“The universe (including ourselves) is made up of energy – it’s important to keep it positive! Be as wonderful as the world you want to live in!”
Writing is theraputic; it’s usually the frenetic transcription of wild thoughts that come to me when I run, walk, or sit slave to the United flight of the week. This piece, however, is quite possibly the hardest and most cathartic thing I’ve ever had to compose. I’m writing it not necessarily to inform, entertain, or to pursuade, but instead with the same desperation of someone whom holds the rain in one hand and sand in the other. I’m writing this so I don’t forget the only thing I have left of someone I’d consider the best friend I ever had: my memories of her.
The thing is – I’ve had this article on my laptop for over a week now (note: I started writing this in March; the reality is that it’s been MONTHS), and I can’t seem to get it right. I’ve written INCREDIBLY LONG tomes with crazy amounts of detail, but it never feels ‘done’ or ‘right’. I really want to give some insight into the Tanny that I knew, but, at the end of the day, this article is really for me…because I know she’s quite comfortable with how she lived her life, and I’m still all over the map with mine :)
Tanny from the block
In my school age years, I was lucky enough to wake up AFTER the shitshow that occurs when two teenage girls share a bathroom. Being the youngest in a family of two older sisters, I was (mostly) shielded from the horrors born out of the hormonal laments of middle school girls (but I DID have to get up between the hours of Picture Pages and half-past my mother’s call of “GIRLS! YOU’RE GONNA BE LATE FOR SCHOOL!”). The only reasonably prompt event of those mornings was the arrival of the skinny girl with glasses who walked over from “the back street”, Tanny Vonthron. Tanny (whose real name was “Satanta, which was no name I had ever seen on a keychain) usually meant one thing – it was time for my sisters and Tanny to leave for school, and for the house to quiet-the-hell-down just before Mr. Wizard (and, looking back, that could be what first drew me to her).
Tanny was usually dressed in bright colors (come on, this WAS the 80s), sported giant glasses, and had bangs and blonde hair for days (if ‘a day’ starts at the top of your head and ends at your shoulders). To say that she was a casualty of the 80s would imply that ANYONE survived unscathed, but let’s just say that even Tim Gunn would have had extreme difficulty trying to “make it work.” Tanny always a giant, friendly smile on her face that reeked of never having a detention – if there was ever a stereotype of the smart, smiley super-student, that was Tanny.
I had seen Tanny thousands of times between childhood and my 20s, but never really talked to her much (most likely because the moments we shared together involved me wearing Ninja Turtle pajamas and her holding her hippy-lunch waiting for the two hot messes I call sisters). In fact, the first time I remember sharing space with her OUTSIDE of my mother’s berber carpeting was around the year 2000 when I started helping out with technology at the school district I originally attended.
I attempt a career
NOTE: I’m totally including a ton of detail because, like I said, I don’t want to forget any of this. If you’re interested in the part where I talk about what Tanny meant to me and the last few years, be prepared to skip a bunch of paragraphs :)
Back then, Tanny was teaching Special Education to elementary school children, and I was doing my best to fix the sad Mac faces of Apple 5260/120s (as a college student who had come back to be an “intern”, of sorts, for the school district I once attended). We made casual pleasantries as I updated her Special Education reporting tool database, which is to say I said “Hi, I need to update your Special Education reporting tool database” and did so in silence. When I was done, I left with a nod, and that was about it. Elementary school classrooms were always very weirdly-happy to me, and Tanny’s was definitely the epitome of the “happy” component. As long as I’ve been aware of Tanny, her logo has been the giant yellow smiley face. She has smiley face EVERYTHING. The car she drives? That would be a yellow year-2000 VW bug with the license plate “TANSBUG”. Hopefully you’re seeing the picture I’m painting
Sometime around 2002, Tanny left Huron City Schools, and Ohio altogether, for sunny North Carolina while I stayed in town and tried to wrap my head around a TCP/IP network stack. Cut to the summer of 2005, and I’m working in a back office of the high school library when the principal waltzes in with Tanny in tow. I remember flipping out with nerdy exuberance – not necessarily because it was TANNY, but because I remembered that Tanny’s personal computer was a clamshell iBook, and I had just gotten in a shipment of new G5 Powermacs (Look, for everyone who knows me NOW, you’ve got to understand that the product of “me” now is the result of years of learning social queues. I was 25, living in the town I grew up in, working at the school I attended, and the only thing that made me happy was working with computers. Trust me; it was a bit tragic). For SOME reason, I thought that this fresh stock of awesome Macs would be a HUGE selling point in getting Tanny to work for the school district again (I also thought that fedoras were cool back then – leave me the hell alone). Later that day, I sang Tanny’s praises to the principal and gave him something like a 4-minute diatribe as to why he should absolutely hire Tanny this instant. It was totally unnecessary, and didn’t sway him in the least, because he already had a small mountain of recommendations from anyone who had ever crossed Tanny’s path (you’d be a moron to not recognize how awesome Tanny was). In the fall of 2005, I was freaking out trying to prepare for the beginning of yet another school year (being the Director of Technology for the district at this point), and Tanny started working for Huron City Schools again as a special education teacher.
