Jana-Anika: Our Mother

IMG_0323I had said I was going to talk about folie a deux today, but I don’t feel like it.  I might not be ready for that.

I woke up thinking about our mother.  My brother and I were adopted.  Our biological parents were very young, and when our biological mother found out she was pregnant, it was quickly arranged that my biological father’s cousin and his wife would take us in.  We always knew our biological parents and that side of the family, and stayed with them for a week or two every year.  But when I mention our mother and father when we were children, I mean our adoptive parents unless I make it clear otherwise.  Our adoptive parents are both gone now, so if I’m talking in present day terms, or actually anytime after May, 1983, I usually mean our biological parents, because they were and are the only ones left.

So I woke up thinking about my adoptive mother.  She was a very complicated person and full of paradoxes.  My father was a wonderful person, and my brother and I were much closer to him, but he was so straightforward, solid and predictable that in some ways he doesn’t make for a very interesting “character” in a story.  There is a lot less to say about him.  It’s as Tolstoy wrote, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”  The same could be said about people.  Our mother was an unhappy person, and so she makes for a more interesting character.

I don’t know for certain whether our mother is alive.  She left home the day after our father’s funeral when we were 16, placing us into the guardianship of our father’s law partner, Mike Fingalsson, and signing over a bank account and the house and everything in it to us with Mike as trustee.  Mike felt terrible about being one of the catalysts for our mother’s disappearance, but he couldn’t tell us against the wishes of his client (our mother) until the time she designated.  He came to the house and handed us each a fat envelope with all the legal and financial documents and suggested we should read them someday, but all we really needed to know was our mother had left and was not planning to return but that we were well taken care of and had nothing to worry about.  Mike was our father’s best friend, and he was a lot like our father.  If he said something, you knew it was true and could be relied upon.

I am certain that we must have been shocked, but I don’t think we were completely surprised at our mother’s departure.  She saw her position in the family as our father’s support, and that’s all.  She was not maternal.  Any mothering we received came from our maternal grandmother and our Aunt Mary.  Our mother was more like a polite long-term house guest than a regular mother.

I don’t mean to say she was cold or unkind.  She was always kind to us and she loved us in her own way as best she could, but she was never our caretaker and took no interest in our lives except where they intersected with hers.  My brother and I came along when she was thirty and our father was forty, and she was already completely frozen in her manners and ways to adapt to our presence.

Her one paradox that fascinated my brother and me more than anything was that she was extremely introverted, possibly autistic, and yet the most social person in town.  She spent most of her life by herself in her room, but she threw the most lavish and celebrated parties around.  Her room was originally intended as a storage room in the basement, so it was not very large and had only one small window that she had covered over.  She also had the room professionally sound-proofed so that she didn’t have to hear any of the outside world, especially music.  She hated to hear music, even though she had been a concert pianist.  However, at her parties there was music everywhere, usually a live band or ensemble, sometimes more than one because the parties were so large.

Our mother was an alcoholic.  She was not a sloppy drunk who did stupid things or stumbled around the house, knocking over lamps.  Nor was she a mean drunk.  She was always completely composed and almost infuriatingly well-mannered.  She simply drank all day long every day.

She was painstakingly meticulous in her drinking.  She never accepted a drink offered by anyone but herself.  She drank Tanqueray gin and Noilly Prat vermouth martinis with a single olive.  Even today when I attend a cocktail party and detect the mixed scents of gin and Chanel No. 5 perfume, I will turn my head expecting to see my mother (except that she never drank at parties or in public).  The Tanqueray she had shipped to the house from the local liquor store.  They didn’t stock Noilly Prat, so it had to be shipped in wooden crates from Boston.  The water for the ice was shipped in large green glass bottles, also in wooden crates, from a certain spring in France.  All of the equipment and tools such as the cocktail shaker, ice scoop, and even the pipes of the ice-making machine were lined with a thin layer of gold, so as not to react with the liquid as stainless steel or silver would.  She never measured and rarely made a mistake, but if she did, she would toss the entire drink out and begin again.  The shaker had to have just the right number of ice cubes and be shaken for precisely the right amount of time, and she had a small glass eyedropper to add exactly 3 tiny drops of the olive juice.  Again, one drop too many, and the whole drink went down the drain.  The olives were also specially imported, from Turkey.  Watching her make a martini was like watching a great chemist working in her laboratory, but much more entertaining.  Starting at noon, she had exactly one martini every ninety minutes, no more, no less.  I don’t remember ever seeing her look at a clock for guidance, but she innately knew nearly to the second when those ninety minutes were up.

We did not see much of our mother, because she was always in her room.  She called it her sewing room, but she never sewed anything.  However, our father insisted that she join us for dinner every night, so we saw her for at least those thirty minutes each day.

Viggo navyAnd it was exactly thirty minutes.  Our father came home from his office at 6:00 PM, and dinner was served from 6:30-7:00, after which he went into his study and worked until 10:00 when he went to bed – every night, unless he had a meeting.  On those nights when he couldn’t make it for dinner, our mother did not come up to join us.

One might have an image of our mother as a cowering mess, locked in her soundless room with her gin.  But not at all.  She was always beautifully dressed and made-up.  She had a room-sized closet full of beautiful dresses and shoes, and piles of jewelry and make-up.  She had her hair and nails professionally done every Friday morning; the stylist, a flamboyantly gay man named Mr. David, came to the house weekly.  Our father used to say she was so regal that she could be the queen of a small country.  Then Kalfi and I would respond by saying, “Small!?  She could be queen of the world!” and we would all laugh.  She was in many ways a rather imposing and majestic person.

She was very beautiful, tall and thin with bright blonde hair, ice-blue eyes and milky skin.  She was quite vain about her physique, and her appearance in general, and loved getting compliments from men, including those of us in the family.  If we went an evening without telling her how stunning she looked, she would have been deeply wounded.

Her parties were legendary.  We had two or three dinner parties a month, and twice a year she threw enormous Great Gatsby-style bashes where everyone was invited, literally.  She mailed formal invitations to friends and our father’s business associates, but everyone knew he or she was welcome, whether we knew who they were or not.  It seemed there was a staff of dozens: caterers, waiters, musicians and entertainers, car valets and drivers for those too inebriated to get home.  In those days, almost everyone drank and smoked heavily, and being the 1970s, they smoked more than tobacco.  My brother and I loved these huge parties, in part because it was hilarious to see all these supposed grown-ups in formal clothes behave like fools, and in part because it was the only time we saw our mother laugh.  Laughing was difficult for her.  Entertaining was our mother’s job.  It was hard work for her.  It was her way of helping our father establish and build his law practice.  She was his social and marketing director.  Then once the last party guest had departed, she would retire to her room and not come out for days.  We knew not to bother her.  On these days, she was excused from dinner.  Our grandmother or Mary, both of whom did all the cooking, brought plates of food down to her sewing room.

She told us a number of times that she got herself through these parties the same way that she got herself through being on stage back when she was actively performing as a pianist.  It was simply playing a role.  It wasn’t she who was laughing and chatting with her guests; it was a character she was playing, the Charming Party Hostess.  It wasn’t she who was playing the piano on stage; it was some unknown third person.  It was just a play, and none of it was real.  We always felt it was sad that she saw the only two ways in which she was accomplished as nothing but shams.

