Last words

epitaph.jpgOn the headstone in the picture to the left there is a very hard to read inscription without a name or a date. It says, “My glass is run, my grave you see, be sure prepare to follow me” which is a succinct little bit of preplanning advice. After all, what defines you enough to remain as your epitaph long after you’ve gone? One of the hardest choices I had to make was what, if anything, to put on my parent’s stone. I thought I remembered my mother saying once that she wanted the words, “She tried her best” or something similar, but since I couldn’t be sure she’s now stuck with “forever beloved” for eternity. I know, not very creative but I was under duress. The kids are left with the responsibility it seems. Take Kurt Vonnegut’s kids. They either get to choose this epitaph on his humor (according to Fox News anyway) or this bit about music and God. And yet what everyone remembers him for is the quote, “So it goes.” And then there are the classics. Those inscriptions that make having something to say even more difficult than it already is. What prompted me to post this though is the brouhaha over the approved “symbols of belief” permitted at the veterans memorial cemetery and a soldier’s family’s fight that he be remembered as a pagan. Maybe instead of an epitaph you just want a symbol or a statue? And would choosing a symbol instead of a string of words be any easier? Maybe just saying nothing makes the biggest statement of all?

Recreating a near death experience

5witssmaller2.jpgIf you’re familiar with the movie Life Of Brian you’ll remember the “sandal scene” where the followers of Brian all declare that people should hold up their sandals as a sign of the messiah, with the dissenters saying “no, we must follow the gourd!” and then an argument ensues. It’s all very funny and it reminds me somewhat of the ritual of trendspotting which seems to be very popular lately. Yet I can’t deny my curiosity over the cultural shifts entrepreneurs create when coming up with innovative ideas. So I checked out Guy’s (and Mark Newman’s) recommendation for a similar site called Springwise and found I really enjoyed the organization and collection of creative ideas highlighted there. We humans can be such clever creatures sometimes.

One of them is an urban amusement park in Boston called 5W!TS (five wits), “…a venue and the producer of an interactive, walk-through adventure game. Think of it as an urban amusement park, with just one ride: a very elaborate, very high-tech haunted house. 5W!TS’ first show is TOMB, a 40-minute adventure set in a realistic rendition of an archaeological dig site in Egypt. In groups of 2-15 people, and accompanied by a guide, participants try to make their way to the pharaoh’s burial chamber. Unlike regular attractions, the path and story of the adventure aren’t fixed, but depend on whether participants are able to solve challenges and avoid traps along the way. Not every team makes it to the burial chamber, and losers are faced with a faux death experience before leaving the game.”

Okay, so there is a bit of breathless hype in the advertisement for this park, but stay with me here for a moment. I know this suggestion is a bit odd (or maybe not, coming from me), but how interesting would it be if this “faux death experience” could be manipulated in slightly less entertaining and more educational ways to permit its use as a teaching tool for hospice workers and end of life care givers? I’m sure your imagination can run as wild with this as mine does. So of course I thought it worth sharing. These are sure interesting times when real life events can mimic imaginary ones. I wonder sometimes if it will help or hurt us in the long run.

Maybe I’ve been too serious

Girls and Corpses Magazine coverI’m sure in the study of death and dying there is a place for levity. Even in the most serious subjects there are anomalies where tucking something neatly into a predetermined category just won’t work. For instance, the Dewey Decimal System we’ve all grow up with is widely understood to be an imperfect classification. Which is why cataloging is a skill not even every librarian has. So you can understand why when I encounter strange crossovers I hesitate posting them because they might not fit neatly along with everything else. Or they’re just plain stupid. Or they’ve been done better elsewhere. Well, today is the day I throw caution to the wind. Yes, you can welcome me back.

To herald my return to blogging, lest anyone think for a moment that I’ve lost my sense of humor, I provide you Girls and Corpses Magazine. Can you believe this? Well, hurray for the alternative press. Just when you thought there wasn’t anything new under the sun…or the earth. I’m not normally into the horror/zombie genre but since this seems more like a girlie magazine than anything, I figured I’d make an exception.

