Once you watch a few people die, you realize that death doesn’t give a damn about your dignity. Dignity is a human invention, and if we want someone to have dignity in death we’d better manufacture some. I’m writing this with the assistance of my friend tequila, but we’ll try to produce some dignity without too many structural defects.

My mom died last night after a long illness, if you consider 20 years a long time. The illness itself was elusive. She had lots of symptoms, some debilitating, but together they didn’t seem to mean anything. Every year or so a new doctor assured her that he’d flush out her illness like he was some kind of highly educated English Pointer with a huge ego. They all soon slunk away, ears down.

After a decade-plus of this she was put on dialysis. I’d heard about dialysis—it was something you went to a couple times a week to get your blood cleaned. I soon found out it’s really an endless ass whipping that devours your life. People generally last about three years on dialysis before they die. My mom lasted almost six. No one who was with her when she started dialysis is still alive. She reacted to the grueling routine of dialysis by making friends with everyone at the clinic, both patients and employees. Whenever she arrived, three times a week, she wheeled all the way around the room visiting with each person. The employees soon fawned over her to an embarrassing extent.

A few months ago my mom broke her leg. Describing the subsequent cascade of physical failures would hardly preserve her dignity, apart from saying it was like a bridge collapsing girder by girder into the sea. My mom proved to me that someone really can crumble to sand while you watch them. She died in the hospital. She would have preferred to die at home among her stuff. She loved her stuff, even more than I love my stuff. But it didn’t work out that way.

She raised me, of course, and our relationship was sometimes problematic. The fate of parents is that children ignore the lessons their parents try to teach, and embrace the things parents do without thinking. My mom taught me by example to be thoughtful. She taught me to be vigilant out of necessity.

My mom had the normal complement of faults and strengths, and I could describe them. I could make fun stories and sad stories from her life. But I don’t think any of that would particularly celebrate her dignity. I’ll just relate one event. A few months ago I visited the hospital to find her and her pulverized femur in bed. Morphine had hit her like a feather locomotive, and the room reeked with the question of whether she’d walk again. In the midst of this, she fuzzily berated my father about bringing a particular painted wooden box from home.

He brought the box the next day, conjuring squeals and smiles from my mom. My mom showed my curious self that the box was full of greeting cards, as organized as any filing cabinet. She explained that she always sent birthday cards with a few dollars to the children of her friends at the dialysis clinic, and the idea that she might miss some birthdays distressed her. Her morphine-assisted handwriting looked like someone had sneezed ink on a page, so I made out the cards and sealed in the money for my father to deliver. Accomplishing that seemed to give my mom more relief than morphine.

Towards the end, my mom’s doctors banned morphine and all other painkillers, for reasons too arcane to express. They did not at the same time ban the broken places in her body. When your body is dying and the pain sits fully upon you, with no chance for relief, your dignity faces a great challenge. During those days, she only asked for help from her husband and her mother. Since one of those people was in fact alive and present, that seems a pretty dignified act of will to me. In a similar place I might just call on beings who are dead, or even imaginary.

Part of our dignity grows from how we face the idea of our death. A lot of people describe themselves as spiritual but not religious. My mom was spiritual in a heartfelt, disorderly way, and she despised religion as something that leads to shouting about Hell and to spiteful old women gossiping in the pews. She believed that she’d go on after death in some form, although the details always seemed fuzzy to me. She certainly didn’t believe that her new form would be much like the one she just left, with sneaky diseases and lots of stuff to love. She asked to be cremated, so that my father’s ashes can sit beside hers, and she made us promise there wouldn’t be any funeral or memorial service.

Everything ends, even us.

In the first three days of our romantic Jamaican holiday, my poor decision making skills nearly killed my wife and me. I blundered into buying a deep tissue massage, and we would certainly have died if I’d had enough money for the two hour session, or if our masseuses had been a bit more muscular.

Yet we survived. In celebration, we summoned the will to drag our body parts to the beach the next morning, which was the first really sunny day of our trip. Back home I’d purchased some great spray-on sun block, so we needn’t smear our entire body surfaces with goop as if we were birthday cakes. The stuff came out of the spray can shockingly cold, but we coated each other with diligence, except for our faces of course. We slathered regular, semi-gelatinous sun block on our faces.

We took it easy on the beach. We relaxed for half an hour, swam in the ocean for half an hour, relaxed another fifteen minutes, and went inside to take stock. We saw the beginnings of a nice tan. On our faces. Everywhere else our skin had achieved the color of the surface of Mars. When we returned to our room, the temperature inside went up ten degrees.