It wasn’t Stockholm, but we had the syndrome
The Tanny Vonthron that I had “known” when I was younger and the Tanny Vonthron of 2005 shared a couple of traits – they were both incredibly skinny, smiley, happy, blonde, and positive individuals who always knew what to say, but the Tanny of 2005 had this quick, sarcastic wit about her. The measure of how much I’m going to like a person is usually whether or not they can keep up with the onslaught of references I pull off the top of my head. Tanny ALWAYS caught every stupid reference I threw and usually followed it up with a “Nice!” and another relevant and even-funnier reference of her own. If you talked with her for any length of time, you’d get sucked into her shorthand “language” comprised of these references, nicknames, and pseudonyms that were necessary when sharing drama in such a small town where everyone is related and everyone was LISTENING (in later years, this shorthand was also borne out of iPhone autocorrects that you would just run with – so even when you saw “Lola”, “Le Faceboom”, “GOL”, “gorp” and whatever ducking phrase the iPhone decided to mangle this week, you learned to be like Cover Girl – or easy, breezy, and beautiful). Tanny knew the power of the inside joke, and reveled in treating every verbal quip as a well-crafted riddle. She had the “elephant brain” of the group, and thus could remember minutae. I loved to pride myself on my ability to remember stupid obscure details, and we bonded almost immediately.
It’s true to say that you develop “favorites” wherever you work. For me, I enjoyed the high school because the kids didn’t cry as much when you openly mocked them (and, being a former fat kid, I wielded a sharp stick of sarcasm that I tended to jab with the most wanton of disregard). My sister Andrea had come to work for the same school district as la profesora de Español, which made things a bit more comfortable, and we had come to enjoy the snarky sentiments of Brooke Kukay/Lorenz/Kukay – the senior english teacher who wore black to match her cold, dead heart. We each shared a common love: finding humor in the mundane, alcohol, and sushi (okay, maybe just the latter two, but who’s counting).
Like I said, Tanny was a high school intervention specialist who dealt with special education children and helped them to adjust to HS work. Throughout the day she would encounter children with amazing “quirks” that others perceived as flaws. Some wanted things a particular way, others refused to be touched, some had no concept of sarcasm, and many had issues reading and reacting to emotions of others (while showing limited emotions themselves). The coolest thing was, not only did Tanny consider these facets of every child’s personality, but she taught me to identify with them instead of judge them. In reality, looking back on it, she was actually shining a light on certain “quirks” in my own personality that I had never taken the time to face. She was MASTERFUL at modeling correct behavior and being completely unflappable. I was amazed that she could be completely drained yet put on the happy face for some unhappy parent, disarm them with a smile, guide them to the answers they needed to hear, and have them leaving like they had accomplished something. I remember actually repeating phrases that she had used to myself to try and remember them in case I was ever in the same situation. Here she was modeling behaviors and teaching me how to become a better person, while simply trying to escape an awkward situation of her own.
As for unflappable – that was Tanny’s middle name. I have never seen her recoil in the face of anything. You know the stories of flight attendents, soldiers, and nurses who react as calm as Hindu cows in the face of trauma? That was Tanny. The problem was – I’m the kind of person that kicks sand on the line you draw just to find your boundaries. It became a game to me to see how casually I could drop the most candid, cringeworthy statements just to see if Tanny would react. She never did. Ever. I’m sure by now people will have posted countless number of Tanny quotes and nuggets of information she shared with all of us, but there was one key mantra that, TO ME defined Tanny: “Never let the bitches see you sweat.” Now, I don’t know that those were her actual WORDS, but she was the complete embodiment of that phrase. Tanny never let anyone have the power to break her. Ever. She wouldn’t give anyone the benefit of letting them see her shaken. To Tanny, losing yourself was losing the situation, and that bitch never met a situation she didn’t win.
Finally, Tanny was private to a fault. She bought a tiny little house in the center of town and I had the opportunity to visit it a sum total of twice when I knew her. Being one of those people who loved doing the “drop in” on people at home, I couldn’t understand her fear of having people visit. But it wasn’t “fear”, per se, but mainly the concept of having your own space where you could retreat and recharge. Where Tanny and I most strongly bonded was the fact that many people would consider the both of us as extroverted, social creatures, but, in reality, we not only favored being alone and to ourselves, but sometimes downright DESPISED having to leave our four walls and be social. We would lament required attendance at events and try to plan our getaways in advance. We had systems for signaling the other to give a “rescue call”, where you telephoned to try and save someone from an event/meeting/social interaction they were required to have. At the end of the day, we wanted that “Tanny Time”, as we called it, which was that time at home doing nothing but enjoying the company of one’s self.
Rise of the basic bitches and putting the ‘pal’ in Principal
I don’t remember when it happened, I can’t even point to exactly HOW it happened, but Tanny, Brooke, and I became close. It could have been the fact that we were all single in a town with an age gap between the ages of 18 – 36, it might have been the fact that we put on a pleasant face and bit with sarcasm when you turned your back, or it could have been a simple result of friendship by proximity, but slowly we found ourselves communicating pretty frequently about the craziness of the day (from stupid things like who’s doing a reply-all to a news post, to more important decisions like when Nagoya was going to begin half-price sushi this year). We all had our hang-ups, ideosyncracies, and rituals, but instead of being taboo, we laughed and celebrated them. It was good to “belong”. Over time, monday night sushi dates became a thing, runs to Jim’s Pizza Box were common, and we bonded between the hours of work and “alone time”.
Have you ever seen that YouTube video by that kid Lohanthony where he spins his leg and calls “all basic bitches”? You probably have, but if you’ve NOT, then check this out:
Somewhere along the line the three of us watched this video and kept referring back to it (mainly that shit he does with his leg). Eventually, we started calling each other “basic bitches”, or just BBs for short (because we ain’t got time for whole words). The name stuck, and Tanny would refer to her BBs near and far.
