Saturday, July 28, 2012
STUPID THOUGHTS ABOUT DYING
It was a misty, rainy day in Lillehammer, Norway.
I had walked uphill – because everything in Lillehammer is uphill, even when you’re going
downhill – to the edge of the city to visit the Olympic History Museum. It’s a
beautiful facility, and the stuff inside is seriously cool; the most
comprehensive museum of its type, with a special secondary museum devoted
solely to the winter Olympics that took place there in 1994. But when I
finished my tour of the place, I was faced with a decision to make: go on to
the next place… or keep going uphill.
You see, further uphill… well, further up a large
hill/mini-mountain called Lysgardsbakken, is the ski jump. I’m quite fond of
the ski jump. Watching crazy people ski down a ridiculous slope and fly a
couple of hundred feet through the air is cool. I’d be terrified to do it
myself, but I admire the hell out of those that do it. They have nothing but
guts. No parachute, no air bags. Anyway, needless to say, I chose to continue
uphill, no matter what my screaming calves had to say about it.
The Lysgardsbakken isn’t too
steep. Just steep enough. And when it’s drizzling, the sun is playing hide and
seek, and there’s literally not a soul anywhere within visual range… in
hindsight, I’ve had better ideas. But up I went.
I wandered around the place for a while. To say that it was
astonishing would be underselling it. Like everything else in Norway, it was
beautiful beyond words. I could look out over city, across Lake Mjosa,
and to the large rolling hills on the opposite side of the water. Breathtaking.
Simply breathtaking. I stood for a few minutes just taking in the air, tasting
how clean it felt to my lungs, feeling my pulse slow. It was as peaceful a
moment as I’ve had in my entire life.
So of course, I proceeded to ruin it.
For whatever reason, the most likely being that I’m a jerk,
a thought came unbidden to me: if I fall down and break something while trying
to get off this thing, I’m screwed. No one is nearby, no one can hear me. I
could lay here for a long time.
It got worse. I suddenly freaked out that I was going to
have a stroke and collapse. Would I fall into the high weeds? How long would it
take to find my body? My cell phone didn’t work there! Would a stray reindeer
eat my corpse before the authorities could find it and send it back to the
States? OH MY GOD, I’M GOING TO DIE ALONE ON A MOUNTAIN IN NORWAY!
So much for my pulse slowing down. Idiot.
Now, we all have a death fear or two. My primary one is
drowning. I have real issues with the idea of drowning, and if I could avoid
that, I’ll go to my grave happier. Plane crash comes in second, though my real
paranoia kicks in when I think about being in a plane that crashes in water. If
you’re also afraid of drowning… you’re welcome. I’m just sharing a nightmare
If asked how I would prefer to die, I would always answer
“heroically” because I am a giant nerd. But given a second option, I’d pick “in
bed having sex… with someone else’s wife.” I realize that’s unfair to both her
and him, but it doubles my chances of something interesting. Orgasmic heart
attack or shot by angry husband. You could do worse. Drowning, for instance.
The key is, of course, to control your fears. You can’t let
them rule you, and you can’t let them ruin your day. Was it possible that I
could have stroked out on the Lysgardsbakken? Sure. But I could do that while
trying to help one of my students write a research paper. So I got hold of
myself and pulled it back together. After all, I was standing in one of the
most pristine and lovely places in the world, and it was totally unspoiled by
the sounds of man or machine. Opportunities like that come along very rarely.
Besides, as I made my way back to the museum, I had plenty
of other things to worry about. Like that six hour plane trip across the Atlantic I still had ahead of me.
Sunday, July 01, 2012
The past month turned out to be one of the most important times of my entire life. As usual for June, I tacked on another year of life, but beyond that I undertook a grand journey, one that would carry me to four U.S. states and two European countries. It was a trip that will stay with me for the rest of my life, one that changed me in vital, yet subtle ways.