It became clear that if we wanted to get home alive I must not make any more decisions of any kind.

The next day was Valentine’s Day, which called for romantic hi-jinks, since this was a romantic vacation. My wife was empowered to select romantic hi-jinks for us. She chose zip lining. As far as I knew, zip lining was how guys with guns dropped out of black helicopters to shoot other guys who didn’t happen to be looking up. My wife informed me that was a narrow view of the term. You can also dangle from a wire stretched between two trees and let gravity hurl you across the gap, with no opportunities to shoot anyone on the other side. That too is called zip lining. Since this was Valentine’s Day, and this sounded so damned romantic, and I wasn’t allowed to make any decisions anyway, I said, “Sure.”

Our romantic zip lining rendezvous would happen in a lovely canopy jungle, which sounded pretty good. But we were at the beach, where canopy jungles were conspicuously missing. The jungle we needed lay rather closer to the middle of Jamaica. We spent two hours on a cute bus driven by a charming fellow named Chris, and I learned three things on the ride. First, it does not pay to be timid when driving in Jamaica. Second, I would refuse to be a pedestrian in Jamaica. I’d sit in a room and starve before I stepped onto the street. Third, I’ve spent about six hours on Jamaican roads, and I have had the honor of passing through the only stop light on the island, twice, and never slowing down either time.

At Zip Lining Base Camp the guides organized us, distributed equipment, and gave a detailed lecture on technique and safety procedures. We all signed a waiver, which none of us really read. I did catch some phrases like, “able to walk for 30 minutes,” “not responsible for spine injuries,” “coronary event,” and, “nausea and vomiting.” Well, I figured the lawyers probably just made them put that stuff in there. As I walked by a table one of the guides asked whether I wanted to take such a nice camera with me. I said sure, I wanted to take pictures. He warned me it would be wet, but I said I’d be okay. He persisted, saying it might rain, but I just waved and kept going.

Three guides led us ten hapless dopes to the first zip line, and a few things became apparent right away. The guides were funny, funny guys. The guide who’d warned me about my camera had a better camera than mine hanging from his neck. Since I’d brought my massive Canon along anyway, the guides named me “Paparazzi.” And when we hit the first zip line the guides just hooked us up and told us to grab on and go. It was like that lecture on technique and safety had been some sort of dream.

The zip lining itself was a hoot, especially the longer, faster lines. The guides kept us from dying, and more importantly entertained us while they did it. But I’ll tell you a secret about zip lines. The end you start on has to be higher than the end you finish on. That means to get to the next line you have to walk uphill. Actually you have to walk up rough rock steps. Steep ones. And lots of them. After a while, some of us had our heads down, gasping like an ox in Death Valley. The disclaimers about coronary events and vomiting flashed through my mind.

Despite that, we zipped down seven lines in all and had a great time. I took some pictures that didn’t suck. As our bus hurtled back toward our resort, dodging larger vehicles and intimidating anything smaller than itself, I reflected that my wife had made a good decision.

Back at the resort and drunk on successful decision making, my wife chose an oriental restaurant for our big Valentine’s Day dinner. While the food was delicious, they served us an entire trough of sushi. My wife’s bowl contained enough noodles so that placed end to end they would reach the height of the Statue of Liberty. We’d been zip lining all day. We were hungry. We ate a lot.

In our room after dinner we lay on the bed and looked at each other. Valentine’s Day would seem like the right time for some romantic hanky panky, especially on vacation. Yet we lay on our backs like chubby otters, unable to do anything but roll a bit from side to side. My wife said, “It’s like a perfect storm. The deep tissue massage, then the sunburn, then zip-lining, and now we’re stuffed full of noodles. I don’t know if we can touch each other without screaming.”

We’re so in love. We’d better be.

In honor of Valentine’s Day, I must observe that my parents taught me how to break into cars. They taught me other useful stuff, like how play poker, when to over-tip, and to always buy the coolest presents I can afford. They taught me to frame walls, but for God’s sake to stay away from wallpapering. They taught me to break the rules I think are stupid, and to make it look like I was following those stupid rules all along.

However, my parents failed to teach me an important thing. They did not teach me how to get a girl. I have a great girl now, but I’m mystified about how I got her. It seems like luck. It’s as lucky as if lightning struck me 15 times, and it merely gave me a great tan and fixed my teeth.

Perplexed, I recently asked my parents how they became a couple. How did my dad get my mom? Maybe I did something right by chance, and it would be nice to know what it was. I guess my parents like me, because they told me their story.