Note: I’m certainly not stupid enough to presume that A.) we were Tanny’s only friends, B.) we were Tanny’s “best” friends, or C.) I had any monopoly on insight into Tanny’s thoughts – I’m only suggesting that we formed a bond that we maintained up until this day.
Around 2008, the school district restructured and opened an elementary school for preschool children through 2nd grade. The district opened a search for an elementary principal, and it turns out that the best candidate was right under their noses. Tanny had completed her administrative certificate with other folk who ended up working in our school district, and so when the position opened up there was an outpouring of support for her. During that time, I sat on the “Administrative Leadership Team” for the school district since the role of “Director of Technology” was considered an administrative position (versus a certified or classified position in the union). Because of this, Tanny asked me questions how things worked. I won’t begin to profess that I was her innermost confidant (as I said earlier, she had friends who were principals in our school district, and they were more than capable of answering her questions), but I will say that we had a super casual and extremely down-to-earth bond that you would have with someone with whom you’d shared all your deepest and darkest secrets (well, she knew all MY secrets – to know Tanny is to understand that you never truly know all there is to know about her). Tanny was a shoe-in for the job, and the Huron City School district had the smiliest goddamn principal in the tri-state area :)
“How do YOU get cancer?”
I remember Tanny confessing that she had started feeling strange. She was very much in-tune with her body, and she had some nagging suspicions about symptoms that didn’t add up. I remember her saying that she pressured her doctor into doing some additional tests, and, low and behold, they had found some questionable results.
Now, you’ve got to understand, Tanny was the pinnacle of healthy living in my book. She’d been a vegetarian living in the midwest for as long as I knew – that is a goddamn feat – she’s been rail-thin forever, and she gave the appearance of “Miss Honey” from Matilda to anyone that laid eyes on her. She lived on positive energy, vegetables, and macaroni and cheese. For all intents and purposes, she was the poster child for avoiding cancer, but here we were.
Tanny was methodical with everything she’d ever done in life. This is the woman who wouldn’t go to Hawaii without a list of things she needed to accomplish, the woman who would send HERSELF post cards home FROM Hawaii so she could remember what it felt like being there, and the woman who had binders full of tabs that separated all her monthly bills. Everything she ever researched was tabulated and sorted according to whatever index made the most sense, and she left absolutely no stone unturned; she was simply a voracious consumer of information (which, frankly, is why I loved her – being in IT I thrived on tearing things apart and understanding how the components came together to create a stronger product). When Tanny was diagnosed with cancer, she knew it was going to mean big changes for both herself as well as all the employees and students at the school. She also knew that her privacy was going to be invaded. She had the desire to tell people personally of her condition, but wanted it to be a secret so she could control the flow of information. She had it SO planned out that she made sure to reveal her secret in pairs, so that every person she told had at least ONE other person they could go to in order to discuss what they had learned. It was the most methodical goddamn reveal I’d seen this side of Extreme Home Makeover, but it worked.
I remember the day she broke the news to me. I was sitting in her office and was DETERMINED to keep my shit together. I did not like to show emotion, I enjoyed playing the jester and keeping things light, and this was entirely too heavy for my taste.
But I crumbled.
My god did I crumble. I remember tilting my head back and staring up around her office trying to will the tears back into my eyes. And my breakdown fed her breakdown, which bothered me even more. Tanny did NOT like to cry in front of people (though she’d tell you that it was perfectly fine to do so). I hold that same sentiment, so it was one of the hardest things for us to share. To this day, it’s the only time we’d seen each other cry, and part of me is happy that we let each other have the moment. My mind was reeling and all I could think about was life without Tanny…and it hurt. It didn’t compute. She wasn’t SUPPOSED to have bad things happen to her (except when she tried to fly anywhere by plane, which was constantly a shitshow) – she was the pinnacle of optimism and sunny days keeping the clouds away. I couldn’t rationalize it. My entire life revolves around me rationalizing some behavior I discovered, and this simply did not add up. You want to piss off a kid who needs to understand their environment? Give him some of this does-not-compute bullshit and expect them to live with it. Man did it hurt.
I went home that night and I wrote a letter. I know Tanny still has it somewhere, and I only VAGUELY remember what I wrote in it, but I poured every raw emotion I had into it, stuffed it into a card, and left it for her. It was the only way I could vent the building emotional pressure that I so didn’t want welling up inside me. And that was it. The next day, I was focused on how she was going to kick ass with treatments and deal with this in true Tanny-style.
Cancer treatments are hell, and cisplatin is the devil
Unfortunately for Tanny, “true Tanny-style” meant that she was going to go home and browse the internet looking up the kind of cancer she had. She had told us all she had cancer, and was somewhat vague about the TYPE of cancer, but that was it.
As an aside, it’s probably pertinent to explain a little something I like to call “The Tanny Truth”. Tanny is the most honest individual I have EVER met in my entire life. Being someone who freaks out MORE when I don’t know ANYTHING about something versus when I know the TRUTH about something (no matter how terrible or embarrassing it is), I totally appreciated that Tanny would give me the truth when I asked for it.
But you had to know HOW to ask for it.
