Friday, October 31, 2008

November Poll: Can Vampires Be Highbrow?

In honor of the official Twilight freakout that is about to descend upon America, I ask a question about the "undead": vampires.

It is possible to have a highbrow work of art based on vampires? I've never read Bram Stoker's Dracula, so maybe that's the one ... but it just seems like there's something about the monster meets eroticism meets hunting human beings that lends itself to being a little tacky.

I've been struggling all week to come up with a poll question related to vampires that wasn't totally lowbrow, and finally, I decided to give up and ask you all if it's even a topic that reaches beyond the lowbrow. Again, I'm not concluding; I'm not voting; I'm just asking.

Okay, so if you're a big fan of vampire stories, don't hate me for asking this question.

I've read one of the Anne Rice books. I've read the first Twilight novel. I've seen the movie version of Bram Stoker's Dracula. And they strike me as definitely genre fiction, made more to appeal to a certain class of readers/viewers than simply to be great works on their own merit.

And I'm not against monster stories. Mary Shelley's Frankenstein is one of my favorite books of all time. It's beautifully written—the Gothic style, the grand questions about whether man "should" just because he "can."

So sound off. Tell me I'm crazy and wrong and just haven't read/seen the right thing.

Debunking I-1000 Ad Claims

The Seattle Times has a nice piece today debunking some of the claims made by the latest advertising pro and con Initiative 1000. Anyone who reads this blog can tell I'm a supporter of death with dignity ... but I've been a little critical of ads on both sides. I hate most political ads, and both camps in this fight have really prayed upon people's fear of death and the sadness of losing a loved one.

I'd like to see more reasoned debate like this on both sides. Today's article is a nice start, but perhaps a bit late, five days before the election.

You can watch two of the more recent ads ... and then read the article.

Pro I-1000

Con I-1000

I find the Pro ad to be a little manipulative and the Con ad to shamelessly play upon fear. I just hate the line "Suicide is a mistake you can only make once." That's one of those bumper-sticker phrases that's constructed in a way that nobody can possibly argue against. But see what you think.

A blog you must read

I've recently become aware of a wonderful blog written by dethmama, a registered nurse who takes care of hospice patients in emergency situations between 5 p.m. and 8 a.m.

Dethmama writes: "This is the most gratifying, heart-warming, gut-wrenching and terrifying job I've ever had."

The blog is filled with no-nonsense humor, and empathy for the hospice patients. And I love, love, love the image of the hospice nurse as a comic-book superhero. I mean, if we're going to turn any profession into a superhero, is there a better one to do it with?

Dethmama is a great storyteller. Here's a link to one of my favorite entries titled "Bad Kitty and the Hospice Nurse."

Thursday, October 30, 2008

We Can't Imagine Death

One of my favorite former professors sent me this article from Scientific American in which Jesse Bering discusses the phenomenon that most of us, atheists included, have a hard time not imagining our conscious minds going on after death.

Bering points out "you" will cease to exist after death. There will be no recognition of death. You won't know you have died.

To take a reference from pop-culture, if you believe the last episode of The Sopranos shows Tony Soprano's death, a visual representation of this idea might look something like this ...

But somehow, even though we know this in fact, many of us still imagine deceased beings with feelings, needs, wants, drives. There is a psychological disconnect; Bering seems to argue that it comes from culture and an idea he calls "person permanence," an notion that people we care about always exist in some way:

"And so person permanence may be the final cognitive hurdle that gets in the way of our effectively realizing the dead as they truly are—infinitely in situ, inanimate carbon residue. Instead it’s much more 'natural' to imagine them as existing in some vague, unobservable locale, very much living their dead lives.

It's a fascinating read.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Insider's View of the Obituary Industry

Blog reader Laura tipped me off to this great column at lemondrop by Elizabeth Lardie, a professional obituary writer. Lardie writes with humor and distance, as you'd expect from someone who deals in death every day ... but she also manages a nice degree of reverence for what she does, as she shows in today's column, where she is shocked by a coworker who comes by each morning to ask if there are any "cool" dead people.

Here's the intro. paragraph from one of her columns:

"After a mere few months as an obituary writer, I got disturbingly accustomed to saying things like, 'Unfortunately, we wouldn't be able to say that your grandmother was beloved, since that would be editorializing.' It was very easy to forget the implications of a day's work. It was more than easy. It was necessity."

