By Mark Kodama
I. The Walk
I am ill. I have stage 2 bone marrow cancer and diabetes 2. So my doctors told me I needed to take more walks, get more exercise. So this morning I took a walk. Despite my fatigue and my damaged eyesight, I must admit it is the best walk I have ever taken in my life. Indeed, there was nothing extraordinary about the walk but the way it was experienced. So the fact I am ill and I am nearly blind made me enjoy it in way that I could not have otherwise.
We have lived in this neighborhood in McLean, Virginia, a suburb of Washintgon, DC for maybe 18 years. We lived in on the other side of McLean High School for ten years and moved to our new house about 8 years ago. We knocked down the old house and built another one in its place that I must say to me seems palatial. I used to joke we were the poorest rich people in McLean.
I live there with my Chinese wife of 30 years and my mother in law who is 91. My two sons Nathan and Willie live away from us at the universities. Nathan is working on his Ph.D in neuroscience at Case Western Reserve in Cleveland, Ohio and Willie is now going into his sophomore year at the University of Virginia. I am a third-generation hamburger eating Japanese American. I am trial lawyer by occupation.
I had my breakfast of apple cinnamon oatmeal and then took all my medications and vitamins which is like a meal in itself. I put on a sweat shirt and set out under the gunmetal gray morning sky. I walked toward Westmoreland Street.
The neighborhood is unusual in that it is a mixture of a few old houses probably built in the 1930s – flat wood houses with one car drive ways and garages interspersed with large expensive looking brick houses recently built by tearing down the old houses. It dominated newly rich Asian immigrants –principally Chinese, Korean and Indian families.
II. My Neighbor’s House
As I walked on the concrete sidewalk toward the Westmoreland, a small gray rabbit with white tail emerged from the trees and bushes that divided two houses. He scampered across the black asphalt driveway and then across the perfectly cut green grass of the front lawn before stopping to look at me looking at him.
It was still early and the house was quiet. Two SUVs were parked in the driveway of the two-car garage. The first SUV was black Mercedes Benz and the second an old American model.
There was a large oak tree that dominated the yard. I thought of an episode of Cosmos where Carl Sagan said that humans and oak trees were cousins and that we were idenitical in chemical composition. At the time, of course, it was the first I had ever heard of the idea. As I watched the rabbit I thought that if the oak tree was my cousin what did that make the rabbit?
The rabbit was an advanced animal with a brain with an outer cortex. He had two eyes, a nose and mouth like me and a bone and organ system identical to mine. I once read that a frog had exactly the same number of bones in its hand as I do.
Now that I was ill with cancer, I was told that I had a year to 12 years to live. The rabbit looked like it was young. I wondered if I would outlive the rabbit. But in either case we were both temporary travelers here on earth. That like every other creature here on earth and that ever walked this earth, we were destined for short lives and would someday turn to dust.
I saw a flower and recalled that flowers are relatively recent developments in evolutionary plant development. Plants have been around for 420 million years. The earliest flowers appeared a mere 120 million years ago. Modern human have existed for 300,000 years.
The Greek philosopher Heraclitus once said a man can never step in same river twice. The world only appears to be permanent when it is in fact ever changing as is the river.
Before me my neighbor’s house appears so permanent with its red brick façade and its faux black shutters which are not functional but decorative. Underneath the thin red brick facade is a structure made of wood beams and particle board.
I saw a documentary on Fukushima on how just a few years after the nuclear disaster forest and wild animals took over the city where people had recently lived. So many things in life are so illusionary.
I thought again about Carl Sagan and the last interview he gave before he passed away. Carl Sagan once said we are star dust. So soon, maybe one year, may be twelve years, my corporeal body will be lifeless, inanimate. I will become part of the earth again, nutrients for plants which will be nutrients for other animals.
At some point, the sun will expand and the earth and everything that is part of the earth will be swallowed by the ever expanding sun and I will be turned into energy. And at some point in the future, the sun will explode and I will be stardust again. And so will you.
The rabbit scampered away so I moved on too.
