Yoga

Closed eyes meditating, my butt sitting on a yoga mat, the one I bought at Whole Foods, the one that my hands slip on when I sweat, which is usually. Class hasn’t started yet, but I can sense them, surrounding me, their mats slapping the floor, stretching in their Lululemon pants, the women. I don’t have to open my eyes to know they are there, flexible, strong, relaxed, focused. A few minutes later the teacher welcomes us, thank you for being here, for being present to yourself. I open my eyes, take a quick look around, sometimes see another me, a guy with hairy legs, but not this time. Ladies, what would you like to work on today? Ellen asks, then makes eye contact with me. Daniel, something you’d like to work on? She says with a smile. I’ve been at it for more than a year; Vinyasa, Flow, Kundalini, Restorative, each class an inner and outer adventure, a 75 minute voyage, breathing into tendons, muscles, discovering hidden recesses of my body’s stress. I make no suggestions for Ellen, soon find myself on my back, legs far apart, like I’m giving birth to twins. Downward Dog, Warrior 2, Plank, Happy Baby, Pigeon, names that sound like video games, my contorted limbs pressing into earth and air. Eyes stay closed, but occasionally I peek, we look like kids playing a sophisticated version of Simon Says. Minutes pass, life loosening its hold, I forget where I am. Shavasana, corpse pose, Ellen’s tranquil voice offers us simulated death, an ending. I hear sighs, relief, rest fills the space. My mind wanders off to the future, wonders how it will be with me, those final breaths, then namaste.

Gray Hair

I actually want the time to show, let the world know that I’m that much closer to the abyss. Aged ringlets at the borders with brown, blonde before that, when hair was just hair. Above my ears a battleground, the grays sending sentinels, accumulating knowledge for the next attack. I stop and stare like Rembrandt with a ballpoint pen, pluck rogue whites from eyebrows where they grow as if I were a 19th century senator. Better than bald, some say, distinguished, the old compliment the old. Rejoice, rejoice, we have no choice, my favorite Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young line. Oh but we do, ointments to push back nature, like pioneers clearcutting ancient redwoods. I look in the mirror again, as if it matters, as if I will be here forever, in wonder over the me I see. This face, this head, these gray hairs, human dust clinging to a self making meaning out of molecules.

Death in Bob’s Big Boy

Bob’s Big Boy is where I saw my first person die. As if there have been tons, like I served in Iraq or something. We were off 95 on our way to Walden Pond for an overnight high school field trip. Stopped for lunch at the oasis, Bob’s bright smile frozen in red and white checkered plastic. I had just finished eating a burger with fries and a coke, standing at entrance of the restaurant, waiting to get back on the bus, the grease still lingering in my mouth. Balding man, pot belly, sitting in a swivel stool, maybe 63. I saw him fall fast, tipped over like the last bowling pin, a french fry still in his hand. Heart attack, I think, but I wasn’t thinking. I looked at my friend Jon, we had been in CPR class together. How do we start, with a breath or chest compressions? I asked him, frantic, imagining my mouth hovering over the lips of the balding man. I don’t remember. Jon spoke the truth of CPR training, who really does remember? We gawked, immobile for a few more seconds until our bus driver pushed past us, deftly straightened the man, started compressions. Turns out our bus driver used to drive ambulances, witnessed the dying, the dead, dozens of times. Some of my classmates turned away, but we stared until we knew for sure that the man would never stand up again. Lifeless eyes, cold french fries, his plate of food half-eaten.

Anthony Bourdain

I once tweeted @Bourdain, urged him to do a plant-based show in Malibu. Told him Rich Roll could be his local guide to the vegan scene. Rich liked the tweet, but I never heard from Anthony Bourdain. No surprise. Not that I’m a hardcore vegan, but I wanted to see Bourdain truly out of his comfort zone.

No, he was far more relaxed on the Congo River, skinning chickens, maybe eating their feet. I was never in man awe of Tony, he was too dark to be one of my guys, but I  admired the way his imperfect teeth smiled at people, all people. The Thai women stirring brains in a bowl, or the men serving aged cheese in the French countryside. He was a true food ambassador, simultaneously common and noble.

Suicide by hanging, people seem to emphasize, but to me death is death. We all go out; slowly, quickly, healthy, ill, sane, or not. The end waits for all of us. It is not how we died, but how we lived. But that might just be me. The Anthony Bourdain that I read and watched on CNN lived truth. Truth of love. Love of food, booze, exploration, humanity. He was once addicted to heroin and to life. I guess all addictions eventually end.

