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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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.

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

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

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

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]

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.

roseofjericho1.jpgJust when I start feeling a little guilty about not posting more frequently, a tiny bit of rain falls. Today the Nonist reappeared after a long drought with a metaphor to share in the form of the Resurrection Plant (also called the Rose of the Virgin or Rose of Jericho). I love Nonist’s site. It has been around a long time in internet years, but rather than worrying about posting on any set time schedule there only are posts that are meant to be there. Each one is a gem and today’s is no different. In turn this has made me feel better. Roses of Jericho do what they are meant to, when they are provided the opportunity, no more, no less. This little plant has been around hundreds of years and survives because it has learned to adapt to lean times. But like the nonist, sometimes I do wish anxiously for rain.

(UPDATE: Oh, and that reminds me. Here is something I’ve been saving that is related to that. These two things work together nicely I think).

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.

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

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

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

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

Or you could just watch the poet sing it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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.

portal.jpgMy good mood changes when I become frustrated with, or even deeply disappointed in, what people claim as a “portal” resource on their website. Then my professional peeves emerge and I feel the start of a rant coming on. I know when people say libraries/ians will be soon be replaced by the internet they’re just naive so it’s even hard to debate them. But I still cringe when a client happily tells me they’re going to create a portal because I know through experience how much time and effort is required to maintain one.

Try doing a “let’s pretend” exercise with me. You have some research to do, under duress (as is usual when dealing with death issues), and you find this supposedly professional death care web directory (last updated 3/18/07!) boasting, “…we believe to be the most extensive in the industry.” And then (despite their small print disclaimer) click on half the links supplied. Oh, I know you don’t have the time, but trust me. I did. What I found makes me grind my teeth. This is not helpful. It is an advertisement half loaded with rotting, untrustworthy or completely useless links. And why? Because whoever manages this “resource” is too overworked or frankly doesn’t care enough to vet the links with a human eye and brain and make sure their references meet a few critical standards. It gets worse. Other sites then blithely reference this page because they are too busy to do a little due diligence as well, perpetuating this poorly constructed crap around and around the web. And we hear complaints about wikipedia being an untrustworthy source? Jeez, wikipedia is brilliant compared to this travesty.

Before there were such things as “content management systems” or “information architects,”–and that would be about 1993–the web was a wild chaotic and creative mess. And that was okay since none of us knew what we were doing, we just did it for the creative and even social (yes, social before “social networking” too) joy of it. I love the tubes and nets, and what I find on them energizes and surprises me. I know I always will be connected to working with the web in some way. But now that more than ten years have passed those constructing websites have hopefully learned some things. I could list them but there are other places where that is done much better. What I’m talking about is care and concern. A little attention to the details perhaps? Design content so that it is helpful, useable, and useful. If you don’t have time or manpower, well frankly, no content is better than bad content so do us all a favor and just resist the urge. Or go even one better and hire a librarian (or content strategist, or information architect or whatever you want to call these generalists obsessed with organization and information seeking). Then you can boast about your “directories” being the truly useful resources they are meant to be.

</rant stepping off soapbox> Thanks for listening and if you supply a “list of links” ask yourself, are these really helping my visitors or adding to the value of the website in some way? Or am I just using them for padding to make it seem like I truly care about a particular topic. I think I need another cup of coffee.

painscale.jpgFrom the what doesn’t kill you department, I had to laugh only because the descriptions from the Schmidt Sting Pain Index are so wonderfully rich. It made me consider creating a personal pain scale and how I would index those pains I’ve felt. After a bit of reflection I realized some of the worst pains weren’t physical at all.

Like comedy writers, a group of people getting together to describe their pain in a colorful way would be such therapy wouldn’t it? There are so many varieties and causes of pain and yet they are all also so familiar. And we all know that humor is an essential part of pain management, don’t we? Despite that I hesitated sharing it briefly because we aren’t used to talking about our pain. In fact pain in my family was something you learned to disguise and if you showed it you were weak. Well, in an effort to overcome my own training here is my personal scale, low to high, for pains that have stuck indelibly to my mind. (As they say, it’s all in your head):

1.0 Dental work: a dull mildly throbbing pain that blurs vision and sneaks up in intensity after the medication has worn off. Like biting down on your tongue and drawing blood after chewing ice.
2.0 Ear surgery: a stinging spinning pain that prevents standing or lying down. Imagine being slapped on the side of the head with an industrial rotary sander.
2.5 Being dumped: a quick, sharp kick to the chest that makes difficult to swallow and creates an internal implosion. Like being thrown from a horse down a steep dirt embankment (and yes, that happened. I thought I broke my neck because I couldn’t breathe. Being rejected is similar).
3.0 Getting beat up: Strikingly similar to 2.0 on the Schmidt Sting Pain Index only instead of revolving door, I would suggest several flights of cement stairs. Crunchy and intense are good adjectives.
4.0 Going through divorce: an extended burning yet bittersweet pain that affirms what you thought you already knew but just couldn’t put your finger on. Often requires extended self abuse and excessive consumption of alcohol. Similar to a prophylactic appendectomy.
4.5 Putting a pet to sleep: Surreal, sharp and manically freakish pain. Like watching an open wound being cauterized with a hot poker over an open flame or resetting a compound fracture with a brick. Makes you wish you could pass out.
5.0 Watching a loved one die: Brutal and numbing. Like being stretched, drawn and quartered for hours after being whipped, you just want it to end quickly, but are too tough to plead.

How about pains you’ve felt? I’m sure childbirth has a good description. And getting shot. Or breaking glass in a car accident. I’m not making light of pain, it’s an unavoidable part of being human. The trick is to maintain compassion while examining it from different angles (like Dr. Nuland does in his award-winning book How We Die), which tends to make it easier to share, and in turn, makes it easier to bear.

