National Geographic 2008 International Photography Contest

National Geographic 2008 International Photography Contest

Sugino writes this caption to her photo, “In Japan, ancestral spirits come back to their families in mid-August every year. People provide rest for the ancestors’ spirits for three days and then send them back by putting them on lanterns to drift down river.”

What is missing is a description of the Obon Festival and the legend behind it:

A disciple of the Buddha wished to release his mother from the realm of suffering. Buddha instructed him to make offerings to his fellow monks on the fifteenth day of the seventh month. The disciple did this and his mother’s release also opened his eyes to her personal history and the sacrifices that she had made for him.  Oban became a time in which ancestors and their sacrifices are recognized and appreciated not only through ritual, but by recognizing that tradition through community service and celebration.

While it’s true that many cultures participate in some form of ancestor worship, I’ve always thought that ghost lanterns on water, viking ships on fire, and fallen leaves on a stream were the poetic counterpoints to our experience of life.

Folks in San Francisco, 1959

Folks in San Francisco, 1959

I’m going to be up front right now and admit to simply copying a whole chunk of Susie Bright’s post on Boing Boing. Not only could I have written it myself given my own parents passed on the holidays and in same years as hers, but I also had a cherished voice recording from my mother. In fact it was losing her last voicemail to me on my cell phone after changing my calling plan (Verizon erased all my saved messages without warning) that was even a greater agony than her funeral, which I barely remember it being so rushed and I in such a fog. I’d saved her voice for nearly three years, every 28 days like clockwork, and when it disappeared it was like another death all over again. I did everything I could, talked to anyone who would listen about recovering that voicemail–from customer service reps to supervisors to lawyers. In the end there was no resurrection. And I’m still stunned by how powerful voice memories can be above and beyond photographs or writings. Anyway, Susie has similar recollections. Here is an excerpt from her post:

“My mother died four years ago, on a Christmas week. My father passed the next winter, when the light started changing and the warm days were gone for good.

A nurse called me one night from my mother’s hospital bed and talked about the winter chill — how when the temperatures suddenly dropped, even though everyone was well-heated in the nursing home, a score of people would pass away. The dying of the light at the end of the year was more than just a metaphor.

I feel a kindred spirit with others who’ve lost close friends and family during the holidays — our memories of those relationships, warm or troubled, close or estranged, are overwhelming this time of year.

I was fortunate to find a book after my parents died, called Always Too Soon: Voices of Support for Those Who Have Lost Both Parents, which is a collection of interviews with an incredibly diverse group of people who don’t mince words about the transformation of loss.

Who knew that actor/rapper Ice-T got his nickname as a result of how cold he became as a child when he lost his mom and dad. I sobbed over Geraldine Ferraro’s story, of all people. Each story is  illuminating and comforting, especially during the holiday mania, when “false consciousness” seems to be in overdrive.”

From Library of Dust by David Maisel, published by Chronicle Books

From Library of Dust by David Maisel, published by Chronicle Books

A very beautiful and melancholy essay from an architectural blog, BLDGBLOG, on the Library of Dust. It includes mentions of One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest (the reason I picked the University of Oregon for an English degree was because Ken Kesey taught there at the time), Haruki Murakami’s novel Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World (which was influenced by Borges, two of my favorite writers and their fantastical visions of librari-es/ans), and a book titled Dust: A History of the Small and the Invisible by Joseph Amato, which was an amazing piece of science writing about something we rarely consider anything more than a daily annoyance if we consider it at all. Geoff Manaugh writes a beautiful counterpart to the images,

“Each canister holds the remains of a human being, of course; each canister holds a corpse – reduced to dust, certainly, burnt to handfuls of ash, sharing that cindered condition with much of the star-bleached universe, but still cadaverous, still human. What strange chemistries we see emerging here between man and metal. Because these were people; they had identities and family histories, long before they became nameless patients, encased in metal, catalytic.

In some ways, these canisters serve a double betrayal: a man or woman left alone, in a labyrinth of medication, prey to surveillance and other inhospitable indignities, only then to be wed with metal, robbed of form, fused to a lattice of unliving minerals – anonymous. Do we see in Maisel’s images then – as if staring into unlabeled graves, monolithic and metallized, stacked on shelves in a closet – the tragic howl of reduction to nothingness, people who once loved, and were loved, annihilated?”

Or do we just see ourselves in another form? The byproduct of a chemical bloom of color, the matter we used to be creating a florescence marking not the end, but continuous and constant change, even after death?

A life should leave
deep tracks:
ruts where she
went out and back
to get the mail
or move the hose
around the yard;

The passage
of a life should show;
it should abrade.
And when life stops,
a certain space—
however small —
should be left scarred
by the grand and
damaging parade.
Things shouldn’t
be so hard.

