Until the Casket Drops (Two Years)

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to confront only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I have not lived. — HENRY DAVID THOREAU

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Although it was difficult for me to pull off, tonight I am writing to you without snark or pretense, my two greatest weapons as a writer; and, for the short time that I am able to pull off this lucid sincerity, I wish to speak a bit about what it is like to lose a friend too young, especially when those friends, by all accounts, are superior to you in every way — in life, in spirit, in ambition, in grace, and in love. This is not a matter of my low (and mostly self-deprecating) opinion of myself. It is instead how I feel about Collin and Ellis, two friends I lost in a car crash exactly two years ago today, and the effect they had on me not only in life but in death, far after the casket has dropped on the world they made better when they were alive, and far after the casket has dropped on the world that in death they have made feel strange and empty, like a song missing its strongest, captivating notes.

I remember exactly where I was when I first heard the news: it was late in the evening and my then-girlfriend was over, nagging at me to get ready to go to the movies. We were going to be late to Black Swan, which to me didn’t seem like much of a tragedy anyways, and somehow she never got the message that the Bijou was never crowded, even on weekends — especially cold, depressing weekends in January where no one in their right minds wants to go outside, let alone go see Black Swan at an art-house cinema. It smells like a funeral home in there, which makes total sense since it happened to be a funeral home at one time point, way, way back in the foggy, marijuana-glazed past of Eugene. She was as amped up and naggy as ever because of me, her flaky boyfriend, and I was as low as could be from painkillers to kill the dull and yet somehow roaring pain of a few jagged stones running through and cutting up my kidneys, and in those few moments, unaware that in a minute or so tragedy would strike, it felt as if the world was slowly becoming trapped in a dark amber. By all accounts, this evening was going to be hell.

And then, like prophecy, my ringtone began to go off — “A Beautiful Mine,” the theme song from Mad Men, the same ringtone I still have two years later — and when I looked down at my phone it was my buddy Ethan, who rarely calls (this being before he moved to Vancouver). I call this is a red flag if there ever was one. I answered, and before I even spoke a word I knew something was wrong. Have you ever answered the phone and before any words have been spoken you can tell the person on the other end of the line has been crying profusely, you can just feel the tears over the phone like a strong mist that doesn’t show itself until you’ve stepped right in to the middle of it.

“Ethan? Dude? What’s the matter?”

I asked him this, scared out of my wits. You can always tell when tragedy has struck, as if people don’t realize how easy it is for someone to notice that you are in pain. We’re all just wounded animals making our way across the Savannah.

“They’re dead, dude. They’re dead.”

“What the fuck are you trying to say?”

“DEAD. Collin and Ellis. There’s been an accident.”

“If you’re lying to me, Ethan…if this is some kind of sick joke, I’m going to fucking kill you,” I yell at him over the phone, the shock of what I’ve just heard now rapidly turning in to tears calmly streaming down my face. As you could imagine, my then-girlfriend was looking at me like I had antlers suddenly sprouting out of the top of my head.

What I learned, as much as it pains me to write, the replay of the event in my head that drives me to a solemn silence whenever I picture it: early that morning, on their way south to go snowboarding at Mt. Bachelor, Collin, Ellis, and my other buddy Nick, who admittedly I did not know as well as Collin and Ellis, the late-80’s BMW that they were in had hit a patch of ice and after spinning they rolled down an embankment in to a small patch of woods, the car slamming in to and wrapping itself around a tree on the passenger side, which was the side that Collin and Ellis happened to be on. Nick was driving the car that awful morning and escaped with a broken leg and some lacerations to the face, the poor man somehow managing to crawl away from the wreckage just before the car caught fire.

If I can believe soothing words, which I always choose to do as a rule, my friends died immediately upon impact with that tree, instantaneously peaceful in death, forever-youthful in their steel cocoon, already in the presence of a place called Heaven before the fire began on the side of that snow-covered highway. Sometimes at night, when I dream in my warm bed, I can see that highway, that horrible place where the casket dropped forever and ever amen, and though sometimes in those dreams I see the fire that swallowed the car whole, my friends are never in pain. Not one of those dreams has ever been filled with pain. They stand by peacefully, smiling and watchful, like I always knew them to be, and I do not feel sad. Not even the loss of those wonderful spirits can shake my feeling that they are sleeping peacefully. I feel the turning wheels of the universe bringing us all in and spitting us all back out, treating us all one and the same and without prejudice. What’s the point of making people hurt when we all die equally anyways?

…although it was difficult for me to pull off, tonight I am writing to you without snark or pretense, my two greatest weapons as a writer; and, for the short time that I am able to pull off this lucid sincerity, I wish to speak a bit about what it is like to lose a friend too young, especially when those friends, by all accounts, are superior to you in every way — in life, in spirit, in ambition, in grace, and in love…

At twenty-three years old I have already been to seven funerals in my life. This is the first time I’ve ever really noticed just how many that is at such a relatively young age. Seven times I have stood under some solitary tree remembering the dead, seven times I have walked a walked through a cemetery lane alongside the dead, and seven times I have listened to words spoken by a preacher under unmistakable silence, the dead inhabiting that silence just as much as our own hushed voices do. These seven trips to the land of the dead have taught me nothing about what it means to be alive, as much as I ask for wisdom out of their ethereal silence. From the first to the last, all I’ve understood is that what separates me from them is not much more than fleeting air in the lungs and little electrical explosions in the brain, somehow giving me consciousness. Or, those seven occasions were trying to teach me something this whole time and maybe I just wasn’t listening.

