Just get out 2016; leave

Even George R.R. Martin agrees 2016 has been a horrendous year, as written in his Live Journal blog on December 28, 2016. The author of the Game of Thrones series, notorious for picking off characters we love and subjecting them to the most gruesome death (without regard), thinks, “this year just keeps getting worse and worse.” I find it hilarious that 2016 could have literally been written by him, and he kinda knows it.

Perhaps the other urban legend taking root on Twitter is true:

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The latest bout of celebrity deaths – George Michael, Carrie Fisher, then Debbie Reynolds in just the last week, has just left me in awe. Everyone we know and love is dying off, breaking our hearts, killing our hope, and leaving us shocked at how far 2016 can truly go. As if losing Prince, Muhammad Ali, Gene Wilder, Florence Henderson, Anton Yelchin, John Glenn, Alan Thicke, Arnold Palmer, Leonard Cohen, Nancy Reagan, Alan Rickman, Alexis Arquette, and others wasn’t enough… I also lost my cousin this year. But it’s not that I love everything the celebrities did; that’s not why I mourn.  These people helped me discover who I am, in a small way. My cousin did, too.

Syrians died. French people died. Germans. Black lives. Blue lives. So many. 

I feel like there are still 2 whole days left in this godforsaken year and just about anything can fucking happen. Further, the realist in me knows this doesn’t stop just by the calendar year ticking over to 2017. It’s going to keep happening. It’s not just suddenly going to end.

One of Carrie Fisher’s quotes seems apropo right about now:

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We have to keep going forward despite the fear. Against the hate. One foot. Then another foot. In front of the other one. 

Personally, 2016 was not my worst year. My worst year was actually 2013, the year I went through a break up, lost my father, and hit the pinnacle of shittiness in my career.

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So I figure if I can survive the worst for me in 2013, and 2016 was not the worst, then I’m actually ok. But I totally agree, 2016, don’t let the door hit you on the ass on your way out. I personally plan on staying up until midnight on New Year’s Eve for once just to watch 2016 leave, ya filthy animal.

Perhaps I seem to be ok despite everything crumbling around me because I seem to have a lower amount of hope. With the barriers to Donald Trump’s inauguration on January 20 (the actual electoral college vote and a looming impeachment) cleared, I have no hope that America will be great again under Trump. Shit’s going to get worse. Fill those liquor cabinets and buy that legal marijuana where you can. Hold on to your butts.

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I have friends vacationing in London and Paris right now, who get the general sense from foreigners that they’re actually afraid of what Donald Trump might do. You know what? I am, too. He could undo everything, and not in a good way. Those traveling friends are embarrassed to admit they’re from America right now. And I am, too. Game of Thrones Cersei bell-ringing “SHAME!” walk to you, America. I sound my bell at you and cry, “SHAME!” You voted this man in, not me. Shame.

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All we can do is activate the phone tree and form a protection circle around Betty White and another one around Ruth Bader Ginsburg a la Practical Magic with our Swiffers and Dysons. If you want to pray, pray for social Darwinism, that the powers that be take Donald Trump and Mike Pence and put them on an island somewhere, with no political power/affiliations and no Twitter access. I don’t want Trump to die. But I certainly am sick of seeing his chook neck and ridiculous claims all over the media.

All joking aside, at this point, 2017 can’t be anything but better, since 2016 was so shitty. So I’ll raise my glass to what can only be better than this mess of a year was. Whilst it was certainly not my worst year, it was not the best.

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Right in the feelers

Every 4 years, the Olympics enchant me. I think for at least a few days, like I did when I was 16, that if I just stuck to a regimented gym program, started doing handstands on the daily, that I, too, could be an Olympic gymnast, or diver, or archer, if I wanted to be. The formula for Olympic television is: emotional backstory of how the athlete overcame adversity, injuries, the road to the Olympics, teary musical montage, and ultimately we watch as they walk away with some medal.

This year, I have no delusions of grandeur of ever being an Olympian. I’d get a medal if there was an event where you fall over things without spilling your beer, though. Gold. You bet your ass.

While I sympathize for the French gymnast with the horrific broken leg flopped to the side, and for the Dutch cyclist with a spine broken in 3 places, that is not front of mind this week. Instead, what has punched me right in the feels is empathy and compassion. A relatively quiet coworker, a man of virtually no words, unexpectedly lost his father this week. I gave him some words of encouragement via that always awkward email after management tells the staff what’s up. But a bouquet of clumsy words is better than silence, in my book.

Let’s get one thing very clear – perhaps on the outside, I looked okay when my dad passed away. On the inside, I was a fucking mess. I went through a shitty trifecta around the same time that included my dad passing away and going through a breakup, as well as some work stuff. I was living in another country and on antidepressants. I went to the gym, as that was my chosen escape from reality. I’d work out for at least an hour, every single day, and hard. I dropped 17kg, or 37.5lbs. I barely ate, and when I did, I couldn’t keep it in very long. That was one of the less pleasant side effects of Zoloft.

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Another coworker has organized a calendar for us to sign up for bringing in a dinner, drinks, or dessert for him to take home to his wife and their 3 kids. It brought tears to my eyes, that I work at a place with such thoughtful people who want to do something at times like this. My friends who had the unfortunate task of hanging out with me while I was going through the hardest time in my life probably could have used something like that. I could have used something like that. I didn’t take care of myself very well. My flatmate at the time told me one night, he half expected to come home at night and find me curled up in the fetal position on the floor because the gravity of what I was going through was so much.

