8 Principles for a Strong Marriage: What I Learned on the Death Strip

Sometime in my late twenties, in the first years of our now 30-year marriage, and somewhere on a lethal length of highway locals call the Levan Death Strip, I learned everything I need to know about marriage. The learning came in a dream. In it I’ve identified eight principles everyone can use for a better union.

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The Dream

My husband Randall and I are driving through central Utah’s high mountain desert along an endless, arid highway known as the Levan Death Strip. “Death”,  partly because there’s nothing on the landscape but tumbleweed and dust devils, but mostly because it’s one of the deadliest stretches of road in the state. Semi-trailers and careening motorcycles,  rusted out 1973 Chevy Impalas, and cattle trucks meet head on at high speeds here, exploding the desert silence with the hellish sound of detonating metal and glass.

As I was saying, Randall is driving. I’m sitting shotgun, my eyes on the map. Straight ahead is this hypnotizing strip stretched taut as if it were a towing rope attached to the hood ornament on our car and at the other end to the setting sun, which shimmers on a ridge patiently drumming its fingered rays across the horizon.

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Suddenly, the sky goes dark. In the space of one breath, daylight is swallowed up in a black tide that thickens, obscuring everything round us, three-hundred-sixty-degrees of palpable heavy.

Barely ahead I make out the blinking orange of some tail lights. There had been cars far, far ahead of us a few minutes ago and now they appear closer, having slowed to a crawl. Everything inches, struggles, lurches. Then stops.

We stop too, on the left side of the road. No discussion, no way to move ahead, not only because we can’t see, but because this heavy has body. Some sort of gelatinous, clinging, viscous weight that is cold and lifeless touches my skin when I step out of the car and creep, hand-over-hand along the car’s right side, palming the hood, then patting my way to the driver’s door out of which Randall emerges.

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We say nothing even though I open my mouth and try to push noise up from my throat. The sound waves don’t travel through this new quality of air, so no use calling out. No use, even, trying to whisper to Randall, at whose left side I now stand, right arm linked with his left, pushed up against him, drawing warmth and reassurance.

By the cars parked up the road there’s a faint outline of people. They’re shuffling in this serious, deadly quiet.  Now the Heavy coagulates and I can make out neither people nor the tail lights that had just been visible in front of us. Randall and I stand in silence, fused that way, totally, existentially alone.

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With no way to judge distance but by the length of our stride, no way to converse, and no way to get our bearings, we simply hold on to each other. I can feel the swelling and contracting of his breathing. We fall in sync.

At the driver’s side of the car, on the left edge of the highway, we begin moving, inching. Walking is a must; something tells us standing still will mean death. So we cling to one another––I on Randall’s left, toeing the edge of the road so we don’t slide off into the shoulder; Randall to my right, initiating every step forward into the darkness.

It’s here, engulfed in heavy murk, that we lean onto each other, pressing. There is a symbiotic, synergistic friction that generates heat and not only keeps us on track and moving forward, but holds us up.

Many dream-time minutes into creeping forward and I turn, straining to see my husband’s face just inches from mine. But I can only make out that he’s wearing a suit. And there are sparks scattered on that suit. Little fine embers seem to be falling onto (or is it emerging from? I can’t tell which), the fabric. Afraid they’ll make his suit combust, I start swatting and then slapping these sparks.

Strangely, the sparks give just enough light to help us push ahead, which I sense we do long after my actual dream ends.

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1. Road

The journey you’ve envisioned on the outset of your marriage as a tidy, well-lit straight line to infinity? Not. Life is neither tidy nor straight, nor is it necessarily well-lit. See up there, a couple of hundred meters ahead where the mirage makes the road look swimmy? That’s where the beeline disappears, giving way –– again and again –– to the reality of the changeable and unexpected.

Know now that this will happen and you won’t self destruct when life doesn’t go to plan.

2. Vehicle

Start together. Stay in together. Sure, we can also chose to have our individual cars where we’re free to listen to our own playlists, eat our stinky beef jerky, and go at our speed. We can select our solo routes and stop at our preferred points of interest at will. How convenient is that? Saves us from compromising our plans and preferences with another person’s, right?

But the whole point is to travel as a team, which means compromise over convenience, sitting elbow-to-elbow, someone driving , someone reading the map, beef jerky that side, dried sea kelp my side. It’s of little consequence, by the way, who’s driving, who’s navigating; both functions are equally necessary and of course interchangeable, because in my dream, we are both licensed, alert, and invested in the trip, our individual contributions therefore essential for the voyage.

Know now that your marriage is the vehicle that does not just get you to a destination, but will test your capacity to place compromise and commitment over convenience, sharing responsibilities and whatever arises on the route.

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3. Map

You’ve noticed: maps help. (And GPS is better.) But only when you can see a road. What when you can’t? That’s where the strength of your partnership kicks in and you must gingerly feel your way together, into the future.

As a newlywed couple we found marriage mentors––living guidebooks, maps––folks ahead of us in life who modeled how it could all be done well. But roads change, and so travel plans. We, for instance, started out determined to be tandem university professors. Some years into marriage, however, both of us decided not to do our PhDs. Instead, we took a different route, or better, several end-to-end alternate routes.

Know now that maps must be pliable plots, not strict strategies.

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4. Darkness

Midway along our route tragedy hit and the bright desert daylight was instantly choked with the ultimate heavy. In one stroke of fate, and in the middle of major international move when our stability was already compromised, we lost our eldest child, then 18, to a gruesome water accident.

It’s then we learned that darkness had texture, heft. At any moment the Heavy can hit and swallow up our sunny route. Loss of all sorts, not just the dramatic blow we have known, can change virtually everything in an instant. Struggles with illness both physical and mental, addictions, a partner’s or child’s illicit behavior, unemployment, and larger societal events (war, economic downturn, natural disaster, etc.) or a combination of any of the above, might be our dark tide.

Know now that darkness not only might happen, but it will. When it hits, your marriage can remain intact and even grow stronger, becoming the very thing that helps you individually and as a family to survive.

