Sunday, August 31, 2008

Life lives on lives

A passage from The Power of Myth. Joseph Campbell discussing an Indonesian myth:

"In the beginning, according to this story, the ancestors were not distinguished as to sex. There were no births, there were no deaths. Then a great public dance was celebrated, and in the course of the dance one of the participants was trampled to death and torn to pieces, and the pieces were buried. At the moment of that killing the sexes became separated, so that death was now balanced by begetting, begetting by death, while from the buried parts of the dismembered body food plants grew. Time had come into being, death, birth, and the killing and eating of other living beings, for the preservation of life. The timeless time of the beginning had been terminated by a communal crime, a deliberate murder or sacrifice.

Now, one of the main problems of mythology is reconciling the mind to this brutal precondition of all life, which lives by the killing and eating of lives. You don't kid yourself by eating only vegetables, either, for they, too, are alive. So the essence of life is this eating of itself? Life lives on lives, and the reconciliation of the human mind and sensibilities to that fundamental fact is one of the functions of some of those very brutal rites in which the ritual consists chiefly of killing—in imitation, as it were, of that first, primordial crime, out of which arose this temporal world, in which we all participate. The reconciliation of mind to the conditions of life is fundamental to all creation stories. "

Confessions of a cursive dunce

I can't read cursive. Never learned it. Can't write it either.

Instead of cursive, my school district taught something called duvall. Duvall is a system of connecting letters together, similar to cursive ... but different. Don't ask me why they thought it would be a good idea to leave us students ignorant of the type of handwriting implemented by the rest of the English-writing world. Apparently, someone caught the reformist bug.

According to this letter to the editor of Northwest News, my district stopped teaching cursive in favor of duvall around 1985—which would have been about the time I went through the district. Duvall is the sort of useless junk that you don't use outside of the learning environment. It's difficult and time-consuming. So, once I finished grade school, I completely forgot it.

Occasionally, this little educational quirk causes some confusion for me. Sometimes at work I'll have to ask someone to interpret a note they left for me. I've received quite a few cards from grandma, the contents of which have left me guessing. But usually, it's not a big deal.

When I signed in to take the GREs, the proctor gave me some forms to read and sign. Part of the official process is to copy down a statement in "your best cursive handwriting" ... of which I have none. So, I had to sit there and fake what I imagined to be cursive handwriting from what I've seen other people do.

I'm sure it won't have any consequences for my test scores, but it was an odd experience, nonetheless.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Vocab fun—no it's not an oxymoron

So, until recently, I had been studying for the GREs. And at least for the verbal section, it was a lot of looking up specific definitions for words of which I had a general sense of the meaning—acrimonious, lascivious, hegemony, moribund ... fun ones like that.

But along the way, I was surprised to find that I was totally off-base on the definition of callow. In my head, I would have thought sarcastic, biting, acidic, or something like that. But it means "lacking adult sophistication: immature." A very useful word when you know what it means.

Takashi Murakami goes hip-hop

A link to Kanye West's new(?) video "Good Morning," which is directed by one of my FAVORITE artists, Takashi Murakami. I can't find a version that will allow me to embed on the blog, but here's a still photo to tantalize you. I love the little hip-hop bear with rainbow, glossy eyes and some of the first shots of him waking up in the morning. I also love the moment when he gets swallowed by the cloud-monster. Some of the appearances by traditional Murakami iconography are fun for a long-time fan like me, too. I don't think you'll be sorry if you take three minutes to watch.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

100 Things to do Before You ... Nevermind

I was doing one of my semi-weekly rounds of reading not-so-highbrow news and came upon this bit of irony. Dave Freeman, the co-author of 100 Things To Do Before You Die, passed away last week, at the age of 47 ... having only gotten through about 50 of the items on his list.

Freeman died of a fall—the number three cause of accidental deaths.

Does Anyone Want to Die in a Hospital?

