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How to Die


My brother, Mark, died with grace and aplomb. His deaths were always flawless. Whether he was shot by Indians, stabbed by a pirate, or murdered by the Mob, he always died with such finesse.

Of course, we all took turns dying. The barn was the perfect place for it. There were stacked bales of hay with a pile of loose hay just below to cushion your fall. One by one we would climb to the top bale, clutch the wound where the bullet entered, and pitch headlong into the hay below. Yet Mark always made it seem so realistic.

One time he seemed not to notice he had been shot. He put his hand to his chest as if he had an itch. Then he pulled it away, staring with surprise at the warm, red blood on his hand. His eyes glazed over, and he fell face first and spread-eagle into the hay. Another time, the impact of the bullet knocked him into a half-turn. His arms went up as if he expected to by picked up by a gentle deity. Then he fell backward into the hay like a rag doll. Once dead, he also would linger longer in his final pose; it lent a greater air of verisimilitude to his death to see him lying there unmoving, not even breathing, for what seemed much too long for play.




My mom died last night. She left in peace surrounded by her family. I think she was actually looking forward to going. I arrived too late to talk with her; she had already slipped into a sleep from which she never fully awakened. Before I left Minnesota, though, I spoke to her on the phone.

“They’re disconnecting the machines,” she said.

“Are you going home?” I asked.

“No,” she said and then with a certain lilt in her voice, “Yes. I’m going home.”

“I’m coming to say goodbye. I hope you won’t go until I get there.”

“I don’t know,” she said.

“I know.”

The family gathered around her. We read bible passages that spoke of our hope of a resurrection or of the glory awaiting those who remain faithful to God’s son. We sang and prayed and gave glory to God. I am very grateful for my family and for their faith and faithfulness.

When I was little, I regarded my mom as the gold standard for all moms. She was large and soft, and I pitied other children with skinny, bony moms whose hugs could not be so comforting as hugs from my mom. She was the best mom. As I got bigger, my opinion changed little. I know, of course, that she was not faultless. But I can’t seem to remember her faults well enough to describe them. She was and always will be my mom.

She was always very alive. She discouraged self-pity of every kind and sometimes seemed judgmental because she held us to such high standards. Though she never finished high school, she also never stopped learning. Her mind was active and alive even when her body was weak or unresponsive. She read constantly. She believed that the only excuse for ignorance was youth. If you were old enough to read and understand, you were old enough to know what you ought to know, and if you were old enough to know, you were old enough to do what was right. I’m thankful for her high standards; I have the same high standards for my own kids.

But she was also gracious and compassionate. She took in strangers and befriended outcasts. She cooked for everyone and offered unstinting hospitality to all who came to her home. My friends, even when I was in college, loved the homey feel of our home where you didn’t have to worry about sitting in the wrong place and there was always something home cooked to eat. She was never afraid of ideas. She could hold her own in conversation with anyone, and she spoke with such unconscious authority that she was often puzzled at finding her opinions respected even by those who sharply disagreed with her.

Mom was fun. I didn’t realize it growing up. In fact, it sometimes seemed to me that other families had more fun than ours. Other families were certainly better off. But I doubt that any other family we knew had as much fun as our family. We all liked one another, and Mom never allowed any fighting or even name-calling. She insisted that we all loved one another, and, whether she really bent us all to her will or we were just naturally compliant, we did. We loved one another; we had fun together. We had picnics in the back yard. We played games; we went on long walks in nearby parks, the younger kids racing ahead and running back while Mom and Dad strolled along behind. Mom had a knack for making our free time fun without gratifying our whims. It was years before I knew we were poor. We were rich in fun.

Now she is gone. As I write, my sisters are sorting through photos looking for pictures of Mom to include at her funeral. We’re not very sad. There has already been a lot of laughter and a few tears. I’m sure there will be more of both. But I am confident that the laughter will outweigh the tears. Mom would want it that way. She wouldn’t want us to have a funeral without any fun in it.


Going Green


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My daughter, Libby, just bought a new car, a green Honda Civic. She uses it to drive back and forth to work. She works at a daycare in our church, so she makes the same trip at least six times a week, sometimes more often. One of the main reasons she wanted to buy a Honda was the good gas mileage they reputedly get.

Libby recently graduated from college and has thousands of dollars in student loans to repay, so she has become extremely cost conscious.

Our family has been making the trip to our church for many years, and we have basically two routes we always follow. Both routes usually take the same amount of time. My wife prefers the highway route. I prefer the back-road route. We’ve gone back and forth about the merits of our favorite route over the years. She likes the sense of getting where she’s going fast on the highway route and doesn’t like the shabby industrial buildings along the back-road route. I like the sense of taking the shortest way, and—why fight it?—I like the shabby industrial look.

Newly cost-conscious Libby was not content with our impressionistic reasons for preferring one route to another. She wanted hard data, so she measured how long it took and how many miles she drove on both routes. She found that both routes take about the same amount of time. Confirming my impression, however, she found that the back-road route was about 3 miles shorter. (Google maps makes it 2.3 miles shorter). Since she travels the same route at least 12 times every week, choosing the shorter route could actually save a considerable amount of gas.

This is just the sort of calculation people all over the world are doing now. They are finding ways to reduce dependence on fossil fuels and making the calculation part of an overall strategy to cut costs.

So how much will Libby save? It’s not really easy to say. Since the trip takes the same amount of time regardless of route, the Honda’s engine probably consumes the same amount of gas. Moreover, the longer route has more highway miles, which tend to boost fuel efficiency. Just for the fun of it, however, let’s assume that the Honda’s average gas mileage of 35 mpg is constant regardless of route. Libby’s car will drive 2.3 × 12 × 52 =  1432.5 fewer miles in a year,  requiring 1432.5 ÷ 35 ≈ 41 fewer gallons of gas. At $2.80 per gallon, Libby will save 2.80 × 41 ≈ $114.80 in a year. By using the savings to pay down principle on her loans, she could end up saving far more. Go, Libby!