Thankfully, I didn’t have a spouse, or even a girlfriend anymore, when I went through the worst of it. I didn’t have children to worry about. It made letting myself go very, very easy. Without those friends of mine in another country, I may very well have fallen into that dark abyss never to return. I don’t know what would have happened, and I don’t want to think about it.

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I will say, as someone who’s been through what he’s going through now, that losing someone you love feels like an incredible loss, sometimes too great to bear. Having people express care and interest in your well-being, when it’s not even at the forefront of your own mind, means more than anything. That emptiness left in the world by your loss gets filled up a little by love and compassion. The world’s not such a horrible place anymore. Someone you didn’t even know is thinking about you, and sending you well-wishes. In the great balance of the universe, it doesn’t bring your loved one back, nor do you magically feel 100% better. But there is a little more love in the world.

Now I’m not the best cook, but goddamnit, I’m gonna bring that man wine for the adults and something sweet for the kids to get they drank on (Sprites, g-rated, nothing illegal). I wouldn’t wish my cooking on anyone, so I’ll leave that to the Betty Crockers and Papa Johns out there.

I’ll make drinking jokes til the cows come home, but I actually stopped drinking, for the most part, during the hardest time in my life. I don’t recommend overdosing on a depressant when actively taking antidepressants, because it just makes the medication have to work harder. But sometimes, when you’re dealing with tough shit, it helps to blow off a little steam. Won’t fix anything, but it gives you something else to focus on besides how much it hurts. Then, in the morning, you’ll hurt on the outside how much it hurts on the inside.

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Be thoughtful and sympathetic (if you can’t be empathetic due to circumstances) to what others are going through. Think of someone besides yourself today. Do something nice for someone, unexpectedly. Put more of that love into the universe. I would ask that you carry that same thinking forward into your own life. Bring that someone some wine. Bitches love wine.

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200

I published my last post, about my cousin with aggressive brain cancer, on April 2. He passed away on April 8. It’s been a hard couple of weeks, just wrapping my head around how quickly the cancer spread and took over. He hardly got a chance to fight the cancer… it was more like a bloody massacre. 3 days after having surgery to remove the two largest tumors, it had regrown to the same size.

I wanted to head east to be with family during this difficult time, but it ended up not coming to fruition that way, for many reasons. Not being with my family on the east coast during this difficult time does not mean I care any less. I just have to be resourceful and do my mourning on my own. I found a great way to say that in a photo meme recently, so here it is as I pass that wisdom on to you.

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It also happens to be my busiest time at work. Literally, all the things came at me this week, demanding attention before Friday. So I didn’t feel like I could take adequate time to mourn anyway. I took Monday off, but it wasn’t enough. People asked me why I was out Monday on Tuesday when I returned, and being the honest person I am, I told them, not mincing words.

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People I work with at my new place of employment are incredibly smart, funny, empathetic people. I really enjoy working with them and they provided the right mix of what I needed to help get past recent events. Distraction has been a great tactic for dealing with grief this time around, and when you have people around you who keep you laughing, it’s even better. Yesterday, I tackled everything that had piled up and shoved all that poop onto other people’s desks, effectively removing it from my own. It was fantastic.

My taxes were done a couple of weeks ago, and refunds have already been deposited. All the furniture I’ve needed in my new place is here, with the exception of a couple handmade Adirondack chairs I ordered back in March that take two months to custom make for each order. Those will undoubtedly be worth the wait. Life at home is coming together, though I do have a few small repairs I need to tackle. (Yes, “a few small repairs,” are lyrics from the Shawn Colvin song “Sunny Came Home,” and I did that on purpose.)

Overall, I’m taking it one day at a time, and trying to find joy and happiness everywhere I can. Moving to Seattle was absolutely the right move for me. I’ve made a couple good friends, and those can be hard to come by. There is a phenomenon called the “Seattle freeze,” I think I’ve experienced the tip of that iceberg (pun intended.) I don’t have quite as many friends here, or people I keep in touch with on a daily basis, so it can get a little lonely. People here don’t seem to want or need that kind of contact. Especially when mourning the loss of a loved one, I don’t need anyone to be my rock or take care of me, but a little extra care would be nice.

I’m actually proud of myself, as I think back to my many dances with grief. I’ve written past posts on the matter (see Grief and Recovery), and I’m probably the least graceful person at letting go. But I look at myself now, and I’m impressed that I’ve been able to grow each time I’ve encountered grief to be able to be on my own, on the other side of the country from my family, without much of a friend/support network, and be OK. I didn’t know it was happening, but I’ve been growing. I’m strong. It feels pretty good.

In other news, this is my 200th post to my blog. I started my blog in June of 2014, after moving back to San Francisco from Australia. I look back to my many posts and can’t believe I have something incredible to show as a diary of sorts over the last two years. I guess you could say I’m in a brief period of reflection, and I like what I see (said in my best Australian accent of Kath from Kath & Kim, the Australian TV series.)

So here’s to you, and here’s to me, and if we should ever disagree, fuck you, and here’s to me. Cheers, mates. Thanks for being on this journey with me, even if only as an extra, sipping coffee in the background.

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Thestrals

In two previous blog posts, I’ve mentioned the film Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (The art of getting by and One sigma).

There is a particular quote from that film that, unfortunately, has made its way back across my path again tonight, and I’m not pleased to see it so soon. “We seem to have reached the age where life stops giving us things and starts taking them away.”

Tonight, I tried my best but managed to awkwardly comfort an old friend who had been on the phone with his father in South Africa, while he remained helpless in New York City. His father did not make it past that telephone call. Life has taken away again. No matter how prepared one might be for that call, one is never prepared for Life After It Happens.

