As I am about to embark on a cross-country journey by bicycle, I am cognizant of the fact that danger lurks around every corner and that this trip could be my last. I am also cognizant of the blogger’s overdeveloped sense of drama.
Writing an obituary is a thankless task. You have to make the dead person sound good. No one likes to read the obit of an asshole. On the other hand, you can’t make him sound like a saint. No one would believe you. So how does one tread that middle ground?
I am not a fan of the euphemism. My daughter makes a sport of reading obits for the euphemisms for death: “went to her mansion in heaven”, “went home to meet his heavenly father”, “transitioned from his physical body”, “shed his earthly en-trappings”, “passed into life”, “‘complete’ healing”… When I die, I plan to die. In obituaries, everyone who dies of cancer dies heroically after a long struggle. They fought death. I don’t expect to die a hero. If I fought, I’d probably lose.
[Insert blogger’s name here] died on [insert date here] of [insert cause of death here]. He went kicking and screaming, crying like a baby. His last words were, “Please no! I’m too young to die! Take him instead!”
[The blogger] was tortured by his older siblings as a child. His parents were clearly complicit, as evidenced by these photos from the family photo album.
He never got over this, living, as he died, a miserable wretch. His obituary photo is the last known photo of him happy.
[The blogger] worked a variety of odd jobs throughout his life. He never fit in anywhere, flitting about at 5 to 20 year intervals. He was never very good at anything. One might say he was half-assed. In his longest-tenured job, he never rose to a management level. He would say that he never wanted to be middle management in a large corporation, but he embodied the Peter Principle, rising to his level of incompetence. In his case, that was at the bottom.
He left behind [insert survivors here], who drew straws to see who had to write his obituary. Luckily for them, he pre-wrote some of it. He did want everyone to know this, his last recorded words:
He never worked anywhere long enough to earn a pension and left his family as paupers. They got their revenge via his obituary.
This exercise and song made me realize that MadLibs would make a great way to write an obituary. But since we’re on the topic, I will get serious for a moment. If you haven’t already, write an advance directive to let folks know what you want done if you are ever in a state where you are unable to make medical decisions. Find someone close to you, have a (or some) serious discussion(s) about this, and grant them power of attorney for healthcare, so they can make those decisions, guided by your conversations and written wishes. To do this, you have to think about serious illness, injury, and death, topics most of us avoid studiously.
Consider becoming an organ and tissue donor. In addition to the obvious (donating kidneys, liver, pancreas, heart, lungs), you can donate corneas, bone, skin. You can donate your whole body for cadaver study. You wouldn’t want your surgeons to operate on you having never done it before, right? Cadavers provide opportunity to study and practice. We can look at pictures in books all day, but humans are not all alike. Cadaver study gives up an opportunity to see individual variations and learn hands-on. A study I am involved in examines the brains of people who died with Alzheimer’s Disease, or the offspring of people who had the disease.
Benjamin Franklin said that nothing is certain in life except death and taxes. The latter is clearly no longer certain.
I just finished my last tour of duty on the COVID-19 units – not because the pandemic is over (it’s not) but because I have 5 more weeks to work and will not have another rotation in that time. (Dog willing.) When I hang up my PAPR (Powered Air-Purifying Respirator) this week, I hope never to pick it up again.
We want this pandemic to be over, people are beginning to act like it’s over. We can pull the wool over our eyes or we can face the music. Numbers are down, but ask the dying what they care about numbers.
I started the week with someone who went to a family gathering for Easter. A guest invited by one of the family had driven halfway across the country to join them, picking up COVID-19 along the way. The whole family is now infected. I think they will all survive. Another patient went on palliative care that first day. While COVID-19 will not be the only cause of death, it will certainly be a contributing factor.
Another patient told me they felt “crappy” but could not explain further – not painful, not short of breath, not nauseated, just crappy; also disappointed in their lack of progress from the orthopedic injury in addition to COVID-19. I went in to work the next morning to find they died 16 hours later – 20 minutes before my arrival to work.