(Excerpted from: Things Shouldn’t Be So Hard, from The Niagara River by Kay Ryan, Copyright © 2005 by Kay Ryan.)

Hopefully that is enough to tempt you to read the whole poem in The New York Times, and perhaps their profile of our nation’s new 16th Poet Laureate Consultant to the Library of Congress. Kay is a poet with a compelling personal history. She is a California poet compared to Emily Dickenson, was born where I grew up (interesting trivia at least to me), has never taken a creative writing class, and in a 2004 interview in The Christian Science Monitor, she said, “I have tried to live very quietly, so I could be happy.” Until now, Kay has been the outsider, shunned by her peers yet managing to persevere and maintain a dry sense of humor reflected in her work. I don’t think she has the same beautiful voice and hypnotic reading style as her better known predecessor Billy Collins, or the stark emotion and notoriety of Louise Glück, but I’m happy she was selected for the job because of her approachable style. The position certainly will not allow her to live very quietly, and at $35,000/year it certainly isn’t much more than she must have been making as an English teacher so it makes one wonder if it will make her very happy. But it will, as the above poem states, leave deep tracks. And as is usual for many of us, in the end I’m sure those tracks are not at all what she would have expected.

Headstone in Fernwood Cemetery without name or dateSometimes I’ll run across something interesting and hold onto it, waiting to write because not only am I sure something related will show up to give it context, but it gives me time to reflect on the connection it makes with the others. This week it was grave markers.

I received a call last week from a trade magazine, Stone in America (unfortunately not online). They had found my blog and were interested in the reasons for its genesis. It was a difficult question because as with all interests and hobbies, it can’t be distilled to a single answer. It’s the result of a love for storytelling, art and history. And conveniently that trinity is reflected in the visual stories embodied in epitaphs and tombstones. Take this item titled Comic Epitaphs from Today’s Inspiration, a blog focusing on illustration from the 30s and 40s. Leif likes the drawings, while I’m more interested in the words. Our focus is different but our interest is shared. It’s a stretch believing these are truly taken from actual headstones since there’s no more detail about them. But maybe they were never meant to truly be used as epitaphs, only as a way for folks to find a little light humor in the inevitability of death. A little mystery surrounds them.

Today their equivalent is becoming more technically sophisticated. No more colorfully illustrated and mysterious chapbooks to be found at the back of a bookstore. Now we seem to expect a whole “rich media” experience right in the moment. Which isn’t necessarily bad, it’s just mindbogglingly different. The latest trend in Japan employed by a memorial stone maker there uses sophisticated graphical bar codes (called QR codes which are related to, but dissimilar from RFID chips). They are inexpensive to produce, will likely have a longer lifespan in terms of access, and can be easily read by cell phones with cameras. The idea is to point and click your camera phone at one of these bar codes and, with the right software installed, the image will link you to a web page with more information about that physical object (as long as a web page is maintained of course). It requires you use less of your imagination, but provides a whole new world of information you never would’ve had access to before. Is it art or storytelling or both? Same could be said of Stonehenge. And perhaps someday people will look at these tiny QR codes embedded in monuments wonder at them in the same way. (Thanks to Karen for the tip!)

Even though DNR (Do Not Resuscitate) bracelets have been available in the U.S. for years, I have a feeling there will always be controversy surrounding whether a patient can/should refuse critical care. Especially in cases of unforeseen emergency. Imaginative methods of preventing heroic lifesaving measures will continue to challenge the law until we can come up with a foolproof system everyone is comfortable with. But since attitudes towards what would constitute compassionate treatment differ wildly when it comes to extreme paralysis, coma, or chronic pain, I hold little hope we’ll reach an agreement in my lifetime. Ask any Ambulance Driver and they will tell you even the study of resuscitation is an inexact science that requires a patient’s ignorance:

“We will never know the best way to treat people unless we do this research. And the only way we can do this research, since the person is unconscious, is without consent,” said Myron L. Weisfeldt of the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, who is overseeing the project. “Even if there are family members present, they know their loved one is dying. The ambulance is there. The sirens are going off. You can’t possibly imagine gaining a meaningful informed consent from someone under those circumstances.”

