Being Mortal

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I doubt it is possible to have access to the internet and be unaware that suicide has once again floated to the top of the news. If you were online and missed the fact that two famous and deeply gifted people took their lives this week, I’d like to know which filters you’re using in your various news feeds. You could sell it as a formula for downer-proof digital life.

In the several of the news reports about the deaths of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain, there were references to a CDC study which indicated a couple startling trends. First, the suicide rate has risen 30 percent or more in half of the United States. Second, the CDC found that about half of the people who committed suicide did not have a history of mental health diagnosis or treatment. This bit of information startled me.

Before hearing about this study I assumed that two things are true about suicide: that the person is indeed deceased, and that he or she had an untreated or undertreated mental illness. I even went so far as to consider that 40,000+ yearly suicides in the U.S. could indicate that we are still living in a stone age of sorts in mental health treatment, that for some people mental illness can indeed be a terminal condition.

Sadly enough, it is true that some people suffer from mental illness so resistant to available treatments that they face a real and persistent threat of death due to suicide. One of my friends committed suicide in 2016 for just such a reason. Combine a deeply disabling mental illness like bipolar or schizoaffective disorder with substance abuse (which can sometimes involve escalating dependence on prescribed, controlled substances like Xanax), and suicide is a definite risk. For individuals with a clinical picture like that, mental illness can become a terminal condition.

Now is the point where I realize that I am taking entirely too long to develop the notion that arose in my mind from reading references to the CDC study that indicated about half of people who commit suicide have no mental health treatment history. Long story short, I believe that we are living in an age where it is becoming harder to conceal serious mental illness. You don’t have to crack open very wide to intersect with a mental health diagnosis. In the case of my friend who took her life, she had an 18-year-long treatment history before her suicide. She lived in small, conservative communities for her entire life. She was a born and bred Rustbelt Republican, and she grew up knowing that mental illnesses are just as valid as physical ones.

If half of U.S. suicides involve people with no mental health diagnoses, I cannot escape the notion that a rising number of people are deciding that their lives aren’t worth living. It is possible that some people are making a rational choice to stop living for trivial reasons. Why? Because they do not value human life enough to preserve their own.

I believe that everyone does a fairly complex yet intuitive cost/benefit analysis of human life and that this analysis informs the value we place on our own lives. For example, if you believe that a blind person is worthy of a dignified, happy life, you would eventually adapt to life as a blind person if you happened to lose your vision. If in your heart of hearts, you believe that such a disability leads to a useless life, you could very well choose to end your life due to loss of vision and have no mental illness at all.

While it is vital to continue the battle of easing stigma and increasing access to mental health treatment, I also believe that is time to start a cultural discussion of the value of human life. As this value declines in our culture, it becomes more rational to think that one should stay alive only as long as one is healthy, young, wealthy, famous, or some combination of all that is prized in the here and now.

Both Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain were well into middle age. I can’t help but think that whatever their personal reasons for suicide, their passing is symptomatic of our culture’s discomfort with aging. At 45, I am well into the long, rude awakening that aging is hard work. Have I broken some unspoken rule in advertising that I am already getting old? I’ve written several posts about my struggle with lumbar degeneration. In reality, my problem is just advanced aging of the spine. If you get old enough, there’s a good likelihood that your back will be just as bad as mine is.

I can’t be the only one who was so ill-prepared for getting older. I grew up in an era when looking young was paramount, with little regard for one’s insides– if you can be mistaken for a 30-year-old, then your insides must be that healthy, too. I am going to transgress once again in revealing that we start falling apart by degrees from the moment we are born. Ask anyone who’s had their wisdom teeth extracted after age 30, and you will hear that 30 is not so young.

In thinking of the rising suicide rate, I must remind myself that I decided long ago that life is worth living until its natural or accidental end, however hard one’s circumstances may be. Life is worth living even one is severely disabled, profoundly poor, or impossibly old.

