Carl lives on a wooded promontory with a view of the flood plain. Mainstay in an ever-changing world, he’s been standing tall for decades. Yesterday I walked the half mile through the woods to spend time with him. I went in the morning before it was hot, armed with a spider stick, and prepared to retreat if accosted by too many black gnats and mosquitoes. But summer storms have reduced the spider webs to bearable, and mosquitoes and gnats were also at a minimum.
My legs are strong and sure on this familiar trail. I hit my stride about five minutes out. I’m drenched in living earth, fragrant with pine needles and leaf mulch. Generations of trees surround me, from tiny sprouts to giant sentinels. The air hums with woodpeckers and cicadas. I swing my head to the left when a squirrel rustles in the undergrowth. Sometimes deer startle me, leaping up and blasting away like gunshots. Once I came across a fox, scratching fleas. Another time, a Barred owl swooped down to take a better look and flew back to its perch to keep an eye on me.
Carl receives me in his reassuringly taciturn way, eyes forward. He reaches out with solid, steady limbs and I feel safe. Without a word, Carl and I are in our happy place once again. He is a beautiful example of his species, an American Beech. Or perhaps he is, as I often joke, a son of a beech. Nature gave Carl markings that resemble a human face on the side facing the stream. He has a jaunty mustache with a twig sprouting from the corner, like a pipe stem or cigarette. This year a praying mantis chose to build an egg case on his cigarette.
Old forest lore referred to the majestic beech as Queen of the forest. Their trunks are smooth and straight, mottled with white and gray spots. They have the peculiarity of retaining their leaves all winter, only losing them when new growth pushes them out. Their leaves provide a spark of ocher in the cold, monochromatic months. Surely this tenacity is one of the things that appeals to me as I walk towards the winter of my life.
The neighbors pooled their resources a couple of months ago to build a cedar bench for my sixty-second birthday. Lyle and Amie loaded it in the tractor bucket and carried it to Carl’s side. Jason and Doug dug holes and sunk the legs into the earth. It is sturdy and wide and smells like my mother’s cedar hope chest.
I climb on and sit, legs dangling. The size of Carl’s bench turns me into a youngster. I lay back and peer up through the understory at the sky. My heart swells and my eyes get moist. Time stops. I’m alone and connected. There is only this moment and this place and yet I’m aware of all the moments of my life. All the good ones, anyway.
I think about my friends who cared enough to add this bench to my favorite spot. I recall our many shared meals, the birthday candles and wishes, and remember delicious Sunday dinners at Nana’s. My thoughts wander forward to our daughter Emily’s wedding and our first glimpse of her baby boy. I think about Bob and how lucky I am to have a partner that gets my twisted sense of humor, and how relieved we both are that he is well and recovering his smile.
I caught part of the TED radio hour the other day. They were talking about aging and time. As we age we become more positive, yet joyful occasions often bring a tear to our eye. We find ourselves experiencing the past, present and future simultaneously. Surely holding our grandson for the first time will trigger a montage of feelings; all the way back to Emily as a tiny girl, and fast forwarding to imagine little Nolan as a grown man.
This is why I visit Carl in his special place. To think, remember, imagine, let go, connect, rejoice and weep. Carl seems to understand, he never questions. He just stands there with his cigarette and looks off across the ages.
Seven miles out I congratulated myself for keeping cool and making good time. My hastily scribbled Google Map notes said the hospital exit in Sanford was 12.7 miles south on Hwy 1. Which is where the ambulance was headed with Bob. The odometer said I was getting close. Under the circumstances, staying cool was a tall order. Not to mention the weather, which has been stupid hot. Driving without A/C is an exercise in sweat management.
It was when I saw New Hill (a.k.a “middle of nowhere”) up ahead that I realized I was traveling north. I wiped my forehead with a handkerchief, exited and turned around, trying not to think about the extra twenty minutes this blunder would cost. Bob was in good hands, I told myself. He’ll think I found one last thing to do at home, the dishes perhaps, rather than worry I’d gotten into a car wreck as frantic wives often do when chasing ambulances.