Tonight, I was Luna Lovegood soothing Harry Potter upon seeing, for the very first time with disbelief in his eyes, the thestral he never knew was there. I tried my best to not say the wrong thing to my friend as he, too, was introduced to the thestral he didn’t know was there. Thestrals are fictional winged horses with skeletal bodies, with faces like reptiles, and are a bad omen according to the Ministry of Magic. These beasts were used mainly to pull the carriages that take experienced Hogwarts students from the train stop at Hogsmeade to the Hogwarts grounds/castle. More importantly, thestrals can only be seen by people who’ve witnessed death at least once. Harry had never seen them before that moment until he did, due to one thing or another upon arriving to Hogwarts.

I don’t want to be the one who sees the thestrals, too. Ignorance can be bliss. I’ve had the grave task of welcoming a friend to this horrible club no one tells you about when you hit your 30’s. True, people lose parents at all ages, but it begins happening with much more frequency in this stage of our lives, but with no less impact. I’m not the only one of my friends who has lost a parent in the last 3 years. I know friends who lost both parents before that, too. It’s not a competition. The hurt is massive. The emptiness, confronting. I don’t take comfort that my friends have lost parents, too. But it helps to know that others sort of know, in their own way, what it feels like. It’s not wished on anyone. But it’s somehow comforting when someone else has been through it, too.

Don’t panic. I see them, too. They won’t hurt you. It’s a little frightening, now that we know they exist. Yeah, this means we’ve seen some shit.

To my friend and newest member, may your heart ride with winged horses, above the deep, low valleys of sadness that exist between you now, and you years from now, when it hurts a little less. I love you.

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Les catacombs: Empire of the Dead

I cannot remove the eeriness of the catacombs 20 meters beneath the streets of Paris from my mind. My pictures are haunting, but do not do them justice. I did some background reading on what I saw yesterday, and didn’t realize there are remains of somewhere between 6 and 7 million people down there.

I descended the 130 stairs down into the 14°C/57°F darkness, not sure what I was in store for. I had no idea what the catacombs would be like. I had previously rewatched Disney’s Hunchback of Notre Dame, so perhaps I expected full skeletons left unmoved in seated positions next to a dark river winding through a cavernous hall. Or perhaps, with a twist of Goonies, like the skeleton of Chester Copperpot near a fountain where people none the wiser had thrown pennies in exchange for wishes granted.

One of the quotes on my Quotes page reads, “There are 1,198,500,000 people alive now in China. To get a feel for what that means, simply take yourself – in all your singularity, importance, complexity, and love – and multiply by 1,198,500,000. See? Nothing to it.”

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I think of each one of those 6-7 million people and what life must have been like for them. I think of the sadness, the hopelessness, and maybe some moments of happiness they had, too.

As it turns out, the removal of rock from beneath Paris happened in order to build Notre Dame cathedral, and the Louvre, among other structures. This left open holes underground in the quarry where rock had been extracted. In the 18th century, this empty quarry was converted to an ossuary, thus the birth of the catacombs. Remains of many were moved down there for health reasons.

The public is only allowed access to a very limited portion of the maze of narrow passages; a good 80-90% is not open to the public. Those who venture the catacombs illegally at night in the prohibited areas risk stiff penalties if caught, but it leaves much to my imagination of that 80-90% they don’t want the public to see.

Included in what I did see were beautiful carvings of miniature versions of cities. Some had carved intricate ports that look like the stuff of a Barbie playhouse in rough limestone. When I post the photos to my Flickr site, you can take a look at a few of them. I’ve uploaded a handful that should suffice for now.

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Many of the signs in the catacombs contain the date April 1786. That is when a mass movement of remains were brought down from the Cemetary of the Innocents (cimetière des Innocents) graveyard to the ossuary. 

Close your eyes. Can you imagine a procession of black cloth-covered wagons from the cemetery to the ossuary that didn’t stop for two years as all the remains from that cemetery were moved? What it would be like to be a teenager, in the prime of your life, employed moving dead bodies?

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When was the last time you heard of anyone’s remains in a cemetery being moved? When we bury our loved ones now, we assume blindly that will be their final resting place… what if that is not the case for you if you chose to be buried? Some of quotes in French underground were macabre at best, but I remember one of them loosely translated came to something like what you are bearing witness to now may be the same fate someone in the future will bear witness to for you. That got to me. On a very deep level.

There are famous, talented people; there are nameless, penniless gypsies. They were rich; they were poor. They were remembered individually; they were easily forgotten. Then, they were moved to a mass grave. If some humans come thousands of years after us, and happen upon this site long after the current human race has been wiped out, they may postulate a mass genocide occurred there. 6-7 million bodies. Good grief.

The walls have been vandalized, and some skulls are obviously missing. Who would steal someone’s bones as a memento of a trip to Paris? 

Loose bones abound, and no grave is marked. These people were killed in battle, died of disease, plague, famine, wars, and also include remains from hospitals and morgues.

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Now, millions of tourists flock to this attraction every year, and pass under the sign at the ossuary entry, with the inscription, “Arrête! C’est ici l’empire de la Mort” (“Stop! This is the Empire of the Dead”.)

It reminds me of that saying:

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Not for anyone’s eyes journal

I’ve promised in posts past that since the return of my Not For Anyone’s Eyes journal from my teenage years to my possession, I would share some reflections on what I wrote. Here is what will probably be the first of many of those. I started, where else? At the beginning… but it wasn’t truly the beginning. It was just when I got this nice fancy journal, a dedicated space to put these most secret thoughts. I had one journal that was more like “the journal it’s ok if people find” that had daily happenings and superficial thoughts. But this second journal, the Not For Anyone’s Eyes journal with the fancy binding, was one not meant to be opened to the light of day.