She gave up playing the piano when she married our father.  Or more accurately, she married our father in order to give up playing the piano.  They both were originally from the same little town in Vermont, but they didn’t know each other as children.  They were ten years apart.  However, they knew of each other’s families.  Our father was an attorney at a large law firm in New York City when he heard that she was going to perform in Manhattan.  He sent flowers and wrote a note, and she invited him backstage after the concert.  For him, it was love at first sight.  For her, it was a lifeline.

She had been a talented and successful musician, and graduated from the New England Conservatory in Boston.  For some reason, she was not happy being a musician, and despite her role-playing, the stage fright was terrible for her, yet she knew nothing else.  She came from a middle class family, and had to work, but had no real skills outside of music.  To deal with the growing pressure, she began drinking.  Our grandmother used to say, “At first the drinking helped.  And then it didn’t.”  It began interfering with her ability to perform.  Then when our father appeared, a handsome successful young lawyer who had ambitions of starting his own law practice back where he grew up in Vermont, she saw a way out.  She would be a housewife.

She did nothing around the house.  She didn’t cook or clean or pay bills.  Our grandmother and Mary did all those kinds of things.  Her idea of a housewife was as the loyal behind-the-scenes impresario of our father and his business.  Thus, in her mind, once our father died, her job was done.  No reason to stay around and burden us as she grew older and frailer.  She would have been convinced that my brother and I would be better off without her.

That may be true from a practical standpoint.  Her health was beginning to fail, probably in large part due to years of drinking, and she never did anything for us that was concrete or useful.  Nevertheless, we certainly didn’t want her to leave home and never return without a word.  We spoke with several private detectives, but they all told us the same thing.  She didn’t fall down a well or get herself kidnapped.  She obviously intended to disappear, and people who want to disappear can.  It would cost us a fortune and still would be a miracle if we found her.  We didn’t try, but always hoped perhaps one day she would contact us.  She never did, at least not in the way we hoped, with a letter or phone call.  However, she may have contacted me again many years later, but in a very different way.

Before I describe that event, I will have to first explain a few things about our mother’s childhood, and about Moonstone and Amethyst.

 

What it’s Like Being Crazy

Nurse

I referenced struggles with mental illness previously, so I should probably clarify that a little more.  I don’t want to scare anyone away.  First of all, I am fine now, and have been for more than 30 years.  I am not crazy any longer, though being crazy for a while was one of the things that made me who I am today, for better or worse.

When I was seven, I was diagnosed with “mild schizoaffective disorder”, which in my case took the form of severe clinical depression with a hint of schizophrenia to make it more interesting.  Whether this diagnosis was correct, especially since schizophrenia is extremely rare in young children, has been something I have given a lot of thought to, and still have no definitive answer.  The depression was very real and got worse in my teenage years before getting better and then disappearing in my twenties.  The schizophrenia, if that’s what it was, went away almost immediately after a traumatic incident.  I haven’t required any treatment for either in about 25 years.

First of all, I must clarify for maybe the ten-thousandth time in my life that schizophrenia is NOT Multiple Personality Disorder, or what is now called Dis-associative Identity Disorder.  Schizophrenics don’t have multiple personalities.  The misunderstanding is understandable, because schizophrenia means “split mind”, but that comes from the fact that schizophrenic minds have a split from reality.  Schizophrenics have hallucinations and delusions, and their brains are often so mixed up that they don’t even understand them as such.  The hallucinations and delusions become reality, and no amount of evidence to the contrary makes any difference.

Secondly, I must clarify for maybe the twenty-thousandth time in my life that schizophrenics are no more dangerous or violent than non-schizophrenics.  Schizophrenics have no more or less of a conscience and empathy for others than non-schizophrenics.  The media often reports that this or that murderer was a schizophrenic.  That may be true.  Schizophrenics are just as likely as non-schizophrenics to be murderers.

Or it may not be true.  The media doesn’t seem to have any more understanding of schizophrenia than the general public, and often throws the term around when they really mean something else, such as psychopathy (sociopathy is another term for the same thing), which does increase your chances of being violent.  But a psychopath, i.e. someone with little or no empathy for others, is a totally different creature.  Now of course it’s perfectly possible for someone to be both a schizophrenic and a psychopath, but that would be very rare, since each condition occurs in only about 1% of the population, and 1% of 1% makes for low odds (0.01%, or 1 in 10,000).

Also, I should add that there are many psychopaths walking around who are not violent or even ill-behaved.  They don’t usually make for very nice people to be around, because they don’t particularly like people and often have the emotional intelligence of a brick, but they often don’t end up doing anything criminal or even unethical.  (If you want to find out if you are a psychopath, take the Hare Psychopathy Checklist, which rates you on a scale of 0 to 40, the latter being totally wacko.  Having been another kind of wacko myself, I can use those kinds of words the way that African Americans can use a certain word, but NOBODY else can!).

In my case of schizophrenia (I’ll continue calling it that for sake of argument), I experienced no delusions; I didn’t think I was Jesus or that aliens were coming to get me.  Also, my cognitive abilities were just fine.  I knew the hallucinations either were not real, or if they were, they were not real in the normal sense of the word.  Schizophrenics often have anosognosia, which is the lack of awareness that they have a problem.  I didn’t have that.  I knew very well that something was different about me.

But was it a problem?  My former boss had a comic pinned to her bulletin board of a woman lying on a psychiatrist’s couch saying, “Nobody in my family suffers from mental illness.  I think they actually enjoy it.”  Now, huge disclaimer: I know that schizophrenia is usually a terrible disease that can be catastrophically disabling, and is often terrifying to the sufferer and those around him or her.  However, it wasn’t usually that way for me, which is I suppose why they termed it “mild”.  To be honest, I actually enjoyed it.  I miss it.  It was the treatment and living with the stigma that were terrifying.

I did experience hallucinations, mostly auditory and some visual.  In some cultures, those kinds of people are treated as gifted, even as shamans.  In our culture, we are treated as mentally ill.  Most schizophrenics’ auditory hallucinations are voices, and sometimes they say very unpleasant or frightening things.  I didn’t have that, as far as I can remember.  I heard music, and it was always very pleasant music.

I don’t mean I heard it silently in my head.  I know what that feels like, and it is completely different.  I heard it for real, as if with my ears, except that I was usually the only one who could hear it.  If it was real in some sense, it wasn’t real the way most people hear music.

I say “usually the only one”, because sometimes my brother could hear it too.  I have not yet written about my brother, because it is a very painful subject.  He committed suicide when we were seventeen.  We were very close, even for identical twins, and it is the worst thing that has ever happened to me, and ever can happen to me.  I’m not quite ready to write about him directly, but will reference him occasionally as I did above when I have to.  His name was Kalfur, but everyone called him Kalfi.  Or Calvin.