An hour earlier, Bob was drinking coffee at his desk when he noticed an odd sensation on the right side of his tongue. It felt like Novocaine. Moments later, the numbness spread to his right eye. He considered going out to get me.
I was speed-hanging laundry, wondering how I was going to process twenty-four pounds of pickles, bake a cake, and clean the house for Jason’s birthday potluck. Most of the time, pickles just sit. Until day fifteen when you slice the brined cucumbers, soak them in alum for six hours, then replace the liquid with heated vinegar. Today was pickle day.
Back inside, Bob swiveled towards me and announced, “Somethings not right.” He told me about the Novocaine. He felt dizzy. We had a short discussion. The expense was giving us pause. I phoned urgent care. They recommended I call 911, so I did.
Bob put on clean underwear like his mother taught him. While shaving he realized he’d lost the ability to puff out the left side of his face. His lips were leaking air. He positioned himself in the rosewood chair on the front porch and waited for sirens. We laughed to see the ambulance and fire truck pull into Evelyn and Jimmy’s across the street. I ran onto the lawn barefoot and waved until they saw me, got back into their vehicles and came over to our place.
Cracking jokes, a woman in navy blue EMT garb pulled out a razor and began carving a smiley face into Bob’s chest hair. The Emergency Medical Services team attached wires to Bob’s chest and asked him questions while the fire fighters looked on. They, took his blood pressure, saw it was 199 over 110 and wheeled out the gurney. “Wait!” Bob said and they paused so I could give him a kiss.
Three Musketeers to the rescue
The hospital staff was real kind, trying to procure meatless meals for Bob, and failing twice. I spent the rest of Saturday driving back and forth from home, bringing sandwiches to Sanford, and dealing with those pickles. I called upon the Three Musketeers, Buffy, Zoila, and Doug to help me get the pickles sliced and Haruka and Jason showed at 10pm to do the vinegar thing so I could spend the night on a fold-out chair by Bob’s side.
We canceled Jason’s birthday potluck. A disturbing trend, the last three birthdays were overshadowed by catastrophe. We learned of Zafer’s death on Haruka’s birthday, Chris died on mine, and we were crossing our fingers that Bob made it through Jason’s. Buffy’s promised to break the cycle with her birthday August 4th.
Towards dinner time the next day, Bob was released with a clean bill of health. He’d had a CAT scan, an MRI, ultrasounds, and blood tests. When the doctor announced that Bob had not had a stroke, our relief was audible. How lucky for us to have dodged that bullet! Even better, the doctor pronounced Bob’s heart and carotid artery fully-functional. The likelihood of stroke or heart attack was slim, he said and even allowed that Bob’s unresponsive eyelid and Dick Cheney smile could be Bell’s Palsy as Bob suspected. His blood pressure was back to normal. He’d had a shot of B-12, something to lower cholesterol and with the help of our neighbors, we’d saved the pickles.
“What’s a menu?” someone playfully asked after I mentioned our potato-heavy menu. Oh! I thought to myself, It is so, so many things – shopping list, anticipation catalyst, and money-saver. It’s our road map to an inexpensive local food diet. Nothing ever goes to waste,” I like to say prompting Bob to quip, “Only to our waists.”
We didn’t always have a menu. Like many, Bob and I used to get home hungry after an eight or nine hour day and start thinking about dinner. We’d look in the refrigerator, hoping to come up with something we could make in a hurry without having to run to the store. Or we’d order a pizza. Or open a can of soup and make some sandwiches.
But that was years ago. Now, we always know what we’re having for dinner, sometimes several days in advance, and we can have it ready to eat half an hour after we get home.
It started with a few favorites. We love Italian food so Friday night became Itey Nite, eagerly anticipated vanguard of the weekend. Mexican and Asian soon became standard weekly fare. For as long as I can remember, the Sunday night meal involved potatoes and some chicken-like “meat.” These days we celebrate Sunday night with KFT (Kentucky Fried Tofu).
