Wednesday, April 24, 2013 3:35 PM
Myranda Escamilla doesn't know exactly why she collages animal skulls, but her work dwells on life, death, and our culture’s disconnect from the wild.
A little over a year ago, Myranda Escamilla walked into an
antique shop in Port Isabel, Texas, a beach
town near her home in Brownsville.
Inside, she happened upon two deer skulls that have altered her work as an
artist—and likely her life as well.
“My intrigue with skulls came from seeing my father collect
them when I was a child,” she explained in an email. “He tried his hardest to
keep most activities outdoors. Although admittedly I could never appreciate our
adventures at the time, I now miss the fragrant smells of nature—the
beach mist, dry and wet sand, young trees, their sap and the feel of
flower petals running through my fingers.
The stillness and calm it
brings is overwhelming in the best way. Life is dull when it is
spent mostly inside, encased and enclosed. The erratic nature of wildlife as
opposed to our way of living—as humans, with our emails and texts, faxes,
game boys, and laptops—is mysterious, beautiful, boundless, and colorful.”
Escamilla accepted the skulls “as they were—blank
and natural,” but was intrigued by the thought of changing them. “How
could I alter an already interesting and beautiful specimen to make
it more beautiful? I was challenged and that was enough to prompt me to
take my wallet out. And so they went home with me.”
She embellished the first skull with small cuts in a napkin,
the second she painted to look distressed, “as if it was being reborn or taking
on a new soul.” Over time, her collages have become increasingly intricate.
When asked where the impulse to collage animal skulls comes from, at first
she can’t explain. “It just happens and perhaps it is my subconscious, but
if that is the case I cannot help but ask—what is it saying, what does it
mean? Those questions drive me nuts. I do not think about it often
and I try not to ... too knotty.”
But when I admit that they first struck me as a reminder of the way humans
have sought—and in many instances found—ways to control the natural world, that
I find her skulls both beautiful and ominous, she has more to say.
“I suppose the skulls can be something of a reminder
of what has been lost and what should be held near our hearts. Many
times, I have obtained skulls that were either going to be thrown away or left
outside to wither. In adding ‘a human touch’ I am ultimately giving it a piece
of myself, honoring its forgotten existence, if you will.
“Perhaps they seem ominous and haunting because they
are in fact, no longer living. We tend to associate skulls with death, the
macabre, fear and the unknown. Death strikes immense curiosity in me, I
cannot fathom it—how we live and live and live and then ... all is gone. What
should you make of your life if it is bound to cease at any moment?
“Working with skulls helps me to become
more comfortable with the inevitable final stage of life, to accept
it. The juxtaposition presented by the skulls is so striking because you
are instantly caught between life and death.”
Thursday, March 15, 2012 1:40 PM
If you died today, what would be your paramount regret? Would you lament the fact that you never got the front porch painted; that you didn’t try that hot new restaurant; that there was one more project at work you wanted to wrap up?
Palliative caretaker Bronnie Ware spent years attending to hospice patients during the final weeks of their lives. In those achingly heavy days, she heard first-hand their regrets over missed opportunities, botched relationships, and squandered joys. Realizing what these end-of-life wishes could teach the rest of us, Ware collected the top five regrets of the dying for her blog Inspiration and Chai and republished them online with the AARP. The affecting list follows:
1. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
2. I wish I didn’t work so hard.
3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
5. I wish that I had let myself be happier.
It’s easy to inch dangerously close to these common regrets in our own lives. Workaholic family members should know that every one of Ware’s male patients regretted putting their job above their children and partners. Skip the late-night conference call! Too-busy young parents should beware of letting golden friendships grow cold. (“Everyone misses their friends when they are dying,” Ware says.) Have a drink with an old pal! And all of us should remember the most common regret: not being true to oneself. Unleash all those beautiful quirks and aspirations!
The U.S. edition of Ware’s book The Top Five Regrets of the Dying: A Life Transformed by the Dearly Departing will be released this month. Gratefully, she hints it has a happy ending, noting that each of the people she cared for came to terms with their regrets and even made major life changes to remedy them.
“People grow a lot when they are faced with their own mortality,” she writes. “I learned never to underestimate someone’s capacity for growth. Some changes were phenomenal.” It’s not too soon for the rest of us to make changes, either—good health or not. Don’t wait.
Image by April Johnson, licensed under Creative Commons.
Margret Aldrich is an associate editor at Utne Reader. Follow her on Twitter at @mmaldrich.
Monday, January 30, 2012 4:48 PM
You need it. Everybody says so. Whether you’ve lost a loved one, a job, a relationship, or a pet, the one thing our culture insists will assuage your pain is closure—grief’s endgame. But is the concept of closure real, or is it just a way to exploit your heartache?
“Many bereavement scholars, grief counselors, and those grieving dismiss the idea of closure, but it continues to thrive in popular culture, politics, and marketing,” writes sociologist Nancy Berns in Contexts. Closure, which rose in popularity in the 1990s, “fits our culture’s quest to do things efficiently, following proscribed rules to get to a goal—in this case, an end to pain or loss. Since we are enmeshed in a consumer culture, it comes as no surprise that people turn to the marketplace to find grief rituals.”
