Wednesday, September 20, 2017

...But Fear Itself


"There's nothing to fear, but fear itself."  
                      
                            —The Fonz, Happy Days S2E6. Also, Oingo-Boingo. And FDR, kinda. 
                                       

Days like today, with rioting in the streets and drone strikes from the skies, I long for the good ol’ days of my youth when all I had to worry about was being vaporized by the Russians. Or worse, surviving the initial rain of thermonuclear fire only to wander the post-apocalyptic landscape, dodging roving bands of cannibalistic mutants out beyond Thunderdome. I mean sure, I had regularly recurring nightmares of mushroom clouds, being buried alive in subterranean bomb shelters, and the permanent midnight of nuclear winter, but it was just so much simpler to fear the Commies whilst huddled around the TV, wrapped in the flag, and under the banner of the Church than it is to negotiate the murky depths of today's world. One too complex to be explained by lone gunmen or monsters under the bed.




God only knows where kids learn to fear nebulous ghosts, monsters, boogeymen, and all the other personifications of invisible dread. Myself, I think it began when I was taught to pray the words, “If I die before I wake.” Still, those monsters could always be dispelled by a nightlight, a quick check of the closet by Dad, and of course leaving the door open a crack. But when I finally outgrew them and realized that Orcs, Ogres, and slithering tendrils were phobias preferable to sneak attacks from the Red Menace, it was too late to go back and reclaim those kid fears. Instead I was stuck negotiating a world where school showed us "educational" films like “The Day After,” Church proclaimed that Reagan was going to start WWIII to annihilate Mikhail Gorbachev—who was obviously the Antichrist because of that thing on his head—and Pop songs like “99 Red Balloons” and “Forever Young” were thinly-veiled treatises on nuclear terror set to some of the best melodies ever composed.



Ninety-nine red balloons
Floating in the summer sky
Panic Bells, it's red alert
There's something here from somewhere else
The war machine springs to life
Opens up one eager eye
And focusing it on the sky
The ninety-nine red balloons go by

Then one day, out of the blue, Gorbachev said the word “Glasnost” and almost overnight everything was fine, the Russkies were our friends. They took down that wall of theirs and Yakov Smirnoff couldn’t sell a ticket to save his life. James Bond stopped saving us from Russian Satellites, and we had to invent new enemies, like Skynet. Yeah, rage against them machines!

Of course the Russians still had their nukes, and in fact they were quite a bit more unstable politically and militarily, and were possibly selling them on the black market, but apparently I didn’t need to be afraid of them anymore? Definitely not.  THEY ARE OUR FRIENDS. Overnight the story changed, and everybody just played along with a straight face.

But be afraid of the Japanese, because they are taking over. We would all need to learn to speak Japanese because they were buying up all our debt, our land, and there was a huge trade deficit or something. Whoops! There went the Japanese economy. Well that’s embarrassing, sorry folks, false alarm. But don’t let your guard down because… uh, hang on a sec… would you believe, Pakistan? They’ve got the bomb now. No? OK, how would you feel about… North Korea? They’ve got the bomb now, too. Plus, have you seen Kim Jong Il? Or was that Un? Whichever, that guy does not seem stable.

And so went the 90’s. Bill Clinton destroyed the American Presidency by getting BJ’s in the Oval, and balancing the budget that one year. Acid Rain and the Ozone Layer came and went. Good times. Then the crack babies were all going to grow up to be sociopaths, an entire generation of serial killers unleashed upon us. Not to mention that Y2K was ushering in the End of Days. That one was always kind of a dud for me compared to nuclear annihilation, but I played along all the same because I love America.

But each time since then, when the next threat came and went, it got a little harder to buy in, to really muster the proper enthusiasm for that week's groupthink exercise. SARS epidemic… uh, I mean Avian Flu… no, no, Swine Flu...whoops, I meant Ebola. Nothing? Really? OK, but one of these times it’s gonna be real, and then won’t you feel silly for not getting on the bandwagon?  

Official Ebola Branding Icon.
I mean sometimes the threat is absolutely real, like Al Qaeda ISIS. They’re the best enemy we’ve had since Reagan's Evil Empire. Maybe that’s why Bush trotted out the whole Axis of Evil thing, remember them? No? Don’t feel bad, no one else does either. Which is a shame because that Evil Empire thing was a bestseller, and we could really use another one like that, because this quarter's numbers are looking a little soft.