Which means depending on where you live, it really may not matter if you carry a card, have a tattoo or sign a Medical Directive since the rule for an EMT based on protocol is resuscitate first, ask questions later. This is also why DNR’s are usually reserved for patients with terminal illnesses who wish to die without invasive medical procedures rather than for people experiencing heart trauma or other medical emergencies. Ultimately (and frustratingly for some of us) it seems the only fail-proof (?) method is trusting your eventual caregivers to know your desires and be strong enough emotionally to fight for your rights, if it ever comes to that. (via BoingBoing)

UPDATE: In a related story, the Washington Post reports on a New York Ambulance service for recovering your organs if EMTs can’t save you. While organ donation is desperately needed, of course it makes people suspicious: “I think it’s disgusting,” said Michael A. Grodin, director of bioethics at Boston University. “People are going to worry when the ambulance comes out to their house whether they are there to care for them or to take their organs.”

Depending on your view of the legacy he left behind, Jamie Livingston is an inspiration or a man obsessed with capturing the ordinary. Either way he is now posthumously famous thanks to some great detective work and reporting by Chris Higgins and the dedication of his friends, Betsy and Hugh who are at this very moment struggling to keep the website live despite the crush of popularity currently crippling their server. “When Jamie Livingston, photographer, filmmaker, circus performer, accordion player, Mets fan, and above all, loyal friend, died on October 25th (his birthday) in 1997 at the age of 41, he left behind hundreds of bereft friends and a collection of 6,000 photographs neatly organized in small suitcases and wooden fruit crates…” No words, unless you count the words within the photos themselves. Just Polaroids. Which actually makes sense if you’re a filmmaker and one visual is worth, well, thousands of words. The whole mystery ends up being a bit unintentional but still, you can sense the exhilaration in Betsy’s writing,

i knew it would happen in some random way. i love it. the tears started coming when i pulled up OTBKB and read the first few words….

Another friend wrote to her:

i can just see the shit eatin’ grin on jamie — the new hero of the blogosphere’s — face! precious and priceless.

Isn’t that something? And based on the number of comments on OTBKB, it’s quite emotional for many people to glimpse this man’s life in such a way. The whole thread is really worth reading because some of the comments are as insightful as the photographs.

I have a friend who has opted to do something similar with his daughter. I won’t link to it here since she is a minor and still quite alive. (Of course, if he wishes he can leave the URL in the comments). But he has taken a photo of her at least once every month since she was born and already has quite a collection since she is nine now. I can’t help but wonder if she will chose to continue this inherited legacy once she is on her own, or if she will chose another. It certainly will be a great gift he will give her when she is old enough to understand the dedication it takes.

Besides getting up every morning and drinking coffee, there is no compulsion I religiously repeat the same way each day. There are others who journal or create one sketch per day but I have a kind of attention deficit disorder when it comes to finding my own work compelling enough to collect rather than simply give away. Maybe I haven’t found a gimmick and it is waiting for me in some yet undiscovered form. A collection of some kind that reflects who I am–once I find out who that really is.

From a BBC news article, “I think that there is a huge role for philosophical reflection as a way of changing our attitude towards events over which we have no control…We have to learn to make sense of a finite life.” Philosopher Havi Carel uses the tools she understands best to place a personal perspective on her own terminal illness. She is working on a book due out in the fall titled Illness (The Art of Living). I’m sure it will contain reflections similar to the one’s she mentions in the longer article of last March from The Independent,

“Illness breaks down the neutrality and transparency of our bodily existence. But it has also given me perspicuity. I observe my life and the lives of others and see them for what they are: brief, full of emotion and agony, activity and joy. I see people arguing over nothing, worrying about wrinkles and careers. Illness makes you immune to that. From the loneliness into which my illness forced me, I became able to see the world anew.”

Her’s is a different way to view illness: as an emotional world that can incorporate well-being and the possibility that you can be ill and still happy. It is an unexpected hypothesis and one that depends on a different and more creative approach and attitude than most of us are used to, or maybe more than we are even comfortable with. After all, no one says they’re sick or terminally ill with a smile. Or do they? Which is why this a useful bit of mind-bending.

To be sure Dr. Carel has creativity to spare. On doing a bit of further research I found an article she authored (from SCAN, The Journal of Media Art and Culture) that appears to draw from similar themes only in a very off-beat and fascinating way, with a really terrific bibliography at the end. I won’t reveal too much about it since you only have to read the first paragraph of the link to see where she takes the essay, but I will say it involves illness as a metaphor to one of the most horrific monster movies of all time. The one that completely freaked me out when I was a kid and to this day I can’t bring myself to ever watch again. To draw such parallels you certainly do need to be an out-of-the-box thinker. (Thanks to Chris at Crooked Timber for the heads-up).

Aesop's fable, Tortoise and HareAlthough it has a bland headline, this article from the NYTimes is so much more important and interesting than that other story grabbing attention about the guy who bought a coffin branded as a can of PBR beer (you can search for it but I won’t bother).