And there are plenty of rituals to choose from: In the death care industry, where closure is king, a traditional funeral package can hover around $10,000. As cheaper cremations grow more common, funeral directors push viewings, which often require the cost of embalming, as necessary to reaching closure. There are also cremation-related products such as “memorial soil” (dirt mixed with ashes) and LifeGems (diamonds made from ashes); pet urns (to hold Fido’s ashes); and businesses like Air Legacy (to scatter ashes), all marketed as shortcuts to closure. The Everlife Memorials ash-scattering service, for example, claims that “aerial scattering offers a means of closure to families who are ready to take the final step in the grieving process.”
Other industries offer closure—for a fee—as well. Private investigators sell closure through the collection of evidence; psychics sell closure by offering answers from beyond; some forensic analysts even sell closure by hawking autopsies and the additional information they provide. And the growing divorce party industry sells products to help spurned wives and husbands shut the door on their marriages, with everything from party games like Pin-the-Tail-on-the-Ex to wedding ring coffins.
The business of closure reaches into the political realm, too. In an effort to advance their position, Berns writes, “death penalty advocates claim that killing a murderer will bring closure to the families of homicide victims.” She concludes:
The distorted message about grief that comes from closure marketing is this: You need closure. Salespeople and politicians have entered the business of grief counseling, but their advice is rooted in profits and politics. Expecting people to “find closure” within a particular time frame or after specific rituals does not help our understanding of grief. Selling products…in the name of closure exploits the emotional pain of grief, but it does not mean that closure exists or is needed.
That there is no finish line for grief frees you to experience it in a way that’s right for you. So, when it comes to the business of closure in your own life, consider leaving the door open—even just a crack—until you’re truly ready to ease it shut.
(article available to subscribers only)
Image by Alcino, licensed under Creative Commons.
Margret Aldrich is an associate editor at Utne Reader. Follow her on Twitter at @mmaldrich.
Friday, January 06, 2012 3:45 PM
Doctors have the very best medical care at their fingertips. They read journals that publish the latest medical findings; they know the most up-to-date treatments for various ailments and diseases; they might even play golf with a top surgeon or two. And yet, when faced with death, many physicians forgo intensive medical treatment.
Doctors “don’t die like the rest of us,” writes Ken Murray for Zócalo Public Square, primarily because “they know enough about modern medicine to know its limits.” Most medical professionals regularly see futile care in action—ineffective CPR attempts, unnecessary surgeries, and expensive drug treatments; patients hooked up to hospital IVs and machines for weeks or months before passing.
“I cannot count the number of times fellow physicians have told me, in words that vary only slightly, ‘Promise me if you find me like this that you’ll kill me’” says Murray, a clinical assistant professor of family medicine at USC. “They mean it. Some medical personnel wear medallions stamped ‘NO CODE’ to tell physicians not to perform CPR on them. I have even seen it as a tattoo.”
Our medical system certainly encourages doctors and staff to take exhaustive measures when a patient is dying. The fee-for-service model puts money in the pockets of medical professionals, and desperate relatives often push for recovery by any means necessary. But many doctors recognize there are more important things than the number of days we breathe on this earth. Murray offers one example:
Years ago, Charlie, a highly respected orthopedist and a mentor of mine, found a lump in his stomach. He had a surgeon explore the area, and the diagnosis was pancreatic cancer. This surgeon was one of the best in the country. He had even invented a new procedure for this exact cancer that could triple a patient’s five-year-survival odds—from 5 percent to 15 percent—albeit with a poor quality of life. Charlie was uninterested. He went home the next day, closed his practice, and never set foot in a hospital again. He focused on spending time with family and feeling as good as possible. Several months later, he died at home. He got no chemotherapy, radiation, or surgical treatment.
At-home care can be an attractive, viable option, according to Murray:
Almost anyone can find a way to die in peace at home, and pain can be managed better than ever. Hospice care, which focuses on providing terminally ill patients with comfort and dignity rather than on futile cures, provides most people with much better final days. Amazingly, studies have found that people placed in hospice care often live longer than people with the same disease who are seeking active cures.
That doctors opt out of traditional end-of-life care might make us reconsider the measures we would take for our loved ones or ourselves. Read the moving story “When the Last Guest Leaves,” featured in our current issue, to see how one woman—with the help of her son—chooses a dignified death outside hospital walls.
Source: Zócalo Public Square
Image by Truthout.org, licensed under Creative Commons.
Friday, December 16, 2011 4:55 PM
Imagine that you are nine months pregnant and have to drive seven hours to reach the nearest hospital. You have never seen an obstetrician or midwife for prenatal care and emergency health services are miles out of reach. This is the situation in parts of Afghanistan, where the maternal mortality rate is the highest in the world.
As of 2008, it was estimated that 1 in 11 Afghan women die in childbirth. (In Greece, the country with the lowest maternal mortality rate, the statistic is 1 in 31,800.) With a fertility rate of 6.62 children per mother, the life expectancy for women in Afghanistan—recently ranked “the most dangerous country for women” by the Thomson Reuters Foundation—is less than 48 years.