 



So now we’re stuck with Al-Qaeda ISIS, who are truly heinous, but against the backdrop of 1.4 billion peaceful Muslims they only represent .03% of that population. And if those kinds of facts ever sink in it’s going to spell trouble for Xanax and Paxil sales, so just you mind your manners. 





 

At a certain pointsometime after Y2K and the Great Flu Vaccine Shortage of 2004 (What’s that, you don’t remember the Great Shortage? Shame on you!)—it all began to seem like we were sitting around a campfire telling each other ghost stories for the express purpose of being afraid of something. Anything. Like maybe I needed my Dad to do a quick check of the closet before I went to bed, except I was a grown-ass man now, so maybe I could just do that myself? I mean, how do you stop being afraid of the boogeyman? You wake up fine for thousands of morning in a row and begin to feel kind of stupid about the whole thing. I think they call that "growing up?"

 





It occurred to me one day that it wasn’t just us sitting around that campfire telling ghost stories, but a special class of professionals telling us their tales. For the sake of discussion, let’s call them “journalists.” These are the people we actually pay to make us afraid. Angry and horny, too. They tell us the part of the story that fits into soundbytes and 140 character tweets, interspersed with horrible images and Sarah McLachlan or U2 music montages. They edit video and audio recordings so you get the inflammatory part without context; they call them “rioters” in the burning streets when it’s about racial issues, but “celebrants” in the burning streets when it’s about a sports team win/loss. 



You can just see them absolutely salivating over a good disaster, because it means they’ll get to put on the hip-waders and stand in the floodwaters of Anytown USA, mis-remembering the RPG fire they were nowhere near. Or relive the old glory-days of Hurricane Katrina, when they whipped-up imaginary Lord of the Flies scenarios of mass rapes at the Murder-Dome, and torrents of poisonous sewage killing the huddled masses while FEMA just sat back and watched, because George Bush hates black people. They never met a rush to judgment they didn’t like, and you can almost hear them just off camera calling, “Get upset about this!” Because if you aren't in an absolute STATE about something, they might have to wait until next month to buy that new satellite or vacation home in the Hamptons.


Then they break up the laundry-list of injustices, tragedies, and kidnapped little blonde girls with commercials for products that will help you get it up, put you to sleep, or make all those pesky feelings go away. At the end of their 22-minute spiel, they wrap it all up with a puff-piece about the panda born at the zoo so it doesn’t all seem so depressing. Otherwise, you might not tune in again tomorrow, and their sponsors Pfizer and Monsanto, wouldn’t like that.


 

When I consider every rumor of war that never materialized, every Global Warming benchmark that expired without swallowing the coastlines of every continent, every End Of the Word Prophetic Deadline that passed like any other day, every Population Bomb that never detonated, I begin to think that the whole thing is just a story we’re telling ourselves to hear the sound of our own voices. That if the day ever came when literally nothing happened, that would be the story: "The Horror of The Day That Nothing Happened."






 



It's funny to look back on the hysteria that surrounded all things communist when I was growing up, a continual subtext of fear that you had to buy into to be a Good American. Now we're all so urbane and sophisticated as to dismiss those trite concerns and instead reminisce fondly about them as if they were simpler times. In turn, with a straight face, we are so obtuse as to buy right into the next litany of terrors without a trace of reflection on the length of our days or the sum of our fears. There’s a reason the string of each day’s events are selected, filtered, spun, and packaged for easy consumptionwhether by preachers, teachers, pundits, politicians, or journalists: it works. It doesn't even matter if you’re outraged, afraid, uplifted, or offended, as long as you keep coming back like a Good Citizen. 











   









Sitrep (for today): Gorbachev...not the Antichrist. The Pope is the Antichrist. I'm sorry, what's that? Oh. Well...This just in, the Pope has been downgraded to Marxist False Prophet. it seems that a certain Kenyan Islamo-Fascist Terrorist—who shall remain nameless—has been elected as this generation's Antichrist to usher in the End of Days. Wow, you gotta a Cinderella story like that, out of the blue! Hometown kid (OK, Kenyan Muslim, whatever) makes good.




