New Yorker Cartoonist Roz Chast’s Remarkable Illustrated Meditation on Aging, Illness, and Death

by

Making sense of the human journey with wit, wisdom, and disarming vulnerability.

“Each day, we wake slightly altered, and the person we were yesterday is dead,” John Updike wrote in his magnificent memoir. “So why, one could say, be afraid of death, when death comes all the time?” It’s a sentiment somewhat easier to swallow — though certainly not without its ancient challenge — when it comes to our own death, but when that of our loved ones skulks around, it’s invariably devastating and messy, and it catches us painfully unprepared no matter how much time we’ve had to “prepare.”

Count on another beloved New Yorker contributor, cartoonist Roz Chast, to address this delicate and doleful subject with equal parts wit and wisdom in Can’t We Talk about Something More Pleasant?: A Memoir (public library) — a remarkable illustrated chronicle of her parents’ decline into old age and death, pierced by those profound, strangely uplifting in-between moments of cracking open the little chests of truth we keep latched shut all our lives until a brush with our mortal impermanence rattles the lock and lets out some understanding, however brief and fragmentary, of the great human mystery of what it means to live.

The humor and humility with which Chast tackles the enormously difficult subject of aging, illness and death is nothing short of a work of genius.

But besides appreciating Chast’s treatment of such grand human themes as death, duty, and “the moving sidewalk of life,” I was struck by how much her parents resembled my own — her father, just like mine, a “kind and sensitive” man of above-average awkwardness, “the spindly type,” inept at even the basics of taking care of himself domestically, with a genius for languages; her mother, just like mine, a dominant and hard-headed perfectionist “built like a fire hydrant,” with vanquished dreams of becoming a professional pianist, an unpredictable volcano of anger. (“Where my father was tentative and gentle,” Chast writes, “she was critical and uncompromising.” And: “Even though I knew he couldn’t really defend me against my mother’s rages, I sensed that at least he felt some sympathy, and that he liked me as a person, not just because I was his daughter.”)

Chast, like myself, was an only child and her parents, like mine, had a hard time understanding how their daughter made her living given she didn’t run in the 9-to-5 hamster wheel of working for the man. There were also the shared family food issues, the childhood loneliness, the discomfort about money that stems from having grown up without it.

The point here, of course, isn’t to dance to the drum of solipsism. (Though we only children seem particularly attuned to its beat.) It’s to appreciate the elegance and bold vulnerability with which Chast weaves out of her own story a narrative at once so universally human yet so relatable in its kaleidoscope of particularities that any reader is bound to find a piece of him- or herself in it, to laugh and weep with the bittersweet relief of suddenly feeling less alone in the most lonesome-making of human struggles, to find some compassion for even the most tragicomic of our faults.

From reluctantly visiting her parents in the neighborhood where she grew up (“not the Brooklyn of artists or hipsters or people who made — and bought — $8 chocolate bars [but] DEEP Brooklyn”) as their decline began, to accepting just as reluctantly the basic facts of life (“Old age didn’t change their basic personalities. If anything, it intensified what was already there.”), to witnessing her father’s mental dwindling (“One of the worst parts of senility must be that you have to get terrible news over and over again. On the other hand, maybe in between the times of knowing the bad news, you get to forget it and live as if everything was hunky-dory.”), to the self-loathing brought on by the clash between the aspiration of a loving daughter and the financial strain of elder care (“I felt like a disgusting person, worrying about the money.”), Chast treks with extraordinary candor and vulnerability through the maze of her own psyche, mapping out our own in the process.

Chast also explores, with extraordinary sensitivity and self-awareness, the warping of identity that happens when the cycle of life and its uncompromising realities toss us into roles we always knew were part of the human journey but somehow thought we, we alone, would be spared. She writes:

It’s really easy to be patient and sympathetic with someone when it’s theoretical, or only for a little while. It’s a lot harder to deal with someone’s craziness when it’s constant, and that person is your dad, the one who’s supposed to be taking care of YOU.