III. Westmoreland Street
When I came to Westmoreland Street, I pressed the button to cross the road and proceeded to cross the road in the crosswalk. The street is usually very busy at this time of the morning because it is the entrance of McLean High School. But today is June 21, the longest day of the year and school is out.
Willie graduated from McLean High School just a few years ago. He thinks he may have had the highest grade point average of his graduating class. But his school does not keep track of these things anymore and certainly if they do it is not made public. Of all the things I have done in my life raising my two sons was the most important and rewarding. My best days were when when Nathan and Willie were young. As much as I enjoy being with them now, it still can’t beat when the two of them would come with me to the “hoffice!”
I’m losing my eye sight so I am very careful when crossing the street. I am also a personal injury lawyer so I am extra sensitive about the dangers of incautious drivers. It was big news about ten years ago when pedestrian after pedestrian was killed by speeding drivers. I represented two pedestrians seriously injured by speeding drivers. The indifference of a driver can forever leave another in pain. The person who does these things sometimes are remorseful and sometimes blame the very person they harm. But whether they take responsibility or not for something very bad they have done, they can never undo what they have done.
As I crossed the street, I saw a dark black brand new BMV bearing down upon me so I stopped and held out my hand. Instead of stopping, the driver sped up. So, course, I had to stop to let the driver pass.
Time is so temporary and we are here for such a short time any ways. It seems ridiculous to me that that there could be something so important that the driver thought it necessary to ignore the traffic laws and endanger the life of a fellow human being and neighbor so they could arrive 20 seconds earlier than if had they obeyed the law.
IV. The Coffee Shop
I walked to the corner of Westmoreland and Chain Bridge Road. I had never seen traffic so light on a weekday at this time of morning. Things are usually so fast paced.
I walked to the parking lot of the local supermarket and then across. The weather was nice and I even was sweating a little bit.
The neighborhood coffee shop is part of that shopping center complex. I like this coffee shop because it is locally owned and not part of a chain. The people are generally friendly there and I am a regular.
When I got there, I was surprised that there were no customers. I knew all the four young ladies behind the counter so it was fun.
There is a young Asian girl about my son’s age that I particularly like.
“Where is your son?” she said, with a great smile. “I thought you were going to bring your son.”
“The other day I did suggest we come,” I said. “I knocked on his door. And I said: “’let’s go to that coffee shop that I had talked about. The people are great there!’
“So I heard his voice through the door. He said ‘Not now Dad. I’m thinking important thoughts. So will you please go away!”
The young women laughed.
There has been such a loss of community in our cities today. In the days growing up, our neighbors would always come over to our house and we to theirs.
We have these Chinese neighbors that we have lived next to for five years. Sometimes I see him busily working on his front yard on the weekends. One day I received a piece of mis-delivered mail so I brought it to Mr. Chen. After he thanked me I suggested that we and our wives have dinner some day.
He simply said “We don’t have time for those sort of things.”
IV. The Flower Garden
On the way home, there was the most amazing flower garden – full of the most beautiful orange flowers sprouting from a plant with long slender green leaves. There were many and well ordered. You often hear that you cannot beat the beauty of mother nature. But there also something to be said about the art of a well ordered garden.
I had never really ever taken the time to look at a flower garden like that before. I am not a gardener and I enjoy sports and intellectual pursuits like reading.
But the beauty of that flower garden was overwhelming. I enjoyed how everything appeared out of focus like a impressionist painting and then when you looked at it closer you could see the details of the flower – the delicate petals with their darker shade of orange toward the center of the petals and then the even darker shade of the stamen that emanated like antennae from the center of the flower.
The six petals were soft to the touch and seemed perfect in their symmetry. The flowers had these tiny dark black orange dots. Tears rolled down my cheeks – a most surprising and wonderful feeling.
I saw the church across the street. We have lived in that neighborhood for 20 years. In all the years we lived there and thousands of times I drove past the church I have never actually stopped to look at it.
So I crossed the street and walked the grounds. It was a very large and modern church complex made of light brown brick and dark red brick. Up close I had to marvel at the beauty and intricacy of the architecture. White stone pillars without capitols supported the front portico. There were intricate cross patterns in the brick. The windows were large and framed by arches and cream colored stone.
Three perfectly spaced giant oak trees dominated the front of the yard in front of the church.
A large memorial garden grewq behind the oak trees with many different kinds of plants and flowers of subtle colors – dark green, drab green and purple. One cluster of spiky drab green plants that looked like some sort of sea creature were actually quite ugly in my opinion except when combined and arranged with the other plants and interspersed with mulch, creating a kind of ordered three dimensional assault on our sense of beauty. The white barked olive trees were something out of the Bible. It was dream like in appearance – an ordered Garden of Eden.
It is interesting how you can combine something of ugliness with something of beauty to enhance their mutual beauty and power. It is like that with food, music and yes gardens. Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” comes to mind. The whining lead guitar of Jimmy Page and the screaming voice of Robert Plant combined with the melancholy words and beautiful melodies never gets old,
The Playground was full of red, blue and green plastic and wood swing complexes and dinosaurs. The ground had wood chips. The play area was encircled by a waist-high black chain link fence. It was much more sophisticated and safer than the metal monkey bars and rubber mats of my day.
There were metal signs posted on the fence: “THIS AREA IS UNDER CAMERA SURVEILLANCE,” “ONLY CHILDREN OF THE CHURCH PRESCHOOL ARE ALLOWED,” NO CHILDREN ARE ALLOWED TO PLAY WITHOUT AN ADULT PRESENT” and “NO PETS INSIDE THE ENCLOSURE.” I know why these signs are there. I am a personal injury lawyer. They are a necessary signs of the time. That we have become more isolated and less of a community.
Is it really necessary to tell people these days not to let their dogs crap where young children play? Unfortunately the answer is yes.
Some people insist that God exists and without God society would fall into a kind of anarchy. Others insist that the idea is nothing but fearful superstition and is the cause of much suffering and injustice in this world.
My opinion is that I don’t know. The philosopher Bertrand Russell once said the problem with this world is that the stupid are so cocksure and the intelligent are so full of doubt.
For me the answer seems simple. If God exist He wants us to do right things because they are the right things to do, not because we fear Hi. If God does not exist, we should do right things because they are the right things to do. Why do we need God to try to do good in this world, to love our neighbors and to be kind?
A cheerful old jogger ran past me. He smiled and waved. “Good morning!” he shouted.
This time when I crossed Westmoreland, all the cars politely stopped. Traffic had picked up considerably.
A middle-aged Caucasian woman and her teen-aged daughter walking their dog crossed the street. I said good morning. In response, the older woman turned her head in smug annoyance. Her daughter laughed in contempt. Plato believed we behave badly though ignorance.
Obviously I am a neighbor. I am an attorney. Not only was I born in this country but my parents were born here too. Regardless, science has shown that all human beings are closely related. As a species we nearly died out 80,000 years ago when the Toba Eruption caused a volcanic winter that caused a mass die off.
The human population fell to just a very few and human beings nearly ceased to exist. From these few survivors emerged our common ancestors. The notion that we are inherently better that anyone is simply laughable.
I stopped in from of my neighbor’s house again. Their garage door was now open. I could now hear the children playing.
Do you love Robert Frost? I don’t know anyone who has not read a Robert Frost poem and not be profoundly moved by it.
I thought about “Road Not Taken” and like many people I am told I misunderstood the real meaning of the poem.
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And look down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear
Though as for that the passing there
Has really worn them about the same.
And both that morning equally lay,
In leaves no step had trodden black,
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads to way
I doubted I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence;
Two roads diverged in the wood, and I
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
Like many, I took this poem to mean be yourself – reject conformity. So now I’ve learned from those more “learned” than me that taking the road less traveled on was really only an illusion and a rationalization.
But if so, is that really a bad thing? If I had just been more of a conformist, could my life had in some way better? Of course, possibly. But I am glad I have always tried to be myself. And if that was a mistake, then at least it was my mistake.
I think sometimes conventional wisdom is wise; but other times conventional wisdom does not apply to particular circumstances. It is up to the truly wise to know the difference.
I feel the joy of being alive. I am happy.