More Dirty Talk: Death & Dying

East Finchley gravestoneRecently, I’ve posted a couple of blog entries about death & dying. For “The Dirtiest Word I Know,” I included a doodle about our dread of a Black Hole of Death, which prompted a doodle buddy to ask if I was okay or was there was some hidden meaning.

Um, no, just trying to introduce a topic I spend increasing amounts of time wondering about: death & dying. So here are a few links to some articles I want to share about our personal and cultural reactions to this inevitability.

5 Lessons Learned from 5 Friends Dying Under 30

My recent blog post, Parentheses, concerned the first death of a close friend. I would lose another close fiend before turning 30 myself, so the title of his article quickly caught my eye. Especially important is the last of the listed lessons: “We need to talk about it.”

Death & Dying in America

We don’t like to talk about death in our quest for eternal youth in the land of the free. That’s a big part of why we do not handle it well, so reading about more people deciding to not just talk openly about death & dying but make it a subject of study gives me hope that we will learn how to accept death as part of living.

The Letter Project

Our failure to talk openly about dying leaves many of us at the mercy of other people or an unfeeling system to care for us as we make our final journey out of this life and into death. This article describes one innovative approach to help avoid that loss of personal control that so often precedes our death.

At His Own Wake

A poignant article about the how and why of assisted suicide, told through the personal story of a man dying of an incurable disease choosing to end a well-lived life on his own terms, including holding his own, old-fashioned Irish wake — while he could still attend it.

The Coffin Club

Finally, down under in New Zealand, a band of elders decide to take on the terrible task of dying and the somber aspects of that final symbol of our demise, the coffin, by making their own, personalizing each one and participating in this preparation for departure. Frankly, this look like so much fun, I may have to start mine soon — and I don’t even need one since I plan to be cremated!


We are going to die and we know it.
Let us face this future with eyes — and hearts — wide open.
And, yes: let’s talk about it.

More to come on this topic…



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My Thanksgiving Memories

Thanksgiving triggers vivid memories for many people. And while many fondly recall family trips, gatherings and feasts, my family’s Thanksgiving tradition as I was growing up in the 60’s revolved around going to The Game.

If you had to ask “What game?” most likely you weren’t from Texas. For years The Game referred to the annual football clash between the University of Texas vs. Texas A&M — UT vs. A&M, the third longest running college football rivalry, dating back to the late 1800s. By the time we were going, it was always held on Thanksgiving (with one exception) and alternated between being played at College Station, home of the Texas A&M Aggies, and Austin, home of the UT Longhorns.

We were Longhorn fans.

See, both my folks had attended the University of Texas in the late 40’s. Back in their day, they simply called it “The” University. My mom worked her way through college in the UT Athletic Office. My dad attended UT on the GI bill and that’s where they got together, so I grew up hearing and knowing all about Longhorn football.

And going to The Game on more Thanksgivings than I can recall.

Kyle Field, "12th Man"

Kyle Field

The years the game was played at College Station, our family could drive up that morning, watch the game, and return home in the evening. My folks figured out to smoke a turkey while we were gone for a family feast later.

My impressions of A&M as a kid was  of a flat campus sprawling across a section of prairie. Mind you, we always knew we were entering “enemy territory,” and it often felt like that with the ubiquitous presence of the uniformed cadets of the Corps. The stadium, Kyle Field  seemed smaller then UT’s but more intense: their bonfire and “12th Man” traditions invoked a passion from the Aggies to beat the ‘Horns that was palpable, and it always felt good to head home after the game.

UT Stadium & CampusThe years The Game was in Austin, we would make the longer drive to Austin, eat Mexican food at El Matamoros at 6th Street and the Interstate (also called the “Interregional” back then), meet Aunt Marion and Uncle Willie and wander the hilly UT campus before The Game. Those are my earliest clear memories of Austin: wandering the campus before The Game.

Afterwards, we’d usually get back in the car — a Pontiac station wagon back then, so that my brother Scott and I could lay down in the back: hey, it was done all the time back then! —and drive all evening through the Hill Country arriving in San Angelo later that night for a weekend visiting the large extended Massey family out there.

