Goodbye, Craig

On January 13, 2013, I did a blog posting about a young graduate student here at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who had had a diving accident in the summer of 2011 and sustained a high spinal cord injury that left him paralyzed.  Craig Schuff was a graduate student in nuclear engineering.  I alerted readers to Craig’s blog, “Broken Cord,” which is Craig’s own narrative of his everyday lived experience in rehabilitation and getting back to his life as a graduate student after the injury.  In a newspaper article from that time, the reporter referred to his blog as “searing and eloquent.”  Exactly right.

Craig’s postings are also gut-wrenching as they reveal his day-to-day life-experiences after the diving accident.  As he wrote in his blog, “The reality of it strikes me every day. . . The frailty of my existence; the utter dependence on other people for basic survival; the hours and hours burned every day for the sake of the few that are left over . . . What I was and what I did means something, but . . . I can only be who I am in this moment, in this light.”

I met with Craig twice as I worked on my posting back in January of 2013.  I wanted to make sure what I wrote was acceptable to him.  He turned the tables on me and paid me a high compliment:  “You’re a good writer.”

Craig Schuff died last month, October 24, still working toward his doctoral degree, still managing to pursue his everyday life, still striving to live “in this moment, in this light.”  His mother described him as having had an “unusual combination of the mind of an engineer and the soul of a poet.”

Rest in peace, Craig. Rest in peace.


Poulenc at the Nails Salon

This is a little story about two strangers sitting next to each other one day in a nails salon.

A year or so ago, I finally took my daughter’s advice and walked into a nails salon for a pedicure.   Before you roll your eyes at this seemingly over-the-top self-care occupation, remember that I have significant knee problems and reaching my toes is a major challenge. At least, that was my rationale for finally giving this a try.

The routine for getting a pedicure includes sitting for about 30 minutes in a large soft chair that can be adjusted for comfort (into nearly all possible configurations) with your feet in warm swirling water.  Sometimes the pedicurist is chatty, sometimes not.  Sometimes the person in the next chair strikes up a conversation, but this is a little unusual. I think that, for many women, the occasion offers a sort of “time out”  from the concerns of the day.  I’m happy with the pleasant quietude that is often present.

So, on one particular day a couple months ago, as I was sitting in my comfortable chair at the salon and Charlie was working on my feet, another customer came in and was directed to the chair next to mine.  I glanced over at her — not anyone I knew.  Quietude resumed.

Then, somehow, a brief conversation got started between the new customer and me.  I think she mentioned something to her pedicurist about an upcoming musical event that she was attending.  We started talking a bit about music in our lives, and she told me she was very close friends with the owner of our local piano gallery.  Well . . .

That grabbed my attention, and I told her about my enjoyment of playing two-piano works with my piano partner Melinda for the past four or five years.  And, in fact, Melinda had purchased her second piano from the close friend’s piano gallery.

Then I got more caught up in the evolving conversation and began to describe the 2-piano piece we had just started working on — Elegie, composed by Francis Poulenc (a French composer who lived from 1899 to 1963).  Elegie is a kind of ethereal piece, much of it comprised of enormous chords — left and right hands together.  Melinda and I were sort of lurching our way through it at that time, struggling to find one big 8-10 note chord after another.  The woman in the next chair looked at me, and said “Oh, Poulenc!  That is so typical of his work.  He had huge hands!”


How is that for serendipity?  That the woman sitting next to me in a nails salon was not only familiar with the name and music of Francis Poulenc, a composer who had only recently popped into my life, but she knew that he had “huge hands”!  Hence the enormous chords, well within his reach but not mine.

The everyday threads of her life and mine came together in unexpected ways that afternoon.  For a moment, the two of us — who just happened to decide to get pedicures on the same day, to go to the same nail salon, to go at the same time of day, and to be seated in chairs next to each other — had a brief but meaningful conversation that involved shared interests and knowledge at a surprising level of understanding.  It was a moment of bright connection in the everyday!




It’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood . . .

When our children were very young, they spent part of almost every weekday watching “Mr. Rogers” on public television.  Fred Rogers was a soft spoken, quiet man who offered a children’s program full of gentleness and everyday-ness, qualities that contrasted starkly with the rapid-fire stimulation and frenetic pace of “Sesame Street.”  “It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood” was the first line of the song he sang at the beginning of every program, and the song ended with the words, “Won’t you be my neighbor?”  As I remember, while he sang this song, Mr. Rogers first took off his “outside” shoes and put on his sneakers, and then took off his jacket and put on his cardigan sweater.  Always the same song, always the same routine.  I think this was his way of pretending with the children who were watching that he had just arrived in the “neighborhood” and that he was getting himself ready to spend the next hour with them.  .


A neighborhood is one of the many spaces in which we spend our lives every day.  In our neighborhood, In the past 2 or 3 years, four of the homes close to us on our street have changed ownership — the most recent just last month in August.

We moved into our house in this neighborhood 26 years ago.  At that time, the people right next door to the north of us had already been long-time residents. It is their house that just changed ownership in August.  During our many years as next-door neighbors, we developed regular and predictable ways of interacting and sharing our worlds.  Garden talk, weather talk, grandchildren talk, house maintenance talk, health talk, travel talk — friendly, amiable almost-daily exchanges.

So what happens when somebody new moves into the house next door?  Well, our newest neighbors are a family with two young boys, so hearing the sound of children’s voices coming from that yard during the day and early evening is a new phenomenon.  The two cars in the driveway are different — one white and one dark green. Whereas the previous owners mostly used the large family room at the back of the house for their everyday occupations, we now see lights on in the front rooms and the dining room.  With the previous neighbors, especially in recent years, we always informed each other if we were going to be away for a few days, or even for overnight; but, for now, with the new family, it’s still a guessing game (“I think they’re gone for the weekend”).

It’s hard to say goodbye to the longtime friendship and familiar routines of the former next-door neighbors.  At the same time, however, all the changes that come with having new neighbors are in their own way refreshing.  It’s fun to look ahead to the months of getting to know the new family, watching their children grow, and sharing the house talk and garden talk and family talk.

Later this month we will be gone for a few days up to a cottage on a lake in northern Wisconsin.  Before we go, I will make sure our new neighbors know where we will be and how many days we will be gone.  Maybe that will jump-start a routine for us to keep an eye on each other’s homes when one of us is away. Or maybe not. Together, we will gradually find our own way to be next-door neighbors to each other — a way that is comfortable for all of us.

And we will continue to enjoy “a beautiful day in the neighborhood.”