Bob has always grown food and after all that work it would be a crying shame to waste any of it, so I developed a robust kitchen habit. Nothing makes dinner easier than rinsed lettuce, chopped onions, roasted garlic, pre-cooked beets, and so on. I’d make salads and bake bread, too. After we stopped eating animals, I started making vegan “meat”.
A few years ago I doubled efficiency when I found a magnetic dry erase calendar. I stuck it on the side of the refrigerator next to our prep counter. I plan the menu in black and the prep list in orange. I use an adjacent white board for a shopping list. It is ridiculously easy to stay on track.
Nothing is written in stone. That’s why we use a white board. Whatever comes in the door is what we eat. The menu lets us make the best use of perishable food, helps us meet our goals of eating local, sustainably-grown food, and gives us something to anticipate at the end of the day.
What’s a menu? It’s a guide to delicious, healthy food every night of the week!
I’ve lived with Bob long enough to value the importance of good questions. They can make or break any deal, they steer conversations off-course or into fertile waters. Yet, as long as I’ve watched Bob hit the target with artfully-posed questions, the right questions do not naturally compose themselves in my brain.
As the baby in the family, Bob learned to ask questions in the same way I, the oldest became good at making assertions. In order to lead the pack, I needed to speak in certainties. “Not always right, but never in doubt,” we joke. My questions sound like statements and Bob’s statements sound like questions. Bob is also never in doubt, but with a subtle twist. He usually knows the answer to the questions he’s posing, or at least his version of the answer. I’ll say, “That’s a boat-tailed grackle” as opposed to Bob’s “Is that a boat-tailed grackle?”
Gretchen Rubin, author of Better Than Before and The Happiness Project devised a neat quiz to help determine our behavioral tendencies: Upholders – people who get up in the morning and ask themselves “What’s on my list for today?” They are motivated by internal and external expectations. Questioners, who ask, “Is there anything I really have to do today?” They require good reasons for a particular course of action. Rebels wonder “What do I want to do today?” They respond to internal expectations and are motivated by a sense of freedom. Obligers ask “What must I do today?” They are motivated by accountability to others.
I’m an Upholder if you haven’t already guessed, and Bob is a questioner. Here’s a typical exchange: “What are you up to today?” “I’m doing this and that, and need to do such and such.” “Can’t you put that off until tomorrow?” “Yes, but…” I’ve set my mind on what all I need to do, and Bob tries to help me by talking me out of some of it.
Last year I decided to seek help for pain in my left foot that I first noticed in 2013. I suspected a stone bruise, but after weeks without respite I linked it to my growing collection of varicose veins. I had been spending six hours a day doing housework and preparing meals barefoot on concrete terrazzo in Africa. A cursory examination by a visiting medical student supported my theory.
Two years later, I worked up the courage to visit a vascular surgeon. In hindsight, I should have brought Bob with me. I filled out a questionnaire, and spoke with the examiner at length, beginning with the story about my foot. I told her that I began wearing compression stockings at that time and they alleviated the pain, supporting my suspicion that veins were the underlying problem.
“We can fix your veins,” was the prognosis. For a $5,000 co-pay. Bob and I decided to liquidate my IRA to pay for the procedure. I never asked anyone if closing the four exterior veins in my legs would address the pain in my foot. I assumed fixing my veins would do the trick, that the veins in my leg were letting pressure accumulate in my foot, and that the examiner had heard me when I described my problem. You know what they saw about assuming. “Never assume anything. It makes an ass out of u and me.”
It took months of healing before I stopped wearing the surgical stockings and a week later the pain in my foot reappeared. “What the…?!” I went back to wearing knee highs, unable to face the awful truth. Finally I mustered the courage to meet with the physician. He examined my foot and said, “This is not a vascular issue.” He read the notes on my chart from the initial consultation. There were my answers to the questionnaire with some notes from the consultation. No mention of my foot. He suggested I see a podiatrist.
The good news? My legs look great, right down to my ankles. And the dull ache in my foot is a constant reminder of the importance of asking the right question.
