You May as Well Live

James O'Brien

I'm thinking about when I was 14 and whipped on a girl and 15 when I saw the Rolling Stones for the first time and 16 when I got my driver's license and 17 when I got drunk on Southern Comfort and 18 when I heard the Alice Cooper song about how a boy-man feels at that age and 19 when I tightroped across the under-bridges over the Mississippi River. I'm a long way from any such firsts, but I make sure I kindle the fire of those ages. Not to do so seems a betrayal of something not only old and intuitive, but sacred.

Not long ago, I went to an amusement park. One of the main attractions was a bungee-jump ride, where you pay 50 bucks for the privilege of being strapped into a vest attached to a cord and cranked up on a crane 70 feet above a parking lot. When I got to the top, I broke out in a cold sweat and could feel my morning coffee souring in my stomach. I could see my wife and kids below me on the concrete, and a headstone with my name on it. I had no good answer for why I was dangling up there, a leaf waiting for a breeze to blow me away, but the second after I pulled the rip cord and heard myself screaming, I knew it was because not only did I want to know how it feels to fly, I wanted to know how it feels to be afraid.

Which is why my second, and most lasting, reaction to the news about the three kids who died from carbon-monoxide poisoning in the St. Paul caves earlier this month--after the reflexive wave of sadness--was: What a way to go.

No question that what happened to those kids in the caves was a tragedy, and I feel for their parents and family and friends, but I understand their lust for life and their desire for adventure, which is inextricably linked at times to risk and danger: Sometimes the only way to really feel alive, to feel anything at all, is to go to the lip of your life and see what it would be like to throw it all away. Like some modern-age descendents of George Bailey, Sylvia Plath, and Willie Lohman, those kids looked around and saw the world they'd been brought up in, all the climate-controlled video games, malls, and schools that made them feel like they were crawling out of their skin, and they decided to do something sneaky and sexy and scary.

So they went down a dank hole into the earth. They saw the danger signs and walked right past them, because they'd been weaned on signs like them all their lives, and now here, in the spring of their young adulthood, they decided to ignore them, to say fuck it, because some part of them knew that if they didn't, part of them would wither. So they took off into the darkness, possessed by the same spirit that compelled e.e. cummings to write, "we will pass the simple ugliness of exact tombs, where a large road crosses and all the people are minutely dead."

These days I sometimes feel shrouded by death, and haunted by a sound that I imagine to be the dead laughing at the living. I've heard it. I've heard all those dead soldiers and collateral casualties cackling over their shoulders en route to the great beyond, at us and at what got them killed and at all the wasted energy they spent on trivia, power, rules, expectations, and everything else humans do that gets in the way of what we're supposed to be doing--enjoying ourselves, helping each other out, and staying alive.

At a recent talk, geographer Cindi Katz, a professor of environmental psychology and women's studies at the City University of New York, spoke about how kids are being raised today. Her thesis was that the fear of terrorism has translated into a governmentlike hyper-vigilance in the home that has given rise to nanny-cams, belt packs parents put on their children to monitor every move, and surveillance services that parents hire to keep an eye on their kids' day care. Parents have become so fearful and so concerned with safety that they, as the band Tsar put it in "Teen Wizards," "chain their children's hearts into the sky."

Death instantly puts such nonliving into perspective--the kind I got the day, and day after, those kids died in the caves. That morning, I was at the funeral of an old friend's father. The pastor said that losing your father is like "losing the insulation from the north side of the house." The next day, I landed in the emergency room of Abbott-Northwestern, standing over a gurney with my two brothers, looking at my dad, who had been rushed to the hospital by ambulance and who was talking to us about horse racing and his health through a condensation-speckled oxygen mask.

It was the first 90-degree day of the year, and, just a few weeks after his most recent heart surgery, he had fainted after going for a long walk. He was fine; I was shook. After my visit, I left the hospital and drove down a Lake Street that had never felt so vibrant. People were milling about in the first blush of summer; looking for a fight, looking for love, blooming like lilac buds. The Chicago-Lake intersection was teeming with indestructible hip-hop kids and nervous cops, and all around me, tough guys and gum-chewing flirts were nodding to the rhythm of their bass-booming vans, low-riders, and convertibles.

I stopped at the light in front of the K-Mart and turned to look at a guy who was watching the parade from the parking lot. He was pimped out in a black and white summer suit and hat that perfectly matched his wickedly detailed black and white Corvette. He looked like he'd been waiting all winter for this moment. His vanity plate said something I can't recall at the moment--only that it dared you to challenge his fabulousness.

His dedication to aliveness made me grin. It was just the thing I needed at the moment. He sat on the hood of his car, a king on his throne, jaw jutting into the warm air, inviting someone to clock or kiss him. Me, I just wanted to thank him for having a pulse, for the blood coursing through his veins and into mine. I wanted to tell him I'd just seen my dad in the hospital, and I wanted to ask him if his dad was still alive, but instead I sat at the light and stared at him until he returned my volley.

When he did, we nodded at each other with a mutual alpha-male cool that didn't give away too much, but there was also an implicit understanding of what that heated moment meant. As the light changed to green, I gave him a discreet thumbs-up. His rigid jaw broke into a broad smile and he nodded. I nodded back, pulled away, and went home to tell my kids that their grandfather was still alive and kicking, hooked up to a saline machine and doing whatever he needed to do to stay alive--just like them, and you, and me. The undead.


Jim Walsh can be reached at [email protected] or 612.372.3775.

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