Riding fast to America

Life has some cinematic moments, captured and held only in the imagination. And in the mind, regardless of years, those moments remain both vivid and visceral, unchanged and unfaded.

Most of those moments, for me, have to do with my wife or son, or both. Sometimes my parents, or my brother or a close friend. But the one that came to mind earlier this week concerns someone I haven’t seen for 18 years, since the day I left Togo for what was – so far – forever and, above all, the manner in which I last saw him.

Me and Komi Amegnran, April 27, 1996.

Me and Komi Amegnran, April 27, 1996.

While I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Togo, one of my best friends and most frequent collaborators was a young man named Komi Amegnran. He was about my age, and the town where I lived was named after his family. One of his uncles was the area chief, another a former governor. But he was humble and hard-working, and helped me learn about the place I called home for two years.

Together, Komi and I planted thousands of trees in sludgy swamps and sandy wastes. We met and helped dozens of struggling farmers find ways to heal their land and grow better crops. But, most of all, we discussed the mysteries of the universe and the intricacies of life.

Those discussions came to an unexpected end one day in April 1996, when I found out my grandmother had suddenly passed away. What I had foreseen as a weeks-long winding down of my Peace Corps service quickly became a day-long farewell to my town and everyone I knew there.

At many moments over the course of that last day, Komi kept telling me this: “When you leave, I will ride as fast as I can after you. I will follow you all the way back the the U.S. if I can keep up.” I smiled, and he laughed as he nodded his head.

Amegnran and Lome.

Amegnran and Lome.

When a bright red and battered Peugeot 504 showed up outside my simple house to carry me to Lomé – the capital – on that Togolese Independence Day, Komi wasn’t there. I said good-bye to my host family as they helped me load my bags into the car, then climbed into the passenger seat and waved as we pulled onto the road.

We drove through the town, past the school, past the tailor and past the bar – and then, just as we were about to pass the chief’s house, I saw Komi.

He was riding as fast as he could – just as he said – on a fixed-gear bicycle, nearly keeping pace with the car, laughing all along the way. As we left the town limits, he continued close behind through a landscape of thatched huts and oil palms. By the time we neared the next village – an iron-working hamlet called Klologo – he started falling farther behind, but kept going.

As we were about to crest a hill and coast down toward the Gulf of Guinea, I saw him wave one last time, with his whole arm, as he struggled to climb. I waved back, then turned around to face the windshield when I knew he was really gone.

I’ve imagined and dreamt that road often ever since that day, me headed back northward over that hill toward Amegnran, not knowing what I’ll find. After all, 18 years is a long time. But I know I’ll go back sometime, with my wife and son, to see the town again. And I hope, somewhere along that road, to see my friend.

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Wednesday, overturned

MARTA tracks, looking west from East Lake station

MARTA tracks, looking west from East Lake station

When you see a single empty seat on a standing-room-only train and decide to take it, you know you’re in for something. But it was early, I was tired and I wanted a seat for at least part of my morning commute.

As soon as the train doors whooshed open, I rushed to sit down, then casually said “hello” to the man next to me.

He looked around 60, heavyset with a very round face covered in light gray stubble. He wore a red sweatshirt with tattered lettering and a frayed parka. He slowly turned his gaze from the window to my eyes.

“I started the day at Indian Creek,” he led off. The system’s easternmost station. “I’m getting off this train at Five Points.” My destination as well.

“Where are you headed then?” I asked. It seemed like he wanted to keep talking.

“All the way to North Springs,” he said. “And then all the way back down to East Point, which is my final destination.”

With that, he looked out the window again, then intoned a single word: “Overturned.”

I wasn’t sure if I heard it correctly, so I tried to tune out the conversations and too-loud music leaking from nearby headphones. And the word came again, with the same lack of inflection.

“Overturned.”

It’s not really a word that stands on its own, except maybe in a courtroom or on the sideline of a sporting event. There wasn’t much context for it before eight o’clock on a Wednesday morning – except, obviously, in this man’s head.