I find this idea of “slow medicine” compelling because I’m familiar with similarly named movements, like slow food, and slow leadership. Such labels are more honestly about simply increasing personal awareness of your environment and those conscious decisions we each make about how to best operate within that environment. They also all seem to echo the meditative principles of the Eightfold Path where the wisdom and ethics of alleviating suffering are really about doing the right thing.

I think the conflict we feel when it comes to end of life care relates to the values we project onto others–the choices we would make for ourselves in similar situations, which might not be the best choice for another. For example I remember my brother, in emotional distress, telling me we had to do everything possible to “save” our father, “to give him a fighting chance.” Dad was at that moment in and out of consciousness, breathing artificially, in an ICU due to a virulent strain of pneumonia. Since he couldn’t be consulted (and I only suspected what he’d want based on my own prejudice) what was I to do? Play the angel of death? I asked my brother to what end would we be keeping him alive? He had suffered several strokes and was blind in one eye. He had been nearly deaf for years and to add insult to injury he suffered from dementia associated with Alzheimer’s. How heroic should we tell the doctors and nurses to be? In hindsight I understand and still remember my brother’s panic. Doing anything at all seemed better than the waiting and helplessness of a bedside vigil. He was angry with me and lashed out by saying he wouldn’t want to be under my care because I’d probably pull the plug the first chance I had. It was a difficult situation and hard to hear. Just like this list from the CDC on who gets lifesaving care in a pandemic is a difficult one to read.

As the doctor in the article states, our love of life has predisposed us to aggressive care. I don’t believe the real question is even about cost or risk. It requires we ask when our honor, dignity and humanity requires that while we may not welcome it, we allow death to take its course because it is the right path. And the right answer will often be hard to accept, making the right choice life-changing.

\That is a quote from an Emily Dickinson poem and the title of Joyce Carol Oates‘ new book, Wild Nights, Stories about the Last Days of Poe, Dickinson, Twain, James, and Hemingway. Liane Hansen (NPR) interviewed Oates this morning and I learned this book is a group of fictional memoirs written in the style and voice of the authors which reinvent climactic moments toward the end of their lives.

I recently wondered if someone would create something like this, even mentioning Mark Twain, and here it appears! Amazing. I can’t wait to read it. The radio interview was too short but revealed a few real personal idiosyncrasies the stories were built on, opening with another great quote from James that JCO keeps posted above her desk: “We work in the dark—we do what we can—we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion, and our passion is our task. The rest is the madness of art.” How true, we do what we can, we give what we have and as JCO says, “…we can, in times of emergency, be so different from our previous lives.” Which is how her reincarnation of James spending his last days working in a hospital changes him. In reality Dickinson never left her house after age 20 and left behind 776 insightful poems but in an alternate history JCO makes her into a replicant, a robot purchased for entertainment but who ends up instead revealing the poverty of her owner’s lives. Finally, Liane also briefly mentioned Ray Smith, Joyce’s husband of over 45 years, who passed away this last February which I’m sure made finishing this novel even more difficult for her. Her reply about how tired and unmotivated his passing has made her makes me wonder how much more she will feel compelled to write or if her “madness” has left with the departure of her long time companion’s support and strength. Well, it’s time to trundle off to the library to make another new book request. Sundays are a good day for that.

Last year Randy Paush and his 70-minute talk, now known as “The Last Lecture” become extremely popular. Now it has become an inspirational book containing “ideas for achieving one’s childhood dreams” which has spawned a “…contest seeking examples of great parental advice either dispensed or received.” I have mixed feelings about this.

I’ve read that Paush was astonished at his sudden notoriety and only cared about “…the first three copies of the book.” One of his friends said, “Randy never, ever had any expectation that his lecture would turn into the phenomenon that it has become. The main reason it was taped at all was so that his children, especially his younger two, would know something about him.” At around the 55 minute mark (where it deepens into something more than a professional resume) he shares his success depended on the blessings he was born with and talks about the wisdom imparted by those closest to him. A contest doesn’t quite mirror the intent.

Whether Paush (or hundreds of comments) inspires you or makes you cringe shouldn’t matter. Leaving something personal after death is very common. We all have something intimate to pass along. What should matter is that we be encouraged to do so regardless of children. While wisdom isn’t the strict purview of the dying, or even the old, those groups do tend to have a sharper focus on the essential. And despite Paush’s claim that the “headfake” of the lecture was that it wasn’t intended for the audience, his reflections enlightened everyone who saw it. I wish the Times had used the opportunity to promote ethical wills to their readership (which I’ve mentioned before). I realize all the hype over social media encourages us to feel like everyone must want to read our pearls of wisdom (honestly, they don’t). But unlike blog posts your “final love letter” isn’t addressed to the world. It is written to a few very specific people who mean the most.