So as I was saying, please remember that Russia isn’t the enemy, except when they are (Pipe down, Crimea, I’m talking here!). It’s China… whoops, North Korea again! Not to mention Al-Qaeda ISIS, Ebola, Zionist Whatever, Artificial Intelligence, Gay Marriage, Christian Bakeries, the Koch Brothers, George Soros, AntiFa, Black Lives Matter, Agenda 21, the NSA, the Military-Infotainment Complex. Or some shit like that. Stay tuned for millisecond-to-millisecond updates from the 24-Hour Fear Mongering... Uh, I mean "News"... Cycle. And by all means, remember to put on your tin-foil hat and take your medicine.




But for God's sake, don't take the red pill. Just sayin'.


Heavy Lifting



“Hey-- how are you stranger? Been thinking about you lately and wondering how you are doing. Facebook is strange. For some reason you haven't been showing up in my feed for the past few years. I hope all is well.”

An excerpt from a message I got from an old friend out of the blue last week. We haven’t said a word to each other since NYE 2015/2016. I vacillate between letting silence be my reply or trying to craft a delicate response to tell her that I unfriended her almost a year and a half ago. Apparently she still hasn’t noticed. 

I've unfriended people for a variety of reasons over the years. Mostly it's just because we never talked. I have a similar philosophy throughout all areas my life. Come the New Year, I usually clean house; clothes and belongings I didn't need, want, or use in the previous year go to people who obviously need them more than me. My friend list gets edited, usually shedding a half-dozen or so for similar reasons. I mean, I’m not taking attendance here, I don’t need (or want) a minute by minute recounting of anyone’s life, but if we go a year without a comment, a PM—something—what are we clinging to?

One guy, David, got axed for the one-sided nature of our friendship, as I tired of doing all the heavy lifting and then getting blown-off on the thrice-annual occasions that I suggest getting a beer. We worked together for three years at the same company, got laid off from there on the same day, and started our own construction companies within weeks of each other. I even hired him to come work for me when his folded up. All in all, we’d known and worked with each other for nine years, and over that time I’d loaned him tools and money to keep his business and household afloat, empathizing with the struggles of a business owner trying to make his way in the brutal world of construction contracting.

One day in 2016, about four months after I’d started with the University, David called me up to get some help filling out an application for the local school district that had some essay questions on it. I basically dictated the answer to him over the phone, as I’d had a similar question when I was applying at the University, typical diversity stuff. Later that same day, a contractor whose work I supervised at the University called me up to get a professional reference for yet another application David had in the pipeline. I gave a strong recommendation that landed him the job. On the phone, the contractor even said that he had David in the ‘maybe’ pile until he talked to me. 

Forty-five minutes later—not knowing that the contractor had called me or what I’d said—David cancelled our planned get-together for that mythical beer just twenty minutes before we were to meet at a dive called The West End. He lobbed some lame platitudes about “next time” at me, to which I offered no objection. Unbeknownst to him, I kept that meeting at The West End and proceeded to delete/block him on every conceivable communications platform as I enjoyed a shot of Jaeger and a Twisted Meniscus beer in the warm sunshine. What was I clinging to? 



Turns out I forgot to block him on LinkedIn. Just got a request for a professional reference and skills
endorsement from him recently. Had to push the block button one more time. Oh, the humanity! 

Aside from my yearly Fb housecleaning, I mostly I just unfollow people, rather than unfriending them. I don’t want to lose track of them, I’d still like to be able to check in, wish them happy birthday, drop them a line from time to time. After all, I don’t dislike them, it’s just that the one-note song they're playing gets tiresome. Often, I actually agree with them, but can't stand the monotony of the subject matter or the hysterical shrieking of the opinion. There are volumes on the knob other than 11. Maybe we could use our inside voices?

Of course, Fb doesn't alert you when someone unfriends/unfollows you, which I think is for the best. If you don't notice their absence, how close were you to begin with? Whereas if you got the rejection notice you might actually mistake hurt feelings for giving a damn in the first place. I’m sure a few people have unfriended me over the years, unbeknownst to me. I only know of one, and when I discovered her reasoning I was glad to be shut of her. I don’t need that kind of crazy in my orbit.  

When it comes to actually unfriending someone—not just an acquaintance, someone that matters to you—it’s a bit trickier. This friend that reached out to me this past week thinking it odd that she hadn’t seen me much on Fb in the past few years—who still hasn’t noticed that we aren’t actually friends because I didn’t block her like David, just unfriended her—illustrates something more consequential than shedding a fairweather friend. This was someone that mattered to me once. 

