Big questions in Nebraska and Wyoming.

Nebraska-Wyoming.jpg

After breakfast in Grand Island, Stephanie wanted to drive again, and I didn’t object. She drove that truck the vast majority of its miles from Madison to San Francisco, and that’s why we made it. As proven in the previous day’s ice skid, she was better behind the wheel than I was or am. And after the craziness of the day before, it was nice that absolutely nothing terrifying, frustrating, or even mildly aggravating happened during our second day of our cross-country move.

We sipped coffee from paper to-go cups for the first few hours on the road, and talked about whatever popped into our heads. I remember that we talked about her brother, whom she described as distant and delinquent. And we talked about pets – her family had never had pets, and she envied my tales of all the dogs and cats my family had while I was growing up.

“Once we get settled in Frisco,” I said, “we can get a pet. Do you want a dog, or a cat, or something exotic?”

“Dogs have always scared me,” she said. “They’re basically miniature wolves, well-trained and domesticated and all, but still – try petting a dog that’s in a bad mood, and you could easily get bitten.”

“I’ve been barked at a lot, but never yet bitten by a dog. You raise a dog up from being a puppy, and it isn’t going to bite you. It might bite the mailman, though. And dogs have to be walked every day, and taken out to poop, and cleaned up after, and they’re susceptible to fleas and ticks and such. So, yeah, we probably shouldn’t get a dog. I’m not enough of a responsible adult to have a dog.”

“Well, we can’t have a cat, either,” she said. “I have allergies, and if we had a cat I don’t think I’d ever stop sniffling at night and get to sleep.”

“OK, no dogs, and no cats. I guess we’ll just have to have a baby.”

“Nah, maybe we can have an iguana.” Spoiler: We never had an iguana, or a baby. But we had a cat, and we still do.

* * * * * * * * * *

With all due respect to Nebraska, there’s not much there, at least not much you can see from the freeway. Lots of wide open spaces. Which can be lovely and often is, but there’s also not a lot to be said about wide open spaces. Instead we had a long, weird, but enjoyable conversation about philosophy, stretching over several hundred miles.

From the day we met until not long before she passed away, Stephanie and I frequently played twenty questions, but we never stopped at twenty. It began with “What’s your favorite book?” (anything by Jane Austen) and “What’s you favorite color?” (purple) and “What’s your biggest regret?” (failing grad school), but once those ordinary questions had been answered we found further questions to ask. For twenty-one years, any time we had nothing else to say, one of us might ask, “What’s your most cringeworthy memory?” Or “What’s your secret superpower?”

On this particular winter morning, pushing the accelerator as far as it would go but never more than fifty miles per hour, Stephanie asked me, “If a tree falls in the forest, and nobody’s there to hear it, does it make a sound?”

“I’ve always thought the question is moot. When a tree falls it makes a noise. Quite a loud noise, probably. If it acts like a normal tree and falls even though nobody’s there to watch it fall, then it’s going to make noise even though nobody’s there to hear it.”

“I like that,” she said. “You think logically. So tell me, Spock, what is truth?”

“Math and science,” I answered. “And anything else where the answers come out the same, regardless of who does the calculating, long as you add up everything correctly.”

“OK, now it’s your turn,” she said. “Ask me a question.”

“Was the universe designed,” I asked, “or did it simply evolve?”

Stephanie frowned and took a deep breath, then told me, “I don’t like the question. The word ‘designed’ implies a designer – a God – and the word ‘simply’ suggests that the mechanisms of evolution are simple. Evolution is all about random mutations, and thus it’s crazy complicated. But based on our understanding of the information at hand, my short answer is that the universe evolved. Big Bang, not Great Designer.”

We rolled a few more miles in silence, until Stephanie said, “I guess the next question, or the same question, is whether God exists, but we’ve already talked about that.”

And we had talked about it, but only briefly. Saints and heretics have argued about God’s existence for centuries, but for Stephanie and I the answer was plain, and the subject wasn’t even particularly interesting. We wouldn’t argue religion with believers, because if it helps you make it through life, and you’re not hurting anyone else, what’s the harm in that? But we never argued about it with each other, either. We were just non-believers, with a yawn and with slight lapses once in a great while.

And then Stephanie asked the ultimate philosophical question. “What’s a sandwich?”

“Food between two slices of bread.”