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5. Soft Shoulders

You know those signs that warn motorists of soft shoulders off the sides of the road? In Tanzania I once witnessed what happens when they are ignored. A public bus over-crammed with passengers, their goats and chickens and baskets of market goods dangling out the windows, tried to overtake a stalled vehicle by driving onto the soft shoulder. The moment the bus’s two left wheels were off the asphalt and on the soil, the bus began sinking, then teetered, then toppled over on its side. Screaming, crushed adults and children, yowling and fluttering livestock were the soundtrack I can never erase from my memory.

Know now that soft shoulders are everywhere and anyone can slip more easily than you might imagine. And when darkness sweeps in and disorients you threatening to drive you off your route or from each other, it is especially important to toe that edge, reminding yourself to push inward toward your partner and away from the soft shoulder.

6. Synergistic Support

Although my strong inclination toward rule keeping meant I sensed limits well with my left foot, I was afraid to move forward into the darkness. I kept pulling backward. Behind felt safer than ahead, and I recoiled from whatever was out there in that pitch black mass. In real life, too, part of me wants to retreat from the unknown because I lack confidence in my ability to conquer difficult and intimidating situations. Randall, on the other hand, doesn’t obsess over worst case scenarios and forges forward.

Know now that progression in marriage requires both staying out of dangerous soft shoulders and pressing forward into the unknown. When you and your partner are pressing inward, toward each other, the isometric pressure not only propels you forward but actually gives you energy and helps you to stay standing.

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7. Sparks

When I first interpreted this dream, I saw those sparks on Randall’s suit as trouble coming from the outside. My job was to beat that trouble down. Part of a strong partnership is being alert and sensitive to our mate’s vulnerabilities and doing what we can to keep our partner safe. Of course my message is not to feel excessively guilty when a beloved plays with fire, so to speak, because of course we’re all responsible for our own decisions and behaviors. But I’ve observed the strongest couples try vigilantly to protect one another from trouble.

Loving each other means attending to each other, helping keep one another safe and well. We can do so by staying extremely close and watching for signs that something is smoldering. Does your wife struggle with anxiety? Does your husband have addictive tendencies? Does she fly easily into a rage? Does he slump regularly into a depression? Is she on the professional road a lot where she could slip into a new identity and thus illicit behaviors? Does he work a lot on the Internet where he could slip into a new identity and thus illicit behaviors? Then you do everything you can to strengthen them for those situations where they might fall into trouble.

Know now that everyone has weaknesses and everyone is susceptible to temptations or attacks on their virtue and morals. Know now that central to loving our spouse is not only having their specific sparks at heart, but to help beat them back before they take flame.

8. Or … Sparks

And here is the most important portion of the dream. Because at 20+ years into marriage I found that my former interpretation of it, which you just read, and therefore my paradigm for marriage, had changed. Where I’d previously seen myself as the safe-keeper, the border patrol, the ever ready spark-slapper,  now I saw those sparks differently.

What if those sparks I’d been slapping at weren’t signs of danger? What if they were something else? What if those sparks –- what I’d thought were temptations, fiery darts –– weren’t flying at my partner but those sparks are actually emerging from him? What if they weren’t bad fire but good, even flecks of hot gold? Not trouble but promise? Not hints of weakness but signs of power? I thought, “What if those sparks are searing heat and power literally bursting out of Randall, and I, in my hyper-attentiveness and self-righteousness am beating them down, beating him down, extinguishing a light, extinguishing him?”

What then?

There are so many ways we can extinguish the light in others. We think we are being care givers and life coaches, but in over-critiquing, in hyper-patroling, we can become nit-pickers,  fault-finders, nay-sayers. We can also hold each other back in our jealousy and insecurity when we permit our own fears, self doubts, and insecurities (we all have them) to breed that nervous reflex that lashes out –– slap! –– disallowing others to simply be who they are, to shine, even brilliantly.

We assuage things by saying we’re just being honest, when we actually end up beating that person back, or beating her up. We slap out another’s light by refusing to forgive, holding a grudge, keeping score, playing tit-for-tat. We can engage in power plays, we can belittle, we can even discredit our own beloveds in slanderous gossip. We might play politics, demanding equality at every turn, not interdependency as an overarching guide, saying, in essence, “Well, if I can’t have those sparks, then neither can you!”

When this new marriage paradigm came to me, I have to tell you: I wept. How many years had I focused on potential faults in my husband and not on the promising strengths? How many opportunities had I missed to praise him, to celebrate in his light, to see his radiance increase?

Know now that even in purely selfish terms, you are the prime beneficiary when your partner glows. Indeed, we all benefit when anyone glows!  You’ll remember: those sparks on Randall’s suit gave us both just enough illumination to light our way through a world of complete darkness.

When we make it through this heavy passage together––and I trust we all will–– then it will certainly be by virtue of all this unsmothered, heat-generating, God-given mutual incandescence.

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© Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com, 2016.  This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. . . which means, as long you’re not selling it, you’re welcome to share, but please remember to give me a link and mention my name.

Global Mom (and Dad) Hit Harvard

Pardon this interruption for a quick public service announcement.

What: Melissa (Global Mom, author, public speaker) and Randall (Global Dad, international global executive, best all around guy) address the topic:

GLOBALLY MOBILE CAREERS AND FAMILIES: HOW TO THRIVE

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Where: Harvard Business School, (Aldrich 107), Boston, MA.

When:  Wednesday, April 27th, beginning at 8 pm … and lasting until they drag us away

What else? Question and Answer session

What kinds of questions?

  1. Does going on an international assignment help advance or progress your career faster? Or is “out of sight, out of mind” the rule at corporate headquarters?
  2. How did your four children respond to moving not only frequently, but far and always into foreign languages/cultures?
  3. Melissa, what did it feel like to be solo parenting four children in foreign cultures while your husband traveled internationally or even lived/worked in another country for many months on end?
  4. Randall,what was the hardest part about being separated from your wife and children, and what did you do wen you returned to help both the family and yourself rediscover balance?
  5. What specific things did you do as a family to hold together after the tragic death of  your eldest son in the middle of an international move and while living a foreign  country?
  6. What lessons have you learned from other cultures about balancing careers, marriage, and parenting?
  7. What warnings (or enticements) would you offer young professionals considering globally mobile careers?

And whatever else YOU want to ask. We’ve never met a question we didn’t like.