I don’t think an extra category will be necessary. But I’ll keep it in mind.

Where does that highway lead to?

panslabrynth.jpg“I venture to suggest this solution to the ancient problem: The Library is unlimited and cyclical. If an eternal traveler were to cross it in any direction, after centuries he would see that the same volumes were repeated in the same disorder (which, thus repeated, would be an order: The Order). My solitude is gladdened by this elegant hope.”
(Borges, Jorge Luis. Labyrinths (1964). The Library of Babel, p. 58)

I feel my life is a maze at times, and a labyrinth at others. When I run into what feels like a dead-end or when I come to a fork in the road, then it’s a maze. When I feel that I’m on the right path, or that something good is about to happen, I speed up and take the obvious and straightforward way. Mazes are a game of logic (or a confrontation of fear) and labyrinths are a meditation or prayer. So it depends on your perspective, is life a game or a river predestined for you that flows naturally from birth to death? Or is it both at different times? The only thing I know now is that when your in the middle of one, turning back doesn’t seem to be a viable option.

So I’m taking a break from this journal for a few days. I’ll be back in a bit, after a few more turns.

Rest in Pink

presidio pet cemetery Copyright © John Teoh 1997-2000If you’ve read any of my previous posts you’ll know that I find euthanizing a pet one of life’s more difficult and painful experiences. Yesterday Paulina described the death of Pink “…the mangy old tom cat who has brightened my days” and I asked her if I could share her private feelings because I’ve always liked her descriptions and she writes in a way that is poetic without being squishy sentimental. Similar to love there are different kinds of grief. She mentions “pureform” grief, as in simple (not to be confused with simplistic)…undiluted with conflicting emotions. This puzzled me because my own experience with grief has always seemed so layered that finding a pure form of it would be like the pure distillation of anything: more intense, more powerful, not subtle at all. But she describes it better than I do (posted with her permission),

“..I’m a person where the grief hits in waves, maybe in private (not much of a weeper); and the form my grieving takes here is at times the disbelief kind–still expecting him to Show Up, bang on my door, jump into my lap when I am sitting outside reading, greet my car… one of the manifestations of pureform mourning: you just keep expecting the beloved, the departed to appear/re-appear…

I was also thinking about how, even more so than most human-animal relations, this was a relationship of mutual courtship, and not an arranged marriage. It was truly a situation where I had been observing Pink’s spriteliness/pluck/beauty/drollery/humor/indefatigeable charm for months, letting him gradually approach–and I still remember the day he first jumped into my lap. He roamed around the nabe, and I was always amused and admiring of him: for a cat, he had true sentience and interactivity (would always look you in the eye. would talk with you, absolutely non-skittish and fearless, doglike in his aplomb. He would demand to be held or skritched or lie on your stomach, but then he would wander off…). and with time, he and I became ever more bonded, spent more time together. People told me that in the last year or so, he hung around my house even when I wasn’t home…There are no complicating ambivalences as most human love relationships have. He and I just dug each other, enjoyed each other’s company, and grew ever more fond with time.

I seem to run into a Great cat about once a decade: Sentiment, [in the 70s], Buck was my lord of flatbush I obtained from a private rescue catlady in queens in 1985; and Pink entered my life in 1995. I know I made the right decision to have him put to sleep (I noticed him drooling the day I brought him in to the vet, so obviously the tumor was really interfering with his ability to swallow) but the grief I feel over his death is of the most basic kind: of questioning why death has to exist (well, duh!) and why we lose those we love and all the classic dumbass shaking your hand against fate that all true mourners go through.

You don’t often find beings you connect with. Kindred spirits are so rare.

Pureform grief.”

At first I would think that missing something is such a human condition. Then I come home and my own cat is all over me as if he hasn’t seen me in weeks (no, it’s not about food) and I wonder if that’s just something we share with pets and something that happens with bonding of all kinds. Is it even a chemical thing? A form of pure emotion that manifests between two beings, happens with repeated contact and increases with mutual respect?

And strangely enough this mention of loss and cats reminds me of the final portion of “Last Words” published in the New Yorker after William Burroughs‘ death.

