weighed down by a couple of bags. It was not the first time I had met David. See how quickly we have now become on a first name basis? It is no longer Mr. Sedaris but “David”. I had stood in line with about 500 hundred other people waiting for him to sign my book. He did look up and ask while signing if he knew me and I said, “Probably not.”
He signed the book “to my scatological friends” which was confusing to my wife and me, but we smiled and moved on.
So there he is, burdened down by backpacks and in a weakened state and I lean forward as we wait for the elevator and say “David?”. He looks at me and says “Yes?”. I said “We’ve met before and you signed my our book to my “shitty friends.” “Yes” he said and smiled that quietly enigmatic smile with a little touch of nervousness. He was gracious and held the door for me as I got into the elevator first. I didn’t feel bad that I pushed in front of him. He was just going to his room and I was in a rush because I needed to tell my wife that I just had met David Sedaris and I knew that he would understand.
He asked what floor I was going and I didn’t want to give him my first answer which was “whatever floor you are going” because I am going to talk to you all the way to your room. I couldn’t say that because that would be weird. I said “11” and he shuffled over like a little penguin burdened by luggage using it’s little flipper to press the button. I guess I could have helped but my mind was only saying “Holy Shit, I am in an elevator with David Sedaris.”
For me, the experience was wonderful. We talked about his lost luggage as we rode the 10 stories. I, in a celebrity induced state, was living in my imaginary world where he and I are just good friends catching up.
Upon reflection, for David the experience might have been different. He could have felt trapped in a tiny metal box that was hurtling skyward, with a babbling fan. This might have explained why he moved to the corner of the elevator, but he could have been tired and just needed to lean against the wall. I don’t want to think he was living his own personal episode of Misery, but who really cares when you are chatting with him like a long lost friend.
So that’s how I met David Sedaris. Later he signed my book “We’ll always have the Omni”.