 

Admission is free. We hope to see you and your friends there!

 

 

 

Randall & Co. — From On Loss and Living Onward

OUR HANDSOME BOY had not grown cold in Room #2 of an Idaho ICU by the time news of his passing had reached every end of our community in Paris. Michel, Randall’s work colleague and tennis partner, was the first to call. Michel’s low, slow words came from Paris through Randall’s cell phone. “It’s not true, Randall!” Michel repeated over and over again, “Oh, my dear Randall!”

Unable to sleep more than five minutes at a stretch, Randall and I had been out walking all night through our childhood neighborhoods. It was now after 3:00 a.m. The previous afternoon, we’d left Parker’s body at Portneuf Regional Medical Center in Idaho and had driven the nearly five hours southward to be with family where we both grew up, in a small town in Utah.

Michel and his family loved us very much, Michel cried. “We hold you all close.”

With the green glow of his cell screen casting death onto his face, my husband listened silently as Michel, an understated Frenchman, choked on sobs as he said goodbye. The confluence of sorrow and sympathy worked its way down to Randall’s knees, and they gave way. His legs folded under his body right on the spot. There he sat in his pajamas, barefoot and curled like a beggar beneath a street light on the sidewalk. He cradled his head in his hands. Peak heat season in the desert west, but all day long his body had quaked as if it were midwinter.

Now Per was calling from Norway, and Randall put the cell on speaker. There under the aloof moon, Randall’s lifelong career mentor reassured us with solemn but straightforward affection: he and his wife loved us.

The next call was from Munich. It was Stefan, Randall’s boss—a big guy, a big presence, but I could hear that he felt reduced by his own total defenselessness. His small, broken cries teetered toward me where I now crouched next to Randall in the darkness.

Then came the whispers, “I’m in the Vatican, lighting a candle for Parker.”

That was Stefano, a work colleague from Rome.

A week later, on the sweltering afternoon of the funeral, there stood other work colleagues who had flown in from all over: Zaki representing all Randall’s associates from Scandinavia; Franck from France; Lothar and Stefan from Germany; Stefano from Italy; Russ from Japan.

Dad, boys, funeral Image: A. Crandall ©

Dad, boys, funeral
Image: Angelique Crandall ©

 

And a week after the funeral, jet-lagged and grief-loaded, Randall was required to be sitting in his office. It was the day after we had landed in Munich. Work colleagues met him as he came through the sliding glass doors. Everyone there knew. Phone calls and emails, which had flown back and forth between the US, France, and Germany during the days surrounding and following the accident, had kept Randall’s company aware of our family’s situation.

One German—towering, burly, a legendary connoisseur of lager and cigars—took Randall in his arms and then muffled his own quaking moans by burying his head in his American colleague’s shoulder. On Randall’s desk, two small handwritten notes already lay, penned in German: “Your pain is our pain,” and “We can only pray to God for your healing.” Day upon day, there were flowers, soft eyes, the touch on the shoulder, and respectful requests to “do anything to lessen your work burden, Randall.”

For the first time in his two-decade career, work was a burden, a considerable one. Although some find work a welcome distraction from pain and loneliness, this was not the case for my husband. The idea of “business as usual” was repulsive to him on every level, and discussions of head-count reductions and a new operating model rang with sickening hollowness in the gutted-out space between his head and his feet.

“I want to be a postal worker. Or a cowboy on the range,” he pled with me many times through his own tears that awakened him every morning. “It’s not the scrutiny, or some fear of people seeing me weak, watching me be so broken. That’s not it. It’s the superficiality. I don’t have the heart for it. None of this company stuff matters compared to what I now know . . .”

And I couldn’t blame him. Together, we had undergone a seismic shift. Randall had seen, felt, heard, and in turn learned things of a spiritual nature that altered understanding of the world. Much of what had been of relative value a month earlier—the temporal, the material, the commercial, the superficial—didn’t matter at all anymore. All of that paled in comparison to what he now knew regarding love and loss, life and death, and that fragile silken strand from which all existence hangs.

Moreover, grief had drained his energy. Standing up in the morning was work enough.

During those first weeks back in the office, the predictable routine did steady Randall somewhat, but only enough to fool him into thinking he was “on the mend.” Because of course he was not.

In the middle of an intense discussion about the implementation of the new commercial model, his secretary Patricia passed him an express delivery piece of mail: the bills from the air ambulance that had life-flighted Parker to the trauma center. With one glance, whatever was “sturdiness” folded in on itself like an old dime-store pocket umbrella. “Patricia,” Randall whispered as he took her with him out into the hallway, holding the mail in a hand dropped heavily to his side, “Can you . . . will you please take care of this one for me?” She opened the papers with her boss standing there numbly, his eyes ice-blue pits of despair. And she dropped her head and broke down.

Less than a month from tragedy, and in the throes of an international conference call, an email notice popped up on Randall’s laptop screen: the insurance company needed a scanned copy of Parker Fairbourne Bradford’s death certificate. Mule kick to the gut. Macroshock. Fibrilation. The deadening plunge of the universe into the cranium. And racing to a window for air.

All the bracing against these waves of pain, all the acting as if unscathed (which is, after all, what competent people are expected to do, play The Impervious One), all that harnessing of anguish was physically exhausting for my husband. The lie of stoicism was almost physically impossible for him to keep up, at least for very long stretches.

“I need to retreat and be alone, to digest this, to go into the depths,” he told me. He knew he couldn’t be alone for long with a leadership role at work. So he went underground—literally.

There was something in the building’s underground parking lot—the isolation, the darkness, the hermetic seal of the car doors as he shut himself into the driver’s seat—that liberated and soothed him. There, in his car, he could weep as loudly as he needed to for his lunch break and again for a few minutes in the late afternoon. A lightless car. A lightless subterranean garage. A lightless grave.

But these retreats were brief, ending every time with the ping! of a timer he had set.

A major restructuring initiative was taking place within his company, and Randall knew that if he were not present—and energetically so—many of his colleagues’ jobs (and livelihoods and families’ futures) would be jeopardized. He couldn’t care less about that all-important corporate bottom line; he could, however, care about the human story above that bottom line.