Friday, October 24, 2008

Parallel Worlds, Parallel Lives Part II

A follow-up to my post earlier this week about theoretical physicist Hugh Everett III and his son Mark Everett of The EELS. Mark writes a brief description of how his father's possessions and remains were handled:

"... my mom came back from the morgue with a small bag that contained my dad's wallet, watch and wedding ring. My dad, who was a devout atheist, had once told my mom that he wanted to be thrown out in the trash. My mom kept his ashes in a box inside a filing cabinet drawer in the dining room for a few years, and eventually honoured his request."

I wonder at the assumption that an atheist would not need a ceremony. I think it's great that Hugh's family followed his wishes, even though they were highly out of the ordinary. I can see how, for an individual person, being detached from the corporeal form could connect to atheism. There is no life after death, therefore our forms means nothing once they are vacated. But is that necessarily so? Couldn't an atheist want a ceremony? If for no other reason, maybe just to comfort those who survive them?

Obama's visit to ailing grandmother

I dabbled in political work in college and shortly after—some campaigns, time with training institutes. It wasn't for me. And as a result of that experience, I'm fairly cynical about politics, especially the mechanisms of a campaign and what they can pressure people to do ... but this was a profoundly classy and decent thing to do. I am surprised and impressed.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

A Necessary Death

The link for this video came from my friend Amelia.

It's a movie that poses as a documentary about suicide. Thankfully, not an actual documentary.

The filmmaker seeks to follow a person from the initial instinct of wanting to commit suicide to the day that they commit the act.

It's an interesting premise because, being a piece of fiction that pretends at nonfiction, it lets us explore the ethical issues that would be involved with such a documentary—why wouldn't the filmmaker stop the suicide? should suicide be entertainment? should the filmmaker try to help the suffering person?—without anyone actually being ethically complicit in the act.

And clearly from this YouTube clip, we can see they're advertising it as though it is a documentary. So, the film's producers want the confusion to exist.

I still have concerns that they're turning suicide into entertainment. Meta though the film may be, the act of suicide and the conversation around it become the main narrative thrust that push this movie forward. But it hasn't screened in Seattle yet, and I don't want to judge too harshly something I haven't seen. So, I'll keep an open mind until I've had a chance to view it.

Here's a link to the film's website.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Parallel Worlds, Parallel Lives

NOVA aired an excellent program last night, focusing on the story of Mark Oliver Everett, frontman for the indie band EELS. Mark lost his father when he was just 18, and has only recently, now as a man in his 40s, began to come to terms with his father's death.

Mark's father was an academic. A devout atheist. A bit of an eccentric. Somewhat distant from his wife and children. And a brilliant theoretic physicist who invented the theory of parallel universes.

Hugh Everett III first published his theory in a 1957 dissertation. In very simple terms (simple because I am not a scientist) he says that although we only see one outcome from any given event, there are an infinite possibility of outcomes occurring in different, parallel universes. Of course, we know now, his idea is widely popular in mainstream science fiction (Lost, Star Trek, etc.). But his work only began to receive any credit from the scientific community in the late 70s. And Everett died in 82.

The work continues to gain in popularity. Now, as the oldest living son of a man with a legacy of mysterious genius, Mark Everett finds himself in the awkward role of playing caretaker to his father's memory. The NOVA special traced his path to document what he could about his father though surviving family photos, tapes, records, etc., and it recorded his thoughts serving as this strange sort of ambassador for his deceased dad.

In a way, we could say he is having the opposite experience of Christopher Buckley. Mark Everett is being trapped and confined by his father's death, not liberated.

Watch the program online here ... but only for one week. There are also background materials, including writing from Mark Everett and Hugh Everett's original dissertation here.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Mom Takes Ban on Bunny Suicides into her Own Hands

An Oregon mom is so upset over a copy of The Bunny Suicides that her 13-year-old son checked out from the local public library, she has vowed to keep the book at home so that no other child will be able to check it out from the library and be exposed to it. If the library replaces the book, she says she will have a friend check out that copy and keep it for her. Basically, she has made it her mission to rid her hometown library of The Bunny Suicides.

Now, The Bunny Suicides are morbid humor. They depict, in comic-book form, bunnies trying to kill themselves in different creative ways. I happen to think the book is funny because I tend to like dark humor, and it's pretty witty. But it's not everyone's cup of tea. I wouldn't fault anyone for not liking it. But to try to rid the library of something because you don't think it's funny and you find it offensive ... that's just plain censorship. It's self-righteous, and it's ridiculous.

The library's only recourse at this point is to charge the mom $13 for the cost of the book and possibly ban her son from ever checking out books at the library again. So, the town is out one book—yeah I know it's not Faulkner, but it is still censorship—and her son, who is checking out books at the library even though he's a 13-year-old boy—a minor miracle—might not be able to do that anymore. Seems like everyone loses.

I know it relates to death, and death can be a big, scary taboo ... but some people find this book funny regardless. Maybe if she doesn't like it, she could just leave the book alone and walk away from it. Or parent her child and tell him he can't read it, instead of trying to parent the whole town. Sigh.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Bucking the trend

Christopher Buckley, son of the great conservative thinker and commentator William F. Buckley, Jr. has just endorsed Barack Obama, the Democratic candidate for president—a mere eight months after William Buckley's death. He did so in a post on Tina Brown's new website, The Daily Beast. In the ensuing controversy after the endorsement, Christopher's column in the National Review—a conservative magazine his father founded—was cut. The YouTube clip here is from a Hardball interview, which explains what happened in greater detail.

The New York Times has an article talking to the younger Buckley about the whole mess. Christopher seems to express some indecisiveness about how his father (and his mother who also recently passed) would have felt about his actions. But he does say he would have been reluctant to publish his support of Obama had his parents still been alive. Christopher admits, while it has been terribly difficult to lose his parents, it has also been freeing. Here's a quote:

“There is something ironically liberating when the father figure dies,” he said, sitting in his study, surrounded by his books and family mementos, including the manual Royal typewriter on which, he believes, his father wrote the 1951 classic, “God and Man at Yale.”

“You are for the first time, I think, fully your own man,” he added. “It’s also awful. I miss him every day. But I can now write about things I was not terribly comfortable writing about.”

It reminds me of a book I blogged about a few months back, Death Benefits by Jeanne Safer. I haven't had a chance to read it yet, but it's on my wish list, and I heard the author on the Diane Rehm show. Safer writes about the opportunities for growth that can come out of a parent's death. It's a profoundly intriguing idea. And I can certainly see where, if anyone would have a problem stepping out of their parent's shadow, it would be someone with a strong, successful parent like William Buckley.

Friday, October 17, 2008

"I'm not afraid of dying ... I'm just afraid of dying like this."

A quote from this piece in today's Seattle PI. The article covers some of what has happened over the 10 years Oregon's Death with Dignity law has been in place. I think it does a better job of providing a balanced overview than The Seattle Times piece did. (Less focus on exceptions, more compilation of overall statistics, although it's still a bit negative and fear-laden for my tastes.) The visual I include here is from the PI's article.

I hope this law passes. But right now, I'm so happy to see an article about the way we face death on the front page of Seattle's daily paper. This is definitely a step toward helping us all talk about death to the extent we should. Yay!

Also, I promise a thoughtful, non–I-1000 related post soon. It's just been in the news and on my mind a lot lately.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Billy Collins on Death

The First Night
by Billy Collins

The worst thing about death must be
the first night.
Juan Ramón Jiménez

Before I opened you, Jiménez,
it never occurred to me that day and night
would continue to circle each other in the ring of death,

but now you have me wondering
if there will also be a sun and a moon
and will the dead gather to watch them rise and set

then repair, each soul alone,
to some ghastly equivalent of a bed.
Or will the first night be the only night,

a darkness for which we have no other name?
How feeble our vocabulary in the face of death,
How impossible to write it down.

This is where language will stop,
the horse we have ridden all our lives
rearing up at the edge of a dizzying cliff.

The word that was in the beginning
and the word that was made flesh—
those and all the other words will cease.

Even now, reading you on this trellised porch,
how can I describe a sun that will shine after death?
But it is enough to frighten me

into paying more attention to the world’s day-moon,
to sunlight bright on water
or fragmented in a grove of trees,

and to look more closely here at these small leaves,
these sentinel thorns,
whose employment it is to guard the rose.
Those of you who follow poetry will know that former poet laureate Billy Collins is somewhat of a controversial figure. (Those of you who don't follow poetry may not know who he is.) Collins' work is more transparent than that of most laudable poets. Critics say it lacks depth and the structural legs to stand the test of time. Supporters of his work say he makes it look easy because of his great skill, and he should not be faulted for having poems that are a pleasure to read.

However you feel about his work, I'm drawn to the depiction of death he creates here—inspired by a quote from Juan Ramón Jiménez

Monday, October 13, 2008

One Patient's Struggle with Death with Dignity

The Oregonian has this heart-wrenching site, which offers an amazing opportunity to see inside one woman's struggle with decisions related to Death with Dignity.

Lovelle Svart was a former employee of the paper diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer who had supported Death with Dignity in theory but now had to decide whether to actually apply it to herself.

I think anyone who is charged with the opportunity to vote on I-1000 in Washington state this November should see this as part of making an informed decision. And it would be illuminating for anyone. But I will warn you, it is not easy to watch, read, or listen to.

Here is a link to the general page. And here is a link to audio and video from Svart's last hours and minutes.

Death with Dignity in Oregon

The Seattle Times is running an article about Oregon's Death with Dignity law, focusing on some of the cases and trends that have come up over the roughly 10 years that it has been in effect. I wish the article focused more on the generalities and less on the exceptions, but nevertheless, it is an interesting read.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

First Contact: October 14, 2008

Not directly related to death, but related to a vague sense of "the beyond," so I'm going to post even though it's a little off-topic. A group called The Federation of Light is claiming that aliens who "come in love" will make first contact on October 14, 2008.

Conveniently for America, the message is in English! Conveniently for the organization, the aliens cannot be communicated with in any way that earthlings find meaningful.

Here's a video that explains all. I use "explain" loosely of course.

On a listserve I'm on, one of my former professors, Lance Strate, head of the Institute of General Semantics, points out that this is likely a reaction to the anxiety of the financial markets, and general anxiety in the world due to terrorism. Dr. Strate reminds us that the first alien sightings in the 1940s came in correlation with the initial scare over "the bomb."

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Styling Death—Rachel Zoe

Celebrity stylist Rachel Zoe has a new reality show on Bravo. In this week's episode, she finds out her great uncle has passed away, the week before the Academy Awards, which is her busiest week of the year. Zoe is torn about whether to go to the funeral or whether to stay and fulfill her responsibilities to the clients she is styling for the Oscars.

I know lots of people hate the lifestyle Rachel Zoe has come to represent ... and lots more don't know who she is, but I think her dilemma is one many people can relate to. And if you haven't faced it, chances are, you will face something like it at some point in your life.

Here is a Q&A from her blog on

"You also get some bad news from her in the episode about your uncle's passing. You make the choice not to go to his funeral. How did you make that decision?

"That was one of the worst days of my life. ... My aunt Sylvia and uncle Jerry basically really helped to raise me. ... I had seen my uncle a week before in New York and I kind of had a feeling it would be the last time I saw him. He had gotten very sick. I struggled with going to the funeral and I wanted to be there more than anything.

One of the horrible things about living so far from your family is that when crisis happens, it's not so easy to be there. It was probably one of the hardest decisions I've ever made, but when I told my aunt I was going to come and cancel everything, she got furious with me. She said that my uncle would never, ever want me to drop everything and give up my responsibilities to be there ... . But as soon as that week ended, I got on a plane and I went and spent several days with my aunt. ..."

Did she make the right decision? I think it's easy enough to say she should have gone to the funeral. And abstractly we can all think we would have done just that.

Here's what's I'd like to highlight. Imagine yourself an independent professional whose career depends on your name, your sole performance. And this is the singular most important week of the year. You just saw the family member and feel like you said goodbye. Would you have gone to the funeral?

Dan Savage on I-1000

A very personal column in today's issue of The Stranger. Dan Savage writes about his support of I-1000, in light of his mother's recent death from polmonary fibrosis.

Here is a particularly Dan Savegey excerpt from the piece:

"If religious people believe assisted suicide is wrong, they have a right to say so. Same for gay marriage and abortion. They oppose them for religious reasons, but it's somehow not enough for them to deny those things to themselves. They have to rush into your intimate life and deny them to you, too—deny you control over your own reproductive organs, deny you the spouse of your choosing, condemn you to pain (or the terror of it) at the end of your life.

The proper response to religious opposition to choice or love or death can be reduced to a series of bumper stickers: Don't approve of abortion? Don't have one. Don't approve of gay marriage? Don't have one. Don't approve of physician-assisted suicide? For Christ's sake, don't have one. But don't tell me I can't have one—each one—because it offends your God.

Fuck your God."

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Jeff Koons decorates Versailles

A mood lifter for all of us. Not related to death ... or politics, or the economy, or anything heavy and dark, and don't we all need that right now?

The glorious Jeff Koons has decorated the Palace at Versailles. He has taken what are already a beautiful building and grounds, but do symbolize wastefulness in the extreme, and filled them with joy, optimism, and light-heartedness.

Here's a short video. I can't think of a better artist to spend five minutes with right now.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Why the McCain Poll?

A commenter questioned why I had this month's poll topic focused on John McCain. I answered in the comments field but wanted to also draw it out into the main blog in case other people were wondering, as well.

McCain is 72 now and would be 76 at the end of his term. The average life expectancy for an American, according to the National Center for Health Statistics, is 77.8 years. And McCain, should he win, would be the oldest person ever inaugurated president.

Physician Assisted Suicide—Follow-Up

Some more information on Physician Assisted Suicide:

First, here is a link to an excellent resource on how to examine PAS through an ethical framework. It is the University of Washington's Bioethics website. I worked on the site back in 2002/2003. It is geared toward helping medical students learn to handle situations that will likely emerge once they become doctors, but I think the discussion can apply to anyone who is interested in picking apart this topic more fully. And it gives ethical arguments for BOTH SIDES.

Second, one question I have heard raised a lot on other blogs is why proponents of I-1000 don't just call what they are advocating for euthanasia. I'd like to explain that briefly. Euthanasia and PAS are two distinct terms. Euthanasia can be used to describe ending a life in a painless manner, a mercy killing if you will, but a euthanasia is actually performed by the medical personnel. In the case of PAS, a prescription is handed out by the doctor, and pills are given to the patient for the patient to take home and bring about death on their own. I'm not saying one is better than the other, just that there is a technical distinction.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Initiave 1000—Physician Assisted Suicide

Washington state has an initiative on the ballot this fall that would make physician assisted suicide legal. If it passes, we would become the second state, after Oregon, to approve such a measure.

Here are some details:
Patients would be given a lethal dose of medicine, which they would take on their own.
To qualify, the would have to be deemed terminal, death coming within six months, by two separate physicians.
They would have to be deemed mentally competent by two physicians.
The request must be voluntary, as checked by two physicians.
There's a 15-day waiting period between the first oral request and a written request.
There is a 48-hour waiting period between the written request and the writing of the prescription.
The patient is encouraged to discuss the decision with family (not required because of confidentiality laws).
The patient may change their mind at any time.

I support the initiative because it gives patients autonomy over the manner in which they die. It offers compassion to those who are dying anyway, many of whom are dying with pain and suffering. I think society has a strong interest in preserving life, but sometimes individual liberty must win out over that maxim. Also, some in the medical profession would tell you that PAS already occurs but under the radar. Legalizing it will lend an openness to the discussion.

Apart from my opinions, I'd also like to share some of the ads that pro and con sides are playing. I find both sides pretty disgusting. The pro side is predictably manipulating the emotions of people who have been through terrible, gut-wrenching deaths that could have been eased with the passage of a law like this. The con side is using actor Martin Sheen, who has nothing to do with Washington state and played the president on TV. Sigh.

Here's a link to the initiative (it will be a pdf).

Here are the ads.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

October Poll

It's a poll and an eye exam!

So, you'll notice the October poll is up at the top of the right sidebar. For some reason, the answer options are coming out really faint. They really are there and can be seen ... but barely. I created it the same way I have created all of my other polls, and I've never had this problem before, so I'm not sure what's happening.

The question is "If John McCain is elected, will you worry that he might die in office?" The first answer to pick is "yes"; the second is "no." Pretty simple options. I haven't given up on fixing it, but in the meantime, I'm hoping it's workable.

Update: It seems to be fixed. I think changing the background color did it. Thanks for you patience!