This will end in tears, mark my words. The tears will begin as soon as I make this sad announcement: Daniel Fincke is leaving us. I blame the Reason Rally for this tragic loss, and I’ll tell you why.
Dan emailed me afterward. He was walking on clouds. “Dana,” he gushed, “they talked about the Enlightenment! In public!!”
Well, I’m a fan of the Enlightenment. I think it’s one of the most interesting periods in human history, and I’m constantly amazed by the leap of understanding humanity made during that short period. But while Enlightenment values are under attack, I didn’t think speaking out about it in public warranted italics. I mean, it’s still a free country with free speech and we can talk about the Enlightenment if we want to. I began to worry about Dan’s emotional state.
I got that message today that you know, in the back of your mind, is liable to come at any time. The tall, thin man with the funny hair and the thick-rimmed glasses was nearly ninety, if not past it, and he’d been ailing recently. So I wasn’t surprised to find a succession of messages on my phone from aunt and mother advising that he had passed, peacefully.
Still, expected and unsurprising as it is, it still seems sudden. These things always do.
We weren’t close. We hadn’t actually spoken in years. Over the last few years, he’s been slipping into dementia, but long before that, we’d run out of things to talk about. My family isn’t a close-knit one. It might have been different, if we’d stayed in Indiana, but we left there when I was three, and we were never good at the long-distance relationships, and the grandparents had stopped traveling a long time ago. So there’s a grandfather-shaped hole, but it’s not a gaping one. I’ve skipped the shedding tears routine in favor of the flickering smile, as memories pop up unbidden. I see him holding a sparkler, that last time we were all a family and whole, back when I was sixteen and I’d insisted on a summer visit. Great provider of the fireworks, he was. He’d always been a provider. The house he lived in to the end of his life was built with his own hands, and he’d never stopped wanting to do for his kids. I remember a photo of him, on a picnic bench outside that house, feeding a squirrel he’d befriended. He was so damned pleased with that squirrel.
The strongest memory, though, is one seared into the little gray cells by sheer terror. You see, I was thirteen or thereabouts, and the grandfolk had come to visit us when we lived in Sedona. They’d roust me out of bed at five in the ay-em for long healthy walks round the neighborhood. And then they wanted to take a drive up to Flagstaff, do the whole Oak Creek Canyon thing, which I was down with. I love driving the canyon. And, what with it being late spring or summerish, there’d be a lot of RVs holding up proceedings and so plenty of time to gawk at the scenery, whilst having a goodish chat with the elder folk. The only thing that worried me was the tape deck, because elder folk are notorious for playing things the youngsters cannot abide.
They put in the Statler Brothers. And we howled the lyrics, once I’d got them. We nearly wore the mylar off that tape, up the canyon and around. This was certainly not the hip music. I’d been listening to stuff like Aerosmith and Pet Shop Boys and (shudder) Icehouse, along with a bit of the old Maxi Priest kind of slightly reggae version of “Wild World” I was absolutely nuts for. No way, you’d say, such a youth would appreciate the Statler Bros. But I did, very much so, and I appreciated the old grandparents for having such discerning musical taste.
We had the time of our lives on that trip. And it was all going along swimmingly until ye olde granddad decided he wanted to take Schnebly Hill Road back home.
The road is about two inches wide, unpaved, with turns that aren’t so much hairpin as a corkscrew dosed with strychnine (which, if a corkscrew were a member of the animal kingdom, would cause it to seize up in a sort of frenzy of right-angle kinks). You may be headed due north on Schnebly Hill Road, and a nanosecond later discover you are, if you were very fortunate and didn’t hurtle into the abyss in attempting to execute the bend, now headed due south. It’s a washboard, with bits often washed out, and there are what the uninitiated call “vistas.” Some even call it “breathtaking,” without mentioning that it’s not so much the spectacular views into the red rock canyon that steal the breath as the ongoing suspense as to your chances of survival. There are no guard rails. There is no shoulder. If you misjudge the thing, you are sailing a few thousand feet straight down into a vista. At least you will die scenically, but that’s small consolation when you are young and wish to live to a ripe old age, like 18.
I dimly remembered all of this from a trip we’d taken along it with a group of intrepid young parents. The parents had enjoyed themselves immensely. The assorted kids had huddled on the floor in the back, teeth chattering from the ridges in the road combined with pants-pissing terror, and tried not to look out the windows. I remember looking out the window once, and coming eye-to-eye with an agave plant that was in full, spectacular bloom. The problem was that it was growing straight up the side of a cliff, and I could have rolled the window down and plucked a blossom, if by that time all traces of bravery hadn’t drained from me and soaked into the potholed road.