“So you don’t believe in the open-face sandwich?”

“OK, wait, you’re right – an open-face sandwich is still a sandwich, so a sandwich is food on bread.”

“What about toast – is that a sandwich?”

“Hmmm,” I said cleverly. “Give me a moment to think.” After thinking, I announced: “If an open-face ham sandwich is a sandwich, then butter or jam on toast is a sandwich, too.”

“Does the bread have to be toasted?”

“No.”

“Does the bread have to be bread? What about Pop-Tarts?”

“Whoa,” I said, “now we’re getting all trippy like LSD. A Pop-Tart is …” Again I had to stop and think. “… mass-produced jam on toast, sort of, so yes, a Pop-Tart is a sandwich.”

“So what about a wiener on a bun? A hamburger? A taco?”

“All sandwiches, I guess.”

“What about pizza? It’s cheese and meat, usually, on baked dough. Is pizza a sandwich?”

“You could call it a sandwich, I suppose, like you could call a bowl of Cheerios soup. But it’s a stretch. If pizza is a sandwich, then so’s blueberry pie.”

“So’s lasagna.”

We chuckled and watched Wyoming roll past, and then I asked, “Is there intelligent life on other planets?”

“Science fiction is more fun if there is.”

“But what do you say?”

“I’d say, for now, there’s no more evidence of space aliens than there’s evidence of God, but I’m cautiously optimistic. With infinite planets spread across an infinite universe, the notion that there might be intelligent life elsewhere seems, to me, much more plausible than the notion that there might be an omnipotent creator keeping tabs on everyone everywhere and deciding whether we merit Heaven or Hell when we’re dead.”

“Yeah, me too. That’s what I think. God seems wildly improbably, and a universe where we’re the most advanced species on any planet anywhere – that seems even more unlikely.”

“So why is there a universe,” Stephanie asked, “instead of vast nothingness?”

“I think there’s both,” I said after a moment. “We know that there’s a universe, and smart folks know that it’s almost entirely a vast nothingness. But we don’t know why there’s a universe, and we probably never will.”

“Stuff happens,” she said. “That’s why there’s a universe.” Then one of us – no idea which one of us – started singing the first few lines of Monty Python’s Galaxy Song, and the other joined in.

“Just remember that you’re standing on a planet that’s evolving and revolving at 900 miles an hour. / It’s orbiting at 19 miles a second, so it’s reckoned, the sun that is the source of all our power…”

That’s about the point where I had to stop singing, because I didn’t and don’t know the rest of the lyrics, but Stephanie sang on without me. She didn’t sing often, but when she sand she sang lovelyly – is that a word? When she finished the song, I had to clap, she had to laugh.

* * * * * * * * * *

We lunched in Cheyenne, after entering “The Equality State,” Steph announced as we crossed the Wyoming border. “This was the first state where women were able to vote.”

We saw lots of snow in Wyoming, and lots of clouds blowing across lots and lots of sky. For hundreds of miles, the view from the truck was the same – two lanes going west, a strip of snow-covered grass, and two lanes headed east.

Wyoming is where the Interstate crosses the Rocky Mountains, but somehow the mountains seem like a view in the distance, more than feeling like you’re actually in the mountains. We stopped at the Continental Divide, where there is (or was) a sign and a small parking lot, and we marveled at the view and made out like teenagers.

* * * * * * * * * *

On the road again, a few miles later she asked, “Are you the same person you were when you were five years old? Ten? Twenty?”

“Yes and no,” I said. “Obviously, I’m the same human, but we live and learn, we re-invent ourselves along the way, so of course we’re all thinking and doing things differently than we did as kids. Or we should be, unless we’re stuck at the mental age of ten.”

“Yeah,” she said, “I’m the same person I was at ten. I’m just operating from newer and better informed assumptions and experience. More reality, fewer dreams.”

“So,” I wondered aloud, “Would little-kid Stephanie like grown-up Stephanie?”

“I think she would, yeah.” She drove a bit further, then added, “but I think she’d also be disappointed.”

“Why?”

“I was in the smart kids’ class. Someone decided that I was brighter than the average 10-year-old, and they put me in special classes to nurture that. And now I’m 27 years old, a college drop-out, no career to speak of, and I’m presently unemployed and basically homeless. What’s not to be disappointed?”