And then he said something else: “There’s a coffee shop.” We had just passed one, before decelerating into the Edgewood-Candler Park station. He followed that observation with another “Overturned.”

More folks boarded the train, and we were off westward again.

“There’s a barbecue restaurant. Overturned.”

I thought about what the word could mean, what significance was behind its mysterious repetition. Was there tragedy?

“There’s a fire station. Overturned.”

I considered a car overturned. A ruling overturned. Something big enough to stick a word in a brain and keep it repeating.

“There’s a church. Overturned.”

Sitting next to me was a life overturned by something. A man taking a train to the northernmost tip of the system, then almost all the way to its southern terminus, for some reason following and checking off mental markers all along the way.

“There’s the downtown connector. Overturned.”

Where had he truly started, I wondered, and which way would he take home – wherever that was – after going to East Point?

He cleared his throat and looked toward me again. “Excuse me sir,” he began, “can I get by you? I know this isn’t my station, but I need extra time to get to the door.”

I nodded my head and said, “sure.” As he shuffled off, I wished him a sincere “have a good day,” but I don’t know if he got it.

I heard one last “Overturned” before I left the train on my way to work. But that’s not exactly true; I’m still hearing it in my head, still uselessly trying to decipher its meaning. Today, I haven’t gotten much else done.

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A father does his best

I didn’t see my dad cry until I was 19 years old. I don’t remember him smiling broadly until the day I got married. I still have never seen – or heard – him laughing carefree.

Did he do things perfectly in bringing up me and my brother? Of course not. Did he try his best and do as well as he could? Yes, and I believe that more than almost anything in the world.

My son Asa and my dad at Kansas City's Plaza Lighting Ceremony, Thanksgiving 2012.

My son Asa and my dad at Kansas City’s Plaza Lighting Ceremony, Thanksgiving 2012.

I am my dad’s namesake – Roger Olin Burks, Jr. – and share more than a passing resemblance. I have certainly taken both his strengths and weaknesses forward into life, but both are important in understanding who I am and what I mean to others.

What does my dad mean to me? Well, that becomes obvious when I sit down and try to consider it all; it’s way too much to write here. But here are several things that come to mind right away:

  • Sharing his love for history through countless trips to places like Fort Osage, where we ate cold pork and beans from a can;
  • Standing up for his beliefs by sticking with his union and not crossing picket lines during strikes, even though that meant pulling long hours finding back-breaking piecemeal work to keep putting food on the table;
  • Going to the movies whenever we could, including all three original “Star Wars” movies (when I was 7, 10 and 13 years old), and sneaking hamburgers into the theater in our pants;
  • Showing me how to Indian leg wrestle and beating me every single time;
  • Allowing me to make a rock and shell museum in our garage, then letting me invite visitors from around the neighborhood; and
  • Teaching me how to swim, how to ride a bike, how to fish, how to canoe, how to shoot a basketball, how to swing a bat and how to appreciate the scenery outside the car windows on our many family adventures.

And yet, even though I’ve spent thousands of hours with my dad, I don’t feel like I really know him. He’s quiet. There are hints of what’s deep within, like that first time I saw him cry: it was at my Grandpa Burks’s funeral. As I mentioned, I was 19, and my dad and I were both pallbearers. We’d just carried the coffin from the church, and I was there facing my dad, silent. I stepped forward and hugged him – the first time I really noticed we were now about the same size – and he sank his shoulders into me and cried. I did too.

It felt like more emotions than just the loss of his father coming out. Much more, like he was finally safe and able to share them with me. As if, before that point, he didn’t want to weigh me down with all that he was carrying.

Perhaps it’s a Midwestern trait, but I believe that a father shouldn’t burden his children with his own heavy emotions or expectations. There are hopes, sure, and wishes – but they are subtly communicated. A father imparts empathy for others through quiet strength. He guides in the way the wind does – invisible but sure.

