Flair

While writing my book Back to the Bundu [ Paperback | Kindle | NOOK | iPad ] last year, I wrote three chapters which ended up not being used in the book.  This week I’m sharing these three stories here on my blog.  Here is the third story, “Flair”.

—–

In the 1999 movie Office Space, Jennifer Anniston plays a waitress who gets lectured by her manager about the buttons that all employees are required to wear on their uniforms as a way of self-expression. Her manager refers to these buttons as “flair.” Ever since seeing that movie, I like to use the term “flair” to refer to any form of personal expression, or it could be the buttons you wear on your restaurant uniform. It could be the jewelry you wear, or the funny slogans you prefer on your t-shirts. Or it could be something completely different you do to express who you are. For example, where you go, and what you do while you’re there, is all about personal expression. What you do and where you go is actually who you are. It’s your flair.

—–

The first time I missed the birthday of one of my children was one of the saddest days of my life. On the afternoon of December 29th, 2006, I got a phone call from my sister that my dad had had a heart attack. Only a few days before, my parents had been over at our house for Christmas, and we had no indication that anything was wrong with my father. Yet now he was in the back of an ambulance on the way to the hospital, with no pulse, the paramedics having told my mom before they drove away “It doesn’t look good…”

I had just arrived home about an hour or two earlier, having gone on a quick vacation with my wife and kids up California’s central coast, some 300 miles away. The prospect of immediately getting back in the car and driving another 500 miles, by myself, through the night, in the emotional state one experiences after hearing terrible news about a loved one, did not sound like a wise thing to do. So I put enough clothing in a small bag to last me two days, and I waited.

An hour later, the phone rang again. It was my sister. The paramedics had miraculously managed to get my dad’s heart started again. He was, as you’d expect, still in very serious condition in intensive care, but the prognosis was looking up. So I drank a bottle of wine and went to bed early, getting a much better night’s sleep than expected, no doubt due to my heavy self-prescribed dosage of that miracle of all-natural holistic medicine: fermented red grape juice. At about 5 a.m. the next morning, I started the long drive up to Reno.

It was an interesting drive. The night before, in a slightly drunken, emotionally delirious stupor, I thought a lot about my dad. And I knew that on the 8+ hour drive up there by myself to see him, I would have plenty more time to think about him. Since I like to listen to music on those long drives, I decided that the official song of the trip would be Wall of Voodoo’s “Me and My Dad,” a personal classic from their 1981 album Dark Continent, written and sung by my friend Stan Ridgway. It’s a revealing song about the relationship between a father and a son, and the parts about fishing trips and working on cars really resonated with me:

Me and my dad
We’ve got a good thing going
Fishing trips, the hard way’s the best
Man-to-man talks, when the going gets tough
The tough get going
Follow me, son
I’ll guide you the right way
Fix my car when the engine falls apart
Show me where the piston goes
Can you get this thing to start?

But a funny thing happened on the drive up to Reno. I played “Me and My Dad” several times on the car stereo, and it was great and all…but it did little to capture the emotions I was feeling. It was proof that music is emotional, but trying to predict which songs a person may or may not have an emotional connection to at any given time is pure folly. Although science, logic, and critical thinking are of tremendous value, especially in my life, sometimes you just can’t predict feelings.

Frustrated that my careful musical planning was all for naught, I turned off the music for a while and was alone with my thoughts, the only soundtrack to my emotional journey being the hum of the engine and the tires on Highway 395 as I sped north towards Reno at 75 miles per hour. But the emotions were too great, too uncomfortable, so I turned the iPod back on for some distraction. The album of choice, an old standby, was Communiqué by Dire Straits—mellow richness I had heard a thousand times before. It might not be the perfect antidote for my melancholy, but it was a worthy distraction nonetheless.

As the first song, “Once Upon a Time in the West,” came on, I got to thinking once again about my dad, and about the west—two subjects that were intertwined and experienced much overlap.

My dad was born in California, as was I, and he introduced me to many places in the west that were now amongst my favorite places in the world—from the stark beauty of the desert, to the rich drama of the Sierra Nevada Mountain range, through which I was driving on my way up north to see him. And about seven years prior to his heart attack, he had made an even greater commitment to the west, leaving cookie-cutter suburban southern California and moving to Reno, Nevada, buying a beautiful house on two and a half acres of pinion pine and sage brush in a rural part of town, further embracing the lifestyle and culture of the west. He had lived his dream, and then almost died. Fraught with emotion, I decided to back off a little and just try to enjoy the scenery along the drive and the music coming from my car stereo, when this lyric from “Once Upon a Time in the West” came over the speakers:

Even the hero gets a bullet in the chest.
Once upon a time in the west…

That lyric gave me goose bumps and sent shivers up my spine. And that song, which I had been listening to for nearly 30 years and enjoyed but had never before made an emotional connection with, instantly took on an entirely new meaning and became the premier track of my personal soundtrack of life—and death—in the west.