A fourth patient told me of a near-death experience. They had a heart arrhythmia and were about to undergo DC cardioversion (pretty much the same as defibrillation of a newly-dead person, or as Miracle Max might say, mostly dead). As doctors were preparing, my patient announced they were receiving a phone call from a (long-dead) parent. As they tell it, the doctor began the procedure instantly, not waiting for the anesthesia to take effect, later explaining to my patient that he thought their death was imminent. The patient says the doctor told them that, should they get calls from dead relatives, they should not answer.
The story was told, not to be entertaining, but in a tone of terror. This person was terrified of death and still fears their death is imminent. With COVID-19, I am in no position to doubt. I received my fourth vaccination at the end of my shift.
To The Best Of Our Knowledge is a program on National Public Radio. On the way to my ride Sunday they aired a program called “Poetry in a Troubled Time”. The program began with reactions to the pandemic, the “Troubled Time” to which the title refers. It opened with a pandemic poem by a writer in Lake Mills WI, which garnered national attention. I was riding to Lake Mills that day, so the program seemed apropos.
Charleis Bukowski wrote:
“all theories like cliches shot to hell, all these small faces looking up beautiful and believing; I wish to weep but sorrow is stupid. I wish to believe but believe is a graveyard. we have narrowed it down to the butcherknife and the mockingbird wish us luck.”
Host Anne Strainchamps called the poem “pretty dark”. Charles Monroe-Kane took great hope in the phrase “wish us luck”. Strainchamps wanted the program to be about poetry “as a refuge, as a consolation”. Monroe-Kane noted, “…heartbreak is where poetry is. That’s where poetry comes in. That’s what it can do. Look, poetry also helps us in healing. You don’t need to be healed if you don’t have pain. You got to have an injury that need the healing, so there’s going to be a lot of injury in this as well.”
Edward Hirsch noted that all poetry is about death, in that it focuses on the ephemeral – “we are trying to save something that is passing.” Perhaps all of life is about death. Nostalgia is certainly about death. How much of our memory is an attempt to “save something that is passing”? To what extent is writing a blog the same – but a particularly ineffective form of trying to “save something that is passing”? We write and we post and (maybe) someone reads it on the day it is posted. While it is preserved on the internet, how often is it seen after those first days?
“Some things in life feel unendurable yet they have to be endured. They are unbearable, yet they have to be borne.” This was Hirsch’s purpose in writing an elegy to his son, but is also about life itself. We all encounter, at some time, something that feels unendurable, unbearable. Yet we (most of us) endure and bear and move forward in life. We don’t all write poems, but we endure. How do we move from endurance to embracing life again?
To what extent is embracing life embracing ephemera? I worked in radio in an era when it was not preserved. (I just listened to Sunday’s program and read its transcript to be sure I quoted people accurately.) What we did went out over the airwaves, live, at the speed of light. It came into your home instantaneously. The sound waves traveled to your ear and by then we had moved on. In the year 2000, my brother and I were each asked to reflect on our time in community radio – for him, the 1960s, for me the 1970s. He wrote “…you did it, you sent it out into the ether, and people heard it or didn’t. It was the ultimate in ephemerae, leaving a trace only in the minds of those who did it or heard it…”. I wrote “…the reason I enjoyed radio was its ephemeral quality. What I did went out over the airwaves and was gone.” (Neither of us knew what the other had written until the book was published.) Now I write a blog. Is it something about aging that I now try to preserve, not just experience, life? Or is life about sharing? Is it not enough to experience? Is it necessary to share that experience?
In 1976 or 7, I wrote in my journal: “It’s not the experience…it’s sharing the experience.” I was in the midst of something that seemed profound at the time. I was alone. I called a friend to come over. I knew then that the communication of the experience was as important to me as the experience itself. Communication….communion…community. Is it an accident that these words are so similar?
We bid a not-so-fond farewell to 2020. Links are to previous mentions in these pages.