To a lesser extent, I also had visual hallucinations, but they were very specific and didn’t happen very often.  Kalfi and I both saw what we called “shadow people”.  These were what looked just like three-dimensional life-sized shadows, and I most often saw them when I was walking through the woods around our family’s home in Vermont.  They never made a sound, and never approached us or seemed even to notice our existence.  Their only mode of communication was, if we got very close, we could sense what they were feeling emotionally, and it was usually not pleasant.  Sadness, loss, grief, shame, anger, frustration.  In some, there was a feeling of contentment or of being carefree, but never truly happy.  Were they really hallucinations, or were they something else?  Ghosts?  Were we like that kid in The Sixth Sense?

What I mentioned above is one reason I question whether it was truly schizophrenia.  How do two people share the same hallucinations?

One time I remember very clearly was a brightly moonlit night when Kalfi and I were out at our favorite spot in the forest, looking up at the sky.  I want to write more about this later, because it is a beautiful memory for me.  That night, a family of black bears walked right up to us as we were lying on our backs and started eating from a blackberry bramble near us.  The music I heard coming from the sky was one of the few auditory hallucinations I still remember completely, because I wrote it down later that night and still have the sheet music.  After the bears left and we felt it was safe to move, Kalfi and I walked back through the woods up to the house.  I knew I wanted to write down the song I had just heard and didn’t want to forget it, so I began to whistle it out loud.  Kalfi said, “Oh you heard the song of the moon too!”

The other reasons I have my doubts it was schizophrenia were 1) the lack of delusions (unless I was deluded about that too), 2) the awareness of the hallucinations as either being unreal or from another reality from what others experience, 3) the infrequent visual hallucinations, which were of only one thing, and 4) the fact that it simply went away once my brother died.  There is no cure for schizophrenia, but if that’s the case, I have been in remission ever since, and without any treatment.

Was I mentally ill, or was I just an extremely imaginative kid who loved music and of course heard it everywhere?  I really don’t know.

All I know is the horror of being treated by doctors and nurses like a crazy person, and I saw plenty of truly crazy people during that time.  I thought becoming a raving lunatic locked in a straight jacket was my destiny.   When you’re seven years old, especially an extremely sensitive seven-year-old with severe depression, these kinds of nightmares can seem very real and very terrifying.  I developed a completely irrational and extreme fear of mental illness to the extent that in order to get me anywhere near a doctor to receive the treatment, I literally had to be locked up, and that made the terror even worse.

Depression also has its misconceptions.  Most people just think its being very sad, and that can be one symptom.  But it’s a lot more than that.  What made it especially awful for me was the sense of hopelessness.  Kalfi and I called it the Black Hole.  Going into a depressive episode felt like falling into an endless black abyss, spiraling ever more out of control.  Even though you have gone through it before and survived, what you feel is that it will never, ever end.  You feel that this time, it can only end when it kills you – or you kill yourself.  Ironically, the most enduring consequence of my “treatment” for schizophrenia was both a fear of and an obsession about killing myself.  It is what ultimately got Kalfi and almost got me too.

I won’t say where all this took place, because that particular hospital did some wonderful things for Kalfi and probably kept him alive well beyond his time, but I still cannot go near where it used to be (they tore it down) without shuddering.

Tomorrow I want to say something more about folie à deux, because I think there might be something to it in our case.  Folie à deux or “madness of two” is when two people share the same psychosis.  This could be the explanation for our shared hallucinations.  In most cases there is a “primary” and a “secondary”, and my being a secondary might explain why when Kalfi died, I no longer experienced any hallucinations.  I said I didn’t want to say much about Kalfi yet, but I see that I’ve mentioned him many times.  It seems like I will have to again soon.

 

My $10,000 Dog

IMG_0303

Iris, a doberman-rottweiler mix, originally cost me a $50 adoption fee and a few hundred dollars in supplies and veterinary costs for vaccinations.  But I found out today, after consulting several different vets at Cornell, which has the world’s best veterinary school and probably the best animal hospital, that she has a congenital defect that we either have to learn to live with or spend $10,000 on a surgery that has a low probability of success.  Or we could put her down, but I’m not willing to consider that, at least not yet.  Major problem: I don’t have $10,000 lying around, and I’m already in serious debt from getting laid off and being jobless for a year in 2015-16, along with a business that crashed along with the world economy in 2008 (another story).  They gave us some new medicine today that might help her condition be more manageable.  I will give that a try and hope for the best, but overall a pretty depressing afternoon.

My Dinner with a Serial Killer

Baumeister

It was at his home in the Indianapolis suburbs, the same home where he killed at least 11 young gay men just like me.  Their bodies were decaying in the woods behind his backyard as we ate hot dogs and potato salad in the kitchen.

It was July, 1995, and I had recently gotten my M.B.A.  I was living in Connecticut, but was visiting my mother and stepfather, David, at their home in Fort Wayne, Indiana.  I was close with my parents, and always enjoyed visiting them, but one of the additional perquisites was staying in their beautiful home, which I am not embarrassed to say I had helped them design a decade earlier.  As a child, rather than watch television or play video games, I used to entertain myself by drawing blueprints and floorplans and cutting pictures out of House & Garden.  When I was in high school, David used to tease that I was probably the only teenage boy in the world with a subscription to Architectural Digest.

Another benefit of visiting was the backyard pool, because I loved to swim.  I could spend most of the day in the water.  I prefer the ocean, but one makes do in places like Indiana.  And a few miles away was a stable where one could rent a horse by the hour, but it was owned buy a family friend and I could go riding for free.  I’m a horse in the Chinese zodiac, and perhaps that is partly why I have always felt a kinship.  However, the weather was stiflingly hot, so hot that I didn’t even want to leave the air conditioned house long enough to go outside for a swim, much less torture a poor horse.  More than 700 people in the Midwest would die from that summer’s heat.

David was a successful entrepreneur, and one of his businesses was an insurance agency that wrote commercial coverage.  Some of David’s clients were interesting people, and he occasionally invited me to join a business/social occasion if he thought I would enjoy meeting someone.

David was meeting a client for dinner who lived on a grand country estate and horse farm in the wealthy town of Westfield that he knew I would be curious to see, so he asked if I would like to come along.  It sounded appealing, and I had nothing better to do.  Why not.

A few minutes before we departed, I darted out to the garage to start David’s big burgundy Buick to give the air conditioning a chance to cool the car down to a tolerable temperature.  Even with the garage door open, it felt like an oven.  I ran back inside the house, already sweating from a few seconds of the heat.  I hoped the car would make it for the nearly two hours down to Westfield, north of Indianapolis without overheating.

On the drive, David told me about his client, whose name was Herb Baumeister, the owner of a small but lucrative chain of Indianapolis thrift stores called Sav-A-Lot.  David explained that Baumeister was married with kids, but the family was often away at their lake house in the summer.  “And I don’t like being there alone,” David said.  “He’s uh…eccentric.  You’ll have to pardon his quirks.”

“What kind of quirks?”

“Oh, you’ll see.  You’ll see!”  David gave out one of his big belly laughs and shook his head.  I tend to like quirky eccentric people, so I was more intrigued than concerned.