Now, a national midwifery program is one of several initiatives to drastically improve women’s maternal safety, report Isobel Coleman and Gayle Tzemach Lemmon in Ms. Magazine. Funded by organizations like the U.S. Agency for International Development, the United Nations, and the European Union, the program has trained more than 2,500 midwives. Coleman and Lemmon write:
For women in the country’s most remote provinces, who face the greatest challenge accessing health care in this overwhelmingly rural country, the midwives serve as a lifeline. Of the approximately 500 birth complications that occur daily in Afghanistan, 320 happen in those rural areas. Midwives are also active in cities, making home visits to women too poor or limited in mobility to seek help at clinics or hospitals.
The midwives can affect more than just the maternal mortality rate, they continue:
Along with saving mothers’ lives, the midwives serve as homegrown role models whose economic strength and earning power are changing their families’—and their communities’—views on women’s roles. Midwives can earn around $350 each month, a substantial salary in one of the world’s poorest countries and where per capita GDP is less than $500 per year. The money matters and is playing a role in shifting male attitudes toward women’s work outside the home…. When women begin contributing economically to the family, they also have a greater say in what happens to them and to their children.
“Most people have a lot of respect for midwives because they need health care,” says Fatima, [a] student in the program. “Midwives save mothers’ lives and women’s lives.”
Source: Ms. Magazine (excerpt only available online)
Image by isafmedia, licensed under Creative Commons.
Friday, October 28, 2011 10:43 AM
When someone you love dies, an avalanche of tasks customarily follows: You must meet with the funeral director, select a casket or urn, fret over final attire, write an obituary, choose service music, greet relatives, and assure everyone that, yes, you’ll be all right. But still, somewhere under the crush, there’s time for grief.
Increasingly, though, deep mourning is being suppressed or pushed aside, whether by prescribed medication or by the trend to choose upbeat celebrations over traditional cry-your-eyes-out funerals. Understandably, the bereaved want to save money (the Federal Trade Commission estimates the average funeral costs over $10,000), they want to honor the deceased, and they want to feel better faster. But in The United Church Observer, associate minister Kenneth Bagnell writes that we should give old-fashioned grief a chance.
Diminished funeral customs are admittedly less expensive. But some grief specialists warn we may be eroding helpful rituals of bereavement, the loss of which we may not notice at first.
Such specialists often question the trend to replace words like “funeral” and “memorial service” with “celebration of life.” They see it as a subtle attempt to avoid the reality of death, which we ought to recognize even when painful. Their skepticism…strikes me as understandable, especially in regard to some funerals I’ve conducted and can never forget: the young child who died of cancer, the 20-year-old who hanged himself, the actor stabbed to death in his home. In such tragic circumstances, the word “celebration” has, to me, an inappropriate, even offensive ring.
According to Bagnell, dismissing traditional rituals, such as viewing the body before the funeral, is harmful to our grieving process, our acknowledgment of death’s verity, and our profound need for closure. “In my own life,” he writes, “I’ve lost friends but (for reasons I’ll never fully understand) have had no chance to pay my respects.”
Two were friends whose obituaries mentioned a celebration of life at a place and date to be announced. I watched. There was no announcement—certainly none I could find. What I missed, apart from the theology of it all, was the chance to say goodbye.
Source: The United Church Observer
Image by jpockele, licensed under Creative Commons.
Friday, August 05, 2011 4:28 PM
As more of our lives appear online, it’s only natural that our deaths will soon unfold there, too. Utne Reader wrote about the online afterlife in the March-April issue, and in “Digital Death” Chris Faraone covers the topic for the Colorado Springs Independent. “I don’t care about my body,” he writes. “It’s my virtual soul that I wish to preserve.”
As Faraone notes, the so-called digital death industry is booming with tribute sites, data banks, will-writing pages, and more. In case he should depart the analog world unexpectedly, Faraone decides get his online personal affairs in order with the help of Entrustet, a digital estate planning site whose tagline is: “Decide how you’ll be remembered. Pass on the keys to your digital legacy.” Faraone writes:
The first thing [they advised] me to do is “cloud count,” or take an inventory of every site and service I belong to. Aside from the basics—Twitter, YouTube, Gmail, Tumblr, Facebook, and an interminable MySpace—there are several other accounts that I want closed, or at least maintained, after I pass. There’s the eBay profile that I use to sell old comics for beer money, and the Adult Friend Finder account from my truly degenerate days. I also have a few WordPress blogs, SpringPad for my field notes, and online Bank of America access. After I die, my relatives can contact these companies directly, and follow procedures to get into my accounts.
Most appealing to me is the service If I Die, which allows you to write notes that will be delivered only if you kick the bucket. The website suggests several different kinds of messages:
A letter to a friend - to say something personal.
Simple instructions - whether or not to read your journal, what to do with your cat, where your documents are kept.
Passwords - how to log into your computer, how to access your address book.
An informal will - so your next of kin knows what to do with your stuff.
Sending heartfelt messages to grieving friends and family members after you’re gone—what a sublimely staggering concept. Then again, why wait? Compose your letters on If I Die, but deliver them while you’re still of this world and share the love. I always meant to tell Dr. Wilk what an impactful professor he was and Galactic Pizza how much joy they’ve brought to my life. . . .