You could ask Tanny a question like “How is the cancer?” (which would be an incredibly rude question, but let’s go with it), and she would respond “I feel great today!”. The truth is that she DOES feel great, but she didn’t actually tell you ANYTHING about the cancer. Less experienced individuals would get swayed by the response and would roll with it – exactly like she wanted. More experienced individuals would rephrase the question and get a similar brush off. After awhile, you recognized when you were getting the Tanny truth and simply rolled with it because A.) It was Tanny and she was private, or B.) She was actually trying to protect you. Either way, you’re better off just being deftly redirected like a stream in the woods versus trying to swim against the current and trying her patience.
So, understanding how The Tanny Truth worked, I didn’t pursue the line of questioning about the type of cancer she had. It wasn’t until years (truly, YEARS) later that I found out exactly what a unique and aggressive form of cancer she really had. In these immediate days after her diagnosis, she discovered some truly terrible pictures of the type of cancer she had. I cannot even begin to fathom what it was like for someone who had lived exceedingly well and had planned out their life so meticulously to have their mortality delivered to them courtesy of some scan results. I’ll never be able to understand the power she had to command to fight this MENTAL battle even before the physical treatments had begun, but, again, this was Tanny and she was a believer in the power of the self and positive attitudes.
To her credit, had I known the bleak picture the internet painted her at that time, I would have been even more inconsolable than I had already been that day in her office. I chatted with a friend recently who went through cancer, and he summed it up better than I could: “When you’re in treatment, you’re in survival mode: you’re fighting for yourself and focused on getting better. Cancer is much worse for the people around you than it is for you.” Thinking about this years after the fact, I not only respect her privacy and decisions, but love her for them.
The first round of treatments Tanny received were hell. The thought process was that you deliver the harshest treatment immedately following diagnosis when you’re at your healthiest (and with the hopes that you can eradicate the cancer when it’s small). The treatments she received made her lose her hair and delivered the harshest blow to her body. Here was this woman who couldn’t have weighed more than 110 lbs ANYWAYS, and she was receiving treatment that made you lose weight and feel weak. Throughout the whole ordeal, she prided her ability to NOT lose the weight but instead to keep on plan and upbeat. I don’t know how she did it, but she did. I won’t dwell on the details, but she spent the first summer after her first year as principal getting treatments with the hope that she could return back in the fall. Who DOES that?! Tanny does.
Tanny’s hair eventually grew back, she slowly came back to school, and eventually resumed her role as Principal at Shawnee Elementary. As far as people knew, she was back to 100% and ready to rock!
The relationship between Tanny and myself became much stronger and closer after her cancer diagnosis. It was a considerable wake-up call that emphasized how precious life is. One of Tanny’s favorite quotes was: “We’re all terminal; none of us knows our expiration date, so we’d better make the most out of every day that we’ve been given.” We both knew that, and I think it helped to eliminate all pretense and allow us to be incredibly candid, open, and honest with each other in every situation. Also, if you think I’m trying to say that “I took care of Tanny,” then you’re sorely mistaken. That bitch STILL looked out for me no matter how sick she felt. One of my favorite stories came from a trip to San Francisco that I had taken in early 2010. I had gone out to San Francisco to attend a conference, and had managed to leave my FAVORITE HAT at the New Delhi restaurant on Ellis street. When I arrived back in Huron, I phoned the restaurant and they had INDEED found my hat – but now how was I gonna get it? Sure, they could mail it to me, but serendipity reared its head in the form of Tanny…who had plans to visit San Francisco two short weeks after I had returned. Tanny stopped into the restaurant, picked up my hat, and delivered it back home to me when she returned. That hat became a staple of my outfit, and many people I know in technology ONLY know me for that hat. The truth is, that hat had new meaning to me the instant Tanny delivered it back to me. Suddenly, it was a simple connection to her and a reminder of how she was always there for me.
Schools, fools, and coping tools
Around the spring to summer of 2010, we were all closing out the school year, entering into summer, and looking forward to the NICE three months in Ohio! Over the course of that summer, “things”, well, how do I put it, “HAPPENED” between the Superintendent of our school district and the Principal of another school district. If you want to read about it, the Sandusky Register website has a whole section dedicated to the situation, and you can even read all the lovely emails with all the sordid details.
One of my favorite things to do was to visit Tanny in her Principal’s office (which was BRIGHT YELLOW and full of Yodas and smiley faces) and chat about the events of the day. This was especially fun in the summer because NOBODY was around and we were able to talk without fear of interruption.
Working at a school district over the summer comes with a certain amount of “flexibility” because the students and teachers aren’t there, and you’re mostly surrounded by the cleaning/support and front-office staff. Anyone who’s a good administrator will tell you that their slowest AND busiest periods are during the summer (wrapping up the current year, planning for the next). As the director of technology, my summers were ABSOLUTELY busy and full – that’s when I took down systems, experimented with new workflows, and had to get everything re-imaged and ready by the first day of school. Couple this with cleaning staff who want to unplug everything to clean, and you have a recipe for some crazy stuff
Anyways, here we would find ourselves at the end of the day in her office talking about whom had showed up where, who was getting what work done, and so on. I’m totally fascinated by psychology (but I HATE sociology because A PERSON is awesome, but PEOPLE, as a group, fucking scare me), and Tanny had one of the best reads on people and body language that I had ever seen in my life. She could detect the smallest of tells, and I usually had the background information.