I thought I would surely die of humiliation if anyone found this. I’m not quite so concerned anymore about the secrets in this journal. I’ve done a lot of soul searching throughout my life, figured out who I am. I know a good amount of the good and the bad. I’ve discovered the bad side of myself, to a similar extent that I’ve discovered the good side of myself. I know I am far from perfect, but I’m less concerned with what people would think if they got inside my head. So why not crack it open and see what my teenage mind had yet to learn? There’s got to be some insight my 33 year old self can gather from my idiot self that knew nothing of the world.

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The very first entry in my Not For Anyone’s Eyes journal is about my biggest fear. Guess what it was. Nope, not that.

It was dying without saying goodbye. It wasn’t heights, or some other fears, I’ve mentioned in this previous post on fear, and this post about my legacy. I wrote on November 25, 1995, “Of everything I have, my friends are the most important to me.” What a crock of shit. I had no idea how to be a great friend. I was only a what-I-call “fair-weather” friend, up to that point in my life when this was written. I had no concept of real struggle. I knew not the loss of losing the friends I had then. I didn’t realize death wasn’t the only thing that could part me from my friends.

Everyone is on their own journey. Including my friends. Very often, those journeys will lead all over the globe, to places I simply am not. While I’d love to be there, and am in spirit, I am not. Don’t get me wrong – I love my friends. Biggest group of eclectic weirdos and the one thing they all in have in common is some sick, twisted part of them wanted to be my friend. I love all my friends, that I’ve had at any time throughout my life.

I wanted my friends to know that I was ok, and that they wouldn’t be alone. I had no idea if there was an afterlife, or where we go when we die, but I wanted people to think of me and talk to me like I was there after I die. I wrote that I wasn’t afraid of the dying itself, but more of not having left a mark on this world. I didn’t want to be famous, just loved. I didn’t want people to mourn my death and be sorry I died. I wanted them to be happy I lived. That’s fair; I’ll allow that one. That is still true, but I’ve done considerably more living than I had at the tender age of 14 when that was written. When someone I cared about saw a beautiful sunset, I wanted them to think to themselves, “She would have liked to see this.” I wanted them to know as soon as they thought of me, that I was there with them.

Here’s what my 33 year old self would add to that – being true to myself is the most important thing to me. I may still be figuring out who that “self” is when I’m 64, but at least I’ll be true to myself as I am each moment of my life. I’m going to say and do things that people won’t like. I’m going to go places my friends can’t join me. Friends will come and go; not all of them are meant to last my entire lifetime. I’m not afraid of not saying goodbye anymore. I know inside that each time I spend time with friends, I’m grateful for those moments. You say goodbye, and hug, and part ways. Maybe you see them again; maybe you don’t. You still say, “See you next time, mate.” “Catch ya later, alligator.” While I love them, and we may each make our own journeys, we can pick up the book of our friendship anytime, no hard feelings for having to close the book for awhile. We open it, we close it, and it’s a damn good book.

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Life is meant for living, not for only looking after your friends. They are important, but more important is taking care of yourself. It’s being ok to let some friends go. You outgrow some, some outgrow you. Some have a different path to follow that requires them to move on, live in other countries, raise children you’ve never met, and they become people you don’t know anymore. That is ok. In fact, sometimes, that’s exactly what is supposed to happen.

I think why I was really so afraid of dying without saying goodbye, is really about keeping a string attached to the world. I was afraid to be alone when I died, despite not fearing death itself. I was afraid that no one would remember me, that one day, I wouldn’t be known by anyone on earth. That was a truly terrifying thought to me. Not only being alone, but not even living on in someone’s memory. How else would I know I ever really even existed?

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June 3, 1997 – that was the day I wrote about my high school friend and chemistry lab partner, Scott Martin, dying. He got into a car accident with another friend of mine in the passenger seat. Scott’s was the first death I ever had to deal with, of someone I knew, whom I was used to seeing everyday. A lot of girls had crushes on him, and he was one of those guys that transcended cliques in high school. He was buddies with the guys, and a ladies man, for one special lady in particular. But he was my friend. We used to joke, I used to let him copy my work, and we had fun in class with our experiments. One Friday, Scott was there, turning in his homework, and I had called him “chicken legs”. Then one day, it was like he was on vacation, but never coming back.

Scott’s death was the first time I experienced what-I-call my “bad feelings”. It was an intense fear, more than I even knew about in 1995. Those feelings would cause actual anxiety – sleepless nights, nightmares, and I eventually got to a point where I could control them when I felt them coming on. I learned to curb them, shut them off into the shell of a nautilus, into a chamber, and not go down that road anymore. I thought if I let myself get too far into them, I’d lose my mind and never come back as me. I was probably right.

Going through my Not For Anyone’s Eyes journal is already making me cringe. Every time I write about what’s in there, I should just accept the fact that I will be humbled. But hey, we live, we learn, we get smarter. Let’s just say I’m glad I got smarter…

For rent

I remember taking practice exams and ultimately the pre-SAT’s and the SAT’s, and reading a piece about a nautilus. For you foreigners who are not familiar with testing and American school systems, those are the tests required to gain entrance to any university. The piece of writing likened the chambers of the nautilus to memory – how you can box up things you no longer need and stuff them into the previous chamber, as this mollusk only lives in the largest and outermost chamber of its shell. Mathematically, the nautilus demonstrates perfectly the naturally occurring Fibonacci sequence of numbers in its growth and proportions.

