Tombstone blues

blogbarking.jpgSome days are just those kind of days….

…Now I wish I could write you a melody so plain
That could hold you dear lady from going insane
That could ease you and cool you and cease the pain
Of your useless and pointless knowledge

Mama’s in the fact’ry
She ain’t got no shoes
Daddy’s in the alley
He’s lookin’ for booze
I’m in the kitchen
With the tombstone blues

Or you could just watch the poet sing it.

Making connections

mashupmisc.jpgWhether we are saving digital pictures or music playlists we are all building an infrastructure of meaning. Through every post we make connections. These are the main points David Weinberger promotes in a very entertaining video lecture about what is happening to the structure of information. I agree with Tim that it should be required viewing for anyone interested in organizing or classifying anything, which these days is just about everyone who uses the internet. Weinberger closes enthusiastically by saying “…We’ll be doing this for generations, building a rich layer of meaning we can draw upon and the most important thing about it is that…it’s ours…a generational task of tremendous importance.” I found his presentation very inspirational — especially within the context of my own interest in the personal histories we all create (or contribute to) whenever we save or forward an email, tag an article, or download a piece of music. Although I believe there is a downside and an inherent cost beyond the price of storage to “keeping everything,” the lecture was primarily meant to emphasize the evolution of our online information spaces, which could in turn prompt us as a culture to see more of the interconnectedness of all things. And that’s a positive step for mankind in the Information Age.

La petite mort

lilith.jpgThis post has a little something for everyone. It combines science, sex, death and art. If there is a better combination let me know. While mentioning sex in the same sentence as death challenges some taboos it has never been unusual for creative types to link them and I don’t have to regurgitate all kinds of philosophical drivel for you to understand the inherent connections let alone the ones you’d normally not associate. But today I’ve found a few interesting links worth mentioning. You have to love the BBC for this quote, “So sex and death are indeed deeply connected, if not quite in the way the poets thought. The longer life and shorter reproductive span of the human female point, I believe, to the superior biological usefulness of older women.” Now that I have your attention, here is the entire End of Age lecture, either in transcript or podcast form. That’s the science part. These Reith Lectures are fascinating stuff which only proves once again there is never enough time to read everything I want. Nor is there time to listen to or view everything I’d like to either. I found this “beautifully honest” gem on “Facettes de la Petit Mort,” or “Faces of the Little Death,” thanks to another writer, Erin O’Brien. That’s the sex and art part. Coincidentally, I think the viral way the “Beautiful Agony” site is being promoted is very appropriate in a we’ll-scratch-your back-if-you-scratch-ours kind of way. Seems they are not only creative in content and presentation but in experimenting with subscription services too. Good for them. A few days ago Erin also shared some personal observations on the death of her brother worth pointing to as well. There are some very creative people out there working in relative anonymity that should encourage us all. It has been a very interesting morning. (Thanks also to ECRR)

Crying in public

bird-cry.jpgSharing sorrow publicly makes you vulnerable to the rude behavior of spiteful people. Some say the act of blogging simply welcomes the burdens of any celebrity: you open yourself to public scrutiny so your life is no longer private–you provide a pulpit for the opinions of others who feel it their right to comment on you, your lifestyle, your perceived talents or your mental state. Others say netizens should follow a code of conduct that asks us all to be nicer to one another. It’s idealistic of course, but hardly enforceable. There will always be the Iago archetype. Proving that point, this blog post contains only a poem written by someone who has just lost her dog. The comments started out with the usual condolences offered by her shared community that turn hurtful when anonymous commentors chime in. It’s a pity really but then again it’s no wonder people often prefer to keep their sorrows to themselves. Nothing makes her grief any different from Whitman’s

Tears! tears! tears!
In the night, in solitude, tears,
On the white shore dripping, dripping, suck’d in by the sand,
Tears, not a star shining, all dark and desolate,
Moist tears from the eyes of a muffled head;
O who is that ghost? that form in the dark, with tears?
What shapeless lump is that, bent, crouch’d there on the sand?
Streaming tears, sobbing tears, throes, choked with wild cries;
O storm, embodied, rising, careering with swift steps along the beach!
O wild and dismal night storm, with wind-O belching and desperate!
O shade so sedate and decorous by day, with calm countenance and regulated pace,
But away at night as you fly, none looking-O then the unloosen’d ocean,
Of tears! tears! tears!