Turn this thinking inside out. Consider a weather-beaten man wandering about downtown who looks like he has nothing but where the day may take him. No matter how he landed in such a life, his survival shows that he values his life against all odds. How much do you value yours?

Garden, June 3

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The petunias above have quickly earned my favor in this year’s garden. A garden full of petunias and its petite cousin calibrachoa is a somewhat lazy choice, but they can provide reliable color and joy for nearly half the year.

Since I am apt to think in tangents during most of my waking hours, I present a photo which reminds of a Stevie Nicks’ album title, The Other Side of the Mirror:

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Once upon a time, such a title could evoke all sorts of feminine mystery. In my teen years, I’d imagine that the other side of the mirror held a land full of light-hearted witchcraft and Adonis-like suitors who’d ignore the perfectly preserved plush animals of one’s youth that would punctuate the decor of your lair.

Nowadays the notion of the other side of the mirror seems entirely different. In an age of cell phone photography and video, the other side of the mirror can mean a couple different things. At best, it is all the visuals of one’s life we’d rather not share, from the double chin that emerges while one is reading or writing to evidence of clutter and projects undone. At worst, the other side of the mirror is just that: a two-way mirror through which persons unknown may see anything or everything about your life. As the late Steven Jesse Berstein proclaimed in “This Clouded Heart“: “You feel like you are watched when you are private, and even when you are not private, you cannot choose your audience.”

In the picture above, you see the things lined up against the back of the house, a hose imperfectly wound along with spare propane tanks and a grill in need of a new cover. Then there’s the trash can, which I suppose is the terminal expression of that other side of the mirror, the footage left on the cutting room floor of daily living.

As for the pinwheels that have appeared in the garden, they are part of a small bounty of items my husband bought at an antique tractor show a couple years ago. It seems that most gatherings related to old but useful things have vendors selling all sorts of items. In the sweltering heat, he found a booth selling all sorts of pinwheels, and it wasn’t until this year that we got around to placing them in the garden. Unfortunately, we’ve had some wicked wind lately that dismantled a couple of them.

I will close this post with a few more images from the garden:

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Cold Pop

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Today I spotted a man who looked like a cross between Sammy Hagar and Gallagher the watermelon-splitting comedian. Really, he had Sammy’s crinkled “I Can’t Drive 55” hairdo and Gallagher’s mustache. His face equally resembled both of these 80’s icons. Oddly enough, he looked young enough to have been born after they peaked in popularity.

This corner pop machine looks to have the vintage of a time when almost everyone would have known who Gallagher was, yet no man would have wanted to hear that he looked like him.

I admit that some of my mental math that determines resemblance is a little faulty. Last year I saw a long-haired young man with a Van Dyke beard, and I privately called him Flemish Jesus. From the shoulders up, he really looked like what I’d imagine a Little Dutch Masters portrait of Jesus might look like.

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Chunk in a Meme

My daughter wishes we could make a cat “internet famous.” I really wish I could write a good meme. Perhaps my meme aspirations are bandwagonesque. Memes may be lowly and sometimes crass, but there’s an economy of language revealed in them that impresses me.

I merged her cat dream and my meme hopes in one image:

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That’s our late, great cat Chunk. She reminded me of the “Famous Tough Guy” who was an old woman who inspected underwear in a Fruit of the Loom commercial back in the 80’s.

Abandoned Schoolhouse Photos

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There’s a haunting charm to abandoned buildings. I’d love to photograph more of them, but my bravery for such ventures is slipping with the years. I have a digital photo archive seventeen years deep. Lots of these pictures have lain unexamined for years, images I intended to share in some meaningful way but did not get around to curating.

Today I sifted through some of these neglected photo sets and found pictures of an abandoned school building from 2006. Actually this building was partially vacated at that time. The rooms on the upper floor hadn’t hosted classes since the 70’s, but the lower floor was still in use as a gym until last year, when the entire structure was demolished.