Source: Colorado Springs Independent
Image by theaucitron, licensed under Creative Commons.
Monday, July 25, 2011 10:08 AM
For most, death is followed by one of two options: burial or cremation. But both of those options pose serious environmental risks to the living. Burial is preceded by embalming, and the main chemical used to embalm a body is the known-carcinogen formaldehyde. Cremation is energy intensive and releases massive amounts of greenhouse gases and heavy metals into the atmosphere. Visual artist and human-environment researcher Jae Rhim Lee imagines a third way to rest in peace that is more in harmony with our planet: donning a fungi-laced death shroud that consumes corpses.
Lee calls her outré idea The Infinity Burial Project. (Or, “A Modest Proposal for the Postmortem Body.”) Here’s how it works. Lee has been cultivating shiitake and oyster mushrooms on her own fingernail clippings and strands of hair, hoping to find a strain of fungi that is quick to grow on decaying human tissue. When she finds a suitable strain, she plans to embroider a “Mushroom Death Suit” with spore-infused threads. The spores may be added to a “decompiculture kit” that can be used in funeral make-up and non-toxic embalming fluids—speeding the process along. Next, when Lee (or whoever) is buried, the fungi get to work—Lee also chose mushrooms for their innate ability to break down industrial toxins in bodies and the surrounding soil. Not only does the Infinity Mushroom prevent further damage to the environment from burial practices, it also helps clean up existing pollution.
Environmental stewardship isn’t Lee’s only motivation. Learning to accept death is psychologically and socially healthy, and modern people can use a little help in that department, she argues. “I am interested in cultural death denial,” Lee told New Scientist’s CultureLab blog after a recent talk at TED Global,
and why we are so distanced from our bodies, and especially how death denial leads to funeral practices that harm the environment—using formaldehyde and pink make-up and all that to make your loved one look vibrant and alive, so that you can imagine they’re just sleeping rather than actually dead . . . So I was thinking, what is the antidote to that? For me the answer was this mushroom.
Source: New Scientist
Images courtesy of
Jae Rhim Lee
Monday, March 21, 2011 11:10 AM
As bicycling proliferates, so does a new type of urban death memorial: White “ghost bikes” that memorialize cyclists who’ve been killed in collisions with autos. The ghost bikes are equal parts shrine and safety awareness campaign, meant to honor lives and prevent more deaths. Bicycle Times magazine (Feb. 2011) interviewed Meaghan Wilbur, a filmmaker who’s working on a documentary about the phenomenon.
Wilbur has been in touch with bike advocates all over the country about their ghost bike displays, and she notes that not all cities allow the white bikes to stick around:
“Boston takes them down almost immediately after a few days or a few weeks. San Francisco, too. People in both those cities cited reasons like tourism, beautification, graffiti laws, and not having the streets cluttered up with junk. Boston is not too keen on street art and other spontaneously appearing objects. Cycling advocates that I spoke to in San Francisco mentioned that perhaps ghost bikes are less common in San Francisco because the SF Bike Coalition is an incredibly strong voice for cyclists, and therefore there is less feeling that a statement needs to be made. … New Mexico has a state law protecting descansos (roadside memorials), and the Duke City Wheelmen Foundation has so far been successful in getting the state to recognize the ghost bikes are descansos and therefore protected under that law. … Miami installed a permanent memorial including a ghost bike for Christopher Lee Canne earlier this year in Key Biscayne, where his was killed. … Portland, Oregon, also has a couple permanent ghost bike installations.”
I sympathize a bit with both the pro- and anti- camps here. As a year-round urban bike commuter, I understand the bikers’ need to mark the places where their own have fallen, and both bikers and motorists can always use more reminders to be careful out there. Nothing does that quite like the bicycle equivalent of a skeleton.
However, I confess that I became firmly opposed to roadside automobile death shrines on travels through the Western United States, where they were more common than mile markers in some areas, and often unsightly: From a distance, many looked like crucifixes growing out of trash heaps. Some scenic stretches of road began to feel more like funeral routes.
I can’t get too worked up about ghost bikes, though. In urban environments, they don’t intrude much on the scenery, such as it is. And they can have a poignantly haunting quality, which I guess is the point. Several ghost bikes have been placed in Minneapolis, where I live and ride, and each time I pedal past one I think, there but for the grace of Ford go I.
Sources: Ghost Bikes Film Project, Bicycle Times(article not available online), Ghost Bike Minneapolis
Image by Osbornb, licensed under Creative Commons.
Wednesday, October 20, 2010 3:35 PM
The delineation between the clichéd and the truly illuminating “death essay” is a fairly easy line to draw. More often than not, narratives of loss meander into the trite, growing further and further away from any original or discerning insight. William Giraldi’s “The Physics of Speed,” featured in the Fall 2010 issue of The Antioch Review, finds itself on the less populous, and more rewarding, side of the line.