David was not without eccentricity himself.  He was a big man in every way.  He was tall and overweight, but he had an even bigger personality, with a booming voice and boisterous laugh.  He never hesitated to say what was on his mind and enjoyed crude off-color jokes.  He got a special thrill from terrorizing waitresses and front desk clerks who had know idea how to interpret his loud “politically incorrect” humor.  It was a game of ours for him to find new ways to embarrass me in public, and for me to feign even greater mortification than I actually felt.  When he and my mother took me to visit prospective colleges when I was seventeen, he often joined the campus tour by loudly asking the guide, in a goofy face and a mock-hillbilly voice, if they really had indoor plumbing in every building.  “Imagine that, Ma!” he shouted to my mother.  Nobody ever described David as subtle or restrained.  I can still hear his thunderous cackle.  He wasn’t afraid of anything.  He once told me, “Once you’ve been shot at by an enemy army over and over for a year, nothing else seems too bad.”  He had been an Army officer in Vietnam.  I disagreed with his views on just about everything: issues of politics, religion, race, gender, sexuality.  Even so, I found his absolute certainty in the correctness and righteousness of his own beliefs to be somehow comforting when contrasted with the wishy-washy agnostic uncertainty of my own thinking.  And he also could be surprisingly sensitive, with a remarkable intuition about the internal struggles of someone like me: small, quiet, and shy, someone for whom avoiding embarrassment was, and is, a major motivation.

Today, Westfield and the surrounding towns such as Carmel are largely over-developed with gargantuan “McMansions” packed right next to each other on tiny lawns chemically kept artificial-turf green, but back then it was much more rural and genteel: rolling meadows, pastures and fields, dotted with farm houses and an occasional large mansion set far from the road on park-like grounds.  David pulled the big burgundy Buick into the driveway of such a house, marked with a large sign that read Fox Hollow Farm.  Herb Baumeister’s home.  A long winding driveway meandered through the grounds past barns, stables (I don’t remember seeing any horses), a pond, and a 5-bay garage, all contained by ranch rail fences.  It was lovely.  At the end of the drive stood an imposing but beautiful Tudor-style mansion, behind which was a thick dark woods.  It was the kind of country home that wealthy people used to build when they wanted to substantiate their social class with tasteful restraint, rather than garishly display their wealth with one of today’s suburban crass colossuses.

We parked in the circular drive near the front door to minimize our time in the searing sun.  A tall thin man with reddish brown hair answered the big wooden door, above which hung a half-turret of brown limestone.  He was all smiles with a hint of toothy overbite.  Horse teeth, I thought.  He welcomed us inside and told me how glad he was to meet me finally, having heard so many good things from David.  “But he didn’t mention how handsome and strapping the boy is,” he said.  I remember that word, “strapping”, because I was far from it.  I was five feet and seven inches tall and weighed 130 pounds.  My nickname growing up was Elf.

When I called him “Mr. Baumeister,” he chided me and cradled the sides of my head between his hands and shook me gently.  “I’m not Mr. Baumeister!  I’m Herb!  Mr. Baumeister isn’t even my father, because my father is Doctor Baumeister, and he is long dead.  Long dead!” he said, breaking into a high-pitched squeal of laughter that went on much too long.  He had a southern Indiana accent, which has just a touch of Kentucky in it.  He was quite effeminate.  He ran his fingers through my hair and said, “So soft!  I usually prefer brunettes, but is all blond hair this silky?!”  I did not know what to say.

His mannerisms made him appear awkward, as is the stereotype of tall lanky men.  He had a habit of bobbling his head around his skinny neck when he talked.  He would stare intensely into your eyes for a few seconds, and then look around the room, avoiding your gaze, blinking rapidly.  He would grow silent at these times and seemed as if he were daydreaming.  His mouth was glossy from frequently licking his lips.  The iconic photo of Herb Baumeister that most people know resembles a mug shot.  Maybe it was, because he was once arrested for a drunk driving hit-and-run and later for car theft.  In the photo, he is staring languidly directly into the camera with pursed lips.  He looks morose and insolent.  He looks cold and uncaring, bored, ironic.  Maybe he was drunk.  He could easily pass for a serial killer, a sociopath.  But I never saw him like that; the man I met reminded me of an affable but zealous church deacon trying to convince a new guest to attend services again next Sunday.

The living room had a beamed cathedral ceiling with a large brass chandelier hanging very low from it, in front of the large stone fireplace.  It looked like a modern suburban version of a medieval great hall.  David had thought that we would meet at “Herb’s” house, perhaps get a brief tour and maybe a drink, and then head out to a nice restaurant or a country club.  But Herb had dinner all laid out on the kitchen counter for us: hot dogs in a steaming pot of water, peanut butter sandwiches on sliced white bread, and potato salad and a cherry pie, both still in their plastic supermarket containers.  I assumed the man didn’t know how to cook, and this was the best he could do with his wife away.  He apologized for having no vanilla ice cream to accompany the pie, but said, “We can make up for it with lots and lots of beer.”  Cherry pie and beer?  Indeed, the refrigerator was packed with dozens of cans of Miller Genuine Draft.  He opened a can of beer for David and himself, and handed me a Coke.  David, eternally in his futile fight with his nearly 300 pounds, always drank Miller Light beer, and it was the only time I saw him drink regular beer.

David laughed, and said, “He’s twenty-eight.  He can have a beer.”

“Oh my, the boy must bathe in Retin-A cream.  I thought you were a high school student,” Herb said as he poured the Coke down the drain.  I heard those kind of “high school” comments often, long after I finished my master’s degree.  He opened a can of beer and handed it to me.  “Much better, right?  Hey, what kind of music does the boy like?”  After going through a brief list of possibilities in his head, he put on a CD of Abbey Road.  I didn’t tell him Abbey Road was, and still is, my all-time favorite album.  “Music for filthy beatniks,” David called it.

I was charmed by the casualness of our meal, which we ate standing up at the kitchen counter, and Herb was an engaging host, asking me all sorts of questions about my life.  When David and Herb started talking politics, I did not say a word, because they were both conservative Republicans and Evangelical Christians.  Being one of their dreaded godless East Coast Ivy-educated liberal elites, and a homosexual at that, I knew when to shut up when outnumbered.  In Indiana, if you are a white man who looks at least middle class, everyone assumes you are a Republican.  After a brief period of Bill and Hillary Clinton-bashing, Herb reverted to drilling me with questions, which got increasingly personal, even flirtatious, as he drank more and more.  David tried to steer the conversation toward business, Herb’s family, the Oklahoma City bombing, the O.J. Simpson trial, the heat wave, the Bosnian War, or anything to change the subject, but Herb always veered back toward talking about me.

He wanted to know if I had a girlfriend.  I did at the time, though I soon replaced her with a boy.  Why didn’t I bring her with me?  I said she came to Indiana with me, but she wanted to stay home and study.  “Oh you came together?  That’s not easy to do,” he said.  David belted out a loud guffaw.

Though twenty years my senior, Herb had a boyish face and looked much younger.  The only obvious clue to his real age was his dyed hair.  He was a reasonably attractive man, and his flirtations would not have bothered me, except that he was married with three children and had just a few minutes before been espousing “traditional family values.”  Also, it was awkward in front of David.  Although David was always supportive of me personally, he was uncomfortable with what he termed my “lifestyle choices.”  Being reasonably good-looking myself, I was accustomed to such treatment from middle-aged men (“straight” included), but it had never occurred right in front of my family and amidst conversation about “pinko” Bill Clinton’s “homo agenda.”  “Pinko” was David’s term for Communist.