The empty chambers sealed off at the center of the spiral serve to aid in buoyancy as it navigates the seas. The nautilus still maintains chambers that hold its history, as it inhabited every single one of the chambers inside its shell at one point or another, but it outgrew each of them. It grew bigger and moved onward and upward.

I compare myself to the nautilus. The person I was at 18 was a discreet distinct person, who only knew what she knew then. So much of the world was undiscovered for me. I still hadn’t travelled internationally, and had only just entered college. I branched out on my own due to my fierce independence, separating from my parents, my hometown, and all the friends I’d made up until that point. I threw myself in the metaphorical deep end, and I didn’t sink nor did I drown. I swam, after I found my rhythm, my stroke, and my contribution to give.

I have since put so much that happened in the past into the sealed chambers of my shell, or if you will, in the file cabinet of my life that some religious being may want to peruse one day to judge me. There will be good; there will be bad. There will be noble and honorable; there will be selfish and petty. I try not to pull open the drawers or attempt to access the sealed chambers. What’s done is done, and wasting time regretting would be of no use. I admit that’s not the best approach, as one could argue learning from the past means you’re not necessarily doomed to repeat it. The way I see it, I have a whole life to live, and a whole lot of mistakes to make. I’d rather focus on the future and what that may bring.

It’s weird to think at death, some religious being may perform a reconciliation of our “account”, to use accounting terms as a metaphor. My cursing sailor mouth and my donation to charity may be weighed against each other. That time I snorted milk up my nose and out my eye is going to potentially be compared to some horribly risqué nun joke I told while inebriated at a work function.

Death seems like a final tally, a T account with debits and credits (you know you love accounting references). You build up a balance of good (hopefully), but every once in a while, you need to deduct the bad. I used to naively think as a kid I wouldn’t do anything bad, then I could be the best person. That’s no way to live. As Katharine Hepburn famously said, “If you follow all the rules, you miss all the fun,” or something to that effect (didn’t bother to google this one to correct myself, but I think I already quoted it in one of my blog posts once.)

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It happens to everyone, and I think every person must do their own reconciliation. I don’t know if some religious spiritual being is going to care enough to record my final tally. I may simply be in the “miscellaneous” suspense account. Until my life’s purpose is sorted and lived, who knows?

I may have mentioned in a previous blog a Dying, Death, and the Afterlife course I took at Chico State. It was technically a religious studies course, and we had a ton of really interesting books on the syllabus to satiate our hungry minds on the topic. At the time I took the course, I’d only lost one person somewhat close to me – a chemistry lab partner who got into a car accident just after his 16th birthday. So it would be fair to say I’d never experienced real loss before that course. Not that kind that fucks you up and knocks you sideways, anyway. Digression – Sideways is a great song by Citizen Cope – check it out here if you like:

One of the key takeaways I had from that class included the fact that Puritanical settlements in the early days of US history were founded on quite morbid principles. Death was such a common player in everyday life that Puritanical townships were actually constructed around a graveyard. That is to say, every town had a graveyard first, and the city then grew up around that graveyard. Puritanical life saw a much shorter life span for these adventurers and new world explorers. Society needed an institution to handle grief, before it needed any kind of government building or commercial business. Some family plots even had their own gravesites right on the property, and that tradition continues on many private pieces of land even today.

On our booklist in that course, in case you’re interested, were C.S. Lewis’ A Grief Observed, Annie Dillard’s For the Time Being (one of my favorites to this very day), and When Bad Things Happen to Good People by Harold Kushner, to mention a few.

Grief itself is almost a science. This institution, creating socially acceptable means to handle grief, is extensive and is a billion dollar industry, between funeral homes, cremation costs, world travels you sign up for when you realize life is just too damn short, and the like.

One of my favorite poems discovered in my high school advanced placement literature class (taught by a wealthy eccentric whose doctor husband kept her in a lifestyle to which she’d become accustomed so she had time to read and form her own interpretation of many literary pieces), was John Donne’s A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning.

The poem uses metaphors and comparisons, each describing a way of looking at two lovers’ separation that will help them to avoid the mourning the loss of the other. If you have a significant other or loved one from whom you’ve been separated for any length of time, you can relate to the hearkening your heart feels towards them: how the sound of their voice plays in your head, you see them when they’re not there, you miss their smell, and your body actually aches in the absence of their touch. True yearning for just a moment with them.

The speaker in the poem declares that, since the lovers’ two souls are one, the departure of one of the lovers will simply expand the area of their unified soul, rather than cause a rift between them. So if my loved one is across the world, we live in that much bigger of a world. My favorite metaphor is that of a compass, where the two lovers’ souls are “two” instead of “one”, and one is the foot of the compass, holding steady, while the other circumnavigates and travels a circle around them, yet they know they’ll return to being side by side once the compass is done being used.

Not on our syllabus, but something I watched later in life I added to my so-called Contemplation About Death soup recipe is the likes of movies like Donnie Darko especially, and honorable mentions to Minority Report, The Butterfly Effect and Memento. Consideration of questions and all things death is key; but the impact of memory and our own brain deficiencies/gifts makes them that much better.

