May 102015
 

My friend Chris Farlekas died last week. He was 86.

I never knew either of my grandfathers, and my last living grandparent, Grammie, passed away when I was 9. So it’s always been convenient, when trying to explain the role that Chris has played in my life, to start by saying he’s sort of an adoptive grandfather. But that never seemed quite right to me.

I think it’s because grandfather-with-quotes implies a certain directionality of the relationship that just wasn’t there. Your “grandfather” is your old neighbor you got to know because he made lemonade for you in the summer, or the guy you met while volunteering at the nursing home that you called gramps for fun until it kind of stuck. In these cases, you’re the one doing the adopting. That wasn’t the case with Chris and me. Besides, he called me brother.

There’s also the problem of calling him “my” adoptive grandfather. Because it would be absurd for me to suggest I’m feeling uniquely devastated right now. But here’s where words fail me. Because I can’t figure out a way to convey the superhuman reach of this man’s life.

Korean War medic. Civil Rights marcher (and near martyr). Vietnam War correspondent. Community journalist. Community activist. Local arts patron. Domestic abuse counselor and interventionist. Literal saver of lives. Figurative saver of lives. Emergency shelter provider. Minister. Friend, son, brother, spiritual healer. In 46 years at our local paper, the Times Herald-Record, Chris had interviews ranging from Joe DiMaggio to Henry Kissinger to the Dalai Lama. There were books in his house signed to him by people who were famous when my parents were kids. When I got into Dartmouth he took me to meet Frank Gilroy ’50, Pulitzer and Tony Award winner, whose grandson Sam would also be in my class. I think he met the pope once. Jean Paul II, that is.

Our town was not big enough for this man’s love. And yet he never got too big for us. In semi-retirement from the Record, Chris took up the promotion of local high school and amateur theater. That’s how I met him. Or first became aware of him, I guess. I was in my high school auditorium watching a full dress rehearsal for Hello, Dolly! and I noticed an old man walking around stage taking pictures 3 feet in front of the actors’ faces. That’s just how Chris operated. He wasn’t shy about inserting himself into a scene.

It would be two years before Chris inserted himself into my life. That year we were doing Jesus Christ Superstar and one evening I went over to our Jesus – Pat Dunn’s – house. Chris was there, dropping off a pie, I think, which even if wrong is as reasonable a guess as any since Chris was also a prolific baker. I think after he left we were going to play poker, but I don’t really remember any of that. I remember that evening as the moment Chris decided he wanted to get to know me. We talked for a few minutes at a booth in the Dunns’ basement. All the while he studied my face. “You have a really big nose,” he said, finally. “It’s true, I do.” “What do you think is the greatest song ever written?”

For all the impact Chris had, for all that he gave to the community, when people talk or write about him I think they miss one of his most important qualities. Some people are really good at making you feel they’re interested in what you have to say, listening intently as you share, over time, stories that build an understanding of who you are. Chris, though, would know everything important about you after a 5-minute conversation. It happened with me, when a week after our first meeting he sent me a book via my school’s musical director that perfectly captured how I aspired to approach life. I saw it again with my mom, when he met my parents for the first time (at our house; he brought an apple pie). The conversation was meandering easily until he turned to my mom and asked her a question about her past so pointed and relevant it brought tears to her eyes.

How he would think to ask such a question has to this day been a mystery to me. I asked him about it once or twice, and he explained it by saying that in Korea, he had to decide very quickly whom he could trust with his life, and whom he couldn’t. So he learned to understand people’s character quickly. But I think there was more to it than that. I still don’t know how religious I am, but seeing Chris cut through all the barriers people put up between themselves and the rest of the world, minutes after meeting them, well, it felt like watching someone work a miracle every time.

