Another One Gone

When I was in high school, our student body experienced a string of suicides. Within a matter of months, several students attempted or completed suicide. This was before the age of the internet or cell phones, so word-of-mouth was the only avenue for students to learn about and mourn these deaths. Consequently, rumors sparked and took off. The administration was totally silent. At the end of the school day following each death, there would be a quick, fill-in-the-blank announcement that a student had died and that counseling was available. No information, not even the basics to quell the most absurd stories. I know now that schools are in tricky positions with situations like this, and it’s possible that they didn’t even have the authority to deviate from their one-sentence script. But at the time, it not only seemed counterproductive but cruel, heartless.

So I wrote an editorial for the school newspaper. In it, I criticized the school’s policy of silence and made the argument that by allowing the rumor mill to run wild, they were actually causing the suicides to be romanticized and possibly worsening the problem. It was carefully written, not offensive, not especially inflammatory — I wanted to inspire change, but I’ve never been very good at throwing caution to the wind. I submitted it to the editor of the school paper and heard that it was slated to run…

…and then the administration put on their censor hats, vetoed it, and had it pulled from the paper.

I guess I had a few different options at that point, but this is the one I went with: I submitted it to the state newspaper. Like, the real newspaper. And they didn’t reject it. The next week, my editorial ran in the paper complete with my headshot and byline, and was distributed throughout the entire state.

I don’t recollect there being any real effect at school, beyond a few people congratulating me on getting published. So I went on with the business of being a high school student, graduated, and went to Boise State.

And at Boise State, a communications professor named Peter Wollheim tracked me down after reading my editorial. He was working with the Idaho legislature to try to get funding for a suicide prevention hotline and asked me to come down to the Capitol to listen to the arguments and possibly testify. I didn’t end up testifying, but a local public radio reporter interviewed me afterward. Then Peter asked me if I’d like to work for the college newspaper. It seemed like a great opportunity, so I applied and got hired.

My experience with the college newspaper was mixed. I recognize now that I was being lightly hazed by the more veteran reporters and columnists, but I was ultimately given a great deal of freedom to choose how I wanted to contribute to the paper, and I ended up doing some work I was proud of and some that was merely being thrown together to meet the deadline. After about a year I concluded that journalism wasn’t for me and became an academic advisor instead. But in the meantime, I came to know and like Peter and his sad-eyed smile. Even though it wasn’t the right door for me, I appreciate that he had opened big doors for me in the university. And as time went on and our paths went separate ways, I still paid attention to his crusade to curb suicide, especially teen suicides, in our state.

Peter Wollheim was a nice man with a big, worthy mission.

And yesterday I learned that he had died. The beast he’d fought, ostentatiously on others’ behalf, finally turned the tables and devoured him.

I wasn’t close to Peter in the same way that I was close to Dave, Tom, or Mary Ellen, but he definitely falls into the category of “professors who had a big impact on my undergraduate career,” and now he also falls into the category of “people who died too soon.” It sucks. He was doing good work in the world, and now he’s gone.

Peter Wollheim read the newspaper one day, sixteen years ago, and saw that some idealistic kid was angry about the same thing that angered him. He remembered her name, and did who knows what kind of detective work to track her down so that he could give her a platform, give her opportunities. He didn’t know that kid, didn’t have any reason to help her, but he did, because he saw something in her that made him think that she might make a difference in a world that needed differences made.

I didn’t end up using his tools. I may be a writer but I’m no journalist; I may be passionate, but I’m no lobbyist.

Instead I became a teacher. I’d like to believe that teachers, if they can keep their hearts on their sleeves and their eyes and ears open, can make a difference to young people who are struggling with depression… and certainly to those left behind when the worst happens.

I’m grateful to Peter for hunting me down and giving me a shot. I’m grateful to him for his years of fighting to make Idaho a better place for those fighting suicide and depression. And I’m very, very sorry that he is gone.


This is Pablo.

This is Pablo. He is my little monkey but will one day soon be passed on to my firstborn. This is funny, you see, because some people like to refer to their babies as being little monkeys.*

I’ve had to stop thinking of Kermie as Pablo because I was actually getting attached to the name, and I don’t think it’s necessarily the most appropriate fit of all time! (Ryan says if the baby is born on May 5, we can name him Pablo; I don’t necessarily think of the name as being from Mexico so much as from Spain, though. Like Picasso! Of course, Pablo Neruda — whose poetry I love — was from Chile. So there you have it.)

(The first Neruda poem I ever read, coincidentally, was about socks.)