After his 47-year-old father is killed during a high-speed motorcycle accident, Giraldi is gripped by a terror so profound it feels as physically pervasive as a highly infectious disease. Giraldi writes after attending his father’s funeral:
In the following days I learned that absence takes up space, has mass, moves from room to room. Grief is much heavier than fear. Fear hung before me in anticipation, whereas grief was planted like a sequoia in my stomach, its roots reaching far down into my legs for water, its branches reaching up through my arms and torso and neck, the poison from its fruit spilling into my cells.
What seems to seize Giraldi’s consciousness more so than grief is a fervent need to know how this catastrophe transpired. So, Giraldi digs into the details of his father’s demise: visiting the location of the accident, speaking with witnesses of the crash, and even phoning the coroner’s office to obtain a meticulous report on the fatal injuries his father sustained when he was hurled from his motorcycle and subsequently crushed between the machine and the guardrail. The coroner, a man named Steven Grim (seriously), was unavailable at the time of Giraldi’s call, so instead the grieving yet relentlessly curious son spoke with the coroner’s assistant:
Grim’s assistant—that soldier of truth, he who had literally seen inside my father, that place in his head where his thoughts came from, and that place in his chest where his love was—left me with these stories: the dying who refuse to die even when they want to, the bereaved who refuse to bury their dead. And he left me with those cold nouns, larynx and cranial vault. They split like thin, sun-baked shale. Human evolution had no way of anticipating steel and speed, and so we are like graham crackers in the grip of an angry child. Our bodies, so perfectly adapted to the African savanna of one million years ago, are simply waiting to be shredded in civilization.
If only there existed more narratives of loss like Giraldi’s, maybe finding the shared experience of true despair, confusion, and grief in literature would be less difficult to come by.
Source: The Antioch Review
(excerpt only available online)
Wednesday, June 16, 2010 1:58 PM
Being blown up in an oil-rig-related explosion calls for some compensation, no? Well, according to Slate, BP might not be paying much to the families of those killed when the Deepwater Horizon outfit burst into flames:
After a BP refinery in Texas exploded in 2005, killing 15 workers and injuring scores more, the oil giant paid $1.6 billion in settlements to employees and their families. But the families of the workers killed on BP's Deepwater Horizon rig in the Gulf of Mexico probably won't receive a similar windfall. That's because the Deepwater rig is legally considered an oceangoing vessel and was more three nautical miles offshore at the time of the accident. As a result, the families of the dead workers can only sue BP and its contractors under a 90-year-old maritime law, the Death on the High Seas Act, which severely limits liability. In some cases, BP could get away with shelling out sums as paltry as $1,000.
The Death on the High Seas Act (DOHSA) may be one of the least emotionally accommodating laws of all time:
Just ask Son Michael Pham, the vice president of the International Cruise Victims Association. In 2005, his parents went on a Caribbean cruise and never came back. Carnival Cruise Line, one of the world's largest cruise operators, never offered any explanation for what had happened, and has refused to discuss the incident with Pham and his family since then. That was how Pham discovered the horrible divide in the way the law treats people killed through negligence at sea. "We couldn't take legal action to get justice," he says. Long before the BP explosion, his group was lobbying Congress for DOHSA to be overhauled.
Yeah, some reform might help.
Image by Ashok666, licensed under Creative Commons.
Thursday, June 10, 2010 2:12 PM
After famous writers die, their souls go the heaven. However, the papers and manuscripts they leave behind stay subject to our puny human laws, the laws of earth, where spouses and publishers and courts all contend to establish who can publish what of the deceased’s work. It isn’t always this way, but, as the Virginia Quarterly Review notes, when it goes bad, it goes annoyingly, stupidly bad:
Poor Inna Grade, wife of Yiddish writer Chaim Grade, was so overly protective of her husband and his work that her death was cheered in literary quarters, as it promised a flood of Chaim’s manuscripts; but it now seems that there are a will and heirs, complicating the issue further. Scholars will have to maintain their holding patterns.
Source: Virginia Quarterly Review
Congratulations to the Virginia Quarterly Review, which won a 2010 Utne Independent Press Award for international coverage.
Image by a.drian, licensed under Creative Commons.
Thursday, February 11, 2010 12:31 PM
A recent survey conducted by the Dana-Farber Cancer Center found that two-thirds of terminally ill cancer patients never hear the word death from doctors, Judy Bachrach reports for Obit. “And not just cancer patients,” she adds. “I have talked to Alzheimer’s specialists, internists, and surgeons—and their general consensus is: You’re better off not knowing.”
Bachrach, who also writes a daily advice column about terminal illness, paints a complex picture of medical professionals’ reluctance to deliver bad news: partly rooted in an institutional culture that frames a patient’s death as a “failure,” but also grounded in compassion and humility. No one can perfectly foresee the future, after all.
Here, however, is the twist: The survey also found that people who do have “candid end-of-life discussions with their doctor are no more likely to feel depressed than those who’ve been deprived of such discussions. They are also less likely to demand invasive, useless, and costly end-of-life care,” Bachrach writes. In the words of the oncologist who prepared the survey report, there are “cascading benefits” to frank talks for both terminally ill people and their caregivers.
“After being handed the gift of truth, the dying can tell those they trust what kind of end-of-life treatment they want—or don’t want. And relatives and spouses don’t have to feel ignorant (or, worse, guilty) about making medical choices for the terminally ill as the end approaches.”
