A number of years ago, more than I care to count, I fell from an Army helicopter and broke both arms and both legs. I wasn’t in the Army, though. I was a search-and-rescue volunteer living in the Colorado Rockies. On the day I fell, teams from around the state had gathered to practice airlifts with one of the Army’s Chinook helicopters and its crew.
The S&R volunteers took turns being strapped into a jungle penetrator and then being lifted into the belly of the bird. A jungle penetrator is a 90-pound steel cylinder with three bars that fold out to form a makeshift seat, used extensively, I believe, in the Vietnam War. When it came my turn, the sergeant helped to strap me into the penetrator and to hook the penetrator to the cable. He then gave the go-ahead. I traveled upward about 35 feet when the cable shook and shimmied and I was suddenly flying free.
The rest is search-and-rescue history.
On the last day of November, here in Seattle, federal wildlife officers shot and killed a renegade coyote only blocks from where I live. They took aim, fired, and dropped the sucker in its tracks. At least that’s what I imagined happened, based on the reports.
I knew something was up before the first bullet flew. I heard sirens crisscrossing the nearby streets and the annoying bleat of a news helicopter circling above. So I headed to my computer and checked a few local websites. That’s when I learned a coyote had been wandering the Seattle streets, with sightings not far from my home, including the park where I often walk, the park we were now warned to avoid.
I tried to return to work. But then received a text from one of my neighbors. He pointed me to a website with the latest news about our four-legged fugitive. I followed the link to a local blog. The situation had been resolved.
Yesterday, the manager of my apartment building sent us, the tenants, a group email about the passage of Initiative 502 and the changing legal status of marijuana in Washington. “While it will be legal to smoke pot in our fine state,” he wrote, “please be aware that the Belford remains a nonsmoking building. This applies to any type of smokable vegetation.”
The manager said nothing about vegetation of the ingestible kind.
For those not in the know, Initiative 502 makes the recreational use of marijuana legal in Washington. We voted the measure into law at the same time we voted Barack Obama into office for a second term, supporting pot and the president in about equal measure—the final tallies around 56%.
Not surprisingly, those who supported Mitt Romney this past election felt a bitter disappointment at his loss, the same feelings Barack Obama’s supporters would have experienced had he failed in his reelection bid.
Despite their discouragement, some have been willing to pull themselves up by the bootstraps and get on with business, without resorting to name calling, making threats, or throwing tantrums.
Others have not been so gracious.
The other day, I met a friend for breakfast at a local café here in Seattle. Outside was wet, cool, overcast—a typical fall day in the Northwest. But inside the restaurant was cozy and warm and invited a long, lingering conversation. We jumped around from topic to topic, until we landed on the laundry facilities in our respective apartment buildings. How we got there, I have no idea.
More often than not, when it’s time to do laundry, we have to first clean up the messes left by the other tenants—the scattered and smeared dirt, the spilled detergents and stain removers, the telltale lint and chemically treated paper sheets used to soften (and chemically treat) their drying clothes. For me, cleaning up after my neighbors has become such a part of my routine that I often bring an extra towel or rag along when I do my laundry, just to be prepared for what I’ll find.
But laundry facilities occupied our conversation for only a short time, and we quickly turned from dirty clothes to dirty public places in general. (After all, how much is there to say about a laundry room?) We have both observed that when it comes to shared spaces—those for which we can’t claim direct ownership—we seem to have a cultural mindset that precludes taking responsibility for anything we don’t consider part of our personal sphere, even if we’re paying hefty rents or taxes or fees to support them.
You open the envelope you received in the mail. You read the instructions that tell you how to vote. You unfold the ballot and tear off the stub, exactly as instructed.
You’ve known since the beginning how you’re going to vote, at least for partisan offices. You plan to follow party lines because you believe you’ve no other choice. The other party, you’re convinced, represents everything foul and unholy. They revel in contradiction. They mislead at every chance. They lie to anyone who’ll listen.
You review the list of candidates that you’re supporting. The truth is, you feel little excitement about any of them. In many cases, they’re only slightly less corrupt, slightly less dishonest, slightly less disinterested in their constituents than the opponents you want to oust.
Yesterday, I was nearly run over by a car. I was walking down to REI, crossing at a busy intersection only a couple blocks from the store. I was in the crosswalk. I had the light. I was not talking on my phone or listening to music or doing anything other than crossing the street.