Anyway, Pablo is from a grocery store in McCall, Idaho. That is, perhaps, an odd place to find a blue sock monkey with specially-embroidered eyes so that tiny humans with oral fixations don’t chew off the buttons and choke. Nevertheless, that is where Pablo came from. He had a friend who was rainbow colored with a mohawk; if you want a monkey friend, you can probably go to McCall and adopt one for yourself. Or, y’know, since he’s made by TY, you could probably find one somewhere else as well.

Pablo has been trying to help Ryan and I figure out what — if not actually Pablo or Kermit — to name our impending progeny.

Pablo with name book

As of today, Pablo (and Kermit) notwithstanding, there are eight names still on the list. Eight is better than twelve but still not as good as 2-3, so we took advantage of a very nice overnight getaway to see if our brains functioned any better at 5,000 ft than they did at 2,700 ft. We put each of the eight names onto its own little sheet of paper, and independently ranked them and compared the results, only to find that we had almost exactly opposite rankings — except for the #1 choice which, as soon as I began thinking of it as a real possibility, began to lose its appeal. BECAUSE I AM A FREAK LIKE THAT AND DO THAT TO EVERY SINGLE NAME YAAARGH WHAT IS WRONG WITH ME.

Ryan then seized the opportunity to do some magic math, and combined our two rankings into one composite ranking. You can see Ryan and Pablo hard at work in the extremely well-lit photo here.

Ryan and Pablo do magic math

I then proceeded to drive him crazy by questioning his technique, criticizing his list, and rejecting his results. He responded by throwing me out into the snow and locking the door behind me calmly trying things the way I suggested, coming up with almost the exact same results, and being very nice to me even though I was a nutcase.

IMPORTANT NOTE: Just because we came up with a ranked list this past weekend doesn’t mean that we actually have an answer, a top-three list, or anything that we’re ready to share with anyone. I’m sorry if that hurts anyone’s feelings, but that’s what we need right now as we continue to get our bearings on this.

Some of the names that had been early frontrunners are very traditional, fairly common names; three of the eight names, in fact, are among the top 20 nationwide from 2011. I didn’t necessarily have an enormous problem with that, especially given that these three names aren’t quite as popular in Idaho as they are across the country… until I got to thinking about the fact that our last name is so incredibly common. Ryan has had trouble getting a unique email address for this reason, and even in our relatively small city I’ve had my medical records mixed up with another woman with my name. I had begun thinking that it might be in Kermie’s best interest to have a little bit less common first name so that he wasn’t one of a thousand Google hits.

Of the other five names, only one is in the top 100 in the United States; the other four didn’t make the cut, although three of them are in the top 300 and the last is in the top 600.

The name that ended up in the #1 spot has two obvious diminuative forms (think Kate for Katherine or Sue for Susanna), one of which — the one we’d prefer — has some definite cultural associations. These are positive but slightly nerdy connotations, and I’m not really uncomfortable with them, even though I’m sure some people would think we named our child “after” one of the famous bearers of said name (which wouldn’t be the case). Oh well!

Two of the names in the top 8 have no apparent nicknames, which is something that kind of bugs me… but maybe not as much as it used to.

Of course, both Ryan and I had favorites that were the other person’s least favorites. It’s too much to ask that, despite always scoring exactly the same on personality tests, etc., we’d like exactly the same names! His #3 is my name #8, and his #4 is my #7; I had a tie for #2, and the two names on my list in that spot are his #6 and #8 choices.

Hmm. Well, we’ll see. I guess it’s at least saying something that, at that particular moment in time, we both liked the same name for choice #1…

Pablo face

* The sentence immediately preceding the asterisk is hilarious. It’s okay if you don’t know why, though. It’s a location joke. Nothing to see here. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain, etc.


In a Fog

This morning, I woke up with what just has to be a head cold. My nose is stuffy and drippy (with allergies, it’s just stuffy), my eyes are so dry I can’t stand it, I’ve got a little bit of a dry cough, and my brain is fogging over.

And of course… I can’t take cold medicine.

Then, because I am doubly lucky, a thick fog settled down over the valley this morning just in time for my commute. I drive a long way down unlit, two-lane country roads to get to work. On my route this morning, I had about a mile of clear air. The rest was so foggy that visibility was, at best, about thirty feet. Intersections were completely invisible until I reached them — even when there were cars, with their headlights on, at the cross street.

When I moved to Idaho 18 years ago, I was dreadfully amused by the yellow “stop ahead” signs that peppered the area’s back roads. “How dumb do you have to be,” I asked, “to need a sign to tell you that there’s going to  be a stop sign?” It seemed as though every four-way stop in the Treasure Valley — or at least, where we lived in “southwest Boise” — had a double set of signs.