Image from Seattle Municipal Archives, licensed under Creative Commons.
Friday, July 17, 2009 11:30 AM
Writing for Foreign Policy, Reihan Salam makes the bold claim that the male created recession, or “he-cession,” will lead to the death of the “aggressive, risk-seeking behavior that has enabled men to entrench their power.” People will realize, says Salam, that “the cult of macho” is “destructive and unsustainable in a globalized world.”
The combined effects of the gradual shift in power from men to women and the fact that men lost the majority of jobs lost since November has led to the end of male dominance. Men have two choices, points out Salam. One, they could simply accept the equal partnership of women, or two, they could resist.
You won’t be surprised to learn that when faced with economic hardship men have historically chosen option number two. After the Soviet collapse, for example, Russian men increasingly turned to alcohol, leaving women to do the work.
Salam’s claim that the “axis of global conflict”—one found in hearts and minds, not on battlefields—will be gender is certainly uplifting. The death of macho, after all, will undoubtedly lead to more equality. However, one has to wonder just how quickly macho will die.
Source: Foreign Policy
Image by Elsie esq., licensed under Creative Commons.
Wednesday, June 24, 2009 2:07 PM
Will the death of journalism mean the end of democracy? The newest issue of Mother Jones provides us with a rundown of depressing statistics about the state of media:
- 43% of Americans say it would hurt civil life “a lot” if their local newspapers closed. Yet when asked if they’d miss their paper, 42% say “not much” or “not at all.”
- By one estimate, an entirely Web-based New York Times could generate only enough money to support about 20% of the paper’s current staff.
- The editor of the New York Times Magazine says a typical cover story costs more than $40,000 to produce—and that excludes editing, art, and fact-checking. That’s more than Mother Jones’ story budget for freelance writers for an entire issue.
- The top 10% of bloggers earn an average of $19,000 a year. For all bloggers, the median is $200 for men, $100 for women.
Source: Mother Jones (article not yet available online)
Thursday, June 18, 2009 9:35 AM
Over the past few years, green funerals have been a hot topic in eco-conscious circles. Thanks in part to a particularly memorable (and widely discussed) funeral scene from HBO’s Six Feet Under, conversations about green burials, biodegradable caskets, and natural cemeteries often seem less morbid than they do practical.
The Walrus reports on a new technique that may, it seems, be the greenest of them all. The process, called promession, sounds like a kind of high-tech version of composting (one that avoids all the arduous turning and, uh, odor-releasing of the down-home method). It was developed by Swedish biologist Susanne Wiigh-Mäsak, who is planning to open the world’s first promatorium in Jönköping, Sweden, sometime next year. James Glave (for The Walrus) explains:
Think of the operation as a kind of corpse disassembly line. The dearly departed are first supercooled in liquid nitrogen to about minus 196°C, then shattered into very small pieces on a vibration table. “We wanted to make the body unrecognizable without using any kind of an instrument that you would see in a kitchen or garage,” [Wiigh-Mäsak] explains.
Next a vacuum is used to evaporate moisture while a metal separator, traditionally used by the food processing industry to remove stray foreign objects from meat products, shuffles aside fillings, crowns, titanium hips, and so on. (You can put that sandwich down now.) Finally, the vaguely pink crumbs are deposited in a large box made of corn or potato starch.
Surviving family members bury the box in shallow topsoil and plant a tree or shrub on top. With the exception of perhaps a few broken remnants of plastic pacemaker, in a matter of months nothing is left but memories and some lush greenery.
(Congratulations to The Walrus, which won the 2009 Utne Independent Press Award for best writing.)
Source: The Walrus
Image by McPig, licensed under Creative Commons.
Monday, June 15, 2009 3:49 PM
When we get old, our eyesight and hearing start to diminish, muscles quit working, and our bodies generally deteriorate. Why can’t humans be more like redwood trees that live for hundreds of years, seemingly immune to the adverse effects of aging? If we stuck around longer, we could presumably impart wisdom on younger generations, thereby benefiting the whole species. But it's not going to happen.
One theory on why humans age, proposed by University of Arizona, is that it protects against epidemics. The greater the population density, the more vulnerable that population is to a disease wiping out much of the species. The blog Ouroboros explains the theory this way:
If I (an organism) am more susceptible than average to a given disease, and that susceptibility has a genetic component, then my closest relatives (who share most of my genes) are likelier than the general population to be susceptible as well. Therefore, my continued existence poses a risk for my progeny, because I represent one more potential host for a pathogen that might infect them – potentially killing us all and ending the line altogether.
The general human tendency, however, is to fight aging at all costs. Talking with RadioLab, geneticist George Church said that advancing technology could make the state of “totally dead” obsolete. Church believes that technology could, hypothetically, reverse engineer people to the point where they could put anyone back together at any time. Then, presumably, people could live forever.
Not pursuing technology that would allow humans to live forever would be “immoral,” according to Cambridge researcher Aubrey de Grey, speaking at TED. According to de Grey, aging is a disease that should be cured for the sake of future generations.