There are already 324 comments (and counting) of people sharing their advice with strangers on a web page that will soon enough go dark without benefit to anyone. Whereas if they’d taken the same trouble to write these thoughts in a letter, included a photo or two, and put it in a safe place (–even reviewing it once in a while), it might just survive long enough to make a deeper impression. Much more valuable than a fleeting contest with a questionable prize. As much as I hate to admit it, I understand why people would rather leave a public comment than write a personal letter.

The insightful Venn Diagrams of Jessica Hagy and the mind-bending humor and personal history of Demetri Martin (especially when he uses flip charts or drawings) are like pie and ice cream. Perfect, delicious, simplicity. I wonder if they collaborated it would be mind blowing amazing, or if their talents would cancel each other out. Maybe they even already know one another and share ideas. Anyway, together with “Wait, Wait” they are all good for a Sunday smile. See, it’s not all death and dreariness 24/7 around here. There are always times when a little humor steps in for balance.

tonbridgepmthn.jpgThat’s the traditional comeback line to a long stare. Yet there are some things we just can’t help staring at in order to capture an essence that escapes us at first glance. That is what the photos of Walter Schels and Beate Lakotta do for me. They cause me to examine them so closely I find myself staring, captivated by what Cory Doctorow calls, “…the difference between flesh animated and the empty vessel gigantic and unmistakable, even when the before-death shot is of someone terribly ill.” And interestingly, because of the intimate juxtaposition of life before death and the amazing brief stories they tell about their feelings towards that death, they are more powerful than the similarly somber cabinet cards or postmortem photography of the late 1800s (where equally as many children as adults were photographed).

Pulling out a camera after death must certainly be difficult emotionally. I know it never occurred to me to preserve that particular moment. It’s also hard to judge what might be insensitive behavior toward other family and friends in attendance at a deathbed who might consider it an intrusion or at least be uncomfortable with it. It’s true we can watch it in the abstract on tv, or in movies, or in games, but there does seem to be something odd about, “lights, camera…inaction” when someone you love is involved. (Photo credit: Paul Frecker collection of 19th century postmortem photography)

Hicken’s fur bearing troutAn interesting line from “The Fake Memoirist’s Survival Guide, How to embellish your life story without getting caught.” It is the author’s final advice to would be memoir fabulists (a fabulous label, imho): “Feel free, however, to insist that you’re telling the “emotional truth.” The details don’t matter, as long as you’re painting an accurate picture of how you felt—real truth is for stenographers.” Yes, I sense he is being snide, and although not everyone will agree with my artistic sensibilities, I actually believe feeling is able to create an equally accurate picture of a person’s life.

Haven’t we always called them fish tales? I suppose when you’re still alive and getting an advance from a publishing house stretching the truth becomes a rather serious charge. Or maybe daring to cross the trip wire between stretching and bald-face lying is what makes people upset. In my eyes some of the best storytellers were the best embellishers. Perhaps when it comes to life stories critics feel that’s where honesty counts most (or at least more than day-to-day honesty)? A dirtier crime is plagiarism but harder to do in the context of biography, although there must already be a book out there somewhere that mashes up several interesting real biographies to create a whole new imaginary person? A conglomerate constructed from questionable biographies: the intrigue of a Mata Hari, the glamour of a Alice Sheldon, the fearlessness of a Beryl Markham

Regardless, like applying a little (fake) makeup, I’m not sure I’d want to write my own personal history without enhancement. Memory is selective and who’s to say I didn’t live it as I felt it. If after I die someone calls me a fish-teller I would hope a friend would stand proudly in my defense and say, “Aye, and from a Long Line of truth stretchers and myth mongers she is too!” That wouldn’t be so far from the truth. Sometimes stories are easier to tell if they come from the heart than from the head despite the obvious difference between personal history and formal historical research (often subtly manipulated for the audience as well). Ultimately even a tall tale from a deceased loved one is worth boxes upon boxes of certificates, public records and canceled checks. My advice is to encourage yours to leave you at least one.

gorywoman.pngI recently visited Mount Auburn Cemetery which is one of the earliest “garden” cemeteries in the U.S. An extremely well-kept and beautiful place (thank you Karen, my photos don’t do it justice) and I’ve even mentioned it briefly in this blog before. While I was there, leaving yet another note for one of the staff I’d been trying to arrange a meeting with, I realized that my repeated attempts potentially had the effect of branding me as yet another cemetery obsessed goth chick or slightly downbeat Ruth Gordon when actually I’m closer to being Barnesian in my approach and attitude than either of those other stereotypes. In fact I’m looking forward to reading Julian Barnes’ latest book, Nothing To Be Frightened Of, since it does sound so much like what runs through my head on a regular basis. Well, the staff member never did decide to give me the time of day, and although of course I’m disappointed I can’t say I blame her. Despite my insistence I’m not morbidly obsessed with graves other than to appreciate cemeteries as rather pleasant sculpture parks, I must admit that a very early love of Edward Gorey did influence my warped sense of goulish humor and fondness for Edwardian landscapes and draped grecian urns. An idiosyncrasy that does tend to set me apart from your average Joe-anne, although from her perspective I’m likely not all that unique.