But there are certain events in every person’s life that demand a response from your friends. A marriage, birth of a child, death of a loved one. Hell, even a new job should be worth a nod. After one such event came and went for me last Spring without a word from her, I was disheartened. Such that I turned a dispassionate eye to the years of our interactions and correspondence and finally saw what I hadn’t wanted to.
 
Although we’d spent a couple of years commiserating about everything from moving, having kids vs. not having them, and the onset of our Autumn years, it was obvious that I was doing all the heavy lifting. Every few months I would initiate a conversation and then wait days or weeks for a response. I sent a birthday greeting in 2014 and another in 2015, and literally heard nothing in between. If was to be, it was up to me, and that’s no way to live. What was I clinging to?  



The answer was, of course, that I was holding fast to cherished memories of youth. But that seemed to be all that was left to us, and I decided that I'd rather hold those memories inviolate than see them diminish under the weight of neglect. If there's to be no contact, I prefer it to be for lack of connection than a lack of interest. I bear no ill will—God knows I haven’t the right. Things just are what they are. 





This is what I’ve got so far:

“Dear ****
The reason you haven’t been seeing me on Facebook is that I unfriended you almost a year and a half ago. I suppose the fact that it’s just now come to your attention says as much about the reasons why as anything could.”

--------------------------

Maybe that’s enough.






On Flag Burning



I was 14 years old the day I made a rude discovery in a UA theater at the Topanga Mall in Canoga Park, CA. Apparently, if the movie theater isn't on a military base, they don't play the Star Spangled Banner before the previews start. So when the theater darkened at the beginning of Back to the Future, I was the only rube that got up and put his hand over his heart in anticipation of what had thus far preceded every single movie I'd ever seen. I sat back down, feeling an equal mix of embarrassment and dismay.

The embarrassment for obvious reason, I suppose. But the dismay was because I thought that we were all in this together, and I discovered that only me and the other military-brats had been saluting Old Glory before The Breakfast Club, Karate Kid, and Raiders of the Lost Ark. I had always believed that we were on the same page; in fact, didn't even know there were other pages to begin with. That was a nice little life when I actually believed that.

It's never been more obvious to me than today that we are not on the same page. In fact, I'm not even sure we're in the same book anymore. After growing up in a military home, roaming from town to town and base to base—where the Anthem, Reveille, and Taps were a routine part of everyday life—the idea of burning our nation's flag is abhorrent to me. Like being in a room full of people that are making fun of my Mom, and I'm just supposed to sit there and take it. I know that the sense of patriotism that I was raised with isn't en vogue anymore, just like I know that the government that's ruling my country doesn't deserve the kind of ardor that the Stars and Stripes generate in my heart, or the lump it puts in my throat. Mark Twain said it best: "Patriotism is supporting your country all of the time, and your government when they deserve it." I think it's been a while since they deserved it.

Even so, I'm against the idea of punishing people for burning the flag, for the same reason I'm against my faith being the law of the land: I don't believe you can legislate things like morality or a love of country into existence. I don't want the Bible to be the law of the land, but the law of our hearts, and I don't want the symbol of our country to be sanctified by law, but by the strength of our allegiance to a government that deserves it.

You've read all the commentaries and Facebook diatribes on the First Amendment; about whether flag burning should be protected speech, which it currently is. Oddly enough, the staunchest defender that the flag-burners ever had was the recently-deceased uber-conservative judge, Antonin Scalia, who also hated the burning of the flag. But he was immovable in the belief that it is part of the expression of free speech, reasoning that the Founders saw fit to enshrine the First Amendment rights first because they held them the dearest. Echoing the Founders, Scalia believed that the right of free expression in speech, religion, and assembly are the best defense against bad government.

Everybody loves those lofty beliefs on the 4th of July with a side of Mom's apple pie, like everybody's a fan on Super Bowl Sunday. I mean, who doesn't whistle Yankee-Doodle-Dandy when the fireworks are going off? But it takes a more robust belief to remain dedicated to defending the rights of people to scream from the public stage words that make your blood boil, and ideas that you'd spend your entire life resisting.