The public’s fascination with zombie sites

daddysgirl.jpgYes, I’ve seen this site (“Your global resource for MySpace.com member obituaries”) that, most recently anyway, capitalizes on the deaths of the Virginia Tech students. But don’t do what I did and avoid clicking the associated creepy advertisement for “dead kidspace.” I certainly wonder how such web businesses maintain credibility when ads for myspace knockoffs that feature profiles of sex offenders or sophomoric animated banners occupy the same screen real estate as what should be serious content. And I suppose there have been some thoughtful observations on the phenomenon (well, reflective until the last line anyway) from people who seem a little surprised that someone’s writing or image might survive their physical existence, or that people might think of a friend or family member long after their death. Perhaps the public needs a type of internet séance fantasy for the same reason they are entranced by those popular/ist “ghost shows” on tv?

Yet what really puzzles me, as someone who is also interested in history, is that sites like these (and there are many) are built to provide only a temporary limbo for such memories. None of these services have the committed attitude to long-term thinking that most cemeteries must consider, and the fact that most are subject to server glitches implies to me that little deep commitment goes into them beyond the sensationalism of the moment or the desire to capitalize on grief. Which is unfortunate because it reduces such efforts to a fad rather than a truly meaningful archive of memories. The whole “pay to remember” scheme reminds me a little of those old fashioned fortune telling machines where you drop in a quarter and the puppet behind the glass exchanges you a fortune. Sure it’s a quaint bus stop but certainly not a place that encourages contemplative thinking beyond a narcissistic donation of opinion. And besides, it’s only a matter of time before someone removes the machine and carts it off to the next state fair. There is a reason graves and physical memorial sites are lovingly tended by future generations. There is a numinous response inherent in touching something outside your normal experience that doesn’t mimic the robotic exercise of routine existence. I look forward to the day technology can capture a small sense of that mystery, honor it without advertising, and promise your family’s “page” will be there for at least your grandchildren to read. That would be a service worth creating an endowment for. (Thanks Paulina/Dennis)

Calling in an emergency

star_of_life.jpgI live in a neighborhood where there are a higher than what would be considered normal number of ambulance visits because this area has a very high density number of retired seniors. I jokingly call it Seizure City which I guess isn’t a very nice thing to say, but after hearing the fifth siren in as many nights you have to find some sort of way to deal with it, and a sense of humor helps. I really admire emergency response workers though. Their patience and calm under duress matched with their people skills make the best ones seem almost super human. And here is one, a guy named Tom with a blog called Random Acts of Reality. He is a writer and an EMT in London and the stories he tells are simply amazing and often touching. People like him restore my hope in the future of humanity even though the curmudgeon in me suspects he’s one in a zillion. I’ve put his book on my list of things to read as it might come in handy the next time I need to call an ambulance. (Thanks once again to Cynical-C for the link.)

Story time

deadpeople.jpg from http://www.pantherhouse.com/newshelton/I found out today one of my favorite celebrity librarians (who has never met me nor I her, but I really admire her writing style and energy and occasionally wish we could swap lives), curates an incredibly thorough resource (okay it might have a few dodgey links but still, major points for making it in the first place) on one of my favorite authors, Donald Barthelme. His writing is marvelous. He was quoting lines like this years before they were fashionable, “We have moved from the Age of Anxiety to the Age of Fear. This is of course progress, psychologically speaking. I intend no irony.” So I reread The Great Hug. Man that’s such a wonderful short story full of color and emotion. Another, called The Death of Edward Lear, compelled me to post this excerpt:

………………..

The death of Edward Lear took place on a Sunday morning in May 1888. Invitations were sent out well in advance. The invitations read:

Mr. Edward LEAR
Nonsense Writer and Landscape Painter
Requests the Honor of Your Presence
On the Occasion of his DEMISE.
San Remo 2:20 a.m.
The 29th of May Please reply

One can imagine the feelings of the recipients. Our dear friend! is preparing to depart! and such-like. Mr. Lear! who has given us so much pleasure! and such-like. On the other hand, his years were considered. Mr. Lear! who must be, now let me see… And there was a good deal of, I remember the first time I (dipped into) (was seized by)… But on the whole, Mr. Lear’s acquaintances approached the occasion with a mixture of solemnity and practicalness, perhaps remembering the words of Lear’s great friend, Tennyson:

Old men must die,
Or the world would grow mouldy

and:

For men may come and men may go,
But I go on forever.

……………….

In a quirky way it echoes the performance aspect we wish for our funerals, and how memories of those events are retold. When we record events in pictures or video these memories don’t evolve and I find that an interesting drawback when considering the digital preservation of a person’s legacy.

Which gives me pause. Maybe I don’t want anyone recording anything about me, my past, or my funeral. Maybe I just want them to tell one another stories. At a picnic. With invitations well in advance, of course.

