On Having A Christmas Eve Birthday

I turned 27 about an hour ago. I should be getting some sleep so I don’t end up sleeping through my entire birthday tomorrow, but I wanted to write out a few thoughts tonight while things are quiet.

It’s inevitable when it comes up, whether just as topic for discussion or when someone happens to see your driver’s license.

“Oh, you’re a Christmas Eve baby!” the person will remark.

“I am,” I will say.

The inevitable response: “How much does that suck?”

There are different answers to that question. Some feel that having a birthday on or around Christmas sucks unequivocally. Others feel that it’s the best thing ever.

I guess it all depends on your perspective. Here’s mine:

  • Good: I never had to go to school on my birthday as a kid. Say what you want about getting cookies or cupcakes in class, but I’d rather be home playing video games all day.
  • Bad: I really, really, really hated going to the Christmas Vigil mass on my birthday as a kid.
  • Good: Rather than getting ignored, people tend to remember my birthday more easily. I think this is because there’s already an atmosphere of gift giving in mind, so people are more likely to call/send cards/etc. Also, Christmas Eve sticks out in one’s memory a lot more than a random day in June might.
  • Bad: “This is your Christmas and Birthday present” was something I did hear as a kid, although never from my parents. They were vanguards of keeping gift levels equal between myself and my brother (whose birthday is Halloween, incidentally).
  • Good: Two days of presents was better than one. My birthday became sort of my own little prelude to Christmas as a kid; I’d get some cool stuff and then, instead of ending after the day was over, I would have another day and more cool stuff. This was very exciting as a kid.
  • Bad: It was absolutely impossible to celebrate my birthday with friends since everybody was doing something for the holidays.
  • Good: I once had the most amazing surprise party thrown for me the week after. If you’ve never had a surprise party (especially one you really, really were not expecting, I can tell you it’s awesome and heartwarming). I wasn’t expecting all my friends to be there, because like I said, everybody was always busy with the holidays.
  • Bad: My 21st birthday was kind of awkward because I was hungover for Christmas.

Ultimately, when people ask me “how much does that suck” when they find out my birthday, I don’t bother giving them a straight answer; I might be sarcastic or I might be sappy, but I don’t bother to explain that it has its ups and its downs. I do think that it’s much better to have a near-Christmas birthday before the holiday rather than after; my sympathies go out to the after Christmas birthdays out there, much in the way that the rest of the world does to me.

So today is my birthday. It might not be perfect because everybody else is thinking about the holiday tomorrow, but this day is mine and I wouldn’t have it any other way. It’s part of me and always has been.

Also I have an absolutely heartwarming story from my birth involving a lady at the hospital and a Christmas stocking large enough to hold a newborn. Yes, I still have the stocking. How many other birthdays have that?

Thoughts After Installing A New Radiator In My Isuzu

My car radiator developed a leak about two months ago, although leak is the wrong word. Leak implies a slow, steady drip and what really happened could be better described as “torrential, geyser-like, and/or relentless.” Due to the poverty imposed by paying for my grad school course out of my own pocket, I parked the car for a few months and became a motorcycle-0nly commuter. This decision was advantageous for several reasons!

  1. Riding a motorcycle is fun.
  2. Riding a motorcycle is very inexpensive. $8 for a week’s worth of gas is awesome.
  3. Riding a motorcyle makes you look cool.

However, this decision was made in early October and while the rest of the country might be experiencing the prelude to winter that is autumn, for us desert rats, October is still basically summer (except it’s not actually summer, because it’s “warm” rather than “Nazi-face-meltingly hot”).

When November rolled in and the temperature began to plummet, the good reasons for taking the motorcycle to work each day were gradually eclipsed by the fact that it’s very, very, very cold at eighty-five+ miles per hour when the thermometer is a blip above the freezing point of water. So fixing my Isuzu was something that was always on the back of my mind, though the cost of paying to have it done made it untenable.

Unless I did it myself!