Can you imagine what it felt like for JK Rowling to defend Donald Trump's visit to the UK, then? To rebuke her own fans and supporters, insisting on hearing Trump out? He is anathema to everything she stands for, believes in, and writes about, but she weathered a storm of criticism from all the people who claimed that they loved freedom—even as they tried to ban Trump's very entry into their country—because she actually believes in freedom. Not just freedom for people she likes or agrees with. For everyone. And if you want to sing about the land of the free and the home of the brave, you'll have to have that kind of fortitude, too.

I'm sorry that America represents such advanced citizenship. That it requires you to have more than one emotion at a time and more than one thought in your head. It requires a nuanced intellect and emotional complexity to care more about an idea than about an event. Because as much as I love her, nobody ever died for Old Glory. They died for the Constitution, which protects people's rights to do all kinds of things, many of which you're going to hate. They died for the idea of America, not its symbol.

So if a dyed-in-the-wool, proud-as-hell military-brat like me can watch some disrespectful piece of shit burn the flag that I love in a senseless paroxysm of self-serving, masturbatory outrage, so can you. Because the only way to be sure that you'll always be free to say that the President is a Muslim terrorist, homos are going to hell, and darkies belong in the back of the bus, is to be sure that everybody can wear a hijab and smoke a doobie while they burn the flag if they goddamn feel like it. 
                                                     
                                                                                                                                                                   Freedom is one-size-fits-all. Sorry about that.


Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Moonlight Mile



We were in the teeth of the blizzard from nowhere, sliding down the winding mountain roads in the dark like a fifteen thousand pound toboggan, when Tyler Durden asked me what I was going to wish I’d accomplished before I died. I didn’t know what to tell him. 

As we rounded a long radial bend, already halfway into the oncoming lane and fishtailing slightly, we emerged into a steep downward straightaway to find a Tyree Oil tanker truck suddenly materializing from the undulating curtain of snow, skidding across the road barely two car lengths in front of us. He was zig-zagging lanes with abandon and treating the guard-rails on both sides like those bumpers they put down in the gutters at the bowling alley for kids’ birthday parties. I downshifted instantly, but studiously kept my foot off the brake. 

A full-size Dodge Sprinter like mine is over twenty four feet long, ten feet tall, and has a turning radius of fifty three feet. It doesn’t do anything on a dime. So any use of the gas or brake in this situation and we’d find ourselves doing the same jig as the tanker in a heartbeat; the best I could hope for was to not add insult to injury for the guy. I began to realize that there was method to his madness, as he was actually using the rails to bump and grind against to spend his momentum without killing himself. As he thumped to a hard stop against the rail right in front of us I slalomed around him in a wide, lazy arc, trying to keep it on the road.

I just took it in stride. Hell, it wasn’t even the most dangerous thing that had happened that day.
It had already been a very long and perilous day that had begun over twelve hours previous with my business partner and I traversing this same mountain pass in the opposite direction toward the rocky Oregon coast. We’d made our way to the tiny coastal town of Yachats on an errand of mercy that was supposed to net us a thousand bucks for just one day’s work. Two days prior, Mother Nature had thrown the very first recorded hurricane at the town and had done fairly extensive damage, mostly by ripping off peoples’ roofs, one of which we were headed to make emergency repairs on. Easy money. The hurricane had only been a category one, with sustained winds of seventy five mph, gusting up to ninety, so the town was still standing but had been given a black eye.

The specific house we were going to work on belonged to a friend of a friend who was trying to turn it into a rental income property. She’d paid cash for it as a fixer-upper, and was already upside down in equity and up to her ears in a project she wished she hadn’t bitten off.  She lived in the Willamette Valley like us, and the property in Yachats was separated by two hours of hard miles in the Coast Range along the Western-most edge of the Pacific Ring of Fire. So by the time she’d gotten the news that the uninhabited house had been seriously damaged by the unprecedented hurricane winds, and that most of her roof was in the parking lot of the Post Office, the place had already been flooded for days. Since it was already an anchor in danger of sinking her, the owner had elected to forgo insurance on it, so she needed somebody to stanch the bleeding before the entire house became financially irreparable for her.

