Thursday, July 31, 2008

Lessons Learned from Tim Russert's Death

I missed this story when it first came out, so it's a few weeks old, but it's a personal essay by 50-year-old writer Michael Bicks, who sought medical treatment for a heart attack, only because of the lessons he learned from Tim Russert's death.

Symptoms first arose on a a regular bike ride with friends:

"The ride a few Saturdays back was a tough one ... by the third hill I started to feel nauseated. Figuring that was probably a result of the four beers and large Chinese dinner the night before, I kept going. Twenty-five miles into the ride, I had fallen to the back of the pack. I was short of breath and wondering how I was going to make it much farther."

Eventually Bicks stops to have his wife give him a ride home, where he lays down on the bed. It was only after he thought of Tim Russert's recent shocking death that it occurred to him he might be having a heart attack. He writes, "Because at the right moment I thought of Tim Russert, I am one of the lucky ones. I get to hug my wife and my kids, understand how wonderful my friends are and realize exactly how much I love my life. It is a debt I can never repay."

Bicks elaborates: "As in Tim Russert’s case, there were no warning signs. No sign I was suffering from coronary artery disease. A piece of plaque in one of my arteries just broke off and created a massive blood clot. When it did, I suffered a severe heart attack. If I had not gone to the hospital, I might very well have died."

This is the power a celebrity can have over a media-obsessed society. When they die in a noteworthy way, it can not just shock people, but if used to proper advantage, it can also educate ... and apparently in this case, even save lives. It's uplifting to see something positive happen as the result of a sad situation. See, media isn't all bad.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Triathlon Deaths—At What Point Does A Trend Emerge?

According to this article, there have been at least eight triathletes who died in competition this year. All eight deaths occurred during the swim portion of the competition. Something like this raises the question: At what point do a series of deaths go beyond coincidence and become a trend that must be investigated as such?

"Precise cause of death remains elusive in many cases" ... although several theories are fleshed out within the piece. I always find it interesting to look at what point we move beyond a statistical blip and move into territory where it is helpful to researchers to investigate happenings as some sort of cluster. There are some similarities in these cases, but many of them are weak, things like the dead being men with experience with triathlons. Well, how many of the total racers were men who had experience with triathlons? Probably a pretty big amount, statistically speaking.

Female Bloggers

Off topic, but of interest to me and my blog ... an interesting article on the unique challenges that female bloggers face when it comes to being taken seriously by the blogging community. The New York Times covers the BlogHer convention and talks to female bloggers who cite difficulties being linked to by male bloggers, have received death threats, and are insulted on the basis of their looks rather than their ideas. Check it out.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Cemetery Fail

From failblog:

fail owned pwnd pictures

Friday, July 25, 2008

Professor of Last-Lecture Fame Dead

Randy Pausch, the Carnegie Mellon professor who came to YouTube fame when he found out he had terminal cancer and decided to give his literal last lecture has passed away today. Here is the lecture.

University of Washington Bioethics Site

I was just reminded of this useful bioethics reference site that the University of Washington has. I actually worked on it during my time there and wrote some of the copy, although I'm sure at least some of it's been revised since then. Here's a link to the page on Physician Assisted Suicide, a relevant topic to this blog. From there you can play around and find other topics.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Is the Moore Theater Haunted?

Recently, at a show at Seattle's Moore Theater, the boyfriend and I were discussing whether the theater could actually be haunted, as it is often said to be. He thinks no. I think I'm not sure.

Here's what I've experienced. In 2004, I attended an Iron and Wine show with my good friend Mike. Our seats were general admission for the top balcony. We were running late, and by the time we arrived, Iron and Wine had just started their set. It was already dark in the theater, and the ushers were unwilling to help us find a seat in the mass of people. The rows at The Moore are steep, and the seats are packed in tightly. It's not the kind of place where you want to go wandering around in the dark. So, we decided to just stand along the wall at the front of the top balcony and watch the show from there.

The theater crescendos in a dome shape that is punctuated with several statues of women, almost Grecian looking. Midway through the show, one of the faces of the women began to look populated to me—that's the only way I can think to describe it. Then, after a few minutes, the face seemed less like that of a Grecian lady and more like a crusty sailor, with a beard and hardened features. It wasn't so much like the statue transformed as it gave off that impression. I elbowed Mike to ask him if he was seeing what I was seeing, without telling him what I was seeing, and he said, very deadpan, "Yes."

