Camping...

Often I am taken back to the one and only backpacking trip I organized.

My friend May and I had this idea, and, naturally, as soon as we had it, we decided that we must realize it. The idea was simple: take a few of our closest friends for a three-day backpacking trip to King’s Canyon National Park. So, we started calling and talking, and it soon became clear that some of our closest friends were dubious of our plans, having never done anything like this before. We revised our call list and started reaching out further, to old friends from high school, to people who were only loosely called acquaintances. Eventually, we pieced together our team: an old buddy from high school whom we hadn’t seen or talked to in several years, a city-dwelling SoCal friend from LA whose idea of being out in nature was grilling burgers in the back yard, an outdoorsy, socially-awkward gothic pyromaniac in a complicated friendship with my sister Liza, the said sister, May’s good friend Lei, athletic and energetic and willing to give us the benefit of the doubt for a couple of days, May and I.

In our group, there was not a single person who knew all of the other people.

May and I tried to think of everything that we might need on the trip. Before our departure, I helicoptered around each participant, making sure they had their sleeping bags, tooth brushes, warm socks, water canteens, and floss. We also had to avoid any aromatic soap or lotion, because there were bears in those parts of the Sierra Nevadas, and bears like smelly things. By the time we packed in the cars and headed towards the mountains, it seemed we were set.

The first night, after throwing all of our sleeping gear into the one large tent and sitting around the fire, soaking in the last bit of warmth before the deep and cold high-elevation night descended upon us, we discovered what was missing. In all of the hustle, I had forgotten my own sleeping bag. Following the groans and all inevitable remarks, we had to come up with a solution. The only thing we came up with, besides abandoning the trip altogether, was for me to sleep together with Liza in her bag. We could only fit into the bag if we both lay sideways, so Liza climbed in first, I squeezed myself next to her and then we had to zip the bag up. For this, we had to take in a deep breath and not exhale until it was zipped. On the count of three, we would inhale sharply, Liza would command, “Zip!” and I would try to pull up on the zipper. We figured out that actually, we take up less space with our lungs empty, so then we would exhale and Zip! It was very funny, shouting Zip! in the dark. We also had a few other commands worked out, like “Flip!” and “Rotate!”

The fact that eventually our whole group was giggling and snorting didn’t help our dire situation. Surprisingly, eventually we managed to encapsulate ourselves and actually fall asleep.

The first full day of backpacking was mostly uneventful. We stopped by the Visitors Center and picked up several large, brown barrels where we were to store all of our food items to protect them from the bears. This was mandatory for everyone entering the park for back-country camping. Despite the minor anxiety over the scratches and teeth marks on the barrels, morale was overall high and the adventurers were mostly normal. Towards night, we broke camp on a gorgeous outcropping overlooking the rugged valley of the park, with steeps peaks snow-capped in the distance, and a gurgling creek terminating in a spectacular waterfall 20 feet from our tent. We joked around about not sleep walking on this cliff, and attempted to settle for the night.

Well, more Zipit! silliness ensued, followed by complaints that we set the tent up on quite a steep incline, as a result of which, at every movement, the people uphill slid towards the people downhill. The tent wasn’t that big in the first place, and with seven of us already packed in like sardines, people started slipping on top of each other. At one point in the night Liza and I woke up after another failed iteration of “flip!”, and found the other five campers piled on top of us, all bunched up together in the lowest part of the tent, snoring and sighing in their sleep. Shoving sleeping people in the dark up the hill of our tent floor was another adventure altogether.

Later that night, when everyone was back to wheezing peacefully, a piercing “Die, vermin, die!!!!!” jolted us awake. The pyromaniac goth, with his uncharacteristic expression of emotion, jumped out of his sleeping bag and rushed outside. The sleepy sister, who crawled out a bit later to inquire, found him sitting on the edge of the cliff, a lighter in one hand and a tick in the other. Apparently, the tick had nuzzled into his back during the night, and now it was time for sweet revenge.