And before we part, I’ll share a joke told by Harry Shearer today about the kerfluffle over Houdini’s painful death. “What will they find there? … Geraldo Rivera!” owww.

UPDATE: Just in case you’re shy of showing your soft side, I just came across the press release for the National Tour to Encourage People to Let It Out funded by, no kidding, the Kimberly-Clark (aka Kleenex) folks. Here’s an unintentionally amusing quote from the study, “Nearly two-thirds (63%) of Americans believe New Yorkers let it out the most. However, just 38 percent of New Yorkers say they let it out in the last week, compared with half of Los Angeles residents and 44 percent of those from Chicago and Washington, D.C.” (Here is study itself, Letting It Out in America: The Social Landscape for Expressing Emotions (PDF; 76 KB)) So, when was the last time you let it out?

UPDATE 2: Pain Detection and the Privacy of Subjective Experience Source: American Journal of Law & Medicine. “I suggest that while the use of neuroimaging to detect pain implicates significant privacy concerns, our interests in keeping pain private are likely to be weaker than our interests in keeping private certain other subjective experiences that permit more intrusive inferences about our thoughts and character.”

illusion.jpgAs humans we tend to make sense of things by searching for meaningful patterns. Librarians are especially guilty of this tendency and because of this I’m always checking my own potential for apophenia. It’s seeing your make and model car on the road more frequently because that is what you’re focused on. So when I see popular culture references on dying come up I understand it’s only because I’m looking for them and not really because they’re truly becoming popular. Of course this article (in the new-new age version of the old age Utne Reader) from What is Enlightenment magazine wants to have us believe that stories with a spiritual edge are more popular than ever,

Two new independent film festivals hit the scene last year, created specifically to honor the up-an-coming trend known as “spiritual cinema.” This independent spiritual film (or “spindie”), based on a play by a seventeenth-century French dramatist and starring Kirk Douglas, was selected as 2005 “best feature” at both events.

Ugh. “Spindies.” Sounds like spin. You know when the media creates its own clever catch word while “trendspotting” popular culture any reporting is going to take what is a normal cultural tendency and push it out of proportion. Still, the movie, Illusion, does look interesting. In fact the setting of a screening room reminds me of one of my other favorite movies, Afterlife. The idea that movies and memories are so closely linked isn’t just a trend though. It’s part of the mystique of the industry and why losing ourselves in visually told stories is so appealing at a fundamental level. There are a couple other films I’ve run across recently in the same category. One of them is Two Weeks. The trailer makes it seem more overtly sentimental ala Terms of Endearment than the review. The other is Eve Of Understanding which is more about the emotional fallout after a death than the actual dying. This film has a beautiful soundtrack with an interesting premise—what it means carrying out someone’s last wishes.

So forget about it being spiritual cinema. That’s just a catch phrase of some marketing wonk. They’re no more a trend than the human condition is a trend and these end of life stories do what all stories do, they connect us to one another.

How often we read amazing, unbelievable stories from people who push the credibility index and yet are otherwise intelligent, reasonable humans. I remember sitting in uncomfortable silence as the manager of our department told his staff that God told him to quit his job and move to Arizona. Everyone honestly tried to be respectful, but afterwards we couldn’t help but ask why God preferred Arizona. Maybe he confused his voice of conscious with a higher power and if you believe there is God in everything, well then he was spot on. Art and literature constantly remix the parable of the unfortunate soul whose strange stories no one wants to hear; The Greeks with Cassandra, Shakespeare his fool, France had Joan, and Jung the archetype,

“Almost all non-literate mythology has a trickster-hero of some kind. … And there’s a very special property in the trickster: he always breaks in, just as the unconscious does, to trip up the rational situation. He’s both a fool and someone who’s beyond the system. And the trickster represents all those possibilities of life that your mind hasn’t decided it wants to deal with. The mind structures a lifestyle, and the fool or trickster represents another whole range of possibilities. He doesn’t respect the values that you’ve set up for yourself, and smashes them. …The fool is the breakthrough of the absolute into the field of controlled social orders.” (Joseph Campbell, An Open Life, p.39)

It’s no wonder we become a little shy of dismissing someone with a message. Yesterday I saw the report in the LA Weekly (via Boing Boing of course) about the 10th anniversary of the Heavens Gate suicides, but it’s not the sensationalism of the event that makes the story for me. It’s the fact we’re all often baffled why anyone would feel or desire something we cannot (or vice versa)–whether it’s love or something similarly spiritual. And any mention at all of “outer” space rather than inner makes it seem like too much science fiction. But is it even that? Maybe it’s just the fact that there is a message to be passed along and different people use different metaphors. It’s true that everyone has a story, some are just better storytellers. (see also previous post, Belief is hard.)

wafers.jpgEven though I don’t cook I watch the cooking porn shows on tv. Watching good cooks effortlessly whip up something in 30 minutes plus commercials fascinates me. Most comfort foods are uniquely personal. I like breakfast, and in particular oatmeal pancakes and eggs. They take me back to North County San Diego, a little diner that no longer exists, and overcast beach days that keep the tourists away. In a much less complicated way soup kitchens and bread lines bring daily comfort to thousands. Everyone has comfort food that mixes with a comfort memory and produces a comforting mood. What no one mentions is if comfort food has any connection to this (or this) because it seems that at least a few people think so.

godtube.jpgOr is it the ghost in the machine. Anyway, was it only a matter of time? GodTube appears to be a mix between This Week in God with little personal documentaries ala Friends of God. The variety is actually pretty interesting by which I mean I’m not sure if it is satire or serious, or both. And it seems this trend towards differing HolyTubes will only get worse. I’m afraid I’m speechless, and I’m sure Richard Dawkins is apoplectic.

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