Until yesterday, I’d been very lucky in that the only death that hit close to home was my grandmother’s while I was in college. Yesterday, I learned that a friend, Connor Gregory, died in a car wreck. Since learning that, I’ve been trying to figure out where I am on the spectrum of feelings, and thought that, you know, it doesn’t really matter. (I mean, it does, but, well, hold on and I’ll get to it.) The people who are hit hardest by this are going to have a hell of a time, something that I cannot imagine. And, to me, there is nothing you can say that wouldn’t cheapen whatever it is they’re going through. That’s the thing about not having gone through anything like this, you don’t have the emotional toolbox to be able to help someone through the process. The good news is, though, that Connor’s girlfriend, Faye, who was with him at the time, is going to be in very good hands. Mark and Nora, two extremely good people and even better friends, are going to be there for her, and that’s, as far as I can tell, the best thing that can happen right now.

When I’ve told people about this, they’ve asked if Connor was a good friend. Well, of course he was. Connor was an extremely warm and affable guy. One of the messed up rubrics I use to judge a friendship is how many arguments about nothing I can have with a person and still walk away thinking, “Yeah, he’s a good guy.” By that measure, Connor was a fantastic human being and a great friend. If you were to look at his Facebook profile today, you’d see it changed into a memorial wall, with people who he’s affected sharing memories. For my generation, I guess that’s the closest a lot of people will have to a memorial service or a wake for the departed. If nothing else, then, if you’re looking for this sort of thing, it’s an easy way to judge the effect someone had on people’s lives.

Earlier, I mentioned that the only death I’d experienced so far was my grandmother’s while I was in college. After she died, I felt like there was a bit of mercy in it. See, she was a very strong-willed person. She had to have been in order to be a raging left-winger in Smyrna, Tennessee, and remain there for decades both while my grandfather, an officer in the Air Force, was alive, and then afterward. But at the end of her life, she had suffered three strokes and was going through heavy dementia. There were days where she didn’t know her daughters, and that is not who Rose Montgomery was. In that sense, the death was leagues easier—for me, but not for my mother, of course, because holy shit there is nothing like the bond between a child and her mother—than seeing her in that state. So, I went almost ten years without experiencing death, and now am facing this.

Suddenness, as anyone knows, is a harder thing to face than a gradual decline, which allows you to come to terms with what’s coming. Suddenness brings with it shock, disbelief, and an almost subdermal feeling of rage. I didn’t know Connor well enough to get into any metaphysical or philosophical or dharma combat things with him, so I can’t say how he would have liked people to handle it. Thus, I’m left with how to handle the memory of a friend.

One of mainline Judaism’s (simplest) answer(s) is the yearning for the establishment of God’s kingdom on Earth, the appearance of Moshiach, and the true justice and paradise that that would bring. [See the Mourner’s Kaddish. This, of course, is extremely simple, and Judaism is a religion that puts a lot of weight on how to handle things like this, whether that’s sitting shiva or anything else.] However, I’m not a member of mainline Judaism, and haven’t been for a long time now. Christianity would—well, I’m not even going there, because I’m not a Christian, and Christianity is a wide potpourri of theological analyses of Biblical texts, just like Judaism, and I’m an outsider.

However, there’s an approach to death that I like, and it’s found in Zen. Zen emphasizes that we cannot actually make sense of reality, because as we try to do so, we are putting our own desires and interpretations and everything else on top of what is actually reality, thus not actually experiencing it. Buddha, Zen says, is a shit stick. Which means that, simultaneously, enlightenment is everything that is gross and filthy about the world, as well as the relief from the grossness and filth. (Apparently, monks used to wipe their tucheses with sticks.) Living enlightenment is fully feeling loss just as it is enjoying a good coffee or tea.

Further, a guy whose worldview I can really get behind, says that there is an element of all of us in the universe, because, he says, we’re all the universe experiencing itself. It’s not a New Age thing—even though it sounds like it is—and you don’t get that unless you’ve read some of the Patriarch’s writings and sat zazen for a while. But the point is that someone who’s dead is never truly dead. They’re not hovering around like a ghost in The Frighteners, either, but they’re never truly gone. You can’t put what that means into words, but after a while of meditating on it—but not thinking about it—you start to gain understanding of it. That, of course, doesn’t mean that it’s any easier to process.

If you pray, think, or send good vibes, do so for Connor’s family and Faye Norris.