The problem with trying to live forever is not that it would be “crushingly boring” or that “dictators would rule forever” or the other straw man arguments that de Grey throws out. Instead, the problem is the hubris inherent in the quest. People age for a reason, whether or not we understand that reason just yet.
Thursday, April 30, 2009 12:02 PM
Obituaries have come a long way from the no-nonsense, just-the-facts-ma’am death notices of old. People now view life as a never-ending story, Stefany Anne Golberg writes in the Smart Set, and modern obituaries reflect that literary shift. The obits are now more like tales condensed out of lives that are invariably messy, sprawling, and chaotic.
“An obituary, any obituary, transforms lives into stories, with interesting characters, a cohesive plot, and most importantly, a good ending. This is what we’ve got as humans—not the ability to understand or be at one with death, but the ability to generate lots of stupid crap to fill in the empty space of the unknown.”
Sources: The Smart Set
Monday, March 16, 2009 2:24 PM
Eulogizing the life of her grandmother, Libby Ellis reconstructs memories both hilarious and heart-breaking, and strives to reconcile her grandmother’s attempted suicide. Here's an excerpt from “The Rumors of Her Death”:
“We drank too much, playing cards and telling old stories. Bubba was, as far as I’m concerned, the best grandmother a kid could have. She was beautiful and wild, she smoked—as my mom explained—using each cigarette like punctuation. She played bridge and golfed, she had affairs with married men and painted her toenails coral, she made me chicken salad, with sliced cucumbers, taught me to play poker and drove all over the state (speeding, with me perched on the armrest) to find the Blueberry Muffin doll I was desperate to have. She smelled like Salem Ultra Lite 100s and Jean Nate. She loved men who were unapologetic cads and told me to keep a list of people I would bite if I ever got rabies. She thought I was the best kid ever—aside from my mom. I loved her unconditionally.
“And there we were in that kitchen without her. Rooting around for a bottle opener, my mom found an old grocery receipt. Bub liked to listen to the radio and write down quotes that appealed to her. In her arthritic scrawl were Mark Twain’s words, ‘The rumors of my death have been greatly exaggerated.’ It was followed by a reminder to herself: ‘Get cigarettes.’”
Image by Libby Ellis
Wednesday, November 12, 2008 9:36 AM
Adding to the trend of green and alternative burials, one British woman is developing a new, elegantly morbid way to honor the dead: by pressing loved ones’ cremains into fully functional pencils.
The project “Carbon Copies” is the brainchild of Nadine Jarvis, a product designer who is currently exploring ways “to challenge our archaic post mortem traditions and to offer proposals for alternate treatment for our deceased.”
Image courtesy of Srthnow, licensed under Creative Commons.
Monday, September 15, 2008 11:49 AM
Toward the end of the last century David Foster Wallace appeared on the literary scene and blew the minds of countless readers, overhauling the way they thought about literature and life—first with his debut novel The Broom of the System, then with his superb short story collection Girl With Curious Hair. But as impressive as those books were, they were simply clearing the decks for his magnum opus, Infinite Jest, which landed on bookshelves with a brainy thud in 1996.
Infinite Jest is a sprawling but meticulously constructed epic about addiction, depression, and the insidious toxicity of mass entertainment, weaving intricate plotlines and beloved characters into something far more than a post-structuralist literary stunt. It is alternately hilarious and heartbreaking. It is a clever and complex but eminently readable book that I eventually picked up in college when I read all of Wallace's then-published works in rapid succession. I plowed through Infinite Jest’s 1,079 pages in only three weeks, not because I’m a fast reader—I’m not—but because I was simply unable to put it down.
Until I discovered David Foster Wallace I didn’t really have a favorite author, which was odd for an English major and aspiring writer. I was passionate about Kundera and Brautigan and the Beats, but had yet to fall obsessively in love with a single person’s writing. That semester when I read Infinite Jest marked the moment when I finally left a certain intellectual plateau, transcending everything I thought I knew about literature and entering the next phase of my development as a writer and thinker.
It was a phase marked by fitful, pretentious attempts to emulate Wallace’s writing in my own. As so many novice writers besotted with Wallace probably have, I peppered my short stories with footnotes and digressive asides and sentences whose objects were miles away from their subjects. (Some of these tendencies are obviously still on full display.) Like we inevitably do when we mimic our artistic role models, I approximated Wallace’s style but not his substance. The latter is far more difficult than the former, and I will spend a lifetime attempting to infuse my writing with even a scintilla of the wisdom he could pack into a single sentence, knowing I’ll probably never even come close.
It’s my experience that the people most critical of Wallace’s writing are those least familiar with it, who seize on the surface facts of his books—extremely long, dense, riddled with footnotes and endnotes—without ever addressing their content. These critics write him off as the poster-boy of postmodern irony and literary absurdity while failing to notice that in both his fiction and essays, Wallace was strongly anti-irony, bent on moving beyond post-millennial ennui, satirizing the noise of contemporary pop culture, and exploring life’s perennially unsolvable riddles. The pyrotechnics of his prose were not just there to dazzle; they were put to writing’s best possible use, illuminating the darkest recesses of the human condition.
