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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.

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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.”

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!)

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.

\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.

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?

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

arthonorslife.jpgYesterday I took a trip to the tiny vine town Graton for the gallery opening of Art Honors Life and to meet Maureen Lomasney in person. The NYT called it “the nation’s first art gallery dedicated to cremation urns and other personal memorial art” and I’ve had it marked on my calendar for months. I first mentioned Funeria when I learned about Nadine Jarvis’ work last March so the anticipation was worth the nearly three hour drive from home. Especially when Maureen showed me a little handcrafted art book she’d created years earlier to capture personal histories. When I saw it I felt a little like I’d found a soul mate. The urns of course were all gorgeous. You can see a few examples in the (pdf) portfolio here, but we also talked briefly about those kinds of art that children or teens might want and how they would differ from what was being displayed that evening, as well as burial options besides cremation and how odd it is that we care so much for the purity of things we put inside our bodies until our deaths, when they are then artificially preserved by being pumped full of chemicals.

It was also nice to talk so openly with some of the other visitors. I met a fascinating woman who builds custom coffins on special order (I found a reference to her handcrafted simple pine box caskets based in Forestville, but that is a guess since her business is not online and I seem to have misplaced the materials she provided me when I was hurriedly noting some resources she shared—sorry Kate!). She told me a wonderful personal story about how she placed some of the ashes of her mother in an old fashioned pressure cooker because her mother loved that kitchen tool, they were sturdy and airtight, and her mother had given her one as a wedding gift long ago. I had to laugh at that because it was so sentimental and perfect and so different from what we formally think of as traditional even in the light of so many beautiful urns placed in the gallery around us.

She gave me a few more tips that I am so thankful for and I want to share here as well. First is the Funeral Consumers Allianceprotecting a consumer’s right to choose a meaningful, dignified, affordable funeral” where you can find information on home-funerals and the exceptions in a few states to avoid using a mortuary completely. Second was the tip about the non-profit organization called Final Passages where Jerrigrace Lyons, founder of the project directs a Home Funeral Ministry by providing courses, pamphlets, and information packets to anyone interested in the legalities and benefits of family directed funerals. It was a wonderful evening full of great conversations. Best wishes to Maureen who hasn’t just caught the latest green trend, but has been quietly waiting in the wings for years hoping society would eventually catch up with her vision that both life and death are honored when industry is not allowed to interfere with the more deeply personal creative urge that exists in each of us.

ginsberghands.jpgNothing like finding a couple beatnik poets wandering around a cemetery visiting an old friend’s grave to make me want to post again. This time it’s Dylan and Ginsberg visiting the Edson Cemetery in Lowell, Massachusetts in where Kerouac was buried, set to the beautiful song Time Out of Mind. Very reflective. Kerouac died at age 47 and his marker reads “He honored life.” Pretty short life but he certainly did make the most of what he had.

I found this because of this clip to the upcoming movie I’m Not There due to be released this November in the US. I can’t wait to see Cate Blanchett play a young Dylan. There is something really interesting that happens when women and men exchange roles in movies.

Then something I’ve been meaning to post anyway but hadn’t found the right moment until now, Ginsberg telling an interviewer how he’d like to be remembered by singing a sweet little poem called Father Death Blues he wrote after the death of his father. But what is that little instrument he’s playing? Not a squeeze box, but sounds like a little organ or accordion on his lap. Might have to get me one to go with my ukulele and my concertina?

speaker.gifIn a recent eulogy I heard the pastor recite Ecclesiastes 3:1-8, “To every thing there is a season…” and it pinched because although I know he meant it as a source of comfort, it reminded me of that other old saw, “timing is everything.” Damn, why must my timing always be so different from yours? And which season would death best fit anyway? We are learning the physics of time is an artificial construct but one thing scientists seem to agree on is that, like the universe, it is constantly flowing away from us. How do you capture the time someone spent on earth in the few minutes allotted to you at a memorial for it? Some people are suddenly inspired and bring that person to life because it is “the most important thing they’ll ever do.” They don’t talk only about themselves, unless doing so involves the whole audience. They might not even talk at all.
When Einstein lost his lifelong friend, Michele Besso, in a consolation letter to Besso’s family he wrote, “Now he has departed from this strange world a little ahead of me. That means nothing. People like us, who believe in physics, know that the distinction between past, present, and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.” It is a heartfelt sentiment, but I’m sure he was as frustrated with that stubborn illusion as I am. It could be that dream time is the only other illusion where we are still able to join those whose time for us has come and gone and where what we say doesn’t matter as much as that we remember.

UPDATE: To go with the post, a very sweet tune called Time by Kelley McRae (nice site but I sure wish Flash would let me link directly to the song). Thanks Lux! My, but she is Patsy Cline reincarnated and I’m only sorry I won’t get to see her as St. Joan.

You may remember I’ve mentioned my cat here before. And I’ve also written about my artistic interest in funerary urns. Well this past weekend I just brought home what will be the future urn for my cat’s ashes thanks to Py Simpson and Arturo at the Phoenix Gallery. It is titled (very appropriately I think), “Some Kitties Can Fly” and was part of a show memorializing the many pets who died from the food poisoning recall earlier this year. So far the cat doesn’t seem to care much. But looking at it now makes me smile, and I know I will cherish it forever. Preparing isn’t very hard to do if your heart is in the right spot. Now it’s time to start saving my pennies for my own container

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)

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.

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) .

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.

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?

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.
LOVE.

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.

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.

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.

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).

RIPNo, not the children’s nursery rhyme, but one of three interesting projects from Nadine Jarvis’ “Post Mortem Research” titled Rest in Pieces. All her work is something to marvel, but this in particular reminds me of a marriage between a piñata and a koan–a slip cast porcelain urn hangs in tree with a thread that biodegrades over a 2-3 year period until the urn falls, smashing and scattering the ashes while leaving a small toggle with the initials of the deceased hanging in the tree. If an urn falls in the forest and there is no one there to witness it…

Her art and a wide range of other funerary artists are promoted by the arts agency and organizer called Funeria that opened a gallery in Sonoma county recently. There is an excellent article in the Times Magazine about alternatives to the traditional urns most people think of when they think cremation. I feel a road trip coming on.

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