The following morning, as we packed up and headed further along the trail hugging the cliffs, I could sense a sort of unraveling happening. May and Lei were perfectly happy and oblivious, while our friend from high school and our friend from LA were showing the first symptoms of civilization withdrawal. They were anxious about toilet paper and surprised that the only thing on our agenda for the day was to walk some more and enjoy mother nature. After his explosion during the night, the goth friend was back to his sullen self, but more withdrawn than usual, Liza was suffering from deep mis-communications and drama that was mostly in her head, and I was concerned about the bears.

Another eventful night and the next day brought an end to our exotic adventure. I think we were all more than a little relieved. Looking back, though, memories tint the trip many different colors. I took away the breathtaking grandeur of Kings Canyon and the wonder of how people we seemingly know can be transformed in unfamiliar settings. May remembers the silliness. Liza remembers the turmoil and brands the experience as the worst backpacking trip of her life. Jason remembers the interesting guy from my high school and how his legs hurt after hiking for five hours straight with a backpack. I don’t know what the guy from high school remembers, because we never saw him again. The pyromaniac we saw many times, and Liza kept in touch with him over the many years that elapsed. But what he thought about the trip will go down to the grave with him, because he isn’t much of a talker.

green

They started looking at cemeteries five years ago, when Grandma had her first run-in with cancer. Other folks in their elderly community had begun doing their research and staking out a plot for their eternal sleep, so Grandma and Grandpa felt they also need to make arrangements for a hassle-free afterlife.

The first cemetery they visited had a pleasant feel: well-groomed slopes, the shade of elegant aspen and sycamore, and a very nice, upscale office. After a tour of the grounds, Mama and her parents, my grandparents, entered the office to discuss rates. The sales personnel was professional and quite assertive, and Mama couldn’t help thinking that they work on commission. After the price was set for one site, the sales woman eyed Mama and said nonchalantly, “We’re actually having a sale this week: buy one, get the second half off…” At first Mama didn’t understand, but then it hit her – she was being offered to capitalize on the upcoming passing of her parents and buy a site for herself.

“Well, I’m not planning to….you know….go anytime soon.” She retorted in indignation. “Prices are going up,” responded the sales woman coolly, “and we all have to go sometime. Might as well take advantage of the sale and buy now.” Mom shuddered at the flawless logic. At 85, the grandparents ended up not making a purchase at that time, because the cemetery did not allow upright standing tombstones, and Grandpa was determined to have one. And since arrangements were not made, they decided to live on.

Recently, though, they started looking again. The real-estate market in San Diego was on the upswing, and the time to buy was now. But finding a good match proved more complicated than they anticipated.  First there was the matter of the tombstone. It had to be upright, the way Grandpa remembered them placed in the Jewish portion of cemeteries in Russia. Since there was a Jewish cemetery in San Diego, this seemed the best place to investigate. When she called to inquire, the conversation between Mama and the funeral home worker went something like this:

“Hello, I am wondering if you have a lot available, and if so, what are the costs?”

“Good morning! Yes we do. We charge separate fees for body processing, a grave site, and the burial. The processing fee is $15,000, burial is $8,000 and the site itself another $7,000”.

Shocked by the significant “processing fee”, Mama asked in the gentlest way possible, “What exactly do you do with a dead body before burying it that costs fifteen thousand dollars?”  The speaker on the other side politely explained that it’s a traditional Jewish burial, which includes ceremonial cleaning and preparing the deceased according to all Jewish customs. “Imagine that,” Mom later marveled to me, “They still bury the way they did in Jesus’ time. The traditions haven’t changed at all….”

Would they buy someone who was Jewish by descent but not practicing? Sure. Would they bury a gentile wife next to him? Yes, it’s possible. Would they bury an urn, because she, unlike Grandpa, had no intention of taking her body along into the afterlife? Well, that will pose a problem. According to the Jewish faith, cremation is not acceptable. They hung up, Mom more educated and back at square one.

The urn was the second logistical issue to address. If cemeteries buried bodies, they typically did not accept urns. If they provided a special building for the urns, there would be no place to put Grandpa next to Grandma, because he was set on his tombstone. Burying an urn inside a coffin seemed odd, and the more Mama thought about it, the more it seemed a better idea just to bury grandpa and take grandma along, maybe placing her in the family garden and then, if they moved, to take her with them. But eventually that option was thrown out as well, because it just wouldn’t be right to separate the grandparents after they’d spent over 50 years together.