“I love beer so much!” Herb said.  “Lots and lots of beer!”  He was not exaggerating.  He went to the refrigerator compulsively for beer after beer.  With every can of beer he got for himself, he would also bring David and me a new beer, pull open the tab and set it on the counter in front of us.  He either didn’t notice or didn’t care that we had not finished the first one.  By the end of dinner, David and I each had ten or twelve opened and completely full cans of beer in front of us.

Occasionally, in the middle of conversation, Herb would dart out of the room for a moment, returning buoyant and manic, chattering uncontrollably.  I had seen this kind of behavior before in college, and was certain he was taking cocaine, or something similar.  Toward the end of our meal, David whispered to me when Herb disappeared for another hit of cocaine, “He’s blasted!”

At one point, Baumeister abruptly turned away and walked out the door.  “He’s likes to pee on the lawn,” David said in a confidential whisper, rolling his eyes.

Herb wanted to show us around the house and grounds.  As we walked, Herb began to touch me frequently, putting his arm around my shoulder, squeezing me as if we were close friends, patting me on the back, tousling my hair: “So soft!”  He was very proud of his home ,and was eager to impress us.  He reminded me of the nerdy kids from high school who wanted to be popular, but never quite made it.  It was sad, maybe even a little cute that a successful middle-aged man should feel the same way.  He often made self-important quips such as, “If the boy every wants to amaze his friends, he’s welcome to have them over for a pool party” and “If you work very hard, you might get to live like this someday.”  The latter seemed to be directed at both David and me, despite David’s also being very successful in his own right.  There was no hint from Baumeister of the reality that his business was coming apart, and soon would be bankrupt.

It was almost eight o’clock, but the sun was still bright in early July.  We walked around the exterior of the house as he pointed out various features, but because of the heat we did not linger.  The angry robotic chorus of katydids pulsed loudly in the trees, nearly drowning out the crickets in the nearby field and the blue jays screaming in the distance.  For such a grand estate, it was odd how unkempt everything was.  What had obviously once been beautifully manicured gardens were overgrown with weeds, roasted brown from the heatwave, and the scorched lawn had not been mown in many weeks.  The tall brown grass was largely overtaken by wilted milkweed, touch-me-not, pokeberry and Queen Anne’s lace, and the shrubs hadn’t been trimmed.  The air was perfumed with the lemony scent of evening primrose.  Herb himself was wearing soiled khaki pants and polo shirt, as if he had been out working in the garden, but it was apparent nobody had been working in the garden for a long time.  It looked like nobody lived there.

We were glad to be back inside.  “Oh my, the boy is so sweaty,” Herb said pointing at my forehead and handing me a tissue.  “You can go for a swim later.  Do you like to swim?  You have a swimmer’s body.” He looked me up and down. “Very nice.”

“I’ll be fine now that I’m back in the air conditioning,” I said.

Inside the house, rooms were furnished and decorated simply.  Every surface was opaque with thick dust.  Nothing looked particularly expensive or impressive, but everything was all jumbled and clutter was everywhere, as if the family were in the process of just moving in.  In fact they had lived there for four years.  Someone, almost certainly Herb, was a pack-rat who was very comfortable with a high level of disorder.  Couldn’t they hire someone to clean this place up?

As he showed us around the house he said, “Julie and the kids are spending most of the summer at the lake, but I’m stuck here for work.  It gets lonely.  But fortunately I have some friends here to keep me company.”  We had already toured most of the house and had neither seen nor heard any sign of other people.  Then he took us down to the large walk-out basement with many windows and sliding glass doors onto a patio and back lawn.  We could see the dark woods through the glass across the lawn.  On one side of the basement was a large entertainment room with a bar, and on the other side was another room with indoor lap pool.  I had never seen an indoor pool in a private house before, and would have been impressed if I had not been distracted by the life-size department store mannequins along the pool deck.  “These are my party guests, the ones I said keep me company,” Herb said, once more squealing with laughter.

Yes, it was a little creepy, but it was even more sad and pathetic.  I felt his laughter was from some terrible inner pain.  These plastic mannequins might have indeed been his only friends.  I felt sorry for him.

Herb held up his can of beer and poured a stream into his mouth from high above.  “Looks and tastes just like piss, don’t ya’ think?”  He squealed with laughter, choked, and spat mouthful of beer all over himself and into the pool.  He tried to stop the gush by covering his mouth with his hands, only making the spray more forceful, and dropped his half-full can into the pool.  This caused him to laugh even harder.  “Oh my, I’ve pissed myself!”  More crazy laughter.  “Someone peed in the pool!  Good thing Julie’s not here, or she’d be pissed.”  Even crazier laughter.  We pretended to laugh with him.

Suddenly I was overcome with fear.  I was not afraid he would hurt us.  At that time, I had no sense that he was violent.  I was afraid, because I could sense that this man was deeply damaged.  It is the same kind of fear one might feel when realizing someone nearby has a horrendous contagious disease.  And Herb’s was a disease, I suspected, that I had narrowly escaped myself.  Having suffered and recovered from my share of mental illness, I could sense it in others, and it frightened me.  Of course I knew in my head that mental illness is not contagious, but I so feared going back to those dark days again that I had an intense irrational phobia of it.  I did not want to be around him any longer.  I was in a near panic.  David could sense that I needed to leave, and we somewhat clumsily forced our way to the front door against Herb’s protests that we should stay.

Herb was slurring his words as he said how privileged he was to have met me and fawned over how intelligent and charming and handsome I was.  It was embarrassing and horrifying.  He shook David’s hand and said, “Thanks for coming down.”  But to me he said, “Please come visit me again sometime. We’ll  go for that swim.”  He gave me a firm bear hug and kissed me on both sides of my neck.

“Well, that was weird,” David said as we drove away in the big burgundy Buick.  “I knew he was strange, but not like that.  Sorry for exposing you to that fruit.  I mean, that freak.”  As we left the driveway and passed the Fox Hollow Farm sign, he shouted out, “Free from Freak Hollow Farm!”

I bristled at ‘freak’, the same term having been often used against me as a kid, but then, David would not have known that.  I said, “Pretty over-the-top.”  A few minutes later, I added, “There’s something very wrong with that guy.”  David twirled his index finger around his ear as he whistled “cuckoo”.

He then uncharacteristically went silent and stared straight ahead over the steering wheel without looking at me for a long time.  He thought he had made a faux pas by making light of something that had been very painful to me.  My struggles with mental illness were years before he met my mother when I was sixteen.  We never talked about it directly, but of course he knew.  I was grateful for his moment of silent apology, and wanted to make him feel better.

“A freak, for sure,” I said.  “Somebody pissed in his genetic pool.”

David burst into laughter.  “I’ll never drink beer again.”

“Never.”

We talked and laughed the rest of the drive.  It was one of a few times that a long drive became a bonding experience for David and me, the most notable being when years later he flew to Los Angeles to help me drive a moving van across the country.

