Memorial Day was once a day of the dead for me. We’d climb in my parents’ minivan and drive to the cemetery in South Town. This was a time to place flowers on the graves of my great-grandfather and a neighbor who’d made sculptures out of matchboxes and pipe cleaners for us as kids. I never really understood what my role was in all of this, other than to try to be serious for an hour or so.
Some cultures seem inherently to understand how to interact with the dead. The Japanese, for instance, with their familial shrines, or Mexico and its elaborate re-creations, celebrations and decorations of the dead. As an outsider, I truly have no way of knowing if this is true, or if it’s just comforting to think that somebody else has any fucking idea whatsoever how to face and relate to the great mystery.
I have never felt that America in general has a clue how to cope with death. Halloween is all about escapism, specifically scaring the shit out of the spirits so they go back underground and leave us alive people to the tedious business of living. Even Memorial Day is more of an excuse for a barbecue than a reason to visit the graveyard and think about the sacrifices of those who came before you, or face the uncomfortable part of you that still hasn’t come to terms with the fact that you’re never going to see them again.
A few weeks ago, we celebrated the life of my best friend’s dad. That’s a nice way of saying we had a funeral. It was a celebration, too, but I’m still calling out that euphemism. As his former band mates played a J.J. Cale tune on bass and guitar near the empty drum kit that he once manned, the beauty of the music mixed with his tangible absence to make something magnificently mournful. When I stepped to the podium to say my piece, I was genuinely surprised to have to do battle with some very insistent tears.
How was that a surprise, you ask? Isn’t mourning when somebody you love leaves the world of the living behind a natural reaction? At this point, as I teeter on the edge of 40, I feel like I’ve faced so much death already that I should be completely immune to it. Yes, I know, I’m a privileged white man living in one of the wealthiest countries on Earth. No relative of mine has ever been executed by a death squad, disappeared in the desert, or wiped free during an ethnic cleanse. By all accounts, I’ve lived a sheltered life, and I invite you to take the following inventory of death with a grain of salt.
Nonetheless, an inventory of death there shall be. Sorry to bum you out, but we all deal with deaths of varying degrees every day, and I’d like to take a few minutes to call them out:
- King Karl – You were a great dad, a good drummer, a passionate proponent of watching “The Blues Brothers,” and a mean butterer of toast. You taught me that religion can be a good thing, Neil Young’s voice can be seen as a bad thing, and that a house doesn’t have to be finished to be a home. I’d be surprised to learn that there are referees in heaven, but I kind of hope there are so you have someone to yell at.
- Uncle John – Sadly, at the end there, we had no relationship whatsoever. But you were the father to my cousins, whom I love very much. Your absence is felt by them and their beautiful children, which makes it real to me.
- David Bowie – If ever there was a pansexual rock god who epitomized pop music’s ability to transcend the bullshit physical limitations we’re all reminded of every day, it was you. I feel like writing an obituary for pop music on a daily basis, and yet albums you made 40-some years ago still sound like they were just born. Not only that, but your last album was the best one you made since the late ’70s. You were being reborn even as you were dying, the ultimate in mythological comfort.
- The American Political System – Stick a fucking fork in you; you’re done. Also the hashtag #UniteBlue, which was invented by simple-minded sycophants to guilt the progressives in the democratic party into abandoning their dreams. I hope Bernie Sanders takes his party-splitting crusade all the way to the convention and beyond, because one man with genuine ideals is worth more than any sold-out political party that cares more about popularity than doing what’s right. Once again, we’ve self-fulfilling-prophesied our way into another terrible choice for president because of greed, apathy, and ignorance. Best of luck to us!
- The Profession of Journalism – If you need any proof of the death of the fourth estate, you’re either not paying attention or don’t have a TV. The coverage of this primary has been the ultimate self-parody, where failed actors disguised as news anchors fell all over each other trying to cradle Donald Trump’s orange, wrinkly balls with one hand while they point out how amazingly realistic the synthetic skin that is stretched to the breaking point over Hillary Clinton’s cold titanium alloy robot chassis really looks with the other. You’re a pathetic orgy of clickbait, American mainstream media, and I only wish there really was a hell so you could all spend eternity trying to scoop each other over the “Top Five Most Interesting Things in Satan’s Fanny Pack.”
Woo-hoo! Memorial Day Weekend! Am I right? OK, so yeah, I’m being a bit of a negative Nellie over here, but it’s at least partially in service to a point. Sometimes it’s OK to admit that the ship is sinking. You can’t make repairs until you’re willing to admit there are holes. Death exists in many forms, and we’re not doing ourselves any favors by pretending it doesn’t. Hold a funeral, move on, and live your life. Recognizing, of course, that life will never be the same without that person (or idea or institution) in it.
On Saturday night, I went to Corvallis to hang with some friends who always manage to make me feel alive even when death is heavy on my mind. The Dinner Table Enabler barbecued (Memorial Day! Wooooooo!) some prime cuts, and I shared a family dinner with a family I’m not even technically a member of. We spent the rest of the evening frolicking around an embryonic barcade that, when opened, will be the greatest in the state of Oregon. There I was, surrounded by people having kids and giving birth to new ideas and business ventures even as the whole ship of the human race continues to sail right off the edge of B.o.B.‘s sloped forehead. That kind of resiliency and refusal to give up is the thing that makes death bearable.
At the end of the night, I walked home from The Dam to my friends’ house on the far edge of campus. Drunkenly speed-walking up Adams, I passed the shuttered-and-fenced Gazette-Times where I once dreamed of being the greatest arts and entertainment writer ever. I passed the duplex where I lived with my first real girlfriend (and where I adopted my first pet – RIP Abobo Bootsy), and eventually walked under the arch where my rebel high school friends and I used to meet for clandestine games of midnight hacky-sack. In some ways, it felt like yo-yo-ing along the timeline of my first 30 years, like some Kurt Vonnegut protagonist robbed of the illusion of chronological progression.
If I’m being honest, today my prospects for ever getting paid again to write the kind of truth that is central to my soul seem pretty slim. And maybe the death of that dream is pretty small in the bigger scheme of things. Maybe I should just hold a celebration of life for that dream and move on. Unfortunately, as I said earlier, Americans have never been good at dealing with death. Despite my near-constant disgust at many of my fellow countrymen, in my own way, I’m American as a Don McClean song.
Today, I offer the grim reaper a brotherly hug, and then a hearty shove as soon as that dumb son of a bitch turns his back on me.