But despite her enormous capacity for wit and humor even in so harrowing an experience, Chast doesn’t stray too far from its backbone of deep, complicated love and paralyzing grief. The book ends with Chast’s raw, unfiltered sketches from the final weeks she spent in the hospice ward where her mother took her last breath. A crystalline realization suddenly emerges that Chast’s cartooning isn’t some gimmicky ploy for quick laughs but her most direct access point to her own experience, her best sensemaking mechanism for understanding the world, life and, inevitably, death.

Can’t We Talk about Something More Pleasant? is an absolutely astounding read in its entirety — the kind that enters your soul through the backdoor, lightly, and touches more parts of it and more heavinesses than you ever thought you’d allow. You’re left, simply, grateful.

Images courtesy of Bloomsbury © Roz Chast; thanks, Wendy

After you’re gone, what happens to your social media and data?

Web of the dead: When Facebook profiles of the deceased outnumber the living

Web of the dead: When Facebook profiles of the deceased outnumber the living

There’s been chatter — and even an overly hyped study — predicting the eventual demise of Facebook.

But what about the actual death of Facebook users? What happens when a social media presence lives beyond the grave? Where does the data go?

The folks over at WebpageFX looked into what they called “digital demise,” and made a handy infographic to fully explain what happens to your Web presence when you’ve passed.

It was estimated that 30 million Facebook users died in the first eight years of the social media site’s existence, according to the Huffington Post. Facebook even has settings to memorialize a deceased user’s page.

Facebook isn’t the only site with policies in place to handle a user’s passing. Pinterest, Google, LinkedIn and Twitter all handle death and data differently. For instance, to deactivate a Facebook profile you must provide proof that you are an immediate family member; for Twitter, however, you must produce the death certificate and your identification. All of the sites pinpointed by WebpageFX stated that your data belongs to you — some with legal or family exceptions.

Social media sites are in in general a young Internet phenomena — Facebook only turned 10 this year. So are a majority of their users. (And according to Mashable, Facebook still has a large number of teen adapters.) Currently, profiles of the living far outweigh those of the dead.



However, according to calculations done by XKDC, that will not always be the case. They presented two hypothetical scenarios. If Facebook loses its “cool” and market share, dead users will outnumber the living in 2065. If Facebook keeps up its growth, the site won’t be a digital graveyard until the mid 2100s.

Check out the fascinating infographic here.

h/t Mashable

http://www.salon.com/2014/06/24/web_of_the_dead_when_facebook_profiles_of_the_deceased_outnumber_the_living/?source=newsletter

The Afterlife of Pia Farrenkopf

March 27, 2014

AP123543323421-580.jpg

Sometime in early 2009, Pia Farrenkopf died in the back seat of her Jeep, which was parked in the garage of her home. Around her, life in the suburban community of Pontiac, Michigan, went on. No one knew that she’d died. By all accounts, her neighbors hadn’t known her very well, though some of them would mow her grass when it got too high, according to a report in USA Today. They kept on doing so for five years, until, last month, her body was finally discovered.

Neighbors told reporters that Farrenkopf travelled abroad for business, which is why, they assumed, they never saw her, and had taken it upon themselves to manicure her lawn. Farrenkopf had left her job as a contractor with Chrysler Financial a few months before her death, according to USA Today, so no one was expecting her at work. Her family lived far away and had lost touch with her, according to Reuters.

Farrenkopf also had a bank account with a very large sum in it, and—this is the postmodern crux of the story—she had set up her mortgage and utility bills to be paid automatically from it. As her body decomposed in her garage, the funds went out regularly. Last year, Farrenkopf’s money finally ran out. Her mortgage payments stopped, and the bank foreclosed on the house. Earlier this month, a contractor employed by the bank was examining the home when he discovered Farrenkopf’s body—which has been called “mummified”—in her car in the garage. Since then, police have been attempting to piece together the details of her life and death, to find some answers to the mystery of who she was and why she is gone.