Losses include: Political innocence (if we had any). When else has a losing president refused to accept the results of an election? If that wasn’t bad enough, most of his party supported him. There was apparently a vast conspiracy which included Google, YouTube, Facebook, the Democratic party, election officials in all states and municipalities, polling organizations, and local pollworkers throughout the country; yet they were too incompetent to oust Mitch McConnell, Lindsay Graham, or a bunch of state officeholders that should be gone…or they were so sophisticated they managed to falsify only a single line on all of those ballots to fool us.
Green Bay Packers Willie Wood, Willie Davis, Herb Adderly, and Paul Hornung. Chicago Bear Gale Sayers. Harlem Globetrotter Curly Neal.
MusiciansJohn Prine, Toots Hibbert, Jerry Jeff Walker, Johnny Nash, Little Richard, Ennio Morricone (composer), Spencer Davis, McCoy Tyner, Buddy Cage (pedal steel guitarist who replaced Jerry Garcia in The New Riders of the Purple Sage), Joseph Shabalala (Ladysmith Black Mambazo), Ellis Marsalis (jazz pianist and father of Branford and Wynton), Peter Green, Charley Pride, Tony Rice.
Poet, priest, revolutionary (and personal hero) Ernesto Cardenal (former Nicaraguan Minister of Culture).
ActorsDiana Rigg (The Avengers), Chadwick Boseman (Black Panther, 42), Carl Reiner (also writer, director), Ken Osmond (Eddie Haskell from “Leave it to Beaver”), Jerry Stiller (half of Stiller and Meara). Max von Sydow (many Ingmar Bergman films), Kirk Douglas, Terry Jones (of Monty Python’s Flying Circus), Buck Henry (also screenwriter). Writer-Director Stuart Gordon.
Supreme Court Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Shirley Abrahamson (WI Supreme Court), Congressman John Lewis
Engineers Takuo Aoyagi (inventor of the pulse oximeter), Larry Tesler (a key developer of the Graphical User Interface – if you’ve used the commands cut/copy/paste, thank him), Bill English (inventor of the mouse), computer scientist Deborah Washington Brown (a pioneer in speech recognition), who left the New England Conservatory of Music and earned a doctorate in Computer Science at Harvard.
Journalist Jim Lehrer
345,000 (CDC) dead from COVID-19 in the US, 1,816,000 worldwide (Johns Hopkins)(rounded to nearest 1000 for ease of reading); 19% of deaths are in the US, which has 4% of the world’s population; for portion of population dead, US is 4th worst. Figures as of 12/31/2020
Aaron Danielson (killed during “Trump Cruise” rally) Ahmaud Arbery (killed for jogging while Black) Anthony Huber (killed during rally after Jacob Blake shooting) Breonna Taylor (killed by police for sleeping in her bed) Garrett Foster (killed during rally to protest George Floyd killing) George Floyd (killed by police while lying on the pavement) James Scurlock (killed during rally to protest George Floyd killing) Joesph Rosenbaum (killed during rally after Jacob Blake shooting) Michael Forest Reinoehl (killed by Federal agents; an extra-judicial execution that Donald Trump praised as “retribution”.) Rayshard Brooks (killed by police for falling asleep in a drive-through lane) 1066 people have been killed by police in 2020 (as of 12/15/2020). According to the Guardian, 25 people were killed during protests or other incidents linked to political unrest (as of 10/31/2020). I have not located all of the names.
This is an entirely subjective list of losses for the year. Your list may vary.
I met Ernesto Cardenal during the US tour to promote his newly-released epic poem “Cántico Cósmico” (“Cosmic Canticle”), a poem that begins: “In the beginning, there was nothing no space no time. The entire universe concentrated in the space of the nucleus of a single atom, and before even less, much less than a proton, and before still less, an infinitely dense mathematical point. And there was the Big Bang.” (translation by Half-fast Cycling Club) The history of the universe in 581 pages of verse – but think for a moment – this is a poem by a Roman Catholic priest, who does not say that in the beginning, god created the universe in 6 days.