“But,” you ask, “I thought this story was supposed to be about the first time you missed the birthday of one of your children?” In fact, it is.

—–

My son was born on New Year’s Day. Leaving him on December 30th to drive up to see my dad in the hospital would mean that, even if I just stayed the planned two days, I would miss Andrew’s birthday. I apologized to him in advance. He was 13, about to turn 14. It was very emotional for me, but he seemed fine with it.

On the evening of December 31st, after a long day of ups and downs at the hospital, I set my alarm clock for a few minutes before midnight, and as December 31st, 2006 turned in to January 1st, 2007, as I watched the New Year’s fireworks display in downtown Reno out of the window in the spare bedroom of my parents’ house, I called Andrew and wished him a happy birthday, apologizing again. He was fine, having a party, opening presents, laughing with his friends, his sister, and his mom.

The phone call was over quickly, and I collapsed back into bed. Listening to the pounding of the firework show in downtown Reno echoing down the Washoe Valley, I tried unsuccessfully to drift back to sleep, thinking about sons and fathers, fathers and sons, and this poignant fairy tale of love and loss, of life and death, once upon a time in the west.

—–

The second time I missed the birthday of one of my children, it was totally my fault. But it was an accident.

My friend Geoff and his brother Greg had spent two decades hiking the John Muir Trail in pieces, and they had just two “sections” left to go. In the spring of 2008 they began making plans to hike one of the most spectacularly sublime—and by far the most heavily travelled—sections, the one between Tuolumne Meadows and Yosemite Valley in Yosemite National Park. And they asked me and my friend Mike if we wanted to join them.

We all looked at our calendars and decided on a time in July that worked best for us, and Geoff called the ranger station to reserve permits—not an easy thing to do for such a popular trail in peak season, but we had planned it so far in advance that there were still a few slots available. Excited to be backpacking such a classic section of such a classic trail, we pored over maps, organized equipment, read guidebooks, and talked about it for months. It was going to be quite the adventure.

About a month before we left, I looked at the calendar and my heart sunk. We had scheduled our trip so far in advance that I had not realized that it conflicted with my daughter’s 18th birthday. But at that point there was nothing I could do about it except apologize and hope she didn’t hate me for it.

On the second night of our hike along this section of the John Muir Trail, we made camp at a convenient flat spot sandwiched between the trail and a small stream—close enough to the stream to easily get water, and just far enough from the trail that we could neither see nor hear other hikers passing through. After agreeing on the spot, we each set up our tents and went about doing our own things before dinner. Mike almost immediately passed out in his tent. I got my gear organized and did some laundry. Geoff poured us some cocktails while Greg carefully engineered a roaring campfire. And in that golden time after a long, hard hike and before dinner and sleep, we sat around Greg’s masterful fire, sipped our cocktails, and talked about everything and nothing all at the same time.

Although we were not camping in an “official” campsite, people had obviously stayed at the site before. There were flat spots carefully groomed for the setting up of tents. A rock ring had been constructed to contain campfires. And rocks and logs had been placed strategically for use as seats around the fire.

As I sat on one of these makeshift lounge chairs, forgetting how uncomfortable it was just because it was so nice to get off of my weary feet after two days of lugging a heavy pack across Yosemite, I thought a lot about how beautiful the place was, and how lucky I was to be right there, right at that specific moment in time. But there was also a bit of sadness there, as I realized that it was my daughter’s 18th birthday that day, and she was for the first time in her life celebrating the passing of another year of her life without her father there to share it with her.

It was undoubtedly a much bigger deal for me than it was for her, and the circumstances were much different than when I had missed my son’s 14th birthday a year and a half earlier. And maybe those circumstances were exactly why I was feeling so guilty: missing a birthday because your dad had a heart attack and was in intensive care was entirely different from missing a birthday because you decided to go backpacking with your friends in one of the most pristine and beautiful places on the planet.

And then I looked down on the ground between my legs.

As I mentioned, even though we were in a remote spot in a beautiful wilderness, it was very obvious that this place had been heavily used by people before us. And when people camp, even the most strident environmentalists can leave behind small bits of waste. But what I saw on the ground beneath me really pissed me off. At least at first it did.

It was a piece of thin nylon cordage, black with tiny silver specks braided in it. It was about a foot, maybe closer to 18 inches long, and was covered with dirt and dust. The ends were cut roughly, and the thin pinkish core just barely showed through.