Between those two moments—when she died and when her body was discovered—she was a kind of Schrödinger’s cat, biologically dead but also, in a way, among the living, paying for her power and phone, the roof over her head. Until her body surfaced, Farrenkopf’s institutional ties were the only things keeping her “alive.”

Farrenkopf had a kind of institutional doppelgänger, as do we all: a presence that forms as we post on social media, shop online, send e-mails, and use the Internet for paying bills, banking, and dozens of other financial and technological transactions. Some of us have more than one. The institutional doppelgänger is hard to see because it shadows our everyday lives so closely. Every so often, though, the curtain twitches, reminding us of its existence. The term “identity theft” is a curious one, describing a scenario in which the doppelgänger—not the most obvious you, with your weird cuticles and inner monologue and assorted love problems, but that other you, who has a Social Security number and neatly profiled buying habits and a checking account at Bank of America—can be hijacked by an utter stranger, compromised, put on the market, sold, and used to buy three MacBook Airs, all while you’re sitting on your couch Netflix-bingeing on “Star Trek: The Next Generation.”

In Farrenkopf’s case, these odd circumstances seem less like a moral issue—no one would argue that there was maliciousness on the part of the utility companies or the bank, which can hardly be expected to consult their paying customers on a regular basis to make sure that they haven’t shuffled off this mortal coil—and more like a mundane aspect of the digital age.

Karl Marx believed that the product of human labor was separate from and hostile toward its maker. The same might be said of the product of our commercial activities on the Internet. You might not believe that your institutional doppelgänger works against you, but it does not seem like a stretch to argue that the sum of your activity as a consumer—your social-media posts, credit history, the freakishly accurate profile advertisers have of you—is its own creature, and can move about independently of you. You can also assign any number of automated tasks to your doppelgänger, which it will perform tirelessly.

In “Haunted Media: Electronic Presence from Telegraphy to Television,” Jeffrey Sconce writes that the digital world has raised many questions about the dissociation of our minds, bodies, space, and time. Our culture has been obsessed with the idea that consciousness can be transmitted—that it can be separated from a person’s body—since the advent of the telegraph. It’s just gotten more intense in the past few decades. He points out that much of our science-fictional language about the actual transfer of human consciousness via electricity is just that—fictional—but, at the very least, something can be learned about our cultural dependence on ideas of identity existing beyond the body. Our institutional doppelgängers might not be sentient or spiritual—Farrenkopf’s spirit didn’t somehow live on in her online transactions—but they are a part of modern existence, and tell us something about the way we mete out pieces of our lives. Technology gives us the ability to rely on automatic processes, and we are only too happy to do so. It is no surprise that such dependence came together in such a dystopian fashion; perhaps the surprise should be that it didn’t happen sooner.

On a Facebook page dedicated to Farrenkopf’s story, among the posts with information about the investigation, a woman who identifies herself as Farrenkopf’s niece gives us bits of her aunt’s life—letters from old co-workers, details about her extended family, a black-and-white high-school photograph. Our institutional doppelgängers are real—but, as Farrenkopf’s story unfolds, it is a reminder that they are not us.

Photograph by Daniel Mears/Detroit News/AP.

http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/currency/2014/03/the-afterlife-of-pia-farrenkopf.html?utm_source=tny&utm_campaign=generalsocial&utm_medium=google+&mbid=social_google+

Don’t Want to Die? Just Upload Your Brain

March 5, 2014, 11:32 PM
Brain

l haven’t seen “Her,” the Oscar-nominated movie about a man who has an intimate relationship with a Scarlett Johansson-voiced computer operating system. I have, however, read Susan Schneider’s “The Philosophy of ‘Her’,” a post on The Stone blog at the New York Times looking into the possibility, in the pretty near future, of avoiding death by having your brain scanned and uploaded to a computer. Presumably you’d want to Dropbox your brain file (yes, you’ll need to buy more storage) to avoid death by hard-drive crash. But with suitable backups, you, or an electronic version of you, could go on living forever, or at least for a very, very long time, “untethered,” as Ms. Schneider puts it, “from a body that’s inevitably going to die.”

