The Living and the Dead

"It must be hard," said Laura, "not being alive."

"You mean it's hard for you to be dead? Look, I'm going to figure out how to bring you back properly. I think I'm on the right track ---"

"No," she said, "I mean, I'm grateful. And I hope you really can do it. I did a lot of bad stuff ..." She shook her head. "But I was talking about you."

"I'm alive," said Shadow. "I'm not dead. Remember?"

"You're not dead," she said. "But I'm not sure you're alive, either. Not really."

Neil Gaiman, American Gods

The sad thing is, I could have made the quote longer, as it's pertinent to this entry. But, I didn't want to spend all night copying out of a book. But, this entry really does pertain to the living and the dead. Let me try to explain, and apologize up front for digging into Gaiman's fiction for metaphors, but they seem to be the only way that I can really get to understand this one myself.

And, before I get into the guts of this entry, I've been reading American Gods for the second time since I bought it a little more than 3 months ago. And it makes a hell of a lot more sense this time.

So I had a dream last night. This is not unusual, except that I remembered this one. The only thing I know about most of my dreams is that I wake up in a cold sweat from about half of them. (Fortunately for my roommate / past roommates, I rarely wake up screaming.) But for some odd reason, I was --- hm --- allowed to keep this one.

After D&D last night at Neil and Erica's place, I drove home, and promptly went to bed. I was exhausted; I'd gotten around 5 hours of sleep the night before, and it was 1:00 in the morning by the time I got home. So, without getting out of my clothes, I crashed into bed, and fell asleep almost immediately. And, I did it without the usual tossing and turning. It was the straight-into-dream-mode falling, if you know what I mean.

I found myself walking down a path that I'd followed for years and years. I was walking the trail to Berry Creek Falls in Big Basin (wonderful place near Santa Cruz). And I was working really hard at it; I knew it was important to finish the hike that night, as if I'd never have another chance to go there. So, I set out as quickly as I could. For the first part of the hike, you climb a ridge before descending into a river valley. At the top of the ridge, I ran into the first ghost of the evening -- a friend of mine from high school named Jimmy

I should explain who Jimmy is, now. During my sophomore year in high school, I played a lot of chess during lunch. I did this mostly in an attempt to avoid most of my classmates. (Have I mentioned that I really disliked high school?) And Jimmy was my most accomplished opponent. Right up until the end, we were neck and neck. Right up until the day that he decided to put a gun in his mouth and blow out the back of his head. When I heard he had committed suicide, I almost had a breakdown, and the reason was that I hadn't even noticed his pain, and I couldn't do anything about it. All I ever saw of him was the triumphant smile when he pulled off an amazing trap that would snare him the game. I guess it's amazing how poorly we can know our friends.

And Jimmy asked me, "Are you living or dead?"

I was forced to reply, "I'm not sure. I know I'm not dead, but I'm not sure if I'm alive."

And Jimmy smiled that smile of his, and told me, "You're one or the other. That's all. And you'd better figure out which one you are." He patted me on the back, and said, "It's up to you. It's always been up to you. Now keep going down this trail; and find out."

So I went down into the valley, hiking along one of the branches of Berry Creek. Some number of miles later, I ran into Hanan.

There are many reasons I'm still in physics. Hanan is one of them. When I was a sophomore, I wondered why I was bothering; why shouldn't I go out and just get a job and move on with my life? Why should I wait around and see what wonders await me during the long and often perilous climb to get a Ph.D.? During that year, I started working for Professor Guenter Ahlers at UCSB as a student doing convection pattern research. And one of the people in the group was Hanan. One night, we sat up and talked through why she had opted to make the journey, and what had made it worthwhile. What I learned during that talk is that the journey is worth the effort just because of some of the things you get to see if you do it right. Don't get me wrong, I know it isn't for everybody. But it is for me. Hanan was killed later that summer by a wrong-way drunk driver (who lived, incidentally).

And Hanan asked her question, "What is it you wish to find?"

This one I had to think about, long enough for her to prompt me --- "We don't have all night; you've much further to go, Brian." And I thought about it, and I replied, at first, "I don't know."

Hanan laughed. It was the lyrical laugh that I remembered. "That's a start, I suppose. Do you know where to look in order to find it?"

I started to reply, "In my head," but then I changed it, mid thought, to, "In my heart."

Then she smiled, and said, "The your start is a good one. Perhaps you have learned something since we last spoke. And now you'd better run. The falls still await."

And so I ran. Up and down, as the trail went. Towards and away from the river. Over rocks and around trees. Until, in the distance, I could hear the roar of the falls. When I crested the short rise to an observation point, I saw my Grandfather Naberhuis sitting there, apparently waiting for me. And it wasn't the Grandpa that I remembered; it was him as a young man, from before I ever knew him, and possibly from before my father was ever born.