Two weeks back at work (near the one-month marker of our son’s death, and on what happened to be Randall’s birthday) a large group of his colleagues from around Europe who had not seen him since learning of Parker’s passing were convening for an important meeting in the Munich offices.

“How am I supposed to keep up some steely façade for hours of back- to-back meetings and a board presentation?” Randall had asked me that morning, eyes already red from weeping since predawn. “How am I supposed to lead? And with energy? I can hardly dredge up sincerity.”

He’d aged, it seemed, a good twenty years in a month. And by this time I was beginning to wonder if this man in front of me who suddenly looked like a hospice patient would in fact be able to manage the major, visible, and relentless demands of his position. Was this the same man who, just over a month ago, had managed the demands like he’d managed our early morning 12ks: sprinting and racing and laughing all the way through the last 3k, high-fiving me and throwing his sweaty head to the skies: “Don’t get much better ’an dat, does it, babe?!” And I’d slap him on his derrière.

Now I pitied him, pitied what he had to do. All I could do to help was promise I’d be on my knees for him that day. All. Day. Long.

“You call me, hon. Call me any time. Any time. Just make it through this one day, okay? You must. You can.”

I kissed his eyelids as he pulled on Parker’s leather bomber jacket. “Parker will be there with you,” I said. “He knows it’s your birthday.”

Beneath the crushing chest press of sorrow and absence, Randall found his way through the soundless corridors of his company’s building to an empty conference room in an untrafficked corner. Alone there, he knelt to pray. With one foot wedged against a door so no one would enter, he wrestled with fear and longing and confusion so suffocating, he had to raise his head so he wouldn’t pass out. Through the floor and down from the ceiling, he then felt warmth surround and seep into him. It spread its light through his body and he felt, as if from nowhere, a physical reinforcement. “Like love,” he told me later.

What happened next was a personal and a professional triumph. Not a triumph for my husband’s profession, but a triumph for the nature of professionalism across the board and across the world. On that day in some steel-and-stone antiseptically sterile regional office outside of Munich, Germany, something quiet but spectacularly human happened.

Randall rose from his knees and returned to his office where he and his colleague Craig were at a computer screen preparing documents for Randall’s presentation on the company’s major restructuring initiative. Craig knew about Parker. In fact, Craig had received the first phone call after Randall had gotten The Call from me at 7:00 a.m. Munich time: “Honey, come now. To Idaho. Come to Idaho right now.” It was Craig who’d scrambled anxiously, plotting Randall’s emergency flight from southern Germany to southeast Idaho so he could have those last sacred hours with his comatose child. It was this same Craig who’d been Randall’s right-hand man ever since.

Now the two tried to focus on their computer screen while person after person tapped gently on the door, entered, and silently looked straight into Randall’s eyes as he rose to greet them. Then they took him into their arms.

Kari from Finland. José Luis from Spain. Hans from northern Germany. Chris from the U.K. Lars from Norway. Antonio from Italy. Michel from France. Colleague after colleague from two decades of work. It was as if in bodily form the whole panorama of Randall’s career was streaming through his door. From embrace to embrace, Randall wiped his tears, turned back to Craig (who was from Wisconsin, by the way, and was also wiping tears), and the two then cleared their throats and tried to focus on that computer screen again.

Computer screen. Tap-tap. Eyes. Embrace. Tears.
Computer screen. Tap-tap. Eyes. Embrace. Tears.
The sequence went on for hours.
When Randall did have to stand at the end of that day to present in front of all these colleagues, was his heart still constricted with anguish? Was he unable to face their scrutiny? Intimidated? Destabilized? Helpless?

No. No, because he had already looked into their eyes, and there he’d seen injury, vulnerability. He’d seen humanness, intimations of which he’d observed throughout years of interaction, but which had been mostly hidden behind what is called professionalism. Hidden behind titles and door plaques on corner offices, distorted by a razor thin but magnetic bottom line.

Now he felt their humanness resonating from their faces, which mirrored their generous, human presence. Breaking down or falling silent for a second or two didn’t faze him, and it didn’t faze them either. So he simply did what he needed to do, all the time watching closely the eyes of those before him.

Their eyes (maybe this will make no sense) allowed Randall to present with tremendous emotion—hands trembling and heart skittering—about that blessed corporate bottom line. For that day, at least, everyone in that room knew it was not the bottom line at all.

At the end of that memorable birthday, Randall received one last knock on his door. It was Craig. From Wisconsin. He stood there a moment, his GQ square jaw and outdoorsy good looks uncharacteristically stiff, locked mid-breath. Craig gripped the doorknob, holding the door a bit ajar, neither completely entering nor leaving the room.

First, he searched with his eyes out the window. Then he looked at the floor. Then he looked right at Randall.

“I . . . I, ah . . . Randall, I just want . . .” His throat was tight, his voice seemed to go a pitch or so higher than usual.

“I just want to say . . . I don’t know . . . I just don’t know, Randall, how you made it through this day.”

Shaking his head once, Craig caught himself. But not in time. Randall’s colleague broke into one open sob. Then he excused himself and walked out the door.

Dad, boys, Munich, 3 years later Image: Rob Inderrieden ©

Dad, boys, Munich, 3 years later
Image: Rob Inderrieden ©

© Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com, 2015. This work (text and images) is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. . . which means, as long you’re not selling it, you’re welcome to share, but please remember to give me a link and mention my name. You should also reference the original work, On Loss and Living Onward, (Familius 2014)

Cattle Truck Diva

Oliver bought her, cared for her, loaded her with heads of cattle and drove her from livestock auction to livestock auction up and down the state of Utah.  In places like Sanpete, Spanish Fork and Santaquin, she rolled in on dirt roads like she had rolled out of The Grapes of Wrath, only with a fancy new paint job. Fire engine red and nearly as big as your average city fire truck (though in his life Oliver had never lived in a big city, and had probably not seen a big city fire truck), she signaled far and wide to farm folk that Bishop Dalton, as they called him, was passing through. Rough hands shook over mottled heifers with molten eyes, and the red cattle truck trundled off, dust and trust billowing over the transaction.