sixwords.pngFor those of us intimidated by the idea of writing a biography, this new book shows that sometimes six words can be enough. Not Quite What I Was Planning: Six Word Memoirs by Writers Famous and Obscure is, as NPR writes: “…sometimes sad, often funny — and always concise” and they posted a gallery of illustrated ones online. What I found interesting was this project began by using Twitter in a contest requiring you to sum up your life in six words (sponsored by the online magazine, Smith). Yet, as anyone who has ever tried to write a haiku can attest, finding those perfect six words can be pretty difficult. Simplicity is never really that simple, which is what makes this so brilliant.

When I first heard of Twitter in 2006 I thought it was simply another slightly foolish time waster for those people perpetually tethered to the net. After all, who cares what you’re doing every moment of the day. Then I heard it could be a viable alternative to the phone when communicating in a disaster. And now it seems to be the perfect tool for creating and sharing this kind of “life poetry.” Once again first impressions aren’t always the most reliable ones when it comes to evaluating technology. That doesn’t mean I’m going to suddenly start using it of course. But if I wanted to brainstorm and gather tidbits of easily digestible personal information it sure would be an entertaining option.

images.jpegYou could argue that every day we all unintentionally or indirectly kill something; ending the life of an insect caught in the bathtub, eating meat or eggs, or wearing leather. But this blogger has a job which requires her to euthanize injured or sick animals:I work with a lot of injured wildlife. Also not wild animals that are just in a lot of pain. Sometimes I have to euthanize them. I decided to record each animal I euthanize here.” What a very tough job that must be even if you manage to find a certain peace in understanding it as an act of grace. I’m sure there are instances where the job is overwhelming. I remember very vividly the vets who helped me with jcee, and earlier with little edd. I was more than a wreck, but each time they brought a kind of mercy to the end of those lives I loved and I was so grateful for their powerful acts of kindness and understanding. There is nothing more difficult than making the decision to end an animals suffering and then having to watch the consequences of that decision, but at least advances in medical care and human understanding has made it so the end doesn’t have to be painful. Although I also wanted to be a vet when I was a kid I sensed way back then I didn’t have the fortitude to be able to hurt something in order to help it. I’ve always truly admired people like this who can.

sontagbook.jpgThis one hit home for me, an excerpt from “Swimming in a Sea of Death, A Son’s Memoir” from an interview by Terry Gross on NPR:

“Thinking back, I wish I’d hugged her close or held her hand. But neither of us had ever been physically demonstrative with the other, and while much has been said and written about how people transcend their pettier sides in crises, in my experience, at least, what actually happens is that more often we reveal what lies beneath the waterline of what we essentially are.”

In his book David Rieff writes about his mother, Susan Sontag, and her struggle with cancer. She died around the same time as my own mother, with mine being only a few years older. David voices some of the same “unanswerable questions of a survivor” that in hindsight plagued my ability to talk openly with my own mother about her failing health and the forced cheerfulness, or in my case ignorance, of the gravity of her diagnosis. And while my mother was not a famous writer, I can say without hesitation she loved life equally as much in her own way, whereas my feelings tend to drift towards the “…eighteenth-century French writer who wrote a friend asking “why, hating life as I do, do I fear death so much?” That was Larkin’s perspective, too. It was even Canetti’s when he wrote, “One should not confuse the craving for life with endorsement of it.” Regardless of a personal perspective on death, Rieff puts the difficulty of consoling another facing it into sharp focus, and everyone who has confronted similar situations will be left nodding their heads. He talks of the things he felt he should have seen, the do-overs if given the chance. He examines them without the overly sentimental perspective one would expect from a child who has lost a parent. They are simply those unanswerable questions we are each left with in the end, “Did I do the right thing? Could I have done more? Or proposed an alternative? Or been more supportive? Or forced the issue of death to the fore? Or concealed it better?” and there is no predicting them. Listening to him talk about what he wanted from her and what he felt she wanted in her own death is an interesting reflection on death and his mother’s struggle to deny it purchase.

deadbug.jpgThe Dead Bug Funeral Kit comes with a 32-page Illustrated Buggy Book of Eulogies with Ribbon Bookmark, Casket, Grave Marker, White Clay Flower, Burial Scroll, and Pouch of Grass Seed.” So this is where I show a lack of a sense of humor (which usually I pride myself on). But as silly as this is, it’s not very green. A cardboard box would be much more appropriate. And it’s expensive, comparatively, considering I believe a good bug is a dead bug. But then bugs are just not my thing. Bugs need to decompose to enrich the soil. We all do for that matter. Wouldn’t it be better to teach our kids those lessons than purchasing treacle in a tin? Or at least have them construct it carefully themselves? Or hey, junior’s first lesson in cremation perhaps? After all, what kid doesn’t like to burn things.