The "populated" statue just looked at us for the rest of the show. It wasn't frightening. In fact, I don't even remember having any particular emotion about it, except maybe curiosity. After the show, we compared notes, and it seemed like we had indeed had the same experience.

This could have been a shared hallucination based on the play of light, stress, you name it. We could have both imagined it. There are all sorts of ways to poke holes in our experience. And I'm not saying I stand behind it 100%. I'm just sharing what happened.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

This American Life: Life After Death

Last weekend's This American Life covered the theme "Life After Death." It's all about how people recover from their involvement in the deaths of others.

From the program's website:
"One day at church camp, David Maxon challenged the devil to show himself. Just then, a huge thunderstorm started, and David felt sure the devil was behind it. So when the thunderstorm led to two campers getting killed, David couldn't help but blame himself. Twenty years later, host Ira Glass talks to David about being innocent but feeling guilty."

If you like radio, I don't know how you could avoid listening to that story. Here's the link.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Dark Knight Already Breaking Records

Fandango is reporting that 90% of their weekend ticket sales are going to The Dark Knight.

AP is reporting that the film has already set a record for midnight debuts, bringing in 18.5 million in its midnight shows alone. (The previous record was $16.9 million for Star Wars III Revenge of the Sith.)

Are people going in for some public grieving, is this morbid fascination, or is it the hype over how good the movie is and how good Heath's performance is?

Thursday, July 17, 2008

"The Art of Dying" in The Stranger

Great article today in The Stranger, one of Seattle's weekly papers. It's called "The Art of Dying." Writer Brendan Kiley—a theater critic who I wish would do more features because he's really good at them—interviews a local artist, Greg Lundgren, who is making innovative, creative decorations for headstones. Lundgren wants to add more individuality to the way people express themselves and their loved ones in death. Kiley uses Lundgren's interests as a way in to the conversation about how boring and limited our dealings with the business of death are. He points out how conservative the industry is and has always been ... and argues that baby boomers will likely push the bounds of the industry to be more accommodating. He writes:

"The death-care industry remains such a strong bastion of quiet conformity partly because the reformers of the baby-boom generation haven't started dying yet. The boomers have insisted on variety and individuality at every threshold of their lives: sex, marriage, parenthood. In their wide demographic wake, they have left us a thousand makes of vibrator, do-it-yourself weddings, and organic nonbleached hemp baby booties. But the boomers are myopic reformers. Generally speaking, they have only just begun to think about death, so have only just begun to pressure cemeteries and funeral homes for change."

Let's hope so.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Suicide Prevention Fence for Seattle's Aurora Bridge

This article in the Seattle Times today. The governor's office, in conjunction with the state Department of Transportation, has released three potential designs for a fence to go along the Aurora Bridge. Excellent news, if as this recent NY Times article which I blogged about points out, restricting the means to suicide really does cut down on the number of suicides committed.

According to The Seattle Times, the Aurora Bridge has been home to 200 suicides since 1932. In the past decade alone, 40 people have attempted death by jumping from the bridge. Just last Monday, a man put his leg over the bridge and had to be talked down by police. The article claims the Aurora Bridge is second only to the Golden Gate Bridge in the number of suicides that happen on it. (Although, there would be quite a large gap between first and second place. It's said that a person jumps from the Golden Gate Bridge once every 15 days or so, and though an official tally is not known, because many jumps are not witnessed because they happen at night and there is also frequent fog around the Golden Gate Bridge, its total suicides may be around 1,200.)

The three designs for the Aurora Bridge fence must next go to a Landmark Preservation Board for approval because the bridge is on the National Register of Historic Places. I really hope they approve one of the designs because statistical indicators show this type of change helps save lives. Suicidal impulses are often momentary, and restricting the means can make people rethink their decision long enough to keep them alive. (If what I'm writing here is interesting to you, read Scott Anderson's stellar article.) And the battle often comes down to suicide-prevention advocates facing off against historic preservationist who aren't convinced fences on bridges will really deter people. That's why the Golden Gate Bridge still doesn't have a fence.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Stress at Work After Death in Family

My boyfriend is dealing with a stressful situation right now at work with a colleague who is angry at him ... without going into details, pretty much unjustifiably so, and this particular colleague just lost a close family member.