Worried I wasn’t getting enough time to write and also trying to figure out how in hell I was going to find time to start riding again, I decided to take a good look at a typical week. I highly recommend the following activity. It’s illuminating, validating, and fun, at least for spreadsheet geeks. Like a film maker, I start with a tight shot of the details, pan, and focus, then zoom out for the overview. Working with a basic spreadsheet, I began with this:
Then I made some assumptions:
168 hours in a week
56 for sleeping (8 x 7)
14 in the kitchen
25 at work
84 hours a week scheduled (8am-8pm)
Much of this I already have figured out, but I needed to see it all in one place to see where to work in the fun bits. I suspected I had enough time, but I needed validation. After filling in my usual schedule, and taking into consideration the impossibility of doing anything outside in the afternoon heat of summer, I found two mornings for messing with the ponies.
Zooming out, I saw nice blocks of focused time, so I added color for fun. I tallied activity hours, added a percentage column, and came up with picture of a very balanced life. Fist pump! I live for things that look good on paper.
According to my calculations, my biggest priority is home-making. And that’s true. The pursuit of comfort and a high quality of life is very important to me, so it’s no surprise that it accounts for 40% of my time between 8am and 8pm. Bob and I like to eat and be comfortable, we like a clean house, nice yard, and laundry that’s never more than a load behind. We believe in the power of locally-grown food and that takes time. We’re vegetarians on a tight budget so I stretch our dollar by baking sourdough bread, using dried beans rather than canned, and making lunch “meat,” “hamburgers,” “ribs,” and cashew cheese. All that chopping, baking, bean-soaking, and menu planning takes an average of fourteen hours a week and is worth every minute. We dine like royalty.
My second priority is work at 30%, which is a lot like home-making in another place. I keep my eyes on things at The Plant, a robust eco-industrial park on the east side of Pittsboro. Grounds keeping, bookkeeping, sales and marketing, facilities, and tenants all need tending and I’m able to keep things running in roughly twenty-five hours a week.
20% for play sounds like a luxury but it is essential to my sanity. All work, as they say, makes one dull. Back in the day I had a full time job which left little time for play except on the weekends when I was cramming in all the cooking, house and yard work. I’m older than that now. At sixty-two, I will not work a full-time job. Those fifteen hours I used to spend grinding my mind numb have become me-time, time for horses, walks, and catching up with my friends.
So there you have it, a sure-fire way to put your life in perspective. I’m a visual person so get a lot out of laying things out where I can see them. You may already have everything you need for a balanced life. Using a plain old spreadsheet, I found out I did.
I woke to Bob’s honeyed voice saying “Happy Birthday, dear.” It was Saturday, June 4th. We got out of bed, I put some water on to boil, and opened my card. It said “Dream Big” with a little girl on a rocking horse casting a giant shadow of a woman astride a galloping horse, manes and tail flying. Inside he wrote, “Happy Birthday Love! Many, many, more. We’re not done yet.”
Sipping cocoa from a steaming mug, I opened my laptop. I picked up my phone and read a text, finished my cocoa, and headed over to the neighbors. I walked into Alisa and Chris’s bedroom, touching Chris’s pants leg in passing. His leg felt thin and hard. “Hey Chris,” I whispered.
Alisa and her sister Gina were sitting by the window talking in hushed tones. I took a seat on the carpet. The kids were asleep outside the door, a puddle of blankets on the living room floor. The three Boston bulls milled about. Chris lay silent, eyes closed, hands folded over his chest. I had just received one of the most memorable birthday presents of my life, the opportunity to touch a dead man.
When my grandmother died they laid her out in a cushioned casket and prettied her up. My eyes got as far as her hands before I chickened out. If her hands were unnaturally orange, I knew I didn’t want to see what they’d done to her face. I turned around and stood next to my mother, unaware that I was effectively shielding the sight of my grandmother from all who had come to pay their respects. A column of people advanced towards the coffin and my mother gently moved me aside.