Grandpa Naberhuis had a profound influence on my life while he was around, mostly through my father. He had a way with technical things. I remember one visit that my grandparents made to UCSB while I was working for Professor Ahlers, just after Hanan died. I was amazed that not only was he able to keep up with me for the complicated physics (as far as I know, he never finished a formal degree, but I do know he studied Chemical Engineering for a while), but he was able to offer me insights into the problem that I hadn't even heard mentioned by either the post-doc I was working with or by my professor. I learned a lot that day. Just as I had from all of our other interactions over the years. But most of all, I remember his stubborn streak. He made mules look pliable. And, for those of you who know how stubborn I am, now you know a little of why. As a matter of fact, Grandpa died because of it. He always swore that if he ever went to a hospital again, he'd leave it as a corpse. He was right.

He smiled. "You took your sweet time getting here. It's almost dawn," he said. He also gestured for me to sit down.

I took a seat, and looked at the falls. They were breathtaking, as always. The mist rising off of them set the spider webs ablaze with the light from the sun. And, when I turned to look at him, I found him looking straight at me, as though sizing me up, and trying to decide if he was going to ask me a question or not.

"What do you want to do?" he finally asked.

It was here that I woke up, but not into my bed. I awoke into another dream, which I now can't remember. I later woke up in bed, feeling content with things. I lay there for awhile, pondering that question.

Before I tell you what I've decided, I want to go off into literature / anime land. In Gaiman's The Sandman, there are two gates in the Dreaming through which all dreams must pass --- the gates of Horn and Ivory. (And yes, I know the Greek origins of this legend, but only because of Gaiman.) It is through the gates of Ivory through which most dreams pass; these are the false dreams that make up 99.9999% of all dreams. It is through the gates of Horn that the other, vital .0001% of them pass: the true dreams. For some reason that I cannot --- and probably will never be able to explain --- I feel that this was a true dream. There was a vividness about it that I don't remember from any other dream I've ever had. For that matter, it's the only dream that still seems as real now --- almost 12 hours after I dreamed it --- as it did then.

I also wanted to delve back into American Gods for a second, with a continuation of the above quote (a little farther down the page, and snipped for brevity):

"The best thing about Robbie was that he was somebody. He was a jerk sometimes, and he could be a joke, and he loved to have mirrors around when we made love so he could watch himself ... but he was alive, puppy. He wanted things. He filled space."

The spooky thing is, I read that part of the book this morning after the dream. And two of the questions in my dream came from that part of the book. And that made the book all that much more special to me for that.

The other thing I did today (after some lab stuff didn't work) was watch the rest of The Irresponsible Captain Tyler, which James had borrowed for a couple of months and I just got back on my trip up there. In the last 3 episodes, the series goes from fairly silly to some philosophy. And, if you wanted to assign a moral to the story, it simply tells you, "Do what you want, and do it on your terms," thus, re-emphasizing the whole dream, yet again.

I suppose there's something magical about threes, since I've been mulling over the questions in my mind ever since.

So, here's what I've decided, on the short term, at least, and more than likely to be amended sometime in the near future.

  1. Are you living or dead?

    I am alive, probably for the first time in years. I'm noticing what happens around me, and I'm fighting with habits long established and long hated. I'm going out more often, and trying to rediscover the things that slipped from my grasp so long ago. If I'm not living, then I'm at least trying to start again.

  2. Do you know what you're looking for?

    A hat, a dream, and a golden ring. The ordinary and the mundane, brought back to life to live again in the whimsy of my mind. The .... Ahem. Sorry. Got carried away there.

    In all seriousness, no, I don't know what I'm looking for. But, as I said in my dream, I'm going to start by looking in my own heart, and trying to answer that question.

  3. Do you know what you want?

    And as always, this question gives me problems. I remember being required to keep a journal in high school, and hating the exercise. I remember taking the first page, and writing out a series of life goals. They were all petty and material things; and I've done almost all of them. But I don't think I want those things anymore. Now I want something better.

    I want to find myself a girlfriend, for a serious, long term relationship. It's been years since I had one, and I'm afraid I haven't the slightest idea where to start looking. I hate the bar scene, but that seems to be one of the only ways to meet people my own age. That and the personals. Hm. The personals might be good for a couple of stories to tell....

    I want to have kids while I'm young enough to enjoy them.

    I want to go to all of the places I've only dreamed of. Europe, Asia, the Pacific, Northern Africa. I want to see it and experience what it has to give me.

    I want to have a career that I enjoy. If I'm going to work at it more than 40 hours a week, you can be damned sure that I'll like it.

    I want to make my friends happy. At the same time, I'd like to make myself happy. That's not too much to ask, is it?

I guess the truth is where you look for it. Now, I just need to grab on, hold tight, and do more than just float around looking for something new --- I need to break out the boots, and begin doing some serious climbing.

Phew! That was a mouthful, wasn't it?

Email link corrected, Sep. 11, 2001.

Brian Naberhuis
Last modified: Tue Sep 11 10:45:57 PDT 2001