From the opening of the movie Donnie Darko, I was captivated. Tears for Fears. Drew Barrymore. A young Maggie Gyllenhaal (with real-life brother Jake). Deeply contemplative issues (like “how exactly does one suck a fuck?”). Some old lady with a silver 80’s pseudo mullet who loved checking her mailbox. A load of crap cult trying to brainwash people on love and fear led by a child pornographer. Mental illness vs. sanity, and the need for pills vs. the desire to not be on them, so you could know what’s real and what’s not. Consideration of other dimensions and time travel. Contemplation of impacts of choice versus fate, ripples in time, and escaped fatalies. I loved the concept of time travel and the globular clear gel goo that preceded character’s movements at one point in the film, and likened them to be a vision of what destiny or powers of prediction might look like to new eyes.

There is great cliff notes synopsis of the movie here in case you really want to break down Donnie Darko.

My favorite quote of the movie, to pursue a slight tangent (but I digress):

Donnie: [taking a cigarette] What happens if you tell Mom and Dad about this, Sam?

Samantha Darko: You’ll put Ariel in the garbage disposal.

Donnie: Goddamn right I will.

Spoiler alert, but Donnie has to die to amend the impacts of the ripple seen at the beginning of the film when he initially misses his death from the jet engine of an unknown plane falling into his bedroom. The countdown, the end of the world, is the end of his world. Of course it’s an important date worth counting down. I could argue that a smart person wouldn’t want to know the day they’re going to die though. Ruins the fun, adventure, and possibly the whole ride. We want to love the ride.

Like the institution of marriage, humans have created an institution to come to terms with death. We put infirm elderly people in homes because they require special care, and sometimes we don’t have the time or resources ourselves to care for them anymore. In my finance courses in college, Long Term Care is actually something people universally plan for now, assuming their families can’t/won’t take care of them. There’s insurance for that. You betcha.

It’s so much harder to deal with an unexpected death than it is to come to terms with one you knew was coming. It’s harder to deal with the death of a life cut too soon, perhaps a child, than it is to deal with the death of senior citizens. It’s easier to lay someone to rest properly and begin healing if you have a wake, a funeral pyre, a memorial service, or some kind of public forum where loved ones can express their grief. Let it out, don’t keep it in. This is all a part of the Institution of Grief.

What we don’t realize is that we carry grief with us all the time. When we cry at a funeral, we’re not done dealing with the death of a loved one. Oh no – it’s far from over. We ache and miss them every time we remember them. We feel all kinds of emotions – relief, anger, fear, sadness, depression, disconnection, insular, bargaining, loss. While we can find socially acceptable means of releasing that emotion, we worry about those who don’t “get over it” within a “reasonable” amount of time. There is something wrong if they can’t move on.

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We don’t understand, if we believe in God, how He (or She) could let such a horrible thing happen to someone He (She) created and loved. We may lose faith, our loved ones may isolate themselves from us while we trudge through all this emotional mud. If we’re lucky, we come out the other side, just a little bit stronger despite the loss.

Death should be the celebration of a life well-lived. It is merely a stage, yet it’s so foundational in our core. It still intrigues me, to the point of not wanting to know much about it. I don’t want to be an EMT first on the scene of a motorcycle crash, nor do I think I’m capable of handling a grief for that stranger I may find. I don’t want to be a doctor, and have someone’s fate lie in my shaky hands, when I may not believe in myself or get woozy at the sight of mangled flesh. I’m a feeler, not a thinker. In the Meyers-Briggs test I last took, I was an INFP – Introverted, Intuitive, Feeling, Perception. Yes, I am, in fact, an idealist at heart.

  • I – Introversion preferred to extraversion: INFPs tend to be quiet and reserved. They generally prefer interacting with a few close friends rather than a wide circle of acquaintances, and they expend energy in social situations (whereas extraverts gain energy).
  • N – Intuition preferred to sensing: INFPs tend to be more abstract than concrete. They focus their attention on the big picture rather than the details, and on future possibilities rather than immediate realities.
  • F – Feeling preferred to thinking: INFPs tend to value personal considerations above objective criteria. When making decisions, they often give more weight to social implications than to logic.
  • P – Perception preferred to judgment: INFPs tend to withhold judgment and delay important decisions, preferring to “keep their options open” should circumstances change.

When my own father passed away on June 3, 2013, we didn’t have a formal funeral. My mom held a memorial a year later in the hometown where they met and married, and his and her friends from way back attended. I was across the country, and didn’t have any kind of ceremony to attend.

I was still living in Australia at the time. My father always asked me when I came home to visit if I’d been to Ayers Rock (Uluru) yet. The trip before he passed, I still hadn’t, so I booked the trip with my girlfriend in December to go in July. I didn’t even tell him I’d booked it. I was gonna tell him about it after I went.

I didn’t get to. I took some of his ashes – little known fact – you can transport ashes internationally, but they need to be in checked baggage if the amount you have represents more than 10% of a person. I took approximately 9.5% of my dad’s “person” as carry-on back to Sydney, along with a death certificate to shut up any TSA agent who gave me a hard time about it. No one did. I took his ashes with me to Uluru and found a spot to scatter them. Forever, a piece of him will rest at a lookout spot overlooking Uluru. I took a photo of the view, had it made into a canvas, and now I keep that canvas in my apartment, so I can see what he sees there.

I had no socially acceptable outlet to release my grief, so I made my own. I played the following playlist on my iphone speakers, then did a reading from a book my dad introduced me to:

  • Father and Son – Cat Stevens
  • Simple Man – Lynyrd Skynyrd
  • Wish You Were Here – Pink Floyd
  • Landslide – Fleetwood Mac (live version Stevie dedicates to her daddy)

The book my father handed to me to learn about death as a child was Emir’s Education in the Proper Use of Magical Powers by Jane Roberts. The passages I read out loud to no one but my dad’s ashes, myself and my now ex-girlfriend that day was as follows:

“The spirits of people and creatures and plants don’t take up any room at all. But their bodies do. Bodies are like houses our spirits live in, only they’re far nicer, of course. There’s only room for so many bodies in the kingdom, whether they’re plant bodies or creature bodies or people bodies. After a while, we have to leave our body-houses to make room for new things.”