A father is, in large part, most present in the things you don’t see. He’s the inner workings of a family, the technical and logistical “how” to the mother’s “why.” He keeps things neat, and not just the lawn. He fixes things, and not just what’s broken around the house.

And so the nature of a father is paradoxical, by turns heroic, frustrating and mysterious. But when he shows you a bit of what’s really there, what he works so hard to guard, it’s thrilling – like this:

When I turned 21 – the age he was when I was born in 1970, during a turbulent time – he wrote me a letter that concluded “I didn’t know what kind of world we were giving you, but I knew you were our miracle. You were my biggest joy.”

Sure, I could never imagine him saying that out loud – but I know he feels it.

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Twenty-five to life

Last week, a great friend – who’s more like a brother, really, because I’ve known him since I was nine years old – sent me this text:

“25 years ago today we graduated from North. I am shocked at how fast it has gone by.”

“North” is Shawnee Mission North, my high school alma mater. And, while I’ve been thinking about (and looking forward to) our upcoming 25-year reunion later this year, I hadn’t given the anniversary of our actual commencement much thought until I read that message.

“Commencement” is quite a word really; somehow more open and less final than “graduation.” But I think it’s a term that’s more clearly and completely understood after it happens – and sometimes long afterward. Because, honestly, I very much dreaded those months leading up to my high school graduation 25 years ago. It felt less like a beginning than it did an end.

Shawnee Mission North High School in Overland Park, Kansas

Shawnee Mission North High School in Overland Park, Kansas

I didn’t always love North, but I grew into it. There was such a big difference between my first day as a sophomore (coming from the angst of Old Mission Junior High) and my last day as a senior, although very few – a couple teachers and close friends – likely noticed. But even 25 years later, that evolution is obvious to me both in memory and physical form: it’s as easy to see as the lack of friends’ signatures in my sophomore yearbook, compared to the abundance of well-wishers in my senior yearbook.

What changed? I guess, over the course of those three years, North turned from just a place I went into a place where I wanted to go. A place I wanted to be. And, on that last day, I place I wanted to stay.

My circle of friends grew and strengthened. I continued luck in finding incredibly caring and dedicated teachers, including being reunited with the music teacher I’d had since sixth grade. Those two things were incredibly important – transformative, really – but it was something else that made North so hard to leave: service.

Honestly, there were days my senior year when I’d come in at 6:30 AM for band practice, be there for the opening bell at 7:40 AM, stay after the 2:40 PM bell for drama rehearsal and then go upstairs to the journalism classroom to work on the yearbook until 10 PM. I got homework done somewhere along the way. I packed enough food for a 15-hour day.

And I loved the long hours, because not only was I doing three things that fed my imagination – playing saxophone, acting and writing – but I was part of those respective, like-minded communities. I was part of a creative process that resulted in something much bigger than the sum of our efforts.

Then so, inevitably, my senior year – and high school experience – began winding down. I reluctantly kept time by four definitive conclusions:

  • The last jazz band concert of the year, wearing suspenders and a bow tie, playing baritone saxophone
  • The final curtain call for my last play, then backstage hugs and some tears
  • The speech I gave at the National Honor Society ceremony, aptly about service
  • The day we opened up boxes containing the yearbooks we’d worked so hard to produce, which would soon be filled with the names and thoughts of classmates we might never see again.

It might seem melodramatic, you know, that often-replayed scene of students out on the school lawn and parking lot, scribbling in each others’ yearbooks. But it did feel final: this was before social networks that, today, let us keep track of each others’ every move and life change. That was the last time we’d all be at North together.

For me, it was as much goodbye to the school as it was to my teachers and friends.

I only return to Kansas City once a year. When I go back, I’m never that far from North – after all, my parents’ house is less than a mile away and my mom still works there. So I drive by the school, slow down a bit and look.