Last week, I bought a new radiator. This past weekend, with qualified adult supervision (i.e. somebody who knows what the hell he’s actually doing), I found myself on my back in the dirt, wrenching and torquing and sawing and doing my best impression of “guy who can fix his own car.” Here are a few things that I learned during the process:

  • You know how in Indiana Jones movies, the ancient switches and traps still function after thousands of years? That’s bullshit. It took me almost an hour to pry off a basic metal clamp because after twelve years, it had merged with the tube it was clamping. The tube and the clamp were as one. There’s no way an ancient stone pressure plate is going to slide down just because you picked up the treasure it was supporting.
  • If you can’t get a metal clamp off after an hour of screwing and pulling (how very deviant sounding, but it’s really not), it’s okay to take a hacksaw and cut the damn thing off, since you’re replacing the tube anyway. This is immensely gratifying.
  • I had no idea radiators and transmissions were even connected, but it turns out, they are!
  • Old transmission fluid is really, really gross when it splatters on your face and collects in your hair.
  • On the positive side, you’ll fit in with the motley citizenry of South Tucson when you go to buy replacement clamps because the first set of clamps no longer fit due to all the screwing and pulling you did earlier.
  • The first store you go to will sell you the wrong clamps.
  • The second store will have the right clamps, but will try to get you out of there as quickly as possible because you look and smell like a derelict.
  • When it’s all said and done, you’ll feel absolutely awesome because you saved a few hundred dollars on labor.
  • You’ll feel better still because of the strong feeling of self-reliance in doing your own work.
  • You’ll be grateful to the person who supervised your efforts and made sure you didn’t accidentally hacksaw the brake cable, or something.
  • You’ll cry out in rage and despair when you realize the next day that now you are leaking transmission fluid from somewhere.

Looks like it’ll be another cold ride tomorrow until I can get that fixed. Sigh.

Thoughts On Boxing

About three months ago, I made the decision to get back into serious working out to get in better shape. This realization was predicated both by the horrifying experience of seeing pictures of myself and realizing I wasn’t quite as thin as I used to be and realizing that the combination of “sedentary job + sedentary hobbies + majority of my 20’s behind me” was starting to equal a slide into squishy-ville.

My first effort was the usual effort I think we all make when we experience this realization. Grab the trusty water bottle and hoof it down to the gym, or in my case, the little exercise room in my apartment complex. Such efforts always last for about a week before I get bored and quit.

However, due to some other life events, this time I was resolved to really get serious about this effort. I needed something to keep my interest level up.

In my teenage years, I was really into karate; I trained for about five years before the combination of moving away from home and going to college made continuing unfeasible. I never did get my black belt, which is one of those things I mildly regret, because telling people “yeah, I have a red belt” isn’t nearly as impressive.

I decided getting back into something martial was a good way to keep from getting bored. Also, it solved my self-motivation problem. I’ll be totally honest here; when I’m working out on my own, I’ll go hard right up until I hit that first mental wall. Then I’ll coast. The problem is, of course, that it’s working through those mental-walls that really get you in shape. I only manage to do that when someone is yelling at me, it seems.

I asked my brother for advice since he does amateur mixed martial arts, which never sounded impressive to me until the first time I watched him fight and realized my little brother could thoroughly kick my ass. He suggested I start boxing at the same gym where he was training.

It’s been about three months now. I’ve dropped about eight pounds, which doesn’t sound like a lot but considering that I managed to do it without going on any kind of diet (still drinking beer, woo), I think that’s pretty good. I’ve also learned quite a bit in these past three months and I’d like to share some of those thoughts.

I wasn’t sure what to expect the first time I walked into a boxing gym. My background was a karate dojo, which meant everybody was barefoot, everybody wore a gi, everybody had a belt showing their level of ass-kicking ability, everybody bowed before entering the floor, everybody called the instructor “sir.”

In contrast, the boxing gym was filled with a motley collection of individuals. There were tattoos. There was swearing. The smell of sweat was omnipresent. Nobody bowed to one another or to enter the mat. You couldn’t tell the experts from the newbies, at least not until you saw them grab their gloves and get to work. Then you could tell very quickly. But at a glance? Impossible to say.

Looking back, I wonder about those things. I know that at the time, I loved that stuff: the belts, the uniforms, the patches. It appealed to the video game nerd in me to test for a belt, as though I was leveling up. It felt cool to learn “advanced techniques” that couldn’t be handled by a lesser color belt.

I know that, at the time, I looked down on boxing as a martial art. Boxing was so stupid, I thought. What kind of fighter only uses his hands? You have feet! Feet are very powerful! Seriously, my kicks were crazy strong; once, I knocked my friend on his ass while he was holding a bag for me.

