A hiking story

Nobody reminded me, but luckily for y’all I remembered on my own. If you don’t feel like clicking through to the AITA, here’s the gist: an avid, experienced hiker wants to take a bunch of his (athletic, hiker-adjacent) friends on a rather difficult 8-mile hike. He prepares these friends in advance for what they’re about to get into and makes sure everyone has proper footwear, water, snacks, hats, that sort of thing. And then one of them drags along a friend who in every available way is unprepared for the hike– and, after pointing out that the person is genuinely endangering herself if she tries this and getting nowhere, he bails on the hike entirely. Later in the day, one of his friends sends him pictures from the ER that two members of the group, including the girl, ended up in, because basically everything went wrong that dude said would go wrong.

This is a not-the-asshole situation for me, and it got me thinking about something that happened when I was in Israel just after graduating college. I was there for a dig at Tel Beth Shemesh, which is a Bronze Age site just west of Jerusalem. We were there for a month, and two of the weekends featured preprogrammed touristy stuff on a rented bus with a guide. The first weekend we were supposed to go to the northern part of the country, and for the second weekend we were supposed to head south. Now, if you know anything about Israel, you might be aware that there is a staggering climate difference between the lovely, temperate, Mediterranean northern half of the country and the fucking Negev desert that occupies most of the southern half. Staggering enough that you dress significantly differently depending on which way you’re going.

We were all rather surprised when we realized which direction the bus was headed, and where our tour guide took us. South. To the desert. To the hot.

Oh, and there was going to be a hike. A three-mile hike, roughly, at Ein Avdat, which is Hebrew for “one motherfucker.” Ein Avdat is beautiful! It looks like this:

I don’t know if the place has gotten more popular since 1998 or what, but I remember it being deserted (heh) when we were there. But it’s gorgeous! Seriously!

There are parts of the hike that are like this, though:

Those are steps carved into the side of the canyon. I don’t know for sure that we carved these specific ones, because I remember there being handholds, but you get the idea.

Going back, by the way, is not an option, because once they drop you off the other side of the hike is … well, three miles away, and your bus drops you off and heads tot he other side. So when we got to the very last part of the hike, I took one look at what they expected me to do to get out of this hot-ass canyon that I didn’t know I was going to be fucking hiking in (and I was not in much better shape in college than I am now) and declared that somebody was sending me a fucking helicopter. Because this is the last part of the hike. After three miles. With no water:

Yeah. That’s a metal ladder. Again, I’m not 100% sure that’s our actual ladder– I remember the rungs being more rebar-y, but again, you get the idea. Nah. Send me a damn helicopter. I ain’t doing it.

I did, eventually, make it out of the canyon. And I forced everyone on the trip with me to take a picture giving the canyon the finger. I didn’t go find that picture today, but when I checked my 22-year-old memories (Christ, literally half my life ago) with a friend of mine who was with me on the trip, she sent me this one. Look at our shoes:

That’s the Dead Sea behind us, so this wasn’t immediately after the hike, but it was the same weekend, and it was definitely the same fucking Birkenstocks. A three mile hike in a box canyon in the desert in Israel in June, with insufficient water and fucking Birks on my feet, because the trip organizers fucked up what weekend we were heading north.

The next day after the hike, we went to Masada, which by rights should have been one of the highlights of the fucking trip. Masada is a Jewish fortress on the top of a mountain. There are two ways to get to it: through what basically amounts to a ski lift, and by climbing the earthen ramp the Romans built while they were laying siege to the place so that they could kill everyone there. It’s called the Snake Path.

This is the fucking Snake Path:

Now, again, each of these two things is on different sides of the complex. There was a small riot on the bus when we pulled up to the Snake Path side of the mountain, and after some debate everyone got off the bus and got ready to hike some more.