Even after I started falling out of love of football (which started happening in the late 60s though I still just can’t quite quit UT football!), The Game was a pivotal event annually. Then they started changing the day of The Game to satisfy the national TV networks’s scheduling requirements. Throughout the 60s, the game had always happened on Thanksgiving — except for 1967, coincidentally the only time A&M won The Game in the 60s. Suddenly, that stability vanished for the convenience of the “viewing audience” — not to mention the sponsors.

As far as I’n concerned, they broke both The Game and football at that point. While the UT-A&M rivalry would continue for many years, the loss of that Thanksgiving ritual battle changed the feeling forever. Ironically, when the series eventually ended in 2011, it returned once more to Thanksgiving that final Game.

The good news is that while they broke my childhood Thanksgiving tradition of The Game back then for me, we replaced that old memory back in 1989 with a new Thanksgiving tradition when I first met Sara at my parents’ house…but that’s another story!

Happy Thanksgiving!

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The Fertile Brain

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Dysfunctional Road Trip Movies

As we enter the holiday season, it’s travel time for a lot of folks. Others of us hunker down at home for the holidays, so it’s time for some road trip movies. And you know, as fun as regular road trip movies can be, the best ones feature fully dysfunctional groups, either family units or just the random set of odd strangers thrown together. It’s a time-honored plot line and here’s a handful of suggestions for a couch-based road trip holiday binge.

Little Miss Sunshine

This winner of 2 Academy Awards (Best Original Screenplay, Michael Arndt; Best Supporting Actor, Alan Arkin) takes us on a road trip to California with a petite beauty queen wannabe and her family, including profane Grandpa evicted from his nursing home for snorting heroin, non-verbal nihilistic brother, suicidal gay uncle, and her struggling parents.

Think of all the fun we’re going to have!

Frank: Good night Dwayne.
Dwayne: [scribbles on notepad] Don’t kill yourself tonight.
Frank: Not on your watch Dwayne. I wouldn’t do that to you.
Dwayne: [on notepad] Welcome to hell.
Frank: Thanks Dwayne. Coming from you that means a lot.


The Road Within

3 patients run away from a treatment facility for behavioral problems, giving us a road mix of Tourette’s syndrome, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD), and anorexia: what could go wrong? What could go right? Well, this movie for one thing.

Alex: [Vincent wants to climb a mountain] What if it sucks?
Vincent: What if it’s amazing?
Alex: What if it’s dangerous?
Vincent: What if it’s exciting?
Alex: What if we die?
Vincent: What if we live?


The Fundamentals of Caring

Take one grieving writer turned personal caregiver, his caustic charge suffering from Duchenne muscular dystrophy, add in a random runaway hitchhiker and a stranded ready-to-pop pregnant young woman on a road trip to see some of America’s lamest roadside attractions and what’ve you got? Yeah, you got it — another great movie!

Peaches: What’s it like being a parent?
Ben: Every corny thing you’ve heard about having a kid is completely and utterly true… It’s the only reason we’re here.


The Music Never Stopped

This is a road trip of the mind and music and memories lost and being made anew. A father finds his long-estranged son in a hospital due to a brain tumor and struggles to reconnect with him through their once-shared love of music. This journey leads Dad to the Grateful Dead and the show that his son ran away to go to but never got to — a touching tale of a journey completed with a return home.

Henry Sawyer: They don’t just play the notes on the page.
Gabriel Sawyer: No, they play what’s in the air, you know?

Okay, okay, okay — I threw this in partially because I’ll be on another Dead run again in 2 weeks, making a hit & run visit to Texas for 2 Dead & Company shows. Me and my delightfully mildly dysfunctional extended Deadhead family.


Planes, Trains, and Automobiles

Finally, a seasonal favorite — one of the relatively few Thanksgiving movies, and a delightful journey featuring John Candy and Steve Martin as 2 travelers trying to get home for Thanksgiving thrown together by a series of misfortunes. Under John Hughes’ direction, these two comic geniuses play off each other in a seemingly never-ending set of bizarre travel arrangements.