I remember when my grandfather died, it was a MASSIVELY stressful time for my whole family. And that stress carried over to me personally. And I'm sure that stress carried over to work. I remember even telling a few people that I was extra cranky because of a death in the family and that I was working to de-stress and be less cranky. And as I found myself getting angry at work, I'd try to take a step back, think about whether there was really something happening at work that justified anger—and probably there wasn't.

But man, it's so hard to deal with logistical details of funerals, visitations, financial settlements, travel arrangements, etc., on top of all of the emotions of grief. And then you have to get back to work. Argh! That's a tough transition. Have other people had experience with this?

Edna St. Vincent Millay on Death of Young Classmate

Right now, I'm reading a fantastic biograph of Edna St. Vincent Millay. It's not exactly new ... I've known about it for awhile and just finally got around to reading it. The book is Savage Beauty by Nancy Millford. It's a masterpiece—I wish more authors would take this much time to craft, hone, and research. Her language is gorgeous ... and the amount of detail she pulls together into a cohesive tale is astounding. You really must have to be of a certain ilk to write good biographies. The attention to detail, the charm necessary to work with surviving family members, the follow-through, the talent for writing. Well, Milford has it all.

I'm a sucker for a good first sentence. Here's Milford's: "I played a hunch in the winter of 1972." Killer.

Anyway, on to the point :) Millay wrote some beautiful poems in 1917/1918 after one of her Vassar classmates died in that year's flu pandemic. You can see that she is struggling with the injustice of someone so young and full of life being struck down so suddenly. The poems are raw, vulnerable, and full of Millay's honest, real emotion. Here is one called "Chorus":

Give away her gowns
Give away her shoes;
She has no more use
For her fragrant gowns;
Take them all down,
Blue, green, blue,
Lilac, pink, blue,
From their padded hangers;
She will dance no more
In her narrow shoes
From the closet floor

And another titled "Elegy Before Death":

There will be rose and rhododendron
When you are dead and under ground;
Still will be heard from white syringas
Heavy with bees, a sunny sound;

Still will the tamaracks be raining
After the rain has ceased, and still
Will there be robins in the stubble,
Grey sheep upon the warm green hill.


Oh, there will pass with your great passing
Little of beauty not your own,—
Only the light from common water,
Only the grace from common stone!

According to Milford, publishers were afraid to move on these poems, even though Millay was already quite well known and respected for Renasance, because the poems were loaded with the theme of death. But as Milford points out, Millay refused to alter her work in a significant way, knowing that great writers for centuries before her had made their mark tackling the subject of death. Milford writes that the publishers didn't care that Millay "was echoing her beloved Latin poets." ... "Death scared them off, as it had neither the Elizabethans nor the Romans."

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Men Die Younger

It's not really any surprise that men die younger, but it will probably surprise most people that the biological disadvantages begin at conception, so says Marianne J. Legato in her new book Why Men Die First: How to Lengthen Your Lifespan. She argues that males are less likely to survive in the womb. That they are born six weeks developmentally behind females. That adolescence is much riskier for them because of the dramatic testosterone levels they experience—which causes them to engage in riskier behavior. And at middle age, they become more at risk for heart disease. These are just a few examples of why men die first, according to Legato.

Here's a link to a Today Show interview with the author, and an excerpt from her book.

Of course it has the modern spin of you can control it and put a stop to aging/death. It's a common theme any time something deals with death to soften the blow by implying that the research is being used to help people control their mortality and extend their lives. I haven't read the book, and there's nothing in the interview or excerpt that specifically addresses that portion of the book, only the book's subtitle, so I'm not sure how much of that is marketing and how much that theme plays centrally to the book.

I do find it to be a fascinating research topic because we have known for years now that men do not live as long as women, so why not look at why? And how amazing is it that the differences in mortality rates begin at conception!

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

The Dark Knight Extends 'til Dawn

This from the New York Times:

"In a frenzy, fans have bought so many late-night tickets for the July 18 opening of the next Batman movie that theaters in places like San Diego, Chicago, and even Eagan, Minn., are scheduling 6 a.m. screenings for those who can’t get in at midnight or 3 in the morning."