“Um,” I said to my grandfather, who at that time was already getting a little shaky in the hands with age, developed some few issues with sight and hearing, had suffered a fairly serious heart attack not too many years back, and had a reputation for not always paying as much attention to the road as he should, “are you sure?”
I attempted to warn him away, listing a few of the many perils of such a journey. I gave it up as a bad job when his eyes gleamed brighter with each warning.
At that point, I would’ve gotten out and walked, if I hadn’t been sandwiched between him and my grandmother on a bench seat. Ah, well, I said to myself as he turned off the perfectly-good pavement onto the gap in the pine forest that marked the beginning of the end, at least he’s old. And he’s from Indiana. He’ll probably take it at a top speed of 5mph. No problem.
I don’t think the speedometer dipped below 35 the whole way down. Most of the time, he seemed to be going a strong 50. Red rocks went by in a blur. Red dust billowed up from the tires. And the man had the audacity to comment on how lovely the scenery was, with enthusiastic assent from my grandmother, whom I’d always considered a sensible sort in the past. How they could even see the scenery at that speed was beyond my ken, and he certainly had no business eyeballing it, in my considered opinion. Not that I could tell him this. It’s impossible to force words past a throat clamped shut like an imperiled oyster.
I had just enough time at the beginning to think that a man who hailed from anywhere as flat as Indiana had no business driving such a steep, windy road to begin with, much less at speeds that even drunk teenagers bent on suicide wouldn’t dare attempt. Then I spent a mile or two contemplating my impeding death several times per second, and bewailing the fact that I was going to die before I’d even finished puberty. The rest of the road finished in one sustained mental scream. I think my grandmother was humming contentedly in between exclamations of delight. I have no idea what my grandfather was doing, aside from slewing the wheel this way and that whilst exploring how far the gas pedal could be mashed. I was too afraid to look or listen.
And then, somehow, as if by miracle, we made it to the bottom of the canyon. I don’t remember where Schnebly Hill Road comes out, because I have never visited it since. I just recall staring at the pavement of good old US 89A with mute astonishment. And when we pulled up at the house, I wobbled out of the truck and refused to ever get back in it as long as Grandpa was at the wheel. Not in Arizona, at least. Not anywhere near a road with so much as a gentle curve or risk of a slight incline.
My mother, damn her, thought it was screamingly funny.
Years later, the immediate shock had faded well enough that I didn’t have too many flashbacks when he drove us to Nashville, Indiana, which is about the only part of the state with topographic relief. And, although the Statler Bros. had played all the way down Schnebly Hill Road, soundtrack for what I believed were the last moments of my existence, I retained a fondness for them. Because it had been one hell of a ride, and in the end, with survival a known fact, sort of fun. You can keep your expensive super-duper-mega-rollercoasters-of-instant-death. My old granddad could do you one magnitude better for the price of a half a tank of gas.
There are moments, when you find out someone momentous has died, in which you find the world a little emptier than before. A person has died who filled up the world, poured so much of himself into it that he made it a larger and more interesting place. Someone whose words thundered and reverberated and will echo long after he has fallen silent.
Although, to be honest, I’m a PC girl. Have been since the personal computer fell within a middle-class price range. And there was a while there when I hated Steve Jobs, because he made my job so much harder. All right, I didn’t hate him, I hated his phone. iPhone users had an almost-religious fervor and would never ever in a billion trillion years admit that their phone might have a problem rather than the network. Thing could be shattered in a thousand pieces after being dropped on a tile floor, and they’d still claim the network did it.
And that bloody touchscreen and I couldn’t communicate. It didn’t like my cold fingers. My friends would thrust their pride-and-joy my hands, and it would just sit there, inert, or take me places I didn’t want to go. Bloody stupid device.
But that was all before the iPhone 3gs, which got so very much right, and which I got along with.
Watching her land live was agony and ecstasy. I wish it wasn’t the last, but at least her final approach was pitch-perfect and altogether beautiful.
I took screenshots of that historic final landing. Figured I’d share.
Pilot’s view on the final approach.
Atlantis on infrared.
You can see the glow around her. She’s hot! Twin sonic booms nearly stopped my heart before they announced what they were.
Pilot’s view of the runway.
And again, with a little flare of color.
And here she is, about to touch down.
Love that smoke – from the tires? I don’t know enough about these landings to tell. But it’s beautiful.
Steaming hot! Watching that steam come off her in infrared was really fascinating – it looked almost like smoke signals. As dawn came and they took close shots of the nose of the orbiter, you could see the air wavering from the heat coming off her.
And there she is, crew members out, mission complete. STS135, the final orbit, an unqualified success.
Yeah, that deserved a high five.