“When you leave your body, it just folds up and goes back into the ground or swamp or whatever, and it’s made into another one. Then somebody else moves into it. It comes out all brand-new. It has to be painted and remodeled.”

“Emir said: “This way everyone lives in a body of a kind for a while, and then leaves its body behind so that it can be remade for someone else. That’s a very simple explanation, but it will do for now. Then all new life has a chance to live, and lots of room. Then we each take turns, so we can come back on new bodies when there’s space available.”

So perhaps one day, my obituary may appear in the classified ads section of the newspaper, starting with, “For rent…” It was mine for a little while, but I learned how to share, and now, it’s your turn. Enjoy the ride.

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Adios, muchacho

This was Robin Williams’ line in my favorite movie, when he jumps off a cliff head first into a waterfall, and finally accepts that he’s died and gone to heaven. Adios, muchacho, indeed.

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I had originally planned to take the night off from writing. I went to the gym, after finishing work for the day, and was in the middle of a surprisingly intense workout. I just felt like I could keep going and going. Then, as I sat on the stationary bike to begin my cardio, I happened to look up at the TV just above, with giant letters in all capitals. ROBIN WILLIAMS FOUND DEAD AT 63.

My initial reaction was that of sadness. He had his demons, fighting alcoholism and drug abuse earlier in his career, and he had been clean a long time. Yes, he battled with depression. Depression, it’s a helluva drug, Dewey. (Reference from the film “Dewey Cox: Walk Hard”.) To raise awareness, I draw your attention to this as this says it better than I can: Robin Williams: depression and suicide article.

My heart goes out to his family. He inspired a generation. He lived just north of San Francisco and was a local. Sometimes those who laugh the loudest hurt the most.

I’ve written in a previous blog about depression in The invisible truth in jokes. I’ve also mentioned Robin Williams in a previous blog around his breakdown of Will in Good Will Hunting, asking about the Sistine Chapel in Create curiosity. To say Robin Williams was an inspiration to me is something new to roll off my tongue. He was never the first I thought of. But it was true, under the surface. I realized today just how varied and vast his legacy of work is.

Some deaths touch us more deeply than others. We don’t know why, and if you don’t have a certain reaction, it doesn’t mean you are not still experiencing grief. This past year, I learned a lot about who I am through the emotion of grief. Facing one loss after another, I learned grief can be heavy and sometimes I don’t know how to handle it.

Everyone has no doubt seen Mrs. Doubtfire, Patch Adams, Bicentennial Man, Jumanji, Hook, Aladdin (who could forget him as the boisterous genie?), and so many more. My favorite film was one of his more underrated films, What Dreams May Come (simply visually stunning, think along the lines of Life of Pi and Avatar). The creativity and effects bring to life a heartbreaking, subdued, and dark topic. Robin Williams plays one of his less boisterous roles, and he’s part of something bigger than his character or personality in this movie.

I was first exposed to this film in a university course I took called Dying, Death, and the Afterlife. We studied how people react to death, history of it, institutions around it, and religious ties to it. It was one of the scariest courses I’ve ever taken. Who wants to learn that much and be that close to death? Who will admit such a morbid curiosity? It is an ultimate loss, no matter who it is.

So tonight, I watch What Dreams May Come in Robin Williams’ honor. It is a tale of timeless love spread out over many lifetimes, finding that love, and going into the depths of hell itself to protect it. If you haven’t watched, I recommend keeping the tissues handy and putting on your glasses for what you are about to experience on screen. The tagline for the movie captures it all – “After life there is more. The end is just the beginning.” To you, Robin, and the journey you now have in the afterlife.

If the news is true, and the cause of death was suicide, it will not be the first, nor will it be the last, linked to depression. On this earth, we will mourn the loss of a talented comedian, and a good man.

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Hagakure

I’m looking forward to:

Waking up tomorrow
Going to the gym
Bacon
My birthday
Meeting new friends
Traveling to new places
Wearing only my favorite t-shirts and blue jeans/corduroys/shorts/boxers
Working hard without even noticing it
The next time I can help out a friend
Proving the right people wrong
Going to Yosemite for the first time
Figuring out what my gift is, and sharing it with the world
The day my heart doesn’t skyrocket, my palms don’t sweat, and my voice doesn’t shake when I have to speak in public
The next time I fall in public and laugh at myself
The next time I fall in love
The next time the stars align, the powers that be ignite that moment of utter gratitude for life and accomplishment of a dream
Having a female president, and one day, a lesbian president
My next live viewing of the Rocky Horror Picture Show
The next time I see the night sky in the country
The next time the airplane starts at the beginning of the runway, shifts out of park, flips on the thrusters and engines and I feel the acceleration of gravity, fighting the push by leaning forward and smiling to myself and all of a sudden I’m reaching ground speeds of 4-year-old-squeal-of-joy proportions and I can’t make any noise because I’m thirty-freakin’-two and somewhere aboard is an Air Marshal and probably someone who knows someone who knows someone who knows me. And already bought onboard wifi access and is probably sharing it on social media right… Now.

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There is so much I look forward to, more than I can put here. I’m grateful. For every day.

A lot of people say live every day as if it’s your last. Here’s why I don’t like that: I have had some really shit days. We all have. I refuse to think the universe would conspire to let me end on that note. I don’t want the last day of my life to be a shitty day. FFS, anything but that.