This idea isn’t the loopy brainchild of sci-fi hacks. Researchers at Oxford University have been on the path to human digitization for a while now, and way back in 2008 the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford released a 130-page technical report entitled Whole Brain Emulation: A Roadmap. Of the dozen or so benefits of whole-brain emulation listed by the authors, Andrew Sandberg and Nick Bostrom, one stands out:

If emulation of particular brains is possible and affordable, and if concerns about individual identity can be met, such emulation would enable back‐up copies and “digital immortality.”

Scanning brains, the authors write, “may represent a radical new form of human enhancement.”

Hmm. Immortality and radical human enhancement. Is this for real? Yes:

It appears feasible within the foreseeable future to store the full connectivity or even multistate compartment models of all neurons in the brain within the working memory of a large computing system.

Foreseeable future means not in our lifetimes, right? Think again. If you expect to live to 2050 or so, you could face this choice. And your beloved labrador may be ready for upload by, say, 2030:

A rough conclusion would nevertheless be that if electrophysiological models are enough, full human brain emulations should be possible before mid‐century. Animal models of simple mammals would be possible one to two decades before this.

Interacting with your pet via a computer interface (“Hi Spot!”/“Woof!”) wouldn’t be quite the same as rolling around the backyard with him while he slobbers on your face or watching him dash off after a tennis ball you toss into a pond. You might be able to simulate certain aspects of his personality with computer extensions, but the look in his eyes, the cock of his head and the feel and scent of his coat will be hard to reproduce electronically. All these limitations would probably not make up for no longer having to scoop up his messes or feed him heartworm pills. The electro-pet might also make you miss the real Spot unbearably as you try to recapture his consciousness on your home PC.

But what about you? Does the prospect of uploading your own brain allay your fear of abruptly disappearing from the universe? Is it the next best thing to finding the fountain of youth? Ms. Schneider, a philosophy professor at the University of Connecticut, counsels caution. First, she writes, we might find our identity warped in disturbing ways if we pour our brains into massive digital files. She describes the problem via an imaginary guy named Theodore:

[If Theodore were to truly upload his mind (as opposed to merely copy its contents), then he could be downloaded to multiple other computers. Suppose that there are five such downloads: Which one is the real Theodore? It is hard to provide a nonarbitrary answer. Could all of the downloads be Theodore? This seems bizarre: As a rule, physical objects and living things do not occupy multiple locations at once. It is far more likely that none of the downloads are Theodore, and that he did not upload in the first place.

This is why the Oxford futurists included the caveat “if concerns about individual identity can be met.” It is the nightmare of infinitely reproducible individuals — a consequence that would, in an instant, undermine and destroy the very notion of an individual.

But Ms. Schneider does not come close to appreciating the extent of the moral failure of brain uploads. She is right to observe an apparent “categorical divide between humans and programs.” Human beings, she writes, “cannot upload themselves to the digital universe; they can upload only copies of themselves — copies that may themselves be conscious beings.” The error here is screamingly obvious: brains are parts of us, but they are not “us.” A brain contains the seed of consciousness, and it is both the bank for our memories and the fount of our rationality and our capacity for language, but a brain without a body is fundamentally different from the human being that possessed both.

It sounds deeply claustrophobic to be housed (imprisoned?) forever in a microchip, unable to dive into the ocean, taste chocolate or run your hands through your loved one’s hair. Our participation in these and infinite other emotive and experiential moments are the bulk of what constitutes our lives, or at least our meaningful lives. Residing forever in the realm of pure thought and memory and discourse doesn’t sound like life, even if it is consciousness. Especially if it is consciousness.