I had given Herb a business card at his request early in the evening, and when I opened up my email that night, I already had a message from him.  He was worried, and asked to let him know if we made it home safely, “especially with all the drinking.”

Thus began nine months of daily email correspondence, sometimes several times a day.  I didn’t like getting emails from Baumeister, but I was soon safely back in Connecticut with the thick buffer of cyberspace.  The only thing strange about his messages was how normal they all were, as if he and I were old friends keeping in touch about day-to-day trivia: what he had for lunch, what did I eat?  how hard his day at work was, what did I do today? a short trip he was preparing for, did I have to travel much? how drunk he had been the previous night, did I take drugs other than alcohol?  On rare occasion, he would again invite me to visit, but there was nothing outwardly inappropriate.  I always answered politely, because he was after all my step father’s customer, but my replies were shorter than his messages, I asked no questions, and I tried to do nothing to encourage further contact or indicate that I had any interest in him.  Then suddenly, the emails stopped, and I figured that he had gotten the hint and moved onto stalking someone else.

I had no inkling of what that stalking entailed.  A month after Herb’s emails ceased, David phoned me and asked if I had heard the news about Baumeister.  He was dead, shot himself in the head in Canada, on the run from the police for alleged involvement in multiple murders.  I was stunned.

“Alleged involvement?  You mean we had dinner with a serial killer?”

“Seems that way,” David said.  “I’m sorry.”

“No need to be sorry.  Who could have known?”

There was a long pause.  “Well, that’s all.  Have a good night.”  It was a rare instance when David did not want to talk.

It has now been more than ten years since I met Herb Baumeister.  After David called with the news, I read with horror about Baumeister’s murders.  When his wife and kids were away at their lake house, he lured intoxicated young men away from gay clubs to Fox Hollow Farm, and strangled them in the pool.  He then dragged their bodies into the woods behind his house to rot, covering them with mulch, not even bothering to bury them.  When his son discovered a complete skeleton and showed it to his mother, Baumeister explained to his wife that it was simply a display from his father’s medical office that he had not wanted to keep.  A week later, the skeleton was gone.  Baumeister decided to clean up, and started burning the remains.  He was caught only because one of his intended victims played dead when being strangled, and lived.  This fortunate man later led authorities to Baumeister and Fox Hollow Farm, where they found more than 5,000 bones and bone fragments from at least eleven men, eight of whom were identified.  A spate of disappearances was solved.  Later, Baumeister was also named as the “I-70 Strangler”, who had dumped the bodies of ten more gay young men from Indianapolis over bridges along the I-70 interstate highway just beyond the Ohio border.  These bodies stopped showing up once Baumeister bought Fox Hollow Farm and had a private place to dispose of the evidence.  Those twenty-one murders are those where human remains were discovered, but there were likely more.  Experts believe he likely killed thirty or more people in total, perhaps many more, making him one of the most prolific and despicable serial killers in U.S. history: my dinner buddy and pen pal.

Some of the details were particularly troublesome to me.  All his victims were the same or very similar to me in age, stature, sexuality.  I had been to at least two of the gay clubs in Indianapolis where he picked up his victims.  I wasn’t attracted to him, but if I had been drunk at a bar (which was common in those days) and a decent-looking charming guy offered to take me back to his fabulous mansion, I might have said yes.  I could have ended up as a rotting corpse or a pile of ash in his woods.  They were killed in the pool where I had been repeatedly invited to swim.  He strangled his victims; he had hugged me almost painfully tight while he kissed me on the neck.  His clothes had been dirty at dinner that evening.  Had he been out in the woods, perhaps burning things?  Had he just killed the night before?  Did he kill again that night after we left?  The final line of Baumeister’s suicide note, in which he complained of his failing marriage and business and made no mention of the murders, was, “I’m going to eat a peanut butter sandwich and go to sleep.”  I thought of our dinner.

The horror eventually subsided for me, and for a long time, I did not think of Baumeister often.  Every once in a while, I would read a reference to him, and I have watched a few lurid “true crime” and silly “ghost hunter” television episodes about him and Fox Hollow Farm.  It was difficult for me to be entertained by such programs; I could think only of the victims and the families and friends who loved them.  They were real people, not characters on TV.  Mostly, however, I managed to put Baumeister out of my mind.  Thankfully, he never became the household name that some serial killers have, so I did not have to hear about him often.

I felt the need to write about this experience now that I have had enough time and space from David’s funeral.  He died of cancer earlier this year at the age of only fifty-six.  I have been mentally cataloguing our times together and his influence on my life.  David and I rarely talked directly about Baumeister again after the murders were discovered.  When we did, I greatly appreciated David’s refusal to acknowledge or talk about Baumeister’s alleged schizophrenia.  Schizophrenics are no more likely to be violent than non-schizophrenics, but I have lived with that kind of misconception and internalized self-contempt like a shadow most of my life.  I wish I had told David how much I valued his restraint in avoiding that topic.

I no longer have a fear of mental illness, or those suffering from it.  Perhaps seeing another face of it, an infinitely darker and more vicious version of it, helped come to terms with my own past, and realize how fortunate I was to have such relatively mild symptoms.  And how fortunate I am today to be free of it.

Now that there is enough distance from those events of ten years ago, I can talk about Herb Baumeister with the sensationalism and fascination of anyone discussing the juicy details of violent criminals’ horrible acts.  Fox Hollow Farm feels less like a true personal nightmare and more like salacious fiction, and thus Herb Baumeister means less and less to me with each passing year, like a fading two-dimensional villain in a scary movie I saw long ago.  But my stepfather, David, means more to me by the day.  I can still hear him shout, as we pulled out of the driveway that night, in his deep thunderous voice and bellowing laugh, “Free from Freak Hollow Farm!”

 

A CONFESSION

I have told all the above to a number of people.  However, what I have never before told anyone until now is that I saw Baumeister one more time.  I visited Indiana again over Christmas and packed my swimming trunks.  I had emailed him in July to thank him for dinner, and he replied immediately, once again inviting me to use the pool.  My mom and David had a pool, but it was outdoors and had been drained since Labor Day.  So I emailed Baumeister again in December, and he said to come down anytime.  “It’s lonely here with the family at their grandmother’s.”  I lied to my family saying I needed to spend the day Christmas shopping, and drove down to the Indianapolis suburbs.  I was excited.  What might we end up doing after our swim?

But he was different.  He wasn’t the smiling friendly man I remembered from six months earlier.  He seemed tired and was very drunk in the middle of the day.  He acted like he didn’t know me at all.  I drank one beer with him in the kitchen, but it was difficult to hold a conversation with him.  He didn’t look at me when he spoke and seemed completely lost in his thoughts.  I lied again saying that I had forgotten my swimming trunks, and added quickly (because I was certain he would encourage me to swim naked) that I wasn’t feeling entirely well.  I wanted to stop by to say hello, I said, but I would come swimming another day.  I was disappointed, even angry at him.  I never contacted him again.  I didn’t realize then how monumentally fortunate for me that was.