Previously, I told you that Tanny loved to refer to her “elephant brain”, because it was just this steel trap of information. We BOTH grew up in the same small town in which we were employed, so we BOTH had the same experiences with the same families. Small town families run deep and you frequently see generation after generation of family members funneling through the doors of the schools. We LOVED “connecting the dots” and making connections about kids, their parents, and whatnot. This sounds like small-town drama, and, make no mistake about it – it totally is, but it’s what you do to stay sharp and survive.
At any rate, the nature of my job was to be in every building nearly every day. Also, I would go take pictures of all the sports and extra-curricular events, couple that with managing all the user accounts and lots of data entry, as well as a mind for remembering dumb things, and I basically held lots of names and connections in my head. I’d hear a kid’s name, could tell you what grade and school they were in, what sport they played, and most likely what group of kids they hung out with. My job was information, and I was good at it because it FASCINATED me.
Combine my fascination with Tanny’s innate abilities and her amazing “elephant brain”, and you can probably see where I’m going. We would play this little game of taking things that had happened and trying to correlate them with other things we knew. For example, maybe someone spraypainted the building or stole the flag from a flagpole, and all the cameras got were shadowed glimpses of figures walking, Tanny could CSI the shit out of that data. We also knew that kids never did ANYTHING alone and never shut up about the things they did. Put these pieces together (combined with the fact that this WAS a small town), and there wasn’t anything that could get by Tanny. It’s no coincidence that one of Tanny’s favorite TV shows was Scandal.
So, come the fall of 2010, and things feel very different in the district. I’m coming up on my 30th birthday, though, and am starting to feel like I’ve squeezed all the life I can out of Huron and my situation. I’ve had job offers before, but this was the first time that I’d actually entertained them. In my mind, Tanny was a big part of why I stayed in Huron. Her friendship meant the world to me and I’ve STILL, to this day, not met anyone else with whom I’ve had a deep connection like I did with Tanny. We could read each other’s body language, facial expressions, and immediately follow the stringy references we would conjur up to avoid detection. I remember actually having the thoughts that if Tanny died, I would have to leave Huron and pursue life elsewhere – I just wouldn’t be able to stay in town and cope without having her there. As it turned out, this process would happen much sooner than I expected…
One particularly attractive job offer turned up (the job I currently hold, as a matter of fact), and I couldn’t refuse it. Unfortunately (or fortunately), I needed to leave Huron and move to Portland, Oregon. Tanny was the first person I told, and I could tell that even though she was very happy for me, that a part of her was equally sad that I was jumping ship and leaving town.
Just before this happened, though, another “attractive offer” had arisen that caused me to make a difficult decision. I’d always known that I was gay, but never bothered to mention it to anyone else in town. Also, with the previously-mentioned age gap, there was never anyone around my age that I felt like I could hang out with. After 30 years, though, I had found someone that I wanted to spend time with, and I needed to tell someone about it. Tanny was the first person with whom I ever verbalized my feelings. Shockingly, this was something she hadn’t suspected – I was actually taken aback that I was able to put something by the GREAT Tanny Vonthron, because that bitch missed NOTHING! She was amazingly warm and super supportive, but part of me feels like she was only this way because she and Brooke always wanted a gay BFF…
As my departure date drew near, Tanny organized a going away party that still makes me smile :) The show Portlandia had just become popular, and Portland was being known as the city where “The dream of the 90s was alive” – that was the theme of my going away party. Tanny had made little Sex in the City name badges for everyone to wear (whether you were a Carrie or a Samantha, which were Tanny and Brooke respectively. I can’t remember who I was, but at least I wasn’t the whore), and had put together a “going away” box for me. Picture a plastic storage bin (or actually LOOK at the picture on the left), but around the inside wall of the bin she had printed out pictures of 90s CDs, TV shows, and movies (Friends, Reality Bites, Seinfeld). Inside I had all the necessities for moving away – CDs she had burned with her favorite 90s songs, books, pictures, and the like. She LOVED making personalized things like this, and to this day I have that bin exactly the way she left it (mainly because I’m really lazy, but also partly because I’m also nostalgic).
Once I had left, our communication was mostly limited to countless group iMessages, phone calls, and occasional visits to Huron as I was passing through. Phone conversations were pretty limited because my job mostly consisted of traveling from one place to another, and I really hate to use the phone. When we DID get a chance to talk on the phone, though, we tried to talk about everything BUT Huron and what was happening at home. I think Tanny enjoyed talking to me because I was outside of Huron and could share stories of things that weren’t going on in her backyard (also – there’s only so much you can take of “same shit, different day.”). Even though I was 2000 miles away, modern technology made it feel like we were still nearby.
Earlier, I mentioned the ‘fox fiasco’, which refers back to the story of the former superintendent of Huron City Schools and his alleged misdeeds. I have no desire to write anything about the former superintendent, but I do want to write about how I believe the experience made Tanny feel. Since there is pending litigation, I’ll preface all of this with the statement that these are my personal beliefs/opinions.