So I cannot agree with Ms. Schneider’s conclusion when she writes that brain uploads may be choiceworthy for the benefits they can bring to our species or for the solace they provide to dying individuals who “wish to leave a copy of [themselves] to communicate with [their] children or complete projects that [they] care about.” It may be natural, given the increasingly virtual lives many of us live in this pervasively Internet-connected world, to think ourselves mainly in terms of avatars and timelines and handles and digital faces. Collapsing our lives into our brains, and offloading the contents of our brains to a supercomputer is a fascinating idea. It does not sound to me, though, like a promising recipe for preserving our humanity.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

http://bigthink.com/praxis/dont-want-to-die-just-upload-your-brain

People with a death-wish

February 12, 2014, 11:55 AM
Shutterstock_168108524

ONE of my childhood buddies died unexpectedly at the age of eighteen. That was many years ago, in Hamm, Germany. While alive, he was a known brawler, a brutish drunk, and a pot-head. His parents divorced, he dropped out of high school, had a lady who supported him, collected music on vinyl, did shoplifting for a while, and he always had this excruciating wish to die gloriously: “I won’t turn 30!” he once bragged, and: “I enlist in the army, if I have to!” His boldness, his fearlessness, and the unbending commitment toward his own ruin left a deep impression on me.

Lots of young men I knew quit. A Chinese MA candidate, barely twenty-two years of age, at the University of Edinburgh, once had dinner with us, then, two weeks later on the second day of Christmas, we heard news that he jumped off his 8-story dormitory building. “Tade yunqi bu hao,” they would say –his luck left him. His fate was cut and sealed in China already, where his overbearing parents had him prepared for a career in law, a decision that evidently crushed his soul. He probably didn’t even comprehend how he, the only-child of Chinese farmers, a burned-out, hopelessly damaged adolescent, could end up lying on the cold pavement of Richmond Place, in the capital of Scotland. His life made little sense to him -it was kaput.

Another fellow, a sturdy Scotsman, frequently got so boozed up, we thought his self-destruction had a rather cunning plot to it. He was intelligent, yet cared little about his safety, letting alone his health of which he seemed to have stashed away plenty. During a trip to Australia, however, he got himself the worst for a drink. Canned and wasted, he fell into a comatose state and refused to wake up when the fire alarm begged him to do so. “And if this hadn’t happened,” rumors said, “he would still be doing dangerous things.”

The list goes on. At Peking University, a doctoral candidate in his decisive, final year panicked over his flawed thesis and committed zisha. His desk in his tiny dorm room was allegedly plastered with those yellow motivational self-stickers –with quotes from successful people like US rapper 50 Cents’ “Get Rich or Die Tryin.” People say the candidate spent eight years in solitary, had no hygiene, no friends, and no reason to go on living. Other graduates attain more posthumous fame – like Hai Zi. He destroyed himself at the age of twenty-five; only to become one of Beijing’s most celebrated dead poets.

Literature, to be sure, is full with people dominated by self-destructive behavior. And it is certainly true that we admire people who died for a cause like, say, Socrates, Jesus, or Hannibal; we even worship this class of artists who single-mindedly minister to their doom, either by way of overwork and exhaustion, or from carrying soul-devouring, shameful secrets –Vincent Van Gogh, Novalis, and Nietzsche come to mind. And, yes, we also delight in building legends around performers and musicians who were evidently haunted by mania, depression, and severe addiction – James Dean, Elvis Presley, Kurt Cobain, Jim Morrison, Leslie Cheung, Marilyn Monroe, Yukio Mishima, or the late Philip Seymour Hoffman- to name but a few.

Death can be seen as climax or as the final act; alas, it all boils down to this: Do we want, metaphorically speaking, to die in battle when we were strongest, or do we prefer to run and wait for the Reaper to drive by our nursing home when we are at our weakest? Both are legitimate ends to Man.

All those people above, famous or not, often entertained unrealistic goals, had low self-esteem, severe mental problems, or they simply got lost in life. Most others hang on to it, though, as long as they still see an iota of hope, another gig they could achieve, another moment of bliss that will extend their welcome; they keep going on with life which Buddhist know is mostly about suffering. Arthur Schopenhauer, the German philosopher of existentialism, rather pessimistically interpreted all this as the unbound Will to Live; but the truth is, some people are just procrastinating a feverishly diabolical and incurable wish to die.