Before he entered the priesthood he wrote a book of epigrams (one of my favorites is at this link), mostly love poems. After he became a priest he wrote a book of psalms, many of them political. In Psalm 18, – Las galaxias cantan la gloria de Dios – (“The galaxies sing the glory of God”), he puts us in context – an ordinary planet circling an average sort of star which orbits through the constellation Sagitarius. A universe in whose vast, empty spaces “hay campos magnéticos que cantan en nuestros radio-telescopios” (“magnetic fields sing to our radio telescopes”). Galaxies speak in a language without words, but not inaudibly, in a universe containing billions of galaxies spinning like carousels or musical spinning tops.
In psalm 21 ¿Por qué me has abandonado? (“Why have you abandoned me?”) he sings of people being tortured, straitjacketed, gassed naked (with their clothes given away), tattooed with numbers, abandoned in nursing homes and hospital contagious disease wings, drowning in oxygen tents, crying in police stations; but he ends with “the poor will have a banquet/our people will have a grand celebration/for the birth of a new people”.
Added to the lexicon: *contactless *contact tracing *coronavirus *COVID-19 *face covering *PAPR *PPE *social distancing
The good news: With snow in the forecast, I put the studded tires on my bike over the weekend. On the ride home from work Tuesday I saw a young bald eagle. It landed in a tree near me. I stopped to take a picture but it was camera shy and flew off into the woods. On Wednesday, with 8 inches of new snow, I rode in on empty streets, arriving at work at 5:35 AM. I had to be in early to cover for someone who couldn’t make it in because of the snow and to prepare for a long day covering for the other folks who wouldn’t be able to drive in because of the snow. I rode only on bus routes since they were already plowed (and the bike paths and side streets weren’t). I had the streets to myself. I allowed extra time to get in but it actually took only about five minutes longer than usual. On the way home I saw a flock of tundra swans swimming near shore.
New Year, New Ride
I started the year out with a morning ride around the lake, via the scenic route so it ended up about 1 mile per degree (F) of temperature; or about 20 miles. I rode past the house where I was born, past the house whose front yard I once had to crawl up after delivering their newspaper (due to ice), past the state capitol. The lake house (second picture) used to have a house in front of it, so the house you see in this picture was not visible from the street. By the time I took the first sip from the water bottle, it was nearly frozen. I’ve been home for 20 minutes and still waiting for it to thaw.
I had a difference of opinion with the rehab hospital to which we used to send a lot of patients. I found out another local hospital gave $500 bonuses to all of their employees; $700 to those who care for COVID-19 patients. Needless to say, we did not get said bonuses. Then a patient ruined my day by saying, “It’s obvious to me that you love your work.” Yeah, I had to admit that I love what I do during the time that I am face-to-face with patients. So far, that has sustained me. But, as I left work on the last day of the year, I told my co-workers, “Maybe I’ll see you Tuesday” after playing this for our management.
They didn’t hear it, as they are working from home.
“We enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought.” John Fitzgerald Kennedy June 11, 1962
“The objective fact is I believe Trump probably did actually carry Georgia. …” Newt Gingrich December 7, 2020 (Just to clarify: While it may be an objective fact that he believes something, his belief is not an objective fact. But really, even that he believes it is not an objective fact. It is at best empirical [“depending on experience or observation alone, without using scientific method or theory”] and certainly not objective [“intent upon or dealing with things external to the mind rather than with thoughts or feelings”]. We only know he believes it because he tells us he does, or because we observe him to act as though he does.
“Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. §1746, I declare and verify under plenty of perjury that the facts contained in the foregoing Verified Complaint for Declaratory and Injunctive Relief are true and correct.” (emphasis added.) L. Lin Wood, December 18, 2020 (From a court filing seeking to declare Georgia’s Senate runoff election unconstitutional and seeking changes in procedures. Wood used the same arguments to attempt to throw out Georgia’s presidential election results. He claimed further that Donald Trump won 70% of the US votes.)