My parents both grew up in the same town. That’s the town in which I grew up too, by the way. Their families had known each other for years. My future father was 5 years older than my future mother. His younger sister was my mom’s best friend, and my mom’s older brother was my dad’s best friend. When you’re a kid, someone 5 years older than you might as well be a thousand years older; my parents each were aware that the other existed, but they couldn’t possibly care.

At age 18 my dad joined the Marines and went to Korea. After three interesting years in Korea, he came home when he was 21. My mom was just 16 then, and he still barely noticed her. She didn’t pay much attention to his existence, either. Two more years passed in the way years tend to do. Now my dad was 23, and my mom was 18. My dad now noticed my mom and found he wanted her to be aware of his existence, and also to consider it a good thing. But my dad suffered from incredible shyness, and he couldn’t think of anything to do that would make this happen.

He asked his younger sister if she could help him, and she said, “You bet I can!” His sister asked my mom to go out Saturday night, as they often did, and my mom said sure. On Saturday my dad and his sister arrived at my mom’s house in his car. My mom thought it odd that my dad was there, but she shrugged and got in the car. Then my dad’s sister said, “Oh, I forgot I have something to do!” and she buggered off, leaving my dad and mom alone on what had just become a date.

They went to the local establishment where everyone in town gathered on Saturday nights. My mom knew everybody, and she laughed, and danced, and had a great time with her friends. My dad was slightly less outgoing. He sat in the corner all night drinking beer and saying nothing to anyone—including my mom.

The evening ended, and the time to go home arrived. In the parking lot my parents found that someone had parked their car behind my dad’s car, and he couldn’t get out. He solved this problem by picking up the back end of the offending car and dragging it out of the way so he could leave. My mom thought, “Huh.” That is exactly what she later told me she thought, word for word. During the ride back to my mom’s house, my dad still said nothing. He let her out at the curb and drove away. My mom went into the house and thought that this was the strangest thing that had ever happened to her.

On Sunday evening, with no planning or discussion, my dad pulled up in front of my mom’s house. As my mom looked out the window, she felt perplexed and unsure of what to do. She didn’t see many options, so she went outside and got in my dad’s car, and they drove away on their second date.

Six months later they were married.

I found that story to be charming, but not immediately helpful. I’m pretty sure I did speak to my wife at least once before we became a couple. I didn’t drink much beer, and I never picked up anything that weighed 10 times as much as me. Perhaps things were different in my parents’ time. Perhaps I’m different. Maybe it’s all just luck.

Then my mom mentioned that my dad did in fact speak during those six months. In fact, he and my mom both spoke quite a bit while driving around all night on a whole lot of occasions. So that was it! My dad demonstrated the ability to talk for six months without saying something fatally stupid. Now it all makes sense—I must have been lucky enough to do the same thing with my wife.

I find this all to be an enormous relief. I know how I got my girl, and I can put those doubts away. I didn’t blow it when the critical moment came. Because to be honest, I’ve never been able to drag a car out of my way, and part of me suspected that my parents taught me to break into cars so I’d be prepared when the moment arrived.

A palpable wave of hatred is surging over me as I sit on this Jamaican beach. My friends are hurling that wave at me from a thousand miles away while they look out their windows at snow. I may not be welcome in their homes when I return. They certainly will not allow me near their children. I might infect them with my contempt for the spirit of everyone suffering together.

As I sip my rum and coke I’ll attempt to explain myself. I’ve had a hard six months. Nobody likes a whiner, so let’s leave it at that. I decided to get out of town before I began rising in the dark of night to slaughter unsuspecting wayfarers. And before my wife had to impale me in my sleep to protect the innocent. A toasty resort seemed like just the thing. Some of my friends mocked me for choosing a resort for which you pay a huge, heaving chunk of money up front and then don’t pay for anything else while you’re there. My friends prefer to experience the genuine Jamaica—the Jamaica of the people. I prefer a vacation that requires me to make as few decisions as possible. I’ve been here three days, and the only decision I’ve made is whether or not I want ice in my drink.

That’s an exaggeration of course, but almost accurate. We have a refrigerator/mini-bar in our room, and I had to decide what beverages to ask for. We were limited to one mini-bar bottle of each type of liquor, which I thought a bit stingy, but what the hell. I ordered rum and forgot about it.

After breakfast yesterday we waddled like geese down to the beach. A red flag lies beside every beach chair, and when you lift the flag a nice gentleman hustles over to bring you whatever you want to drink. A ragged-voice fellow moved down the beach singing Bob Marley and Sam Cooke, and he staged himself with as much virtuosity as any Shakespearian actor I’ve ever seen. A friendly fellow wandered the beach selling jet-ski rides, parasailing, and marijuana.