Not me. Nope. I took one look at that entirely uphill climb, the day after an unscheduled three-mile desert canyon hell trek, and noped right the fuck out. There are certain things I simply cannot be manipulated into doing, and that bullshit was definitely on that list. I stayed on the bus, and as it ended up had a fascinating conversation with our Palestinian bus driver while everyone else nearly died trying to hike straight up. So I went to Israel and went to Masada, but I have never been inside Masada … but on the other hand, I’m still alive, and I can to this day recite this guy’s explanation of the Arab-Israeli conflict, complete with broken English and the map that he drew a bunch of lines on to indicate which parts of Israel should be given back.

And that’s why I’m not about to get angry with somebody for telling someone he doesn’t think it’s a good idea for her to go on a hike.

In memoriam

I saw a random factoid on Reddit once. There will come a day, it said, where your mother will pick you up, and put you back down, and then will never pick you up again. And you won’t realize it when it happens.

I have been trying to pay close attention to firsts and lasts lately. Especially, as it turns out, lasts. If you have been around here much lately, you will likely be familiar with the phrase ongoing medical crisis, which I have been using a fair amount lately, without a lot of explanation.

The Ongoing Medical Crisis is over, more or less. My mother passed away sometime between 8:30 and 9:30 PM Saturday night. She spent the last six days of her life in a nursing home; we were beginning to discuss whether to move her into hospice care. I have no reason to not believe that she passed peacefully and in her sleep; as the nurses tell it, she was alive and sleeping for one bed check, and for the next she was gone. She was 68.

My mother and I were very, very close. I …

… I don’t know how to do any of this, as it turns out. I have her obituary open in a second window right now; I’ve got all of the easy bits done; grandchild here and aunts and uncles here and date of wedding and following a lengthy illness. Facts and figures; all bloodless. That part’s done. I don’t know what to write about her. And right now I feel like I have ten thousand things to do today and that I don’t have any idea what I’m supposed to be doing right now.


I have, I’m pretty certain, told this story in this space before, but I sort of suspect this won’t be the last time I tell it in the near future, so I may as well get some practice in: when I was in high school I started growing my hair out. That lasted through college, when my hair was down to the middle of my back and curly enough that I could tuck it in front of my ears and pass as an Orthodox Jew if I wanted to. And then I decided to spend a month in Israel after graduation on an archaeological dig. Long hair in the desert, I decided, would be a bit of a liability, so I went to the barber and got my hair cut short, instructing him to take my ponytail out in as close to one sweep as he possibly could. I then, as a joke, dropped my ponytail into an envelope, mailed it to my mother, who had been advocating for shorter hair for years, and promptly forgot about it.

This was in 1998, by the way, before anyone had cell phones, so if I was on campus for the day it was literally impossible to get ahold of me until I got home. And a couple of days later, my mother got an envelope in the mail containing about half a pound of hair with absolutely no context of any kind, and … well, concluded, perhaps not entirely reasonably, that I’d been kidnapped. And couldn’t get ahold of me for several hours, and … didn’t really see the humor in the whole thing, all that much, once I got ahold of her and explained what I’d done.

Fast forward, oh, right around two decades. My mother has been diagnosed with breast cancer. The lump has been removed successfully with surgery and she is nonetheless going through a round of radiation and chemotherapy to make sure they got everything. I live in the same town as her by now, and we both have cell phones, and I talk to her nearly every day, so when I discover a padded envelope in my mail with my mother’s handwriting on it I am more than a bit confused as to what it might contain, as she hasn’t mentioned mailing anything to me lately, and why would she bother in the first place?

The envelope is full of hair, the punchline to a joke nearly twenty years in the making, and my mother is the first– and, as of yet, only— person I have ever known to successfully make the side effects of chemotherapy funny.


The obituary is not any closer to being done than it was a few minutes ago. This is, I admits bit of a mystery to me; one fairly consistent aspect of my personality throughout my adult life is that I process my emotions by writing through them, and … well, I don’t know. Is it bad, to admit that I’ve been writing and rewriting this post in my head for something like six months now? We thought we were going to lose her in June; she’d already been sick, and had just been released from the rehabilitation place they’d put her in to try and get some of the strength in her legs back, when her duodenum abruptly ruptured and she had to be rushed into surgery in the middle of the night. I called my brother in Chicago and told him to get home immediately; the doctor who did the surgery came as close as I’ve ever seen a medical professional come to saying I am going to try my best to save her but it is not going to be good enough.