[waking up after sharing the same bed on the motel]
Neal: Del… Why did you kiss my ear?
Del: Why are you holding my hand?
Neal: [frowns] Where’s your other hand?
Del: Between two pillows…
Neal: Those aren’t pillows!
[they both leap out of bed, screaming and shaking their hands in disgust]


Happy holidays — and happy trails!

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from the Doodle Dictionary

quote from the Devil’s Dictionary by Ambrose Bierce

Brain: an apart us with which we think we think. Ambrose Bierce

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Mike Eddy — laughing, of course

Mike Eddy — laughing, of course

“Mike’s dead.”

The phrase echoed down to the depths of my soul, not just when I first heard the news, but every time I heard it and every time I had to say those words, breaking the bitter news to another friend. The look of shock, then disbelief and then horror each time chipped away at me like devastating aftershocks of a deadly cataclysm.

Just the sound of that phrase made me want 2 things equally: to be the next friend to die so that I would never again hear that about another friend; or to outlive all my friends so they would never have to hear that about me.

Mike & I had been planning to go down to my relatives’ beach house starting that week to re-roof the place, giving us both a place to live for the rest of the winter and some cash as well. Now, I couldn’t do the roofing without Mike, and friends worried about me going there by myself after Mike’s death. To me, it seemed like the only place in the world to go.

On the way there, I stayed at my family’s house in Houston, still just reeling from the shock of it. My parents were sympathetic and concerned about me, of course, but after a week of friends and the funeral, everything rang hollow. Until I wandered into Granny’s apartment there and her eyes met mine as she said, “I’m sorry about your friend.” The look in her eyes said more than that simple phrase. I felt her feeling me hurting, with that look of longing to take someone’s pain away for them. Granny connected more directly with my grief than anyone else had — including me.

So I headed down solo to the winter beach cabin. Roomy and open by design for summer use, it proved impossible to really heat. I spent days inside in my jacket and ran the oven at least 2-3 hours a day. I would take a couple of hot baths daily, the last one in the evening before hopping under the mountains of bedcovers I had built on the one bed closest to the space heater in the whole cabin.

Night after night, I laid in the dark, cold cabin along the deserted winter coast and stared at the blue flame of that space heater. A space heater had killed Mike, asphyxiating him in a small room overnight. He’d been so proud of swapping minimal maintenance tasks for free rent in a former storage closet in a small, old set of apartments near campus. No one had ever lived there before, but it had a bathroom and Mike bragged on never really having to do anything except change light bulbs to pay his rent. I’d just been there a week before, shaking my head at his tight accommodations, little dreaming that they would kill him shortly.

Now, the open beach cabin was different so I was at no risk. But there I was dependent upon my friend’s killer to keep me from freezing, staring into its face nightly, even when I was so exhausted i was unable to close my eyes. I have no idea how I got any rest the first weeks.

About a month later, I headed back to the family homestead in Houston, picking up some cash from them for odd jobs: replacing my brother’s car’s starter (using explicit instructions and diagrams from our dad) and Granny-sitting. Usually, I did this when my parents needed to head out of town, but this time, Granny needed someone there due to a phlebitis flare-up confining her to a recliner. Though she had relied on a cane to walk for years, this further confinement insulted her independence, bringing out part of her ornery nature.

I walked in one mid-morning to see her slumped to one side, slack-jawed and staring straight ahead. She did not respond to my voice or even gently shaking her. Looking back, I now know I was seeing the signs of a stroke. But back then, I felt I was watching her die before my very eyes.

I called my dad and he called an ambulance. I rode along in the ambulance with Granny to the downtown Houston hospital, still not understanding what was happening, not knowing if Granny was dying or not.

Granny Tilly, post-stroke

Granny Tilly, post-stroke

Well, she survived that stroke and lived several years more. We had many more hours to share before we would have to say good-bye.

In retrospect, I see these two episodes as parentheses, a couplet of verse almost, contrasting Mike’s early and unexpected death with Granny surviving a while longer despite her age and infirmity.

As harsh a lesson as it was — costing me the loss of my friend — it awakened me to the need of being aware of the people in your life at all times: especially right now, since that’s the only time we really have.

We are all temporary here.

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Lost in Thought — A Whole Other Country

Have you seen this man?

Chief Engineer on the Lost Train of Thought

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