Later this year, I’ll have the chance to return in earnest: our 25-year class reunion is in September. And, to give you an indication about how much that’s been on my mind, here’s a list of my three most-frequent recurring nightmares:

  1. Getting to the airport too late to catch a once-weekly flight to Togo
  2. Absent-mindedly skipping all my classes for a college course, being too late to withdraw and getting an “F”
  3. Missing my high school reunion (usually by showing up at the wrong place)

Sure, I’ve been lucky to have seen a lot of places in the 25 years since I left North. And there have certainly been more pivotal periods in my life since then. But I can’t overstate how important those three years were, and continue to be, for me – and I can’t wait to go back.

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Rediscovered piece (from 2006): I didn’t win the Vanity Fair essay contest, but here’s what I sent in

When I was 17, my head was in the right place: in the clouds.

In between classes, homework, chores and hanging out with friends, I would take every chance I could to let my mind wander. That downtime was frustratingly brief and invariably rare, but I seized it. I daydreamed furiously until the grating alarm clock of real life pulled me from the floating world.

I still visit that place quite often, but not as much as I’d like to, not as much as I once did. When I do, though, the place feels abandoned, neglected.

You don’t find very many young people with their heads in the clouds these days. Instead, their ears are glued to cell phones, their thumbs to video game controllers and their eyes to computer displays.

What’s on the minds of America’s youth? I’d say too much, yet too little.

In the universe of the mind where daydreams are vast, unexplored space, electronic media is anti-matter. It crackles along as vacuous white noise, consuming stars of possibility. It is ubiquitous, painless and instant.

It’s eating away at the daydream time – and fertile minds – of today’s youth. They have too much empty information and entertainment at their fingertips and spend too little time thinking beyond a barrage of text messages and rapid-fire images.

Virtuosity used to refer to rare mastery of artistic pursuits such as music. Today, it’s just as likely to reference the electronic ether of the Internet and all things “virtual.” Millions of people – youth and older folks alike – are leading half-lives trapped in the aptly named Web. They come here for convenience or entertainment, and end up staying too long, sometimes confusing, changing or sacrificing their identities during their sojourn.

Adolescence is perplexing enough without the ability to change at a whim behind the shield that the Internet offers.

Then there are the video game virtuosi that step off the school bus, walk through their doors and are transported smack-dab into the middle of a virtual city’s mean streets – fast cars, easy drugs, big guns and all. Their great struggle is against digitized gangsters. Their master symphony is “A-B-A-B-Fire” on a game controller.

Today’s youth form the first wholly instant-gratification generation – and it shows. There’s so much to do, but so little to show for it at the end of each day.

Two words define nearly every day of my summers as a child: “go outside.” My parents insisted on getting me out of the house to wander and explore both my surroundings and my fertile mind. There weren’t always other kids to play with, but I always found something to do. Hollowed-out stumps became spaceships. Streams gurgling down drainage ditches were rivers coursing off to lands far away. Rocks and other found objects became treasures of unimaginable worth.

Sometimes I’d just lay on my back in the grass and daydream.

While I was growing up, I did have video games and television to pass some time. I wasted hours watching the same Godzilla movies over and over. My friends joined me for three-minute matches of plinkety-plink battle tanks on my Atari. By and large, though, these things weren’t all consuming. Rectangles shooting tiny squares at other rectangles held only so much appeal. Our cable television had about seventeen channels, five of which were airing Bonanza re-runs at any given time.

If I sat in front of the television for too long and started looking glazy, I’d inevitably hear two words from my mom: “go outside.”

Youth in other parts of the world are heeding this advice – taking time to wander, explore and daydream – and it shows.

In my job as a writer for an international humanitarian organization, I have the opportunity to travel to some of the world’s most under-developed places and speak to children and young adults. They’re fascinated to hear about the world I come from and what I’ve seen, and are equally eager too share their own experiences and thoughts with me. They’re never shy about asking questions, however simple.

After coming back from some of these trips, I’ve sometimes spoken at schools or in front of youth groups. Invariably, there’s silence. It’s very rare that anyone asks a question. They usually sit, staring, an unsettling glazy look on their faces.