In February of 2012 we were a fledgling construction company, having survived our first anemic year
with our heads held high. But the Holidays had just passed and Thanksgiving to Valentine’s Day is typically a no-man’s land in the world of construction that’s vanquished many a company. So our edge-of-desperation mindset—mixed with compassion for the hapless owner—overwhelmed our better judgment and sense of self-preservation, so we charged head-on into the maw of the next storm-front stacked up behind that first hurricane, teeth bared and twelve-hundred square foot sail in hand. There’s no feeling in the world quite like betting Mother Nature a thousand bucks that she can’t kill you before you get your job done. And you’d better believe that bitch took us up on it without hesitation. Easy money. 

The inside of the house was ankle-deep in water, and it was still pouring out of the walls and ceiling. It had that mildewy stench of standing water, humid as a swamp and already a breeding ground for nasty surprises. Not our problem, except that the power was out, which meant that we were on the clock and burning daylight, so we put our biggest extension ladder up to gain access to the second story. It was a flat roof—always a mistake in Oregon—but since we’d be stretching out a thirty by forty foot roll of super-strength polyethylene sheeting and manhandling it into place over the entire perimeter of the roof in sustained winds of fifty mph, I was glad not to be concerned about my footing. I had other things to worry about. 

The house was one of a dozen shoehorned in on a narrow spit of land jutting out into the bay, and with no barriers between us and the howling wind coming in off the sea, we were immediately battered pretty hard just trying to roll out the polyethylene. The rain was mixed with an ultra-fine hail of ice that scoured our faces at a stinging fifty mph in the frigid gale. Things only got worse as we cut the requisite amount of sheeting off and began trying to roll it out. 

On a normal day, spreading a tarp of this magnitude on the coast is pretty difficult, but doing it in the face of sustained winds in the fifties and regular gusts of seventy mph is well-nigh suicidal. The only possible course of action was to secure the windward edge under the eaves to deny the freezing typhoon wind their leverage under the tarp. Which is exactly what Ron, my business partner, set out doing from the relative safety of the second story balcony, while I arranged as many weights, 2x4 cleats, and anchors as possible to keep the rest of the edges down on the top-side of the roof.
 

By then I’d been in construction for fifteen years and was well acquainted with dangerous work. When I came into the trades it was with an innate fear of heights and power-tools, and a D in Shop Class under my belt. I was definitely not built to be a carpenter in my personality or temperament, so I’d learned the hard way how to grab hold of my emotions and cold-stare fear into submission. The first time I ever set foot on a top plate was a moment of terror. Imagine a balance beam the height of the ceiling in your house and the width of your palm, now strap twenty pounds of tools to your waist and get going. I froze in pure panic, completely unable to move until I realized that I’d never have another job in construction if I couldn’t put one foot in front of the other, right then. So I did, and the Almighty was subject to the loudest, most insistent prayers He’d ever heard. 

Next thing you know I was up on top of a second story wall, twenty five feet off the ground with no safety net, no ropes or harnesses, and being told to do it faster. And then you do that, or you don’t have a job. I’d had trusses drop from a crane on me, forcing a jump off the wall to avoid being crippled, gone over backward off a wall, lost my footing and slid down the bare plywood of a new 12/12 roof toward the precipice of a third story drop. I’d always survived thanks to a bit of dumb luck—or providence, depending on your politics—extraordinary reflexes, and a dead-calm mind.

None of that prepared me to be lifted straight up into the air like a toy in the hands of Mother Nature. 

As Ron was working his way across the front side of the house, rolling the tarp under the eaves and nailing it up into the rafters with roofing caps from a ladder on the balcony, I was stretching it out and pulling it taut across the roof. But as he kept narrowing the opening, the wind was being forced under the tarp through an ever-decreasing gap and thus with exponentially increasing force as it shot through. I’d secured it temporarily with 2x4’s along the edges, screwed into the roof plywood, but the increasing fury of the near-hurricane winds forcing their way through the remaining gap began to tear the sheeting free from those cleats. I had a death-grip on the edge of the thick plastic, and was on my ass with my heels dug in as I shouted at the top of my lungs for Ron to hurry the fuck up as the tarp was being ripped from my straining grasp. 

He couldn’t hear a word over the furious snapping and ripples of the tarp, or under the din of the howling wind and rain. If the tarp actually tore free before he could finish that all-important
leading-edge, we’d lose almost two hundred bucks worth of the most advanced plastics chemistry had yet come up with and have to drive two hours—one way—to get more. So I laid out face-down on the roof, arms and legs splayed as wide as possible like I was making a snow angel, and thought the heaviest thoughts I could think, desperately hoping Ron could seal the gap before we lost that bet. At that point, between my beer gut, my heavy-duty rain gear, and the stupidly-massive tool bags I wear, I represented a two hundred fifty pound paperweight, defying Mother Nature to move me.
Which she did with ridiculous ease. 

