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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.”

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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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

There is Nothing Wrong in this Whole Wide WorldIt’s my fascination with human nature, the natural curiosity of an amateur cultural anthropologist and my inbred librarian proclivities that compels me to ferret out the things people search for online. Today I wandered over to del.icio.us out of the same mysterious force that propels you down that darkened alleyway or that deserted stack of books in the back of the shop. Inevitably it remains fascinating the information people feel is worthy of saving and sharing, especially when they match interests you didn’t know you had. For instance, this list seems to make the odds of you dying in your sleep even more remote than usual. This information goes to show you don’t even have to be dead to have people think of you that way. There even exists a patent for a talking tombstone. I wasted(?) hours combing through other people’s bookmarks which made me think of how bookshelves are intimate reflections of inner lives. I know it is extremely personal, and some people wouldn’t even think of sharing their reading habits, but you can tell a lot about a person just by looking at the books they save, and the bookmarks they keep. And since this is the end of “Banned Books Week” it’s also a good reminder that governments throughout time have been known to abuse your privilege to hold them dear.

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?

Pandora’s BoxMore useful information just came across my radar from CC which is worth preserving here. It’s about the process involved in opening a deceased person’s gmail account but I’m sure a similar procedure exists in just about any online service. Obviously it would just be easier on your poor family if you wrote out a list of contacts in case of death rather than forcing them to look through your dirty laundry? And for those who keep EVERY email you have ever received, perhaps you really don’t want to be archiving all that stuff after all, eh? Especially given the levels of privacy being invaded every day by frightening exciting new Google inventions.

Hi all,

Here is our formal request for information concerning access to a deceased person’s Gmail account. It should provide all the information you will need to proceed with contacting us for access.

If an individual has passed away and you need access to the content of his or her Gmail account, please fax or mail us the following information:

1. Your full name and contact information, including a verifiable email address.

2. The Gmail address of the individual who passed away.

3a. The full header from an email message that you have received at your verifiable email address, from the Gmail account in question. (To obtain the header from a message in Gmail, open the message, click ‘More options,’ then click ‘Show original.’ Copy everything from ‘Delivered- To:’ through the ‘References:’ line. To obtain headers from other webmail or email providers, please refer to http://www.spamcop.com/help_with_headers/)

3b. The entire contents of the message.

4. A copy of the death certificate of the deceased.

5. A copy of the document that gives you Power of Attorney over the Gmail account.

6. If you are the parent of the individual, please send us a copy of the Birth Certificate if the Gmail account owner was under the age of 18. In this case, Power of Attorney is not required.

Postal Mail:

Google Inc.
Attention: Gmail User Support
1600 Amphitheatre Parkway
Mountain View, CA 94043

Fax: 650-644-0358

After we’ve received the above information, we’ll need 30 days to process and validate the documents that you’ve provided. If you need access to the account sooner, in accordance with state and federal law, it is Google’s policy to only provide information pursuant to a valid third party court order or other appropriate legal process.

~ Gmail Guide

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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).

no21.jpgHow exciting! Now Dave Winer has two friends named Tori. I was catching up on my reading and he just posted this entry on his four ideas for the future and I am on board with all of them but especially idea number two.

Wendy and her friend from the insurance industry, Charles, and a few others have heard me go on endlessly about how insurance companies and cemeteries need to get with the program and work on what Dave calls “endowments” by partnering with folk who know something about accessing and preserving personal histories (i.e., librarians, usability specialists, archivists, etc.). That combined with trends like the one announced by Yahoo just this week are such good starts for an idea like this to blossom. So far most of my enthusiasm for this idea fallen only on the ears of a close cadre of like-minded people, but by mentioning it on his blog Dave’s comments could take root with some industrious engineer and potentially move this into the realm of possibility. Of course, it’s not just about storage, it’s also about retrieval and organization, but I think that once the idea becomes important enough to people of this generation, it will be unstoppable. Thank you Dave for the validation! Yours is the kind of post that keeps me keeping on. Boo-yah.

Ram DassI first learned of Ram Dass around the same time I was introduced to Alan Watts. I was 18 and that collision opened me up to a whole world of counterculture writers who turned my consciousness inside up and rightway down. I picked up books by Carlos Castanada, Robert Pirsig and Thomas Merton among others, and for years I was immersed in a kind of spiritual philosophy that had a huge influence on the way I perceive the world today. In 1997 Ram Dass had a debilitating stroke which left him partially paralyzed and affected his speech. Despite his handicap he continues to give talks like this one on awareness posted by the Omega Institute where he “…engages you into a moment regarding your choice and arrangement of your birth and death.” On his own site there is another video where he chats with Wayne Dyer about a letter Wayne wrote and reveals how he is also still being influenced by his own past today. It is a great piece of personal history staged as a conversation between two men who have made a positive impact on the lives of thousands.

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