I began to feel embarrassed to lie there like a veal calf, so I walked up to a shack that housed a fountain soda station, just so I could say that I foraged for myself at least once. Attached to the side of the shack was what I could only call a bubble gum machine of booze. Four liquor bottles hung upside down in a glass-front box—gin, vodka, whiskey, and of course rum. A spigot tapped each bottle so that any passerby could take all he wanted. Now I’m not much of a drinker. But at that point I realized that not drinking rum would be an insult to the people of Jamaica. By now the people of Jamaica should like me a lot.

The Bubble Gum Machine of Booze

By noon we were bored with swimming, drinking, and laying on the beach. So we spent the afternoon swimming, drinking, and laying by the pool, which is more of a change of pace than you might expect. We dragged back to our room and were greeted by an entire fifth of Appleton Jamaican rum. I realized that in Jamaica “mini-bar” means no more than half a dozen full bottles of liquor at a time.

We wandered to one of the restaurants and were told there’d be a short wait. They couldn’t say exactly how long. An hour later, still waiting at the bar, we laughed at the German couple next to us who’d given up and huffed away. We’d never wait an hour for dinner at home, but it seemed fine here even though we could have walked 90 seconds to another restaurant and be seated right away. We didn’t have anywhere else to be.

This morning we decided to do something different, so we signed up for a massage. I’ve never had a massage, so I found the menu of massage types a fascinating read. The ones involving bamboo and hot stones didn’t sound like too much fun. My wife let me decide, and I picked the basic massage. Then I saw there was a “deep tissue” option. I figured that if a massage is good, then deep tissue must be better. I sprang for the 90 minute version. Our masseuses, Diane and Doreen, directed us to our room, where we disrobed and flopped on the tables like halibut.

I knew that “deep tissue” had been a mistake when Diane placed her thumb under my shoulder blade and pressed it through my body into the table. From the whimpers and rapid, shallow breathing at the next table, I assumed my wife was coming to the same realization. I can best describe the event as two nice women dropping a fire hydrant on you in slow motion for an hour and a half. After pulling my spine out like a licorice whip, Diane moved south, eventually reaching my feet. She crushed my feet, and I now understand why that was such a popular medieval torture. I’m not sure what she did to the soles of my feet, but I think she may have brought in a rhino to gore me a few times.

But the most interesting part of the experience was Diane’s discretion. I lay under a sheet to protect my modesty, but during this procedure modesty was a fuzzy concept. While moving about to assault various parts of my body, Diane manipulated that sheet with the skill of a fan dancer. At one point she stopped and placed a cloth over my eyes, and I found that a bit ominous. But I then realized that it was another attempt at modesty as Diane went to work on areas uncomfortably close to very private places. The cloth over my eyes was apparently an appeal to the “ostrich effect”—if I couldn’t see Diane then I would assume that she couldn’t see me either.

Diane and Doreen at last relented and left us with polite words and smiles. My wife and I stared at one another for a while, as if we were spies amazed to have survived a KGB interrogation. We rolled off the tables and dressed. My wife was so crippled that she couldn’t lift her arms high enough to tie her bathing suit. We staggered back to our room, our plans for the beach now destroyed. My wife refused to talk to me, or even look at me.

That’s what I get for trying to make a decision. From now on, ice/no ice is the only question for me.

Fifty years will carve a people-sized Grand Canyon into a person’s body and mind. Sure, the Colorado River took millions of years to gouge the real Grand Canyon out of the Arizona rock, but we’re softer and get hit with harsher stuff than water and wind.

My friend The Bean pointed this out to me, although she may not have meant to. She’s young and feisty and pregnant. The Bean has enthusiasm oozing from all her pores, even before she became a vessel for new life and the metaphorical hope for the future of all humanity. She also cooks a tasty Beef with Scallion and Mushroom Sauce.

This week The Bean said that there’s something strangely comforting in hearing your doctor say “That looks awful.” When her doctor says that, she knows she’s not complaining for no good reason. Plus, she loves her doctor, and that makes her observation more palatable. But I guarantee that I, being a generation older, would not find, “That looks awful,” comforting in any way at all. In fact, I might be inclined to do something rude with a tongue depressor, or at least make a cutting remark.

Annoying medical experiences have eroded me far longer than they have The Bean, and bad statements from doctors can find no welcome in the canyons of my psyche. I’m not criticizing my friend. When I was her age, I was the same damn way.