Corpse dreams are a thing for me. Once I dreamed I peered into the face of the deceased and saw my own eyes. The flesh beside one eye was scarred and pinched, so only part of that eye peeked through. Horrified, I cried out to Bob, “Bunny! I’m dead…” and my voice was low and thick, like a slowed-down recording. In another dream, I found Bob inside a furnace and I knew it was too late to save him. He was burnt to ashes and there was nothing I could do to bring him back. The horror of these dreams lingers.
Chris and I had a long chat the Wednesday before my birthday. He texted and I talked. He was awash in anxiety, he said, afraid of the unknown, wanting to know what was going to happen to him after he died. I didn’t have much to offer. I’m not a spiritual person. “What do you want to have happen?” I asked. I think we all have a different scenario in mind. For me, I just want my life to be over. I want to be done. The thought of spending eternity in heaven sounds arduous to me, but it’s what my mother lives for. Chris said he didn’t want to be alone. I said, “Well then, you won’t be.”
The next day he was no longer able to swallow. Alisa’s sister flew in from Alaska and their parents drove from Illinois. A stream of friends came by to share music, flowers, their touch, and love with Chris who lay on his bed, heavily medicated. I kept myself busy outside helping get the yard ready for a funeral. Maybe I’d bid him farewell Friday.
But Friday came and went and I never got around to walking into the bedroom. The next time I saw Chris he was laid out on the bed he made himself, atop the afghan his mother made for him, surrounded by roses and dogs. He looked a lot happier than he had on Wednesday.
I was happy, too. All my fears turned around and marched off as soon as I walked in that room. If it turns out there is an afterlife, I’m going to look Chris up and thank him for helping me face my fears on my 62nd birthday.
Our generation doesn’t think to send their kids off to college with, “And stay away from heroin, it’s a killer!” But we need to because heroin is ubiquitous, cheap, easy, and deadly.
Last month I was blindsided by Zafer’s death. After recovering my balance, I started reading. I needed to know how a well-adjusted, talented college freshman had overdosed on heroin. What I learned was shocking.
The United States is experiencing an epidemic.
“Accidental drug overdose is currently the leading cause of injury-related death in the United States for people between the ages of 35-54 and the second leading cause of injury-related death for young people. Drug overdose deaths now exceed those attributable to firearms, homicides or HIV/AIDS.” – DrugPolicy.org
“Heroin-related deaths more than tripled between 2010 and 2014, with 10,574 heroin deaths in 2014.” – CDC.gov
“Use of the drug in the United States increased 79 percent between 2007 and 2012, according to federal data, triggering a wave of overdose deaths and an “urgent and growing public health crisis,” Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr.” – Washington Post
“Use it twice and you’re addicted” someone told me. Z died on his third try. But he wasn’t addicted, I protest. Zafer does not fit my image of a heroin addict. Times have changed.
Today’s heroin user is more likely to smoke it than inject it. It comes in pill form, is much cheaper than it was forty years ago, and you can even buy it online. “In the ’70s, a bag of heroin — enough to get a user high once — cost $30 and was about 28-percent pure. Today, it’s 80 percent to 90 percent pure, which makes it powerfully addictive, and it sells for $4 a bag.” from NPR’s Heroin in America series.
Riding the white horse has never been easier.
I try to put myself in his shoes. Like Zafer, I felt invincible at nineteen. My parents cautioned me against sex, drugs, and rock and roll to no avail. My life was mine to live and I wanted to taste everything it had to offer. Except heroin, of course.
I hung out with friends who were users. They called it horse, but as much as I love to ride I never rode this one because we all knew it rode you. No one wanted a monkey on their back nor wished that horror on others. I’d seen the writhing pain of withdrawal and wanted none of it. My friends never offered to share the drug and I never asked. It was different back then.
Heroin is now accepted as a recreational drug without regard for the risks and we have widespread pharmaceutical use and legalized marijuana to blame.
Blaming meds is easy. I disdain the pervasive fear of pain or discomfort that drives the pill culture and loathe the predatory pharmaceutical companies. A little pain never hurt anyone! My country has become a nation of addicted weenies.