The tarp tore loose from the mooring on the edge where I was laying and lifted straight up into the air with me on top of it. It whipped and furled like the biggest flag in the parade, me clinging to it with two handfuls of dinosaur bones clutched in my white-knuckled grip. At the apex of the lift was a moment of the most distilled terror I’ve ever imagined, and all I could do was hang on for dear life. There was nothing else to grab, no one who could reach me, and no getting off. I was utterly at the mercy of the whims of the wind, with only my Grandma’s prayers as a bulwark between me and the easiest possible route down to the Pacific. One, two, three. It lifted me up and slapped me down, lifted me up and slapped me down, lifted me up and slapped me down. I came up off the roof about four feet into the air and slammed back down into it face-first, three times in quick succession.
 
And then it was over. I barely had time to register the fact of my continued existence as Ron got the front edge sealed. Then he hopped up on the roof and we worked the perimeter edges until the piece was solidly down. It took several more hours, stretching out longer than it should have, the daylight fading as we worked with the wind, sleet, and rain continuously pelting us, but we encased the entire roof in the virtually indestructible membrane and then beat feet for home.

Almost nine hours in those hazardous conditions made for a long day, but it was an illusion to believe that just because we were headed home we were out of danger. The winds chased us all along the rocky promontories and buffeted us mercilessly through the treacherous switchbacks of the rugged coastline, slamming into us broadside and pushing us toward the oncoming traffic, forcing me to turn into the wind—toward the cliff edge—to keep going straight. Occasionally the wind would die down unexpectedly so that the compensation would become an overcorrection and we would find ourselves suddenly swerving out toward the precipice. 

The sea was a roiling mass of whitecaps as the wind tore at its surface and drove waves into the Devil’s Cauldron with a percussive force that translated into subsonic thumps we felt in our bones. And so the battle went, for about an hour until we pulled into the outskirts of Florence, one of the bigger coastal towns, which is where we would strike east and into the mountain passes to get back to the Willamette Valley. After the nerve-wracking day, and the tense drive, I was almost looking forward to the twisty paths and narrow lanes of the pass where the high winds couldn’t reach us. In profile, my van is as big as a billboard and aerodynamic as a brick, so on a long straightaway at the north edge of Florence, Mother Nature took one more swing at us, laying a broadside haymaker on us hard enough to put us up on two wheels, very nearly pushing us over.

This had been the longest stretch of my life spent in such a constant state of primal, fight-or-flight, lizard-brain fear. There was no quarter given, no respite, no sanctuary anywhere. Hell, not even a freakin’ coffee break. The adrenaline playing constantly along my nerves for so many straight hours had left me feeling jangled and fried, humming like a high-tension powerline. I was a little jumpy, and a lot frazzled, and began to have a new empathy for those who spend their lives like this for years on end. This wasn’t a war-zone by any means, but I felt as if I’d looked into the heart of one from afar and it was already too much for me. So when the heavy, wet flakes of snow began to take the place of sleet, hail, and rain as we entered the foothills of the pass, I cursed The Bitch for clutching at us one more time.


The pass was unusually deserted, owing to the lateness of the hour and the increasingly dangerous road conditions. There was a point at which the falling snow picked up pace and density and its interplay with the headlights created the illusion that we were at the threshold of hyperspace, seriously messing with any sense of relative motion and shortening visibility to mere car lengths. Unfortunately, once you’re in the pass you’re pot-committed. It’s one lane in either direction, no rest areas, and no turning back. So the worsening snow seemed like Mother Nature’s coupe de grace, like she had us right where she wanted us. There was nothing to be done about it, so Ron just kept refilling my coffee cup like a good work-wife and the music played low in the dim cabin. 

When Tyree suddenly came into view we hadn’t seen a car in either direction for almost twenty minutes, so his appearance from nowhere and already totally out of control was like a last-ditch shot across the bow. Being close enough to read the company’s signage even through the snow was a surreal moment of slow motion. The Pixies were wailing “Where Is My Mind?” and for some reason the moment in “Fight Club” when Tyler Durden lets go of the wheel and their car drifts into oncoming traffic came to mind. He asks the three passengers what they were going to wish they’d accomplished before they died, and two of them had answers at the ready while the main character had nothing. 