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Jessie was Oliver’s wife, the Belle of Springville and mother to four lanky farmhand sons, who chewed on wheat shafts and the ends of their sentences, and grunted submission when she hollered to “scrape that manure off those boots of yours before you enter my home!” She tolerated the red cattle truck in the driveway.  But only if its bulkiness didn’t make contact with her manicured rose garden or prized lilac hedges. Fragrance –– from homegrown flowers to flasks of perfume she kept in the velvet-lined drawers of her dressing table ––marked the borders of her domain.

Donna and the lilac hedges

Donna and the lilac hedges

Donna would become Jessie’s daughter by marriage. Originally come north to Utah from the deserts of Arizona, Donna was raised by Mildred who had worked long, dull hours in a citrus-packing plant to fund the great dream: college, for all her six children. Donna was at university with one purpose, to sing. And it was while singing that she’d fallen for the blonde guy on the fiddle, the one who led the orchestra’s string section accompanying the choir concert where she soloed.

Donna with Oliver and Donna's parents, Leland and Mildred and the red cattle truck

The red cattle truck and Donna with Oliver and Donna’s parents, Leland and Mildred.

This was David, one of Oliver and Jessie’s cud-chewing farmhand sons who had shown just enough talent to set his heart on a future as a violinist. David had also set his heart on the brunette soprano standing in the university choir’s front row.  And as they say –– at least they said it in the1950’s –– the two ended up making beautiful music together.

David and Donna in concert

David and Donna in concert

They also ended up making for the due east. Leaving desert and Rockies, lilac hedges and red cattle trucks, they set out to study music at the finest schools and conservatories they could scarcely afford to get into.

Heading east

Heading east

Graduated couple

Graduated couple

In Vienna, Munich, at the Eastman School of Music, Indiana University – the two studied in tandem, parented in tandem (three daughters were born while they completed these studies), and finally, they built parallel careers. And a home. In tandem. In Utah.

Homebuilding gallery with the red cattle truck

Homebuilding gallery with the red cattle truck

FAM 1972 build house 079Donna became a melding of her two mothers, Mildred and Jessie, a thick crust of grit and workhorse filled with the sweet cream of cultivation and topped with a bright diva cherry. For a visual of her humility, tenacity and scope, imagine her pregnant with her fourth child, my younger brother, driving to and from opera rehearsals in the only second vehicle my frugal parents had: the red cattle truck.  Imagine her humming Puccini or Strauss while turning, with two hands the massive key that controlled the truck’s motor, a motor that grumbled, hissed and clunked like an apoplectic B-52 bomber. Then see her rappel, practically, down from the driver’s seat, slam the huge metal door, brush the dirt off her backside, and stride off to take to the stage.

Indiana 1967-70123Indiana 1967-70125Indiana 1967-70210BYU II UT 1970-064Indiana 1967-70211

A defining shift in my life occurred when I understood for the first time that not every mother practiced Italian arias while re-caulking shower tiles.  And that few ladies wore corsets and Renaissance wigs to their workplace after having hauled and laid bricks all weekend long.  And no one – I mean no one – in our neighborhood wore a paint-splattered denim mechanic’s jumpsuit to re-shingle the roof in the afternoon, then donned a purple paisley kaftan at dinnertime to stand out on the sidewalk and sing their children’s names on a high note and at the top of their lungs:  “Oh Daaaaaaaaltons!  Come to diiiiiiiiiiinneeeeeeeeeeer!”

Oliver has been gone for many years, as has been Jessie. My mother is now 79. My father turns 80 in a few days.  And today I am older than the Donna who hoisted two-by-fours and power saws, wore a brocade costume for a Wagnerian lead, sang for many years in the Tabernacle Choir, and drove a cantankerous hand-me-down monster truck. That red cattle truck, I suppose, has long since been turned to scrap.  The scrap has been melted down, poured into other uses, uses that will carry cattle. Or bricks. Or maybe an opera singer carrying a son. Or daughters who carry stories, and the stories carry us all.

Donna, my mother

Donna, my mother

 

[i carry your heart with me(i carry it in]: The Annual Parker Hike

July 20th, base of trail, Sundance, Utah, USA

July 20th, base of trail, Sundance, Utah, USA

i carry your heart with me(i carry it in
my heart)i am never without it(anywhere. . .
lauren melissa

At Stewart Falls, Sundance, with Danielle and Sharlee

. . .i go you go,my dear;and whatever is done
by only me is your doing,my darling). . .
RJB stewart fallsstewart falls hike waterfallPArker hike 17
                                                     . . . i fear
no fate(for you are my fate,my sweet). . .
...little Luc in tunnels inside the Swiss Alps..

…little Luc tunnels through the Swiss Alps..

Parker Hike 2012, pre-mission departure for Claire

Parker Hike 2012, pre-mission departure for Claire

. . .i want
no world(for beautiful you are my world,my true)
...Near Interlaken...

…Near the Jungfrau, Switzerland…

swisshike 3
Hiking Swiss Alps. . .

…Hiking Swiss Alps. . .

...With our guide in Africa...

…With our guide in Africa…

...view over Kilimanjaro. . .

…View over Kilimanjaro. . .

 

...Bukit Timah Hill, Singapore...

…Bukit Timah Hill, Singapore…

...Cedar Breaks, southern Utah, USA...

…Cedar Breaks, southern Utah, USA…

...Swiss Alps...

…Swiss Alps…

...With friends from every corner of the world...

…With friends from every corner of the world…

...In the Jura Mountains...

…In the Jura Mountains…

swiss hike 1…and it’s you are whatever a moon has always meant

and whatever a sun will always sing is you…
...After the hike, the cabin...

…After the hike, the cabin…

…here is the deepest secret nobody knows
(here is the root of the root and the bud of the bud
and the sky of the sky of a tree called life;which grows
higher than soul can hope or mind can hide)
and this is the wonder that’s keeping the stars apart…
Parker, 3 months old, hiking with me through Hong Kong...