Image credit: Martien van Gaalen/Shutterstock.com

Ohio man’s wish fulfilled as he is buried on motorcycle

Ohio man's wish fulfilled as he is buried on motorcycle

The dying wish of an Ohio motorcycle aficionado that he be buried astride his beloved Harley-Davidson was fulfilled by his family — although it wasn’t easy.

Billy Standley’s body was prepped by five embalmers with a metal back brace and straps, The Dayton Daily News reported. He was affixed on top of his bike – a 1967 Electra Glide cruiser– which was then placed inside a Plexiglas casket. For five years, the box stayed in Standley’s garage, one of his sons told the newspaper.

Standley also had to buy additional burial plots that could accommodate the casket.

His family told the paper he had planned the funeral for years.

Standley died of lung cancer Sunday at the age of 82.

Strange Past: Post Mortem Photography

Jan 062014
BLOGGER COMMENT:  Our family used to photograph deceased loved ones (in the coffin at the funeral parlor). I never thought it morbid. Within my father’s memory funerals were held at home in the living room or parlor and most people died at home. Now, death is a verboten subject. The sick die in hospital, are quickly burnt to ash, and all of it is out of sight and mind as much as possible. However, no matter how much you try to prolong youth and live in denial of death, it comes to us all….sooner or later:)

 

Strange Past: Post Mortem Photography

by Steve Huff

Over the last 20 years I have taken probably close to 400,000 photographs. Many of them just for this blog in reviews and my various travels and others that were snapped over the years of my family, vacations, and life in general. But over these years I have also read many books, browsed the works of others and have also researched the history of photography. One subject that I was always amazed by (although it used to creep me out) is “Post-Mortem Photography”.

Yes, taking portraits of the recently deceased. Back in the Victorian ages it was common to have a family portrait taken when someone in the family died. The invention of the daguerreotype in 1839 made it more affordable to families who wanted to remember their loved ones after they have passed.

It was not common for families back then to be able to take a snapshot of their families as not many could afford to hire out someone on a regular basis to take shots/portraits, so for most, this was reserved for death. Cameras as we know them today were not invented yet so having a photo of a loved one was a special gift that was treasured and the only way for someone to really remember the physical person they once knew and loved.

When you look back at this early practice today it seems morbid, creepy and for some..it will seem just plain wrong. When I sit back, close my eyes and transport my mind back to the early 1800′s I can picture how people lived, worked and died. If I lived back then I would probably want a photo of my deceased family member or pet as well. Remember, memories in print were just not common so having even one photo would mean so much.

Today we take the power of a camera, a digital sensor or a roll of film for granted. Because technology is everywhere and is getting more and more crazy by the day we have everything at our fingertips and can access any information at any given time, no matter where we are. Many of us forget what photography really is all about.

Back in the 1800′s there was virtually no type of conveniences to be found, not even photography so what we may perceive as creepy today, was very normal back in the 1800′s.

But do not think that this practice is 100% gone from todays society. In fact, when I was a teen I remember going to a funeral of a relative of mine and his family was taking photos of him in his coffin. Entire family portraits as well. Even today there are some who do this. I think for the most part it is no longer done because we have the ability to take photos of our loved ones every day if we so desire, so remembering them as they were in life is always better than remembering them after death.

As for death, I personally do not fear death in any way, shape or form as I know it is coming eventually, but that is another story for another day. As for post-mortem photography, take a look at some classic examples below and let me know how YOU feel about these photos that were so normal back in the early 1800′s.

But beware, some of these are disturbing and may upset some of you who are very sensitive. So take a peek at your own risk.

A Post-Mortem photo session from the 1800′s

atwork

-

Brothers and sisters posing with their deceased sibling.

family1

pm3

-

The girl in this photo is deceased and has been posed with her dolls around her.

pm4

-

pm5

pm6

pm7

pm9

pm10

-

A mother posing with her deceased daughter

pm11

pm12

pm13

pm99

pm145

pmf

pmj

pmk

pmpets

pmwin

postmortem2

bbgbh3

bbh78