Before that – some background…
Tanny Vonthron was certainly the most honest person I’ve ever met in life, and the person whose moral compass consistently pointed due north for as long as I’d known her. Tanny’s opinion of people aligned with how honest, moral, and caring they were (among other things). She valued these three characteristics above all others (in my opinion), and tended to surround herself with people who demonstrated these three core values. Before she was a principal, Tanny was an intervention specialist and she dealt with children who had any number of issues that required special attention. Her favorite students were those who landed on the “I’m incredibly honest, literal, and have problem reading and expressing emotion” level of the autism spectrum. She genuinely loved these people because you know at any point in time where you stood with them (and, if you didn’t know, just ask them and they’d tell you without hesitation). Tanny was the personification of “zero judgement”, and loved these students for every reason why others felt they were “disabled”. Tanny had this amazing ability to reach them on their level, and I believe they genuinely felt she was interested and willing to do anything to help them out (undoubtedly because she actually WAS GENUINELY INTERESTED AND WILLING TO DO ANYTHING TO HELP THEM OUT!). In the time I shared with her at school, I learned an absolute ton about both the students and the autism spectrum on which they landed. Tanny was super careful not to break confidentiality or share sensitive information, but would talk in generalities and show me the “human” side of the human condition. Looking back, I identified VERY STRONGLY with her students because I actually empathized with them on many levels, and I feel that Tanny not only loved my idiosyncrasies but tried to show me how ALL of us have our issues and we’re ALL a bit ‘special.’
Anyways, we’ve established that Tanny valued honesty and morality, which you would THINK would be the characteristics LEAST exhibited by someone who allegedly had an affair during school hours – right?
I feel very strongly that Tanny felt betrayed by her former boss (‘betrayed’ isn’t nearly a strong enough word, in my opinion), especially considering these events occurred while she was in treatment for cancer. I think she was even more embarrassed when rumors started flying about her possible involvement with her former boss. The rumors were categorically false (like I said, Tanny had a moral compass that was cemented ‘due north’), but the accusations were enough to cut her deeply (and, again, even though she felt upset, she never let it show).
I’d love to say more, but I’d also not like to feed into the ego of a few, so we’ll just leave it like that.
The past year
Tanny was diagnosed in April, 2009, and so in April, 2013, she celebrated her 4 year “cancerversary”. She celebrated at Nagoya with some sushi (as one does), but it also felt (to ME, at least) like an odd omen. Short of losing her hair, you would never know that Tanny had any health issues. All of the sudden, though, now she’s hitting these ‘anniversaries’ date and (thus far) beating the odds. That wasn’t how Tanny wanted to see it, though.
To know Tanny, and to share time with Tanny, was to concede to a couple of ‘conditions’ to her condition:
- Be positive
- Be present
- No goodbyes
The first rule was non-negotiable. If you were being negative, she was removing herself from the situation (see the quote at the top of the page).
The second is, as I see it, a more recent addition. See, Tanny was also the plan-iest person I’ve ever met. She had plans for the present, plans for the future, plans for dinner, and plans to update her plans. She had binders, with tabs and highlighted passages, for damn near everything. But, as the saying goes about best laid plans, that was somewhat relaxed after Tanny was diagnosed. Sure, she still had her plans, but she also did as MUCH as she could to absorb every effervescent element around her as often as she could. Imagine her hugging a card to her chest and closing her eyes for about 5 seconds – she would literally try to pull the emotions and the moment into her to feel them race up her spine and tingle those little neckhairs (See – that’s my attempt writing to elicit emotion; Mary Alice Harpster would be SO proud…). Tanny would clip all of these little articles about teaching yourself to ‘be more present’, which, at the time, I thought was kinda weird…but, then again, nobody was holding a clock above MY head. As someone who is impulsive and wanders around life jumping from one adventure to the next, it was kinda awesome to see her join me in what SHE called ‘being present’ but what I called ‘another day’ :)
Finally, Tanny did NOT want to go through the ‘goodbye’ phase. From the start, she did as much as she could to not be PERCEIVED as ‘sick’. She hated losing her hair, still kept up her immaculate appearance (and appearances), and fought as hard as she could to remain ‘just Tanny’. She even had rules against ‘sad eyes’ (You know how when someone tells you something, like ‘my dog just died’, and you immediately give them the ‘sad eyes’? You know what I’m talking about – you cock your head just slightly, raise your eyebrows, and affect that ‘oh my goodness’ tone. Yeah, Tanny would have none of that shit). So even if Tanny wasn’t doing well, you weren’t allowed to gush about the perceived enormity of it all – that would be conceding that she WASN’T fighting and, thus, was conceding to this invisible biological threat. No, she wanted absolutely none of that.
I’m not say that we were all walking on eggshells for the past year, I’m just saying that for the first time since she was initially diagnosed it started to feel…I dunno…more ‘real’? Because Tanny was who she was (because ‘a fighter’ is the clichéd emobodiment of ‘an understatement’), she demanded normalcy. And normalcy is exactly what I (we) gave her. I kept flying around the damn world preaching the good word of Puppet Labs, and she kept opening the school in the morning, giving out smiley face awards, and seeing the kids off at the end of the day (so to speak). I had something of a spoken ‘unspoken’ rule with a couple of close friends that they were to let me know as SOON as things were ‘not going well’ so that I could fly home to be there (knowing full-well that Tanny would do no such thing). I never really got that ‘call’, but I did make the call to come home between March 7th and 11th, 2014 based on a couple of conditions.
The last week of February I was working in Texas and was texting back and forth with Tanny. We didn’t really text TOO often, but the texts were coming with a bit more frequency. On that thursday, the 27th, Tanny sent me a text telling me to ‘Call me when you can’, which was really rare for Tanny (we talked, but usually on weekends when she had downtime, and usually only to catch up. This was like 3pm on a thursday, though, and so was a bit out of character. When I called her, we talked about a bunch of random things (ranging from happenings in Huron, where I was traveling, and the like), but it was really laid-back and…I dunno…free of distraction? Tanny constantly had texts, calls, people stopping by her office, and whatnot – this conversation had NONE of that, and we just talked about whatever came up for about 40 minutes. The conversation came to a close, and it REALLY started to feel like Tanny was injecting a subtext that felt really…quotable (You know, things like ‘well, you know I want you to do whatever makes you happiest, and…’ that had an air of finality). She ended the conversation with “I love you” (which was something we started doing within the past year), and I felt really good that I had been able to talk to her (since we hadn’t really spoken since Christmas – it was all texts).