Parker, 3 months old, hiking with me through Hong Kong…

i carry your heart(i carry it in my heart)
–e.e.cummings

Global Mom: Fête de la Musique

From Global Mom: A Memoir

(Continued from last post, “Split Between Two Different Countries”…)

**

After being accepted and receiving a scholarship to a small liberal arts college, after dancing all night at Senior Prom, after graduation ceremonies and packing up his room and drums and sports equipment, and after having said his final goodbyes to the Greek and Lebanese and Tunisian and French restaurant owners around town who knew him well and always gave him extra large portions although he had a running tab, and after emotional goodbyes to school faculty as well as his dozens of friends also heading off to universities in many different countries, Parker was ready to leave Paris.

pianobleu

pianobleu

But not before one last night. It was the night of the Fête de la Musique. Throughout that June night, Paris vibrates with its annual city- wide festival of music, when musicians of every sort—madrigal choirs, rap artists, reggae bands, orchestras, flamenco guitarists, string chamber ensembles—are free to make their music any place they want in the streets or in concert venues and for as long as they can hold out.

fetedelamusique

fetedelamusique

facebook.com

facebook.com

 

linternaute

linternaute

 

rtl.fr

rtl.fr

As the name Fête de la Musique says, it’s a music party; but fête is pronounced just like faites, the imperative form of to do, making of the title a typically French jeu des mots or play on words: “Do music!”

mondial.infos

mondial.infos

Nothing could have suited our firstborn better. Parker, who as I’ve written was part of a circle of local percussionists, met with them on the Pont des Arts for many hours of pure drumming explosion.

linternaute

linternaute

Walking toward that bridge, you could feel the electricity thrumming in surging beats already in the ground and through the air. Crowds had already packed the bridge, so the children couldn’t see over all the heads, and Randall and I couldn’t see around all the bodies to find Parker. But we knew he was there somewhere. Maybe listening. Maybe hanging out with friends one last time.

As we moved closer, Dalton and Luc, who could see under people’s arms and between their knees, spotted their big brother. “Hey, Parker!” Luc yelled. But the drum beating was so thick, you couldn’t hear your own voice as it left your own mouth, let alone hear the voice of a waify seven-year-old.

Luc pulled me by my hand toward the crowd, then motioned to Randall to hoist him on his shoulders. “The crowd!” I yelled over the din, “there must be hundreds!” At least four or five hundred people on that one bridge alone, and they split apart just enough so we could edge our way toward the source. And there he sat, djembe between his knees, the white boy with blue-gray eyes, his hair cropped very short to his well-shaped skull, the American boy (but who would have ever known?) named “Par Coeur” by the likes of Shafik, his closest Tunisian drumming buddy, and five others all of African descent. There they all were, swaying and pulsing to the pounding of their own djembes and large tub drums, or rocking, eyes closed, as they pummeled their instruments together.

The energy could just about lift you off your feet. It made the bridge tremble and sway. And standing there in the push of all these people, I sensed I had to hold myself together, had to keep myself from throwing my arms in the air and spinning for sheer delirium. This was a Paris I understood, a place where millions of people sing their songs and beat their rhythms but do it all at once. Somehow, it’s not cacophonic but something beyond it, a grand intimacy and intimate grandiosity strung along the river and its several bridges.

Over those bridges, under those bridges, behind the museums, in front of the Metro stops. Children, old people, all colors, all persuasions, tourists, policemen, the homeless, the political elite. Everyone on one night crowding the skies with their music. In the center of this—really in the physical center—sat my boy, the one who’d banged into pieces my big Tupperware bowls on linoleum in New Jersey and broken to splinters my mixing spoons on the wooden kitchen floor in Norway. Who’d gotten his first drum set from a retiring musician down the street on our island and had beaten the sticks to a pulp. Who every Thursday late afternoon and in the fifteenth arrondissement of this city, had shown up for his drum lessons from a French percussionist with a long gray beard tied neatly with a red macramé bow. There was this son, shoulder to shoulder with the world, whamming and jamming with his people—all people, everyone and anyone who would stamp and clap and catch the hem of his rhythm.

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“Dad?” I heard Dalton trying to raise his voice to get Randall’s attention through the noise. “Dad?” our blonde and reticent eleven-year-old was standing, a bit self-conscious, awed, visibly, by his brother. Not as comfortable yet in his skin as this muscular drummer was, but every bit as thoughtful as your average fifty-year-old.

“Yes, Dalton?” Randall crouched down to hear better.

“Dad,” Dalton was watching the movement ripple through crowd encircling the place where the seven drummers sat, feeling the surge of the drums’ cadence. “Dad, do you think . . . heaven’s anything like this?”

Randall and I laughed a bit then smiled. But Dalton was sober, stone cold serious.

I’ve held those words as if in plaster in my mind. And I have had to wonder.

**

(Hold that image.  To be continued. . .)

Global Mom: Split Between Two Different Countries

From Global Mom: A Memoir

(Continuing from last post, “Ceiling Talk”…)

**

Despite the fact that Munich as a location was in many ways an ideal spot to drop us (we had roots there, as I’ve mentioned before, and were both German speakers), no one, including myself, could imagine leaving Paris. We had dug some serious grooves, as Kristiina Sorensen put it when I told her the news, and what place on earth could ever suit us as well as this place now did? So from that point in the early fall until the end of the school year, we conducted a test to see if living in one country—France— and working in another—Germany—would be not merely feasible, but preferable in terms of stability and consistency for the children. Randall lived during the weeks in a small hotel room outside of Munich, and I managed during the weeks with our four children and their four worlds of needs. We texted and called and emailed, stitched together our family with fiber optics, dangled in a world wide web.

kmmatrimony

kmmatrimony

Living in two different countries. One country for the employed person, another for the family, the occasional weekend together, if we were so lucky. More often, it turns into monthly or quarterly visits. Writing that today sounds so ludicrous it makes my fingers go rigid. But many families deliberately choose to do exactly what we were considering doing, and for the long haul. As I already knew from my circle of expatriate friends, more and more companies seemed to tacitly encourage such a thing. After all, with no family around to go home to, their employee could be counted on to work until or after midnight, could take international conference calls throughout the night, and be back at the office at 6:00 a.m., on Saturdays, on Sunday, on holidays.