There was also the problem of finding a good location. The place had to look peaceful, serene. Who wants to spend eternity by the side of a road? Or cramped up against someone else? One cemetery looked promising until it became apparent that the grass cutters actually rode their mowers right over the graves to cut the grass. Grandpa was unsettled by this: “When I go, I want to be in peace. I don’t want some sooty, stinky grass cutting machine mowing over me.” When Mama and Grandma pled with him to be reasonable, he retorted wryly, “Over my dead body!” And that was that.

Plots in the shade of trees cost more, as did more elaborate tomb stones. When they finally settled on a location which was able to elegantly combine the requirements of both grandparents, the heated tombstone negotiations began. The stone would not be built until the cost was paid in full. This time it was Grandma’s turn to speak up, “How is it that we’re paying $15,000 for something that we won’t even get to see?! I want to see it. I want to know how it will look…” And so, after many rounds of back-and-forth, they agreed that they would put a third down, and it would go towards building the stone, which they’ll get to see in three months.

Musing on their recent adventures, Mama mentioned that maybe it would make sense just to buy a plot there for all of us. That way we could be together, finally all in one place. I felt an urge to mention to her that actually, I wanted to be buried in a biodegradable tree bark coffin in order to be reintegrated into the earth as soon as possible, while Grisha fully intended to have me scatter his ashes over the Grand Canyon. By the time the kids were ready to go, they’d probably be able to upload their identities to the cloud, while our grandchildren would most likely live forever. Also I was tempted to say that if all went well, our souls would be in a much better place than even the lovely cemetery they found on a sloping green hill in sunny San Diego.

But I didn’t want to initiate another logistical nightmare. Instead, I agreed, “Yes, it will be lovely to be together. I’m in.”

for the birds
About a week ago I saw in my newsfeed a motivator. It was a picture of a bird on a branch, with a caption underneath: “A bird sitting on a tree is never afraid of the branch breaking, because its trust is not in the branch, but in its own wings.” It seemed like a quaint little fortune cookie nugget of wisdom; an uplifting happy thought admonishing us to “Always trust in yourself.” It should have been harmless, but it sparked in me such a retching knee-jerk exasperation that, seven days later, I have to speak out.

I don’t even know where to start. This quote elegantly outlines the biggest problem with our modern, western culture today: we’re too damn self-reliant. We don’t trust the branches, don’t depend on community, on our family, on our friends. We don’t need anyone but our 401K and our life insurance, and as long I have a plan, I am going to pull myself up by my bootstraps through the glass ceiling and into Total Life Success. Unless, of course, I commit suicide because I feel so alone. Or I die of a drug overdose because I had nobody to turn to, no branches to perch on. I was just relying on my own wings. We suffer from so many diseases born out of our isolation, desperation and depression: obesity, alcoholism, migraines…even our own bodies turn on us as, for the first time in history, millions in first-world countries suffer from auto-immune disorders. Wake up, my friends! We weren’t meant to free-fly indefinitely. The tree is there so we can sit on it. The tree is our safety net, it is what protects us, but more importantly, it is what allows us to live life to the full.

Let me clarify.

When God created Adam, He saw that it was not good for him to be alone. He made him a partner. The veracity of that story is not what matters. Even as an ancient proverb, it bears great wisdom. Now I don’t think Eve’s main purpose was to be a helper. Or to play checkers with Adam, or to join him in a rousing game of cricket under the apple tree. The main reason she was created, I think, was so that Adam, and Eve, could both do the one, most important thing that all of us are created to do: to love.

How are you going to love, if you’re alone? It’s quite problematic, isn’t it? My frustration with the absurdity of the sentiment of that motivator overwhelms my ability to write without sarcasm. But I will try. Not only will we feel sad, lonely, etc., pretending that we’re perching on a branch but really only relying on our own wings, but we will not be able to realize our full potential as lovers of each other. Because love demands vulnerability. And trust.