I could try to explain the difference in my thought process now, but I’d rather share it with an anecdotal comparison:

  • Karate instructor: Today, you’re going to learn the jump spinning crescent kick.
  • Boxing instructor: Today, you’re going to get punched in the head until you learn how to duck.

Boxing lacks all the elegance and style of karate. There is no ceremony, there is no uniform, and there are no rituals. You walk in, you grab a jump rope, you get moving. You throw a medicine ball until you want to throw up. You practice punching. A lot of punching.

Seriously, there are exactly five different punches. Their names are the jab, the cross, the hook, the uppercut, and the-hook-with-your-other-hand (that’s my best guess, usually the instructor just shouts out “five” and we know what to do). That’s all. I learned the entire move list on my first day.

And then you practice those five punches until they’re perfect. You practice until you can snap off a crisp, clean jab a hundred times in a row. And then you go for two hundred. Five hundred. A thousand.

I’m not saying boxing is a superior fighting style to any other. There were guys at my karate dojo that were fast, focused, and likely very good fighters. I’m not even denigrating my younger self for liking what I liked. It was important to me. It helped me develop a lot of confidence. I know that if 14-year old me had walked into the gym I’m at now, I would have taken one look at the posters of old pay-per-view fights and the general motley-ness of the place and said, “yeah, no.”

But there were things in my karate training that I was missing. I never really got to feel what it was like to get hit. Even sparring was always “50% speed, 50% power.” If I ever took a crack to the head, it was accidental.

It’s been only three months. In those three months, I’ve been hit in the face and pushed beyond the limits of exhaustion more times that I’d care to admit. And I know that for all my efforts, I’m never going to get a cool belt. Anybody who joins the class won’t know by glancing at me whether I’ve been there for five years or five weeks. But you know what? I feel good. I feel stronger than I have in a very long time.

Most importantly, I’m starting to feel like a fighter.

It’s Been A Quiet Week

I took last weekend off to go camping for a few days. I came back intending to write about my experiences camping in the Pinaleno Mountains, but as the days passed, I realized I didn’t know what I wanted to say about it. Words were an inadequate medium for conveying the beauty and tranquility of this place. They still are.

The Pinaleno Mountains are one of Arizona’s “Sky Islands.” If you live anywhere in southern Arizona, you’re familiar with sky islands. The Catalina Mountains just north of Tucson are a sky island range. There’s a big difference between the Catalinas and the Pinalenos, though.

When you drive up the Catalinas, you’re on a paved road the entire way. The speed limit stays around 40ish the entire way. There are guard rails and vista points the entire drive. At the top of the mountain, there’s a small town, a ski resort, and even a restaurant. The cabins resemble small mansions. All the campsites are developed. There are always people around. I think the only time I’ve ever hiked a trail in the Catalinas and didn’t see another person was when I did the Butterfly Trail in January and there was snow on the ground.

The Pinalenos, on the other hand . . .

There are a handful of cabins on the mountain, but most of them are actual cabins. The pavement quits about halfway up the mountain and turns into dirt. There are no guardrails. There is no town. There is no ski resort or restaurant. About half the campsites have fire pits and tables; the rest do not. When we took a day hike on one of the trails, we didn’t see another soul the entire time even though it was August.

The Pinalenos are special. They are more pristine and more primal than the mountains of the Catalinas. Don’t get me wrong, the Catalinas are beautiful. But they are beautiful in the same way that art is beautiful. The beauty of the Catalinas is interwoven with human presence and human development. It does not feel like the wilderness. It feels like a large park without fences.

The Pinalenos feel like wilderness. There is a sense of refuge and sanctuary in that place. It is a true sky island, its ecology serving as relief from both the heat and desiccation of the desert floor and a primal refuge from human development. Its beauty is without parallel. The fact that it is largely untouched makes it special.

I spent two nights on the mountain and when it was over, I didn’t want to leave. I still don’t; I’ve spent most of my time this week thinking about those mountains and when I can go back. It’s not even that hard to put together a trip; the drive is about three hours each way. Easily doable. All of my camping gear is ready to go. I could leave this weekend if I want.

I can’t escape to the mountains every weekend, of course. The state of my apartment is a testament to my inattention on matters close to home. But home isn’t where my mind is right now.

