A few years ago, right around this time, in fact, a friend of mine drowned. It was as terrible a day for those who cared about him as you would imagine. I won’t get into the details of his death or the hours spent that afternoon, frantically at first, then solemnly, trying to find him, or recover his body: that too was as awful as you think. He was a funny, cheerful, fundamentally goofy guy, quick to laugh, especially at his own folly. That’s how I remember him, and so in that spirit, I want to talk about something else.

At work two days after it happened, a coworker overheard me telling my friend Chris about it, and she said, “I’ve heard drowning is the best way to go. Very peaceful.”

I had no immediate reaction to that statement: in a sense I was far away and barely heard her, for one thing, but for another, I don’t tend to jump on inane comments right away because my inner voice is too busy tossing it around: Did she really just say that? What the fuck does that mean? Why do people say shit like that? Heard from whom? Is she communing with the souls of the dead, polling them on their particular death experiences? Even if she does have access to the dead, what can they really tell her? None of them have any frame of reference for comparison. It’s not like the guy who was shot in the head has any basis for believing he had it worse than the guy who was burned alive. Seriously, what the fuck?

Seriously, this is what was going on in my head, and by the time that monologue came to a close, my coworker had walked away so I couldn’t ask her. Probably for the best, she would have misunderstood and gotten all butt-hurt. Is there a word for the way people who actually believe the nonsense they pull out of their asses get bent out of shape when you call them on it? I’m drawing a blank.

But I don’t want to be mean: I want to be better than that. And so I decided to take what she offered and make something of it, and here’s what I came up with: my Top Ten Ways to Go. And if you’re reading this and you happen to actually be dead, don’t bother telling me I got it all wrong: life is for the living, gang, and you had your chance.

TOP TEN WAYS TO GO

Number 10: Extreme old age
This is actually a Woody Allen joke, but I’m going to steal it because, in my forty-plus years on the planet, I have yet to encounter as many as five people who have seen that movie, and I’m only outing myself as a poacher as a courtesy to the memory of Woody when he was, you know, good. This way-to-go comes with a big caveat: it only applies when facing execution and being given the choice of how you want to die (does not apply to firing squads – see below), i.e., if you’re on death row in, say, Texas or Georgia – although, would you really want to grow old in either of those places? Personally, I would rather not.

Number 9: Any death that is so uncanny people are still talking about it years later
Houdini got punched in the stomach (bad timing, poor communication: the word “No” can sound a lot like “Now” when you have a bit of a Hungarian accent), Isadora Duncan was dragged out of a moving car when her signature scarf got tangled in the car’s wheels (allegedly her chauffeur thought she was doing an interpretive dance), Steve Irwin managed to prove his point about the precision with which a stingray can strike (Crikey, mate!), Elvis died on the can (crap). I’ll remember you all, always.

Number 8: Firing squad
Yeah, I said it. Look, if you find yourself standing in front of a firing squad, chances are you did something notoriously cool to get there. So pat yourself on the back, smoke one last Gauloises, and tell ’em to stick that blindfold up their fat fascist asses, cuz you’re the kind of dude who wants to see it coming. Fuck yeah.

Number 7: Bacon coma
Do I need to explain this? You eat bacon, and it makes you happy, so you keep eating bacon, and your body is so thoroughly overjoyed by this bounty of awesomeness that it just stops: because it knows there will never be a day that’s better than this. If you’re in a hurry, go with the bacon appetizer at Peter Luger’s Steakhouse: it’ll cost you a little more, but it will get the job done fast, and you’ll be dead anyway, so what are you holding onto your money for?