She survived. The wound from the surgery never healed, and I mean that literally; she had a hole in her abdomen that stubbornly refused to close for the rest of her life, and spent most of that time attached to a wound vacuum, and while I think the immediate cause of her death was probably congestive heart failure, ultimately the duodenal rupture is what killed her. It just took a lot longer than anyone expected, and I got six more months with my mom that I might not have gotten otherwise.


“This won’t be what gets ya,” the oncologist says, as we are discussing the cancer diagnosis. “It’ll be heart failure, same as everybody else.” I find myself simultaneously angry at him and entertained by his frankness. He reminds me, oddly, of Joss Whedon.


It is Saturday afternoon, and my father and I are at my mother’s bedside at the nursing home. Neither of us know this, of course, but she is in the final six or seven hours of her life. She is semiconscious at best, occasionally waking up enough to say a sentence or so, or to ask us to move a pillow or adjust a leg, but I can’t really call it talking. In the background, a television is on, and Indiana University’s basketball team is beating Ohio State. My mom and dad met at IU; my dad, my brother and I all graduated from there, and while my mom is a woman of few hobbies, IU basketball is one of the few genuinely enduring passions of her life.

She wakes up at one point long enough to look at the TV; of the two hours or so I will spend with her today, “Oh! IU basketball!” is probably among the most coherent sentences I hear her speak.

She says “I love you” when I leave. It is the last thing I ever hear her say.


This is the second relative where my final memory of her is sitting at her bedside and watching IU basketball, by the way, as the exact same thing happened with my paternal grandmother. I spent my last couple of hours with her watching basketball. I don’t remember who won that game, though.


My son has been put to bed, and my wife and I have had a brief conversation about what needs to be done in this upcoming week. We are about to start a TV show.

My phone rings.

It is the nursing home, and my heart sinks, because there is only one reason why the nursing home might be calling me. I call my brother and go over to my mom and dad’s house; this is not information I can give him over the phone, and I have to let myself into the house and wake him up to tell him that his wife of 47 years is gone. For the first couple of minutes of the conversation, I’m not entirely sure he realizes he isn’t dreaming; I’m sure that he hopes he is. I realize something that surprises me: I want to see her. I have never been good at viewings and had you asked me just a few hours ago if I wanted to see her body I would have said no, and done so emphatically. We go over to the nursing home. She looks peaceful; the first time in many months that I have seen her where she is not in any trace of pain. An anecdote from Reddit floats through my head.

I do not remember the last time my mother picked me up, and I do not remember the last time she put me down. I will not allow myself to not know the last time I hugged her.

I love you, Mom.

Three Christmas anecdotes

FIRST: I have been firmly on the Don’t Buy Me Anything train for Christmas for several years now, but this year my wife and I agreed to exchange one gift each. My wife won with this gift, which is an assortment of beard-grooming tools: a brush, which is gonna get used multiple times a day, beard-specific shampoo, which will get used as often as I need to use it, and beard balm and beard oil, which … well, we’ll see. This is actually just about the perfect Christmas gift, really– something that I would never have thought to buy for myself in a million years and would never have guessed that she’d gotten me in advance, but which I immediately realized upon receiving that it’s something I needed and am going to use all the time.

It is also a subtle dig at my hygiene, which a lesser person might choose to take as an insult but which I’m deciding I’m entertained by. 🙂

SECOND: My son received three different gifts that he already had. One was a set of Minecraft sheets, which both my wife and her sister bought him in a bit of a communications breakdown. Second was a Transformer. I’m kind of irritated about the Transformer; he got it because he brought it to me in the comic shop last week and announced that he wanted me to buy it. I reminded him that Christmas was in a couple of days and made him put it back, then immediately took it to the counter and asked them to hold onto it until I could come back without the boy and buy it. They did, and I did. The second he unwrapped it he announced he already had it and went and produced the original figure. Then he argued with me about whether he’d picked it out or not.