Looking back at it now, and trying to absorb everything that happened along the way, I am struck at the range of moments that it contained. There were highs that made me feel as though the spirit of an eagle had entered my body and was carrying me aloft into the clouds. I experienced beauty that at times was beyond my comprehension. For someone who spends his life communicating with words, the number of times that those words failed me was staggering. It was a humbling reminder of how, even though I like to believe otherwise, I don’t always have the answers.
Humility isn’t easy for me. Typically, I believe that humility is the realm of suckers. If you are what you claim to be, then owning it is fine. If you’re faking it, you deserve to eat pavement. The only difference is whether or not you’re a dick about it. For me, it’s the “don’t be a dick about it” that can be kinda difficult.
Anyway, the main part of the trip was a ten day/nine night stop in Norway. A lot of people asked me before, and since, “why Norway?” It isn’t a common destination for American tourists; my research showed that only about a half million of my countrymen head to Norway in a given year. In part, that’s why I went there. Places like Paris and Rome have been done to death by the tourist set. I wanted a different experience for my first trip.
That’s right- my first trip. I didn’t get a passport until January of 2010. I’ve been plotting ever since on how to use it, and after two years of detailed research and planning, I finally did this June.
My Norway visit took me to five different places: Oslo, Bergen, Stavanger, Kristiansand, and Lillehammer. Each place had something special to offer, and I had wondrous moments at every turn. I could go on and on about what I did (and I will in the upcoming book I’m writing about the experience and on the website dedicated to it), but it is easiest to give you a small taste of the profound effect I felt, and the changes I went through, by talking about one small moment.
Oslo is home to the Nobel Peace Museum, an amazing facility dedicated to putting the spotlight on those who have won the coveted award, as well as dedicated to the cause of peace itself. The exhibits during my visit were astonishing; one photo exhibit focused on the plight of women in Afghanistan, while another turned the lens on humanizing a platoon of U.S. soldiers and what they really do during their time in-country. Upstairs there was an exhibit called “She-roes” which explored the lives of women who were trying to bring peace to war-torn places like the Sudan. In every room I encountered history, knowledge, compassion. It was awe-inspiring, one of those moments in time where you put your own life in perspective and think about what a whiny jackass you can be over trivial stuff.
However, it was near a stairwell that I discovered the thing that left me the most speechless. There was a long, spiraling gold tube there that extended from the ceiling down to the very bowels of the building. Next to it was a small table that held a box of paper shapes, a pile of small wires, and a box of colored pencils. Clearly, this was something for the kids who visited to do. I approached, though, and read the instructions. They were simple: write your message of peace on one of the papers, and send it into the world by tying it to the gold spiral.
A challenge! Surely I had a message of peace, yes? My brain began spinning, and I found myself thinking about my experience so far in Norway and about how I was feeling. And a few things came to me in rapid succession. One, I hadn’t felt angry- about anything- in days. I also realized, for the first time, that I had barely spoken. Aside from checking into my hotel and buying tickets to enter places, I had been almost mute. My predilection for monologuing out loud was absent. Also, and this really shocked me, I realized I hadn’t worn my headphones in days. Normally, I have my music going constantly.
My face felt warm, and I began to realize that I was smiling almost uncontrollably. I thought then about how screwed up the world can be. I thought about that hate and vitriol spewed in the political arena, a battle to see who can shout the loudest and say the stupidest thing. I thought about “celebrities” who are famous only for being famous and demanding attention. And then I thought about the overwhelming solitude I was feeling at that moment.
I picked up one of the shapes and began to write. My message was short, simple, direct. Done, I used a piece of wire and tied it to the golden spiral, then I watched it flutter away like a leaf on the wind, making its way into the heart of peace. Satisfied, I headed downstairs to retrieve my backpack and walked outside into the midday sun. Walking away, I felt a sense of calm wash over me and I stopped in my tracks. My arms went limp at my sides and the harbor breeze wafted across my skin. Then it started: voices in different languages, a passing trolley, a boat horn in the distance, a baby crying in a nearby stroller. It was - in the words of one my idols, Spalding Gray - a perfect moment, as I lived out the message of peace I had just sent out into the world: