Chinese character for 'death'

In Oregon, I paid an old Chinese man five dollars to write the character for "death" on a piece of paper. On weekends, the man, like many other artists, craftsmen, hippies, and New Agers, set up a booth under the Burnside Bridge in downtown Portland. Once the ink had dried, I neatly folded the paper and put it in my wallet. I didn't know when or where I would do it, but I planned to get a tattoo of the character. It was June 24, 1995 -- day 35 of my first cross-country trip on a Honda CBR 600 motorcycle.

      Why death? Robin Williams's character in Dead Poets Society, Mr. Keating, says it best early in the film when he tells his students that we are all just "food for worms." Forcing them to face the certainty of their own mortality, he implores the students to seize the day and to make their lives extraordinary. Dead Poets Society deeply affected me, and its message continues to inspire me. I think that when we lose sight of death, we become discontented, apathetic, and uninspired, and our markers of the passage of time become just vague recollections.

      The piece of paper remained in my wallet for over two years. I nearly put it to use four days after I left Portland. I was riding around Missoula, Montana, in search of a tattoo studio. But when I found one, it was closed. It wasn't until the summer of 1997 that I finally walked into a studio in Caracas, Venezuela, and showed the piece of paper to a tattoo artist. He traced the character on a sheet of carbon paper, pressed the design between my shoulder blades, and then scarred me for life. So far, no regrets.

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