“You’re not unemployed, you’re between jobs. Between cities. And you’re certainly not homeless; when we get to San Francisco you’ll be sharing my hovel in the slums.”

“Yeah,” she said, “but still, sometimes I feel like I’m a failure.”

“We are embarking on an adventure, my love. We are doing something that many people dream of doing, talk about doing, but very few people actually do. Following your dream is never a failure.”

“What if following our dream ends in failure?”

“No, Steph. First off, it won’t end in failure. But also, it can’t end in failure. Metaphysical impossibility. Nothing you and I do together could ever be a failure, and anyway, following your dream is a success in itself, by definition.”

“I don’t know. 10-year-old me might disagree.”

“10-year-old you ought to be proud of 27-year-old you. I sure am.”

She looked at me briefly, then turned her eyes back to the freeway. I saw a lot in her eyes for that moment – love and fear and happiness – mostly happiness, I think. But it wasn’t the last time she would describe herself as a failure, and it wasn’t the last time I would disagree.

* * * * * * * * * *

After a few hours more on the highway, we started to yawn and decided we’d spend the night in the town of Green River, a scenic place nestled under steep rock outcroppings. We drove down what seemed to be the town’s main street, crossed the bridge over its namesake river, and looked for dinner and a hotel that seemed inviting, but we didn’t find either.

Instead we left the town proper, and checked into a cheap chain motel on the outskirts of Green River, where trains rolled romantically in the distance, all through the night. We called out for pizza, and had it delivered to our room. We read the very thin local newspaper, and watched something insipid on TV, and talked about San Francisco, and we were 600 miles closer to California than we’d been the day before.

* * * * * * * * * *

It goes without saying that my life sorta sucks without Stephanie, but you know what else sort of sucks without her? The words you’re reading right now. This sentence, this paragraph.

Re-reading what I’ve written, it’s painfully obvious that this story and every story I’ve told would be better if Steph were here to add the details she remembers. If Green River came up in conversation, Steph would remind me about things I’ve forgotten – maybe she’d mention that we’d chuckled about some sign we’d seen there, and she’d remember exactly what the sign said and why it struck us as funny. Or maybe she’d remember that the waitress at breakfast had called me ‘Honey’ and recommended we have biscuits instead of toast, and the biscuits were marvelous.

Steph would add all the details I’ve forgotten, plus myriad things I never noticed in the first place. She would remind me how beautiful Green River looked when we arrived at sunset. It looked pretty, I do remember that, but Steph could color in all the vivid details – where the trees were, how high was the river, and I’m sure she could accurately describe what some stranger was wearing as he or she sat on their front porch and glanced at us driving by. She would remember the name of the motel we stayed at; I certainly don’t. She would recite verbatim an amusing conversation we’d had over the pizza that night.

Or perhaps she would correct me and it wasn’t pizza at all; it was something else we had delivered to the motel for dinner. It was pizza, but let’s serve it with a disclaimer: Steph would sometimes tell me I was wrong about memories that seemed quite certain to me. And she wasn’t messin’ with my head – she would immediately provide further details that I knew were right, like, not only was it sandwiches not pizza, but they put Dijon mustard on your roast beef sandwich and you usually hate Dijon but you loved it that night. And I’d remember and say, “Oh, that’s right.” Because she usually was right. Senior moments like that do happen to me now and then. But in Green River I’m pretty sure we had pizza.

Anyway, this story and every story I’ve told and all the stories I’m planning to tell would be easier to read and more reliably accurate if Steph was here to bounce my memories off. And of course, all the writing would be better if she was writing it herself. And the stories and especially the details would all come easier if we’d been taking notes along the way, but we never did.

We thought we were good at never taking our marriage or each other for granted, and I reckon we were. Always, we were appreciative, full of thank yous and I love yous for each other. And yet, we took it for granted that we’d have more years together than we did. We took the miracle of every day for granted.

Why did it never occur to either of us, to take notes every day? To keep a diary of these events as they happened? If we’d spent just ten minutes each evening jotting down what had happened that day, it would’ve meant a tiny bit less time watching stupid sit-coms, or surfing through Reddit – in other words, it would’ve cost us nothing – and it would have left me with a million memories more vivid and focused than the cloudy ones in my grieving, graying head.

Posted 12/19/2018.

More about Stephanie.

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