Saturday, November 10, 2012

Tuesday Talk

This year's Cate School senior class of 2013 invited me to speak at their series of Tuesday Talks, held weekly in the Katherine Thayer Cate Memorial Chapel (where, as is mentioned below, I was also married).

As part of an  ongoing Senior Inquiry Project, the class has been asked to ponder the question "How did we get here?"  The remarks below -- delivered this morning, November 10, 2012 (a Saturday, I know) -- are, among other things, my attempt to grapple with that question

Almost exactly twenty five years ago -- on November 21, to be precise, 1987 -- my father, my mother, and my brother Sam had just returned to New York City from a weekend in New England.  My father dropped off my brother and my mother at the apartment on 79th Street.  Then he went to park the car in a lot up on 95th Street and Second Avenue. It was an uncommonly windy morning -- the windiest morning of the year, they said -- so much so that, as my father was walking back down 93rd street, high above him, up on the 33rd floor balcony of a residential apartment building, a glass tabletop was lifted off its base and tumbled over the rail.

It shattered into who-knows-how-many pieces on the way down, but one of those pieces, about the size of a pinky, sliced down through all those wild, buffeting winds and struck my father in the back of the head like a bullet. He fell. A doorman saw him, saw that he was bleeding, that he had been hit by something, and hailed a taxi, figuring that would get him to the hospital quicker than an ambulance.

I happened to be home.  I was living out on Long Island at the time. I had graduated from college the spring before and I was working on a book with a friend, but I had come in to the city that same morning to attend a party that night. When the phone rang in the kitchen, I answered. It was a police officer, saying that my father had been struck in the head by a piece of glass, and that we should probably come down to New York Hospital where they had him.

My initial reaction was casual, as if nothing so bad had happened. "Oh, Daaad! isn't that just like Daaad, getting hit in the head by a piece of glass." It didn't make sense, so my mother and my brother and I -- my brother, I should say, was thirteen at the time -- all got in a cab, and went down to New York Hospital, and it wasn't until we were actually driving down Second Avenue that it started to dawn on me that this was probably a lot more serious than I'd been imagining. It was a truly sinking feeling, intuition, or maybe it finally just hitting me -- it's never good news when a police officer calls your home.

So we got to the hospital, by which time I was definitely feeling the darkness of the moment, and my mother was too -- we both understood that we were not just coming to pick Dad up with a bandage on his head. And in fact, within moments of our arrival in the emergency room, they actually wheeled him by, while we were being told what had really happened. His stretcher passed right in front of us, and I stopped listening. I got it. He looked like he'd been in combat

But the information was that this piece of glass was still in his head, and they were prepping him for surgery. There was a lot of swelling obviously. They would need to get that down as much as they could, but as soon as possible, probably that night, they were going to try to remove the piece of glass, but they couldn't assure us that my father would survive the operation because the glass itself might have been stanching the wound. Depending on what arteries it might have hit, or might be plugging, they might remove the glass, and be unable to contain the bleeding.

So I took my brother back to the apartment. My mother stayed at the hospital -- because we had no idea when or how long the operation was going to be. I don't know if we even had dinner. Pizza. Stouffers. But I remember putting Sam to bed, sitting next to him on the bed and telling him, we just pray for the chance to see him again. That is all, so we can tell him. And he want to bed, I stayed up. I had to call friends and relatives. And I'll always have a place in my heart for Stanley Kubrick's Lolita, because it was the only thing that was on at 2 AM, which is I think when this operation finally got started.

But it's rude of me to keep you in any further suspense. He made it. One centimeter this way or that way, and probably not, but they got the glass out of his head, and there were articles in the The New York Post and The Daily News about it. My Dad had recently been named head of programming at a cable television network, so for about three days running, the Post took to calling him the "scalped TV exec." "Scalped TV exec waging miracle recovery!"  And then it got better. We didn't talk to any of the papers, but apparently some reporter got through to the people who lived in our building -- not people who knew us very well, because apparently all they knew about my father was that "oh right, you mean the guy who goes jogging every day at 5:30?" So the in the paper, of course, they started saying that part of the reason he recovered so quickly was because he was in such good shape; he was a health nut. He became "Scalped TV exec jogger man." He was like some show on Fox.

Within three or four days, he was sitting up in the ICU and doing all those hilarious things that people who have suffered massive head injuries do -- thinking he's on an airplane somewhere, stuck on the runway, getting angry at flight attendants -- but he was on a road to recovery that...well, you could say we're still on it, I guess, but the steepest inclines were those first couple years. They were not easy, but the upshot is that he could walk in here right now, about as fit a seventy-seven year old man as you're liable to see, and you wouldn't know that anything unusual had ever happened to him, unless of course you asked him to use an ATM machine or a Metro Card, in which case you might begin to suspect that something was up, but I actually don't think that has anything to do with the accident.

So the story is a bit of a litmus test. If you've found yourself at any point in that description thinking, "Wow, Mr. Hansen's Dad, he's like the luckiest man in the world!" well, you my friend are an optimist. If you thought, "Gosh, Mr. Hansen's Dad has to be the unluckiest man in the world," you're a pessimist. And if you heard that whole thing and thought, "I don't know, who's to say?" I think that just means you're old.