Well, I’ll tell you what: I will never mock those signs again. If it hadn’t been for those bright yellow signs this morning, I would have had no idea that I was coming up on a stop sign until it was far too late to stop. The red signs were completely invisible in the fog; my headlights couldn’t cut through the murk to illuminate them enough to be seen. And judging from the touchy way that my fellow commuters were braking, slowing, and creeping up to intersections, I wasn’t alone in that.

I loathe driving in the fog, especially when it’s dark out. I find myself hunching down as if the visibility were somehow better through the bottom half of my windshield, which of course makes my neck and shoulders incredibly tense. I’m a good driver in the nasty weather we run into in the West, and having grown up in the Ada County back country, I’m very familiar with the roads and the way they get when it is snowy, icy, or foggy. Still — I hate it. Even though I know this route so well that I could travel it in my sleep, I can’t convince some animal part of me that there isn’t ahead of me, just past the point of visibility, a cliff that I’m about to plummet off of. My entire physical self is utterly certain that at any moment I will drive off into the abyss.

It’s funny, too, to discover how much I rely upon visual markers to determine how far I’ve traveled. All of my landmarks disappeared: no signs advertising this small business farm or that local corn maze; no house that always puts its garbage cans too close to the road; no church with orange-tinted porch lights. I always know when I’m almost to school because I see the glow from the parking lot and then the bright lights of the gas station at my last intersection’s roundabout. This morning, I didn’t even see the roundabout until I was in it — despite the street lights.

Blech. These are the days when I need the Jetsons’ vacuum tube thingy.

Happy to be alive and blogging.

Ryan told me that it had been snowing, so I’d want to leave myself some extra time to get to school. When I went out to start my car, I realized that by “it’s been snowing” he meant “you need your snow boots” – we got some SERIOUS weather. School wasn’t canceled though, so I was off to Nampa.

The roads didn’t seem bad in my neighborhood, but as soon as I hit real roads I realized that they were slicker than they’d appeared. I figured that once I got on the highway I’d be okay – after all, the highway usually gets cleared up more quickly than the rest of the roads.

It didn’t take me long to figure out that the highway wasn’t in very good shape, either. Fortunately, westbound has low traffic in the mornings, so I decided I’d just take it easy and drive nice and defensively all the way in. Unfortunately, the idiots around me didn’t seem to think that was a good idea. I was driving at a safe speed for the conditions; other drivers were tailgating me, blinding me with their high beams, flipping me off, and zipping around me at 50-60 mph. The worst aggressive driver was so bad that I wanted to call the cops on him, but his license plate was completely covered with snow. Go fig.

So I’ve got the stereo off, I’m in the righthand lane, going maybe 35 on the highway, being as safe as humanly possible – and suddenly, it’s like my car just got picked up and set on a sideways moving track. I start sliding sideways, across traffic, and nothing I can do is doing a thing to stop or straighten myself out.

I don’t know when I’ve ever been so scared. I was in a relatively bad wreck once before, and I remember the moments after the impact – the car spinning and lurching to a stop. I don’t remember the milliseconds before impact. This one, though – I had time to be scared. I was painfully aware of the cars behind me that I was crossing in front of, totally out of control – and worse, I was very, VERY aware of the eastbound lanes of the highway – lanes packed with commuters, right in the path of my slide.

I’m sorry to say that I didn’t think of family, home, friends, work, or any of the things I’d be leaving behind. Mostly I just thought that I was going to die, and I didn’t want to die, and I thought about how much it was going to hurt when one of those semis hit me. I was scared of the pain. Like, teary-eyed scared of the pain. (And still am, just writing this.)

Thank God, this is what happened instead:


That piece of highway is (hypothetically) under construction – which is probably how I slid in the first place. The pavement is rough, and when you hit an uneven patch it kind of throws your car. I figure I hit one of those spots hidden under an icy spot, and away I went. Anyway, because it was under construction, there were temporary concrete barricades put up between the westbound and eastbound lanes. As I slid across the highway, I saw the barricades and turned into the skid, and my car turned just enough that I hit the barricade with the corner of my fender instead of head-on, and I bounced off and skidded to a stop, almost as if I’d meant to park there on the shoulder of the highway.

I was shaking so badly that I couldn’t think. I think I said “oh my God” about a hundred times. (Ryan, now you know that that’s apparently just what I do when in a state of shock.) Then I asked the car what I was supposed to do, whether I was supposed to call the cops or what. My car didn’t respond, so I started looking for my phone, but my hands were shaking so badly that I couldn’t find it. About that time I realized that if I could slide across the highway, someone else could, too, and so now I just started begging the rest of the highway not to slide into me.