Friends like the Sorensens and others from church and school and the neighborhood helped fill in some of the gaps when one has an absent father, and Parker, now an inch taller than Randall, became my right- hand man; a trusted, loving, fun and easy-going friend. Not a surrogate spouse, but my man-on-site who took care, literally, of some of the heavy lifting. He picked up brothers from their Parc Monceau school, carted heavy things up from the dusty cave, hauled the Christmas tree across town and up our building’s entry steps, and hauled it out again in January.

With the volleyball and basketball teams at school, Parker had to make his way by train or plane to sports trips all around Europe, the Mediterranean, and northern Africa, and at the same time he was pushing his way through the college application process. We saw Dad nearly every weekend for twenty-four or forty-eight hours, connected daily by every technological means known at the time, and kept extremely busy. Life was spinning as quickly as I had ever experienced it, the hum was rising, the date, June, 2007, drawing us ahead.

(Next post, we’re heading into the unknown. . .)

Global Mom: Homeland? Security?

The American cemetery of Normandy

The American cemetery of Normandy

From Global Mom: A Memoir:

By November, still keeping a low American profile, and still getting settled into this rented home in the village of Croissy-sur-Seine. . .

Croissy-sur-Seine

Croissy-sur-Seine

. . .Which meant still sorting through boxes to find Christmas decorations I’d barely restacked in a now-dry basement. . .

Still in boxes. . .

Still in boxes. . .

. . .Randall got a call. It was word that he had been selected for an advancement that would put him at corporation headquarters. In New Jersey.

In the U.S. of A.

Could he move immediately?

Let me pause. Let me allow that to sink in a spell.

Home for almost 10 months...

Home for almost 10 months

This scene is not all that atypical in expatriate life. You move to a place — to Moscow from Minneapolis or to Mumbai from Moscow, let’s say – and you just begin figuring things out when a call comes. The call might ask you to repack your boxes and head back to where you just came from, (to the home you just sold, to the school you just forfeited your children’s slots in. . .

Claire and friend. . .

Claire and friend

. . .To your spouses’ practice/studies/firm/office he or she just closed or sold off), or to repack your boxes to head to another place altogether, (where you must find a new home, school, a new life track for everyone), or to repack your boxes because the company is sorry, there is no job anywhere for you in the brand new corporate structure.

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044

Imagine the scenario where you have uprooted because you’ve accepted an assignment in Cairo or Stockholm or Bangalore where you in good faith are digging in your roots and drinking from a new soil. . . only to be Rubrik-cubed back or away or out of a job all together. Most of the time employees are given the option to keep their job, but sometimes that means the job is in one country and the family stays in another.

Our youngest two

Our youngest two

It is a less-known and less-appealing side of the international life. But given the backdrop of 9/11 and a subsequent military invasion in Iraq, such professional dramas are, we certainly must agree, mini-dramas, even picayune.

Still, they aren’t easy.

Last bike ride before Dad leaves France

Last Sunday bike ride before Dad leaves France for several months in the US

Besides, I was writing about Randall’s offer for a new job.

“No,” he said, “We can’t move right now. We’re just moving in right now. But,” he eyed me for the no-go grimace or the go-ahead nod from across our bedroom where he was receiving this phone call from headquarters. . .

Saying goodbye to Montmartre

Saying goodbye to Montmartre

. . . “But, ” he said, “I can move in the new quarter. I’ll move. Melissa and the kids will finish out the school here year and follow in the summer.”

We did this for many months, Randall in the U.S., the rest of us in France, which time it took for us to get our heads around the prospect of reentering The Homeland.

Montmartre, Place du Tertre

Montmartre, Place du Tertre

Blogueuse Relooking

reloooking 1

Which means, roughly, that I’m a female blogger (French: blogueuse), and I’m going to spruce things up (French: re-looking).

I thought it only fair to warn you.  Don’t freak out.  You’ll still recognize me.

relooking 2

Next time you visit here, you won’t find the lugubrious blue-gray background, the flashy hot yellow-to-vermillion-to-hot yellow strip along the top, the calendar and Goodreads list and other cluttery widgets. Maybe you won’t even find my come-hither grin on the left hand side of the screen, I’m still deliberating.  (Although please, I do sincerely want you to come hither. Or, uh, come here.)

relooking 5

What I hope you’ll find is a brighter, fresher page – so subtly tucked, so gently stretched, with a lift and a plump and still all the warmth and candor and depth and spirit I hope you have come to expect when you click for a visit.

Why all of a sudden this relooking? Age, quite frankly.  This blog is coming up on One Year Old.  In blog years, I think that’s over the hill.

relooking 3

But more salient than the age thing, I’m making a shift.  We have spent two solid months of posting exclusively on my book entitled Grief and Grace: Collected Voices on Loss and Living Onward.  As you know, but as I should probably explain to newcomers, that volume is a manuscript born out of our family’s ongoing experience with catastrophic loss. I’ve written at length here at the blog and elsewhere about the realities of traumatic loss, acute grief and the droning underscore of absence that have been our family’s journey since July 2007.  That was when our eldest, Parker, then 18 years and 5 months old, lost his life while attempting at saving another’s.

While I think a lot and deeply about the experience of loss, (my own and others), and while I’ve researched and written extensively about what major and permanent loss means in our lives, (both intimate and communal), it was the December massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary school that flipped a major switch in me.  I simply had to post on only this topic for a while. I’m certainly not done with it – neither with my own grief and burden of absence, nor with writing about it – but I find it necessary to shift this blog’s focus to other topics for a season.

But first, here is where I want to thank you, my readers.  Some of you have come here loyally without posting comments publicly. Instead, you have written to my private email address.  I need you to know that you have taught me life-altering things in your tender and stark messages.  You’ve confided sacred things in me.  You’ve sent, a few of you, pages of  straight-from-the-gut writing, and I have read them with respect. It is hard to know how to thank you enough.

Others of you have posted comments for all of us, mostly strangers to one another, to sift through. Not easy, especially when the topic singes nerve-endings and cuts right down to the marrow.  I honor your experiences and appreciate your trust in sharing such personal treasure in a public forum.

global_mom_cover

As I re-look the blog to something slightly cheerier and hopefully easier on your eyes, I hope the content will follow suit. You know already that my book, Global Mom:A Memoir goes to press. . .GOES TO PRESS?. . .(goes to, gulp, press). . .tomorrow. . .and will be in your neighborhood bookstore (and on Amazon) as of June 1.  Between now and then, I want to return to posting from that manuscript. I will be picking up from where we left off ages ago (does it feel like ages ago to you, too?), in Versailles on our way to Croissy-sur-Seine, a village outside of Paris, where we lived for a while.