I am less inclined to implicate marijuana. Facts are facts, though and when you take Mexico’s economy into consideration, the correlation makes perfect sense. The legalization of marijuana reduced the profitability of cannabis at the same time widespread use of pain meds opened up a lucrative market for heroin. Farmers began planting poppies in their pot fields and pain medication addicts soon had a cheaper alternative.
Utah, of all places, demonstrated the path forward with an aggressive education program. “The state’s overdose death rate climbed steadily during the early 2000s, driven by growing prescription opioid dependence. But Utah lawmakers took action early. In 2007, they established a two-year public health-based program to combat painkiller misuse.
Over the next three years, prescription opioid-related overdose deaths dropped more than 25%, but the success was short lived. After funding ran out in 2010, deaths began to climb again.
“We saw that when we weren’t educating the public and providers, awareness decreased and deaths increased,” said Angela Stander, prescription drug overdose prevention coordinator at the Utah department of public health.” [CDC.gov]
Bottom line, education will stop the spread of the overdose epidemic. Support legislation. Throw in with the folks at Shatterproof. Spread the word.
An American flag strains against its moorings outside our second floor window facing the Atlantic. We made our way here down Ocean Boulevard past beach clubs landscaped in cypress and roses, silent miniature golf creatures, gaudy life-sized plastic Arabian horses, and cartoonish restaurant signs with names like Awful Arthur’s, Tortuga’s Lie, and Hurricane Mo’s, all bright against a grey sky. I bought blueberries and cherries at one of the farm stands, knowing full well they weren’t locally grown. Our vacation ends here at Cypress House in Kill Devil Hills, a pit stop before pressing inland to our little corner of the world.
Four hours of driving gave us time to replay the vignettes from our visit. The reunion had gone well, thirty of us representing four generations ranging in age from infant to ninety. We managed to get a photo of the nuclear family, all eight of us in one room for the first time in since the eighties. John set up his tripod to frame the shot while Joe went to fetch Dad from Mom’s room down the hall.
We were all crossing our fingers that he would come. Mom stressed the importance of everyone being in place when Dad arrived, to keep him from balking and/or bolting. It felt a lot like dealing with a wild animal or a skittish colt. We arranged ourselves and waited, hoping he’d forgotten he’d said he wasn’t coming to the reunion. Johnny stood behind the couch with Bob, and Mike, leaving a space for Joe. Jim sat next to Mom with a space for Dad. Brandon stood behind the camera.
In came the lone wolf with a bad case of bed head, his handler close behind and took his seat. I reached over and tried to smooth down his hair but it was stiff with natural oils. Dad gave his head an ineffective swipe. He likes to tell us he has a full head of hair because he only washes it once a week. Brandon snapped the shutter.
After a delicious potluck lunch we took turns sharing thoughts from our year. Joe invented the round robin a few years ago and it has become the highlight of our gathering, at least for me. Not everyone feels comfortable talking about themselves but that’s never been a problem for me and Bob. I read an excerpt from my mother’s memoirs and briefly explained that I looked older now because a) I am and b) I’ve been touched by death and makeup seems disingenuous. When it was Bob’s turn he told the story of how we were drawn to Pittsboro by Lyle and Tami, came to collaborate with them, about Zafer’s tragic death About how our community sprang into action to plan a monster service and build the Farewell Trail for a home burial in the woods. And that’s where we’ll be buried too.
There were many other wonderful moments from our short week away such as the discovery that Mom and I wear the same exact watch, Deb’s apple cobbler, Darla walking in with a three-pound tub of chocolate ice cream, standing behind the counter with Michael, packing dozens of ice cream cones. A casual meal at the hotel Friday night with John, Joe and Jim, riding shotgun with Bobby up highway 81, blowing up balloons with Penny, Jim and Lou in the church hall before a reception to honor Joe’s twenty-five years in the priesthood, and a nice chat with Maggie and Brian during the reception.