ANOTHER UNKNOWN VICTIM

I was of course shocked.  Baumeister was quirky and nerdy, but he seemed like a friendly, gentle man, and with his slight build, it was difficult to believe he could overpower a man 20 or more years his junior.   I recall his skinny arms sticking out of his polo shirt the sleeves half-filled and loose.  Then I learned that his method was to invite these men to his home and get them very drunk, possibly drugging them, and encourage them to engage in Baumeister’s fetish for erotic asphyxiation: strangling during sex to the point of nearly passing out, which supposedly heightens the physical pleasure.  These young men would have been next to helpless.  I awoke from terrible nightmares about Baumeister for months, and I sometimes still have them.

I have often wondered how the kind quiet man I met – and liked – was at the same time such a monster.  It is impossible to reconcile.  If I had to hypothesize, I would guess that his first killing may have been an accident.  Maybe they all were.  The sexual asphyxiation went too far.  At some point perhaps he realized that the killing was in itself sexually rousing.  I have read that sociopaths are often intelligent and charming, but while they are outwardly warm and friendly, they are in fact cold and heartless, with no conscience or sympathy for other people.  They have the capacity to cause great violence and harm while continuing to go on with what seems like a completely normal life, with no difficulty separating these disparate aspects of their personality.  Few people can detect anything wrong.  A sociopath with a penchant for sexual thrill-kills would be an extremely dangerous person.

Nobody will ever know the inner workings of Baumeister’s mind, because he shot himself in the head in a park in Ontario.  I’ve been to Pinery Provincial Park.  It is halfway between Detroit and Toronto, with beautiful beaches and sand dunes on the shores of Lake Huron.  Not a bad place to spend one’s final moments.  He left a rambling suicide note about the failure of his business and his marriage, but made no mention of the killings.  The last line of his note about eating a peanut butter sandwich and going to sleep sounds just like the weird, random kind of thing he would say.  I never would have imagined he would say it before putting a .357 magnum to his forehead.

I went for years trying not to think about Herb Baumeister.  The murders were horrific, but what bothered me most was the personal connection I felt with him when we met.  He was quiet and shy, and sensitive about what others thought of him, just like me.  He had a boyish face that made him look 10-15 years younger, just like me.  He was intelligent but awkward and insecure, just like me.  In the photos of his younger self, he even looked like me.  Might I resemble him in other, darker ways that I didn’t consciously know about?  I liked him.  I admired him.  I might have even been a little attracted to him.  How could I not have detected the evil that was within him?  True, even Baumeister’s wife of 25 years didn’t detect the depths of his depravity, but I was still angry at myself for not knowing.  I didn’t want to think about it.

I don’t know why I’ve started thinking about Herb Baumeister more often lately.  Through the years, I have seen occasional references to Baumeister on television, and I know there are at least two books about him.  I don’t want to read them.  He has never risen in the serial killer pantheon to the levels of others such as John Wayne Gacy or Charles Manson, the latter of whom may have never actually killed anyone himself.  I have wondered why a relatively small number of people know about Baumeister.  Is it because he didn’t wear clown makeup or carve Nazi swastikas in his forehead?  He was an outwardly normal, boring family man and successful entrepreneur who lived in the suburbs and drove a Buick sedan.  People who knew him well have given accounts of random strange anecdotal things he did, but then my own close friends could certainly make a long list of weird things about me too.  But I have never killed or hurt anyone, nor have I ever had any inclination to do so.

My stepfather, David, died of cancer in 2005.  He was very good to me, but more than anything, I miss how good he was to my mother, whose life seems to have come largely unhinged since his death.  She can’t sleep without tranquilizers, and she can’t make it through the day without anti-anxiety drugs.  I have had my own struggles with alcohol, so I am in no position to stand in judgement on anyone for their dependencies, much less my own mother.  I simply wish she could be the person she was when David was alive.  I also wish I could go back in time to those days.  I am now a year older than Baumeister was when he killed himself.  Nobody calls me “the boy” anymore or thinks I’m in high school.  Looking young now means looking 40.

I don’t mean to diminish the terror that Herb Baumeister’s murder victims underwent as they were being slowly strangled, nor the horror of how their remains were desecrated and discarded.  But I’ve come to realize that I was also, in a small way, one of Baumeister’s victims.  I wish I could go back in time to those days, pre-1995, when I could have a silly crush on an older man and not even think about the possibility that underneath his sweet exterior he might be a sociopathic murderer.  Because I do think about that now, all the time.  That simple hot summer evening with Herb Baumeister irreparably damaged me.  I don’t trust people as much.  I am never not suspicious.  Worst of all, I don’t fully trust myself.  I like to believe that, despite my few eccentricities, I am relatively stable and normal, but then I imagine Baumeister might have thought that too.  Am I really?  How do we know?   How do we fully know and understand the volcanic emotional forces that are building up beneath our thin veneer?  I fear this in others, and also in myself.  Thanks to Herb Baumeister, this fear, almost an obsession, is with me constantly.  And now, unlike in 1995, I face this abyss without David.  Many believe that Baumeister’s ghost still haunts Fox Hollow Farm.  I don’t know about that, but it certainly haunts me.

I woke up in the middle of the night a few days ago in a fit of anxiety.  I poured myself what was probably my 8th or 9th bourbon of the night and watched a Youtube video of old television program about Herb Baumeister.  I watched the video clip at minute 37 over and over again.  I had not seen it in a long time.  It was a home video of Baumeister two years before he shot himself, and one year before I first met him.  It was Christmas, and he was wishing for world peace.  “And if I can’t get world peace, I’ll have some of those red and green M&M peanuts,” he said.  How could he say such a goofy thing when just yards away lay the decomposing bodies of his victims?  It was deeply disturbing and I wanted more than anything to get back to sleep, but I couldn’t stop watching it again and again.  The phrase kept repeating in my mind, “There but for the grace of God go I.”  I don’t believe in God, any god, and I don’t believe in grace.  What is to stop me?  What is to stop anyone?

If only David were here to sort it out for me.

 

 

Hello Monday!

I travel a lot for work, and sometimes for fun, and most of the time for the entertainment of some cruel anti-Saint Christopher type of god who has granted me some truly terrible travel karma.  If there’s chance for something to go wrong, I’m there.  Missed, delayed and canceled flights are my specialty.  I was even in a train crash!

Take Christmas, for example.  Seth and I were going to visit my mom in Fort Wayne, and I couldn’t find us plane tickets for much less than $1000, so I decided it would be a great idea just to rent a car for $250 and drive us both.  GPS told me it was 8.5 hours from Ithaca.  Then Seth couldn’t go, because our new puppy, Iris, has been sick, so it was just me and my suitcase.  I hit a blizzard in Erie, PA and could barely see the road.  So I stopped at a hotel, hoping it would be better the next day.  It wasn’t, but I set out anyway.  Total driving time: 19 hours, PLUS the unplanned hotel stay.  Then on the way back on the 26th (at my mom’s for only Christmas Day itself), another blizzard in Erie.  This time, it was the worst snowstorm in Pennsylvania history, with 5 feet of snow in less than 2 days.  I ended up staying at the exact same hotel.  It was not any better in the morning, and I had to dig out my car, which the hotel had plowed into its parking space, with an ice scraper.  Even then I couldn’t get the little Nissan out, so a guy digging himself out of the adjacent parking space pushed me out.  I rolled down the passenger window to say thank you, and the window wouldn’t go back up.  No amount of pounding and cajoling made any difference.  Fortunately, I had gotten a matching set of gloves, scarf and ski cap as a Christmas gift, and with the heat going full-blast, it was tolerable driving for 5 hours in the 10 degree weather.  In a way, it was a good thing it was much too cold to rain.  Well, I made it back alive with no major mishaps other than the blizzards.  But with the 2 nights of hotel rooms and gas, I ended up spending well over $500 and nearly 40 hours of driving through snow and ice.  Never again!  I know that if I had flown, I probably would have spent at least one night sleeping on the floor of wherever my connecting airport would have been, but I think that would have been preferable.