I believe that part of the problem is that I see no point in learning from something only because it has disappeared — why wait for knowledge that way when you can just as easily learn a lot from those who are living, and not just come to cherish their words when they have passed on from this world to the next? Does Death, that cold bastard, suddenly make normal words become words of infinite love with one sweep of his black robe? Does death make a saint out of all of us in the end? Does everything become mysteriously, I don’t know…illuminated, in the end? Is that how love and wisdom are brought to the world?

I think not.

I believe deep down that the goodness in people can be seen well before they are taken from us, unfairly and far, far too young. Angels, like their mortal counterparts, can never keep themselves and their angelic nature a secret because, like we mortals, their goodness shines through all attempts to be secretly wonderful. It is like some holy white light that you try to cover up, but good luck — you’re just too wonderful for us not to notice. And, when that light is suddenly extinguished without warning, we feel that part of ourselves has been doused with water too. The winds calm down, the smoke becomes nacreous, and that wonderful white light that filled us with joy is nowhere to be found. Rest in peace, little light.

But, my dear friends and readers, do not worry yourselves, for that light will never go out. For a moment it appears extinguished and then, in a flash that can’t help but gift you with tears of joy, it reignites, sometimes brighter than ever. Anyone who tells you differently is absolutely full of shit. When those we find wonderful and special are taken from us, that light is left there in their place. It was there when you knew them, and it stays after they are gone. Collin had wanted to be a neurosurgeon and do good for people, to make them neurally whole again. Ellis was studying eastern medicine in hopes of trying to better the lives of others. I look back on my two dear friends and I know that the world has lost two good men too early. I know that if they had lived just a few more years they would have found a way to better the world, both on a micro and macro level. They, out of all of us lowly and scared spirits, were the ones who were truly going to make a difference. The world was going to have a future with them being alive, this I am sure of, and though they are gone the world still beats on like an engine; it will keep on turning, regardless of much I want to the world to stop and let me just mourn for two of my best friends, now lost.

Summer of 2009: me and a few friends, Collin and Ellis among them, watch the fireworks after a baseball game at Civic Stadium (which would be closed down by the end of summer). The feelings I have about this memory almost seem cliche now when I look back. You know the old song-and-memory dance: the future is bright ahead of us, our youthful faces lit up by flashes of red, green, blue, phosphorous white; beers are in our hands, we cheer the explosions over the old baseball stadium; we will live for today and not for tomorrow, since it won’t be here, so you might as well drink that Coors and finish off that freshly-rolled joint in the parking lot. We were just kids in college, we had no idea that tragedy could find us just like everybody else. I wasn’t as close to them then as I would eventually become, but love and friendship always have to have a beginning, if they even begin and end at all!

I miss them dearly, forever and ever. I love you, Collin and Ellis, and I will always miss you.

Sincerely,

Jackson Williams.

My Friend Dramane is Volunteering for the War

Great, great read. Outstanding piece of writing. — J.W.

The View Abroad

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This is a story about a man named Dramane – a story that has a beginning but no end – at least I don’t know how it is going to end…so let’s start at the beginning.

Dramane was my first friend that I made after my family arrived in Spain. In the second week of September the sun still screams at anyone who dares venture outside in Zaragoza, but the calendar calls all the kids to school anyway, so I took my daughter’s hand and walked her through the park and into the schoolyard of what would be her first real school.  I forced a big smile and said encouraging things, but my daughter just stared back at me with a look of “But dad, you never taught me any Spanish” on her face.  I gave her a hug, and took a big breath and swallowed hard as she walked…

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Roads, and Other Sicilian Driving Hazards

J.W.

The Dangerously Truthful Diary of a Sicilian Housewife

PART UMPTEEN OF AN OCCASIONAL, HYSTERICAL SERIES

We have had torrents of rain for the last week. As a result, driving my son to school has been permanently upgraded from a Level 2 to a Level 1 risk activity. This is because of the new holes that have formed in the road.

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I do have a money-making plan to take advantage of this, though. I am going to open one of the giant holes in the road as a municipal open-air swimming pool and sell admission tickets to locals. I shall open the other networked hole-complex as the “Bagheria caves and grotto” and charge an exorbitant admission fee to tourists, which will include a guided tour and a souvenir lump of dislodged asphalt.

Well, this local event reminded me to publish another installment in my occasional series on Driving in Sicily.

Road holes are a major hazard in Sicily. They are…

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BREAKING NEWS: North Korea Still Sucks

this news comes courtesy of the Associated Press:

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SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — North Korea swiftly lashed out against the U.N. Security Council’s condemnation of its December launch of a long-range rocket, saying Wednesday that it will strengthen its military defenses – including its nuclear weaponry – in response.