Even as I attend to my chores, my mind is there among the trees and the streams and the meadows. My mind is on that mountain.

A few tribes of Native Americans consider the mountain to be sacred and though I am agnostic on the existence of the divine, there is something undeniably spiritual and fulfilling about that place.

I have often wondered what true believers feel when they stand in their holy places and when they attend their churches or temples. For me, the feeling was always one of obligation; this is what I should be doing, this is what I should be feeling. But if the true believer feels in church as I felt as I walked the trails of that mountain, I think I now understand.

Make no mistake, I do not see this mountain as evidence of the divine. I don’t need the divine to appreciate such a place as this. The mountains themselves are sufficient to earn my appreciation and my awe.

Riding In The Rain

This post is about riding motorcycles.

You can feel the raindrops breaking against you despite the leather jacket. Each one stings but doesn’t hurt. It feels good. Your hands are wet despite the gloves, which you wonder about until you remember that you’re wearing the gloves with perforations in them because it’s summer.  You know, to keep your hands cool. The soaked leather of your gloves feels good too.

Your focus is on the road in front of you. The oily puddles of rainwater and various coolant, oil, and other sundry liquids make you alert but not nervous. There’s a sense of daring as you ride around some and through others. Any one of them could be too much and then you’ll be on the side of the road, hopefully alive and unhurt, but no guarantees.

Even though you’ve ridden faster before, this is where you feel the edge most keenly. It’s a good feeling. The thrill of pushing right up to that precipice is a good one.

The crack of thunder is louder than your engine. You know it’s not safe to do this, it’s not recommended, but the idea of not doing it seems even worse.

It feels as though this moment was made for you. All of the choices of your life have led up to this time, this place, this road, this storm. You’re riding on the edge of the storm like a surfer riding the crest of a wave.

The sound and the rain and the engine and the road are your entire world at this moment. There is nothing else to think about. Nothing else matters right now. Later, it will, but not right now.

You don’t do this because you believe a lie about invulnerability. You don’t do this because of some fascination with death. No, this is all about life; this is about holding your life in your hands and savoring it and experiencing it with the full realization that it is a fleeting and precious thing. It slips by even faster than the road beneath you, even faster than the rain around you.

You ride the edge of the storm because you are alive and glad of it and when the lightning arcs across the sky in front of you, so brightly that it’s like a newborn sun even through your darkened visor, you don’t feel fear. You feel good. You feel alive and quick and full of promise.

You realize that this moment, this summer storm out on a desert road is a rare moment and you realize that there are too few moments like these and that they are rare and special things.

This one is yours; yours, and no one else’s.

Immortality At The Pull Of A Trigger

Quantum immortality is one of those ideas that’s managed to burrow its way into my thoughts and has remained there stubbornly every since. I’ll sometimes pick at it in my mind much like you might worry a loose tooth with your tongue. It’s an idea that balances just enough logic and insanity that I doubt I’ll ever come to a personal resolution.

I don’t have a science background myself, so I only really understand the basics of everything I’m talking about. To actually articulate what’s going on, you’d need somebody who can first explain quantum physics in a meaningful way; I chose to use a silly video, so there you go.

Here’s the short version, which is still several paragraphs long. We’re going to assume that quantum physics mean we don’t live in a universe but rather an infinite multiverse. In the multiverse, there are an infinite number of different versions of reality. There’s a reality where I ate breakfast this morning and one where I didn’t. There’s a reality where I’m actually named Zaphod Beeblebrox. There’s a reality where I’m a Republican. There are an infinite number of different versions of myself just as there are an infinite number of different versions of yourself. And those are just the small differences. There are versions where humanity didn’t exist, where Hitler won the war, where Coke comes in blue cans, and so on.

Infinity, man.

So, in this multiverse, there’s the current thread of experience that believes itself to be me. As far as I’m aware, I’m the only version of me that exists; I’m closed off from all the other infinite mes. The reason for this has to do with probability and the states of electrons, but I don’t have enough authority to articulate the specifics. Let’s just assume this is the way it is.

Each time a choice occurs, my personal thread of existence chooses one option and follows it. I am now living in the reality where I ate breakfast this morning. This means, however, that my action also spawned a new reality where I didn’t take that action. Thus, my thread of experience has fragmented and spawned new threads, one for each choice and each variable of my life. The number of variables is incomprehensibly large, but we’re talking about the infinite.