What’s the difference between American youth and young people in other countries? I’d say it comes down to what’s on their minds. In the countries of Sub-Saharan Africa, a village might have one television set powered by a fussy car battery. Children have to find other things to do.

They have time to think, to daydream. They have the magical opportunity to visit the floating world and spend some time there. They come back with ideas – and are eager to return there whenever possible.

I believe that a quiet mind, given time to daydream, will dawdle in wonderful places and discover amazing things. They’ll roam the same hallowed grounds where poets and scientists and musicians and other great men and women drew inspiration.

There’s too much on the mind of America’s youth today. There are too many distractions. They must learn to unplug, quiet their minds and daydream. When they do, they’ll carry fantastic things back for all of us.

As I type this, my 11-month-old son, Asa, is sitting on the floor and holding a plastic toy cell phone to his ear. “Ba-ba,” he tells no one in particular. “BA-BA!” It sounds serious, like a stock deal or a Mafia hit.

In 17 years or so, if I catch him doing this same thing, this is what I’ll say to him:

“Son, is your head in the clouds? No? Well, put down that phone and get up there!”

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All that in four blocks

I believe we’re wired for curiosity and built for discovery. And I also believe that it doesn’t take very long to connect and get to know at least a bit about somebody.

I was walking through downtown Atlanta, on my way to work, when a man stopped me to ask directions. He was standing in front of campus map for Georgia State University, leaning very close to the sign and studying the details with precision. As I passed by, we made eye contact, and he shuffled into my path.

“Excuse me, sir,” he started, “I’m trying to find 75 Piedmont Avenue. Do you know it?”

It sounded familiar. After all, we were standing on Piedmont, and I went this way every weekday. But 75? I couldn’t immediately place it, so I had to file through my mental images. It took a few seconds to figure it out.

“Yes, definitely, it’s just about four blocks away,” I said. “That’s where I get a breakfast sandwich some mornings.”

(As soon as I pulled up the mental image of 75 Piedmont Avenue, it evoked a ham, egg and cheese croissant. When that happened, I had to say it out loud.)

“Very good, sir, thank you,” he responded.

“I’m going that direction, so I’ll take you there right now if you’d like,” I said.

“Yes sir,” he replied, and off we went.

Within a few steps, I found out that he was a computer science professor at the University of Wisconsin. I told him that I was a writer for CARE. He revealed that he’d studied at Georgia State, and was coming back to visit some former colleagues. I asked him how long he’d lived here before moving up north: six years. He told me a story about how, his first day teaching classes at Wisconsin, he mistakenly wore a Nebraska Cornhuskers shirt instead of Wisconsin Badgers apparel.

“My students badgered me for some time after that,” he laughed.

He asked me where I went to school. Kansas, I told him.

“I’ve been to Kansas City,” he said. “Pretty town.”

“I grew up there,” I replied. “Where are you from, originally?”

“London,” he said. “But my parents are from Bangalore, in India.”

“I’ve been to India a couple of times,” I told him. “The first time, I flew into Chennai.”

“Big, crazy city,” he responded.

“Chaotic,” I said. “So many people. I was there for work, but got to see some temples in Tamil Nadu.”

“Did you go to Mahabalipuram?” he asked.

“Yes, unforgettable” I said. That’s the Shore Temple I’ve written about here.

“And the Brihadeeswarar Temple in Thanjavur?” he inquired.

“Yes, amazing – and big” I answered. That was the place where I took one long, excruciating step. “Have you ever been to Darjeeling?”

“No,” he replied. “But I have wanted to.”

“It’s one of my favorite places in the world,” I confessed. “Very peaceful.”

“Then I must go there,” he said.

“For now, here is your destination,” I pointed out. “This is 75 Piedmont Avenue.”

“I will take my leave now,” he responded. “Thank you for your help, sir, and for a pleasant conversation.”

I shook his hand, wished him well and said goodbye. With that, he went into the building and I continued another block to my office. Even though it had been less than 10 minutes and probably a few hundred steps, it felt like we’d covered much more time and distance.