Thinking is not enough.
Nothing is. There is no final enough of wisdom, experience — any fucking thing. No Holy Grail, no Final Satori, no final solution. Just conflict. Only thing can resolve conflict is love, like I felt for Fletch and Ruski, Spooner and Calico. Pure love.
What I feel for my cats present and past.
Love? What is It?
Most natural painkiller what there is.

Wish you were here

postcard.jpgOnce upon a time I organized an exhibit on postcard art titled Flyways displaying cards sent from one artist to another following the migratory patterns of birds. All the cards were attached to white silk banners so that when a viewer walked by the banner would flutter a bit. It was quite extraordinary and I’m sorry there seems to be no record of it I can share available on the net. I was reminded of the power of postcards when revisiting one of my favorite sites, the Nonist, who is the type of incredibly clever artist and writer I always wanted to be. (For example, just look at this “public service” pamphlet on Blog Depression that anyone who has ever kept a journal of any kind can relate to.)

There is also something about the nature of a postcard that entices people to share without a huge commitment and perhaps that’s why they are so popular for divulging intimate secrets. There is even a call to artists for the collaborative project Wishing You Were Here, the standard phrase we use when we’re missing someone far away. I remember the last piece of mail art I received from a friend. It was hand-made, the front had a piece of dryer lint cut out in the shape of a tree and the message on the back was directed not to me, but to the postman who would be delivering it to me. Of all the snail mail I’ve ever kept, this is one of the most precious. I don’t even know where Nathan is anymore, we lost touch with one another long ago, but I still keep a piece of him in my box full of small ephemera. If there is any more physical example of a memory I don’t know what it is.

So long, and thanks for all the wit

toweldaytowel.jpgIt feels like I outgrew Dilbert when office cubicle humor no longer seemed funny but tragic. I still think it is an entertaining strip, but most comic strips seem to be weak versions of their former selves anymore. Everyone can probably come up with a good reason why that might be, but what really struck me is that in abandoning the medium I lost the philosopher as well. I was reminded of him quite by accident because of his “goal post” called My Plans for Sainthood

“…My plan is to wait until it looks as if I only have a few years to live. Then I’ll become Catholic and hire a PR agent to document my many acts of charity and kindness. For example, I’ll start a leper colony in my backyard. That way I can do my good deeds without traveling. If the neighbors complain, I’ll just say, “Hey, you don’t see me complaining about your dog. And my lepers don’t bark every time a car goes by….its good to have goals.”

Which in itself is amusing and I could’ve left it at that, but then I read on a little bit more and found a bit of everyday reflection that was special enough to add. It’s called The Meaning of Meaning and I’ve quoted just a part of it,

“…I remember when Dilbert hit it big and it became clear that I would never again have to worry about money. It was a wonderful feeling, but it didn’t last. I went from happy to hollow with no warning. The first moment that I could afford any car I wanted, I lost interest in having a nice car. I simply couldn’t see the point, if there ever was one. Success is surprisingly disorienting…I measure my success by how many people would attend my funeral if I died tomorrow. I try to make sure that number grows every year. It’s a theoretical number, since I’m very healthy and plan to outlive all of you. But it’s the best measurement I can think of.”

Scott Adams (and my other favorite Adams) are just a few of the humorists who always manage important things to say about life, death the universe and everything. People recognize it and love them for it. The Douglas tribute was one of the more touching memorials I can remember so I’m sure Scott will get his wish for a grand send-off. If not he could always follow John Cleese’s lead and stage his own beforehand. With all the comedians I know and the great material I provide them, at least someone should have something funny to say at mine. I’m counting on it.

Survivors see omens

didion2.jpgIt’s not only the weather in California that is consistently different from the rest of the country but there is an attitude that goes with it that few authors have ever tried to explore. That’s why I’m so drawn to Joan Didion because her writing, especially Where I Was From, managed to help frame some of the ambivalence I feel about being a native daughter myself. There is a good review in the New York Times about it although I think they miss the sense of California dreaming she invokes. If you are ever curious about the entitlement most Californians seem to flaunt then reading this book will help you understand part of that mystique.