Then on to five other addresses/languages/cultures/homes.

Here’s what you can anticipate over the next few months:

-More frequent but shorter posts, mostly excerpts from Global Mom: A Memoir. (I’ll try to post 3x a week)

-Lots of photos from my archives (which, of course, will not be included in the printed book. So you get the exclusive illustrated version!)

-Behind the scene peeks into the process of writing and editing this book; what it’s been like working with an exceptional publishing/design/editing team in a cutting-edge boutique publishing house; you’ll meet some of my online writing/cheerleader friends (so you might meet yourself); and you’ll get an inkling of how my family has been (stupendous!) through this all.

-Glimpses into what’s happening now in the real Global Mom’s world, namely: what does spring in Switzerland really look, smell, sound and taste like?

-And with all that, some extra fun travel in and around central Europe.  I envision a little Poland rather soon, some more Italy, probably some Austria, undoubtedly a whole lot of France. I’ll take plenty of pictures and even video footage.

-Speaking of video footage, I’ll be adding much more of it, and will link to You Tube.  I want you and others that you tell about this blog and the book, to get to know Global Mom on the road.

-And then, of course, anything else that happens to pop up on the journey.

This should be so much of fun! Thanks to each of you for being here and for making my world an abundant place worth living in.  With you, I want to dig into it with both hands,  my head on straight, and my heart wide open.

052

Communion at Oktoberfest

“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”
― Maya Angelou

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Trumpets squeal and blare through the flat blue autumn sky above Marienplatz. Tubas honk and burp in between the raucous amusement park rides on Maria Theresien Wiese. Accordions wail and wheeze on every corner of Viktualienmarkt where men dressed in lederhosen, hunting hats and woolen knee stockings are hugging two-liter steins in their portly arms.

Credit: Fugu_24 flickr

Credit: Fugu_24 flickr

Beside them are the bearded cross-dressers wearing wigs of yellow yarn braids, lip-sticked circles on their cheeks, their chest hair prickling out of the plunging necklines of their embroidered dirndls. Women dodge around them, their cleavages climbing to clavicles, doughy breasts heaving out of white lacy blouses, frilly anklets spilling out of hiking boots. Aprons tied around corseted waistlines, petticoats pouffing under gathered skirts, and everyone parading with pretzels the size of life rafts, beers the size of birdbaths, and taut pink or gray sausages the size of airline neck pillows. Yodeling, hollering, swaying and puking, broad oom-pah-pahing.

Credit: herby crus flickr

Credit: herby crus flickr

And over there by that bush, a man in a felt green hat with an enormous feather, his knickers bunched awkwardly, is relieving himself in the shrubbery.

Welcome to Brueghel meets Hieronymus Bosch, only earthier than the first and more surreal than the second.

Willkommen zum Oktoberfest.

Linda, my husband’s German work colleague, and a mother of young children, has asked to sit right next to Randall at his table. This evening is a company dinner in one of the big, tented Oktoberfest halls. Randall has done this sort of dinner more times in his career than he can count. But this time, our family’s tragedy is only weeks into our history. Already he’s having to learn to survive these settings – the loudness that feels violent, the crudeness that makes his back hunch in discomfort, shoulders bent over his thoughts so throbbing, his soul feels as if it has third degree burns.

Because of the din swirling all around, Randall’s sure this will be just another one of those evenings he’ll have to survive and then, offering some excuse –  he needs to put more money in the parking meter; a client from Asia is texting with an emergency; he might be having an allergic reaction to the latex seat covers; anything – might have to leave. This time, he sits there as he so often has, shoulder to shoulder with the joking and the jocular, trying to take part although his thoughts are rocketing beyond a galaxy away.

Linda clears her throat. She smiles at Randall. He smiles weakly, gesturing as if to ask, do you need me to scoot over? You need more space? Pretty loud here, huh! You enjoying your drink?

The miming ends as he looks down into the stein filled with mineral water with its slice of lemon bobbing like a planet off-orbit, and Linda, leaning on one elbow, takes a breath audible enough that gets Randall to look up and meet her glance:

“So,” she begins in German, “your children, how are they liking Munich. . .?”

“Thanks for asking,” he says, straining not to yell, although how else will she hear him? “Looks like they’re slowly making friends. . .”

Randall smiles. Linda rearranges her cutlery. She turns her shoulders more directly to him so as to be heard.

“And your children are. . .they are. . . adjusting to. . .their new life?” she asks, her eyebrows raised.

“Oh, I think so, although there are a lot of. . .of challenges,” he answers.

“And you and your wife. . .are you. . .is it. . .can you tell me. . .” she freezes and looks at the napkin she now notices she’s been holding crumpled in her lap. “And you two are. . .I mean. . .after what has. . .you and your family. . .”

Linda stretches and presses her napkin flat across her knees, then lifts it up, laying it like a wrinkled tarp  over her plate. Wiping one hand over her eyes, exhaling, she then props the weight of her whole upper body on one arm by planting the heel of her hand on her forehead between her brows. A pause, and her next sentence comes awkwardly, in half-whispers, as she leans closer; “Randall. I’m just trying to ask you about your son.” Her tone thickens, “I am so sorry, Randall. Can you. . . please – I hope this is not hurtful – but can you please tell me about your son?”

A simple question, and you’d think an invisible glass dome has descended – swoosh – on this moment in the far corner of this tent teeming with partiers. At the same overcrowded banquet table where bedlam is the first thing on the menu – only feet from the yodeling accordion player, right next to where the jaded waitress grunts under the pewter tray holding eight beer steins she hoists overhead, inches from where two men (already plastered) swat at her ruffled skirt – amid that whirl of chaos that is so much this world, madness recedes. Suspended at least for an hour, the world and its deafening excesses fade for two work colleagues, who sit side by side, elbow to elbow, talking and wiping tears at Oktoberfest.

Credit: Cpt@ flickr

Credit: Cpt@ flickr