Back then my daughter was attending a preschool adjacent to this building. She’d be there for just two hours of class that first year, so I’d fill that time with photo excursions around town, weather permitting. This December morning, I waited until the parking lot was still and slipped into the building next door. Since the gym was empty, I walked up the steps and took shots of those forlorn rooms upstairs.

There were still art class collages pasted to the walls of one of the rooms. These look 70’s vintage and have a feminist theme. This was a K-8 Catholic school. I attended a different Catholic school, and I can assure you that we never had license to create an assignment that included edgy material like this:

Maybe that wave of 70’s feminism swept deep into the Midwest. This was likely a junior high art project. By the time I was in junior high in the mid-80’s, I doubt even the public junior highs were assigning such work. In the 80’s, people lost certainty that plagues weren’t transmitted by words, pictures, or touch.

I wish I could return to take sharper pictures, but the demolition of this building makes that impossible. There were no electrical lights, so I had to rely on the light coming from the windows for these shots.

Take those pictures of oddball sights that resonate for you. It may be your only opportunity to capture that image.

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Send in the Clowns

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From 2007 . . . how oddly appropriate to 2016

I think the latest creepy clown hysteria is tumbling down its peak. I was combing through my archives of parade photos and found the above image. The man’s costume accidentally shows the desired conclusion of such clown fevers: that the clown will be real enough to be captured, that he will face justice and that he will still be a clown after he washes off the creepy clown grease paint. All of these secondhand clown sightings betray this hope: he exists, but he is not one of us.

Speaking of grease paint, I think that KISS was ill-advised in their second incarnation without the make-up. I had this epiphany whilst listening to “Shout It Out Loud” at work last week. Their musical depth was about as stunning as their natural looks. I have a fuzzy memory that they unveiled their real faces in a press conference held on a Destroyer ship. Maybe this was the same Destroyer on which Cher’s “If I Could Turn Back Time” was filmed. This makes sense because Cher’s rear end and Gene Simmon’s face are equally fearsome sights.

Now I’m thinking of that “Send in the Clowns” song. It’s one of those songs I avoid hearing because it is so draining. “Someone Like You” by Adele is another song of this caliber. When I hear such songs, I think that the medieval folks who bled people to balance their humours were onto something. Some songs are just so oppressive that I imagine bleeding myself to relieve the emotional pressure.

On Memes and Clickbait

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This post would not be complete without an appearance from a creepy clown.

If Richard II were alive today, he’d give his kingdom for a well-done meme instead of a horse. Memes have the potential to be the mythical perpetual motion machine of marketing, as long as the message in the meme is renewed periodically. I wish I could write a good meme, but the economy, simplicity and relatablity of memecraft escapes me.

I did some writing on the internet before the dot-com bust, and the digital landscape was so much kinder to writers in that day. The steps were simple then: learn to dress your writing with graphics and basic html, talk Yahoo into listing your site in their directory, and run some advertising on your pages. There was no need for near constant updates to content. It’s not like the internet was some sort of creative desert back then, either.

It seems that the value of the written word busted along with the dot-com bubble. Fast forward 15 years later, and we have just 1200×630 pixels dressed in 30 words or less to capture an audience.

I’ve decided that I will tilt at windmills by making some empty memes. I will infuse these memes with the rise of another regrettable internet phenomenon, clickbait. I recently read what must be the most absurd clickbait headline ever, “What Hitler’s Son Did With His Life Will Shock You!”

Clickbait usually begs a question with some sort of trickery, and that one delivered on that score.  Have you noticed how often the word “trick” is used in clickbait? They try to deceive your attention through the promise of teaching deception. Fool your insurance company into charging you less. Fool your body into losing weight with this little pill.

On some uncharted slope of the Andes, Dr. Oz is writing the Gospel According to the Three Foods You Must Never Eat, and the superfruit he discovered there will leave you speechless!

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