Grief observed

stewart.jpgDuring my routine Sunday morning reading I came across this picture for Mothers Day, and was stunned to recognize the pose of death I saw in my own father close to the day he died. I find it very admirable that the Muir found the strength to share it with the world. It reminded me of the book by C.S. Lewis, “In A Grief Observed, author C.S. Lewis shares the journal he wrote after the death of his wife Helen Joy Gresham, nee Davidman. As his stepson observed, few could have written so powerfully and honestly about his pain and grief, few would, and fewer still would have published the journal (Lewis xix). Lewis begins his journal as an attempt to face and temper his grief. “Come”, he says, “What do we gain by evasions? We are under the harrow and can’t escape. Reality, looked at steadily, is unbearable (28).” I do understand why we avoid it if at all possible, but I also see that sharing it can bring a little relief. It’s as if releasing it into the air sets it free from holding us captive. And it certainly is powerful how we remember our parents on such days–so very different from when they were alive. Mothers and Fathers days transform into orphan days unless you have children of your own. Holidays create a strange sense of remembrance. Like the phantom memory of a missing limb. And along with interesting observations (even though it may seem initially like a non sequitur), two of my favorite thinkers, John Stewart and Bill Moyers, have a great half hour discussion where about half way through Stewart starts talking about being a parent, feelings of sadness, and how he fights back against it. A really worthwhile interview to spend a few moments on.

UPDATE: Interesting how the anti-war history of the “real” Mothers Day proclamation touches on that discussion too.

A personal hero

challenger.jpgThere are so many times I’m grateful to the internet and its citizens for posting things I’d otherwise never see. This memorial is such a touching tribute to a woman I greatly admired. When I was small I always wanted to be an astronaut and still have a scrap book of many of the newspaper clippings I collected about the space program in the 60s and 70s. As many people can recall where they were when Lennon was shot or when the two towers fell, I still remember the day of the Challenger disaster and the eulogy given the crew by then President Regan. McAuliffe’s epitaph is something I would still like to aspire to. It reads, “She helped people. She laughed. She loved and is loved. She appreciated the world’s natural beauty. She was curious and sought to learn who we are and what the universe is about. She relied on her own judgment and moral courage to do right. She cared about the suffering of her fellow man. She tried to protect our spaceship Earth. She taught her children to do the same.” Even now these words make my eyes sting, and yet, strangely, the Fallen Astronaut memorial seems as cold and forgotten as space itself.

UPDATE: Listen to an astronaut (Eileen Collins, whose earliest memories are about her library’s section on aviation) .

Time to take advantage of time

A man set the clockI was talking with a friend about what triggers people to plan for their eventual death and it seems the biggest reason is age. People automatically assume death is for the old when of course that’s really not the case. Here is a story covered by CNN about Miles Levin who is a teenager dying of cancer. For a news article it is sensitively done, although I tend not to consider this kind of event hard news so I temper the sensationalism of the story a bit for my own benefit. There is a comment from the CNN video that says Miles “has little time to make life matter” but in the grand sense we are all held to similar limitations, only he knows when his time will end and most of us do not. Of course I’m not immune to the fact that as a teenager he has not had the chances to experience as much of life as his elders have and that is what makes his observations especially poignant. That he uses his disease as an opportunity to comfort others is what makes him an exceptional human. I wonder what will happen to his blog after he dies? No one seems to be asking that. (Thanks to Epicenter for the link)

Of laughter and forgetting

hal_9000_memory.jpgThis is a funny saying. I think I’ve seen it somewhere else before but I can’t remember where. The t-shirt was probably created by a yank. Hah.

And an excellent write-up on memory and the ability of computers to do it for us (from Dan Visel at if:book) He used a work from one of my favorite authors, Jorges Borges, as an example (which could also in turn reference a Twilight Zone episode where forgetting can also be just as much a curse as remembering).

“…in a decade, there will be a generation dealing with embarrassing ten-year-old MySpace photos. Maybe we’ll no longer be embarrassed about our pasts; maybe we won’t trust anything on the Internet at that point; maybe we’ll demand mandatory forgetting so that we don’t all go crazy.”

It is never a very popular opinion to hold among librarians, that “erasing” something might be useful or helpful, since many librarians are also archivists who hold that everything is important to someone, somewhere at some point (see: the long tail). For instance, weeding collections is always a painful and difficult process for any librarian no matter what the specialty. But the ability to preserve the past using technology as an agent has mutated the goals of preservation into a monster with gigantic proportions. Perhaps the internets will create its own kind of technical Alzheimer’s as a kind of enforced forgetting. Now that would be an interesting episode. Like Hal at the end of 2001, singing “Daisy” until only the last few lines of the song remain.

It doesn’t hurt to know

emergencyimage.jpgMost insurance companies and bereavement counselors will give you checklists to follow in case of an emergency or after a family member has died. Of course it’s often at such times when the brain shuts down and its hardest to search for the important information even if you want or need something to keep you busy and your mind occupied. Making your own list before hand is hard too. There are just so many other things that get in the way. But when and if the opportunity appears, here are ten items to write down the answers to during the next conversation you have with your parents. (Thanks to Dumb Little Man for the foresight).