I rather prefer the Way of the Samurai. If you haven’t read that book, or rather the English translation of the ancient writings, Hagakure, from the work of Yamamoto Tsunetomo, it gives sage words of advice and random pearls of wisdom in the way of the samurai, the samurai code.

I first learned about this book and the idea from the movie Ghost Dog with Forrest Whittaker. I was in college, pre-coming-out, full-fledged finance nerd with one philosophy class and an existential crisis on my hands.

The way of the samurai is to be of service to his master. This book has passages about how, “If you walk with a real man 100 yards, he will tell you at least seven lies.”

A samurai is willing to commit seppuku (suicide) in service of his master. He’d impale himself on the sword should the master so order it. Should he fail to protect the master, he should fall upon his sword in shame.

“There is surely nothing other than the single purpose of the present moment. A man’s whole life is a succession of moment after moment. There will be nothing else to do, and nothing else to pursue. Live being true to the single purpose of the moment.”

How can I look forward to something if I must concentrate on nought but the single purpose of this moment? I have so much in store. But this moment is pretty awesome, too.

Here’s my reconciling item: the single purpose of this moment is to lay the foundation, to take today’s baby step, to prepare myself, should I live to fulfill that purpose and meaning of my life in the future.

So I must live in the moment, wake up every morning knowing today could be the day I die. Now, I’ve no intention for that to be the case. There is no guarantee for tomorrow. And it would hurt a lot.

“This is the substance of the Way of the Samurai: if by setting one’s heart right every morning and evening, one is able to live as though his body were already dead, he gains freedom in the Way. His whole life will be without blame, and he will succeed in his calling.” It’s easy, right? Just let go of this life. Riiiiiight. My curiosity was piqued.

“There is something to be learned from a rainstorm. When meeting with a sudden shower, you try not to get wet and run quickly along the road. But doing such things as passing under the eaves of houses, you still get wet. When you are resolved from the beginning, you will not be perplexed, though you will still get the same soaking. This understanding extends to everything.” Now this. This is quite possibly my favorite quote about resolve. Purpose. If you know and understand that by walking in rain you will get wet, there is no reason to be upset by getting wet. Deep thoughts here, sensei.

I remember studying this concept in one of my geology classes, funnily enough in studying the crater density of the moon, and the existence of lava flows on the moon that form the mare basins.

Geological principles dictate, in my dumbed down laymen’s terms explanation, that with gravity, you can learn about historical sequencing by studying rocks in the earth. Let’s say you have a cake fresh baked from the oven. You have frosting. You frost the cake.

I come along, millions of years later. As a scientist, I can logically conclude the cake must have existed and heated and formed prior to the frosting being layered on top. Something on the bottom layer is older than something on the top later.

So on the moon, the oldest parts of the topography are the areas with higher crater density. The newest parts are lava flows cooled and smoothed over, as if you poured candle wax over the uneven floor with dents and scratches in it. The floor existed before the candle wax. The surface is smooth and new. So if you assume a rather steady rate of craters falling with equal distribution across the surface of the moon throughout, then the areas with more craters are older and the less cratered land is newer. Simple, right? So the concept of crater density is important. Hold that thought.

Now, imagine instead of pieces of rock crashing into the surface of a planet, instead, you have a notorious Sydney, or London, or New York rainstorm. Torrential downpour. It forms suddenly and catches you off guard without an umbrella; the drops are pregnant and bulging and massive and soaking, as they hit your face, your hoodie, your pants.

If you run through the rain, the crater/raindrop density (which is a rate, ultimately) has been proven to increase mathematically. If you walk through the rain, the raindrop density is actually less than if you run. It’s like having a down pour of meteors and a sprinkle of meteors.

So what does that mean to a 4 year old? It means you will get wetter faster running to avoid the rain, and you’ll stay dryer, longer, if you walk.

This, of course, excludes the consideration of a saturation point, as author notes running and walking in torrential downpours may have a negligent difference in the time to soak-age. We have only so much hoodie, after all. Sidebar: constraints and limitations (*insert tail wag for math*)

This is a very important concept to me, if you’ve stuck with me this far. If I run in the rain, I end up soaked sooner. But if I am resolved from the outset I will get wet, and I walk, it doesn’t matter how quickly the soaking happens, because I already know it will happen. I’m focused, I’m over it before it even started.

Whoa.

I already know death will happen. If it’s not today, it’s not tomorrow, it is someday down the line. So if you know it will happen, you don’t know when, and you don’t mind the rain, then walk and live each day for the ups and downs it offers, knowing one day you’ll be soaked.

I want communication and to really connect with people. I don’t want to say “How was your day, honey?” to my future wife. I want to say, “Tell me about a moment you felt appreciated and valued. Tell me about a moment you felt ashamed and wrong.” Life is made up of these small moments.

Of course everyone wants their last day on this earth to be supreme, transcendental, outstanding, goal-achieving, dream-fulfilling, meaning-finding and completely surreal.

The truth is, that’s not always how it is. Sometimes it is, and sometimes if you’re lucky, at least it’s not in vain.

Walk into each day not like it’s your last, but like it’s you, on any given day. Be true to yourself and be the real, genuine you. Already resolved to the ultimate outcome thus prepared for whatever rain you may face. Life is not about avoiding the storms. It’s learning to dance in the rain. Or walk. Ya know. But, be you.

Cause you, my friend, are amazing, just the way you are. And nothing you could do on your last day on earth would change that.

Well hot damn. Yamamoto was right. That understanding does extend to everything.

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