Anyway, my brother, as I mentioned, was thirteen, just starting ninth grade, and applying to high schools. I had gone to school up in New England. My sister had as well, so the assumption was that Sam would probably do the same. But after the accident, which turned the apartment on 79th Street into a kind of recuperative facility for a couple years there, there was an instinct to keep the family a little closer together. It's hard to separate when something like that happens, and all of a sudden New England seemed far away.

What didn't feel so far away -- as strange as it may seem -- was Cate. My mother grew up here in Carpinteria. You can actually see the ranch from the dining hall. My father attended Cate for two years. We had a cousin who was here. We had aunts and uncles living down the road, so the idea of Sam's coming here felt safer in an odd way. I just think it made my mother feel better to think that if anything were to happen to Sam, or if something were to happen back home  -- because we weren't out of the woods by a long shot -- her sister was literally eight minutes away, by Jeep.

So Sam attended Cate, and actually when Sam visited the Mesa for the first time, he stopped off to pay respects to one Betty Woodworth, who was living down on Middle Road. He sat quietly at her kitchen table, probably feeling very nervous and wondering why he was there. The reason he was there was that the Woodworths and my mother's family had known each other from when my mother was growing up here -- not that well, but the Brookses and the Woodworths share a lot of tribal markings in common. So when Sam came to the Mesa, that kind of re-cemented an old family connection, enough at least -- hang with me here  -- that a few years later when Betty Woodworth's youngest daughter Elizabeth  needed a place to stay in New York, to take a six-week summer Shakespearean acting class, Betty called up my mother to ask if she knew of anywhere cheap -- or free -- that Elizabeth could stay.

Now time and manners advise me to make this long story as short as I can. The shortest I can manage is that Elizabeth ended up staying in my parents' apartment that summer. My parents weren't there. I was living down in the west village at the time, being very cool Mr. Novel writer guy -- I had hair -- and what do you know,  I found myself  spending a lot of time lurking around the outside of this Shakespearean acting class. Elizabeth and I woo'd, one thing led to another and, well, four years later she and I were wed...

…Here.  Right here. Fourteen years ago. Scene of the crime. The rest is reasonably well documented as these things go. We lived in New York for about a decade, got our family started -- and boy, am I making that long story short -- then about five years ago, we moved back out here for what was supposed to be one year, honey I swear. I finished a book, started loitering around campus. Ross Robins asked if I'd like to make myself useful.  I said "sure, what's that?" and here I stand.

So in answer to the question of the year: that's how I got here. But what's interesting about that is that if I had the time to tell you the slightly longer version of how all those intervening years played out, you would see that there seems to have been a rather elaborate magnetic field drawing me to Cate -- obviously. I married into its hall of fame, but did you also know, for instance ( some of you do) that Stanley Woodworth  -- Betty Woodworth's husband, and namesake of the excellence in teaching plaque that hangs in the Schoolhouse breezeway -- taught my father here? When he was a young French teacher, one of his students was a young Peter Hansen, which of course means -- incidentally, theoretically -- that one of you sitting here could grow up to have a son that marries my daughter. And I will find out who you are. And we will talk.

But so yes, my standing here would seem to be the result of a carefully calibrated network of profound and ineluctable forces, blood, like-mindedness, book-mindedness, matchmaking mothers, oracles, riddles, roadside encounters.  From certain perspectives, the fix was in.

But  let me take you back to the beginning of my talk, because as much as my standing here may have to do with all those powerful invisible magnets, it has everything but everything to do with the flight of that little piece of glass, whistling down from thirty three stories through the windiest day of the year directly for the back of my father's head  -- because if that little shard dodges one centimeter to the left, well, then you optimists are right -- he was a lucky man -- because one centimeter to the left and I doubt very much that Peter Hansen could walk through that door right now, and I probably couldn't ever watch Lolita again, and I don't think Sam Hansen comes here and sits in Betty Woodworth's kitchen. Doesn't make sense. 

Likewise, if that little shiny arrowhead gets pushed two inches that way, well then you pessimists are right -- poor guy, because it easily could have missed him and landed harmlessly against the pavement. And if that's what happened, then again, Sam's not in that kitchen. He's up in New Hampshire somewhere, or Massachusetts, or who knows. In which case, Betty Woodworth is certainly not calling up my mom to see where her daughter might stay for six weeks that the summer of whatever it was, 1994? '95? That would've been really weird.

But that's not what happened. And who knows, maybe -- if the winds had been different  -- maybe those invisible magnets would have re-adjusted and found some other way to get me here. Maybe they were in charge of all that wind; I don't know how the universe works. All I know is that shard fell exactly where it fell, and it set it off the rest of our lives, including a lot of pain, and struggle, and frustration, and sacrifice, but also including the fact that I stand before you now, because that little shard of glass is how I got here. And the really crazy part -- which would be kind of unbelievable if it weren't also so undeniable -- is that now that you've been sitting here listening to me for the last fifteen minutes, now that you've heard my story -- now that we are all together --  that little shard is how you got here too.

So let us all go celebrate -- together -- with milk and cookies.