Lyrics to a new(ish) Conor Oberst song "I don't want to die (in the hospital)"

I don't want to die in the hospital
I don't want to die in the hospital
I don't want to die in the hospital
You gotta take me back outside

I don't want to hear all these factory sounds
Looking like a girl in a sleeping gown
I don't want to die in the hospital
You gotta take me back outside

Can you make a sound to distract the nurse
Before I take a ride in the long black hearse
I don't want to die in the hospital
You gotta take me back outside

Help me get my boots on
Help me get my boots on
Help me get my boots back on
Help me get my boots on
Help me get my boots on
Help me get my boots back on
I gotta go, go, go
Cause I don't have long

I don't give a damn what the doctors say
I ain't gonna spend another lonesome day
I don't want to die in the hospital
You gotta take me back outside

And they don't let you smoke and you can't get drunk
All there is to watch are these soap operas
I don't want to die in the hospital
You gotta take me back outside

Can you get this tube out of my arm
Morphine in my blood like a slow sad song
I don't want to die in the hospital
You gotta take me back outside

Help me get my boots on
Help me get my boots on
Help me get my boots back on
Help me get my boots on
Help me get my boots on
Help me get my boots back on
I gotta go, go, go
Cause I don't have long

Is there still a world out my windowsill
All there ever was I remember still
I don't want to die in this hospital
You gotta take me back outside

Don't know when it's day or when it's night
All I ever see are fluorescent lights
I don't want to die in this hospital
You gotta take me back outside

They give me all these flowers and these big balloons
But I don't wanna stay in this little room
I don't want to die in this hospital
I don't want to die

Are the stars still in the sky?
Is that fat moon on the rise?
Feel the earth against my feet
As the cold wind calls for me

I don't want to die in this hospital
I don't want to die in this hospital
No I ain't gonna die in this hospital
You gonna take me back outside

Yeah I ain't gonna die in this hospital
No I ain't gonna die in this hospital
No I ain't gonna die in this hospital
You gonna take me back outside

The Omaha, NE, singer/songwriter has frequently returned to the subject of death and mortality in his music, but in this particular song, he hits on a theme that will resonate for many in our modern world. When asked how they want to die, I would guess, most people would say things like—surrounded by friends and family, in their own bed, comfortable, at home, with a view of trees, etc.

Some may genuinely prefer the security of knowing they are surrounded by medical professionals, in a sterile environment, to the end ... but according to some research, more than half of patients with life-limiting, chronic illness die in hospitals, even though up to 70% of Americans express a wish to die at home. (This from a study done at Sewanee: the University of the South.)

This disconnect is startling and sad. And as much as some folks find Oberst petulant and arrogant, I like his emotionally charged, heavily vibrato style. And for me, this song says something eloquent and beautiful about a problem many of us will face and more of us should be going into with our eyes open.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

terrier extravaganza

This morning, I went over to Marymoor Park to check out the Sammamish Kennel Club's all breed dog show. I went specifically to see the border terriers ... because that's what I have and that's what I love. (Not that I don't love all dogs. I just have a special place in my heart for the borders.)

It was so much fun to see a whole cluster of them prancing around in the ring. Their sturdy little physiques, their cute beards, their perky dispositions. Border terriers are not all that common ... at least around Seattle they're not ... so I don't see them very often. And there must have been about 20 at the show. Oh, it made my weekend!

My mom came with me. After the border terriers finished their show, we asked one of the owners if we could pet her dog, and I told her I had one at home. Anyway, turns out, she had puppies at the show with her! So, not only did I get to see a whole gaggle of border terriers, I got to see puppies too.

I'm sharing some of my favorite photos of the day. The final photo is a wheaten terrier—my mother's favorite dog. This female won today, and she was so sweet. Her name was Teagan.


I've been having lots of trouble with my migraines the past 10 days or so. I just took the GREs Saturday morning. I'm sure a lot of the pain was due to stressing over the test. But the weather here in Seattle has also been shifting around a lot lately—hot one day, cold the next; dry one day, pouring the next. I've read a little research on humidity and barometric pressure affecting migraine pain. So, I think I'm going to try to keep track of my pain and how it relates to weather.

I have chronic, daily migraines ... but most days they're mild. So, whenever they get to be more severe, I'm always keen to root out the source. Sometimes it's the scent of a new product I've recently purchased. Sometimes it's a food I've been eating. I'm hoping this series of headaches just fades away once I get back into my routine now that I've finished the GREs.

But for anyone who has any type of chronic pain that may or may not be affected by the weather, I found this handy link on the Weather Channel's website. They rate, on a scale of 1 to 10, how strong the possibility for weather-related pain is on any given day. They even forecast out aches and pains 10 days into the future. I just found the site, but I'll be curious to see if there's any correlation.

In the meantime, I'll be holding my head and looking for something cold to hold over my eyes.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

You have minutes to escape—forget the stuff!

KUOW's Weekday had a show this morning asking listeners to call in and share what item they would take with them if their house were on fire. I'm just finishing up Amanda Ripley's amazing book on disasters, so this is all particularly fresh in my mind ... but please ... if your house is on fire, don't take anything with you. Just get out!

Make sure your family and pets are safe if you must and then get out. One of the reasons people die in emergencies is because they go through an urge to gather—looking around them, trying to decide what they need to take with them. According to Ripley's research and interviews, when planes hit the World Trade Center on 9/11, some workers looked around their cubes and deliberated whether they needed their purses, the mystery novel they were reading, etc., before they left. It slows down the mental process. And the faster you can get your conscious brain to move into the message that it's time to escape, the better off you are.

I wish Weekday hadn't perpetuated this dangerous notion that everyone has time to pick one dear object. It's not true. Not everyone even has time to escape a fire alive. And that should be the one and only priority if you ever find yourself in a fire. Forget the Rick Steves DVDs. (That was one of the items mentioned on the program today.) No thing matters as much as preserving life when it comes down to it.

Don't let your subconscious brain decide that, in an emergency, there is time to grab one important thing. The last thing you need to do in a disaster is waste time deciding which one object is most important to grab.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Etiquette of contacting someone after loss

In this week's edition of their relatively new etiquette column, written by Philip Galanes, The New York Times addresses how to contact someone who has lost a son to suicide. Here's the full exchange:

"Sympathy by E-Mail

I recently learned that a former colleague, with whom I was friendly but haven’t seen in many years, lost her son to suicide. The death was almost a year ago, but it just came to my attention. I want to send my condolences. I was going to send her an e-mail message, but I wonder if this sort of thing should be addressed only with a phone call or a handwritten note.


It’s great that you’re getting in touch with your friend. She needs all the support she can get — maybe even more so now than in the immediate aftermath of her son’s death, when people tend to cluster around.

I don’t think it makes much difference how you contact her. It really is the thought that counts. Still, let me offer a suggestion: A phone call — coming out of the blue, on a painful subject — forces your friend to respond whether she wants to or not. Written communication gives her more control: she can respond when she’s ready. It also creates a memento of your kindness that she can return to later.

Some people make a fuss about the superiority of handwritten notes in instances like these. They may have a point, but I don’t believe it’s a material one. This much is certain: your friend needs your support. So don’t get bogged down in mechanics."

I like this answer for two reasons:

1) I completely agree that you should get in touch when someone you know suffers a loss. It often feels awkward, and we rarely know the right thing to say, but I just think it has to be done.

2) I like the idea of e-mail instead of a phone call because the person is not obligated to respond or engage. It gives the person in grief the freedom to react however they feel comfortable to react. E-mail may not feel as personal, but the medium gives the receiver autonomy and control ... and that can be nice when you're grieving and forced into a lot of difficult, emotionally charged encounters like visitations, funerals, family dinners, etc.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

A kindred spirit

I was just made aware of a wonderful blog that also covers end-of-life issues. The writing is sharp and full of character. It's run by Fran Moreland Johns, who is the author of a book called Dying Unafraid and has volunteered in hospices for years. In the Fran's own words, the site focuses on: "exchanges about life and death, writings and readings and meringue cookies." Check it out.

Most common causes of accidental death

When you worry about dying in an accident, what do you worry about? Earthquakes? Plane crashes? Terrorist attacks? Hurricanes? According to author Amanda Ripley, what we most worry about has nothing to do with what we are most at risk for.

What are the most common causes of accidental death?

1. automobile accidents
2. poisonings
3. falling

I'll be most people could have guessed number one. Two and three surprised me though. I have NEVER worried about being poisoned to death or dying by falling, at least not since I was a child and playing make-believe.

Ripley uses dread to explain the disconnect. And I'm over-simplifying a bit here in order to summarize, but here's a nifty equation she came up with to explain what is likely to scare us:

Dread = Uncontrollability + Unfamiliarity + Imaginability + Suffering + Scale of Destruction + Unfairness

Take an automobile accident for example: it's on a small scale, most likely; you have control because you can drive the vehicle; it's familiar to most of us; and when car crashes happen, they're quick, so the time for suffering is short.