Anniversaries, Pt. 2 – Colorado

I hit the Colorado border, around 6:30pm local time that night, as the sun was setting. A few hours before, I’d called up an old high school friend who’d moved out there after college, and managed to bum a night’s sleep on his couch. He lived in Colorado Springs, which wasn’t too far from the border, so I’d crash there and then, in the morning, continue on to Grand Lake to see my uncle, by way of Denver.

The first thing I thought of when I got out of the car to fill up at a gas station in a small mountain town was “Holy shit, I haven’t felt sixty degrees in months.” It was September and there had been oppressive heat all the way from Nashville. But up in the mountains, it was sixty degrees, and I wished that I’d brought my jacket along. The other thing I thought was interesting, which probably no one else will, was that there was a USAA ATM. The incredibly easily-pleased portion of my brain (which is most of it) went “Oooh,” and I took out money. Without getting charged a fee.

It was glorious, and, with this experience, I knew that I had made the right choice in coming West. Some cultures have their heroes receive good omens in the forms of augury, or being told a fortune, or any number of other things. My good omen, it turned out, was taking money out of an ATM without being charged. Look, you take what you can get.

So, naturally, this being America and we being two old friends from high school, we went out drinking in town and did the whole reminiscing and catch up thing.

Nathan, it turned out, hit the same realization that I had hit a couple of times before, but was only now acting on: He had to get out of Tennessee before it wrecked him. It was, you see, the hometown effect. I’d lucked out and a) not actually been from Smyrna, b) never really enjoyed living there, and c) moved to Nashville after high school, immediately before going to college. I had avoided the hometown effect. For him, though, he fell into the trap of being in the same county for a good chunk of his college career. Of course, he got out, went West, and things seemed to be working out for him.

We drank for a while, went back, and then I crashed around midnight. I woke up the next day to some great scenery—

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—and started on the road after waking him up. (It was eight am! Civilization starts at 7!) I went up the interstate from Colorado Springs toward Denver, keeping an eye on the mountains to the west. I still wasn’t quite sure that those things were really there. Part of me thought that I was still in Kansas, wandering around the great wheat deserts and flatness that makes up the entirety of that state. But the mountains persisted, and that was good enough for me.

I passed through Denver pretty fast. I’ve got fond memories of the city from visiting my Uncle Mike a few times over the years, but just about zero knowledge of anything in the city limits. I did, however, stop off at a Starbucks and watch the rain for a bit, so that was nice. I thought that it was raining a lot for an area that was technically desert, but shrugged it off and went on my way.

The rain continued on as I went West out of Denver and into the Mountains, passing through a place called Idaho Springs—which is where I took this picture:

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—and then followed a few county roads to Grand. Along the way, I passed through a town called Granby. According to Mike, the only reason people know about Granby was because, in the early 90s, a man who’d gone to the area to disappear from the radar found that he couldn’t quite do that. So he decided to try and take out a loan in order to successfully remove himself from society, failed at that, and then decided that, society be damned, he was going to weld a bunch of metal plates to a truck, make a tank, and bulldoze his way into the bank and get the money one way or another.

As you might expect, that did not end well for him.

But, aside from that not so great past, Granby’s a pleasant-enough looking town. It’s got one main street that’s full of small shops, a locally-operated hardware co-op, and then a supermarket. It’s also surrounded by amazing countryside and quite unlike the more wealthier towns that lead into Granby from the highway. There’s a good chunk of me that would really like to move to a place like that, since there’s not a whole lot of distraction aside from, you know, the entirety of fucking nature, and that would really make it easier to write, but, again, I do love me some high-speed Internet.

After fueling up at a gas station in town and looking around me at, well, this:2013-09-12 17.18.00

I hit the road again. From Granby, it was a short enough drive to Columbine Lake, where my uncle and his wife, Mary Ann, had their home. The thing that struck me about the area was that it was so different from Tennessee. I’m not talking about people-wise, because, frankly, there weren’t that many people, and those who I was around, I didn’t really speak to. I’m talking more about the terrain and—not to get too New Agey—the vibe of the area. The energy, to get very New Agey. I’ve lived in a few places, and, by and large, they’ve all been temperate foresty-type environment, or, in the case of Canton, a mix of suburb and late urban biome, which is, itself, quite unnatural.

Houston, of course, doesn’t count. It’s nothing but concrete, heat, and mosquitoes down there, and it’s best avoided at all costs. Yes, there are a few trees, but they’re safely confined in people’s yards or in parks, where they can’t hurt anyone. Nature isn’t nature in Houston. Nature is adornment.

Even England was pretty similar to Nashville. Woodsy hills with farmland looks like woodsy hills with farmland, despite the change in people’s accents.