After that call on Thursday, I would never received another call or text from Tanny again.
I definitely started to get worried the following week when I didn’t hear from Tanny (but knew she liked her privacy, so tried to give her some space). After hearing that another mutual friend had felt the same way and had booked a flight home, I decided to do the same for the upcoming weekend. It was convenient that my mother’s birthday was the following week on March 12th, so that made for a reasonable excuse, but, frankly, most people had started wondering about Tanny over recent weeks after she’d been progressively more absent from work. If you were to take a drive around Huron, you would have seen yellow smiley faces everywhere (I’m talking flags, wood signs, stickers – you name it and people were displaying it to support Tanny). It’s definitely NOT hyperbole to say that the community loved Tanny, and everyone wanted to show their support in some way. Some suggested ideas were definitely crazier than others, but everyone’s heart was in the right place.
It would be dramatic to say that I flew home, sat beside her bed, held her hand, and confessed every way in which she changed my life, but the truth is honestly much more boring than that – remember, to know Tanny is to give up your ability to deliver the ‘goodbye speech’ to her. And don’t think she wasn’t above sending people who started down that road RIGHT out of her room! I definitely heard stories of her shoo-ing people out who began very-clearly-rehearsed ‘final words’ to her (I think THAT, most of ALL, makes me laugh the loudest) :)
I would fly out of Cleveland bound for a work gig in Denver on March 11th, thus missing her death by one day (yep, if you’re keeping score, she died on my mother’s birthday). There are very few things about me that I’m guarded about – most of everything about my life is sewn on my sleeve in very colorful thread – but my feelings for and about Tanny are the some of the most precious things I carry (ironic, considering this post).
Life was kind of a blur after Tanny died. I don’t know where to begin in trying to describe how I felt, but I will share ONE story from that time period: One of the things I’m very honored to have been able to do was Tanny’s Obituary. Tanny’s family had asked me to help out with it, and it was fun to open a Google doc, start writing, and watch the rest of her family write comments and jokes while I was giving birth to the thing. To say it was rough to write was an understatement. Tanny liked things to be…well…perfect. When she composed a document, every word was chosen for a purpose, every sentence tied the previous to the next, and the entire body of work was meant to convey a single message. I could hear Tanny laughing at me as I spent tens of minutes fighting over a single word. I could LITERALLY hear her family laughing at me as I re-wrote entire sentences because they felt wrong. Thinking I had a final document, I called Brooke and asked her to read it with me. I’m REALLY glad I did that because Brooke was able to give me some pointers on things I hadn’t even considered. In the end, several people had a hand in putting that document together, and I feel, like Tanny’s life, it was made better by all the people that were close with her.
Life without Tanny
It has taken me over two months to put this post together simply because it’s a painful thing to keep revisiting. I’ve honestly written this post on something like 20+ different flights, in countless states and countries, and, always with the goal of ‘finishing today’. Part of me believes that I can’t finish it because I don’t have Tanny around to help me work out my thoughts :)
What I’ve come to understand, though, is that the best parts of myself came directly from Tanny. I made a conscious decision to not lie after watching her model this behavior for 39 years (and, also, because I can’t remember where I put my KEYS let alone what I told someone, somewhere). Watching Tanny deal with difficult situations and model behavior for her students taught me how to be able to respectfully diffuse a situation. I could go on forever, but the core idea was that she was THE ONE person that I had in my life that I KNEW DEFINITIVELY would only do something with good intentions. Anytime Tanny said or did something that I reacted even slightly negatively to, it helped me to discover the flawed thinking in myself (the idea being that if I was upset over something she said/did, but that I KNEW that Tanny didn’t intend it to be upsetting, what part of me was misinterpreting things?). I had absolutely no idea how formative this was…until it wasn’t around anymore.
I’ve also reached for my phone way too many times these past months – I will see something, open up a text, and start writing a snarky little note…until I remember. Sundays are particularly hard because that’s when we usually talked. Every time I meet a new person, or do something worth a story (which, frankly, if you KNOW me happens almost hourly), I’m reaching for my phone to tell someone who’s not going to write back again. It hurts.
Finally, I tend to process things a bit more slowly than normal people. When Tanny died, I did everything I could to keep my shit together and ‘stay strong’ for everyone else. I remember TRYING to have a breakdown and failing kinda miserably at it. It wasn’t until very recently where I was talking somewhat casually about Tanny that I just got hit with a wave of emotion. It hurt, but it felt…welcoming. Coping is good (and, as The Shins say, caring is creepy).
How do I even end this?
Honestly, I have no idea what this post was about other than something of a love letter for a friend. It’s also helped me work out the MANY ways Tanny helped me that I hadn’t even remotely considered. It’s also helpful in answering the question “Who was ‘Tanny’ on your tattoo?”