I’ve been thinking a lot about all the times I saw Chris, and I wish I’d written things down as we’d gone along because it would make one heck of an eclectic list. There was the time we had dinner with the Bruderhof community in Walden; the time we watched a rehearsal of a play Sam Wright (Mufasa in The Lion King on Broadway; you’d also know him as Sebastian in The Little Mermaid; Chris knew him as a friend) was directing in…I want to say Fishkill; a bizarre but beautiful silent film we saw in Newburgh about Franciscan monks; lunches because some restaurant wanted to give him lunch and he wanted to talk; benefits at local communities and churches, including one to raise money to replace the stained glass at a church that had burned down… and at so many of these things, I got to meet some of the other people in Chris’s universe. It felt almost like being a member of a very special club; Friends of Chris is the foundation that will now carry on his work. But there was always this thing that passed between people introduced by Chris. You’d just know, as you extended your hand, this person was either exceptionally good, exceptionally interesting, exceptionally vulnerable, or some combination of these. Occasionally Chris would clue me in ahead of time. “We’re going to see a veteran with PTSD,” he’d say. Other times it was a young kid who’d gotten kicked out of his house and was living in one of Chris’s spare bedrooms.

So yes, it was an awfully big club. One time when I was at his house on Gardner Avenue in Middletown, I noticed a water stain spreading across his living room ceiling. The thing about giving away all your income is that you live on a razor thin margin, and I was concerned about how Chris was going to get this fixed. But all he wanted to talk about was the show he was producing the next week to raise money for the poor. We were heading out to Middletown’s Paramount Theater to confirm some details. As we hopped into his old red Pontiac convertible, I said, “Chris, you really need to get that ceiling taken care of.” I’m not even sure he heard me. But the next time I was at the house, the stain was gone, the plumbing repaired. When you touch thousands of hearts, at least a few are bound to belong to contractors and plumbers.

Even ten years ago, as I was preparing to graduate high school, Chris’s health was in jeopardy. Doctors at one point told him he was down to about 22% heart function, and gave him anywhere between months and a few years to live. So it was hard to leave him, when I went to college, not knowing how he’d be. But we spoke regularly. After all, he told me before I left that if I didn’t do something amazing with my life, “I’ll find you and kick your ass.” So I was pretty excited to tell him when I decided to sign up for Bike and Build, a bike trip across America to raise money and awareness for affordable housing. I remember intending to not even mention my fundraising requirement to him, as I knew he had other priorities back home. But he got around me. “Here’s what I’m going to do,” he said, on that very same phone call. “I’ve been saving money for a trip to London, but I want you to have it instead. It’s $1,000.” He wouldn’t take no for an answer. Not even with the knowledge that might have been his last chance to see London. For a man known for giving up entire paychecks to serve others, I’m not even sure this particular act of generosity stood out.

It’s hard, being here in China, trying to understand I’ll never see Chris again. But I think the hardest thing is this feeling that now no one else will get to discover him, to appreciate who he is. Reading the above I feel I’ve failed miserably in capturing what he meant to just me, one person. The whole world ought to know what we lost last week.

Chris did make it to London, by the way, with the support of another friend. In fact he lived for another 10 years after telling me his time was limited. And even after Bike and Build he wasn’t done giving. In December 2006 he sponsored a benefit concert I organized for my friend Marianna, again without a second’s hesitation, though this time I came asking for help. And from college until I left for China he served admirably in the role of chief girlfriend screener, though he never did tell me what he really thought until the relationships were over. So maybe he failed a little bit on that end. But I don’t really know how to deal with the fact I’ll never get to introduce him to anyone again. Maybe this piece can help, just a little bit.

I want to wrap this up nice and neatly, but to me that would imply closure and I don’t think I’m there yet. If you want to read a little more about Chris, I found this piece in the Record that is much better written than his obituary. And if you’re reading this from home, look out for a celebration of life ceremony in June. Chris always said for his funeral he’d want his friends to put on a show, and for the entry fee would be donations for the poor.

Chris will have his ashes interred at the Orange County Veterans Memorial Cemetery, with full military honors.

 Posted by on May 10, 2015 at 12:53 pm
Feb 162015
 

Today we left Salalah at about 4pm and drove for 6 hours through the most barren desert I’ve ever seen, on our way back to Muscat. We set up camp in the middle of a sandfield, off a road off a road off the highway. I think this is the darkest place I’ve ever been, which means the stars are the brightest. While in Oman I’ve been thinking of the axiom that there are more stars in the universe than grains of sand on the Earth. That sounds fine and perfectly logical as an abstraction, but after spending my past five days driving through one of the world’s largest sandboxes and my nights staring up at half of everything we know to exist beyond our planet, it’s taken on a profoundly tangible significance. Still, my mind has been dominated less by a feeling of infinitesimal smallness, as I might have expected, and more by the romantic notion of how strange and wonderful it is to have formed bonds with other human beings among all the sand and stars.