On Sunday Joe, Jim and I picked up Chinese food and drove to Charity’s. Levi invited us to see the bike trail he made and off we scampered, running through honeysuckle-scented woods, crossing streams over pallets and planks, steering clear of poison ivy. John and Darla arrived with Mom and she started giving rides to the smaller children on her walker. I got the feeling this is routine when Mom visits her great grands. Darla and I tackled the weeds in the front yard while John cleaned up. Joe and Jim played out back with the kids. Golden moments, all.
On Tuesday we found ourselves outside Washington DC at Ned’s, enjoying his inimitable banter. He and I took a long, wet walk to the Great Falls of the Potomac chewing on every aspect of our lives along the way. That evening we met Frankie and Jessica for an elaborate Thai dinner in the city, heard all about their year in France and test drove their latest creation, a super relaxing and fun card game.
It was smart of Bob to spend one night at the shore before diving back into our other tribe. We lay on the bed and laughed at a TV movie, the Lone Ranger with Johnny Depp as Tonto with a dead crow flopping on his head. I ate cherries until my stomach began to churn, flipping stems and pits into the waste basket. We slept, fitful but well enough.
After breakfast we walked across the street and down the beach. The sun had come out. Pelicans floated passed in groups of five, six or eight. I took off my shoes, shrieking when the cold, white foam shot up my legs. Then I cried. I was home!
Down at the bend, in the bubble and beyond, hundreds turned a corner amid a pivotal scramble. I now refer to events as BZ (before Zafer) or AZ. Before Z, Arlo had a brother, Tami and Lyle a thriving firstborn son. After Z we have yet to see.
There are endless slices of this bittersweet pie. One hefty wedge is tart with pain and loss. The news from Tami’s father, Ed was unfathomable. “OD’d?” I said into the phone, “As in Dead?!” I ran next door and took hold of Haruka and Jason’s hands, then up the hill and across the dam to Tami and Lyle’s. The story came into focus. An officer knocked on their door at midnight. Luke heard a howl rip through the woods. It was accidental, recreational.
Another piece is sweet with the power of community. We put our shoulders to a wheel that rolled forward until it stopped at a clay grave in the woods. Time sharpened to a point and we focused all our energies on that point. A hundred hands reached out with food, lodging, transportation, music and offers of “anything at all.” An avalanche of goodwill that Angelina remarked “speaks to the beauty of our village.” Many hovered, hugged and fielded information. I became a dispatch operator, juggling calls, texts, emails and facebook offers. We used a nine-tab spreadsheet to stay on track.
The challenges of a DIY burial lent additional flavor to the pie. We’d been planning a neighborhood cemetery for some time – nobody thought our first service would be for a nineteen-year-old.
Lyle walked down his driveway with his brother Glen and marked out a trail with Bob and Joe. Trip brought his bobcat and got to work. David hauled a load of pine straw and Joe installed stone pillars on each end. Bob dubbed it the Farewell Trail after tying a strand of prayer flags between two pines. Chris arrived in his wheelchair for a look. Barring another unforeseen death, his grave will be next. Arlo and Uncle Michael used the Monarch to dig the hole. Joe, Leavitt and others finished the grave by hand. We spread the pine needles to cover the bobcat scars, making it look like any other dappled path through the woods.
I pictured myself at rest beneath the trees along the Farewell Trail and tasted peace, unexpected and nourishing. I haven’t thought much about my own burial, just as I don’t think about the hotel bed when planning a vacation. Yet, no matter how excited I am to be somewhere new, I prefer to first check into the hotel, put down my bags and glance at the bed. My adventures taste sweeter once I know where I’m going to sleep.
We had the service at The Plant and people poured in. Cars were parked on both sides of the road all the way to highway 64 three quarters of a mile away, filling the Credit Union and Allstate parking lots. Two hundred were seated with twice as many standing.
After eulogies and music Zafer took his last ride in the Pup, the little red pickup Arlo inherited when Z left for his first year at the University of Colorado. Arlo took the wheel, his big brother behind him in a pristine pine casket with a big Z on the lid.
The burial was intimate, touching, heart breaking and real. No Astroturf. Just a pile of yellow clay and some borrowed shovels. Tami sat on the edge of the hole, throwing in handfuls until Joe gently took her arm. Men, women and children took turns until the job was finished, a mound of earth atop Zafer’s casket.