Number 6: On a high note
I used to have these fantasies when I was a kid, before my favorite team, the Red Sox, had won a championship in my lifetime. I pictured myself digging in against a quintessentially great post-season pitcher like Orel Hershiser or Jack Morris, it’s the seventh game of the World Series, bottom of the ninth, two outs, we’re down by a run and the slowest, fattest guy to ever step on a diamond is our runner at first (we’ve blown through our whole roster playing catch-up since the second inning, because we’re the Red Sox and we’ve made a legacy out of shitting in our own hats), but no worries, because I take an 0-2 pitch in on my hands and muscle it up and over the Green Monster and, for the first time since 1918, the SOX ARE WORLD CHAMPIONS! I round the bases as the stands collapse under the weight of drunken, blissful tears, and as my toe touches homeplate and my teammates mob me, zing, I’m dead. And, as any Red Sox fan will tell you, I go straight to heaven (God, it turns out, fucking hates the Yankees, as he should). These days of course the Red Sox win all the time, so if I want to go out on this particular high note, I’m going to have to move to someplace like Cleveland or Milwaukee. If that’s the case, I think I’d rather just die some regular crappy way.

Number 5: Wearing clean underwear
I say this in part to satisfy my mom’s gravest lifelong concern, but also because wouldn’t it be pretty fantastic to be the first person in the history of undergarments to actually show up at the morgue in pristine undies? That would be one for the books, people.

Number 4: Laughing
Last week I was at the bar with my friends Chili and Smurfette, and as our waitress was walking away (Smurfette and I both kind of have a thing for her, but not Chili, because he’s Smurfette’s boyfriend, and he only has a thing for Smurfette because he’s not an idiot) I said, “Gosh, she’s so great, always so nice to me and stuff. Still, she’d never go out with me,” to which Smurfette replied, “Actually, I bet she would, she has terrible taste in men.” Smurfette gets on a roll every once in a while, and for days at a time the things that come out of her mouth that she intends to sound like encouragement actually sound like insults – just exactly like insults, and the only way you know they’re not insults is that she immediately dies laughing. Each time it happens I believe for a few seconds that she actually is dead because her eyes get very big like she’s looking into a not too distant light and she loses the power of speech. It’s like she’s having a caustic wit-induced stroke. I don’t want Smurfette to ever die, but I wouldn’t mind going out that way.

Number 3: In clown makeup
This is mostly for the sake of the first responders who find you. Think about their lives, climbing six flights of stairs to dirty, cramped apartments where they bag and tag stiffs who’ve been left to air out for three or four days before somebody realizes that’s not bad Indian food they’re smelling. They open the door, and there you are in suspenders and giant clown shoes, your face all made up in a big sloppy grin, red ball on your nose, spray seltzer bottle still clutched in your lifeless hand. Remember the clown’s credo: Always leave ’em laughing.

Number 2: Fulfilling a promise
Say you’re dating someone you know has one foot out the door, and you say, “I don’t know what I’d do if you ever left me – I’d probably die.” And of course she leaves, and then you die. Imagine the possibilities. Your mother would spit in her face. All your friends would hate her. They’d run into her on the street and be like, “Hey, have you seen Steve? Oh, wait, that’s right, he’d dead. He died because you left him.” Revenge is a dish best served at my wake.

And the Number 1 Way to Go: Fucked to death
Obviously. Don’t get me wrong, though, I’m not saying you have a heart attack or the other person inadvertently chokes you out. No, you’re just fucking, and it’s the best fucking two people have ever – ever – engaged in, and you both do your thing, and the second it’s over, you die. It’s essential, though, that only one of you dies, because the other one has to walk the earth telling your story. Your legend must not die with you in that Motel 6.

Tune in next time when I’ll be offering up my Top Ten Ways Not To Go. Some of you are going to want to pay very close attention to that list.

The Less Than Merry Pranksters

Kesey, who was at the far end of the room, walked his barrel of a body straight over, pulled out a chair for me, and said, “Well HELLO. What do we have here? A triple A tootsie.” It was the first time I’d seen him not in a photo or at some Oregon literary event. The closer he came, the more nauseous I felt. But when he got right up to me, I could see the former wrestler in his shoulders and chest. His face was moon pie round, his cheeks vividly veined and flushed, puffy with drink. His hair seemed like cotton glued in odd places on a head. His smile: epic. His eyes were transparent blue. Like mine.