It seems likely, they're going to see Heath Ledger's last on-screen performance. It'd be easy to read this news as morbid, as vultures picking over the dead, but I find it exciting and uplifiting in a way.

Ledger's death was shocking and tragic. Mainstream America didn't realize he was struggling with depression, anxiety, extreme insomnia and was lost in a mix of prescription drugs. His death was sudden and sad. This film provides an opportunity for people to sit together in a dark room and appreciate him and his talent, silently, as a group. It will be cathartic. It will be public grieving. Which I have said before, I am a big fan of.

I'm sure, given the nature of entertainment reporting nowadays, the hoopla surrounding this film will get disgusting and overbearing. But for now, I love that people are flocking to see Heath Ledger's last role. It makes me much happier than having them buy his action figure. At least they'll get an experience out of this. He was an amazing talent. He was outstanding in Brokeback Mountain, and also, something a lot of people forget about, Billy Bob Thornton's son who commits suicide in Monster's Ball. Wow! Knocked my socks off.

I think The Dark Knight is something we all should see in the theaters, because we should be together to mourn the loss of this great young actor.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Funeral Visitation for a Three-Year-Old

Yesterday, I went to a funeral visitation for a three-year-old girl. As I'm sure you can imagine, there were moments that twisted my insides and made me want to run outside of the funeral home and away from all of the gloom. The child had a rare congenital condition, and the parents never expected her to live long ... but I'm not a psychologist, so I won't speculate as to whether that makes it any easier on them. They were clearly suffering yesterday.

I don't know how you even define handling death well when it happens to someone so young.

Instead of a guest book, the family put out a children's book for people to sign in the girl's honor. It was a copy of "You Are My I Love You" by Maryann Cusimano. The writing in children's books has to be so tight and brief, sometimes, when it's done well, it can be poetry. I think this book is one of those cases. In the book, the parent sets up mirroring phrases to the child—the parent takes the role of the strong, steady rock and the child becomes the fun, likely spark in lines such as "I am your carriage ride; you are my king." My favorite line relates to swimming: "I am your water wings; you are my deep."

The visitation was open-casket. I don't know if I'm in the minority with this opinion, but I actually like open-casket funerals. I do think it helps the mind achieve closure to see the person's dead body. I know some people have trouble with it. (One of my aunts struggled with my grandfather's funeral being open-casket.) It's jarring and uncomfortable ... but so is the notion that this person has died, and at least for me personally, it helps my mind make peace with it all.

Anyway, it was a sad event ... and I'm not sure what good to take away from a life that was too short and so filled with pain and suffering.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Suicide—Restrict the Means

The New York Times has a fascinating article on suicide. It's almost a philosophical write-up of the topic. Appropriately enough, it starts out with a quote from Albert Camus: "There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide.” I love this line that ends the last paragraph:

"Our contradictory reactions to the act speak to the conflicted hold it has on our imaginations: revulsion mixed with fascination, scorn leavened with pity. It is a cardinal sin — but change the packaging a little, and suicide assumes the guise of heroism or high passion, the stuff of literature and art."

Primarily, the piece focuses on the sometimes impulsive nature of suicide and how, if easier means of suicide are addressed and taken away, suicide numbers can be cut down. For example, if access if restricted to bridges that people jump off of, the potential jumpers don't just find another way, most of them will actually not commit suicide at all—because it was a momentary desire that led them to want it to end it all, and without the easy means to do it, they found a way to get through the problem. Obviously, there are other types of mental illness that lead to suicide, but it's a fascinating side of suicide that I had never heard of before. Some people are led to it in the heat of passion. And as you can tell from the above quote, the article is very well written.

It's a long piece, but definitely worth the read.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Funerals: A consumer's guide

I found this handy website today by doing a google search of funeral laws. The Federal Trade Commission had put together a primer on all the things consumers need to be aware of as they go into the process of paying for a funeral. It's a daunting—and expensive—process ... and many people are not prepared for it at all.

The page outlines basic laws and different types of funerals. Near the end, there is a handy check-sheet of prices to inquire about. The site also includes a helpful glossary. It's a great place to start if you're hoping to become more educated on issues like these. It definitely would have come in handy when my grandfather passed away. I think the funeral home we worked with was completely reputable and very pleasant, but we had nothing to judge that on but their behavior to us and our own instinct. It would have been reassuring to have some sort of guide to work from at the time.