There’s nothing quite like learning more about another person, especially in unforeseen circumstances. It’s especially remarkable when you discover things in common.

Sometimes, the world feels much smaller when you walk.

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A world of blue

Seven and 37, all the years between and everything thereafter. In so many ways, autism has both colored and shaped my world for most of my life.

Today is World Autism Awareness Day. All around the world, people are using blue in significant ways – lighting their houses, wearing it, changing their social media presence – to commemorate how their lives have been touched by autism, which now affects one in 50 children.

When choosing a blue shirt this morning, I got to thinking about the color and what it means to me – particularly in regard to autism. I’d say that, much of my life, it’s been a deep, sad shade of blue. After all, my brother Danny Joe was diagnosed with severe (non-verbal) autism when he was two years old and I was seven. To say that discovery changed most everything about my family is an understatement; almost every decision, whether great or small, during my childhood seemed to hinge on Danny’s autism in some way.

As an older sibling – as well as a 43-year-old man looking back on it all – it’s hard not to feel some degree of resentment. But then I recall day-to-day life with Danny from my early memories until the time I departed for college: I just tried to be the best brother I could be. There was certainly that deep blue sadness during the many hours I couldn’t connect with him. But there’s also the bright blue happiness of mornings eating cereal and watching cartoons, afternoons running around in the backyard and nights glancing over and watching my little brother drift off so peacefully to sleep.

The years that run from my high school graduation to somewhere in my mid-30s – a span of time that also saw Danny move from my parents’ house to a state hospital in southeastern Kansas – were tinged with a bluish hue of melancholy. I thought about my brother every day, of course, and often talked about him with others. Instead of everyday sadness, though, there were questions. There were mysteries. And then, as I moved from Kansas to Togo and on to Georgia, there was also distance and perspective.

I got married. My wife Kellie and I restored a century-old house. We moved to Oregon. And we welcomed our son Asa in 2004. In all those things, our blue changed to limitless sky.

Then, as Asa grew older, we started noticing differences in his behavior and mannerisms from other children his age. He flapped his hands. Repeated passages from books instead of engaging in conversation. Disappeared into an activity until, with some effort, we were able to interrupt. And so we took him to a developmental psychologist when we was three and a half years old.

While Asa sat on the floor of the office, pushing a toy truck with chubby little hands, the psychologist gave us his diagnosis: autism.

My blue returned to sorrow. It deepened to depression. It sometimes heated to searing anger – directly mainly at God. But, in a relatively short time, those things subsided, replaced by the concerns and worries that most fathers have.

Blue sky and hills outside Orem, Utah. Photo: Roger Burks

Blue sky and hills outside Orem, Utah. Photo: Roger Burks

We started Asa in schools that didn’t work out. We kept trying. My wife found an amazing occupational therapist and we started using the DIR/Floortime approach to connect with Asa through engaging play. We moved from Oregon to Utah to enroll him in a school that uses Floortime in the classroom.

And everything changed for our family. I remember, one day, opening an email from my wife – attached was a photo of Asa picking up a classmate and hugging her. He had such a smile on his face – and so did she – and his expression was so open and engaged. That felt like such a turning point, a moment when the blue changed back to possibility.

Today, Asa is eight. He’s a second grader in a typical classroom at a remarkable school. He is a voracious reader, an inquisitive mathematician, a natural scientist and a very creative writer. His swimming coach told us last week that the backstroke is his racing style. He says blessings for dying bugs, leaves sweet little notes for his lucky parents and plays “Happy Birthday” for classmates on his soprano recorder.

For much of my life, autism has felt like a big blue spotlight – always there. But I don’t think of it that way any more. Today, when I put on a blue t-shirt and changed my Facebook profile, I did so with acknowledgement and affection for my brother, as well as appreciation and pride in my son.

This year – and for all the years that follow – the hue I choose is one of discovery and opportunities as deep and brilliant as my son’s eyes are blue.

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