People! We don’t need our wings. Where are we going to fly? What are we going to do, out there, alone, in the stratosphere?! Man is a social animal – this seems so obvious, it hardly needs proof. Surely we are drawn to one another, surely we feel more joy, more fulfillment, when we are in close community with each other. Statistics on happiness and health testify to this: people in close-knit communities thrive, while those in isolation perish. Sure, it is risky to depend on the branches. They do break sometimes. We might actually fall. But are we really willing to risk the richness of life gained through loving one another for an illusory security? Who are we, after all, that we shouldn’t break a bone once in a while? Since when has my main purpose in life become protecting my precious person from bruises and upsets? Businesses prey on people like us, who are afraid of falling, and use that fear to control our actions, our resources, and ultimately, our lives. I am reminded of Pink Floyd’s Machine: Did you exchange a walk-on part in the war, for a lead role in a cage? A chilling, prophetic question.

So, returning to that ridiculous motivator, I implore us all: let’s take that risk. Let the tree wrap its arms around you. Rely on others and put your weight on those branches. Forget your wings.

serendip

Standing in line at the French bistro, I glance nonchalantly over the employees ringing up the register, warming up croissants, making lattes. Among them, a new face – an Asian man walks to the foreground from within the kitchen, pulls at a hot tray of freshly baked breads, winces and drops it back. Clearly he is not familiar with the minutae of the work, but he acts as if he belongs there. He is probably the owner.  Nothing is predictable anymore.

I make my way towards a corner table with my chocolate croissant, pull out Fictions by Jorge Luis Borges and the latest letter from grandma Larisa, and prepare to disappear into my private literary world. A man plops at a nearby table, his back to me, setting out on the table “Moscow! All You Wanted to Know” and Gramophone, the world’s authority on classical music. Devouring my croissant and gulping down the tea, I contemplate the self-sentencing isolation in which most of us live. It is time to put an end to it, I say (to myself, in my head), stop it today. So I take a last swig of Earl Grey, stand up and come towards the man with Moscow.

“Hi. I couldn’t help notice your Moscow tour book. I’m actually from Russia – are you planning to visit soon?” The man responds politely, and a pleasant, genuine conversation begins. We talk for a while, about St.Petersburg and Russian politics, about music and the love thereof, about literature, even, at which point I mention that I should probably return to my reading. As I stand up, he’s beaming and I say, “Well, it’s been nice meeting you. I’ve actually made it a point to meet interesting-looking strangers, and you’ve been the first today. I’m so glad I came up to you…” Actually, I didn’t. But wouldn’t it have been neat if I did?

Instead, I am still sitting, finishing up my tea, when the Asian man from behind the counter walks up to Moscow man, sits down facing him, and places between them a topless container with a yellowish hazy liquid.

“Do you see them? The little guys in the corner,” Asian man points, “See all the way at the bottom? They’re not so bad now, but they grow up to be pretty ugly creatures…” Moscow man responds with statistics on their growth from the internet, Asian man mentions that you can never trust those forums anyway – people’ll say anything. They start discussing water quality, stagnant vs. flowing , necessary aeration, plants inside to provide enough CO2. “…but in any case, they’re supposed to live up to 8-10 years.” Asian man concludes.

Curiosity overcoming self-consiousness, I walk up to their table and, smiling awkwardly, say, “I’m sorry to interrupt your conversation, I just couldn’t help but overhear you talking about something alive in that container, and I’ve been trying to guess what it is….” I trail off. They look at me. I look at them. It’s a freeze-frame. I back away and decide not to try that. Instead, I bury my eyes in grandma’s letter and attempt not to miss a single word.

She writes about living alone. Flowing organically from one sentence into the next, her prose talks of walking: “…which I prefer to do usually at about 1pm, after I have had my breakfast, cleaned up and gotten ready to pick up some things for dinner.  Usually when I come out, at about the same hour every day, most of the people out around me are also retirees. We stroll leisurely down the wide boulevards, understanding that at this time, the streets are ours. But several days ago I woke up late, my entire schedule had shifted and so it was past 3pm when I went outside. Everything was different. I noticed people around that are never there at 1 – young people, business people – rushing places, determined, focused. It wasn’t our place, cozy and familiar. I finished my shopping quickly and returned home. Since then, I’ve made it a point not to go out later than usual…”

Distracted by my merciless curiosity and jarred to action by an idea, I bolt out of my chair, pick up empty plate and cup, and head towards the counter as if to drop them off. On the way back, I peer with all of the laser vision I have in me to see what is in that container!! But I see nothing, and return to the letter.