America’s future in space is uncertain. That’s the only darkness on this day. I just hope the next manned ship this country launches is the one that takes us beyond our own horizons. I want to see a geologist on Mars.
Make it so, America.
And for Atlantis, Challenger, Columbia, Endeavor, and Enterprise, the song that cycled through my mind as I watched the last of you land for the very last time:
She was brilliant. So very brilliant. I’d never known her – my obsession with Doctor Who begins with Series 1 – but the instant she appeared on the screen in “School Reunion,” I didn’t need my friend to tell me she was someone special. You didn’t have to know who she was. She just blazed out from the screen.
Diana Wynne Jones, outstanding fantasy writer and Neil Gaiman’s friend, died. She lived a long life, and a good life, and left a lot of magic behind.
I found myself standing on the balcony after hearing the news, staring into the sky at the stars, and caught myself thinking, “I hope Death came for her.” Those poor, deprived people who aren’t fans of Neil Gaiman won’t understand why that’s a happy thought. Maybe this will help:
There are worse last sights than a cute, perky Gothic chick taking you on one last adventure.
Of course, I laughed at myself a little for the thought. Death exists only in the imagination. There’s no actual being who’s going to drop by and haul anybody’s arse off to the Summer Lands. There’s no afterlife. There’s life, and then there’s not. People seem to think that’s terrifying. They can’t face that death is the end, that there’s nothing beyond to look forward to. I get that. Not as much as I used to, but I understand some people desperately need to believe there’s no end to us.
I used to need that. I used to fear dying quite a lot, actually, and worried about the quality of the afterlife. But then I read Sandman, and met Death, and thought that while life was preferable to death, there wasn’t any real reason to fear Death herself. I didn’t want to meet her too soon, but it wouldn’t be so bad. She put a spring in my step. She dispelled the shadows.
Still. I worried. What if I didn’t accomplish everything I’d set out to do? That’d be me, moping around the Summer Lands, regretting the things I hadn’t done. I’d get what everyone gets: a lifetime. But would it be enough?
Then I became an atheist, and suddenly, the fear was gone. Seriously, totally gone. I no more want to die now than I ever did, I still want to accomplish things and leave something of lasting value behind, but I’m no longer afraid of the fact of death. Why should I be? I won’t have regrets. I’ll know nothing about it. There will be no me left to fret or regret. The end of consciousness used to be a terror, but for some reason, a day came when I could fully accept it. I think it’s because I realized there’s no use in fearing it. And now, I could dedicate all of me to this life. It’s the only one I’ve got. No do-overs. Do I really want to spend it in perpetual panic? No. So. Live a good life, and a full life, as long as I can, and enjoy it. One day at a time, with no eternity staring me accusingly in the face.
There’s a chance that, at the end, I’ll see Death. Near death experience, y’see. Got to thinking about those tonight. The last imaginings of the hypoxic brain. Some people see Jesus. Some people see – well, whatever their culture’s conditioned them to see. So it’s quite possible that the last fitful firings of my synapses will present me with a tunnel, and a cute perky Gothic chick, and with the last instant of consciousness, I’ll be able to take her hand and let her walk me off the stage. It won’t matter a bit that it’s not real, or that it won’t be remembered. It’s still a hell of a nice way to go.
A last instant of happiness. Don’t know. Could be. A last, delightful little hallucination as the grand finale.
I hope that Diana Wynne Jones’s brain did that for her. I hope that the last synapse fired off a happy ending, a fitting tribute to a wonderful life richly lived.
Ozma’s dying. She’s Lockwood’s beautiful feral baby. We didn’t get a chance to see her when we were there – she’ll only associate with Lockwood – but we caught a glimpse. She’s a gorgeous girl. I’m glad she’s got someone she loves and trusts who will stay with her to the end.
This has been a horrible month. First Holly, now my parents’ cat Jimmy.
Jimmy seemed everlasting. He married into the family when my stepmother and father tied the knot. I could always count on that enormous bundle of orange tabby sacked out on his favorite blankie on the sofa when I went home. There was a time when he got so fat he seemed to be competing with Garfield, but then the new kitten came home and bits of Jimmy just melted away, like winding a clock back to the days when he was slim, trim, and always ready for a good chase sequence.
I think Spook added years to Jimmy’s life. Even though, later on, he went back to his former ways, and spent most of his time sacked out. But then he’d wake up, decide he wanted his old dad, and get down on the floor to engage in some serious cute.
And if you yelled “Shrimpers, Jimmy!” from the kitchen, you could bet you’d have one attentive cat there in a split-second. He loved his shrimpers.
Goodbye, dear old Jimmy Durante. Thanks for those 18 awesome years, buddy.