Quantum immortality is the idea that my thread of experience will shift accordingly to continue itself. Basically, whenever a variable occurs where one choice will lead to the termination of my experience thread, I will shift to the version of reality where that didn’t happen. In theory, I could test this very easily by putting a gun to my head and pulling the trigger. If quantum immortality is correct, I should experience a misfire every single time, no matter how statistically improbable. I should note, however, that the idea only guarantees that  I’ll survive; I could very easily survive the gunshot itself and be crippled without violating the principle idea. You can understand why I’m not eager to test it out.

There’s another reason why testing it out is unfeasible. Even if I do perform the experiment, I’ll now exist in a version of reality where I pulled the trigger fourteen times and survived unharmed. But each of those attempts will spawn more and more versions of reality where I pulled the trigger and died. Youthe observer, with your own thread of experience, will almost certainly not progress to the same version of reality I do. You will almost certainly be in a reality where I died, if not the first time then the second, third, or fourth time, and so on. It’s virtually impossible that you’ll end up in the same version of reality that I do, where I make it out alive.

Of course, there would be a version of you in the reality where I do live, and you’d be correspondingly impressed (and probably pissed about such a rash action). But that version of you wouldn’t be the you that is reading this article now, because each you has its own thread of experience that doesn’t overlap. You are thus almost certainly not the you in this hypothetical miraculous survival scenario. This explains why we don’t currently live in a universe where someone else has performed this experiment successfully. Anybody who does will almost certainly die from our perspective, because the experience of immortality is only true for the person pulling the trigger.

Since the idea is based on probability and your consciousness shifting to the variable that ensures its own continuation no matter how unlikely, I imagine you would still die of old age due to the fact that eventually, the probably of your survival becomes zero and there is no further version of reality for you to shift into.

Or maybe not; maybe you just shift into the version of reality where you miraculously discover the fountain of youth and keep on living. Who knows?

Thoughts On Walking

My grandfather used to take me  with him on his walks. He lived in a small town in upstate New York, which meant the kind of lace where everybody knew everybody, you could walk from one end of the town to the other and see the whole thing, and everything was very, very green.

There was also, apparently, a lot of things to see. Houses, mostly. At the time, I didn’t understand why this was interesting.

I regret that I wasn’t old enough to understand why these walks were enjoyable. For me, it was the offered bribe of ice cream that made the whole enterprise even remotely palatable. Even then, it was still frustrating. Grandpa liked to look at things. He liked to stop. He didn’t understand that the more time we spent looking, the less time there was for ice cream.

I think the problem is that I didn’t know how to drive yet.

Also, I was seven.

See, it’s my hypothesis that you have to drive for a few years before you can appreciate a good walk. When you drive, you can’t look at things. There’s just the road and all the people trying to kill you via their inattention. Maybe they’re trying to look at things or more likely, they’re looking at their laps and texting.

I came to this understand when I was driving home from work today. I took a different route than usual because I was picking up a suitcase for a friend. I drove through a part of Sahuarita that I’ve never been to before. The entire time I was driving, I was trying to navigate, but I felt frustrated, because I wanted to look out the window. I wanted to see what this part of the town looked like. I wanted to let my mind wander in the semi-intrusive way that it does as I wonder what the lives are like for the people who live in these houses.

What does it feel like to live here? Do they like it? Is there a barking dog that annoys them? Are the trees nice and shady? Would I like it if I lived here? Who would I be if I lived here instead of living where I do now?

You can’t do that when you’re driving. Hence why I like to walk now. I walk every day on my lunch break; it’s a habit I started when I transferred down to Sahuarita and it’s one I’ve kept to almost every single day even though the summer heat has verged on “skull-crushingly brutal.” Despite it, I still walk. I look around. I think. My mind wanders in a way that would be negligently fatal in a car.

It’s unfortunate my grandfather isn’t around anymore. I think I’d enjoy those walks a lot more now. We could wander. We could stop. We could look at things together.

That’d be nice, I think.

Thoughts On Death

(Author’s Note: I originally meant to write about my reaction to an article I read about medically assisted suicide, but it became a personal reflection on death and dying instead. I’m going to post it anyway despite the intimate nature of these thoughts. I hope that you will consider them with respect. Thank you.)