Making the cultural examination personal, explaining sensations as well as history, that is her true talent because The Year of Magical Thinking is one of those books that make you feel like a friend is in the room talking about how grief feels. Even with a mood of numb detachment, so many passages are spot on you will recognize yourself in them. Which is why a stage play adapted from her memoir called The Sound of One Heart Breaking makes so much sense. Here is one passage in particular that stuck with me,

Survivors look back and see omens, messages, they missed. They remember the tree that died, the gull that splattered onto he hood of the car. They live by symbols. They read meaning into the barrage of spam on the unused computer, the delete key that stops working, the imagined abandonment in the decision to replace it. …One day I was talking on the telephone in his office I mindlessly turned the pages of the dictionary that he had always left open on the table by the desk. When I realized what I had done I was stricken: what word had he last looked up, what had he been thinking? By turning the pages had I lost the message? Or had the message been lost before I touched the dictionary?…

This book won the National Book Award in 2005 and even on Amazon you can see how many people have bothered to leave reviews. It is a beautifully told story about a difficult subject. I hope this play comes to her old home town someday soon.

The soul remembers, the mind forgets?

kanji symbol for soulI really want to understand quantum physics and neuroscience but these are a few of the many topics I’ve just never been able to wrap my brain around (and yes, that was a pun). But whenever people write about Digital Immortality I have to admit a curiosity because if that is true, then perhaps all this going on I do about preserving personal histories will be moot by 2027 anyway. Of course my faith in all this talk of transhumanism and singularity is challenged whenever I have computer issues and have to reboot because of a mysterious glitch so I rarely give it much serious consideration. But every once in a while I come across a post suggesting a potential convergence of science and religion. It mentions the “science of consciousness” and in conclusion states,

“…if it could indeed be scientifically proven that “consciousness exists apart from the purely mechanistic or biological workings of our temporal bodies,” what kind of ramifications, if any, would such a revelation have in the area of Artificial Intelligence? Or, for that matter, cybernetics. Especially given the recent advances in quantum computing which may theoretically allow humans to “upload” themselves into computers within the next 50 years….Indeed, based on this new “quantum consciousness” theory, if we may someday have the technology to upload a complete human brain neural simulation, would we still be limited to retaining only data, with no way of retaining a person’s underlying “consciousness?” Would the person remain, or just the memories? And what does that even mean?”

Just in terms of brain science and the question of soul the article and the links in it bring up interesting things to think about. Is a person only the sum of their memories? Will technology enable people to preserve their own memories despite those same memories being malleable and changeable? Is it even more important to preserve memories than it is to buy them a headstone? (via Anne Galloway, “Memory seems to be much more important than forgetting now, and we assume that computers will continue to collect information and the Internet and the Web will continue to grow. Even when sites try to die, they persist as the undead or ghost sites.”) Or is the process of forgetting integral to creating a personal mythology? In other words, forgetting is as important as memory and the two must (not merge but) find a balance somehow, like science and religion. Whew. Maybe these stories on remembering and forgetting will add some perspective.

Very personal histories

dietrich.jpgOne musical the other in letter form. First, a documentary on Jeff Buckley from the BBC that is a study in family history and a whole generation of musicians and artists. It may not be everyone’s schtick, but for me Buckley sang so beautifully it was almost a spiritual experience listening to him. This documentary gives a great glimpse into his personality and the music of two generations. Worth the time for a magical history tour. I’ve loved his songs for a while now and still had no idea he was involved in the Fluxus movement in New York.

And although a bit before my time, love letters reveal the hearts of not only the people involved but the time and circumstance that surrounded them. From the personal archives of Marlene Dietrich, letters that reveal the intimate friendship between her and Ernest Hemingway have been archived and are going to be shared with the public through the Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum. “They adored each other, but there was no sexual thing,” said Dietrich’s daughter, Maria Riva. “They were buddies, they were friends, they were comrades in arms.” Makes me wish they were online. Hemingway must have written some wonderful love letters. (via Lux Lotus).