And they could be pretty dark recesses. His last two short story collections, Brief Interviews With Hideous Men and Oblivion, are populated by miserable characters at the end of their ropes and about to let go. While Infinite Jest and Girl With Curious Hair can rightly be described as fun, his latter work was still occasionally humorous but far more somber. One could almost see, on any given page, the author’s formidable mental gears grinding in an attempt to unravel and express the reasons why people do unspeakably terrible things to each other and to themselves.
So it was not, unfortunately, a total surprise that Wallace’s death would be self-inflicted. Time and again, his characters literally destroy themselves, most recently in Oblivion’s “Good Old Neon,” whose narrator describes his own suicide from beyond the grave. A half dozen of Infinite Jest’s primary characters attempt suicide, some of them succeeding with gruesome finality. And Brief Interviews features “The Depressed Person,” a crushingly dense narrative whose title character’s various attempts to avail her own misery are fruitless.
But for as much as Wallace expended his prodigious talent plumbing the harrowing depths of depression, addiction, violence, and loss, and for as much as his biography suggested he’d known those demons intimately, I was confident he’d found a way to transcend them. I took solace in the notion that, by carefully and exhaustively reasoning out the ways in which we destroy each other and ourselves, he’d emerged on the other side whole—if not in a place of understanding, then of compassion—and could help his readers do the same. The few characters in Infinite Jest who manage not to destroy themselves—most notably, the recovering drug addict and reformed criminal Don Gately—seem to have figured something out their peers haven’t: a way to keep the pieces glued together and cope with the pain in their lives while never dispelling it entirely.
Suicide is baffling, the most absurd and haunting end to a human life. Mapping any kind of logic onto suicide is futile, but that doesn’t stop us from trying. I had always believed, perhaps naively, that by examining—with great patience, compassion, and wit—the frailties of human existence, Wallace had found a way to cope with them, much like the damaged but redeemed Don Gately. I had to believe that, like Gately, he was coping, because to imagine that he wasn’t—which, as we learned over the weekend, he surely wasn’t—is so bleak: to think that one of the smartest writers in history had spent his entire adult life wrestling with the absurdities and injustices of the human condition, and still hadn’t found a solution—well, where does that leave the rest of us?
Image by Steve Rhodes, used with permission.
Friday, July 25, 2008 1:43 PM
Buddhism prompts its adherents to face important but uncomfortable questions about dying. “Since death is certain, but the time of death is uncertain, what is the most important thing?” is one of Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron’s favorite inquiries. In the September issue of Shambhala Sun (article not available online), Chodron suggests that instead of focusing on death, it's more important to create “gaps” in our lives, pauses from constant worries and plans. We can’t always physically escape to a beach at sunset or a retreat center to get away from our worries, so calming our minds is essential. Taking three conscious breaths when you find yourself distracted is the foundation of Chodron’s pause practice, while “listening intently” and “put[ting] your full attention on the immediacy of your experience,” are other ways to break away, even if it means you’re listening to the sound of the copier in the next room and feeling an office chair against your back. “Find ways to create the gap frequently, often, continuously,” writes Chodron. “In that way, you allow yourself the space to connect with the sky and the ocean and the birds and the land the blessing of the sacred world.”
Image by Hans-Peter, licensed under Creative Commons.
Tuesday, October 30, 2007 2:31 PM
Music writer Britt Robson posits in the Rake that the fame and influence of jazz artists like Sonny Rollins and Wayne Shorter have been diminished because they didn’t flame out young like John Coltrane and Charlie Parker. “The persevering excellence of Rollins and Shorter is equally heroic,” Robson writes, “and should be equally emblematic of jazz sainthood.”
Robson’s article, “Honorable Exit: Dying Well Is the Best Revenge,” begins with a moving account of his mother dying before his eyes. From there he moves gracefully into an approachable survey of the course of modern jazz and a critique of the kind of easy celebrity that has come to jazz greats who have died young.
“Among all of the claptrap surrounding death in our culture,” he writes, “only some of it involves our fears and ignorance of the dying process.” He calls upon elder statesmen such as Rollins and Shorter to confront this fear and ignorance by building into their new work an awareness of their impending deaths, a quality Robson finds in Pilgrimage, the last album made by the late tenor saxophonist Michael Brecker. —Jason Ericson
Friday, October 19, 2007 12:00 AM
"These days, we are all supposed to be sleek, tidy, and unburdened by material goods,” writes R.M. Vaughan in the October issue of the Walrus, and that may not be such a good thing. In “Dominick’s Fish” (partial article available online), Vaughan tenderly reports on the the aquatic rescue of hundreds of fish left behind when a friend unexpectedly passes away.
Well aware that many people would have just flushed the buggers, Vaughan finds cause to unpack the mixed messages of an anti-clutter culture that instructs us to shop nonstop, but clear our lives of meaningless things. Perhaps the things we cherish do have value, and, as Vaughan argues, “that such care resonates, and that the objects of our attentions and affections, no matter how slimy or scaly, can, and should, outlast us.”
Adopting this stance, naturally, could make dealing with possessions the deceased leave behind more emotionally complicated. It also could free us during our lives to acknowledge the material things we all quietly, sometimes guiltily, hold dear.—Julie Hanus
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