Another generation of living will dig the canyons deeper, and the patience for stupid medical remarks pretty much disappears. When a person of 75 years like my mom is lying in the hospital full of morphine with a condition no one has been able to diagnose for two months, and when the doctor unwraps the dressing, the words “Oh my God!” plunge to the bottom of the canyon to crash with a bitter thud. When every nurse and aide says roughly the same thing, then comfort, patience, and acceptance evaporate. Even a smile from the doctor and the words, “That sure is spreading,” only create the urge to rip the doctor’s heart out through his nose.

Of course, our reaction depends a lot on our proximity to Death, that snappy-dressing clump of fungus and slime. When you’re in the hospital you know you’re in Death’s stomping grounds, sort of like his favorite bar. At my age, when I go to the doctor, Death hangs out in the waiting room, feet on the couch and reading Guns and Ammo.  He wants to get the news right away. For The Bean, Death just runs his errands at the mall and maybe goes to see The Phantom Menace in 3D, trusting that she’ll call later if they need to have lunch.

But I think that Death’s distance is less important than how time has changed our understanding of the word “awful.” I’ve seen how people a generation ahead of me understand difficulty and suffering in a way that I can’t. I feel sorry for them, and to be honest I feel sorrier for myself knowing that I’m coming up behind them. On the other hand, The Bean is still young enough to feel comfort and even laugh at bad news. And in the end I feel happy that her canyon is shallow, and she hasn’t yet been kicked in a tender place quite as much as us old folks.

I know it seems odd to scrutinize a matchmaking service ad while sitting next to your wife. It’s especially odd when she commonly leans over to look at whatever you’re reading, on the theory that if you didn’t want her to look at it you’d read it in a locked room somewhere in Latvia. But I couldn’t help it. The ad presented such a fascinating concept in such a compelling manner that I couldn’t look away.

This all happened in seats 28E and 28F of a Boeing 737 flying at 37,000 feet towards Washington. That’s the Washington with all the elected crybabies, not the Washington with enough rain to drown a hippo. My job required that I be there for a few days. I didn’t mind too much since I might have the chance to be mean to people. My wife’s work had lulled, so we burned some of my miles for her ticket. It’s a pretty good way to get to the Smithsonian for five bucks and the cost of all the food you would have eaten at home anyway.

Lots of couples meet on Internet dating services these days. It’s no longer the province of guys who read Mein Kampf on the toilet and who have only five concert t-shirts and an Army jacket in their wardrobe. I’ve met several nice couples who connected through online services that cater to young Christians, people over 50, Democrats, and people with IQs over 145. Narrowing the field is critical. If you’re a sci-fi fan, you needn’t waste time on potential mates who don’t speak Klingon and don’t know who said, “This is my boomstick!”

(As an aside, let me observe that my wife and I have gotten along nicely for two decades, even though we have almost nothing in common other than being vertebrates.)

The in-flight magazine ad that snatched my attention targeted business executives. Presumably it was geared towards successful executives, rather than bitter managers playing Angry Birds in their office all day while vindictive customers and crappy health insurance suck out their employees’ souls. The ad described this company’s executive recruitment matchmaking model, which I expect will make the ears of single, successful executives perk right up.

Businessmen everywhere rejoice. (photo by Ambro)

This process centers around an “executive love recruiter” that searches, filters, and performs due diligence on the love of your life. I know that I’d feel confident knowing that my recruiter was out there scouting, sourcing, recruiting, screening, weeding out the inappropriate and interviewing the must-meet individuals in-person on my behalf. In the meantime, I could be earning my Six Sigma black belt and jockeying for position at the staff meeting conference table.

The person who invented this service is a genius. As their customer, once my love recruiter extended an offer to my soul mate and she accepted, I’d know that she met my requirements for age, desirability, political views, humility, and willingness to put up with my shit. As a bonus, I’d have someone at all times to make copies and fix my lousy Powerpoint slides. This is something that our Captains of Industry have needed for so many years.

The cost of executive love recruitment can be vague. For men it’s just referred to as a premium fee. For women the cost is less vague. Women may take advantage of this service for no fee at all. Is it just me, or does no charge for ladies sound like happy hour at a cheap bar? On the other hand, what do I know about the loves and losses of those holding the throttle of the capitalist engine?

I spent at least five minutes pondering this advertisement. I’d been looking in the magazine to see whether I could get a teeny bottle of Jack Daniels, and instead I found my cultural horizons expanded. After soaking in the ad’s glory for a while, I leaned over to my wife, showed it to her, and said, “You can’t make this shit up. I know what I’m writing about tomorrow.”