I would add though, they don’t have to be just for your folks, but your spouse or siblings or even that friend who may have no family at all. There are other things too I think could be added to this list. For instance,

11. Who on their list of personal friends and contacts would they like to have notified? (I still occasionally get letters from old friends wondering what happened to my parents but I had no idea who they were or how they knew one another).
12. Did they have a habit of hiding emergency funds or personal items around the house and where would be likely places to look? (My mother hid money in the back of her medicine cabinet. When I scolded her about this she just grinned at me and told me it was the safest place she could think of. It certainly was. The house would’ve been sold before I knew to remove that cabinet from the wall.)
13. Whether or not they have a hospital emergency kit packed and what should be included in it. You don’t want to be rushing back and forth during a crises to search for the rosary or the nail clippers.
14. Find a hospice or a care worker you and your parents can talk to before an emergency occurs. Only these folks can guide you through the mine field that is palliative care with compassion and understanding. But if contacted at a moment of crises there is no chance for a partnership to be created and it will be just another confusing voice to listen to at a time when one calm adviser will be the thing you most desperately wish for.

I’m sure there are other suggestions people could offer (like those I’ve mentioned before) but I think these basics are a good start.

Treating the dying

cpr.jpgThis article reminds me of the old saying, “It’s not the fall that kills you, it’s the sudden change in direction.” (…or some say the sudden stop at the bottom), but scientists have uncovered something they didn’t expect to find, that it’s not the lack of oxygen that kills you, but the attempts at resuscitation. And this might lead to changes in the way doctors treat those whose heart has stopped. “Biologists are still grappling with the implications of this new view of cell death—not passive extinguishment, like a candle flickering out when you cover it with a glass, but an active biochemical event triggered by “reperfusion,” the resumption of oxygen supply.” I think one of the more interesting lines in this report is the second to last one, “The body on the cart is dead, but its trillions of cells are all still alive.”

Of course that is all the technical side of doctors trying to save lives. On the flip side of this coin there are those signs where life is fading and how to know what to look for to understand the process of helping someone die. For instance there is evidence that hearing is one of the last senses to leave which makes talking to the dying reassuring. In either case it seems, thousands of cells are listening.

Dem Dry Bones

skeleton.jpgI really enjoy researching but I know what work it can be. So when I come across a good bit of research it’s like looking at a very intricate painting and just imaging all the time someone put into it. That’s where Chris’ bit of research on the Locust St blog regarding the fourteen one off versions of “Dem Bones, Dem Dry Bones” really blew me away. “Again he said unto me, Prophesy upon these bones, and say unto them, O ye dry bones, hear the word of the Lord.” Ezekiel 37:4

To be able to trace back this kind of obscure music history, “In which a bizarre vision of Jewish cultural resurrection becomes a song to teach children how human bones fit together, thanks to African-American preachers,” makes this post an interesting read. I can’t even remember where I first heard this song but I know I learned it as a child learning basic human anatomy and I had no idea where it came from until now. Here is a longer excerpt from his essay,

Black ministers took the Bible as a starting point for long, improvised sermons, favoring great dramatic passages that could serve as cogent metaphors for a people living under Jim Crow–the parting of the Red Sea, the fall of Jericho and the walk through the valley of dry bones. The ministers would extravagantly riff off of the actual verse, so while Ezekiel only wrote one line about the bones assembling (“there was a noise, and behold a shaking, and the bones came together, bone to his bone“), the ministers broke the image down and drew it out: Listen! On the day of resurrection, the leg bone! will be connected to the thigh bone! The arm bone…will be connected to the elbow bone! The back bone…will be connected to the neck bone!

He even ties one version to The Singing Detective, a very odd BBC miniseries that incorporates musical numbers into the fantasy world of the main character (which is based on the real personal history of its author). I’ve seen parts of this series but admit for me it was very painful to watch because of the “Job-like” suffering of the protagonist who is bedridden with acute skin psoriases contrasted with the oblivious and almost calloused attitudes of most of the caregivers around him. He must escape into his own head to survive the humiliation and pain. I’m sure the kind of nearly unbearable pain recounted in the story happens much more than we would like to admit. (Thanks to WFMU’s Beware of the Blog for the pointer).

And speaking of dry bones, here is another quiet obsession. This volunteer digs up a field containing the bones of forgotten WWII soldiers. “People tell me to just let the bones sleep in the woods,” said Kowalke, a member of the German War Graves Assn. who has been searching for skeletons for 43 years. “But I say to them that no matter what this generation did, without them you wouldn’t be here.” So far he has found the remains of 20,000. And he keeps searching for more.