The train crash could have been much worse.  It was May, 2015, and I was on my way to New York City from Baltimore in order to catch a flight out of JFK Airport to India.  I was asleep in a seat in one of the rear cars, and all I remember is waking up on the floor with people around me screaming.  The train had derailed.  It was dark, but I could see cars turned over ahead, but fortunately my car was still upright.  I grabbed my suitcase and ordered an Uber car that took me all the way back to Baltimore.  8 people on that train died.  I had a few bruises, but nothing serious.  I didn’t know that the crash was so bad until I got home and saw the news reports.

So far, I haven’t been in a plane crash, although I had a close call once.  It was 1994, and I was planning to practice take-offs and landings in a little Cessna 152 two-seater trainer plane.  It was early morning in Chester, Connecticut, and I could see fog and mist rising off the Connecticut River and the surrounding valley.  Briefly after takeoff, I was at only about 500 feet above the ground when the engine started sputtering, and I began to lose altitude.  I didn’t have enough altitude to turn around and land at the airport, and I began to look for a clearing or a wide road somewhere for what seemed to be a certain crash landing, but it seemed to be all trees.  Just then I had a moment of clarity and thought maybe the carburetor had frozen.  I pulled out the carburetor heat knob, and the engine sputtered back to life and then full power.  It was that mist I had noted earlier that had gotten into the engine and froze once I got a little distance off the ground.  I turned the plane around and landed on the runway as soon as I could, just so I could have a few minutes of deep breathing to relax.  I was the only person at the tiny airport.  I decided I had better get back in the plane and take off again soon, or else I might be too frightened ever to fly again.  That second time, I turned on the carburetor heat for an extended time before takeoff, and kept my shaking hand on that knob the whole time!

I suppose I shouldn’t complain about travel karma.  I lived through a couple close calls.

I was kicked off a plane once.  It was a 1AM flight, and I fell asleep in the business class lounge, waking only a few minutes before departure from JFK to Hong Kong.  I ran across the airport and down the jetway only a moment before they were closing the door.  As I ran onto the plan, I tripped and landed flat on my face.  The flight attendant accused me of being drunk.  I had had a few drinks, but I was far from drunk.  No amount of arguing allowed me to stay on board, and she literally pushed me out of the cabin and slammed the door shut.  I ended up finding a less expensive flight, but had to connect through Seoul and arrived in Hong Kong about 12 hours later than planned, with only an hour of Jeffrey’s birthday left to celebrate.

Speaking of Jeffrey, he had disappeared.  He texted me 4 days ago on Thursday saying, “Hey I’m in trouble.  It’s likely that I won’t return to USA this coming semester but I won’t know too soon.  I’m so sorry.”  I texted him a couple times, including one urgent-sounding message, but he hasn’t replied.  It appears he hasn’t even seen my messages.  I have no idea what’s going on, although he did text me last week saying he was summoned at a court hearing about a theft that occurred in Singapore on December 9.  He was still in the US then, so I can’t imagine he could have had any problems with that.  But no idea.  I will send him an email today, but I don’t know if he can get any messages.

Our student visitor from Honduras, Allan, arrived Saturday evening to what is likely to be the coldest day of the year.  It was so cold that the furnace at home couldn’t keep the house warm, so the property manager brought over 2 space heaters.  Even that wasn’t enough, so I built a big fire in the fireplace, and eventually the temperature crawled back into the mid-60s.  Seth and I went to dinner with him and Lilly Briggs, who is supervising him here at the Lab.  She picked him up at the Cornell bus from NYC and brought him to our house, along with several large garbage bags full of warm clothes that staff here had donated.  After finding someone more appropriate for Ithaca weather, we went to dinner at Ciao, which was surprisingly very crowded.  I had not expected so many people would brave the brutal sub-zero weather and whipping winds, even on a Saturday night.  Allan seems to be a good sport about the weather here, despite never having experienced anything much below 70 degrees before.  That’s a good thing, because he is stuck here for 10 weeks.

This week is supposed to be much warmer, and it is already a good 20 degrees warmer than Saturday.  The house is nice and cozy without the space heaters and fire burning.

Þrettándinn was otherwise fairly uneventful.  It was FAR too cold to build a bonfire, so I settled for the fireplace.  I recited my customary welcome to the Elves in Icelandic at each entrance to the house, and had dozens of lights and several dozens of candles burning.  After midnight I took down all the Christmas and New Years decorations, which is mandatory to do before dawn on January 7, or else it will be a year of bad luck.  The house looks a little plain and sad now.  Not sure if any Elves managed to find their way in, but they would have known they were welcome!

I spent almost all of Saturday and Sunday cleaning, and cleaning up after Iris.  She has an unexpected early appointment with the surgeon tomorrow due to a cancellation.  Seth and I are hoping they can figure out a solution to her problem, or we might have to put her down.  I hate to think of that, because she really is a very sweet puppy, but neither of us can imagine living with this problem for the next 12 years, let alone the discomfort she is in regularly.  I had a thought the other day that perhaps dealing with Iris is my payment for my beloved Casper the miracle cat coming home after disappearing for 6 weeks.  He has gained 3 pounds since then, 60% of his body weight on the day he came home looking like a walking skeleton.  We (and he) are so lucky!  So maybe Iris is compensation for that good fortune.

 

 

Welcome to Tarfi’s Bar

You are now in a your favorite hangout in Reykjavík, my honorary hometown, which of course is Tarfi’s Bar.  I am Tarfi, your charming host.  Today is the 12th Day of Christmas, which means it’s the day before Þrettándinn, the biggest holiday of the year.  Think Christmas and New Year’s Eve combined, but with Elves.  Not Santa’s Elves, real Elves.  At least that’s what Icelandic people believe.

My guests don’t come to Tarfi’s Bar only to get drunk.  They come to sit around a warm, cozy fire, share stories, and get drunk.  There is not much to do in Iceland in the winter, so this is how we keep from going completely insane.

Since I am the owner and manager of Tarfi’s Bar, I get to share the most stories.  That’s not entirely a bad thing, because I have lived and traveled all over the world and have had a fairly interesting life.  I have met some famous people.  I even once had dinner with a serial killer.  That story is for later.

So please sit back, relax, have a bite of hangikjöt and enjoy the evening.  What may I get you to drink?

Although my bar is in Reykjavík, I am not here often.  Most of the time I am in a far less interesting, but equally beautiful and very cold city known as Ithaca, New York.