While everyone was laughing about the tootsie remark he leaned down and whispered in my ear, “I know what happened to you. Death’s a motherfucker.”

In 1984, Kesey’s son Jed, a wrestler for the University of Oregon, was killed on the way to a wrestling tournament when the team’s bald-tired van crashed. My baby girl died the same year. Close to my ear, he smelled like vodka. Familiar.

He handed me a flask and we got along and bonded quickly the way strangers who’ve seen aliens can. That’s all it took. No one ever questioned me, least of all Kesey. It was brilliantly incomprehensible to me. I loved it.

I was 25.

At a reading at U of O during that year Kesey stood on a table and screaming into the microphone “Fuck You, god, Fuck You!” The crowd of about 500 burst into cheers. He believed in spectacle. In giving people the show.

My distinguishing characteristics felt like tits and ass and blond. Sexual things. All I had.

In the winter of the year of Kesey we all went to his coast house near Yachats together. A run down old place with wood paneling, a crappy stand up shower, a table with some chairs, and no heat. But the front windows looked out onto the ocean. And of course the rooms were filled with Kesey. We drank, we walked on the beach, we listened to Kesey stories. Look I’d tell you the stories but you already know them. And he’d say the same ones over and over again. We were, simply put, a pile of new ears. At the coast house we listened to stories about Tim Leary and Mason Williams and Jerry Garcia and Neal Cassady. At the coast house we got high, some of us fucked some others of us, we wrote in little notebooks. We slept on the floor in sleeping bags. We waited for something to happen.

It wasn’t until the following year, the year that was not the collaborative writing class, the year after the book we wrote that was not very good came out that made me feel like we’d utterly failed Kesey, the year after he’d ended up in the Mayo clinic for his affair with his lover, vodka, we met once at his coast house by ourselves.

That night he boiled water and cooked pasta and dumped a jar of Ragu on it and we ate it with bent old forks. We drank whiskey out of tin cups. He told life stories. That’s what he was best at. Me? I didn’t have any stories. Did I? When it got dark he lit some crappy looking ancient candles. We sat in two wooden chairs next to each other looking out at the moonlit water. I distinctly remember trying to sit in the chair older and like I had been part of history. Which amounted to extending my legs out and crossing one ankle over the other and crossing my arms over my chest. I looked like Abe Lincoln.

Then he said, “What’s the best thing that’s ever happened to you in your life?”

I sat there like a lump trying to conjure up the best thing that had ever happened to me. We both already knew what the worst thing was. Nothing best had happened to me. Had it? I could only answer worst. I looked out at the ocean.

Finally I said, “Swimming.”

“Why swimming?” he said, turning to look at me.

“Because it’s the only thing I’ve ever been good at,” came out of my mouth.

“That’s not the only thing you are good at.” And he put his huge wrestler writer arm around me.

Fuck. This is it. Here it comes. His skin smelled . . . well it smelled like somebody’s father’s skin. Aftershave and sweat and whiskey and Ragu. He’s going to tell me I’m good at fucking. He’s going to tell me I’m a “tootsie”—the nickname he’d used on me the year of the class. And then I’m going to spread my legs for Ken Kesey, because that’s what blond clueless idiots do. I closed my eyes and waited for the hands of a man to do what they did to women like me.

But he didn’t say any of those things. He said, “I’ve seen a lot of writers come and go. You’ve got the stuff. It’s in your hands. What are you going to do next?”

I opened my eyes and looked at my hands. They looked extremely dumb. “Next?” I said.

“You know, in your life. What’s next?”

I didn’t have a plan. I had grief. I had rage. I had my sexuality. I liked books more than people. I liked to be drunk and high and fuck so I didn’t have to answer questions like this.

When I got home I cut all the hair off on the left side of my head, leaving two different women looking at me in the mirror. One with a long trail of blond half way down her back. The other, a woman with hair cropped close to her head and with the bone structure of a beautiful man in her face.

Who.