The next day I didn’t put on makeup before going out. It was over. I didn’t have to be anyone but myself now. Shelley and I went for our Sunday morning walk. I swung by The Plant to find everything had been picked up and put away. I considered touching up my eyes before giving Audrey a ride to the airport but decided to plunge forward au naturale.
The next day I hesitated in front of my mirror before heading off to work. After all that had happened, eyeliner and mascara seemed disingenuous. It’s time I started looking my age, I thought, trying to picture Jane Goodall drawing on eyeliner.
I’m different now, touched by death but unafraid. What a nice way to step into the After Z, as my unenhanced self. This is my tribute, my testament. When you see me for what I am, know that I’ve been touched by Zafer.
Regardless of how we feel about it, technology is barreling towards us. The future promises more artificial intelligence with computers that can do everything but pick your nose. The latest invention is a car that accelerates, steers and brakes without human intervention. When I heard about this I nearly dropped my wine glass.
I wondered why anyone would need a car like that. Heck, half the fun of driving is making all those last-minute decisions. I enjoy using my senses and reflexes to motor around town and am of the minority who know how to drive a manual transmission. Downshifting is fun! I particularly like that horseshoe motion I make before taking a corner, a flourish of my wrist that pulls Christine, my 1995 Ford Escort into second from fourth.
And yet, there are compelling arguments for autonomous cars. Commuting is monotonous, cell phones are distracting and people make bad decisions. 94% of the annual 33,000 traffic fatalities in the US are due to human error. Drivers lose their tempers in traffic and sometimes fall asleep at the wheel. Self-driving cars may be the solution.
Folks who have driven autonomously view the traffic pattern on a screen and can see their car in relationship to the others on the road. While the other cars weave in and out of traffic and bobble around in their lanes, their car hugs the middle and doesn’t make erratic moves. “The biggest source of angst comes, not from any technology, but from the other people on the road whose non-computer-assisted imperfections are all the more visible when you are being chauffeured by a supercomputer.” -Joe Harpaz, Forbes. Trials show the human drivers at fault when an autonomous car has a fender bender.
To help me understand the allure of computer assist, I went on a virtual test drive with Alex:
Like Alex, I find the technology both unsettling and reassuring. Still, I have no desire to replace Christine with a self-driving car. I like being in the driver seat with full control over her behavior. It’ll be up to me, not my car whether to pause and let someone back out of the slant parking on our main street. It’ll be my eyes, not computerized sensors that determine whether to stop for the people hovering a few feet back from the cross walk zone.
And yet driverless cars may be inevitable. A lot of resources are going into their development with the hope that consumers can hop on board within the next five to fifteen years. By the time I turn 100, autonomous vehicles may be the primary mode of transportation. By then I might be tempted if I thought I could afford one.
Maybe its sour grapes, but I don’t think we need yet another buffer between us and our surroundings. I sense another shred of humanity will shrivel after computer assisted cars become commonplace. Everything that glitters is not gold. Sometimes it’s just broken glass in your carpet.
On the shores of Lake Bosumtwi Ghana, West Africa - July, 2012
Bob and Camille a.k.a. "The Trouts" live in rural North Carolina where they enthusiastically support the real heroes of the world, organic farmers, renewable fuel makers and other tireless proponents of the grassroots resilience movement.
They are real authors now that Bob has co-authored "Backyard Biodiesel" with Lyle Estill and Camille "Two Brauds Abroad" with Stephanie De La Garza. Camille is also featured in "Once Upon An Expat" an anthology of travel stories. You'll find all three books at Amazon.com
The Trouts met in 1990 and soon recognized each other as soul mates, joined forces, got married, wrote a mission statement and jumped off the corporate treadmill. They have lived in Colorado, Virginia, Belize, China, Guam, Oahu, Maui, Nicaragua, Texas and Ghana.
The more of the world Bob and Camille see, the more fervently they wish for world peace.