Death in Ecuador

Ecuador is adobe bricks, hardened mud homes, no electricity, the smell of burning trash and chicken soup with feathers floating in the bowl.

My partner Scott and I sleep on cots, plant trees, dig latrine holes, smoke Lark cigarettes at night to pass the time.  Scott rows crew for Andover, is tall with dirty blonde hair, has an intensity for work that I lack. We stay with Don Emiliano and his wife Lucia and their children Rosa, Hilda, Aurora, Armando and Alberto. Don Emiliano, part Quechan, is about five-foot three, kind, hard-working and dark-skinned. He has a forearm that juts out unnaturally; it had been broken and never properly reset. Before we finished our family’s latrine, we took dumps in our designated locations in the cornfield a few dozen yards from the house. Scott went to shit row, I went to shit haven. We both kicked the chickens to get them to quit following us, but inevitably they still ended up eating our liquidy crap, then days later we would eat them.

We saw things die in Ecuador, two dogs from poison, and a woman. We didn’t actually see the woman die, but we ate greasy rice and eggs sitting next to her dead body. The Garcia family kept her lying on the wood table for a few days to let people pay their respects before burial. It should have freaked me out more, but it actually seemed normal, her rigid body, lightly draped by a see through veil. I could have reached out, touched her closed eyes. She was dead, but at the dinner table, a physical reminder of how it ends for all of us. I would stare at the outline of her face while shoveling forkfuls of the inedible rice into the grease-stained pockets of my red windbreaker. I appreciated the food, but couldn’t stomach it; I dumped it out later for the chickens.

When we aren’t working, we play soccer games with the kids, teach them baseball with a bamboo bat and a taped up rock ball. We are in Ecuador to combat poverty, disease, flies landing on poo, spreading typhoid, cholera, dysentery. We build makeshift bathrooms, plant fruit trees, the villagers rotate as hosts, take turns feeding us. Maria Lopez and her husband Juan live the farthest away, maybe a mile and a half from Don Emiliano’s place. Juan makes guarapo for a living, a moonshine-like concoction made from fermented sugar cane. He just calls it traiga. We trudge up the single file trail that hugs a mountain on our way to the Lopez house, our skinny bodies weak from diarrhea and eating too much yucca and rice. Far above the path, precarious steep grazing pastures, where Don Emiliano’s milk cows roam. Dirt trail, kicking the toes of my Merrell boots, long views of mountain ranges in the distance.

Suddenly above us we hear a sound like Chewbacca, a cacophonous squeal-like moan. I never thought I’d be killed by a 1500-pound cow, but looking up all I see are udders, hooves, and blue sky. I squat like a football player doing a drill, like a soccer goalie guessing on a penalty kick. Moving to my right a few feet puts me off the mountain, a two hundred-foot fall. I’m frozen in time, three seconds, the fear doesn’t hit before I see the black and white shoulder smash against the ground first, legs, ass, and tail tumbling after. Writhing, it tries to get up, but only the head moves upward, body pinned, broken. Screaming now, high-pitched pain, a fellow mammal suffering, dying. I find a large rock, more like a big brown cube, maybe 25 pounds, awkward to hold, it makes my wrists ache. Afraid to walk directly over and bludgeon the poor creature, I take aim like a two-armed shot putter, heave the mini-boulder at the head, and miss. Less than a minute later the death knell ceases, only the silence of blood trickling from the cow’s nostrils.

Scott runs off to tell our family, several minutes later Don Emiliano returns to skin the cow. I want to help but don’t know how, the incision opens the cow up, lets the heat of stench out, a sauna of smells, guts, milk, blood, excrement. Poor cow, Don Emiliano says in Spanish. It was worth much more alive. I don’t know how many more cows he owns, but the whole family looks gloomy, almost ready to cry. Before walking back to the house, I look at the ground, red and white rivulets, blood and milk, mixed on the ground, like death and life commingled. Later, Don Emiliano butchers the cow, hangs a huge hunk in front of our light bulb-less room. They sell some of the meat, start eating the rest.

That night I get up in the pitch black to pee, my face smacks into the bloody thigh, I feel it dripping down my forehead. No fridge, no plastic wrap, no USDA Choice, no ground beef, just the taste of flesh on my lips.