The defiant statement from North Korea’s Foreign Ministry was issued hours after the Security Council unanimously adopted a resolution condemning Pyongyang’s Dec. 12 rocket launch as a violation of a ban against nuclear and missile activity. The resolution, which won approval from Pyongyang’s ally and protector China after drawn-out discussions, also expanded sanctions against the North.

In Pyongyang, the Foreign Ministry maintained that the launch was a peaceful bid to send a satellite into space, not a test of long-range missile technology. But now, North Korea will “counter the U.S. hostile policy with strength, not with words,” the ministry said, ominously warning that North Korea will “bolster the military capabilities for self-defense including the nuclear deterrence.”

The wording “considerably and strongly hints at the possibility of a nuclear test,” analyst Hong Hyun-ik at the private Sejong Institute think tank near Seoul said Wednesday.

A nuclear test would fit into a familiar pattern of defiance in Pyongyang. In 2006 and 2009, North Korea followed up rocket launches just weeks later by testing atomic devices, which experts say is necessary for development of nuclear warheads.

However, North Korea has a new leader, Kim Jong Un, who took over in December 2011 following the death of father Kim Jong Il. How he will handle the standoff with the international community remains unclear.

There was no indication Wednesday of an imminent nuclear test. However, satellite photos taken last month at North Korea’s underground nuclear test site in Punggye-ri in the far northeast showed continued activity that suggested a state of readiness even in winter, according to analysis by 38 North, a North Korea website affiliated with the Johns Hopkins School for Advanced International Studies.

Last month’s rocket launch has been celebrated as a success in North Korea, and the scientists involved treated like heroes. Kim Jong Un cited the launch in his New Year’s Day speech laying out North Korea’s main policies and goals for the upcoming year, and banners hailing the launch are posted on buildings across the capital.

Washington and its allies consider the long-range rocket launch a covert test of ballistic missile technology, and suspect Pyongyang is working toward mounting a nuclear warhead on a missile capable of striking the U.S.

North Korea claims the right to build nuclear weapons as a defense against the United States, which stations more than 28,000 troops in South Korea. The foes fought in the three-year Korean War, which ended in a truce in 1953 and left the Korean Peninsula divided at the 38th parallel.

Six-nation disarmament negotiations, hosted by China and aimed at offering North Korea much-needed food and fuel in return for dismantling its nuclear program, have been stalled since North Korea walked away from the talks following U.N. punishment for its 2009 rocket launch.

Since then, Pyongyang had indicated its readiness to resume discussing disarmament, and in February 2012 negotiated a deal with Washington to place a moratorium on nuclear and missile tests in exchange for food aid.

That deal fell apart when North Korea unsuccessfully launched a long-range rocket in April. In July, North Korea’s Foreign Ministry issued a memorandum declaring that it felt forced to “completely re-examine the nuclear issue due to the continued U.S. hostile policy” toward Pyongyang.

Following Tuesday’s Security Council resolution, North Korea’s Foreign Ministry said it would rebuff any attempts to engage Pyongyang in disarmament negotiations.

“There can be talks for peace and stability of the Korean Peninsula and the region in the future, but no talks for the denuclearization of the peninsula,” it said.

The Security Council demanded that North Korea abandon its nuclear weapons program in a “complete, verifiable and irreversible manner,” and ordered the regime to cease rocket launches.

“Today’s resolution also makes clear that if North Korea chooses again to defy the international community, such as by conducting another launch or a nuclear test, then the (Security) Council will take significant action,” U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice said.

The binding resolution is the first in four years to expand sanctions against Pyongyang. It ordered the freeze of more North Korean assets, including the space agency, and imposed a travel ban on four more officials – limited sanctions that target individuals and specific companies.

“We believe that action taken by the Council should be prudent, measured, proportionate and conducive to stability,” Chinese Ambassador Li Baodong said after the vote.

The decision by China, North Korea’s biggest ally and economic supporter, to approve the U.N. resolution – including sanctions – may reflect frustration on Beijing’s part toward its neighbor, analysts said. In the past, China has vetoed applying sanctions for past provocations.

“China has limited influence with North Korea,” Zhang Liangui, a researcher with the ruling Communist Party’s main research and training institute, said in Beijing. “Beijing disapproves of any nuclear test or new missile launch, but there’s not a lot it can do.”

China’s support for the resolution, with targeted sanctions, signals that it agrees that North Korea’s launch was a test of its ballistic missile technology, but it is still trying to protect the ally.

“China is striking a balance here. It wants to punish North Korea for the latest launch and tell it not to undertake a new ballistic missile launch. But it doesn’t want to put unbearable pressure on Pyongyang,” said Shen Dingli, a regional security expert and director of the Center for American Studies at Shanghai’s Fudan University.

Peter James Spielmann reported from the United Nations. Associated Press writers Hyung-jin Kim in Seoul and Christopher Bodeen in Beijing contributed to this report.

Jackson Williams.