And that is a little poetical to me because one of the few books I brought along on this trip is Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s Wind, Sand and Stars. He, of course, is the author of The Little Prince, my favorite book, which come to think of it takes place in a desert not unlike this one. It is there the prince meets a fox, who teaches him what it means to be tamed by someone. So maybe it’s natural that when my mind has wandered, occupying itself while traversing the vast stretches of tan, I’ve thought of you, and what we are, and what we are not: ribbons of black asphalt stretching to the horizon have a way of dividing the world with remarkable clarity.

But at night, the road disappears, and the halves fade away. We’re floating in space, and I look again to the horizon. There, where the sand meets the stars, exists only possibility.

Car, Tent and Stars

 Posted by on February 16, 2015 at 1:34 pm
Jan 102013
 

Day One:

Despite having gone to sleep at 10 after celebrating Australian New Year’s at 8, you’ve somehow managed to sleep until 7:45. But that’s ok, it’s not as if you have anything important to do. So emerge from the mosquito tent and join your companions – a Dutch couple and a pair of friends from Australia – who are also just awake except you guess for Thomas who must’ve been up for a while because he’s clearly relieved to finally have company. You look across the muted-green valley (the sun’s not yet come through the fog) and decide that waking up 150 feet above the ground in a tree house isn’t a bad way to start the year. Now watch the water fall forever from the gravity-fed showerhead through the wooden slots to the forest floor below, pattering against leaves all along the way: the tree house shower symphony.

There must be a word for the feeling of putting on a sweater and knit cap after stepping out of a freezing cold, outdoor shower. The Germans probably have one, some nine-syllable string of nouns. Or maybe the Japanese, with their giant lexicon to describe nature. Like amaya, which means night rain. What a lovely thing to have a word for. As you contemplate this, a beam of sunlight finally breaks through the morning’s stubborn, misty blanket, and settles on a small stretch of hillside across the way.

Moments later, as if it had been simply waiting for the invitation, a gibbon begins to call out, long, rising, whistle-like whoops, punctuated by staccato squeaks. You’re amazed at how clear it sounds. The gibbon could be a hundred or a thousand yards away, but it’s voice is so present you can barely tell which direction it’s coming from. It’s like nothing you’ve ever heard before… and yet somehow it’s familiar. What could — it comes a minute later: humpback whales? At least, there in the tree house, the similarity is uncanny.

The five of you stand and listen, smiling, appreciating. A great way to start the year, indeed.

Listen to the calls of the gibbons

To be continued… 

 Posted by on January 10, 2013 at 2:54 pm
Dec 222012
 
Sunset on Hat Ton Sai

Sunset on Hat Ton Sai

Dear Emma,

I’m on Hat Ton Sai now, just across from Railay Beach on the mainland in the south of Thailand. This place is insanely beautiful, with limestone cliffs rising straight out of the water. When the tide is in, free-climbers simply drop into the bath when they lose their grip. And bookended by the cliffs are wide horseshoes of white sand, where I tend to nap in the afternoons.

I feel almost guilty being here, in part because I’m never fully convinced that I’ve earned the right to enjoy such beauty, but more because I know I don’t enjoy this nearly as much as so many other people would. So far this trip’s done little to dissuade me that eventually I need to live in or at least near mountains.

But I’ve done my best to throw myself into the Rasta-Thai atmosphere here, the place where “Magic Happy Shakes” are printed on laminated menus and a middle-aged vested man from England who’s been here 20 days already is known on the entire beach as “Bowah,” or “older brother.” Tonight after sharing a few Piña Colada buckets with Sarah and a guy named Zeb, I jumped naked into the Adaman Sea and drifted away from shore. A few hundred yards from the lights of the beach bars (where the sea was still only about 4 feet deep), the stars were as bright as they ever get in New Hampshire. It was a bit shocking to look straight up and see Orion, whom for a variety of reasons I’ll always associate with the Hanover winter. But floating there, with lightning flashing in a far corner of the sky and meteors streaking between me and the Hunter, even as I missed home and fretted over a job I may take in Beijing (more later), I felt an uneasy peace I haven’t known in some time.

And now back in my bungalow, I suddenly had the desire to write to you. I’m not sure if I’ll end up sending this as I’m still a bit drunk, but for now it seems like the thing to do. I’m heading to Singapore soon – perhaps we’ll be able to catch up then.

Missing you, and the city, and the States,
John

 Posted by on December 22, 2012 at 6:42 am
Oct 212012
 

I can remember the precise moment I learned what a hostel is. I was in Mrs. Onofry’s Spanish III class my junior year of high school, and we were covering a unit on travel.

Albergue… that’s hotel?” I thought the book had a typo.

“No, hostel.”

“Oh. What’s a hostel?”

By the time I went to sleep that evening, I had learned everything there was to know about the Eurail pass: the difference between regional and select; 15 days in two months versus unlimited; how in Europe you’re a “youth” until you’re 25. I promised myself that sometime – either before, or perhaps immediately after college, I’d spend a couple of months backpacking Europe.

Continue reading »

 Posted by on October 21, 2012 at 9:06 pm
Aug 112011
 

Past the halfway point! It feels like I’ve been here much longer than 15 days – Slovenia was a lifetime ago. Excited I still have so much time left. I’m back in the Piano Bar, where I wrote some of the last posts. I’m waiting for my new friend Mark to get back from the sniper tower. Mark and I met yesterday on Bata’s tour… how do I describe Bata’s tour? Well, first of all, it is an institution here in Mostar. People regularly go well out of their way, and then stay in Mostar longer than they’d planned, in order to go on this tour. It’s one of the reasons I came back here – I’d missed it last year when I could only stay in Mostar for two nights. It is… 10+ hours of absolute insanity. Bata’s been doing these tours about once every 3 days for 5 years, and he’s developed his tour guide persona to perfection – a number of my fellow travelers thought he was legitimately crazy at first – and he maintains that persona and energy for the entire day, which, believe me, is an incredible feat.

The tour began in Mostar, but we quickly left the city behind, heading southwest toward the Croatian boarder and the Kravice Waterfalls, one of the most spectacular places I’ve ever seen. The topography between Mostar and the falls is mostly high desert, a desolate moonscape. So after an hour driving through such an environment, you really don’t expect to see, well, here are some pictures.

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Cue the Jurassic Park theme

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Bata poses for "the paparazzis"

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Into the woods - after the main falls, Bata took us on an adventure further downstream. I had to leave my camera behind, so unfortunatly there were no more pictures from that part of the tour.

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Stjepan Grad, in Blagaj, the former seat of the ruler of Herzegovina

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A few of Blagaj from the castle. I'll add the video I took capturing the call to prayer when I get home. It was stunning.

Bata, by the way, was literally smuggled out of Bosnia during the war and was granted asylum in Sweden, where he ended up living for 14 years before coming back to Mostar in 2006. Unbelievable.*

*Except it is believable, because literally everyone in the country over 16 was affected by the war as if not more directly.

 Posted by on August 11, 2011 at 5:13 am
Aug 232010
 

The State I Live In is a photo essay with weekly posts that attempt to capture parts of New Hampshire and Vermont that may not be well known to those who rarely travel beyond Hanover. Click here for the original post.

Friday, August 13th, was a busy day. After working until 4:30, having a long-overdue phone conversation with a good friend, meeting the brand new 6-day-old baby daughter of a colleague (amazing), and getting dinner with one former and two other current coworkers, a few friends wrangled me into driving out to Norwich, VT, so we could hike to the Gile fire tower and stay until sunrise. I pretended to resist, but actually, it sounded like a great idea from the start. None of us was disappointed. Here are a few pictures.

We got to the fire tower maybe 30 minutes after sunset and climbed to the top with everything we'd need for the night, including smores and Calvin and Hobbes.

Moonrise over the Upper Valley, 8/13/10

It was a little breezy, but the four of us managed to sleep quite comfortably on top of the tower. Our morning looked like this.

When I get tired of the current header picture (from Sarajevo), I’ll likely replace it with this last one. Thanks for reading!

 Posted by on August 23, 2010 at 6:58 pm