That’s when it happened. A massive SUV raced into the intersection and started to turn left, directly toward where I was walking. My first thought was that the driver must certainly see me. Then I thought that the driver certainly does not see me. And finally I thought only of the looming chrome grill and the bumper’s deadly gray glare.
I sprinted forward just in time, letting loose a string of expletives that rushed forth like, well, like someone running from of an oncoming car.
I recently sold my Volkswagen Eurovan, a vehicle I had been quite fond of. But I moved to a part of Seattle where owning a car is more a hindrance than not having one. Besides, I no longer have to shell out cash for maintenance and repairs and insurance and monthly parking fees. Plus, I walk a lot more and pollute a lot less. And when I do need the occasional wheels, Zipcar is right around the corner.
The perfect arrangement it would seem, particularly since I work at home. And here’s another important advantage: I’ve taken another step toward simplifying my life.
I’ve been doing that a lot lately—getting rid of what I don’t need, buying only what I do need, and generally making decisions based on whether I’m simplifying or intensifying.
The other day, I was talking to a friend on the East Coast. He and his wife had just sent me a box of Jesus bandages. I called to tell them how anxious I was to cut my finger. He told me they received the postcard I had sent the week before. It featured a picture of their dog in a pink wig.
Such exchanges, I believe, keep us from taking ourselves too seriously and, by extension, the world around us. They help us maintain an even keel, perhaps keep us sane. They might even ease some of the pangs that come from an aging body.
After discussing the bandages and postcard, we updated each other on what’s been going on in our lives—the usual events that mark time’s immutable passage. I mentioned that I had sold my Volkswagen Eurovan, a vehicle I associate with many fond memories. But the time had been right to let it go. My friend realized this as well, yet he understood too that selling it had not been an easy decision. “True,” I replied, “but what is aging, if not letting go our dreams?”
Last time I was in Vegas, I walked from downtown to the north end of the Strip. I’d been driving for a couple days, and a long stroll seemed the perfect way to shake off my road burn, especially on such a clear and balmy desert night.
I left my hotel and headed down Fremont Street toward Las Vegas Boulevard. Fremont throbbed with loud, drunk revelers carrying supersized beers and giant cocktails brimming over from clear plastic containers shaped like footballs.
The celebrants were waiting for the next lightshow, a pulsating, pounding, eardrum-piercing music experience shown on the hour throughout the evening—showcased on the world’s largest video screen, an arched canopy that stretches along three casino-studded city blocks. Nowhere but Vegas can you find this sort of mega-extravaganza of flashing, glittering sights and sounds. Think MTV on steroids. Think Lake Mead and the Hoover Dam and the Mojave Desert of lightshows.
I heard from my friend Ellen last week. She sent me a picture of Schmuel, a street dog she recently adopted. Schmuel has a face as pathetic as any you’re likely to come across, a face that would be difficult for anyone to resist, especially someone like Ellen.
I met Ellen in Seattle. She lived in the same neighborhood where I lived, back when she was a full-time jazz musician. But Ellen isn’t working as a musician anymore. Ellen doesn’t even live in Seattle anymore. She lives in Honduras and runs an organization called Project School Supplies. Ellen founded the organization in 2007 to provide the village schools with educational and building materials.
When Ellen first visited Honduras, she went there to study Spanish. She planned to stay in Copán Ruínas for a week and then return to Seattle. Instead, she stayed two weeks. And when she did return, she sold most of her possessions and gave notice on her apartment. Three months later, she headed back to Honduras to teach English.
After reading one of my blogs, Tony Shin sent me a link to a graphic that he and his friends created to illustrate how rich people in the US are more prone to act unethically than their poorer counterparts.
“Studies suggest,” the opening text reads, “that people who are socially and financially better off are more likely to lie, cheat, and otherwise behave unethically compared to those lower on the social and financial ladder.”
The graphic backs up its assertion with a number of statistics that compare the wealthy to those at the lower strata. For example, 21% of those earning between $500,000 and $1 million a year underreport their incomes to the IRS, compared to 8% of those earning between $50,000 and $100,000. And when it comes to charity, households earning over $100,000 donate only 2.7% of their income, whereas those making under $25,000 give away 4.2%.