But Colorado was hugely different, and made moreso by the change from the unbearable flatness and madness-inducing Great Plains. The trees in the South are densely packed. You drive through the state on the interstate and you notice that, in the spaces between cities, it seems like you’re going through a jungle. Not only that, but there’s a huge array of wildlife out there, just lurking in the woods, waiting to strike out and take out travelers who aren’t paying attention to their surroundings. (I, uh, don’t really go camping or anything. Deer are carnivores, right?)

Colorado, though, being high desert, was different. The plant life there mainly consisted of evergreens and low brush. And those evergreens that were around were smaller than you’d expect in many places, mainly due to a type of beetle that came through about eight years before and wiped out a staggering amount of trees. But one of the things that struck me the the most was the water. It was so clear. Just crazy clear. Mountain spring water clear. I know, I’m sounding like someone who’s never been through the mountains. Well, that’s mainly because that’s true.

Sure, Knoxville was right next to the Smokeys, but I never really made it up into the Smokeys. And besides, comparied to the Rockies, the Appalachians are foothills. Rolling, relaxed, inviting terrain that wants you to come through, spend some time in them, and maybe perhaps brew up a thing of sweet tea while you’re at it, though. The Rockies, though, are something out of a Dvořáksymphony. They are gigantic peaks, huge slabs of rock jutting out of the ground and not so much inviting you as demanding that you pay attention, damn it, because there is something that is bigger than you, and it is the world.

Paired with that train of thought that had stayed with me ever since I passed out of Idaho Springs and saw this:

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and had to pull to the side of the road and just stare, was a whole slew of minor surprises, like mountain spring water. Also a minor surprise: Moose exist, and they are massive. Turns out that there’s a family of moose by my uncle’s place, and they’re not too shy about being around people. Again, this may seem like a weird thing to be surprised by, but I’m very much a city guy. I like the anonymity of being one of millions in a concrete jungle (as long as that concrete jungle isn’t Houston), but I also like the whole nature thing. Of course, moose, as a rule, don’t live in cities, so I have never had a chance to see one just hanging out on the side of the road, watching traffic.

So, I pulled up to my uncle’s house in Grand Lake, where the lake was stupid clear, the weather was crisp, and just a couple of miles away as the crow flies was the Rocky Mountain National Park. It was just a bit different from the suburbs of St. Louis where I’d been the day before, the not-so-pleasant looking city of Kansas City, and what turned out to be the (seemingly) endless sprawl of Air Force bases in Colorado Springs. (Which, also, explained why there was a USAA ATM.)

For a long time, my friends and I in Tennessee would go “camping” every September. (There were electrical outlets, nearby showers, and easy access to Internet from a nearby marina, but we were in a state park, so it was camping.) One year, as we sat around the “bonfire” and tried to roast marshmallows in between rounds of screaming at each other over Risk, my friend Brad’s Dad, Glenn and I were going back and forth about a quasi-Zen idea of “The Quiet.” Basically, it’s the still mind in a sea of noise and action. That conversation has stayed with me for a long time now, and when I stepped out of the car next to Columbine Lake, I thought of The Quiet.

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I took a deep breath, sure, again, that I had made the right choice.

I stood there for a few minutes, just taking it in. Mike and Mary Ann hadn’t come back from their golfing excursion yet, but they’d left me the code to get into the house in a voicemail. I figured I had time to take in the scenery a bit.

I got my fill, pulled out my phone to get the code, and realized I had no reception to check my voicemail.

“Shit,” I said.

Anniversaries, pt. 1

A year ago today, at around this time, I was getting ready to pack my stuff in a rental car and drive across the country from Tennessee to Oregon. Along the way, I was going to stay with family in Missouri and Colorado, but beyond that, I had no real plan. This, by the way, has been a recurring theme in my life. I like going through things without too much a plan—honestly. No, seriously. Just ask people who I’ve traveled with. There’s something to be said for a bit of controlled chaos, and, certainly, driving across the country to make a home in another state with no job or housing prospects is pretty much a stupid idea.

That day, I remember hanging out on the couch drinking coffee and playing with my dog—LOOK AT MY DOG. LOOK AT HOW CUTE SHE IS:

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Chloe, wearing a makeshift thunder vest

and thinking that it was kind of messed up, but that dog would be the thing I missed most about Nashville. See, it’s not that I wouldn’t miss my friends and family there, but that’s a simple Skype call. And, I thought, it’d be easy to find a job in Portland. I’d roll up and with my Master’s degree, record of employment, publications, international scholarship record, and, yknow, Simon charm (HAH), be offered something right off the bat. But that dog, I knew, I wouldn’t be able to talk to on Skype. (It should also be noted that the Simons—at least in my odd little branch of that gigantic tree—have very strong, almost troubling connections to dogs. We’re dog people.)