Am.

I.

I never saw Kesey again. His liver failed and he got Hepatitis C. In 1997 he had a stroke. Later he got cancer and died. But I’m of the opinion he drowned.

There are many ways to drown.


We were driving from the airport to the place Ahuimanu, which in Hawaiian means A Gathering of Birds, where there was to be a feast of welcome for my young son. I had brought him back from the Mainland along with my second wife, his stepmother, a woman who had come to hate him.

We drove through a tunnel under Nu’uanu Pali, where in 1790 Kamehameha the Great’s warriors forced Kalanikupule’s warriors over the pali, which means cliff or precipice. Nu’uanu is where that particular pali is.

I started thinking about Hilina Pali, which is over on the Big Island where I live. It’s near Kilauea volcano, and there are feral goats. In a little fenced patch of land about as big as your living room there is a kind of plant called ma’oloa enclosed there against the goats. That little place is where most of the ma’oloa that are alive in the world are hanging on and will continue to hang on if the goats don’t breach the fence and eat them.

At the bottom of Hilina Pali is the place Halape, where back on November 29th, 1975, there was an earthquake and a local tsunami in the night. A man I knew was camping there and the sea took him.

When we came out of the tunnel through Nu’uanu Pali, I thought about warriors leaping, falling, falling onto the roadbed, though in 1790 when they struck, it would have been forest.

I made the left turn and drove past the Japanese cemetery with its famous koi ponds, which are a notable tourist attraction, and then I drove into a residential district near Kaneohe.

I stopped at a traffic signal and I saw a hand-lettered sign taped to the pole. It said “FOR SALE: BABY CLOTHES – ULUA POLES” and I started thinking about that, rather than worrying about bad things that might happen at Ahuimanu, which which is what I had been doing.

Ulua are large strong-fighting ocean fish that you can catch from the shore if you’re willing to perch on rocks and cast out and wait. It is not like surf casting along the Atlantic, where you stand on a sandy beach and heave out over the waves, and sometimes can’t even see past the surf.

 

With ulua fishing you’re up on lava rocks with waves below, and if you aren’t watching and don’t listen carefully you might not notice that the sea has gone silent, which can mean it’s about to rise suddenly and take you.

I wondered about the combination of baby clothes and fishing poles on the sign.

 

I imagined that there was this young man who was new at the father business and a little weary of it, so when his wife said she was going to Honolulu to shop, he said he would take the baby for fresh air. When she drove away he went to their garage and chose a pole, and went to their freezer and got aku belly for bait. He wanted a day on the rocks and a nice ulua for them to eat, but he knew if he said he was going fishing she would never let him take the baby.

He put the car seat beside him on the rocks while he fished, and his son started to cry and he turned to see why and he stopped paying attention.

Oh they rose up and were carried down like the warriors, but more slowly, and they didn’t smash on impact, but sank beneath the surf. The car seat bobbed up, and he tried to get to it, but the waves dashed them against lava and they both died.

And I imagined that now the mother wanted to get rid of everything that reminded her, so she made the sign and was waiting and hoping someone would take the clothes and poles soon and it would be finished.

 

The house at Ahuimanu is tucked up close under the pali. There are no waterfalls when it isn’t raining, but a dozen or more appear when it rains hard. One falls from so high on the pali that wind dissipates the water long before it reaches the valley floor.

My aunt called that one The Crooked Straight and when it floated against the pali she would stop what she was doing and sing from Handel’s Messiah. She had a beautiful voice and a sweet nature, but she had died by the time I saw the sign on my way to Ahuimanu and her house below the waterfalls.

At Ahuimanu my uncle was giving a welcoming speech in Hawaiian when my wife rose up and struck my little boy in front of the guests, because he was not paying attention the way she thought he should have been. I was not quick enough to stop her, but I took my son in my arms to make him safe, and soon after we got back to the Mainland I threw her out.

She went down to North Carolina and then I divorced her. I don’t know where she is now.

Everything she left behind, I sold.