Then I finally found my phone, but couldn’t dial. Just about then a police car pulled up on the other side of the median. (It turns out he’d been called out by another car, depicted in pink above, that had driven into the ditch. But it was a white car in the white snow, and he didn’t see it, so I got helped while the person who actually managed to call dispatch had to wait another 20 minutes for a second cop. Sorry, white car in ditch. I didn’t mean to steal your cop.)

Oh, and I cried, too. As long as we’re in True Confessions time, here.

So the cop wanted to know if I was okay, and we looked at the car, and he took my license and registration and everything. Which, y’know, was cool, because yesterday was not only my birthday but my license-expiration birthday. So I had an expired drivers’ license. And he called a tow truck, and he gave me a ticket for driving too fast for the conditions. Even though, as I told him (and you, just a minute ago) I was the slowest thing on the highway.

Casualties so far:

  • front left corner of car
  • one school day
  • my mascara
  • my spotless driving record
  • about 5-10 years off my life (and considering Texas took 5-10 off the other day with that last-second field goal, I now have an expected life span of about 45 years – which is 16 years more than I thought I was going to have this morning)

It took me half an hour to get anyone to answer the phone at work, but I finally reached someone who was able to arrange for a sub and jot down some sketchy lesson plans. If the sub follows them, and if the kids cooperate, they shouldn’t get too off schedule.

It took almost an hour for the tow truck to arrive. The police officer stayed with me until the truck arrived, and he offered to let me sit in the back of the car, but I decided that was absolutely the last thing I needed, especially considering that our double one-car accidents were drawing the attention of news crews. The first to arrive was Channel 6, and as I was sitting in my car feeling sorry for myself, I realized that the dude filming my bad morning was mi amigo guapo Eric. So I got out of my car and he gave me a trademark lift-off-the-ground hug, and that made me feel a little better. Also, he said he wasn’t going to put me on the news. That made me feel better, too.

So the tow truck finally got there, and he didn’t want to take the car home, but he eventually did take us home, and then he dumped the car facing the wrong direction on the road for some unknown reason, and charged an arm and a leg, but hey – that’s what credit cards are for, right?

I started to realize that I was going to be sore a couple of hours ago, and now I can tell for sure that I’ve got some achy pains, but all things considered – it’s all okay. I was wearing my seat belt, and although I bumped my head on the window it wasn’t hard enough to even hurt at the time. My fingers are a little sore where they gripped the steering wheel, and my torso muscles are beginning to complain after no doubt clenching up into a futile attempt to preserve my important bits, but I’m fine. And there’s some possibility that my car will be okay, too, if we can get the fender off of the tire.


Doesn’t even look that bad, does it? Thank goodness for sturdy cars and for not driving too fast. And thank God for concrete barricades.

Must be Monday

This morning it was cold – really cold. I got about a block from my house before coming to the conclusion that the only thing standing between me and being frozen solid like a lettuce dipped in liquid nitrogen was going to be a 20 oz. cup of 99-cent gas station cappuccino. Fortunately, there’s a gas station two blocks from my house, so I stopped in pursuit of my salvation.

I was pouring a mixture of “cinnamon danish cappuccino” and house blend when the gas station attendant walked by and asked how I was doing that morning.

“Good,” I replied. “Cold. Really cold.”

“Well,” he said, “I’d offer to keep you warm, but I bet you’d turn me down, and I can’t deal with rejection.”

I blinked.

He went on, “Plus, I think my wife wouldn’t like it very much.”

“Sounds like a lose-lose situation to me,” I said, backing slowly away from the coffee machine. Since I’d poured the dang thing, I guess I had to pay…

While making my change, the gas station attendant continued. “Besides, I’m probably too old for you anyway. I mean, I have kids older than you. I can say that, because I turned seventy on Friday, and I just found out my daughter is 45.”

“Uhm,” I said. “Happy birthday?”

The moral of this story is, unless you like inappropriate come-ons from 70-year-old gas station attendants at 6:30 in the morning, make your coffee at home.

Eight Years

Eight years ago today, I was driving to class and had gotten about a mile down the road when I turned on the stereo, looking for some music to help wake me up. Instead, what I got sounded like someone was putting on a radio show – like War of the Worlds, only not as well-written. The DJs kept talking in hushed, panicked tones about something, about a plane crash, and making references to something that had happened earlier on the broadcast. Good radio-narration had gone out the window; they were forgetting to recap every few minutes for those of us who had just tuned in.

After a moment or two, my boyfriend and I realized that we were listening to something real and not a weird publicity stunt. A plane had crashed in the middle of New York City, and although it was hard to tell in the chaotic live coverage, it seemed that there might have been a second crash as well.