The men are talking about Confucianism now: the importance of respecting your elders, the wisdom of doing all that you can while you still can. And in marriage, you cannot always hope for that perfect match, you have to find someone who is good enough, and value that. The other man replies, “I think, if you really love someone, you have to let them live to the fullest. You have to have the strength to give them the space they need. But we have that bond in common, and that part is ours, and we share it fully, together.”

Grandma continues, “I do often wonder, waking up alone, eating along, walking alone, every day alone, whether I’ve made the right decision. It is difficult, being on your own all the time…”

Moscow man picks up, “I want to overwhelm them with my generosity…”

At this point Borges chimes in, “In my view, that notion is not particularly exciting. I cannot say the same for another idea, however: the idea that the Almightly is also in search of Someone, and that Someone, in search of a yet superior (or perhaps simply necessary, albeit equal) Someone, and so on, to the End – or better yet, the Endlessness – of Time. Or perhaps cyclically.” He, of course, is talking about the imaginary writer Mir Bahadur’ Ali’s imaginary novel, The Approach to Al-Mu’tasim.

I am distracted again by the mystery creatures in the container. These people will up and leave, and I will never know who was in there. A young employee comes up to the Asian man and reminds him about her paycheck. That proves my conjecture about him. Moscow man gets up, wishes his friend luck with them, and heads out. Asian man picks up the container and empty coffee cup and returns behind the counter.

Borges puts his finishing touch: “I recall his square-ruled notebooks, his black crossings-out, his peculiar typographical symbols, and his insect-like handwriting. In the evening, he liked to go out for walks on the outskirts of Nimes; he would often carry along a notebook and make a cheery bonfire.”

I pick up the book, letters and pens, and exit stage left.

Image

Photograph by Liza Evans

When you work at night, sleeping schedules shift, lines between dream and wakefulness blur into one hazy continuum. After, you never quite know what happened, whether it really did or not.

Some time ago I was working with Russian EVA specialists who were visiting at the Mission Control Center to support a space walk. We’d sit for many hours in that gray, windowless building, straining painfully to understand conversations coming through the static of outer space. Mostly this happened at night, though in that building, you could never tell.

It was on one such night that I decided to stretch my limbs and go for a stroll. I made my way out of the logically elusive structure and into the damp, warm night air of a Houston summer. The earth’s guttural breath caressed me out of the harsh, rough sensations of the building, and lured me towards the green space in the middle of the space center complex.

There, a thick mist was lazing out of the lake, expanding in all directions, reaching out to me. I walked slowly towards the green, half-asleep, relishing the living sounds and sensations of the outdoors. Suddenly, a deer appeared out of the mist, head first. I could see his elaborate antlers and the hooves, submerged in grass. He glanced at me briefly, then turned his attention back to the reflective glass windows of the building he was standing next to.

I was awed by his pensive, slow gaze as he contemplated what I thought was his own reflection in the glass. For a while, we stood still. I – breathing in the moist magic of night, he – thinking his own existential thoughts while peering into the window. Eventually I yawned and he slowly backed into the mist, disappearing from view.

Intrigued, I walked towards the building and noticed, to my great surprise, a stuffed deer head, standing on the inside windowsill, clearly visible through the glass. I marveled at the intelligence of my deer, who had been looking not at his own reflection, but at the head of his fellow ungulate, immortalized and graceful, contemplating life and death, and the fate that awaits us all. “Imagine that…” I mumbled to myself, and turned back towards the mission control center and the stifling cold.

A while later we were walking with a couple of friends in that same part of the center. It was a bright, cheerful day, and I recalled to them my strange encounter with the deer. I timed the story just so, hoping to get to the punch line at the exact moment we would pass the window with the stuffed head. It would have been perfect, except the deer head was no longer there.

Several times I walked the entire length of the glass wall, looking for it, but it was not to be found. In fact, I could not even find the windowsill where it might have been placed…

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 228 other followers

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 228 other followers

%d bloggers like this: