Trapped in the portal called life

The Thinker by Rodin

I had a creative writing teacher in college. He was one of these intense, bearded, Birkenstock types who, doubtlessly parroting someone else, said there are only two seismic mysteries in life: sex and death.

At the time, as I was only 18, I was far more focused on the sex part than the death part. For me the sex part was more about actually having sex. Now, at age 50 sex is no longer a mystery. My bearded professor though did not mean sex as in sexual intercourse, but sex as in procreation. Sexual intercourse (at least until recently) is the event which causes human life to start. The flip side of life is of course, death. I think that was my professor’s point. Death was as equally mysterious as creation. Death was also an inescapable fact of being alive. It came with the territory.

My professor was likely 50-something at the time I sat in his class in 1975. Which means if he still alive he is probably eighty something now. More likely, he is pushing up the daisies. Now it just so happened that I turned 50 not too long ago. Given that sex is no longer quite the consuming mystery it once was (although relationships in general remain baffling and mysterious) it should not be too surprising that I spend a lot more time these days thinking about death.

Just because death is an unfathomable mystery does not mean that I, like most aging humans on the planet, isn’t trying to fathom it anyhow. This angst was doubtless at least partially responsible for my delving into metaphysics the way I did when I was in my forties. It may also explain society’s general fascination with TV shows like Ghost Hunters, not to mention TV psychics like John Edward.

When you are 50-something you tend to have had the experience of witnessing the dying process at least once. As frequent readers know, my mother passed away in 2005. Since she was living close to me at the time, I got the dubious privilege of witnessing the American style of death. In my Mom’s case, dying meant progressively worse congestive heart failure, falling a lot, long stays in ICUs, and finally a parking spot at a very pretty but still dispiriting nursing home. Over five months she was there, I had an intimate look watching the life forces slowly drain out of her. I have many memories of visiting her in the nursing home and finding her parked in the TV room in a wheelchair with a dozen other short timers, none of whom had the least bit of interest in watching TV. Most were asleep. It seemed like their major daily activity consisted of remembering to breathe regularly. My beloved mother eventually died directly of a kidney infection and indirectly of Progressive Supranuclear Palsy while attached to a noisy nonstop machine feeding oxygen through her nostrils and an uncomfortable catheter buried deep in her private parts.

So naturally, those of us who witnessed someone dying like this are hoping that when our time comes things will go better, with less angst and fuss and without having to surrender our dignity. I personally am hoping I am one of the fortunate few that die suddenly and peacefully in their sleep, perhaps in the middle of a dream. Failing that, I would prefer to be unexpectedly run over by a bus, providing I died very quickly. Naturally, I do not want to die at all, but if I must die, I do not want to do it before I have lived a long, fully engaged and quintessential American life.

In some ways, every day that I now wake up in good health I take as a blessing. The older I get though the more surreal it feels. I am waiting for some sure sign that I too am mortal. There are many indirect signs such as age spots and poorer vision. I have yet to have that serious, life threatening traumatic event that will cement my mortality in my forebrain. Something like a coronary bypass would do it. My goal, of course, is to get through life minus such an event. However, I am sure there will be other signs to remind me that my life is finite. Perhaps it will be arthritic joints. All I can really do is hope that with a combination of good genetics, diet and exercise that I can enjoy a fully engaged and relatively pain free life as long as possible. I know in time the bell will toll for me too.

For being 50-something is also a time when you notice that others in your age group are not as fortunate. I know a number of people my age, some former classmates and some friends and coworkers who have gone to their great premature reward. As the ranks of your peers begin to thin, however slowly, it is natural to wonder how much longer you have.

The optimist says that the glass is half-full. The pessimist says it is half-empty. My problem is that I know my glass is no longer even half-full, which may be why my inner pessimist is coming out more. The good news is that I cannot see where the bottom of the glass is exactly. Suspense is a natural byproduct of mystery, and some of us are better at dealing with suspense than others are. Those of us who like our lives planned might almost prefer to know precisely when we will die. Then we would at least know how to spend our remaining time wisely. Perhaps we would then spend more of our time enjoying life rather than engaging in all this necessary but tedious exercise. Because what is the point in living if you are so engaged in prolonging life that it becomes harder to enjoy?

The good part about this stage of my life is that life I feel life more acutely. For example, when I go somewhere like Yellowstone I wonder, will I ever come back here again before I am, well, dead? So you try to revel in that moment when you dip your feet into a wild mountain stream. At the same time, your brain (or at least mine) is also participating in the experience as a dispassionate spectator. I find that the less I frame an experience the better it becomes. Unfortunately, it is hard not to apply the mortal frame to life events when your cup of life is less than half-full.

Perhaps successful living at my time of life comes from suspending disbelief about your own mortality. Perhaps it comes from laughing in the face of death, even though death at age 50 is likely many decades away. Perhaps it comes from thinking less and feeling more. For me I find it helps to stay engaged in tasks. For us older Americans, idleness can be deadly.

The only problem with full engagement is that while you are arguably having a great time the years go by so quickly. I have reached that age where I have a devilish time putting time into its proper perspective. Some months back I wrote a review about the movie made of the hit Broadway musical The Producers. I said I first saw it (likely on TV) some 25 years ago. I had to do the math. 2007-25 would be 1982 or so. That sounds right. However, the first movie of The Producers came out in 1968, which was almost forty years ago. I was too young to see it in the theaters yet still I remember 1968 fairly well, since I was 11 at the time. It is almost as if 1968 happened yesterday, not forty years ago. Memory does this to you. At my age, I have to think hard about the sequence and time between past events. Just when did I graduate from college? How long ago was that? What was the world like in 1978? How can it be 2007 when I feel it is more like 1987?

The world is always changing but my brain does not appear to be changing. It is stuck at a certain mental age, say age 30. I got a sense of this in Denver recently. A group of us went to a Whole Foods store for lunch. We noshed on very tasty, overpriced but organically certified sandwiches. I was overwhelmed by the size of the place. The varieties of choices blew my little 1960s-framed mind. It made my head ache just trying to wrap my brain around the vast supply chain created to bring all this choice to me, all of it wholesome and fresh. The supply chain had evolved in the last forty years, but my brain was still back in the 1960s. Back then, you felt lucky to find a couple dozen kinds of cereal at the local grocer. The closest cereal to being a health food was Kellogg’s All Bran. Whole Foods, rather than feeling all-natural, felt extremely surreal. To a twenty something wandering the store though, it was completely ordinary.

I am beginning to suspect that by a certain age that because of the way the world actually is compared with your frame of it that death can be seen as a blessing. I suspect that by the time old age arrives, you feel like you are living on an alien planet. I felt that way with my poor suffering mother. She could never quite grasp the computer. Superficially, it looked a bit like a typewriter, and she knew how to type, but certain things would not work like with a typewriter and mentally she could not get past them. She could not adopt. She was incapable of not hitting the enter key when she reached the end of a line. She could not comprehend the idea of copying and pasting. She was the sort who wanted to fix mistakes by using whiteout on the monitor.

I suspect as geeky as I am that I will think like this at some point. Maybe I am halfway there already. Like all of us, I am trapped in this portal called life whose beginnings are as mysterious as its ending is certain. The mystery of life is everywhere and pervasive, but as I age the apprehension is often there too. Therefore, like most 50-something Americans I keep engaging, generally happy with where I am in life, but somewhat apprehensive nonetheless. I keep wondering when my inner Energizer battery will slow down. While apprehensive I am still appreciative and more than a little wowed that I still have it all together. A hundred years ago I would likely be dead by now.

For me modern life is slowly becoming more and more surreal. Perhaps when it becomes totally surreal, life ends and, like Neo in The Matrix, you wake in a stupor to find that your entire existence was nothing but a complex simulation.

That is when I want to get hit by the bus.

Schiavo: It’s not the Right to Life, it’s the Right to Die

The Thinker by Rodin

The Right to Lifers in the Schiavo case have it all wrong. It’s not about the right to life. It’s about the right to die.

As much as I love my wife, daughter, parents, siblings and friends they have no say in whether I live or die. They have no say because they are not me. I have autonomy. I decide what I do, what I eat and who my friends will be. I don’t need permission from anyone. Admittedly it would be pretty heartless of me to take my own life since it would likely leave my family devastated. But the bottom line is whether I live or die is my choice. It’s not something that needs to be enshrined in law. It just is a fact of life. Unless, like Terri Schiavo, I cannot speak for myself and am in a persistive vegetative state (PVS) I can choose the timing of my exit. If I have some incurable disease I can refuse treatment. If I am in a hospital or nursing home I can order that my feeding tubes be removed or my oxygen be cut off. And if I want to I can put stick a gun to my head and blow my brains out just like Hunter S. Thompson.

When we cannot speak for ourselves we have rules. A living will, recognized by most states, speaks for my wishes when I cannot. Terri Schiavo did not have one. This is not surprising. She was, after all, only 26 when lack of oxygen (allegedly a result of her mental illness: bulimia) caused her massive brain damage. She was however legally married to Michael Schiavo. It may be inconvenient to the Schindler family but when someone reaches eighteen they can legally make their own decisions. They decide if they want to get married. And if they decide to get married then their spouse, by default, has the legal right to speak for him or her. And Michael Schiavo asserts that Terri told him several times that she would not choose to linger in this world if she were in the state she was in.

And yet for an obscene fifteen years this soap opera has been played out, most of it in the courts. Twenty-three court rulings, all against the Schindler family, have said that Michael Schiavo has the right to act in behalf of Terri. But for some people the law and due process are insufficient. It’s gotten into the theater of the absurd. Woodside Hospital in Pinellas Park, Florida is virtually an armed camp. But Terri is just one of seventy patients there. Now we learn that the three to four minute security delay meant that Jennifer Johnson’s grandfather passed away before she could say a final goodbye to him.

No wonder our email in-boxes are filling up with references to how to create living wills. (I’ve had four emails so far myself.) The Schiavo case should encourage many of us to get off the dime and have our wishes signed, sealed and notarized. Still, while a living will ensures no ambiguity it shouldn’t be necessary. My wife knows how I feel about hanging on when there is no hope of recovery: I want to be let go. Actually, I would not prefer to die the way Terri Schiavo is dying. A week or two of starvation and dehydration is inhumane. Rather I’d like to have a nurse or physician give me a quick shot of something to put me out of my misery, just like vets do routinely to pets of all kinds. Unfortunately our so-called “culture of life” makes this impossible in our country. Even in places like Oregon where physician assisted suicide is legal, Uncle Sam is in court to ensure it doesn’t happen. So in Oregon like in the rest of the country you had best put your thoughts into a living will while you have your wits about you or resign yourself to a slow and potentially painful death. Fortunately, while I cannot know for sure, I suspect I won’t feel a thing. Any “me” in that body will have long departed this earth. I don’t know how to break it to the Schinders, but their Terri has been dead for fifteen years.

My wish for a quick end of my life in these circumstances is not just an expression of my deeply held feelings about my life, but also a kindness to those who love me. I want them to accept my death and move on. That’s the real issue with the Schindlers. The Terri they knew is gone and is never coming back. They need to let her go. They need to move on and to heal. Instead we have a great disturbance in the natural forces as artificial means keep her body alive. But her spirit is dead and long gone.

Of course a lot of the recent posturing has nothing to do with Terri and a lot to do with politics. The Republicans saw an opportunity to use the body of Terri Schiavo for their own purposes: to pump up their political base. What President Bush and the Congress did was horrifying and shameful. If you ask me it was the legislative equivalent of rape. Instead of showing respect for Terri they showed contempt. Rather than showing a love for life they demonstrated contempt for the law and for individual autonomy. No wonder the American public is overwhelmingly against what they did. No wonder Bush’s ratings are at new lows. The last thing any of us want to do is to leave our most private medical decisions to the government.

As for the Right to Life crowd, it’s now clear what is really going on. These people are not right to life. Rather, they are in denial of death. Death is a crossing we all must face someday but they deny it. In reality they have a phobia about death, and their anxiety about their own mortality is leeching out into the public sphere.

So the issue is really about law and individual autonomy. Terri Schiavo’s case will teach us we must be proactive to make sure our end of life wishes are respected. Her death will also teach us that we need to grapple with our own feelings on life and death. That is the only good I see coming out of her sad situation. Like Jesus, she was martyred for our sins. Unlike Jesus though I doubt she chose to become an example. Nonetheless she will teach us an important lesson. Let us hope that we absorb it.

Safe passage, Terri.

Getting comfortable with mortality

The Thinker by Rodin

I suspect it’s a sure sign you are in midlife when you often ponder that there is less life ahead of you than there is behind you. I ponder the finiteness of life a lot these days, but in truth I’ve been pondering it all of my adulthood. I was hardly out of the house and on my own before I started seeing the hourglass that is my life in my mind. Mentally I’ve been watching the sand run through my hourglass of life for a long time. Sometimes I succeed in ignoring it. Sometimes I find it troubling. Sometimes I find it scary. At midlife the inevitability of death becomes more tangible. It is no longer a vague abstraction. It is not easy watching my own parents age. I am sure they are no more thrilled about it that I am. Every day with them seems more and more about beating the mortality odds. How, I wonder, do we enjoy life when we know it is finite and when the quality of life diminishes the longer we live? But perhaps the joy comes from the fact that life is finite. Having spent nine days recently in Hawaii I certainly came back renewed in spirit, at least for a while. But if I were to spend a thousand years in this Paradise, would it become meaningless?

I often feel paralyzed about where I should go and what I should do with my life. Ironically things were much easier when I was younger and struggling. In my 20s, for example, I had constant goals that needed to be achieved. Could we find the money to buy our own house? How could we afford to have a child? These sorts of problems focused the mind and made it easier to ignore the long-term picture.

It’s not as easy now. Ironically with many of my early goals met I now find I often have ample time and opportunity to do those things I’ve always wanted to do. Money is rarely a constraint anymore. I don’t have to struggle with mortgage payments. Except for this pesky thing called college, child-rearing costs are fairly fixed. I completed a graduate degree in 1999 and have taken up hobbies, like teaching, that get me out and help me explore new directions.

And yet I still often feel the impermanence of life, and I don’t like it. It would be easier, perhaps, if I weren’t watching myself enter a slow period of decay. All things considered I am fairly youthful for a man approaching 46. But I see age in my friends and me. I see it in my skin, which is not so elastic anymore, and in the occasional age spot that pops up and doesn’t go away. I see it in the gray that is slowly sneaking into my otherwise ordinary dirty blond hair. I feel it in the way that lethargy so often wants to envelop me. It didn’t use to be this way. Now I constantly have to force myself to exercise and to watch my weight. These are new struggles.

I am playing the delay game too, but I need to truly come to terms with my own mortality. I was at the Barnes & Noble over the weekend and skimmed a book by the Dali Llama on death and living a good life. His advice is to accept aging and death as a part of life and not to shirk from confronting the necessity of mortality. Death is the price we pay for the privilege of living. Shirking our mortality only makes living and dying that much more difficult.

It may be as Gandalf puts it in “The Lord of the Rings” books that it is how we choose to use the time we have given to us that really matters. It’s really, really hard though to know how to choose. I would like to be childlike again and give little thought to tomorrow. Real life though has wacked me on the head. I have learned to survive by confronting real life. I would like to move forward with the rest of my life with the enthusiasm of a child. In truth I may have nearly as much life ahead of me as behind me. And I would like it to be a quality life ahead of me.

I am not sure how I will come to terms with not just my mortality but also the mortality of people I care about. This is a journey none of us can escape. In a future entry I will ruminate on the meaning of life.

Intimations of Immortality

The Thinker by Rodin

A few entries back I mentioned my pal Lisa’s recent experience with a psychic. I’m still waiting for the full report, which I am sure I will get in time. While ruminating on the subject though I’d thought I’d throw out a few of my own observations in the course of life that have made me curious about things metaphysical.

My friend Frank Pierce some years ago told me “No one ever worries about what they were before they were conceived. We only dwell on what comes after death, if anything.” This is really an excellent observation because it captures the nature of the problem. Life is really about living. Our challenge is to live it.

Many of you have no doubt seen “The Matrix”. I was struck by the scene where the protagonist wakes, as if from a dream, to find he actually exists in some soupy pod a century hence and is being used by machines that control the planet and enslave people. His perceived reality is, in fact, a simulation. As a child I often wondered if every time I moved the world was completely redrawn. While I no longer hold that as a viable notion I think there is perhaps something to this idea that our existence is in fact a complex form of virtual reality. We are in a game, or experience, that concludes with death.

It is interesting how all the major religions pretty much echo this same notion. Most religions would not call life a game, but they would say something that how one lives it and how one interacts with others determines one’s soul growth.

I have ruminated on what makes things genuine for me and I have determined that the only thing genuine is what I feel (or experience). What and how I experience may not be real in fact. But this notion is an axiom of my life: an article of faith. The alternative is that feelings are not genuine.

Most of us have had experiences of deja-vu in our lives. I get them about twice a year. Sometimes they are mild, but sometimes they are very powerful. My most powerful experience occurred in 1987 when I went to work for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. I arrived at work on my first day to be shown the room I would work in and I had deja vu. I had never seen the room before I had been there. But it was all in my memory already, right down to the railroad tracks outside my window and the smoke belching from the nearby tunnel. The desk, the computer, the stuff on the wall … it snapped into place like a puzzle piece.

Scientists and those of a rational bent like to tell us our minds play tricks on us at these times: it’s all some weird neuron firing thing. But I don’t believe it anymore. It felt real so for me it was real. So watching The Matrix in a way gave me the same sort of feeling … not that I remember seeing the Matrix before I saw it, but the feeling that life maybe wasn’t as linear as I thought.

I think life may well be more like a disk drive than a tape drive. Occasionally you can move the read/write head and “move outside the time stream”. I’m speculating but perhaps this happens in deep sleep. Anyhow either I am deluding myself or I’m onto something here.

If time is an illusion then perhaps death doesn’t mean anything either. Maybe our existence is defined by the time stream that is our life and we wander endlessly back and forth between conception and death. Or perhaps the time stream goes before conception and after death and we are either immortal or live many, many lives.

My mother is 82 and feeling her mortality. She doesn’t like being her oldest surviving sibling. Who can blame her? I’m likely to feel the same way in time, if I live so long. But I remember her often remarking that she looks in the mirror and her body is so old, but her mind still feels so youthful. Maybe that too is a clue. The body is an illusion of sorts, and neither lasting nor wholly genuine. And if one can feel that truth perhaps aging can be less traumatic.

Based purely on how I feel on a gut level I am much more inclined now to believe in reincarnation. I’m not quite sure why I am here. If I am here on a mission it’s not obvious to me what it is supposed to be. Maybe life truly is a gift and it is ours to enjoy as we see fit.

I leave with my family tomorrow for Hawaii. So this web log will likely be blank until we get back, hopefully on December 30th. Have a safe and happy holiday season.