Anyway, so it’s kitschy. Ok-fine. As far a pop culture goes I’m far more interested in interpreting the dream at the end of No Country for Old Men. You may consider that link a spoiler if you haven’t seen the film, so if you’re sensitive about such things, just come back to it later. All Cohen brothers films are worth seeing on the big screen. I went to see it today while carting around the apocalyptic anthology Wastelands (which surprisingly contains no Cormac McCarthy) and it’s no wonder I’ve lost some of my sense of humor. Bleak as these stories are (and pleasing to my catastropharian soul), it’s hard to be that concerned for insects that will remain, and likely rejoice, long after the rest of us are dead and gone.

UPDATE: And now death takes a holiday in South Korea where a little over $300 will get you a fake funeral. I admit, what people willingly spend their money on is often beyond me.

tattoo.jpgWhen I think of important events in my life and how they’ve left their marks on my soul I also acknowledge their physical parallels in the marks on my body. We all have them, the scars acquired from bicycle accidents, chicken pox or surgery scars that are all unintentional marks with stories behind them. Then there are intentional marks, the tattoos that have become more common and less taboo in our society, each with its own story as well. When we think of saving stories about ourselves or our lives we don’t often consider those aspects. They become so much a part of us we must be reminded and queried, “Where’d you get that scar grandpa?” or “Why did you chose that particular design auntie?” before we think to include them in our biography ™. We think of life stories in terms of writing on paper or screen or the impressions we create with digital media. But what about the “writing on the body”? It’s analog but do we think of preserving it? Sometimes preservation happened unintentionally to be later found by archaeologists to prove the long history of tattoos along with other cultural artifacts, but not often intentionally. There are variations that come up in literature itself, or use the body to preserve the history of the donor. It’s called anthropodermic bibliopegy, and for most this seems a horrifying idea. I wonder why that is. How we became so fearful of physical remains. Why we would consider keeping our loved one’s ashes but not their skin, especially if it was marked with a story that was important to them at one time?

pink_dice.gifA neighbor of mine died last Friday from a heart attack. When I asked his wife if they’d discussed his burial wishes she said no, they felt if they never discussed it, it wouldn’t happen. This is despite the fact he had a medical history of heart disease. Of course she knew death happens whether you discuss it or not, but I was shocked they had never discussed it in their 48 years of marriage. Luckily her children will help her muddle through the details of the coming months. Not everyone chooses to prepare for death regardless of the odds. Some people just don’t feel it’s necessary, after all, they won’t be around and people do have a way of adapting. But I thought bringing up the topic of odds might be useful for perspective. Here is an excerpt from a 2005 article titled conveniently, The Odds of Dying. I’m sure the insurance industry uses figures similar to these as well. It’s also interesting to note that although we aren’t all high rolling gamblers, we are often more afraid of dying from remote causes rather than the more mundane and obvious. Just another method of denial perhaps.

(UPDATE: Just spotted this PSA from the American Lung Association titled “Odds” as a warning against starting smoking. They contrast the chance of getting lung cancer with getting hit by a car–a visually dramatic comparison of 1 in 7 compared to 1 in 100).

The more specific figures are based on 2001, the most recent year for which complete data are available. Other odds, indicated with an asterisk (*) are based on long-term data.

All figures below are for U.S. residents. (personal note, I sure wish WordPress made making tables easier)

Cause of Death Lifetime Odd


Heart Disease………………………..1-in-5
Cancer ……………………………….1-in-7
Stroke…………………………………1-in-23
Accidental Injury…………………….1-in-36
Motor Vehicle Accident*……………1-in-100
Intentional Self-harm (suicide)…….1-in-121
Falling Down………………………….1-in-246
Assault by Firearm…………………..1-in-325
Fire or Smoke………………………..1-in-1,116
Natural Forces (heat, cold, storms, quakes, etc.)…1-in-3,357
Electrocution*……………………….1-in-5,000
Drowning……………………………..1-in-8,942
Air Travel Accident*………………..1-in-20,000
Flood* (incl. in Natural Forces above)……………..1-in-30,000
Legal Execution……………………1-in-58,618
Tornado* (incl. in Natural Forces above)………….1-in-60,000
Lightning Strike (incl. in Natural Forces above)…..1-in-83,930
Snake, Bee or other Venomous Bite or Sting*…….1-in-100,000
Earthquake (incl. in Natural Forces above)………..1-in-131,890
Dog Attack…………………………1-in-147,717
Asteroid Impact*………………….1-in-200,000**
Tsunami*…………………………..1-in-500,000
Fireworks Discharge………………1-in-615,488