Like. Dude. Yes the fuck you did. That’s the only reason I bought the goddamn thing.

THIRD: Okay, maybe technically this is two-and-a-half anecdotes, but whatever. He also got one of these two tumbler cars from my mom and dad. He already had one of these, too, but he immediately decided he was excited about having two because now we can race them. So, OK. No problem there. The punchline: I’m pretty sure they alsobought him the original one.

My mom just called a few minutes ago. My dad was in their office looking for something. He found a third bright red Sharper Image tumbler car in the office while he was looking for whatever he was looking for.

Apparently Mom and Dad really want my kid to have this toy.

In which I save Christmas

We didn’t have marshmallows.

No one was quite sure how it was that we didn’t have marshmallows, but we didn’t have marshmallows. And you cannot make Heavenly Salad without fuckin’ marshmallows. The ingredients: Grapes. Pineapple. Juice from same. Heavy cream. Milk. Lemon juice. Sugar. And marshmallows.  They’re kinda important. And we didn’t have any.

At 8:4fuckin7 PM on Christmas Eve.

Turns out Walgreens is open on Christmas Eve. The 24-hour stores are still 24-hour, believe it or not. And there’s one close. We go back and forth a couple of times about 1) whether we actually need Heavenly Salad for Christmas dinner (yeah, we kinda do) and 2) whether Walgreens is likely to have marshmallows.

Walgreens.com allows me to search the inventory of individual stores and I discover that my Walgreens claims to have 10 packages of small marshmallows, but none of the traditional size. I have a vague memory of having tried this trick with the smaller marshmallows in the past and not being super happy with the results, but fuck it; I’d rather have undersized marshmallows than no Heavenly Salad.

I have to wait for a parking spot at Walgreens. Which is packed. Which I suppose isn’t terribly surprising. The employees, who know full and goddamn well that everyone there needs one thing and one thing only, are bouncing back and forth from customer to customer, basically pointing, barking “What do you need?” and leading them to that one thing. I overhear a conversation where one family is carefully explaining that they need macaroni, because their “side dish” is macaroni and cheese, and I realize with some horror that they mean Kraft macaroni and cheese, and I have a sudden flashback to this lady:

I don’t object to macaroni and cheese for Christmas, mind you– I thought about making it myself– but macaroni and cheese from scratch isn’t hard. It’s not even much more expensive! No one should be bringing freaking Kraft Dinner to Christmas. They actually have all the ingredients to make it from scratch! I can see them from where I’m standing!

I find my marshmallows. It turns out they actually do have one bag of the proper size, and technically I only need the one bag, but the bag appears to have been exposed to extreme heat if not an actual flamethrower at some point and I reject it in favor of two bags of the smaller ones. But hey! I have marshmallows! Victory!

I get in line to buy my marshmallows. The cashiers appear to be in genuinely good moods, and they’re having the exact same conversation with everyone, and everyone in line appears to be grateful and happy and not at all the assortment of miserable bastards that I was expecting. There are lots of thank-yous being tossed around.

I glance at the guy in front of me. He is carrying the following items:

  1. A single DiGiorno personal microwave pizza
  2. One (1) liter bottle of Mountain Dew

and nothing else.

I briefly consider asking him if he needs help, or if he needs an adult. Like, dude, do you want to come home with me? Because you are buying a microwave pizza and a Mountain Dew at 9:00 on Christmas Eve and if that is not a cry for help I cannot imagine what could possibly make it any worse.

And then, as if he can hear me, he gets out of line and wanders off somewhere. I do not follow him, because Jesus awkward, so instead I just buy my marshmallows and head home. I am very grateful to the people behind the counter and they are very nice to me.

And I have saved Christmas.

New short story at Patreon!

There’s a new downloadable short story, The Forgotten One’s Prayer, over at my Patreon! Those of you who are already Patrons should click here, and those of you who are not Patrons should also click here and become one!  Access to an ever-growing group of new stories, for as little as $1 a month!