So, as I backed the car out of the space at my mom’s condo, I saw her and Chloe in the rearview. Mom looked tired. I’m sure she was sad, but she was also tired and, if there’s anything I inherit from her, it’s the strong desire at any time to just go back to bed. The dog, of course, looked confused, as this was not a car she’d ridden in before, and thus, I had no business getting in it and driving off anywhere.

The sad feelings, however, didn’t last too long. I took 65 North and got out of Nashville, and as I saw the skyline recede behind me on the way to Clarksville, I said a string of obscenities that I’d rather not reprint here. Life in Tennessee had not been easy for a multitude of reasons, and while I’m very glad for those experiences, because they made me what I am right now, I’m also very, very glad that they’re over. There isn’t a whole lot that I’m sure of about my life, but I definitely think that getting out of that state was a wise choice. I’d say that it’s something everyone should do at some point, since it really forces you to look at what’s important in your life, and what you can live without, what really makes you keep going on, and what keeps you from being happy. Of course, that’s not quite possible if you’ve already got that whole family-and-kids thing going on, but, well. Dunno.

Anyway, In a couple days’ time, I was driving across Kansas. Kansas was flat. That’s all there is to say about Kansas. Flat and fields. Here. Look.

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Pictured: The highest elevation in Kansas

As far as the eye can see. At some point, as I was fueling up in some town off the interstate, I think I saw a tornado. At that point, I thought, “Well, it’s about time to start driving thirty over the speed limit and get out of this state.”

So, with that in my mind, I hit Colorado at sundown, and I remember the local NPR station finally crackling to life. (Yes, I was in an area that did not have an NPR station. That is how bad parts of Kansas are.) As I got within range of the station, to the point where I could hear the broadcast without it being in bursts, I heard Borodin’s “In the Steppes of Central Asia.” Listen to it below, but if you can’t, then know that it’s an almost Mahlerian exploration of a landscape. Not Copland, mind you, because Copland’s very, very American at his core. He wrote to be a populist, which is great, and Copland’s amazing. But Mahler wrote more to express what he viewed in the world. “In the Steppes of Central Asia” may be only nine and a half minutes, but, with the tone in the background, humming along like cicadas in summer, you’re not necessarily thinking of how beautiful the picture could be, but how staggering the expanse is. And that’s something about Kansas that’s striking. I wouldn’t exactly call it “beautiful,” but I would call it “staggering.” It’s the first taste you get of just how big the United States is. You don’t get a grasp of that on the East side of the Mississippi, really, because it’s a relatively highly-populated area. There’s a lot of land, yeah, but there are a lot of towns, roads, railroads, interstates, and signs of habitation. Kansas, and the Plains, and the Rockies, in large parts of it, it’s just you and the land. (And the other drivers, but allow me my Romanticism, please.)

So, with Borodin on the radio as I crossed the state line, and even with the Rockies fading in the distance thanks to the setting sun, I knew that the worst of it had passed. The bleak neverending expanse of Kansas, the just constant, unrelenting flat that led to me having a full-fledged conversation with myself about some really dark shit? That was gone. I’d lived through Kansas. Hell, I’d lived through sixteen years as an openly liberal, then openly socialist Jew-atheist-Buddhist-whatever-the-hell-I-am-these-days in Tennessee. Was there any surprise that I could make it through Kansas?

Reader, I say to you: Yes. There was.

A friend of mine once told me a story about a friend of his who was on the Interstate through Kasnas, between Kansas City and Topeka, I think, and was passed by this semi. Well, not only did the semi cut him off on the otherwise empty interstate, but he then jackknifed in front of him. So, my friend’s friend—call him Bob—peeled off the side of the road. If I had to guess, it was right then that Bob was thinking about that move, Duel, about the guy being chased down by a homicidal trucker. So Bob pulls off the side of the road, e-brakes, spins a bit, all that good stuff. As Bob gets out of the car, he looks up and there’s no semi. He imagined the whole thing.

What I’m trying to get through your skull with this piece is three things:

  1. Sometimes, if you’re in a well and true rut, then the best thing to do is to pack up and move elsewhere
  2. Know what makes you happy in life, pursue it, and know what makes you unhappy, and avoid it
  3. Never go to Kansas

Next time, I reckon we’ll talk about how amazing Colorado is.