That was about the point in time when the third airplane hit. The DJs gasped. I heard them say that the Pentagon had been hit, and I knew that we were at war.

We pulled over at the first gas station we passed, and I bolted for the pay phone. I woke my parents up and told them to turn on the television. Then I called two other people: my best friend, who was enlisted in the Army National Guard, and my other best friend, who was male and draftable. I don’t remember getting through to either one of them. I don’t remember how many times I tried; Ryan – the second friend I mentioned – remembers getting something like 20 missed calls from me and from his mom that morning. (Proof positive that my husband can sleep through anything, I guess.)

(Thinking about it sends me right back to that pay phone. I can see the car parked two parking spots down from me, and the yellow glow of sunrise through decidedly un-ominous clouds. I can feel the cold clinch of fear and the itching desire to do something. It’s all sitting there on my mental TiVo, Do Not Delete. )

When we got to school, it was a ghost town. Practically every classroom had a sign on the door, cancelling class, directing students to the SUB. There was a television set up in every corner of the SUB, in every common area on campus. Everyone flocked. We got there just in time to watch news coverage break to a field in Pennsylvania, knowing only that a plane had crashed, not yet knowing the drama that had played out in the moments before. We watched the tiny polka-dots moving across the U.S. map: airplanes still aloft, every one a potential harbinger of destruction. You’d think that we wouldn’t be too scared, on a personal level, being in Boise, but we knew better. One of the country’s most important Air Force bases is just down the highway from Boise. Having grown up in the shadow of Cheyenne Mountain, I’m all too aware of how apparently safe parts of the country can actually be top targets.

The university became a trauma center. My English professors spent the next several classes sharing particularly well-written accounts, or having us write our own. Flags sprouted like clover. ASBSU sent student leaders into the field with collection jars for the Red Cross. I took one to band and ended up with more coins than I could carry – I forget now how many hundreds of dollars Blue Thunder donated.

I don’t remember recruiters descending on campus or anything, but I doubt very much that I was the only person wondering about enlisting. I knew that they wouldn’t take me under normal circumstances – a person with my vision problems is a liability, not an asset – but these circumstances seemed far from normal. If everyone I knew was going to go to war, surely the military could find something I could do.

In retrospect, I wonder where all of us would be today if that hadn’t happened. It’s an utterly inconsequential part of the big equation, but I kind of doubt that the chapter would have made it. We rode a wave of patriotic duty and service that year, bonding over bitter cold flag ceremonies in the corner of the stadium after discovering that the stadium flag was languishing in a wadded up garbage bag except on game days. Most of us couldn’t serve our country in a traditional sense, so we threw ourselves into serving our little community of band people. Heck, our football team won their game on September 22, 2001, starting a 31-game home winning streak. I’m not going to pretend that glory and vengeance and sheer physical catharsis wasn’t on their minds that day.

Where our country, or our world, would be… it’s hard to imagine. I can’t fathom what these eight years must have been like for Americans of Middle Eastern ancestry. Constitutional rights have been altered. Our thoughts about what celebrities should and should not say have changed. The price of gas, and the cost of war, have contributed to one of the worst economic situations our country has seen. Without 9/11, Bush likely would have served only one term – how would our country be different if another person had been at the wheel these past four years? September 11 cut a deep swath through global history. For better and worse, it’s pivotal to today.

It’s hard to believe that my students were seven years old on 9/11/01. That morning, they would have been safely tucked away in a first grade classroom. If their teachers knew, they found out by a phone call to the classroom, or maybe someone poking their head into the room. Maybe an email went out from the office. Maybe school got released early; I’m sure plenty of parents came and brought their babies home. Did their parents try to explain what was going on? Could they have possibly understood? How many of them had to say good-bye to a parent or sibling when their country called them overseas?

These kids are about to be adults in a world that exists, in its current form, because of 9/11 – and they can’t even remember it having happened. Now I know what it feels like to be old, to be a parent. The things that made my world are ancient history to the people who now inhabit it.

I still think this is the best possible memorial they could build.

I still think this is the best possible memorial they could build.

Stylish Town, Even in Flippers

Found a new blog to read (because, you know, I don’t have enough reading material piling up in my Google Reader). It’s a local photographer who hangs out downtown and takes pictures – sometimes, I think, surreptitiously – of people whose style he admires. I’m hoping to see someone I recognize… of course, it would be cool to see myself, but since I’m not likely to be wearing heels at the Farmer’s Market, that’s not going to happen anytime soon.

The blog is Boise Style, by Thomas Lea, and this is my favorite picture:

Posted May 24, 2009 by Thomas Lea