That was me. Nothing at all.

I gave Tyree a wide berth as he thumped to a stop against the rail in front of us, and saw his hazard lights begin blinking in the mirror before he disintegrated back into snow from whence he came. I took it as a sign of his relative wellbeing, said a quick Ave for him even though I’m not Catholic, and got back to the business of getting us home in one piece. Not like I could have done anything for him in any case. Our speed decreased to barely twenty five, which was less than half the speed we usually took the pass at. But the slippery build-up of snow and near white-out conditions had to be respected. I could only tell by the terrain and pitch of the road that we were nearing the tunnel at the top of the pass, which marked the point at which the road would improve dramatically. Wider, gentler turns, decreased pitch. 

When we finally crept to the tunnel it was full-dark inside, no lights at all. Which had never happened before, day or night, rain or shine. But the truly remarkable thing was what we found on the other side. When we emerged from the short tunnel, half a mile or so, the sky was completely clear. Not one flake of snow, drop of rain, or even a cloud in the sky. Like in passing through the tunnel we breached the rain-shadow into a different realm. The stars were shining hard in undiluted brilliance at the top of that mountain. The moon was pregnant and full, bathing the road in luminescence and painting the corridor of tree-tops. 

I felt a palpable sense of relief settle in the cabin as we both breathed a heavy sigh and the icy hand of fear had eased its grip on us. It was almost as if Mother Nature was tipping her hat to us for a game well played, and had sent her best moon as a token of congratulations.  As if to say, “Alright, off you go. But don’t play at stupid games, I won’t be so tolerant a second time.”


And off we went. It was another forty minutes of driving, winding through centuries-old stands of evergreens, ever downward to home. I stared at that moon for much of that time, the van almost driving itself now that no one was trying to kill us. Something about the moon’s pallor has always been uniquely beautiful to me, the shadows cast crisp and black, soft as a lullaby. And this one hung so close to the Earth, like a Harvest Moon in February. I hadn’t seen one so beautiful since an August night in 1995 on Highway 89 in the badlands of Montana, which for no real reason still resonated as one of the best nights of my life. I thought about the friends that I shared that car ride with and wondered if they were OK. 

But more, I wondered what it meant that I had no answer for Tyler, especially after the deadliest day of my life.

It was such an unparalleled relief to have a mountain range between us and the world of trouble behind, that even just drinking a cup of coffee, talking with Ron about his kids and the songs on the radio, or letting the miles ramble under the wheels felt like the best thing that had happened in the history of, like, Ever. Just watching that moon and breathing in and out, like it weren’t no thang; simply happy to be alive and in good company. 

Like that perfectly ordinary night seventeen years previous, perhaps the first moment of transcendence I’d ever experienced. I hadn’t thought about that night in years, and it was such an anomaly in my life that I sometimes wondered if it even happened, or if I’d simply imagined it. I’d tried and failed to explain it to anyone that wasn’t there, because it always came across as trite and merely life-sized. “So you were driving on a road one night and a song came on the radio?”

But driving those miles under Mother Nature’s conciliatory offering reassured me that it was real and that transcendence exists if you have eyes to see. So I began writing the story of that Montana night in my head, all the way to home. When I got there, Lindsay was long asleep, so I stayed up until four in the morning, trying to corral the rush of words that had come to me along those moonlit miles home, like trying to catch a river in a cup. At four AM I summoned far more courage than it had taken to go toe to toe with the Grande Dame Bitch, Mother Nature, and hit the “Post” button on Facebook, publishing the first story I ever told to an audience of only two. Those two souls that also knew the truth of the moon and Highway 89. Who along with our Mistress the Moon, became my collective Muse in that moment, for whom all subsequent stories have been told.

I had my answer for Tyler.

Before I died, I wanted to tell the stories. The stories of casual serendipity, mundane miracles, and the perfect timing of unimportant coincidences. The ways in which the random, inchoate world can reveal itself, just for an instant, to be a clockwork of exquisite beauty. The stories of how it all works, of why I am this way. All of the stories I could.


Thanks for asking, Mr. Durden.