We don’t talk about death. That’s the rule.

It’s not just an unwritten rule, either; it’s illegal to want to die in almost every state except for four. Unless you live in Oregon, Washington, Vermont or Montana, you are not allowed to ask for help to end your life, no matter how ravaged you are due to disease, no matter how much dignity you’ve lost, no matter how onerous life has become, you have to tough it out to the bitter end.

And to that I ask: why?

No, that’s not right. I know why.

Part of it is because of the pervasive and poorly-defined concept of “the sanctity of life,” which is a somewhat ironic condemnation when it’s coming from a vegetarian. In fact, I support the sanctity of death because of my respect and love for life. The sanctity of death is necessary for there to be any such thing as a sanctity of life. The word sanctity is used without understanding what it’s supposed to mean. People think it means being alive is more important than everything else, but that’s not correct. Is being alive more important than living with dignity? Is being alive more important than being without agony?

Regardless, we don’t talk about death even though it’s the one thing that we all have in common. It’s our common bond and our equalizer: kings and beggars both die. Men and women of every race, every creed, every class, every corner of the world. We all die.

Everything dies. Even the planets, stars, and galaxies die. Reality itself will likely die someday due to entropy. We’re all in this together. Nobody’s getting out alive.

Why are we afraid of that? Why don’t we talk about the most common element of our shared humanity? We celebrate life in all its forms, save for the one aspect that gives life its greatest meaning. We plan weddings, graduations, the births of children, and all of life’s other many milestones, but when it comes time for the grand finale, how many of us think about it? Ever? Instead, we let others plan it for us and define a moment that should be ours, assuming there’s even somebody around at that point to pay attention. Not everybody has even that much.

It’s not a question of wanting to die; I don’t really want to, but wanting isn’t really the point. It’s about accepting that I will and you will and we all will.

It’s about having a healthy respect for life.

And to me, stretching life out long past the breaking point isn’t about respecting it at all. It’s the same as the author who pushes out repetitive novels of earlier and better works or the movie franchise that had too many sequels or whatever other creative thing you enjoyed until its creator squeezed it too tightly, trying too fervently to get every last drop out of it rather than letting go and moving on.

The best stories are the one that end when it’s their time to end.

The saddest stories are the ones that are forgotten because they hung around far past the point of anybody caring because they weren’t allowed to end.

So, here’s me, right now in a point in time and space, thinking about the future. Thinking about the end and how I want it written.

Here’s how I want my story to end. I might not get this ending; every writer knows that sometimes your characters throw you for a loop or the story takes an unexpected twist. But assuming it all turns out as planned, this is the way my story ends.

I want to be at home.

One of my greatest fears is dying in a hospital. I don’t like hospitals; they’re cold and mechanical places. I feel terrible every time I walk past the open door of an occupied room in a hospital, because I imagine myself lying in that bed, looking out at the people walking past the door and knowing that they don’t know me and they don’t care that I’m dying. Hospitals are very lonely places, no matter who you’re with. I don’t want to die in a lonely place.

I want my final moments to be experienced in my favorite place: my place. I want to see my pictures and my books and whatever technology I have and whatever pets I have. I want my family to be there if they can, but I don’t want them to feel the need to keep a vigil over me for fear that I might die alone. So long as I’m in my space, no matter where that space is, as long as it’s home, I won’t be alone.

This is why I support the right to die.

I should be allowed to decide these things. I should be allowed to experience my last moment with dignity. It may be that this never happens: my death may be sudden or it may be an unexpected accident or it may be that I never experience the slow, wasting away due to disease and this right is unnecessary.

But if it does end with me in a ravaged state, I want to know that my life and my story end with the respect that I, and every other person who ever has lived, ever does live, and ever will live deserve.

Because to ignore it and pretend that it won’t happen isn’t just irresponsible. It isn’t just magical thinking. It means we forget, or worse, ignore the needs of those who are dying for fear that they might remind us of our own deaths. Some people might say there’s nothing worse than death. I can think of many things that are worse than death.

Being forgotten in your life’s final moments is worse than death.

Being ignored in your life’s final moments is worse than death.

Dying in agony is worse than death.

Dying without dignity is worse than death.

There are many things that are worse than death and we perpetuate them every time we shun the dying to a corner and turn our eyes away.

This is why we should talk about death.