**perhaps 1-in-500,000

SOURCES: National Center for Health Statistics, CDC; American Cancer Society; National Safety Council; International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies; World Health Organization; USGS; Clark Chapman, SwRI; David Morrison, NASA; Michael Paine, Planetary Society Australian Volunteers

Solar video panel for gravestonesNow that sounds like quite a job title. Please someone, offer me this job? Not many people would find it as fascinating as I do–but if (the historical predecessor to Jon Stewart and the Daily Show) Ned Sherrin enjoyed it, you might say such work has more entertainment and enlightenment value than appears at first blush. In fact one of the many tributes to him said, “…Sherrin has in recent years also been memorial services correspondent of the Oldie magazine, because it was said he went to them all anyway. And in his autobiography published in 2005, Ned Sherrin, the Autobiography, he makes it clear he will continue to attend the memorial services of others until it is his turn.” He would attend funerals not just to write an obit, but to comment on them as a theater critic might review a play.

At the same time he gathered an anthology titled Remembrance: An Anthology of Readings, Prayers and Music Chosen for Memorial Services with proceeds to benefit an English hospice organization. Again ahead of his time, he believed everyone wanted to personalize (or orchestrate) their own memorial in some way rather than rely on what others might say. Strangely nowhere is described how his own funeral was performed. As an actor and writer I’d be surprised if he didn’t at least have a parting shot for his friends and fans. After all, isn’t a memorial a type of theatrical event? It’s a pity that not only is the above-referenced title out of print, but equally disappointing is I can find no record online of even one of his funeral review columns from the Oldie. Seems like although his life’s work is fondly remembered, the work itself has dropped into a black hole. (And yes, that is a pun.)

All that’s left to do now is let that job title segue nicely into “RIPtv” as yet another fascinating idea whose time is still yet to come? I’m almost shocked that some producer hasn’t at least tried to cash in on this yet. [Thanks to Alana at obituaryforum.com]

star trek urnSomehow I’m reluctant to commit to something today that is supposed to represent me in perpetuity. There were passions I had as a teen that simply feel a tad outdated now. I loved ponies when I was small, and was a huge fan of Star Trek even up to at least ten years ago, I’m just not sure how far into the future I want to be remembered for those singular passions when I have so many more yet to explore. It comes down to that natural gap between forward moving change, and the sentimentality with which we all remember those things that contributed to our growth. That is why I relate to the tribe of folk who enthusiastically remix old passions into new forms. A friend once made me laugh with the comment that golfers would love to be buried on golf courses. At first I thought he was joking since I personally don’t golf, but the more I thought about it the more sense it made. What incredible untapped potential for course owners to make golf courses more “green” by making them dual use. Why should golfing be any different from sailing when it comes to disposing of your remains in the environment you most enjoyed in life? And what a wonderful way to remember Uncle Bob: when putting your way through his favorite tee you dedicate each swing to your old friend. I’ve buried some of my parent’s jewelry in their backyard and even left a memento or two stuffed into the insulation in the attic to remain even after the house has passed to new owners. It was their favorite place so it seems more fitting to leave it there than to bury it with them in some remote cemetery where only their bones remain and not the memories they created. Besides, that way the walls will talk when time remixes what we’ve built today into the Tells of tomorrow.

Japanese cemeteryThis is a beautiful telling of the week long series of events surrounding a Japanese (Shinto) funeral. Despite having spent time in Japan, and being privileged enough to visit some amazing cemeteries, as gaijin such a level of participation in a culture’s traditions (along with weddings) is of course very rare. If you’re interested in a fictional tale that recounts similar cultural differences then you might enjoy an entertaining book called American Fuji . It is about an American professor who loses her job teaching English and eventually becomes employed at a Japanese “fantasy funeral” company. I find it comforting that there are so many ways to celebrate a person’s passing and yet our need to honor the dead in some way meaningful to us is universal. Traditions are imploding and exploding everywhere – everything is coming together, for better or worse, and we can no longer pretend we’re all living in different worlds because we’re on different continents.” –Philip Glass

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