It was the kind of cordage that backpackers typically employ to strap items to the outside of their packs. Or it might possibly have been part of a bootlace that had broken. But whatever the source and original use, it upset me that such a large piece of trash had been either accidentally left or carelessly discarded by previous occupants of the campsite.

Then, in a flash of brilliance, I had an idea.

Of course I was going to take this piece of trash out with me. I couldn’t just leave it there, like someone else had. But to remember the wonderful trip and the beautiful location, and also to remind myself that it was my daughter’s 18th birthday, I fashioned a makeshift armband from the cordage and put it on my left wrist.

—–

My wife and I had many discussions about this custom piece of “flair” I created from a discarded piece of cordage found deep in the wilderness of Yosemite National Park. Over the years, it began to fray and assume odd shapes and contort, and, much like me, otherwise show its age. She encouraged me to spend just a tiny bit of money and buy a nicely designed, well-made, real armband. And I did just that on a trip we took together to Zion National Park in Utah in May of 2012. But that new leather armband from Zion didn’t replace the cheap nylon band on my left wrist; it instead went on my right wrist, a second piece of “flair” to further express myself. It was attached to my body for the same reason as the first piece: so that when I looked down at my wrists I would be reminded of special times, of special places, and of special people.

On February 14th, 2013, just two days before leaving for a three week adventure by myself in southern Africa, my wife gave me a Valentine’s Day present: a very stylish, nicely made leather armband with a metal clasp.

This became my “Botswana” armband, yet another piece of “flair” to remind me of special times, of special places, and of special people. It wasn’t from the place I was going; it wasn’t purchased from a local store, or made from a scrap I found lying on the ground. It was even placed on my wrist before leaving my home for my next adventure. But every time I look down at the Botswana “flair” on my wrist, it reminds not just of a place I’ve been, but of the places I can go, thanks to the love and support of a family that understands my desire to leave them, for a few days or a few weeks, to go a few hundred miles away or to the other side of the planet, to seek adventures in the wild; to express myself.

She didn’t say it at the time, but I knew that one of the reasons my wife gave me that nice armband before I left was so that I might finally feel compelled to get rid of my makeshift Yosemite armband that was getting uglier and more ragged with every passing day. And then, in a blinding flash of connectivity, it hit me. It was perfect. It all made sense.

I had created my first piece of “fair” while hiking on the John Muir Trail, a place that I had first heard about from my hiking companion John while trekking through Blyde River Canyon in South Africa. Now, 35 years later, I was returning to Africa, and I would be back in the bundu, just a few hundred miles from where it had all started. I decided to take my original piece of Yosemite “flair” with me down to Africa. I would be coming back home in a few weeks, but for the scrap of nylon cordage I had found in the dirt on my daughter’s 18th birthday, the trip to Africa would be just one way.

On March 2nd, 2013, while gathering stones to repair ruts in the dirt roads that crisscross the Tuli Wilderness in eastern Botswana, I found an old piece of metal with German writing on it that looked like it had come from some kind of radiator. It was a threaded cap, and attached to the center of that cap and bent at a 90 degree angle was a piece of copper tubing. I took this scrap of metal to an elevated section on the side of the road and shoved the tubing into the ground, the whole thing now sticking out of the red dirt like some sort of metallic German expressionist flower.

“Now every time we pass by this spot on the road,” Ash said, “we’ll think of you.”

Could there be a more perfect spot for me to leave my Yosemite “flair”?

As we were finishing up our road work in that area, I spotted a mopane tree on the edge of the road, cropped short by the ubiquitous elephants that inhabited the area. I stealthily moved over towards the tree, put my hands behind my back, and nonchalantly tried to remove my trusty old “flair.” But it wasn’t coming off easy. The sheathing of the nylon cordage had worn down and become rough, and it was sticking to itself. It had also twisted back upon itself, becoming almost knotted. Add to that the layers of sunscreen and insect repellant that had built up on the surface, and I could now see why my wife was persistent in her attempts to get me to abandon this small trinket of a memory. It was pretty nasty.

It finally came off, and just before jumping into the vehicle for the ride back to camp, I hung it on to a dead branch on the short mopane tree. And so it was that after a total of 1,706 days on my wrist, and a journey of more than ten thousand miles from the wilderness of Yosemite National Park in California all the way to the Tuli Wilderness of Botswana, this piece of “flair” and I finally parted ways.

Would this be the final resting place of this random piece of cordage? Or would someone else come along and adopt it like I had, and take it on new adventures? It hardly mattered, because I would never know.

And on the way back home, I bought two brand new custom pieces of “flair” in South Africa. It seems that as time goes on, I just need to express myself more and more…

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