Yep, after Tanny died, a couple of us got tattoos. The funny thing is that I often talked with Tanny about wanting a tattoo on my wrists. I even went so far as to draw/paint them there a couple of times. My wrists are my ‘prized location’ because they’re right out there (and I talk with my hands…I’m Italian; what do you want from me?). Ultimately I took that from a letter Tanny sent – it’s her handwriting and all – and it’s really poignant because, as I mentioned before, we didn’t start saying “I love you” until recently, and it’s something I have hangups saying. With Tanny, it was meaningful. Every laptop I’ve had since Tanny was diagnosed has had a yellow smiley face on the right wrist rest, and so I thought it was appropriate to put her writing there too. I love that I can see it everyday, and it’s been really awesome to get daily reminders.
In the ‘end’ (of this post, at least), I have to say that one of the biggest things I pieced together with Tanny was the concept of ‘regret’ being arguably the worst word in the English language. It’s something that basically means you wish a period of time didn’t exist. Something SO TERRIBLE happened that you not only want to have NEVER experienced it, but you feel like the lessons you learned that time would be better spent by doing the situation all over again.
I truthfully have no regret in my life for any decision I’ve ever made.
Tanny once said that “I’m thankful for every good thing, every bad thing, and every wise, stupid, rash, calculated, and wonderful decision you’ve ever made in your life because they’ve made you the person you are, and they’ve brought you to this place, at this very moment, in life.” I don’t think I could say it better – my life is at a wonderful place right now, and most of that is due to the best person I’ll ever know: Tanny.
As is usually the case, I remember things (or learned things) after initially making this post. I had WARNED you that I didn’t feel like this post was finished, and so here we go…
Portland Care Package
I mentioned above that Tanny made me this lovely box of 90s nostalgia after she found out that I was going to be moving to Portland (where the dream of the 90s is STILL alive). So, it turns out that’s not entirely true…and by that I mean that Shannon Smith came up with the idea :) I got a funny Facebook message from Shannon filling me in on the deets and laughing at how much I attributed to Tanny. Personally, it makes for a better story, so Shannon’s just gonna have to cope and deal :)
One of the things Tanny and I shared was this fascination with numbers. I have a huge obsession with reducing everything to a single number and deciding if it’s a ‘good’ number. The numbers 3, 9, and 11 were, for whatever reason, good numbers for me (3 being a good number, 3 threes is 9, so THAT’s a great number, and 11 is not only the date in which I was born, but is one of those ‘special numbers’). I remember getting somewhat into numerology in my 20s (didn’t we all…sigh), but, honestly, the thing that REALLY gave me fucked-up superstitions was playing Craps up at Casino Windsor with my dad and his friend Scott. Imagine a game FULL OF numbers, and certain numbers that can cause you to lose all your money if they come up (incidentally, if you know nothing about Craps you probably think that 7 is a REALLY good number…it’s actually the opposite. The number 7 is SO BAD that you can’t even say it around a table or you’ll get filthy looks. But I digress…).
Anyways, I had a habit of taking certain numbers and breaking them down to a single number. My old address was 517, and 5 + 1 + 7 is 13. Taking 13 and breaking it down gets you 1 + 3 which equals 4, so my house ‘was a 4’. Weird? Sure. But it’s something I did in silent forever. Even now when I stay in hotels (which is weekly), the first thing I do is break the room number down into a single number…and sometimes that’s the ONLY way I remember my room number (“Let’s see, it was an 8, I’m on the fifth floor, and it’s down this hall…ah yeah, it was room 503”).
I remember one day Tanny and I went out to eat (at Marconi’s, incidentally) where we shared our love of numbers. Tanny’s special number was 33. Why? I honestly don’t remember exactly, but I believe it was because 33 was one of the master numbers (like 11 is…which is my number). Also the number 33 always came up for Tanny, and she used it like a waypoint on the road of life. We’d always get a random text from Tanny anytime she ran into a 33 SOMEWHERE, and she had a metal number 33 in her car that had fallen off of one of the old lockers (and was given to her I THINK by Mr. T – John Turinsky – but I could be wrong). Sometimes we would get a text at 3:33 just to say hi. I really miss those texts…
Tanny really didn’t make TOO much of a secret about this, but it was definitely ‘her number’. Since then, I see 33s all over the place, and it’s a friendly reminder of her. If you want to be let in on another secret, check out the Sandusky Register website and look at the timestamps on any article that was posted about her…
The threesome and Tanny Time, the redux
I alluded above that at times it felt like Brooke, Tanny, and I were connected at the hip (and, like I said, that’s not to say that Tanny wasn’t connected with ALL her other friends…it just felt like that to me). We were SO connected that John Ruf, when he was principal at HHS, would call us “The Threesome”. Whatever that meant. A gay man and his two besties did not an awesome threesome make, but whatever. ANYWAYS, when I accepted the postion in Portland it felt like I was breaking up the band (though it didn’t happen like that, thanks to the marvels of modern technology and Facetime). I remember even getting a text that Tony Munafo, who was vice principal at the high school at the time, was “applying to be a new member of The Threesome”. Let’s just say that didn’t end very well (#seatstaken).
Before I left, our threesome was at its peak. We all worked pretty late (because we liked the quiet and got work done when people weren’t bugging us), so it was common to get a call at my extension from Tanny and have it turn out to be a three-way bullshit session. Tanny would eventually tell us to meet her in her office at like 5:30 to go get Jim’s, Marconi’s, or whatever local dish we were craving, but we ALL knew that if Tanny said 5:30 it usually meant around 6:45. Tanny operated on Tanny Time (I mentioned before that “Tanny Time” was the time