Contrast that with a plane crash in which you wouldn't have control; it could be minutes between when the cause of a crash occurs and the plan actually crashes; the scale is usually much larger with many more deaths; and it's usually much more catastrophic in our imaginations.

So, even though it would be more rational to fear a car crash over a plane crash, many of us probably find the scales tipped the other way when it comes to anxiety.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Regular People

I've just started reading The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes—And Why by Amanda Ripley. I picked up the book because of a gripping interview Ripley gave on the Diane Rehm show, so I was pretty certain I would like the book before I started it.

Ripley's work is fascinating. She studies the way people behave in disasters by interviewing survivors and putting herself through disaster simulations to look at two things:

1) what happens to people during disasters; and
2) what types of people survive disasters.

As I said, I've only just started, but already, I'm really impressed by one facet of her research: Ripley's focus on regular people. She writes:

"These days, we tend to think of disasters as acts of God and government. Regular people only feature into the equation as victims, which is a shame. Because regular people are the most important people at a disaster scene, every time" (p. xiii).

Ripley goes on to cite the example of a series of sewer explosions in Guadalajara, Mexico, in 1992. "Regular people" had used car jacks to lift rubble off of survivors; they used garden hoses to force air into voids in which people were trapped. Nearly all of those who ended up being rescued were rescued in the first two hours—by "regular people"—before medics, police, government officials, or search dogs could even reach the scene (p. xiii).

Monday, August 4, 2008

Poor Puffer Fish

Sorry for the graphic picture. ... We had a death in the work aquarium today, and I thought it was sad ... in a sort of, I realize it's a fish and let's keep it in proportion, kind of way.

My office has a large salt-water aquarium. After several re-orgs of office space, I ended up volunteering to feed the fish—since I was one of the few people working near the tank before and after desks and cubes got moved around.

The fish have an automatic feeder that dispenses some food three times a day. The supplemental food I was giving was mostly for a large puffer fish, although all of the dozen or so fish in the tank would eat it. The puffer fish was super animated; it had so much personality for a fish. It's fins looked like they spun around like little propellers when it moved through the water.

When I go to feed the fish—stinky, dried krill that I drop in from the top of the tank—the puffer is the first fish to come up for food. He didn't come for krill, and none of the other fish seemed too excited to eat. I knew something had to be amiss. I looked around and found him dead, wedged between two pieces of coral (as in the picture).

Initially I was concerned that my feeding had upset his balance. Fish can be so sensitive, since they live in an entirely contained environment. But the aquarium expert who came to take care of his remains and clean the tank thought he had just died of old age. He was around three years old, and apparently that's a decent lifespan for an aquarium fish. Also, I found out that the fin movement I thought was so cute was actually over-activity due to stress in the aquarium environment, and that stress may have shortened his life some. Sigh. Poor puffer fish.

Nobel Laureate Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn Dies

Literary great Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn died Sunday at the age of 89. Writers just don't get more important than Mr. Solzhenitsyn, who challenged his nation by writing about some of the harshest realities of Soviet Communism in works like The Gulag Archipelago, which tells the history of the Gulag prison camps.

I'll refrain from chronicling his life because this New York Times article does it much more eloquently than I can in the limited time I have ... and in the limited space and attention-span offered by a blog. And there are so many noteworthy events that should be mentioned when talking about this man. I will note, when Robert Rauschenberg died, I thought it was impressive that his biography was four pages online. Solzhenitsyn's is eight pages!

There are some great interactive features on the NY Times page, too—a photo slideshow with some pictures that show awesome personality, what you'd expect from a Russian writer with lots of personality; some audio clips; etc.

Friday, August 1, 2008

July Poll Results

The question was "If you could live forever, would you want to?" And here are the results:

Yes: 8
No: 6
I don't Know: 4

I'm a little surprised by these answers. I thought most people would say no. (Granted most people voted that they either did not want to live forever or did not know how they felt.) Maybe my views come from being an English major and having the quaint literary knowledge of books like Tuck Everlasting. It's possible there actually would be something to gain from living forever. You would have the opportunity to learn a lot. But wouldn't it be awfully sad to watch people you love die when you were in this world for eternity? Then again, it's only a highly non-scientific poll on a blog. There's also the possibility that people didn't take it that seriously :)